Shadow's Mastery: Chapter 74
THE NIGHTMARES attacked again when they were nearly to the far shore: blind shrieking darkness with teeth. Dully disciplined, the Stalfos closed ranks as they had done a score of times already, and the heavy broadswords came screeching out of their scabbards. But there were many of the dark things, and although the undead did not tire as a mortal would have done, they were slow to react. On all sides there rose a howling, and dark claws slashed out of the endless night. Then once more came the thudding of blunted blades on flesh that was dry and bloodless--a sound that reminded him oddly of the sound of Hylian axes on wood, in the springtime of the mountain--and then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over; the little band was alone in the feeble glow of their lanterns, and they were two less.
Kleox Dinolfos leaned on his sword, feeling more tired than he had ever been in his life. One of the things had caught him again, on the side, and although the wound was small it bled freely. He at least could bleed. He had nothing with which to staunch the flow; had the ground been muddy he would have scooped up some of it in a claw, but the causeway underfoot was bare black stone. Well, the wound would clot eventually, he supposed.
"Why have we stopped?" came the irritated voice of Sepultura. "They're gone--get moving!"
He glanced back, twisting his head to one side to see out of his good eye. Twelve, fourteen, fifteen of them now, including himself and the witch. They had started out as a round twenty. Slender and pale, her blood-red eyes gleaming in the lantern light, she glared balefully back at him from between two hulking skeletal warriors. Standing beside the huge Stalfos, she looked small and silly. Her expression was petulant; her blue velvet gown had spatters of dark ichor drying on the hem.
"Yes, my lady," he said smoothly, inclining his upper body in a slight bow. Her eyes narrowed.
"Do not be insolent with me, lizard."
"No, my lady." A deeper bow this time. He turned away before she could say anything else, and hefted his sword to slide it back into the sheath. "Move it!" he barked.
They went on at a steady plodding march--it was true what the monsters said amongst themselves, that Stalfos recalled at least the military discipline of their former lives. If only they could remember how to hurry... Slowly, step by sluggish step, the further end of the causeway grew at the edge of their lamplight: a dead black shore, strewn with broken rocks that had likely never beheld light until this day. The dark water made unwholesome and oddly thick ripples at the causeway's edge.
Kleox was no stranger to darkness--after all he had spent two years in the Death Mountain mines--and so he had been surprised to find that he truly hated the Underworld. He had never hated anything more, and there were many things in this world that he hated. The things down here were not like any monsters he knew--they did not bleed, and they could not be made to flee even when sorely wounded, and they were relentless. Again and again black nameless creatures had hurled themselves at the little band, and been repelled--and each time the numbers of his squad dwindled a little more.
His clawed foot came down suddenly on gritty sand, and he faltered for a moment in his stride, surprised by the change. They had reached the further shore. Swiftly he shuffled to one side to allow the others by, the sorceress hurrying among them. She gave him a dirty look as she swept past, and brushed at the side of her gown with fastidious care. Deferentially he looked down towards the ground, though his thoughts were anything but deferential.
You may well loathe me, old witch, but you need me--I'm the closest thing you have left to a competent commander, since the Hero took out your precious General. And you know it, don't you?
He supposed he ought to have felt proud of his advancement. Likely he was the first of his race ever to have attained a command, for Lizalfos, like Moblins and Goriyas and other monsters beast-born, did not hold rank in the Dark Army. All the same it was an honor he would gladly have gone without.
Indeed, he would have upped and left the witch to her own devices, given the whisper of a chance, but he had nowhere else to go: his own kind had been nearly wiped out in the Death Mountain fiasco. Oh, there were enough of them left to be sure that the Lizalfos would not become extinct--they bred fast, too, and would replace their numbers eventually--but the folk now were widely spread and left without any kind of leadership. The best of them had died in the collapsing of the catacombs--those whom Sepultura had not already murdered for being too clever, too intractable, too proud, too wilful to make good slaves.
When Sepultura had discovered him not quite two years ago in the mountains of eastern Hyrule, he had been more or less like the rest of his kinsfolk: savage, murderous and brutal, molded by an upbringing of such extreme viciousness that it was remarkable even among the monstrous races. Lizalfos, though they lived together as social creatures, possessed none of the gentler instincts. The weak died young: either from starvation when they could not scavenge sufficient food from the kills of their elders, or from infighting amongst themselves, or from the raids periodically perpetrated by the Hylians to keep their numbers down. One such raid had taken the sight of Kleox's eye, when he was only six or seven winters old; he survived by creeping deep into a thorn thicket. A mounted soldier saw him lying there but, from his ghastly appearance, assumed that he was already dead. Dragging himself out three days later, so weak from hunger and blood loss that he could barely move, he discovered that all the others of his former group had been killed. That was all right by him. He fed himself from the corpses until he was strong enough to seek out and fight for a place in another band.
