Thus San refrained from making any more promises, and merely tried to reassure the Murp as best he could. At length the Murp did calm down enough for San to lead him deeper into the cave. This one was roomy too, the entrance being relatively wide, and almost immediately opening up to an immense cavern. Try as he might by shining his flashlight this way and that, San couldn’t see the ends of it. It must have gone on a long way.
The portion that he could see, at least, was filled with stalactites and stalagmites. The former he could only see by shining his flashlight up. At least the ceiling was visible, though he immediately noticed that the two of them weren’t alone in there. Bats, like clusters of butterfly eggs, hung from the ceiling. A few of them detached from their perches and flew about in protest.
The light from the flashlight must have upset them somehow, enough for them to do that. But thankfully none flew very close; and San turned his flashlight away, so they didn’t cause much fuss after that. But it had been a close one. If the whole flock of bats had panicked and flown wildly about the cave, he was pretty sure the Murp wouldn’t have liked that in the least. And then he would have another case of a creature bolting away from here.
San had had just about enough of that. It had happened the last two times in succession, and he was probably lucky it hadn’t caused any more issues for the man who had had to train them afterwards. But it would be best if it didn’t happen again, for all their sakes.
The Murp was still in the dark, metaphorically speaking. And literally, though no more than San was. He hadn’t been keen enough to look up and notice what San had seen. That was for the best. “Let’s go in a little further,” he said to the Murp, and walked forward a few steps. It wasn’t quite enough for the lead to pull taught. Considering how the Murp didn’t seem to care for the lead very much, San didn’t want to remind him of its presence any more than he had to.
Fortunately, since San was the source of the light by which the Murp could see by, he followed where San went, so long as San didn’t go anywhere too quickly. So they took a sort of meandering pace as they went along one wall of the cavern, which frankly suited San just fine.
After all, he was looking for valuable rocks, and he had to take the time to actually look around for them if he wanted any chance at finding them. He didn’t know enough about these caves to start cutting into the rock as he pleased, and his companion wasn’t really the sort who could offer him any advice in that regard either. Which wasn’t the fault of the Murp, of course, but it meant that San was limited to studying the rock face carefully as he walked. And so a slow pace was all he could really manage, so it was just as well that the Murp didn’t seem in the mood for anything faster.
For his part, the Murp seemed to be content to walk behind San for now. San did have to keep an eye on him, just to be sure the Murp didn’t try to eat anything.
One wouldn’t think there would be anything down here that might interest the palate of a Murp, but after he saw the Murp snuffling at something the first time, San paid much closer attention to where the Murp went and what he was doing. Luckily he was able to catch it in time before the Murp ingested any of it, but he had seen what the Murp was going for: a patch of what was probably fungus, growing on a rock. He didn’t think it looked particularly appetizing, but then he wasn’t a herbivore. He didn’t think grass and hay looked particularly appetizing either.
“If you eat it, you’ll get sick,” he told the Murp. Either the Murp didn’t understand what he was saying, or the Murp didn’t care about the consequences, since San found him at it again not too long after.
From that point on, with some resignation, San committed himself to watching the Murp as well as trying to search the rocks. It wouldn’t do for the Murp to eat something and get sick just because San was negligent in keeping track of what he was doing. It was good that he was getting hired for this sort of thing, just because they did need the money, and the work kept him busy and thus from dwelling on things that he shouldn’t be dwelling on. But it wasn’t the sort of job that he was used to, and that meant it was harder not to make mistakes.
A farmhand really would have been better suited to it. But they had hired him, and he wasn’t about to turn down a job where he could get it. And the more he did it, the more experience he would have, which seemed important in these parts.
After all, there were so many creatures here that he was going to have to get acquainted with them sooner or later. This gave him an excuse, without forcing him to get too closely involved with them.
He didn’t really think he would find anything of value, considering the trip had to be a short one and his companion had little aptitude for the task. But after a while something did catch his attention. There was a… a soft light… No, maybe he had just imagined it. But he felt something, and that something felt eerily similar to the sensation he had felt when he had held a node in his hand for the first time. It wasn’t as strong, but nevertheless, it pulled at him in a way that was at once nostalgic, strange, and a little terrifying.
Fear of mages and their tools were instilled in Xin children from an early age.
