It was only when she walked back to the wall, neatly hopping the small stream without a second thought, that she saw something, a glint that seemed different from the moisture the sweating walls. Moving closer, swapping the digging tools she carried for the flashlight, she could easily make out the reflective gleam of some sort of metal, and, turning the light to her pickax, she could see where the dirt had been scrapped away to reveal the shiny metal of the tool. Reaffirming her previous decision to actually pay attention to the task of mining, she began chipping away the stone surrounding the metallic glint in the wall.
The metal might be worth a handful of credits at least, perhaps just enough to cover the prize. Strange how Walker had not shown any interest in the wall beforehand, but she was still hopeful he might find something as well. There would not be much of a point to using the familiar if he could not find good things for her.
Walker did not have similar thoughts as to his own worth, his mind bent fully to the task of digging. His speed had slowed to a crawl, his claws lightly raking the earth as he carved away another layer of uninteresting stone. Unlike Haix, he did not glance away from the space he had opened up, his eyeless sockets fixed firmly on the rocky floor as if there were a hoard of gems hidden just out of sight. There might have been, but he cared not for them as the first sign of his new prize emerged, a bit of white that might have been barely visible to the lizard with the reflected light of the flashlight.
There was no apparent giddiness, no intense increase in speed as Walker sought to separate one kind of rock from another. It was not too interesting, nor did it have much of a pull as gems did, but he went slowly about it regardless.
The metal stubbornly clung to the wall even as she chipped away at the rock that held it there. It did not take long before she discarded the smaller tools, reasoning that if the pickax had not damaged it when she had been smacking it then it was unlikely to shatter like a rare gem if she should strike too close. And so, with only one or two echoed screams of metal echoing throughout the nearby tunnels, she shattered the last of the stone holding it in place. The metal tumbled free, and she snatched it up before it could bounce and roll its way to the stream.
At the same time, Walker was gripping the pale stone before him with his hardened beak of a mouth, lifting it into the air as he scuttled backwards. He held it for a few more seconds, just long enough to deposit it by the metal tools, then returned to his hole.
Haix did not notice the rock at first, turning the metal over in her hands as she tried to guess its value. It was not particularly large, so it was not as likely to fetch as high of a price as a gem might. It was something at least, even if it was not something she particularly wanted. She chipped away a few of the pieces of rock that marred its surface before setting it down next to Walker's offering. She chirped in surprise as she saw it, reached for it to get a better look at what was surely a gem of some kind-
A rock. She turned it over in her hands, failing to notice anything particularly special about it beyond the hue. Walker had resumed digging, did not look up as she muttered something about him having a rock for a mind. She followed his example a few seconds later, resuming her swings with the pickax with a little less enthusiasm than he was showing.
She kept herself entertained at first by trying to imagine what kinds of creatures would be shown off during the contest. She expected to see mostly different versions of gem and stone beasts, the small animated rock creatures the most common kind she had seen for herself in the mines. Perhaps there was some manner of larger stone beast, one that hunted the gemstone familiars as they hunted for smaller stones? Now that would be a sight to see, whether it was made purely of worthless rock or priceless gems, something that might press against the walls waiting for prey to come past it as it hid in plain sight.
If there was such beasts lurking in the mines, she would have to decide whether or not to leave Walker behind at the kennels for all but the briefest of trips. He might make decent bait for a giant version of himself, but he was fairly useful as a gem finder.
Of course, she thought with a glance over her shoulder at the pile of tools, and the white rock he had dropped there, he might be nearing the end of his usefulness. She had never heard of mining familiars losing their ability to locate valuable items, and it made her hope to find something valuable sooner rather than later. Or else if the stone beast her mind had crafted turned out to be real, he would be useful until the very end. Either option would be good.
That there would be something new for her to see at the end of the contest was a hope she was holding onto, more so than the hope someone would even bother to appear for twenty-five credits. It was not a particularly large amount, unless she was the one trying to raise it. She would not mind keeping it though if no one appeared, although she would need to find some beast of her own then.
She did not have much use for credits, not when there were no weapons or armor available for trade. Which brought her back to guessing at the manner of beasts that made their home beneath the earth. She doubted any flesh and blood predators would delve so deep into the mines, not when the majority of prey was little more than living stone. There had been rumors of a breed of sarane that lived in the mines, but she had never seen one, nor found any tracks or spoor than would have hinted at their existence. No, if there was some sort of large predator in the mines, it would have to be something capable of chewing stone.
Almost as if Walker could hear the lizard's thoughts, he had begun to snap up a few shards of marble that his careful excavation had not been careful enough to avoid breaking. Between them and the stone he stood upon, it was the better treat.
The lines between the memories of how he lived in the mines before the lizard and his infrequent returns to the beloved caves were blurred, the gem drake never bothering to differentiate his digs whether they were solo or not. What he did know was that he was not supposed to eat any of the prizes he found, not unless the lizard gave it to him, and so he guiltily looked back at her as he crunched the last shard of marble to powder. There was no response from her, so he scooped up a mouthful of rubble to finish filling his belly before resuming his hunt for the prizes he knew must be hidden there.
