Chapter twenty seven
THE VOICES OF THE LOST
Saramis had to admit to a certain fascination of the surroundings they now found themselves traveling through. The land here was broken, filled with gullies and ravines, the sides of which were often sheered away to reveal dozens of layers of rocks, each a different shade of orange or red or brown. He had to admit the effect was quite striking. More interesting still they often came upon peculiarly shaped rock formations. Large natural arches could be seen at times, towering over their heads. Occasionally they would even pass right through one. He saw rocks piled on top of one another, each one smaller than the one below, like some kind of pyramid that someone had tediously built, yet the rocks were much too large for someone to have placed there. There were huge rock formations that narrowed to a small neck at the bottom, looking as if they would topple at the merest touch. He had never seen anything quite like this and at times it almost felt like he was on another planet.
Saramis’ fascination, however, was tempered by the physical difficulties they faced traveling through this land. Though the Marbury Hills could not compare to the Capar Mountains when it came to grandeur that didn’t mean they were easy to pass through. The southern end of the Marbury Hills was the only area of the Galian peninsula that was still sparsely populated, and with good reason. The plentiful rains that blessed this area of the Kingdom did not fall here, having spent themselves on the lands farther north. Ktan and his companions now walked though a desert. The green of the great forests of the north had been left far behind. Even the golden yellow of the fields of wheat and corn the farmers were soon to harvest had faded away. Now all around them they saw only the reds and browns of naked rock. The land around them was uneven, and though the hills themselves were not very high the slopes were often steep, and there seemed no end to them. Saramis wasn’t sure how many times they had labored to the top of one only to see just as steep an incline leading down the other side and ahead of them, yet another hill.
Worse yet, this had to be traversed on foot. They had left the horses behind at a small village. Jenya had explained that the horses could not possibly pass through the caverns that led to the Pit. Nor could they leave the horses tied up somewhere for it would take days to get through the caves and back and of course they didn’t dare to travel along the only road that ran though these hills for fear of being spotted. For Saramis, never one to put great store in physical exertion, this marching up and down hills all day was a thoroughly unpleasant experience, and from what little Jenya had told them, the hardships they were now suffering were nothing compared to the caves that lay ahead. And after that, if they should manage to survive that long, why the Pit itself, the hellhole that Varamin had created to house prisoners he particularly disliked, the very place he would likely send them if he ever captured them, the one place on earth it seemed to him they would wish to avoid at all costs.
And worse than that still, Ktan and Jenya, no founts of conversation to begin with, had fallen more and more silent as they progressed, until lately they had hardly bothered to say a word all day long. They had their reasons, Ktan more and more worried about their two missing companions, about what they were leaving behind, Jenya, the only one to have passed this way before, concerned about what lay ahead. It seemed to Saramis that, given all the trouble he was going through to help, a bit of decent conversation was not too much to ask. If it wasn’t for Allios he thought he would have gone mad before the end of the first day.
Not that Allios was exactly a chatterbox himself. The course of recent events weighed heavily on him, understandably so. His thoughts were on what lay ahead as well, and Saramis’ attempts to lighten the mood had so far fallen flat. But even talk about gloom and doom was better to Saramis than the silence his two friends seemed so fond of shrouding themselves in.
Perhaps he would have felt a little better if he had some idea as to what lay ahead. Unfortunately that seemed to be a taboo subject. Jenya would say nothing about it, ignoring all of Saramis’ attempts to prod the information out of her. He could understand her reluctance to speak. He knew she had been held prisoner in the Pit. It had come up once, a long time ago, but she had given him no details. It had happened long before he met them. He doubted even Ktan knew the exact particulars of what had befallen her there. From the rumors he had heard he knew it must have been a horrible experience and he could understand if she didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to think about it. Still, the caves they needed to pass through were not the Pit itself. It seemed to him that she shouldn’t have any qualms talking about that and wouldn’t it be prudent for them to have some inkling of what lay ahead before they ran into it? He would think that Ktan, of all people, knowing the man’s cautious nature, would want to know what dangers they might be facing. When Jenya had proven uncooperative in divulging information he had turned to Ktan, giving him a look that he hoped conveyed his feelings that Jenya should be more forthcoming, but Ktan had been no help at all. He seemed perfectly content to see for himself the undoubtedly myriad dangers that they would have to face rather than show the merest hint of curiosity. It was the kind of stoicism that Ktan so often displayed and that drove Saramis up a wall. He was certain Ktan was well aware of this and often did it for that very purpose.
There was one more thing that was bothering him. He suspected the real reason Ktan didn’t press Jenya on the matter was because he knew she didn’t want to talk about it and he went along to spare her feelings. Ordinarily Ktan wasn’t one to let anyone’s feelings get in the way of what they had to do. He was certain if it were anyone else Ktan would be more than willing to give them the third degree on the matter. Well, maybe not anyone else. If it was Merigan Saramis didn’t think Ktan would press either but he could understand that. Merigan was only fifteen, barely more than a child. Jenya was an adult. He had to admit to a little bit of resentment of Ktan treating Jenya with what he considered to be kid’s gloves.
