Cold looked up at his fellow exalts as the god dismissed them. "There were mineral rights mentioned." He started. "Maybe there is an elemental or two that knows something about that and if it's valuable?" he offered.
Warden nodded at Cold's suggestion. "A good idea. I'm sure we can find a few earth elementals that know more."
"Maybe our guides could weigh in on that?" Cold prompted, unable to ask them himself since he wasn't able to speak their tongue.
The Zenith nodded again and approached their guides. "It seems we will be in your care." Warden greeted them, slightly inclining his head. "Do you know anyone that might know the earth and minerals around this freehold?"
Cold looks over towards Rock. Seeing that Warden was dealing with the guides, he spoke to the young Dragon-Blooded monk guarding the ancestor ghost. "Rock, It might be a good idea for you to take Lo-Biven back to his Crypt? I would offer to do it in your stead, but we've been down here for quite a while already and people might be starting to notice their Vice-Archimandrite isn't around. They might be getting suspicious as to what is going on. Not to mention that you surely have other duties you have to attend to? We'll make sure to inform you about our findings, of course."
Rock nodded. "Good idea - I know just what to do with this one." He jerked the mystical essence-infused chains connected to Lo-Biven's shackles and started dragging him down the ramp and back in the direction of the tunnel they had came through, laying bare the Immaculate Exorcist's prejudice against the undead. "You're going back to your prison, but I'm not going to be soft on you like your old pal Honto. If you thought your cozy cell was unfair, you'll be begging me to dispatch your soul to the underworld after a week of what I have in store for you."
Bryoph - the hulking moss-covered stone creature, and Pinales, the knee-high sapling elemental perched on his shoulder, both glanced at each other in response to the question Warden had asked the moment doors of Tramezia's throne room were closed behind them. Bryoph and Pinales chattered between themselves in a language none of the Exalts could comprehend. Finally, Bryoph turned back to Warden and spoke slowly and deliberately in Old Realm: "We take you to Rhomb. He is the Lodestool. He answers your questions."
Bryoph began trudging down the ramps that criss-crossed the periphery of the cavern, leading the three remaining exalts on a winding route from the top of Tramezia's monumental root-wood edifice all the way down to its base, which extended multiple stories into the ground below the level of the bazaar in the center of the grotto, deep into the earth. "We cross through to the other side," said the earth elemental, as Pinales jumped to a small window to speak to a dimwitted-looking elemental manning a guard-room next to a long, smooth horizontal section of the hardwood wall, who threw a heavy switch with a loud thudding sound. The stone chips and dirt littering the ground began to skitter and rumble as a crack opened in the wall. A huge section began to retract, with the motive power behind the motion of the massive ligneous gate remaining a mystery. After a few moments, a section that would fit five fully laden wagons side by side had opened up. Unlike the grotto, which was moderately well-lit by the fluorescent lichen that grew across most surfaces, the far side was dark and ominous.
Pinales re-emerged from inside the guard-room carrying what looked four bindles the length of his body, and with some exertion dumped them on the ground. The sack that dangled from the end of each carved hardwood rod appeared to be some sort of red veiny fungus. Bryoph picked up one, and delivered a solid punch to the bulbous mass, which slowly began to emit a deep red glow at the site of his blow, passing in slow waves across its surface that radiated a soft carmine on the walls around them, and waited for the three Exalts to follow suit.
Compared to the relatively tranquil grotto, the atmosphere of the cavern on the other side of Tramezia's hardwood monolith was buzzing with activity. Work-gangs of elementals of all sizes and shapes, outfitted in utility garments and wearing oil-wick lamps strapped to their heads, marched in single file along the tunnels, singing work songs while pushing wheelbarrows loaded with pickaxes and shovels. Their voices were strangely sonorous and carried down the length of the main artery of the tunnel. It was approximately 25 feet wide, but contained a narrow branch that lead to who-knows-where every fifty or so feet. The walls was not the moss-covered stone of the broad, relatively airy grotto, but appeared to be the same heavy root-wood that Tramezia used to form the huge barricade that shielded the main freehold from the subterranean depths beyond - Scales and Cold also recognized it as the same type of wood that they had run into when they had dug into the field in the middle of the night. The walls seemed to thrum with strange energy.
After they had walked perhaps a half-mile, the tunnel opened up into some sort of work-camp which contained permanent lighting similar to the freehold. Hundreds of elementals could be seen milling around: lunching at a canteen, recreating at various leisure games, or sleeping against piles of gravel. A few foreman-types were conferring in front of what looked to be some sort of office, going over a massive map. "This way" say Bryoph, leading them towards a desolate area of the work camp, where there was a large, lone thatched hut off the side of a massive triangular mound of crushed rock that looked like it had been piled by a large conveyor system. Strange pools of liquid were contained in pools beyond the hut, and fumes rose from them. "That the Lodestool's lair. He is the one you speak to about minerals."
Neither Bryoph nor Pinales made any move get nearer to the hut themselves, and from their body language, they seemed to have some sort of distaste - or fear - that disinclined them from approaching any nearer. They expected the Exalts to proceed on their own.
