In the shadows, on a massive throne of obsidian sat a creature that looked as though it had been carved into a bloated, grotesque mockery of a human form. The Stonewights, his underlings, stood about him with axes and bent swords at the ready.
And the Stonewight who sat upon the obsidian throne was the greatest and cruelest in this clan. For this he had been elevated to the status of Rock-Lord.
He knew how to fashion the armor and weapons his guards presently carried—and out of his disobedient underlings, no less! Any Stonewight who opposed him was held down by the Rock-Lord’s massive hands around his throat. And as they struggled against his grip, he would take a hammer, a pickaxe, or any other tool made for fashioning weapons, and begin to carve the underling into a new weapon for more loyal Stonewights.
Axes, swords, daggers, tongs, and instruments of torture, this Rock-Lord could fashion better than any other, and it was for this reason that all of his underlings feared him.
Presently, as the Rock Lord leaned forward his movements made a sound of crunching gravel that reverberated across the cave walls. Slowly, like the air was made of tar, he reached down to grasp the underling bound at his feet, who tried to utter pleas for mercy. Yet he had dared to speak against the Rock-Lord, and the Rock-Lord was not known to tolerate such insolence.
The Rock-Lord tightened his fist around the underling’s throat, raised a hammer overhead and pounded down.
The underling let out a pitiful howl, and the other Stonewights stirred at this.
After several minutes of this, one of the Stonewights approached, and, in a tongue full of harsh consonants and sounds from the back of the throat, asked, “Why do you do this? This underling was a trusted advisor. Is this truly necessary?”
The Rock-Lord did not reply, yet the longer his underling stood there, the heavier his hammer began to beat down upon the underling like the warning of a war drum.
The Stonewight thought it best to make an addendum to his question: “That is, should you wish to tell me. I would never question your authority.”
The Rock-Lord’s hand clasped even tighter around the underling’s throat. His hammering had wrought it into the shape of a curved sword. The underling was silent, now, save for the occasional pitiful groan of a dying creature.
The Rock-Lord still did not answer the Stonewight’s question. He did not look up, and when the weapon was finished, he felt a strange power surge through the lifeless underling and into his hand. He drew back, as though the newly-wrought weapon had turned red hot.
“My Lord?” The Stonewight said, “My Lord, what ails you?”
The Rock-Lord swatted the Stonewight away. “I have sensed a powerful presence. A presence one so lowly as you cannot feel through the stones of the land.” The Rock-Lord breathed heavily, for he knew that presence. He had been waiting for it for a long time. “And he is not far,” the Rock-Lord hissed. “Yet he has woven a powerful magic—strong enough to keep the Ever-Changing Land from shifting the area. I must drive him out, and back into these lands.“
“What man is this who wields the power to still the Ever-Changing Land? And why would you seek to bring him here?”
The Rock-Lord looked up to match the Stonewight’s stare. His hand tightened on his hammer with a sound like grinding boulders. He did not need to say a word to make the Stonewight cower. “Because I have met him before, and I am overdue for my vengeance.” He turned his gaze on the rest of the underlings. “Send word to the Traveling Dark—bring me Dyvian Gray.”
Dyvian Gray finished paying his debts to the local innkeeper, Phira. He bowed to her. “Thank you for allowing us to stay the night.”
“And thank you,” Phira said, tapping her foot impatiently, “For stilling our town.”
“You’re quite welcome—oh!” Dyvian reached into his purse and brought forth five more gold coins. “I hope this will pay for the damages. I apologize for the inconvenience.” The words had scarcely left his mouth before Phira snatched up the coins.
By inconveniences, Elegia knew he was referring to the gaping hole in the side of the inn.
Elegia, being only half Forest Spirit, had little to no control of her abilities. As a Forest Spirit, she could bend trees, roots and anything wrought from wood to her will. Yet she could only do this in the midst of a panic, or during other times her subconscious mind was allowed to take over.
Last night she had dreamed the branches outside her window had made a bed for her, woven out of its own wood.
That morning, she awoke to find herself cradled by that very same tree, and turned to see the wall of her room reduced to rubble. But Dyvian had told her not to worry. He would pay for the damages, same as always.
Elegia was a raggedy girl. In fact, she did not look like a girl at all. In her threadbare clothes it was plain to see she was a bit taller than most, with broad shoulders, and a freckled face with a flat nose. But what truly set her apart from other women was what was inside her trousers. Many told her that she was not a woman because of what was in her trousers, yet Elegia felt more like woman than a boy in all regards. She had the mind of her mother.
At least, that’s what Dyvian told her. Her mother had died when she was little, waylaid by highwaymen and used for firewood. Her father died of grief upon hearing the news, and Dyvian took her in a few days later.
