Interludes from the Great Pits, pt.3

From the Great Pits, Part 3
Ennerlund, Holberg, Y379

Niccolo flagged her down, passed the letters into her hands. Vitória turned them over in her hands, confused as to their purpose until she realized they were not requisitions or supply tallies or even orders. No, it was just mail, delivered to her.

Did she feel excited for, or did she dread, opening the pair of letters that were sent to her? She looked at the hot-pressed paper of one, Serena’s handwriting across the front. The other, on heavier, coarser paper, had Tess’ familiar print and seal, and a redirection from Regario to Holberg.

This season had been quiet, not many letters coming to her; not that she was in much mood to write, or had many friends left to write to. One, early on, from Kahendrin, had been cathartic to reply to; thoughts and feelings simply dumped onto paper, with no thought to cohesion or clarity. Some from and to Balthazar, all talk of plans and commissions that they had started months ago. One from Gabrielle, replied to when emotions had calmed and she had been in Ennerlund a while, but she had still feared that the letter betrayed more of her struggles than she wanted to reveal.

Vitória turned back to Serena’s letter; it was missing a redirect, it had been sent here directly. So, her family must now know where she is. She tucked both letters inside her doublet, to be read later, when the work was over, when she could take a moment to rest.

She didn’t want to face them yet.

***

Not all the ghosts screamed. There were some who sobbed, and some who attacked, and some who drove foreign emotions into one’s soul in a desperate attempt to continue clinging to life. Each soul was telling a story, whether it was one of a torturous physical end, or a heartbreaking tale of family left behind, or ambitious plans left unfinished, or loyal friends perishing together, hand in hand. They wanted their story to be heard.

There was a moment, after every exorcism, where she needed someone to turn to, someone to turn to her, and ask one simple question. ‘Who are you?’

In that moment, the tales were recorded, remembered, passed on. ‘I was trying to break free, I had a feud with my brother, I was thrown to my death, I owed my neighbour two Crowns, my wife was expecting her firstborn, I couldn’t resist the poison, I was writing a play, I lived in Holmauer.’

Who are you?‘ helped Vitória identify the ghost emotions as foreign, but she was becoming increasingly aware that the only emotions she was truly feeling, unfeigned, were coming from spectres. When the exorcism was over, and their spirit gone to the Labyrinth, she was left empty, struggling with the question, ‘Who are you?’

***

“What are you doing, Vitória?”

The briar blinked, pen poised over the pristine paper, and raised her head to the voice.

“Writing a letter to my cousin.”

“I see. How’s that going for you?” Lyca smiled where she sat across the cave from her, sorting and counting bundles of herbs, looking over some marrowort oil vials in the brightly-lit triage area.

“Eh?” She blinked, shook her head slightly, and put the pen down, not realizing that the ink had long since dried on the nib. She forced her eyes to focus on the red and white robed cataphract.

“You’ve been staring at that piece of paper for the last half hour. You’ve not written a word.”

“It’s a… difficult letter.” She put the paper and ink away.

***

Her ears rang, nothing quite shutting out the screaming that echoed through the walls, through the head, through the soul.

Her head rang, as she felt the trickle of blood running through her hair. She tried to move, felt too heavy, and struggled to breathe deeply as she pushed against the rocks that held her down, pinned to the ground, crushed, her cheek pressing against fragments of rock and mithril.

She shook her head and forced her limbs to move, slowly gaining freedom from the rock slide. She crawled across the ground, her skin scraping painfully against the rough hewn stone and rubble. Her shoulder joint flared with each movement, her leg was dragging, strangely numb and burning. She reached down to feel a deep gash just above her knee, wrapping around her leg, and warm sticky blood coating her fingers, pulsing quickly. She struggled to remember what had happened.

There were shouts ahead, bold and defiant, trying to drown out the screaming, though the words she couldn’t make sense of. It brought to mind the colour red, and the taste of liao, but why that would be she couldn’t remember. A female voice, a male voice. And the screaming, the screaming that shook the soul.

She climbed to her feet, tried to walk, and hit the ground hard again as her leg collapsed from under her immediately. The pain sharpened her mind for a moment, reminding her to run her hands down her armour as she was shown, drawing a river to her leg. She screamed, sobbed as the magic within her Jack of Irons activated, as flesh reknit itself, pulled and sealed the wound, then the pain faded. Thoughts of her brother filled her mind, easily distracting her from the confusion, and her eyes shut for a moment, just a moment to rest and gather her thoughts.

