The following is not the finalised edition. It hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors. Let me know if you spot any!
Delik gritted his teeth and cursed his luck. The insane construct was accelerating toward the dead end waterfall, pumping the drive wheel like a madman while gazing at the beam of daylight impossibly high above. To the hells with it! Let the idiot plow into the hard stone wall, it might knock some sense into him. This wasn’t Delik’s time to die.
On shaky legs, Delik turned and prepared to leap off the back of the cart. Wind whipped hair into his eyes, and with all the rattling and shaking his sweaty palms lost traction on the edge of the cart. A bump in the track knocked him off his feet. It tossed him in the air like the foolish lump he was, arse up and head first.
Just before Delik’s teeth were knocked out and his face pulverised to mush, a very strong arm grabbed him around the waist. Seaview was not messing around. The construct’s face flashed with warning lights and his powerful arm separated into three parts, branching like a cage over the cart. All in good time to smash into the wall behind the waterfall.
Except that there was no wall. A narrow tunnel carved by eons of falling water swallowed them whole.
Delik didn’t hit a dead end, but was pounded down by a waterfall nonetheless. The veil of water was just the beginning. A torrent descended so hard and fast it may as well have been an avalanche. The cart filled to overflowing and Delik swallowed a skinful, sputtering and gasping for air. The severed body of the giant ant-monster pressed against him in the flooded cart. Delik could have sworn the thing came alive in the glowing water with abdomen twitching and its remaining legs pedalling like mangled oars. Seaview’s sapphire eye glowed as blue as the radiant water gushing over his hard head. The automaton seemed to be enjoying himself while Delik near drowned.
Thankfully, the drenching was short lived. Perhaps there was method to Seaview’s madness. The cart’s momentum carried them through the tumult of water and into a narrow chute speckled with glow worms. Seaview applied one of his three arms to the drive wheel and carefully slowed their descent, leaving his two other arms as a barrier to keep Delik in the cart. Water rushed ahead, speeding out the chute into a vast cavern. Just when Delik imagined Seaview knew what he was doing, the cart slipped forward, rushing to the precipice, unable to hold the sheer weight of water backing up in the chute behind them.
Seaview kept one arm on the drive wheel and braced his other two arms against the slippery walls of the chute. His stone digits clawed for purchase to no avail. The cart rushed to the end of the chute, hellbent on spitting them into the yawning cavern. As soon as they burst out of the chute, Seaview grabbed an iron support beam with all of his arms, hauling the cart around a dogleg bend.
The severed body of the ant-monster shot out of the cart and Delik was thrown out too. Butterflies of doom swarmed in his stomach. There was nothing but cold air around him. The shankakin tumbled, not knowing up from down, desperately reaching out to grab a lifeline. His fingers touched stone and he held on with all his strength, dangling like a wet fish.
More to the point, the stone held on to him. Seaview had miraculously extended his arm long enough to snatch Delik from death. The shankakin was unceremoniously pulled back into the cart and given a stern reprimand for exiting. Seaview reassembled his long thin arm into three arms once more and they all shook stoney fingers at him. Seaview’s face lectured him with a simple pictogram of a happy big-nosed passenger inside a cart followed by a presumably dead big-nosed passenger strewn in a misshapen mess at the bottom of a cliff.
“Subtle as a stone.” Delik patted Seaview’s rocky shoulder. “Glad you hitched my britches, lad. You’re not so bad for a blockhead.”
Seaview responded with a confusion of lights.
“I’m trying to say thank you. You saved my bloody life.”
Every stone in Seaview’s body vibrated with a grinding chirp of joy.
“Well, don’t get all excited! You might’ve saved me once, but you sure as shite almost killed me twice. You still owe me.”
Seaview sternly pointed where the water from the chute hit the great lake below.
A knot of plump white serpentine bodies fought over the giant insect abdomen, roiling the blue iridescence in a feeding frenzy. While being torn apart by hungry fish terrified Delik no end, a greater threat loomed out of the dark waters beyond. A saw toothed snout snatched up three fat bellied scavengers in one bite then disappeared as silently as it had arrived. The Gods only knew what these abyssal monsters were. Sure as night stalked the day, Delik didn’t care to name them.
“Alright, Alright, don’t get shirty. I suppose we can call it even. Gods curse me if I offend a bundle of rocks.”
The sapphire in Seaview’s head flashed bright blue and the construct turned away from Delik, hopefully satisfied that with their arrangement. Delik thought better of berating the construct again. Seaview was far more intelligent than Delik imagined and knew this underworld more than he ever would. Besides, Seaview was strong enough to snap his neck or throw him from the cart should temper tarnish the air again. Best not make a terrible journey impossible.
The cart hugged the sheer cavern wall around the subterranean lake following the rickety tracks carved into the rock. Delik was grateful that Seaview went easy on the drive wheel. He took the time to catch his breath and check that he hadn’t lost any of his belongings. All was in order, not that he much to begin with. His clothes were wet, but they’d needed a good wash anyway. Most importantly, his backpack still had the evidence of Calimska’s conspiracy with Jando all sealed up in oilskins.
Delik inspected the hopestone at the bottom of his pack. “Bring me to Shanda. Luck or not, just show me the way to my beloved.” The stone showed no sign of caring, let along guidance. Some use it would be.
The tracks curved to the left and revealed the cavern was larger still. Eerie chirps and whistles quivered through the damp air, echoing off false stars that twinkled on the cavern roof. The deep lake crept upon a pebbled shoreline and beyond a jungle of glowing plant life assaulted Delik’s eyes. Purples, greens, yellows and blues. Iridescent colours painted a manic landscape he didn’t trust. The forest bent and swayed, dancing out of step, forgotten by the sun. There were shadows there too. Dark shapes moved in deranged thickets. Who knew what devious beasts stalked these lands?
