The Perilous Realm Online, Part Nineteen

The Perilous Realm Book One: The Endless Road

CHAPTER NINETEEN

The fortress was filled with a stony silence, broken only by the echo of their own footsteps and the distant moan of the wind in the towers above.

Soon they came to a broad landing where a sunbeam filled with swirling dust motes slanting down from an embrasure high on the wall. Three corridors branched off from here, one each to the right and left, and one straight ahead. Following the archer, they took the left-hand passage, which Pendrake said had been sealed off by stones the last time he had been here. This corridor led, after a short distance, to a descending staircase which took them further and further from the light, until at last Will and his friends were feeling their way warily through a low-roofed tunnel in a gloomy twilight that grew thicker by the moment.

The toymaker brought out his lantern and on they went, descending ever deeper. It was colder here than in the citadel above. Soon they had their cloaks wrapped tightly around them.

They walked on and came eventually to a widening of the tunnel, where the roof rose higher above them. From time to time Morrigan sped on ahead into the tunnel and returned to alight on Moth’s shoulder. Each time she reported that there was nothing ahead but further darkness and silence.

After some time they heard the steady dripping of water, and saw rivulets trickling down the walls. The rough stone floor beneath their feet became more uneven, and in places held small pools. At one point Pendrake halted and raised his lantern higher. By its light they saw that the stone roof over their heads was riven by a great crack. Within it a vein of dark blueish ice gleamed. The light rippled and darted across its wet surface.

“We’re underneath the glacier now,” Pendrake said. “There are hundreds of feet of solid ice above our heads.”

They went on without speaking. The floor began to slope upward. The trickles of meltwater increased and joined together into a stream that ran down a kind of trough in the middle of the tunnel floor. After they had struggled uphill for some time, Will noticed that the ice above them was glowing with its own pale radiance. He nudged Rowen and they gazed in awe at the colours overhead, most often vivid shades of blue and green, but also violet, gold and burnished silver. As they walked, the colours constantly changed and blended and seemed to flow.

“It’s like the Northern Lights,” Will said to Rowen. “We see them sometimes at night, in the sky, where I live.”

She had never seen such a thing and had difficulty understanding what he meant.

A short time later they came out of the tunnel into a huge, vaulted cavern, roofed with ice and supported by massive columns of stone. Along the walls carved staircases rose to higher galleries, from which other passageways branched off into blackness and stony silence.

Before them, filling most of the cavern, lay a wide pool. Its surface was rippled by the innumerable drops of water falling from above. The ever-changing light filtering through the ice played through the cavern so that it glowed and glittered like a palace of gemstones. The light also fell in many shafts on the pool, casting rippling reflections like ghostly dancers upon the walls.

Morrigan soared up high, circled the cavern and returned to report that there were many smaller chambers and halls branching off this one.

“This wasn’t a refuge,” said Finn, gazing up in wonder. “It was a city.”

“But they abandoned it,” Rowen added, and Will was alarmed to see how pale and strained her face looked.

“My people are not fond of enclosed places,” Moth said. “It’s clear that many lived here, but I would think that over the years more and more of them left to join the Green Court. Until these halls became so lonely that no one wished to stay.”

“Listen,” Pendrake said, raising his hand. They all went still and heard faint flute-like sounds ringing in the air, some low and some high, harmonizing with one another.

“Wind in the ice tunnels,” Moth said. “This was their music.”

A gallery ran around the pool on one side, and Will and his friends followed it until they came to the entrance of another tunnel. Reluctantly they left the music and light of the great chamber and plunged back into darkness.

After a brief time they came to another chamber, smaller than the first, but lit in the same way from above by light filtering through the ice. Here they found recesses in the stone walls, deep alcoves filled with ice, and with something else. Rowen paused at one of the recesses, leaned forward, then drew back with a sharp intake of breath.

