Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 34
Borkal and Eriksson had no problem hunting alone with Welikro. For them, that was the entire point of this trip.
Welikro had said that, because of all the scary rumours surrounding Egret, not many people were willing to come here so most of its resources were as yet untapped. That they caught a deer on their first night strongly supported his claim. It usually took several weeks, even a month or more, to track down a herd of deer. It wasn't as easy as sitting near the stream to wait for one to take a drink nearby.
The three dreamt of making it big. They couldn't wait to get going. Claude even wondered if they'd be back before sunrise the next morning.
He waved them goodbye and stared at them until they were several minutes gone before turning to the ruins. He couldn't wait to go inside, but he forced himself to calm down and take a thorough look at its outside first.
His caution was at least partially due to all the terrible mishaps that befell incautious protagonists in the various folktales of his old world. An early fortune was all too often accompanied by an early grave.
Even the things Magus Landes left behind weren't treasures by any means. There was no reason to rush in and maybe, just maybe, actually get killed.
He spent the first hour strolling around the ruin, but he didn't notice anything untoward, besides a few dangerously unstable sections. He didn't even notice any insects, the only animal sounds he could hear were the seagulls cawing away above the shore.
He heard a sudden, distant musket shot.
He tried to make a torch from dry pine branches and an old hemp rope. He poured a bit of oil on it, waited a few minutes for it to soak into the rope, then lit it. The oil sprang to smokey life, spewing dirty black smoke in a moderate trail into the sky as the flame danced around the torch's tip.
He'd found what looked like the three entrances Welikro had mentioned. The diary said Landes had lived in the small room near the stone steps. Someone who lived in the basement couldn't have a very exalted status.
No noble would live underground, that was certain. Servants, criminals, and slaves were relegated there. Top servants like the master of the house or the chief chef wouldn't live there either.
That said, the entrance by which Landes had hid his things would definitely not be the one nearest the main entrance, so he could rule that one out. It had to be one of the other entrances. The living quarters were most likely to be nearest the cliff so windows could be cut in for ventilation and illumination. Only actual criminals would be put underground without any view to the outside world.
Unfortunately for him, he couldn't just lean over the cliff's edge to see the windows. The cliff had a considerable overhang, and it dropped right into the sea below. Besides, it was most likely any windows there had been were completely overgrown.
It wasn't such a big problem to check two entrances. Landes' personal belongings were supposed to be basically right by the stairs, so if he didn't find the loose tile near the stairs, he would know it was empty and could abandon the search.
He fashioned six more torches, and headed for the first entrance. He came to the bottom of the dark stairs, and stood frozen for a moment as he stared at the alien basement. It felt nothing like an underground room. For one thing, it wasn't very cramped. The roof was six metres above the floor. The steps weren't normal, either. Steps usually hugged the wall of the room to save as much space as possible, but these just went straight down into the cavern and the light from his torch failed to touch the chamber's walls. One thing that didn't disappoint his expectations, was the stench of sewer.
Welikro had said there was nothing but mud down here. The stench was probably from the rot in the soil that had accumulated here and the lack of proper ventilation to blow the stench away. He was cautious of methane so he tossed a lit torch down the stairs, but nothing happened. Indeed, the torch didn't even go out, so if there was mud, it was at least dry.
He gave his equipment one last check, his dagger, knife, grappling hook, and his mountaineering boots. And he had his matchlock with him as well. He even had a rope ladder. He didn't want to assume the stairs were still intact and then be cut off from his destination because the stairs hadn't held. On top of that, if he followed the stairs down, he'd have to backtrack on the floor below to the spot where Landes' diary said he'd hid his stuff. If he just went over the side using the ladder, he could drop almost directly above the stuff.
He threw one end of the ladder over the side, and let it schlop down into the mud below. Once down in the mud, he raised his torch again. The light vanished into the abyss, neither wall nor furniture could be seen. The mud sucked and clung onto his legs. It was deeper than just two feet, and he'd have to dig it all out of the way to get to the loose tile.
There was no getting around it, so he might as well get to it. He jabbed one of his torches into the mud -- making sure it would stand up and lit it. Once he was at about where he believed the tile ought to be, he plunged two more torches into the mud a bit apart and lit them to give him enough light.
The mud stunk, goodness it stunk! And it got even worse the closer you got to the mud itself. He didn't want to think about how bad it would be once he started digging it up. But he had no choice, so he plunged his small shovel into the mud, holding his breath, and heaved.
About twenty minutes later he stood back up, wiping the worst of the mud from his hands and arms, and looked at his handiwork. Most of the back of the steps were now clear of the worst of the mud, though he could already see it was beginning to creep back in.
Landes wasn't lying after all. He could see a particularly large seam around one tile, it was also slightly uneven with the rest of the floor, and when he tapped it with his shovel, it rang hollow.
He cleaned the mud more thoroughly around the tile, the lifted it by one corner. It didn't budge at first, but then, with a wet, sloppy sucking sound, it came loose. A little mud had seeped in through the seam, but the box inside was largely untouched. It was a small, white jade box about thirty centimetres long, equally as wide, and ten centimetres tall. It, too, would not budge at first, but then, with some more prying, the same wet, sloppy sucking sound burst forth and it came loose, chunks of mud falling off its bottom as it did.
It had heaved quite suddenly and left Claude sitting on his bum, just barely not shoved into the wall of mud behind him, holding the white box on his lap. He stared at it now. He was just about to look for a way to open it, when he heard a low growl. He looked up, and almost right in front of his face two rows of razor sharp, dirty, off-white teeth were screaming towards him.