Chapter 26: THE FROZEN FALLS
Icy crystals peppered the horse’s mane, its muzzle and the hair on its flanks. El-on-ah had driven him hard, and the animal’s sweat and frothy breath had frozen rapidly in the air. Numerous globules of spittle adorned the beasts black coat, glistening like jewels. El-on-ah dismounted at the top of the falls, her ears deafened by the roar of hundreds of tonnes of water crashing down into the ravine below. She could feel the ground vibrating under her feet. The falls should be frozen solid. Spring has come early this year.
The plummeting water released a freezing spray. Whipped up by the wind, the icy mist stung her eyes and lashed into her skin, burning it crimson. Rubbing away her tears, she scanned the brim of the cliff for the track leading down to the base of the falls. When she saw it, she knew that she could not risk descending on horseback. She would have to make her way down on foot.
El-on-ah unrolled the thick blanket hitched to her saddle and tossed it over the horse’s shoulders and rump, towelling him down briefly as she secured the coverlet about him. She hadn’t realised how much she hated the cold until now. Why Lord Ka had ever wanted to take Rhodium from the Whytes was beyond her. They were welcome to it. Who else would want to live in this bitter, inhospitable land?
Her eyes were drawn to the southern horizon, and again, she wished that Ka had allowed Puk to accompany her. She knew why he had not, Puk was his insurance, he did not trust her, and maybe he was right not to. Puk would have hated the cold anyway. Still, she would prefer not to be alone when facing Knuckers and Fae. So far, she had been fortunate enough not to meet either of them.
Strapping her occultus around her shoulders and chest, El-on-ah lifted its flap and pulled out the tattered parchment that Lord Ka had given her. Only one item remained, and then this particular ordeal would be over.
It was as El-on-ah began her descent that she heard them. Faint, cheery voices drifting through the air, rising sporadically above the noise of the falls. She recognised them instantly, her heart pounding in her chest as a flurry of surprise and excitement shot through her. Wrapping her cloak around her, she crouched down and edged out towards the rim of the cliff top. Below, Rose the Whyte was approaching the base of the falls with Ash, Auriel and Lee. A giant of a Lignum Vitae officer accompanied them, and he had an animal with him. It was a large white snow leopard.
El-on-ah bit down on her lip. Isn’t this exactly what I’d hoped for? The opportunity to save millions of lives, to end it all now. Just one spell and it will all be over.
Yet El-on-ah’s limbs were reluctant to stir. Her conviction had deserted her, leaving in its wake, a mind filled with uncertainty. This new Ka, the alliance with the Djinn, the assimilations, suddenly this new world was looking very different from the world of freedom and equality that she and the Ophites had long imagined.
El-on-ah removed her glove and looked down on the dragons eye stone, pulsating with eager energy. It goaded her. Do it... do it!
“It’s a rainbow made of marble,” Auriel said, mesmerised by the spectacular panorama of the vast stretch of frozen water.
The Cascades had frozen into a glorious, monolithic facade. A central panel of about fifty yards had begun to thaw, and its waters surged, lifting giant boulders and huge slabs of ice and tossing them like matchsticks. The powerful current launched the massive blocks over the precipice where they crashed deafeningly into the bay below.
The waters of the bay remained mostly frozen, though the chasm cut by the tumbling water’s bulky cargo widened, even as they watched. On either side of the thundering maelstrom there hung solid sheets of ice, draped majestically, like the curtains of a theatre’s stage, drawn back to reveal its star performer.
“Over there,” Rose gestured towards a section of the ice curtain that was silver in colour and forged into a collection of delicate glistening folds. “Fingers of silver hue?”
“Yes, undoubtedly, but how do we get to them?” Lee shielded his eyes as he looked out across the bay. “The ice is thawing, I doubt that it will hold our weight, the spring thaw is evidently well underway.”
