The group of Guardians proceeded down the stone hallway – eyes wide, voices muted. This section had even more evidence of being heavily trafficked than the last. Small stair-like platforms assisted in the descent, providing stable footing. Various footprints lined the stone corridor; most being paws. One set, however, was significantly larger than the rest. It almost seemed the owner had sunk into the stone walkway under to the animal’s tremendous weight.
Light patter of the group’s footsteps was the only sound present in the tunnel, lightly reverberating off the cool walls. Each pulse of Dahj’s heartbeat resonated through the chest plate of his new, fortified shell, resembling a thumping against the cool stone walls. He considered himself lucky to no longer have hooves that would clop against stone. Instead, his calloused soles scraped nearly silently. Every corner made of stone that jutted out into the hallway was suspicious. Any would make perfect hiding spots for an anxious predator.
Placing his hand at his waist, he remembered that he no longer had his bludgeon; destroyed against the dam. Instead he retrieved the sturdy, pointed stick from his back. Still clean, Dahj was relieved that this tool had yet to pierce flesh, and hoped it never would. It seemed a silly tool to carry around, should he never need it for anything more than digging holes, but he would rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. He grasped the stick tightly in his stone fists of exaggerated size. Even through his fear he managed a light laugh, suspecting that he must look quite silly wielding the tiny wooden weapon.
Brenloru’s rack caught a corner of the ceiling, creating a dull thud followed by a bone-chilling scrape from antler briefly dragging against stone. Festelda let out a stifled screech, nearly jumping out of her skin.
Dahj’s eyes watered as the smell of rot and decomposing flesh became stronger. He wanted to gag, but held it in his chest. They had reached another fork in the tunnel. A greater source of light came from the right, but clearly the source of the smell. The left was dark; seemingly a dead end or storage area. The pouch pulled left.
A low, muffled groan resonated from behind a rock wall they quickly approached after accepting the left hallway. A dead end. The floor appeared to be equally trafficked as the rest, but came to an abrupt stop, blocked by a pile of boulders varying in size. Light was dim, but Dahj was able to spot faint edges. The tunnel had caved-in, either intentionally or naturally.
The area void of warmth made Dahj grateful for the coverage his new suit offered, providing insulation as well as physical protection. He pulled the pelt slightly tighter around his neck as the putrid lake water cooled within the cave, chilling his flesh beneath saturated, matted fur.
The appendage attempted to leap from his pouch from vibrating violently as Dahj stepped closer to the wall. Dahj removed it, holding it in his hand as it twisted and squirmed.
The low came through the stone wall again. “De…signer,” said the voice slowly.
“Land Soul,” Brenloru called back. His voice echoed through the tunnel behind him. “Is that you? How do we get in?”
Festelda hit the noisy moose in the leg with her elbow and shushed him.
“Please, move the wall. Release me,” the voice grumbled in response.
The tentacle leapt forward, latching itself to the stone wall. The entire tunnel trembled lightly as the boulders before them split. Fissures ran throughout with loud snaps and pops, turning them to rubble one at a time. The wall crumbled before the Guardians, granting access to a room made of polished stone. Various concentrations of minerals sparkled in the light of the sun pouring into the room from a narrow split in the ceiling. The stone room’s only inhabitant sat at the far end of the room – its back to the wall.
The figure rose in the group’s presence, bathed in sunlight coming from the celling’s fissure. It did not resemble any creature from Dahj’s plains. One large, oval boulder resembled a torso, carried by four tree-trunk appendages covered in rough bark. Tightly wound braids of thick vines acted as arms, which assisted in pushing the being up into a standing position.
Moss patched various segments of the stone stature, and small plants such as young trees and flowers sprouted from cracks along its body. Its head was cone-shaped and mountainous with various peaks and ridges along the top. As the Soul approached Dahj, leaves and flowers sprouted in the wake of the creature’s trunk-like feet, but withered and died almost instantly in the inhospitable environment.
“You’re… the Soul of the Land,” Dahj said to the figure that towered above him.
Small leaves grew from the shoulders of the Land Soul, hastily flashing colors of green, to orange, then red before detaching and drifting to the ground where they too, withered.
“Yes,” the Soul said. Its gravelly voice came from deep within the being’s chest, as it lacked a face entirely. “You have brought Ohmlur with you, no?”
Dahj glanced at Brenloru with a confused look.
“The Designer’s true name,” said Brenloru, gesturing towards the appendage Dahj held.
part of him” Dahj replied. He held up the tentacle, which wriggled eagerly in the presence of the Soul.
“I see,” the Soul said. “It appears to be weak.”
“Somewhat. Our mission was to replenish it, then bring it back to the Designer,” Brenloru informed him. “We were also meant to look for you, Soul.”
“Well you found me. Because of you, moose. Your medicinal capabilities are truly impressive.” the Land Soul noted with a low growl. “Come, let him feed.” Four tree trunks swung forward in an alternating pattern, leaving behind a trail of moss and small flowers like a carpet on which he walked. Approaching Dahj, he held out one of his vine-like arms. Growing on demand, the vines stretched out and weaved themselves into a flat platform.