There seemed, however, little he could do about that. And he had to admit he was being perhaps a bit selfish. Ktan and Jenya had known each other for years, had been through a lot together. They had both been Sacred Knights. Was it so hard for him to think Ktan would be a bit kinder to Jenya than anyone else? Of course not. The man was human after all, no matter how much he tried to hide it. In fact, Saramis had often wondered why the Ktan and Jenya weren’t… well, a couple. They had traveled together off and on, mostly on, the entire eight years he had known them, and had been friends for far longer than that. They had both been knights, and they certainly got along well enough. Being together like that for so long, well, he would hardly be surprised if they were more than friends by now. Would have expected it actually. Yet he had seen no sign of anything like that. In front of him they had acted like friends, close friends yes but nothing more. Of course he hadn’t been with them every minute of the day for the last eight years. They had been alone often enough, had had the opportunity to spend some time together if they wished. But if they had, he was certain he would have seen some clue, was certain they wouldn’t be able to hide it from him. It wasn’t anything for them to be ashamed of, after all. He certainly wouldn’t object if they wanted to go off and spent some time together alone. But he had seen nothing like that. He wasn’t sure why. He could see that they were both willing enough, even if they couldn’t see it themselves. He had a feeling the mission they were on had something to do with that. Having known Ktan all these years one word that he could think of to describe the man was driven. He could think of a few other words too, some less flattering. Paranoid came to mind but that was another matter. He was certain his friends (especially Jenya) could think of some rather unflattering words for him as well. He wasn’t foolish enough to not be aware of his many foibles, though of course he would never actually admit them to anyone. But now he was digressing. For as long as he had known Ktan the man had been driven by one single purpose, to help Merigan become what she should have been, to right the grievous wrong that had been done to the Maidens of Donelan, even if it seemed he sometimes wasn’t quite sure exactly how this task could be accomplished. Ktan had only this on his mind and until that task was accomplished he wouldn’t let himself think of anything else, wouldn’t let himself think about having a life. It took a singular man to remain focused on one goal for so many years. Saramis was certain he could not have done it, would have thought no one could and he supposed that was one of the reasons he had stuck by Ktan for all this time. No one would have begrudged Ktan a chance to take some time off to try to lead a normal life but he had not done so. As long as their quest was unfulfilled Ktan had no time for life or love.
That was Saramis’ take on it, anyway. But what did he know? He had long ago given up trying to understand what made Ktan tick.
His ruminations were interrupted as Ktan decided to call a halt. It was late afternoon now, and after having spent the entire morning struggling up and down the hills around them Saramis was glad for it. Glad also to have something to eat, even if it was the rather unappealing bread, cheese and dried meats that Jenya had purchased for the trip while they were in Donelan. He wasn’t all that happy with that but for once he wasn’t going to complain. Besides the fact that he knew it would do no good he was well aware that they were low on coin, and what little they had could not be spent on the more appealing but also more expensive provisions that he would have preferred. He had to admit, also, that one of the things he most missed about Merigan was her ability to cook. She had somehow managed to find ways to make even the most mundane of meals more tasteful.
However, he was hardly one known to pass up a meal regardless of how delectable, or not, it might be. The food was filling if not a delight to the palate and Saramis was hungry enough from the morning’s exertion so that he as willing to partake of his fill, in fact, more than his fill, if possible. It came as no surprise to any of them that Saramis was still happily munching away when all the others were long done.
They had sat down to eat in the shade of a large boulder near the crest of another of the endless hills that surrounded them. Now Jenya got up and walked up to the top of the hill, looking to the south. Saramis glanced up at her and decided to try once more, with not much hope he had to admit, to get her to divulge a little of what was to come.
“How much father is it?” he questioned.
To his surprise she answered almost immediately.
“We’re almost there.”
She turned to look back at them.
“I’m not sure of the exact location,” she said. “It’s been a long time since I passed this way. Those three hills to the southeast I recognize, however.” At this she pointed, but they were not up at the top of the hill where she stood and could not actually see what she was pointing at. “The entrance to the cavern is a little farther south. It’s in a hill south of a gully that once must have been a riverbed, but has long since dried up. The gully twists in an oxbow and the entrance is near the western end of that. I’m not sure exactly how close we are but we should reach it before long, before nightfall surely.”
Saramis wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. His most ferverent wish for the last few days had been that this ceaseless toil would end. That would only happen, of course, when they reached the cave and he had a feeling that what they would find in there might make this ceaseless toil seem considerably more appealing.
Still, he had to look at the bright side. The closer they were to this cave the closer they were to the Pit and to their escape and the end of this quest and he promised himself that when they did indeed finish this and were safely back to civilization he would treat himself to a night at one of the most exclusive Inns in Donelan with every amenity he could possibly think of included and the price be damned.
Saramis noticed that the others had now gotten up as well and were looking at him obviously waiting for him to join them. He wolfed down the last of his food and hastily got to his feet. Their short rest seemed woefully inadequate to him but again he saw no point in bringing up that particular subject. He had done that often enough in the past for them to be fully aware of his feelings on the matter.
He followed the others as they trudged to the top of the hill and from there it came as no surprise to Saramis that the view had not improved. All around them the hills seemed to go on endlessly.
They continued on for quite some time, much longer than Jenya seemed to think it would take, or at least that was the impression Saramis got after a while. Though she said nothing he could see her looking around slowly whenever they crested a hill, and took quite a bit of time deciding on exactly which direction to lead them in. He couldn’t help but notice as well, that the sun was by now well on its way toward sinking below the horizon.
He was about to politely point this out when Jenya suddenly came to a halt in front of him. He scrambled up to the crest of yet another hill, then looked down at what was obviously an old riverbed, whatever water having carved this course long since disappeared.
"There’s the riverbed,” Jenya stated, a bit anticlimactically now. From the hill they were on they could follow its course for quite some distance. To the west it curved off to the south, disappearing behind the hills, but then reappearing again, or at least Saramis assumed it was the same riverbed, father west still. The magician concluded this must be the oxbow Jenya had been talking about.
They made their way down the hill until they stood on the dry sand that now made up the bottom of the old riverbed and followed it westward. This was much more to Saramis’ liking for the bottom of the riverbed was flat and very easy to traverse, the first level ground they had seen in days, in fact.
They followed the riverbed as it bent southward, then west again. The sun was now low on the horizon and the riverbed they followed in deep shade. Jenya slowed down, staring at the wall of the ravine to their right.
“It’s around here somewhere,” she said slowly.
The others looked as well, but no cavern entrance was immediately apparent. All Saramis saw was the rust colored dirt and rocks of the hillside.
They all stood there looking at Jenya. She remained still as well however, looking around. It seemed plain the exact location eluded her. Saramis wasn’t the only one to notice this.
