The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey

Chapter Sixteen: The Mines of Muriah

        Gundolf's crude maps were very approximate and not a whole lot better than the ones in the books. Still, Sara didn't have a great deal of trouble locating the Mystic Mountains and then tracing the line of their peaks to Muriah. What she saw as she approached a little before sunrise was not exactly in keeping with what she had expected from reading the story.
        Clearly visible from the air, a wide, stone-laid road led from the entrance, surrounded by huge piles of fresh, rocky tailings, unadorned by vegetation. Of course — all the material removed from the vast mazes under the mountain had to go somewhere. Since the end of the war, the Dwarves had evidently returned to their ancient home in force, and had been very busy.
        The road for miles from the entrance was deserted. Some distances away, she spotted long wagon trains of goods and supplies pointed toward the mountain. They had the appearance of being recently and hastily abandoned, their drivers and animals scattered across the countryside as if in anticipation of some dreadful battle. The entrance doors were shut tight. Gundolf had said they would be expecting her. Well, they would be expecting something, at any rate. She hoped to be a bit of a surprise, anyway.
        The doors were a lot bigger than she had imagined — wide enough to cover an Interstate highway-sized tunnel — and rather more utilitarian looking than she would have thought, made mostly of iron and somewhat resembling the kind of blast-proof shields designed to protect an underground strategic missile command post from nuclear attack back on Earth. If there had been fancifully decorated stone doors at one time, they had been replaced. The twenty-odd meter width made sense — it would take a lot of supplies from the surface world to maintain a large population through single entrances on either side of the mountains.
        The lake by the doorway was barely more than a large pond now, heavy and odorous with effluents leached from the tailings by rains. Its surface had a noxious, oily sheen to it. She knew from the story and Gundolf's warning that there was probably some disgusting tentacled monstrosity lurking in its depths, though she wasn't really concerned about any threat it might pose to her. She planned to waste no time dealing with it.
        As the sonic booms of her passage echoed from the rocky canyons, though, small rockslides tossed debris into the murky water as if to signal some kind of warning. While she stood examining the door, trying to kreen as far inside the mountain as possible, the Watcher arose and heaved its snaky coils at Sara's back.
         Or tried to, anyway. Sara turned to look at the hideous writhing thing flailing at the water's edge. Its thick arms were like some kind of cross between a ropy vine and a muscular appendage, while far below the surface at the bottom of the lake, she could remotely sense where the main body blended almost imperceptibly into the rocky floor. It was at the same time animal, vegetable and mineral, and would be a nightmarish impossibility on a normal world that lacked Midgarde's evolution by magical mutation.
        She noted the absence of any kind of railing or fence to protect passers-by from being attacked by the thing. It must not normally be necessary — the creature was evidently harmless to those who meant no harm. In fact, as she examined it, it became clear what its function other than watchdog must be. Essentially, it was a garbage disposal, taking the daily dumpings from the Dwarves' kitchens for its food and producing nutrient-rich waste products that sustained the bioecology of the lake and the stream that flowed from it.
        The more Sara studied it, the more beautiful it became, like a fantastic cross between Terrestrial sea anemones, octopi, clinging vines, coral colonies, sponge beds, kelp forests — all melded into a single unit. She had to admire the ingenuity of it all.
        Only now it was dying, most of its vast body merely dead weight, and the remainder enfeebled. Neglect, a dwindling habitat and poisonous runoff had reduced it to a remnant. Still, it made a valiant but pathetic effort to do its duty by its careless masters, with trembling, futile attempts to tear the intruder from the doorway in its charge. Even as Sara watched, its last efforts expended its final reserves of energy in random spasms, far short of where she stood. Dragged back by the heavy underwater bulk of its sinking mostly-dead mass, its tentacles slipped slowly below the rotting surface of its home.
