I should probably decide about the name soon. 🙂
I have copy and pasted these from the novel file. One problem I just noticed is that italics seem to get lost. I have indicated character’s inner thoughts with them – what would be dialogue except unvoiced – so losing them changes the text somewhat. I’ll try to restore them from now on.
Sometimes, afterwards, Laura wondered whether anyone saw her disappear. There had been people on the street next to the parking lot. She doubted that though. The hypothetical witness would probably have needed to be staring right at her at that precise moment, and she hadn’t been somebody anyone would have paid all that much attention to. Fat, almost past her youth, with nondescript clothes and dirty blond hair pulled into a tight ponytail, just one unnoticeable menial worker among the multitudes of the city.
Who would have kept looking after the initial glance?
Even if you sometimes dream of something extraordinary happening to you, do you expect it to really happen? No you don’t, not if you are a sane person. On the other hand, if something were to happen that you have imagined happening, having imagined it might make it something easier to deal with. Laura had been a fan of science fiction and fantasy stories all her life, and later she was certain that her reading habits helped her to adjust faster, that they were what kept her functional almost from the beginning.
Sort of functional anyway.
Just enough to stay alive.
She had been walking towards her car. Hadn’t she?
Now she was on her knees, on some hard surface.
It was dark.
It was silent.
That was not right.
Not… right. Not right. Not right. Not…
Slowly, very slowly her mind started to work again, at least enough to realize this: she most definitely wasn’t on that parking lot anymore.
That she digested for some time.
Next came a question.
Again she stayed with that for a while. She found no answer.
Laura realized her knees hurt. She leaned back, took her hands off the… ground? Floor? …and sat back on her heels. She had no real idea how long a time had now gone by since she had come here. Whatever and where-ever here was.
Where am I, anyway? What happened? I was going to my car… then… what?
No answers came.
It was all wrong.
She needed answers.
It was so quiet. She listened, trying to hear something, anything, but the only sound was that of her own ragged breathing.
Dark, and quiet.
She reached to touch what was under her with the tips of her fingers. It felt cold. Floor… or ground?
Her left knee was hurting worse than the other one. She had probably hit it when she had fallen. She didn’t want to move, then realized she was half expecting somebody, or something, to jump her. Something from the dark.
She wanted to scream.
She didn’t. Not out loud.
Where am I!
She wouldn’t be able to stay like she was forever. She would have to do something eventually.
She had to find those answers.
A deep breath. The same thought again. She’d have to do something.
So she might as well start now. Slowly and carefully she started to move her hands around. To think about what she sensed. It was better than waiting.
Whatever the ground was made of didn’t feel like asphalt. Hard and almost smooth. Stone? She leaned forward and reached further. There were… grooves… regularly spaced…
Concentrate on the immediate…
Laura realized she was close to a full panic. She fought it. She didn’t think she could afford hysteria.
She still didn’t want to move, but one can’t kneel unmoving on a hard surface indefinitely and finally she had to stand up. It hurt. She must have spent quite a long while there, kneeling, to stiffen up so.
Still nothing jumped her.
She took a step, stopped. She should proceed carefully. Methodically. One step at a time and don’t try to think too far ahead. The panic was down there, somewhere. She could not afford to let it surface. She had already come too close.
Was she in a cave? A cellar? She had to be inside, there was no hint of a sky, no wind, no indications of outdoors whatsoever.
The place had the feel of underground. Deep underground. The darkness, the silence, the coolness.
Coolness. Oh yes. Laura realized she was beginning to feel quite cold. The air wasn’t quite freezing, but it was much colder that what she was dressed for. She would really have to start moving.
She should find out how big and what shape the place was. Maybe if…
The answering echoes almost made her lose it, they were too many and too loud and if there was some thing out there it (they?) would now know she was here. Somehow she managed to get grip of the panic and stuff it back down where it wasn’t a danger to her. She wouldn’t panic. Not her, the one who had always hated it when the heroines of the older stories she had read were portrayed as unreasoning and hysterical so of course she would stay cool and deal with the situation in a calm, and rational, manner. Like a modern heroine.
Yes, think that. This is a story, and you’re the hero. Think that. What would a hero do?
You’re the hero.
She straightened her back.
Oh why oh why I never took the time to take some self-defense lessons…
Easy for the story heroines to play tough, they all knew martial arts or were military veterans or something. She most certainly didn’t, and wasn’t. Unless you were talking about veterans of crappy low paying jobs and failed job searches.
Think. Not all heroes know how to fight. But they are smart. What would be the smart thing to do now?
No use to wonder what had happened. That could come later. She’d better just focus on the immediately important right now.
She just wanted out of this place.