“Spread out and look around,” Ktan commanded.
They separated, each heading off to a different part of the hillside that they found interesting for one reason or another.
“How do we know the entrance even still exists?” Saramis muttered as he walked. It had been over ten years since Jenya had been here. A million things could have happened in that time. The entrance could have been closed off by a rockslide or some other natural phenomena and then what would they do? Somehow he didn’t think Allios would give up if they couldn’t find the entrance but they had no back up plan. They couldn’t just walk in the front door of the place.
His ruminations on this subject were interrupted however, when Allios called out.
“I think I might have found something.”
The bowman had walked up the hill a short distance, and now stood in a shallow bowl overhung by a mass of reddish rock that looked in Saramis’ opinion to be completely unsafe to stand beneath.
The shallow bowl narrowed to a crack at the back, and at first look appeared to end there. But looking more closely Saramis could see a crevice in the back, a crevice that barely looked wide enough to fit through.
“Is this it?” he asked dubiously. It didn’t look much like a cave entrance.
Jenya stepped forward, peering into the crack in front of them.
“I’m not sure,” she replied. “I think so.”
Not the most confidence inspiring reply, Saramis thought.
Jenya strode forward, quickly disappearing from their view. Ktan was right behind her. Allios followed as well, fading into the darkness of the crevice in front of them. Before he completely disappeared, however, he stopped and looked back at the magician.
With a shrug Saramis followed. He wasn’t anxious to squeeze himself though the narrow opening in front of them only to find that it was a dead end. Still, there was no point in being left behind and at least now they were no longer climbing those infernal hills.
To his consternation the crevice seemed to get narrower still as they progressed, and soon he found himself having to turn sideways just to get through. He had never been one for tight spaces and found this development very disconcerting. He was certain the crack would come to an end in front of them at any moment now and at this point turning back would probably be a relief.
He could only see Allios in front of him, and a glimpse every once in a while of Ktan. And soon he could see even less than that as what little sunlight was left outside rapidly faded away.
The others halted in front of him and he heard Ktan’s voice.
“Saramis, we need some light.”
Saramis reached into his bag and pulled out one of many torches they had brought along, an item, in fact, which currently took up most of the space in said bag. Even so, from what little Jenya had told them it would be at least two or three days travel through the caves, and he was certain even his bagful of torches could not last the entire time. He had expressed this concern to the others but Jenya had seemed undisturbed by it, telling him, rather cryptically, that they would find light well enough when they needed it. He reflected for a moment that there had to a pun in there somewhere about him being kept in the dark but decided not to pursue it.
He lit the torch and it was passed to the front to Jenya, a rather difficult maneuver to perform in such a confined space without burning anyone.
“This is the right way,” Jenya announced from in front.
They started forward again once more after that, Saramis somewhat appeased to know at least they were on the right track, though just how Jenya had determined that escaped him. He saw nothing different or unusual about the rough walls that were sandwiching them in than he had when they had first entered. Still, it seemed he had little choice but to trust her judgment on this matter.
They went on for quite some time this way. Here in the cavern of course, they could not see the sun, had no way to mark the passage of time. Their progress was extremely slow. The tunnel was so narrow that most of the time they had to turn sideways just to get through, which did not facilitate rapid movement. Just when Saramis began to wonder whether they might spend the entire trip walking sideways the cave widened, much to the relief of all of them. They were only walking for a short time in a straightforward manner when another problem arouse. Though the tunnel was wider now the ceiling, which had been more than an arm length above Saramis head, now began to drop lower. Soon Saramis had to stoop to continue forward. Much to his annoyance, as they progressed the ceiling dropped lower still, until even Jenya had to crouch a bit to get through and Saramis was almost on his hands and knees. At this time too the tunnel started to lead them steeply downward, so steeply in fact that soon they were practically climbing down instead of walking and Saramis suspected he’d make better time sliding down on his butt. The entire effect was to make him as just about as thoroughly uncomfortable as he had been when they were climbing up and down the hills all day outside.
Eventually the roof of the tunnel once more receded, rising up above them so high now that it faded away into the darkness above, almost as if their perseverance had persuaded the cavern to relent on its insistence on constricting them. In fact the tables were turned completely when a few moments later the walls to the sides suddenly fell away as well and they now found themselves climbing down the face of an underground cliff inside what Saramis could only imagine to be some vast cavern.
The air began to grow warm as they continued to descend. This in itself was no hardship, for it had been quite cool at first and the warmth was not unpleasant. More of a concern was the fact that the air was not only warm but also laden with moisture. Soon the rocks around them began to grow damp, which made footing that much more hazardous. Saramis had to admit he hadn’t expected this, the air being so dry on the surface.
The torch Jenya held only cast a small circle of light. Beyond that all was blackness. As they made their way down Saramis found himself lifting his head and peering into the dark every so often. The claustrophobic walls were gone yet now he found himself wishing they were back, perhaps not as close to them as before but close enough to see at least, close enough to shield them from prying eyes. He couldn’t tell how far the darkness extended, couldn’t see the ceiling or any wall save the one they were now climbing down yet he got the impression the cavern they were now in was huge. Anything could be out there in the dark, anything could be lurking there. With their torch they held a beacon that could be seen from even the farthest reaches of the cavern. The uneasy feeling was growing within him that they were being watched.
Again, Saramis was not sure how long their descent continued. Like the constricting chambers of before their journey through this cavern seemed interminable. The feeling of being watched just grew stronger as they progressed. Eventually, staring off into the darkness, Saramis thought he began to see things out there, small pinpoints of yellowish light, appearing far off in the darkness. Only for a moment he would see them, before they disappeared, only to reappear a moment later in a completely different direction. He was sure at first it was just his imagination, but then they began to get closer and he realized they were always in pairs, looking like a set of eyes staring at him.
“There’s something out there,” he proclaimed, coming to a halt.
The others came to a stop as well. Allios, who stood right in front of him, turned toward him.
