THE STONE COLUMN FOREST
Leiss went on ahead down the spiral staircase, far enough that Sammy could no longer see the glow of his lamp. He’d reasoned that if they heard him get attacked or cry out then that would give them enough of a head start back up the staircase. Unfortunately, they’d been walking so long that there was no way Sammy would be able to run back up the stairs.
She’d been performing the same movement over and over, climbing down the staircase leading with her right foot and walking on her toes. Both her left hip and right calf were tight and on the verge of snapping. There was no way she’d beat anyone to the top of these stairs.
“How much longer?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Mehrak replied. “Any sign of the stairs ending?” he called ahead.
“No!” came Leiss’s faint reply.
“Can we have a break?” Sammy asked.
“You still there, Leiss?” Mehrak called. He crept forward, keeping Sammy behind him.
“Leiss?” he tried again.
“I’m right here,” he whispered loudly. “Stop shouting. I was making sure it was safe. We’re at the bottom.”
He led them through a stone arch at the bottom of the staircase into a cavern of towering stone columns.
The columns were closely packed and varied in girth from tree to industrial chimney width, making it impossible to see further than ten paces in any direction.
The staircase they’d come down was inside one of the wider pillars. Leiss walked a circuit of it.
“Pillars in all directions,” he said. “This must be the maze.”
Sammy looked up, following the line of the column with the staircase inside. It stretched into the black abyss above, out of the lamplight. The ceiling and fire temple were up there somewhere. And judging by how shaky her legs were, it was probably a long way up.
“Clever,” Mehrak said. “The pillars are like the mushrooms in the forest. All different widths, not arranged in rows, groups, or even patterns. Easy to get lost in if you don’t know where you’re going, but easy to remember if you’ve learnt the way.”
“Ingenious,” Leiss said. “Is that locket working yet?”
Sammy opened it and held it up to the lamplight. “No.”
Leiss sighed. “What now?”
“I suppose we start walking,” Mehrak said. “Pick a direction, see what the locket does.”
Leiss walked another circuit of the staircase column, dragging the hilt of his sword around it, scraping a line into the stone.
“So we can find our way back if we get lost,” he said. He shuffled back and forth on his feet, every part of him was tense and ready to fight. He was making Sammy nervous. She wished he’d stand still and keep his worry to himself. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath.
“Do you want to lead the way with your locket?” Mehrak asked her.
“Why would I want to do that? The monster’s probably right behind that first pillar.”
“You’ll be okay. We’ll feel its heat before it gets close. If the temperature goes up, Leiss can take the lead or we can change direction.”
“What if he can turn his heat off?”
“Fine. I’ll go first,” Leiss said. “Keep an eye on your locket.” And he marched ahead, scoring each pillar with his hilt as he went. Mehrak gestured for Sammy to go next and he took up the rear.
Sammy kept the locket open as they walked. She checked it every few steps, but it did nothing, and after a lengthy period of time that was probably only around ten minutes, they stopped.
“That locket doing anything yet?” Leiss asked.
“We aren’t going the right way,” Mehrak said. “The locket would have done something by now if we were. We should head back.”
“We should keep going,” Leiss said. “We might be almost there.”
“We aren’t. The locket hasn’t done anything.”
“Does Lila-Maryam know if it actually works? It might just be a good luck charm.”
“We’ve got to trust the locket,” Mehrak said. “The mountain tapers out as you come down from the temple. That means this cavern could be several stadia in diameter. Our lamps won’t last long enough to explore the whole place. If they burn out, we’re stuck down here forever.”
Tiny needles prickled Sammy’s flesh like spider feet moving up and down her arms. Stuck down here forever?
“We should head back to the staircase,” Mehrak said. “Then pick another direction.”
“Fine,” Leiss said. “But can we at least pick up the pace?” He stormed ahead, his broad frame black against the lamplight in front of him. Sammy and Mehrak jogged to keep up. Sammy was exhausted. She’d probably expended ninety per cent of her energy through nerves and sweat. Her legs were heavy, her clothes drenched. She staggered, putting her hand against a pillar to steady herself. It was cool and smooth. She stopped.
“There’s no marking on this pillar,” she said.
Leiss froze, but didn’t turn around.
“Leiss?” Mehrak said, panic rising in his voice. “Where are the markings?”
Leiss darted from pillar to pillar. Stopped. He staggered back several steps, his chest pumping, his sword arm limp. When he finally turned to face them, his eyes were wild.
“I thought I recognised the way.”
Sammy couldn’t take it any longer. They were lost, buried underground, running out of light. She closed her eyes and held her breath.