His impromptu meal had the added benefit of clearing away some of the chunks of rock that had fallen back into the hole from the edges, and so he set about removing the rest. A pile of rock began to form behind him as he did.
The rocks were cleared away quickly, none of the ones shoveled behind him singing to him, not even faintly. Therefore he did not need to stop and inspect every small stone as the lizard often did, though once or twice a rock shimmering with surface moister gave him pause. Now that there were no more stones in his pit, for it was a pit though a small one, he braced himself of the edge with his hind legs as his front legs tore recklessly at the earth. The meal had reinvigorated him, though most would have been hard pressed to notice that he had been hungry at all.
Haix's work had inversely began to slow, her own hunger starting rumble in her stomach. A longing glance over at the tools where her food laid in small bundles was all that she allowed herself, returning to the wall after a moment of hesitation. She would wait a little longer, see if there was any more of that metal hidden away.
A glint of pink, not shining like a gem might but like exposed flesh would with the moisture that beaded upon it. That was what Haix saw after a particularly brutal strike and tearing free of the pickax, followed not with another swing but with silence and a wide-eyed stare. The pickax slid from her hands, forgotten as she stepped up to the wall, one clawed hand reaching out to the glistening flesh of stone, the hand pulling back at the last second as she titled her head to the side, trying to make sense of what she saw. Had they heard her, had they hidden some beast of stone here for her to find, to shatter with a careless blow?
Haix snatched up the flashlight, careful never to take her eyes away from the patch of flesh, to aim the light slowly as not to attract the attention of some unseen eye. But it did not move. It looked like flesh, but in the steady beam of the flashlight, there were no jumping shadows to give it the illusion of movement, of breathing as she had at first thought. The sound she might have mistaken for such resolved into Walker's digging noises, of dirt being shuffled around.
She was surprised at the disappointment she felt, sniffing the air to confirm there was no coppery smell of blood as the supposed flesh appeared to be streaked with. Reaching out again, this time reluctant to prove what she already knew, she ran her claws gently against the surface of the pink thing, revealing that it was hard, rugged, and most definitely not living flesh but stone, inanimate stone like everything that had been found so far. The pickax, no longer forgotten, took the place of the flashlight in her claws as she hissed and muttered something in a sing-song tone that even Walker, had he been capable of understanding speech, would have been hard pressed to make out over the slight sounds of his own digging.
One clawed hand rested flat against the stone, and she closed her eyes, the words she spoke coming to an abrupt end. Thoughts of credits and creatures deserted her as she took a step back, head down.
Then a hiss, eyes opened, a bark of laughter, and she swung the pickax in a two-handed grip with as much strength as she could muster. And she stepped back in a swaying motion, as if she had suddenly found it hard to stand, twisting snake-like before slamming the head of the pickax into the wall again. And again, and again, each time with new, exaggerated movements as she attacked the wall, her noise such that Walker paused his dig to poke his head out from his pit in confusion. He clambers out as Haix laughed again, this time swinging from a crouch she assumed but a second before. Walker, concerned for the first time in the trip about matters other than the gems he knew hid in the mine, scurried over to her.
When he was only a few feet away, Haix noticed him, or rather, the thing that had entered the corner of her eye during a twirl. Her next swing was not aimed at the wall.
Had he had vocal cords like a creature of flesh and blood, he might have screamed before the piercing edge of the tool did to him what it had done so well to the rock wall. Instead he only watched as the pick barely missed him, passing him so closely that it stole away dome of his dust with its wind. Twisting with the momentum, Haix lodged the pick deeply in the wall, pulling it and the stone free with a grunt of effort. Still ignoring the frozen gem drake, she eagerly picked up the stone, turning it over in her hands as if it was some priceless bauble and not just another rock.
When she finally looked up from it, claws picking a pieces of much plainer stone that marred its surface, she met Walker's stare with a laugh. Did the familiar think she had been planning to kill it? It did not even have a drop of blood in its body! She told him as much, still giddy with her discovery, the gem drake appeared to relax fractionally, though more from the non-threatening tone than the words. (26)
The familiar waited another minute, but the lizard paid no more attention to him, instead picking away at rock chips that stubbornly clung onto the pink rock. He was still concerned, so his first movements were not to return to his pit, a surprising move had Haix bothered to notice him, but to instead walk the perimeter of the cave, even fording his way through the stream at its shallowest points. He could not see what had sent the lizard into such a frenzy, and so he slowly returned to his pit, glancing side to side for any sign of intruders he might have missed.
With that done, he plunged his body beck into his small pit, beginning to work of the side nearest to the lizard to turn the abrupt edge into a shallow incline. It was not so much that he expected to find a stone as he did so, but rather to make it easier to get out of the hole in case he was needed.