9. Streams of Cool Air

Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Claudius Shelawn.

That afternoon the magistrate confirms that there’s a network of tunnels, some natural, some man-made. They were created during a gray elf civil war, and expanded by the smuggling trade 100 years ago, when tariffs were high. Armory records show that the farmhouse connects to the tunnels through a secret entrance behind the privy. There’s a second newly opened cave vent in the milking shed, as well.

The team assembles two hours later. The humidity is oppressive, and the sky is beginning to darken. “A storm cell has popped up to the West,” Brutus says. “Looks like a wet ride back to Liamelia. How’s everyone holding up?”

They all nod. They’re good.

“We have a short list of areas to search, less than an hour before we have to leave. I’m still thinking of our orders. From my perspective, I can’t call this mission a success unless I bring each of you back. Each one of you is a valuable asset. But I also can’t leave the area without making a reasonable effort to determine whether the enemy is hidden nearby, maybe cornered and desperate.

“We’ll search each location in priority order and make a decision onsite how long to pursue each possibility. The groom has been ordered to meet us here with the horses. No matter what we find, or how the search timeline plays out, we will leave here in 45 minutes and ride back to Liamelia. No matter what we find, or if we find nothing at all, troops will move into the area overnight, and will be in place tomorrow morning. Valentine, you know the enemy best. How do you think we should proceed?”

For an instant, Valentine feels all the old discomfort and uncertainty. There are many possible ways to go wrong, many mistakes he could make. He’s afraid he’s placing them in danger, or asking them to chase a mare’s nest. His intuition is strong, though, and it’s based in solid knowledge. He feels unprepared to make this call, but no one else there is ready to make it, either. He clears his throat and begins:

“We’ll search together as a team. Brutus will issue any orders, and all final decisions are his. Brutus and I will lead, and keep Hector with us to evaluate any tracks. We’ll have to treat every area as unsecured, so I’ll ask Sextus and Tarquin to keep weapons drawn and cover the three of us. Itys, keep track of time and weather conditions. Call out the time at 30 minutes, 15, 10, 5 and every minute thereafter. Squawk any changes in weather.

“Natural caves are dangerous even in the absence of the enemy. No one here is equipped for the conditions underground. No one goes underground without an explicit order from Brutus. Don’t step or reach where you can’t see.

“We’ll start behind the privy. Itys, how much time do we have?”

“Forty-two minutes.”

The magistrate’s plans show the passage opening in relation to the privy. Unfortunately, the privy has changed location frequently, in keeping with local custom. Brutus soon orders the team to fan out and search in a push-broom pattern. “I’ve got something,” calls Hector after several minutes. “A lot of undergrowth moved to conceal something — ground leveled and brushed to conceal footprints.” The others rush over.

“Thirty minutes,” Itys notes. Hector is examining the ground, scribbling notes. “This has all been moved into place recently. Tarquin, help me lift these creepers.” There, under a collapsed pile of creepers, is a 6’ x 6’ trapdoor. They examine it carefully, see no sign of traps. Hector, Sextus and Tarquin draw weapons and position themselves; Valentine and Brutus heave it open on a count of three, revealing an empty underground room. It’s clean, as if it’s been swept out regularly. There’s a slight odor of smoke, and a set of steeply pitched stairs leading further down.

“You want to search it?” Valentine asks Brutus.

“I don’t have the right mix of assets to go down there. Either we find Drow and get slaughtered, or we waste the time remaining and don’t find any Drow. What’s your feeling?”

“Totally concur. It’s get killed or find nothing. The bonus option is, someone breaks a leg and we have a rescue mission on our hands.”

Brutus nods briskly. “Seal it up. Let’s move on. Tomorrow we can have troops clean it out and engineers undermine it or fill it in.” Brutus notes that it’s in direct line of sight of the farmhouse: “If they were here, they’d definitely feel threatened by that caravan. What’s next?”

“The cave vent in the milking barn. Itys, what’s the time?”

“Twenty-two minutes. Lightning showing to the Northwest.” And, indeed, the air is freshened with rain. Valentine feels drops on the back of his neck and one cheek.

The floor of the milking shed looks unstable where it hasn’t collapsed, and one side is a chaos of split floorboards like and abandoned game of Pick-up-Sticks.

Brutus asks, “Hector, any sign it’s been disturbed?”

Hector prowls around the perimeter, peering about. “Hard to tell. It looks like it’s shifted with the rain.”

