Chapter Seven: Against the Dark
Wyn entered the cave and searched the darkness for hidden terrors. He stood a moment and heard distant sounds no others could perceive. Behind him Peledomn, Chaelos, Efkin, and Ebin stood silent as he listened to the wind. Then Wyn reached for an arrow and went ahead. The archer led the company forward to seek the dire power that dwelt in the cave. They moved warily, aware that the being they sought was like no creature they had ever encountered. Wyn pierced the beast with a flaming shaft, yet it was not slain. Could there be a demon that even the Blue Flame did not ward against? Such notions could not be conceived a few days ago, but a dark power had come to the elven isle and strange things were gathering. The trolls had menaced the elves for years, but posed no great threat, dwelling in their caves beneath the earth. Now suddenly it seemed the beasts gathered the darkest powers, terrors none had seen before.
Peering into the darkness Efkin remembered what Daneia had said about the waning light of the elves, and he gripped his sword tightly as he went forward.
Wyn halted them suddenly and they stood very still as shadows flickered. “Something stirs ahead,” he said. He turned sharply and raised his bow. “And behind us also.”
They looked behind them and saw no creatures upon them. Wyn loosed his arrow into the darkness and a beast fell from the ceiling. Wyn had barely fitted another arrow into his bow when two creatures appeared crawling on the walls. He pierced one and then the other, casting his shafts in a blur of movement no eyes could perceive.
“Something comes!” the archer cried.
More creatures leapt off the walls and moved with terrible speed. Efkin and Ebin braced themselves for the spiders, then backed away as Chaelos loosed his flames on the pack. It was a mere burst of fire, flashing only an instant, but the blast was so intense that no creatures were spied through the curling vapors and ash.
Wyn led them down the charred passage and they went deeper into darkness. Peledomn halted them as they came to a tunnel that slanted down into the earth.
“There is a presence,” he said.
Wyn stared into the blackness a moment. “I sense a being,” the archer affirmed. The two lords perceived many things that were not seen, forces that stirred in the air, and Peledomn was most attuned to these energies.
“Then we have found the beast we are seeking,” said Chaelos. “Is it a demon?”
“I cannot say,” replied Peledomn, “but it is a fierce and vile creature.”
“Where is it hiding?” asked Chaelos.
“It dwells some distance below us, in a lair deep beneath the earth that seems filled with a terrible power. And it is not hiding. It is waiting.”
Chaelos entered the passage and peered into the darkness. “We will be wary.”
The company proceeded down the sloping passage, their path lit by a luminous sphere Peledomn produced. They went down a crooked path through a narrow tunnel that twisted its way through the jagged rock, descending deeper into the earth. Efkin knew that trolls were near, but felt a fouler presence was upon them. There was the sense of something wicked in this place. Ebin met his gaze with a wry smile, as if the prospect of the perils ahead amused him in some way. His emerald eyes were bright and dauntless, ever lit by some fanciful source no others could apprehend.
They crept forward, swiftly and silently down the dark tunnel. The passage narrowed and branched ahead, slanting off in two directions. They went down the wider passage, descending deeper into darkness until their path ended. They stood at the edge of a chasm. With a gesture, Peledomn cast a glowing sphere into the abyss. In the dim light, they glimpsed a vast web not far below.
Suddenly, a horde of spiders poured into the tunnel. Chaelos stood fast and the cavern was alight with flames, but the horde came through the fire. The company fell back, retreating down the tunnel with the swarming mass at their heels. They reached the chasm and spilled onto a slight landing. The creatures came rushing after them, many of them falling down the chasm in a tangled mass while others scrambled onto the walls. With swords drawn and backs pressed against the rocks, the elves stood ready to receive the horde. They swept their blades as the creatures spread around them. The horde surged forward, pressing them back along the narrow plateau. The elves thrust and hewed at the swarming mass, caught in a desperate fight. A thousand spiders surrounded them, covering the walls above and below. The company stood fast, flashing their elfin blades in a silvery defense against the horde. They fell back as far as they could, making their way along the perilous cliff. Before they reached the edge, the horde vanished.
