Chapter 4: What Lies Beneath
Early the following day, Cora led the Dragonslayers up the hill once more to the base of Wilder Tower along what was becoming a well-beaten path. The guards touched their helms in acknowledgement and opened the door for them. “I think you’re doin’ a good thing,” one of them said.
Cora nodded at him as they entered the tower. “I sure hope so.”
“Back again,” Ordin muttered as they encircled the central fountain on the ground floor. He held a green-tinted lighted rock over the well and shook his head. “I still don’t see nothin’. This is stupid. It ain’t even physically possible to put doors in the side of a well.”
Cora shrugged at him. “I’m telling you what I saw on the sheet.”
“What, after a sleepless night? Sure you weren’t just seein’ stuff?”
She cut him an icy glare. “I wasn’t delusional, Ordin Austmil-Clay. A songsage’s translative song clearly works on written text as easily as it does the spoken word.”
The mystic gestured to the brackish water below. “Well, it ain’t there.”
Cora sighed softly and tossed her lighted rock into the depths. With a dull ploop, the glowing stone sank into the depths, illuminating less the further it went. Stone sides coated with slime, bits of half-sunk detritus, a circular horizontal shaft…
“Dere it ees!” Cuauhtérroc shouted, then he dove over the ledge.
A huge splash and a volley of irritated voices followed as the others vainly fended off a spray of fetid water.
Cora looked down in shock. What the rink?
A couple of minutes later, Cuauhtérroc resurfaced. He shook his head, spraying both water and slimy surface film. “It ees too deep. Cora O’Banion, give to me another of dees light rocks.”
The songsage rolled her eyes. “You know, I could have done that before you jumped in.” She handed him a second stone, and Cuauhtérroc inhaled deeply and dove down again with the light in hand. As he crept along the sides of the well, the light again faded from view.
“Ordin,” Cora said, “what’s he doing?”
“Well,” the mystic replied, peering harder into the murky water, “he’s pullin’ himself down stonework that probably ain’t seen a light in many centuries. And…there’s the ledge. He’s starin’ at somethin’…lemme move around over here. He’s pullin’ himself into the shaft.”
“He’s doin’ what?” Elric asked.
“He found a door,” Ordin said. “I can just see it from this angle. It’s got a round handle…so I take it back—there is a stupid door in the side of this well.” He frowned and rubbed his chin. “What do you reckon will happen when he gets it open?”
Cuauhtérroc set the rock on the bottom of the shaft and grabbed the wheel with both hands. It resisted, and the savage braced himself along the insides of the shaft for leverage, wrapping both arms around the wheel. His breath escaped in short grunts and bubbles rose to the surface.
“Cora!” Ordin’s voice rose in panic. “You gotta get him outta there!”
Cora leaned over the edge of the well, straining to see what the half-Vashanti’s eyes afforded him. “Me? I don’t know—”
With a sudden lurch, the door ripped away from Cuauhtérroc’s hands, swinging violently outward. Immense pressure rushed at him from behind as tons of water from overhead pushed down with tremendous force, vacating the well through the newly opened shaft.
The lighted rock vanished with innumerable gallons of water.
“Oh no!” Cora gasped as the light washed away.
With surprising quickness, the water in the well receded to the level of the shaft, exiting with a giant sucking sound that reverberated throughout the tower. Then all fell silent.
Cora quickly retrieved a third illuminated rock and held it over the well. The water was twenty feet lower, clearly showing a horizontal round shaft coated with algae. A metal door hung open at the end and a shallow stream of water trickled across the shaft and out the door as the well attempted to refill.
Cuauhtérroc was gone.
“Well, I’ll be jiggered…” Elric muttered.
Before Cora could process what she had seen, Ordin jumped into the depths. When he resurfaced, he followed with a shrill whistle. Shinnick jumped onto the well’s ledge, balanced for a second, and then dove in after his master.
“What in the Nine Hells are y’all doin’?” Elric hollered down the well.
Ordin guided his wolf to the open shaft. He spoke some words into Shinnick’s ear, and then pushed him through the open metal door.
Cora bit her bottom lip.
The mystic hoisted himself onto the ledge of the shaft and looked up the well to Elric and Cora. “Well, are you comin’?” he asked, then he disappeared through the door.
Elric glanced over at the young songsage. “Ya look like ya seen a ghost.”
“They jumped in the well!” Cora screeched, her arms thrust forward. “They’re gone!”
“So, I reckon we oughtta jump in after ‘em.”
