The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey
Chapter Sixteen: The
Mines of Muriah
maps were very approximate and not a whole lot better than the ones in the books. Still,
Sara didn't have a great deal of trouble locating the Mystic Mountains
tracing the line of their peaks to Muriah. What she saw as she approached a little before
sunrise was not exactly in keeping with what she had expected from reading the story.
Clearly visible from the air, a wide,
stone-laid road led from the entrance, surrounded by huge piles of fresh, rocky tailings,
unadorned by vegetation. Of course -- all the material removed from the vast mazes
under the mountain had to go somewhere. Since the end of the war, the Dwarves had
evidently returned to their ancient home in force, and had been very busy.
The road for miles from the entrance was
deserted. Some distances away, she spotted long wagon trains of goods and supplies pointed
toward the mountain. They had the appearance of being recently and hastily abandoned,
their drivers and animals scattered across the countryside as if in anticipation of some
dreadful battle. The entrance doors were shut tight. Gundolf had said they would be
expecting her. Well, they would be expecting something, at any rate. She hoped to
be a bit of a surprise, anyway.
The doors were a lot bigger than she had
imagined -- wide enough to cover an Interstate highway-sized tunnel
-- and rather
more utilitarian looking than she would have thought, made mostly of iron and somewhat
resembling the kind of blast-proof shields designed to protect an underground strategic
missile command post from nuclear attack back on Earth. If there had been fancifully
decorated stone doors at one time, they had been replaced. The twenty-odd meter width made
sense -- it would take a lot of supplies from the surface world to maintain a large
population through single entrances on either side of the mountains.
The lake by the doorway was barely more
than a large pond now, heavy and odorous with effluents leached from the tailings by
rains. Its surface had a noxious, oily sheen to it. She knew from
the story and
Gundolf's warning that there was probably some disgusting tentacled monstrosity
lurking in its depths, though she wasn't really concerned about any threat it might
pose to her. She planned to waste no time dealing with it.
As the sonic booms of her passage echoed
from the rocky canyons, though, small rockslides tossed debris into the murky water as if
to signal some kind of warning. While she stood examining the door, trying to kreen as far
inside the mountain as possible, the Watcher arose and heaved its snaky coils at
Or tried to, anyway. Sara turned to look
at the hideous writhing thing flailing at the water's edge. Its thick arms were like
some kind of cross between a ropy vine and a muscular appendage, while far below the
surface at the bottom of the lake, she could remotely sense where the main body blended
almost imperceptibly into the rocky floor. It was at the same time animal, vegetable and
mineral, and would be a nightmarish impossibility on a normal world
that lacked Midgarde's evolution by magical mutation.
She noted the absence
of any kind of railing
or fence to protect passers-by from being attacked by the thing. It must not normally be
necessary -- the creature was evidently harmless to those who meant no harm. In fact,
as she examined it, it became clear what its function other than watchdog must be.
Essentially, it was a garbage disposal, taking the daily dumpings from the Dwarves'
kitchens for its food and producing nutrient-rich waste products that sustained the
bioecology of the lake and the stream that flowed from it.
The more Sara studied it, the
more beautiful it became, like a fantastic cross between Terrestrial sea
anemones, octopi, clinging vines, coral colonies, sponge beds, kelp forests
melded into a single unit. She had to admire the ingenuity of it all.
Only now it was dying, most of its vast
body merely dead weight, and the remainder enfeebled. Neglect, a dwindling habitat and
poisonous runoff had reduced it to a remnant. Still, it made a valiant but pathetic effort
to do its duty by its careless masters, with trembling, futile attempts to tear the
intruder from the doorway in its charge. Even as Sara watched, its last efforts expended
its final reserves of energy in random spasms, far short of where she stood. Dragged back
by the heavy underwater bulk of its sinking mostly-dead mass, its tentacles slipped slowly
below the rotting surface of its home.
