{Where we last left our heroes: Ebony left Kyho Twon and the wizards, encountering Grelka outside waiting for her. She and Grelka joined forces to go to Ling Chen, the burial place for great mages, and hunt for the Dragon Stone…which unfortunately, Ebony believes actually hangs around her neck.}

Chapter 10: Betrayal

Venturing out from the protection of the wood, the girls ate a little from one of the packets provided by the wizards. Grelka had eyed it dubiously when she found out where it was from, muttering something about it probably being poisoned, but she’d been too hungry to refuse. So had Ebony, who for her part was growing increasingly conflicted about whether she trusted the wizards or not. She just couldn’t make up her mind what to think.

The sun was blocked by heavy clouds. The storm from yesterday, interrupted by the coming of night, was determined to make its vengeance upon the world once and for all. Large drops of rain splattered on the rocks around them. The ground rolled downward in a steep bank, and they entered the Howling Gorge just as lightning seared the sky. The staff in Ebony’s hand quivered.

“Here we are,” Grelka said. She pulled at a heavy stone door. “Blah, blah, blah, ancient door, sealed with spells to protect the dead from grave robbery, bunch of dead and rotting people encased in wax and stuffed in stone boxes, all that stuff.”

“Do we really have to go in there?” Ebony asked, suddenly realizing that she was entering a tomb.

Grelka turned to her impatiently. “This was your idea, genius. No, tombs of the dead are not places for the living to have a picnic. But what’s the matter? You afraid a dead old wizard is going to bite you?”

Are there zombies in there?” Ebony asked, horrified. She hadn’t considered that possibility.

“No, of course not. What do you think this is, Rise of the Fallen?”

Ebony wasn’t sure what Rise of the Fallen was, but she was sure whatever it was, the remark was not one that required addressing. She followed the Remling through the door. “Well, in a world where you have magic and dragons and little bat-people, I don’t think zombies are too crazy an idea.”

“Bat-people!” Grelka seemed genuinely offended. “I’m not a bat-person. I’m a Remling, and don’t you forget it.”

Ebony held up her hands in surrender, but Grelka was ahead of her and the gesture was lost. “Okay, okay, I wasn’t trying to be rude. That’s just what you looked like to me. But I promise I’ll never call you that again.”

“Good girl.”

Ebony hissed under her breath, but Grelka ignored her. Then she giggled, a surprising sound coming from the testy little girl.

“My apologies, my lady, I meant no offense.”

“None taken,” Ebony said, finding it somehow impossible to hold a grudge against the small, defensive, immeasurably loyal Remling girl.

The passageways were straight and stone, carved out of the natural rock in some places and built with masonry in others. At intervals along the walls to either side branched doorways into small rooms, and in these huge stone boxes rested, carved all over with pictures and glyphs. Over the doorways, in sweeping Chinese characters, was carved the name and title of, Ebony presumed, the occupant.

“Who are we looking for?” Grelka asked after Ebony has passed over the tenth door.

Ebony reviewed the instructions Shan Li had given her just before she had left, when he had shown her the map and given her directions. Melchior gave me these instructions for you: What we seek will be in the crypt of the last and the mightiest of the old mages, if it is there at all. It will be in the crypt of Ohbi Whan.

“Ohbi Whan’s. The last and the mightiest of the old mages.”

“Can’t we skip to the end, then?” Grelka asked. She sounded bored.

Ebony bit her lip. “I don’t want to risk missing it. But I suppose we can start at the end and work backwards if we don’t find it.”

Grelka heaved a theatrical sigh. “Come on, it’s this way,” she said, charging ahead with her nose in the air, as if she was smelling her way.

After a while, Grelka nodded tightly to herself. “Yes, we’re coming to the last room. It’s across a stone bridge that’s over some pit or something.”

“So you have sonar?” Ebony asked, half to distract her mind. Some uncomfortable feeling was tingling up her spine. Something was up that she didn’t like. Or maybe it was her imagination running away with her.

“Don’t go calling my abilities names!” Grelka said acidly.

“No, no, I wasn’t calling it names at all. That’s just what we call it in my world.”

“Oh.” Grelka seemed taken aback. “Well then, I guess, yes. Ah, here it is.” She stopped and sniffed the air. “Wait, there’s something I don’t like. Maybe your Ohbi Whan is a zombie. Whatever it is, it’s wrong, at least so my nose says.”

“Mine too,” Ebony said. She pulled Grelka back and pushed her into the shadows.

“Hey,” Grelka objected, but Ebony shushed her.

“Stay here. I’m going to see what can be seen.” She adjusted her grip on the staff.

