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Authors: Oisín McGann

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BOOK: Under Fragile Stone
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They had bored holes in the walls of number two tunnel, the middle one, and now cables were being run from
terminals
on the machine to pins driven into the holes. The
eshtran
had spent all day repairing the damage the Myunans had caused, but now the ‘dynamo’, as the priest called it, was ready and he could perform his ceremony. Paternasse had seen into the machine while Harsq had been working on it. The body contained a drum wound thousands of times around with copper wire. He had seen one of the eshtran’s tools flip out of his hand at one point and stick to a part inside the drum; the thing used magnets too.

Now, the eshtran put the machine into gear and the heavy steel body vibrated as the drum inside began to turn, slowly at first, then faster and faster. As the rumble of the
mechanism
increased, Paternasse and the others sensed a fuzz in the air, like the atmosphere before a thunderstorm, and some of them looked up into the darkening evening sky, but saw few clouds.

The disciples stood around the machine, hands raised in the air, eyes fixed on their master, mouths chanting praises to Brask. The exorcist himself, dressed in extravagant
ceremonial
robes, stood out in front, between the truck and the mouth of the mine. His face was alive with religious fervour, his body tensed with passion. As the tumult grew, a
combination
of the chugging engine, chanting voices, crackling static and the spinning hum of the dynamo, Harsq stopped reciting prayers and instead called directly to his god.

‘Lord Brask, give these hands the power to smite the evil from this cursed mountain, that these good men may dig in peace!’ 

‘Help them Lord!’ the chorus sang. ‘Help them dig in peace!’

Harsq reached up and his fingers curled as if he were clutching something invisible in the air.

‘Give me the power, Master!’ he roared. ‘Make me the instrument of Your will!’

With each cry that burst from him, the chorus answered. The eshtran led his followers in an escalating fever, his
bellowing
growing more and more intense.

‘I feel Your power in my veins, Master!’ he cried. ‘I feel Your strength in my bones!’

‘He feels the power,’ the disciples sang. ‘Praise be to Brask in the Esh!’

Harsq fell to his knees, planting his hands on the ground before him. His eyes closed, he intoned a string of arcane, guttural words, repeating them over and over again. The
disciples
fell silent, one of them moving to stand by the patched-up controls of the generator. Harsq dug his
fingertips
into the clay, his voice rising, his face expressionless as if he were in a trance. Then he lifted his hands up again and thrust them in the direction of the mine.

‘In the name of the Lord Brask of the Esh, I drive the evil from this rock!’

The priest at the controls threw the lever and there was a crackling of power. Paternasse felt the hairs along his arms and neck stand up; the air was charged with energy. The generator hummed, then whined and sparks spat from the mouth of the mine where the pins entered the walls. At every joint of every cable, electricity arced out, lighting up the evening sky. A deep bass sound began under their feet and even the soldiers looked down in consternation. The sound grew louder and a shudder ran through the land. 
Paternasse could feel it in his bones; it made him feel dizzy and sick with its deep vibrations. Two of the men behind him fell over, disorientated.

Harsq lifted his hands once more and the priest at the controls threw the lever back to cut off the power. Another priest took the engine out of gear and the drum began to slow. As the noise of the machine faded, no other sound intruded. There was complete silence in the compound once the engine was shut down. Harsq, utterly exhausted, was about to get to his feet, when he hesitated. A hairline crack in the ground split its way from the mouth of the cave and stopped between his knees. He stared down at it and frowned. The eshtran looked tired and
disturbed
. One of his disciples came forward, threw a
blanket
over his shoulders and took his arm to support him as they walked away.

‘What was all that?’ Noogan wondered weakly. ‘Is that it? Is the mountain safe now?’

‘He’s done something to that bloody hill, lad,’ Paternasse replied, shaking his head. ‘But I’ll be damned if I know what it was.’

* * * *

Nayalla fell forward and vomited. Mirkrin was already on his hands and knees, retching. The last whines of the dynamo died down and left an eerie silence hanging over the valley.

‘By the gods, he did it,’ Mirkrin gasped, wiping his mouth.

Nayalla couldn’t speak for fear of throwing up again. The surge of the mountain’s deep, bass moan had sent a wave of nausea through them, and now she shivered as she suddenly turned cold. Mirkrin crawled up and collapsed beside her. 
They were high up on the side of the mountain, overlooking the mining camp. They had watched in horror as they
realised
that their attack the night before had failed.

