Elf Boy's Friends - VIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 14

Out of the Chthonic Depths

While Jemsen and Karel, Madden Sexton and the elf-by Dylan swam and splashed in a pool, the other half of the Corps of Discovery went rock climbing in the next cavern upriver. They had to pass through a natural tunnel the dwarves had enlarged and improved with a wide path along one side for pedestrians and push carts.

Beyond the tunnel were a series of smaller chambers and then, perhaps half a mile deeper in came the entrance to the second cavern. Though also inhabited it bore fewer marks of civilization than the first.

The chief attraction of this second great cavern was rock climbing. One section of the wall rose in steps like a ziggurat. Once you got to the top you could slide back down via a zip line, a thrill in itself.

Now Drew Altair and Finn Ragnarson were experienced climbers, in Finn's case going back to his mountainous homeland. Drew and Finn and the twins were past masters of the sport of rock climbing whether with equipment or free climbing having gotten started years earlier during their mission to the Far West.

Drew and the twins were also aficionados of an acrobatic game similar to the modern sport of parkour which treated a whole city as an obstacle course and a training ground for skills useful for escape and evasion. You relied only on the unaided abilities of the human body to run, climb, jump, fall, swing, slide, and tumble. No equipment: no ropes, no hooks, no grapnels.

Liam had a head for heights and was agile enough to scramble about a ship's rigging but otherwise was not an experienced climber. Neither was Axel and with his new gift not particularly inclined to learn. Why do things the hard way? So those two essentially went along for a chance to explore the second of the three huge caverns in the company of their friends.

"I thought we'd agreed we would free climb today and show Axel and Liam how we do it." Drew asked puzzled as Finn unlimbered his climbing belt.

"True we agreed to climb without ropes and pitons and carabineers, but this belt is just a safety precaution in case I slip and fall."

"How can a belt help you in a fall? Anyway you can always count on my telekinetic gift to buoy you up."

"Ah, it is not the belt itself but what I am about to strap it to that will do the job, without your assistance, much as I appreciate your being at hand."

Drew watched, understanding dawning as the frost giant attached his war hammer Mjolnir to the harness.

"I see. In an emergency you could slow your fall by engaging the magnetic field of the planet to push on Mjolnir. "

"Exactly. In fact my control is now strong enough to counter gravity entirely. If I fell, I would touch down as light as a feather."

"So, if you are really that strong," Axel began, "why not use Mjolnir to fly on your own? Yoke or hammer, if you can make it move through the sky, then just hang on and go with it."

Finn slapped his forehead.

"Of course! I feel really dumb, Axel, for not having thought of it myself."

"Don't be too hard on yourself, Finn. We have seen time and again that those who cannot fly themselves have a better perspective than those who are too close to the problem. Which is why I became a Pioneer of Flight and the twins, Nathan, and Eike too."

"OK, forget rock climbing. Today I learn to fly on my own. That way I will be able to fly long distance in my autogyro or make short flights with Mjolnir just by hanging on to the loop at the end of the haft."

"Is that strap really strong enough to take your weight and for the dynamic strains which flight will put on it?" Liam wondered. As a former teamster Liam had a very good idea of the strength of leather harness.

"Plenty strong enough. It's a sandwich of four-ply leather over a wire core. The dwarves made the loop strong so I could whirl my hammer like a flail."

With that Finn whirled his hammer and when it had swung to the right direction lifted into the air. Once he corrected for the residual whirl he flew straight all the way to the roof then the length of the cavern. On the way back he veered left and right, up and down to gauge his agility in the air. Upon his return Finn dropped down next to the others, landing as light as a feather and let out a whoop.

Raising him hammer high he shouted his battle cry:

"By the power of Thor!"

A crash of thunder punctuated his utterance.

"Wow!" That was pretty impressive Finn," Axel said. Then with a wink he added: "Or should I call you Thor?"

"Only in battle Axel — when I am trying to scare the crap out of our foes."

Axel turned to Drew and told him:

"Drew, you gotta write this up for both the Capital Intelligencer and your journal 'Magic'. It's not only Finn. This technique will make a flyer out of any strong Masters of Magnetism."

"Don't worry. I will."

Meanwhile, back at the first cavern the twins and Dylan stood chest deep in a pool of water and engaged in a game something like flinging the Zinger only with an inflated ball. The idea was to smack it two handed and lob it into the air toward the next player with the object of seeing how long they all could keep the volley going.