        Sara felt herself pitying the poor, dumb creature. She couldn't imagine the Dwarves of Muriah would allow this to happen to this ally on their doorstep if not driven to neglect by the greater need to service their Dark Master's ambitions. This would be another debit in the account she would have to settle with Him when they finally met. But she would hold the Ringwielding Dwarven Kings responsible as well. It was time to seek them out.
        Sara turned back to the door. She could kreen that there were more than a score of Dwarves in the wide tunnel on the other side, weapons drawn. It seemed that they might be expecting the outer doors to be less than adequate protection from whatever powerful being would come to wrest their precious treasure away from them. They would constitute an advanced guard to test the invader's mettle, stop the intrusion if possible, and report on the outcome swiftly. She didn't want to hurt them — her quarrel was with their leaders. It might not be a bad idea to let them have an idea of what they were up against.
        Taking a deep breath, she quickly tore one of the great iron doors from the face of the mountain and tossed it over her head to land flat on the road behind her with an earthshaking bang. The suddenness and noise caught the guards by surprise in spite of their waiting readiness. The sight of Sara casually strolling through the wrecked entrance, flashing an incongruously girlish smile, surprised them again. They had evidently been expecting someone — well — bigger, maybe. And a lot more frightening, perhaps, as might befit a challenger to mighty Soraun who had already claimed the Three.
        But Sara was surprised herself. The Dwarves were generally what she expected, all right — short, stocky, powerfully built, bearded, dour and heavily armed, mostly with spears, axes and short swords. The quality of their accouterments was quite high, and their leather clothing and partial armor looked well-made and expensive. But their hair and beards were patchy, showing bald spots where it was obviously falling out. They seemed to have burn-like sores on exposed skin, and there was a feverish look to many of them.
        Plague? Sara wondered. Disease or malnutrition? Some kind of reaction from spending so much time in the sunless underground? Pollution from their forges or lung disease from mining? If she didn't know better, she'd have thought it might have been radiation poisoning.
        The Dwarves left her little time for such thoughts, recovering quickly from their initial shock to rush her en masse, weapons leveled, chanting their war cries as one. She was concerned they might accidentally hurt each other, swinging their sharp implements with such gusto, but decided to let them have at her for a while until they either tired or realized the futility of such an attack. She wanted to talk to them a little, if possible. After all, she was really on their side — they just didn't know it.
        They hacked and slashed with furious intensity, with Sara providing a cooperative target. If they were discouraged by their inability to cause the slightest damage, they didn't show it. When they showed no signs of letting up, she finally just grabbed their weapons and flung them through the door to land about a mile down the road. They finally collapsed on the tunnel floor, wheezing desperately.
        "Which one of you wants to talk with me?" she said in their language, causing much lifting of eyebrows that this female Man should so casually know their secret tongue.
        "Who's your leader?" She caught the involuntary glances pointing one of them out to her.
        She looked straight at him and introduced herself as pleasantly as she could. "My name is Sara Corel and I'm very pleased to meet you, Mister, uh…"
        He glowered at her. "What manner of monster are you? You look to be a Man, but are plainly no mortal. We want you not in our home, to destroy our power and our works. Begone with you and trouble us no more, for we will never yield to you."
        "You could be a little more polite, Mister whatever-you're-name-is. I'm obviously not trying to hurt you, and I think you know by now that you're not gonna hurt me. I just want to talk a little."
        She could sense a second group further down the tunnel hurrying back with their intelligence and decided to give them some time to spread the word of the manner of her arrival. She wanted them to take their best shot at her as soon as possible, figure out the futility of opposing her, and then conclude the whole business quickly.
        "Know then that I am Lognar, son of Durgos, Captain of the Eastern Gate. Brindam is my kingly liege under the mountain."
        Sara beamed brightly and plopped down cross-legged on the dusty tunnel floor in front of him. "Sorry I made such a mess out of your gate. And I hope your stuff didn't get banged up too bad. If you want, I can clear the road and fetch your, uh, tools before I go on. Where do you want me to put that door?"
