Gyna stumbled wildly across the dim, cavernous room, wondering how much farther her trembling legs would bring her before she collapsed—and that would be the end. She listened for any sound other than thunder, wind and her own gasping breath, but the thumping had ceased, and the fiendish cackling had vanished. Not daring to hope that she might have lost her pursuer, she hastened into the only opening she saw ahead, a dark and empty doorway. Perhaps the blackness would hide her there?
A few paces past this exit, she glimpsed a faint light, seeping around a corner in the passage. Approaching more slowly and trying to quiet her panting, Gyna peered cautiously around the corner and saw a long, spiraling staircase, descending to what looked like a pool. The light, a pale greenish, sickly glow, seemed to be coming from something in the water . . . was there some sort of creature down there? Yes, it looked like something with tentacles, and a big something at that.
It figures, she thought, with a sort of frantic bitterness. After all this, now a water monster. Well, what should I have done?
She took a few small steps backward, her thoughts scrambling for some other way out, when something rough sprang around her and knocked her down—a net. The witch had caught up, without a sound.
A choking panic seized Gyna as her captor let out another horrible, shrieking cackle, followed by unintelligible exclamations. The words issuing from that rotting mouth—as the girl remembered it from a brighter light—sounded more like dry wood cracking than speech, but she made out what sounded like proper, meat, blood, stew and well. This talk only lasted a few moments, during which Gyna tried desperately to break away or tear the net, but the tough cords yielded nothing to her trembling hands, and though her thrashing caused the witch to strain and grunt, that was all. It was rather like pulling against a tree. That was what this creature most resembled—a shriveled, darkened, foul tree, wrapped in black rags like burnt leaves.
Then the witch abruptly turned and began dragging the net back into the big room, with a strength far exceeding what seemed right for her bony frame. Proceeding into a sort of niche, she climbed up a heap of rocks and bound the ends of the net to a hook in the stone wall. Gyna, when she finally disentangled her arms and legs from the cords, forced herself to stand and tried to reach up to the hook, but it was just a bit too high. Glancing across the emptiness, she saw the witch silhouetted against a fire, bent over the unmistakable shape of a large pot. Her thoughts losing all cohesion, Gyna began wildly flinging herself and pulling on the net.
“Well, we’re in a tight spot, aren’t we?” said a voice—a strange, new voice, strong, a little breathy, but calm like a summer wind.
Startled, she looked around in several wrong directions. “I’m here,” the voice added, sounding slightly amused at her bewilderment. Gyna turned again and looked hard in the direction of the voice, for it sounded now as if it had spoken out of another large fire in the room’s nearest corner.
Then she caught her breath. Two bright golden lights were hovering and blinking amid the flame—yes, blinking! Now she could make out eyes and a face, more like an animal than a human face. “Old Ketorag isn’t a kind hostess,” it purred.
The purring sound seemed to give a sudden clarity to Gyna’s sight. How could she not have seen it before? What had looked like a fire was in fact a cat, all of flame and big as a horse, curled up in its corner. Its purring had a bit more of wind and sparks in it, that was all. “Ke . . . you mean the witch? I-I think she’s going to eat me,” the girl stammered, almost shocked anew to hear the words out loud. “Are . . . are you her cat?”
The creature gave a short hiss, one that might have been part sneeze, a sharp expression of disgust. “I am no one’s cat,” it declared with firm dignity. “The Fire Beasts are among the oldest and proudest of wild things.”
“R-right,” Gyna mumbled. She glanced over at Ketorag, but the witch didn’t seem to have noticed the cat at all; perhaps the blasting and moaning winds in the night outside were drowning the sounds of their voices. “Well, if you’re not on her side . . . can you help me?”
“Perhaps,” the cat replied placidly, as if it carried on such conversations every day. “If you will help me, I will gladly help you.”
The girl blinked in surprise. “Help you how?”
The cat looked toward the door where Gyna had tried to flee. “See that? Through that door are stairs leading to a hole, the only hole I know that goes all the way down to my home, where the Fire Beasts live beneath the earth. But the hole lies over a pool. I could probably jump over the pool, but an Oglashen lives there, and throws water at me or slaps at me with its vile wet legs whenever I come near.” The cat shuddered, releasing a puff of hot air and a cloud of sparks. “So,” it concluded, “if you will rid me of the Oglashen, I will dispatch Ketorag for you.”
Gyna thought quickly. She supposed the cat must be talking about the thing she had glimpsed from the top of the stairs. She had very little idea even of what an Oglashen was, much less how she could go about getting rid of one; and if a giant fiery cat couldn’t overcome it, what chance had a girl of eleven? But then, even if she tried and failed, being killed by a monster was no worse than being eaten by a witch. And the cat was at least offering a possible chance. “I-I’ll do the best I can,” she managed.
Looking satisfied, the cat rose to its feet and took several deep breaths, swelling larger each time, till it had nearly doubled its size. As the fiery glow filled the dim room, Ketorag finally glanced over, just as the cat sprang toward her.
The witch let out a hideous wail of terror, the last noise she ever made. The cat’s blazing mouth engulfed her, and for the next minute or so Gyna listened to a sound like twigs snapping in a furnace, as the Fire Beast finished its meal.