Cold couldn't understand a word of what the elementals were saying and simply followed along, unable to keep the wonder and awe off his face as he was led through the city of elementals. magic was simply everywhere, making the design of this city an absolute marvel for somebody as unfamiliar with the occult as Cold was. The Lunar gave a curious look towards their guides as they kept a distance away from the hut that housed the elemental they needed to speak to, and tried his best to figure out why they wouldn't want to approach more. Were those shivers of fear on their rocky or leafy exteriors? Was that even a thing for them? He thought back to the reaction the elementals had welcomed them with when they first entered their city, trying to figure out the body language of their two guides.
The Lodestool's personal corner of the work-camp seemed to be shunned by the rest of elemental society - and perhaps for good reason. Looking closer at the large hut and the strange pools and apparatuses nearby, it strongly reminded Cold of the old stories about solitary witches living in the woods, kidnapping livestock and children and conducting strange experiments on them. Sniffing the air, Cold detected a concoction of strange, caustic smells emanating from the direction of the hut - and he was certain that none of them were to be found in nature. Earlier, Scales had translated for him that they were going to see something or someone called the Lodestool - and whoever they were, they were clearly shunned by mainstream elemental society, yet important or influential enough to warrant their own special accommodations. From the attitudes of the two elementals escorting them, it was evident that whatever went on in the Lodestool's corner of the underground world, they found it to be extremely distasteful, even possibly taboo.
Cold grimaced as he realized the situation he was in. of course it had to be one of those types. The ones that couldn't leave well enough alone and dabbled in things one shouldn't be dabbling. Inviting all sorts of calamity and causing all sorts of trouble in their mad rushes for power. In his short time as a king he had made a few examples out off some of them. Or sacrifices to appease the local gods after those meddlers inevitably messed things up.
"The Lodestool is a witch," Cold hissed under his breath at Warden and Scales. "Best be on your guard lest it tries something."
Warden let out a quick hum as he considered Cold's words. "Hmm, I doubt we're in any danger, especially since we're their ruler's guests. But of course, it never hurts to be wary." With a shrug, he stepped towards the Lodestool's lair. "Not like we will turn around after coming all this way, now will we?"
Scales' eyes noticeably gleamed with the reveal of another sorcerer. An elemental sorcerer? Very interesting...but why did Cold say it in that way? Bad experience with magic in the past, maybe...
"No, but like you said, we better be wary - there must be a reason why all the elementals are avoiding this Lodestool like the plague." Cold answered, waiting for Warden or Scales to go first. They knew the language after all.
Scales nodded and walks over to the hut.
The three Exalts pushed aside the creaky door into the Lodestool's laboratory. The atmosphere was dimly lit by lantern-like devices suspended from the ceiling, where small candles underneath glass jars heated their contents and caused the strangely shifting fluids within to glow orange. Looking around, they saw the walls were ringed with shelves containing all sorts of specimens: bins full of chunks of glittering rocks, lumps of wood with fungal growths sprouting out of them, and liquid vats containing all sorts of objects in various states of dissolution or preservation, and it was difficult to tell if whatever contained within was dead or was never alive to begin.
Rhomb the Lodestool turned at the sound of the creaking door. He/She/It? was tall and lanky, and formed in shape mimicking that of the human body, and was covered in what looked to be light brown vines tightly wound around an mineral core, with various crystals protruding in odd spikes out from underneath. The elemental's face was flat and nearly featureless except for two small, solid-white eyes. The top of Rhomb's head expanded outwards into the cap of a massive, red-spotted mushroom. It looked almost like a caricature of the ever-present wide-brimmed circular hats worn by farmers across creation and known by dozens of names. It would have almost seemed comical, except for the tangle of clear tubes hanging from a swivel on the ceiling, each one plugged into a different part of the Lodestool's mushroom head with needles, which siphoned off strange thick substances to parts uncertain.
"Visitors..." said the Lodestool in Old Realm, in a strangely clear and optimistic disembodied voice that seemed to come from the Elemental's face, though no mouth moved to produce it. "From the upworld.... It's been so long.... Have you come to seek my wisdom?"
Scales stops and blinks, eyeing the tubing extending from the Lodestool's head. Unexpected. "We were told that you are the person to talk to about minerals around the freehold. You are a sorcerer of some type, are you not?"
"I am an alchemist," replied the Lodestool, in the same oddly unpitched voice that seemed to completely lack any emotion or inflection. "I study all things in creation to distill; purify; isolate; identify the base elements that form them, so that they may be recombined in more perfect ways." Rhomb leaned towards Scales slowly. "You have an unusual composition for a human. You smell like bone salt." The tone of voice was pure curiosity.
"My work often deals with the physical remains of living creatures," Scales responded. "I have not encountered many alchemists before, though your work sounds fascinating." If Scales had a tail at this moment, it would be lashing back and forth at the thought of the secrets and methodologies that the Lodestool knows.
"I have been unable to detect an alchemical difference between the bodies of bony animals while they are alive and after they are dead," the Lodestool stated in the same characteristic ethereal tone of voice. "Once I experimented to determine the properties of the soul by weighing in the moments before and after expiration. The results were inconclusive." Rhomb walked over to tap on a particular jar on a shelf, and repositioned a needle in his mushroom scalp. "I found the topic to be less exciting than anticipated, and did not progress any further."
Cold couldn't keep the shock off his face when they entered the room. The many distilling apparatuses, he could deal with. The strange and odd specimens littering the things suspended in liquid for.. preservation? Digestion? That was disgusting, but he'd seen worse on the battlefield, so he could keep himself calm.
