Âkapirmas is strong
And in all things, I must defer to Him.
Âkapirmas is my judge and my teacher and my father
And in all things, I must defer to Him.
Âkapirmas allows His enemies to exist and prosper beyond my reach
But in all things, I must defer to Him.
Âkapirmas gave us victory over the demons
But He suffers our shores to be shattered and broken
And in all things, I must defer to Him.
Âkapirmas allows infidels to invade The Brotherhood
He suffers them to spread the word of their false gods
He suffers the low races to rape our soil with their seed
He suffers the witches, deviants, and whores
He suffers the exaltation of the knights of Gokh.
Âkapirmas permitted the rise of a false Prophet
Whose words poison the lands of the divnali-êtqra and all who revere Pennenc
But in all things, I must defer to Him.
For I have heard the divine somg of Âkapirmas
I have seen His true Prophet
I have kissed the soil cleansed by his footfall
I have answered his call
And I keep the blade of my sword steel bright.
For Âkapirmas comes not as a whisper but as a shout
And His vengeance will stain the world with blood
And in all things, I must defer to Him.
Prayer of Bredbeddle, 1027 PA
Doctrine of Hoël the Prophet
In the thick High Summer night, God’s pale eye shone upon the wasteland. As the small party picked its way across the uneven ground, it was their only illumination. For reasons he refused to divulge, Banw had forbidden any torch or tapir.
Little grew here other than the most hardy of plants. Such a difference from the lands of Dagâ Dainâ, a scant day’s foot travel away! Everything here was dead-or nearly so-though there were signs that things were slowly changing.
Gyneth paused in her march and, risking a swift kick from her companions behind her, scooped up a handful of the crusty soil. Her fingers crushed and sifted the small clots with practiced care until they found a piece they could not crumble. Holding it up to her eyes, the curved shard glowed whitely in the moonlight. A shell? She slid it between her lips and could still taste the salt.
They say all this used to be under water-that Dagâ Dainâ was once a sea-faring nation-then The Shake came. Something about a war. And the ground rose up to become the great mountains of the south.
And everything changed.
Or something to that effect.
Gyneth wondered, if the sea retreated so easily once, might it just as suddenly return? Might the earth suddenly drop away from under her feet? Might she at any second look up to see a wall of water rushing forward to reclaim this land?
Rokeby shoved her irritably from behind and muttered for her to pick up the pace. She glared back at him but did as he said. She wasn’t at all certain she belonged with this group, but she certainly wasn’t going to cross them. The number of gold teeth in the man’s mouth implied a certain degree of affluence in replacing them… and proclivity for losing them. They paid her dat good copper for her services, and she wasn’t about to disappoint him.
She flicked the shell aside and drove the thoughts from her mind. The Shake happened long before her young life, though she has heard that her grandmother’s great grandmother witnessed it. An eternity ago, so far as she was concerned. Chances were the sea wouldn’t be reclaiming this stretch any time soon.
Gyneth kept an eye on the horizon nevertheless.
The group huddled together, watching Banw from a distance. The ifrlis Gyneth accompanied appeared strong, skilled, and dangerous, yet she still felt unsafe in the presence of the sorcerer’s unspoken frustration. Evidently, the men did as well.
They sat silently as they watched him pace the lake’s shore, as if he was counting and recounting his steps. There were no birds here, no insects in the warm night air, and the only noises were their anxious breaths and the whickering of their two fists of pack horses.
Beneath it all, just barely heard, was Banw’s angry muttering.
This lake used to be a moving river before it all backed-up. Gyneth crouched on her haunches and examined the rocks and soil around them. Being a farmer’s shebari, there was often little else to occupy her mind other than children, husbands, and livestock. She has no children, she was yet too young to marry, and the packhorses have already been tended to. So all that was left was rock and dirt.
There was scant soil here-barely enough for the hardiest of weeds to take hold-nevermind crops. A simple pass of her index finger wiped it away to reveal solid bedrock below. There were no river stones in this river-none of the rounded stones one would expect to frequent the shores and bottoms of rivers-instead, the rocks here were jagged and uneven and raw. Perhaps when the river was running, it didn’t run long enough here to wear them down.
