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Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Lost Heir, Episode 5: A Way Out



Episode 5


A way out



          “Do you think it still floats?” Kelden asked. A longboat, roughly twenty feet long and eight feet wide sat off to the side of the chamber, at the edge of the light cast by Nedekar’s cube. The two approached the vessel, Nedekar holding his cube up to illuminate as much of the room as possible with each step.
          “Looks intact,” Nedekar said breathlessly. “This was here? The whole time?”
          Nedekar turned to Kelden and shook his head. “And you doubt Lisei’s wisdom?”
          Kelden shrugged. “Setting an elaborate trap doesn’t require a beneficial kind of wisdom,” he replied. “When this foolishness is over, and I am back with my queen on our way to reclaim her throne, then I will be satisfied. Until then, Lisei’s true motives are questionable at best.”
          Nedekar waved a thin hand in the air. “You’ll battle sea-crocs with your bare hands, but you stubbornly hold onto your doubts.”
          “Doubts keep me cautious, and that keeps me alive,” Kelden said. “Besides, I have always worshipped the Old Gods.”
          Nedekar nodded and continued moving closer to the boat.
          A series of round shields hung on the outer hull. Each of them appeared solid and strong as the day they had been set in place. The ship itself appeared water tight and undamaged by the passing of time. It was nestled on a rack of wood, held up above the floor of the chamber some ten feet. The prow had a large, wooden dragon head and the stern ended with a spiked tail. Only when the two of them came close did they notice that the sides of the hull were actually carved to give the appearance of wings.
          “Whoever built this craft was very skilled,” Nedekar said.
          “The question is how they got it in here,” Kelden commented. “I don’t see any exits, do you?”
          Nedekar turned about in place, holding his cube high above his head and focusing the light as best he could. “No, and I have inspected every hill and vale on this island. I would have found a tunnel if there was one. So, there must be another door, like the two we have already discovered.”
          “So a third cube then?” Kelden asked. “After all, my cube only opened the first door. Yours opened the second.”
          It was Nedekar’s turn to shrug. He frowned and pouted out his lip as his shoulders rose up to nearly touch his ears. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Now that my memory is coming back to me, I understand the rune I saw in the previous chamber regarding Nagé’s husband. My studies told me there were several cubes. They were fashioned by Tangui, and given to Nagé, but I can’t quite remember their purpose.”
          Kelden stopped and turned to regard Nedekar. “The cubes were made by the gods?”
          Nedekar smiled. “I believe Lisei wants us to return them to their rightful owners,” he said with an emphatic nod that seemed to mock Kelden’s doubts, but the warrior wasn’t about to come over to Nedekar’s side just yet.
          “If that were true, then why take this cube away from Queen Dalynn?” he asked as he patted his cube. “She is the only surviving heir to the throne. Yet Lisei took the cube away from her.”
          “Then there must be another heir,” Nedekar said matter-of-factly. The scholar then approached the wooden rack that propped up the longboat and slapped one of the timbers. “It looks sturdy enough to climb. Shall we go up and take a look?”
          Kelden nodded and moved to the rack. He tugged on a couple of crossbeams before pulling himself up. The two climbed to the vessel and then helped each other over the side and into the longboat. Kelden looked around and grunted. “Perhaps we should reassess your opinion of the shipbuilders.”
          “By thunder’s might,” Nedekar whispered. “This ship was meant to be burned.”
          Kelden nodded. Bones were strewn about the bottom of the ship in a haphazard manner, nothing like the once orderly arrangement had been when those who had erected the funeral pyre had assembled everything. The once fine linens and silks that had adorned each corpse were now tattered rags discarded along the boat and left to rot.
          “Who would have desecrated the bodies?” Nedekar asked. “I saw no sign of struggle down below.”
          “Me neither, but we haven’t searched the whole chamber yet. Perhaps the others were caught by surprise and carried off. Or perhaps they were chased off by some sort of animal.”
