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The Last Hunt
CHAPTER IV
In the Hall of the Delverking

When the Geomancer was captured at the base of the Axis Mundi by a cove of delvers, she had expected torment, perhaps even death. So she had been surprised when the creatures treated her with what seemed like a degree of awe… though whatever awe they might be feeling did not stop them from binding and gagging her before they carried her underground.

They grumbled and complained as they did all this, and M'Gama was startled to realize that she could make out their words, or at least most of them; their language seemed to be nothing more than a badly mangled form of the speech used by dwarves. The thought brought a pang of memory, as it made her think of her own dear Flensa, so recently killed in the delver attack on the home they shared.

M'Gama's captors carried her into their underground world through a cave not far from the Axis Mundi, five of them in a row holding her bound form over their heads as if she were a log. She did manage to shoot one glance backward before they went underground, looking to the great world tree as if it could somehow save her-though, in truth, her greatest hope at the moment was that she had managed to save it by means of the rootwood spell she had been casting when the delvers overcame her.

Once underground, they traveled down a steep slope for several minutes. The Geomancer was intrigued to see that the passage was lit, dimly, by glowing orange lines that ran along the walls. At the bottom of the slope, her captors stopped and put her down in order to add one more element to her imprisonment: a blindfold.

A moment later M'Gama heard one of the delvers chant something. They picked her up and began to move again. Almost at once a strange tingling ran across her entire body. She bit her lip to keep from crying out, but the sensation passed in an instant.

This odd prickly feeling was repeated twice during the next several minutes, and she wondered what caused it. Shortly after the second repeat, she heard a grinding sound, followed by a gravelly voice screeching, “Halt! Who seeks to enter the Great Hall of Gnurflax, King of Delvharken?”

“I am Braxton, leader of the Twelfth Cove. My cousins and I return from the great tree with a gift for the King.”

“What is this gift?” demanded the first voice.

Braxton could scarcely contain his glee. “We bring him… the Geomancer!”

“Oh, I envy you,” said the first voice. “This is a great prize indeed. Enter, and be welcome.”

Beyond him, M'Gama heard another delver voice, deeper and richer than most delvers, bellowing, “I want Namza! Where is Namza? He can't simply have disappeared!”

“This is a good time to bring such a gift,” whispered the guard who had challenged their arrival. “The King is unhappy.”

“With Namza?” asked Braxton, and M'Gama could hear the surprise in his voice. “I thought he trusted the wizard with his life.”

“He does,” replied the guard. “Or did. The problem is, Namza is nowhere to be found. The King has been furious. We will all be glad of something that might change his mood.”

A bit more carrying followed, then the delvers set her down. Rough hands stripped off her blindfold, revealing an enormous cavern dimly lit by pots of glowing fungus. Arrayed at the cavern's far side were nearly two dozen delver guards, each gripping a spear and standing at rigid attention. Pressed against the walls-or, in some cases, against thick stalagmites-the guards seemed so much a part of the cavern that it would have been easy for eyes less sharp, or less accustomed to the dark than M'Gama's, to miss them.

Even so, they were a minor concern for the Geomancer at the moment. Her focus was on the large delver directly ahead of her, who wore a crown of reddish brown stone. He sat on a throne, which was situated on a raised platform. With a start, M'Gama realized that both throne and platform had been carved from what had once been a massive stalagmite rising from the cavern floor. It was beautiful work, but also, to her mind, something close to a sacrilege.

Though her hands were still bound, she managed to bring herself to a standing position. At well above six feet the Geomancer towered over the delvers, most of whom were barely half her height. Her ebony skin, high cheekbones, full mouth, and broad nose were also a stark contrast with the pale delvers, whose lips were thin and whose noses were little more than two gaping holes in the center of their faces. Only their eyes, made for seeing in the dark, were larger than hers.

M'Gama was dressed in traveling clothes-sturdy trousers, a linen shirt, a simple but beautifully-made brown cloak. Her proud stance gave even these humble garments a look of elegance-as did the many rings she wore, the stones of which seemed to glow with their own light even in this dim cavern.

