Authors: Matthew Iden
Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror
Seven Into the Bleak
Copyright 2012 Matthew Iden
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are entirely the product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
All rights reserved
Additional titles are available at www.matthew-iden.com
THE TEETH AND the claws came flashing in the dark, like everything else in the Bleak, stealing breath and blood and life from us. The fault was our own. Like idiots, we had sung songs of home and family--our voices soft and low, but Death itself takes care to be quiet in the Bleak, the World Under the World, the Mother of Caverns. The end of us all.
It was Filki, the fool, who had started us to singing just after we had made camp. I clapped a hand over his mouth to stop him and Galdur the Sage stood and forbade the frivolity in his quavering voice, but hope and longing had almost devoured the other four, so sing we did. "Hearth Hath the Home Made" and "Fires With Our Longing Heart" and a handful of others remembered from a life gone by. Filki ended with a song of the Fey that none but he could begin to understand, but the words made sense somehow and the elf's plaintive voice brought tears even to the eyes of Karn the Axe, a killer of a hundred men. As the last note died away, barely a whisper, I gripped the two bone-handled knives that gave me my name and listened until the blood roared in my ears and my own heartbeat sounded like a drum.
I looked around in the gloom made possible only by the muddy, heatless light of Filki's magic, a dull glow that marked the center of our camp in a damp and freezing cave. The others were tensed and ready, as well, listening like a huntsman's dogs for the whisper of feet upon the rock or the slither of tentacles that would be the only warning we would have of yet another attack in this land of horrors. Lilath even began the small hand motions that I recognized as the Devotions to Belal the Divine, a healing prayer that had saved my life more than once.
We crouched, ready to spring, for many long moments. Time has no meaning in the Bleak and it could be that we remained that way--hunched, stooping, squatting--for an hour. Finally, Galdur raised his hand, to signal for us to stand down. The old man knew things beyond my ken, so I finally--truly--relaxed, my hands cramping and my legs aching. I laid back on my bed roll and tried to find sleep. You would think in a land of perpetual darkness it would be an easy hunt.
Our only warning that our carelessness had been fatal was a slight gasp and a sound like dice being thrown on a gaming board. I was on my feet, my knives clear of their sheathes, before I was awake. With a shout of sorcery, Filki made the dormant light flare into brilliance. What greeted us was a nightmare.
At one end of our small cave, Meki lay on the ground, folded in half like the two leaves of a book. But it was
the wrong way, the wrong way, the wrong way
my mind screamed at me as I saw that the back of her head was touching her sandaled feet. Her red hair spilled over the ground and her face stared at the cavern's ceiling, wide-mouthed and pale in shock. Hair I had touched, a mouth I had kissed. There was only a split second to mourn, then the ground itself seemed to shift and a rock fiend--like a roach or a beetle, but the size of a man on his belly--leapt towards me.
Its four-jawed mouth opened wide and I met it with crossed knives and a curse, the only defense I had. Its momentum carried me backwards and I stumbled and tripped, landing on my back. My knives kept it from ripping my throat out, but the thing hissed as it bit, dripping juices that ran down my arms and stung my eyes. I kicked and scrabbled desperately, choking back the panic, trying to slide from under it, feeling its back legs lifting to rip into my belly.
The thing gave a roar, then, and I felt it shudder as Karn's axe crushed its spine. He struck again, then a third time. In the back of my mind, I saw him aim his swings as only Karn could, aiming for the joints in the fiend's shell. Harlan yelled his war cry and brought his bright blade uselessly down on the thing's hide, trying to bash his way through. Despite the damage done to it, the fiend's hind claws worked their way up my legs and I felt a talon hook into the girdle of my armor. I had seen what it could do to a man and a strength born of fear filled me.
Holding the jaws back with just one bracer and a knife, I drew the other back and plunged it into the fiend's mouth. Karn dropped his axe a fourth time, across the neck of the thing, and I tensed as it kicked and hissed in its death throes. In its spasms, the mandibles closed around my knife arm, raking bloody trails from elbow to wrist. I gasped with the pain and snatched my hand back, leaving the knife buried in the thing's mouth. Inches from the fiend's head, I watched as its eyes--filled with a savage, rudimentary intelligence--faded from red to black.
