Chapter twenty eight
A SHOT IN THE DARK
“What happened to you when you went in there?” Jenaya asked.
“Nothing happened,” Ktan replied. “It just got dark.”
“Even with the torch in your hand?” Allios questioned
“Yes,” Ktan replied, looking at the torch curiously.
“D’annalye do you know why that happens?” Saramis questioned.
“I told you, it eats light,” she responded.
Saramis wasn’t sure what to make of that. He had never heard of anything that could do such a thing. Whether it was true or just an eleven year old’s overactive imagination, the fact remained their torch would not serve them in there.
“Does she know the way?” Ktan questioned.
“But?” Saramis questioned.
“I’m scared. I don’t want to go in there. I never did. I always used to avoid it. I know I didn’t come in that way, but I couldn’t find a way out and after a while I thought, well, maybe there might be a way out through there, even if it wasn’t the way I came in. So I went in a few times, at first not very far. Sometimes I’d only take a few steps in before I turned back. I couldn’t see anything, but I could feel something was in there, you know? And sometimes I heard sounds, like something gurgling, something slimy and wet. Whenever I heard that I turned back and got out of there fast. Well, one time I was pretty far in, farther than I had ever been before and I started to hear the noises, but when I tried to go back, I got lost somehow. I couldn’t find the way out. I must have made a wrong turn somewhere but I couldn’t find out where and I could hear the thing getting closer. I tried to run, but you know how hard it is to run when you can’t see anything? I hit the wall and it knocked me down. Before I could get up I felt something touch me. It was wet and slimy and disgusting. I screamed and tried to get up, but then I couldn’t breathe. I remember trying to scream again and trying to get away but something was holding me and then…”
Saramis waited, but D’annalye was silent.
“And then?” he prodded.
“Well, I’m not really sure exactly what happened,” she said again finally. “I got free somehow, I’m not quite sure how. All I know was all of a sudden I was running down the tunnel. I was so scared I just ran and ran and ran. Eventually I found my way out, I knew I was out because I couldn’t feel it anymore, couldn’t feel the thing, but the strange thing was, it was still dark. The lights in the pools had gone out, and I didn’t feel any pain anymore…”
Saramis had a feeling he knew why.
“After that I stayed away from there for a long time. But I still couldn’t find my way out, and eventually I screwed up my courage and went back in, looking for an exit. I never found it, but I got pretty good at avoiding Ugluk. I could always tell when he was near, and I learned how to stay away from him, and he has never come close to catching me again, but I still don’t like to go in there.”
Saramis suspected that of all of them, D’annalye now had the least to worry about. Yet that fact only made him feel worse.
“Its all right D’annalye, we will protect you,” he reassured her.
He heard her take a deep breath and he didn’t have to see her to know she was working up her courage.
“All right, lets go,” she said bravely.
“C’mon,” Saramis told the others.
Ktan stepped once more into the darkness of the tunnel ahead, and, with varying degrees of trepidation, the other followed.
It was like stepping through a gateway, a gateway in which once side was lit and the other was not. It wasn’t completely dark at first, the torch Ktan still held cast a faint light, but it was a pale imitation of what it had been just a moment before, and after just a few steps even that faded away and they found themselves in a darkness so utterly complete that it seemed as if light had never even existed here.
Saramis could hear the shuffling of feet and rustle of clothing of the others as they now stopped, casting about for even the faintest hint of any light. They saw none, and the sound of their movements was now they only clue as to the location of each other.
“This is madness,” Allios announced. “How can we move through this, or even stay together? And, if it comes down to it, how are we going to fight something we can’t see?”