“For Ahura’s sake, Leiss!” Mehrak screeched, trying not to raise his voice, but failing. “What do we do now?”
“I suppose we keep going,” Leiss said. But his voice was shaky, uncertain.
Sammy’s head was expanding, getting lighter; she needed to escape. She backed away from Leiss and Mehrak. Fighting the urge to run, she put several columns distance between them and her. The blackness was stifling, claustrophobic. She would rather face the crabmen than get trapped down here. She wanted daylight. She wanted to be home, she wanted her mum. She walked further, and a small light flashed.
She stopped. It had come from her chest. She held up the locket that had been open at her neck. Nothing. Then there was another flash.
“I told you not to rush!” Mehrak’s voice had increased in pitch to a low shriek. “I told you …”
“Mehrak!” Sammy called.
“Sammy? Where are you?”
Sammy heard Leiss and Mehrak stumbling around looking for her. “I’m here,” she called.
Mehrak was frantic when they found her. “Are you okay? What’s going on?”
“The locket’s doing something.”
“What?” Leiss said.
The locket’s crystal pulsed with light.
“Pass it here,” he said, and moved to take it.
Mehrak shoved Leiss’s arm out of the way. “You think we’d let you take it, after –”
“No one’s having the locket!” Sammy snarled.
Both Mehrak and Leiss stopped. The outburst hadn’t sounded like her at all. She’d surprised herself, but determined not to lose momentum, she went on. “I’ve been put in charge of the locket and I’m going to keep hold of it.” Asserting her authority was a novel experience, and not entirely unpleasant.
“So how did you get it to work?” Leiss asked, through gritted teeth.
“You and Mehrak were arguing so I walked over here and the crystal flashed.”
“I suppose if we carry on in this direction,” – Mehrak indicated with one arm – “then we should be heading in roughly the right direction.”
Sammy walked a few steps further and checked the locket.
“We might be close to the staircase,” Leiss said. “I should start scoring the walls again, in case.”
“Don’t bother,” Mehrak said. Then to Sammy, “Look, there it goes again!”
“And again,” Sammy said. They were saved! Maybe they would make it to the Temple of Paths. Maybe everything would be okay. Maybe the monster didn’t know where to go and had gotten lost.
“Keep going,” Mehrak said. “There was less time between the flashes then. Start counting the space of time between them. I reckon the closer we get to the temple, the shorter the gap will become.”
“Don’t forget that creature’s down here somewhere,” Leiss said. “We should stay close.”
Sammy led the way through the pillars, counting the periods between flashes. Occasionally the time between pulses slowed, but in general, and after some trial and error, they more-or-less figured
out the right path. They moved quickly and it wasn’t long before the flashes of light were pulsing in time with Sammy’s heartbeat. Mehrak held up his lamp.
“I hope it’s not much further,” he said. “My lamp’s getting light, like I don’t have much oil left in it. There might not be enough to get back, Leiss. We should blow one of ours out to ration the oil.”
Leiss stopped and held them back. “What was that?” he said.
“Over to the right.” He pointed. “I saw something move in the shadows.”
“It’s him, isn’t it?” Sammy said. “It’s getting warmer. I can feel it! Can you feel it?”
“I feel it,” Leiss said. He’d become unusually calm. The enemy had been spotted and he’d snapped back into elite Marzban mode. If Sammy hadn’t known better she might even have thought he looked happy.
“We need to keep going,” Mehrak said. “Or we aren’t going to make it.”
“There!” Sammy said. “The tall shadow.” It was moving, circling them.
“I see it,” Leiss whispered. “You two keep going. I’m going to finish this …”
“Leiss, don’t!” Mehrak said. “We need you.”
Leiss ignored him and ran into the darkness. The light from his lamp dimmed as it became obscured by the columns and he was gone.
“Leiss!” Mehrak half-shouted, half-whispered.
“We should go after him,” Sammy said.
Mehrak pulled her back. “We have to keep going while we still have light. If he wants to risk his life, that’s up to him.” He took her hand and dragged her on as he broke into a run.
They dashed through the columns, the pulses from the locket flashing ever faster. An agonised scream echoed through the
cavern, bouncing off the columns, sounding like it was coming from everywhere at once.
Sammy’s heart stopped. Borzin’s ruined body appeared in her mind’s eye.
“Leiss!” she screamed, slowing up.
“Don’t stop!” Mehrak said. He pulled harder. “We should’ve stuck together.”
Sammy wanted to stop, to go back for Leiss, but she kept going. She wanted to make a stand like they did in the movies, turn back for her fallen comrade. She pulled back on Mehrak, but it was half-hearted and lacklustre. She didn’t really want to go back. She was scared and couldn’t bear the thought of seeing Leiss burnt and dying, and so she let herself be carried on.
