The Edge of Night
a God Eater short story
“The angels warned us about delving too deep.”
“A rather ominous statement, Iron, and one that holds no legitimate value. The Godless Kings proved the angels were all liars and despots. Perhaps their dire warning was more about keeping their secrets buried, hmmm? You must consider all theories in order to have a scientific basis upon which to base your observations. Ahhh!”
Trent’s foot hit solid ground and the squelch beneath his boot gave resounding legitimacy to the stench surrounding him. It was his second time in the sewers of Kutvekar, and already no more pleasant than the first. But archaeology cared not for weak stomachs or sensitive noses.
“Careful. There’s a turd there,” said a man with a brow you could take shelter under. He was tall and broad and so muscular his jerkin strained at the seams. He was also entirely bald, ugly as the flowing filth beneath their boots, and had a lazy eye. But at least he was carrying a lantern.
“Who are you?” Trent asked.
“Grundig,” said the man rather unhelpfully.
“Professor Fields,” Iron called from above, still clinging to the ladder. “You’re in the way.”
“Quiet boy.” Trent looked around. He didn’t know this Grundig and while he loved a good scientific mystery, his patience for mysterious people was a failing he had no desire to address.
“Professor,” Iron whined again. “These packs are quite heavy.”
Trent ignored his assistant, as was only right and proper. “Now listen, Mister Grundig, I don’t…”
“He’s with me,” called another voice. A light bobbing in the darkness of the sewer came closer until Trent could make out the swarthy form of Jovel Splott swaggering towards him.
Splott was not nearly so tall nor broad as this Grundig fellow, but he moved with a coiled tension that screamed danger. He wore a long dark coat over a tight jerkin and trousers, had his hair slicked back into a tail, and carried a sword at his belt. A sword, of all things, on an archaeology expedition. He was exactly the sort of man that Trent hated to associate with, and exactly the sort of man Trent found himself inexplicably drawn to.
“Mister Splott,” Trent said, his voice rising a little higher than he liked. “I hired you because, despite your reputation, you are clearly a man who knows what he is about. I did not hire this…” He looked Grundig up and down. “Golem. No offence.”
Splott stepped close, holding the lantern up. He was half a head taller than Trent who had to look up to meet his dark stare.
“Are you done?” Splott asked, his voice a cool rasp.
Trent felt his cheeks warming. “Well, I…”
“Our packs are already at the breach. I suggest we get this little trip underway before the city wakes up and the evening rush arrives.”
“Morning rush?” Trent asked, looking around. The city of Kutvekar was a busy one, a bustling trade hub, but he couldn’t imagine the sewers becoming a thoroughfare.
Splott laughed and turned away. “Never been in a sewer before, Prof? You don’t want to be here when the sun sets and the people go for their ablutions. It can get quite… busy.”
“Oh, I see.”
Trent started after the man. A moment later, he heard Iron cry out and the boy promptly fell the last few feet off the ladder and hit the ground with a horrifying squelch.
“Careful. There’s a turd there,” Grundig said.
“Don’t get my pack dirty, Iron,” Trent said, hurrying after Splott. “Or I’ll give you a failing grade, see if I don’t.”
Iron stared into the breach and couldn’t help but feel the breach stared back. He shivered at the notion and tried to put it out of his mind. It was just a crack in the sewer wall opened up by a recent quake. Nothing to worry about. Except there shouldn’t really be any quakes in Kutvekar. In fact, this area of Dien was remarkably stable. He put it down to a firm bedrock of granite, not that anyone in his current company would care.
Grundig held up his lantern and angled it to shine into the breach. It revealed little. “S’dark,” the big man said.
“An astute observation,” Professor Fields said. “Tell me, are you a scholar, hmm?”
Iron bit back his sigh. The professor had a habit of rubbing everyone the wrong way, which Iron suspected was why he had been sent into the backend of nowhere in the first place. Unfortunately, Iron had been assigned to assist him and if he did a poor job, the professor could simply fail him and then everything he’d been through to get to Brighthaven University would have been for naught. Iron had stepped over too many bodies to fail now.
“It’s a bit of a tight squeeze for us,” said Splott. He stepped close to the professor and looked him up and down. “You should be fine though. Follow me. Stay close. The door is just a little way in.” He held the lantern out before him and shuffled into the breach, dragging his pack behind him.
“Quite tight,” Professor Fields said. “Nothing like a bit of spelunking to start of the day. Don’t damage my pack, Iron, or I’ll see you fail.” He squeezed into the breach, quickly swallowed by the darkness.
Iron shuffled forward, awkwardly juggling both his pack and the professor’s.
“After you,” Grundig said, waving a meaty hand at the darkness.
“You know, I was born underground,” Iron said, forcing a smile. “And yet… I really hate being surrounded by rock.”
Grundig’s sniff echoed loudly around the sewer. “Very interesting. After you.”