But the tangle of tubes and needles shoved into the mushroom elemental's head, with the strange ichors siphoned out and whisked off to the gods only knew where? Now that was disturbing. The hell were they for? Cold thought. He hoped it might be some kind of sickness being treated, perhaps having to drain fluids that would otherwise destabilize their body. He had seen a shaman do that one of his tribe-mates when he was young. But knowing that this was a witch who didn't like they were on death's doorstep, that probably was an idle hope.
Had the witch somehow found out how to siphon off it's own thoughts or something? Cold couldn't stop his gaze from following the tubing, trying to see where the fluids would end up.
Warden looked around in the alchemist elemental's laboratory with some interest, though he lacked the knowledge to make much sense of it all. Still, he saw nothing wrong with the idea of alchemy and nodded politely in greeting at the elemental. "An interesting goal, to study creation and all things within it. I take it you don't get many visitors then? Or just not many from the surface?"
"Oh no, not in the least," replied the Lodestool in its gossamer-tinged voice. "This is the first time I've had visitors from the surface in a hundred and seventy-three years. Or at least ones who came voluntarily. Ha Ha. That was a joke. Tell me, though, what you want to know about minerals? I have found them to be far more amenable to my methods of testing than biological subjects. "
Warden couldn't help but take a liking to this eccentric elemental and it's sense of humour, letting out a quick chuckle at its joke. "We are trying to broker a deal between this 'freehold' and Lushfield up above. So we were wondering what valuable or rare minerals can be found here? Or failing that anything that makes for good fertilizer?"
"Oh..." said the Lodestool, a tinge of disappointment in its previously unemotional ethereal voice. "Yes, of course, that's what you surface-humans want. It's what you always want." Rhomb's tone was turning to the irate. "Value. Wealth. Silver. Gold. Jade. Efficient Transmutation. Fuel for your industries. You refuse to see the beauty inherent in knowledge of schist and basalt and porphyry because it cannot be readily converted to your jingling metal coins. No, everything must have an immediate material purpose, or it is declared useless. It is despicable. I will not again let my life's work be turned to other's greed."
Sensing Rhomb's disposition darkening, Scales tries to reason with them based upon his own experiences. "As one scholar to another, I know your plight; too few people appreciate knowledge for its own sake, obsessed with bending it for their own gain. Alas, it is often that they are the ones with the means to fund quests for knowledge. Perhaps...if we could help you with your research in some capacity, would you be willing to consider our questions?"
Nearly instantly, the Lodestool's disposition changed from its prior righteous indignation back to the serenity it has earlier displayed, this time even with a hint of excitement. "Yes, yes, I see - you are a knowledge seeker too. There is... something you can do to help me with my research, yes, yes." Rhomb began seeking something stashed away in one of the multitude of a chest of drawers, rummaging through an assortment of glassware, notebooks, and discarded samples. "This system of tunnels, there is nothing like it in creation. The access to different geomantic interfaces present opportunities to study geologic deposits in ways our forbearers would only dream about. Tramezia... suffers my presence, because certain of my methodologies have resulted in useful applied techniques, alchemical agents to strengthen and invigorate the flow of energies through his xylematic plexal manifold. But the common elemental is simple and bound by tradition. They fear what they do not understand, and they do not realize that sometimes... sacrifices are necessary for the advancement of knowledge."
Rhomb seemed to find what they were looking for, and pulled out what looked to be an dust-covered folded sheet of parchment. Sweeping aside various specimens on a nearby rickety workbench, they unfolded the thin paper, which expanded to cover the entire table. It seemed to be some sort of diagram or map of the massive tunnel network they were in, except that every square inch of blank space seemed to be covered in various miniscule symbols, equations, or arrows. "More than a century ago, I began taking extensive measurements of the geomantic energy pressures within the bedrock - thousands of core samples painstakingly drilled out over the years, in an effort to find the correlations necessary to justify my underlying theory of igneous metamorphological development. The Rhizome provided me with the necessary labor force to perform the work, from among his subjects."
"Here," the Lodestool indicated, at a particular inscrutable section - "The seam running across this strata, there was an unexplainable incongruity, a discordance for which further investigation was needed to rectify the predictions and perfect the model. I critically needed a core sample of the deposit, so it was agreed to mount an excursion. They breached into the condensation hollow, as expected, but there was some calamity which even to this day they cannot adequately elucidate. None of the expeditionaries returned, and their comrades and brood-companions blamed me for the outcome. Superstition prevailed over reason, they bricked up the shaft, and they demanded Tramezia expel me from his domain, directing all sorts of slanders at me. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, but creatures of wood and stone are by their nature incurious, and they tend to hold grudges far beyond the point where it is of any use, and ever since then, I have been forced to conduct my work without any assistance. I regret to say that my output has suffered for it, considerably."
"Here, take this" said the Lodestool, reaching under the workbench and shoving aside a pile of broken glass jars to pull out out a bulky metal contraption with a handle and a crank and various flexible tubes at one end, and an assortment of rotary drill bits at the other, lifting it with substantial effort and plopping it down on the table in the center of the room with a thud. Rhomb reached above to the tangled nest of wires that was plugged into its mushroom scalp, and located and unscrewed a gasketed flask of an ominous-looking substance, tapping once or twice on the glass to ensure it's suitability before plugging it into a port on the drill contraption. The Lodestool firmly rotating the vial around with an audible click, which caused whatever was inside to dramatically flow into the gadget. Slowly, the invention began to faintly glow a pale blue around what looked like exhaust vents. "Good, my surveyor still works. Take this to the seam, and get me my core sample." Rhomb circled the location on the map with a piece of dark chalk, and folded it up and handed it to Scales. Return successfully, and I will consider the bargain complete, and you will receive the knowledge you seek.
