The following is not the finalised edition. It hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors.
Delik clutched the sides of the mining cart as it careened into the ever deeper darkness. He’d lost all sense of direction and could only trust that the automaton piloting the rickety cart knew where he was heading. At first the decent into the bowels of the mountain had proceeded at a gentle pace. Seaview, the sapphire eyed captain of the iron cart, had magically fused his three stone arms and leisurely cranked the drive wheel, propelling them along the tracks. For Delik, all semblance of leisure was lost when the last ray of light was devoured behind them. What had he gotten himself into?
Seaview sat at the helm of the cart and Delik huddled at the back, dripping in a cold sweat. His strong feet found some iron ribbing in the frame of the cart and he pushed his body against the rear wall, desperate not to be flung into the abyssal tunnel and be left behind. The goddess and Mother of creation, Ona, sure did his ancestors a favour when she guided the Shanka out from below the mountain. Delik prayed his goddess would forgive him for hurtling below ground, rattling her holy bones and making more clamour than a blood-crazed imp.
Neither Seaview’s central blue eye nor his glowing face did anything to penetrate the darkness. What kind of sorcerer made a construct work in the dark without a magical lamp? It was lunacy to travel this way. How could this ridiculous contraption see danger ahead? What if something had fallen across the line?
The cart suddenly dipped and gathered speed faster than a falling anvil. It lurched to the left and careened right. In the faint glow of Seaview’s face Delik noticed the automaton had removed his grip from the drive wheel. Gods! The damn cart was in free fall into the black mouth of hell.
“Slow down!” Delik’s protest was drowned out by squealing wheels and the ever faster clickety-clack. The racket ricocheted through the tunnel like a hundred demons hammering nails into his iron coffin. With all the racket, every denizen scurrying and sliding through the undermountain’s black bowels would be flocking to devour him. Seaview faced Delik, his blue eye glowing steady. Though the golem piloted blindly, he didn’t appear at all worried. What was Delik thinking? As if a construct even comprehended fear. The other lights on Seaview’s face were serene, twinkling slowly with abstract patterns, yet fixated on Delik. They began to shimmer and pulse, sketching shape and form into an unlikely artwork. To the shankakin’s horror it was a portrait of himself, cowering like a rat, clutching his backpack like it were a holy relic to ward off the darkness. It was a most unflattering and accurate likeness.
The track flattened out then began to rise. Seaview turned away from his passenger and reapplied his one powerful arm to the wheel, pumping like mad to keep the cart’s momentum. Delik’s stomach stirred with butterflies and though it felt like his insides would fall out, thankfully the laws of up and down still applied beneath Oranica. The cart slowed to a peaceful pace and Delik had time to settle his stomach and contemplate the idiocy of his choices.
Shankakin simply didn’t belong in the underdown. Delik was courting the curses of his ancestors to ignore the taboo. Long ago Shanka and his clan fled the dark realms beneath Oranica and promised Ona never to return. His people had pledged the same ever since. The Goddess granted generations past sanctuary and prosperity. Then the Jandans came in their tall ships with their Lord God. The rest is blood and smoke. Maybe going underground to shake Ona’s bones would wake the goddess up. Delik’s people needed her now more than ever.
After the cart had travelled slowly up for some time, Delik wondered if the next stop would bring them to sunshine once more. Delik had first met Seaview parked on an outcrop on the side of a mountain. It made sense that the cart would travel to another place like it. Hopefully on the other side of the mountain. Hope was all he had. Delik was at the mercy of the contraption. For all Delik knew they were on the way to the High Temple of Jando. He’d asked Seaview to take him to Calimska, but what if the automaton didn’t know where Calimska was?
Delik thought of Minni who had plummeted to her death trying to save Amber. Surely that magic waif of a girl was better off dead than captured by dragons and better never born than to go back to that dog of a man, Uighara. Minni had lived a life of risk. Every day she knew could be her last, yet she always put her neck out for the rebellion. She cherished Amber too and did all in her power to protect her. In the end it wasn’t enough. She danced with death once too many times. The music stopped. Her luck ran dry.
Minni was like a sister to Delik, they had spent enough time together to know what to hate about each other, but he loved her all the same. She’d saved him more times than he had fingers and had put him in peril more than twice that. Still he loved her and would miss her dearly.