At last the cat stood again, now only a little bigger than it had been at first, but looking bright and contented. “That was satisfying,” it purred. “Now to complete supper with this mesh.” Striding over to the net, it set one paw over the hook. In moments the cords blackened, crumbled and fell. Seeing the ends still burning, Gyna grabbed the net above her head and threw it aside, finding that it easily spread out flat, like a blanket. Hastily she scurried clear of it, allowing the cat to eat what was left. It was a funny sight, she thought, a cat eating rope. But then, a giant cat made of fire was a queer sight already.
When the cat had swallowed the last bit of the net, it turned its great glowing eyes back toward her. “Now, for you to keep your promise.”
That water monster . . . What would she do now? For a moment this question was so overwhelming that Gyna could only stare.
A bit impatiently, the cat reminded her, “You must get rid of that Oglashen.”
“Er, right,” she stammered. “I . . . I’ll go take a look.” Part sick with dread and part unable to believe what she was doing, she began walking toward the dark doorway again. She had no idea what she was going to do, but she could at least see what the creature was and what its lair was like.
There was no comfortable way to go down those stairs. For one thing, they had no rail along the inner side, and Gyna stepped gingerly and pressed herself against the wall, terrified lest a slip send her plummeting over the edge. With every step, the pale greenish glow seemed more sick, dim, and miserable, like some lingering ghost of a true light. She also soon became aware of an odor, a nasty, swampy stench, that grew stronger as she descended. Only occasionally could she bring herself to glance down at the ugly shape in the water, hard to discern amid its twisted mass of tentacles. It didn’t look like it had moved at all since she first looked down. It lay so still that she almost dared to hope it was dead. Perhaps the fire cat just hadn’t come down recently enough.
Then as she rounded another turn in the staircase, she saw that the steps abruptly ended, dropping away into nothing, a short way ahead of her. The walls also spread out, so that the bottom of this hollow space was considerably wider than the the passage rising above her. She was looking down into a stony abyss—wide enough, she thought, to be a king’s hall or to hold many houses—at the bottom of which lay a still, stagnant-looking pond. There, in the middle, floated the Oglashen.
Seeing it so much closer, Gyna almost felt sick. She had once seen some fishermen drag in an eight-legged creature they had caught at sea, proudly proclaiming that they had slain a monster. It had been nearly her own size, and she had shuddered at the sight of it, such a bizarre shape, its body seemingly made of mush yet looking as if it had been strong. That beast, though, had been nothing at all compared with the monstrosity below her now. It was vast, far bigger than any animal she had seen before—as if it were a frog and she a fly, she thought. Its pallid greenish skin, which emanated the seeping dead light, was marked with thin, dark purple rings. And it wasn’t dead. Something looked to be pulsing or flapping on what could only be its great bulbous head.
For a time—she could not tell afterwards how long it had been—Gyna could only stare. She even forgot that she was supposed to dispose of this monster somehow. A sort of disgusted terror held unchallenged sway in her mind.
Then she remembered why she had come, and her heart sank further. No luck for that cat, nor for me, she thought, wondering if the cat would eat her if she told it that she could not possibly do anything about the Oglashen.
Examining the beast’s surroundings gave her no clue about what to do next. The place boasted little to be seen. No other living thing seemed to inhabit the water; and that was small wonder, Gyna thought, for this water was filthy. Some kind of muddy pollution seemed to be floating all across the surface and piled up in two great mounds on either side. No other noteworthy thing was anywhere in sight . . . except for a sizable crevice in the rock wall. That, she realized, must be the hole going down to the cat’s home. She noticed now that the walls of this sprawling chamber, unlike those around the stairs, were not of carved blocks but natural stone; here wall met mountain. It seemed a long way to jump, but perhaps a creature all made of fire would be light and strong enough to propel itself across.
Suddenly something moved near her foot. She started, then realized it was a loose piece of stone breaking off the stair. As it dropped, Gyna realized in horror what was about to happen. The fragment plummeted straight down and struck the Oglashen’s great floating mass.
Instantly two white eyes flared open on its head. Her terrible sickness of panic returning, Gyna began frantically scrambling back up the stairs. She heard a tremendous sloshing below, then a crash behind her, and half saw the tremendous tentacle that had struck, now swinging back downward. Then came a sound like a rush of water, blasting the wall alarmingly close behind her. Stealing a fleeting glance back as she ran, she saw a steaming, purplish-brown liquid dripping from the stone.
Back up into the darkness she climbed, not slackening her pace until she had run through the little hall and burst back into the great upper room, where the cat was waiting. It seemed to be half asleep. Roused by her wild entry, it blinked and looked puzzled. “What happened down there?”
Gasping and panting, Gyna sputtered, “I . . . can’t do . . . anything . . . about it . . . it’s way too big . . . too awful . . . almost killed me . . . I . . . just can’t . . . I’m sorry . . .”
The cat looked surprised, then confused, then stern. “You mean you came here with no weapons? No spells? No potions or knowledge?”
Gyna’s terror and despair turned to irritation. Why should she be expected to have any of those? “If I’d had . . . any magic . . . I’d have used it . . . against the witch!”
The creature scowled. “What were you thinking, coming here defenseless? No wonder Ketorag caught you so easily!”
“I didn’t plan to come here,” Gyna snapped. “I was running away from wolves. I climbed up a broken wall and into a window to hide. Then, well, I fell inside . . . and couldn’t find a way out. I was looking for one when the witch started chasing me.”
