Author’s Note: this chapter dedicated to Lindsey for feeding my new obsession over Anderson Cooper, news stud extraordinaire.
Without, Part 29
Darkness fell about them like a shroud as they stepped into the belly of Mertsegur. Even the sound of their footsteps, shuffling in the dust, seemed muffled and subdued, and they found themselves speaking in whispers.
“This puts me in mind of Moria,” commented Legolas, none too happy.
“Except no dead dwarves,” Buffy added. A gruff hmph elsewhere in the area was Gimli’s confirmation of the sentiment.
With a whoosh, two wall torches burst into flame on either side of them, revealing their surroundings. They stood in a corridor made of deeply carved stone, tall-ceilinged and elaborate. As they watched, two more torches lit spontaneously further down the corridor, and then two more further beyond them, the action repeating until the entire passageway was visible.
“That’s our welcome, then,” Spike muttered before turning to Corinne, who’d jumped in fear at the first torches’ igniting and grabbed his hand. “You sure there isn’t someone else you’d rather be hand-in-hand with, pet?” he asked, nodding pointedly toward Haldir. “Someone more elven, like?”
Haldir’s shoulders stiffened visibly, filling Corinne with a sense of great consternation. “Certainly,” she replied, and marched over to Thranduil. “With your permission, your majesty?”
“My permission, and my pleasure,” he replied at once in silken tones, tucking her hand securely in the crook of his elbow. Haldir’s spine went even more rigid, if possible, and Corinne almost relented but Thranduil swept them in typical grandiose manner past the Guardian and it was too late.
“You love teasing him, don’t you?” she muttered.
“Of course,” he muttered back. “Tell me it is not enjoyable to watch him grind his teeth so.”
“I think ‘tis fitting,” piped up Legolas. “He delighted in torturing me thus during the war, with Dagnir.”
“It would behoove us to be less conversant and more watchful,” Radagast said repressively, brushing past them none-too-gently and suddenly finding himself on the ground and blinking up at the torchlight burnishing the head of the King of Mirkwood.
“My pardon,” said Thranduil, face most determinedly innocent. “How distressing that you would accidentally trip in that manner.”
The wizard’s face was like a thundercloud as he opened his mouth to reply but every member of the group with enhanced hearing whipped their heads around to the end of the corridor.
“Incoming,” Buffy said, and everyone fell into battle stances, with her, Boromir, and Elessar at the forefront and the elves flanking on either side, bows at the ready.
A huge hoof stepped out of the murky shadows, planting itself with a thud on the stone floor. It was attached to an equally immense, heavily armoured leg. “Yowza,” Dawn muttered, and took a firmer grip on her pike as the rest of the creature hove into view. “Is that… it can’t be!” she exclaimed, whirling back to look with wide, accusing eyes at Corinne. “What the hell is that doing here? It’s Greek! I thought this whole fever-dream was Egyptian?”
The minotaur was massive, with a huge, horned head resting atop a thickly muscled neck. In each meaty fist it gripped two short-handled axes, and was already swinging them in anticipation of its battle with them. With a single blow, it knocked Boromir’s sword out of his hand, sending it clattering against the far wall, and precious moments were wasted as all assembled blinked in astonishment, for neither Boromir nor his sword were exactly petite lightweights.
Then it roared, shaking the stones around them, and they were galvanized into action. Buffy and Elessar rushed it, and while it was thus distracted by them Haldir and Dawn came at it. The elf hamstrung it, making it fall to one knee, and Dawn got a clever blow in when she maneuvered the tip of her pike into the fleshy bit between jaw and shoulder. With an agonized bellow, it lurched backward, knocking Buffy over in its death throes.
“Ahh!” she yelped in surprise as she flew backward to the shadows from whence the beast had come.
“Alright, Slayer?” Spike called back to her.
“No, not really,” she replied, her voice so calm that it put everyone on instant alert.
“Stay here,” Haldir commanded Corinne as he rushed by with the others.