        Lognar tried as best he could to maintain a stern and uncompromising demeanor with this enemy of his people, but was plainly worn out by his exertions and his obvious physical infirmity. "Trouble yourself not on our behalf, most unwelcome invader. I would that you replace yon door from outside and cease to trouble our underland home."
        "Can't do that, I'm afraid. I'm not out to bust up your place or anything. I just have to get those Rings of yours so I can clobber that Soraun guy. It's nothing personal."
        "We shall not yield them. They are the foundations of our might and prosperity and are precious to each and every one of us. We will die if we must before we would surrender the least of them. We do not care for your evil designs."
        "Oh, come on," Sara countered, smiling sweetly, "Do I look like I'm some kind of nasty villain?"
        "We know naught of your kind. We know only that you would destroy us."
        "Hey, I'm not trying to destroy you — I'm trying to help. If I can knock off Soraun, don't you think that would be a good idea? I mean, you gotta know He's running things these days. Jeez, look at you guys. I'm betting you didn't look the way you do before He took over, did you? Is everybody down here as sick as you are? I mean, somebody is responsible for either working you guys nearly to death or some kind of gross negligence. And your poor Watcher is so bad off from poisoning his little lake out there, it probably won't be around much longer."
        "You did not destroy it?" Lognar showed some relief, then guilt. "We have been so — busy. There is no time anymore for such things…"
        "Yeah," said Sara, "I thought so. What's all the rush, anyway?"
        "Think you that I would betray my people? You'll tear no information from me, though you possess all the torturous skills of Barradour," he said, defiantly.
        "Don't be ridiculous," she laughed, "I'm not into torture. I really don't care what you're doing or even why. I just have to take care of this one little thing — or, seven, actually — and I'm outta here. I would think that removing this Ring-induced compulsion would make things a lot better for you."
        "We need no Rings to fire our fervor, Witch. We Dwarves, scorned and hunted for centuries, have never been mightier. Our wealth has never been greater. We shall make of our own labor a power that will keep us forever safe…"
        He trailed off in a fit of coughing, while his alarmed companions reached out to keep him sitting upright. He was too sick to be of much further use.
        Sara looked sympathetically at the others. "Everybody's like this, aren't they." It wasn't a question.
        They all looked miserably at the floor, confirming her suspicions. "Any idea what's causing it?"
        After a while, one of the younger Dwarves stirred, addressing her in a quiet mutter without looking up, "All the Dwarves of Midgarde were brought here after the War. Deeper than the roots of this mountain, we mine the yellow powder."
        "What? Gold?" she said, a little puzzled. "I thought Dwarves have always mined gold."
        "Nay," said another, "rarer even than gold or Elfsilver. We have toiled ceaselessly to build vast works for the processing of this ore, which makes but small amounts of warm metal, heavier than lead."
        "And deadlier," added another. "All have had their turn at the mines until weakness makes work impossible. Afterward, no medicine can help."
        "For what? Is it worth it?" asked Sara.
        "It is Progress," said the first, almost reverently. The others nodded.
        "Wonders and miracles have poured forth, never seen or dreamed of in Midgarde," said still another young Dwarf. "Brilliant light streams from little balls of clear glass. Engines do the work of scores of Dwarves and never tire. Words spoken into a box can be heard issuing from other boxes anywhere undermountain."
        "You've got to be kidding!" said Sara. "Are you telling me you have electricity? And motors? And telephones?" She was astonished.
        "So they are named by those who bestow these secrets. Magic wedded to this new…"
        "Technology," prompted another.
        "…technology," continued the first Dwarf, "sweeps all before it. Would that they had never brought this knowledge to us." The others nodded.
        This couldn't have happened overnight, magic or no magic. "Excuse my ignorance, but just how long has the War been over?" asked Sara.