“There’s someone in there,” she whispered. The rest of the company quickly gathered around. Within the ice stood a figure in scarred and dinted silver armour tarnished almost black, its arms folded across its chest and its hands gripping the hilt of a broken sword. A young man with long raven-black hair. His eyes were closed and his head rested slightly to one side, as though he was sleeping.

“Is he dead?” Rowen asked shakily.

“Yes, and has been for a very long time,” Moth said. He raised a hand to touch the glass-like surface of the ice tomb. “He was one of my people. The inscriptions on his armour tell me so.”

They turned to inspect the nearby recesses and found other Shee in them as well, men and women. Each of them, like the first ice-entombed figure they had seen, could have been a sleeper who might waken at any moment.

“Let us pass on and disturb them no further,” Moth said.

They prepared to move on, but Will turned back to see that Rowen had slumped down beside one of the tombs. At his shout they all gathered around her. She looked up at them and Will was startled to see the terror in her eyes.

“Is it the arrow wound, Rowen?” Pendrake asked as he helped her to her feet.

“Can’t you see them, Grandfather?” she breathed.

“The warriors in the ice? Yes. We’ve all seen them.”

“No, the others,” she said urgently. “They’re all around us.”

Pendrake studied her. There was a look of pain in his eyes Will had never seen before.

“You’re still feverish from the arrow,” the toymaker said to Rowen. “We should leave here, find a better place for you to rest.”

“No, that’s not it,” Rowen cried, pulling away from her grandfather. She reached a hand into empty air and then drew it back as if she had touched a flame.

“I can’t touch them,” she said. “They don’t see me.”

She walked slowly about the chamber, her hand still outstretched, like someone without sight. Will looked around and saw nothing but their own shadows cast on the floor by the icy light from above. He watched Rowen, saw her legs trembling. He came closer to her, ready to catch her if she fell. She did not seem to see him.

“They’re not really here,” she said at last.  “Not now.They were here once, a long time ago. It’s as if they’re … echoes.”

“Are they my people?” Moth asked.

“And others,” Rowen answered, her eyes still following the movements of  things unseen. “Many others. They sought safety here, with the Hidden Folk. Their stories had been destroyed. There was nowhere else for them to go.”

She covered her mouth in horror. It was a long time before she could speak again.

“Some faded and became fetches,” she went on. “Right before the eyes of their loved ones. There was so much sadness. So many stories died here.”

She bowed her head and choked back a sob. Pendrake put his arm around her.

“This place would give anyone terrible thoughts,” Freya said. “The sooner we leave it, the better.”

Rowen looked up searchingly at the toymaker.

“There’s something else here, too. Something even older.”

“I know, Rowen,” Pendrake said softly. “Come, let’s find a place to rest. There’s more I have to tell you, but not here.”

 

***

 

They made their way from the burial chamber, and after a short march the passage swiftly narrowed, until Will could touch both walls by stretching out his hands. At one point they found the tunnel walls had partly collapsed and a massive slab of stone lay across their path. It proved impossible to climb over and so they were forced to crawl underneath, through a space so small that the pack on Will’s back jammed against the slab. Only by wriggling and squirming for a few tense moments was he able to keep moving forward.

 

When he was through he turned to help Rowen. He took her arm and felt her shaking, as if with cold, though he knew that was not the reason. She seemed to be struggling simply to go on, and at times he had to guide her, as if she could not see.

 

The passage beyond the slab remained narrow and stifling. After a while Pendrake’s waylight began to flicker and show signs that it might fail.  With a few whispered words he coaxed the light into brightness, but it soon dimmed again, and then suddenly went out. In an instant they were enveloped in a darkness so total that Will had to suppress a cry of fear. He had not realized how completely his courage had depended on that one small source of illumination.

 

The toymaker’s voice spoke out of the darkness.

 

“Even Sputter must rest. We will have to wait …”

 

He broke off, as they all became aware of another faint source of light. It was coming, Will realized, from the gaal blade, which Moth had pulled part-way from its scabbard.

 

“It is night in the world outside,” Moth said in a strained whisper.

