“You should take a break, get some rest.”
I sighed, rubbing at my forehead where an ache was starting. “But I almost got it.” I insisted.
Arion sat down next to where I knelt and held out his bladder of water. Struck by the odd and unexpected kindness, I resented and slid off my knees into a more comfortable position and accepted it.
I took a drink, only then realizing how thirsty I was, and looked around to see Rian and Jazera were sleeping on the ground by the gate, out of my way. Aitch had finally stopped trying to ply the dragon stones from the ground and rubbing at his sore fingers, looking like he would pass out standing up; it was late, and we had been here longer than I thought we would be.
“How does this work, exactly?”
I returned my gaze to Arion. “What? The gate?”
Ah. “These markings on the floor are like a map of the seasons and time. The light reflects off the silver and shines through the crystals, telling what year, season, hour, and time quarter that it is at the moment by which symbol it lands on the floor. Those crystals reflect the light onto the walls telling me which order the code is written, and when I push on them, they move the light with a mechanism inside the wall and the symbol I need to search for on the floor again is lit up.” I sighed. “And once I find those symbols, it will reveal the final number and once it is entered into the stones on the edge of the gate in elven, the gate is activated until we enter the same code into the stones on the other side.”
He blinked a few times, clearly not understanding a word I just said, and raised an eyebrow as he looked around. “And you can do all this?”
I would have been insulted by his surprised tone if I’d been having a better job of it.
I sighed again and rubbed my forehead harder, feeling frustrated. “It’s not adding up right. I can read the code just fine, but it’s wrong,”
“How can it be wrong?”
“It’s claiming it’s the third month of the seven hundredth year, the eighth day, and nearly mid night.”
“Ah. Very wrong then.”
“Only by a few hundred years and a season or so.” I grumbled and then let out a frustrated noise. “I’m missing something. I have to be.”
“Maybe you’re translating it wrong. Elven is such a difficult language to learn and–”
"I’m not–” I cut myself off, realizing I was on the verge of yelling. I lowered my voice. “I’m not translating it wrong. I know all the codes. I know the language so well I can speak it fluently. Bän e’vfas fearignla, tą-vetrorya banǡvf!”
He raised an eyebrow at me.
I sighed. “It basically means that I’m an idiot.” I paused. “I may have also cursed the elves into losing their tongues.”
He chuckled and took the water back from me. Taking a swig, he capped it and handed me a flask. “Something stronger.”
I took it, running my hands through my hair to get it out of my face so I could drink safely – a habit I’d acquired while cursed with bad luck as I’d nearly choked on my own hair at one point. I took a drink, grimaced and the unwelcome taste, and handed it back. “I’ll get this.” I said firmly, glaring at the dragon stones. “I have to get there.”
“Why? I mean, I understand why, but is it really so important? Jaz told me she’s heard of the Nägo Parğm, she said it’s not that big of a deal. Worth a lot of course, but not worth a thousand dragon crystals.”
I hadn’t known he’d been double checking my word. “It’s not the box but what’s inside it.”
I paused, then finally said, “I have been training and searching my entire life for it. If I were told I would need to remove every limb of mine in order to receive it, I would proudly roll out of here with it clenched between my teeth.”
He raised an eyebrow at that, hearing the honesty in my statement. “I feel like I should bargain for more dragon crystals, if that’s the case.”
But I had sat up straighter at my own words and therefore, I was no longer listening. “That’s it.”
He frowned at me. “What’s it?”
"Sacrifice.” I stood. “Of course! The elves power everything important with their blood. All the strongest magics are powered by blood. And the elf... he’d said something about how I would need to be prepared to bleed to get the code. Jovi had thought he’d been talking about the blood I’d more than likely shed to get here but...” I started searching around, there were a thousand symbols with a dozen meanings. Where?