The cat looked grim, and still not entirely satisfied. “What were you doing in these mountains? This is no country for a helpless child.”
These words seemed to give her thoughts a long-awaited permission to review what had been happening, to retrace all her wild steps since things began to go wrong. “I was with one of my sisters . . . we were traveling with a caravan, through the Rivergrave Pass,” she recalled. “It was getting dark, and we stopped, and I went to go look for firewood . . . I was going to come right back, but then the wolves came, and I just started running. When I saw the broken part of the castle wall, I thought it was just a pile of rocks by a cliff, so I climbed up it to hide in the window. But then I fell down the other side.” Thinking clearly at last about the way she had come, she added sadly to herself, “Elna must be half out of her mind worrying by now.”
The cat let out a long, hissing sigh, like the hiss of steam, its ember-like eyes half-closed in weary frustration. Gyna stared away at the wind-thrashed rain and clouds in the dark, turning around in her mind all the elements of this seemingly hopeless situation. Then, suddenly remembering something, she looked up again. “Ketorag . . . she was a witch. Maybe she had some magical things that we could use. We could look through the castle and see.”
The cat was quiet a moment, pondering this idea. Then it stood and said, “I can show you some things that might be of interest.”
They left the room, walked back down the hall through which Gyna had first entered it, and turned up a spiraling staircase, which proved to be the beginning of many passages and stairways. Now that she wasn’t running for her life and had the cat’s light to see by, she began to look around more—and there were sights to be seen.
The stone was more attractive than in the big room; the gray blocks were smoother and interspersed with white, black, brown, and even dark red and blue. Here and there she even noticed the glitter of mosaics. All along the walls were pictures carved in relief and statues peering from ledges and corners. They were every kind of image—forests, cities, harvesters working in fields, a king with what looked like a hunting party, ships rolling over waves. Stranger things were mingled in these images, too, including people with wings or fish tails, creatures like mixes between different kinds of animals, and a fight between a dragon and a gryphon. There were even things Gyna didn’t recognize at all.
“This castle didn’t used to belong to the witch, did it?” she thought aloud. She could not imagine such a nasty creature having the refinement of eye or thought to design anything beautiful.
“No,” the cat replied. “It’s an old stronghold of the Lluwenin, far more ancient than she. It was built when the Rivergrave Pass was still a river, and passed through all their realms—in the Earth, the Water, and even the Air, at its source in the mountains. The Lluwenin are a gracious people, and this castle was a haven for those of any kind who came seeking help.” Releasing another steamy sigh, the creature went on, “But since times have changed, and the Lluwenin could not remain in the world of men, their house is abandoned and its beauty faded, and it’s only home to bats and the occasional stray. Like Ketorag, or me, or you.”
Staring around in wonder, Gyna tried to imagine what this place had been like in its day. Dust or dirt was everywhere; sculptures were worn or crumbled; ornate doors lay rotted, insect-gnawed, fallen or hanging crooked on their hinges; here and there a dull glitter or scrap of color on the floor quietly proclaimed a lingering piece of some once-precious thing. Yet even in its ruin, the place still possessed a sort of veiled, disheveled beauty. She no longer found it frightening, but rather sad, as if all these walls were wondering for lonely ages where their caretakers had gone.
Like me, she thought, when my parents and brother were taken away for the war. This castle and I . . . will we ever get our people back?
She wondered what sort of people these Lluwenin had been—perhaps some sort of elves or sprites? But then she thought of something else, and instead asked, “How did you end up here?”
“I was adventuring,” the creature sighed. “The boldness of my youth—hundreds of years ago. I wanted to see the world above. The hole I mentioned to you was a passage then, a regular road of the Lluwenin to their Earth Realm. There were others, but their entries are forgotten now; I don’t know how I should ever find another.”
“So, they were still here then?” Gyna pressed.
“They were, though they knew they might be near the end of their time. They gave me sound advice about making my way in the upper world. I traveled through these mountains, taking my time, seeing what I could see. I journeyed all the way to their southern end, where I found human villages under attack from their own kind, from bands of thieves. So I became a hero,” it muttered, with a little bitterness and no satisfaction, “driving away those men with hardly any trouble. The humans in the villages hailed me as their rescuer, and begged me to stay and guard them. I lingered for a time, but I was beginning to long for home. I had already been gone for many years. And there were some who wished I would stop eating the forests.”
“You went back to the castle,” Gyna predicted.
“I did. I told the humans to appoint a guard of their own and set out back north. All the way along the mountains. And when I arrived there . . . the Lluwenin were gone, their stronghold abandoned, and the Oglashen was barring my way home.”
“Oh,” the girl mused sadly. “So you’ve been all alone here all this time.” After a moment’s silence, she added, “You must miss your family and friends.”
The cat’s only response was a grunt like a low rumble from a furnace. Gyna couldn’t quite tell what it meant, but chose to take it as acceptance of her sympathy.
Thinking some more about this story, she pressed, “But I still don’t understand . . . even if the Lu-weh . . . those people’s entries underground are forgotten, what about your own people’s? And what have you been living on all this time . . . and why didn’t you eat Ketorag a long time ago?”