          Nedekar shook his head. “There aren’t any vultures out here, and no sea-croc could climb up to get at the corpses. Something else must have happened.”
          Kelden sifted through the bones, walking carefully to avoid stepping on any directly. From the looks of the large femurs and the normal-sized skulls, there was little doubt that the ship-builders had been human. Elves would have had slighter bones, narrower skulls, and longer arms and fingers. Dwarves would have been much shorter. The odd thing, was that Kelden knew the sea-faring races in these parts, and none of the items matched his expectations. Kuscans were larger than most human races, but none of these bones seemed to indicate a height of more than six feet, let alone reach the seven-foot average of Kuscan males. Kelden bent down and pulled up a clothing fragment to inspect the patterns. The colors didn’t match any society he knew of. The inhabitants of Jibbam were given to wearing very colorful apparel with loud, flashy patterns that often mimicked blossoms or leaves found upon their island. Yet the clothing he held in his hand was a muted forest green with zig-zagging gold stitching. Too fine for pirates, yet not ostentatious enough for people from Jibbam.
          “They must have been here a very long time,” Nedekar said as he shifted some bones with his foot. “Look at this.” Nedekar bent down and picked up a brown leather book.
          “What is it?” Kelden asked.
          “It’s a star chart, a navigational guide, but its centuries old. I have only ever seen one like this before. It was in my order’s library, but none of us knew where it came from, or who had drawn it.”
          “Then how do you know its age?” Kelden asked.
          “Several indicators,” Nedekar said. He turned and showed Kelden the cover. “First, there is the seal. This chart bears a single rune, an ancient form of Taish.”
          “Taish?” Kelden asked. “So it was made by the elves?”
          Nedekar shook his head. “No, this was made by a man. You see, the elves were the first, and best sea voyagers in the world. They created the most accurate star-charts. Some of these were copied and sold. Humans, being the crafty devils that we are, began to copy their likenesses and sell counterfeit copies. The difference, is that an elf would always imprint two runes on the front cover. One that would be large and visible to the naked eye, and another smaller rune set inside that would need a magnifying glass to locate and verify. Not to mention that the runes themselves were always sharper, with crisper angles when made by elves. No human hand has ever been able to master the technique, therefore all forgeries have slightly rounded runes. Well, except for Miklas Kofenstahr, his skill surpassed that of many elves actually.”
          “So this is a fake?” Kelden asked, trying to hurry the history lesson along.
          Nedekar shook his head. “No. You see, after forgeries became common, sea-faring guilds began to spring up throughout the larger cities. They set forth a set of rules and accepted practices. On the spine of this star-chart you can see a guild seal imprinted with gold embossing. Below the guild seal, you can see the year. This particular chart dates back to the ancient era.”
          Kelden’s eyes widened. “Then that book is thousands of years old.”
          Nedekar nodded. “I am not a wizard, so I can’t say for certain, but given the fact that this chart is wholly intact, as is true of the other copy I spoke of in my order’s possession, I suspect they were created with the use of magic that prevents them from dulling or rotting. Look.” Nedekar opened the cover and flipped through the first few pages. “Any other book from that era would either be dust already, or crumble as soon as it was touched. Yet, this one we can use as easily and surely as if it was made last week.”
          “Does it have the location of this island?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar shrugged. “Only one way to find out. Here, take this and hold it over the pages.”          Kelden took Nedekar’s cube and the two moved to sit on a bench while Nedekar studied each page. “This may take a little while. It has been a few years since I have worked with these kind of charts. But, if I just…” Nedekar started mumbling to himself while pointing at stars and tracing lines on several pages. He continued flipping through the book for quite some time before landing on a specific page and smiling. “I think I have it,” Nedekar said. He pointed to the book.
