Vol. 1 Escape
By Kenneth Mulholland
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Copyright 2002 Kenneth Mulholland
Spent, Corin lay himself down amidst a patch of pale grass that seemed starved for the warmth of sun, and sickly in comparison to the green swards he had known beyond the Forbidding Forest.
A soft wind whispered through the coarse stalks, and for a time as he recovered, he was aware only of that sound and of freedom from the perils of the swamps below.
Slowly, whilst his chest heaved and his limbs ached, crying out for rest, he cast his gaze to where the high cliffs of the Tumberimber arose, marching both east and west out of sight. So weary he felt, that it seemed he was bound to the earth, and for a little he closed his eyes to the singing of the autumn breeze. Yet he dared not tarry.
‘I am exiled. Cast out. I have banished myself.’
Thus did he think, as he forced himself to rise and stretch, brushing the fetid mire from his stained garments as best he could.
It was late afternoon and the shadows of the mountains sloped away west whilst the dull glow of the sun, buried behind dismal banks of cloud, wandered toward the distant peaks. He was bereft of food and water, haggard and alone, and still his inner strength carried him forth.
‘I must reach the mountains before nightfall,’ he muttered. ‘Perhaps there will be a stream from the high places where I can bathe and slake this thirst, and maybe I shall find some food.’
The going proved far easier than he had expected, though ever up he wound his way through tough, old pines, the warmth of their piled needles crunching comfortingly under foot.
‘At least I can sleep, if need arises, in those stout branches,’ he said to himself, but the thought of the things below that had pursued him drove sleep, or even rest, from his mind. It seemed a wonder to him that after so long he felt able to continue, considering all he had endured. And yet he was wakeful and alert as he trudged on toward the base of the distant cliffs.
‘How long since I left Finikin? Several days, suppose. I do hope that he and his woodsfolk are all safe, and that none have caused them trouble.’
He paused to cut himself another walking staff with the sword he still carried at his side. Apart from that, the knife in its sheath, and the bow and quiver of shafts slung about his shoulders, he bore nothing else; but yet he was not dismayed.
‘The Voices will guide me. I have all faith in Them. Thus far have They brought me unharmed, and somehow They will lead me to Them, to safety, no matter how far, no matter through what danger. If I falter now, if I lose that belief, I am doomed.’
And for a fleeting moment, whilst the light faded and the trees grew aloof in their silence, he pondered the chance that he might indeed be possessed by a madness. Then, driving the insidious thought from his mind, he forced his legs on.
Toward the trailing end of day he stumbled across a path of sorts; it was overgrown and broken, like those that wound through the forest below, and yet it was of certain hewn in the long ago by unknown hands. It rambled to the left of his line of march and seemed to head in the general direction of the cliffs that now towered before him. He chose to follow that worn way beyond the tree limits to where it curved up hard against the walls of stone paling into shadows and black clefts, picked out by the wandering moon.
Soon his feet were carrying him up rough steps, the valley of Ravenmoor falling away at his back, his fingers seeking holds upon the cold stone.
The day vanished and night found him on the mountainside, aided only in his groping progress by the cloud strewn orb of white above.
Corin was near done when he ventured into an opening that seemed to thrust between the reaching rock on either side. There within he was met by what appeared to be a blank wall, and at its base, a fall of rubble. All light failed. The moon, hidden by deep cloud or passed beyond the Tumberimber's vast shoulders, did not reappear.
‘I cannot go further this night,’ he concluded, huddling in the blackness and laying the notched blade at his right hand. ‘I shall rest, and trust that naught befall me until I can see again.’
And thus, fitfully, he drowsed, whilst the great mountains and the long valley that was Ravenmoor quickened with the pulsing of a living being, and the creatures therein went their nightly ways; both for good, and for evil.
He was awakened by the first rays of the sun, stealing into his refuge. Somewhere beyond his sight in the west, dawn was come, and the streaks of light played across the hard stone at the entrance of the cleft.
