The footsteps of the others were completely silent, their natural Shadow magic hiding their sound completely. It made me feel as if I were walking alone though I could see that I was not as Arion stood just ahead of me, flaming hand raised high for better sight, though there wasn’t much to see.
Correction: there was much to see, we just could not see far.
The walls of the tunnel were riddled in pictures, scripts and codes. There were also warnings written in languages long dead, and scratches in the stone telling us to turn back while we were still able. A message was written in what looked like blood, the words long turned unrecognizable by what looked like lick-marks.
Among all of this were gouges made from claws, or of armor scratching across the stone, along with the occasional rusty splatter of blood.
“Turn to the right up here.” I whispered to Arion. “Take the stairs down to the lowest floor available.”
He did as I demanded, pausing first to listen carefully and look up and down the stairs before starting down them carefully, avoiding the loose stones and crumbled railings. Rian remained at my side, his hand constantly on my shoulder to keep me close. Aitch and Jaz were in the rear, guarding our backs as we went along.
“How do you have a map?” Arion whispered.
“I told you, we recently discovered–”
“I had to deny the Beoworth’s when they asked me to come into these very mountains. I did much research in why it was impossible for me to do as he asked so I would not be killed for denying his request. I found enough evidence that the king actually agreed with me and completely gave up his search for the White Stone.” He went silent as he stopped to listen carefully before turning a corner. After a moment, we continued walking and he continued speaking. “One of the facts that I was able to present was that there is no map. The last to walk through these mountains without dying were the elves, and even they lost most of their men.”
I debated a moment, then decided there was no harm in telling the truth... at least piece of it.
“It was gifted to us by an elf historian whom is a descendant of those that once lived here when it was a kingdom itself.”
He glanced at me briefly. “Gifted?” He asked, then: “You’ve been outside of Nahdiera?”
“Up these stairs.”
We stepped over a skeleton that was skewered with ancient goblin arrows then went to another staircase. It took us up three floors, but the stairs were crumbled to dust in some places, making our walk even more dangerous. “Left.” I whispered at the top.
“Gifted?” He asked again.
I grimaced slightly but at least he’d forgotten about the fact that I had been outside Nahdiera when the Stone prevented anyone from leaving without Marqis’ permission.
“There’s a jewel inside the Nägo Parğm. This jewel cleanses waters upon touching it. The elves are dying because of something in the water they drink and so the historian gifted me the codes and map with the hopes that I will gift his people the jewel. Their lives depend on this mission we are on, my reward is to take whatever I wish.”
This was almost true. In honesty, the elven king - one of the only others safe from the mind of the stone - told Jovian where and how to go and get what I needed. Not because he wanted the jewel, but because he wanted Marqis off the throne as much as I. He could not attack Marqis because of the Grey Stone. He was as trapped as the rest of us in his dying kingdom.
Until I killed Marqis, of course, and created a powerful ally in the process.
However, knowing my journey would be a long one and that I would need even more than what was inside the Black Mountain, the elven king had asked that we gain the jewel for him so that his people could survive long enough for that day to come... but also so that if I failed, they were not entirely hopeless.
Because it was not the Marshlands that were killing his people, but Marqis himself, who was poisoning their water as he flew over it on the white dragons.
Jovian was sure they were doing this for a very specific reason – because the Beoworth’s wanted to expand Nahdiera territory, pushing it past the mountains and into elven lands. This though, would only bring in more deadly creatures and may possibly anger the black dragons in the North Mountains, which just may (if the rumors were true) cause Eastwood to spread even further.
Nahdiera would not survive this, I was sure.
“There’s a narrow slot here, up on the left.” I whispered, pointing in the dark over Arion’s shoulder. “We need to get inside it.”
He didn’t question me, only went forward ahead of me with his sword in hand, Shadow ears listening intently and Shadow eyes watching in the blackness where I could not see. He raised the fire that was lit in the center of his palm, high in the air, revealing more warnings, more stories, more directions that could not be read by anyone except by those of elven blood.
Or by me.
The slot was narrow, but tall. So tall that even with the fire the ceiling could not be seen. It made me nervous but there wasn’t much to be done about it except for lower my hood so my limited sight was not interrupted.