“Welcome to the Azeran River, uh?”
Everyone startled at the loudness of the sorcerer’s words. He turned to look at the group, and his eyes seemed to shine. Flat card-like stones in his hands shuddered and shifted as if alive and frightened by his touch.
“Then, this is it?” Rokeby asked.
Banw shook his head. “Nage, not exactly. This river used tä run north towards Chur, then west towards the Skudd. But now it’s gone. One year it just stopped runnin’. Gone. And this lake formed.” Banw chuckled without humor, “Much tä the relief of the citizens of Chur. Damned place used tä flood each spring from the snowmelt…”
“If this isn’t the place,” Rokeby sputtered, “then-”
“Tewi!” Banw snapped. “The river hid its head, yä sees?” He gestured towards the dark profiles of the Warband to the south, “It winds its way through these mountains, fed by springs far up there-the lake has grown-but where does the water still flow, uh? Despite the lake, it still must go somewhere!”
He sighed deeply at the confused silence. “Soon after the Azeran River turned into this lake, the Mi’zak River sprang tä life down in Dagâ Dainâ. Its wild waters were untamed until King Bebrus dammed it. The Mi’zak was born when the Azeran went underground.”
“Underground?” Gyneth wondered aloud.
Banw looked at her as if for the first time, and he smiled toothily. The stony wafers in his hands shuffled and slid against each other. “Yäh. It is a complicated matter tä explain in detail, pektus. Suffice tä say, when these lands rose up from under the sea, great sheets of rock broke apart and settled against each other, leavin’ many gaps and crevices and… holes. Many things were uncovered… many things were buried.”
As if in illustration, the stones in his hands rose into a peak, like a precariously balanced deck of cards, before collapsing again.
“Somethin’ underground changed. Perhaps somethin’ shifted or slipped or broke. Where was once a river, now is a lake. And somewheres beneath it, the water has found a new path… down tä the Mi’zak.”
“So what do you want?” Rokeby barked with more courage than Gyneth expected. “You expecting us to walk all the way around this thing? To find this drain? We looking for where Azeran feeds Mi’zak? This is a big lake, caragus! We don’t have time for that! We didn’t bring enough food for that, never mind grain for the horses!”
Banw’s hands slid together, calming and stacking his wafers in a single fluid motion. “Yä might thinks that, wouldn’t yä? But, nage. Me guide says we are at the correct place. Our destination is here.” The sorcerer turned away, “Make camp and start lookin’. Circle the lake, but go na farther than a mile in either direction. Wherever it is, it is close by.”
Rokeby swallowed and nodded. At some level, Gyneth suspected he was prepared for a violent reaction to his outburst. Now he almost seemed disappointed that he didn’t get it. Throwing a wild punch at the nearest of his ifrlis, he gruffly ordered them into motion.
Gyneth backed away, her eyes alternating between the busy group of toughs and the solitary stone-summoner. Her eyes met Rokeby’s, and he sneered, “Keep out of the way,” even though it was evident that she already was.
No fires were being lit. Despite the daylong hike, no one prepared to rest or break bread. The men began to unpack and assemble the identical burdens carried by the horses. Quickly, frames of wood and leather took shape. Bags of heavy burlap, reinforced by wood and bronze. Backpacks likewise toughened and strengthened. Rope and pulleys. Picks and shovels. Weapons. Swords and short blades and compact, deadly devices Gyneth has heard to be called arbalests. Each was carefully prepared and set aside.
The moon had begun to set by the time they were finished, and Banw was forced to allow torches. The group separated and carefully began a search of the lakeshore.
Gyneth silently sidled up to Rokeby. “What is this?” she hissed quietly. “Who are you? I’m næ killer! I don’t know what my dat told you about me, but-”
“Shut up!” Rokeby growled, the torchlight flashing bloody red off the gold in his mouth. “We didn’t pay for you to kill! And we didn’t pay for you to complain or ask questions either! You’re small, and your dat says you can climb. That‘s what we need you for!”
