The Mountain Diva of Thebos- Instalment 4
The Mountain Diva of Thebos- Instalment 4
By Tony DeLorger © 2011
‘THE QUEST BEGINS’
The twilight lengthened as the sixth moon cycle came to a close. All the Artec villagers were busily harvesting the fields of ven, fruits and vegetables ready for the long period of darkness. The tri-ans were brimming with grains and pulses, and the fruit stalls were just about full. All the females were completing the garments needed during the cold months and the children collected wood for the fires. The village was a hive of activity.
Arlin looked up beyond the tree line to the grey puffs of cloud above. The mountain sylphs were already weaving their magic and soon the land would feel the white falls and the life cycle would change, not only for their entrusted flora but also for Arlin.
Nya looked out of the hut window at her son, her expression giving away her deep anguish. Since Desta’s abduction Arlin had barely eaten. He was shattered. His chosen one was taken from him and he felt powerless. What could he, a simple Artec, do to save his one true love?
The Artecs were fiercely protective of their kind, but they were not warriors or violent creatures. They were a peace loving and sharing race that by nature and birthright aided the flow of life itself within their realm. As a single being, Arlin could not see how he could possibly save Desta from the most powerful being in Thebos. He constantly pined for her, trying desperately not to imagine what she must be going through.
Since Vi and Soré’s return that fateful day, and after hearing their account of what had happened, all the village believed that Desta was dead. The only news that came from the gully was of creatures hunted and killed or dying in the mines. There was no conceivable way that Desta would survive, but Arlin, deep in his heart could not believe she was dead. For him, she would live until somehow, she could be rescued.
Feeling helpless overwhelmed Arlin. His obsession with Desta’s possible rescue consumed his every waking moment and his family and friends saw his hopes as futile and they pitied him. But in time even Arlin’s hopes began to dwindle. He began to feel raw and empty inside, his life energy slowly draining away while the darkness began to overcome him.
Nya was clearing the table with Lil doing her best to help. It was difficult with Jot constantly taunting her, but she was used to it. Elgan sat quietly by the fire; satisfied with the meal he had just consumed, but lost in thought, gazing blankly at the tonguing flames. The flickering light danced energetically across the walls of the hut bringing a soft warm glow to the room, but Arlin was oblivious to everything. He sat lifelessly on his bed cover, feeling numb from the harshness and cruelty of life and drowning in a sea of self-pity.
Suddenly there was a loud rapping at the door and Elgan groaned as he stiffly rose to his feet and hobbled over to open it. It was Ephram, out of breath, eyes wide with excitement.
‘Elgan, come quickly, we have visitors from the gully! They have news!’
Arlin’s ears pricked up immediately, and he leapt to his feet and rushed to the door.
‘What news? Is it Desta? Please?’
Elgan turned to his son and put his hand comfortingly on his shoulder. ‘Arlin, stay here, I’ll find out what this is about. Please stay here until I return.’
Elgan collected his footwear and belt and hurriedly left with Ephram.
Nya went to Arlin and held him tightly. ‘It’s all right. Everything will be all right,’ she said in a warm consoling voice. She then led Arlin over to a chair and sat him down to wait.
Elgan, still adjusting his clothing, followed Ephram to the meeting hall. It was a large dome-like structure- simple yet well-made, and sat at the centre of the village.
As they entered the hall most of the village elders were already seated at the round meeting table and at the head of the table stood four Terras. Elgan quickly found his seat as Ephram raised his hand to quiet the gathering. Murmuring voices slowly subsided and then there was silence, with all attention now focused on the visitors. The oldest of the Terras stepped forward.
‘I am Orla, this is Toran, Nolt and Jaff. We have travelled far from the gully Tiba to meet with you.’
‘The gully is dying. The water is polluted and few creatures have survived the slavery that Mangarna has inflicted on our home. Our own people live trapped in our cave homes. We have become renegades. Our hunting parties still find food, and rescue some slaves from the Morlons, but they so are many. Alone we cannot win this war against Mangarna. That is why we are here.’
‘Mangarna will control all of Thebos if he can complete this devastating weapon he is building. But without the sacred Crystals of Ophius, this cannot be.’ The gathering rumbled with comments. Orla continued in a more earnest voice.
‘The power of the crystals is Mangarna’s power. Without them he will fail. The only way to return the crystals is with the great Diva’s help. It is the only way, our only hope.’ Elgan rose to his feet and faced Orla.
‘No-one has ever returned from the cave of solitude, at least not since the crystals were placed there by the ancients,’ followed Elgan.
‘No-one accept Mangarna,’ replied Orla. ‘One of our kind.’
‘We must speak to the Diva. There must be a way to return the crystals, to bring the flow of life back and to restore the balance.’ The gathering quieted, deeply concerned at this suggestion.
‘We are on a quest. We four have been chosen to undertake this quest and we will not fail. But we need your help. You live at the base of the great mountain and are winged creatures and work with both the undines and the sylphs. You know this place.’
‘If Mangarna succeeds we will all loose our homes, our way of life and not just in the gully.’ Orla finished, moving back and joining the other Terras.
Ephram turned and faced the elders. ‘Tomorrow we will put this proposal to the village,’ he announced and then turned to the Terras. ‘Meanwhile you will need food and drink and a place to sleep. Guy, please take our guests to the great hall. We will send what you need as soon as possible.’
Guy led the way and the guests left for their sleeping quarters. The elders broke into small groups discussing the proposal and who could possibly go on this dangerous quest.
Elgan, with so much on his mind left immediately and walked briskly home in the cold twilight air, excited but also anxious about this sudden turn of events. It was as if the problems of the gully, which had seemed so faraway, were now suddenly with them. It struck all of them that they were all in great danger and this was to be their time of reckoning.
As Elgan entered the hut, Arlin rushed toward him.
‘What news Father? Any news of Desta?’
‘No son, not so far,’ replied Elgan.
Arlin’s expression changed- his father’s words having dashed his hopes. The smaller children were already asleep in bed and Nya and Arlin sat by the fire and listened eagerly while Elgan passed on the news.
Although the Terras brought confirmation of the horror and disaster in the gully, and the impending danger, it also brought a sense of hope and that all was not lost. The Terras gave the Artecs a sense of purpose and resolve, giving them hope that even if they weren’t equipped to war with Mangarna, the Terras were.
