The Sword of Shannara: The Druids' Keep: The Druids' Keep by Terry Brooks

  Visibly shaken, their faces streaked with sweat, the men stood dumbly as Allanon brought the line to a halt. Shaking their scattered thoughts into some semblance of order, they removed the rope about their waists and the cloth binding their ears. They were in a small cave, facing toward two huge stone doors laced by iron bindings. The rock walls around them emitted the same peculiar greenish light. Allanon waited patiently until everyone had fully recovered, then beckoned them forward. He paused before the stone portals. With only a slight shove from the lean hand, the massive doors swung silently open. The Druid’s deep voice was only a whisper in the stillness.

  “The Hall of Kings.”

  For over a thousand years, none but Allanon had entered the forbidden tomb. All that time it had remained otherwise undisturbed—a mammoth, circular cavern, the great walls smooth and polished, the ceiling shimmering in a green glow similar to that reflected by the tunnels they had already passed through. Along the circular wall of the giant rotunda, standing with the same proud defiance they presumably had exhibited in life, were stone statues of the dead rulers, each facing toward the center of the chamber and the strange altar that rose upward in the shape of a coiled serpent. Before each statue was piled the wealth of the dead, casks and trunks of precious metals and jewels, furs, weapons, all the favorite possessions of the deceased. In the walls immediately behind each statue were the sealed, rectangular openings in which rested the remains of the dead—kings, their families, their servants. Inscriptions above the sealed crypts gave the history of the rulers interred there, frequently in languages unfamiliar to any of the wondering members of the company. The entire chamber was bathed in the deep green light. The metal and stone seemed to absorb the color. Dust covered everything, a deep rock powder that had settled over the centuries and now rose in small clouds as the footsteps of the men disturbed its long rest. For over a thousand years, no one had violated the peace of this ancient chamber. No one had tampered with its secrets nor attempted to unlock the doors that guarded the dead and their possessions. No one but Allanon. And now …

  Shea shivered violently, unexplainably. He shouldn’t be here; he could feel a small, distant voice telling him he shouldn’t be here. It wasn’t that the Hall of Kings was sacred or forbidden. But it was a tomb—it was a tomb for the ancient dead. It was no place for the living. Something gripped him, and with a start he realized it was Allanon’s hand touching his shoulder. The Druid frowned darkly at him, then called softly to the others. They huddled silently in the greenish light as he addressed them in hushed tones.

  “Through those doors at the far end of the Hall is the Assembly.” He directed their gaze to the other end of the rotunda where a second set of huge stone doors stood closed. “A wide set of stone stairs leads downward to a long pool fed by a spring somewhere deep beneath the mountain. At the foot of the stairs, directly before the pool, stands the Pyre of the Dead, where the monarchs buried here lay in state for a certain number of days, depending on their rank and wealth, presumably so that their souls could escape to the life beyond. We must pass through that chamber in order to reach the passageway that will take us to the Dragon’s Crease on the other side of the mountains.”

  He paused and breathed deeply.

  “When I traveled through these caverns before, I was able to hide myself from the eyes of the creatures put here to destroy intruders. I cannot do this for you. There is something in the Assembly, something whose power may prove to be greater than my own. Though it could not sense my presence, I was conscious of it hidden beneath the deep waters of the pool. Below the stairs, to either side of the pool, are narrow walkways leading to the other end of the chamber and the opening to the passages beyond. These walkways are the only way past the pool. Whatever it is that guards the Pyre of the Dead will strike at us there. When we get into the room, Balinor, Menion, and I will move onto the walkway to the left. That should draw the creature out from his hiding place. When we are attacked, Hendel will take the rest of you along the right walkway through the opening at the far end. Don’t stop until you reach the Dragon’s Crease. Do you understand?”

