My Enemy, My King: Part Three
Alaric stuck a piece of cheese onto his knife and started toasting it over the campfire, hoping that it would make the Qasalan trail bread go down without choking him. Actually, I think this stuff is worse than the Haunted Woods journey food – it tastes like the flour’s more than half sand. He took a bit of the jerky, too – could it really be that awful fashioned into a sandwich?
He took a bite of his creation and winced. Yes, it could still be awful.
Emeth asked, “What’s the matter, princess? Not to your taste?”
Alaric glared at the Techo. “I don’t see how this could be to anyone’s taste. I bet even the Scamanders would refuse it.”
Codsworth held out a piece of his own ration to one of the Scamanders that lived in the shallow cave they’d camped in – it sniffed it, nibbled, and then attempted to bite the Eyrie’s fingers. He laughed. “Al’s right! They hate it, too!”
Sarkish snapped, “Shut up, you big oaf, before every ghost in these accursed borderlands finds out we’re here!”
Alaric sighed. Sarkish had been going on all day about ghosts and spirits – in the Lupe’s own opinion, it wasn’t half as creepy as some places he’d had to bed down in the Woods. You lit your fire, set a watch, and got your sleep as normal. It was as simple as that. He volunteered, “I’ll take the first watch when this is all through.”
Codsworth quickly claimed third, and Emeth said, “As the leader, I need a full night of sleep. Sarkish, you’ve got second.”
Even quicker than Alaric could have managed, Sarkish’s sword was in his hand. “I’m bigger than you. I can take that map from you, and you’ll be begging for your life, let alone bragging about being leader!”
Emeth pulled a knife out of his sleeve – Alaric hadn’t realized that he had one there, too. That’s at least six he’s got. “Want to see how well I can throw this, scale-face? I can have you howling faster than you can get to me, that’s for sure.”
Sarkish hissed, “Let’s cut a deal. Take that watch yourself, and I’ll let you live.”
Emeth leaned closer, squinting through his monocle. “And you take it, or I’ll let you spend the night alone out there with all the ghosts!”
Alaric said quickly, “We all need to be in good shape tomorrow – I’ll take it as well.”
Codsworth said, “Let’s split the night even, then. You take first half, I’ll take second. No need to let all of this come to a fight. Now, I’d like to turn in so we can face Chen-Ra’s little maze on as much sleep as possible.”
As Alaric took his place at the mouth of the cave, he leaned his head against the wall. He’d taken half-watches before, and he knew that he’d be just fine in the morning. But he didn’t like that Codsworth seemed to be the only sane person in the party. If Sarkish and Emeth kill each other, I’m sure we can’t get to the orb just the two of us – we’d have to head for the hills and hope that the king would write us off as dead.
And this one wasn’t too bad, but I’m not willing to stick my neck out every time they have a fight – this is going to be dangerous, and whoever ends up as the little stunt Mynci is the one who’s most likely to land in a sarcophagus. I believe that much of what Jazan said, at least.
He scratched Alaric was here and the date into the sandstone... at least it would be some sort of record in case this all went south. But he tried to look at the bright side – Sarkish and Emeth both seemed interested in the preservation of their own hides, so when they got into the cave tomorrow they’d probably understand that they had to work together.
He looked out at the stars. As usual, the constellation that the Qasalans called the Rover faced north. When he’d first left home, he’d followed those stars until they’d taken him to Meridell. He’d gotten his sword there – a long, straight sword, not curved like desert blades – and then learned how to use it. He’d fought there until King Osric had died, but his son King Janus hadn’t been too excited about a Qasalan in his forces, and he had moved on.
He’d lived too long, travelled too far, and made too much of a life elsewhere to let himself die back in Qasala. He had to survive this – because he refused to lose his life in the service of a city he’d left as soon as he could.
The next day, Alaric adjusted his hat to block the ferocious noontime sun as Emeth looked at the map. “We’re almost there – I’ve seen the two-headed hill that the directions mention, and we’re close to it.”
Sarkish muttered something under his breath. Alaric looked up at Codsworth, who was flapping his wings lightly in order to create a bit of a breeze, and smiled a little at him. The Eyrie was fiddling with something on a long chain around his neck – Alaric wondered if it was whatever King Razul had given him. He hadn’t wanted to say anything about it – what was there to say? And he didn’t want any comments to set Emeth or Sarkish off again. It seems best to just not talk around those two.
But whatever Emeth’s faults, he knew the treacherous borderlands like the back of his hand, and before an hour was past the four men stood in front of a heavy metal door hidden around a bend inside a cave. Alaric leaned closer to read the inscription in the cold iron – far colder than even the dimness of the cave.
Sarkish sniffed. “Bunch of mumbo-jumbo.” Emeth nodded – for once the Techo and the Hissi were in complete agreement.
Everything in Alaric screamed for him to run the other way as fast as his legs could carry him. It was only the knowledge that to run was to face certain death by potentially insane sorcerer-king that kept him in place.
