Chapter 6: The Black Lake
Darkness enveloped Cora, the weight of gloom pressing down, squeezing her soul into a tiny, forsaken corner. Her tears had long passed, but the interminable burden of death was a grinding millstone on her conscience. She knew her lighted rocks had long ago winked out, and that Elric had lit a torch. She cared nothing for these trivialities or the fact that Cuauhtérroc’s chest glistened with a yellowish sheen, the remnants of fluid that had sprayed from the centipedes’ wounds. She had exhausted her capacity to cry onto Cuauhtérroc’s once-lustrous panther pelt, blending her tears with the many other things that coated his skin. Her soul was an empty husk, and she cared for none of it.
As confusing as it was, the savage was her calm in the midst of tumult, her fortress, and—right now—the only thing keeping her together.
She embraced him harder, forcing a muted groan from his throat.
Cuauhtérroc put a hand to his side. “Dees reebs are broken again.”
Cora knew she should extend condolences, show concern, or offer help. All she could think of was the only one who could heal him was lying on the floor with his own sword shoved through his—
Grief washed over the songsage again, but her tears were gone, leaving nothing but a vacant mind and an empty heart.
“It weel be all right, Cora O’Banion,” the savage said. “I weel help you.”
Cora nodded weakly as she shuffled away. A few steps later, she returned and gave her arms a half-hearted toss in the air. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t…it’s…it’s all my fault. Shinnick…”
Tears flowed anew from a hidden wellspring reserved for the darkest hour. Ordin’s wolf lay at Elric’s feet, leaning into the man’s fingers scratching his ears. Just as Ordin had done countless times before. That bond was broken, and they were now responsible for a wild animal without a mystic master.
“Imma take care o’ him, Cora,” Elric said.
Cora shuddered from a wave of sorrow that exited in a half-breathed moan. She hung her head. “I am so, so sorry.”
Cuauhtérroc grabbed her arm and stared sternly into her eyes. “Cora.”
It occurred to her that he had not used her surname this time—perhaps for the first time.
His dark eyes flickered in the torchlight. “Ordeen Clay say ‘to die is a part of life.’ He say, ‘All things die.’ And so it is dees time for Ordeen Clay to die. I know why you cry, Cora O’Banion. Dees is also a part of life. Now, we must go out of dees caves so we can put hees body in dees ground. I know dat is what you weel want to do.”
Cora nodded and sniffed loudly. “Cripe, look at me,” she said, casting a quick glance across her arms and chest. “I’m a mess. I haven’t blubbered so much in my whole life. It’s all my fault.”
“No,” Cuauhtérroc said, “you deed not do dees.”
“But I saw him jump on its back, and I shouted anyway. How stupid of me! I knocked him off, and now he’s never going to realize…his purp—” She turned away, shaking her hands vigorously and breathing deeply. “No, no more of that.”
Cuauhtérroc removed the bedroll from his pack and laid it out beside Ordin’s fallen body. As Cora walked away, he performed the grisly work of extracting the mystic’s scimitar from his torso. He hoisted the mystic onto the mat, cleaned the blade, and laid it at Ordin’s side. With a blanket for covering and coil of rope, he secured the mystic inside.
The songsage sat on a boulder near the shore of the underground lake. “I don’t think I was ready to face death—not of someone dear to me.”
When he finished wrapping the mystic, Cuauhtérroc sat beside the grieving songsage under the soft glow of scattered glowing mushrooms. For a long time, they sat together in silence while Elric did his best to comfort the whimpering wolf.
“You know…” Cora said at last, staring out across the lake. “I was thinking. We don’t need to bury him; we need to take him to Cer Cannaid. The pontiff at the Solarium might be able to bring him back to life. Just as powerful arcanists can defy physical laws, so the holiest of divines can defy even death. Nothing of the sort has ever happened in my hometown of Lorenvale, but I’ve heard stories of miracles in the Cers.”
The savage frowned at her.
“I wonder how much that would cost,” Cora muttered to herself.
Cuauhtérroc furrowed his brow. “You must not do dees.”
The savage studied her, his dark eyes searching. “Dees dead men walking are a great evil.”
