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The Obsidian KeyBook Two of the Legend of Asahiel
By Eldon Thompson
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Eldon Thompson
All right reserved.
The winter storm tore across the land, ripping and snarling like a caged beast set free at last. Its howling breath wailed in his ears. Its frigid claws raked his skin. The darkness of its maw enveloped the earth, rendering deliberate progress a fool's dream.
Grum looked again to his battered compass, scraping at the ice that shielded its surface. Its needle swung uselessly, drawn in random circles. He shook the instrument, cursing it to the smelter of Achthium's Forge. To the west were the Skullmars, the treacherous peaks from which they'd been blown off course. To the east, the tempest of the sea. Or so he assumed. The world around him had disappeared, its planes and edges forced together in a hazy smear. Head bowed, eyes squinting against frenzied gusts of windblown earth, he could scarcely spy the ground beneath his feet, let alone even the largest of markers that might guide him home.
He risked a backward glance to check on his companions. He could see but one, Raegak, tethered to him at the waist in their makeshift line. Beyond that, the rope stretched into the swirling void of pelting ice and strafing winds. He could only hope the others were still there, knowing that to become separated nowwould mean dying alone in these frozen wastes.
Not that remaining together afforded great consolation. Truth was, they were hopelessly lost, miles from the safety and comfort of their subterranean home. And even if home lay just around the bend, were they to stumble half a step to the left or right, they might pass right on by without ever knowing it.
Raegak glanced up, eyes hollow, snow clinging to his beard. Grum looked quickly away, hiding his compass within a gnarled fist, determined to mask his dismay. He was toifeam, leader of this expedition, and by Achthium, he would see them through.
To accentuate this silent oath, he crammed the worthless compass deep into a leather pouch. At that same moment, the earth fell away, and he found himself scrabbling against a clutching blackness. Chunks of ice and gravel skittered beneath his feet, while a shower of snow cascaded about him. Everything seemed to be sucking him down, down into some depthless--
A sharp tug caught him about the waist, folding him violently forward and snatching the wind from his lungs. For a moment he slid downward again, before coming to a lurching halt. Curtains of snow slid past as his companions struggled with their footing above. He hung there, twisting in the abyss, before reaching up for the lip of the pit, where Raegak, stout legs braced against the earth, bent down and offered a leather-wrapped hand.
Moments later, Grum huddled with his companions around the rim of the breach, peering into its depths. Should it prove to be the shelter that saved them, he would forgive himself his fright from the fall. Nevertheless, he had lived in these mountains long enough to know not to trust them. Such clefts might become fissures descending hundreds, even thousands of feet--or if not, might open into the den of some surly creature in no mood to share its home. Even the most foolish of his kin knew better than to enter such an opening without knowing what lay within.
Producing a flint and steel with frozen hands, Grum worked to light the pitch-coated head of a thornweed firebrand. But no sooner did the sparks flare to life than they were borne away by shrieking flurries. Grum persisted, ignoring the stiffness setting into his unmoving joints, lips pressed tight in a determined frown. At last, feeling the hopeless stares of his comrades upon him, he slipped his flint back into its pouch and motioned for Raegak to put the torch away.
He regarded each of his companions in turn--Raegak, Durin, Alfrigg, and Eitri. Friends for more than a generation, they held a shared understanding, their faces reflecting hopes and fears that mirrored his own. They would have to risk it. To prolong their exposure any longer would be fatal.
After a few quick signals, each began working loose the knot that bound him to his companions. Grum alone left his intact, for he would be lowered first. Only after assuring himself of the relative safety of this hidden cave would the others follow. With any luck, nature's wrath would expire by morning and allow them to begin the task of finding their way back from this wayward trek.
With the thickness of their gloves--and the fingers within numbed almost beyond use--even this simple task proved arduous. Doubled over, they picked at the iced ropes while quivering lips muttered private oaths. Grum watched them for a moment, until a flicker of motion drew his attention down into the hole. He leaned forward, peering intently, but saw only the void. He was about to shake it off as a trick of the storm when it came again, just a hint of movement, of something even darker than the ink in which it swam, shriveled and twisted, almost like--
He fell back as the thing shot forward, blinding in its swiftness. There was a flap of wings, a splash of blood, and a terrible cry that just barely resounded in the din of the gale. By the time Grum had regained his balance, Raegak knelt in the snow, his empty shoulder socket gushing. Already, the thing had moved on. An ebony claw seized Alfrigg by the face. He screamed as barbed nails gouged his flesh, tearing free chunks of skin and even an eyeball. Before he, too, had fallen to his knees, a silent Durin lay gasping, his throat flayed wide.
Grum brought his pick-axe up just in time to deflect a strike from the whirlwind that pressed him. It hit him like a sack of gravel, and off he flew into the blizzard, the pick-axe sailing from his grasp. He caught a glimpse of red-bearded Eitri, battle-axe drawn, peering up at a shapeless . . .
Excerpted from The Obsidian Key by Eldon Thompson Copyright © 2006 by Eldon Thompson. Excerpted by permission.
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