I faced him. “Help me.” I pleaded. “There’s a symbol here somewhere, there has to be. It’s a circle with a line through the lower half. Or maybe it will be a cross with a drop at the top, like an upside-down drop of blood.” I started searching the floor as I spoke, meanwhile, my mind was running a thousand miles a minute. “Power. It would be in a place of power, something to control it all... the center or...”
I looked up, then headed to the eerily silent waterfall where Jaz and Rian were still sleeping. “Move.” I demanded of them, rushed. They didn’t protest – hearing something in my tone, they woke quickly and scrambled out of my way.
Where was it? Where was it? I searched frantically, my eyes skimming over the symbols until they seemed to be lines and squiggles.
Patience, Meira, you’re too impatient. Stop. Think.
I could almost hear Jovian’s words.
Stop. You’re thinking too fast, you’re no longer able to see. Stop. Think.
I closed my eyes, even though it went against my every instinct to slow down when I was so close, I did so and repeated my mantra.
I am Meira Greyov. Nahdiera is my kingdom. With breaths of patience, slow and steady, I will gain the crown. If I don’t slow down and calm myself, I will fail my father.
I opened my eyes and looked at the stone below me, truly looked this time so that the lines were becoming symbols once again which I translated easily. There were hundreds, weaved in through an uneven surface, making some seem like other symbols while others looked like something entirely different at different angles. I carefully moved across the floor, searching those tiny symbols.
“Mir! Is this it?”
My calm I’d managed to acquire gone in an instant, I scrambled to my feet and rushed over.
Right there at the bottom of a dip in the floor was the symbol for blood and another for fountain. Surrounding it was a phrase.
“To see the code in red - there must be red to be seen.” I read.
Well, that wasn’t difficult to understand. I’d been expecting some sort of a riddle at this point.
I quickly pulled up my sleeve and cut my forearm in one hard slice of my blade. The blood dripped down over my leather glove into the stone and seemed to disappear as it was soaked into tiny cracks barely visible to the eye.
I waited, not knowing how long it would have to be. I waited until my blood slowed on its own and yet there was still nothing. Rian stopped my hand from cutting myself again, shaking his head.
“But it needs more blood. Nothing’s happening.” Worry cut through me as I wondered if I would need to use the elven blood in the vial of my hidden pocket. I hoped not as I needed it for a light crystal, of which I would greatly need later when I didn’t have the Shadows with me to give me light.
He tapped his own chest and rolled out his sleeve, giving me a stern look. I smiled in thanks and went to cut his arm.
But then there was a single dripping sound, different from the ones created by my blood in the pool below me. I frowned with confusion, not daring to hope until looking around, I saw a drop of blood. It was at my feet, but not where the rest of the blood had been falling.
I looked at my arm – now covered with my cloak and barely bleeding at all – in confusion.
Then another drip from somewhere else, and then another.
I looked around, realizing that the colours were changing from blues and greens and yellows and oranges to reds. Not all, but some of them. I looked up and realized the crystals above were being dripped on. How the blood reached that high I had no idea, but whatever it was, it was doing the trick.
The blood changed the colour of the reflections and then suddenly, all over the floor, the dragon crystals were glinting red instead of black, reflecting the red light back outward.
And just as suddenly, I could see the code.
For some reason, it was Arion I looked over at, and he was looking at me, too.
The both of us shared a victorious grin.
Once I had the key that was blood, it took me only a few minutes to find the right numeric code and then I was going to the wall surrounding the soundless waterfall and turning the spheres so that the proper symbol was facing outward, then pushing each one into place. When the last one clicked, the waterfall seemed to freeze...
Then, it began flowing up.
“That’s not something you see every day.” Said Jazera, raising her bow warily.
Aitch grinned. “Can we take that home?” But he palmed his axe.
Arion looked at me. “Stay behind me.” He warned, no more comfortable with a silent waterfall that flows toward the ceiling than the others were.
I nodded and deliberately stepped up next to Rian, putting my hand on his shoulder to show that I would be good. Arion pursed his lips, not believing me for a second, but nodded.
