Every sense alert for the slightest sound or scent that would indicate the presence of another, Holk climbed the steps. The torch burning in the sconce drew his attention. Its flame flickered in the breeze coming from beyond the top of the landing, giving off a smoky offering that could possibly mask other, subtler, odors.
The cold steel of his sword gave comfort as he paused upon the third step from the top. A passageway moved off to the right. Hearing nothing, Holk took the final two steps quickly and peered around the corner.
No more than six paces away, the passageway ended at another door. It stood ajar. No light came from the other side, the opening remained as black as pitch. Coming off the steps Holk stepped lightly toward to the door, peering into the darkness beyond.
What little light passing through from the torch burning behind him revealed the beginnings of a wall that continued forward on his right. To the left, the area beyond the door opened up. About to enter, he detected an odor that was all too familiar to one seasoned in battle. It was the odor of death.
Taking hold of the door Holk readied his sword, took in a steady inhalation then released it slowly to banish feelings of unease before drawing open the door. He was ready for most anything but what he saw. A small room lay beyond the door. Clothes that were more rags than suitable attire for a man lay strewn about the room. The remains of several crates had been fashioned into crude tables sat near a cot whereupon a mound of the rags was piled haphazardly.
He took his sunstone and gently whacked it against the wall. The resulting light gave further detail to the wadded clothes upon the cot. It was from the clothes that the odor of death came.
Using the tip of his sword, he carefully hooked it on a brownish-red, frayed section of cloth lying atop the pile at one end and moved it aside to expose the cadaverous face of a long-dead human. Quickly removing the rest of the rags, he soon had the corpse exposed.
From the breastplate it wore, Holk knew this person had been a soldier of some kind. The coat-of-arms embossed upon the left breast was that of a serpent coiled to strike on a field of red. Twin, parallel lines ran diagonally from upper right to lower left. It was an insignia unfamiliar to him.
The state of decomposition seemed to indicate the man had perished over a month ago, possibly longer. There didn’t appear any signs the man had died as result of wounds such as those that had done in Kiernan.
Natural causes, poison, or had he simply given up? Holk didn’t know, but vowed not to meet the same fate. Hoping to find something that would aid in his bid for freedom, Holk lit the lantern and set about taking stock of the items in the room.
The first thing he noticed was the lack of a mirror. This was the first room other than the Merchant’s that didn’t have one. Interesting, but hardly worthy of further contemplation.
Amidst the clutter atop the makeshift table next to the bed poked the wooden edge of a mirror frame. Excited at finding another of the handhelds, Holk pulled it out only to discover the mirror had been shattered. Moving aside the rest off the clutter revealed the missing pieces. Lying intermixed with the broken remains of the first, lay what used to be the frame of a second. Each broken into multiple sections, the pieces held but jagged fragments of its reflective surface.
Tentatively, Holk touched one of the broken fragments, half expecting to be transported elsewhere. But apparently the magic of the mirrors ceased to work once broken for he failed to translocate.
He cast a curious glance to the corpse on the bed. Why would you smash the mirrors? Such an action made no sense.
From the crate-box table, he turned his attention to a pile consisting of bones, irregular snatches of dried hides, and what looked to be bits of leather. The leather piqued his attention, but a more thorough examination revealed them to not belong to one of those things from the forest. Rather, they were the remains of some critter the now-dead occupant of this room had most likely eaten.
Two crates with broken slats sat against the wall on the other side of the room. Holk smashed them open with his foot and discovered a curious, dodecahedral item barely large enough to fit in the palm of his hand. It was wrapped in a purple, velveteen cloth and weighed more than it should.
Formed of a dark rock, each of its twelve, pentagonal sides was inlaid with a silver, runic figure. One face bore a rearing horse, on the side directly opposite was that of a sword. The rest were naught but indecipherable squiggles.
He was careful to not touch the item except at the vertices where the pentagonal faces met. One never knew what magic might be lurking within such an item. He slipped it into his pouch and continued his search. Other than a variety of ill-used clothes in varying sizes, nothing else that could be thought of as useful or interesting was found.
The breeze which had fluttered the torch burning at the top of the steps came from a narrow crack in the ceiling not far from the foot of the dead man’s bed. An inch at the widest, it meandered its way in a natural progression for over three hand-spans before coming to an end. The air issuing forth smelled of earth and long-buried subterranean worlds forever cut off from the green life of the surface.
Casting one last look around this small room, his gaze settled once again upon the face of the dead man. “What happened to you? Did you just give up?” Shaking his head, he turned toward the door. Making his way from the room, Holk hurried down the steps and came to stand before the mirror. His eyes fell upon the symbol painted in red upon the wall.
“This better be the way out.”