Delik’s father would take the news of Minni’s death badly. Jasper treated Minella like a daughter of his own, much to Delik’s jealous regard. She earned her love and admiration in the rebellion, yet she would never have a burial to honour that respect. Her bones would be picked apart by crows and she would be torn apart by the torrent of rapids in the Hiron River. It was a terrible shame and Delik caught himself crying in the darkness. Alone. The last of the expedition to save his people.
The shankakin wiped his eyes and stoppered the well of tears that promised to gush forward. Delik had witnessed many a warrior stronger than he, crumble under the weight of a lost comrade. They’d falter in combat or make a fool decision in the naive hope for justice. They’d corrode their inner metal in a stream of tears and not finish the mission. Delik couldn’t lower his blade when he was so close to saving his people. Nothing would stop him. The humans responsible for this evil slavery would taste his steel.
Unfortunately, Delik remembered his blade was shattered. Damn it if a broken sword wasn’t enough. He’d finish the job even if all he held was a spoon. He still had the hope stone from Stoneheart and the amulet from Qarim, for all the good they’d do. He was no mage to summon their power. The backpack stuffed with evidence though. That was power. Truth would cut these Calimskan politicians deeper than any blade and curse them worse than any magic. Admittedly it wouldn’t be half as satisfying. If Minni were still alive she’d have have demanded blood. Delik would do his darnedest to bring justice no matter what. Justice for his people. For Amber, Minni and Elrin. For all who’d fallen along the way.
A sickly green glow penetrated the tunnel up ahead. It was so feint at first that Delik thought his eyes were mistaken. Seaview, cranked the wheel with a determined rhythm and the higher up the rise they travelled the more sure Delik became. There was light ahead. Not daylight though. Delik took his broken blade in hand. Who knew what underground lair the cart might dump him into. That ichor green could be the evil glow of a liche king and his skeletal army or a demonic shrine of some goblin shaman. Delik hunkered down into the cart. He didn’t want any fell group to notice his presence.
Between each squeaking crank of the cart’s iron drive wheel a tune of clicks and whistle-like scrapings echoed down the tunnel. Had they descended into a pocket of a stoney hell where creatures played with instruments of torture? Delik thought demons loved fires and scalding oil, but where was the heat? It was chill as death itself in here. The cart proceeded undeterred by the noise. As they came closer to the light Delik shrunk down further still not even daring to peek over the lip of the cart. It didn’t matter though, the monster playing the spine chilling song crawled on the tunnel roof. It had six legs and was as big as a dog with a bulbous abdomen. Worst of all, its head had more horns than a herd of cattle. Probing tendrils quivered around its gnashing mucous-laden mouth. The beastie had eyes upon eyes that drilled into Delik’s soul. What gatekeeper of hell was this?
Seaview stopped the cart. Was he out of energy? Out of his mind? Only the gods knew what greased the cogs in his box head.
Delik nudged the golem with his foot, too scared to utter a sound, but desperate to get the contraption’s strong arm moving again. Seaview turned his head like an owl with a rubber neck. His glowing face lit on and off in a blinking question.
The flashing light startled the insectoid gatekeeper into a hissing frenzy. It spun in a circle and drummed its many legs on the tunnel roof, tendrils lashing like they were whips. The hysterical dance ended abruptly and the creature’s bulbous abdomen contracted. An eye-watering mist sprayed over Delik and Seaview then the creature scuttled into the green glow ahead.
“Turn your blasted face off, Seaview!” Delik spluttered and tried to spit the bitter taste from his mouth. “Or that beast’ll be back to eat us both.”
Seaview showed squiggly line then a picture of a more ferocious pincer faced monster.
“What on earth does that mean? I want to go to Calimska, not a demon pit!”
Seaview put his bulging stone arm to the wheel again and the cart lurched around a tight bend and out of the tunnel. A massive chamber opened overhead filled with a forest of glowing fungus growing from the walls. Hundreds of insectoid creatures tended the forest, carefully pruning and planting while they rhythmically hummed and chirped. The creature that sprayed them scampered toward its comrades, chittering and rasping. Every creature it passed assumed the same behaviour, angrily chittering to neighbours and raising the alarm. Soon a rasping roar sounded, echoing through the cavern, then another and another. The forest parted and hairy yellow monster built like an armoured lion emerged, tasting the air with horrifying mouthparts. More of the creatures ilk followed, their scythe like mandibles snipping together as they barrelled down the wall to catch the intruders.