Sara felt herself pitying the poor, dumb
creature. She couldn't imagine the Dwarves of Muriah would allow this to happen to
this ally on their doorstep if not driven to neglect by the greater need to service their
Dark Master's ambitions. This would be another debit in the account she would have to
settle with Him when they finally met. But she would hold the Ringwielding Dwarven Kings
responsible as well. It was time to seek them out.
Sara turned back to the door. She could
kreen that there were more than a score of Dwarves in the wide tunnel on the other side,
weapons drawn. It seemed that they might be expecting the outer doors to be less than
adequate protection from whatever powerful being would come to wrest their precious
treasure away from them. They would constitute an advanced guard to test the
invader's mettle, stop the intrusion if possible, and report on the outcome swiftly.
She didn't want to hurt them -- her quarrel was with their leaders. It might not
be a bad idea to let them have an idea of what they were up against.
Taking a deep breath, she quickly tore one
of the great iron doors from the face of the mountain and tossed it over her head to land
flat on the road behind her with an earthshaking bang. The suddenness and noise caught the
guards by surprise in spite of their waiting readiness. The sight of Sara casually
strolling through the wrecked entrance, flashing an incongruously girlish smile, surprised
them again. They had evidently been expecting someone -- well
-- bigger, maybe. And a
lot more frightening, perhaps, as might befit a challenger to mighty
Soraun who had
already claimed the Three.
But Sara was surprised herself. The
Dwarves were generally what she expected, all right -- short, stocky, powerfully built,
bearded, dour and heavily armed, mostly with spears, axes and short swords. The quality of
their accouterments was quite high, and their leather clothing and partial armor looked
well-made and expensive. But their hair and beards were patchy, showing bald spots where
it was obviously falling out. They seemed to have burn-like sores on exposed skin, and
there was a feverish look to many of them.
Plague? Sara wondered. Disease or
malnutrition? Some kind of reaction from spending so much time in the sunless underground?
Pollution from their forges or lung disease from mining? If she didn't know better,
she'd have thought it might have been radiation poisoning.
The Dwarves left her little time for such
thoughts, recovering quickly from their initial shock to rush her
en masse, weapons
leveled, chanting their war cries as one. She was concerned they might accidentally hurt
each other, swinging their sharp implements with such gusto, but decided to let them have
at her for a while until they either tired or realized the futility of such an attack. She
wanted to talk to them a little, if possible. After all, she was really on their side
-- they just didn't know it.
They hacked and
slashed with furious intensity, with Sara providing a
cooperative target. If they were discouraged by their inability
to cause the slightest damage, they didn't show it. When they showed no signs of letting up, she finally
just grabbed their weapons and flung them through the door to land about a mile down the
road. They finally collapsed on the tunnel floor, wheezing desperately.
"Which one of you wants to talk with
me?" she said in their language, causing much lifting of eyebrows that this female
Man should so casually know their secret tongue.
"Who's your leader?" She
caught the involuntary glances pointing one of them out to her.
She looked straight at him and introduced
herself as pleasantly as she could. "My name is Sara Corel and I'm very pleased
to meet you, Mister, uh..."
He glowered at her. "What manner of
monster are you? You look to be a Man, but are plainly no mortal. We want you not in our
home, to destroy our power and our works. Begone with you and trouble us no more, for we
will never yield to you."
"You could be a little more polite,
Mister whatever-you're-name-is. I'm obviously not trying to hurt you, and I
think you know by now that you're not gonna hurt me. I just want to talk a little."
She could sense
a second group further down the tunnel hurrying back with their
intelligence and decided to give them some time to spread the word of the manner of her arrival.
She wanted them to take their best shot at her as soon as
possible, figure out the futility of opposing her, and then
conclude the whole business quickly.
"Know then that I am Lognar, son of
Durgos, Captain of the Eastern Gate. Brindam is my kingly liege under the mountain."