As Elgan spoke, a light flickered inside Arlin, a light that had almost ceased to be. He felt a sudden strength within himself. He knew Desta was alive and he was going to make sure that she stayed that way. He would be her saviour. Arlin said nothing, but he had a plan.
The family retired to their beds to get some rest, but none of them could sleep. With the future uncertain and the white cold about to transform the village, each lay motionless, trying to anticipate what events could possibly unfold. The twilight felt like it went on forever, the deep, dark silence almost too much to bear. Arlin eventually got to sleep, but it was a restless and pointless sleep.
Early the following morning, streams of coiling blue smoke rose from the many village huts. There was an icy chill in the air and many of the villagers were already making their way to the square. Arlin watched the procession from his window after he had changed and waited patiently for the others to get ready.
The clothing for the long darkness was of course much more substantial. The males wore a woven fabric wrapped around their feet and legs, held in place by extended leather straps from the footwear that cross-laced up to the thigh. Long fabric coats were worn with the usual vests underneath. The fronts were tied one side to the other, with a string zigzagged across. When the white cover came, a dome-shaped hat called a ‘jus’ would be worn, as well as gloves made from woven hair.
The females wore long wrap-around fabrics to the ground, with long coats over the top as the males did. On their feet and lower legs, they wore fabric and the same leather footwear. The fabrics varied, but during the long darkness, colours were darker in tone and less vivid, and easier to see against the white.
Most of the Artecs carried large woven pouches over their backs. Because of the conditions during the cold months, they carried many essentials in case of emergency. Fire stones, crystals, covers and the like were included just in case.
Elgan emerged from his room briskly rubbing his hands together. ‘Everyone ready?’ he asked, bobbing around trying to keep warm in the early chill. Lil and Jot flew out of their room and headed for the front door, accidentally knocking over a small vase from a nearby table.
‘Jot!’ shouted Nya, looking at him sternly and raising one eyebrow. Jot stopped and looked at the vase, then quietly returned it to its position and edged back toward the door. He looked back fleetingly but his mum’s expression hadn’t changed. Suddenly he realised her intent and raced back to his room. A few moments later he came out wearing his woven jus; it was forest green with a flower motif on the front.
‘That’s better,’ said Nya with a broad grin. Arlin opened the door and the family joined the others along the path leading to the square. There was a stiff breeze and the villagers were all wrapped up, huddled together and walking quickly. The white had already begun to fall high up on the mountain and dark brooding clouds were beginning to form overhead.
The square was brimming with villagers when they arrived. A sea of dark heads bobbed up and down, chattering endlessly and rubbing their hands and arms briskly in the chill.
Ephram and the four Terras stood at the northern end of the square. When the entire village was present, Ephram moved forward and raised the ‘staff of truth’ and the crowd became silent. Orla, the oldest of the Terras, stepped forward to address the gathering.
‘We have come from the gully. You know what Mangarna has done. It is a dark day for all Terra-Thebans and for all of Thebos. If Mangarna succeeds, life will never be the same again for all creatures that now live here in peace. We have been chosen for a quest.... to return the sacred Crystals of Ophius.’
Orla paused briefly, a low rumble of voices followed.
‘Our only hope is the Diva himself. We must climb the great mountain and discover the secrets of the crystals, enabling us to return them to their rightful place.’
Orla paused again, the crowd becoming even more restless.
‘We have come here to seek your help; your kind live close to the great one. You commune with the sylphs who guard the cave of solitude and administer the Diva’s work.’
‘Who of you will join us on our quest?’ Orla asked, casting his eye over the sea of faces.
The crowd erupted into a loud and frenzied vocal response.
‘But no-one has ever returned from the mountain!’ came a voice from deep within the crowd. A swell of voices echoed, agreeing.
‘It is our only hope!’ pleaded Orla.
‘Surely, one of you will join us?’
From the back of the gathering came a voice, first hesitant, then louder and clearer.
‘I will!’ shouted the voice.
The villagers all turned to see who had spoken. Then, as they parted to clear a pathway to the Terras, a lone figure stood. It was Arlin, standing tall with his chest stuck out proudly in front of him.
Nya, realising it was Arlin, moved forward in a panic.
‘Arlin, no! This is ridiculous!’ she screamed, half angered and half in shock.
Arlin looked at his mother and smiled. ‘I must do this mother,’ he said softly, moving forward toward the Terras. The crowd closed in behind him, Nya and Elgan jostling to get to the front.
‘Ephram, this is madness. Arlin is young and inexperienced, he can’t go on such a quest!’ said Elgan in a distressed voice. Ephram held the staff of truth high above his head to quiet the crowd.
‘Let him speak!’.
Arlin slowly turned and faced the gathering, the faces of his family pleading with him to stop.
‘I know I am young, but my chosen one was taken from me. I must do something. I cannot stay here and do nothing.’
Arlin paused, then faced his father. ‘I know the mountain. I have been there many times with Magnus. I’m sorry father, I know it is forbidden.’
Arlin turned back toward the villagers. ‘I know the way to the Cave of Solitude,’ he said loudly.
‘I am winged and I am strong. I can lead them to the cave. With the help of our new friends and the Diva, we will find Desta and rid Thebos of this peril forever.’
Arlin raised both arms in the air and the village erupted into tumultuous applause and cheering. One of their own had done them proud and they were voicing their approval. Arlin stood tall, the Terras joining him, patting him boisterously on the back, pleased they had found their guide.
Elgan and Nya tightly held their little ones, devastated with the news, but powerless to do anything. The crowd swelled around their hero wishing him luck and giving praise. Elgan watched for a moment then took his family from the square and sadly trudged home.
After a short discussion with Orla, Arlin agreed to leave early after the twilight. The light would not hold much longer, and they wanted to get as far as possible before the white fell in the lowlands.
Arlin then hurried home to face his parents and to make ready for the journey. As he entered the hut, Nya stopped what she was doing and promptly burst into tears. Arlin went to try to comfort her.
‘It’ll be all right,’ he said softly. ‘You’ll see.’
Elgan sat deep in thought in front of the fire, leaning forward with his arms on his knees, his long translucent wings stretched out almost touching the ground. He slowly turned to Arlin.
‘You have to do this, don’t you my son?’
Elgan looked vacantly back at the fire. ‘I could never imagine my life without your mother beside me,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘I understand Arlin, I do.’
