The two Rykz workers remain a steady distance ahead of us despite our jogging pace, their four legs allowing them to pick up their walking speed while giving few exterior signs for us to recognize, the unfamiliarity of their four short legs is making gauging their speed with sight alone challenging.
The fact that few reference points are available in the tunnel is adding another layer of complexity to the problem of keeping track of the enemies around us. This can very much become an issue if the chasing Rykz are within charging distance when the others stop to destroy support beams.
Once we enter the old mining tunnels, time will be of the essence. It will be necessary to begin tearing down the supports as soon as we get there.
We cannot allow the Rykz warriors to get close enough to charge us because we cannot immediately recognize their running motions. A simple delayed warning will undoubtedly catch us off guard and force us into a fight at the worst possible time when we need to be focusing on securing our retreat.
The good news is that they’ve stopped making their constant breathing cries echo through the tunnels. The only sounds accompanying us now are those made by our steps, and heavy breathing as fatigue even catches up with the nobles.
The earth around is steadily increasing in red coloration, we are nearing the old mining tunnels. A minute later, we see the first support structures in the distance, simple things composed of three wooden beams to keep both wall and ceiling stable.
“Can’t we burn them?” I ask, thinking about how to save time.
“It would take too long, besides these beams are protected against fire with a coating of tar, see the black color of the beams?” Lady Lance answers. “The coating is decayed but not enough to allow … wait that’s not …” She interrupts herself. “The other supports aren’t coated in that black substance and I very much doubt this mine was ever productive enough that they would coat every beam in tar, especially here at the end of the vein.”
“Then what is it?” I ask.
“I don’t know and we’re not stopping to find out.” She says. “We’ll break the next one.”
The differences between the tunnel dug by the Rykz with the grub and the ones dug by miners are flagrant. Firstly, instead of the compressed earth, these tunnels are dug trough reddish rock, but somehow the final result seems less stable than what the Rykz use, despite the presence of support beams. Secondly, the rocky wall’s irregularity and the occasional fissure intersecting them, are both worrying and reassuring, we just might succeed in collapsing the tunnel behind us after all. Thirdly, the ground is littered with rocks and an occasional rusted tool head, taking more focus to cross.
We pass by the beams, covered in that strange black substance, and an acrid smell stings my nostrils. I keep going as they stop under the second support structure in an odd formation, Patrick and Yvonne to either side while lady Lance is one step behind them in the middle, hands extended as she seems ready to grab them and run.
I keep making my way through the tunnel ahead, I often throw a look up to the two Rykz workers who stay ahead of us, but they don’t seem to react in any way to our actions, not that they have expressions I am capable of reading.
Two loud crack sounds echo in the tunnels. I throw a look over my shoulder, finding the three nobles jogging towards the third support structure. Further behind, on the ground, are two wooden beams broken in half near a third intact one.
I take care not to trip but keep an eye on what’s happening behind me to witness how they are breaking those thick wooden beams. Yvonne nears the one she is aiming for at no significant speed. Lady Lance is still making her way through the middle of the tunnel, one step behind them with her hands extended to either side.
Yvonne’s hands grab the upper portion of the beam while planting her left foot firmly in the ground, she then raises her right foot and places it on the center of the beam, the next thing she does is pull with her hands and push with her right leg.
The beam splits in half within three seconds after she starts applying pressure as does Patrick’s, provoking two more loud crack sounds to resound through the tunnels. Lady Lance rushes forward, lifting her hands and hitting the ceiling’s beam in the middle of its fall, pushing it away from Patrick and Yvonne’s heads.
The sheer amount of flow energy necessary to boost your strength that much is staggering to me, maybe a whole day’s worth? A third in the bones, the rest in the muscles. Lady Lance has to be supplying the energy.
About as far in the tunnel as I can see, I distinguish dark shadows gathering around another larger shadow, the grub’s corpse. I’m already a couple dozen meters ahead of the others, which means that the time it takes to break supports and then get in position to reach the next one is distressingly slow.
“The warriors are past the grub.” I yell over my shoulder. “They’ll be in charging distance of you in …” Fuck, mathematics. If the Rykz are about as quick as me, it means they’ll gain about thirty meters on them every two support structure they destroy. Fuck maths, they can make the calculation themselves. “I gain thirty meters every two structure you break!” I trip on a rock in the middle of that sentence, having tried to do too many things at once but I can still finish uttering it before I hit the ground, so I do so while my hands rush forward to catch the ground.
My right hand manages to slow my fall, my left hand, being absent, doesn’t do a damn thing and that lets my left side crashes into the ground, gaping wound first.
The pain is so intense that it actually catches the scream mounting in my throat and smothers it, leaving me reeling with my mouth wide open and tears filling my eyes. My voice comes back to me when I catch my breath after the first wave of pain dissipates.
“Fuck me!” I exclaim in frustration at the vivid pain filling my left side once again, looking down to it, I find fresh new red stains slowly spreading over the bandage.
