5-3 Biomes Part 2 (Not of 1)
Standing in the middle of the stone room, Knot let his shoulders droop. If they didn’t set off whatever trap they were in, something else did. With that, thought, he was prepared for a fight. Trudging through his third rubble laden rectangular room, he found that preparation dismally betrayed.
“What do you think this place was?” Cauliflower asked from beside him, nudging some of the debris with her boot.
“A city/workshop,” Knot answered idly as he studied the brickwork to his left. “That’s what they all are, right?”
“No, what was this place?” Cauliflower asked, using her toe to lift the edge of a large stone fragment. “There are a bunch of this room. Why?”
As the room was filled with a dull thud, Knot turned to investigate its source. Seeing Cauliflower standing next to a violently overturned stone, he understood what’d happened. Looking where the stone had once been, he found several scraps of what looked like ancient paper. It was all too fragmented to be useful, however. He quickly lost interest.
“Maybe an office of some kind,” Knot responded as he returned his attention to the walls.
“Like customs?” Cauliflower asked, picking up two scraps of ancient paper and running them through her fingers. Then she grew bored with them and let them fall to the floor as she finished, “You think the actual city is farther inside?”
Knot thought about that. He’d never heard of dwarves having customs offices before. Then again, he’d never heard of them not having them either. Shrugging, he said, “No way of knowing. Let’s get back to work.”
As Knot turned to head for the closest wall, Cauliflower resolutely stood her ground and crossed her arms. “I’m not helping you molest the walls again. The way you feel up the bricks is weirdly sexual… also they’re dusty.”
Knot frowned at Cauliflower judgmentally. “If you want to get out of work, that’s one thing. You don’t have to make me sound like some pervert.”
“If I just said I didn’t want to work, that’s what you’d be yelling at me about,” Cauliflower answered with a self-satisfied smile.
Knot looked the girl up and down. He couldn’t help, but wonder if he’d been inadvertently teaching her some weird habits. Seeing that smile, he couldn’t quite reprimand her at this point, though.Knot let out a sigh. Then he turned to trace the wall’s brickwork alone. At this point, he didn’t think he’d find anything, but he could never forget his first time in a dwarven ruin.
The whole expedition had almost been a loss. Most such expeditions are, since teams had been scouring the ruins for treasures for centuries. However, just before they left, he’d leaned on a wall and accidentally uncovered a secret vault. With his cut from that, he’d bought his first house and an engagement ring.
Feeling his own expression sour, Knot turned his thoughts to nothing in particular. As he emptied his mind, his fingers continued to crawl across the walls. They pressed on every bump and nodule, hoping to find something that would give.
After a few minutes of fruitless effort, an uninterested voice sounded from behind him, “You really think you’re going to find something?”
“Won’t know until I try,” Knot answered, his voice slightly colored by his lack of success.
“Hmmm,” Cauliflower answered. Even as he stared at the bricks, Knot could envision her finding something else to get distracted by and turning away from him.
Knot continued to focus on his work in silence. When he’d made it halfway down the room’s left wall. Cauliflower spoke up again, “You’re old, right?”
Hearing those words made Knot pause and furrow his brows. The statement was in no way wrong. He’d be the first to admit that. Still, hearing it so bluntly put hardly felt good. Knot shook off those feelings as he reminded himself to whom he was talking.
“I guess, why do you ask?”
“When’re you going to retire?” Cauliflower asked in her lazily curious voice.
“I wasn’t planning to right now,” Knot responded thoughtfully as his hands continued to crawl along the wall. “Do you want me to?”
“No,” Cauliflower dismissed quickly. “But you probably should.”
That complicated answer made Knot pause his work again. She was right. Rarely did any mercenaries keep working past fifty. Through constant strain and training, you could stay fit as you aged, but slowing down was inevitable. Still, he couldn’t see himself being retired. Not now.
“I still have some time in me,” Knot dismissed as his hands went back to work.
Knot thought he could hear the beginning of another question from Cauliflower, but it was overridden by a sensation coming from his fingers. One of the bricks was sinking into the wall. When he focused on it, it sunk further until a clear cubby was formed.
A smile of victory spread across Knot’s face as Cauliflower was awed by the spectacle.
“A real secret passage?” she asked, incredulous.
“A secret something,” Knot answered, groping at the wall surrounding the new divot. After a few seconds of scrambling, he found another brick which easily receded.