They had been wandering ever since, for everyone knows that a Wizard never stays in one place for very long. They are always contracted to still the Ever-Changing Land for human settlements.
Elegia had just finished packing her travel sack when Phira furrowed her brow at the Half-Breed. “Well,” she said, tapping her foot. “Are you leaving my inn or not?”
Dyvian open his mouth, ready to assuage her anger, but before he could speak, a knock pounded against the door.
Elegia scrambled for the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stranger, but the moment she put her face against the glass, darkness began to spread across the outside world like frost on the windowpanes during a snowy morning. The outside world went black. She ducked beneath a table, perspiration collected on her forehead like dust to a cabinet.
“Don’t open the door,” she said to Phira. Her voice was barely above a whisper.
Phira looked at her, her pupils dilated and her face red, sweaty and piggish. It was though the unnatural darkness spread a fear that permeated throughout the room. “I don’t plan to,” she said, hoarsely.
Elegia noticed that Dyvian was studying the windows. He seemed to be the only one who could do so without being overcome by fear. Yet a rivulet of sweat ran down his temple. “Damn it all,” he muttered. “I never thought they’d get out of the caverns.”
“What’s going on?” Elegia whispered.
“We’re being hunted by three siblings,” he explained. “They are called the Traveling Dark.”
The knock resounded again, this time the door rattled. “Let us in,” a breathy voice like wind on the windows. “We are three weary travelers who seek food and shelter. Will you not show kindness to a stranger?”
“Don’t let them in,” Dyvian said to Phira. He came towards her, towering over the woman. His lean, gaunt face reminded Elegia of the goblins she’d read of in storybooks. “Look away from the walls and do not heed their voices. It is wind on the windows. Nothing more.”
The creatures continued to speak, and Elegia closed her eyes and told herself that is was just the wind.
“Why do you help me?” Phira asked, “What do you want? What—” but the sorcerer cut her off.
“Have no fear. These things do not come for you.”
“Then why are they here?”
“Excuse me,” Elegia interrupted, consciously tuning out the dark presence all around them. “But what do we do?”
“Hush, child. I’m thinking.”
“Now is not the time for thinking!” Elegia hissed in a strangled attempt to shout.
“Of course. You’re right,” Dyvian said. “Forgive me.” He turned to face Phira. “You are safe. This I swear.” He took her by the shoulders. “Which makes what I have to do all the worse.”
“What—?” was the only word Phira could utter before Dyvian pressed his lips to her ear and whispered something that Elegia could not hear. Phira collapsed, and Dyvian lowered her gently to the ground.
“What have you done?” Elegia whispered.
“A small magic. She is safe from the Dark for now, at the expense of her consciousness. Now follow me—out the back door.”
Elegia did so, following him through the kitchens, where Dyvian picked up a boiling pot of water. He braced his hand on the doorknob. “When I open this door, you run. Do you understand me? Do not falter and whatever you do, do not look back. Have I made myself clear?”
Elegia nodded, and Dyvian flung the door open, throwing the boiling water into the air in the same motion. He ushered her out in front of him. “Go! Go!”
The empty pot clattered to the ground, and something sounded that was either a hiss or the rustling leaves.
Away from stilled lands they ran; into the Ever-Changing Land did they went, cloaks trailing behind them. Elegia felt three presences chasing them, like the echoes of one’s footsteps in the dead of night.
Only now the offbeat footfalls of their pursuers felt more like three destriers breathing down the back of her neck.
Beyond them lay a valley, and beyond that, a forest. Elegia felt a tug on the hood of her cloak and for a moment thought the Traveling Dark had caught her. But when she turned to look she saw Dyvian, who righted her off the path.
“Where are we going?” Elegia asked through heavy breaths. “You’ve taken us off the path!”
“Taking a path is the best way to ensure your own capture. You cannot follow a steady route to your destination. Not with creatures like this at your back. And especially not when the land itself is not linear.”
Elegia felt pinpricks in her side, and fought to keep running. “How much longer?” she shrieked.
“As long as it takes. Think not of what is chasing you. Only the road ahead.”
“Or lack thereof.”
They duo crested a stony hill, cloaks snapping like war banners. Dyvian urged her down towards a ravine laced with gullies. They kicked up explosions of water as they ran through the stream.
Laughter chased them.
“You cannot escape us,” another voice said. A second one, like horses galloping along the gullies. “Surrender to us, sorcerer, and we will spare your friend.”
Elegia pushed herself to go faster, so that her legs were numb and moving of their own accord. On the edge of the ravine was a sparse forest. As they drew near it, Dyvian used her hood as though it was a horse’s reins. “Stay where you are, child,” Dyvian said. “I will not let them harm you.”
