Chapter 30: To the Gate
Daliana had just finished describing the events of the last fifty years to Garneth as the sun touched the horizon. Then they heard Heavy Paw roar, and he came to their campfire, flanked by two tigers. The rest of the circle closed in from other sides. It was clear that they had chosen death for El Darnen. Suddenly, Daliana was glad he had run when he did.
“Where is the Serpent?”
“Gone. He left this morning, for the Morschen world.”
Heavy Paw turned, but still spoke in Morschen. “Run him down.” The Cartarin started to obey, but Garneth stopped them.
“Why? You wanted him gone, and now he is. You have no reason to bring him back here.”
“This is between him and me, Star-gazer. He owes me a blood debt for my father and my sister. If I do not collect it, my son will.”
Daliana couldn’t hold the thought back any longer. “If you do not collect it, it will be because he has killed you also. Hunting El Darnen down will only end the same way that this started. It will not bring your father back. It will not bring Grrwa back.” “Have you lost your father, Garrenin? Or any you might call family? Do you know the hole I feel? Vengeance is all I have left.”
“I grew up not knowing my father, not knowing that I was the daughter of Taren Garrenin. My real mother died when I was three, and my adopted mother died barely one hundred years later. My father’s best friend was the man who killed him. I know your desire for vengeance. But my people need El Darnen, which means your people need him too. If Anaria falls, The Kindler and the Deshika will not be sated. They will look over the mountains, and you will be here still, only without the Morschen armies standing between you and them.” “You hold a throne on your side of the mountains.”
“The Oaken Throne of Dothoro. And Eliish Del Lasheed, by right if not by name.”
Garneth looked up with renewed interest. “Eliish Del Lasheed has been found?”
“It was never lost, except in name. Garisha the arrogant changed its name before the Anarian Civil War. I found that out, and the fact that the throne was Taren’s birthright.” “Well, Kallin, you did not discover the fact that it was Taren’s birthright. He knew all along that it was his to take. But you are worthy of the title you hold. You are Demosira.” Heavy Paw snorted. “This changes nothing. I want the Serpent.”
“And I want peace Heavy Paw. Neither of us is likely to get what we want.”
Edya spoke up. “El Darnen has more than a twenty-hour head start, and the mountains are not that far away. Your hunters may be good, Heavy Paw, but I doubt that your whole pack could find him in the Garuthen Mountains. It took you almost two days to find us, and you knew where we were. You knew which direction we were traveling. We weren’t going into the mountains. El Darnen is out of your reach.” Heavy Paw rounded on Edya, and two of the other Cartarin crouched, ready to pounce. But Daliana went and stood beside her. “Attack my sister, and you attack the Morschledu Remnant. If we do not return over the mountains, El Darnen will come back, and he will bring an army. Maybe we can’t fight the Deshika or the Seven, but we can fight you.” The two Cartarin hunters loosened their stance, but Heavy Paw was still holding his anger in check. “Edya is a Drog True-Arms Master. Her ability with the sword is at least as great as El Darnen’s, and you know what he is capable of.” Garneth stepped in, trying to ease the tension. “You promised them safe passage to the mountains, and you told El Darnen to be out of your lands by sundown. Sundown is here, and El Darnen is gone. Words have already been said that are likely regretted,” he shot a glance at Daliana, “but that can be changed if you have a hunter lead them across the mountains.” Garneth stepped beside Daliana and slowly pushed himself between her and Heavy Paw. Then he forced Heavy Paw to look him in the eyes. “Listen to me, my friend. Let the Morschcoda go. They can’t help you from here.” Heavy Paw remained tense, but slowly, so slowly, the hardness of his muscles decreased. “Rrtt. Take them over their mountains. And take a message to the Serpent.” Heavy Paw reverted to his own language. Daliana looked at Garneth, who shook his head at what the chief was saying, but did not intervene.
