Silence rang in the Core. Where once there had been a comforting cacophony of corruption, where once there had been a grotesque set of shadow geysers spewing their filth forth into the Moonlands, now there was nothing. Somehow that dweeby little blond kid with the stupid-looking baggy clothes had bested them all, leaving a swath of groaning Magi and corrupted animite in his wake as he’d stalked the shadowy corridors. Then he had destroyed the last shadow geyser, thwarting Agram’s plan forever and leaving the Magi of the Core without a leader.
The impact of such momentous events was almost incomprehensible. The Core rippled with the aftershocks, shifting and twisting, making the bramble-ridden caverns, once so secure and protected, a dangerous and mysterious place to be. The very geometry of the Core was changing to accommodate all that had happened. For quite a while, it was dangerous to move about, for one never knew when a passage would change direction, or location, or even—and this worried the survivors the most—cease to exist.
Huddled in a dark corner of the ruins of a great fortress, two Shadow Magi spoke quietly together.
"I?I think things are safe now," said Ashio. "Probably." He reached out and patted the ground, as if to comfort himself with this decision. Certainly it had been several hours since the last, small ripple had run its way across their cavern.
"Good," grumbled Lanyx, rubbing an egg-sized knot on the top of his head. The ripple had remade a portion of the castle wall, loosing a brick in the process, and it had ended up bouncing high off his scalp. The impact had made a very curious sound, and it had been all Ashio could do not to chuckle aloud at it. Laughing at Lanyx was a bad idea.
"Good," said Lanyx again, somewhat more boldly. He rose to his feet and added, "It’s time we made the Moonlands pay for what they’ve done!"
"I agree," said Ashio carefully, "but first, why don’t we try to weave ourselves together again? Our forces will be the stronger if we are united. And then our vengeance will be all the more bitter for those above."
"Find the others?" growled Lanyx. "Fine." He stalked away, fists clenching and unclenching as he went.
As Ashio got to his feet, he heard Lanyx yelling into the darkness all around. "Hey! Get on your feet, weaklings! We got a war to fight! Hey! Can anyone hear me? Hey!"
Lanyx’s calls grew fainter as the former Calder’s brisk stride carried him away. Ashio snuck one last glance in Lanyx’s direction, then dreamed up a caricature of Lanyx’s head. With a smirk, he picked up the fallen brick and dropped it on the dream image.
It was, truly, a cheerful sound to Ashio’s ears.
Ashio followed after Lanyx, a big smile on his face. "Klok!" he said softly to himself, and chuckled again.
* * * * *
In an oily, inky lake situated in an oppressive, mildewed grotto, Qwade groaned loudly. His voice reverberated strongly across the waters and reflected off the grotto’s ceiling, magnifying his unhappiness. This was as it should be, for Qwade wanted the whole Moonlands to know of his misery, since he was unmistakably the most important person to be found anywhere.
Clearly it would take a lot more work to get everyone else to admit to his importance. A lot more work, a lot more beatings, a lot more crushing of dreams. But eventually everyone would cater to him.
If only that were now, he thought, I wouldn’t have to try to heal myself of the thrashing that stupid five-fingered freak gave me. Grunting with the effort, Qwade reached under the water, plucked a few more strands of fat grotto yajo, and slapped them unceremoniously over his forehead and eyes. The coolness felt good, as did the strange toxins that leaked out from the leaves and into his corrupted (and bruised) flesh.
He groaned again, even louder than before, and the grotto rang with his misery. The only other sound to be heard was the steady drip-drip of water falling from the stalagmites above.
Or was it?
Rather than lifting his head to hear better, Qwade chose to lie perfectly still. He even suspended his self-absorbed moaning for a moment. He listened intently.
Drop. Drip. Crunch. Drip. Crunch. Crunch. Drip.
The sound of footsteps drew closer. Excellent, thought Qwade. Someone is coming to attend to me and my injuries. It’s about time.
He waited until the approaching footsteps drew to a stop at the shores of the grotto. "It’s about time," he said loudly. "Make me better!"
By way of reply, Lanyx shouted, "I thought I recognized your cry-baby voice, Qwade! Now get up! I’ll burn your rubbery hide off your bones if you don’t shake a leg?
"Or five," inserted Ashio.
