The two small figures chanted in time to the drumbeat that reverberated through the cave and down the labyrinthine passages of the subterranean dwelling. Their chant droned on and the large silver wheel shuddered on its axis. Ponderously, the great weight turned, gathering momentum until the giant spokes flashed and blurred into a flat silver disk. The hum of the wheel became a whine that rose in pitch until it could no longer be heard, but which was still felt as the chill air of the cave vibrated around the chanters.
Their attention was focused on the wall of the cave where a red glow smouldered on the black stone. They quickened the pace of the chant to match the frenetic rhythm of their drumbeat. The glow brightened to orange with flashes of green; it appeared to be eating through the rock, boring a tunnel that stretched into infinity. The wheel vibrated with the strain, and its axis trembled as it supported the mighty, spinning weight. With a flourish, the two drummers executed a final drum roll and a blast echoed through the cave. Bright light illuminated the tunnel for a few seconds and then it faded, leaving a sparkling mist in its wake. The wheel slowed and the sound died away.
The rainbow mist swirled in the tunnel entrance; impossibly beautiful but forbidden. The small men exchanged frightened glances as they surveyed the results of their efforts. Quickly, they scurried from the cave and began the long climb to the upper levels.
They could hear the troll long before they reached the cave where he made his home. His demented cackle echoed along the passage as they approached. Quietly, not keen to distract him, they peered into the cave and listened to him gloat.
"When I finish with her, that interfering girl will wish she had never heard of Isshuay."
Hunched over a small fire in the centre of the cave was a large troll. The fire's glow reflected in the creature's black eyes, giving them a sinister red glow. His twisted mouth smirked as he waited for the news he was sure must come soon. The men eyed each other apprehensively then crept forward into the cave.
The troll leapt to his feet as the two approached, and his huge body towered over them. "Well!" he snapped. "Is it done?"
"It is done, Goran," the taller of the two responded. "We have opened a path through the Shimmering to the Other World."
"But can you find the girl?" Goran asked impatiently.
"Yes. The Isshuayan silver the girl wears will lead us to her," the man replied. "But you must keep your end of the bargain."
Goran waved his hands dismissively. "When I have the girl, you are free to go."
The two shared a worried glance then one of them said, "We do not know how long the opening will last. It is unstable. It may last an hour or less. If one is caught inside there is no way back."
Goran lumbered towards them with an angry roar. "Then go now! Get the girl and bring her here. Do not lose this chance or I will crush you both. Go!"
Propelled by a kick, the silversmiths stumbled from the cave and retraced their steps down through the labyrinth with the troll following close behind.
The silversmith race resided in the western mountains of Isshuay, but these two had been prospecting far to the east when they happened upon the starving troll. Although smiths were a reclusive race by nature, they were not unfeeling and could not ignore a creature in need. They invited him into the system of caves that was their temporary base and shared their food with this stranger who had wandered far from his home in the south.
Wary of him at first, they continued their work tracking the rich veins of ore and extracting the silver. Gradually, the troll gained their trust. He tended the fire, insisted on doing much of the heavy lifting in the mine and willingly took on the task of preparing meals. But what had been a stroke of luck for Goran turned out to be a bitter blow for the small artisans.
One evening, while they ate, drank and laughed together, Goran praised and flattered the smiths while he plied them with their own ale. When the men were feeling particularly mellow, Goran quizzed them on their magical talents and knowledge of the Shimmering.
"Ah, the Shimmering; perilous pathway to the Other World," he mused, while the three basked in the fire's warmth. "In my travels I've heard a tale or two about the silversmiths and the Shimmering."
"Ha!" Steen, the elder of the smiths laughed. "There are many tales told of the smiths. Few have the truth of it."
"Then perhaps you could enlighten me," crooned the troll. "Set me straight, so to speak. They say the smiths have the magic to fashion a path from here to the Other World. What is the truth of that?"
Steen shook his head while his friend, Tor, nearly choked on his mouthful of ale. "You've heard wrong, hasn't he, Tor?"
The younger man gestured towards the troll with his cup, spilling a little on his leg. "Where did you hear that? Who spreads tales of smiths that ought never to leave our mountain hall?"
Steen elbowed Tor hard in the ribs. He grunted and glared at his friend. "I'm only saying that even if it could be done, which it can't, we wouldn't do it...more than our lives are worth to do a thing like that." Tor shuddered. "No, we wouldn't risk that...far too dangerous."
"Then it can be done," Goran said, his black eyes glittering with excitement.
Steen glared at his friend. "No, no!" he hastened to respond. "No truth in that at all. It's just a tale." Yet a quick glance at Goran did nothing to calm his growing unease.
Goran then began to talk about the riches to be found in the Other World for anyone enterprising enough to undertake the journey. He suggested that wondrous goods that had never been seen in Isshuay were there for the taking.
"Smiths do not steal!" they told him indignantly. "We have wealth enough! Isshuay provides all we need."
The troll was undeterred. He watched Steen and Tor across the flames, clenching his great fists as he spoke. "There is an Other World girl, Ali Conroy by name. She has done me a great wrong and owes me a debt. You two will open a path to the Other World, find her and bring her to me."
The silversmiths protested loudly – under no circumstances would they undertake such an insane venture. Tampering with the Shimmering was strictly forbidden. Only the Silver Ones were allowed to traverse those rainbow highways, and even then, only in times of need.
