Pack slung over his back, sword securely attached, James marched through the long corridor. Unlike the previous corridor, this one contained no rooms or alternate passageways. It rode straight arrow into the mountain. The Lean slipped in and out of shadow seemingly at random, though James knew there was some point to it.
The corridor, like the other areas he had seen, was lit by a luminescence that James could not quite explain. He had read somewhere that ancient cultures used mirrors to reflect sunlight into poorly lit areas, but as he glanced around he saw no such mirrors, nor any place where one could place them. The corridor was practically bare, with exception to the continuous stream of symbols and designs.
James remained utterly silent and fixed in thought. He looked at his hands, at the dried blood encrusted under his finger nails, and mentally shivered. I had no choice, he thought. They were evil creatures. He wondered if the corrupted Masters still bore a small portion of who they once were. Could their good selves feel the pain?
He shook away the thought. He couldn’t think about their pain—no matter how real it may have been. Their faces had shown him enough.
The corridor opened up into a small octagonal room. Each edge, aside from the one containing the corridor, had a single door. James secretly hoped they led into rooms and not more tunnels.
The Lean paused at one of the doors and turned back, or rather materialized his face in the back of his head.
“Master Willup is here,” the Lean said. “I will have him open the door.”
The Lean faded away. A moment later the sound of latches unlocking could be heard. Then the door slid open with a creak. Master Willup appeared. James gasped. Master Willup’s face was sunken—just like the corrupted Masters, now beyond dead and left to rot far behind. Two pale blue eyes peered out under drooping folds of skin. Long black sags hung above Master Willup’s cheeks and wiry, unkempt hair gave James the impression of a homeless man. Even the dying man’s hands looked misshapen.
“Welcome,” Master Willup coughed, then continued, “…to Arnur.”
Then the old man collapsed, sliding down the edge of the door only to land hard on the ground in a pile of saggy robes and old flesh.
When Master Willup woke the look of death was even more pronounced. An awful disease inflicted the man. James kept his distance. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to catch it. As much as magic seemed to run rampant throughout Traea, he could only place so much trust in medical science here.
The dying Master made Darl look like a youngster. More and more the Master began to look like the corrupted beasts that had attacked James. Thin, wheezy breaths were all that the man could produce.
The room that Master Willup had locked himself into was nothing more than a bedroom fixed with a small stove, a straw bed covered in scratchy blankets, and a dark oak stool. Pea sat next to Master Willup on the bed casting short healing spells that did nothing more than relieve some of the man’s pain. Pea was no healer and James could not wield this type of magic. Darl took watch at the door leaving it slightly cracked. James took the stool and sat on the far side of the room. The Lean paced the corridor.
“I have not seen such darkness in a hundred years,” Master Willup said. “Master Kellan,
, all corrupted beyond reason.” Master Willup coughed weakly. Warren
“How could this have happened? You’re holy men, preachers of the Great Fathers.” Peas said.
“Even the most resolute can be weak of mind. I was able to withstand the corruption, but this disease now afflicts me,” Master Willup paused to cough, weaker than before. “It was the one who calls himself Nara’karesh. A beast from Loe.”
“A lyphon,” James said, remembering the blood thirsty creature that had nearly killed him. Master Willup’s pale blue eyes dug into him.
“If such a creature must be given a name it would be Loespawn. Evil runs through its heart, blood, and flesh. Not an inch of it is untouched by Loe.”
“I thought lyphons can’t use magic.”
“They can’t,” Pea broke in.
“No magic was used. Not by the creature. He brought with him the blood from the
, straight from the great seas that run crimson with the suffering of the damned.” land of Loe
“The lyphon knew we were coming here,” Darl said. “That door was set as a trap for you.” Darl pointed at James.
James shook his head. It had all been a trap, set by some dark magic. All he had had to do was touch the door. Luthien is so strong. He remembered Luthien’s army. How many were there? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? The army had been so large that he hadn’t been able to tell its size. He had just seen dark silver armor stretching across the plain, surrounding the oak tree that made its home there.
“Darkness descends on the Farthland,” Master Willup said.
“If the lyphon was here…”
Darl cut him off. “He could come back.”
“It won’t be long before Luthien learns of the failure to destroy James.” Pea’s voice grew with concern.
James closed his eyes. He couldn’t imagine what they were going to do next. Luthien’s influence seemed endless. Even in places thought sacred and hidden. How the lyphon had gained entrance into Arnur over night, let alone learned which path was the right one, was beyond him.
“Come, someone aid me to my death. My judgment is at hand. I do not wish to die here.”
Master Willup held up his hand. James sighed and dropped his shoulders. He watched as Darl helped the dying man up. Pea did too, though the Littlekind could do little more than offer a compassionate hand.
