Arion grunted in pain and I felt a flare of fear for him and gripped at his shirt. I could say nothing though – we dared say nothing as the mass still went by, inches from our boots. It had missed us by less than a twig and the massive grey-scaled body was moving at a rapid pace through the floor we had just stood on only a moment earlier.
The rocks stopped crumbling though and so I risked looking up, squinting in the stone dust to see higher than the leather cord around his neck. I tugged at Arion’s shirt so he would look down at me. You hurt? I mouthed.
He frowned at me as if confused on why I was concerned but shook his head.
Then the rumbling came to a stop and he stepped back, moving slowly, his eyes never leaving mine as if confirming that I was still alright. But we didn’t have much time to check – we’d angered it, and so it would be back to make another pass. We needed to get out.
Before I could ask the question, Aitch threw one of his axes up into the recently created hole and when it stuck there, he ran on the limited flooring he had and jumped with surprising height for his massive weight. He caught the handle, and though it wiggled, it held on long enough for him to dig another ax in and secure it, then he climbed up a bit more and crouched so his arm was down and reaching.
Arion motioned me to go but I shook my head repeatedly, no way was I jumping over that hole and gripping onto axes that only barely stuck between the stone.
He shrugged and turned to Jaz who nodded and ran at him, he put his hands down, cupping them, and when she stepped into it, he lifted, pushing her high so she grasped Aitch who lifted her easily with one arm, having her climb over him as if he were part of a ladder. Clearly, they’ve done something like this before.
Arion turned to me and raised an eyebrow. Almost a dare.
I grimaced but let out a breath and ran for it. Having someone throw you into the air was nerve wracking and having to rely on someone else to catch you was even more so. Talk about a trust exercise.
Aitch grasped my right hand and I used my injured one to grip onto his shoulder, my body shaking; I did not like this at all.
But I managed to get up so that I was basically kneeling on his shoulders, then I could see it started to curve again from there. I was feeling frighteningly weak compared to usual thanks to my injuries, and when I reached my injured hand up to grasp the arrow stuck into the crack there – clearly left by Jazera – I remembered that my arm had been injured as well, not just my hand. Apparently, I had forgotten such an injury, and that probably amounted for at least half of my dizzy state.
But I didn’t dare complain, only climbed into the curve and saw with a grimace that after the curve, it went straight up again. I could see this clearly because Jaz was already standing at the top with her fire in her hand.
The same light was coming from below as well. I looked down to see Arion waiting, looking not at me but at his other hand which gripped the arrow and he looked distinctly worried. I understood after a moment that I had left blood on the arrow. I should not still be bleeding, but the strain and over-use, not to mention how it needed stitches, were doing some obvious damage.
He looked up, meeting my eyes, and I could see the same thoughts running through his mind. The fear for me palpable.
I looked away before he could think of something to say and let out a breath. I am Meira Greyov. Nahdiera is my Kingdom, and I will not die because I passed out from blood loss in a werm hole.
I grasped the arrow near the base, and I climbed.
Jazera had stuck enough arrows in that it was almost easy if I could ignore the pain, at least until I got near the top and had to leap a bit to reach the two arrows stuck there. I grabbed one with each hand which hurt, but then my right hand slipped, leaving me with all my weight on my injured left. I jolted from the shock of pain and slipped again. Next thing I knew, I was falling...
Arion caught me around my waist with a grunt, the sound of the arrow he stood on cracking louder than the gust of air forced from my lungs, but it held.
I didn’t even care that he was giving me a glare of his own for having to save my life once again, I gripped onto him tightly until my foot found a place to settle then let my shaking arms rest on his shoulders, letting him keep me steady. Knowing you are worth literally a thousand dragon crystals to someone really makes you trust them with your life quite easily.
But then he surprised me with his lips to my ear. “Is your hand alright?” He breathed as loudly as he dared.
I nodded and squeezed his shoulder in reply instead of speaking, knowing that if I spoke it would more than likely come out as a squeak which would not only be embarrassing but would also travel farther. Then I let out a slow breath and twisted, grasping onto an arrow. I tried again.
