Part 10 – Passing the Mountain
Freya and Marek turned two pairs of big eyes on Jala, the decision weighing heavily on her shoulders. None of the options the Star Witch had given them seemed appealing, but what other choice did they have? They needed to reach Stellastelathororn in order to find out what the hell that vision had meant. Jala definitely did not fancy the idea of a dragon… With a shudder she looked away from the others and focused her mind on the choice ahead.
A trip across the sea on some rickety old tub did not sound appealing, especially in the presence of Sirens and sea serpents. For someone like her who had grown up in the high icy mountain peaks, the sea was a mere grey-blue line on the horizon, to be ignored if not feared. If she didn’t have to go near the sea, she wouldn’t.
And the Frylkarn forest. Jala remembered stories from her childhood about those damned Hymb elves. They’d sit and watch a journeyman get more and more lost, slowly starving to death or being driven mad by the strange plants and waters that ran through the place. Then they would finally descent from their trees and remove the body, placing it carefully at the edge of their realm for the forest to devour. And without a guide, the likelihood of seeing the far side of the forest was minimal.
A shudder ran up her spine. That left…
“We will head for the mountains” She said finally, turning to look at the Star Witch. “If, as you say, the Beige Plague wiped all of the Dwarves from the tunnels, then we should pass through undisturbed.”
“To the mountains we shall go!” With a dramatic flourish, Krung Nak To pointed down the left hand pathway. “You have nothing to fear of the tunnels my child. Any traces of that old plague should be long gone by now.” Her voice sounded strange as she said this, like she was far away all of a sudden. “I remember that time well. Those Dholvian folk were always so friendly, always up for a shindig under the stars. Why I remember that one day it got too warm for…” The Star Witch wandered off, mumbling contentedly about the old days. Jala was quite glad she missed the latter half of that sentence.
With a quick shrug to Freya, Jala shifted her gear into a more comfortable position on her shoulders, and set off after the rambling Krung Nak To.
Freya started to follow, only to be stopped by a frantic biting and tugging at her leg by Marek the stoat. He was squeaking and digging his claws into the mud, trying to pull her away from the left hand path. A frown crossed Freya’s face. Marek had never made a fuss like this before. He was normally just content to curl up on someone’s pack and sleep in the sun as they all travelled.
“Jala, I…” As she looked up, she realised that the other two were now quite a distance down the path. “Marek come on. Jala will look after us, don’t worry. If we get left behind…” With a sigh she picked up the stoat and hurried after the others, trying to ignore the quivering coming from the animal.
Behind them, the beautiful and clear running spring of the meek continued to flow with ease. Then… a click, a rustle of leaves, and the spring gurgled. A few pebbles dropped down from the tunnel walls, scaring a crow from the tree branches. And the spring of the meek flowed red.
By that evening they had reached the edge of the rolling Mazhdan grasslands, home of the Mazh tribes. These were nomadic people, living off of the land and the livestock that was their trademark. If you didn’t cause any trouble for them, you tended to be left alone. At least, that was what the Star Witch told them. That night they camped on the edge of the woods anyway, just to be safe, Freya taking the first watch. As the moon rose over the horizon, she heard it for the first time. A wolf howling in the trees somewhere close by.
It wasn’t Freya’s frightened squeak that woke Jala up. It wasn’t even Marek’s frantic squeals that woke Jala up. It was his needle like claws digging into her nose and forehead as he tried to bury himself in her hair that did it. Once the stoat had been extracted from her face and very carefully not thrown into a tree, she calmed the shaken Freya and stoked up the fire. The Star Witch stayed blissfully asleep throughout the whole escapade, leaving Jala stuck with watch duty the rest of the night.
Morning dawned to reveal Freya sprawled on Jala’s lap, snoring softly through an open mouth, and Marek draped across her shoulders, hiding in her long hair. If a wolf had attacked, they would probably have all been eaten before she could even get to her feet.
A gleeful giggle drew her attention to the bright eyes of the Star Witch, standing over her and grinning in delight at Jala’s predicament. With a scowl, she gently pushed Freya off onto the floor, making her wake with a start, and deposited Marek on top of her. Telling the others to sort out some breakfast, she set off out of the camp. Heading in the direction the howl had come from, she checked the ground around the area for nearly a mile before heading back to the others. No sign of any wolves.
It took them a further three days of travelling through the Mazhdan grasslands to reach the foothills of the Gruhzkär Mountains. They saw no other living being, though each night as the moon rose, a single wolf howl echoed through their camp. Though Jala searched each morning, they never found any traces of the creature.
They spent most of a morning hunting for the trail up into the mountains, one built by the dwarves and leading to their underground world. The pathway was worn and overgrown from so many years of neglect, and a number of the marker stones were either covered in a new type of moss (which Freya got very excited about), or shattered and lost.
