The Perilous Realm Online, Part 15

The Perilous Realm Online

Book One: The Endless Road

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 Will could hear Hodge and Flitch grunting and cursing as they scrambled up the heap of stones. “Carrion … bladderbrain … bucket of tripe,” Flitch growled, and Will was not sure whether the words were intended for him or for Hodge. If they were able to squeeze themselves into the drain they would be on him in an instant. He had to get further from the entrance, but instead of moving he stayed where he was, riveted by the trembling ring of flames. It looked to him like a round, gaping mouth filled with green fangs.

He heard a sound and turned. Flitch’s hideous face filled the hole.

 “Now listen, friend,” the hogman said with a ghastly attempt at a smile, “let’s just think about this. You can’t go that way, obviously, so you might as well come back out. And you mustn’t believe we were serious about …” he gave a simpering laugh, “about eating you.”

 “Of course we weren’t serious, Sir William,” Hodge chimed in from over his brother’s

shoulder. “We ate somebody three days ago and we’ve got plenty left in the pot.”

 Flitch jerked violently and a sharp gasp came from Hodge.

 “My brother is quite the joker,” Flitch said, rolling his eyes. “What he means is that we’d be happy to accept your challenge and meet you in combat. One at a time, or both of us together, whichever you prefer. Or if you’d rather just call the whole thing off and go home, that’s fine, too. We could be your guides out of the sewers. Don’t you agree, Hodge?”

 “Absolutely, brother, we should be overjoyed to be of assistance in any way we can. All you have to do, Sir William, is come out of there…”

 “He knows what he has to do,” Flitch snarled at his brother, and then caught himself and turned to Will with a sheepish grin. “Or rather, what he may do, when he’s ready. No hurry at all. At your earliest convenience. We can wait. Happy to wait. Honoured, in fact. The thing is, of course, you don’t want to stay in there too long. The green fire attracts … nasty company.”

 As Flitch was delivering this speech, Will noticed, he had squeezed a little further into the drain. Only a few feet separated him from Will.

 Will turned away and began to inch toward the flames.

 “What are you doing?” Flitch growled. “You can’t go that way.”

 Will reached the ring of fire and then drew back. To his surprise it gave off no heat. The flames did not even seem to rise from the floor of the drain or touch it in any way. They appeared out of the air and vanished again. Will thought he could hear faint sounds, like whispers or muted, cut-off cries. The flames had looked pale green from a distance, but Will could see now that the fire was made of many colours. He could see shapes in the flames, forming and fading away. He wondered now why everyone seemed to fear it so much. If this was the only way to escape the hogmen, he would take it.

 He drew a deep breath, held it, and plunged forward.

 

He was on a horse. He was outside, in the rain, sitting on a dappled grey-and-white horse. Cold rain was running into his armour. He was wearing armour, though he hadn’t been just a moment ago, he thought. A moment ago he had been somewhere else, but now he was here, wherever here was.

 

Before him stood another horse, and seated on it was a rider in bloodred armour, his face concealed by a tall helmet.

 

“Let me pass,” Will shouted. There was something he had to do here. Someone who needed him.

 

Without answering the other horseman drew his sword, spurred his mount and charged.

 

Will had never ridden a horse, but somehow he knew what to do. Gripping the reins with one hand, he dug in his heels and the horse sprang forward. The red knight thundered toward him, his mount’s hooves flinging up clods of mud. As the riders met, the red knight’s blade flashed down but Will met it with his own. There was a clang of steel, and then the red knight flew off his mount and crashed to the wet ground.

 

Will reined in his horse and leapt from the saddle. The red knight was still down, groping for his fallen sword in the muck. Will reached it before he did, and took it in his other hand. The red knight held up his arms in supplication or fear, but Will ignored him and kept on. He crossed the drawbridge, and went on under the gateway into the castle.

 

As he stepped in under the walls, he felt a tap on his shoulder, and turned. Rowen stood there, frowning at him.

 

“What are you doing?” she said.

 

“I’m looking for you,” Will said.

 

“Don’t do that,” Rowen said, shaking her head.

 

“What do you mean?” Will shouted. “That’s why I’m here.”

 

“Are you?” Rowen said. “Look behind you.”

 

“I am looking behind me…”

 

Behind you.”

 

Will turned his head. He was crouched once again in the drain-pipe, on the other side of the ring of werefire from the hogmen.

 

Flitch’s beet-red face filled the end of the drain.

 

“You can’t go that way, you little fool. Didn’t you hear me? Just come back. Back this way. We’re not going to lay a finger on you, we swear…”

 

The hogman had squeezed himself further into the hole. His fat, grasping hand was only inches from Will’s foot.

 

“We promise,” Hodge shouted from behind him. “Please come back, Sir William. It’s not safe in there.”

 

Will scrambled further away.

