The Golden Elephante: Part Eight
The four of them gathered in a tunnel a bit further down from the one which Odion was (apparently) occupying. Tazaa was sitting on her haunches looking thoughtful as Rashidi told her what he had seen. She must have looked so out-of-it that Doshi decided to direct her rant at Souvier.
"So you saw him? Why didn't you attack him, then?" She was absolutely raring to go at the renegade magician with her bare claws.
Souvier sighed patiently. He had lived in a number of different homes while he was being traded around, and he had encountered this sort of thing many times.
"As you so kindly pointed out to me, I have no idea how to use this thing," he said, jabbing the butt of his ornamental spear into the ground. "Odion is a fully-fledged magician who held your father down with magic with impunity."
She conceded this point but continued to scowl, as if she, two dozen years younger than the Scorchio and probably less than half the size, could have beaten him in a magical battle and reclaimed the statue. Hadya laid a claw on her shoulder and then turned to Souvier, collected as always.
"So, what's the plan?" she asked.
"A distraction!" Tazaa said. Rashidi had clearly stopped talking to her because he was now back by Souvier's shoulder like a menacing shadow. The Krawk couldn't understand how she had let him do that for seven years. "The answer for this sort of thing is always a distraction. Doshi, you and Hadya stay hiding in one of these tunnels, then I'll go and draw Odion out of the chamber. He won't take the statue with him – how big was it again, Souvier?"
"About half a metre," Souvier said, trying to remember what Rashidi had told him.
"So he probably won't bother carrying it around with him. If it's really made of solid gold it must be heavy. I'll distract him, run away as fast as my paws can take me, then Souvier will go and take the statue. When I'm sure that I've lost him I'll sneak back and join you guys, and then we can get out of here."
Doshi opened her mouth to launch some sort of argument, but Tazaa cut across her with such a quelling look the Ruki actually looked a bit frightened. "You don't argue with staying behind," the Gelert growled. "I didn't save you from being squished by a rock only to get you blasted into smithereens by magic."
After that the twins retreated down the tunnel and into yet another side passage. Tazaa left them there with one last menacing stare at Doshi, handing the lantern to Souvier and tucking one of the glowing stones into the front of her desert robe. As the pair of them made their way back up the tunnel, with Rashidi floating between them so that it seemed to Souvier that he was staring through water, a thought occurred to him.
"How can you know that you've lost him if you can't see him?" he asked. "Only Rashidi can, and I don't want you putting yourself into more danger."
She gave a snort and then broke into genuinely amused laughter. "The day any old Scorchio can outrun me will be a sad day," she finally chuckled. "I was one of the fastest pets in Sakhmet back when I was a street urchin. Why do you think I walk around on all fours? I mean, I've practised on two feet and I can get away with it at parties and such, but when I need to bolt you can bet that I'll be using all four of my legs. It's twice as fast."
"But he has wings," Souvier protested.
"I will correct myself: The day any old Scorchio can fly faster than I can run will be a sad day. Besides, you should be the one worrying: If he comes back and you're still wandering around trying to find the statue you'll be trapped with nowhere to go."
That certainly put things a bit more into perspective.
"I can see through whatever spells he cast," Rashidi interrupted, winding himself around Souvier's shoulders. Or that's what it looked like, as Souvier couldn't actually feel anything. "I'll direct you to it, and then I hope you have some muscles on that scrawny frame of yours, because I'll be no help after that.
They reached the larger tunnel and Tazaa left him beside a tumble of rocks. She padded towards Odion's tunnel, turning back several times to shoo at Souvier. His head was poking too far out, but he didn't want to miss anything.
"Keep your head back, Souvier,' Rashidi scolded. "I'll tell you when the magician comes out. You can't see him, anyway."
He finally obeyed, but kept one eye poking out just in case. Several minutes passed and then there came the sound of fast paws hitting dirt and stone. He just saw Tazaa burst from the tunnel and then race away further down, leading away from the surface. She was so fast that all he saw was a blur of sandy-coloured fur.
