At some point the redolent scent of moisture reached our noses, clinging to the air around us. Soon, it became apparent why.
We reached a section of tunnel that was damp and cool, moist with condensation that itself brown and foul-smelling. We avoided touching the walls by pure instinct, knowing somehow without quite knowing why that the dripping seepage was dangerous. The floor itself was only mildly damp, and we trod carefully through it. You glanced at me, and I could read the concern in your eyes. I understood without saying anything for I felt it myself. This was something new, something neither of us had seen in the darkness before, and we both knew there was threat in those rivulets of dank water.
You led the way once more, lantern held before you. Here and there pools of moisture collected in the seams between wall and floor — pooled but did not spill over. What held that dark fluid there I cannot tell you. But we were careful not to touch it, lest we risk it spilling onto our feet.
We traveled again, the tunnel growing narrower and wider at sporadic intervals. At times we were able to walk side-by-side. At others we were forced to move one behind the other, and when we did, we each took turns leading the way forward. When you led your stride was always strong, confident, sure. When you followed you kept watch at our backs, confident that nothing would be able to sneak up on us.
And of course we talked as we moved along that silent corridor, our voices strangely muted, even in that rocky passage. We’d known each other only a short while as Wayfinders, but already we had grown close. Closer still since you had saved my life.
Passages split off our course periodically. Some we passed by without looking, knowing by instinct that they were not the way back to Haven. Others we turned into with equal confidence, certain of our path. But far more often we were forced to give pause, consider the choices before us, and make the best decisions we could.
Such was the life of a Wayfinder.
You were at my side in an instant, an angel of light and beauty so magnificent that even now I cannot put it to words. You fell to your knees and cradled my head in your lap. I barely heard the slight pop of a vial being uncorked, but a second later a liquid coolness touched my lips, wet my mouth, and slid down my throat. The relief was instant, the agony I felt mere seconds before banished almost completely. The sudden contrast was so stark that I nearly fell to weeping right there. As it was I felt a few tears slip from my eyes and slide down my face to my ears.
It took me some time to regain my composure. You were patient as a saint and waited until I was ready to continue. And when I was, your smile was beatific, radiant to my eyes. You’d just saved my life, and I didn’t want to tear my eyes away.
You took the decision from me. You turned and began walking again, this time on a path that slanted slightly upward. I watched you go for just a moment, and then once again I followed you into the darkness.
We spotted dozens of other traps as we progressed, avoiding each with ease. They were not well hidden, seeming to be laid more as an annoyance than as to be any genuine threat. And yet we took no chances. We treated each one as potentially lethal, until finally we had crossed nearly the entirety of the expansive room.
It had taken hours to traverse, as sometimes we needed to double back on ourselves to avoid a particularly complex system of wires, switches, and pitfalls. So it was with relief when the opposite wall finally came into view in the glow of our lanterns, the exit from this place a gaping black maw.
You stepped through the doorway first, light of foot and agile as always. I was never so nimble on my feet, and I couldn’t help but admire the beauty of your movements.
And then I was on the floor, convulsing, a terrible sharp pain crawling up my leg. There had been one final trap for the unwary, and I, like a fool, had let my guard down. The trap had reared up like a scorpion’s tale and stung me.
The floor leveled out and opened up into a cavernous space. We held our lanterns aloft, as high above our heads as we could manage, but even so there was not enough light to chase away the inky blackness. In the shadows around us we could hear things moving, things alive, things that scuttled. I felt a cold shiver crawl down my spine, and I saw a similar reaction on you.
We pressed forward.
This room was new. Not new in the sense of recently built, but new in the sense that I was sure no one else had been here before. The dust was thick on the floor, and we left footprints behind us. Stone columns passed us on either side as we walked, and still that sense of life persisted all around, unseen.
You slapped an arm across my chest suddenly and stopped me. I looked at you, quizzical, then my eyes caught sight of where your other hand was pointing.
The wire itself was old, flimsy. It looked ready to snap at the barest breath of air. We sidestepped it and continued on our way, more cautiously.
We set out again, following the same pathway we’d been on before. The floor beneath us continued to slope downward. The ceiling of the tunnel dropped low in places but never so much that we needed to stoop. We weren’t certain where we were headed. Such was the nature of traversing the darkness of these tunnels. The exact destination could almost never be known, which was why it was almost always safer to travel with a trusted companion.
We talked along the way, as we so often did, our lanterns lighting the way ahead just enough. You told me of your upbringing, something you’d never shared with me before. I shared with you the pain I’d gone through, the pain I was even now still experiencing. Friends we already were, but through that time in the dark, we bonded closer still.
The passage ahead came to a ‘T,’ and we were forced to make a decision. You seemed uncertain which way to go, and so it fell to me to guide us. I’d kept a rough map of the tunnels in my mind as we walked, and so I turned us to the right.
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.