The comings and goings of the Ti-Ocks continued unabated for quite some time. At one point, a solitary creature emerged from the main tunnel beside which loped a beast about the size of a large dog. From his vantage point, all Holk could tell was that the beast had a coat of long fur and a short, stubby tail. He watched the pair until they disappeared into the first of the smaller tunnels.
Would the beast have the same senses as his hounds back home? If so, he could soon be in for a world of hurt. He took some comfort in the fact that the beast had taken no notice of him during its initial pass through the cavern. With any luck, it never would.
Holk watched for more of the dog-like creatures, but none others appeared. A short time later, the Ti-Ock and beast reappeared from the smaller tunnel and returned into the larger. Less than ten heart-beats afterward, a mass migration of Ti-Ocks emerged from out of the smaller tunnels. Minutes later, the last creature passed into the main tunnel.
The cavern grew eerily quiet.
Could this be his chance? Were they gone for the night…or day as the case may be? There was no way to tell.
Holk remained still and quiet where he sat against the cavern wall deep within the shadows. When after a span of time passed during which no Ti-Ock returned, he climbed to his feet.
The lantern he hooked over his sword hilt. Slowly, and with every sensory faculty straining to catch any foreshadowing of a Ti-Ock return, he made his way toward the main tunnel.
Several carts stood off the track, parked as it were in a haphazard fashion along the cavern wall near the entrance. One had a broken wheel while the top third of another’s side was missing. It looked as if the wood had been bashed away by a massive hammer. Intrigued as to what could have caused such a hole, Holk took in other mining carts that showed similar damage.
Pondering the imponderable would get him nowhere. Reining in his curiosity, he brought his attention back to the mouth of the main tunnel. Flickering torchlight glowed from within.
Moving along the wall, Holk approached. Upon coming to within a foot of the entrance, he paused to listen. There was only silence. Taking it slow, he took the last step and peered around the corner.
The tunnel continued for well over a hundred feet before curving to the left. Torches in wall sconces burned every twenty feet, maintaining uninterrupted illumination throughout its length. Should he risk exploring where it led, there would be no way to remain unobserved should a Ti-Ock appear.
“Okay Scribe,” he quietly whispered, “did you go in there?” Turning his attention from the tunnel to the cavern rock comprising its mouth, he sought Kiernan’s tell-tale red marks.
After searching the rock wall beside which he lurked a foot in either direction and all the way to the ground to as high as he could see, he failed to discover any indication that the scribe had come this way.
A quick glance to ensure the tunnel remained empty and then he crossed to the opposite side. There he searched the rocky surface. It wasn’t until he knelt on hands and knees to inspect near the bottom that he saw the single red line. It had been marked through. There was another symbol next to it, one that he had yet to see; two diagonal, wavy lines encompassed by a circle. Considering the enigmatic symbol briefly, Holk failed to fathom its meaning.
He felt relief to know that the main passage was not the way to the arch. Coming back to his feet, he glanced to the other two tunnels farther down along the cavern wall. One of them had to be the one.
The first tunnel proved to be a narrow passage dug deep into the rock with a single railcart-track running along its center. One torch burned in lonely isolation far down in its nether recesses. Searching the rock along the tunnel entrance for Kiernan’s marks, he again discovered it close to the ground. Unlike the main tunnel, this one only had a single, crossed-out line. The circle with two wavy lines was not present.
“That leaves one more,” Holk mumbled to the darkness. Moving to the second of the smaller tunnels, he searched for the mark even though he knew this had to be the one. There could be another marking present that might indicate danger. He was surprised to find only a single, marked-out line near the bottom of the rock wall.
“Not this way either?”
Surprised, Holk wondered if perhaps this was not the mine Kiernan had spoken of in his journal. Could the scribe have been referring to another? Moving to stand just within the tunnel, Holk took Kiernan’s journal from out of his pack. Using the light from the torch burning above, he sought the reference to the mine. It failed to enlighten him any further as to how, or where, Kiernan had reached the mine. All it said was,
Had to sneak through a Ti-Ock mine in order to reach the mirror that sent me to the arch.
