The ring of eman vath, p.26
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       The Ring of Eman Vath, p.26

           Hal Emerson
 

  Chapter Twenty: Blood of the Eryn-Ra

  To say Wren’s nerves were frayed was to understate the situation.

  Surrounded by sudden darkness in the bowels of a fortress from which he was trying to escape with his life, he could not help but think that he had made an error in judgment somewhere along the way. More likely, though, his luck had simply run out.

  Delian, Wren thought, praying silently to his favorite of the Old Gods, master of wine and dice. If I’ve offended you and you’re punishing me, then you can go shove a hot poker up your –

  “They’re still coming,” came the voice of the young man through the darkness. His breathing was ragged like Wren’s, but strangely muffled. Wren realized that Samson had gone back to the door and had his ear pressed against it.

  “Help me!” the Islander said, and then Wren heard him moving around.

  “Help you?” he asked incredulously. “I can’t see my own nose, what the bloody hell am I supposed to be helping you with?”

  “There’s a bar for the door! Just come here – ”

  A strong hand grabbed his wrist and pulled him through the darkness. Sightless, he groped downward until his hands came upon something long and rectangular. With a grunt of effort, he threw his shoulder under the heavy wooden beam and panted back at Samson: “Now what?”

  “Forward,” the Islander said, strain clear in his voice. “Toward me – away – toward me again –”

  Wren could hear the sounds of pursuit through the door now too, and he felt a rush of relief as the beam slid into place. A second later, a series of heavy thumps, as of bodies thrown against wood, rocked the door in its frame. Wren’s heart skipped a beat, but the door held, and the muffled sounds from the other side, though raised in anger, did not seem sure about breaking through the door.

  Wren felt movement behind him.

  He spun, but could of course see nothing in the darkness. It was so black in the room that he felt as though he had gone blind, and it terrified him. For a beat of time, he simply stood there, pressed up against the cold stone wall beside the door, listening. But no sound came to him except the shouts of the guards outside.

  “Did you feel that?” he asked Samson. He didn’t understand what was happening, but he there was terror growing in the pit of his stomach and he couldn’t understand why or where it was coming from.

  Why was the door locked?

  “No,” Samson said, his voice carrying as he spoke at normal volume. “We need to find a way to light the torch – ”

  Wren felt the movement again, almost as though something had passed over him in the darkness. “Be quiet!” he hissed.

  “Why?” Samson asked, exasperation clear in his tone.

  “There’s something in here,” Wren said, speaking barely above a whisper. His knees were shaking and a cold sweat had seeped out over his body. He tried to pierce the darkness with will alone, but it was no use. They needed light.

  No – no, it’ll see us –

  It? What was it?

  There came a heavy crash from the direction of Samson, and Wren nearly wet himself. The young man cursed, and then there came the sound of something scraping along the floor.

  “There’s another torch. And flint and steel.”

  “Don’t light it,” Wren said immediately. He could feel the darkness watching them – could feel the nebulous it waiting.

  “Don’t be a fool,” Samson retorted, and with a snap of steel on stone, sparks hit wood freshly coated in pitch. The torch blazed to life, nearly blinding their dark-adjusted eyes, and sent flickering shadows across the large cavern in which they found themselves.

  But all that Wren saw was the enormous eye staring at him: an eye with a slit pupil like a cat’s, in a long, scaled head – a head with long jaws on a sinuous neck.

  “Eryn-Ra,” he whispered, using the word from legend.

  The creature turned its head, opened its mouth to reveal rows of dagger-sharp teeth, and let out a roar that shook them both to the core. Without any conference, they ran in opposite directions, Samson taking the torch while Wren leapt into the shadows. The Eryn-Ra roared again, and this time sent a torrent of flame through the space they’d occupied only seconds before. Wren could feel the heat of it even as he raced away: a raging, consuming inferno.

  The wild flame illuminated patches of the cavernous room: it was large, that much was clear, but the edges were lost in shadow, and all Wren could see was a series of broken pillars in a ring. He raced for the nearest one and threw himself behind it. There was another roar, a rattling of massive scaled wings, and then a heavy percussive sound as something beat the air. The light from Samson’s torch flickered across the empty space, and then suddenly went out.

  Wren gritted his teeth and slammed shut his eyes, like a small child convinced that if he tried hard enough he could will away his nightmares. There was no way out of here. How was he going to escape? How could he possibly?

  The impossibly wide wings beat the air, sending wind ripping through the chamber like a heavy gale. The creature screeched as it took flight, and then the there followed the heavy thump of its body as it landed again, nearly beside Wren.

