Crown Infernal


In which Omanisa leads the dance
and Kai leads the search

"No way! I am not having anything to do with it!" declared the barbarian.

"Would you rather - um - stay here?"

Leon looked as if he had just been hit in the stomach - hard. It was a cruel choice: confront his deep-seated terror of magic and take an active part in it, or remain and face the torturer - alone.

"You were not averse to trusting my - 'magic' when we crossed the Great Fen," Omanisa reminded him gently.

"You used your magic on the horses, not on me," Leon replied, but a thoughtful expression had settled on his face.

Omanisa pressed home his advantage.

"My magic is not Valerian's magic. It is natural magic - with a little help from the Goddess when she is willing. Do you think we would harm you, She and I?"

"Well, no... "

"Then let us make haste."

Kai marvelled at the manner in which Omanisa had rolled over the barbarian's long held fear as though it were merely a nightmare in childhood.

Meanwhile, the shaman was busy marking a vertical line on each wall in different coloured pigments, vermilion to the north, ochre to the east, powdered chalk to the south and carbon to the west. In the centre of the cell, he set about piling up wood, broken from the rotting bed frames that once supported the palliasses, and straw from the floor.

He soon had a small fire burning, upon which he cast a mixture of dried leaves and herbs. The flames subsided, and smoke billowed from the smouldering brands. Grasping the hand of the unresisting barbarian, he bade the others link hands and led them in a circular dance around the fire, chanting the while.

As they danced, the smoke grew in volume, fine and grey and sweet smelling. The pace quickened, turning the walls into a blur, then, tightening his grip on Leon's hand, Omanisa led them diametrically across the circle and through the fire— except that no one appeared on the other side.

Instead, the smoke shaped itself into shadowy figures that drifted towards the door, leaving but the faintest wisp rising from the rapidly dying embers. The smoky shapes slid under and around the door, reforming outside before the dull gaze of the guards who perceived only that clouds of smoke were flowing out of one of the cells and drifting thence along the passageway.

The guards watched impassively. Since their brief only extended to preventing living people from leaving the cells, and their enslavement precluded independent thought or action, no one felt impelled to investigate.

Once beyond the sight of the guards, a short, faint, discussion took place, which sounded like the sighing of the wind through willow trees, had anyone been there to hear it. As well as Kai could remember, they were not in the dungeons proper. The prison they had recently occupied had originally been part of the cellars, used only for storage. The dungeons, which were rarely used in King Walden's day, were two floors below.

"I have been thinking a great deal about this moment since our talk outside Orlo," came a murmur that held a hint of Kai's voice. "When we were little, we used to explore the vaults, play games - you know... It occurred to me that often we'd find Kieran missing. He was such a bright little chap that we just thought he was very clever at finding hiding places, or was exceptionally good at keeping still and quiet. Once, I found him in the lowest part of the castle. He looked - well, sort of guilty. He was very grubby, and his shirt was torn, so naturally, if I thought anything of it at all, I assumed that that was the reason. With hindsight, I'd guess that he found something down here..."

Do you remember where exactly you found him?" enquired a remnant of Ewan's voice.

"It was near the catacombs, three levels below this."

"Sounds like a good place to start."

"It might take a while to get my bearings, though. It was a long time ago, and the lower levels are quite extensive. Practically every generation that lived here found it necessary to add something to the castle, mostly by excavating further into rock that it's built on. How long can we remain like this?"

"As long as you will, though I advise against prolonging it beyond absolute necessity. The Goddess is all benevolence, but nevertheless, it does not do to exploit her goodwill."

"Hear, hear!" came a faint squawk that was followed by soughing laughter.

It was decided, albeit not unanimously, to maintain their smoky guise while Kai led them to the catacombs. Once the route had been established, Ewan and Stoddard were to return and retrieve their weapons, leaving the others to search the catacombs for the-Goddess-knew-what.

It was a long and depressing trek. Judging by the sounds escaping from them, most of the cellars had living contents, presumably human - or human once. The passages were dimly lit by smoking cressets, widely spaced along the walls, but this would not benefit the denizens of the cells, the cellar doors being solid.

After a wrong turn or two, Kai found the stairs down to the dungeons. An inky blackness seemed to reach up towards them, and with it an aura of despair.

"Any chance of a light?" Kai murmured, wondering if the wizard could still cast spells as a pall of smoke. "I can't use my glowstone like this."

"Liknusay niteski maykum wolitar."

"Don't overdo it!" came a faint exclamation from Kai as a golden light blazed forth, apparently suspended in mid-air. "We don't want to advertise our presence if we can avoid it."