Not very heroic, perhaps. But what can you do…
So she was in some sort of manmade… that paving… But was it made by men? What if it was BEMs?
Laura almost started to giggle, then forced her thoughts back to the first thought – so: she was in some sort of artificial underground space. A cellar, maybe. A rather large one, judging from the echoes.
Momentarily her imagination took off again, recalling some old movie seen on TV made of one of those supposedly true UFO abductions. The inside of the alien ship in that movie hadn’t looked much like the inside of a spacecraft, more like some sort of a cave… She had never really believed in any of that UFO stuff, definitely not that they were aliens from other worlds – yet now…
Back to that if I come across something that looks like the grays of that lore. I don’t know enough to speculate yet.
That thought sounded rational enough to make her feel almost proud of herself. Except she was still too scared to have much room for any other emotion.
Time to move, now. She’d have to.
What if I am hallucinating?
Maybe, but she could not proceed from that. Better to think what she sensed was reality. She was cold. She had to move.
She took one careful step, then another, sliding her feet along the ground – there might be crevasses, or something – and with her hands outstretched. Slowly she walked forward, counting her steps. After an eternity her left hand encountered a wall. Ten paces. She turned to face the wall, felt it. Smooth, cool, like the floor. Big rectangular stones or tiles. Manmade. Hopefully.
She leaned on it, started to slide down and jerked back up. Shouldn’t stop.
Which way now?
What happened what happened what happened…No! Stop that! The panic tried to come up again. She fought it down again.
Hero. Hero, hero, hero… oh stuff it!
Now that’s better.
There was no good way to decide which way to turn, so in the end Laura simply turned one way, to her right, and started walking with her left hand trailing along the wall, the other kept straight in front of her. Counting her steps. She realized she had forgotten how many steps it had been from where she had first knelt to the wall. Maybe she wouldn’t need that information.
Frantic, she felt for her shoulder bag, then sighed in relief. It was where it was supposed to be, against her right hip, the strap securely over her head. She had numerous times decided to start keeping only the absolutely essential things in it, had kept on stuffing pretty much everything inside anyway. Now some of those things might come in handy.
Matches or a flashlight would have been better than handy, but those were some things she knew she didn’t have. Her flashlight had been in her car, and having quit smoking, again, she had thrown the matches away. So as not to be tempted.
Just keep walking.
For a little while she speculated that perhaps something had happened which had rendered her blind. She could think of no way to test whether she was or wasn’t. Maybe if she got into what felt and sounded like outdoors and would still be unable to see anything…
No. I won’t think about that now.
Just have to get out of here first.
If she would get out. Maybe she would die here, stumbling in the darkness until lack of water and exhaustion and the cold did her in.
No, don’t think of that either.
She could not afford that kind of thoughts. Not now.
Or I’ll… run in circles, scream and shout. Hah. I doubt that would be helpful now.
She wiped her eyes and tried to grin.
May have to try that later. But not before I have tried everything else first.
She wasn’t sure that shouting would have been such a bad idea. But she was too scared to try it yet. Because she didn’t know. And somewhere in her mind all those stories she had read, aliens, vampires, elves, whatever, all that was non-human, or even if human, not friendly to strangers – not to mention such definitely real things as big angry guard dogs, pissed off big wild predators, or serial killers for that matter – the whole situation was uncanny enough that they didn’t feel so much like fiction, or news of things that happened to other people, anymore. She much preferred not to try to draw any attention to herself before she either knew more or absolutely had to.
Her left hand encountered something that felt different than the rest of the wall. She stopped, then used both hands to feel around. Wood? A wooden… door. Yes. It was.
Oh god, this is beginning to be like playing those really old tabletop versions of Dungeons and Dragons.
I sure hope I won’t find any dragons…
A door should lead somewhere. Could she open it? There seemed to be nothing like a handle or a latch. She pushed, then tried pushing harder as nothing happened at first. Suddenly there was movement and it creaked open. Now what? This way might lead out, it might lead deeper into the place, whatever the place was. Laura hesitated a bit, then stepped across the threshold. She might as well try this route.
There was a wall both to the left and to the right of the doorway. So this was not another room, but some sort of a passageway.
You are in a strange, narrow corridor…
That was good. At least she hoped so. Corridors usually lead somewhere.
She started walking again.
The word had spread fast. A bit less than an hour after Prince Aran had sent for him not only had High King Arakan come, but also several of the Council Lords and Ladies had crowded into Aran’s bedroom, staring wide-eyed at the Black Sword and whispering to each other. The only one who had managed to keep his calm was the king.
“So the sound was similar to the one it sometimes makes when Prince Theran uses it?” he asked his son again, trying to sound patient.
“Yes, I think so. Maybe sort of sweeter. I have only heard it twice before, and the first time I was very little.”
