It was quiet and calm within the hole in the ground, and dark, though he could still see fairly clearly, thanks to Mag’s magic. She moved ahead, crouching slightly, taking every step with care, so as not to make a sound. He came after, glad for those years he had spent in the forest as a hunter, for he could walk just as silently as she. The scales of her armour did not even make a sound, and he wondered if she had used magic to make it so. They walked through a simple tunnel dug out of the dirt, wide enough for two to stand together, their shoulders brushing the side walls. It smelled of dirt, the air was warm and still. There was a faint but steady decline. They came upon crossroads and other dark and silent passages leading to gods knew where, and she would pause and listen for long moments before picking a direction or carrying on the same way. She had been correct to assume that he needed her; they had changed direction now so many times and there were no distinguishing marks, he might have wandered down here lost in the dark until he died, alone in one of these passages. The kobalos might never have discovered him. There was some sick humour in that and he might have laughed were the situation different. He owed this woman his life many times over and wondered if he might ever be able to repay her.
The walls changed to a deep reddish rock after some time, though the floor was still compact dirt. They paused at a crossroads and he could hear a faint murmur of sounds, though he could not be certain from which direction it came. He was surprised they had not come across any kobalos yet. Surprised and pleased, but it left him with a feeling of foreboding. When she picked the next passage to follow the feeling grew within him, as did the faint murmuring. Was she leading him into a trap?
The passage opened suddenly around them and she paused. Ahead was a huge chasm extending in all directions to the end of his vision. There was a sort of stone bridge, perhaps two feet wide and longer than was comforting, extending to the other side, where it was met by another passage. The noise came from below the bridge, the barking and squabbling of kobalos by the hundreds.
Mag leaned close, her lips soft upon his ear, and whispered.
“Kobal Market. If they see us, we’re dead.”
She got down on her belly and started to worm across the bridge, as silent as morning dew. He glanced down as he got to his knees and saw a river of kobalos, the thin green-skinned creatures all milling about amongst ramshackle market stalls decorated with scraps of decayed fibre. He averted his eyes, lay down on his belly and began to worm across as slowly and silently as he could. The odour drifting up from below was beyond offensive, and if he could believe only half the stories he heard of kobalos then he did not want to know what was being bought and sold at this market.
The noise from below was all cries of hounds to his ears and the stink made him dizzy, or perhaps it was the height. But as he shimmied across in silence he glanced down once more at the open stalls, at kobal men spouting harsh words and carrying on, and noticed that not all below was offal. Among dark, bloody objects there were also fruits, bright orbs in merry tones, red and orange and yellow, looking ripe enough to burst and extremely out of place in the dark. Strange green pear shaped fruits and tiny berry-like things and the more he looked the less the sights and smells seemed like death, and more like foreign delicacies, exotic and inviting. His belly growled and he realized with a start that he had stopped in the middle of the bridge to stare down at the market, without thought of safety or fear of falling or discovery. He turned his eyes to the stone before him, tried to ignore the wafting scent of fruit on a warm summer breeze, of spices, hot and fresh that made his mouth water, and proceeded forward with all haste. Mag waited in the next passage, face full of worry. She moved back from the bridge to give him space to stand, where neither might be seen. Once they were a ways from the bridge, back in the darker, quieter hall she turned to him.
“Do not be gulled by the market,” she hissed, pressing her lips against his ear once more. “It is a glamour that magic cannot break.”
“Why?” he muttered. He thought he had spoken soft enough but she clapped a hand over his mouth and glared. Her eyes were full of worry, and he had not noticed how very blue they were.
“The power of the market comes from the onlooker,” she whispered against his ear. “You create what you desire to see and smell. Do not eat even a seed! You will waste away for a taste that will never come again, though you may eat only air or dirt or leaves. Only the onlooker can stop a glamour that comes from his own mind. You are in Oomglaken now, trust nothing!” She took a moment to stare at him to be certain that he understood her conviction. When he nodded she turned and carried on down the passage.