Karn kicked the thing off me, then hauled me to my feet. Normally a jest would be in order, but he had seen Meki. Instead he took a look at the blood threading down my arm and turned.
"Lilath," he called. "Tamik's got the damned thing's spittle all over him."
I ignored the priestess and ran to Meki's side. With one arm hanging useless, I tried to arrange her properly, to erase the obscene posture the fiend had put her in. I was worse than useless, though, and Harlan and Galdur gently pushed me aside so they could see to it. Lilath whispered the Devotion and I felt the hot rush of new blood thrill through my arm as the healing god's power went to work on me.
But I felt no joy. Filki, tears streaming down his face, watched helplessly as the others laid Meki's corpse--because that's what it was, a husk--aright. I glared at him throughout the healing. His eyes caught mine and he stammered an apology.
"Gods damn you, Filki," I said, my voice thick. "It heard the songs. It heard the thrice-damned songs through the rock and just waited."
"I'm so sorry, Tamik," he said. He was a gentle soul, a lover of life that had no business seeking his fortune a mile underneath the grass.
"If you sing again," I said, pointing at him. "I'll cut your throat."
Had this been any other day, any other night, any other place, any other time, one of the others--Harlan, probably, with his misplaced sense of duty and honor--would have said something to me. But none of them uttered a word. They knew I was right.
Lilath finished her prayer and my arm was whole again. But I felt empty inside as I strode over to the fiend's carcass and, putting one boot on its mouth, reached in and tugged my knife free. I returned to my bedding and began quickly rolling it up and packing my backpack. The others watched for a moment, then turned to their own things. Harlan, looking out of place in mail and white-turned-gray surcoat meant more for a fairground tourney than a bloody cavern, gestured at Meki's body. She lay peacefully now with hands folded and eyes shut. "What of...what shall we do with Meki?"
"Leave it," I grunted as I tightened the straps on my pack. The gold inside weighed the thing down and loosened the leather over time. "Meki's gone. That thing is bait."
No one protested. We decamped and moved on, deeper into the Bleak, away from the blood and the bodies that would draw yet more fiends, more killers, more death. Certainly more than we could handle. In minutes, we were gone, six companions fleeing where once we had been seven.
. . .
We had our reasons for being there. Karn and Meki and I had the simplest of motives: treasure and adventure. It had been all we'd ever needed and served us well until we entered the Bleak. Harlan had dreams of vanquishing evil, Lilath of spreading the word of her god. Filki never had a reason for anything. Galdur was not one of us originally, but had heard tell of our exploits and came to us with a proposal. The old man lusted after the knowledge of civilizations buried by time and dirt, but needed strong arms and swords to find them.
"There is gold to be won," he whispered to us in taverns and on market corners, in temples and in brothels. "There is evil to be stopped, there are souls to save."
One by one, we fell to the promises he made in his reedy voice, though Galdur is not to blame. We thought ourselves adventurers and heroes; in our arrogance, we believed we had conquered the world. Desperate to find new lands to plunder, truth be told, we would've entered the Bleak already had we not thought it but a fairy-tale. And continued to believe until Galdur, once he had won us over, revealed a simple hide map that showed the way.
At the start, we swaggered through the halls of ancient cities, diving ever deeper, slaying all before us, piling the gold and gems of the Delven and the rock fiends and the three-limbed blackhearts we killed into our packs and sacks. We laughed at the ease with which we cut through them, singing songs of praise to each other. Only after a rockfall closed off the path to our homes did we realize what should have been obvious from the start: in the Bleak, the surface was home to the young, the crippled, the diseased. We had been facing the weakest their world had to offer.
We plunged forward, having no choice, and found all the gold and blood and iron and evil Galdur had promised, and more. The creatures of the Bleak liked it no more than we if a group of killers had invaded our homes and laid waste to them. The difference is that the Bleak is a place of unrelenting misery and war, which makes every thrice-damned citizen of the World Under the World a demon looking to kill before it is killed, asking no mercy and giving none. They attacked from the dark, with poison and hate, giving no satisfaction in a battle won as they retreated into tunnels and caverns and cracks in the earth.
