In the flickering light Penelope considered again the man to whom she'd turned for help. He was tall, and his dark brown hair brushed the cave's ceiling; his intense concentration inspired her confidence. Lucius in turn observed his comrade. Her shoulder-length, light brown hair framed the straight line of her mouth, which mixed determination with the worry evident in her eyes. Her shorter stature permitted her to stand erect in the dim chamber and emphasized her resolve.
A few dozen paces through the low passage brought them to a circular chamber, ten paces across. Water dripped slowly from a large stalactite.
"This is Magga, the Center, the Navel," said Lucius; "This is where we will work."
Penelope watched him as he unpacked his paraphernalia, which included a gnarled stick, a laurel wreath, a censor and two leather pouches, a blue one, which he placed on the floor, and a red one, which he hung around his neck on a long cord. Squatting on the floor, he instructed her to sit facing him with her knees touching his.
"I asked you to bring a blade of special significance to you," Lucius said seriously. "Do you have it?"
"This was all I could think of," Penelope said, and unwrapped a small flint arrowhead. "It's not exactly a knife, but I found it as a child and it's always been very special to me. Everyone else thought it was silly. But I still love it."
"That should be perfect. Are you ready to begin?"
After she nodded, Lucius emptied the blue pouch into the censor, which smoked thickly after he lit the charcoal. "This is Pangha; it will summon the helpers for our voyage."
Next he put out the torches, and in the dim light of a single candle he put the laurel wreath on her head, saying, "From now on you are Kirkay, Avenging Falcon, and I am Zamolxis, Smoke Walker."
Lucius pulled up his hood to hide his face and began a slow chant in time with the dripping of the stalactite. They sat with their knees touching, and each put their right hand in the left of the other. After a few minutes Lucius was silent and only the rhythmic drip was left. The smoke from the censor filled the air until Penelope could see nothing, and her world contracted to the insistent drip.
After an indeterminate period of hazy awareness, Penelope saw the smoke to her left swirling. It spiraled away until it seemed to form a long tunnel. Lucius appeared beside her in an elaborate costume. "Where had it come from?" she wondered. He held a smooth wooden staff terminated by a cross bar and a gold sphere surmounted by a silver crescent.
"Kirkay, it is I, Zamolxis." He pointed to a shining sword on her lap; its pommel was like his staff in miniature. "Follow me," he whispered and, holding his staff forward in both hands, flew quickly down the smoke tunnel. Without delay Kirkay - for so she thought of herself - grasped her sword and flew after Zamolxis.
The walls of the tunnel changed from smoke to rock and arched deep into the earth. Occasionally the passage branched, but Kirkay followed Zamolxis effortlessly, though she sensed cold eyes glaring out of the other tunnels. They flew at an accelerating rate until, after rounding a corner, they saw a glowing disk of light; the two slowed and landed at a walk. The disk of light was the mouth of the tunnel, where it opened into a rocky ravine. Zamolxis led Kirkay out onto a desolate hillside covered with dull brown rocks. Few plants were visible, and the scarce trees were dry and leafless.
Kirkay observed that Lucius had been transformed. His simple robe had been replaced by an elaborate coat with many tassels and decorated with disks of fiery copper. In his left hand he held a shining shield, also copper-clad, and in his right hand his wand had been transformed from a gnarled stick into polished wooden scepter with a bar, sphere and crescent. His hood had been replaced by an unusual leather cap with snakelike tassels dangling down to his eyes. All that remained of his original outfit was the red leather bag still hanging from his neck.
Looking down, Kirkay saw that her apparel had changed from Penelope's. The robe had been replaced by a short sleeveless tunic of green linen fastened with a wide leather belt; sandals were laced around her calves. On her left arm was a small round shield, polished bronze with a central boss of reddish copper. Her right held the two-edged sword by which she had flown down the tunnel; from its shape she realized that it was her flint arrowhead transformed. Her hand confirmed that the heavy weight on her head was a winged helmet.
