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Authors: Oisín McGann

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BOOK: Under Fragile Stone
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‘He is a worshipper of Everness,’ Draegar muttered to them. ‘A Sestinian god. The Noranians don’t like religions much, so worshippers have to be quiet about it. Sestinians are superstitious about Myunans and a transmorpher would make them doubly suspicious.’

‘They look for protection from acorns,’ Lorkrin sniffed. ‘And they think
we’re
strange.’

It was dark when Emos stood up in the flatbed, looked out ahead of them and slapped the roof of the cab. With a squeal of worn brakes, the truck came to a halt. Taya and Lorkrin, who had been half asleep, sat up drowsily and took in their surroundings.

They were at the edge of a wilderness. Thick, thorny bushes on either side gave way ahead to the heavy foliage of cobrush trees. With their wide, tangled limbs, the web-like 
expanse of trees formed a mass of tendril leaves and branches, broken only by the road itself. Vines wound from tree to tree to increase the sense of a woven fabric gone badly wrong. Totems made from painted animal bones stood around the entrance to the jungle, holding a variety of coloured glass chimes that clinked in the gentle breeze. From the dark mess of the trees, birds awoke and called out in hoarse, high-pitched voices.

‘We wait here,’ Emos told the group. Then to the soldiers, ‘You two keep to the back, Noranians aren’t too welcome in here.’

‘Why not go on in?’ Forward-Batterer Cullum demanded. ‘If they want to stop us, they can catch up. Why waste our time sitting around here?’

‘Hear the birds?’ Emos cocked his head. ‘They’re carkhams – trained to warn of intruders. The Reisenicks already know we’re here. If we enter their territory without being invited, they’ll come down on us like a landslide. We wait for
permission
.’

‘Permission, my foot,’ Cullum snorted to himself. ‘Should’ve brought some more troops and just marched right in there.’

‘You would need an awful lot of troops,’ Draegar informed him. ‘And some luck besides. The Reisenicks are no strangers to battle.’

Silence settled on the group as they waited. Emos carried out some finer work on the tools he had started, and talked softly with Draegar, who was adding to his new map. The lamps on the fronts of the wagons lit up the road ahead, but cast little light into the trees. There could have been an army watching from in there and they would not have been able 
to see them. Eventually, there came a clicking noise. It was irregular, but had a certain rhythm to it. Out of the darkness along the road came a strangely unbalanced figure. Dressed in rawhide, with a fur hat, he leaned on a stick and seemed to walk with a different kind of limp in each leg. The clicking sound came from his joints, which were swollen and stuck out at odd angles. He was stooped and could have been
mistaken
for an old man, if not for his face, which was that of a young man, even if the features were slightly askew.

Lorkrin and Taya looked at each other. They had seen Reisenicks before, but only those who came to trade with the Myunans. Their father had once told them that Reisenick families did not mix with outsiders much, being wary of other races. Centuries of mating within their small tribes had made their blood so pure that it had concentrated and
exaggerated
all the Reisenick traits. This particular man was
obviously
more concentrated than most.

‘Whaddaya want?’ he croaked, raising his misshapen face to glare at them.

‘We would like permission to travel through your clan’s land,’ Emos told him respectfully, walking forward so that the man did not have to squint against the lights to see him. ‘We bring a gift for your chieftain.’

He held up the pendant. The man’s eyes widened, clearly impressed as he took the chain. He grasped the quartz in his fingers and raised it up to the light.

‘Good workmanship,’ he nodded. ‘Bit on the dainty side, but good nonetheless.’

He clucked his tongue several times and a large crow-like bird, dark blue and green, swooped in and landed on his shoulder. Dropping the pendant in a little drawstring bag, he 
held it up for the bird, which took off, grabbed the bundle and disappeared over the trees.

‘Where would ya be wantin’ ta go?’ the border guard asked.

‘To Old Man’s Cave.’

The ugly man shuffled over to the trucks, noting the lifting gear on the back of the second one.

‘Gonna try and get in, are ya?’

‘Some of our friends are trapped down there. They got in another way, but there was a cave-in.’