Further on the tracks curved again, unveiling a mournful sunset. Amber rays of real sunshine breached the cavern through a pair of narrow cracks high on the distant ceiling. The fissures wept like tightly closed eyes. Water tumbled down the ridge of a mossy nose and pooled in a lake beside a wailing cave mouth. As sad as the face looked, she was equally beautiful. Lush vines and orchids cascaded down like a dryad’s hair. Butterflies kissed the flowers blushing upon her stoney cheeks and danced in the remnants of the sun. Water lilies drank her sorrow, blooming joy into the otherwise black expanse of the cavern.
Witnessing the face dug up a life of loss Delik had buried. He couldn’t look away. His eyes began to water and no matter how he brushed the tears away, more replaced them. Delik’s heart overflowed with grief. The loss of his wife, his mother, his people. His dear friends. Himself. Delik sobbed uncontrollably. He wallowed in the futility of his quest. What was the point? All things returned to the earth. Why fight against it?
A gentle hand patted Delik’s shoulder. He ignored it, staring at the stone goddess instead. She knew his grief.
The hand grabbed his shoulder and squeezed then patted Delik’s head. He weakly pushed the hand away and searched the fading light in her divine eyes. Only the goddess of tears understood his hurt.
The hand clamped over Delik’s skull. This was it. Let the golem twist his head right off. His sorrow was worthy of sacrifice. Let his death honour the goddess.
Seaview’s hand turned Delik’s head ever so gently away from the mournful visage. The stone golem’s other hand reached into Delik’s backpack and drew something out, tried to show him. Delik couldn’t see through the blur of his tears and didn’t care for the pain in his heart. Every ounce of his being wanted to cut that pain out. It was the only way.
A third hand of stone seized Delik’s wrist and pried open his white-knuckled fist. The broken sword dropped onto the floor of the cart. How had the blade gotten into his grip? Seaview pressed a smooth stone into Delik’s palm. It was warm and the etched runes glowed with his touch. The warmth and light dried Delik’s tears and put a salve on his wounded heart. There was a path forward, no matter the odds. There was hope in the darkness.
Delik shook off the hypnotic stupor that had consumed him. He clutched his hopestone and appraised Seaview’s twinkling face. “The gnomes must’ve made you with a heart of gold, eh?”
Seaview tilted his head, unsure what a heart was.
“Your thumper, see.” Delik approximated where Seaview’s heart might be on his boulder body and pointed. “Inside your chest? Where you feel things.”
The golem patting his barrel shaped body with three stoney hands. Finding nothing of interest, a quizzical pattern of lights skipped across his face.
“No. You don’t feel like that. You … It’s …” Delik scratched his bristled chin. “Nevermind. You’re a good egg is all I’m saying. Leave it at that.”
Above his sapphire eye, Seaview drew a pictogram of eggs in a nest.
“That’s it! But I don’t mean you’re an actual bird egg.”
The picture morphed and a dragon curled around the clutch. Seaview’s little boulder head quivered.
“No, no, that’s not what I mean. I’m just saying—”
A long low moan rolled from the mouth of the goddess as the last rays of light fell from her eyes. The mouth lit up, exposing an army of silhouettes inside. A bright silver orb led a military formation of slender pale-skinned people out of the cavern before rising like the moon, illuminating the darkest reaches of the cavern. The light came to rest at the apex of a giant obelisk towering over the centre of a terraced village of stone houses. Pale figures hurried from their homes and gathered around the obelisk, bowing to the silver light, awaiting the coming army. These were undanae, slinking night-eyed savages, barbarians of the deepest darkness. Ages past, Shankakin fled the underdown for many a good reason. The undanae were high on that list.
Hundreds of dark dwellers marched out of the weeping goddess’s mouth and surrounded the village. Units of slingmen rode on gangly spider-legged monstrosities, chariots bristling with javelins were pulled by chittering boar beetles, and flanking them were lines of foot soldiers. What were undanae doing moving troops around? What wars were waged down here?
Seaview had no wish to find out. The golem fused his arms for extra strength and cranked the drive wheel, squealing ahead and clanking along the tracks in haste. The racket echoed across the water and bounced around the cavern. Horns trilled a three tone warning and a swarm of pony-sized crickets spewed from the cave mouth, flying undanae riders to every corner of the enormous cavern. The fast-moving squadron couldn’t stay in the air for long, but they could leap great distances, climbing up the walls and hanging upside down from the cavern ceiling.
Surrounded from all angles, Seaview sped on. Crickets jumped onto the tracks ahead, but there was no stopping the golem. Undanae wailed battle cries that made Delik’s knees tremble. He huddled beneath his backpack as a storm of darts hailed down. The missiles bounced off the iron cart and lodged into his bag, narrowly missing his fingers. Delik peeked around Seaview’s shoulder to see an undanae shaman with a twisted staff straddle the tracks and summon a ball of lightning. A familiar tingle reminded Delik of the gold dragon’s amulet about his neck.
Thunder cracked and the bolt of death sped toward the cart. With hopestone clutched in one hand and the amulet thrust forth in the other, Delik stood tall, willing his legs to hold firm against every impulse to leap from the cart. Magic met magic with dazzling light and a deafening explosion. Energy ricocheted in a cocoon around Delik and Seaview as they plowed through the blockade, blasting giant crickets and moon-faced riders into the lake. Delik wished the monsters of the lake a happy feast.
Not far from the blockade the tracks veered into a tight tunnel and spiralled down. Seaview made a screeching, hellish decent, but this time Delik didn’t mind. He pressed himself low in the cart and held on tight, trusting his life to the golem, hoping they’d escaped the undanae.