The dire things were gone and a slight wind moaned in the silence as the company stood daunted. Staring down the chasm, Peledomn saw that no creatures stirred on the web below.
“The horde disappeared,” said Chaelos.
“There was no horde,” said Peledomn. “We fought an illusion.”
“Of course,” said Wyn. “I never heard them coming.”
“There was nothing to hear,” said Peledomn. “The horde materialized instantly before us.”
“And vanished just as suddenly,” Ebin said.
“It is quite curious,” said Peledomn. “The horde pressed us back, forcing us onto this cliff.”
“For what purpose?” said Chaelos.
Peledomn turned his gaze to the rocks behind them. “To steer our path, perhaps.” He crept along the narrow landing, searching the wall with his hands in the darkness, and discovered a gap in the sheer rock. “There is a passage here.”
Wyn peered into the crack. “We have found a path, then, but where will it lead?”
“I expect it will lead to the being we seek,” said Peledomn.
“But we have come to slay it,” said Chaelos. “Why would the creature bring us toward it?”
“Perhaps it thinks we will not succeed,” replied Peledomn.
Chaelos paused as he stared into the jagged fissure.
“We will proceed,” said Peledomn, “though it appears our course is guided by a dark power.”
Wyn stepped through the crack and led the way down a narrow passage. The tunnel wound its way through the rock, widening as it descended into darkness. Peledomn dimmed his glowing sphere to veil their movements.
They were struck by the smell of death and the stink of rotting flesh in the air. Wyn led them into the cavern, his bow ready. Peering into the darkness, he found the floor was littered with dead trolls.
They stared at the scattered corpses. Peledomn looked at a carcass and saw it had no mortal wounds. He turned to the other bodies and found no scars on them either.
“These trolls were not slain,” he said. “They were sacrificed for some purpose, taken from their bodies in some bloodless way.”
Chaelos came toward him. “Can the trolls work such sorcery?”
“I did not think so,” replied Peledomn.
Behind them, Wyn found a curious thing stuck in the floor. “There is something here,” he said.
In the center of the cave, they found a black thing that looked like a large pearl. It jutted out of a crack in the floor as if it had been hammered into place. The company stood around it.
“What is it?” asked Efkin.
“Something very strange,” said Peledomn. He leaned forward to eye the pearl, careful not to touch it. There were small cracks around it. Peering closer, he saw the cracks were actually etchings carved into the floor in a tight ring around the pearl. He stared at the crude cutting in disbelief.
“Can it be possible?” he said stunned.
“What have you found?” asked Chaelos.
“These carvings around the stone are runes,” said Peledomn.
The company was stunned.
“The trolls know nothing of runes,” said Chaelos.
“Yet they are cut in this cave,” said Peledomn, “etched in the crude manner of trolls.”
“Trolls could not master the runes,” Chaelos insisted. “They are scarcely able to speak any words at all.”
“Some days ago I believed trolls could not summon the shaith,” said Peledomn. “We have all seen that trolls deal in sorcery.”
Chaelos stood staring at the black pearl for a moment. “What foul thing is this stone?”
“I cannot discern its purpose,” said Peledomn, “but I sense something is contained within it.”
“What do you perceive?” asked Efkin.
Peledomn eyed the stone with a penetrating gaze. “There is a force in this pearl.”
There was a sound then, like a distant humming, growing louder. They searched the darkness to find the source, and then with sudden realization Efkin drew Harbinger. The crooning blade sang out of its sheath and all eyes were upon the mystic sword. The tone grew louder and they knew something foul was upon them. They turned to face the tunnel behind them, for it was the only way into the chamber. Wyn and Chaelos stood in front, ready to meet whatever was coming, while behind them, Peledomn stood with Efkin and Ebin at his sides. They stood for some moments with swords drawn, but spied no movement in the tunnel. Suddenly, a ghastly thing appeared, passing through the rock like an apparition. It swept into the chamber, its crimson eyes alight with a sinister fire. Behind them, a strange fog issued from the black pearl, growing thicker, slowly filling the cavern.