Blinking, Corin ran his eyes to the walls that surrounded him. To left and right they reared up, forming a natural arch above his head, yet at a point, there was an opening to the sky where night fled, leaving behind the banks of grey cloud that told of bad weather not too far away.
He shook himself, and standing, was about to leave this resting place when he perceived that the wall at his back stood little higher than he could reach with outstretched arm. From the other side, there issued a sound: the trill of a single throat, and in a little, an answering call.
Gathering up the sword, he hoisted himself, scrabbling for a hold. His fingers caught, his toes dug into tiny ruts, and heaving, he hauled himself onto the flat of what he now saw was a great, fallen pillar.
A sight, unsuspected, greeted him on the other side. All green at first filled his gaze, so that he paused, drawing breath, taking in colour alone. There came a flurry of wings and a sudden movement which rushed into the depths, then silence.
Below him, wild weeds and tangled ivy twisted in confusion, swirling back beneath the shadowy forms of gnarled trees and sharp outlines of rocks that stood or slanted, jutting like markers: pointing grimly, daring any to trespass further.
Then Corin saw, or perhaps imagined, the flat paving of a pathway, peeping out beneath mossy banks. His curiosity aroused, he leapt down, landing amongst the undergrowth where it reared against the stone.
The silence and stillness of this inner, hidden world caused him to catch his breath and remain unmoving for some moments. He had the feeling that he had crossed the boundary into another time, into a sanctuary untouched, except by time. It was as if the creators, whoever they were, had departed long before and that he was the first to have stolen into their domain.
Slowly, softly, he made his way forward, mindful where his feet fell, lest he do anything to upset the hushed balance that surrounded him. Soon he saw that he was not mistaken, there was a path, neatly joined of flagstones, however covered by creeping plants, and this he followed under the overhang of leaf laden trees.
The dim light of day explored those deeps as he ventured further, taking each step with much care, lifting vines and drooping branches aside and peering beyond, until he again halted. Before him, wreathed about with ivy, there stood a row of grey pillars that might easily have been taken for tall trees, so choked were they by greenery.
But no, in truth they were wrought out of stone, and they were curious: strange markings, half hidden, scrolled their surfaces, winding toward cracked and crumbling capitals. And then beyond them again, Corin saw five steps leading up to a raised walkway. Mounting these, his gaze fell upon a long, rectangular pool and there, fed by a tiny stream at the far end, lay a dark stretch of bottomless water.
Slime swirled amongst the struggling reeds and lily pads where a blue-flashed frog blinked at this intrusion and vanished in a circle of ripples, to emerge moments later at the base of a lichen blighted form. A statue sculptured in the likeness of a leaping fish, frozen on the crest of a mute wave.
There in that private, lost place Corin spent all day, exploring and discovering things unlooked upon over many seasons of falling litter. And naught disturbed his peace, or that tranquillity, save the flutter of moths and a faint winging of shy birds. Berries he found, and fruits still good enough to eat, and of these he made a refreshing meal, storing what he could to take with him at his departure. Though in fact, he was loath to leave.
‘Whatever lies outside this haven has not touched it,’ he thought, moved and awed. ‘There is something herein that protects and guards these gardens: it is as if the hands of those who made all this yet lingered, even though time brings a slow corruption.’
For the night, he deemed it wise to stay, making his bed at the foot of a broad-girthed tree, amongst a deep carpet of leaves. As he snuggled down to sleep, he found comfort between the flowing roots, since they were the like of that poor, disfigured growth from the Forbidding Forest. Yet he felt no sorrow, as he had done upon first catching sight of the one in Forinth. This tree was not attacked by disease, nor was it stunted and dying. It was, as he had imagined the other might once have been, a tall and beautiful thing filled with life: and in its mighty trunk, its great boughs and leafy mantle, there seemed a whispering and the whispering hinted at times of long ago when the world was young... And it sang him to slumber....
The following morn saw him on his way, rested and recovered from the ordeals of the terrible forest swamps. Within the garden, he had discovered no path that led further than the blank walls of mountain stone, and at last had given up hope that some way might be discovered there.