The Wizard straightened sauntered back toward the ravine. Three trails of black, cylindrical smoke raced overhead, swirled above Dyvian and then crashed to the ground, where the smoke curled away.
Beneath it were three figures that were not figures. They were part of the darkness that surrounded them, and did not seem entirely there. Elegia only caught glimpses of their visage when they moved.
A third voice spoke in a voice like the craw of a far off raven. “Give into us, and we will spare the Half-Breed.”
Dyvian reached beneath the folds of his cloak and drew a gleaming sword. He leveled his blade at the darkness. “You are liars, all three of you. I know your true purpose. Leave this place. This will be your final warning.”
The second voice spoke again. “You burned me—”
“You had to take form to attack. Do not fault me for taking an opportunity when I see one. You of all creatures must respect that.”
“I was willing to let this slight pass, if you surrendered. It will now be punished.”
The Darkness drew their blades with a sound like shrieking wind. Their sword strokes came swift; Dyvian looked like he was parrying lightning. Every time his blade met his foe’s, Elegia caught glimpses of an image in solid form, yet it vanished too fast to mark anything about it.
Two rows of black smoke circled Dyvian as he fought his opponent. He stumbled back through mud and muck, using sword to block the Darkness’s attacks. The circles of black smoke kept him confined.
“Yield, and I shall let you live,” the second voice said.
“Leave this place!” Dyvian shouted. “This is not your ground. You are in no place to make deals.”
The Darkness leapt forward, forcing Dyvian back. Explosions of water kicked up from what few gullies remained in the clearing.
All three voices spoke as one. “You dare to claim what ground is and is not ours? You will die for this!” They struck, sending sparks skittering off Dyvian’s blade.
And all at once, Dyvian was defending himself from three sword strokes—three bolts of lightning-that-was-not-lightning. “Bravado is easily uttered,” he said, “But you will find it hard to proof.”
He did not attack this time, he merely parried blow after blow. Sparks flew from his sword, and he shouted a spell that sounded mostly of vowels. Upon utterance, the sparks on his blade turned to lightning and crashed down behind Elegia, who threw herself to the ground, and when she turned, she saw a tree hewn in half at the middle, its branches on fire.
“Defend yourself!” Dyvian shouted.
“Take the Half-Breed!” the second voice commanded, and the Darkness pulsed at Elegia. “Take him!”
Two clouds of darkness flew over Dyvian, who was too busy defending himself from the second sibling to assist Elegia.
Elegia was acutely aware of her own trembling. “Back off, you!” she shouted.
The third voice spoke, patiently. “My quarrel is not with you. Stand down, and you will not be harmed, boy.”
“Don’t you call me that!” Elegia shouted. “Don’t you call me a boy!” She lunged at the darkness, which passed through her as easily as fog. She crumpled to the ground.
They closed in on her. She backed away on all fours until she hit the hewn tree. They were almost upon her when she outthrust an open palm. She closed her eyes and awaited their killing stroke.
To her surprise, nothing came. She opened her eyes to see the Darkness was reeling back from a coil of fiery wood that had lashed out from the burning tree. The Darkness retreated, screeching.
She snapped a branch from the tree and swung as the Darkness, and daylight peeked through what might’ve been their torsos. The Darkness shrank back, ready to retreat.
She was dimly aware of the second voice speaking. “My siblings. What have you done to my siblings? It lashed out three more times, and then the darkness receded like a wave sinking back into the ocean.
Dyvian sheathed his blade beneath the folds of his cloak. Elegia noticed he had been wounded. The Wizard had been cut along his torso and left arm, though the lacerations bore no deep gashes, the way Dyvian moved suggested it stung. He looked at her with a face as blank as stone.
Elegia dropped the flaming stick. “Did I kill them?”
Dyvian shook his head. Between labored breaths he said, “Can light kill darkness? No, it only scatters it. You have wounded them, and that shall serve. This way, child.” He pointed to the sparse forest. “We have to move before the land shifts.”
“The land is shifting? Why so soon?”
“All I can say is that it is due to sorcery of the master to the Traveling Dark.”
“Why would a sorcerer force the land to shift? It does that of its own accord. And what happens when a shift is forced?”
Dyvian did not answer.
Elegia gave in to her the Wizard’s silence, and walked with him. Weariness made her muscles awkward, as though there were lead in her kneecaps. She followed him as if the coercion of his willpower dragged her forward.
As they traveled, she became an expert on Dyvian’s back. He never compromised, nor slouched to admit a doubt about his authority. Her walking became rhythmic, after a while
“Will you answer my question?” she asked.
The absence of emotion in his denial spread a contortion across Elegia’s face. Yet Dyvian’s back compelled her like an ultimatum: keep moving or die; I permit no other alternatives. He stalked ahead of her like a silhouette walking through a nightmare.
