Chapter III - Halia's Revenge
With her mind focused on revenge, it didn’t take long for Halia to locate Nerv, who lived deep in the Undercity, a spot normally reserved for the mining families.
“I hate this place,” said Xarun, trudging down a wide passageway, dark but well traveled.
“You needn’t follow me to the Undercity,” said Halia. “I can handle the Terun on my own. You’re too noisy anyway. If we were forced to sneak up on anyone, I’d rather have a squawking crow by my side.”
Xarun grunted. “I hate crows.”
Halia waved an arm above her head, barely able to see her hand.
“Don’t worry, there aren’t any birds this far below ground.”
“Nothing should live down here.”
“Keep quiet.” Halia put a finger to her lips. “Someone’s coming.”
Through force of habit, she pulled a large hood over her face as they passed a small caravan heading the other way. When she realized it wasn’t necessary to hide anymore, she relaxed and raised her eyes. A dozen Fracodians pulled an open cart full of woodsmen’s axes, pots and pans, long poles, and a few shiny swords.
“I hate Fracodians, as well,” growled Xarun, drawing his double-bladed axe.
Halia put her hand on his arm. “Let them be, Xarun. They probably brought furs to the Teruns in return for those supplies and want an uneventful trip home.”
“They don’t belong here.” Xarun spun his axe a few times. “They wanted to eat Oswynn.”
“I have no love for Fracodians,” said Halia, “but they might not all enjoy the taste of human flesh. Even if we didn’t have a more important quest to complete, the Teruns protect their trading partners. Do you wish to turn this city against us?”
Xarun clenched his jaws. “But they killed innocent peasants.”
“Don’t condemn the entire race as evil. Have you never seen human bandits? The Fracodians you and Ahriman fought might have been a rogue band, perhaps part of the same one that threatened Oswynn. In any case, it was his own fault for wandering away from Minaras and Kuril.”
“Those beasts,” said Xarun, obviously not listening to anything she said.
Halia shook his shoulder until he looked at her. “Most of them live in these mountains. After we capture Nerv, we can track this group to make sure they don’t harm anyone.”
“They better not.” Xarun squeezed his axe handle.
“For now, we mustn’t cause any commotion,” said Halia. “After we leave the city, I promise to find a good use for your blade.”
Xarun returned the axe to its sheath on his back and remained quiet until they reached the Undercity.
The enormous cavern was dimly lit by rays of midday sunlight streaming in through ventilation shafts. Thousands of houses carved directly into the rock lined the walls from the dark depths of the cave to the upper reaches of the ceiling. Although most of the stalactites had been removed, thousands of stalagmites remained. Large ones had been carved into houses, while smaller ones were sculpted into artwork or used as natural signposts. Like stone itself, the Undercity never changed.
Halia breathed deeply, feeling as if she’d never left. The ever-present stale smell tinged with the scent of sulfur reminded her of the past, reinforcing her resentment and anger. How could anyone treat a child the way they did? She urged Xarun faster down the passageway.
Traders streamed back and forth through the entrance tunnels. Humans, Arboreals, Ferfolk, and Fracodians flowed in with their goods and left with piles of metal and gems. Although there were few Terun guards, confrontations were rare. Anyone causing a problem would be banned from trading by the Teruns and severely disciplined by the nearest settlement of humans or Ferfolk.
Halia ignored the daily activities of the city and led Xarun to the lower levels of the Undercity, where she stopped in front of a cluster of homes carved into a wide stalagmite. With a bright patch of glowing lichens illuminating a façade of sparkling quartz crystals, the houses emanated a feeling of immeasurable riches within.
“I can’t believe Nerv lives in the Undercity, let alone this close to the mines,” said Halia. “When I was a child, our cave was halfway up the mountainside, and even that was lower than he deserved.”
“The mines are close?” Xarun squinted at the darkness.
“They are,” said Halia. “Can’t you hear the drone of pickaxes and chisels? There must be an entrance around here, but only Teruns are allowed down there. I heard of a Ferfolk who wandered into the mines once. He made it halfway through the entrance tunnel and was locked away for ten years.”
“Then we stay up here.” Xarun ran his fingers along the crystals lining the nearest doorway. “They wasted these gems.”
“Quartz is pretty but not worth much,” said Halia. “The location is more important than any decorations. These homes have always been reserved for the most prestigious families, but Nerv came from a line of healers. I doubt he ever worked within a hundred paces of here.”
“Maybe you heard wrong,” said Xarun. “This could be another’s house.”
