The ants were making words again. Avanesh watched them crawl across the basalt of the cave and, with wretched slowness, assemble their horrid yellow bodies into the letters of a message.
“Just ignore them!” bellowed Bahadur from the darkness. He was down there somewhere, pressing his own body against the walls, systematically touching the tips of his fingers to each square inch of every edge and surface of the neat, cubical columns that contained them both.
Avanesh had slept twice since the ambush, which was his only way to measure time inside the hellish tomb that had swallowed them. He hadn’t observed Bahadur sleep at all. Bahadur had been doing nothing but diligently inspecting the cavern ever since he’d sealed their only exit.
Bahadur stepped into Avanesh’s torch light. He was naked except for Victory Bite, wrapped, as ever, around his forehead. He was utterly filthy, as if every particle of dirt trapped in with them had been smeared across his broad body and caked thick with unending sweat. His eyes were bright as swans on a lake at midnight, and they dipped down to Avanesh, sitting where he had left him on the cavern floor.
“So, what did the ants say?” he asked, almost jovially. Avanesh swept the torchlight over to the tiny blackened balls that the ants had become, though it would have been impossible for Bahadur to see them.
“You said to ignore the words, so I burned them,” Avanesh said. The close heat made it difficult for him to summon even the strength to speak, but Bahadur responded with an actual roar of laughter. What a luxurious way to spend their air and their energy.
“That will teach them not to write you love letters,” he said. “But I’ve got one of my own for you. It says: Avanesh, I hope this finds you well. I have some good news!”
Avanesh stared at Bahadur, a towering heap of impossible muck and muscle standing above him. He recognised this tone of delivery and tensed against the inevitable but good-natured dashing of his hopes.
“Turns out you were right all along. This part of the Deep Mountain IS full of adamantine. My clever crown has sniffed out a seam of it big enough to choke the sea.” He tapped Victory Bite with a swollen, sensitive finger and it chimed prettily.
“When we find a way out, we’ll come back here with the men to dig it all up and we can retire early to the Glistening Crests. Much love, Bahds.”
He laughed again and rolled back into the stifling dark to resume his search for whatever sign of escape he hoped his Crown would turn up.
Avanesh remained quite still in his damp little patch of ruined clothing. He wondered at which point, exactly, that Bahadur’s plan to go surveying for adamantine in the Realm of Vitriol had become his plan, but he accepted that was how it was going to be remembered between them now that Bahadur had changed history with a simple statement. He was never sure when Bahadur was deferring credit or deflecting blame.
Avanesh brought his eyes back to the streak of soot on the cave wall. A new battalion of ants was marshalling their forces to create a further message. He knew he wouldn’t ignore it, as he hadn’t ignored the last one. If he closed his eyes, he could see every squirming letter of it as if it was still there on the wall.
“WE ONLY WANT THE CROWN. KILL HIM AND WE WILL RELEASE YOU, AVANESH”
He didn’t know how the mage was making this happen. He felt he had seen a mage of some sort in the brief altercation at the cave’s mouth. She had been surrounded by a flash of colour, something reflective on her chest, a certain twirling of wind at her face. All he knew for sure was that he’d hit someone very hard, hard enough to break their helm, but then been knocked down. Then he had some missing time, not much, but he had been lying on his back when he saw Bahadur, daubed with blood, raise his grandmother’s sword and bring the roof down. That mage must still be lurking out there, carefully organising the ants through sixteen feet of collapsed rock.
And the ants continued to crawl. There was something sickening in how the message resolved itself, how what was a seething mass of insects one moment was a clear thought in the next. Avanesh considered whether the mage was controlling the ants or controlling him. This interest in the craft of the thing was enough motivation to move Avanesh towards the wall, pluck an ant from it and inspect it closely. His Demonhide Gloves jolted internally as the ant made contact with the palm of his hand. A faint ringing in his mind called up something about the potential the insect had as material.
As an experiment, he groped around for an ant that had not been press-ganged into the forming of words and held it for a moment by one of its long, spindly legs. This unconscripted ant made him aware of the leathery chitin of its hide, the tinting of metal possible through a certain concentration of the formic acid it held in its convoluted poison glands. It wasn’t a strong feeling. How much could one possibly build out of an ant? But the messenger ants from the wall gave him the sense of songs, of persuasion, of thought projected. They were possessed of a different sort of material, the material of language.
He retreated to his nest of rags opposite the wall. While it was possible for a mage to influence a mind at a distance, the Gloves of Perfection could not be fooled or befuddled or swayed. The only control the mage had over him was from the words on the wall. He braced himself for the next message.
“HE DOOMED YOU BOTH.”
The heat of the Earth seemed to flare more intensely within Avanesh’s face for an instant. Brave, fearless Bahadur hadn’t thought much of the risks of trespassing, of robbing precious metals from under the noses of people who would take that as no small slight. He never knew what it meant to feel invincible, but being with Bahadur had allowed him to inhale those vapours from time to time.
“BUT WE WILL RESCUE YOU.”
He remembered feeling confident, before his first sleep, that Victory Bite would find them a way out. Bahadur could train it to see the gas mixture of fresh air, or the green of a leaf, and then it was a matter of homing in on the signal. But this optimism fell in time with Bahadur’s ever deeper plumbs of the cavern. If his sword hadn’t been buried under the rocks, then maybe they could have broken through to another passageway. Without it, they were forced to hunt for an exit that could not be found.