          “That’s where we are?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar nodded slowly. “I think so. It’s hard to say for certain, of course, but I think this is the island upon which we sit. The left page is a star chart, mapping a journey from the main continent in the west, out past Jibbam, and to an island far in the east. The right page describes a bit about the mountains, and if I am reading the old runes correctly, the descriptions match where we are. There is a small map here, as well, that shows an island in relation to what I think is Jibbam, though that particular land mass is called Hibborm in this map.”
          “So, we can follow the map back to Jibbam, then?”
          Nedekar nodded. “Yes, I think we can, as long as the skies are clear at night, that is.” Nedekar flipped the pages over. “Let’s just see what else is…” The scholar stopped and his mouth fell open.           “It can’t be,” he said breathlessly.
          “What is it?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar pointed to the pages. Kelden looked down and saw the left page was not a star-chart. Instead, it was a drawing of a cube much like the two they currently had in their possession. Two runes sat above the drawing, and a short passage covered the opposite page.
          “This talks about a cube, fashioned by Tangui, and given to the people of the sky. It says that the cube must be returned to the people in the sky, and then gives directions to find a mysterious island in the east, near the edge of the seas.”
          “The edge of the seas?” Kelden said with an arched brow. “No, I don’t care what it says, we are going west. I am getting back to Queen Dalynn.”
          “But, this is a sign. We have to complete the quest, don’t you see? You, me, the cubes, we have work to do!”
          Kelden shook his head and shouted. “I am not a pawn for the demi-gods to play with at their will! I am an agent of the queen, and I have a duty to perform. If you want to help me, then help me sail west. Otherwise, stay out of my way. I’m leaving this island.”
          “But there is a third cube!”
          “How do you know it isn’t talking about the cube you are holding?” Kelden said sharply. “It could be any cube.”
          Nedekar shook his head. “No, there is a cube somewhere in this cavern. These people were on a noble quest to return it to its rightful owners. Don’t you see? Now we have to finish what they started.”
          “Let Lisei find the sky people herself, that is what she rules, is it not?” Kelden asked. “She is the demi-god of storms and sky, yes?”
          “We must find the cube,” Nedekar said suddenly, ignoring Kelden’s comment. Nedekar snatched the glowing cube from Kelden, and jumped down from the ship without even grunting when he hit the ground below.
          “Nedekar, wait!” Kelden rose up and climbed out of the longboat, which proved a bit more difficult without a good source of light. “At least shine your cube my way!” Kelden called out. No response. Nedekar was running around the chamber, searching for clues. Kelden stretched his arm a bit too far and the wound in his chest tore at the corner. The warrior groaned and sucked in a breath through his teeth as he pulled his arm back and opted to jump down the remaining few feet. How he had managed to fight the sea-croc was anyone’s guess at this point. Perhaps it had been the urgency of the situation, or perhaps the cool waters had caused a mild numbing effect. Either way, he barely wanted to move his arms now. He walked slowly, turning and adjusting course to follow Nedekar as the strange little man darted sporadically from one place to another.
          The chamber was much larger than Kelden had anticipated, sprawling out like an octopus with several offshoots that wound their way to dead-ends, some filled with more bones, others just bare and empty. Then, as they search the seventh off-shoot, Nedekar let out a whoop.
          “I found a box!” he shouted.
          Kelden, intrigued by the discovery, gave in to his curiosity and jogged to meet up with the scholar. Nedekar opened a bronze chest and shined his light inside. His wide smile faded and then curled downward into a frown as the squeaking lid moved back to reveal nothing but the decayed remnants of a black velvet cloth.
          “No, it has to be here,” Nedekar said.
          “Maybe the ones who made the funeral pyre took it with them,” Kelden put in. “Or, maybe someone else found it before we came here. After all, if the boat has been here for as long as the star-chart, surely someone could have found this place.”
          “But who would ever be unfortunate enough to come to this gods-forsaken island?” Nedekar said before tapping a finger to his lips.
          Kelden cracked a smile and gave a short snort. “You mean besides us?” he asked.
