Chapter 18: Back Through the Myths of Time
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
After flickering much further west via Donnar's divine gift in order to avoid any sorcerers who might have picked up on Alyssa's untrained use of her gift, the party trotted towards the Netherlands at a steady pace. As they rode, Donnar filled them in on everything he knew about the Netherlands, their inhabitants, and the creatures, sentient and otherwise, which inhabited the region. By the end of the first day Donnar was with them, Jonar was once again questioning the wisdom of his choice of travel destinations. He caught himself wondering how he had gotten himself into the series of circumstances that led to his current situation.
He had to amend those thoughts that evening, however, as Illyana squeezed him in a grateful hug before going off with Myka and Kyftassa to find wood and water for the dinner Gnusyl was off hunting. Even as the three of them left, Alyssa came up to him and slid into his embrace, making him at least somewhat grateful for his plight. The young Gnathar seriously doubted that his parents, had they lived, could have found him a more heartbreakingly stunning wife than Alyssa. And Illyana was nothing to shudder in horror at either. In fact, when he had been exiled, one of the main things he had lamented the most over during those first few weeks of despair was the fact that he would likely never find a woman who would wed him. Now he had two of the most beautiful women he had ever seen as wives.
"So, longshanks," Donnar drawled as he rubbed his pony down, "I heard you got married again."
Jonar flushed and nodded. "I sort of fell in love with Alyssa in Meikar."
"Why didn't you marry her then?"
A giggle escaped the young man and it slowly turned into a deep laugh. "I can just imagine Princess Issabella and Queen Leina allowing that to happen," he replied sarcastically as Alyssa hid a smile behind her hand.
Donnar stood up, patting his mount on the rump. "You might have been surprised. From what I hear, most of Meikar has been praying to all fifteen Gods that Princess Alyssa Waiya find something to occupy her other than whipping the Great Houses into submission in the Game," the Gnome told him with a smile. "She is almost as loathed and feared as the Zondrons, my boy, despite being one of their princesses."
Jonar looked down at his love with surprise as she nodded with an evil glimmer in her yellow-green eyes. "I imagine they had a grand ball when they found I left," she chuckled with a shrug. "I have been bored for years, love. I decided if I wasn't having any fun, nobody else would either, so I took my frustrations out on the other nobles by ruining their schemes. You have no idea how much excitement and pleasure you can derive from watching plans that have been in the making for months and years just crumble down around a person's ears." A shudder of almost sexual excitement rippled through the Meikari, causing her to nestle further back into her spouse.
Gnusyl lumbered back into the little clearing in the forest they were in at that moment, a rather large argyr in his jaws. "A nice herd is migrating through the forest not far from here. The bucks are nice and tender," he told Jonar as he laid the animal down by the fire pit. Then he looked up at Jonar, his eyes flat and dangerous. "There are elph-tor in the area. I caught their scent but they are long gone. Two days at least."
Jonar's arms convulsed around Alyssa as a chill ran down his spine. "What?" she asked, turning to see that he had turned sickly pale even as Donnar asked, "What did the hulk say?"
The young Gnathar was standing very stiff; his sapphire eyes were glassy with remembrance. "Elph-tor came through nearby two days ago," he replied, starting at the gasp from Illyana as she and Myka and Kyftassa stepped into the clearing, arms loaded with wood and full water skins thumping wetly against Kyftassa's thighs.
"We need to hurry up and eat so we can put out the fire," Donnar said decisively despite the chill already in the night air. "This close to the Netherlands you can bet there will be more. I wouldn't risk a fire at all except I know the Clerics of Light patrol this area heavily for Dei-Xhan activity."
The following morning saw them on a barely discernable path at dawn. It meandered drunkenly through the forest in a generally northwesterly direction. The trees in this part of the wood were spaced further apart, making the undergrowth much thicker and impeding their way at points where the track they followed was overgrown. Gnusyl, especially, was having trouble as his huge bulk overflowed the path more often than not, sometimes forcing him to trample his way over or force his way through obstacles.
But even the underbrush began thinning by mid-afternoon as the sun neared the horizon. The short northern winter days were not allowing them to progress very far and they were thinking about making camp again when suddenly the trees ended and they found themselves staring at towering peaks thrusting up out of a small, boulder-strewn plain. The break of the forest was abrupt and the plain seemed to be endless east and west, bounded on one side by the forest and the other by the ominous-looking range of up-thrust pinnacles.
"That is the Netherlands, boys and girls," Donnar said in a humorless grumble. "Shall we pull back into the forest and set up camp? I seriously doubt you want to start into the Netherlands with the sun almost set."
A fully dressed and bundled Jonar emerged from his tent the next morning, deliberately ignoring the knowing looks Donnar and Kyftassa were exchanging as he went to see to Gnusyl. He was loading his gear onto the Gnath's harness when Illyana and Alyssa emerged from the same shelter, shivering as they wrapped themselves in their fur cloaks. They ignored the gaping astonishment on the two males' faces and the somewhat revolted look on Myka's face as she finished her breakfast of dried fruit and bread. The trio seemed not to know what to do to respond to their companions' reaction to their relationship and so tried to ignore them.
