Damik crouched low under a blast of steam, waving it away from his face, and peered through the misty tunnel. After a few moments, he reached around and gestured behind him, then scurried forwards. A moment later, Nabi followed him, shaking her head in annoyance.
â€œDamik, we're gonna get caught. This is way too dangerous.â€ She looked around nervously, rubbing her arms. The steam tunnels were dark and dank, and she could feel a shiver coming on - her clothing was old and ragged, discarded castoffs mixed with those textiles that her family had been able to scavenge and resize. Damik was wearing much the same, tighter since his last growth spurt. Both children were black-haired and grey-eyed, their skin the pale, almost luminescent of their people.
â€œNo, it's good. I found a nutrient conduit down here, and... here it is.â€ Damik waved again. â€œYou've got the buckets? It's still good, see?â€ He gestured through the mist, to where a tiny drip of grey liquid fell from a puncture in one of the dozens of pipes that ran the length of the tunnels. Nabi smiled despite herself, bringing the buckets forwards to fill.
Her foot brushed something in the heavy fog that blanketed the bottom of the tunnel, and she jumped to one side with a yelp, looking around. The tunnel was just as it had been before - heavy mist, probably from some old cooling system, pooling around up to her waist, making it impossible to see the ground, and the pipes crossing above and below the catwalks on which they walked. But now she was worried. She cautiously poked out her foot again, and felt something shift under its pressure. Something... squishy.
â€œToday would be nice.â€ Damik was glancing down the corridor, looking more worried than he would have liked to let on.
â€œDamik... I think there's a body here.â€ Nabi took another step away from it, just to be safe. Damik, turning towards her, raised his eyebrows and started over towards her.
â€œNo way! It's our lucky day, I guess!â€ He knelt down in the fog near where Nabi had been standing, groping around the floor cautiously. After a moment, he nodded and grinned, his figure half-obscured by the fog. â€œYou're right! Some guy. Big one, too.â€
â€œWe should go, before a patrol comes.â€
â€œNah, he's gemless. Like us.â€ Damik tapped his bare forehead, surfacing from the fog, then dove back into it to examine the corpse. â€œMust've been some exile, though. Not even a scar. Wonder what did the poor guy in?â€
â€œDamik! Leave him!â€
â€œNot yet.â€ Damik scrabbled around in the fog, and rose, with some effort, holding a heavy pair of gloves with long claws attached to them. â€œWould you look at this? Some sort of weapon, I think.â€ He tapped the metal with one finger. â€œIt's like... brass, I think. Old brass.â€ He looked over at Nabi. â€œHey, do you think these would be worth something? Never seen anything quite like AAAHHH!!â€ His sudden scream sent his companion running forwards, as the figure lying in the tunnel rose like a panther, grabbing out at the boy in a single motion as he stood.
â€œIT'S A DEADDER! IT'S GOT ME HELP NABI HELP ME!!â€ Damik screamed and flailed wildly, swinging the heavy metal claws like a flail. The stranger grabbed them without any effort, pulling them from his hands. Nabi grabbed for something to use as a weapon, but came up short. Torn between wanting to run and not wanting to leave Damik, she pulled out her belt knife and waved it, trembling, at the man holding her friend. â€œL...let him go!â€
The man looked down at her, and she felt her arms go numb with fear as he took a single step forwards. He glanced around the poorly lit tunnel, then upwards through the mess of conduits and pipes, and he frowned. Damik fell silent in his grip, shivering with fear, and Nabi swallowed convulsively. Finally, after several moments, the man spoke.
â€œWhere is this?â€ Nabi winced for a moment; the words did not match the sounds he was making. Somehow she understood what he said exactly, even though his voice made no sound that she had ever heard, or even imagined. She shivered again, feeling something deeply wrong, but looked at Damik and gathered her courage.
â€œUm... you're in the steam tunnels. In the Reaches. Sir.â€ She swallowed. â€œPlease put my friend down. He didn't mean to take anything, he thought you was dead, we both did...â€
For a moment, the man watched her dispassionately, then he turned and looked at Damik, who gave him a terrified rictus of a smile. The man's face changed, a strange expression forming on it. Gently, he lowered the boy until he was sitting in the fog. â€œThis is Autochthon's realm?â€
Damik started to cautiously back away. â€œSure. Of course. What else would it be?â€
â€œWhat else indeed.â€ The man rubbed his forehead, wincing. â€œI can't hear her. I can't...â€ He broke off, one hand on his head.
Nabi and Damik glanced at her each. Finally, Nabi spoke. â€œYou okay, mister?â€
â€œPerhaps. I'd forgotten...â€ The man shook his head. â€œI'm sorry I startled you. I thought I was under attack.â€
â€œYou shouldn't sleep out in the tunnels, mister.â€ Nabi looked solemn. â€œIt's really dangerous.â€
â€œI fell.â€ The man glanced upwards. â€œI was not... entirely prepared. I thought I was.â€ He shook his head again. â€œCan you show me to your home? I can trade goods...â€
For a moment, Nabi and Damik looked at each other. They didn't actually know anything about the stranger, but he had put the boy down, and he had some sort of magic - it could be dangerous, but it might be valuable. And these were dangerous tunnels... Nabi came to a decision. â€œSure, mister. I'll show you the way.â€ She grinned. â€œI'm Nabi.â€
Damik grabbed the bucket he had dropped, running to the pipe. â€œJust let us fill the buckets. I'm Damik.â€
The man nodded as Damik widened the small hole he'd made in the pipe before and filled up the two buckets, passing one to Nabi. He followed the two children, ducking under some pipes. â€œI am Draniel, children. It's a pleasure to meet such compassionate people. I'm sure that you'll be of great help to me.â€
And as he followed, glancing around, the Paladin of Adorjan mused that even if he could not hear her voice within him, as she had warned, his Grandmother was surely watching over him, to have provided such able guides to this realm. He would bide his time, and learn what he could. And when the time was right, he would find his way to Autochthon's core, where the Maker slept.
And then the Great Betrayer would die.