A slowly updated science-fantasy story inspired by mythology, philosophy, and physics.
The past gives birth to the future, yet the future ever looks back. In between, we stand.Uncountable years ahead, among remnants of innumerable civilizations past, inhabitants of a city constructed from belief find themselves strangely entangled to an ageless plan to unravel the greatest riddle of all.|
The final solution is to make that which iskeep that which is not at bay by converting that which is into that which is not. The failsafe is in place, the calculations check out: subjectivity is preserved at the cost of objectivity, and the one constant feature among the oscillating dunes then an immeasurable shard of rock. A towering collapse amidst a wasteland of improbability, upon which shall perch the foundation to a city malleable by belief alone. So shall then present protect future from past as the reckoning of time is lost to aeons behind.
— Anonymous (no date). 'Apocalyptography', Book of Eschaton.
Three firm knocks on the metal door. Splinters scattering across the floor. It came for her, yet once more.
A window creaked open, a breeze entering the building as she escaped into the streets of Shard. The reddish daylight seeping through the all-encompassing Dome had already turned a dark shade of violet and she could soon hide anywhere in the maze of alleys making up the crumbling cityscape along the Pillar's Edge.
The rule-of-three, she thought, I owe my life once more. Sneaking across an abandoned square paved with cobblestone of dark green crystal, she reached the ruins of a stone-hewn mansion. No ghosts tonight and I'll—oh, give me a break...
The well in the courtyard was the only construction still intact on the mansion grounds. Useful powers resided there. Not so useful critters resided there tonight as well. A dozen fist-sized machines made of finger-like threads of energy radiating from a metal core inscribed with softly glowing glyphs swirled around the well in mesmeric patterns, turning the air into a sickly-green mist. No time for 'death by wisp,' she thought, pulling forth a silver disc from her dirt-brown cape. One use left in this, that's all I ask.
The creaking of leather approached from behind, accompanied by a hiss of static electricity. Clutching the disc, she dashed behind a fallen stone pillar as her pursuer entered the courtyard. Damn, must have caught their scent. Wisps aren't leaving anytime soon either, it's barely midnight.
Time was running short. Her pursuer would certainly sense the presence of her artefact, should it come closer. I can't bear to see its face once more. She trembled. I'll find some way. I always do. She stepped forward, drawing its attention. Her pursuer's skin creaked as it undid the hilt from its belt, gripped it firmly with both hands and extended its invisible blade to—she assumed—full length.
"Wisps from fuchsia dusk are born, wisps begone to cerise dawn!" she said, as she held the disc toward the violet gloom above. What idiot comes up with this cheesy stuff, anyway?
The artefact responded instantly as she recited the Key, its edges lighting up. Soon it emitted spheres of light in a steady pulse, spreading across the courtyard. Stunned, the wisps grew duller in colour for every wave hitting them until they fizzled and crashed. Lifeless metal husks rolled across the cobblestone as the pulses grew less frequent, their intensity fainter with each emission. Hesitating, she looked over her shoulder, relieved to see the artefact likewise having overloaded her pursuer's bizarre circuitry, before hurrying toward the well.
Three steps later, a faint sphere of light spread out once more from the disc. Could barely see it, she thought. One use left was all I asked. I'll find more. I always—oh, what now? A brighter sphere of light. Then, an even brighter one. The artefact grew unbearably hot, the emissions erratic. Not by the well! Turning around, she threw with all her strength.
Not far from her stunned pursuer, the silver disc exploded. She staggered as a fiery shockwave blasted down her hood, unravelling her crimson hair along the pale face of a woman in her late 20's, past steel green eyes and a cheek bearing a thin scar of gently alternating colours like oil on water. It'll recognize me, I must—no, no, no...
She fumbled for her hood, but it was too late. The heat had dampened the currents raging through its wires. Her pursuer had recovered.
For ears it had pocked patterns of orifices lined with cables of copper, gelatinous spiderwebs and throbbing tubes. For a nose two greasy leather flaps opening and closing like the gates of a castle with every simulated breath, revealing a slime-covered mass of bone, sinew, electronics, and machinery inside. For hair only wires of copper worming around the top of its head, down the back of its skull and sides of its neck, as if having minds of their own, continually darting into and out of its skin like threading needles as brown slime trickled out of every new puncture. For a mouth, it had nothing at all and for an eye it had only an empty socket, covered by a patch of leathery skin stretched so thin she could almost drown into the endless void behind.
