Belgrave stopped running and began to walk. “We are halfway to the Dark Valley,” he panted. “Let us walk to give the five brothers time to catch up.”
“We can only hope that they were able to escape,” Sidrahkir said.
“I wouldn’t be too worried about that,” Naiya’Nal countered. “Captain Haloz seemed confident that they would escape. He probably even took the Red Exemplars into the palace to make sure that they escaped. What I want to know, Sidrahkir, is how that dragon was able to single you out.”
They don’t call me ‘Dragon Bait’ for nothing,” Sidrahkir laughed. “I am not sure that it was the same dragon that bit me at Latan, but when it came toward me, there was no mistaking its intent.” He lowered his head. “I should not have run from the dragon. I deserted my soldiers and now they have all been killed.”
Belgrave shook his head. “I would have run too if a dragon came after me. You cannot change the past and many things do not happen the way we would hope or expect. I believe you were meant to survive for some future purpose that has not yet been revealed.”
“Not to mention, the entire army of Tanarad is at Nasad and in need of a Commander,” Naiya’Nal added. She suddenly readied the double-bladed sword she was carrying. “I hear footsteps,” she whispered.
Belgrave and Sidrahkir quietly pulled out their swords as they listened to the coming footsteps. Moments later, the five brothers came into view and they lowered their weapons. “Are you being followed?” Sidrahkir asked.
“I don’t think so,” Thag answered. “Our escape seemed easier than I would have anticipated. King Belgrave, Naiya’Nal, we brought your packs.” Thig and Thog stepped forward and handed them their things.
“And the Red Exemplars?” Belgrave asked.
“I briefly talked to Captain Haloz just before we left,” Thag said. “The Red Exemplars will travel east as fast as they can and try to find a ship at Rond. We are to take you north through the Dark Valley. King Anou will most likely have ships along the northern coast of Tanarad looking for any signs of us.”
Sidrahkir shook his head. “I don’t think that the Dark Valley would be a safe path for us to take. I have heard of a cave beneath the valley that we might be able to find. If Elevor truly existed, then the cave is probably a much safer path for us to travel.”
“The city is there,” Belgrave affirmed. “That is where I came into this world. Unfortunately, the only way in or out of that cave is to take a boat up the Torudo River.”
“I think we should go through the Dark Valley,” Thog said. “I doubt the enemy could chase us through there.”
“I also would rather brave the valley than travel back through the cave,” Belgrave added. “I was almost eaten by a gigantic snake the last time I was in there and I don’t want to meet another one.”
Sidrahkir nodded. “I guess you have a good reason. I wouldn’t want to meet a boggle snake if I didn’t have to. At least thick weeds don’t surround this dark place the same way they surround the Dark Forest. Here we just need to make our way through the thick fog and ancient undergrowth.”
Naiya’Nal propped her double sword on her shoulder. “We’ve taken plenty of time to rest. We need to keep moving as fast as we can.”
The others agreed and they began to walk rapidly toward the Dark Valley. Theg was in the lead with his axe and the others followed behind. As the air began to darken, Naiya’Nal made some torches for them to carry. They kept walking for several hours before they stopped for another quick break. The humid air smelled of rotting mold mixed with the odors of unseen vermin. The ground itself was a thick layer of moss, plant debris, and occasional rocks.
“If this valley was made at the same time as the destruction of Atalan only a thousand years ago, then how has it become so abandoned?” Belgrave asked.
“Tales from back then say that people did enter the valley the day after it was made,” Thog answered. “The same stories tell of an evil presence that drove them away. Almost no one has come here since.”
“What could that evil presence be?” Sidrahkir asked.
“No one knows,” Thig replied from the back of the group. “The stories kept people away as the trees and the dark fog grew and covered the valley. Now there is no telling what could be found in here.”
Theg suddenly stopped walking. “There is water in front of us, but I think that I can see some stones that we can step on.”
They looked at the dark murky water. The lack of movement was uncanny, but a number of smooth black stones stuck from the surface. Naiya’Nal prodded the closest and a single ripple moved across the water. For a moment nothing happened, but then the rock sunk beneath the surface. “Step back,” Naiya’Nal ordered. “These aren’t rocks!”
A large black head on a long slender neck rose from the water. It had a sharp beak and beady eyes that glistened in the torchlight. “It’s just a large turtle!” Sidrahkir laughed. “The rocks are their shells.”
Naiya’Nal’s double-bladed sword flashed though the air and the severed head fell into the pool. “Never trust an animal that you’ve never seen before.”
The other turtles suddenly submerged, but they could see the ripples of the large creatures moving toward them through the water. “It would appear that they think the same of you,” Belgrave said, stepping back.
