The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey

Chapter Nineteen: The Land of Shadows

        All Maurdur was in turmoil. From the moment Sara's frozen form had mysteriously appeared in the last Elvish haven, the ever-suspicious Lord of Midgarde had been marshalling forces to meet uncertain contingencies. He had perceived a threat immediately, but Gundolf had somehow shielded enough of his tortured mind to cast doubt and confusion about the exact nature of her mission. Soraun had known the outlines of her itinerary and had seen its accomplishment at every turn, helpless to hinder it, and now had lost the treasure the Dwarves had been preparing for Him, as well as His most powerful servants.
        It had been folly to allow the old Wizard and his companions to live, hatching plots until they had somehow attracted unlooked-for aid from the unknown Cosmos. He had taken pleasure in their helpless self-punishment, but had underestimated the resourcefulness of His cornered prey. His attention had ever been on the dreadful works at hand rather than the esoteric pursuit of tenuous knowledge from far-off worlds — which he had left to Soloman — so His intelligence of her powers, abilities and motivations was vague, formless and apprehensive.
        Now, in desperation and confusion, He had thrown up every defense at His disposal, useful or not. The greater part of His army had been streaming in fearsome haste to Udynn, knowing only that His enemy would arrive soon to force the entrance to His realm.
        Sara streaked east in the darkness. From far away, she could spot her destination easily, as the bonfires atop the two watchtowers that guarded the Maurdur gate at Murranon blazed fitfully. Behind, in the haunted pass of Udynn, the lesser fires of a thousand camps lined the road to the inner gate of the Ysenmouth. Little moving points of countless torches told of reinforcements moving up under the lash from every direction. And within the confines of Maurdur itself, Ordruen, the Mountain of Fire, had awakened from its slumber to cast a spreading cloud of darkness over the Plateau of Gyregyrath from its red-glowing summit.
        Gundolf had told her, "Do not simply fly into His realm as a bird would. You must cast down the iron gates of Maurdur. You must break the will of His minions that cause the gates to stand, and face the misbegotten army that defends them." It looked to be some forty miles from the outer wall to the inner, about a ten hour hike if she didn't stop or slow down. Which she didn't plan to do, even though the road was more crowded than the Katy freeway at rush hour.
        At least, she thought grimly, she wouldn't have to worry about 'collateral damage'. Goblins and Trolls and whatever foul beasts and entities had entered His service could look out for themselves. She didn't think she could bring herself to just murder them helplessly by the thousands, but she wouldn't go out of her way to avoid hurting them, either. With the fall of Soloman's Progress experiment west of the Ayndruen, these gathered hordes would wreak terrible havoc on the survivors in a campaign to reestablish their Master's dominion, and so must be somehow broken.
        Well, first things first. Even before she touched down before the three iron doors of the Murranon Gate, alarms sounded from one end of the valley to the other.
        So much for surprise.
        In the confusion of darkness lit by flickering fires and rushing multitudes eager to find an enemy to engage, chaos swirled about Sara as she stood considering how she should begin. It took some time for the commanders of the watchowers to brutally restore order and identify their lone target. They and she finally came to regard each other in a sudden lull before the first assault was unleashed as she turned her back on the gate to confront them.
        Their General, the odious Herald of Soraun, now appeared high atop the loftiest battlements above her. Quiet swept the assembled army. She turned again and looked up at him, and he addressed Sara in a loud, echoing voice.
       "What business do you have at the gates of our land? You have destroyed the Dwarves and brought down their mightiest works. You have murderously betrayed the leaders of the West and brought disorder and lawlessness to the people. You have slain your friends and those who reached out to you in friendship, and stolen tokens of great power from their dying hands. Extinction and ruin litter your wake.
        "Go back to the cruel coldness of Space from whence you came. Return your lifeless substance to the dead starcinder that begot the disastrous engine of your form. Your arrogant and vexious makers have no right to meddle in our affairs. Trouble our world no longer."
