Chapter I

The prince goes north! And I, thank Ord, the World-Serpent, and whatever other gods and monsters I’ve blathered on about – I go with him!

I’m hardly starting from the start, I know, but I suspect I’ve given Obris’ old maxim more credit than it’s due. I kept it well in mind as I wrote that book of færie tales for my oh-so-curious captors, and it still scattered into fragments beneath my pen. I hope they enjoy my nonsense answer to their nonsense question: it’s all they’re going to get from me.

Now, I finally have a real journal, and no one’s overreading my words for the first time in weeks. Now, I can scratch and scrawl to my heart’s content: whatever, whenever, wherever I choose. Oh to be free! Free indeed!

It’s nice being out of that cell too, I suppose.

Guess I should start with the obvious: I’m out of Ælfal, breathing the open air again, and headed back towards the Gräzlands in familiar (if not entirely welcome) company. My mission, all-but-forgotten, has begun anew, and I know that no man, ælf, or dæmon can stop me now! I did feel just as sure when I left the capital, though – and that was before I had two kingdoms and heavens-know what else on my tail…

In any case, these will be the last days of my journey, one way or another. Now more than ever, I’ll try to keep my record of them complete, and should the worst come, at least there’s someone else to carry on writing in my stead – someone I never counted on seeing again.

I could say the same of every person in this strange, northbound company. During my captivity, the holy, unflexing law of Ælfal was poured down my ears so often that I felt certainly I’d never see another human face. There were plenty of ælfs, true – but even so, I was alone in that alien city, and would remain so forever.

As I scribbled down a few final, undignified words on the last page of my book of tales, what little of the outside world I could see through the library’s skylight was growing dim. I was desperate: I’d dragged the writing out far longer than it should’ve taken, but even I couldn’t make it last forever. Unless I could think of some other topic and convince the council to let me write a second volume, I would return to my cell with nightfall. Once they read the pitiful end of my work and realized the fraud I was, I’d be left to rot in the dungeons for the rest of time. Some storyteller I turned out to be: I couldn’t even keep writing to save my life.

I pressed the quill deeper into the fine paper, almost tearing it. Steam curled into the air from my last cup of caffa, only half drunk. Clyf must be getting anxious, I thought. His students, in the midst of writing their thesis papers, would be emerging from their other classes as the sun went down. They’d have need of the library soon, and my heretical presence there meant no other ælfs were allowed to enter. My little tome must’ve delayed many more interesting works of scholarship, but I wasn’t too worried about their papers; after tonight, I’d trouble them no more.

The sound of footsteps rose from somewhere between the stacks. Clyf, right on cue – coming to see if I was finished for the day, I thought. Desperation latched on; a wild and panicked desperation to remain in this glorious, dusty enclave beneath the far-off sun. I doubled over my manuscript, trying to appear busy. Words rushed through my mind like they never had before – but they rushed the wrong way.

My words have always been halting, uncertain, and unclear, but they’ve always come when I asked. In that terrible moment, however, they slipped out my mind instead of pouring out of my quill. I stared down at the fragment of my last sentence, wondering how it was supposed to end. The footsteps grew closer: clip, clip, clip on the sharp white stone. My quill bounced in time with them, forming an accidental ellipsis at the end of the unfinished page. Absently, I wondered if bolting down the last of my caffa might help, forgetting that I’d already consumed four cups that afternoon. Clip, clip – silence. I was too late: Clyf was here. Resigning myself to my fate, I looked up.

If anyone was listening in, they would’ve heard a startled gasp from the shelves, and then another from my desk. I knew the face staring back at me, and not from my time amongst the Ælfali. No self-deception held recognition at bay this time: I’d know the old-but-not-so-old face behind that sharp-trimmed beard anywhere. He was wearing a traveler’s cloak that looked just as worn as mine: a far cry from the linen robes he’d worn when I last saw him, sitting at the left hand of the king. Even so, I knew his name at once: Pontiff Geon Exhillion, chief sorcerer of the Vale. Another name fell into place beside it: Magellus. The voice in the interrogation room, disguised by an Ælfali accent, stepped forth and presented itself for whose it was.

Clearly, he thought I would be done for the night; otherwise, he never would’ve risked entering the library. Clyf must’ve failed to warn him I was working late. Why he, a mortal man, was allowed in the city, I didn’t know – I still don’t. Perhaps the laws that bind the commonfolk of Ælfal skip right over him, just as they do in mankind’s realm. But whatever the reason, he was there, looking just as stunned to see me as I was to see him. This clearly wasn’t the hour he meant to reveal himself, and words failed the both of us. I tried to say his name, more to make sure he was really there than anything else. It came out as a choked little squawk, like a chicken swallowing its own tongue.