Still, it was with reluctance that he departed, and when he climbed the blocking stone, he turned for a final glimpse. All, inside that wondrous place of solitude and peace, was bathed in an uncanny glow, as if spring was captured there, defying the onset of coming seasons. A sudden pang tore at his heart, but he knew that to stay was folly, even if but for a short while longer. The sun had gone and storm cloud loomed.
All that day he toiled on the mountain, following the narrow path that wound, sometimes downward, sometimes up, as it took him westward and the vast forest below slipped from sight, hidden by mists.
He encountered running water, splashing from the peaks above and several times came close to being washed from his hold. And still he went, whilst the darkness descended and the first drops of rain pelted at his back.
Thunder rolled, and lightning streaked out of the east in jagged forks, as the wind pressed him hard against the starkness of the Tumberimber. Then, by the flash of storm-light, he glimpsed a break where the ledge before him had broken and the gulf to the further side. Too greater risk was there for him to attempt that leap whilst the fury of rain and wind ripped at his face, and the soaked garments clung to his shivering body:
‘No!’ he shouted to the elements, as if somehow he could reject that course. And yet he knew he could not. Eventually, soon or late, that trial would of need have to be overcome.
‘I cannot go on,’ he told himself, ‘and I cannot go back. Not now, not in this fearful storm. All left to me is survival.’ And thus to life, the slender chance of it, did he cling through that raging day, turned almost to night by blackened cloud and torrents of rain.
‘Alone am I,’ he thought, ‘clutching fingers clawing stone on these cold bones of ageing rock. And I must close out fear, close out frozen limbs, and visions of death. Somehow, within me, I must seek a warmth that will prevail, that will keep my being safe until the worst is over.’
Then it was, whilst Corin shrank against the cliffs, high on that lonely ledge at the far reaches of Ravenmoor, that The Voices came to him, and They flowed into his numbing body and mind like water to parched soil, imparting life and hope.
‘Come, oh Sleeper.
Wake from thy bondage. Come into the north....’
‘My Corin... Is it you? Oh come to me....’
‘We await you, Sleeper....’
‘Lest the world, repaired of dying, sends a great one, spell untying....’
The words of The Voices comforted him, though as always he did not understand the meanings, beyond Their singular desire that he should come to Them, and even inasmuch he found succour.
The storm waned. Wind dropped and rain eased to drizzle.
Ragged cloud drifted apart, and from the east a shaft of sunlight broke through the tatters, bathing the dripping cliffs and his huddled figure, crouching motionless against those massive walls. The warmth seeped into his skin, but still he did not move. He waited on, breathing deeply, summoning his courage until feeling surged into his hands and legs. Finally he arose, feet scraping on the pace-wide ledge, and turned to face the gap before him. Though he had not a way to measure, his eyes told him that a mighty leap was needed to reach the far side.
‘It can be done,’ he whispered, withdrawing several paces before starting lightly forward. His toes clipped the lip of stone as he launched himself through the air, to land, tripping forward with the momentum. Yet even as he did, the solidness beneath began to give way!
He felt himself sliding, sucked down into the void as his legs thrust him onward, as if he were running over nothing. A rumble of collapsing rock filled his ears at each bound whilst more of the path crumbled.
Then, to heart's relief, his boots touched firm ground where he flew, hands cut and bleeding against the wall beside him.
Shaken, he halted, listening to the echo of stone where it plummeted down, crashing to the valley below, and on that instant, realised there was no return. The path behind was gone.
Guided by the golden rays of the dying sun pouring across his shoulders, Corin kept doggedly to the west, where the steps widened for a time, dropping lower, smoothing out, then again descending. At his left hand, somewhere beneath, he knew must lie the Forbidding Forest, and in the fading twilight he halted, searching ahead where the cliffs dwindled toward night.
And there, much to his astonishment, he saw something silhouetted against the darkened skyline. It appeared to be a figure, motionless, gazing out to the drifting mists below.
After so long in the wilderness without sight of his pursuers, or of any other for that matter, he could hardly believe his staring eyes. Was it a trick of the fading light, or an outcrop of stone?