Cora stared at him in disbelief. “Why? Why does everyone insist on leaping into things without a plan? You and that dragon, Ordin and the shadow woman, and now Cuauhtérroc jumps in a rancid cistern and gets sucked into who knows where. This is lunacy!”
Elric shrugged. “I dunno about that, but I reckon we gotta go.” He looked down at his heavy armor. “Only thang is, I’m gonna sink like a rock.”
“Cripe!” Cora yelled as she slammed her hands down on the stone ledge. She growled and shot an angry look up to the ceiling. Pointing at the shaft, she glared at Elric, “That is the stupidest thing I have ever seen in my life. And I’ve seen you guys do some pretty stupid things.”
“Um…ok…” Elric said uneasily, “but we still have to go.”
“I know that,” Cora said as she dry-scrubbed her face.
“So…um…I really don’ wanna take all this armor off.”
He was right; with all that gear he would sink straight to the unseen depths. Cora thought about it for a moment. The right sorts of musical strains could lift spirits and raise hopes. Perhaps a songsage’s melody could carry aloft more than words. “Come here and sit on the edge,” she said, indicating a spot directly above the open shaft, “feet dangling inside the well. Let me try something.”
“You ain’t gonna push me in?”
Cora cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
Elric grinned at her. “That’s what I would do.”
“Yes, I know. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m only going to float you down—I think—and you’re going to take my new lute so it doesn’t get wet.”
“Are ya jumpin’ in?” the fighter asked with surprise.
Cora shrugged sheepishly. “I don’t have a choice, Elric. For reasons nobody knows, a songsage can’t affect himself.”
Elric hopped onto the ledge of the well and swung his legs around so that they dangled on the inside. Cora played and sang a swelling refrain that intensified through ever-changing chord progressions. Every fifth chord circled back on one that had come before, while the whole tune modulated around a tonal focus. Around the well, loose rocks began to lift from the ground, wobbling just above the surface.
Elric shifted uneasily. “Wow, Cora. Feels like I passed wind an’ blew myself right off my seat.”
The music grinded to an immediate halt as Cora tossed her arms in the air. Airborne pebbles clattered on the stone floor. You’re such a moron. She lifted the lute over her head, gave it to Elric, and pushed him into the well.
Elric shrieked as he lost his perch, and to both his and Cora’s dismay, he plummeted into the depths.
Cora lurched over the edge, holding her breath. What have I done? She climbed onto the ledge, braced herself, and inhaled as much air as she could hold.
Elric’s entire body burst through the water’s surface, lifting briefly above the surface before splashing down again. Despite his heavy armor, he remained afloat, and as he bobbed on the surface, he laughed aloud. “What a rush! I never even touched bottom, but I just shot up purt near as fast as I fell. Like the well done spit me out.”
He pulled himself along the wall to the curved ledge of the horizontal shaft. As he crawled into the shaft, the well echoed with another loud splash. Water sprayed across Elric, and waves sloshed over him. Moments later, Cora’s head broke the surface, her scarlet hair was now a dark auburn and matted to her face and neck. Elric inched toward the door and the utter darkness beyond it to make room for Cora.
Cora pulled herself onto the ledge, and Elric handed the lute back to her. “Sorry it got all wet,” he said with a shrug, “but ya did push me in.”
The songsage frowned at her lute, turned it over and smoldered as brackish water poured from the holes in the resonance chamber. “Well, that didn’t quite work like I had hoped, but here we are.” She looked past him and into the blackness of the hole. She pulled the last rock from her pocket and held it aloft, but the light revealed only darkness beyond the door. The churn of flowing water echoed from below. “So, where are we?”
“Lemme see it,” Elric said, pointing to the light. He took the shining pebble and poked his head through the door. Moments later he slid back into the shaft. “It ain’t nuttin’ but dark. A huge cavern. I mean—if you don’t mind my sayin’—rinkin huge. There’s a rusted-out an’ tore up platform jis under this’ere door, hangin’ on by a thread. I shore wouldn’t bet my life on it holdin’ up, but sometimes ya gotta risk it fer the biscuit.”
Cora squinted at him. “How’d Cuauhtérroc and Ordin get down?”
“I dunno. I reckon ol’ Cuauhtie jis shot out like a constipated—”
“Sorry,” he said, blushing. “I forget yer a lady sometimes. Ordin…well, he an’ Shinnick prolly clambered on down ‘at rickety thang. Or jumped. I mean, if it don’t kill ya, it jis makes ya stronger, right? Except fer ‘at creepy little girl across my street, Molly Dagle. She’ll kill ya.”