These passages were different now, properly square-edged, wider, taller, and composed of intricate designs of small stone in white and turquoise. The designs were geometric in shape, mathematical in pattern and so precise that he knew they could not be kobal made. Perhaps these halls had been taken from dwarves, they were known to have enjoyed neatness and precision. Though tales of dwarves were near as rare as kobalos, and less often believed.
A crossroads came and went, the halls all empty still. He wondered if they might just sneak all the way in and out without any trouble at all and then quickly banished such a thought.
Somewhere along the hall, Mag stopped suddenly.
“This is where they keep the sacrifices,” she whispered. “Close enough to Arr- Ghamiscar as to bring him the most honour.”
Set into the hall and marked with a pattern so precisely accurate to the wall that had Mag not have pointed it out he would certainly have missed it, was a door. It was a large wooden door, but with so perfect a replica of the wall pattern that it might as well have been invisible.
“Where is Arr-Ghamiscar?” he whispered.
She reached a hand out and touched the wall opposite the door. He followed suit and was surprised by the heat of the stone.
“He’s sleeping,” she whispered. “Or in the high hall.”
She turned back to the tall door and opened it. It barely made a sound, but for the rush of hot air that struck them. In the distance a tiny spark of light near to blinded him. He covered his face, it was like sticking his head into a forge.
“Quick!” she hissed. He lowered his arms and stepped through the doorway expecting flat ground and receiving the shock of empty air under his feet. For a long moment he seemed to be suspended in air, with a vague thought of betrayal in the back of his mind. Then his foot landed hard on a step and he stumbled and fell against a wall. The sudden sound seemed like a thunderclap after all that silence. Mag caught his arm and held him still, listening. Nothing seemed to have heard his blunder and she breathed a sigh of relief. Together they closed the door, fighting the hot air that wanted desperately to escape.
“Sorry,” she breathed onto the back of his neck. “Stairs.”
But he had already noticed, for his eyes had adjusted to the sudden light after all that darkness. It was a wide stair that led steeply down, at the bottom a room full of firelight. Now the door was closed the air was tight and hot and as they descended it only seemed to grow hotter. Like walking into Mortholm, he thought, were the sun sleeps during the night. It seemed to him as though they descended forever, each step slow and careful, the silence full around them, the spark of light at the end of the stair always seeming to be the same distance away. He was slick with sweat, his underclothes stuck to his skin, the vambraces chafed at his wrists and sweat dribbled into his eyes. He tried to take deep calming breaths but his head was starting to swim.
He glanced back at Mag, whose thick black locks lay limp upon her head, plastered to the glistening skin of her face and neck. She nodded at him to carry on.
The light started to grow in size at about the time the strange noises became audible. There was the flickering and crackling of a fire, but there was also a sort of squeaking sound and a faint rumble. The light had grown to near the size of a doorway when other sounds emerged. Deep voices speaking in the harsh kobal language, footfalls, an occasional hiss followed by a moan or a holler or scream. Someone was crying. He stopped, still a good distance from the doorway and listened, but it sounded only like animals hissing and snapping at each other. He turned, cupped Mag’s head with one hand and pressed his lips against her ear.
“What are they saying?” he breathed, stray curls slipping into his mouth.
She bit her lip, a worried look upon her sweat-slicked face, and then she leaned close and whispered something in his ear which made no sense at all. His brow furrowed for a moment as he tried to make sense of it and then he started. The kobalos were still speaking their strange language, but somewhere among the snarls and hisses there were words. He gaped a moment as he listened.
“Soon, soon, soon,” a deep voice crooned and gave a harsh laugh. “Soon the sacrifice to Kukkukk, then you will be no more.”
“Kukkukk will break you,” a different voice grumbled gleefully. “Kukkukk will snap your precious little bones and suck the marrow.”
“Kukkukk will cut open your head, while you still breathe, careful, oh so carefully. He’ll eat your sweetmeats while your eyes twist and watch in agony.”
He couldn’t help but gag. He turned back to Mag, trying to block the sounds from entering his ears. She stood with her fists clenched tight, eyes brimming with hateful tears. There was a snap and hiss and scream and without a thought Odras leapt into his hands as he flew down the last of the steps and charged into the room.
