The lights, the torchlights, lantern lights, the leaping light from the firepit, single brands lighting smelly cigarellos – tiny suns in the night, these are what I remember most.
Light. The endless varieties of it. The beauty and the mournful qualities it brings, dousing memory with emotion with bittersweet remembrances. I miss the light.
I cannot recall the smell of open fields and trees on the wind. I can see them, plain as day, in my mind. For days I pictured myself riding a strong horse through the open meadows under sunny blue skies. Days turned into nearly two weeks as I shivered, feverish and near-death, while Lombuck and Chicane carried me on a filthy litter through the last of the Myconid diggings. Carock and Giz died in the sporemist, so they told me. Stories of fungal growths on their skin and nights vomiting blood haunted me. The “fungul folke” were ravenous – and more than half the kingdoms have already fallen to the creeping infection of Myconid puffballs. Now we are in the unexplored deeps. We can have no light here, so the Captain said. No lights at all, ever, not even to cook with. No noise either. We had to be as shadows, as mist, as silent wind. Cap had goggles, gifted from the Cutglas Society matrons – Dame Kite pressed on each of us a “gift to bring you back to us, alive”, and a sloppy kiss, not so welcome, with that cloying stink of lavender around her. These goggles let the Captain see in the dark, through some arcane blessing upon them. And so he led us.
Did you know that rock has an odor unique to each configuration of its mineral structure? Rock smells bitter, mostly, but that can transform into notes of sweet and savory when the rock is exposed to running water. Stagnant water gives rock its own unique bouquet, low and subtle, in the unseen blackness. I knew only the scents of rock and the sound of my own breathing and my own feet on rough rock floors. We had established a system of squeezes and handshakes to communicate to one another in the utter blind darkness. Captain Roundstin fed these signals back through our line, and while the first few days were harrowing in the extreme, with insanity threatening to replace to loss of sight, we managed to survive. Every morning Cap would pulse the number of days we had been moving. I was utterly lost when it came to time or direction, and felt after a time that I was dreaming, and went through the motions of living as best I could, but with little feeling. I grew to feel that my companions were figments of my dream, and I felt no connection to any of them. Education and training had taken me so far, but nothing could have prepared me for this forced, alien existence.
We ate dried foods, usually mild-smelling fruits and raw nuts. No meat. Nothing fresh. Nothing that had too strong of an odor. Cap made us chew fennel seed, a big handful, every morning and to chew until it was a mushy paste and then swallow. That kept us quiet for almost an hour, as we crawled, climbed, swam, walked and hunched through the endless expanse of the Under.
You may be wondering how all this was accomplished without any predation from the local wildlife, and you’d be right to wonder. We heard nothing on our journey once we descended into the uncharted deeps. No scrapes of claw on stone, no mating or challenge calls, no friends hauled shrieking into the darkness while something hairy filled them with poison, or worse. Water was the only sound that broke up the monotony. Like aural beacons, we would hear great rushes of water through the walls, but we never saw any falls ourselves. Once Cap had us stop at some slowly running pool and told us to drink our fill. The water was metallic, and slightly fruity, and very cold. It did much to refresh us, and when I pissed it out some time later, I could still smell the stink of copper. Whatever minerals and compounds the unseen pool had beyond that, I cannot say, much of the sciences escapes me beyond the basics. What I could say, was that whatever else was in that water gave me a fortified feeling of alertness and energy that I couldn’t recall having since we rappeled down into Foxdawn Cavern some time in the untethered past. My senses were heightened and this is when I first discovered the aroma spectrum of dry and wet rock.
Other things, too, were known to me. Where the air moved, for one. I could sense the currents in the air, subtle as ghosts in places, and gales of hot wind in others. The air was old here, I could smell the weight of the ages upon it. It moved, yes, chased itself through the labyrinths of shadow; it bounced and pooled, formed slow whirlpools at crossroads, and held the decay of dust and death in the stagnant pockets of the deeps as a sentinel to the unsung past.
What I didn’t open to, what my mind could not accept, was the absence of light. It was suffocating me, the shallow depth of utter darkness. Too much void threatened to tip me over the edge. If I hadn’t been sickened by the Myconid, perhaps I would have run off, shreiking, into the endless tunnels. Perhaps I would, even now, be lying, neck-broken, at the bottom of some surprise ravine. The only thing I could focus on was Lombuck in front of me and Lady Dey behind me, at the end of the line. We were roped together, in pairs, with only Cap and Lady Dey free to roam, protecting the group. She had her own gift, Deyza did. She was granted an amulet that let her see as a bat would. Some unheard tone from the amulet triggers the soundscape for her in her mind, and she can see as well as Cap can, or so I assume. I felt my rope tug and I took another careful step down. We were climbing down some escarpment, the rocks were full of rounded pockmarks, like climbing down a holey cheese, and I let my mind wander. When was the last time I heard someone speak? Had I ever even heard someone speak? Perhaps that was a dream too. Perhaps this is the afterlife, and I died from my fever, the Myconid spores devouring my nutrient-rich flesh. Perhaps this ordeal was my divine punishment, and I would never reach my destination.
Where were we going, anyway? I tried to recall.
Like my groping hands my mind could not find any purchase. The rope tugged me again, and my foot slipped, banging my knee and the fall jostled me against the rock, and I slammed my cheekbone into something pointy. Felt like someone hit me with a club. I could not help it and I cried out in pain.
