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26
May

Writing Challenge: Week 19

Under Earth Hunt

by H. M. Snow

 

Des rolled onto her side, facing away from Ciar, as she choked on the mouthful of water. Several seconds passed with much coughing and spitting before she could speak. “Lord?”

The king under earth patted her between the shoulder blades. “Are you all right? You lost consciousness.”

“I had a dream,” said Des. She sat up with his assistance and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. “I haven’t dreamed at all since coming here. I haven’t slept either, now that I think about it. Is it normal?”

“No. This is a realm between life and death. Apart from the one who holds dominion here, living humans aren’t supposed to be here. There is nothing ‘normal’ about your situation.”

Dismissing this bit of pessimism, Des took up the bowl of water that Ciar had set aside. She drained it in one long swallow. “It was such a strange dream. I thought it was my aunt Mattie I was talking to at first, but then I saw her dissolving around the edges. Even then, I thought maybe that’s normal for the spirits of the dead, but then she asked me how she died, as if she didn’t know. I thought, that can’t be right. As it happened, it didn’t matter because I started choking and woke up.”

Ciar bowed his head pensively. “It is possible,” he said after a time, “that you encountered a plathein. Your description fits.”

“What is it?”

“Platheins are a race of shapeshifters. They are particulate creatures, able to rearrange their particles so as to resemble other beings. The stronger among them can expand the range of their particles quite a distance. If any creature absorbs one of these particles, it becomes possible for the plathein to communicate with that creature. It may be that you picked up a stray particle. There are platheins nearby.”

Des gazed around at the mist. “How can you tell?”

“I can sense them. Moreover, there’s a hunt ranging near, and the platheins never can resist a hunt.”

“Hunt?” Des gazed around. “The gate is shut.”

Ciar stood so that he towered above her. “A precaution. It’s my responsibility to make sure the hunt doesn’t touch those under the mountain. I was readying myself when I found you. I can’t afford to delay any longer.”

“Yes, lord.” Des was at his side immediately, not helping him don his armor but donning her own.

“It would be better for you to stay here by the gate,” Ciar noted.

“But it isn’t about what’s better for me,” Des said. “If my lord is carrying out his duties, how can I stay idle here?” She took up one of the many broad-bladed daggers from the king’s stores. “Of course I’ll attend you, as I always do. I’m trained for this work too.” She took her stand before him, bright eyes turned upward to his face with relentless good cheer.

No one is trained for this kind of hunt.” Ciar tightened the straps that bound his shield to his forearm. “But since I’ve learned it’s useless to argue with you, then come, if you wish. You’ll need a horse.” He whistled long and loud.

The ubiquitous mists gathered and swirled into a dense mass that split in two. Each half took on the figure of a horse, one a normal size and the other nearly twice as big. Ciar caught hold of the smaller one by the mane. When he led the mist-horse to Des, however, he waited a short while for her to recall herself to the task. She was staring out over the landscape revealed by the gathering of the mist: a cinder-colored vista that sloped gently downward away from the king’s camp. Giant spikes protruded from the ground, as if iron nails with the girth of redwoods had been driven from below. Nothing grew in such a landscape, neither flora nor fauna. Ciar said softly, “Are you still determined to come with me?”

Des’ instant response was to fall onto her knees at his feet. She seized his gauntlet-clad hand and kissed it. “Over all this you hold dominion, lord? You’re greater than I first thought!” Then she regained her feet. She stroked the mist-horse’s flank. “It feels real. Will it hold me?”

“If I so desire,” replied the king. “You aren’t afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

Ciar sighed. “I don’t understand you.” He lent her his hand so that she could mount her mist-horse. Then he swung himself onto the back of the greater horse. As they rode, he spoke of what lay ahead. “The sonji are restless monsters. Now and then I must drive them back to the depths. What they want is to feed on the darkness in human souls, to cause insanity among humans and thereby cause bloodshed. If left unchecked, they would invade the city under the mountain, climb up to the domain of earth– even to the domain of air. They are entirely destructive.”

“Why do those platheins come out during the hunt?”

“I’m not sure. I can only assume it’s due to a spirit of fair play. They–” Ciar fell silent. “There’s a sonji now.” He unslung his axe.

