The “door” was a curtain of sorts, made from strips of odd black cloth, the same cloth the Seerganash engineered for their cloaks. Small keys hung off it, some of them looking all too much like they were made of bone. A few ornaments of gold and silver hung, glittering here and there. The sides of this curtain were made up of fires that sprung from torches near the ground. The flames licked the tunneled stone doorframe and flitted over the black cloth – which, of course, did not burn.
Rowen stepped up to the entrance, not knowing if she should just walk through it. She was suddenly aware of the oppressive silence around her, punctuated only by the very faint flicker of the torches. There was no light beyond the doorway; there was nothing but black passage. A strong surge of wind blew through the shredded curtain, sheathing Rowen in a soft encasement of warm air. The wind licked over her skin, full of eerie sounds that wind will make in such a tunnel, feeling very much like the wind itself was alive and reaching out to Rowen, deciding whether to let her gain admittance.
Finally her hair died down, settling back in its tangled black mess over her open back. Her skin had a tingling sensation, sort of cold and electric in feeling, prickling all over like she had just stepped out from a hurricane windstorm, even though the wind had been gentle. Strong, but gentle and soft. Several clicking sounds followed, as well as a deep clunk and the sounds of heavy stone grinding on stone. It seemed like some huge portion of rock was moving, grinding from lack of use.
Rowen stared as the deep sounds in the darkness beyond the door continued for a minute and then stopped. “I don’t remember this last time Castamir brought me out of here from his ledge.” Rowen wondered aloud.
“That’s because Castamir wasn’t dead yet,” A voice said from behind Rowen. In an instant Rowen whipped around, Réllika’s sword swinging out of its sheath. The still-crimson sword tip was pointed at a pair of green eyes that glittered, like all Seerganash eyes, in the dim light. Rowen shot a stream of flame for the nearest torch, shedding light on the elf in front of her. It was a woman, fairly tall and lean, with very dark skin. Shiny black hair was pulled up in a high ponytail that was ringed with a braid. Her hair fell in five thick braids out of the ponytail down to mid-back. Her broad face was challenging and aloof in demeanor. Her emerald eyes narrowed, focusing on the bloody sword point in front of her, then moving up the blade to the crimson-encrusted handle in Rowen’s hand. Beneath Rowen’s fingers, the elf could make out the shining letters that spelled out Réllika. Upon seeing this, the eyes widened, then narrowed again. “Release that sword. It is not your own.”
“You are free to take it from me, once it has traversed through your heart,” Rowen spat back.
The girl reached up and placed her thumb and forefinger on the sword, holding it on the flat sides of the tip, and began to move it away from her head. Suddenly she jumped back, ripping her hand from the sword with a yelp. Where her fingers were, the sword glowed a faint red as does heated metal. Rowen smiled. “Never touch metal, elf, when a dragon holds the other end. Now what do you want? Make it quick.”
“I want to help you. No one else will, and you are the only one who can get up to Castamir’s ledge.”
“Why do you want to help me now? I’m not getting this.”
“I will have to explain later. For now, you must go up to the loft. Since Castamir has gone, the loft closes this curtain here and rearranges itself. Only two people can now go up, and two people alone: whoever killed Castamir and the next leader of the Seerganash. You are the former, so the wind permits you entrance. So you are going up – how do you propose to go down the hundred feet of sheer smooth rock that lies vertically between you and the floor of the Vantranack?” The girl held up thick black rope. “The wind will permit another if they accompany one of the two; I am coming with you.” She finished, throwing the hood of her Seerganash cape over her head.
“You’ll slow me down,” Rowen yelled, releasing a burst of fire in frustration. The fire licked over the elf’s Seerganash cloak without catching.
“Look! I’d give you the rope, but it’ll come undone unless you know the right way to tie it! Seerganash rope is different than normal rope and this is all we have!”
“Fine! But hurry. And if you try anything at all, this sword will have more than Réllika’s blood on it.” Rowen growled and then darted through the curtain with the elf close in tow. As she ran, Rowen put on the Nintura’s stone back around her neck
Both Rowen and the Seerganash elf ran, Rowen in the lead, up the winding passage as it circled in the dark. “How can you run like this in the dark?!” Cried the elf, who was clumsily trying to run after Rowen.
“I can feel the heat in the rock around us; its like another sense. What is your name anyway?”
“Station of the Guard, 46B 39.”
“What’s your name?”
“Oh, my short name is 39.”
