(Note: This is not official version and may be removed in the near future. This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter. I have preserved the rough form for posterity — or something like that. This novel has since been rewritten.)
When James woke dawn was rapidly approaching, encroaching over the tip of the mountains like a massive hazy beast. Thin clouds filled what little of the horizon he could see—little more than a thin hole through the foliage around Arnur. He stopped all fantasies that he was home from filling him with sadness. Deep down he had hoped that he would simply wake up in a hospital somewhere with his parents looking over him with joyful faces. But now he discarded those thoughts, however happy and warm, and came to the full realization that he truly was stuck in another world.
Yet, one thought managed to make him smile: he had traveled farther than anyone else likely had. That made him, in an ironic way, a hero in the same way that Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin were hailed after returning to Earth. He reminded himself that he would likely never get the same welcoming because despite anything he would do in Traea, only the narrow minded people in Woodton, his parents included, would know anything at all about where he had been.
James sat up. His bones creaked; his muscle protested. He hurt in places where old wounds, now only noticeable by discolored lines, had plagued him. His hands traced over where the Lyphon had dug its malicious claws into him. I’ll have no scars to show when I get home.
James turned and nearly swallowed his tongue as he came face to face with two white marbles and an infinite shadowy blackness. He leaped up, stumbled as his blanket wrapped around his ankle as if it were alive, and then tumbled backwards with a yelp on top of a tiny figure. Pea, having been squashed by someone twice his size, cried out and became tangled in the mess that James had created. The two of them caused such a ruckus that Darl woke violently from his slumber, jumped up, sword in hand, and began turning hazy eyed this direction in that as if he expected to be attacked at any moment.
Then, as suddenly as it had all started, all went silent. James stood and helped Pea up. He brushed himself off and glared at the Lean. Darl, however, hadn’t grasped that nothing bad had happened at all, holding his sword in exhausted desperation.
“Put that thing down before you hurt someone,” Pea said, waving a tiny hand in Darl’s direction.
“I’m sorry. It…he was just there. Scared me. I freaked,” James said.
Darl still didn’t grasp what was going on.
“You can stay there all morning if you like.”
“Suit yourself. I say we get something actually worthwhile to eat. I don’t blame you for avoiding that strange culinary invention last night. It did taste better than it smelled. It looked better than it tasted though.”
James grinned and followed Pea to the fire, which has smoldered to glowing gem-like embers. With a simple work of magic Pea had the fire crackling. Then Pea produced two eggs from his pack, found two thin sticks, and gave one of each to James.
“The thing about Fidget Fowl is their eggs stay good for weeks when you boil them,” Pea slowly broke the shell of his egg and peeled it off. “And, they taste even better roasted on fresh flames.” Then Pea stuck the egg on his stick and placed it in the fire.
James followed suit. He watched the egg brown in the flames and expected that the whites would be set ablaze at any moment. But no such event occurred. He simply retrieved the egg from the fire and looked at the smoking oval.
“Like roasting marshmallows,” he said.
“Marshmallows. They’re a sugary squishy pillow. You cook them just like this over the fire. They’re good.”
“I’ve never met a pillow that I thought tasted good. Not to mention I’ve never tasted a pillow with the intention of eating it…”
He rolled his eyes. “They’re not really pillows.”
“Perhaps not, but describing something as a pillow doesn’t make it very appetizing now does it?”
“No, I guess not.”
“Now these?” Pea indicated his egg. “These are not a pillow. As far as I am concerned they represent all that is good about the food in this world.” Then Pea plopped the egg in his mouth and chewed it roughly.
James waited for his egg to cool, and when it did he took a small bite. He had had Fidget Fowl eggs before, but never like this. The flavor exploded in his mouth in a flurry of spices. He tasted fine garlic, rosemary, and a dozen other flavors that he could only describe as supreme. They banged his taste buds mercilessly with their goodness and he found himself gobbling the remainder of the egg like a starving man.
With the egg devoured he hoped that Pea had another. But no other came and he felt slightly depressed.