Sara beamed brightly and plopped down
cross-legged on the dusty tunnel floor in front of him. "Sorry I made such a mess out
of your gate. And I hope your stuff didn't get banged up too bad. If you want, I can
clear the road and fetch your, uh, tools before I go on. Where do you want me to put that
Lognar tried as best he could to maintain
a stern and uncompromising demeanor with this enemy of his people, but was plainly worn
out by his exertions and his obvious physical infirmity. "Trouble yourself not on our
behalf, most unwelcome invader. I would that you replace yon door from outside and cease
to trouble our underland home."
"Can't do that, I'm afraid.
I'm not out to bust up your place or anything. I just have to get those Rings of
yours so I can clobber that Soraun guy. It's nothing personal."
"We shall not yield them. They are
the foundations of our might and prosperity and are precious to each and every one of us.
We will die if we must before we would surrender the least of them. We do not care for
your evil designs."
"Oh, come on," Sara countered,
smiling sweetly, "Do I look like I'm some kind of nasty villain?"
"We know naught of your kind. We
know only that you would destroy us."
not trying to destroy you -- I'm trying to help. If I can knock off
don't you think that would be a good idea? I mean, you gotta know He's running
things these days. Jeez, look at you guys. I'm betting you didn't look the way
you do before He took over, did you? Is everybody down here as sick as you are?
I mean, somebody
is responsible for either working you guys nearly to death or some kind of gross negligence.
And your poor Watcher is so bad off from poisoning his little lake out there, it probably
won't be around much longer."
"You did not destroy it?" Lognar
showed some relief, then guilt. "We have been so -- busy. There
is no time
anymore for such things..."
"Yeah," said Sara, "I
thought so. What's all the rush, anyway?"
"Think you that I would betray my
people? You'll tear no information from me, though you possess all the torturous
skills of Barradour," he said, defiantly.
"Don't be ridiculous," she
laughed, "I'm not into torture. I really don't care what you're doing
or even why. I just have to take care of this one little thing --
or, seven, actually -- and I'm outta here. I would think that removing this Ring-induced compulsion
would make things a lot better for you."
"We need no Rings to fire our fervor,
Witch. We Dwarves, scorned and hunted for centuries, have never been mightier. Our wealth
has never been greater. We shall make of our own labor a power that will keep us forever
He trailed off in a fit of
coughing, while his alarmed companions reached out to keep him sitting
upright. He was too sick to be of much further use.
sympathetically at the others.
"Everybody's like this, aren't they." It wasn't a question.
all looked miserably at the floor, confirming her suspicions. "Any idea what's
After a while, one of the younger Dwarves
stirred, addressing her in a quiet mutter without looking up, "All the Dwarves of
Midgarde were brought here after the War. Deeper than the roots of this mountain, we
mine the yellow powder."
"What? Gold?" she said, a little
puzzled. "I thought Dwarves have always mined gold."
"Nay," said another, "rarer
even than gold or Elfsilver. We have toiled ceaselessly to build vast works for the
processing of this ore, which makes but small amounts of warm metal, heavier than
"And deadlier," added another.
"All have had their turn at the mines until weakness makes work impossible.
Afterward, no medicine can help."
"For what? Is it worth it?"
"It is Progress," said the
first, almost reverently. The others nodded.
"Wonders and miracles have poured
forth, never seen or dreamed of in Midgarde," said still another young Dwarf.
"Brilliant light streams from little balls of clear glass. Engines do the work of
scores of Dwarves and never tire. Words spoken into a box can be heard issuing from other boxes
"You've got to be kidding!"
said Sara. "Are you telling me you have electricity? And motors? And
telephones?" She was astonished.
"So they are named by those who
bestow these secrets. Magic wedded to this new..."
the first Dwarf, "sweeps all before it. Would that they had never brought this
knowledge to us." The others nodded.
have happened overnight, magic or no magic. "Excuse my
ignorance, but just how long has the War been
over?" asked Sara.