“Both of those times he used it to clean something of unclean spells.” The king said softly, speaking mostly to himself. “Actually, the only time I have been present when the Sword was used for a purpose which had nothing to do with the Marshik was when I was about your age and my brother made the illusion of a bouquet of flowers for our mother when she was sick. It was winter, you see,” he added and smiled at his son. “Theran is, has always been, more serious than your uncle was. I don’t think he has ever used the magic of the Sword for something as frivolous as that. As far as I can remember, the sound it made then was something you might call ‘sweeter’ than the one it usually makes.” He lowered his gaze and frowned, thinking.
The crowd both inside and outside of the room moved and whispered. The boy glared at the Councilors and they quieted, then one close to the doorway hushed the people in the corridor. For a moment there was silence, then somebody coughed and the soft crowd noises started again.
“All right,” the king said, startling the Councilors and Prince Aran equally, “the first thing we have to find out is whether the other two also sang this night. I guess it would be too much to ask, considering how many people are present, that none of you would start any rumors before we know that?” he added and looked around at the people, many of whom were unable to look back, “but at least remember to add when you talk about this that we don’t know for sure. Not yet. But if they did, you all know what it means as well as I do.”
“That the Fourth Keeper has been born,” whispered one of the Councilors, an older lady dressed only in her nightgown and a velvet cape thrown haphazardly over it, her feet in thick socks.
“The Fourth Keeper,” repeated a guardsman standing near the door in a low, awe-struck voice.
“Right. Here we go,” Arakan whispered to his son and smiled as the word spread to the people outside. “In a couple of hours the whole city will know, in a couple of weeks probably most of the Free humans have heard, although spirits know what shape the story will have by the time it reaches the last outposts on the southern shores. And it could well spell trouble if the other two were quiet this night. But I guess there was no avoiding this,” he added and sighed. “This particular piglet was out of the bag the second your guards heard that sound through the door.”
“Did I do right?” the boy asked quietly.
“You did fine,” his father assured him, his eyes gentle. “I just wish this had happened when Theran himself was in possession of the Sword.”
“He’ll be back soon, won’t he?”
“He should be,” the king answered, “He should be.”
He turned his eyes to the black weapon resting on its table.
“All the others are almost of an age right now. By the time the Fourth is old enough, they will be getting old, even if the Blade bearers live longer than ordinary men. If none of the current ones is killed before that. And it will be a few years yet before you are old enough, son.”
“Old enough for what?”
Arakan grinned down at him.
“You know why the Sword is with you when your brother won’t take it with him, don’t you?”
“Because its next Keeper will be my oldest son, right?”
Aran had always known that. Now, for the first time, he seemed to realize what it actually meant.
“Uh, you mean that I will have to… uh…”
“Become a father as soon as you are able. Sorry about that.” Arakan didn’t laugh at the boy’s look. Not quite.
“Well, as it’s my duty…” Aran then said, looking resigned.
“Don’t worry. By the time you are old enough, it should be a rather pleasant duty.”
“If you say so.” The prince didn’t look convinced. The king smiled at him again, then turned back to the Sword.
His uncle, his brother, his oldest son. Some day the boy who would most likely be his first grandson as it was not probable Theran would ever have children. The Sword Keepers didn’t have much time for families, and Theran was not a person who’d sire a child he would not be able to look after.
His uncle and his brother were dead. Killed by the Marshik, both too early in their life, because they had been Keepers of the Black Sword. A fate Theran would probably not escape, not in the long run. Arakan, selfishly, found himself hoping his oldest would be able to do it as long as possible. Long enough that he wouldn’t be the one who’d have to bury his son.
The Black Keepers, first sons of the crown princes, sons who would never carry the Crown for the Crown and the Sword could not be in the hands of the same man, were in many ways more important than the kings of his line even if they had less temporal power. Every crown prince’s most important, and first, duty was to beget the next Keeper. Everything he did after that mattered less. So it was, so it had been as long as his line had existed. What change would the coming of the Fourth Keeper make to that? Nobody knew. There had been a prophecy made at the same time the Swords had been made, but the prophecy had been lost, his generation knew only a short fragment of it. And that fragment told only of things which were already their history.
Besides that small part of the prophecy all they had were the legends. Scanty knowledge and what there was had often been proven quite unreliable. What the Fourth Sword’s task was… just lots of guesses, no real knowledge.
But something special was supposed to happen when all of the Four could finally be used together.
Arakan had wondered most of his life about the Fourth Sword, and of the ultimate task of the Swords. Now it looked like he might find out before he died, and suddenly he found himself wondering how much he really wanted to find out.
There is always a certain loss of security in changes.