At some point during their conversation Darl had put down the sword and begun shoving everyone’s things into their appropriate places. When James turned back to his spot he found everything in perfect order, ready to be hauled at any moment.
“I think it wise you receive at least some sort of lesson from me today,” Pea said.
James nodded enthusiastically. He had been waiting for this for some time, but it seemed as though fate had taken every measure possible to prevent it from happening.
“A light lesson today. You’ve fiddled enough with your magic, but the first thing you have to understand about it is this. If you don’t know how to funnel and control your magic you’re going to continue going around passing out, falling over, or if your luck hits just right you’ll die a painfully slow death in darkness. But that’s neither here nor there.”
He nodded. His book had explained this, well, some of it. Pea had given details the book could not offer. Magic could kill you due to its intimate connection with life itself. All the times he had used magic without true restraint could have killed him, sucked him dry of everything that made him a living being and left him a milky white corpse on the ground. One had to learn to control how magic flowed. One had to know his or her limitations, for every magical being had a limit on how much magic at any one time they could use, and this same limitation could be built up like physical strength. All this Pea explained, and James listened regardless of his prior knowledge.
“First things first, let’s try doing something simple. It might be best to close your eyes the first few times. Feel for your magic. You’ll know it when you feel it.”
James closed his eyes and wandered his mind. At first nothing came forward, nothing except his internal doubts, which he gladly shoved aside. Then, faint warmth came. He dug farther and found the connection to the Fearl. Fixed to that, pulsing mildly, was warmth that sent shades of amber hues over his eyelids. He had felt it before, somewhere. The Fearl has wafted it through him, he knew that. But he had never felt the warmth escape him when he cast spells.
“I feel it,” he said softly.
“Open your eyes, but keep that in your mind.”
Pea produced a small stone and held it out. “Now lift this gently. Pull only a little from your pool of magic. You have to learn to know how much to use for such trivial things such as this.”
James wasn’t sure how to draw only a small portion of the magic within him. He tried by actually tugging in his mind at the magic, then he imagined lifting the rock.
It all happened in a matter of seconds. The magic left him, the rock shot into the air and disappeared, and Pea grumbled something about needing the rock for further lessons. Then his vision went hazy, and a moment later came back. Too much magic, he thought. And so much for my theory that I can’t use magic for unnecessary things.
“Alright,” Pea said, slightly grumpy from losing the rock, “let’s try it again. That was excessive.”
Pea produced another stone from the ground and held it out. James concentrated and reached for the magic again. He imagined dipping his hands into the magic like a pool of water, then imagined the rock gliding to him. He pushed, threw the magic out, and…
The rock lifted and snapped quickly through the air and thumped him in the chest. He coughed and tumbled backward, completely unprepared for such an act. Pea broke into raucous laughter.
“Th-that,” Pea started, unable to stop laughing. “That was f-f…good.”
James stood up and searched for the stone, found it lying next to where he had landed, and picked it up. Ignoring the laughter he tried again, concentrating, touching, and gently feeling the magic running through him. Then he imagined. He saw the stone in his mind, and dug imaginary hands into the magic as if it were a pool.
The stone slid from his hand delicately, swam through the air in a bobbing fashion, and landed softly on Pea’s head. Pea paused, looked up, and nearly fell over in a spasm of uncontrollable laughter.
James waited patiently. He held the stone in the air with a slow, steady flow of magic. No dizziness came; no ill effects whatsoever plagued him. He smiled. Then he dropped the stone, deciding it best not to continue suspending it pointlessly above an oblivious Pea. The stone plopped to the ground.
Finally Pea managed to get himself under control.
“Done?” James said bitterly.
Pea sighed with relief. “I have not seen anything like that in a long time.”
“Yes, well don’t expect to see it again.” James glared.
“Now, no need for such foul pleasantries. I just taught you a valuable lesson.”
“Yes, if I screw up I’ll get laughed at.”
“No,” Pea went on the defensive. “I said nothing of the sort. Never mind.” The little man collected himself and continued, “I want you to practice that for a while. Just make the stone hover, move it a little, things of that nature. Learn to control the flow and then you can move on to bigger things. You’ll understand the importance soon enough.”