Cold had no idea what was being said, but when the elemental pulled out a map, some kind of metal contraption whose function eluded him and then circled a spot on the map and handed it over towards Scales. He knew they had been drafted to do something for the elemental before it would give up it's secrets. "So, what is it asking us to do?" There was a bit of uncertainty in the young Exalt's voice. The idea of doing something for a witch didn't sit quite right with him.
"They want us to go investigate a section of the root tunnels and collect a rock sample with this machine; once we return, they'll help us with our questions. None of their previous assistants came back, but I am sure we will be able to handle any trouble." Scales pauses to look closer at the map Rhomb gave to him. "Hmm, based on the scale of this map, it's quite a long journey; at least a few days on foot. Although, it does seem that there's some sort of transportation throughout the tunnels."
"A few days?," said Warden.That would be quite troublesome, at least unless we give the others some advanced notice. Let's hope this transportation is fast."
"Not to mention that if we're gone for a few day's people no doubt will be starting to wonder what we are getting up to," added Cold. "Also, transportation? Is there a waterway or something? I don't think I've seen any animals down here."
"I'm...not sure," pondered Scales. Walking back to the entrance of the hut, the Lunar looks out, finding what they all missed the first time. On the far side of the camp, the cavern came to an end, with multiple tunnels branching out. Heading over to take a closer look, Scales sees the carts. Carved into the flat floor of the tunnels were what seemed like recessed guide lines; long trains of metal carts were attached to each other, with wheels on their bottom surfaces fitting into the depressions. The lead and rear carts had some sort of pole attached to them. The vast trains came and went, controlled by elementals manipulating the poles.
I haven't seen that before. Perhaps one of the workers can tell me how they work?
Scales sought out an elemental who didn't appear to be too busy. Finding one who looked like a stack of boulders, he approaches. He asked about the cart trains, and the elemental responded in a voice like grinding stone; "Carts? Poles have water. Roots want water. Roots push cart. Simple." With that said, they returned to their work.
Is that really all it takes?
Returning to the group, Scales watched a few of the trains arrive and leave. They're right. The roots animate and respond to stimulus, presumably due to the massive amount of essence flowing through them. So by lowering an open container of water, the walls of the depressions contract, attracted to the water, pushing the carts forward. Fascinating engineering; fast as well, from the look of it.
Warden, now carrying both his massive sword and the drill, raised an eyebrow at the explanation. "Fascinating what these elementals have done down here. And I bet nobody on the surface has the slightest clue. I doubt even Honto knows or cares much about the civilization under his feet."
Cold was following along Warden and Scales. Eyes wide as he looked at the cart system in motion. "I wonder if I could entice a few of them to leave this place after I retake my throne." He absentmindedly said. The harsh winds and blizzards had always been a massive problem for any long term settlement, concentrate to many people in one place and food issues cropped up due to lack of agriculture. Not to mention that the best way to protect oneself against a blizzard or harsh weather was simply to not be there in the first place. But if one went underground and lived in vast open caves like these. That would solve so many issues at once. It would introduce some others, but they could adapt, he could make sure of that. "It's impressive indeed."
"Shall we gather the others before we head out, or do you suppose we are enough?," proposed Scales. I do not imagine much we are likely to find could stand against the three of us." Leaving Cold and Warden to decide, he starts plotting their route on the map the Lodestool had given him, and pulling out his navigation tools from his pack.
"I don't think Cub or Khi would bring much to the table for navigating the tunnels." Cold stated. And like you said, I doubt there is anything the three of us can't handle living. Maybe Na-mai could be of use though...."
"Let's see," muttered Scales. It seems that we can follow this tunnel for a few miles before it splits, then we want to take the left turning, which corkscrews back around to the southeast...." His voice trailed off as he marks the path on a different sheet. "Huh, it looks a bit like you, Cold. Not as you are now, but...." The path the Full-Moon Caste traced out indeed looked the silhouette of a man with a muzzled face.
"Anyways, we'll still have to make the last mile or two of the journey on foot, since none of the cart lines go directly to the location." Scales looked for their escorts. "Bryoph, is there a way for us to take command of one of those trains? Or are there any not in use that we could use? The Lodestool has tasked us with getting a sample from deeper in, in exchange for their help."
The two elementals tasked to escort the outsiders look nervously at each other - performing a service that involved the dreaded Lodestool certainly wasn't was they signed up for, and from what Scales had heard from the alchemist about his earlier experiments, he couldn't exactly blame the elementals for their hesitance to participate in any of Rhomb's schemes. Nevertheless though, they had been tasked by Tramezia to see that no harm came to them and that they be permitted to travel freely within the extent of his realm - including the tunnels. The God's word was law in this domain, and he commanded respect and fear in equal measure. In the moments of hesitance, a blast of a steam-whistle sounded, and the hundreds of off-duty elementals at the work camp started moving to don their hardhats and collect their pickaxes and shovels.