The sorceress's arrival changed everything. Her skeletal warriors were impervious to claw or tooth or the frail stone and crystal knives which were all that the Lizalfos knew how to craft, and the invaders slew with impunity among the best of them, until they had thoroughly quelled any spirit of resistance.
Kleox, who by now had risen to the rank of third in his chosen band, saw the leader and second in command cut down by Stalfos blades when they refused to dig for the witch. He watched, and he learned. And when they set him to work in the tunnels, he did what he was told and did not question. The food, after all, was good, and for the first time in his life there was plenty of it.
And then, to his lasting astonishment, Kleox Dinolfos had found he was an excellent politician. It was easy to follow the witch's orders, easy to cringe and scuttle and rush and present the appearance of being utterly cowed. He enjoyed the physical labour, and worked tirelessly, and grew strong and sleek on hard work and a plentiful diet of good meat. As a result he survived where others died--and soon others of his kin noticed his success and began to look to him for leadership. At the same time he worked more quietly on his own behalf. He had natural cunning, and an aptitude for learning, as well as an active desire for knowledge that was rare in his kind: he listened to the idle chatter of the overseers, and learned much from it.
He was not kept as a laborer for long. He caught an overseer's eye and was promoted, first to squad leader and then again to the rank of overseer himself. It was a first of its kind event, and it was not well received among the majority of the Stalfos. But he kept his head down and did no more than he was told and gained a reputation as a solid, unimaginitive, mindlessly loyal servant, and eventually began to receive at least a grudging kind of tolerance from his new companions, although he was not respected by them.
With the overseer rank came a modicum of independence, and a certain freedom from being watched. As long as the digging got done, and targets were met on time, he was left more or less to his own devices. He was very hard, even unreasonably cruel, on those serving under him--another thing he had learned from the Stalfos--and that made the cavern masters trust him more.
What the masters did not realise was that he was forming a squad of his own from amongst the Lizalfos under his command: a squad of which the witch and her henchmen knew nothing. He chose the best and brightest (although not too bright--he would not allow any chance of a challenge to his authority), and armed them, and trained them, and told them the hardships he had inflicted were a test of their mettle: they were to be a fighting elite, set above their brethren. When the time was right and his safety assured he would escape from the mines, and then... who knew? At any rate he did not intend to stay in the barren mountains where he had been born: he had heard the Stalfos speaking of rich lands in the Hylian basin, forested lands with much good game where the people were fat and soft and did not carry shining swords. With a small, strong, loyal, swift-moving force, much could be done.
Of course, before his plan could bear fruit, the Hero and his friends had come, and then his fortune had reversed itself once again. He, and a few of the overseers, and the badly injured witch, had been trapped together in the mines. Kleox led them out through hidden ways, through the tunnels he had once planned to use for his escape. Even though these passages, cunningly dug in secret, had mostly withstood the earthquakes, they had to dig many times to clear rockfalls--even the mighty Stalfos were reduced to grubbing in the dirt with their hands, and he gained some secret pleasure from that.
And when that ragged crew did emerge after an uncounted time in the pitch-black tunnels, staggering out blindly into the light of the sun which he himself had not seen for almost two years, he was the highest ranking overseer who still remained. He had followed Sepultura's orders all this time purely to ensure his short-term survival; now without warning he found himself the witch's second-in-command. It was not a job he desired, but he had had no choice but to take it. He still wanted to live.
His life from that point had been dangerous in a different way. Sepultura was a spoiled child, fickle and given to tantrums when she did not get her way. Anything that went right was the result of her superior planning; everything that went wrong was attributed to his own incompetence. And things did go wrong, for as that old villain Maximus had once observed, the Hero seemed to have fate constantly on his side...
