Drust is still playing chess. The rest of us are gathered around the fire. Now that the danger has passed, my clansfolk discuss the conversation between Drust and Lord Loss and I feel eyes settle on me suspiciously. Finally Fiachna asks the question which is on all their tongues. "What did Drust mean about Lord Loss interfering with you?"
I sigh miserably. "My magic has grown faster than it should. I've leapt from being a poor apprentice to being almost as strong as Drust, with the ability to be a lot stronger-because of Lord Loss. He reached within me and gave me power. Thanks to him, I'm able to do things which nobody of my limited experience should be able to."
"Why would he do that?" Goll asks gruffly.
"We don't know," I answer honestly. "We'd be fools to think he did it to help but we can't see how my being so strong can be a drawback. Unless..." I gulp, then say what I've been thinking since Drust revealed the truth about my powers. "Unless he left a secret spell behind. Maybe, when I'm powerful enough, a force will explode inside me and destroy everything around me."
"A demon in the fold," Lorcan growls bitterly, with venom born out of the loss of his brother. "We can't harm her here, but I say we take her back to the mainland and slit her throat before-"
"Peace," Goll hushes him.
"Peace!" Goll says again, harshly this time. Then he smiles at me. "I don't believe that, Bec. I've known you since you were a baby. You wouldn't hurt anyone, intentionally or otherwise. If the demon master thinks he can use you to harm us, he's wrong."
Tears spring to my eyes. I haven't cried since I was a very young child-tears are for the weak-but the warmth of Goll's words unleashes a spring within me and soon my cheeks are wet with warm, salty water.
"Goll's right," Fiachna says, putting a thumb to my cheeks and wiping some of the tears away. "We have nothing to fear from you, Bec."
"Of course we don't," Connla agrees, stunning us all by giving me a quick hug. Then he looks pointedly at Lorcan.
The teenager pulls a face. "If that's how you feel, I won't argue. But I'll be keeping an eye on her, especially when there's a full moon, because there's the threat of her turning into a wild beast too, in case you'd forgotten. And if I ever think she's going to act against us..."
"...you'll tell us and we'll have a calm chat about it," Connla finishes sternly, in the authoritative tone of a true king. "Understood?"
Lorcan bares his teeth, but then nods roughly and turns away to sulk. I don't blame him for this unusual show of hatred. It's hard when you lose one you love, even if you're a warrior who isn't supposed to let sorrow affect you.
Bran shuffles up beside me a few seconds later, stares at my damp cheeks, touches them with a finger, then tastes it. "Stony," he declares mysteriously, then lays his head on my shoulder, closes his eyes, smiles and goes to sleep.
Some hours later, having finished another game of chess, Drust packs the pieces and board away, sets his bag down and rises. "Bec," he summons me. I gently move Bran's head and go see what the druid wants.
"It's time," Drust says, looking down at me solemnly.
"For what?" I frown.
"I've been waiting for the tide," he answers cryptically. "The level is correct now. But it won't remain that way for long. We must hurry."
"I don't understand. What...?" I stop. Drust is taking off his robes. Soon he's naked. I've seen many naked men-a lot of warriors fight the old way, stripped bare-but Drust looks different in the flesh. His nudity is unsettling, as if I'm seeing an aspect of him I shouldn't.
"Hey!" Goll grunts, getting up. "What are you-"
"Stay back," Drust says, eyes flashing. "Bec and I must go for a while. But we'll return shortly."
"Go where?" Fiachna asks. He's standing beside Goll now, as is Lorcan. Connla watches us with mild interest, lying on his back. Bran still sleeps.
Drust nods towards the edge of the cliff. "Old Creatures reside beneath our feet. They are maybe the only true beings of Old Magic left in the world. They can tell us where to find the tunnel between this world and the Demonata's. Now stay back and keep quiet-this is a delicate business and we need to concentrate."
Drust faces me again. "Remove your clothes," he says, and though I feel uneasy, I do as he commands. "We're going to walk to the edge of the cliff, then step off. Before that, we'll cast two spells. One will let us hold our breath for several minutes. The other will keep us warm-the water's extremely cold."
"But... the fall... I can't swim... the rocks..." I stammer.
"You have nothing to fear," Drust says. He takes hold of my right hand. "I'll be with you. I'll guide you. As long as you cast the spells correctly and don't panic, you'll be fine."
"But how will we get back up?"
"Climb," he says, then laughs at my incredulous expression. "It's easier than it sounds. Trust me. You're no good to me dead. I'll not see you come to harm."
"You left me for the demons tonight," I mutter.
"Aye," he agrees. "But I thought I'd perish if I went back for you. It was better that one of us survive than none at all. But I need you, Bec. If you'd died, I'd have had to search for another apprentice."
"Why?" I ask. "Why am I so important to you?"
"You'll find out soon," Drust promises, then turns to face the edge of the cliff. "Will you do this with me? Take my word that the future of your land and people rests upon it?"
