Striking the sunstone to once again produce its light, he left behind the room with the green, glowing object. Holk had followed the passageway only a short ways before noticing a rise in temperature. Subtle at first, the air in the tunnel grew warmer the farther he went.
The corridor curved to the right, grew narrower, and when it once again proceeded in a straight line, light appeared in the distance. Not the greenish light as encountered in the previous room, but rather the normal light such as a torch or lantern might emit. Comforted by the normalcy, Holk hurried on.
The light grew in brilliance as he drew near where the corridor opened upon a large cavern. The temperature increased rapidly during the last twenty paces of the corridor. Pausing just before the entrance, Holk took in the odd sight before him.
Six large, rough-hewn monoliths rose in a somewhat circular pattern from the cavern floor two-score paces away. Within the ring formed by the six, a seventh laid skewed on its side. Holk couldn’t see most of it as one of the six constructing the circle obscured his view. The monoliths were the source of the heat.
Upon the ground near one of the stone spire’s base sat a lantern which turned out to be the source of the light. A closer inspection of the area surrounding the lantern revealed an over-stuffed mirror-pack that looked rather familiar.
Though the cavern appeared deserted, Holk figured the boy couldn’t be far; not if the lad’s mirror-pack was there. After another quick scan of the cavern, he moved as quickly and silently as he dared toward the pack. He was ready for some answers and this time wasn’t about to allow the boy a chance to get away.
Ten paces in, he found the boy. As he neared the ring of stone monoliths, more of the seventh came into view. Streyan lay upon its stony surface, stretched out on his back and looking to be asleep. Holk grinned to himself.
Another ten paces and the lad had yet to realize he was not alone. Holk quickened his pace and inadvertently kicked a loose stone across the ground toward the nearest monolith. Its impact against the stone spire resounded throughout the cavern and the boy sprang to a sitting position.
“No!” Hopping off the fallen spire, Streyan raced to beat Holk to the pack.
The boy sped faster toward the pack than Holk thought possible. Streyan closed the distance and amazingly, was going to beat Holk to it.
Holk refused to allow the boy to gain access to the mirrors. Drawing his sword and leaping at the same time, his body crashed into the boy’s not two feet from the pack. The collision knocked Streyan off his feet and sent him sailing through the air to land with an “oomph” upon the ground between two of the upright monoliths. In a flash, the boy was back on his feet.
Standing astride the pack, Holk menaced him with the point of his blade. “Not this time, boy.”
Streyan looked at the sword, then at the pack, then assumed a petulant look as he returned his gaze to Holk. “But that’s mine.”
“I’m not taking it.” Thinking of the light-worms that had emerged from his mirrors, Holk used his foot to shove the pack several feet across the floor behind him. When Streyan tried racing around a monolith to circumvent him and reach the pack, Holk matched his movement and foiled the attempt.
The boy moved back within the circle of monoliths and stood next to the fallen one; his gaze never once straying from Holk. When Holk moved to enter the ring, an alarmed expression came over the lad.
“St…stay where you are.”
Holk shook his head and continued advancing. “No, son. You stay where you are.”
Spinning about, Streyan shot toward the gap between two monoliths directly opposite where Holk was about to enter. “Don’t!”
Holk rushed after. He wasn’t about to let the boy get away; there were too many questions that needed answering. As he passed through the monolithic ring and entered its interior, green tendrils of glowing radiance lanced outward from his sword blade.
The sheer unexpectedness of their appearance brought him up short. A moment after they connected with the monoliths, Holk was knocked from his feet by some unseen force. Before hitting the ground, another blow reeled him into the side of the fallen monolith.
Green haze swirled like a rapidly growing vortex in and around the ring of upright monoliths. None of the haze held presence within the spired circle.
Holk managed to gain his feet only to be thrust upward four feet off the floor. The unseen force held him in place for the span of two heartbeats before throwing him back to the ground. Just prior to hitting, the force changed direction and back into the air he went.
“What…?” he began, but a blow to his diaphragm knocked the air from his lungs.
The swirling haze intensified its rotation. Though buffeted from side to side like a rag doll in a restless child’s hands, Holk heard not a sound to indicate who, or what, was doing this to him.
