Loot Mule – 1.10

The heavy rain fell sideways, pelting Raymond as he clasped tightly at his hooded cloak to keep it from the prying hands of the tumultuous wind. Every step he took was arduous and draining and his toes were soggy and numb from the bitter cold; but he continued to wade through the flooded bog lands, unrelenting against the ankle-deep waters.

A voice called from behind, barely audible in the winds. Raymond turned to see a similarly dressed man running towards him.

“We’re nearly at the excavation site,” the man shouted, trying to make himself heard.

“Good,” Raymond replied, also fighting to throw is his over the winds. “I doubt our company will last much longer in these conditions,” and his gaze fell on a large group of men lagging further behind. Each man was cloaked in waterproof skins and pelts, and each one sloshed and stumbled through the bog while carrying large rucksacks that overflowed with excavation equipment. Raymond continued; “Tell me, why do you think the World Tower, an enclosed building free from all outside influence, must have such extreme environments hidden deep inside?”

“So only the mighty can claim it’s loot!” Replied the man.

Raymond’s lips cracked as a smile formed under his rugged, dishevelled beard. “Indeed,” he said, “We must keep moving. Darkness approaches.”

After a further half-day’s journey under the overcast sky, Raymond paused and scanned the horizon, eyeing the rolling hills and the large boulders that lay scattered across the wetlands. He was tense, cautious of his surroundings and intensely aware of the petering daylight as the sky began to darken.

“It should be here,” said the man from before.

“Then where is it?” Raymond snapped back, “You’re a hunter, are you not?” He continued, gesturing to the man’s bow strapped to his back. “Use those keen eyes of yours and take point up on that hill. Scan the area for anything that might direct us on where to go.”

“But, there’s little daylight. We need to take shelter before—”

“—We’ll take shelter at the excavation site.” Interrupted Raymond, “So it’s in your best interest to find it. Now, go.”

The hunter submissively nodded his head and gestured to the group to take a moment’s rest, before making way towards the hilltop with his bow readied and his arrow nocked.

Sheets of rain pelted downwards while the hunter stood firm on the hill with his feet partially submerged in the soggy peat. The brittle cold soaked through his layers, biting his skin and he yearned for warmth – but he narrowed his eyes and surveyed the lands, darting his focus on every little twitch and movement amongst the sprawling lands that to most, would be invisible. But he was trained, and experienced. He had learned to ignore foliage while hunting in dense woodlands, as one learns to ignore their nose in their field of vision. And he applied this technique to the pellets of rain that bombarded his face, obstructing his view. And he saw the lands as if they were a white canvas and any atypical movement was a moving black dot. But, no matter the length of time he watched and hoped, the canvas remained clear – and there was nothing to be seen.

Then, just as the hunter had resigned to failure, a deep rumble emerged from below the belly of the earth. It echoed up through the lands, sending flocks of birds fleeing from the briar thickets from which they perched with a crescendo of beating wings and cautious chirps. And the hunter watched, cautiously, scanning for the source of the rumble, as the last trickle of daylight fell below the horizon. And as it did so, the clouds shifted. They parted at the skyline to reveal a clear back sky, and, if only for a moment, the hunter caught a glimpse of a glimmer of light in the sky. From it, a beam of light shot downwards, revealing a monolithic black slab protruding from the ground out in the distance. The gap in the sky snapped shut and the clouds crashed together to unleash a roaring thunder.

“Sir!” The hunter called out as he stumbled and slid down the hill with great haste, “I’ve found it!” He shouted.

Raymond scrambled to his feet. “Well lead the way then!” He called back, while at the same time rallying the others who had found a moments respite from the prevailing winds amongst the scree and boulders at the bottom of the hill. As the men scurried in haste to quickly gathered their things, the last of the daylight petered out, and pitch-black quickly followed. But, the tendrils of the night did not just swallow the sky – they enveloped the ground as well – and the trees, and the rocks and all that stood in between; submerging all from above and below in an abyssal emptiness. Raymond watched as off in the distance the sheets of black raced towards them as if the edges of the world were crumbling away.

“Shit,” he muttered, and then yelled to the group, “Light the lamps! Drop all non-essentials! We run, and we do not stop until I say so!” And at his command, a myriad of oil lamps sparked to life, each encased in a glass bulb attached to the top metal pikes. But, as quick as they were, the Darkness was quicker and it already encircled them, held back by only the golden glow of the lamps – and where the light did not reach, they were blind.

“Do you remember the location?” Raymond asked as the men around him murmured concern and fear.

“Accurately,” replied the hunter.

“And can you clear a path?” Raymond continued, gesturing to the Darkness ahead of them.

The hunter smiled. He took an arrow from his quiver and, without impairing his sprint, he deftly struck a shard of granite over it. The arrowhead ignited into a brilliant blaze of fire and the hunter nocked it in his bow before taking aim. “With ease,” he said, and he shot the flaming arrow.

It whistled through the air, spiralling overhead with a tail of ember before impacting the ground and detonating in a carpet of fire. The Darkness scurried away, parting the stygian curtain that lay before them. And the men ran. They ran through to torrential downpour, wading through the murky peat, trudging behind Raymond who continued onwards with a steady pace, guided only by the memory of a hunter and the stoked by fear of the looming abyss beating at walls of light as if it were an impenetrable barrier.

Just as the wicked burn of exhaustion permeated their bones, and the men began to falter and the hunter’s arrows grew short; an opening in the abyss gave way to a clearing, and the men dashed towards it. As they entered, they were immediately faced with the black monolithic slab, the same as which the hunter had witnessed previously.

“A Mirari Stone,” the hunter muttered as he stared onwards with wonder; his eyes wide and his mouth, slack.

It stood tall, incomprehensibly so, looming over them as they drew near. Its surface shimmered like glass in the light of the lamps and its exterior remained pristine, seemingly untouched by the elements – or, Raymond mused, perhaps the elements did not dare touch it.

Raymond felt an urge of defiance well up inside of him and he walked towards the Mirari Stone and he stood a nose-breadth away, gazing into its reflective surface. He could see the light of the lamps and the workers tools reflecting back, but he could not see himself, nor the men and the longer he looked, the more he felt a dreamlike weariness overcome him. From deep within this reverie he felt a tug on his hand, coaxing him to reach out. His fingers hovered over its surface and all sounds around Raymond were soon drowned out by a harsh whistle that pierced his ears. All that he knew and all that he was became ambivalent; the only unquestionable was the Mirari stone… and he craved it, yearned for it, he—

“—Sir?” A voice came from behind.

Raymond snapped out of his trance and quickly jerked his head to see the hunter standing behind him.

“Y-yes?” Raymond stuttered, attempting to conceal his discomfort behind a cough. His whole body was awash with tingles and to Raymond, it felt as if a great pressure had just been released and blood could finally flow through his limbs again.

“The men,” the hunter replied, “They await your orders,” and he gestured to the group of men currently unloading mining tools and large ceramic containers. Raymond noticed the veil of the Darkness that still surrounded them, but at a distance. “It is as you suspected,” the hunter continued, “There appears to be a threshold around the Mirari stone that the Darkness will not cross.”

Raymond nodded. “Set up a perimeter with the torches. We will no longer be under the auspice of the Mirari Stone if it loses power. Instruct the men to begin extraction,” Raymond continued to peer into the Darkness that lay before them, “On all sides does this horror spread wide; it’s silence, it breathes terror in my soul. Be quick, and swift. I do not wish to dwell much longer.”