          “What? Oh, yes, quite right,” Nedekar said with a nod. “But surely the Mistress of the Sky would not have sent us here if the cube had already been found. Everything points to a grand design, I’m sure of it.”
          Kelden was about to say something, but the ground shook and he staggered backward into the wall of the cavern, barely catching himself before falling. Nedekar was not so lucky, and fell to all fours, dropping his cube. The magic artifact bounced and tumbled away from them.
Something groaned in the darkness beyond the reach of the cube’s magical light.
          “It’s mine,” a voice growled. “Not yours. No. Can’t have it.”
          “We aren’t alone,” Nedekar said.
          “So it would seem,” Kelden replied.
          Something shifted in the shadows. Heavy feet shuffled along the ground toward them. A low, throaty growl hung on the air, but it sounded like no creature Kelden knew of. There was a terrible crack of stone that echoed down the cavern, and the shuffling feet stopped for a time.
          “What was that?” Nedekar asked.
          A moment later, something hairy moved into the soft purple glow of the cube.
          “The light must be put out!” Kelden took a half step back when he saw the beast emerge from the shadows. Hair lined the tops of its gargantuan feet, and dusted its shins. A grotesque, round belly stuck out over a crude loin cloth and hung down the top third of the creature’s muscular thighs. Long, thin arms held a boulder overhead as the thing roared once more.
          “The light must be put out!” Kelden repeated with urgency.
          “No!” Nedekar shouted as the beast took aim for the magical cube. “Stop!”
          The beast stopped and stared at Nedekar, still holding the boulder in the air as he cocked his head at the scholar. “You have come for it! She sent you, didn’t she? You can’t have it! The darkness wants it. Only the darkness can have it!”
          The beast then threw its head back and roared mightily. The sound echoed off the walls several times, and then a chill ran down Kelden’s spine as other voices answered the call with a howl of their own.
          “Look at his neck!” Nedekar shouted.
          Kelden looked up and cursed under his breath. There, hanging on a gold chain was a third cube. It had been hidden behind the creature’s beard, but was now plainly visible as the beast had its head tilted back.
          “I told you!” Nedekar hissed.
          The wound in Kelden’s chest was aching terribly, not to mention the various cuts and punctures the sea-croc had given him only a short while before. He was in no shape to fight, and even if he had been, he didn’t have the sword. He looked over to the scholar and sighed helplessly. Nedekar didn’t have it either.
          They were weaponless, exhausted, and trapped. The stone wall behind them offered no space to retreat or hide, and the monstrous brute was easily within range to crush them with the boulder. Even if the first creature missed, the howling cries from other parts of the cavern were growing in intensity now, and they were coming closer. Kelden and Nedekar needed a way out, and they needed it now.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Lost Heir, Episode 4: A Light in the Dark




Episode 4



A Light in the Dark



          “We have to hurry,” Nedekar shouted. “There has to be another way out of here.”
          Kelden went back to the entrance, but even as he sloshed through the water, he knew it was already too late to escape through the way they had come in. The water was pouring in so fast that it was already knee deep just outside the chamber. A little beyond that it was already up to his waist. If the narrow spot of tunnel had nearly killed him before, this time it would take him for sure.
          He turned and trudged back into the chamber. “Do you know how to bring the door back?” Kelden asked as he held out his cube. If he could figure out how to make the portal reappear, then perhaps he could buy them enough time to wait out the tide.
          Nedekar shook his head. “This is as new to me as it is to you, my friend. I don’t know how to bring the door back.
          Kelden felt around the sides of the doorway, hoping for a new place to set his cube in order to seal the chamber once more. All he found was smooth stone. He grunted and moved into the center of the chamber to inspect the altar. Nedekar was busy running his hands along the outer walls of the chamber.
          “Surely there has to be another way out,” Nedekar said. “Lisei would not send us here just to bury us in a watery grave.”
