The City of Fire: Chapter Forty-Four
THE LINE of footprints was unmistakable in the dry, fine sand. Fresh, crisply outlined over much older prints: three or four pairs, light Hylian-style boots. Travelling in a rough sort of two-and-two order, he guessed by the markings. Kleox moved swiftly up the incline, his one eye busy--noting a scuff here where the trailing edge of a cloak had brushed the sand aside, a loop there where one of the group had wandered aside for a moment or two.
"Well?" Maximus said, moving up behind him.
"Close now, my lord." He flicked his tongue out for a moment, tasting the still air. "The scent is strong. They're no more than a minute or two in front of us. If we spoke loudly now, they'd likely hear us."
The Stalfos's gauntleted hand clamped down on his shoulder, hard chill fingers digging into his flesh. He clenched his jaw and said nothing. "Then I need you no longer," Maximus remarked, almost kindly.
It was on his blind side, but Kleox sensed the movement of the Stalfos's other hand--as it came to rest gently on the long hilt of the broadsword. He breathed in slowly. Now I must be very calm. "Lord, if I may be so bold as to venture a suggestion. They have good ears, especially the Hylians, and sound carries too well underground. If we come running up from behind, we'll run straight into an ambush." He gestured stiffly towards an opening in the rocky wall. "But if we went another way..."
A momentary pause; the pressure on his shoulder was loosed, just a little. "You seem to know these tunnels, Dinolfos. How well do you know them?"
There was an urge to gabble in such a situation--to wring as much life out of those final moments as you could. He could not afford to do that; the Stalfos would not wait. Get the pertinent information out as plain and in as few words as possible. "Well enough, sire," he said. "The main route curves. There's an old access tunnel that goes straight. If we follow that, we can cut ahead of them."
"Very well," Maximus said after an agonising length of time that could not have been more than a few seconds. "Lead on."
I have a few more minutes of life left to me, then, Kleox thought. I hope they kill you, you filthy old pile of bones. Oh, I hope they do.
In a sumptuously furnished chamber, a woman in a gown of midnight blue paced fretfully back and forth.
"Where is he?"
The room was in disarray. Papers and trinkets were scattered carelessly over the silver table, without regard for their fragility or value. The filigree birdcage lay empty in a corner, its delicate frame buckled inwards. As the woman turned sharply to move back across the room, a small bauble broke beneath her slippered foot. She paid it no heed.
How long had it been? That fool Max... How long did it take to deliver a simple little message? Dinolfos should have been here by now...
Silken garments fluttering with agitation, she swept past the table again--and halted awkwardly, as her gaze caught a ragged piece of parchment that lay there. The vellum was ancient and discoloured, its edges cracked and brittle, but the strange characters written upon it were new, dark as holes in the flickering firelight. Few now alive could read that script, but she could, and now she snatched it up and read again the brief, almost arrogant message. The emissaries, too... it had taken so long to establish a contact there, and now nothing; they were overdue. Were these things unrelated? It seemed too much to ask. And yet she had heard of no disturbance; she had received no report at all since Max had left. Somewhere there was a breakdown in the chain of command.
Was it possible that he had betrayed her? Joined the Hero perhaps? The thought was ridiculous and she laughed, coldly amused at her own imagination--but then remembered the room of light and Dark Link's faint smile. As if he knew something she did not. Why..?
Well, Dark Link would receive a re-education at his master's hands soon enough--if he wasn't dead already. That thought gave her pause. She had left him down there too long, she knew it. She had not meant to kill him. That would have to be dealt with, and swiftly; even if he were irrepairably mad, the old shadow was a favoured pet of His Majesty. But Max... No, he'd never turn against the King. Turning against her, that was another matter altogether.
I gave him too much power, she thought grimly. Too much freedom. Well, there was Galba, a promising character, or Rufinus... but she was unsure whether their first loyalties lay with her or Max. Ah, there was the rub. Could any of the Stalfos be trusted?
A knock at the door! She whirled, her silver staff flying to her hand. "Enter."