Even knowing what he knew now, and having experienced everything he’d experienced - up to and including possession, that greatest of evils - San still felt a shudder pass down his spine. But now he had more pressing concerns, and he knew that a magic crystal fetched a good price in these parts. As it should, considering people here apparently had the means to make nodes without sacrificing their lives for it.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the murp, who couldn’t have known what he was about to be in for. “But it’s about to get a little loud.” With that, San took out the pick, and began the careful process of cutting through the rock where he felt the thrumming coming from.
He knew a little masonry, enough that he wasn’t completely lost and hacking about at random.
His breath caught when he unearthed the first little bit of the crystal.
He paused for a moment, but then he steeled himself and kept at it. Eventually he managed to cut it free, and he pocketed the thing as quickly as he could. The thrumming curiously lessened after he had freed it, which was something he was definitely not going to think about. He didn’t like the idea, or the implication maybe, that it had been trying to call someone to free it from the rock it had been embedded in.
He didn’t like the idea that the magic, whatever it was, seemed to have a will of its own.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said to the murp. His desire to leave was a practical one: he was now carrying something valuable on him, and it was best not to wander about like that for too long. He could drop the crystal off at home and then do something else, but he didn’t want to walk around with it on him.
The murp had no complaints as soon as he realized where they were headed, and now at last the murp picked up the pace. San had to walk faster to keep up. He supposed the murp hadn’t really liked this place very much. Most creatures probably didn’t, though with that in mind, some of them tolerated it surprisingly well.
Still, it was hard to ignore the way the murp seemed so glad to see the light of day again. Proper, strong summer sunlight, which they could see indirectly as they neared the cave entrance, but which didn’t hit them full blast until they had stepped out of the cave into the open air.
“It’s time to go home, isn’t it?” San said to the murp. The murp didn’t answer, or at least not in words, but from the way he began trotting down the trail, San figured that was an affirmative.
By now, these short trips to the caves had become such a regular thing that even Ichaival was beginning to resign itself to their occurrence. It had been against them when it had first found out about some of what had happened to San in his time in the caverns, but in the intervening time, San had managed to find ways around the dragon’s ire. It may have been telepathic, but San had worked for years as an agent of the Watchful Ones. Both his official duties as well as the oppressive conditions that he had worked in had prepared him perfectly well for avoiding or circumventing surveillance.
And then the money had rolled in, and even Ichaival could not argue. But then, San supposed that the dragon did feel some responsibility after all. It had been Seveth doing most of their spending, and San doing most of the work to keep them afloat.
San, for his own part, thought that he had grown accustomed to such trips. He would not have called himself a caving expert by any means, not an expert when it came to dealing with the creatures that he was inevitably charged with taking care of. But he had gotten better at both, incrementally, and he had learned as part of that to keep the trips relatively short, so that he no longer felt quite so out of sorts when he took a job.
It perhaps helped that the creatures he had been handed as of late were of a similar nature to one another. They had all been ungulates of some sort, or in the case of the Pasha, at least ungulate adjacent. The one that he was dealing with today was no different, though it had six legs, which did somewhat complicate what he knew of animal classification.
Then again, as far as animals went, this place and the creatures found here could hardly be said to be governed by normal rules. It was best for someone like him, who was not well versed in animal biology to begin with, not to think too hard on the matter. What mattered was that this particular creature - known as an Equillion - seemed willing enough to walk with him on a lead.
None of them had fought him too hard on this point, actually. Not even the Murp, who hadn’t, as far as he could tell, enjoyed the presence of the lead being attached to his head. The stray thought caught him that perhaps a certain docility had been programmed into their characters on a genetic level.
But then he thought of Roku, who while not prone to excess violence, was certainly no one’s idea of an eager people-pleasing type.
Even now, the cat carried on in his independent way, with little consultation to what the rest of them were about. He caused, for the most part, no problems - this excepting the fact that he demanded very expensive cat food - but neither did he offer his assistance, unless he felt in the mood for it on the particular day or occasion.
San didn’t rely on him for that reason. He was good to have around, and San wouldn’t have chased him away if Roku did not wish to leave, but neither would San pin any hopes on him that might be dashed by his inconstancy.
… Thinking about it though, Roku really was a reassuring acquaintance to have in times like these. If he found himself thinking any unpleasant thoughts about the nature of the labs’ creatures, he could hold Roku up as an example that he knew well.