If the search for the sword ended in her death, so be it. This had been decided, in her mind, long ago. Or so Aeryn had thought. When she looked down the windswept path, however, past her guide and his horse, to her destination in the valley below, doubt found her.
Like a tickle at the back of her throat—or a scream trying to claw its way out—it picked at her. She closed her eyes for a moment and tightened her grip on her reins. She reminded herself that she had nothing left for death to take which mattered anymore.
The biting wind and rain slapped against the hood of her cloak. The storm did little to improve her mood and seemed to have convinced the old drover ahead of her that it was a bad omen of some kind. Phineas repeatedly cast glances back at Aeryn, grim lines etched into his face. It did not matter that such storms came to the Northlands every autumn. His reluctance to enter the valley was now a palpable thing.
He never said so directly, but she could tell from the small comments he had made the night before that he disapproved of her coming to the Black Mountains and wished she had never involved him. How could she not? This was partially his quest once, when both he and her father were much younger.
Her decision to approach him in Valis and convince him to help her had been an easy one. He knew ways past the rockslides the locals had warned her of and his connection to her father meant he was unlikely to try to kill her once they got to the valley. Too many others would give her a blade to the throat in the middle of the night and take the curse breaker for themselves.
At the valley’s bottom, Phineas stopped his horse and turned it to face hers. “Aeryn Ravane, this is where I leave ye.” He grimaced as another gust of wind hit him. “I don’ feel good ’bout it. Yer father wouldn’ approve of this.”
She pushed back her hood, back from her dark hair, and stared at him with gray eyes that matched the storm clouds above. She did not need a lecture now.
“This is what he wanted,” she said.
He shook his head. “Once, mayhap, as a young man. I only agreed to take ye here to this godsdamned place, because I knew no one else would. And I knew ye’d find a way to come anyhow. Ye’re just as damned stubborn as he was.”
Aeryn smiled vaguely at the backhanded compliment. She pushed aside the edge of her cloak and untied a pouch attached to her belt. She nudged her roan stallion closer to him. “The rest of your payment. I thank you for your help. Safe passage back.”
Phineas took the coins but said, “Don’ thank me. It jus’ makes leavin’ ye here all the harder.” He looked sidelong at the rest of the valley. “I don’ expect ye to make it out o’ here alive. Even if ye manage to set foot in those caverns, ye’ll be dead like all the rest who’s tested that curse. Likely, I won’ get to spend this before somethin’ bad happens to me as well.”
He nodded at Rowan. “Ye leavin’ the horse? I can take him back with me to Valis.”
She shook her head. “No, thank you. Farewell, Phineas.”
She just wanted him to leave now, so she could get on with things, before her doubt talked her out of what she had to do. This was the only way forward for her.
“I’ll drink to the memory of ye tonight, if I live so long.” The old drover kicked his horse into a gallop back up the mountainside.
Aeryn watched him retreat and then turned her attention to the barren valley surrounding her. The Valley of Death seemed a much better name to her now, looking at the place formerly known as Night Valley. She suspected that the massacre long ago and all the mysterious deaths that followed were not the only reasons for the change in its name. Most plant life, with the exception of some scrubby bushes and short twisted trees, seemed unwilling to grow there.
She frowned as she surveyed the valley, looking for a suitable place to leave Rowan. This was the only thing she had been unable to plan ahead of time. She decided that leaving him near one of the trees by the entrance to the Black Caverns was best, and she turned him in that direction. He walked slowly, as though, like the drover, the storm and the valley’s reputation made him anxious for her.
Aeryn pulled Rowan to a halt by one of the low trees and dismounted. She draped his reins over a branch, not needing to tie him to it, and then opened her saddlebags. She took out an apple, heavy blanket, and a short length of rope. She draped the blanket over him to shield him from as much of the rain as possible and secured it to keep it from blowing away. Rowan whickered at her, and Aeryn offered him the apple, which he bit neatly in half.
She smiled and patted his rain-dampened neck. “I'm sorry to leave you in such an inhospitable place, my friend. I’m afraid I have no choice in the matter.”
Aeryn offered Rowan the rest of the apple. He devoured it. She stroked his head one last time, hating to leave him.
“If the weather worsens, or I don’t return before sundown, get yourself out of here. Find your way to somewhere better than here.”
The horse nudged her shoulder with his head, and Aeryn could not help but feel he understood her. Rowan was her father’s horse before he became hers, and her father always said Rowan was smarter than most humans. Aeryn did not disagree. She knew he could get his own reins loose if he needed to, so she tried not to worry about him.
She untied a leather pack that hung to the side of her saddlebags and slung it over her shoulder, next to the pair of sword sheaths on her back. She turned away and trekked up the side of Nightstone Peak. Rowan neighed behind her, but she kept walking without looking back.
She picked out her destination on the mountainside without any trouble. Her pulse quickened the closer she came to the boulder that sealed off the Black Caverns. She felt the weight of all those who came before her and failed. It slowed her steps as it had Rowan’s.
