Seagulls squawk and soar over the city’s slumside docks. Under new management, boards have been removed from storefront windows, replaced with trade goods displayed behind glass. Shiny trinkets, silk, and spices instead of empty bottles, drugs, and darker vices.
Clean money flows into what the band called Lute now controls.
At the edge of this district, a ship-length inland from the choppy water, a dark building sits. Built with salvaged titan granite, it is scaled for men, not giants. Shiny black pillars guard the entrance, a veneer of obsidian elegance.
Solaris, the sea witch, licks salt from her lips and runs her hand over the volcanic glass covering the stone columns. She helped remove crusaders that had claimed this place for their overgod of tyranny and death, but that isn’t what causes her goosebumps.
“There’s a way to another world underneath this Obsidian shrine.” She claps her hands. “Time to dust off some lost mysteries. The Undersea awaits our exploration.”
Four are gathered with her. Jacob, the martial artist, and Messoack, the magician, know the sea witch well. The other two are new. Savage and handsome, Belazar is a warrior Solaris finds reasons to grip and pat. Sylyca, the dreamy elvish druidess, Solaris struggles to respect.
“This may be my first time leading an adventuring party, but I promise to use you wisely.” Solaris smiles and wiggles her fingers. “I’m excited. I hope you’re excited.”
Jacob fondles the hilt of his looted shortsword and gives her a thumb up. Messoack crosses his arms and yawns.
Solaris points through the pillars into the shadowed room beyond. “How about you two ex-Verdants? It’s going to be dark and damp down there.”
Belazar grunts and shifts his greatsword across his bare shoulders. Large muscles flex, but his face stays slack, almost sleepy.
Arching her back like a street walker, Solaris flutters her eyelashes and pouts, but the orcelf warrior’s face doesn’t wake up.
His druidess companion fusses with some moss hanging from her waist pouch and mumbles something.
“Well, elf?” says Solaris.
Sylyca hiccups and covers her mouth. “Oh, sorry. I’ve never gone spelunking before. Will there be glowing fungus?”
Solaris frowns. “It’s an underground labyrinth built by titans more than a thousand years ago. There are zombies, ghouls, giant spiders, and I’m sure more monsters lurking. Glowing fungus there is not.”
“How do you know?” Messoack traces glyphs chiseled into the pillars. “We’ve barely explored what’s under these docks.” He waves his arms around and smiles. “According to your pet researcher, this labyrinth is a proper part of the Undersea.” His skin dims from blue-gray to a dark violet. “Which means there is no end to the abyss of it, and we may see all manner of things from glowing mushrooms to a serenus demoness.”
Solaris wags her finger. “Don’t talk about our dark djinn of dreams.” She smirks. “We don’t want to scare the new recruits.”
“Wh-what demoness?” says Sylyca. “What djinn?”
Solaris sighs. “Just a vision we had when we sacked this shrine, calling us below to free her and learn great mysteries long buried.” She shrugs. “But, we got distracted by the black ships and the vampire ball, and the dream’s drive faded.”
The druidess swirls her hands and sparkles of green light dance from her palms. “Wild dreams are a comfort for me. Please share this… vision.”
Solaris paces. “A voice like hissing squeezed out of an empty wineskin. Words of the Madness tongue contorting my mind into something that could understand. She shimmers into being at the edge of my mind’s eye. Wings coming off her head instead of ears, covered with pulsing veins of red. Her face like an animal’s skull, missing a nose, just a hole. Two arms become four at the elbows, each with five fingers.” She chuckles. “But the fingers curl about like the tentacles of an octopus.”
Sylyca shakes her head. “A nightmare.”
“Oh, but I haven’t gotten below her torso.” Solaris purrs. “She gets really interesting down there.”
The druidess fingers her moss. “Can I stay in the sunlight and help Lute another way?”
Messoack grips her slender shoulder. “And who would replace your healing magic?” He rattles his belt of sparkling vials. “Potions are expensive, but you’re cheap as a house plant.” He spits in his hand and holds it up to the sun. “Water, light, and the love of a tribe… or a band. Isn’t that all you need to thrive?”
“Love?” Solaris snorts. “You should kiss our toes for accepting you into Lute. The remnants of your ex-crusade are being hounded throughout this city. Who else but us dares to defy the Scarlets? Bards already sing about their army of berserkers and rusties slaughtering your menagerie horde.”
Sylyca sniffles. “It was horrible.”
“I imagine so, and while your fellow Verdant casters wept at the cruel deaths of your conditioned beasts, the Scarlet casters summoned a fire storm that swept you aside. Only your demigod-possessed rangers put up a good fight, but they were islands facing tsunamis.”
Sylyca cocks her head. “Death flowed out and in as life. My mystic breath kept Belazar and I alive.”
Solaris taps the elf’s green-tinted nose. “Be useful to us, and you can stay on our raft while holy war drowns the rest of the world.” She wiggles her webbed toes. “Of course, if you can’t handle water, exploring the Undersea may not be better than facing the Scarlet Crusade’s fire.”
Jacob cartwheels between the pillars of the former shrine. “Don’t worry, little elf. They’re being dramatic. We’ve gone down a bunch of times.” He holds up a set of six keys. “And now we can go a little further.”
Sylyca gulps. “But, what about the Undersea nightmare lady with tentacles for fingers?”
“I don’t think.” Solaris shoves her into the building after Jacob. “She’s interested in you.”
The druidess stumbles and falls to her knees. Solaris chuckles, and Belazar hugs the sea witch from behind.
His thick arms squeeze. Bones strain and joints crack. She opens her mouth but can’t manage more than a wheeze.
Messoack casts and says in her head, “I think he wants you to apologize.”
Solaris blinks as the magician’s magic takes hold to connect their minds, and she says with thoughts, “How can I apologize, if I can’t breathe?”
“She is sorry, Belazar.” The magician taps his own forehead. “I can hear her thinking, and Solaris is embarrassed.” He smirks. “Jealousy drives her sour behavior. She wishes you would embrace her in… another way.”
Solaris shudders, and the savage orcelf releases her. Gasping, she collapses to the floor.
“Are you okay?” Sylyca spins her hands about and sparkling verdant magic heals Solaris’s aching ribs.
Hiding her face, the sea witch licks fresh salt from her lips.
Belazar, warrior—rugged former Verdant crusader
Jacob, martial artist—tumbling scout with mystic fists
Messoack, magician—loyal explorer of madness
Solaris, sea witch—whimsical lover of the grotesque
Sylyca, druidess—elvish caster of dreams and life