“So you see something as well?” he questioned. “I wasn’t sure if my mind was playing tricks on me…”
Saramis looked at Jenya, who was turning slowly, peering into the darkness.
“No tricks,” she said. “It’s the Watchers.”
They all waited for her to enlighten them, but Jenya just turned away and started down the slope once more, and it became obvious that no further explanation would be forthcoming which did not please Saramis in the least.
“The Watchers,” he repeated slowly. “Which are?”
“I don’t know what they are,” she replied. “I’ve never seen one, except for their eyes. They were here when I came through last time as well, but they never came close to me, never did anything but look at me, which is of course why I call them the Watchers. I’m fairly certain they are harmless.”
Saramis looked around uncomfortably. Jenya’s words didn’t make him feel much better. It seemed to him there was a world of difference between certain and fairly certain.
They continued their descent under the watchful eyes of… whatever it was that was watching them. Saramis kept one eye on where he was going and the other on the darkness around them, trying to catch at least a glimpse of what might be out there but they never came close enough to the light to see even an outline. Whatever they were, there were a lot of them. He often could see dozens of eyes peering at them from the darkness. As Jenya said they kept their distance, seemed harmless enough, yet the effect was nevertheless quite unnerving. Peculiar too was the fact that, though Saramis got the impression the cavern they were now in was huge and they were surrounded on all sides save the wall they were climbing down by nothingness, he could still see some of the eyes staring at them not only from the sides where he supposed the wall they were descending stood but also straight out in front of them, exactly where he expected the abyss to be. Not only that but some of the eyes looked quite close while others much farther away. If there was another wall not far in front of them it must be highly irregular in shape to permit such a thing. Saramis couldn’t quite figure it out. Perhaps the opposite wall was closer than he thought. Or perhaps the creatures were clinging to ropes or vines that hung down, or perhaps they had wings.
He listened carefully but could catch no sound of the flutter of wings. In fact, he heard no sound from them at all; even when it was obvious they were moving. They were completely silent. He found now that he kept glancing behind himself, worried they were lurking back there just waiting for the right moment to strike, in spite of Jenya’s tepid assurance they were no threat. He was last in line, the perfect target if the creatures wanted to pick them off one by one.
Rather abruptly the ground beneath their feet leveled out, the walls of the tunnel reappeared on either side of them in the torchlight and it was apparent they had reached the bottom of this particular chasm. Much to Saramis’ relief, the things around them seemed to disappear here as well, their eyes fading into the darkness behind them. At this point they stopped for a short period to rest and regain their strength after they climb down here which had been quite taxing. Saramis was grateful for that, for he was bone tired and was certain the others felt little better. He wasn’t sure how long they had been going now but the sun had been setting when they entered the caves and he was certain now it must be very late at night. He was beginning to wonder when they were going make camp and get some sleep.
“How much longer we going to go on?” he questioned.
“Just a little bit farther,” Jenya replied.
That sounded good to Saramis, as long as her idea of a little bit farther wasn’t much different from his.
Allios walked a few paces farther down the cavern, until he stood at the very edge of the light, staring off into the darkness ahead of them. In spite of how tired he was he felt little urge to rest. He was anxious to get on with it, anxious to find his brother. He had heard enough rumors about the Pit to want to get Arlen out of there as fast as possible. He frowned then, looking off into the darkness, for he perceived what looked like a light ahead, a faint greenish glow in the darkness.
“What is that I see ahead?” he questioned. “Some kind of light?”
Jenya got up at this and walked over beside him.
“Yes,” she said. “C’mon.”
She started off into the darkness. Saramis looked at the back of her head sourly. He had thought they were going to rest, at least for a little while. Hadn’t that been the idea of stopping in the first place? Had she forgotten?
He got up to follow, having little choice since the others were doing the same, not to mention the fact that Jenya had the only torch that was lit.
They made their way through the darkness and shortly even Saramis, who was again last in line, could make out the faint greenish glow ahead of them. The walls and ceiling had closed in about them once more but Saramis’ concern that it might return to the claustrophobic conditions of earlier proved unfounded as the tunnel soon opened up into a large cavern in the center of which stood a body of water. It was from this pool that the light seemed to emanate.
Jenya walked over to the water and thrust the torch into it, extinguishing it with a hiss. The greenish glow now filled the room, more than enough light for them to see by, though it was dim.
“We can rest here for the night,” Jenya stated. “These pools appear all through the tunnels down here.”
It was obvious to Saramis now this was what she had been looking for before settling in for the night, someplace they would not need their torch. This also explained why Jenya had not been all that concerned about how many torches they brought along with them.
They all looked at this body of water with varying degrees of curiosity. Jenya seemed least interested, naturally enough since she had been here before. Ktan only seemed interested long enough to determine the water held no threat. Allios seemed quite curious about it, stooping down right at the edge of the pool to examine it more closely, though Saramis noticed he was careful not to touch it. Saramis himself, always inquisitive about new and peculiar things, was most curious of all. He knelt down beside Allios, slipping his hand into the water. It was quite cold. He saw Allios eyeing him for what the bowmen obviously considered a rash move, as if touching the water would make Saramis turn green himself and keel over at any moment. His eyes widened farther when Saramis cupped some of the water in his hands, lifted it up and drank some.
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Allios asked.
“It’s quite refreshing,” Saramis replied.
“Have you seen anything like this before?”
Saramis shook his head.
“Then how do you know it’s safe to drink?”
“It has no foul odor and is pure to look upon,” Saramis replied knowledgably. “I’ve sampled water from the four corners of the Kingdom. You develop an eye for such things after a while. It is quite safe.”
Allios seemed impressed by this bit of wisdom.
“What makes it glow, do you think?”
Saramis made a show of pondering this for a bit. He was never one to miss a chance to show off his great store of knowledge, especially to someone who seemed so willing to listen, unlike a couple of other people he could name.