As for King Gnurflax, he was dressed in a gray tunic and a short brown robe, both coarsely made, but still of better weave than was typical of delver clothing. His eyes burned with feverish intensity, and it was clear that he was delighted to discover who had fallen into his clutches. Digging his fingers into a bowl of freshly gathered grubs, he popped a handful of the squirming things into his mouth and chewed contentedly.

“So,” he said at last, pausing to push half of a grub off his lower lip and back into his mouth, “the famous earth magician has finally come to visit the Children of the Earth.”

M'Gama blinked at the reference to “the Children of the Earth.” That was also how dwarves thought of themselves. Despite her surprise, she did not bother to answer Gnurflax. Instead, she simply returned his stare with a fierce dignity.

Her gaze infuriated Gnurflax, who snarled, “Don't play your silent games with me, woman. You and I have loathed each other at a distance for years now. Why not say what you think?”

M'Gama replied by spitting on the floor.

The King leaped to his feet. But before he could say or do more, a look of shock crossed his face.

The other delvers were silent, clearly not feeling whatever it was that had made the King pause.

M'Gama, however, did feel it, and felt, as well, a wave of loss and terror. Even as the King began to shout, “He did it! He did what he promised!” the Geomancer threw back her head and unleashed a wail of grief and loss that drowned the King's voice. Her cry was still echoing from the walls long after the guards had knocked her to the floor and gagged her once again.

M'Gama did not struggle as the five delvers carried her out of the Great Hall, again holding her over their heads as if she were no more than a log they were taking from one place to another. The reason was simple: She was overwhelmed with dread at what had just happened. She knew from her connection to the stone and soil of Luster, which were home to the roots of the Axis Mundi, that Beloved had not merely created a gate into Luster. Somehow she had managed to damage the world tree itself. What that would mean, not only for the unicorns, but for Luster, the Geomancer did not know. Of only thing was she certain: The results were bound to be dangerous-horribly dangerous.

The delvers carried M'Gama into a room-sized cave lit, barely, by orange stripes like those that ran along the passageways. Without a word, they chained her to one of the walls. In an odd way, the imprisonment was almost kind, for they secured only one ankle and one wrist. Both chains were of sufficient length for her to sit on the stone outcropping to her right, even to lie down if she wished. Additionally, she noticed a small pool, fed by a trickle of water, in a declivity to her left. So, she would not want for something to drink. She suspected they might even provide food, though she also suspected it would take two or three days of hunger to make whatever they gave her seem edible.

Still not speaking, the delvers left the chamber, the last turning to spit on the floor before he went. A few minutes later the orange stripes faded, and the darkness around her was complete.

M'Gama didn't mind; she spent much of her time underground and was used to darkness. In truth, she was relieved to be alone at last. She needed to think.

The big question, she decided, was how much damage had been done to the Axis Mundi. She had tried her best to save the tree from destruction by weaving a spell of protection as she placed four pieces of enchanted rootwood into its trunk. Unfortunately, the delvers had captured her before she had completed the spell. So she was not sure how much effect it would have.

As she continued to think, she changed her mind. The truly big question was whether there was any way to heal the Axis Mundi .She leaned back against the wall, then pressed herself to it, trying to draw strength from the stone around her. It worked-she did feel strength flowing into her. But at the same time she felt something that filled her with new terror.

The world was quivering.

It was the tiniest of vibrations, nothing that anyone who was not as attuned to stone as she was could sense. But she had no doubt about it.

And then the Geomancer felt something else, something that caused her to stretch her senses in the way of someone trying to discern a faint smell caught on the softest of breezes.

Yes, there it was again! This time she could tell what it was, and she nearly cried out in shock. Not too far from her someone of great power, power much like hers, power rooted in stone and tied to Luster, was held in some strange enchantment.

Who was it? Where was he-or she-imprisoned?

The Geomancer opened her senses, reached out all around her. But the touch of magic was gone, as if whoever it had come from was exhausted.



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