“Are you sure this is the right way?”
Estella scrunched her face, glancing at Aldros in annoyance before burying her nose in the map she was holding. They had taken a left turn at the fork, and they should have reached another junction by this point. But the dark corridor just went on and on.
“Maybe the one who drew the map was wrong,” Nox suggested. He held Erebos, fidgeting where he stood. “We can just revise it and report the discrepancy.”
“Right,” Estella mumbled. She crossed out the junction and drew a corridor in its place.
Exploration was always a tedious mission, and it was annoying that the task fell on her group. She never liked journeying into the unknown, though the challenge of it, including facing potentially dangerous monsters, were exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
But she was not worried. With her and Nox while Aldros and Erian supported them, mapping out the rest of these tunnels should be easy. Besides, their time limit was only four hours, including the return trip. And they had already spent one hour. They would be finished soon.
Satisfied with her work, Estella rolled the map and proceeded onward, flanked by Nox and Erian. Aldros guarded the rear, his hammer resting on his broad shoulder.
The corridor was damp and dark, and the only light illuminating the path came from one of the two lamps they had brought. Estella held one in her left hand, keeping her other hand free. Though she didn’t expect a fight, letting her guard down wasn’t advisable.
“I wonder who built these tunnels?” Erian was whispering, but the silence and narrow space magnified his voice. “They looked old.”
“Coltar was once populated by dwarves,” Nox said. “They were probably the ones who built the tunnels.” He paused for a moment. “I’m guessing there are mines below us.”
Erian sighed. “Too bad we can’t go down there. If there are dwarf mines, they are surely filled with treasure.”
“They would have been emptied when the dwarves left,” Aldros said with a grunt. “I wouldn’t count on it, kid.”
Finally they reached the end of the corridor, leading to a chamber that branched off in two directions. Estella marked the location on her map as they entered, then looked around with a frown.
Where should they go next?
The chamber was small and unadorned, making it difficult to determine what it originally was. The ceiling was so low that Aldros’s hammer scraped against it, an irritating sound that made Estella want to scratch her ears.
She resisted the urge and focused on the choice she needed to make. Right or onward? The three men stared at her expectantly, waiting for her decision.
Estella studied the map, but it wouldn’t help at all. The unexplored parts were too vast to let her make assumptions of where either direction led to. She looked at the right passage; it was pitch black and seemed uninviting, but that was usual for tunnels like these. The path ahead was the same, though she was quite certain it wouldn’t lead them to the lower levels.
Lady Lyris was specific: do not go lower.
“That way.” She pointed ahead before marching toward the gloom.
The tunnel widened at some point, spilling them into a vast hallway lined with cracked pillars. Estella swept the lamp around, but the light didn’t reach past thirty feet in all directions. The air was stale, and there was something about the darkness that made her skin crawl. Above her, she couldn’t see the ceiling.
She shivered, but pressed on. It was nothing. She was just being paranoid, especially with that flower field. The Academy wouldn’t let its students venture into a dangerous location, after all.
“Maybe we should turn back,” Nox said.
Estella glanced at him over her shoulder. Her squire was tense, casting wary gazes across the hallway. Even Aldros and Erian looked restless.
“What is it, Nox?” she asked.
Danger. Shadows. Erebos.
Estella blinked. “What do you mean?”
Nox stared at her with a blank expression. What? “What?”
“What do you mean what, Nox? You’re the one who’s mumbling about shadows and danger.”
But her squire merely looked confused. What is she talking about? “I didn’t say anything, Master,” he said slowly, eyeing her with a curious expression.
Her heart crawling to her throat, Estella glanced at Aldros and Erian. “You two heard him, right?” she said, more a demand than a question. She knew what she had heard, for the Goddess’s sake!
The two exchanged looks, then shook their heads. “Maybe we should really go back,” Aldros suggested with a forced smile.
Estella opened her mouth to speak, but shut it immediately, her lips pressed together. She could feel it, like a thread, joining her mind with another. She looked at Nox.
His mind. Confusion. Shock. Alarm. The Resonance. Danger. Shadows. Have to get her away from here.