When I finally curled over the ledge, I lay down on the stone floor, not even caring for the moment on where I was, only glad to have no gaping chasm below me threatening death at the first sign of weakness.
Jaz crouched down. “You’re injured on your neck, too.” She whispered. “No wonder you’re so dizzy, I should stitch that up.”
I frowned in confusion – I remembered receiving no injury on my neck at all – then realized with horror that she was seeing a hint of red through my hair. That could only mean that my mark was showing. When had I covered it last? Was it wearing off with time or sweat? How long had we even been in these cursed mountains? Two days? Three?
I quickly sat up. “It’s just blood from my hand when I moved my hair.” I told her, waving it off.
She nodded in understanding and said nothing more as she bent to help Arion get up.
No time for relief, while the two of them helped Rian and Aitch, I quickly dug in my pocket and found the ointment, then jammed my fingers in and slapped it to my neck. There was no way for me to tell if I got it all, so I added more than necessary and hoped it was enough. I only barely got the jar closed and back into my pocket when Rian was there in front of me, touching my face, asking if I was alright again.
I smiled at him and nodded, squeezing his fingers in a silent thank you for truly caring.
Then, the rumbling started once more. The werm had circled and was almost back. It was coming for us.
We started running blindly. The only comfort was knowing that at least all the beasts were running away, too, so there were no worries of being trapped between them.
But what were we going to do now? We couldn’t outrun the thing.
Well, it was simple then, wasn’t it? We’d just have to kill it.
I slowed down and turned, Arion tried to pull me along and I obliged, but only because my pause had made us at the back of the group where I wanted to be. I wanted to be there, because that was where it would come. When running in a straight line, a werm will always come from behind. It was simple, and a part of their nature, because they could almost always outrun whatever it was chasing.
I remembered Jovian’s questions when I’d left him at the gates of Qa’elah. What did I do when I saw a werm?
Stab it in the roof of the mouth and avoid the fangs.
Easier said than done, seeing as the werm had two sets of teeth. One was circular with the teeth pointing outward, used for scraping and grinding through, then chewing rock and spitting it out to make it easier to pass through stone. The inner one was for chewing flesh. After that, there was no surviving, you had to get between the two sets of teeth and strike at the right time. Jovian had taught me how, and when, and where, but I had never done it, nor have I seen it done.
Yet, I was sure that I could...
When the werm came up behind us though, I faltered, looking at those jagged teeth, each nearly the length of my sword and thicker than my fist, and that gaping mouth that kept opening and closing constantly, blindly ready to swallow anything in its path, both sets of teeth moving at different speeds – the outer one every heartbeat, the inner one moving every third of one.
But it didn’t look like anyone else was going to do it, as they just kept running, so I stopped so abruptly that Arion lost his grip on my arm. I pulled out my sword, and just as it neared, I leaped into its mouth, sword already pointing up, body already curling into a crouch. I heard someone shout, I felt the outer teeth graze my shoulder as I jumped past them, I felt the pressure on my arms as the blade pushed against the hard roof of the mouth and gasped at the strength of its jaws.
Then, I felt the pop as it went through and the shudder of the body as the werm died instantly.
The mouth fell closed with dead weight, crushing me.
But I grinned inside the suffocating hole, knowing they would get me out. I grinned because I’d killed it. I’d actually killed a werm.
Jovian would be proud.
“What were you thinking, you stupid girl?” Arion demanded, shaking me the very second that he yanked me from the mouth of the beast.
I raised my eyebrow at him, wiping rubble from where it stuck to my forehead with the almost-dry powdery saliva of the werm. “Well someone needed to kill it.”
“Well that someone didn’t have to be...” He trailed off, his eyes widening as it finally hit him. “You killed a werm.” He said, then he said it again, this time in disbelief. ”You killed a werm?”
I gave him a bland look. “Your amount of surprise is actually insulting.”
He grinned briefly, the smile transforming his face. Then he glared. “Don’t do that again. You nearly got yourself killed.”
I only rolled my eyes and turned away. I needed to find out where we were. “Rian? I need light please.”