Corin started forward, but was halted again by the emergence of a second figure. Together they stood, picked out against the broken clouds whilst the first lifted an arm toward the south. Then both turned away, merging with the mountainside, and were gone.
By the time Corin reached the spot where he guessed the pair had stood, there was no sign whatever of the phantoms. Puzzled, he munched at the few edibles left to him from his stay in the hidden garden as he listened to the drip, drop, dripping of moisture sliding from the heights.
‘What to do?’ he wondered. ‘Should I stay here till day dawns, or grope my way blindly on?’
As if in answer, the moon swept into view, dimmed by the rags of fleeing cloud, and the face of the Tumberimber shone with a cold, bleak paleness.
Below, the mists drifted and parted, and a sight was revealed that caused him to swallow and gasp aloud. Lights!
Lights that twinkled and swayed toward the feet of the mountains, flowing like fiery liquid out of the forest depths.
Torn by the fear of pursuit and drawn by curiosity, he waited, uncertain, seemingly fixed to the spot.
‘Well, I cannot go back, that is for sure,’ he muttered, remembering the break on the cliffs behind. ‘This way is all left to me. Perhaps it will lead further up into the high places before I meet whoever is below.’
Paying no heed to the fact that he had almost nothing of food left, Corin sped off along the stoneway as fast as his feet and the moon's icy light would allow. To survive that night and remain free to answer the call of The Voices was the uppermost thought in his mind. And to achieve that, there was but one direction: on and down across the rippling face of reared cliffs where they bent inward to shadow and out again, until the rough steps ran into a blackness overhung by the bulk of the mountains above.
Feeling the going with patient feet, he crossed the void and rounded a bend that brought him again into view of the moon. And there he drew up at the edge of a broader road, made as a stair, which fell away sharply to the spectacle that greeted him. The fire of many torches, much nearer now, and in their swaying, leaping glow the wild figures of creatures, some quite small, others seeming the size of men, riding, and thronging amongst beasts that could only be wolves!
This was no party of men in pursuit of him. Below were the creatures of legend and furtive tales: the hidden beings of The Forbidding Forest.
For many moments Corin stared at these apparitions of dread, whilst his ears caught the distant sounds of their coming: squeals and cacklings, growls and howlings, as they darted amongst the trees of the lower slopes. And though they were not yet near enough to make out detail, he felt an instant abhorrence that fascinated, indeed, held him a prisoner where he stood, trembling and spellbound.
Only a massed cloud of bats, whirring and twittering, so dense that they masked the fired torches, broke that spell.
‘They are headed this way,’ he thought, casting about for some means to avoid discovery. ‘I cannot get past these foul creatures, and if they take the path that I have just followed hither and I am on it, I am doomed. They do not know the ledge is broken up there, only I know that. I must hide myself, and wait until they are gone by.’
So deciding, Corin edged into the complete darkness of the hollow at his back, feeling hand over hand along the jagged stone to where the wall veered abruptly around a sharp corner.
Tentatively, he stepped further into the void, tracing the rock with his fingers in this new direction, only to be halted as the raucous clamour of those behind rang out, close to where he had not long stood. Turning in horror, he saw the wavering glow of their torches and the weird shadows cast by them, playing at the opening of his refuge.
But even as that frightful firelight danced ever closer he took to his heels, heedless of what lay before him. And so blundered into unseen obstacles: blocks of stone, or boulders fallen from some vaulted roof above maybe; he cared not in his headlong desire to elude the tumult of the mob that now spilled into the hollow, screeching in hideous, gleeful cacophony.
Then, aghast, he realised that the howling crowd were not making for the higher ways, but instead were pouring toward him like a spewing tide of evil!
As the glow of their flaming brands reached out to play about his feet, he glimpsed the low opening of a tunnel beyond, and into this he darted, scarce pausing to consider what might lie in wait.
Within, in such total night that hand could not be seen held to the eyes, he shuddered, groping blindly forward, afraid at every step of some trap or pitfall, or worse still, of like creatures to those nigh upon the entrance.