Iron squeezed himself into the breach, clutching the doctor’s angular pack against his chest, and dragging his own backpack behind. The darkness engulfed him. He heard noises up ahead, some behind as well, all disembodied in the void. He bent his knees, pressed his back against the rock, shuffled along, sliding step after step. With no free hand to guard himself, he banged his head on a rocky protrusion, swallowed the curse that flew to his lips.
His father’s words came back to him. Don’t curse. Don’t fail. Don’t excel. Never draw attention to yourself. You are always just another face in the crowd. Be invisible.
The breach was getting smaller, Iron was sure of it. The rock pressing in on him on all sides, squashing him down. He could no longer hear the shuffling footsteps of the professor ahead, nor the labouring grunts from Grundig behind. Had he gone the wrong way? Slipped into a side passage in the darkness? He had no lantern, no light at all. Would he be stuck there, encased in darkness and rock and left to die? What if there were quakes? If another one happened now, the rocks could shift, the breach close. He’d be squashed.
A noise from behind made Iron freeze. A soft exhale of breath just over his shoulder, close enough he could feel the heat of something against his back. He clenched his teeth, but a whine of terror hissed out through his lips.
A light shone ahead, blinding bright in the darkness. “What’s that screaming?” Professor Fields asked. “Iron, is that you?”
Iron shuffled forward, squeezing, rock scraping his shoulders, his head, he didn’t care. He launched out of the breach and into the light, and wrapped his arms around the professor.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
“Get off. Get off me, Iron,” the professor pushed him away. “You are a third-year student at Brighthaven University. Conduct yourself accordingly or I’ll…”
“Fail him?” Splott asked, smiling. “Seems to me you’re already failing him. Grundig.”
Iron turned as the big man squeezed out of the rock. He was pushing Iron’s pack in front of him.
“Did you…” Iron stopped, swallowed down his panic. “Was there something else in there with us? Did you see anything?”
Grundig raised a hairless eyebrow and wordlessly pulled his own bulging pack out of the breach.
It was cramped in the little chamber, and the stench of the sewer was still overpowering. It clung to Jovel’s boots and he decided he’d probably just burn them and buy a new pair once this adventure was over. He’d make enough from the endeavour, as long as the Professor paid his dues. And people always paid Jovel when he asked.
“Ohhh, this is fascinating,” the Professor said as he scampered towards the door. “Faaaaascinating. Hmmm. Iron, isn’t this fascinating?”
The student nodded without even looking, still struggling to catch his breath after all that screaming he did in the breach. It was just perfect that the Professor brought along a kid still green enough to fear the dark.
“See the designs set around the lock?” the Professor continued. “There must be some sort of trick to opening it. No keyhole. I wonder what the symbols mean? Iron, get a sketch of them.”
“They’re runes,” Jovel said, peering at them. The door was circular, almost twice as tall as Grundig, who was far from short. The runes scrawled in concentric circles spiralling out from the centre. Jovel had seen the like before on plenty of tombs and temples. But the doorstone was cracked, a fissure running from the base and spider-webbing out, destroying the core rune, robbing the design of any power.
“Mmm, yes. Yes, I see,” the Professor said as he reached out and ran a hand along the stone of the door, tracing runes with his fingers. “Are you drawing these down, Iron?”
The student groaned and reached into his bag. He pulled out a small notebook and a started sketching with a pencil.
“Divine runes,” Jovel prompted.
“Yes,” the Professor said. “Yes, of course.”
Jovel glanced at Grundig. The big man started rummaging in his pack.
Jovel pointed at one rune. It was curved like a crescent moon, with three bisecting straight lines. “See the way none of the separate elements touch, Prof? The three bisecting lines have gaps where they should cross the curve. That means they’re divine runes.”
The Professor stared at Jovel a moment, his mouth working, then he frowned. “Of course I know that. I’m not a simpleton, Mister Splott. Do you really presume a scurrilous tomb robber would know as much as a renowned archaeologist?
“Divine runes. Divine runes,” the Professor said as he traced his hand over the door. He leaned in and blew a bit of rock dust away. “Must be some sort of temple beyond, hmm? An angelic tomb, perhaps. Full of divine artefacts?”
That was Jovel’s hope, too. Relics from the old world always sold for a pretty coin or two, but Angelic wares were something else. An explorer could make their name, their legacy off a big find of divine artefacts. “Those would be classed as heretical, I imagine,” Jovel said.
“Quite right, Mister Splott. Quite right. But a part of history all the same. Knowledge isn’t dangerous. It’s the misapplication of knowledge that is. And the only thing more dangerous than that misapplication? Is ignorance.
“Now then, Iron, help me figure out the trick to opening this door. There’s no seam, so I assume it slides back into the frame. Perhaps a hidden mechanism. Sit tight, gentlemen, this may take a while.”
Jovel gripped the Professor by the shoulder and pulled him out of the way. “Grundig, open the door.”
Grundig grunted and pulled his sledgehammer out of his pack. He lined up with a practice swing.
