Bera Dallin led the way as she, River, and Fiafia trekked down the winding tunnel. As they traveled further, the terrain roughened and slowed their pace. The darkness threatened to swallow them, and only the single torch Fiafia carried held it at bay.

Bera was relieved they had rescued her people from the mycelia, but they still needed answers. What was happening in Praetoria? Who were these invaders? The mycelia seemed dim-witted, but their caverns held iron-forged prison cells, crates of supplies, and oil lanterns to see in the darkness. Something larger was at play here. Seeking answers, the three followed the path the mycelia had taken, descending deeper into the tunnels’ depths.

“There is a place spoken of only in rumors,” River said, his green, elven eyes shining in the darkness. “The Realm of Silence — caverns and tunnels far beneath the surface of Praetoria. Perhaps that is where these mycelia come from.”

Fiafia studied the floor of the tunnel as they continued. “These tracks, they’re not just from those lumbering, fungal creatures. See there? Those are humanoid. Could be prisoners or more of those spore-infected people… or maybe whoever the mycelia are working with.”

Bera squinted at the ground. The disturbance was nearly imperceptible to her. She had been raised in cities, and settling in Praetoria had a sharp learning curve. She still had much to learn about surviving in the wilds and reading the land.

“That’s a good eye you’ve got, Fiafia,” Bera said. “Where are you from that you’ve learned such tracking skills?”

A crooked smile pulled at the young woman’s full lips. “Thank you. My childhood was… nomadic. My father and I traveled to many different islands. I’ve never seen a big city before.” She paused, then asked, “Where are you two from?”

“We’re both from Anenon on Azmaré,” Bera answered. “It’s a very large city, an awe-inspiring sight for anyone. It was an honor for both of us to be asked to establish New Everitt and lead the people there.”

Fiafia’s eyes widened. “You both are city leaders?”

“Well, Bera is the leader,” River corrected with a soft smile. “I’m on the advisory council.”

The dwarven woman clapped him on the shoulder. “You are indispensable.”

They traveled onward. The hours passed, and their path grew steeper and steeper until they had to cling to stalagmites to keep their balance. Finally, the tunnel leveled out, and ahead of them, it opened on a large cavern.

Fiafia extinguished her torch, and the trio crept forward and crouched behind a mound of flowstone at the edge of the cavern, eyes wide as they took it in. It was enormous. The ceiling vanished into darkness, where long stalactites descended out of the black, while stalagmites as tall as towers spiraled up beyond the limits of their vision. The ground was uneven, broken by crags, outcroppings, and fallen rock. Luminescent moss and other fungal life grew in patches on the dripstone and surrounding terrain, casting everything in an eerie, green glow and making the scene quite pretty… in a decomposing and earthy sort of way. Even still, the cavern was so wide Fiafia could not see the wall opposite them, and somewhere in the darkness beyond, the roar of a waterfall echoed. Along the wall to their left stood a series of empty prison cells.

The cavern bustled with activity. Countless mycelia lumbered about, while horrific-looking people staggered around — once prisoners, perhaps, but now infected with spores and twisted into monsters out of a nightmare. A chattering echoed from the darkness above, where imps flitted around the dripstone. A fire elemental stomped past not far from where Bera and her companions hid. There were humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, and more, all dressed in dark armor.

At the center of it all, a woman sat atop a dais of fungal life on a pale throne. At least, she appeared to be a woman. A rubbery substance of bone-white and swamp-green hung like a gown from her narrow frame. Her long, slender fingers were blood-red, and her face was white and spongy and framed by a frill of black. Two red slits served as eyes, and from her mouth protruded red, tentacle-like appendages. They twitched and writhed as she spoke.

“You do not command my forces, Obsidian.” The fungal woman spoke in a dry, hollow voice. “I will do with my prisoners as I please.”

She addressed a robed, human woman standing before her. This one had dark skin and a mane of dreadlocks that cascaded around her shoulders. A circle of obsidian sat upon her head, matching a staff she held in one hand. Her expression was merciless and serious.

“Queen Mycelia,” Obsidian said, “prisoners are needed to learn more about Praetoria, and that tends to go better when their brains aren’t rotted out by mushrooms.”
Bera, River and Fiafia, exchanged horrified looks.

“These are no one of value,” Queen Mycelia crooned. “Peasants and farmers.”

“I will be the judge of that. The Chaos Legion’s invasion has been successful, but we can’t be too confident. Not after the incidents with them in the past.”