In answer, the door scraped open slowly; a Lizalfos stood timidly on the threshold, shifting his clawed feet and looking anywhere but at her. Not Dinolfos. She slammed the butt of her staff hard on the rocky ground and the monster flinched. "I did not send for you!"
The toothy jaw fell open. "Lady?"
"Where is Dinolfos?"
Baffled, the Lizalfos fumbled for words. "Lady, I... don't know..." She raised her staff, furious, and the beast folded up on the ground, banging his chin on the uneven rocky floor as he grovelled before her. "Lady, the shadow... sssick... I came to report..."
His yellow eyes blinked at her, huge with terror. "He collapssed, Lady!"
"Damn you, when? Why didn't you come before?" She didn't wait for an answer. "Pirrillip!" The fairy had been perched on the rim of a golden cup; it darted to her at once. "Come with me," she ordered, whirling a light cloak about her shoulders. "I am taking matters into my own hands." Wait--the Amulet--that couldn't be left here. It lay on the table, sticky in a puddle of spilled wine; she snatched it up and threw the golden chain around her neck. The stone settled, dead and cold as ice, against her bare skin.
The lizard scrambled out of her way as she headed for the door; it was that or be trodden on.
Link walked swiftly, pacing through the tunnel, with his hood thrown back and his head high. Though he would never have admitted it to the others, the pain of his arm was troubling him more and more; he wished fervently that they were all elsewhere, safe. Or better yet, that they had never come down into this goddess-cursed place. Nothing had been gained--they had just swapped one Amulet for another.
"It's getting hotter again," Zelda said quietly by his side. "Link... let's stop for a little while."
He glanced at her for a moment, seeing her cheeks faintly flushed in the tunnel's gloom. "We can't. They'll have missed Dark by now--we have to keep moving."
"No. We need rest, all of us. Even if it's just a few minutes." Her voice was tired but calm; she had thought this through. "We'll be no good at all otherwise. I don't know how we're going to get out of here, but the truth is, we'll probably have to fight sooner or later. We won't have much chance if we're stumbling along in a daze." She sighed heavily. "It's these tunnels... Nayru, I'm sick of seeing stone!"
"I know what you mean," he said wryly. "And you're right, Zel. It looks like there's another junction just ahead; let's stop there for five minutes."
The intersection was not a large one: the main tunnel ran on, but was crossed by a smaller passage running crosswise. There was just one set of rails. The shattered, rusted remains of a cart lay discarded against the wall in a litter of broken stone. They sat and made themselves as comfortable as they could in the debris.
"You know," Sofia said after a little while, "Zelda's right. It is hotter here." There was a faint sheen on her dusky face.
"We are nearing the Cauldron," Dark said quietly.
Link turned to him in some surprise. "Cauldron? What cauldron?"
The shadow closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the stone, a rare unguarded expression of pain upon his face. "That is what they call it, I believe. Do you remember the fiery lake we crossed, when we first came here? We must cross it to regain the upper levels."
"Cross it?" Zelda said in some dismay. "You mean on the carts?"
"No... there is a bridge. I have crossed twice, although it is not an easy passage." He sighed and raised a thin hand to push back tangled locks of hair.
"Are you all right?" Link asked softly.
"Tired, Link. As we all are." He opened his eyes and smiled wearily for a moment, then pulled the Wizzrobe's cloak tighter around himself. Wrapped in its shadow he seemed to doze.
Except that isn't all, Link thought in a sudden flash of insight. Something troubles you, and exhausted as you are, I see it in your face...
A sound! Somewhere ahead there was a clatter of stone on stone. The four of them were on their feet within a heartbeat, makeshift weapons coming swiftly to their hands. There was a long moment of utter stillness, and then the sound came again: a soft shifting rattle, as of pebbles rolling down a mound. A last hiss of dust, and then again, silence.
"It's just rocks settling," Zelda said at last.
