A Quest For Merklynn
There was a brisk, chill wind, although the late sun on her back still held some warmth. Galadria was glad of her cloak and hood. They were walking quickly, and up a steepening slope, so there was little chance of growing unpleasantly cold, but the wind stole its way in through every gap, in search of flesh to torment. Cryotek was walking alongside, his bulk an effective barrier against the wind, his warmth reaching out to her whenever her arm brushed against his. It was a comfort in more ways than one. He glanced down at her once, when she knocked against him again, and they shared a smile. It was a shy sort of moment. They both knew that she was brushing against him on purpose. They were both enjoying the contact. For now, however, they were content to avoid anything more overt.
Part of the problem was that they were not alone. Up ahead, a scurrying fox was checking for signs of trouble, its keen nose set to the ground, its sharp eyes watching for any suggestion that others had passed this way before them. In the sky above, an eagle wheeled, in search of other dangers, and for the enemies that were never far away. Their presence was both a reassurance and a frustration. Moments alone with Cryotek were hard to come by, and this long trek through the mountains, on one of their periodic quests for Merklynn, might have been the perfect opportunity. Instead, Leoric had detailed Ectar and Arzon to go along as well. Galadria appreciated the increased security, even as she was wishing to be free of it.
"Perhaps we could stand watch together tonight," suggested Cryotek, not for the first time seeming to read her thoughts perfectly. She smiled.
"That would be nice." She pressed against him, and this time, letting propriety be damned, he hugged her close to his side. Ectar, he was sure, had assumed his fox form in order to give the pair of them some sort of solitude, and was keeping his back turned, and his nose to the ground, as though studiously ignoring them both. Far up ahead, swooping and gliding on winds that they could only imagine, Arzon was easier to ignore - even if he did have eyes that could see all, from hundreds of metres above.
"Not as nice as a roaring fire in the castle hall, but nice enough." He rested his chin briefly on the top of her head, and it bumped there gently as they walked. "It will get cold tonight, I fear. Colder still when we pass though the mountains to the other side. The lands there are mired in snowdrifts six feet deep at this time of year."
"Yes. Merklynn was keen not to wait for the thaw, though. Winter blooming flowers by the armful. I wonder what he needs them for."
"Some piece of magic that we're better off knowing little about. We were told to go on foot. That speaks to me of the dangers of alerting others, if we go in one of our vehicles."
"So we could have to worry about interference from an unknown front, as well as the usual pestering from the Darkling Lords?"
"Precisely. He's probably battling some other sorcerer, or playing some magician's power game. Still, we have Ectar and Arzon to scout the way ahead. That's in our favour."
"Would you prefer to join them?" she asked suddenly, and for a moment his great brow crinkled into a frown. Then he smiled and shook his head.
"I take some joy from my totem form, it's true. I think we all do?" Galadria nodded, and so did he. "But I'd be of little use in mine here. Less than a use, perhaps. He might even walk slower than I do."
She laughed at that. "I've seen you both run. There's nothing slow in either of you."
"Well, perhaps. But I don't have Arzon's eyes, or Ectar's senses. He's been chasing trails since long before he ever thought of becoming a fox. Best to let him get on with it." The big man smiled, leaning closer to her to whisper into her ear. "And besides, I'd rather walk with you, as man and woman. There are things that polar bears must necessarily miss out on."
"You're not just saying that? My totem needs water, but yours..."
"Mine is content to remain in my breast." His huge hand swallowed her much smaller one, and she knew that this was no idle placation. "Enjoy the walk. We shall have to climb soon enough, and then we shall all be wishing for wings like Arzon's, let alone for anything else."
"Your bear may be just the thing we need, when we have to cross all that snow."
"Perhaps. I can carry you on my back, and play the gallant."
"And there might be a river running through the mountains, in which case I can carry you on my back."
"I can only hope. And maybe––" He broke off then for, far above them, Arzon had let out a screech that sounded like a warning. Ectar was human again in a moment, running towards them as he changed, so that his form was briefly a blur of blue and gold, of fur and armour.
"Trouble," was all that he said, although the warning was scarcely necessary. Above them, moving with terrifying speed, was a black shape, resolving before their eyes into a giant bird of prey. With talons outstretched it flew straight for Arzon, and it was all that the eagle could do to dodge it.