I motioned for everyone to get inside, then Arion and I went in and turned around as there was nowhere to go except back the way we’d come. But this was not a passage, this was a place to hide and created for a very specific purpose.
I bent, looking at the wall.
“What are you doing?” Arion hissed.
“Finding the tune.”
“Shh.” I found it, written between clusters of songs of warning in notes upon the lower wall. I took out the tiny whistle from my hidden pocket that held the ointment which hid my marks as well as a tiny jar of elven blood, then held it out to Rian. I had been trained to use it, but I felt I needed to let Rian do this, as if letting him blow four notes on a whistle would make up for all the things I was unable to tell him.
“Can you do these four notes here with this?” I asked, holding up the glass, elven whistle.
His eyes widened at my request, but he nodded, accepting it.
“Do it into...” I searched the riddled walls for the hole with the symbol I’d been told to look for just inside it, “Here. Then, you Shadows need to put out the fire and stay quiet.”
Arion began to protest and Jazera started asking questions, but Rian didn’t hesitate in doing as I asked, cutting them off with blowing those four notes. It sounded like nothing I have ever heard before – like wind whistling through the trees, like roots pushing up from the ground, like a chicks first chirp in sunshine or its mothers’ final song. It sounded haunting and beautiful.
“We shouldn’t make noise, it can draw-”
I slapped my hand over Arion’s mouth and held it there forcibly. My other hand going over his to snuff the fire in his palm painfully but with just as much force.
For a few minutes, there was only silence and I began to fear that I had made a mistake somewhere. But then, there was a rumbling sound. Low and almost impossible to hear, but there just the same.
Arion took my arm and removed it from his mouth, then pulled at me, trying to tug me behind him. But I feared he would try and attack what passed so I forced myself in front of him, placing myself between the two edges of the narrow slot to block his path.
However, thought I was strong, I was not as strong as a Shadow. He grabbed me around my waist and yanked me against him with one arm while the other arm went out in front of the both of us, sword in hand. I quickly grabbed the hand and gripped it and the hilt, hoping he understood what I was trying to tell him: Do not attack!
I could almost hear him cursing me in his mind as the rumbling became louder.
I kept my hand gripping his in reply to the thoughts I knew he had and felt him tense. Despite the circumstances, I fought a laugh away – no doubt if he were a dog, he’d had bitten me by this point.
Then the rumbling came so close that any amusement I had died in my throat. To describe such a rumble would be an impossibility to even the most dedicated of scholars. It was like thunder echoing through a cave of water yet amplified. And so much worse as it became no longer distant but very, very near.
It echoed around us as the creature that made the sound rolled ever closer with great rolls of impossibly hard shell on stone, screeching occasionally as it forced itself through the narrower passages.
Arion’s arm gripped around my waist hard enough that it would surely leave bruises, but neither of us dared move otherwise. The rumble reverberated through my feet, numbing my legs. My ears threatened to bleed. My head seemed blurry and slow from the sound.
Then, it rolled right past us harmlessly, and the rumbling faded.
My breathing was loud in the darkness. We remained still for some time until I turned my head. My forehead brushed Arion’s chin, he was so close, his scruff softer than I thought it would be against my skin. “You can let me go now.” I whispered.
He let me go so abruptly that I nearly fell.
“What was that?” Jaz gasped as I glared in Arion’s general direction. I had the feeling Jaz was holding her bow in hand and could only be grateful that she hadn’t shot any arrows.
“Spikehog.” Arion said grimly.
I nodded, knowing now that they could see me with their Shadow vision. “The elves used them to guard their greatest treasures, but left these slots to hide in while they passed in case they needed to reach it without warning. This one guarded the gate to reach level twenty. We have about two hours before it returns, so let’s go.”
Arion let out a huff as he flicked fire onto his palm. “Warn us next time–” he cut himself off and suddenly grabbed me with his hand, burning me with it as it was still aflame. I would have complained, except right when he lit his fire, I’d seen it too.
Once a slave to the elves, the grumplins were angry, spiteful little creatures. Not even a twig high and as grey and lumpy as a deformed stone, it was often mistaken for rubble.
