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Copyright 2015 by billwstories
Chapter 16 - Getting Closer to Their Goal.
After hurriedly jumping to their feet after being flung to the floor of the chamber and still momentarily stunned by what had just taken place, Kieren’s companions remained frozen in disbelief. Even though they understood the threat posed by Srejan had now been abated, they still felt they weren’t entirely safe. They believed it was possible that recent developments might have alerted others about their presence in the tunnels, but no one was certain about what they should do next. They knew they needed to do something, but it seemed everyone had their own idea about what that should be.
A couple of them immediately raced to Hadwin’s side, to see if they could assist the injured warrior, while others thought they should make certain Srejan was truly dead. Still some of the others were busy preparing to hold off more of the Dark Lord’s minions, in case they should suddenly come charging down one of the corridors at them.
Turquinine and Rhys decided it was up to them to go over and make certain Srejan would not come after them again. Just for safety sake, each warrior thrust his sword into the monstrous carcass, in several different locations, to make certain it was dead and not merely stunned. It was similar to what they had done with the Serpent Colossus, because they preferred not to take any chances that it was still alive. They certainly didn’t want to have to deal with it again, especially at a later time.
Kieren, who had just released the awesome power of the Golden Medallion, was one of those who went to check on Hadwin. Although Kieren was still groggy, slightly dazed and feeling very weak from releasing that awesome power, with Garreth's help he managed to stagger over to where Hadwin lay. Severely drained of his strength, the teen was also somewhat confused about what he should do next to help the Nardinian. Even though his instincts were trying to kick in, he was acting more like he was questioning an injured playmate, instead of a wounded warrior.
“Are you hurt? Do you think you can walk?” he blurted out, while shaking Hadwin gently.
Even though he was persistent, Kieren was unable to get a response from the warrior. Alarmed, and suddenly realizing this was more serious than he first acknowledged, he turned toward the others and spoke.
“Hadwin’s not moving and won't answer me," he announced, extremely concerned. “I think he might be d-dead.”
Sedain, Quintain and Alairic had opted to examine some of the other corridors in the interim and had been busily watching for signs that others might be approaching. When they heard what Kieren said, however, they stopped what they were doing and raced toward their fallen comrade. When they reached Hadwin’s side, they frantically began checking him for signs of life. After examining him briefly, they saw he wasn’t breathing and tried to revive him, but it didn’t take long before they realized their efforts were fruitless. At that point, Alairic stood up and faced the others. They could tell by looking at the grim expression on the elf's face that the news wasn't good.
“I’m afraid he’s gone,” he said simply and in a barely audible voice.
“Did I do it when I killed that… that thing?” Kieren asked, as he began to panic. He was pointing at Srejan’s motionless form and deeply concerned that he might have unintentionally killed his protector at the same time.
“No,” Quintain responded without hesitation. The dwarf was still kneeling beside Hadwin’s lifeless form. “I’ve examined his body and the injuries he sustained were from the beast’s grip and not from anything you did. It was that thing that killed him, not you. Its pinchers, or whatever those damnable things were, managed to pierce Hadwin’s mail coat and left lengthy and deep gashes on both sides of his torso. I’m certain those injuries also indicate that Hadwin sustained massive internal injuries as well. You did not kill him, but you may well have saved the rest of us.”
As reassuring as this news was, it did little to ease Kieren’s conscience or the pain he felt about losing another of his protectors. Whether or not he had been directly responsible for the Nardinian’s death wasn’t really the issue. In a sense, he felt what happened could still be attributed to him, one way or another. There was no way he could deny that those they had lost so far had only perished because they had volunteered to accompany and protect him on this mission.
This time, however, instead of seeing the knight's death as the senseless result of carrying out a hopeless assignment, Kieren used it to strengthen his resolve to complete the mission. Yes, it had been a difficult and dangerous journey so far, but the others had previously convinced him they were doing it because they were determined to help him fulfill the prophecy. It was true their primary responsibility was to protect him, but they had assured him they were willing to take these risks so he’d be able to destroy Madumda. Therefore, instead of feeling guilty about what had just happened, this time Kieren focused his anger and directed it toward the one that truly deserved it. Kieren was finally able to admit that Madumda was to blame, not him.
