Oswalt stumbled over jagged rocks in the pitch dark and clutched at the mine shaft wall. Behind was the oppressive weight of stone and black, and ahead he felt wind on his face, and blacker beyond. The lantern burned low, the oil nearly gone. His feet ached from walking for hours. He’d never been so lost before.
Sweat rolled along his back. Hot, rancid air blasted from the mineshaft before him like waves. He never wanted to come down into the mines. All his life, he watched men descend and die, some coughing up globs of umber blood, some wasting away into nothing, some crushed beneath rubble. Oswalt’s father disappeared down a shaft, and his brother was smashed under the wheels of a silver-laden cart. The mines were terror for him, but he took the job like every man in Brashar and did his duty to keep his poor mother fed.
His tongue licked dry lips and came back tasting like ash and mineral. He smelled something charred and musky, as the tunnel ahead tightened into a cramped slit. He turned sideways, the lantern hanging behind him, the light blocked by his body, as he squeezed through, and each step made him think, [i]oh gods if I get stuck here[/i], as the stone tugged against his clothes. He inched forward, pushing, in thick silence, unsure what lay ahead, the dark like cotton on his face. He shoved his knee through, then his head, and his momentum carried him into an open cavern.
He fell onto his stomach and nearly lost the lantern. He rested, knees to chest, head hung forward, tasting the animal reek that suddenly assaulted him, the breeze even stronger now, hot on his face.
Lantern light glittered off—something. Silver ore, he thought at first, great, thick veins of it in the walls, until the ore began to move, slithering like muscle under skin.
Two great yellow beacons opened seemingly within arm’s reach of him. Pupils, black and the size of wagon wheels, set in the middle of sickly jaundiced irises as large as two houses.
A snout resolved beneath the eyes, massive holes for a nose, and the mouth opened to show teeth glistening with saliva. That wind buffeted him harder and reeked of rot and decay. He stared at the lizard scales, gray in the gloom. The eyes blinked, and the mouth pulled back further, revealing rows of teeth as large as children, ending in curved, horrible points.
He was going to die, and he tried to scream but nothing came out, until the creature released a sound like laughter, and it spoke to him in halting accented language as Oswalt scrambled back, knocking his lantern over, and felt the thing’s taste in his throat, and it kept speaking to him, again and again and again, and wouldn’t stop.
Oswalt leaned back in his chair in the brightly lit tavern, surrounded by laughing men and women, and he downed his third beer of the night. Barolf watched him, and Oswalt hated that look—ever since the incident, people looked at him with a mix of pity and fear.
“I’m glad you came out, cousin,” Barolf said with false cheer. “After Amona disappeared, you’ve been—“
“I don’t want to talk about Amona,” Oswalt said, cutting him off.
“Sure, sure,” Barolf said quickly. “I just mean, you’ve been holed up in that room of yours waiting for her, and cousin, I say this because I love you, but she ain’t coming back.”
Oswalt knew that. He also knew Barolf was an asshole, but meant well, and nobody had the guts to say it straight to his face before, so he had to respect that at least.
It’d been three months since Amona went into the ocean. It was her habit—up with the dawn, swim for an hour, then back in time to cook breakfast, her hair still stiff from the salt. The morning it happened was like every other, and by the time Oswalt thought to worry, it was too late.
He swam her length of ocean every day for weeks afterward, hoping he’d find her somewhere—but she stayed gone. Oswalt still smelled the sand and ocean stink on his bedding.
Dragged under, they said. Eaten by some creature, some others thought. There were rumors, and he closed his ears to them. Amona was the reason he woke in the morning, the only woman that would have him after leaving the mining company in disgrace five years ago, and though she wasn’t beautiful and she wasn’t rich, she made him happier than he’d ever been, and in the night when he woke in darkness and thrashed, terrified, shaking and sweating, she was there to bring him back.
Now there was nobody, and the night broke him.
Barolf talked about his children, and Oswalt couldn’t remember their names. Oswalt held his mug to his mouth and scanned the room until he found Prond the paymaster, drinking alone near the door, with his hooked nose and narrow eyes. Oswalt stared at Prond, and felt hot breath on his face and heard impossible words, and tasted an animal rotting—
“Cousin?” Barolf said, pulling Oswalt’s attention back. “I asked, are you excited for the Gold Festival? I hear they’re bringing fireworks.”
Oswalt forced a smile. “It’ll be fun,” he said.
Barolf began to talk again, and Oswalt’s attention drifted back to Prond, and he thought of massive yellow eyes floating in the gloom.
The city glowed with hundreds of lanterns. Oswalt walked among the crowds of people drinking spiced beer and weak wine. They pressed against him like stone. Barolf wanted to meet near the fireworks, but Oswalt had one task first.
Ahead, Prond walked with his family, a dull little wife and three dull little children. He seemed happy, waving to folks he knew, and bought treats for the children.
Oswalt would never have a family. Amona was taken from him, and at night when he woke sweating with those grinding words buzzing in his skull and the dark pressing down, there was nobody to tell him where the dreams stopped and he began. Oswalt wanted to crawl out into sunlight, but he drifted further away without Amona to anchor him.
Prond’s family stopped and Oswalt waited in the shadow of a closed dye shop. Prond kissed his wife then strode off alone down a side street. Oswalt followed, keeping at least twenty paces back. Prond was tall, reed-thin, and wore a short sword in a gilded sheath at his hip and a brightly colored red-and-silver tunic. He was easy to spot in the crowd.
Oswalt felt sweaty and weak, and his heart was a stutter in his throat, but he kept hearing the words, over and over, and knew there was only one way to make them stop.
Prond turned down a side alley. Oswalt reached the alley mouth and stopped. Ahead, Prond stood with his back to Oswalt, and a steady stream of piss rolled down the wall.
“Paymaster,” Oswalt said, and Prond cursed, cut his stream off, then looked over his shoulder
“Oswalt,” he said. “You scared the piss out of me.”
Oswalt stepped closer. “What did you do with my wife?” he asked.
“What?” Prond turned to face him. “Are you okay? I know losing Amona was hard. I spoke with Barolf, I thought maybe we could get you a new job with the company, something above ground.”
“No,” Oswalt said, and he gripped the knife at his belt.
Prond’s eyes moved down to Oswalt’s hand, and he took a few steps back. The paymaster gripped the sword at his hip. “What are you doing?”
The words were like thunder in Oswalt’s ears, the creature’s voice a mountainous rumble, the sound of broken earth: He took your wife. He killed your wife. He took your wife. He killed your wife. Over and over, and Oswalt hadn’t understood what it meant back then, but he understood it now.
“Oswalt,” Prond said, drawing his sword, but Oswalt released the scream he’d held since that chamber, since those eyes and that breath broke him, and threw himself forward.
Prond reacted, thrust his sword out, and the point caught Oswalt in the chest. Oswalt felt something wet on his lips. Prond tried to back away but Oswalt’s momentum carried him down the blade and onto the paymaster—
He drove his knife into Prond’s neck as they crashed to the ground.
Prond gagged out something damp. Oswalt rolled away, gasping for breath. Mine dust filled his chest. He ripped out the sword with a grunt.
Blood poured from the wound. The stone walls of the buildings seemed to press down against him, and the words, ancient like a fault beneath the mantle, echoed in his head. He took your wife. He killed your wife.
Oswalt’s fingers dug into the dirt between the cobbled alley ground and felt the dark of that cave finally devour him.
ps, Bit of a dark one today! If you liked it, please spread the word. See you next week! - DC