By Sheri L. McGathy
(As is, and I really mean that 🙂
Copyright© – No part of this may be reproduced without permission
"Alas, Garrick, They Shall Miss You"
Lance checked their packs for what little supplies left them.
There wasn't much. A few more days and they'd know real hunger.
Since becoming separated from the others, Lance and his remaining companions had wondered the Portal tunnels trying, in vain, to learn how the OrbKey worked and discover a way out.
So far, they'd discovered nothing. The only luck they'd had, if one could call it luck, was that they had encountered no others since becoming trapped within.
Lance could only hope that Callie could figure out why the OrbKey attempted to respond to her; just what it was that set it off. If she couldn't persuade it to unveil its secrets by the end of the week, he feared there would be none among them left with the energy to care.
As if his thoughts summoned her, Callie drew up silently on his left. Lance gave her a wry smile as she fell into step beside him. Lately, each time he saw her, he was reminded that she was no longer the short, stubby-limbed child he had whisked from Xenos' cruel clutches so many years gone now.
Callie had allowed her hair to grow long and wore it in a single braid coiled several times about her head, forming a shining, bronzed crown. The braid added to her height. She was tall, matching Col inch for inch, but unlike her brother, she tended to stay grounded on the rational side of things, preferring to think a matter through thoroughly before acting upon it. Where Col reacted immediately, almost thoughtlessly, Callie remained a sane voice, calming Col's impetuous nature. Lance sighed, growing pensive. The boy was never far from his thoughts, or was the realization that he had failed his prince. It was always there, near the surface of his emotions…a raw sore that refused to heal.
Callie looked up as a sigh escaped Lance. Slowly, she lifted the OrbKey for him to see. He looked at the proffered key and then into her brown eyes, confusion apparent in his own.
Lance slowed his pace, and then stopped completely to give the OrbKey his full attention. Its center contained a frail flicker of light that spun counterclockwise, round and round, faster and faster.
"Child," Lance said, "very carefully, and very, very slowly, place the orb on the ground and step away."
Callie jerked her head up, alarm clearly present in her stare. Then, taking a deep breath, she carefully lowered herself toward the tunnel floor, the OrbKey extended out away from her body on her upturned palms. As she laid it on the sandy floor, the OrbKey flared to life, erupting into brilliant fire. White light flashed outward, completely engulfing the girl.
Lance threw up a hand in a feeble attempt to shield his eyes. Blindly leaning forward, he tried to pull Callie away, but found he was barred from going any farther. The light pulsed, matching the beat of his racing heart. It filled the tunnel. A loud, ear-splitting crack vibrated off the walls, shaking the floors as the surging light sought to fill every crevice, every crack as it flowed out and away down the passage. In its wake came a sudden eruption of wind, a hot blast winging in from above them. The pressure in the tunnels built, forcing Lance's ears, to open and close in repetitive snaps and pops.
A loud sucking noise rose from the center of the maelstrom as the wind doubled back, as if answering some unheard summons. With it came the light, swirling and swaying in cyclonic action across the ceiling of the tunnel. He looked up just in time to see the roof split open and just as quickly seal itself again. A dull thud and a muffled groan followed, and then, silence.
As suddenly as the wind rose, it died. As if wishing to mimic, the OrbKey went dark, thrusting them into blackness.
Lance sprang forward and reached toward the spot where he had last seen Callie. Latching hold of something, he pulled backward. He was rewarded with the soft form of the child. With Callie safely within his grasp, he called out to Dione and Ri-lee.
"We're okay, Lance," Dione answered from somewhere to his left, "but I don't think we're alone anymore."
Lance squinted into oppressive shroud, relieved to note that the darkness was thinning. The inherent magic of the Portals was resetting itself, the soft inner glow within, which had always present, until now, was beginning to resurface, chasing back the gloom they were netted in.
Lance reached out to Callie, but encountered only emptiness. He swung about, relieved to discover her bending over what looked to be a crumbled mass of fur wrapped in odd straps of leather binding. He pulled her away just as she was extending a hand toward the pile. As he forced her behind him, Lance drew his sword and used the tip to prod the strange mound.
He waited. The tunnels were uncomfortably silent after the wash of wind and havoc.
"Is it alive?" Ri-lee asked. "It does not appear so, Nestmate Lance," he answered his own question.
As if bidden, a moan escaped the dingy heap and mournfully echoed out and away, retreating down the silent tunnels behind them.
A shiver raced along Dione's spine. "Lance?" She moved in for a closer look.
"No," the warrior warned, throwing an arm out to block her. "Do not touch it."
Again the pile moaned, then moved. The fur and leather rotating in a wide, slow arc to finally reveal a young lad, near Col's age, flat on his back staring up at them with a mix of awe and wonder shining in his eyes. His face was beginning to show the swollen signs of bruising, and a long, angry looking cut ran the length of his straight nose. Twigs and leaves stuck out from the light growth of hair he wore on his lower face, and his mouth was posed in a silent 'O.'
Lance noted the lad's confusion as he took in his surroundings. "Can you sit up?" Lance extended a hand toward him.
Nodding, the lad accepted the hand and stood.
Once on his feet, Lance realized that what he'd first mistaken as a pile of animal remains was instead a sort of wooly overcoat that the lad wore. The lad was tall and powerfully built, with brown, shoulder length hair both thick and wavy. Under the overcoat he wore a thick vest made of soft, tawny-colored leather, wool pants, and malleable leather boots. Yet, everything he wore was covered with debris and the lad was a mass of cuts and bruises.
"What is that smell?" Dione mumbled as she raised a hand to shield her nose.
"Sheep," the lad answered even as he swayed on his feet. Lance moved forward, but the lad held out his hands to stall him.
"I mean no harm." He lowered himself carefully to the tunnel floor. Coming to rest upon his knees, he closed his eyes, and rubbed a hand across his brow. "I need only but a moments rest." He took a long, ragged breath and then went silent.
The others watched and waited.
"Sheep?" Callie coaxed.
"Aye, sheep. I tend sheep. Or I did," the lad whispered, staring down at his swollen, scratched knuckles. Then, raising his gaze to Lance, he asked, "Will you all be joining me on my death march to the Great Keeper?"
"What?" Callie stammered, looking to the others for help. "What death march? Are you planning on dying?"
The burly youth shrugged his massive shoulders. "I fell from a cliff while defending my flock from a wolf pack. I landed here." He raised a hand and waved it out in front of him, reverently encompassing the tunnels. He kept his confused gaze on Callie. "Is this not the Death Road?"
"Enough," Lance interrupted. "You are not dead, but it appears that you may be walking your death march, and soon, if we do not find food." Lance ran a hand through his hair and looked away.
At his words, the lad jumped eagerly to his feet, earning the tip of Lance's sword at his throat.
"Nay, no harm." He smiled at the large warrior, showing Lance the inside of his hands. "I've food a plenty. I will gladly share."
"And just exactly who would we be sharing with?" Dione asked.
The lad offered her a smart bow. Then, all in a rush, he stated, "I am called Garrick of Argus' Gate."
As his name escaped his lips, the OrbKey flared to life from Callie's outstretched hand, bathing Garrick in a brilliant aura. He jumped back, his eyes wide, his hands held out before him as if to ward against the light. His stance first spoke of flight, but just as quickly calmed as the lad sank down to the tunnel floor and remained there, supporting his weight on one bent knee, head bowed in submission.
"Well, 'tis official now, we have yet another chosen." Lance's sarcasm was barely hidden in his tone. Looking away down the endless tunnels, he mumbled, "I truly hate that damnable Orb."
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