Then we walked through one by one.
Walking through the waterfall was by far the oddest sensation I had ever felt. Not only did it not feel like water at all but instead a current of air, it was also going in a gentle stream upwards, lifting my hair above my head in a light current. I could keep my eyes open, and see clearly, but there wasn’t much to see except Arion and Rian’s back. The rest was blackness.
It was not thin at all. It felt like we walked through for several minutes, though that could not be seeing as we could not breathe during that time, but that’s what it felt like. Everything slowed down around me while my thoughts tried to wander.
Then, so suddenly I was sure time had somehow sped up, I was standing normal again and there was air around me, cool against my skin which was damp but not wet. How odd.
Elven magic. I would never understand it.
Arion and Rian already had their fires sitting on their palms, but it gave only little light. Jaz and Aitch came up behind me silently, the only way to acknowledge their presence was by the light that suddenly flared in their hands.
I turned and pushed the sequence into the spheres, shutting down the gate so the magic wouldn’t run out. I didn’t plan on coming back this way, but the option would be nice to have just the same.
“This level should be fairly safe.” I said. “It was what they called the gated floors. They used it as training and such for their men, but it was mostly used for travel by gate. No stairs lead to this floor.”
“Safe?” Arion questioned warily.
“I said fairly safe. No creatures were originally on this floor, and the only access is through cracks in the walls or from creature that borrow through stone.” I squinted at the symbols and images on the wall. It was all about training and warriors, honor and war. The elven number twelve, an x with a half line cutting through the center, was randomly throughout. I nodded to myself, glad we were in the right place. “Third hallway from the left.” I said.
And we were off.
We passed several gates, but not the one I needed. We needed to go to the seventh level, then take the stair to the sixteenth so we could cut off a full week of traveling and narrow it down to only a couple of hours. Though I wasn’t looking forward to the seventh level as it had been the Kings’ sleeping quarters and therefore, had once been heavily guarded, it was safer than most of the other options.
But of course, I had thought this level would be safe, and I was completely wrong.
We were just passing another gate when I realize with slight horror that it was opened and unlocked, meaning any creatures could have come inside for several dozen years after the attack that had destroyed this kingdom and turned it into a mountain of horror. Worse, not a few minutes later, we came across a great gaping hole straight above and below us, at least six feet wide and so deep it could be endless.
We all knew what caused this.
“Werm.” Jaz whispered for us all.
Arion knelt by the hole and touched the dirt. “Old.” He said with not a bit of relief in his voice despite the words. “It’s long gone.”
No one said it, but it wasn’t the werm that frightened us, it was the fact that this hole more than likely leads to other floors, and quite literally anything could fit into a hole that size. This floor was not even mildly safe, and we still had over an hour of walking before we reached the gate we needed.
“We’re going to have to jump.” Arion said grimly. He looked to me. “Can you jump that far?”
I gave him an irritated look and backed up a step before I leaped over the chasm, the six twigs almost nothing for one with my bloodline. A second later, Arion was over and grabbing me around my waist to keep me close while he used his Shadow sense to search the darkness behind us. When there was not a movement, he glared down at me for going ahead of him. “Don’t be stupid.”
I shrugged and tugged myself from his tight grip.
The other three leaped over with ease, though all of us looked wary at the hole, knowing anything could come up or down at us at any time.
We stayed extra quiet as we walked this time (meaning, I did, seeing as the Shadows made no sound anyway) and I felt hyper aware of all the details around us. There were some bones of creatures, randomly moved as if dragged there and not as if killed there, and there were also the minor squeaks of bloodbats above, though they were fine so long as the light didn’t get to high.
We passed another gate.
Then we were passing an open room. It would have more than likely been a training room for elven solders. A room for men and women to learn their way of weapons as well as loyalty, honor, and obedience. Where they stood side-by-side and learned the strengths of their fellow soldiers while also learning their weaknesses so to better protect their backs. Where they laughed, even as they groaned from the pain of harsh training. Where they gained the respect of the king himself as the king watched from the sidelines, standing tall and as proud as a father of thousands.