It was Pinales, the small sapling elemental who was clearly more chatty of the two, who finally spoke up: "Listen, I'm not saying my brother-in-law's a foreman on the next shift, but I'm not saying he ain't. I don't know what you're planning, and I'm not sure I want to know, but I'll see what I can do, 'cause you seems like important folks who won't forget a favor." He hopped off of Bryoph's shoulder and scurried off in the distance, his slender figure almost instantly lost in the scrum of burly rock and wood elementals preparing for their labor. A few minutes later, he returned carrying an jagged quartz crystal. "I told you I'm connected," he bragged. "Train 41 is ours for the day."
Such an ingenious people, these elementals. Warden couldn't help but admire them and how well-run their little society seemed to be. No matter how much their ruler's arrogance had irked him, he had to admit the god was doing well for them. He lightly bowed his head at their elemental guide. "Thank you very much. We will hopefully not need it for that long, but we'll see."
Cold assumed this meant they were going to be going into a cart, but he was unable to parse what the elementals were saying in their language - Old Realm, according to the others. But progress was seemingly made. He simply gave the elementals a friendly smile and mimicked Warden's bow.
"Thank you," said Scales. "Would you mind leading us to 41, and are either of you trained in operating these?"
"Hey, hey, Keep your mouth shut about that sort of thing!" Pinales looked around frantically to see if any elementals nearby had overheard. "I'll steal a train for you, no sweat, but if either of us so much as get spotted with a dowsing rod in our hands, we're finished. No way, that's too hot, even for a resourceful shrub like me. I heard the last elemental that got caught scabbing on the Dowser's Union got fed into a rock-crusher face first." A wicked grin came across his face. "Their contract don't say nothing about no Humans sculling the trains though."
"That's number 41," added Bryoph in his ponderous voice, pointing off in the distance to the furthest carriage in the yard. It was noticeably grimier and more rust-covered than the others that were departing one by one, loaded full of elementals departing into the depths of the tunnels at the start of their shifts. The final elemental to board every loaded root-train retrieved one of the long dowsing rods that Scales had seen earlier from what looked like a water-filled barrel near the tunnel entrance, and was wearing a noticeably gaudy hat that presumably signified their status as a card-carrying member of the Dowser's Union. Not before too long, the final train departed, leaving only Number 41 remaining in the noticeably quieter and emptier work camp. A few of the dowsing rods still remained in the barrel. "If we leave now, we can sneak out before the next shift returns," Bryoph noted.
"Right, let's get going." Scales turns to Cold and Warden. "We're going to be taking that cart to the place. You get on, and I'll grab the control pole."
While the idea of working for a witch didn't really sit right with him. Cold couldn't help but feel excited at the idea of racing down the tunnels in that strange machine, no matter how rusty or grimy it looked. So as soon as Scales told them to get in the cart he eagerly got on. The thought that Cub could disapprove of getting her loaned clothes back covered in grime from sitting in the cart or digging in tunnels not even crossing his mind. "Lets see how fast this thing can go, and what kinda trouble we can get ourselves in" Cold said in High Realm. His words might be incomprehensible to the two elementals, but from his excited tone of voice and eager body language, it would have been pretty easy for them to figure out he was eager for adventure.
Warden let out a chuckle at Cold's eagerness and climbed in behind him, setting the big drill down on the floor where it shouldn't slide around too much. "Well then, let's be off."
Casually walking as to not draw attention, Scales grabbed one of the poles and examined it on his way to the train. Now that he was looking closer at both pieces, he saw that the pole was hinged at the bottom and had a few notches spaced around the midpoint of the length. Presumably the hinge was to keep the water contained within upright, even if the pole was at an angle, and the notches were where it attached to the cart. "Everyone in? Let's see how this works." Positioning the pole as he saw earlier, Scales slowly lowered the tip down.
Scales felt surprisingly at-ease when he positioned the dowsing rod atop the cradle in the console at the head of Train 41 while the others all boarded, including Bryoph and Pinales. In a way, it strongly reminded him of wielding the tiller of a sailboat, except in the reverse direction. He tested by swinging it from side to side. From a distance, the dowsing rod just seemed like an odd wooden pole with strange bulges and bends, but up close, the lunar was able to discern a number of small ingenious-seeming carved wooden features at the position where his hands embraced, whose exact purpose in controlling the vehicles he could only guess at. The most prominent of them looked, if anything, like the valves of a musical instrument, and there were three of them.
Putting his mind to the task, he experimented with the controls. Holding down one of the valves, he observed a drop of water accumulate at the bottom of the device with agonizing slowness, before it eventually fell to the tunnel floor with no perceptible result. Interesting - the valves must affect the internal fluidics of the water reservoir that made up the bottom half of the device. He depressed the next of the valves, which resulted in the formation of another drop, but this time about twice as fast as the previous time. He then held down both the first and second valve together, and the water drops fell at an even faster rater - three times as fast as the first. Very interesting - the rate at which the water was fed to the roots must serve to control the speed of the vessel, and by using different combinations of valves, fine control of the time between the drops of water could be achieved. The third valve must increase the speed even more than the first two.
After a few more drops had fallen to the ground, suddenly the train lightly bucked forward, only to shudder with a metallic grinding sound. "Hey Bozo, if you want to go anywhere, you gotta unlock the brakes!" said Pinales with a devilish smile as he waggled the small jagged quartz crystal attached to a metal base he had retrieved earlier. He knew this would happen, but apparently wanted to let Scales figure out how to use the control system without risking him plowing the vehicle into a wall. The small sapling elemental jammed the crystal into a slot near the bottom of the console - shoulder height for him, but barely at Scales' knee. He twisted it and then pulled on the ring attached to its base, causing a section to disengage, revealing a bar that looked like it was meant to be pressed by the pilot's foot. "Step on that, and it'll help stop the thing once you've got it going."
