Make a right at the first turn, two doors down, look for the table with a vase on it. Meet Jae back at the library. That was the plan. That was what Jae told her. It seemed so simple at first. But she found herself having abruptly improvise when she found the door leading to the section of corridor with the tunnel entrance closed. And the handle was far above her head. Not for the first time did she lament her diminutive size in relation to her surroundings. It was beyond tiresome to be hampered continuously by the most mundane of things. Like a door. Not even a locked door. Merely a shut one.
She could not go right, so left it would have to be. As she ran back across the intersecting hallways, she saw the large leather clad giant disappear around the bend, most certainly having chosen to run after Jae rather than her when they bolted in two different directions. But she could not help but feel frightened for Jae’s safety. The boy was fast on his feet, she could not deny that. But Creag was a giant. Armed, large, and angry. How fast did a person need to be to directly outrun a giant? Faster than she was confident Jae could manage. The only way she was going to be able to help her friend was to get to the library and tell Maevis.
He was a magician. Surely he could do something.
Having been forced to turn left rather than right, Nenani found herself in a section of the castle that was wholly unfamiliar. Every hall seemed to stretch on for miles with endless carpets leading to more closed doors. And not a friendly face in sight. The whole place seemed oddly deserted, she thought. She knew the castle had many servants tending to the daily needs to keep it running smoothly and she could not help a grunt of frustration that they all seemed to have disappeared when she was in such dire need of aide. It was no time at all before she was wholly and helplessly lost. Exhausted and panting, Nenani leaned against a section of molding and tried to catch her breath.
As she panted, listening to the thrum of her own heartbeat, something caught her eye. It was a distinct shape within the square coffer decorating the stone walls. A seven petaled flower.
“...a door?” she asked to herself in a quiet whisper, disbelief mixed with fragile hope. Tentatively, she reached out and touched the surface. It was cold to the touch and the stone was rough under her fingertips. With a fortifying breath, she pushed hard against the stone. At first, it remained steadfast and solid, but then the square coffer began to sink under the pressure of her hand and there was an audible clank from behind the coffer. A wide square of stone pulled from the rest of the wall and opened. Beyond the reach of the hallway light, the inside of the tunnel was dark and smelled of dust, but it was a door and it was good enough for Nenani. The door almost immediately shut tight behind her, casting about the space an impossible darkness. She waited several moments for the now familiar blue light of Maevis’s orbs.
A few more moments.
A bit more.
But the orbs did not materialize. With the sound of her own hard breathing in her ears, she inched over to her left, with on hand cautiously stretched out. Her fingertips met the cool rough textured stone wall and she batted uselessly around wherever her hands could reach, hoping to find the metal bracket and the orbs.
There were none.
And that did not seem right to her. Jae had specifically told her that he had personally scoured all through the tunnels and had the orbs installed. He had assured her, well - bragged. Several times. So why not this one? Inching along the wall, she continued to search, finding it absurd that there were no orbs.
And then her hand met metal. A bracket! She reached up as though to touch the orb, but found not the smooth cold glass, but rough dry wood that at her light touch abruptly and seemingly without cause burst into flames. She pulled her hand back with a loud yelp and rubbed her fingers. There was no pain, she had not been burned nor singed. She looked up blearily at the all too bright torch, now alight and sending the shadows about the tunnel to a rhythmless dance. And then from beyond the reach of the torch’s light, another lit up without prompting or a sired fire. And another. And another.
Before her stretched a tunnel like many of the others, but lit by torches instead of the flameless orbs. There was no smell of fire and the flames produced no ash. Indeed, the more she watched the torches, the more oddly the fire looked to her. It wavered and flickered as fire does, but it did so more slowly and it looked...thicker than fire normally did. It wavered like churned up water, but in the shape of fire. When she reached her hand up, she felt no heat from it either. She dared to move her hand a bit closer and a lick of flame darted out and grabbed at her outstretched fingers. Nenani cried out in surprise and inspected her hand. As before, there was no mark. No pain.
Fire that supplied light, but no heat and did not burn?
