Darius gaped at the mountains touching the sky.
“The Wall of Green,” announced Tarvus, craning his head. “Didn’t name it too badly, did they?”
Darius didn’t answer. The mountains were covered by bright green trees and not a single patch of rocks or stone was visible. He had seen the ranges of the northern states and while they were beautiful, they did not compare to the wonder in front of him.
Inspite of his hate for all things Halan, Darius couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the immense green wall rising thousands of feet, obscured at the very top by wooly white clouds and stretching on both sides as far as the eyes could see.
“Prince Darius, we should move.” A gruff voice broke Darius out of his trance. Zeb’haik was leading the fifteen man retinue that had been provided to him and Tarvus for the journey into the caves.
Darius still felt a little sick from the fact that they had been allied with Halaa. Riding with the Halan King’s son made his skin crawl. Still, Tarvus had been right. He could not let his personal hatred come in the way of what the Throddens had worked so hard to establish.
He nodded curtly and nudged the chestnut horse ahead. The horses of Halaa were another thing that Darius had to concede were far beyond any of the breeds found or raised in the Throdden kingdom. The steeds of the northern states were probably the closest cousins. But not only were the horses here stronger and muscular, they looked gorgeous. And their speed was incomparable. He had been given the chestnut stallion from the king’s personal stock and a brief gallop had left him stunned. With this horse, he would have completed his vote collection in a month less. He’d felt a little guilty for ranking a new horse over his own Salub, but thankfully the black stallion was safe back in Sen-Tian.
He’d been even more surprised to see the flaxen war-horse ridden by Zeb’haik. He’d never seen a horse that colour and the combination of a dark brute of a man riding him made it appear starker. The Halan wore short hair unlike any of the other warriors that Darius had seen, but Darius sensed the capability of the man as a warrior. He wasted little effort in any of his actions. Everything from the tugs to the reins of the horse to the adjustment of the two-handed broadsword on his back was laced with precision.
He probably is more capable than Mad-Dog. Darius mused.
“You okay, Darius? Darn, I love the fact that I can call you Darius again without having to look over my shoulder each time.” Tarvus drew his horse level.
“Yeah, yes it feels liberating, doesn’t it?
“I can ride through these lands for a lifetime. They are so lovely. What say you, gruff boy?” Tarvus ribbed Zeb’haik.
The Halan ignored him but a couple of spearman nodded their assent. Most of them only spoke their individual tribal languages but most in Skala understood the Throdden tongue having picked it up through the constant trade over the past twenty years.
A spark of irritation burned through Darius. He leaned towards Tarvus and dropped his voice. “Don’t get too used to this. You never know when they turn hostile on us.”
Tarvus raised a brow. “Calm down, Darius. You’re being paranoid. They’ve treated us like royalty since we’ve come in. Well, like you should have been treated, in any case.” Tarvus chuckled but stopped upon seeing the deep frown on Darius’ face. “Fine, we’ll keep a hawkeye watch.”
Darius nodded. All the beauty around him couldn’t undo the knot in the pit of his stomach. And the fact that his fathers had played him irked him. He understood that they wanted him to realize that the Halans were not the threat he thought they were. And this supposed revelation that their histories were interconnected.
“We are here.” Zeb’haik drew on the reins of his war-horse.
“Kind of obvious, don’t you think?” Tarvus quipped, waving at the gaping crack in the mountain, which had carved out half the base of the mountain leaving a huge gaping hole.
Darius shook his head with a wry smile. The young captain reminded him of Fabius every so often. It was no wonder that the two had gotten along so famously. He felt quite thankful that he had Tarvus by his side all through the bandit ordeal and especially now in Halaa.
A few wooden huts had been set up around the entrance to clear out the rubble from the cave in.
“The quake from Dharya caused this?” Darius asked Zeb’haik.
The big Halan dismounted and barked orders to the others to dismount . “Yes.”
“Does it go through to the other side?” The Wall of Green was the only thing that separated the northern states from Halaa.
“No, it just goes deep. We haven’t gone too far inside.” The Halan prince didn’t bat an eyelid at the question.
Have they really changed?
“I can’t believe that quake could wipe out half a mountain this far off. You think the same effects were felt in Sen-Tian?” Tarvus asked.
