This is the second part in Vreaden of Elendilmir’s series of short stories. If you missed it, go back and read part 1!
“How many times have we been back here?” Cayleigh whispered in the darkness.
“Three.” Garald wasn’t happy either.
“If that elf sends us back here one more time, I swear by all that is holy, I’m going to punch her in the face.”
“Get in line,” Sally muttered.
The fellowship fell in behind the halfling, Cayleigh just a few steps back. Glowing moss and ancient enchanted crystals cast a dim glow throughout the ruins, shedding just enough light to make the shadows seem extra long. Sally and Braggar seemed comfortable in the underground corridors, the hobbit because she liked the darkness and the dwarf because his race was more at home below the ground than above it. If the imperturbable elves were displeased, they certainly didn’t show it.
Only the two humans seemed nervous. Cayleigh gripped her sword in one hand, and used the other to feel her way around the dimly-lit stones. Garald was close behind her, an enchanted mace adding a little more light; his greatsword was too big to swing in the narrow underground corridors. Voontak and Vraeden moved next, their steps nearly as silent as the halfling. Braggar brought up the rear, his armoured boots heavy on the stone floor.
When Sally held up her hand, the other five stopped, wondering what was up ahead.
“Where the hell do all these cave-claws come from?” Cayleigh sighed. “I could swear we just cleaned this room out.”
“Which way?” Garald asked, an uncommon tremor in his voice.
“We went left last time, this time we go right. With any luck, the key the elf gave us should open the gate,” little “Midnight” replied. “Try and step around the cave-claws. My cloak already stinks with enough of their blood.”
Cayleigh snickered. “You first.”
The cave-claws ignored the party and sure enough, the heavy iron gate opened, revealing a forgotten library. Its musty tomes stank of decay. Eternity candles bathed the room in a bright flickering light, their magic unwavering even after a dozen dozen generations.
“What is it we’re looking for?” Cayleigh took a quick survey of the room. There didn’t appear to be anything alive in the library except for a couple of small spiders and lizards.
“Cardavor believes the Dourhands have uncovered some ancient weapon in the depths of Sarnur to use against the dwarves of Ered Luin,” Voontak began to sift through the dust-covered scrolls and books. “Lord Elrond thinks there is something among the texts of the First Age that will help us to combat this evil.”
“What kind of weapon?” Cayleigh didn’t remember much of their audience with Lord Elrond. His power and grace overpowered her. What she felt around him was hope and safety, even as his words warned them of danger.
“I’d say they’re trying to trying to summon some kind of demon or fell spirit,” Voontak replied. Of all the six, he was the most familiar with the ancient Words of Power and tales of ages past, so he would know best what to look for. “The Dourhands could easily take Noglond and Gondamon, but they cannot sweep the Longbeards from Thorin’s Hall without a massive army, and neither Isengard nor Mordor will come so far to their aid.”
“Can you hurry up?” the woman asked. “This place gives me the shivers. If I have to come back here one more time, I’m dragging that elf back here with us.”
“What, you don’t like coming here once, killing a bunch of creepy-crawlies, going back to some elf camped out in the middle of nowhere only to be told we have to come back for something else?” Sally snickered.
“Wash, rinse and repeat,” Cayleigh muttered. “No, that drives me bananas. Couldn’t she tell us everything we need to kill or bring back the first time?”
“I think they do that on purpose,” Garald said dryly.
“Who knows how elves think?” Bragger asked.
“It’s not just the elves,” Sally said. “Who was that guy near Bree who had all those jobs for us? Grimbo . . . Grim-bob . . .”
“Grimbriar,” Garald filled in the blank. “I’ve known him for many years. He’s usually not like that.”
“Whatever you say,” Cayleigh frowned. “Let’s find whatever it is we’re looking for and get back to Rivendell. This place crawls.”
“I think the elves have spoiled ye, Cayleigh,” the dwarf teased. “With their soft beds and fine silk gowns.”
The young woman snorted. “I’ll take a bedroll and the open road in my plate and chain any day.”
An hour later, Voontak sighed with frustration. Many of the tomes had crumpled to dust the instant he touched them. The other sat around, bored. Garald and Cayleigh fidgeted and sharpened their blades. Bragger was toying with the idea of killing the cave-claws out in the hallway for some modicum of excitement.
Vraeden sat to the side, absently playing her harp, her melodious voice breaking the silence with a soft elvish tune.
Cayleigh looked around the room for the thousandth time, unconsciously scanning it for danger. Then it came to her. “There are four candles on each wall.”
“So?” Bragger sounded like he wanted to hit something.
“But there holders for five on that wall.”
“You mean the east wall?” the dwarf asked.
“I guess,” Cayleigh shrugged.
“Can you really tell?” Sally asked.
“Internal compass,” Braggar winked. “Humans get to be tall, elves have pointy ears, halflings can hide just about anywhere, and we, young Miss Midnight, we dwarves can always tell which way is north.”