“I’ve never seen one before,” Cauliflower breathed, moving up to stand beside Knot.
“A vault, an exit, a control center,” Knot envisioned the possibilities as he put his hands in the two small holes where the bricks used to be. “Anything would be nice.”
Knot tried pulling, pushing, and twisting. The door didn’t budge. Then he put all his strength into pushing up on the two holes. Easily, as if made of paper mache, a roughly door sized section of the wall was lifted into the ceiling. In a few seconds, Knot had completely opened the secret door, laying bare the secrets beyond it.
Then, Knot’s face froze.
“That was anti-climactic,” Cauliflower observed from beside him, her previously amazed tone falling back into disinterest.
Knot gingerly pushed his hand forward to brush his fingers against the very solid barrier in front of him. The heavy stones, which had tumbled over each other to fill the passage, didn’t budge. It was impenetrable.
“Can’t help it if it’s collapsed,” Cauliflower consoled him as she placed on hand on his back.
Knot slowly raised his hung head at her gesture. Then he turned around and headed for the other wall. He gave the area directly opposite the collapsed secret passage a quick investigation. Finding nothing, he gave up entirely and moved towards the room’s non-secret exit.
With Cauliflower following behind him, Knot moved through a long, narrow hallway. Once he’d passed through it, he was immediately taken aback by the chill. It struck his face as soon as he’d moved out of the hallway. It was like passing through a vail of cold and clammy.
Once Knot adapted to the sudden shift of atmosphere, he studied the room. In one word, it was massive. Large enough that he couldn’t see the opposite wall from where he stood. Even using the flashlights, the darkness devoured the beam before it could reach.
While the darkness was emphatic about its presence, it wasn’t overwhelming. A dim light poured into the room from small crystals that dotted the ceiling. That was at least enough for them to walk without stumbling.
That was welcome, considering the only other thing in the room. Within Knot’s limited vision, the cavernous room was dotted with what looked like large, murky puddles. Being the only feature in the room, they bore some investigation.
Knot took a few steps towards the closest puddle and crouched to get a better look. What first struck him about them was that their dark waters looked unpleasant to step in. Even though the room wasn’t filled with the stench of stagnant water, they had to be rank. The water should’ve been there for hundreds of years. No telling what diseases might be living in it.
While Knot was deep in thought about what they’d discovered, Cauliflower crouched beside him. After a few seconds staring into the puddle, she stretched out her hand to skim her palm along its surface.
“What’re you doing?” Knot called out quickly.
“What?” Cauliflower asked, pulling her hand back at the force of Knot’s voice.
“Don’t touch it,” Knot commanded, slipping into the same tone he’d used when cautioning his son about fire. “You don’t know what’s in there. Could be full or cholera or chemical waste.”
Cauliflower screwed up her face in protest, but couldn’t discredit his words. Wiping her hand on her pants, she asked, “What do you think this was? Like a dozen little dwarven baths?”
“Bath?” Knot asked, looking down at the murky puddle. “How would that even work?”
“Birds bathe in fountains,” Cauliflower answered, staring idly into the puddle. “Something like that.”
“Birds are birds,” Knot responded with a frown. “That’s different.”
“Birds are short. Dwarves were short. It’s about the same.”
“That… is not right,” Knot responded, his mind reeling from her unfathomable statement. “That’s not what’s important here. Also, not all birds are short. Like emus or that metal bastard.”
“And those tall birds don’t bathe in fountains,” Cauliflower declared, raising her chin proudly.
“…They don’t live near fountains,” Knot rebutted weakly. Then his voice died down and he collapsed into silence. All of her facts were correct, but she was still so wrong that he couldn’t even argue her point. Thus, he gave up.
“We have no way of knowing now,” Knot sighed out as he stood.
“I bet they were baths,” Cauliflower said determinedly from beside him. “That’s why the water’s so dark. Coal and smoke.”
Knot purposely didn’t hear her words as he turned to face the inner depths of the room. As he stood there, not able to see any walls in front of him, he felt tired already. Searching this place would take forever.
Setting out from there, Knot and Cauliflower worked their way through the room. As they moved, they zigzagged between more puddles. They seemed to be dotted everywhere they looked. Only a dozen or so feet of dry land stretched between them.
They proceeded in silence for several minutes, until Cauliflower spoke up, “What’re you going to do after you retire?”
