The following is not the finalised edition. Chapter order and little details may change before book publication. This hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors. Let me know if you spot any!
Seaview made a leaden journey through the tunnel. Or more precisely, tunnels. There were so many turns and branching tracks that Delik lost any sense of direction he gleaned from the central intersection. Without the Sun or stars to guide them, he could only trust that Seaview knew the way. At each branch in the tracks were levers, but Seaview never touched them. Starla used her flaming wand to inspect the orange glyphs on the walls and whispered to the golem each time. Seaview spoke back with pictograms, but it was a conversation Delik wasn’t invited to share. Not that he’d pretend to know what Seaview painted upon his magic face.
The child on the other hand was happy to play along, bless her. If only they could see what Delik saw. A bone head whispering to a rock head. Neither knowing what either said, but maybe that didn’t matter. Words weren’t always enough.
Although Seaview pushed more weight with the second cart, that wasn’t the burden that slowed him. Delik felt for the poor golem, cursed to eternally roll through the darkness on rails to who knows where. His one companion in the underdown was Moonview and now she was dead, a pile of lifeless rocks. Throughout the journey, Seaview’s face repainted the moon over the lonely arch again and again. Slowly. Delicately. The moon descended a hundred times and the heavens shed tears of starshine. The golem honoured her memory the best way he knew how.
Who knew what Seaview intended to do with her cart and her remains? What happened to golems when they died anyway? Were they buried? Perhaps there were more golems like Seaview and Moonview. If not now, there must have been more in the past. Whoever the gnomish creators were, they had to have a reason for this complicated system of tunnels and tracks. Not that it really mattered. It was just another mysterious relic of ages long forgotten.
The real mystery was how Delik could possibly save everyone by himself. He had enough problems on the surface, yet here he was digging up more underground.
“So, how did a mouse like you end up down here fighting goblins?” Delik wrapped his knuckles playfully on Starla’s skull helmet. He needed more information from the girl, but she hadn’t spoken to him since they started into the tunnel.
“I’m no mouse!” Starla whispered, lifting her helmet to put her finger over her lips. “Shh!”
Delik hid a smile and lowered his voice. “Better than a rat wouldn’t you say? Or a bat.”
“O’course not.” Starla eyed Delik up as though she was reevaluating his worth. “Mice are for the fields. I’d rather be a rat or a bat. Better still, a dragon.”
“Well, I suppose you make a good a point. Though you’d need to be a wee dragon to squeeze down these tunnels.”
“I’ll be a bat then.” Starla flapped her hands about. “I could fly. I’d squeal as loud as I wanted, eat all the fat crickets I wanted and chase the moths up to the glow worms.”
“You’d have to sleep upside down too.”
“Fine by me. I’d hang where no biters could get me.”
Star frowned at Delik, now convinced he was simple. “Never mind. What’d you be? And you can’t copy neither.”
“I’d be a bird,” said Delik after a moment’s thought, giving in to the simple joy of childish imaginings. “An osprey, soaring over the crashing waves, catching a juicy fish whenever I wanted. I could fly upriver too, over the fields and hamlets. I could—”
“Nah, you can’t be an oops prey. No such thing.” Starla interrupted Delik’s flight of fancy and looked him up and down. “You’ll be a rat.”
“That’s not fair! Ospreys are a real bird.”
“Hush. Rats are quiet.”
“Listen here, you—”
“Shh!” Something on the ceiling of the tunnel ahead caught Starla’s attention. She pulled her ridiculous skull helmet over her face again and grabbed Seaview’s shoulder.
The golem turned and wrapped his stoney digits around the nape of Starla’s neck and for a moment Delik thought Seaview was angry with her. His sapphire eye shone bright and a stream of pictograms flashed over his face.
Delik took hold of the golems arm to stop it strangling the child, but he was wrong to fear for Starla’s life. The girl had pressed a combination of interlocking stones on Seaview’s shoulder and they throbbed with a soft rose glow in the shape of a hand not much larger than Starla’s.
Seaview scanned a line of glyphs arching over the tunnel. The glyphs pulsed slowly in time with Seaview’s sapphire eye. Seaview nodded and brought the carts to a stop.
