The morning sun streaming through the windows brought him back to the world of wakefulness. Last night, during periods when sleep eluded him, he considered what to do next. He toyed with the idea of trying to sneak in and make off with more of Kazzra’s hoard, but memory of his nearly fatal attempt quickly put that thought to rest.
He could attempt to make his way through the forest. Though the chances were slim, a way to avoid the things might be found. Or perhaps sneaking through the crevice located within the walls of the valley wherein the Ti-Ock had gone. It could be that the arch to which Kiernan had made mention might be found therein.
The last course available to him, returning to the cavern with the giant salamanders, seemed the most prudent or at least the least dangerous. Those creatures were a definite hazard to be sure, but nothing compared to a company of Ti-Ocks or a giant tapestry of things.
Coming to his feet, he resigned himself to facing the salamanders. Before doing so, he collected four torches from the storeroom. He also took the remaining lantern since the bulls-eye lantern currently rested in Kazzra’s cave. Locking the storeroom door, he used the mirror that would take him to Kiernan’s Room, then walked to the mirror leading to the Steam Room.
He paused briefly before the mirror to light the four torches, then touched the mirror’s reflective surface. Once in the Steam Room, he hurried through the hot mist to the squarish mirror with the silver frame.
Holding the four torches in one hand, he drew his sword with the other then touched the mirror. Instantly, the mist was gone and he stood once more in a room with many stalactites and ‘mites…and the salamanders. He tossed the torches in an arc before him across the cavern floor, then set the lantern on the ground behind him. The darkness rolled back as light filled the cavern.
From the far side of the room, the mirror he needed to reach glistened tantalizingly in the torchlight. First things first, he would deal with these creatures. .
He found one among the ‘tites hanging from the ceiling. Motion from off to his right drew his attention to where two more lurked. Their yellowish eyes gazed upon him.
Brandishing his sword, Holk gave the pair a come-hither motion with his hand then said, “Come on. Let’s do this.” But the creatures kept their positions. A fourth off to his left made itself known. After a full minute of each side staring at the other, Holk began thinking the creatures would not attack after all.
Perhaps it’s the armor. Could they think I am a Ti-Ock? He was, after all, wearing bits of their armor. He grinned at the thought.
When another minute came and went with no advancement by the salamanders, Holk slowly bent over to pick up the lantern; the torches he left lying in place. Attention roving between the salamander in the ‘tites above, the two on his left and the one on his right, he made his way slowly across the cavern floor.
Once passed the ring of torches, he thought an attack might manifest if the creatures had been held at bay by the fire. But no, they retained their positions, content to merely watch his progress.
He kept his pace slow, but steady. The urge to hurry was countered by the knowledge that sudden movements inevitably provoked animals to attack. But would that be a bad thing? If he had occasion to pass this way again, would they remain as docile as they were now? Would additional salamanders be present next time? Now that he was halfway to the mirror, he figured to worry about that should the need arise.
Three-quarters of the way across, the one above left its perch. It traveled along the ceiling to another stalactite closer to Holk. The movement caused him to tense believing an attack was imminent. It was all he could do to keep from quickening his pace. Once at its new perch, the creature seemed content to merely watch Holk’s progress. His heart rate didn’t return to normal until he stood before the small, round mirror whose wooden frame was cracked and peeling.
The salamanders continued to merely watch, none making so much as a step toward him. Perhaps they were not dangerous after all? One opened its maw to reveal the deadly, flesh-ripping teeth within and such thoughts were quickly dispelled.
Reaching out, he touched the mirror.
Light blinded him, assailing him from all sides. Using his swordarm to shield his eyes, he took a step backward. A second step brought him into contact with something smooth and solid. Whirling around, he squinted against the brightness and saw that he had backed against a mirror. It reflected the light from his lantern back to him. In fact, the entire room was composed of mirrors.
Scores covered the floor, walls and ceiling. Small and large, square and not, it was a patchwork with a uniform six inches of distance separating one from the next. When he realized his feet were in contact with two mirror’s reflective surfaces, he quickly moved them to the rocky space between.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the heightened illumination caused by so many mirrors reflecting, and re-reflecting the torchlight. When the glare no longer caused discomfort, he made out markings that had been painted next to each mirror. A few had but one marking, while others held up to five. The first thing he noticed about each mirror’s markings was that they had been drawn in a vertical column.