"Almost ten years. In but the last
year, we have dwindled by half. Few children are born, and they are ill-formed and do not
live. Or should not."
Ten years, thought
Sara, incredulously. How
Gundolf and Eldron and the Lady must have suffered. How could they have held out? She couldn't
understand why her creators had waited so long to send her, now that it might be too
late to undo the terrible damage. Ten years... From Stone Age to budding Industrial Age
in such a short time. Incredible.
Lognar roused himself, "Silence,
fools!" he shouted. "This is treachery. This... This Man thing,"
he spat, "Tricks you. It is our enemy, can't you see? If it accomplishes its
fell mission, we will be left with nothing. Nothing!"
The other Dwarves reluctantly recovered
their resolution, slowly gathering their strength. They made a show of rallying behind
their leader, though their hearts were not in it.
"You have defeated only the smallest
part of our powerful nation, creature," Lognar orated. "Our wrath awaits you at
every turn. Go forth now or meet thy doom."
Sara stood up and
sighed, brushing herself off. "It's
time for me to go anyway, fellas. Look, I hope you do all right, OK? I wish I could do
something for you now, but this'll all turn out for the best. Believe me."
began to walk deliberately down the long tunnel into the heart of
Muriah, turning once to
wave cheerily. The youngest of them sheepishly waved back.
After a couple of
broad curves, the tunnel eventually opened into a vast square cavern with an
iron-clad high ceiling from which were suspended rows of garish, primitive electric light bulbs. She could
tell the floor was iron-bound as well, underneath the thick crust of sawdust, hay and
animal residue that had also covered most of the tunnel floor. There had been a
of traffic, it would seem, but not a trace of it remained. A maze of flimsy wooden draft
animal pens was scattered about, leaving a path of least
resistance through the center of the enormous room. On the other side of the
immense cavern was a long line of doors -- loading docks, obviously.
Most of the doors were closed. A trio of
larger openings in the center, opposite the tunnel mouth, was filled with heavily armed
Dwarves. When she neared the midpoint of the subterranean plaza, a spokesdwarf called out
to her in as powerful a voice as possible for one so gravely
"Halt!" he commanded,
then coughed spasmodically.
Sara obliged. She waved at them
enthusiastically and shouted back, "Hello! My name is Sara..."
"You cannot pass! Your mission is
ended, Man creature. Begone!"
"Ah, come on, guys," she yelled
back. "I'm not gonna hurt anyone, and none of you is gonna hurt me. Why
not just make this easy?"
"You cannot pass!" she heard
again, and the command was repeated by a throng of unseen reinforcements until it echoed
around the cavern. "You cannot pass!"
Well, they certainly
have guts, she thought. Sara concentrated on her surroundings, kreening
the half-dozen or so waiting warriors behind each door. There was
something else with them, too. Large metallic things. And, far above
her at the limits of her kreening, deep behind the rock in long
galleries surrounding the great room, were lines of Dwarves with heavy
hammers, swinging deliberately in perfect unison, gradually increasing
their arcs. What the heck was that all about? Shrugging, she started
for the doors again.
"You have been warned!" she
heard. Immediately, every door flew open to reveal...
Sara's jaw dropped. Cannons!
she thought. Wow!
These people didn't fool around, do they? By Midgarde terms, this would make
them a superpower. Except one in league with the wrong side. Not by their own doing, she
She resumed her
advance down the central path until she came to a carefully
calibrated spot upon which every weapon had been trained,
illuminated by the crossed beams of two special light fixtures.
At a shouted command, every gun belched flame
and smoke in near-unison, roaring like the end of the world in the confined space. Weakened Dwarves fell
from the terrible din. The rest uncovered their ears and set to work feverishly reloading.
The Dwarf commanders peered anxiously
through the thick, acrid clouds of gunsmoke, trying to see if their fusillade had had any effect. As
the air slowly cleared, they could make out the slender form of Sara far off in the center
of the room, holding a large, hot ball in each hand. "Good shooting, guys!" she
called out. There were almost as many missiles scattered about in front of her from
ricochets as there were imbedded in the wall far beyond. Good shooting, indeed. A second
volley would be as useless.