Pea walked off, leaving James to ponder. He practiced over and over, repeating the same exercise and forcing the stone to glide around. The magic that flowed came through an imaginary funnel now, something he had created within his mind as a method for controlling it. He quickly learned how little magic was needed to move the stone—an amount so minute that he started to realize how dangerous magic really could be. Any user who possessed a sizeable cache of magic could tear down even the mightiest of manmade walls. And do far worse.
James thought he had been practicing for quite some time, but Darl interrupted him, having come full circle from a bout with insanity, and he found that only a half hour had passed. He stopped, let the stone fall, and found that Darl had brought him his sword. Not thinking twice he lifted it and examined the sharp edge. The blade shimmered again, or had never stopped shimmering. He couldn’t be sure which. It weighed no more than the wooden practice blades Darl had pounded him with. At first he thought it was lighter, but a moment later he realized that wasn’t true—the blade was simply better balanced. He moved through the stances while under the scrutinizing eye of Darl. When he misstepped he was verbally assailed. No matter how prepared James had come to Darl’s rudeness he could not easily take the insults and jarring. They constantly stung. One minute he lacked confidence and the next he had too much. He was incompetent here, and glaringly idiotic there.
The practice moved on to a short sparring match. James found he had far less control of his attacks than Darl, and not in the usual sense. Darl hit him several times, but never with the edge. Darl’s control extended to the point that the old man could easily slip the blade sideways in mid-swing so as not to cut flesh. James didn’t bother trying that and luckily had no worries for Darl beat him left and right, parrying and dodging every attack he made. But Darl had made sure this time not to harm James as much as the first lesson. Small bruises would suffice.
The morning grew thin and the sun found its way well above the horizon. Darl ended the training with a nod of approval. The gesture brought no warmth of achievement to James. He knew far too well that a nod of approval meant absolutely nothing coming from a man who would easily change his mind.
Darl took sanctuary in a pile of lumpy food; Pea, rather, closed his eyes and took a nap. James watched the sunrise. What was left of it.
Then a loud crack, like a massive mountain splitting in two, broke the silence. The Lean stood tall and made a motion that James figured was some sort of smile. James then looked towards Arnur. The massive gate creaked open, slowly revealing a long pillared tunnel. He could barely make out the complicated Celtic designs filling the walls inside. Shield knots, triskeles, and triquetas, among others, were connected in a huge array.
“Arnur awakes,” Darl said.
“Come, the Masters would be most pleased to meet you all,” the Lean said.
“At least someone is enthusiastic about all this,” Pea said sarcastically. Darl glared.
The fire was quickly put it, left to smolder under a mound of dirt. The Lean led up the stairs and into the massive tunnel. A strange luminescence filled the tunnel with a slight dim light. James studied the walls. He hoped to come to some understanding of what the designs meant. They were laid out in such a way that they couldn’t represent hieroglyphics, yet he was certain there was some symbolic value to the layout. He saw no connection before leaving the tunnel and entering a wide room that looked much like a lobby of sorts. Stone benches were laid out in each of the four corners acting as guides to new tunnels.
The Lean took the corridor directly across the main tunnel. James watched the walls again. Tiny gems glittering like cat eyes in the dark were embedded into the centers of the designs. He looked into them and thought he could see beyond into a far away room. He shook the thought away.
The tunnel split again and again, the Lean leading straight the entire time. Small wooden doors led to ignored rooms. Some rooms had no doors at all, empty and dank as if they weren’t manmade at all. Then the long corridor stopped in front of a studded wood door with a rounded loop for a handle. The Lean, unable to affect the physical world, simply passed through, leaving the three behind. Darl reached for the loop, tugged, failed to open the door, tugged harder, and stopped in irritation. Then Pea stepped forward, twisted the loop, and thrust the door inward. Pea rolled his eyes.
James followed, his pack and sword weighing him down. Before he could take another step his eyes widened and he turned and released his stomach on the corridor floor. When he turned back he had the instinct to do it again, but managed to suppress it. Darl and Pea were plainly in shock, but the only indication that the Lean felt anything was the wavering flicker around its form.