          “Are you sure of that?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar turned on the man and narrowed his eyes on him. “If she had wanted to kill me, she could have done so at any time over the last several years.”
          “Perhaps she is like a cat, toying with mice that she captures until they stop trying to escape.”
          “Cursing her will not help us escape,” Nedekar snarled. “I suggest you put your efforts to better use.”
          Kelden snorted, but ceded the point. He bent down to inspect markings upon the altar. He couldn’t see any place to insert a cube, or any other indications of levers or switches. “What did you say these runes said again?” Kelden called out to Nedekar.
          “If it is Nagé’s wisdom you seek, first you should find the meek,” Nedekar replied as he continued running his hands over a large mural of faded paint and carved runes.
          “Is there any hidden meaning to that phrase that would help us here?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar shook his head. “No, but I am looking at the other inscriptions in the chamber.”
          Kelden stood up and moved over to the wall behind him. The cold water was now up to his waist inside the chamber. He rubbed his shoulders and stared at the mosaic in front of him. It depicted an image of Nagé. She was hovering in the air above a fallen soldier upon a battlefield. A grand, gleaming spear in her left hand and a tall shield in her right. “What about this one?” Kelden called out.
          “It would be easier if you could read the runes,” Nedekar grumbled as he ploughed through the water to reach Kelden. He only glanced at the runes before shaking his head. “No, nothing important here.”
          “Are you sure, this is a depiction of Nagé, maybe it is connected to the altar.”
          “It shows a generic scene wherein Nagé is collecting a righteous soldier’s spirit from the field of battle after being dealt a mortal wound. There is nothing here.”
          Nedekar moved around the room as Kelden spun about in the water to survey the rest of the chamber. The rising waters reflected the flickering magical light of the dancing flames that illuminated the room, throwing glowing lines onto the ceiling. The warrior watched the bouncing reflections, calling to memory a game he had once played with his cousins where such reflections had been imaginary magical wards of protection, and all one had to do was stand under it to receive its boon. How he yearned for just such a protection now. Unfortunately, all the reflections above him offered was a steady reminder that the space in the chamber was ever shrinking as the air was pushed out by the water.
          “Come here,” Nedekar shouted. “I might have something.”
          Kelden moved slowly, now that the water was up to his chest, pushing against the cool liquid, swinging his arms up over its surface for extra momentum. “What is it?” Kelden asked. He looked up to the faded mural and could only make out the tops of several figures. The rest of the mural was already covered by the water.
          “I think Nagé is holding a cube in this image. I have already put mine up to the image, try yours,” Nedekar said. The man raised his hand above the water and pointed down. “It’s about two feet below the surface, but you can still see it with the help of the torches.”
          Kelden nodded. He dropped below the surface and scanned the wall until he saw what Nedekar had spoken of. The faded outline of a cube sat in Nagé’s hand. Kelden put his cube up to it, matching the lines and holding it perfectly still. Nothing happened. After several seconds, Kelden came up for breath and shook his head. “Nothing,” he said.
          Nedekar cursed. “I don’t know what else to try.”
          “What did the inscription say?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar frowned. “This mural is entitled ‘The Gift’ and shows her holding the cube out. But if yours did nothing, and mine did nothing, then this must not be the right—”
          Graw!
          Kelden turned and saw something with spined ridges floating into the chamber. “What’s that?”
          “A sea-croc!” Nedekar said.
          “I thought you said the star fish keep those things out of here,” Kelden shouted.
          Nedekar pulled up his sword and handed it to Kelden. “Here, take this. You’ll have to fight it off if it comes near. I’m the only one that can read the runes.”
          “Lovely,” Kelden murmured. Suddenly, death by drowning didn’t sound all that bad. He took Nedekar’s sword and held it at the ready, point out and poised to thrust into the sea-croc if it came too close. At the same time, he threw a silent prayer up to Icadion. Kelden was no stranger to battle, but fighting a sea-croc in water that was now nearly neck-high was not a balanced challenge.