  They nodded slowly. Shea felt strangely trapped, but there was nothing to be gained by talking about it now. Allanon straightened to his full seven-foot height and grinned menacingly, his strong teeth gleaming. The little Valeman felt a chill run through him that made him glad ten times over he was not the enemy of the mystic. In one effortless motion, Balinor drew forth his great sword, the metal blade ringing sharply as it cleared the sheath. Hendel was already moving across the Hall, the heavy mace held tightly in one hand. Menion started to follow, then hesitated, gazing doubtfully on the stores of treasure heaped about the tombs. Would it hurt to take a few? The Valemen and Elves were moving after Hendel and Balinor. Allanon stood watching the highlander, his long arms folded into the black cloak. Menion turned and looked questioningly at the mystic.

  “I wouldn’t if I were you,” the other warned shortly. “It’s all coated with a substance poisonous to the skin of living things. Touch it and you will be dead in less than a minute.”

  Menion stared at him incredulously for a moment, shot a quick glance back at the treasure, then shook his head resignedly. He was halfway across the chamber when, on sudden inspiration, he whipped out two long black arrows and walked over to an open chest of gold pieces. Carefully, he rubbed the metal tips in the precious metal, making certain that his hands did not touch anything but the feathered ends. Grinning with perverse satisfaction, he rejoined the others across the room. Whatever waited beyond the stone doors was going to be given the opportunity to test its resistance to this poison that would supposedly kill any living creature. In a tight cluster, the company gathered around Allanon, their metal weapons glinting coldly. A stillness settled over the great room, broken only by the expectant breathing of the eight men huddled about the closed doors. Shea glanced back for just a moment at the Hall of Kings. The tomb seemed undisturbed save for the ragged trail of footprints in the dust leading across the chamber. A deep haze of this dust hung swirling in the greenish light, stirred by the intruders’ footsteps, but settling slowly back to the ancient cavern floor. In time, all evidence of their passing would be erased as the tracks were covered over entirely.

  At Allanon’s touch, the stone portals swung open and the company moved noiselessly into the Assembly. They were on a high platform that ran forward into a wide alcove and then descended in a series of broad stairs. The cavern beyond was enormous, a vast, towering cave that still exhibited the full, unaltered splendor of its rough, natural creation by nature’s careful hands. From the high ceiling hung jagged stalactites, stone icicles formed by water and mineral deposits over thousands of years. Beneath these sculptured stone spears lay a long, rectangular pool of deep green water, the surface smooth and glasslike. When a single drop of water fell heavily from an overhanging stone projection, the placid surface rippled outward once and was still. The wary men moved forward to the edge of the platform and looked down on the high stone altar set at the foot of the stairs before the pool, its ancient surface scarred and pocked and in places almost crumbling. The cavern was dimly lit by streaks of phosphorescence that ran brokenly through its rocky walls, giving an eerie, fluorescent glow to the ancient chamber.

  Slowly the men moved down the stairway, their eyes picking out a single word inscribed in the stone surface of the altar. A few knew its meaning. Valg—a word taken from the ancient Gnome tongue. It meant Death. Their footsteps reverberated in muffled echoes through the vast cavern. Nothing moved. Everything was shrouded in age and silence. On reaching the foot of the long stairway, they hesitated for a second, eyes fastened on the silent pool. Impatiently, Allanon motioned Hendel and his charges to the right; then with Menion and Balinor following, he moved quickly onto the left walkway. A misstep now would prove fatal. From across the pool, Shea watched the three figures edge their way silently along the rough stone wall, keeping well to the rear of the open walkway. There was no
movement in the placid waters. They were about midway now, and Shea breathed for the first time.

  Then the still surface of the dark pool surged upward and from out of the depths emerged a nightmare. Serpentine in appearance, the loathsome monster seemed to fill the cavern, its slime-covered bulk raising skyward, shattering the ancient stalactites. Its shriek of fury boomed through the Assembly. The massive body twisted and flexed as it reared out of the water. Long front legs tipped with deadly hooked claws clutched the empty air, and the great jaws clashed sharply, grinding together the blackened, pointed teeth that lined the edges. The wide, staring eyes burned red amid a cluster of bumps and stunted horns that covered the misshapen head. The entire bulk of the creature was covered with a reptilian skin that dripped with scum and waste that must have been carried from the netherworld’s blackest pits. The mouth oozed venom that fell into the water and rose with faint traces of steam. The monstrous thing glared at the three humans on the walkway and hissed with unbridled hatred. Jaws wide, screeching in anticipation of the kill, it attacked.

