{Where we last left out heroes: Ebony and Grelka explored Ling Chen, only to discover the whole thing was a clever trap designed by Melchior, to trick Ebony without her reading his mind and finding out in time. He demanded to know what she withheld about the Dragon Stone, and Ebony in turn cleverly gambled and checkmated the crafty wizard}

Chapter 11: Nightmare Come True

Grelka snatched up Ebony’s abandoned staff, turned and raced down the passage. Footsteps ahead. She slowed and dived into one of the crypt rooms, her small hands sealed tight around the stone in her hands. She drew her wings close, trying to be one of the shadows. The footsteps came closer, passed by right outside the door, and moved on. At least ten wizards. Grelka bit her lip, angry that there couldn’t be two of her, but she knew her job. She would not fail. She was going to prove herself. She would do what Ebony had told her.

Padding softly down the passage, she heard shouts of anger and a huge commotion behind her. Whatever Ebony was doing, she was giving the wizards something to remember. Grelka felt a surge of pride in her friend, and she hurried on. She slammed her shoulder against the heavy stone door, hoping the wizards hadn’t sealed it. The door groaned and heaved, grating back and revealing the dim light of afternoon. Grelka slid the chain around her neck, and still clutching the pendant in one hand to be sure and holding the staff in the other, like a bat arrow, she shot up into the sky and headed for the Forbidden Pass.

* * *

“Wake up.”

Ebony groaned. If there was one thing she didn’t want to do, it was wake up. Her hands felt like they were playing pin cushion to a thousand needles, and she felt like she had gotten the worst sunburn ever all over. For some reason she couldn’t figure out, she still smelled burning hair. She blinked, trying to see. It was like trying to see the world through a glass punch bowl, one that had designs chiseled in it. A face, vaguely familiar, swam above her.

“I know you’re in a terrible mess, but you have to wake up. Can you see me?” he asked.

Ebony shook her head, then, reconsidering, nodded. Even that movement made her skin prickle. With a struggle, she raised her hand and stared at it. It was encased in a thick linen bandage. She frowned, trying to make sense of it, and let it fall.

“The healer told Melchior that you might suffer a severe infection and die if they weren’t treated, so she bandaged them up and gave you some potion or other. Personally I think she just couldn’t bear to leave you like that, but I’m not complaining. Can you sit up?”

Ebony shook her head again. “I’ll help you.” Ebony tried desperately to protest, sure of the pain it would cause, but he gripped her arms and pulled her up. Her vision spun, and then came clear. She could see, and she inched back painfully so that her back was against the earthen wall behind her. The room was small, containing a pallet and a water jug and apparently nothing else.

“Am I in Kyho Twon?” she managed through chapped and burning lips.

“As am I. You don’t look in a state fit to journey.” He bit his lip, seeming concerned by something.

“Really? You don’t say,” Ebony muttered. She was feeling more alert by the minute, and though the pain was like nothing she had ever experienced before, whatever the healer had given her, it must be working wonders on her. But she was certainly not up for a journey.

“Look, I know I’m not coming across really well. I’d like to be able to sit here and hear how in the world you got to be in this condition and what it is Melchior wants you for, but there isn’t time. You probably would want to know who I think I am to be acting like this, but there isn’t even time for that.”

Ebony looked away. She couldn’t say it, it was simply too strange and he would never believe it. Who would swallow a line like “hey there, I’m the long lost sister you didn’t know you had?”

He leaned closer, glancing at the door and speaking in an even lower voice. “I have dreams. They tell me things. I knew you would come someday, and who you would be. You are the Dragonborn. And I knew what it would mean when you came: the time of this world is all but over. Don’t tell me anything – that way I won’t know if they question me. You know where to find the Dragon Stone and where to go. All we’ve got to do is get you out of here.”

“I wouldn’t make it a mile like this!” Ebony pointed out. “And I wouldn’t be able to find the way out even if the wizards were all blind and crippled.”

“You’re not going out that way. I’ve been preparing my own escape for some time, but I only have the things for one person, so you’ll be the one going. And it doesn’t matter if you can’t go far; you just need to get away. You can’t be here when Melchior comes back, and that’s why we can’t waste time.” He passed her the water jug, and she splashed her face and drank deeply. She was feeling surprisingly perky by now, and the pain was finally manageable.