Darius shrugged. The thought had crossed his mind. But there was no way he could know about that right now. He kicked a small rock. Surprisingly the ground ahead was unblemished. It was as if the quake had travelled below ground.
After a quick conversation with his men, Zeb’Haik turned to them. “A few of the men have gone to inspect some commotion about a league away. They should be back soon. But we can go in.” He pointed to the large crack which had been lit with torches but still seemed dark.
Darius nodded and followed the Halan. The crevice was jagged all over, as if someone had torn open the mountain to create it. The Corruption.
The floor though had been scraped and cleared of most impediments bar a rock here and there. The passage curved downwards into a spiral but turned the other way, once they descended the bend.
They did not have to travel far. In front of them stood a stone door over twelve foot high, with ornate carvings, the like of which Darius had not seen. They did not even remotely resemble the Halan symbols, which Zeb’Haik confirmed.
But the unmistakeable symbol on the top of the door, caught his attention. It resembled their own insignia of a wheel with spokes except that the spokes were circled by two feathers, exactly like the one Zeb’Haik wore on his chest and the ones spread all around Skala.
“Wow…”exclaimed Tarvus, mirroring his thoughts.
“Where does it lead?” Darius asked.
“We do not know, yet. We have been unable to open it and we do not want to disturb Ai’Dharat, if he does not want it open.”
Darius sighed. Even if their civilizations had been linked at some point of time, he would ever understand how the Halans could have a god for everything, including one for the earth itself.
“But, you should also have a look at this.” Zeb’Haik pointed to the left towards the ground.
Few of the Halans held the torches higher. The ground had crested like a bubble and on top of the crest was etched the same symbol as on the door. The grey bubble shone as if it had been polished.
“Did you guys polish it?”
“No. It is as we found it.”
Darius leant forward to inspect the rock but slipped and landed hard on his face. He screamed out in pain as a sharp jagged stone pierced his hand.
“Darius, are you okay?” Tarvus leaned down beside him.
Darius raised his hand and pulled out the sharp sliver of rock lodged in his palm. A gush of blood flowed out from a thumb sized gash. “Yeah, just a deep gash.” The blood dripped onto the crest on the ground filling up the spokes.
“Here, let me have…” Before Tarvus could finish, the ground gave way beneath them.
Darius tumbled through a slope among rocks and stones and rolled for about ten feet before finding himself flat on his face on the ground. The pain in his palm flared up as he pushed himself up. “Tarvus?”
“Yes, I’m fine.” The captain pulled himself up from beside the rubble. “Thank Sucellok that didn’t land on me.” He pointed to a boulder the size of a small sheep a few inches from his feet. “Is your hand okay?”
Darius dusted himself off and looked at hand which was now covered in blood and dust. “I’ve had worse.”
“Bloody cave in.” Tarvus pushed against the wall of rocks blocking the cave-in.
A faint voice came through. “Darius, are you all right?”
“Zeb’haik! At least we won’t be stuck here.” Tarvus exclaimed. “Yes, we are fine, Zeb’Haik, Just move some of these rocks.” He shouted.
But Darius stared at his hand. Was the cave-in an accident? The image of the crest filling up with his blood stood out vividly.
“Darius, get up. We need to move. They will try and move the rocks with the donkeys and the horses, so a few may dislodge.” Tarvus pulled him up but Darius couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t an accident.
He turned to tell Tarvus and then realized they stood in a huge carved hall with stone pillars of the girth of several trees and over twenty feet high. Aside from the speck of light coming from the pile of rocks of the cave-in, the entire hall was bathed in a blue light emanating from a stream flowing not ten feet from them.
“Well, I guess we don’t need the door to enter.” Tarvus chuckled.
Darius felt goosebumps rise all over his body. The construction of the hall seemed beyond any craftsmanship he’d seen in the Throdden Empire.
“This place looks amazing. But why did your ancestors make halls under a freaking mountain complete with a glowing stream flowing through it?” Tarvus ribbed him.
Darius pressed his palm to alleviate the pain. “But what is this place?” He stepped towards the stream. The floor clanged under his shoes. It shone a dark brown in the blue light. “It’s made of metal.”