  Everyone reacted instantly. Menion Leah’s great ash bow sounded in staccato pings as the poisoned arrows flew with deadly accuracy, burying themselves deeply within the unprotected inner flesh of the serpent’s gaping mouth. The creature reared back in pain, and Balinor quickly seized the initiative. Moving to the edge of the walkway, the giant borderman struck powerfully at the exposed forearm of the monster. But to his shock, the great sword only barely scratched the scaly hide, glancing off the heavy coating of slime. The second forearm made a quick swipe at the attacker, missing by inches as the intended victim dove to one side. On the opposite walkway, Hendel made a rush for the open passage at the far end of the pool, shoving the Valemen and the Elven brothers before him. But one of them triggered a hidden release, and a heavy stone slab collapsed in the opening, sealing off the escape route. In desperation, Hendel threw his powerful body against the stone barricade, but it refused to budge.

  The serpent had been attracted by the sound of the falling stone. Turning away from its battle with Menion and Balinor, it moved eagerly toward these smaller foes. That would have been the finish if not for the quick reactions of the battle-hardened Dwarf. Forgetting the stone slab and disregarding his own safety entirely, Hendel charged at the huge monster bearing down on him and drove the heavy iron mace directly into the closest burning eye. The weapon struck with such force that it smashed the glowing orb. The serpent reared upward in excruciating pain, crashing heavily into the jagged stalactites as it whipped its bulk from side to side. Deadly rock fragments showered the entire chamber. Flick went down with a sharp blow to the head. At the edge of the pool, Hendel was buried under a cascade of crumbling stone and lay motionless. The other three fell back against the blocked entryway as the massive attacker loomed above them.

  At last Allanon joined the unequal battle. Raising both arms, he extended his lean hands, and his fingers seemed to light up like small glowing balls. Streaks of blinding, blue flame shot out of the tips and struck the head of the raging creature. The force of this new attack completely stunned the unprepared serpent, who thrashed wildly above the boiling water of the pool, shrieking in pain and fury. Moving quickly ahead on the walkway, the Druid struck a second time, the blue flames flashing against the head of the enraged beast, twisting it completely around. This second strike threw the great scaled body backward against the cavern wall where, thrashing in an uncontrollable frenzy, it jarred loose the stone slab that blocked the passageway out. Shea and the Elven brothers had barely managed to drag the unconscious Flick out of the way in time to avoid being crushed by the massive body. They heard the stone slab drop forward with an audible thud and, spying the open passage, yelled wildly to the other fighters. Balinor had reattacked the writhing monster as it again came within reach, striking vainly for the head as it swung down at him, still stunned by the force of Allanon’s bolts. Allanon had his eyes fixed on the serpent, and only Menion saw what the others were yelling about and waved them madly toward the opening. Dayel and Shea picked up the fallen Flick and carried him into the tunnel beyond. Durin started to follow, but then hesitated as he caught sight of the unconscious Hendel, still buried beneath the shattered stone rubble. Turning back, he rushed to the pool’s edge, grasped the Dwarf’s limp arm, and vainly attempted to pull him clear of the debris. “Get out!” roared Allanon, who had suddenly spotted the Elf near the opening.