But the little creatures were savage things and fast. They were known to rip apart entire beings within seconds. It probably would have killed us all, except they tended to wait until you stepped on or over them before attacking, and this one sat on the stone ground right in the narrow space that I had been about to walk through.
Arion had pulled me back with the hand that was on fire because his other hand held the sword, and that sword was already going down swiftly toward the creatures’ head. But it must have sensed the movement because before the sword could hit, it leaped at me.
I threw my arm up to protect my neck, knowing there was no time for anything else, and heard the shot of an arrow and a squeal of anger before a crack of stone.
I dared to look.
The creature had red blood. I noticed, because it leaked out from around the arrow in its neck. I blinked at it in surprise before looking to Jazera who was glaring at it. When she noticed me gaping at her, she shrugged.
“I hate those creepy little things.” She told me simply, as if she needed an excuse to kill it other than the fact that it had been about to rip me into a thousand pieces in a matter of seconds.
I grimaced and looked around for more before exiting carefully, rubbing at my burnt cloak and the sore arm beneath it. “Let’s move quickly. We’ve made a lot of noise.” And we’d been lucky so far. I doubted that such luck would last much longer.
Rian handed me the whistle back with a grateful look and I tucked it back into my hidden pocket as we followed Arion down the tunnel once more.
“Take a left up here. It will curve up, but don’t step on anything in the center; it’s entrapped to kill anything on two legs that isn’t of elven blood.”
Arion quickly did as I said, moving along the edge even before he reached the curve in the wall. These walls were covered in elaborate swirls and greeting of welcome, partially crumbled by how long ago it had been set there.
It was a welcome sign, because there had once been a ballroom.
It was easy to see, even in the limited circle of light, how stunning this had once been. The floor was carved with designs and polished with fine sand, grand pillars rose from the ground, each carved with vines and flowers which had once held light-crystals but were now chipped away from those who had managed to get this far before us. A half a skeleton was strewn across our path and in the bones of its hand was a light-crystal, the magic long dead but easily recharged with an elves presence or blood to last another thousand years. Aitch picked up the crystal and the bones it had laid in crumbled to dust.
The curtains which had once hung along the walls were long rotten into nothing, but the rods holding them were still there and at each end were the heads of different creatures, the faces of each seeming to be in mid song. In the center of the room was a great iron chandelier, which held hundreds of thousands of crystals in their iron bars. Untouched, as it was impossible to ply away and far too heavy to carry out.
Ahead was a stage of green stone, and this was what I needed.
The stage was covered in scratches, so many that the shape of it was no longer discernible, this was caused by the spikes of the spikehog, and in the center of the mass, there were a hundred bones amongst twig-long balls of grey beasts that would one day grow their spikes.
“We should kill them.” Arion said, looking down at the creatures with mild disgust.
“Leave them be. If they make a noise, their mother will hear and come back that much faster.” I stepped over them instead and climbed up the other side, Arion following right behind me while the others circled around, carefully watching the many shadows I could not see myself.
On the back wall, what had once been covered by a grand curtain, looked to be more of those beautiful carvings, but I knew that they were not. I read the small notes engraved in gold and found the correct one. “Help me push this.”
“This is the gate?” Jaz wondered, coming up behind us as Arion and I pushed hard on the round bulb that seemed to be carved but was in fact, a nob. We pushed until it suddenly fell inward with a click and the wall pushed open with a groan that sounded much like the spikehog moving along the floor, if muted.
“No.” I said as we moved inside the narrow crack into the dim light. ”This is the gate.”
The room beyond was grand as well; the curved wall made up almost entirely of carvings on both sides, then narrowing to a flat sheet of flowing water at the far end, which seemed to come from nowhere and made absolutely no sound at all. Tiny plates of polished silver, impossibly untouched by time, were spread out along the upper reaches of the wall and reflecting light through crystals, which made the entire room glow in a thousand spots of colour. In the floor was a long, round ring of designs made of dragon crystals which shimmered like sparkles in swirling designs and symbols that told the code. Unlike the rest of what we had seen, this room was perfectly untouched, even by dust, and was a treasure in itself.
The Shadows released their fire, having no need of it in this room.
A rumbling sounded behind us.
“Best close the door.” I said, looking around at the hundreds of symbols I needed to puzzle out.
“We may be here for a while.”