Three wiry tough kobalos sat in the centre of the chamber, wicked grins gleaming in the light from a pit of fire. They were the green-skinned lower caste, Nidrig, and he parted their heads from their bodies before they could know what had come. They all three managed a terrified wail before the end and the noise brought others. Five or so came at him from different directions, hot, sharpened ends of iron in their clawed hands and wicked laughter in their throats. The first to reach him jabbed at his belly with the burning iron, the brigandine stopped the spike long enough for Odras to slice him in twain. Another hot iron jabbed him in the leg and he swept the blade back, crying out from the pain that felt not unlike the healing he had received from the sorceress. That one was too fast, and leaped out of Odras′ reach, rolling away to come at him from the right, while two others attacked from the left. One of the two burst into flames, so hot and bright that Cabriabanus was momentarily blinded. He kept up the momentum from his swing and felt Odras bite through flesh and bone. His blindness parted in time for him to catch sight of a bright hot iron spike come up at him and he swiped it away with the blade. He ducked as the kobal leaped at him, mouth wide. It flew over top of him and landed in the dirt not far from the fire pit, quick to return to his feet. But Cab was quicker, knocking the creature back with a kick, into the fire. The scream and the smell was horrendous.
“He’s getting away!” came a cry from somewhere in the room. Cab wiped the sweat from his eyes, searching. A lone kobal ran down a long corridor toward the only other exit. He took to his heels and a fireball ripped past his head, scorching his hair. It struck right where the kobal had been before he threw himself to the floor. He was out the door before anyone could move. Cabriabanus was still running after it when Mag cried for him to stop.
“There’s no time!” she told him. He stopped and turned back, wiping and sheathing the sword. It was difficult to catch his breath, the air was so hot it seemed to burn his lungs. The leg of his britches were burned away where he had been struck with the hot iron and the skin beneath had turned brown, stiff and dry, almost like leather. Strangely enough it did not seem to hurt.
The room was composed of dry rock; the door behind him and the doorway to the stairs seemed to be the only entrances. There was a pit in the centre of the room that contained some sort of strange liquid fire that sprouted flames with quick gasps. Above the pit hung a pair of manacles on a chain. Around the edges of the room, high up where the heat gathered, were cages with wheels on a circular track. They moved slowly round the room, creating the squeak and rumble he had heard upon the stairs. Inside the cages were small figures in rough, heavy garments, soaked in sweat, with blank hollow faces. Many were young girls, but two at least, were not.
“Cairbre!” he cried as he limped forward. “Ethamyn!”
“Here,” one croaked, reaching a thin arm through the bars of the cage. “Eth’s over there.” He pointed to a cage opposite him, where the heir to the throne of wings lay unconscious.
“How do we stop this contraption?” he asked Mag, as she knelt beside him. She placed moist hands over the burn on his leg and said something he could not quite hear. He gritted his teeth as the pain grew sharp, and growled as it grew sharper. When she moved away the skin was merely reddish and stung a little. She stood, wiped sweat and hair out of her face and glanced around the room.
“One of the lowborn would have had the control,” she stated and bent to examine the corpses at their feet.
“Control?” he asked. Turning his head this way and that, trying to understand the contraption. “It’s not powered by mules?”
“Kobalos are not the greatest with animal husbandry,” Mag said, standing up when her search proved fruitless. She hurried over to a charred box that sat next to the pit. It was painted with bright colours on the top.
“This is the main power box,” she said. “But we need the control.”
He pulled Odras out and before anyone could say a word plunged her into the box. It was like trying to run a sword through a stone. Not only that, but the cages on the track started moving faster.
“Idiot!” Mag hissed, pushing him away from the box. “You’ll get yourself killed.”
He examined the end of his sword, now no longer quite as sharp as he would have liked, before sliding her back in her sheath.
“There’s a ladder,” came a quiet voice. A thin arm snaked out of a cage and pointed. Lying idly against the wall looked to be a pile of rope, which would have proved just as useful but when he picked it up and unravelled it, it became a rope ladder.
“Cairbre, catch,” he said, tossing the rope to his outstretched hands.