Though Ktan had not said anything that thought was at the forefront of his mind as well. He snuffed out the torch in the dirt on the ground at his feet. It seemed pointless to keep it lit and there seemed no sense in wasting it. He reached out and touched the wall with his hand. The bare rock was cold and rough. He stretched out his other hand but he could not touch the far wall. Where they entered the tunnel had not been very wide but there was no way to tell, of course, how wide it might get farther on. He wasn’t sure what to make of this voice that Saramis was hearing, didn’t know whether they could trust him, or her, or it, or whatever it was, or not. It was obvious to him that Saramis believed what she was telling him, but Ktan, being the suspicious person he was, was a bit more skeptical. He couldn’t hear her voice himself, which made it that much more difficult to judge if what she was telling them was true. It seemed a rather odd coincidence to him they should hear it just as they had reached an impasse, and that it was leading them into this, a tunnel mysteriously bereft of light, the perfect place for an ambush. Perhaps this voice was indeed just a long lost little girl as it claimed, then again, perhaps it was a trick, and the voice was merely a tool to lead them into a trap.
Of course, if it was a trap, there seemed little they could do to avoid it. With the path Jenya had followed blocked, there was not much they could do but go along with what the voice was telling them. That didn’t mean he had to like it, or that he would let down his guard for even a moment. Yet what Allios was saying was true, it would be difficult to fight in the dark, and if there was some creature down here that could detect them, that was used to living and killing without sight, well, their disadvantages were obvious.
“Saramis, come up behind me. Jenya, you take the rear, and everyone grab hold of the person in front of you. We don’t want to get separated in here,” he commanded.
There was a soft hiss as Ktan drew his sword from its sheath, followed by the shuffling of feet as everyone moved to obey. As the only one who could hear the girl, Saramis would have to guide them. He would be needed near the front. Ktan didn’t want Saramis to lead, however. If something came upon them it was better to have a swordsman at the fore. In a battle, in this darkness, their problem was not only fighting the enemy but also avoiding hurting each other. With everyone behind him he knew it would be safe to swing his sword at anything in front of him, just as Jenya could safely attack anything coming from behind. If the corridor remained narrow, those two directions would be the only ones they would have to defend.
With everyone arranged in their proper position they proceeded forward. In spite of the fact that it was pitch dark, Ktan found himself staring into the blackness in front of him, looking for even the slightest hint that some light could penetrate, that it wasn’t quite as black as it first seemed. He had been hoping that his eyes just needed some time to adjust. After some time had passed, however, it seemed that hope was false. The darkness did not lessen. The blackness around them remained impenetrable.
Because of this their progress was painfully slow. Ktan moved forward with his sword in his right hand and his left hand in contact with the wall. They could not, of course, see any obstacles in front of them. The only hint he had of any large rocks lying on the ground or stalagmites jutting up into the tunnel in their path was when his foot or, more painfully, his shin, banged into one. An even greater fear was that they would come unexpectedly upon some pit or hole and plunge into it before they were aware it was even there.
The air became perceptively chilly around them. The rock wall too became cooler to the touch. Their ability to see remained impaired, but, as if trying to make up for it, their hearing seemed sharpened. Ktan could clearly make out the sound of Saramis breathing behind him, and the steady fall of their feet on the rock floor beneath them, even the soft shushing of cloth against cloth as their legs moved.
“Bear to the right,” Saramis spoke out of the darkness. Ktan stopped, slightly startled. They had been silent for some time, and his voice seemed much louder than normal or necessary.
Up to this point Saramis had given Ktan no advice on which direction to travel, he had just followed the wall for lack of a better plan. He had no idea at this point which direction they were traveling in. They had made quite a few twists and turns and Ktan thought it would be quite impossible to find their way back except by following the wall back the way they came. Saramis’ direction now, however, would lead them away from the wall, away from the only clue they had that could positively and without a doubt lead them back the way they had come. Ktan was extremely reluctant to do this. If they left the wall behind, they would be completely dependent on D’annlye to lead them back out again, completely dependent on some disembodied voice that only Saramis could hear.
“Are you sure we have to go that way?” he asked.
“Yes, yes,” Saramis replied after a moment. He for one seemed to completely trust what the voice was telling him. “Why are you hesitating? We can’t waste time here, as you are so fond of telling us.”
