Moltara's Winter: Part Five
Also by saltsman
The entrance to the caves was hidden behind a pile of gigantic obsidian rocks. They had to crawl to enter. Once inside, they were forced to snake through, causing the end of the conversation. Jon kept thinking about what he heard while he snaked through the dusty sand tunnel. For the first time today he wished there was ice here. It'd be a lot easier if they could just skid their way through.
The tight tunnel opened up on a completely frozen cavern. The icy floor was already breaching into the tunnel. The stalactites loomed so close that they looked almost threatening.
"Back to storytelling?" Jon suggested.
"Actually, I think we should follow really quiet and try not to raise any alarms."
"Yeah, that's probably smarter."
They continued on dodging congealed stalagmites and avoid slipping. Contrary to Jon's preconceptions, the hazmat suits were actually easy to wear and not heavy at all. It still felt incredibly risky to be stepping on evil ice like that, but he grew accustomed to it and accepted the fact that Obsidian was in fact a most powerful shield.
"If you see a pipe, warn me," Luna instructed him.
It took a while until they found the first pipe. Completely frozen, as expected, it plunged vertically up towards the city about twenty feet above them. They followed the horizontal parcel of it. Every five meters, another vertically ramification boosted up, but surely the gap that allowed the Entity in was in its horizontal branch, provided the Machine was buried below them. But since they need to make a decision, and that seemed like the most plausible one.
They descended further and further into the core of Moltara, following the pipes as they plunged down, took turns for the left or for the right. Sometimes, when met with bifurcations, they signaled it with a pen Jon found inside one of his pockets and chose a path. Splitting up was not an option at all.
"Look," Jon pointed out. "The path ends here."
Luna checked out, and it turned out he was right. The cavern continued up to a point, but there was this gigantic cliff between two halves of the underground section. The pipe, nevertheless, continued through.
"What do we do now?" Luna asked.
"Maybe we should try another path?"
"I don't think we should. I'm pretty sure we're on the right track."
"And why's that?" Jon's skepticism was showing.
"Well, yesterday morning no one felt a tad bit cold, but the Magma Pool wasn't working anymore which means it was starting to freeze, but no other place was. That probably means the Entity reached the pool first. We entered through the Obsidian, so surely we must go all the way north towards the Magma pool, and not further down south. If we go back, we'd be going past the Obsidian and past the Town Hall. If we want reach the pipe that reaches directly into the Magma Pool, we need to continue this way."
"Nice geography skills," Jon praised her.
"Well, what we have to do now is the contrary of nice, though."
"You're not actually suggesting we..."
Before he could finish his sentence, Luna was already sitting atop the pipe, both her hands firm on its frozen surface. She started sliding front slowly and carefully. Jon observed her actions and did the same, but not with the same calm. He was fully aware of his legs dangling off a precipice, and he imagined what the fall would be like.
It seemed as though the pipe went on forever. Jon tried to keep his mind off things, thought of his parents and thought of shared moments with his best friends. But then, out of the blue, he thought of his days on the pound. The nightmare it was. His grip on the pipe loosened and he felt himself sliding sideways.
"WHOA!" he yelled.
Wrapping both his hands around the pipe for his dear life, Jon found himself entirely hanging. His hands were sliding on the ice, and he knew he wouldn't be able to move or hold on for very long.
"JON!" Luna cried.
"Help me, please!"
Jon wasn't that far from the border, but it was still long enough to try and leap.
"Balance your body forward!" Luna instructed.
"I can't, Luna... My hands are skittering, the ice is too slippery!"
"Wait a minute!"
Luna disappeared into the darkness. Left alone, Jon tried to calm himself down by counting to ten, but it only served to make him more nervous than before. He tried scratching the obsidian on the frost in order to break it, but the layers of ice were tightly woven there and he needed more strength in order to break the chunks. He also tried lifting himself up, but he the slippery surface made that impossible.
When Luna came back, she was holding a thin, but long stalagmite. She held one end of it and carefully stood on the edge of the precipice, stretching her arms so that Jon could hold the other hand.
"Keep one hand on the pipe and hold the stalagmite with the other!"
He did so, and Luna started pulling. It worked just like a sheave, and then Jon was close enough for her to help him up.
"That was close." He had tears on his eyes and his heart thumped strong.
"We need to get going."