“Um, no, I’m not going to hide in the shadows while you prance off into danger. I’m…”

Ebony clapped a hand over her mouth. “Just trust me, okay? I think I know what I’m doing. I just know it’s the smart thing to do, so you stay here.”

Grelka obeyed, and Ebony ventured forward. The dim green-blue glow from the top of her staff, their only light through the tomb, still lit up only stone walls. With each step, the knot in her stomach grew tighter. Something was terribly wrong. The walls disappeared. She was walking on a narrow stone bridge over darkness. She thought she smelled smoke, but her searching eyes could find no fire or even a glow to show of it. She was halfway across.

The darkness vanished from the room like a dream on waking. The floor below was crowded with wizards in brown robes. Ahead, a dim room, the last crypt, was revealed. Directly below her, a huge bonfire was blazing.

“Well, well, Dragonborn. Here we are.” Melchior stepped forward from the crowd of wizards.

“What are you doing here?” Ebony asked, but she already knew. A glance at his face and she understood it all. He knew she knew something she wasn’t telling him, and so he had arranged a clever trap behind her back to get it out of her. And she had walked right into it like the fool she was.

“Where is the Dragon Stone?” Melchior shouted. “Tell me now, little Dragonborn!”

Without a word, Ebony raised her staff. It would only disable him at most, but it might throw them into enough confusion for her to escape. She directed it at Melchior and let fly. A wall like the lightning of a thousand storms gathered into a single bolt seared downward. Melchior leapt back into the crowd and two wizards fell instead. Everyone was caught completely off guard, even Ebony herself, all except the wizard chieftain.

“Don’t do that again! And tell me what you know, quickly!” his voice bellowed from somewhere unseen.

“Or what?” Ebony was edging backward, even though she was sure that wizards would already be behind her as well. She had to warn Grelka. Maybe all was not over yet.

“Or he pays the price.” Melchior pointed up toward the bridge. Ebony looked around and down, trying to see what the wizard was pointing to. Dropping to her knees, she leaned cautiously over the side and peered down.

The enormous bonfire the wizards had shrouded cackled mockingly beneath her. Hanging from a chain strung through a metal ring set in the bottom of the bridge dangled an iron cage. Limp and unconscious within was the body of a young man.

“Speak quickly, little Dragonborn, or that chain lowers. I will not tell you who he is, for you would not believe me. Look in my mind and know the truth. What are you willing to sacrifice to guard your little secret? Him?”

Ebony looked into the exultant glinting eyes of the crafty wizard. She didn’t want to look, didn’t want to know, fearing what she would see. She swallowed, and somewhere, deeper than her mind or consciousness, she found the power to do what she had to do.

“No need, Melchior,” she called, her voice tight and singed with fear. “Please, just let me go get it. I’ll be right back, I promise.” She sprang to her feet and fled back the way she had come, cold sweat drenching her. She had to play this exactly right.

“Grelka!” Dropping her staff, she grabbed the little Remling by the shoulder and dragged her forward. “Take this to Coriarkin in the Forbidden Pass.” She clawed the pendant over her head and shoved it at the startled girl. “Tell him it’s the Dragon Stone. Don’t let anyone have it, do you hear me? Now go!” Grelka stood motionless, clearly not intending to leave Ebony and suspecting the trouble up ahead. Ebony bit her lip and tried to force a thought into her mind, as if by thinking it at her hard enough it could worm through her skull. Go, now, this is how you can prove yourself!

Without lingering to see if Grelka obeyed, Ebony raced back into the room. The chains were sliding, and Melchior, somewhere, was laughing.

“Throw it to me quickly, little chickie, and I give the word to the chain workers to stop.”

Ebony ignored him. She swung off over the edge of the bridge, slid down the chain, hot even up there, and fighting to keep her grip despite the pain and sprouting blisters, she swung onto the bottom of the iron cage and held on.

Her mind was a smudge of pain. Somewhere far away down a swirling tunnel, Melchior was screaming something about stop and chains and imbeciles. Her faux leather dress and leggings were scorching hot against her skin, and the smell of burning hair crept into her mind. Her muscles howled and fought for relief, but she fought back. She couldn’t feel her hands anymore, only two glowing stars of pain, aching in her bones. Heat, damp heat that stung her skin and hissed like a thousand snakes, engulfed her. The bars of the cage above her were waving like they were no more than silk. The last thing she saw was Melchior’s face, twisted beyond rage. Then a black hole opened up its mouth and swallowed her whole.

Author’s Commentary: I hope there’s no such thing as Character Karma. Otherwise, all the hellish things I put my characters through will come back on me and… well, that would not be nice. Can you imagine dangling from the bottom of a hot iron cage? Sheesh. I’m mean.

{Read Chapter 11: Nightmare Come True}