He was coming to truly hate this mountain.
Though the suite they resided in was comfortable and warm, with two baths, even, and luxurious comforters on the beds – he could not allow himself to enjoy it. Completely preoccupied, he could not stop thinking about Ghia. Her absence made the luxury an obscenity, the comfort cloying.
He punched the wall in frustration – and immediately regretted it, for it was stone. Why hadn’t he just let her come along? Oh, no, you’ll be safer in Atherton. Atherton needs you. Blah blah blah – well, now I need her! Dammit.
It would have been fine – he and Yarrow had made it safely, had friends behind in Atton guarding their backs – before they’d left Bacchanalia Dion had come to Jules and assured him their secret was safe.
“What secret?” he’d asked nonchalantly. He didn’t think his friends stupid, but he’d hoped they’d be willfully blind.
“The secret you’re trying to hide by leaving without saying goodbye,” Dion said, a twinkle in his eye. “Don’t worry. Mt. Impri is Atton’s capricious guardian. There was an avalanche here just the other day, didn’t you know? Buried two travellers in it – a tall redheaded woman and her companion. Very tragic.”
Jules stared at Dion for a moment before it clicked. “Oh. Yes. Very tragic. Thank you Dion. For everything,” he added, and the two men embraced. Yarrow was already mounted, waiting at the start of the dirt path, impatient to begin their journey. Dion gave her a wave, then headed back into the tavern.
When Jules had joined her she’d looked unaccountably sad.
“What?” he asked, urging Suki in front of the ex-bellica. “Thought you were glad to be out of here.”
Yarrow sighed and turned her face forward. “Of course I am.”
Jules turned sharply around to regard her, but her face was blank.
They’d ridden in silence most of the way, talking only when communication was necessary. “This pass is fecking blocked too!” “Back again,” “Juno’s Tits, it’s cold!” Upon their settling down inside the mountain, Jules had retreated into his own thoughts.
An enclosed space shared with Yarrow was not doing much for his sanity. The inside of the mountain was large, but there was only so far they could go to get away from each other before they started to double back again. So he’d breathed a small sigh of relief when she’d gone out to hunt, though he’d strongly protested her going out alone. She’d ordered him to stay put.
“You can’t order me to do anything, Yarrow,” he’d said. “I’m not your Chief Medical Officer anymore and you’re not a Bellica.”
She turned and glared at him until he started to fidget, but he refused to capitulate. “No,” she said at length, “but you are my in-law, and if anything happens to you, Ghia will flay me alive.” Neither of them said what the other was thinking, namely, that Ghia could be dead herself. Jules didn’t argue regardless.
“Besides,” the redhead flipped over her shoulder as she left, “I hunt better alone.”
While part of him cursed vehemently at her stubbornness, the other part was glad she was gone and he was free to do…
He’d spent the day bored out of his skull. There was nothing to do in the mountain all alone – there was nothing to do in the mountain, period, but when Yarrow was around they idled their time with snapping at each other and sparring, keeping their tongues sharp and muscles toned. Since she was gone, he trained by himself for a few hours, but soon he was done with all his exercises and then some – a shower to wash off the sweat wasted a little more time, but it still came down to the fact that he had nothing to do.
Somehow the hours ticked by, and now it was getting late. There were accurate clocks scattered throughout the mountain, much to their surprise, and the one in the hall where he paced said it was 2545. Only half an hour to midnight, and Yarrow still had not returned.
He was getting a bit worried, but quieted his mind by assuring himself that she was a trained bellica and perfectly capable on her own. When that didn’t work anymore he decided to explore the servants’ quarters again, if only for a lark.
They’d already explored most of the mountain, discovering such things as a huge room below the banquet hall whose purpose they could not fathom but guessed must be an extra dance hall, or a place for townsfolk to stay in an emergency. But they’d not given much attention to the servants’ quarters, only enough to discover that there were also seven levels, but going down instead of up as the nobility’s did. He didn’t see how this was efficient, but reminded himself that ancient mageks had built and continued to guard this palace of stone – ancient mageks probably also transported servants around.
Now he jogged down the steps to the last level, figuring he’d work his way from the bottom up. It was dark, but Jules had discovered the secret to turning the lights on and off in the mountain. They were voice activated and he knew Ancient Atherian – it hadn’t taken long for him to figure it out. Yarrow struggled with it, even though he’d patiently told her how to do it several times. It usually ended with her swearing and calling for his help as she was trapped in the dark.
The more he practised the long-dead language the better he spoke it and the more he remembered. He thanked the Goddesses he had studied so much of it in school as a child, and that he’d received his mother’s gift for languages. Except what they speak in the Temple, he mentally amended. I have no idea how the priestesses handle that tongue. He tried not to think of Sarai, trapped as she was with the Empress and ordered – ordered! – to dedicate to Umbra. Sarai was strong, he knew, and could handle it – but he didn’t forgive himself for deserting her. Even if he had gone to their father’s funeral for both of them.
Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, he paid more attention to the hallway he was going down and the rooms he intended to explore. Before he could turn to either door on the sides of the hallway, he noticed something strange at the end.
A door that he and Yarrow had not seen before. He didn’t know why he saw it now – it was exactly the same color as the rock and blended in expertly. It was no trick of the light – there was a door there. There was even the little square to the right of it.
Curiosity got the best of him and he pressed his hand to the square. The door slid up and revealed a staircase made of stone going down into the mountain. A strange light glowed where the staircase curved away.
Taking a deep breath for courage, Jules started the descent.