"We are close," Sepultura said, her eyes glittering with delight. She drew out the crackling parchment again and peered at it, tilting it into the light of a lantern that a Stalfos hurriedly held over her. After a moment she began to mutter to herself, tracing faded outlines with a long-nailed finger. Kleox tuned her out--his attention was on the outer dark. The things were close: he could hear them skittering, scuffing over the bare stones. He shifted from foot to foot, adjusting his grip on the sword he still carried naked in his hand, and hoped that the witch would not delay them here too long. The Underworld beasts were not holding back out of fear, or caution, or anything like that; it was simple curiosity which made them reluctant to attack. They had never experienced light before, and did not know what to make of it.
"Come on," he muttered under his breath. "Come on..."
A few yards away, just outside the feeble reach of their lantern, stones rattled. He turned swiftly towards the sound, but saw nothing, not even the glimmer of eyes. That was not reassuring: many of the things they had killed so far had had no eyes.
"I have it!" Sepultura announced suddenly, and Kleox winced at the way in which her shrill voice carried through the damp and heavy air. He turned and paced smoothly back across the gravelly shore, into the loose circle the Stalfos had formed around their lady. She rolled the paper up with brisk efficiency, thrust it into her bodice, and was smiling triumphantly as she turned towards him.
"The entrance to the Sixth Cavern will be somewhere along this shore. Have them spread out to search for it."
He couldn't help it; his jaw fell open and for a moment all he could do was stare dumbly at her. She could not be serious... break up their remaining force, here, when he was not even sure if he had enough able-bodied fighters remaining now to get back safely to the surface? And to expect them to wander off into the dark, away from their only source of protection..? He was used by now to the witch's reckless disregard for those under her command, but this... he was honestly dumbfounded.
His hesitation could have lasted no longer than a heartbeat, but it was enough. Sepultura's face twisted with rage.
"You dare..? You dare question my orders?"
He had voiced no question, but he did not dare to point this out; anything he said now she would take as further evidence of his degeneracy and wilful rebellion. Even his silence condemned him in its own way. Accordingly, he merely stood with his head down, and waited patiently for the storm to blow over.
"Nothing to say for yourself?" the witch taunted, her eyes gleaming malice. "You worthless piece of carrion--are you stupid, or deaf? Which is it? How dare you stand and gawk at me when I gave you a direct order? Go--get out of my sight!"
And in front of all the watching Stalfos, she stood on tiptoes to strike him a ringing blow across the face.
For a moment, his world went white and cold.
There had been a time when Kleox would have fought the Boar himself for such a slight--it was not that her feeble openhanded blow had hurt him, far from it, but the effect that such a display of overt disrespect on her part would have on those he had to command. The Stalfos were a silent circle around their little tableau, drinking everything in with shining fire-eyes.
Two years ago he would have had to kill her, or die trying. He would have had no choice in the matter. But he had learned diplomacy in Sepultura's mines. He did not lift his gaze from the ground.
At last, coldly, Sepultura said, "You have your orders."
Control, he told himself, control. Damn the woman, was she mad? With one petty, spiteful blow she had undone his careful work of months: the fragile, grudging beginnings of respect which he had wrested from them by blade and claw. Of course the fights hadn't bothered Sepultura--she could always raise more Stalfos, given time and the necessary resources. But it bothered Kleox, for the Stalfos who challenged his leadership were always the best of them, the fighters he least liked to lose. She really wants me to fail her... she won't kill me herself, but she'd love to see me die at their hands, simply because she needs me and doesn't like to know it. She'd tear her own flesh to get back at me...
He turned away without looking at her, stood with one hand resting on his hip and regarded the watching circle: marking those whose stances were most tense, whose gaze met his head-on without hesitation. They wouldn't try anything now, in this hell-hole--they weren't stupid--but later they would, and he'd be ready. He made sure they knew it.
"Four groups of three." He divided them up with the point of his sword. "You, you and you... you, and you, go with him. Each group takes one lantern between them. Stay together, stay within earshot. You--Rufinus--you'll come with her Ladyship and myself."
"What are we suppose ta be lookin' for?" someone asked gruffly.
In lieu of answering, he turned his body slightly towards Sepultura, bowing obedience, and waited. There was a moment's silence.
"A door," she said, "or an opening. You will know it when you see it."
They went silently, in sullen obedience, staying very close together against the dark. The middle member of each group carried the lantern swinging on its pole. Watching them go he wondered why those who had died once already would fear a second death--but perhaps they loved even that poor shadow of life that they possessed now. They had no wish to fall in this black place, no more than he.
"So you expect me to poke under rocks as well, lizard?" Sepultura said. "You grow very bold."