Rrtt, a panther, but not the one who had first caught them, came back to their fire as soon as the sun cast the Garuthen Mountains’ long shadow over the camp. “Morschcoda ready?” From his voice, he was young. His understanding of Garneth’s teachings covered little more than the basics of Morschen speech.
“Yes, Rrtt. We are ready.” Daliana prodded Edya with her foot. “Right, Edya?”
“No,” Edya moaned. “We are not ready.” She rolled over, out of reach of Daliana’s foot, but Daliana reached down and pulled away her blanket. Annoyed, Edya rolled to her feet.
It was a long walk back to the mountains, but it was nowhere near as long as their trip to the camp. If El Darnen had been able to keep his pace, he would have been waiting for them for almost an entire day. But, he was waiting for them right where Garneth said he would be. Rrtt walked right up to the fire that El Darnen had started and growled for several minutes. El Darnen nodded when the panther was finished, and then Rrtt turned around and ran back to his camp.
“What did he say?”
“It was a message from Heavy Paw. I still despise you, and you are not welcome in my lands, but you are not in my lands now. To say who lives and who dies out there is not my place. Hunt free.” “Hunt free?”
“It’s a Cartarin expression. I don’t know what it means.”
“Well El Darnen. North or south?”
“The mountains end closer to the south, but that will still take us too long.”
“What do we do then?”
Garneth answered. “Sometimes, Kallin, when given two choices, the right answer is the option you were not informed you had.” Garneth nodded to the Serpent, who turned around and faced the cliff where he had been sitting. Walking up to it, he made a fist and punched a hole through the rock face. Daliana gasped. A small part of the cliff face collapsed around the hole El Darnen had made.
“Welcome to yet another of the secrets held closely guarded by the Serpents of old. One of the only ones that has continued to be passed down through the lineage of my title. This is El Ernoch Natri: The Dwarven Road.” …
The mouth of the tunnel had vanished behind them what seemed like hours before, but still, the five Morschen kept waking in silence and total darkness. Finally, Daliana had had enough.
“Who are you, El Darnen?”
“I am the Serpent. You know that?”
“I know, but … Who are you?”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“What’s your name, where are you from, are you actually a Ringlord, all of those questions.”
“Oh. You want to know about me. Not questions I generally answer. And they take a lot of time to answer, anyway.”
“We’ve been walking for hours and I feel like the only sign that we’ve actually moved is that we can’t see where we came in. We’re not going anywhere fast, El Darnen.” Edya got the impression of El Darnen nodding in the blackness as he spoke. “Fine. My answers may not be that satisfying though. Everything that defines the identity of the current Serpent is supposed to be forgotten while one is being trained to inherit the title. I was chosen when I was five. I didn’t have much to forget. At the same time, I am a Ringlord, and I wield one of the Drog Rings. My mother came to the camp in the Garuthen Mountains one day. I wasn’t the Serpent yet, and my predecessor wasn’t exactly pleased to see her, but she demanded to see me, and I guess that she wasn’t used to being told no. She was allowed to see me, she told me my name, her name, my father’s name, gave me a Ring that had been in her family for millennia, and then said goodbye. I haven’t seen her since. I am a Drog, my mother told me that I was born in Grathen Harbour. And the Ring, well, as you can see…” El Darnen held up his hand. A silver Ring with two large, square sapphires was wrapped around his first finger, glinting in the dark.
“Why are you supposed to forget everything that makes you who you are?”