The first marking of each mirror was a single line that had been crossed out. Some only had the crossed out single line. The second symbol on many was a “T”. The rest of the symbols were wavy lines, vertical lines, circles, and half a dozen other notations. Apparently, Kiernan had been busy in this room.
Taking out the scribe’s journal, Holk flipped through the pages in hopes of finding an explanation of the symbols. As he feared, there wasn’t one. Looking at the scores of mirrors before him, Holk felt daunted by the task of searching each one in turn. This could take months!
But then he remembered something the scribe had said in his journal, that he had searched every room until the only way remaining was through the arch. Holk didn’t have to search these, Kiernan already had! All he had to do was figure out the scribe’s methodology, and he would know where to go.
The “T” was easy to figure out. That had to indicate a Ti-Ock presence. Also, since every mirror had a single line that had been crossed out, it would stand to reason that Kiernan used the single line to indicate which mirror he was currently investigating. That way, if he ran into trouble and had to use a handheld to escape, upon his return to this room, he would know which mirror he had used last. When the scribe completed the investigation of a mirror and went on to investigate the next mirror, he would cross through the line so as not to get confused. All Holk had to do was find a mirror with a single line that was not crossed through. That would indicate the last mirror Kiernan had used.
A quick visual search proved little help in discovering Kiernan’s final mirror. It did however reveal the presence of six crates, sitting in three adjacent stacks off to the side. Holk went to see what they might contain only to find them empty.
Resigned to a slow and methodical search, he moved to the edge of the room and began moving through the array of mirrors across the floor. Each held a crossed out single line along with other, incomprehensible markings descending in a column beneath. Holk would truly love to figure out what they meant. If he couldn’t find a mirror with a single, uncrossed out line, he might just get the chance.
When the mirrors upon the floor proved to be a bust, he turned his attention to the wall. Taking his time, he made his way slowly around the room from one crossed-out line to another. Coming full circle, he turned his gaze to the ceiling that rose a good six feet above his head. There were markings alongside those mirrors as well.
How did he…? The crates! Kiernan must have used the crates to reach the mirrors on the ceiling. Six crates positioned in three stacks, the first stack with a single crate, the second with two, and the last, three. The scribe had positioned them like steps. And if the scribe had used them to access the final mirror…
Hurrying back to where the crates lay, Holk gazed up to the mirrors overhead and saw where a triangular mirror with a chalky white border had but a single line. It had not been crossed out.
“Yes!” He had found it.
Returning the crates to their original position beneath the mirror, Holk then used the two shorter stacks to climb onto the stack of three. The mirror was now within easy reach. His hand paused before its reflective surface just as he recalled a fragment of Kiernan’s journal.
…Had to sneak through a Ti-Ock mine in order to reach the mirror that sent me to the arch. Appeared twenty feet in front of it and was immediately set upon by six Ti-Ocks…
Somewhere on the other side of this mirror had to lay the mine mentioned in the journal. If he appeared in the middle of it, things could turn bad, fast.
Before activating the mirror, he turned the lantern down until only a small flame burned. Drawing his sword, he braced himself for whatever may follow, then reached for the last mirror Kiernan had passed through.
Thunderous sound reverberated throughout this new place. Off to his left, a cascade of water dropped fifteen feet along a three-tiered falls. From there, it formed a river which cut through this bedrock of this long, narrow subterranean space and vanished through an opening far to his right.
Holk stood upon a shelf barely ten feet wide that ran the length of his side of the river. Another semi-level area ran the river’s length along the far side as well.
Realizing that he was alone, he sheathed his sword then turned the screw on the lantern to provide more illumination. Once the flame burned brightly, he held the lantern aloft in order to better investigate this new place.
Upon the wall across the swift-flowing river glittered a mirror. Of course, couldn’t be on this side could it? There was no bridge or other method in place to cross the river. That didn’t bother him too much since Kiernan had to have come this way, which meant the scribe must have discovered a way across. Turning his gaze to the waterfall, Holk decided to begin his search there.