"—and get your carcass over here! We’re rounding up the troops to go strike back!"
Driven only by the desire to avoid the additional pain of Lanyx’s fireballs, Qwade rolled himself over and pushed himself upright. His neck felt weak, and his brain dizzy. He swayed from side to side for a few moments. Then he lowered his face into the black water, blew bubbles for a bit, then straightened back up.
He stared vacantly at Ashio and Lanyx for a bit. The water droplets dripping from his face added their small sounds to the other drips landing elsewhere in the grotto.
"C’mon, cawh-bait," growled Lanyx.
"Okay," said Qwade weakly. "I think I’m ready. But one day I shall make you rue your disrespect for me; by the deeps I will!"
"You don’t frighten me, small fry," boasted Lanyx. "Nothing can hurt me!"
Somewhere in the cavern, a particularly large drop hit the water. Plok!
Ashio abruptly snorted and tried to stifle his giggles.
"What?!?" bellowed Lanyx.
"Oh, nothing," said Ashio with a smirk, as Qwade crawled out of the waters to join them.
Lanyx left the grotto, Qwade moving sullenly after him. But Ashio remained behind for a few moments, listening gleefully to the sound of the drops hitting the water.
* * * * *
The three Shadow Magi continued to explore the restructured Core. Before long, a dark ayebaw passed overhead, circled them twice, then sped off in the direction from which it came.
"We should follow it," said Ashio. "I bet it’s one of Harror’s scouts."
"Good idea," said Lanyx firmly.
"Carry me," whined Qwade.
"Bad idea," said Lanyx, even more firmly.
The three followed the path that the ayebaw had taken, but after a few minutes, came upon a small nexus, a room carved out of the core from which several different passages exited.
"Hey, I recognize this," said Qwade. He pointed to one of the passages. "If we head up that way, we should reach the throne room."
"That was true before," observed Lanyx, "but it may not be true now. Things have changed down here."
"True enough," said Ashio. "I used to be able to sense how the whole Core was put together, but now it’s all a tangle in my mind. If we wait here, Harror or one of her creatures will probably show up presently."
"You’re assuming she wants us to school up with her," said Qwade.
"What?!?" protested Lanyx. "What do you mean? Who wouldn’t desire my glorious presence?"
"Who indeed?" muttered Qwade quietly, rolling his eyes.
"I am inspirational!" continued Lanyx, as if he hadn’t heard. Which, in fact, he hadn’t, which was a very good thing for Qwade. "I am powerful! I will ignite the Core’s counterstrike! Why would anyone not want me to lead?"
Lanyx glared at the other two Shadow Magi, daring them to answer.
"Maybe she wants to lead," observed Ashio.
"What?!?" bellowed Lanyx. "I am clearly the better choice!"
"Yes," mumbled Qwade, "you’re so even-keeled."
"And subtle," added Ashio. But before Lanyx could force another word past his sputtering lips, Ashio pointed up one passage and said, "Look, here comes the dark ayebaw again."
"That’s the tunnel I said we should take," complained Qwade.
"Indeed," said Lanyx. "Perhaps the throne room and its environs were protected against whatever chaos restructured the rest of the Core."
The dark ayebaw glided into the room. It looked at the three Shadow Magi for a moment, then abruptly changed into a scroll with a loud klop!
Ashio stifled a laugh, holding both his hands to his face.
"What?!?" bellowed Lanyx.
"Oh, nothing," said Ashio with a smirk, as Qwade picked up the scroll and unfurled it.
"It’s from Harror," he said. "She’s near the throne room. She says people are gathering there, and urges us to hurry. Sheesh," he added, crumpling up the parchment, "Doesn’t she care that I ache all over?"
"No, and neither do I," growled Lanyx as he started trotting up the passage.
"You’ll pay for your insolence," said Qwade, in a voice too filled with moaning to be truly threatening. "I swear you will!"
"Shut up, small fry!" came Lanyx’s response.
Qwade tossed the scroll aside and shuffled rapidly after Lanyx.
Ashio stooped, picked up the scroll, and tapped its heavy wooden dowel against the rock. It made a sound that, for some reason, he rather fancied, and he followed the two other Shadow Magi, whacking the dowel against the stone walls and giggling to himself.
To be continued.....
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