The Stone Key – Chapter 14

Chapter Fourteen (this is the last chapter of this first section!)

This is going to be a thrilling conclusion to this section, because Elspeth has just found a secret tunnel used by the Herders, for who knows what, and it turns out there are Herders at the other end. She has just tripped and been knocked unconscious, so what she finds when she wakes up will be very interesting.

Somehow, Elspeth had fallen into a crevice, and she was stuck in there pretty good, and her movement just made things worse. As usual her body was already healing itself, and that made her extremely tired. It is a neat trick, but wouldn’t it be better to forgo the side effect? Elspeth had fallen into the crevice side on, and managed to get her head up enough to see that  a light was approaching. Maybe it is Wenda, but maybe it is Herders coming from the other side. Then Elspeth heard that it was more than just one person, it was dozens of people marching. The invasion was already underway! And nobody knew about the tunnel! No wonder Malik looked so smug, he knew the invasion was basically underway.

The Herders marched on past Elspeth, who was somehow on the side out of the way, and she hoped that Wenda was not trying to follow her down the tunnel, because she would be caught. Elspeth decided it was safer to go away from the marching Herders (once she had freed herself) because if she followed them, she would walk right into their midst. She is hoping that there aren’t Herders back where they came from. The tunnel continues to slope downwards, and eventually she hears voices. Elspeth could tell that she was almost at the end, because there was a draught and some light now visible. So Elspeth continued on, until the tunnel curved suddenly and opened out into a huge cavern.

Elspeth slowly crept around to get a view of what was around, she found a few fires, and evidence that the Herders had been here for quite a while. The only people in the cavern now were two inner-circle priests, and one high inner-cadre priest, obviously overseeing the invasion, but as to why they didn’t join the Herders, who knows. Unfortunately all the Herders have been wearing their demonbands, so Elspeth hasn’t had a chance to find out more about anything, which is a pity, but clearly the Herders aren’t taking any chances. Elspeth could hear the two men talking, and apparently Salamander wants a bloodless battle, clearly so he can get as many slaves as possible. But the older man disagrees, because The One, said that many deaths would be good to show them a lesson, and to cleanse this part of the Land from all the seditioners and Lud-haters. It is scary to hear the man talk about an intention to breed obedient people, to stamp out all this rebellion and inquisitiveness. And the Herders mention troubles over in the Red Queen’s land, with their leader Anupati. Seriously, these people are sick and disgusting. They want people to only know slavery, and who basically worship their masters, who are superior, and who lead them by the will of Lud. Delusional!

Then the younger asked a question so shocking, Elspeth nearly fell off into the cavern. The priest asked what the relationship between Salamander and Ariel had been. The older man doesn’t understand the question, because he doesn’t think there is a relationship. He reveal that Ariel advised the One to tell the Council to sell their prisoners to Salamander in exchange for patrolling the strait from any other ships. Ariel has really moved on up in the world, and now is influencing the leader of the Herders! The younger priest isn’t satisfied, and questions where Ariel even came to know Salamander, since he is so secretive. Apparently, they met after the firestorm at Henry Druid’s, and that was when Ariel suggested Salamander do himself a favour, and work with the Herders. This older priest even believes that in time Salamander will come to worship Lud.

They do have an interesting conversation about why is Salamander still so greedy for slaves, when he must be so wealthy? And why does he still lead The Black Ship even when he has newer ships? Apparently, The Black Ship is much larger and can travel further and with much more cargo than two other ships combined, which is why he still likes to command it, and the older priest believes that Salamander only started getting really wealthy and powerful after he joined forces with the Herders. That must mean, that there are a whole lot more Herders (or Hedra) involved in the invasion than the ones Elspeth just saw.

These two are so delusional that they even believe that one day the ‘purifying flames’ will reach the Red Land, because they don’t believe in Lud. Now I won’t attack religion and I don’t want fanatical religious debate, but this belief that Gods would want their worshippers to go around killing everyone who doesn’t follow the same religion, is ludicrous. Honestly, I don’t see how people can even imagine that this is the will of a God? It doesn’t make sense.

