Fantasy Fiction posted July 13, 2021 Chapters:  ...69 70 -71- 72... 

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The Stoneseekers do their Best to Avoid Disaster

A chapter in the book The Stoneseekers

The Last Gasp (Ch Penultimate)

by duaneculbertson

A rumble shook the earth, and the cellar shifted violently. Those standing fell. Those sitting rolled. Wild-eyed, they clutched each other for support, as low pitch vibrations rattled their insides.
Stones sheared and rocks ground together, sounding like thunder confined. The earthquake liberated enormous ceiling tiles, and people screamed as they tried to dodge the falling masonry. Some found the cyclopean slabs too challenging to avoid, their vain efforts merely serving to dampen the rebound of the weights, leaving behind flattened masses of pulpy flesh interspersed with shattered bone.

A giant fissure appeared, the crack propagating along the center of the floor like jagged lightning. Widening rapidly, the rift opened a chasm underfoot. Men screamed, as they lost their balance, pitching forward into oblivion. A foul wind like rotten eggs rushed upwards, furthering the chaos and disoreinting those still clinging for their lives. 
Virriel dropped her staff. The glowing rod slid down the angled floor, catching on a slab of masonry, teetering on the brink of the chasm. Wolf imagined it twirling end over end, falling into nothingness. He dove forward, seizing it before his dark vision could prove true.

With his arm fully extended, he handed it back to Virriel who hugged it to her breast, shuddering with relief. Wolf derived comfort from its return as well, not daring to contemplate how terrible this ordeal would be without its light.
Alcuin clung precariously to the wall, and Wolf hoped the old man’s strength would hold out. Sustained winds swept past, carrying a pungent odor, which burned his throat and eyes.
Struck by falling masonry, one of the obelisks ruptured. It toppled upon Olivejem's altar, before both slid into oblivion.

Wolf noticed soldiers clinging to outcroppings on the far side of the chasm. They fared less well, the angle of the floor favoring the vertical and appearing far less forgiving of an errant misstep.  

Upon that side, a handful of soldiers yet remained. As the seconds passed, the black depths claimed more victims, swallowing their foreshortened cries to mark one less of their number. The persistent survivors braved a brutal extistence, one where the least fit would succumb first to muscle fatigue. Wolf imagined none held any delusions though; all knew they would share the same fate.

And the insatiable hunger of the abyss knew no bounds. In desperation, many invoked the gods for help --  none came. Arrant hopelessness led to despair, and a few roared blasphemies, as they plummeted to their deaths.

Something struck Wolf's shoulder. He turned in time to see Ralf’s stretcher cartwheeling end over end into the abyss. Looking overheard, he breathed a sigh of relief; Ketri and Jocasta held Ralf. The unfortunate man was far from grateful, though, screaming in pain from all the movement, his body awash in flames of agony.
On Wolf’s side of the chasm, other men of the phalanx clung to the remaining slate tiles of what had once served as the floor, struggling to achieve dubious purchase. The topology of the room worsened, shedding potential footholds. Another great shifting of earth dropped the angle even further. Now, those clinging were more vertical than horizontal, and the cyclopean blocks liberated earlier succumbed to the power of gravity once again, sliding past or striking those still enduring the incessant nightmare. Some who had successfully dodged the falling masonry earlier were now wiped from their refuge by those same pieces. 

Wolf felt fear would steal his mind any moment. His mouth went dry and his heart thrashed against his chest. With another geologic shift, his body became almost vertical. At the mercy of gravity, he could only hope friction and pitch angle would preserve his tenuous hold upon life. His fingers whitened as he gouged the grooves where the floor tiles were bound together by rough mortar.
Screams broke his concentration. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw three warriors plummet to their deaths when their basalt outcropping gave way just below him. A heartbeat later, the blackness claimed two more. These men had fallen from above. Trying to save their stranded brethren, they paid the ultimate price for their bravery.
The ground shook once again causing the last obelisk to topple. Wolf watched it fall, appearing to move in slow motion, so massive was its size. With a mighty boom, the behemoth came to rest, spanning the chasm, a distance of twenty feet. The marble structure now provided a tenuous catwalk between the two sides.
The earth pitched abruptly; liberating more men from perceived positions of safety. Below the tiled floor, columnar basalt outcroppings offered capricious handholds for the few still fighting for their lives.
Wolf heard a mighty crack, followed by a lateral shifting of earth, a movement which broke his hold. He felt himself weightless, plummeting into oblivion.
            Seydor forigve me ... I have failed…
Pain brought him back to reality. He had landed on a basalt shelf some ten feet below where he had been, an outcropping recently birthed by the seismic event. He was sure he had heard the sound of his ribs cracking and had almost blacked out, a possibly fatal result.