        Sara stamped her foot contemptuously. "Oh, stuff it, pit-breath. If you didn't have me to worry about right now, you'd be out kicking little old ladies just for grins. I'm gonna knock your doors down here, then take a stroll over to Ysenmouth and knock that gate down, too. You'd better just stay outta my way."
        Soraun's general replied in a terrible voice, "By the power of Almighty Soraun the Great, I will not allow you to invade our homeland."
        "Oh, yeah?" she taunted, "You and Whose army?"
        The Herald of Soraun knew somewhat of Sara by now — that all his vast soldiery could not harm her, could not stop her, could not slow her down. They were mere flesh against the practically unlimited star-born potency of technology and science so advanced that a million generations of research by entire nations of scholars would not uncover the secrets of her construction. Even the sun-like Dwarven weapon that had laid waste their undermountain kingdom had had no more effect on her than a snowball would against a Rock Troll.
        But he also knew that she might have one weakness. It was evident from the reports out of Muriah before its collapse, and Haughz after the fall of the Nazghoul, that this creature had perhaps one flaw that could be exploited.
        She cared.
        It seemed that useless death appalled her. She was reluctant to kill the wolves that would have torn Gundolf's throat out. She had not purposely killed any of the Dwarves, and had actually tried to save them after claiming their Rings — a useless waste of time. She had tried, futilely, to restore order and minimize damage in the burning city. She had let the receptionist live.
        And so, in unavoidable obedience to his Master, he prepared to execute his defense born of desperation. She was constrained to walk among his troops through the long valley, he knew. They would hurl themselves at her until the tide of their senseless deaths horrified her. Pity for these wretched slaves would stir her to forbear from being the cause of such horrendous slaughter, and she would thus abandon Gundolf's designs and quit the field, buying more precious time for Soraun.
        He didn't know about the Little People. The Goblins who had eaten her friends had perished suddenly, before any awareness of the cause of their demise could have been broadcast into the peculiar ether of Midgarde's world-magic. The destruction of a few Goblins was, at any rate, an event too insignificant to have been noticed by the seers in Barradour.
        Compelled and strengthened by Soraun Himself, he gathered unto himself all the power of command over his minions that had been bred into them for countless generations. Great was the focus of magical energies which were summoned to his bidding, reaching deep into the very fibers of every creature's existence, binding them to his will beyond the limits of their own minds and bodies, acting directly upon the utmost particles of their essences. They would have no other focus but obedience to his will, even in the passing from life into death, even beyond his own inevitable destruction.
        For in unleashing this ultimate spell of hatred and downfall upon His enemy, the Herald of Soraun spake words of evil portent so foul in the hideousness of their unclean origins in a time shunned by memory, that the very breath that carried them was broken into cruelly splintered shards. Birds of the air and beasts in the fields far from earshot perished in unquenchable agony. Trees and plants shriveled and grew no more. Stones were sundered, the ground trembled its horrified objection, and distant Mount Doum flared in sympathetic spasms of flame and boiling rock.
        His screaming body writhed and melted, bursting into dark flames of a color only Sara could see, as his condemned soul was unmade by such an act of blasphemy and corruption. Every creature subject to his obedience, far across the fractured plain of Udynn, was stricken by violent seizures as reason, feeling, reflex, instinct and even self-preservation was stripped from them, replaced by an overwhelming, thoughtless and basal need to rend and tear — heedless of any consideration — at the body of their enemy.
        The light of reason, of intelligence, of cunning, even of cruelty, went out of their eyes. Weapons dropped from insensate hands as their owners reverted beyond the capacity to wield them. Rank and order were made meaningless by the single purpose of their primal compulsion. All had but one task, one unquenchable desire, one driving hunger. To get at Sara and strike her with all the might of which they were capable, with a violent and unrestrained expenditure of energy that would burst their hearts and break their bones in its execution. They would die by the effort of smiting her, and tear each other to pieces to reach her.