Arlin left his mother after kissing her gently on her forehead and headed for his room.
‘I’m proud of you Arlin,’ said Elgan, still staring at the fire. Arlin halted and a warm smile crept across his face.
‘Thank you father,’ he replied and went to his room to pack.
There was a sense of excitement in the village. There was not only a pride for their brave, young volunteer but a sense of real hope that Thebos would return to balance and the evil oppression that hung over them would be gone for ever.
That day and the following twilight just disappeared and all the players in this challenging quest rested well and were up early the next morning making ready for the journey.
Nya finished helping Arlin with his leg straps and then his coat. Elgan had given Arlin his best and warmest coat; it was a little big but once adjusted, it was fine. Nya pulled his jus down over his ears and strung a large pouch over his shoulder.
The Artec coats were interesting in design. A large piece of fabric was missing under the collar. This was of course to allow unrestricted movement of the wings. When putting the coats on, the Artec would lift both wings and slip both arms into the sleeves. Once secured, both wings and arms were lowered and a piece of fabric, including the collar, was reattached to complete the manoeuvre.
Nya checked the rations in the pouch and double-checked that all the straps were secured. ’All ready!’ she said, with both sadness and pride in her eyes. Arlin embraced his mother for a long-time, a single tear rolled down her flushed cheek. She was desperately trying to be strong. Elgan watched them, his face stricken with despair. Arlin turned to his father apprehensively.
‘Wish me luck?’
Elgan grabbed his eldest child and held him tightly, the tears welling in his eyes. He then patted him firmly on the shoulders, releasing him and trying to cover up his tears.
‘You are no longer a child Arlin. Be safe and return to us in one piece. We are proud of you,’ he said strongly, his voice almost breaking. Arlin turned and smiled at the little ones.
‘Are you going to kill monsters?’ enquired Jot.
‘I hope I don’t have to,’ replied Arlin with a broader smile. He crouched down on one knee and looked them both in the eye. ‘Be good, you two.’
Both Lil and Jot lunged forward into their brother’s arms. Then with both still hanging around his neck, Arlin rose to his feet and gently lowered them to the ground, affectionately ruffling the tops of their heads, one after the other.
With a confident smile, he took one last look at his family and their home, turned, straightened up and left the hut.
He moved quickly to the great hall where the Terras were waiting. As he entered, he saw them still making ready, loading supplies and completing their dress.
In the cold season the Terra-Thebans mostly wore animal skins and furs. Pants, vests and coats were carefully stitched together, the outer coats often made of ’Tarka’ fur; a large carnivorous beast, that in the cold would grow a soft, thick fur, perfect for protection against the weather. The fur was grey and brown to black and often four or five inches thick. These large coats also had hoods that could be drawn across the face, offering even more protection.
The Terra footwear consisted of a fur boot strapped up to the knee with strips of leather. Each warrior carried a large sack with shoulder-straps called a ‘tard’. It contained food, utensils and a sleeping cover and was carried on their backs. Their weapons consisted of a knife, a spear, bow and arrows and enough ‘qal’ poison for their arrow tips. Lastly, a large round gourd filled with water was slung over one shoulder.
‘Welcome Arlin!’ said Toran, the youngest of the Terras. The others, realising that Arlin had arrived, rushed over to introduce themselves. Ephram approached the group.
‘Are you ready?’ he said in a businesslike voice.
‘Ready as we’ll ever be!’ replied Nolt, heading for the door.
‘Where is your father?’ enquired Ephram. ‘I thought he would be here.’
‘We have said our goodbyes,’ replied Arlin, a little serious.
They all came out of the great hall and stood on the outside step. Their eyes widened, realising the entire village stood before them, in complete silence. Then as the emotion began to take Arlin, a single clap repeating over and over, came from the rear of the villagers. Arlin looked toward the sound and as the crowd parted to clear a path for the envoy, Arlin realised it was his father. One by one, Nya and every villager joined the clapping. It echoed across the forest, a slow, definite beat that conveyed the pride of the entire village. Arlin and the Terras slowly made their way through the crowd toward the mountain. As Arlin passed his father their eyes met. In an expression of so many emotions, that one look suggested more than words could have ever done.
Out of the village they strode, across the fields and vegetable gardens and on to the foothills. In single file they hiked across a sea of grasses occasionally broken by a rocky outcrop or old tree stump. Above, dark clouds were brewing. Any time now the white would fall, making their journey all the more difficult. Arlin pushed the Terras hard, hoping to make it to the bottom of the cliff face before the twilight.
In only days now the darkness would begin. Six full moon cycles of virtual twilight. Especially three cycles in, it would be difficult to tell the difference between day and twilight. It would always take time to get used to it and to continue the normal rest periods.
About an hour into the twilight they arrived at the cliffs, the Terras exhausted. Arlin, a little more used to the travel, fared well. During the hike he would take to the air to scout ahead, find the most suitable path and return to walk with the others.
Beneath the towering cliff face they rested. Orla, being the oldest, felt the hiking most. He sat on a large fallen log- his legs stretched out in front of him with perspiration dripping down his bearded face. He had drunk from his gourd until he could drink no more and his large full belly hung like a huge ball over his leather belt. Toran and Jaff were busily collecting wood for a fire, while Nolt quietly sat sharpening his knife.
Arlin walked over and sat with him. ‘It doesn’t look like the white will come this twilight. We should be fine out here in the open, it’s sheltered,’ he said, sorting through his pouch for a fire stone.
Nolt said little, he was a true warrior and sharpening his knife made him feel ready for anything.
He wasn’t tall and was perhaps a little finer in physique than the others. His wore a close cropped beard with only a touch of grey, and he had a strong determined face.
Toran arrived back with an arm full of firewood. Arlin stacked them neatly into a mound and added some dry grasses. His firestone quickly did the job and with a few flutters of his hand the fire lit up and streams of smoke billowed into the stillness.
Orla moved his log closer to the fire and rubbed his meaty hands together trying to keep warm. Suddenly a loud squeal echoed in the distance and Arlin jumped. Nolt looked up fleetingly and half-grinned. Some moments later Jaff arrived back carrying a rotund creature over his shoulder. As he approached the fire he let it slip. It hit the ground with a thud, an arrow protruding from its side. Its poor body was still quivering, as life faded from it.
