The gargoyle had been something of a recent addition to their numbers. The way he came about it brought Aster some chagrin once he did a little more research, and realized that the one he had… well, acquired… was one of those creatures who had smarts on par with a humanoid.
It wasn't that he didn't have experience with that kind of thing in his household. He lived with how many Hara now? And Aster didn't think those guys had anything to complain about. Damien in particular was pretty spoiled if you ask him. And then there was Summer, though maybe things were different if your souls had sort of fused, the way theirs did.
Even Rabbit counted, if you thought about it, maybe. Kind of. Rabbit was an android, so it wasn't really the same thing, but there was a wide range of relationships people could have with their TRODs, right up to being in control of them during all their active hours.
Aster gave Rabbit full autonomy except for the very few occasions where they did their tin can man shtick. Even when he got her to do shop runs for him, it was only in the manner of someone asking their roommate for a favor. It felt off to do it any other way now, at least in part because he did give her so much autonomy.
But the gargoyle couldn't have known any of that, and from the outside, it really did look like Aster just had some sort of propensity for collecting sentient beings. Not to mention, of course, just how easy it really was to cross the line into outright slavery. This was a bad area for that. Beyond the wide variety of choices available and the general social tendency to turn a blind eye to another collector's business, the Labs had… tools… to make it even easier if your charges didn't turn out as you might have liked.
Aster wasn't interested in slaves. The nature of his particular collection of companions… Well, he couldn't take humanoid companionship very well, but maybe he was lonely under all that. But that was a question for a paid therapist, and not something to ponder while preparing for a spelunking expedition. Probably.
The gargoyle before him definitely looked… Humanoid was maybe a strong word for this, but it had hands, anyway. This didn't make him feel any easier about the arrangement. He was really beginning to question why he had gone and done this in the first place, instead of just bringing Cinna along like he usually did. Sure, the gem drake's contempt for him left a little to be desired, but the two of them were used to working with one another. They did pretty good work, come to that. What had they found last time? Magic crystals, or something fancy like that?
But it seemed wrong to just… buy the poor gargoyle and then sell it off again just as soon. And if Aster wasn't getting rid of it, the least he could do is take it out somewhere, give it a little enrichment.
It hadn't run off just yet. He didn't know what to make of that either, if he was being honest. It studied him, but its face was hard to read; the lack of eyes was more disconcerting than he had initially given it credit for.
Aster sighed. Well, he had come here to work. And if the gargoyle wasn't going to cause any trouble, he supposed he might as well get to it. He adjusted his equipment one last time--- the hard hat always took a bit of adjusting so its positioning wouldn't crush his feathers--- before setting out in earnest down the tunnel.
For whatever reason, the gargoyle chose to follow.
The whole thing shouldn't have been as strange to Aster as it felt. After all, the gargoyle was, in theory, a mining familiar, and all the mining familiars that Aster had ever worked with had been content to follow him into the caves. Sure, it had taken them some time to learn each other's signals and work habits, but after that… He’d had a wyrm before he'd had Cinna.
But those had all been found within the mines, if not by him then by some other miner. They had all, in theory, been coaxed home by someone. What all they had promised, Aster couldn't guess, but considering they were only as smart as the average dog, he wasn't particularly worried about it.
He didn't know how the gargoyle had come to the Imports, and he didn't know its circumstances either. The idea that it was willing to help him in his endeavor with all that in kind was a little strange, actually.
Maybe it wasn't here to help him at all. Maybe it was just here to steal his stuff. Who could say?
But if it were going that route, it might almost be simpler. At least then, maybe the gargoyle could be bribed.
Aster walked into the tunnel, dragging his equipment behind him. This was always his least favorite part. It made him wish he could take one of his bigger creatures down--- they wouldn't feel the weight the same way that he did. But they also wouldn't fit into a lot of the tunnels; Grunty in particular wouldn't have fit into any of them. Then again, the tunnel was likely to collapse before Grunty even got there.
Summer might have sufficed. He did take her down sometimes. But Summer didn't much care for the whole being underground part of it. Even an ethereal bird was still a bird, and she liked the open air much better.
Funny how she didn't mind houses though… Maybe it was more a matter of how the confinement was presented.
Thankfully, the mines had been there for so long that there was a good variety to be had in the types of tunnels they could look into. Some were the deep, narrow sort that reached down into the depths, where more rare materials could be found. Many of them were more horizontal, going straight into the mountains, and easier to trek. There was no need to go in very deep either; you could stake out a cavern not far into a tunnel at all, and dig around to see what you found. It wouldn't be fantastic stuff, but there were still many semiprecious stones to be had.
