Another tunnel ran deeper into the earth, twisting sporadically left and right. This one looked like it had been dug out from the rock. Its walls were crude and lined with thick, wooden beams that supported the ceiling, often split and rotten, leaning crazily. It was probably a mining tunnel, excavated by the satyrs. As if to confirm his theory, he saw a bronze-headed pick sheltering in a small niche. As for what was being mined, chunks of raw quartz protruded from the tunnel sides, their many facets glittering with multi-coloured light. Pausing, he lost himself momentarily, staring in childlike wonder. They reminded him of the Crystal Caverns, where he and his kinfolk retreated to every Isryn.
Next he emerged into a wide cavern dominated by a series of colossal, translucent pillars sunken into pits of boiling mud. Like all crystals in Belanyr, they gave off their own luminescence. The ceiling was high up, hidden by an immense stretch of darkness and the walls to either side were equally veiled. A slender, stone bridge closed the gap between the tunnel exit and the top of the first pillar. A hundred metres below, the mud bubbled and spat like the contents of a witch’s cauldron.
Looking down, he carefully made his way across the bridge. He could tell it was ancient, having been built hundreds of years ago, but it was firm beneath his boots.
Once across, he stared down at the crystal beneath him. It was strange. He could see right through it to the lake below. Continuing on to the next stone bridge his gaze flickered about the vast, shadowed cavern. It had a sense of emptiness, of loneliness. The great weight of the earth above seemed to press down on him, making him realize the dangers of being underground. This wasn’t the sort of place to venture alone. Suddenly he was gripped by a strong yearning for his female friends. He missed them. What were they doing right now? He pictured their faces, laughing and tittering amidst the branches and leaves of his Treevylla home.
Before long he came to a forked pathway. Choosing the left path he followed it until he came to a smaller crystal pillar. On it a crumpled, leather satchel lay, discarded. Wondering why such an item had been abandoned here, Aefion skirted the bag and peered down into the mud. Another pillar leaned precariously against the pillar he stood on to create a makeshift ramp down to the mud lake. A short distance from where its end sank into the mud was a number of ovular rocks. They were partially submerged, forming a series of stepping stones.
Aefion’s eyes narrowed as his gaze traced a path to the far wall. The stepping stones led to a small cave there, the shadows driven back from around its mouth by a burning brazier. This was too intriguing to ignore. He wanted to investigate, so he quickly made his way over to the cave, vambraces ready. Inside it was cramped and dark, and reeked of something rotting. A cluster of red crystal sat in the centre of the floor as if it was a makeshift campfire, and a battered roll of parchment lay beside it. He shuddered as he saw the corpse in the gloom.
It was wearing an emblem he recognised: the king’s historian. He cursed.
Unrolling the parchment he gazed at what looked like a map. Written in common Alathaic were the words ‘Caves of Carandar.’ Beneath the title was drawn an elaborate sketch of what was obviously a complex cave system. Various details had been noted in black ink, indicating the positions of certain chambers and important passages. Folding it up and stuffing it into his jerkin, he retraced his steps back to the pathway. Ahead of him he could see another burning brazier.
Materializing from the gloom like a primeval monster was an elaborate, ornate doorway, edged in sigils of bronze and silver, a circular, wooden door set into it. The portal was open a fraction and Aefion could see a flight of steps. They led down into shadow.
The map he had found was treasure: a weapon with which he could fight the labyrinth’s disorientating confusion of tunnels. Checking his location on the map, he entered.
Following the downward spiralling stairway, he passed through three more mining tunnels. Shortly he came to a circular chamber lit all around by wall-mounted braziers. A titanic, bronze statue stood beside the far doorway, at least four metres in height. Its eyes of sapphire twinkled and cruel horns swept upwards from a thickset brow. It had the visage of a massive bull, and a double-headed axe was clutched in its claws.
‘I wonder if this too was once real,’ Aefion murmured as he sidestepped the Minotaur. The door beside it was bordered by glowing, white runes. They were written in Alathaic, but were meaningless, simply a random jumble of letters positioned pleasingly around the doorframe. Confused, the elf stepped forwards, onto the flagstone directly in front of the doorway. It was a pressure pad; as soon as Aefion put his weight onto it, the stone sank slightly into the ground.
There came the deep rumbling of stone on stone and Aefion turned to see a panel opening in the wall behind him. Something was standing just out of sight, a shadowy blur before it emerged into the hellish glow of the braziers.
Walking on huge, goat-like legs, with cloven hooves that left a path of blue flame, the thing’s appearance echoed that of the statue but had a hide covered in shaggy, black fur. Twisted horns glinted and sapphire eyes blazed with the fires of demonic possession. Clad in baroque, bronze armour, the creature carried a heavy, double-headed axe in both hands. A bull’s swishing tail completed its hideous appearance. Aefion knew this was no ordinary minotaur. With a lion-like roar, the daemonic brute thundered towards him.
Aefion was instantly on the move, springing backwards and unleashing two bright pulses of energy from his vambraces. One of the arrows missed, sizzling to nothing on the wall but the other slammed home on the minotaur’s right pauldron. The blast knocked it back slightly, but then its massive stride had brought it close to the elf. It roared again, bringing the axe down in a huge arc. Aefion rolled aside. Leaping swiftly to his feet, he moved in front of the bronze statue. In the second its axe came again he dodged, feeling the heat emanating from the beast’s hooves. Then the heavy weapon stuck fast, lodged in the statue’s chest. Aefion ran past the monster, his vambraces spitting crimson arrows. Most of them evaporated on the beast’s armour but several shots hit flesh, causing the minotaur to grunt as if irritated by an insect. Then its axe came free with a spray of metal shards and it turned to face its elven adversary. But again Aefion had gone, confusing his foe as he dashed between the minotaur’s legs. Unleashing a cry of rage it kicked backwards, sending Aefion flying against the wall.
For a moment pain flared inside him where he knew bones had snapped. He had to get up: it was either that or die. Quickly, he regained his wits and dragged himself aside as the giant axe cleaved the flagstones where he had lain. Spinning, he fired up at the minotaur’s body. But the breastplate the beast wore deflected many of his arrows. Its axe came shrieking at him again and this time he barely dodged it, the blade slicing through the tips of his hair as he fled. Slightly closer and he might’ve lost his entire arm, he thought, circling and looking for another opening.
The minotaur was one big block of solid muscle. It had brute strength and physical toughness on its side. Aefion had agility and skill, but he would have to end this fight soon. It was wasting his time. Cassandra needed him. The axe descended with the force to stop a charging knight and he evaded it, rolling painfully across the floor. He knew he couldn’t keep ducking and weaving forever. If he misjudged just one attack he’d be finished. Just one hit from that weapon of mass destruction was all it would take.
His side was throbbing badly but he didn’t have the time to heal himself. Then, a spark of inspiration flared in his mind.
Skirting around, he got his back to the doorway and reached out with his left hand.
‘Come on, minotaur. Come get me then.’
Sensing the wounded elf’s fatigue, the minotaur threw back its monstrous head and issued a final war cry. Aefion could see bits of undigested meat between its dagger-like teeth. Bowing his head slightly, he raised his arms as the bovine juggernaut pounded towards him.