Thursday, 23 February 2017
In Lunis, City of Moons, the Dark Mage, Ragund gazed into the seer bowl and rubbed his hand with glee to witness the rising panic of those trapped forever in their mountain tomb. “Yes, yes, yes,” he hissed, “Try as you might, call upon whom you will, you will not escape.” He spared but a few minutes longer to congratulate himself on the success of a spell older even than the sacred purple mountains themselves before turning his attention elsewhere. “Now, at last, is the hour for which I have strived. Now to show that meddling fool, Astor, that it is I, Ragund, who am the greatest mage of all time. Yes-ssss”, he hissed, “Grater even than he in whom you appear to have rashly placed your trust. Fools! Now, to Gar, and let those pathetic elven wretches defy me if they dare…”
On Ti-gray, Isle of the Dead, five pairs of eyes looked on in horror as the seer bowl in Astor’s trembling hands revealed the plight of those trapped within the mountain.
“What is it, what has happened?” Galia looked to her mother for an explanation, but Etta could only shrug helplessly so she fixed Astor with an accusing glare that did nothing to still his growing disquiet.
“Xaruki,” a grim-faced Astor murmured.
“Xaruki…?” Etta was incredulous, “But Xaruki magic belongs to ancient times. Few know of it and none have possessed the knowledge to practice it in the sum of all our lifetimes.” The grey-green eyes fell upon each of them, one after the other, defying any to contradict her. Legend has it that they worshipped Xu, the fire god. Xu wanted absolute power but Ri was having none of it. There was a great battle. Xu lost and was exiled from the world, left to plot and scheme in vain in the Dark Unknown.”
“In vain indeed, until now perhaps… ” Astor commented drily, unable to finish his sentence, too terrible were the potential consequences to even begin to put into words.
“Father…?” It was no small signal of her inner turmoil that Galia addressed him so.
Astor, ashen faced, turned to Gabriel, “Xaruki magic cannot be undone by any power known to me…or you, I suspect.” All eyes fell on the latter, but if they were hoping for a flat denial, they were in for a frighteningly intense disappointment.
Gabriel sighed. “It is true that Xaruki magic is older even than the mountains. Precious little of how they came by or practised it is known. Some have devoted their lives in search of such knowledge although all have barely scratched the surface, if that, of one of the greater mysteries of all time. Compared to the Xaruki, druids are mere amateurs.” He glanced at Astor and permitted himself a wry grin. Astor, though, was too preoccupied with his own thoughts to even notice.
“Then how…?” Galia began before answering her own question, “Ragund…!” The name rang out in the grim silence like a solemn death knell.
“Yes, Ragund,” Gabriel agreed, “Somehow he has discovered how to create a Xaristra. It is said the Xaruki were able to move mountains. Moving even the most massive rock was child’s play. They would deposit their enemies in a cave or pit with enough food and water to sustain them while they contemplated their fate. Then they would employ magic to command an immovable stone to block the entrance, effectively burying them alive. The stone was known as a Xaristra Stone; it served to remind the tribe not only of its purpose but also the power of it elders. To look with any hint of concern or irreverence upon a Xaristra was seen as an act of betrayal. Some say any who touched one would be struck dead on the spot, their spirit left to wander infinity.”
“Kikiri,” murmured Etta.
“Kikiri,” Gabriel agreed, “Oh, Ragund, you have researched well, burrowing lifetimes, I dare say, for scraps of information, pouring over any clues that came to light, and no one suspecting that even you were capable of so evil a purpose.”
“Purpose…?” Etta echoed, and froze.
“Xaruki sought to control everyone and everything by a magic darker even that which has its epicenter in the City of Moons,” Gabriel continued quietly, “Ragund seeks no less. Water flows again in Mamelon, bringing new life where there has only been parched earth killing its vegetation and all but dried up springs to nourish its people. Only Gar stands between Ragund and supremacy not only over all Mamelon but of the Motherworld also.”
“A fate too horrible even to contemplate,” murmured Galia.
“But contemplate it we must,” insisted Gabriel with force enough to startle Astor out of his trance-like contemplation of recent events along with no little self-reproach for so underestimating his old enemy.
“Even if all of us pool such powers as we have, they are no match for Xaruki magic.” Astor stated categorically.
No one spoke.
“There may yet be a way,” said Gabriel after so long and deep a silence that it became a brief sanctuary of sorts. Here, he found a much welcome respite despite being under siege by thoughts growing darker, to almost pitch blackness, with an ever increasing sense of hopelessness. “There may be yet be a way,” he repeated, slowly and deliberately as if trying to convince himself as to the truth of it, however fragile that truth might prove.
“Impossible!” Astor exclaimed, forgetting for a moment to whom he was speaking, inclining his head apologetically under Gabriel’s steady gaze. But the latter appeared not to notice, his eyes and ears elsewhere.
“Perhaps,” Gabriel conceded in a strange, distant voice, “But we have to try. Xaruki magic may well be as old as the Purple Mountains themselves, but there is a magic that is older still.”
“Elves…!” Etta exclaimed if with significantly less excitement than coursed Galia’s veins.
“Yes, elves,” Gabriel agreed.
“Huh, elves…!” Astor scoffed, “Surely, you are not suggesting that elven magic is any match for Xaruki?”
Gabriel shook his head. “No, but…”
“But…?” Galia prompted, seizing upon a distant hope that Michael and Peter might yet be saved from a slow, painful death.
“Together, perhaps, elven and druid magic…” Gabriel struggled to say, his speech slurred, voice more distant than ever, his whole body straining as if communicating with some inner self.”