“So where’s the fifth candle?” Cayleigh asked.
Vraeden and Sally were instantly in motion, and soon enough they found the secret entryway. The wooden shelves disintegrated at their touch, but the stone door opened with only a light press.
A narrow stairwell led down to another room where the missing eternity candle burned on a heavy mallorn desk. As soon as the fellowship entered the room, they immediately noticed something amiss. There were no cobwebs or dust coating the floor or books. It was immaculately clean, as if a chamber steward had attended the library just that morning.
Instinctively, Cayleigh drew her sword.
“Step in to the light,” a hollow voice called.
“Nightshade.” There was a combination of fear and awe in Garald’s voice.
“Step in to the light,” the undead spectre repeated. “Who comes to visit us after these scores of centuries?”
“My lord has charged us to retrieve the Hidden Tomes,” Voontak replied boldly.
“We are the Oathsworn,” the shade said. He had been an elf once and Cayleigh could see clear through the regal vestments and armour that clothed his ethereal form. “A century has passed since one of the living last set foot in this place, and they died at our hands. Turn back now, lest you meet the same fate.”
“I will not leave without the books I seek, Guardian,” the living elf said again. The other five members of the fellowship steeled themselves for the fight that was coming.
“You are not the one who charged us to guard this place, nor do you bear her talisman. We have sworn a vow to keep the knowledge here safe from those who would use it to do harm. Turn back, brave souls. We will not warn you again.” The spectre drew himself up to his full height, as if to warn them one more time.
“Forgive me, noble watchman.” There was sorrow in Voontak’s voice. His rune stones appeared in his hands and he began to chant. The air crackled with power.
In response, the shade threw his head back and let out an ear-splitting scream. Four more shades appeared out of the ether. The chill of the dead washed over Cayleigh and the others, causing them to take a step back. She had the sudden urge to flee as the Fear overtook her.
When she was twelve, her parents were killed by the bandits that roamed Eriador. She was left to mother her younger sister. They somehow survived, begging on the streets Gondor. Cayleigh had always been a quiet, introspective child, but that changed when she became responsible for Danyelle. They slept where ever they could find shelter and ate whenever they could scrape together a few coppers for a meal. The pair tried to avoid trouble, running away whenever they could.
One day, they found themselves trapped between predators who would turn them into slaves, or worse. Both girls were paralysed with fear, but when one of the men laid his hand on her sister, something snapped within Cayleigh. Her fear became anger. Her anger became rage. Her rage became fury.
Somehow, she fought the men off and the girls fled until they found the city watch. From that moment on, Cayleigh swore that she would never let another person take advantage of her, nor would she allow harm to come to her sister. Her tenacity led her to take training with the sword, and soon she became a scrappy fighter known for her perseverance and determination. As a mercenary, she earned enough to send Danyelle to a boarding school, where she would be safe and obtain the education their parents could not afford.
As each fight began, Cayleigh always recalled that instance of paralytic Fear. She channeled that Fear, conquered that Fear, and turned that Fear into a weapon to be used against those who would harm her or her companions.
With grim determination, Cayleigh stepped forward, her sword at the ready. She knew it wouldn’t do much harm to the spirit. But it would definitely keep its attention for the others to land a few well-places strikes.
All five shades came at her at once, their touch passed through her armour and chilled her bones. She swung her sword, which passed harmlessly through all five of her foes. Their laughter only fueled her fury even more.
The room filled with a blinding holy light as Vraeden let out Oromë’s Call and all of the nightshades recoiled. Again and again, Cayleigh lashed out at her enemies. Again and again, they struck her, each time sapping her strength.
Garald waded into the fight, his enchanted mace glowing each time it struck one of the undead. Braggar was right behind the captain; his axes were also ineffective against the shades, but his wild battle cry held their attention just long enough for Voontak to call down lightning that vanquished one instantly.
The other four fell in short order, Cayleigh noted with grim satisfaction. The chill in her bones was buoyed only by the knowledge that the fight was almost over.
When only the original tomb guardian remained, she heard Vraeden cry out, “Together!”
For all of their time together, the six of them had learned to fight as one. When the defenses of the shade finally broke, Cayleigh reached deep inside her soul for the strength to finally crush their enemy.
The room seemed to shake as she swung her blade one more time. The spirit seemed to sigh, and stood up straight one last time.
“Beware, elfling,” he warned. “The secrets in these tomes were hidden for a reason. They are dark with corruption. Beware those with whom you would share this knowledge.”
Vanquished, the Oathsworn elf saluted the company, then faded into nothing.
Cayleigh sheathed her sword. Her heart raced. As she did after every battle, she caged the Fear. Controlled it. And waited until she needed to unleash it once more.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said softly. “And if that elf tells me we need to come back . . .”
Braggar chuckled. “ . . . We’re all going to punch her in the face.”
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