Tarvus stomped on it a few times and the sound reverberated through the hall. “Indeed it is. Odd choice for a floor but let us wash your hand first and tie it up. You are losing quite a lot of blood.”
“With this glowing water?” Darius pulled his hand back unconsciously.
Tarvus laughed, the sound echoing through the hall. “Oh come Darius, have you not see planktos out on the sea? It must be something like that. They are harmless.” He dipped his hand in the stream and cupped up water. “See, the water isn’t glowing. It’s just the stream. It could be some minerals which glow in the dark. I’ve heard of caves near Awad with glowing rocks.”
Darius had too. He stepped towards the stream and dipped his hand in the water. A sharp pain rose through his hand as the cold water flowed over his wound. The blood could barely be seen in the blue stream except for a brown inky cloud near his hand. He washed his hand a few times and then Tarvus handed him a kerchief and tied it around his palm.
Behind them, a rock slid from the place and tumbled down the slope with puff of dust accompanying it.
“It will take them some time to get past.” Darius said aloud.
Tarvus nodded, jumping across the stream. “Let us find out what your common ancestors built all those years ago. There is the door we were standing against.” He pointed to the left where the river turned into a rock face. Beside it stood the stone door.
Darius approached the nearest pillar and ran his left hand over the stone. The stone felt smooth like marble, yet the striations on it appeared sharp.
“Darius…” Tarvus had proceeded towards the right following the stream but his face looked one frozen in shock.
“What happened?” He jumped across the stream and approached the captain. As he stepped past two pillars, a humongous tunnel came into view with the stream flowing through it. Darius’ blood froze. “Arbok’s bile! What are those things?”
Thirty feet away stood two rows of large humanoid statues which shone white. They stood facing the walls of the tunnel and from the wall emanated the same blue light that illuminated the stream.
“Darius?” Tarvus called out as he started walking towards the statues, but fell in step beside him when he did not respond.
The statues all appeared to be leaning such that their faces were stuck with the wall of the tunnel. The closer they got, Darius realized the statues were not made of white stone but bone and their appearance resembled that exhumed corpses from which all skin and flesh had melted away. Except these bones were much thicker and broader.
“Who would make such abominations and why?” Tarvus voiced his own concerns.
The tunnel seemed to stretch on for miles and all along it were lined these statues on both sides of the stream which continued on.
Darius approached one of the statues and raised his hand to touch it.
“Are you crazy, Darius? Keep away from it. All this seems spooky. Let us go wait by the cave-in. We can investigate when the others come in.”
Darius ignored him and touched the statue anyway. His heart pounded against his chest. But the statue did not move. It felt cold and smooth much like the rock making up the pillars.
“Darius.” Tarvus called him with urgency.
The sunken faces remained stuck to the tunnel wall in front of them. The rock seemed to have a blue vein running through them as through whatever made the stream glow was present in the rock too.
Darius sighed. The statues looked incredibly real to him. He walked back to find Tarvus sitting cross-legged by the stream near the cave-in. A bit more sunlight poured in but it would be a while before they could crawl back through.
“Done with your sight seeing?”
Darius sensed the sarcasm. “They just look so real. I somehow feel a connection. I can’t explain it.”
“You know I was joking about this being made by your ancestors.” Tarvus cupped his hand and took a sip of the water. “This water tastes so sweet and fresh. I always heard the underground mountain rivers had the best water but this is bliss.” He splashed his face in the stream.
Darius smiled and went down and took a long drink. The water felt cold and fresh. Maybe I’m thinking too much.
Elena woke up to Trianna’s frantic cries. Her first instinct was to slap the woman but Androl’s sermons had ingrained that she shouldn’t hit the other Council members even if they infuriated her.
She sat up bleary eyed. “What is it? And where is Adaline?”
“Lady Adaline is dead.”
All sleep evaporated from Elena’s eyes. “What?”
Trianna looked distraught. This was the first time she’d seen the lady without rouge or any colour on her lips.
“She had run off to the Tower of Creations in the morning. She kept saying the crystal was finally ready all night yesterday. I have no idea…” The woman spoke in a single breath.