James followed behind, dragging his feet and staring hard at his hands. They looked infinitely worn to him. Blood, dirt, cracks, and calluses all covered his hands. He saw all the pain he had inflicted in them as if they were windows into the past. Then he snapped out of it, threw his hands down, and looked forward.
Master Willup led them to one of the other doors, which in turn opened into another corridor. At the end of this was a cavernous room literally untouched by human hands.
of silvery blue cast shining azure rays of light across a shallow pool of rippling water fed by an unknown source. In the center of the pool sat a flat rock, the top of which rose a few inches out of the water. The walls and ceiling were covered in strange formations of rock that created organic loops and curls. Crystals
Darl helped Master Willup to the rock in the center of the pool. Master Willup smiled as he climbed to the top of the rock and in a last push managed to stand. James marveled at this—that death could bring such joy to anyone. He could not imagine feeling such joy in death.
Darl retreated back to the doorway, ushered back by a cripple hand.
“I pray now to you Great Fathers. Take me, your willing servant, into your arms. Make me one with all matter of this world.” Master Willup managed to maintain his voice. “Judge me.”
Then Master Willup raised his hands, looked up into the crystals in the ceiling, and began to chant. James flinched at first, a reaction from the blast of sound that the corrupted Masters had used against him, but then he quickly realized how different this sound was, and how abnormal. Master Willup first began with a single melody that answered itself in a lower register. The melody was soft, slow, and melancholy, and James could almost hear imaginary chords playing in his head. Then, after the melody had repeated once, Master Willup sang a new melody, not separate, but simultaneous with the first melody. Taking the melancholy sound of the first melody, this new melody gave a distant bob to the sound. James stood aghast at how Master Willup could control his vocal chords in such a magnificent way and found himself tapping his fingers on his leg to the beat-- one, two, three, one, two, three. The melodies wound in and out of each other, winding up, winding down, and slowly gaining pace. Then the melodies changed completely, going in the same rhythm, at two different ranges and entirely different notes. The crystals shimmered brightly at this change, slowly becoming shiny points in the ceiling of blinding blue light. James covered his face. The lights suddenly moved, controlled by some unknown force, and focused in one single beam of light on Master Willup.
Then he recognized the melody and let his jaw drop. “That’s Sibelius,” he said. “Symphony number one, first movement.”
Pea looked up at him. “Sibelius?”
James thought to answer, but stopped himself. Now the melody began to gain speed, quickening its beat so that he had to count the three-four time in one—one tap for every three beats. He knew the melody now; he knew what would come next. He played the movement in his mind.
A new voice, no, voices rose from above, filling the cavern chamber. Only he looked up, as if the only one unprepared. A mighty chord of female and male voices struck all at once, unified in the music. Master Willup sang quicker, and four more taps on James’ leg later the voices from above sang again, and four more, again. The melody gained momentum; the voices played on every three taps. Then the voices dropped in volume, collecting in a long note, and at a snail's pace the sound crescendoed into a massive sound. At the climax everything fell off, the chamber became utterly silent. The blue light gained physical form, becoming a cloudy substance swirling through the air. James could not see Master Willup’s face from where he stood, and likewise could only guess at expression on the old man’s face—one of joy for being judged well, or one of utter fear for being damned. The substance swirled and consumed Master Willup, covering him like a soft blanket of ethereal magic. And as the man became enveloped a choir of male voices roared from above—a great fanfare of tenors, baritones, and sopranos.
Then in one swoop the light dispersed, pushed outward and dissipated into nothing. The blue crystals became dim and there on the stone was nothing at all.
Pea and Darl bowed their heads in respect. James did nothing but stare. He had never seen such a magnificent display. Light and music, all connected to some higher world.
Angels can sing, he thought, beaming.
“Consider us all very fortunate this day,” Darl said.
“Why?” James said.
“Only men like Master Willup have the opportunity to see such acts in motion. We witnessed a blessing this day. Confirmation that the heavens remain in glory.”
They left the cavern chamber quietly, something which James figured was entirely out of respect for the deceased. When they had reached the octagon shaped room he put his things down against a wall and sat down next to it. The Lean glided through the center.
“There are no others. Arnur is empty,” the Lean said.
“Are you sure?” Pea said.
“Yes, quite. I have searched even the hidden chambers. No other beings, living or dead, are here.” The Leans voice didn’t falter, an unemotional tone. He could feel, but could not truly express it.
“Does a Lean require sleep?” Darl said, tossing his pack to the ground. It slammed and clanged. The sounds echoed.
“Can you keep watch?”
The Lean nodded, or seemed to nod as its shadowy body shifted as if part of his body had been cut away. “There is a bathhouse through that door,” the Lean indicated a door directly to the right of Master Willup’s safe haven. “I suggest you cleanse your bodies lest the corruption of my Masters befalls you as well.” Then the Lean slipped away through the shadows.
