Death’s Bright Day – Snippet 19

“Glowworms are quite harmless on your clothing,” daSaenz said. The scorn Daniel heard in his tone was probably not just imagination. “Here, I’ll see if I can coax it on to the lantern. Hold still.”

DaSaenz bent at Daniel’s feet; Daniel felt the lantern case pressing against the toe of his boot. The glow had stopped where it was; in fact Daniel had never seen it move, just realized that there was a blob of light on his foot. By effort of will he kept from kicking out violently.

“Are they amoebas?” Miranda said, holding Daniel’s hand firmly. She was changing the subject, bless her heart.

She’s afraid I’m going to turn her childhood dream into something unpleasant, Daniel realized. Aloud he said, “They’re true multi-celled animals, dear. They eat sulfur from the limestone and give off light.”

“There!” said daSaenz, rising. The smear of light had transferred onto the back of the lantern; it seemed to have contracted into a brighter version of itself at half its previous inch diameter. “It seems to me that if you know that, Leary, you should also have learned that the glowworms are harmless.”

“I accept that they’re harmless,” Daniel said, keeping his tone pleasant for Miranda’s sake. “I was just surprised to find something crawling on me when I hadn’t seen it until you turned the light out.”

“They etch the rock with mild acid,” daSaenz said. “I suppose a glowworm could burn your bare skin slightly, though I don’t recall hearing of that happening.”

DaSaenz waggled the lantern, visible for the glow, then let it hang back against his chest. “Daylight kills them, turns them to fine dust. I’ll leave the lantern in the sun when we return.”

The glowworms didn’t illuminate the chamber, but Daniel saw daSaenz’ silhouette turn toward Miranda as he said, “Your husband isn’t quite correct, mistress. There’s no sulfur in limestone, but there are inclusions of iron pyrites, fool’s gold, in this bed. The glowworms ingest the pyrites, separate the sulfur from the iron in the crystals, and excrete the iron on objects which contain no sulfur themselves. I’ve forestalled –”

He gestured again with the lantern.

“– this one from plating the toe of Leary’s boots, since he was concerned about it.”

Daniel said nothing. He knew very little chemistry.

“They give off light when they crack the sulfur out of the fool’s gold,” daSaenz said. “One of my great-uncles had read geology. He told my father that he thought more of the cave is a result of the glowworms eating away the stone than just rainwater like most caves. From photographs the chamber has continued to grow in the past 700 years, despite the manor being built on top and blocking further drainage.”

“Don’t you worry that the house is going to fall in?” Daniel said. He immediately felt like a fool.

“No, I don’t, Leary,” daSaenz said. “But if you’re concerned about your safety, you’re welcome to return to the entrance and wait for us.”

“Sorry,” Daniel muttered. He was making a fool of himself in front of Miranda. This young pup is making a fool of me!

He gave himself up to the moment. The worms, so called, must be only a few cell layers thick. Daniel had seen no sign of the creatures in the lantern light, even though he must have been standing on the one which then crawled on his boot.

Because their glow was faint even in absolute darkness, Daniel couldn’t judge how near they were. Some of them seemed infinitely far away, though he’d seen the cave walls in the lantern and knew that the farthest were within a hundred feet of where he stood.

“They’re beautiful,” Miranda said. “They’re wonderful. Thank you, Daniel, for bringing me here. And thank you, Master daSaenz.”

“This is the least that my family can do for such important people,” daSaenz said. “A famous Cinnabar captain, and the daughter of Midshipman Dorst. Who was well-known here on Jardin even if not so famous on his own world.”

“My father is known here?” Miranda said, her grip on Daniel’s wrist tightening. “Known for what, please?”

“I’m sure my mother can give you all the details when you speak with her,” daSaenz said. “Midshipman Dorst visited in my grandfather’s time, of course, so I have only scraps of knowledge.”

He coughed and said, “This was a little thing, as I said. This is the ante-room where the public is allowed. Now I’ll show you a portion of the caves that very few even of my family have seen.”

DaSaenz switched on the lantern. Daniel turned his head and found that he could still see ghosts of the glowworms on the back wall and floor of the chamber behind him, opposite the broad cone of light. The yellow hue had spared his night vision.

“Unless perhaps you’re afraid, Leary?” daSaenz said.

“No,” said Daniel. Though he kept his voice calm, he was clenching his right fist behind his back. “But Miranda may not –”

“I’d like to go on, Daniel,” she said. “If that’s all right with you?”

“Lead on, daSaenz,” Daniel said, his voice raspy. “Anywhere you go, I’ll keep up. We will.”

DaSaenz walked toward the end of the chamber opposite the entrance tunnel, his lantern spreading a broad fan of yellow on the floor ahead. Even knowing they were there, Daniel saw no sign of the glowworms. What had looked like a shadowed fold in the rock became a narrow passage about five feet high when they approached it.

DaSaenz turned sideways and pulled the lantern out on its strap to move it from his chest. He slipped into the passage, sending flickers of lantern light back to those in the chamber.

Daniel thought quickly. “I’ll lead,” he said, following their guide before Miranda could. He half-knelt to give his waist more room in the triangular passage. It was awkward and uncomfortable and extremely embarrassing, but he did it.

Five feet into the crack, Daniel came out into a tunnel with squared walls and a six-foot ceiling. A metal door was inset in the sidewall.

DaSaenz waited beside it until Miranda sidled into the tunnel with less difficulty than Daniel had had. “This is the elevator to the manor,” daSaenz said, tapping the panel. “We’ll be going up in a moment. But if you’re still willing and able, Leary? It’s going to be quite narrow at the beginning.”

“I’ll manage,” said Daniel. His voice was gruff. Even if I’ve got to strip and rub my skin off on the rock.

The rock had been carved out only in front of the elevator. The crack leading to the next chamber must have been left unimproved to deter visitors. It continued out the far end of the elevator landing. DaSaenz squirmed into it.

“Go ahead,” Daniel said, gesturing Miranda on. If he got stuck, he would back out and decide what to do next. He didn’t want to force her to back out also, and he didn’t want anybody, even Miranda, to be staring at him as he made up his mind about what to do next.

He’d beat it, one way or another. He wouldn’t have been so successful had he not kept clear in his mind the number of ways things could go wrong with a plan, though.

“Are there other openings in the anteroom, Master daSaenz?” Miranda said. Her voice was muffled by her own body.

Daniel got down on all fours and squeezed himself into the passage. His upper shoulder blade — the right one — brushed repeatedly against the rock. The fabric was supposed to be tough, though he didn’t care if this jaunt converted his outfit to wiping rags.

“Eighteen,” said their guide. Daniel could barely hear him. “Most of them are just cracks, but you can crawl a distance into four of them.”

Daniel was in complete darkness. He assumed daSaenz had kept the lantern on, but none of the light leaked back past the two bodies ahead of Daniel and the kinks in the passage. At least it didn’t seem to be narrowing.

DaSaenz said something. Miranda paused and Daniel’s left hand touched her foot.

“Daniel,” she said. Her head must be turned, though Daniel couldn’t see even the foot he was touching. “It’s going to get tight in a moment, but it’s just a short place. Will you be all right?”

“Keep moving,” Daniel said. How in hell was he supposed to know if he’d be all right until he reached the pinch? He certainly wasn’t better for talking about it in a tunnel tighter than a grave!

Miranda moved on. Daniel waited a moment, lying on his side and trying to control his breath. The air wasn’t bad, though it had an odd mustiness. There couldn’t be much circulation down here.