Looking more closely at Zamolxis, Kirkay realized that he seemed different physically as well as in dress. He was taller, more erect, stronger - altogether more virile. Astonished, she felt a sudden hunger for him.
Zamolxis saw her staring and said, "You've changed too."
Kirkay knew that she felt more optimistic and energetic than she could remember, but now she also noticed that her skin has acquired a healthy tan, which replaced the pallor resulting from a year of depression. Zamolxis noticed with appreciation her lithe strength and her fresh face. The bags had disappeared from her eyes, which now burned with determination.
"Let's find our nemesis," Zamolxis said. "Here in the Shadowland his name is Torq' Madah. To restore your happiness we must free the Yew-Demon."
"Who's that?" Kirkay asked.
"She is kin to your soul. The priest has imprisoned her in the Tree of Death, a yew tree that stands on Turan's Hill, at the Mouth of the Abyss. We must cross Sumen, the Bridge of Desires, to get to it. I'll handle the magic, but you must take care of the fighting."
Zamolxis and Kirkay left the mouth of the cave and proceeded down the hill through a forest of lifeless runt trees. As they paused at the bottom to observe the valley ahead, Kirkay brushed against a dried branch, which suddenly tightened around her upper arm. With a gasp she looked and saw a withered hand gripping her arm; the voice of Torq' Madah whispered in her ear, "I never expected you to deliver this devil worshipper to me. Thank you." She wrenched her arm free and spun around, but there was only a twisted tree beside her.
She asked with a shudder, "Was that my imagination?"
"Everything is your imagination here - and nothing. He knows we're here. We can't delay any longer. We must ask the gods for strength."
As Zamolxis had instructed her, Kirkay lifted the helmet off her head and held it in front of her at chest level, intoning, "I call on thee, Atanna, shield-bearing, steel-eyed goddess! Protect me! And I call on thee, blood-spilling Marish, mighty warrior! Ye gods, grant me strength and will for the coming battle!"
Then Zamolxis kneeled before her and held his wand upright between them. "Come to me Turm, thou spirit guide, lead us on this journey through the Shadowland! And thou, moon queen, Aritimi, patron goddess of sorcerers, grant me skill in wizardry and wisdom in its use!"
Then, as Zamolxis slowly raised his wand into Kirkay's helmet, the two chanted together,
"Ye ancient goddesses and gods,As Zamolxis lowered his wand from the helmet, the sphere and crescent flashed as though reflecting the midday sun. Kirkay solemnly replaced the helmet on her head, Zamolxis returned to his feet, and they walked resolutely into the valley between the hills.
Existing from the birth of time,
Divinities all powerful
And all pervasive, grant us strength
And will and wisdom to accomplish this
Our righteous task! So be it!"
The final approach was at the end of a long ravine; stretching away from them, a gash in the earth revealed a deep pit, its sides wet and slippery. A natural bridge of delicate-looking stone stretched across the chasm to the base of the mound dedicated to the goddess Turan. Zamolxis stepped in front of Kirkay and issued a formal challenge:
"Torq' Madah! Priest of the Dour God! Minion of Tookhulkha! Poisoner of dreams! You who slay the souls of men and women! Tyrant of the Abyss! Emasculator of men! Tormenter of Women! Minister to Fear! I call you to stand and fight! You cannot evade our summons!"A hissing echoed deep in the Abyss but quickly ascended to the mouth, bringing with it a stench that made their stomachs lurch. The opening filled with a substance that looked like boiling blood, and which extended like a finger over the lip on the far side. Suddenly the finger subsided back into the pit and left Torq' Madah facing them across the pit.
The priest was short, red haired and of a ruddy complexion. He had never seemed attractive to Penelope, but in the Shadowland he had become a horror. His hair and mustache hung in orange, stringy ropes, and his face was covered with warts and running sores. His clothes were black, as they were in the mundane world, but he bore a vicious-looking hooked staff, toothed on both sides with razor edges.
Torq' Madah raised his staff, and sneered, "So I am challenged by the Queen of Filth and her friend, the Demon Sorcerer. Though you deserve to be in this foul pit, I am the Guardian of this Gate of Hell and am obliged to keep you from it. Therefore, I accept your challenge, and my hosts will meet it. Come, ye Devils of the Abyss!" He extended his staff toward the chasm.
