12:43 ST

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Chapter 6: A Startling Encounter

It was almost eerily quiet in the cavern. The river, at least, continued to rush on, and the sound of running water drowned out most of the silence, though the lack of any other ambient noise was still noticeable. Grass grew in abundance, and Tamshir had seen enough of the Cave by now to know that plant-life meant animal-life. Frogs should be croaking here, and birds rustling in the small bushes, but all she could hear was the river.

She settled warily onto a boulder, ears cocked for anything out of the ordinary. Her nose was utterly useless; she’d been sneezing ever since spring started, and she hadn’t been able to smell properly for months now. Seelby thought it might be the pollen in the air—“I know you probably aren’t in the mood,” she’d said, “but the flowers really are extraordinary this year.”—but Tam suspected it was just the usual cause. She had never gotten along well with magic, and it’d gone particularly haywire during the past spring renewal. Though magic levels in the Cave were supposedly back to normal now, Tam’s nose still itched fiercely every day.

She glanced at the river, wondering if it was safe to drink from it. Her canteen was nearly empty, and she didn’t know where the next settlement was. Ledore had provided her with a rough map of the area, but not many Mycenians had ever been by this way, which meant the map was more guesswork than anything else. Tam usually judged these things by watching other creatures drink, but that wouldn’t be possible here.

Nothing strange had happened since she’d entered the cavern, though, and she gradually relaxed enough to start massaging her paws, wincing a little when she pressed too hard on a tender spot. Tam was used to walking long distances, but the terrain here had been hard on her feet. The deeper she’d traveled into uncharted territory, the rockier the ground had gotten. On the one paw, this was good news; Ledore hadn’t been able to see much about the Mycenians she’d asked Tam to contact, but she’d sensed a lot of stone, so all the rocks around Tam now meant that she might be going in the right direction. On the other paw, her feet were growing sore.

Tam looked again at the river. The water flowed by just a few feet away, rushing along on its way out of the cavern. It looked cold, and she thought, almost wistfully, that the water might feel nice on her paws. The current was fast, but Tam was sturdy enough to withstand it, and a strong swimmer besides.

Odd, though, how the water was so muddy. She’d crossed a few rivers in her time, and they’d all been beautifully clear. Ambrose had tried to explain it to her once, going on about natural filtering systems and a specific species of fish, but Tam had tuned out about halfway through the lecture. Ambrose was a wonderful friend, but he did have a tendency to ramble, given the chance.

She heard it before she felt it—a sudden low rumble behind her, almost like a growl, rising from the ground into her toes. Tam shoved herself off her perch, poised to flee, and was promptly yanked off her feet. She yelped as she was tossed over a bony shoulder and landed hard enough to knock her breath away, leaving her lying limp for a moment, stunned.

By the time Tam got her breath back, she’d already been carried to the far end of the cavern. She snapped at her attacker, claws scrabbling against the narrow back, and managed to get a mouthful of mud before she was suddenly deposited on the ground. She landed with an unceremonious thump, but this time, she was prepared; she leapt to her feet again immediately and snarled, ready to face down her attacker.

The river roared back.

Tamshir flinched, but the sound kept coming, doubling in on itself over and over again as it echoed between the walls. She pressed herself against a large boulder, and her attacker crouched beside her, hunching its greater bulk down to the grass. “Brace yourself,” the stranger muttered.

Then the river erupted.

At least, that was what it felt like. Tam couldn’t see anything, blocked as she was by the other creature’s body, but she heard a clap like thunder coming from the banks. Time seemed to hang suspended for a moment, and then there was the sound of water slamming down against the ground. A faint wind ran by, ruffling the edges of Tam’s fur in passing, and droplets rained onto her neck and back. She cursed her nose for failing her now; she would have dearly loved to know what was happening, but she didn’t want to risk stretching her neck out to look.

It ended as quickly as it began. The roaring faded away, presumably moving into the next cavern, and that eerie silence returned. Tam flexed her toes experimentally to check if she could still feel them, and the stranger straightened out of her crouch, stretching out to her full, rather impressive, size.

“Anything broken?” the stranger asked, looking down at Tam.

Tam eyed her. “Not so far.” She shook herself all over, flinging water from her fur, and raised her chin just slightly. “I’m going down to take a look. Are you going to stop me?”