When she stopped in front of the boulder, her stomach tightened as the doubt picked at her again. She reached under the clasp of her cloak and drew out the amulet that hung from a silver chain around her neck, a ruby at its center. The elf from whom she got it simply called it “the key”. Getting it came at a high cost, and she hoped it was worth it.
Trion had admitted it might not work for her, since it was not created for her. If it rejected her, she would not know until it was too late to turn back. The curse left behind by Tynan Selvantyr remained as strong now, a century later, as at its inception.
Aeryn stared at the caverns entrance. The wind gusted and blew more rain at her. She shook off her hesitation and smoothed her hair back from her eyes. She stepped forward to lay her hand on the boulder. Before she read the inscription on the back of the amulet aloud, she offered a silent prayer to Morghell, lord of the dead and suffering. She prayed for a quick end if the amulet failed.
It took only a moment before a deep rumble heralded the opening of the entrance and the boulder rolled back into a recess inside the caverns. Its absence revealed a black hole. She did not celebrate that she was not dead yet. Many before her had gotten to this point.
Though different from the one on the back of the amulet, a spell to open the caverns’ entrance was not hard to come by. She had been sold several of them before she came into possession of the amulet. No, she had to enter to know what her fate would be.
Aeryn closed her eyes and stepped into the darkness.
Solid ground met her boots. Aeryn opened her eyes again and found herself looking down a corridor lit by torches. She took another step forward. Nothing stopped her, and no pit opened below her. Aeryn allowed herself a moment of relief. Behind her, the boulder rumbled back into place and sealed the exit with a sharp crack of stone on stone. The sound echoed down the corridor in front of her.
With the daylight behind her cut off, Aeryn could see better by the light of the torches. Their flames burned low, as though they were somehow aware their master had died long ago, and this saddened them. The melancholy silence was broken only by the sound of her breathing and the occasional drip of water from somewhere in the caverns.
She slipped the small pack off her shoulder and laid it down. The caverns were much warmer than she expected, so she removed her cloak as well. She readjusted her shoulder plates and the pair of sword sheaths that hung on a baldric of woven leather from her right shoulder, down to her left hip. Only one of the sheaths contained a sword.
Aeryn set her wet cloak next to the leather pack in the hopes it might dry, then knelt down to rummage through the pack. She moved aside a lantern and a vial of oil, neither of which she needed. Her fingers brushed against the roll of parchment she sought. She took it out, along with a stick of drawing charcoal. Getting lost in the caverns’ labyrinth was the last thing she wanted. Making a map ensured she would not.
A familiar whisper tickled at her mind, but she shoved it aside, unrolling the parchment. Using the charcoal, Aeryn started her map with a sketch of the entry chamber. Then, she rolled it up and tucked it and the charcoal away. Before she rose to her feet, she also took a small coil of rope from her pack. Aeryn threw the rope over her left shoulder and went down the corridor, away from the entrance. She counted her paces while she walked.
Down the corridor, a blue glow caught Aeryn’s attention. As she drew closer, she realized the glow came from blue runes carved into the obsidian walls in sporadic groups, which slowly turned into organized lines of them. Aeryn recognized the runes as protection wards of some kind. The rune lines continued on, unbroken, when the corridor ended at a three-way junction. Aeryn paused, considering each of her options.
Her destination lay somewhere in the center of the caverns, but neither of the passages facing her now went straight. One branched off to the left, the other to the right. Her hand rose, and she fingered the thin white scar over her left eye. The scar split her eyebrow in two. After a moment, her hand dropped again, and she chose to go right. She marked this on her map.
The runes followed her into a passage lined on either side by wooden doors. Each one was massive in height, and she wondered how they got to the caverns. According to legend, the late adventurer Tynan Selvantyr created the caverns with his extraordinary magiks. He might have used his magiks to transport the doors there as well, fourteen all told, but she had to wonder why caverns needed doors.
She admired the intricate carvings that decorated each one. Each door’s carvings depicted a different scene: a war, a hunt of some kind, the creation of a god whose artifacts she did not recognize. Looking closer at this last scene, she realized that the carving of the god’s head bore scratches and scars, as if someone tried to obliterate it from the wooden door. Aeryn stepped back and wondered what lay beyond this particular door. She decided it was best not to find out.
Each of the scenes depicted on the doors from that point forward became darker and darker. One of the scenes showed a religious sacrifice, though she could not tell what the sacrifice was—a small animal or a child?
Aeryn shuddered, a sense of deep discomfort washing over her. She wondered why these doors were here and what story they were meant to tell. She thought back to the stories her father told her and the stories she read about Tynan on her own, and could think of nothing in Tynan's history that these scenes might depict. The lack of an explanation for these scenes caused a small knot of apprehension to form in her stomach. She moved on.
She picked up her pace until she reached a large, circular chamber at the end of the hall of doors. The room’s contents reflected the torchlight a thousand times over. Open chests arranged around the room overflowed with gold and silver coins and jewels of all colors. Coins covered the floor in miniature gold mountains.
Aeryn walked to the middle of the room and turned around slowly to take everything in, amazed at the wealth contained in this one room. Her spine tightened when suddenly she heard someone gasp behind her.