"Why would you build a starship out of stone?"
Warmth embraced him, far more than he'd expected to find on the dying stone ship. The hallway smelt strongly of charred meat, and the lack of light surrendered to a darkness that could potentially hide a hundred Dwurkn marauders, yet it was the stone that unsettled Vievel the most.
"Why do the Dwurkn do anything?" Halcyen answered him from behind. "They're savages," she said. There was a dull humming that was audible throughout the corridor, and Vievel had to strain to hear Halcyen's words even though she was standing close behind him. His cousin, two years his elder, had bullied him into this little expedition of theirs, and yet it was him who had to go first. Typical.
Vievel heard Halycen's footsteps slow without warning, the light from her flashlight dipping slightly and angling downward. A surge of paranoia struck him, that his cousin had seen something ahead of them in the darkness that he'd missed; Vievel quickly raised both his sidearm and his own flashlight as high as the ceiling would allow, but the newly illuminated passage revealed nothing bar a narrow polished marble hallway stopping at a junction fifty feet ahead of the pair. He glanced over his shoulder to see Halcyen now bent slightly forward, her fingers pressed to the floor and her long arm stretching out from her shoulder to the ground whilst she remained standing.
"It's so smooth," she said. "I can't feel a single imperfection in the stonework". Frowning, Halcyen removed her glove, slipping it off deftly with one hand, and then pressed her bare palm to the ground. The moment her skin made contact with the ground she jerked her hand quickly away again. "It's so cold," she murmured, stretching out her fingers as if to feel the contrast of the air.
"What are you playing at?" Vievel snapped. Sweat beaded on his forehead, making his hair feel heavy. "It's bad enough you convinced me out, but there's nothing here!" he yelled, quite unreasonably. They'd only snuck from their home ship less than twenty minutes previous, hardly time enough to find anything to make the trip worthwhile. It had however been the longest twenty minutes of Vievel's life so far, and so the fright and paranoia he'd felt a moment ago now stoked an anger in his chest. "Stopping to stroke at the stone is hardly reason enough to defy my father, your father-". His words caught in his throat a he felt his tight metillion hauberk pinching around his neck. The narrow passage, barely twice his shoulder width, was beginning to feel very restrictive. Though his head didn't quite touch the ceiling of the corridor, he could nevertheless feel it slightly above him, causing the top of his long flaxen hair to tingle, and his mind to race along with it.
"I'm not a childe for you to scold Vievel," Halcyen said. She snapped up to her full height, craning her neck slightly as she stooped underneath the low Dwurkn ceiling, unable to stand to her full height in the cramped quarters. Her voice dropped into a resentful growl as she continued. "I was looking for the marks of their marauders, and footprints from the you-know," she whispered. "The heavy-set Dwurkn chip the floor as they march. No marks. That means this isn't a major route, no-one comes through here." Halycen explained.
"That-" Vievel clenched a fist around his sidearm. "That makes sense". The only Dwurkn he'd seen were in books and on the LAN, but it did seem like it would be a tight squeeze for any normal-sized Dwurkn. Though he was portly for his age, lacking the growth spurt that Halcyen wore with obvious pride, Vievel knew he was a damn sight thinner than any Dwurkn; yet the corridor continued to feel tight and pressing even to him. It would've been difficult for a Dwurkn to squeeze its way through. For a moment Vievel was sure he could see a flash of superiority crossing over Halcyen's slender face, but just as quickly as it appeared it was gone again, and it crossed his mind that perhaps he'd imagined it.
"Sorry, it's just a bit- ah nevermind," he said, cutting himself off before he let slip his fear of confined spaces. Halycen didn't need any more ammunition. "Do you think father and uncle's company have found anything of interest?" Vievel asked, eager to change the subject. As he began to walk he heard a snort from close behind him.
"They ought to, it's a big ship. For a frigate anyway".
"They're going to be mad when they find out we're missing," Vievel mused, ignoring Halycen's snort.
"I can handle myself, and you-" Halcyen paused for a moment. Out of the corner of his eye, Vievel noticed her grinning.
"Well, I can handle myself".
"Illandr," Vievel cursed at his cousin's teasing. He rolled his eyes dramatically and sighed. Halcyen laughed at her own joke, her flashlight wobbling as she did. "Whatever. I bet I'll loot twice the spoils you do," he said, finding his good spirits again. He picked up his pace so that he could meet the intersection before Halcyen did.
"Bet accepted," Halcyen yelled from behind him.