Ktan couldn’t hear D’annalye but he knew she could hear him. He wished he could talk to Saramis alone, without the girl hearing. He just didn’t know enough about her. He didn’t know how she would react if he questioned her motives. Saramis had said she was scared of them. Would his revealing his suspicions make her more scared, would it hurt her feelings, would it chase her away? The only reason she was with them at all was because she had taken a shine to Saramis, God knew why, but how strong was that link, and how easily severed? If they were going to leave the wall and strike out into the blackness he needed to know he could depend on her, needed to know she would not leave them at any apparent slight or run away if things got rough but how could he possibly know this? He thought he could judge better if he could actually hear her himself which was why he wanted Saramis’ opinion but of course he could not discuss it without the girl overhearing and he wasn’t sure how she would take it. The simple fact of the matter was that if they were going to do this they needed her a lot more than she needed them.
Reluctantly Ktan stepped away from the wall. There wasn’t much else he could do. In spite of any reservations he might have he realized they had no choice but to trust the girl or go back.
The path led slightly downhill. As they descended the air became colder still, until it was uncomfortably so. It seemed they trudged on for hours, but of course there was no real way to tell. Occasionally Saramis would speak up, telling them to turn in this direction or that. By now they were all thoroughly lost, as Ktan had feared, and had little hope of finding their way out on their own. They were all tired and hungry as well but none of them felt any urge to stop. They could eat, and rest, once they found their way out of this place.
Though he could not tell for sure, Ktan had the notion they had now entered a large cavern. Their footsteps seemed to echo in the darkness as they walked, creating the odd impression of other feet marching along all around them. Huge stalagmites rose up from the ground in their path. At least, Ktan could only assume they were stalagmites from the feel of them. The rock was jagged here and had an almost volcanic feel, and it was icy cold to the touch. The ground became slippery, as if covered here and there with a thin layer of ice. More than once one of them slipped and would have fallen if not for the hand of one of the others upon them helping to support them.
Slowly Ktan felt a sense of dread fall over him like a shroud. He couldn’t see any sign of danger of course, nor could he hear anything save the treading of feet on the ground and the breathing of his companions, sounds that seemed magnified in the darkness. Even so, he had an almost overpowering feeling that something was close by, something terrible.
“She says it’s coming,” he heard Saramis hiss. Ktan had known Saramis a long time, long enough to know that in spite of the magician’s sometimes cavalier attitude he was not one to lose his head in a fight, yet now Ktan could hear the fear in his voice. And it wasn’t just Saramis. Ktan could almost feel the fear radiating from his friends, and yes, he himself as well.
“Where is it?” he heard Jenya asked, an odd desperate quality in her voice. He couldn’t remember ever hearing her sound like that before.
“Did you hear something from over on the left?” Allios questioned.
“No, I think it’s in front of us,” Saramis exclaimed.
They were all talking in hushed tones, but the words tumbled out quickly, all with a tinge of fear.
“What was that?” Jenya questioned sharply.
Ktan thought he had heard something too. They fell silent, straining their ears to listen but heard nothing for a moment. But then the sound repeated itself. It didn’t sound like the movement of some monstrous creature however. No, it sounded more like water dripping, kind of the splat sound that water makes when it hits the ground if you spilled some of it out of a cup or pot.
Was that what it really was, Ktan wondered. Was it just the sound of some water falling from the ceiling?
The air was ice cold now. Surely if there were any water here, it would be frozen.
Another sound. Water again, but this time louder, and closer, this time more the sound of a wave splashing up on the shore.
Ktan looked around wildly, pointless as it might be. Though the sound close, he could not tell which direction it had come from.
“D’annalye, calm down,” he heard Saramis say from behind him, sounding not in the least calm himself.
A gurgling sound came now, as the water of a small stream passing down a hill. This sound did not stop, and seemed to emanate from the ground beneath Ktan’s feet.
He spun around; trying to pinpoint the direction the sound was coming from. It was useless. He couldn’t tell. At the same time he felt an unreasoning fear welling up inside him. He felt trapped, felt certain that if he remained here he was going to die, that his only chance of survival was to run. He felt certain that to stay here meant certain death.
He no longer felt Saramis’ hand on his back.
Ktan had been in more than his share of life threatening situations. He feared death just as much as the next person yet he had long ago learned to live with his fear, that he could still function, that he could still fight, even when afraid. You couldn’t dwell on whatmight happen, you just stuffed your fear in a box in a little corner of your mind and concentrated on your job.