She was so consumed by her thoughts that she did not notice Dyvian stop. She thudded into his back and fell to the forest floor. He scanned the horizon as Elegia pulled herself to her feet.
“Elegia,” Dyvian said, “Do you want your question answered?” When he finished speaking, there was a rumble in the distance. She scanned the horizon behind her. Trees toppled and then disappeared, as though the ground had swallowed them up.
“Is this your doing?” she asked.
“Do you want your questions answered?” he asked again.
“Then I’d like to ask a favor.”
And she did.
Thick trees snapped at their ankles like breaking bones. Stones emerged all around them, jagged, like the teeth to the gaping maw of giant rising from the ground.
“You’re not running fast enough.” Dyvian growled. “Do you want to know why this is happening? Do you want to know about the Traveling Dark? Do you?”
“Then run, Elegia!”
Dyvian’s seized the hood of her cloak and hauled her out of the woods. He followed close behind; twisting so that his back felt the brunt of the impact.
When Elegia looked back, there was a mountain in place of a forest. It rose from the ground, breaking trees as it did so. What few did survive dotted the precipices. “The shifts,” she said, “They’ve never been that dangerous.”
“That is so,” Dyvian said, through labored breaths. It was the first sign of fatigue that the sorcerer had shown. “Not to worry. The land shall right itself in good time. As for your questions—we are being hunted.
“No, that is not right. I am being hunted by a creature I once knew long before I met your mother, and longer still before I took you in. He is known as Grold the Rock-Lord. When I first met him, he could track anyone as long as they walked along the stones of the land. He was powerful, and began to conquer the Ever-Changing Land so that it was stilled into nothing bought rock and stone. Other clans still do this, but they know by example that there are consequences for conquering in excess.
“I sought to right Grold’s reckless march across the Ever-Changing Land. Our encounter reduced his power to a fraction of what it once was, and I cast him and his followers into the deepest caverns below the Ever-Changing Lands. This included the Traveling Dark.
“It would seem the Ever-Changing Lands has brought those caverns close enough for him to find me, even in his weakened state.”
“Then let’s go,” Elegia said, “We have to keep moving until we find this Rock-Lord, right? Either that, or he keeps chasing us until…” Elegia did not like the end of that thought.
Dyvian nodded, “That is so.”
So the two continued onward. They came down a winding path as the sun was setting.
As they wound down the path. She noticed the fields of grass opposite the road looming taller and taller. She looked to Dyvian for some kind of warning, but the Wizard did not seem to notice. The ground rose on either side as if it were about to swallow them. She wiped a sheen of sweat from her brow and prepared herself for the worst.
And then the land stopped. “Dyvian?”
“What is it this time?”
“We’re in a gorge.”
“But we’re not going downhill.”
“The land is changing.”
There was a rumbling in the distance, but Elegia could not see what caused it over the depths of the gorge. All she saw was a cloud of smoke rising into the air as though from a giant’s hearth.
The road had widened, and they were walking through a large basin now. “What was that?”
“A mountain just crumbled,” Dyvian said, matter-of-factly.
“Oh.” And after a span of three heartbeats, they crested the gorge and came to a marsh, cut in half by a twisting file of wet, compact sand.
Mist curled about pools of muck and water. Elegia followed Dyvian down the sandy path that kept them above the murky waters.
And then he stopped abruptly, so that Elegia almost rammed into him.
He caught Elegia by the shirt before she could fall on her back. “Tread carefully. The Mudwights just won a battle against Icewights for the rights to this section of the Ever-Changing Land.” He peered through the marsh. “This may mean trouble.”
“That would be us, dear boy.” It was a voice from behind her.
Elegia turned to see a group of six creatures crawling from the muck and onto the path. They looked vaguely like humans, if humans were made of dirt and mud.
“The dirt-men,” Dyvian explained. Elegia saw the truth of this. As their leader advanced on them, she saw mud slough off of his jaw, and the dirt of his shoulder crawled up his neck to patch the gap.
“I will admit we are not the best with names,” their leader said. “Mudwight makes us sound like a cruel, sadistic people.”
“A fitting warning, then.” Dyvian said.
“You little—” their leader smacked Elegia aside, and his fist exploded into clumps of dirt. Elegia fell, and the mud crawled off her cheek like a thousand tiny worms, inching their way toward the leader’s wrist. She sat in the mud and as the leader seized Dyvian by his collar and pulled him close. “I ought to kill you for those words.”
“Like you killed the Icewights?”
Another one spoke. Elegia hadn’t noticed him creep up on her. “The boy’s a Half-Breed!” he shouted.