‘They have Absaleth,’ Nayalla said at last. ‘What do we do now?’

Mirkrin felt empty, drained of any will to fight.

‘Let’s just find Lorkrin and Taya and go home.’

* * * *

Emos sat with his head in his hands, not saying a word. Taya and Lorkrin exchanged looks. They sensed that what they had just witnessed was bad, but could not say why. They had camped out in the shelter of some ancient cairns on a hilltop. The hill was high enough to allow a partial view of the valley they had spent all day walking away from. Flashes of what looked like lightning had caught their eyes and a low, moaning sound had set their teeth on edge. Draegar had sworn softly to himself, but Emos was visibly shaken.

Their uncle eventually lifted his head and stood up, pulling some food from his pack. He started tearing up some pieces of bread and buttering them, acting normally once more, but his face was still pale. They had a simple meal of bread, smoked meat and cheese. There was very little talk, even from Draegar, who would normally have had a story to tell the children. They lit no fire, wary that the light might attract attention, but Taya and Lorkrin soon fell fast asleep despite the chill, exhausted after the events of the night.

‘What are you going to do?’ Draegar asked, once he was sure they had nodded off. 

Emos shrugged. Tribal law demanded the death of Harsq and anyone else responsible for the sacrilege that had just been committed. It was a crime that struck at the heart of Myunan culture. But he was no longer part of the Hessingale tribe, or its culture.

‘I’m going to see the children get home,’ he said finally.

Something moved in the pile of rusted tools. Along with the blades of shovels and the heads of pickaxes, there was any number of other objects that had been ruined by the
mountain’s
decay. There were also bits and pieces of scrap that had been thrown there as the pile grew and became a
garbage
dump. Now the heap was even bigger because all the debris from the fire had been dumped here too. In amongst all this junk, something moved. It was a length of baling wire. It wriggled slowly like a worm through the red-brown building site of its world, every movement strained, as if the rigid wire were resisting its own motion.

The piece of wire nosed up against the blade of a trowel and painstakingly wrapped itself around the haft. Once it was satisfied with its grip, it crawled on, dragging the trowel with it. It crossed the path of another wriggling piece of wire, carrying a rusty bolt. They both continued on their courses. At one point, the trowel clanged against the burnt frame of a mine cart. The wire froze. Gradually, it slithered on, collecting more items – tools, nuts and bolts, hinges, brackets – criss-crossing over other snaking wires intent on their own searches.

* * * *

The remaining miners’ hut was the only habitable building 
left in the mining camp, so it had become the home for the officers. The miners and their possessions had been
distributed
between soldiers’ tents, the stores sheds, the
workshops
and the backs of two of the trucks. They had learned long ago not to complain about being second-class citizens – most of them were Sestinian, and it came with the territory.

Paternasse woke up on the hard, lumpy floor of a tent and stretched, rubbing his hands through his shock of grey hair. He groaned as his old body accused him of betrayal,
weighing
him down with all the aches and stiffness it could muster. He rolled over, looking blearily at the crack of light at the edge of the tent flap, seeing the familiar yellow-grey glow of dawn. His bunch always got to work at dawn, but with all the faffing about with the soldiers and that twisted priest of theirs, he knew they’d be making a late start. Besides, he had no heart for it today, so he stayed under the blankets, shifting his rolled-up coat to a more comfortable position under his head.

Halerus Jube, a miner who led one of the other teams, was sleeping next to him. He stirred, opened his crusty eyes and yawned through his beard.

‘I can’t be havin’ with this sleepin’ on the floor nonsense,’ his voice slurred.

‘Tem dah ta ah gug lawg’s and massas,’ Paternasse grunted back.

‘Put your damned teeth in, Jussek, I can’t understand a blessed word you’re sayin’.’

Paternasse reached over to a tin cup of water near his head, took a sip, swilling the water around his mouth to moisten his gums, then stuck his fingers in the cup and took 
out the false teeth, carved from bexemot bone. He put them in his mouth and worried them into place. His round, worn face had a terrible sunken look without them.

‘I
said
, “tell that to our good lords and masters”, dolt.’

‘Can’t be havin’ with them, neither.’

‘Oh, you’re a mornin’ person and no doubt.’

They both lay beneath their blankets, uncomfortable on the hard floor, but reluctant to face the chill morning. A
footsoldier
lay on the far side of Jube, snoring unevenly.