It had been a long time since Ktan had felt the kind of terror that was welling up within him now.
And that in itself caused alarm bells to go off in his head.
He could tell the others felt the same fear he did. He could tell from the sound of their voices and the way they were acting they were on the verge of panic. That was unlike them as well. Jenya was one of the most levelheaded people he knew and Saramis, for all his quirks, was not one given to panic in dangerous situations. It wasn’t normal for him to feel this way, for his friends to act this way. There had to be more to it.
True, they had never faced a situation quite like this before. Given a horde of Imperial Knights to fight, each one of them knew exactly what to do; each one of them knew what their job was. But they had never had to fight in the dark before, against an enemy that they couldn’t see, that could strike at any moment from any direction. A faceless fear was by far the worst, for that left your imagination to fill in the blanks and your imagination always had a way of filling them in in the worst way possible.
Even so, Ktan knew his friends well enough to believe they wouldn’t panic even in a situation such as this. The fact that they seemed to be, and the way he felt himself, made him think there was more to it. His conclusion was the creature, whatever was out there, was somehow feeding their fear, was making them feel this way. Fear could be a powerful weapon. A battle could be won using it alone. If it made your enemy panic, if you made him unable to think straight, unable to work as a unit, he would be that much easier to defeat. Ktan could see that was exactly what was happening. Saramis’ hand was no longer on his shoulder. He could hear the others but he couldn’t tell exactly where they were anymore. If you could separate your foes it would be that much easier to pick them off one by one. He had to put a stop to this. Now.
“Stand your ground!” he shouted. He didn’t care if the sound of his voice gave away his position. Right now getting everyone to work together, getting rid of the fear, was more important than stealth. He had a feeling the thing out there knew exactly where they were anyway.
A sound like the soft pattering of raindrops on the ground came from their left, or perhaps their right.
When Ktan was sure he had his companion’s attention he spoke again.
“Everyone come to me,” he said as calmly as he could. “We need to stay together.” He stretched out his arms in both directions. He heard a hollow clang and felt his sword strike against stone. Good, so there was a wall nearby. It was over to his right, he took a couple of steps in that direction, in spite of the little voice telling him that doing so was madness, that his only chance of survival was to run from here as fast as he could. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to walk for he realized that trying to run in pitch darkness was the real madness, and the little voice be damned.
He was right in front of the wall now, or stalagmite or whatever it was. It really didn’t matter; all he needed was something behind them so the thing couldn’t come at them from that direction.
“Saramis where are you?” he questioned.
“Here,” came the voice from right beside him. Already his friends voice sounded much calmer.
Ktan reached out then grabbed hold when he felt the cloth of Saramis’s shirt under his palm. He pulled Saramis back.
“Stay behind me, with your back to the wall,” he commanded. “Jenya, come here beside me and get Allios behind you. Get in position and stay there. Don’t move. Understand?”
There was a chorus of ayes, then the shuffling of feet as they moved into position. Ktan could still feel the fear as if it was a living thing pulsating in the air around them but he had given them direction, just as a leader needed to do, and they were responding. They were disciplined enough to do what they were told in spite of the fear.
The shuffling of feet stopped. They were all in their places now, waiting for whatever was out there to attack. His eyes useless Ktan found himself straining his ears for any sound that might give away what was coming and where it was.
The gurgling of water sound came again. It sounded to Ktan as if it were right in front of him.
“D’annalye, stop shouting,” Saramis hissed. Kan glanced behind him but of course he could see nothing. It was obvious to Ktan that their imaginary friend was feeling as much panic as the rest of them. Not much he could do about that though.
“D’annalye!” Saramis said. Then again, almost shouting the second time. “D’annalye!”
“What’s going on?” Ktan questioned.
Saramis did not answer right away.
“D’annalye?” he said one more time, more quietly this time, questioning.
“I think she’s gone.”
“She left us here?” Allios questioned.
“She was scared. She’s only a kid,” Saramis said with surprising fierceness.
“Okay, okay,” Ktan interrupted. “We have more important things to worry about right now.”
