My body tumbled through the dark—
—and slammed against some solid surface.
Crash and cry both bookended the dive the catoblepas and I took together from the winze edge above. A trail of dust smoked off of the cliff face, tracing my descent. I had not flown clear through the air, but like a coiled woodlouse, rolled and skidded instead against the steep rock wall on my way down.
A fall of almost fourteen passūs, was it?
My breathing was in disarray, but I had to get up—immediately.
I groped about, finding a wall. Leaning against it, I laboured my way up to my feet and hastily scanned the environs. The gaping hole the beast and I fell through—it was no winze as I had thought it to be, but a vertical stope: a veritable void where once existed an edifice of silver ore. This hollowed stope continued down further; at its far bottom, there now loomed the catoblepas.
The blasted bull peered up straight at me, eyes moiling with murder. It would seem it suffered a longer fall than I had, and ended up on a level lower than mine. Our staring contest did not last long, however: the catoblepas carried off, likely on a beeline right to where I was.
“…Rolf…!” came echoes from above. “…Ro—lf…!”
Emilie. She was calling out to me.
“Em—khuh…! Kha-hah…!” My lungs were shook and battered. Answering back was a firm impossibility; what should have been my voice was but an itching wheeze.
Not long remained before the demon-bull would find its way to me, and find me it will: it would seem the damned thing thinks of little else once it’s settled on a nemesis, a part I had the ill-starred pleasure of playing.
I needed a plan.
Calming my frayed mind as best I could, I gave the surrounding area another look.
Next to me was a rail cart—the “surface” I had crashed into earlier, soon after landing.
“Khagh! Ha… haa…”
My breathing had yet to find purchase. Pain throbbed throughout my body. I gripped my chest and attempted to rectify my respiration.
The beast knew the mines well. Its wits were keenly whetted—no detours would be taken on its way here. But how long till it arrived?
My mind drew up a blank. Nonetheless, I had to start planning.
Should I hop in and ride it to safety? But where to? Where was it safe, even?
Fates be damned. My thoughts were threadbare.
“Haah…! Haa…!” I inhaled loudly and deeply, ignoring the pain erupting from my every pore. My head was bereft of oxygen, and given the situation, I was fatally obliged to give it all it craved.
Was there aught around me that could be of some use? What of the terrain? Could it avail me in some way? I had to think of something, anything at all, lest I be gored to pieces by that behemá’s horns.
A proper look around revealed the level to be quite expansive. The ceiling was unsupported; all of its stulls were either rotted away or resting in pieces. Just a ways off were bodies of knights, strewn unceremoniously across the dirt.
The quieted remnants of the 15th Squad.
The injured soldier had recounted the last moments with his group thusly: in their retreat from the massacre in the choked gangway, they emerged into an expansive stope—the third sector, in the southern quadrant. This was where they encountered the catoblepas, and their final moments with it.
From the looks of it, three exits led off from this level. A discrepancy from the map, which had shown only two. The odd one out was the leftmost gangway. Near it lay a disused rectilinear object, wooden in construction and half a passus in length, thereabouts.
A bellows, is it? Must be.
Busied overmuch was my brain, taxingly processing the myriad pangs of pain sent from every corner of my body. I wiped the mental table clean of the noise and funnelled as much of my faculties to the situation at hand. This impasse had to be overcome, and soon.
I looked down at my feet to glean the immediate terrain. Where I stood upon was an embankment, which sloped gently down to the wide and level ground below.
A rail track ran down this very slope, likely once used to carry down loads of ore via some mine carts. The one next to me was such a contraption, its wheels halted in place by braces on the rail itself. A lever was nearby. Pulling it would ostensibly release the braces and let the cart free to run down the slope. That is, if it weren’t sooner stopped by forty winters worth of rust.
No. The rail itself was damaged and decayed at several points. No doubt the cart would derail if left to run along its course.
I attempted to settle my lungs once more.
Tackled by a cantankerous catoblepas, tumbling down a fourteen passūs cliff—glad indeed was I to yet draw breath. Wounds were all about my body, ones that might demand immediate medical attention, but in spite of them, I could still move. I suspected the fates have yet to tire of toying with this fool.
Faint glimmers about the ground caught my eye. Silver ore? Specimens of assorted sizes were scattered all about. I took one to hand. Always had I thought silver to be a gaudish affair, but a subtle glitter riddling the coarse ore did give the metal the charm of twinkling stars.
I saw for myself then why enthusiasts clamoured in droves for such curios.
Another upon the ground grabbed my attention, this one long and sharply tapered in shape. Why not stick this into the beast? Right where it stings the most? Be done with the damned demon once and for all, let’s say. Such foolery frolicked in my mind as I took up the serrated stone and slid it inside a breast pocket.
A sigh left my lips.
Foolery indeed. That I was indulging myself in them was proof that my powers of concentration had not yet made their return. What could this simple stone achieve that an all-out attack from the Owlcranes could not?
A strategy—not a stone. That was what I needed. One with which to bring down the beast.
If I were to use these stones, plentiful as they were, certainly there had to be a more cunning employment of them. I drank another lungful of air, cleared the clutter in my mind, and gave my surroundings one last check.