For a moment the cat didn’t respond, as if three questions at once was too much. At length it said, “One, my people don’t make entries to the upper world. I had to use a road of the Lluwenin to get there at all—the Fire Beasts seldom climb even that high—and I thought I would only need to know one. Two, I’ve been eating the bats and, when they fail, anything that will burn. Three . . . I could have eaten Ketorag before, but I would have had to sneak up to keep clear of her magic; and with so little to eat or to do, I grow . . . lethargic. I’ve been spending most of my time sleeping. I was sleeping when you came running in. Look now, here we are.”
At the end of a hall, they had come to a set of great wooden doors that remained intact, imposing centaurs carved on each seeming to maintain a stubborn guard. Gyna gave the doors a push, and thought they were locked when they didn’t budge, but the cat assured her that the old doors “only need a bit of persuasion.” She finally coaxed them open with a hard shove and pushed them wide enough to let in the cat.
The room in which she now found herself was as spacious as the one where she had met the cat, but less wide than it was tall. Or rather, where that room had been very long and only moderately high, this one was round like a gigantic drum, grandly wide and at least as high—Gyna could not see the ceiling, lost in shadow. All along the walls were many small colored shapes, some glittering with gold or silver. At first she thought they were bricks inlaid with metal, but a closer look showed them to be books—myriads of books, covering the walls, little steps and walkways leading up to the higher shelves. Gyna felt a thrill of wonder as she stared around, pondering how much history and lore and who knew what else must be stored here. If only she had more time, and more education, perhaps she could really enjoy this room.
“I-I’ve never seen so many books,” she stammered.
“Thankfully you don’t have to look through them all to find what we came for,” the cat purred.
“Hm? Oh, right. Magic. The Oglashen.” Regretfully Gyna felt part of her elation slip away. “Wait . . . why don’t I have to look through them all?”
“The books of spells are always set aside.” The cat nodded toward the shadow-coated ceiling. There, high above them, was a sort of dim, veiled, rippling glow, like a light source surrounded by swirling cloud.
Gyna blinked. “Is . . . are there books in there?”
She sighed. “How are we supposed to get at them?”
“Asking politely should do it,” the cat replied, with what almost looked like a smile.
Shrugging off any expectation of understanding why anything was so, Gyna stared up at the flickering light and called, “Hi, magical books, could you please come down here?” Promptly the dark cloud, or whatever it was, drew aside to release a beam of warm light, through which a dozen or so large books floated down in widening spirals and landed at her feet as lightly as fall leaves.
“Wow,” she breathed.
Stepping carefully into the pool of light and around the books, she perused the covers, all of fine, ancient-looking leather, most adorned with intricate patterns. The words were in letters she had never seen before, but as she looked on, they suddenly shifted and reshaped themselves into words she could read.
“They are very courteous books,” the cat remarked.
Gyna excitedly began to look over the titles. She quickly saw that some of the volumes would be of no help in fighting the Oglashen. They had names like Of Concealment and Alteration in Form, Of Healing Bodily Ills—“If only Mother could see this,” she thought—and Of Communing with Beasts and Birds. She asked the cat if that last by any chance included monsters. “No, that refers to common beasts,” it explained. “Try the largest book—the white one, in the middle.”
Glancing over, Gyna saw the book at once. How hadn’t she noticed it before? Why, its white leather practically shone, with golden leaves running all around its edges. The title, in large, thin, swirling script, read The Aelrian Compendium of White Magic. “Now this should help,” she murmured happily.
Lifting the thick, heavy cover, she found inside a little slip of colored silk, tied with a string to the binding, on which were embroidered simple directions about how to navigate the book. Apparently it was divided into many sections, and Gyna had to turn past spells about weather, animals, building and shaping things, looking for things, and some other subjects before reaching the section on fighting and destruction. Like many previous pages, the first page of the fighting chapter was vividly illustrated, displaying a warrior advancing against a many-legged monster with victims in its claws. Gyna shuddered. I hope I don’t destroy anything by accident after reading this.
Any such worry, however, soon turned to bafflement and frustration. The enchantments in the chapter all seemed most usefully fearsome, if only she could have used them. Many of them involved some ability that she didn’t have, like catching a wind, emanating a wave of heat, or throwing a blast of “oesthular power.” Even those that didn’t invariably bore the note, “This may cause injury or death to the uninitiated.” When Gyna asked the cat about this, it explained that attempting these spells would certainly injure or kill such a person unless some power ran in his blood, unbeknownst to him. “You don’t have any enchanters in your family, do you?”
“Er, no,” she admitted. “The only magic I know we have is Mother’s healing talent. And that’s what got her taken from us,” she added grimly.
The cat frowned, lashing its sparky tail. “Taken? By whom?”
“By our king, or his officers in our province,” Gyna sighed. “They took everyone they thought could help with the war. They took my father and brother to fight, and Mother has a rare healing gift so they took her too. Said they needed her services. So they left my three sisters and me to take care of the house and shop, all by ourselves.”
The cat gave a quiet hiss. “Quarrelsome men,” it muttered.
Gyna realized now that, for the first time in the months since her family had been separated, she had actually stopped thinking about it for a time. She had, in fact, been hoping for that very thing when she asked to go on the trip with her sister Elna—a chance to stop thinking about all her worrying responsibilities in their shop and their house, and about how much she missed her parents and brother and the time when her two older sisters hadn’t been so busy, tired and strained. It had never really left her thoughts, though, until the wolves appeared.
Will I leave them now, too? she wondered, as she scanned one page after another. If I don’t make it out of here . . . if I never come home . . . what are Adyra, Elna and Perene going to do all by themselves? And how will they feel to lose someone else?