He started from his stupor, but didn’t answer – at least, not in words. His eyes, a moment before as wide as a dwarfish’s, narrowed and flashed blue. He flicked his wrist in my direction, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle with the familiar feeling of magyk. Suddenly, my head felt unbearably heavy, and I saw the book of tales on the desk rush up to meet its maker.

Then nothing: no sights or sounds or even dreams, just – spinning oblivion. In the timeless moment between sleeping and waking, I wondered if I wasn’t finally dead.

I woke in my cell with my mouth dry and my vision bleary. As the world refocused around me, I tried to leap out of bed – and fell straight to the cold stone floor. I grunted and rolled over, rubbing my nose. There wasn’t much point in trying to get up: the floor was about as comfortable as the cot. So I just laid there in pain a good while as the strength that Exhilion’s spell had stolen slowly returned.

After so long staring at the four bare walls of the cell, it was nice to get a slightly different perspective. From my position, the ceiling looked far away, making the room seem even taller than it had before – but no wider. I looked to my left. The bare underside of my cot and the messages I’d scribbled there looked back at me. My old pen, Kirlinder’s final gift, lay nearby, tucked into the corner of the wall.

I weighed my options. I could try calling for Clyf and explaining what happened in the library – but that would do little to repair my situation. Complaining to the guards might make me feel better, at least until the hour chimed and the shift changed – but somehow, I doubted they would be a terribly sympathetic audience. My makeshift journal, however…

Finally getting up off the floor, I hinged my cot up into the wall, grabbed my pen, and went to work. I pressed the old fountain pen into the wood, half-scoring the letters into the soft surface. My heart began to unclench as wrathful sentences began to form. I had no trouble finding words then – but perhaps its best they’ll go unread now. They were just what I needed to write in that moment, but that doesn’t mean I’m proud of them.

Just as I was really making some headway, I heard a pair of dull thuds somewhere outside my door. I paid them little mind. I had other matters close to attend to: calling the only other human behind the walls of Ælfal a scheming bastard chief among them.

So focused was I that I almost didn’t hear the door slide open behind me. It moved slower and more quietly than usual, and I might not have noticed it at all had the light from the hallway not spilled across the cot. Not thinking of what might happen if my vandalism was discovered, I spun around, looking to see who dared to disturb my writing. Its subject stood framed in the open doorway, looking back at me.

He peeked into my cell, his head extended out on a long, birdish neck. He shot a nervous glance up and down the hallway outside, anxiously drumming his fingers on the steel door before he turned back. His every action screamed criminal intent, and his next words only confirmed it. Six words, to be exact: simple, easy to say, and even easier for me to hear.

“Do you want to go home?”

I’d been waiting so long to hear them, I was baffled that he even asked. Slowly, I lowered the cot, hiding the words that would’ve made him less eager to effect my escape, and rose from the buttock-numbing stone. My mouth lolled open stupidly as I stammered out something beginning with y… ya, unable to get the whole word out.

It was all the answer he needed. The sorcerer cocked his head to the side, then vanished in that direction. I blinked at the open hallway, wondering if it might be a trap: a test from my ælfen captors to see if I was really as obedient as I seemed. Then I realized how absurd the notion of bringing the pontiff to Ælfal just to bait me out was, and I rushed out of the cell without a second thought.

I shan’t miss that little halfway house. I doubt I’ll even miss my prison journal in the same way I miss my other ones. It’s a shame, though: I left my book of tales behind in that cubby. Oh well. Maybe some of the ælfs will find interest in that little collection – or at least a good laugh. Besides, even though I left the journal behind, I still have the stories should ever I need them.

Emerging from my cell, I stumbled over a pair of fine, white soldier’s boots, nearly losing my balance. I caught myself on the doorframe, silently cursing my guards for leaving their shoes in the middle of the hall where anyone could trip on them. Looking down, I saw a second pair right next to the first. It was then that I realized that their owners couldn’t really be held at fault.

The guardsmen lay motionless on the floor, snoring. Both held long, thin tankards made of the same bone-white stone as so much other ælfen finery, the contents of which spilled across the floor, staining it a deep crimson. Evidently, getting soldiers of the high race drunk after long hours of guard-duty was just as easy as it was with humans.

