Jim Melvin

The Death Wizard Chronicles

Book 5

Madiraa, Chieftain Kusala and a large group of others are forced to flee Nissaya by escaping into the spidery catacombs beneath the great granite fortress.

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Eventually they came to a crossroads, where they had the choice of three passageways, each of similar size and appearance. Madiraa halted and stood silently for an uncomfortably long time before whispering to Indajaala just loud enough for the Kusala to discern.

“You have advised my father wisely in the past. What say you now?”

“The left path is the most perilous, especially at the bridge, while the right opens into wide chambers that would leave us vulnerable,” the conjurer said. “For our purposes, I believe the middle path is the best of the three.”

“But the left path is the most likely to lack enemies,” the queen said.

“Still, it is very risky, especially considering that most among us are unused to such challenges,” Indajaala said.

Despite the conjurer’s objections, Madiraa chose the left passageway, which was narrow at first but soon broadened and grew taller, making it easier to traverse than the tunnel from which they had emerged. But even this passageway continued to descend, and Kusala wondered just how far they had plunged beneath the surface, guessing at least several hundred fathoms. Eventually they would have to begin walking upward, which would be a tiresome task, especially for the refugees, many of whom were ordinary village folk unused to such vigorous climbs. The children and elderly among them would find the going next to impossible.

The passageway spilled into another massive gallery that was hundreds of cubits broad and tall, its ceiling and floor littered with stalactites and stalagmites. There were traces of Maōi as well, creating just enough illumination to reveal a stunning deposit of yellow-brown diamonds protruding from one of the walls. The enormity of the wealth staggered Kusala. Just one of the diamonds would have been worth a fortune in Senasana, yet here there were thousands of them, some as large as his fist.

Blinded by Power - 600x900x300Madiraa led them along the floor of the gallery, winding to-and-fro between the stalagmites. Kusala felt as if he were wandering through a forest of stone trees. Eventually the queen bade them to stop, then she walked over to a dark tunnel that appeared to dive sharply downward. She strode in far enough so that her torchlight was no longer visible. To Kusala’s relief she reappeared quickly, though her expression was distraught.

“An enormous creature has come this way,” she whispered to Kusala. “There are markings on the walls, floor, and even ceiling. And it has left behind a strange odor, sweet as perfume.”

Kusala quickly ordered the Asēkhas to spread out and search in all directions, but they found no scat or other signs, other than those the queen already had reported. More than a dozen tunnels led out of this gallery, so if a creature had passed this way, it had many exits from which to choose.

“My queen, we should rest again before we continue,” Indajaala said. “From here, the ways are increasingly difficult, as you know far better than I.”

“Agreed,” Madiraa said.

A sharp cry startled the gathering, and Churikā came forward gripping a man by his wrist. She cast him to the stone floor at Kusala’s feet. Kusala recognized the pirate named Tew. The Senasanan countess stood nervously nearby.

“I caught him trying to pry one of the diamonds from the wall with a dagger,” the Asēkha said, her beautiful cleavage still revealed by her tattered black jacket. Was it possible the pirate was leering at it even now?

“Ohhhhhhh,” he moaned, cradling his wrist as if it had been broken.

“Where did you get the dagger?” Kusala said in a stern voice.

“I . . . I . . . found it on da ground.”

Kusala’s uttara flashed in the dim light, making a hissing sound as it approached the pirate’s throat before stopping a hair’s width from his neck.

“Lie to me again and I will not halt the stroke.”

“Yes, sir . . . yes, sir . . . I stole it, I did . . . from a man in front of me who had tucked it in his girdle. Please don’t kill me, sir. I meant no harm. I figured nobody would miss just one of these diamonds, when there are so many.”

Kusala glared at the countess. “I thought I told you to watch him. You are as guilty as he.”

“It’s dark and crowded,” she said, her voice quivering. “And he’s been well-behaved till now.”

“What do you think we should do with him?” Kusala asked her.