At a signal, the artillerydwarves
abandoned their positions and scrambled frantically for any kind of cover. The leader
nodded resignedly to a lieutenant with a phone. Word was passed to the ten-thousand
Dwarves now swinging their hammers in the galleries above.
"One," they called
together in a single voice as the hammers swished.
"Two," they sounded, with
"Three!" they shouted, letting fly with all their accumulated
momentum, pounding their targets with perfect synchronicity. Ten thousand latches swung
free with a sound like metal and stone crying out in agony.
In the huge room far below them, Sara
looked up at the commotion only she could sense through the ironclad rock above her. With
a massive shudder, the whole vast ceiling began its freefall descent to meet the floor of
the cavern below. Impressed, Sara had a brief moment to think to herself,
a trap! before she allowed herself to be pounded into the
The impact was catastrophic. The sudden
compression of the air in the chamber rushed through the tunnel
behind her, blowing
Lognar and his troop to the ground nearly a mile from the entrance,
where they were recovering their
weapons from where Sara had thrown them.
All along the long row of doors, the shattering
force of the gale literally tore the few remaining unlucky Dwarves from their posts, along
with their cannons and ammunition. The remnants of the doors themselves were mixed with
the remains of the animal pens, floor detritus, weapons, clothes and body parts, and flung
violently across the receiving and shipping rooms and down radiating corridors.
The concussion that followed, as the vast
piston abruptly bottomed out, resounded through the entire length and breadth of
collapsing weaker corridors miles from the entrance. The sound was beyond deafening,
shattering the internal organs of many nearby. Sheer stone exposed directly to the shock
wave cracked and split. Wooden beams turned to dust. The carnage was horrifying.
It was more than an hour before the first
Dwarf scouts approached the wreckage of the loading docks. Passing a pitifully few
crawling survivors and trailing telephone wires, they reported that the trap had functioned
perfectly, and there was no sign of movement. Far above, the survivors of the
hammer-wielding crew surveyed the massive single block of iron-sheathed stone that had
been designed to crush whole invading armies and seal the entrance. It was
intact, and they
started attaching the thousands of chains to hooks on its top so that the long process of
raising it again could begin. Even with their new machines, it would take nearly every still-able Dwarf in
Muriah a week
to laboriously winch it into place.
There was a small pit in the center of the
room, formed when the unstoppable force of the falling monolith had encountered the
unbreakable body of Sara, molding the iron plates above and below her into a rough
approximation of her huddled shape. Inside this pit, Sara lay stunned, not by the mere
falling weight but by the enormity of the Dwarves' sacrifice. This was tragically
unexpected. How could she have known? Even with all her sensory and deductive
powers she had been caught unawares, and allowed this awful disaster to play itself out while
she failed to move, transfixed by surprise and uncertainty.
Dammit, she should have known. It
was plain to see, in perfect hindsight. Only her naïve hubris in thinking that everyone
else should be as reasonable as she was prevented her from understanding just how far
these poor creatures would go in protecting their precious treasures from what they
believed to be a threat.
Gundolf had said, "Before the sun
goes down again, the Dwarves will cover you with their blood." She had dismissed his
warning as hyperbole, but it had come to pass. She felt a stain was upon her that could
never be cleaned away. If only she hadn't believed that a show of invincibility would
simply make these stubborn Dwarves step aside, she would have just stormed her way into
the heart of Muriah without giving them time to spring their awful defense. She hoped there
would be no more like this.
Far away, she kreened the work parties of
Dwarves scurrying about. They would be trapped in Muriah for some time, at least on this
side of the mountain. She could perceive the mechanisms for raising the barrier and
doubted that they possessed the energy to accomplish the task. The least she could do
would be to try to make something right again, as little as it was. Anyway, she had to
leave her tiny prison somehow.