But now, we found out, it was a breeding ground.
The stink of rotting meat warned us first. An underground kingdom that had been empty for centuries usually meant no scent at all, or a dusty one. The scent of rotting meat meant a corpse fresh enough to rot, and a that meant we weren’t alone.
We looked at the door of the room in silence, debating on attempting to pass it quietly or if we should run past it and hope for the best. Having no idea what was inside, we had no idea how to react.
Our decision was made for us when, straight ahead, we heard a low, deep, rumbling growl.
I knew what that sound was. I had fought one outside the South Border so long ago with Jovian watching from the side, his magic ready in case I made a mistake. I had killed that one, but only barely, and it had been young and already full, from terrorizing a near-by troll village.
The growls that came from the hall ahead was from far more than one, and I would bet a great amount of gold that they were very, very hungry.
As if waiting for their packmate’s call, growls erupted from the open doorway as well, and as I watched, deep red and gold eyes glinted from the shadows as they reflected the flame resting on Arion’s palm.
“Run.” Arion said calmly.
The Gate. We needed to reach the gate.
Running with the mutts at our tail brought a sort of ache deep inside my stomach. Like wolves, they usually hunted in packs, playing with their prey and cornering it from several sides until it had nowhere to go, then attacking at once. Their front teeth were not like a wolf but were instead flat and thick, used for pinching and herding instead of causing damage.
No, they had their back teeth and their claws for damage, used to pierce both sides of the throat in a jaw that dislocated in order to fit prey larger than itself between those back teeth and rrrrrip.
I was a fast runner, but no one was faster than a Shadow and so Arion used one arm to grip around my waist and urge me faster as he ran himself. Occasionally he would let go so he could twist and take down a mutt with his sword, but those moment were brief because if he were left behind, he would be taken down and run over for the weakest of the pack that dragged behind to take out while the rest hunted us.
While the rest herded us.
Then I understood, they were herding us to the only place they could in such a narrow space, they were going to take us to that pit. I knew, without a doubt, that on the other side of that werm hole, more of the pack were waiting so that we would have nowhere to jump to. If we kept going, we would end up standing at the edge of the chasm, watching as they converged on us on all side.
“Stop at the gate!” I shouted, or tried to shout - my voice was hoarse and raspy from running. “At the gate!”
“They’re leading us to the pit.” Arion understood immediately and called out much clearer. “Stop at the gate!” Then to me, “You’ll get us through?”
I nodded as I ran, then almost fell when I felt my calf get pinched hard – they were right at my heals. Arion’s arm went around me again and we kept running.
Then the gate was there. I was running so fast that Rian had to help me stop, then I was turning and raising my blade as he and Aitch pushed the heavy door opened.
The mutts were enormous.
With silky black fur and glimmering eyes, these creatures were usually beautiful enough to be hunted for their fur despite their deadliness, but these creatures before us were ragged and ugly, with patches of fur missing making them seems sickly. Thin enough to see their bones, they looked even more horrid, and nothing like the powerful beasts that ravaged the night outside Nahdiera.
But the three heads that sat upon their thick necks were just as terrifying – if not more so – due to their desperate state; they were starving, and they were impatient.
They were savage.
I had barely turned around when one jumped toward me. I swiped it down, cutting off a head and causing the other two heads attached to howl in pain and grief and anger at the loss of their brother-head. Another jumped at me from the side, but Arion took that one down before I had a chance, slicing open the belly as it leaped into the air. I had to leap out of the way of its carcass and spun to take down another as it circled around to try and get at Jazera, of whom was shooting arrows past our heads one after another after another with such speed and accuracy that even in such circumstances, I felt a sense of awe at the reveal of her incredible abilities.