The leader turned and gave her a look that made her feel naked. “Half Forest Spirit,” he growled.
“I’m not a boy!” Elegia interjected. “I am a girl! And yes I am a Half-Breed—what of it?”
The leader crouched to be at eye level with her, and stroked the leftover flecks of dirt off her cheek, unaware of the new line of sand he had created. “My apologies, my lady,” he said. “My name is Grollek. And because I have erred, I will in turn forgive your crass remark. Mudwights and Forest Spirits are not known to get along well. They use our soil for their trees, and our murky waters kill their trees in turn.”
Elegia chose her words carefully. She spoke slowly, as if talking to a child. “I am not affiliated with the Forest Spirits, and I am sorry for any wrongs my kin have done to you.”
Grollek turned to the others. “This one has manners, unlike the other.” His followers laughed at that. “I admire your respect, girl. Tell me, and be honest—are you afraid?
Elegia nodded. “I am.”
“I’m not surprised. You are not the first to say so. I will not deny my people are easily provoked, and quick to violence. But you have done me no ill. Yet. Therefore I have no cause to mistrust you. Yet. May I ask a question?”
“What brings you to my domain here in the Ever-Changing Lands?—ah-ah! Do not look to your companion for help. Tell me the truth.”
Elegia’s could hear her blood pumping. She breathed deep and said, “The Traveling Dark.”
The Mudwights exchanged glances. Some of them shifted from one foot to the other, while others growled or balled their fists.
“They were hunting us,” Elegia continued. “I used a burning branch and I—I think I hurt one of them.”
“Hurt?” Grollek said, as if the word were foreign to him. “Hurt the Traveling Dark? I did not know such a feat was possible. And that’s forgetting the fact that they haven’t been seen since old Grold took his tumble down the caverns.” He turned to his followers. “Did any of you know this?” Sarcasm laced his voice. “Centuries I’ve fought with you lot, and not one of you has told me that the Traveling Dark can be hurt?”
The others laughed, which only served to make Elegia’s heart beat faster.
Grollek locked eyes with Elegia. “Why were they hunting you?”
Elegia grinned “You only asked permission for one question.”
Grollek nodded slowly. He smiled his approval. “Clever girl,” he mused. “Clever, isn’t she?”
The others murmured their agreement.
“You have spoken the truth, and have been most kind in doing so. Fortunately for you, I am not without my own sense of honor. Six of my men will guide you and your companions to safety. And if you truly are hunted by the Traveling Dark—well, I see you are weaponless.” He waved one of his companions into the water, who obeyed the command.
“Do you have any experience with a blade?”
Elegia shook her head no.
The Man o’ the Muck resurfaced, carrying a sword made purely of ice. It was a great cleaver of a blade, yet parchment thin, and when the creature turned it on its side to sheath it, the blade seemed to disappear.
Grollek took it. “This used to belong to an Icewight. It is enchanted. May it serve you better than it did her.”
“Many thanks,” Elegia said.
“And thank you, girl, for your honesty.” He turned to DMudwightyvian and growled, as if to make a point. After helping Elegia to her feet, Grollek waved six followers along to escort the duo
Grollek watched them go, and smiled. “Safe journeys.”
The file of sand went ever on and on, as they marched along. Marsh water slapped against either side.
The Mudwights brought them to the end of the sandy path, which yielded to a forest where sunshine and blizzards fought with a sound like whips cracking in the sky. Grollek’s men stopped on the edge of the file. “Our protection ends here,” one of them said.” Be on your w—”
But before the Man o’ the Muck could finish the sentence, an axe bit through his neck and he crumpled into a pile of dirt, deceased.
Behind him was the wielder: a Stonewight. As the five other Mudwights advance on the enemy, another sprang up from beneath the sandy file, as though the ground were an attic they’d crashed through. The Stonewight cut down two more with a hooked blade. And before the Mudwight could prepare for these two attackers, a dozen more had sprung up from beneath the sand and below the depths of the murky pools, and, waylaid, the Men o’ the Muck fell, with six piles of dirt to mark where they had once stood.
The Stonewight advanced on the duo. “Dyvian Gray,” one of them said, “The Rock-Lord would have words with you.”
“What of the other one?” an underling grunted.
“He is of no use. Dispose of him.”
And the creatures were upon them. Eleven Stonewight assailed Dyvian, while a single underling raced for Elegia.
Elegia backed away, swerving through the wilderness. In her panic, she was dimly aware of the wooden web she left in her path as tendrils sprang from the trees as she passed them.
She did not stop to think how she did this, for she knew that it was only through her panic that this was possible—to let her subconscious mind take over and bend the wood to her will.
Elegia came suddenly upon a patch of snow and ice. She slipped, fell, and landed on her stomach, driving her breath out of her body.