Hope vanished with a deflated sigh. “I suppose.” An oppressive weight settled onto Cora’s shoulders. Cuauhtérroc and Ordin may have fallen to their deaths. But Elric’s life was in her hands. The gravity of her decision bore down and ground her into the stonemasonry. I can’t help what the others did, but how do I in good conscience send Elric to an unknown fate? She sighed. “We have to find them. There’s simply no way we can leave them down there.”
Elric nodded. “I reckon ‘at’s true an’ all. But I shore could use another of them light rocks.”
Cora pointed to his glowing hand. “What’s wrong with the one you have?”
“I’m gonna toss it.”
“Well, I don’t, but here…” She sang another illuminating song, holding the glowing orb in her hand.
Elric tossed his rock out the door, watching it with his head poked through the opening as it fell. Moments later he pulled his head back and sat against the curved side of the shaft. “Well…it’s a long ways down, but there’s water at the bottom. If ya got another of them floaty songs, I could use it ‘bout now.”
Cora sang softly with her eyes partially closed. The shaft reverberated with the subtle melody, and as the notes passed over Elric, Cora studied him closely, searching for magical signatures.
“What’re ya d—”
Cora silenced him with an upheld finger. “There,” she said. “That ‘floaty song’ is still active on you, so if you’re going to jump into the water, be sure you don’t miss.”
Without warning, Elric leaned over and kissed Cora on the mouth, a quick peck that surprised her with its audacity and abruptness. She gaped at him in disbelief.
“Who knows…” he said, turning back to face the blackness, “this might be the end, an’ I don’ wanna die havin’ never kissed a girl.” He crawled through the doorway, and with a quick yelp, he dropped out of Cora’s sight.
A splash echoed up from the darkness, and Cora noted with considerable clarity that her heart had sunk to the pit of her stomach. And when she heard nothing more from him—no shouts, no groans, not even a scream—she presumed the worst. They’re all dead. Something in the back of Cora’s mind told her they were not dead, but only because she really needed them to still be alive. She had to follow; there was simply no other option. If she faltered now and they were still alive, they would forever despise her cowardice. If they were in peril, they would need her aid. If they were all dead—
She couldn’t consider that option. She simply had to go. The stubborn truth was that there was no other way out of the well, unless she closed the circular door and waited for the water to refill the shaft.
Cora uttered a quick prayer to the Maker and crawled to the end of the shaft. Her illuminated rock revealed exactly what Elric had described—a large cavern and a wasted-away scaffolding under the shaft held together only by its own rust. The bottom was well beyond the reaches of her light. From somewhere amid the darkness the echoes of cascading water resounded, but she had no clue about its source.
“Hello?” she called out, but her voice died somewhere in the void, muted and limp. This is horrible. Why don’t I see specks of light from the others? Why can’t I hear them? O, Maker, please let them be alive.
Cora sang her illuminating song, producing a fresh light in her hand. She leaned through the round door and dropped the older lighted rock. An eternity passed, and the sound of it hitting the floor below never reported. Rather, the light reflected glimmers of water before breaking the surface, then refracted through expanding waves from its splash until it faded from view, descending into the depths below. At least I know there’s deep water below me. There’s still hope.
With a sigh of resignation and the full knowledge that she would not re-enter Wilder Tower through the well, Cora drew in her breath and rolled the Bones.
Her light-in-hand illumined her descent, and with surprising speed a sparkling stream rose up to meet her. She held her breath and squeezed shut her eyes, bracing for impact. The icy waters were well over her head, and as Cora resurfaced, an involuntary scream broke free of her trembling lips.
“What the cripe!” she exclaimed after swimming to shore and stepping into the constant cool of the Subterrain.
“It’s about time you showed up,” Ordin said.
The chill sweeping through Cora’s body jolted her afresh, and she shuddered violently as waves of spasms swept through her. She spun around, shining her lighted hand in the mystic’s face.
A smirk played at the edge of his alabaster lip. “Glad you could join us.”
She shined her light around. “Is everybody here?”
“Yeah. We’ve been waitin’ on you to bring that light. All our torches got wet.”
Cora frowned at him. “You make light.”
The smirk broke into a full grin. “But it’s more fun to watch you fall in the dark.”
“Ordin! That is so mean! I was worried sick about you. I thought you were all dead.”
“Then why in the Nine Hells did you jump outta that well?”