Dark's eyes were narrowed beneath the shadow of his hood: there was no sign of weakness in his sharp face now. "I think not," he said very quietly. "Above ground, perhaps, but there is no wind here. And this tunnel has lain undisturbed for years, by the dust and the rusted rails--why would the stones shift now?"
"Well deducted," came a contemptuous voice. They turned as one, and saw the flames of eyes in the smaller tunnel across the way, just before Maximus stepped out of deep shadow. He towered over them all. In his gauntleted hand he carried a great tarnished sword, fully four feet long, with a wicked saw-toothed blade. Kleox Dinolfos faded out into sight beside him--not in armor, this time. The lizardman looked nervous and out of sorts. Maximus ignored him; his attention was directed toward Link, who stood still, frozen, the Wizzrobe's staff held loosely in his good hand. "You've led me a merry chase, Hero," the Stalfos said. "It's over now."
"Run!" Sofia cried.
"No," said Link. He raised his head grimly. "No more running. We've run for long enough." He tossed the staff away, then reached down to his belt and withdrew one of the crystal daggers; he tossed it toward Dark, who caught it gracefully by the hilt. Link drew the other dagger, stepped away from the others, and stared defiance at the Stalfos. "There are four of us," he said, "and only two of you. Perhaps you are the ones who should run."
Maximus threw his head back and roared laughter. "Do you really think you can beat me, little Hero?" he said. "I see a boy with a useless sword-arm and a weapon he does not know how to wield. Should I be frightened?"
"Come on, then," Link said, weighing the crystal dagger in his hand. "If I'm so helpless, come get me!" Dark came forward and stood beside him; Zelda hefted her purloined spear; and Sofia stooped to take up the discarded Wizzrobe's staff. She could not use its magic, but at least the shaft was of good strong wood.
There was a moment of tense stillness, and then Maximus ran at them, swinging his great sword out and around in a terrible, punishing blow. They gave way before him. Link alone stood firm, presenting his hale left side, and raised his crystal dagger to parry. Maximus's first blow smashed the brittle knife into a cloud of icy spinning fragments; Link cried out and threw the useless hilt at the Stalfos; it hit him on the forehead and bounced hard, but he ignored it and raised his sword for another, final blow.
Zelda came at him from the side, swinging the spear as if it were a club; the slender point clattered on the bones of his ribs, doing little damage. He shouted in surprise and raised one arm to fend off the wild rain of blows. She hit at him with the blade or the butt; it was all one to her. A lucky slice chipped fragments off Maximus's forearm. He reached out with the speed of a snake and grabbed the spear-shaft; he tore it from her, roaring in fury, and threw it spinning and clattering into the darkness. She backed away until her back hit cold stone. The massive skeletal figure, its eye-sockets brilliant with hellfire, filled her sight.
"You die, Princess..."
Something blurred, and a crystal dagger slammed down on the bone that had been weakened. Maximus grunted as if in pain and fell back a step. "Not yet," Dark said softly, fading into view.
Kleox had not attacked, though he had his own heavy sword drawn and leaned on it as if to watch the fray. Sofia advanced on him; he backed off a few paces but still made no move to fight, not even raising the weapon to defend himself. The look in his yellow eye was quite calm. She stared at him for a moment, doubtful, then turned her back on him and headed for the others.
Link scrabbled among rocks for the Sheikah spear. He was bleeding slightly; a flying fragment of crystal had nicked his forearm. Stupid, stupid, you might have guessed--they are useless against metal! Behind him, the great Stalfos and the slender shadow moved in a complicated dance, Dark somehow dodging every blow thrown at him. He made no attempt to parry with his own dagger, probably knowing it to be futile; despite all his grace, Maximus was herding him, pushing him back towards the tunnel wall. Sofia broke her Wizzrobe's staff across the Stalfos's back and he shrugged as if bothered by a fly's bite.
"Why do you protect them?" Maximus demanded roughly. The great sword bit air. "I fought at your side once! Remember Kasuto?"
The shadow drew in a sharp breath, as if something pained him.
"I know just how good you are, Dark Link."
"Then you know," Dark said, breathless, "that you cannot defeat me." He moved aside from another blow.