  Scrambling, unable to think for the terror that had completely consumed his mind, he rounded the broken pillar, clinging to it for dear life, trying to keep it between him and the creature –

  A heavy crunch, a horrible screech as of metal on rock, and then the top half of the already broken pillar was sheared clean off.

  He tried to run, but he went the wrong way, and the pillar knocked him sideways with the wind of its fall, disorienting him completely. He tripped and stumbled, fell to his knees, then tried to regain his feet. His shaking legs wouldn’t support him: he ended up facedown among dirt and stone. His whole being was filled up with the singular desire to run, run away!, and so he reached out with his hands, pulling at the cracks in the ground, and wrenched himself forward in a frantic crawl-walk, shouting nonsense as he went, begging and pleading for his life.

  Fire ripped through the darkness, and Wren flipped over just in time to see the creature above him, its massive wings lost in darkness to either side, its powerful jaws spread wide as it shot flame past him, melting the rock of the wall.

  The flames snapped off, but the light did not disappear. By chance alone, the creature had lit a single torch in another wall bracket, and that single point of light gave off just enough illumination for Wren to see the creature as it stooped down over him. He watched the scaled jaws open, saw the long red throat behind teeth as long as his arm, and he could do nothing but shake and cry.

  A figure launched itself from the newly shorn column, a curved sword held in two hands. It slammed into the creature’s back, and Wren lost sight of it.

  The Eryn-Ra let out a piercing scream totally unlike its previous roars and spun away from Wren. It writhed and rolled about on the floor, screaming all the while, and Wren saw the figure of Samson thrown from its back.

  Without thinking, his limbs still shaking but suddenly workable, Wren was up and running. The creature recovered quickly: its screams died away, the impetus behind them changing from pain to bestial rage. Wren didn’t waste time trying to watch how it might respond, though – he ran as fast as his legs could carry him, ran through darkness toward the opposite side of the room.

  A patch of shadows off to his left resolved into the figure of Samson, who’d been thrown nearly across the room by the writhing beast. He was trying to prop himself up against a wall, and Wren, not knowing what instinct drove him, diverted his course and ran for the young man. He could just see the Islander by the light of the single flickering torch, now far distant behind them, and though his lips were pulled back in a grimace of intense pain, his limbs were intact and he could move.

  “Give me your arm!” Wren cried.

  Samson did, and together they levered the young man to his feet. Samson still held the stolen sword clenched tightly in his other hand; there was blood on it, a blood
so dark that it seemed to drink in the already dim light of the torch.

  “Don’t let it touch you,” Samson gasped. “It burns – ah!”

  Wren opened his mouth, though he would never be quite sure what he intended to say – perhaps that he’d had no intention of touching the black, viscous liquid in the first place – but at that exact moment, the door to the cavernous room was blasted apart and blown inward by a force so explosive that it tore out half of the rock wall in which the wood panels had been set.

  Light suddenly flooded the room as a ring of torches set in brackets all the way around what was now revealed to be a circular cavern, burst spontaneously to life. In the center of the newly illuminated space, Wren caught sight of a single enormous iron stake, driven into the rock, from which came a chain that had been attached to the neck of the Eryn-Ra.

  Shocked, Wren turned his attention to the door – or what had once been the door – and saw a skeleton standing there.

  No – not a skeleton: a man dressed entirely in bone. He towered over those beside him, and two limp forms dangled in his grip, one in either hand, forms that had once been guardsmen. Even as Wren watched, the man clothed in bone let the bodies fall, and they tumbled to the ground and lay still.

  The Eryn-Ra roared and attacked the newcomers. Flame raged from between its jaws and engulfed the man and the dozen or so others behind him. But then an inexplicable note of music filled the chamber, and then another, and then a third. Together they formed a minor chord that pushed at Wren’s chest, forcing his breath from his lungs. Gasping, he struggled to his feet, helping Samson stand as the fire raged. Where were they going to go; how could they escape?

  He frantically raked the chamber with his eyes, seizing the opportunity to search the now-illuminated cavern. They had to find something – anything at all – that might hide them, that might keep them safe…

  His heart shuddered to a stop, and then started beating twice as hard. There was a second door, located on a narrow ledge on the far side of the cavern. Unable to gain enough control of his tongue to speak, he pointed frantically toward it, forcing Samson to look. By common unspoken consent, they started shambling toward it, Samson staggering as fast as he could, Wren pulling and pushing and shoving him in an attempt to help. Almost before he realized it, they were taking the stone stairs that would lead them up to the ledge, but so slowly – too slowly – going one at a time as Samson hobbled up as fast as he could…

  Wren heard shouts, but he didn’t look around to determine the source of them. All that mattered was the door. They needed to get out. There were roars as well, from the Eryn-Ra – roars that were becoming louder as it retreated back into the room.

