Twin beams of moonlight through a pair of barred windows announced his arrival in the Prison Room. “What a stupid trap.” Most denizens of this place more than likely possessed at least one of the handhelds and would be able to readily escape. Holk himself had spent relatively little time in the trap before making his escape. He couldn’t help but laugh.
After slipping the mirror back into its pack with the other two, he crossed over to the nearest window and gazed out at the expanse of moon-dazzled water. The trek back to the Starburst Arch would take some doing, and with night having arrived Holk thought it best to sleep until morning before attempting the return trip. He was always at his best after a full night’s sleep.
Far off in the distance, a light moved upon the water. Thoughts of trying to signal the ship, if ship it be, passed quickly. He did not wish a repeat performance with the giant birds. The two his earlier attempt attracted had nearly cost him his life.
He remained at the window until the faraway light faded into the night.
Long after the moon had set and naught but starlight streamed in between the bars, another light came into being. A small light to be sure, hardly more than the glimmer of a lightning bug being reflected off the surface of some high mountain tarn. But as in all things small, it eventually grew.
A man lay next to the light, oblivious in his slumber. As the light grew to illuminate the corner in which the man slept, the man stirred only to have sleep’s unavoidable grasp pull him back to its nether reaches. And still the light grew in luminosity. It continued to grow until shadows that once filled half the room were laid waste.
An avian denizen of the night marveled at this unusual happenstance from its perch upon the window ledge. It cocked an eye at the source of the light, curious as to what it could be. Being of medium stature, the bird easily slipped in through the bars and hopped to the ground.
It kept an eye on the sleeping man as it carefully made its way closer to the ever brightening object. The light came from within something lying next to the man. Even with the glow now quite bright, the bird couldn’t make it out. Curiosity drove it forward.
The light gave off no heat, which was in itself an odd thing. The bird simply didn’t know what to make of it. Reaching out with its bill, it snapped at the light and darted back. When its action provoked no response, it moved closer still. About to snap at it a second time, the bird danced backward when the object that was the source of the light… moved. Subtle, yet unmistakable, it looked as if something on the inside had pushed outward on the material. Poised to take flight, the bird watched.
Dreams of better days were brought to a halt when an incredibly loud squawk pierced the night. Wrenched from deep within sleep’s realm, Holk came awake and instinctively drew his sword.
Light filled the room. The last vestiges of sleep fell away when realization hit that the light came not from the morn, but from a point only a few paces away. To make the scene even more surreal, a bird flapped erratically along the floor next to the light’s source.
It took him but a moment to realize the light came from within his mirror-pack. As the bird thrashed and cried in fear, the pack moved in matching fashion, almost as if it and the bird were connected in some way.
Unseen at first, it took a moment for his eyes to register a strand of light no bigger than a finger in width. It extended from the pack and had twined itself about the bird.
As the bird thrashed, the band wrapped ever tighter around the bird. Holk watched as its end encircled the bird’s neck. A few moment’s later, the bird ceased thrashing and lay still.
The bird and band of light remained motionless upon the ground for a few moments; then, the band uncoiled and slowly withdrew back into the pack. Once it had completely re-entered the pack, the light went out.
Holk tried to fathom what he had witnessed. With the light gone, the room had plunged back into deep shadows that were only broken by the faint gleam of starlight coming in through the windows. He took out his sunstone and struck it.
The mirror-pack looked benign. Lying upon the floor as it was, the only evidence that anything untoward had happened was the lifeless bird next to it. Holk gazed at the pack. With sunstone gleaming, he cautiously nudged the leather side with the tip of his sword.
When nothing happened, he moved the sword’s tip to the flap and flipped it up so the pack lay fully opened. There was no light; not even the tiniest glimmer could be seen within any of the pouch’s pockets. The edges of the three mirrors were visible, but he couldn’t see anything different about them.
Holk took a step back and considered the situation. Something had come out of the pack. Even if he thought he may have been hallucinating or had dreamt it, the dead bird dispelled any such notion. Eyes never leaving the inner pockets of the pouch, he came closer and again poked the side of the pack with his sword; nothing happened.
Hooking the bottom of the pack with his sword, he gently upended it allowing the three handheld mirrors within to slide out.
They looked unchanged. The red dot Kiernan had used to designate the one leading to the Prison Room remained unaltered. One by one, he used the tip of his sword to spread them apart until each lay flat upon the floor. Their reflective surfaces looked the same. He even tried moving the sunstone back and forth to see if there might be hidden imperfections that might be revealed. But there were none.
The light had killed the bird. It had vanished back into the pack.