        Sara endured in paralyzed horror the swarming tide of gruesome monsters that quickly piled up over her head. The first to strike were consumed by their efforts and fell, used up, to be replaced by the ones behind. Those in the outer reaches of the mob tore at the ones in front of them in frantic efforts to reach their target. Those who were thus disabled, even to the point of ordinary incapacity to continue, continued nevertheless until they had been reduced to fragments in the pulsating melee.
        The towers emptied, the caves and warrens on either side disgorged every lurking occupant, guards leapt from the walls and battlements, their dashed remains crawling forward in unstoppable obedience. Pounding could be heard through the thick iron doors from the other side of the gate as defenders hurled themselves uselessly against the cold unyielding mass to reach their quarry, those nearest crushed by later arrivals. Piles of their remains soon gave the rearmost echelons a path over the walls for them to plunge into the mountain of corpses now enveloping Sara.
        Throughout the length and breadth of the pass beyond the wall, camps broke instantly as troops began their own marches toward the Murranon, tramping without thought through campfires, into pitfalls, over the myriad obstacles of the sterile landscape. There was no preparation — they simply went, dressed or undressed, sleeping or attending to some chore, oblivious to bodily needs, guided only by the unerring beacon of her presence.
        Thus was the cynical plan of Soraun's General nearly brought to fruition, as Sara recoiled from the devastating consequences of her mission. 'Misbegotten army' they may be, but the butchery was unbearable. She could not carry on in the face of such wanton carnage. It sickened her as nothing else could. It made her cry out in rage that such mindless savagery could be directed at her. She had to escape, get far enough away that they couldn't continue, or at least she wouldn't have to witness it.
        Only the memory of Nob's dead, accusing eyes atop the scrap heap found her inner core of determination. The fate of all the little people of this world would be left to such as these, who were sacrificed to preserve an even greater evil. Sara hardened her heart at the realization that there was no longer any substance left in these creatures that could suffer. They had been utterly destroyed by their Master. Only His overthrow would prevent Him from committing further disgusting acts.
        Sara pushed her way through the bleeding, twitching mass until she broke free in front of the left door. She pushed against the bottom, shattering its mounting and the walls that supported it. As it fell on top of her, she met it at the balance point and then cast it high into the air in a soaring arc, spinning as it went like an insanely huge giant's playing card being idly tossed into an impossible hat, to land flatly on top of the leftmost tower, crushing it instantly and completely. With the right door, she quickly disposed of the remaining tower in the same manner, then turned her attention to the center door, nearly covered on both sides by grisly remains.
        Smiting the already broken wall on its right, she yanked the massive iron monolith away. Then, reaching deep into one face with her bare hands — parting the metal itself to make her own integral handles — she used it like an enormous bulldozer blade to level the remnants of the fortifications and bury the piled bodies in a mass grave. When she was done, the once-proud Murranon had become a parking lot.
        The shuffling remains that constituted the first wave of the oncoming Army of Maurdur were only a few minutes away. The sun would rise in a few hours, but would not be seen below the volcanic reek of Ordruen. Sara set out on her forty-mile journey through hell at a steady pace, slightly faster than the zombie-like gait of the oncoming creatures.
        They packed the road, spilling out on either side — in places, completely across the traversible center of the valley. It was impossible to avoid the bulk of them as long as Sara remained afoot. She was forced to endure the almost continual rain of blows from those she just couldn't avoid, and try to maintain her pace so as to bypass the rest. Those who were left behind tore at each other briefly, attempting to reach her as she went by, and the survivors turned after her in hopeless pursuit. 
       A little more than five hours after she had set out, she had passed the midpoint of her trek and the last of those who had come from the vicinity of Ysenmouth. The rest of the way was clear, as she outpaced the remnants of Maurdur's army trudging behind her. When she finally reached the inner gate, the vanguard of the pursuing mob was more than an hour away.