A few seconds later the sound of heavy wingbeats could be heard, and then a fire Scorchio soared out of the tunnel, illuminating the walls around him, his head searching this way and that. But Tazaa was already safely out of sight. It seemed that whatever magic Odion had been using to keep himself invisible had stopped working. He softly alighted on the ground and looked in Souvier's direction. The Krawk froze still, knowing that any sudden movement might alert the other pet, glad that he had shuttered the lamp and that his grey scales blended in with the murky darkness.
It was silent, except for the slight drumming of paws that was slowly fading away as Tazaa went deeper into the mines. The Scorchio must have heard it, too, because he launched himself into the air once more, his fiery scales fading away into darkness as he rounded the bend.
Souvier looked at Rashidi, who beckoned him, and he quickly took the lamp and sprinted down the tunnel that led to the Golden Elephante. He was slightly out of breath when he reached the end cavern, and resolved that if he made it out of here he would run every day as well as learning to use his stupid spear. The cavern was as empty as it had been the first time he had seen it, and had no distinguishing features.
"Where is it?" he whispered. He had no idea why he was whispering, but I just didn't feel right talking out loud.
Rashidi beckoned him forward until he was halfway into the cavern, then paused at a spot and coiled himself around an invisible object, staring at Souvier expectantly. It looked a little odd, as the shape was rather bulky, and in any case Souvier couldn't see what it was. He walked forward and carefully reached out with his claws until they encountered smooth metal.
He ran his claws across the surface of the statue, and couldn't help but feel that he would be a lot more impressed if he could actually see it. He traced out the Elephante's trunk and ears, then felt the bejewelled turban that it was wearing.
"When you're done, perhaps you might want to pick it up so we can take our leave," Rashidi said rather pointedly, and Souvier bent down to pick it up. Though it only came his knees , he found that when he tried to lift it it took all of his strength, so that he stumbled many times as he exited the cavern. As soon as he did the statue became visible, and he nearly dropped it in surprise.
The lantern was precariously hanging off his tail, and by its light he could admire the statue, seeing the detail that the sculptor had managed to shape into it. The Elephante looked calm and brave and unyielding, a perfect protector from a terrible curse. But after a few seconds of staring he had to continue, the effort of carrying the statue mixed with that of holding his tail upright so he could see. The combination served to unbalance him so much that Rashidi had to warn him once or twice in a dry tone that he was about to walk into a wall.
Finally they reached the main tunnel and quickly hurried down a smaller one towards the princesses. Souvier could feel his breath getting heavy, and hoped that it wasn't loud enough for Odion to hear if he should so happen to stick his head down this tunnel. His muscles were aching by the time he reached where the two Ruki were hiding and he had no strength to carefully put the statue down: it spilled out of his arms and onto its side.
"You got it!" Doshi sounded happy, a strange sound to his ears. Hadya hurried forward and quickly brushed the dirt on the statue off, laboriously heaving it upright so that the Elephante was sitting cross-legged on the ground, palms pressed together and an unfazed look in its golden eyes.
"Interesting..." Rashidi said as he examined it. "It doesn't appear as though the magician's spells had any effect. It's perfectly intact. It seems that just like the curse can't be eradicated from the sands around Oesh, neither can this be destroyed. The twin magicians must have been very powerful indeed."
"Where's Tazaa?" Souvier asked, finally getting his breath back.
"Right here," she said, popping up behind his shoulder in gesture very reminiscent of Rashidi. "I left Odion blasting spells about a mile down. I think he'll be occupied for another ten or so minutes."
She barely sounded out-of-breath at all, and Souvier was now determined that he would exercise so that he could maybe one day have her level of fitness. She trotted up to the statue and peered at it, then carefully hoisted it up.
"Oof. This weighs a tonne. Souvier, help me please."
He dreaded having to carry the wretched thing again, but he went to help her. Tazaa quickly ordered Doshi and Hadya to carry the packs, which were by now quite light anyway, and Hadya also picked up Souvier's spear. It was twice her height, and looked strange with her holding it. If it had been Doshi, on the other hand, it would have looked fine.