Cora glared at him, unsure whether to slap him with her left hand or her right. “Because I thought you might still be alive.” The right hand would leave her radiant light affixed to his cheek. Tempting.
“Come on,” Ordin indicated with a wave of his arm, “they’re waitin’ for us just ‘round the corner.”
Cora followed the mystic around a small cluster of stalagmites where Cuauhtérroc, Elric, and Shinnick sat amongst a field of glowing mushrooms. Amid the soft blue-green glow, they prepared for a trek through the unknown darkness, the caverns of the deep known as the Subterrain. Fearsome things called it home, and only the foolhardy spent any length of time exploring the worlds below. But to Cora’s amazement, Ordin showed no signs of duress.
“You seem quite relaxed, Ordin,” she said in hushed tones. Speaking aloud seemed entirely out of place in a vast cavern system.
The mystic nodded and fed a piece of jerky to Shinnick. “Yeah…I’m good. I’m better than good. There’s probably a whole clan of Roark down here, but I really don’t rinkin care. Nine Hells, let’s just make camp here. I wanna sleep in the Subterrain without havin’ nightmares, just ‘cause I can.”
“We do not sleep here,” Cuauhtérroc said, clutching his macana. “We go.”
Cora studied the savage’s stern face. In the mushroom glow, it was hard to make out his expression. “What is it, Cuauhtie?”
Cuauhtérroc stood and adjusted his panther pelt. “Something is here, and so we go now.”
“Can we get some more light?” Elric asked. “I tossed all my rocks in the caves upstairs.”
Ordin breathed a greenish light into being and placed it on a loose rock. “Here. Don’t lose it.” Cora started to sing, but Ordin grabbed her arm. “No…keep it quiet and no white light. We gotta not stand out so much.”
Following Cuauhtérroc’s lead and guided by a pair of soft green lights, the Dragonslayers trekked beside the stream, taking careful steps across the damp, uneven floor. They had not traveled far when Cuauhtérroc’s light revealed a mass of scaly skeletons lying about the cavern. Several showed signs of charring.
Ordin poked at one of the bodies, and a portion of the scaly husk broke off at his feet. Cora bit her lip and turned aside.
“Hodekin,” the mystic said, “and dead several weeks by the looks of it.”
“What’s a hodekin?” Cora asked. “Dragon-blood, I presume.”
Ordin nodded. “It was canine at some point, but the spines, horns, and scaly tails…dead giveaways. By Creation, I hate these things. Makes a mockery of my Shinnick. Plus, they breed like roaches.”
Cora shuddered. “So many dead…what could have done this?”
A flash of glowing eyes reflected in the light, scampering across the near distance before disappearing.
“Did y’all see that?” Elric hissed.
Ordin nodded. “We ain’t alone.”
Abruptly, Cuauhtérroc marched away from the stream. “We go dees way.” He waded through the vast sea of hodekin bodies, dismembered and torn, as if ripped to shreds by an army of vicious swordsmen. The further he went, the more hodekin corpses lay in pieces. Long ago they had bled out and putrefied, and the macabre scene turned Cora’s stomach.
“For the love of Beauty,” she breathed.
Another set of glowing eyes caught Cuauhtérroc’s attention, and he darted off, running despite the floor slick with limewater. Taking one of Ordin’s mystical lights with him, he clambered up a small rise, stood there for a moment, and disappeared down the other side.
“Go!” Ordin cried, sending Shinnick ahead.
On the other side of the rise, his light revealed a natural passageway, a fissure in the larger cavern that twisted and curved into blackness. Into this fissure Cuauhtérroc’s silhouette faded, and the others scampered to follow him, weapons at the ready.
After a pair of sharp bends, a small anteroom opened to their left while the passage continued around a bend to the right. They squeezed through a narrow opening to find themselves in a high-ceilinged room. Multicolored strata of rock glistened with moisture that accumulated in small puddles on the floor before seeping back into the limestone.
In the center of the chamber, Cuauhtérroc stared at a circular stone archway, hand-carved from a single block of gray granite. It was covered with intricate imagery depicting various cityscapes and arcane symbols. Competing with the savage’s light, a shimmering glow filled the archway from top to bottom with thin diaphanous waves of pale blue energy. At Cuauhtérroc’s feet lay a freshly slain hodekin.
As the savage stood before the structure in reverent silence, Elric dashed around the archway several times with the excitement of a puppy. Ordin and Cora joined Cuauhtérroc’s cautious stance from a safe distance against the wall.