Wyn loosed his arrow and pierced the creature. The thing shrieked and tore the burning shaft out of its chest as Chaelos blasted his flames. It raised a clawed hand and deflected the fire aside. With a gesture, it sent them tumbling across the chamber, hurling them with a terrible force.
The fog was growing around them, flowing out of the pearl that glowed with a dark radiance. The mist surrounded them and they were aware of a presence in the fog. Strands of smoke tightened around their arms and legs, gripping them somehow, and they were cast against the walls. The chamber filled with the grey mist; it spread into every corner, forming strange shapes that ebbed as if alive with an eerie pulse. Efkin could not see the others, but glimpsed two crimson eyes glowing through the fog. He struggled to break free, drawing all his strength, but could not defy the force that held him. He felt a coldness upon him. His whole body shook suddenly as a strange force coursed into him. He felt it throbbing inside him, seizing his mind. His whole essence was slipping away, being drawn toward the black pearl. His strength was fading as he tried to fight it. He would lose consciousness in a moment and then he would be lost, wholly absorbed by the dark pearl.
He saw the wicked eyes again, glaring at him through the mist. He knew the creature would consume him, feeding on his soul.
He was fighting again, reaching deep within himself, and drawing on a sudden strength of will, he pulled his arm free. He swept Harbinger up, slicing through strands of smoke that fell away and slowly reformed. He struggled forward, cutting a path through a tangle of sorcerous tendrils.
A glowing arrow shot past him. The creature screamed. He peered through the fog and saw a blue flame burning below its mouth. He made his way through the grey mist and saw Peledomn attempting to dispel the fog. Then he saw Chaelos draw his sword. The elf lord swung at the creature and his blade passed through its body with no effect. The being knocked Chaelos to the floor with a blow to his head, then tore Wyn’s shaft out of its throat. It turned around and Efkin was stunned as he met its crimson gaze, momentarily paralyzed by the glowing jewels that eyed him.
Suddenly, Wyn leapt out of the curling mist, his sword alight with a blue fire, then Ebin appeared with his flashing blade and they thrust and swung at the being, moving like leopards, attacking from all sides. Ebin swept his sword in a flawless arc that would have severed its head if it had met flesh, but the blade passed harmlessly through the creature’s neck. Wyn seemed to pierce the creature with his swift strokes and it let out a scream each time his flaming sword struck it.
The thing shot its arm out, casting Ebin and Wyn across the chamber with a sorcerous force. Then it turned to Efkin. He felt its cold stare upon him, holding him where he stood. It raised a hand in the air and its clawed fingers closed into a fist. Efkin felt a force seize his heart. Weakened, he stepped toward the being with Harbinger in hand, barely able to stand, his whole body trembling. Then a pain burst in his chest and he dropped the sword. He cried out.
Wyn was up again, bounding off the floor, blue fire flickering over his lithe form as he grappled the demon. It fought hard to shake him off, desperate to escape his enchanted flame, but the archer held fast. Recovering, Efkin took up his sword, both hands upon the gold hilt, and threw himself forward. The creature let out a horrible shriek as Harbinger stabbed its breast. There was a blinding flash and then a ghastly light spilled out of its chest. Wyn held the demon, blazing with a blue flame as it shook in a violent fit. Its glowing eyes dimmed, fading until Efkin could no longer perceive the crimson jewels in the fog. The fiendish light poured out of its wound, drifting and fading into nothing.
Still weary, Efkin leaned on the sword that was plunged deep in the creature’s writhing form, holding his balance as the creature convulsed. Around him, the fog was lit with shifting colors, and in the pale glow, he saw the creature’s head collapse.
Regaining his strength, Efkin pulled the sword out of the carcass and turned to the black pearl. The wicked stone was spewing a grey mist that sent tendrils reaching for them again. Dodging a strand that whipped over his head, Efkin flung himself through the curling vapor onto the pearl. He drove Harbinger deep into the radiant orb, cleaving the stone in half with a crack like thunder.
