(2)All Comes Crashing Down
Go. Goliath- I mean Jane- can handle keeping Him away. We can’t stay here!
He’s the one who bound me! He’ll kill us both!
“Maybe if I just explain-”
There’s nothing to explain. I challenged Him for power, He beat me and bound me, and now He’s coming to finish the job! He already knows about you! You ran from Him and used the last remnants of my power to phase in-
A ground-shaking rumble fills the cavern. The Servant rears, tail curling around Winter’s legs and pushing, pulling her towards a tiny shaft of light, an exit, a break in the wall that leads to a tunnel. She stumbles as Jane releases her, but runs in the direction of the light even so. She stops when she reaches the broken arch that girds the long, winding slope downward, deeper into the earth. Despite Summer’s frantic urging, she turns.
She glances back in time to see light glare down, white and pure, moonlight shining into the room she flees, the stone of the ceiling melted away, half-melted under incredible magic power. Shining in the light is a manshaped figure, with three arms, and hovering between three hands is a sphere of light with twisting color. She looks one moment longer before it sears her eyes and forces her to turn away.
Jane roars thunderously. Her massive body shifts and slaps the ceiling just above the exit with her tail, coils rippling with the effort. Winter ducks under the falling rubble just in time to avoid being crushed. Then there is no chance of going back, the stone has barred her way into the cavern. Her Servant’s thrashings cause more shaking, more rumbling. Winter feels a pang of regret, and then a sharp shock of pain, all over her.
She’s of your- well, my-blood, idiot! The closer to her you are, the harder it will be to move! She’s in pain, do you understand? You’ll feel everything at this range!
The young woman hesitates but a second longer before continuing on into the darkness. Her limping run is illuminated by glowing glyphs on the walls. There’s no time to look at them closely.
“What about J-Jane?” She asks weakly, as she leans against a wall, panting. Her body is most certainly not used to this type of exercise, and she’s growing a little tired of always fleeing for her life for as far back as she can remember.
Admittedly she can’t remember very far back.
Summer’s answer is short and sharp. She’s beginning to hate that.
She’s probably dead.
“What?” Her voice trembles a little.
You can bring her back. Or rather, I can. I mean, I have power over life. Yours is one of death and the doomed. I’d need your help but I’m pretty sure I can bring her back. Later. Now keep running.
The path curves, and then leads down, a slope which she needs to walk down with care, lest she trip and fall. The ground is littered with bones, jagged stones and little holes or pitfalls. She can just barely see them by the light of the sigils lining the walls.
She walks like this for a time, one hand out, brushing the wall to steady herself. Then, just as she wonders if she can go any farther, just as she’s sure she’s walked a mile, there’s an earthshattering roar, a thunderous rumble, and a piercing, awful pain in her heart that sends her to scraped knees, clutching at her chest.
Even the voice in her head sounds weak and in pain at that. It’s an ache now, that won’t go away. It moves into her mind and shakes her to her bones, grinds her into the stone for a while before finally moving on.
When she comes back to herself, she’s sprawled on stone. Not bleeding, thankfully, but scraped in places and bruised all over from her thrashing.
She pushes herself to her feet again, shakily, leaning against a glyphed wall for support. Her arm is shaking. Her fingers are trembling.
There’s no response from her strange friend. It’s silent, in the tunnel. Frighteningly so, now.
She gropes around in the gloom, finding a rock and tucking it in her fingers. It doesn’t make her feel much safer, really. She’s achy and weak and her head pounds. But she needs something. With rock in hand she continues moving, limping now and unsure why, her heart thumping in her chest painfully.
After a time, a hissing dances on the edge of her awareness. Not like a snake, but as something hot being shoved into cool water, as steam. It doesn’t begin to grate on her nerves for at least a few minutes. She’s tempted to look behind her- where the noise is coming from she couldn’t say, she half-guesses it must be a trick of the tunnel- but focuses on moving faster instead. Her hands won’t stop trembling.