The ever-alert Alairic had been focusing on Kieren during the interim, because he was worried about how the young man was going to react this time. Due to his concern, the elf quickly surmised that Kieren was not merely mourning the loss of another of his guardians, but he was most likely also feeling responsible again. For that reason, the elf quietly slipped closer to the young man and started to whisper in his ear.
“Kieren, I appreciate how you must be feeling right now,” Alairic began, “but you can’t give up. You must complete this task. If you don’t then all of these deaths will lack meaning and have been for naught. Selvaggio, Doenilio, Romaric and Hadwin all understood the risks they were taking and did not flinch in the face of danger. They willingly traded their lives to give you the opportunity to succeed, because they truly believed only you could prevent Madumda from gaining power. That’s why you need to keep going, as a way of honoring their sacrifices.”
“I know you’re right,” Kieren responded, “and I wasn’t about to react the way you feared or that I’ve done in the past. Yes, I still feel badly each time we lose someone else, but this time I have no doubts that I must go on. I have to find the Sword of Kings and then use it to destroy Madumda, because he alone is the one to blame for each of their deaths.”
Alairic was slightly taken aback by Kieren’s statement and his sudden shift in his attitude. It was definitely not what the elf had been expecting to hear. He was prepared to have to verbally battle with the Kieren in order to convince him that he needed to continue on, but the teen had already figured it out for himself. As he looked at Kieren more closely, Alairic could see that tears were flowing from the lad’s eyes, as he grieved for another lost soul, but this time the elf also noticed Kieren’s resolve to go on.
As the others moved in Kieren’s direction, because they also suspected the teen might react negatively to what had just happened, Alairic signaled them that everything was fine. They all looked a little surprised by this notification, but they weren’t about to question it further. There were other concerns that were much more important at this moment.
“We’d better get moving again,” Rhys stated, with a hint of urgency in his tone. “We don’t have time to grieve for Hadwin at the moment, because I suspect your release of magic has alerted at least one person about our presence here in the tunnels. Therefore, it’s imperative we get up and start moving again, before anyone comes looking for us.”
“But what about Hadwin?” Kieren blurted out, louder than he intended. “Shouldn’t we do something for him first?”
“There’s nothing more we can do for him now,” Alairic stated, which momentarily stunned the teen. “We must get moving again, but we shall come back for his body and honor it later, after this is finally over.”
Without giving Kieren a chance to object or debate the point further, Alairic reached out and took Kieren’s hand. As gently as he could, he pulled him away from Hadwin’s corpse and then continued to drag him forward, as he guided the teen into position as they formed up with the others.
“Qaim, will you please take charge and lead us out of this place?” Rhys asked their furry guide.
That’s all Qaim needed to hear. Without any hesitation, the aignx scampered away from the others and began checking to see which tunnel they would need to take. While Qaim was doing this, Garreth had moved closer to Kieren, so he could speak with him privately.
“What you did was really awesome!” the young elf exclaimed. It was quite obvious that he had been sincerely impressed by his friend’s prior actions. “I can’t believe you were able to do that, because I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“And I hope you never see anything like it again,” Kieren responded, dryly.
In his own way, Kieren was trying to let his friend know that he’d rather not encounter another threat that could only be dealt with by using the awesome power of the medallion. Undaunted by Kieren’s less than enthusiastic response, however, Garreth continued.
“Man, I still can’t believe my best friend just killed that huge, hideous beast,” he added, while looking at Kieren with a great deal of awe and respect.
“I didn’t do it,” Kieren told him, unemotionally. “The medallion did.”
“Maybe,” Garreth conceded, unfazed by Kieren’s reluctance to take credit for what he had done, “but you were the one who summoned the magic. Did it hurt at all when you destroyed the troll's pet?”
“No, I didn’t feel a thing, but it did tire me out,” Kieren advised him.
Kieren was quietly hoping Garreth would just let the subject drop, but then again he suspected it probably wasn’t going to happen quite that easily. In an effort to make this as painless as he could, Kieren decided to share a little more information with Garreth. He hoped that by doing this, it would sate his friend’s curiosity more rapidly.
