Valeria followed Alban and Karen back into the tunnel. Karen turned and looked at her as she started up the stairs.
“You should stay here, your majesty,” she said softly. “It’s not like you can do much except get in the way. It won’t help Salia if you get yourself hurt or killed.”
Valeria gave her a long look. She wanted to believe the girl was in earnest but couldn’t quite bring herself to. “I’m coming with you, human. Even if I was inclined to trust you some of the Speakers with Salia might well attack you if I’m not there to stop them.”
“That would be… unfortunate,” Karen said. “Mostly for them. It’s pretty stupid to attack the one person who can save you when there are dragons on your tail.” She started climbing the stairs again. “I suppose you’re right, you’d better come as well.”
“We should seal the door first,” Alban added. “We led them right to it. The last thing we need is one of the dragons shifting to human form and coming up behind us.”
“That is a good point.” Valeria turned to the doorway. There was no visible door, but she knew there had to be one. An open archway was not defensible and this was for defence. She looked at Rai, who was sitting on a ledge with the other thunderbirds. The two who had brought her and Alban from the palace had joined Rai and his companions. All of them were in resting form. “How do I seal this?”
Rai flew over and landed on her shoulder. He tapped one of the ornate carvings with his beak and the door posts and wall shimmered and became fluid. It swirled into the gap before melting together to create a wall of rock, perfectly smooth except for the carving which now lay at the center of the wall. “Just tap it again to make it open.”
“That’s a heck of a trick.” Karen frowned at the wall. She was rubbing her arms. “You say dwarves made this entrance?”
“Yes, our ancestors hired them to create this place,” Rai replied. “Why?”
“Hmm.” She walked back down the stairs and stroked her fingers over the wall. “Then why is it humming?”
Valeria gave her a sharp look. “Humming? What do you mean?”
“Watch.” Karen’s hand began to glow again and she rapped the wall gently. The glow spread out from her hand illuminating a spider’s web of previously invisible threads woven through the wall with the carving at their heart.
“What-” Valeria swallowed. She knew damned well what that was, but couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“There’s stabilised Mabain woven all through this wall,” Karen said. “No dwarf made this. It does a very good impression of being dwaven craft, but gives itself away if you can sense Mabain.” She removed her hand and the threads faded slowly.
“I-it’s goblin work?” Valeria asked.
“That would be my surmise,” Karen said. “I doubt it was dragons.”
“Impossible! We wouldn’t hire goblins to build defences against dragons!” Rai protested. “Not that they wouldn’t be good at it, but how could we trust them? And there’s no way they could pull off such a masquerade…” he trailed off.
“No way at all,” Valeria agreed. “Except apparently they did.”
“Even if they could, the only reason for such a deception would be to put in a vulnerability their draconic masters could exploit. This was built centuries ago,” Rai said. “And it’s been used several times since and never failed. It makes no sense…”
“Unless they really wanted to help and knew you wouldn’t let them,” Karen said. “Not all goblins work for dragons.”
“Most do,” Valeria said. “And there’s no way of telling which ones don’t, short of having them say so in front of a unicorn, or using a blood and truth mirror on them if you have one.” She eyed the wall suspiciously one more time. “But there’s nothing we can do about it now. Let’s go up and find Salia.”
They’d only been climbing for about ten minutes when they heard the sound of a panicked crowd coming towards the other way. Valeria tried to push past Karen but the girl stopped her.
“That was quick,” Karen said mildly. “This isn’t a hugely tall mountain but it’s big enough. I would’ve thought descending on foot would be slower than that.”
“It should be,” Rai agreed from where he was still perched on Valeria’s shoulder. “It seems to take about two-thirds of the time it should. It always has.”
“What?” Karen scowled and then struck at the air in front of her. Threads similar to those at entrance lit up in all directions momentarily and the walls and stairs seemed to twist in on themselves impossibly. It looked more like a spatial affinity area than the heart of a mountain in an air affinity one. The glowing threads faded and things returned to normal. Karen gave a low whistle.
“What the hell was that?” Valeria asked.
“The goblins who built this escape route manipulated the spatial proportions to make it shorter than it should be and then hid what they’d done,” Karen replied. “I really hope no dragons know about this because it would be all too easy for them to twist this round and make the stairs into an endless loop.”
Valeria felt the blood drain from her face. “A perfect trap.”
“If it was meant that way it would have been used by now, I think,” Karen said. “So it’s not a trap, and the dragons don’t know about it. But it’s not just to facilitate escape, either.” She chewed her lip. “I think there’s something hidden here and the goblins wanted it to stay that way. They routed around it and tried to camoflage the fact, but slipped up slightly. I wonder wha-” She broke off as Salia bounded round the corner and attached herself to Valeria’s leg.
“Mummy! I told them I heard your voice!” She looked up at her bright yellow eyes.
“Your highness! Come back! We don’t know if-” A pretty young fire nymph ran round the corner after her and stopped when she spotted Valeria. “Your Majesty!”
“Indeed.” Valeria picked her daughter up and hugged her. “I’m glad you’re safe.”
“There were dragons!” Salia waved her arms animatedly. “They kept trying to grab me. Ignifer thinks they’ll be waiting for us.”
“That’s a fair assumption,” Karen said. Ignifer jumped and stared at her.
“A human!” She shook her head. “I suppose that makes sense when dragons are around, but the others won’t like it.”
“They don’t have to as long as they see the logic.” Valeria turned back towards the exit. “Let’s get back down, then you and Alban can clear our exit.”
“We’ll do our best.”