A sudden bump on the leg awakened Commander Sidrahkir from his nap as King Hevman tapped him with his foot. The Commander had fallen asleep on the hard floor beside King Belgrave’s bed. He opened his eyes and looked up to see King Hevman reaching down to help him to his feet. “We need to start moving down the tunnel,” the King said. “Most of the women and children began the journey while we were still preparing to defend the beach. Now it is time for us to follow them with our soldiers. The air in this cavern is already beginning to grow foul.”
Commander Sidrahkir took the king’s hand and stood up. “Well, I’m ready to start, but it will be a difficult journey unless we have a plan to help the wounded travel with us.”
“We found several storerooms filled with stretchers,” the King replied. “I have my men distributing them as we speak. The plan is to have every able-bodied soldier drag a wounded soldier behind him. Tanarad will go first, followed by Vernon, and then the others of Panei. That way, you and Queen Desi’Rel can continue to care for King Belgrave while remaining with your armies.”
“Where exactly does this tunnel lead?” the Commander asked.
“I asked one of the tunnel guards and he said that there is an exit on the Island of Kimb,” King Hevman answered. “I have never seen it for myself, but the island is in the middle of a lake hidden deep in the mountains of northern Panei. I have been told that it is impossible to scale the cliffs that surround the lake, so there is no way for the Dark Wizard to march an army against us there.”
Commander Sidrahkir smirked. “That also means that we would be stuck there since the only way in or out would be this tunnel and I’ve been told that the tunnel doors cannot be opened once shut.”
There was a tapping of claws against the rock floor outside the tent and Queen Vaersheena entered. They briefly looked at the queen of the Canari and then continued their conversation. “I’m not going to worry too much about it,” King Hevman replied. “Prophecy has led us this far; I doubt that it will abandon us in the future.”
“We may not have much longer to wait,” Queen Vaersheena chimed in, looking over King Belgrave’s body. “If you’ve kept up with the recent positions of the dragons in the stars, then you would have noticed the third dragon that recently appeared to oppose the two that converged when King Belgrave arrived last year. Strangely, they seem to be growing larger and brighter at the same time.”
“Well, we cannot watch the skies while trapped underground,” Commander Sidrahkir stated. “So why exactly have you come to King Belgrave’s tent?”
“I merely wanted to offer my services and volunteer to pull his stretcher through the tunnel.” She made what looked like a grin and gave a soft snicker. “That is, if you can make a decent harness for me.”
“I am sure that we can work something out, Vaersheena,” King Hevman replied. “You seem a bit frisky today. What puts you in such a good mood?”
“The Princess Fluxeena bears the scent of a mate,” the Canari Queen replied. “I do not know how they managed to find the time or place, but she has chosen Cyclax, a good choice that meets with my approval. In a few months there will be a pup to care for.”
“I’d love to learn more about your race, but we need to get moving,” the Commander interrupted. “I’ll go get some rope and have Colonel Balvain start marching the army down the tunnel. He stepped from the tent and began to make his way toward the army of Tanarad.
Soldiers bustled throughout the chamber as they gathered their things in preparation of the move. Partway to the army, Colonel Balvain greeted the Commander and handed him a loaf of bread. “You need to take time to eat,” he grinned. He took a step back and examined the Commander as he nibbled on some of the bread. “You look terrible,” he noted. “When was the last time you got some sleep?”
“As if a Commander had time to care for himself!” he teased, but then became more serious. “I did just have a short nap, but I have not had a decent rest since before the battle.” He looked toward the ceiling and his gaze slowly crossed from one side of the great chamber to the other. “It is difficult to rest when I cannot enjoy the night air or look forward to the sunrise.”
“Fortunately, we do not have to remain here forever,” the Colonel replied. “When do we start marching?”
“Go ahead and start as soon as the soldiers are ready,” Commander Sidrahkir instructed. “It will be slower because of all the wounded and I do not want to linger any longer than necessary. I will be coming directly behind Tanarad with King Belgrave. I just need to find some rope.”
Colonel Balvain nodded. “King Hevman told us to prepare awhile ago so we will be able to move in just a short while. I will go get you some rope.” He turned to leave, but quickly turned back as the Commander put another chunk of bread in his mouth. “If you get hungry again, just look through the storerooms that line the sides of the chamber. There is enough bread to go around, and if you want to cook your own, they even have large stocks of some of the rarer grains.”
“Really?” exclaimed the Commander. “They have something besides sorfid and lycanth grain?”
“Even Pia forfid,” the Colonel replied with a grin. “I’ll go get that rope, and later today I will bring you some food that is better than anything you’ve eaten recently.” He turned and left Commander Sidrahkir to eat the bread.