He wished that whatever happened would happen as soon as possible. He wished he could speed the whole thing up. But this was something in which all the powers vested in him as the highest ruler of Free Men meant nothing. He could only wait. Like everybody else.
Laura wasn’t sure how long she had followed the new corridor when she realized that she was now hearing more than just her own breathing and heartbeat. She stopped to listen, holding her breath.
Drum, or drums, very faint.
There are people somewhere, there has to be a way out. I can get out of here!
The sound gave her such a relief that she didn’t even wonder who, or what, those drummers might be, not then. She felt tears welling up, swallowed, sniffled and wiped her eyes with an angry movement, then started to walk again.
But still slowly and carefully. She was no Einstein but she was not completely stupid. Besides, she had seen and read too many stories where the hapless heroine, or some other character, ran right into the hands of the bad guys and then had to be rescued by the hero… and as far as she knew in this story she really was the only hero around. She could not count on being rescued.
Bit by bit the sound of drums got louder. Finally she saw light too, reddish and flickering, probably dim although to her dark-adapted eyes it looked bright enough.
She wanted to run to it, but still didn’t.
She didn’t know enough.
Actually, she knew absolutely nothing.
Laura stopped and sat down of the floor. It was time to think beyond taking the next step. As long as she was careful about what she thought.
Who those drummers might be. That was an important question.
What might be their reaction to her. Even more important. She might be on, like somebody’s private property, or someplace where she very much shouldn’t be. It would be too bad if those (people, she hoped they were people, the thought of BEMs crossed her mind again and now it wasn’t funny anymore) were of the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ school.
She decided that the best approach would be to simply go on very slowly and very carefully and not to show herself to the drummers before she knew more.
She got back up and crept on.
Not bad. I guess I can still think…
After a while the passage became larger and the light a bit brighter. She still couldn’t see the source of it, nor was there any sight of the drummers yet. But at least she could finally see something of the place she was in.
Oh yes. It was manmade. Or artificial. Definitely. She resolutely pushed away thoughts of aliens, any kind of aliens, for now. Better concentrate on thinking of problems of the human kind. Gangs or crazies or something like that would be bad enough.
The place she came to was a bit wider than the corridor had been. Part of the left wall was now replaced by a large opening with columns in it. The light was streaming from the other side. At the same time the sound of the drums got very loud. Now and then between the drumbeats she heard what sounded like chanting.
She could smell smoke and some sort of incense. Something else too.
Laura stopped and leaned against the wall just before the aperture, feeling faint.
She hoped she wouldn’t faint. That wasn’t heroic. And it would have been quite counterproductive right now too.
Okay, let’s see now…
Slowly she slid down on the floor, first sitting with her back against the wall, then sliding further sidewise until she was lying down. Then she inched forward until she could see into that other space, with any luck without being seen herself.
At first the whole scene didn’t register.
She was looking down into a very large hall with… stone?… walls. The walls were made of big rectangular blocks, their color dark gray, so she presumed stone. Lots of open space with a few pillars here and there, lighted by smoking torches pushed into holders on the walls and the pillars. There seemed to be no decorations anywhere, just the plain dark stone. The pillars were square, the roof vaulted, very high and in places almost obscured by smoke. About one third of the hall she could see was filled with people. They were well below her. The corridor she was in seemed to be a bit more than twice a man’s height higher than the floor of the hall, while the roof was still well above her. She could see no windows on the walls of the hall.
And the people looked like people.
Humans, they are humans! She hadn’t, really, expected anything else. The sight of those men, looking just like men, still gave her a sense of relief.
The crowd was facing one end of the hall, the one furthest away from her, their backs turned to her. Most of them seemed to be dressed in something like light gray robes. They were looking at other people dressed in red and black who were doing something around a big fire. There weren’t many dressed in red and black. Their robes had red sleeves and sides, a black panel in front… and back? These ones seemed to be higher up than the gray-robes, for she could see the black and red dressed ones, except for their legs, quite well over the heads of the gray-dressed crowd.
So they were on some sort of a stage?
The men on that stage might also be able to see her if any of them happened to look her way. While the main crowd had their backs to her, and were well below her, those on the stage were more or less facing in her direction and were closer to the level of the corridor where she was.
Laura backed up a little but kept looking, her gaze roaming around, trying to locate something familiar.
The chanting stopped. So did the drums.
Then the quiet was broken by a human scream.
Laura finally focused on what the men on that stage were doing. She stared, then snapped her head back behind the wall’s edge, trying to slow down her breathing. She couldn’t have seen that. No way!
The sound of the drums started again, a slow beat. Laura swallowed and inched her head back into the opening. She didn’t want to do that, but she was unable to stop herself. She had to make sure whether she had actually seen what she thought she had seen.