        "Almost ten years. In but the last year, we have dwindled by half. Few children are born, and they are ill-formed and do not live. Or should not."
        Ten years, thought Sara, incredulously. How Gundolf and Eldron and the Lady must have suffered. How could they have held out? She couldn't understand why her creators had waited so long to send her, now that it might be too late to undo the terrible damage. Ten years… From Stone Age to budding Industrial Age in such a short time. Incredible.
        Lognar roused himself, "Silence, fools!" he shouted. "This is treachery. This… This Man thing," he spat, "Tricks you. It is our enemy, can't you see? If it accomplishes its fell mission, we will be left with nothing. Nothing!"
        The other Dwarves reluctantly recovered their resolution, slowly gathering their strength. They made a show of rallying behind their leader, though their hearts were not in it.
        "You have defeated only the smallest part of our powerful nation, creature," Lognar orated. "Our wrath awaits you at every turn. Go forth now or meet thy doom."
        Sara stood up and sighed, brushing herself off. "It's time for me to go anyway, fellas. Look, I hope you do all right, OK? I wish I could do something for you now, but this'll all turn out for the best. Believe me."
        She began to walk deliberately down the long tunnel into the heart of Muriah, turning once to wave cheerily. The youngest of them sheepishly waved back.

        After a couple of broad curves, the tunnel eventually opened into a vast square cavern with an iron-clad high ceiling from which were suspended rows of garish, primitive electric light bulbs. She could tell the floor was iron-bound as well, underneath the thick crust of sawdust, hay and animal residue that had also covered most of the tunnel floor. There had been a lot of traffic, it would seem, but not a trace of it remained. A maze of flimsy wooden draft animal pens was scattered about, leaving a path of least resistance through the center of the enormous room. On the other side of the immense cavern was a long line of doors — loading docks, obviously.
        Most of the doors were closed. A trio of larger openings in the center, opposite the tunnel mouth, was filled with heavily armed Dwarves. When she neared the midpoint of the subterranean plaza, a spokesdwarf called out to her in as powerful a voice as possible for one so gravely ill.
        "Halt!" he commanded, then coughed spasmodically.
        Sara obliged. She waved at them enthusiastically and shouted back, "Hello! My name is Sara…"
        "You cannot pass! Your mission is ended, Man creature. Begone!"
        "Ah, come on, guys," she yelled back. "I'm not gonna hurt anyone, and none of you is gonna hurt me. Why not just make this easy?"
        "You cannot pass!" she heard again, and the command was repeated by a throng of unseen reinforcements until it echoed around the cavern. "You cannot pass!"
        Well, they certainly have guts, she thought. Sara concentrated on her surroundings, kreening the half-dozen or so waiting warriors behind each door. There was something else with them, too. Large metallic things. And, far above her at the limits of her kreening, deep behind the rock in long galleries surrounding the great room, were lines of Dwarves with heavy hammers, swinging deliberately in perfect unison, gradually increasing their arcs. What the heck was that all about? Shrugging, she started for the doors again.
        "You have been warned!" she heard. Immediately, every door flew open to reveal…
        Sara's jaw dropped. Cannons! she thought. Wow! These people didn't fool around, do they? By Midgarde terms, this would make them a superpower. Except one in league with the wrong side. Not by their own doing, she reminded herself.
        She resumed her advance down the central path until she came to a carefully calibrated spot upon which every weapon had been trained, illuminated by the crossed beams of two special light fixtures. At a shouted command, every gun belched flame and smoke in near-unison, roaring like the end of the world in the confined space. Weakened Dwarves fell from the terrible din. The rest uncovered their ears and set to work feverishly reloading.
        The Dwarf commanders peered anxiously through the thick, acrid clouds of gunsmoke, trying to see if their fusillade had had any effect. As the air slowly cleared, they could make out the slender form of Sara far off in the center of the room, holding a large, hot ball in each hand. "Good shooting, guys!" she called out. There were almost as many missiles scattered about in front of her from ricochets as there were imbedded in the wall far beyond. Good shooting, indeed. A second volley would be as useless.