Yet it was their very coming which saved him. Yellow streaks of torchlight flooded away the awesome, cloying blackness, so that a cleft in the rock was revealed, almost within arm's reach. It was so narrow that he could barely squeeze inside, and there, trying desperately to stifle his sobs for breath, he froze, listening to the sounds that now filled the passage, echoing and reverberating from walls to shadowy ceiling.
For one brief moment it occurred to Corin that the loathsome band might already be aware of him, yet as he so thought, the swarthy torrent flitted by, leaping and twisting in some kind of vile revelry. The sound of grinding stone reached his ears, coming from the direction of the opening, and as surely as if sight could have confirmed it, he knew that they had sealed the way.
He was locked beneath the mountains, in company with the horde of whooping fiends flashing by, so near that he smelt the foulness of their bodies as they passed and the stench near caused him to puke. Flinching, he cringed as deeply into the niche as he was able, listening to the wild screamings and watching the fantastic images, caught fleetingly by dancing torches, flickering across the gap that was all left to his vision. Thus placed, it was difficult to see more than merging shadows twined amongst the posturing, grotesquely leaping, twisting bodies, and of their number, it was impossible to guess. The raging torrent of living horrors swept down the tunnel: the stick-silhouettes of cruel barbs and crooked spears piercing the smoky light of their uplifted brands.
As the din of this retreating, roistering crew of motley apparitions vanished into the deeps, Corin caught a single vision, a glimpse of another so unlike to they as greening grass to dung. Bowed head, white hair and pale skin reddened by fire, blue garments likewise: arms and neck circled by windings of coarse bonds chafing into flesh. Around and about the two steps that took this captive figure beyond his sight, the captors prodded, gloating.
Then all were passed.
The whipping glow of their fires and the unruly racket of triumph faded, until the gap at Corin's view dwindled toward dead night within the tomb of slow groaning mountain stone.
At this, he wriggled free of his concealment, unsheathing the sword, where before there had not been play to use it if discovered, and allowed himself a deep breath, although of noxious, stoppered air.
By his back, lay the only exit to night's chill escape, but that of certain was blocked. And Corin sensed, that he could not fumble about in such ever-dark, hunting for what he might never find, and even if found, might not have strength to move aside.
So, as the last vestige of yellow faded far along the passage where the loathsome creatures with their strange prisoner travelled, he deemed to follow, having no guide other than his own guesses.
He followed for how long?
So long that he almost wandered adrift from his mind.
He pursued the looping, carousing band as they filed through halls and passages that leaned low and broadened into wider ways where vaults above were lost to the dancing of their fiery kindling.
He followed, for he had no other aim. The Voices were silent, though Their pull, unspoken, unheard, dragged him pace and pace, as if by some fettering chain.
Far ahead, the distant, ever moving glow of fires lit faintly his path and it came to him that if he should lose that light, the light cast by the unspeakable horrors before him, he would also lose all direction.
It was a dilemma so, to falter and be left without sight or pursue the very creatures that revolted him to some unknown destination deeper within the twisting tunnels of the mountains.
Only that swift vision of their prisoner, for that was what the poor creature surely was, goaded Corin the harder and as he hurried behind the faintness of red and yellow light he determined to try for the release of this captive.
Holes and pits opened out before him, some he skirted, some jumped. Meanwhile the wild band hurried on quieter now, thumping along at a jog trot, toward a safe-scuttle Corin hesitated to imagine.
‘Who are they?’ He wondered as he kept pace, just beyond the dancing circles of their flames.
‘Who is this poor being that causes their frantic jubilation? And where are the two I glimpsed outside on the cliffs?’
Yet then there was no more time for his wonderings. Ahead, the way opened into a wide, natural chamber where stalactites hung like icicles and stalagmites reared to meet them, wet with the ever drippings of moisture from far above.