“Beraut told me the medallion wouldn’t harm me if I used it,” he began, “but he did warn me that other magical beings would be able to sense the release of its power. That’s why I’m worried that Madumda might know we’re here now. He may even be searching for us as I speak, so I suggest we’d better get moving again.”
This was enough to end Garreth’s curiosity, since he now had to worry about the Dark Lord showing up too. This time, it was the elf who was the one urging Kieren to hurry up and get going again, since he wanted to get away from this place as rapidly as he could.
The small group finally set off a few seconds later, after Qaim finished examining the tunnels. He had now determined their new course and was urging the rest of the companions to follow him.
“You come with Qaim. We go this way,” he announced. “Quick. We need to hurry. Qaim take you where you need to go.”
Immediately, the companions took off, following behind their furry little leader as he scurried down the tunnel. Although no one else noticed, Kieren was still a little weak and slightly wobbly from the draining effects of using magic. Garreth, however, quickly picked up on this fact and immediately tried to help support his friend.
Although they struggled a bit to keep up with the others, Qaim only slowed down when he came to the next intersecting passageway. He paused briefly to survey it, before deciding if they should stay on the same path or take one of these new corridors. Even though they experienced a few of these minor delays, they continued to move steadily forward. They went on like this for quite a few minutes and passed up many other possible routes as they hurried along, but no one questioned Qaim’s judgment. After everything he had done up to this point, they all implicitly trusted his instincts.
Just as they rounded another slight bend, the corridor came to an abrupt end and they stood staring at a closed wooden door that blocked their progress forward. It separated the tunnel they were in from whatever lay on the other side of it, but they didn’t know if it led to another tunnel or merely into an isolated room. Cautiously, the warriors studied this new obstacle from their current vantage point, to see if they could spot any signs of danger.
“Qaim, do you think it’s safe to approach?” Quintain asked, concerned.
“Qaim check it out,” the aignx announced in response. He then glided effortlessly forward, so he could examine the wooden covering more closely. After a minute or so of perusal, he returned.
“No traps here,” he announced, seemingly pleased by what he had discovered.
“That may be,” commented Rhys, “but I wonder what types of things await us on the other side of this portal?”
“I be not certain, but methinks we must be wary,” advised the giant Mitikuan. “I be concerned that other, possibly even worse dangers lurketh beyond and we doth not want to place Kieren in more needless peril.”
“Well urged,” countered Alairic. “Therefore, I will volunteer to lead the way.”
The elf held his sword in front of him and cautiously crept forward. As he went, he remained vigilant for signs of light and shadow passing through the small gaps that surrounded the door. Alairic knew that if he saw anything like that, it might indicate a presence on the other side. Since he was unable to notice anything unusual, he slowly placed his ear against the wooden surface and listened for any sounds that might be coming from the other side of the wooden covering.
After several minutes of intense monitoring, Alairic eventually reached out for the door handle, only to discover it was locked. He immediately turned and signaled their hairy little guide to come forward again, but Alairic didn’t have to tell him what he needed.
“Do you want Qaim to open?” the aignx asked, innocently.
“Yes, please,” Alairic, responded, while hoping Qaim’s injured hands wouldn’t prevent him from performing this task.
“Qaim need to borrow short pointy stick,” the aignx stated, while pointing at Alairic’s waist. It was quite obvious the aignx wanted to borrow the elf’s slender knife, so Alairic quickly handed it to him.
Without further encouragement, Qaim quickly moved in front of the door, with his back blocking everyone else’s view, except for Alairic. The elf carefully scrutinized every move the aignx made and even asked Qaim if he would like for him to remove the bandages while he worked. The aignx quickly responded that wouldn’t be necessary and continued his effort. Even though Qaim had a difficult time manipulating the knife and working on the mechanism with his hands wrapped up as they were, the aignx never gave up. He deftly continued to work on the lock and it took only a few seconds longer before a very slight ‘click’ was heard and the door began to open.
As that happened, the warriors positioned themselves with their weapons at the ready, since they did not know if anyone or anything might come charging at them through the widening gap. Before the door had moved very far, however, Alairic stepped in front of the portal and blocked Qaim from opening it further. He wanted a chance to peer through the widening crack first, so he could scan the area beyond and make sure nothing was amiss.