James was the first to get up and head for the door. He couldn’t imagine that Pea and Darl were any less excited about being covered in the blood of their enemies, but neither protested when he rose and walked swiftly towards the door, pack and all.
The corridor to the bathhouse was narrow and damp. Bulbs of water clung to the walls. Hot air and a powerful rocky scent hit him in the face. It took him a moment to adjust to the new temperature, then he continued and found himself in a tall rectangular room. The ceilings were painted, or stained, he couldn’t tell which, with an infinity symbol—a pair of spirals that wound in opposite directions and met together as one in the center. He glanced at it only for a moment before turning to the floor. There three pools, carved by thousands of years of erosion, filled he center of the room. The two smallest pools steamed and bubbled, flanking the larger central pool. Nearby a rock formation distorted the air with waves of heat.
James quickly undressed and slipped into the larger pool. The hot water stung at first, then his body became used to it and he sighed with relief. He watched the water move around him as a slow current rejuvenated the little pool. A strange sheen caught his eye and he watched closer; his skin tingled. He noticed hundreds of strange pinpoints of light swimming in the water, like little fish barely visible to the naked eye. He watched them intently. They swam around his body and ran along his skin as if they were sentient. Blood and grime slipped away with their movements. Sudden sensations of cleanliness came over him, like the feeling after a spring rain well the millions of fragrances of nature pass along the wind. He dipped his head into the water, felt the tingles on his face, and twenty seconds later pulled up from the water, rubbed his eyes and let out a long breath. He looked at his fingers—clean, even under the nails. His feet, legs, arms, and face, all felt as if he had just spent a day in a luxurious spa. The little lights, content with their work, flittered away.
“Thank you,” he said out of a strange habit.
The lights paused, flittered in circles, and then converged in a small group in front of him. Their individual lights became a mass of shiny white in the shape of the word “welcome”. Just as quickly as they had come together, they dispersed in a hundred directions. James tittered.
I wonder if they’ll clean my clothes, he thought. He got out and shuffled over to his things. He found the blood stained clothing in his pack and quickly took them and the clothes he had been wearing to the pool. He took a shoe first and placed it into the water. The little lights came swiftly, converged on the shoe in its horrendous filthiness, and began cleansing it. Half a minute later and the shoe looked nearly brand new. He did the same with his other items, even his pack and the egg. All were clean in a matter of minutes.
“Thank you”. Again the lights formed “welcome” and swam away.
James, now with a pile of completely drenched things, began laying the items out on the rock floor to dry out. He knew it would take a while, but he figured that Darl and Pea wouldn’t want to leave the relative safety of what remained of Arnur to wander off in the woods. He leaned back in the water and breathed slow, soothing breaths.
The lights converged again. He watched out of the corner of his eye. The words “use hot stone” appeared and then just as quickly disappeared. He looked at the waves of heat from the stone he had seen earlier, then back at the pool. Then he slipped out of the pool again and began placing his clothes on the rock. Water sizzled for a moment and then the clothes began to dry. He ran back to the water.
“Thank you again.”
James leaned back and closed his eyes, but the silence didn’t last as long as he wanted. Footsteps sounded down the hall and a moment later Darl and Pea were in the room, undressed, and in the water next to him. It had all happened so fast that he hadn’t the time to protest. For a moment he felt uncomfortable in a room with a tiny man and an old, grumpy swordsman, both naked and both enjoying the pleasures he had just experienced. But James soon realized how much safer he was in the room now that the two were with him.
“We leave tomorrow,” Darl said in the midst of a long winded sigh. “I’m not sure where. But we can’t stay here long.”
“Afeir isn’t far from here. Maybe a four days journey,” Pea said.
“Luthien has probably already been there,” James said. “He would have attacked Afeir first, then Nirlum.”
“And it would be more than a week before we could get there. Staying out of sight would be near impossible if Luthien has control of the air.”
“Then we go to Ti’nagal.”
James frowned. “Is there an easy way there?”
“Not really.” Darl spoke curtly.
“Then we’ll have to make one…”
James turned back and produced the etiquette book. He began to flip through the pages.
“You know, during such testing times, it is quite ordinary for people such are yourself to relax. You have endured much. I think your mind deserves the lack of activity as much as your body does.” Pea tapped him on the shoulder.
“I’m trying to find out what day it is,” he said, mumbling to himself as he found the calendar and began counting the days. How many days had the sun been out? Three? Yes, it had to be three. “I think I’ve been here eight days.”
“So?” Darl said.
James closed the book. “It’s March 12th here. That makes it December 9th back home.”
“And the point of this would be?”
“Today is my birthday.”
Pea gave him a look, a queer look of morbid sympathy.
Darl took in a deep breath and said, “Happy birthday.”
Yes, a very happy birthday to me.