The water began to get splashed around as the creatures struggled against each other in their eagerness to attack. Naiya’Nal held out her hand. The water and the turtles suddenly stopped moving as ice and frost began to cover them and spread through the water. Soon they were nothing more than a large floating block of ice.
“Now why couldn’t you have done that to the Dark Wizard’s ships?” Sidrahkir asked.
“It probably would not work,” Naiya’Nal answered. “Besides, you can walk across ice and that would have made it easier for them to reach shore.” She stepped onto the floating ice. “I think we can all fit on here. It will help us get across.”
“I’ve noticed that you’re beginning to use magic more often,” Belgrave said as he followed her. “I thought that you preferred not to use it.”
She laughed as she helped the others onto the ice. “I’m actually beginning to find it amusing just how amazed you guys are when I outdo myself. Don’t worry though, you won’t see too much until we’re at Nasad. I’ve got something special planned for Voth’s armada.”
“So you were joking on Tayve when you said you didn’t want to test the limits of your magic?” Belgrave asked.
She shook her head as she used her double sword to push the ice away from the shore. “You can run from most situations,” she replied. “It is at those times that it would not be wise to test my limits. It’s the times when I cannot run that I will push my limits beyond what even I think is possible.” She tested the depth of the water with her double-bladed sword and found that it was not as deep as it looked. “We need some long branches so we can push ourselves forward.”
Thag reached out and pulled a fallen branch out of the water. “This one should work,” he said. They took turns pushing the slowly-melting ice block as they floated along what was turning out to be a long pool of water.
Finally, they stopped and went to shore by a large stone shaft sticking up from the ground. Naiya’Nal dropped in a ball of fire. The shaft was not too deep and opened into a wider chamber. The fire went out as it fell into water.
“We should rest here for the night,” Belgrave said, setting his shield against the shaft. He sat down. “Although I cannot tell if it is night or not, it has been a hard day.” The others nodded and sat down beside him. They ate a small meal before lying down to sleep.
Belgrave sat up with a start as thunder filled the air. It was dark and he could barely see anything around him. “What happened to the torches?” he asked. “What is that thunder?” He stopped talking as Naiya’Nal placed her hand over his mouth.
“We are being hunted,” she whispered as she released him. “That is the thunder of a boggle snake.”
He could hear the sounds of the creature as it crawled along the ground in the distance. The ground was lightly vibrating beneath him. “Does it know that we are here?” Belgrave asked.
“I don’t know,” Naiya’Nal replied. “Be quiet!”
Soon the thunder died down, but they could still hear the sounds of movement all around them. There was a loud crack above them and a branch fell at their feet. They looked up to see the barely discernable outline of the creature’s head above them. Fire flew from Naiya’Nal’s hands and the forest ignited. Now they could see the glistening fangs of the beast as it lunged down at them. Naiya’Nal threw her double-bladed sword, but it could not penetrate the thick scales and fell harmlessly back to the ground.
“Jump down the shaft!” Thig yelled. He picked up several of the shields and packs and dropped them down the shaft before jumping in himself.
The snake missed them and poised for another attack. By now, the five brothers had all jumped into the shaft. Sidrahkir climbed in and pulled Belgrave behind him. Naiya’Nal grabbed her weapon. She was the last to jump into the shaft and could feel the mouth of the snake crush the shaft above her as she fell.
The water was cool. They could hear the snake somewhere above still trying to attack, but it could not break through the thick ceiling of the cavern. It was too dark to see anything.
“Now where?” Thug asked after they had all surfaced to catch their breath. “I don’t even know which way to swim.”
“The wind in here blows north, but the water flows south,” Belgrave answered. “The city was on the eastern side of the cave and would be a good place to get out of the water. However, there may be more snakes over there.”
“Why would there be snakes in the city?” Theg asked.
“Because I killed one just south of the city,” Belgrave replied.
Sidrahkir laughed. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Be quiet,” Naiya’Nal suddenly hissed. “Do you hear that?”
They floated as silently as they could. They could hear the short waves splashing against them and the wind blowing overhead. There were also a number of faint metallic noises. Belgrave started to laugh. “You gave me your ship,” he shouted. “I thought I’d never meet you again!”
“You did take our ship,” a voice replied from the darkness,” but we can walk beneath the water and we have several other ships hidden throughout this cavern.”
“Who are they, Belgrave?” Naiya’Nal asked. “How can they walk beneath the water?”
“I am B’L’T,” the voice answered. “We were made to serve the king in this cave and will help you to shore.”