He came over and shot me a wink that said good job. I grinned back at him in thanks, neither of us caring what Arion had to say – I was awesome.
Then I studied the walls.
Warnings, stories... I needed elven, where were the elven symbols? Found one.
“I think I know where we are, but I need another intersection of tunnels to be sure. If we’re where I think we are, were actually really close to a gate.”
“Let’s move quickly then, before the beasts start to realize it’s safe to come out.” Said Arion, gripping my arm and walking with me as if afraid I’d find something else to kill if he didn’t keep me at his side.
Sure enough, at the next intersection I found we were very close indeed. I couldn’t believe our luck, we’d actually cut some of our time off again by making our mistake. If we could only get to the gate and find it still worked...
Surprisingly, it did. I could hardly believe it, the door was closed and after opening it, we found the lights working just fine (if dim, as it was starlight) and we closed it once more, leaving us locked inside, safe and sound for the first time in… I didn’t know how long.
I collapsed to the ground in my exhaustion. I hadn’t slept well the night before we’d entered the mountain, nor had I rested at all inside of it because I’d been searching for the code. I could find the code here now, but it was too dim to be easy and besides, I severely needed the rest and recovery.
I went off on my own to check my hand and arm, first cleaning both as best I could, then stitching the worst of them on my own. Finally, I rubbed the ointment on and around it in case someone decided to check on my injuries while I was asleep and passed out a few moments after, curled up in my cloak.
It was a good thing I had thought to put the ointment on because I woke to the feeling of my bandage being tugged and opened my eyes to find Arion checking it. Not knowing if the ointment had rubbed off with blood or sweat beneath the bandage, I pulled my hand away.
He sat down next to me. “You stitched it yourself?”
I nodded. “Not the first time.”
He grunted and handed me something. Food, I realized. I’d completely forgotten about food.
Though I was still exhausted, my sudden hunger won out and sat up to devour the dried deer meat. We hadn’t eaten at all the day before - when you’re literally running for your life, you tended to forget about food.
Jazera joined us after a minute, apparently just waking up herself. She looked grumpy and irritable and I had a feeling she was only awake because the second level of her mind heard that there was food and reminded her that she needed to eat. In the shape of a white-haired ball inside her cloak, she curled up to Arion like a child who chuckled in amusement and ruffled her hair. She poked one hand out to slap his hand away then used the same one to steal his food.
I felt a flare of jealousy at their closeness. To have a friend for so long that you’re so comfortable with is something I hoped to have in the future. My eyes skipped over to Rian who still slept flat on his back near the waterfall. He would be my friend, I knew. One day, I could say that I’d known him forever, and it would feel like I had.
The elves, I thought suddenly with the excitement of what could be described as an epiphany. Surely the elves had something to fix his voice! That could be my gift to him, I decided right then and there. I would contact the elves after I gained the throne and have them working on something that could heal my friends voice. For some reason, I imagined Rian singing instead of playing his flute, and smiled slightly at the image.
“So how much further from where we are now?” Arion asked, almost sharply, pulling me from my musings.
Here, my smile widened as I declared. “Oh, maybe ten, fifteen minutes.”
Arion straightened, and Jazera sat up with suddenly-alert eyes. I heard Aitch say from behind us, “What was that you said?”
I grinned then, turning to see Aitch and Rian both awake and now listening intently. I motioned to the waterfall. “On the other side of that gate is the sixth level. Down a staircase, through another gate, and we’re there.”
Aitch stood. “We should go now then.”
Arion chuckled. “Let’s eat first, Aitch, we have no idea what’s waiting for us on the other side of that door.”
“Elven treasure, that’s what’s waiting.” He said but lumbered over to eat with us.
Suddenly, everyone was a lot livelier.
When we stepped out of the gate, I almost forgot to type in the sequence to close it in my awe.
The throne room was a treasure in itself.
It seemed untouched by time, much like the gate rooms, except for the layer of stone dust over it all and the bloodbats sleeping from the ceiling. The room was grand with pillars much like in the ballroom, but also with a long row down the center of the room to a great set of double doors carved elaborately with vines. The floor was carved with leaves then polished, and the seats, going out in a wide, half circle, were made of stone but lined and engraved with gold.