"It - um - may have escaped your attention, but we've seen very few guards on this level. My guess is that they - um - lock people up and forget about them more or less. We'll get on much better with a good light."

Bright as the light was initially, when they descended the stairs the darkness seemed to wrap itself around the light, so that it was no brighter than an ordinary lantern. The effect was unnerving. At first, Kai thought the dungeons were unoccupied, so silent was it, then, as the light filtered through the doors' grilles into the cells, a chorus of moans arose mixed with an assortment of pleadings. Well, it was up to him to see that their sufferings would not go on for much longer.

Passing through this sink of misery, Kai found his way to the last stairs without difficulty. The darkness here was almost palpable and the light's brightness diminished even more as the six drifted down into the still, stale, stifling air of the catacombs where the silence was as absolute as the darkness.

These vaults belonged to the dead. No living thing moved or breathed. It seemed unlikely that the seekers would be disturbed by any human agency down here so Omanisa restored four of them to their usual form. The smoky figures of Ewan and Stoddard left to pursue the search for their weapons after the shaman gave them the word of dispelling.

Valarien dispatched the floating light with them while Kai retrieved his glowstone. Its glow was very faint, and if he hadn't known better, he would have said it was afraid. He shivered. So did Leon, the wild creature of the broad lands and the open skies. Prison cells were one thing. This was something else. Several small starry lights suddenly sprang into existence, spooking the barbarian even more.

"Ye Gods, wizard!" he exclaimed, "give me some warning before you do things like that!" Then, less certainly, "It was you, wasn't it?"

"Um, sorry. Just thought we needed more light."

They did indeed lift the gloom a little, but a fairly thorough search failed to reveal any clues. They seemed to have reached a dead end.

"We must be overlooking something very simple," Kai mused, leaning on the large stone sarcophagus of one of his long dead ancestors. "After all, Kieran managed to find... whatever-it-is... without difficulty."

He ran his fingers meditatively along its beaded edge as he spoke, feeling its rough surface under his finger tips. He pondered the problem for some minutes without getting anywhere, while the others continued the search.

"Maybe we're barking up the wrong tree," Leon was saying as something was trying to attract Kai's attention.

It gnawed away at his subconscious. He was aware of it but his brain did not immediately register what it was. Finally, it crept quietly into his full consciousness. His fingers stopped their mechanical movements and instead, ran slowly and deliberately along the beading one final time. Yes, there it was— one smooth bead among the rough ones. He held his breath and pressed heavily on it.

With scarcely a sound, the end slab of the sarcophagus slid back and the smell of sulphur oozed into the vault.

"Phworrrr! What the Hell?" gasped Leon.

"Hm, what indeed?" echoed the wizard, as the three joined Kai by the tomb. A steep rubble-strewn slope led down from the opening into a deeper darkness.

"I think you've found another of the - um - gates to the Hells."

"Makes a change from it finding me," Kai remarked drily.

"A profound observation, my friend," said Omanisa. "With the Lady's guidance, we seem to have arrived unseen."

"The Goddess is with us now?"

"Be sure She is. Unlike the Gods, She does not act with ostentation."

Kai tried to reconcile this view with her appearance in the Strait of Tonnan Vora - and failed.

"Did it not strike you as strange that our captors did not appreciate whom they had taken?" Omanisa continued.

Valarien chuckled. "Methinks the Lady has a sense of humour. So many times we have seen and - um - not seen, and now our enemies have seen without seeing. How very fitting... "

"Would that she could go with me where I must go," Kai muttered.

"Surely you don't propose to go... there— " Leon breathed, aghast.

"I must. I saw my brother there, through Valarien's crystal, and must try what I can to save him. It is said that he who enters the gates of Hell of his own free will may yet return if the motive be pure. Oh, I don't ask you to accompany me," he added seeing the appalled look on the barbarian's face, "in fact, I forbid it - and that goes for the rest of you, too. The burden is mine alone."

"I'm afraid you are right, my friend," Valarien concurred sadly, "alone and unarmed."

"Yet we may still help," Omanisa said gruffly, removing an amulet from around his neck and placing over Kai's head. "This is the Lady's talisman, given to me when I passed the tests and entered her service by the Lady herself. May it give you hope at the end of hope and keep her in your mind when temptation beckons you to stay."

"Eternal thanks , holy one," said Kai soberly, tucking the gem inside his shirt.

The shaman held a service of blessing, invoking the Goddess's benison on Kai's behalf. It did seem to the participants that a delicate aroma of summer flowers surrounded them for a fleeting moment, carried on a faint breeze that ruffled Kai's hair. It seemed that She had heard their prayers, but what could one deity do in the heartland of evil?

end of chapter

Index Page Chapter 40