“Got it!” Aitch called, and Rian was pulling me in without hesitation, taking my place outside the door while Jaz went, then Arion. Aitch and Rian leaped in at the same time, stumbling back while Rian attempted to close the massive door. “Aitch!” He called for help of muscle.
But they weren’t closing it fast enough.
In seconds, a half dozen mutts were pushing themselves inside and the Shadows were forced to back away and circle around to block them from coming further into the room.
The creatures looked even worse in the light.
“Mir! Get that gate open!”
I was already on it, running across the room and finding the dip in the stone for me to bleed into. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I found it in seconds and nearly ripped my cloak open to get to my arm. I cut it just above my previous cut, probably deeper than I should have in my mad rush, then waited impatiently, wishing only that I could bleed faster.
The scent of blood made the mutts go into a frenzy and with yips and barks, they lurched forward, trying to get through the narrow circle of protection the Shadows had created. I watched as three leaped at Arion at the same time and I almost screamed out to him, sure that he was lost, but he ducked, pushing his sword up and cutting open the belly of one right above his head.
But the other two got through and came right at me.
Hoping that was enough blood, I lunged forward at the closest one as it leaped and pushed the sword straight through its chest, but the momentum as it fell had me twisting and I was forced to let go so that I didn’t leave my back open to the other.
This other leaped at me just then and my one arm went up to protect my neck while the other went to my belt for my knife. I manage to pull the blade out fast enough to stab one of the heads in the jaw, going up toward the brain, but by then, the shocking weight of the body was falling on me and I fell back onto the engraved stone, dragon glass and crystals digging into my spine and the dips between them collecting more of my blood.
I screamed in surprised agony when one of the remaining heads got its jaws around my left hand and I felt several of its back teeth pierce my skin as it got a good hard grip. It’s gone. I thought right then, looking at my hand in its mouth with a detached kind of horror. My hand is gone for good now.
But just before it got the chance to yank and tear it free, an arrow got it in the temple. The other head was just clamping its teeth around my elbow with a snarl when its head came off cleanly and there was Arion, standing over me in the mutts’ place.
He reached down and opened both the jaws of the ceberous so that I could pull my poor arm out without doing even more damage to it, then he lifted me to my feet, holding onto me tightly. His eyes were wide with worry – no doubt he’d just saw a thousand or more dragon crystals hovering over the edge of a dark chasm at the near death.
“I’m fine.” I said and noticed it was red in the room. I looked around at the glittering dragon crystals and wasted no more time.
Eighth month, symbol for entrapment. Third symbol.
I rushed over to the side and twisted the crystal into place, then looked desperately for the light and ran over to find what symbol it was on. Iron.
I ran to the center, searching for the iron symbol amongst the flurry of numbered swirls. It was in the number fifty-two. Ignoring my agony, I rush to the waterfall and turned the third sphere until the symbol for fifty-two was on top then pushed it into place with a click and ran back to the floor, searching, calculating.
Year 109. Symbol for justice. First symbol.
The crystal showed me to chains.
Entrapment. Iron. Justice. Chains – I did not like where this was going.
Number three. Second day, second symbol, blood. Blood to cage. Cage to number two hundred and nine.
First quarter of the day, symbol for interrogation. Fourth symbol. Interrogation to death. Death to number eighty-five.
I had a very bad feeling that we had chosen the very wrong gate as our getaway.
“Got it!” I shouted to the others as I rushed over and grabbed my sword.
Three. Two hundred nine. Fifty-two. Eighty-five. I memorized.
“Everyone, move back!”
It was like a war zone. So many mutts were crammed into the room now, I wasn’t sure how they weren’t all dead.
Three. Two hundred nine. Fifty-two. Eighty-five.
Arion ran up to my side. “Stay behind me!” He ordered. “Rian! Get through!”
Rian ran out of place and didn’t slow as he ducked into the gate.
“Jazera! Go and take Mir! We have this!”