“What is it meant to be? Apart from hideous, that is to say.” Des brandished not only the wide dagger but also a slender short sword. “Does it need quite so many arms?”

“Stay here and don’t let any that escape me get past you. Don’t let any touch you,” Ciar warned. Then he swept forward on his great warhorse and, with one swing of the axe, split the foremost monster in half.

The cloven halves continued squirming until the bubbling froth that spilled from its guts dissolved the remains. Even the hard cinders underneath warped from the acid. Des paused alongside the mess, watching with inquisitive calm until the fizzing stopped. By that point, Ciar had plunged into the next knot of sonji. Des followed him with her eyes until she noticed a line of onlookers beyond him. There was something of a genteel picnic gaiety about them, although their shapes blurred when she looked too long at any one of them. Ladies wearing frothy pale gowns and gentlemen in long cream-white tail coats, all gathered at a distance on higher ground to watch the action below. Occasionally an incongruous shape would appear among them: a sparkling catherine’s-wheel firework, a leaping rabbit five feet high at the ears, once even an empty coat tree, to name a few. These forms lasted only a few seconds before reverting to humanoid. Watching the fluctuations in shape was like listening to half a conversation, trying to guess what had caused each response.

A smattering of applause from the platheins brought Des back around to face the hunt in time to see half a sonji fly through the air, its raw end a fountain of acid. Ciar plunged boldly into the midst of the monsters. His axe flew back and forth, around and down, over and over again in mesmerizing dance of slaughter.

Being thus distracted by the hunt, Des never noticed when one of the platheins separated from its group. Her first intimation that she was not alone came in the figure of a woman, tall and curiously thin, that loomed at her left hand. This woman’s burning black eyes ensnared Des and held her in place. “You did not finish answering my question earlier.” Then the woman broke apart into a multicolored cloud of specks that swept Des skyward in a tight cyclone.

Ciar wheeled around in the midst of the hunt. He charged his great mist-horse toward the spinning cloud, but at the very moment he reached the cyclone, Des shot high through the air with a trailing cry of alarm. The king under earth slewed his mount around to chase after Des. With apparent leisure, the cyclone reformed into the lady and the lady made no hurried movement. She reached out to slip her arms around Ciar’s neck from behind, and that was all. He was forced to stop moving, though the difference in physical strength between them should have been all in his favor. “Watch,” said the lady in his ear.

“But she–!”

“Only watch,” the lady reiterated.

All Ciar could do was gesture for the smaller mist-horse to leap high beneath Des and catch her on her descent. The horse’s hooves hadn’t touched ground when Des vaulted from its back to a safe landing, a weapon gripped in each hand. Her fierce, “Ha!” rang through the deadened air as she drove her short sword through the head of a sonji, pinning it to the hard ground so that she could fillet its sides with her dagger. Acid flew in two thin streams from the tips of her blades as she turned to behead another of the monsters. Acid splashed her clothes, but the euphoria of battle raised her above pain for the moment. She slashed her way through sonji after sonji, deaf to the cheers and applause of the plathein audience.

The last sonji was the wiliest. It had enough wit to use its many limbs to scuttle away from Des no matter from which direction she launched her attack. After a few failed attempts, Des remembered to summon the mist-horse. She proved a deft rider, cutting off the sonji’s every escape. When she had the monster confused, Des hooked an arm around the mist-horse’s neck and leaned down to deliver the death-blow with her short sword. She left the frothing, dissolving carcass behind without a glance, choosing to ride at once to where Ciar waited. “That’s the last of them, lord. No need to worry about them until the next hunt. How long is it, I should ask, between one hunt and the next?”

Ciar stared at her. “I don’t understand you. Was it not you who struggled so deeply over serving as swordbearer that you shattered the sword of the air rather than commit an act of violence?”

“What– that?” Des waved her hand as if waving the question away. “That was a different matter. If it’s just hunting a monstrous pestilence like those beasts to spare you the trouble of doing it, lord, then it’s no trouble at all to me. It gives me opportunity to make good use of my training.”

The plathein lady, now fully solidified as riding side-saddle behind Ciar, laughed aloud as she watched Des from over Ciar’s shoulder. “She is a rare child. I’ve searched for one like her since your father laid aside all dominion. She has told me all I needed to know.” The lady slid off the horse’s back; her feet solidified on the ground, then her ankles, and so forth, until she stood looking up at Ciar. “Go back to the gate and prepare a feast. Summon your brothers to dine with you.” Then she dissolved into a multihued cloud of specks and swept away like a breeze.

