Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Dark Tower
The cavern stretched into darkness as he walked down a straight passage. The tunnel seemed to shift and fade around him, as if a haze of smoke blurred his vision, and he sensed there was some sorcery at work.
He stumbled suddenly. The twists and turns and smell of ash made him dizzy, but there was something else, something he dared not think of. He felt a dull pain in his side and stood a moment breathing deeply, regaining his balance. The ache subsided and he went forward.
There was iron ahead. It was still far away, but he could already feel it in the air he breathed. He went toward it and suddenly perceived the tainted iron was all around him. A moment before, it seemed like it was a mile away, and now he stood in its midst. It was almost as if he had spanned a great distance with a few steps.
The tunnel bent sharply and slanted down into a wide space where charred torches were stuck in the rock wall and great cracks ran across the floor. He stared at the cracks a moment, noticing a pattern. Then the lava came trailing behind him and he saw the broken ground provided an egress for the burning flow that drained down the fissures before it could spread into the chamber.
He was looking at the fissures when he noticed a peculiar shadow shifting on the floor like a black string. Curious, he followed its length and was stunned to discover the dark thing issued from his sword. It spilled out of the hilt, curling like a sooty ribbon that wound onto the floor, disappearing in the rock as it hit the ground. He watched the shadowy thing for some moments. Then it began to fade so that it was almost invisible, but a wisp of black ribbon was still dangling from the hilt as he made his way through the cavern.
A few feet away, he found a metal door built into the rock. There was no mechanism to open the door, but he saw that it swung on a great hinge. He stepped back and drew Harbinger. The motion of unsheathing the sword gave him a sharp pain that made him falter and drop the blade. He staggered with his hand clutching his side as if he had been pierced. His head was throbbing. He felt ill. He knew the Runes were close at hand.
In the dim torchlight, he found Harbinger on the stone floor and he forced himself to pick up the sword. The vibrant blade felt good in his grip. He could hear it humming. The sound was barely perceptible, but in the quiet tunnel, he could hear the sentient blade and its crooning song comforted him.
Something weakened him. Something dire. He was close to the place of power, the very heart of sorcery, but he did not know how close. He did not want to know.
Harbinger in hand, he stepped toward the metal door and swept the blade through the iron-wrought joint so that it fell with a clangor on the rock floor. He paused then, realizing he had no idea what he would find beyond the portal. He imagined for a moment that it opened into the pillared halls of the dark lords who stood waiting to bind him with chains, but he knew Mor’s cities were many miles away and it was not likely that soldiers patrolled this cold waste.
He kicked the door and the rock groaned. He kicked again and the door shifted slightly. Another kick and the massive thing fell crashing into sunlight. He stepped out of the tunnel and found himself in a canyon, staring up at a blue sky in the waning light of dusk. It was not cold; there was no snow or ice, no chill wind blowing. He felt the warm air on his face and stood a moment in disbelief. He loosened his cloak and started down the canyon as grey clouds passed overhead. He followed a winding course that coiled its way through the rock in strange patterns, a trail of jagged twists and turns. The trench bent and curled and he went at a steady pace until the crooked path led him into a cloud of dust. He coughed as he peered through the swirling debris. Then he heard something crack under his foot. He looked down and found a pale rock. He could not see clearly in the haze of dust, but he picked it up; it was round and hollow, like a large seashell. A wind howled and Efkin covered his face against the dust that swept around him.
The air cleared and he opened his eyes and stared aghast at the broken skull in his hand. He looked around and saw the ground was littered with skeletal limbs. A few feet in front of him, he found a mass of skeletons that stood like a hill of bones with the remains of the dead piled high. He approached the mound, his eyes wide with horror as he stared at a thousand corpses. The dead were stacked in a tangled mess of limbs, thrown in the canyon like a heap of trash.
His eyes welled with tears. He had never seen so many dead. Regaining himself, he found a narrow set of steps carved into the rock. The stair climbed steeply up the side of the canyon to the windy plain above. He started up the steps.
He heard a rumbling in the distance. The ground trembled and suddenly it seemed a million horses trampled the earth. He turned and gasped with fright as lava flooded the canyon. He scrambled up the steps with the speed of the elves. He was halfway up as the lava swept under him, flowing like a river of flame. It swallowed the stair as he ran and he was skipping steps as he bounded out of the canyon. He leapt away as flaming tongues splashed at his back.
He stood at the edge of the chasm, watching the lava carry the dead away in a bubbling flow. Turning away from the canyon, he sighted a line of towers that stabbed the sky. The walled cities of Mor were only a few miles away from where he stood. He was confused for a moment, but then he remembered the shifting tunnels and realized the strange passages bent time and space so that he crossed a great distance. He stood staring at the pointed towers, aware the dark lords wielded powerful sorceries that violated the natural laws.
He looked across the plain, wondering which way he should turn. A shadow slanted across the ground and he turned his gaze to a black tower that stood scarcely a mile away. He held his gaze on the dark monolith and remembered Modrus’ last words. The tower. He had reached Aegon. He was near the place of power.
His side ached again. A fear was growing inside him, but he could not dwell on that fear, could not for a moment think the poison of the Runes had claimed him, for all was lost if it had.
He went toward the tower as clouds gathered in the sky. He sensed something wicked in the air. He entered the tower and found a winding stair. There were no windows, but light spilled in from an opening above. Waning rays of sun were upon him as he emerged into a chamber.
He paused a moment, searching the shadows for hidden menace. He crossed the black flagstones and went to the far end of the chamber where the wall was cut with a square opening that looked out to the twilit sky. The opening ran almost from floor to ceiling and Efkin saw the entire horizon from that height. Overhead, clouds spread over the earth, curling and shifting, and the wind grew stronger. His gaze wandered across miles and, for a moment, he stared at mountains that loomed over the grey world. He looked at the lava flowing down its winding course. The fiery streams spread over the land, curling in every direction. Then his eyes widened with surprise, for as he stood overlooking the rivers of flame he saw the currents ran in deliberate patterns. He was struck with horror as he realized the jagged canyons were not haphazard formations, but great Runes carved into the earth.
He stared aghast at the heart of darkness as the Runes glowed with fire. He felt despair. He had passed through the very midst of the terrible power. Surely, he had been poisoned. If he blew the horn now, the earth would be destroyed.