“Ya really oughtta see whatcha look like through this thang,” Elric chortled from the far side. “It’s weird. Hey, watch what happens when I toss this rock in it.” He flipped a small stone into the waves of pale blue and as it passed through, the stone was briefly limned in a brilliant ring before it disappeared. Delighted, he grabbed another rock.
“Elric,” Cora cautioned, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Why don’t you step away from it for a moment?”
“It’s only a rock…”
“Stop throwing rocks at things.”
Elric’s shoulders slumped and the rock fell from his limp hand. “Yes, ma’am.”
“There are runes carved into the stone across the top,” Cora said. She stepped closer and held her light aloft. “They’re written in a language I don’t know and coated with lime deposits; this must have stood here for hundreds of years. Perhaps thousands.”
Ordin raised an eyebrow at her. “You do know lime deposits can accumulate in a matter of weeks.”
Cora shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. If this is what I think it is, it’s one of the greatest finds ever: a magic portal, a gateway to another place.” Her words tapered off as she studied it. But why is it beneath Wilder Tower?
“What’s at the other end?” Ordin asked.
“I can’t tell,” Cora answered. “It could lead to literally anywhere in Alikon, Arelatha, Kreth…or even a completely different dimension.”
The mystic furrowed his brow. “That’s stupid. That’s not even physically possible. I mean, Nine Hells, Cora—”
“Exactly. It could lead to the Nine Hells. That’s why we do not want to open it until I’ve worked out where it goes. Plus, there’s no guarantee we could get back.”
“Well, lemme jis tell ya where it goes,” Elric announced.
Cora saw it coming. She saw every detail unfold as time slowed to a crawl. She wanted to cry out, but her brain was frozen in the plodding inevitability, captivated by the lunacy on display. All she could do was watch with dread, flinching in sympathetic pain as Elric grabbed the side of the archway and plunged his head through the shimmering waves. To her horror, nothing emerged on the other side. The realization that Elric’s head had been magically transported to another place shocked the senses, and as her mind returned to normal time, she found her voice.
He didn’t move, neither walking the rest of the way in nor pulling his head back out to describe what he’d seen.
“Elric, stop fooling around.”
He simply stood there with his body in the cave and his head elsewhere.
Cora glanced briefly at the other two. “Would you pull him out of there?”
“I dunno,” Ordin answered. “Can’t we enjoy some peace and quiet for a while?”
Cuauhtérroc shook his head. “We go now. We need to find dees old man and keel dees neeser.”
“It’s hodekin down here,” Ordin said, walking around to grab Elric’s arm. “There’s a difference.”
With a jolt, Elric’s body went stiff. His legs thrashed, his booted feet scraping against the slick floor in a desperate attempt to pull back. The hand that held the side of the archway now grasped every possible fingerhold with a white-knuckled grip. Ordin grasped his other arm and pulled.
A hundred different scenarios played out in Cora’s mind. He could be under attack, drowning in the bottom of a sea, becoming fused with solid rock, having his head eaten by a jinadaar…
“Cuauht, grab his legs!” Ordin shouted. “Help me get him out of here!”
Cuauhtérroc rushed around the archway, where both men grabbed one of Elric’s legs and pulled. With a surprised grunt, Ordin lost his grip and fell backward against the far wall of the chamber. Something held Elric fast; something with a much stronger grip. Something that did not want to let go.
The savage locked his arms around Elric’s leg and dug his heels in, sinews in his neck standing out with the strain. Ordin scampered back to his feet and followed the example. They groaned, struggling with all their combined might, but instead of extricating his body, they thrashed about with him, as all the muscles in Elric’s torso and legs quaked under extreme duress.
“Elric!” Cora screamed again.
Shinnick’s fur bristled, and he growled fiercely at the stone arch.
Ordin and Cuauhtérroc redoubled their efforts, the sounds of struggle filling the small cavern. “On three, Cuauht,” Ordin said between labored breaths. “One. Two. Three!”
Elric’s body hardly budged, and as the two men paused to readjust, Elric slipped even further into the pale blue film.
“The rinkin thing’s pullin’ him in!” Ordin yelled.
Cora scanned the text near the top of the arch. Two small words.
“I think we have to open the portal.”
“Cripe, Cora,” Ordin grunted as he wrestled with Elric, “why would you wanna do that?”
“I think we have to…or you let him go.” With those words coming out of her mouth, an immense weight settled onto Cora’s shoulders. And the Maker save us from whatever comes through. “I’ll have to translate the text.”