That was it. Flipping through the pages failed to reveal anything more.
Slipping the journal back into his pack, Holk considered the situation; three tunnels, all apparently having been crossed off by Kiernan as not being the way. So, if these three mining tunnels were not the avenue by which Kiernan had reached the mirror through which the arch lay, could there be yet another? The journal only said that the scribe had snuck through the mine, not that the way lay through a tunnel. Further searching was in order.
Moving out of the torch light illuminating the tunnel entrance, Holk kept near the wall as he began a circumnavigation of the cavern. Once back in the concealing safety of the shadows, he walked slowly, all the while running his hand along the rock wall to maintain contact. Fifty feet from the tunnel, his foot hit an obstruction rising from the ground. If not for the steadying presence of the cavern wall, he would assuredly have fallen.
The obstruction turned out to be one of the railcart rails. Squatting next to it, he ran his hand along its surface. An attempt to move it proved the rail to be fixed firmly in place. A glance deeper within the cavern revealed the shadowy presence of another. Perhaps the remnants of an abandoned spur? The spur was by no means intact, for the one before him lacked neighbors on either side. But where there had been a spur, there could be another tunnel.
Excited by the prospect, Holk came to his feet and after a glance back at the trio of tunnels behind him to ensure he remained alone, followed the intermittent rails to their destination.
A rail here, two rails there, the abandoned patchwork led him on. At one point the shadows melded into complete darkness and he was forced to utilize some source of light in order to continue. Pulling forth his sunstone, he smacked it against the outer leather of his scabbard.
Light blossomed forth; not nearly as bright as what his lantern would emit, but more than adequate to follow the rails. He cupped the sunstone in his hands, leaving the barest of openings to allow a small glow to light the way.
Continuing deeper within the cavern, the rails grew more infrequent. Another cart materialized out of the darkness. It lay on its side. Nothing appeared to be wrong with it other than having been tipped over. Holk gave it a cursory inspection that revealed little before continuing on.
The rails finally turned from running parallel to the cavern wall, to heading straight for it. They ended at what must have once been a tunnel entrance, but now stood clogged with rubble consisting of stones the size of pebbles to that of large boulders too large for him to move. Holk figured the tunnel must have suffered a cave-in.
Panning the sunstone’s light to inspect the area, he discovered Kiernan’s red line high on the wall near a gap at the top. It had not been marked through. This was the way!
Climbing the rubble pile proved easy enough and at the opening, Holk allowed the sunstone’s light to shine within. A narrow crawlspace extended through the pile for several yards to where the rubble came to an end.
With the ‘stone in one hand, he entered the opening and made his way through to the far side. There, the rubble petered out until the tunnel once again ran clear and unobstructed. As he descended the pile, a protrusion beneath the rocks at the bottom caught his eye. A closer examination revealed it to be a boney, skeletal leg. The cave-in must have caught one of the miners. But why hadn’t the body been recovered? Assuredly other Ti-Ocks must have known it was in there. Did they care so little about their dead?
No longer having to worry about giving away his presence, Holk returned the sunstone to his pack and relit the lantern. Rails ran in perfect, uninterrupted alignment along the center of the tunnel. Not far from the blockage, a cart filled with ore sat tilted to the right. It had come to rest at a ninety degree angle where its right side leaned against the wall.
Curious as to what the Ti-Ocks mined, Holk paused and inspected a chunk of ore. Veins of silver coursed through the rock. “So, this is a silver mine,” he mumbled. The combined amount of silver embe dded within the rocks filling the cart would be worth a fortune if he could but get them back home. Sighing, he tossed the silver-laced rock back into the cart and continued on.
Signs of abandonment greeted him around every turn of this serpentine-like tunnel; carts on their sides lying broken, tools stacked against the rocky walls as if waiting for the miners’ return, along with a myriad of other equipment.
It seemed strange to Holk that those who ran the mine would leave behind equipment of obvious value. Even the broken carts could have been repaired in lieu of purchasing replacements. Of course, it was also possible that everything had been intentionally left behind after the cave-in, but that made little economical sense. Wouldn’t it have proven profitable to spend a small amount of time to recover their equipment? Certainly the ore in the cart near the cave-in would have made the effort worthwhile. Ti-Ocks, Holk came to believe, had absolutely no sense about such things.