It took them until sunset to follow the path to its end, the group climbing higher and higher into the mountains as they went. The Gruhzkär Mountains themselves were a huge sweeping spine of the country, slicing a great swathe of the land in half. Their majestic peaks scraped the skyline, tipped with snow all year round. It was said that no one had ever reached the summit of Kharäzdhuin, the tallest across the whole land. The Dolvian folk had built their lands directly underneath its peak, with the entrance less than a quarter of the way up.
It was this entrance, on the northern side of Kharäzdhuin, where Jala, Freya, Krung Nak To and Marek found themselves at the setting of the sun. Jala had been imagining some great, majestic stone carved wall of glowy runes that only showed up at a special time of day. Freya was hoping for some moss. Neither of them was disappointed, though by the way Marek was squeaking it seemed he was more than a little upset about the way things were going.
The door was as you would expect a dwarf door to be: Big; made of grey stone; and completely plain until the moon rose and made all of the dwarven runes glow. You almost couldn’t help feel that someone was putting on a bit of a show. The Star Witch walked up to the centre of the door, put her hand on the middle and muttered a single phrase: “Hohai, Nätakshi wazne mö!”
The big doors rumbled aside, revealing…a four foot high circular hole in the cliff face. Everyone looked at it. Then they looked at the Star Witch. Then they looked back at the hole. It was lined with stone, and lead off into a dark tunnel within the mountain. Jala opened her mouth to say… what exactly do you say in response to that?
Krung Nak To stepped forwards to the tunnel entrance, and was suddenly the perfect height to walk through with ease.
“Hurry up you three. Mind your heads.” She vanished inside.
So here she was: Jala, barbarian warrior of the Hrίmawyr tribe of the north, daughter of Quyren, crawling along the dirty and dusty floor of a long abandoned dwarf tunnel only four feet high. This was not exactly what she had envisioned when she had decided to take the route through the dwarven cities. She had seen great soaring ceilings, deep dark caverns and beautifully carved pillars holding it all up. This was just silly.
She saw the light held by the Star Witch disappearing around a corner, followed closely by the crouched form of Freya. Jala was a little surprised to see how far she had fallen behind; crawling wasn’t exactly her forte. With a few well-formed curses as her knees bashed against sharp rocks, she followed them around the bend.
A slight ‘chink’ sounded in the dark
The light held by Krung Nak To was much further off now, and the tunnel was starting to widen out. It finally ended, opening up fully into a huge cavern with rune carved pillars disappearing up into the darkness. Now this was more like what she had been expecting.
Jala stepped forwards into the dark and away from the wretched tunnel. The base of each of the pillars was faintly illuminated from a softly glowing moss, giving the whole room an eerie blue light. Ancient rules spiralled their way up to the ceiling, fading as they moved away from the light. As her eyes travelled to the floor, Jala’s movements froze as she saw what lay there. Littering the floor between the pillars lay the unmoving, twisted bodies of the once proud dwarves. All had strangely beige coloured hair and beards, beige coloured skin, and if she could have seen them, Jala would bet anything that they would all have beige coloured eyes.
A shudder ran through her entire body at the sight of the carnage on the floor. Rumour of the beige plague had spread far and wide across the lands, and Jala remembered the nightmares she had had as a child after hearing the stories about it around the campfire. It snuck up slowly on you, first changing your hair, then your skin, and finally your eyes. As your physical appearance changed, so did your mind. You started to care less about things that once mattered, starting with work and friends, slowly moving to families, food and eventually, breathing. You became boring, wearing plain coloured clothing and eating plain coloured food. You do plain things, and eventually just fade into obscurity. The first few people to go in a clan tended to go unnoticed.
Then the twitching began. First it was just the fingers, and the toes. Things Jala barely even noticed. Then it spread to the limbs. Not just in one of them either; in all of them. Hands gripped onto old hammers and rusted axes, frozen and stiff joints creaked and groaned as they moved for the first time in years, and haunted beige coloured eyes snapped open and stared hungrily at the barbarian warrior.
It was then that Jala realised that neither Freya nor Krung Nak To were anywhere in sight. It was also then that Jala realised that all of her equipment was gone: her weapons, her armour, her pack, all gone. Thankfully whatever had taken the rest of her stuff had been nice enough to leave her clothing behind, so at least she wouldn’t be cold when the un-dead beige dwarves ate her.
The shuffling creaking noises of old bones moving slowly surrounded Jala in the eerie blue glow of the cavern.
* * *
Freya found the crawl through the tunnel all rather exciting, if a little scary, she was still fairly young after all. The samples of moss she had taken from the outer door were now safe in her bag, and she was looking forward to asking someone in Stellastelathororn what potential uses it had. She could hear Jala shuffling along behind her, cursing periodically. A girlish grin crossed her face as she heard some of the more colourful phrases, imagining the look on her parents face if they knew what she had heard. Then the now almost familiar pang of pain shot through her as she remembered the scenes from home.