Pushing ever so carefully so as not to
break through the already stressed iron and rock of her little chamber, she slowly
worked her way over to the nearby balance point. Then, flattened
against the bottom with her arms spread as wide as possible, she gradually lifted the
stone from the floor. The rising mass grated and shrieked enormously against the sides of
Amidst the terrible noise, Dwarves
scuttled blindly to and fro, covering their ears and shouting senselessly as the great
weight began its impossible ascent. Rising from the floor as if attached to the bottom of
the scarred ceiling, Sara continued her slow lift until she could tell that the myriad
latches were properly aligned. She stopped.
"Hey," she called in the sudden
silence. "Somebody tell the Dwarves up there to set the latches." There was no
response. "Come on. I don't want to hold this thing up here forever."
Finally, one Dwarven leader responded,
"Why should we? Stay there 'till you rot, for all we care."
"I'm just trying to help,"
"We don't need your
favors," he responded.
"The heck you don't. If you
don't latch this thing pretty soon, I'm liable to drop it."
"As long as you are under it, then do
so and be damned."
Frustrated, Sara yelled at him,
"Look, stupid. It won't keep me out. Can't you get that through your thick,
A tired elder interceded. "What
difference does it make? We have failed. It is neither injured nor trapped. There is
nothing more to be done here."
The latches were eventually secured, and
Sara dropped from the ceiling, setting down in front of the old Dwarf.
"Thanks," she said. "Look,
I'm really sorry for all the brave Dwarves who lost their lives.
Honestly, if I'd known
what you'd do, I would have stopped this somehow."
"It is not your place to grieve for
us," he answered. "You must attend to your doom and we must attend to ours. It
must be that it cannot be helped."
"It shouldn't be this way. I
just need to get this over with before anyone else gets hurt."
"Listen to me. You must know that
this is not at an end. If you press on, there will be even vaster bloodshed. You must
decide if it will be worth it."
Sara was silent for some time. This was a
Dwarf of wisdom and experience. She knew he was right. But he had only one perspective,
and it was warped by a power his people could not endure. Unmistakably, they were all
"I know what I must do," she
told him. "I am certain."
"Then," he said, looking
straight into her eyes, "we will not have died in vain."
Sara was relentless
now. There were more traps as the Dwarves threw everything at her in desperation. She was
gassed, electrocuted, pummeled, distracted, decoyed, shot at, snared, spiked, blasted,
flushed, pounded and frozen -- to no effect. Whole regiments blocked her way in tight
masses, refusing to budge until she simply plowed through them like a bulldozer, heedless
of the damage it caused to individuals.
The only thing that slowed her down at all
was the sheer vastness of Muriah itself. Corridors ran in every direction and she could
only kreen so far into the dense rock. The Dwarves gave no information, leading her down
false trails at every opportunity. She had to rely on simply mapping every turn and
passage until she finally came upon her destination.
In a towering room of rock, there was
a sheer face carved into an ornate façade -- undoubtedly the Hall of the Mountain
For blocking Sara's path to the
columned entrance was a terrifying creature of dark flame and malice. Surely, it was the
Jabberwauk of Gundolf's warning, erstwhile Dwarves' bane now guarding the princes of a
people it had once mercilessly consumed. It was their final defense
-- not on their
behalf, but for its Master's purposes.
"Outta my way, butt-breath,"
shouted Sara, in no mood to play.
There was no response. Sara reached up to
push it aside and it attacked her with every fiber of its being, clawing and biting,
flailing her with terrible claws and burning her with the fire of its essence. The pall of
howling fear it cast in spreading pools of darkness drove Dwarves into gibbering madness
wherever it flowed. She pressed on undeterred.
The intensity of its attack redoubled as
its own fear and compulsion drove it to frenzy. The mountain began to shake violently from
its hammering efforts, collapsing rooms and corridors filled with Dwarves directionlessly
fleeing some nameless dread. Vile gouts of evil substances poured from its mouth, covering
her in putrid ichor. Choking stenches enveloped her, then burst into actinic flares.