Pressing deeper into the tunnel, Holk reached a “Y.” The railcart tracks continued down the left-hand branch, while the tunnel curving off to the right was but bare earth. A search revealed Kiernan’s red line just within the right-hand tunnel. The one to the left had one that was crossed through. Holk entered the passage to the right.
After a short distance, the tunnel grew more natural in appearance. Where the tunnel with the track had been carved by Ti-Ocks, this one showed very few signs that tools had been used. The walls grew rougher and the smoothness of the passage took on the undulating aspect of natural formation.
Holk pressed forward through a trio of smaller caverns, each being hardly more than a widening of the tunnel. There were no stalactites or ‘mites. Instead, he encountered ribbons of rock forming irregular, and at times thin columns that climbed from floor to ceiling. Two in particular caught his eye.
Each couldn’t have been wider than the width of his palm. One rose nearly vertically while the other made its way in a less than symmetrical spiral around the first. Together, they formed perhaps the most unique configuration nature had to offer.
Past the trio of caverns, the tunnel began angling downward. Gradual at first, it soon grew quite severe. Holk was forced to make use of protruding rocks and other rocky imperfections along the walls to keep from falling. The downward slope lasted for what seemed like forever before reaching where the slope went completely vertical. The tunnel, or perhaps the more accurate term to use at this point would be shaft, continued down into darkness.
Holk discovered two somewhat flat, rocky protrusions upon which to place his feet while he considered whether or not to continue.
The sides of the shaft were far from smooth. Rocky outcroppings and fissures would provide ample places for feet and hands. How far into the earth would he have to go? Had Kiernan in fact gone this way? The line at the beginning of the tunnel indicated that he had. There was nothing for it. Holk had to try.
Descending through the shaft proved easier originally anticipated. His only concern was the climb back out. It wouldn’t be nearly as easy.
A fissure for a foothold here, a protruding rocky nodule for a handhold there, and down into the bowels of the earth he went. His every move caused the lantern hooked over his sword hilt to swing and bang into his leg causing shadows to dance in a spectral-like ballet.
How long he descended before becoming aware of the breeze, he couldn’t be certain. It wafted upward through the shaft. Not long after, he came to a wide, vertical fissure twice the length of a man. The breeze came from within.
Drawing abreast of the opening, Holk saw the scribe’s red line. It had not been marked through. Encouraged by this affirmation that he was on the right track, Holk unhooked the lantern from his sword hilt and passed it through the opening to see what lay on the other side. To his amazement, it was a room.
Not a large room to be sure, it had been constructed in similar fashion as the Prison Room and the large room wherein he had encountered the Merchant. The wall separating the shaft from the room had worn away over the years and collapsed. There were no doors or windows; the fissure through which he gazed was the only way out.
Eager to leave the shaft behind, Holk stepped through and into the room. Once within the room, he saw the mirror on the wall to his right. It was framed in a thick border of solid gold bedecked with emeralds the size of his thumb. The gems caught the lantern’s light and created a halo-like aura, wreathing the mirror. On the wall next to it were three of Kiernan’s symbols.
The top one was the line. Next came a “T” that Holk understood to mean a Ti-Ock presence would be encountered wherever the mirror took him. Beneath the “T” was an arch. Holk had found the mirror!
Excitement warred with caution as he approached the site of Kiernan’s last translocation. According to the journal, once he activated the mirror’s latent power, he would be set upon by Ti-Ocks. The scribe stated six of the creatures had attacked him as soon as he appeared.
Holk paused before touching the reflective surface. First, he extinguished the lantern causing the room to plunge into total darkness. Next he drew his sword. If a similar fate awaited him, he planned to be ready. With sword ready, he reached out with his other hand…and paused.
From out of the corner of his eye, a faint sliver of light broke the darkness. As he turned his gaze upon it, the light vanished. Figuring it to be nothing more than his eyes playing tricks, Holk reached out for the mirror. Again, the light appeared in his peripheral vision.