He made another, stiff bow. "I assumed you would value all possible speed, my lady, given the danger..."
She stopped him by raising her left hand, which still clutched the silver dragon staff; the dragon's gemstone eyes glittered pale in the lantern light. "Do not assume to know my mind in future. There is a limit to how much insolence I am prepared to put up with."
"M'lady," he said by way of agreement. The sorceress glared at him for a moment longer, then spun on her heel and strode off into the shadows. He went after her, Rufinus plodding at his side with the lantern. The other groups were already dwindling specks of light along the shore. Sepultura moved straight up towards the black cliffs which bordered the beach, picking her way around great chunks of shattered stone, some of which looked as if they had once been part of something. When a stone turned sharply under her, she jabbed the end of her staff into the ground for balance.
"She'll kill y' one day," Rufinus said very quietly. "Or we will."
Kleox grunted, dismissive. "But not today."
For a while they walked in silence, in straggling single file; Sepultura moved ahead without regard for them, and they had to lengthen their stride in order to keep the light on her. The cliffs sloped up nearly sheer, slick and running with streams of black darkness that caught the lamplight now and then. Sound was deadened here in a strange way; though the trickling of water into hidden pools was loud and echoing, their footsteps thudded dull and distant on the rocky ground. The other groups were totally inaudible: were it not for the lanterns still glittering here and there, distant in the dark, the three of them might have been alone.
Kleox felt at his face with a claw, touched the place where she had struck him. It still tingled. He shook his head and sighed quietly to himself, feeling the amazement of it all over again. By His Majesty's blood, witch, I didn't think you were that stupid...
Sepultura did not appear to be conscious of his rebellious thoughts. She was climbing awkwardly between the rocks up towards the cliffs, using the silver staff for balance. He could hear her breathing hard with the effort, taste her cloying perfume in the air, with an undercurrent of sweat.
As they passed by another rockfall, carvings on one of the fallen chunks of stone caught his eye. He turned, intrigued, then beckoned to the Stalfos and crouched down to take a closer look. The boulder was as tall as he was, and some nine feet wide; its closest face was flat and smooth. It looked as if it had fallen from some wall or rampart--he turned his head to look up at the cliffs, but the little lantern Rufinus carried could not pierce the dizzying heights of darkness above them.
"Why do you delay now?" Sepultura snapped.
He turned his head. "This mark, y'ladyship... does it mean anything?"
She hissed air through her teeth, expressing frustration, and came back towards them--her dignified stride broken when she slipped sideways on the wet stones, and nearly fell. He kept his face impassive as the witch slithered down onto the beach in a rattle of loose stone, and limped over. They backed out of the way as she knelt down.
"Light," she snapped. Rufinus dipped the lantern down towards her. Illuminated, the great dark fragment gleamed like polished marble, black but shot through with veins of sparkling gray. The carving's edges were crisp and unweathered, despite the water-marks of many tides on the lower part of the stone.
Sepultura reached out and traced the symbol with her fingertip: an eye, with a single large tear falling. Her painted nails scraped softly on the stone. After a moment, she breathed out, and sat back on her heels; her shoulders slumped. It was only for a moment--in another heartbeat she reached for her staff which rested ready against a nearby boulder, pushed herself to her feet, and turned to face them, and her look was as hard and cold as it had ever been.
"Collect your troops. The entrance will be here somewhere--we will dig it out."
One of the groups had vanished, and nobody could recall when they had seen them last. Cato's team had gone the furthest afield, moving up towards the further end of the beach where a black and barren headland jutted out into the still water amongst piles of broken stone. They were not there now. Nobody had heard a thing--not a shout, not a splash, not a scuffle. The squad searched for a while in a desultory fashion, expecting little; it was Rufinus who stumbled with a curse on the shattered lantern, lying at the water's edge. The glass was still warm to the touch.
And now we are twelve, thought Kleox, walking back with the remainder of the squad at his heels, the Stalfos now cowed and silent. Half our strength gone, or nearly so, and we haven't even got wherever we're supposed to be going... witch, you'd better have some scheme to get us out of here when you're done.
He set them to work where Sepultura indicated, clearing a great rockfall that lay at the foot of the cliffs. The sorceress sat on a nearby boulder, watching their progress with gleaming, avaricious eyes.