“Why are you so focused on that today?” Knot asked, gruffer than he’d intended. As she spoke, he tried to remember if he’d done anything to piss her off lately. It could be hard to tell sometimes, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t.
“That was what I wanted to ask form the beginning,” Cauliflower answered earnestly.
Knot thought about that as he maneuvered around another puddle. Asking questions to lead to questions what she was made to do. Especially when she was scouting. The other thing she was peerless at was refusing to give something up until she got what she wanted. He should give her an answer.
He contemplated her question for a moment. Just as when he’d contemplated it for himself, he came up with nothing. He’d been telling himself he’d needed to take up a hobby, but he’d never gotten around to it.
“Why’d you want to ask?” Knot questioned in lieu of an answer.
“Because I’m trying to think of what I’ll do when I retire.”
“That’s a long way off,” Knot declared, a little taken aback.
“It’s still better to think about it when you can,” Cauliflower responded with a shrug.
Knot was impressed by that. She never seemed like one to think about the future. Seeing her do so gave him a little pride. Then it made him question himself. To be less prepared than a… eighteen? Well, even she didn’t know when she was born. Whatever the number, it was still embarrassing.
After shaking off that feeling, Knot tried to imagine Cauliflower in retirement. The farthest he could get was turning her tawny hair white. Then his mind defied any further attempts to age her. Giving up, he gave a typical response. “Starting a family is good. Do that.”
“How’d that work out for you?” Cauliflower asked in too light a tone for her to have meant it to be biting.
“…Not well,” Knot begrudgingly answered as he hung his head.
“That doesn’t mean it’s not good to do, It just means I’m not good at it.”
As Knot frowned at his own insult, Cauliflower cupped her hands behind her head and looked to the crystals on the ceiling. “I’m too young to get pregnant.”
“BUT,” Knot raised his voice, trying to override Cauliflower’s statement as he continued his point. “You’re too young to retire anyway.”
“I don’t know what a mom’s supposed to do,” Cauliflower complained. Her energetic tone belying the tragedy of that statement.
“I…” Knot immediately faltered. He didn’t feel qualified to help with that at all.
“Well, it’s not really worth dwelling on,” Cauliflower declared, kicking a chunk of stone that lay along her path. The rock bounced along the ground in front of her before sinking into a nearby puddle with a gentle splash.
Knot tried to think of something to freshen the mood. As he looked over at Cauliflower, however, that thought flew out of his head. She’d frozen. She didn’t move at all and stared into the distance with a completely blank face.
Just as Knot tried to reach out to her, Cauliflower’s face paled and she jumped back suddenly. Then, the caver was filled with the sound of watery tumult as thick, red tentacles thrust out of the puddle in front of her. That sight left Knot completely dumbfounded. He could only watch as the tentacles, thicker than his arm, wrapped around Cauliflower’s legs and waist.
Catching up, Knot hurriedly readied his shotgun and tried to take aim. As he did so, Cauliflower was helplessly dragged towards the pool. At her destination waited the kraken’s gnashing beak and squid face, which had just broken the water line.
Watching Cauliflower being dragged forward and unable to shoot without hitting her, Knot dropped his gun. Then he rushed up and thrust both arms under her armpits. Clasping his hands in front of her chest, Knot strained every muscle in his body to pull backwards.
As Cauliflower’s progress stopped, she let out a hoarse shriek of pain. It sounded like her bones were being ripped to pieces, but Knot had to swallow down that thought and press forward. As his own body started to complain about the force, he leaned into Cauliflower’s ear and whispered, “Can you reach your gun?”
Cauliflower didn’t answer. It sounded like she could barely manage breathing through the pain and pressure. However, her eyes fixated on the small holster at her hip. Then her left hand started inching towards it.
Knot nodded at her progress. Then he gritted his teeth as the kraken put forth a renewed effort and he started to inch forward with her. “I can’t hold you and shoot,” he managed to grunt into her ear. “You’ll have to do it. Hit it in the eye.”
Cauliflower closed her hand around her handgun’s grip and shakily drew it. Then she stopped breathing and closed one eye as she tried desperately to focus her aim. When she pulled the trigger, the cavern echoed with the gun’s boom. Then a small gash appeared on the Kraken’s rubbery cheek.