The corridor opened into a massive globe-shaped stadium style room. Steps led to nooks and crannies meant for the living to write and confer. Yet in those spaces no living beings existed. Rather, the opposite presided there.
Ten rows of rotting men, eyes removed from their faces, skin hanging, bodies sagging in such a way that they looked mummified. All this filled the rows in a full circle around the room. A horrid smell pierced James’ mouth and nose, stung his eyes, and made him wretch again. But it wasn’t the smell, nor the immediate sight that had caused him such sickness. He saw in the faces of the dead the look of terror, pure and horrifying in their own right, staring down at him as if where he stood had been the thing that had killed them. He found no solace in looking away, nor did Pea or Darl. The gravity of the situation was inescapable.
“Who could have done this?” James said. “Luthien?”
“Impossible,” Darl said, “he was still raiding Arlin City when we reached the mountains.”
“Then who?” His voice cracked, eyes watered.
“We must leave this place now. Evil still lurks here.” Darl stepped back to the corridor.
James didn’t hesitate; he couldn’t. He wanted to be clear of stadium more than anyone. His senses ran wild, filling his head with dark thoughts of the dead. He saw them as clear as a sunny day in his mind and when he attempted to suppress them they flashed brighter than before.
The group retreated to the previous room; the Lean appeared through shadow a moment later. James took a seat on one of the benches. His breathing quickened, the images still fresh in his mind. The black holes of their eyes came and went in his mind. He had seen death before, but never in such a manner. Heart racing he tried desperately to find an escape from the carnage.
“All of the Masters are not accounted for,” the Lean said. “And the door to the chambers was left ajar.”
Darl’s anger swelled. “James, go, close it.”
“The dead cannot harm you. Go!”
He stumbled to his feet and walked back to the corridor. Pea’s voice rose up just as he entered.
“It’s not safe here Darl. Not anymore.”
“Where else is there to go?”
“Over the pass, to Ti’nagal or Afeir.”
“That would take a week at least. We don’t have the supplies for such a trip. No horse or donkey. We’d never make it.”
Then their voices faded.
As he walked down the corridor his spine tingled. The closed and door-less rooms allowed fear to ripple through him. At any moment something could burst out from the shadows, grab him, kill him. He shuttered at the thought of becoming like the faces in the stadium chambers—eyes like endless dark holes that led nowhere, mouth open in toothless terror, arms raised in defense against the grim power that had destroyed them. He soon realized how irrational such thoughts were; no creatures or living beings of any kind were found when they had traversed the corridor the first time.
He reached the door uneventfully. Nothing that he could imagine happened. The door opened out into the stadium leaving him no option but to see the dead faces once more before being able to close the door. He took a few steps closer, shivered, and took a step back. I can’t see them again, he thought. Not again. This is too much. Raising his hands he could see how violently he was shaking. His hands shook as if miniature earthquakes ran up and down the bones of his arm.
James stepped forward once, twice, and then a third time. Each time he shook more. Finally he reached the door and jutted his arm out to reach for the loop. His fingers touched the metal, tips slipping away until he grabbed farther. Then he gripped the handle firmly and…
A flash of painful light crashed into the back of his mind. It ruptured forward like a flowering sun and returned his vision to normal. He tried to pull the door, but could no longer move his legs, his body, anything except his neck. He turned, tried to call down the hall, but stopped at the sound of a hundred raspy breaths ringing through the stadium chamber. Looking back the faces of the dead glared down at him as if they still had eyes. Their mouths closed, becoming pursed lips of hatred. He could feel their absent pupils digging into his mind. He resisted, pushed back as hard as he could. Then the procession raised one arm in unison and jutted a mangled finger in his direction. They opened their mouths once again. A loud, deep chant, a hundred baritone voices, rang in one massive musical minor chord. The vibrations of sound hit him like a violent wind, a hurricane gale. The brunt of it pushed into his chest, but he remained attached to the handle and floor. Wind battered him, smashed him hard. Air escaped his lungs. Time seemed to fly by. His eyes watered.
