Hey everybody! So, Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge this week is to post the 1,667 words from your first day of NaNoWriMo for this year. Mine ended up being a little bit over that, at around 1900 words for my first day.
An important note about this story: While I’ve tried to write this so it can stand alone, it is a continuation of the novel I started last year (the same novel that Tower of Ishmal is the first chapter of). The main detail that’s easy to miss is that Sargt di Martivir (the main character) is a Gem-scaled, which are a species of sentient/intelligent bipedal reptilian humanoids. (The other characters are either human or, in one case, a thrush, all of which should be obvious.) I realized this might not come across as well in the opening paragraphs of this piece, so I wanted to ward off any confusion. And with that, enjoy!
The rain poured down, blanketing the world in a soaking grey sheet. It had been raining constantly for the past day, the ground turning to mud, visibility limited. Tiny furrows in the rock became home to rushing rivers that flooded their banks and poured out over the edge onto the ground below.
Sargt sat under the rock, which formed the roof of a small hollow. Nuzzled up to his neck, trying to stay warm, was Blueberry, the little thrush that served as his constant companion.
There were others here, too. Stalwart companions, most. Glenna, curled up under her cloak, stray strands of red hair falling in front of her face. Cassidy, stretched out and lounging against his pack despite the chill, a young man with immense talent and little experience. Sargt had known these two for years. They’d traveled together, fought together, shed blood and sweat and tears. He trusted each of them with his life, and knew they felt the same. They were dear friends, at the very least.
And then there was Jess. She was older than the rest of them, having, Sargt guessed, a decade on him. She sat cross-legged, fingers toying with some elaborate puzzle she always brought out at times like this. They’d hired her as a locksmith, which were never known to be overly trustworthy sorts. But where they were going they would need her. And she hadn’t done anything to make him distrust her yet.
A part of him wanted to like her. Another part of him did. But she was still behind the curtain of the newly acquainted, where you all put on your best masks for each other. Once that mask fell, then he would know whether she would be the kind who would stick by their side in times of trouble or temptation. And that’s how he would know if he would do the same.
How’s it going, Sar? You’re acting all pensive. The voice of the tiny thrush echoed in his mind. Blueberry’s voice had a singing quality to it, high in pitch but expertly controlled. He felt the bird’s presence pushing in at the back of his mind.
Why not just speak? He asked across their link. Blueberry could speak, if he wished. But the little bird was insisting on using the link instead.
Everyone’s being all quiet. And boring. So I figured we should talk! Blueberry sat now on the branch of a blossoming fruit tree, at the edge of a field of green grass. Sargt was standing underneath the tree, looking up at the branches covered in starbursts of white against a background of green leaves. A memory, then. This was why Sargt disliked the link. It needed a memory to play host both personalities, and it could damage the memory if done incorrectly.
“Fine,” he said, sitting under the tree. Blueberry flew down and landed on his legs, which he stretched out before him. Memory or no, the sun felt quite warm on his scales. “Why this memory?”
“No people,” Blueberry twittered at him. “Easier to maintain. And it’s a nice memory, but a basic one you don’t ever pull anything from. Just a sunny day in the field.”
“It was a good day,” Sargt said. “But we should not linger long. I believe we are close to the caves now.”
“You’ve seen saying that the last three days.”
“Yes. But that does not diminish my faith that we will find them soon.”
“Maybe that old Gem-Scaled you talked to didn’t remember quite right.”
“Maybe. But there is one last valley to check. This terrain is unpredictable. I would not count the battle lost yet.”
“Well, I’m here for you.”
“Thank you, Blu—“
Sargt blinked as someone’s face came very close to his own. He felt the memory break back down into what it was supposed to be, a sort of liquid thought, only taking form when called upon, and slip back down into the recesses of his mind. His eyes focused on Glenna’s face, only inches from his own.
“He’s back,” she said. She sat back on her haunches. “Sorry if I interrupted. But you looked far away even for you.”
“Yes,” Sargt said. “Blueberry drew me into an old memory. Apologies.”
“None needed,” Cassidy said with a grunt as he sat up. “We were just saying it might be time to go check that last valley out.”
Jess nodded. “Not that this alcove isn’t cozy, but I’d like to get my fingers to work. They’re getting stiff in the cold.”
“Okay,” Sargt said, settling his cloak around his shoulders.
The group quickly packed, shouldered their burdens, and headed out into the pouring rain.
* * * * *
They reached the edge of the last valley. Thick brush covered the ground here, a variety of hardy scrub hanging on tight to the edges of the cliffs.
Glenna stopped and dropped into a crouch, squinting down at the ground.
“What is it?” Sargt asked, his rumbling voice carrying over the splattering of the rain against hood, ground, and grass.
“The stones here,” she said, holding away a stubborn shoot of scrubgrass. “Do they look red to anyone else?”
Sargt crouched down, big tail twitching to balance him. “Yes. Cassidy? Jess?”
“Yeah, I could see it,” Cassidy said, hunched under his cloak.
