Sunday, 19 August 2018

Episode CCI - The Lava Tubes

                Sarah looked up at the ashen walls surrounding Ashvault and let out a deep sigh.  She had hoped never to return when she had left with Frostfire and Dimsun after receiving the ‘gift’ of Slayer powers from Shadowsmoke and though her opinion of Frostfire and the Stoneskins in general had changed quite a bit in the time since, she nonetheless found little to relish in the thought of entering the old volcano-city once more.  Besides, standing there, at the great stone gates, just made her think of Dimsun once more and though it had been almost a year since his death, it still hurt to remember.

“Let’s get this over with quickly,” she said to Frostfire as he finished sealing up the Hypostatick carriage they had ridden - slowly, thanks to the drifts of ash clogging up the roads - from the Colony and stepped up beside her.  His expression, as much as Sarah was able to read its stony crevices and burning eyes, seemed more grim than usual.  “What’s the matter?”

“It is quiet,” he replied and his cool eyes flared brightly for a second before dimming.

Sarah listened.  It was indeed quiet.  The wind made a low moan as it breathed over the ruins of Crystalvale and picked up flurries of dust, but other than that she could hear nothing and, now that she thought about it, this close to Ashvault’s busily guarded gate, that was cause for concern.

She made her way closer to the get, hoping to perhaps hear something beyond, but the stillness of Crystalvale was all-pervading and nothing came from beyond the great stone gate.

“Hello!” she called out,  hoping to get the attention of the gate’s guards, but the only sound which returned to her was her own voice, echoing off the mighty walls.

“They… they couldn’t all be back at the Colony, could they?”

Frostfire’s icy orbs burned back at her in the closest Stoneskin approximation she had yet seen to a blank stare.

“Okay, okay.  You’d have noticed and Shadowsmoke wasn’t there and, I assume you don’t all march out of Ashvault and leave it undefended when you go to war but… but why is there no one at the gate?”

“They must be elsewhere,” Frostfire replied and, without another word, turned to one side and began to stalk along the wall into the middle distance, leaving Sarah wondering what on earth was going on.

She followed him at a slight distance, watching as he pressed onward through the ash piles with a grim determination, but there seemed to be nothing ahead but the ruins of Crystalvale and much more wall.

“Where are you going, Frostfire?” she called, but the Spiketail just stalked onwards and she had no choice but to keep following.

They ploughed through the ash, passing the ruins of shops and houses until they reached a place where a lava flow had once broken through the Ashvault wall, through a couple of blocks of Crystalvale and then into an old library before finally solidifying.  At first, Sarah thought that this meant there was a gap in the wall, but as she drew closer it became clear that the Stoneskins had repaired it very well, building a new section of wall over the top of the flow.  Besides, Frostfire was now veering off to the left, to into Crystalvale proper.  Wearily, she trudged after him until they reached the entrance of the library.

“Frostfire!” Sarah called in frustration as she hurried to catch up with him, though he was much better at walking through ash than she was.  “I don’t understand where you’re going!  I thought we wanted to get into Ashvault!”

“Follow,” Frostfire said and stepped inside the library.

Sarah took a deep breath and remembered to be patient, then followed the cryptic Spiketail inside.

Parts of the library were surprisingly intact.  As Sarah made her way through the entrance hall and into the first reading chamber, she marvelled at the ornate interior and shelf after shelf of dusty, ancient books.  She could imagine Franck spending quite some time there, going from shelf to shelf and breathing in the dust and ancient wisdom.  The next chamber might have been much the same, were it not for the fact that the books had turned to ash and the beautiful stonework was charred black, a look completed by the huge solidified lava flow running right through the middle and pouring down over a mezzanine into the library’s basement, which was exactly where Frostfire was heading.

The laconic Spiketail reached the charcoal remains of the mezzanine’s balustrade, then just dropped out of sight.  Sarah opted to find the stairs, which were located to one side and, mercifully had been made of stone.

When she reached the bottom and stepped into the blackened coal pit that was the basement reading room, she saw Frostfire waiting for her - impatiently, if she had to guess – beneath the mouth of what appeared to be a long tunnel – almost a pipe – of stone.  The entrance was misshapen, warped like one of Dali’s clocks, but still wide enough even for Frostfire to climb inside.  From there it rose up the floor above and, Sarah surmised, followed the lava flow right through the Ashvault wall.

“A lava tube!” she exclaimed as she realised what she was staring at.

“One of several,” Frostfire confirmed, “a whole network of them.”

“But… these can’t possibly be a way into Ashvault, can they?  Surely your people would have sealed them at some point, or else why build the wall in the first place?”

“There aren’t many who know about them.  Besides,” he added ominously, “there are other deterrents.  Come!”

Reaching up, he pulled himself up into the mouth of the lava tube and then, in one swift movement, disappeared from sight, leaving Sarah to work out how to get in on her own.  Not being as tall as Frostfire, she couldn’t just grab the edge and haul herself in and so had to revert to her gymnast mode and perform a running leap, enabling her to just grab the edge of the tube and, agonisingly, haul herself in.

The inside of the tube was rough from varying flow levels and gave enough grip for Sarah to climb up to where the tube spilt over the mezzanine.  Frostfire was, of course, waiting for her at the top, where, a few feet from the edge, the tunnel became tall enough for him to stand.

“We must move quickly,” he said, before turning and leading the way up the tube.

 It was utterly dark but for the pale blue-white light of Frostfire’s eyes and Sarah had to stick close to him if she wanted to be able to see where she was putting her feet.  It was impossible to tell how far they were travelling, but the tunnel was flat and straight and the going was relatively easy for quite some distance.  Then, the tunnel began to slope upwards gradually, and Sarah realised that they must have passed through the wall and were beginning to climb the mountain proper.

“How far does this take us?” she asked into the echoing silence of the tunnel after they had been ascending for several minutes.

“There is a way that leads all the way to the Magma Chamber, but it might be best to find a way out before then.”


Frostfire did not reply, merely pointed to a series of deep scratch marks gouged into the side of the tunnel, then put one clawed finger to his mouth.  Sarah stared at the scratches and nodded, fearing what else might be in the tunnel with them.

Eventually, they reached a junction where two lava flows must have merged into one.  A strong smell of sulphur emanated from one of the branches, which Sarah assumed meant that it led to the Magma chamber.  There was also, however, the sound of distant scratches and a low, guttural moaning.  She gestured down the other tunnel and Frostfire nodded vigorously, but just as they were about to make their way up the new slope, Sarah stumbled on a piece of clinker and went sprawling forwards into Frostfire, overbalancing him so that his great stony bulk clattered to the floor of the lava tube.  The noise echoed along the tunnel in a low rumble, then there was a moment of perfect stillness as Sarah and Frostfire stared at each other.

“Maybe we-” Sarah began in a tiny whisper, but she couldn’t get any further as the tunnel erupted with a terrible, blood-curdling roar.  “What was that?” she asked instead.

“That was our cue,” Frostfire replied.

“Cue to do what?”


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