        The gate was closed. The remains of its defenders who had leaped from its high walls to join the assault on Sara littered the ground. Some, whose broken bodies had miraculously survived the fall, had dragged themselves a few hundred meters down the road before the terrible compulsion that ordered them had nothing left of their bodies to command. In spite of their evil countenances and intent, she could not help but feel a raging pity for the poor bastards.
        The old outer gates and towers of Murranon had been built long centuries ago by Men to guard against armies issuing from Maurdur. The battlements of Ysenmouth had been rebuilt by Soraun after the war to secure His domain forever and serve as a monument to his power. They were a mightier work, constructed at the cost of thousands of lives and incalculable toil.
        Smooth, adamantine walls issued from the flanks of mountain cliffs on either side of the defile, higher than the skyscraper of Soloman and wider than the great river Ayndruen. Within the gaping dark tunnel that pierced the barrier were two massive doors of hardened steel, each a single slab as thick as a tree was tall, extending far above and below the vast opening in the dam-like wall. All of Soraun's hordes could pour forth unhindered to meet His enemies through the wide passage when the doors were open. No force of Midgarde could pass when they were closed.
        The doors were designed to slide apart, withdrawing into the walls on either side. Great drawbridges on the Maurdur side were lowered to fill the gap in the roadway into which the bottoms of the doors were set. The doors themselves extended through the centers of the surrounding stonework and far into the mountains on either side, like movable walls within walls. To move each gargantuan expanse of solid steel, in chambers far beneath the summit of the mountains on either side there dwelt imprisoned two titanic gods of a vanished race, bent by Soraun to His service by the power of the One Ring.
        Long, long ago these deities had consumed their worshippers unto extinction for the psychic sustenance their dying souls provided. After eons of imperishable and tedious endurance, Soraun offered living sacrifices of conscious beings to assuage and inflame their hunger, and made of them the warders of His realm.
        They were rooted together with the mountains' roots, and could not be moved. The energies they drew from the almost limitless reservoir of Midgarde's world-magic crackled along the lengths of their steel burdens, reinforcing the matter thereof far beyond the strength of any terrestrial materials.
        Sara stood before the doors, kreening their workings. Even through the immense rocky shrouds of their prisons, the intensity of the two gods' malevolent force was clear as beacons. She would have to pry the doors apart against their wills. She would see what happened after that.
        Sara jammed her hands into the seam, ringing the vast structure like eternity's bell. This act of sacrilege stirred the wrath of the gods. They put forth their power to mend the imperfection her intrusion had caused, but her hands would not be crushed — and the straightening of the doors' edges caused them to move an inch apart, accompanied by the shattering scream of sliding metal against metal.
        If the gods were surprised, they did not show it, instead adding rage to their efforts. Sara was astonished, though. She'd expected to simply rip hand-sized chunks of metal away — but this was different. Something was binding the whole substance of the doors together, something far stronger than the metal itself. They would not break, or even bend, as she applied more force to them. She slowly pulled her hands apart and widened the tiny crack between them to the accompaniment of grinding shrieks.
        For the first time she could remember in either existence, Sara was physically challenged. The resistance of the massive doors was almost inconsequential to her, but the power of the gods made her set her jaw in determination. They redoubled their efforts to close the doors, then redoubled them again to slow the inexorable movement apart.
        Finally, when the opening was barely enough to slip into, Sara darted into the center of the crack, bracing her back against one door and her feet against the other. Seeing a chance to end this affront, the gods poured every bit of their strength into closing the doors and smearing her between them. The steel blazed and shook, shattering the walls into which they had been set. They would not allow the doors to deform around her balled-up body, creating pressures on her that would unmake any other substance found under the heavens. Sara found herself fighting to keep the gap from closing.
        But she had the position she wanted now. The stores of her great energy which alone could move the substance of her limbs was called from every rolled-up hyperdimensional n-space that made up her body at the quantum level. As efficient as her internal mechanism was in its application, waste energy blazed forth as heat and light with such bright intensity that the doors would have vaporized if the gods had let them, but their atoms remained bound by something greater than the electromagnetic force.
