Valeria followed Alban and Karen back into the tunnel. Karen turned and looked at her as she started up the stairs.
â€œYou should stay here, your majesty,â€ she said softly. â€œItâ€™s not like you can do much except get in the way. It wonâ€™t help Salia if you get yourself hurt or killed.â€
Valeria gave her a long look. She wanted to believe the girl was inÂ earnest but couldnâ€™t quite bring herself to. â€œIâ€™m coming with you, human. Even if I was inclined to trust you some of the Speakers with Salia might well attack you if Iâ€™m not there to stop them.â€
â€œThat would be… unfortunate,â€ Karen said. â€œMostly for them. Itâ€™s pretty stupid to attack the one person who can save you when there are dragons on your tail.â€ She started climbing the stairs again. â€œI suppose youâ€™re right, youâ€™d better come as well.â€
â€œWe should seal the door first,â€ Alban added. â€œWe led them right to it. The last thing we need is one of the dragons shifting to human form and coming up behind us.â€
â€œThat is a good point.â€ 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. â€œHow do I seal this?â€
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. â€œJust tap it again to make it open.â€
â€œThatâ€™s a heck of a trick.â€ Karen frowned at the wall. She was rubbing her arms. â€œYou say dwarves made this entrance?â€
â€œYes, our ancestors hired them to create this place,â€ Rai replied. â€œWhy?â€
â€œHmm.â€ She walked back down the stairs and stroked her fingers over the wall. â€œThen why is it humming?â€
Valeria gave her a sharp look. â€œHumming? What do you mean?â€
â€œWatch.â€ Karenâ€™s hand began to glow again and she rapped the wall gently. The glow spread out from her handÂ illuminating a spiderâ€™s web of previously invisible threads woven through the wall with the carving at their heart.
â€œWhat-â€ Valeria swallowed. She knew damned well what that was, but couldnâ€™t bring herself to say it.
â€œThereâ€™s stabilised Mabain woven all through this wall,â€ Karen said. â€œNo dwarf made this. It does a very good impression of being dwaven craft, but gives itself away if you can sense Mabain.â€ She removed her hand and the threads faded slowly.
â€œI-itâ€™s goblin work?â€ Valeria asked.
â€œThat would be my surmise,â€ Karen said. â€œI doubt it was dragons.â€
â€œImpossible! We wouldnâ€™t hire goblins to build defences against dragons!â€ Rai protested. â€œNot that they wouldnâ€™t be good at it, but how could we trust them? And thereâ€™s no way they could pull off such a masquerade…â€ he trailed off.
â€œNo way at all,â€ Valeria agreed. â€œExcept apparently they did.â€
â€œEven 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,â€ Rai said. â€œAnd itâ€™s been used several times since and never failed. It makes no sense…â€
â€œUnless they really wanted to help and knew you wouldnâ€™t let them,â€ Karen said. â€œNot all goblins work for dragons.â€
â€œMost do,â€ Valeria said. â€œAnd thereâ€™s no way ofÂ telling which ones donâ€™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.â€ She eyed the wall suspiciously one more time. â€œBut thereâ€™s nothing we can do about it now.Â Letâ€™s go up and find Salia.â€
Theyâ€™d only been climbing for about ten minutes when they heard the sound of a panicked crowd coming towards the other way.Â Valeria tried to push past Karen but the girl stopped her.
â€œThat was quick,â€ Karen said mildly. â€œThis isnâ€™t a hugely tall mountain but it’s big enough. I wouldâ€™ve thought descending on foot would be slower than that.â€
â€œIt should be,â€ Rai agreed from where he was still perched on Valeriaâ€™s shoulder. â€œIt seems to take about two-thirds of the time it should. It always has.â€
â€œWhat?â€ Karen scowled and then struck at the air in front of her. Threads similar to those at entrance lit up in all directions momentarily andÂ 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.
â€œWhat the hell was that?â€ Valeria asked.
â€œThe goblins who builtÂ this escape route manipulated the spatial proportions to make it shorter than it should be and then hid what theyâ€™d done,â€ Karen replied. â€œI 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.â€
Valeria felt the blood drain from her face. â€œA perfect trap.â€
â€œIf it was meant that way it would have been used by now, I think,â€ Karen said. â€œSo itâ€™s not a trap, and the dragons donâ€™t know about it. But itâ€™s not just to facilitate escape, either.â€ She chewed her lip. â€œI think thereâ€™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-â€ She broke off as Salia bounded round the corner and attached herself to Valeriaâ€™s leg.
â€œMummy! I told them I heard your voice!â€ She looked up at her bright yellow eyes.
â€œYour highness! Come back! We donâ€™tÂ know if-â€ A pretty young fire nymph ran round the corner after her and stopped when she spotted Valeria. â€œYour Majesty!â€
â€œIndeed.â€ Valeria picked her daughter up and hugged her. â€œIâ€™m glad youâ€™re safe.â€
â€œThere were dragons!â€ Salia waved her arms animatedly. â€œThey kept trying to grab me. Ignifer thinks theyâ€™ll be waiting for us.â€
â€œThatâ€™s a fair assumption,â€ Karen said. Ignifer jumped and stared at her.
â€œA human!â€ She shook her head. â€œI suppose that makes sense when dragons are around, but the others wonâ€™t like it.â€
â€œThey donâ€™t have to as long as they see the logic.â€ Valeria turned back towards the exit. â€œLetâ€™s get back down, then you and Alban can clear our exit.â€
â€œWeâ€™ll do our best.â€