Etta froze. He is not real. It is a dream-self we see before us. Dream-selves, as she knew only too well, had their limitations. The others must realize this, surely? At the same time, she knew they did not.
“Elves and druids, are you mad?” Astor thundered, “Besides, you are forgetting that legend has it that a Xaristra can only be removed from within.”
“Legend also has it that it cannot be done,” Nadya pointed out upon rejoining the group. No one had noticed her approach. Moreover, there was something about the way she comported herself besides a discernible inflection in her voice that forbade any mention of Arissa.
“But…” Galia prompted a second time.
“If druid magic and elven can work together…” Gabriel’s melodic voice grew fainter until it trailed away altogether, lost in thought.
He is communicating with his true self, Etta understood although why the others, especially Astor, could not see it was beyond her.
“Ygor is lost to us in case you have forgotten,” Astor snapped, “and good riddance,” he added with feeling, “True, druid powers course the bloodline, but it is not enough to sustain such a task, and well you know it. Even if the elves were to draw upon such ages-old knowledge, the use of it is way beyond the likes of young Pers or…” hesitating a faction before saying Irina’s name.
Both Galia and Nadya sensed a growing tension between the others. Galia glanced intuitively at her mother, remarking that the young-old face wore a strained expression, an infinite sadness she had never seen before.
“Ah, yes, Irina,” Etta echoed quietly, but loud enough for all to hear. “Tell us about Irina, Astor, my once husband and mentor. Tell us how you seduced La-Ri of Gar behind my back, and how Ka-Ri knows not to this day she is your daughter.”
No one spoke.
It was Galia who, carefully avoiding her father’s eye and addressing Gabriel directly, eventually put into words what was in all their minds, “So are you saying that Irina, being of elven and druid stock, can somehow shift the Xaristra?”
Gabriel shook his head. “Alone, no, but with help…possibly, I do not know. I am merely speculating...”
“But what help is there?” Etta asked despairingly, “We have seen how magic has no effect within the tomb. The Xaristra is but an extension of it, after all.”
“Speculation or no, we have to try!” Galia cried, “My children…” she gasped, and promptly burst into tears.
“My son…” Nadya looked pleadingly at Gabriel, “Please, save my son.”
For some time, Gabriel said nothing. At last he appeared to stir as if from a long sleep. “I will do what I can,” he said slowly, “but I must go somewhere quiet and be alone.”
“Then go to the woods from whence I have just come,” said Nadya, “None but the dead wander there, and they will not disturb you.”
Without a word, Gabriel proceeded to retrace the very steps Nadya had taken in order to retrieve her daughter’s body. The further he walked into the woods, the more he became aware of rustling noises; no gentle wind in the trees but the dead, almost certainly observing him as they had done Nadya, wondering, he did not doubt, why any living thing should choose their company.
Why indeed, Gabriel wondered as he reached a pretty glade and sat on a dead tree trunk. He could, after all, have gone anywhere to be alone and attempt the impossible. Why here? Why did she point me here? He had a vague sense of purpose other than for which he had come, but whatever it might be eluded him and he put such thoughts aside, directing all his concentration to the task in hand, dispatching his Tol persona to aid those trapped by the Xaristra.
Try as he might he could not make contact with Tol, through which persona he had kept an oath made long, long, ago to watch over a dying Mamelon and find a way to save it from oblivion. He sighed. Distracted by that meddling she-wolf, Shireen, he had taken his eye off Ragund. “Oh, fool, fool, such a fool am I!” he continued to remonstrate with himself aloud. Had Ragund suspected, he wondered? Had he so underestimated the enemy that he had left himself vulnerable to Ragund’s growing understanding of Xaruki magic? “No, no,” he told the ragged trees, “I would have known. Besides, he would never have permitted me to come thus far…unless…” Could it be he has been toying with me? Fool, fool, you thought yourself inviolable. Instead, you are as ego-led as any Motherworlder!
“Do not be too hard on yourself,” a familiar voice made him to turn his head.
“Arissa…!” he was unable to quite contain his shock.
“Yes, it is I, Arissa. No kikiri or tool of that she-wolf Shireen, but not Arissa as I once was either for she is dead.”
“You can ask that, you who are truly Mage of Mages?”
“You know who I am?”
“I do, of course, and I know it is not your true self I address just as you know it is not Arissa with whom you speak. My spirit is yet young, and thus visible to any with the eyes to see and ears to listen. Time enough yet before I join my companions at the edge of time and become as a rustling of leaves.”
“How is it we can communicate with each other even here on Ti-gray where the dead and the living exist side by side though neither twain shall meet? I am not sure. I can only believe the connection between us is so strong and Mamelon’s need so great that I am given the privilege of aiding you. Either that or my loathing for Shireen fills me with a life-force beyond all knowledge even though I have had my revenge on her, thanks to you. It was you, was it not, giving me strength where I had none, pouring life-force into a kikiri that was no more than a skeletal abomination?”
“I did what I could.”
“Oh, and you could have done more, much more, saved me even. But what is done is done. As it is, you saved me from a fate far worse than mere death, and I am come to repay the debt. Tol is thwarted by that old fox, Ragund, but even Xaruki magic is no match for the dead. I will be the vehicle by which you may access your Tol persona. Draw upon my spirit, and take from the forces that sustain it what you will while you still can. You do not need me to tell you that time is not on your side.”
“I must work alone. What little I know of Xaruki magic suggests it does not respond well to more than one life force at a time.”
Arissa gave a little laugh. “Alone you are, old man, for the dead do not count as a life force in any lore. Now, do what must be done and do it now. Even as we speak, I fear we may be too late.