Vievel drew up to the intersection with his shoulder pressed up against the leftmost wall. The stone chilled him through his hauberk, the thin metillion metallic composite doing little to shield him from the temperature. Vievel leant back from the wall and adjusted his knapsack, shifting it to the other shoulder so that it was a barrier to the wall's chilling touch. The wall's temperature was a staunch comparison to the heat of the air around it, unnaturally cold despite the thick and muggy warmth that it pressed up against. He inhaled deeply and found the air to be a great deal more pleasant despite the warmth, lacking the worst odours that pervaded the earlier parts of the passage. As he exhaled Vievel glanced towards the right turn in the corridor. Even with his light held up he couldn't make out much in the way of detail, it looked as shaped and uniform as the long passage they'd been walking down before, one of a many that led back to the messy boarding hole their house ship had made. Halcyen stepped up beside him and ducked down, crooning forward as she did so she looked past him and down the opposite way.
"Looks clear," she said.
"Clear here too," he replied. Halcyen stood again, blocking his view of the right hallway as she turned to look at it herself. The humming that had been present earlier, closer to where their ship had broken into the passage, was now a dull murmur.
"There's a door, about five feet along, embedded in the wall," Halcyen said, though Vievel couldn't make it out.
"Anything else?" he asked. Halcyen didn't move. The lack of an answer bid a new bolt of anxiety to run across the back of his mind. "Nothing else?" Vievel asked again, quieter than before. He felt his voice trailing off in the darkness. He didn't doubt Halcyen's eyes, she wore lenses which gave her much better sight than most. The lenses were the same model as the ones he should've been wearing also, though he loathed how they looked on his face. The two of them were the only two in the family who needed lenses, even if he often managed to forget his.
"No, nothing else," Halycen said, shaking her head. She turned back toward him and flinched as she came face-to-face with his flashlight. It illuminated her and reflected off of her lenses, silvery hair and the metal loop earring that hung from her pointed ear.
"Sorry," Vievel said, lowering the flashlight slightly so it didn't shine directly toward her.
"You first," Halcyen said. A strange smile flickered over her face. A clear stiffness mingled along with it as she refused to meet his eye, even temporarily, and her breath grew shallow and measured. The darkness behind his cousin conspired along with the moment, casting an uncertainty over the world in front of him; it passed along the apprehension to his own body as if it were a sickness that could leap from person to person. Vievel shivered, despite the warmth of the corridor.
He pressed forward, pushing past his cousin. His shoulder briefly found purchase in the arch of Halcyen's arm as he forced his way past her, and she instinctively pushed back. Her push sent him forward slightly and he collided with the wall with his opposite shoulder, freeing him despite the discomfort. A dull ache radiated from his shoulder and upper arm, where her arm had struck him.
"ow-," Halcyen started as Vievel slipped free of their tangle. "-how by Great Ganymede do the Dwurkn move around this place?" she said. The two of them combined were only slightly wider than a typical adult, by the standards of the average Aælfir at least, and most Dwurkn were certainly nowhere as slim. "The corridor before was barely big enough for the two of us, and this one seems smaller still, yet they're all stout fat beasts," Halycen said.
"Maybe they don't," Vievel replied. He grazed his knuckles against the wall as he walked further along it, a solitary finger free from the grip around his sidearm and tracing no particular pattern but an aimless line as it ran along the stone. The chill of the stone again unsettled him. It passed through his finger and caught on the bones beneath, even while the back of his hand still sweat beneath his metal gauntlet, damp from the stiflingly thick air that surrounded it.
The walls were angled slightly. As Vievel traced along the left-most wall with his free finger he was sure that they were slowly tapering in. As he approached the door, a three-handled metallic hatch that he felt foolish for missing before, the walls seemed to give up on any pretense of subtlety and were narrowing with increasing effort, hurrying into each other's embrace. Had the corridor been turned on its side what was once a barely noticeable incline would have by now become a semi-steep slant. Trying to shake off the feeling that everything was closing in on him, Vievel focused on the hatch itself. It looked a great deal like the doors that locked the maintenance shafts on his home ship. Though it was made of different materials, and the handles were a different shape, everything was in more or less the same position. His eyes managed to follow the edges of the handles until he was again staring at the walls, and again he was swallowed by the feeling that the corridor was going to close in on him. The sloping of the walls did little to help his imaginings as beyond the door they managed to actually meet, joining together to form a final curved arch and a set-in square alloy vent with collapsible shutters attached to its front.