"Oh for a set of wings just now," growled Cryotek. Ectar's eyes were narrowed to slits.
"Or even for a bow and some arrows. Come down here, damn it, Arzon! Why is he trying to take it on alone?"
"Maybe he's trying to tell us something." Galadria spun about, scanning the terrain as far as she could see it. Her human eyes were no match for Arzon's in his eagle form, and she lacked his high vantage point, but all of the Spectral Knights were more than merely human now. She could sense things that she could not have done once, and she felt sure that her eyes were sharper. "There!"
"Soldiers." Cryotek turned, seeing immediately where she pointed. Only six of them, clad in light armour; but six could be enough if the circumstances were right. They were carrying swords and spears, and were advancing at an impressive rate. "How far off would you say, Ectar?"
"At that speed they'll be here soon enough. Do we assume hostility?"
"I don't think we can risk not to," said Galadria, torn between concern for Arzon, and for herself and her earthbound friends - between trying to watch the battle above them, and the advance of the six soldiers. Ectar nodded sharply.
"Then the question is whether we wait for them, or meet them halfway?"
"Why wait?" So saying, Cryotek changed into his bear form, and with a mighty roar, galloped towards the advancing foe. Ectar changed as well, faster in his fox form than on two human feet, and chased after the bear with a sharp bark of resolve. Galadria swore under her breath. A dolphin was no use on a mountainside, and all that she could do was draw her weapon and follow after, hoping to arrive in time to be of some use.
Galadria was swift and agile, but there was no path to follow, and on two feet she was far less steady than her two friends, with their four legs, and their claws to steady them. As she gathered speed, she realised how much steeper the slope was here, compared to the face they had been ascending. The ground was looser too; shale and gravel in place of earth and strengthening roots. Soon enough, her feet began to slip. No matter how hard she fought to keep her balance, there was no resisting gravity; and in a sudden flurry of stone, foot – and, inevitably, head – she pitched forward and over, and was still.
She awoke to twilight, and a chill that rose up from the ground through even her cloak and her armour, making her limbs ache. Rising took effort, but she forced her way up, breathing painfully at first, yet gathering her strength readily enough. She was more embarrassed than injured, she decided, even if she alone knew of the fall. But why was she alone? Where were the others? There was no sign of them. She could see little of the sky overhead, for snowclouds had muffled the moon and the stars, but she knew that Arzon was not up there. With his eagle's eyes, he would have seen her, and announced his presence – or come to her assistance before now. And what of Cryotek and Ectar? The place of battle was visible, just – a jumble of stones and loose earth. A fallen spear and a discarded scabbard showed her where the two Spectral Knights had met their attackers. When she hurried closer, she saw footprints that led away, and common sense and experience filled in the rest. A victorious Cryotek would scarcely have left her behind. Pulling her cloak more tightly about her, therefore, she closed her mind to the cold, and headed off into the unknown.
The trail was not a long one, although it wound about a great deal, through boulders large enough to dwarf even the largest mastodon. She picked her way carefully, wary of possible sentries, but she was not challenged. Nor was she followed – she was sure of that, especially now that she had magic to heighten her senses. The night remained still. It had begun to snow, but not so heavily that she could not see the way ahead, and she pressed on with determination, until she came at last to a dead end - or what appeared so. A wall of rock awaited her, with a stream gushing out of it in a picturesque little waterfall. She frowned. There was a gap there, certainly, but big enough only for a child to enter, if that. Certainly not enough for full grown men to pass through, with or without prisoners to watch over, or to carry as deadweight. There had to be some secret entry point somewhere, but she could discover no sign of it. One needed to know of it, it seemed, or one was lost.
Discouraged, she leant against the rock face. Her friends needed her, and she would not turn her back on them. It was unthinkable. So what to do? Two ideas seemed possible – to create a fuss, and be captured as well, so that they might possibly plan an escape together; or to make something of the waterfall. It surely led somewhere; any encampment would need water. Furthermore, it was so small that there seemed little chance of it being guarded. If she was to gain entry to a base of unknown strength, then secrecy seemed by far the best option. But how could she hope to make use of so small a gap? To that there was only one answer. Her totem was magic – she had to trust that the magic was equal to the task. Closing her eyes, thinking of that small, rocky space, she turned her mind to her totem – and changed.
