In the center of town, a lone priest took up a cry against the excesses of the Fair, wailing how only the corruptions of the human spirit caused by such frivolity could explain the disaster. The priest was soon silenced by a crowd that looked more than willing to burn him where he stood. There was certainly plenty of wood.
The lake was a chaos of beams, boards and masts, bobbing up and down through a sticky film of dust and oil. Most of the warehouses by the docks were now sloped downwards, slides spilling their stores into the lake. Fish and vegetable oils were only a medium for months of unrecoverable supplies, and there was more besides the winter stores. Those who didn't look away quickly enough would notice a filth- encrusted body rocking gently on the waves.
The Andan Huerten Trader's Lodge, once the greatest inn of a city saturated with inns, was a pitiful representative of the state of the city. The great Ostmark Oak which had supported the roof creaked against the rubble over and over, as its end was lifted and dropped by the lake. Its lower part stood almost vertically in the middle of the wreak, fifteen feet high and tapering to an edge, where the upper half had torn off. Had anyone been watching the night before, they would have seen the post lean farther and farther toward the water, until the fibers of the wood could no longer resist the strain.
The castle's outer walls, suffering from a century of neglect, had finally collapsed. The castle itself, however, showed minimal signs of damage. It was one of a several large structures, including Sir Jerenil's Inn and most of the temples, which had survived in tact. A hopeful person might even have surveyed the city and seen that almost everything, given time, could be repaired. However, there were not many hopefuls left.
The Winter Fair was not officially over, but fairgoers still left as quickly as they could. There was no thought of staying; no thought of enjoying what meager attempt the merchants would make to save themselves from financial ruin. Their thoughts were on the earthquake, and on the future. Were their families still alive, in the camps that surrounded Huerten? Did their homes still stand, out in the villages? Men and women climbed over collapsed sections of wall, and left the citizens of Huerten to deal with their misery alone.
Throughout all of this, the soft rumble continued. It was quieter than last night, and easy to forget, but it hit everyone from time to time that something, somewhere, was still happening.
In the temple, Ardith was exhausted. She'd allowed herself no more than a few hours of sleep, and the wear was showing. However, as the light crept in through the broken windows of the temple, she felt like she could try to help the dying baron once more. Those priests, acolytes and others who were still awake seemed to know that something was going on, and they gathered around to watch. Sahl, Kay and Daluar, who had returned at dawn to see how things were going at the temple, joined as well. By the time the crowd had formed, Ardith's hands were resting on the baron's bared legs. She prayed to Andritha to heal the injured man through her, and dozens of witnesses saw her prayers answered. Heavy bruises lightened and softened. Open wounds closed, scabbed and scarred in seconds, and broken bones straightened and stiffened. The baron woke in the middle, and seeing what was happening, immediately scrambled back. “What did you do?” he asked, standing up on his stretcher and backing away. Then the extent of his situation hit him. “I'm walking. You healed my legs… So all that nonsense about shattering windows and starting blizzards. Is that true too?”
Ardith managed a tired smile, and answered the baron. “No. I am a healer, not a witch. Andritha has granted me, her priestess, powers of healing, and although it is true that I inadvertently broke some glass, I certainly did _not_ call a storm, nor any of several other tall tales that seem to be going around about me. If you will excuse me, baron, I am tired and hungry. I have been working here with the other healers for hours. I need rest.”
With that, Ardith turned her back on the baron and looked for a place to lie down. The same young acolyte who had brought her food earlier overheard her and brought her more to eat and led her to a secluded priestly living cell.
Kay was as tired as anyone, but followed her friend to make sure she was okay, and seeing the fruits the acolyte brought for Ardith, realized she was hungry also. Though sparse in accommodations, only about eight feet on a side, the cell was warm and comfortable. Seeing Kay follow her, Ardith offered to share the food with the fighter. After they consumed a number of apples and peaches, Ardith lay on the rude bed, and in seconds was fast asleep. Kay found some blankets in a small alcove, placed them by the door, and lay down. Despite her resolve to stay awake to guard her friend, in moments, she too was asleep.