“What are you doing?” the Professor shrieked. “You can’t. This door is ancient, it’s…”
Grundig swung and the hammer smashed into the stonework, sending chips of rock flying as more cracks snaked across the surface. He swung again and again. It took seven solid hits from the hammer until a large enough chunk of rock cracked away that they could shift it and squeeze through the gap.
“Get off me, you… you tomb robber!” The Professor finally slipped free of Jovel’s grip and turned on him, wagging a delicate finger his way. “You work for me, Mister Splott. For me! This is wilful destruction and I won’t have it. Archaeology is a noble science of exploration and discovery of the past. Not some…. Mindless smashing and looting.”
Jovel held the doctor’s baleful stare until the smaller man blushed and looked away.
“Door’s open,” Grundig said as he shoved his hammer back into his pack.
“After you, Professor,” Jovel said with a mock bow and a wave of his hand towards the door. “A first noble step into the unknown.”
Dust motes danced in the lantern light as Trent ducked through the broken doorway. He turned a slow circle, taking in a high-ceilinged room written in hard angles.
“Some sort of meeting chamber perhaps,” he mused. “Iron, write all this down.”
There were stone benches that were low on the ground, strange trapezium shaped doorways in each of the walls, very different to the circular doorway that had originally barred entry. As he completed his circle, he spotted Grundig ducking through the door, dragging his pack behind him. For once in Trent’s life, words failed him.
“I don’t think that door was meant to be opened, Prof,” Splott said.
There were scratches on the inside of the door. Long grooves scraped into the rock. “They’re old,” Trent said as he peered at them. Dust infested the gouges even after all that pounding from Grundig’s hammer. “Were people trapped inside, do you think?”
Iron crowded in next to him. “Second Age, I think,” the student said.
“Very astute,” Trent agreed. “But what makes you say so?”
“The circular design of the outer door, coupled with benches. More reminiscent of pre Golden Age design when a more angular architecture became favoured.”
“Ahh, so you were listening in class, Iron?” Trent said. It was always good when some of his students parroted his wisdom back at him, but they also needed to be reminded they had a long way to go. “But these inner doors, trapezium shaped. Older still, I think. Perhaps even as old as the First Age.”
“Really?” Iron asked.
Trent allowed himself a smug smile. “Much of our ancient architecture was brought with us from the Exodus. You see, we favoured a much more eccentric rather than functional design. Very primitive.”
“Quiet!” Splott snapped.
“Now see here…”
“I said quiet,” Splott held up a hand as he crept towards one of the inner doors and leaned his ear towards it. After a few moments, he shook his head. “Thought I heard something.”
Trent shivered. He suddenly realised the temperature had dropped. Kutvekar was a warm city on the southern side of Dien, and the sewers had been warmer still, but here the air was chill and musty.
Grundig knelt, fiddling with something in the corner of the room. He stood with a small chip of bone held between sausage fingers. The big man grunted and made to pocket it, but Trent rushed forwards.
“Give that here,” he snatched it from the big man’s hands. “You’re being paid not to loot the place, but to escort us as we explore.” He peered at the object. “Some sort of animal horn. Small, half a finger long. Take notes, Iron. Curved along the outer length and a pointed tip.”
Trent approached the nearest wall and scraped the point of the horn down the stonework. It gouged a shallow rent from the rock, but the horn didn’t so much as blunt. “Hard as steel. Interesting. Perhaps those wounds on the door were made by animals. Was this some sort of pen for beasts?”
“Let’s hope not,” Splott said. He shrugged when he caught Trent’s gaze. “Unlikely they’d leave anything of value in a pigpen, eh?”
“It’s history, Mister Splott. Everything is of value.”
Grundig trudged along behind as the Windbag and his student prattled on about the walls and the rock and the dust and the meaning behind it all. Thousand year old ruins that had no bearing on anything but a past so long gone only the angels remembered it, and they were all but dead now anyway. Still, it was fun destroying the door. Some fool had scrawled on the rock in intricate detail so long ago, probably took them hours or days, even weeks, maybe. Then along comes Grundig with a few swings of his hammer and all that hard work was as dust.
There was a lesson there, Grundig thought, about the past and present. History didn’t matter. The living mattered, people were important. That’s why he liked to study them.
The wide corridor sloped downwards, gently curving back on itself like a corkscrew. There was a smell on the air, something salty that reminded him of back home on the ice. He missed the ice, so much cleaner than inlander cities.
“No no no,” said the Windbag, waving a hand in the air as if it made his opinion more important. “This has to predate the foundation of the Sant Dien Empire, otherwise…”
Grundig stopped listening again. The student laboured alongside his teacher, red faced and struggling. He was carrying both their packs, one on his back, and the other in front of him. Strange lad, had the look of an Ashlander about him, but didn’t sound much like it. His accent was too smooth. Ashlanders usually had harsher consonants.
Grundig caught a foul scent on the air, like unwashed feet. He turned about, holding the lantern high, shining it back the way they had come. Nothing but empty stone corridor twisting away into darkness. He sniffed again, scenting like a dog, then look down at his own feet. His boots were coated in human filth.