Donnar, however, did not give anyone time for any thoughts other than the dire warnings he began to impart on them as they rode to the edge of the forest and sat facing the soaring peaks.
"This is your last chance to change your mind, young warrior," the Gnome said in an oddly respectful tone. Jonar's eyes darted downward only to see the old merchant staring out at the barren gray mountains frosted with snow in the higher elevations. "As bad as your life has been, you have not encountered anything so ... malicious as this land we are about to enter. And from here on, neither Alyssa nor I will be able to use our divine gifts. There are sorcerers in these lands with the ability to latch on to us, following along with their minions to wherever we go. Fires at night will be deadly, unless we happen upon a deep cave, and hunting gets scarcer the further north we go. These mountains are avoided for dozens of reasons and you now know some of them," he stated grimly. The gray eyes glanced up and saw a hardening around the bright sapphire orbs gazing down at him with conviction the Gnome had never seen before. In the nearly twenty-four decades the Gnome had lived, he couldn't remember a more stolid young man than the young Gnathar he had picked up three years ago. That young boy was gone and the nobly honest and impassively gallant man that rode next to him remained. The Axeforger did not know why the Gods chose this giant of a boy to do their work, but he praised their choice as he asked the question again, for the last time: "Are you sure you want to go through with this?" Jonar nodded, his face grimly determined as Gnusyl stepped out onto the rocky plain. Alyssa, Kyftassa, and Donnar followed in the huge beast's wake.
The plain was less than a mile wide, gently sloping up to a single, minor fold of bare foothills before the true mountains began. They were following what looked to be a raider's path or a smuggler's route to and from the contraband-rich region north of the Kingdom of the Illuminants and the Port of Ilia. Donnar blandly informed them that certain people smuggle ice diamonds from Lunland and gabressi hides from Outland south through the Netherlands, thereby bypassing customs in Port of Ilia or some other harbor.
A chill shudder rippled through Jonar the second Gnusyl passed over the ridge of the foothills, the sun seeming to dim and the already freezing air to cool even further. A wind immediately started moaning through the pass they faced, bringing with it the bite of arctic air and the stench of evil and malice. The horses, for days trying to distance themselves from Gnusyl, suddenly huddled next to the massive beast, eliciting a snort of amused disdain from the Gnath. Wrapping himself even tighter in his coat and savoring the warmth Myka and Illyana provided, Jonar nudged Gnusyl to get him started down the hill and into the mountains.
Unlike the riders and their horses, Gnusyl was eager to start this part of their adventure. Gnaths have a unique sort of culture, primitive as it may be, and much of it revolves around their oral traditions. Since his earliest memories, Gnusyl could recall hearing tales of Darwyth Pride heroes who ventured into the Netherlands to hunt down elph-tor and their Dei-Xhan riders with the Gnathar. The Netherlands is an almost mythical land where ordinary Gnaths go to become immortal heroes in their quest to serve the Gods. And although the Gnaths do not worship any of the Gods, they do acknowledge them and honor them for their role in the creation of Titia-Lohr. As he led Jonar's friends deep into the Netherlands, Gnusyl was daydreaming of the tales that might be told of this adventure by Gnusyl the Daggerfang and his companion Jonar of Telanar.
They heard and saw little as they rode through that drearily cold morning except stone and dirt and the occasional stunted tree. But they were soon jolted into alertness when they all heard something metallic clank against the dirty gray stone of the peaks hemming them in on the path. Jonar motioned Myka to slide down behind Kyftassa from in front of him. As soon as the Ce'al was settled, the Gnathar drew his sword, nudging Gnusyl to advance another few paces in front of their party. Kyftassa and Alyssa both had their bows at the ready and their slim Meikari swords were loosened in their scabbards. Donnar grumbled, slipping the sheaths off the blades of his battle-axe, his eyes roving over the bleak landscape before them.
Just as the first arrow was loosed from above them and the first battle cry roared from ahead, Donnar swerved his horse to the right. The little merchant seeming to kick his stubby mountain pony to gallop right at a cliff face behind a massive block of tumbled granite, roaring, "Follow me!" over his shoulder. Since none of them had shields and the arrows had begun to rain down from nooks in the cliffs above, the harried youths followed. Jonar loitered behind the rest, hoping Gnusyl's larger bulk would cover Myka and Alyssa's escape. Just as the two women disappeared, Gnusyl roared in anger, stumbling into a limp behind the granite block...
... And into a cavern that was invisible from the path they had been on. How the Gnome had known it was there was not thought of as they heard bellows of anger and confusion outside. Within minutes, the voices of at least a dozen different men could be heard without. Dei-Xhan voices!
All of them but Illyana had heard and seen Dei-Xhan before, under one circumstance of another. The voices outside were the typical harshly vibrant timbre Dei-Xhan males have. Voices that can either be modulated to be heard over great distances or hushed so that someone right next to the speaker could barely hear him. Their language is an odd mix of guttural growls and glottal stops combined with somewhat fluid, musical tones set in off-key notes.