Gabriel gravely inclined his head. Her words rang frighteningly true, and who better than the dead to know how time takes no one’s side but its own?
He did not hesitate again.
Slowly but surely, Gabriel proceeded to assimilate Arissa’a spirit into his own life force. He could feel all opposition, whatever its nature, Xaruki or otherwise, being swept aside, enabling him, finally, to make contact with his elusive Tol persona, lend his voice to it and freely feed its instructions into the minds of Calum, Michal, Irina and Bethan, his own beloved daughter simultaneously. It will be enough, surely? Between them, they can summon magic beyond even their own understanding and knowledge. Even so, to fail would mean…
Failure, though, was something he dare not consider.
Denied all means of escape, the climbers within the mountain’s darkening heart did battle, each in their own way, with various demons of which easily the more powerful was terror.
In vain, Ricci searched his mind, but of Astor there was no sign.
By now, all were perched precariously on the same shelf of rock. “I’m going to take a look,” Fred suddenly announced, “Don’t attempt to follow me. I am smaller and faster than any of you. The mountain is my home. I know it as well as I know the eyes in my head, and it knows me. I will come to no harm and will be back before you know it.” Before anyone could argue or object, the little Foss set off again, scampering here, feeling his way there, until he was invisible to naked eyes peering anxiously from below, heart in mouths opening and shutting like doors on their hinges in a strong breeze. Only, there was no breeze and the air supply was draining fast.
Once at the top of the shaft, Fred gave a half-hearted push, with no expectation of shifting whatever it was sealing the exit. Desperation alone lent him the illusion of greater strength than he had as he kept pushing and heaving only to keep falling back exhausted and in tears. One more, no more, and then I might as well die in company than alone. Oh, fool of a Foss to think you could actually be of any help. More out of despair than hope, he gave the obstruction a weak, token tap and braced himself to rejoin the others with the bad news they were all expecting.
All at once, with no warning, as if my some magic, a tiny crack appeared through which trickled a trickle of reddish-brown mist that became a steady stream as the crack widened until large enough for a little Foss to clamber through.
Free! Taking deep breaths of murky mountain air, Fred would have danced a little jig had he not lost his footing, taken a tumble, and almost plunged headlong into space. He lay quite still while his eyes took in what they could of his surroundings, lying precariously as he was on a narrow ledge, nothing above, below or in front of him but mist. Shakily, he rose and pressed against the mountain wall. He could hear voices. The others would, of course, have seen the light and taken fresh hope. Hope, what hope? I can barely see paw in front of face so what chance any of us, even Foss, of descending a mountain and living to tell the tale?
“Oh, dear me, not a pretty sight, I’ll say,” Ricci’s head appeared. There was, however no room for two on the ledge. Master, master, where are you? But from Astor there was no word.
Meanwhile, the clinging mist was already turning unbearably cold.
Monday, 20 February 2017
On Ti-gray, Isle of the Dead, Astor, Gabriel, and Nadya were joined by Etta and Galia. Astor tossed a questioning glance at Gabriel who appeared not to notice.
“Is it really you?” Etta addressed Gabriel as the two embraced like old friends.
“I don’t understand,” Galia confronted her father, “What is a Keeper’s father doing here?”
“Let mind and spirit travel back many, many, lifetimes, daughter and you will understand. I will join you so you do not lose your way.”
“I don’t need your help,” Galia snapped.
“Oh, but you do, daughter, you do. You are of the Motherworld now. Like it or not, your powers are a trifle diminished even here in your homeland. Now, do not argue but let mind and spirit be guided by mine.”
Galia knew better than to resist and reluctantly did as she was told. When she next appraised Gabriel, it was with undisguised awe and reverence.
“Good.” Astor was satisfied that the feisty spirit he so loved and admired in her would, for now at least, consent to be led rather than go its own way regard.
In Lunis, City of Moons, Ragund peered earnestly into the seer bowl at the little group, quite unable to repress his delight. “Ah, now I have you, all of you. None shall leave the mountain alive. I, alone, will rule Mamelon with no interference from that fool, Astor. Call upon your mentor in vain, my dear Ricci. Come, what are you waiting for? Enter the Passage of Infinity at your peril. He cannot help you, no one can. Yes, yes. Climb, climb, and the mountain shall be your tomb.” He would have rubbed his hands with glee had it not been necessary to hold the seer bowl with both hands to prevent losing his grip as it began to shake violently. Nonplussed, it took all his powers to keep hold of the bowl. Indeed, it seemed to him as if he were wrestling with demons. Or what, exactly… But he chose to put the half-thought aside rather than confront the sole means by which he might yet be thwarted in his desire for power beyond imagination. Mamelon, yes, and the Motherworld, too, once I control the Water of Life. The possibilities are endless…endless.
The seer bowl shook so violently that, yet again, it took all his strength to prevent its falling to the ground
Nadya started as a familiar cacophony caused her to turn her head, “Why summon them?” She looked to Astor for an explanation. The few glucks, all that remained of the weird, ostrich-like species since others of their kind had perished in the coppery skies above Mamelon, managed to convey a certain dignity despite their absurd appearance.
It was Gabriel who answered, “They will be needed sooner than you or they know, and stand ready to perform a vital rescue mission. Is that not so, Iggy?”
The lead gluck inclined its head.
Shireen, in the body of Arissa, knew at once that she must leave. The thunderous sound of rushing water was too close for comfort. Radik was already climbing. For all the good it will do him.
She summoned her dream-self from Lunis, City of Moons and prepared to regain her natural form.
