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.
Thursday, 16 February 2017
“We are thwarted! It’s that devil, Ragund! There is no way across!” shrieked Radik, enraged by the loss of his troops.
“Not so, my Radik,” Arissa purred, keeping a check on her own anger with no inconsiderable difficulty while, at the same time, doubting that Ragund was responsible Ragund, after all, had far more important fish to fry. So who…what…? “We were careless, that is all,”
“Careless…? Careless…! They were more than comrades-in-arms, they were my friends! We have been through much together and now…!” Radik raged on.
Friends, indeed…? I think not. Arissa closed ears and mind to the krill leader’s ramblings, the better to concentrate all thought on their next step. In her mind’s eye, she summoned an image of Astor the White Mage and proceeded to enter his consciousness. Vison was blurred. There were other forces at work that she could neither identify nor begin to penetrate. Even so, she was able to home in on distorted images passing through a rock door, one by one. So they have found the tomb. Redirecting her train of thought as easily as if she were rearranging a flower display, it took her to a narrow bridge of sorts. “Ah!”
“You see something? You know a way across?” Radik demanded
“Come, follow me…” Arissa took only a few steps. We can cross here where the mud will take our weight, but the path is narrow so we must go in single file. Stray not a fraction from the path I take, my Radik, or be sure you will meet the same fate as the otherss. Do you understand, not a fraction…?”
“I see no path, only a death trap,” protested Radik.
“Trust me,” she told him with discernible impatience and started to cross without waiting for any further response. Place the imprint of your feet in mine, and you will have nothing to fear,” she called, sensing his hesitation without the slightest movement of her head to confirm it.
Realizing he had little if any choice, Radik took his first tentative steps on the muddy surface…
“There is nothing here, the tomb is empty!” Beth cried out in despair. Instinctively, she looked to Calum for an explanation. How so easy it was for the mind to forget, as if Mulac had never existed? For all that, she was in no doubt that her heart would always belong to one she had first known as of the Nu-gen tribe.
The ground trembled beneath their feet.
“It is a warning,” squealed Fred, “The mountain, it is warning us we have already come a step too far.”
“Or it is trying to tell us something else,” said Etta, looking directly at Galia who was holding a hand to her head as if in pain.
I need to remember, I must remember, but what…? Galia rummaged a far distant memory without even knowing for what it was she sought.
“The tomb, the spring of life, where are they?” Pers wailed.
“Yes, Galia, where are they?” It was Ygor’s turn to round on Galia.
“Mother…?” Calum was visibly uncomfortable with the word, no less so because it meant he and the male Motherworlders were half-brothers, born of the same womb if literally worlds apart. At the same time, he had the sensitivity to appreciate this was neither the time nor the place for explanations. Nor was he certain he wanted one.
Since first handling the key, and then turning it in the lock, Calum had the sense of being flooded with information beyond his knowledge, images of a cultural past in which he had played no part; not only a whole new identity but a feeling for history, and consequently the responsibilities attached. He glanced at Etta whose gaze was fixed on his mother with an intensity that warned him to stay silent.
A sudden surge of resentment for all The Magela had kept from him lodged in Calum’s throat. He tried to catch Michal’s eye to see if he, too, was experiencing a similar epiphany. The Motherworlder, though, promptly looked away. His gaze settled on the boy, Peter, whose demeanor appeared somewhat distant, almost trance-like as if he was quite unaffected by what was going on. Over the mop of red hair, his eyes met the elf-girl Irina’s, and they seemed to be asking the same question. What has the boy, Peter, to do with any of this? At the sound of Galia’s voice, both looked away, relieved, for now at least, of any responsibility for looking closer at the awful suspicion, barely half-formed, nagging at them with a persistence that was disconcerting, to say the least, as if it was determined to make itself known.
“This is but the outward entrance to the tomb. There is an inner chamber,” Galia spoke slowly, softly, almost as if to herself. She had not expected to feel reticent with this son of her Mamelon past. Despite her joy, she was finding the experience an unnerving one. “Search your mind, Calum, tap into the consciousness that belongs only to the Ruler of Mamelon and seek out the truth of this matter.” Her voice was strange, strained, as if it, too, belonged to a distant consciousness, but there was no mistaking either its urgency or authenticity. “Let go of all but who you are, my son, and there you will find the knowledge that is Mamelon, its past, present, and perhaps even something of its future…if it has one, she added, but silently, to herself alone, fearful of tempting fate.
She understands. She knows what is happening to me. Calum instantly took comfort, reassurance and increasing self-confidence from this rapport with one whom he already accepted as his mother. Mother figure, Etta may have been, but this, this was the real thing. His mind rushed back to the Here and Now from wherever it had been and he did as she had said, let go of everything he was, had been, and yet might be, letting instinct alone take over and guide him…wherever.