It didn't take long for them to come upon one such cave. Aster surveyed it before entering, more as a precautionary measure than anything else.
The mines were populated, somewhat sparsely, with gem creatures and strange… bugs… and even other gargoyles, apparently. He had never met the latter, but he’d heard stories.
It sure would be something if he ran into another gargoyle now, wouldn't it? He didn't know if he wanted that to happen though. Things were already complicated enough for him as it was, with this.
Fortunately, however, the cavern was empty. Usually they were, anyway, so that wasn't too surprising. And the creatures down here were generally not that dangerous either. The only ones who got to be of any significant size were the giant worms, which were pretty dumb… And, well, the black Sarane. But those were so vanishingly rare that it didn't really bear contemplating.
Aster emerged into the cavern and surveyed his surroundings. The rock here, at a glance, didn't promise a whole lot. Even Aster had begun to pick up on things like that, after having mined as a hobby for so long.
But that was alright by him, actually; he liked riches as much as anyone else, of course, but he also hadn't been mining in quite some time, and he was sure his skills had gotten rusty with disuse. It would almost have been a pity if he found something nice right away, since he wasn't sure he would be able to dig it out cleanly, without breaking it.
He picked a corner and settled the bulk of his stuff there, then took out his pick and eyed the wall, before picking a good place to strike and swinging down.
The gargoyle was watching him as he did so. Aster could see it out of the corner of his eye. He didn't know whether he ought to look directly at it too much, or if that would aggravate it somehow. It was clear, however, that it had none of the same qualms regarding him.
Curiosity got the best of him, and he chanced a glance in the gargoyle's direction after all, despite his original resolution not to do so. And to his amusement, saw that it was watching him with a dubious expression.
It took some effort to stifle the startled laugh that threatened to burst forth from him at the sight of that. The gargoyle did have quite expressive features. Even if it had no pupils in those eye sockets, its features were just close enough to a human face, and if this was any indication, they used their faces in a similar way to express what they felt.
He could almost hear it asking him what he thought he was doing.
“Are there better ones further in?” he asked conversationally. He didn't expect it to respond, of course. Gargoyles didn't speak, as far as he knew, or at least not without the assistance of a magical item.
And that Alan guy would have just the thing, for the price of an arm and a leg… Aster sighed just to think of the cost of that man's wares.
Well, not like he was due to visit that place anytime soon either. The tournaments had died down, and he had no pressing priorities these days. It felt oddly freeing, even if it did also feel a bit strange. What had he done anyway, these past few years, that they went by so quickly? Since when had he lived here such a long time, and been so busy?
Of course the gargoyle didn't answer him. But in its countenance, he found some similarities with Cinna too.
The thought brought a smile to his face. “You know,” he said to the gargoyle, “I have another friend who comes down here with me a lot. Or maybe ‘friend’ is a strong word for him. He doesn't think very much of my mining skills.”
With a contemplative look, Aster swung his pick down again. “You look like you don't think much of them either. Maybe he had a point.” Cinna would have had a field day if he heard Aster say anything like that--- well, if he could understand it, anyway, which as a gem drake, he almost certainly couldn’t. But that was just as well too. Cinna’s ego was well enough inflated without him being smart enough to actually back it up. He was, as far as gem drakes went, quite clever as it was. Aster didn’t want to imagine what he would have been like if he’d been born any smarter.
But while Aster was rusty, it wasn’t as if he were green. There was a difference. A lot of what he was doing now felt familiar, and some of it was like riding a bike: it never actually leaves you, even after years of disuse.
He swung a few more times, his movements growing more deft and assured each time, as the memories came back to his muscles, or whatever it was that was happening. And not too long after, a chunk of rock fell away.
The gargoyle looked… not startled when the chunk of rock fell, but intrigued, and perhaps a little taken aback by something. How big the chunk was, maybe? That would have been Aster’s first guess, anyway.
As far as he could tell, Cinna and all the other familiars he’d encountered simply dug with whatever implements they naturally had, which tended to be claws and teeth. It made them good for small tunnels and detail work, but for efficiency, nothing quite beat a good and well placed swing of the pick. Or several, anyway. Aster could pick strategic points, and then it took less effort to dig out a lot more stone.