        At a signal, the artillerydwarves abandoned their positions and scrambled frantically for any kind of cover. The leader nodded resignedly to a lieutenant with a phone. Word was passed to the ten-thousand Dwarves now swinging their hammers in the galleries above.
        "One," they called together in a single voice as the hammers swished.
        "Two," they sounded, with greater effort.
        "Three!" they shouted, letting fly with all their accumulated momentum, pounding their targets with perfect synchronicity. Ten thousand latches swung free with a sound like metal and stone crying out in agony.
        In the huge room far below them, Sara looked up at the commotion only she could sense through the ironclad rock above her. With a massive shudder, the whole vast ceiling began its freefall descent to meet the floor of the cavern below. Impressed, Sara had a brief moment to think to herself, Now, that's a trap! before she allowed herself to be pounded into the floor.
        The impact was catastrophic. The sudden compression of the air in the chamber rushed through the tunnel behind her, blowing Lognar and his troop to the ground nearly a mile from the entrance, where they were recovering their weapons from where Sara had thrown them.
        All along the long row of doors, the shattering force of the gale literally tore the few remaining unlucky Dwarves from their posts, along with their cannons and ammunition. The remnants of the doors themselves were mixed with the remains of the animal pens, floor detritus, weapons, clothes and body parts, and flung violently across the receiving and shipping rooms and down radiating corridors.
        The concussion that followed, as the vast piston abruptly bottomed out, resounded through the entire length and breadth of Muriah, collapsing weaker corridors miles from the entrance. The sound was beyond deafening, shattering the internal organs of many nearby. Sheer stone exposed directly to the shock wave cracked and split. Wooden beams turned to dust. The carnage was horrifying.
        It was more than an hour before the first Dwarf scouts approached the wreckage of the loading docks. Passing a pitifully few crawling survivors and trailing telephone wires, they reported that the trap had functioned perfectly, and there was no sign of movement. Far above, the survivors of the hammer-wielding crew surveyed the massive single block of iron-sheathed stone that had been designed to crush whole invading armies and seal the entrance. It was intact, and they started attaching the thousands of chains to hooks on its top so that the long process of raising it again could begin. Even with their new machines, it would take nearly every still-able Dwarf in Muriah a week to laboriously winch it into place.
        There was a small pit in the center of the room, formed when the unstoppable force of the falling monolith had encountered the unbreakable body of Sara, molding the iron plates above and below her into a rough approximation of her huddled shape. Inside this pit, Sara lay stunned, not by the mere falling weight but by the enormity of the Dwarves' sacrifice. This was tragically unexpected. How could she have known? Even with all her sensory and deductive powers she had been caught unawares, and allowed this awful disaster to play itself out while she failed to move, transfixed by surprise and uncertainty.
        Dammit, she should have known. It was plain to see, in perfect hindsight. Only her naïve hubris in thinking that everyone else should be as reasonable as she was prevented her from understanding just how far these poor creatures would go in protecting their precious treasures from what they believed to be a threat.
        Gundolf had said, "Before the sun goes down again, the Dwarves will cover you with their blood." She had dismissed his warning as hyperbole, but it had come to pass. She felt a stain was upon her that could never be cleaned away. If only she hadn't believed that a show of invincibility would simply make these stubborn Dwarves step aside, she would have just stormed her way into the heart of Muriah without giving them time to spring their awful defense. She hoped there would be no more like this.
        Far away, she kreened the work parties of Dwarves scurrying about. They would be trapped in Muriah for some time, at least on this side of the mountain. She could perceive the mechanisms for raising the barrier and doubted that they possessed the energy to accomplish the task. The least she could do would be to try to make something right again, as little as it was. Anyway, she had to leave her tiny prison somehow.