Now they could hear the waves splashing against the sides of a boat. The strong metal fingers pulled Belgrave from the water. Once onboard, he pulled out his sword so the others could see by its glow. Sidrahkir gasped at the sight of the empty eye sockets on the faces of their rescuers. “Bones of metal?”
Belgrave laughed as he helped Naiya’Nal into the boat. “They are friends. They were given their appearance by the Lunari so they could be the guardians of the cave.”
“B’L’T, who are the others?” Thag asked as he was helped into the boat.
“These are F’D’G and M’K’N,” the skeleton answered, motioning at the two others.
“Where are the others that were with you before?” Belgrave asked.
“They are guarding the entrances,” F’D’G answered. “You will be safe from the Dark Wizard in here.”
The skeletons hoisted a small sail and the boat began to pick up speed. “This boat is not made for so many people,” B’L’T said. “We will go to shore at Elevor. It is not too far away.”
They continued in silence for several minutes before Sidrahkir spoke. “Ugh! What is that smell!? It is as if something died in here.”
“Something did die in here,” Belgrave stated. “I already told you that I killed one of those snakes in here.”
“Take us to the dead snake,” Naiya’Nal ordered the skeletons. “It has a weapon that is greater than any of ours.” The skeletons pulled down the sail and began to row to the shore.
“You can’t possibly make a decent weapon from a corpse that has been rotting in a cave for over a year now!” Sidrahkir argued. “Perhaps you could make a shield from one of its scales or sharpen some bones, but there is no way that old bones would hold against the army of the Dark Wizard.”
“Perhaps the stench would drive them away,” Thig suggested.
“I said it has a weapon, not that I would make a weapon,” Naiya’Nal argued as the large corpse came into view. The flesh had almost completely decomposed, leaving behind a long line of ribs draped with fragments of hanging skin. “Take us to the skull,” she commanded.
“Well, Sidrahkir,” Belgrave said as they came upon the skull. “There is the proof that I killed one of these before I even knew how to use a sword. The secret is to get inside the mouth and stab into its brain, the same way Naiya’Nal killed that na’karden on our way to Panei.”
“If they die that easily, then I can take it off my list of things not to approach,” the Commander replied. “Unfortunately, if I removed everything that we have encountered since you arrived, I would no longer have a list.”
“Is Voth not on your list?” Naiya’Nal asked as she slowly stepped into the gaping skull.
“I have already defied the Dark Wizard to his face,” Sidrahkir answered. “That was sixteen years ago and I have never regretted it. Some evils are worth approaching with the intent to destroy them whether you succeed or not.”
Naiya’Nal pulled out her Lunari dagger. “Hold that thought, Sidrahkir, and save it for Nasad.”
She cut a fang from the skull and delicately wrapped the fang with some of the creature’s skin before tying a cloth around it. “There is no weapon stronger than the poison of this snake.”
“How do you know that?” Thag asked. “No one besides King Belgrave has killed one of these that I know of.”
She laughed. “This poison is something that I read about in the memoirs of the Dark Witch Wendok. She never explained why, but she mentioned that Voth forbade her from taking it to Sarda. I cannot say if what I read is true or not, but I believe this poison may be capable of killing Voth.” She carefully tucked the fang into Belgrave’s pack and then took the second fang for herself.
“Why would this be the only way to kill him?” Belgrave asked.
Naiya’Nal wrapped a piece of the skin around a bone and sighed. “Voth has told me more about his origins than he should have.” She ignited the skin with her magic to create a torch. “We have one dagger from the Lunari left. Its light should be able to cut through anything of this world, but Voth is not of this world.” She handed the torch to Belgrave and made another.
Belgrave lead the way to the city and the others followed behind. “If Voth is from the Lunari world, then Belgrave should have the dagger,” Theg said. “He is the only one of us who can kill a Lunari. With the dagger, he won’t need the snake’s poison.”
“Voth is not of the Lunari world either,” Naiya’Nal explained, “nor does he have similar origins to the other Dark Wizards or Dark Magicians of old. He is something else, something far older than you could imagine. Voth is the reason for this war. If the weapons of the Lunari failed against him in their world, then they will fail us here, but we are destined to succeed and prophecy will provide a method of success.”
“Well, even if the fang is successful, we still need to get to Nasad first,” Thog said. “If the boat will not make it, is there another route we could take?”
B’L’T nodded. “There is a path leading north from Elevor. It is long and hard, but will take you to the end of the cave.”
“We definitely need to move as fast as we can,” Belgrave said. “Lead the way!”
The skeletons led them into the city. The two flickering torches cast opposing shadows from the corners of the buildings. They passed by a statue of a king holding up his hand with the ring. A man, a Barbidon, and one of the Canari stood behind the king. “Whoever carved this, got your nose wrong, Belgrave,” Naiya’Nal observed. “Yours is thinner.”