It was a lot fun with all the splashing, jokes, and laughter. When the ball landed in the water and a player dived after it the game degenerated into cheerful grab-ass rambunctiousness. Really just an excuse for bare-ass horseplay in Madden Sexton's opinion, which went a long way to explain all that clean-limbed wrestling and dunking, tanned limbs flailing and firm rumps upturned.

Madden Sexton lay back on the grassy verge, a neutral observer smiling indulgently at the antics of the younger set. They really were a great bunch of kids. They had it all: good looks, strong healthy bodies, smarts, and friendly outgoing dispositions.

Even more important to a man of action like Sexton they had proven their courage and loyalty to comrades time and time again.

Sexton really enjoyed the company of these splendid youths, upon whom he had no carnal designs but sought only the pleasures of friendship and good fellowship. While among them Sexton could relax. He had no need to stay on the alert. No danger threatened them seriously or really could given their strong powers and abilities, both natural and magical.

Even the emergencies they had confronted along the way had not put their own well-being in peril, neither at the landslide nor the tin mine nor the locusts in the Hot Lands. And where they were heading they would not run into trolls or orcs or centaurs or barbarians. Nor the tyrants, slavers, raiders, and bandits he had fought against time and again on the eastern continent of Karelia.

Their confrontation with a pair of dire wolves on the shore of the Lesser Inland Freshwater Sea was something Sexton could have handled if Dylan had not invoked his powers as a beast master. Endowed with the strength of a Frost Giant and armed with a heavy-bladed kukri Sexton would have cut the beasts to pieces. Alternatively he might have torn them apart while in his wolverine form. A pair of dire wolves against a wolverine of his size was no contest at all.

No doubt about it. This journey of exploration was good therapy for someone who had seen too many of the bad things that could happen to good people and who had witnessed and participated in far too much violence during his three centuries.

Sexton grunted, amused at where his thoughts had taken him. Was he starting to feel old?

Cries of alarm interrupted Sexton's reverie. The shouts came from the lower end of the cavern, where the Mountain River disappeared over a cascade into a deep channel no one had ever followed or rather returned from. Sexton brought his enhanced vision to bear and saw that dwarves and visitors were fleeing for their lives from a monster out of a nightmare.

"By the gods!" Sexton exclaimed, shaken by what he had seen. As indeed anyone would have been.

A gigantic snake slithered across the floor of the cavern snatching up hapless dwarves and visitors and swallowing them whole with a convulsive gulp. The monster must have been ninety feet long with a body nearly five feet in diameter at its thickest. The head alone was as large as a man and had jaws that gaped four feet. It seemed there might be some truth to the claims about the river waters after all. It must have taken centuries for a snake to grow to such proportions.

The monster lacked the fangs and venom of a viper and did not employ constrictor tactics. Instead it simply ingested its prey live. Its very size was a weapon too, letting it bowl over the dwarves, humans, and elves which had become its prey and crushing them with its weight. The head was a battering ram which shattered first a gazebo and then a food stand behind which victims had sought to hide.

The monster's thick skin was largely immune to blades and missile weapons, few of which were at hand in any event in such a peaceful setting. In their desperation some victims resorted to hurling rocks or whatever came to hand.

A fetcher might have succeeded by driving a rock through an eye socket into the skull and scrambling the snake's brains. Alas among the dwarves fetchers were few and far between. The levin bolts hurled by one dwarf would have stopped a man's heart but did little more than anger the monster. It was not used to prey which fought back, an overturning of the natural order of things.

Several dwarves tried calling light, but the head was too big to englobe. When a dwarf die direct a globe of light against the snake's flank he was thrown against a wall by its reflex action. That left him with a concussion and a broken shoulder, but at least he was alive and his injuries were well within the capabilities of Healers to mend.

A fledgling firecaster, a teenage human just coming into his powers, threw a stream of fire at the snake's snout which made it draw back its head. That gave him and his younger siblings a chance to get under cover.

One father saved his family by darting across the path of the snake while shouting and waving his arms to attract its attention. As an elf he was too tall to just race upright into a tunnel sized for dwarfs so he dove in head first hoping to scramble deeper. Alas the snake closed it jaws on his lower legs, dragged him out into the open, flipped the elf heels over head and let him drop into its gullet. That was only one of more than a dozen deaths which followed.