It’s almost worse than the silence. A scritchingly irritating sound, like nails grazing a board, like resonance in a wine glass raised to a screeching crescendo.
“This is insane,” Winter whispers quietly. The sound of her voice makes her feel just a little better. “All of it.”
Finally, though, the tunnel opens up slightly, and beyond a single stone door, she feels, must be the source of both hissing and humming. The door has the same runes as the one she opened to enter Jane’s cavern. Just smaller and less numerous. Still, there are some she doesn’t recognize immediately, as well as ones warning of danger even worse than her two-headed servant. She ignores them.
Her hand stopped bleeding a while ago. Her blood is dry, sticking to her hand like rusty black paint. The air here, just in front of the door, is stale and… oddly sulfurous. Still, she can’t allow herself to be turned aside. Weakness here could lead to death. Not only hers, but Summer’s as well.
Shakily, clumsily, she brings the rock up before her. No sharp edges, nothing she could use. She should have chosen a jagged one. She could grind it, given enough time, but time is something she isn’t entirely sure she has much of. He could come for her at any moment, and that terrible light could be searching for her even now. She shivers at the thought of Him melting His way through the collapsed rock to get to her, at the thought of that chilly, eerie light shining down the tunnel.
Not knowing exactly what to expect, she just sort of wills the rock to bear a point, to sharpen, bringing to mind the image of her blood-spear-sword thing, the one Summer had helped her make.
Nothing happens. It’s no worse than she expected. The sound of the hissing is drawing closer. Now she feels if she listens hard enough there’s a moan to it, as of tortured stone.
She takes another shuddering breath. After slapping her hand to the rune and achieving nothing, she realizes she needs a sharp edge. Needs it.
She strokes the stone, eyes closed. Sharp. Something trickles down her spine and gathers in her belly. Warmth spreads up one arm and centers around her fingers as they touch the stone. The rock itself seems to bubble, and the scent of brimstone fills the air.
Abruptly it shifts and tapers to a long, thin point. She can see it in her mind’s eye. Winter draws the sharp stone across her hand quickly. A flash of pain on her palm. She slaps her hand, welling with red, against the rune. The hissing is getting louder. But when her hand touches the rune and her blood fills the outline, the door pushes open. There’s a shock, a tingle as she crosses the threshold that runs down her entire body.
The girl’s eyes open again, and in time to feel the sharp pain in her palm and the panic of being exposed. Still, she turns and catches hold of the stone door, pushing it back into place, letting it grind closed.
Then she just sits, panting, letting her body relax. Letting out a short, choked sob. The rock in her hand slips from her fingers.
She gasps for breath, leaning against the door as it shuts. Something like relief clutches at her. She doesn’t know why, but she feels much safer in here. The room is familiar. The hissing has been silenced. The barrier of the door has stopped the noise, and for that she is grateful. But the humming still whispers in her bones and her skin.
She looks around for the source of it curiously.
The room is solidly built, constructed of smoothed stone that couldn’t have been mined by anything short of magic. Her heart, pounding before, calms. She remembers this place.
She takes a few steps inward, at ease for the moment.
Sigils and runes dance over the walls and floor, spiraling, twisting and turning in her vision. Their shapes leave playful shadows, some of them flying about the air. And at the center of the room, the source of the humming is an enormous column, a stone pillar marked with copper and bronze and silver.
She walks around it cautiously, and, as she stands there, whether by trick of the light or by magic, sees that inside the pillar there is a second pillar, a second column. It is made of a brilliant shaft of light that hums through the center of the first. And at this column’s center there is a tiny, incandescent bead.
“Illmetal. It’s said to grant the wishes of any who touch it with pure intent. ‘Illmetal’ is a bit of a misnomer. I’ve always thought of it as the Wish element. In all the world, this is all of it that’s ever been discovered, and had Summer not stolen it… it would be mine.”