“Give him one last chance,” she begged. “It’s not like he tried to hurt someone. It’s just his greed got the best of him.”

“Yes, sir!” Tew agreed. “I won’t mess up again, I promises.”

Kusala grunted, then looked at Madiraa, who shrugged as if she cared little either way.

“One . . . last . . . chance,” Kusala said. Then to Churikā: “Get him out of my sight.”

Afterward things grew calm, and they sat and ate again, resting their backs against the stalagmites.

“Normally we touch the stone as little as possible,” Madiraa said. “Too much contact robs it of its beauty. But now it matters little. These chambers, like Nissaya itself, belong to Mala. I’m sure his monsters will defile them soon enough.”

“How far have we journeyed?” Kusala said.

“Almost six leagues in distance and more than a mile beneath the surface,” the queen said. “The next two leagues will be the most treacherous. After that, we will come to a long passageway that will deliver us to freedom.”

“Do you still sense the creature?”

“Yes,” Madiraa and Indajaala said in unison.

“Why don’t I?” Kusala said.

“Perhaps it’s due to your unfamiliarity with the catacombs,” the conjurer said. “On the sands of Tējo, the scampers of a beetle would not escape your attention.”

“Perhaps . . .” Kusala said.

Less than a bell passed before Madiraa ordered another march. The next tunnel the queen chose was the smallest yet, forcing all but the shortest of them to walk in an awkward crouch. For the first time in his life, Kusala felt the beginnings of claustrophobia creep into his awareness; but he refused to allow it to consume him, taking slow, calming breaths. Others behind were less fortunate, resulting in screams and sobbing that angered Madiraa.

“We might as well drag out a dozen of your largest Taikos and announce our coming,” the queen hissed at Kusala, as if the noise was his fault.

“And the worst is yet to come,” Indajaala said worriedly.

“What could be worse than this?” Kusala grumbled. “It’s like we’ve been stuffed into a barrel.”

The narrow tunnel wound to-and-fro for what felt like leagues. Kusala’s thighs began to burn from the exertion, and his lower back cramped. Three times he was forced to crawl, which was awkward while also holding his torch, but he had no plans of discarding it. If he were somehow separated from Indajaala or the other conjurers, he would be left in utter darkness. This thought revived his claustrophobia, causing him to grit his teeth.

“Does this never end?” he said angrily to Madiraa’s curvaceous rump as they crawled through an especially tight portion of the tunnel.

“Stop complaining” was her mumbled response.

From behind, Indajaala added, “It ends, all right. But that is where the real peril begins.”

Kusala didn’t like the sound of that, but he continued to crawl, admiring the queen’s buttocks to help pass the time. Finally, blissfully, the tunnel enlarged until he was able to stand upright and stretch out his back. The cracking sounds of his relieved vertebrae caused Madiraa to flinch.

“I thought Asēkhas were silent!” she snapped. Then she added, “Proceed carefully. Danger awaits the unwary.”

Soon after, Kusala gasped in astonishment as they emerged onto a broad ledge that overlooked a subterranean vent large enough to contain a city. Light from far above filtered downward, creating a sparkling visibility. Kusala looked up and could not see the vent’s ceiling, then looked down and could not see its floor. But a sight even more astounding dwarfed all this. A stone bridge little more than two cubits in width spanned the vertiginous chasm, winding slightly upward like a snake slithering into faraway obscurity.

“What in Anna’s name?” Kusala said.

“It is called setum aputhulam (the narrow bridge) in the ancient tongue,” Madiraa said.

“The ancients can’t be accused of exaggeration,” Kusala responded.

Madiraa giggled, momentarily sounding like her old self. Then her moroseness returned. “We must attempt to cross. Safety lies beyond.”

This stunned Kusala. In his mind she had made a dreadful mistake in choosing this path.

“A Tugar would struggle to attempt such a feat.”

“The black knights will not fail,” the queen said. “But the others among us? Let us pray for their deliverance.”