  Retreated?

  Compelled by fear, he looked back.

  The stone around the opening where the door had been had melted and begun to crack and even drip down onto the chamber floor, so intense was the fire that poured from the creature’s mouth. But still standing there, in the middle of the opening, was the man in bone armor. He strode forward into the room, dozens of men flooding in behind him, completely unscathed.

  “We have to go,” Samson groaned. “Come on!”

  Pulse hammering in his throat, Wren helped Samson hobble up the final steps to the door. He reached for the handle, only to realize there wasn’t one. He slammed his wrist against the solid wood, thinking of how the other door had opened, but nothing happened. He unlimbered Samson from his shoulders, propped the Islander against the wall, and unwrapped the ring from around his wrist.

  He slapped it into his palm and slammed it against the door.

  Nothing happened; the ring stayed cold upon his skin.

  “No,” he hissed, slamming his hand against the door again. “No! It bloody worked on the other one – it worked! It has to work again – ”

  “What are you doing?” Samson gasped.

  “The ring,” Wren almost sobbed in desperation. “The ring – it opened the other door! It – it needs to open this one!”

  He slammed it against the solid wood again, ignoring the pain in his hand, but still nothing happened. The action only produced a dull, hollow thud that in and of itself seemed to rebuke him for even trying.

  “Wren!”

  He spun to see the nightmare bearing down on them. Turned away from the main door, the creature had retreated across the room and spotted them. Its slitted eyes were rolling in its head, and Wren knew that this creature, if it had ever thought, was thinking no longer. It was a beast in the true sense of the word – a mindless, broken being driven by nothing more than base instinct.

  It lunged for them, jaws open; flame kindled in its maw and shot out toward them, burning the air and blinding them.

  Wren threw his arm over his face, and, unbidden, the three notes of the minor chord he’d heard not minutes before came to his mind and formed on his lips. Sudden heat rushed through him that had nothing to do with the flame, and his voice flooded from his throat as if forced through by an outside power. The chord rang out impossibly loud, as if he’d somehow found the frequency of the room, and the three notes repeated themselves over and over again.

  The flames parted harmlessly to either side of them. The heat in Wren built until he felt as though he were on fire even though the inferno hadn’t touched him. He couldn’t stop. He sang the notes over and over again, faster with every repetition, and the sound of them somehow cut through the flames and diverted them like a boulder set in the middle of a stream.

  When the blaze cut off, the music died from Wren’s lips. The heat left him and he felt suddenly numb; a wave of weakness rushed over him, and he staggered back against the tiny door – only to realize that there was no door: it had been burned away.

  He fell into a stone passage so small that even he could barely stand up in it. There was more shouting from back in the room, but he couldn’t tell who was speaking or what was being said. The mad eyes of the Eryn-Ra were still locked on him, and it thrust forward its long, sinuous neck, snapping its teeth, trying to pull him back. He pushed back farther into the passageway, scrambling like a crab, and felt the wind of the dagger-sharp teeth as they snapped inches from his face. The Eryn-Ra roared in anger and began to tear at the rock wall, forcing its head deeper into the hole it had burned, widening the tiny passage as much as it could –

  The head stopped, and the body shivered.

  For a long second, Wren just watched, dumbfounded, and then the creature pulled back, screaming as it had when Samson had first struck it.

  Samson – I left Samson back in the room – he’s distracting it –

  It took all of Wren’s willpower not to turn and run up the passageway, leaving the Islander behind. He could have done it – he could have escaped, could have used the distraction to save himself…

  He saved your life.

  His memory of the man who’d died in Caelron flashed before his mind’s eye, and then his broken lute and the memory of receiving it so long ago. The way he’d been helpless to save the man, the way he’d watched him die.

  This time I can help.

  And so, sobbing and calling himself a hundred types of fool, Wren pushed himself up, steadied himself against the rock wall, and stumbled back toward the chamber, his limbs shaking so violently that he could barely stand.

  The Eryn-Ra was writhing around on the floor of the cavern, black blood pouring from a wound in its chest. The Varanathi had retreated to the edges of the room and even back through the main door, trying to avoid the lashing tail and clawed limbs that swept the room. The creature’s scaled wings beat the air, buffeting them all with wind, and fire shot in dying streams from its open mouth.