Thinking about this didn’t help when she came to the end of the chapter with no better luck than before. She was sure she had carefully searched every page for a spell she could do. Why wasn’t there even one that an ordinary person could use? Had wizards and suchlike ever really been running about in such numbers?
“There’s nothing here,” she exclaimed to the cat. “Nothing I can do.”
The creature said nothing, looking bleak, its glowing eyes half-closed.
“M-maybe I could try one of the other books . . . ?” she ventured halfheartedly.
The cat gave a grunt like a popping burst of sparks. “Maybe. But I doubt it. I’ve been looking over these titles, too. There’s a book on warfare here—there, the dark red one—but the Lluwenin were very cautious about sharing such dangerous spells. See that mark burned on the front? You need to know the proper magical word even to open it. And don’t waste your time trying to break it open.”
Gyna gave a shriek of desperate frustration and furiously kicked the nearest book, which only drifted gently a few inches, as if it were a leaf on breeze-blown water. The force of her outburst surprised her; but then, she had known this feeling before. She was exhausted, and trying for so long had sapped her patience and will. It was too much pressure. It wasn’t fair. She had never volunteered for this. Why should she have to kill an Oglashen? Anyone could see that was asking too much of her.
Slowly she sank to her knees, breathing hard. A single hot tear slid down each cheek. “I can’t do this,” she whispered. “I wish I could. But I don’t have the power.”
Then she felt a stirring of cool air just behind her. Glancing up in surprise, she saw an open window—whether broken by the elements or left ajar, she couldn’t tell. The storm outside had subsided, the night grown quiet, and now a soft, gentle breeze was wafting in, streaming around her in a friendly embrace. Gyna managed a weak smile, turned to face the window, and lifted up her head to let the wind cool her face and neck, which had grown hot in her distress.
Then something caught her eye, and she blinked the tears away. Looking up in a new direction, she could see something else—a statue adorning one of the balconies, of a lady crowned with leaves, a nymph or something. She was holding a box, not made of stone like the rest, but a wooden box, a little chest. Though it was hard to tell from below, Gyna somehow thought that the box looked as if it could open.
Though she could not have begun to explain why, she felt a quiet but insistent urge to go up and open the box. Silently she stood and made for one of the staircases.
“Where are you going now?” demanded the cat. “If you try to look through this whole collection, we could be here another hundred years—and your chances of finding spells in those books are hardly anything.”
Gyna didn’t answer. She didn’t know what she could have said, but with every step she felt an increasing confidence and serenity. She came up to the statue’s level and walked around to it. She took hold of the box’s top and pulled. It was stuck fast. Yes, it had a lock. Somehow this didn’t feel discouraging. Still not knowing why, she bent a little and peered into the space between the box and the statue’s hands. There lay a key.
She slipped her fingers in, drew out the key, inserted it into the lock, and turned. The lock popped open. Softly she removed it, laid it aside, and opened the box.
There lay two quill pens, their shafts crossed as if they were blades on a coat-of-arms. Beside them lay a little scroll, tied with a string.
Gyna pulled off the string and unrolled the parchment. At the top, in largish letters, was The Pens of Berimas. Below, in smaller script, a note read:
Visitor from a future age, when you come into possession of this guarded treasure of the Lluwenin, you are implored to exercise the utmost prudence. These are indeed the pens that become the deadliest blades for some few moments, but in the hand that wields them cruelly or basely, they will destroy their bearer. They were made to combat the fiercest of free people’s foes, and will serve no other purpose for long.
Having received this warning, receive now a weapon more fearsome than steel, that of knowledge. The Pens of Berimas require three things to assume the form of swords. These are intent that they should change, a strong heat, and the words of transformation. They grow larger when the spell is worked for longer; they may grow as large as great trees, but when they grow so, their change is briefer. Yet even at their greatest length, they may be wielded by a boy’s hand, if he bear them with a true heart.
The Pens of Berimas are strengthened with the most potent enchantment and can pierce the hide of any known creature, including dragons, ogres, sarpeda, death crawlers, large sea vermin, and their like. The words of transformation are as follows.
And there, at the bottom of the scroll, were words in a language Gyna had never seen before. She repeated them softly to herself, to see if she could say them.
“Well?!” exclaimed the cat from below.
With mounting excitement she turned back down to her companion. “I’ve found pens that can turn into giant magical swords! They were made just for killing monsters!”
The cat’s blazing eyes widened. “Berimas’ finest work . . . Those were thought to have gone with the Lluwenin.” Gyna held up her trophies for proof, and the creature shook its head in wonder. “What a gracious people. Leaving their treasures to a world that would need them.”
Hurriedly descending with the feathers and the scroll, Gyna went on, “I think you’ll need to come with me to make these work. This says that heat is part of what makes them change.”
The cat frowned. “The Oglashen is very sensitive to any light but its own. That’s why it awakens whenever I go down there.” It glanced at the books on the floor and looked thoughtful. “Then again, perhaps . . .”
“Ready?” Gyna murmured, taking a deep breath.
“Are you?” the cat replied, with its now-familiar almost-smile.
After a search that seemed like nothing compared with the first laborious hunt, they had looked up an invisibility spell that an ordinary person could use. It would only conceal them for five minutes, but it seemed the most practical for them—there were a few others they might have tried that worked for longer, but those involved assembling various things that the cat wasn’t sure they would even be able to find. They mouthed the spell over and over till they had memorized it. Suddenly there was nothing left to do but go back to the pool and see if the magic worked.