After extinguishing the lantern and placing the sunstone in his pouch so its light would be concealed, Holk drew his sword and reached for the mirror, beyond which the scribe had been immediately set upon by Ti-Ocks. In absolute darkness, his fingertips brushed against the reflective surface.
Ti-Ock stink assaulted his nose. That and the fact that his fingers no longer touched the mirror were the only indications that he no longer remained in the room at the base of the concealed steps. The air of this new place felt stagnant and rank.
Holk stood motionless for several seconds. The only sound to break the stillness was the beating of his heart. Each lub-dub resounded like a cacophony that would assuredly attract anyone or anything that happened to be nearby.
There’s no one here.
Seconds ticked by as the silence remained unbroken. He cocked his head first to one side then another in an attempt to detect some faint indication that he was not alone. After nearly a full minute of such activity, he concluded that he was alone and opened the pouch wherein laid the sunstone. When the pouch’s mouth parted, light blossomed forth. The sunstone continued exuding light. He immediately closed the pouch until only a miniscule opening remained to allow light to pass.
The light pushed back only a small portion of the darkness. It was as if he stood in a bubble of light within a sea of darkness. He tried discerning his surroundings, but dared not risk announcing his presence with greater illumination. According to Kiernan’s journal, the arch had been twenty feet before where the scribe had appeared. Stepping forward cautiously, four paces brought him to the point where the light coming from out of the pouch fell upon the arch.
It was just as had been portrayed in the journal. In the stone above the arch’s apex, a starburst had been engraved. Great artistry had been used in its design. Assuredly, this could not have been the work of Ti-Ocks. Those beasts he had thus far encountered had not seemed capable of such fine and delicate craftsmanship. Beyond the arch lay naught but darkness.
Pausing two paces before the arch, Holk once again strained to detect the sound of another’s presence. When it failed to materialize, he moved to pass through the arch. Just before reaching the arch, the toe of his boot sent a bit of metal clanking across the stone floor to a point beyond the arch. The suddenness and unexpectedness of the jarring sound froze him in place. When the object came to rest, he again sought signs that his presence had been discovered. Relief filled him when the silence continued unabated.
He pulled forth the sunstone to provide better illumination. If the clattering skittering of the metallic object, which the increase in light proved to be a broken knife’s blade, hadn’t produced a curious Ti-Ock to investigate, then most likely there were none in the area. Its light pushed back the darkness to fully reveal the arch and his immediate surroundings. Surveying the room in which he had appeared revealed that the arch to be but one of two ways from the room. Behind him and to his right, a flight of steps climbed toward a platform before another archway some fifteen feet above. This second archway was constructed of but plain, unadorned stone, giving the aspect of little importance.
Returning his attention to the starburst above what he thought of as Kiernan’s Arch, Holk saw how the light from the sunstone sparkled along the rays shooting out from the starburst’s center. It was subtle, but there.
Beyond the arch lay another room. The light failed to fully penetrate the interior, though it did extend far enough to reveal a trio of columns made from the same stone that comprised the walls, floor and ceiling. Ten paces from the arch, the columns stood as silent sentinels that waited with eternal patience for what this human would do next.
Always leery of the unknown, Holk stepped forward until mere inches separated him from the space within the arch. Would it be safe to go through? Dare he? After another wary glance to the sparkling rays of the starburst, he made to pass through.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Spinning about, Holk glanced up to the platform before the other arch and found the boy Streyan sitting with legs dangled over the edge, kicking back and forth as a child was want do. A myriad of questions raced though his mind in the second of ensuing silence. How did the boy get there? Was Streyan following him? And what did he mean by that statement?
The boy shrugged. “Not sure.”
“Are there Ti-Ocks on the other side?”
“I can’t be certain, but I would think it likely.” Gesturing to the room, the arch looming behind him, and the arch through which Holk had been about to enter, he added, “This area is claimed by them and they are not welcoming hosts.”
Holk pondered that for a moment then gestured to the Arch. “Is the way out through there?”
The lad nodded. “One of them.”
“How do you know? Kazzra?”
Again the boy nodded.
Realizing his sword was held at the ready between them, he sheathed it. “What did he say?”
“He only mentioned it once. Claimed that the Starburst Gate would alter the rules for those who passed though.”
“So Kazzra said.”
“In what way?”
“That I don’t know. He failed to go into any great details about it. Simply forbade me from ever passing through them.”
Holk arched an eyebrow. “Them? There is more than one?”
“Yep. This is one of four that I have encountered. The strange thing is that they are all in Ti-Ock held territory.”
“Why would that be strange?”
The boy shrugged. “I don’t know. Don’t you think it to be strange?”
“Maybe.” He eyed the lad for the span of two heartbeats before asking, “Have you been following me?”