After being slammed against the side of the fallen spire, Holk had a moment’s respite. He spied Streyan through the haze to where the lad stood several feet beyond the ring of monoliths. The boy bore a sad expression. His lips moved as if attempting to communicate, but his words couldn’t penetrate the swirling, green haze.
Using his left hand as support against the fallen spire, Holk regained an upright position. A glance upward revealed that the spinning haze extended to the farthest reaches of the cavern. He returned his gaze to Streyan, but the boy no longer sought to communicate. The lad had retrieved his mirror-pack and now stood with hand raised in farewell.
“Wait!” Holk yelled as Streyan’s other hand moved toward the mirror-pack’s opening. Before another word could be uttered, the air turned viscous. The space around him appeared unchanged, yet over the span of several heartbeats, movement became all but impossible.
The swirling of the green haze increased in speed. The thickening of the air inhibited movement almost completely. For the first time since boyhood, Holk knew true panic.
He turned eyes wild with fear toward Streyan. His plea for help stillborn; it was all he could do to merely separate his lips to breathe. Inhalation grew labored as his chest worked against the restriction imposed by the thickening of the air around him.
The boy’s lips worked again, and though Holk could not hear the word, knew it to be “Goodbye.” With that, Streyan slipped a finger within the mirror-pack and vanished.
Constriction increased and Holk could no longer extend his diaphragm to draw in breath. Pressure built evenly across the entire surface of his body as the air grew ever more rigid. Discomfort quickly grew into throbbing; throbbing into pain.
Asphyxiated induced dots danced before his eyes. The beating of his heart could be felt throughout his body as blood sought to continue along its lifelong route. Vision blurred, darkened, then he knew no more.
At some point, consciousness returned; and so too did pain. From the tips of his toes all the way to the top of his head, his body throbbed most unpleasantly. He cracked open an eye and quickly shut it again as the contents of his stomach sought to surge forth.
It wasn’t the pain that had caused him to react so, but the world around him. A mist enveloped him, one that was neither wet nor cold. In fact, he couldn’t feel it at all, nor smell it for that matter. A dark purple in color, the mere sight of it had triggered the nauseating reaction. Taking a few breaths to calm his stomach, he steeled himself and opened his eyes.
He barely had time to shift onto his side before a spasm deep within his stomach sent its contents up and out. Closing his eyes did much to quiet his belly. Once the spell ended, he rolled onto his back and kept his eyes shut tight.
The possibility of having struck his head came to mind. Pain and nausea were common to soldiers after receiving a blow to the head. A brief examination revealed neither an enlarged bump, nor an area tenderer than another. Still, that didn’t mean it hadn’t happened.
Recalling recent events did little to convince him he hadn’t struck his head. Vague memories of Streyan, stone spires, and being tossed around like so much chaff in the wind did more to convince him of serious head trauma than anything else. If he had, his situation had just grown direr.
Lying still as the minutes passed failed to ease the feeling of unease which had steadily grown upon him. It came not so much from the possibility of injury, but from another source; one he could not quite put his finger on.
Opening his eyes in order to discover the source of his unease caused bile to rise in the back of his throat. He quickly discarded the thought. If visual inspection of his surroundings was out of the question, then perhaps a tactile one might prove beneficial. With that thought in mind, he turned his attention to the floor upon which he lay.
To his utter amazement, neither stone nor wood comprised the surface beneath him. In fact, there was no surface at all. Holk extended his arm to its fullest reach and still encountered naught but empty air. Panic took over and forced his eyes open causing an intense spell of nausea. By sheer strength of will, he snapped his eyes closed once again.
No floor, no walls, no ceiling; it made no sense. He didn’t feel as if he was falling. There was no sense of motion. In fact, there was little in the way of sensation of any kind. Inhaling brought no scent, not even that of his stomach’s contents that had recently been expelled. He felt neither hot nor cold. Had he been falling, there would be a rush of wind; instead there was complete and utter stillness. Truly, he must be mad.
In his right hand, he could still feel the heft and weight of his sword, though it felt a bit odd. There was something… then it hit him. The sword was not being pulled toward the ground, merely retaining its current position all by itself. He could move it to and fro, up and down. But when he brought the sword to a halt, it remained still.