Baron Huerten watched the two women go. “Crazy world,” he mumbled. “And what about you?” he asked, turning to Sahlman. “I vaguely remember you saving my life. Do you have some sort of magical powers too? And you?” he asked Daluar, whose foreignness stood out even more than Sahlman's. “Something about a black man conjuring up paths through the fog?” One of the priests handed the baron his pants, and he put them on quickly, showing no sign of embarrassment.
“I know nothing of paths through the fog, my lord,” Sahlman said. “Perhaps Daluar here can tell you more of that. I met him just recently and he is not well known to me, but he acts like a good man. I have no special powers. I have just been using my wits and body to help organize the rescue of trapped people. It is not a matter of importance; I have only done my duty as a man is bound to do. But I would welcome the chance to meet you in a few days my lord, when you are rested. I believe that these disastrous events are linked to the Zioth and will become more and more severe. I think that the barony and the kingdom need to consider what we can do to survive these events. Please grant me an audience where I can bring some scholars and present you with the evidence.”
“The Zioth? That old tale?” Baron Huerten glanced around the room, reconsidering what he was going to say. “People have said many things about me, but I am not a man to forget a debt. If my castle still stands, you will be allowed inside without question, and you may ask for me as early as tonight.” The door swung open, and yet another injured man was carried inside. The open door gave a brief view of the destruction outside. “I'm sure I'll welcome a break.”
“Thank you, my Lord! I will find the scholars and come to see you as soon as I may.” In high excitement, Sahl departed to find the Hal and his friend Redbelve.
“And you?” the Baron said, looking back at Daluar. “You've been quiet. I believe I asked you a question.”
“My lord, I have not special powers, like Sahlman. I have skill in finding the way through difficult places, but alone I could never have found the way here. One of your own citizens led me. All I did was remember it and mark it for others to follow it. He … and Ardeet … should be rewarded. My lord.” Daluar nodded firmly.
“You're Terradian, aren't you? This barony was established to guard the Terradian border, you know. I guess they're letting you people through now. It will be ironic if I have to put a Terradian in power because he knows how to deal with a city in chaos.”
Just that moment, the doors burst open and a dozen villagers rushed in, all talking at once at the tops of their voices, trying to get the priests to listen to them.
Kay had been trained to be a light sleeper, and the commotion in the main room woke her with a start. “Ardith! Something is happening!” Ardith woke, having slept only fifteen minutes or so, and, a little groggily followed Kay out.
“Quiet!” the baron yelled, and the room was silenced by his weak and high-pitched, yet very recognizable voice. “What's going on here? You,” he said, pointing to one of the villagers.
“My lord,” the villager said, bowing so low that his head almost touched his knees. “There's a big crack in the west.” (“Miles wide,” another added). “Cut across the road, and it goes down to the bowels of the earth.” (“Crawling around” – this from a chorus). “Something's in it. Little devils. Crawling around.”
“So let me get this straight. There's suddenly a pit full of devils to the west?”
The villagers nodded rapidly in unison. More than one looked scared out of his or her wits, either because of whatever they'd seen or the imposing presence of the baron.
“Well what is it? A pit or a crack?”
Both answers came at once.
“And these 'devils' look like –?”
Every answer was different.
The baron raised his hands in the air in a sign of hopelessness. “Alright, alright. I'll deal with it, whatever it is. You,” he said to Daluar. “You say you're good at this sort of thing. Go out there and find out what's really going on. I'll expect a report more useful than this nonsense,” he absently waved at the frantic villagers, “by evening.”
Sahlman was back at the door, muttering to himself. “Aargh! Too many things to do. Must go with Daluar to the pit. I may learn something of the Zioth from these devils.” Ardith and Kay approached Daluar and offered to accompany him as well, as soon as they'd had a hasty breakfast. An army, even if only of three or four, marches on its stomach.
Daluar agreed readily to both propositions. The baron seemed to have drawn a rather hasty conclusion about Daluar's skill – tracking men was surely far different from tracking devils, something the Terradian had certainly never tried – but the thing did beg investigation. Not to mention that Sahl's curiosity made Daluar curious in turn: the easterner's concern with the Zioth seemed to border on obsession.