“Well, hurry…we’re losin’ him!”
Cora pulled her new lute around and strummed. The top string was out of tune, and the songsage cursed. Must have detuned from the cold river.
The cavern echoed with the dull, accursed monotony of pling after pling, each a fraction of a note higher, until it finally tuned to the fourth of the adjacent string. “There,” Cora breathed at last, and she strummed a well-tuned chord.
She focused on the text across the arch and played through the progression of her translative song. It was a longer tune, requiring several modulations and more patience than anyone possessed.
“Cora!” Ordin yelled. “Hurry up!”
She could offer no reply, nor could she expedite the melody. She could only hope Ordin and Cuauhtérroc held on long enough for her to finish. Her fingers moved with expertise across the fretboard, each note woven with the swelling magic of spellsong. Almost done…
“Cora!” Ordin’s face was turning various shades of red as he strained. Veins stood out on the savage’s forehead and neck. But still the two clung to Elric’s legs with everything they had.
With the final note of translation played, Cora spoke aloud the words written across the archway. “Be opened.” And dancing just out of reach in the back recesses of her mind, Cora could hear her tongue speaking foreign words she did not know.
The iridescent blue film evaporated.
Ordin and Cuauhtérroc hurtled backward as Elric’s limp body was released from the portal. All three tumbled like rag dolls against the back wall of the cave, piling up against each other in an exhausted, tangled heap.
Cora’s jaw slowly gaped. The portal was open, but instead of horrid creatures spilling out—instead of ending reality in a calamitous rout of hellish nightmares—a refreshing scene spread out before her, pastoral and inviting. Manicured grass edged a neat pond under a tree with spindly branches that hung low over the water. In the near distance, a white farmhouse with a picket fence nestled among various unrecognizable trees. Beside the house was a shiny red object like a stagecoach, but its wheels were much smaller and wider, and the whole thing sat far too close to the ground. Children played in the intervening grass, running about with a brown oblong ball. It was all delightfully quaint and inviting, yet foreign and unfamiliar.
Gradually, Cora refocused on a faint humming that pulsed from the portal. However pleasant the imagery on the other side, however intriguing, they had no business entering that yard.
“Be closed,” she said through her translative spellsong. The scene faded to a pale, shimmering blue until the gossamer membrane was all that remained.
Elric’s moan arrested her thoughts, and she rushed to his side. An ugly pink ring ran diagonally around his neck where the energy field had contacted him the longest. She felt around the mark for signs of injury, and heaved a deep sigh of relief that he was alive.
“You deed it, Cora O’Banion,” Cuauhtérroc said with a weary grin. “You opened dees door.”
While they rested, Elric began to stir. He sat up, rubbing his neck.
“Where am I?” he said at last. “Hey look! What’s that doorway lookin’ thingy? Weird…I wonder what it looks like on the other side.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Ordin said, grabbing Elric’s arm. “You’re sittin’ right here until we’re done restin’, and then we’re leavin’.”
The mystic checked Elric’s eyes, his ears, and the ring around his neck. He asked the ex-soldier a series of questions about his former days as a city guardsman and their time together as freeblades. He remembered everything up to kissing Cora, which elicited a chuckle from the mystic.
“About that,” Cora said with narrowed eyes and a raised hand. “Don’t you ever steal a kiss from me again.”
Elric hung his head. “Yes, ma’am.”
Cora recounted to him the bitter struggle to free him from the pale blue energy field. To her great consternation, he suggested they all go through it to seek the adventures of the other side. “It ain’t even like we’re leavin’ Westmeade,” he said.
“No…think, Elric” Cora countered. “We might not be able to come back. We’re on a mission for the High Council of Westmeade to solve the mystery of Wilder Tower. That portal, as fascinating as it is, is a complete diversion. There’s no reas—”
Cora cut her sentence short, her eyes locked onto a faint orange radiance on the walls of the crevasse through which they had entered. “Is that a fire?”
Ordin’s eyes narrowed. “There’s never just one hodekin.”
Cuauhtérroc tightened his grip on his macana and led the way back through the narrow corridor. “We go now.”
As the fissure opened again into the larger central cavern, several torches bobbed among the field of hodekin corpses, held aloft by hunched creatures, spiny and crudely dressed, wandered among the slain, picking through the remains for things of value. Cora frowned as living hodekin rummaged through their own with calloused indifference.
Elric kicked a rock as he emerged from the crevasse, and the roving hodekin raised up to face the sound.