“But the swords-”
“We ain’t going to kill anyone that doesn’t get in our way,” he assured, but the way his hand rested on the pommel of his sword gave her reason to step back. “Do as you’re told, stay out of our way, and keep your mouth shut. Do this, and your dat will be well rewarded. Understand?”
Gyneth bit her lip and backed off. Stay out of their way? Easily done.
Just a little ways back towards the camp, she found a large wash, a place where the Azeran River used to flow in earnest. Formed by a boulder nearly twice larger than her dat‘s cottage, the water here used to collect into a deep eddy. Standing in what must have been the deepest part of the pool, she looked up at the boulder and tried to imagine what it was like when the Azeran River was alive. Chavvies and shebaris like her might have found shelter here from the heat, diving into the water from the top of the rock. Chasing fish. Hiding from their elders. Making sport with one another.
She shivered and smiled when a sudden gust of cool air rushed across her legs, stimulating images of diving into shockingly cold water on a hot day.
What fun that must have been!
Halfway enthralled by her own fantasy, she began to search the edges of the pool and then the top of the boulder for signs of those bygone youths-carvings in the stone, lost trinkets-but to no avail. After a fairly thorough exploration, she gave up. They were either long gone or never existed.
Unsure of why this disappointed her so much, she sat on the top of the boulder and sulked, setting aside her small torch and staring out at the night-darkened view. With the moon gone, the stars of Heaven were sprayed across the night sky. Below them, right where the line of the horizon cut into the sky, she could see the distant lights of Tûlas Turmas. Behind her, to the south loomed the black presence of the Sentinel, the first of the Warparty, upon whose foothills they have been traveling all night. She has heard that this great lake wound through the Warparty, connecting them. Or separating them. It sort of depended on how you wanted to look at it.
The lights of Tûlas Turmas shimmered, and she imagined she could hear the festivities. The smells, the food, the music and dancing. She craved the sweetmeats her mother made. Lankinâ Kyot begins tomorrow. Perhaps she would be back in time to enjoy them.
Somewhere, she wasn’t sure where, she could hear Rokeby and Banw yelling at each other. Evidently, their search was not going well. She honestly began to wonder who she has more reason to fear: the sorcerer or the bandit. In the story, “Alfritha and Dyvyr,” the jel’enedra was killed once her usefulness was over. In the story of her own life, how could she be anything more than the simple jel’enedra?
Her eyes roamed around to see the light of the torches gathering as the men met and discussed their situation.
Did they intend to kill her too? How much did they offer her dat for her? What could he possibly do to these men if she never came home?
Very well, perhaps “Alfritha and Dyvyr” wasn’t the best thing for her to think about right now, though the alls-well-that-ends-well ending was always a favorite amongst groundlings like her.
Gyneth smiled. The two lovers became wed upon the shores of a pool like this. She glanced down. And to seal their wedding pact, they threw the rings of their betrothed into the water!
Grinning broadly, she snatched up her torch and scrambled back down into the dried pool. Perhaps her friends from the past left hints of their presence in this pool as well?
Holding her torch close to the ground, she began to search carefully. Interesting. Parts of the smooth rock basin were covered in old dried algae. Seasons of debris and dead and dried weeds choked the bottom. Seasonal rains must fill this basin for a time before the heat dried it out, but with the amount of rain these mountains got, she expected this pool would become much deeper. Perhaps there is sandy soil beneath? She digged about briefly but found only more clay and bedrock.
She shrugged. The water must run off somewhere.
It was an insignificant puzzle, and she quickly lost interest in it-just as she lost interest in searching for lost treasures-there were none to find here. She considered heading back to the horses and trying to find some food.
Another gust of cool air caused her skin to tingle and prickle. With it came the subtle scent of water.
Gyneth stopped. Cool breeze on such a hot summer night? How could such a thing be?
She waited and shortly felt it again. In fact, the longer she waited, the more she realized that the coolness was always there, pulsing softly like breaths.
Holding her torch lower, she watched its flame as it gently swayed. In one direction was that great boulder; in the other, were the descending slopes of the Sentinel and the Dagâ Dainâ Plains beyond.