That progress was slow but steady: with endless patience the Stalfos picked away at the edges of the fall, reducing it stone by stone, biting it away. They had great strength, and tossed rocks away with little effort. Kleox took a turn at the rock face himself, not out of solidarity or enthusiasm so much as an unwillingness to face the dark. Looking outside, away from that little patch of ground lit by their lamps, was like being blind, and he could not bear it.
He was standing quietly to one side of the rockfall, just out of the reach of flying boulders, and thinking grim thoughts about his likelihood of long-term survival, when they reached the opening. There was a shout, and a clatter; the whole rockfall shifted suddenly. Kleox straightened up, at once alert for trouble.
"Sah... There's an opening down here, looks like..." The speaker was out of sight behind the boulders, shoulder-deep in the hole they had made.
"At last," Sepultura breathed. She rose to her feet in one fluid motion and hurried up to the rockfall, clambering around and over the new piles of rubble now littering the sand. "Open it--open it quickly! This is where we must go!"
There were scratchings and rattlings out on the black beach, louder now again. Something made a heavy splash out in the lake.
We've been here too long, thought Kleox. He sheathed his sword, grabbed one of the spare lanterns and sprang up onto the rock face. Undermined by the digging, the whole thing was threatening to slip now, and he walked carefully with his tail held out stiff behind him for better balance. Stalfos shuffled awkwardly aside as he came through.
"Sah," someone said behind him nervously; he was not sure who. "Sah, some'n big's out there." There was a sound in the outer darkness now like thick chain being dragged over rocks. He grunted, shoved the lantern into someone else's hands, and slid himself down into the hole beside Rufinus.
The opening was low down against the cliff face, partly obscured by rubble. He bent close and flicked out his tongue to taste the cold, slightly bitter air flowing up from below. There was a large space beneath them: a passage, most likely.
"Sah, what'll we do?" That clanking, rattling sound was louder now, coming from somewhere to the left of their position as it circled around them.
He twisted his head to get a better view of the hole and the way the rubble lay about it. This work he knew well from the mines. There were points of weakness in the way the loose rocks lay--the trick was to find them. He raised his foot and stamped, kicking at a fist-sized stone that was wedged between two others.
Sepultura was nervous now, clutching at something on a fine golden chain that ran beneath her gown as she looked out into the dark. Something invisible seemed to glide by, a few feet over their heads; the chilly downdraft stirred her hair, and she flinched.
The stone wouldn't budge. Kleox cursed, bent to scrabble around it with his claws, then kicked it again, harder and harder.
"Y'ladyship..." There was a tremor in the lookout's voice. "Sah... we can... we can see it..."
"Can't you do anything right?" shrieked the witch.
There was a long metallic scrape as Rufinus drew his sword. Kleox turned on him, snarling--but the Stalfos dug the point of his heavy blade under the stone as a lever, and leaned on it with both arms. The rock creaked and grated.
Someone on the perimeter shouted, a roar of wordless rage and horror--the sound was abruptly cut off by a smashing of rocks. Vibrations shook the ground under them, and the rockfall shifted again. The depth of the hole prevented Kleox from seeing what was attacking them this time, and he didn't raise his head to look. He drew his own sword and set it to the base of the trapped stone, opposite the Stalfos's rusted blade.
"Together," he said.
The grinning skull turned towards him, witchfire flickering in the dark and empty sockets. Rufinus nodded.
--the stone shot free, narrowly missing his leg as it smashed into the side of the pit--
--and suddenly the ground was moving, sliding out from under them. He cried out, dropping the sword, and threw his arms about his head--stone shards were flying, and after losing his sight on one side he had a horror of being blinded. Everything was in motion now, the loose rocks under his feet pouring into the swiftly enlarging hole, and they carried him down with them in a great roaring slithering flood. Down into darkness.
It was probably a drop of eight or ten feet, but it felt more like fifty in the falling. He hit a pile of rubble hard enough to knock the breath out of his lungs; somehow he retained enough sense to fling himself to one side and roll, out of the way of the cascading debris. Lying half-shielded by an overhang, he curled himself into a ball, and waited for the deafening thunder of falling rocks to fade.
It did, slowly. A roar became a rumble, then a rattle of a last few pebbles dancing down the slope as it settled. When the final echoes had almost died away, Kleox slowly, hesitantly, raised his head. Sharp bits of broken stone slid off him as he did so.
The darkness was total. He sucked air painfully, his throat raw and stinging from the rock dust, and struggled not to give in to an irrational, overwhelming terror.
Blind, oh Din I'm blind...