Cora shook her head. “No…cripe, no! Not as an undead abomination. We should bring him back to full life. If we can afford it, why wouldn’t we give him a second chance?” Her voice grew intense. “I have to. It was my fault. He wasn’t supposed to die. He was sent from the Cerion to find his purpose; how can he do that wrapped up in a bedroll, Cuauhtérroc?” She jumped up and growled, purging pent-up anger at the hodekin, the centipede, the city council, and—mostly—herself. “Nine Hells!”
Cuauhtérroc stood with her. “Dees Elder say when a man dies, he go to dees Great Father. You cannot take dees man away from hees climb up dees Fire Mountains. He must go.”
Cora sighed. “You don’t understand. Ordin’s not going to the Fire Mountains. He’s a Grovite; he worships the Maker through Nature, and that means he’s probably going to the Tanglewoods.”
“Well, he shore ain’t goin’ to Cer Cannaid,” Elric interjected. “We cain’t leave the city.”
“Cripe,” Cora muttered, dry-washing her face. “Well, we’ve got to find a way. Maybe the Solarium in Westmeade can transport him to the free city.”
“Why?” Cuauhtérroc said.
Cora stared up at the savage.
His dark eyes narrowed. “Why do you want heem to leeve again?”
She was silent for a time. It was a terribly good question. Why did she want Ordin raised? It wasn’t truly for his purpose, which she knew nothing about. It wasn’t because she enjoyed his coarse language, brusque manners, and blunt declarations of stupidity and physical impossibilities. If she was honest, it was entirely to remove her grief and absolve her guilt. The selfishness of her motives stunned her. But that would not do for an answer. “I…I don’t know.”
The savage nodded. “Den we weel bury heem.”
“I can’t…I can’t do that. It’s not his time to die yet.”
“If he ees dead, den it was hees time to die.”
Cora heaved a great sigh. Arguing with the Audric sapped her energy and patience. How else could she say it? “He wasn’t done with everything he needed to do. He had a purpose; he needs another chance to fulfill it.”
“Maybe Ordeen Clay see dees Maker and do not want dees chance.”
She tossed up her arms in defeat. “I don’t know how else to explain it, Cuauhtérroc. It’s just the right thing to do.”
Cuauhtérroc studied the songsage, his brow lowered in scrutinizing thought. Finally, he nodded. “I do not agree. But…we weel do dees.”
Elric stood abruptly and gathered his equipment. “Well, now ‘at y’all got that worked out, we need to hustle. Ya know what happens when a dead guy sits ‘round too long.”
“Elric,” Cora scolded, “show some respect.”
He shrugged. “I’m jis sayin’ we need to get goin’.”
Despite Cuauhtérroc’s broken ribs, the two men carried Ordin’s body, and Cora led them with the torch. With delicate steps, the freeblades eased along the placid waters of the underground lake. The torchlight was insufficient to reveal any other passages along the shore, but it did reveal a flat-bottomed rowboat tied off by a rope to a steel peg driven into the rock. A pair of oars rested against the forward seat.
Cora stared at the rowboat in her flickering torchlight. “Why is this here?”
“It’s for rowin’ ‘cross the water,” Elric said. He shifted his half of the load, and Cuauhtérroc groaned from pain in response.
“I know what a rowboat is for, you lunk,” Cora replied. “I meant very clearly why is it here? Who owns it? Where does it go?”
“Well, I dunno all that,” Elric said, “but we gotta set him down somewhere, an’ that looks a good place t’me.”
With slow and deliberate motions, Cuauhtérroc and Elric unloaded Ordin’s body into the boat between the two bench seats. Shinnick leaped in and curled up atop his master, his yellow eyes dulled with misery.
“It’s got to go somewhere,” she said with as much hope as she could muster. “I mean, why else would there be a boat down here, right?” Surely the hodekin weren’t rowing in from somewhere…
Elric climbed in and took up the oars as the savage untied the rope and sat at the stern. Cora pushed them off and jumped in, taking her seat at the prow, holding the torch as a beacon.
“Which way?” Elric asked.