Eyes alternating between the boulder and her torch, she slowly moved closer. The dark grayness of the stone faded to a natural dull brown as she neared, but beneath at its base, was a slash of darkness that remained solid as night.
Resting her hand on the boulder, Gyneth crouched down and extended her torch.
Gyneth felt extremely alone, isolated, surrounded, as if the weight of the darkness around her was on the brink of crushing her. The roar of ancient water was all around her, the air was thick with the scent and feel of it.
She stood upon the rocky, uneven surface, waist deep in old, slimy water, legs splayed, body thrown back to keep the tension upon the rope. Her small torch was extinguished the moment she landed in this pool. Evidently, this was where all the rainwater ended up. She shivered. All around her was hungry darkness.
The rope jerked and jostled. Dirt, mud, and curses cascaded down upon her, the former getting into her eyes and hair.
She looked away and blinked, not daring to shift her weight or move her feet. When she looked back up, there was the palest of blushes above her. More jerking, more curses, and quickly the stone ceiling acquired definition as light spilled in. It illuminated her dirty body and the rope as it rose upwards. The pool appeared to be about 20 or 30 feet wide.
The cave wasn’t quite as big as her passage downwards had implied. About 20 feet above her, the rope wrapped around the smoothed edge of an outcropping and disappeared.
“Curse you, bitch!” someone shouted down at her, “Are you sure this is the best way down?”
She didn’t answer, as she was unsure of what a response from her would gain, except perhaps a beating.
The moment they tied that rope around her waist and sent her down, she knew why they hired her from her dat. She had always been good at climbing-her dat had always enthusiastically bragged and cursed her skills-but never had she had to do anything like this.
The cave beneath the boulder was large-big enough even for all the men of the group to stand in-but further down… For nearly an hour, she crawled and twisted and pulled, struggling to navigate the treacherous and claustrophobic honeycomb of gaps and passages to gain access to the main passage deep below that Banw assured her she would find.
In actuality, finding this large cavern was easy. Finding a way into it that the men could traverse… aye, that was difficult.
A head, a hand, and a torch appeared over the outcropping. Rokeby nodded down at her and then disappeared again. She could just barely make out him calling back up to the others. When he reappeared, he was smiling, his earlier curses apparently forgotten.
Moments later, he replaced her as the anchor to the rope, and she was forgotten.
The process of bringing down men and equipment began.
“Did you have to find so much water to stand in?”
“Will I still be needed?” she asked in a small voice, “or can I go home?”
“Næ, we still need you. We’ll be bringing all these bags back up soon… but filled and heavy. We’ll need your help in coaxing them through the tight spots.”
“Filled with what?”
“Shut up, and get out of the way!”
The cavern was wider than it was tall. Its walls were smooth and relatively clean. Banw swore this was once a main artery of the Azeran River, or that it is like the main artery, or some such. It was obvious that water used the surge through here. The roar of it was ever-present. Cold, moist air gusted and howled through these tunnels. If what Banw said was true, then somewhere nearby, the great lake above them was slowly pouring into these caverns and flowing the many miles down to the Mi’zak.
Gyneth quietly wound her way through the smoothed, wet stone towers and rounded curves of this place. The water flowing through here has given everything a strange, organic shape. Down slope of the rainwater pool, she found other, smaller pools. Fed by tiny springs and the ever-present mist, small rivers of water ran across the floor, disappearing into the darkness. There were many places to hide but few things to find. Everything smaller than an ox seemed to have been swept away long ago. She stayed out of the way while the others worked.
“Gather the men together,” Banw’s voice echoed from somewhere nearby, “We moves upstream when ready.”
“Wait,” Rokeby answered with sudden tension, “All of them? I thought we had agreed to leave some up top with the horses…”
“All of them,” Banw answered with finality. “The inigena can stay behind. We has na more real use fer her… at least until we begins bringin’ the goods up.”
“Leaving an inigena behind with a team of horses? I don’t think Virbius would approve-”
“Virbius won’t approve of us bein’ late,” Banw interrupted with heat, “which we are due tä the laziness of yer men and the sluggishness of that inigena!”