“By the gods, Seaview! Go boy, go. Faster!”
Seaview cranked the drivewheel, but it was all too slow for Delik’s liking. The charging horde of insect guards would be on top of them faster than an avalanche. Delik was just about to leap out and push the cart when his stomach dropped and the cart hurtled over a crest. Delik braced himself against the sides of the cart and dared to look over the edge. The cavern walls went ever down in a seemingly bottomless schism within the mountain. On either wall the giant insect colony groomed the glowing forest. The clicking and clacking of the cart shook the tracks, scattering the drones left and right. Waves of fear trailed in the carts wake triggering more and more yellow guardians in the fungal forest and chase them.
Seaview spun his head around and beamed Delik a jaunty dazzle of lights. While his arm casually cranked the wheel, Seaview’s face artistically demonstrated an uncomfortable humour, displaying a picture of the small cart hurtling down a ravine with an army of hellspawned hairy ants closing in. Was the contraption deliberately stirring up this nest of monsters for a laugh?
While an angry tangle of gnashing beasts chased the cart down the tracks, hundreds rained from above, chittering as they fell passed Delik and Seaview. They bounced down through the fungus forest, exploding blooms of glowing green spores into the subterranean chasm. Delik dared to peer over the edge, his teeth near rattling out of his gums. The spores illuminated something he wished he’d never seen. Far bellow an engorged horror of pulsating flesh laboured in a chamber filled with hundreds of eggs. The mother of these beasts to be sure. She had a belly as big as a galleon and a head that dwarfed her yellow maned guardians. The enraged insects clambered over their queen, forming a blanket of snipping mandibles to deter the interlopers. As if there was any chance Delik desired an audience in that vile chamber. The sooner Seaview got him to Calimska the better.
“Why are you going so damn slow? Get a move on!”
Seaview’s arm turned even slower letting the army of gnashing guardians close in. His sapphire eye twinkled with what Delik swore was humour. Cheeky bastard. Delik would have throttled the blockhead if it weren’t for a debilitating fear of falling out of the cart. Besides, beating a construct to pieces wouldn’t solve his problems. Seaview toyed with the guardians, keeping the cart just ahead of their gnashing mandibles. Scores of them fell off the edge but more replaced them, scrambling over the steep walls above and sheer cliff face below, trying to head them off. Seaview was tempting fate with his reckless antics.
Even a construct shouldn’t toy with the god of chance. Scores of ants falling from the vast forest above had missed the cart, some had crunched under the wheels, most had fallen into the queen’s chasm. It only took one to wipe the twinkle from Seaview’s face. It bounced down on fungal blooms and slid on soft moss, launching off the precipice with a screech that ended abruptly when it hit the cart. The force of the impact cleft the beast in two. The biting end sheered off at the shoulders, spurting ichor as it separated. The cart teetered on its two left wheels, edging over the chasm. Seaview’s lights flashed with alarm. His stoney arm came off the drive wheel and slammed Delik and the oozing jittering insect abdomen to the right side.
“Gods blight your maker!” Delik wanted nothing better than to scream more curses at Seaview, but the pressure of the construct’s arm on the abomination squirted viscous goo everywhere. Delik shut his eyes and thanked Ona that the creature had twitched its last.
Seaview’s quick thinking counterbalanced the cart and it clanged down all four wheels just in time to navigate around a corner. The construct spun around and reattached his arm to the wheel, pumping up an incline with all his might. Still, it was too little to outpace the oncoming horde of insect guards. Serrated mandibles snapped at the iron cart trying to haul it off the tracks and Seaview lost momentum. Delik thought their luck had run out until one yellow guardian, larger than the others, ran over the backs of its brethren and barged its armoured head into the cart. The cart jolted ahead and Seaview put his whole body into turning the drive wheel. They shot over the crest of the incline and left the creatures behind. Oddly, they stopped following all together, not daring to follow over the crest.
Delik turned to discover why. Seaview was driving them as fast as he could towards a dead end.
The tracks stopped at the bottom of the hill disappearing into water. Ahead, the chasm narrowed, split by the misty veil of a waterfall, cascading from a sliver of day light far above. The water had a blue iridescence unlike anything Delik had seen before. It was beautiful, but what did that matter? Pretty water didn’t make imminent death any more appealing.