“And maybe Nerv cheated an innocent family out of their rightful home.” Halia stepped up to the first door, her heart beating faster. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
She drew her sword and held it in front of her body. A pair of forward-pointing spikes formed the crosspiece, and strips of mock leather covered the hilt in a diagonal pattern. Three metal prongs at the end of the handle clutched a spherical, blood-red garnet the size of a fist. A Terun swordsmith had etched a pouncing sabertooth into the blade, which glimmered brighter than the sparkling walls, reflecting every stray bit of light.
When a gleam from the metal caught her eye, Halia smiled. It had only been a few months since she, Xarun, and Minaras were in the Undercity together, begging the swordsmith to work with the metal they’d brought. Both Xarun’s axe and her sword had been forged from the remnants of Ogma’s cursed weapons, one of which had forced an innocent warrior to murder their young friend, Thulin.
Composed mostly of vistrium, the two blades were stronger and sharper than anything made from iron was. Vistrium was an extremely rare metal, more durable than steel and workable only by the most skilled smiths. There’d been more than enough material for the sword and the axe, but the swordsmith refused to work with the hard metal unless he was allowed to keep half of it for his own use. It took all of Minaras’s negotiating skills to persuade him to accept as full payment whatever was left over from the two reforged weapons.
Feeling strangely jittery, Halia swung her sword in a figure eight. The sturdy blade renewed her confidence. She knocked on the door and stood back, ready to strike.
Someone approached from the other side, unaware of the vengeance that waited beyond the threshold. When the door opened, however, an unfamiliar face greeted Halia.
“How may I help you?” asked a Terun servant.
His fingers were buried in a mass of silver rings but his palms were callused, the sign of a long life in the mines or on the farms.
“I’ve come for Nerv.” She pushed the servant into the house and held her sword at his neck. “Where’s your master?”
The servant, startled but not concerned, trembled when Xarun stepped into the house. The warrior’s massive shoulders brushed the sides of the doorway as he ducked through.
“He’s not home,” said the Terun. “You and your friend should leave or I’ll call the guards.”
Xarun spun the axe in his hands. “I’m ready for them.”
“Stop wasting my time,” shouted Halia. “Where’s Nerv? Tell me now or I’ll end your life with a single stroke.”
The Terun gazed into her eyes. “You won’t hurt me.”
Halia pushed the sword against his neck, grumbled, and stepped back.
“No, I wouldn’t harm an innocent Terun, but my friend will happily destroy this house. Many years of hard work must have gone into shaping this stone. Do you wish to see it taken down in an instant? This whole stalagmite could very well tumble to the ground.”
Xarun squeezed his axe. “This’ll be fun.”
He moved closer to a set of stone chairs carved from the wall. Each seat had been carefully shaped to be as comfortable as possible while blending in with the rest of the house. Xarun held the axe in both hands and raised it over his head. The blade scraped against the ceiling, cutting a line in the stone with a loud screech.
“He’s on a quest,” said the servant. “Please don’t harm these walls. I’ve lived here all my life. I could not bear to see it crushed.”
“Where can we find him?” asked Halia. “If you don’t speak the truth, we’ll return even angrier. We might even bring a few war hammers to assist in the destruction.”
“I’ll tell you all I know,” said the servant. “Just send him out. I don’t want to see more harm come to this stone.”
With a nod from Halia, Xarun lowered his weapon and squeezed through the front door.
“There he is,” shouted Halia from her vantage point high atop a towering spruce.
In the distance, a group of figures wandered down a rocky path. The servant had told her the truth. Nerv was in charge of a legion of Terun soldiers patrolling the mountains northwest of the city.
“How can you be sure?” Xarun’s voice came from the base of the tree.
“I’d easily recognize his face from twice this distance,” said Halia on her way down.
When she reached the lowest branch, she dropped to the ground beside Xarun.
“Nerv seems to have graduated from petty theft. We’ll put an end to his evil but we could be in for a fight.”
“All the better.” The big warrior stretched his arms and grinned. “No more endless hiking.”
“Leave Nerv to me,” said Halia.
“Unless he’s too strong.”
“Don’t go near that traitor,” said Halia. “I’ll handle him myself.”
She drew her sword and hopped into the middle of the trail.
The Teruns approached with their heads down. A few were bruised and bleeding, and two were carrying an injured comrade. The group stopped a few paces before reaching Halia.
“You’ll steal no gold from us,” said Nerv. “Stand to the side or face our blades.”
The Teruns in the front line readied their axes, focusing exclusively on the powerful warrior in their way. Xarun puffed out his chest and scowled at them, but none showed any fear.
“You’re the thief, not us,” said Halia.
Not a single Terun shifted his gaze toward her.
“I’m speaking to you.” She placed her body between the Terun leader and Xarun. “Don’t you recognize me, Nerv? Was I truly meaningless to you, or do you ignore all women?”
