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part two
IP: 82.14.67.140

PART TWO
Silver Cove


“This is the most idiotic, pointless waste of my time,” Aura grumbled, rubbing her head where it had just hit the rock ceiling. “I would be better off in bed.”

She spied a flash of white up ahead, which was probably Mallos’ teeth. “I was going to suggest that, but I thought I’d spare you the awkward moment when your son waltzed in demanding paper.”

Over the years, Aura had learnt that the best way of dealing with Mallos was to ignore him. This she did now with as much dignity as she could muster while crawling through a muddy, underground tunnel on hands and knees, concentrating her attention on avoiding sharp rocks underfoot. It was not in fact mud which dampened the corridors, but the same clay which gave the northern cliffs their reddish hue – as Mallos had been quick to point out when she cringed. Aura had declared that she didn’t care for any substance which squelched, regardless of the attractive effect it had on the geological environment.

How long they’d been crawling, she had no idea. The tunnel was beginning to open up, which was something of a relief; some of the smaller gaps had already awoken her claustrophobia, and on more than one instance they’d chosen to transform into rats rather than squeeze through minute passageways. Aura might have managed it, but Mallos was considerably taller and broader across the shoulders, although he did have a catlike ability to slip through gaps which shouldn’t possibly admit him. This he demonstrated now, slithering through a hole which looked about half his size. From the echoes which resounded after he dropped to the floor on the other side, Aura deduced that it did indeed open out into a wider chamber. She followed him through easily and found him examining a particularly uninteresting stretch of wall, absent-mindedly rubbing his elbow where presumably it had hit a rock. The wound was already sealing over, and by the time she reached him it was as if it had never been there.

“Water levels,” he said, tapping a dark stain on the wall. Although she could stand comfortably, he had to stoop to prevent the top of his head scraping across the ceiling. “These tunnels must flood at high tide. We’d better get a move on. What’s the matter with you? You were the one who wanted to find this place.”

Aura shot him a critical look. The reflection on her piercing blue eyes from the only light source, a luminous ball held suspended in mid-air by her magic, added to the stern effect. “I merely voiced aloud the thought that the unearthing of the Crystal Hall would be beneficial to the cause, since it would allow the Set-Merut warriors to build their magic to the equal or better of their opponents. You were the one who insisted on conducting an expedition that very instant, although whether it was to relieve you from the chores I asked you to do or to satisfy your masculine need to brandish a discovery in the face of other male persons, I cannot decide.”

Unperturbed, Mallos grinned widely at her, accepting the truth of the criticism with the same candidness he always displayed whenever someone pointed out his faults. He’s a lot more comfortable with his flaws than I am with mine, she thought regretfully, following as he led the way further down the passage. Despite the fact that Thoth was currently staying with his father so she didn’t have any responsibilities at home, there were few arguments (or indeed, few people) who could have persuaded her to leave the island in the dead of the night on such a foolhardy quest. Only the sound knowledge that the island was amply protected by her own magical enchantments and by the presence of Blue, Mallos’ erratic but goodhearted spaniel familiar, prevented her from worrying about the absence of two divine beings. Although she’d never admit it to him, it was good to be off the island spending time with an old friend – someone who understood her better than anyone – and for all his flaws, Mallos did have one attractive characteristic: his flamboyant, unpredictable behaviour and sly comments were very distracting. When he chose to occupy someone’s attention, it was very difficult for that person to focus on anything else. While this could be exceptionally irritating, there were times when it relieved the mind from having to think about other, less pleasant things.

He wasn’t perfect, but he was a friend – one of the few she had, and one of the cleverest of those few. If you couldn’t turn to a friend in a time of need, who could you turn to? Even so, Aura hesitated. The ideas which had been building in her mind seemed to be based on such little evidence that she hadn’t even mentioned them to Arthur, and yet… somehow, despite the lack of support, the ideas just would not go away.

“Does it seem odd to you that a criminal mastermind would lay out his entire evil scheme to his enemies, leaving them to battle him with full knowledge of his plot? Something doesn’t feel right. I feel like we’re missing something.”

His response, when it came, was as carefully ambiguous as a politician’s. “What makes you suppose that?”

“Nothing substantial,” she admitted. “It’s just… strange, isn’t it, Gwythr’s behaviour? Supposedly he needs me to, er – ”

“Assist his efforts to further the production of our race?” Mallos offers tactfully.

“Thank you. We believed that that is what he wanted me for, and yet… twice now he has held me in the Shady Labyrinth, each with ample time to, er, act on his alleged intentions, and yet both times he has virtually ignored me. He’s had all the time he needs to set the wheels in motion… and I’m also starting to wonder if my escaping from the Labyrinth wasn’t a little too easy.” Her companion remained silent, so she pressed on. “The plot has some extraneous factors of which we have been ignorant. When I was on Earth, I discovered that – ”

“Gwythr has a power base there in the form of the Manektites.” In response to her unspoken question, he shrugged. “Simple logic. Numbers can subdue even magic, and nobody can deny his criminal status; he can’t just assume that the other original fairies would submit to his ideals without a fight. Divinity is the most precarious magic to wield and can take centuries to learn to control properly, so even if he produced a small army of new divines they wouldn’t last long against the originals. He needed to get a substantial number of the ordinary Earth fairies on his side. Most of them believe you are the one true god, but the Manektite cult will have grown enormously since its revival after your daughter was born. They believe that she is Chaos and Destruction, as heralded by Manekt’s prophecy. If Gwythr could forge an alliance with them and order you to move your believers once you’d submitted to him, he would have an army compromising approximately three hundred million ordinary fairies. Between them and the army of divines he’d planned to raise here, he’d be able to overrun both Shaman and Earth. You’ve known that for a while.”

