1. Blood in the Water
The air flashed white with a deafening crack and Theodius collapsed as if he were nothing but a marionette whose strings had been ripped off their supports. Only the shallow pool softened his fall. His blood dyed the water pink in an instant.
Giendei waded in and pulled him up, panic coursing in his veins and making his ribcage rattle with the heavy thudding of his heart. It had only been seconds, but Theodius had fallen face down in the water.
“Theodius,” he breathed. He gave the mage’s cheek a slap, but he did not stir. “Theodius, can you hear me?”
Blood was trickling from his open mouth and down his chin. To Giendei’s relief his chest was heaving and he could feel air tickle his palm when he held it above his mouth. He hoisted the nordling in his arms and carried him out of the water.
There was debris everywhere. The skull, the conduit Theodius usually used to channel his magick, had rolled away from the aftershocks of the spell. Giendei knelt down and, careful not to drop Theodius, picked up the skull. It sported a new crack trailing down from one of the eye sockets.
The air was still heavy with dust, but the quakes had subsided, and Giendei couldn’t hear any sounds from the other side. Giendei coughed. The spell had done what they wanted – cut them off from pursuers. Sand and pebbles still came trickling down from the cracks occasionally. It left a hollow echo in its wake. Giendei peered down the corridor. Whatever awaited that way he did not know, but their way back was cut off for good.
He muffled his steps as best as he could, barely daring to breathe. The first doorway he reached lead to a small chamber, with no other doorways or openings, and to his relief its door was still intact.
This will have to do, he thought. He pushed the door closed with his elbow, starting at how loud the noise it made was in the silence of the ruins, but nothing materialised from the darkness. He managed to latch the door; hopefully, it would buy him enough seconds to draw his sword if all went to hell.
Theodius weighted nothing in his arms. Nordlings were a small people, but Theodius’s strength and the way he carried himself always made him seem to take up more space than he really did. He was always confident, always in control. It was only now that Giendei understood just how frail, how small he truly was, and it terrified him. He sat down in the corner furthest away from the door and didn’t dare lay Theodius down even for a second.
Giendei mopped the nordling’s face with his sleeve. The bleeding had subsided, but he didn’t react in any way no matter how Giendei tried to call his name or shake him awake. He’d seen Theodius channel without a conduit before, but never to this extent, and he couldn’t even guess what it had done to him. If only he had Luuneyd there with him. She’d know what to do; she always did.
Gently, he felt Theodius’s pulse with his fingers and pressed his forehead against the mage’s, eyes slipping closed. If he concentrated enough, he could feel the source in the edges between himself and Theodius, but he knew there was nothing that could teach him to wield it. He just couldn’t channel, simple as that. He’d never been able to. Not once in his nearly ninety years had it frustrated him as much.
The first elves had been born of magick, it was said. From the point of view of other races they were near immortal, but Giendei knew the reality of it. Elves of the old world were a race so far apart from the elves of today that they were hardly the same people. The first ones had perhaps lived for several thousands of years, but the generations that followed them did not. With each generation that was born the original blood dwindled and weakened, its magick running weaker and weaker. Families of the high houses rarely had more than two children in an attempt to slow the decay of their magick somewhat; Giendei was one of five. His parents had realised their mistake during the first years of his life and regretted it since, and made sure he did, too.
He shifted and made sure Theodius’s head rested against his shoulder so that nothing was blocking his airways. Giendei hoped, feeble hope though it was, that somewhere in his subconscious Theodius knew that he wasn’t alone, that Giendei hadn’t just left him behind. The wish sounded laughable even in his own ears. It was Giendei who drew comfort from his presence, not the other way around.
He brushed wet hair off Theodius’s face and willed himself to calm down. Wallowing in fear or self-pity did not help.
“You will wake up, and we will find a way out of this place,” Giendei muttered. Whether the words were directed at himself or the other man he did not know.
2. Not Alone in the Dark
“Hey. Hey, Giendei.”
He started awake, though he had no recollection of ever having dozed off. It was pitch-dark; he could only just make out the walls of the room he was in. He was startled to find Theodius’s face inches from his own.