"If you were armed, perhaps!" Maximus laughed. "Tickle me again with that knife, why don't you! Very funny! I like your attitude!" The words set off strange reverberating echoes within Dark's mind.
Heh heh heh...
Very funny! I like your attitude...
Pathetic little fool! Do you realize who you are dealing with?
The shadow's eyes opened suddenly wide, shocked.
The rain... the black horse... the raised hand...
That had not been he! That was Link First!
He stumbled back, and his heel came down on loose stones; he slipped and fell hard against the tunnel wall. The crystal knife spun out of his suddenly nerveless hand. Maximus loomed over him, huge and flame-eyed. From out of the skull's rictus grin poured deep and mocking laughter as the sword swung upwards once more.
"To think that you were one of Ganon's greatest lieutenants!" The eye-sockets flared triumphantly. "Pathetic!" And the skeletal fingers clenched on the handle of the blade, preparing to swing...
The blow never fell. Rising behind the Stalfos, Link raised the spear above his head, gave a wild cry, and brought it down one-handed. The blade cut air with a sound like silk; it touched the crown of Maximus's skull and rang out like a bell. There was a bright spark as the golden circlet snapped. All of the young Hero's weight and strength was behind that blow. The skull crumpled beneath it. Fire burst out around the blade, poured out of the eye-sockets; Maximus's hands loosed their grip, and he dropped his sword to clatter on the stony ground. The Stalfos staggered back a thing of horror, pouring smoke and oily flames from the smashed remnant of the head; jerked and danced for a few seconds; and crumpled into a disjointed heap of bones.
The shattered skull of Maximus hit the ground, bounced twice and rolled; it came to a halt a charred and smoking ruin. From it burst a rushing, wailing wind, that circled about them, tearing at their clothes and the hair on their heads, and then died away.
Zelda had snatched up a couple of stones from the rubble, thinking to throw them in the absence of any better weaponry. Now she opened her hands and let the rocks fall. The clatter of stone on stone seemed suddenly very loud in the confined space. "Is he dead?" she asked quietly, her attention on the still remnant.
"Deader than he was before, anyway," Link answered, too weary to make a joke of it. He stuck the spear into a crack in the ground and then clutched suddenly at his right arm, grimacing at an unexpected bolt of pain.
"Link?" the Princess said, coming to him. The look in her eyes was fearful. "Are you hurt?"
He managed a smile. "No more than I was when it started. Although I think I have done all the fighting I can for a while."
"Then we'll have to be careful not to run into anyone else," Sofia said. She stood with her back to them, staring down into the shadowed passage whence their attackers had come. "That lizard--what was his name, Kleox?--he's gone. Maybe to get others, I don't know, but in any case we ought to hurry out of here."
"Why didn't he attack?" Link asked, frowning at that. "If he'd helped Maximus..."
"Who knows why these monsters do the things they do?" She moved away a little, then turned. "If everyone is all right... we should go."
Link took up the spear and examined it for a moment: though blackened as by a fire, the edge seemed to have lost none of its sharpness. Thankfully. With one crystal dagger and the last Wizzrobe's staff broken, they were running low on usable weapons... His gaze moved to Maximus's discarded greatsword, lying now in a heap of bones and armor, but he knew that it was too heavy for any of them. Dragging such a thing around would only slow them down, and it would hardly help them in a fight; it had been made for one of massive stature. He passed the spear back to Zelda.
Dark had got to his feet. He stood a little way away, holding the last remaining crystal dagger loosely in his hand; as Link glanced back at him, he flipped it and wordlessly held it out hilt-first. Link shook his head. "Keep it. I am in no shape to fight anyway."
"We should go," Sofia said again, anxiously.
"It's all right, we're coming." Link shook back the tangled mess of his hair, then gave Zelda his good hand. He could see the princess was shaken. "Let's get out of here."
They were moving away, the pair of them. Dark stared at their backs for a moment, then at the dagger he still held. For a moment there was something--something that snarled, and would have leapt--but the other was far stronger now.