        The hellishly-bound molecules of the doors glowed along their whole lengths, first red, then rapidly progressing to white and beyond. The remnants of the broken wall melted and ran, the surrounding cliffs crumbled. Light blazed forth with the terrible intensity of the sun come to earth. Oncoming Trolls yet miles distant along the road through the haunted pass were turned to stone, hot winds swept away their companion Goblins, and far off in Barradour, the Unblinking Eye of Soraun was turned away. 
        The gods would not relent. Employing every art learned through countless æons, they furiously set themselves against her unabating force. Earthquakes trembled ceaselessly, creating rolling waves across the Plateau of Gyregyrath like upon a wind-swept sea. Volcanic Ordruen blazed like a mad thing, fires roaring from its molten vent as if the mighty engines of the planet itself had been engaged to support their effort.
        The gods reached ever deeper into the solid rock to anchor themselves. They would not move. They could not be moved, unless the mountains themselves were carried with them.
        Sara had reserves of her own. Straining as she thought she would never be called upon to do on any world, she pushed her legs and straightened her back, eyes closed in concentration. She became one with her indomitable will to drive these gods back into the forgotten void from which they had sprung.
        The very foundations of the mountains trembled and shook. And then — impossibly — they moved. Imperceptibly at first, but unmistakably to the now frantic gods.
        The unbelievable was happening. This could not be. Rallying from a defeat they could not accept, the gods made a supreme effort to forestall the inevitable. It made no difference. They could not stop Sara. The mountains continued their agonizing retreat until she had nearly stretched out to her full length.
        As one, the minds of the gods snapped like fragile things. Their thoughts were forever broken, doomed to echo senselessly in their immortal bodies. They became less than mad, unable to do more than exist in frightening chaos, to wait eternally for an end they could not achieve.
        Released from unnatural bondage, the superheated material of the doors exploded violently, blasting out a deep crater where once the inner gates of Maurdur had stood. Only the farthest cohorts of still advancing soldiers survived the shock waves. Blinded by the flash, they went on relentlessly.

        Having engaged and overthrown Soraun's armies and His Ring-spawned works by walking into Maurdur, Sara now flew to Barradour. Still white-hot, she blazed like a celestial being, now ascending unto the heavens, now plunging back to earth in righteous vengeance. Soraun in His loftiest tower could not withstand the awfulness of her coming, for she perceived Him from afar and set her trajectory to the window of His chamber.
        She had become terror unto Terror Itself, and He fled.
        Her glorious arrival brought instant ruin to the tower upon which she alighted. The whole of the gigantic city-fortress of Soraun's unwholesome administration trembled, as His controlling malice abandoned His minions to attend single-mindedly to His own survival.
        Courtiers and functionaries, guards and attendants, sorcerers and necromancers, slaves and sycophants, bureaucrats and ambassadors, politicians and lawyers — all the vast machinery of His evil empire routed in mindless panic, leaping from high windows, hiding stupidly behind inadequate veils, groveling senselessly, running to and fro with directionless abandon.
        She could sense the flight of His Ring as He descended before her, but It flickered confusingly from one instant to the next, as if Its image in her mind was being reflected in a hall of distorting mirrors. She was not constrained to follow His passage, but made a devastating beeline to wherever she thought she could pin Him down, only to discover in every instance that He was already gone.
        She crashed into His throne room and cast down His iron seat as His ministers perished. She burst into His treasury and scattered its contents to the winds. She broke the walls of His study, setting every ill-omened text of unclean lore alight. She shattered His laboratory, unleashing deadly fumes and chittering nightmares.
        She pursued Him through the kitchens, where the preparation of ghastly delicacies had been hastily abandoned. She pursued Him through the stables, where stinking winged monstrosities made their foul nests. She pursued Him through the low-ceilinged torture chambers, where victims of His whims cried out for the death her still potent radiance mercifully bestowed.