“You’re awa—,“ he started, but Theodius pressed his hand over his mouth.
“Not so loud,” the mage whispered. There was dried blood at the corner of his mouth, but his eyes were alert, and Giendei felt a rush of relief. “What happened?”
“You don’t remember?”
He shook his head. “Not after setting off the spell. Knocked me out cold.”
“It did.” Giendei swallowed. “You were hurt. I tried to look for shelter – somewhere to rest until you woke up.”
He was suddenly uncomfortably aware that Theodius was still partially on his lap. Theodius looked amused by the fact, and the wry smile he flashed at Giendei made him feel rather warm.
“Well, looks like I was in good hands,” he said. He made to push himself up, but collapsed back down almost instantly, the smile vanishing from his face.
“You’re in no condition to walk. I’ll carry you,” Giendei volunteered, but Theodius shook his head.
“One of us needs to be ready to handle a weapon. I can’t channel now, however much I would like to.” He got up laboriously, legs still shaking underneath his own weight. He leaned against the wall, holding his stomach. “Bloody hell. Luuneyd’s going to have my hide.”
He made sure his puukko, a short nordling knife, was still hanging from his belt in its red-and-gold sheath, and checked the second knife peeking out of his boot. The belt’s metal decorations tinkled quietly every time he moved.
“This was the wrong thing to wear today,” he muttered. “Be a goddamn miracle if I don’t alert every single creature in this tomb, sauntering about like I’m on my way to a Midsummer’s festival.”
Giendei picked up the old, banged up skull from the floor and handed it to him. “I almost forgot. I picked it up earlier.”
“Thanks. Good to know I hadn’t lost it permanently.” He wrapped the skull in cloth and hung the makeshift pouch from his belt.
Giendei pushed himself up as well. His damp clothes clung to him unpleasantly and there was an aching spot on his hip where the sword handle had been pressing against him for however long he’d been out of it. Theodius didn’t look much better. His clothes were just as damp and there were bloody stains all over his front.
“Well, the spell worked,” Giendei said. “The way we came from is blocked off. We’ll have to find a detour, if there is one.”
“No time like the present. Let’s go.”
Giendei felt how each hair on his body stood on end when they unlatched the door and pushed it open, but the place remained perfectly silent. The only sound was that of the occasional drop falling from the ceiling and hitting one of the many puddles of water, and each one felt magnified in the darkness. With one hand grasping the sword handle he fumbled ahead and nearly walked into the opposite wall. He flinched when a hand closed around his wrist.
“I forgot you elves can’t see in the dark that well,” Theodius muttered. There was a rustle of cloth and he grumbled something underneath his breath. “I can’t find the tinderbox I had on me.”
“Must have fallen in the pool, earlier.”
A grunt. Theodius gave his hand a tug. “I’ll take the lead, then. Stay alert.”
“Can you see?”
“Not well, but I’ll manage.”
It was slow going. Giendei didn’t say it, but he was very grateful that Theodius held his hand tight; he could barely see where he was stepping, and it wasn’t just once or twice that he tripped over his own feet. The darkness felt like it was closing in on all sides. Every little sound seemed closer than it truly was. Theodius made them stop at a corner, and Giendei flattened himself against the wall until the other man gave his hand another tug, signalling the coast was clear.
Little by little the air changed. Giendei could soon tell they were entering a wider space. Sound travelled differently around them, and he heard faint rustling from far above, like wings; bats, or perhaps birds. He felt a draft on his skin and to his great relief noticed he could see a little better. There was faint light filtering through a crack in the ceiling.
Giendei breathed more easily, but Theodius held up a hand and hissed, “stay close. I wouldn’t be surprised if we weren’t alone here.”
They hugged the wall as they proceeded. The chamber was bigger than Giendei had thought. His eyes spied what looked like the outlines of a tall, humanoid statue, its head too high up to see what it depicted. Moss and vegetation covered the paved floors. Several doorways lead out of the chamber, or at least had, once upon a time. The first three they came across had all caved in, the fourth lead further underground and was so flooded that they would have had to dive to proceed. The water smelled rank, as if something had died in it recently. The fifth was all the way on the other side of the chamber and revealed a narrow staircase headed…
“Up,” Theodius whispered. “Promising. Let’s check it out.”