I can’t breath. He tried to gasp for air, but couldn’t. The force of wind held his lungs at bay. I have to get away. His thoughts wandered; his vision became hazy as tears were torn from his face. Magic. An image flashed in his mind. He remembered the force that had come from him during his last minutes on Earth. He reached for the magic in his mind, reached for the connection with the Fearl, with Dulien. There in the back of his mind he found it. He grabbed hold and pushed it forward. Then he opened his eyes and turned to tormented figures. His cheeks billowed with the wind. Then he imagined the force and sent the magic away from him.
A flash that rippled like water burst from him, pushed against the wind. Then it exploded outward and battered the procession of dead. Their shrieks rang loud and echoed through the chamber and down the hall. Faint wind licked at his face and hair. Briefly his vision faded to blackness, returned, faded, and returned again. The dead Masters rose as one, a collection of rotting corpses united in one violent stand. Their mouths hung open exposing their throats as black as underground caverns.
James reached for the magic again, but it was gone. He searched and searched, hoping to find some minute force he could use to free himself, to force his body down the hall. None came. The Masters stood tall and reached their hands in front as if praying to God. Then they breathed deep and James waited for another battering of wind—a wind that would kill him if he could not reach for his magic again.
A violent male voice sounded behind him, bellowing a cry of war. The silhouette of Darl, sword drawn high and ready to slice down at any moment, passed by, shortly followed by the tiny form of Pea. The Masters let go their melodious chord, but Pea moved swiftly and threw a series of spells their direction, breaking the chorus, and forcing the Masters to regroup.
Pea then whirled back to James. It took only a moment of examination before Pea shattered the door into a million splinters. The spell that held James broke in much the same way sending shards of dead magic in every direction. James moved freely, flexed his arms, his hands, and moved his body. The Lean appeared next to him and began to pace helplessly.
“Retrieve your sword James,” Darl said, dodging one of the Masters and lodging his sword into another. The dead man didn’t fall, but bounced back to expose the long gash in his belly. Pea ran swiftly into the fray and covered Darl’s back, flinging magic this way and that—shattering bones, tossing dead men here and there.
James hesitated. He second guessed his ability to handle the Masters, or anyone for that matter. Then Darl bellowed at him. Three more Masters were cut, one lost an arm, and another nearly lost a leg. But none died. Then one flipped down off the wall above and landed a few feet away. James lurched back instinctually, and then suddenly came to the realization that he could not expect Pea or Darl to help him.
He frantically grabbed for his sword, dropping everything—his pack and all—and tugging hard at the binding. The sword lurched free just in time. He twisted around and swung the sword high. The tip flew true and dug deep into the Masters’ chest. James followed through and forced the blade through the head. Blood the color of the darkest crimson splattered against the wall in thick globs. The Master had no time to make a sound before falling to the ground.
Like zombies, James thought. He was surprised at how smoothly his blade had passed through the flesh of the dead man. Then he turned to warn Pea and Darl.
“The head,” he said, screaming over the mass of shrieking corpses. “Strike them in the head. They will fall.” Then he jumped through the doorway and slid in to take a position next to Darl, forming a triangle. Magic spewed forth around him. He could feel the energy coursing through the air. He chanced a glance at Pea; saw the tiredness in the little man’s face.
Two Masters came at him, hands held out like claws. They bore no weapons, but the hatred burning in their sunken faces suggested that no physical weapon was needed. James leaned forward and dodged one of the Masters, who slid sideways and was cut down by Darl. Then he swung high and struck the second in the face. A torrent of blood hit him like a wind driven rain. He tried to shake it away, but had no time as another Master reached out for him. He batted at the arms, then kicked the Master in the shin, and smashed down as hard he could with the hilt of his sword and heard the shattering of skull. The Master crunched to the floor. He was surprised at his own strength.
Pea began using a stone that had come dislodged from the chamber floor. He passed it through the air like a bullet. Masters fell as they were struck in the head by the projectile. But Pea could not hold that for long as more Masters leaped through the air from higher levels in an attempt to break the group.