Rowen looked back over her shoulder in the dark in disgust. “I am not calling you 39. If you don’t have a name, then pick one now. A real name, mind you.”
“But… I don’t know any names.”
“Your new name is Leeriel then, `cause that’s the only name I can think of at the moment. Now keep up!”
“Dang Rowen I don’t have heat sense; I can’t see!”
“I knew you’d slow me down,” Rowen muttered, shooting a blast of fire up the ascending spiral tunnel. Leeriel gasped, not used to Rowen’s…abilities, but quickly continued running as Rowen got ahead. There was light above them, and soon the two reached a landing of sorts. Leeriel was lithe enough, but still her muscles ached for she, unlike Rowen, did not have a desperate drive. She grabbed Rowen just before the girl was about to run off a precipice.
“You can’t jump it – even though you killed Castamir the tunnel is still testing you.”
Just then a stout horse galloped towards them, coming from behind. It was black, like the rest, and was a sturdy tunnel horse. Unlike most Seerganash horses, this one had a personality – for its owner showed it care. The mane and forelock were especially long, draping over the horse’s face and eyes. A small engraving upon the leather bridle spelled out TOM. Rowen recognized it; she had seen this horse but once before: this was Larenteth’s horse. She did not know its name, or what TOM stood for, so she settled for calling him “Tom”. The horse snuffled Rowen and looked at the gaping hole in front of them. “You can’t make it, boy,” Rowen said softly, “Stout tunnel-horse legs are no good for long jumps.” The horse drooped his head, but then he muzzled Rowen’s bag. As the items inside jostled around, Rowen heard a dullclunk of Larenteth’s wooden instrument. The tunnel shifted suddenly, bringing the gap within jump-reach of the horse. Tom’s face brightened with his smart plan, and he motioned for Rowen to mount him. Leeriel jumped up behind as the horse took off, leaping the gap and continuing up the rest of the tunnel.
“Got that rope still, Lee?” Rowen yelled over her shoulder. Leeriel shouted that she did just as Tom took a final leap up to the top – they were now on Castamir’s lookout. Lee looked back over her shoulder.
“Good thing that horse took us up, there are at least five traps here for anyone on foot; I doubt we would have seen them coming up.”
But Rowen wasn’t listening. She was leaning over the edge, hair blowing behind her. Lee joined her side and looked down. All was silent and still below, no movement of stone, no sound from Jack. Rowen could not even see him.
“Here,” came Leeriel’s voice as she handed Rowen the end of the rope. Lee had already secured its other end. Rowen grabbed it and jetted over the edge without any further word. Lee watched with worried eyes as Rowen jetted a little too swiftly for safety down 100 feet of sheer rock.
Rowen jumped the last fifteen feet, landing with a thump on the stone of the Vantranack. As soon as she hit the smooth stone, the flames that surrounded the circle leapt to life. In the center of the glassy clear-black stone the Vantranack had swirled up around the unconscious form of Jack, locking him up to his chest. He wasn’t moving.
“Jack!” Rowen whispered, with no reply. She ran out over the stone, not noticing the undulating dark ripples beneath it, and kneeled down next to Jack. His chin was to his chest and his eyes were shut. He seemed to be barely breathing; in fact it was hard to tell if he was breathing at all. Worried, Rowen put her hand to his neck to feel his pulse. It was weak, but still there. Rowen went to pull her hand away.
Her hand didn’t come.
It was like some magnetic pull that kept her hand in place, trapping her. Jack’s head suddenly sprang up. He felt Rowen’s hand and looked up at her with horrified eyes. The irises of his eyes were black now as well from being in the Vantranack so long – they could only return to their normal brown once he was out.
“Rowen! It was a trap -“
Jack was cut short as a hollow, booming laugh resounded from the stone itself. A smooth, dark ripple in the stone moved steadily towards Rowen. Not able to free herself, Rowen put her other hand to the ground and made a temporary pallet of fire to stand on, protecting herself from the wave of stone until it passed.
“Clever girl,” Came the voice from the stone. “Jack, I must lend you my compliments. Quite a little wench you’ve brought me.“
“Castamir brought me here!” Rowen retorted, not sure where she was supposed to talk to.
“Yes, but he is dead. He was good for a time, but nothing missed. Jack got you halfway here; it is to him I lend my compliments.“
“Compliment rejected,” Jack spat out. “I would do nothing for you and you know it.”