The spines lining the croc’s back swished this way and that as the animal swam near the wall on the opposite side of the chamber. Kelden watched the creature, but also kept glancing to the water around him in case there were any sea-crocs entering the chamber below the surface of the water.
          “I have to move to the left about ten feet,” Nedekar said.
          “Move and you’ll get its attention,” Kelden replied.
          “Stay put and drown,” Nedekar reminded him. “At least this way we’ll go down fighting.”
          Easy for you to say, I’m the one with the job of fighting the croc. Kelden nodded and the two half-swam half-jumped toward the left. Just as Kelden had feared, their movement caught the sea-croc’s attention. The spines turned toward Kelden and then dove below the water. Kelden took in a large breath and then squatted down in the water. He saw the animal thrashing its tail and moving toward him at a blinding rate. Kelden barely had time to adjust the point of his sword before the animal was upon him. The croc opened its mouth and turned its head to the side. Kelden stabbed out, sliding his blade into the open maw and piercing the roof of the croc’s mouth. The animal jerked about wildly, ripping the sword free from Kelden’s hand.
          The beast was far more powerful than Kelden had expected.
          The warrior bobbed up above the surface for a quick breath and then dove back into the water. He launched himself toward the croc, encouraged by the blood spilling out and mingling with the water. The croc was now entirely focused on shaking the sword loose. Kelden knew that he had to reach the weapon before the croc succeeded. He swam out and managed to grab the handle as the croc swung its head toward him. Kelden twisted and then pushed upward once more. The croc tilted up in the water, thrashing its tail and head mightily and swinging Kelden in the process, but Kelden was not about to give up. He swam closer to the beast, not allowing it to escape, and then once they were over the altar, Kelden put his feet down upon the stone structure and drove up with all of his might. The sword pushed up and through the top of the croc’s skull, right between the eyes. The animal twitched a few times as copious amounts of blood flowed into the water, swirling around them and darkening the area.
          Kelden managed to surface once more for air, still holding the sword handle in his hands. “Got him,” he shouted over his shoulder.
          “Keep watching,” Nedekar said. “The blood may attract other creatures.”
          Kelden dove down and put his boot to the croc’s neck so he could pry the sword free. As the body floated away, trailing blood behind it, the mighty warrior turned to swim back toward Nedekar. The water was above his head now, and nearly up to the magical torches. Soon, they would be without light of any kind, and their hope for escape would be extinguished with the flames.
          “Have you found anything?” Kelden called out between strokes with his arms.
          “No,” Nedekar grumbled.
          Kelden made it half way back to Nedekar when something moved at his left. He turned just in time to see a second croc charging him. “Holy—”
          The croc opened its fang-filled maw and came in hard and fast. Kelden managed to turn himself just enough to grab the outsides of the croc’s jaws, but he took the croc’s full impact. He had to drop the sword to use his hands to shut the croc’s mouth and was only able to close his mouth before the creature took him under. This one was at least nine feet long, and much thicker than the first. It took Kelden to the bottom with ease and bashed him into the floor. Kelden couldn’t stop a bit of air from escaping upon impact. It was all he could do just to keep pressure on the huge set of jaws that hungered for him. The croc’s snout pressed into Kelden’s chest, pushing and tearing at the wound caused by the narrow chasm only a short while before. The warrior knew the only hope he would have to survive was to ignore his pain and keep the croc’s mouth closed. Luckily for him, a croc is far weaker when trying to open its mouth compared to its biting power. Even still, Kelden was going to run out of air soon. He had to get the croc to surface.