And on they went, zigzagging through the cavern, terror fuelling their legs. She glanced down at the locket. The flashes were blurring together, like a hummingbird’s wings.
“We’re here!” Mehrak said.
And they stumbled out of the columns.
There was a barren track of stone running into the darkness in either direction, wide as a single carriageway.
On the opposite side was solid stone wall.
“Which way now?” Mehrak asked.
“I don’t know. The locket’s stopped flashing.” The gaps between pulses had shortened to nothing and the crystal inside the locket radiated a pure uninterrupted light.
“Let’s try this way,” Mehrak said, and dragged Sammy to the right along the wall.
After a short sprint, the locket started flashing again.
“We’re moving away from it,” Sammy said.
Sweat was pouring off Mehrak’s face, his turban was damp around his hairline and a bib-shaped sweat patch had formed around his neck. “Okay. Back again,” he said.
They turned and ran back along the wall until the locket light became constant again. They stopped. Mehrak bent double with
his hands on his knees. Drops of sweat dripped off his face. They hit the fine coating of stone powder on the ground and rolled themselves into tiny dirt balls.
“The locket’s telling us this is the place, but there’s nowhere else to go,” Mehrak said. He looked at the wall. “Wait! It’s uneven here. These are stone blocks. There’s an opening that’s been bricked up and … and the pointing is smoothed over to make it look like solid rock.” Mehrak dragged his finger between two bricks, emptying the gap of finely powdered stone.
“But if it’s bricked up, we’re stuffed,” Sammy said.
“Stuffed indeed,” came a metallic reply.
Mehrak grabbed Sammy and pulled her behind him, up against the wall.
As if floating, the tall, cloaked creature slid out from behind a pillar. A wave of heat followed, consuming Sammy and Mehrak.
Sammy shielded her eyes. They’d failed. Greater than the fear was the crushing disappointment. One moment they were going to make it, the next it was all over. She’d been convinced that everything would work out. Now they were going to die.
“I’m surprised you made it this far,” the creature said calmly. “So close to your precious Mother World. Just the other side of that wall.”
“What have you done with Leiss?” Sammy shouted, trying to sound braver than she felt. There was nothing to lose now. She may as well die with a grain of courage.
“Silence!” screamed the creature, shaking with rage as it had done in the Fungi Forest. Then, just as strangely, calming down again. “That is nothing that should concern you now. I need you to do something for me.”
“How about you do something for me instead?” Mehrak said.
The creature laughed a cold, unsympathetic laugh. “And what would that –”
Mehrak flung his lamp at the creature. It covered its face with an arm as the lamp struck its elbow. The oil spilled and the monster went up in flames.
Mehrak stepped away from the wall, turned and charged. He hit the bricks hard, shoulder first. The wall wobbled and stone powder burst from the pointing, coating him and Sammy and exposing the brickwork. Several of the top bricks fell into the gap behind the wall. Mehrak placed both hands on the wall and locked his arms.
“Help me,” he yelled.
Sammy joined in and they pushed together.
The blocks budged, tipped slowly, then dropped.
Mehrak pulled Sammy back from the falling masonry, then forwards over the pile and into the tunnel beyond, stumbling as they went.
“Stop!” screamed the monster.
A fireball flew from its cloaked sleeve and over their heads, exploding into the ceiling above. Sammy stumbled and fell. She could hear the rocks shifting over her head, could feel deep vibrations though the floor. Then Mehrak was there, heaving her up and pulling her on as boulders dislodged above them. He launched her ahead of him as an avalanche of rock thundered down into the tunnel.
The heat vanished and dust filled the tunnel. Sammy could see nothing but the glowing halos of dust surrounding her lamp and locket. Everywhere else was dark.
“Mehrak? Where are you?”
A cough. “I’m right here. I’m okay.”
Sammy moved towards the voice.
Mehrak was on the floor. She helped him up, and he dusted himself down.
As the dust settled, they watched the last small rocks roll down the landslide that filled the tunnel. The monster wouldn’t be catching them any time soon, but they’d lost their exit.
“You were right,” Mehrak said, shaking the stone dust off his turban and patting himself down. “That creature was definitely not a waster.”
“I told you.”
Mehrak nodded, sighed.
“I didn’t mean, ‘I told you so’. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry.”
“But I am. You just saved me, and now you’re stuck here. Except I’m not really that sorry, because I’m glad it’s you with me, instead of Hami.”
Mehrak smiled. “Even though I almost got killed for you just now, I’m glad it’s me here, too. I guess I owed you one for that lake creature anyway.”