“No, not willingly. But you have accomplished quite a bit in unwillingness and ignorance. Pity to mess with such a good mind, but what must be done must be done. Well, Rowen, how rude I have been! Talking up a storm when we have not been properly introduced! Jack, shame on you, where are your manners? I’ll have to be the one to tell her what you already know.
I am Cathrandar, Lord and Master of the Seerganash.
Were I still…alive, in a physical sense, I would have mastered the Master Dragon long ago. Now, milady, I would love to chat, but there is plenty of time for that later. To business!”
Rowen’s band began to glow softly, steadily increasing in heat. Both Rowen and Jack knew they could not let Cathrandar utilize Rowen’s firepower in whatever means he was conniving – and both had begun sinking slowly into the Vantranack. With her free hand, Rowen searched her bag for something that might help. She pulled out the small silver dagger that Larenteth had given her when he had left the ice flask. With any luck, it might have a drop of that ice left – it might be just enough to stop them from sinking. Quickly, Rowen drove the small dagger into the stone; it sliced though with a clang. Just from being close to the ice flask for so long, even though that flask was now gone, the blade was colder than ice. No ice spread this time, but an area of about ten feet became cold and stiff – and Rowen and Jack stopped sinking.
Cathrandar laughed. “Rowen, darlin’, I have control of your gold band. I can melt that in but a minute. You are pitiful.“
But Rowen didn’t wince. She was fingering something else in her bag, thinking quickly. Would it work?
Silently she pulled out the fine gold chain from her bag, the dragon stone dangling from the end. She looked at Jack and he nodded; he knew what she was going to do.
Thank you Castamir, Rowen muttered under her breath and slipped the gold chain around Jack’s neck. Praying that this would work, Rowen put her other hand on Jack’s neck as well, leaning forward.
“What are you doing? What are you-” Cathrandar began to object.
Rowen leaned down and locked her lips with Jack’s. Both her bands started to glow brilliantly until they were a blinding white. She could feel her own power returning to her control and Jack’s as it passed though him, for he was receiving the energy through the dragon stone. The Vantranack churned in pain, beginning to melt away from Jack. As his torso and arms were freed, Jack wrapped his arms around Rowen to keep the flow of power steady between them, returning her kiss. The Vantranack shuddered in the torture of holding Jack in it.
Finally, both Rowen and Jack were pitched to the side as the Cathrandar expelled them from the stone. Both fell apart and flipped through the air, rolling as they skidded to a stop and landing impressively in unison on one knee each. Jack was the first to get up, and he whirled around, cape flowing out behind, and bent down a hand for Rowen. Now that he was free, Jack’s easy manner was back. “So, Rowen, what took you so long?”
“Sorry, I got tied up fighting dragons and -“
“Forgiving Castamir?” Jack finished, flashing his eyes down as Rowen took his hand and hoisted herself up. Rowen looked at him and gasped, just like the last time she looked at someone’s face.
Jack’s eyes were bright green.
“Jack… how- what- was it the Vantranack?” Even as she said it Rowen knew it was not true. She knew those green eyes, different than the others.
“So tell me,” Jack said without emotion, “What color are Castamir’s eyes?”
Rowen was too shocked to speak. Fortunately Cathrandar recovered then, enough to speak.
“No… how did you get that? How did you use it? A dragon stone can’t be used by another unless… unless its given to them!“
Rowen glared at the center of the stone, not saying a word. The stone shuddered.
“What did you do to him?” Cathrandar said, disbelieving.
“I forgave him.” Rowen answered boldly. “But I will never forgive you.”
She handed her bag to Jack, then ran to the wall and jumped on the rope that still dangled. “Up, Lee!” Rowen called, and immediately she and the rope began rapidly ascending. Halfway to the top, Rowen pushed of the wall with her feet, back flipped into the air, and dove straight downward as her golden bands began to glow.
“Rowen!” Jack called, but it was too late – Rowen dove straight into the center of the Vantranack.
Instantly the floor heaved and pitched. It looked as if there was a lightning storm brewing below the stone, full of red lightning and green flashes. Suddenly the room heaved so violently that the walls began crumbling, falling down in plumes of dust, and Jack was thrown from his feet. Rowen’s bag skidded across the floor, throwing its last item: Larenteth’s odd wooden instrument. Hollow sounds rode over the crashes as it bumped and thudded across the Vantranack.
Fissures were exploding from the walls, or what was left of the walls. The center of the Vantranack began to swirl as does a black cloud over a volcano, smoky and ominous. It dipped down quite abruptly, then suddenly rose up. The stone looked like suspended liquid, forming into the shape of a human figure. It was twisted like clay in invisible hands, smoothing and forming ridges and planes. Then, it solidified back into stone – moving stone.