And beyond the party of black, crowding creatures he glimpsed the flickering of other torches, set in iron rings along the walls. Further still, etched against the far wall where it rose to a roof lined with mighty, hewn beams of timbers, stood a pair of tall doors, bound, studded and hinged with iron.
Two white pillars on either side soared to the ceiling, and at their base burned fires secured in braziers, throwing light across the steps that led to the doors.
To these, the fearsome band urged their captive, hunched and bowed between the foremost. Meanwhile a handful of others began a clattering upon the flagstones and at the steps, bounding up and down them with astonishing speed and agility, though seemingly unsure to go as far as to knock for entry.
It was during these moments of confusion, whilst the rabble bickered and gabbled, that Corin had a chance to see them clearly for the first time: most were quite small; measuring, as he gauged from that distance somewhere between a man's knee and waist.
Some, in truth were taller, though not as he had at first guessed nigh his own height and all were near enough to naked.
Their legs and arms were extremely thin, as were their necks, although they supported larger than might be expected heads, wherein flashed slits of eyes, and fangs, yellow-cruel. And they were tailed!
Curving tails that coiled about their legs, or twisted in wild lashings in the air, or trailed at their knotted, clawed feet.
And in their cruel, barbed paws, they clutched crude weapons: hackers and curved blades and poles fixed with scythes.
He was so intent, staring with amazement and revulsion at the creatures and the fantastic sight of the vast chamber before him, that he failed to mark the source of some sound or movement that caused them to halt their disorganised antics. They began to cast about, heads bobbing this way and that, as if smelling the air.
At first he thought that they had somehow sensed his presence, and his heart began to pound as he made ready to meet them, for little would avail him to flee back whence he had come out of utter dark.
Yet even as Corin tensed, the majority of the creatures, together with all the wolves, sprang away down the western side and scurried off out of sight, the rattle of their weapons and the scraping of their rough feet swiftly diminishing.
Now only a handful remained with the captive and of these, several made bold enough to mount the steps and bang against the broad wooden panels of the doors in sudden haste to enter therein.
The moment had come, he knew, and so daring, darted through the bending shadows and fell upon those before him.
Screaming in something akin to fear and rage, the creatures cast their spears, though too late for Corin was already amongst them, sweeping left and right with his blade to clear a path.
Bowling the foremost, he managed to reach their prisoner even as those upon the steps leapt to the attack.
Suddenly the prisoner seemed to awaken from his resigned state and broke free, hobbling in the direction taken by the larger band of captors.
Corin, in the throes of thrusting the vile things from his legs, could only hasten after, a shout of warning frozen on his lips.
Where safety now might lie, he had no thought: his only impulse had been the freeing of the figure that staggered, arms still bound, down the avenue toward the engulfing darkness.
And whilst Corin tore the milling, grasping foe from his body, where they sought to sink their foul fangs and daggers, he glimpsed the widening of the doors and the hollow, heart-stopping sounds of things there on the brink, about to emerge.
Breaking away, he pursued the vanishing figure, whilst at his back a mighty roar reverberated through the cavernous depths.
It was as the same that he had heard before in the forest, blood chilling, loud and filled with menace.
Before him, the prisoner had stumbled and fallen, and as Corin reached, stooping to lift that lightweight form, he turned in time to see the scene behind. The little, black creatures had cowered where they might, shying from the giant bulk that now appeared, bounding down the steps in a flurry of motion that was total, savage fury, seeming to fill all the space between.
This thing took the shape of a monstrous dog, or wolf maybe, and its jaws slavered as it strode, heedless of anything in its way, toward them.
So tall was it, that firelight faltered; obliterated by its passing, as the monster advanced. And behind it again, were other visions: barrel-shaped, iron shod, bristling with spears and swords, eyes glittering with curved, yellow venom.
The huge nub of the monster's maw tilted, thrusting Corin aside as the creature's eyes turned toward its victim.
And like to something visioned in a dream, Corin saw those teeth enclose, heard a far off, guttural command, and beheld the slackening of near-crushing jaws.
Sickeningly, the bound figure dropped to the stone. Corin heaved himself to his feet, a strange feeling of outrage and blinding recklessness overwhelming him.