He shook his head. Ice walkers weren’t meant to go underground. Mostly because there was nothing but freezing water under the ice. He quickly caught up with the others. The Windbag was busy explaining why he was smarter than them all. So smart he didn’t even notice when the corridor ended and the Boss ducked through a doorway then pulled to a sudden halt. The Windbag just kept on walking, hands waving in the air, straight over the drop.
Trent shrieked in alarm, but it was too late. The ground was gone and gravity took hold and he toppled into dark oblivion.
He lurched to a sudden halt hanging upside down. Something snagged his ankle in a vice-like grip. Blood thundering in his ears, Trent stopped screaming and twisted about. Splott had hold of him. The tomb robber was hanging precariously over the lip of rock that probably once served as a bridge. He had one hand around Trent’s ankle and the other was out of sight, hopefully holding onto something.
“Stop moving, Prof,” Splott said, voice tight with strain. “Grundig, help me pull him up.”
Something slipped from Trent’s jacket pocket and panic slammed back into control. He twisted, and made a grab for the ornate watch as it slipped through his fingertips and was swallowed up by the darkness below.
“King’s breath!” Trent swore. “Blast it.”
“Stop moving, Prof.”
Trent seethed as he dangled there, arms flailing. Something moved in the darkness, under the lip of the bridge, there and then gone. He blinked a few times, but there was nothing, just black and a few motes of rock dust sparkling in the lantern light. More hands grabbed hold of his ankles, Grundig being none too gentle, and Trent was hauled back up onto the rocky ledge.
Once he was back on solid ground, Trent sighed, angry at himself. His wife had given him that watch. Well, his two boys, Bertin and Kenon, but they were too young to really understand. But Trent had made professor and they wanted to give him a gift. Elsa had bought the watch and had it engraved, To New Paths Unknown. It was a favourite quote of Trent’s, from The Future Enlightened by the Past by Drager Lightmare. And now he’d lost it. Usually he’d take comfort in the possibility that in a few hundred years another intrepid explorer might find it lying down there in the bottom of the wherever they were, would spend months puzzling over it, trying to figure out how it had gotten there and what it meant. But losing that watch felt like losing a little connection he wasn’t ready to let go.
Iron sat, exhausted just from the tension of watching Professor Fields fall. He was an arrogant fire kisser, and no mistake, but Iron didn’t want him to die. Besides, he was fairly certain that would earn him a failing grade.
“Be more careful, Prof,” Splott said. “Lots of dangers here and about.”
“Quite right,” the professor said sulkily.
Splott held up his lantern and leaned over the edge a bit, shining his light as far as it could go. They appeared to be in some sort of vast underground chasm. The rock above them was close enough Iron could have touched it if he were standing on Grundig’s shoulders, but below them was nothing but darkness and the occasional hint of rock crisscrossing the chasm at various angles.
“Bridges across the gap,” Splott said, staring down into the darkness. “This one is gone, but there might be others intact enough to cross.”
“There was one just below us,” Professor Trent said, finally getting back to his feet. “We can climb down. I assume you remembered to bring some rope?”
Grundig dug a length of rope from his pack and they hammered the securing pin into the rock wall. Splott was first to climb down, swinging out over the edge and shimmying down the ten feet to the next bridge, the lantern hanging from his belt. He made a quick circle, then waved for the others to join him.
“Don’t dawdle, Iron,” the professor said grumpily and started his climb. He didn’t bother to carry one of the packs.
Iron stared over the edge as Professor Field’s feet touched the rocky bridge and he stalked off after Splott.
“Must be horrible being a doormat when his boots are so filthy,” Grundig said. The big man was standing beside Iron, staring down into the darkness.
“I’m not a… he holds my fate in his hands.” And the fates of many others, too. Iron couldn’t fail.
Grundig shrugged. “My mistake.” Iron waited for him to say more on the matter, but Grundig remained silent.
Iron dropped his packs and slid down the rope. He’d never been much one for climbing, but shambling down a rope felt more like controlled falling. Much easier. Once he was down, Grundig dropped the packs one at a time. Iron managed to catch both without careening over the edge of the bridge, for which he was quite glad. Grundig was last down, making the climb in only moments.
The big man sniffed and spat over the edge of the bridge. Then he shrugged and gestured with the lantern. “After you.”
The bridge was roughly six feet wide and formed of rough stone blocks that had a thick layer of dust. There were footprints in the dust, Splott’s and the Professor’s, and something else. They almost looked like dog prints, padded feet with long toes, or handprints.
“Rats maybe?” Iron asked.
Grundig peered over his shoulder, holding the lantern close. He grunted. “Big rats.”
Professor Trent had a torch in his hand now, flames licking greedily at the blackness. He waved it about, peering upwards and down as he strolled along the rocky bridge.
“Fascinating. Just fascinating. The bridges criss cross like strands of webbing. There must be dozens, maybe hundreds. They appear to be leading towards this central column up ahead. It might be cylindrical, suspended from the ceiling perhaps. But what purpose could it serve? Iron, are you getting all this?”
