Darkness was my erstwhile companion from that point on and though the torch did help to illuminate the path ahead of me its glow seemed greatly inadequate for the task at hand. The unfathomable blackness seemed to gorge itself upon the light rather than flee from it and I was left with barely a metre around me by which to watch my step.
I continued on like this for what seemed like hours until I reached what I took, to my dismay, to be a dead end. It appeared a hard surface blocked me from my destination, whatever that may have been, and this filled me with an unpleasant cocktail of anxieties that made me hit against the wall in my anger and confusion. It was then I discovered I was not blocked by a wall at all, but rather by a door.
The door was easily as large as the tunnel, and for the most part lacked any visual indicators that it was anything other than a wall. It was only once I had hit the object in my frustration that I discovered it was in fact wooden, and light at that for it shook upon impact. I hungrily searched its length for some way to open it and eventually came across a hole just big enough for a hand to fit inside. With haste I slid my hand inside and recoiled quickly as I felt some subterranean insect skitter across my fingers. I would not be deterred however, and after regaining my confidence, slid my hand inside and pulled.
At first I thought I had been mistaken, and that this was merely a rotten section of the wood, but then the door creaked, and to my astonishment began to open on its own. I hastily pulled my hand out and watched in wonder as the contraption completed its course. I could see no pulleys or mechanical apparatus to support it, but in my experience such things could easily have been hidden away in darkened recesses so as to give the illusion that the door opened without aid.
Beyond the door was a winding pathway that seemed to disappear around a corner. In here the narrow walls made the torch’s light spread slightly further, but I was ever wary of the leering void that lurked constantly to my left as I rounded the corner. The path continued to curve, and to my surprise appeared to be leading me downwards, much like a spiral staircase but far more deceptive in its approach.
I will say one thing about the deep and ancient paths, they are if nothing else exceptionally tiring in length. That and the darkness seem to be the only things they hold in common for there was no clear direction to follow, only onwards, and there was no obvious destination either or signs that might indicate a reason for traversing this way. There was only the descent.
A rustling sound broke my concentration and I paused in shock. Save for the skittering thing, I had not come across any signs of life in my long journey, and though it seemed the most obvious thing at the time, I had not once questioned why that might be. Without so much as a breath to break the silence I held out my torch and slowly scanned my surroundings. There was nothing.
More rustling came, but this time it sounded more akin to a rumble. I was reminded of the legend of the Deep Shapers, a Nosrec myth that spoke of wyrms of titanic proportions slithering eternally beneath the surface of the world and causing the land to shake and tremble as they passed. They were how the primitive Nosrec understood concepts such as earthquakes and tremors, and though I with my superior and educated mind knew such things were quite impossible, could not help but picture the monstrous things. How large would a wyrm need to be to cause an earthquake?
I put these notions from my mind and focused on the more likely. It was possible that I had heard nothing but my own imagination, or failing that, that I was nearing a cave with running water. It was also plausible that the rumbling was indicative of a possible cave-in, but I found this idea to be just as unhelpful and so ignored it.
Still, with caution in my mind I crept forward, listening intently for any sound, be it a rumble or the tapping of a small stone falling down a crevice. I was not prepared for what I heard next.
The words came from nowhere, and disappeared so quickly that I was sure I must have been mistaken for hearing them. Still they chilled me, for Pter was my name when I was young, and ysash a greeting common in Karmazyn where I was born. For one terrible moment I recalled my mother’s face, that darling woman that had raised and cared for me and died too young. I was still a child.
‘Hello?’ I cried out, ‘is there someone here?’
For a moment I thought I would get no reply. In fact I had prayed that would be the case.
I shook at the sound of my own name, echoing through those blackened tunnels. It sounded closer now, but I could determine nothing about the speaker from the tone of her voice. I could not even be sure it was female.
‘Yes, I’m Pter,’ I said. ‘I am Magnate Pterius Rusalka. My brother is Lord-Magnate of Karmazyn, where I am from. You spoke to me with the river dialect. Are you are a son of the stream as well?’
I cringed internally at my own wording. My nerves had got the better of me, and per my usual response in such situations where I am fearful of another’s presence, I exposed my rank and position. Such things worked far better in the safety of a noble house, but here all it would do was identify me as an expensive ransom.
My eyes widened as I heard this time a dreadful sound ahead of me, like that of a man dragging its feet, and steadily shambling towards me.
‘Ysash,’ I called, resorting to my native dialect for aid. ‘Ysash, ysash!’
By then I was trembling. The hairs on my body were prickling and were it visible to see, my face would have been a portrait of fear. Still, the thing shambled before me and just as I thought I could not be more terrified, I spied its form within the blackness, an impossibly dark shape like that of a broken man, pressing towards me at steady pace.
Ysash Pter. S’ha Akcryn!