He had no desire at this moment to confront the obvious problem that D’annalye’s absence would present. She might come back when it was over; then again, she might not. He wasn’t going to worry about it right now. One thing at a time.
They were in position now, as defendable a position as Ktan supposed he could hope for. He had no idea what sort of beast this Ugluk was. No idea what form the attack would take when it came. He was almost certain the sounds of water they were hearing were coming from the creature, but he had no idea what that would mean to them, what kind of attack they could expect. About the only thing he knew was that the creature lived here in total darkness. He wondered if it had some kind of sight that could penetrate this blackness, or some other sense that it could use to see as well as eyes in the dark. Even if it didn’t, even if it was as blind as they were, it still had a distinct advantage. It was used to hunting this way. They were not.
There was nothing for them to do now but wait for it to strike.
They heard more sounds or water around them, sometimes like raindrops, sometimes like water running down a hill, sometimes like the sloshing of liquid in a container. Ktan had no idea what to make of it and since he couldn’t seem to use the sound to locate the creature decided it was best just to ignore it. They waited, swords ready, muscles tensed as the seconds ticked by, then minutes.
They waited, and nothing happened.
After a while Ktan began to become suspicious again. Just how intelligent was this creature? This was the creature’s home. It had nowhere to go. It could attack at its leisure. They, on the other hand, had no such advantage. They couldn’t stand here forever. They had to get out of here. Right now they stood in a reasonably defendable position but they would have to move eventually. If it knew that, what was to say it wouldn’t just wait? What was to say it would not attack until they were moving again, until they weren’t expecting it?
If that were the case, was there anything they could do about it?
“I don’t think…” he began.
And just like that, the battle began.
Ktan felt something heavy and very wet slam against his side, knocking the wind out of him, knocking him to the ground, and, worst of all, knocking his sword out of his hand. It clattered to the ground beside him, but he didn’t really hear it, for suddenly there was a roaring sound in his ears, the kind of sound you might hear if you held a shell to your ear at the beach. Something wet curled around him, covering his chest, his arms, his face, and suddenly, he couldn’t breathe.
He couldn’t tell what was happening with the others. He couldn’t hear them, and he couldn’t cry out. There was no way to tell whether they were being attacked too, or to warn them, or to yell for help. One arm was pinned to his side by whatever was holding him. He tried to free it but it was useless. Whatever had him in its grip was fearsomely strong. He could feel the cold stone of the floor with his other hand, as he groped desperately to find his sword again.
The sensation was very strange, he thought abstractly. The creature had… something wrapped around him. He tried to use his free hand to pull away whatever was on his face but he could not budge it. It felt like he was fighting a wet balloon. A very strong wet balloon. He couldn’t breathe but he didn’t feel like he was choking, he felt rather like he was drowning. What was this creature, some kind of sentient water? How could they fight something like that?
He began to feel light headed. He was dying and he didn’t have much more time to remedy the situation.
He gave up trying to pry the creature from his face, once more reaching out with his hand on the ground beside him, desperately searching for his sword.
His hand hit something and he felt a sharp pain in his finger. He had found his sword, or the blade of it at least. He slid his hand down it until he fount the hilt, the grasped it and lifted it up.
It was difficult to strike. The creature was too close, he could not swing it. He felt dizzy, and knew he had only a few seconds before he passed out. He pushed the point of the sword against whatever the creature had for skin and tried to drive it forward, but the creature was as slippery as an eel, and the blade kept slipping off. Finally it somehow managed to find purchase. He drove the blade forward will all the strength he could muster.
He felt something give and suddenly he was soaking wet, from water or some other liquid he could not tell. He found now that he could hear again and much more importantly, he could breathe.
He lay there for a moment, gasping for breath. It took precious seconds before his head cleared.
As soon as it did he pulled himself to his feet. He could hear the other struggling nearby.
“Where is everyone?” he shouted, more to get an acknowledgement than a location.
“Right behind you,” he heard Saramis’ voice in the dark.
He could hear the sound of other struggling, but no one else answered him.