“I’ve heard the stories. They do not concern me.”

Obsidian’s eyes narrowed. “They are enough to have even Lord Silas asking questions. If you were wise, you’d heed that.” Her stance relaxed. “I’ll be back in a week. Have prisoners for me to question by then.” Without waiting for a response, she turned and strode away, vanishing into the shadows of the cavern. The click of her staff upon stone echoed out of the darkness, then that, too, faded and was gone.

Bera, River, and Fiafia ducked behind the flowstone. Bera’s heart pounded in her chest, and sweat plastered strands of her ashy blonde hair to her brow.

“We should leave,” River whispered. “This place is very dangerous.”

Bera nodded. “We must tell others what we’ve heard.”

As they crept from behind the flowstone toward the tunnel, a loud roar boomed behind them. A towering mycelia with two heads sprouting from its broad shoulders lumbered toward them. They tried to run, but something was wrong. A strong force pulled at them, slowing their strides and making each step laborious.
With a grunt, Bera spun and swung her sword. Its blade cleaved through the strange, two-headed creature, and the beast toppled and fell, dead. But the slow effect did not stop.

“Well, well. What have we here?”

Queen Mycelia rose from her throne and glided toward them. The tentacles writhing from her mouth twisted into a grotesque semblance of a smile. Beside her, a white mycelia with ruby-red eyes and a head capped by red and yellow skimmed across the cavern floor, trailing a web-like, fungal netting that sprouted where legs should have been. The creature extended a hand, and the heaviness upon Bera grew stronger. She and her companions staggered to their knees, crying out. River sent a blast of blue magic that struck Queen Mycelia in the chest. She reeled but remained upright.

They’d almost made it to the mouth of the tunnel when a rush of enemies spilled out of it — more mycelia and spore-filled infected humanoids and all manner of monstrosities. They shambled forward as Queen Mycelia and the creatures in the cavern closed in around Bera, River, and Fiafia. They were surrounded.

“Damn you!” Fiafia cursed, swinging her sword wildly, but it was no use. The mycelia swarmed over her and wrestled her to the ground.

River blasted at the fungal creatures with his magic until one slipped past his defenses, clubbing him in the back with a massive fist. He fell, striking his head hard. A thin, red line of blood streaked the tan skin of his brow and pooled on the rock.

Her companions had fallen. Bera stood alone. She raised her shield and, through sheer force of will, fought against the slow effect. She gritted her teeth and swung her sword, parrying blows and cleaving limbs as she fought her way through the throng toward Queen Mycelia.
“Stop her!” the queen shouted, her tentacles writhing.
Bera raised her sword high and brought it down — not on the queen, but on the red and yellow capped mycelia beside her. Her blade separated the creature’s head from its body.

All at once, the slow effect vanished.

“Let’s see how you like a fair fight,” Bera said, whirling her sword and raising her shield.

But Queen Mycelia glided backward, and the other fungal creatures and armored goons stepped forward in her wake.

“I want her alive!” the queen called out.

Bera growled. “And I want you dead.”

She flew into motion. The ponderous mycelia were no match for the nimble dwarf as she danced around them, jabbing and slicing and ducking out of reach. Even the armored warriors could not match her frenetic pace. She dodged and parried their blades, aiming her own sword at the seams in their armor or using brute force to cleave through plate and chain.

However, for every foe that fell, three more stepped forward to take their place. They wore Bera down until her strength and her focus began to ebb. An imp plunged from above. She raised her shield to defend herself. Too late. Its little claws raked across her cheek. A fungal monstrosity lumbered forward and slammed into her, sending her flying.

Bera hit the ground and scrambled to her feet, breathing hard. A green bolt of magic flew toward her and slammed into her shield. She staggered. Queen Mycelia drifted forward through what remained of her troops. She raised her hands and waggled her blood-red fingers.

“Night, night, little dwarf.”

A bright, green light exploded in Bera’s vision, then her world went black.

Far beneath the surface and with no rising or setting sun, the days that followed were interminable. Only the imps made it possible to track the passage of time. Each night, they roused from the hanging stalactites, swirling about and cackling and making a tremendous noise before exiting in a cloud of tiny wings and claws. Hours later, they returned.

Bera, River, and Fiafia spent three days in one of the prison cells they had seen when they first entered the cavern. They were trapped together, sharing the cramped space. Rust corroded the bars, but several covert attempts at breaking them proved futile. The bars held strong. It was possible River’s magic might break the door, but that would draw the attention of the entire cavern.

