Captain’s report: We have arrived on World-42, an uninhabited ocean world claimed by the Pantheon. A pilot project built an underwater mining installation here. It was successfully shipping ore until recently when they sent a distress report detailing attacks from some sort of monstrous creature.
Following the detailed navigation chart, the Phoenix completed its long journey to the mining site. Deep underwater, their air bubble encompassed both the ship and the mine entrance, a large, firm, watertight door, dripping water as it had recently been submerged. Sailing to the water-resistant dock that was set up in front of the door, Captain Baxtor moored the ship and sent an expedition consisting of Albert Reeves, Radiance, Sinclair Foran, and a dozen marines. Henry Cook remained on the ship on standby, in case his engineering expertise was required.
The neatly outfitted third Captain Reeves led the group, followed by the enormous, orange-colored giant Radiance, who was the ship’s elementalist, with the delicate, ginger healer Foran following him.
Moving through the double set of doors which formed an airlock for the structure, the expedition followed the instructions engraved on metal plates attached to the doors and resealed them. Eying the doors they had sealed behind them, Sinclair Foran observed, “I suppose they want them sealed in case the Phoenix has to depart and takes its air bubble with it,” to Radiance.
“Of course,” replied the ship’s elementalist.
After descending through a rough-cut stone staircase that seemed endless, the expedition entered a large tunnel that had been cut into the rock. Smaller rooms, with doors built to separate them from the main passage, dotted each side. A group of rough-looking men waited to greet them. One of the miners, looking over the group, said, “Is this all you brought? You aren’t going to make much of a meal for that devil if you don’t have more firepower with you.”
* * *
The marines had been taken to a visitors’ dorm to stow their gear while the lead miner, Noah Davis, gave Radiance and Albert Reeves a tour of their mine site. Healer Foran was in the mine’s infirmary treating the injured miners and inspecting their wounds.
“The main corridor here was the first area cut, after the elementalists who started the mine cut down from the seabed through the rock,” miner Davis said, pride in their structure evident despite his previous rough welcome. “We get monthly visits from cargo vessels, which bring us supplies and take the ore we’ve mined. We have plans to expand the facilities here and build a smelter, once production gets high enough. That way, we’ll be maximizing the cargo space usage of shipments back to Mytertown.”
“We have an elementalist here who keeps the air fresh. Most of the miners have learned a little bit about whispering to the rocks and the elementalist has been teaching us to help refresh the air. Honestly, I’m not sure how much help we really are, but we all feel that it’d be a useful skill to have if we’re ever in a cave-in, so we follow his instructions and work on it for about an hour each day.”
Radiance’s frown deepened as he let the guide finish his explanation. “Your elementalist teaches you to commune with just two elements? And he’s let your instruction stop there? That’s awfully reckless.”
The miner looked back at Radiance blankly. “Every mine I’ve ever worked, most miners learned to talk to the earth. I don’t much see how talking to the air is so different or dangerous.”
“Learning to ‘talk to the earth’ to survey a site is one thing. I wouldn’t teach just anyone to do it, but you won’t get yourself in much trouble. Actually summoning sprites from the elemental plane of air and having them affect the world physically is a whole other level,” Radiance replied.
“I don’t know about all that,” said the head miner dismissively. He continued the tour. “For the most part, we live a simple, rough life here. Those who chose to live it can manage the isolation. There’re usually a few discipline cases after the supply shipment arrives and some of the men go overboard on hooch, but other than that things have been going smoothly up until a few weeks ago.
“What happened then?” asked Reeves.
“At first it was just strange occurrences, equipment being damaged or disappearing, lights going out, that sort of thing. Then the attacks started. No one has gotten a close look at it yet, but miners have had something slam into them, cuts, and a cave-in that showered a work crew with rocks. The only thing anyone has seen is a huge shape disappearing into the darkness. I think if they were allowed to leave, some of the miners would want to head back on the next supply ship to Mytertown.”
“Have there been any messages or attempts at communication?” asked Radiance.