Algae grew in great proliferation across the surface of the shelf. Stepping out, his foot slipped upon a slick patch, nearly causing a loss of balance. But a few moments of undignified wind -milling of arms quickly regained balance.
The thundering of the water as it cascaded down the tri-tiered fall reverberated deep within him. In another time and place, he would have reveled in the feeling of its power. But now, all he could concentrate on was getting across the water to reach the mirror.
Where the falls emerged into this ancient, natural waterway, the walls were steep and slick. There was no evidence that Kiernan had crossed at this end. Moving away to follow the river, Holk held the lantern aloft as he sought the scribe’s method of fording the torrent.
From the falls to the outflow, he scanned the rocky ground meticulously. Any unusual irregularity prompted a short pause and a stint of close scrutiny. Each time proved an exercise in futility. Upon arriving at the river’s outflow, he still hadn’t discovered how Kiernan crossed.
Thinking that the scribe might have somehow scaled the walls, he checked for a navigable route along the rock wall above where the river flowed from the area. A good climber might have made it, but he doubted whether his abilities were up to the task. If Kiernan had gone this route, he was much more accomplished than Holk would have thought. No, there had to be another way.
Holk gazed across the flowing water to the mirror. It seemed to mock him with its inaccessibility. Why put a mirror on the other side of a flow of water no one could cross? Swift, deep and spanning a distance of over twenty-five feet, the water posed a nearly impassable barrier. Perhaps if he entered the river near the falls, he might manage to cross before the current carried him away to parts unknown. Striped down to his smalls, maybe. But to continue on without his sword, armor, and other essentials, unthinkable.
As he continued to ponder the situation before him, his gaze fell upon the outflow. The upper portion of its inner surface was not smooth as one would think after years of continual erosion by the water. Spying irregularities in the rock large enough to afford hand and foot holds, another possibility occurred to him. He went closer to inspect the viability of making his way along the inner walls of the outflow channel. When he saw the single red line painted upon an outcropping two feet within the tunnel, Holk knew that Kiernan had gone this route.
The rock wall above the tumultuous underground river continued to offer numerous projections of rock. Hooking the lantern over his sword hilt, Holk nodded to the red line and said, “Lead on, Kiernan.”
He took hold of protruding nodule and once it proved stable, sought another for his foot. Very carefully, he left the relative safety of the shelf and entered the tunnel.
Taking it one handhold and foothold at a time, he pressed forward into the tunnel. Less than two feet separated his feet from the rush of water below. He knew that should a misstep cause him to fall, the current would drag him quickly away. Fortunately, the imperfections in the rock were many and allowed his progress into the tunnel to proceed at a good pace.
Behind him, the roar of the falls gradually diminished as he pushed deeper into the tunnel. How far he went he couldn’t be certain, but the sound from the falls had grown quite distant when a dark opening loomed in the rock wall ahead.
It turned out to be a channel through which water flowed to join the larger river. Pausing at the opening, he took the lantern and held it aloft to see how far this other channel went. It extended past the reach of the light. About to hook the lantern back to his sword hilt, he caught sight of another line of red some two feet within the channel. Kiernan had gone this way.
“Okay, scribe. I’m still with you.”
Hooking the lantern once again on his sword hilt, he very carefully made his way into the narrower channel. It was sufficiently narrow that he found it easier to brace his feet on either side with the flow of water running beneath him than to continue making his way along a single wall.
The channel gradually narrowed the farther into it he went. Following gentle, serpentine switchbacks, Holk soon grew aware of a scent permeating the air. Familiar in its unpleasantness, he knew it to be the same odor encountered coming from within the crevice the Ti-Ock had disappeared into back in the valley. Realizing he could very well be approaching an area inhabited by the beasts, he paused a moment to reduce the wick on his lantern until it exuded just enough light for him to see his immediate surroundings.
From that point on, he would progress a ways, then pause to listen. Upon failing to hear any indication others were near, he pressed onward. And so he continued until coming to where the narrow channel opened onto a large underground lake; the scent of Ti-Ocks was strong.