“How’d you know how to do that?” Delik tried to read the glyphs, but they faded as fast as they appeared. How had the girl known they were there? For someone so adamant that they hated mages, the sprout sure knew a lot about magic.
“It’s just pictures,” whispered Starla. “Now, you’ve gotta keep your grumble-rumbler quiet or they’ll get us. Promise?”
“I promise,” whispered Delik, squinting down the tunnel, looking for any guards. “Is this it? Are you sure we’re in the right place?”
“Not here. Down there. We’ve got to get passed the grey rattlers. Can’t you feel them?”
Delik stared down the tunnel. Nothing but darkness. And… a faint shuffle. So subtle his mind could have been playing tricks. Then came a rattle, like a dead tree in a fitful breeze. Such a wicked sound he could not ignore. The shankakin held his breath and listened carefully. Nothing. Just his heartbeat thumping in his ears. A fragile emptiness hung in the air. Then it shattered. An ungodly wail ricocheted through the tunnels, chilling Delik to his core.
“Undead.” Just saying the word made Delik’s hair stand on end. “How did you get passed them?”
“They can’t see me.” Starla tapped the six-eyed three-horned skull. “But they’ll come for you. So hush.”
“There was another tunnel branch back a ways. We should scout it out. I’m not being meat for their bones.”
“Don’t worry. I was scared too.” Starla took his hand. “I still am. You’ve just got to be quiet like a good rat. Follow me, I’ve got an idea.”
Starla jumped out of the cart and crept down the tunnel.
Delik first impulse was to order the impetuous girl to come right back. Of course, he couldn’t or the walking dead would come shuffling. He couldn’t very well leave her to die alone either.
“Guess this is where we part ways, Seaview.” Delik clasped one of Seaview’s forearms. “I’m sorry about your, ah, friend there. I don’t suppose you’d wait for us, would you?”
Seaview once again painted a picture of the Moon descending over the lonely arch.
“Of course.” Delik cleared his throat. “Go and honour Moonview. You’re a good egg, son. I hope we meet again someday. Get you some tracks on the upside, hmm?”
Seaview nodded and waited for Delik to jump out before he rolled back the way they’d come.
Against every urging of his shaking limbs and the voice screaming in his head follow Seaview, Delik snuck down the dark tunnel after Starla. It got so dark he could not see her, only hear her delicate footsteps. The tunnel hooked back to the left and Delik wished it was dark again. Greenish-yellow light flickered behind a tangle of iron bars. On the other side, cloaked figures lurked, waiting to consume his soul.
Starla snuck right on up to the iron bramble and waited, waving for Delik to come closer. One of the undead on the other side groaned. Another chittered and wailed. Delik froze stiff. Starla waved for him to hurry, but his legs weren’t willing. His stomach turned in knots and he held his breath, lest the ghastly things suck it out of him. None of this made sense. It was a terrible idea, but he couldn’t turn back.
The little girl waved him on. But her monster skull stared him down. Six eyes judged him unworthy. Cursing the beast it once belonged to, the rebel general sparked some fire in his belly. He took a deep breath and imagined Starla’s desperate little face hiding beneath the monstrous helmet. Starla needed him. And perhaps he needed her too. Either way, the light in her eyes got one foot moving after the other and he made it to the end of the tunnel.
The tracks had been torn up and wedged across the mouth of the tunnel, forming a barricade of twisted metal. The stone walls were punctured at all angles. No creature could have forced such thick metal through so many contortions let alone thrust it into solid stone. The tracks had even split in places and sprouted rusty thorns. It had to be the work of magic. Angry magic at that.
Starla pointed through the barrier at the gathered undead as if Delik hadn’t already noticed. Guarding a rocky ledge that hung over a vast cavern were six grey robed figures. They stood in a circle around a shallow brazier of bones, burning with a green flame that gave off no heat nor smoke. Six smaller braziers burned around the perimeter of the rocky outcrop. The guardians must have been long dead priests of Nathis for they each held the traditional crook staff and silver censer. Green flames smouldered within the censers too, shrouding the undead priests in tendrils of incense. Their robes floated around them, suspended by a chilling spiritual force.