        Pushing ever so carefully so as not to break through the already stressed iron and rock of her little chamber, she slowly worked her way over to the nearby balance point. Then, flattened against the bottom with her arms spread as wide as possible, she gradually lifted the stone from the floor. The rising mass grated and shrieked enormously against the sides of the chamber.
        Amidst the terrible noise, Dwarves scuttled blindly to and fro, covering their ears and shouting senselessly as the great weight began its impossible ascent. Rising from the floor as if attached to the bottom of the scarred ceiling, Sara continued her slow lift until she could tell that the myriad latches were properly aligned. She stopped.
        "Hey," she called in the sudden silence. "Somebody tell the Dwarves up there to set the latches." There was no response. "Come on. I don't want to hold this thing up here forever."
        Finally, one Dwarven leader responded, "Why should we? Stay there 'till you rot, for all we care."
        "I'm just trying to help," protested Sara.
        "We don't need your favors," he responded.
        "The heck you don't. If you don't latch this thing pretty soon, I'm liable to drop it."
        "As long as you are under it, then do so and be damned."
        Frustrated, Sara yelled at him, "Look, stupid. It won't keep me out. Can't you get that through your thick, Dwarfish skulls?"
        A tired elder interceded. "What difference does it make? We have failed. It is neither injured nor trapped. There is nothing more to be done here."
        The latches were eventually secured, and Sara dropped from the ceiling, setting down in front of the old Dwarf.
        "Thanks," she said. "Look, I'm really sorry for all the brave Dwarves who lost their lives. Honestly, if I'd known what you'd do, I would have stopped this somehow."
        "It is not your place to grieve for us," he answered. "You must attend to your doom and we must attend to ours. It must be that it cannot be helped."
        "It shouldn't be this way. I just need to get this over with before anyone else gets hurt."
        "Listen to me. You must know that this is not at an end. If you press on, there will be even vaster bloodshed. You must decide if it will be worth it."
        Sara was silent for some time. This was a Dwarf of wisdom and experience. She knew he was right. But he had only one perspective, and it was warped by a power his people could not endure. Unmistakably, they were all doomed anyway.
        "I know what I must do," she told him. "I am certain."
        "Then," he said, looking straight into her eyes, "we will not have died in vain."

        Sara was relentless now. There were more traps as the Dwarves threw everything at her in desperation. She was gassed, electrocuted, pummeled, distracted, decoyed, shot at, snared, spiked, blasted, flushed, pounded and frozen — to no effect. Whole regiments blocked her way in tight masses, refusing to budge until she simply plowed through them like a bulldozer, heedless of the damage it caused to individuals.
        The only thing that slowed her down at all was the sheer vastness of Muriah itself. Corridors ran in every direction and she could only kreen so far into the dense rock. The Dwarves gave no information, leading her down false trails at every opportunity. She had to rely on simply mapping every turn and passage until she finally came upon her destination.
        In a towering room of rock, there was a sheer face carved into an ornate façade — undoubtedly the Hall of the Mountain Kings.
        For blocking Sara's path to the columned entrance was a terrifying creature of dark flame and malice. Surely, it was the Jabberwauk of Gundolf's warning, erstwhile Dwarves' bane now guarding the princes of a people it had once mercilessly consumed. It was their final defense — not on their behalf, but for its Master's purposes.
        "Outta my way, butt-breath," shouted Sara, in no mood to play.
        There was no response. Sara reached up to push it aside and it attacked her with every fiber of its being, clawing and biting, flailing her with terrible claws and burning her with the fire of its essence. The pall of howling fear it cast in spreading pools of darkness drove Dwarves into gibbering madness wherever it flowed. She pressed on undeterred.