Something slammed into Ktan again. He fell once more, but only to his knees. A limb or tentacle or whatever it was curl around him again. He felt icy wetness on his face and twisted madly to avoid it covering his mouth. He succeeded, but now found both his arms were pinned against his side.
“Saramis, I could use a little help here!” he snapped.
The magician had been knocked down by the creature, but not otherwise attacked. Perhaps the thing they were fighting thought of him as less of a threat, or perhaps it just didn’t have enough limbs to attack them all. For whatever reason he had remained free and was now rummaging through his bag for some weapon to use against this creature.
The problem was, he had no idea what weapon he had, if any, that would be effective. His only edged weapon was a small dagger. He suspected that would be of little use. His hand fell on the projectile weapon he had used when they had been ambushed on the hilltop near Pantaglia. It was a cumbersome weapon but also the most powerful that he had.
He had acquired the weapon from a merchant who claimed to have gotten it in a kingdom far to the east. It had cost him a ridiculous amount of coin. It was also a difficult weapon to work with. The merchant had given him little instruction on how to use it, and he had to figure out most of it himself. It was not very accurate. If his target was more than two dozen paces away, there was only about a fifty fifty chance he could hit it. And getting even that much accuracy had required a lot of practice. It took so long to reload that if you missed the first shot it became pretty much useless as anything other than a club.
In addition to that it was hard to keep in working order. It had a tendency to jam if it wasn’t kept perfectly clean. The black powder used to fire it was hard to find and had a tendency to be difficult to ignite unless it was of the finest quality. He had had to fashion his own tools to make the small leaden balls that the weapon used as ammunition. On the whole it was a huge pain in the butt to keep the device functional, but when it worked, it could be devastating. It could take down a man instantly, could pierce the thickest armor. None could stand against it. In addition to taking down the man he was firing at, the psychological effect it had on any other enemy who happened to see it fire was immense. The result of one shot could send a dozen brave men fleeing for their lives.
Saramis had what looked at first glance to be two rings on the pointer and index finger of his right hand. They were not rings, but instead a special abrasive material he had found in a shop in the town of Duprie that stood on the southern boarder of the kingdom. They were wrapped around the second knuckle of his fingers instead of lower down as a ring ordinarily would be. It had taken some practice, but now when he flicked his fingers together the material on either finger would rub against itself causing a spark. It was this he used to ignite the various explosive devices he used for his shows, and also the black powder that fired the weapon he now held.
The weapon was preloaded for the first shot, but he still had to add powder to the small pan and ignite it. He had practiced this until he was proficient at it but he had never had to do it in the pitch dark before. Now he rummaged quickly through his bag, hunting for the small pouch of black powder he kept there among all the other paraphernalia he carried. He found it, nestled in the bottom between what felt like the beads he had bought that he had been assured glowed brightly in the presence of gold and the small phial of sweet scented clear liquid that he had been guaranteed would cause a woman to rip her clothes off and throw herself upon him the moment she ingested a single drop of it. Much to his disappointment neither of these things had worked as advertised yet Saramis was the type of person who was loath to throw anything away, no matter how useless. He was certain he would eventually find a use for everything he had, even if it wasn’t quite the use intended.
His hands almost shaking with the need to hurry he opened the pouch and poured some of the powder into the pan, until he was certain there as more than enough in there. There was a small length of cord tied to the stock of the weapon that was supposed to be used to ignite the powder in the pan. The cord was not lit now, however, and he could not ignite it with the small spark he created with the material on his fingers, and he certainly didn’t have time to start a fire. He knew he could light the powder itself using the abrasive on his fingers. He had done it before when in a hurry, though the powder was more difficult to ignite that way, it made the weapon harder to aim, and risked burnt fingers once the powder ignited.
At this point in time, however, the risks seemed well worth it.
He lifted his head, ready to fire, and confronted his final problem.
Where was the target?
He got the impression the beast was huge, for how else could it attack all of them, or nearly all of them, at once? He had a feeling if he just fired right in front of him he was likely to strike it.
Yet just striking it was not enough. Even with practice the weapon took a long time to reload. He didn’t think he would get a chance to take a second shot. He wanted to kill the thing, not give it a flesh wound, or just make it even angrier than it was. Though the weapon was powerful he still needed to strike at some vital part of the creature.