I manage to get up without too much difficulty, the first thing I’m learning to do one-handed is apparently standing up. I decidedly ignore the waves of pain coming from both phantom limb and very real gaping wound to start jogging again but this time I keep my eyes on the ground and only allow short glances towards the two Rykz workers ahead to make sure they are still maintaining the distance separating us.
Two more beams break behind me, but my attention is on a construction of support beam that is larger than the others, the miners took a dozen beams and placed them under a patch of white rock, if they decided to reinforce that part of the ceiling, then maybe it means it’ll collapse if we break it.
I ignore the order Lady Lance gave me to keep going alone and find somewhere to rest, and try to find something to use as a lever. I find a meter long metal bar, fully rusted across its entire surface, laying on the ground against the wall.
I shove the end of the bar near the ground between the smallest beam and the wall, it takes some wiggling, but I manage to fit it in-between two rock protrusions.
My first attempt to force the base of the beam to slide against the rocky ground and pop out of position is met with a simple truth, I am just not strong enough to do that with a single arm. So I follow the noble’s example by placing a foot on the wall and pushing against it, I attain some small success leveraging the beam as it slides a few centimeters before hitting an invisible irregularity in the ground.
I give my lever some slack before pulling back on it violently, trying to brute force past the snag. I finally succeed after two more attempts, and the beam slides another few centimeters.
It takes me twenty more seconds of effort, but I succeed in displacing the beam, quickly jumping back and away as soon as the beam is dislodged from its position to avoid its fall, immediately followed by the one it used to support across the ceiling.
I proceed to the last of the three beams, on the other side of the tunnel, and quickly succeed in making it fall as the ceiling’s beam connected to this one knocked it when it was yanked loose out of the groove that kept them together.
I must have been much slower than the others because before I can even attack another support structure, the three nobles walk past me and start working on the next set of beams.
Crack. The beams break like dry wood, and lady Lance shoves the one falling from the ceiling away. I notice the white rock above us as it shifts downwards, only a few seconds after they break the supports.
“The rock is caving.” Lady Lance says in a relieved voice. “Keep at it, we break this next set, and then we find a fissure to blow up.”
“Good, I have nothing left, burned the last of your energy too.” Yvonne makes a small sigh of relief, exhaustion visible on her face.
Crack, Patrick breaks his beam, Crack, Yvonne follows soon after. The white rock above us trembles as it slides a centimeter downwards in the direction of the broken supports.
The Rykz warriors are no longer shadows in the distance, they’re so close that it startles me. Their legs hardly generate any noise at all as they hit the ground, a short clicking sound that I quite simply do not hear when juxtaposed along with our loud breaths and heavy steps.
They are following us, no, they are charging at us. The distance between our two groups is still sufficient for us to do what we need, I estimate after observing a few seconds. I nervously tighten my grip over the rusty lever I picked up earlier, my fingers disturbing the upper layer of iron rust.
Lady Lance puts a hand on my shoulder, the only one I have, and gently pulls on it, pointing me at the others waiting ahead with a nod of the head. I leave her behind, in front of a small fissure of about three centimeters wide at the largest.
Once I reach the others, I turn around and observe as she places a hand over the gap and channels a trickle of flow energy inside. A golden glow appears inside the fissure and runs its whole length, from the ground to the ceiling.
“We have about thirty seconds to get as far as possible before the construct estimates it has absorbed enough air and triggers the simultaneous combustion of all the energy at the same time.” Lady Lance nods towards the two workers. “Let’s try to catch up to them and don’t waste time, this construct is used on harder targets in sieges.”
We all start running at our top speeds, lady Lance overtaking us all within the first ten paces as her legs seem to be kicking the ground rather than using it as support, each time throwing her forward in wide leaps of up to four meters in length.
I lag behind as Patrick and Yvonne rush forward. I’m not too worried about making it to a safe distance, but every step I take sends vibrations through my body as my feet impact the ground, each time triggering a new wave of pain from the wound.
I work on lengthening my stride, trying to reduce the number of times my legs need to hit the ground but the sheer exhaustion remaining from the battle, the loss of my left arm, and the lack of actual sleep after a half-day of running for my life, has caused my physical energy to drop down to an all-time low.
My run soon turns into a jog before the successive waves of pain finally break my perseverance and I slow down to a walk with half pauses between each step, my only hand using the wall as support to further lessen the weight impacting the ground with each step, indirectly decreasing the amount of vibrations reaching up to my wound.
The thoughts inside my head slow down to a crawl. I … I must have been sustained … by sheer survival … instinct. My head seems to drain itself of blood, I notice because of the sudden changes in pressure, as the departing liquid leaves an odd void behind inside my skull. Is this … far enough?
— — —
The pain of a harsh pounding headache pierces through my unconsciousness and wakes me up in a startle, panicked as my last memory is that I have to urgently put some distance between me and some siege construct lady Lance used.
The darkness around me doesn’t help calm my feelings, I quickly gather my flow, once again it seems my body went through the reserves as I have very little left despite hours having passed, I make a small golden ball above my hand before realizing that the golden glow isn’t projecting light on anything and remembering that I was told as much by my mother when I was young as she was giving me the best education she could manage.
