There came the gentle sound of a clasp clicking shut. Cab’s body, stiff from huddling and sore from the anger it had swallowed, did not at first want to respond to the requests of his mind. He peeked out from his hiding hole. Maakraig was moving away from a limp lump upon the floor which must have been Mag, moving toward the door. Cab listened while Maakraig removed the bar and opened the door and it swung slowly shut behind him. Slipping and stumbling, Cabriabanus raced to the door, fell against it and thrust the bar back into position. His heart started to pound and was soon echoed by the terrifying banging upon the door. He had been discovered. He hoped the door would hold out against the beast. Back into the room he raced, his body now more willing to cooperate, to Mag, who lay crumpled in a heap like a pile of rags. Her dress was mere strips of fabric now, and her resemblance to a corpse was frightening. Maakraig had carved cruel symbols into her flesh, already drying, the blood hard and flaking upon her. In the middle of her chest sat an orange ball, like the sun, a tattoo or birthmark, he could not tell.
“Mag,” he whispered, shaking her gently. She moaned low in her throat but did not stir.
“Damn it, Mag,” he cursed, shaking her less gently. “Get up! We’re running out of time!” Her eyes fluttered open for a moment and her hand moved weakly to the collar.
“Ban...” she muttered. He set his hands upon the collar, feeling for weaknesses with his fingers, gently probing the wicked thing. He found a tiny hole in the front and pulled out his dagger. Gently, for if she moved he might easily injure her, he eased the tip of the dagger into the key hole and wiggled it. There was some mechanism there which made a faint sound. He leaned down so that his ear was very close and jostled the dagger again. There. Something almost caught. He tried again, twisting and listening very closely. The dagger caught on something...springy, he nudged it, careful, oh so careful, until it made a resounding click and the collar sprung open.
He sighed, put the dagger away and lifted the sorceress up out of the collar, closing it on air. Her flesh was cool to the touch and her neck was nearly black with bruising.
“Mag, Mag, Mag,” he repeated. He could no longer hear any pounding upon the chamber door. There must be some other way in. His blood thrummed in his ears. He cradled her head in his arms and brushed stray dark curls off her damp forehead. Her hand lay upon her chest, the fingers twitched lightly, eyelids fluttered but did not open. Her dry lips parted and a bare whisper escaped.
“Sing?” he repeated. “What?” His heart pounded so insistently he thought it might take over his will. “You want me to sing?” Gods, he thought, help us. He was a soldier not a bard.
In moments Maakraig would either find some way to bust the chamber door in, or he would appear through some other entrance that Cab could only guess at in this jungle of a chamber. There was no where for either of them to go even if he did somehow manage to get her to her feet. How were they to escape? How were they to find the princes? He did not know. But Mag must know. Mag and her magic. He could hardly believe he was putting so much faith in a thing that he had always abhorred. Magic. It was like a curse word. But what else could he do? This whole dark, underground world was like some terrible nightmare. Perhaps if he sang he might wake them all up. He thought he might laugh if it were a dream, but found he could only clear his throat. He began to sing a song that, had things gone another way, he might have forgotten altogether.
“I saw a ship upon the sea,” he began, his voice weak, cracking. “I saw my maiden fair. She stood upon the distant shore, with seashells in her hair.” Tears welled in his eyes as the sweet scent of his mother filled his nostrils. It was not really there. His voice seemed to grow weaker, it shook and wanted to give out, but he pushed on, desperate. “She stood upon the distant shore, my sweet young maiden fair...”
He pulled all his sorrow and fear and anxiety and pushed it into his voice and it grew stronger. He grew stronger, filled with the thoughts of the first woman who loved him, the first woman who left him. As he came to the final verse, Mag’s lips parted and she began to suck at the air, at his words and the strength within them. Colour bloomed on her pallid flesh and warmth crept into her skin. He sang the words of the final verse but the sound disappeared as soon as it came out of his head, sucked into her body by some desperate magic. From her now rosy lips came a different verse, though to the same tune.
“She watched the lance that ran him through, but, lo, she did not cry.” Her eyes fluttered open and the vigour within them was almost frightening. There was a fire in her eyes, burning as bright and fierce as the sun upon her chest. “She raised the call, from wall to wall.” The words rang now through the chamber and he could hear nothing else, could feel nothing but the electric energy they created, the frightening power. “And burned the creatures nigh.”
