The gale whispered away as the WindRunner release it and dropped into a walk. A light layer of clouds spread from horizon to horizon, dimming the bright light of mid-afternoon. They were close to the canyon filled with limestone caverns north of Aos Si. Owen’s magic tingled, sending a warning skittering up his spine and straight to his mind. He could feel Demons like insects skittering in the depths of the earth.
Navar walked into the canyon. A small screen of budding shrubs, birch, and aspen trees bordered the banks of a trickle of stream flowing along its bottom. Wind, weather, and man had created a landscape of caverns, fallen spires of stone, and shallow caves along both sides of the canyon. The WindRunner strode down the center beside the stream.
All three extended their magic into their surroundings, searching for the closest manifestation of what they sought.
Owen shuddered in response. Goosebumps rose on his body.
Navar, do you feel that?
I do, Navar responded. Evil walks in the dark. Another Rift brings forth its spawn. It does not open to the same world that launched the Darkened Forest.
You cannot go into the caverns. I played here as a boy, Owen told him. They are too small for you.
Then I shall stand guard at the openings along the canyon and send you my power as needed, the WindRunner told him. He snorted. I can smell them from here. He turned to the left and faced the cliff. The opening to a cavern beckoned on its wall, across the stream. Navar launched himself and his rider over the expanse of water. Owen unconsciously gripped the sides of his mount with his legs as Navar took off. They landed lightly on the other side.
Owen shuddered again. Gritting his teeth, he threw his leg over Navar’s withers and slid to the ground. He turned to the WindRunner. Should I take the saddle and headstall off? he asked.
No. We might need to leave in a hurry, Navar said with slow deliberation. He tossed his head. You need to go now.
Owen pulled HeartStriker from its scabbard, unhooked the scabbard from his belt and hung it on the side of the saddle. He faced the yawning opening that gaped black beyond the flat light that filled the canyon. Hesitating for only a moment, he strode toward the cavern.
He entered the opening.
The floor of the cavern was flat, worn smooth by the boots and tools of men over the ages. Rough-hewn walls showed the care used by the hands that had created and extended them. Wooden columns braced beams every six to eight feet supporting the roof. Darkened by age, the wood looked very dry.
Dust on the floor held the tracks of something huge and vaguely dog like.
Demons, observed HeartStriker.
Owen agreed. These were the same tracks he found in the corridors of Red Dragon’s Keep after the first battle. His stomach tightened and his breathing hitched. He created a small, dim globe of magelight and set it to hover in front of him at waist height. It lit the tunnel stretching before him for a short distance. No sense in announcing I’m here with a bright light.
Owen put his back to the right side of the tunnel. Sword extended in front of him, he moved carefully deeper into the tunnel system. He stopped abruptly. I should use that cloaking spell now. He lowered the tip of his sword to the ground and tried to quiet his mind. Slowly, slowly it calmed. He centered himself.
He began to chant with quiet intensity.
“Light pass through, then around, none will see.
Light pass through, then around, none will see.”
By the power, three by three,
With harm to none, so let it be.”
He felt the magic settle around his body. He hoped it would be enough to hide him from whatever he faced in the depths.
The pull of the amulet was to the right and down. He stepped toe to heel, feeling his way, gliding along the passage. He weakened his mental shields to better feel any threat before it arrived.
Openings to other tunnels yawned to his right and left. He paused at each, searching with his mind for a way down to the amulet.
The tunnel ended at a blank wall. Well, I guess I’d better explore some of those side tunnels.
He turned around and made his way back to the first opening, on his left now. The pull of the amulet was much stronger. He could hear something moving in the tunnel. Echoes distorted its location. Was it from this opening? Or another, back toward the opening to the outside world?
Owen decided to explore the closest and turned into the tunnel. He looked at the tracks in the dust on the floor. They entered and did not leave. The Demons were here.
The salty smell of cold stone filled his nose, as well as the copper undertone of old blood. He stumbled, despite his magelight, over small rocks that had fallen from the walls. The ceiling began to lower and he had to half-crouch as he moved forward.
A truncated oval of dim light beckoned up ahead. He banished his magelight and stood still, waiting for his eyes to adjust. In the darkness, his hearing became acute. He heard the scuff of footsteps and the short, rasping sound of breathing. A growl echoed toward him. Another joined it. The snap of teeth meeting and a yelp followed. Owen shrank against the wall.
Maybe I should just leave and wait until Aeden gets here. I don’t want to meet this in the dark. He shook his head. He began to sweat. His breathing increased. He wrestled with his fear and his duty.
I am here, HeartStriker reminded him. As am I. Navar’s voice was fainter, but just as reassuring.
Owen slowly straightened, letting the fear go. Thank you, he told them.
He moved toward the light. When he reached the opening, he clung to the side of the tunnel. He pushed an eye past its edge.
The light was coming from narrow holes in the ceiling many feet above the floor. Stalactites and stalagmites hung from that ceiling and grew from the floor. Massive columns of quartz refracted the light that fell from the holes in a coruscating rainbow of color around the cavern. He didn’t see any of the Demons he knew were there.
He wanted to scuttle out of the tunnel and behind one of the columns close to the wall to his left. Instead, he slid along the wall toward it. Not sure how well his spell was working, he moved as slowly as he could to prevent detection. Something dark pushed its head past a column on the far side of the cavern.
Owen froze, his mind blank. He watched as wide nostrils flared, searching for a scent. Blood-red eyes squinted in the light. With a snort, the head withdrew.
He slid faster along the wall. He swung behind the column and crouched down. Sweat trickled down his face. His shirt stuck to the dampness tracing its way down his back. He opened his mouth and panted with shallow breaths to quiet the noise. Fear slowly withdrew.
He put his hand on the column for balance. It was damp and somehow greasy from the mineral solution that ran down its sides. He pulled his hand away with a grimace and wiped it on his pants. He risked sliding halfway around the column, looking for any place in the cavern where the amulet might rest. The mouth of another tunnel gaped across from him. The amulet was that way.
He began to slide along the wall, using columns as cover. Almost to his goal, he halted again and ducked down as three Demons made their way into the cavern from a tunnel to the right of his target. Their black coats seemed to drink the light, somehow shrouding it within the cave.
Owen’s heart hammered with dread. The three Demons separated and began to search the cavern, looking behind columns and gradually making their way to the wall. Owen made himself as small and quiet as he possibly could.
The Demon approaching his hiding place came closer and closer. Owen’s throat closed with fear, his lungs threatened to stop drawing in air. His knuckles whitened as his grip on HeartStriker tightened. He set his feet.
The Demon was sniffing the ground, as if he was following Owen’s tracks. It paused five feet from where he crouched. It jerked up its head and looked right at him. Owen launched himself toward the beast, his sword arm fully extended.
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