Nenani watched the lit torches burn for several long moments, ignoring the odd prickling along her neck and ears. Her extremities tingled oddly, not unlike the feeling of an adrenaline rush. She bit her lip against the screaming of internal voice - the one telling her she was an idiot for considering the mere idea! - and thrust her hand up and into the fire.
Painless. No heat.
But not without sensation. It tingled a little and felt more like a soft breeze between her fingers than anything else. She laughed a little, more amazed than alarmed.
And then the tunnel breathed. A gentle gust of air that barely swept the dust from the ground, but accompanied by a throw thrum that changed, rising and falling in pitch almost like speech and if she strained her ears, she could almost make them out. She walked along the path, guided by the torch light and the gentle buffeting of the air as it pushed out the almost words.
The tunnel made a slight curve and continued down for a good hundred yards.
At the end of the path lay a door decorated in the same manner of the one leading to the library and she felt a bubble of hope at the prospect that this tunnel lead there as well. She could tell Maevis that Jae was, likely at this moment, fighting for his life against a literal walking mountain of a giant. She ran the last few yards, her hands out stretched to meet the door and push it open.
...Thhhe rrriver rruhns...The...river...runs…
Her hands met the cold stone.
“The river runs...”
Nenani froze and leaped back and away from the door, wide eyed and heart hammering. That had been no wind, but a voice. Clear and audible.
“W-who’s there?” she asked tentatively into the dim.
“...when the old blood runs new...”
And the door opened.
She moved without conscious thought, spurred forward due to some unknowable pull from somewhere deep inside. An almost yearning. But for what, Nenani could not say. The room beyond the door was dark, but dry, unlike the moist air in the hallway outside. She dared to step further into the room as far as the torch light was able to reach inside. At the end of its length, she stopped and tried to peer around through the gloom to make out whatever there was to make out. Her eyes were slow to adjust, but could just make out several darker patches along the room’s walls. Curious, she stepped closer to one and was once more startled by the abrupt eruption of lighting torches that illuminated the room with startling brilliance. She once more had to wait for her eyes to adjust and she blinked away the floating spots that hung about her vision. Hallow black sockets starred back at her from a skull, marred by time and decay.
“AH!” Nenani scrambled back with alarm, arms flailing behind her to catch onto the wall. However, her hand met empty air and she tumbled back. Her elbows landed painfully on a stone ledge and she turned her head to meet the empty sockets of yet another skull. Or rather a body with a skull, grinning back at her with polished porcelain teeth. “Oh my gosh!”
The entire room was made out like that of a honeycomb, recesses built into the walls and each and every one of them held a body with velvet death shrouds, some even sporting jewelry of dazzling gold and gems, however tarnished or dulled the years had made them. The floor was made of dark marble with gold inlays. She starred without comprehension and slowly turned to take in the room and all of the bodies. It was only after several long moments of anxious staring that she became aware of the voices. Low murmurs like those heard from outside a closed door. But they began to grow in volume. No matter where she looked, she did not see anyone, but still she could heard – so very clearly – voices.
“The river runs uphill to the dying songs of the fall of fools and Kings that tear flesh from bone and the crown from the mountain. Water runs red with fire and shall rise when the old blood runs new. The flesh taken will be paid in blood and the dead walls will rise with gold.”
Hard, deep gulps of air filled her lungs but she could not satisfy the burning need for oxygen. The torchlight began to dance with the shadows and the room spun. Voices cried out, panicked and terrfied. The scream of a child, the wail of a woman, and the death throws of a wounded man. They grew so loud that she feared her skull would split…
“Spare them, please!”
“Did your men spare my son? Any of my sons? Skewerd my first born like some lowly shit covered pig and left him to rot!”
“We did not kill Thadeus!”
“Your lips drip with lies, small man. Your kingdom has been laid asunder and your line is dead.”
“The little ones, please!”
“The blood of my sons shall be repaid by the flesh of your’s.”
“Please, my Lord, they are innocent!”
“You will die drowning in their screams...”