Radik’s fate was of little or no concern to her although she had enjoyed their time together. The krill leader was an incredible lover whereas the same could not be said for Ragund whose paltry advances she endured only as a means to an end. He was a great mage, after all, and she had learned much under his tutelage. More than you know, my Ragund. She could not resist a sly chuckle for thinking how she had learned to draw upon his magic powers without his suspecting a thing. Blind fool, you think I could love you? Huh. in your dreams old man!
Poised to make the transition, she became suddenly aware that something was wrong, very wrong. Instinctively she turned.
The kikiri that had once been Arissa stood perfectly still, fixing the source of her worst living nightmares with a steady, determined, gaze.
“No, this cannot be!” Shireen shrieked, “Away, you have no place here!” It was unheard of in all the annals of magic since the beginning of time for a kikiri to approach, let alone confront, its creator.
Confront Shireen, though, the kikiri did, with unrelenting malice.
How can this be? This thing, this kikiri, it has no feelings. Yet, the loathing exuding from the skeletal figure was almost tangible. Shireen began to panic. Desperately, she tried to enact the customary fluid-like bonding with her dream-self that somehow remained present and ominously static. This, too, was unheard of. For kikiri, an adopted persona and true self to be present at one and the same time was…Impossible!
Now incredulous, now fearful, Shireen struggled to make sense of what was happening. I must return, I must, and yet… I CANNOT. Fear turned to abject terror as the kikiri persisted in its advance; not once did it falter even as the ghastly triumvirate came together; kikiri and the twin selves of the erstwhile consort to mage and krill. Shireen made a last ditch attempt to save herself. “Ragund!” she cried aloud across time and space, but whether he did not hear or did not choose to hear, she would never know. Even as the three merged into one with the roar of water gushing forth, a final thought pursued the paltry remains of her consciousness. Who, how….? But it was already too late for Shireen to catch the mocking response. Where three had merged into one, there was only a rush of water such as none in Mamelon had barely dared hope to ever see again, making good its escape, dashing like a wild beast from a cage, its brave heart bursting with a rage to live free, answerable only to nature.
Meanwhile, in Lunis, City of Moons, Ragund has been pacing Shireen’s apartments for some while, searching in vain for his long-time consort. Suddenly, he sensed another’s unseen presence and slowly, surely, almost (but not quite) fearfully put a name to it. “You…!” he hissed, “You have done this to me, to us. But I am not the apprentice I once was. I am not that fool, Ricci. You will not defeat me, Astor, nor will you crush me, try as you might.”
How had Astor acquired such power?
It took Ragund only a moment to find an answer, during which time the fear-like sensation he had scornfully put aside transmuted first into incredulity before - for the first time in any lifetime - the fear became real, real and terrible. Awful as it was, the feeling quickly passed to be replaced by a rush of resolve not to be outdone; it raged through him much as the Sea of Marmela was furiously regaining its rightful place as heart and soul of Mamelon. “I am not finished yet!” he screamed, “Mamelon may feed on living water again, but it is nothing, NOTHING, without daylight, and there I have the edge. We shall see what we shall see…”
Still ranting, the fox made a mad dash for the comparative safety of his own den.
“You would use the glucks to return them all safely from the mountain? Etta asked Gabriel directly. She did not need to be told that it was not Astor who was in charge of events.
“Not all,” murmured Astor.
“Ah, yes,” Etta thought she understood and her thoughts flew to Bethan, Keeper. “They will be safe here if it can be done.”
“You doubt it?” Again, it was Astor who spoke.
“Not here,” Gabriel said slowly, “Their paths lie elsewhere as they surely will for each of us, once what is done is done,” he added cryptically, “Ri willing, the dead shall reclaim Ti-gray for their own while the living must find their own way which is as it should be.”
“And Heron, Arissa…what will become of my children?” Nadya demanded.
“Your children…!” Galia could conceal neither surprise nor excitement. “I have grandchildren?”
“Heron and Arissa…?” Nadya answered her mother without taking her eyes off Gabriel.
“Go, Nadya, and take a walk into yonder woods,” Gabriel told her, and his expression was enough to send her running.
Galia and Astor looked to Gabriel for an explanation.
“Not all,” Gabriel repeated, “There will be price to pay if Mamelon is truly to live again.”
“A sacrifice…” Astor muttered darkly.
“Indeed,” Etta agreed, close to tears.
“Sacrifice..? Yes, well, whatever, Mamelon has to be worth saving at any price.”
“Agreed…” responded Etta and Astor almost reverently.
As one, the thoughts of all three flew to Bethan whose duty it was to remain within the mountain, never to stray far from the Tomb of the Creator as had been a Keeper’s destiny since the beginning of time. In unison, too, their gaze flew pityingly to Gabriel whose daughter it was would be required to make the sacrifice.
They had no way of even suspecting that Gabriel’s thoughts were elsewhere.
“When can we expect them in Ti-Gray?” Galia asked.
“Not Ti-Gray, Gar. If salvation there is to be, it lies with elves in the Forest of Gar,” said Gabriel, his voice distant, his whole demeanor trance-like as if he were experiencing a premonition of sorts.
The Fire Tree… Etta and Astor grasped the implication immediately but said nothing, hoping to spare Galia.
Galia, though, was no fool. Her beautiful face turned suddenly grey and etched with the agony only a mother can know when he fears for her child.
No one spoke. Astor groaned with unexpected pain as he finally understood the purpose bringing young Peter, his grandson, to Mamelon.
Three pairs of eyes turned on Gabriel if not quite accusingly nor entirely absent of recrimination.