          The croc pushed and wrestled against him, pressing him into the stone floor with all of its power. Kelden brought his legs up and wrapped them around the croc’s neck in an effort to gain leverage. After a few seconds of wriggling, Kelden managed to get under the croc’s jaws while still clamping the mouth shut with his hands. The croc, seeing that it couldn’t crush Kelden anymore, began swimming around furiously, shaking and thrashing in an attempt to get free. Kelden hooked his left arm over the top of the croc’s snout and prayed that he had enough strength to keep the beast’s mouth shut with only one arm. He squeezed as hard as he could. Then he slid his right hand down the edge of the croc’s head until he found the eye socket. With all the power he could muster, he ignored his burning lungs and aching chest and dug a thumb into the croc’s eye. There was resistance at first, but Kelden kept wiggling and jabbing harder and harder until the orb tore and gave way.
          The croc let out a throaty snarl and swam up. The two of them moved so quickly that they breached the surface and flew up several feet into the air, nearly hitting the chamber’s ceiling. Nedekar shouted something, but Kelden only cared about sucking in a quick breath. Then they splashed down into the water once more. The croc swam to the edge of the chamber and used its body to smash Kelden into the walls as it swam hard and fast, dragging Kelden’s back along the stone.
          Kelden pulled his right arm back and maneuvered to hook his right arm around the croc’s snout so he could take a shot at getting the beast’s other eye. Just as he switched to hold with his right arm, Kelden was dragged right into a sharp, jagged bit of stone that cut into the top of his left shoulder and then raked down his shoulder blade. Kelden grunted in pain, losing a great amount of precious air. And then there was pain around his head. He had lost his grip, only for a moment, but it was enough that the croc had turned and grabbed him around the head. Kelden gripped a jaw in each hand, his fingers holding for dear life at the fleshy jaws between the fangs that were crushing ever harder into Kelden’s skull. At first there was a dull impact, but as the croc persisted, the point of each fang depressed the thin skin and poked at the bone behind. Kelden could not only feel the teeth, he could hear them grinding on his bone, threatening to end his life should his grip slip in the slightest.
          Then, the magical torches went out, their fires extinguished by the rising of the tide.
          It seemed that time slowed to a stand-still. The croc moved back and forth as Kelden kicked with his legs and pulled at the jaws with all of the strength he had left. For a moment, as he struggled in the darkness, he wondered if it might be easier just to let the croc have him. He was likely dead either way. Nedekar would be unable to find a way out in the darkness, and the water would soon fill the chamber to the top.
          The croc growled and snarled in the water as Kelden fought against it.
          If I’m going to die, then I am going to be the toughest meal you have ever had to kill! Kelden thought. He hoped his meat would be sour to the beast too. He pushed at the wall with his left leg, trying to get any amount of control over the fight, but the massive reptile turned and pinned Kelden against the wall once more.
          Then, a strange purple light appeared that partly illuminated the water around him. Kelden struggled to look down through the teeth to watch as the purple light grew and ran down the wall around him and to the altar. The altar itself then let out a terribly bright glow that cleared the darkness from the room. Kelden had no way of knowing what the light was, but he did see something he could use in his fight against the croc.
          One of those spiked starfish was slithering up the wall nearby. If he could get the croc to hit it, then maybe he would have a chance to free himself. The trouble was, he had no leverage, and his lungs were beginning to force the old air up his throat. Kelden started making gulping sounds internally as he struggled to keep his mouth shut and push the air back down into his lungs. There was no hope for him, and he knew it. He couldn’t fight for much longer.
          Then, there was an explosion of movement as the croc roared and tossed Kelden up to the surface. Kelden barely managed to grab a breath before the croc turned to strike at Nedekar. In the magical light, Kelden could see that Nedekar had found his sword and came to join the fight, plunging the blade in the croc’s left rear hip joint. The croc now turned on Nedekar. Kelden reached down and grabbed the croc’s tail. It wasn’t the soundest strategy against a nine foot reptile, but it was all he could think of in the moment as Nedekar was now struggling to stay ahead of the beast and swim away.