“Why did you choose this way?” Kusala argued. “Is it your desire to weed out the weakest?”

Madiraa grunted. “Do you think so little of me, Kusala?”

Indajaala stepped between them. “Do you not see the obvious, chieftain? If the narrow way is difficult for us, then it will be more so for the large creature that haunts these caverns.”

Kusala was taken aback, but then his mind seemed to grasp the method behind the madness.

“If there is such a beast, let us hope it cannot fly,” Kusala said.

“Indeed,” Madiraa said, so matter-of-factly that it caused Kusala to shiver.

The first few steps were the worst. In jarring contrast, acrophobia replaced claustrophobia, and the howling winds didn’t make it any easier. Kusala felt like he might be sucked off the bridge and cast into the abyss at any moment. And if he were so fearful, how might some of the others react? Once again he found himself questioning Madiraa’s choices.

Up they went on the narrow bridge, as slowly as an army of creeping ants. At varying points Kusala’s large feet were almost as broad as the bridge, and he could not resist peering down, as if the specter of death lured him. To make matters worse, the stone bridge seemed to sway—in fact, it did sway, subtly but noticeably—which made the ascent even more precarious.

As sure-footed as a snow giant, Madiraa led them without hesitation, but this time she kept her pace blessedly slow. Kusala stared at her feet and mimicked her rhythm, growing in confidence with each step. But after about two hundred paces, a series of screams far behind splintered his new-found sense of well-being. He turned his head just in time to see a panicked old man drag several people over the edge, and they tumbled off the bridge into the bottomless pit. Kusala cried out, but was helpless to lend aid. For a time everyone froze, as if movement of any kind would cast all the rest of them to their doom.

Finally Madiraa’s voice shattered the paralysis. “The way is difficult, but it can be done,” she shouted to all those who remained. “Safety is not far!”

Then she turned and continued upward. The rest had no choice but to follow.

For a while Kusala heard no more screams. He could only assume that between the sure-footed Tugars and black knights, the refugees were receiving enough assistance to keep from falling. Still, the swirling winds that raced inexorably up the vent did not make things any easier. More than once, a ferocious gust nudged Kusala off-balance. Even Madiraa, the lone person in front of him, seemed to struggle at times. But now she was more than halfway across the bridge, at least the portion of it not obscured in the far-ahead darkness, and Kusala began to feel a shred of hope. If they could make it to the other side, the rest of the journey would have the feel of a holiday.

Actually the bridge wasn’t a bridge at all; rather it was a narrow wall that split the vent in two. The right side of the wall bowed slightly outward as it plunged downward and remained visible for a considerable distance before becoming lost in shadow. But the left side of the wall dove steeply down and disappeared from view just a few cubits beneath Kusala’s feet. The left side also had a deadlier feel, and more than once Kusala told himself that if he were to fall he would prefer the right, though he knew that he would be just as dead either way. Still he found himself drawn more and more to the left side, staring into the abyss with a mounting obsession. The mysterious presence that had so concerned Madiraa and Indajaala now entered his awareness. At first he thought it was just his imagination, but a feeling of danger even greater than falling grew in his mind, until he could think of nothing else.

On his left the winds grew ever stronger, and there were other sounds as well, like straps of leather being snapped against wooden planks. A strange sensation came over Kusala, resembling in some ways the madness that had engulfed him while holding Henepola’s scrying basin. But this sensation wasn’t due to the remnants of magic; it came directly from the source, which made it far more insidious. For that reason what happened next didn’t catch him entirely by surprise. A black dragon rose slowly beside him, as deftly as a hummingbird, its massive wings trembling ever so slightly. A large round eye seized on Kusala’s face, and a pervasive wave of magic fell upon him. This paralyzed him so much that he was unable to reach for his sword.

Manussa hetthato, tayā me bhāsitamÈ sambuddhamÈ? (Low One, can you understand me?)” the black dragon said to Kusala.