“Is there no other way?” Galia fixed Gabriel with a pleading look that touched all their hearts.
Before Gabriel could frame a reply, however, they were distracted by the sudden reappearance of Nadya, emerging from nearby woodlands bearing the lifeless body of Arissa in her arms. She passed them without a word, barely looking to either left or right except to glance briefly at Gabriel Thank you, her weak, grateful smile spoke for her. Even in her grief, she was relieved beyond measure to find Arissa restored to her true self. The customary fate of kikiri was too unbearable for even the most stoic imagination to contemplate. She, too, realized that it was beyond even Astor’s powers to achieve the impossible, finding no small comfort for knowing that, whatever lay ahead, Ragund had almost certainly met his match.
Gabriel sensed their confidence in him, and could only wish it was well-placed. As it was, he had no idea how the elves would respond to the task they faced or whether La-Ri and Ka-Ri could convince even themselves that what had to be done must be done for all their sakes. In his mind’s eye, he summoned the image of the red-haired Motherworld boy, Peter, and brushed away a tear.
The climb was slow, and taking its toll on the little company in more ways than one. Now exhausted and dispirited, now determined to press on no matter what, they sought foothold after foothold, gradually ascending the gloomy chimney. For what seemed an age, the glimmer of coppery sky above seemed no closer; if anything farther away than ever. .
Only Ricci and Fred found the going relatively easy their size allowing them to use the tiny shelves of rock as a kind of stairway, leaping nimbly from one to the other. Even they, though, needed to rest occasionally on the widely spaced broader shelves. At such times, an affinity began to develop between the seemingly ill-matched pair that took both by surprise and in which each took comfort bordering on a sense of camaraderie.
“Where is your home?” Fred asked during one such respite.
The question took Ricci by surprise, not least because he was at a loss for what to answer. “I have no home,” he confessed sheepishly, “That is to say, no real home. I live at my master’s calling, to do as he asks and go when and wherever he may choose to send me.”
“I would hate that,” the Foss pulled a comic expression that made Ricci smile. “There, you see. You can do it if you try.”
“Smile, of course. That is the first time I have seen you smile. You always look so…lost.”
His choice of words upset Ricci whose immediate reaction was to be defensive. “I am apprentice to Astor, the greatest of all mages, and I have never been lost in my life.”
“Being lost is not good,” Fred remarked, “but feeling lost is as bad if not worse,” he added more intuitively than Ricci would have believed.
Ricci shrugged, lost for words, unprepared for what was a more astute observation that he would have cared to admit. After a considered pause, during which his previous ambivalence towards the other swung from open hostility to begrudging affinity, Ricci was about to open up to the little Foss, in a way he had never permitted himself before to anyone, when the gloom in which they perched suddenly assumed a significantly darker, eminently more forbidding quality; even the phosphorescent glow emanating from the rock surrounds had dimmed significantly.
Instinctively, both peered upwards. Where a hint of bracken sky had persistently urged them on, there was nothing; it was if a lid had been placed over the mountain shaft, sealing all means of escape.
Yells from below might have been the mountain itself expressing, in turn, its rage, terror and despair culminating in a deathly silence.
Ragund, was Ricci’s first thought. “We are trapped,” he managed to say, all but choking on every word, his throat dry with the sheer horror of it all. Master, master, where are you? Help us… But from Astor there was only an ear-splitting silence. He glanced at his companion, hoping for, but not in truth expecting a denial, reassurance, anything but the sickening despair that gripped him in its strangle-hold.
But the mountain-born Foss could not speak for tears.
Some distance below, the others struggled to regain a sense of calm after their initial panic.
“Where is it, what has happened to the sky?” Pers spoke for them all.
“It feels like someone has just re-sealed the tomb, only this time it is ours,” said Heron, struggling no less than the others to stay positive and failing miserably.
“I’m scared,” Pete was the first to admit, glad of a comforting hug from Mick that, at any other time, he would have shrunk from on principle.
“It is as I feared,” said Beth, but in her Bethan persona, instinctively sensing that its substitution of her Earth self was almost complete. Neither consciously nor subconsciously did she feel the familiar if inconstant need to keep resisting the change. For once, perhaps even for the first time, she felt in control. Hers had been no passive surrender but the result of a gradual process of acquiescence, although to quite what, exactly, there remained a lingering doubt. She felt confused, yet less so than she would have thought. Moreover, her spirits rose unexpectedly as she felt compelled to catch the eye of first Irina and then Heron, who had been supporting Michal, clearly the most fatigued by their climb. Finally, her gaze fell on Calum, her heart skipping several beats as it always did whenever she saw the way he was looking at her now; if she had nursed any lingering doubts that Mamelon’s Ruler-in-Waiting returned her love, these were instantly obliterated by the force of emotion that passed between them. Both collected themselves almost at once, but not before Heron and Michal had glimpsed the brief exchange and silently wished them well.
Heron, for his part, acknowledged a similar flood of emotion coursing mind, body, and spirit, returning a smile that spoke volumes as the elf-girl, Irina, reached for his hand and squeezed it tightly.
The five exchanged meaningful looks, simultaneously aware of the same voice, kindly yet authoritative at the same time; advising, no instructing them.
It was Tol.