The army began to move further into the tunnel within the hour. Queen Desi’Rel and Commander Sidrahkir walked on either side of King Belgrave as Queen Vaersheena pulled his stretcher. Despite the many wounded, the procession moved faster than expected as the tunnel sloped downward. As in the first section of the tunnel, this area was also richly ornamented. Torches with golden handles hung on the wall. Tables and chairs with meticulously carved woodwork gave the tunnel a more personal feel. Food, water, and supplies of everything imaginable sat positioned against the wall and were freely available. Occasionally they could see large cracks and fissures in the wall, but there was not enough light to look down any of them. They passed several smaller tunnels branching away, but closely guarded by the silent and unmoving tunnel guards. They spent the evening in another large chamber and continued their trek the following day. They talked less while walking on the third day, and on the fourth, the trek was mostly silent.
“Have you been reading the various writings on the walls?” Queen Desi’Rel suddenly asked on the fifth day of their journey.
“I’ve read some of it,” Commander Sidrahkir replied, “mostly just the shorter things though. Half of the letters are hard to make out and the longer it is, the less time I have to work at it. I think one of the funnier ones read, ‘Rodanth was here!’”
The Queen laughed. “I think Rodanth is the only individual to literally carve his name into history. Most of the writing in here is just names or short quotes carved by the tunnel guards, but I have seen a few places that mentioned historical events. Nevertheless, you are right. It is harder to read the longer things without stopping; especially when some of it isn’t even in a straight line.” She pointed to some writing on the wall that spiraled around itself. “It says something about someone named Fluvanna, probably one of the Canari.”
Just beyond the writing were two tunnel guards standing silently in front of a wide crack in the tunnel wall that was almost completely filled with rocks and rubble. In front of the rubble was a pedestal with the skull of a predatory beast on it. Two ancient shields and two swords were propped against the pedestal. Queen Vaersheena stopped suddenly when she saw the skull and frowned at the two guards. “Most memorials do not display the remains of the dead, regardless of how evil they were,” she growled. “In death they receive their justice and to put them on display makes a mockery of the Creator.”
“It is a memorial to the two guards killed while defending this tunnel from the evil Canari Fluvanna and her pack of mongrels,” one of the guards explained.
“How did they come to be inside the tunnel?” Commander Sidrahkir asked. “I thought it was impenetrable.”
One of the guards shook his head. “There would be no reason for us to stand guard if there were no other ways into the tunnel. The Dark Witch Votesh spent her entire life attempting to destroy this tunnel. Her minion, Fluvanna, discovered the other end of this crack in the Dark Forest. It is at this spot that Fluvanna was defeated.”
“Vaersheena, we really must be going,” Queen Desi’Rel interrupted.
“I will not continue until respect is shown to the dead. It may seem like a trivial affair given our current situation, but I assure you, my request is simple. We should always hold ourselves to a higher standard than our enemies. Otherwise, we become just as evil as they are.” She looked back at the two guards. “Fluvanna was good until she was deceived by evil. Cover her skull with the green flag of the Canari. This is no longer a memorial to your two fallen, but will now serve as a reminder of the perverting influence of evil even among our own cultures.”
“We can’t just change things,” the guard stammered.
“Do as she says,” Queen Desi’Rel ordered. Queen Vaersheena let out a low growl and the fur on her back bristled. “There are no more Lunari at Iswa, so now you answer to the kings and queens of Panei. Do as Queen Vaersheena requests, or I will remove you from your post.”
For a moment, the guard was speechless. “I will do it,” he agreed with a quick bow.
They continued on their journey as the tunnel guard ran down the tunnel to find a Canari flag as ordered. “There is no future purpose for this tunnel. It will be hard for the guards to move on to new lives and leave behind a culture developed by several thousand years of secluded service to Iswa,” Queen Vaersheena said.
“If you pay them well enough, a man can adapt to anything,” Commander Sidrahkir said. “There are more than enough supplies for the entire tunnel guard to spend the rest of their lives in here. I say let them have the tunnel and everything in it. If they aren’t content with that, then they don’t deserve anything.”
“And what about yourself, Commander?” Queen Desi’Rel asked. “You’re getting up there in age and could retire soon. What would you want in return for your life of public service and sacrifice?”
“I’m not that old!” the Commander stammered with a smile.
“Don’t play that game,” Queen Vaersheena muttered. “We all know you’re old enough to be King Belgrave’s father. I don’t think there’s a man alive with more military experience than you have. It makes me wonder, why have you never had a wife?”
“A life of only war stories makes love difficult,” Commander Sidrahkir quickly answered.
“I had expected a better answer,” Queen Desi’Rel said. “Was there never any woman who caught your eye?”
The Commander frowned and looked away as memories he had ignored flashed through his mind. “There was one long ago,” he eventually muttered, “but time always moves against us.”
“What happened?” Queen Desi’Rel asked.
“I met Leno’Pel at Latan,” he quietly answered. He did not need to say more. They all knew that nothing remained of Latan other than a few lost piles of ruins. There was a moment of awkward silence, as the two queens understood his reluctance to answer.
Queen Desi’Rel soon broke the silence. “There are few among us that have not suffered,” she said, “but my question remains. What would you desire as a reward for your life of service?”
“I would like to have a nice house and be able to settle down,” he answered. “I’d like to live along the Bay of Anamnesis just outside Amehtana, but not so far away that I would never have visitors. There are many things that I could desire and ask for, but a house is what I want most.”