  Choosing this moment of distraction, the serpent struck back. With one mighty sweep of its clawed arm it brushed Balinor aside, knocking him with crushing force against the chamber wall. Menion leaped in front of the monster, but its sudden rush bowled the Prince of Leah over, and he was knocked from sight. The serpent, still in great pain from its multiple wounds, could think only of reaching the tall figure in the black robes and crushing the life out of him. The beast had one more weapon in its arsenal, and it used it now. The venom-tipped jaws gaped wide at the sight of the intended victim, standing alone and unprotected, and great sheets of flame shot forth, completely encasing the Druid. Durin, who was in position to see everything happening on the walkway, gave an audible gasp of dismay. Shea and Dayel, standing just beyond the entrance to the tunnel leading from the Assembly, watched in mute horror as the flames covered the tall mystic. But a second later the fire died, and Allanon stood untouched before the astonished onlookers. His hands raised and the blue streaks of flame shot out of his extended fingers, striking the head of the serpent with terrific force, sending the scaled body reeling back once again. Steam rose in great clouds from the thrashing waters of the pool, mingling in a heavy mist with the dust and smoke stirred by the battle until everything was obscured from view.

  Then, from out of the haze, Balinor appeared at Durin’s side, his cloak torn and shredded, the shining chain mail chipped and battered, the familiar face streaked with sweat and blood. Together they pulled Hendel from beneath the rocks. With one great arm, the Prince of Callahorn lifted the silent form over his shoulder and motioned Durin ahead of him into the passage where Dayel and Shea still lingered with the unconscious Flick. The giant borderman ordered them to pick up the fallen Valeman, and without waiting to see if they obeyed, disappeared down the darkened corridor, Hendel over one shoulder, the great broad sword held tightly in his free hand. The Elven brothers quickly did as they were told, but Shea hesitated, searching worriedly for some sign of Menion. The Assembly was a shambles, the long rows of stalactites smashed, the walkways a mass of rubble, the walls cracked and shattered, and everything obscured by dust and steam from the boiling pool. To one side of the cavern, the massive form of the serpent was still visible, thrashing in agony against the broken wall, its great bulk a writhing mass of scales and blood. Neither Menion nor Allanon was in view. But a moment later both appeared from out of the thick haze, Menion limping slightly, but still clutching the ash bow and the sword of Leah, Allanon’s dark form tattered and layered with dust and ash. Without speaking, the Druid waved the Valeman ahead of them, and together the three stumbled through the partially blocked opening.

  What happened after was vague in everyone’s mind. Numbly, the battered group hurried along the tunnel, carrying the two wounded and unconscious men. Time dragged agonizingly away, then abruptly they were outside, blinking in the bright light of the afternoon sun, standing at the edge of a dangerously steep cliff face. To their right, the Dragon’s Crease wound its way downward to the open hill country below. Suddenly the whole mountain began to rumble menacingly, shaking in short tremors beneath their feet. With a sharp command, Allanon ordered them down the narrow trail. Balinor led the way, carrying the still form of Hendel, Menion Leah a couple of steps behind. Durin and Dayel followed, carrying Flick. Behind them came Shea and finally Allanon. The sinister rumbling continued somewhere deep within the mountain. Slowly the little group moved along the narrow pathway. The trail wound unevenly amid jagged overhangs and sudden drops, and the men were forced to flatten themselves against the cliff face at
regular intervals to avoid losing their balance and falling to the rocks hundreds of feet below. The Dragon’s Crease was well named. The continual twists and turns in the path required concentrated skill and caution to navigate successfully, and the recurring tremors made the task doubly hazardous.

  They had progressed only a short distance along the treacherous pathway when a new sound became audible, a deep roar that quickly drowned out the rumblings in the mountain. Shea, last in line with Allanon, was unable to define the source of the roar until he was almost on top of its origin. Rounding a sharp cut in the side of the mountain, which brought him onto a ledge facing northward, he discovered an enormous waterfall directly across from their position on the mountainside. Tons of cascading water crashed with a deafening roar into a great river hundreds of feet below that swept between the mountain ranges and poured into a series of rapids than ran eastward to the Rabb Plains. The mighty river swept directly below the ledge on which he stood and the narrow trail ahead, its white waters churning and slapping against the confining sides of the two peaks that hemmed it in. Shea looked at it for a moment, and then hastened on down the trail at Allanon’s command. The rest of the company had gone a good distance ahead of them and for a moment were lost from view in the rocks.

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