But it was the throne and what sat on it that was the most shocking.
Beneath a layer of dust that made us all go into a fit of coughing, there sat a golden throne seemingly made with vines that all joined together at the top to hold a dragon crystal the size of my fist. Next to it sat another throne, smaller and more delicate but still grand. On the largest throne sat a crown, as if the king had sat it there just before he left. I could almost imagine the king placing the crown in his seat with a sorrowful look, knowing his ship was sinking under his rule. Feeling he had failed his people, so unworthy of the crown.
Though we were all there for treasure, not a single one of us touched the crown out of respect, not even Aitch.
To the side was a staircase which was there for only a single purpose – to reach the kingdoms treasure room.
The gate was working, as the elven king had promised it would be. It took me only a couple minutes to set the sequence in place by using Rian’s blood this time – I’d lost enough, it was agreed.
Then we all stepped through, wary and excited and hopeful, while also expecting it to be a trap of some kind that would doom us all to fighting for our lives again.
The room was lit up like the gate rooms and seemed under the same magic as them as well for there wasn’t a speck of dust. It was all a single room and that was it, nothing else branching off, no extra gates, no nothing, it was simply a room filled with treasure and not a single danger in sight.
Placed neatly in boxes that were treasures in themselves, or carefully set under crystal-glass to be seen, or even laid up on shelves or inside cabinets which were also treasure, golds, silvers, diamonds, jewels, dragon glass, dragon crystals, elven crystals, light-crystals, precious gems, and so much more were placed. Paintings that were absolutely perfectly preserved and completely priceless hung on walls along with tapestries made from the rarest of materials. Elaborate carvings and an occasional statue sat between the shelves on intricately-carved pedestals.
And that was only the riches.
Stones with magical powers were inside some of these boxes, charms and crystals and a dozen other things. Things that heightened magic and things that lowered it like a curse. Things that cured or injured, burned, froze, cause bleeding or stopped it. Things that brought luck or cleaned water or aided in magical spells so old and delicate they were considered myths.
For a long moment, all anyone could do was stare.
Then, Aitch whooped loudly. ”I’m riiiiich!”
“Shh!” We all shouted at him. The last thing we wanted was another werm on our hands.
He only grinned and started across the room.
“Wait.” I said. “There are a couple of very specific things I need in here first, then the rest is yours to carry out as you wish.”
They grumbled, but at this point, they were all too happy to help seeing as I would be the one that got them out of here with their treasure. It didn’t take long before Arion called out that he found what I needed. I rushed over before he could open it and took it in my hands.
I almost gasped aloud – or perhaps I had.
This piece of power was what I needed. It’s what I would need to defeat him. It was the biggest piece, and the one I thought would be the hardest to find.
I closed my eyes and clutched it to my chest.
“What’s in it?”
I opened my eyes and just smiled at Arion, shaking my head. “It’s a secret.” I said with a wink.
His face went through movement as if he wasn’t sure if he should be amused or not, then his lips finally twitched before he shook his head. “Alright, I’ll mind my own business, but I want a raise, I just don’t have enough coin.” As he said this he turned and put a heavy crown of jewels upon his head casually, making a jest out of it.
I wasn’t surprised by his jest and cheer; were all in a good mood today.
After glancing around to be sure no one was watching, I peeked open the box.
Inside the Nägo Parğm, perfectly nestled between silken cloth of black, was a perfectly ordinary looking stone. It was white with little spots of black on it, smooth like a beach rock, and seemed perfectly normal.
But looking closer, you could see the illusion spell on it, and closer still, you could see that this stone was actually perfectly white, the kind of white that is impossible to recreate, and you could see that there were no fascists or any such marks like beach stones, but instead to it looked polished it was so perfect, yet matte. This little stone was about the size of my thumb nail, but to me, it felt larger than life. It felt larger than a kingdom.
I closed the box and pressed it to my chest, closing my eyes.
I am Meira Greyov. Nahdiera is my kingdom.
And I now have the White Stone.