“Cripe,” Cora hissed. “I swear, one day a rock is going to be your undoing.”
“Sorry,” Elric whispered.
“Let’s get ‘em,” Ordin said. “There can’t be more than a dozen out there. Shinnick, akati!”
The wolf bounded forward, teeth bared, and swung wide to the left as Ordin raced wide to the right.
“Dat is good,” Cuauhtérroc said with a nod. “I go in dees meedle.” He rushed forward into the midst of the fallen bodies. Elric and Cora ran after him, with sword and lute drawn.
Soon, the small number of hodekin survivors huddled together near the stream’s edge. The freeblades pressed in, pushing the hodekin closer to the water.
“What’s that smell?” Elric asked. “Kinda stangs the nose.”
Cora noticed the odor, acrid and tangy. She sneezed and swung her lute into position. They didn’t need a foul odor distracting them; they needed focus. She began the familiar song of courage and bolstered them with resolve.
“Öldüyün yer budur,” shouted one of the hodekin.
“Go to the Nine Hells,” Ordin replied, and he leaped forward from one side as Shinnick leapt from the other.
The hodekin lowered his torch, touching the tip to a corpse near his feet.
Ordin skidded to a halt, slipping on the slippery rock and backpedaling in place. The words were barely out of his mouth when the corpse ignited in a roar of flame.
In a rapid series of concussive eruptions, waves of roiling flame spread across the entire cavern, surrounding the freeblades in a forest of burning bodies. The small cadre of hodekin scattered like roaches, bounding over and through the flames to the outer perimeter.
Cora screamed and clutched her lute. There was nowhere to go, and tongues of fire were licking at her feet. Even the rock was aflame.
Ordin yelled instructions to his panic-stricken wolf, and the two ran hard for the outer edge of the inferno.
Above the din of roaring flames, standing amid the raging threat, Cuauhtérroc raised his arms overhead, threw back his head, and bellowed a long and ferocious war cry. The cavern echoed with the sound of fury, then he ran straight through the flames to the nearest bobbing hodekin silhouette.
A hand clutched Cora’s arm, and she spun around, eyes wide with fright. Elric tugged on her, pulling her through the maze of burning carcasses. The stench stung her nostrils and watered her eyes as thick, black smoke billowed into the heights. In the light of the conflagration, the carnage was obvious. Hundreds of hodekin lay strewn about the cavern floor, likely in the exact places of their deaths, and all of them were ablaze.
“This fire’s hotter’n blue blazes,” he said.
Cora screamed a second time. “I’m on fire!”
“Roll on the gr—” Elric cut himself off. The ground also burned. His head swiveled quickly left and right. “Here…” he said, pulling her with sudden and decisive strength. “It’s the water or nuttin’!” He threw Cora into the stream and jumped in after her.
Flames lapped at the water’s surface as well, but the fire swirled downstream toward a small series of rapids. Cora held her breath and remained submerged. Beneath the flaming surface, dancing in shades of orange, she motioned to Elric to stay below and hold tight for a time. With the water’s flow, the overhead glow soon floated away, and they resurfaced with great gasps to a cavern ablaze on both sides.
Water poured from every slit in Elric’s helmet as he stood. “Ya all ri—” He sputtered, then coughed and sputtered again. “Rinkin mustache got in my mouth. Ya all right?”
Cora nodded and wiped hair from her face. “I think so. The water’s freezing cold, but it’s better than burning. And you?”
“Fine as frog hair. But I don’t see the others.”
“We have to get to them,” Cora said. “I’m pretty certain Cuauhtie went feral. I don’t hear him anymore. There’s no telling how far he might have chased them.”
“Let’s do it.”
As they waded downstream, the initial heat began to subside, but as the fires switched from burning fuel to rotted flesh, acrid smoke burned Cora’s lungs. At the end of the blaze, they clambered out on the far side of the stream where Ordin was kneeling over his wolf with healing hands.
“Is he hurt?” Cora asked, wringing water from her hair.
“A little singed,” the mystic replied darkly. “We killed several of them cursed dragon-bloods, but there’s more still. Always more.”
Elric approached with helm in hand. He wiped his forehead with a soggy arm, the result quite useless. “Cripe. How can I be sweatin’ an’ soaked through at the same time? I’m like a stew cookin’ in my own pot.”
Ordin raised up from his wolf and scanned the area, concern etching his brow. “Anybody else seein’ this?”
Cora frowned. There was nothing but cave and dead dragon-bloods. She had no desire to see anything else and was afraid to ask. “No…?”