“I’m sure the sculptor did not have a photograph to work from,” Belgrave replied. “Whoever made it only had the prophecies and an imagination to work from.”
“What is a photograph?” Sidrahkir asked.
“It is something from my world,” Belgrave answered. “It is similar to a painting, but is so detailed it looks as real as anything you can see.”
“Your world must have some really skilled artists then!” Theg exclaimed.
Belgrave laughed. “No, they are made by machines. Perhaps one day your world will have similar things. I hope that one day your world will have as much knowledge about things as my world.”
“Speaking of knowledge,” Naiya’Nal interrupted, “B’L’T, is there a library among these ruins?”
“It is further into the ruins,” the skeleton answered, “but we can take you there.” They turned down another path and began to walk up the hill.
“What are you hoping to find?” Belgrave asked as they passed through the ancient alleys.
“If Voth had not taken me as a child, then I would have been trained by the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar. Voth refused to teach me a form of magic that has been used against me twice already and I am hoping to be able to find some old records of the Sisterhood that may mention this magic.”
“I don’t know if we have the time to spend searching a library,” Belgrave said. “Besides, everything here is so old that it falls apart when you touch it. I doubt the book you desire would be any different.”
“It’s a small document,” she replied. “Besides, most important manuscripts are coated with a special solution to protect them from aging.”
Soon they arrived at the library. Its outer face, supported by a colonnade, appeared ready to fall, but the thick pillars held. Sidrahkir lit a few more torches as they entered. The inside of the building was a single room with the walls completely lined with manuscripts. Some of them had decomposed over the many years, but others had survived in readable condition.
“Talk about a needle in a haystack” Belgrave muttered. “It could take you weeks to search through all these.”
Naiya’Nal walked over to a shelf. “No, it won’t take me too long. I know what I’m looking for.”
The others began to meander around the room, looking at the many books and parchments. “King Emanpugnikam, a Hero for Us All,” Belgrave said, reading a title. “It’s written by some guy named Evitaercnu. I’d hate to have a name like either of those!”
“Dignity and Displeasure by Netsau’Naj,” Sidrahkir read off. “This had to have been a good story to be placed in here since very few women ever wrote books.”
Naiya’Nal handed Belgrave a heavy tome. “You might find this to be some informative reading while you wait for me. Sidrahkir, you should look for The Journals of Josloy or something else about his exploits. I’d expect it to be on the far wall.”
“Freewill or Predestination: A Study of Prophecy and Its Effects on the Individual,” Belgrave read the title of the book that Naiya’Nal had handed to him. “This book is so thick that I doubt the author even figured it out. He seems more concerned about making himself a long title than actually providing a detailed philosophical debate. It’s written by Daridus the Eloquent, personal scribe of King Setrar of Nerak and Authoritative Keeper of the Keys to the Fifth Circle of Wordiness for the Illustrious Council of Adaptive Writing and Publishing. I think I’ll pass on this book.”
“I don’t know, Belgrave,” Sidrahkir said from the other side of the room. “Maybe you’ll find it helpful in fulfilling the prophecies. After all, it would be easier if you believed in predestination because then you would automatically fulfill them. If you look at it from the freewill perspective, then you have the choice not to fulfill them.”
Belgrave returned the book to the shelf. “A wise man once told me that freewill and predestination are the same thing, but from two different perspectives, almost like two sides of the same coin. From one side, I can make my own decision of what to do next, but looking at the other side, those choices may appear to have been inevitable.”
“I’m sorry to cut short your debate,” Naiya’Nal said, stuffing several pages into her pack, “but I just found what I was looking for and can read it later.”
“Then it is time to head north to Nasad,” Belgrave stated, turning toward the doorway. “I don’t know how much farther it is, but we will go as far as we can before we rest. B’L’T, lead the way.”
The skeleton led them further through the ruins of Elevor. Soon they left the city and began to follow a path along the side of the cave. The path was rugged and there were times when they had to walk single file. Belgrave decided that it was time to rest when B’L’T announced they were halfway to the exit.
They rested for about six hours before they continued on their journey. Their torches had burnt out, but the skeletons agreed to carry Naiya’Nal’s magic balls of fire in their hands. They saw the exit far in the distance several hours later and quickened their pace. When they finally stepped from the cave, they could see the southern shore of Panei across the Strait of Korut.
As expected, the kings of Panei had sailors searching for them and soon they were aboard a boat sailing toward Nasad. The captain said that they would reach Nasad in three days and that they should rest while they still could.