While Delik weighed the challenge before them, Starla tackled it head on. She crawled through the twisted metal beams, trusting the skull helmet would make her invisible to the undead. It didn’t make sense to Delik. Not much about magic made sense to him. It wasn’t to be relied upon, but the child’s plan to distract the undead guards was already in play. He couldn’t very well squeeze past her and go hand to hand with the skeletons. He was no match for such aberrations.
Watching the child crawl toward evil was a nightmare worse than the evil itself. Delik prayed she’d be struck by the good sense to retreat from her foolhardy plan. As if his prayer was answered, Starla hesitated in the iron bramble and looked back. Delik beckoned for her to return, but it was no use. Starla crawled on. She was near out of the bramble when one of the horns on her helmet clanged against a low hanging snag of metal and almost fell off her head. The skeletal face of the nearest undead priest snapped toward her, leathery skin stretched in a deathly grin, eye sockets burning green, searching for an intruder.
Staring into those eyes sent a supernatural chill through Delik’s body. Though his mind urged his body to climb through the barrier to help Starla, his limbs were rigid with fear. Starla repositioned her skull helmet and kept still until the undead priest turned back to stare into the central fire. Once out of the bramble, the quick-footed girl pointed her wand at the small brazier nearby. Orange flames burst forth and extinguished the green spirit fire. The same undead priest she alerted before, strode to the outlying brazier but found no one there. Starla snuck to the next small brazier on the perimeter and extinguished it too. The skeletal priests wailed and thumped their crooks in frustration. Their piercing green eyes could not see her. What’s more, two of the priests had no green fire in their eyes at all. They flailed and stumbled, blinded by Starla’s handiwork.
One skeleton gave up searching for the intruder and clasped his crook in both hands, lowering his head in prayer. His censer ignited in a ball of green fire, incense billowing on a frigid gust of wind. The undead priest walked to an empty brazier wailing a distorted hymn and performing gestures that once might have been a holy ritual. The brazier reignited with death’s green fire just as Starla extinguished another.
Delik squeezed and shimmied his way through the iron bramble while Starla raced to blind all the undead priests. The girl was quick, but it was six against one. Even though they couldn’t see her, the skeletons swung their crooks in wide arcs. Starla dodged and dashed, narrowly avoiding the attacks. All was going her way until she jumped just a little too late. A crook snagged her ankle and Starla hit the ground. The skull helmet skidded off the ledge and so too did her wand, falling into the darkness below.
The last priest with green fire still in his eyes, pointed his boney finger at Starla. A squirming length of bandage shot from the skeleton’s grey sleeve and bound the girl’s legs. She whimpered and struggled against her bonds, too afraid to scream, her eyes wild with panic. The priest intoned a corrupted prayer, raising his crook high. A fell mist descended from the censer, tugging the girls spirit out of her body.
“No! Starla!” Delik scrambled out of the iron bramble and into a chaos of angry bones.
He dodged past one groping skeleton and took a hit from another. Blind though these skeletons were, they sensed his fear or lifeblood or the gods knew what. Delik had no plans to stay and find out. He barrelled ahead raising his backpack like a ram. With all his strength, Delik ploughed into the undead priest, shattering his corrupt magics and knocking him into the central brazier.
A flash of green flame consumed the skeleton, blazing so high it disturbed a colony of bats above. The skeleton shrieked and wailed but could not escape his second death. The spirit fire burned so cold Delik’s breath misted the air. The ghost of a balding man in grey robes appeared in the flames. He looked ashamed by the scene before him. Delik wasn’t waiting around to ask why. He strapped on his backpack and scooped Starla into his arms. She was pale, clammy and light as a husk.
The black cacophony of bats swirled like a tornado over the ridge. Larger shadows swept overhead too. Flying beasts with jaws wide enough to chew Delik’s head clean off. While the skeletons were distracted, Delik rushed Starla down a narrow stairway cut into the side of the cavern. It was pitch black and his legs trembled with each step. Little Starla slumped in one arm while his other probed the cavern wall, guiding his decent.
“Stay with me, sprout.” Delik could barely feel her breathing. “Almost there.”
If only that were true. Delik had no idea where he was or where he was going, other than down. The Gods knew down was the last place Delik wanted to go. When the bats finally settled and the swooping shadows departed, Delik spotted points of dim light flickering deeper in the cavern. Candles or torches? Who knew? It was hard to judge the distance. He thanked Ona they burned warm yellow not ghostly green. There were echoes in the distance too. Tools chipping away, indistinct voices, an occasional shout.