They climbed. There was a hollow echo to their steps, and the draft grew stronger as they reached the top. The floor was uneven and sloped to the right, but there was no moisture here. There were built-in recesses at regular intervals on the left side wall.
Giendei crouched down, frowning. “Look.”
There were dry leaves scattered here and there. Birch, linden, rowan. The grove they’d entered through grew all three.
“There must be an entrance nearby.” Theodius groaned and massaged his stomach. “I need a moment.”
“Are you all right?”
“Just need to catch my breath.”
He backed in the nearest recess and sat down; there was a narrow, flat surface in each jutting out towards the corridor, covered in what looked like old, melted candlewax. His breathing eased slowly, the worst of the pain subsiding after a while, but something twinged in his gut unpleasantly every time he inhaled. Luuneyd wouldn’t have just his hide, she’d probably end him on sight personally once she learned he’d channelled without a conduit again.
He straightened suddenly. The air was heavy with a strange, pungent odour that seemed to be getting stronger, and split-second later he heard slow, dragging footsteps approaching. Giendei inhaled sharply and turned towards the sound, but before he could utter a word Theodius had clapped his hands over his mouth. He yanked Giendei backwards into the recess and held him still with surprising strength, legs wrapped around his midriff as if expecting him to make a run for it.
“Quiet,” Theodius breathed right into his ear, so quietly that he barely heard it, and he soon saw why.
An enormous shape crawled into view and made its way towards them on all fours. Giendei trembled when he saw what it was. A troll. It was the size of a wagon and grotesquely mishapen, like crafted by someone who only had the vaguest idea about what trolls generally looked like. Theodius was perfectly still and didn’t even seem to breathe as the thing shuffled past them. He was holding Giendei none too gently, nails almost digging in to his face.
To Giendei’s surprise the troll kept walking, as though it didn’t recognise they were there at all. It looked ancient; its posture was stooping, its hindlegs oddly bent as it nearly dragged itself forward, and pale, milky film covered its tiny eyes beneath the long, matted fur.
It’s blind, he thought. It must be.
He wanted to close his eyes, but he felt frozen in place. He was certain the creature must have felt the frantic racing of his heart, must have smelled his fear, but it did not turn around. Eventually its scraggly form had vanished down the stairs. Theodius only let go of Giendei when the troll’s rancid smell had disappeared completely.
“We need to go now, before it comes back. Hurry.”
And without further ado he grabbed Giendei’s hand once more and began tugging him after himself.
3. In Dawn’s Light
The old gates were rusted and bent, but it still took an enormous effort from Giendei to get them to open. He gave them one last shove and threw his full weight against them until the hinges finally gave and the doors fell down with a mighty crash. He and Theodius clambered over them and made their way up the moss-covered stairs in weary silence.
Faint morning sunlight was just peeking between the trees, a relief after the oppressing dark of the tomb. They had run into a troll on their way out, but Theodius knew the creature would not pursue them now that the sun was up, not even if the sound of them breaking out of the tomb had somehow reached it.
“It’s already dawn,” Giendei thought aloud. “How long have we been gone? A day? Two?”
It had been early in the afternoon when they’d entered the tomb, but his perception of time had suffered underground. He ached all over and his stomach felt hollow from hunger; had it been hours, or days, he couldn’t tell. What he needed was a bath, a warm meal and a good long nap.
Behind him Theodius swore loudly as his legs gave. He didn’t attempt to get up again, and there was a sheen of sweat on his face.
Giendei was at his side immediately. “What is it?”
He shook his head, grimacing. “Luuneyd. I need Luuneyd.”
Giendei hoisted him in his arms without another thought and set off at a brisk pace. He saw Theodius’s face contort with pain. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth once more; he coughed, and it splattered black on their clothes.
“I’m sorry if this hurts.”
“Never mind that,” Theodius grunted. “Just keep moving.”