Rapid foot falls echoed through the dark hallway. Not the way she had come. No, she could not go back that way. As soon as the all too loud voices had faded just enough for her to regain her own sense of self, Nenani had fled. Across the floor of the honeycomb tomb to another door way and kept on. Fast enough that the torches igniting along the way were slow to catch up to her frantic pace. Dread, heavy and hot like molten lead, weighed every piece of her down and she knew nothing but the desire to be anywhere but in that room.
Light exploded before her and air, crisp and clean, filed her starving lungs as she all but fell out of the tunnel and back into the cavernous hallways of the castle proper. The muffling walls of the tunnel gave way to open air and sound Nenani stayed there for several long moment, merely breathing. With trembling limbs, she eased herself back to sit on her knees.
The hall was lavishly carpeted and the walls were decorated with vast landscapes and portraits set into gilded frames of finely dressed Vhasshalan lords and ladies. Intricately painted vases as tall as a giant sat upon squat lacquered tables and small chairs and benches were placed intermittently along the walls as though one would need to sit after admiring the beautiful objects. But such material finery was lost on Nenani, held too far and too tight in the grip of her own lingering dread. She swore she could still hear screams as they echoed on inside her head and there was an acrid taste of ash on her tongue.
Muffled voices drew near and renewed panic set her heart pounding back to a thunderous beat. But these were not the mysterious disembodied voices such as those from the tunnel, but real and present voices originating not from the dark, but corporeal people. And not just any giant. The King.
The practical worry of being discovered in a place she had no right to be replaced the fear of something of a more mystical nature. As the voices drew nearer and their words became more audible, she darted for the nearest bench and curled herself behind one of the carved wooden legs. It was just wide enough to convincingly conceal a skinny girl of inconsequential height. And so there she stood still as stone and waited.
“I doubt it’s anything so trivial as that,” said the King as the pair rounded the corner. King Warren was dressed more formally than the previous time she had met him. He wore a deep red tunic ornamented with a jeweled clasp at his neck and gold embroidery around the hem and cuffs. Though he wore his hair down and loose, it was neatly combed and clean. His companion was a stark contrast. The blue coat gave him away as a ranger and everything about the man was dirty and road worn. His coat was stained, his boots were muddy with debris, and his beard and hair were raged and unkempt. “Rarely do I find myself presented with simple problems.”
“Wouldn’t waste yer time on minutia,” replied the King’s companion and Nenani felt something in her chest squeeze. That voice. “But me and th’boys got ‘ta thinkin’ that a dead farmer might be a bit above that.”
“Do not jest. This is the fourth such incident in the last two months and we are neither closer to finding the culprit or the motives for these attacks. A man is dead, Keral.”
“Aye, dunna have ta’ tell me. Saw his guts n’ everythin’.”
“And the survivor?”
“Th’ farmer’s son. A few scrapes, but ‘is Mum expects him to be well enough in a week or so,” replied the ranger. “I’ll speak to him then.”
“I suppose we should be grateful the boy survived to tell us what he saw,” supplied the King in a sourly tone, slowing his pace and then stopping. He starred thoughtfully at the carpet for a moment and turned to the ranger, his voice low. “Maevis has been sensing that something is amiss in the valley these last few weeks. He’s tried to find it through his own mean, but it’s...illusive.”
“A Sorcerer maybe?” asked the ranger with an expression and tone that suggested he did not put much weight behind it. “A few of ‘em gave us a bit of trouble a few years back. Could be tryin’ it again.”
“Maevis does not think so.”
“Shame,” said the ranger nonchalantly. “It’d make my job a wee bit easier. Instead of chasing who-knows-what about the country side. Kind need to know that fer me to do much good.”
King Warren was silent as he pondered his companion’s words. Meeting the taller giant’s gaze, the King asked, “What do the Hill tribes say of it?”
The ranger shrugged dismissively. “They’ve decked out their border towers with all sort a’ nonsense. Y’know how that lot get. Jump at every shadow and cobweb that crosses their path. Superstitious little bastards.”