Something stirred, quite close; it was not the rocks settling. He surged up in hysteria, banged into a wall and fell headlong.
In the black dark, someone whispered words, spidery and strange--and light, pale, weak, blessed light, opened like a flower. Hanging stalactites crept into focus, and puddles of still water, and his own hands reaching out in front of him, claws digging into loose dirt. Sprawled awkwardly on the cold damp stone, every inch of him hurting for one reason or another, he nearly wept with relief.
The sorceress, her gown ripped, her arms striped with blood, had raised herself on her arms and was clutching the dragon staff in dust-covered hands. It was from the dragon's eyes that the light shone. A few yards away stones shifted, and a skeletal hand emerged, groping over the floor.
Kleox dragged himself into a sitting position, his back against the wall and his tail curled tight around his legs, and concentrated on simply breathing for a few moments, trying to persuade his heart to slow down. When he was certain that he was in control, he turned his head and looked up, towards the hole through which they had fallen. It was blocked: a great slab of stone had fallen neatly across it, like a trapdoor. Likely not a moment too soon, for that whole end of their chamber was filled from floor to ceiling with a great mound of rubble. He, and the witch, had narrowly escaped being buried alive.
The passage they were in was low and sloping, bristling with stalagmites like the stumps of old dead trees, and slick, as the Underworld usually seemed to be, with wet. Puddles glistened darkly on the bare stone floor. Here and there, misty from a hair-fine limestone coating, strange carvings could still be seen on the walls. He spotted another of the weeping eye symbols.
"Where is this?" he asked.
The witch was rubbing at her shoulder as if it pained her; she glanced up at him quickly. The fall seemed to have jolted some of the arrogance out of her. "The Sixth Cavern," she said.
"And you reckon the other half's down here somewhere?"
Her red eyes narrowed to slits. "This is all your fault..."
He didn't dignify that with a response: he got to his feet, wincing at a new collection of bruises and scrapes--his scales were tough, but not that tough--and dug around in the edges of the rubble until he found his sword. The blade had a few more nicks and dings than before, but on the whole it had endured the ordeal admirably. Of course Goron steel lasted, and this weapon, like many others that were passed down in the Dark Army, had likely been forged for a Hylian knight, long ago.
Only two Stalfos had survived, and Rufinus was not one of them. Kleox found the skull, smashed in, and tossed it away with a curse: the dark magic that had animated the bones was gone now, and the benighted spirit flown to a place where it could never be recalled. Perhaps the ancient soldier had found peace; perhaps not. At any rate, he would be of no more use.
Something was moving up above, clattering in the rubble. Now and then there was a muted crash and rumble as a boulder was tossed aside. Kleox listened with his head cocked to one side, then bared his teeth.
"Trying to dig us out. There another way out of here, y'Ladyship?"
The sorceress rose slowly to her feet, supporting herself on her staff. She was covered in dirt. "The Sixth Cavern is a maze built for defence," she said. "There are ways, but they are not easy to find."
The sounds above were louder now--closer. "Looks like we'd better try," he said, tapping the hilt of his sword with a claw-tip. "Din curse that thing--what was it?"
"Moldorm, sah--I seen it. Big one." The speaker was one of the remaining Stalfos, Aquila. He stood awkwardly: he had a smashed left collarbone from the rockfall, and could not lift that arm.
"Can they dig?" Kleox said. The Stalfos just nodded.
Sepultura was still standing quietly, leaning on the silver staff; her crimson eyes were fixed upon him. He turned towards her.
"Y'ladyship, are you injured anywhere? Can you walk?"
"I have felt better," she snapped. "No thanks to you--you nearly killed me, you imbecile!"
"Might I suggest--"
"You suggest nothing!" She slammed the butt of her staff into the ground in a fit of temper. "Stupid beast! I will have to salvage the situation myself!" With this parting shot the sorceress turned on her heel and began to make her way down the tunnel away from the rockfall, limping on a twisted ankle, hissing curses under her breath.
She was taking their only light with her. He glanced towards the last two Stalfos who stood patiently side by side, then turned and hurried after her. They came on behind him with their steady trudging stride.
The passage was long, and low, and they had to duck around stalactites hanging from the rough brown stone ceiling. It looked as if the rock had overgrown what had once been here, as trees and plants grew over ruins in the world above. But that was impossible, wasn't it? The time it would take...