“The Serpent is who I am, but only an incarnation. The Serpent never changes, only the body that its spirit inhabits. In the few of our teachings that the Serpents still know about, we’re supposed to stand ready to be used as an avatar of Lasheed if he chooses to walk in Anaria.” “So, when you said that oceans could be filled with the blood you’ve shed …”
“Yes, Edya, that was a metaphor. I haven’t done all or even most of what I said then. But other Serpents have, and we’re supposed to be … Well, the oath you have to take is ’I pledge to stand ready, to be the silent watcher, the hidden guardian; to preserve what was for the sake of what will be. I will have no name other than Serpent, no past save what those before have left me, and no future save what those after will create. I am the Serpent. I am eternal.’ I’m not sure if that’s any kind of an answer to your question, Daliana, but it’s the only one I’ve got.” The way El Darnen ended the oath made Edya think he looked thoughtful. She couldn’t tell what his face looked like in the total darkness surrounding them. But, almost right away, she heard his footsteps stop. Suddenly, he began to talk again. “I once said, Kallin, that I knew much left over from Serpents of older days. You Storineans have some explaining to do.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” There was an edge in Kallin’s voice. Edya thought that she heard Garneth slide over beside his son.
“No? You know nothing about the Black Star?” There was a sharp hiss as one of the two Storineans, or maybe both, inhaled quickly, caught off guard. “I thought so. How long have the Demosira been protecting them?” Garneth’s response was angry and venomous. “That cult was stamped out in Storinea centuries ago.” The words sounded practiced, though.
“Oh really. Centuries? How many centuries? Three? Four? As many as … say … six?”
“We dealt with them, El Darnen. That is the end of it.”
Daliana interjected. “What happened six centuries ago?”
El Darnen shuffled his feet, turning towards where Daliana’s voice had come from. “The Drog Civil War ended, and a young man named Taren Garrenin the Second was in desperate need of friends to help him stabilize his war-torn country.” El Darnen turned back towards the two Storineans. “So, Demosira went to help. Such a large number, too. Unheard of, even. Without precedent in recent history. Seventy, I remember hearing.” “What kind of hearsay would you accuse us with?”
“It just seems odd. You send seventy Demosira to help Taren stabilize his country. He turns Valok-Shein over to them. You say that the Black Star is extinct in Storinea. Because you sent them all to Drogoda. You couldn’t sanction their experiments in the Demosira’s Tower. So give them to a curious young Morschcoda who was so desperate for any support his throne could get that he would sign anything that secured an alliance with Storinea.” “This is all speculation. You have no proof of anything against my father, Serpent.”
“Oh, really?” El Darnen’s voice was getting harder. “Don’t I, Garneth? What about the Ringless? How many innocents died that way?”
“You know nothing of that!”
“Don’t I!? How did it start? Morschen of extraordinary magical abilities sought. And then they caught on, and you changed it. Ringless Heretics at large. Extremely dangerous. Reward for live capture. How many innocents died to cure your interest in Morschen who could wield elemental magic without a Ring? And how many Noldorin smiths got rich forging powerless rings and exploiting those desperate people so that they could hide … from you?” The silence was deafening. “Answer me, Garneth.” “None of this happened the way you say it did.”
“And how many Morschledu despise the ‘Ringless’ because you needed questions answered? All of them? Even Taren Garrenin himself?”
“Those people were dangerous. I was protecting our people.”
“Oh, really. So, the fact that you yourself are a member of the Black Star …” El Darnen let the accusation hang.
“Finish that sentence, El Darnen.”
“I was just waiting to make sure everyone was following along, Edya.” His footsteps echoed as he moved towards where Garneth’s voice had come from. “You experimented on Ringless mages. The Chief Librarian and the Dean of the University of Storinea started to question what was going on, so, to save your throne, you revealed the existence of the Black Star, and promptly exiled them to Drogoda. Taren only knew he was receiving Demosira, not a cult. He gave them Valok-Shein, largely unused until that point, so they could conduct research, per your advice. You told the Chief Librarian they were imprisoned. Eventually, though, it came to light again, and more importantly, more of the Black Star were still in Storinea.” El Darnen paused to let the two women, and Kallin, catch up with him. “You abdicated and took the remaining cultists with you out of Anaria. Because Morschcoda, Demosira, they don’t serve the Master of Pain.” “El Darnen …” Daliana started, but El Darnen drew his sword.