Later, when Geon told me how he’d laced the guards’ wine-rations with barbitros, I spied the briefest hint of a smile on his stoic face. Back in the dungeons, however, he didn’t even pause to look back at his handiwork – just charged down the hall with less haste and more purpose than most of my other visitors.

Fear overwhelmed surprise – not fear of recapture, but fear of being left behind. I jumped over the slumbering watchers with all the quiet I could muster, my boots slapping on the stone as I raced after Geon. My head was spinning with confusion, my thoughts ranging from dear sweet merciful heavens I’m free to I’m still dreaming, right? The whole thing certainly felt dreamlike, but not like one of those nearly-forgotten nightmares which first set me to writing about gods and dragons. Geon’s appearance, coupled with my so-long-hoped-for rescue, seemed like an impossibility. Such things don’t really happen – in stories, maybe, but not to me. Even so, I rushed after the sorcerer. If this really was a dream, then there was no use questioning it until I awoke.

Suddenly, I noticed that the numbers on the passing doors were growing larger instead of smaller. Some sense of direction, lost after so long underground, returned: we weren’t heading for the stairs. Instead, we were moving deeper into the dungeons. Worried that this dream might suddenly turn into a nightmare, I caught up with Geon. It was more difficult than it should’ve been, after weeks of confinement and lazy book-work. I managed to catch him as we reached the antechamber where I first unknowingly met him, asking if we weren’t getting out of there. The old wizard smiled without turning, leaned over, and grabbed something leaning against the wall. “We are,” he whispered.

I jumped back, thinking he was retrieving a sword or poleaxe or some other terrible weapon to end my miserable existence – then breathed a sigh of relief when I saw it was only a walking stick. Like his clothes, it looked much like mine; the one I lost in the Shellingor fire, that is. His was stained black with age, its head intricately carved with runes I couldn’t decipher.

Geon cast a look around. I did likewise. The antechamber looked just like it had before: round walls broken by tall doors around the stone pillar at its heart. Each was marked with what could only be warnings in ælfen, painted in disquieting shades of red and yellow. No other guards stood watch on those doors, thank Fires; the room was quiet but for the sound of human breathing.

Something else seemed to be missing: a way out. I examined each door in turn. The characters painted on them, unreadable to me, seemed identical to the ones on the door of the interrogation chamber. Behind them was torture and death and the worst the ælfs could imagine; not, I feared, the open air and sky.

I’ll never know what really hid behind those other doors; not unless I should be unlucky enough to end up a prisoner again. Our path lay through a door I couldn’t see. Geon took three long strides into the center of the room, turned sideways, and lifted his staff in both hands, pressing it against the face of the column. Pressing his boots against the slick-smooth floor, he pushed in, hard. The pillar suddenly clicked, and my eyes widened as the whole face of the pillar fell back an inch and turned, scraping as it slid along some unseen mechanism. Or perhaps it was magyk: the two are difficult to separate this deep inside the city. My wonder only grew when I realized how close I’d been to escape all this time. It was then I felt sure I was dreaming; why else would there be a secret passage out of the dungeons in the middle of all those cells?

Geon later told me that the passage wasn’t secret, just long forgotten. Those rooms weren’t always cells, and in ages past, that way to and from the sublayer (as he called the dungeons) was well used by those who lived and worked there. How he knew that, he wouldn’t say, but I suppose he had plenty of time to learn about the actual history of Ælfal while I studied its legends.

Magellus stood back from the doorway, snapping his hand at the wrist once, twice, three times. A dull, blue light grew steadily in his veins each time he did, working its way through his fingers. He flexed them briefly before reaching forward, grabbing a thin, metal ladder inside. It wasn’t a pillar at all, I realized: it was some kind of pipe or chimney, running between the floors of the city. One of Geon’s spindly hands glowed on the ladder while the other wrapped easily around both his staff and the metal rungs, and he began to climb down. He didn’t waste time telling me to follow: if I wanted to escape (as I clearly did), then I needed no such instruction.

I shot a long, nervous glance back up the hall towards my unconscious guardsmen (or is it guardælfs?), then back to the door in the pillar. I had no idea how to close it behind us, or if it even could be closed. As soon as those soldiers woke (or the guard changed, whichever came first), our escape route would be found and the alarm raised. But what was my alternative: return to my cell and hope the guards just forgot they’d been drugged?

Breathing deeply to steady my racing heartbeat, I reached forward, planting my hands and feet on the ladder. The rungs were rusted, but mercifully dry. The passage disappeared into darkness almost immediately both above and below me. The wisp of light shining from Magellus’ hand was the only thing I could make out in the shadows, but even so, I felt an overpowering sense of distance, opening up beneath me. I almost stepped back onto the firm stone of the antechamber floor. I remember writing young Alexi with a fear of heights – a fear I know only too well. I hate to think of the mess I’ll make of myself when we finally reach those towering black cliffs.