Cora looked right and left, caught in indecision. “I guess…left. But keep near the shoreline. If we drift too far to the middle, we’ll lose all notion of where we are. Besides that, any outlet we find could be our way out.” Alone in the middle of a lake inside a massive, dark cavern where there were no sights, no sounds, no air currents…nothing but the flickering light of a single torch to illuminate their faces and the water around them. It was the feeling of utter isolated loneliness, and it gave Cora the chills whenever she lost sight of the rocky cavern walls. I need something to do.
She began to sing The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep, but the massive cavern swallowed her voice, leaving her feeling hollow and empty as the cave. The torch in her hand drew her attention, and she marveled at how something so simple could provide such a consistent flame without burning up. Who thinks up these things? It predates the Daren Empire…surely. I mean, the Dareni didn’t invent everything, did they? Now, the telescoping tavern was sheer brilliance, hot running water, mechanical timekeeping devices…they are an amazing people, but—
“Y’all wanna play a game?” Elric blurted into the silence. “I see somethin’ ‘at y’all don’t see…an’ it’s black.”
Cora turned to him with a raised eyebrow. “You have got to be kidding me. For a start, it’s a child’s game. But secondly, literally everything down here is black.” She returned her gaze into the darkness of endless waters.
“It was Cuauhtie’s pelt,” Elric said to break another spate of quiet. “Jis in case…ya know…” His voice drifted back into the silence it cracked and died with a loud exhale.
In a moment of inspiration, Cora leaned the torch against the edge of the boat. She pulled out the wooden box and the tome she had retrieved from the old man’s final resting place.
She scanned the contents of the old book, turning each leaf with care lest it dislodge from its place. The pages contained the rambling thoughts of a man confused and out of sync with both time and himself. Many of the random scribbles meant nothing, a stream of consciousness that ended as abruptly as it had begun and went nowhere in the meantime. Numerous doodles and crude illustrations cluttered the margins, which sometimes made sense. But the designs were always of destructive things, as if the designer were filled with spite or malice. It was a collection that didn’t fit with the stories of August Blanchard.
“Um, Cora?” Elric said, clearing his throat. “Ya wanna shine ‘at light out so as I can see?”
“Sorry, Elric,” she replied. “You really ought to hear this.”
“Well, tell me ‘bout it while ya hold ‘at light out over the water.”
Cora muttered an apology while shifting around so that the torchlight shined on the book as much as it lit the waters before them.
“Listen to this,” Cora said, reading from the tome.
‘Day 8 of recent memory – I’m not sure what happened. I have vague memories of a past, a life that was once mine. I cannot recall the details however. Have I lost my memory? I can think, speak, write, and show other obvious signs of intelligence, yet I do not know who I am or where I am. What has happened to me? I have inspected my abode, if it can be called that…a tower of five levels. Apparently, my living quarters are on the topmost floor, a fully furnished and amply supplied room of modest accommodations. The lower levels are sparsely furnished. I have ventured outside only once, for the strangest of sensations overwhelm me when I do.’
“Sounds like Wilder Tower,” Elric commented.
Cora bristled with annoyance. Of course it’s Wilder Tower, you lunk. She continued reading.
‘Day 10 of recent memory – I stood atop the tower for several hours, overlooking a city that spreads to the north and west of my position. A grand view indeed. Mountains for as far as I can see to the west, and what might be an ocean some greater distance to the north. A river runs through this city, coming out of the mountains and traveling north to the ocean.
‘Day 25 of recen—’
“Hey,” Elric blurted out, “there ain’t no ocean north o’ Wilder Tower. He must be summer else.”
Cora frowned at him with waning patience. “Stop interrupting.”
Elric sighed. “I ain’t got nuttin’ to do but row. We been out here fer hours an’ ain’t seen nuttin’. I’m bored, an’ I’m tired, an’ I’m hungry.”
Cora continued unabated. “Skipping ahead…”
‘I have learned it is the third day of Ailurus, the second month of the 3546th year. My mind whirled upon learning this, for I am now convinced there are some missing days in my memory. I recall the year 3545 quite vividly.’
“Here,” Cora explained, tapping the page, “the author lays out a complicated mathematical formula that goes on for nearly another whole page…and then he says, ‘I see it now. Thirty-five days ago would have been the 3545th year.’”