        The intensity of its attack redoubled as its own fear and compulsion drove it to frenzy. The mountain began to shake violently from its hammering efforts, collapsing rooms and corridors filled with Dwarves directionlessly fleeing some nameless dread. Vile gouts of evil substances poured from its mouth, covering her in putrid ichor. Choking stenches enveloped her, then burst into actinic flares. Blackness was thrown upon her eyes and clamor filled her ears. Every sending of abomination rained upon her senses.
        But Sara could not be thwarted. She made her way steadily onward, not even bothering to answer its challenge. Finally, it merely jammed its bulk into the portal of the Hall, interposing its body between her and her quarry.
        "OK, that's it," she told it.
        She grabbed at it, but found it difficult to find a solid purchase. She kicked at it, her blow transmitting enough force through its body to threaten the existence of the Hall. Still it did not budge. She glared at it with x-ray intensity until the intervening atmosphere flamed into a sun-rivaling fireball and the rock face began to boil, but this only served to renew its power. Exasperated, she just decided to push her way through. The body of the creature had to give way to Sara's overwhelming strength, shattering the doorway on every side.
        Finally, with the massive front of the Hall in tumbling ruins, the once-mighty Jabberwauk knew bitter defeat, scrambling away from the small figure and crawling down a steep fissure.
        "And stay out!" Sara called after it.
        Shaking off as much of the disgusting mess as possible, she entered the Hall to confront the Mountain Kings.
        They were seated on seven thrones on top of a dais with seven steps. No other Dwarves were in attendance. They were old and weary, with deep-set, wise eyes that bespoke of an overriding madness held precariously at bay. They seemed to be no better off than their subjects, with hair and teeth falling out and sores like burns on bare faces and hands. They offered no resistance, magical or otherwise, and seemed resigned to their fate.
        "What would you have of us?" asked the eldest, in a voice seemingly from far away.
        "I think you know why I am here," Sara answered.
        "You have truly won the prize you seek. We are finished," said another.
        Sara bowed her head. "I am so very sorry for what I had to do. I tried to avoid so much death and destruction, but you didn't make it any easier."
        A third said, "You must understand that we had to do all in our power to forestall this outcome."
        "I know. Eldron explained that to me. But all I had to do with him was play a game."
        "There are no more games for you in this world," said the fourth king.
        "What will become of your people?" Sara asked.
        The fifth King said, "The sickness will take them if naught else. They were condemned in any event. This, at least, was not your doing."
        "But why? What is it? Can't anything be done?"
        The sixth King spoke, "You have seen the works of Progress brought to us by the agents of He who binds these Rings of our power. He made a requirement of us, to mine and smelt and forge an unmatched source of energy for some vast purposes of His own, persuading us that we would be the beneficiaries. In our misled pride, we reveled in the new knowledge revealed to us, and strove to hasten the outcome of our research and ingenuity. It was founded on principles unknown to this world, but wrested from some other by unthinkable means.
        "The power of the sun is in the metal we refine. Its mysteries have been mastered at terrible cost, and now devices of awful portent await final assembly and delivery to our Lord of Darkness. Scarce a day more, and all would have been finished."
        Sara thought furiously. The yellow powder, the enormous efforts to refine and purify it, the sickness, the metal with the power of the sun… Ohmigod.
        "It is radiation sickness, isn't it. Isn't it?" She closed her eyes briefly. "The whole place fairly reeks of radioactivity. Why didn't I see it? Was I so distracted?"
        She paused once more. "What the hell do you mean, 'devices of awful portent?' What are you building? Bombs? You idiots are building nuclear weapons for Soraun?"
        She shouted at them, "Where the hell are they?"
        The last and youngest King pressed a hidden button and a portion of the wall behind the dais slid to one side. Sara sprang through the opening into an enormous vault with a half-dozen heavy, menacing shapes carefully lined up down the middle. She kreened them quickly. Inside each one was a dense sphere of warm metal, lacking but a cone to complete its form. The missing chunk was poised inside a thick gun tube with explosives behind it, ready to drive the sliver home.