 

Will wasn’t sure how the archer knew the time of day, but he could feel the weariness in his bones that told him sleep was past due. To his relief a rest was agreed upon, and Shade’s keen eyes quickly found some shelter not far ahead. It was the entrance to a side chamber that had been partially blocked with rubble. The companions had to squeeze through a narrow opening, but once inside it was clear that a better refuge would not likely be found at short notice. Here they could fend off just about anything that might try to come at them.

 

Rowen ran her hand along the back wall of the chamber, then turned to her grandfather.

 

“It’s the Stewards, isn’t it?” she said. “They made all of this.”

 

Pendrake was resting on a flat ledge of stone jutting from the wall.

 

“Tell me what you feel,” he said quietly.

 

Rowen closed her eyes and kept her hand pressed to the wall.

 

“I can feel the Shee, and the others who were here with them,” she said slowly. “But there’s something deeper. It’s moving, alive. Like a fish darting in a pond, just out of my reach. It’s like I can seeit, not with my eyes but with…”

 

She broke off and opened her eyes.

 

“Something is awake, in the stone. It’s … familiar. Like a dream I had a long time ago but forgot until now. It’s older than the Shee. Much older. I could feel it in Whitewing Stonegrinder when he touched me. Is he a Steward?”

 

“He is filled with their power, that much I am sure of. The Stewards shaped these tunnels and chambers. The stone carries their thought, their spark. You can touch it even more deeply than I can. The presence of the Stewards will give you strength, and guide you when you join with it.”

 

Joinwith it? How could I do that?”

 

Pendrake rose from his seat and placed a hand on Rowen’s shoulder.

 

“Because it is already in you. It is who you are.”

 

Rowen stared up at him.

 

“What are you talking about?” she blurted. “The Stewards were not like us. My father was from Will’s world. And you, and Mother …”

 

“In ancient time a Steward fell in love with a woman of the Storyfolk. For her sake he took mortal shape. I am their descendant, Rowen, as was my father, and his mother, and those who came before us.”

 

Rowen slowly shook her head.

 

“No, that can’t be….” she said, her voice falling to a whisper. “That’s not possible.” 

 

“During the Broken Years,” Pendrake went on, “the truth of it was lost. The loremasters of old knew only that they had a powerful gift, but not where it came from. Some used the gift for evil, and became mighty storymages in the service of our enemy. When I was a child my grandmother went deep into the Weaving to find out the truth. She was almost lost, but she found her way back, and gave me as much of the history as she had been able to gather. She gave me my legacy. And now I pass it on to you. You, and I, and all loremasters who have come before us, are children of the First Ones.”

 

Rowen backed away from him, looking around with frightened eyes, as if for some way of escape.

 

“Shade guessed it, didn’t he?” Will said. “When he first met you.”

 

Pendrake smiled sadly.

 

“He almost gave away the secret then.”

 

Rowen gazed at the floor, and then up again at her grandfather. Her eyes burned.

 

“Mother never became a loremaster. She was a great knight-errant. This didn’t happen to her, and it won’t happen to me. I can stop it. I can … push it out of my mind. ”

 

“You cannot stop it, Rowen. To me, the shapes in the ice tombs were hardly visible at all. Whatever gifts I have, I had to learn and develop over many long years of wandering, gathering old threads of story before they were lost forever. But for you…. I feared what this journey might lead to, and so it has. The storyshard, your exposure to the werefire….”

 

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Rowen demanded. Her eyes shimmered with tears.

 

Pendrake took her hands in his. 

 

“When you were very young, your mother and father made me promise that if anything happened to them, I would keep you safe. I couldn’t save them, I failed at that, but I could at least try to keep my promise.”

 

He paused and took a deep breath.

 

“You must know, Rowen  … their deaths were likely not by chance, though I told you otherwise and wished to believe it myself. The loremasters have been hunted by Malabron since the Broken Years and before. They carry the power of the Stewards, and in them, in you, is the last hope of the Realm. The only way to keep my promise was to keep you hidden. To hide the truth, even from you, until you were ready to hear it. Or until I had no choice. Forgive me.”