Terror spread like wildfire through her mind and body. No. Nevermore.
A wide ray of darkness shot forth from its eye like a spotlight, smothering the violet glow all around, yet somehow leaving the sight of the abomination before her clear as day.
Alone with her pursuer in a pitch-black void, she froze in fear. Yet once more.
A barbed chain ending in serrated hooks erupted from its groin as a yellow sludge, like creamed corn, gushed forth from the gash to gather into thick blobs that left oozing craters as they splattered the ground. Smearing a stripe of tar-like substance between where it ought to have had cheekbones, the chain slithered around the marking as strips of skin peeled off around it before resting into a stance like a snake ready to bite. As a large chunk of flesh dislodged from its face and hit the ground with a rubbery thud followed by spurts of corrosive sludge, the hooks dug into the weakened flesh, forcefully ripping its face open with a sickening snap into a wide mockery of a mouth. The chain rustled on down its throat, splinters of bone shooting like darts as it punched out a gaping imitation of an airhole from inside, before retreating.
Her pursuer addressed her in a slow, synthesized speech, making her feel as if reality itself was utterly wrong.
"Ilta..." it said. "Silver cords rupture. Dusk will perish. Dawn will break."
Tar-brown ichor spurted out of its knees in steady beats as a writhing, tangled mass of copper wires emerged, attaching to the ground as a bright flash lit up the courtyard. Seemingly out of nowhere and hissing with static, two more just like it instantly appeared at each side, blacklight shining from cyclopean eyes. Electric jolts discharged from their bodies. The hissing grew louder, quickly turning into a deafening buzz as a volley of ball lightning rushed toward her through the void.
Shrieking in defiance, she swiped her cape in a wide arc, catching two of the projectiles with it as the third one landed just in front of her, burning a deep wound into her leg as she fell to one knee.
The trio of pursuers approached at a steady pace, pointing their murmuring hilts at her. She sprung up as one of them performed a quick slash, dodged it—probably narrowly—and made for the well, memory alone guiding her through the darkness.
Pain is nothing in the face of nothing, she thought. Run, Ilta. Run forever more.
Surrounding the well were ten obsidian rocks marked with numerals in an ancient script. With trembling fingers, she touched the third rock, then the first, the fourth and the first again. As another volley came rushing, she lastly reached for the fifth rock and vanished.
I trod behind my guide across the Limbo desert. The Pillar of Collapse loomed never further behind; just as The Rim did, never nearer ahead. She disappeared through the shimmering sands, so I focused my thoughts on her. Soon, I could see her sliding down a steep dune but ten steps ahead. I realized too late that the ground had shifted yet again and I was sliding down the very same slope. Tumbling down a hole in the sand, I found myself in a vast network of tunnels; the darkness and cool air quite welcome. The guide told me to safely let my mind stream flow again.
— Uluj M-kta (78 AV). 'Limbo: In-sand-ity', Carta Chaotica.
A tan-skinned man in what looked like women's clothing had been staring straight into her eyes for some time now. Customer speaks first, she thought, but this is killing me. The foreigner before her twitched his mouth as if to speak, but instead put his unkempt ashen hair into a ponytail and began stroking his thin beard in confusion. Too dark for humans. To sands with customs, this is going nowhere.
"Looking for something, stranger?"
The foreigner jerked his head back in surprise, looking away before speaking up as an embarrassing look spread across his face. "I need a rod of charcoal, about yea big."
The shopkeeper's scaly skin glistened faintly with every movement as she darted between shelves filled with trinkets, most of them likely useful for something to somebody. "Like this?"
"Longer, thinner. In a metal casing, not too shiny."
"Pfft. Awfully specific."
"Worm ate mine," said the foreigner. "Was repairing my copter. Didn't even clear that wall above. Seemed to rise on its own, matched my altitude. Flew right into it, very strange." Looking down at the counter, he scratched his head. "Crashed through the sand, down some tunnel. Ended up here."
