The tunnel moved beneath Nantosvelta's feet, but she was sure-footed and had played along these swirling walls before her mother chased her from her home. No other nymphs resided here, just her mother, the servants and her sculpture garden of once living flesh, now lifeless stone. She sighed, she would not waste such a one as rested in her bed, but her debt was overdue and her mother's wrath was something she could not face let alone survive.
The crashing fall was far overhead, the whirlpool tunnel ended in great doors of water-polished stone. She shuddered at its sight. The frame, which arched high above her head, was adorned with nymphs of stone, her sisters who had failed to pay the debt of life they owed to their mother-queen. They paid it with their deaths. A dozen statues, sad faced, poignant, carved from flesh and set stiff in hard cold stone. Some had looks of fear or terror, one beauty laughed, harsh and brave. Another's lips curled in contempt, a fist raised against her fate. This one was set against the door, her raised arm, a handle to pull open the heavy valve. Beside her stood a hand-masked face, one hand hiding fearful eyes, the other outstretched to keep away the numbing death that claimed her.
Nantosvelta grabbed her sister's defiant hand. She would not share this fate, but if she somehow did, she'd stare it down bold eyed and not cower back like some mayfly human maid.
The passage seemed unguarded but the nymph knew better. Her mother's pets kept watch. A mated pair of monstrous basilisks laired within the queen's palace, their offspring allowed to roam at will along this hall. The greenstone charm Nantosvelta held in her hand felt warm, it glowed and sent out a sound beyond her hearing that kept the basilisk brood away.
The walls were lined with examples of her mother's art. Above her head a flock of geese, frozen forever in flight, winged their way across a ceiling colored a cloudy blue. She was running out of room, thought Nantosvelta. The walls were heavy with the bodies of countless victims, the tiled pathway lined with such as well. The nymph shuddered, she remembered playing games among these creatures whose flesh, now stone, once lived, whose eyes once shown, chests heaved with air and voices sounded, now rendered stiff and silent for countless years.
She came at last to a mighty door, two golems made of stone stood at either side. A statue set in the door itself shimmered and came alive. With a smooth graceful step it moved across the floor, behind it, a hollow man-shaped space was left. The statues features changed, no longer a bare-chested man of dark grey stone, now, warm reddish flesh, with feline golden eyes, small horns upon its head and a pair of wings that a dragon chick might possess, upon its back.
It smiled at the nymph, its teeth were white and even, but it had long needle-pointed fangs, its hand had claws that curved like little scimitars.
"Caliban!" Nantosvelta exclaimed. She had not expected to see her half-brother here again.
"Svelta!" cried the cambion, half nymph, half demon, sired by some hellish lord. "I am glad to see you, but I wish it was not here."
Svelta, as her brother called her, ran to his embrace. He lifted her from the floor and swung her around, then set her back on her feet.
"Do not be sad brother," Svelta said. "I come to pay my debt."
"Ah, so you have found a toy for our mother to add to her collection," Caliban smiled. "Good. Will it do? She has become jaded by our other sisters' gifts."
"I believe that this one will redeem my debt in full," Svelta said with regret.
"Ahh! This one must be quite a catch if it has touched your heart," Caliban caught her wistful tone.
"Nonsense. I have had him only a few days. He needs to rest and heal," Svelta rejected her brother's judgement.
"So quick! It truly must be a special toy," Caliban then frowned. "But damaged. Just what is it that you have found?"
Arawn's dreaming mind drifted on. He could not close his spectral eye though the land he loved had become a nightmare of pillage, slaughter and destruction. He rose, floating on a wind of thought, above the ravaged streets of Gorakil. The last defenders fell and the center streets were packed, panic roamed at will and terror ruled the night just ending. He heard the gonging of the great bells above Finnian's temple, one last peal to greet the dawn, but there would be no tomorrow.
Up he went, rising high into the paling sky, below the town shrank to a child's toy. The cries of fear and screams of pain became remote then disappeared. Arawn looked across the land, Highaelph, Der and Nagham, all were besieged. To the north of Nagham the town of Bluewater fell as Gorakil had. Its guardsmen sleeping out the last hour of their watch, hobgoblin knives saw that they would never wake again.
"I have found a hero," Svelta said and smiled.
Caliban laughed, the sound echoed strangely along the hall, a hundred stone-frozen faces looked on and listened with ears that could no longer hear. "My sister, I never knew you to be so romantic." He saw her frown. "He may well do, mother is a romantic herself."
"Mother? Romantic?" the nymph could not believe her ears.
Caliban waved his hand in a sweep to include the macabre decorations in the hall. "All this is a romance, though dark and grim. You are very much like our mother, and that is no insult. She is cruel, yes, but I have walked along the layers of Hell and the Abyss. They have romance there as well, but they make such things as this," he pointed to their sisters' stony form, "look like a sunny day or a pleasant dream."
Arawn dreamed, but it was not fair or pleasant. Time came and went, quick then slow. He floated high to see the entire land then dropped down low and, helpless, watched a farmstead south of Der be overwhelmed by a howling pack of dogmen.
Further south he watched as fires began to grow and swept through the Yewwood. But the forest was full of life and it took a magic flame to keep the blazes lit. Fire formorians from the southern mountains led packs of red eyed monstrous hounds whose breath was the flame of Hell. They fought their way along the Bluewater river to the center of the wood.
At Patrick's crossing, a lumber town, its defenders were driven away at great cost, and with eyes shamed at the sight, Arawn watched the elders of the town open the gates and surrender to the formorians, begging for their lives. A towering red-haired formorian, with skin black as coal in a forge, lifted up a foot and crushed the leader of the town beneath his ponderous boot. The people cried out, but at the formorian's growl they hid their faces and whined in fear, submitting to their fate and their new master's harsh decrees.
All across the land the story was the same. Defenders fell, from the Cavehill to the Green Oakwood and across the fields between. Just before he wakened, Arawn's eye fell on Nagham, the capital city, its walls were breached, its gates thrown down. The Duke's guard fought beside shopkeepers and fishermen, but to no effect. At best they slowed the formorians' advance, at worst they increased their wrath. Wagons used as makeshift barricades were flung aside like children's toys. The living, wounded or hale, man, woman or child, were killed when found and some were made into a hasty meal by their killers, fighting was hungry work.
Arawn's eye flew above the ruined streets till he reached the Duke's great keep. Already fire touched its walls and massive stones thrown by formorians' heavy arms had left the battlements with broken teeth, the fallen merlons knocked into the yard below.
The Duke himself stood upon the parapet and looked into the street below and as Arawn watched the Duke turned his head and stared him in the eye.
"Arawn," The Duke spoke and called to him by name. "Arawn, find the druidess Blodeuwedd, for all our sakes. Ask her help and tell her this,"
I am a Spear: that Roars for Blood,
I am a Salmon: in a Pool,
I am a Lure: from Paradise,
I am a Hill: where Poets walk,
I am a Boar: Ruthless and Red,
I am a Breaker: threatening Doom,
I am a Tide: that drags to Death,
I am an Infant: Who but I
peeps from the unhewn Dolman Arch?
The Duke wore Daghdha's face. "You are as a son to me, Arawn."
And in a sweat, Arawn awoke, starting from his grassy bed.