“It’s really rather simple,” he replied. “As you must know, there are fires deep in the ground. You can see this sometimes when they get too hot and burn their way to the surface. Down underground here we are much closer to that fire. The water must come into contact with it and some of the light of the fire must have magically imbued itself into the water. Thus we get light from it.”
Allios nodded, again looking very impressed. Jenya, who had known Saramis a lot longer and was well aware of his proclivity to have an answer for everything looked at him a bit more skeptically.
“If the light is from fire then why is it green?” she questioned.
“There are some elements when added to a fire will give it a greenish glow,” Saramis replied. “Wood from the Yegga tree in southern Kaldesh for instance. However in this case I think the reason is more straightforward. The water you see before you is a mixture of fire and water. Fire burns with a yellow glow but the color of the ocean is blue. Mix yellow and blue together and you get green. Hence, the greenish glow.”
The skeptical look remained on Jenya’s face but Saramis noted with some satisfaction that she made no reply to this, it being obvious that she could find no flaw in his explanation for if she had, he was quite certain she would not be shy about airing it.
“Well, whatever the cause, it will certainly prove useful,” Ktan, ever the practical one, stated. “At least we won’t have to worry about light.”
“This radiance fills all the caverns down here?” Allios questioned.
“No,” Jenya replied. “There are dark areas where no water can be found. But there are not that many of them. Most of the caverns are lit.”
That was comforting, for some reason. The torches were useful but they only cast light a relatively short distance. Here at least they could be safe from anything sneaking up on them.
They made camp, laying out their bedrolls on the dirt floor. No one knew what time it was but it had to late and they were all exhausted. Ktan sat down by his bedroll, taking the first watch. Knowing they would be quite safe under his watchful eye, the others quickly fell asleep.
Jenya’s eyes flew open. Her head jerked up, glancing around in all directions, a wild look in her eye. Her heart was pounding in her chest.
The cavern was quiet. She saw both Ktan and Allios looking at her, one curiously, the other sympathetically.
“Are you all right?” the bowman questioned.
Jenya did not reply at first, waiting while her heart calmed and her breathing returned to normal. She had been having a dream and not a very pleasant one, though the exact details now escaped her. It had been dark, she remembered that. Something had been near, something she had wanted to avoid at all costs. She had heard the sound of dripping water, and voices, whispering, and one other thing, screams. She wasn’t sure, but she thought the screams might have been her own.
She drew her hand across her face, finding her brow wet with perspiration.
“How long have I been asleep?” she asked.
“Hard to say,” he replied. “There is no time down here.”
Which was true enough, Jenya supposed. The cavern was unchanging. There was nothing around them to denote the passage of time. Without that they had nothing but their subjective senses to guess how long they had been down here.
She looked at her companions. Ktan had moved. He was sitting now farther from the pool of water, his back propped up against the wall, with a clear view of all routes of egress. Allios was closer to the pool, right beside Jenya in fact. Saramis lay on the ground on the opposite side of Allios, so close to the water that one unexpected turn would send him tumbling in, which was one of the few things that might actually wake him from his slumber, Jenya thought.
“Have you gotten any sleep at all?” she questioned after a moment, looking from Ktan to Allios.
Ktan merely shrugged.
“A little,” Allios replied. “Much as I tell myself that I must sleep I find that my mind is occupied by other things.”
He looked around slowly.
“There is a watchfulness in these caves. I feel it and it drives the sleep from me. Besides that, I am anxious to be off. Every minute my brother spends in captivity weighs heavy on me.”
“I too feel little need for sleep,” Ktan said simply. He looked at Jenya.
“I’m ready to go,” she stated, remembrance of her dream washing all thought of sleep from her.
“Very well,” Ktan said, getting to his feet. “Wake the sluggard wizard and we will be on our way.”
Of all of them, Saramis seemed quite content to sleep, turning away, grumbling and protesting when they tried to awaken him, only finally getting up when Jenya threatened to roll him into the water, and they had proceeded quite a distance on their way before his muttering about the unfairness of it all finally faded into silence.
Up to this point there had only been a single tunnel to follow, leaving the question of which direction to go moot. Now, however, passages began to open up in all directions around them, and soon they found themselves in a maze of tunnels. No matter which path they took, however, it seemed the pools of water could almost always be found not far off, and they no longer had to use any torches at all. Still, Allios looked around bewildered after a while.
“How do you know which way to go?” he questioned.
Saramis, once again bringing up the rear, looked keenly at Jenya.
“I have noticed,” he observed,” that whenever we reach a juncture, you always choose the right hand path.”
Jenya stopped and nodded.
“I always turned left when I made my way out,” she said. “Less likely to end up going in circles that way, I thought.”
At the time she hadn’t expected to find a way out, hadn’t even known if there was one. It had been sheer luck, that was all there was to it. She hadn’t expected to survive, but she hadn’t cared. All she knew was, anything would have been better than remaining in the Pit.
It wasn’t really something she wanted to dwell on. For whatever reason, she had chosen a logical way through the caverns, and it was fortunate she had, for she would never had been able to lead them back with any confidence if she hadn’t.
She was about to continue on her way when she hesitated. At the same time, Ktan’s hand wrapped suddenly around the hilt of his sword.
Allios looked at them both. Obviously something had caught their attention. He looked around but saw nothing. Then he heard it. A faint sound. So faint in fact, that at first he thought it might only be in his head.
“What is that…” he whispered. “Voices?”
“Yes,” Jenya said slowly, and after a moment.
Voices. Far off, so far she could barely hear them. She could not make out what they were saying, just a faint murmur in the background. She saw the others looking around, their heads turning this way and that, trying to pinpoint the direction of the sound.
“Where is it coming from?” Saramis questioned.
“I don’t know,” Jenya replied. “I don’t think its coming from anywhere, exactly.”
Saramis gave her a look.
“They never get any closer,” she said. “Maybe they are off in some direction I never went but for some reason I don’t think so. I don’t think they come from anything that’s alive.”