They all feel sudden, acute discomfort at the thought that rain causes cave-ins and sink holes, and that they’re at the end of four days of continuous storms.

“Fifteen minutes,” Itys says.

Hector sketches a few details on map paper, then says, “That shit looks really unstable to me. If the Drow want to root around in there, I say, let them.”

Brutus glances at Valentine for concurrence, and he nods. “Yeah. Let’s take another look at the vent in the farmhouse cellar. Time, Itys?”

“Twelve minutes.”

They file through the kitchen, flinching at the sounds their boots make on the floor. The wind has picked up, dispersing the flies. They file down the stairs one by one, Brutus, then Valentine, then Hector, Sextus, Tarquin. Itys keeps watch at the top of the stairs. “Ten minutes. Rain picking up. Strong wind from the Northwest.”

They fan out at the bottom of the steps, in front of the cave-in. “I’ll need to light a torch,” says Hector, “The only IR pattern I can see is you guys.”

Valentine says, “Wait. Hector, come here.” He passes his hand over the caved-in area. “Feel that? There are streams of cool air.”

“Yeah. Is that the smell?”

“Yeah. It’s not like regular dirt. It’s wetter, more alive. How good is your darkvision? If we remove some of the noise, do you think you could see it?”

“Maybe. It’s worth a shot.”

Valentine signals the others to retreat up the stairs to the pantry and kitchen. “There. Now give it a moment.” They wait for their eyes to adjust further, separate to remove each other’s IR signatures, soften their gazes. “There. Do you see it?”

“Yeah.” A faint pattern emerges, a swirl of cool air dark against the warmer surface earth. They both see a dramatic dark swirl like a velvet curtain billowing upward. The earth has exhaled. “Fuck,” Hector murmurs. The curtain slowly dissipates.

“How big do you think it is?” Hector asks.

“I have no idea. It feels like there’s a lot of open area down there — a large volume of air pouring out. Can you see the opening?”

“Five minutes,” says Itys.

They find a slit that seems to be the source. Valentine takes a flat stone the size of his palm, feeds it through. After two full seconds, they hear a faint, echoing plunk. They both draw back instinctively.

“Four minutes.”

“I think that’s all we need to know,” says Valentine. “Want to take up spelunking?”

“No, I’m good.”

“You sure? You seem like the type — a burly fellow, probably a strong swimmer.”

Hector laughs. “Fuck you, man”

“Three minutes.”

They ascend into the kitchen, gloomy with the twilight and the storm’s approach. Brutus barks at the groom the bring the horses around, and he leads them up in a string. Valentine tightens down the girths on the roan, gets an angry eye roll and curled lip for his pains. As they leave, lightning splits the sky and the rain begins to pound down around them.

After they pass through the storm, Hector asks, “So you spent time there?”

“In the Underdark? Yeah, from age three on.”

“That’s crazy.”

“It sure seems that way now.”

“How do people live down there?”

“Very differently.” Valentine laughs. “I’ll tell you what, though. We do shit all the time that seems risky to the Drow. Let me think of an example. OK, fire. The Drow don’t light fires in their homes for obvious reasons: fires consume oxygen. So when I first got aboveground and was living with wood elves, I couldn’t believe that wood elves actually light fires in their own homes and then go into a trance. It was months before I could go into a trance comfortably in the presence of a fire. I felt like going around and telling people, look, that’s fire, it’s as dangerous as shit, and it’s in your home.”

They both laugh. The ice is broken, and soon Hector is telling Valentine what it was like to grow up a half-elf in Liamelia, and about his half-elvish girlfriend, and how they plan to have kids, and they wonder which parts will be elvish and which will be human.

“Do you sleep?” Valentine asks.

“Yeah, but she doesn’t. She goes into a trance, like you guys do. It’s funny. We used to argue about it when we first got together, which was better, whether one of us should switch. Now I think it’s because her mom is an elf and mine is human — if your mom doesn’t teach you the trance thing early on, you can’t pick it up later.”

They arrive at Liamelia near midnight, exhausted and travel-stained. Valentine is so tired during the hot wash that he can hardly stand. He agrees to brief Xardic in greater detail the next day, walks back to his lodgings, falls into bed, feels his breath and heartbeat. He finally starts to relax, to stretch out and lie limp. His mind spins back over the last two days, and he follows his breath like the clue to a maze. It swirls around him like the familiar, cool darkness from a cave vent. Valentine is calm, secure; he remembers who he is.

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