Friday, 17 February 2017
In Lunis, City of Moons, Ragund, the Dark Mage gazed into the seer bowl and rubbed his hands with glee. “Fools, they have entered the tomb, but they will not exit! Let them try magic and they will see how Ragund can match spell for spell. There is no escape. Already, the Sea of Marmela courses the veins of Mamelon once again. Much will be purified by the remains of our once abundant plant life along the way, and who better to control its replenished reservoirs but its supreme Ruler. So, the Spring of Life is a myth, eh? Fools, they do not suspect, and will never know the truth of it. The secret of eternal life will be mine, mine, and mine alone! He gazed critically at gnarled palms outstretched as if bestowing a blessing, “And youth, that also will be mine again. Mine and one other….” He ran to an adjacent suite of chambers and proceeded to hammer with his fists on the main entrance door, crying excitedly, “Shireen, my love, my life, come!” She would often ignore him, he was used to that, but on this occasion he became angry. “Shireen, come, I have need of you!” he called again.’
Again, there was no response.
“Shireen!” he fumed, “Come, I command you!” But nothing, only a curiously ominous sillence….
“What is that noise?” Shireen asked Radik, “It sounds like…”
“Water, it is water!” the Krill leader shouted ecstatically and performed a lively jig until a contemptuous sneer from his companion brought him to a sharp, sheepish, not to mention ungainly halt. “So, what now…?”
Shireen hesitated, uncharacteristically unnerved. The mad, rushing sound was becoming louder. She had not divined this. I must return to my true self at once or I shall drown here. She closed her eyes. I must not panic, there is plenty of time. Without sparing g Radik a passing thought, she concentrated all her life force upon the dream-self left to its own devices in Lunis, City of Moons. It was a simple, straightforward exchange she had enacted without the slightest difficulty more times than she cared to remember. Whether or not her dream-self would be of any help to Radik, she had no way of knowing, although she genuinely hoped so. She would miss Radik if he drowned for she had plans for them both. Oh, such plans…
The Here and Now, however, was neither the time nor the place to speculate. Eyes tightly closed, Shireen willed herself back to Lunis. Her will, though, was thwarted. Her eyes flew open of their own accord. What, the…?
It was Radik who spotted the kikiri first. Shireen saw where he pointed and gasped in disbelief, releasing a ghastly cackle of mixed emotions that unnerved even Radik. This cannot be. No, no, no, it is impossible. No kikiri ever sought out or confronted its creator. It is a bad dream, nothing more. She closed her eyes again and concentrated on the dream-self pacing the richly carpeted floor of her bed-chamber as if sensing something was wrong, terribly wrong.
The kikiri drew near, an expression of malignant intent in bead-like eyes, the only animated aspect of its skeletal face. Yet, its very existence should have denied it so much as a flicker of emotion even under extreme provocation.
Help, it has help, but from where, and from whom? Swallowing hard, Shireen struggled to allay a growing terror and make the exchange. In her mind’s eye, she made visual contact again with her dream-self easily enough, but that was all as any attempt at entering it and thereby initiating the exchange proved fruitless. Attack, she decided was the only alternative left open to her. Even as she braced herself to do battle, the sound of water, roaring now like a charging lion, homed in on them ever closer.
“What shall we do?” Radik, too, was engaged in a battle royal of his own as he began to panic, an act of last resort unheard of among Krills since the beginning of time. Frantically, he looked to Shireen, but she was preoccupied with the kikiri, so he took the only possible course.
Radik began to climb.
Shireen summoned all her powers and confronted the approaching kikiri with a look that would have made an advancing army turn tail and run.
The kikiri did not falter.
Straining to sustain the presence of magic and focus directly it on the kikiri that had once been Arissa, she of the bloodline, Shireen felt her energies begin slowly but surely to ebb away. She will absorb me! “No, No, it cannot, must not be!” she screamed, “Fiendish thing, how is this possible? Who are you? Kikiri you seem, kikiri you are, but there is more to you than I created. What are you? Who or what aids you that dares to challenge me?”
“Who dares, wins,” a mocking voice whispered in her ear. At first she thought it was Tol, but realized her mistake almost at once. A truth, long dormant in the minds of any in Mamelon for successive lifetimes, suddenly dawned. In that same instance, the kikiri entered her body as if it were passing through a door.
Even above the lion’s roar, Radik heard the awful shriek, and looked down from where he struggled to find a foothold. What he saw made him lose his grip and caused him to tumble into the torrent of water that suddenly erupted from the entrance to what he assumed must be the Tomb of the Creator. Even as he thrashed out and tried to save himself, he saw Shireen literally evaporate before his eyes. Where she had stood, there was no sign of her or the kikiri. A strong swimmer, he went through the motions but accepted it was useless even before he succumbed to the drag of the current and lost consciousness.
In Lunis, City of Moons, Ragund used magic to enter Shireen’s apartments, something they had each vowed never to do at the very start of their relationship. Even so, he had attempted it once, but had been able to penetrate a succession of well-placed wardings. She had always conceded he was the greater mage while he had to acknowledge the extent of female cunning beyond his comprehension. “We make a fine pair,” he had told her more than once. “A fine pair, indeed,” he murmured aloud as he continued to search.
Is it hers… he wondered, this hand, as cold as ice, pressing against my heart as if trying to warn me? “Warn me of what, of whom?” he demanded aloud of a painting of Michal the Great and his consort, Galia, hanging upside down on a near wall.
But the painting made no answer and Shireen no appearance.
Members of the little gathering in the tomb-like gut of the mountain carefully avoided meeting each other’s eyes as they sought a clue to their survival, wrestling bravely with hope, fear and despair in turn.
“Can you not use magic to get us out of here?” Ricci pleaded with Etta,
The magela shook her head. “I have tried, but it would appear the mountain has no fondness for magic since it thwarts me at every turn.”
Ricci sighed and lapsed into a deep sulk.