Dimly, as he thrust his pitiful blade toward the snout of the monster standing thrice his height, he was aware of his companion struggling toward the darker shapes of holes amongst the grim crags nearby.
Then, the blood red eyes descended and the mouth opened, and Corin was grasped and lifted, his free hand sliding over slimed teeth, as the massive head shook him, almost to bone breaking, and threw him down.
Stunned, he rolled, thrashing in his pain whilst the shaggy being hovered over him.
In a mist, Corin saw the lifted paw; wide splay of claws, clogged with putrid muck, about to crush his head, and swerved aside.
Still, he could not withdraw whilst the thing loomed above. Its drool spilling over his body.
Only then was he aware of the massive horns and scaly legs, and the full impact of those searing red eyes, balefully staring down at him.
Beyond that vision he saw, as if at the margin of sight, the horrors that poured from the opened doors, assembling in a shadowy crowd that edged ever closer on the heels of the monster.
Again, the paw descended, blotting out sight, but this time it fell full upon Corin's blade where it slipped betwixt the nails and into the exposed pad.
With a giant roar, the creature recoiled, biting mightily at its own foot and dazed, Corin scrambled away.
Yet to what respite?
The captive seemed to have vanished somewhere in the darkness and suddenly, awfully, he was alone in the cavern of these wild, bestial monsters.
Through pain-glazed eyes, he tottered toward the bleak holes that yawned, blacker than the swarming shadows, only to be sent sprawling again, rolling through muck and filth, striking head and limbs upon unseen rocks and debris.
Clawing, his hand wrenched at something. Something solid and rod-like, hard and cold and he had a vivid memory of the sucking sound as he drew the object forth from the mire.
Then, with the heat of the monster's breath searing his neck, and its great lips thudding and snapping and buffeting him, he felt a grasping of hands. Hands out of the darkness before him, catching him up, heaving him forward, pulling him into a void of total night, and then, into that night of nothing….
Dimly, he became aware of movement and a great throbbing in his head.
But even whilst his eyelids fluttered, light of any kind eluded him.
He seemed to be half carried, half stumbling in a dream world where sight had no domain, and where the feel of those invisible beings at his side was all left to guide his dragging feet.
At whiles he swooned, only to regain a kind of numbed consciousness that yet gave no hint to distance or direction.
Days might have passed, for all Corin knew, in that passage of time mixed with the agony of pain racking his being.
Whether bones had been cracked or broken, or the very sinews of his body torn asunder, he could not tell, although he surely felt as if such might be so.
Only was he aware of sounds: the dulled drag of his own feet, the constant dripping of water, sometimes far distant, at others, quite nearby.
And he could hear the faintest sighs of breath from those without face or form, however few or many, lifting, carrying, hastening him onwards.
Then, after long travel over ever-sloping ways that twisted and turned, bending sharply lower and lower, he was halted; hearing a noise that seemed to rush toward him in great waves, as if the sound alone might engulf him, to whirl him into further nothingness.
He felt smothered, and attempted to wrench himself free before being overwhelmed by the booming of this unseen, unknown horror.
A glow, tiny and unearthly, kindled blue and green out of the pit of night, and there by that wavering gleam Corin beheld for the first time, the faces of those about him.
Pale and bloodless, they appeared. All three close together.
One, white of hair, old and young at once, and sage and sad: eyes and mouth concerned and sombre.
The second, dark locks tumbled about ears that shocked to points, dark eyes flashing in the face of a maiden.
The third, golden haired, framing a noble head.
The light snuffed; no word was spoken. The faint outcry of pursuit echoed behind as he was drawn onward into the growing thunder of a rushing torrent somewhere close at hand.
As a blind man groping forward, each unsteady step a trial on nerves already stretched to breaking, Corin allowed himself to be led down to where the roar blotted out all other sounds.
Again, the light sprang. This time flaring brightly, so that the scene before his gaze caused him to wince in that sudden blaze. He stood at the brink of dark waters, hurtling by in a flurry of foam whereon bobbed and skittered a tiny craft caught by moorings that stayed it from release into the mainstream beyond.