‘Can’t take much more of that snorin’,’ Paternasse groaned. ‘Might go and clear my bowels.’

‘There was absolutely no need to tell me that.’

* * * *

Nayalla and Mirkrin had spent the night searching around the camp, using all their stealth to avoid being spotted by the soldiers inside the compound or the wandering skacks
outside
. In the early hours of the morning, they found where Lorkrin and Taya had sneaked in a few days earlier, the
children’s
footprints still visible near a hole dug under the fence. The tracks were definitely old, but the two parents could not take the chance that the children had not found their way into the compound again. They decided to search inside. Once in, they lost the trail, but kept looking anyway.

In the first light of sunrise, they found tracks again outside the entrance to the middle tunnel, the one where the
exorcism
had been performed. Again, the tracks were old, but there were dozens of sets of footprints going in and out of the tunnel and finding a single trail would have been next to impossible.

‘It’s getting too light,’ Mirkrin said softly. ‘We can’t stay here.’ 

‘Just a quick look,’ Nayalla urged him. ‘Just to the end of the tunnel. It won’t take long.’

‘We can’t even use a light,’ Mirkrin argued. ‘They’re not here.’

‘If you were them – out on your own – where would you be after what’s happened?’

Mirkrin shoulders heaved in surrender. She was right. They’d want to see how Absaleth had been conquered.

* * * *

Paternasse’s team gathered in front of the mouth of the mine, gazing up at the mountain and then down into the black depths of the tunnel. The hole did not have the same menace that it had exuded the day before. Something had changed, but it was not for the good. Today, the hole had the air of a grave about it.

They marched down the tunnel, Paternasse running his fingers along the stone, brushing over the timbers that shored up the walls and ceiling. It felt wrong, this ground. It felt dead. They’ve driven the soul from it, he thought to himself.

The air in the tunnel was chilly and damp, and water dripped down the walls. The further in they went, the colder it got. Their headlamps and lanterns shone on the gleaming, dull, grey stone, but did little to lift the gloom about the place. Above the sound of their footsteps and the cart’s wheels on the rails, Noogan started whistling.

Paternasse hawked and spat out some of his lung’s store of dust, lifting his hand to the wall again. The place gave him the shivers now. His hand brushed across a warm, dry section of stone. He stopped, looked at where his fingers were 
touching the wall and up into a pair of eyes. He slammed his elbow into the rock at chest height and a figure grunted and leaned out from the wall.

‘Myunans!’ he bellowed, grabbing hold of the
shape-shifter
.

Mirkrin got one hand free and landed a blow across the older man’s face, knocking his helmet off, but the miner held on. Nayalla got an arm around Paternasse’s neck and pulled him backwards, all three of them toppling over. The other miners were around them now, some laying in with kicks and punches on the Myunans, the rest just hurling abuse.

Nobody noticed the first tremor.

The second one was bigger and dust fell from the roof of the tunnel. The miners froze. Paternasse pushed Mirkrin away. A third shudder ran through the ground and suddenly every miner was pushing past the fight and running up the tunnel. Mirkrin grabbed Nayalla’s hand and they took off after them. The Myunans were light on their feet, faster than the Sestinians and had overtaken half the pack when there was a bone-shaking crack and the wooden supports ahead of them gave way. The roof collapsed in a cloud of stone shards and dust. One of the miners was caught under the
falling
rock, his scream cut off almost instantly.

‘Back!’ Paternasse yelled. ‘Get back down the tunnel!’

They all turned and started running, coughing and
gagging
in the dust-filled air. Another section of roof came crashing down behind them and two more men were
swallowed
beneath it. The noise was horrendous. Mirkrin pushed Nayalla ahead of him, his eyes darting up to the wooden beams above him, trying to gauge their strength in 
the bouncing, jerky light of the remaining miners’
headlamps
. He heard wood splitting, the air pressure changed and with a desperate cry, he shoved his wife forward as the roof crashed down around him. He was trapped; in a final effort, he slunched and shut his mind to the pain as his world crushed in on him.

* * * *

The men started digging as soon as they were sure the
tremors
had stopped. They waved Nayalla back, telling her this was best left to them. She was sobbing, distraught at the sight of the mound of rubble that had buried her husband. Another of the miners had been caught too, leaving three to dig desperately, in the slim hope that some of their friends might still be alive. They had pulled neckerchiefs over their noses and mouths to protect against the dust and Nayalla pulled a cloth from her pack and did the same. The air was thick with it, making the thin light from the two headlamps and the single lantern seem even weaker still.