The guard shrugged and handed Emos a pebble, etched with the Reisenick symbol for ‘visitor’.

‘Ludditch’ll like the tribute. You can head on in, I reckon.’

Emos thanked him and swung back up onto the flatbed. Draegar cranked the engine up while Jube took the wheel, and they rumbled on up the road. Taya and Lorkrin watched the border guard fade back into the trees, and then turned to gaze up the dark road.

‘Why is it called Old Man’s Cave?’ Lorkrin asked to relieve the boredom.

‘Because an old man lived there for many years,’ Emos replied. ‘They don’t believe in over-complicated names for things around here. In fact he had lived there for as long as anyone could remember. His name was Caftelous. He was a grouchy old hermit, but he had a great knowledge of alchemy. He helped me in my study of transmorphing after your aunt died. He couldn’t do it himself of course; he wasn’t a Myunan, but he was as skilled an alchemist as I’ve ever met and he taught me a thing or two about the nature of materials. A few years ago, I went back to see him, but the entrance to the cave was blocked by a massive stone slab. No one knew where he had gone. Some said he was dead, 
others that he was alive, but that he had wandered into the forest and disappeared. I tried to trans a hole through the slab, but it was made of something that I couldn’t affect. I’ve never seen its like. To this day, I’ve never found out what happened to the old man.’

‘Do you think he put the slab there?’ Taya asked.

‘It’s almost certain, he would know how to create
something
that couldn’t be transmorphed, and transing through the side of a mountain would take weeks, if it could be done at all, especially if the mountain’s spirit is strong. It’s likely that he didn’t want the cave disturbed after he was gone, which makes me think he’s still alive somewhere, or at least he was when it was sealed up.’

‘Maybe somebody sealed him inside,’ Lorkrin murmured, earning a sound thump from his sister. He scowled at her, but did not retaliate.

They still had at least two days’ travel before they reached the cave, two days that their parents would spend beneath a soulless mountain. The Myunans silently urged the vehicles on, desperate for the wheels to eat up the long stretch of road ahead of them.

* * * *

The dratted donkey had seized up. The two Gabbit women pulled at its halter and pushed it and shouted and cursed, but it would not budge. At first it had tried turning itself to face the cart, but had only ended up walking around in
circles
. Now it just stood there shivering, its eyes wide, staring back at its load. It was starting to frighten the short woman and she gazed around at the trees that lined either side of the road and made a roof over their heads. This forest was an 
eerie place to be at night with a terrified donkey.

A metallic rustle caught their attention, some kind of movement in the back of the cart. The two women circled it warily holding their lantern aloft, sure that they had picked up some crawling creature or other. Quite a big one, by the sounds of it. The mass of scrap quivered and the women jumped back, clutching each other. They both picked up sticks and started batting the mess of wire and metal bits and pieces, hoping to scare the creature out of hiding.

Suddenly the rusted mesh of scrap started to move, dragging itself towards the tailgate of the cart. The latches on the tailgate flipped open all by themselves, and the scrap heaved itself off the end of the cart, dragging most of the
garbage
with it. The women screamed and hugged their
panic-stricken
donkey. Covering its eyes as well as their own to stop this strange evil from entering their heads, they
cowered
, unable to move.

When they dared open their eyes again, the scrap was gone, lost in the darkness of the trees, although they could still hear it, dragging itself along the ground, snaring bushes and catching on undergrowth. The donkey decided it had had enough. It brayed hysterically, shook itself free of the women and bolted, galloping up the dark road towards the village, hauling the cart after it. The remains of the rubbish spilled out of the back, but the women didn’t care; they sprinted after their cart, intent on getting home even before the donkey did.

* * * *

The lantern was going out. Paternasse shook it gently to listen to the oil; it was almost gone. In the light from 
Noogan’s headlamp, he turned down the wick until the flame went out, used a cloth to lift off the hot glass and then unscrewed the body to check the length of the wick. It lay there like a coiled worm; there was plenty left. He refilled the reservoir from the tin of oil he had in his satchel and put the stock and glass back on. They had enough for one last refill after that. The methylated spirit in the headlamps was low and they had one tin bottle between them, but that would last them less than half a day.