The knife, translucent in the gloom, shone faintly with reflected fire from the lights ahead and behind. Something...
A hand touched his shoulder; he jerked away reflexively, his fingers clamping down on the dagger's hilt. Sofia grinned at him, enjoying his reaction. "Come on, old shadow--you're not hurt. Are you going to guide us, or would you rather stay here?"
He slipped the dagger onto his belt, in the scabbard that had once held the Kakariko sword; the Lizalfos weapon was smaller and the blade rattled loosely in the space. Out of habit he laid his hand on the hilt to silence it as he moved. The Hero and the Princess had already turned the corner; he hurried to catch them.
"You were very graceful back there," Sofia said, falling in beside him. "Trip over something?"
"Funny, Sofia," he said flatly.
She smirked and leaned for a moment on his shoulder, then let go and trotted lightly after the others. He watched the gleam of her unbound hair for a moment before it faded into the darkness. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth; he shook his head, adjusted the dagger in its sheath, and ran to catch them up.
The chamber was deserted. The light field shone brilliantly still--but it was empty. For a moment the sorceress stood quite still in the doorway, her mouth open; her gaze flitted back and forth, searching for what she already knew was gone. Pirrillip hovered behind her, saying nothing, doing nothing, making itself as inconspicuous as possible. She ignored it--her concern was for other things.
How? There was no way he could have... Had he been shamming when he collapsed? Easy enough to fool the confounded lizards... But even so, he could not have passed through that light, not alone!
She stepped forward two paces and then halted again, seeing something on the ground: scattered dark spots of some viscous substance, tacky and mostly dried now. Kneeling she reached out to touch it, and sniffed at the stuff on her fingers. Blood, but of what kind she could not say. There wasn't much of it, and in any case, whoever had shed it was no longer here. Where were those guards?
Dark Link loose in the tunnels... Max a traitor... her lizards no longer obeying orders... Things were sliding swiftly out of her control, and the sensation was dizzying, terrifying. Her bloodied hand went to the amulet for reassurance; it froze the tips of her fingers and she swiftly pulled her hand away.
Something else lay on the mosaic floor, hard against the wall, where deep shadows had at first cloaked it from her sight. She moved over and picked it up: a staff of gnarled wood, slick with age, its tip carved into a claw-like shape in which the remains of a crimson gemstone glittered. Smashed. A second, intact staff lay discarded a short way away. As she stood with the broken staff in her hands, a few blood-red fragments slid out of the damaged claw and tinkled on the tiles, the sound almost too high to be heard.
She knew well what it was, but she could not make herself understand. Had they come for this purpose, to rescue Dark Link? Was that why she had heard nothing from that quarter? But no--broken or not, these things would never have been left behind by their true owners. So, then, they had been stolen...
You may know they are dead. Maybe the Lady herself knows they are dead. But all I know is that descendants of the Hero tend to spring out of the woodwork when you least expect it...
Sepultura's lips writhed back from her teeth in a snarl that made her ethereally beautiful face suddenly horrible to look upon. "That wretched boy..." she hissed, and her fingers tightened on the wooden staff until her knuckles were pure white. In another moment she flung it from her and snatched up her own silver staff, then dashed from the chamber in an undignified run.
She had gone only a few hundred paces before she slowed and stopped to stare about her. She could find her way well enough through the main tunnels, but the realisation was creeping upon her that she had no idea where the Hero had gone, no way to follow him. The place was a labyrinth of interlocking tunnels, some of them thousands of years old--dug first by the Gorons of legend and then extended by the Lizalfos. The escapees could be anywhere by now. And with the ancient shadow free and hostile... There were a great many dark places in this hall between the smoking, spitting torches. The space between her shoulderblades tingled, expecting the knife.
Light--that was what was needed. Breathless with relief at that thought, she raised her silver staff and was about to speak a word when the torches guttered wildly in a draught. She flinched at a sudden chill.