But enough of that, the two are still conversing, and I find it interesting that again, the younger one, is questioning even Ariel’s faith in Lud. But it seems that they excuse his traits, because he does such a good job. It seems that it was him who decided to split the Land and only work with those on the west coast, and it was him who thought that Malik could be paid off to mount an invasion, and it was him who created the demonbands! The only criticism about the demonbands is about the taint, which Ariel has not ‘fixed’. And it was Ariel who helped create the warrior priests (Hedra), and the One was so pleased with him, that Ariel now has a residence on Norse Island. It seems Ariel has won such high favour with the One, that others are getting jealous and fearful. For Ariel rouses excitement in the One, and that leads to a lot of blood being spilled. The One had even wanted every man, woman and child in the Land killed for not obeying Lud’s commands, but Ariel, with his persuasive means, lead him away from that thought. Though, these priests believe that the One is unable to be persuaded by ‘lesser beings’. The last priest who questioned Ariel’s motives, was screaming  and sent mad by his blasphemy as he died.

The younger priest found that that was unbearable, since he couldn’t believe such high ranking priests could be punished so completely (he was an inner Nine), and then all of those under that priest, had to be killed because they had sworn to serve that Nine! This is madness! They seriously think that violence is the purifying flame, but question how it can work in the Faction itself, because they are already the same flame (which is so self-righteous of them). And Ariel’s egotistical ambitions and motivations have risen to new heights, as he was offered the position of Nine, but refused, saying he wanted to be an outsider, until a time when Herder’s dominated the earth.

What an interesting and fruitful exchange, but Elspeth feels obligated to go and do something rather than just sit here waiting and listening. But, a movement catches her eye, and the identify of the person is again, really shocking. It is Salamander. Elspeth has seen his face! Well, his face was covered in black bandages, but Elspeth saw his eyes, and they were yellow. Which gives rise to a good question, what is he hiding under those bandages? Is he disfigured? Is he a deformed Misfit? And he must hid himself because nobody would follow him?

Salamander asks where Malik is, and the priests are clearly under the impression something has gone wrong. Salamander doesn’t care, because he knows that Malik’s mind is safe. It appears that Ariel has done something with his mind to make sure that the first person who enters it, will cause it to collapse, and they will be killed in the process. Good thing that Elspeth didn’t try and coerce Malik first, but someone is going to, and they will pay a dear price. The next phase of the invasion is about the take place, as the Hedra are now in place at the cloister. I guess the next phase is the beach invasion. It is time for Salamander and the priests to leave. And Elspeth is following behind them.

She follows them down a tunnel which comes out to an even larger cavern, but this time, it opened up to the sky and the ocean. There were three great ships docked in this cavern, which shows its size, and one of which is The Black Ship. Elspeth tried to figure out how these ships managed to get into the cavern, as the entrance was guarded by rows of sharp rocks. But there was one small section, just large enough that would provide safe passage. The Black Ship looked remarkably like a Sadorian vessel, but it had additions that marked it out as vastly different, like a ship battering ram.

Now Elspeth had to figure out what to do, and she found that only one ship could leave at a time, meaning she had an opportunity to get onto one of the smaller ships attacked to the two vessels. And the good news is that onboard the ships the Herders aren’t wearing their demonbands, because there is no need, which is fantastic news, if only Elspeth can get aboard. Elspeth made her way to the water, and entered it, aware of just how cold it is. For the beginning, she was pushed by the current towards the ship boat, but then, she was pushed by a strong current in the wrong direction, out to the opening. It was a struggle for Elspeth to not crash into the sharp rocky pillars, but then she had to struggle to stay afloat. Two of the ships had already left, and the third was on its way, but Elspeth was buffeted by a wave, and dragged under. Elspeth tried to fight, until she remembered Powys (the captain who brought them to Sador) tell her that if you fight the ocean you fail, so she just went with it.

And suddenly she was at the surface again, until, she was struck down again. Elspeth eventually found calmer waters, but the third ship was on its way out, and even though it stuck the rocks and made a hole, it got out safely enough. Elspeth followed the ships out of the inlet, but knew she would never make it to one of the beaches. She called out for Maruman, even though he was far away. She grabbed onto one of the rocks, and coerced herself to stay there, eventually dragging herself above the water, but now attacked by fierce winds, that would freeze her if she stayed too long. Elspeth struggled to stay alert and not think about food or warmth, and create a plan. She was about to go into the water again and try to find a ledge or something so she could be warmer and more comfortable, when she hit something with her foot. She looked down and feared that it was a shark that was now circling her, waiting to consume her.

She decided to try and contact it with her mind, maybe sharks wanted to help Innle like all other beasts? She drew its attention, but it came at her, and pushed her off the rock. But she wasn’t scared, because she heard a bell like voice, offering her help.

And that is the end of the section, once again, a cliffhanger (almost literally!), but we learnt so much!


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