And then Emeth swung the door open – it wasn’t even locked – held his torch high, and led them into the darkness.
They hadn’t walked very far before they came across a wide chasm, spanned by five rail-less bridges of different widths. Codsworth shrugged. “You’d think he would have made it harder.” He stepped forward-
And was pulled back by Emeth. “Stop, you fool!” He surveyed the bridges. “I saw a setup like this on Mystery Island once. Only one was real. The rest were illusions. They’ll take things like pebbles thrown on them, but they’ll vanish if someone tries to cross – and there’s never anything nice at the bottom, I can tell you that.”
Alaric looked at the five spans. “There’s no way to tell which one’s real besides trying to walk on them?”
Sarkish hissed, “So, Emeth, why don’t you test one, then?”
The Lupe held up a hand. “Stop, will you? Fighting won’t make this any easier.” They had to find which one was real, and that meant having someone walk on them. But how did you stop that someone from falling into the abyss afterwards?
He said slowly, “What if we tie a rope around his waist? If two of us balance the one on the bridge, we should be able to keep him from falling – pull him back up. And that way we’ll be able to cross.”
Emeth looked at Codsworth. “You’re big, strong, and winged. Why don’t you carry me over?”
Alaric was starting to get angry. “This is no time for every man to look to himself – we need to work together on this!” What a self-centered, arrogant, cold little...
Codsworth said, “There’s something in the air in here. I’m not going to be able to fly. I can tell that much. But you’re smallest, anyway – they probably need you to test the bridges. It’ll be easiest to keep you alive.”
Emeth’s eyes widened – he almost lost his monocle. “You’re kidding. I’m not going out there! I’m the leader!”
Alaric set his hands at his waist – he understood why Sarkish got so infuriated now. “Listen. We aren’t going to drop you. Codsworth and I will hold onto the rope, and haul you back up if the bridge isn’t real. The rest of us are all too big for it to work – we could all get killed.”
Sarkish drew his sword. “I’ll make it easy on you, Techo. You can volunteer, or we can leave you here. Scrawny little guy like you isn’t a whole lot of use in a maze like this.”
Alaric looked back and forth – he wondered if the constant arguing was starting to cloud his perspective, because Sarkish actually sounded like he made sense. He shook his head quickly. Threats aren’t good. You know that, Alaric. You can’t let them get to you. “Please, Emeth. I’ll give you my honor that I won’t let you fall.”
Emeth squinted. “Half of your pay from this job – then I’ll do it.”
Alaric stuck out a hand. “Deal, then.” Emeth was nastier than a Werhond, but Alaric didn’t care about money – and he remembered what Jazan had said. You’ll be lucky to leave here alive after you give him what he wants, let alone get rich.
Knowing my luck, his half of my pay’ll end up as fifty Neopoints and a kick in the snout.
Emeth insisted on double-checking every knot on the makeshift harness they created for him – and he also picked which bridge to try first. “The widest one looks like the easiest one – if any of them are fake, that one is. Let’s start with the narrow one.”
Sarkish refused to help – Alaric and Codsworth braced themselves against the dark stone floor as the Hissi held the torch high and Emeth started out onto the bridge.
And dropped. Codsworth called, the sailor in him showing, “Heave-ho, heave-away, come on, Al!”
Alaric joined him in the chant as they hauled the Techo up – he was surprisingly heavy. Probably all of those knives he’s got hidden. Emeth panted as he climbed over the edge, “That didn’t do me any favors – now let’s try that one at the other end before I change my mind!”
This time, as Alaric held his breath, Emeth set both feet on the bridge – and it held. He said, “Come on – I don’t trust this thing!”
But Alaric didn’t want to stay in this chamber any longer – he was starting to think that he saw movement in the shadows and heard odd sounds in the corners.
Sarkish muttered, “They say the walking shadows live in places like this – underground places with no hope. They drain the life from people, you know.”
Emeth sneered, “You’re quite the poet, aren’t you, Hissi? And quite the superstitious little Ona, as well! Come!”
The Hissi slithered forward – passing Emeth – as they started into a narrow corridor. While the previous chamber had looked natural, these walls had clearly been smoothed, and Alaric realized that they were treading on flagstones.
And that was when, with a strangled cry, the Hissi dropped out of sight.
Alaric dashed forward – a trapdoor had opened up in the floor, and Sarkish had dropped in. He was hanging onto the edge of a black pit. “Help me! Sweet Fyora, help me!”
Emeth’s face twisted into a nasty smile – Alaric shuddered. He doesn’t want to help – he’d rather let Sarkish fall! After we went to all those lengths to keep him safe!
He reached down and grabbed Sarkish’s arm, pulling as hard as he could. Codsworth joined him, and they managed to get the shaken Hissi onto solid ground. Alaric looked around the dark-stone tunnel – what other traps could be in here? What might sneak up on them out of the blackness?
They were in over their heads. That much was certain.
To be continued...