And the voices outside the cave were less than pleased with the interrupted ambush. A heated debate roared beyond the cave mouth with the participants splitting the raiders between the schools of thought on how to proceed.
"Can anyone tell what they are saying?" Myka whispered, her arms wrapped fearfully around Kyftassa's left hand while the Ce'al scout's right held his sword.
Jonar shook his head. "I could never stay calm enough for long enough around Dei-Xhan to do more than kill the speakers."
"They are trying to decide whether or not to risk fighting their way into the cave," Donnar replied nonchalantly. "It seems there is a powerful ... no, I couldn't have heard that right!"
"What?" Myka demanded crossly when the Gnome stopped speaking.
"It seems that they are afraid that they have stayed too long in this area," he continued, confused even as he translated. "Most of them think they should leave, either immediately or after blocking us in the cave. They fear the Dark Sorcerer will come. They fear him more than their bandit chief, apparently, because the one in favor of trying to kill us is attempting to use this Jqiroq's name to frighten them into siding with him. It isn't working. Most of them are leaving."
They could hear hurried treads heading back up the path. Only a handful of the bandits remained, looking fearfully around at the mountains as their leader stared balefully into the darkness that was the cave. Jonar was just about to suggest charging them when the leader went up in flames, shrieking horribly as the fire quickly consumed his body. The other four Dei-Xhan dropped their weapons and fled, screaming prayers to Zondro-Xhan to spare them.
Jonar and his friends were still staring out at the smoldering remains of the bandit when a figure fully enshrouded in a writhing black robe, its full cowl completely obscuring the face, walked up to the smoking pile of ash. A large, black-booted foot nudged the incinerated corpse before turning to face the cave mouth. A black-gloved hand motioned them out, becoming more insistent when they did not move.
A sudden compulsion started Jonar forward, Gnusyl dubiously following. Alyssa and Illyana quickly followed, leaving Donnar and Myka gaping at each other as Kyftassa shrugged. Weapons bared, the trio of skeptics slowly walked out of the cave and into the murky gloom that was afternoon in the Netherlands. Jonar shook his head and stopped a handful of paces from the robed man. They were shocked to see that the man was taller than even Jonar, who was now topping seven feet by several inches. His shoulders were bulky, even under the robe, and the boots that could be seen peeking out of the robe were large and wide. All in all, this spectre was a daunting figure, all the more so since he was not visibly armed in a land where arms are a necessity. All of which meant...
"Are you the Dark Sorcerer the Dei-Xhan spoke of?" the Gnathar asked, comforted in the reassuring nudge Gnusyl gave him.
The robed figure did not answer, merely beckoned them to follow him as he turned and walked up the path, never once looking back to make sure he was being obeyed. For reasons unknown to them, Jonar merely nodded and accompanied the spooky being that had appeared to rout their enemies by means supernatural. And in the Netherlands that only meant one of two things: a sorcerer or a Cleric of Light. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that this man was not a Cleric.
After nearly an hour of walking behind the silent sorcerer, the group of friends found themselves turning off the path taken by the fleeing Dei-Xhan. A washout led away from the path and back out of sight. It was lined with scabrous trees and lichen-covered boulders. The colorfully banded walls of the gully were worn smooth by the dried-up river and eons of Netherland weather. As they made their way around the bend in the ravine, a massive peak reared up on their left.
Its face was carved with huge reliefs of monstrous figures, their features full of planes and their forms massive. In the middle of the row of twelve giants was a stone canopy held up by four fluted, weathered columns with scrolled capitals which hovered over a large portal. A path led up the bank of the ravine, through a field of stunted vegetation, and up to that portal. Their silent guide began picking his way up that path.
"My home," the breeze said to them in a resonant voice, rising and falling with the gusting wind.
The path, it turned out, was barely large enough for Gnusyl to climb. Jonar had to walk with the great beast's head over his shoulder and his hand caressing the Gnath's cheek in reassurance. Jonar was surprised to see other, smaller peaks surrounding the one towards which they walked. All looked like they had been sculpted and all looked like they had portals to their interiors.
The peak loomed higher and higher as they neared the top of the ravine. As they came closer, they realized the scale of the features they had glimpsed below was much greater. The sculptures towered above the canopy, which was more than seventy-five feet overhead. The portal's pitted bronze doors were more than forty feet tall and still swung easily on soundless hinges when the sorcerer effortlessly pushed them open.
The heat that rushed over them was surprising and welcomed as the chill of the Netherlands winter had long since numbed them. What was even more surprising was the interior of the mountain. It was, in truth, not a mountain.
"Welcome to my home," the airy voice greeted them from within the billowing shadows of the black shroud. He motioned for them to leave their horses in the huge vaulted room they found themselves in as he continued over the expansive floor. "Welcome to the Lost City of Lunivo-Vaslaria."
"What!" Donnar exclaimed, his eyes bulging and his skin paling. "But Lunivo-Vaslaria was destroyed by the Fyr Gaurs more than four thousand years ago!"
"Fyr Gaurs?" Jonar asked, his eyes darting from the sorcerer to the Gnome and back. "What is this place and who were the Fyr Gaurs?"