The water was cold; cold enough to shake even the dolphin. She blinked, fighting the desire to gasp at the sudden shock, and forced herself to concentrate on her surroundings. In her head she gave a silent cheer. A narrow chink in a rock, filled by a mountain stream – she had guessed that nobody would bother to guard it, and she had been right. Raising her sleek head above the surface, she could see no sign of any sentries, although she thought that she could hear signs of life, borne faintly to her on the water. A thrill of victory shivered through her. She felt a fraction of her normal size, and with luck that would continue to be her saving. Ducking down beneath the surface once again, she pressed on against the racing stream.
She passed lamps burning in wall brackets; she passed men and women talking, cooking, and occasionally singing. Nowhere that she saw looked like a place where prisoners might be kept, but she pushed on, growing accustomed to the cold and the dark. If she did not soon find what she sought, she would have to leave the water and return to human form, for soon enough the stream would surely pass out of this underground place, or merely cease to be altogether, if she reached its point of origin. Concerned, she swam on, her ears straining for any sign that might be a clue. Anything that would tell her that Cryotek and the others were close. When at last it came, she felt an almost overpowering urge to laugh.
"You dare to lay hands upon me?!" That was Cryotek, his human voice so like the roar of his bear that he might always have been part ursine. Her head broke the surface, and she saw him, lit by several lamps hanging upon poles. "I'll smash your skulls to bread flour, you, you––"
"You'll be silent, Lord Cryotek. And I hope you'll remember to make no foolish moves. Change your form, and your friends' lives are forfeit." The man who spoke was as tall and thin as a water reed, his jerkin of a rich, velvetty fabric, his hair and narrow moustache darker than the gloom beyond the swaying lamps. Galadria looked quickly around. Ectar and Arzon were both there, and appeared to be unconscious. A man with a knife stood over them, clearly ready to carry out the leader's threat. Slowly and carefully, she swam into the rocky shallows at the stream's edge, and planned her next move. There were four men that she could see, and the reed-thin leader did not appear to be armed. Swiftly she came to a decision, and gave a single, brief click; a mere syllable of dolphin-speak, and barely audible to most humans. Cryotek heard. She knew it from the change that came over him, and from the smile that grew to replace his indignation and rage. His struggles ceased, and the velvet-clad leader smiled in smug satisfaction.
Emerging from the water in a shower of icy droplets, Galadria did not so much ruin his triumph as obliterate it. Even as she changed form, even as the blue light of her totem's magic was still illuminating the cascades of falling water, she was drawing her weapon – and advancing upon the unarmed leader, she upended it, and dealt him a hefty blow between the shoulder-blades. He dropped like a stone. In the same moment, Cryotek tore free from the two men who were holding him, seizing their heads, and slamming them together before they could so much as blink. Galadria did not pause to witness their downfall. Before the leader's insensible form had hit the ground, she was running for the man with the knife, whipping up her trident like a quarterstaff, and jarring his wrist with a painful blow. The knife fell to the rocky floor, and he leapt to his feet to meet her in combat. She cast aside the trident to even the score, but he was no real match for her. Soon enough he was prostrate upon the ground, groaning softly and showing no inclination to get up.
"Galadria, my dear, you are a marvel. However there are probably another thousand or so where these fellows came from." Cryotek, leaning comfortably on her trident, had clearly been enjoying the fight. "We need a plan."
"Allow me." Still lying on the floor – and still somewhat dazed by the look of him – Ectar changed back into his fox, scrambling up and trotting off to scout the passages. Arzon also got up, rubbing his head with a rueful expression. There were claw marks on his hands and face, and his armour showed where he had done battle with the great bird earlier. He smiled a grateful greeting at Galadria.
"Our hosts have been most kind," he said, as irrepressible as ever. "We are within the mountains we wished to cross. Our journey is nearly over. All we need do is find some exit on the right side of this stronghold, and Merklynn's flowers will be within our grasp!"
"All we need do, he says." Cryotek smiled at the younger man's optimism. "How exactly did you get in here, Galadria?"