Cold looked into the tunnels and frowned at the looming darkness. Even with his enhanced vision, he was having a little difficulty seeing the smaller nooks and crannies. And if they were going to drive at a high speed, which he really really really hoped they would. They probably should get some kind of light. The glowing fungus bulbs worked somewhat. but their light was a bit to diffuse for his liking. He looked down at the cart, frowning as there was no torch of any type provided. That would have been fairly unsafe in his opinion. Maybe that was why this cart wasn't being used? For safety?
"If we go too fast in the darkness we might crash, so lemme see if I can scrounge something together." Cold said, his eagerness at going fast dripping into his words. His idea was simple - the fungus gave off light, but mostly in directions they didn't really need the light. So if they could just focus it in some way. The Chosen of Luna grinned as he saw a metallic glint.
While Scales was experimenting with the dowsing rod, Cold (presumably following his animal nature) had managed to hone in on the shiniest metal object he could see - which just so happened to be the large silver-plated reflective emblem on the roof of the guildhall of the Dowser's Union, polished daily to a sheen. Deftly climbing to the roof, he managed to covertly lift it out of the frame that held it in place, before leaping down just as silently.
In just a few moments, he had managed to bend the sign into a crude funnel with his prodigious strength. Then, collecting together the fungal glow-rods that their elemental guides had procured for them into a bundle, he placed the sticks through the narrow end of the funnel, and violently crushed the thin metal end around them, tightly compacting the crumpled silvered alloy around the wood. The end result was that the collection of glowing bulbs were suspended in the middle of the lens he had created, casting a moderately focused glow of red light wherever he pointed the crude spotlight.
Cold was completely unaware of whose sign he had vandalized at the moment, and was certainly unaware that they were an influential guild who didn't mind shoving those who crossed them face first into a rock chipper. Honestly if he had known, he probably would've still done it anyway. A chosen of Luna herself wasn't going to let union regulations going to get in his way if he wanted something done. "Not the best work, but it should be something at least," the Casteless Lunar said as he clambered back in the train and shined down the tunnel with his newly made spotlight.
"Casual vandalism; now it's an adventure," remarked Scales slyly. With that, he started dripping the water down. Slowly at first, then faster and faster as they leave the cavern behind. Soon enough, they were hurtling through the tunnels at a fast clip, wind rushing past them and the path ahead a black void save for the cone of Cold's light. "Nice work with the light! So, Bryoph, Pinales, what do you two do when you're not watching over foreigners?"
Each drop of water that splashed on the root-wood floor was accompanied by a thirsty pulse as the surface of the essence-hungry roots rippled like a wave, converging at the location where the droplet struck the ground. The effect was to pull Train 41 the direction in which Scales maneuvered the tip of the dowsing rod, like a clipper ship being pulled along by a strong current, each individual thrum of the root-wood beneath them adding momentum to the carriage. The front axle of the cart was even hinged, to assist in the exotic vessel's maneuverability along one of the many well-worn grooves in the surface of the wide tunnel they traveled along. The surface below them was fairly smooth, but the passengers still felt every bump on the ground as they passed over it. For Scales, who was used to the roiling tides, this was a welcome reminder of his time spent on the waves, but for Warden and Cold, who had never been seafarers, this was a quite unsettling experience. Meanwhile, Bryoph and Pinales were holding on for dear life as Scales continued to cause the carriage to gather speed. "Root-Oiler, second class" gulped Pinales in response to Scales' question. "Claytender," stated Bryoph simply.
After they exited the work-camp and entered the main branch of the tunnel, the light dimmed substantially. The tunnel was wide enough to accompany at least four of the carts side by side. Cold did his best to keep the spotlight he had fashioned shining forward, in the direction Scales was traveling, but every bump caused the light to bounce unpredictably, and the Casteless Lunar was beginning to feel unsettled in his stomach, like he had eaten something funny. He had never traveled in anything that moved so fast on land.
Warden did not, for the most part, have much experience with traveling this fast. Oh sure, he had chartered passage on some merchant cogs to leave the influence of Prasad behind, but there was very little on the open sea to give one an impression of speed. It was very different now, with the tunnel's walls whizzing past them at a breakneck pace, his beard and hair fluttering in the wind. His grip tightened on the railing in front of him, the Solar evidently not at ease with this method of traveling.
Cold hung on as best as he could, one hand on the cart while the other one kept the light aimed forward as steady as he could. Which wasn't very - with how bumpy the ride was. His teeth rattled together. His hair fluttered in the wind, sometimes flapping across his face when Scales took a turn. His stomach was turning, a feeling he hadn't felt in ages. Not even White-as-Snow's horrible rotgut had been able to manage that! And yet he couldn't help but loudly laugh. The feeling of exhilaration drowning all those discomforts with ease. A wide grin on his face as he saw the other cart on their set of tracks. He was sure Scales would be able to keep this thing from crashing. "Anything you need help with?" He called out at Scales.