Those images were still so vivid in her mind, those sounds. She had hidden in that cellar for what had felt like an entire lifetime, and when Jala had finally let her out it had taken every ounce of control not to run screaming for the hills, or run screaming after the monsters that had done it all. As she straightened up, she rubbed at her eyes in some vain attempt to wipe those images from her mind. So much had been happening of late, but even now it was hard to try and forget.
Brushing the leaves out of her way in annoyance, Freya tried to focus on the task at hand. If only she was a bit more like Jala. Jala was brave and strong, and managed to survive the crazy guy back at the spring easily. And she had barely even flinched at the horrors back at home. Freya sighed as she flicked a cobweb away.
They needed to hurry and get to Stellastelathororn on the other side of Kharäzdhuin. The star witch had said it would only take them a day or so to pass through the dwarven tunnels…wait. Since when did underground tunnels have leaves? Or trees? Or grass underfoot? Freya’s footsteps slowed to a stop as she gaped around. How had she gone from rocky tunnels deep under the tallest mountain in the country to a thick dark forest with not an ounce of moss in sight? And where were Jala and the Star Witch?
“H-hello?” her voice sounded muffled in the thick foliage, and she shuddered at the delicate touch of cobwebs gently settling on her skin. She felt stupid. If Jala had been in this situation, she wouldn’t be flinching at the feel of cobwebs or have her voice shaking from fear.
She reached for the comforting warmth of Marek’s fur. Nothing. The little guard stoat had not left her side since those horrific hours in the cellar. Even when she slept Marek had never been all that far away.
“Marek?” She called out, and making the little chirpy noise he always responded to. Nothing.
Freya turned around. Maybe if she just went back the way she came she would find the tunnel again. It was always said that if you got lost you waited by the entrance, right? Only which direction was it now? All the trees and bushes seemed to press in around her, leaving no obvious path out of there.
The shadow that fell across her back felt cold as ice, with eight legs and a huge body. The eerie clicking that had slowly been filling the background echoed through the foliage, making it sound like there were thousands of them. Freya’s mouth opened in a scream, but no sound emerged.
* * *
Marek’s frantic squeaks had finally faded from the tunnel, leaving only the quiet shuffling noises of his paws on the rough ground. It had been over a day now since they had entered the tunnels under Kharäzdhuin, and Marek had seen some wondrous sights. Since the first few minutes of entering though, after they had passed those weird blue runes, Jala and Marek’s dear Freya had been silent. Krung Nak To had barely seemed to notice their sudden silence, and a while later had cheerfully told them all to take a break whilst she scouted ahead. Marek’s frantic squealing had gained no response, and he was soon left alone in the darkness with the two silent humans.
Then things had become even weirder. The two humans had unerringly continued onwards in the dark, never missing a step. Nothing Marek did seemed to rouse them, so he simply clung on to Freya’s shoulders and tried not to panic. This worked for the longest of times, until the sway of Freya’s movement lulled him to sleep.
The impact of his small furry form hitting the floor jerked him awake with a squeal, leaving him lying stunned on the floor for a few moments. When he finally came to his senses, Marek found himself alone and cold in the middle of the tunnel, with no clue as to which way to run.
Now he sat there, huddled in the dark, all panic exhausted, though his simple stoat mind was shouting over and over again ‘Where is Freya? We must protect Freya’. If stoats could cry, Marek would be sobbing.
“Oh you poor little creature”
A brilliant blue light filled the tunnel, illuminating a four foot high figure holding a staff with a glowing crystal atop it. Dressed in flowing green robes and sporting a dark brown beard, the dwarf smiled down at the stoat sadly.
“You’ve lost your friends haven’t you Marek?” The dwarf bent down. “Well don’t worry; Avatkch is here to help you.”
Avatkch held out his arm for the stoat to climb on. After a pause, Marek complied, teeth and claws at the ready. The dwarf was gentle however, and carried the stoat off down the tunnel. About five minutes later, they came to a fork in the tunnel, where Avatkch stopped.
“Now my little furry friend, you have a choice ahead of you. Your human friends each took one of these paths. To the left, the woman barbarian you know as Jala. To the right, the young girl you know as Freya. Both of them have been caught up in the guardian spell of this realm, and both of them are in serious trouble. I can help you save one of them, and then together we can try and help the other. Which do you choose?”
Marek’s instant thought was for Freya. But then he listened to the words properly. If he went for Freya now, then how on earth would they save Jala? But could he really leave Freya alone?
The stoat’s little head flicked back and forth between the two options, his little heart torn.
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