“Yes, stay here,” Thranduil reiterated. Gimli merely glared in her direction, as if daring her to disobey the elves. She sighed, tapping her foot, and waited. It didn’t take long; before she’d tapped three times the sounds of another fight and Dawn’s unhappy, “How many are there?” floated around the corner.
“I hate being useless,” Corinne muttered to no one, gazing around and mentally cataloguing her surroundings. Corridor made of dry-fitted stone, grey, intricately carved using metal tools if she were any judge, against which rested a Scythian-style hunter’s bow banded with multiple colours…hm. Legolas must have dropped Satet’s bow and quiver some time during the slaughter of the first minotaur. She picked them up, slinging the quiver over her shoulder for ease of carrying and started to inch her way forward, curious to see what was happening with the others.
As she did, a sound made its way to her ears… seductive, ripe, satiny-smooth and yet rough like a kitten’s tongue, prickling her nerves to attention. It was a sort of keening, a wailing that spoke of heart-rending misery at the same time it whispered of unimaginable delights.
“Oh, oh, ohhhhhhh.” The sound echoed mournfully off the walls.
After what Arwen had told them had happened to their party, Corinne felt a jolt of fear and found herself awkwardly drawing an arrow from the quiver and fitting it to the bowstring.
“What the hell am I doing?” she murmured to herself, feeling like her eyeballs would pop out of her head if her eyes widened any further. “I can’t shoot a bow. I can’t even pull a bow.”
There was a flash of orangey light then, and before her materialized no fewer than four… things. Definitely female, their skin was pale grey, but the struts of the bat-like wings that flapped slowly, suspending them a few feet above the ground, and the long hair that cascaded to their hips were black as night. Milk-white eyes and hands with only four slender fingers beckoned to her, and she realized that the keening had stopped, leaving her in utter silence, surrounded by…
“Sirens,” she breathed. Oh, this was weird. And bad, she amended when one began to coast toward her, seeming to float more than fly… in a heartbeat, Corinne pulled back the bowstring, and a tiny part of her mind registered a vague surprise that she would have the strength to do such a thing, but then she released the arrow and…
It split, mid-flight, into four arrows, one for each siren, and hit in the dead-centre of each of their chests.
“Oh, ow, owwwwwwwww,” they keened, milky eyes gazing with shock and longing at her. Corinne was filled with an odd sense of betrayal, as if she weren’t supposed to have defended herself against them, but with another flash of orangey light and a fizzling noise, the sirens seemed to simply crisp up, and soft clouds of ash fell to the floor.
“Ok, that was messed up,” Corinne stated, arms hanging in shock by her sides, the bow dangling from limp fingers.
A feminine cry of pain sounded from around the corner, and she found herself jogging toward it and peeking around. The battle wasn’t going very well; there were at least a half-dozen minotaurs and even with two of the ‘good guys’ on each, they weren’t making much progress. Spike and Dawn wrestled with the one nearest to Corinne, and as she watched, it swiped at Dawn with one of its axes, knocking the pike from her hands and sending her skidding across the floor to hit her head on the wall.
“Nibblet?” Spike demanded, jabbing with his sword at one of its trunk-like arms. “Nibblet?” His voice rose with a tinge of panic, and he turned to regard Dawn. Taking advantage of his opponent’s distraction, the minotaur pulled back his axe to hit the vampire, and Corinne found her arms working once more without her brain’s input: an arrow was plucked from the quiver, fitted to the string, and fired at the minotaur in a single, flawlessly smooth motion.
Spike turned back in time to see the arrow flying at him, and his eyes rounded with shock, as the missile—the wooden missile—was flying directly for his heart. Just as it would pierce his sternum, however, it changed trajectory in an abrupt motion and swerved around him to embed itself in the vulnerable area at the back of the minotaur’s neck.
It dropped both axes and tried to reach for the arrow, to wrench it free, but its arms were so burly and muscle-bound that it could not reach, and soon was falling to the ground, eyes glazing in death.