Saramis frowned at her.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m not sure,” she answered. “I don’t really know what they are. All I know is they never stop, and you can hear them but I don’t know where they come from. When I came through last time I heard them too, but no matter where you are they always seem to be far off. They never seem to get any closer or farther away. I have my own theory about it but it is kind of silly I suppose.”
“And what might that be?” Saramis questioned.
She hesitated before speaking.
“I suspect that people must find their way down here occasionally,” she said finally. “If I could get down here others must have been able to as well, maybe other people trying to escape from the Pit, maybe coming from the outside as we just did. It would be easy to get lost in this maze of tunnels. I only made it out myself by chance. People might wander around down here looking for a way out and never find it, slowly disappearing, fading away until finally only their voices are left, the voices of the lost, doomed to wander down here eternally.”
She looked slightly embarrassed.
“I know it sounds silly,” she said.
“No, no, that is quite reasonable, if a bit melodramatic,” Saramis replied. Jenya was a bit surprised at that. She had expected him to ridicule her idea, just as she did to most of the things he came up with.
“You might possibly even be right,” he finished. “So I take it this is another one of those ‘harmless’ things?”
“I think so. Like I said, they never get any closer.”
That was more than enough for Ktan. His hand dropped to his side, no longer concerned as they proceeded forward. The others could not so easily dismiss it. The voices might be harmless yet they made both Jenya and Allios uneasy. In spite of the fact that Jenya had been here before and knew the voices always seemed to remain distant she still couldn’t stop herself from glancing around every few minutes, inspecting every dark corner and shadow of the caves around them, looking for some sign of the source. The fact of the matter was, hearing disembodied voices, no matter how harmless they might be, was just plain creepy.
Saramis on the other hand, was neither indifferent nor made uneasy by the voices, instead, just as the glowing water before, he was immensely curious about them. He walked slowly behind the others, straining his ears to try to pick out any words, and a few he felt he could almost make out, but then they slipped away, as water through his hands, or the wind.
He paused, listening, at each intersection they passed, trying to discern which path might lead him closer, but to his consternation the sound always seemed uniform from every direction, just as Jenya had said. Being the voices were so faint it was difficult to tell, but he estimated the sounds came from about a dozen to two dozen distinct people. Nor could he judge their apparent age very well, though at least one voice sounded quite young. Both men and women were included, for the pitches ranged from the deep staccato of a drum and the melodious sound of a flute.
Most of the tunnels they passed also held pools of water. Some seemed quite large, and gave off a strong glow. Others were mere puddles, leaving the tunnel mostly in darkness. The water was not all pervasive however; some of the tunnels were completely dark, lacking even the hint of a green glow. It was one of these that Saramis now stood before. They had already passed a number of unlit tunnels. This one, however, seemed… well, blacker than the others. The darkness seemed almost to be a wall, a wall which no light could penetrate. The glow of the pool nearby did not even seem to enter this particular tunnel. There was something foreboding about it.
Saramis’ musing had made him pause for even longer than usual. Ktan stopped and turned to look back at him.
“Stop you dilly dallying, Saramis, or we shall leave you behind,” he stated.
The others stopped as well and turned to face him.
Saramis pointed down the tunnel that stood in front of him.
“What lies down this way?” he questioned.
Jenya slowly walked back to him, followed by the others.
“How would I know that?” she questioned, standing beside him now. “I told you I just followed the left hand turns. I did not take time to explore.”
Here she stopped, taking a long look at the darkness that now stood in front of them both. For a long time she was silent, the others just standing there looking at her.
“I don’t know,” she said finally, in a soft voice, almost as if talking to herself. “On my way through here the first time, I found several of these tunnels, tunnels so utterly black it’s as if light itself fears to tread inside. I think they all lead to the same place. I don’t know what’s down there, and I don’t think I want to know. Something evil, surely. Every time I pass one of them, it’s like a shadow falls over my heart.”
She didn’t say anything else, and when they moved on this time, Saramis stayed close behind.
The tunnels seemed endless. Most of the time they walked on more or less level ground, sometimes cold stone beneath their feet, sometimes a mossy kind of dirt. Saramis stooped to pick some up and it crumbled to dust in his hand. He couldn’t tell what color it was, everything looked green.
Occasionally the ground would slope steeply downward. These parts were more difficult to traverse. Naturally enough, there were fewer pools of water, and a couple of times they almost found themselves in complete darkness again. Saramis couldn’t help but wonder how long they had been down here. It seemed like they had been walking for ages. He hadn’t failed to notice, as well, that the slopes they encountered always led down, never up. Since they had to go back up the same distance they had come down to reach the surface once more, he could only glumly conclude that they had not yet reached the half way point in their travels.
This was not quite accurate. The Pit itself delved many levels below ground, and the truth was they were not very far below the deepest chambers of it. Saramis did not know this, of course, and so he could do naught but lament the fact that what went down must, perforce, come back up.
And at long last, after it seemed to Saramis they had been traveling for days, they did reach a tunnel that curved upward in front of them. For quite some time after that they made good progress. They were all tired, but the fact that they were going back towards the surface seemed to motivate them all, even Jenya who knew what lay ahead, knew that they still had a long way to go, felt her weariness lessen. But it was only temporary. The slope soon leveled out again, and, after a short time, plunged downward once more.
Saramis gave a weary sigh.
“Do these infernal tunnels go on forever?” he grumbled.
They halted, for they were all tired.
“No, not forever,” Jenya replied. “We are more than half way. We should make it to the Pit by…” she paused. There was no way to measure time down here. She didn’t even know if it was night or day outside. “Tomorrow,” she finished, even though she had no real idea when tomorrow would arrive.
“All well and good, but we can’t walk forever without some rest. When are we going camp for the night?”
None of the others bothered to point out that they had no idea whether is was in fact night.
“Soon,” Ktan replied, and that was the end of that conversation.