Blackness was thrown upon her eyes and clamor filled her ears. Every sending of
abomination rained upon her senses.
But Sara could not be thwarted. She made
her way steadily onward, not even bothering to answer its challenge. Finally, it merely
jammed its bulk into the portal of the Hall, interposing its body between her and her
"OK, that's it," she told
She grabbed at it, but found
it difficult to find a solid purchase. She kicked at it, her blow
transmitting enough force through its body to threaten the existence of
the Hall. Still it did not budge. She glared at it with x-ray intensity
until the intervening atmosphere flamed into a sun-rivaling fireball
and the rock face began to boil, but this only served to renew its
power. Exasperated, she just decided to push her way through. The body
of the creature had to give way to Sara's overwhelming strength,
shattering the doorway on every side.
Finally, with the massive front of the
Hall in tumbling ruins, the once-mighty Jabberwauk knew bitter defeat, scrambling away from
the small figure and crawling down a steep fissure.
"And stay out!" Sara called
Shaking off as much of the
disgusting mess as possible, she entered the Hall to confront the
They were seated on seven thrones on top
of a dais with seven steps. No other Dwarves were in attendance. They were old and weary,
with deep-set, wise eyes that bespoke of an overriding madness held precariously at bay.
They seemed to be no better off than their subjects, with hair and teeth falling out and
sores like burns on bare faces and hands. They offered no resistance, magical or
otherwise, and seemed resigned to their fate.
"What would you have of us?"
asked the eldest, in a voice seemingly from far away.
"I think you know why I am
here," Sara answered.
"You have truly won the prize you
seek. We are finished," said another.
Sara bowed her head. "I am so very
sorry for what I had to do. I tried to avoid so much death and destruction, but you
didn't make it any easier."
A third said, "You must understand
that we had to do all in our power to forestall this outcome."
"I know. Eldron
explained that to me.
But all I had to do with him was play a game."
"There are no more games for you in
this world," said the fourth king.
"What will become of your
people?" Sara asked.
The fifth King said, "The sickness
will take them if naught else. They were condemned in any event. This, at least, was not
"But why? What is it? Can't
anything be done?"
The sixth King spoke, "You have seen
the works of Progress brought to us by the agents of He who binds these Rings of our power. He made a
requirement of us, to mine and smelt and forge an unmatched source of energy for some vast
purposes of His own, persuading us that we would be the beneficiaries. In our misled
pride, we reveled in the new knowledge revealed to us, and strove to hasten the outcome of
our research and ingenuity. It was founded on principles unknown to this world, but
wrested from some other by unthinkable means.
"The power of the sun is in the metal
we refine. Its mysteries have been mastered at terrible cost, and now devices of awful
portent await final assembly and delivery to our Lord of Darkness. Scarce a day more, and
all would have been finished."
Sara thought furiously. The yellow powder,
the enormous efforts to refine and purify it, the sickness, the metal with the power of
the sun... Ohmigod.
"It is radiation sickness,
isn't it. Isn't it?" She closed her eyes briefly. "The whole place
fairly reeks of radioactivity. Why didn't I see it? Was I so distracted?"
She paused once more. "What the hell
do you mean, 'devices of awful portent?' What are you building? Bombs? You
idiots are building nuclear weapons for Soraun?"
She shouted at them, "Where the
The last and youngest
King pressed a hidden button and a portion of the wall behind the dais
slid to one side. Sara sprang through the opening into an enormous
vault with a half-dozen heavy, menacing shapes carefully lined up down
the middle. She kreened them quickly. Inside each one was a dense
sphere of warm metal, lacking but a cone to complete its form. The
missing chunk was poised inside a thick gun tube with explosives behind
it, ready to drive the sliver home.
They were nearly complete uranium bombs.