          The croc bent around to bite Kelden, but this time he saw the attack coming. He shifted around and lifted the end of the croc’s tail, allowing the beast to chomp on its own flesh. It let go as quickly as it could, but the damage was done. The tail was nearly chewed off, and the croc’s swimming speed and maneuverability would seriously suffer because of it. Despite this, the croc charged Kelden once more. The warrior was able to close the croc’s jaws again and hold on. The only problem was that the beast was about to ram Kelden into the exact spot where the starfish was climbing the wall.
Nedekar was doing his best to swim after them, but with one hand holding the sword, the man was unable to keep pace with the enraged croc.
          Kelden plunged his head into the water and looked over his shoulder, timing their approach and waiting for just the right moment. Then, as they were just a few feet from the starfish, Kelden turned and poked at the croc’s good eye with one hand. The gamble was terribly dangerous, for when the croc reacted it managed to free itself and get its jaws around Kelden’s mid-section. Kelden struggled to keep the fangs from crushing into his torso and they collided with the wall. Kelden had no way of knowing if his plan had worked. The croc was taking him to the bottom once more, and from what he could see, Nedekar was now swimming not to them, but to the altar of all things.
          The croc dragged Kelden down one last time, grinding him into the stone floor and clamping down with his jaws. Kelden knew that he wouldn’t be able to hold the beast off for long. He didn’t have very good leverage with his hands now that the jaws were around his torso. He kicked and tried to arch his back, but there was nothing he could do to free himself. Then, the fighting stopped. The jaws came open without any resistance. The croc growled, but then turned to its side. Kelden moved out of the way and then closed the jaws once more as the croc went belly-up. Then, Kelden noted what had happened when he saw the underside of a spiked starfish down on the croc’s side. When they had slammed into the wall this last time, the croc had impaled itself on not one, but all of the starfish’s spikes.
          The animal had no fight left in it now. Kelden went up to the surface with it, took a quick breath, and then went down for Nedekar’s sword. Even though the fight had been won, he was planning on letting Nedekar have it after he finished with the croc. He swam down just as Nedekar set his cube in the center of a glowing box in the center of the altar. As he did so, the magical light encased the cube for a moment. There was a loud crunching sound, and then a flood of light came in from above. The warrior paused and looked up for a moment, but then he continued down to the altar. Kelden took the sword and went back to the croc first. There would be time to inspect what Nedekar had done after the beast was fully dead.
          He ran the blade into the croc’s underbelly and slit it from end to end, sawing back and forth. Then he went to the surface and looked up. A vertical tunnel had opened above them, and as the tide continued to rise, they were able to swim up through it. The water stopped rising about two feet below the lip of the top of the tunnel, but it brought them close enough that they could pull themselves onto the floor of the upper chamber.
          “Didn’t mean to leave you,” Nedekar said between coughs as he flopped onto the stone. “Just, I saw the magical lines form a box and I knew that I had found the right spot for my cube.”
Kelden nodded. While he would have preferred not to have fought the croc on his own, he understood Nedekar’s motivation. “Has the water stopped for good?” Kelden asked.
          Nedekar rolled over and made a mark on the stone. “I’ll check to make sure it doesn’t rise above this point in a few minutes, but I think it’s stopped.”
          “Can I just say, I really hate this place,” Kelden sat up and then stood up and moved away from the shaft. “Let’s find something to cover that hole with. I am not about to fight another one of those things.”
          Nedekar looked down and started laughing. “Lisei is with us,” he said. A bright smile stretched the man’s face and he sheathed his sword as he stood up. “Look,” he said, pointing to the hole.
          Kelden warily inched closer to the shaft and peered down. Even he was smiling and laughing when he saw the score of spiked starfish filling the chasm and covering the walls.
          “No crocs are getting through that,” Nedekar said.
          “Let’s figure out where we are,” Kelden said with a nod.
          Nedekar held up his cube and light flooded the chamber around them. The two spun around, looking at the space, and then started laughing in unison.
          “Well, look at that. Lisei might be with us after all,” Kelden said.