The Skull of the World
Isabeau saw an angry red glow ahead. The smell was so strong it choked her throat so she could hardly breathe. Forcing herself on, she rubbed her stinging eyes and saw the tunnel floor was split by a glowing fissure. Her heart sinking, she crept close to its lip and peered over. The fracture in the stone plunged as far as she could see, bubbling with black fumes and burning with that sullen red light. Then an arc of boiling stone flung itself up as if reaching for her. She threw herself backward. Heart pounding, she stood pressed against the wall, almost overcome by the fumes and her own fear. The far side seemed a mile away, though if it had been a little burn of clear water dancing along below her Isabeau would have leaped the gap gaily and without a second thought.
    She could have transformed into an owl and flown across the flickering red gap, but that meant leaving behind her furs, her skimmer, and her limp satchel with its handful of nuts, bark and lichens. No matter how scanty her supplies, it had taken Isabeau the better part of a day to collect them and she had no desire to emerge on the far side of the mountain naked, cold and hungry.
    So she gathered together her strength and her courage, ran down the corridor and leaped the fissure, landing on the far side with space to spare. Her legs gave way beneath her and she stumbled and rolled in a tangle of fur, wood and flesh; lying still at last, rather shaken and bruised but alive. Buba flew down to rest on her hip, hooting in amusement.
    "It's grand for ye," Isabeau said crossly. "Ye can just spread your wings and fly but I have to rely on my own two legs."
    Yon-hooh could-hooh swoop-soar too-hooh, the elf-owl replied smugly.
    "Only if I left behind all my stuff and I dinna wish to do that!" Isabeau pushed the owl off her hip, got up rather gingerly, and rearranged the skimmer and satchel so they no longer banged together around her neck but hung down her back as they should. She then set off down the tunnel again, limping slightly and wishing her furs were not so heavy.
    It had been early morning when Isabeau had entered the World's Mouth and by the grumbles in her stomach she judged it must now be nearing lunchtime. The tunnel had widened out into a series of small caves, some with odd structures like smooth stalactites hanging from the walls. She spread out her coat and sat down for a rest, rummaging through her satchel for something to eat. The contents were most depressing to a young woman with a healthy appetite, but she chewed away on what she had, stroking Buba's feathery head as the owl settled down for a snooze. Then on into the darkness she went, every fiber of her being longing for blue sky and a fresh cool breeze once more.
    The caves grew larger and more spectacular. She came to one with a small loch in its center, the water bubbling and hissing and wreathed with steam. As Isabeau made her way around its shore, all pitted and stained with gray ash, a sudden fountain of boiling water shot up into the air, spraying her with sizzling hot droplets. Instinctively she flung up her arm with its drapery of shaggy fur, which took the brunt of the spray. Nonetheless one cheek and the back of one hand still stung and she had to fight back tears of shock and pain. She hurried away from the pool, almost tripping over the body of a young Khan'cohban boy who had not escaped so lightly. He had not been dead for long, horribly disfigured by the steam which had doused him. Isabeau saw with some relief that he was not the boy who had helped her. She drew the crossed circle, the sign of Ea's blessing, upon his blistered brow then moved away, her legs trembling. She crouched against the wall, as far away from the sinister pool as she could get, and dug around in her pack, until she found the little pot of healing salve she carried there. She tended the burns as well as she could with her maimed hand, then quickly hurried on, feeling a growing hatred for this dark journey.

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