The walls bordering the lake were steep, but not high. They came to an end ten feet above. Holk paused at the end of the channel to inspect the walls rising to either side. The one on his left looked to have the most protrusions and imperfections. After a short pause to scout a suitable route, he climbed to the top.
The top as it turned out was a wide area of semi-uniform evenness that completely encircled the small lake. Radiating outward from the lake’s edge, the area came to an end at more steep walls.
Holk paused to take in this new area and give his fatigued arms and legs a rest. It wasn’t long before he noticed signs of Ti-Ock occupation.
On the nearest wall sat an empty torch sconce. Shrouded in cobwebs, it had the look of long disuse. Not far from there were remains of several crates haphazardly piled against the wall. What he saw at the light’s fringe prompted him to his feet to investigate.
It was a rope and pulley mechanism with a series of attached buckets. Descending to the lake, it could have only been used to bring water up from the pool below. It too had the look of disuse with cracked buckets and frayed ropes. From the looks of things, Holk doubted if the Ti-Ocks had been in this area for quite some time.
He spied wooden ladder lying against the wall. Investigating, he discovered it to be in sad shape; several of the rungs being either broken or missing altogether. It appeared less than trustworthy to see him to the top. Perhaps there was another way?
A search of the current level on which he stood revealed the ladder to be the only means whereby he could reach the top of the wall and whatever lay beyond without scaling the wall. The marks at the head of the small channel which led him there indicated Kiernan had come this way. Perhaps the scribe had used the ladder? He inspected the area along the lip bordering the pool below and sure enough, he found tracks, most likely Kiernan’s, that led away.
From the way the tracks went all over, the scribe had searched the area just as Holk had. Where the ladder lay was the greatest concentration of footprints. Holk figured the ladder to be his best bet. As he set the ladder up against the wall, he couldn’t help but wonder why the ladder lay on the ground, instead of resting against the wall. If Kiernan had used it…
Knowing the answer would most likely forever elude him, Holk set foot against the second rung, it being the lowest one still remaining intact; the first one lacked half its center. Finding that it supported his weight, he climbed.
Only one rung gave way beneath his weight before reaching the top. There, he found a vast cavern stretching out before him. More discarded remnants of Ti-Ock occupation were evident. In the immediate area, more discarded crates, barrels, and tools. The tools were indicative of mining; shovels and pickaxes.
The cast offs before him held scant interest compared to the trio of torches burning in the distance. Not only that, but the movement of figures could be seen. Ti-Ocks! The rest of the cavern remained dark.
Extinguishing the light from his lantern so as not to give away his position, Holk finished his ascent and stood upon the cavern floor. What would Kiernan have done in this situation? Gazing to the light, Holk reasoned that the scribe would have gone to investigate…and so would he.
Making his way carefully, he left the pit and the pool far below. His eyes scanned not only the area illuminated by the torches, but the neighboring darkness as well. As he drew closer to the burning torches, he discovered a trio of tunnel entrances, the openings of each being lit by one of the torches.
The left-had tunnel looked to be the main tunnel as the opening stood twice as high and a third again as wide as the other two. Ti-Ocks would emerge from this tunnel and proceed to the other two, and vice versa.
A pair of railcart tracks extended from the main tunnel, one going to each of the two smaller entrances. Ti-Ocks would push carts loaded with rock, what Holk took to be mined ore, from the smaller tunnels and return with empty ones. This must be the mine that Kiernan mentioned in his journal, the one through which he traversed in order to reach the mirror that took him to the arch. Taking in the three tunnels, Holk wondered which one he would have to enter. He fervently hoped that Kiernan had made his marks there as well. The thought of exploring tunnels filled with Ti-Ocks left him ill at ease. One or two he could handle, but this many may push providence a touch too far.
Coming as close as he dared, he found a position against the cavern wall from which he could observe the Ti-Ocks while remaining within the sheltering darkness. Though he had no experience with mining operations, he did know that every business had a period of either inactivity, or reduced productivity. It was merely a matter of when it would occur. Making himself comfortable, he took a mushroom and nibbled at it while watching the Ti-Ocks go about their business.