You reached out your injured arm, placing your hand on my shoulder while I wrapped and bound it. You didn’t even wince as I pulled the bandages tight to help slow the blood flow. One of the Healers would need to tend to the wound once we returned to the Haven, but for now, this made an adequate field dressing.
You smiled as I worked, and we made small talk again, as if we hadn’t just fought for our lives. Such was the way for those of us who made a habit of traversing the darkness. We all learned after a while that dangers lurked everywhere and that there was nothing to be done but to roll with them, dealing with each one as it cropped up. You were already an old hand at this, well-versed in dealing with such risks. You had taught me much in the brief time we had known each other.
I could help returning your smile. You always had that effect on me. Your smile could light the darkness in a way our lanterns never could. The warmth of your smile dispelled the chill of the eternal night here, however briefly.
Our blades flashed in the dark, sparks of light from our lanterns flickering off our weapons. The things were all around us, attacking from the sides, the floor, even the ceiling. We stood back-to-back and warded them off — one, two, sometimes even three at a time.
Until there were none left. Corpses lay all about us as we struggled to catch our breath. We had fought. We had won. But we had not escaped entirely unscathed ourselves. Such are the dangers of traveling these dark corridors.
We moved off a bit, choosing a side passage almost at random. We needed to leave the stench of death behind us and attend to our own wounds. We both resheathed our blades into our walking sticks, then sat, our backs to the tunnel wall.
I could see a long scratch along your left forearm. It was already growing dark with the venom of the thing that had caused it. I dug into my pack for a bezoar, but a familiar crunch from between your teeth told me you’d already pulled one out of your own. Of course you didn’t need my help.
We traveled like that for some time. Talking. Sharing. Laughing. It was always a joy to travel with you, and it was no less so this time.
And as we walked, we noticed the ground beneath our feet begin to slant ever so slightly downward.
The thing about the dark is that the path rarely ever stays the same. The tunnels are always changing, ever shifting. Honestly, it was a small wonder I was able to find you at all. These are the kinds of things the Watchers are ever on the lookout for, giving warning when such events occur. But even They can’t see everything, and so this shift slid beneath their attentive gazes.
We reached a cross passage, barely having time to note it when things, creatures of the dark, lunged at us. Neither of us missed a beat. We whirled as the things, barely seen yet lethally dangerous, attacked. We pulled weapons — you a stiletto, me a sword — and danced death with them, never leaving the other’s side, never dropping our packs. One always fights while bearing one’s own burdens.
We found each other in the dark some time later. Or, rather, the semi-dark. A crack in part of the tunnel ceiling extended through the rock over our heads and let in just enough light that we didn’t require our lanterns. It did little to dispel the gloom to either side of us, of course, but it at least gave us a safe haven for our reunion.
You were already on your way back when I found you. You greeted me with a hug and a smile that was genuinely warm. I knew I’d been right not to worry, but your gear clearly told the tales of your travels. There had been hardships along the way. I could see those markings clearly, even in that dim light. But still you smiled, ever positive, ever optimistic. And this was part of why I chose to follow you into the dark. How could I not?
We walked together then, both our lanterns lit, the shared glow of those lights illuminating the path ahead of us more clearly than each had alone. We talked, voices low, exchanging stories and sharing experiences.
I didn’t want it to end.
The master potter worked the wheel with his foot, furiously pumping the pedal and spinning the table as he molded and shaped the block of dark clay. He expert hands worked with practiced skill, dipping repeatedly into the bowl of water at his side as he kept the clay soft enough to shape. His concentration was absolute, and as he worked, the form of an elegant vessel began to appear. The potter’s fingers pushed on the spinning clay here, smoothed it there, using wooden tools as the final touch to spin intricate designs and patterns into the soft mud.
When he was finished, he fired the vessel in the furnace, subjecting it to intense heat so that it would be strong and would not crack easily, then placed it carefully on display next to his other works. The vessel served him well, but over time it began to shows signs of its use. The rim had chipped from repeated use, the fine patterns on the outside had begun to wear away, and slight stress fractures began to appear on the walls of the vessel. The master potter saw how this spoiled the rest of the display, so with the affection of an artist to his creation, he removed the vessel from the display and broke it into many pieces. He continued to grind the vessel until it was only dust, and with methodical patience, he reworked the clay dust with just the right amounts of water and temper to restore it to its former softened state. Excitement and joy danced across the potter’s face, visions of a far more beautiful vessel displayed in his mind, as he lifted the restored lump of clay to the wheel and reshaped it into a vessel that far surpassed it previous beauty and was a beautiful reflection of the person and character of the potter himself. No one who looked upon the new vessel could doubt that the potter had not shaped it, for the characteristics of the master craftsman were clear for all to see.