Having set myself straight, I went to work gathering up the scattered ore and tossing them into the mine cart. Already was it loaded midway; filling it up to its fullest did not take long.
I wiped the sweat from my brows. “Good. That should do it.”
Like an unsought answer to my mutterings, down through the room echoed the catoblepas’ heaving breaths. It was here. My hand went up and rested on the rail lever.
“Come on… A little more. I’m right here…!”
My knuckles tightened into a fist about the iron bar. Sweat seeped from my palm. My chest drummed and drummed.
Off in the distance, the hounding hoof-falls found their way into the room. The beast locked its eyes onto mine. A strike against the ground—off it jolted into a charge.
I pulled the lever. At once, the ore-engorged cart shrieked down the tracks.
My mind raced—if memory serves, a cubic digitus of silver is little more than two dŭellae in weight.
I glanced at the cart.
Fifty-five by eighty by forty-five… almost two-hundred thousand cubic digitī: the cart’s total capacity, now heaped with silver ore. From what I’d espied earlier, the ore here was pure by about a third; Godrika truly is generous. Now accounting for negative space and the weight of impurities…
“Nine-thousand lībrae, just about?”
The heft of the exotic elephant. Quite the punch.
But exactly how much of one? My mental calculations stopped there; not even our arithmeticians have figured out how to run such numbers yet. But the cart now rolled down the slope with considerable speed; the momentum should add more than thrice its weight to the total.
Its iron wheels clanked and clattered as it cruised down towards the charging catoblepas. By now the beast was bounding its way up the embankment straight for me, but the sight of the speeding iron box should surely startle it.
This fiend was no fool.
These mines were its home. It knew the character of these carts, that they cannot run beyond the rails they were set upon.
And so the beast simply swerved out of the way.
“Gwoufh, gwoufhh!” it seemed to jeer at me, its fiery eyes fixed upon mine.
Seemed? Not anymore. The feral mocking was genuine—the beast absolutely bristled with bedevilled delight, comforted in knowing that victory was in its grasp.
There truly is no end to the intricacies of behemá behaviour.
“I see Man’s not the only creature taken with treat-giving!” I taunted, before breaking into a sprint—right towards the beast. “You’ve shown me a year’s worth of wonders today, ugliness! Now here’s a treat of my own!”
Certainly it would’ve been best had the cart crashed into the catoblepas, but to think that it would was pure naïveté.
I knew it would come down to this. The “buffoon’s plan”, more like, but I had naught else up my sleeve.
Past the catoblepas, the cart left the slope and levelled on flat ground. Only, the rail curved immediately from then on, and where it did, the track was already greatly deteriorated. Met with this sudden turn, the overloaded cart jumped—
—the sound of screaming iron.
The iron wheels cut through the rusted rounding rails, and further off the cart shot, its elephant-like weight lunging into the rock wall.
The air boomed.
The mines bellowed.
From a memory whispered Emilie’s voice.
“…that area is ready to collapse at the feather’s touch…”
The war council—her finger hovered over the map.
Sector three. Southern quadrant.
Red ink slashed across it, forbidding all combat within its perimeter.
Confusion flickered across the catoblepas’ maw and brow as the ground quaked and groaned. And off to the beast’s side was I, but for only an instant: mustering all might into my legs, I dashed past it, my eyes fixed upon a different destination.
Its hatred unfaded, the behemá pivoted violently about and attempted to catch me with a swipe of its horns, but in its own eyes rolled the reflection of a greater force: boulders.
Boulders upon boulders upon boulders.
Bountiful and ubiquitous, a mountain falling down.
Stones once composing the very ceiling of this far-reaching room.
A new cacophony crashed through the cavernous air.
Rocks rained and rained, fully flooding the entire area. A great boulder with a girth half that of the catoblepas’ own body dived right into the back of the beast. But no time was given for its victim to let out so much as a single cry of pain, as the monster was soon immured under a growing mound of stones.
Unceasing were the quakes and roaring rumbles. The boulders pelted the scene, each intent upon pressing and pulverising all caught within. Lifeless objects, mercilessly stamping out all signs of life.
And their mission of massacre continued on for a while longer yet.
──── Notes ────
(plural: digitī) A unit of measure used by the ancient Romans, taken from the width of a finger. 1 centimetre is equal to 0.5405 of a digitus. A digitus, therefore, can be roughly equated to 2 centimetres.
(plural: dŭellae) A unit of measure used by the ancient Romans, with the diminutive meaning of “little double (sixths)”, referring to its purpose as a ⅓ subdivision of the ū̆ncia, another unit of measure. 1 gram is equal to 0.1095 of a dŭella. A dŭella, therefore, can be roughly equated to 9 grams.
(plural: lībrae) A unit of measure used by the ancient Romans; also known as the “Roman pound”. 1 gram is equal to 0.00304 of a lībra. A lībra, therefore, can be roughly equated to 330 grams or ⅓ of a kilogram.
In mining, woodwork that is erected against walls and ceilings as a protection against collapses and errant stones.