 

“We’ll find you, you little vermin,” Flitch shrieked. “We know these sewers inside and out. Every nook and cranny. We can smell your blood like warm broth. We’ll find you, and when we do we’ll boil you in a pot and make a stew out of you …”

 

“It will be a lovely stew, Sir William,” Hodge called. “You’ll be amazed what a fine chef my brother is…”

 

Will crawled away, dazed. He wasn’t sure what had just happened, but he knew the strange fire was to blame. He’d been lost in a vision that wasn’t real, seeing himself as a mighty hero, and it had nearly cost him his life. He shivered, thinking he understood better now what kind of power the werefire had over people like Master Fenric.

 

The drain sloped up around a curve and the hogmen’s shouts quickly faded. Soon Will noticed that the tunnel was widening, and he was able to rise to a crouch instead of crawling on his hands and knees. He went on like this for what seemed a very long time, his way lit by more outbreaks of the werefire, which he passed by quickly without daring even a glance.

 

Finally he rounded another curve and came to a space where the drain he was in joined two other, larger tunnels. Where they met there was another shaft running upward at a steep slant into deep shadow. Ragged pennants of werefire fluttered along the walls of the shaft, but Will brightened at the sight of a row of iron rungs running upwards like a ladder. Surely this would take him up into the keep.

 

He jumped, caught the lowest rung, hauled himself up and began to climb.

 

The rungs were further apart than they had appeared from below, and the going was harder than Will had expected. He climbed on, and the next time he looked up he could see a faint green glow above him, seeping through the seams of what looked like some sort of circular trapdoor. Will climbed on, and soon he reached the trapdoor, breathing hard. Planting himself as firmly as he could against the sides of the shaft, he reached up and pushed against the door with all of his remaining strength. After a terrible moment in which it seemed the door would not budge, it suddenly came unstuck and lifted with a rusty creak.

 

Grunting with the effort, Will shoved the door out of his way and hauled himself up out of the shaft. Once he was out he heaved the trapdoor shut and lay panting, too exhausted to do anything more than look around.

 

He was in a large, windowless room with damp stone walls and a high ceiling crossed by thick wooden beams. Suspended by chains from the beams hung several empty cages whose doors appeared to have been wrenched open. On the opposite wall a flight of steps climbed steeply to a small door made of iron. All around him the floor was strewn with shards of glass and the splintered remains of shelves, tables and chairs. A few shelves still stood against the walls. Upon them sat glass bottles and flasks filled with dark liquids, and in some cases, small creatures suspended in thick, murky fluid.

 

The light in the room came from many small flickers of werefire, silently burning in corners, along the walls and on the stairs. A few flames clung to the roof, like ghostly bats stirring in their sleep. The largest and brightest of the fires filled one of the open cages hanging from the beams. It seemed to crouch there within the bars like an animal waiting to spring. 

 

As Will lay there he heard a faint fluttering, like the wings of countless moths. He sensed the dizzy swarming of countless visions like the one he’d fallen into, trembling to take shape.

 

Will rose unsteadily and made for the stairs. He hoped that he was in a lower room or dungeon of the keep, and on the other side of the iron door he might find a way out, back to his friends. Even if he was wrong about that, he knew he had to get as far away as he could from the werefire.

 

As Will set foot on the bottom step he felt the air in the room grow colder. The hair rose on the back of his neck and he turned slowly. To his horror he saw that the werefire in the cage was moving, flowing out and dripping like melting wax onto the floor, where it grew stronger and brighter and began to take shape.

 

Before his eyes the fire grew into a human-like figure, with arms and legs and a head crowned with flames.

 

The head turned toward him. In the depths of the flames a face began to form. A mouth opened wide, and howled with many voices.

 

Will dashed up the steps to the iron door, grabbed the latch and pulled. The door did not budge. He tugged again and again. The door was stuck fast.

 

He looked back. The creature of fire was climbing the steps now. Will threw himself against the door and hammered on it. There was nowhere else to go.

 

The creature made of werefire reached the top of the stairs and halted. Its flickering, trembling face dissolved and became another, an entirely different face, and then another. It was as if many different faces were struggling to take form against the everchanging ripple and weave of the flames. Finally one face appeared and did not melt away. The face of  a gaunt, bearded man, with a look of pain or struggle in his eyes. He gazed at Will with a beseeching expression. His mouth opened soundlessly.

 

“What is it?” Will whispered. “Who are you?”

 

The creature of fire moved closer, and held out its arms toward Will.

 

“From the other world …” it gasped in a voice like dry twigs catching flame. “The emissary will come….”

Just then there was a clang of metal, and with a shriek of rusty hinges the iron door swung open. Freya rushed in, wielding her hammer, with Finn close behind, his sword drawn.

 

“Look out!” Will shouted. Before they could react, the creature of fire collapsed in on itself like a burning cloak that had been dropped. It flowed swiftly over and down the sheer drop at the edge of the stairs. Once it touched the floor below it split once again into many separate flames that slithered into the furthest corners of the room.

 

“What is that thing?” Freya whispered.

 

Before Will could answer, there was a shout from below. They looked down to see Shade climbing out of the shaft in the floor, with Rowen and her grandfather close behind him.

 

The wolf bounded up the stairs and Will threw his arms around him.

 

“Are you hurt, Will Lightfoot?” Shade asked.