The fluids in the pit bubbled again, and soon dozens of shrieking figures were climbing out of it, and running toward the Kirkay and Zamolxis. Most looked like shriveled old men and women in tattered clothes, but they had sharp fangs and claws. When they came within striking range, Kirkay spun into action, hacking on all sides. Yet in spite of her many well-placed cuts, the fiends were not stopped. When she sliced off an arm, the creature continued to menace her with its bloody stump; when she whacked off a head, the headless devil spun like a dervish, lacerating anything within reach.
Zamolxis also fought to repel the creatures with his wand, but it was not in his power to destroy them.
As the horde pressed in tighter around them, Kirkay despaired of keeping the monsters more than a sword's length away. And soon, far sooner than she expected, she felt her arms growing stiff and tired; the sword became heavy and hard to control.
With growing panic she called, "Zamolxis! There're too many!"
Torq' Madah laughed, but over the howling din Zamolxis called back to her, "I'll keep them at bay, but I can't destroy them. Only you have the power to kill them; know that your blow is fatal!"
"But I'm getting weak!"
"No!" Zamolxis shouted back. "They're drawing their strength from you. You have to destroy them while you have the strength!"
With this information Kirkay turned on a particularly cadaverous fiend that leapt toward her. "I deny thee my strength!" she yelled, and split its rib cage with her sword. The demon crumbled to bones and dust while its howl still echoed down the ravine.
Kirkay felt a surge of energy fill her limbs, and she laid into her tormenters with renewed determination. Soon the devils were falling dead around her, and as each was slain her strength increased.
But just when hope had returned, she heard a frightened yell. The demons had pulled Zamolxis down and were dragging him toward the Abyss. She fought her way toward him, but as she swung her sword to cleave the creature that held him, she saw that it was her father. The she-devil on her other side had become her mother. And her brother was there too, and other people she loved.
Though obviously an illusion, Kirkay hesitated to hack into those familiar figures, which allowed the demons to drag Zamolxis out of her reach. She had almost reached him again when a beautiful toddler stepped into her path. As she prepared to strike down even this illusion she heard, as much in her head as from its mouth, "I'm that baby you didn't have." Her mind reeled, and she stood frozen, until Zamolxis called "Look!" and, illuminating the baby with his wand, showed it to be no more than a shadowy will-o'-the-wisp. A moment later Kirkay's sword sliced downward and the phantasm vanished into a fading cry and a cloud of vapor.
But it was too late. The fiends pulled Zamolxis into the festering pit. As he disappeared into the fluid, Torq' Madah raised his staff and yelled, "I have you!" He instantly changed into a reddish gob that slid over the edge into the Abyss.
"Zamolxis! Hold on! I'm coming!" she called after her friend, but he was already gone. In anger and despair Kirkay howled and whirled like a tornado into the demon horde. "You will be avenged, Zamolxis!" With her determination more than her sword, she willed the fiends to die. As she hacked and stabbed them, they boiled off in steam, or melted away into the ground. Soon the few survivors fled back to the pit and jumped into the filth, which was sucked into the depths with loud gurgling.
When Kirkay realized they were all gone, she rushed to the edge of the pit, but could see nothing in its depths. All that was left was Zamolxis' red leather pouch, which had slipped off his neck, and his scepter, which now looked dull and lifeless. She slumped to the ground in exhaustion and cried for her friend.
As Kirkay sat in sad contemplation, she was startled by something soft against the back of her neck. Turning, she saw that a large she-bear had nuzzled her. It stared at her for a long moment, and then walked slowly to the edge of the forest. Obeying her intuition, Kirkay picked up Zamolxis' wand and pouch, and followed the she-bear.
In a few moments they came to a clearing in which there was a small shrine carved with lions, stags, and bears. Around its base were figures of young dancers, the girls with baskets on their heads, the boys with antlers. The she-bear slipped quietly into the woods as Kirkay approached the altar. She stretched out her hands palms up and, looking into the tall trees, prayed.