 

Rowen pulled her hands away from her grandfather’s. She stood motionless, gazing past them all. Tears slid down her cheeks.

 

“They died … because of me,” she said.

 

“No, child,” Pendrake said hoarsely. “This began long before any of us. Blame will solve nothing. What we must do is defend what they lived for, and died for.”

 

She didn’t seem to hear him. After a long time she stirred and looked around at Will and the others.

 

“I want to leave this place,” she said, and her voice sounded cold and lost.

 

 

 

 

Moth took first watch. Will lay down near Rowen, using his cloak as a blanket. It was so dark he wasn’t sure for a moment whether he’d closed his eyes yet or not.

 

***

 

What seemed like only moments later, Rowen was shaking him awake.

 

“Time to go,” she whispered.

 

“Already?” Will mumbled groggily. She informed him to his surprise they had rested for at least four hours. Then Morrigan had raised an alarm. Her keen ears had picked up a sound not made by water or stone. The others listened but could hear nothing.

 

“She heard the sound of many feet,” Moth said. “Many feet shod in metal. Coming up the tunnel the way we came.”

 

Without another word the companions left their shelter and hurried on, Pendrake taking the lead with the waylight.

 

For a long time they walked in silence, stopping now and then to rest only briefly. Eventually Pendrake’s light began to dim again to a faint glow.

 

“The way out cannot be much further,” he said, and in the gloom his voice seemed to come from far away. “There is fresher air streaming in from ahead.”

 

They kept on, and soon the tunnel began to plunge down at a much steeper angle than before. Sometimes there were steps carved in the floor and sometimes there was only a slope of smooth, wet rock, so that they had to cling to the walls to descend without slipping. The air grew icy. After some time the floor leveled out again, but the darkness was as absolute as ever. Will trod carefully, his eyes staring into the blackness ahead, his hands never leaving the rock wall beside him. At times he thought he heard faint whisperings and glimpsed brief flickers of light, but he couldn’t be sure that this wasn’t his mind playing tricks.

 

The thought came to him that they might find the end of the tunnel sealed up, and he halted, seized by a fear that was close to panic.

 

Rowen, coming up closely behind, bumped into him.

 

“What is it?” she whispered.

 

“Nothing,” he said shakily, relieved by the sound of her voice. “It’s just this place.”

 

“I know,” she said.

 

Just then Morrigan gave a warning croak, and Pendrake called for quiet. Everyone went still, and in the silence they all heard it at last, a faint but unmistakable sound of clinking metal, and the slow tread of feet.

 

“The Nightbane must have found a way in,” Rowen said.

 

“If that isthe Nightbane,” Moth said.

 

No word of encouragement was needed now, as the companions set off at a near run.To Will’s relief he soon caught a faint glimmer of light on the walls, and was glad to discover that everyone could see it, too. They came around a sharp bend and found themselves in a vaulted, echoing space, like the cavern of the pool but not as vast. This chamber was lit from above not by a roof of ice but by slender embrasures in the stonework high above, letting in thin blades of cold blue light. The walls were ornamented with designs like those Will had seen on the stones of Aran Tir, and even the floor had intricate figures carved into it.

 

Will and the others gathered under the light, as if drawn to it hungrily after the long darkness. They looked up, blinking, and it quickly became clear to them that one more obstacle barred their way. A huge round stone, like a massive wheel, stood against the far wall, its lower rim sunk in a shallow depression in the floor. Small crystals or gemstones were set around its circumference. In the centre was the carved figure of a Shee woman, holding up her right hand as if to warn away any who approached.

 

From the cold light that glowed dimly around the edges of the stone, the same as that from the window slits above, it was clear that beyond it lay an exit from the chamber and the caves. 

 

Moth was first to reach the stone wheel. He pushed it from one side, but it did not budge. Finn and Freya went to his side, and together they planted their feet, lowered their heads, and pushed again. Nothing happened.