“OPPORTUNITIES COME BUT DO NOT LINGER”
That was a surprise. Avanesh had assumed their attackers had been of Vitriol, since theirs was the territory on which they were prospecting. But here was a line straight out of a sermon from the Order of Power. They had even less of a right to be here than he did, owing to recent events. So why had they been there?
“YOU ARE AN OPPORTUNITY FOR USMASTER CRAFTSMAN OF PERFECTION”
Avanesh allowed a flicker of pride to light the space under his ribs. So their work had been noticed quite far afield. Bahadur had sourced the finest materials for him to turn into tools of exquisite manufacture, and at some point the Order of Power had been made aware. He tried to recall the fragmented details of the ambush. Had it been an attack or a heavily negotiated recruitment drive?
He thought about what the Order of Power could do with Victory Bite. With their resources they could turn the world inside out. All that was buried and hidden would be brought to light, where it could be seen and studied. The useless would be transformed into the useful.
“WHEN WE HEAR YOUR CAPTOR’S PULSE STOP WE WILL PULL YOU OUT.”
Avanesh wondered about the truthfulness of the messages. He didn’t know what powers the mage had at her command, or if she had confederates with her now. He entertained a thought, then crawled forward and grabbed a handful of ants out of the word “WILL.” They were unusually still in his cupped fist. He focused on his Gloves and searched for a sense of what he could make out of the word. He was surprised to discover that the word was solid, it was dependable. He scooped up the ants making other words, finally coming round to “CAPTOR,” which made his heart sink lower than he thought it could go.
He slumped to the floor. Its irregular edges cut into his ribs and side. The words were true. It was clear from the point of view of an outsider that Bahadur had been the first to strike the delegation from the Order, had imprisoned them behind the rocks and was going to kill him while frittering away their few remaining minutes on a futile search for nothing. He remained almost motionless until the ants skittered from his hand and returned to the wall.
“WE HAVE MADE THE DECISION EASIER FOR YOU.”
Avanesh let that thought run up and down his overheated mind. The message dissolved and its constituents went about the usual business of blind cave ants. The distribution of pain and numbness in Avanesh’s body, as well as the scattering of debris from his final torch, told him he had been watching these messages slowly form and fade for hours. He gradually became aware that Bahadur was calling to him.
“Come here and look at what we’ve found!”
Avanesh unfolded his body, massaged out the pain and groped about in the fading light for his maul. He told himself that he needed it as a crutch for his unsteady legs, but mostly he was trying to think of how hard decisions could be made easier. He didn’t have to stumble much of a distance towards Bahadur’s booms before he heard the water.
Bahadur was bathing in a thin trickle falling from the roof of the cave. The accumulated muck of the underground was streaming from his body, leaving rivulets of his umber flesh to reflect the torchlight. Avanesh smelled brine and iodine. That was seawater coming in. As he leaned heavily on his maul and watched Bahadur clean himself, he saw the trickle become a stream, and then a flow.
“It’s a bit less warm than we are, and that’s refreshment in my book,” he beamed. “Cool off and you’ll get your strength back.” Bahadur moved out of the water, his bare feet slapping on the stones. “Come now, cause we haven’t long before the entire Vibrian comes down on us.”
Avanesh froze. The mage had started a flood. They no longer had the luxury of waiting for the air to run out or to die of thirst. That torturous, abstract death had been replaced by a very sudden and very material one. He clenched and unclenched his fists. He felt the mist and doom and dark of the atmosphere that submerged him. He felt the rising water and the dead end before them. He felt Bahadur’s hidden panic and his own hidden fury. He felt the way out and he felt the opportunity.
He stepped towards the shower and then spun towards Bahadur. His maul made contact with Bahadur’s crown and it fell from his head. It fluttered and gasped on the wet floor, spraying Avanesh’s shins as it tried to tie itself into knots. He had dropped the torch and stared wide-eyed into the dark where Bahadur had been. Then he felt gentle pressure on his forearms and Bahadur’s breath falling on his face as they sank together to the ground. Sat face to face with Bahadur, Avanesh twisted his weapon hand free, raised the maul again and closed his eyes.
And Bahadur brought Avanesh’s empty hand up to his face, so Avanesh could again understand the material he was working with. It was flesh and blood and thought and love. There was hope he could use and help he could take.
“The water, the water made it easier to focus,” whispered Bahadur. “I found a crack in the ceiling, Avvie.” Avanesh dropped the maul. His mouth opened in a silent, dry yelp of anguish. “You could wriggle through, and find help maybe,” slurred Bahadur.
Avanesh allowed himself to be led a short distance in the darkness, to be lifted, and pushed. His hands found a sharp edge in the rock and, as he felt its interior, his gloves told him how to turn this passage into his escape. Suddenly his feet were dangling. Bahadur had sat down again with a small splash. The pale light from Victory Bite cast a formless shadow of Bahadur, a blot of ink to punctuate their time together. He was saying something, but Avanesh could not hear him over the rushing of water.
He pulled himself up. The rocks pinned him tightly and scoured his skin. Opportunities come but do not linger. The water rose and rose and rose.
Report from Area of Interest 1854 (Fallen Cavern) by Procurer Sayadaw. “Victory Bender” Long Sword of Reflection: To be recovered“Victory Bite” Demon Crown of Reflection: To be recovered.Dragon Sun Leather Gloves of Perfection: In possession of Avanesh Tipanis Angle, at large in the Realm of Vitriol.