In her wake, Des asked, “Is the lady a close friend of yours, lord?”

“Friend?” Ciar sighed. “Worse than that. She’s my mother.”

14
May

Writing Challenge: Week 18

Under Earth Emissary

by H. M. Snow

 

In the luminous fountain chamber, Des stooped to splash water on her face. “So refreshing,” she declared. Then she took the bowl she had brought, swirled water in it, and filled it almost to the brim. Her tread was necessarily measured on her return to the gate that led out into the mist-swirled gray light of the domain under earth. She managed to step over a pair of tussling death hound pups without spilling her cargo, but she nearly came to grief when a colossal shadow loomed up before her in the very gateway. “Lord!” she exclaimed.

Ciar, king under earth, stared down at her with intent black eyes. His stare didn’t shift away from her face until he accepted the bowl from her. Even then, he merely took on a look of slight perplexity.

“You haven’t gone to drink at the fountain for some time,” Des explained, “so I brought water to you, lord, to refresh you.”

He drank silently.

Des waited until he had drained the bowl’s contents. Then she held out her hands to take the bowl from him. “Do you want more? I can go back for more.”

“That was enough.” After a pause, he added, “Thank you.”

“Lord,” replied Des a little reproachfully, “haven’t I said there’s no need to thank me for doing something as small as this? It isn’t as if I’ve done anything much even now.” She carried the bowl back to the niche where the king under earth kept his meager belongings. After a few moments of gratuitous tidying, she turned her attention to his pavilion, trying to rearrange it to better effect. The longer she worked, the deeper her frown grew.

Ciar returned to his foundry to build up the furnace. A crucible half-full of coinage sat to one side until the fire was sufficiently hot for Ciar to transfer the vessel into the flames. Each step of the refining process was punctuated by glances toward his self-proclaimed servant. By the time he unmolded a small, gleaming gold tablet and plunged it into the crystalline stream that flowed past his forge, Ciar radiated uneasiness. He scarcely took the time to set the cooled tablet onto the anvil before he strode across the clearing to where Des knelt with unseeing eyes outside the pavilion. Ciar pressed his hand against her forehead.

Des tipped over backward with a startled exclamation. “Lord?”

He studied her even more closely than before. “It is not possible for a living human to flourish in such an environment as this. I expected as much. You lose track of yourself often. You may be fading.”

It took Des a few seconds to absorb these words. Then she said, “Oh! I see… did you think I wasn’t feeling well?”

“You’ve grown quieter.”

Des shook her head with grave determination. “I’ve been thinking. How long have you had those trousers?”

“Trousers?”

“One like you shouldn’t wear such worn and shabby garments, lord. That’s what’s been on my mind these days. If you wear them for working at the forge, that’s one thing– but you have nothing else to change into after you bathe! It isn’t right.” Des waved her hands in an overflow of indignation, and her eyes shone. “But I don’t know how to put it right. I’m experienced with sewing and other household skills– bless my aunt Mattie for teaching me– but where am I to get the materials? And your pavilion barely merits the name! It ought to be a place where my lord can rest from his labors, but instead it’s little more than a changing-room. I want to serve, lord, but I’m afraid I’m no use to you at all.”

CIar crouched back on his heels. “Trousers. All this started from trousers?”

“I’m not a fragile creature,” said Des merrily. “Did you expect me to fade away when there’s so much to be done? But I don’t want to be useless to you. I didn’t want to trouble you with something so trivial.”

“The way you speak,” the king under earth replied, “it doesn’t sound trivial to me. If this is your will, I can send you for supplies. I’ve grown used to living simply on my own. You are right: now that you’re here, more is needed than this gray domain supplies. Here, stand up and follow me.” He brought her to the foundry, to the shelves where he stacked his work. “The hounds I can summon and send because they naturally are part of this domain. If you wear my emblem, I can do the same for you.” He girded pieces of light armor onto her as if he were the squire and she the lord. Lastly he belted a sheathed blade at her waist.

Des raised her forearm before her eyes to admire the black flames that adorned her vambrace. Then, stiffly, she bowed. “I’m honored, lord.”