It was slow work, getting to her feet. Vertigo held her down before she managed to regain her breath. And when she did, the Stonewight was upon her. He had hewn his way through her web and he readied his axe.
As he swung, Elegia slipped, backing away from its arc. Her head reeled from the second icy impact, and she rolled out of the way as the Mudwight brought the axe down where had just fallen.
As she stood, she remembered her blade, and ripped it from its scabbard and leveled it at the Stonewight. It felt awkward in her hands. Swords never looked this heavy. “Don’t come any closer,” she warned.
The Stonewight laughed at this, with a sound like marbles rattling in the back of his throat. He took another swing at her.
Elegia blocked the blow, and the impact of the two weapons vibrated her blade and made her hand sting. She thrust her blade forward, stabbing the Stonewight through the chest.
The creature’s face quickly turned to shock as ice crept along his body. He craned his neck in an attempt delay his own demise, but within seconds the ice had completely covered him.
Elegia tore the sword from his chest and he crumbled to pieces.
And then she remembered. “Dyvian,” she muttered, and she raced back, ducking and dodging through her wooden web. She passed lashing winds and sticky heat until she was at the clearing again, whereupon she saw the bodies of six Stonewight hewn about the ground.
Then she saw the tracks along the sand and she knew where Dyvian had gone. By the look of it, the Stonewight had dragged him through the sand and into one of the marsh-pools.
Elegia dove in, and swam downwards. The murky waters clouded her vision. Her heart rattled in her ribcage. Her throat burned with the need for air when she saw the tunnel at the bottom.
She entered the tunnel kicked her legs harder, now. The roof of the tunnel compelled her to push forward. Blackness rimmed her vision, until at last she saw a way up and followed it. She surfaced, gasping for breath. She caught the ledge and hauled herself over. She landed on her back, coughing and sputtering and wishing she could lay there forever. “Of all the times…to lose your Wizard…” she gasped.
The words had scarcely passed her lips when, a hand reached out of the water, grasping the ledge within a finger’s breadth of her face. Its sandy form compacted as it drew itself up and over the ledge.
Elegia had only the energy to roll out of the way of this new arrival. When he had hauled himself over the edge, she saw that she was staring at Grollek. “What a time to lose your Wizard?” he echoed, “What a time to lose my followers!”
“What are you doing here?” Elegia asked.
Grollek brought himself to its feet. “I found my followers slain amongst the Stonewight I could not be sure who was responsible; you, or the Stonewight. So I followed this path, and told my followers that if I do not resurface within half an hour, they are to follow me to ensure my safety.”
The Man o’ the Muck looked about the dank cavern. “I believe I now know who is responsible for this slight—this is Grold’s lair, or I am the Wood-Lord himself.”
“You know Grold?” Elegia asked.
“I know of him. Everyone knows the tale of the Grold and Dyvian Gray. Come,” he gestured for her to follow, “We can talk as we walk. I have a debt to settle with the Rock-Lord.”
Elegia followed. “You didn’t seem to get along with Dyvian too well in the marshes.”
Grollek looked Elegia over, the way people did when they tried to decide if she was a girl or a boy. “Are you telling me that the man you were traveling with was Dyvian the Wizard? One who has stilled the Earth? And Conquered the Conqueror? And—”
“And raised a girl named Elegia,” she interrupted, thumbing her chest. “He’s the very same.”
Grollek chuckled, mirthlessly. “Why does he hate us so?”
“His encounters with your people have been…less than pleasant in the past.”
Soon after this they came upon the mouths of two caves, forked left and right. “As our conversation ends, so does the trail,” Grollek remarked.
Elegia looked from one tunnel to the other. “Which way?” she asked.
Grollek frowned, peering down both tunnels.
“We are not splitting up,” Grollek said, before Elegia could finish. “Do you know what happens when people do that?”
“I do,” she said, “Which is why I was going to ask if we should check for spells and enchantments in the tunnels.”
Grollek smiled at that. “You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you? Maybe Dyvian did raise you.” And with that, Grollek peered down each tunnel in turn. “Grold will have set traps for both caverns. The trick is to find out which trap he’s more likely to use to prevent access to his throne room.”
“So tunnel with the deadlier spell is the one we have to go through?”
“And how do we find out what spells protect each tunnel?”
“Easy,” Grollek said. His left arm fell to his side, and as two fingers sloughed off his hand, he sent them worming down either tunnel. The two watched as the fingers inched along either path.
And when Elegia could barely tell his fingers from the real worms in the tunnel, they witnessed the spells.
In the left tunnel, the cavern shook, and rocks rumbled. In a span of three heartbeats, the tunnel had collapsed, blocking the entrance.
