Rough, uncut stones now formed the slightly rising path that Dylan and his friends went up. The cold had somehow gotten less and it had been about a half-hour since they had to throw away the first of their torches. It made the lord feel a bit woozy. By now they had only encountered one trap. Still they had eight more torches, counting the one that they’d just lit. It should be enough.
A short ways behind him Lora and Kyle went along side-by-side. The beautiful girl from the south was humming to herself, one hand playing with one of the long, silver earrings she wore.
“Lora,” the boy cut through her thoughts.
“Do you think we’ll ever get out of here?” She smiled at that. Oh, I wish so much that we would, she said to herself. She had successfully hidden her fears deep down inside up until now and she had no wish to show them at all. Oh, just to be out in the open again.
“Yes, I think we’ll get out. The Word is guiding your Dad and mine.”
“Good, ‘cause then we can get married.” She stopped fumbling with her earring, a bit amused at Kyle’s remark.
“I think you’ll have to get a bit older first,” she interjected.
“Okay. Then we’ll just have to wait.” It sounded final. The lord has spoken, she thought wryly, playing with her earring again. Suddenly it slipped from her grasp and tinkled among the stones.
“Oh!” she cried and went down on her hands and knees, feeling for it. She found it quickly, but also something else. The ground was wet.
“Dad, there’s water on the ground.”
“What?” Savoy sounded very worried.
“There’s water on the ground.”
“And it stinks here!” Asha whined from where she was padding beside Dylan.
“Like rotten eggs...” the Scholar whispered. “Burning wind / frigid waves... — Oh no! The second trap!” Dylan stared back at his friend.
“Get moving!” Savoy cried. “To the top, to the top / run and do not rest!” The lord scooped his little girl up in his arms and started running. As they moved the smell began to get worse and now their feet were splashing in small puddles. Move, move, Dylan chanted to himself. Suddenly the tunnel ended against a stone wall.
“What now?” the lord panted, more to himself than to the others.
“Look, handholds!” Kyle cried. “This is gonna be fun!” At least he doesn’t understand that we’re all about to die here, Dylan thought, just a bit angrily.
“Okay. Savoy, you take Asha. I’ll take Swift and go first. Let’s move it!” He turned to the wolf. “Come on, Swift, on my back,” he ordered in wolf-tongue, kneeling down. The she-wolf did as she was told, her front paws resting on his shoulders. Lora quickly wrapped the cloak around her and tied it fast, so she wouldn’t fall. Then Dylan started the climb. It was only about twenty steps, but he must go quickly. Suddenly a quiet clicking alerted him. He had pressed down on something with his right hand. He glanced over his shoulder and found himself staring at three arrows.
“What is it?” Savoy called
“I’m staring down the barrel of a loaded gun and when I let go, we’re dead.”
“If you don’t we’ll all be dead!” came the reply.
“I know, I know, just give me a second.” There was only one way to save himself. Hopefully the mechanism was rusty.
“Get away from the shaft,” he ordered. “I’m going to jump.” With that he lowered himself until he was hanging only by his right hand. One more breath, just a little thought ... and he let go. In the same instant the three arrows shot forward. With a loud crunch they embedded themselves in the wall where his head had been only seconds before.
“Are you sure you want to go up there again?” Lora asked him.
“We don’t have any other choice, do we, girl?” Dylan answered just a bit impatiently and started the climb again, all the more carefully. When he reached the arrows he broke them out of the wall and tossed them down the shaft, where they clattered on the ground.
“Wow!” Kyle breathed, picking up one of them and looking at the sharp point in the torchlight. There were no other arrows in the wall or hidden mechanisms, so the rest came up safely. Lora carried the only torch that they’d kept alight and once on top, Dylan rekindled his flame.
“There, now we’ve gotten away from the ‘frigid waves’ and ‘burning wind.’” the lord remarked.
“Don’t feel too happy too early,” Savoy returned. “We haven’t reached the end of this yet.”
“So what’s next?” Lora wanted to know.
“Death stalking,” the Scholar answered with a straight face.
The room that Alick stared into was small with a low wooden table and two chairs in it. There were several chests and closets against the walls and a curtain hid a doorway across from him. Silently he stepped in, his eyes getting used to the light that came from several torches. He turned and closed the door, perhaps a bit disappointed that everything was so plain.