“Ain’t nothing to do with my men!” Rokeby snapped. “If you had known where the fuck you were going…”
The silence between them seemed to burn the air, and Gyneth dared not move from her place. At last, Banw said, “If yä feels yer men are sä… energetic, here is their opportunity tä prove it. Gather all of them together. We heads upstream. We must finds the treasure quickly. The horses must be loaded, and we must be underway before sunrise. If we fails tä do sä, then Virbius will be displeased. Am I understood, uh?”
There was a pause before Rokeby hissed, “Aye.”
Gyneth slowly released her breath as she heard the men separate. Perhaps it would be best for her to head up now. Better to keep herself far from this gang. Perhaps when she got to the top, she should just run, run far, far away and never stop until she got home.
But treasure? They were in search of treasure here?
In the distance, she heard Rokeby bellow for her, ordering his men to send her up to the horses on the surface. His harsh voice echoed and boomed through the rounded walls, until they were eventually swallowed by the mist and hiss of tumbling water.
Flee? Risk them chasing her? Where else would she go but back to her dat? Where else would they look for her?
Stay? Perhaps get some of this treasure for herself? Would that be possible? What would they do if they caught her? What would they do if they found out she knew?
Stay hidden then, she resolved. Follow them, perhaps. See what this treasure was. Take what she could, and then slip back out before they were the wiser. Aye, she nodded as she silently extinguished her torch in a nearby puddle. That’s what she’d do.
As the group began to move, she remained in the shadows, hidden behind the torches of the men. The very light they used to see blinded them to her nearby presence. Gathering up their packs and tools, and led by Rokeby, they lined up and marched upstream into the darkness.
Banw lagged behind, carefully scanning rough camp with his eyes and then glancing up at the hanging rope. “Where is the inigena?” he asked the last man in the line.
The ifrli shrugged-he was little more than a farmer’s chavvie-and gestured towards the rope. “I heard Rokeby ordered her back up. I suppose that’s where she is.”
Banw nodded, and the two followed the others.
The mist was thicker here, the water sounding more imminent. Gyneth was not sure, but she suspected the floor on her right has fallen away, replacing solid stone with a sharp drop and a roaring, swift underground river. Without a torch, she could not see it, but she could hear and feel its presence.
In order to see, she followed close to the group. The ifrlis‘ torches glowed like Fée orbs ahead of her, illuminating the swirling mist in nearly perfect spheres of light. Unfortunately, they did not provide much visibility in the fog, and the bodies of the men themselves were only suggestions of movement and shadow.
It came, thus, as quite a surprise, when Gyneth’s eyes caught a flash of light in that pitchy black chasm on her right.
There was some discussion ahead of her. The men have stopped and circled around. She could hear Banw’s voice but could not make out the words over the roar of the water. Rokeby’s voice fired back, fatigue and frustration adding an edge to his words. The ifrlis began to shuffle around uncomfortably as their leaders bickered yet again.
Were they turning back? Were they staying? Gyneth groped around for a place to hide. If they came back, they’d surely find her. Short of retreating the way she came, the only possible hiding place was in the darkness of the river chasm.
One of the men waved his torch, and there was that flash of light again.
Curiosity got the better of her.
On hands and knees, she carefully edged closer into the darkness. She could feel the slick ground gradually turn downwards. She splayed her hands and knees farther apart to improve traction, her fingers and toes gripping at whatever purchase they could find in this stone.
“Wait here!” Banw’s voice reached her with sudden clarity.
“Næ,” Rokeby answered. “You’ve been hiding something from us, caragus! You’ve hired plenty of men and horses for this treasure, but we’ve yet to see-” The roar of the caverns swallowed his words again as they moved away.
Gyneth slowly worked her way towards where she remembered seeing the flash of light, and her hand fell upon something unexpected. It was flat and roundish, rough and mossy on one side, smoother on the other. Tree bark? Gingerly, her fingers explored this strange object. What could tree bark be doing down here? Washed down here when the river was swollen by rainwater, she supposed. But judging by what her hands were telling her, this bark belonged to no tree she has ever seen.