He could hear the thrashing sounds of his friends fighting the thing nearby, but Ktan did not speak again, and the others were silent. The creature itself did not conveniently roar or snarl to give away where its head might be, if indeed, it even had such a thing. It made no sound at all except for the strange gurgling watery sounds that seemed to come from every direction at once. It seemed his hearing would offer no clue as to where to fire, and his vision was useless.
Or was it? He was staring now into the dark in front of him, and for the first time since they had entered this area it seemed he could see… well he wasn’t quite sure what he could see, or if it was really anything at all. There seemed to be a deeper darkness in the blackness around him. He could just barely make out something there, something that seemed to move against the background. He wasn’t even sure if what he was seeing was real, and he had to force himself to keep looking for he found himself wanting to look away, as if his eyes did not want to gaze on whatever it was that was there.
It appeared to be oval in shape, and not that far in front of him. He could make out no other features. He wasn’t sure how he could see it. To say it was a deeper darkness in the darkness around them wasn’t quite right. It was more like… well, he wasn’t sure what to think. It seemed silly, but to his mind came the thought that if the blackness around him was the absence of light, the thing in front of him was not the absence of light but instead the opposite of light, some kind of… antilight
At any rate, whatever it might be, he decided that would be his target. Having made up his mind he flicked his fingers together, trying to create the necessary spark to ignite his weapon.
This did not come as a tremendous shock to him. Even under the best of circumstances the powder could be hard to ignite, especially using this method. It often took him a few tries to get the weapon to fire.
He flicked his fingers together several times in rapid succession. Still nothing.
The problem was the darkness. He was certain of it. His fingers had to be in just the right position for this to work, and it was difficult to do that in the pitch black. He could feel the pan beneath his fingers but perhaps they weren’t in quite the right position. He readjusted his fingers, and he would have pushed them down right into the pan itself if it hadn’t been too small.
He tried again.
Even though he had used the weapon before and knew what it could do the thunderous retort still made his whole body jump. After trying so many times, perhaps he thought it wasn’t going to work. He felt a burning sensation on his fingers and nearly dropped the weapon. At almost the same time, suddenly, he could see.
The cavern was lit with the greenish glow of one of the ponds of water they had passed so many of on the way down here. He could see the pond now, off to his left. It was quite large.
The cavern they were in too, was large as well. So large in fact that he could see neither the walls nor the ceiling in the dim glow from the water. All around them huge stalagmites rose up toward the ceiling, with equally impressive stalactites hanging down, suspended from somewhere in the darkness far above their heads. Some of the stalagmites and stalactites seemed to have met, forming huge columns pinched in the middle like the neck of a finely crafted goblet.
However, it was things closer to hand that Saramis was more interested in.
The creature in front of them was huge, nearly reaching up to Saramis’ chest even sprawled on the ground as it was now. It must have been a good twenty paces in length, and that was without counting the numerous long tentacles that stretched out in all directions from the central hub. It was nearly transparent. He could see right through it, and it reminded him of nothing so much as a huge misshapen jellyfish. In the center of the hub was a large oval of white Saramis immediately identified this as an eye though he couldn’t really say how he came to that conclusion. It didn’t really look all that much like an eye, as it was pure white and had no pupil. A clear liquid was oozing from it, the obvious result of the lead ball Saramis had fired. A few of the tentacles jerked spasmodically for a few moments, causing him to take a step back, but they soon grew still.
Beside him he saw his friends pull themselves to their feet. Jenya was coughing and gasping for breath, and Ktan appeared to be soaking wet from head to toe, and they all seemed to have more than their share of bumps and bruises, but none of them appeared seriously injured.
“What the hell was that?” Jenya gasped out.
“I have no idea,” Saramis replied, shaking his head. He walked over to one of the limbs of the now motionless creature and bent down to inspect it.
The skin was leathery and very smooth. He could see no sign of any internal structures.
“I suspect it came from the sea originally,” he mused. “Far down in the depths where no light penetrates. How it might have come to end up here I have idea. Perhaps it made its way through some subterranean waterway, or perhaps it was brought here long ago as a guard. Hard to say.”