Beth searched her mind for Tol, but he was nowhere to be found. Calum instinctively understanding the reason for her tenseness, said nothing so as not to distract her. It had occurred to him also that Tol might aid them.
Irina’s imagination returned her safely to the succulent evergreen that was the Forest of Gar where she and Heron walked hand in hand, gazing adoringly into the very eyes each now avoided. She sighed. Having never been in love before, the irony was not lost upon her that a tomb was not the best place to acknowledge her feelings. Besides, she had no way of knowing for sure if Heron felt the same way. Even so, his hand in hers was reassuring and she had no intention of letting go.
“Daughter, daughter, have you really no idea of how we can escape this place?” Etta tugged gently at Galia’s arm.
“Mother…?” Calum and Mick exclaimed simultaneously, “But that makes you…”
“I am your grandmother, yes,” Etta agreed, a stiff smile relaxing, thus returning her briefly to her old, ageless self.
“Oh, my goodness, but this is no place for family reunions, I’ll say” Ricci commented to no one in particular.
Meanwhile, Calum experienced a sharp, excruciating stab of pain that made his head swim and vision blur. One hand lifted of its own accord; he had no control over it. The other hand remained in Beth’s tightening grip as she, too, experienced a mind-blowing sensation beyond human understanding. Somehow, Calum’s hand in hers had established a live connection of sorts other than with her…but with what or whom, she could not, dare not even guess. Terrified, she managed to stay calm, sensing a weird affinity with whatever forces were at work, and that they required her to stay calm if only for Mulac’s benefit. Calum, not Mulac, she corrected herself over and over, and it helped.
The right arm above Calum’s head swung violently to the left with such suddenness that he almost lost his balance, stumbling as he swung on his heels, saved from falling only by Beth’s surefooted stance and tightening grip on his left hand until its knuckles turned white. At the same time, he could not restrain a yelp, much like an animal in pain, as his forefinger almost jumped out of its socket and hit the roof. There it remained, stuck, as if pointing, But at what? His vision began to clear. He spotted a large square panel that no one had noticed, presumably because it was only a shade lighter than the others. Instantly, his vision cleared altogether although it took a few moment before he realized he had regained control of his arm. He continued to point, however, his fingertip identifying the panel. “Can you see it?” he called to the others.
“See what?” a chorus of mystified voices answered him.
“I see it,” Beth said in a voice so alien and strained, she might have been a stranger in their midst. As it was, she felt herself in the grip of something horrible, as if her body had been invaded by some alien presence. At the same time, she thought she heard a familiar voice in one ear and sensed the presence was telling her it meant no harm, and she must not panic. Instantly, she relaxed.
Simultaneously, Mulac’s free arm fell to his side. “It’s gone! The panel, it’s gone! It was a way out, I know it. I just know it,” he repeated as if to reassure himself he had not been dreaming. “What the…?” he started as Beth released his hand and left him feeling acutely vulnerable. The reason why then hit him with all the force and cacophony of a thunderclap. I love her. As Mulac, he had become resigned to loving the motherworld female. As Calum, he had been less sure, questioning not his feelings for her but any likelihood that whatever future awaited him could possibly include a Keeper. Now he was sure. Somehow, they would forge a future together. That it was not his decision alone quite escaped him for the moment. His elation was such that even having lost sight of the all-important panel could not dampen his spirits especially as her words hit home. “You see it?”
By way of a response, Beth brushed past him, placed both hands on the panel that stood out from all the others and gently pushed.
The others watched with bated breath as she cautiously felt for whatever was required to shift the slab. Come on, come on, MOVE, damn you, she pleaded silently. As if by way of a response, the stone slid away, the instant one fingertip lightly touched a button invisible to the naked eye.
Everyone looked up a vast, narrow, square chimney where, high above, a patch of reddish-blue sky was greeted with cries of relief and amazement.
Spirits easily raised, though, were just as easily dampened. “We cannot be expected to climb that!” Ricci stated categorically, and there were murmurs of agreement.
“Perhaps if you climb on my shoulders and take a closer look, you will have a better idea of what we face?” Calum suggested.
Beth wasted no time doing just that. The greater part of her body now within the chimney’s dark confines, she was able to make out grooves in the stone just wide enough to provide footholds. These, however, occupied only one side of the chimney. There were similar grooves, but more widely spaced on the opposite side. They would need to ease their way to the top with backs pressed to one side while their feet sought the grooves to further their progress. She sighed. The wider spaced grooves would provide occasional rest, it was true, but the task facing them was daunting to say the least.
“Surely, there must be another way? Can’t someone use magic? Isn’t that what you people do?” Ricci glared accusingly at first Etta and then Galia. It crossed his mind that elves, too, had magic, but even his own powers were greater than theirs so he paid them no attention.
“Do you think we haven’t tried?” Etta snapped, “Magic clearly has no place here.”
“So Galia and Mulac find an escape route by chance? I think not. You used magic, yes?” his expression plainly defying first one and then the other to deny it.
“Not magic, no…” said Galia slowly as if searching her mind for an explanation that was not forthcoming.
Calum helped Beth down, each appreciating the other’s closeness.
Beth was still getting used to this new Mulac. He was gentler, as decisive and authoritative as ever but more…considerate of others. Yes, that’s the word I want, considerate. Their eyes met as he swung her to the ground. She started, and quickly looked away. She had seen love in them, yes, but also fear. Mulac would have died before betraying any hint that he was afraid of anything or anyone. Only then did she begin to appreciate the enormity of his situation. If she was finding it hard to shake off Mulac, how much harder must it be for him? Concentrate on the matter in hand, woman, just concentrate. She was only too glad of the distraction, promptly followed her own advice and explained the task ahead. “There are grooves hewn into the rock on one side, shallow, but sufficient for a foothold. We will need to climb horizontally with our backs to the opposite wall where there appear to be well-spaced shelves where at least one person may rest from time to time.”