The boy fumbled but just barely managed to hang on to the rope. He was moving slow, it was the heat, and the hunger, his hands just wouldn’t move fast enough. But he managed to tie the rope ends fairly sturdily to the bars of the cage he was in. The heightened pace of the cage in its movement around the circle was just enough to make him dizzy. He wanted to throw up, but there was nothing inside him to lose. Cabriabanus tugged to be sure the rope was secure and then stepped on the bottom rung. Already he was dizzy, but he fought his way to the top of the rope. He started to understand the contraption now; keep them moving, slow enough so as not to stir a breeze, but continuous movement in a circle so that if they managed to effect an escape they would have to get used to the earth holding still before they could take a step. He took hold of the bars. Cairbre flashed a relieved grin.
“Where’s the door?” he asked.
“On top,” the boy pointed.
“They’re coming!” Mag hissed.
Cabriabanus climbed atop the cage and growled at the sight of the lock. Upon closer examination it appeared fairly rusted and a few stubborn kicks with the heel of his boot broke it. He pulled back the door and reached in to pull out the boy. Cairbre threw himself at his warden, wrapped his arms around his waist and squeezed like he would never let go. The poor boy was soaked in sweat, his fiery hair plastered to his skull, they had taken his fine clothes and put him in a rough spun smock.
“There’s no time for this!” Mag cried. She let out a high pitched wail, raising her arms up and slamming them down on the control box. The thing burst and the carts ground to a halt so quickly Cab fell onto his back, the boy still clinging to him. He could hear the sounds of a fighting troupe now, running feet and clinking mail.
“Cairbre,” he said gently. “Let go for a moment. We’ve got to free the others.”
“I don’t want to die,” he said, through tears.
“Be strong,” Cab said. “I know you are. Take this.” He pulled the dagger from the sheath at his back and handed it to the boy. “Go that way, let the others loose.”
He wiped tears away and nodded, doing as he was told. Cab went in the other direction, kicking at locks and ripping open doors. Every child he pulled from a cage was thin and weak, but they stumbled to the rope ladder and made their way down.
“Cabriabanus Atholine,” Mag warned. The marching was getting closer. Just one left now, just Ethamyn. Cairbre met him at his brothers cage, breaking the lock and tossing it away. Cabriabanus reached in and dragged the limp boy out. He was breathing.
“They beat us with willow branches,” Cairbre said. Now he looked he could see thin red lines upon the boys arms and legs and necks.
“They beat him more because he said he was a king.”
“Go on,” Cab said, slinging the heir over his shoulder. They went to the ladder and Cairbre scuttled down. Cab’s descent was a little more difficult.
“This way,” Mag said, motioning to the door the lone kobal had escaped through. The other children were already waiting there. They were a thin, ragged bunch, barefoot, hair stuck to sweaty faces, eyes too big, too fearful. He ushered them through the door, but Mag lagged behind. He turned and reached out to haul her along but her skin was electric and jolted him at his touch. She made a sound he didn’t think a human could, a sort of fiery roar and the liquid fire in the pit burst upward in a molten stream, melting everything in the room and flowing up the stairs to meet the advancing army.
“Go!” she roared. They raced through the door into total darkness. The molten fire burned into his vision, blinding him, and he stumbled through the dark, waiting for his eyes to adjust.
“Everyone grab onto someone else,” he cried, and he felt the tiny hands of the children clutching at his clothes. Some of them were crying.
“Hush now,” he said as he finally became accustomed to the dark. “We’ll all get out of here safely.”
The tunnel extended for a short while and then ended in a small chamber. A dead end. In the centre of the room lay a broken ladder, which had fallen from the hole in the roof. He cursed and kicked the ladder, which only started the children to wailing. Ethamyn started to move and to moan and so Cab lifted him down and set him on his feet, holding him up until he was able to do so on his own.
“You’re okay?” Cab asked.
“Cairbre?” the heir groaned.
“Here,” his brother said, feeling his way through the darkness. Cab took their hands and brought them together.
“Mag,” Cab said. “Light?”