This time he kept his gaze directed forward. In the half-sight one has when transitioning from day-vision to night-vision, the light was only apparent out of the corner of his eye. It vanished whenever he gazed directly toward it.
Rising from the floor, the ribbon of light ascended in a perfect vertical line to a height of six feet. Holk kept his gaze averted so as to keep it in his peripheral sight and side-stepped toward the light. Either it gained clarity with closer proximity, or his eyes were adjusting to the stygian blackness for when he came to within arm’s reach, the light remained visible even with his gaze turned full upon it.
The breeze felt back in the shaft had its origins on the other side of this ribbon of light. He could feel its coolness upon his skin as it passed through. Intrigued, he momentarily put aside his plan to follow Kiernan’s route via the mirror, and lit the lantern.
Naught but a stone-formed wall greeted him when the lantern blossomed into life. However, the blocks of stones that formed the wall were set in a slightly different pattern than the rest of the room. He never would have noticed it had the ribbon of light not caught his eye.
Holk was mighty curious as to what lay on the other side of this wall. A breeze, not to mention a light source, indicated another way from this room other than the mirror, and the fissure leading to the shaft.
Setting the mirror upon the floor, Holk placed both hands against the wall. Thinking there may be a secret door concealed within the stone wall, he shoved. The wall didn’t so much as budge. He tried leaping at the wall and striking it full-on with his shoulder. All that action accomplished was to cause his shoulder to ache.
Rubbing where it throbbed, Holk stepped back and considered the wall. He knew a noble that had a secret passage running from the noble’s bed chamber to that of a guest room to enable discreet midnight rendezvous. The end at the bed chamber was accessed by moving a picture on the wall that caused a hidden door to slide open.
Starting with the blocks running along either side of where the ribbon of light had been, he tried moving, pushing, and even striking each of them with the pommel of his sword. After testing them all, he still had not opened the way.
Past experiences aided him not at all in this endeavor. Other than the one instance with the noble, Holk had no other wells of information from which to draw. After all, how often does one find themselves in such a situation? Tavern tales and barrack’s gossip offered little help since soldiers were more interested in brave, heroic deeds than skulking about in the dark along hidden passageways.
The other end of the noble’s secret route had a latch keeping it secure which could only be manipulated from within the passage. It occurred to Holk that perhaps something similar was at work now.
The blade of the sword acquired from the Merchant was narrow, narrow enough in fact to slip within the crack. It was a tight fit, but he managed to insert it four inches before the blade grew too thick.
Ever so carefully, he slid it upward within the crack until reaching a point at eye level. When he failed to encounter any resistance, Holk brought the blade downward. It continued its descent within the crack before encountering something that brought it to a halt.
Encouraged, he pressed downward on whatever it was that barred the blade’s way. When that failed to produce a result, he withdrew the sword and re-inserted it a foot beneath the obstruction. Moving it upward, he took it slow until the blade once again was brought to a halt.
This time when he increased the pressure, the resistance lasted less than three heartbeats before giving way. A muffled “click” was heard.
Pulling the sword free, Holk gave the wall a nudge with his shoulder resulting in only a slight movement. Increasing his effort failed to force the wall open any farther. Thinking it must swing inward, he slipped the tip of his sword into the crack and began to pry.
Not hard for fear of damaging the blade, he used the blade like a crowbar, and soon, hinges squealed as the wall opened a fraction. Further repetitions of insertions and pryings saw the wall swing ever farther into the room.
The door, for door its dimensions said it to be, reached a point where its edge had completely entered the room. Sheathing his sword, Holk took hold of the edge and opened it the rest of the way.
A narrow, ascending stairwell led up to a landing some thirty feet beyond. Burning merrily in a sconce, a torch illuminated the area above.
Torch? A burning torch meant the presence of someone, or something, with intelligence. Sniffing the air failed to reveal Ti-Ock scent. Who could it be? Streyan perhaps? Drawing his sword, Holk picked up the lantern and proceeded to climb the steps. Exercising great caution, he approached the landing.