“What did you do to these mirrors?”
Upon his return to the Merchant’s Room, the being appeared when Holk again approached the old wooden table. The Merchant’s salutation had been cut short by Holk’s demanding question.
Surprise cut a swath across its face. “You think I did something? How interesting. Could you perchance explain what it was that I did?”
Holk brought forth and held out the mirror which led to the Prison Room. “You know perfectly well what you did!” Moving his hand toward the mirror, he touched it as he said, “These no longer….”
As soon as his hand touched to mirrored surface, the Merchant vanished and was replaced by a wall with two barred windows overlooking a watery expanse. The mirror had worked. It had returned him to the Prison Room.
Taking out the mirror that led to the room wherein lay Kiernan’s remains, he activated its magical properties. Then after quickly passing through the series of wall-mounted mirrors that would take him back to the Merchant, he again stood in increasingly familiar hallway. Anger filled him as he stomped down its length and rounded the corner to see where the Merchant still hovered behind the old table.
“That wasn’t funny!”
Its face registered surprise. “It wasn’t? What wasn’t? I had no intention of being funny. How could remaining in one spot be considered humorous? Your kind grows ever stranger with each new interaction.”
The mirror remained firmly clutched in his hand. He held it out as he came to a stop before the table. “This mirror didn’t work before. Now it does.”
Gazing curiously at the mirror, the being shrugged. “I detect no alteration in either its power or its function.”
“Look. When I was out in the forest on your wild goose chase, I tried to use this mirror to return. Only, it didn’t work.”
“Wild goose chase? I do not recall asking you to chase a wild goose. But that would be humorous though, yes? As to the mirror, your assumption about my having affected it in some manner was in error. I can fully understand, given your limited knowledge of just about everything, how you could come to that conclusion.” His expression turning quizzical, the being asked, “Would this be considered amusing?”
Holk was anything but amused. “No, it would not.”
“Ah, very well.”
“What about the mirror?”
“The mirror? Oh, yes. It doesn’t work outside you see, only within the confines of our little world here.”
Holk gave the being a less than pleasant look. “You could have told me that?”
The Merchant returned a look full of hurt with a touch of indignation. “Did I know that you did not know? Am I to give full discourse upon every possible subject to every human I meet? Such would entail more time than your frail existence could sustain.”
Acquiring a smile, the Merchant held forth its hands and the mirror pouch appeared upon the table. “Let us not forget why it is that you are here.”
“But, I did not find the item you wanted.”
“Oh, but you did. I appreciate your efforts very much. Without your intervention, I could never have reacquired it.”
“There was nothing there.”
“Hmmm. Once again, your scope of perception has fallen short I’m afraid. Many items of note are all around, yet humans are unable to see them. Yes, I do think that should satisfactorily explain things.”
“No, it doesn’t. What exactly was it that I was sent to retrieve?”
The Merchant paused a moment as it considered the question. “Such knowledge would hardly sit well with you. No, I do not believe you really wish to know. Most humans are not happy about such things. Although, I suppose there is a possibility, albeit a small one, that you are the exception.” It motioned to the pouch. “Feel free to take it. You have earned it.”
Holk considered if he truly did wish to know, but figured it hardly mattered as long as he was out nothing further, and he still acquired the pouch for the mirrors. He hesitated only a moment while wondering if this would prove to be some kind of trick. Seeing no underlying chicanery evident in the being’s expression, he took the pouch.
“As you can see, it is made of the finest leather and constructed by a master craftsman.”
He did have to admit, the pouch was expertly made. The three mirrors that had until then been stashed away within his shirt, fit perfectly within the pouch’s compartments. There was even a pair of loops sewn into the back which allowed it to be worn upon the belt. He soon had it in place on his right side.
The Merchant waited quietly and patiently during this, but grew excited when he saw red-capped mushrooms appear and placed upon the table. Once all fourteen of the afore-promised mushrooms had been laid out, the sunstone Holk had entered into trade for appeared beside them.