“There’s a cave behind the falls,” said Auriel, delving into her library of stored knowledge. “Apparently it was quite an attraction in ancient times. The Whytes used to call it The Great Ice Grotto. If the entrance is still accessible, then we should be able to collect them from inside, without even venturing out onto the ice.”
“I don’t see any cave entrance,” said Lee, squinting, “I should refer to another volume if I were you.”
“It’s the definitive guide,” said Auriel, “The Geographical History of Rhodium and its Islands. So, if it says there’s a land accessible entrance here, then there is. You’re just not looking hard enough.”
Sloley chattered excitedly while frantically attempting to bury himself inside Lee’s hood.
“Hey,” Lee winced as sharp claws dug into his neck, “what’s up with you? Stop being such a pain…”
“There,” Linden pointed to a spot about twenty feet from where they were standing.
There, between two folds of iridescent blue ice, was a dark crevice, about the size of a tree trunk. The crack, set back beyond a small ledge, rested about three feet above ground level. Effortlessly, Linden vaulted onto the outcrop. He turned and extended a hand as the snow leopard leapt up beside him.
Sloley’s chattering appeared to be mounting in line with his degree of agitation. Pulling the distraught loris from his shoulder, Lee stuffed the flailing animal into his occultus and climbed up onto the ledge.
One by one, they slipped behind the ice curtain and into the hidden chamber. Inside, the giant cavern was a multi-coloured kaleidoscope of light, each fold of the curtain acting like a giant prism and splitting the sunlight into a rainbow of colours. The ice too was painted with a variety of hues, each of the minerals trapped inside bestowing a different colour. The folds seem to alter in tone as they led further into the cave and towards the centre of the falls. The ice at the entrance was blue, transforming to green and then, as the sunlight cut through it, distinct stripes could be seen, pinks, golds, purples and, deeper inside the cavern, a brilliant, gleaming silver.
“Wow,” said Ash, “It’s like someone stole all of Rhodium’s colours and stashed them in here for posterity. I can see why this place was such an attraction with the locals. Is that what we are looking for?”
He pointed towards the silver portion of the curtain, stretching out towards the centre of the falls.
“A simple task,” Linden said, striding over towards the fingers of silver ice.
He gripped one of the fingers in his gloved hand and broke it off. The action produced a loud crack which, amplified by the acoustics of the vast amphitheatre reverberated around the cavern. The vibrations seemed to grow stronger, transforming into a different sound, an expanding, rumbling, guttural roar.
The grey-scaled beast emerged from the shadows. Shielded, behind her, were two hatchlings teetering on the edge of a nest containing a collection of unhatched eggs and broken shells. The creature’s yellow eyes locked onto them with the focused determination of mother protecting her young, her enormous fangs dripping with spew.
“Shit,” said Linden, “here.” in one smooth movement he tossed the stick of ice to Auriel and drew his sword from its sheath. The action prompted the dragon to let out an almighty roar. The beast jerked back its neck preparing to strike.
“Run!” Linden yelled as he faced off the beast, his sword levelled at the animal’s soft underbelly.
The leopard sprang to Linden’s side, emitting a low, menacing snarl through bared teeth. Auriel and Lee dived behind an over-sized stalagmite. The Knucker’s neck snapped around. A bolt of spew hit the boulder with a loud crack, freezing it instantly. The rock shuddered, emitting a growing rumble like the onset of an earthquake, shaking progressively more violently until it exploded into a million pieces.
The blast flung Auriel back against the wall of the cavern where she dropped to the ground and lay unmoving. Lee’s face, now deathly pale, was peppered with tiny cuts. Crouching behind a large boulder, Lee’s eyes gazed vacantly, fixed on the body of the small loris lying limp and still by his side, a large shard of rock jutting from his abdomen.
Rose glanced anxiously towards Ash. If we do not act, it will tear us apart. Silently she signalled her intentions. Ash nodded, and they began circling around the creature, moving back towards the rear of the cave, their attention never deviating from the animal’s enormous body, which now blocked their escape.