"The Rim, we call it, that wall. All around the desert, it goes." She cast her eyes toward the cave ceiling. "Filled with trinkets. Corpses, too. Best not go off exploring it."
"Hadn't planned to." The foreigner looked nervously over his shoulder.
"Do not stray, stranger. Filled they are, these outskirts, with dangers crawling out of the walls, up from below and down from above. A worm, you say?"
"Giant worm. Maws with rusty gears for teeth all over its body. Almost took my hand, too. Was faster, though." He shrugged to hide the fear in his eyes. "Gotta get across the sands. Copter won't start without a rod of charcoal. In a metal casing, not too shiny. About yea big."
"One does not simply fly into Limbo." The shopkeeper sighed in relief. "Nasty azlaq did you a favor, eating your Key. The desert above, it changes shape fast as lightning, sometimes rising all the way up to the Dome. A mind of its own, it has. Flying high or low, you were to be struck by a sand geyser, swallowed into a dune vortex, perhaps worse." Resting the claws on her elbows on the counter, she brushed some dust off her linen sleeve. "You need a zahai. They travel the dunes. But one left here, though."
"If it'll get me to Shard in one piece, I'll take it." He put a pouch full of blinking electronic parts on the counter. "Should do, no? What's your price?"
"Should do, but you have me wrong. There's but one left in Styx, our cavern—our town. Best make haste."
"In high demand, is it?"
"Well, stranger..." Looking straight past him with her feline eyes, the shopkeeper smiled sadly. "His name is Qajinn. Wait but for a moment, please."
To the foreigner's eyes, she disappeared into the pitch-black darkness behind the counter for some minute. Reemerging from the shadows, smiling, she said, "Back room, see?"
The foreigner looked at her increduously. "No," he said, "no see. Can't even make out what you look like in this darkness."
Chuckling, the shopkeeper said, "Excuse my poor jest. Stared right into my eyes for many minutes, you did, before I spoke up. Customer speaks first in our culture."
"Sorry 'bout that, shopkeeper. Wasn't meaning you to break custom. Important to your people, no?"
The shopkeeper waved her hand swiftly back and forth across her face; pointy claws appending each of her four fingers. "That, umm, gesture," she said, "'to sands with it', it means."
"Somewhat like 'never mind', I suppose?"
Some kind of brain in that head of his, after all, the shopkeeper thought. "The desert above, which we dwell below, large its influence on our culture and language is. My people, many are the names by others for us. Cave amphibians, sand lizards, less pleasant ones too."
The foreigner shrugged. "Trapped by the Dome, for better or worse, this world of ours is littered with remnants from risen and fallen civilizations through billions of years. Figures nobody found a cure for racism this whole time." Growing starry-eyed, he nevertheless let out an exasperated sigh. "Countless aeons leaving behind all manner of incomprehensible technology." He quickly pointed over his shoulder, saying, "like my gravicopter thataways. Got no clue how it works, who built it; just that it needs a road of charcoal—"
The shopkeeper chuckled. "—in a metal casing, not too shiny—"
"—about yea big. Yeah... Absurd, really. What addle-brain came up with that idea?"
The two shared a short laugh. "We'll never know, and for the better, probably, that is. A bad joke, maybe?"
"One of countless 'bad jokes' I've had the dubious fortune of getting to study, then. Whole world might as well be one."
"One of Shard's 'Psycieties', or Cults, whatever they call—"
"Think you mean 'societies,' there, shopkeeper."
"Pfft. Not likely. Shard, a strange city it is, literally built by belief and thoughts."
"So I've heard," said the foreigner. "Having a hard time... believing it, though."
"Believe what you will, stranger. Down here, no harm is done by doing so."
"Couldn't help but notice," said the foreigner, "you have claws on not only your fingers but on your elbows, wrists and—"
"—and on our knees, heels and shoulders; as well as..." The shopkeeper's olive scales briefly turned a faint shade of red.
"I see. On body parts less... public, aye?"