For meals, the mycelia brought them stone bowls filled with a strange, mushy glop and dirty water. It was clear the intent was to keep them alive only long enough for Obsidian to return. Queen Mycelia ignored them. Patrols of the cells happened regularly, though they were the only prisoners. Two others had been brought in only to be taken away again. They returned a day later, infected — more fungal zombies for Queen Mycelia’s collection.

Their belongings had been taken and stored in a crate. Bera mourned the loss of her sword and shield, both of which had been at her side for many years. She feared what would happen when Obsidian returned. The dark-skinned woman wanted prisoners to interrogate, and Bera knew that meant torture. Once she had what she wanted, Obsidian would likely let Queen Mycelia turn them into fungal zombies. Anxiety pervaded the atmosphere of their cell. It twisted their guts and made sleep difficult, but they would not give up.

Days of keen observation and silent strategizing proved fruitful. They would have only one brief window of opportunity, and Bera came up with a plan and went over the details with River and Fiafia several times. They would make their escape that night when the imps took flight. If it did not go well, she knew they would all die.

As night drew near, they did not sleep but pretended to. Curled up on the cold, hard ground of their prison cell, they closed their eyes, waited, and listened. Bera heard the change of patrols and other routine activities. She cracked an eye open. Queen Mycelia glided eerily across the cavern and into a side passage. Hours passed, yet the three did not stir — not until the imps took flight.

As the shrieking began and the little winged bodies filled the air, the mycelia and their allies turned their gazes upward to watch them, just as they had every night. And just like every night, one of the patrolling spore-infected zombies staggered alongside the prison cell. It too, stared at the imps.

Bera and River surged forward and reached through the bars, grabbing the zombie and jerking it toward them. Bera wrapped her arm around its throat in a rear chokehold. It tried to cry out, but between the chittering imps and the pressure on its throat, the sound was inaudible. Bera squeezed harder and harder, until the creature’s rotted neck gave and its head separated from its shoulders and fell to the ground. A collection of colorful mushrooms blossomed from the hole of its neck.

Fiafia was next. Bera and River dropped back as she crawled to the body, snapped off a finger, and slid the bone from its sheath of rotting skin. She glanced at Bera.

You’ve got this. Bera mouthed the words.

Fiafia nodded. She broke the bone in half and scraped the ends on the ground, quickly filing them against the rock. She tried fitting them into the keyhole. They were still too big. She frowned, filed some more, and tried again. The two halves slid neatly into the lock. She chewed on her lip as she maneuvered them around. The seconds ticked by. Finally, the lock clicked and popped open.

Wordlessly, Bera led the way as the three slipped out of the cell and ran in a crouch across the cavern to the stack of crates where their belongings had been stashed. The imps were completing their spiraling ascent toward some vent hidden in the darkness far above. They chittered and laughed, a swirl of red amidst the green glow of the moss and fungi.

A mycelia stood guard on the opposite side of the crates with its back to them. River flicked his hand in magic. Their time spent in the prison cell allowed them to observe the creatures around them. This one had a growth of water-filled fungi along its arm, and River’s magic caused the growth to burst, sending out a small spray and a putrid smell. The mycelia grunted and staggered. It held up its arm, staring at it in confusion.

The trio took advantage of the distraction and lifted the lid of the crate where their belongings had been stowed. There was no time to take everything — only what was essential. Fiafia grabbed her curved blade and shoved her tri-pointed hat down atop her dark, messy hair. Bera hefted her sword and shield, the weight of them comforting. River slung a pack that held supplies and sustenance over his shoulder.

The mycelia was still poking at its arm when they slipped away. The uneven ground and geological formations of the cave provided plenty of cover, while the moss and fungi softened their steps, even without the distraction of the imps.

We’re going to make it, Bera thought. We are so close.
They followed the sound of rushing water to the far side of the cavern and came to a large waterfall that cascaded from the shadows above into a splash pool. A river snaked from the pool and vanished into a tunnel set into the cavern’s wall. Cold droplets splashed across their skin. At the mouth of the tunnel, three wooden boats were tied to a small dock, where a humanoid figure dressed in dark armor stood guard.

Bera led the way as they circled around behind the guard, padding quickly across the moss. At the last second, the guard started to turn. Bera leaped forward, swung her shield, and slammed it into the side of the guard’s head. The figure crumpled to the ground with a thump.