“Communication? No, no, no,” said Noah Davis. “The men think it’s a phantom or something supernatural, but obviously it’s a beast.”
“How could a beast have gotten into a complex that was dug out of the solid rock at the bottom of the ocean?” asked Radiance.
Shaking his head in frustration, the head miner didn’t have an answer. He led them away from the habitation area and showed them the areas where they store equipment and the various mine shafts.
* * *
Sinclair Foran finished his initial assessment of the current condition of his patients and began working on the worst off. As he began changing bandages and stitching wounds, Radiance entered and hovered off to the side, waiting for a chance to speak with him.
“Say what you need to say,” said healer Foran, without looking up. “I’m not going to be taking a break for quite some time.”
“What can you tell me about the wounds?” asked the elementalist.
“They’re mostly blunt force trauma,” said the healer. “Some have cuts and scrapes, but most of them seem to have resulted from being hit, hard, by something solid.”
“Hmm,” said Radiance. “That sounds like the kind of injuries that might result from a large beast?”
“Sure,” agreed Sinclar Foran. “It could also result from a fall or being struck by mining equipment.”
“Are there any wounds that might be supernatural?” asked Radiance.
“What does that mean?” asked Sinclair. “What would a supernatural wound look like?”
“Something mysterious,” clarified Radiance. “That you’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“No, nothing like that,” said the healer.
* * *
Moving down the mine shaft, where the last attack had occurred, Albert Reeves led a group of five marines. Two miners joined them with large lanterns, lighting up the rough-hewn passage. Initially, the two miners had described geological characteristics they were passing and related anecdotes about their work in that shaft, until Third Captain Reeves told them they should move as silently as possible to not alert the creature of their approach.
Each time they reached a juncture where another shaft led off of the main shaft, Reeves quietly asked the miner which was the more recently dug passage, then continued forward. After traveling for over twenty minutes from the staircase down, the miner said the side shaft they had reached was dug more recently than the main passage.
After having the miners shine their lights and looking as far down the main shaft as they could see before it disappeared into the darkness, the group began moving down the most recently cut side shaft. Examining the visible ore on the walls, floor, and ceiling, one of the miners whispered to Albert Reeves that the nodules embedded in it were quite unusual and none of them had ever seen anything like them before.
After shushing the miner, the group continued along the shaft. Suddenly, there was movement ahead of them!
* * *
Lighting up the figure ahead of them in the darkness, Reeves saw a hulking form, over nine feet tall. Although possessing arms and legs, its proportions were massively larger than a man’s. It wore no clothing, had rough skin, and looked like it was made of rock. Patches of moss dotted its body. In lieu of eyes, two red gemstones were set in its head and they caught the lantern light and gleamed. Breaking open its maw, rows of sharp spikes, resembling stalactites and stalagmites, lined its mouth.
Pulling out his gold hand-cannon, Reeves ordered, “Draw and fire at will, men.” He aimed at the creature, put his match cord to the touch hole, and fired. A small puff of dirt appeared where his ball hit its chest and embedded itself in the creature. It screamed in pain and rage and lumbered towards the party of men.
Five more shots went off, as the marines discharged their hand cannons at it. The creature gave up, turned, and began moving away from them. “Rapiers out and after it,” ordered Reeves. “And keep the lights on it!” As they charged after the creature down the tunnel, they saw it abruptly turn and meld into the corridor wall. Reaching the point where it had disappeared, they examined the wall and found it undisturbed.
Touching the wall where it had disappeared, Reeves looked up and down the corridor, and examined the floor where it had passed. The hard rock showed no evidence of the creature’s passage.
“What was that thing?” one of the miners asked.
“Quiet now,” instructed Reeves. As he was looking further down the shaft a choked scream came from the rear of the group. In the direction they’d come from, one of the marines was in the creature’s grasp and was being pulled into the wall. As the remaining marines began to charge towards the pair, the creatures disappeared completely and the attacked marine hung there, half embedded in the wall. After a few spasms in the legs, his lower body slumped and hung from the wall.
Examining the legs and experimentally tugging on them, the body didn’t budge. Reeves said, “There’s nothing more we can do for him. Let’s head back towards base. Move quickly, people.”