Spike stared at her a scant moment before bounding over to her and wrenching both quiver and bow from her. “An idiot-proof bow,” he muttered admiringly, slinging the quiver over his shoulder. “Bloody marvelous.” He began firing in an almost haphazard manner at the other minotaurs; the arrows jogged this way and that, one swooping around Thranduil to lodge in the eye socket of the one he and Elessar battled whilst a second arrow plunged between Gimli’s legs to come up and puncture the belly of the one fought by the dwarf and Legolas.
“Help Dawn,” Spike instructed her, and Corinne pulled her mesmerized gaze from the carnage he was wreaking to scramble over to the woman’s limp form, grasping her under the arms and carefully pulling her away out of danger.
“Oi, Slayer, head’s up!” Spike called, firing an arrow at her foe. She jerked back and it skewered the minotaur in the throat, pinning her long braid to its body and dragging her down when it fell to the floor.
“Spike, you idiot!” she yelled, pulling her plait free, and got a cheeky grin for her trouble before she rounded on the last two: Radagast and Haldir seemed to have things in hand with theirs, as it was bellowing furiously at the hail of melon-sized rocks the wizard was pulling from the air to toss with admirable accuracy at its head whilst the elf set about carving the creature into more manageable pieces.
Buffy took a running leap and landed squarely on the shoulders of the one Boromir and Elessar were fighting, and taking a firm grasp of its horns, wrenched until its neck snapped with a sick crunch.
“Oh, just kill it already,” Corinne admonished Haldir when it became clear that he was merely toying with it. He flashed her a silvery glare and darted his hand under its arm to plant a dagger to the hilt in the centre of its chest before striding over to her, not even watching as it fell with a juicy gasp to its knees (Radagast dropped another, particularly large, stone on its head and gave a satisfied, “hah!” when it keeled over).
“Did I not tell you to stay where I left you?” he demanded, grasping her arms and shaking her. “Why will you never obey me?”
His hair was mussed, his eyes were bright, and a very pretty flush of exertion had stolen over his ivory cheeks. In short, he looked enchanting and Corinne felt perfectly justified in wriggling free of his grasp, winding her arms around his neck, and giving him a good hard cuddle.
“Now what are you doing?” he gritted out, trying to dislodge her, but she clung like a barnacle, going so far as to plant little kisses along his jaw.
“I’m not going to make it easy for you, you big jerk,” she informed him, to the great amusement of their audience.
Hands like vices gripped her wrists and wrenched her away, dropping her on her butt. “Do not do that again,” he told her, his voice frosty. “Do not.” Wheeling about, he yanked his dagger out of the dead minotaur and wiped it on the leg of his trousers, resheathing it and its brother on his back before stomping away, the others parting before him.
Buffy gave Corinne an encouraging grin before hurrying after her friend, Legolas and Spike a pace behind, and the others set about recovering from the battle before falling in behind.
“Don’t know why you want such a grouch,” Dawn commented as Boromir fussed over the tiny bruise at her temple. “I got myself a nice, good-tempered guy.” She exchanged a sweet smile with her husband. “We had no trouble at all falling in love, did we, honey?”
“It was the easiest thing I have ever done,” he replied, helping her to her feet. “And something I do again every time I look upon you.” When both women sighed, he looked deeply embarrassed. “Please forget I said that.”
“As if,” Dawn crowed. She snuggled against his side and they joined the similarly affectionate king and queen of Gondor in wandering down the passageway.
“What is it about killing things that puts you people in such a good mood?” Corinne wondered aloud, for she was still somewhat shaken by her having offed a herd of sirens with the aid of a seemingly magical bow, and being surrounded by ferociously fighting bull/men creatures. “Am I the only moderately sane person here?”
Predictably, no one answered. Sighing, she trudged along behind them.
It took several hours for them to reach the end of the long, winding corridor. It seemed around every turn was another group of minotaurs or sirens. The latter especially proved difficult for the males of the group to defeat, as they were much more inclined to stop in the middle of an attack to listen to the beguiling wails, their eyes dreamy as they smiled blissfully up at the winged creatures. Consequently, it fell to Buffy, Arwen, Dawn, and even Corinne equipped with Satet’s “idiot-proof” bow to take them down more often than not.
