Snatching off his scarf, Poeli jumped up and looked both ways along the path. There was neither sight nor sound of their friend. ‘He’s been drawn further in,’ he said, slinging his pack onto his back. ‘We must find him, and quickly.’
‘I blame myself for this,’ Bru said as they hurried through the crystal stems, ‘I shouldn’t’ve asked him to come. He hasn’t the gifts or the protections we’ve been given.’
‘It made perfect sense to bring him. After all he’s the only one of us who’s been carried between worlds by the Powers, and it was his dream-vision which alerted us to this task. You couldn’t have refused him, Bru. Not after all he’s been to the Constellation.’
An hour later they stopped, winded and sweating. ‘This is no good,’ Poeli said, ‘we’re only exhausting ourselves. My legs are so tired I feel as though I’m wading through mud. If he slipped away as soon as we were blindfolded we’ll never catch up with him.’
‘Maybe not in daylight, but if we rest now and then go on after dark we might just find him sleeping. Can you make the Powers’ Light shine in here?’
Poeli concentrated for a moment, before answering. ‘Not easily, this crystal light’s blocking it; but it might be easier after dark.’
‘Well let’s hope we’ll have enough Light between us to manage. We’ll go on slowly for a little and then rest until dusk. And Poeli, let’s try Thinking, rather than speaking, just in case whatever it is can hear us.’
When they finally stopped again they had a little food and a careful ration of their water, but ate a full packet of Everlasting Berries. Then they sat down together, fastened Bru’s left hand to Poeli’s right with one of their scarves, and leaning against each other slipped into a light sleep.
It was almost full dark when they were pulled into wakefulness by a piercing yell. Forgetting their tether they fell over each other in their scramble to rise, but within a minute they were ready to move on, their packs on their backs and the Light of the Powers giving enough illumination for safe walking.
‘Was it him?’ Poeli wanted to know.
‘I don’t know, I was asleep,’ and Bru said no more as they moved on as quietly as possible, all their senses alert. Poeli’d removed his earplugs, hearing Niethi was more important than the queasy headache which the music caused. At least their eyes weren’t blinded by the harshness of the daytime colours, though once it was fully dark the crystalline structures glowed with even stranger other-worldly phosphoresences. They didn’t like the Light of the Powers – as Bru and Poeli passed, some fizzed and spat sparks, while others faded completely, not glowing again until the Light no longer touched them – and the friends were encouraged by this assurance that their Gifts had some efficacy in this alien place.
Poeli was in the lead when he stumbled and fell against a stem. It rang like a badly-tuned bell, and the sound was picked up and spread across the forest, like ripples on a pond. He jammed his hands over his ears, but the vibrations shook him until he vomited from the horror of them.
Bru stepped up to hold him, and with his help Poeli recovered quickly, but he was shaken by the experience. ‘The sound seemed to be turning me inside out,’ he explained, using a few drops of water to wipe his face. ‘I fell over something,’ he added. ‘Where is it?’
They turned back, and there on the narrow path, was Niethi’s pack, discarded and empty of food or water. Somehow Bru had avoided it as he’d hurried to help Poeli. They gathered it up, and folding it carefully, slipped it into Bru’s pack. They found nothing to say – they just looked at each other solemnly before preparing to continue on their way. But before they moved Bru laid a hand on Poeli’s arm.
‘I’m going to lower my shieldings for a moment. Stand guard for me. I need to Sense what’s going on since the trees rang.’
Poeli stood close beside him, ready to offer whatever support might be needed, and Bru carefully lowered the shieldings which protected him from too-powerful emotions. He shuddered, but then he pulled himself erect and his eyes seemed to gleam in the Light.
‘What?’ Poeli breathed the thought.
‘There’s a grim satisfaction, but it’s been disturbed by the ringing of the trees, and so there’s confusion and anxiety as well. I’ve had an idea, but let’s wait to try it out. I want to see what moonlight does to these crystals.’
‘Anything of Niethi?’
‘Nothing recognisable. There’s a jumble of fear, which might be Weronti – it has their flavour. I’m not Sensing anything Myldoressian. Right, I’m shielded again, let’s move on.’
Once they were making good progress, and everything around them seemed quiescent, Poeli asked, ‘Bru, what was your idea?’
‘Well, if their sound shook you, I was wondering what the music of the Endless Song might do to them. But I want to rescue Niethi before we try it, it’s no good shaking the trees to bits if it means he’s trapped somewhere.’
‘And the moon? Are you wanting to try the Great Powers’ Light on the crystals when they’re not shining?’
‘Something like that.’
They walked on, all their sense of direction or distance had been lost long ago, but as long as the path continued with no divisions or branches off to left or right, there was nothing else to do except follow it. Poeli began to wonder just how big the bowl was, and then whether they’d circled the entire lake without ever seeing it – but they’d not crossed the streams which must flow into it – and eventually he gave up trying to puzzle it out and just plodded on behind Bru, whose turn it was to take the lead.
Between one step and the next, a cry echoed out of the forest not far ahead of them. There were words in it, but the echoes confused them. Frozen to the spot, they waited in tense silence, trying to decide if it had been a voice they knew, and hoping for and yet dreading another; and just as they were relaxing and preparing to walk on, it came again. A cry, not a scream; made with every atom of someone’s being:
‘In and down!’
That was all, but the words were clear this time. Spaced and enunciated in order to be heard and understood; and, unless they were badly mistaken the voice was Niethi’s. They hurried forward, convinced that he was fairly near, and was trying to guide them. But then he screamed – a shattering, heart-stopping scream of pain and terror – and they broke into a stumbling run, desperate to reach him before it was too late.
As if to delay them, the path twisted this way and that like a labyrinth, even turning right back on itself for a while before righting itself again and heading straight towards the cliff wall at the far end of the valley. So it was a considerable time later that they stopped abruptly at the brink of a wide stream – the source of the river? – which welled up out of the ground right before them and in fifty paces flowed down to the shallow margins of the lake.
‘He said, “In and down”,’ Bru muttered, looking around for any entrance which might fit Niethi’s cry.
‘Bru, there, look!’ Poeli pointed to their left. A thousand feet above them, a stream slid over the rim of the plateau, its water gleaming with reflected moonlight. By the time it was halfway down it seemed a silver mist vanishing into the air, but at the foot of the wall it shattered on the rocks, and its fountains of spray left them in no doubt as to its solidity. Almost immediately it sank down through a tunnel – a made tunnel – and disappeared from view, presumably to reappear several hundreds of paces later at their feet.
They turned and ran for the tunnel entrance. The water slid smoothly down the channel which had been shaped for it, and on the near side were steps wide enough for three to walk abreast.
Bru stopped for a moment and lifted his hands. ‘May the Great Powers guide and help us; and may we remember that they have a care for every being on every world.’
After which enigmatic statement he brightened the Light a little, and began the descent into the depths.
. . . . . . . . to be continued