Dawn hung above the sweeping ridges and peaks of the Dragon's Teeth with a cold, gray determination that was neither cheerful nor welcome. The warmth and brightness of the rising sun was entirely screened away by low cloud banks and heavy mist that settled into the ominous heights and did not stir. The winds blew with vicious force over the barren rocks, whipping through canyons and craggy drops, across slopes and ridges, cutting into the scant vegetation and bending it close to the point of breaking, yet slipping through the mixture of clouds and mist with elusive quickness, leaving it unexplainably and strangely motionless. The sound of the wind was like the deep roar of the ocean breaking on an open beach, heavy and rolling, blanketing the empty peaks in a peculiar drone that, when one had been enveloped for a while, created its own level of silence. Birds rose and fell with the wind, their cries scattered and muffled. There were few animals at this height--isolated herds of a particularly tough breed of mountain goat and small, furry mice that inhabited the innermost recesses of the rocks. The air was more than chill; it was bitterly cold. Snow covered the upper reaches of the Dragon's Teeth, and changes in the seasons had little effect at this altitude on a temperature that seldom reached thirty degrees.
These were treacherous mountains, vast, towering and incredibly massive. On this morning they seemed shrouded with a strange expectancy, and the eight men who comprised the little company from Culhaven could not ignore the feeling of uneasiness that preoccupied their thoughts as they trudged deeper into the cold and the gray. It was more than the disturbing prophecy of Bremen or even the knowledge that they would soon attempt to pass through the forbidden Hall of Kings. Something was waiting for them, something that had patience and cunning, a life force that lay hidden in the barren, rocky terrain they were passing through, filled with vindictive hatred of them, watching as they struggled deeper into the giant mountains that shut away the ancient kingdom of Paranor. They trudged northward in a ragged line, strung out against the misty skyline, their bodies wrapped tightly in woolen cloaks for protection against the cold, their faces bent before the wind. The slopes and canyons were covered with loose rock and split by hidden crevices that made the footing extremely hazardous. More than once, a member of the little band went down in a shower of loose rock and dirt. But still the thing concealed in the land chose not to show itself, content merely to let its presence be known and to wait for the effect of that knowledge to wear away at the resistance of the eight men. The hunters would then become the hunted.
It did not take long. Doubts began to gnaw quietly, persistently at their tired minds--doubts that rose phantomlike from the fears and secrets the men concealed deep within. Locked away from one another by the cold and the roar of the rising wind, each man was cut off from his companions, and the inability to communicate only heightened the growing feeling of uneasiness. Only Hendel was immune. His taciturn, solitary nature had hardened him against self-doubt, and his harrowing escape from the maddened Gnomes in the Pass of Jade had drained him at least temporarily of any fear of death. He had come close to dying, so close that in the end only instinct had saved him. The Gnomes had come at him from every direction, swarming up the slope in reckless disregard, enraged to the point where only bloodshed would quiet their hatred. He had been quick, slipping back into the fringes of the Wolfsktaag, motionless in the brush, coolly letting the Gnomes overextend themselves until one had come within reach. It had taken only seconds to stun the unsuspecting hunter, to cloak his captive in his own distinctive Dwarf habit, and then yell for assistance. In the darkness, flushed with the excitement of the hunt, the Gnomes were unable to recognize anything except the cloak. They tore their own brother to pieces without realizing it. Hendel had stayed hidden and slipped through the pass the following day. He had survived once again.
The Valemen and the Elves did not possess Hendel's strong sense of self-reliance. The prophecy of the Shade of Bremen had left them stunned. The words seemed to repeat themselves over and over in the howl of the mountain winds. One of them was going to die. Oh, the words of the prophecy had phrased it differently than that, but the implication was unmistakable. It was a bitter prospect to face, and none of them could really accept it. Somehow they would find a way to prove the prediction wrong.