‘Celestine 17, 3546 – A most interesting thing happened today. I have been studying the remaining books in the small library here. One book I found was the diary of August Blanchard, the dead alderman. The first peculiar thing to occur was that I knew the combination to the lock on the side of the tome. But I was unprepared for the revelation I was to receive…his handwriting exactly matches my own. It is not a close copy. It is my handwriting. I am mortified at the implications of this. Am I the dead alderman returned from the grave?
‘Tefia 12, 3546 – I am greatly disturbed. I found near the end of a spellbook an incantation entitled “Personal Contingent Duplicity.” Upon reading the spell—without the need for magical aid, I should add—I was suddenly thunderstruck by an overwhelming epiphany. I am not myself, but a duplicate of Blanchard. Not the man raised from the dead, not his twin, but a memory-less copy of the original Blanchard placed in this lonesome tower. But for what purpose? This realization is a bitter pill. Who am I? What am I to do? Am I truly human? Do I have a soul? It is as if I were put together by engineers and made to walk by insensate energy. How cruel and unfair! Who is this Blanchard that he would do this to me?’
Cora stopped reading. Her jaw hung slightly agape as her mind raced. “A duplicate? What does that even mean? The real Blanchard is still dead, and the man we’ve been chasing around is a copy?”
“Well, cripe,” Elric said with a low whistle. “That’s jis plain weird.”
Cora nodded. And now the duplicate Blanchard is dead as well.
She closed the book, her mind plagued with questions that had no answers. Opening her pack, she offered Elric some dried jerky and cheese and nibbled slowly on her share as she stared across the black waters. Eventually, curiosity forced her to open the book again.
‘Loxodonta 23, 3546 – The trial was held today for those charged with murdering Blanchard. They pled innocence, of course. Such the easy thing to do. I certainly wouldn’t plead guilty and sign my life over to the blocks. Sir Reginald Hunt prosecuted the case against them with much vigor; it seems he delights in sending people to their demise. A very hard man, full of piss and vinegar. For their defense, a quiet older man plodded through his notes, putting everything Sir Hunt said in doubt. Not very convincing, however, as if he had resigned to lose. I think the city cared for this man Blanchard.
‘Arini 16, 3546 – The ruling body of Westmeade has nominated a local merchant to take Blanchard’s place as alderman of Wilder District, as this section of the city is called. A pitiful district it is. All the riff-raff reside here. A wonder Blanchard hadn’t died sooner. His replacement is to be elected within four weeks.
‘Vespira 2, 3546 – I have done a dastardly thing, but I had to do it. Yesterday, I located the nominee at Marley’s Tankard and slipped a poison into his drink as I passed by his table. I have heard today that he is ill.
‘Vespira 6, 3546 – Pendel has died. I struggle with what I have done, but it must be. I carry the likeness of August Blanchard, and so I must resume his post. Not another, for what am I to become if Blanchard is replaced? What is the reason for my creation if not to assume Blanchard’s title? But I am not ready to reveal myself. My hopes are to learn who this man is that I am supposed to be. Until then, they must not replace me.’
Here Cora paused again. “Oh my,” she said softly. “Blanchard’s copy killed the replacement alderman.”
“Keep goin’, Cora,” Elric said with a bit too much enthusiasm. “This is gettin’ good.”
“No Elric, this isn’t good at all.”
“Is too. We’re ‘bout to find out all kinds of fascinatin’ stuff, thangs ol’ Cap’n Hunt never could figger out. I jis bet the answers to four years o’ mysteries is sittin’ in ‘at there book. So yeah, this is gettin’ real good!”
He had a point. Intrigued, Cora read on:
‘Capra 28, 3546 – The ruling council has nominated another candidate to take Blanchard’s place. That place is mine! He too must fall, in a different manner. There must not be a pattern here. No one can have that position of power ahead of me.
‘Anthozoa 5, 3547 – Oh, the uproar this city is in. I met Manwelle on the road to Cer Cannaid and waylaid him. Part of me is gleeful; part of me is troubled. I do not know who I truly am, only that there was a vital reason for my creation.’
Cora looked up past the flickering torchlight, slowly shaking her head in dismay. “Why would he do this?”
“Yeah,” Elric said, “if I was gonna kill people, I shore as the Nine Hells wouldn’t tell everybody.”