I don't want to. But we've come too far, faced too many dangers, and lost too many friends to stop now. I start walking, Drust beside me. We mutter spells, warming ourselves, holding our breath and extending it. Behind us the others watch-except Bran-unsure of what to expect.
We reach the edge. The waves are rough below, smashing into the rocks of the cliff, tearing themselves to pieces along the length of the Jutland. It looks like the mouth into the Otherworld. Only a fool could stare down and not feel fear. And only someone far beyond ordinary foolishness would even think for a moment of leaping into that roaring, forbidding abyss.
I look up quickly at Drust, starting to unlock the breathing spell, to tell him I've changed my mind, this is madness, I'm not going to do it. But before I can, Drust hops forward. His fingers are tight around mine. He drags me after him. I fall. The land disappears behind me. I plummet into darkness... violent roaring... into terror and certain death.
The fall doesn't last as long as I thought it would. A couple of seconds, surely no longer. Then the collision. Our feet hit hard. We shoot underwater. My teeth shake in my jaw, threatening to snap loose and burst up into my brain. Even with the warming spell, the water is colder than anything I've experienced.
Dark down here, much darker than the night world above. We slow. Water presses tight around me. I feel the swell of the waves. Inside my head I see myself being smashed against the rocks. I start to panic, to kick defensively against the rocks-which must be close-breaking for the surface so I can scream.
Drust's fingers squeeze mine. Pain forces me to ignore the cold and dark. I try to wrench my hand free but Drust squeezes again. Then a light flares and his face is next to mine. His eyes are furious, warning me to stop struggling, to obey his commands.
I go limp and Drust relaxes his grip. The light is coming from his right hand, flames glowing dully despite being underwater. That's a spell I don't know. I wonder if I could do it. While I'm wondering, Drust looks around, then moves slowly through the water. He's not swimming exactly, although his legs kick out softly behind him and his right arm sways to the left and right, guiding us.
A shoal of fish glides by, either not seeing us or unworried by our presence. I watch them swish past, amazed, taking a moment to reflect on the strange twists my life has taken, the marvels I've become part of. So easy to take it for granted, but this is something no normal human was made to see. The world of magic has blessed me with wonders and it's only right to stop every now and then to appreciate them.
Then-rock. The cliff, studded with shells, draped with seaweed, jagged and immense. Drust is heading straight for it. Coming up fast. He angles downwards. It looks like we're going to hit the rock and be torn to shreds, but at the last moment I spot a hole-the entrance to a tunnel.
We're swept through the mouth of the tunnel. I'm not sure if magic propels us or the thrust of the tide. We pass along smoothly, protected from the walls by the water and Drust's spell. The light in Drust's hand fades, plunging us into total darkness. For a while there's just the rush and noise of the water. I don't feel afraid. It's oddly comforting. It reminds me of when I was born, entering the world through the tunnel from my mother's womb.
Then there's a glow ahead of us. Seconds later we're out, shot into a pool of comparatively warm water. We float to the surface, where Drust pushes me on to land and crawls out after me. He touches my lips and nods. I stop the breathing spell and draw in a lungful of fresh air, shivering from the chill of the water.
Drust stands and offers me his hand. Clutching it, I let him draw me to my feet. He smiles at me when I'm standing, then places a hand on my left shoulder. Heat flares within me and I dry quickly. Drust releases me and looks up. I follow his gaze and gasp.
We're in the middle of a huge cave. I can't see the roof, it's so far above us. All around are thick stone pillars... twenty... thirty... more. And on each pillar-something.I can't think of any other word to describe them. Slowly shifting shapes of coloured light, taller than ten men stacked one on top of the other, the colours changing as their shapes twist and swirl, casting a dim light which illuminates the massive cave. There's magic in these shapes, strong magic, but unlike any I've felt before. No... that's not true. I have felt it a couple of times. In the ring of stones when the demons were repelled. And earlier tonight when Lorcan's axe melted."What are they?" I whisper."Old Creatures," Drust whispers back. He's smiling strangely, gazing at the lights as a child might regard a new toy. "The magicians of the ancient past. The creators of land, life, maybe even the gods. Some say they came from the stars. Others that they are the stars, or at least their worldly forms."He walks forward, then around in a slow circle, studying each pillar and shape. Most of the pillars boast scores of old etchings, but not like those found on ogham stones. These are long, complicated signs. If they represent words, the language must be much more complicated than ours."Nobody knows how many there were," Drust says as he walks. "Maybe thousands. This world was theirs. A playpen... a breeding ground... an experiment? We can only guess. Most have moved on, taken their magic with them, returned to the stars or wherever they came from. Or maybe they've died. We're not sure. The Old Creatures communicated openly with our ancestors, but they've been silent for several generations."Many druids mourned the passing of our original masters and begged them to stay, to help us protect this world from the threat of the Demonata, to teach us more of the