 

“No,” Will said shakily. “I’m fine. Thank you for finding me. I thought I was finished.”

 

They hurried down the steps to where Pendrake and Rowen stood. Will saw with alarm that Rowen’s face was paler than he had ever seen it. She was leaning on her grandfather’s arm. When she saw Will looking at her she gave him a brave smile.

 

“The creature is still in the room, I think,” Finn said. “Is it the dweller in the keep?”

 

“Perhaps,” Pendrake said. “I think we can find out for certain. Everyone stand back.”

 

Freya gently guided Rowen away from the toymaker. He stepped forward and in a loud, commanding spoke a few words that Will did not understand. After a few moments rivulets of werefire flowed together from several corners of the room, brightening as they merged. The fiery figure rose again, this time larger and roaring even louder than it had before. From its outstretched hands dripped blazing gouts of flame. Will and the others drew back, but the toymaker did not move as the fire blazed around him.

 

In the next instant the werefire creature had diminished again to its former size and dashed for the trapdoor.

 

Pendrake spoke again and the creature stopped dead. It began to tremble and seethe like a flame caught in a gust of wind. The toymaker took a step closer to it and held out his hand.

 

“I see you,” he said. “I now you’re there. Be free.”

 

The werefire glowed brighter for a moment and then whirled up and away, leaving behind a dark figure that sank to the floor. The seething, crackling wreath of flames rose to the roofbeams, while the other, smaller fires raced and leapt from every corner of the room to join it.

 

Pendrake straightened and held out his staff. Like a bolt of lightning the werefire stabbed toward it. For an instant the room blazed with light as the roaring emerald column plunged through the staff and vanished into the floor.

 

Silence fell. The fire was gone and the room was dark, save for a dim ghostly afterglow that seemed to come from the places where the flames had been. Pendrake leaned wearily on his staff and gazed with the others at what lay huddled on the floor before them.

 

It was a man with a grizzled beard and long, unkempt hair, shivering in the torn and filthy remains of a belted robe. He was little more than skin and bone, Wil thought. His eyes stared vacantly around him.

 

“Who is it, Grandfather?” Rowen asked. She was still very pale, but some of her old energy had returned to her voice.

 

“I have no idea.”

 

“I do,” Freya said, her face clouding with anger. “This is the Mage Strigon, of the League of Four.”

 

“He was your dweller in the keep,” Pendrake said. “And the source of the werefire.”

 

“How can that be?” Freya said. “It should have destroyed him.”

 

“The fathomless fire does not kill. Its source is a power that sustains life. It was keeping Strigon alive, even as it was surely driving him into madness.”

 

He crouched before the mage and gently put a hand on his shoulder.

 

“Can you hear me?” he asked. “Do you know where you are?” After a long moment the mage stirred, looked up at the old man and nodded slowly. He opened his mouth and seemed to be struggling to speak.

 

“We …” he said at last, in a voice that was little more than a breathless gasp. “We … have done a terrible thing.”

 

“What have you done?”

 

“We were searching for one of the lost farholds. The wishing portals. We found it. A gateless gate. It began to close. We summoned the werefire to keep it open, but we could not control the flames. They were like a wild beast. They came for me.”

 

The mage’s eyes widened and he raised his hand as if to ward off something only he could see.

 

“Where is this gate?” Pendrake asked.

 

Strigon shook his head.

 

“I won’t go back there,” he whispered. “Not even if the emissary commands it … I won’t.”

 

“Who was this emissary?”

 

“He would not say, but we knew…. He said the city would be spared if we aided him, and we would be given much power….” The mage began to tremble violently again, and his head sank. “Now all is lost….”

 

“Listen to me, Master Strigon,” Pendrake said. “It is not too late to undo some of what you have done. This city can still be saved, and many others besides, if we work together. Tell me, where did you find the wishing portal?”

 

The mage shuddered and clutched Pendrake’s arm like a drowning swimmer.

 

“High in the mountains… The Needle’s Eye… we found a secret path. When the fire took me the others fled back to the city…. I followed, but they did not know me. I could not speak, could not tell them…. They drove me into the dungeons. They left me to burn.”

 

The mage looked away from Pendrake and for the first time he seemed to be aware of the others gathered around him. His gaze darted wildly from face to face and then settled on Will. His eyes stared in fear and he tried to rise but Pendrake held him back.

 

“You are from the Untold,” he rasped at Will. “It must be you. He will be coming for you….”

 

His eyes rolled up in his head and he fell forward into the Loremaster’s arms.

 

“Is he dead?” Freya asked.

 

“No, but he is exhausted and he may yet die,” Pendrake said. “I doubt he has eaten or slept since this all began. He must be cared for, and nursed back to health.”

 

“Why should we do that for him?” Freya muttered angrily, her eyes narrowing.

 

“If he recovers he can help you restore this city to what it once was. He has knowledge that can be used for good.”

 

Freya glared down at the mage, then she sighed and nodded.

 

“You’re right, Father Nicholas. He should be given the chance to make amends. It is what Mother and Father often say. If all we have in our hearts is hate, then what are we fighting to save?”

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