Jaz grabbed my arm.
Three. Two hundred nine. Fifty-two. Eighty-five.
She yanked me through while I took one last look at the mass of mutts against the two Shadows and then reluctantly ran with her.
Once again, it felt like it was taking us forever. I was running, I could feel it, my feet were moving, and to me it felt like they were moving fast, yet it took minutes, and when I paused to count my steps, it took almost a full minute to make three of them, yet to my mind, I was moving as my mortal speed.
I had a great and sudden realization that it was my thought process that had sped up; my mind felt alert in every way, yet it was dreamlike, and my heart, pounding loud in my ears, was too slow to count.
You have three levels of your mind. I remembered Jovian explaining to me when I was very young. The first level is what you use all the time, it’s what you think in your head, where you use your logic, remember names, faces and the types of weapons to use against which creatures.
Then there is the second level, and that is the one that works faster than your own, too fast to be understood in words. It’s what makes you know when you’re being watched, it’s what makes you’d dodge when someone tries to strike you, it’s what your body uses to breath and move its feet. This is where your dreams come from.
The third level is one most don’t understand. It is where your magic comes from. It is where it hides and grows and stretches. It is what reaches out and tastes the energy in the air and it is what tells you when you are in danger, what tells you when you should fight for something, or when you should turn your face away, it is where your impatience stems from, and your determination, and your love.
This is your mind of magic, and it is the most important, yet, it is the one so rarely used.
You need to find a balance when you fight. You need to use not just your first and your second mind, but your third as well. You need to join them together so that everything slows down around you, so that you can see light move and pick out your favorite snowflake as it falls down through the air. If you can find a way to master all three levels of your mind, you can become more than the Grey Stone...
You, Meira, can become power itself.
I had thought at the time that he meant those things to be hypothetical, but as I now realize that this, right now, walking through the gate, is exactly what he had said; it was the three levels of my mind joining as a single one, equally as powerful.
It made time slow down around me.
It was incredible.
Then I was bursting through, six frantic heartbeats and several minutes later, I was bursting through the other side and I turned, dropping down immediately to the spheres.
For a single, terrifying moment, I completely forgot the code.
Then it came to me.
Three. Two hundred nine. Fifty-two. Eighty-five.
I put in the first three numbers, then set the last one but waited, hovering, my eyes staring at the waterfall for two figures to emerge.
Aitch burst through, landing on his feet as if he’d literally jumped into the falls on the other side. My heart clenched in an odd way when a mutt instead of Arion came out.
No! No! Arion! Where’s-
But then Arion was through and crouching down in front of me, throwing up his sword just as another leaped in behind him.
I pushed down on the sphere and as it clicked, the beast in the process of leaping after Arion fell to the floor, three heads, two paws and a half a rib cage dropping and rolling on the stone while the rest remained behind the waterfall as it resumed its natural course downward without a single tint of red.
An arrow went into the remaining head of the one that had come through with Aitch, then there was silence except for heavy breathing as I looked around.
A new chill went past as I recognized the symbols.
I clamped my hand over Arion’s mouth again. He gave me an irritated look but then a worried one when he saw the look on my face.
“We’re on level twenty-one.” I whispered, my voice almost a breath. He didn’t seem to understand what that meant.
“The lowest level.” I explained. “The dungeons.” I swallowed and let my hand slip down his face, leather against the stubble of hair, as my voice shook on the last whisper, quoting the words of the king. “It is where the legends say the Gates of the Damned burst open, and the creature came and swarmed the kingdom, leaving the monsters to rule the Black Mountains forevermore.”
His eyes widened as realization dawned. “We’re standing in the most dangerous part of the mountain.”
I nodded and heard a drip on the floor near me. I swallowed, my mouth dry. “And I’m afraid to say,” I added, “that I seem to be bleeding quite terribly.”
Somewhere, far away but not nearly far enough, a hungry roar echoed from the darkness.