James saw the flash of magic before he could comprehend what had happened. The Masters from above were torn apart, but no blood came from their wounds. Pea slumped next to him. He lodged his sword into another Master, who in turn grabbed the blade and pulled him closer. He ducked just in time to have Darl’s blade swing over his head and through the neck of the Master.
Then James turned to Pea, helped the little man up.
“Come on Pea,” he said.
Pea’s face sunk, but he looked into James’ eyes and nodded.
James slashed into the belly of another Master, but moved too slowly to dodge another pair who dug their boney hands into his supertunic. The fabric tore as they yanked him from the group and tossed him effortlessly across the room. He slammed hard into the ground and slid until he hit the bottom step. His sword clattered several feet away and he coughed. He had had the wind knocked out of him.
James started to clamber for the sword. The Masters were too fast, converging on him on both sides in an attempt to box him in. It worked, for he had no direction to run and without his sword and magic he was utterly helpless.
Then, as if by some miracle, magic flowed through him. His arms tingled as he felt it moving through his veins as if it were blood. I have one shot at this. It’s over if I screw this up.
James thought hard in those last seconds, harder than he had ever thought. The magic flowed through him, but he could tell it was not the right amount to call upon the violent force from before. The two Masters came closer and closer. Then the one on his left stepped hard and forced a small slab of stone to lift up. The Master moved, un-phased. But James saw his opportunity and concentrated. He pulled on the remaining magic, left a little behind for protection, and gauged how much he would need in his mind. The Masters came closer, and closer, and closer. He could feel their breath, dead and putrid. They breathed unnaturally as if they bore the lungs of a massive beast.
James let the magic roll through him. He tore the slab of stone from the ground and willed it, no, believed it would smash the two Masters. The stone obeyed; magic rolled out of him in torrents. I’ve used too much, he thought as desperation hit him. He stabbed down in his mind in an attempt to stop the flow, but it was too late. His vision slipped away, leaving him a maze of blurry shapes. A kaleidoscope of colors exploded before him and then he slumped back against the step.
James didn’t pass out, not like he had before. Rather he remained awake in a sea of confusion. Sounds came to him in muffled waves; colors and light poured at him in such a manner that he couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t. Figures passed by him, or so he believed, yet none came to him—neither to attack nor to help.
His lungs ran shallow. No pain, but the strange sense that he had suddenly acquired asthma. He wheezed. He dared not try to stand, and quickly found that even if he had wanted to his arms and legs wouldn’t allow it. When he moved his head he became viciously light-headed and had to close his eyes to regain composure.
All this happened in the matter of a few minutes. For a moment he felt on the verge of throwing up. Then clear sound came. He could hear the fight still waging on, but quieter now, as if fewer were on the defensive. Slowly vision returned too and he became aware of reality. Figures had passed by him—all Masters and all dead at his feet, struck down by Pea in a wave of magic. But James hadn’t sensed the magic in any way. The side affects had tore his senses completely away.
Three more Masters remained, slowly circling Pea and Darl like a pack of wolves measuring the strength of their prey. Pea slumped completely now, but held his ground. James could tell immediately that the tiny man bore little magic to dispel. Darl looked no better. Ragged breaths escaped the old man; scrapes, cuts, and bleeding gashes ran along nearly every limb. James desperately wanted to help, but knew immediately that he had no strength and no magic to give. He could no more lift a sword than stand. Full exhaustion had overcome him.
One of the Masters moved forward, feigned a lunge. Darl nearly fell for it, but in a fluid motion turned and caught a second Master on his blade, shoved the screeching to the ground. The third Master took the opportunity to attack, but Darl tore the blade from the second Master, slipped under the third’s attack, and swung around in a swift motion and cleaved the head clean off. The second Master did not stand, but rather gurgled and spat on the ground. Darl had somehow damaged its spine and it could no longer stand, but writhed in pain as Darl stepped on its legs, torso, and arms in the heat of battle.
