San could sense that it was uneasy, and he supposed some of it must be the dark. The cavern he had chosen was not terribly claustrophobic, the tunnel wide enough for three horses to walk flank to flank without touching the walls. Granted, if three horses did as such it would have been something of a tight fit, and training three horses to tolerate such tight quarters with one another would have been no mean feat. But here there was only San and the one, singular reptile; and this being, if not as tall, still at least as wide as one horse - only one, and not two. And the two of them walked more or less single file, with San at the head, and the reptile trailing behind him. There was space enough for them both. But even so, if a creature was not used to enclosed spaces whatsoever, that might have had something to do with it too.
Still, observing the reptile, San rather felt it must have been the dark. His was a modern flashlight, and not the flickering flames of a torch, but the light still moved as San did, and the shadows it cast were still inclined to sway and wobble with those movements. San did not have a particularly shaky gait or hand; on the contrary he was comparatively steady if one measured him against the average man. But even then, it was not possible to be perfectly smooth when one was merely taking a stroll, and making no great effort at it.
And it was these swaying shadows that sometimes caught the wandering eye of the reptile, and cause it to tug them to a stop once again. It happened once, and then twice, at which point San began to recognize the pattern in the factors that dictated when the reptile would act up again.
He no longer paid quite such close attention to the nature of whatever it was that had startled the reptile, since he had learned that there was not much use in doing so. The reptile hadn't done much more than freeze, after all. San himself still sensed no danger here, and for the moment that was enough for him.
Still, it was true that he was in no particular hurry either. He wanted to explore deeper within the caverns, yes, but that was no reason to rush headlong into them. The slow pace suited San well enough, for it gave him time to assess the place. He was not well enough versed in the art of spelunking to be dashing off into an unknown cave, and certainly not with a creature in tow whom he had met only days ago.
With a different companion, perhaps… San thought about this for a moment.
There were certainly others he’d trust to accompany him somewhere dangerous, since that was their livelihood for at least several years among the Watchful Ones. But neither Rei nor Roku had experience in caving either, that he knew of, and with Rei a part of him would always be careful. He knew, too, that she didn’t necessarily like that about him; he understood, a little, that she wanted him to rely on her and trust her. And he did. But he would much rather not see her hurt. And there were places they could go that wouldn’t be as dangerous, or as unpleasant, as these caverns.
He also knew that there were actual creatures who served as proper guides to these places. There were some that sounded quite fanciful, boasting among their apparent number, for example, some small dragons made up of living gemstone, if rumor was to be believed.
All of these creatures used as guides hailed from the mountain caves themselves, and knew its workings better than the people they led. He’d been told he might encounter one himself, if he was lucky.
”Pray it isn’t one of the giant worms,” Roku had said in his habitually smug fashion. San hadn’t been sure whether he was joking or not.
He looked down at the reptilian creature that was accompanying him, and decided that they would have to leave if something else large showed up. San wasn’t confident enough in working with the reptile to stay in an enclosed space with it if a threat made itself known. So far he didn’t see anything, but that was hardly a guarantee. Even the smaller creatures one might find down here might be dangerous; San had never met them, and wouldn’t know until he did.
… Perhaps it had been a bad idea to kill two birds with one stone and bring the reptile with him after all. But so far they were faring well, and it was possible their luck would hold a little longer. At least, their luck with regards to their exploration, anyway. They hadn’t gotten very far, but there also hadn’t been any difficulties, or much fuss with the path itself. The cavern was one long, wide way that only sloped gently downward, so San could proceed without a great deal of caution.
Where they weren’t so lucky was in the matter of… finding the riches that the cat had spoken to San about. San believed they existed; there would not be such a surplus of willing spelunkers if that was not the case. But to find gems lying in wait for him to pick up at his leisure…
He had thought it was a bit much when Roku had first presented the idea, and now he was convinced that his initial assessment had been correct. Thus far there was nothing that caught his eye, no telltale gleam or conspicuous rubble.
It was possible he simply didn’t have an eye for it. Geology was not taught as part of the curriculum when he had still been a schoolboy, and it was not considered a relevant skill among the Watchful Ones. They did teach some elements of masonry, for the city was full of buildings, and sometimes it was useful to know where the weak points were, or where best to exploit certain openings. But as to identifying different types of rocks, especially precious stones in their unpolished state, San could only rely on books to guide him. And there was only so much one could memorize in a short span of time.
This was true even if one made efforts to do so, and San had put in at least some effort, though of course he was hampered, as always, by the fact that he had half as much time as anyone else might in the same situation.