“It’s called an ego, Elric. And this Blanchard duplicate had an oversized helping of it, I’d say. But I meant why would he feel it necessary to prevent others from becoming Wilder’s alderman? He could have just presented himself, right? Why does he wait?”
“Dees man is telling us everything,” Cuauhtérroc said. “You keep reading, Cora O’Banion, and we weel know. But I theenk dees light weel be gone soon.”
Cora noticed the dimming torch for the first time, and suddenly was aware that they had burned through their meager supply. Hours underground, and not a clue how to get out of here. What if this lake has no outlet, or exits by means of a river through the rocks? We could be trapped down here. Cripe, we could die down here…
Though a growing dread welled within her, Cora forced herself to ignore their predicament. Instead, she focused on the pages illumined by the dim light of a waning torch. She would soon be resorting to magical light as their only means. “Let’s see…he kills another candidate, this time by—oh, how horrid—feeding him to the nisser. Ah, here’s where he brought in the banespiders.”
‘Vespira 11, 3548 – I tried a rather exciting experiment tonight. I lit up the entire fourth floor of the tower and produced a rumble I did not expect. With gems I bartered from the nisser, I procured a pair of komaci, banespiders if you use the loose translation. I set them to guard the fourth floor where I store all my provisions. Too many of the locals are becoming interested in “the hermit” living in the tower. Several youths were making off with my supplies. Perhaps this will keep them away.’
Cora paused to see Cuauhtérroc’s reaction to the spiders, one of which had poisoned and nearly killed him. The savage nodded knowingly to her. He remembered well.
Cora read on: “He details laying down the darkness, setting up illusions, the traps, the armor…it’s all in here.”
‘Ailurus 12, 3549 – I am—’
“Hey,” Elric interjected, “that’s this year.”
Cora huffed. “Shut up, Elric.”
“Hang on now, he’s been livin’ in ‘at tower fer four years. How’d we never know that?”
“Dees people say someone leeves dere,” Cuauhtérroc replied. “But no one believe dem.”
Cora nodded. “I think he’s right. The city basically abandoned that tower, and half the Council wanted it torn down. They weren’t interested in the ghost stories of a depressed district. Now…stop interrupting.”
‘Ailurus 12, 3549 – I am shaking with disturbed emotion! I have uncovered the reason for my existence, and it is not at all what I expected to find. All my former plans are futile and vain. Alas that I acted with such pride, cruelty and pompousness. Oh, I am undone!
‘Ailurus 13, 3549 – Perhaps tonight I can corral my feverish thoughts. I have not eaten or slept for twenty-four hours. Before I died as August Blanchard, it seems I had stumbled upon a sinister plot by a group known as the Nephreqin, a plot to upend the Duchy of Alikon. Their agents have infiltrated governments and societies at every level. And one of them is among us. His name is Vincent Schumann…’
Cora’s voice caught, and her heart began to pound heavily in her chest.
“No way,” Elric whispered, followed by a low epithet his mother would have smacked him for saying. The oars fell silent in his hands.
Cora cast a pleading glance back at Cuauhtérroc. “Surely not.” Quickly, she continued reading, hoping to discover it was all a mistake.
‘…His name is Vincent Schumann, though I doubt seriously that is his true name. It seems I found him out and was about to act on this knowledge when he had me killed. But I had enough foresight to prepare a duplicate to carry out my plans of discovery. Oh, the time I have wasted, the lives I have destroyed, the insignificant difference I have made on Schumann’s plans. What can be done? I must act, and act quickly to expose Schumann for who he is and bring his plans to an end. This is the only worthy act left for me to honor my creator and bring justice to my death.
‘Ailurus 15, 3549 – I am beginning the arduous task of enchanting a weapon to kill Schumann. It will be a bit tricky since I’ve never done anything like this before, not even in my former life. But it must be done.
‘Ailurus 18, 3549 – I failed with my first attempt and destroyed the sword in the process. I was searching through discarded items in a storage closet when I discovered a concealed door. It led to underground passages, which excited me, but I found, to my utter dismay, that a small red dragon—a wyrmling—has taken up residence there, along with dozens of dragon-bloods. I know not when he first arrived, but he is a serious problem.