Holk picked up the ‘stone while the Merchant happily gobbled the red-capped deliciousness. “So, you strike it against the ground?”
Shaking its head, the being quickly swallowed to clear its mouth. “Good gracious, no. That would be most inadvisable. Chips would fly and the ‘stone would in short order be no more.”
“Then how do you get it to…”
The being gestured to the tabletop. “Strike it against wood. Wood, after all, is not nearly as rare as the sunstone.”
Holk brought the sunstone down hard. Upon impacting with the tabletop, the veins within the stone flared with light. Startled by the sudden brilliance, he dropped the sunstone upon the table.
“It is not hot,” the Merchant stated. “If you wish a stone that would give heat, I could arrange for that, though it would entail a much greater recompense than the sunstone.”
Holding his hand above the ‘stone, he felt the lack of heat then picked it up again. For all intents and purposes, it felt just like a regular stone from off the ground. “How long will this last?”
“The size of the ‘stone determines the light’s longevity. For one this size, say an hour or two?”
Holk nodded appreciatively. “Is there a way to douse the light?”
“The light, no. But you can drop the sunstone in a bucket of water if you like. Though why you would wish to do so is beyond me. Perhaps this is one of your human oddities I fail to understand.”
“No. I mean, can I make the light go away.”
“Ah, I see. Now your statement makes a little more sense. To ‘douse the light’ is your way of asking how to make it vanish.” When Holk nodded, the Merchant said, “No. Even if you smashed it into dust, it would still glow for some time afterward.”
He slipped the stone into his pack. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Now, in what other manner may I be of service?”
There were many questions Holk greatly desired answers to. Mainly, how to get out of this place, and information about the Ti-Ocks. Recalling a passage in Kiernan’s journal that intimated the Merchant became less social and communicative after Kiernan had asked about the Ti-Ocks, he kept those questions in check. Inquiring about the arch that the scribe thought may be the way out could have just as detrimental effect on Holk’s future dealings with the Merchant, too.
“Right now, none. Just…”
“If you see Streyan, mention to him that I would like to speak with him.”
“Should I meet a human by that name, I will assuredly pass on your comment. This Streyan you wish to meet, he is human, is he not?”
Certainty gave way to doubt. Was he? “I think so.”
Holk nodded. “I think that will be all for the moment.”
Taking on a sad countenance, the Merchant said, “I shall wait with great anticipation until our next meeting,” then he was gone.
Picking up his lantern, Holk spent a bit more time exploring the Merchant’s room. But as before, found only the small wooden table and the lone torch burning above in a wall-mounted sconce
There was still the other mirror yet to explore in the room filled with steam where the floor had been so very hot. Pulling out the mirror that would take him to Kiernan’s Room, he translocated. Once there, he headed to the back of the cavern to the full-length, steel bordered mirror and traveled to the Steam Room.
From where he appeared, he moved quickly through the steam toward the far end the two mirrors. The one on the right bore the two red stripes and would take him to the Merchant’s Room. To his left sat the squarish mirror bearing a silver frame that he had yet to try. Its surface was heavily beaded with condensation.
No marking adorned the slick rock upon which the mirror was mounted. Good or bad, he had to try. Drawing his sword in case it took him to a place of Ti-Ocks, he pressed his hand against the reflective surface.
Instantly, the steam vanished only to be replaced with the cool air of another subterranean cavern. Similar to others he had encountered, it held stalactites and ‘mites, and stretched for a goodly distance. His lantern’s light revealed it to be deserted.
A brief search revealed but a single mirror. He gazed into its reflective surface for several moments; when no alteration of his reflection occurred, reached out and touched it.
The first inhalation in this new place told him he was not alone. An odor, animal in nature, permeated this cavern. It wasn’t quite the same as what he had smelled emanating from the crevice in the cliff face wherein the Ti-Ock had vanished.