“Typical,” Dawn huffed to her sister as she nailed a siren with her pike.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Buffy replied with a grin, closing her husband’s gaping mouth with a gentle hand before thrusting her sword into the chest of one of the latest group of sirens. “I think they’re kinda cute, gaping and drooling like that.” She stretched up on tiptoes and kissed Legolas until his eyes lost the glazing-over they’d acquired with the siren-song and he was looking down at her with a mixture of fondness and frustration that they were not in an appropriate place to continue that train of thought.
“Have we come to the end, then, tithen maethoramin?” he asked, looking past her to where the corridor appeared to end abruptly.
“Hm,” was her response, and she cautiously approached the flat wall ahead, placing her palms against it, then her ear. “I hear… water,” she said, and began to push. One by one, the others came forward to add their strength. It moved inch by inch for a few agonizing minutes, and then with a lurch, fell away so quickly they had to leap back to keep from overbalancing and pitching forward into the abyss that had just appeared before them.
Ok, not an abyss per se, but… as Corinne crept forward to Haldir’s side to investigate, it was the only word she could think of to describe the immense cavern on the other side of the gaping hole they’d just created.
The ceiling of it arched far, far above and the water Buffy had heard coursed with frightening speed far, far below. The walls of the cavern seemed to be encrusted with gems or the like, because a magnificent array of colours refracted and bounced all around them, issuing from some mysterious source she couldn’t detect.
An eerie humming, like a chord struck on a set of crystal goblets, emanated from the cavern, vibrating and shuddering through them on a visceral level until Corinne was sure she could feel it in her very bones. Her hand slipped of its own accord into Haldir’s and for a moment, before he remembered that he could not have anything to do with her, Haldir laced his fingers with hers and squeezed tenderly, even forgetting himself so far as to give her a faint smile.
And then the threads wandered out of nowhere, wrapping around them with suffocating strength and alarming speed, wrenching them apart. Buffy, as the strongest, was able to resist the longest but eventually even she was overwhelmed by the threads. In every colour of the rainbow, the threads pinned their arms to their sides, tangling in their legs, sneaking around their faces. In short order they were rendered blind, mute, and crippled.
They were lifted off their feet, and the sensation of being hefted aloft was made even more disconcerting when the humming grew louder, and many-coloured lights flashed so brightly Corinne could see them past her eyelids and the threads that bound them closed. With a gasp she realized they were being plucked from the passageway and hauled out into the midst of the cavern, and remembering the great height at which they’d stood above the thrashing waters below, felt her stomach as well as her hopes plummet.
Frantically, she wracked her brain for some clue as to what was happening to them, but it was hard because the humming was loud, so loud, seeming to fill her head until she was sure it would burst—
And then it stopped.
Feeling the sudden lack of sound almost like a physical blow, Corinne writhed within her fabric prison, struggling fruitlessly to be free. Then the threads around her face released, and her eyes watered from the onslaught of lights reflecting into them.
When she could see, she craned her neck as far as she could and found that their entire company was suspended hundreds of feet in the air by thousands of slender, gossamer, shimmering filaments.
And before them, in mid-air, stood two figures. The female was easy for Corinne to recognize: Tayet, goddess of weaving, held a drop-spindle and idly created yet another thread while she watched her newly-captured prey with avid eyes. Catching Corinne’s gaze, she smiled, a slow easy grin of pure malignance. Shuddering, Corinne twisted away, only to find herself looking upon the male of the pair.
Of an indeterminate age—not child, not adult—he seemed oblivious to the two snakes that wound sinuously around his torso as he surveyed their company with flat, emotionless eyes. A golden collar was looped like a lariat round his neck, with the long tail hanging to his navel, and two cross-arms mimicking his winglike collarbones, reaching outward.
“An ankh,” Corinne pondered. “An ankh, two snakes…” Then she squeezed her eyes tightly shut. Those symbols could only mean that before her stood Heka, god of magic and speech, and that was a bad thing. She only hoped the others, worn down by their previous experiences with mind-games, would not easily succumb, and her last thought before consciousness faded was of Haldir. “Seshat, protect him…”
tithen maethoramin = my tiny warrior