“I believed he had a power base on Earth and I suspected the Manektites, but it wasn’t confirmed until I actually went back to Earth. They’ve been growing steadily from about 990 onwards, but since 1945 when it was announced that Poppy had escaped from prison their numbers have positively exploded. Gwythr must have promised them protection from Chaos and Destruction.”

“That’s the way these cults roll,” Mallos replied casually, ducking under a low-hanging bit of rock. “End of the world will come and annihilate everyone except for the true believers, who will be lifted up to paradise.”

They’d been continuing along down a passage selected at random which, to Aura’s eternal gratitude, was tall enough for them both to walk through on two feet and wide enough to stand shoulder to shoulder. She threw him a side-long glance, but the half of his face that she could see was as smooth as a slab of concrete. Elaborating on one subject was a particularly effective way of avoiding another. Mallos was such an expert at directing conversations that it took someone with a keen understanding of his tactics and enough intelligence to play his game to recognise such a subtle evasive manoeuvre; Aura was one of probably only a few people alive who could do it.

Hopping around a stalagmite, she continued. “There must be another factor. His behaviour towards me suggests that he doesn’t intend to, er, proceed with his alleged plan regarding me in the immediate future. Therefore, there must be someone else with whom he can carry it out with. But who? Allianah and Lorraine are the only other female originals left, and both of them are on Earth. Any attempt to carry out the plan on Earth would be noticed immediately… he has to do it here, but with who? Who am I overlooking?”

“Poppy?”

That, in Aura’s opinion, confirmed it. The suggestion was thoroughly ridiculous, and Mallos was too intelligent to make it. Poppy was a half-and-half, the daughter of an original and an ordinary fairy, which made her the equivalent of an ordinary fairy in Gwythr’s eyes since she was ‘contaminated’ by her blood. Mallos knew that. She fixed him with a beady eye and opened her mouth, but promptly shut it again when a deep rumbling in the rocks made both of them freeze in their tracks. Rockfalls weren’t uncommon down here. Aura held her breath, listening furiously for a tell-tale creak or groan. For a few agonising minutes the only sound which could be heard was the steady drip of water from the stalactites overhead; she felt a droplet of icy liquid fall down the back of her neck and shivered as it slipped down her spine.

Nothing. Then –

“MOVE!”

Aura wasn’t sure if she’d shouted it or Mallos; she’d already started backing up with as much speed as possible when his body hit hers, forcing her into an alcove in the wall. The crashing rocks were like thunder in her ears; she couldn’t remember ever hearing a sound so loud in all her life. Briefly, she wondered what would happen if they died down here, deep in the underground tunnels below the Silver Cove, where nobody would ever find them – assuming there was anything left of them to find after several tons of rock crushed them to pieces. Even magic couldn’t cure that. The sound was deafening, but at least she was blind to the destruction – her face was buried in Mallos’ chest. He’d pushed her up against the wall in a hug so tight she could hardly breathe, sheltering her from the tumbling rocks with the only shield available: his own body. The sharp rocks behind her were cutting in to Aura’s back, but she wouldn’t have complained even if she could speak. The roaring noise seemed to go on forever.

Eventually it eased off to a gentle patter and finally gave way to clean, undisturbed silence. Slowly, Mallos prised himself away. The air was so thick with dust that he was barely visible, despite the fact that her light had remained intact. Aura coughed a few times. Mallos, apparently unaffected, turned to carefully examine the wall of rock now blocking their path ahead.

“We couldn’t have set this off by just walking,” he muttered, gingerly touching the rocks. “Perhaps it’s designed to prevent anyone from finding the Crystal Hall. We must be getting close.”

The performance was so perfect that under normal circumstances she may have allowed it to carry on for a little while, but today Aura was in no mood for theatrics. She crossed the distance between them in a heartbeat and slapped him soundly across the face.

“You arsehole, Mallos!”

He blinked at her for a moment, rubbing his cheek, then smiled and shrugged. “It was worth a shot.”

“Next time you want to distract me from an awkward conversation, kindly do so in a way which doesn’t put our lives in jeopardy.” She paused for a moment, breathing hard. “I know that there’s someone else here in Shaman, Mallos. Someone else Gwythr is after. Who is it? Don’t play any of your little games on me, I know you know.”

“I don’t know,” he shifted reluctantly. “It’s only a possibility. And a remote one at that. In fact, I’m prepared to bet that the likelihood of her being here is less than – ”

Who?

Through the dim passage, Aura thought she saw Mallos’ face take on an expression uncharacteristically close to guilt. “My little sister.”


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