Gyna carried the pens and the scroll—she didn’t want to try to memorize more than one spell—and the cat led the way. Back through the meandering passages and stairwells they went, but this time she couldn’t bring herself to look around and admire them. If only the whole thing were over already.
They returned to the wide, cavernous room, where Ketorag’s fire had dwindled to smoldering embers and her steaming pot stood waiting to cool and gather dust. Here, just hours earlier, Gyna had been sure she was about to die. Now she might be about to die anyway. Again she felt a dreadful pang at the thought of never coming back to her family. And yet, she suddenly reflected, it would be better to die fighting, with someone, and having experienced the marvels that the Lluwenin left, than to die alone and wretchedly like an animal caught in a trap. Yes, things had turned out better than they might have.
Just inside the dark doorway, they stopped, and together recited the invisibility spell. Instantly the cat’s bright form was washed away into nothing. Gyna started. It hadn’t occurred to her that the spell would make them invisible to each other.
“Down the stairs. I’ll be behind you,” said the cat’s voice.
Trembling, but not daring to be too slow, she approached the faint, sick glow leaking from far below, and again began the long descent. At least she wasn’t invisible to herself. She glanced down briefly, just long enough to see that the monster again lay still. About halfway down, she checked again, just to make sure the beast was asleep. Steadily, step by step, and trying to stifle her disgust at the odor, she went on until she was only a turn or so away from the end of the stairs.
“Can we start the magic now?” she whispered, trying not to look down.
“Certainly,” replied the cat’s voice. “Put the pens down two steps behind you. The heat I’ll be putting on them would burn your hands. You just say the words. You’ll likely have to repeat them many times before the change is complete.”
“Right.” Gyna put the pens down as instructed, unrolled the scroll, and began reciting the words of transformation. She repeated them once, twice, three times, four times. At first nothing seemed to be happening, and she began to get anxious. She was just ending the seventh time before she saw them begin to grow larger, and beginning the tenth time when she noticed something like a steely gleam. She couldn’t see anything to indicate the cat’s heat on them, other than their faint twitching in the beginning as if in a draft, but she knew better than to put out her hand to see.
Gyna had long since lost track of how many times she had repeated the spell when she started to worry again. They had surely been doing this for several minutes now. The pens had clearly assumed the shape of swords by now, and were big, to be sure; but they weren’t nearly big enough to reach down and stab the Oglashen. There was no sign of the “large as great trees” proportion that the scroll had mentioned.
“What’s taking so long?” she muttered between recitations.
“They haven’t been used in hundreds of years,” whispered the cat’s voice, quiet and grim. “They need time to awaken and remember their strength. Also, I think using two spells at once is weakening both.”
Now Gyna’s anxiety began again to approach a frantic degree. She began to repeat the words faster and wish with all her might that the swords strengthen and grow. She didn’t know if that would help, but maybe it would. Desperately she tried to focus only on that and not on the other thoughts pressing for her attention. We don’t have all night. We only have a few minutes. This has to work right now. It’s now or never.
Then horror choked her. The cat’s blaze reappeared. The spell had worn off. And the Oglashen’s deathly white eyes opened again.
For a terrible moment nothing happened. Then the monster’s immense, hideous bulk flung itself about, its mass of tentacles untwisting, some of the arms rising out of the water.
The cat gave a sharp hiss and leaped away. At first Gyna almost thought that it was going to run back upstairs and leave her. But no—it was bounding back and forth on the stairs not too far above. Then it stopped and spat out a white-hot ball, which rushed down and struck at the Oglashen’s great head like a dart. That didn’t seem to hurt the foe, but did enrage it. The monster let out a deep, growling roar, revealing a wide, black-fanged mouth.
The cat was risking its life to protect her! She should do something—but what? Could she keep working the magic on her own? They were about the size of long spears now, much bigger than ordinary swords, but still not nearly enough. Hesitantly she reached for one of the swords, then quickly jerked back her hand; that metal had to be burning hot by now. She bent over them and began repeating the words again, breathing warm air on them between each recital.
This is madness. I’ll never complete the transformation like this.
Besides, it was all she could do to focus her attention on them. The Oglashen’s huge tentacles were slamming against the wall just a stone’s throw from her. If the frightfulness of that wasn’t enough, she couldn’t help looking to see if the cat was still all right. It was flying along the stone like a living, fiery lightning bolt, madly scrambling to keep clear of its foe’s many limbs, yet never running up and away where it might have been safe. She noted with disgusted fascination that the tentacles stretched and elongated to reach farther, as if there really were nothing solid and hard inside them.
A moment later, the cat stopped leaping. It seemed to be stranded. The Oglashen, straining many limbs up around it, had managed to corner it on one of the lower tiers. The fiery creature glanced all around for a remaining window of escape, and, evidently finding none, glared fiercely at its enemy. The monster’s maw began to open again. Staring in horror, Gyna remembered the purplish-brown liquid that it had spat after her the first time she came down. No. Don’t kill the cat!
“Oglashen!” she shouted. “Stop! Over here!” The echoes of her shout throbbed and filled the chamber, magnifying her voice and confusing its source. The monster jerked back, startled, its blank eyes twitching back and forth. Then both eyes fixed on her, and one great tentacle began to swing toward her, as if the beast figured it would just eat this little creature before destroying the larger invader.