And as the left tunnel collapsed, the second finger continued on, inching forward until it vanished around the corner.
]“No trap,” Grollek said. “That doesn’t make any sense. There must be–ow!”
“What is it?”
“Something stabbed the other finger.”
The two looked at each other, and then down the tunnel. “The right tunnel,” they said in unison.
They followed the cavern, treading as though each step could spell their doom. The two rounded corner to find themselves in a chamber upon which the walls, floor and ceiling were all inlaid with scale-like jewels.
The chamber was empty, bathed in the jewels’ pulsing glow. Elegia noted a curious design along the length of the ceiling: a set of four green diamonds that stretched the length of the chamber, yet did not gleam like the others.
Ten paces opposite them was another tunnel.
As they approached the tunnel, Elegia drew her ice sword. Grollek, too, had drawn its axe.
Elegia blinked the sweat out of her eyes and started forward when death struck at her soundlessly.
The shadow that swept across the gleaming floor was her only warning, and her sidelong leap all that saved her life. She caught a flashing glimpse of the hairy black and green horror that swung past her with a clashing of frothing fangs.
Grollek swung back, axe at the ready, when it saw the horror strike the floor, wheel and scuttle forward with appalling speed. The Wayward Muck was facing a gigantic spider.
The monster advanced on Grollek and the Wayward Muck swung its axe in an arc that bit into one of the spider’s eyes. It scampered away, screeching. “So you took my finger,” Grollek muttered.
Elegia started forward to help Grollek, but by the time she raised her weapon the spider had slammed the Wayward Muck into a wall and turned around, ready for her. She backed away from the snapping pincers and swung wildly. The beast recoiled, evading her blade. Then it jumped forward, lashing out again with deadly pincers. She jumped out of the way and let loose another untrained swing. Again she missed, but her swing was close enough to send it scuttling back.
“It’s not a club, you fool!” Grollek shouted, “It’s a sword! Don’t swing it like–agh!” Grollek let out a cry as the creature’s pincers cut through the muck of its torso. Grollek brought its axe down on the spider’s pincers and the beast shrieked, releasing the Wayward Muck. Grollek fell to one knee, sand trailed from its wound.
Thoughts tumbled through Elegia’s mind as the monstrosity surged toward her. It had backed her against the jeweled wall, pincers snapping. One of its pincers stabbed her hand, and the sword clattered to the ground. Blood ran down her palm, stinging her hand. She could feel her pulse in her fingers.
The creature lurched forward, and with a burst of adrenalin Elegia grabbed its pincers. There was a coarse feeling brushing her wounded hand that made it sting It took all her strength to keep the thing at bay. Her muscles burned from the exertion.
She released its pincers and dove forward in the same motion, so that she was under it. The spider wheeled around, expecting her to have run, but she’d seized her sword and ran it through its belly. Blood and things she didn’t want to think about rained down on her as she slid out from under it.
The spider did not even let out a death-screech before its lifeless body crumpled to the floor.
All was silent. Elegia sheathed her sword and approached Grollek, who was still on one knee its breaths came heavy, and Elegia helped the Wayward Muck to its feet. “I have decided,” Grollek proclaimed, “That I would very much like to kill Grold.”
The two stepped over the fallen beast. As they entered the mouth of the tunnel it had guarded, Elegia heard voices echoing far behind them.
Grollek seemed to read her thoughts. “Have no fear. They are my followers, come to aid me.”
“Are you sure?”
“No. But thinking so calms the nerves, does it not?”
They entered the cavern.
It seemed to stretch on endlessly. Elegia lost track of time walking, until, as they came closer to the other side, they heard a voice echoing harsh and dry. “I have waited ages for this,” the voice said. “If you will not willingly break your spell that binds me to these caverns, I have other ways of convincing you.”
“I will tell you one more time, Rock Lord,” said a voice Elegia knew belonged to Orym. “You must let me go. I will consider releasing you, should you make peace.”
“It’s too late for that, sorcerer,” Grold boomed. The Rock Lord’s husky voice echoed off the cavern walls. “This is my ground! You made it my ground when you cast me into these caverns! I have nothing to fear from you.”
“I made it your place?” Orym echoed. “I was righting your wrongs I’m not proud of what I’ve wrought–”
“YOU HAD NO RIGHT!” The Rock Lord boomed. “No right! One thousand years I have been trapped beneath the earth, because you, Orym Tar, decided to forego diplomacy. Because you saw no other way to right the situation than eternal imprisonment. And for what? Glory? Who gave you the right?”
“I could ask the same of you!” The Wizard shouted back. “You were conquering and Stilling the land. What would you have had me–?”
“So you rushed headlong into pitched battle with me?”
“Grold, I was a newly-made Wizard.”