“Follow me.” She pushed herself up and obeyed, noticing now that the wall bent into an alcove in the far corner. “This used to be two rooms but they closed it off to make my cell.” He reached up and pulled something down. It appeared to be rushes from the pallet reinforcing packed clay, forming a kind of door or covering. “Up there is my escape tunnel I’ve been digging with a spoon. It’s almost finished. Also there is a wizard robe a friend smuggled to me long ago, hoping I could escape out the door. In that guise, they won’t stop you out on the surface. When you get to the end of the tunnel, you’ll find the spoon. You’ll have to dig through the last few inches, well, it might be as much as a foot but no more, I’m pretty sure. I’m sorry, Dragonborn, I wish there was more I could do to help, but this is all.”

“What about you? How will you escape? I can’t take your only opportunity and leave you here with these… jerks.”

“If you don’t go now and stop the Apocalypse, the world will die, and all of us with it. My best chance is if you go. Hurry, you only have a day or two before it’s too late!”

He cupped his hands to make a step, and swallowing down her nervousness and doubts, she put her foot in it and he boosted her up into the tunnel.

* * *

Karliah entered the common room and moved to the table. It had been a rough day, riding through the kingdom, and the rogues in the hills saw the war as a hay day. She sank onto a bench and reach for a loaf of bread.

“Karliah Shieldmaiden, Covenant Crowned?”

Karliah twisted and looked up. “Yes? What’s wrong, Yota?”

“It’s about Ebony. She’s been gone for three days. I would have come to you sooner, but you only just came back.”

Karliah frowned. “Why did she leave?”

“She was looking for Coriarkin. She asked me how to find him, and I told her only the wizards would know. It was not my place to hide it from her, and her choice was hers to make. She went to them to find word of him.”

Karliah froze. “What did I tell her? You can bet the kingdom Melchior will find some way to wring every last word she heard from her. Can it be over just like this?” Her eyes swept the room, as if already saying goodbye.

“Don’t misjudge her. Ebony is more than she seems. I do not have Dream Sight, but my dreams do tell me some things. She is possibly our last hope, and she is strong. But the reason I came to you is this: I have nothing clear, only the shreds of lost dreamings, but Ebony will be coming back on the winds of the last storm that is brewing even as we speak, and she is already in trouble. When she comes, I ask that you listen to her. That is all.” He bowed, and turning, returned to his quarters.

Karliah contemplated his back, unable to make up her mind about what she thought.

* * *

Ebony crawled up the steep incline of the tunnel, feeling her way. There was no light, and if the floor beneath her had been less rough she would have slid right back down. Her hands itched beneath the bandages and her skin felt coated in flour. How long she crawled she didn’t know. Several times she slipped onto her face and lay still, sweating and thinking she couldn’t go on, and each time she found the strength to continue. She knew she was at the top when she smashed her head into a dirt wall and could go no further.

Groping around blindly, her hands closed on rough cloth. Feeling further, she discovered by touch the wooden spoon. Gripping it awkwardly, she stabbed at the dirt. How far did she have to dig? Should she carve at the ceiling or continue the slope as it was? She needed to get out. She scraped at the roof and was rewarded by a shower of earth in her face. Spitting and shaking her head, she shoved her hair back, which for some reason kept getting in her face at eyes. Closing her eyes and mouth firmly, she scraped viciously at the earth ceiling above her. It hurt her hands, but not as much as she had expected.

After several long minutes, she was feeling almost buried in the loose dirt. Pausing, she pushed it farther back down the tunnel from her and was able to stand on her knees. She felt around the hole she had made, at least a foot up. Why would her brother have thought he was so close? Maybe she was still hundreds of feet from the surface. Then she felt something. Slowly, she petted the side of the hole, and knew how he had known.

Slender dead roots brushed her fingertips. The grass and plants were dying and had abandoned their own deeper reaches, but the earth still held their memory. If roots had been here, that meant the world above could not be far away. She jabbed the spoon upward. It stuck against something, but Ebony pushed up with all her might, wincing as the spoon handle dug into her palm. It broke through, dirt trickled down onto her head and light gleamed. It was only a matter of a few minutes to cut around the edge and fold it back like a trap door. Picking up the brown robe, Ebony stood cautiously and quickly wriggled into it. Hauling herself out, she adjusted it and pulled the cowl forward so it shadowed her face. She carefully folded the patch of dead grass back down and froze. Dead? The grass had still had a thin bit of life in it when she had first seen it, but now…

She lifted her eyes to the horizon, scanning quickly. Distant trees were mottled brown where they had been green. Some were already bare and shriveled as if in winter, even though the air carried a clear hint of spring now. You only have a day or two left… The land testified to it. Ebony’s heart raced, and panic set her limbs in motion.