Far in the lead, his great frame bent against the driving force of the mountain winds, Allanon was mulling over the events that had transpired in the Valley of Shale. He considered for the hundredth time his strange confrontation with the Shade of Bremen, the aged Druid doomed to wander in limbo until the Warlock Lord was finally destroyed. Yet it was not the appearance of the driven wraith that so disturbed him now. It was the terrible knowledge which he carried, buried deep among his blackest truths. His foot struck a projecting rock, causing him to stumble slightly, and he fought to keep his balance. A wheeling hawk screamed shrilly in the grayness and shot down out of the sky over a distant ridge. The Druid turned slightly as the thin line following struggled to keep pace. He had learned more from the Shade than the words of the prophecy. But he had not told the others, those who had trusted him, the whole truth, just as he had not told them the whole story behind the legendary Sword of Shannara. His deep-set eyes blazed with inner fury at the predicament in which he had placed himself in not telling them everything, and for a moment he even considered doing so. They had given so much of themselves, and the giving had only begun. . . . But a moment later, he wrenched the idea from his thoughts. Necessity was a higher god than truth.
The grayness of dawn passed slowly into the grayness of midday, and the march into the Dragon's Teeth wore on. The ridges and slopes appeared and faded with a dreary sameness that created the impression in the minds of the laboring travelers that no progress was being made. Ahead, a vast, towering line of peaks rose bleakly against the misty northern horizon, and it appeared that they were moving directly into a wall of impenetrable stone. Then they entered a broad canyon which wound sharply downward into a narrow, twisting path that broke between two huge cliffs and faded into the heavy mist. Allanon led them into the swirling grayness as the horizon disappeared and the wind died into stillness. The silence was abrupt and unexpected, sounding almost like a soft whisper through the towering mass of rock, speaking in hushed, cautious words in the ears of the groping travelers. Then the pass widened slightly and the mist cleared to a faint haze, revealing a high, cavernous opening in the cliff face where the winding passage ended.
The entrance to the Hall of Kings.
It was awesome, majestic, frightening. On either side of the rectangular black entryway stood two monstrous stone statues carved into the rock and rising well over a hundred feet against the dark cliff face. The stone sentries had been fashioned in the shape of armor-clad warriors, standing watchfully in the deep gloom, hands gripping the pommels of huge swords which rested blade downward at their feet. Their weathered, bearded faces were scarred by time and the wind, yet the eyes seemed almost alive, fixed carefully on the eight mortals who stood at the threshold of the ancient hall they guarded. Above the great entryway, scrolled into the rock, three words of a language centuries old and long forgotten served as a warning to those who would enter that this was the tomb of the dead. Beyond the vast opening, all was blackness and silence.
Allanon gathered them closely around him.
"Years ago, before the First War of the Races, a cult of men whose origins have been lost in time, served as priests for the gods of death. Within these caverns, they buried the monarchs of the four lands along with their families, servants, favorite possessions, and much of their wealth. The legend grew that only the dead could survive within these chambers, and only the priests were permitted to see that the dead rulers were interred. All others who entered were never seen again. In time, the cult died out, but the evil instilled in the Hall of Kings continued to exist, blindly to serve the priests whose bones had years before returned to the earth. Few men have ever passed . . ."
He caught himself, seeing in the eyes of his listeners the unasked question.
"I have been through the Hall of Kings--I alone from this age, and now you. I am a Druid, the last to walk this earth. Like Bremen, like Brona before him, I have studied the black arts, and I am a sorcerer. I do not possess the power of the Dark Lord--but I can get us safely through these caverns to the other side of the Dragon's Teeth."
"And then?" Balinor's question came softly out of the mist.
"A narrow cliff-trail men call the Dragon's Crease leads downward out of the mountains. Once there, we will be within sight of Paranor."
There was a long, awkward silence. Allanon knew what they were thinking; disregarding it, he continued.