They had found more rooms, smashing down each door they came upon, only to find that each of the twenty-three rooms joined up with another, forming a network of
chambers
, corridors and stairways – none of which led outside. They had discovered three wells, but the water in each was stagnant and would have to be filtered and boiled before it could be drunk. All the rooms had the same style of
decoration
, carvings of flowers and leaves and trees and
disturbingly
lifelike animals, all suggesting a yearning for the outside world. There were false windows in every room. It was downright peculiar.

‘I’ve found something,’ Dalegin called.

He had been searching some of the alcoves and storage areas and came into the large octagonal room now with a glass jar full of silver powder.

‘We haven’t seen any candles or lamps, right?’ he said, once he had their attention. ‘But they had to have light. I found bits of this powder in the plates behind the
windows
, and just on a hunch, I flicked a match over it.’

The powder in the jar had solidified, so he jammed a chisel down into it to loosen some and tipped a small pile of the grains onto the stone tiles. Then he took out a box of 
matches and struck one, touching it to the silvery grains. The powder ignited, burning with a brilliant blue-white light.

‘It’s beautiful,’ Nayalla said softly, as they all leaned in for a closer look.

‘You haven’t seen the half of it,’ Dalegin chuckled.

He reached down and rubbed his finger in the still
burning
powder, then lifted it out. Part of the flame flickered on his fingertip. They all gaped.

‘It has no heat,’ he said. ‘This stuff burns cold.’

They each found a piece of wood or rusted metal that could be used as a handle and coated the end in the powder which they set alight, equipping themselves with torches brighter than any lantern.

‘Right,’ Nayalla said. ‘Let’s search this place again, from top to bottom. We have to have missed something. What about the passage we first came in through?’

‘I checked it,’ Noogan told her. ‘There’s nothing.’

‘Okay, but we can assume that there are other passages like it around, bits of what must have been the original cave this place was built inside.’

Mirkrin had stepped down into the sunken section in the middle of the room, examining the broken metal remains that lay there. His attention was attracted by a joint he saw among the rusted pieces, his craftsman’s eye spotting
something
the others had missed.

‘These were once stairs,’ he said to himself.

Lifting his torch, he stared upwards. The light revealed a shaft that went straight up, the top out of sight in the darkness above.

‘Anybody up for a climb?’ he asked.

The ceiling was the height of three men above the ground. 
The miners had some rope, but nothing with which to make a grappling hook. Instead, Mirkrin and Nayalla took out their tools and extended the length of their bodies, Mirkrin
wincing
as he crafted his bruised flesh. Then, Nayalla climbed up onto his shoulders with the rope coiled over one shoulder and balanced there as she looked for handholds. Her head level with the lip of the shaft, she cast her eyes around her, holding her torch up for light. She threw the torch up onto a surface above her, found a grip with both hands and hoisted herself up, her lanky legs dangling for a moment before slithering up into the darkness. The end of the rope dropped down into the waiting hands of her husband.

One by one, they hauled themselves up and found
themselves
on an entirely different floor of the strange system of rooms. The steady burning of their powdered torches revealed a round chamber with more rusting columns, and what looked like small trees growing around the edges of the room. Noogan spotted something off to one side and went to take a look. He knelt down to examine a pile of dusty rags on the floor and gasped. It was a skeleton, or at least what looked like one.

‘By the gods!’ he yelped, jumping back. ‘What’s this?’

They all crowded in to see.

‘Skeleton,’ Paternasse observed. ‘But it’s not human. Don’t look like anything I’ve seen before.’

Its eyes were huge, as was its head. It had two arms, but the forearms branched to end in two opposable hands. The hands were long and delicate. It had quite short legs, half the normal length, and its feet were small and quite dainty. The disintegrating rags were all that were left of what must have been fine robes. 

‘I think we’re looking at one of the owners,’ Mirkrin said quietly.

‘I’ve seen drawings of people like this before,’ Nayalla told them, her brow creased in an effort to remember. ‘In some scrolls my brother has. I thought the stories were myths.’

BOOK: Under Fragile Stone
13.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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