Could this be the source of the flashing light? It seemed unlikely that such a rough thing could reflect the torchlight so well, but anything was possible she supposed. Deciding that it was worth it to continue looking, she carefully tucked the bark under her shirt and kept moving.
The men’s voices rose into sudden shouting, much closer than she expected. Startled, she lost her traction and, with a small cry, plunged headfirst into the darkness. Blinded by fear, she flailed around with her hands, seeking anything to slow or stop her fall. The noise of the water below her rushed up from the darkness like a solid wall. She plummeted for what felt like an eternity.
When her senses returned to her, she found herself stopped, her hands planted firmly on a section of flat stone. The roar of water was all around her. Spray soaked her arms and face, and its buffeting pounded through her body. She was very close to the river it seemed.
Carefully, she got her feet beneath her and crouched on her little ledge. The cave above her suddenly filled with light, as the ifrlis rushed to where she was hiding. “I heard something!” someone shouted.
Gyneth crouched lower. Their boots and sandals were mere inches from her face. Evidently, her downward plunge wasn’t as far as it felt. She made herself small and hoped they didn’t look down.
“Was it the inigena?” Banw muttered angrily.
“I don’t know, but I heard it too.”
“I’ve seen næ bats in this cave, have you?”
“I ain’t seen næ thing in this cave. Næ bats, næ treasure.”
The men searched about halfheartedly, the argument still heavy in the air around them.
Abruptly, Banw spoke, “Very well. I’ve little interest in arguin’ with yä. Me orders were fer yer protection only. Yä does not know what we’re dealin’ with here… and I knows little more than yä. We goes in as a group, but yä touches nothin‘ until I have said it is safe, understood?”
“What’re you saying, stone-summoner?” Rokeby growled. “There’s magic up beyond? Guardians? Spirits?”
“I just told yä I knows little more than yä. But Virbius gave me very specific instructions on how the goods are tä be handled. Fer our safety, we does it his way, yäh?”
Dismissing any other discussion, Banw turned and headed back up the passage. With a snort and sneer, Rokeby stormed back down towards their camp, shoving men aside. He passed his torch about, giving the darkness a cursory examination. Despite winning this battle with the sorcerer, he didn’t seem happy.
“Well, you heard the man!” he bellowed as he turned back. “We’re all going in, but you touch nothing until he’s done what he has to do! Understand?”
The ifrlis muttered and nodded, giving their leader a wide berth as he stalked after Banw. They fell in behind him quickly and nearly fell over themselves when he suddenly turned around again. He eyed the darkness over Gyneth’s head one more time. “One of you stay here,” he muttered. “Let us know if you hear anything more.”
The ifrlis looked at each other uneasily and silently agreed that the job would go to the youngest, smallest of their number. It was the boy Banw spoke with earlier, and as the others moved upwards, he was left behind with only the light of his torch-and the hidden Gyneth-for company. Miserable and terrified by his lot, his eyes darted back and forth as they searched the darkness. Slowly, he backed away from the sounds of the river and pressed himself against the far wall. Holding his torch in his hands, his hands between his knees, he slid down to the floor and waited.
Gyneth wanted to suggest he stop staring into that torch, lest he’ll never see anything coming, but she chose to hold her piece.
The boy’s location was fortuitous. Glancing to her right, Gyneth saw the glimmer of light again, a nearly perfect circle flashing with the guttering of the torch.
The men’s voices grew distant and indistinct as she eased closer to the light. It seemed near the edge of the river, and she approached it gingerly.
The men’s voices rose in excitement. She could not hear what they’re saying, but they certainly seemed happy. There were cheers and even some laughter.
The circle of light was just out of her reach, and she cursed quietly as the boy stirred in reaction to the cries of joy. The circle disappeared and reappeared erratically, and her eyes had difficulty remembering where it was in the darkness.
Pressing herself flat against the steep stone slope, she stretched her arm. It grew quiet again up the passage-broken occasionally by what sounds like chanting-and the boy sighed and returned to his seat. The light reappeard, mere inches from her fingertips.