Nerv stared at her for a few seconds, his look of annoyance turning first into a smile and then a frown.
“You’re the girl child I once taught,” he said. “It’s been years since I last saw you. I’m glad you still live.”
“You didn’t care whether I lived or died back then,” said Halia, “nor do you care about me now. I see fear in your eyes and a tremble in your hands. You’re wondering why I tracked you down this close to the Razor Mountains.”
“We don’t fear girls,” said Nerv, “with swords or not. Go your own way now.”
The Teruns beside him shook their weapons at Halia and growled in agreement. Xarun stepped forward, but Halia held her arm out in front of him.
“This Terun’s a thief and a betrayer.” Halia pointed her sword at Nerv while addressing the rest of the group. “He stole gold from both the humans and the Teruns and sacrificed an innocent child to cover up his evil deeds. Do you really want to follow this type of person? One who poses as a friend, pretending to care about your well-being only to discard you as one would a rusty axe?”
“We don’t throw out old blades,” said Nerv.
A few more Teruns drew their weapons. Blood rushed to Halia’s face as her anger spread from Nerv to the rest of the group. None of them cared about his past deeds.
“Let me take him peacefully,” she said. “We needn’t spill any blood today.”
“It would be wise for you to leave now,” said Nerv, showing no sign of discomfort. “You don’t know who I am.”
“I know more than enough about you, probably more than anyone else here.”
“What do you say?” Halia asked the group. “We have no reason to fight each other.”
The Teruns stood motionless at first, but when Nerv drew his own weapon in response to her question, the rest of them moved into defensive positions, organized by injuries. Those with the fewest wounds moved to the front, while the others moved backward.
“So be it,” said Halia as she lunged at Nerv with her sword outstretched.
Nerv deflected her attack with his axe and hopped aside to avoid her oncoming body. He tried to surprise her with a kick to her lower legs, but Halia was jumped over his foot.
“Do you want me to have all the fun?” she shouted at Xarun. “Convince them they have no choice but to do as we say.”
The big warrior charged into the Teruns, knocking over several of them before stopping in the middle of the group.
“Who’ll face me first?” he asked.
A pair of Teruns came at him from opposite sides, swinging their axes simultaneously. Xarun blocked the first one with his own weapon and dodged the other, surprising the Teruns with his agility. While they recovered from their failed attack, Xarun hooked the head of his axe around their blades one at a time and yanked the weapons from their grips. With a great laugh, he plowed through the group again, using his weight advantage. The Teruns closest to him went down but were replaced by others.
Halia swung fiercely at Nerv, who countered each of her attacks. The sword clanged against the axe, leaving a ding each time.
“You have a fine blade,” said Nerv, “but you won’t best me. This is your last chance to leave with your life. There are far more of us than there are of you.”
“I won’t leave without bringing you to justice,” said Halia, swinging at him again. “You’ll pay for your treachery and evil deeds.”
Nerv jumped backward to avoid the sword.
“Kill them both,” he shouted. “We run out of time.”
The Teruns became more aggressive, advancing on Xarun and Halia as a single unit.
“That was your final mistake,” said Halia. “Come, Xarun. No more toying with them.”
The big warrior gripped his weapon tighter as his grin faded into a look of determination. He swung his axe from side to side, overpowering each Terun who ventured too close. A few who’d lost their weapons hopped onto his back, but Xarun shook them off like a dog drying its fur. One by one the Teruns fell to his strength, and soon there were none left for him to fight. Two escaped carrying the injured soldier, twelve lay on the ground, unconscious or dying, and one fled to the mountains.
Halia, who had postponed her fight with Nerv while she defended against the onslaught, finally returned her attention to him. The Terun leader pulled a dagger from his belt and jabbed with both weapons. Halia danced around the blades, waiting for an opening. When Nerv looked away to check on his men, Halia pounced, slashing his left arm. He dropped the dagger but defended with his axe. Minutes later, Halia’s exceptional sword had worn his blade down to a dull metal slab.
With his axe resting on his shoulder, Xarun stepped behind the Terun, blocking the sunlight. Nerv fell to his knees and let his battered weapon slip from his fingers.
“You’ll die for what you did to me when I was a child.”
Halia lunged forward, the tip of her blade pointing at his heart. Xarun yanked Nerv out of the way and slapped the sword from her grip.
“He yielded. Leave him.”
Halia stared at Xarun in confusion. Could her sword still be possessed by an evil spirit? Minaras had assured her that he’d banished the trapped demons back to the netherworld. She brushed a tangle of wild hair out of her face and recovered the sword.