"I think this is a maintenance passage," Vievel mused, quickly glancing back at the three-handled metallic door in front of him. "The hatch - it's too small to be a normal door. This has got to be for maintenance," he said. The boarding hole their house ship had made had left little evidence of what passage was for what; Vievel and Halycen had chosen the smallest they could find, the one that no other boarding party would have decided to take.
"Makes sense," Halcyen murmured. Her voice carried across the gap between them in the relative silence of the passage.
"What are the maintenance passages like on other Dwurkn ships?" Vievel asked. Unlike his own, Halycen's father had permitted her to accompany more than a few expeditions.
"Well, they're all different…" Halycen began. Vievel turned to look at his cousin briefly. She was standing beside the intersection still, sheepishly avoiding his gaze.
"What about the last one you were on?"
"It wasn't like this," Halycen mumbled. Something about the way she spoke needled at Vievel.
"What class of ship was it?"
"Oh- I can't remember," Halycen said, shaking her head. Vievel caught his cousin's eye.
"I would. Hal- Hallie you've been on a Dwurkn ship before, right?" he asked. The question sounded more pleading than he would've liked.
"Well, I've been on-" she started. "Ships always have a similar structure," Halycen's voice began to trail off slightly. "No," she confessed, pursing her lips.
"You swore you had!" Vievel's flashlight danced over the narrow passage as he swung his arms in exasperation. His resolve flickered, a candle now caught in a gale of doubt. "You promised you knew where to go and what-"
"Vievel-" Halycen's cheeks flushed red, redder than they already had been in the warmth of the corridor.
"I'm going back," Vievel said. "This is dwurkabrained," he said. "We're scrambling about blind if you don't know where we're going".
"Look, whether I have or haven't been on one exactly like this, we're here now aren't we?" Halycen offered, momentarily forgetting her embarrassment. "Think how jealous Ria and Eaden will be!"
"I don't care," Vievel lied.
"Think about your duty," Halycen said. It was the worst appeal she could've made, and Vievel laughed as she finished speaking.
"There's little that I'd rather think less of," Vievel said. If that was the best Halycen could do to convince him - Vievel began to adjust his knapsack, hoisting it onto his shoulder so that it sat more comfortably.
"Well think how impressed uncle, your father, will be if you find something then," Halycen said haughtily. "Haven't you reason to prove them wrong?" Halycen's words stung at him but still Vievel shook his head, perhaps partially in spite, to deny her what she obviously wanted. Halycen continued speaking, her voice dropping to a whisper. "Think about what you might be missing the opportunity to see," she said, her eyes wide and cautious as she spoke.
"I-" Vievel felt the protest die in his throat. Halcyen's eye caught his, pleading her case silently. The risks were great, he knew that logically. The whole trip was probably a mistake, yet… Vievel suddenly found himself willing to disregard the risks. It was as if his mind was so focused on what he might find, what he could see, that it pushed the risks to the back of his brain and hid them away in the deepest darkest parts of it. He cursed Halycen silently. It had taken her a moment, but she knew exactly what to say to push him onward. Whenever he considered the ship's bounty it was as if the risks didn't exist. He grappled with the decision to carry on a moment longer but already he felt his objections melting away. "Oh fine," he said, feigning reluctance. A slight feeling rose in his gut that he was perhaps making a mistake, but just as before, he decided it to be a feeling not worth dwelling on. His decision was already made, and besides, he was halfway through the storm as it was and he stood as much chance of getting caught if he went back now, than if he went back later. Sufficiently pleased with his rationalisations Vievel turned away from Halycen, offering a grunt of annoyance as he did, and back to the hatch in front of him.
A returning twinge of claustrophobia pressed up against his thoughts as he began to doubt whether the corridor right in front of him was large enough for just himself alone. Vievel moved up until he was in front of the hatch, feeling both his shoulders come into contact with opposite walls as he closed in on it. His knapsack squeezed itself up against his back as it was forced it into a tighter space. He could feel the contents poking into his back even through his thin metal hauberk. The sensation of being wedged in quickly escalated until he was confident that the passage was alive and intended to hold him still and ultimately crush him. Despite his best effort to control his anxieties a new panic-driven sweat beaded up upon his forehead, complimenting its warmth-borne predecessor.
"Well?" Halcyen urged from behind. Without looking Vievel could feel his cousin now standing close behind him. "Open it," she said, pointing toward the small door. As his cousin spoke Vievel drew in a quick sharp breath, realising that his tenseness had been working against him. The sharp intake relaxed his shoulders and at once he felt free of the tunnel's chilled stone, no longer being pressed in by both sides at once.