‘Celestine 9, 3549 – At last I have completed the draining experience of enchanting a magical weapon. When I have regained my strength, I will search Schumann out and kill him with it. Perhaps I should accuse him first? But should I give him a chance to kill me again? Perhaps I should just rid the city of this threat and take the consequences of my actions. I don’t deserve any favors.
‘Celestine 17, 3549 – I have conducted a bit more research and found that whatever plans Schumann intended have not yet been put into place. O fortune! He appears to be biding his time for something, but I know not what. It drives me to the brink of insanity. This plan of mine is risky, but the greater risk is that this fair city could be compromised from within.
‘Alopex 6, 3549 – I cannot believe what has happened! It is as if Schumann knows my thoughts and is foiling my every plan. Not many days ago, a scruffy band of mercenaries broke into my tower, evading or destroying every trap laid for just such an occasion. They were apparently bent on destroying me as well, so I must surmise they are in Schumann’s service. How have I been discovered? They marched straight up, level after level, and simply broke into my home. I would have spoken with them, but they went straight for the kill. I was wounded, but I immobilized them all. Badly bleeding, I escaped through a magical doorway and fled outside the city. I fell unconscious for a time and was given assistance by a kindly family, but I had to leave them.’
“He ees talking about us,” Cuauhtérroc said, as if pronouncing an indictment.
“Yes, he is,” Cora whispered.
“I destroy hees home and burn hees things.”
“Yes, and Ordin tried to kill him. We never gave him a chance to explain why he was there.” Cora sat in quiet contemplation for a time after reading about their own interaction with the Blanchard duplicate. As the torchlight flickered its last, she finished the journal.
‘Arini 12, 3549 – Upon returning to my home, I discovered that band of freeblades had completely destroyed it and all my provisions. Alas! They are wretched curs! What could I have done to them to deserve such treatment? Whether they destroyed my valuables or stole them, I cannot ascertain. Either is a poor choice. If they wield the Schumann Slayer, they will completely foil all my plans and the Nephreqin will take Alikon.
‘I opened the doorway to a spot below the tower, and found the caverns below literally crawling with dragon-blooded dogs. Hodekin, horrid creatures that look like feral, mangey curs walking on their hind legs. What a nightmarish place! Is my storeroom down here?
‘It is my lot to perish here. I escaped with my life—and only my life. I found my storeroom, but all resources are expended and I am wounded, bleeding profusely, and possibly poisoned. There are ample supplies here and several curative elixirs. I will refresh and heal.’
Cora flipped through several pages with a growing frown. “It’s gets weird after this. Sketches of dismembered bodies…unfinished formulas…lines going nowhere. Ah, here’s something, but there’s no date.”
‘Days. Weeks. Who knows? I die. Made to suffer. Made. My creator was another man. What is man? I hate him.’
She turned several pages more, shaking her head in dismay. “It devolves into nonsense, mostly. He says his magic is gone…let’s see…his food is gone and his stomach sour…here he says the wine is gone and his vision dark.”
She turned another page and flipped it back with a sigh. “And that’s the last entry.”
“Who’d a thunk?” Elric said. “That old man y’all chased out o’ the tower was August Blanchard, kinda like, an’ he got himself kilt down here in his own vault.”
Cora’s shoulders slumped. “Yes, it really is that ironic.”
“What do we do?” Cuauhtérroc asked.
The songsage’s mind raced as she realized the machinations at play in the city above them while they drifted about aimlessly. Helplessly. If only I knew a spellsong that would open a doorway, we could escape this never-ending abyss. She frantically spun around in her seat, rocking the boat uncomfortably. “We’ve got to get out of here. We have to get back to town, to warn the Council that they’ve been infiltrated, and to find out what Schumann is trying to do.”
The torchlight began to dance in a last desperate attempt to remain lit.
“And we need to hurry!” she added.
An hour later—who knew how much time had elapsed in truth—Cora sang a magical light into existence for the fifth time, her voice ringing clearly in an otherwise silent area. Cuauhtérroc had taken the oars, and only his methodical rowing broke the incessant stillness, along with the mesmerizing sound of water lapping against the bottom of the boat.