Nothing fancy, but her computer mind told her they would work. Crudely but effectively. All they lacked was a
neutron source, an initiator. A polonium ring surrounding the
gun tube near the incomplete sphere. As they were now, they were useless. But it
was oh, so close. Well, she'd heave these suckers into the sun in no time.
She returned to the throne room to
confront the last King, "Is this all of them? Any more parts laying around?"
"Here lies the sum of all our
efforts, save one," he told her.
"Save one?" she demanded,
"You cannot yet compel our
answer," he told her.
"When I have your stupid Rings,
you'll tell me with your dying breath, if you have to," she said angrily. This
was nothing she wanted to waste any time over, niceties be damned. She sensed something
was dreadfully amiss and had to have answers now.
"As you will," he shrugged. Each
King in his turn made an elaborate show of removing his Ring and
handing it over to her. She quickly accepted the proffered
baubles from each of them as their lives drained
away. It occurred to her that their speeches and ritualistic
surrender was meant to buy time. For what? A sense of urgency
tore at her.
At last, only
the final King was left, his Ring held out to her like an
offering. "Now tell me what you know I want to know,"
she demanded as she reached for it, closing her hand around his
With painful effort, he told her,
"One remains, somewhere below this room. It is complete. You will not find it
-- it will find you. The Jabberwauk was not guarding us so much as our secret. If it could not
turn you back, it had but one remaining task. To make of Muriah a fitting tomb for all the
Dwarves." His hand slipped from hers, leaving his Ring as
he expired. He sank into his throne.
Sara screamed at him, "TELL... ME... WHERE!"
Such was the power of the Rings she bore
that he could not escape her command even in death. His dead finger pointed in a precise
direction through the floor. Sara immediately plunged through the solid rock in a
desperate race against certain destruction, unmindful of the shattering calamity of her
passage. She kreened powerfully ahead of her until she spotted the telltale signature of
the dense sphere below.
But the Jabberwauk
was there already, aware of
her approach. It knew that the consequences of its action now would be far preferable than
those of failure. Without hesitation, it pressed a button.
The propellant tore the confining tube
apart behind the projectile, but not before sending it on its way to pass through the
initiator and mate with its target. Sara's outstretched hands were penetrating the
ceiling of the laboratory when the cascade of neutrons started the unstoppable chain
reaction within the sphere. Before her head was within the room, the process was finished.
She dove straight through where the bomb had been, but it was too late. The uranium so
excruciatingly extracted and crafted by the Dwarves was no more.
Nearby rock vaporized instantly with
explosive force, creating a hellish chamber of radiation and
overwhelming pressure several hundred yards in diameter. A
massively powerful shockwave radiated through the surrounding
rock in all directions, collapsing every void space under
the mountain, shaking every peak and valley. Rockslides tumbled down the slopes. The
massive traps at either entrance were cast down, and the spaces above them filled in with
shattered rock. Dust rose into the air above as the shape of the mountain was changed.
In inconsolable grief and despair, Sara
powered her way through the whole underground volume where Muriah
had been, searching
vainly for any trace of survivors as the echoes of the awful explosion reverberated
through the tortured stone. The bomb chamber had started to cool and harden before she
gave up and reentered the world of air and light.
She found a natural basin of snow-filled
rock high on the flanks of the Mystic Mountains above the tree line. She melted the snow
with wide beams, creating a little pond of nearly boiling water.
In the shower of its steaming overflow, she
washed the horror from her clothes and body as best she could, then lay numbly naked on
the bottom of the basin until the water lost its heat and began to freeze. She could think of no way to
wash the horror from her mind.
Climbing out, she dressed slowly and
thoughtfully. The Rings were with her, three on the fingers of her right hand, seven on
her toes. She wondered idly where the Nine would choose to go. There would be one finger
left when she got to Maurdur.
Sara dropped from the heights and into the
heavier air below, heading east in search of the great river Ayndruen.
© Patrick Hill, 2000