The Terras all voiced their approval but Arlin could not look at the creature, and turned his head away in disgust. The creature was a ‘valen’, a small thickset animal that foraged in the scrub for roots and berries and occasionally preyed on smaller creatures. It was stout, hairless and bore two rather large tusks and as far as the Terras were concerned, was good eating.
‘Could you please do that somewhere else?’ Arlin pleaded, as Jaff thrust his knife into the beast’s belly to gut it. Jaff looked up and grinned, but he obliged, dragging the carcass into the scrub. The others removed their utensils and bed covers and cleared a space near the fire. Arlin moved farther away, not wanting to witness their eating. He lay down to rest having lost his appetite.
Some time later the carcass sat roasting on a metal spit over the fire. Arlin tried not to listen to the crackling and sizzling, and stayed far enough away to avoid smelling it.
Like the Morlons the Terra-Thebans had always been carnivorous but their attitudes differed greatly. The Morlons had little regard for life in any form, including their own kind. Motivated only by need, they simply took what they wanted regardless of outcome. The Terras on the other hand, had an almost devout respect for all life. They never killed for sport, only for survival, ate and used everything for their betterment. They ate the flesh and internal organs of their prey; they used their skins for leather, their bones and claws for various implements and tools, and understood the balance and process of life-and-death in nature. As a race, they never understood other creature’s abhorrence to eating meat, but they did respect their opinion and so left them alone.
‘I trust you did not use the ‘qal’ for our supper?’ asked Nolt, with a snide expression.
‘If I did I wish you to eat first, my brother.’ Orla leaned forward and tore a large piece of flesh from the carcass.
‘I wait no longer!’ he said, chomping down on the meat. The others joined in and they devoured the valen quickly. Arlin lay on his side, his back to the fire, eating some berries from his pouch and thinking about what tomorrow might bring. The twilight was much darker now and the fire glowed like a beacon in the blackness.
Orla passed around a gourd filled with carna and they all leaned back and relaxed by the warmth of the fire, sipping the sweet elixir. As they settled down after their meal a lonely cry came from high up on the cliff face. Its haunting sound echoed in the stillness and they peered up toward it. The persistent cry became a little unnerving and as the sound came closer the Terras sat upright, alert and more guarded. Arlin slowly rose to his feet and listened carefully to the lonely, ominous sound. Suddenly his expression changed. From above came a faint flapping sound.
‘Get down!’ Arlin shouted, knowing now what it was. The flapping sound became louder and louder until it was just about on top of them. With a powerful ‘whoosh’, a huge mountain hawk swooped down; its wingspan at least twenty feet. As it passed, long talons clutched at the carcass remains but missed, knocking the spit and frame flying, with hot coals and sparks showering the clearing.
Nolt, Jaff and Toran dived out of the way and remained flat on their bellies, having left their weapons back where they’d been sitting. Orla, in a panic, awkwardly rolled backwards off his log with both feet flailing in the air, one of them on fire. Arlin quickly raced over to the centre of the clearing, dodged the creature’s mighty talons and bravely threw a cover on Orla’s foot to smother the flames. He then tried to pull Orla away from the fire as the hawk hovered overhead- its huge wings creating a maelstrom as it repeatedly tried to clutch at the meat.
It kept clawing and trying to dislodge it from the metal skewer and frame, but the carcass was tightly secured and wouldn’t come loose. The bird hovered continuously with great determination, but all it was doing was creating a cloud of dust with its wings, clouds of smoke and embers from the fire spewing out across the camp site. Toran desperately tried to crawl to his spear, but each time was pushed back by the hawk’s persistent attack.
Amid all the confusion and the blinding smoke, the creature let out a pained cry and with the erratic flapping of wings, fell to the ground with a heavy thud. In disbelief Arlin and the Terras looked at the now lifeless pile of feathers, not understanding what had just happened.
A creature came into view from behind them, against the cliff face. It was a young Ellok male, with sling, and next to him a small strange looking animal with long spindly legs.
‘A fine shot!’ said Jaff to the Ellok.
‘It would have taken one of you,’ the Ellok replied, turning to leave.
‘Wait!’ shouted Arlin, ‘What is your name?’
The Ellok turned slowly, feeling uneasy.
‘I am Kaelin and this is Doff. He is a creature from the other side of the mountain,’ he added.
‘You have been there?’ enquired Arlin.
‘Of course, I live on the mountain. It’s my home.’ Kaelin began to look them up and down curiously.
‘We have food and drink. Sit with us?’ invited Arlin, trying to fix the fire. Kaelin moved hesitantly into the clearing and sat by the fire. Doff remained by the cliff face.
‘Doff, come!’ said Kaelin in a stern voice. The creature crept gingerly to Kaelin’s side and sat with its head next to his thigh.
‘I have never seen such a creature,’ said Nolt, mystified. Orla, after studying Doff’s strange shape, became amused and began to chuckle. Doff turned toward him and snarled viciously, bearing some nasty, sharp looking teeth.
‘He doesn’t like that,’ warned Kaelin.
‘He may look harmless, but I assure you he is not.’
Doff was a strange looking creature, covered with a fine glossy, dark fur. Its body was long and slender with long spindly legs. Its head was even stranger, appearing out of proportion and much larger than it should have been. It had a long and broad face with no visible ears and jagged bone-like protrusions that grew from the tip of its nose to the top of its head. There was little fur on its face and its skin was coarse and grey. It had horrid eyes- small, beady and blood-red. After seeing its razor-sharp teeth, it was obviously not a creature to antagonise. But in the company of its master, Doff seemed strangely docile and obedient.
‘Do you know of Mangarna?’ asked Arlin.
‘I live in Thebos do I not?’ Kaelin replied, accepting a bowl of berries. He took a mouthful and consumed them with great enjoyment, then continued.
‘You will need my eyes on your quest.’ Kaelin followed. All of them turned in surprise.
‘You know of our quest?’ asked Arlin, taken aback.
‘I know every stone on this mountain and I have seen the entrance to the cave of solitude. What’s more, I know the creatures of the mountain. There are things you will not know, perhaps like the hawk? I wish the crystals returned as all creatures do. I want to help.’
The others looked at one another, impressed by the young Ellok, but before they could say a word, Kaelin spoke again.
‘I will return after the twilight.’ He then vanished into the darkness.
The Terras shrugged in confusion and Arlin stood there scratching his head.