"Maximus?" she said doubtfully, and wondered why he came to mind. Then the breeze came again, tugging at her hair, streaming it into threads, and she knew. The chilly little wind fluttered her robes for a moment, then, slowly, it faded, and the torches burned tall and still once more. Maximus had paid her a last farewell; he was gone.
What ill chance was this?
She stood for a long time, thinking, then shuddered and pulled her cloak tighter around her.
"Pirrillip!" she said softly.
"Yes, Lady?" the fairy said, fluttering into sight.
"Did you feel it, Pirrillip? A passing?"
"I felt it, Lady! Was it Lord Maximus?"
"Yes," she said. "It was." She felt almost grieved for the loss, now; whatever the events of these last hours Maximus had been her oldest and most dedicated ally. She would miss his expertise. "It must have been the boy and his friends," she said. "What else would dare attack his Lordship? But to take down Maximus himself..!" She raised the staff again and the gem in the dragon's mouth burst into brilliant light, throwing the hall's columns into stark relief. Let any thing of shadow approach her now! "I have left to underlings what I should have done myself," she said coldly. "Come, Pirrillip--"
At that moment footsteps pattered swiftly in the outer dark; she turned to see a long-tailed silhouette stumble down the steps at the hall's far end and throw up an arm against the sudden brilliance. Blinking painfully he stared at her from beneath the shadow of his scaly hand--she saw his sudden look of horror as he recognised her. Taking her time despite the fury boiling up within her, she advanced towards him, placing each slippered foot delicately on the cold stones.
"Where are my guards, Dinolfos? Where is my prisoner? And why did you not report to me an hour ago?"
Breathless he stammered for a few seconds. "My lady... Maximus... in the tunnel..."
"I know, you fool! How did it happen?"
The Lizalfos took a long breath. "We came upon them in the North Reach, my lady," he said, straightening up. "Maximus and I. He tackled the Hero on his own, despite my counsel; he fell there, and I barely escaped to report to you. They're loose, my lady, all four of them together."
"Why did Maximus go chasing after the Hero?" Sepultura snapped. "I gave him no such order!"
"My lady, I don't know... he came and dragged me out to track for him. I had no choice--he was ready to kill me!"
"Where were they headed?" she demanded.
"The Cauldron, my lady, as far as I could tell. I came straight to you as soon as I could."
It was a bare-faced lie, but she let it pass; she needed him. "Come with me," Sepultura said. "And you, Pirrillip. We will go ourselves to the Cauldron." She clenched her fingers tight around the silver haft of her dragon staff, until they turned pale with strain. "They will pay with their lives for this. Lead, lizard--the shortest way you know, and swiftly!" Kleox bowed deep and turned towards the upward stair.
"Where to now?" Link said, pausing at an intersection. Zelda came up behind and slipped her fingers into his; he squeezed them to reassure her, and did his best to smile.
Dark looked doubtful and sniffed the air. "I am not sure," he said. "You came far out of your way to rescue me. I think... we have two choices. Either we make for the upper levels, and I warn you they will likely be teeming by now, or we go underground."
"Where are we now?" Sofia said pointedly.
He made his odd little half-smile, an expression that seemed embarrassed to be what it was. "Sorry--I meant deeper. The real underground. That is another way we might go if pressed, but it will be our absolute last resort. There will be no light down there."
"Do you mean the Underworld?" Link said.
Dark looked surprised. "I do. You know of it?"
"My grandfather went down once or twice--not very far, but deep enough to bring back fearful tales." Link looked grim. "I don't think this is a good idea."
"I will not lie to you--it will be dangerous. Sepultura will not follow us into the Underworld, and that in itself should tell you what sort of place it is. But on the other hand," Dark said, his face very grave now, "I know the Underworld. I know the best ways to stay alive. If we went quickly and avoided drawing attention to ourselves, we might well escape that way."
"I say we try the upper levels," Sofia said. "I don't like the sound of the Underworld."
"Nor do I," said Zelda fervently.
"Then let us try for the bridge," Dark said. "I think I can find it."