* * *
Onboard the Phoenix, Captain Baxtor whistled as he walked down the corridor towards healer Sinclair’s cabin. Surreptitiously making sure no one else was coming in either direction, he unlocked the cabin and slipped inside. Looking up nervously from the main bunk, Sinclair Foran’s daughter Norah was relieved when she realized it was the Captain. Getting up, she ran over to greet him with a hug.
“Hey, there little lady,” Captain Baxtor said in greeting. “I’ve brought you some food and a bunch more books. You should eat the soup while it’s hot and save the dried meat for later. I should be able to come back tomorrow.”
The girl’s disfigured face broke out in a smile as she opened the package and looked at the books. She read the top book’s title: “A Primer for Gun Captains”, then looked at the Captain questioningly.
“You’ve gone through all my adventure books, I’m sad to say,” Joseph Baxtor responded.
“Well, I liked the book on navigation you brought better than I expected,” she said.
Captain Baxtor returned her smile, with a chuckle, asked, “What parts did you like best?” as she started eating her soup.
* * *
Knocking on the mining base’s elementalist’s door, Radiance waited awkwardly. After a couple of minutes, he heard the click of a lock releasing and an absent voice say, “Come in, come in.”
Entering the room, the Phoenix’s elementalist took in the miner’s elementalist’s workshop with professional interest. Studying one another silently, they eventually nodded and began conversing.
“So, the famous Radiance comes to visit me,” he said. Walking over to his kitchen area, the miner’s elementalist took down two cups and began making tea. Puttering absently in the kitchen, he found some biscuits and put them on a tray. “Quite an honor, quite an honor. What will Mittens have to say about that?”
“You have me at a disadvantage, mister…,” Radiance said, irritated with how the interview was developing.
“Mister Williams. Mister George Williams. Call me George. Or elementalist. That’s what the miners call me.” With a titter the miner’s elementalist looked at the tea and biscuits in surprise. “Did Mittens make biscuits and tea for us?”
“Mittens make biscuits and tea? You just made them. I watched you.” Shaking his head, Radiance pushed through his irritation. “Who is Mittens anyway? A cat?”
“A cat?” asked George Williams. “Where did you see a cat? The mine has a rule against pets. Speaking of which, I should introduce you to my pet, Mittens. She’s an air sprite. Mittens. Mittens!” The elementalist kept calling for his sprite as he wandered his apartment looking in random places. When he opened a window to the main passageway, the largest air sprite Radiance had ever seen flew into the room.
* * *
Radiance and Albert Reeves stood in front of the summoned farcaster in the officers’ quarters that had been provided to them and Sinclair Foran. After relating their experiences to Captain Baxtor, the three men discussed the next move.
“And you weren’t able to retrieve marine Taylor’s body?” asked Captain Baxtor.
“No sir, it was fused into the rock wall. I’ve never seen anything like it,” replied Reeves.
“The creature third captain Reeves saw must be related to the air sprite the miner’s elementalist has created. It’s the largest I’ve ever seen,” said Radiance.
“How has he managed to summon one so large?” asked the captain.
“That’s just it, I don’t think he is summoning it that large. I think he’s grown it. There’s a small natural growth from sprites, if you keep them summoned for an unusually long time they’ll keep growing. I can’t understand how this one has gotten so big. The danger with growing a sprite is, as they get larger, they start to develop a mind of their own and will start imposing their own will on the stream of power from their elemental plane that the elementalist who summoned them is providing. It’s dangerous, and George Williams seems unhinged, I think the air sprite is driving him insane. Eventually, it may burn him out, forcing him to draw more power than he can manage.”
“What I don’t understand,” said Reeves, “is how it’s stayed summoned for so long. I thought that when you went to sleep any sprites you had summoned would disappear.”