She starts, whirls. The door behind her, the archway, her runes erased in a flash. Standing there is a tall, long-legged, spindly man with thin fingers. His head is adorned with two ivory horns which curl like those of a ram. His feet are clawed and one hand is outstretched. Light follows Him in, dangerous light, the twisting, torturous light responsible for melting through the ceiling of Jane’s cavern. His skin is pure white, so pale it almost hurts to look at it, and His eyes are a cold, cold blue. It was the light that made it look like he had three arms and three hands, surely. Except no, there as he turns and steps through the melted remains of the doorway, is his third arm, shining with light bright enough to make her eyes water.
The smell of brimstone is gone, erased by the scent of something much stronger, like white vinegar, sour and almost painfully real. The sight of the melted slag where her door stood makes her tremble where she stands, tremble with fear.
“And you would be… Winter? I suppose Summer is still bound, then. Were she not I would not have crossed this threshold alive.” There’s a smile in His voice. He isn’t being smug. His is the soft assuredness that comes from knowing He has won.
Winter, however, has gone white, pale skin going paler, backing away until she reaches the column. The playful sigils and shadows are gone from the walls and floor and ceiling, gone from the air. There’s a dreadful charge building, making her hair- short already- stand straight up and frizz out. As the man attempts to take a step forward, twin bolts of arcing lightning thunder forth from either wall and strike Him quite squarely.
He jerks, arches and then stumbles, going down on His knees for a moment while the bolts ground out, His arms and legs twitching spasmodically.
It lasts only a second though, for even as His clothes steam and smoke- and two tiny holes in His livery are stained with His blood- He stands. “Not bad,” He comments, His voice even and unstrained. “Pretty good defenses for a hedgewitch.”
“How dare you! This is my Sanctum and you will not desecrate it!”
The voice is Winter’s, but it doesn’t come from the frightened woman cowering against the pillar. Instead, a swirling spirit has taken form in the air, and as both she and He look on, it coalesces into a brilliantly sparkling crystalline woman about six feet tall. Its eyes burn, one envious green emerald, one pure blue sapphire.
“Go, Winter. His power is greater than mine, I cannot stop him. Touch the pillar and go.”
“Fascinating,” The hoof-footed man says. There’s something deeply unnerving about how calm, even pleasant He is. “A simulacrum made from crystal. I’m sure under any other circumstances it would be quite difficult to destroy, but I am in a hurry.”
The horned man extends one digit and unleashes a jet of thin cold light at the new threat. It is instantly swallowed by the crystal and refracted into a billion brilliant beams, each of which tear a tiny smoking hole in anything they strike, peppering the walls with dark dots. Winter feels sudden stabbing pain along the back of her hand where she hides, and can’t suppress a yelp of fear. The skin, when she looks, now bears two bloody holes, steam rising from each in a scalding little plume. If she stays, she’ll die.
She reaches out as light flashes again, bolts towards the pillar and grabs it. Go, the statue had said. There’s a sound, as a window shattering and an inhuman rumble of rage. Bits of shattered transparent rock scatter across the floor. Her guardian is not invulnerable.
At the same time, the doorway spits forth another two bolts of lightning, the energy leaping from stone. Though she can’t see that they strike Him, she knows, she can hear the hiss and smell the smoke, the sick scent of burnt flesh. His yell is drowned by the thunder which reverberates around the cavern. For a moment she prays He’s dead, but the statue’s words still ring in her head, echoing as the thunder fades.
If that were enough to stop Him He would have died from the first blasts. Jane would have killed Him with one swipe of her tail.
She touches the column, hands instinctively finding sigils she knows are right and thinks, wills, quite vividly. Away!
As everything dissolves into motes of color and her world shakes and twists, she hears, oddly distorted for a moment, her own crystalline, agonized cry and that same pleasant voice from the horned man, He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains:
“So you do feel pain. I can use that.”
Everything vanishes, whisked away in a flash of color, scent and sound.