“Has it attacked the tribes?” asked the King With what sounded like genuine concern.
“Not a scratch,” replied the ranger, running a hand down his beard. “Though Gregis said it comes by often enough that they’ve started refortifying their defense walls.”
“He’s seen it, then?”
“Not quite. No one’s seen it, not really. He says it comes at night on occasion. Just a blob of black in the dark. Watches ‘em. Some said it was as tall as a Vhasshalan, some said it weren’t no bigger than a human. Others swore looked like dragon. But they all agree on one thing: it don’t do much. Watches and walks around the border, just outside the torchlight. They’ve taken to calling it the Shadow.”
The King’s lips twitched in a grim smile. “They do have a talent for the fanciful.”
“Ah, reminds me. They sent this with me too,” said the ranger, digging into a pocket and pulling out a handkerchief. No, not a handkerchief. It only appeared like one in the hands of giant. It was a blanket, a human sized blanket. One woven of gray wool and with something painted on one side. The ranger carefully handed it to the King, who took it with surprising deference. “The Lady Gregis made it. Said the symbol there is for protection.” The ranger’s passive expression changed to one of poignancy and a little humor. “Specifically, it’s a talisman meant for a woman whose expectin’.”
The King smile broke into a wide grin and regarded it for a long moment before folding it carefully and slipping it into his tunic. “If you could send her my deepest gratitude on your next rounds.”
“Already assured her you’d be tickled pink fer it,” said the ranger with a grin.
The King nodded, made his excuses and dismissed the ranger who in turn, gave his own shockingly informal farewell and clapped the King on the shoulder like an old friend rather than a monarch. The distance between them in social standings must have been enormous, yet alone together without the scrutiny of others, the pair spoke and acted entirely different than one might expect. The King walked on towards and passed Nenani’s hiding spot while the ranger, after lingering for a short moment, turned on his heels and strode back down the way they had come.
Nenani waited until she could no longer hear their footfalls and then waited a while longer for the slight vibrations died away as well. And even then, she still waited. The notion of waiting until a servant passed by came to her. A servant might be a little more sympathetic and help her back to more familiar ground. One of the lady servants would, she was sure.
It wasn’t long before she began to feel silly cowering under the bench and with a fortifying breath, marched out from under her hiding spot and turned to follow along the same way the King had gone. Barely had she made her way down any significant length of the hallway when she heard someone click their tongue in a disproving manner and a voice, familiar for all the wrong reasons, sent an icy chill down her back.
“Oi, now, lil’un,” said the red haired ranger. “Where might ya think yer wanderin’ of ta?”
Nenani whipped herself around to face the giant, her thoughts reeling at how he managed to get passed her without her knowing. Or hearing him. Or smelling him. He stank of mud and refuse. Her feet nearly tangled themselves up, but she kept her balance and stood with her neck craned and eyes wide. And mind completely blank.
The ranger had the same eyes as Farris, a brilliant green, and had his hair and beard been washed and combed, she imagined he would have the same face. The face she remembered from when she was a baby. The giant who had nearly captured her family and everyone else. She remembered her mother desperately trying to hide her and the giant – this giant – finding her and…
And then nothing else. How had they escaped? How were they not dead? She did not remember.
The ranger was leaning against the wall of an adjacent corridor with arms crossed and a look of smug self satisfaction. “Well?” he prompted, pushing off from the wall. “Got an answer fer me there?”
A number of potential replies, excuses, and explanations flooded her mind and they all seemed to want to come out first, making her tongue tied. “I...it was...I just...um...”
The ranger regarded her with a raised eyebrow. “And without a marker as well.” He clicked his tongue again. “Not lookin’ good fer ya, lass.”
Nenani’s hands flew to her neck and found it bare. Her marker was gone. The leather strap and the medal pendant that signified her as one under the King’s protection. They were gone. She almost forgot about the ranger and started looking around with her eyes, hoping it had merely slipped off and was just laying somewhere near by. But there was nothing. It was not there.
Nenani took a single look at the ranger and, feeling the absence of her marker and all that implied, turned and ran.