“A proper elementalist doesn’t ‘go to sleep’, we use a focused meditation to gain the benefits of sleep in a far shorter time. You’re correct though that it would be impossible to keep any sprites summoned during such a period of rest. Elementalists can pass control of a sprite over to another elementalist. I’ve done this with Hudson during my meditation, but Williams is the only elementalist here…”
Realiziation dawned on Radiance. “Except he’s been training the miners and they’ve been cycling the air. They must have all been feeding the one sprite. It still doesn’t account for its extreme size, but I’m sure that’s how it has kept growing. I was sure the miners couldn’t be summoning air sprites and, of course, they weren’t. They were just maintaining the air sprite their elementalist had already summoned.”
“Could this being an ocean planet with no land masses above water be the explanation?” asked Joseph Baxtor.
“It’s possible,” acknowledged Radiance. “This is the first extended settlement on an ocean planet I’m aware of. Maybe the unbalanced forces has led to these enormous sprites. It’s turned them into new creatures… some sort of elementals.”
“Can you dismiss the air elemental?” asked the captain. “The last thing we need is to lose the only elementalist on the mining site.”
“I’m sure I can,” said Radiance. “Let me give it a try.”
* * *
Sinclair Foran kept resettling George Williams in the cot and he kept trying to get back up. “I need to feed Mittens. The mighty protector needs her num-nums…,” he babbled.
“What kind of harm might happen to him when you sever the link?” the healer asked Radiance.
“No harm, healer,” said Radiance absently. “Maintaining the link is what places a demand on an elementalist. He’s doing more damage to himself right now than he’ll suffer when we break the link. He may pass out, but it’s more like falling into a deep sleep after a hard day’s work, rather than any sort of harm.”
“Do we need to hunt down this ‘Mittens’?” asked Reeves.
“No, I’ll open a stream of power to it and connect it to the plane of elemental air. As soon as I do that, it should come running, but even if it doesn’t we’ll be connected and I should be able to give it instructions. I’ve never had a sprite that wouldn’t follow instructions before. This should be… enlightening.”
Sitting on the ground, Radiance began putting himself into a trance. On his cot, George Williams murmured and protested as Sinclair Foran tried to get him to relax. Albert Reeves paced the room, looking out the window and along the main passageway.
Suddenly, Radiance sat bolt upright. “I’ve got him,” he said, distracted. “He’s fighting me… This is a first… It doesn’t seem to want to come to me…”
George Willams began to softly cry and outside in the passageway Reeves saw miners staggering around and toppling over.
“Uh, Radiance,” the third captain said. “Something is happening with the miners.”
“Quiet!” hissed the distracted, seven-foot, orange giant.
The air elemental Mittens flew through the wall and came to rest in front of Radiance. The two stared at one another in mute contemplation.
Reeves ran out into the passageway to examine one of the fallen miners.
“It’s so different than any other sprite I’ve communicated with before,” mused Radiance. “There’s a rough, almost bestial intelligence behind it. Far different from the automaton behavior of most sprites… It’s almost as if it’s arguing with me… She doesn’t want to go…”
On the cot, George Williams muttered, “Stay… stay…”
“I think I’ve almost got it…” said Radiance, then triumphantly “there.”
The air elemental collapsed upon itself as it departed back to the elemental plane of air. On the bed, George Williams suddenly became lucid. “You fool! What have you done?” he asked, then collapsed on the cot, deep in slumber.
Rising from his communion, Radiance and healer Foran looked out the window at the prone miners. “What happened to them?” asked Radiance. Beginning to recover, the miners picked themselves up and looked around in confusion.
A howling began at the end of the passageway leading to the mine. An earth elemental walked aggressively along the passage, swinging its claws and gnashing its teeth. The miners closest to the creature fled away from it towards the staircase leading up to the seabed.
Albert Reeves gave Radiance a questioning look.
* * *
Reeves’ marines came charging into the mine’s main thoroughfare, joining their third captain to face down the creature. As the miners scrambled to get out of its way, it fixated on the Phoenix crew and began striding towards them.
“Fire at will,” ordered Albert Reeves as he drew his gold hand-cannon and fired at the approaching elemental. Less effective than last time, his ball struck the creature and bounced off. A small cloud of dirt puffed away from where it had been struck. The creature bellowed.