She studied the stony walls slowly drifting by, lime encrusted and dripping with sparkling motes of water. She had seen so evidence of a cave outlet the entire time, no reason for there to be a flat-bottomed boat moored to the rocks. Surely, the hodekin didn’t use this boat. The old man would have walked through his magical doorway to get out, so who else would need it down here? It’s too small for long distances…we’ve gone too far for this to make sense. Cora buried her face in her hands and moaned. “I think we went the wrong way around the shore.”
Cuauhtérroc stopped rowing. “Do we go back dees other way?”
“I don’t know,” Cora said. “I don’t think this boat was intended for hours of rowing for nothing. The outlet is probably near where we started, or…it could be just a few feet ahead of us. I just don’t know. I’d sure hate to turn around only to discover it was right here all along.”
The slow rhythmic rowing began again. “Den we go dees way.”
With a resigned sigh, Cora turned back around to face the bleak eternal dark. Hope faded with every passing limestone column that failed to reveal an outgoing stream on the other side. All this water has to go somewhere.
Elric nodded off. There was still no spark of external light anywhere, and when Cora’s spellsong fizzled out, the darkness became immediately tangible and oppressive. She tried to endure as long as possible without the light, for she grew tired of singing the same refrain every few minutes. When the interminable darkness coalesced her fears, she produced yet another, despite her weariness.
Relentless splashing of oars in water. Hollow echoes of water lapping. Endless silence all around. Cora wondered what time it was. How long had they been encased in this interminable deep? Would it never end? She grew more accustomed to the blackness, more accepting. She could wait a little longer this time before she sang that infernal song…
She awoke to the sound of Elric snoring. Her back ached from the precarious angle in which she had been resting.
“Cuauhtérroc,” she whispered. The sound of his rowing was her only comfort, but his rhythm had slowed.
“Yes?” he whispered back.
“You’re tired, aren’t you?”
As she had done so many countless times before, she sang the illuminating refrain to dispel the absolute blackness. The familiar bead of light formed in the palm of her right hand, which she kept under wraps until their eyes could adjust to the sudden brightness. Slowly, Cora raised and opened her hand to spread the revealing light before them.
She saw nothing but water. The light failed to reflect off even the smallest or faintest rock in the distance. Her hand quivered. The oars behind her stopped, and for a while the two were locked into a stasis of silent stillness as Cora slowly began to realize they were utterly lost.
“I’m sorry, Cuauhtie,” Cora breathed under the weight of despair. “I should have kept the light going. I was tired and sick of singing the same spellsong over and over…and I fell asleep…I’m so sorry!”
Cora chastised herself for being so soft, so incapable of handling the pressures and risks of the freeblading life she had chosen. Her mother had feared for her safety; even the stranger in the stagecoach on the road to Cer Halcyon had expressed dismay at her choice of career, as if she were throwing her life away. Velma Kotting had said the same. Maybe I am. Maybe this is the end, a slow and miserable death by starvation, lost and forgotten in a never-ending underground lake, a massive tomb, perfectly designed for those foolish enough to explore it. A place where no one will ever find me.
Time came to mean nothing, marked only by sleep cycles. Their food supply was long gone. Their waterskins were drained and in the desperate move to stave off killing thirst, Cuauhtérroc had risked drinking from the lake. An indeterminate length of time passed and he did not fall ill, so Cora and Elric also drank the water in which they floated. It was cool and refreshing, especially on their parched throats and lips.
It was impossible to judge how long they drifted. The oars had fallen into disuse as any sense of direction vanished. Cora rarely used her light now, for it only displayed how dreadful the others looked. Words became an enemy, for they revealed the weakness in each one’s voice. For Cora, it was a weakness that began in the pit of her stomach and extended to the very depths of her soul.
They stank, but far worse a smell than their wounded and unwashed bodies was the odor building beneath the bedroll wrapped around Ordin’s dead body. Shinnick had moved to the back of the boat, and as his hunger raged, he whimpered more often, a mournful whine that pierced the silence.
They slept in irregular shifts for what seemed like little more than an hour. But they could not know how long. Days, perhaps even weeks. They drank the cool lake water, but with nothing to eat, their strength wasted away. Silence became the only comfort, for words exposed a gnawing hunger and absence of hope. Cora abandoned her light in the gloom of despair. This is the end. This is how we die.
Shinnick began to look tasty.