“Ah, Alick, there you are at last,” came a voice from behind him, making him jump. “I’ve been expecting you for some time.” The ex-wizard turned, almost a bit fearfully. There in the doorway with the curtain was a tall man. He stepped through, letting the curtain fall shut behind him. There was a strange quality about this man, as if he wasn’t quite human. His hair was silver and he wore a close-cropped beard of the same color. Youth and age mingled strangely in his face and the eyes were so indistinct in color that at times they seemed blue, and at times nearly black. Yet they were frank and clear, like those of a child. He was dressed in white robes, his head bare. A thick belt of gold threads was around his waist. His arms were bare from the elbow down, thick and powerful, clearly used to hard manual labor. There were strange scars in each wrist. His feet were bare with similar scars in the heels. In his left hand was a white capsula with golden caps, a tube used for holding messages. His clothing was simple and yet royalty spread from him in every direction, making Alick bow to this man unknown.
“Rise up, Alick of Dell Cairn,” the man said with a smile. “We have much to speak about. Will you take a seat?” The old man sat down with shaking hands. To his surprise the table was set with a simple meal: fish, bread, and a goblet of fine red wine. He could have sworn that it was empty only moments before.
“Eat, servant of Carrock,” the man ordered him, “and be strengthened.” Slowly Alick did as he was told. The fish and bread tasted wonderful to his starved stomach — he hadn’t eaten for nearly a day — and the wine was thinned down enough so that it would keep his mind clear and yet it was incredibly rich. All the while the strange man did not touch any of the food.
“And you, m’lord?” Alick finally asked. “Will you not eat?”
“No, my friend, I will not eat. You need strengthening in all respects. The meal is for you.” The ex-wizard rose and bowed slightly.
“I have eaten my fill, sir,” he said. “Many thanks.”
“Good, Alick of Dell Cairn. Now we can begin.” The fiery eyes regarded him for a moment. “You have a question, friend. Ask it.”
“Pardon me, my lord, but who are you?” A smile washed across the man’s face.
“I have many names, friend. Among your people there are those who call me Masih. Others have given me the name Yeshu. Others would call me the Anointed.” He held out one hand. “I am who I am, Alick. And I have a comission for you.” The words were spoken slowly and majestically, making the old man fall to his knees.
“What is it, my lord?”
“You are to be a Scholar, Alick of Dell Cairn.” The old man bowed his head to hide the rueful smile that now washed across his face.
“Is that so strange?”
“Yes, my lord, it is. I am an enemy of the Scholars, my lord. I am a wizard. I hoarded my powers, only to have them broken by the Word in the Battle of the Wolf. I am not worthy to be a Scholar, my lord.”
“I am the one who makes worthy or unworthy, Alick,” the Anointed countered, rising. “Are you willing to serve me?” Alick looked up just a moment and was dazzled by the glory that suddenly surrounded the man. His robes were glowing, the belt of gold like a river of melted metal. The voice had become more majestic. His shining hair was like a royal diadem of pure silver. The ex-wizard looked back at the ground.
“I am unworthy, my lord,” he whispered.
“I will make you worthy, Alick. Are you willing?” For an instant the battle raged inside the old man. He was being chosen for something. He had given himself to the Word unconditionally and strangely he knew that the Anointed was speaking in the power of the Word. He finally decided.
“I am willing, my lord. Send me.”
“Then rise, Alick of Dell Cairn and take your comission.” The ex-wizard did as he was told and in the same instant his black robes fell from his shoulders, now replaced by ones of dazzling white. The Anointed held out the scroll, which Alick took, not daring to look in that shining, terrible face.
“Go now, Alick the Scholar,” the Anointed ordered. “You will now know what to do.” The old man bowed before the shining One and then turned and left the room. Now he knew what he must do.
The tunnel had changed again, now cut directly into the rock. The walls were rough and the ceiling not smooth. This must have once been a natural tunnel that had later become part of the many corridors of the Labyrinth. The air here shifted strangely, at times cold and clammy, then suddenly a burning heat. No sooner had sweat covered the brow, than they stepped out of the heat back into the icy cold, now shivering. Dylan carried Asha under his cloak, the way he’d carried another child during his enchantment, so long ago. The company was silent, just pressing on. The children were too tired to even complain and even the determined lord was longing for sleep.
To the left and to the right were jagged openings in the rock, leading into low chambers. It was from these that the cold or hot air blew. The only sound that could be heard was the crunching of the stones beneath their feet and the occaisional quiet moan of Kyle, as his already hurt feet became even more sore. Suddenly Dylan came to a halt.