***

Then, the sense of noise was louder, approaching Vitória, and she dragged herself up again, on working legs, and stumbled through the dark, following the voices and the sickly faint flickering light through the tunnel. The screams were following, too, getting louder, angrier, shouting how it wasn’t fair, raging against life. Her fingers were sticky but they clung to her flask of liao, her last dose; in the confusion she knew it was important, but why?

She nearly stumbled into Lyca’s back, catching herself with a hand to her shoulder pauldron. A brief glance distracted Lyca only a moment before the cataphract looked back to the angry phantom that was pressing them back out of the tunnel. Then her vision cleared, and Ozren stood there, too, at Lyca’s side, both their hands outstretched as if to bar the passage of the ghost, yet still the sickly tendrils of wisp-fire pushed them back.

The flames were spreading, licking through floor and walls to surround them, and when each burning tendril touched skin a new voice joined in, screaming around them, adding weight to the barrage of hate pressing upon their living souls; until it would be easy to give in to the weight, sink to the floor, and never rise again.

Lyca spoke, the words lost in the dark; her expression was resolute, but she took another step back. Ozren shouted something, but there was no sound, it made no sense to her. Though they stood in Pride, pushed their will forward, it was not enough; the pair could not push this spectre back, could not send it to rest. Vitória quickly swallowed her last dose, feeling the liao surge through her, and her bloodied hand pressed forward between the two Pride priests, adding a third hand outstretched to block the way.

Something must have happened, because she was swamped by the complete darkness and sudden silence, almost more disconcerting than the screaming. As Lyca struck a match to relight her lantern, Ozren’s lips were moving, his hand touching her injured shoulder. Then, it was Ozren’s arms that she slid into, and Lyca’s hands guiding her down, pressing something soft against the wound on her scalp that was bleeding profusely.

“Did it work?”

The reply seemed to be miles away, but Ozren was nodding, and Lyca was checking her over for injuries, and turning to shout something into the distance, towards the cave in. Vitória watched Ozren’s expression as he spoke. He knew what it meant. So did she.

She swallowed, felt grit stinging in her eyes. ‘What do I do? If I lost the path, what do I do?’

“I think it’s time to go home.”

***

Interludes from the Great Pits, pt.2

From the Great Pits, Part 2
Ennerlund, Holberg, Y379

“Form up and forward! Watch your footing.”

Vitória crossed her arms where she stood, straight backed, watching the way Lupo commanded his Wolves. There was safety behind the shields and arms before her, staring thoughtfully at his back while his unit pressed forward, where the tunnels opened into a wide mine shaft.

Pressed between Rodric and Vladimyr, two Vigilance priests from the Tower, she let them think they protected her, flanking each side where she stood part-hidden in the shadows. The wooden struts creaked underneath the troops feet as they made their way down and around the scaffold supports, the darkness below stretching, the scouts pressing forward into the black.

“5 Crowns says the struts are partially sawn through from underneath.”

“What?” The Captain turned, thought a moment, and whistled sharply, his men further down the circular walkway stopping.

“Sawn through the wood underneath. We saw it in the number 2 shaft last week. Wait until you get enough men on it and it might collapse.”

“Taking everyone with it.” Lupo swore colourfully as he ran his hand through his hair. “HALT! New plan. Rodric, grab the ropes. Lucille, you and…” He cast his eyes around. When they fell on Vitória he grinned. “So, Vitória, about that bet, who better to check than a light little Fox like yourself?”

Her jaw dropped, and she struggled to keep her chin up bravely as he approached, unravelling a coil of rope. “Shi–“

***

Increasingly, it was Ozren who was pulling her from the depths of the mines, insisting that she return to the surface, get a proper meal, and a proper rest. The first time, he had damn near dragged her into the light, and she had been dazzled and blinded by the sun for hours. He had promised, upon seeing the tear streaks down her dirty face, that thereafter he’d only do it in the evenings, but he wouldn’t relent from making sure she was taking care of herself.

She was glad for it, though. When the sun would set and they’d sit around a fire, and talk about such a myriad of tales and stories and topics, it helped to be among strangers whom weren’t judging her, or comparing the person she once had been to the person she was now. Whomever that was, when the mask finally came off her arm, and she could let the mask on her face slip a little more. Inside the mine, it was all business, and there was comfort in it. Outside, with nothing to focus on… it was nice to have a friend.