They continued their adventure further into the iced caves for what seemed like an hour. The piping system was never ending. They took the care of stepping lightly because of the strong echo reverberations, but stealth was never manageable.
Without warning, they heard a cackle. They instantly stopped.
"We're close," Luna mouthed.
Jon nodded, trying to keep his breathing still.
"What do we do?" he asked, completely silently.
"The only possible plan is to try and break his hazmat suit. We have no chance on a fight. Besides, I bet he has far more weapons than we do."
"And how are we going to do that?"
"We find him, we pray that we aim well and we throw these little hammers at Vaughn. If we succeed, we wait for him to freeze, switch the machine back on so it sucks the Entity back and we steal the key."
"But then Vaughn will be awake again."
"Yeah, but he will be a bit perplexed. We run with the key and throw it off that big cliff we passed."
"He will catch up to us eventually..." Jon pointed out. "What will we do then?"
"YOU DIE!" A voice so stern and old filled their ears, so loud and powerful it made them flinch. Vaughn came walking out of the shadows, smiling devilishly. "I sensed your presence about one hour ago, when that silly one fell off the pipe. You should really scream less, kid."
Jon and Luna didn't know what to say.
"Nice plotting skills you have. A lot of holes on it, though. Well, not everyone can be perfect, right?" He turned to the shadows. "Rhoman, pass me the magical ropes, please."
From the darkness, another Kacheek emerged. Jon could sense Rhoman was the weak link. He was afraid, probably coerced. Maybe they could use that for their benefit. Carrying a thick, black string with him, Rhoman stopped before his master, who picked up the rope hastily. Vaughn approached Luna and tied her first, then, when he got close enough to Jon, the Shoyru lifted the hammer against him and broke through the thigh part of his hazmat suit.
"Oh, so nasty of you!" He flickered. Then, he grabbed hold of Jon's wrist and wretched the hammer free. "But you know what they say, payback's awful!"
Vaughn broke the left foot sole of Jon's suit and then tied him up.
"Come on, both of you up, you're coming with me," Vaughn said. "Rhoman, drag them, please."
Rhoman, the other Kacheek, grabbed hold of the ends of both ropes and started pulling them forward. Jon could touch his left feet to the ground but equilibrium was hard to achieve. He knew he was only prolonging the unavoidable: he would end up frozen.
"Wouldn't you know, Rhoman? It seems that today is your lucky day. Now you won't have to sacrifice yourself anymore. We got two very bold and unwise citizens to do that for you!"
They continued down a path of ice until they reached the place Jon and Luna had been looking all along, the place where the machine was.
Jon admired it - it was a big, monumental, purple and sparkly, cylindrical construction. He noticed the gilded key plugged in. He imagined that closing the device would cause the vacuum effect to go on. All they needed to do was get to the key, but how were they going to do that when bound by magical ropes like these?
"You've been hiding out here all along?" Luna asked, drawing Vaughn's attention.
"Let them go, Rhoman. You both can sit down."
Rhoman dropped the ropes and Jon fell to the floor, relieved for making it through.
"So, Draik... You've studied your history books, uh?"
"Actually, there's no mention of you anywhere, Vaughn. But I was here when you rose to power. After the discovery, Roxton made sure no one would discover what was going on down here. You were officially forgotten."
That seemed to infuriate him.
"Good. How they like me now, huh? They're all freezing to death while I'm here, the only one capable of saving all of their lives."
"To death? I mean, for real?" Jon scoffed.
"Well, this one, on the other hand, hasn't been studying his books. Yeah, son, to death, who do you think I am? Roxton Colchester IV?" Vaughn laughed.
"You are wrong. Once the machine is turned on again, it sucks the snow back in and everyone one who's frozen simply unfreezes," Jon guessed.
"Yeah, you're quite right... Up until a point, that is. I mean, for how long do you think they can handle being frozen? Don't you know that, after a while, they just succumb?"
Jon's mouth fell open. Were his parents dead? No, that couldn't be happening. He thrashed against the ropes, and accidentally stepped into ice. He instantly began freezing.
"Wow, kiddo, you're a fast believer. Trust yourself more next time." Vaughn started laughing hysterically. "Freezing to death is just an expression, chill. Well, but I guess it is death for you." he looked straight into Jon's eyes, ignoring Luna's shrieks all the while. "Because I'm never unfreezing you."
To be continued...