“Impossible, Ricci exclaimed, “It cannot be done. Even if we were to succeed without breaking our necks, what then? What goes up has to find a way down. Do I have to remind everyone that we are at the mercy of a mountain? If we cannot rely on magic to alleviate either ascent or descent, we might as well lie down and die now, I’ll say.”
“Perhaps, but we have to try,” said Irina.
“Do we have a choice?” Heron shrugged.
“We can do it, I know we can. The mountain is not finished with us yet nor is Mamelon,” Pete piped up with conviction, taking everyone by surprise for he had said little for some time and they assumed it was because he was so young and more easily frightened by what had been a terrifying turn of events by any standards. Intuitively, the red haired Motherworlder spoke up again. “I’m not afraid, and neither should you be. You’re thinking I’m just a kid and hasn’t a clue. Well, I’m thinking you are all old enough to know better. Where’s your spunk, eh?”
“Spunk…?” Fred required an explanation.
“Spirit, courage,” said Mick, “My little brother thinks we have lost ours.”
Out of the mouths of babes, thought Galia and would have given her youngest an approving hug had she not been otherwise preoccupied..
“The boy is right,” Heron agreed.
“We elves are good climbers,” said Pers, “I suggest Irina and I go first. Hopefully, the rest of you will feel encouraged to follow.
“Nu-gen, too, are good climbers,” said Calum, “and I will go last, if only to catch anyone who may fall,” he added with a grin.
“Not a good idea,” Heron was quick to point out. “Let’s face it. You are the most important person here. What if you fell and there was no one to save you?”
“I will not fall,” Calum protested. The two confronted each other, neither with any inkling they were related. Calum was the first to falter, forced as he was to acknowledge what still struck him as an unpalatable truth. Yes, I am the most important person here. He glanced at Bethan as if to contradict himself. No one but he discerned her answering nod, barely perceptible, but enough to tell him that, while she understood and sympathized with his dilemma, she agreed with Heron.
“The Foss and I will go first,” Ricci spoke up unexpectedly and with more confidence than he was feeling. “It makes sense,” he went on. “We are the smallest so likely to reach the top first. Once there, we may be able to assist any others. The chances are some of you will be exhausted by then.” He went to the chimney and peered into the imposing void. “It will not be easy for any of us. Not without some help…” he added silently, hoping Astor was aware of their circumstances and would oblige as only he could.
“A good idea, well spoken,” Calum agreed.
Meanwhile, attention was so focused on this exchange that no one noticed Etta take her daughter’s arm and draw her aside, whispering gently but earnestly as she did no. “We must leave, daughter, and leave now.”
“Oh, yes? You have a broomstick made for two, do you?” murmured Galia unable to resist resorting to sarcasm, the notion was too preposterous for words.
“I am a mage, dear, not a witch,” Etta responded with such indignation that Gail was hard pressed not to laugh.
“How then do we leave? We both know magic is impotent on this awful place.”
“Ours, yes, yours and mine, but there is another who is come to aid us all and might yet help us defeat that devil, Ragund.”
Etta hastily put a finger to her lips. “Never speak the name, child, for walls have ears, even in this dreadful place. Ragund has only to look into his accursed bowl and chance to read our lips although I dare say he, too, shares our suspicions.”
“That may well be, Mother, but whatever he of whom we speak has in mind, it cannot involve me. I will not leave my children.”
And grandchildren, Etta mused for an instant, but had long since resolved to say nothing of Heron and Arissa’s parentage to Galia, for now at least. She wondered what had befallen the latter and had a bad feeling about her fate although there was something else she could not divine of Nadya’s daughter…something, almost…reassuring… although she could not fathom why it should be so. “It is for the sake of your children and all Mamelon that we must leave,” Etta whispered, a note of growing urgency in her voice to which Galia was not entirely immune.
“I cannot, will not leave, Galia repeated, “Besides, how…?”
Etta detected a curiosity in the other that would serve her purpose well. “We must give ourselves up to nothingness and he of whom we spoke will do the rest.”
“That’s absurd,” Galia retorted, but will noticeably less forcefulness.“Perhaps, but shall we try it and see…?”
“I can’t,” Galia protested, “I won’t…”
“You must.” Etta swallowed her mounting frustration and spoke calmly but convincingly, as only she could, “For your children, Galia, for Mamelon, and let us not forget a certain Holy Seer who waits patiently in the Motherworld for the return of his family.”
“Timon…!” It was then, incredibly, in that womb-tomb where magic had no place, she heard his voice in her ear as clear as Etta’s. Do as she says, my love, and put your trust in Etta or I fear our sacrifice will be in vain.”
“Alright, Mother, you win”. It was only on the very edge of Nothingness that one word found its mark. Sacrifice, what sacrifice? But the moment passed before she could consider its significance. Nothingness was already swallowing her whole...mind body and spirit.
“It is decided then,” Heron was saying, “Irina will go first and I will bring up the rear.
“Very well,” Calum agreed, “and where will you place yourself, Mother, and Etta?” He turned to where the two had been huddled together in conversation pitched so low that no one had paid any attention. His jaw dropped. The others followed his gaze and gasped in one breath.
Etta and Galia were gone, leaving not a trace behind to testify they had ever been present.