‘What a strange one,’ said Orla now trying to wipe the black off his burnt boot.
They all cleaned up the mess and Nolt took a few hawk feathers as a trophy. All agreed to retire early; that was enough excitement for one day. Toran refuelled and stoked the fire and they settled down for their twilight rest.
It was cold and they wrapped themselves tightly in their covers. By morning it seemed even colder and Arlin awoke with an odd crawling feeling on his face. He sat up with a start and immediately realised the white had begun to fall. He looked upward and saw the delicate white flakes floating down from the sky, covering the ground and adorning the trees and bushes like lace decorations. Arlin loved that feeling on his face and how the white transformed the landscape. But he also knew how much more difficult it would make their journey.
Meeting Kaelin pleased Arlin. In the white, it would be difficult to rediscover the trails he had made with Magnus. Having Kaelin along, with all his experience on the mountain, would take the pressure off him.
They all stowed away their belongings and buried the remains of the fire. The white was only falling lightly and would not hinder their ascent too much. With all their packing done, they waited patiently for Kaelin, but he didn’t show up.
‘We’re losing too much time,’ said Arlin. ‘We can’t wait any longer.’
Arlin led the Terras to the pathway he had made with Magnus long ago. It zigzagged across the cliff-face, taking them higher and higher up the mountain, eventually reaching the top of the cliff. Beyond that was a fairly steep incline, covered with bushes and small rocky outcrops, with even more rock faces beyond. They rested briefly for a moment, taking some water and easing their already tired muscles.
‘What took you so long?’ a voice resounded from behind a large boulder. Nolt jumped to his feet nervously, his spear at the ready. It was Kaelin, wearing a mischievous smile. Doff leapt over the boulder from behind him and landed at his feet, snarling at Orla, who grimaced and took a step back.
‘Doff!’ snapped Kaelin. The creature stopped obediently and settled quietly by Kaelin’s side.
‘I’ve been waiting.’
‘We thought you weren’t coming,’ replied Arlin, happy to see him.
‘I went ahead to find the easiest path,’ followed Kaelin, taking a swig from his water pouch. ‘This is the right way.’
They all rested and Arlin passed around some pieces of fruit for energy. Kaelin looked at them strangely at first, not recognising them, but quickly scoffed them down, enjoying every mouthful. It was not often that he visited the forest and food on the mountain was not as plentiful or varied.
Although Kaelin was not a meat-eater, he’d hunted for skins in the cold periods, and well used the heavy furs of the higher mountain creatures. His young slender frame appeared lost within the cover of thick fur. It made him look large and threatening.
‘This track will suit us,’ he said, pointing to the north-east.
‘Do you know of the tunnel, Kaelin? It would take off much time,’ said Arlin, looking directly up at the cliff face above.
‘I do. But it carries with it much danger. Many creatures occupy the tunnels, creatures you will not want to meet,’ he said in a more serious tone.
Toran, having listened to the conversation, stepped forward. ‘If it saves time, we should do it.’ He then looked at the others for support and they agreed.
‘All right, Kaelin?’ asked Arlin.
‘I will take you.’
Arlin grabbed his arm before he could move. ‘Let me check the way first.’
He spread his wings and dusted off the white flakes, then took to the air and flew low, over bushes and rocks, sweeping up toward the tunnel entrance. The entire mountain was now covered in white, but not too deep for walking. The icy air made his face go numb and his wings felt the burning of intense cold. He hovered momentarily at the entrance, noting the features of the surrounding terrain, then quickly returned to the others.
‘The way is clear,’ he announced on arrival.
Arlin and Kaelin led the Terras up the incline toward the tunnel and Doff leapt here and there across and around the hikers, as they trudged through the thick white cover. Although thin and spidery, Doff was a fast, agile creature and if there was any impending danger he would alert them to it quickly.
It took almost until twilight to reach the entrance. The last of the climb was difficult, having to traverse some steep and ragged rocks. Their plan would work well. The tunnels would take at least one full cycle to go through and no-one wanted to camp in the middle.
For protection they settled in the tunnel entrance, undercover from the white and the wind, but in a position to escape if it became necessary.
Toran and Jaff collected wood for the fires and the others set up the camp. Two large fires were built one inside the tunnel and the other at the entrance. This way they were protected from whatever was lurking about and in addition, Orla decided that they all should take turns guarding the camp during the twilight.
Kaelin sat with Arlin, happily eating some berries, while the Terras settled for ‘kabir’, a dried and tough, salt-cured meat that was kept for such an occasion. They were all too tired to hunt and were more than happy with the kabir, a piece or two of fruit and of course some carna to warm them up.
They stacked the fires high and all retired early to get a good start at the end of the twilight. Toran was on first watch. He sat on his bed cover up against the cold tunnel wall and listened to the soft crackling of the fire. Its smoke rose slowly to the top of the tunnel like grey clouds billowing before the rains, then dissipated out into the twilight. Eventually, in the stillness and the gentle flickering of the firelight Toran nodded off, his chin resting heavily on his broad-barrelled chest.
From deep within the tunnel two blood-red eyes peered out of the darkness toward the camp. They remained motionless for some time, piercing the blackness with a cold expressionless glare, then disappearing without sound or trace.
The fires just lasted the twilight and when they all began to stir only a few embers remained. Orla woke up with a start, realising that they had all slept through their vigil, but relieved that all was quiet. A little embarrassed, the Terras broke camp and doused what remained of the fires.
Kaelin and Doff had already been up ahead to check out the path, and just as the Terras were ready to push on, Kaelin emerged from the tunnel.
‘This way!’ Kaelin turned and went to catch up with Doff, who had already made his way into the tunnel. He had left fire torches for each of them, leaning against the wall. Orla handed them out- lit the first, then in turn the others and they began the trek.
As the light from the entrance lessened, the torches alone lit up the cavity with a dim golden light. The tunnel walls were damp and cold and occasionally the sounds of dripping water echoed in the enclosed space. In single file they moved warily through the darkness, Kaelin and Doff in the lead, followed by Arlin and then the others. Toran was selected for the rear position and he nervously stepped through the darkness, constantly checking behind him. It was never good to be last.
After what seemed like forever the tunnel forked and Kaelin went up ahead to corroborate the right direction. The others removed their packs, found a rock to sit on and quietly drank some water. The journey was not physically demanding but no-one felt the least bit safe and being so constantly vigilant was draining.