The light beneath me was growing smaller and further away. Before I lost my nerve or my supper, I swallowed back fear (and a little bit of bile) and started down after him. Every rung felt more corroded than the last, but thankfully, the corruption only seemed to touch the surface of the metal. They groaned in protest beneath my decidedly un-æflen weight, but held firm.

At first, I tried counting the rungs as I descended, more to drown out the panic than anything else. I stopped when the count ceased to be a distraction and became my chief source of fear – somewhere around 50. If I slipped, I knew the fall would be deadly, even with Magellus to cushion my fall. I could only see the sorcerer faintly in the pale blue light, flashing from his hand as it moved up and down, up and down below me. I’d thought that the cells were the lowest point of the towering city, but it seems there was still a ways to go into the uninhabitable depths.

The ping ping ping of Geon’s boots on the iron bars stopped, replaced with the slap of leather against stone. I glanced down; the sorcerer was standing in a tiny circle of his own light, on a small, round landing at the bottom of the ladder. Against my better judgment, I looked back up. From the bottom of the tunnel, I could see the door we’d come though, looking small and impossibly high in the darkness above us. My feet froze as dizziness welled up behind my eyes. If it’s even possible to feet height-sickness looking up, I did. I quickly turned away.

Geon was still a ways below, lifting his glimmering hand to grab a small lever recessed in the wall. It strained as he pulled before it snapped downwards, and another door drew open in the wall in front of him. It wasn’t nearly as quiet as the one in the dungeons. I winced as the rust screamed, sheering from the metal. Someone must’ve heard that, I thought; but if anyone did, they were several hundred feet above us.

The dull blue light from Geon’s hand met a sickly greenish one as the door pulled open. The sorcerer shook his hand once, twice, thrice more as he stepped through the door, and the glimmer faded away. I was still a ways above him; by the time my boots met the solid ground at the end of the tunnel, he was tapping his foot impatiently as heavy, green mists curled around him. Without a word, he nodded, taking off into the swampish air. I didn’t much like the look of it, but as before, I had no choice but to follow. Drawing one last gulp of (reasonably) clean air, I rushed after him.

The words I’ve used to describe the city thus far have been nothing if not glowing, for one very simple reason: every part of Ælfal I’d seen did glow. That, and it didn’t hurt to flatter my captors a little bit. Now, both of those reasons are gone. I’m free, and I can honestly say, the sub-sublayer did everything but glow. Strangled sunlight filtered dimly through narrow panes of unwashed glass mounted high in the walls. The ceiling above them hung low, even for humans; I would’ve run my fingers along it, had it not been coated with some foul, oozing substance that stank of putrefaction. Besides that, everything else was lost in the mists drifting lazily across our path. They hung thickest near the ground, but they were barely disturbed as we passed through them. To my eyes, they looked as though they were too heavy to move. Despite my best efforts, I caught a whiff of them as I jogged stiffly along. It was just as pleasing to the nose as it was to the eyes. Had I opened my mouth, I’m sure the taste would’ve been just as offending.

What wasn’t lost in fog made little sense to me. Crates lined the walls, stacked two or three high and made of white ælfen stone long ago stained green. Written all over were messages in ælfen, made even more unreadable by the layer of wet grime accumulated on every surface. I moved to wipe it away as we passed by, before an overpowering sense of danger squashed my curiosity. Whatever that slime was, I doubt it was something I could wipe on my pant leg and forget.

Beneath the crates, the floor was made of an iron grate just as rusty as the ladder, supported here and there by steel braces like the ones in the dungeon walls. Thankfully it was sure underfoot: I couldn’t see what lay beneath through the fog and shadows, but I could hear the sound of water sloshing beneath me as I half-limped after Geon. Perhaps I spent too much time thinking about monsters during my month in captivity, but those currents sure didn’t sound like the regular wash of a drain to me.

We were far below the boots of my captors now, utterly alone in a place no ælf would choose to wander – but we were not beyond their reach. Somewhere above us, the thin, high sound of their ever present hour-chimes rang out. Geon swore, and did so with surprising color. I would’ve been more surprised hearing it if Kirlinder hadn’t done the same during the attack in the Rift. Seems these holy men are only mortal after all.