The fog stirred suddenly, gusting like a storm wind as Efkin lay upon the broken pearl. He heard voices, wailing cries mingled in the furious gale, unearthly and tormented. He lifted his head and saw beings twisting in the fog like wisps of smoke, their forms distorted and hideous. The vile things surrounded him, whirling in the fog, clawing the air, piercing the chamber with their tortured screams.
And then they vanished, disappearing with the fog as it spread thinly over the cavernous abyss.
The air cleared as he rose to his feet. His crooning blade lowered its tone. Wyn and Ebin stood near as Chaelos stared at the jewel-eyed creature. Peledomn emerged out of the mist and came toward them.
“That is no ordinary blade,” said Chaelos. “My sword could not pierce the thing.”
“Your sword is not the work of dryads,” said Peledomn. He glanced at the corpses that lay strewn on the floor. “We have solved one mystery at least. These trolls were absorbed by the mist. Their life forces were taken from their bodies and shifted into a corpse to animate it.
They fell silent and became aware that Harbinger was still crooning, humming faintly. Peledomn stared at the jewel-eyed troll for a moment. Then he drew his sword and, with a swift stroke, cut a crimson gem from its skull. He grasped the jewel and cast his piercing gaze upon it. His eyes widened.
“What evil is this,” he said stunned.
“What have you found?” asked Wyn.
Peledomn stood staring at the crystal. “This jewel is not merely sorcerous,” he said. “A demon dwells in it.”
The company was silenced.
Peledomn lowered his sword once more and severed the other eye. He peered into the jewel and stood daunted. “There are two demons.”
“Who brings these jewels to our isle?” asked Wyn.
“The same powers that brought that foul pearl,” said Chaelos. “Such things come from Mor.”
“Perhaps,” said Peledomn. “But even if the men of Mor have found a way to breach our borders and supply the trolls with sorcerous weapons, we still have not discovered how the trolls employ powers that have taken men long centuries to harness.”
He glimpsed something curious through the fading mist. He went to get a closer look and as he stepped past Efkin, Harbinger crooned louder. Peledomn paused and all eyes were upon the jewels he held. He moved away and the tone dropped low again. The White Lord crossed the chamber and came to a wall where he stood for some moments. The company gathered around him and saw the wall was covered with huge runes cut into the rock. The strange carvings were unlike any they had ever seen, great curved symbols cut in flowing patterns that spread over the cave wall. They followed the runes across the chamber and discovered the carvings spilled out into the cavernous abyss, disappearing into darkness.
“This is strange,” Peledomn said, staring into the vastness.
“The trolls have mastered the runes,” said Chaelos.
“But what kind of runes are these?” Peledomn wondered.
“The same runes that circle the black pearl.”
“No, they are not the same. These runes curve with great sweeping strokes. Many of the symbols are joined together in a flowing script that seems unlike any writing trolls could produce.”
“Any writing trolls produce is a curious thing,” said Chaelos.
“I would expect, however, that any runes they carved, no matter how carefully conceived, would be formed in the crude manner of trolls, and such are the crooked lines I found around the pearl. But a primitive hand did not shape these graceful strokes. They seem to be something more than runes, wrought by some lost art, almost beautiful to behold, as if …” He stood staring into the darkness, silenced by some bewildering thought.
“What is it?” asked Wyn.
Peledomn held his gaze across the chasm. “It is as if these runes were carved by beings who possessed a power and grace not seen in ages.”
Chaelos came beside the White Lord. “You say these runes are not the work of trolls?”
Peledomn stared into the abyss. “I do not know.” He stood there a moment, peering into darkness, then turned and crossed the chamber.
“Let us leave this foul place,” he said. “The queen awaits our return.” He moved to the center of the chamber to recover the broken pearl, but when he bent down to reach it, he found a hole in the floor where it had vanished.
“The pearl is gone,” he said with surprise.
Chaelos searched the floor. “Then it has vanished.”
Peledomn stood staring at the hole and vaguely perceived a black mist curling out of it, drifting in a sooty haze with the vanishing fog.
Or it has died,�he said, eyeing the black hole.