So long as Scales managed to keep the wheels of Train 41 within one of the parallel sets of grooves, navigation remained fairly straightforward. Every thirty seconds or so, they would see another cart whiz by, heading in the opposite direction, illuminated by the bioluminescent glow of the headlamps on the helmets of its occupants. Evidently, the pilots of the Dowser's Union didn't need a forward-projecting light; they had been trained to navigate by feel and dead reckoning, like navigators on the open sea or river pilots who knew their waterway better than the backs of their own hand. For a brief moment, Scales wished he had something like a ship's log he could drag behind them, so he could know their speed in knots - but the logistics of something like that would have to be figured out later. He needed to focus all his attention on keeping the carriage moving at speed without crashing into anything. After a few more minutes of gathering velocity, he began coming up the glow of another train in front of them, moving at a leisurely pace within the same set of grooves as they were traveling in. He could either slow down, or figure out a way to shift one of the carts to another set of grooves, so he could go around. If they didn't, a collision was assured!
"I think we're good!" Despite saying this, Scales wasn't sure what to do about the opposing train rapidly approaching them. I'm sure one of the controls on the staff could shift us to an adjacent line, but I don't know which...If the roots act like an animate organism to water, perhaps they'll respond to other stimuli...
Deciding to test this, Scales shifts his position, unslinging his longbow. As he does so, his form changes, soft flesh giving way to hardened, dark green scales, their edges limned with a soft silver light; pre-torn slits along his shirt fill with small, bone-like plates growing outward from his back, his face changes, a small snout forming, his pupils reptilian, while a long tail extends from his spine. Scales prepares an arrow, his tail keeping the staff steady. Vision enhanced by the mutations, he picks a spot on the cavern wall and fires. The arrow thunks into the wood with a satisfying sound; barely a second later, there's a ripple from the surroundings as the wood pulls back, away from the impact site, before another second passes and the wood stills, returned to its normal position.
Yes! That'll work!
Returning his attention to the train, Scales wraps his tail against the staff controls, accelerating the vehicle as fast as possible. Timing the moment of collision, he waits, and waits, and waits, - his plan was to let off a flurry of arrows concentrated in the middle of the track - just as the ripples combined together to form a makeshift ramp, the train would hits it, launching them into the air.
The common missiles of poachers and sentries were wooden shafts stabilized with goose-feathers and tipped with iron. But the projectiles that Scales shot from his bow held a secret: In the hybrid form he had transformed into, halfway between a human and a profane cross-breed of a River Dragon and Siege Lizard, the spikes that emerged between the bony scale-like plates running down his spine could be drawn forth and shaped to his intended purpose. He formed them into doppelgangers of arrows, and they flew more perfectly than the work of any master fletcher: shafts formed of rigid white bone, fletching devised of flexible cartilage, and tipped with a variety of wicked-looked calcified points to achieve all sorts of violent ends. He made sure to top up his supply whenever he could securely metamorphize into his hybrid form, and he kept them hidden away in the pouch on his back, ready for when he'd need them.
The living wood recoiled and flexed where the arrows struck. Smiling Rat had formalized Scales' education, and taught him many of the underlying principals behind the things he instinctually knew about the behavior of the seas, like why the swells at the intersection of great currents sometimes met in absolute stillness, and sometimes gave rise to dreadful tides. In the back of his mind, Scaled had hypothesized that this was the cause of the feared blackguard waves that swept crewmen to their doom and wrecked vessels. It had everything to do with timing, and so when he shot his arrows, he did so with perfect timing to ensure the recoils produced by the the root-wood floor combined and reinforced each other. This would require flawless execution.
Train 41 hurtled forward with violent speed towards the roil Scales had generated. The passengers held on for dear life as the floor retreated under the wheels and the carriage pitched down into the trough, and for a brief instant all aboard had the sickening feeling of falling weightless, deep within the pits of their stomachs. And then they hit the other side of the wave, and were airborne. Nobody could say exactly what happened next, or how much time passed in that moment, because all had involuntarily shut their eyes in dread, as those that weren't already curled up in terror were thrown off their feet to the floorboards of the train. But it ended with the metal frame of Train 41 shuddering and screeching and skidding, and they were pretty sure they had spun around at least once as well. But the wheels seemed to have found secure purchase somehow in one of the sets of tracks, and when they all opened their eyes, they were still hurdling along through the tunnel, as if it had all never happened.
"Like I said, nothing to worry about," quipped Scales. Even his voice had changed, morphed by the snout into more of a guttural hiss from the usual. Keeping the staff steady with his tail, he refilled his stock of arrows, rapidly growing and losing his spines, storing them for later shaping.
Cold couldn't help the confusion on his face when Scales shot the wall with his bow. Absentmindedly, he noted that the spirit shape of his fellow lunar seemed to be some kind of lizard. And then Scales shot the wood in front of the cart. "What are you shooo-" He was cut off as the cart lurched and the ramp took shape. Cold was thrown to the floorboards of the train as they were suddenly airborne, gripping the spotlight tightly so he didn't drop it. He let out a litany of curses in his native Skytongue. His stomach flipped and the feeling of weightlessness seemingly dragged on. And when the cart slammed back down on the tracks, it made him slide a bit across the floor. He clambered back up on his feet. His clothes were covered in the grime of the train and horribly disheveled and a wide wolfish grin nearly split his face in two as he looked back to Scales. "Do that one again!"