About to give in to the belief that his mind had finally been overcome, Holk felt the presence of another. Power, ageless and terrible, washed over him stealing what wits he had left. Gibbering in fear, he sensed that the presence was aware of him.
More a thought than voice, the single word coursed through him like a jagged knife, leaving behind a swath of pain and agony.
You have not that which we desire.
Each word increased his pain and terror. Screams, uncontrollable and filled with madness, filled his ears. Somewhere in the nether recesses of his mind, he realized they were his own. A moment later the intensity of the presence increased and left his mind bereft of all reason. Before Holk slipped into blissful unconsciousness, a thought penetrated the dark halls of madness.
Perhaps another might find you of use.
Consciousness returned, not by the slow steps of normal human recovery, but in an abrupt manner such as might occur after one was doused with a bucket of water fresh from a snow-bound mountaintop.
A single scream erupted from a deep primordial place. Using the full measure of his lung capacity, the cry wrenched him from madness and returned him to reality.
He was not where he had been. The surface beneath where he lay felt smooth as glass and cool to the touch. Cracking open an eye revealed a sky, ruby in color with wisps of what he would think of as clouds if they had been white instead of a deep orange.
Turning his head to the side brought a field of silver into view. The silvery “ground” upon which he lay extended to the limit of his vision in absolute flatness without hill, tree, or any other obstruction marring its smooth perfection. Though unnaturally smooth, the surface had a grittiness that Holk found disturbing.
Fear still held sway within him, although its mastery diminished with each passing heartbeat. A shaky hand settled upon the hilt of his sword. The cold steel gave comfort and aided the return of his courage.
Dizziness assailed him as he sat to get a better look at his surroundings. The landscape looked nothing like anything he had ever seen before. Ruby-red sky, orange clouds and silvery ground; truly, he must have lost his mind.
Recent memories sought to return, but with them came fear. Feeling his fleeting courage waning beneath this renewed onslaught, Holk fought to banish the memories. Home; mother; father; upon these he concentrated until the burgeoning terror had at last been vanquished.
Once able to calm his mind and turn it to the problem at hand, he climbed to his feet and took in the featureless landscape.
Where am I?
It was clear he was no longer in the subterranean complex of mirrors and caverns. Where he was exactly…well…that escaped him at the moment. But with everything that he had recently experienced, he wasn’t nearly as overwhelmed as he once would have been.
The orange clouds above floated by on an unfelt current. The air around Holk remained static; just one more incongruity of this strange, alien land.
Figuring the answer to his whereabouts and how to depart from this place would not be found by remaining where he was, Holk once again scanned the horizon. Every direction looked the same with nothing but unremitting, silvery flatness. Unnerved to say the least, he set out across this foreign landscape.
Two steps into his trek, a dark object appeared on the horizon. It appeared to be an upright, rectangular construction; what exactly it was couldn’t be determined from such a far distance. Intrigued, Holk set out toward it.
Each step brought him closer to the object than a man’s stride should have been able to accomplish. Half a dozen paces covered a distance three times that and it soon became apparent that what Holk was heading toward was a cage.
Narrow bars set close together formed a prison of sorts. It measured roughly four feet by five and rose to a height over an arm-span taller than Holk. The most curious aspect of the cage, aside from the fact that it had no door, was the lack of any seam. It appeared as if it had been constructed all of one piece.
Within the bars sat an armored man slumped against the side of the cage. At first, Holk believed the man may yet live, but upon drawing nearer to the cage, realized life no longer remained. The eyes were sunken and its skin had drawn tightly against the bones beneath.
Light from the red sky overhead reflected off an impeccably polished breastplate and shield. Both bore a yellow sun on a golden field. Bony fingers still gripped the hilt of a longsword that made his sword look like a pig-sticker.
The weapon looked to be made of steel, but bore an unusual sheen that Holk was at a loss to identify. It gave the weapon a slight shimmering appearance. A red stone the size of an egg had been set into the crossbar of the hilt; it may have been a ruby though he couldn’t be certain. The overall appearance of the weapon was that of master craftsmanship.