It looked like a statue, only it moved as if come to life. There, standing in the middle of the Vantranack, was carved out of stone a figure that was like a cross between Jack and Castamir, only older but still young nonetheless. His handsome features were marked in the clear-black stone, showing an elf that had been in his prime.
“A little too thirsty for revenge; she doesn’t take much time to think now does she?” Said the stone image of Cathrandar. He walked a little, the stone lifting with his feet so that the figure never detached. “Feels good to walk, I must say, even if this being only a manipulation of what I am imprisoned in. Nice to have Rowen around, I must say. She is quite good at manipulating the Vantranack for me. Extremely good, I must say,” Cathrandar remarked, flexing his arm and admiring his stone self, “Couldn’t have done it better myself.
Now, Jack, son, it’s so nice to see you home again. Oh, well, look at you! Green eyes and everything. Stunning, I must say. Perfect image of me now, aren’t you? We really missed you here, oh yes, we certainly did. Brilliant you are, coming up with the method to kill, capture, and manipulate dragons. I couldn’t have devised a better plan or technique myself. Can’t believe I had chosen Castamir above you for all those years. Ha! He never came up with anything close to that. Quite the engineer you are. Especially when those plans I found in your saddle pack resulted in the loss of hundreds of innocent lives. I just about loved you by that time. Tis very easy to take over and raid high places when you have a brilliant mercenary for a son.”
“I didn’t mean to kill them. You told me different stories. The things I shot in the dark, you told me they were wargs. The throats I slit in the alley, you told me they were stalking me and trying to kill me. You set me up a lot of times.”
“But, you were very good at it. Admit it, come on, you make a hell of a lot better killer than you do a hero. Come here to save the girl, did you? Or just to finally conquer Castamir? You have a lot of pride, and a lot of guts to come in here, boy. But I suspect you can’t remember much about the Seerganash other than how we started, do you?” Cathrandar said with a sneer.
Jack’s eyes widened. “You know I hit my head….”
“Ha! Know? It was me that sent the idiots after you! Lucky I didn’t have them kill you; didn’t want to waste you in case you ever came home. They were supposed to bring you back, but got scared when the Lothlorien elves pulled you into their forest. Thought you were as good as dead in there, they did. Idiots, they got more than their share pain for that one.
You know, I think it’s the proper time to bring up once again how we used your techniques to drive the Shanandoic dragons mad and kill off the Raugrím, the very race of which Rowen is the last surviving member of! What a coincidence.”
Jack’s eyes went wide with horror. “Rowen… she can’t hear us now, can she?”
Cathrandar laughed hard, echoing off the walls. “Boy, my ears are her ears, just as her body is mine.” He grinned and closed his stone eyes. The stone became more clear than black, revealing Rowen inside the stone body of Cathrandar. This was how he took physical form. Her gold bands were red with heat that Cathrandar was drawing out of her, but her eyes were of pain from hearing what Cathrandar had said. Cathrandar laughed and made the stone opaque again, glaring at Jack with hauntingly green eyes.
“Come on, Jack! Tackle me, rip me to shreds, you know you want to. Too bad all I have to do is shrink back into the Vantranack and it’ll be Rowen you’re murdering. Hey, why not? You half as good as killed her family, what’s one more?” His awful laugh danced around the cavern.
“I hate you,” Jack said bitterly, biting his lip.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Cathrandar retorted, flicking a spec of dust off his stone self-figure.
“…What’s this?” He said suddenly, picking up the small wooden instrument that had skittered over the rock. He swiftly dropped it, jumping backwards like it had burned him. It fell to the ground with a deep, dull clunk that echoed louder than it should have.
Cathrandar’s stone figure fell to his knees, covering his ears and grimacing painfully. Without being touched, Larenteth’s instrument gave off another low pitch that spread in a ripple of sound waves over the Vantranack. Cathrandar put his hand to his stomach as if sick, his eyes squeezing shut and then widening as he gasped. “What… is… wrong?!” He gasped through spasms.
“Let Rowen out and you go fix it!” Jack yelled, but Cathrandar looked up with a grin.
“Sorry boy, if I’m goin’, she’s goin’ down with me.” And with that he sank back into the Vantranack. He was gone – and Rowen was gone with him.
Something began scratching in what was left of the walls.