Giendei broke into a run. He ran like only an elf could; like the wind itself, like a pack of wolves were at their heels, his feet flying over undergrowth, fallen trees and roots.
This side of the grove wasn’t familiar to him, but there were what looked like the remains of old foundations strewn about, covered in vegetation, lichen and moss, hinting that dozens of houses had once stood there. The tipster had told them there had been a village close to the tomb once upon a time. They couldn’t be too far away from the other entrance and their camp.
It was with great relief that he smelled something burning, and soon thereafter saw a column of smoke rising to the sky from a copse of trees. The canvases of their tents nearly blended in with the surrounding trees. Giendei let out a choked noise when something large moved in the shadows, a tall, towering shape; it was Zirekel.
Sunlight gleamed off her raised axe as she stepped closer. “Where the hell have you been? Do you have any idea how long you’ve been gone?” she asked irritably. “With all the noise you were making I thought the trolls had come back!”
“We need Luuneyd, now,” Giendei said, voice breaking.
Theodius had been clawing at the front of Giendei’s shirt for something to hold on to. He managed to mutter something that sounded like ‘fuck’ before his grasp went lax. His head lolled back against Giendei’s arm, unconscious. The blood had left a dark, sticky line down his jaw and onto his neck.
Zirekel’s eyes went wide. “Yeah, you do. Luuneyd! Luuneyd, they’re back!” she roared. A pair of sparrows took off from a nearby tree, startled.
They rushed to the copse just as Luuneyd trudged out of her tent. Judging by the look of her she had been awake the whole night; there were deep, black shadows marring her brown skin right beneath her eyes. She took one glance at Giendei, another at Theodius, and the deadly calm vanished from her features, replaced by a thunderous expression that generally boded trouble.
“Bring him in here,” she commanded, holding the flap of the tent aside for them. Giendei obliged. The tent was spacious enough for two bed rolls, but he still had to get on his knees to get in. He laid Theodius down as carefully as he could with his trembling hands. Luuneyd scooted in after him and instantly sprung to work, pulling out tools and ointments from a myriad of places.
“The rock-headed idiot channelled without the skull again,” Luuneyd huffed, fixing Theodius a beady-eyed glare. It wasn’t a question, it was a stament, and Giendei nodded automatically. She fixed her eye on him next. “I’ll deal with him. The rest of you, get out.”
“Is he going to—“
Giendei was vaguely aware that he was wearing damp, stinking clothes that were covered in blood, sweat and goodness knew what else, but his mind had gone blank. He sat down by the tent, shaking all over, and buried his face in his hands. Several minutes passed. The only sounds were that of birdsong and Zirekel pacing back and forth.
“I’ll bring you something to eat,” she said eventually. Giendei nodded again. When she came back with a bowl of soup and a spoon, he accepted them mechanically. It was only minutes later that he realised he should eat. He knew he must still be hungry, but he couldn’t feel it any more.
The sun rose higher, shining between the trees and bathed Giendei in its comforting light. He was starting to feel drowsy. How long had it been? Minutes, hours? He didn’t know how long healing took, if whatever damage the spell had done could be repaired with magick and not medicine. He must have been clenching the empty bowl in his hands, for Zirekel came back and had to yank it off his hands by force.
“She knows her stuff, Luuneyd. You don’t have to worry,” she said quietly. The golden rings around her tusks shone in the light when she spoke.
Zirekel nudged his shoulder in passing and left.
It was only much later, when Giendei had started nodding off in the sun, that the flap of the tent opened and Luuneyd came out. She smoothed her dress and got up, stretching.
“How is he?” Giendei rushed to ask before she could speak.
“On the mend. I’ll have a couple of choice words with him once he wakes up.” Her expression softened and she smiled at him. “You are allowed to go see him now if you want to, you know.”
For some reason Giendei felt heat rising to his face. “I would like that, yes. Is that all right?”
“I want some breakfast anyway, so you might as well watch him for me. Just don’t wake him.”
He didn’t miss the knowing look in her eyes, or the fact that he felt her gaze on him until the flap of the tent had closed behind.