Whereas the tunnel had led them almost exclusively downward to this point it now seemed unable to make up its mind whether it wanted to go down or up.
They would make their way carefully down a slope only to find themselves climbing a short time later. Sometimes they traveled only a short way downward, and quite a distance up, other times that would be reversed, until after a while even Saramis was unsure of how far down or up they had traveled, and how close they might be to the surface.
All he did know, in fact, was that they had been traveling forever and he was exhausted.
They trudged up yet another slope. At the top the tunnel widened into a large cavern, larger than any they had seen since when they had first entered. Far up above their heads they could see stalactites hanging down from a vast ceiling. They could see that high up because there was an enormous pool of water here, a lake really, that lit the cavern almost as well as daylight. Off to their left, as the entered the cavern, a dark silhouette hung in the water.
Saramis got the vague impression of a froglike shape but before he could get a good look there was a loud whoosh and splashing sound and the thing leapt out of the water, as if from solid ground, onto the cavern floor and, before Allios could even finish notching an arrow to his bow, vanished down a tunnel that opened nearby.
They stood there for a moment in silence before Saramis found his voice.
“What in the world was that?”
They all turned to look at Jenya.
“There are many creatures down here,” she said after a moment. “I had to fight tooth and nail to get past some of them. I don’t know if any of them will bother a group this large, however. If we’re lucky, they will leave us alone.”
“If we were lucky, we wouldn’t be down here at all,” Saramis muttered.
Ktan walked over to the tunnel the creature had disappeared into and peered into it. He saw nothing.
He cast a glance around the rest of the cavern then turned back toward the others.
“This looks like a good a place as any to camp.”
Saramis didn’t have to be told twice. He plopped down immediately, this time not quite as close to the water, pulled off his pack and started to make himself at home.
None of them slept well that night. They were plagued by worries of what was to come, and the voices were still there. While they were walking they could almost forget about them, but lying on the ground trying to sleep with no other distractions, they could be heard, still faint, still not loud enough to understand, but quite clearly. Jenya and Allios no longer felt uneasy about them, nor Saramis curious. No, now the voices were just irritating.
“Could you be quiet please, I’m trying to sleep,” Saramis finally said aloud after tossing and turning for quite some time.
The others lifted their heads at this, but lowered them again when they realized Saramis wasn’t talking to them.
“I don’t think they’re going to listen,” Jenya said quietly.
Saramis just nodded sourly. He sat up and rearranged his pack, which he was using as a pillow, then lay back down again, but it didn’t help.
“I wish I could at least understand what they were saying,” he muttered.
“Why?” Allios questioned.
“If I could understand them perhaps they could understand me,” Saramis explained. “It might be interesting to talk to them. I might glean some interesting knowledge.”
“Of perhaps you could politely explain to them that they are dead and shouldn’t be hanging around here at all,” Jenya suggested. “Then perhaps we could get some sleep.”
Saramis smiled ruefully.
They did eventually get a little bit of sleep. Saramis wasn’t sure how long they stayed there before Ktan prodded them onward, all he knew was the time was totally inadequate and he wasn’t the only one who thought that way. Still, the voices here were preventing them from getting a decent rest, and that wasn’t going to change any time soon. Exhausted as they were they had little choice but to move on and hope they could find a spot somewhere that was free of the voices.
By this time none of them had any idea how deep underground they were, but they were encouraged by the fact that the path in front of them sloped mostly upwards now. There was still an occasional downward path, but the way up was almost always much steeper and longer.
The downside of that, of course, was that going uphill was much more physically demanding than down. They had to stop to rest much more frequently. Other than that, nothing much else seemed to change. The voices remained with them, and the pools of water, and the occasional black tunnel that no light seemed able to penetrate. They made good time, marching for an untold amount of time, until they came around a bend and stopped short to see a gaping rent in the floor in front of them.
It was as if God had taken a knife and sliced the earth with it, a rather dull knife but a knife nonetheless. The crack extended beyond the walls of the tunnel, in both directions and above them as well. The light was dim here, only small pools of water could be found. Looking down into the chasm or up, all they could see was blackness. Ahead of them, impossibly far away, they could make out the dim glow from the tunnel on the other side of the abyss.
Saramis did not see any way around it, nor any side passages to turn into. Jenya was just standing there at the edge, looking into the darkness, a look on her face that Saramis did not like at all.
“Which way do we go now?” he questioned.
Jenya didn’t reply right away, just stood there. Finally she shook her head.
“This was not here the last time I came through.”
No one said anything for quite some time.
“So… where do we go from here then?” Allios eventually inquired.
Again there was a long silence.
Jenya looked at him helplessly.
“I don’t know. This was the way I came, was the only way I knew.”
The words seem to just hang there in front of them all.
“Well, we’ll just have to find a way around then,” Ktan said quite practically.
“If there is a way around,” Saramis could not help but comment. Jenya gave him a dark look as Allios paled at these words.
Saramis was not at all pleased with this turn of events and he could see the others were not either, not even Ktan who, to those who didn’t know him as well as Saramis, would have thought him seemingly unaffected. They didn’t know if there was another way. They didn’t have a lot of food, nor torches, nor time for that matter. Without Jenya’s guidance, they might be down here for… for as long as those damn voices had been, Saramis thought.
They made their way back to the last intersection and found themselves staring into a dark pit.
“Figures,” Saramis muttered. The tunnel in front of them was one of the one’s with no light in it, the dark foreboding ones that Saramis wished to avoid at all costs.
“What say we go back and find another way to go,” Allios suggested slowly.
Saramis was all for that. Ktan did not move, just stood there, staring into the darkness.
“Saramis, hand me a torch,” Ktan said.
Saramis looked at him for a moment with a disagreeable expression, then reluctantly reached into his bag, brought forth a torch, lit it, and handed it to Ktan.
Even with the torch, the darkness in front of him seemed as black as ever.
Ktan took a step forward and then a few things happened almost at once.
Saramis felt his jaw go slack.