“Yes, Professor,” Iron said, not even reaching for his notebook. “Every word.”
Grundig chuckled from behind.
Jovel had crossed the Mines of Veya, he’d climbed the Fangs in the Cracked Mountain to the ruins of the Sky Temple, he’d even paddled the Sovean Marshes in search of the lost Sun Children. But he still hadn’t made that one discovery, found that ancient relic, robbed that most elder tomb to put him in the history books.
Some men did it for money, some for the thrill, others for the joy of learning, or some obligation to their masters. But Jovel Splott dredged up the old world for the glory. He refused to die an unknown, his name forgotten. The Godless King might have literal immortality, but that was well beyond the reaches of most men, so Jovel would settle for figurative immortality. It would have to do.
He had a good feeling about this expedition. There was something old about this place, ancient. A charged atmosphere to the tomb. History walked here. And it would make him famous.
“How far down does it go, do you think?” the Professor asked. He was leaning over the side of the bridge, staring down into the dark, one finger tapping his beardless chin.
“Let’s find out,” Jovel said. He unshouldered his pack and popped it open, pulled out a handful of flamer sticks. He snapped the end off one stick and it burst into fizzing flame. Then he dropped it over the edge.
The flamer dropped, briefly illuminating another bridge far below them, and kept falling until the light was swallowed up by the darkness. They all held their breath, straining their ears, but no sound echoed back. It was as if the flamer just kept falling forever.
“Don’t fall, then,” Grundig said.
Jovel pocketed the rest of the flamer sticks and picked his lantern up again. “Yeah,” he said. “We could likely explore this place for weeks.”
“Well, we’ll start in the central chamber,” the Professor said energetically. “I’ll wager that’s where we’ll learn the purpose of this place.” He seemed to have completely forgotten his little dance with peril. He started walking again. “Come along, Iron. Take notes. Now, you see up there where the bridge merges…”
A curtain of rock dust drifted down from above and Jovel raised his lantern. Something grey flitted away from the light, he was sure of it. “A bat?”
Grundig sniffed loudly. “Big bat.”
Jovel glanced at Grundig and the big man held his gaze levelly. “Hammer at the ready, yeah?” He loosed his sword in his scabbard as Grundig pulled his hammer from his pack and rested it on his shoulder.
There were always dangers on expeditions. Wild animals, poisonous plants, bandits. King’s breath, Jovel had once been chased by wolven, only losing them when he dove into a lake. Just plain lucky the monsters didn’t like to swim. But this was different. This place, whatever it was, had been locked up for hundreds of years, maybe longer, but he was sure there was something in the darkness.
They crossed the bridge in a hush. Even the Windbag was quiet for a change, which Grundig thought a relief. Some people just had to make noise like they couldn’t be alone with their own thoughts. Strangely, those same people were the most likely to force their thoughts on others.
The cylindrical structure nestled in the middle of the great chasm was dark even in the lantern light. It rose into the ceiling and dropped down into the darkness, and all the bridges led to it. Whatever they were going to find, it would be in there.
Grundig held back a few seconds after the others walked through the archways. He stood on the bridge and waved his lantern about, staring into the black and straining his ears. That nasty smell had followed him, and he was less certain by the moment that it was his boots. And there was a noise now, too, something quiet as a breeze blowing across the ice. Or urgent whispers spoken in the dead of night. Grundig gripped his hammer tightly by the haft and backed through the doorway. The score had better be worth it this time.
The Boss was a decent sort, mostly. He was a fair hand, willing to take on the dirty work as often as ordering Grundig to it, and he paid on time. That last bit was most important as Grundig had debts to pay and if he missed even one of those payments, it would be his da’ who suffered the price. But there was something off about the Boss today, he was almost feverish in his need to explore this place.
“This way. Quick now,” said the Windbag. “See the grooves in the wall, Iron? Not cut stone, but worked stone. This structure was mined right out of the bedrock itself. Make a note of that.”
They hurried along cramped corridors, pausing only briefly at intersections to debate on new directions. The Boss was near as excited as the Windbag, though pleasantly he used far fewer words. There were strange designs scratched onto the walls, and their meaning was apparently important. Grundig didn’t bother to listen, but the Windbag and his student seemed able to decipher them and they led the way. The place appeared to be some sort of maze of tunnels, the directions scrawled on the wall for those with a mind to read them.
The unwashed smell followed them, or perhaps preceded them at every step, and the whispering was always behind. Grundig kept turning and staring down the corridors, but there was nothing but plain rock and darkness.
“No spiders,” he said to himself. There was no one close to hear him anyway. It seemed more than a little strange. Even the Ice Isles had spiders. Big white ones that clung to the ice and blended in so you didn’t know they were there til they bit you.
Up ahead, the others had stopped. They’d passed through another archway with no door and into a cavernous chamber. Grundig shuffled through behind them and blew out a slow whistle.