As the marines drew and fired, the creature was peppered by six more shots from the assembled men, with a similar lack of effect. “Draw rapiers,” ordered Reeves as it approached.
Dodging low as it swung at the group, Reeves thrust his rapier, connecting solidly with the creature’s chest and shattering his weapon against the hard surface. As his marines fruitlessly attacked the earth elemental, Reeves screamed at Radiance to do something.
“What can I do?” asked Radiance, watching the combat in horror. “I’m trying to commune with it, like I did with the air elemental, but all I’m getting is rage.”
The earth elemental’s swing connected with one of the marines and sent him flying through the air before thudding into the ground fifteen feet away. The fallen man didn’t move.
“Summon sprites to attack it!” yelled the third captain. A miner charged up and attacked the creature with a pickaxe next to Reeves. The tool embedded itself an inch or so into the elemental, causing it to scream in rage, as it turned around and caught the miner in an upswing. The man flew into the air, slamming into the ceiling, before falling to the ground, broken.
“Sprites don’t fight with one another,” objected Radiance.
“Do it!” screamed Reeves. He dodged out of the way as the creature slammed its fists into the ground where the third captain had been standing.
Rapier broken, the marines were busily reloading their hand cannons as the third captain occupied the monster, dodging its attacks. Periodically miners would attack it from the rear, each time being promptly smacked in response. Unmoving bodies began to accumulate around the monster.
“Summon sprites right now and have them attack it. That’s an order!” Reeve’s bellowed at Radiance.
Popping into existence around the elementalist, twelve sprites appeared. Three of each element, they paused briefly before flying at the attacking creature. The earth sprites stuck briefly onto the creature’s skin, then fell off, unnoticed. The fire sprites flew in and began blasting the creature with concentrated beams of flames. Its rocky skin heated and turned red where the sprites were blasting it. Following the fire sprites, the water sprites blasted the heated areas, gouging chunks out of the creature as a mud-like substance was ripped off of it.
As the creature turned its attention to the sprites and moved to attack them, the air sprites met its blows, holding it firm in place where they collided. The creature tried to move forward and, again, was blocked by the air sprites.
“Drop the earth sprites,” ordered Reeve, panting as he watched the interaction. “Summon more of the others if you can.”
As the earth sprites winked out of existence, another air, water, and fire sprite appeared near Radiance and joined the attack. As deeper gouges were ripped from the earth elemental, Reeves saw that it seemed to be made of the same rocky material throughout its body.
The marines finished reloading and Reeves told them to hold their fire. They watched the creature struggle uselessly against the sprites harrying it until, finally, it gave up and sank into the ground it stood on.
* * *
Sinclair Foran started yelling orders to the uninjured miners and marines to move the injured men and corpses to the infirmary. The healer moved around, performing triage and prioritizing the more serious cases.
Storming into the officers’ quarters, locking the door behind him, Reeves verified that the miner’s elementalist was deep asleep.
“Radiance, you’re with me,” he said coldly as he walked back to the small table at the rear of the room.
Following the third captain back, Radiance said, “I’m honestly amazed that worked.” Sinking into the chair across from Reeves, he continued, “I didn’t think it would. It was clever of you…”
“That’s enough out of you, Mister,” said Reeves, cutting the larger man off. “Ships operate on a chain of command. If you were one of my marines and you’d been that slow to follow orders, you’d be getting lashes when we got back to the ship.”
“I just didn’t think…,” replied Radiance.
“Your job isn’t to think unless I tell you to,” Reeves said, leaning in and holding a finger in the elementalist’s face. “When Baxtor is here, you listen to him. If he isn’t, but Ward is, you listen to him. When neither of them are here, then I’m your god. You love me more than you love daddy back home. When I tell you to jump, you start jumping.”
The third captain was angrier than Reeves had ever seen him previously.
“That dead marine out there is on me, but those miners are dead because you didn’t do what I told you to. You wouldn’t put up with your apprentice arguing with you during an emergency and I’m not putting up with it from you.”
