The Five Elements: Excerpt 1

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This is one of my favorite scenes. It's dark, it's raining, our heroes are running at breakneck speed away from some thing that is chasing them. There's action, there's suspense, there's a harrowing flight. Then it gets good. Read on, dear reader, read on.

Aaron would have stopped for fear of running headlong into one of the tree trunks, but Ensel Rhe, whose own vision seemed unaffected by the darkness, remained relentless, pushing them onward like the wind driving a ship through a raging storm. To Aaron, there seemed no end to it, nor to the howls that drew closer with each heaving breath.

Then Aaron saw the great wall in the near distance rising up before them. It took him a moment to understand what it was. Then it hit him. "The Narrow Cliffs," he said, choking the words out. "The dogs—the dogs—"

"Yes," Master Rhe replied, the single word the only confirmation—the only shard of hope—he offered.

The dogs couldn't climb.

Against the gray of the horizon the cliffs were a sheet of black, like a chasm to which they willingly hurled themselves. But the cliffs were not their doom. A remnant of some past upheaval, the cliffs separated the Erundian from the Upper Shelf. They had only to reach them. Reach them, and climb them.

A belch of thunder shook the ground beneath their feet. Its sound was not loud enough to disguise the snarls of their pursuers. Ensel Rhe never slowed. "Don't look back!" he shouted just as another crack of thunder caused Aaron's heart to miss a beat. Then the eslar released Aaron and shoved him forward. "Get to the cliffs!" Without Ensel Rhe's support, Aaron nearly crumbled, but another shout made him find his legs and keep running. "Go!" Then Aaron heard the eslar's weapons leave their sheaths and he suddenly realized just how close their pursuers were.

Without Master Rhe to lead him, Aaron stumbled through the dark. Fear of what might happen should he slow drove him, though, and so he did his best dodging trees or leaping over jumbles of rock. He slipped only once on some rain-slick leaves, and then he was there, standing before the Narrow Cliffs. They rose as tall as once great Regrok, though this was not mortar and stone but a wall of dirt, clay, and protruding roots. Not wasting a moment, Aaron dispelled aching joints and sore muscles as he took hold of the lowermost roots bursting from the cliff face. Then he started to climb. Everything but the blood pounding in his ears and the cool touch of the damp roots fell away as that solitary act became his focus. Still, concentration was only half the battle; strength was the rest. It was something Aaron had in short supply, and so he'd not made it far at all when he realized he could go no further.

As if in mockery, the clouds opened, releasing drops light and fat that pattered on the ground beneath him and against the earthen face of the cliff. In moments, though, it erupted into a steady downpour. Aaron peered upward; he saw nothing but the dark of the cliffs and the sky. He dared not risk a glance down least he lose his balance and fall. Desperate to reach the top, but unable to will his muscles on, he clung to the cliff face and did nothing at all.

"Hurry!"

Ensel Rhe's voice coming from the dark shook Aaron back to the here and now. The eslar leapt half the distance Aaron had already climbed, clinging to the wall like a spider. "Go on," he shouted, "but steadily!"

The barking of the dogs followed his arrival only by seconds.

"Make sure each handhold is secure and the same for your feet before you release anything. I will be behind you the whole way. Just concentrate on moving upward."

It was enough to lend Aaron a modicum of resolve as he tried to climb higher. He managed to grasp the next highest root and, with Ensel Rhe there to guide his feet, pull himself up. He repeated the motion, gaining higher ground with each bit of energy expended. Below, he heard the dogs, yapping and snarling. He imagined them leaping up the cliff face, desperate to reach their prey, but then falling back down to earth as their paws failed them. He did his best to shut out their noise, concentrating instead on Ensel Rhe's voice as the eslar continued to offer words of encouragement whilst marking their progress with words of 'halfway now' and 'only a little further'. The downpour loosened mud along the cliff face; rivulets dripped down onto the roots, making them slick. Ensel Rhe, recognizing the danger, closed up with Aaron. All the while, he kept up his litany of encouragement. Aaron grew so intent on listening to the eslar's words that he scant realized they'd crested the top until he was no longer climbing but crawling horizontally through the mud. Not caring about the wetness of the grass or the damp, clumpy dirt, Aaron slumped to his belly in exhaustion. Snarls of disappointment sounded from the base of the cliff as the hounds came to realize their failure. Aaron rolled to his back, watching as Master Rhe peered out over the cliff's edge.

"What do you see?" Aaron asked, his breathing labored. "What do they look like?" He imagined giant mastiffs or some other hunting dog, big and ugly and mean.

The eslar backed away from the edge. "You should move further back."

"Why?" Aaron didn't want to move another inch. "The dogs—they can't climb." Aaron swallowed. "Can they?"

Ensel Rhe removed his jacket and, in one quick motion, drew his khatesh. "The dogs, no. But their master..."

Aaron shot upright. "They have a master?"

"Yes," Ensel Rhe said as he held his jacket out to Aaron for safekeeping, "and I think he wants the kill himself."