Not to mention, of course, the difficulty of putting those skills into practice. Having had nothing thus far to practice on, it was unsurprising that he had not exactly become a dab hand in identifying them out in the field just yet.
Still, San did keep an eye out, when he wasn’t watching the reptile for signs of trouble. The reptile was still jerking to a stop every so often at stray shadows, but as they walked further in, it seemed to gain some measure of calm. It had seen enough of the dancing shadows to have acclimated to their presence somewhat now.
And after all, it wasn’t as if anything had actually happened. And so the gradual letting down of its guard was almost matter of fact, an inevitable result of their proceeding further in. This made things easier on San, who no longer had to pause and wait so often, nor as long. And in this manner they made better progress.
As they went deeper in, San began to notice other things. The tunnel, which had been surprisingly uniform, now showed pits and grooves along its walls. That uniformity was only of a relative sense, of course; the walls were not so smooth as to suggest polished human construction, though it wouldn’t have surprised him to learn that the tunnel was created by man-made ventures. The path it cut through the stone was still rough-hewn. But it had been of more or less a consistent width, and a consistent height.
There had not yet been any sharp turns or dramatic drops to speak of either, as there might have been in a raw natural cave.
Now it was San who paused on occasion to more closely inspect some part of the rock wall, or some bit of rubble that had caught his interest. The reptile took this with relative good grace, though it sometimes tugged at the lead to urge San to keep going. San found this, of all things, rather amusing. After all, up until now the reptile had been the one demanding that they stop, so it was a little hypocritical in doing this now.
If the reptile became very insistent, San would leave off whatever he was inspecting to humor it. But the reptile was not insistent very often, and San did manage to glean some information from the occasions where he stopped to take a closer look at the rock.
The gouges were made with tools, he thought; here some wandering miner who had come before San had found something valuable and dug it out. That told him that there were at least riches to be had, though the fact that this tunnel had so many of these score marks meant that the fortunes to be found here had already been plundered.
Well, he supposed it was a large tunnel, and fairly conspicuous. It should hardly be surprising that it had been explored already. He figured that anything of real value could only be found deeper in. Here, where someone had evidently gone through and taken the best of what there was to be had already, the things left for him to be found would be rocks of lesser value. And that was if he knew which were those such rocks, rather than rubble rock that was worth nearly nothing at all.
He wasn’t disappointed… That was what he told himself. It had been merely a lark anyway. And yet there was some small part of him that had expected something despite his best efforts to quell such hopes, and that part of him was a little disheartened by the revelation.
Just then the reptile froze, apparently startled by something else. San had grown used to dismissing its false alarms now, and at first he was not terribly concerned. But then he himself registered something, just on the periphery of his senses, and doubt crept in. Perhaps…? Peering into the darkness for any sign of what it might have been, he found himself wishing that Rei were here. She could see in the dark much more effectively than he could. He had trained her himself, though it was her fey nature that gave her the ability to learn to perform such a feat.
Try as San might, he had only strategies to cope with and make the best of a human’s limited ability to see in low light.
If Rei were here, she could have told him for certain what it was, and whether it posed a risk to them. It was a familiar thing now between them, that she would run recon for him while he went about on a job. Never mind that it had been some months, perhaps close to a year now, since they had last done anything of the sort - for he had spent months aboard that ship, barely conscious; and they had stayed here some few months already. It felt as though the time had been less, but San had not been awake much at all for their time aboard the ship, and he knew for certain that he had only had half the days since they arrived.
He wondered if Seveth felt that same sense of temporal displacement that he himself felt. But he did not ask; he did not make conversation with Seveth if he could help it. That the other man was not truly a part of himself had been an uncomfortable fact to swallow at first, but now San found that he was glad for the knowledge. If he had thought Seveth was something that had sprung from his own mind… San didn’t know if he would have been able to make his peace with that. Seveth was such a frivolous, talkative sort, and apparently wholly without scruples or much in the way of inhibition. Indeed, based on what San had seen thus far, he was inclined to think that Ichaival was the closest thing that Seveth had to a sense of moderation, and this from an external source.
No, he would not ask Seveth anything about his experience being… what he was. What they both were.
And yet, there was no one else he could have posed such a question to either. Their experience, while perhaps not wholly unique among all of humanity, was at least unusual. And the business of trying to find someone else who was possessed, much less someone who would be both agreeable and acceptable to speak to about such matters, seemed so unlikely as to be barely the remotest possibility.
There was another movement, just when San had just about given up on trying to see anything after all. It was subtle, slight enough that he almost convinced himself that he had imagined it. But the mental faculties that had carried him through years of Watchful work had not atrophied the way his body had, and he forced himself to be patient and wait.