“We have to go now,” he said, scanning the area just behind Estella. They hadn’t gotten far to see what lay beyond the entrance, but her brief sweep of the lamp earlier revealed crumbling floors and a gaping hole.
The temperature dropped, and the men stiffened. A sense of dread filled Estella’s heart, freezing her blood.
A growl came, deep and menacing.
“Move, now!” Nox shouted, grabbing her hand and dragging her swiftly back toward where they came from. Aldros and Erian didn’t waste time, running after them. A thud, followed by the shuddering of the tunnel.
Something was coming.
Her heart pounding, Estella summoned Astra, its warmth banishing the fear in her heart, its silver glow lighting their way forward. Behind them, there was a muffled roar.
“What the hell is that?” Aldros hissed.
“A Remnant,” Nox answered. They rounded a corner, and he continued. “We must have disturbed it when we entered that hallway.”
Remnant. A demon of the old world, attracted to Wielders like sharks to a pool of blood. But there was something about the way Nox answered that seemed suspicious.
The thought flooded Estella’s mind. Annoyance. Guilt. Fear. Should have known. Should have been more careful.
She glanced at Nox as they sped along the tunnel, past musty chambers and around twisting corners. There was a wild look in his eyes, his lips curled in a feral snarl.
They soon entered another chamber, one that led to the initial gathering place for the students and teachers. Five minutes away, even as they ran. It seemed too long, but there was no other route.
Aldros cursed. “It’s still following us!”
Estella whipped her head around. Beyond the darkness of the tunnel were two pinpricks of crimson, unwavering, malevolent. A chill crawled down her spine.
“Burst!” Erian shouted, sending a wind arrow flying from his Animarta. It blasted into the darkness, and the crimson eyes vanished for a brief moment. When it returned, its glow shone brighter than before.
“We have to bury it,” she said, gripping Astra tightly. The Remnant sped up, getting closer. “Aldros, cut off its route!”
“It might bring down this whole area!”
“Just do it!”
Cursing again, Aldros sprinted back to the tunnel entrance. With a mighty roar,, he swung his Earthforged hammer, and the ear-shattering boom filled the chamber.
The Remnant roared. Cracks filled the tunnel, and crumbling masonry rained down. Estella watched with bated breath as the tunnel shook and shuddered, chunks of rock and stone crashing onto the ground.
“Let’s get out of here,” Nox said. Even the chamber was starting to shake now.
They bolted for the exit. But they hadn’t gotten far when the floor split up and a massive crack appeared. Estella yelped, almost losing her footing. Thankfully, Nox caught her hand and pulled her.
“Jump across it. Hurry,” Aldros urged.
Erian went first, using his wind to make the jump easier. Despite his size, Aldros took the leap and landed gracefully on the other side. He held his hand out. “Ella!” he shouted.
Estella peered over the abyss, and wished she hadn’t. Only darkness lay below her, hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet. A slow but certain death.
Her hammered as she opened her eyes. She inhaled deeply, then jumped.
It was twenty feet across, but it felt longer to her. When she regained her focus, she was already standing next to Aldros, her hands trembling. She quickly looked across the gap, where Nox was preparing to follow.
The tunnel behind him exploded.
The Remnant was a monstrosity only found in the darkest nightmares. Estella couldn’t even comprehend what she was seeing. There was a thick veil of darkness, what she was sure was a tail and many limbs, and a maw so vast it didn’t qualify as a head anymore.
“Go!” Nox yelled, facing the monster. He didn’t even look back, didn’t even glance back at her as he charged it with a savage roar.
The fissure was widening, but there was only one thought running in Estella’s mind.
She leapt over the gap, ignoring Aldros’s furious protest. Her free hand burst into flames, and she dashed past her shocked squire, Astra gleaming savagely in the darkness.
With a mighty swing, she cut a gash across the darkness. The Remnant shrieked, its arms flailing. And the sound echoed in the collapsing chamber.
Then she felt Nox’s hand wrapping around her waist as the floor finally gave in, spilling them into a dark and never-ending pit.
Thank you for reading!