Magellus lengthened his stride until he was nearly running past the rows of crates. Beyond them, I could see our goal: a dark circle opening in the wall ahead. I struggled to keep up, wondering why he was in such a hurry before remembering that the guards changed with the hour-chime. I swore too, but only in my mind, not daring to breath. I ran faster. That black passage hardly seemed inviting, but neither did my cell.

We were almost there before the bells came again, ringing out in wild abandon loud enough to be painful. I winced, and not only from the sound; ælfs never dally, especially not when the guard changed, but the alarm had been raised sooner than I thought it would be. It came sooner than Geon had counted on too, it seemed. The wizard growled, lowered his head, and sprinted for the opening. His staff fell as he ran, striking the stone and sparking in the shadows. A jet of flame, blinding bright, leapt from the wood, sending shadows dancing off a myriad of levers, boxes, and shelves fixed to the walls. Maybe they once held tools, used by those who traveled up and down the tunnel to clean that abysmal place. Now, they looked empty as the rest of the nightmarish root-cellar.

I was gasping pitifully for breath, but still I heard the sound of clattering gears and creaking metal. It was a sound I’d heard once before, as I entered the city – but the source of the sound was much smaller than the Ælfal gate, and this one was closing, not opening. The dear old pontiff swore again and he quickened his pace, his feet barely touching the stone. I hadn’t been able to keep pace before, and I certainly couldn’t then.

Geon held his staff surprisingly steady in one hand. By the light of the mage-flame, I saw what spurred him on: a few yards ahead and yet too far away, a metal grate was lowering across our path – or rather, it was trying to. It lurched, shuddered, and froze in place. I could hear gears turning in the wall, straining against the resistance age and neglect had wrought. It dropped another quarter inch, then stopped again. I felt a rush of hope. After all their haste and busy-bodying above, were the ælfs about to be defeated by their own laziness?

Something sparked in the wall. The gate came crashing down, and my hope with it. Our one chance at escape was shut. The guards would find the door in the pillar, follow us down, and find us waiting in the dark and filth and poison – if they didn’t just decide to let us suffocate.

I skidded to a stop. There was no point in running anymore, I thought. Geon, however, didn’t stop. His legs flew, crossing the last few feet as his staff spun ’round his head, the gout of flame at its end flashing above him. First one heel, then the other planted themselves. Both his hands grabbed the stave, thrusting it forward like a poleaxe. Magellus, silent and stoic to that moment, howled out: a wild and wordless incantation.

The white flame flared, lapping at the grate. The fog shimmered and flashed around him. From where I stood, I could smell burning metal – almost taste it. Faster than it takes to write, the cold, rusted iron went from black to red to blinding white, then melted: splashing to the floor in wide, glowing droplets. I stared, disbelieving. Somehow, our escape was open again.

Magellus turned, panting as his face shone with sweat in the light of his war-torch. He waved for me to follow, then charged ahead. Uncertain what lay ahead and all-too-certain of what lay behind, I obeyed.

The metal pooling on the floor was rapidly cooling, but I could still feel its heat, like the blast from a smithy’s fire. I jumped over one of the puddles that lay in my path as I ran through the ragged hole in the grate. I glanced up as I did: the metal was half an inch thick at least, and it looked like an animal had bitten clean through it. A bit of molten iron dripped onto my coat, smoking and jittering as it slid off my shoulder.

Geon’s footsteps suddenly stopped. Despite the distance between us, I barely avoided colliding with him. He turned and grabbed my shoulder to keep me from toppling over, then pointed to the hole in the wall behind him. It was another pipe or chimney, even smaller than the one in the dungeons. It turned and sloped downwards immediately, and unlike the other tunnel, this one had no ladder. Suddenly, I knew exactly what this place was. It should’ve been obvious from the start, between the filth and the water draining through the underbelly of the city. We were standing in the sewers of Ælfal, and here, in front of us, was the drain.

The old sorcerer didn’t waste any time being disgusted by the idea. He clicked his staff against the floor and the fire vanished, leaving us in a half-dark broken only by the noxious green light. I heard wood clatter against stone as Geon tossed his weapon through the hole. It slid down for a good long while, and I didn’t hear it strike the bottom. That didn’t unnerve the wizard, though: he grunted as he lifted both legs over the edge of the hole and, before I could protest, took the same plunge. He didn’t even cry out as he fell. I stood there, alone, in silence.

I listened hard, hoping to hear his boots strike stone sooner rather than later. No such luck. Another long, damned descent, I thought; this one without a ladder. Had I the nerve? Had I a choice? The latter was the more important question. Fishing forward in the shadows, I found the slick edge of the hole, raised one leg over it, and then the other. I let my feet dangle a moment, breathed in, and leaned forward. I felt my heart stop and I tried to jump back, but the ledge was too slippery.