“Look at this hodekin here.” Ordin pointed to a mangled corpse, clearly long dead, but not from a weapon. It had been eaten, its torso ripped open and emptied of organs. “Looks like traces of slime. Maybe dried saliva.” He peered in for a closer inspection. “Tiny scratches all over the skin…” He stood up and ran his ghostly white fingers over the stone. “…same scratches on the walls. Those burning hodekin up there were cut to pieces and left. But something very different has killed these hodekin. And recently by the looks of it.”
“Here’s another’n,” Elric said, kneeling by a corpse several yards away. “An’ another’n. Cripe, there’s a bunch of ‘em goin’ downhill thisaway.”
Cora rose to full height. “Do not take off after whatever’s down there!”
Ordin cocked his head in mock innocence. “Why would you think we’d go runnin’ off into the dark unknown?”
Cora shook her head and walked away. “Cuauhtérroc has already taken off. And so, yet again, we need to go find him and help him.” This is getting tiresome. With her magical light before her, she led the freeblades into the narrow fissure where the savage was last seen.
The floor was littered with dozens of dead hodekin. The passageway made a sharp turn to the left, and the trail of corpses continued until a different underground stream emerged from the wall, cascaded over slimy stepping stones, and disappeared into the opposite wall in a spray of churning foam. A hodekin body tumbled in the rushing water, its bloated form fighting to float against the constant undertow.
“You know,” Cora said, “I’m getting kind of grossed out by all this.”
From around a corner across the stream, Cuauhtérroc stepped into the light. He was bloodied by multiple cuts and his haggard breathing sounded like a bull in heat.
“Sonuvacrap,” Elric said.
Cora recoiled, and reminded herself of his heritage. He just slipped into a jungle warfare mindset, that’s all. He’s still on our side. “Are…are you all right?”
“I am at dees end. I cannot open dees door.”
Cora glanced at the mystic, her brow furrowed. “A door?”
Ordin shrugged and stepped lightly across the stones in the stream, with Shinnick close behind him.
Around the corner, the passage ended abruptly at a stone door, completely sealed and lacking a handle, hinges, or any other feature except a line of runic symbols above it.
“Well,” Ordin said under his breath, “wasn’t expectin’ that.” He pointed at the script. “Cora?”
“It’s locked by arcane magic,” the songsage said. “See those runes? It’s written in the same language used above the portal.”
“What’s it say?” Elric asked.
“Give me a minute or two.” Cora brought her lute around and strummed a horrid chord. “Cripe! Now the heat got to it. I have got to get a better lute than this.” She blew frustration through her bangs and set to the tedious task of retuning the instrument yet again. The song of translation followed, its melody interweaving delicately with a counterpoint.
“Sartu nahi baduzu irakurri hau.” Cora read, then laughed. “It says—”
Before she could translate, a muted click sounded within the door, and the stone slid into the wall.
“It don’t matter,” Ordin said. “Readin’ it worked.”
“But…it says ‘If you—” She coughed and gagged. “What the cripe!”
Ordin plunged his nose into the crook of his elbow and turned away. Shinnick began whining, and even Cuauhtérroc looked like he could sick up. The stench of death seeped from the dark room behind the door, sealed in for some time.
“That’s awful!” Elric bellowed. “It smells like a bowl of week-old cat urine. It’s like a—”
“Shut up, Elric,” Ordin barked. “There’s somethin’ still movin’ around in here.” He called upon the light of nature and tapped the inside of the doorframe with the magical illumination that formed in his hand. A steady glow of pale green light flooded the area, revealing a room carved out of the rock roughly thirty feet across and amply furnished with shelves now in complete disarray. One of the shelves had broken free of its anchors and leaned against a large wooden table. Crates were scattered about, mostly broken, with their contents spilled out and scavenged. The rank scent of death now gave way to a steadier aroma of mildew.
A muffled groan sounded from near the back of the room.
“Who’s there?” Ordin called out, wading through the debris with caution. He created another light and slapped it down on the table, filling the room with a brighter glow. “Come out and show yourself.”
The groan returned, louder this time, but clearly from a weakened source.
“Are you hurt?” Cora asked, following behind the mystic.
“Help me,” came the sickly voice.
The freeblades scurried through the rubbish, tossing empty crates and broken jars aside as they cleared a path to the back. Against the far wall, surrounded by a dozen empty flasks of ale, was the emaciated, parched, and pallid form of an old man.
The old man.