“I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to see him die even though I knew we had to bring him to the city. Do you think our blades are still cursed? Could those demons have returned from the netherworld to haunt us again?”
“These weapons are fine.” Xarun spun his axe into the sheath on his back.
Halia pulled Nerv to his feet.
“You can rot in a dungeon for the rest of your miserable life. I hope they send you to the top of the mountain.”
The Terun grinned at her. “It would be wise for you to let me go. I’m the—”
“Do not speak again,” said Halia, “or I’ll be tempted to ignore what’s right. Tie him up, Xarun, while I tend to the wounded. There’s no reason why these innocent Teruns should be punished for believing a traitor’s lies.”
By the end of the day, they had traveled halfway to Terun City.
“How much farther?” asked Xarun, walking just behind Nerv.
In front of the others by several paces yet still engulfed by Xarun’s long shadow, Halia pointed east.
“Just past that next ridge. Are you getting bored again?”
“That, and I need food,” said the big warrior.
Halia leaned against a boulder. The trail dropped off precipitously to the left but sloped gently downward ahead of her. Scraggly trees were scattered about and a small stream trickled nearby.
“Let’s camp here for the night,” she said. “I would have preferred to reach the bottom of the valley before sleeping, but it’ll take another half-day to cross the mountain yonder. We might as well get food now and finish the trek tomorrow. I wouldn’t want you to be hungry.”
“You still have a chance to let me go,” said Nerv. “Once we pass that next hill, it might be too late.”
“Be glad Xarun convinced me to let you live.” Halia put her hand on the hilt of her sword. “It wasn’t an easy decision and I could easily be persuaded to change my mind.”
“No good will come of this.” Nerv sat against a small boulder off the main path. “You’ll soon wish you had not found me.”
“Don’t you threaten us,” said Xarun as he lifted the Terun off the ground with one hand.
Nerv flailed his arms and legs before falling limp.
“I made no threats,” he said. “You should heed my words; they’re the truth.”
“Don’t listen to his deceitful tongue,” said Halia. “He’ll say anything to trick us into freeing him. It almost cost me my life to learn that lesson.”
Xarun raised him even higher into the air, but Halia pointed firmly at the ground until he threw the Terun down.
Nerv brushed some dirt off his legs and returned to his spot by the boulder. He rested his head against the hard rock, pulled his metal-studded cloak over his shoulders, and closed his eyes.
“He expects to be rescued,” said Xarun.
“I doubt it,” said Halia. “The Teruns know we’ll keep watch tonight. With fewer numbers and no possibility of surprising us, they’d fare even worse in the next battle unless they found help.”
Xarun grinned. “I hope they come.”
“Don’t be disappointed if we have a quiet night. Many of those Teruns could barely lift an axe after our fight earlier today. They’ll probably return home for reinforcements before challenging us again, especially since I told them where we were headed.”
“We fight tomorrow, then.”
“Perhaps,” said Halia. “But either way, remain alert until we reach Terun City. I don’t want to be caught in an ambush if I’ve overestimated their intelligence.”
Nerv grunted from his makeshift bed, sounding almost amused. Xarun’s muscles tensed visibly.
“Once we reach the Undercity,” said Halia, drawing the warrior’s attention away from the Terun, “they wouldn’t dare attack us with the city guard on patrol. Only one more day before this part of my life will finally be resolved. I’ve waited far too long.”
Xarun’s eyes wandered to Nerv, resting against his stone pillow. The big warrior took a step closer to him.
“Didn’t you say you were hungry?” asked Halia, leaning into his line of sight. “Go find enough food for all of us. There’s bound to be small game around here. I’ll watch the Terun.”
“He shouldn’t be so comfortable,” said Xarun.
“Forget him. He’s not worth a stray thought.” Halia pushed against the big warrior, but he wouldn’t budge. “Go now, before the sun sets.”
“As you wish.”
Xarun backed away but didn’t go far. After a few paces, he trotted behind Nerv, grabbed the boulder with both arms, and heaved.
Slowly, the huge rock moved, forcing the Terun to scurry away. Xarun pushed the heavy stone back and forth until it tumbled toward the edge of the trail and crashed down the steep hill. He snickered as he bounded away.
Nerv crawled to the center of the trail and sat facing Halia with his legs crossed.
“I did not wish to see you hurt, not when you were a child and not now.” He lifted his hands, which were wrapped in rough twine. “Cut these bonds and let me go. I won’t—”
“If you want to eat anything tonight,” said Halia, “help me gather sticks for a fire and don’t say another word. You’ll be judged by the authorities in Terun City or you’ll die on this trail. Justice or revenge—you have no other choice.”