"Less public, aye. Good one. Try to remember it, I will." Chuckling, the shopkeeper deftly jumped across the counter and continued toward the shop exit. "Until I return, my assistant, take care of business she will."
"Return? Where from?"
"Downtown. Qajinn is scheduled for exile by noon. Walk with me."
The foreigner struggled to keep up with her brisk pace as she skittered across the gravelly cavern floor. Stopping ahead of a surging river of pitch-black liquid, she turned around to spot her follower frozen in his tracks, looking back into the darkness.
"Come now," she said, "your aircraft, it will do you no good."
The foreigner picked up his pace. Not far downstream, a group of reptilian children paused a game of tag, watching him curiously as he halted again by the riverbank. "Ain't dipping my feet into that, shopkeeper."
She smiled, this time without a hint of sadness. "You may call me Areet if you wish. Let me welcome you to Jahlaim: our precious Underworld." Kneeling by the stream, she swiftly splashed some of the liquid into his face. "See? Naught but water, coloured by the rocks. The namesake of our town, this river is. An ancient name, not our tongue."
Wide-eyed in shock, the foreigner let down his dripping hair and soon burst out in laughter. "Very well, Areet. I am Xeith."
Raising a bony ridge above her eye, she stared in disbelief at the platinum-haired man. "Not nearly equipped I am, to pronounce that properly," she said, mouthing his outlandish name with equal amusement and frustration.
"Name and title: Madhine Xeith dh'Aiysl-Oriedh," he said, "Thrice-Journeyman in informatology—and occasional dabbler in the more esoteric subjects—at Thoiln m'Teixeith dh'Xine." Grinning, he put his still-wet hair into a loose topknot. "The Assembly of Technologists at Xine, I suppose, in the Shardan tongue."
"Pfft. What a mouthful. Concise names, we have here. For the way we live we are remembered, and not for fancy titles." Areet slowly shook her head. "Jineqqa—Rootspeech—is our tongue. Shardan, some here know, some better than me, some not at all." Still mouthing something, her eyes lit up. "Your first name, Madhine, makes my head hurt too... but not quite as much. With your permission?"
"Makes my head hurt too," said Xeith. "It's a girl's name, was my sister's. Xinese for 'daybreak'. Took it after she was taken."
"I apologize." Areet slowly ran her claws through her spiky hair. "Haunted by our past, we all are. Pain, it dulls, yet scars we bear for all time." She smiled again. "Then 'Zet' will be your name here, in Styx, to us zahjanir. Best I can do. Easier terrain ahead, not far downtown."
Crossing the river over a robust stone bridge, they entered a narrow tunnel and soon emerged onto a rocky terrace overseeing a massive cavern, brighter than the red midday hue of the world above. With barely contained pride, Areet watched Xeith observe the stone-cut buildings below, between which over a hundred zahjanir like her went on their daily business. She watched his gaze turn from slight interest to wonder as it traced the luminous vines rising from the ground, climbing up the cavern walls to gather in large masses at the top, bathing the entire area in a warm glow as glittering streams of sand poured down like rain from the ceiling, swaying back and forth in the air currents blowing through the tunnel entrances littering the walls.
"Beautiful," he said. "Almost worth getting chased by giant worms. Covered in gears-for-maws. Almost."
"In most darkness, there is light. The worms are useful. Their tracks, they lead to new sources of food. Their tunnels make paths to new areas of our town. But you will find no azlaq in here. The day-vines, their glow holds at bay many dangers." She pointed toward a tunnel, not far in the distance. "Qajinn leaves within the hour. He will pass through there."
"You say he will take me to Shard. Why? This exile—he is a criminal, no?"
"A zahai—wind of the sands—he is, exile or not. It is what he does. It is what he is. I know this well. Of his sentence, you must ask him. I will not speak in his stead." She gave him a quick glare. "Your pouch, its contents, should suffice for passage. If not, in his debt you will be. He will take you, a few others too, not many. Many minds bring..." Choosing her next word carefully, Areet lowered her voice to a near whisper. "...uncertainty." She raised her voice again. "Walked the road to Shard many times, he has. A treacherous road, never appearing in the same shape, ever anchored to the same place. No better guide, you will find. No other guide, you will find."