        As she had followed Soraun, so, too, had she been followed by Death, who touched in her wake all the willing vassals who had entered His service. Death had ever been the servant of His servants, and now it had come to collect its due. The brilliance of her passage extinguished the darkness of their minds, and they could endure their servitude no longer. They died in terrible guilt and shame, they died in hateful bitterness, they died cursing and flailing, they died weeping and pleading — but they died. The cruel reign of Soraun that they had administered was ended. The castle was soon empty.
        Still downward her fleeing quarry led her, into the unbreakable foundations of His failed capitol. The heat of her body was gradually absorbed by the masses of rock through which the labyrinthine maze of passages led, turning instead to a cool whiteness that brought the first light to this region its scurrying denizens had ever beheld. The disgusting things that dwelt here could not abide such a pure essence and perished from the wonder of it.
        Chambers there were here of mysterious and uncertain function, filled with unsettling devices and manned by shadows that went out forever as she approached. Barracks were there for guards, and cells for prisoners who were made to perform shameful labors. She passed them all in her relentless pursuit, leaving peace in her wake. Eventually, she descended to the lowest levels where the special dungeons were.
        These were the places set aside for Soraun's most hateful excesses, against those who had somehow merited His especial attentions. One sight stopped Sara in her tracks, as Soraun had guessed it would, allowing Him to make His escape through a secret tunnel that led straight to His ancient forge in Ordruen where He would prepare His last stand.
        Among the wretches who filled this place of hopelessness were two Little People. Their mouths had been sewn shut, but Sara could guess their identities.
        "Froudo?" she called softly, "Samm?" They stared at her, blinking, finally nodding fearfully as if being summoned to some new round of unending punishment.
        A Man prisoner lying propped against a column nearby looked up at her. His gray beard and unshorn hair was filthy, tattered and matted, and his clothes mere rags, but he had a scabbard incongruously strapped to his waist, jeweled hilt gleaming under layers of grime. He squinted in the unaccustomed light.
        "Who…? He croaked, as if he hadn't had the need of speech in a long time. "Who calls for the Ringbearers?"
        "I'm Sara, from another world. I’m after Soraun. It looks like He got away," she said, "but not for long."
        He looked at her, incredulity slowly coming into his expression as the implication dawned on him. "You're…" he struggled, "You're after Soraun…? Have the High Elves finally come? At last! What is happening in the world above us? Where are the others?"
        "No," she answered, "It's just me, I'm afraid. And I was sent far too late, if you ask me. Too much evil has occurred to ever be put right." 
        Curiosity overwhelmed her. "Why are their mouths sewn up like that? Who are you? Are you all right? Is that a sword?" Sara had so many questions, she didn't know where to begin. Soraun could wait — she knew where to find Him.
        The Man struggled to sit upright, telling her, "I am appointed to be their keeper and protector, a duty I failed in another life and by which I am mocked in this one. I have been allowed to keep my sword for this purpose. It was broken once, but is mended now. Its presence mocks me as well."
        He held up the stumps of his arms to show Sara where his hands had been. "I was known as Stryder," he laughed mirthlessly. He had no feet.
        Sara's eyes widened at the heartbreaking revelations. "Stryder! I know you! The King whose sword was broken, but was forged anew."
        Stryder answered, "Uncrowned King of a fallen land. How do you come to know of this?"
        "Oh, this isn't going to make much sense, but I read the book, or something like it. I was sent to Gundolf and he gave me this mission — to collect all the Rings and then take out Soraun."
        "Gundolf lives?" His eyes opened wide in astonishment.
        "No," she answered, looking down, "He made me take his Ring, and then he…" she trailed off.
        "I understand," said Stryder. He looked at her hands, squinting at the light from them. "So you have his Ring? And, I suppose, Eldron's and Gladariels's, too." He added, wonderingly, "And the Nazghoul…?"