Only one Master remained. Darl slid away from Pea and circled the walking corpse. The Master followed; face drawn low in a menacing gesture. The creature seemed to sense it stood no chance, but Darl had already cut off its only escape route through the door. So it shot through the air, an otiose undertaking. Darl simple batted the dark hands aside and beheaded the Master, loosing blood and flesh on the floor.
James soon came to realize that the entire floor was caked in blood, or rather running with the blood and flesh of the Masters, a veritable pool of crimson. His hands, tunic, and all were covered in it. He tried to move, but couldn’t. The scent of decay filled his nose, but he couldn’t wretch.
Bodies, too, covered the floor, lay draped over steps here and there, or simply didn’t exist for Pea had torn them to pieces with magic. Regardless, the entire room looked like a massive battle field untouched by the maws of buzzards and other eaters of the dead. He shivered.
Darl helped Pea to his feet, and then stared down at the last Master who roared violently, spewing bits of blood through the air.
“Beast,” Darl said. The creature didn’t respond, simply stared forward menacingly, mouth still agape. “Who corrupted you?”
The Master screeched.
Darl lifted his sword. “Beast, I will not slay you until you have spilled every drop of your blood upon this floor. I know you feel pain. I will see to it that your last days are filled with them. Now, who corrupted you?”
“Bring me pain,” the Master said. James shivered at the voice. It was bubbling with an inhuman hatred, at such a tone that the very vibrations sent every hair on James’ arms standing on end.
Darl delicately placed his sword, point down, on the Master’s leg. “Don’t presume to think that I don’t want to cause you unnecessary pain. You and your ilk have caused me enough trouble this day.” Then he pushed the blade into the skin, through flesh, and stopped when it hit bone. The Master screeched painfully. “Who corrupted you?”
The Master laughed, or tried to. All that came out was a strange gurgling sound, but James could sense the evil behind it. Darl stabbed again, this time in the opposite leg. The Master groaned loud.
“I give you one more chance. Consider it a gift. Tell me what I wish to know and your death will be swift, demon.” Darl snapped menacingly at the Master, stern and angry in a way that James had not seen before.
Another stab in the gut, drawn in a slow fashion towards the rotting flesh that used to be a chest, brought the Master to speak. “Al’na ner’avón ul al’soral la’muért.”
“Speak plainly!” Darl stabbed deeper into the Master’s gut.
The Master coughed, blood dribbled from its mouth. “Al’na ner’avón ul al’soral la’muért.” Then laughter.
Darl had had enough. James watched as Darl took the blade and drove it deep into the Master’s groin and began to force it up through stomach, chest, and all.
“Zagra! Al’na nar’avón ul la’soral al’muért. Zagra!” James could barely understand the words that had already been spoken. So much blood, so much pain was in the voice. Then Darl ended it, removing the head in a single stroke.
James suddenly regained control of his body, enough to at least lift himself. He groaned and forced himself from the floor and found refuge from the pool of blood on the first step. How many Masters really died? How many did I kill? He didn’t bother to count. There were bodies everywhere, what was left of them. Heads lay with their demonic faces twisted skyward like praying monstrosities.
Pea cautiously walked over to him. He shivered. So much bloodshed. He wasn’t sure what had caused him to so readily join in the battle. Animal instinct? No, something more.
“You fought well,” Pea said, now next to him on the step.
“Pass him no compliment. They were unarmed and ill-trained enemies. Their only advantage was in their numbers. An untrained man with a sharp blade would have done just as well.” Darl swiftly cleaned the blood from his sword using a small bit of fabric from one of the dead Masters, then retrieved James’ sword and did the same. If Darl felt any pain, the old man didn’t show it.
“Ignore him.” The exhaustion in Pea’s eyes was plain. Rest was a requirement for both James and Pea. “You wielded magic well.”
“So did you,” James said half-heartedly. He hadn’t expected any different from the Littlekind. Pea winced.
“Yes, well, we all have our limitations I suppose. Been a long while since I last found myself in such a position. Something tells me this won’t be my last.”
Pea looked him in the eye. He knew that look, a look of blame. But it wasn’t just blame that sat there. There was a bit of pride too. Pea looked proud.
“I think we all should leave this room,” Darl said. “I expect we have many wounds to attend to.”
