That was the first rule. Every dungeoneer heard that before they even set foot underground. Never, ever panic. You might die in a cave in or cornered by slakers but death was certain if you broke and panicked.
“The leading cause of death on expeditions is losing your shit.” Hilo Tamarand was lectured by the senior caver on her first expedition into the caverns of the old kingdoms as a younger woman. “Keep a calm head on your shoulders and you’d be amazed what you can live through.”
But there wasn’t anyone left alive to see her panic now and so she indulged.
Hilo picked her way over the broken columns of what may have been a temple, greatful for the spires of light giving gemstones that grew throughout this particular cave system. Her strike stone was barely a pebble at this point. It was all she carried with her now, that and her daggers, a frayed length of rope and the even more frayed remains of her composure. She had been trapped in the underground before, but not like this and never for so long.
Weeks. Enough weeks that maybe it had turned into months? Hilo was no Buried Son. She couldn’t tell time for such a long period underground. Her blood was mostly of Engine Child stock but blood wasn’t a honed skill. She had traipsed the ruins of the underground often enough to know the distance between what her people were and what they are now. And since she was no Buried Son she would never be foolish enough to believe that distance could ever be bridged.
There were eight of them when the expidition started. Now just one in the swallowing dark. No supplies and very little hope.
There were things that stalked the cavernous tunnels and narrow crawl throughs. That hung upside down from carved ruined ceilings, damp and sightless and hungry. It wasn’t a good idea to make too much noise but she was so alone. Hilo carried on imaginary conversations with the people she had left up there in the light.
“This was stupid, Ellette. Really stupid. You were right.” He voice thin and echoing among the ruined stone. “I shouldn’t have taken this fucking job.” A tunnel was cut into one side of the cavern and she cut towards it. Even though she was starving a terrified she had at least begun to get something resembling her bearing again, heading towards what she knew to be at least vaguely ‘upwards’.
“I found this amazing crown. Emeralds all over the thing. You would have loved it. I’m sorry I had to drop it.” She muttered, “I was going to pry one out before I sold it and have it set into a necklace for you.”
One of the glowing crystals had grown on a toppled carving of some dead emperors face and Hilo snapped it off. She lept lightly over a sunken crack in the cave floor without much thought, stumbling slightly as she landed. She didn’t stop talking.
“I had handfuls of queens jewels. A solid gold dowser. We would have been set.” She plodded into the dark tunnel on raw feet. “What? I know, I know, Big Girl. Can’t spend if you’re dead. Like I said, this was stu-”
A dull clattering sounded far down the tunnel, stalling her babble. Hilo froze.
Silence for a moment then a low, questioning moan drifted from the gloom. Hilo panicked again, turned and fled beach the way she came, leaping, ducking, bare feet bleeding through her wrappings and in her fear lost her bead on what was ‘upwards’.