After Qaim handed the blade back to the elf, Alairic peered through the slender opening and made a quick, but thorough, inspection of the chamber on the other side. Even though he found nothing that alarmed him, he still continued his cautious approach. Very slowly, he pulled the door open a little more and made the gap even larger. Gingerly, he crouched down and leaned forward so he could ease his head through the opening. He figured if someone was watching the area on the other side, that person’s focus would be higher up, probably chest high, rather than near the floor. Therefore, he hoped doing this would be enough to protect him, should something actually be waiting there.
With the utmost prudence, the elf began to investigate the space on the other side of the doorway and watched for any signs of movement. First, he studied the area directly across from the portal for anything potentially threatening, but he found nothing there that concerned him. Then, he looked off to his left and scanned that area, before turning his head to the right and doing the same. Fortunately, Alairic saw nothing that worried him in those places either.
Encouraged by his success, he stood up and slid the rest of his body through the opening, so he was standing in the corridor on the other side. Once there, he stayed as motionless as possible, while finishing his examination of the surrounding area. When he was satisfied there were no signs of danger, he went back to retrieve the others.
The companions had breathlessly waited until they saw the elf return, because they were unsure about what he might discover. When Alairic signaled them to follow, they scampered through the opening and continued to follow his hand signals, as he directed them as to what they should do next. The elf quickly indicated they should hug the wall on either side of the opening once they had passed through the doorway, in an attempt to blend in with their surroundings. They did this without question and waited for Alairic to close the door behind them.
As a further precaution, Alairic did not ask Qaim to lock the door again once they'd all moved through it. If something confronted them or a perilous situation arose, this would leave them with at least one unblocked route they could use to escape. It might not be much, but it provided a minor source of comfort.
As the companions stood on this side of the doorway, it also gave them a psychological boost. Even though they were now only a few feet from where they had previously been standing, they all felt as if they had just made a giant leap toward their objective.
“Does anyone have an idea about where we are now?” Kieren asked, while scanning the faces of the others.
“I’m not certain,” Sedain responded, “but my hunch would be that we are now inside the fortress itself. I suspect we are on one of the lower levels, somewhere above the lowest dungeons, but still below the main floors.”
“Then what do you think we should do now?” Garreth wanted to know.
“The same as we have been doing,” Alairic suggested. “We’ll just continue following our amazing little guide. He has brought us this far and I believe he’s the only one who can lead us to where we need to go.”
Qaim did not miss the compliment the elf had just paid him, but he didn’t have time to savor the moment. Before that could happen, another voice interrupted his thoughts.
“Even though Qaim has done a more than adequate job of getting us to this point,” Sedain countered, “I believe it would be best if we took over the duty now. The wizard only stated that Qaim was to get us INTO Treblanc, but Beraut never told us anything beyond that. I believe it is now up to us to help Kieren locate the Sword of Kings.”
“I do not agree,” Rhys responded quickly and quite adamantly. “Qaim has a special ability that allows him to locate magical devices and what could possibly be more magical than the Sword of Kings? I believe Qaim should be able to sense its presence and detect it more quickly than any of us could.”
These opposing opinions sparked another heated debate and it began to look as if this discussion might continue for quite some time. Sensing this possibility, Turquinine took the opportunity to cut the debate short, as he guided the others directly to the heart of the matter.
“What sayeth thou, Qaim? Canst thou find the Sword?” the Mitikuan’s voice boomed out.
“Qaim try, but Qaim not sure,” the aignx responded. “Qaim not feel any magic nearby.”
“That may only be because we are just too far away from it for you to be able to sense it,” Alairic suggested. “It is possible that you will be able to feel its magic once we are closer to it, but none of us would be able to pick up on such an intangible signal.”
“I’m not sure about that,” Kieren hesitantly countered, having done some reasoning of his own since this discussion began. “I think Beraut hinted that I was the one who must find the sword, although he might have expected Qaim to get me closer to it before I could do that. I’m not sure if the medallion he gave me will somehow signal where it is or let me know how to find it, but Beraut gave me the impression that I am the only one who will be able to discover it.”