Nolt lay back with his head propped up on his pack and closed his eyes for a moment to relax. His long brown and grey hair hung down over the rock like a thick blanket.
He began to doze off. Jaff, who was sitting opposite him only a few feet away, shook his head and smiled. Then something caught his eye. A shadow ominously appeared just behind Nolt’s head. Suddenly the shadow moved, becoming larger on the stone wall behind him. As the shadows source slowly came into view Jaff gasped.
A creature six inches across, with many legs and a curled up tail with a seriously pointed spike at its end, sat squarely atop Nolt’s skull. Nolt, in a half sleep, took a reckless swipe at whatever was tickling his head. The creature reared up, its sting held high above its body ready to strike. Jaff quickly grabbed his spear and holding it like a club, swiped at the creature, sending it flying into the stone wall, to then scurry off into the darkness. Nolt, feeling the blow, leapt to his feet in fright wondering what had happened. Standing before him was Jaff, wide-eyed and wild, standing there with his spear in his hand.
‘What did you do that for?’ shouted Nolt.
Without words Jaff nervously pointed behind him and Nolt held out a torch to light up the wall. There in the dim light, must have been twenty or thirty of these creatures, crawling menacingly over the damp stone. Nolt lurched back, a cold shiver moving up his spine. Just then, Kaelin stepped forward. ’You don’t want to play with those,’ he said. ‘Come on, I’ve found the way.’
Without taking their eyes off the creatures, they all quietly collected their belongings and carefully backed away into the left fork.
‘What were those things?’ enquired Arlin.
‘They’re called Meecas. These creatures are many, but the cave-dwellers are the largest. One sting and you’re dead in only a blink. It is best you keep away,’ said Kaelin, with the beginnings of a grin.
‘So glad I asked,’ replied Arlin.
They moved further and further into the mountain and along the way they saw many other tunnels, creating a catacomb, each tunnel and opening looking much the same as the others. Every turn and new direction was wisely marked with a cross on the tunnel walls, to ensure a safe and correct return path. This was Orla’s job, which he carried out with a piece of chalk he had taken for such a purpose.
Nolt was now behind the group, feeling much the same as Toran had felt. He had the strangest feeling of being watched and nervously kept turning, expecting something to be behind him. As they passed each of the adjoining tunnels and chambers Nolt thought he heard scratching sounds and the sound of padding feet. He’d turn swiftly with his spear at the ready, but saw nothing. Thinking it was his imagination he’d simply shrug his shoulders and then catch up with the others.
From deep within the darkness of the tunnels, two red eyes once again appeared, watching their every move. They would remain for a moment, then move on, anticipating the traveller’s path and keeping just out of sight.
Up ahead in the far distance a dim light appeared, and as they got closer it increased in intensity.
‘This can’t be the end, can it?’ asked Toran. Kaelin smiled knowingly.
The tunnel suddenly opened out into a huge cave, alive with light. Masses of long spikes of pale stone hung from the ceiling and towered upward from the encrusted floor. Everything glowed in a soft luminescent light, emanating from the stone itself. The cavity must have been fifty feet high and the same across. Many tunnels and chambers connected to this magical cave and Arlin looked up in total wonder. He had never seen such a sight before and the Terras all smiled at his reaction.
‘This is our world,’ said Orla proudly, admiring natures work. While Kaelin and Doff checked out the other side of the cave, Arlin took a closer look at one of the spikes. It was like a million tiny crystals shimmering like the morning light across a creek. He found a small piece of the stone by the spike and quickly placed it in his pouch as a memento.
The cave dipped steeply at its centre, and below Kaelin slowly made his way to the other side. Doff leapt stealthily over the rocks and platforms, sniffing the ground and checking everything.
Amid the tranquillity and beauty of this cave wonderland, came a bloodcurdling roar, from high up on the left side of the cave. They all reeled and looked up in total shock to see a huge creature leap down from its upper chamber to a ledge over the pathway below. Doff turned, bearing his razor-sharp teeth and snarling ferociously, jumping up and down and around in a frenzy.
The creature was the size of six Terras. Covered with dark-brown and grey spotted fur, it had huge paws with long curved claws, which scraped menacingly against the coarse rock. Its face was terrifying with eyes the colour of burning embers, glazed and hateful. From its gaping mouth it revealed long sharp teeth, with two larger curved teeth hanging down six inches from the front of its upper jaw.
The creature’s powerful frame hesitated momentarily, seemingly winding itself up, making ready to attack. Kaelin was trapped below it, pinned up against a large boulder. With an expression of sheer terror on his face, he held his spear out in front of him, knowing that if the creature pounced on him, he would surely die.
The others sprang into action and raced down the incline to defend him. Doff however, couldn’t wait. His master was in danger and without any concern for his own life, lunged fearlessly toward the beast. It let out a defiant snarl and lashed at Doff with its gigantic claws. Poor Doff went flying through the air, over the boulder and into the wall beyond. Kaelin let out a scream, lunging forward and thrusting his spear at the beast, piercing its lower leg. It grimaced with the pain and turned toward him, ready to bite this impudent creature’s head off. Before it could lift its mighty paw to secure its pray, Arlin’s quick thinking saved the young Ellok. In full flight he swooped down and snatched Kaelin from within its reach, easing him down on to a ledge on the other side of the cave.
The creature dropped down to the pathway, snarling and edging its way closer to the Terras, who were prodding it, trying to keep it at bay. It was so large none of them could get close enough to affect any injury and their arrows were just too small to bring it down. It snarled viciously as streams of saliva dripped from its broad gaping mouth. Toran moved back quickly and applied ‘qal’ to his spear tip as the beast studied them, seemingly revelling in this prolonged stalking, waiting for the right moment to tear them all to pieces.
Then, when the time seemed right, the monster suddenly stopped, folded its ears back and lowered its body to the ground. Playtime was over. It arched its back up, like a spring about to uncoil. Its eyes became like two slits, pleasured by what it was about to do.
Suddenly, Doff hurtled through the air from the ledge above and attached himself to the beast’s neck, tearing viciously into its flesh. The creature reared up in pain, screaming, swinging its head back and forth trying to dislodge the tenacious Doff. But he kept a vice like grip on the creature’s neck, gnawing deeper and deeper into its flesh and sending a steady stream of blood down its chest.