"Not by any means that we can use again, I'm afraid." She smiled at the thought of shrinking Cryotek's great bear to a small enough size; and there was Arzon's eagle to consider as well. It was no water bird, though she had no doubt that he would have been more than willing to attempt the venture. "But there are other exits, surely."
"The one that we used is a mystery. We were all unconscious." Cryotek looked sour. "Sorcery, confound them. At times like these, we could use a mouse or a spider amongst our number. A polar bear has its uses, but it's no subtle pathfinder."
"Ectar will find us something. He is the wiliest of foxes." Arzon was examining the rocks around them. "If we compare the rock patterns in the cave walls with those of the outside, this tunnel runs north-south. Therefore, we must look for an exit somewhere to our left."
"Escape first," said Cryotek firmly. "Merklynn's flowers second. Or even third. Now, can anybody else hear voices?"
"They're coming from downstream." Galadria reclaimed her weapon, ready to do battle again. "At least it's not a wide tunnel. They can't come at us in large numbers."
"Relax. They may not be coming for us at all, yet." Cryotek picked up the nearest sword, and gave it an experimental swing. "All the same, it might be prudent not to be here when they arrive. Left, you say, Arzon?"
"Left it is. Always supposing our fox can find us something appropriate." As if on cue, the fox reappeared, and with a sharp bark, indicated that they should follow it. The tunnel it had chosen did appear to be somewhat left-leading, and the foursome did not hesitate, dashing together down the rocky passage, whilst the distant muddle of voices behind them grew louder all the while.
The tunnel was not a long one. It terminated abruptly at a large, iron-studded door, guarded by a pair of scrawny, teenaged sentries, who stared in confusion at the fox that trotted confidently towards them – and then in wide-eyed hope at the beautiful blonde woman who followed it. So taken were they with Galadria's appearance, that they ignored the fox altogether, and trotting behind them, Ectar reverted to his human shape, and made short work of both of them.
"Cryotek? A hand," he requested, and with Cryotek's vast strength behind it, the door was soon open. Beyond lay a snow-covered valley, the rocky slope that led down to it littered with tiny flowers. Galadria and Arzon gathered some, whilst Cryotek and Ectar hauled the door shut, and barred it as best they could with large rocks.
"And now all we need do is get home," said Arzon, even his usual good cheer sounding a little strained. "If you'll excuse me, I shall check out the terrain." Leaping skyward, he had changed before his feet had left the ground, powering his way aloft on magical wings. He returned in a moment, managing a smooth landing as he changed back into a man.
"Vehicles," he said, pointing somewhere to the south. "Two of them. Only one guard that I could see, and he's fast asleep."
"A little assistance then, if you will." Ectar changed instantly, and catching on fast, so did Arzon. The eagle picked up the fox in its strong talons, and soon the pair were winging their way out of sight. Galadria and Cryotek hurried after, as best they could on human feet, hand in hand for more than just balance.
Far ahead of them, the sleeping guard made no move at the approach of the two Spectral Knights – and if anybody else happened to see anything, then it was merely an eagle bearing a recent kill. Together they landed upon the roof of the hovercar where the guard slept, and it was easy enough for Ectar, as a small, silent fox, to slip in through a window and slide the sword from the guard's untended scabbard. He changed back then, and using the flat of the blade, sent the guard into a deeper sleep still. Galadria and Cryotek arrived as Ectar and Arzon were hauling the unconscious man into a hiding place beneath some misshapen trees.
"Come on!" called Ectar, clambering into the driving seat of his newly liberated machine. Galadria shook her head.
"You and Arzon take that one. It will be good for us to have extra vehicles to expand our fleet. Cryotek and I will follow in the second."
"Good thinking." Ectar gunned the engine, and the first hovercar leapt away. Cryotek and Galadria climbed into the second. They were not home free yet by any means – these people surely possessed the sorcery required to operate vehicles, to have kept two in such fine order, and the Knights might yet be chased by any number of them. There was also the giant bird that had attacked Arzon to consider. Nonetheless, Galadria felt especially content. So too did Cryotek. As she took the controls, he settled himself beside her, and leaned back in his seat with a warm smile.
"Alone at last," he said, as they lifted off into the air. She smiled too, but beyond that she gave him no answer. The smile told him everything that he could ever have wanted to hear.