“Icy teeth! What is that?”
Grundig’s barbaric curse echoed around the cavern and back at them. Trent let out a slow breath, which quickly turned to an excited giggle. He’d thought they’d might find something down here, buried under Kutvekar, but not this. Though, he had to admit, he had no idea what it was.
They were standing at the edge of a behemothic spherical chamber. The ceiling curved up and away, the light from their lanterns showing it had holes spread out all along it like the chamber had been perforated. At the far side of the chamber was a cyclopean archway with a stone door that looked to have been pulled open. The same arcane symbols, or runes as Splott had called them, they had seen before, were etched into the door on a massive scale. Again, there were spidery cracks running all along the stone, no doubt from the recent quake.
“What’s that down in the centre?” Splott asked, pointing his lantern.
Trent followed his gaze and his jaw dropped. There was a ball of darkness sitting in the lowest point of the spherical chamber. It was easily a good ten feet wide and was the purest black, not reflecting any light from their lanterns.
Trent didn’t know what to explore first. Like a child given two toys, he kept switching between which to play with. The dark sphere or the humongous doorway. It was all just too much.
“Iron, go make notes on the doorway.” He stepped into the chamber and bent his knees, slide-walking down the gentle slope towards the centre and the dark sphere.
Splott quickly caught up with him, his eyes wide in the flickering light. “Grundig, get some torches lit and placed around the walls.”
They both reached the sphere at the same time, skidding to a halt on the sloping stone. The surface was a smoky matte darkness that almost looked solid. But it was too uniform, too perfect. Trent started pacing around it.
“No reflection at all,” he said. “Light neither penetrates nor rebounds from its surface. Iron, make a note.”
“Is this it?” Splott said. “Is this what we came for? Is it important?”
“Maybe,” Trent said as he completed his circuit. “Perhaps. It is fascinating.”
The chamber lit brighter and brighter as Grundig sparked more torches and wedged them into cracks along the chamber walls.
Iron reached the enormous doorway and peered through the gap. “There’s nothing here,” the boy called out loudly, his voice echoing around the chamber. “Nothing but rock behind the door. Wait, there’s something written on the wall above the door— ”
“Well, what is?”
“It just says The Malevolence. That’s all, Professor.”
A sprinkling of dust cascaded down from above. It floated into the sphere of darkness, vanishing.
“You keep saying that,” Splott snapped. “What is it, Prof?”
“Well, Mister Splott. I think… it’s shadow.” Trent reached out with his torch and poked it inside the sphere. It passed through easily and the end of the torch was simply gone. Trent then pulled the torch back out to find it was whole, the fire still burning merrily away.
“This needs further study. Iron, my pack. I need my instruments to take measurements.”
“Boldness before caution,” Splott said. “Live for the day.”
Trent turned to Splott with a grin. “I didn’t realise you read Lightmare, Mister Splott.”
Splott drew in a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and stepped into the shadow.
For just a moment, everything went black, then there was light again. Of a sort. Jovel blinked rapidly, trying to clear his eyes, but he still saw the inside of the sphere in a strange muted grey, as though all colour had been leeched from the world. He looked down at his hands to find his skin grey, his coat a different shade of grey. The light inside the sphere was coming from his lantern, but it was not a burning yellow, but a bright white.
A stone pedestal sat in the centre of the sphere, and upon the pedestal was a sword. It had a long blade, edged on both sides, a dark, spiky cross guard and a bare hilt as though the leather wrapping had long since rotted away. The blade was a shining silver, but in the centre there was a core of darkness as black as the sphere.
This was it. He knew it. Knew it! He had no idea what it was yet, but he knew it was his big break. This was the discovery that would make his name, immortalise him in the history books.
“Mister Splott? Mister Splott, are you, um… Are you there?”
Jovel didn’t take his eye off the sword as he called over his shoulder. “I’m here, Prof. I’m fine. Come in. See what I’ve found.”
“What you’ve found? Oh oh oh oh oh,” the Professor barked as he stumbled through the edge of the shadowy sphere. “That’s deeply unpleasant. And why is everything… all… grey?” He trailed off, staring at the sword. “That’s quite a thing.”
They both crowded around the pedestal, leaning in to loom over the sword. Jovel reached out a hand and poked it. The blade shifted and then nothing. He grinned.
The Professor gawked at him. “And that’s how you test for traps?”
Grundig gave a loud sniff as he walked into the sphere. “Nice sword.”
“This must be some sort of vault,” the Professor said, pacing around the pedestal. “Yes. Yes, that makes sense. An ancient vault to hide this, um, relic. But who built it? You said the runes were, um, divine, yes? Divine runes. So the angels must have built it. But why? What significance? There are more of those runes on the sword, see, all along the blade.”
“It’s The Edge of Night,” the Student said. Jovel hadn’t even noticed him enter the sphere, but he stood at the boundary now, staring wide eyed. “I thought it a myth, but… It’s real.”
“You’ve heard of this relic?” the Professor asked his student. “How? Surely not in your geology studies.”