Panning his light around a cavern nearly identical to the one he had just left, he saw further evidence that something may inhabit this place. Bones lay strewn across the rocky floor. Lying against the base of one stalagmite sat a portion of a ribcage that looked all too much like a human’s. A bit more searching revealed the skull that belonged to it. Definitely human.
Other than slight movements to pan the light, Holk remained immobile. He couldn’t help but wonder if there was any real danger. For after all, Kiernan had to have come this way, and the scribe hadn’t mentioned anything about a beast. Still, some creature could have made this place its lair after Kiernan had perished.
Off to the right came the sparkle of light being reflected. From the size and shape, it could only be a mirror. Before stepping toward it, he scanned the rest of the small cavern. The mirror was the only one. Keeping eyes and ears alert for the room’s occupant, Holk kept to a slow, cautious pace as he crossed the room.
Small and round with a cracked and peeling wooded frame, the mirror beckoned. Having closed nearly a third of the distance, he was brought up short by a sound from off to his left. Turning the light, he panned it across the few stalagmites the room held.
Shadows played across the far wall as the light moved back and forth. Again the sound came, but what made it continued to elude his search. When the noise sounded once more, Holk realized that it came not from before, but from above. Slowly, he angled the lantern so its light gradually illuminated the ceiling.
Sword poised to strike, his heart racing as it did at the onset of battle, Holk was set to defend himself from whatever carnivorous creature he may find. When the light revealed a fur covered appendage gripping the sides of a stalactite, he took a step backward.
The appendage belonged to a rather large fur-bearing, salamander-like creature that had wrapped itself around the descending stone projection. Easily four feet in length, its yellowish eyes gazed from behind a snout both long and wide. Never before had Holk seen a creature like this. When it opened its mouth, twin rows of teeth designed for ripping and tearing were revealed.
“You just stay there and we’ll have no problems.”
Eyes never leaving the creature, Holk continued to progress toward the mirror. At halfway, the creature shifted its position upon the stalactite to better keep him in view. He prayed there were no more. Every few steps, he briefly moved the light to illuminate nearby stalactites in search for other creatures that may be in the cavern. Assuming it to be alone could prove fatal.
The creature again shifted position. Now lower upon the stalactite, its head rose at an angle as a single eye watched Holk’s movements.
The faint sound of a pebble being dislodged drew his attention to another of the creatures off to his right. Half hidden behind a stalagmite, it directed a pair of yellowish eyes toward that which had so foolishly entered its lair.
Returning the lantern’s light to the one wrapped around the stalactite, his heart sank upon discovering it was no longer there. Shadowy movement along the cavernous ceiling was quickly revealed to be the creature scurrying amidst the hanging ‘tites. It circled around Holk until directly opposite the other one.
Now flanked on both sides, Holk wished he had taken the regular lantern instead of the bull’s-eye since it only directed light in a single direction. The sunstone sat in his pack. To access it, he would have to remove his pack and that might entangle his swordarm at a critical moment.
For a moment, he debated racing forward to touch the mirror, but then remembered his hand-held mirrors in his newly acquired mirror-pack. He had put the one to the Prison Room in the first slot, the one that would take him to where Kiernan’s remains lay in the second, and the unknown one found in the monolith back in the forest within the third.
Very carefully, he hooked the lantern’s handle on the hilt of his knife, then reached down and pulled back the flap of the mirror-pack. Just as a guttural growl of yet a third creature sounded from behind him, he laid a finger against the mirror’s surface in slot one and instantly translocated back to the Prison Room.
I could get to like this. Get in a tight spot, and return to safety.
But that still doesn’t remedy the fact that at least three, maybe more, of those salamander-like creatures waited for him in that room. If he planned to use that room’s mirror to further the search for the way out, he better think of a way to deal with them.
What about his third hand-held mirror, the one from the forest? He still had yet to discover where it led. It might be a good idea to see where it goes before I take on the salamanders. Where it led may just make the whole salamander problem moot.