“What was that?” he whispered.
“What?” Lora whispered back.
“I heard it to,” came Kyle’s hoarse voice.
“It sounds like someone is following us,” Savoy said.
“Let’s continue on,” the lord suggested and they moved forward as silently as possible. Occasionally a deep growl came from Swift’s throat. She held herself close to Lora, who was the last in line now. The dark girl laid one hand on the broad head, feeling only a little bit of comfort. Then she heard it, too, a scraping behind her, like claws on the rough ground. Get out of the tunnel ... out! Suddenly the others vanished in front of her and she stood alone, her torch flickering. Where did they go? She looked to the left and saw one of the craggy openings beckoning her. After a moment’s hesitation she jumped through, Swift with her ... and just in time. The scraping now went by the opening to her small cavern. Her heart suddenly was in her throat as the sound paused and a quiet hissing was heard. Then it resumed and passed away. She breathed a sigh of relief and then looked around her.
The chamber was much larger than she’d imagined and she was merely sitting in the entrance. Slowly she rose, filled with awe. The room was a perfectly circular dome, as if she was in the upper half of a sphere. It seemed that light came from the walls and not just from her torch. In the center of the room was a low pedestal with a statue on it. Curiously Lora stepped closer. The statue was that of a girl, standing straight and tall. Her hair looked as if wind was rushing through it. Her face was noble and beautiful, young and yet not. Strangely, she was dressed in real clothing. A wide gray cloak was draped over one shoulder, fastened at the neck, leaving a halter and loincloth of a gray fur visible. There was a knife of flint with a handle of bone at her side and a necklace of bear claws on a leather thong around her neck. Another leather thong was around her forehead, almost like a diadem. In her right hand was a long spear with a head of deer bone.
Slowly Lora’s eyes grew wider. She knew this image, or at least who it was supposed to be. The legend of the Watchcarer was known to most people, a woman whose task it was to watch after the animals of the field and forest. She was closely bound to them, could communicate with them and was said to have special powers. But she’d vanished many years ago, only the myth remaining. Here was the proof that the story was true. The girl reached out and tenatively touched the gray cloak. It was almost like a spell had laid itself across her. It was a call to her. The Watchcarer must return — in her. This would be a difficult task, she knew.
“But what else can I do?” she asked herself and mustering what little courage she had she quickly swapped her clothes for those of the Watchcarer. As she fastened the string of claws around her neck and finally picked up the shaft of the spear, she felt as if she was suddenly changed. She looked towards where Swift was sitting, golden eyes full of wonder. She then threw her head back and yipped.
“The Watchcarer.” Lora understood it, like she would the speech of all animals.
“Yes, Swift, I am the Watchcarer.” She knelt beside the wolf. “But I’ll need help. Will you help me?”
“How can I say no?” the wolf asked, bowing its head. “I will serve you with my life.”
“Then come, we’ve got to take care of that thing out there,” the dark girl said, picking up her spear.
The cleft where Dylan and the others pressed themselves was small and uncomfortable. Savoy was sitting closer to the opening, frantically looking around.
“What is it?” the lord asked.
“Where’s Lora?” the Schoar returned in a choked voice.
“I don’t know.”
“I think she’s out there, Dad,” Kyle whispered.
“My God!” Suddenly there was a loud hissing, like that of a snake.
“Lora!” Savoy cried, trying to get through the hole.
“No, Savoy, it’ll kill you!” the lord cried, trying to keep his friend back, but, weighed down by his children, he couldn’t stop the dark man from leaping through the opening. Outside he found himself suddenly face-to-face with a scaly being. The head was crowned with three horns, small beady eyes staring into his own. It must have been as tall as a horse, the face reminding him a bit of that of a rhinocerous. It took a step forward, claws scraping against the stones. A forked tongue flicked out like that of a snake.
“Oh, Word, protect me,” the Scholar gasped, taking a step backwards. The monster followed. Suddenly a clear voice rang out.
“That’s enough! Begone!” The beast suddenly backed away down the tunnel and vanished. Now Dylan finally pulled himself out of the cave.
“Are you all right, Savoy?” he gasped.
“Yes, I’m fine, praise the Word. But where’s my daughter?” He walked forward. “Lora?!?”