Paternasse and Noogan hoisted a slab of stone aside, and then Paternasse called through a small gap between two more chunks of rock.

‘Shout if you can hear us! Can anybody hear us?’

There was no reply. Nayalla slumped to the ground in despair.

‘Can anybody hear us?’ Paternasse yelled again, his voice cracking. ‘It’s Jussek! Shout out if you can hear this!’

He stopped and put his ear to the gap to listen.

‘I can hear something,’ he told them. ‘I can hear breathing. Help me move this.’

Noogan got on the other side of the piece of stone that 
Paternasse was gripping and they hauled it aside. Sticking out from under the slab behind it were four fingertips.
Nayalla
gasped.

‘Mirkrin!’

‘He can’t be alive under that,’ Paternasse stared aghast at the massive boulder that lay on top of the Myunan.

‘I can hear him breathing, Jussek,’ Noogan said.

‘We need something to lever it up,’ Dalegin, the third man, spoke up. ‘He’s not going to be breathing much longer with that sittin’ on top of ’im.’

* * * *

Mirkrin was barely conscious. He tried to open his eyes, but he couldn’t. He tried moving, but he couldn’t do that either. He could breathe in thin, tight gasps of air, but it was as if something was holding his lungs closed. The memory of what had happened came slowly back to him. He had been caught under a cave-in. The reason he wasn’t dead was because he was Myunan. His body had been squashed by the rocks, but he could not be broken or crushed nearly as easily as a human could. There had been enough space under and between the lumps of debris that fell on him to let his malleable body make space for his brain and his lungs and the other, more vulnerable bits of him that could not be flattened out quite so much as the rest of his body.

Along with the memory came the pain. Every inch of him was under unbearable pressure. He felt it most in his head and his chest – the terrifying, helpless feeling of being trapped, knowing most of his body had been reduced to a thin skin, the hard edges of the rocks piercing right through in places. He tried to scream the pain away, but he could 
barely breathe. Myunans could go some time without air, but he was buried beneath a mountain of rock. Nayalla was probably nearby, suffering the same fate. Nobody was coming to get them out. He tried to scream again; his thoughts faded away from him and he surrendered to unconsciousness.

* * * *

They used the split end of a broken support timber to prise the slab a hand’s width off the ground, and then wedged it with other rocks. Sliding the shore further under, all three men got their shoulders under the other end of their lever and roared as they heaved it upwards. Nayalla crawled in under the precariously raised boulder and carefully peeled her husband from the ground, quickly checking to see if any part of him had been torn away, relieved to find that it hadn’t. She dragged him out and clear of the three miners. The strain showing on their faces, they eased the boulder to the ground again.

Then they stood back in shock at the sight of Mirkrin’s body. Apart from the odd lump here and there, he was
flattened
beyond recognition. There were bloody holes in some places where his flesh had been pierced under the irresistible pressure of the rocks and when he was laid flat, he
covered
the floor of the tunnel from one side to the other.

‘We were too late,’ Noogan shook his head and sat down shakily.

Nayalla stroked the mat of hair that had been her husband’s head.

‘Mirkrin? Can you hear me, my love? You’re free, I know you’re alive – please Mirkrin, tell me you can hear me.’ 

There came a ragged gasp of air and the fingers of his right hand twitched. The miners stared in amazement as the crushed Myunan started to contract, hauling the
overstretched
muscles of his body into their normal form. Mirkrin’s head and chest expanded first. He drew in a gasp of air and screamed. His body continued to regain its shape, but it was going to take time. He was injured and in pain, his elasticity damaged by the pressure of the rock. Nayalla stayed kneeling by his side, murmuring words of comfort and encouragement.

The miners stepped around him and got to work again, pulling aside the moveable stones and digging dust and debris out with their picks and shovels. But they soon hit more of the larger boulders and had to give up. They were going to have to wait for the rescue teams to dig through from the other side with heavy lifting gear. Noogan and Dalegin sat down to watch Mirkrin’s recovery, and grieve for the friends they had lost. Paternasse picked up the lantern and took stock of the situation.

BOOK: Under Fragile Stone
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