The chewing out had given the third captain a red face. He continued.
“My priority is to get the job done and to keep as many of us alive as possible. In that order. We can’t function if you’re running around doing your own thing and I’m going to break you in two if you keep trying. Understood?”
Looking at the third captain with newfound respect, Radiance said, “Understood, sir.”
“Now,” Reeves said, collapsing in the chair across from the elementalist. “What the hell happened out there?
“It doesn’t make any sense. Having sprites fight is nonsensical. Like a carpenter arranging a fight between his hammer and his saw,” Radiance said. “Somehow, the sprites here aren’t functioning the same way they usually do and seem to be developing dangerous levels of independence. I’ve never experienced the pushback I got from the air elemental when I tried to dismiss it. It desired… desired mind you, sprites don’t desire anything… to remain.”
“The only explanation I can come up with goes back to some of my first lessons as an elementalist. Elements exist on every planet, that’s why we can still summon them and use them when we move beyond the reach of a god. Even without worshipers, the elements are there. In fact, the constant, slow war between the elements is what gives a world its shape. The lands are made where earth fights air, the seas we sail are where air fights water, and the seabed is where water fights earth. Fire is an unpredictable ally and enemy for each faction, forming lava with water against earth, volcanoes with earth against water and air, or just aimless sorties when it causes lightning, earthquakes, or tidal waves.”
“This world doesn’t have this balance. It’s fully covered by water. Water has become strong, and fights air and earth on two fronts. Or, earth and air have allied to attack water. Whatever the explanation, sprites here seem to have the capacity to become more powerful. The earth elemental seems to be evidence that they can become autonomous and self-directed, but this violates every idea I’ve ever read.”
“So, fighting elements is why the sprites were effective against that thing?” asked Reeves.
Smiling slightly, Radiance said, “The fights I’m talking about aren’t a melee in the street. It’s a prolonged, slow conflict lasting hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. It’s raindrops slowly grinding down a mountain, it’s landmasses growing or shrinking by a fraction of an inch a year, it’s about the air and water slowly cooling a volcano until it becomes a tropical paradise covered in lush vegetation and animal life.”
“How do we kill it?” asked Reeves.
“The sprites were surprisingly effective, so I imagine that we could just have the air sprites prevent the elemental from fleeing while the water and fire sprites break it down. It won’t be quick, but I think that would do the job.
“Excellent,” said Reeves.
The two men looked towards the pathway outside when they heard yelling. Opening the door and walking into the corridor, they heard a howling, louder than before, coming from the area closer to mine shafts. A large group of earth elementals walked aggressively along the passage, swinging their claws and gnashing their teeth. On the far sides of the group, some of the earth elementals were moving with half their bodies embedded in the rock walls, but they continued forward unimpeded. The uninjured miners closest to the creature fled back towards Reeves and the marines.
“We need to flee back to your ship,” said the lead miner, Noah Davis. “That many of the fiends will be the death of us!”
“I’m not leaving the wounded,” said Reeves flatly, eyeing the approaching horde of earth elementals.
* * *
“Radiance, summon as many air sprites as you can and see if they can push them back,” ordered Reeves.
In flights of three, Radiance summoned air sprites that flew at the earth elementals. When he was summoning his thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth he had to summon each individually, and the strain clearly began to weigh on him.
The fifteen sprites buzzed in front of the large group of earth elementals. The earth elementals tried swatting at the sprites, but their swings stopped abruptly in mid-air before they connected. The force of the earth elementals kept pushing back the air sprites and, although slowed, they continued their march towards the miners. The elementals ceased their aggressive gestures and kept moving, inexorably, forward.
“Can you summon any more sprites?” Reeves asked Radiance. “Maybe some fire and water sprites to start attacking them?”
“I’m at my limit,” said Radiance. “If I summon any more I’m likely to lose the ones I have. Do you want me to try?”