Unlike Magellus, I screamed. The drop felt totally straight, down into the dark. Suddenly, I felt the slimy wall of the tunnel rubbing against my back as the tube began to slope. I barely registered the fact: all that passed through my mind was oh Arches Jayceson Senaia Alexi dear Fires above I’m going to die. From somewhere high above, I heard the alarm-bells chiming louder and faster.

The fall felt like it went on for hours, though it could only have been a few seconds. A long time ago, I fell backwards pulling an errant weed and tumbled into the small pond near the memory patch. Between the fish, ducks, and plantlife, the water always wore a thick layer of scum, and it seemed to catch me as I splashed down, slowing my fall. That probably saved me from knocking my head against the rocks at the bottom, but I felt sticky and fouled for weeks, even after several bathings. As ælfen sewage slithered up the back of my tunic, I knew I’d feel the same way at the end of my fall – if I was still capable of feeling anything at all.

I left my stomach behind at the top, but it caught up all too suddenly as the tunnel began to level out, turning from a straight drop to a gradual slope. There was light now, shining up from the outlet, but all I could see were the sides of the tube, flashing by with alarming speed. I scrambled, no longer worried about muddying my hands as I tried to catch hold. I could find no purchase beneath the muck. My knuckles bumped uselessly off unseen seams in the stone, but even so, I felt myself slowing. Then the tunnel disappeared altogether, and I tumbled, end over end, into the open air.

Yet I wasn’t falling. Floating would be a more accurate description, though the ground was still growing nearer. I tumbled and spun like the last of the autumn leaves, the air beneath the city feeling thick as the slime in the tunnel. My eyes were dazzled by the sudden light, but as I turned one last time and finally met the earth, I caught a glimpse of Magellus. He stood with his feet planted wide and both arms raised aloft, holding his staff high. The air shimmered around me, and my hair stood on end.  That bit of magyk was far more welcome than most, even if it didn’t cushion my landing perfectly.

I came down hard, fast, and cold. Tall reeds sprang up around me, brown and half-dead. In a better season, we would’ve fallen into a soft, muddy bog. Instead, I struck an ice patch face-first – green ice, I realized. Green-brown, actually, and very, very cold. Once my senses returned, I began chattering immediately. I leapt to my feet, but the ground kept trying to slide away under my boots. An unpleasant wetness slid down my back as the filth of Ælfal drained out of my trouser legs. I shuttered – it felt like a giant tongue licking my back.

Magellus lowered his hands and staff, using the latter to poke around the bushes at his feet. In the perpetual shadow of the city, they were frozen and black, and they stood as stiff as oak branches; not moving so much as shattering when he swept them aside. I paid him little mind as he searched. Instead, I oh-so-carefully stepped off the ice and cast a wary look upwards.

That was the first time I saw the outside of Ælfal up close. I knew the city was elevated; the holy sanctum could hardly be sullied by touching the earth. Even so, I never realized how improbable that was. The underside of the city hung some fifty feet above our heads, a single piece of smooth, grey stone stretching away from us a half a mile in every direction. Beyond the far edge, I saw spindly buttresses attached to the foundation, reaching down to touch the earth and hold the towers and spires above them aloft. There had to be at least a hundred of them all around the city, but from that distance, they looked immeasurably thin, shining like steel straw. I still have a problem trusting ancient workmanship – those supports must have held fast for tens of thousands of years, but I couldn’t help worrying that they might fail right then and there.

Between a few of the spires, long, wide ramps stretched down from the Ælfali gates to the flatlands below. As soon as I noticed them, pale figures appeared at the foot of the nearest, just slightly darker than the snow. Silently, I cursed. The figures were all white on white on white, but still, I recognized their shapes. Some were mounted horsemen – or is it horesælfs? The hunters, doubtless: carrying thin, curved longbows. There were a few unhorsed man-shapes – though they were ælfs, of course. They milled about amongst the horses, despite the fact that they’d be left behind in an instant if the hunters so much as flicked their reins. I wondered what those footmen (footælfs?) were doing there – surely they’d just slow down the hunting party?

Then I spotted a third set of figures. They were inverted shadows against the snow, like all the others, but I didn’t recognize their shape. It was easy to see why I’d missed them, though: they were so tall they nearly reached the riders’ stirrups, but their bodies were much, much thinner than the horses’. The supports of the city around them looked like straws, but their legs looked like splinters. Slowly, recognition dawned: even with their terrible height and thinness, they were undoubtedly dogs. Hunting dogs – like great, stretched-out danes.