With the wind knocked out of him, Wolf lacked the strength to rise. Willpower kept him from passing out. A boulder bounced beside his head, nearly crushing his skull. He did not know how much more he could take. Perhaps death would not be so terrible.

            “Wolf!” Virriel screamed.
Her voice seemed impossibly far away. He shook his head to clear it, then looked across the chasm, surprised to find the other side now only ten feet away, and appearing more suitalbe for climbing.

            “Don’t try it, my boy!” Alcuin yelled. He had won his earlier test of strength and was now being supported by Sigfried.
Steeling himself, Wolf jumped the gap, despite Alcuin's warning. Landing precariously upon an outcropping of rock, he climbed the craggy side opposite. Wolf saw men trapped on ledges below and knew he could do nothing to help. The men called to him, but he ignored them, their cries piercing his heart like icy daggers. Visions of soldiers he had comforted in their last moments returned to haunt him, hallucinations made more vivid by the intensity of the moment.
Hot air buffeted him; his throat felt like sandpaper, and a terrible thirst took hold. His muscles burned with exertion, dangerously close to cramping. In his younger days, he climbed the cliffs of the Rotekant with nary a concern, but now as he crossed the threshold into his fifth decade, his body reminded him that new rules applied. He hoped he would receive no such notices in the next few moments, for he felt he was close to reaching his goal.
Exploding upon his right, the cliff birthed a fissure, the crack racing alongside, mere inches from where he clung. He turned his head and saw Jocasta ordering her men to lower ropes to those trapped upon the other side.

            "Shistra!" Wolf swore. He wished he had not jumped. Too late now.
The entire chamber pitched without warning, and for a terrifying moment he tottered over the abyss once again. He moved to his right and found an irregular outcropping. He pulled himself up, resting his center of gravity upon two columnar spires. Another shockwave hit and his body toppled. Fortunately, his hands caught a jagged rock with which he could steady himself. Truebite rested securely on his back, but he watched his dagger drop into nothingness. He tried to right himself again and turned his head. In doing so, he heard something slip from his leather jerkin. It was his locket! Landing upon a ledge just below, it broke open to reveal the faces of Gwidron and Atelka.
On the left Gwidron smiled proudly. On the right, Atelka favored him with a demure look, which seemed to capture all her love and kindness. His heart ached. How long had he regarded that picture? Would the answer be measured in hours or days? It was the only picture he had left of her.
            “Get a move on!” urged a voice from above. “We can’t stay here! The next quake will end us!”
Wolf looked up to see Demelza dangling upside down, her orange hair falling around her frantic features, framing them like a fiery halo. Two phalangists held her legs, bracing themselves on the flat surface of the obelisk still spanning the abyss. She reached for him.
            “Take my arm your lordship!”
But Wolf only partially heard. He was gazing at the locket, and found he was unable to tear himself away. Instead of reaching for Demelza, he bent in the opposite direction in a vain attempt to retrieve the locket on the ledge below. His fingers strained; it lay tantalizingly close. Just a few more inches and he could grab it.
            “Leave it be, sir,” Demelza shouted. “We must go before it’s too late. The next quake will kill us. These are brave men, but they won’t wait much longer. It’s too much to ask! Please! Hear me!”
            “I can reach it,” Wolf growled. With fiery determination, his eyes focused on the faces of those he loved so dearly. He would not leave them.
Another tremor rocked the cavern. The obelisk shifted slightly, one end sliding further towards the edge of the precipice.
            “Wolf! Please let it go. They are in the past. But I’m here now! Wolf! I don’t want to lose you!”
Something in her voice made him turn. Tears dropped from her eyes as she offered him her arm. He saw her desperation, and something else. Love.
A rush of stones plummeted beside him. He looked at the locket once more before turning back to Demelza, her arm still waiting eagerly to receive his grasp. He had no place to put his feet to jump. He took a deep breath and pushed off with one arm, hurling the other upwards in one final, desperate lunge.
Their hands smacked hard, clasping each other. Wolf brought his other arm up to meet hers. When they appeared secure, the warriors pulled the pair to the top of the obelisk, and they all crawled to the place that had once served as the entrance to the stairs. Other hands reached for them, helping them to safety. They did not stop climbing until they reached the top. Another shockwave hit, and they staggered against the balustrade. Turning, they watched the giant obelisk slide into the chasm. Then all went quiet. 
Demelza still held Wolf’s hand, refusing to let it go.
            “Thanks Dem, you saved my …”
But Demelza was overcome with emotion. She knocked him to the ground and kissed him passionately. Wolf received her affection no less ardently, holding her in a loving embrace. For a few heartbeats, they kissed amidst the cheers of grinning soldiers.
            “Aha!” remarked Jocasta. “For some, there is more than just the next battle waiting down the road!” The spectators laughed. Smiles broadened upon the faces of the survivors and everyone rejoiced; they would all live to see the dawn of another day.


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