They had been walking for perhaps some ten or fifteen minutes in a grim and sulky silence, Sepultura leading, when there came a distant crash from somewhere in the tunnels behind them. The witch stopped for a moment, and half-turned; he saw her red eyes wide and fearful in her pale, grimy face. Then she hurried on with redoubled pace, and he and the two Stalfos (who it seemed could move fast, after all, when they wanted to) were forced to break into a trot to keep up.
So it's in here with us, he thought.
Now the tunnel was widening out, and branching. They passed a side-passage, and then another. There were fewer limestone deposits, and less water on the floor; the going was easier. When they reached an intersection of four tunnels, Sepultura stopped and stared around her for a tense few seconds before picking a passage, apparently at random.
Somewhere behind them there was a sound like chains dragging, or rocks rattling on a slope. He could not tell whether it was near or far--it seemed to change all the time, with the deceptive echoes in the tunnels.
They were running now, the four of them: slipping and sliding on the damp stone floors, leaping over piles of fallen debris, splashing through puddles that had collected for millennia. Unburdened by blade or armor, fleet in her slippers and light gown, the witch darted ahead, and gained distance on them steadily. The darkness deepened as her fleeing figure dwindled. Kleox fumbled at the strap of his shoulder-guard in desperation, loosed it and flung it aside; it landed in a puddle with a heavy splash. He kept hold of his sword. As the witch rounded a corner he was fifteen feet behind, and beginning to close the distance.
The passage widened again now, and midway down the long stretch he saw a great gate or doorway looming out of darkness; in the light of Sepultura's staff the points of a portcullis were just visible in the ceiling, like the tips of teeth in some great creature's maw. She skidded through the gateway, whirled round, flung her staff aside and began to jerk wildly at a wheel jutting out of the crumbling stonework. A mechanism ground under their feet, chains clanked in the walls, and the portcullis began to descend in fits and starts.
"Wait!" he cried, and broke into a flat-out sprint, taking flying leaps over the piles of rubble that lay in his way. The discarded staff, half in a puddle, lit the tunnel strangely from ground level; there were dark shadows on her face as she turned to look at him, her breast heaving from the exertion of the run. Her hair hung in grimy tendrils on her shoulders, the white lock dull gray from rock dust. There was a mad look in her eyes.
The portcullis gathered speed as it descended, falling the last few feet to hit the tunnel floor with a bang that jolted loose fragments out of the ceiling. He had flung himself headlong in desperation, and one of the spikes tore the nail from the tip of his outstretched finger.
Behind him, it roared. He staggered to his feet, gasping for breath, and turned. The two Stalfos, armor-clad, had not been able to run so fast; they were still some thirty feet back at the bend of the tunnel. On seeing the portcullis close they had turned together to face the thing that hunted them, seeing no recourse now but to fight it.
A boiling, screaming darkness slammed its way round the corner, and with one twitch of its armored head it caught a Stalfos and shattered him to fragments against the tunnel wall. It filled the entire passage. The monster was a thing carved out of nightmare: an immense segmented worm, whose dead black carapace gleamed in the light with an oily rainbow hue. As he stared, struck dumb by horror, the last Stalfos stepped forward and made a slash at it with his rusted sword. The dull old blade scraped uselessly against the creature's polished body, leaving little more than a surface scratch; it shrieked, lunged like a snake, and crushed the would-be attacker in steel trap jaws.
Kleox turned again and banged his fists on the bars. "Open it--let me get under! Quick!"
The witch stared at him without speaking, her face stark white in the silvery light. She still had one hand on the wheel. Behind him the thing roared again, and the tunnel shook.
Looking into each other's eyes in that moment, with all artifice flown from them in the face of terror, just for a moment they understood each other truly.
She took a step back, away from the bars. Then she bent and grabbed her staff, and turned away, and began to run on along the corridor. The light dwindled with her quick scuffing footsteps. She was leaving him in the dark, to die.
Furiously he dragged on the thick bars, then tore his sword from the scabbard and struck at them, dislodging great flakes of rust. They did not even tremble.
"You treacherous hag!"
Ahead, at the far end of the tunnel, the tiny spark whisked around a corner and was gone. Darkness had been waiting for this moment--now it fell on him at last like a hungry beast, heavy and smothering. He was alone, and he was trapped, and he was blind.
Wild and snarling, barely even capable of coherent thought now, he grasped his ancient sword--the last thing in the world that remained to him--tightly in a two-handed grip, and turned, to face oncoming death...
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