Adaline has completed the crystal? The girl had been working on it for the past few months with unmatched vigour. Elena admonished herself for that being the first thought in her mind. “What happened, woman?”
“Her head exploded… It’s quite a mess. I haven’t had the heart to go in. Lord Nimlock went in after her screams and found her body.”
“Her head…” Elena blinked. She buried her face in her hands. She should have never asked her to experiment with magic on her own. “Take me there.”
She dressed quickly and followed Trianna out. A carriage arrived to take her to the Tower of Creations located near the northern spire, Adaline’s tower.
Elena felt sorrow erupt within but she held back the tears, especially in front of the other council members. It took them ten minutes to reach the Tower, which in fact was not a tower but a huge building built against the north wall, overlooking the gorge.
Lord Nimlock stood outside with a huge crowd. Elena recognized many of the people as Jaduars who worked in the Tower, who were being helped by guards and others citizens.
“Empress be blessed,” a chant rang out, led by the pale Lord, as she stepped out from the carriage.
“What happened?” she asked Nimlock.
The man frowned. “I don’t know. I was simply passing by when men and women came wandering out with blank or confused faces. None of them seemed to know who they were.”
“What? None of them?”
The Lord shrugged. “We took every one of them out of the tower. Everyone inside the Tower does not even remember their own name.”
How is that even possible? “And Adaline?”
“Well, I sent one of my personal entourage, a familiar creating man to inspect.”
Elena rolled her eyes. Not that she expected him to go running inside if his own child was stuck in a fire.
“He found her in the Chamber of Trials, headless, with blood spattered all over the walls.”
“And where is this man? I wish to speak to him.”
Nimlock looked genuinely sad for once. “He’s dead too.”
“What? How?” Elena hadn’t expected that.
“He came and fetched me once he discovered the Lady’s body. I went after him and when I entered the chamber…” The man shuddered.
“What’s in the chamber?”
“Nothing…no. The man picked up a crystal, a brownish thing. I guess it was what Adaline had been working on. And while I stood there, his…familiar, it was some kind of a rat started growing in size. It grew and grew till it reached the ceiling and then it popped. It threw the man straight across the room and well…he died.”
Many of the healers in the city had started arriving to help out.
Elena steeled herself. “Take me to Adaline.”
“Are you sure…” Trianna asked and then meekly bowed.
They led her to a room just to the right of the entrance to the Tower, where on the side two bodies lay covered; one in a plain cotton sheet and one in a blue satin sheet with the Ianthine crest on it. The smaller one had turned purple in places where blood seeped in.
She knelt beside her friend’s body and let herself shed a few tears. Adaline had died because she hadn’t taken the time to oversee what she was doing. No, I will not let her work go to waste. She wiped away her tears. “Where is the crystal?”
“I had an Unworthy pick it up. It isn’t safe for any of us to touch it.” Trianna said.
Elena looked up at the woman. “What do you mean?”
“I have a theory.”
Elena nodded for her to proceed. Trianna wasn’t as sharp as Adaline but the Lady was smart.
“Lady Adaline died with the head exploding and the guards around the room losing their memory. And the man in Lord Nimlock’s retinue died because his familiar exploded.”
Elen shrugged. “Yes, so?”
“Maybe because the gem uses all the classes of magic, one of us using it overwhelms our particular magic. Lady Adaline was a minder, so…”
“It resulted in her head blowing apart…” Elena’s eyes widened. “Which means none of the Jaduaars can use the gem.”
“Exactly, which is why with your permission I will have the abomination destroyed.”
“No, you shall not. You will bring it to one of the training rooms. And we will put your theory to test.”
“What? You want to be responsible for killing more Jaduaars?”
“No, since we can’t use it, I will test if one of the non-magic folk can.”
Trianna blanched. “You are not seriously thinking of handing a gem this powerful to one of the Unworthy, are you Empress?”
“Do you dare question me, Trianna?” Elena growled. “Not all non-magic folk are Unworthy. My father was one and in case your brain is too addled, one of the Council does not wield any magic.”
“No, Empress. I will send the crystal and the man shortly.” The woman ran out of the room.
Elena looked back at the covered corpse of Adaline. I’m so sorry, my friend.