The stranger looked amused, as well she might. She was a Kelph—the facial structure and the size made that obvious, though the fins all along her neck and tail cemented it—and easily large enough to stop Tam doing whatever she wanted. Tam could probably outrun her, but once they got near the water, she’d be outmatched.

“Don’t see why I should,” the Kelph said. “The danger should be over.”

Tam kept an eye on the Kelph as she walked around her, but the Kelph made no move towards her. As she started down towards the riverbank, Tam turned her gaze forward, forced to watch where she placed her paws as she felt the ground shift beneath her feet.

Everything in the cavern was drenched. Water pooled in several places, puddling in the space between boulders or just drowning the grass, and fish floundered many feet away from the river, their tails slapping desperately against the pebbles. Mud squelched between Tam’s toes, and she had to brace herself more than once, digging her paws in to keep from slipping. She didn’t know what, exactly, had happened here, but apparently a large part of the river had removed itself from its bed and thoroughly watered the rest of the cavern.

“Lucky I was here,” the Kelph said conversationally, her voice sounding rather closer than Tam was comfortable with.

Tam looked over her shoulder to see the Kelph picking her way down after her. The creature moved with a surprising amount of grace, given her size and the uncertain footing, and Tam had to tamp down a surge of annoyance. All the other Kelphi she’d ever met had been ungainly on land, at best. It was hardly fair for this one to move so easily, especially when Tam herself was already at such a disadvantage.

“What happened?” Tam asked.

“The river exploded.”

Tam turned back to the river. The water had returned to its normal course, and it sped along at what seemed, to Tam, a perfectly average pace. It didn’t look as if it’d exploded, if you ignored the displaced fish and the fine coat of mud covering everything. “I don’t suppose you’re exaggerating a little, there,” she said.

The Kelph laughed. “Perhaps a little.” She crossed the rest of the way to the river, nudging fish back into the water as she came upon them, and stopped beside a large rock. “I don’t know the term for what happened. I’m sure there is one, but I haven’t come across it.” She ran a paw down her leg and shook away a glob of mud with a flick of a claw. “What I do know is that the riverbed isn’t stable,” she added, looking over at Tam, “and every now and again, after it’s done a bit of shaking, it sends up an enormous wave that does…well.” The Kelph nodded at the sodden cavern. “This.”

Tam grimaced as she looked around. Though nothing had been torn away or broken, it was clear the cavern would take a little while to return to normal. “How often is every now and again?”

“It’s hard to say,” the Kelph replied. “It’s happened twice in the last five months in my part of the river, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s happening elsewhere, too.”

Tam didn’t like the sound of that. She had never been by this way before, but based on what she knew of the Kelphi community, there was no one else around for some distance. The Kelphi had strong ties with one another and were happy to meet every so often, but they were territorial and tended to keep to themselves outside of festivals and big events. She didn’t know how emergencies and natural disasters figured into their routine, but judging by the Kelph’s nonchalance, Tam had a feeling this wasn’t enough to make her reach out.

All the same, Tam asked, “Have you talked to anyone else along the river?”

The Kelph looked sharply at Tam. There was a certain recognition in the pale blue eyes, a coming to attention that made Tam wary. “You know,” the Kelph said, with what Tam thought sounded like feigned casualness, “you’re the first Ineki I’ve met who hasn’t been dazed by what I am.”

“I think there are more pressing matters here,” Tam said. “And anyways, I’ve met Kelphi before. I try not to go speechless every time it happens.”

Tam couldn’t quite keep the sarcasm out of her voice. The Kelph blinked and then laughed, a sharp bark, and whatever sudden tension had been building between them dissolved. “I take it you know a bit about our ways, then,” she said. Tam nodded, and the Kelph added, “So you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that no, I haven’t talked to anyone else. It hasn’t seemed serious enough for that.”

“If you don’t think this is serious,” Tam said, “I’m afraid to know what is.” She edged the rest of the way down to the river, drawing alongside the Kelph and trying to get a better look at the water. There was an odd smell here, just barely detectable through everything clogging her nose, and Tam sniffed hard in an attempt to catch it. She was sure the cavern hadn’t smelled like this when she’d arrived, and she thought she caught a familiar undertone, some bitter note that she’d come across before.