As they went on, it seemed at first that Dark would be proved right; they hid many times from parties of monsters hurrying through the tunnels. But everyone they met seemed intent on a different errand; they were even seen, several times, and the monsters merely passed them by. After a while, the four companions began to walk more openly; they no longer bothered to hide when they heard footsteps. They were not attacked.
The corridors widened steadily around them; they crossed several sets of mine cart tracks and began to come across wooden doors again as they came back into the main tunnel network. As they crossed a long stone hallway, a group of five or six Lizalfos appeared at the far end. The beasts froze, and then slunk away swiftly into another side tunnel.
"Something has happened," Zelda said. "They're disorganised now."
"I would guess that the news has got out about Maximus," said Link. "He was no ordinary Stalfos."
"That's something I was thinking about," she said, looking up at him for a moment. "Maximus, and Kleox, and Kurgh. They were all different... greater than the others. It's easy to fight monsters that are just monsters--remember the Forest Temple?"
"We didn't call that easy at the time," he said, laughing.
"Well, it was compared to this." She would not be lulled. "You know what I mean, Link. These monsters are as clever as we are. How many more allies does she have? What else are we going to face before the end? I am afraid, Link. We started this quest, and it seemed almost like a game... something exciting to do because Ganon was gone. But look at this place!" She heaved a sigh and looked away. "I have a bad feeling that this will be worse than your quest against Ganon."
"It's tougher than I thought it would be," Link admitted. "But don't lose hope yet!"
"This way, Lady," Kleox said, gesturing down the winding stone passage.
She swept past him in a ripple of silk. "Save your breath for walking, lizard! Just guide!"
"Yes, your Graciousness," he mumbled rebelliously to himself.
The tunnel network was vast, and no creature knew the whole of it; but Kleox knew more than most. He had overseen the early digging, and he knew these smaller maintenance tunnels that ran around and among the main tracks. He led her on through passages that were often unfinished, small and low, cluttered with rubble and abandoned carts. The roads twisted and turned, but Kleox led her more or less straight despite that, on and upwards. Sepultura's gown fluttered behind her; she ducked her head often in the low tunnels. Pirrillip buzzed beside her.
At last there was a glow of firelight beyond. The Cauldron lay ahead. Kleox suppressed a smirk as he hurried towards the light; he wondered how she would like the intense heat and fumes. Lizalfos could tolerate it; these fiery caverns had been their home for centuries; but there were few other creatures that could or would put up with such a poisoned atmosphere.
Sepultura stepped out without hesitation. The tunnel opened out onto a small plateau that jutted from the sheer wall of the Cauldron. The roar of heat from below lifted the sorceress's hair and breathed life into it until it whipped like a nestful of vipers; her silken gown flapped madly. She paid the heat no heed, walking straight to the very edge and standing there on tiptoe. The point of the silver dragon staff dug into the cliffside, dislodging a few pebbles and sending them plummeting towards the magma far below.
It was a remarkable view. Mine cart tracks crossed each other in the empty space; some were so tiny with distance that they looked no more than silver hairs in the darkness. The fireglow lit everything from below, casting strange shadows on the sorceress's face and ringing their platform with red light.
Pirrillip hovered around the tunnel entrance, reluctant to brave the terrible heat. It fluttered down and perched on the rusted rim of an old broken-down cart, and sat there, opening and closing its wings, like a tired butterfly.
"What would you have me do now, Lady?" Kleox asked after several minutes.
Sepultura seemed to have forgotten he was there; she looked round now with vague annoyance. "What is that?" she said, pointing with the staff. Kleox stepped up cautiously to the edge, and peered over. A hundred yards or so away, there was a small opening in the far wall, and outside it stood a ledge. A slender span of stone sprang from there to bridge the sea of magma, joining onto their own stone platform where Sepultura stood.
"My lady, this is Din's Bridge," Kleox said, bowing. "It used to be the only way up to the surface, before we built the tracks."
"The only way?" Sepultura said, and smiled coldly. "Excellent. Listen close, lizard. This is what we will do..."
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