“No, keep up what you’re doing,” Reeves said. Turning to Noah Davis, he said, “Go wake up your elementalist. I’d love to let him recover, but those earth elementals are going to disturb his sleep if we don’t.” Grabbing a hold of one of his marines, he said, “I want you to rush up the stairs back to the Phoenix. Tell them we need Adam Hudson immediately. Once he’s on his way down, update Captain Baxtor on the current situation.”
“I don’t understand the current situation, sir,” said the marine.
“Tell him what you’ve seen and anything you do understand,” said Reeve, sending him on his way.
Noah Davis led the groggy elementalist George Williams back out of the officers’ quarters. Looking at the horde of earth elementalists seemed to wake up elementalist. “What have you done?” he asked in horror.
“We’ll get to that in a second,” said Reeves. “Right now I want you to summon as many air sprites as you can safely manage and try to hold them back. Like Radiance is doing.” Turning to Noah Davis, he said, “I want you to organize your men and talk to our healer about moving any of the injured men who can survive a trip up to our ship.” As the lead miner looked at Reeves, blinking a few times, the third captain said, “Now.”
George Willams had summoned air sprites two at a time until he’d dispatched eight of them total to help. The Earth Elementals were still moving forward, but it was now at a crawl. “My air elemental had this under control,” the miner’s elementalist said peevishly. “We wouldn’t be in this situation if you hadn’t dismissed her.”
“It,” correct Radiance “Sprites are ‘its’… How much longer before that pet of yours had burned you out… Then it might have vanished anyways or turned on the miners… This situation was poised to blow up before we got here.” Talking seemed to be a struggle for the ship’s elementalist.
“Radiance seems to be working harder here,” said Reeves. “I want you to pass control of one of your air sprites over to Mr. Williams. Maybe work will help him get his mind off of his complaints.” With grumbling from Williams, Radiance passed him control of one of his sprites and seemed noticeably less stressed.
“What’s stopping the earth elementals from coming at us from underneath the passage or through the rocks on the sides or ceiling?” asked Reeves, glancing around at the rock surrounding them.
“Oh, they’re already attacking from all sides,” said George Williams.
“Our air sprites are blocking them on all fronts,” said Radiance. “The earth elementals are in the staircase up to the ship, so the escape route seems to be blocked. At their current rate of advancing, I’d give it about six hours before they pushed in on us, then reach us.”
“Give me a minute,” ordered the third captain. “I’ll be right back,” as he ran off towards the infirmary. He glanced at the slowly advancing elementals as he ran.
* * *
Running into the infirmary, Reeves said to Sinclair Foran, “Don’t bother trying to move the wounded, our escape route has been blocked off.”
Addressing both Sinclair and Noah, he continued, “Get every man who is able to join the elementalists out in the passageway. I have an idea that I think will buy us some time.”
* * *
Addressing the elementalists and the assembled miners, Reeves spoke loudly so everyone would hear his orders. “What we’re going to do is that the elementalists are going to keep summoning air sprites, then pass the link to each one to an available miner. Miners, I want you to do your best, but tell us how you’re holding up. If you’re going to lose control or pass out, give another miner control of your sprite. If you can handle more, get in line in front of the elementalists and wait for them to pass you another.”
“In terms of maintaining the link, just do what you’ve been doing for an hour each day when you whispered to Mittens to refresh the air. Instead of refreshing the air, tell the sprites to hold back the earth elementals. If anyone is struggling, those of you who are managing better, try to help them.”
Tentatively, trying Reeves’ plan, George Williams passed control of one of his air sprites to Noah Davis. The lead miner giggled as he took control of the sprite, then glanced around at those around him angrily. “It tickled,” he muttered.
“Now send it to hold back the earth elementals,” said Reeves. Moments later, the sprite zoomed off towards the elementals.
“I think I could manage another,” said Noah, sweating profusely.
“Go to the back of the line and wait until everyone else has their first,” ordered Reeves. “Give it a few minutes before you take another to make sure you can handle it. We don’t want anyone passing out.”
Methodically, the two elementalists transferred control of air sprites to the waiting miners, summoning replacements as they went.