“It smells like this after an eruption,” the Kelph said, catching Tam’s expression. “The water heats up, too, which is the only reason I’m out here instead of in there. It’ll cool down by the end of the day, but I don’t recommend getting in just now.”

“I hadn’t planned on it.” Instead, Tam crouched down, paws planted firmly in the muddy riverbank. The ground was slimy, which made it hard to get a good grip, but she wanted a closer look at the riverbed. The silt was beginning to settle, and she could just see some of the rocks that lined the bottom. “The cavern looks remarkably intact,” she observed, “considering this has happened so frequently.”

The Kelph helped another fish slide quietly into the water. “It’s the first time here,” she said.

Tam glanced sidelong at the Kelph. “What happened to twice in five months?” she asked, before nodding at the fish. “Will it be okay?”

“The fish will find a pocket of cool water to hang out in until it’s safe,” the Kelph said as she straightened up. “And twice in five months in my stretch of the river. This isn’t anyone’s territory.” Before Tam could ask, the Kelph pointed east at a gaping mouth in the wall, from which the river flowed. “My den’s a few caverns over that way.”

If Ambrose were here, he’d ask immediately to be shown to the Kelph’s den. He loved nothing more than getting to the bottom of things. Ambrose wasn’t here, though, and Tamshir, who was rather more conscious of propriety than he was, pressed her lips together as she considered her options. She would have liked to explore the bottom of the river, but the Kelph had said the water wasn’t safe to enter, which Tam was hardly going to question. The next best thing would be to visit the Kelph’s den and examine the damage there, but she couldn’t think of a polite way to invite herself over.

“Has anything unusual been happening in your settlements?” the Kelph asked, breaking into Tam’s thoughts.

Tam shook her head. “Nothing more than the occasional cave-in. We had an earthquake in one of the larger settlements not too long ago, but it’s not the first time that’s happened.”

“Earthquake,” the Kelph repeated.

Tam turned to the Kelph to find her looking expectantly at her. After a moment, Tam realized what she wanted and said, “An earthquake is exactly what it sounds like—the ground shaking. It feels like a cave-in, I guess, except from the ground up.”

The Kelph hummed beneath her breath, thoughtful. “That may be what’s happening,” she said. “I was at the bottom of my pool, once, when the eruption started. The floor tore itself up.”

“That wouldn’t heave all the water out, though.”

“It would if it shook hard and long enough.”

Tam couldn’t imagine how that would be true, but she didn’t know enough to say otherwise. It was like a bowl, maybe; when you moved it hard enough from side to side, whatever was inside would slop out over the rim. The river was considerably larger and deeper than a bowl, but if there really had been an underwater earthquake, and if it really was that strong, she supposed it could be possible. Anything, theoretically, was possible in the Cave.

The water had more or less cleared now, and Tam could see most of the riverbed. Everything had been jumbled up, as was to be expected, but nothing looked glaringly out of place aside from that. She didn’t know what she had been expecting to find, but whatever it was, it wasn’t there.

Tam straightened up out of her crouch and pulled distractedly at some mud clinging to her elbow. “What does — “ she started to ask, only to sneeze hugely almost as soon as she’d opened her mouth. Five more sneezes followed in quick succession.

“Well now,” the Kelph said, sounding simultaneously amused and impressed.

Tam pressed a paw to her nose in an attempt to fend off the next sneeze. When her nose stopped itching, she cautiously lowered her paw and said, “I’m sorry. Allergies.”

“To the water?”

“Magic, actually.” Tam rubbed her nose against her foreleg, trying to clear it up a bit, before taking a step back from the river. “High concentrations of it make me sneeze.”

The Kelph raised her eyebrows. “This is a fine place to call home, then,” she said. “There’s only magic everywhere.”

Tam shrugged. “It’s not so bad. The allergies really only act up during spring, when the magic’s been renewed.” She sneezed again, a much smaller one, half-stifled against her leg, and retreated another few steps. Maybe there was something in the water; the allergies hadn’t been so bad until she’d gotten close to the river. “I’m Tamshir,” she added, belatedly remembering her manners. “Call me Tam. I suppose I owe you some thanks for saving my life.”