“Take this with you.” From another shelf he took a canvas sack not large but very heavy for its size. “It should be enough for whatever you need to buy.”

One of the death hounds poked its head out through the gate, hearing the unwonted activity. It loped across the ground to lean against Ciar.

“He wants to go out,” said the king under earth. “He’s grown attached to you.”

Des regarded the death hound with a leery half-smile. “I shouldn’t have talked to him when he was chasing me, I suppose. Is it a good idea?”

“He can be a companion for you and protect you.” Ciar snapped his fingers.

The hound left his side and circled around Des instead.

Des gave the hound a reluctant pat. “How does this work?”

“I will send you out; where you end up depends on your own intention. You only need to think about where you wish to go. It will work the same on your return: simply focus on returning here, and the summons will activate.” Ciar rested his large hand on top of Des’ head. Phantom black fire swirled around her.

The gray domain under earth vanished, replaced by blinding sunlight and a brisk breeze. Des found herself on the road outside Aerinya, city of the domain of air. Its towering white walls made her squint after the subdued light of Ciar’s domain, but Des did not hesitate. She knew her way to the currency exchange.

As soon as the hound squeezed through the door of the exchange at her side, the money changers went into a panic. Those not near enough a window to bail out of the long chamber scrambled up onto their tables, kicking coinage to the floor in their haste. Des herself caused an additional stir by emptying the sack of small gold tablets onto one money changer’s table. “Hurry and get down here to your business,” she said. “I won’t keep my lord waiting.” She banged the flat of her hand on the tabletop and leaned.

The changer made no effort to hide his fear of the hound beside Des, but he was too old and shrewd a businessman to turn away such a rich commission. He weighed the gold pieces and quoted a price, marked up by a small percentage for fees. With Des and the death hound staring at him, he reduced the percentage without protest and measured out the local currency into the bag Des had brought. Not a breath sounded in the exchange chamber until Des and the hound departed.

A similar greeting awaited Des on the way to the drygoods store. Streets emptied of all but the echoes of shrieks ahead of the death hound, although the hound stuck close to Des’ side and paid no heed to any of the people fleeing before it. Only the storekeeper showed no such reaction, being elderly and nearly blind. She leaned heavily on her knobbed stick and peered at the death hound. “If you bring your animal in here,” she snapped, “you take responsibility for any damages, understood?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Des began listing off her requirements.

It was fairly amazing to watch the little shopkeeper scoot along the aisles by memory rather than sight, pulling bolts of cloth from shelves and counting out buttons and buckles by touch. In the meanwhile, the death hound sank onto its haunches and leaned its head against Des’ side, utterly relaxed. Its scanty brush of a tail made lazy sweeps along the wooden floor, flipping out of the way whenever the shopkeeper threatened to tread on it.

Des was only two-thirds through her list when the shop door burst open to admit half a dozen armed men. “You, rogue! Stand down at once–!”

Des turned and held a hand before her own mouth to shush them. Even the death hound turned its massive head to gaze at them in reproach. Its tongue lolled between the black spikes that were its teeth as it panted in contentment.

“I couldn’t hear you,” the shopkeeper said, “on account of those shouting fools. How much gold braid?”

“Four yards, please.”

The armed men stood awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot just inside the doorway, until the shopkeeper started wrapping Des’ purchases into brown paper parcels. At that point, another armed man joined them. The death hound’s ears twitched forward, because this newcomer brandished the sword of the domain of air.

When Des took all this in, she spoke hastily. “Outside,” she ordered the newcomer, “now!” just before the death hound launched itself at the man. She set the bag of coins on the counter and told the shopkeeper, “I have a little business outside. Settle the bill and I’ll be back in for my things.” Then she chased the commotion out into the street, only to find the hound playfully charging at the new swordbearer. The hound was quicker and more nimble than the man, so Des approached from behind. With swift, strong hands she wrenched the sword from the bearer’s hand. “Fetch!” she yelled as she threw the blade like a spear.

The death hound was ecstatic as it seized the sword between its jaws, did a little roundabout dance and vanished in a curl of black smoke.

“What have you–?” The new swordbearer’s verbal explosion halted when Des held up her hand to shush him. He tried again: “Who do you–!” But Des made the same gesture more emphatically. She watched the spot where the hound had disappeared.