        Sara said, somewhat embarrasedly, "Yeah, quite a collection, huh… The rest of them are on my toes, mostly from the Dwarves 'cause they're closer to the earth that way, I guess. Only one I'm missing is, you know, His," she jerked her head in the direction of the fiery mountain outside. "I'll tell you about it sometime."
        Stryder nodded dumbly.
        "You gotta tell me," she insisted, "What's with Froudo and Samm? Why are they like this? How can they still be alive if they can't eat anything? Is there anything I can do?"
        "They have no need of food. They have another means of sustenance, I'm afraid. Even now, the serpents approach. Behold."
        Sara saw them. Two huge, blind snake-like creatures crept toward the Little People, who made no effort to escape. In fact, they seemed resigned to their fate, dreading and welcoming them at the same time.
        "Don't worry," she said, "I'll take care of them."
        "Hold," said Stryder urgently, "Do not interfere. Their need is upon them."
        Sara stopped her laser spears just in time and turned to look questioningly at Stryder. He nodded at her and she turned to watch as the serpents closed in, baring their fangs as the Little People presented their arms.
        Only they weren't the fangs she was expecting to see. Each had but a single long, very slender tooth, more resembling a hypodermic needle than a fang. These were jabbed unerringly into veins on the two Little Peoples' unflinching arms, and fluid began to pump into their bodies.
        They began to writhe in obvious agony, alarming Sara. She cried out and started to move to help them, but Stryder again called out, "Hold!"
        Sara looked at him with exasperation, but he began, "The venom burns as it enters their blood. I know they feel its excruciating journey through every vein and artery, but it nourishes them and prolongs their lives, probably forever. It also makes them feel an overwhelming need for the next such treatment. A need stronger than any other desire, even for death, for to die would be to deprive them of their need, and they cannot abide the thought of that.
        "Not far from here is an open door to freedom, if such there is anymore. I cannot make the journey, and they will not. They are bound by their addiction more strongly than by chains."
        Sara could only stare mutely at the grotesque scene, her light dimming in reaction.
         "To maintain their crawling 'benefactors'," Stryder spat, "they must steal into the dark chambers above from time to time to secure the serpents' provisions, which must be living flesh. Our once-human jailers periodically rape the women brought here in servitude — whose numbers must be replenished constantly from being used up in toil — and they are brought within reach of our curséd citizenry to give birth to what becomes the snakes' meals."
        Sara was aghast. The serpents had completed their feedings and withdrew. Froudo and Samm rolled fitfully on the slimy floor until they lapsed into exhausted comas. She felt completely helpless.
        "They will sleep senselessly until it is time to forage again," said Stryder. "As for me, I periodically have a tube forced down my throat and am filled up with the putrid liquor of the Goblins. It is enough to keep me alive and maintain my own needs, for I am the town drunk of this place. It gives me no compensating pleasure — for I am a foul drunk, full of impotent rages — and serves to further annoy the others, I suppose. I am singled out for speech because it amuses Soraun to have me brought up from time to time to tell Him how His nethermost subjects fare."
        If Sara's makers had provided her with tears, they would be flowing uncontrollably. The effect on her emotions was the same, and she sobbed disconsolately. She got down on the floor with them and gathered all three to her bosom, trying to give what comfort she could. Others with sutured lips came out of the further reaches of the dungeons to watch in wonder until her light faded and went out.
        When she could cry no longer, she asked Stryder, "What can I do? I think everybody above this level is probably dead, so there won't be any more jailers or…" She couldn't mention the rest.
        Stryder told her, "There is only one thing you can do. If it is in your power to destroy Soraun and His Ring, you must tarry no longer. We have been extinguished for a long time. There is no hope for us but an end to all things."
        Sara made them as comfortable as possible, then began the long return to the air above, her mind terribly focussed on her mission.
        "I am coming for You, You bastard," she shrieked as she rose high above the tomb she had made of Barradour.
        He was waiting.

Chapter Twenty: The Protector

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© Patrick Hill, 2000