  Samson lay on the stone ledge screaming in horrible pain. The entire right side of his body had been coated in blood, and the black liquid was eating away as his exposed skin like acid. The sword he’d used to pierce the creature’s chest had melted and run like glass under high heat, and it was just beginning to cool and re-solidify, but Samson couldn’t dr
op it: the metal had melded to his skin.

  The Islander screamed in time with the Eryn-Ra’s convulsions down below, and they both writhed and twisted about as they died. Samson rolled to the edge of the stone ledge as he twisted and shuddered, and before Wren knew what he was doing he dove forward and grabbed the young just before he went over the side.

  Pain raced through hand, up his arm, and straight into his head. He cried out in shock and pain and fear, and then sudden light bloomed from where his hand had grabbed hold of Samson’s burned and blackened shoulder. The ring, still on the cord wrapped around his palm, flared with a light so intense that he was forced to look away from it. The pain in his head redoubled, and music came, not from Wren, but from the ring itself, and from the blood that coated Samson’s side.

  The light flared brighter still, flashed a final time, and then disappeared.

  Samson stopped screaming, and, mirrored down below by the dying Eryn-Ra, fell still. A long, echoing silence suddenly filled the room, and Wren felt his gaze drawn to the floor of the cavern, where stood the man dressed in bone, watching. He lifted a single arm and pointed at Wren. His words, unnaturally loud in the sudden silence, echoed out perfectly clear:

  “Bring him to me.”

  Lightning raced through Wren’s blood. He grabbed Samson and tried to pull him up; the Islander slipped from his numb fingers and fell back to the ground. Wren grabbed him by the neck and slapped him; the young man sputtered back to life, his blue-green fluttering open –

  One of them had turned completely black.

  “What – what happened …?”

  “Running now, questions later,” Wren gasped.

  They made it into the passageway, and Wren knew immediately that they were finally going the right way. The passage quickly began to ascend, and though there were no branching passages that led away from it, the tunnel twisted and turned with such frequency that their pursuers could hardly be going faster than they were. Still, as they continued up and up and up, Wren’s breath came faster and heavier. Sweat began to pour down his face, making little rivulets in the grime and dirt that had collected there, and their pace began to slow.

  They were both gasping and staggering when they broke through to open air.

  At first, Wren couldn’t understand what had happened. He looked back at the way they’d come and saw only a slight indentation in a solid rock wall. He ran his hands over it; the rock glowed briefly, and then his left hand, the one bearing the ring, sunk through it. He pulled his hand back out again, touched his other hand to the wall, and found nothing but solid rock.

  He heard sounds from down below, though, and realized that their pursuers were nearly on them. He grabbed Samson again, slinging a thickly muscled arm over his shoulder, and heard the Islander cry out in pain. Something clanged against the rocky ground; Wren glanced down.

  The sword had fallen from the Islander’s hand, somehow ripped from his skin by the weight of the blade. It rested now between a pair of broken black boulders, and Wren’s breath shook as he examined it. Somehow the metal had settled back into the form of a sword, though its transformation had lengthened and widened it, and there were swirls in the metal from where it had melted and run. Whatever blood had coated it had either dried up or been absorbed, and every inch of the blade was now a horrible burnt black.

  Samson grabbed for it.

  “Leave it!” Wren hissed.

  “No!” the Islander insisted just as vigorously. He pushed away from the boy and grabbed up the sword. Wren winced as the burned skin touched the metal, but Samson did not. He shivered, and his muscles relaxed as if the pain of his burned and cracked skin had been at least partially soothed. Whatever strength he’d managed to regain, though, was exhausted by this effort. He swayed on his feet, and Wren only just managed to catch him before he face-planted on the ground.

  “Go … to the harbor,” Samson gasped.

  “The harbor? We can’t stow away, they’ll search every ship before we – ”

  “I can sail,” he protested. “And I need clothes. Get to a ship – a small one, with a single mast and no oars. If we – if we get – on board, then we can – sail.”

  “Where?” Wren gasped, though he was already directing them toward the harbor. They had come out on the far side of the mountain, and if they continued on their current path they would be able to sneak around the back and come out at the docks unseen. “Where are we going to sail?”

  “Anywhere but here,” Samson gasped, groaning and whimpering as he clapped a hand to his right side. “Anywhere but fulking here.”

  It was hard to argue with that kind of logic.

 
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