“Well, wherever it came from its dead now,” Allios proclaimed, who seemed perfectly happy knowing only that about the creature.
“Yes thanks to me,” Saramis couldn’t resist saying.
He glanced at the others but for once it seemed like no one had any comments.
“How come we can see now?” Jenya questioned.
Saramis paused for a moment before answering, staring at the white ovoid in the center of the creature.
“I think the creature emitted some kind of antilight.”
“Antilight?” Allios repeated.
“Yes,” Saramis returned. “I don’t know how else to explain it. Somehow instead of helping the creature see, this ‘eye’ for lack of a better word, seemed to emanate a darkness even blacker than the darkest night. It must have blanketed this entire area, which was why we could not see and our torch was useless. Once I killed it, of course, the effect was broken. I have never heard or seen anything quite like that. I wish I had some time to study it.”
“Time is a luxury we do not have,” Ktan proclaimed to no one’s surprise.
“Well I for one would like to get out of here as soon as possible,” Allios spoke up. “With this creature dead, I take it there is nothing to stop us from proceeding?”
“Yes there is,” Ktan contradicted. He turned toward Saramis. “We seem to have lost our guide.”
Saramis had almost forgotten that D’annalye had vanished.
“D’annalye!” he called out. “D’annalye where are you? It’s safe. We killed it.”
He stood there waiting for some time, but heard no reply. The whispering voices they had been hearing for so long had disappeared when they had entered this dark area of the caves. Now all was silent.
For long minutes no one said anything. Saramis stood there, waiting to hear her voice, waiting for her to come back.
He heard nothing.
“Do you think she’s going to come back?” Jenya questioned eventually.
“I don’t know,” Saramis said rather curtly. A bit too curtly really, but how could he answer such a question? “I…”
“I didn’t mean to leave you. I was scared. I thought you were all going to die, and I was too. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Saramis said kindly. “It’s over now. You’re safe.”
“She’s back,” Ktan stated. It wasn’t really a question.
“Yes,” Saramis replied.
“Then let us move on.”
Saramis nodded, about to convey this conviction to D’annalye when she spoke again.
“Follow me. It’s this way, off to the left.”
It was easy for him to forget she could hear all of them.
“This way,” he said to the others.
They hadn’t traveled very far when the walls closed in upon them again and they found themselves once more traveling through a narrow tunnel. It curved and twisted like a serpent, and they passed many intersections, sometimes turning one way, sometimes the other, until even those with the keenest sense of direction where quite lost once more.
They went on for quite a long time. Saramis had no idea what time it was, or how long they had been down here. All he knew was he was exhausted and he could tell everyone else was too. The fight had taken a lot out of them, and they had not rested afterward. All of them were quite sick of these tunnels by now and were anxious to get out of them even if that entailed a little physical discomfort. As time went on, however, and still no end seemed in sight, it became plain to Saramis that they could not go on like this forever.
“How much further, do you suppose?” he questioned.
“We are almost there,” D’annalye replied.
“I don’t know,” Jenya said, not sure who he was speaking to.
Just a short time later the tunnel opened up once more into a large cavern. Again they could not see the ceiling above there head, though it might not be very high above, for this chamber was only dimly lit by a small pool of water that stood at the far end from where they had entered. Above it, a narrow stream of water percolated down the wall, dripping from rock to rock like the light patter of rain.
“This is it,” Jenya said, stepping forward. “This is the room where the waterfall used to be, though I see now it has been reduced to but a shadow of its former self. I know where we are now, and we are not far from the entrance to the Pit.”
Ktan looked around thoughtfully for a moment. Saramis had already plopped himself down on a large stone and the others didn’t look much more enthusiastic about continuing. He had to admit even he was tired, and the others looked no better. As a matter of fact, he was surprised that Saramis had not already complained.
“All right,” he said. They had had more than enough excitement for one day. “We can rest here, have something to eat and maybe get some sleep. We can tackle the Pit tomorrow or …” he stopped, for of course, they had no idea when tomorrow would arrive.
“Or whenever,” he finished with a shrug.