The boy took another step forward, gazing down at the sword. “I’ve read other books. Uh, Rook’s Compendium.”
The Professor did not look amused. “That’s a heretical text, Iron.”
“Like you said, Professor Fields. Knowledge isn’t dangerous, only misapplication… and ignorance.”
“Yes. Paraphrasing a bit, but I did say that. Tell me about the sword.”
“Its name is The Edge of Night,” the boy said. “It belonged to one of the Knights Exemplar. When the Saint named her companions and made war against the demons, the Archangel called down seven holy weapons forged in the armoury of heaven, one for each of the six Exemplars and one for the Saint herself.
“The Shadow Knight was gifted a sword that created an aura of darkness around himself, for he had long since learned to fight without his sight. He named his sword The Edge of Night.”
Jovel grinned and scratched at his beard. He was right. This was it. A true relic of a bygone age.
“Huh,” Grundig said. “The Godless King would pay a fortune for it.”
“Pah,” said the Professor. “He’d lock it away in another vault. We need to take it back to the university and study it.”
Jovel shook his head. “It belongs in a museum, my name on the finders plate.”
The boy took another step forward and reached out a hand, hovering it over the hilt. “We should give it back to the angels.”
They all fell silent, glaring at each other. Jovel’s hand inched towards his own sword. Grundig shifted his hammer on his shoulder. The boy placed his hand on the hilt of The Edge of Night.
There was no chance Jovel was letting this find be snatched from him. The boy would be no real threat, the Professor even less so. That left only…
Jovel spun, his sword clearing its scabbard in a broad arc. Grundig took an easy step back out of range and fury twisted his face into a snarl.
“That was a mistake, Boss.” The big man raised his hammer, froze, then looked down in surprise.
A grey hand had hold of his ankle. Another thrust out of the darkness, wrapping around his other ankle.
Grundig’s eyes went wide. “Icy…”
The hands tugged and Grundig pitched forwards, dropping his hammer and hitting the floor hard. He looked up, met Jovel’s gaze, then he was dragged backwards out of the sphere.
Splott leapt out of the sphere, sword held ready. Iron dropped the Edge of Night and followed the tomb robber only a moment later.
Grundig screamed as hands dragged him backwards across the ground. There were dozens of them, grey hands flopping over yet more hands, reaching out of the darkness, grabbing hold of Grundig’s legs and clothes, his jacket, his arms. They dragged him screaming into one of the dark tunnels, and Iron listened to those screams dwindle.
“King’s breath, what is that?” Splott asked.
“Uhhh,” Professor Fields said as he stepped out of the sphere of darkness. “I, um, it would need more… uuh… study.”
“The Malevolence,” Iron said. He pointed at the words scrawled into the rock above the great door. The door that was open, the divine runes cracked. Iron knew the truth then, whatever this thing was, the God had sealed it away. And now it was free again, and God wouldn’t be helping put it back. He was dead.
“We have to run,” Iron said, his voice rising. “WE HAVE TO RUN!”
Slender grey hands reached out of the walls, flailed from crevices, thrust from the darkness. One by one, they flopped about, slapping fingers against the rock, searching until they found the torches Grundig had placed, then smothering them with pallid flesh and disembodied hisses of pain.
The darkness crept in on them, their only light the two lanterns and the professor’s flaming torch. But the darkness closed in, beating back the light, smothering it. Hands slapped against rock, fingers reaching from the dark, then pulled back again.
“Get the sword, Professor,” Splott said.
“Now!” Splott roared. “We’re not leaving without it. Kid, get some rope out of your pack. You’re leading the Professor, just like a mule.”
Iron stood, frozen to the spot, staring into the darkness. A sharp pain in his shin snapped him out of it and he realised Splott had kicked him.
Iron nodded and reached into the pack he was carrying in front of him, digging for a length of rope. A grey hand reached out of the encroaching dark, snagged on the cloth of the bag and tugged. Iron screamed as he was dragged forward towards the darkness. Splott’s sword slashed out in front of him, sliced through the straps and the grey hands ripped the pack away. Another hand shot out of the darkness, reaching for Iron’s face, and he staggered.
Splott leapt into the way, swinging his lantern up at the hand. “Back! Back!”
The hand retreated from the light, back into the inky darkness.
Iron looked down at the rope he clutched tight, a short coil of it.
“Uh, I have the sword,” Professor Fields said in a quivering voice. “It’s very dark here, and the sphere seems to, uh, move with the sword.”
“The rope!” Iron said. He darted into the sphere and handed the professor one end of the rope, then back out again.
Splott was holding his lantern high, taking wild swipes at grey hands as they reached out of the darkness for him. Whenever he caught one, it recoiled back out of sight, but there was no blood. No wounds, and always more hands.
“You remember the way back, boy?” Splott asked. He shoved the lantern into Iron’s free hand, then pulled one of the flamer sticks from his pocket and snapped it so it burst into flame.