First things first. He removed the sunstone from his pack and placed it in his pouch where he could access it on a moment’s notice. Next, he went to the storeroom and took three torches from the stack of a dozen; two he placed within his pack, the third he stuffed in his belt. Deciding against swapping lanterns, he retained the bull’s-eye. Should additional light be required, he could now use either the sunstone, or ignite the torch without undue trouble.
Ready, he closed and locked the storeroom’s door. Drawing his sword, he slipped a finger into the third pocket of the mirror-pack and touched the surface of the hitherto unused hand-held found in the monolith’s recess.
Cool dampness and the sound of water dripping in the distance filled the small, alcove-like cavern wherein he now found himself. Panning the lantern’s light, he discovered one end opened onto a much larger, cavernous expanse.
The smaller cave in which he arrived overlooked the larger from a height of a hundred feet. For a subterranean cavern, it was enormous. As he played the light across the larger to reveal its shadowy secrets, Holk detected an underlying odor in the air, one that was unfamiliar. Foul and smelling somewhat like a charnel house, it set his hackles to standing on end.
It wasn’t the scent of a Ti-Ock, of that he was certain. Continuing to pan the light, it soon fell upon a dark mass lying amidst the floor down below. Considering the distance from where he stood, it had to be quite large. The object was too far away for him to adequately make out, but he did notice that within the lower half of the dark shadowy mass, many objects sparkled in the lantern’s light.
His first thought was treasure, but it could just have easily been an exposed vein of quartz. Only one way to find out; he had to get down there.
The edge of the small cave dropped sheer for twenty feet before turning into a gentler slope. As Holk sought a way down, he came to the conclusion that there had to be something interesting, possibly valuable, in this cave. For why else would anyone go to the trouble of constructing a mirror that led there?
He didn’t relish the idea of attempting to climb down. Instead, he activated the mirror and returned to the Prison Room. Once there, he reclaimed his “strip-rope” from the storeroom, then touched the third mirror to return to the cave.
A jagged outcropping near the drop-off made a good anchor for the rope. After it was secured, he tossed the remainder of the rope over the edge. Slipping the lantern’s handle over his knife’s hilt, he took hold of the rope and descended.
The descent to where the incline angled less severely went without incident. He left the rope dangling against the wall as he once again took up the lantern and went forward to investigate.
The odor grew in intensity the closer to the dark mass he came. Features clarified. The surface was a strange texture, kind of like fish scales that glistened darkly in the light. Drawing closer, he discerned the fish scales had nothing to do with fish, instead being reptilian in nature.
When that realization hit, Holk came to an immediate halt. A reptile? If it was, it was the biggest one he had ever heard of. The body was huge, easily the size of a small house. He saw where a serpentine neck emerged from the body, though the head was concealed as the neck curled around the creature’s far side.
It had a tail. Like the neck and head, it curled around the far side. But perhaps the most curious aspect of the creature was the wings sprouting from its back. They were large, easily half again the size of the creature. Though he had never seen one, he was certain that what lay before him could be nothing other than a dragon.
Right out of some bard’s tale, there before him was a dragon resting atop a pile of treasure. Holk couldn’t believe what he was seeing. There were no such things as dragons! Of course, he had once thought there were no such things as magic mirrors that transported people from one place to another. Ever since his time in The Devil’s Kiln, Holk had been forced to re-evaluate what he knew to be true time and again.
Dangerous creatures if the tales were true ; temperamental too. Stealing from their hoard was said to bring swift and terrible retribution. At thought of the hoard, he directed the light to the treasure upon which the beast rested; gold, jewels, and many other items of worth such as statues, weapons, and anything else which could be considered valuable. This was perhaps the greatest concentration of wealth Holk had ever heard over. Kings were paupers when compared to what lay before him.