Within moments, the hound reappeared, tail tucked low and head bowed, bringing the sword back to lay it at Des’ feet. Des took it, wiped it clean, and returned it to its new bearer. “Cast aside the sword, escape the hound: that was my lord’s first lesson to me.”

The bearer gaped at Des. “Who are you?”

Des gave him a wry smile. “My name’s Des. I was the swordbearer before you. I failed.” That made her laugh softly. “I broke the sword– no, to be honest I shattered it beyond common repair. Now I serve the king under earth. The hound and the sword alike are part of his domain. This one,” here she patted the hound’s lowered head, “is under orders to accompany me. He’s been scolded by my lord for playing around too much… haven’t you?” she addressed the death hound.

It lowered its head still farther, until it lay almost flat on its belly.

“All right. You did well to bring it straight back to us.” Des petted the hound until some of the light returned to its eyes. Then she turned her attention back to the gawking swordbearer. “My lord forged that sword. If ever you need to repair it, my lord is the only one who can. I mustn’t keep him waiting much longer, though.” She hurried back inside the shop.

The little shopkeeper handed back the coin bag, much lightened, but Des refused it. “I have no need of this in my lord’s domain. Keep it on account for me. I’ll come again.” She gave the shopkeeper her name and signed the account receipt. Some of the parcels fit in the duffle bag Des had purchased. The rest she piled high in her arms. Returning to the street, she whistled for the hound to join her. “I’ll go,” she said to the lingering swordbearer. “This one has caused enough of a commotion for one day. If you see another of these hounds, keep in mind the lesson I taught you. It may turn out to be your salvation. I wish you well.” She closed her eyes, and vanished, leaving just a curl of black smoke in her place.

6
May

Writing Challenge: Week 17

Dominion Under Earth

by H. M. Snow

 

Swordbearer and death hound eyed one another, both panting, both worn out by the chase. From up in the tree, the swordbearer addressed the hound: “Good evening to you. I’m Des– not that you’re interested, I guess.”

The hound threw its lean weight against the base of the tree’s trunk. Even the thickest tree branches trembled at the impact. Des the swordbearer clutched for a more secure handhold. “Right. Enough with pleasantries, then. So this is what they call a stalemate. I won’t come down from here, and you won’t leave from there. Now that I look at you, you’re the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. The sound of your breath when you’re chasing me is pretty scary too.” Des peered among the branches. With another glance down at the panting hound, the swordbearer inched along the sturdy branch to an intersecting branch of a neighboring tree. The ancient branches had grown against one another so as to form a bridge. Extending first a foot to test the stability of the path, then scooting forward to reach another length of branch, Des completed the journey to the next tree.

Below, the death hound was puzzled but watchful. It was far from stupid, as it proved when Des attempted the next crossing. At the most tenuous point of the crossing, the death hound threw itself at the tree toward which the swordbearer headed, nearly jarring Des out of the heights. Only Des’ hastily renewed grip pulled the moment back from catastrophe.

Two trees later, Des reached an impasse: the ground dropped into mist-veiled depths at the very roots of the tree, so that a downward glance made the swordbearer giddy for a moment. Des clung to the supporting branch until the dizziness passed. Then the tree quaked. The death hound had not only rammed its weight against the tree trunk, but had raised itself up onto its hind legs to claw higher and higher up the trunk, like some gaunt and deformed grizzly. The scraping claws gouged deep into the bark.

“Hold on,” blurted Des. “Don’t!” But the futile exclamation came too late. Between the weight of the swordbearer aloft in its branches and of the hound leaning hard against its trunk, the poorly-anchored tree gave a heart-pounding lurch toward the canyon edge– more than enough to jar Des into tumbling freefall.

“No!” Des had no time for more than that one terrified syllable before the ground appeared. The hard landing forced another cry from the swordbearer, who rolled and bounced across sand before losing momentum.

A dark shadow loomed against the mist. A callused, powerful hand grasped Des and tore away the sword, scabbard and all, from the bearer’s back as if the leather harness that bound it there meant nothing. A mere glimmer in the mist, the sword flew end-over-end through the air until the death hound dropped out of nowhere to catch it in slavering jaws. For several moments the hound worried the sword like a pup with a stick. When it tired of this, the hound carried the sword back to the solid shadow that still gripped the back of Des’ coat. “Cast away the sword,” a deep voice growled, “and escape the hound.” The hand released Des abruptly.