“Me too,” Jess said, getting down to look at the ground more carefully. “That’s what your man said, right, Sardimar?”
“Yes. This means we are in the right place.”
“Then let’s get down there,” Cassidy said, hopping from foot to foot. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m freezing.”
The group slipped and slid as they climbed down the steep valley walls, hard rain turning every handhold and flat surface into a risky proposition. Once they made it to the floor, they headed for the end further away from town.
Sargt fell into step next to Glenna.
“We took some time to find this place,” he said, his voice grim.
“We haven’t found it yet. But keep going.”
“The were other delvers searching for it. How many may have gotten here first?”
Glenna shrugged, causing the polearm strapped to her back to rattle in its harness. “Hard to say. This whole place is supposed to be a big deal. Have we ever seen that many groups chomping at the bit before?”
Sargt grunted. “No.”
Glenna looked up at him, bright eyes and pale face peeking out from under the edge of her hood. “Hey, don’t worry about it.” She clapped a hand on his shoulder. Sargt’s skin tingled at the touch, even through cloak and chain. “We’re smarter and faster than they are. Even if they have a head start, we’ll catch up.”
Sargt snorted. “I do not know about you, but I am beginning to feel the weight of years creep up on me. Perhaps we are not so fast.”
Glenna leaned in towards him as they walked and whispered. “I thought it was just me. How sore has your back been?”
“Very,” Sargt said, rubbing at his lower back.
“You know,” Glenna said, returning to her normal voice. “They say that this life ages you prematurely. I mean, you and I are are going to be what, thirty soon? And how long have you been delving?”
Sargt thought on it for a moment. “Fourteen years. It seems so long when I think about it.”
“Then try not to, that’s what I do,” she said with a grin. “But if we’re aging faster because of all this, we’re practically elders. So I’d say we’re doing pretty good, wouldn’t you, geezer?”
He chuckled. “I suppose I could agree with you, old crone.”
Cassidy’s voice called out from behind them. “Hey, do you guys see that?”
Sargt squinted into the rain, turning his gaze this way and that. He turned back to Cassidy. “I do not.”
Cassidy was pointing ahead of them. “I saw it just for a second when the rain shifted. I think there’s a cave a little to our right.”
“Lead the way,” Glenna said. Cassidy hustled out in front, and Sargt set himself right behind the young man. Because you never know what you would encounter out in the wilderness.
And then it loomed above them. A cave cut like a gash into the rock, puckered and rocky around the edges, as wide across at points as Sargt was tall. Cassidy hustled in under the overhang, and the others joined him.
Sargt crouched down and struck a torch as the others shook their cloaks out and looked around. In the flickering light, they could see the cave running down deep into the mountainside.
“I think this is our place,” Cassidy said. “Are you guys ready?”
“I hope there’s more here than just rocks,” Jess said as she adjusted her pack and brought her shortsword to the ready.
“Such places often conceal great caverns deep underground.” Sargt intoned.
“And sometimes they’re even full of treasure for honest delvers like us,” Glenna said as she got her polearm out and readied. She took point, and Sargt walked towards the rear of the group. “Let’s get further inside and make sure we’re in the right place.”
“Yeah, because being in the wrong dry, spacious cave would be so awful right now,” Cassidy said as they began to walk down in the dark, leaving the open air behind.
* * * * *
The cavern was a twisty maze of passages, all seemingly alike. But most of the offshoots soon dead-ended or became too narrow to follow, and dropped away as they traveled further and further into the mountainside.
Sargt peered down at the ground as they walked, trying to find evidence of any having passed before them. But the stone was hard and unyielding, with no signs of disturbances. And if anyone had passed through here, they had left nothing noticeable behind.
He ran into Jess’s back.
“Ooof,” she said, taking a step forward to steady herself. “We’re stopped, if you haven’t noticed.”
“Sardimar, can you bring that torch up here?” Glenna called out from the front of the group.
Sargt squeezed past Cassidy and Jess and came up just behind Glenna, holding his torch high in the air. As he took that last step, he felt, rather than saw, the cavern open out above him. The torch did not cast enough light to let him see the roof.
“Just as I thought,” Glenna said, taking a step forward and poking the toe of her boot out into blackness. “The trail cuts down the side wall of this cavern. If we get lucky, we’ll be able to walk the whole way…”
“But we may well be climbing,” Sargt said. He peered out into the darkness of the cavern, and saw a glow, far off. Glenna followed his gaze and grunted.
“I suppose we are not the first,” Sargt said, a mournful tone in his voice.
“Don’t worry, we’ve got this,” Glenna said, patting him on the shoulder and squeezing a little with her hand. She turned to the rest of the group. “Okay guys, we need to take the rest of this slowly. The path drops off pretty steeply to the side here, and if you fall down it I don’t think you’re coming back up.”
“Got it,” the other two said.
Glenna turned back to Sargt. “You’ll catch me if I fall, won’t you?”
“Always,” he said. Her eyes met his with a hint of surprise, but she smoothed over her expression and turned to head down the path.
“Keep that torch high,” she said.