"Hear me Aritimi, Goddess most beautiful, Thou protector of women, mistress of wild things and unspoiled wilderness. If ever I have helped those dear to Thee or danced in Thy honor, then help me now. Give me strength and wit to defeat Torq' Madah, sworn enemy of Nature Herself, and to avenge the destruction of Zamolxis, and even to return whole to mine own world."Closing her eyes and slowly dropping her hands to her sides, Kirkay became dizzy and felt as though she were sinking through water. When she opened her eyes again, she knew that she had become a peregrine falcon. She stepped quickly out of the tunic lying in folds on the ground about her. With a wild shriek she took flight.
Leaving the forest, Kirkay circled three times over the Abyss and then plummeted into its mouth. The bottom of the pit opened into the natural chimney of an illuminated underground cavern. Near the mouth of the chasm was a huge fig tree with a spring flowing from its roots; Zamolxis hung from its lowest branch, upside down, by one leg, unconscious and naked. Torq' Madah stood in front and pressed the sharp teeth of his staff against Zamolxis' belly, while he wailed:
"Mistress Kubeibay, hear thy worthless slave! Accept from me this blood sacrifice! A man was he born but a man he'll be no more. Let man's blood soak thy altar and run in rivers to thy satisfaction. Such is thy hard law, which I humbly obey, with hope that thou might look kindly on me, wretched though I am."Kirkay swooped down on him, dug her talons into his neck, and stripped his scalp with her beak. Torq' Madah screamed and tried to beat her off with his staff, but she continued to shred his flesh. He stumbled to the rock wall and tried to dislodge her by beating his head against it. When he slumped unconscious to the ground, she released him and flew back to Zamolxis. Torq' Madah soon came to, grabbed his staff, and slipped surreptitiously into a side passage.
Kirkay landed on the ground near Zamolxis and stretched her wings up toward him. She felt herself growing taller until she could reach the noose around his ankle. She was a woman again - though quite naked now - and with her arms she held him against her chest until she had loosened the noose. Awkwardly but gently she lowered him to the ground. With her hands she dipped water from the spring and washed his face.
Zamolxis squinted several times and slowly opened his eyes, which took a moment to focus on Kirkay sitting beside him. When she saw him staring at her, she held one hand over her breasts and waved the other about. "I was a falcon. I chased Torq' Madah away; he was going to kill you."
"Ah... Thank you," Zamolxis said, still a bit groggy. "Where did he go?"
"I don't know, I left him over there." She pointed toward the wall.
"I suppose he's gone to guard Sumen, the Course of Love, and that's where we must defeat him."
When Zamolxis pushed himself into a sitting position he realized that he too was naked. He smiled at her and said, "I see he also got Toerax - that's my spirit armor - I can do without it, as he'll discover. Let's go."
Grasping the rope he walked up the trunk of the tree and climbed onto the lowest branch. Kirkay pulled herself up next, and together they climbed from branch to branch until the tree disappeared into the roof of the cavern. They emerged from the ground among the branches of a large bush near the edge of the Abyss. They stepped out of it, and looked across Sumen, the narrow bridge that led to Turan's Hill. The thin, almost translucent stone looked fragile as glass. Halfway across Torq' Madah stood facing them, his staff held in readiness.
A quick glance at a clank behind them revealed their sword, scepter and leather pouch lying on the ground; the she-bear was trotting back toward the forest. Without taking their eyes off Torq' Madah they armed themselves. Kirkay stepped forward and called:
"Here me, Torq' Madah, Thrall of Kubeibay, Destroyer of Happiness, Foul Demon of Death, Bringer of Emptiness. Stand aside or be prepared to fight! Nor am I afraid of any priest of the Lord of Slaves, the Master of the Will-less. The Dour God has no hold on me!"They started across the delicate bridge but stopped within several paces of Torq' Madah, who announced grimly, "Since the Minions of Fear didn't deter you, you shall be destroyed utterly. What is your sword called?"