Now that the mirrors were safely out, he hooked the pack by inserting his sword within an end pouch. He then lifted it off the floor, allowing the pack to fully open so he could inspect each of the eight pouches. When nothing unusual was found, Holk lowered his sword and allowed the pack to fall to the floor.
If not the pack…
His attention turned to the three mirrors lying upon the floor. They appeared as they always had; still, dark, and unremarkable. As far as he could see, there was nothing unusual about either their aspect or composition.
Using the tip of his sword, he nudged the closest of the three then pulled back quickly. When nothing happened, he did the same to the next mirror. The third mirror, the one with the red dot designating it as the one that would return him to the Prison Room, proved just as unresponsive when it came its turn to be nudged.
Holk sheathed his sword. Kneeling next to the pack, he picked it up with two fingers, ready to drop it at the slightest hint of light. The pack remained dark. He then set about gathering the mirrors.
Treating each with great care, Holk gingerly reached out for the one closest to him. It was the one which would take him to Kazzra’s cave. He laid a finger upon the frame and when nothing happened, pulled it close. Before lifting it from the floor, he moved the sunstone behind his back to shield its light so he could inspect the reflective surface for any emission of light. Not finding any, he carefully picked up the mirror and slid it into the pack.
The next was the one that would take him to the cave wherein laid the body of Kiernan. It, too, he treated with great care and after a close inspection, inserted it into the pack.
As he reached for the third and final mirror, the one bearing the red dot, small points of light flared in each corner of its reflective surface. Jerking back his hand, Holk watched as each of the four dots elongated and stretched toward the mirror’s center. It took but seconds for the four bands of light to meet and erupt in a small, brilliant burst. As the light subsided, a worm-like appendage of pure light now protruded from the mirror’s center.
Holk scrambled backward, sword leaping to hand.
The light-worm grew with every beat of his heart. It moved back and forth as would a stalk of wheat blown by the wind. Upon reaching a foot in length, the light-worm’s end ceased its back and forth motion, and bent to touch the stone floor adjacent to the mirror.
It didn’t move quickly; merely bobbed from one place to the next. For several minutes the light-worm continued as if inspecting its immediate surroundings. When it extended in Holk’s direction, its movement slowed and the end bobbed several times.
He took another step backward, fearing that at any moment the light would leap forward as would a hound with a nose full of scent. But, the light merely bobbed for several heart-stopping moments before returning to its inspection of the area around the mirror. After another minute, the light-worm shrank back into the mirror and vanished.
The mirror lay dark upon the floor. When a hesitant step forward failed to cause the light-worm to reappear, Holk took a second. Stretching forth his swordarm to its full length, he took small steps until the sword’s point came into contact with the mirror’s frame. A single nudge caused it to slide ever so slightly across the floor; but again, the light-worm failed to rematerialize.
Keeping his distance from the mirror, Holk retrieved the pack holding the other two from where it sat upon the floor. He held it as he contemplated the mirror upon the floor.
Should I leave it there? Dare I risk taking it with me? In a quandary as to what to do, he decided to see if the light-worm would reappear a second time before committing to any course of action. It could have been a singular happenstance.
A full three paces from the mirror, he knelt to one knee and reached out his hand. Inch by inch he scooted ever nearer, poised to dart backward should the light reappear. At two paces away, the light had yet to return. When his hand came to within a foot and a half, the corners of the mirror flared with dots of light. They once again elongated to meet in the middle to form the light-worm.
Holk scrambled backward until a solid six paces separated him from the mirror. Just as before, the light-worm sniffed the air then proceeded to inspect the stone floor surrounding it. Minutes ticked by as it made a thorough search; then receded back into the mirror.
Once the mirror had gone dark, Holk moved closer and stretched his swordarm to its fullest until the sword tip touched the border near the red dot. The mirror remained unresponsive.
It doesn’t appear for my sword. The two times it had emerged was when I reached for it with my hand. Glancing to the dead bird, he came to the conclusion that the light-worm came out for living flesh, not dead, cold steel.
His attention moved from the bird to the mirror. But why that mirror and not the ones in the pack? And why now and not before? The mirror had been in his possession for some time and the light-worm never before materialized. Then something Streyan had said flittered across his thoughts:
…the Starburst Gate would alter the rules for those who passed though…
“Is that what happened to you?” he asked the mirror. “I went through the Arch and now you are altered?” He thought about that and nodded. It had to be the answer. “You aren’t much good to me now, are you? I can’t even touch you without causing that light-worm thing to come.” Hating to do it but seeing no alternative, he raised his sword high, set to strike the mirror and shatter it into many pieces.