“Wha?” he heard Jenya say.
“What?” Saramis said.
Ktan took a step back and reappeared, looking no worse for the wear.
“Don’t go that way. It’s dangerous.”
Saramis looked around.
“Who said that?” he questioned.
“Said what?” Allios spoke.
Ktan thrust his arm forward. Both his arm and the torch faded into indistinctness. They could barely see the light from it.
“What’s happening to the torch?” Jenya questioned.
“Said don’t go that way,” Saramis said.
“No one did,” Allios stated.
“It’s like there’s a curtain of darkness here,” Ktan mused.
“Would everyone just shut up for a second!” Saramis snapped.
That got Saramis some raised eyebrows and the silence he was looking for.
“Now,” he said, holding up his hand. “Who are you?”
For a moment he thought he would get no reply at all.
“My name is D’annalye,” he finally heard, hesitantly. It sounded far away, just like the other voices, but at least he could understand it. It was a girl’s voice, a child. It was an odd name, a name that was not used in any parts of the Kingdom he had ever visited, and he had been in just about every part of the Kingdom at one point or another in his life.
The others just looked at him curiously but said nothing.
“Why shouldn’t we go that way?” he asked.
“It’s dangerous. The thing lurks down there.” Her voice sounded just a tiny bit more confident now.
“Thing? What thing?”
“The thing,” she repeated. “Ugluk of the Sightless Eye.”
“Who of the what?”
“Ugluk of the Sightless Eye,” she repeated, sounding just slightly exasperated.
Jenya apparently could no longer contain herself.
“Who are you talking to?” she blurted.
“Shhhh! What is this Ugluk?” he asked.
“Don’t know for sure. You can’t see him. He lurks in lightless sightless tunnels. He eats light, and anything else he can get… whatever he has that passes for his hands on.”
“Sounds pretty nasty,” Saramis commented.
“He’s very nasty. And scary,” D’annalye agreed.
Saramis looked at Jenya and the others.
“You can’t hear that?” he questioned.
The others paused for a moment, listening, then one by one shook their heads.
“I can hear you but my friends can’t,” Saramis said. “Why is that?”
“Because I’m talking to you, not them,” D’annalye replied.
“You can just decide who you want to talk to and only they will hear you?” he questioned.
“No silly. You can hear me because I’m standing right next to you,” she replied.
He looked around
“I don’t see you,” he said.
She gave a little sigh of impatience.
“Well of course not,” she replied. “How can you see anything when it’s so dark in here? There used to be light here, a long time ago, but it faded away. It seems like its been dark a long time now…”
Saramis could not help but notice the cavern around them was quite brightly lit.
“It would be a lot simpler if we could all hear you,” Saramis suggested.
“I don’t want to talk to them,” D’annalye replied, her voice sounding slightly petulant.
“They scare me.”
“Scare you?” Saramis said, quite surprised. “How so?”
“They just do,” D’annalye answered.
“And I don’t?”
There was a pause.
“I’m not sure. You said you would be interested in talking to me. The others just want me to shut up. They just think I’m ..”
She didn’t finish.
“Are you all alone?” Saramis questioned after a moment.
“There are others here. I hear their voices, but I can never find them.”
He could hear the sadness in her voice.
“How old are you D’annalye?”
Again a pause.
“How did you end up down here?” Saramis questioned softly.
“I live in a village nearby. I was out playing with a friend of mine. It started to rain and we found some shelter under some rocks by the river. Ta’arato, that’s my friend, he found an entrance into the caves where we were hiding. I told him not to go in but he wanted to explore. I followed him.”
Saramis felt a tightening in his heart. There was no village nearby. No one lived here, had ever lived here as far as he knew. It was a desert. The river was dried up, a river of dust.
“We got lost,” she continued. “We couldn’t find a way out. Some kind of monsters came and grabbed Ta’arato. I heard him screaming. I didn’t know what to do. I ran and ran. I never saw him again.”
“How long have you been down here?” Saramis asked, and for some reason found the words catching in his throat.
“I don’t know,” was her simple reply.
Maybe that was for the best, Saramis thought.
“Will you help me?” her voice sounded minuscule, lost.
Saramis took a deep breath.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“Help me find the way out,” she replied. “Help me not… be alone any more.”
“I will do what I can.”
He relayed to the others what D’annalye had told him. When he was done Allios looked at him.
“You can hear her talk and she doesn’t realize…”
Saramis gave him a look cold enough to freeze bone, and, fortunately, the next words that would have come out of his mouth.
“No,” Saramis replied.
“Don’t realize what?” D’annalye questioned.
“Nothing,” Sarmis retorted.
“Can she help us get to the Pit?” Ktan spoke up suddenly.
Saramis hadn’t thought about that.
“Can you?” he questioned.
“What is the Pit?” she asked.
“A place with other people, lots of them,” Saramis replied. “An underground dungeon.”
“I don’t know where that is,” she said. “I’ve been all though the caves, but there are some places I don’t go because they are too scary.”
“She doesn’t know where it is,” he repeated.
"Drat,” Allios muttered.
“Can you think of any landmarks, near where the Pit is?” Ktan questioned. He was looking at Jenya. “Even if she hasn’t been there, maybe she’s been close.”
Jenya thought for a moment.
“A waterfall,” she said eventually. “There was a huge cavern, even bigger than this one. There was a waterfall that fell from the ceiling. The sound of it was deafening.”
“I know of that place!” D’annalye said excitedly. “I remember it from long ago. I don’t think the water flows there anymore, but I think I remember how to get there, only...”
“She knows of it,” Saramis stated quickly, then, “only?”
Allios face went from brightened to puzzled so quickly as to be almost comical.
“Only in order to get there, you have to go…”
Saramis didn’t need her to finish, for suddenly he was quite certain of the path they would have to take. He lifted his hand and pointed at the lightless hole in front of them.
“We have to go through there, don’t we?” he said, though it really didn’t sound like a question.