“Not intentionally. I just happened by when I saw the light from your sunstone and thought to take a look. Those sent to this place quite often end up before this particular Arch and I was curious who it might be.”
“You’ve seen others that have tried to pass through this Arch?”
Sadness came to his face and he nodded his head.
“What happened to them?”
“From passing through the Arch?”
The boy shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve known seventeen who tried. Sixteen came up dead within two days.”
“And the seventeenth?”
“I never saw him again.”
So one made it out. There was a glimmer of hope that things might work out after all. But then he thought of the dead man in the room atop the hidden stairs. “Did the seventeenth man have an insignia on his chest?” He touched the area above his right breast. “Right here that was of a striking serpent upon a red field with twin lines running through it?”
Streyan shook his head. “No. The one of whom you speak was the last of the sixteen.”
“How about the scribe, Kiernan? Did he pass through?”
Shrugging, the boy replied, “Maybe. I do not know for certain if he did or did not.”
Holk considered that for a moment. “Would you mind answering another question?”
“If I can.”
Reaching into his pouch, he removed the dodecahedral object discovered in the hidden room and held it up for the boy to see. “Any idea what this is?”
Streyan eyed the object and shook his head. “Nope. Probably important though. Things like that are all over the place. If you know where to look that is. Kazzra said it was best to leave them alone.”
“He didn’t say.”
“That dragon doesn’t tell you much, does he?”
Grinning, the boy shrugged. “He tells me what I need to know.”
Holk doubted that, but kept such thoughts to himself. Moving toward the beginning of the steps leading to the platform whereupon Streyan sat, Holk quickly stopped when the smile vanished from Streyan’s eyes and the lad came to his feet and back-stepped two paces toward the arch. Apparently the boy’s affability would only be present when sufficient space remained between them. Even after Holk realized his error and returned to his former position before Kiernan’s Arch, the boy remained on his feet.
“You should leave this place.”
“I’ve been trying to.” The words came out a bit more forcefully than Holk had intended.
“No.” Streyan made a gesturing encompassing the room. “I mean, from here. They’ll be here soon.”
The boy nodded. “Lots of them.” He then leaned back so his head passed through the archway and looked toward some distant point to his right before returning his attention to Holk.
Holk searched the boy’s face for signs of deception, but only found honesty. “How soon?”
“Not long.” Again he glanced through the archway and to his right.
Seeing the boy move his hand to the pack holding his bounty of mirrors, Holk held up his own hand and said, “Wait!”
Streyan’s hand paused.
Holk pointed through the opening of Kiernan’s Arch. “What will I find?”
“The way out? Death? I really don’t know.” With that, he slipped a finger within his mirror-pack and was gone.
The way out? Death? Streyan’s words haunted him as he turned to face the Arch. There was nothing out of the ordinary about it other than the way the sunstone’s light played along the beams radiating outward from the center of the starburst. The area beyond the arch looked innocent enough.
…dead within two days. The fate of those who had gone before made him wary. But one made it! From out of the archway at the top of the steps wherein Streyan had stood but moments before came the unmistakable sound of footsteps intermingled with guttural Ti-Ock speech. Dare the Arch, remain to face the Ti-Ocks, or flee? He’d be damned if he would ever take flight again. Drawing his sword, he turned his back on the approaching creatures, and stepped through the Arch.
Half anticipating to experience some sort of transition as he passed through, he was surprised at experiencing nothing. But that didn’t mean nothing had changed. The lad said that the rules would be altered for him, not that he would be altered. Would he even know the difference? Did it matter?
The trio of columns evenly dissected a short, wide hallway. A door stood ajar at the other end. He could hear Ti-Ocks coming down the steps from the platform before the other archway. Cupping the sunstone so as to restrict its illumination to the area just before him, he skirted around the leftmost column and raced for the door. Pulling it open, he darted through.
Now in a perpendicular passage, he shut the door behind him. Unable to locate a means whereby the door could be secured, he glanced down the passage to his right and left. Light could be seen to the right; the left held naught but shadows. A quick search of the walls adjacent to the door revealed none of the scribe’s markings. If Kiernan had made it this far, he hadn’t taken the time to mark his route. Figuring shadows were preferable to a light source, he quick-timed it down to the left.
A dozen paces later, the light of the sunstone abruptly vanished. Tapping it against the wall caused the light to shine again. He continued for only a short distance before being brought to a halt by the sudden manifestation of guttural voices from behind. He pressed his back against the wall and held the sunstone tightly against his chest to contain its light. From the shadowy darkness, he watched a group of Ti-Ocks emerge through the doorway he had so recently vacated and turn to make their way toward the light source at the opposite end of the passageway. At least two-score of the creatures appeared, each thankfully oblivious to his presence. Holk held his position until the creatures disappeared in the distance, then resumed the exploration of the shadowy tunnel before him.