Their refusal to aid Goran roused his anger; he repaid them for their kindness by imprisoning them deep within the caves. The condition of their release was dependent on the successful capture of the girl. Steadfastly, the men refused to agree to Goran's demands, stating that to do such a thing was to risk the wrath of the Creators. Many beatings later, broken in spirit and longing for freedom, they acceded to his demands and began the task of building the wheel.
The method of opening a path through the Shimmering and treading its ways unscathed was known to all smiths yet had never been tried before. A huge amount of silver was required to create the machinery and magical expertise was needed to operate it. In the silversmith craft, magic was used to extract silver from the ore and to fashion the valuable pieces for which the smiths were famous. Their magical abilities had been sorely tested in this, their largest and most ambitious creation.
They worked carefully but slowly, delaying as often as they could, hoping that a miracle would occur to prevent them ever having to activate the wheel. It took several months until they were ready and many weeks of trials, until finally, they had done the unthinkable.
Trembling, they took their first fearful steps into the rainbow mist and hoped the Creators would forgive them.
* * *
Goran watched the smiths vanish into the Shimmering. He strode over to inspect the prison that had been made ready for the girl. A natural watercourse flowed through the mountain at these depths, warmed by the subterranean coals that had simmered for thousands of years. Over time, the watercourse had carved out a small cavern at the back of the larger cave providing a washing and toilet area. It was an obvious place to imprison the girl for an infinite time.
He'd had the smiths construct a metal cage to enclose the area, wrought with binding spells to prevent her from using those powers that had been Goran's undoing when Ali was last in the land. She would not have the chance to use them on him again.
During the long months of his banishment, Goran had dreamed of his revenge. Ali Conroy, the girl from the Other World – the girl who had stolen his Lifestone then brushed him aside as if he were no more than a minor irritation. She would pay for her impudence. A chuckle of pure malice echoed through the cave as Goran settled down to wait for the return of the smiths.
* * *
Susan Weston sighed contentedly as she sat next to her friend, Ali, on the shady riverbank. Ali lay on the grass feigning sleep as a gentle breeze ruffled her blonde hair. They both loved days like this. It was summer holidays and hot lazy days stretched before them.
The girls had been friends since Ali Conroy had moved to Briarlea with her mother seven years ago, after her father's death in a car accident. Ali had always been a shy daydreamer, but a year ago everything changed. The fears Ali had harboured that had prevented her from doing all the things she longed to do were gone. She was now one of the stars on the volleyball team, and had become a much sought-after participant in many of their school's activities.
When Susan had returned from her family holiday last summer, Ali had dreamed up her best story ever. She'd travelled to a world far away, fallen for this cute kid, met these unreal people and done a lot of things to save their world from a major disaster. Susan had laughed and told her to get a life, but Ali had just smiled and never mentioned it again – which wasn't like her at all. Susan could almost believe that something must have happened to have changed the old Ali into this new, confident girl – certainly not a trip into an imaginary realm – but something.
She looked at her watch. "I've gotta go, I told Mum I'd be home by five." She poked Ali with her toe. "Get up lazybones; it's time to get back. You promised to lend me your new DVD. I'll call in at your place on the way home."
Ali stirred and stretched in the warm shadows. "Mmm," she murmured sleepily. "Okay, I'm coming." Slowly the two got to their feet and padded down the track beside the river towards Ali's home.
Ali pushed open the gate and led Susan along the path beside her house. A strangled cry pierced the air; it came from inside. Ali bolted towards the back door and burst in with Susan following close on her heels. The scene that confronted them in Ali's kitchen was like something out of a nightmare.
Where the stove and work bench had been in the neat kitchen, there was now a circular swirling rainbow, a kaleidoscope of colours that transformed the room into an almost disco-like setting. Amidst the swirling reflections, Ali's mother, Jane, was lying half under the table, struggling with two small yet muscular men. They were dressed alike in warm leather jackets, pants and boots.
"Let her go!" Ali cried out as she dived towards her mum, but the intruders were faster. One of them directed a puff of spray from a small vial towards Jane's nose and she slumped limply into the arms of the other. Swiftly, he hefted her across his back, stepped into the rainbow circle and disappeared.
Susan stood stunned at the kitchen door, unable to accept what she was seeing. Ali grabbed the remaining intruder, grasping his jacket before he could follow his friend into the swirling gateway. She hung on grimly as he struggled to free himself from her desperate grasp, babbling in a strange tongue and becoming more frantic by the moment.
"What have you done with my mum?" Ali screamed at him, all the while keeping an anxious eye on the gateway so tantalizingly close. "That's the Shimmering, isn't it? You're from Isshuay...that's where you've taken her!"
Suddenly, the little fellow twisted in her grip and grasped her hand. He stared at the small ring she wore. Gasping, he looked up at her, his wizened, brown face a mask of shock as he appeared to recognize her. His dark skin paled as he gibbered incoherently. Ali cried out in surprise as he grasped her and began to pull her towards the gateway.
Spurred into action, Susan leapt across the room and threw her arms around her friend. Her added weight was just enough to make it too hard for the man to pull Ali across the threshold. The rainbow lights began to waver and dim. Uttering a cry of despair, the man abruptly released his hold on the girl and tumbled into the fading portal just before it winked out.