"Beyond this entrance, there are a number of passages and chambers, a maze to one who does not know the way. Some of these are dangerous, some are not. Soon after we enter, we will reach the tunnel of the Sphinxes, giant statues like these sentries, but carved as half man, half beast. If you look into their eyes, you will be turned to stone instantly. So you must be blindfolded. In addition you will be roped to one another. You must concentrate on me, think only of me, for their will, their mental command, is strong enough to force you to tear off the blindfolds and gaze into their eyes."
The seven men looked at one another doubtfully. Already they were beginning to question the soundness of this whole approach.
"Once past the Sphinxes, there are several harmless passages leading to the Corridor of the Winds, a tunnel inhabited by invisible beings called Banshees after the legendary astral spirits. They are no more than voices, but those voices will drive mortal men insane. Your ears will be bound for protection, but again the important thing for you to do is to concentrate on me, let my mind blanket yours to prevent it from receiving the full force of those voices. You must relax; do not fight me. Do you understand?"
He counted seven barely perceptible nods.
"Once beyond the Corridor of the Winds, we will be in the Tomb of the Kings. Then there will be only one more obstacle . . ."
He stopped talking, his eyes turned warily to the cavern entrance. For a moment it seemed he might finish the sentence, but instead he motioned them toward the dark entryway. They stood uneasily between the stone giants, the graying mist clouding the high cliff walls surrounding them, the black, yawning opening before them waiting like the open maw of some great beast of prey. Allanon produced a number of wide cloth strips and gave one to each man. Utilizing a heavy length of climbing rope, the little group bound themselves to one another, the surefooted Durin taking the lead position, the Prince of Callahorn again assuming his post as rear guard. The blindfolds were securely fastened in place and hands were joined to form a chain. A moment later, the line moved cautiously through the entrance to the Hall of Kings.
There was a deep, hushed stillness in the caverns, magnified by the sudden dying of the winds and the echoing of their footfalls along the rocky passageway. The tunnel floor was strangely smooth and level, but the cold that had settled into the aged stone from centuries of constant temperatures seeped quickly through their tensed bodies and left them chill and shaking. No one spoke, each man trying to relax as Allanon led them carefully through a series of gently winding turns. In the middle of the groping line, Shea felt Flick's hand grip his own tightly in the blackness that surrounded them. They had drawn closer to each other since their flight from the Vale, bound now by ties of experiences shared more than by kinship. Whatever happened to them, Shea felt they would never lose that closeness. Nor would he forget what Menion had done for him. He thought about the Prince of Leah for a moment and found himself smiling. The highlander had changed so much during the past few days that he was almost a different person. The old Menion was still in evidence, but there was a new dimension to him that Shea found difficult to define. But then all of them, Menion, Flick, and himself, had changed in little ways that could not be readily detected until each man was considered as a whole. He wondered if Allanon had seen the changes in him--Allanon, who had always treated him somehow as less than a man, more a boy.
They came to an unsteady halt, and in the deep silence that followed the commanding voice of the Druid leader whispered soundlessly in the mind of each man: Remember my warning, let your thoughts turn to me, concentrate only on me. Then the line moved forward, the booted feet echoing hollowly on the cavern floor. Immediately the blindfolded men could sense the presence of something waiting ahead of them, watching silently, patiently. The seconds flitted away as the company moved deeper into the cavern. The men became aware of huge, still forms rising up on either side--images carved of stone with faces that were human, but attached to the crouched bodies of indescribable beasts. The Sphinxes. In their minds the men could see those eyes, burning past the fading image of Allanon, and they began to feel the strain of trying to concentrate on the giant Druid. The insistent will of the stone monsters pushed into their brains, weaving and tangling into their scattered thoughts, working tenaciously toward the moment when human eyes would meet their own lifeless gaze. Each man began to feel a rapidly growing urge to rip away the restraining cloth which shackled his sight, to strip away the darkness and gaze freely on the wondrous creatures staring silently down on him.
Excerpted from The Sword of Shannara: The Druids' Keep by Terry Brooks. Copyright © 2003 by Terry Brooks. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.