“I take no pleasure in this,” Grold said. “Truly I don’t. But it has been one thousand years. Release me.”
Elegia came to the mouth of the tunnel, with Grollek just behind her.
Before her stood Orym, bound hand and foot, and flanked on all sides by Stone Soldiers. And Grold sat in his obsidian throne. He looked as if he were trying to stare the Wizard to death.
“Grold, I understand your desire. But your lust for vengeance has made you blind. You have angered many people. You sent the Traveling Dark to herd me like cattle into the Ever Changing Land–”
“–and they were successful.”
“Perhaps. But it has been a long time since the Traveling Dark have been wounded. They will not take kindly to that.”
“You put your faith in something like the Traveling Dark? Who was the one who wounded them?”
“Your pride has made you arrogant. Your Stone Soldier killed the Wayward Muck on their own ground. Listen to me, if you are so keen on diplomacy. I failed once. I don’t wish it to do it again.”
“What can the Wayward Muck do?”
“They are quick to anger, and do not forget a slight. They will find you. Grold, you must make peace–”
Elegia turned to Grollek, and saw that its followers had arrived. She did not realize how great a force it truly possessed. The Wayward Muck seemed to blend together, as if the cavern was brimming with dirt.
Grollek put a finger to its lips.
“Must I?” Grold exclaimed. “No one would dare seek to harm me on my ground! I will not ask again. Release me!”
Orym smiled. “There is a reason I’ve cautioned that it is only me that you should not fear.”
“Attack,” Grollek roared, and the Wayward Muck were upon the Stone Soldier, cutting them down from behind before they could realize they what fate befell them.
Grold came to its feet, seized a battle axe and, with a cry like the boom of a landslide, the Rock Lord threw itself into the fray.
Elegia ducked and dodged between clashing blades and the clangor of weapons. With her ice-sword drawn, she wound across the battlefield towards Orym. As she did this, she saw two Stone Soldier still flanked the Wizard. When he spotted Elegia, he called forth the ash he had packed away in his bag. It wisped into his hand and he threw it in the Rock Soldier’s eyes. The two had not a chance to react; they staggered back and hit the ground.
Elegia met Orym, who muttered “Making good use of that sword yet?”
“Remind me to thank Grollek,” Elegia said. She swung her blade down on the iron that bound his hands and feet. The enchanted blade formed a layer of ice around the chains. Orym tugged with his wrists and his bonds shattered. She did the same for the chains around his ankles.
“We need to get out of here,” he said.
She greeted that statement with a slap. “What about Grollek? We can’t leave–”
“Elegia, trust me. Head for the tunnel. Now.”
“Trust you? After years with you, you forget to tell me this, and now you ask me to trust you?”
“I take no pride in this!” He swung his arms toward the battle all about them. “But we must go.”
Orym went grim-faced. “The Traveling Dark are coming back.”
The two darted for the mouth of the cavern. The Rock Lord bellowed from behind them. “You will not escape me, Orym Tar! I will have my vengeance!”
As they entered the mouth of the cave a Darkness crept through the tunnels. It was not before. At least then she could see her hand in front of her face. Now it was as though she’d entered a void.
A voice resounded off the cavern wall. “Sorcerer. You burned me. You wounded my kin.”
“Actions we took to preserve our own lives,” Orym reasoned. “Do not tell me you wouldn’t have done the same in our place.”
The tension was thick enough that Elegia felt she could pluck it as easily as a lute string.
“Who sent you out to harrow me?” Orym continued, “Who bade you find me and bring me to the Ever Changing Land? I presume Grold promised you a reward, no?”
“We were promised freedom.” the Darkness said.
“Then make your peace!” It sounded more an order than suggestion. “You have been misled. I will free you, should you desire peace.” He unstrung his sack of ashes and tossed it to the ground “I have said what I must. Now do what you will.”
“Orym?” Elegia whispered, “What are you doing?”
The Darkness seemed to stare down the Wizard and the apprentice assessing the situation. “You are but pawns in the Rock Lord’s game,” the Darkness said.
Orym could not keep the quiver from his voice. “Please, don’t.”
“And I don’t concern myself with pawns.” The Darkness passed. Elegia looked down the length of the tunnel as though a veil had been lifted from her eyes. She looked back and saw Darkness spread throughout the Rock Lord’s throne room.
“We will meet again, Orym Tar.”
Orym walked through the tunnel as though he had all the time in the world. “My friend! My friend, you have come to aid me! Thank you–no. What is this? What is? What are you–?”
The Rock Lord’s scream was like marble scraping steel. Agony laced its cries. And as Elegia followed Orym out of the tunnel she knew that the Rock Lord was no more.
It did not feel like a victory.
A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Lydia Raya, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.