He held up his staff and said, "Well, then, this is Joy-slayer!"
He swung it down and charged Kirkay. Although she jumped and spun to the side, he tore her belly, and one of the razor teeth broke off in the wound. Kirkay, gasping, pressed her hand over the gash and blood ran out between her fingers. While she fought the pain the priest raised his staff for the death blow. Zamolxis aimed his wand at the weapon and called, "By Mother Turan, be thou powerless!" Torq' Madah's staff went limp as though it were made of rubber, and struck Kirkay harmlessly. With a cry of dismay he repeatedly whacked her with it, but it was ineffective.
In disgust, Kirkay swung her sword and cleaved the priest's staff in two. He crumpled screaming to the ground as a steaming pus ran from its end.
With yelps and howls the devils began climbing out of the Abyss and onto the bridge. Kirkay, who was hanging on Zamolxis' shoulder, tried to raise her sword in defense, but he said, "Save your strength. He made them, and they have no power except over him. For us the Abyss holds no devils." The two watched as the fiends formed a circle around Torq' Madah. He tried to fend them off with his broken staff, but its potency was gone. As the demons realized this they came closer, striking and kicking him. Suddenly they swarmed over him, and while he shrieked in terror they twisted and pulled his limbs as though to rip him apart. In this way they pulled him into the pit, and his screams faded slowly into the cavern.
After Torq' Madah had vanished into the roiling vapors of the Abyss, Zamolxis helped Kirkay across the bridge, which was beginning to crumble. Just as they reached the far side, the bridge shattered like crystal and fell into the chasm, which then became quiet and peaceful.
Kirkay fainted from pain and blood loss, and Zamolxis lowered her gently to the ground. He bent over the wound in her stomach and sucked on it until the steel tooth came out. He spit it on the ground and it vanished in a flash of fire. "So be thou purged of unnatural intrusions." Next Zamolxis took two small vials out of the red leather bag hanging around his neck. He poured a sparkling powder on the wound from one vial. "So burneth the Spirit Taming Gold." From the other he poured a thin, glowing liquid. "So floweth the Water of Life." Then he cupped his hands over the wound and blew into them. "Accept into thy body the essence of the Shadowland. Be thou alive! Be thou reborn!" When he removed his hands, the gash had been replaced by a small scar.
Within moments Kirkay revived and sat up. Zamolxis gave her a drink of the Life Water and she glanced at her wound. She touched the scar and looked at Zamolxis. "It feels hot inside."
"Don't worry about it. Part of you was destroyed by Torq' Madah's staff, but I have replaced it by Spirit Taming Gold. You are now partly of the Shadowland. See I have the Mark too." And he pointed to his thigh, where there was a small scar of gold hue.
"Henceforth you are under the special protection of the gods. Through me they have given you the gift of walking in shadows whenever the need arises, for your own sake or another's."
Zamolxis stood and stretched his hand to Kirkay. "Come. We still have to reach the top of Turan's Hill and release the Yew-Demon before our task is completed."
She took his hand and got to her feet. Above them a golden glow was visible at the top of the hill, which was now covered with luxuriant green grass. Together they climbed the steep hillside till they came to a ledge. After catching their breaths they continued to the next higher ledge. As they reached successively higher levels, the glow grew in brightness.
At the apex of Turan's Hill they saw an ancient yew tree, its roots in flames. "Thrust your sword into the trunk," said Zamolxis. Kirkay held it over her head with both hands and rammed it into the wood. A loud crack stunned them as the trunk split open and fell to either side, revealing a beautiful naked woman, with pale skin and long, golden tresses. Awestruck, the two gazed at the goddess, who bowed her head in gratitude.
The goddess looked up, smiled, and instantly transformed into a multicolored column of fire, which ascended into the sky with a roar. The two looked up to see where it went, and were instantly transformed into birds - Kirkay a falcon and Zamolxis an eagle. Together they flew straight up into the clouds, which swirled around them until they could see nothing in the white glare. They dissolved into oblivion.
She followed his eyes to a small scar on her stomach.
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