Facing the shadow fully for the first time, Des sucked in a long breath. A pattern like rising smoke coiled black around the man’s bare arms and chest, up his neck and into his hairline. His long black hair, tied back with a strip of rawhide, matched his flat black eyes. Des fell face-down on the ground.

“You know me, then?” That deep voice grated against the ear. “How do they tell the story these days? Speak.”

Breathless, Des spoke without stirring from that same prostrate position. “There was once only one king– that’s how the old ones begin it– whose domain encompassed air, earth, and under-earth. When he came to the end of his strength, he called his three sons to him. He held up three sticks with a different symbol carved on the broad end of each. To his first son he offered first choice, and this eldest took from him the stick bearing the symbol of air. ‘I will govern the domain of air,’ said the high-minded eldest, ‘and will not let it fall into ruin.’ To his middle son the old king held out the remaining two sticks, but the impulsive youngest grabbed first. ‘Earth for me!’ was his cry as he ran away with his spoils. The middle gazed at the remaining stick, the symbol for under-earth. ‘Always I have been beneath my brothers,’ he said, ‘so little will change.’ But the old king shook his head. ‘Between them you have been, and between them you remain.’ He would not explain his meaning, but when the middle son reached out to take the stick, the stick dissolved into black smoke that embraced him and marked him with its pattern, the symbol of under-earth. He and the old king both disappeared. No one has seen either since. To this day, only the king of under-earth knows where the old king lies buried, but his domain is not easily escaped, so none who seek him return to bear report of him.”

“Someone taught you well. But why do you lie?”

“Lord, I did not lie; that is how the story was told me!”

“Not the story.” The brawny king of under-earth waved away the words. “Your clothes, your manner, your words– you lie with each breath. Why? You are female.”

Des knelt open-mouthed with astonishment. “How did you know?”

“Death reveals many secrets. Since death has been my study, I see everything with different eyes. You are swordbearer to the domain of air, yet you would not slay the hound.”

“I couldn’t do it.” Des gazed desperately at the sheathed sword gripped in the strange king’s fist.

“You never tried– that’s what you mean, so say it clearly.”

“No, Lord, I couldn’t. The sword… I broke it.”

The under-earth king pulled the hilt free. Two inches of jagged metal remained of the blade. With an interrogative noise, the king carried the sword to an impossibly large anvil and poured all the pieces onto its flat surface. “I have never seen it in such a condition,” he said at length. “Your conflict was acute, then. How could you become swordbearer with your spirit in such a state? Ciro was never such a fool before, to choose someone so unsuited to the role.”

Des blinked in shock. “You call the king– of course,” she said, arresting her own blurted remark. “Brothers.”

“At least you didn’t complete your first statement.” The king of under-earth arranged the fragments of the sword with a fingertip. “I must begin anew. Not all the pieces are here. It will take time. Do as you please while you wait, but beware of venturing any deeper under the earth.”

This strange injunction made Des come fully upright on her knees like a sleeper awakened. She leaned forward to brace her hands against the sand and bowed more formally. “Forgive my impudence so far, Lord.” When her apology was ignored, she turned to look at her surroundings more closely. At her back, a rugged canyon wall vanished upward into the mists. The facade of a city was graven on the lower reaches of that wall, false windows carved intaglio into the stone and broad concourses standing inaccessible from within or without. Only one gate, low and wide, opened the side of the mountain. Shallow steps descended into utter darkness through that gate. Such a gaping unknown at her back made Des uneasy. She shifted her position so that she could see the gate out of the corner of her eye without turning her back on that domain’s king.

The death hound sprawled on the sand, tongue lolling. It paid Des no attention, a fact she found so unnerving that she ventured to ask the under-earth king, “Why?”

“Balance,” said the blackened monarch. He had wakened a fire behind the anvil and was preparing to begin a smith’s work. “The domain of air has the sword, which needs a bearer to be useful. Ciro can never use it, so he is made reliant on a champion. The domain of earth has the death hound, which will submit to Caius only once before it flees and must be recaptured. What neither realizes is that both belong to me. I forged the sword; I raise the hounds. Once a hound is set against the swordbearer, it will not rest until it has brought the sword back to me. Once it has done so, it is… mostly… harmless.” His was a ferocious grin, fully as alarming as the death hound’s bared teeth. “Both are naturally instruments of death, subjects of my domain.”