The beast gave a hissing wail and tightened its grip. Cauliflower gasped for air and almost dropped her gun. Frantically, she brought up her right hand to reassure her grip. Then she tried to aim again. After pulling the trigger, she didn’t wait to see if she hit it. One, two, three, four, five times she fired, leaving the kraken with only flesh wounds. Then, on the sixth shot, the kraken’s black eye was turned into a cavernous mess of blood.
The kraken let out another screech, more desperate and rasping than before. Then it immediately released Cauliflower, causing the pair to fall backwards onto the hard stone floor. Their surroundings were filled with frantic whipping sounds as the kraken threw a tantrum; smashing its tentacles onto the ground around them.
Surrounded by this chaotic storm, Cauliflower and Knot both dragged each other way from the tentacles. Once they’d reached a safe distance, they turned to watch the kraken slip back below the water’s surface.
Once the threat had gone, they both laid on the solid ground, trying to catch their breath. Once he’d recovered some, Knot looked towards the dark pool. It no longer looked anything like a puddle. Instead, it seemed to extend into an unknowable abyss. As he dwelled on that, he turned to Cauliflower and said, “You still think it was a bath?”
“A tentacle bath…” Cauliflower rebutted after a moment spent staring at the sill rippling pool. “for pervs.”
“That’s been on the tip of your tongue lately, hasn’t it?” Knot asked as he forced himself up.
“It’s an easy accusation to make.” Cauliflower admitted with a smile as she accepted Knot’s hand and was pulled to her feet.
After encountering the kraken, Knot turned his gaze back to the direction they’d come from. They both dealt with life or death battles all the time, but this was different. Once you fell into the water, you were done fighting. You couldn’t breathe or maneuver, and any attacks you can make are exponentially weaker. Sea monsters are not something sane people mess with. That also meant sane people didn’t have the experience to know their weaknesses and habits.
Knot turned towards Cauliflower to see her opinion. She seemed distracted, but she showed no desire to retreat. Knot nodded at her unvoiced resolve and turned towards the unexplored depths of the room. They couldn’t give up until they found something. At least a hallway that branched back towards the rest of the facility.
Thinking that, Knot moved forward and Cauliflower followed at his side. Of course, they didn’t progress as they had before. Every step was deliberate. They couldn’t afford to accidentally step into one of the pools.
After a few minutes spent walking, staring at their feet, Cauliflower stopped. “There’s stuff beneath us. Definitely.”
“What exactly?” Knot asked, turning back towards her.
“I can’t know,” Cauliflower answered with a shrug. “I can barely sense their existence. There’s all the water between us and none of the ones around here are targeting us. Though, I do think this is all… like a huge fish tank.”
“Full of monsters,” Knot added, staring down at the stone beneath his feet.
“And we’re on top of it,” Cauliflower responded with a nod.
“How thick is this stone?”
Cauliflower just shrugged and Knot stared at his feet again. Then he shuddered. He’d been through a lot in his life, but the thought of leagues of uncaring abyss right beneath his feet made his skin crawl.
After a few seconds of silent dread, Knot looked up again and said, “Let’s get this done with fast.”
Cauliflower quickly nodded her ascent with that thought. Then they set off again. Their caution and their anxiety wared for control of their pace. As a result, they moved with a hobbling jog which was neither fast, nor careful.
After several minutes of stumbling between eerily still pools of water, they reached another wall. All stone brick with no demarcations on it. Knot was pretty sure they were directly opposite where they entered. There being no door in sight wasn’t encouraging.
With nothing else to go on, they picked a direction and started walking along the wall. There wasn’t anything to see, but at least there weren’t any pools within a few dozen feet of them. That gave them a bit of reassurance.
Eventually they found what looked like another small room, within the room. The stone cubical looked big enough to hold four people and butted against the wall they were following. There was simple doorway in the side, but it was unpassable. Something seemed to have been forced up against it. Circling the small structure, they found what looked to have once been a window on the other side. Now, it lay open and both Cauliflower and Knot could easily slip through it. So they did.
After squeezing through the narrow hole, Knot landed in the cubicle and adjusted his shirt. Then he took a look at his surroundings. The small room was fairly featureless. There was some shelving in the corner which had been used to block the door and a small console of some kind beneath the window he’d just passed through.
With nothing else to look at, Knot and Cauliflower both studied the console. It was old and much of it seemed unusable, but there were still a few crystalline buttons which seemed operational. Specifically, there were three. Two had a deep blue color and the last was a clear red. If he looked around them, he saw some explanatory runes which were now almost completely eroded by time. Even if they weren’t, he couldn’t make any sense of them.