"I will return here, to Styx. With charcoal in a metal casing for my copter. Hope to pay you back then, in some manner. Sincerest thanks, Areet."
"Pay back if you must, but dwell not. Aiding those in need, aided by them should we need—that is our way of life; how we have survived. With luck, you set foot in Shard within a week. Perhaps within two." She sighed softly, scratching the claws on her heel along the ground. "Perhaps not at all. Give Qajinn my regards, if you please. Sands be kind, 'Zet' of Xine."
Crossing back over the bridge, Areet stopped for a moment to gaze downstream while humming an old tune. The group of children had resumed their game of tag. Chasing each other along the riverbank, they took turns wearing a soaked brown cape riddled with burn marks.
| A crowd of roughly two dozen were gathering in a semi-circle on a town square beneath the tunnel leading toward Shard. Gently making his way to the front row, Xeith soon found himself standing between a zahjanir and a half-broken, humanoid robot with springs and cogs peeking out through the numerous cracks in its rusty, metallic hull. A tall, olive-skinned zahjanir knelt in front of a tiny, furry creature in the middle of the square. Tension spread through the air as the crowd watched in silence.
"I am sorry, little one," said the zahjanir, "but this time you cannot come with me." The sand-coloured creature let out a rumbling noise, almost like the sound of Xeith's gravicopter, as it slowly walked around the man while rubbing itself against his legs. "I cannot return. It is best you stay here." Xeith was surprised to see the large man tearing up. "A finer companion I could not have asked for. Farewell, little one." The creature sat on its hind legs and watched as the man started to walk away. Wiping his eyes, the zahjanir turned to the crowd. In a booming voice, he said, "The show is over. One spot left."
Xeith barely had time to react before the zahjanir beside him darted forward. He was met with a silent gaze. "I—I don't have anything to give you, Qajinn," he said. "I assure you, when we get to Shard, you can have anything you want."
"You already owe me, Elain," said Qajinn. "Pay up, else stay. No patience for your small-time bullshit today."
"You don't understand," said Elain, reaching for his pockets. He drew a long knife, shaped like a machete. "I will die if I stay here."
"So will I." Qajinn reacted instantly, kicking toward Elain's hand, missing just barely. The man lunged against him. Qajinn deftly dodged two quick cuts from the knife before managing to grab his attacker in a deadlock, holding him fast from behind.
"I have nothing to lose." A few painfully long seconds passed before Qajinn wrestled the knife out of Elain's grip and released him. The man quickly came at him again, armed with a smaller knife, looking like it had seen use in a kitchen. This time, he ended up not in a deadlock but with his own machete-shaped knife burrowed through his chest. The knife's edge went through his spine, the vertical slits narrowing in Qajinn's eyes. Elain gasped for air in vain as he fell to the ground. Then, silence.
Wiping the sweat from his brow and the blood from the knife, Qajinn again turned to the crowd and said, "This show is over, too. Yet one spot left."
Giving the bleeding zahjanir a wide berth, Xeith warily stepped forward holding his pouch of makeshift currency. "I was told this would take me to Shard. Or something thereof."
Glancing into the pouch, Qajinn said, "This gets you halfway. A higher rate, what with the exile business and all. Any other takers?" No movement from the crowd; only mumbled whispers. After a minute, Qajinn gave him a stern look. "You are in. We can work something out. Let us be off. Nothing to see here; no one to be here." Qajinn set off toward the nearest tunnel entrance with a brisk pace as two humans, a zahjanir and a strange robot followed close behind.
For half an hour, Xeith walked with the silent entourage through a spacious, well-lit passage. As the tunnel widened into a large cavern not unlike where Xeith had crashed a few hours earlier, Qajinn raised his left hand. Bracelets of various make—shiny metals, polished rocks and cured beast parts—softly rustling down his forearm, he halted suddenly. Sighing, he turned to face his clients for the first time since leaving town.
"This silence is killing me," he said. "I had no intention for anybody to witness that sorry business back there, nor had I any intention of getting stabbed by a lowlife such as him." He raised his voice in the same dry, reverberating manner as in the town square. "At least this should make one thing perfectly clear... don't fuck with me."