The piece of bark bit into the skin of her belly as she stood on the toes of one foot and carefully leaned further and further out. She was not sure what was beneath her-safe stone or a raging, sucking rapid-but chill spray tickled her legs, so she took no chances. Slowly reaching further and further across the darkness, her fingers at last touched the light and found it cool, hard, and solid. Crawling their way across, her fingertips could feel its smooth, irregular surface.
Grunting quietly with effort, she finally closed her fingers around it. She clutched it tightly in her fist for a moment before slowly easing back. She was shocked by the weight of its small size.
When she felt that the majority of her weight is back over her feet, she collapsed with relief and excitement and explored her new prize.
Her fingers told her it is a coin, rough serrations around its edge, some sort of picture on either side. It was heavy, so very heavy. Heavier than the coppers her dat so carefully counted at their dinner table.
She slyly raised it above the lip of the cave floor until it caught the firelight of the chavvie‘s torch. It glowed like blood. When she turned it in her fingers, she saw the suggestion of a regal profile on one side, something sinuous on the other.
There was a scream.
The cave trembled, almost imperceptibly at first. Then it shuddered again, and she clutched the coin to her breast. She stood and peeked over the ledge. The boy’s attention was drawn up towards where the ifrlis went. After that scream, it grew strangely quiet up there.
The cave trembled. A split second later, a howl beyond Gyneth’s understanding banged and crashed through the tunnel. It chilled and terrified her beyond her ability to reason. With the last echoes fading in her ears, every instinct in her soul demanded her to flee, but her feet remained firmly planted in their place. She could hear the screams of the men. They were hopeless, animal cries, mindless, as if they were unable to comprehend what was happening to them.
The cave was shaking as if something huge was throwing its weight against its walls. There was another roar, more screams, followed by deafening crashes. The end of the hall blinked into clear visibility as waves of orange light spilled around a bend. A gust of fetid, searingly hot air struck Gyneth in the face.
Blinking past the light, she could see the cave here was much larger than she thought, larger even than the cavern where they entered. It continued nearly 40 more yards upstream before it turned out of sight. The floor sloped unevenly downwards, from left to right and from back to front. She was standing on a shallow ledge, near its lowest point. Below her, was a silvery stream of enraged water, coiling and churning its way through the cave with insane speed.
Gyneth made eye contact with the boy. Her fear was reflected in his eyes. “Run,” he whispered.
“Run!” she answered.
All was suddenly quiet ahead of them. Only a regular suggestion of breathing seemed to rise above the roar of the river next to them. The cave grew dark again, with only a faint flickering of light suggesting the details of the walls and floor.
“Run,” the chavvie whispered, offering her his torch.
“Run,” she urged back.
“Li’ sa’ eer!!!” Rokeby’s voice suddenly howled from ahead of them, his terror sending new chills down her spine. “RUN! RUN!”
Gyneth and the chavvie stood transfixed as sudden commotion filled the tunnel ahead of them. She could hear the men scrambling, heading her way. She could hear something huge launch itself into pursuit. Whatever it was, they were bringing it to her.
There was motion up ahead in the darkness. And suddenly, the tunnel was flooded with blazing light, three fleeing forms silhouetted before it. The fire moved like an animal, filling the cavern, banking off the turn, chasing down, and enveloping the men. Heat blasted and blistered Gyneth’s face. The breath was sucked from her lungs, and she was thrown forward against the lip of her ledge, as if the fire hungered for her as well. The cool mist in the air and the dewed water on her skin turned to steam instantly.
Then there was darkness, a pummeling and battering of her body and ears, and cool water spraying her face. Staggering to her feet, she peeked out from her hiding place. Three burning skeletons laid where the men once were, flesh and fat spitting and melting onto the cave floor. Rokeby’s golden teeth trembled in the heat and then collapsed into molten puddles.
Gyneth glanced over to see the boy laying on the ground next to her. His face was blackened and bleeding, his hair and clothes smoking.
Her free hand found his fallen torch, and she scooped it up as she scrambled off the ledge.
“Run!” she hissed, pulling at his arm. His skin crackled. In the guttering light of the fires, she saw the shadows of something huge slinking towards them, sliding itself around the bend upstream. The boy layed transfixed. “Run!” she urged.