“Here, somewhere here…” Calum went to the farthest inner wall of the gloomy interior, placed his hands against the cold stone and searched for what it was he knew had to be there but which, for the life of him, he could not identify.
“Let your hands do the searching,” counselled Etta.
“Ah!” Calum exclaimed so loudly that everyone jumped in their skins. His hands, moving dexterously around the incongruously smooth rock wall, paused and appeared to exert the slightest pressure resulting in the appearance of an opening. All but Ricci and the Foss needed to bend low to enter what turned out to be a short tunnel.
The crypt, as everyone assumed it to be, took everyone by surprise. The walls were high and decorated with murals comprised of mosaics depicting much of Mamelon’s colourful history and mythology. At the centre of a rock floor, as smooth as the surrounding walls, stood a huge stone, rounded to perfect proportions as if it had been created with much love and care although to what end was obvious to no one.
“Is this it then, the tomb of the Creator?” Fred was plainly disappointed. All present correctly assumed the question to be rhetorical and it was a while before anyone else spoke. Pers and Irina amused themselves by admiring, interpreting and occasionally discussing the fine mosaics albeit in low voices. Pete and Mick, also, were much in awe of the same, glad to be distracted from the purpose of their mission which, on the available evidence, had to be judged a miserable failure. Ygor, Etta, and Galia exchanged knowing looks with increasing discomfort for asking the same questions of themselves, equally desperate for answers that eluded them at every turn.
Calum considered the huge centerpiece with mounting fascination and excitement, unable to quite fathom either; it was as if the stone was trying to communicate with him. The Nu-gen ingrained into him dismissed this as fanciful, impossible. Yet, a new, emerging self struggled to make sense of the inexplicable.
Among the others, only Beth observed how fiercely Calum wrestled with forces within a self as yet no less foreign to him than their surroundings. He stood perfectly still, scarcely breathing. It struck her that he might easily have been one of the mosaic characters, leapt from the walls to confront them with…what? They did not impress her, the mosaics, but she bonded with them as she might an army summoned for…What? Attack, protection…? Attack who, though, and protect whom…? It was a good while before she admitted to herself that they were almost certainly there for the likes of her, Bethan, to attack any enemy that might enter the chamber and protect any Keeper guarding it. Fanciful though the idea was, preposterous even, she sensed the truth of it, finding herself suddenly in close contact with an unreality she could only describe as magic. Dark magic…, For the first time, the fuller implications of her presence and purpose in Mamelon, the part she - and she alone, would be called upon to play impacted on Beth with such force that she stumbled and almost fell. I must hang on to Beth, I must or…
The alternative was unthinkable. Yet, Beth was fading fast as Bethan, Keeper, was assuming the ascendancy. Fear not, child. All may yet be well. She recognized Tol’s voice in her inner ear, but let wishful thinking assign the voice to her father instead. Immediately, she felt comforted to the extent that she began to relax, and even permitted herself to entertain a glimmer of hope. Her gaze fell on the object of that hope. Suddenly, she knew what to do and what to say,
She took Calum’s hand, and squeezed gently. He made no sign that he was even aware of her presence, of anyone’s presence.
“Be at one with the stone,” she murmured softly so only he would hear, “Lend it of your mind, body and spirit,” she continued in a voice she did not even recognize as her own, “Know what it intends and act upon it without question. Trust me.”
“I trust you,” responded Calum, but without moving a muscle so she could not be sure if he was addressing her or the stone. Either way, it did not matter. Her hand still in his, she felt his body relax. His hand went limp, hers fell to her side. She, too, sensed it was imperative that she did not move. An incredible intensity enveloped them both; as invisible as the clammy air around them, as tangible as the tip of a feather in an aryd’s wing.
The stone spoke. Calum listened. Bethan, Keeper, felt faintly reassured. No one else was aware of anything untoward happening in their very midst although Etta, Galia, and the druid, Ygor, held hands in a circle they had no conscious awareness of forming.
Push, instructed the stone, No, not with your hands, your selves, they that comprise mind, body and spirit. The Keeper, she knows. Trust me. Trust her. Trust yourself. BE yourself, Calum of Mamelon. The time has come, the time is now. Push, push, push…
Perceptibly, yet barely so, the stone began to roll away revealing a black pit of nothingness.
Exhausted, Calum slumped to the ground. Bethan, upon discovering that she could move with ease once more, knelt beside him and cradled his head in her lap. The others, awareness restored, crowded round anxiously.