Before the blow fell, the shattered mirrors from the hidden room came to mind. A dead man had lain upon the bed next to them. With sword poised to strike, the thought came to mind that perhaps the man may have died because he broke the mirrors. If he broke the mirror, would the light-worm be released? The only way to prove his theory was to smash the mirror. But if he was right, then he’d be dead, too. Afraid to find out, he sheathed his sword.
He’ll regret losing the convenience of being able to return to the Prison Room whenever he wished, but he couldn’t afford to take the mirror. Without it, he would have to access the Prison Room via the network of mirrors from the room wherein Kiernan’s body lay.
What about his two remaining mirrors? Will they, too, be infected by the light-worm? And if so, would he discover that fact too late?
Had his need to use the mirrors in the event a quick getaway not been so great, he would have left all three on the floor of the Prison Room. But they had already proven their worth, primarily during his encounter with Kazzra the dragon. Escaping from a dragon’s mouth in mid-chomp couldn’t have been possible without them.
He took a moment to gaze into the pouch and inspect the mirrors. Both remained dark and unresponsive to his presence. Good. Perhaps the Prison Room mirror would be the only one infected. Pulling out the one leading to Kiernan’s Room, or perhaps a more apt term would be Kiernan’s Tomb, he pressed his thumb against the reflective surface and translocated.
After slipping the mirror back into the pouch, he made his way to the wall-mounted mirror that led to the room full of steam. From there, he began the arduous journey through the series of rooms that would return him to the Ti-Ock mine; Steam Room to Salamander Room, then Salamander Room to Mirror Room.
Scrambling up the three boxes to touch the mirror attached to the ceiling, he appeared at the underground river. An extended stint of shelf-scooting brought him to the crevice which took him to the Ti-Ock mine. A short nap and three hours later, the Ti-Ocks once again departed en masse and he could safely make his way to the abandoned mine area beyond the cave-in.
During his trek through the abandoned area he utilized his sunstone to light his way. It was just prior to reaching where the tunnel began its downward descent that he noticed the illumination in the tunnel grow brighter. It took him but a moment to discover the change in light was due to a glow coming from out of his mirror-pack.
Undoing his belt, he quickly removed the pack and flung it to the side. The top fell open and the light-worm emerged. Just as it had twice before, the light-worm inspected its surroundings before withdrawing back into the pack.
Curses reverberated throughout the tunnel as Holk vented his anger and frustration. He couldn’t take the mirrors with him. Whatever had happened to the first mirror had now affected a second, or perhaps the third as well? He wasn’t about to find out.
Once his vitriolic tirade came to an end, the reality of the situation hit home. There was no going back! Without the mirrors, he could never return to the Prison Room, Kiernan’s Room, or any of the other places in the chain of mirrors prior to the River Room. There was but one mirror within the River Room and it lay across a wide, torrential flood of water. He couldn’t even reach the Merchant to see about bartering for another mirror.
A dozen of the healing mushrooms rested in his pouch. Without the ability to return and gather more, he had best insure the ones he had were used with great care. Holk thought about Streyan and how the boy had warned him about going through the Arch. Had the lad known this would happen? He would sure love to find out.
Giving out with a kick, he sent the mirror-pack skittering back down the passageway. As he turned to continue along the path toward the Arch, light grew behind him as once again, the light-worm made its appearance.
It didn’t take long before the loss of the mirrors no longer bothered him. After all, weren’t strength, wits and steel everything a soldier needed to prevail? Such had been hammered into him long ago when he was naught but a green recruit.
Strength to persevere
Wits to overcome.
Steel to prevail.
Holk couldn’t help but crack a smile at memories of times long gone. His drill master had been as nasty a piece of work as anything that walked on two legs. But he had forged a ten-thumbed layabout into a skilled fighter. Better to rely on one’s abilities, than those of magic.
Whistling a merry tune, he continued on his way.
The room with the Arch was as devoid of life as it had been the previous time. As he stood before the Arch, his confidence began to wane. What if going through a second time altered things yet again? Dare he chance it? Dare he not?
Glancing toward the steps leading to the landing upon which Streyan had sat gave him pause. In the back of his mind, he wondered what the lad had been doing up there. Hadn’t the boy said he had been merely “passing by” when he saw the light from the sunstone? Passing by to where? Curiosity got the better of him and he walked over to the steps.
A search of the walls adjacent to the stairway failed to uncover any of the scribe’s markings. He looked up to the landing and the walls to either side. No marks were found there either. Could it be that this might be a way Kiernan had not explored?
In his journal, the scribe claimed to have explored every avenue except what lay beyond the Arch. But the same passage also claimed that he was immediately beset by Ti-Ocks. The thought occurred to Holk that perhaps the scribe hadn’t the chance to notice the steps before beating a hasty retreat. If that were the case… Better not to risk further complications with a second trip through the Arch; at least not until all other alternatives were exhausted. He ascended the steps.