“I’m here, Dad.” The voice came from right behind him. He turned around and gasped. The girl was standing there, same as before, except that the flickering torch light now played over a gray cloak and she held a long spear in her other hand. Her hair was pulled back as ever, but her earrings were gone and there was now a leather thong in the midnight tresses. Something about her had changed, Savoy was sure of that. Swift sat beside her calmly.
“Are you all right?” he asked, finally regaining his composure.
“Yes, I am.” She straightened a bit. “Let’s go on. It’s too dangerous to stay here. I can’t hold him back forever.” Only then did the Scholar notice that her forehead was slightly wrinkled, as if in intense concentration. He still couldn’t bring himself to move, but Dylan’s wide hand on his shoulder moved him forward.
“Let’s go, quickly,” the lord ordered. The dark man complied slowly. Lora turned and led the way down the tunnel, leaving her father to wonder about what had happened there. They moved forward speedily, Kyle having to run to keep up at times. The dark girl’s cloak billowed out like the wings of an angel and for an instant Dylan found himself thinking that his son was right about this girl. She was stunning and so different, now more than ever. It’s almost as if she’s become someone totally different in those few minutes, he thought.
Suddenly the girl in front of them fell down on her hands and knees, gasping. The torch slid across the floor and crashed into the wall.
“What is it?” Savoy asked, kneeling next to her.
“He’s broken free,” she moaned. “Quick, we don’t have much time.” And then to Dylan’s surprise she spoke in the wolf-tongue, “Swift, on ahead. Find the pits and warn us!” The wolf sped off into the darkness.
“Later, Dad, I’ll explain later. We’re going to die, if we don’t hurry.” She pushed herself off the ground, retrieved her torch, and quickly followed the beast that ran on ahead. Suddenly she stopped and held up the torch. There was a chasm in the ground, a thin ledge along one side. Swift was already across.
“Hurry!” she yipped and disappeared again. Lora slid along the thin ledge with ease, jammed her torch into one wall.
“M’lord, pass me Asha.” Dylan knew what she meant. He threw back his cloak and passed his torch to his son.
“Don’t worry dear, she’ll catch you,” he whispered, not knowing why he was so confident. He now held his daughter cradled in both arms, concentrated for a moment and suddenly she went flying across the pit, too scared and surprised to scream, landing safely in the young woman’s arms, while Savoy passed along the wall. Dylan then took Kyle on his back and they slid across the ledge. They could already hear the scraping of the beast down the hall.
“Quick,” Lora panted. “This one isn’t wide enough to hold him, but the next one is. They reached the next pit, which was truly a chasm. Again Swift was already on the other side. Lora tossed the torch across, where the wolf deftly caught it in her teeth. She then leaped up into the darkness and suddenly went shimmying across an almost invisible rope.
“Asha, you will have to hold on to me as tight as you can,” Dylan whispered to the little girl. “Okay?” She just barely nodded, shaking with fear, silent tears running down her cheeks. Now the Lord leaped up and went sliding across. The Scholar lifted Kyle up, who came next and then tossed his torch to Dylan, who just barely got it, nearly losing his balance over the pit, if Lora hadn’t pulled him back with almost supernatural strength. Finally Savoy came across after them.
“Just one more,” Lora gasped. In the same instant the beast came flying up the tunnel, sliding to a halt at the pit.
“Get back, all of you!” the young woman cried. They staggered behind her. A sound like a hissing steam pot was heard from the strange monster. Lora’s cloak flew up and a sticky stubstance spattered against it. The cloth came back down and the girl raised her spear. It glinted dully in the flickering torch light.
“Don’t you dare,” she hissed. “They’re under my protection.” Dylan watched in fascination as the battle of wills began. Lora’s bronze forehead was flecked with sweat, her hazel eyes burning into the beady ones of the strange being across from her. Slowly the horned head bowed down and then it began to slither backwards into the dark.
“It won’t be back,” she sighed, turning around. Her face was quite pale. Savoy stepped out to comfort her.
“Don’t touch me, Dad, or else you’ll die.” She held up her cloak “Hades’ hand. If anyone touches the venom with his bare skin it will kill him.” There was the sound of tearing cloth and Dylan passed her a piece of his cloak.
“That should do.” The girl nodded and carefully wiped the strange stuff off, finally tossing the soiled rag into the pit. At last Savoy took her by the shoulders.
“Daughter, how did you do that?” he asked in awe.
“Haven’t you guessed, Dad?” she asked, reaching into the collar of her tunic. She brought out the necklace with the bear claws.
“I’m the Watchcarer,” she said quietly.