Disclaimer; Elemental Truth, the first of the Elemental Wars books, is in the final stages of editing. Hope you all enjoy it.
It was less a tunnel than a very narrow gorge that wound its way through a very tall plateau. Far above, light tricked between the cracks, lighting up their path. The horses didn’t like it. Tier and Rale resorted to carefully securing spare tunics over their heads and leading them. Geb smoothed the passage, and in places widened the way. They spoke little, and when they did their voices echoed.
They reached a wide cavern shortly before night fell, and found themselves standing at the base of a huge carved structure. Statues, similar to the ones in the canyon, lined the walls of the cavern. A tall opening was guarded by two carvings of sand dragons, somewhere in the distance the wind whistled through the gorge, echoing through the cavern and sending chills up Xin’s spine. She couldn’t take her eyes off the gaping doorway and jumped when a hand touched her shoulder.
Tier’s eyebrow arched and he motioned behind him. “Lets try to make camp, don’t worry about that doorway.”
She nodded and watched him make his way back over to the horses.
Dinner was a muted, quiet affair and they turned in shortly after. When she woke the next morning, the doorway to the structure was sealed by rock.
“Geb, did you do that?” Tier asked in a low voice.
“No.” Geb looked at him, eyes wide. “I didn’t feel anything.”
“Lets get going, this place is creepy.” Rale said, his voice hoarse.
They made their way through a narrower tunnel that stopped abruptly. Geb placed his hand on it, head bowed.
“These tunnels feel like they were closed off a long time ago.” He looked up and pointing towards the sliver of sky overhead. “Someone closed it. I think some further ahead collapsed over time.” He looked up at Tier. “I think whoever came through here was in a hurry.”
“I wonder what they were running from.” Xin murmured.
“Sand dragons?” Rale suggested.
“Nekarians?” Tier shrugged.
“No.” Geb looked back and forth. “I think these tunnels are older than Nekar.”
Xin’s heart pounded in her ears. “How can you tell?”
Geb opened his mouth and then closed it and shrugged. “I can’t explain.”
“Any clue as to how long this goes?” Tier asked.
Geb shrugged. “Half a day, maybe? I can’t tell. The tunnels ahead feel very strange.”
“Can you open them up?” Tier placed a hand on the stone, frowning. Xin wanted to ask him what, if anything, he felt, but she bit her lip. Rale was watching them both closely.
“I can. But it might take some time.” Geb sat and put both hands on the floor beside him. “They were masters who passed through here.”
The rock slowly melted apart, like wax near a flame. Darkness beckoned. Rale lit the torches without a word and handed one to Xin.
They went slowly through the tunnel, Geb paused periodically to reopen closed off passages or clear debris. Tier watched the youth closely. Though he looked frail and on the verge of starvation, his abilities were astounding, but he was still a boy. Barely a child who had gone through a difficult time. Tier feared the boy would push himself too far.
“There’s nothing beyond this wall.” Geb said, pressing a hand against the rock. “We’re almost out.”
“Let’s hope there are no sand dragons on the other side.” Rale said.
Tier touched the boy’s shoulder. “It’s probably daylight. It’ll be blinding.”
Geb nodded and bowed his head. The rock melted aside slowly, a pin point of light appeared, pouring into the tunnel. Tier squinted, his eyes tearing in the light. He stepped out of the tunnel once the opening was large enough, leading the horses. Sand met tough grass, stretching before him as far as the eye could see was green. Prairie.
“Shit.” Rale’s voice was low. “It’s Sandau, isn’t it?”
Tier hesitated and nodded. “Yep.”
Rale swore again.
“So which way?” Xin asked.
Tier glanced at her, gut twisting, and looked back over the grasses gently waving in a breeze he couldn’t feel. East was Sandau, west, the desert and the sand dragons. He motioned towards the distant line of green.
“We’ll make for the trees and see if we can’t find see a village or something.”
The light grew dim as they reached the forest. Distances were deceiving and Tier was tired. They all were, though no one said anything. Not even Rale. They took little time setting up a camp and getting things started for food. Geb was staring, face unreadable, all around them as they worked.
“Something wrong?” Tier asked after Rale and Xin left to go get some firewood.
“It’s all very green. Isn’t it?” The boy looked up at him, his eyes far older than his body.
“They say the further north you go, the colder it gets. There are some places that never thaw.”
“Thaw?” Geb frowned, peering towards the trees. “As in ice?”
“And snow.” Tier grinned at the boy’s awed face.