A pungent reek wafted up from below. The closer he got to the cavern floor the stronger the stench. It had to be the bats, dropping guano from on high. The stinging scent was so thick in places that Delik had to stop and breath through his sleeve. Starla’s breathing grew even weaker. Her brow was like ice and sweat beaded all over her skin. What on earth could he do to help her? Delik hoped there was a herbsmaid among the slaves who might help. He just had to find them.
Not far on, the narrow stairs rounded the cavern wall and came to an end on a wooden platform. Delik made his way to the platform and leaned on the wall to catch his breath. A crude tunnel opened to his left and not far down a hooded creature in tattered pelts swung a torch, searching every nook along the uneven walls. It’s feet were wrapped in furs, stained black with filth, but silent as the shadows.
Another bloody goblin. That’s all he needed. At least this one was walking away from him. A trail of footprints made a worn line along the centre of the cave floor. This fellow was alone and searching off the usual patrol route on the edges of the tunnel. Delik snuck into the tunnel, holding to the shadows made by the uneven rock walls, matching his steps to follow the goblin scout. It was a fine idea until the scout decided to double back. Delik backed into a nook as far as he could, hoping the scout’s second sweep wouldn’t be as thorough.
The torchlight swept ever closer to Delik’s nook. He held his breath and sucked in his belly, the gods only knew if that’d help. The torch sputtered so close to Delik’s face he smelled the burning oil and blackened rags. He even felt the heat of the fire on his cheeks. The rocky edge of Delik’s hide lit up, but his body stayed cloaked in shadow. The scout stood no more than two feet behind Delik’s left shoulder. He could smell the creature’s fetid breath, the stink of sweat on his pelts.
“Nothing but trouble.” The creature muttered into Delik’s ear without knowing it.
Delik fought every instinct to turn and look at the guard behind him. He held tight to Starla, keeping as still as the stone around him. The guard snorted and spat into Delik’s nook, then the torch swept to the other side of the tunnel. The guard moved into Delik’s eye shot, but again it was just his back. Had he just heard the guard speak Shankan?
“Staar-laa!” The guard called in a sing-song voice that was without a doubt Shankan. “Come on love. Come out before your Ma gets angry. She don’t mind as long as you come back. I’ll make up a story on the way back so you don’t get roused on.”
A horrible wail echoed down the tunnel. The guard whisked his torch to face the entrance to the cavern, his shaking hand gripped a cudgel slung in his belt. “Damn it! The old rattlers are right cranky. You must a heard ‘em. Be a good lass now. For all our sakes.”
Finally, a fellow shankakin who appreciated the dangers of this place. Delik exhaled a great breath and stepped from his hiding place.
“Ho there, son!” Delik was so glad to see a fellow shankakin, he could forgive the man for appearing like a half-starved savage.
“Who goes there?” The guard jumped at Delik’s sudden appearance, thrusting his torch aloft and squinting.
“Don’t mind me. We need to get this youngster help. Fast.”
“Mercy be! You found Starla?” The man took Delik’s measure. “What’d you do to her?”
“Nothing. I found her wandering in the tunnels. Please, she needs a healer.”
“Who in the hells are you?” The guard squared his shoulders and advanced, brandishing his torch for a better look.
“Get that outa my face! You’ll set my eyebrows afire!”
“Ona’s arse!” The shankakin guard gulped and took a step back. “Scrambletoe? I didn’t see you come in with the last lot. You’re a sight indeed!”
Delik had no idea who this weedy lout was, but he was wasting precious time. “Are you going to help Starla or not?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll see she gets back to her ma.” The man looked nervously back down the tunnel. “Pass her over.”
Delik felt something was off. “How bout you just show me the way. I’ve come to help. I can get you out of here.”
The man sneered. “We’ve all heard that before. The only way out is death.”
Delik heard quick steps behind him and was struck over the head before he could see the enemy. He fought stay conscious, his vision bursting with stars. The last thing he felt before blacking out was Starla being snatched from his arms. The last thing he saw was a muscular shankakin standing over him. He glared at Delik, one eye like ice, the other like the earth. Both were filled with rage.