A brave dwarf stood his ground at the entrance to a tunnel and held the monster off briefly by snapping electrum sparks into its maw by the double handful. Unlike the elf he was short enough to turn and run into it full tilt and almost got all the way in when the snake caught him around the ankle with its flickering tongue.

The dwarf might have died then if he had give into panic and scrabbled uselessly at the floor of the tunnel. Instead he turned and jackknifed his body and put both hands on the tongue and directed into it as many sparks as he could as fast as he could. All of the electric charge and most of the heat went into the snake but he still had the inside of his hands burned. The effect on the snake was all he could have hoped for. It let go of him with a horrible hissing and left in search of easier prey.

The dwarf's brave stand not only saved the lives of those who ran past him into the tunnel but also those of others who got to cover while the snake was occupied with him.

"Dylan, can you do anything with the creature?" Sexton asked.

The elf-boy cum newly fledged beast master broke off mental contact with the snake and shook his head.

"No. I looked into its mind, and I now know that the snake is deep into a killing frenzy, literally driven mad with hunger from having had to survive for centuries on meager rations in the chthonic depths. It now senses more meat in one place than it had ever imagined existed. It won't stop feeding till it has had its fill."

"Will the dwarves be safe in their domestic caverns with those narrow corridors?"

"Yes — for a while anyway. The snake won't poke its nose into narrow passages when there is so much meat on the hoof out in the open or in flimsy shelters it can batter down."

"Can we blind it with arrows? If we all had our bows I mean."

"You could sink shafts into its eyes, but that might only enrage it not disable it if you don't penetrate the brain, which even in so large a creature is pretty small. It no longer relies on its eyes anymore, not after centuries in the dark. The eyes still work, but the brain has largely forgotten how to process the signals the eyes send. No, it hunts now by smell and by detecting body heat."

"Anyway here we stand naked and unarmed. Even a wir wolverine like you Madden would be overmatched by so gigantic a foe."

Actually Sexton wasn't so sure a fight with even a snake this size would be so one-sided. It had neither fangs nor teeth but simply swallowed its prey whole. If brother snake tried that with him, he would soon find out that he had bitten off more than he could swallow. Transformed into a two-hundred fifty pound wolverine with the strength of a Frost Giant he would slash the inside of the throat. The pain would distract the monster and keep it from swallowing leaving Sexton free to tear its throat out from the inside, almost certainly inflicting mortal damage while cutting his way into the clear. Still that tactic was only a last resort and one he would not care to volunteer for.

"What can you twins do?" he asked.

Jemsen shook his head. I cannot make the earth swallow it up. The floor of the cavern is bedrock not soil. Soil flows, but rock is stubborn and only breaks. Anything I tried could very well shake the cavern enough to bring the roof down on all of us."

"Nor can I deploy sun mirrors against it," Karel said. "now that the sun is no longer shining directly through the skylight."

"If only the others were here!" Dylan cried. "Liam could destroy it with white fire or Finn with lightning bolts. Or Axel could cut the monster in half by teleporting its head away from its body."

"That's it! I'll chop its head off." Karel cried then answered their puzzled looks with an explanation:

"It's a new tactic which I have been working on, though I on a much smaller scale, a way to use a shield of hardened air offensively."

"How can that work? Are you going to bash its head?" Sexton asked.

"No. I won't use the flat but the edge and cut the monster in two. First though I need to get atop that outcrop for a better view of things. Jemsen, let me hop on you piggy back then use gravitational repulsion to lift us both to the top."

"You got it, Karel."

In a moment both twins were positioned atop the outcrop. While Karel firmed up his blade of hardened air, Jemsen did what he could with earth magic, rolling boulders at the snake to smack it and block and distract it which gave more than a score the chance to duck into cover. It was too bad Jemsen couldn't lift boulders with gravitational repulsion and drop them on the snake, but that power worked only on his own body.

Forging his new weapon took Karel longer than just throwing up a shield of hardened air. The edge of the blade had to be as hard and as keen as physically possible. Karel didn't have the words for it, but a natural philosopher would have told him that his blade had a monomolecular edge, than which no solid blade could be sharper.

Finally ready, Karel positioned his weapon above the snake and just back of the head. Giving an emphatic chop with his hand he drove it down with all his power through the spine and flesh and into the rock beneath, separating the head of the snake cleanly from its body. The huge headless body writhed and threw itself about in its death throes, its thrashings still a danger to anyone who got too close, but the worst was over. Karel released his weapon which dispersed into gas.

Once again the twins had saved the day.

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