The stories Ozren told were wonderful, disarming, and more than once she’d wake up after a short doze and find out that she’d missed the end of the tale. He’d smile, and promise to repeat it another evening, and why didn’t she get some more rest? But despite his efforts, she’d never sleep more than a half hour; it wasn’t the same as feeling safe amongst family.

***

“We’ve had two near misses in this tunnel alone,” the foreman sighed as another shift rotated on. Vitória pressed against the rock face to let the exhausted miners pass by. “I don’t think we’ll be able to continue safely in this direction until we get some fresh heavies in to sweep the passages for traps.”

“That probably won’t be for another week,” the briar sighed, counting on her fingers, “Maybe two. Marius’ troop are finding it slow going in the Northern passages, and Lupo’s wolves have been redeployed to Reikos so we’re–“

“Struggling.” The foreman sighed, rubbed her palms into her eyes and sagged against the wall. Vitória remained silent.

***

The removal of remains was never a job she was asked to do, and she was grateful for the small relief of not having to take the bodies topside. It wasn’t out of disgust, or an unwillingness to get her hands dirty; she genuinely didn’t know what to do with a corpse, which amused some of the physicks in charge of establishing sanitation in the mines. “Leave it to us, we know what to do.”

She could patch up a living body, set bones, ease pain, and in a pinch she could perform surgery, if there was absolutely no one better suited available. She knew what herbs could be distilled to combat an illness, and her suturing was neat and tailored to leave no scars. But her education was half-learned, out of necessity rather than enjoyment of the subject, and there were glaring holes in her knowledge that made her feel useless in the task of what to do when faced with a long-dead, nameless corpse. It wasn’t exactly in the remit of a cicisbeo.

Hers was a job of comforting the living, assisting the passing of souls to the Labyrinth, and performing funereal rites– and even then, she only really had family experience to go on. Her mind skipped over the most recent funeral –had it really only been 39 days? The wound was still too fresh and yet she knew, to the day— and went back years and years to her grandmother’s funeral. When there had been a cremation and rings and masks, half her ashes scattered to the Vassa, half kept with the family. She had been quite young, but it was the first time she had been allowed to Mestra, officially, since this was a Family Outing to celebrate Grandmama and everyone went, no excuses. It was the first time she had been shown how her family mourns, with laughter and fistfights and tears all mingled together until one couldn’t tell what the emotion you felt was underneath your mask.

She continued to watch over her miners, those on this side that she could protect and comfort. She would offer a prayer over the corpses, when carried past on a stretcher or when she had to pick her way through the bodies. And she tried to ignore the glaring boundary line between life and death that her skills did not cross, where she was of no use and helpless.

***

“Do you want to talk about it?”

She paused in counting the stockpiles of liao, her fingers counting each small dose in twos and threes.  

“About the levels? Well, we’ve made a dent in them, that’s to be sure, but at this rate we should be–“

“No, not the liao.”

She inhaled, held the breath, and released it slowly, struggling to keep a mask on. She turned, her eyes looking into Ozren’s face where he crouched down beside her. In the dim light of the lanterns about them, his eyes were probing, and she looked away despite herself.

“I don’t know what you–“

“Yes. You DO.” His hand reached out to pull her fingers away from the Liao chest, before she could start counting again. “You know, there are enough priests here that we could check–

“No.” She pulled her hand away. “Don’t waste liao when we have need of it for more important things.” The vehemence in her voice surprised him, surprised her too were she to admit to it. She forced a smile, and pushed the tally sheet back into his hands. “Niccolo would have a fit to waste the liao. We shall either find out when it matters, or in Anvil. The Synod will have to be informed by then, anyways.”

“Are you afraid of what might be seen?”

“If I didn’t know you, Ozren, one might think you were challenging my Courage.” A quirk of a smile crossed her face as she tried to pass it off as nothing, but there was a tremble in her voice that spoke of how close her mask was to slipping off.

“Vitória, are you afraid–“

“WOULDN’T YOU BE?” For the first time since, her hands trembled, her eyes blazed with emotion, and she let the Spring energy run unchecked. “Wouldn’t you be afraid if all you were Proud of, was suddenly…” She choked at the thought, unable to speak.

“Yes. Yes, I probably would.” The passion dissolved away, leaving her suddenly exhausted, and she slumped. Only barely registered the hand on her shoulder. “Doesn’t mean anything has to change if you don’t want it to. Doesn’t make you any less Virtuous.”

“Hand on heart? I don’t believe you.”

***