The Lean appeared in the center of the room, pacing once again. He mumbled to himself, then followed Darl out of the room as if he had nowhere else to go.
James stood and made his way out, followed closely by Pea. He realized immediately why Pea kept near him. He could collapse at any moment, his body having been spent so. A humorous thought of Pea stuck beneath him after having passed out made him snicker.
He slipped by Darl, who had stopped at the doorway.
“Zagra,” Darl whispered.
“What does it mean?” he said.
Darl shook his head.
“The Master spoke an ancient language,” the Lean said.
“One long dead,” Pea said.
“Same as the tongue that spoke it. Have you the magic to seal this door once again?” Darl glanced down at Pea.
Pea nodded and a moment later the door reformed and the lock glowed red hot. The molten metal welded to the rock wall, sealed. James retrieved his pack from the hall, slung it over his shoulder.
They quietly moved through the hall. The Lean remained far ahead, volunteering as a lookout for any other corrupted Masters. The hall stretched longer than James had thought before, or perhaps his mind was playing tricks on him, clouded by adrenaline. Finally they reached open space.
“I will search the rest of Arnur. For now it is safe.” The Lean faded into shadow.
James dropped his pack and sat down on one of the benches. Weakness attacked his muscles, but he held himself up. Then he noticed how utterly drenched in blood he had become. His hands were stained red; his clothes were either dripping or clinging wetly to his legs. He shook. Tears welled in his eyes.
Then he bolted up and began tearing the clothes from his body. He didn’t care that Pea or Darl could see him. His only thought was to remove the tainted clothing from his body. He tore the supertunic clean off and in a matter of seconds he was completely naked. Blood had touched nearly every inch of his skin. He stumbled down the massive hall to the well outside. He didn’t have much strength left to run, but he did so nonetheless. When he reached the well he collapsed to his knees and reached in, drenching his arms, legs, torso, face, everything in the crystal clear ice water. Goosebumps formed on his skin, but he paid no attention to the cold. Blood ran in tiny rivers along his skin and eventually reached the ground. Little rivers of red like a miniature model of a sea inlet formed and rolled down the stone walkway.
He rubbed his skin until it hurt. Soon he realized that his shivering came not just from the freezing water, but also from a deep, overwhelming stream of emotion. Fear, hate, sadness—all poured through him. Blood still clung to him and despite his best efforts he could not clean himself of the corrupted mess.
“James,” Pea said from behind, “you did what you had to.” Pea dropped a set of clean clothing next to James’ leg.
James ran more water over the remaining bloodied spots. “I want to go home,” he said.
“And what of your friend.”
“Why did this have to happen to us?”
“I cannot explain fate any better than you. There is a purpose to it nonetheless.”
“So much hate and death.”
“Love and bravery where it counts.”
“Yes.” He rubbed himself. His shivering began to hurt.
“Arnur should have a bathhouse. Come, be dressed for now.”
James peered over Pea. Blood covered the little man too; all of them except the Lean were drenched in the stuff. Wounds had been tended to. Strangely it made him feel better about the situation. He had not been the only one to feel so tainted.
He clothed himself and followed Pea back to lobby, sat down, and hugged his shoulders.
Then the Lean reappeared again. James thought he saw concern in the white eyes, a flash of something, but second guessed.
“There are survivors,” the Lean said. “Uncorrupted.”
Darl paced. “Are you sure?” Darl, too, had cleaned his wounds, but was still covered in blood.
“Yes, I would know Master Willup if he had gone mad.”
The Lean shifted seamlessly. “Not more than a half mile.”
James caught Darl’s eye. “Get everything ready. I don’t want to stay near that cursed room any longer.”
Pea brought James a drink and a boiled Fidget Fowl egg. He drank and ate; a little strength ran through him. Then he put his pack on and, with Pea behind him, he followed Darl down the right hand corridor. He no longer cared about the engravings, carvings, and architecture on the walls. He slipped away into his mind and wandered through what he knew in an attempt to drive away all the darkness that had come into his life.
God help me to find Laura. God help us to find our way home.