“Garneth Revdark, I judge you guilty. The blood of many innocents is on your hands.”
“You don’t have that right, El Darnen.”
“Daliana, this man is evil.”
“You don’t know that. And you don’t have the right to decide. You are the accuser. You cannot be his judge.”
“If we get back alive, we will take him to Dishmo Kornara. If other matters give us time, the Morschcoda Council will judge him. If we find him guilty, then you may execute him. Until then—” They all felt the world warp. “He’s gone. If I find him again, he dies. For now though, we keep walking.”
As far as Edya could tell, the road bored straight east through the mountains. It was also pitch black. “I wish we had Ranny with us.”
“Because she’s good company.” She looked in the direction she thought Kallin had answered from and barely kept from swearing at him. “So she could make some bloody light. Why else would I specifically want her or any other Caladean Ringlord?” Kallin had no answer, but El Darnen’s footsteps stopped. “Hm. This is interesting. Kallin, there should be torches along the wall. Can you light one?” “Yes.”
El Darnen waited for a minute. “Are you going to?”
“Are you going to ask properly?”
“You know, for a scholar, you seem incredibly disinterested in seeing something that only the Serpents have seen in the last fifty thousand years.” “Well, you might have mentioned that sooner.”
“You also might have mentioned that there were torches sooner. We could have used them.”
“We’ve been moving in a straight line, Edya. We didn’t actually need them before now.”
“So why do we need them now?” Kallin finally got the torch to catch.
“Because this isn’t right.” Edya saw what El Darnen was curious about. There was a body in the middle of the tunnel. Kallin was too busy looking at the stonework itself to care about the body.
“What is it?”
“You say that so casually, like it’s nothing.”
“This tunnel predates Dishmo Kornara. It’s not great work, even by ancient Eschcotan standards. For Dwarves, even that long ago, it’s maybe acceptable. Straight and smooth the whole way, but nothing special other than the size: this was their main road, hence the name. There are tunnels and side roads all along here. I’ve been down most of them, part of the way at least. They lead to palaces, cities, mansions, mines, dungeons, everything you could think of and a lot more that you can’t. Bodies aren’t hard to find down here if you’re looking for them. There’s no light, no wind, nothing to make them decompose. It should be of interest to any scholar that wants to study Dwarves. But what I don’t understand, though, is this specific body right here. Every Serpent for at least the past thirteen generations swept this road at least once a year. I’ve done the same. There has never been a body within a league of the road before now.” “When did you last come through here?”
“Two months ago.”
“So, this body …”
“And that’s … bad?”
El Darnen nodded. “Yes, it’s bad. Dwarves went extinct almost two Ages ago. They don’t exist anymore. That’s not an opinion. I’ve been through every Dwarven ruin in the southern Garuthen Mountains and a few as far north as Torridesta. I take a lot of my followers with me every time. We search them, thoroughly. I’ve spent as many as three months at a small ruin. I know that the Dwarves are gone. Scholars don’t know why they died out, but I have my own theory. Every so often, we’ll find bodies with bite marks or claw marks. Something not interested in Dwarves that are slowly turning to stone. I’ve seen Wyrms down here. This is how they mark territory.” “We’ve been walking in total darkness, past openings in the walls, right through Wyrm territories, and you’re only telling us now?” Edya’s voice echoed alarmingly up and down the stone road.
“And you yelled at me for running high up in the trees through Lurnax hunting grounds.”
“Lurnax hunt in packs, and they can climb. I’ve fought Wyrms before. They won’t swarm us. And there are five of us. Wyrms are smart enough to think twice. Lurnax aren’t.” “So, you intend for us to walk through a Wyrm’s marked territory. You are insane, El Darnen.”
“Kallin, I normally start at the other end of the road. We’re probably already through. That said, if it knows we’re here, it may chase us.”
“So, we run.”
“No, Edya. If it hears us …”
“No, El Darnen.” Edya pointed back down the tunnel. “We run!”