He kept the sword at the ready, in his left hand clutched the sunstone. The barest hint of light escaping between his fingers allowed him to make out the walls on either side as well as the passageway floor. Naught more than paler shadows in a world of shadow, they provided guidance.
The thought that this might not be the way leading to the exit from this place nagged at the back of his mind. It could very well have been toward the lighted section, the way the Ti-Ocks had gone that would prove to be the road to home. But since this was the way least likely to incur Ti-Ock attention, it was a good place to start. He could always go back.
Minutes ticked by as Holk delved farther down what quickly turned out to be a forlorn and deserted section of Ti-Ock habitation. The walls continued unbroken with neither door nor opening. A few remnants telling of previous occupation were found; items such as broken planks of wood, empty torch sconces, and scraps of cloth. It looked as if no one had been down there for years. He continued on.
Finally, the aspect of the tunnel…changed. Where the walls reached the ceiling remained the same. Where they met the floor, however, grew narrower. It was as if the bottom section of the walls gradually moved closer together. This continued for a good hundred feet until the space between the lower half of the walls was half that of the upper. Curious and slightly off-balanced by such an incongruous construction, Holk pressed forward.
Not far beyond where the lower end of the walls ceased their inward progression and kept the unusual aspect, a gate appeared. Narrow bars set two hand-spans apart with a thick chain binding closed the section that swung open created a very effective barrier. No locking mechanism was attached to the chain. Instead, it bound the gate closed in perfect, unbroken linked-unity. It was as if the chain had been fashioned in place leaving neither a beginning nor an end.
Holk pondered the enigma of a gate that could not be opened. The bars were firm and lacked any sign of aging. It was as if he had come upon the gate but hours after its construction; which of course was impossible. Attempts at yanking and pushing only served to prove its formidable nature.
Irritation and no small amount of anger bubbled to the surface at his inability to continue. Beyond the gate, darkness beckoned teasingly, as if mocking him. Such an obstruction assuredly had to mean that his chance for escaping this prison was somewhere ahead. Gripping the gate in both hands, he shook the iron violently. It didn’t budge.
Anger came over him. Unwilling to give in, he took three steps back, glared at the point where the chain held closed the gate and gave out with a cry. Racing forward, he slammed the bottom of his boot against the chain with all his might. To his amazement, the blow wrenched the gate’s upper section away from the ceiling and brought it crashing down against the floor with a very loud and resounding boom.
Holes gaped where the rods of the gate had been attached to the ceiling. Chips of stone lay scattered across the floor. He glanced to the gate where it lay prone upon the floor. “Well, I guess you weren’t as strong as you thought.” Patting himself on the back for a job well done, Holk stepped upon the bars of the gate and with great satisfaction, disdainly ground his heel against the metal. “Nothing is going to stand in my way,” As he moved off the gate and continued down the passageway, he again exclaimed, “Nothing!”
Fifty feet beyond the gate, the passageway reached a dead end without door or other avenue to continue. Why would they put a gate before a dead end? It was inconceivable. The thought that perhaps a secret way may be concealed spurred a lengthy search of the stone walls and floor at the end of the passageway. Not finding any hidden catch or pressure plate, he slowly worked his way back down the tunnel.
It didn’t take long before he noticed the gate had returned to its former position blocking the passageway. Standing motionless in shock for several seconds, it took a moment for his brain to come to grips with what he saw. The gaping holes in the ceiling where the bars had earlier come free were gone. It was as if the felling of the gate had never happened. Yet he knew that it had.
Figuring a well-placed kick had worked before, he backed several feet away, raced at the gate, leapt and hit the gate with his foot. Every spec of power he could muster went into that kick. The resulting impact sent waves of pain up his leg. The gate refused to budge even when his knee buckled and the rest of his body crashed into the iron bars.
Holk sagged to the floor. An inspection of his foot revealed it hadn’t broken, sprained perhaps. But a few of the healing mushrooms later and the pain had subsided to a dull throb. He came to his feet and stood before the chain holding the gate closed. Raising his sword high, he considered attempting to shear the chain in two, but feared the possibility of being rendered weaponless in such a hostile environment should the links prove the hardier. Instead, he sheathed the sword then reached for his mirror-pack.
The thought of using the mirror and return to the Prison Room, and then having to go back over the route that had brought him to the Arch, was not a pleasant prospect. Although, after another hour of searching for a secret way and working again to overcome the gate, he gave in to the inevitable.
Pulling forth the mirror with the red mark that would take him to the Prison Room, he touched the surface.