"Right," Vievel said. Without meaning to he exhaled just as hard as he had inhaled a moment before, the force of it leaving him out of breath slightly. Vievel began to breathe in rapidly, a short and sharp pattern of breaths shallow enough so that his cousin wouldn't hear.
Moving his sidearm-holding hand away Vievel stretched out with his fingers to grip the nearest of the handles on the doorway. The door was raised off the floor, the only part of the wall that was anything but smooth and uniform, and the oblong metal hatch was seated into a groove, cushioned by a string of four small vents which were each in turn surrounded by collapsible shutters. The vent shutters were thin and slender, the younger brothers and sisters of the shutters attached to the much larger square alloy vent on the curved far arch. Two of the three handles gleamed as the light caught them, looking new and clean, perhaps even recently polished, but the third of the handles was much darker and marked, reflecting very little light. The third handle, the closest of the three, seemed to be covered in a thin but almost all-encompassing layer of soot and blackened charred dust. Vievel reached for it apprehensively, intending to pull back if the handle was hot to the touch, but the second his finger grazed the handle he could tell it was chilled. He pulled back his hand, feeling the coarse surface of the handle as he withdrew it, and saw the soot fall from the handle. A black smudge lingered on his left fingertip. If the handle had been burnt, it had been burnt a long time ago.
Vievel grabbed the blackened handle, pulling it down and then releasing the remaining two handles afterward in turn. Once all three were locked in the 'open' position he pulled at the hatch, though to no avail. It didn't budge.
"Try pushing it?" Halcyen said, her voice loud in his ear. The light from her flashlight hovered over Vievel's shoulder, wobbling in her unsteady grip; every now and again the unsteady light caught the handles and reflected into Vievel's eyes. He grimaced with each time it blinded him until he averted his gaze entirely, staring down at the floor.
"It's kinda heavy," Vievel responded. He gave the hatch a gentle shove as he did, though it was fixed quite securely into its groove. There was nothing holding it shut on this side of it, at least nothing obvious to him.
"I'll help, shove up," Halcyen said. Vievel looked over his left shoulder, though he couldn't spot anything of his cousin but a dazzling brightness emanating from her handheld light. Pangs of anxiety returned, jabbing at him as he tried to shuffle up the remainder of the corridor. He drew in another deep breath so that he might squeeze up further, but even making himself as small as possible Vievel felt the walls pressing on both his shoulders simultaneously. He quietly resolved to exercise more, starting tomorrow. He cursed himself for forgetting previous resolutions of a similar nature.
As he nestled himself into the arch he felt Halcyen pushing up too, sidling up against him so that her shoulder was pressing into his chest. She placed both of her hands against the door, her flashlight and sidearm clanking softly against the metal as she did. Vievel himself managed to squeeze just a bit further, finding a previously-missed pocket of space for his elbow, and angled his body shoulder-first against the door. In their new positions both of their flashlights cast downward, granting the darkness enough leeway to come between them; Vievel could barely make out any of Halcyen's features despite being less than a foot apart.
"Count to three then we push together, okay?" Halcyen said, counting the seconds. Still somewhat feeling out of breath Vievel didn't respond, but he nodded and hoped that was obvious enough in the gloom.
The hatch didn't swing open loudly, or clatter or clang as Vievel had expected it to, but rather made a quiet unlatching sound as the pair pushed it open. The noise was closer to an intentional mechanical catch than anything metallic or forced. The most comparable sound was the sort of door that was traditional on a terrestrial homeworld, but he'd only heard such sounds on the LAN; no such places existed anymore. Caught off-guard by the sound Vievel was fleetingly distracted and was second to look out into the dark beyond the door, taking a moment to remember to do so even after Halcyen's light rose and shone past him. Vievel lifted his own hand, illuminating the space ahead of him, and a weight that had been quietly placed on him suddenly evaporated.
The corridor past the hatch was five or six times the width of the maintenance passage they stood in, more like a great room than the typically narrower halls that he was used to on his home starship. The wall directly opposite him was marked and scratched in a great many places, and on the right-hand side Vievel could make out a sharp turn, but the rest of it was blocked by the open door. With an escape now in front of him Vievel began to feel a lot less agitated over the tightness of the maintenance passage, even whilst he stood inside it, but still a rising urgency welled up inside him. It pushed him, willed him to step over the threshold and into the larger space beyond. Before he knew what he was doing, Vievel ducked underneath the hole and stepped out.