 

“We might have guessed,” Finn said, giving the stone a half-hearted kick. “The last to leave sealed the door behind them.”

 

Will’s frightening thought had come true. He looked around frantically for another way out, thankful that at least there was some light in the chamber. If they had come to this dead end in the pitch dark, with the sound of marching feet behind them, he would probably be frozen with panic.

 

“I don’t see how they could have closed off the exit from outside,” Pendrake said after briefly pondering in silence. “There must be some sort of mechanism here in the chamber that moves the stone.”

 

At that they all fanned out to search except Freya, who took up watch at the tunnel entrance. There were many small grooves and crevices in the walls, but no matter how much Will and the others poked and prodded, not a sound was heard and the stone did not budge. Morrigan flew up to the high places that the others could not reach and tapped with her beak at various protrusions and hollows.

 

Frustrated and growing ever more uneasy by the moment, Will found himself turning often to look at the figure carved in the stone. It seemed to be watching them with cold unconcern.

 

Then he looked again at the figure’s hand, and slowly raised his own.

 

With a shout he ran to the stone, reached up and pressed his fingers and palm against the woman’s hand. To his disappointment, nothing happened.

 

“I thought she might be the key,” Will said when Pendrake and the other approached. “That it wasn’t a warning but a farewell to anyone leaving.”

 

“I think you’re right about that, Will,” said Moth, joining him in front of the wheel, “but the hand is not the key, it is the lock.”

 

The archer went up to the figure and just as Will had, he placed his hand on its hand. At first nothing happened, and then Rowen cried, “Look!” Will and Moth stood aside and saw that the crystals along the rim of the stone were now faintly glowing from within.

 

“They’re wisps,” Rowen shouted.

 

“They must have been left behind to wait for any Hidden Folk that might return,” Pendrake said. “Your touch woke them, Moth.”

 

The crystals shrank to tiny points of brilliant light, and then, one by one, they sprang free of the stone wheel and flew bobbing and spinning like fireflies into the air. Soon a humming, pulsing host of wisps was circling above the heads of the company. Then as one the wisps descended, circled around Moth several times, and alighted on the edge of the stone wheel.

 

“They’re going to move it,” Rowen said in amazement. “That’s how the door was sealed.”

 

“Whatever’s following us is almost here,” Freya said urgently. In his surprise about the wisps, Will had ignored the sound of their pursuers, which had grown louder. But a new sound brought him back to the stone wheel. It was moving ponderously, rolling over the rough, rock-littered floor of the chamber with a deep rumbling that reminded Will of the noises the dragon had made. The wisps pulsed brightly in many colours as the stone moved under their power, but as it rolled away from the opening, their glow was swiftly dimmed by the flood of sunlight that now poured into the chamber. Will had been in the gloom of the caves for so long that he had to shield his eyes against the glare before he could see anything.

 

Beyond the opening a short passage ran slightly upward to an archway filled with blue sky.

 

Pendrake urged the others forward with a wave of his staff. They all ran through the swiftly-widening space between the turning wheel and the edge of the opening, Will and Shade, Rowen, Pendrake, Freya, and Finn. Once they were in the passage, Will turned, sensing that Moth was no longer behind him.

 

To his dismay he saw that the archer was still inside the chamber, his sword drawn. The stone was already rolling back into place. There was no sign of Morrigan.

 

Will shouted the archer’s name and the others turned.

 

“What are you doing?” Finn yelled at Moth. He ran to the stone and tried in vain to hold it back with his hands.

 

“If it is Lotan leading the Nightbane up the tunnel, he will be able to open this door, too,” Moth shouted. “Go on, and don’t look back.”

 

“Maybe we can jam the opening shut from out here,” Freya said, frantically searching the walls of the passage.

 

“There is no time,” Moth said, and then he looked at Will. “Remember what I said. I will be there. No matter what.”

 

He vanished from the opening and the stone sealed it up with a cold grating crunch.