Ossman stalked through the wide passageway, Aildreda a ghost at his side. In spite of the immense size of the cavern, something about it felt oddly oppressive. It was almost as if Ossman could feel the weight of the earth above pressing down on them, all those countless tons of rock and stone pushing against his spine.
“It’s beautiful,” Aildreda said, drawing an inquisitive eyebrow from Ossman.
“That word could not be further than what I was thinking,” he admitted, gripping the handle of his axe tighter. They wait they come they grow they flow beware the lies the- Ossman did his best to push the constant, intrusive thoughts aside. Perhaps they were contributing to the immense weight he was feeling. They certainly didn’t like being down here, as near as Ossman could attribute any emotion to the constant whispers.
“How can you not?” Aildreda said, waving her light around to illuminate the walls more clearly. They were not smooth stone like Ossman had initially thought. Even though they were worn, Ossman could still make out paintings that coated the walls, paintings that glittered with-
Ossman stopped in his tracks and stared at the wall with wide eyes. Aildreda halted beside him. “Ossman, is everything alright?”
“Gems,” Ossman said, pointing at the walls. “They’re inlaid with gems. Look at all of them!”
Aildreda’s eyes widened to match Ossman’s as she really looked at what she was seeing.
The walls shone with refracted light. It was an iridescent skyscape, an endless field of stars made from the most precious gems gathered from across the globe. A painting of an aeromane had rubies the size of Ossman’s fists for eyes. A serpent that was depicted as winding around a tree had tiny diamonds along its back to give them the impression of scales shimmering in the sunlight, and amber eyes that were made of actual amber. A soldier, proud and regal, was holding a banner in defiance of some dark, nebulous shadow. The banner was edged with sapphires, and the shadow’s eyes were black pearls.
Ossman’s heart was pounding, and his excitement was even drowning out the fears of the voices, whispers that spoke of curses and traps. Every tale they had ever read spoke of dragon’s hordes. It went with dragons the way thatch roofs went with farmers or crowns with kings. From what Tythel had described, all of them had been expecting a massive pile of gold to be waiting for them at the bottom. It hadn’t even occurred to them the treasure would be inlaid into the very walls themselves. “Oh, Light,” she whispered her voice hitching with excitement.
Ossman nodded in agreement. Most of the gems were too high to easily reach. It would take days to pry enough off the walls to make the trip worth it. But…but no matter what, this trip had been worth the cost. As long as they took the time to fill the Skitter with the gemstones, they’d return to the Resistance with a king’s ransom. “We should tell Armin,” he said, his voice hoarse.
“Wait here,” Aildreda said, dashing back towards where the others were waiting.
Alone, the whispers began to assert themselves again. Too easy to clean it burns it waits the flame will come stay soft stay hidden slay before slain-
Did the warnings have any merit to them? Might the ancient dragon that had once laired here put some sort of trap into its artwork to discourage would-be thieves. Tythel had thought that unlikely – dragons enjoyed their horde too much to risk securing it, in her estimation – but that should have also ruled out placing it in the very walls themselves.
Perhaps he was just projecting fear onto the voices. The words could easily refer to a possible trap, but they could also just be random mutterings of a mind damaged by exposure to the Light. That’s your mind you’re referring to, Ossman thought with a bitter edge to the reflection.
But he had to acknowledge the possibilities. That there was no hidden message to the whispers, that they held no hidden secrets. That they were just in his own head, and they reflected what happened around him only because he was observing it. After all, they had responded to the walking corpses…but not before Ossman had seen them move.
Until they told him something he couldn’t have guessed, he had to assume they were the product of his own imagination.
“He says to press on,” Aildreda said besides Ossman, startling him out of his reverie. She wasn’t as silent as Eupheme, but she certainly could sneak up on someone well. By the sly grin that crossed her lips, she’d known exactly what she was doing. “We might find even easier to carry treasure deeper in, and he still wants inscriptions to compare to that damn cipher he’s trying to crack.”
“Of course. That’s the real reason we’re here, isn’t it?” Ossman said, turning away from the beautiful gems to resume walking.
Aildreda shrugged. “I assumed it was. I’ve known the Duke my entire life. He wouldn’t have sent us all this way on the vague possibility of buried treasure if he didn’t see some more likely gain to be had.”
Ossman grunted. He hadn’t really thought about it in days. The cipher that would, hopefully, finally explain what the Vacuity Engine would do. Let them know if it would be worth the effort to try and obtain or destroy it – or even what it was. The treasure, the need to feed the soldiers and pay them wages and supply them with weapons, had seemed so much more pressing, but it’s what they had been doing for years to no gain. That cipher…if they could crack it, they might have a shot of winning.
“Why’d you join, Aildreda?” Ossman asked.
The young woman started and gave her a sideways glance. “That’s a damn peculiar question,” she said after a moment. “At least, to be asking right now.”
“I’ve been…wrapped up in myself,” Ossman explained. It barely covered the truth – that he’d been too distracted by the constant voices in his head to really get to know his companions – but suddenly the idea of an actual conversation was so appealing he’d struck on the first thing that had come to mind. “It just occurred to me I barely know anything about you, and we’re heading into an unknown fate together.”
Aildreda chuckled. “You’ve got damn strange timing, Ossman.” She turned her eyes back to the path ahead. She was silent for so long Ossman began to fear she wouldn’t say anything. Just as he was about to reach for another topic, she finally spoke. “My father was on the Ruby Wall.”
Ossman grimaced. The Ruby Wall wasn’t a physical object, but an Order that had sworn to defend the kingdom. Not the crown or the throne, but the concept of the kingdom itself. Their sacred vow had been to no liege or house, but to the sanctity of the land and its people. Part wayfarer, part roving constabulary, many a young man had sought their fortune by going up on the Ruby Wall.
“I’m sorry,” Ossman said quietly. The Ruby Wall’s oaths had very clear views on invaders, which was part of why the King had tolerated their presence within his borders. The Alohym had been the ultimate invaders.
Not a single person on the Ruby Wall had died foresworn.
“I barely knew him,” Aildreda said, not meeting Ossman’s eyes. “Just…I remember a beard. It was itchy. He always wanted to kiss me with it, but his beard was itchy, and I told him he couldn’t.” She shook her head. “When I was old enough to understand what he had been, I sought out some of their old texts. Studied the old oaths, and the skills they mandated. The Duke made sure I had all of them I could hope to find. He helped me find tutors who could teach me blade and bow, whisper and war cry.”
Defend the land with blade and bow, swear the oath in whisper and war cry. That had been part of their tenants. “You’re on the Ruby Wall?”
Aildreda laughed bitterly. “There’s no kingdom, not anymore. Maybe, once this is over, I’ll reform it. Find some of the other survivors from it, or others like me, who learned the way to honor the memory of those who came before.” She shook her head. “That’s what we’re all doing in the end, isn’t it? Planning to reform something that was lost. The kingdom, the collegium, the Ruby Wall – we’re all trying to create something that had been lost long ago. How about you, Ossman? What are you trying to reform?”
Ossman should have anticipated the question. He’d opened the door by asking her. But for a moment, he found himself at a loss for words. He’d been at the collegium but wasn’t a lumcaster. What was he trying to remake?
“At this point,” Ossman said, holding the light ahead to see better, “I think it’s just myself.”
Aildreda considered for a moment, then nodded to herself. “Well…at least you’ve set your sights on something reasonable. Maybe if we had more like you, we’d be less stuck in the past.”
Ossman couldn’t find the words to argue with that.