"Viev- stop!" Halcyen whispered sharply. Vievel didn't stop at his cousin's command. The words washed over him like background noise as he beheld the wall straight ahead of him, his light following his gaze as he took in the scene in front of him. It was quite unlike any other Vievel had ever seen; standing in the wider, thankfully empty, corridor, Vievel was able to see the wall in much greater detail than he had before. The scratches weren't scratches or random markings, they were purposeful etchings, layered in strips atop each other and stretching the entire length, at least as far as Vievel could see. Each strip or layer depicted something different. Scenes of short stout figures marching in groups made up one layer, the same short figures rising from rectangular one coffins made up another. A third layer was reserved for what looked to be conversations or dealings between the small figures, and a fourth was marked with a series of purposeful runes and glyphs spelling out something indecipherable to Vievel's eye. The entire scene rivaled the finest Aælfir tapestries, but all Vievel could find for the stonework was contempt. The markings, though they may be purposeful, were wild and angry. The scenes depicted lacked any sort of flow or connection between them. The likenesses were crude and ugly. It was at best on par with the work of an Aælfir youngling.
Vievel was vaguely aware of a light from behind him bobbing up and down as he took stock of the etchings. Vievel heard a loping step as Halcyen ducked underneath the door hatch and made her way over to join him.
"How… primitive," Halycen smirked as she glanced at the carvings herself. She walked up beside Vievel. "Are you done taking in the local culture?" She softly hit him in the shoulder with her sidearm as she spoke.
"Ow-yes," Vievel replied, glowering at his cousin and rubbing his shoulder. He took in his surroundings. Aside from the wall etchings, the corridor was as bare as the maintenance tunnel. Vievel stretched, his arms now able to move freely in the wide hallway.
The air outside the maintenance passage was a great deal cooler than the muggy warmth inside it. Now that he was less distracted by the cramped feeling of the tunnel Vievel the familiar chill of a starship pressed up against his body and passed through with little resistance. The cold rushed from his head to his toes even though he could still feel the warmth of the maintenance tunnel behind him. He shivered and briefly considered stepping back into the tunnel to catch some warmth before he properly ventured out, but the memory of the tunnel's tightness stayed his feet.
"That was foolish," Halcyen said, chiding Vievel. "What if there had been Dwurkn here?" she asked.
"Then both I and the Dwurkn would've been free of that cramped passage," Vievel retorted quickly, not caring for his cousin's tone. He looked down the halls, toward the right-hand turn. "Besides, it's a dead ship," he added. "There's little left here". The corridor was quiet save for the distant humming coming from the far end of the maintenance tunnel, but Vievel imagined on an active Dwurkn ship a hallway this size would've been anything but. As he glanced down he noticed his flashlight reflecting off of the metallic underlayer beneath the cracked stone floor.
It's not all stone then, Vievel thought to himself. The metal underlayer was exposed by an uneven chipping; Vievel briefly wondered if it was the same chipping that Halycen claimed would be evidence of heavy-footed marauders or… he pushed the thoughts down again, trying to ignore them.
"It's a near-dead ship," Halycen stressed. "I heard the scan reports, there's some life still aboard here, somewhere," she said. Her voice dropped quieter than before as her flashlight joined Vievel's, inspecting the broken stonework. "We should be a bit more careful".
"Please, Dwurkn don't scare me," Vievel said, eyeing the turn up ahead. He didn't move.
"Liar". Halycen turned toward Vievel, her light blinding him. Vievel drew his hand up, as much to block the light as it was to stop his cousin seeing his expression. He felt his brow wrinkle as he frowned. He drew in a short breath, his chest shivering as he exhaled unsteadily.
"There are worse things," Vievel mumbled, louder than he meant to.
"Please, those- that-" Halycen started. "The scans would've shown if there were actually such a thing onboard," Halycen said, though she sounded unconvinced by her own words.
"How do you know?" Vievel asked. "It's been centuries, and father seemed pretty convinced," Vievel said. He recalled the flurry of activity when the home ship had finally picked up the scans of the Dwurkn ship they stood upon now. In all his eighteen years he'd never seen such zeal from his father and his father's vassals, never seen such celebration at the culmination of a hunt. It was only when he'd caught a whispered word from the edge of overheard conversations that the excitement, and the fear, had made sense to him.
"You think there's really one here? You think they'll find it?" Halycen asked, a look of concern flashing across her face. It echoed the same concern that Vievel had seen on the home ship, whenever he'd overheard the whispered word.
Vievel's answer was stayed by the distant sound of metal impacting stone. His ear twitched and he involuntarily jerked his head toward the sound, looking directly past his cousin. "Vievel do you think- what?" Halycen interrupted herself as she noticed Vievel's distraction.
"I heard something".