“Look!” cried the little Foss, the first to hear swishing, gurgling sounds, “Water…!”
All eyes fastened upon the gaping hole where the stone has been just as the first water sprouted from it, like a fountain in its death throes at first, and muddy, now fiercer, rising higher, and crystal clear.
“Oh, Spring of Life!” exclaimed an ecstatic Ygor, at the same time withdrawing a small, slim cane from his robe.
“It is a druid wand!” Pers recoiled in horror, “It is dark magic, black magic. He means us ill!”
“Then do something,” Fred screamed, “You have magic, don’t you?” he looked around wildly seeing only blurred shapes in his rising panic. You all have magic, USE IT.”
Ygor threw back his head and laughed, an ugly sound, and began chanting.
“Fool, druid! There is no Spring of Life, it is a myth!” cried Galia, but Ygor continued to chant, curious guttural sounds flowing from his mouth all but silencing their malicious echoes. Meanwhile, rivulets from the Sea of Marmela, gagged for so long, made celebratory noises that echoed the entire length and breadth of the Purple Mountains.
The fountain of water continued to rise, gurgling noises replaced by the unmistakable sound of a rip tide. The rock floor began to quiver. The mountain itself began to tremble. A flurry of falling rocks all but blocked the only exit.
“There’s no way anyone is getting out of here now,” said Mick so matter-of-factly that at first no one, including himself, took in the full import of his words. Moments later, the awful truth dawned.
They were trapped.
Everyone looked at each other, unable to move. A roaring sound, at some distance yet, but homing in fast hurt their ears, threatening, imminently, to blast their eardrums even as they drowned.
“The Spring of Life will answer to me, only to me, and you dare try to thwart me at your peril” Ygor stepped back a few paces, thereby able to take in the entire group through a veil of spray that was spreading rapidly even as, in the eyes of its beholders, the pillar of water rose to tower over them and spread wings.
“Dove of Deliverance or Angel of Death?” murmured Etta.
Ygor heard and fixed her with a menacing glare. Wild-eyed, he struck them all as the personification of mad desire. Making no attempt to disguise his contempt, he hissed, “Fools, you know nothing. It is I, yes, I, Ygor, who is in command here. The Spring of Life will serve me as will all Mamelon.”
“It is you who are the fool, druid, pathetic creature that you are,” Etta snapped, and moved to the fore of the group. “You understand nothing. Nothing…!” She spat.
By now all were drenched in the spray. The rock floor, too, had begun to sprout little pillars of water as cracks appeared everywhere. “There is no Spring of Life,” Etta continued to address the druid, her wrath all the more impressive for the evenness of her tone and the lilting quality of her voice, “it is pure myth. Mamelon was fed by the Sea of Marmela until that devil, Ragund, attempted to exceed his powers and harness its flow. But Ri was having none of it and conspired with each of the mountains to block its path. So do your worst with your silly little stick, it cannot help you here. Are you truly so blind you cannot see we will all surely drown? Magic has no place here. Yet, dying will have been worthwhile just for knowing that Mamelon will flower again as once it flowered beyond all imagination. Have us all under your heel, would you, druid? Dream on…while you still can.”
“We are all going to die!” It was too much for Pers who burst into tears.
“It cannot be so nor will it be so,” Fred squeaked excitedly, “I am one of you, yes? And I am Foss. We Foss are of the mountains, they would never harm us. Others might, but not the mountains. Ri would never permit it. Besides,” he added as an afterthought, “this is my home. No Foss would be seen drowned in his own home.”
“There is a first time for everything,” Irina laughed, but not unkindly.
“Save yourself then, Fred,” said Mick, “and while you’re at it, you can show the rest of us how to survive this pretty pickle as well.”
“Pickle…?” Fred was nonplussed, and it was Mick’s turn to laugh.
“I don’t want to die!” Pete yelled above the rising din of the water. By now all were ankle deep in it. Mick grabbed his brother’s hand. “We can’t die, we don’t even belong here,” he said with such irrefutable logic that he almost convinced himself.
“There has to be another way out,” Calum shouted, more with a view to galvanizing the others into action than out of any real conviction, “We just have to find it.” Anything, he reasoned, however futile, had to be better than just standing around waiting to die. Waiting to die? “No!” he screamed, or thought he had screamed, but it was much softer cry that reached only Behan’s ears. She smiled. To her, it sounded much as a war cry might, and she felt the first glimmerings of hope.