He ignored Des once he began working. Like something mechanical he swung his hammer, filling the air with the din of metal on metal. The mist had a strange, deadening quality that made the hammering dull, and the rhythm was as regular as a clock’s second hand. Weary already, Des fell into an almost hypnotic daze until her feet started to tingle from being knelt on for such a long time. She tipped onto her side, grimacing from the pain, only noticing after a while that the hammering had stopped. The forge’s fire had burned low. Its master, the king of under earth, reclined with his back to the anvil. He appeared to sleep soundly, with the death hound’s huge gaunt head resting on his leg.

From the mist, another death hound dropped noiselessly to the sand. This one was larger than the one sleeping alongside the king. It dragged with it the carcass of an elk. For all the attention it paid her, Des might not have existed at all. The death hound dragged the elk carcass down the shallow steps and through the gate into the darkness under the earth.

Now that the hound had drawn her attention in that direction, Des could barely look away from the gate. She wondered aloud, “Who needs a warning not to enter there?” But she walked almost on tiptoe to the gate to look within. From the depths, a curious chorus of squeaks and yips echoed back for a few moments. More distantly, a man’s voice called. It sounded miles away. Des leaned into the gateway to hear better. “Key… something,” she said. “I wonder what it means.” She glanced backward, but the king of under earth still slept. She took a step over the gate’s threshold. The rending of flesh closer at hand nearly turned her back, but as her eyesight adjusted to the darkness, she realized that the gate opened into a cavernous antechamber. Cracked and gnawed animal bones littered the stone floor. The shadowy movements beyond suggested several death hounds gathered around the carcass brought by the most recent arrival. Des trod carefully, but her passage did not distract the hounds from their meal. Tumbling and squeaking around the carcass, a handful of pups snapped at the scraps dropped by their elders.

Contrary to expectations, the tunnel under the earth grew brighter as Des proceeded deeper into it. She entered a domed chamber that felt spacious after the dark tunnel. A fountain and pool dominated the space. Thirsty all at once, Des sat on the raised lip of the pool and drank until satisfied. The fountain sparkled, although the bright chamber had no apparent light source to reflect off its cascades.

The voice Des had heard earlier called again, this time startlingly near at hand. “Key-aar!” From another arched gateway Des had not yet noticed, a man emerged into the chamber carrying a platter of food. He stopped short when he noticed Des.

Des leaped to her feet. Something in his face stopped her from blurting out whatever came first to her mind.

“Welcome,” the man said. He was older, but his exact age was difficult to ascertain: clean-shaven, tall, strongly-built and kind-eyed. “You’ve just arrived. No need to linger in here. Come deeper in.”

Des shook her head. “He warned me not to venture too deep… I shouldn’t be here.”

“He spoke to you? That’s unusual. There’s usually no reason to stop a passing spirit and converse.”

Again Des shook her head. “I’m not a spirit. I don’t think I’m a spirit,” she added, “but it has been a strange day. Maybe I am and I never noticed.”

The man studied her more closely. “No,” he said after a while, “there’s something different about you. How did you come?”

So Des recounted the chase of the death hound, her fall from the dominion of earth, and her meeting with the king of under earth. As she spoke, the man began to smile. “I forget sometimes,” he said. “Ciar has a sly streak to him. Told you not to venture too deep under earth, did he, and then fell sound asleep? Young Des, Ciar is king under earth. His dominion is death; he doesn’t need to sleep. He was offering you the choice, to see what you would do. You’re obviously not suited to be swordbearer for Ciro, but you could have chosen to attempt the climb back up. Had you chosen even to take the sword into your hands again, Ciar would have sent you back. He must have seen something in you.”

“He is king under earth,” Des said, “yet you speak of him so familiarly.”

“He’s my son.”

“Ah!” Des dropped to her knees.

The man stopped her. “Not necessary, I assure you. I have relinquished all dominion and taken my place here. King Ciceran no longer exists. Here I am only Ciceran. So, young Des, what will you do now? You came as far as this. You can come farther and see the wonders this dominion holds. It is nothing you have ever imagined,” he added. “Yet here you wait. He won’t follow you here, either to welcome or to scold you. Ciar is bound at the entrance. If he comes this far, it is only to refresh himself for a minute at the fountain and then return to his duties.”