“For everything that you have done, you have certainly earned it,” Queen Desi’Rel said. “I am sure that King Belgrave would approve your request.”
“Prophecy must be fulfilled first,” he replied. “Pick up the pace,” he shouted to the soldiers in front of them. “I don’t know about you, but I’m anxious to see the sky before I die!” His voice echoed through the tunnel. A weak cheer passed through the army and gave way to laughter as the soldiers’ hearts were filled with renewed motivation.
The next evening, King Hevman sent them a messenger announcing that they were already at the halfway point. Commander Sidrahkir was not too happy at the prospect of spending any longer underground, but the soldiers were happy that their ordeal was nearing an end. King Belgrave had given no signs of improvement and the doctor said it was doubtful that he would awake before they left the tunnel. “Let him sleep,” the Commander said. “Once you’ve seen one cave, you’ve seen them all, and I think he saw enough inside Mount Chozea.”
Five days later, Commander Sidrahkir suddenly stuck up his nose and took a long sniff. “I smell fresh air,” he announced. “Another day and we should be seeing blue skies!”
They finally emerged from the tunnel the next day to find a thick dark cloud hanging low in the sky and dimming the sunlight. “Foul breath of Voth,” Commander Sidrahkir muttered. “If it weren’t for the breeze, standing beneath this cloud would be almost as bad as staying in the tunnel.”
Even after the grandeur of the enormous chambers along the tunnel, the sight of the island was still impressive. A wide lake surrounded the island. On the outside of the lake, great cliffs stretched into the clouds, hiding the rest of the world from everyone on the island. The center of the island had five grand structures, each with the appearance of half of a giant saucer sticking from the ground. The sides of the structures were lined with windows. Torches and candles provided light. “I had heard stories about the Island of Kimb and how grand it was,” Queen Vaersheena said, “but I never imagined that it would look like this. There must be enough rooms for every family in the world!”
“They can have the rooms,” Commander Sidrahkir replied. “I’d be content with just a small shack on the beach so I can have just a little more privacy.” He found Colonel Balvain. “Allow the soldiers to return to their families,” he ordered, “but make sure that they realize that this war is not over yet and they may be called to battle once more. I will set up my own camp on the beach where we can care for King Belgrave with a little more privacy than we’d have in one of those buildings.”
“If you want a tent, you can have one,” the Colonel replied, “but there is a smaller building that has been reserved for the kings, queens, and other leaders, on the western side of the island.”
Commander Sidrahkir started to speak, but Queen Desi’Rel interrupted him. “We will use that smaller building,” she said. “Colonel, as more soldiers emerge from the tunnel, I’d like you to instruct them where to go.” Colonel Balvain nodded as the two queens and the commander began to walk to the western side of the island.
As they walked, they could see the woman and children of the various nations making the most of the situation. They were cooking, washing laundry, and bustling about their daily tasks. As they passed by, the closest people stopped what they were doing and quickly bowed. A mix of excitement and the anticipation of either good or bad news were spreading quickly across the island now that the soldiers were arriving. The faces of the three leaders grew grim as they realized that while many families would be rejoicing when they were reunited, most would be mourning their lost loved ones.
When they arrived at their new temporary home, they placed King Belgrave in one of the upper rooms that had a window on either side to permit a soft breeze. Queen Desi’Rel changed his bandages and the Commander went to find them some food. Queen Vaersheena departed back for the tunnel to assist the others of her kind. Commander Sidrahkir soon returned with a large plate of steaming meat and some bread. “Take what you want,” he said, handing the queen a fork. “There is plenty of food if you know where to look.”
Queen Desi’Rel examined the fork. “We do not have dinnerware like this in Vernon,” she said.
The Commander laughed. “King Belgrave found one among the ruins of Atalan. He said it was a dinner fork and told us how it was used,” he explained. “What I wonder is if they used to have them a thousand years ago, then why doesn’t anyone use them anymore?”
“That may be a mystery that never gets answered,” she replied. She stabbed into the meat and began to eat.
Commander Sidrahkir cut two slices of bread and placed a slice of the meat between them. “I’ll be on the roof if you need me,” he said. She looked at him quizzically as he took a bite and walked to the door. Just before he stepped out, he turned and held up the food he held in his hand. “It’s called a sandwich. It’s one of the other things that King Belgrave taught us.” He turned and left before she could ask anything else.
The roof was more like a balcony, but still large enough to make it a comfortable place to relax. A black tarpaulin was stretched tightly above the roof to keep out the rain and provide shade when it was sunny. He examined the closest structure. It appeared to be a single rock with a pitted blackish surface, scarred by the many stairways, balconies, doors, and windows that someone had hewn into it. He noticed that the roof on the next structure over was more like a jagged series of balconies, above which had also been erected a long black tarpaulin. He walked over to the other side and looked across the lake. It was going to be a long uncertain wait for the time when King Belgrave fulfilled the final prophecy and they found a way back off the island. He finished his sandwich in silence.