With the last words the marks Maakraig had carved into her flesh burned bright as though they were holes in the fabric of her person and someone was shining a light through them. The light faded from her now unmarred flesh. The silence seemed to echo and he sat dumbstruck, staring a creature so very different from the one who had been in his arms mere moments before.
“Do not be afraid of sorcery,” she said. Her voice bright and full of power. “It lies dormant within you.”
He shuddered to think that it did.
He could not help but stare at the girl as she got to her feet. Her skin was bright and healthy, her legs and arms clearly muscled. The transformation from near death to this powerful creature was like nothing he had ever seen or heard of. She did still bear strange markings, white stars upon her knees, that bright orange ball nestled between small round breasts, and just below her navel a dark crescent, like the moon rising above a mass of dark waves. Cab’s throat was dry, he could not speak; words did not even form in his head, but something stirred within him. For a moment he panicked, feeling that he had lost something vital, something of his that was important but he could not determine what exactly it was. He cleared his throat, tried to moisten his lips as he got shakily to his feet and finally found a word, though it was not one he liked.
The space around Mag’s eyes darkened and she pointed away behind him.
“The Heart-room,” she said, starting forward through the trees, naked and without a mote of modesty. He followed, still unable to access words, unsure of the ones that he wanted to use anyway. Mag pushed aside tentacular branches to reveal a wall of blue-green marble, veined with sparkling white, and set into the wall a pair of doors, made of thick, strong wood and braced with strips of metal. She reached out to turn the knob on the door on the right but it would not turn. Cabriabanus had not supposed that anyone who was so worried about their heart would simply leave the door unlocked. But he was surprised when she gave a straight kick to the door, her bare foot striking just above the handle. The door did not budge.
“It is warded,” she stated, staring at the door. She turned, looked at him, eyes examining the features of his face, probing the depths of his eyes. She smiled and put a cool hand upon his cheek.
“Maakraig will come up through the water,” she said, turning to look behind her. “Gods willing, we will be on the other side of this door by then. Help me to sing.”
“You have a plan?” he asked, the words left his mouth and he felt like a child, like he could barely speak. She nodded.
“Yes,” she said. “Sing.”
He did as he was bid, feeling uneasy and childish. He sang a note, clean and clear and she joined her voice to his in a harmony that made his skin tingle. With a quiet click the door swung open. They stopped their singing and swept inside, shutting the door behind. She made a few quick hand motions and uttered strange melodies upon the door. To secure it, he assumed.
It was another jungle type place, but the air here was more moist, the dirt beneath his feet nearly mud, sucking at his boots. It was hot; he could not tell if the moisture gathering upon his body was sweat or merely humidity. There was a larger variety of vegetation flourishing in this room, all of it massive. Vines as thick around as tree trunks, with leaves that he could easily lay upon, and bright red, trumpet shaped flowers that could have engulfed his head.
“This is not the Heart-room,” Mag practically snarled. Tiny beads of moisture covered her skin and the hair upon her head seemed to expand, like an ocean storm preparing to break the shore.
“The other door?” he suggested, about to turn back. She said nothing, but stalked through the heavy vegetation and Cabriabanus could only follow.
Vines and leaves slapped at his face as he brushed through the thick foliage, and he pulled out the long dagger to try to ease his passage. He only sliced once, for as soon as he did the accosted branch thickened and sprouted a multitude of tiny branches that twisted and writhed like snakes, reaching out toward him. He put the dagger away and forced his way through, though now it was more difficult as the plants seemed to pull at him, and snake around his arms and ankles. He persisted, yanking vines away, sometimes snapping them, but he did not look back, nor did he falter, for therein lay entrapment in constrictive greenery. He could hear the plants growing behind him, reaching out for him. He could smell the warm moist earth beneath his feet, the ripe, green smell of young plant growth. It was all around him.
He pushed through the last of the green and came to a space where the plants did not reach out for him. The snake-like trees stood at attention, branches to their sides, all around a mound of earth taller than Mag or himself. She stood at its base, the dark earth of the mound made her skin seem to glow in its paleness. It smelled of rotted green matter, dung, moist earth. Mag started to clamber up the mound, her feet slipping in the loose sides and he followed.
At the top, the mound was hollowed out, like a bowl, and filled with some kind of pinkish liquid. It seemed to be humming, though the surface was smooth as glass. He crouched to touch it and realized it was not liquid but solid; it felt like animal skin stretched tight. It was warm and shivered at his touch. He shivered too.
“What is it?” he asked, unable to take his eyes away, unnerved by the thing. “Is it alive?”