The words “pit” and “crack” fell far short of describing the immensity of what lay before them. From the first hill crest past what used to be the western gate, they could already see a pattern of fallen trees extending a mile to the left and right of the road. At the next crest, they saw a jagged, dark outline splitting the pattern. By the time they arrived at its edge, they were standing in front of a great rift, half a mile across and at least two miles wide, its arms expanding in a fractal pattern in every direction. Throughout their walk, the soft rumble had slowly increased in volume – not much, but enough that they knew they were getting closer to its source. The crowd of villagers who had remained at the rift parted silently for the party who, based on their weapons, could be none other than soldiers of Huerten.
Following the right arm of the rift with his eyes, Daluar noticed two figures in the distance, mostly obscured by fallen trees. They were less than a mile away, though a branch of the rift was in the way.
Murmuring a few words in Vanatra's ear, Daluar pointed the hawk toward the two faraway figures and flung her into the air. She wheeled up, circling to soar high above the rift.
“Can you speak to the bird?” Sahl asked. “In my land there are certain men who dwell in the deserts and the wastes who are said to have the power to speak to animals.”
Daluar chuckled. “No, Sahl, I speak to her with tone and intent. The words matter less. I have seen enough to not doubt you, but she and I cannot talk as you and I do.” He squinted up at the hawk gliding above the rift. “If those people are friendly, they will not frighten her. And if there is a safe way to reach them, she may be able to show us.” More softly, he added, “If they are not, we will not need to try.”
Vanatra swept a wide arc over the figures' heads, and after a few minutes, she was had returned and landed Daluar's shoulder. The distant figures looked like they were preparing to move off.
“I think we should walk around to see who these people are,” Sahlman said.
Vanatra picked at Daluar's headband, which meant she wasn't nervous. Daluar motioned for Sahl and the women to come along, and headed off toward the distant figures. Picking out a route across the felled trees turned out not to be as difficult as he'd guessed. When the four of them emerged into clear, snow-dried farmland, they were much closer to the figures, close enough to see that they had a large dog with them and were wearing heavy coats or blankets on their shoulders. Less than half a mile separated them now.
Abruptly Sahl stopped. “I think it's that damned ranger and his Dog! Kreemon was once of our party but he is an outlaw because he attacked the second clerk rather than show him the message scroll for the Baron. I want nothing to do with him!”
“All right,” Daluar said, “but that with him, who could be?”
Ardith replied. “The one with him might be Korisca, also a member or former member of our company. She seemed attracted to the ranger. It is hard to tell who it may be at this distance. In fact, it might not even be Kreemon with his dog, Bork, for all we can tell from here. It might be a villager with a similar dog.
“I am not sure if it is Kreemon or not,” Sahl said. “But I disliked his earlier actions so much that I don't even want to take a chance on meeting him. Also he is outlaw, and if I meet him, the law says that I should act against him. Stay to talk to these two if you like, but I will try to find some other way down the rift.” Sahl then turned away and walked in the opposite direction around the rift, looking for a likely place to descend.
Kay echoed Sahlman's thoughts. “I don't want anything to do with him, either. If I was near him, I would punch him out or maybe worse!”
“In the end, I agree,” Ardith said. “Let us avoid them and continue our investigations. This apparently new wound in the earth is no doubt connected to the events that destroyed Huerten. I would have us know more of this.”
With a half-nod, half-shrug of consent to Kay and Ardith, Daluar turned also to follow Sahlman, already several paces away. As they picked their way to the edge of the rift, all four tossed occasional glances over their shoulders at the figures, watching for any sign they had been spotted in turn. It was clear that they had. The two figures frequently made similar gestures, and they'd picked up their pace in the hope of getting away quickly.
Reaching the edge of the rift was easy. Finding a place to descend was be far more difficult. In many places, the land stopped abruptly at a sheer cliff-face. Where it didn't, the climb would be so treacherous that only an expert could make it without assistance. Sahl, the only one of the four with any experience as a climber, looked at their potential paths from every angle. The most difficult part would be the first twenty feet. The ground was loose, and they'd have to trust to the strength of protruding roots. The region near the road, where all the trees had fallen, would give them the best chances there. After that, a skilled climber could find handholds and footholds in the rock – that is, if it were as stable as it looked. For all Sahlman knew, there might be large boulders just waiting to come loose and take the poor climber who disturbed them down with them.