"We still have everyone? Good, good. Maybe later Cold, I think we've arrived." Scales looked ahead, slit pupils black against a glowing backdrop of silver and amber. In front of them, the tunnel ended suddenly in a large pile of rubble. At least, at first glance. Closer inspection revealed openings amidst the boulders and debris, braced with the magical wood that was omnipresent in Tramezia's domain. Each of the worn guide rails ended a short distance away from the labyrinth, but the wooden floor continued, snaking into each opening. Slowly bringing the train to a halt, Scales speaks. "I believe this would be the 'Great Interchange' that's on the map."
Scales pondered the map he had been given. According to it, they had passed by nearly two hundred different small branches that snaked out from the sides of the main passage, which formed a dense warren under the entire state of Lushfield. On the way, he had counted more that had evidently been excavated after the map had been drawn. This must be how the stolen essence was distributed through the soil. The bulk of the work of the elementals seemed to be responsible for the maintenance of the coiling roots that sent their tendrils up to the surface. The actual collection of geomantic energies seemed to occur beyond the Great Interchange and past Lushfield's borders, in a place called the far trunkline, where Tramezia's sponge-wood extended out for hundreds of miles to the south like a giant straw, sucking in vital power. According to Bryoph, decent elementals rarely ventured there. There were rumors of dangerous things living in the unpoliced tunnels. But to retrieve the Lodestool's core sample, they would have to go there, and to do that, first they must navigate the tangled knot that was the Great Interchange.
The Lunar deftly picked out each entrance into the labyrinth, and counted them to be sure. His practiced mariner's eyes had an attention for detail - the smallest smudge on a map could be a simple error, or it could be a vital clue as to the difference between stretches of shoreline that would be friendly or hostile. The map indicated there were nine entrances, and that matched his observation. The seventh would be theirs. Train 41 felt unsettled under him as they left the guide-rails and began rolling on smooth, bare wood. If anything, it was even more like piloting a vessel on the seas. Below him, it felt as if the ground was slippery. and he would have to adjust his technique to this difficulty. Just like a boat in a harbor, if he turned too sharply, his momentum would continue for some time, and the wheels would skip sideways for tens or hundreds of feet until they had regained their purchase. He guided the train into the seventh tunnel, and noticed how the curious way the roots around him had carved their way through the blockage. The floors weren't flat - rather, the walls ceiling smoothly blended into each other to form an approximate circle, and and as they rounded a corner, Train 41's speed caused it to lean as it climbed up on the outer banked wall. When the tunnel straightened again, it pitched back and forth, slithering side to side between both walls like a coral reef snake. Each time the side-to-side swaying had almost dissipated, they hit the next banked turn and the process started again.
Cold couldn't do much else other then point the spotlight forward and just wait till Scales got them all safely to their destination. But that was alright, he was enjoying the ride immensely. Whooping with joy as the cart rode the side of the walls with every corner.
Where Cold was simply enjoying the ride, Warden was the exact opposite. Though he had settled into stoic silence and his stomach no longer lurched at every movement, he was still hoping the ride would end soon.
Scales and the four helpless passengers on Train 41 twisted and turned and held on for dear life as they navigated through the serpentine passageways. Every few moments, Scales had to make a choice between two or more diverting branches - this was the part of the map that he had traced out in an awkward shape that they had joked to resemble the outline of Cold's wolfish head. The reality was far more complicated - not only did they have to choose the right pathway, but they also had to contend with rapid changes in elevation. At times their path pitched upward at sharp angles, nearly spending all of their built-up momentum climbing uphill, before reaching the peak and suddenly reversing, picking up astounding speed.
Scales didn't have the luxury of consulting the map - he had to perform the delicate dance of making sure he had enough speed to climb the next incline, while also preventing the whole train from flipping over if he took a banking corner too hard. It took a feat of concentration, and all he had was his memory of the correct way through. Warden was horribly confused and disoriented - it seemed like it all would never end. Cold seemed to generally maintain his sense of direction and balance, holding the lamp steady ahead of them, but the immensity of the labyrinth was overwhelming. Pinales and Bryoph merely clung to their handholds and prayed.
Left-Right-Left-Left-Right-Second-from-Left-Right-Left-Right-Center-Left-Right-Left-Center-Right-Right. The seafaring lunar had memorized the winding path, all in a few seconds of studying - Luna had seen fit to bless him with the navigational skills of the albatross. Almost all the way there - just a few more twists and turns, and they could finally relax. They hit the next ascent with plenty of speed to spare, catching a few feet of air as they crested the hill, and then rode vertically up the side of the wall on a sharp right bank, before reaching a long straight where they gathered speed.
Something suddenly seemed strange they approached the left turn ahead of them at velocity. The sound of the metal wheels clacking on the hard root-wood below, with every minute imperfection and knick in the forging audibly resonating, was at times close to deafening. But Cold's sensitive ears started to pick up an odd, high-pitched whirling sound he couldn't place. It was speeding up faster and faster, coming from just around the next corner.
Scales' enhanced eyes also picked up the faintest glow of light coming from around the bend. Was he seeing things after too long in darkness? Was this the end of the Great Interchange? According to the map, there were still a few more junctions to go.
Too late to react or say anything! Scales had to focus on driving the train successfully through the next turn, and when Cold tried to open his mouth to speak up, he was silenced by the lateral g-forces. Either way, the sound had vanished. Maybe it was nothing. The light Scales saw around the bend flickered suddenly as they took the turn.
And then it all happened at once!