        They were nearly complete uranium bombs. Nothing fancy, but her computer mind told her they would work. Crudely but effectively. All they lacked was a neutron source, an initiator. A polonium ring surrounding the gun tube near the incomplete sphere. As they were now, they were useless. But it was oh, so close. Well, she'd heave these suckers into the sun in no time.
        She returned to the throne room to confront the last King, "Is this all of them? Any more parts laying around?"
        "Here lies the sum of all our efforts, save one," he told her.
         "Save one?" she demanded, "Where?"
        "You cannot yet compel our answer," he told her.
        "When I have your stupid Rings, you'll tell me with your dying breath, if you have to," she said angrily. This was nothing she wanted to waste any time over, niceties be damned. She sensed something was dreadfully amiss and had to have answers now.
        "As you will," he shrugged. Each King in his turn made an elaborate show of removing his Ring and handing it over to her. She quickly accepted the proffered baubles from each of them as their lives drained away. It occurred to her that their speeches and ritualistic surrender was meant to buy time. For what? A sense of urgency tore at her.
        At last, only the final King was left, his Ring held out to her like an offering. "Now tell me what you know I want to know," she demanded as she reached for it, closing her hand around his
        With painful effort, he told her, "One remains, somewhere below this room. It is complete. You will not find it — it will find you. The Jabberwauk was not guarding us so much as our secret. If it could not turn you back, it had but one remaining task. To make of Muriah a fitting tomb for all the Dwarves." His hand slipped from hers, leaving his Ring as he expired. He sank into his throne.
        Sara screamed at him, "TELL… ME… WHERE!"
        Such was the power of the Rings she bore that he could not escape her command even in death. His dead finger pointed in a precise direction through the floor. Sara immediately plunged through the solid rock in a desperate race against certain destruction, unmindful of the shattering calamity of her passage. She kreened powerfully ahead of her until she spotted the telltale signature of the dense sphere below.
        But the Jabberwauk was there already, aware of her approach. It knew that the consequences of its action now would be far preferable than those of failure. Without hesitation, it pressed a button.
        The propellant tore the confining tube apart behind the projectile, but not before sending it on its way to pass through the initiator and mate with its target. Sara's outstretched hands were penetrating the ceiling of the laboratory when the cascade of neutrons started the unstoppable chain reaction within the sphere. Before her head was within the room, the process was finished. She dove straight through where the bomb had been, but it was too late. The uranium so excruciatingly extracted and crafted by the Dwarves was no more.
        Nearby rock vaporized instantly with explosive force, creating a hellish chamber of radiation and overwhelming pressure several hundred yards in diameter. A massively powerful shockwave radiated through the surrounding rock in all directions, collapsing every void space under the mountain, shaking every peak and valley. Rockslides tumbled down the slopes. The massive traps at either entrance were cast down, and the spaces above them filled in with shattered rock. Dust rose into the air above as the shape of the mountain was changed.
        In inconsolable grief and despair, Sara powered her way through the whole underground volume where Muriah had been, searching vainly for any trace of survivors as the echoes of the awful explosion reverberated through the tortured stone. The bomb chamber had started to cool and harden before she gave up and reentered the world of air and light.
        She found a natural basin of snow-filled rock high on the flanks of the Mystic Mountains above the tree line. She melted the snow with wide beams, creating a little pond of nearly boiling water. In the shower of its steaming overflow, she washed the horror from her clothes and body as best she could, then lay numbly naked on the bottom of the basin until the water lost its heat and began to freeze. She could think of no way to wash the horror from her mind.
        Climbing out, she dressed slowly and thoughtfully. The Rings were with her, three on the fingers of her right hand, seven on her toes. She wondered idly where the Nine would choose to go. There would be one finger left when she got to Maurdur.
        Sara dropped from the heights and into the heavier air below, heading east in search of the great river Ayndruen.

Chapter Seventeen: The Wizard's Way

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© Patrick Hill, 2000