He looked slightly amused, watching the group's bewildered expressions, then lowered his sight to the ground and gave a quick, courteous bow. "I am zahai Qajinn. Formerly of Styx. As of today, as you no doubt know, Stygian exile. I will attempt to lead you safely through the desert above. No guarantees, mind you. Have any of you made this trek before?"
The other human raised his hand. "I have, thrice," he said. "I am O-ta Kev of Shard, to where I am returning after a quite successful expedition to the Rim." The man paused, subtly wincing. "Successful for me, at least. I am the only survivor."
"Good. Then you know what might await us above. And what might not. As for these others..." He swept his gaze through the group. "Trying to prepare you for the journey ahead would be like explaining colours to a blind man. Make peace with your demons in these few days below ground and, sands be kind, they might not come alive." His eyes lit up as he cast his gaze behind the group. The furry little creature had followed them. "Thought I told you to stay behind, little one."
"It seems," said Xeith, "your pet could use some training."
"She is a cat," said Qajinn, "you cannot train a cat." He looked at the animal, not quite able to hide his relief. "Come then, Zahra. One last trek through Limbo, you and I."
Xeith sat down beside the broken robot as they made camp by a riverbank of, he presumed, the same black stream running through the town behind them. It began to speak.
"Cog... Cog... Cog..."
"Do not bother," said Qajinn, "it paid well, but is sorely lacking in conversational skills. Must be broken. I call it 'Cog'. Fancy a guess?"
One of Cog's eyes sprung out from its head, dangling from a spring. The robot clumsily shoved it back into the socket. "Cog..."
"I'll be damned," said Xeith, "I think this might actually be a llyx."
The other zahjanir spoke up, her dark blue scales giving off a faint shimmer. "A what?"
"We call them... lich, maybe, in Shardan? It is faulty, though."
"No shit," said Qajinn.
"We have a few of them in Xine. The Assembly stored every Uplink artifact they could find. Prolongs the life of anyone suicidal enough to try the procedure. Inevitably goes wrong, of course."
"Of course," said Qajinn. "That's technology for you, 'Journeyman'."
"Not saying I know how all this tech works either," said Xeith.
"What are you good for, then?"
"We can use them. Know their Keys. Sometimes, at least. Most tech is billions old, who knows what civilizations were around then." Drifting away into thought, he was jolted awake by a piercing glare from Qajinn. "Right, lichdom. Purposed for immortality. Instead, leads to slow—sometimes fast—degradation of the mind. Or body. Or mind and body." Xeith made an effort disregarding the smug expression taking hold in Qajinn's face. "Gives you a couple dozen more years to live, at best. Gets your brain trapped in a void, usually. Consciousness transferal; tricky business." He cast his eyes toward the ceiling. "Headmaster of the Assembly is a lich, actually. For now, at least. Not for long, I guess. Must be 150 years old by now. If I'm right—"
"If you are not?" said Qajinn.
"Then I am wrong, my zahai friend."
"I am not your friend."
"Regardless," said Xeith, "this... 'Cog' guy seems to be missing most of whatever was uploaded to it. Or it is cut off from its aidhxoir."
Her face taking on a puzzled expression, the other zahjanir's eyes glimmered with curiosity. "Its... soul?"
Turning briefly toward his fellow countryman, Qajinn gave a quick pfft before kneeling down to pet Zahra behind her ears, whispering softly to her.
"Kind of," said Xeith. "Mind transfers into aidhxoir." He inspected Cog from back to front. "Lost connection to it, probably. Too far away, or maybe destroyed. Body looks sturdy enough for a llyx, anyway. Sturdier than squishy humans."
"Yeah, speak for yourself, Xiner," said Qajinn, "and stop using your nonsense language. All that rough noise is giving me a headache. Look around you, quite far from home, no?"
"Anyway," said Xeith, "its mind is in the—" Qajinn's eyes pierced him like daggers. "Fine, in its... phylactery. Lich aspirants are as crazy as they are lazy." His eyes darted around the group. "Could be anywhere. We ain't been able to test its range properly. Because they are lazy."