Letting out a tremendous roar, the great beast swung around, returning its attention to Linden and Ro-eh-na. Lifting its head, the animal prepared to strike. Linden raised his sword above his head, charging at the beast as it shot another jet of spew towards him. The leopard leapt onto the dragon’s shoulders.
Ro-en-ah tugged hard, biting deep into its neck, wrenching its enormous head back in an attempt to disrupt its aim, but she was not fast enough. The spew hit Linden’s right arm, rapidly penetrating his thick bearskin coat and soaking through onto his skin.
Linden’s scream was visceral. It shook the cavern, echoing around the grotto for long after his body had ceased its tortured convulsions. Finally, he lay unconscious, his right arm, blistering, blackened and frozen.
Ro-eh-na burst into a frenzy of action, attacking the beast with fangs and claws, repeatedly sinking them deep into the Knucker’s hide. She did little damage, and with one great flick of its tail, the animal dispatched her as effortlessly as a horse dispatching a fly.
Rose’s response was lightning fast. Once Ro-eh-na was safely out of the way, she took aim.
“Revincio,” Rose swung her arm around in a circular movement and cast the binding spell.
A stream of white energy sprung from her potens ring and shot out towards the dragon. It snaked about the animals form, coiling around its jaws and limbs and then tightening about the animal like thick silver twine.
“It won’t hold her for long,” said Rose, as the dragon crashed into the walls of the cavern, thrashing and heaving its body around in an attempt to escape from the restraints. “The Knucker we got the spew from must have been a juvenile. She’s much bigger and stronger; I doubt a holding spell would restrain her at all.”
A loud crack sounded as one strand of the magical tether snapped, releasing the dragon’s wings, which flapped madly as it fought to regain an upright position.
“If she gets her jaws free she’ll have us for sure,” said Ash. “Maybe we should fight ice with ice…”
His words confused her momentarily, but she rapidly grasped his meaning.
“No, Ash, that’s much too dangerous.”
“Well, if you can think of another way…” Ash said as another tether snapped. The beast’s forelegs were free. “You’ve got about thirty seconds.”
Rose knew he was right, the spell would not hold much longer. She held his gaze for a long moment. Either way, chances were that they would both be ripped apart and Rose had no better plan. Reluctantly she nodded her approval.
Ash’s transformation was almost instant, which was as well because just then, the last of the tethers fell away and the animal hurtled towards them at full speed. Knocking Rose aside, Ash charged the dragon just as it raised its head to strike. The two beasts clashed, the ground juddering violently as they thundered into one another. The creature’s monstrous cries filled the cavern, loud enough to obscure the roar of the water pounding into the bay.
Though the snow leopards teeth and claws had made little impression on the hide of the Knucker, the dragon’s equipment appeared to be altogether more superior. Each dragon latched on, their arched fangs ripping deeply into each other’s flesh. Claws gouged deep grooves into their flanks. The floor of the grotto swam with viscous, inky blood.
Ash was becoming increasingly overpowered by the larger, more powerful beast. Rose’s heart twisted in her chest. I cannot lose him... There has to be something I can do.
The creature shook Ash like a dog, tossing him to the ground and arching its neck ready for one final, deadly strike. Rose reacted instinctively, running forward and placing herself between the two of them. The beast hesitated for an instant as it caught sight of her diminutive figure, hand raised in challenge, eyes narrowed and awash with fury.
“You will not take him,” She yelled, hesitating as she heard the muffled voices of the four, whispering to her, growing in intensity, urging her on... Occillo? - Really? Can it be that easy? It doesn’t matter, I’m out of options. Rose cast the spell.
A bolt of magical energy surged from her ring, striking the animal in the centre of its chest. Though stunned, the beast seemed to absorb the impact with little effect, but the bolt of energy had opened up a fissure between the scales at the centre of its massive chest. Rose held her breath as the crack widened, slowly expanding until white energy flowed, tiny rivers of lava running between its scales until they were rimmed with fiery silver light. The beast swayed before her, glowing like an enchanted, three-dimensional mosaic.