A moment later a small ball of light hung in the air, illuminating the room dimly. Still every person had to cover their eyes for a moment before they could see.
“We have to get through there,” Mag whispered. “They’re not long behind us.”
“Can you fix the ladder?” he asked. She shook her head.
“Can you make a new one?” he asked and received the same response. He growled in frustration. The hole in the roof was at least another six feet over his head. It would be a fine balancing act to get even one child up there.
“Why do you speak with her?” Ethamyn asked, disdain dripping from every word. Cab glared at the boy, but noticed the light of fear in some of the others eyes when they looked to Mag. No one stood near her and some would not even look at her. He tried to brush it off as uneasiness around magic. The display with the liquid fire had been impressive and frightening.
“She’s a kobal whore,” Ethamyn continued.
“Watch your tongue,” Cab snarled, clenching his fist to keep from slapping the boy. “Were it not for her you’d all still be in those cages.”
“She speaks their language,” Cairbre said quietly, eyes fixed upon the floor.
“We haven’t time to-” but before another word could be said the sound of harsh kobal laughter filled the room. The light quickly winked out and the children whimpered and wailed. Cab tried to herd them behind him and turned to the tunnel from whence they’d come, to face the kobalos there.
“Rottdokk,” Mag hissed. She stood like a cat might, and he half expected her hair should stand all on end. For it was true, the huge, crimson fleshed kobal stood at the head of the tunnel, uglier than he had been at their last encounter. His face and chest were scarred and blackened from Mag’s fireball, and through the hate that shone on his face, he grinned triumphantly. How many heads of lesser kobalos crowded behind him? Enough.
“Arr- Ghamiscar will be so pleased,” Rottdokk drawled in a deep, stony voice. He hefted his serrated, cleaver-like sword in his right hand. “You know we cannot complete the sacrifice without his favourite spilzock.” He spoke in the kobal language but that one word did not seem to translate properly in Cab’s hearing. Several different words seemed to vie for dominance: object, possession, plaything, spark.
“There will be no sacrificing, you cowardly son of a whore,” Cabriabanus snarled, tugging Odras from her place on his back once more. Rottdokk laughed, slow and self assured.
“And you’ve brought our pretty Shoktri to play with.”
Cab threw himself at the creature, hoping to catch him off guard, to get him on the defensive. But the big kobal was ready and lifted his sword to block with indifference. Cab had never felt so much like a child in combat. The kobal swiped at him, lazily, and Cab blocked, both hands upon the hilt of his sword. He cursed as Rottdokk shoved him backward and Odras caught on the teeth of the kobalos weapon, wrenching out of his grip, nearly striking him in the face, landing in the darkness somewhere. Cabriabanus leapt back, as the kobal lifted his weapon once more, and a ball of fire burst into existence between them, blinding them all. He stumbled over the broken ladder, nearly fell, regained his balance and vision in time to watch the heavy sword thrust blindly toward him. The tip was flat and blunt and struck him low in the chest with enough force to push the air from his lungs and make him stumble back once again, this time nearly falling on top of the children.
“Banus,” Cairbre hissed, thrusting the dagger into his hand, and visions of his dying mother into his head. None had called him by that pet name but her and he had all but forgotten the power that it had over him. But he hadn’t time to dwell on memories, for now he had only a small blade with which to block the next blow, and air, he needed to pull air into his lungs and it was not working.
Gasping, he threw off the big kobal’s strike and stepped within his guard, plunging the dagger through the bone plating and into his chest to the hilt. He twisted, so close to the kobal that he could see the engine behind his eyes, could hear the beginnings of laughter before it grew to fill the room. Blood was not pouring from the wound, was not washing over Cab’s hand still clutching the weapon. There came a high wail that battled the laughter in its effort to fill the room and Rottdokk stepped back and struck a blow to Cab’s head with the flat of his blade, while he stood still dumbstruck.
Vision doubled and then swam, Cab’s knees buckled, hit the ground hard and deposited him in a heap. The keening of the children joined the high wail that came from Mag, but the last thing he heard before the fall out of consciousness was something she had said before.
Stab him in the heart and he still will not die.