Des said suddenly, “Is the story true? Was this all that was left for him?”

The old king nodded, a little sadly. “It was all that his brothers left him, but in all honesty only Ciar could have taken up the dominion under earth. Ciro is too self-important; Caius is too self-indulgent. Ciar alone had the character necessary to surrender every hope for himself and bind himself between the realms as he did. I had feared this, when I chose to divide the dominions between them. When I held all three, I was able to cross from one dominion to another without trouble, but for one man to hold all three at once is a terrible burden. We aren’t strong enough creatures to endure it. So while his brothers live as kings in their respective cities, Ciar stands as solitary gatekeeper to wonders he cannot share.”

“I understand that, I think.” Des bowed her head. “You called for him.”

“Yes, I was perplexed why he didn’t answer me, but you’ve answered that mystery for me. I sometimes bring him dinner. He doesn’t really need it, but it makes a change for him. I can’t venture out through the gate, being bound as a subject to this dominion now, but he can hear me calling and come as far as this to take it from me.”

The swordbearer’s features changed subtly. “I can take it to him. I haven’t gone too deep, have I? I can still go back to the gate?”

“You can,” said the old king, “but you’ve drunk from the fountain now. I doubt you can go back easily to air or earth.”

Des reached for the platter. She met the old king’s wry smile with one of her own. “Death reveals secrets, right? I expect it still does, even after you lay down the dominion of it.”

Ciceran laid a large hand on her head in blessing. “We’ll meet again.”

Carrying the platter high in front of her, Des ran along the tunnel back toward the outermost gate. She jumped over the death hound pups that tumbled across her path in a tussle over a stripped bone. When she emerged into the dull light outside, she nearly ran into the king of under earth. With a squeak not unlike the pups’, she veered to save the dinner.

“What are you…?”

Des recovered her poise. She held out the platter. “Lord,” she said.

He accepted the meal from her. After a few more seconds of staring at Des, the king under earth took his dinner to the anvil. “I sent the sword back.”

“Thank you. It’s for the best.”

He continued to glance at her from time to time while he ate, but he never spoke his thoughts until he had emptied the platter, washed it under a small cascade in an alcove beyond the forge, and set it on a shelf with another. Then he turned his full attention to tidying the forge.

Patiently Des waited and watched him.

“What do you seek of me?” the king under earth asked at last.

“Nothing, Lord.”

“Then why did you come back from the depths?”

They stood facing one another over the anvil. Des lifted her shoulders in a slight shrug. “I was born under the domain of earth, but my brothers angered our lord there. He set the death hound against us, and only I of my whole family survived. When I was recovered, I climbed the spire path to the domain of air, looking for a home and a reason. I thought protecting others from the hounds would be enough reason for me, but becoming swordbearer wasn’t at all what I expected. What was left to me? I had no place in earth or air, being too dull to amuse Lord Caius on the one hand and too queasy to serve as Lord Ciro’s glorified executioner on the other. I struggled so fiercely within myself that, the first time I drew the sword, it shattered.” She met the intensity of his stare with a wry smile like the one she had offered his father. “I have nowhere to belong to, nowhere to return to. Is there a lord better suited for such a one as I to serve?” Once again she dropped to her knees and, hands braced on the sand, bowed deeply before him.

“I don’t need a servant.”

“I will wait until you have a use for me, lord.”

“Living on a doorstep is uncomfortable.”

“If my lord can endure it, I can.”

“There is only the forge and the hounds.”

“I’m sturdy enough for the work, lord.”

“Lift your head. Stop calling me ‘lord.’ I’m Ciar.”

Des sat upright. Her gaze was bright with anticipation. “Yes, Lord Ciar.”

Ciar raised an eyebrow at her. “I said…” Then he sighed. “Never mind for now. You’re quite welcome into the dominion under earth. It should be less dull now, with someone to talk to. Why are you smiling like that?”

“I’m already useful to my lord. Why shouldn’t that make me smile?”

He sighed again. “You’re strange.” When Des laughed at that, the king under earth could not help but smile a little in response. “Very strange.”

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