Chapter Twenty: Into the Mist
As the days and nights passed, they sailed across the sea, heading west into uncharted territories with no land in sight and only the stars to guide them. There was no one aboard who had ever sailed this far and the maps the crew consulted showed no land ahead. They continued on their course, knowing Lord Efkin communed with higher powers and needed no maps to steer them toward their destination. Still, they wondered how much longer they would sail the uncharted seas. After several days, they began rationing their diminishing supplies of food. They cast nets into the water and some days caught fish. And ever their gaze went out to the horizon, hoping to spy land.
The sky was lit with stars when Efkin stepped onto the deck. It was a windy night. His scarlet cloak was blowing as he stared at the sea. Moonlight glinted on the waves and he could almost imagine he saw shimmering strands of hair in the sea.
Someone came behind him.
“I see I am not the only one who thinks of the dryad,” said Colun.
Efkin smiled. “Perhaps men and elves have more in common than we have guessed.”
The knight was about to reply when he noticed Ebin coming up the stair. The ebon swordsman stopped a moment to inhale deeply, then let his breath mist the air with a sigh.
“A fair night to ponder a fair dryad,” he said stepping toward them.
“A sleepless night, it seems,” said Colun.
Ebin paced the deck as he looked at the stars. “Now how shall we honor the sylvan spirit,” he wondered. “With song or poetic verse?”
The three stood a while overlooking the rolling sea in the moonlight.
“How far is the land we seek?” asked Colun.
“I cannot say,” replied Efkin. “I know only that it lies ahead in the west.”
“Somewhere at the edge of the world,” said Ebin.
The knight paused a moment. “I expect we have some miles before us.”
Efkin laughed. “Miles indeed, Colun. We sail where no others have passed in countless ages.”
The knight stared across the sea and his wandering gaze found a veil of haze in the west.
“There is fog ahead,” he said.
Efkin peered into the mist and paused a moment, perceiving something strange in the moonlit haze.
“We will find more than fog ahead,” he replied.
They stood overlooking the sea through the night as the ship proceeded on its westerly course. They were still some miles away from the mist, but they could see that it shone with a light that did not come from the moon. It was a curious mist that hung over the sea like a shimmering curtain and, some hours later, it seemed as if the light of dawn was upon them as they sailed into the glowing mist.
Curling vapors spread over the prow and onto the decks and the ship was lost in a haze of white mist so thick it almost seemed they sailed through the clouds, drifting on a gentle wind that carried them into the sky. The light surrounded them, shining through veils of mist like rays of sun, and the glowing vapors were bending around the ship, parting in front of them as they sailed into the light.
They stared into the mist and perceived faint shapes outlined against the sky. And then Efkin heard something, a sound he could dimly perceive. He imagined a distant chorus resounding somewhere at the edge of consciousness. The light grew brighter until it seemed they passed through the sun. It flashed and sent a thousand colors bending around them. Then it faded and, through the thinning mist, they saw spiring towers that twisted up toward the sky and mountains carved with many structures that were strange and beautiful. They stood in wonder at the sight.
They lowered a small boat into the water and made their way to the shore where they paused beneath a blue sky to survey the area. They climbed up a slope of glistening rocks. When they reached the top, their eyes were wide with wonder. They stood overlooking a valley that was filled with arches and columns and buildings, all hewn into the rock. It was overwhelming in its unearthly beauty, a vast realm of carved stone that spread far into the horizon. The rose-colored rock was like the wash of red in a dawning sky and the light around them seemed like rays of morning, but there was no sun above and they knew this place glowed with an otherworldly light.
They descended a wide stair that was carved into the rock and followed the winding path down into the canyon, stepping carefully through the mist, slowly making their way into that mystical place. They reached the bottom and stared up at the rock-carved city without words to describe what they beheld. They proceeded in silence, moving with delicate steps, as if they were entering a place of inviolable sanctity and did not want to disturb any part of it.
They went forward into the catacombs, passing under a great arch that curved across the sky, entering a vast realm of impossible enormity. Passages led through the rock into chambers overflowing with light, stairs fell away into curling mist or climbed into towers that stood like swirls of crimson against the horizon. They wandered through the maze in no particular direction, almost in a trance as they stared at the strange beauty of the place, and came at length into a wide space that curved in a perfect circle around them and opened to the sky. They spied no passage in the walls and were turning to leave when Efkin paused a moment. He went to the far end of the chamber and found a pair of twin doors set within the wall. The doors were cut from the rock and curved seamlessly with the round wall so that they were not apparent at first glance. He stood in front of them and saw they were carved with runes. He stared at the writing. Though he did not recognize the symbols, they seemed familiar somehow. Suddenly, without conscious effort, he uttered words in a strange tongue, his voice like a whisper of wind as his eyes followed the runes line by line. The mist whipped around him as he spoke and the runes glowed with a shimmering light. Then the rock-carved doors swung open and the three travelers stared into a bright chamber.