I looked at Magellus, but he was still searching among the reeds like a blind beggar looking for coins. Turning back, I squinted: the dogs’ handlers were pulling them away from the horses, further from the city towards the open plains. It seemed they didn’t know where we were hiding. Even if the guards found the door in the pillar and followed it down into the city’s bilge, it would take them a while to figure out where we’d gone. We were safe – safe, and trapped. The hunting party, far-off for the moment, still blocked off our escape.

I turned, ready to point this out to Magellus. I was surprised to see he’d stopped searching and started praying. His eyes were closed, and he knelt with one knee in the ice-crusted waste of a hundred thousand ælfs. His staff was laid aside, but he had one hand raised as he whispered some unheard benediction over a small shrub. It might’ve been a blackberry bramble, had it only grown in sweeter soil.

For a moment, still suspecting that I was dreaming, I thought Magellus might have the right idea; that praying might actually help us escape. Then the wind shifted, and I saw one of the dogs turn its head our way. For a moment, I stood motionless – as though that would keep the hound from smelling me. Then it bolted from the grip of its handler, screaming towards the place where we hid. The rest of the pack wheeled, charging after it.

I stumbled towards Geon, grabbing his shoulder. If there was ever a god to hear his prayer, then we were standing under his long-abandoned throne. It was only then that I noticed the faint orange glow shining from his palm, illuminating the bush in front of him. Mist and steam rose from its frosted thorns as they shed their icy shroud. They weren’t just thawing, though – they were awakening, moving of their own accord. One by one, the branches pulled away before my disbelieving eyes. In a moment, I understood why: there was a tunnel underneath the shrubbery, cut straight into the earth.

The hunting dogs howled. Magellus finally seemed to notice their approach, but he didn’t seem surprised as he looked up. His voice stayed flat as ever before as he spoke another word at last: “In.”

Barely able to think for fear, I rushed into the hole in front of the old sorcerer, pushing through the spines and thorns as they scratched my face. The tunnel was dark, damp, and too narrow for me to spread my arms apart without hitting the sides. That was a good thing, though: it went straight down into the dark, and there was no ladder to climb. Instead, there were abundant notches in the stone, perfect for hand-and-footholds. Without them, the way down would’ve been much quicker, with no wizard at the end to save my neck.

As I lowered myself beneath the earth, I caught another glimpse of our unearthly pursuers. They were bounding across the frozen swamp, pale eyes fixed on our unprotected throats. The dogs knew we were there, and though they might not be able to climb down after us, their handlers…

Geon climbed in above me, eclipsing my view. I looked down. All I could see were a few outcroppings, barely visible in the dim light. There was a sudden rattling, grinding noise, and I looked up to see Magellus conducting life into the very stones. What little I could still see of the ælfen city disappeared as the tunnel opening shrank, closing in on itself like a rose in winter. The yaps and snarls of the dogs vanished as the earth swallowed us.

Magellus breathed in deeply. Only then did my own breathing resume, as my racing heart began to slow. The suspicion that I was dreaming slowly faded: if this was a dream, the nightmare dogs surely would’ve caught us. No: this was real, and I was free. Free. Just writing that word now makes my heart smile. I was on the run with an almost-total stranger, cold, wet, and lost in the dark – but none of that mattered. I could’ve cried for joy right there in the tunnel, but instead, I cried out in pain.

My rescuer’s boot was crushing my knuckles. He was blind as I was in the total darkness, and he’d decided that the handhold I was using would make a good foothold. The pain vanished almost as soon as I screamed, but even so, I’m glad he didn’t step on my writing hand: I can barely open it now.

“Move,” Geon said, growling out of the dark. No sorry or beg pardon, just another command. I was about to answer just as sharply before I bit my tongue, flexing my injured fingers and starting down the tube.

The sound of movement stirred the air above me, and the tunnel filled steadily with a pale blue luminescence. I didn’t bother looking back up: I’d seen Geon’s trick before. My eyes focused instead on what rocks I could see below me, trying to ignore all that I couldn’t. It was no mean feet, but the stones were plenty interesting. I saw faces with hollow sockets and jutting noses staring out of the rock, freckled with crystal grains which shone in the mage-light. Somehow, I managed to keep myself distracted throughout the climb.