This was their chance and Toran, armed with the poisonous spear, ran at full speed toward the beast. As it reared up from Doff’s unrelenting attack, he drove it hard into the beasts exposed belly until it finally broke through the tough outer hide and penetrated its body. The beast shrieked and twisted its head around to Doff, still dangling from its neck, and then bit him cleanly in half.
‘No!’ screamed Kaelin horrified and running full pelt toward it.
The huge creature reared up, writhing in pain, with Doff’s jaw and what was left of him, still attached to the beast’s neck. It snorted and snarled then slowly lowered itself to its knees. As the poison began to take affect, it fell flat on its belly with a huge thud. After a few final breaths the hulk lay motionless, the qal had done its job.
Kaelin leapt on to its back and repeatedly stabbed the dead beast with his knife, the tears streaming down his face, until he could do it no more. He then slumped on to its broad furry back and gently touched Doff’s head, not believing that he had lost his loyal companion. The others stood silently paying homage to the small creature that had saved all of their lives.
After he finally pulled himself together, Kaelin climbed down from the beast and wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
‘We must continue. There may be others.’
The Terras silently congratulated Toran for his effort and they all moved quickly into the tunnel on the other side of the cave. Arlin moved to the front with Kaelin.
After a moment he hesitantly spoke.
‘I’m so sorry about Doff, he was a brave creature. Kaelin nodded, holding himself together.
‘What was that?’ Arlin enquired.
‘Matoose, the long tooth,’ said Kaelin, still upset.
‘We’re all sorry, Kaelin. Doff saved our lives!’
Kaelin moved further forward to be alone, and Arlin happily dropped back to give him space.
They trudged on through the tunnels without further difficulty and it was almost twilight when they reached the other side of the mountain. There was a storm brewing outside and a strong squall was blowing the white fakes everywhere. There was almost no visibility, just a blanket of white haze.
As they had done at the entrance, they set up camp with two fires. Toran and Jaff took ages to find enough firewood, the fall more than two feet deep. All they could do was blindly move through the cover until they struck an obstacle, often a twig or fallen branch. It was a long and exhausting task, but eventually they gathered enough wood and returned to the camp exhausted.
They all sat vacantly by the fires, listening to the wind whistle across the tunnel entrance. Orla moved stiffly over to where Toran was seated.
‘You’ve done well today. I have something for you.’ Orla reached into his pouch and handed Toran the long curved tooth of the Matoose. Toran’s face lit up.
‘It should make a handsome necklace,’ suggested Orla with a broad smile, patting him proudly on the back. Toran studied the tooth, feeling pleased with himself.
The Terras once again had to settle for kabir and carna, while Arlin and Kaelin shared the rest of the fruit. They all hoped for a break in the weather after twilight- they could do with some more food and an easier path would be welcome.
After all had consumed their fill, they rested without speaking, quietly reflecting on the journey so far. The flickering fires soothed the shadows across the tunnel walls, while the wind whistled loudly outside in the cold. Orla was on first watch.
They were all exhausted and just about asleep when a strange sound interrupted nature’s song. A shuffling sound was coming from outside the entrance. Orla rose to his feet, firmly grasping his spear. To his complete surprise a lone figure appeared out of the raging storm, its slender silhouette slowly shuffling toward him. The frail figure was out of breath and obviously freezing. Orla rushed toward it just as it collapsed to its knees, falling on to its side. He held out his torch, revealing an old, frail creature that looked like an Ellok, but Orla suspected that it wasn’t. The poor thing was panting and shaking from the cold. He was only moderately dressed in a simple robe, which hung loosely from his shoulders and he wore a sandal similar to the besha. He had long white hair with a full beard, his pale skin wrinkled like the gentle folds of a soft fabric. He was as cold as ice, the white flakes almost entirely covering him.
Everyone was now awake from all the commotion and they crowded around to see what they could do to help.
‘Quickly get a cover!’ said Arlin urgently.
‘Over by the fire!’ shouted Orla, gently lifting the creature under the arms and dragging him towards the warmth of the flames. Kaelin tucked a cover around him tightly and brushed the flakes from his face. His shaking slowly subsided as the warmth began to thaw his fragile body. They were all crouched around the creature when he slowly opened his eyes; they were an iridescent blue, soft yet piercing.
‘Thank you,’ he mumbled in a feeble voice, then fell unconscious.
‘I’ll stay with him,’ said Arlin, moving his cover closer to the old one.
‘We should get some sleep,’ said Orla. ‘We’re going to need it.’
The others returned to their bed covers while Arlin checked the old one again, to make sure that he was still breathing. After Arlin was satisfied that he would be all right, he lay down to rest and then quickly fell into a deep asleep. They were all exhausted.
The unrelenting storm continued throughout the twilight and the fires kept them warm and safe. When the sun rose the storm had subsided and only a few wisps of smoke rose from the remains of the fires. Arlin turned toward the old one who was obviously dreaming. His wrinkled eyelids were flickering energetically and he was mumbling to himself. His scrawny legs trembled and occasionally flinched as if he was about to leap to his feet. Arlin smiled and leaned over to wake the poor old creature from his dream. As he did the old one jumped violently and sat bolt upright and screamed, scaring Arlin so much he fell back off his haunches in a heap on the ground.
Orla, who had witnessed it, burst out laughing with everyone now scrambling to their feet, wondering what was going on. Dishevelled and disoriented from their untimely awakening, the group gathered around the creature and looked down at his toothless smile.
‘Who are you old one?’ asked Kaelin.
‘Who are you?’ he responded in a sprightly, slightly cheeky voice.
‘What were you doing out in the storm?’ enquired Arlin. ‘You were lucky to find us.’
‘Ah, that. It wasn’t like that when I went out.’
‘What is your name?’ asked Arlin, trying to make sense of him.
‘Name… Name...?’ he muttered, thinking hard. ‘Call me.... No, no, it will come to me......Ahh..... Pen. Call me Pen, I like that.’ he followed in a croaky, shaky voice.
Arlin looked at the others and shrugged in confusion. Then Pen simply struggled to his feet and began to shuffle off. ‘Goodbye!’ he said pleasantly, waving his slender, bony hand over his shoulder.
‘Wait!’ cried Arlin, chasing after him. ‘What are you doing here old one?’
Pen stopped, gently turned and smiled. ‘I live here, this is my home,’ he followed, his toothless smile broadening just a little.