“The only snow I ever saw was on Lord Farook’s head!” Rale said, halting in front of them, arms full of sticks. His clothes were muddy and showing some travel wear. A far cry from the arrogant lord back in Dhaul. “I thought I saw some twinkling lights in the distance. Could be a town. Towns have inns and supplies.”
“See any sign of troops?” Tier asked.
“Troops?” Xin frowned at him.
“Lord Chiron was going to try to take the fort. I’d expect there to be troop movements from Sandau.”
It was barely day when they broke camp, making for a distant road Rale had spotted. They pushed through the grass sending birds flying. The road was a wide swath of dirt running north to south. It was pleasant, though a quiet journey. They reached a crossroads that with a weather worn signpost stuck in the middle. Xin frowned, the language one she’d never seen before. Tier swore, leaned forward and glanced at Rale.
“We’re in Sandau all right.”
Rale pulled his horse to a halt. “This is bad.”
“What if the gods smiled on Chiron while we were in the canyons and he took the fort? That would put us at war with Sandau.”
“We can’t get back to Delebeg from here without going back through the canyons. If we get near the fort, we’d be on the wrong side of the mountains.” Tier leaned forward, staring towards the distant river. “We could try to skirt along the mountains to reach Jaktor.”
Rale nodded and looked at Xin. Her stomach flopped, his frown deepened before he looked back at Tier and shrugged. “We need an inn, I need a bed, a meal at a table and a bath. I’m not the only one.”
Tier nodded, though he didn’t look like he cared much for the idea. “According to that,” he pointed at the signpost. “There’s a town up this road. We’ll make for it. We have to keep our heads down.”
They rode on in silence, south on the road, once moving off to one side as a patrol on fast trotting horses passed. Their uniforms were red and black, orange flames embroidered on the backs of their black tunics. Xin frowned. Flames. Fire elementals? She glanced at Tier but he was just watching them as they disappeared in the distance.
The road angled east, and in the distance Xin could see a village and far beyond it, near the river, a collection of buildings.
“That would be Sandau.” Tier said in a low voice, he half turned and pointed towards the distant cliffs behind them. “The other side of those cliffs is Delebeg.”
“There’s smoke.” Geb said.
“The fort?” Xin asked.
They reached the village as the sun was sinking in the west, casting brilliant oranges and pinks over the sky. There was a large building, an inn, a local told them, which served as a meeting hall and tavern. The proprietor met them in the stable yard. She was a slim, unsmiling woman who eyed them all with suspicion.
“The stables are around back.” She said, her voice very low. “I’ve only got one room to spare. Bathing hall is on the first floor.” She rattled off a price that made Xin wince. Tier nodded.
“I can have the servants bring it up for you.” She narrowed her eyes, looking back and forth between Tier and Rale. “You’re Nekarian.”
“On a personal vacation.” Rale said. “I’ve never been outside Nekar! So I thought I’d take a look see. My father thinks I’m a fool for it, but it’s a grand world, wouldn’t you say?”
The woman snorted. “If you say so.”
Rale turned to Geb. “Boy, take the horses to the stable!”
Geb glared and glanced at Xin before taking the reins and going in the direction the woman had pointed out.
“The room is up the stairs and all the way to the end of the hall.” The woman told Rale. Rale nodded, glanced at Tier.
“Pay the good woman, would you?” and flounced up the stairs.
“Insufferable.” The woman commented as Tier handed her the money.
“You have no idea.” He said, motioning Xin to go ahead of him. As they reached the top of the stairs Tier sighed. “I’m gonna kill him.”
“He’s going to get himself killed if he doesn’t watch it.” Xin leaned against the wall, looking up at him. “Do you think it’ll cause us trouble?”
“I don’t know. I’m not familiar with Sandau people. I keep telling him to tone it down. I don’t think he quite gets it.” Tier jerked his head towards the room. “Come on, lets make sure he’s not dirtying up the place.” He draped an arm over her shoulders. Xin smiled and leaned against him. She didn’t want to think about what would happen when they reached Nekar.
He dropped his arm and pushed the door open and chuckled. Rale had fallen face down on the nearest bed, legs and arms out like a puppet.
“MMmmmffmm.” Rale’s voice was muffled.
“What?” Tier crossed his arms and moved to one side as Geb entered the room, his eyes wide as he looked around.
Rale turned his head. “I said, I think I have reached paradise!”
“You’re getting the bedding dirty, Rale.” Xin pointed out. She went to her pack and glanced at the men. “I don’t know about you, I’m going to take a bath. And get clean before I throw myself on the bed!”
The next chapter will be posted Tues Dec 9th.
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