Fighting the sickness of panic, Gyna had only one moment to think. As the loathsome arm bore down on her, she snatched up one of the swords and slashed at it. The result was satisfying. A great gash burst open where the blade had struck, releasing a spewing rush of dark blood—or whatever ran inside such a thing—that flew out almost as if it had been pressing for release.
The Oglashen roared more furiously than before and waved all its tentacles about, whereupon the cat leaped again, carefully aimed and released another fireball. This one struck the monster directly on its eye. The white ball burst like a bubble, releasing another, more violent explosion across the beast’s head.
At the roar that followed this, all the air seemed to tremble in torment and a few pieces of stone fell from the stairs. But now, despite the Oglashen’s bellowing and flailing, something else tugged at Gyna’s attention. She was still holding the sword—and it had not burned her.
She looked at it. The blackish blood was still dripping from it. Yet somehow it almost looked brighter than before, or perhaps sharper or stronger. It seemed to be more the fearsome sword it was meant to be.
They need to remember their strength, the cat had said. “Yes,” she whispered. “This is what you were made for. Killing evil things. Protecting the world.”
Even as she spoke, however, she thought that the outlines of the blades quivered, that they blurred for an instant, looked a bit smaller. Had it been too long? Were they about to change back? It almost looked as if both, especially the bloodstained one, were straining for something that had just been reawakened, but might not be able to maintain this shape much longer.
“No,” she urged them, though she didn’t suppose there was much point in talking to swords, even magical ones. “Don’t abandon us. Save us from this monster. Save the cat. Save me.”
If the blades reverted now, she would have no way to make them change again. Then it would all have been in vain, and she would have found them for no reason. That just felt wrong. She remembered the timely breeze that had made her raise her eye to their hiding place, the mysterious impulse that had moved her to look into it. If she really had been meant to find them, surely it was not for nothing.
“Please,” she whispered, no longer addressing the swords, “I need help again. If I was meant to find them, show me what to do with them now.”
Nothing seemed to happen—except that her mind grew quiet and clear. The frantic whirlwind faded away. She could see everything—the swords, the cat, the Oglashen—with steady, perfect clarity.
New thoughts began to move and join together. She looked at the blades, and then up at the cat. For a moment, its eyes met with hers. The moment was fleeting, but enough to let her know that, somehow, they now had the same idea.
They only had a moment to carry it out. Gyna stood the swords up beside her and scrambled aside. The cat quickly took a breath and belched a fireball, both larger and stronger than the others. As it flew and crashed against the swords, Gyna hurriedly shouted the words of transformation, willing with all her might for the change to come.
In the next few moments, everything happened at once. The flame vanished in a great puff of smoke, and the swords began growing wildly, their blades streaking forward like newly-freed rivers. They had indeed grown long as great trees, and wide as axe blades, almost before Gyna even knew what was happening.
Half-blinded and furious, the Oglashen whipped its arms and swiveled its head, as if trying to determine which target to attack. That moment of hesitation was the last thing needed. Gyna snatched up a sword in either hand, finding them no heavier than before, and plunged each one straight into the monster’s great blob of head. She drove them in again, and again, and again.
Then she had to stop. Howling in agony, the creature was thrashing wildly, its tentacles flying in all directions. It was slapping the walls all around, but no longer reaching up high enough to get at Gyna or the cat. The gashes in the creature’s head were emitting something like huge black geysers. The holes burst wider, cracks opened between them . . . and then, all at once, the whole gigantic body burst apart.
Gyna flung herself down against the stairs to keep clear of the flying black scum of innards. She felt a tremendous rush of malodorous air and heard countless squelching noises against the stone everywhere. Only when everything seemed quiet and still did she venture to sit up and look around.
Now, again, at first she could only stare. It was difficult to see much now, with the Oglashen’s light extinguished; but then, that made it easier not to look at the floating pieces of the monster, or at its abundantly splattered blood. Quickly she noticed something else, something more interesting and surprising. At either end of the pool, the two mounds of muddy filth had been largely blown away. Water, fresh, flowing water, was now rushing in through one, and the grime draining away out the other.
“It’s a river!” she exclaimed.
“Yes,” answered the cat, which was now slowly descending the stairs. Its warm light, Gyna realized, was all that now illuminated this space. It looked paler now, tired, and walked as if in pain—perhaps some small splashings had hurt it. But it was grinning with satisfaction. “Yes, it looks as if the Rivergrave Pass will be the Madagarn River again. Now that the Oglashen is no more.”
“Oh!” Gyna looked back at the water with fresh wonder. “This . . . this is the old river? I . . . wow! No one ever knew what stopped its flowing.” Then she paused and thought again. A deep satisfaction, refreshing as the river-water, flowed in and filled her heart. “It’s gone. It . . . we’re done.” She gave a short laugh of amazement and relief. The cat purred with unmistakable joy.
For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Whether they were resting, or basking in the happiness of liberation, or both, Gyna wasn’t sure. Finally being free to rest, if not yet go to sleep, was wonderful in itself. Momentarily she was alarmed for the Pens of Berimas, but then saw that she was still holding them. They had resumed the form of pens, as if sensing that their work was done. The scroll lay exactly where she had left it.