wonders and magic of the stars. But even the Old Creatures must obey the laws of the universe. And those laws state that for everything there is a time. Nothing remains unchanged forever."He stops before one of the shapes and stares up at it. Reaches out, then draws his hand back, fingers twitching."I was told that when the final Old Creature leaves this world, all life will fade, all lands will fall, everything will turn to dust and blow away in the savage winds which will lash the world in their wake. But I don't believe that. I think if they created this world and all its beings-especially us-they created it with love. Maybe they've created others, and will create more worlds later, a string of them throughout the universe. They give birth, help us through our infancy, then move on, leaving us to our own devices, maybe returning in the far-off future to see how we've fared. One day our descendants might be like them-mothers and fathers of worlds and life..."He trails to a halt. His words are strange, hard for me to understand. I've never heard anyone speak of such things before. My head's spinning as I try to see the universe as Drust imagines it, speckled with beings greater than gods.And then one of the shapes-or all of them together-speaks."Why Have You Come?"The accent is all the accents I've ever heard. The words are both lyrical and flat. Loud and soft. Coming from within my head and all around. Warm and comforting. No malice or threat. Only tired curiosity."To seek answers," Drust says, bowing his head. "I know it's bold to ask, to disturb you when you wish for peace, but-""-These Are Troubling Times," the voice finishes. A pause. "The Demonata Have Crossed. We Were Not Aware Of It. But It Was Not Unexpected. They Have Always Been A Threat And Always Will Be. The Battle Between Demons And Humans Must Be Fought Over And Over, Until They Defeat You.""Or we defeat them?" Drust says hopefully."No," the voice says. "The Demonata Are Creatures Of Pure Magic. Their Power Is Beyond That Of Humanity. That Is Something No Force Can Change. In The Past We Protected Humans And Prevented Demonic Incursions. But We Must Move On. We Cannot Stay And Repulse The Demon Hordes Indefinitely.""But you can help us stop this current assault," Drust groans, voice laced with more than a hint of desperation. He looks up and his eyes are red. I realise he's crying. "You can show me the location of the tunnel entrance. You can tell me how to close it."Another pause. Then the voice says, "Our Time Here Is Almost At An End, But While We Remain, We Will Assist, As We Always Have."One of the shapes contracts and changes colour, becoming green, brown, grey, blue. It takes on the form of land, only much smaller than real land. I haven't seen one of these before but I know what it is. "A map," I mutter."Aye," Drust says, studying the map eagerly, reading it in ways I cannot. To the right there's a shining dot, the size of my smallest nail. "That's where the tunnel entrance lies?" Drust asks."It Is.""That's not so far." Drust looks excited. "We can be there in eight or nine days if we march hard.""Indeed." The map changes and the shape resumes its original, ever-shifting form. "But You Do Not Have Such Temporal Luxury."Drust frowns. "What do you mean?""The Demonata Gather," the voice says. "We Can Sense Them Now That We Have Focused. They Press And Rip At The Fabric Of This Universe. In Two Days And Nights The First Demon Masters Will Cross."Drust's face turns a sickly grey colour. "No! They can't! Not when we're so close! We have to stop them! You must help us!""We Cannot," the voice says. "We Are Confined Here And Our Powers Are Fading Fast. From This Place, In Our Condition, We Cannot Speed You On Your Way.""But..." Drust drops to his knees. "We're damned then? There's no hope?""There Is Always Hope," the voice answers. "You Have Two Days And Nights.""But we can't move that quickly, even with magic," Drust complains."You Must Find A Way," the voice says. "Or Perish."Drust nods bitterly, getting his emotions under control. When he addresses the Old Creatures again, he speaks neutrally. "If we make it in time, we can close the tunnel?""You Can," the voice says. "But You Already Knew The Answer To That Question."Drust looks sideways at me, then licks his lips. "Aye," he croaks. "But I hoped... I thought there might be other ways.""No," the voice says. "There Is Only One.""So be it," Drust says, even more stone-faced than usual. "Will she suffice? A demon master worked a charm on her. She has not been warped by his touch?""No," the voice says. "Actually, Without It She Would Not Have Been Suitable."Drust looks puzzled. "Do you know why-" he begins, but I interrupt before he finishes, unable to hold my tongue any longer."Pardon me," I say, my voice trembling, "but how can we close the tunnel? What's my part in this?""Quiet!" Drust snaps. "You have no right to speak! This place is-""Peace," the voice cuts in gently but firmly. "All Who Come Before Us Have The Right To Be Heard. The Girl Has Asked A Question. It Will Be Answered.""But I only brought her to make sure she was pure!" Drust shouts. "She has no-"The rock beneath our feet shudders. It's all the warning Drust requires. He closes his mouth and hangs his head."The Tunnel Between Your Universe And The Demonata's Has Been Created By A Human Magician," the voice explains. "He Must Be Eradicated For The Tunnel To Be Closed, But That Spell Requires A Sacrifice.""A human sacrifice?" I guess."It Is More Specific Than That. The Killing Of A Human Would Not Generate The Power Necessary To Destroy The Tunnel. A Magician Must Be Slaughtered In Order For The Spell To Work." The voice pauses. Drust looks up at me with haunted-but firm, unapologetic-eyes. "A Druid Must be Killed," the voice concludes, "Or A Priestess."