Her gait was uneven and she stumbled, but never stopped. She had glimpsed the Forbidden Pass when Shan Li had showed her on the map how to get to Ling Chen. She knew she had to go east, and keep going, and eventually she would see it and could correct her course. It was less than once again the distance past Ling Chen and would have been an easy stop if she hadn’t been hauled all the way back here.

The smudge of trees on the horizon refused to draw closer. It hadn’t been this slow when she had Grelka had come this way together. Of course, she had been riding, but still…

Sweat dripped into her eyes. Her breath came in spastic gasps. A stitch locked her stomach. The light faded. The wind was halfhearted and listless, as if already dead. Ebony staggered, fighting the fall that tugged at her limbs. I can’t… go any farther… You have to! You can! Another step, and another.

Trees. Very close. Only a hundred yards away, but it might as well have been a mile. A horse nickered, and Xiexie’s head appeared, looking out at her with gentle intelligent eyes. Ebony gasped in relief.

“Here, boy, it’s me.” She tried to click her tongue, but it felt large and swollen and refused to do anything other than splutter. “Come on, we’ve got another ride ahead of us.” Xiexie trotted out and nuzzled her. “Good boy.”

She struggled out of the wizard robe and let it fall. She tried twice, and unsuccessfully, to scramble into the saddle, but on the third time, with an effort and a groan and a snort from Xiexie she made it.

Her body felt abused. All she wanted to do was collapse, into a car’s seat if she had to go somewhere, and now she was jouncing in a saddle after too much walking and a too close scrape with a fiery death. The sun was gone and she didn’t know how to navigate by the stars. She could only guess and hope that she was going in a straight line from when she had known she was heading east.

The clouds had surrendered to the night as they had before, and the moon glowed softly around her as she rode. On any other night she would have stared up at the dancing stars, riveted and unable to look away. Tonight, she scarcely noticed them. The only things she could focus on was clinging to Xiexie’s back as he galloped through the night, and trying to keep him on course. The moon dived behind the mountains ahead of her, and Ebony dimly registered the fact. Wait, mountains mean passes! She looked up, slowing Xiexie, and saw an unimpressive range of mountains. There were only two, really. The rest were little more than foothills. Between the two peaks, someone had somehow built a bridge, and it seemed to be completely empty. Below it a narrow path wove up between the two mountains and disappeared. Why was it forbidden? Ebony wondered. A puny pass like this didn’t seem worth the trouble. She was probably going to find out, though.

She urged Xiexie up the path, keeping his pace slower than before, squinting at the ground to make out the way. It was probably a bad idea to stray from the path. Back and forth they wove, climbing higher and higher. The moon was gone. Soon, the sky would gray with dawn, and perhaps the last day of this world would begin.

Did she see something move in the shadows up ahead? They were all but at the peak of the pass, and she still hadn’t spotted a cave. Xiexie stopped, snuffling the air and making an uneasy wicker. A boulder detached itself from one side of the path up ahead and drew itself up. It looked to be made of stone, chiseled like a monstrous beast between bear and man, brought to life by who knew what evil bewitchment.

Ebony’s mouth went dry, and Xiexie whinnied in fear and skipped back several steps. All-Maker protect me! she found herself thinking as she slipped down from the saddle. She had no weapons but herself, and the pony was no war horse. The creature raised its head and roared, then charged down toward her. Ebony clenched her teeth and prepared to fight her last battle. A sheet of lightning cracked down from somewhere off to the side, striking the creature with the same stormy force that had killed two wizards back in Ling Chen. Ebony straightened cautiously. The beast was gone, and only a pile of ash marked the place where he had been.

A huge bat flitted out from the shadows and dropped down in front of her.

“Took you long enough,” Grelka said.

Author’s Commentary: Okay, so sorry peeps. This is basically Xalo (Ebony’s brother, for those who don’t recall)’s only screen time. He’s in a sort of crowd scene later, buuuttt… What? I just couldn’t find a way to work him in. Also, stay tuned for MY FAVORITE TWIST OF ALL TIME BASICALLY coming soon to theaters near you! Eek!

{Read Chapter 12: In the Darkness Bind Them here}