The Kelph dismissed that with an airy wave and said, “I just saved you from a drenching. You would’ve been fine, unless you can’t swim.” She dipped a toe into the water and grimaced; apparently, the water still wasn’t safe to enter. “Name’s Carles,” the Kelph added, shaking her paw off and coming up the bank after Tam. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, I’m sure.”

“Would you mind if I told some others about what happened?” Tam asked. “I don’t know if it’s occurred elsewhere, but I know one or two Mycenians who’d have heard about any underwater earthquakes, if that’s what this was.”

Carles considered this, gaze seeking out the hole in the wall from which the river entered. “Sherriveu warned us you were an inquisitive lot,” she said. “It wouldn’t be neighborly to say no, would it?”

“You know Sherriveu?”

“Her friend Ambrose, too,” Carles said, turning back to Tam. “Brown cat Ineki, golden eyes. You might know him?”

“That describes many more Ineki than you realize,” Tam said, with a dry smile, and added, “But yes, I know Ambrose. He’s the one I was thinking of telling, actually. I’m surprised you’ve met.”

“Not personally, but his name’s gotten around. He’s evidently been taking his role as liaison very seriously.”

That sounded like Ambrose. His first love would always be knowledge, but ever since Ambrose and Tam made first contact with the Kelphi several months back, he had changed tacks and gotten more involved in promoting strong land-water ties. The Kelphi had a difficult time maneuvering on land, and most Ineki and Drasilli were still wary about getting too close to lakes and streams inhabited by the enormous creatures, but they were at least willing to talk when the occasion arose. Ambrose was trying to help the Ineki, Drasilli, and Kelphi communities get acquainted with one another and gathering as much information about the the latter as he could while he was at it.

“He wants to make sure you’re treated fairly,” Tam said, paraphrasing a conversation she’d had with Ambrose not long after Sherriveu had approached them. “A lot of us like to think we’re open-minded, but after all this time with only Ineki and Drasilli around—it’s a bit much to take in.” This wasn’t really a discussion for the here and now, though, and Tam redirected her thoughts back to the river. “Ambrose won’t disturb you much,” she added. “He’ll probably just want a look at the floor and to ask you a few questions.”

Carles waved Tam’s reassurances away with a casual flip of her paw. “I don’t mind. He’s welcome to look, though there isn’t much to see.”

Carles seemed remarkably unperturbed by it all. Tam realized that she, herself, wasn’t as alarmed by whatever had happened here as she really should be, and she suspected it had more to do with Carles’ calm than with her own cool head. Though Tam was dependable in an emergency, she knew she’d be shaken up by the river’s eruption if not for Carles’ unruffled response to it. Tam supposed she ought to be grateful; she wouldn’t be much use to Ambrose later if she couldn’t keep her wits about her now.

Tam swung her pack around, sliding it down from her back so she could access the main pocket. The bag had taken a bit of a beating and was soggy from the unexpected shower, but the magic-coated fabric at least protected the equipment she’d stored inside. She pulled out one of her notebooks and a small jar of ink, flipped to the map she’d been making of the area, and looked at Carles to find her watching with ears slicked back in amusement.

“How many caverns back is your den?” Tam asked.

“Three if you’re swimming,” Carles said. “Five or six if you’re not.” She raised a paw, two of her claws extended, and made a short, sharp gesture in the space between them. The air grew thick with magic, and then an enormous roll of paper appeared, summoned from some hidden place. It fell to the ground with a heavy whumph and promptly began to sink into the mud.

Carles frowned down at the scroll. “That’s not right.”

Tam gingerly pried the parchment free of the ground, struggling a little to hold up its sodden weight. “What is it?” she asked.

“A map, theoretically.” Carles reached out to grab the other end, which was slipping back into the mud, and made a moue at the slime that dripped into her fur. “I’d just used that spell not two hours back.  Worked perfectly then.”

Tam did her best to wipe away the worst of the mud, but all she really managed to do was smear it into her own paws. She shook one leg, trying to dislodge a clump of grass and dirt, and then gave it up for lost. She’d just have to take a bath later. “The eruption could have disrupted the magic here,” she said. “Do you still have the other map?”