Together they carried the statue back up the tunnel, Tazaa quite steady on two paws, although Souvier couldn't tell if her occasional stumbles were from that or because the Elephante was so heavy. He himself was having trouble in that department. Rashidi scouted ahead, a silent ghost that glowed with his own inner light. Souvier noticed that although he was visible even when he was out of the lamplight, his glow did not reflect off anything else; neither the floors nor the walls.
He ventured once to ask if anyone remembered how to reach the surface, but the twins assured him that just like they could sense the power of the Golden Elephante, they could also sense their father above the ground. He had to trust in them, or else worry about being trapped in the tunnels forever.
They made it perhaps two kilometres up the tunnel before they heard a roar of rage behind them.
Souvier glanced back and then exchanged a worried glance with Tazaa. Well, he looked worried. She just shrugged and gave him her confident grin.
That was until the tunnel behind them lit up with flames.
He could clearly see them, but they faded away a hundred metres down, and he didn't feel their heat. But he knew that the next time they might not be so lucky, especially if the angry Scorchio was speeding his way up the tunnel towards them.
"Run!" he hissed, trying to jog ahead, but both the statue and Tazaa's failure to immediately obey halted him. Flames licked along the sides of the tunnel towards them again, this time close enough that he could feel their heat. At this point the adventuress began to run, the twins close behind her. The flames came again, closer still, and Souvier knew they couldn't outrun them.
Then he heard a piercing whistle that echoed noisily in his head, and snapped his head towards the sound. Rashidi was a few metres ahead, one wing resting on the side of tunnel, the other waving frantically towards a small opening. Souvier didn't hesitate. Whatever Rashidi had found might save them, whereas continuing up the main tunnel as they were would surely end in them being roasted.
"This way,' he roared, over the sounds of Odion's rage, and dragged the statue and Tazaa into the gap, skinning his shoulder on the walls of the narrow opening as he squeezed through.
Doshi raced in behind them, her eyes wide in fear, and Souvier dropped the statue and ran forward, trying to find Hadya. She was still a few metres away, dragging his spear pitifully along the ground. He cursed inside his head – why hadn't she dropped the useless thing? – and ducked out, latching onto her arm and pulling her back with him.
He was just in time. The flames roared past the opening, and he expected to feel some sort of heat, but there was none. The fire tried find entry into the tiny chamber that the four pets were occupying, but they hit an invisible barrier and curled away. There was a pause, and then more flames erupted, but once again they struck the barrier and rebounded. It seemed that for now they were safe.
Souvier turned around to find that Doshi was holding her twin in her arms, sobbing inconsolably. Hadya was hugging her back, and he felt that it would be rude to interrupt.
"Where are we?" he whispered to Rashidi, who was watching the flames spurt past with fascination.
"I believe it is some sort of safe room that the old miners created. Sometimes deep underground there are pockets of bad air, so they must had stationed these throughout the tunnels in case such a pocket was breached." The Hissi pointed to the tunnel outside. "If you look from that side there are numerous hieroglyphs that mean 'safety' and 'safe haven'. I thought it was your only chance."
"You're full of so much information. One day you and I will have to have a long talk so I can write it all down."
"You might even be a real professor if you ever got the book published," the Hissi replied, a merry glint in his eye that was incongruous with his terrifyingly regal appearance.
"Everybody get out of sight of the tunnel," Tazaa suddenly said. She quickly ushered the twins to the side, and then seized the statue and dragged that to the other, so it was hidden from sight if someone so happened to peek inside. Although Souvier doubted that Odion would bother. His flames, magnified tenfold by his magic, would have effectively stopped them if they hadn't found the safe room. Hopefully he wouldn't search too hard for them.
Less than a minute later the waves of flames ceased, and they all waited with anticipation. Rashidi turned from where he was lingering in the entrance, invisible to all but Souvier and Tazaa, and said, "He's gone. I saw him fly past. He looked apoplectic."
Souvier and Tazaa relaxed, but the twins were still tense until Tazaa pretended that she had seen the magician go past.
"We'll wait for maybe half an hour. Then we need to go back up to Oesh and return the Elephante. Who knows what havoc that sandstorm has been wreaking."
To be continued...