"Thank you, Journeyman, I think we all got that part." Qajinn cast his eyes toward Cog as it tried to put its other eye back, with little success. "Hope that Assembly of yours is not run by a rust heap like this one."
"It ain't," said Xeith, "fact is—"
Cog's other eye sprung out again with a rubbery pop, just as it put its right eye into place.
"Fact is," said Qajinn, shaking his head at the sorry machine, "I don't care." Grinning, he looked back at Xeith. "Funny how a braindead robot with a speech impairment can scrounge up enough for my fee and certain others cannot. Let's be off."
Qajinn led his clients along the riverbank for little under an hour before coming to a halt by a waterfall, surging down a large shaft in the ceiling with a deafening rumble. He raised his left hand, the gemstones socketed in numerous rings casting a prismatic glimmer in the dark. "We stand at the edge of the Underworld. Whatever you think of this civilization of ours, it ends here. The day-vines do not extend much further into the warrens above." Kneeling down, he dragged the claw on his forefinger across the cavern floor. Zahra jumped onto him, casually observing Qajinn scratching three foreign runes into the rock.
"What do you think, little one?" Muttering, he erased two of them, drawing two new ones in their place. Nodding to the cat, he sprung upon his feet again. "Stay put, clients," he said, "I and Zahra will scout the path."
Xeith watched Qajinn, with Zahra perched confidently on his right shoulder, wander off into the darkness before them. A palpable silence occupied the chamber for a while until the Shardan spoke up.
"Listen closely," said Kev. "Can you hear it?"
Closing his eyes, Xeith could barely make out a high-pitched howl from the utter blackness on the far side of the chamber. "I can. Sounds like Qajinn is in danger."
Kev smiled gently. "Calm yourself, Xiner. Qajinn knows his business. It is not him screaming."
"We should check it out," said the zahjanir. "Sounds like someone is being tortured."
"Or killed," said Xeith, "or worse."
"Nobody is doing anything to anybody, Jaunnh," said Kev. "Just the winds of Pandaemonium, howling a bit fiercer this time of year."
"Seems I've taken a wrong turn." Xeith scratched his head. "Wouldn't be a first."
"Go back to Styx if you like, Jaunnh. You too, Xiner," said Kev. "Pandaemonium is just a name for the dark and winding warrens between the Underworld and the sands above." He pulled up a dark blue silken hood over his curly hair and smirked. "A well-fitting name, no doubt. Afraid of the dark, are you?"
Knitting together some day-vines into a collar, Jaunnh said, "Not really. Wouldn't still be tagging along then, would I?"
"Seemed a lot easier getting in than getting out, I mean, crashing down than crawling up," said Xeith. "Been through worse than some spelunking on my way here." A moment of involuntary reminiscing made Xeith's hair stand on end. Yeah, he thought, way worse.
"No fear of the dark, then?" The Shardan studied him carefully with his hazel eyes. "A little jumpy in cramped places, maybe? I can see you shivering, Xiner."
Another agonizing shriek swept forth from the tunnel ahead of them, followed by the sound of heavy chains being dragged through broken glass.
"First of all," said Xeith, gesturing toward the source of the winds, "sonic blasts of rape and murder tend to have a chilling effect."
"They tend to do that, indeed. Gives me the shivers as well, see?" Chuckling, Kev pulled up his woollen sleeve, revealing hairs on end. "I've gotten used to it—as used to it as one can be, anyway—lately, and so must you."
"Second of all," said Xeith, "seen some strange shit on my journey from Xine. Memories alone can have this effect, too. Remind me to tell you about the spiders, sometime."
"I'll hold you to that, Xiner," said the Shardan. "And you best hold on to your tales of horror until we have made it topside, and closer to the stability of the Pillar, though. We can't afford any unnecessary uncertainty. I've seen men and women buried in the sands by their dreams, haunted by memories as real as you and I. An acquaintance of mine literally became his worst fear; we had to kill him."
"Interesting. Do tell."
"Haven't you listened? This is neither the time nor the place." Kev paced slowly around, breaking off what few day-vines had found their way along the walls to the chamber. "There are oases, even in Limbo, we'll swap stories there. Until then, fear not the dark nor the narrows, but fear itself."