* * *
Talking to Captain Baxtor through a farcaster Radiance had summoned, Reeves gave an update on their situation. “So, with the miner’s assistance, we’ve halted the earth elementals’ advance, but we’re trapped down here now. We’re well-stocked and are able to transfer over control when people need to rest, but I don’t fancy staying down here forever.”
Adam Hudson, Radiance’s apprentice, had joined the captain at the farcaster. “I tried to come down the staircase, but I ran into a group of earth elementals that behaved aggressively towards me. I returned to the ship,” he explained, apologetically.
“You did the right thing,” acknowledged Reeves.
“Do you have the capacity to start attacking them with fire, water, and air sprites?” asked Joseph Baxtor. “Maybe you could focus on the attackers in the stairway to clear a path to retreat.”
“Before we retreat captain, I’d like to try one other thing,” suggested Albert Reeves. “Radiance was able to commune with the air elemental that had been guarding the miner’s base. I’d like him to try communing with the earth elementals. They’ve been behaving in a strategic fashion, retreating when outmatched and adjusting attacks. We may be able to convince them to stop attacking us.”
“There’s no such thing as diplomacy with elemental sprites,” said Radiance, glancing apologetically at the third captain. “The experience would certainly be enlightening for me, but I can’t imagine we’ll gather any useful information and it will delay moving the wounded.”
“The wounded are better off where they are,” Sinclair Foran offered. “It won’t be much fun dragging them up the stairs and it won’t do their injuries any good. There’d be nothing wrong with giving them more time to recover here.”
“Radiance misjudged what was happening with the miner’s elementalist’s air sprite and that our sprites could stand up to these elementals,” said Reeves. “I think we have a chance to save the mine.”
“In that case, if there isn’t any danger to Radiance, let’s try the communing with them,” ordered captain Baxtor.
* * *
Bringing Radiance a replacement cup of tea, Reeves set it down next to the cross-legged elementalist sitting next to the barrier of air sprites.
Reeves waited in silence for a few moments. “They’re so unusual,” mused Radiance, deep in contemplation with the earth elementals. “It’s like a mixture of the elemental plane of earth, with a bestial, animalistic instinct, with the barest stirring of reason. If I read a report about this I never would have believed it.”
“Do you know why they’re attacking us?” asked Reeves. “Is it just earth’s animosity to air?”
“I wouldn’t characterize elements as having animosity towards one another,” said Radiance. “You’re treating them as humans. It doesn’t make sense, but I feel like these earth elementals are afraid of us.”
“Afraid?” said the third captain, surprised. “Why?”
“I don’t know yet,” said Radiance.
* * *
Radiance, George Williams, and Adam Hudson sat cross-legged in front of the single earth elemental that remained. Captain Baxtor stood next to Reeves watching the communion. Approaching the earth elemental cautiously, the lead miner Noah Davis raised his hand toward the creature.
“Now whisper to him, like you would if you were examining a possible dig site,” instructed Radiance.
Noah giggled again and, after giving those assembled a dirty look, said, “He’s amazing.” Losing his fear, he approached further and rested his hand on the elemental’s chest. “He knows so much about the rock here. He’s describing it in minute detail for miles around.”
“So why were they attacking miners?” asked Captain Baxtor. “If they’re so ready to make friends with us now.”
“The unusual nodules embedded in the ore that we saw when we were down in the mining tunnels are their eggs,” Radiance said. “They were trying to warn the miners off as they got closer, then were whipped into a frenzy when the miners started destroying the eggs. They’ve told us where their eggs are laid and we’ve agreed to avoid them. They seem to have accepted that we didn’t understand what we were doing.”
“His name is Prince,” said Noah Davis, as he slapped the elemental’s unyielding side. “Because he’s so regal!”
“I suspect that this mine is going to have a new business hosting elementalists,” mused captain Baxtor. “Let’s wrap things up here and prepare to set sail.”
Breaking off his communion and standing up, Radiance said to Reeves, “Third Captain, I have a bottle of Onell whiskey that I’ve been saving for a special occasion and would be honored if you’d join me for a glass back on the ship.”
“That would be just fine, Radiance,” agreed Albert Reeves with a grin.