I throw looks all around myself, aggravating the headache trough brain shaking, finding a tiny line of light near the ground, the seam of a door. I let a sigh escape me, at least I’m not buried alive. Probably not.
I carefully sit up, noticing the blanket under me that I was just sleeping on. I pick it up and throw it over my neck, the tail end of it brushing slightly against my wound, the small contact is enough to awaken a burning feeling coming from the surface of the flesh. Shit, is it infected?
I make my way to the door, feeling around the wood panel for a handle but don’t find any. I end up pushing on the door, and it simply opens. I find another room, this time with a torch fire in the middle, lady Lance and Yvonne are both sleeping on the same blanket near the fire. I take the blanket around my neck off and cover them with it before walking towards the small hallway leaving the room, and ignoring the two other doors resembling mine, I assume Patrick is sleeping in one of them.
I am disappointed to emerge inside another red rock tunnel after exiting the short hallway, this tunnel is indistinguishable from the one we were in before, it might even be the same one, there is no sign of light coming from either end.
There is a sledgehammer head laying on the ground, it is made out of rock so it didn’t rust like all the other tools that occasionally litter the ground. One of the sides is broken, giving the piece of rock an odd rectangular shape with a sharp edge in place of one of the corners. The circular hole through the height of the head is empty, no handle.
I pick it up on impulse, remembering the iron bar I used as a lever, before making my way back to the room and exchanging the hammerhead for one of the torches in the fire because the tiny glow of light that reaches the tunnel just isn’t enough to explore.
I spend the next hour or so scouring the tunnels in a slow walk, the memory of the waves of pain triggered in the wound when I ran is fresh in my mind, and while I am no longer a stranger to blinding pain, the memories are teaching me to fear its occurrence.
Once I find another iron bar that doesn’t seem too large for the hammerhead, I put the torch down along it and pick both up in my hand. Having found what I was looking for, I start slowly making my way back to the group.
I walk past a crossroad in the tunnel, where I kept going straight, I thought that if I didn’t need to remember the turns I took, then I couldn’t make a wrong one. A familiar clicking sound reaches me and this time my ears pick it up as the noise I am making isn’t enough to drown it.
The darkness is too thick for my eyes to pierce, and my flow reserves are pitiful enough as they are, I don’t need to draw on my reserves to confirm this. I hurry my steps on the rest of the way back, braving the memory of pain and the fear that accompanies it.
Once I am past the small hallway and into the room, my heartbeat calms down. Yvonne and lady Lance are still sleeping so I put the iron bar down next to the hammerhead and throw the torch back into the fire.
I pick up the supplies backpack but it is too much of a strain on my single arm so I give up to save energy, I put it back down and drag it near the fire. I take the small pot out to place it on the fire, shuffling it around until it finds a stable position on top of the burning torches.
There is a water flask on the side of the backpack, I empty it inside the pot before staring at the bag of grain and trying to figure out a way to transfer some of them inside the pot without spilling most of it on the ground.
I resign myself to doing it by the spoon, finding several inside the backpack and begin the long labor of transferring food from the bag to the pot with a spoon, enough for three people and that ass-face, that’s about …
“Fucking math.” I mumble, calculating.
Got it, the amount of spoonfuls of grain is exactly, precisely: a lot. I’ll eyeball it, whoever said I needed to count, huh? No one so fuck that. My wandering thoughts and stupid inner dialogue helps alleviate the boredom of the task.
“Hey.” Yvonne says, raising a hand in the air.
“‘Morning.” I answer.
“Food?” She asks.
“Food.” I answer.
She gets up and takes a spoon of her own, sitting down and joining me as she turns the mind-numbing task into a game by blocking my spoon with her hand when it nears the bag while her own picks up its fill.
I start using tricks, being one hand shorter compared to her, making a feinted attack against the full spoon in middle of transit towards the pot, when she hurriedly brings her other hand back from the grain bag to defend, I smugly exploit the hole in her defense and plunge my spoon inside the grain bag.
The next trick I use is to move the entire backpack away from her by using my legs, I drag it too far for her to reach while sitting down, I take advantage of the time she wastes getting up and chasing after it to drop three more spoonfuls of grain into the pot.
“You suck at this!” I laugh.
“You’re cheating!” She accuses me, one hand tightly holding the backpack to prevent me from moving it anymore.
“You did it first!” I exclaim, faking outrage at her short memory.
“Cheating only counts if someone is better at it than I am.” She states without any shame.
“Children, please don’t play with our food.” Lady Lance’s exasperated voice cuts us in the middle of our argument.
“Jealousy isn’t pretty!” Yvonne ripostes without missing a beat.
“Totally jealous of our empire-famous spoon maneuvering skills.” I deadpan.
“Please, I could beat you both with my hands behind my back.” She rolls her eyes, a playful smile on her lips.
Both me and Yvonne throw a hand inside the bag, each of us picking up an extra spoon and holding it out to her, both of us grinning wildly.
“I walked into that one, huh.” Leomi mutters, shaking her head.