We reached the bottom surprisingly fast, and yet not nearly fast enough. I stopped climbing suddenly: I couldn’t find a pair of footholds beneath me, just empty space. Watching the rocks as closely as I was, I didn’t see the other light rising through the tunnel to meet Geon’s until that moment. There was a drop below me, I realized. I could see the larger, brighter chamber at the end of the tube, and it didn’t look too far. I calculated the distance and lowered myself on my scrawny arms as far as I could. They shook a moment before I let go. I only dropped a few feet, but still, I stumbled as I landed. The floor of the cave was lined with sharp, jagged spires of rock; had I fallen, I’d really have something to whine about.

I managed to regain my balance as Geon dropped down in front of me, bending his knees as he landed. He was already shaking the magyk from his hand, and the glow in his eyes had faded by the time he turned around. Even so, the deep blue of his irises shone out in the pale blue light of the cavern. I turned, looking at where our escape had brought us. My heart fell: another tunnel. This one, at least, sloped upwards, towards the sun and sky and open air. The sun was still a ways off, unfortunately, and the strange light came from the shaggy grey ferns sprouting from every crack in the walls. Around the edges of their fronds, they glowed a faint blue, just like Geon’s hand.

My jaw went slack. I’d never seen anything like this before, but even so, I thought I recognized the plant. Once, many years ago, I met a merchant from the Skar who claimed he had a crate of exotic, light-making plants to sell at Autumnal. “Fire-root,” he called them as he pulled off the lid to show me, “or Olumin, in the Skarbourne tongue.” I nodded along, unconvinced. They must’ve all gone bad en route to the Capital; the limp, black ferns at the bottom of the old wooden box looked anything but fiery.

The plants I saw before me now, though – those were something else entirely. Despite its scarcity above ground, Fire-root leaves sprouted from every place where the stone allowed them through. The tunnel was bright as day, or else seemed to be after so long in the dark. There was magyk in that place: not the Fires of men or gods, but only the pure bright Fire of nature.

Geon stepped around me as I stared up, gaumless. I quit my slackjawing the moment he did; as always, it was keep up or keep lost. Neither of us spoke, as though afraid to disturb the solemn, sacred silence of the tunnel.

Without sun or stars, it was impossible to know which way it ran, but I guessed that it started off going east, then turned north somewhere in the middle. There’s no point trying to guess how far we walked; my sense of time was just as hazy as my sense of direction. It felt like days – or it would’ve, if I’d had someone to talk to. With only Geon for company, it felt like weeks. He’s nice enough I’m sure, but he hasn’t given me much evidence one way or another. It’s almost as if he’s keeping his distance from me. Maybe I do smell worse than I thought; the ælfs didn’t allow me to bathe.

The slow, upwards climb felt interminable, but eventually, it did come to an end. As we rounded a long, wide bend in the tunnel, a pure, white circle of daylight appeared in the darkness before us. The fire-root stopped growing a few yards away from it, as though recoiling from the blinding white of sun on snow. I understood why; I had to raise my hand and shield my eyes. As I did, I saw a shadow move across the light: man-shaped, and holding what could only be a crossbow. My heart skipped more than a few beats; it was too short to be an ælf, but if anyone else found us alone out here…

“H – hello farmer,” said a familiar voice – a voice I never thought I’d hear again. It rolled down the tunnel from a chest like a drum, deep and strong in spite of the stuttering. Though it lacked the vigor it had when I first heard it on the Northroad so long ago, there was no mistaking the voice of the exiled Warden. It was a voice from the grave if ever I heard one.

I stepped out of the cave. There he stood, haggard and pale as the snow on the ridge around him. It was my old companion…

Arches, I’m losing the light – and now someone is calling me over for supper. No one’s complained about how bad Geon and I smell yet, and hopefully, they won’t notice. This will be my first meal as a free man, and I don’t even mind that it’ll be served cold. We can’t light a fire, exposed as we are up here. Still, salt mutton and hardtack beneath a star-spilled sky sound divine as roast foxhare.

That also means my writing’s limited to the hours of day, now all but spent in frantic scrawling. I didn’t even get to the rest of Geon’s company, or our mission…

Tomorrow – I’ll write it all down tomorrow. For now, I’ll eat, sleep, and dream of the prince – yes, the prince. Somehow, impossibly, Geon has the secondvessel. He showed it to me soon after we left the tunnel, just before he gave me this journal. I was so distracted by my excitement that I didn’t even question how that was possible. Welcome back, old friend; soon, you will be home.

 

~ælfal has no official record of any humans visitors or prisoners. this is to be expected. what is unexpected is the lack of royal sanction for geon’s month-long sojourn.~

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