It was so silent in the tunnels. No sound of dripping water. No sound of scurrying lizards. Nothing to give signal that any life could be found beyond the entrance.
Sobahn saw the entrance tunnel suddenly give way to a grand chamber containing several doors. They had reached the grand antechamber, the main hall where miners would break up into groups and go in different directions. Here, the carved tables where the miners took their breaks sat as if awaiting the return of their former masters. The canaries had long turned into piles of bones, reminding him just how long it had been since man had set foot in the antechamber.
It was a sad reminder of what must’ve happened. One hundred miners had probably gone in, but only a handful had gotten out. In their haste to evacuate the mine, they had forgotten the canaries. But what else had they forgotten? Tools? Mining horses or ponies?
He had exactly one hundred men. That meant he could break his group up evenly. No. that would not do. He needed more. He sat down at one of the tables and pulled out his writing kit. He would send another message requesting more men.
He counted six doors, all going in different directions, not counting the entrance. He would need five hundred more men, a battalion for each direction. He scribbled his message and called for his messenger. Handing the message to the soldier, he sent him back to the surface. He couldn’t risk dividing his current force. He would need all of the current men he had to accompany him down the central tunnel.
Moments later, the messenger returned with the men requested. Hadrax had sent a note back commanding that the next message be about the mine. Not what Sobahn had expected. He frowned.
Breaking the new group into five teams, he gave them strict instructions to explore the tunnels only. Collect samples only if there was loose material on the floors, but no pick axe sounds was to be heard. The men would all meet back at the commons before heading to the surface. He watched as the five teams vanished from view down the five tunnels.
Once they had vanished, he waved to his own group to follow him. he took them down the central tunnel, the one that seemed to be the continuation of the entrance tunnel. Though the tunnel soon opened into what miners knew to be dwarven mining chambers, he kept his men to the upper paths. No need to divide them up to explore. The wall nearest him told him all he needed to know. This mine was rich in ores and gems.
He made a mental note. If he got out of here alive, he would let his general know of the mine’s richness. If not, it wouldn’t matter. Either way, death probably awaited him.
Niobe, Hadrax’s wife, sat in the capitol strung out from lotus. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so well. A sudden bout of nausea hit her hard, leaving her reeling. It was unlike her to get sick from lotus.
Was this a bad batch? Had she gotten hold of bad lotus? She’d heard the tales of what could happen if someone used bad lotus. None of the tales sounded pleasant.
“Call the nurse,” she commanded a servant, “I have need of her services.”
The servant bowed and left the room. As she waited the servant’s return, wave after wave of nausea struck. The feeling was so bad that she soon sobered up enough to realize that it was not the lotus. She looked up to see the nurse entering her chambers.
“Milady?” The nurse inquired.
“I don’t feel so well,” Niobe replied weakly, “I believe there is something wrong.”
The nurse turned to the servant and sent him away for the surgeon. Turning her attention to Niobe, she examined her. She felt Niobe’s abdomen then nodded.
“What is it?” Niobe demanded, alarmed.
“I believe you to be pregnant, milady,” came the amused reply, “but I will await the surgeon’s arrival to say for certain.”
The surgeon appeared and looked at Niobe. He smiled.
“Milady,” he began, not even bothering to feel her abdomen, “Be of good cheer! You are most definitely pregnant.”
“Damn,” she breathed angrily, “that means I must stay away from the lotus for a while. I hate sobriety.” She stopped in shock. “How do I tell Hadrax? He wanted no children, but he is to be a father.”
Screams could be heard coming from the other tunnels. Sobahn’s blood went cold. Something had taken the teams. Whatever it was had taken them one man at a time, not as a whole unit. It had lain in wait for them, laid a trap, and had allowed them to wander into the trap before eliminating them slowly.
Had his group also wandered into a trap? Whispered warnings began worming their way into his mind. Something was trying to tell him not to go any deeper into the mine. Still, he had a job to do.
The screams grew louder. Closer. Damn! His own men were being preyed upon!
He turned to call the messenger only to find himself alone. Alone and face-to-face with a formless, undefinable enemy.
~We have waited for you~ a disembodied collective of voices called to him in his mind, ~we have waited for the One.~
He took a deep breath. What, in the name of the triple mother, did they mean by the One? He wasn’t anyone special. He was just a soldier following orders.
~We see you are confused, child of man~ came the mental answer, ~by the One, we were not referring to you. No, we refer to One yet to be born. You, dear child, are going to deliver a message to your master. But not you, rather, we will deliver it in your image. You shall die, a meal for us as your companions have also done.~
He took a deep breath. If he lived through this, he would have to learn how to block his thoughts from beings such as this. Perhaps he would find a mage who would teach him such tricks.
A second deep breath and the formless set upon him. He fought them bravely, then all went dark. Beyond, at the entrance of the mine, he seemed to appear to those awaiting his return.
Hadrax stepped forward. The image looked at him with cruel distaste.
~Why have you awakened us?~ The mind-talk was in the minds of all. ~Know you not that there is a price to be paid for this deed? Or were you merely after precioussssss things?~
“We sought two wizards and their tomes of magicks,” Hadrax sneered, “We wanted nothing with you, whoever you are. Besides. A mine is meant to be used, not to set idle when an empire is to be funded.”
~Foolishhhhh mortal!~ The image hissed angrily. ~Think that we care for mages or books! There be no mages or books within our tunnels. Only dead who have been turned to stone. We seek the One.~
“The One?” Hadrax inquired meekly.
~The red haired child of promise~ The mind-speaker replied. ~He who will set all free. For your punishment, for payment, you shall send all male children born of red hair to us. This you will do and we will allow you to mine five of the six tunnels. Stray into the sixth and you shall surely die.~
“Five of the Six?” Hadrax had become bold. “Which five?”
~You may freely mine the five branches~ came the reply, ~but the main tunnel is ours. Enter it at your own peril.