Realising what was about to transpire, Rose flung herself to the ground, rolling behind a large boulder. The dragon let out a blood-curdling howl. Rose felt a deep rumble beneath her and then everything began to vibrate. Large shards of ice dropped like giant knives from the roof of the cavern, piercing the ground.
The creature’s form grew blurred and indistinct, its scales vibrating like the wings of a thousand hummingbirds fighting for freedom.
One broke away, flying past Rose like a leaf in a storm. One by one more followed, then small groups, until finally in one enormous explosion of light the animal fractured into a thousand pieces splattering the walls of the cavern with glassy scales dripping with blood and flesh.
The silence that followed lasted only seconds but to Rose it was as if time itself had stopped. As if someone had cast a holding spell on the scene; nothing could move, and no sound escaped from the resulting vacuum. Then, she got to her feet, and the scene before her lurched violently into focus, the sound returning in all its ghastly splendour.
Linden cried out in agony as Ro-eh-na knelt at his side, the look of fear and helplessness on her face belied her attempts to reassure him. Ash lay bleeding, propped up against a rock. He moaned as Auriel manically tore strips from her robe to use as bandages. The horrific scene was being played out to the accompaniment of unremitting, monotonous, droning sobs, emanating from behind a large boulder at the rear of the cave.
When Rose found Lee, he appeared dazed. He rocked back and forth, arms clutched about his body, tears streaming down his face as he bent over Sloley’s lifeless body.
“I’m so sorry Lee,” Rose placed a hand on his shoulder.
“I couldn’t help him…” Lee said flatly, “some alchemist eh?”
“Lee… you can’t blame yourself. You could not have prevented this, no one could have, and you can do nothing for him now.” She bent down beside him and grasping his chin, she pulled his face around, meeting his eyes, “but you can help Ash and Linden, and they need you now.”
Stirring from his trance, Lee glanced over to where the newly hatched dragons were squawking pathetically, open-mouthed, at the edge of their nest.
“We need to move quickly,” he said, swallowing, “Knuckers share the parenting of their clutches. The male could be back at any moment.”
“We’d better get on with it then,” Rose gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “See what you can do for Linden, he’s Knucker-struck. I’ll help Auriel with Ash.”
Rose felt a surge of guilty relief as she looked over Ash’s battered face and body. He’s a Metamorph; he will heal quickly. She recalled how Lord Irwin, their Morphology Magister, had explained that the cells of a Metamorph had the ability to shift shape and reform. It enabled them to regenerate remarkably quickly, but as she dressed his wounds, she found her anxiety growing.
“You are going to be okay aren’t you?” She eased his arm back into the sleeve of his robe.
“Me? Oh, I’ll be fine, I’m indestructible,” he flashed a lopsided smile. “Thanks, by the way. That was some move. Whatever made you think to use the fracture spell? I thought that was just for the incantatio… for objects I mean.”
“Yes, so did I,” said Rose, “Instinct maybe.”
“Well, I’m glad you go with your gut Rose. Don’t ever stop doing that.”
“It’s the four,” said Auriel, looping the last of the bandages around Ash’s wrist. “Lord Eldwyn killed a Knucker once, it’s the only successful killing ever recorded, and he never told anyone how he did it. He was afraid that if it ever got out Knuckers would be hunted like vermin and he did not want that to happen, he wanted to preserve them. I guess it’s because Rhodium has so few native species.”
“Are you able to communicate with Lord Eldwyn, Rose?” Ash asked tentatively.
“No… no, I can’t.” Rose hesitated, “but sometimes I think that he communicates with me. Do you feel strong enough to stand?”
Ash nodded, “I said I was indestructible, didn’t I?”
Taking their hands, he allowed them to help him to his feet and over to where Lee and Ro-eh-na were busily working on Linden.
“How is he?” Rose crouched down beside them.