They stood very still for some moments as the mist fell away and the runes dimmed. There was the sense of something in the air, as if a great power wakened and waited to receive them.
Efkin entered the chamber and Ebin and Colun followed him past the threshold into a space overflowing with light. Around them, the walls were terraced and smooth, sheer slants of rock that seemed as if they had been cut by a great blade. A dais stood at the center of the vast space and there was something upon it, glinting through the mist. They stepped toward it and Efkin recognized the artifact and gasped at the sight.
They came upon the dais and stood for a moment looking at the horn. It was like polished ivory shining in the light, but with a closer glance, they perceived its radiance came from no ordinary source. It almost seemed to be made of light, as if a moonbeam had assumed the form of a horn. They stared at the wondrous thing, none of them daring to touch it.
“I suppose one of us should take it,” Ebin mused.
Efkin picked up the horn. He thought he perceived a slight pulse. He stood a moment in awe, aware that it sounded with the power of creation. Then he turned to his friends and smiled.
At that moment, something passed over their heads. They looked up and saw a foul creature flitting through the chamber like a shadow. Its form was insubstantial, shifting like black smoke, and its eyes were like red flames that glared at them. It swept up suddenly, shrieking as it flew in circles around them, a wailing, black malice in the air.
They heard voices shouting in the distance and knew that men were near. Suddenly, hundreds of armored soldiers poured into the chamber like a tide of steel and the walls were lined with troops who flowed onto the terraces. The three stood with swords drawn, waiting to receive the horde, waiting to be cut down by a thousand swords.
Someone came forward then, a tall man in the black and gold armor of Mor, stepping through the parting ranks with a casual stride, affecting indifference as he approached them.
A mocking smile crossed his face as he glanced at their drawn swords; he stood with his own blade sheathed at his side. Then his gaze fell on the horn and he stepped toward the scarlet one who gripped it.
“I see you have found the horn,” the man said. He stared at Efkin and grinned. “You think we know nothing of your legends?” He held his gaze a moment and paused. “The horn of ancestors, the horn that shaped all the world.” His tone was derisive and some of the men laughed.
“You have come a long way for this horn,” Efkin said.
The soldiers fell silent.
“We have not come for the horn,” the man said. “We received word from our lords in Mor that travelers had violated our borders at sea.” He glanced up at the creature that hung in the air like a shadow. “This messenger saw your ship in our territory and we have come to arrest you for trespassing.”
“We are not trespassers,” said Colun.
“You have sailed too far,” the man said, moving to seize the horn.
Efkin pulled away from him. “We have not breached your borders. You have come for the horn.”
The man paused and eyed the elf. “Take them!” he shouted.
The circle of men closed around them and their swords fell to the floor as they were seized.
The man came toward Efkin and glared at him with a cold malice. “I am quite familiar with your elvish lore,” he said with contempt. “Stories that tell of mighty beings who worked great wonders in a time before the saga of men.” He stepped closer and pierced Efkin with his cruel eyes. “Where are these fabled ones now? Will you summon them with the horn?”
The men laughed.
“Will you bring all the powers of earth upon us like your ancestors of old?”
He took the horn.
“We will take you to our lords in Mor,” he said. “There you will see the powers our masters wield are greater than ancient myths and useless relics.”
He laughed and started to lead his men out of the chamber. Efkin struggled with the soldiers who seized him, but their numbers overwhelmed him. It seemed the horn was lost.
Suddenly, a swirl of mist was spinning around them and the men paused. The armored captain stood very still for a moment. Before he disappeared in the vapors, Efkin saw his eyes widen with fear.
At once, the air was shimmering with glowing forms that darted through the chamber like flashes of lightning. Men screamed and fell, defenseless against the phantasms that assailed them.
And then silence.
As suddenly as it had appeared, the mist fell away and the floor was piled with the bodies of the slain.
Stepping over the carcasses, Efkin found the horn near a corpse who wore the black armor of Mor and took the relic from his skeletal hand.
“It is as the dryad foretold,” he said. “Only a Braey may claim the horn.”
“What force could slay so many?” asked Colun.
“In my childhood, I heard tales of sacred grounds that were guarded by the Dii,” Efkin said. “Unseen sentries who slew all who defiled the places they warded.”
They picked up their swords and made their way out of the chamber. A shadow passed over them and looking up they saw a black shape in the clouds, flying back to its masters in the East.