River and Fiafia had already untied one of the boats and clambered into it. Bera hopped in after them, and the little craft rocked from side to side. She grabbed the rough wood of an oar and set them off down the river without looking back. Her heart hammered in her ears, but no cries of alarm went up from behind them, and they disappeared into the rocky tunnel, their boat bobbing along with the river’s gentle current.

Fiafia exhaled. “We did it,” she said, her eyes wide as she stared back at the mouth of the tunnel and the cavern beyond as it receded into the distance.

“Let us pray so,” River said, “but we’re not out of this yet.”

“You did wonderfully.” Bera turned to the sixteen-year-old. “I don’t know if I could have been so calm at your age.”

Fiafia chuckled, pressing her hand to her heart. “I certainly don’t feel calm, but thank you.” She reached for the oar. “I can take that. I’ve spent most of my life on some kind of boat.”

Bera gave it to her and kept one hand on her sheathed sword. She did not feel safe yet.

As they floated along the underground river, a few patches of bioluminescent plants lit the tunnel around them, but at times, it was black as pitch. Bera cocked her head, listening to the lapping of the water and soft splash of Fiafia’s oar as she expertly guided them through the darkness.

Finally, after about an hour, daylight blossomed ahead — an end to the tunnel. As they drew closer, Bera squinted against the harsh light. She could make out a lake and the outlines of mountains beyond.

“We did it!” Fiafia cheered, pumping her fist.

Suddenly, a shadow eclipsed the light at the end of the tunnel. The towering form of an earth elemental stepped into view. A guard posted at the exit.

“Hold on,” River said, his hands outstretched. The water under them quickened its pace. “I’ll try to speed past this creature!”

The earth elemental slammed a massive fist into the side of the tunnel with a tremendous crash. Huge rocks splashed into the river, their jagged edges rising from the surface and effectively blocking the boat’s path.

“No!” Bera stood and yanked her sword from its scabbard.

“I got this!” River raised his hands, his face twisted in concentration.

The water level rose as well, creating a swell beneath them that would take them over the blockade. The boat accelerated even faster. Fiafia worked hard at the oar, moving it quickly to either side of the boat, keeping them centered and away from the tunnel’s walls.

“I can’t hold it much longer,” River said through gritted teeth, his hands shaking.

They raced toward the earth elemental. It raised its fist, prepared to bring it crashing down on the little boat. Bera vaulted to the front of their vessel with a battle cry. She slung her shield through the air like a discus. It sliced through the elemental’s wrist, severing its clenched fist, which splashed into the river. The creature stared at the stump in confusion. As the little boat surged through the mouth of the tunnel, Bera swung her sword in a wide arc. The creature’s head splashed into the water as well, and its body followed.

They were free. River collapsed into his seat, panting with exertion. They glided into a wide lake bordered by mountains, leaving the tunnel and the terrible Realm of Silence behind them.

At last, Fiafia stopped rowing, and they slowed to a stop. They looked at each other and began to laugh. They were breathless, hurt, and exhausted, but they were alive.

Fiafia shook her head and wiped at her eyes. “I can’t believe we made it,” she said. “I’m sorry about your shield, Bera.”

The dwarf waved a dismissive hand. “It protected us. That’s all that matters.”

River swiped his wet hair out of his face. “Well, that was horrible, but at least we have information.”

Bera nodded. “Indeed. What has invaded this land is called the Chaos Legion. We also know who some of their leaders are.”

“They also seemed concerned about someone,” River pointed out. “Someone they thought was coming.”

The three considered for a moment. Their boat bobbed gently on the glassy surface of the lake.

“We need to find allies,” Bera said firmly. “We must fight back. Hope is not lost. I’m certain we can save Praetoria.”

A broad smile crossed River’s angular face. “As am I.”

Fiafia tipped the point of her hat. “Count me in.”

The pirate’s daughter took up the oar and paddled toward a break in the mountains. They did not know what lay ahead, or even where they were, but they had a mission, and they would fight the Chaos Legion together.

Collect special Limited NFTs related to this story at https://www.splintertalk.io/nfts/

Credits:

Story: Ashley & Scott Roepel

Editor: Joseph J. Shimerdla

Character Art (cover): Candycal

Illustrations: Mateusz Majewski

Voice Acting: David Dahdah

Music / Post-Production: Isaria

Creative Director: Nate Aguila

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