“They call it a membrane,” Mag said. “It protects the eggs before they hatch.”
“Eggs?” Cab asked, filled with the dread of Maakraig’s words. “Whose eggs?”
She looked at him, unable to answer the question. Instead she said, “it is not alive. Not as you and I are. It is...enlivened by magic.”
He made a sound of disgust and she turned, pointed her toe and stepped through the skin, like stepping into water. The strong scent of blood loomed in the air, and something else, something like the scent of fresh spilled guts. Her nose curled but a look of pure determination came over her and she continued to lower herself in until all but her head was through.
“I can feel them under my feet,” she said.
“The eggs?” he asked. She nodded. Tears brimmed her eyelids, threatened to fall, but before they could she lowered her head beneath the skin and vanished. He gritted his teeth, put a hand on the dagger in his belt.
If there had been anyone around to ask him, he would have suggested that perhaps time had stopped. Perhaps Time itself was waiting, holding its breath, wondering when the poor creature would return. He was unable to move, riveted to the spot, even the trees, so full of vigour moments before were still as stones.
The skin pressed out in the middle, stretched upward in the shape of her hand, fingers splayed. She could not seem to escape, though it had been simple enough for her to get in. Cabriabanus pulled the dagger from its sheath and thrust it into the skin. But the skin merely stretched against it and would not tear or break. Panic started to bloom in his chest and he stabbed repeatedly, getting the same reaction every time. He wondered whether or not she could breathe when the skin rippled and started to blacken. It bubbled and stank of burning flesh, grew black, crisped, shrank until it clung to the form of the sorceress, standing still, mouth open, hand in the air. It flaked and burst away from her mouth, letting out a torrent of song like a rough ocean wind. Cab lost his balance and tumbled down the side of the mound, landed in moist earth at the roots of the trees which trembled at the might of her magic. He was quick to return to his feet, to clamber up the side of the mound, to slip and fall at its lip. Within the sorceress stood stock still, clothed in flaking blackened membrane, ankle deep in gelatinous pink orbs. She bent and picked one up, put it in his outstretched hand. It was glossy, slimy, fit neatly into his hand and he could see through it, to the creature within; vaguely human shaped, with more snout than nose and a tail. It was near as transparent as the egg and he could see its inner workings, not yet fully formed. He studied it a moment longer and then handed it back to her. Angry tears streamed down her cheeks, washing a bright path through the blackened skin still clinging to her.
“He stole them,” she said, her voice low and full of hate. “And now I will destroy them.”
The blackened skin in the centre of her chest flaked away, revealing the orange globe. Was it really spinning, trailing arms of fire like an aura or was it all a trick of the eyes? Fear crawled across his skin and he sunk a little deeper into the dirt of the mound, the muscles in his body turning to uncooperative mush. The moisture in the air became steam and the trees shivered and pressed away from the mound. Steam obscured everything, and Cabriabanus was alone, hugging the soil beneath him, which moments before he had thought smelled of dung. There was a bright light in front of him, hidden in the steam, it spun furiously. The world shook and he buried his face in the dirt, sweat pouring off his body. He thought he heard thunder in the distance, though that could not be, for they were deep under the earth. There were many snapping and popping sounds and the smell became unbearable.
Just when Cabriabanus felt certain that he had died and gone to Mortholm, the electricity in the air eased. He felt a cool hand upon the back of his neck and turned his face up. The air had cleared and Mag crouched beside him, steam rising from her blackened body. Her eyes were too large, too dark, too full of strong emotion for him to look into for long. He moved his gaze to the bowl of the mound, filled now with black globes and ashes, and something caught upon his heart, made his breath ragged.
“Come,” she said, voice barely a whisper. “There is still more to be done.”
He wiped the dirt from his face and pulled himself to his feet. He was more than a little shaky. She was blackened from head to toe, but for the sun upon her chest and the stars upon her knees and two streaks of pale flesh from her eyes to her chin. There was an aura around her, an electric storm of deadly energy. He dared not touch her, for the air around her seemed to burn. The magic was strong within her and he did not know if she could control it. She walked down the mound and the trees parted, trembling and whining, desperate not to touch her stormy form. The edges of leaves blackened as she passed and he followed, feeling weak and frightened as a lost kitten. His stomach lurched as he walked behind and when they came to the door she let out a scream that broke not only the ward but the door itself, shattering it, pieces of wood and metal flying into the main chamber.
Maakraig stood on the edge of the water, the golden collar open in his massive hand.