With nothing better to do and Cauliflower looking at him expectantly, Knot reached out towards one of the blue buttons and pressed it. It went in smoothly and then they heard a crisp thunk, followed by some persistent whirring.
For a second, the two of them stood in front of the panel, listening to the mechanical sounds. As far as they could tell, nothing was happening. That gave Knot a little hope. Maybe the sound signaled the raising of the iron gates outside. It’d be a queer place to put those controls, but who knew how dwarves thought.
As Knot was considering the possibilities, Cauliflower curiously stuck her head out the room’s window. Then she froze. “Ummm… Does this look the same to you?”
Knot furrowed his brows as he followed her and stared into the wider cavern. Seeing Cauliflower pointing to a nearby pool, Knot squinted at it curiously. At first, he didn’t see anything wrong. Then, after a few seconds, he thought the pool might look a little wider.
“Is the water level rising?” He asked Cauliflower as he stepped away from the window.
“It looks like it,” Cauliflower answered, still staring at the pool.
That was definitely not something they wanted, so Knot quickly returned to the console and pressed the same button again. “Did that stop it?”
Cauliflower spent about a minute staring in silence. Then she said, “I don’t think so.”
Turning back to the console, Knot looked over his limited options. Naturally, his sight fell on the second blue button, right next to the first. If one made the water rise, maybe the other stopped it? Or even better, it could lower the water level. Make whatever was down there suffocate. That seemed the best option to him, so he pressed it. There was another clunk, then the whirring sound intensified.
“Umm, it’s definitely going faster,” Cauliflower declared, her voice getting desperate.
Knot moved to stick his head out the window again. As soon as he did, he saw the change. Where the pools had been inching up before, now they were bubbling up violently. In less than a second, you could see their growth.
Hurriedly, Knot withdrew his head again and rushed back to the consol. As he moved, he shouted, “If blue means go, then red means stop, right?”
“Whatever, just do it,” Cauliflower called back, still monitoring the water level.
As soon as he reached the console, Knot hammered on the red crystal. Then, nothing seemed to change. A few seconds later, Cauliflower called back, “Did you press it yet?”
That wasn’t a good sign. Neglecting to respond, Knot pressed the red button again. Then two more times. Nothing. “Maybe if I press the second blue one again,” Knot said as he reached out.
“No more buttons,” Cauliflower declared, catching Knot’s hand and holding him back.
“We have to do something,” Knot responded, still staring at the console, trying to dream up a solution. “By the time the water reaches our waist, we’ll be done. Something is sure to swim up then and we won’t be able to run properly.”
Cauliflower took in his words solemnly, but didn’t release his hand. After staring at the ground for a few seconds, she looked up with determined eyes and declared, “I’m gonna shoot it.”
Knot took a few seconds to digest her statement. Then he hurriedly shook his head. “No. That won’t do anything! Surely, there’s a way to fix it, but if you break the-“
“I’m shooting it,” Cauliflower repeated, not listening to his protests as she pulled on the strap keeping her rifle on her back.
“If you shoot it, it’ll just be broken-“
“That’s the point.”
“Please just-“ Knot started. Then he had to jump to the side as Cauliflower took aim at the control console. As Knot hit the floor, Cauliflower pulled the trigger. There were a few hefty pings as bullets struck stone. Then there was a bright flash and Knot couldn’t see anything.
Blinded, Knot frantically pushed himself backwards until he felt a reassuringly sturdy wall behind him. Then he waited. After about a minute, his vision returned and he saw the top of the console in pieces. The colorful buttons he’d been pressing before had been shattered into tiny, iridescent pieces.
As he looked over that devastation, his heart sank. Then, he realized he couldn’t hear anything anymore. The whirring had stopped. Quickly standing up, he moved to where Cauliflower was already hanging out the window. Shoving himself out beside her, he surveyed the surroundings. After he spent a few seconds observing, he was willing to declare it. The water had stopped rising. Now, the whole room was flooded with around three and a half inches of murky water, but at least they weren’t drowning.
As he surveyed the situation, Cauliflower turned to him and said, “See, you always shoot. Shooting it always works.”
“It really shouldn’t have,” Knot answered back with a frown.
“From now on, I’m in charge of buttons,” Cauliflower declared with a self-assured smile.