Days and weeks passed, or so Galdur told us. Our lives became a dark dream of creeping from cave to cavern. We dared not speak or light a fire for fear of attracting the attention of something that our combined strength could not defeat. And those things were around us. In a world of blindness, we relied on senses that we ignored on the surface and many times we felt rather than saw the bulk and menace of a creature so strong and so near that we all prayed to gods to preserve us, as a hare hopes that the wolf passes by.
We became creatures ourselves, eating things we found growing on walls, blind white fish we snatched from dark waters, fiends we killed and hoped were more animal than man. We became haggard and mute and sickly. Clothing and shoes rotted on our bodies until we resembled the creatures we had slain so blithely. Had we been magically transported to the surface world, we would've become the object of quests and bounties, our heads mounted on plaques and paraded at fairs. My teeth loosened until one day I pulled two out trying to bite into a biscuit saved for a special day. I wondered idly if all the devils in this blackened world had started once as thieves and priests and sages, simple men crushed beneath the unrelenting force of the Bleak.
Galdur told us later that the night Meki was taken by the fiend marked the fifth month of our journey in the Bleak.
. . .
Karn shook me awake, then grabbed my wrists as I tried to draw my knives. He held me still until I awoke, then said simply, "Lilath is gone."
I blinked and looked around our miserable campsite. We had found the lopsided corner of a cave that let us listen for threats from afar, a pocket that we could defend if need be. Harlan and Filki stood to one side, silent and forlorn, Galdur studied the ground as if looking for sign though he was nearly blind.
I looked up at Karn. "How? When?"
He grimaced and jerked a thumb at the other three. "She woke and told the squire she was going to see to her necessaries. The fool waited until my watch to say anything."
Harlan strode to us, his face stony. The weeks had carved away the boyish face and his hair hung in lank blond strands where once it had been a point of vain pride. "I didn't see fit to question our priest's decision to relieve herself, Karn. You wouldn't have either."
Karn barely glanced at him. "We have no chance without Lilath. She's brought us back from the edge of death a dozen times. You should've tied her down if you'd needed to or told her to piss in the middle of the camp, if nothing else."
Harlan sneered. "You would've liked that, Karn. But would she?"
It was my turn to grab Karn's wrist this time as his axe was almost out of its sleeve before Harlan's last word had died away. "Enough. Quit playing the ass, Harlan. Karn's right, we need to find Lilath or we'll be packing cave mold onto our wounds."
I shoved Harlan towards Filki. "You two, look for signs of Lilath's passing back the way we came, towards the cave with the pond in the corner, do you remember? Good. Galdur, stay here in case she returns. Karn, stay as well, and keep Galdur safe."
When the Axe began to protest, I held up a hand. "Galdur is the only one of us that can even tell the time and he can't fend off a stone lizard. And I'll need the quiet and shadow if I'm to do my own search."
With that, I left in the opposite direction I'd sent Harlan and Filki. I'd taken the more perilous search, as it was down a rocky path that we hadn't explored as a group yet. But I was one born in shadows and a cat made more noise than I did when I wished to be silent.
I traced my way along the left side of the master cave, a cavern three times the length of a great lord's hall. It was filled with sights that would have amazed me a year before: mounds of mold the size of a horse, glowing with a low blue light; rock spires the height of a castle tower, threaded with gleaming gold and silver veins of ore; plate-sized beetles that crawled in concert and made it seem as if the entire floor of the cave was moving.
I padded towards a cleft that was to be our exit whenever we decided it was time to move on. Water trickled down the corner of the gaping hole, like a child's drooling. I breathed through my mouth to stay as silent as possible and began feeling my way down the corridor. The dull illumination from the mold was the only way I was able to see in what was otherwise an impenetrable blackness.
There was no trail, no spoor, no sign, but I had little choice, so pressed on, crossing dark bridges of stone and through holes in the earth shaped like tombs. Four new caverns I traversed, taking long minutes to cross them. Listening, smelling, tasting the air. When the urge to hurry rose within me, I remembered Meki's gasp before her death and I suddenly found the patience to move with caution again.