“I gave it away.” Carles took the scroll from Tam, looking faintly betrayed by her own wayward magic. “This river’s been a popular place today,” she added. “I don’t think they came here looking for it, though; they seemed rather disoriented.”

Tam perked up at that. “There were other travelers here?”

“Three Ineki,” Carles said. Her expression didn’t change, but Tam suddenly got the impression that she was being very closely watched, with the same sharp attention Carles had given her earlier. “Do you know them?”

Tam tried to pick her words carefully, though she wasn’t entirely sure why Carles was so interested in her response. “No,” she said, “but I came here looking for a group of Mycenians that might be them. I work with a sorceress back at the main settlement, and she sent me out here to help a few newly-awakened Ineki.”

“Help them?” Carles sounded skeptical.

Tam nodded. “I look for Mycenians who’ve been recently carved and who might not know much about their new home. Most carvers stay to talk a little, to get the new Mycenian oriented, but not all of them can spare the time—or do a very good job of explaining things.” Tam remembered one particularly exuberant Drasillis. He’d meant well, but he’d wound up getting the young Ineki so frightened, she’d hidden in a tree for two days. The poor kitten was still in in the house on the hill, slowly finding the confidence to venture into the Cave. “Ledore sometimes gets a sense of Mycenians who need a little extra assistance,” Tam added, “and then she sends me out to find them.”

Carles continued to watch Tam with something appraising in her gaze, and Tam realized finally that the Kelph was weighing her intentions. “You’re protecting them from me,” Tam said, and she couldn’t decide whether to throw her paws up in frustration or laugh.

“They thought someone was watching them,” Carles replied. “Now here you come, as good as admitting that they were right. You’ll have to forgive me for being suspicious.”

Tam was damp, sore, and really, really not in the mood to sweet-talk someone twice her size into believing her good intentions. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then swung her pack up onto her back again. “That’s fine,” she said. “If you’ll excuse me, though, I think I should head out. I have a group of Ineki to catch up to.”

“No need to get offended,” Carles said. She gave the scroll she was holding a good shake before unrolling it partway, quickly scanning its contents. Then she rolled it up again and held it out to Tam. “For Ambrose. It’s bigger than I’d meant to make it, but I’m sure you can fold it up to fit in your bag. The map’s at least accurate.”

Tam hesitated. “You’re sure you don’t mind us coming by?”

“If I did,” Carles said, “I wouldn’t be giving you this map.” She looked pointedly down at the scroll, and after a moment, Tam took it. Carles rinsed her muddy paw off in the water and added, “The eruptions haven’t bothered me much, but if they’re not normal, it’d probably be best for someone else to come take a look.”

“They’re certainly not normal,” Tam replied, before giving Carles a narrow look. “How long have you been here in the Cave?”

Carles bobbed her head in a noncommittal sort of way. “Not very long,” she said, “but long enough to know my way around.”

Tam didn’t know what to make of that but decided not to press. The Kelph was clearly comfortable here, and it wasn’t in Tam’s nature to pry where she wasn’t welcome. She turned her attention down to the map instead and started to fold it, methodically getting it down to a more manageable size as she said, “If you need a safer place to stay, you’re welcome at Ledore’s. She doesn’t have a river, but there’s a small lake not far from the house.”

Carles laughed. “That’s very generous. I’ll keep it in mind.”

Tam nodded and reached over her shoulder to put the map away. “It was a pleasure to meet you,” she said, looking back up at Carles. “I’m sorry it wasn’t under better circumstances.”

“I’m sure our next encounter will be less dramatic.”

Tam certainly hoped so. Ambrose had a way of finding trouble, though, and she wouldn’t be surprised if he managed to stumble across another eruption or some strange pocket of magic when she brought him back this way. “Maybe,” she said and tilted her head towards the mouth of the cavern. “I should be off. Thank you for your help.”

“Safe travels,” Carles said.

It was an old farewell, one that Tam dimly remembered from a life before the storm and the Cave. Not many Mycenians used it now, and Tam blinked, briefly startled, before returning Carles’ smile and slowly turning away. She looked one last time around her, committing as much of what had happened as she could to memory—Ambrose would want to know everything—and then left the river, setting out once more on the trail of the newcomers.

Tam really hoped she’d come across a pond or stream soon. She’d hate to approach the new Mycenians smelling of fish and mud.