At the top he found a hallway running perpendicular to the landing. On the wall directly opposite sat an empty torch sconce. Previously, the Ti-Ocks had come from the right. Peering cautiously around the corner, Holk discovered a dark corridor that extended without door or branching passageway into the shadows. To the left he discerned a second torch sconce just prior to the passageway vanishing into darkness. Since the Ti-Ocks had come from the right, Holk opted for the left. He could always come back and explore the right.
His hand clutched the sunstone tightly to his chest, allowing only a faint glow to illuminate the walls to either side. Once past the torch sconce, he discovered a scrap of purplish cloth, wadded upon the floor lying against the wall. He prodded it with the tip of his sword and discovered it to have been torn from a larger swath. Further inspection revealed it to be rather plain, but large enough to cover him from neck to waist and shoulder to shoulder. Thinking it might prove useful, he tucked it into his pack.
Twenty paces later, a distant greenish glow appeared in the corridor ahead. A moment’s pause showed that the glow remained constant. Interest piqued, Holk took tentative steps forward.
Neither sound nor odor could be detected coming from the corridor ahead. As he drew closer, the glow grew in brilliance. It was not a cheery green such as might be associated with the Spring Festival back home, rather it glowed a darker, more ominous shade; a shade that generated feelings of apprehension. Holk clutched his sword all the tighter and continued forward, intent on discovering the truth behind this radiance.
Another thirty paces and the fact that the glow came from within a room became clear. Ten more and he could readily determine that the glow came from something, something several feet off the ground.
By this time, the light from the sunstone was no longer needed. Holk slipped it back into his belt pouch.
At first he thought the glowing object rested upon some kind of truncated column, or perhaps a table. But when he drew near the end of the hallway, could tell that the object hovered unsupported three and a half feet from the floor. His feelings of apprehension were quickly turning into dread. Upon reaching where the hallway opened into the room, Holk came to a stop in order to give the room a quick once-over before entering.
The object looked spherical and roughly the size of a small pumpkin. The light bathed the room with a sickly green hue. To his right sat an ornately carved table upon which rested three bowls. Two were the size of cups and flanked a much larger one. The larger bowl was completely filled with a shimmering, green opalescence. The sight caused his gorge to rise. Swallowing hard, he ripped his eyes away and his stomach calmed.
A door loomed in the wall to his left. Arcane symbols covered its surface, the greatest density of symbols being in the vicinity of the ringed handle. The way the light was being refracted by the handle, Holk figured it to be constructed of some kind of crystal. What may have lain on the far side of the room remained shielded by the glow of the object. Only indistinct shadows of the room’s farthest reaches could be discerned.
From the corner of his eye he caught sight of the shaking of his blade and realized he quaked in fear like one new to the blade before his first battle. He turned his back on the room and allowed his gaze to take in the darkness of the corridor. Now no longer looking at the glow, his fear gradually subsided to a more manageable level.
If Streyan had in fact been passing by the landing as claimed, then that would mean he had been either coming from this room, or to it. There had been no branching passageways or doors through which the lad could have gone.
Holk had half a mind to turn around and leave this room alone. Past experiences had developed a trust in his innate senses, and the fear the green glow generated clearly stated that he should give it a wide berth. Yet the question remained, what had Streyan been doing there?
Fear or no fear, he had to see where that door leading from the room went. If a mere lad could make it through unscathed, should not a seasoned fighter? Steeling his courage, he turned back to face the glow. It remained just as strong and fearful as before. Holk gripped his sword hilt firmly and stepped into the room.
His fear increased two-fold and sweat broke out upon his brow. Stepping quickly, he skirted the edge of the room and made his way to the door. There, he gripped the crystal ring and found it cool to the touch. The door swung open easily on well-greased hinges to reveal another hallway leading away from the room.
Once in the passageway, he closed the door and the glow vanished. He leaned against it as a sigh of relief escaped him; his fear and dread dissipated rapidly. But then his fear spiked anew upon noticing that the blade of his sword held a subtle, green glow. Sheathing the blade did much to quell the rising fear, however, portions of the hilt held the greenish glow as well.
The glow came from the pommel and the crossguard. The section where his fingers had held it glowed not at all. It was as if whatever portion of the blade that had been exposed to the greenish glow, now exuded the same greenish luminescence. Holk didn’t know what this meant, but didn’t think it would improve his situation. Allowing his gaze to linger where the steel glowed green, he failed to feel the fear rising within him as it had earlier. Since he could discern no ill effects, and wasn’t about to cast off his weapon, he kept the sword sheathed and continued on his way.