Panning the light along the dragon’s treasure-bed, it came to illuminate a cache comprising over a dozen diamonds of incredible size. They were not directly beneath the beast, rather they lay loose along the edge.
I might be able to pay the Merchant enough to leave this place.
Greed warred with common sense. He did have the mirrors. If the beast were to awaken, a quick touch would see him translocated to safety. Figuring this to be his best chance at freedom, he stepped toward the cache.
No heat radiated outward from the beast’s scaly hide. Its sides rose and fell in a slow, rhythmic tempo. Most likely, the beast slept, or perhaps hibernated? Either way, Holk did not plan to remain long enough for it to awaken and discover that it was not alone.
Stepping quickly toward the cache of diamonds, he froze when the beast gave a snort. But when no further sound or movement followed, continued forward. He came to stop at the fringe of the hoard. Mere feet separated him from the diamonds. Assuredly, these gems would be sufficient to cover the Merchant’s price for freedom. Kneeling down, he gathered them one at a time.
As the eighth gem slipped into his pack, he came to the realization that the beast’s sides no longer expanded in breath. The only warning he had the beast no longer slept was a twitching of the massive wing above his head. In a flash, the dragon rolled.
Holk leapt backward, barely avoiding being crushed beneath its bulk. Two red eyes stared at him from a reptilian head oddly devoid of horns. Catching his foot on a protruding outcropping of the cavern’s floor, he stumbled backward with flailing arms to land on his back
A deep roar shook the cavern.
His hands flew to his ears on their own accord in an attempt to block the painful sound. Seeing a taloned claw twice his size flying toward him, he rolled out of the way, but not quick enough. Talons brought pain as they pierced side, leg, shoulder and arm. The pain increased tenfold as the claw drew him from the cavern’s floor, to a point before a maw filled with rows of dagger-like teeth.
The maw opened and Holk knew his death was but moments away. Reaching toward the mirror-pack with his uninjured hand, he wormed a finger into the first pouch and touched the border of the mirror contained within. But when the claw flexed, tearing flesh, his body spasmed with excruciating pain and the hand slipped from the pouch.
Seconds passed in a blur of blood and pain. The next thing he knew, he lay within the creature’s maw. In the faint light of the lantern that lay askew on the cavern floor below, he saw the silhouette of the teeth rising no more than a foot away. Terror filled him.
The beast’s jaw moved and flung him against the fearful, flesh-tearing array. Knowing it was now or never, he put every ounce of will he had into bringing his hand toward the mirror pack. A finger wormed its way inside. From beneath him, a long tong pushed upward, raising him level with the tops of the teeth. As the tongue moved again, and sharp points pierced his body, his finger touched the mirror’s surface.
Instantly, he lay upon the floor of the Prison Room. Pain wracked his body, his senses grew dull, yet he knew if he gave in to it, he was lost. His eyes fell upon the door to the storeroom; within lay a dozen of the red-capped mushrooms that contained healing properties. They were his only chance at survival.
Using his good arm, he dragged his body toward the door then somehow managed to extract its key from within his pouch. Pure agony assailed him as he worked to bring the key to the keyhole. It slipped inside, the key was turned.
The room spun and his vision grew ever more obscured. He managed to get the door open far enough for him to pass. Leaving a trail of blood like a slug depositing slime, he reached the far side and the shelf upon which the mushrooms sat. Reaching upward, he caught the edge of the shelf. In an attempt to rise, he put pressure on the shelf and…crack...the wood broke to drop a hail of items upon his already abused body. Some of those items were the mushrooms.
No more strength did he have. It was by sheer force of will that he managed to bring a mushroom to his mouth. He could feel his life quickly slipping away. Five more he managed to ingest before his arm would lift no more. He hoped six would be enough.
As consciousness at last drew to a close, motion in the room beyond caught his attention. A figure strode toward him; armored, helmed, and bore an unsheathed blade. The last thing Holk saw before slipping away altogether, was of an armored foot coming to a stop in front of him.