She heard a deep, low growl. Two great saucers suspended high in the darkness reflected the light of her small torch.
With a howl of madness, the chavvie leapt to his feet and charged. “Banw!” he screamed mindlessly, “He will help us!”
Gyneth moaned in terror and surprise as he shoved past her towards the creature. The light of her fire suggested a wall of endless coils, muscle, and power. Without warning, a great talon dropped out the darkness. The chavvie shrieked as his bones and body were crushed.
As if curious by its work, the beast lifted its paw to inspect the damage.
Gyneth’s courage failed, and she fled.
She ran through the darkness, her small torch and her memory her only guides. Great rounded shapes of stone loomed unexpectedly out at her as she tumbled downwards. She tripped and fell, leaving much skin and blood on the rock before she found her feet again and continued running.
As if playing with its prey, the creature behind her was slow to react. She imagined it casually sucking up the boy’s dieing body, crushing it in its jaws, savoring the taste before finally swallowing.
When it began its pursuit, it was distant. But it closed the distance rapidly.
Gyneth was surprised by how quickly she reached the camp. Their torches were still lit-the fetid pond shining in their light-the remains of their equipment strewn about in orderly piles. At the very center of the pond was the rope.
She didn’t break her stride as she plunged into the water. Throwing her torch aside, she leapt and caught the rope, pulling herself up hand-over-hand with practiced ease. She reached the first ledge and rolled herself over, just as the cavern filled with the thunder of the beast. The pool exploded as it surged through, scattering the torches and equipment. It paused in a brief inspection of the camp before charging downstream.
Gyneth didn’t hesitate. Leaping to her feet, she scurried up the tunnel, following the winding path of the rope back to the surface.
There was a roar of rage below her, and the rope was suddenly torn from her grasp. Gyneth had to make a hasty grab for the walls to keep from being pulled down with it. The cave shook violently as a huge claw reached upwards in an effort to snag her. Rock and dirt fell all around her as she felt the creature digging upwards. She heard boulders crashing into the water below.
Gyneth climbed as fast as she could. She reached the topmost cave just as she heard the great inhalation. With a desperate scream, she leapt for the surface, rolling herself into the dried pool. Seconds later, the night was lit by fire from below.
She crawled away as quickly as her wounded body allowed. She began to shake. Exhaustion and fear and injury threatened to overwhelm her.
The crashes from underground continued as the beast vented its fury, struggling upwards to find her. Was she safe here? The quakes grew stronger. The great boulder above the wash shifted and then sank. Could it actually be digging its way out?
Something caught her eye. It was a thin trickle of water, streaming out from behind the boulder. With the next tremor, the boulder moved again, and it became a torrent. And then without warning, a great wall of water plunged towards her as Lake Azeran spilled into the wash.
Gyneth tried to turn and run, but she was far too slow. The water struck her, lifting her and bowling her over and over. Then just as suddenly, it sucked her backwards. She flailed about, trying to find some sort of purchase with her hands and feet, and finally caught herself on a rock. The waters pulled at her viciously, and it was several seconds before she dared lift her head.
In the blackness of the night, the river swirled around the great boulder and disappeared into the caverns below. The earth shook. Slowly, slowly, the boulder shifted and rolled and sunk. There was another tremor, and then it disappeared beneath the water entirely. Gyneth stood and watched. A great whirlpool formed where the rock once stood. Slowly, the water around her ankles disappeared.
Limping to their camp, Gyneth found the horses frightened but otherwise unhurt. Clutching a guttering torch, she found some protected shelter and resolved to hide until daybreak.
In the light of the fire, she inspected the coin. It was gold and beautiful. On the obverse, a stern-looking king glared back at her. Turning it over, she saw a dragon coiled in a figure-8, consuming its own tail.
Tired of the bark biting into her skin, she pulled it from under her shirt. Before she could toss it aside, something about its features in the torchlight drew her eye, and she stayed her hand. The torchlight revealed it to be no bark. It was a great, leathery scale, covered in ancient moss and lichen.
Far beneath her, the earth shook.