Holk wanted that sword. He felt that with it in his possession, his ability to survive whatever trials lay ahead would be increased dramatically. Reaching through the bars, he dislodged the sword from the skeletal grip and pulled it from the cage.
The balance was perfect and weighed only half that of his. Being of comparable size, it slid easily within his scabbard. He laid his old sword next to the dead man in the cage. Not the most equitable of trades, but he figured no one would complain.
Drawing his new blade, Holk made several passes through the air. The weapon moved effortlessly and took relatively little strength to wield. He gave the unusual sheen a closer inspection but failed to discern anything about it other than it made the surface of the blade shimmer, similar in nature to heat radiating off a heated surface; only there was no heat. All in all, a most curious weapon. Sheathing it once again, he returned his attention to the cage.
How had the man come to be within if there was no seam or point of entry?
Holk tried rattling the cage in an attempt to unveil the cage’s secrets, but it failed to give them up. Finally realizing his energy could be better spent, such as working on getting him back home, Holk returned his attention to the unnatural landscape.
Silvery, unchanging desolation stretched from one horizon to another. The only aspect of this entire place that varied from one moment to the next were the orange clouds high overhead. Drifting along in the upper atmosphere, they at least provided some point of reference; “upstream” and “downstream.” Turning toward the point where the clouds originated, Holk decided to follow the clouds “upstream.”
As he moved from the corpse in the cage, he kept his eyes peeled for any sign of other breaks in the monotony of this silvery land. Ten steps into his upstream trek, he glanced over his shoulder and was surprised to find the cage now to be a far distance away.
Holk didn’t like this place and wanted nothing more than to leave it behind. Continuing upstream, another five paces brought an object into view. As fast as he had left the cage behind, he proceeded to advance on what quickly proved to be another cage identical to the first; complete with a slumped over, armored individual wearing the exact same style of armor. Only this time, there was no sword gripped in its skeletal hand. Instead, the sword remained sheathed.
Again, the cage proved to be seamless and without point of entry. If not for his inability to open the dead man’s prison, Holk would have availed himself of the armor; for the dead man looked to be roughly his size. Armor of such superior craftsmanship would assuredly prove to be vital. Sighing, he moved off from the cage and continued his trek.
Another cage came into view some distance farther upstream and to his right. Before closing half the distance, another appeared on the horizon to his left. Holk continued to the one on his right. When it proved to be identical as the first two, seamless and with a dead man slumped against the side wearing armor of the same design, he made for the one on the left.
Three more dark silhouettes appeared farther upstream before he reached the third cage. After a cursory glance at the long-deceased, armored individual caged within, Holk continued toward the fourth, then to the fifth.
With each cage visited, more dark silhouettes came into view farther ahead. As he went, the number of cages appearing on the horizon increased. Soon, there were over a dozen within his field of vision. Each held an armored, dead man.
Why would anyone spend time to construct individual cages? Wouldn’t it have been better to create a single large one? Holk merely shook his head as he progressed into an ever growing forest of cages.
Another incongruous aspect was that the cages were spaced some distance apart. None were less than ten paces from their neighbors. Pausing next to one while pondering that fact, his attention was drawn to movement off on the horizon.
It moved laterally at the limit of his field of vision for several heartbeats, during which time, he saw similar motion to his left and right. Glancing behind him through the bars of the cage, he saw movement out that way as well. They were too far away for him to make out clearly, but whatever they were, they had him surrounded. Drawing his newly acquired sword, he put his back to the cage and waited to see if they would be friend or foe.
Minutes passed and the dark shapes appeared content to maintain their current position. Moving back and forth, they reminded Holk of soldiers on guard duty. That thought gave him little comfort for what kind of soldiers would there be in a place like this? Were they comrades of those within the cages? Or were they the ones who put them there?
When it appeared they did not mean to approach, Holk figured he’d best try to beat a hasty retreat. Planning a route through an area containing the most cages, he made for the mid-point of a gap between the two most downstream of his position.
He took one step away from the side of the cage and…
Faster than an eagle in flight, all four objects that had been moving along the horizon shot toward him and came together in a resounding clash. The objects had been quarter-sections of a cage, a cage in which he now found himself.
The construction was seamless and resisted his every attempt to bend, hack and smash his way through. He was trapped!