“I’ve given him a sleeping potion to ease his pain,” Lee’s voice was subdued, “but there is no cure for Knucker strike. The poison will spread until it kills him. It is just a matter of time.”
“What if we remove the limb?” Ro-eh-na’s words were spoken impersonally, but her eyes revealed their cost. “Will he have a chance if you take his arm?”
“I don’t know,” said Lee, “there are no records of any native surviving Knucker-strike. That said I’m not sure if it has ever been tried before. Auriel?”
Auriel shook her head. “There’s nothing recorded in any of the material that I have read.”
“I’ll do it. He has nothing to lose,” Ro-eh-na turned to Lee, “Do you have what we’ll need to cauterise the wound?”
“I have plenty of silver nitrate,” said Lee, “but are you sure that you want to do this. He is Lignum Vitae; he’ll not thank you for it.”
“I will not be doing it for his thanks,” she said, lifting Linden’s sword from his side, “I do it only to save a life that I believe is worth saving.”
Ro-eh-na’s stood astride Linden’s body, her hands trembling as she raised the blade above her head. Auriel turned away as Ro-eh-na bought the Ferrum steel down. The blade made a soft shushing sound as it sliced through flesh and bone like scissors through paper.
“Now!” Ro-eh-na voice cracked as she choked back a sob, “Lee, do it now!”
Carefully, Lee laid the stick of silver nitrate over the amputation site, placing his hand over the wound. The dragon’s eye ring glowed red, and the nitrate burst into flame, flaring brightly with a loud hiss as it cauterised Linden’s wound. The air became thick with the scent of burning flesh.
Ro-eh-na finished dressing Linden’s wounds while the others carried Sloley outside the cavern and buried him under a pile of rocks. They stood solemnly, without speaking, grief hanging over them like a black fog. Oppressively thick, it muffled everything, all words, all thoughts and all purpose.
“I told him to stop being a pain…” Lee spoke in a monotone, “that was the last thing I said to him, that he was a pain.”
“He would have known that you didn’t mean it,” Ash winced as he put his arm around his friend’s shoulder, “he was a smart little critter.”
“Yes he was, but I can’t help thinking that maybe he would still be here,” said Lee, “if I had not tried to dive behind the boulder.”
“If you hadn’t, you’d probably both have been killed,” Rose squeezed his hand. “You reacted the way any of us would. Sloley will always be a part of our story Lee, and we’re not finished yet. We will take back our lands from Lord Ka because we cannot allow him to continue to oppress and enslave our people. When we triumph, we will remember that Sloley played a vital part in that victory. If it were not for him, we might not have found the means to unify the incantatio. His death will not have been in vain.”
Later when they left the cave, Linden, heavily sedated, slept peacefully on a sledge fashioned from driftwood and lined with his thick bearskin cloak, which was wrapped tightly around him. Ro-eh-na made easy work of pulling the sleigh, the task held no challenge for the powerfully built snow leopard, even with Linden’s great body cradled inside. Harnessed to the device with a yoke made from Linden’s leather armour straps, she moved rapidly over the snow and frozen ground.
“I realise that we still have one final piece of the incantatio to locate,” Ash fell into step beside Rose. “But with Linden... What are we going to do Rose?”
“We don’t have any choice, we can’t deviate from our original plan,” Rose slowed as she saw Ash was limping, though he attempted to hide it. “Lord Eldwyn saw it all Ash, he predicted every move that we would make. Each piece of the puzzle has been strategically placed accordingly. Therefore, if we are to complete the Incantatio, we must stick to our planned path. We have to rendezvous with Elder and the others at Isingwilde as arranged.”
Their weary legs crunched through the thick snow as they trekked onwards towards the northern Rhodium town of Isingwilde. They did not look back. They did not see the black-robed woman climb down to the base of the falls and enter the Ice Grotto. Nor did they watch as she emerged, minutes later, clutching her occultus to her as if it contained the cure for all the ills of the world.