“There is a way, there is!” Galia spoke up excitedly, “Michal brought me here once to show me the mosaics. I had forgotten, but I remember now, as clearly as if we came only yesterday. He showed me a hidden exit known to none but Rulers. Apparently, they have to swear to Ri they will reveal it to no one. I feared for him should he break his oath, but he insisted it was the right thing to do. He was not his usual self. I thought perhaps the mosaics had affected him, but perhaps it was a premonition…” her voice trailed off as if swallowed up by the rising cacophony.
The mountain shook, more violently than before. All lost their balance and were sent sprawling into water nearly to their knees. Ygor collided with Calum. They fought, but only briefly. Only Calum heard the druid’s shrill cry as he fell back into the pillar of water and was instantly sucked into the vortex from which it rose.
Mick was the first to recover his balance, managed to grab a spluttering Fred by the scruff of the neck and hoisted him upon his shoulders. “Hold tight,” he shouted. The little Foss did not need to be told twice.
“Ricci, dear, where are you?” Etta called and was rewarded by the sighting of an arm flailing above what was close to becoming a fast flowing torrent. She made a grab for it and followed the Motherworlder’s example by hoisting him upon her shoulders. “And you can stop fidgeting right now or I will drop you, and you can drown for all I care.” Ricci took the Magela at her word, and froze. Etta looked around. Someone was missing. “The druid, where is the druid?”
“He fell,” said Calum with a look of satisfaction that Etta recognized only too well. Mulac had worn much the same expression whenever he made a kill. She looked where he pointed to the ever widening hole from which the water rose, as frantically now as it was unstoppable. “I may have accidentally helped him on his way when we stumbled,” he added with a boyish grin which, too, was reminiscent enough of the Nu-gen to reassure her that Mulac was not lost to them forever.
Bethan gave no indication of having witnessed this fleeting, intimate exchange between Calum and the druid, nor did she find in it any reassurance. Rather, the former’s expression filled her with greater dread than ever, not of dying, that was the easy part, but of their being separated forever.
“Mother, think! Where is this secret exit my father spoke of?” Calum prompted Galia, the urgency in his tone causing all eyes to fasten on the erstwhile consort of Michal the Great.
“Yes, Mum, think!” Mick echoed, keeping a wary eye on Pete as he spoke. His brother was tall for his age and, like himself, a strong swimmer. Much good would the latter do either of them, though, he reflected grimly, if they could not find an escape route, and soon.
By now the water had risen above their waists.
“A star…!” Galia exclaimed, “Among the mosaics, a star!”
“I see it, in the ceiling!” Irina shouted, pointing.
“Can you reach it?” Galia called to the elf girl.
“I think so.”
Irina stretched until the tip of one finger was level with the mosaic pattern, and pressed.
“Try again!” Pers waded up close to his sister and partly lifted her so Irina was better able to exert some pressure.
Again, Irina pressed, harder this time.
There was a grinding noise as a small section of the roof, just big enough for a body to pass through, slid open, inviting entry to another, smaller chamber. One by one, they clambered into it, chased by the floodwaters. Calum was the last to heave himself up, one foot colliding with one of the mosaic characters as he did so. Instantly, the opening slid shut, and but for Mick’s quick-wittedness and a timely helping hand, the heir to Mamelon’s Seat of Rule would have followed Ygor into the vortex.
“My heartfelt thanks, brother….”
“My heartfelt pleasure, brother…”
Both men grinned, tacitly acknowledging a kinship and friendship to which neither would openly refer again.
“What is this place?” It was Pers who spoke, but to Galia that everyone looked for an answer.
They were crowded together in a relatively confined space, weirdly lit by a weird glow emanating from a raised stone slab at the centre of a floor that was otherwise as smooth as black marble. The walls, too, were as smooth as those in the chamber below, but there were no mosaics.
It was not, however, Galia who answered the elf but Etta. “You may well ask, elf, as there can be few that have entered a tomb alive.”
“The Tomb of the Creator,” Galia added reverently if unnecessarily.
“So, what now…?” Pers asked anxiously.
“What, indeed, elf…?” Galia replied slowly, confronting them all with an expression of utter dismay, “…for I have no idea.”
“But you said my father showed you a way out,” Calum was quick to remind her.
Galia shrugged, “He only indicated the mosaic star. I assumed…”
“You assumed…?” Pers screamed at the hapless figure, dripping wet as they all were, “You offer us hope based on an assumption…?”
“You are shouting, elf,” Etta rebuked him gently.
“Nor will I apologize for it” Pers told her with an uncharacteristic show of spirit.
“My point, elf, is that you have the breath to shout. Somewhere, there has to be an air hole. What use an air hole in a tomb unless…”
“There is a Plan B,” said Mick excitedly.
“Quite so,” Etta agreed, “All we have to do now is work out what it is. Has anyone any suggestions?
No one spoke.