From the Great Pits
Ennerlund, Holberg, Summer Y379
“You’re almost as superstitious as a miner, you know.”
“Hmm?” She blinked, fumbling with the strings of the war-face, and Vitória huffed, held her arm out for the miner to tie her mask to her arm.
“Well, you sign in as ‘on-the-job’ when you tie your mask on,” the miner said, calloused hands securing the mask on her left bicep. “It’s quite comforting to see, is the thing. I don’t think the others will admit it, but when we see the mask in the mines, it’s hard to be afraid of a silly ghost.”
“A bit of hearth magic to comfort the soul,” Vitória nodded and went back to the liao chest, refilling her hip flask.
“But what the others haven’t noticed, and if you don’t mind my saying, Miss, is that, well, none of us can remember when we’ve seen you without it, so when are you ever off-duty?”
A few weeks in and escorting her group of miners along the passages as they moved into the deeper, darker sections of the Pits was almost becoming enjoyable. When Vitória had first arrived, the fear was palpable, marred on each face that showed up to work. Wondering if today would be the day that, out of the corner of their eye, they’d see another apparition, drop their picks and bolt for the surface. As the days turned to weeks, then to a month, the fear began to ease when each team saw that they’d be accompanied by a priest. There were stirrings of Pride in her, when the miners became familiar with her enough to look forward to her working with them, remembering her name and chatting warmly with her as she watched over them. Fear turned to smiles of satisfaction and Pride in their work, as they opened up another section for her to exorcise. “You’re scarier than any ghost, when you turn on them,” they had laughed, and set to work clearing blocked tunnels for her. “You scream louder, too.” That had been a funny day, trying to outscream a screaming ghost, and winning.
Vitória smiled at them, winked, and went back to waiting for the lights to flicker, to go out, and for the familiar taste of liao upon her lips to signal when her work truly began.
The last timbers of the support beams were shoved into place, and she waited as the foreman gave the tunnel struts an approving glance before he waved her in.
“This tunnel’s as good as I can make it until the girls return with more supports.” Vitória carefully stepped over the rubble, weaving her way forward past the workers who continued to haul away the broken stone and mud. She ducked under the low ceiling into the black wider shaft where she could stand tall again, and took a moment to breathe through the pain in her chest from where the ogre had crushed her, nearly a month ago.
“Is this section on the maps?”
“No, this is all new since the mine was lost. Why would the Druj care for safe tunnels when you don’t give a shit to the wind for your workers? Is why the tunnels this end are so dangerous. Might have to send for the heavies to clear it for traps, too.”
“Wait… can you smell it?” The foreman moved to follow her, gave a quick whuff of the air, and frowned. “What’s that?” The musty air was damper, danker, cloying with rot and decay.
“Morass waters. Means the pumps aren’t fully operational down here yet.” He pulled his lantern from his belt hook and shone it forward. The light seemed to be sucked into the black inkiness of water flooding the rest of the tunnel where it sloped down. “Back we go then, it’ll be a while before we can make progress, and the damp will mean this section will be more prone to cave–” The still waters blinked into black as the light blew out.
“Get your team back.” Vitória’s voice was low as she reached for the Liao with one hand, her blade with the other. Faint wisps of light were starting to circle on the surface of the water, and there was a splash further into the dark.
“Sighting!” The call went back, the foreman knowing to fall back and keep his workers safe. She took a sip from her flask, and stepped forward.
“You’re not quite like the other priests, are you?”
Her head raised at that, then tilted quizzically. “How so?” It was quiet, late at night, and Vitória was taking a moment to rest in the consecrated area, where they knew they were safe.
“The others, they go in and it’s all, Vigilance this, Pride that, Courage and Prosperity and all the usual bluster. You’re so much… quieter. Fiercer. And sorry for language but you’re the calmest fuckin’ Briar I’ve ever met. You don’t use their words, yet you’re more menacing with your faith.”
Vitória checked herself, comically, a wide grin on her face, then shrugged her shoulder indifferently. “Quite accurate, I suppose.”
“So what Virtue do you hold close? We can’t work it out, the lads and lasses have a betting pool –priests are already barred, so don’t ask to join in– but we just can’t quite figure you out.”
“So where’s your money then?” An easily deflected question.
“Well, see, I thought Courage, the way you just… let those ghosts get near you. Scream at you. Touch you. When that one put a hand through your chest, I thought you’d…does it not hurt?”
“Yes.” The truth was naked on her placid face, her calm indifference more unnerving than the memory itself, and the subject was quickly changed back.
“Anyways. Then there’s the team that Ozren fields, they’ve got their money on Vigilance. There’s a growing backing that you’re a Priest of Loyalty…” the light was dim, and the barest of flinches was entirely missed. “…and one or two people are putting a Crown in on the long odds that you’re Prosperity or Ambition, since the pot is getting quite big.”
She laughed, then stared back, letting the silence wash over the pair, grinning.
“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“Spoil everyone’s fun? Not for the Throne.” Vitória didn’t voice the traitorous thought that echoed through her empty soul, ‘Let’s find out together.’