Sabbathā (All too well),” Kusala managed in response.

The dragon continued to speak in the ancient tongue. “(I know you not, but it is obvious that you rank highest of this gathering. If you answer my questions to my satisfaction, I will allow you and your companions to live. If not, I will slay you all. Do you doubt me?)”

The challenge seemed to weaken the trance. Kusala felt a surge of rage.

Patibahissāma. Te atthi ettha samÜsayo? (We will resist. Do you doubt me?)”

The dragon’s expressive face became puzzled. He swept his mighty wings once, spun around in mid-air, and perched lightly on the bridge just a stone’s throw in front of the queen and Kusala.

“(The black-skinned ones I know),” the dragon said, gesturing toward Madiraa. “(They were here before. But your kind, Blue Eyes, is new to me. Do you hail from the desert?)”

“(Is this one of your questions?)” Kusala said in the ancient tongue. He wasn’t certain how the dragon would react. Surprisingly the massive beast laughed, though it sounded more like the grumblings of an earthquake.

“(So bold you are! In truth, you need answer only one question to save yourself and the others. Does Bhayatupa the Great still haunt this world?)”

Kusala grunted. “(Though it brings me no pleasure to say so, the answer is yes.)”

The black dragon bent his long neck forward until his snout was just a dozen paces from the queen and chieftain. Madiraa seemed unable to move, but Kusala stepped delicately around her and placed himself at the front of the line. Then he drew his uttara and held it high above his head. The blade blazed with blue fire, causing the dragon to withdraw several cubits.

Kusala held his ground. “(I speak the truth, black dragon. Would you know more? If not, leave us. We are not your concern.)”

The dragon growled, but when he saw that this did not dismay Kusala, he laughed a second time. “TamÈ sakkaromi, NiΆacakkhumatā. Siyā samagacchissāma anagatakale. (I like you, Blue Eyes. I hope we meet again some day, though my heart tells me this will not be so.)”

With a titanic thrust of his wings, the dragon sprang from the bridge. Before departing he swept over the others, blasting crimson flames above their heads. Dozens screamed and leapt from the bridge, never to be seen again in this world. With a low-pitched screech, the black dragon soared upward in a series of dizzying spirals and disappeared into the sparkling mist high above.

Afterward there was a cacophony of shouts, screams, and cries, but above it all Kusala could hear a Tugar shouting, “Well done, chieftain!”

After what seemed like a very long time to Kusala, Madiraa and the others eventually found the courage to continue. Though the remainder of the bridge was treacherous, it now felt tame compared to the presence of the dragon. The queen re-took the lead and guided them bravely.

At the end of the bridge there were three more passageways. This time the queen chose the middle tunnel, which proved to be broad and tall. They followed it for four leagues, resting frequently. When they finally emerged from its maw and re-entered the surface world, two full days had passed since the fall of Nissaya, and it now was past midnight. The moon, waxing gibbous, hovered over the western horizon like the glowing eye of a wakeful god.

The night was warm.

And still.

The large company crept into the nearby woods, making nary a sound.

If the black dragon were watching, he did not show himself.

About The Author

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Jim Melvin was an award-winning journalist at the St. Petersburg Times for twenty-five years. As a reporter, he specialized in science, nature, health and fitness, and he wrote about everything from childhood drowning to erupting volcanoes. Jim is a student of Eastern philosophy and mindfulness meditation, both of which he weaves extensively into his work. Jim is the author of The Death Wizard Chronicles, a six-book epic fantasy for mature audiences. But he and his agent are now actively marketing book 1 of an epic fantasy trilogy for ages 12 and up titled Dark Circles.

About my Publisher

The Death Wizard Chronicles is being published by Bell Bridge Books, an imprint of BelleBooks, Inc. Bell Bridge Books is known for nurturing emerging fiction voices as well as being the “second home” for many established authors, who continue to publish with major publishing conglomerates.