Even as Corin was urged into the little boat, and his fingers slid along its shining, glassy edges, he turned like an animal caught at bay, and there spied the other two, kneeling apair, strange bows bent toward the hollows of black from whence they had come.
Shadows darted there, wolf shadows and the same small, vile creatures of the caverns: and as they appeared out of the depths, so were they pinned by the shafts of the archers.
Their screams were drowned where they leapt and fell, and swifter than Corin could count, twice a handful huddled unmoving, before those left withdrew.
Now the churning waters tugged madly at the vessel, and sinking exhausted and hurt, Corin slid toward a blessed oblivion, his last impressions were those of his companions crowding around him, and the spinning, wrenching, sucking force that swept everything out toward the vortex.
However long afterward, which Corin never knew, he aroused to feel his face doused in spray and the taste of salt upon his lips.
The taste of seawater, such as he had only known when, as a small child, he had sampled the like whilst playing at the edge of the sounding ocean in Berry Bay.
Then pain filled his mind and being, followed by sound so pervading that even pain dimmed whilst sight sought for answers. He was lying on the bottom of the tiny craft, his knees drawn up almost to his chin.
And by the light of a strangely flickering lamp, hung from a spar, he glimpsed the vague forms of his companions, crouching to either side and before him.
One, the captive whom Corin had released, clutched at a dark object that seemed to reek of the smell left behind, the stench of evil things.
And dimly, Corin realised it to be the same that he had grasped out of the putrid mire.
He near retched with disgust, though from its besmirched surface there seemed to glint, faint, golden sparks.
But soon his attention, shallow as it was, was drawn above, where flashed luminous colours: pale greens and blues and livid reds and white specs, fleeting by whilst the roar resounded and echoed down the tunnel of gushing, enthralling waters.
Hollow moans welled up out of unsounded depths and sinkholes, the air grew harder to breathe, snatched away by their headlong rush.
Ever closer, walls and roof loomed, causing the three around him to shrink lower, plying unseen paddles as they so sped.
Vague shapes flashed in and out of the dancing light, like yawning monsters waiting prey, and were gone by almost on the instant of sight.
Formations of rock or carven images perhaps; but through that dream-horrid journey Corin after, was haunted by visions of giant unnameable beings lunging forward to ensnare or engulf the rounded craft where it plunged down that underground river toward world's end.
And it came to Corin that if they were caught within that terrible place whilst the tide rushed ever higher, they should indeed be crushed against the lowering vault of rock.
Yet he, as the others gambling their lives, was helpless whilst stone and water and fate locked them in relentless grip.
Lower fell the roof, the water-worn, polished surface skimming by until light was gone. The lantern and the spar dashed and vanished in a crashing that was almost lost to the tumult raging about them.
In the dread of unbreathable air and darkness, Corin felt the press of the others, their bodies covering, surrounding his.
Then suddenly, they were spouted out into the dark of night, dotted on high with silvery stars!
Corin, torn by hurt and lost hope, gazed in disbelief, at the freedom of sky above, as the craft spun out upon an unknown sea.
Soon, the thundering of the tunnels faded, and the shadowy forms of those with him took up their paddles, beating together in a rhythm renewed.
Reborn he felt, even so injured and racked with pain.
Ravenmoor fell away behind. And a great test of things he had, of certainty, believed in, lay also at that sundering.
Vindication eased his mind's thoughts and body's woes, as the glimmering patterns of stars lit the faintest of path for those steering to follow.
By morning-light coming out of the west, Corin revived enough to struggle above the lip of their foundering boat. He peered to where the sun glinted across the ocean, and there his eyes filled with wonder.
A ship hove toward them, but no ordinary ship!
This strange craft crested the waves in the shape of a leaping dolphin, crystal in form, wind blown sails topped with pennons of swallow-tailed blues and scarlets, shining in the new day, rows of oars glittering, as they cleft the ocean in graceful symmetry!