At length the cat remarked, “I hope this won’t be washing away your sister and the others who were taking the pass.”
“Oh. No, they made camp on a higher spot, to the side of the pass.” Thinking of that, she exclaimed, “And I can get back to them on the river now! I . . . right? I mean, I don’t remember the way I came, but I know I ran uphill, so the water going downhill has to take me back to them.”
“A sound plan,” the cat agreed. “But unless you plan to swim it, you’ll need a boat now. I can show you where to find that.”
“Oh . . . good idea. Thank you,” Gyna stammered. “And . . . thank you for, er, keeping the Oglashen from me all that time. You must have gotten splashed.”
The creature’s only reply was a low, contented purring. That seemed to be its most likely response to everything. Perhaps its own people just purred to each other all day long.
As they returned to the big room, Gyna gladly took deep breaths. The air here was damp, and a bit smoky from the witch’s dying fire, but seemed delightfully sweet after the reek below. Then she heard a distant rush of many flapping wings from some passage above. “What’s that?” she wondered nervously.
“Oh, that’s only the bats returning,” replied the cat. “I won’t be eating any more of those,” it mused with satisfaction.
The bats returning . . . night creatures; they had been out all night; if they were coming back now . . . “Goodness, is it morning already?” Peering out a window, she saw, to her right, a paleness creeping upward from the horizon.
By the time they walked back across the big room, the rising glow had become clearer and stronger. The sun itself had not yet risen, but its warm light was spilling out from the east and turning streaks of cloud into stains of pink and gold. Approaching the dark stairwell for the last time, Gyna carried all the gear she would need to depart. She had slung over her back a little round coracle with a paddle fastened inside, and on her arm she carried a coil of rope with a large metal hook on one end, once used for descending cliffs in the mountains. She had also returned the pens and the scroll to their proper place and locked the box again. The magical books, she had noticed, had apparently ascended back into their bubble.
The third time descending the stairs was so different. There was no dread, no sick, dead light, and though the lingering odor remained, its source was gone. Gyna also noticed two windows, opposite each other and about halfway down the stairs. She must have missed them before in her absorption with the creature below. They were more obvious now, too, with the dawn glowing through them. She was now more exhausted than ever, too, but now that it was free of anxiety and dread, even her weariness was almost a strange pleasure.
They walked silently until they came at last to the bottom of the stairs. The cat was in front this time, so that he could jump across into the hole. At the bottom, however, he paused and said, “I don’t believe I ever learned your name.”
“Gyna,” she replied. “What’s yours?”
The cat made a little smile. “I doubt you would be able to pronounce it. Your language is so bound up with your hard, wet, little tongues. But perhaps we’ll meet again under better circumstances, where we need not struggle with languages’ limited powers to know and tell truth. Then, perhaps, I can tell you.”
Gyna simply smiled and nodded. She wasn’t sure she understood that now, but perhaps later she would.
“Farewell, Gyna,” the cat said solemnly. She waved and whispered “goodbye” as it crouched and tensed, for just a moment. Then it sprang. In a heartbeat, it became a fiery bolt that streaked across the air, then rushed through the hole and was gone.
He’ll soon be home. Alone but serenely happy, she put down all her things and set to work. She fixed the hook firmly in a crack in the stone, tied the other end of the rope to the coracle, and slowly lowered the little craft into the water. When it touched down, it floated rapidly after the current, but only a short way; the rope and hook held fast.
Then, carefully, and not without some fear of the long drop, Gyna lowered herself over the edge and began sliding down the rope. She was grateful to the Lluwenin craftsmen that this cord was smooth as well as sturdy. It straightened as she passed along it, drawing the boat nearer to her.
At last, her feet touched the wood. Gingerly she eased herself down onto it, loosed the paddle from its fixture, and untied the rope. Promptly the coracle began sailing downstream, and Gyna plied the paddle to steer into the middle of the river.
Through a smelly archway still crusted with the Oglashen’s muck, she sailed out a short, rough stone passage and into the open air. The great, brown-gray slopes of mountains spread out around her, and the soft blue sky opened above. The early morning dimness that lingered in both was already suffused with growing light. The air was cool, crisp and sweet, and a merry breeze rushed around her. The newly-freed Madagarn River seemed to be following a gradual, winding downhill course.
As she paddled away, Gyna stole a last glance up at the castle. Quick though her glance was, her heart both leaped and broke at the beauty and sorrow of the vision. She had not seen it well in its entirety before. Gray and white, streaked with the green of climbing shrubbery, its walls and towers had crumbled in many places, become heaps of rocks like the one she had climbed last night. Still, it stood nobly among these peaks like a tremendous crown, its highest remaining towers gleaming in the first morning rays, the grace of its finely carved stone quietly defying the ages. But only later, thinking about what she had seen, did she understand that it was the little things—a window here, a bridge there—that drove themselves into her mind, giving her something like a fleeting vision of what the place must have been like when the Lluwenin lived there, making wonderful things, sharing their treasures with the world.
In that moment, Gyna made a silent pledge. Someday, she would return and do something for this castle, so that it would no longer be a haven for bats or vermin. She might not be able to bring the Lluwenin back, but she would at least make their house something fine again. Something they would have liked. A place of beauty and knowledge, a place that helped people.
First, though, to return to her family—to find her sister. Then Gyna laughed as she thought, How surprised Elna must be to see the water!