As Sahl was focusing on the face of the cliff, Daluar stared into the depths. Past a point, there was no light at all. Perhaps when mid- day arrived, it would be possible to see all the way down, but for now….
Something moved. Daluar squinted. A form was moving around down there. Something with four limbs, but not human. Its motions had a lizard-like feel when it wasn't totally obscured by some outcropping or other. Ardith and Kay followed Daluar's gaze to see what was down there, and even Sahl stopped his investigation of the wall for a time. After a few minutes, Daluar spotted a second creature, and pointed it out to the others. It was unsurprising that the villagers' descriptions had been so conflicting. There was no way to get a clear picture at this distance, and through the darkness.
“To climb down may be unsafe,” Sahl said. “We need more equipment for climbing. Also we need torches to see in the dark, and we need our weapons and armor. I think we should go back, get armed, buy a good supply of torches, some ropes, some iron spikes, a hammer, a grapnel, and a couple of sturdy wooden ladders. We can spike the ladders solid to the cliff wall for the first twenty feet. After that we will have to trust to finding a good route. Daluar and Kay are lightly armored. I suggest that they could lead and find us a route down. I and Ardith could follow. We should be ready to run if we hit trouble. No, on second thought, I should lead since I have the climbing skill. I will have a rope tied about my waist, and those following can hold it in case I fall. Does everyone agree to this plan? Are their any other ideas?”
Two hours later, Sahl was on his way down, fixing ladders to a wall which would barely hold them. Getting the equipment had proven difficult; many of those stores which hadn't collapsed had been looted. Between the better-off of the vendors and a few private citizens, however, they'd eventually gotten everything they needed.
The climb down would require a lot of trust in this shifting wall. Sahl spiked ladder rungs to rocks, tied them to roots, attached them however he could. Finally, the path to the rockier area was relatively safe, and everyone followed him onto a ledge, holding onto outcroppings in case the ledge proved less sturdy than it looked.
“I have suggestion only,” Sahl said. “If anyone thinks different then please say so. I think I should go first to find best route. I will tie a rope around me and Daluar comes next to hold on to me if I fall. Tie a grapnel to the other end of the rope. If I slip and you can't hold me then snag the grapnel on something strong. Maybe Ardith next. If it gets too dark she can hold a torch. Maybe Kay last. Keep your eyes and ears open for anything behind us.”
Ardith and Kay followed Sahl's lead. Ardith in particular was curious about the strange creatures she saw vaguely from the rim. Her unspoken concern was that the rift might close as quickly as it opened. She kept a “weather eye” on their escape route, back up the way they came, or any other opportunity that might present itself.
The climb was slow and difficult. Unlike a mountain or an old canyon, the rift walls hadn't had time to weather. This meant that as often as not, a foothold would break free and fall a distance no one could determine. Once, Sahlman slipped, but Daluar was able to catch him on the rope. Ardith fell so many times climbing with three limbs that the torch-bearing job had to go to Kay for fear of losing them all.
One outcropping at a time, the party descended, relying more and more on the light of the torch. Finally, they got to the level where they'd thought they'd seen the creatures moving around. The wall was older here, with fewer but more reliable handholds. The creatures were nowhere in sight. No, there in the distance, something moved against the rock. The flickering light of the torch could not resolve the thing into more than arms and legs.
Daluar made sure Sahl had a firm hold on the rope linking them together. With great care, he crept slowly toward the creature, or at least toward the place one had been seen.
The climb was difficult for Daluar. While he was an expert tracker by land, he'd never had to follow anyone along a cliff face. Slowly, the torch light dimmed as Daluar distanced himself from the others. Thirty feet or so out, he found himself between two long, narrow ledges, and he was able to work his way along faster, hands on one ledge and feet on the other. A few feet further, he felt a mild ache in his right leg, which he dismissed. It was to be expected, straining under-used muscles like this. Then the pain increased slightly, and he looked down. Something was climbing along with him, gnawing at his leg.
Ah. Nothing like a turn ending with one of the characters being eaten alive in the dark. How romantic.