‘We are on a quest to the cave of solitude, to meet the Diva.’ Arlin said proudly. ‘Perhaps you know the way? The white has covered everything.’
Pen looked rather confused, not knowing what to say, but then he suddenly resigned himself and spoke.
‘I know a pathway to your destination, but I must leave you before you reach it. I live in a cave high up in the southern cliff face; I will go no further than that.
‘Come this way,’ he said pleasantly and shuffled outside and turned hard left. The others were bewildered with this strange old being, but given their present circumstance his offer was worth a chance. So they collected their belongings and with a little apprehension, followed him.
For an old creature, and for the size of his tiny steps, he moved quickly. Pen was adept at moving through his rugged mountain home- even the young Terras found it difficult to keep up. Over boulders, under branches and through the thick undergrowth, Pen pushed on tirelessly.
The sun was almost overhead when they arrived at the southern cliff face. Pen suddenly stopped and turned to Arlin.
‘Up there, that’s where I’m going,’ he said, pointing high up to a small cave opening on the cliff.
‘But how can you possibly get up there?’
‘Goodbye and good luck,’ said Pen cheerfully as he shuffled off into the thick undergrowth. Arlin turned to Orla, dumbfounded. ‘What a strange one’. Then amid this pensive interlude, Pen suddenly reappeared, his head poking out of a nearby bush.
‘Oh! Keep going forward, that’s the way!’ he added, pointing and chuckling. He then disappeared again.
Kaelin looked overhead at the grey clouds rolling in. Once again a storm was looming and it wouldn’t be long before another layer of white would cover the landscape, posing further challenge to their slow ascent.
‘We need to find a cave and some food,’ he said, in a concerned voice. ‘This weather‘s not going to make it any easier.’
‘I could do with a good meal,’ Jaff sported. ‘Kabir is losing its appeal’
‘What appeal?’ added Nolt.
The cliffs had many alcoves and caves and it wasn’t long before they had chosen a suitable camp site. It was much earlier than they would have normally set up camp, but with the storm fast approaching and with little food, time seemed of little importance.
Orla and Nolt stowed all of their belongings and set up camp in a small but cosy cave that offered both room and protection from the weather. Toran and Jaff decided to pit their hunting skills against the creatures of the mountain and to find some usable firewood. Kaelin took the opportunity to show Arlin where to find the fruits and nuts and all of them displayed a renewed vigour. They were getting close to their destination and spirits were high.
Jaff was lucky enough to make a successful kill. It was only a small scrub creature and would be by no means a feast, but it was fresh game and the Terras were pleased with it. Also Kaelin had found some berries and a few wild apples, just enough for a meal.
The twilight was soon under way and a large fire blazed, giving the cave a comforting warm glow. All were satisfied with their meal and laid back contentedly. Even the darkness held no secrets; no lurking beasts or life threatening challenge awaited them, just the tranquillity and safety of the fire was all that prevailed.
Orla was in a great mood and told a few far-fetched tales of bravery and conquest, and by the flickering light of the fire they all revelled in the camaraderie, for the first time feeling secure with their surroundings.
‘What about the old one?’ said Nolt laughing. How do you think a crazy old creature like that could survive here?’
‘There’ll be many a story to tell after this journey,’ added Orla. ‘And the least of them may well be Pen.’
Eventually they all settled down for the night while outside the white fell heavily, further burying the mountain in a soft glistening blanket. They all remained fast asleep and the fire burned all the way through until twilight’s end.
The following morning arrived like a pleasant surprise, the fall had ended and the grey clouds had vanished, leaving a clear sky. It was a perfect day and the travellers slowly awoke. They were well rested and knew this was the day of reckoning. Today they would reach the ‘Cave of Solitude’ and face the Diva himself. All their efforts rested in this one meeting. Would the Diva help them? They would soon find out.
As they packed up the camp they all considered the possible outcomes of their quest. There was a sense of doubt but somehow none of them felt in any danger. The mountain felt tranquil and at peace.
Kaelin kicked dirt over the remaining embers of the fire and they loaded up and broke camp. From here on the climbing was a little more difficult, with many crags and outcrops to travail. Arlin took flight briefly to check their path and caught his first glimpse of the cave opening.
Eventually they scrambled over the last of the rocks and alighted on to a small clearing in front of the sacred cave. At either side of the opening stood stone sculptures of reptilian beings, full-winged and snarling as if to give warning. The group rested momentarily, taking water and catching their breath, then Arlin rose to his feet and turned toward Orla.
‘I must do this alone,’ he said in earnest. ‘The sylphs will listen to an Artec.’
Orla looked put out and turned to the others for their reaction. Nolt shrugged with some ambivalence. ‘He does have a point.’
With a half-heated nodding of agreement from the travellers, Arlin turned and walked gingerly toward the cave entrance. As he moved into the opening he saw several torches on both sides of the passageway dimly lighting up the way into the cave. Some ten feet in front of him stood two sylph guards in battledress, their arms tightly folded, their mouths pursed with proud determination. Arlin looked furtively over his shoulder at the others waiting in anticipation, then moved toward the guards, trying to hold back his welling fear.
Then a voice broke the silence. ‘Let him pass!’ it echoed, from beyond the passageway. The sylph guards bowed obediently in response and withdrew into the main chamber and out of sight. Arlin entered hesitantly.
The chamber was large and dome-shaped and at its centre sat an altar or font of sorts. Three feet high, it displayed a round horizontal plate on top of a rectangular pillar. In the centre of the plate a circular cavity was carefully chiselled out. Arlin knew immediately what should have been housed there. From high up in the chamber came a shaft of light that lit up the altar. Arlin felt a sudden wave of sadness and the realisation of how this sacred place had been desecrated. He moved over to the altar and ruefully placed his hand in the hollow cavity. Suddenly he was disturbed by a sound that came from the other side of the altar. He edged back feeling uneasy and vulnerable, peering deeply into the darkness from where the sound had come. There in the shadows, Arlin saw the outline of a figure, a slight and frail figure.
‘Who’s there?’ he asked nervously. There was no reply. Arlin moved quietly around the altar and edged closer. Suddenly a torch lit to reveal a small chamber and its occupant. Arlin stepped back in shock.
‘What are you doing here?’ he asked with surprise.
The kind and gentle face of this strange soul suddenly transformed into a toothless grin.
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