“Think,” Sedain advised him, somewhat annoyed. “The wizard must have given you some clues or advice about how to locate the sword. We can’t have come all this way without you having some idea about how to find it.”
“Calm down, Sedain,” Alairic advised the dwarf. “Beraut had the utmost confidence that Kieren would be able to complete his mission, so I’m sure that when the time comes he will be able to find the sword and use it against Madumda.”
“No, I think Sedain may be right,” Kieren told them, while still searching his brain for the answer. “I just can’t recall the advice Beraut gave me. I need to think about this some more and then maybe I’ll remember what he said.”
The companions stood silently in the gloom, in order to give Kieren a few minutes of peace and the time he needed to ponder this dilemma. They even tried not to breathe too loudly, for fear the noise might distract him. However, as more time passed, some of them began to grow impatient with how long this was taking.
Almost imperceptibly, and without making as much as a grunt, they started to turn their bodies slightly, so they could scan the area for signs of danger. Each of the warriors was worried they might yet be discovered while waiting for Kieren to remember this forgotten information. Their fears continued to grow with every fleeting second and the time passed excruciatingly slow, until Kieren finally broke the silence.
“I’m sorry, but I just cannot recall Beraut saying anything specific,” he admitted. “I don’t remember him mentioning how he expected me to get to where the Sword of Kings was kept or how I’m supposed to find it, so I’m not sure what we should do now. Maybe you shouldn’t have placed so much faith in me. I guess…”
Kieren’s voice trailed off as he turned away from the others and hung his head. He couldn’t face them now, knowing he was letting them down. Instinctively, Alairic moved over to comfort him.
“You’re wrong, Kieren,” he told the lad loudly enough for the others to hear, as he also placed his muscular arm around the teen’s shoulders. “You will find a way to do this. Beraut is a powerful wizard and he did not place his faith in you lightly, so that is good enough for me. Besides, since we’ve been together I’ve learned to trust in your ability too. You have come so far already, so please don’t give up now.”
“Alairic is correct,” Rhys added, “so listen to him. You can’t allow anyone else to cause you to start doubting your ability to succeed.”
Hearing this comment, Sedain realized the Akiktite was referring to him, so he decided to correct the situation.
“Kieren, I humbly beg you to forgive my earlier outburst and the insensitivity of my comments,” the dwarf began. “This fortress is not the most hospitable place I have ever been in and I think it was beginning to get to me when I spoke earlier.” The others nodded in agreement with his comments and were impressed that the dwarf had attempted to make amends.
“Let’s keep moving while we try to figure out what to do next,” Rhys urged. “We’ll continue to look for signs of the sword as we go and Qaim can let us know if he senses any magical presence along the way. One thing is certain, however, and that is it would be unwise for us to remain where we are and possibly be discovered while we debate our next move.”
“A very wise suggestion indeed,” responded Quintain. “Come on, Kieren, let’s get moving. Qaim, will you please take the lead again?”
“Yes, Qaim do. Qaim help young master. Qaim help him find what he is looking for.”
“Yes, yes,” Sedain grunted, “but let’s be off.”
Slowly, they began to move down the corridor, while continuing to take the appropriate precautions, especially considering their new surroundings. Sometimes they would stop and take a quick listen outside of any door they happened upon before passing it. They felt it was important to discern if anyone was on the other side of it first, so no one would be able to slip up on them from behind later. They also stopped to inspect each intersecting corridor before darting across it, since they didn’t want to make any silly mistakes or commit a blunder in front of a potential threat.
They continued on in this manner and followed their furtive little guide until the aignx signaled them to stop. Qaim then turned abruptly and whispered something to Rhys and Alairic. After hearing what Qaim had to say, the Akiktite moved slowly past the aignx, but at the same time he started motioning to the others. It was obvious he wanted them to stand tightly against the wall and keep out of sight, while he did the same.
Before long, someone turned the corner and emerged from a side tunnel. As the interloper stepped into the passageway in which they were hiding, Rhys pounced upon the newcomer, grasped the individual from behind and placed the cold steel blade of his dagger against the intruder’s throat.
* * * * * * * *
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