My throaty yelp acquired wings and flew off into the darkness, bouncing and splashing, and I heard my weakness repeated a hundred times, as I dangled, scrabbling for a foothold.
Suddenly there were hands at my waist and I was guided downwards to touch rock, and only a few steps below that my feet touched the flat again. Lady Dey dropped down beside me, and I could feel the presense of all of them – Deyza, Cap and ‘Buck – and two things happened that I least expected:
Cap said, to me, “Its all fucked now, no need to be stealthy anymore. Gear up. We don’t have much time.”
Light exploded into the darkness. The light of all lights. The first light of the universe could not have been more terrifying and beautiful. It was too divine to gaze up for many minutes, but I could see its glow behind my eyes and I knew, I remembered, that it was the safest place to be, in its warms arms. Light. The sweetest gift.
We were in a relatively open area of caverns. Having just descended a 50′ cliff from some crack near the ceiling of this massive chamber, we were huddled at its base and Cap was on one knee, running his finger over a drawn tangle of string that he said was a map of this place, but that couldn’t be right, because there were no maps of this place.
Like a thunderbolt it hit me. That was why they were here – To find some ancient place that was said to contain maps and information about a huge section of the Under. More things came back, names and code words, too much to sort into any cohesive picture, but the sense was that what they were doing was a noble and grand effort, but the details were still fuzzy. Maybe if I spend more time in the Light, the Angel Against Darkness, maybe if I spent more time in Her holy presence, then more will come back to me.
The Captain was no longer talking, but was still on one knee, nodding to Lady Dey. Whatever they were saying, I couldn’t tell. Its not that I didn’t understand them, its just that whatever noises they were making didn’t matter, not in the great grand scheme of things. What could compete with the silent mercy that is the Song of The Light Queen? She who provides and she who banishes – All hail her divine mercy and tremble in fear! Who could deny Her?
Cap said something to me and I understood him as I would understand an animal that wanted some token gesture from me, and so I smiled at him and patted him on the head. My equipment was sharp and oiled. My warheads were quickly and quietly unpacked. Cap wanted to play old soldiers, and I had brought my toys. Buck was in an archer’s stance, and I smiled to watch him, so serious all the time. If anything were to attack us, Buck would see them long bef—
The world had suddenly plunged back into night. I was blind once again, and I cried out in denial and shouted for the Queen to show herself to me, but she didn’t answer, but my companions did and I realized, with horror, that we were under attack.
It is hard to explain the dance of death that you learn when you pick up the sword. The long and deceitful perambulations around the fields of battle, worldwide. To fight, and win, one must throw away the idea that victory and defeat are the end results, and believe that the dance is what matters. Even in utter darkness, I could fight. It was going to be difficult to trust one’s ears in this close prison of rock and echoes, but what difference did that make? The dance must be joined, and I so I twirled into line.
Whatever had set upon us was fast. I could hear them above and around me. They did not stop to take a tactical choice, but rushed about on instinct, it seemed to me. That gave me some hope that we might be able to drive them off through attrition or outright fear. The Queen of Light had refused to join the fray. My heart burst for her love, and I was sure that I was blubbering war ballads in her name while I stepped the deadly dance, so lost did I feel in her absence. My blade caught 4 times on some warm flesh. I heard no death crys or rattles, but only the sound of pistoning flesh struggling with death. I believe I tripped over a severed tail at one point. I do not know how long we fought but suddenly the Divine Radiance burst forth again and I fell to my knees in gratitude. I looked to my companions and Cap and Deyza looked rough. They were breathing hard and covered in gore and sweat. It was clear they had done most of the fighting. Chicane, poor Chic, was dead. Her throat chewed out and the look on her face was one of utter surprise. Lombuck was pale. He was holding his arm and blood was freely flowing from multiple places on his body, mostly his legs. I was dimly aware of some injuries to myself, bite marks most likely, but Buck’s staggering form was all I could see. I ran to him.
Lady Deyza shoved me aside and prayed to Vilkata for her divine touch to aid Buck’s recovery, but nothing happened. Maybe the Fecund Lady could not hear our prayers so far underground. Maybe Dey had forgotten a sacrifice. Whatever the reason, Buck shivered and gasped his last with the three of us crowded around him. His last vision, our worried and crinkled faces. I felt something inside me wriggle. Deep down. Forgotten. It wiggled and spasmed. I felt it take its first breath.
The Queen of Light had delivered me from torment and damnation. Rescued me from my own devious devices and kept me from kissing the dancing mad god on the mouth. She Who Shines is the Most Holy and High. That much Truth was known to me. I had cried out in supplication when she tested me. Had my faith wavered, just a touch, during the Return to Darkness?
No. Not possible. But then…
Chic and Lombuck died. Because of me? Because of my lack of faith? Because I didn’t trust Light over the Darkness?
Something inside me snapped. I felt it.
In front of the others, with tears of rage in my eyes, I pledged my sword, tip down in the dirt, to serve the Lady of Light for all time, no matter the manner of my death, even beyond, I would serve her and banish darkness wherever I could! I would carry her light into the darkest places and fear no evil! I would never let shadow outweigh the light!
So I was born, Sir Preston Oliver. Lightbringer.