The boy raised the lantern and pushed on, beating back the darkness and scaring away the reaching hands. Jovel had to give the lad his due, he had balls. He dragged the rope behind him, leading the Professor on. Jovel took up the rear, waving his flamer stick, stabbing at the crawling hands that thrust out of the darkness for him.
They had to get out. He had to get the sword out. As soon as they were away from this Malevolence, he could deal with the boy and Professor, and take the sword.
Backing through the corridors, the boy stopped briefly at every intersection, checking the signs scrawled on the wall. Then on again.
Jovel felt the searing touch of flame as his flamer stick burned too low. He dropped it, reached for another in his pocket. A hand shot out of the darkness towards his face. He stabbed it with his sword, but the blade went right through it. No wound. It was like it was made of smoke. The hand kept reaching for him, fingers curling just a breath from his eyes.
He snapped the new flamer and it roared to hot light. He thrust it forward and the hand retreated with a low hiss. Jovel backed away, hurrying after the others.
They made it to the bridge, running now the way out was in sight. Just a short climb and then the corkscrew and freedom.
The Professor screamed, and the sphere of darkness stopped moving. They were just halfway across the bridge. Hands reached up from below, clawing over the sides of the rock, slapping against stone, reaching.
Jovel cursed and leapt into the sphere of darkness. The Professor still had hold of the sword, but his torch was gone. Hands had hold of one arm and were dragging him towards the edge.
Jovel thrust his flamer at the hands and they retreated. He slashed at others as they reached in through the edge of the sphere.
“Get up, Prof. Get moving.”
“I can’t… uh… um… Which way? Which way? Which way?”
He’d dropped the damned rope. They were turned about. Hands reaching for them out of the darkness. One wrong step would mean careening over the edge into the fathomless drop below.
“Up!” Jovel roared, heaving the Professor to his feet.
They stood back to back, each holding a sword even though both were useless. Only fire seemed to beat back the hands and Jovel only had one flamer stick left.
“What do we do? What do we do?” the Professor squealed.
“I… uh… I don’t know.”
A hand thrust out, reaching, fingers clawed across his cheek. Jovel shouted in pain and swung with his flamer. Another grey hand grabbed his wrist, pulled, twisted. A sharp pain and Jovel screamed. The flamer was ripped from his fingers, dragged away.
They were left in complete darkness. All Jovel could hear was the slapping of hands flopping over each other, crawling across the stone.
“Oh God. Oh God, oh God, oh God. Please save me,” the Professor whined. Useless prayers. Everyone knew God was dead.
“Professor,” the boy’s voice, strained and far away. “Throw the sword away.”
“Don’t you dare, Professor,” Jovel snarled. There had to be a way out. They couldn’t lose the sword. He dropped his own blade, reached into his pocket with his uninjured hand, trying to reach his last flamer.
“I have to. I have to.”
“Don’t do it, Professor.”
A priceless artefact. One of a kind. From the First Age, no less. Trent couldn’t just throw it away into the depths, lost forever just like his watch. His watch. His wife and two sons. What good was holding onto a priceless artefact if he was buried with it?
With a scream of defiance, Trent threw the sword away over the drop.
“No!” Splott screamed.
Everything was still dark. Hands slapped at Trent, clawed at him, tugged on his clothing, dragged him this way and that. He sank to his knees and sobbed. Was this how he ended? Torn apart by some demon of the old world?
“Get. BACK!” Splott roared and fire burst to life in his hand. He held it high and the grey hands retreated into the darkness.
Across the bridge, Trent saw another speck of light. Iron standing by the rope, still holding onto his lantern.
“Go, Professor,” Splott shouted, his voice tight with pain. “Run!”
Trent launched into a sprint along the bridge. Hands reached up from below, snatched at him. He leapt some, dodged around others, kept running.
Iron was already halfway up the rope, climbing, the lantern hanging from his belt. He reached the top, leaning back over, waving for Trent to catch up.
“Keep going, Prof,” Splott shouted from close behind.
Trent leapt at the rope, clutching at it, pulling himself up hand over hand.
“Go go go,” Splott yelled.
Trent reached the top of the rope and Iron helped haul him onto the broken lip of the bridge. They both turned together, Iron shining his lantern back down to Splott below, Trent reaching to help pull him up.
Splott stared up at them, eyes wide. A grey hand clutched at his arm, ripped the flamer from his grip. Another hand reached out of the darkness, grabbed his shoulder, then another around his face, fingers pulling at his mouth. Then he was gone, dragged away into the darkness. He didn’t even scream.
They ran, the light bouncing around them, ascending through the curving corkscrew. Trent glanced back to see the darkness eating up the corridor behind them, grey hands flailing out of the black. His legs burned, his chest ached, he couldn’t breathe, but Trent ran.
Through the broken doorway, hands slapping the stone behind them. Trent went first, launching himself into the breach and forging on, not caring about the bumps and scrapes. The smell of the sewer barely registered even as he splashed out into flowing filth.
“This way!” Iron pointed as he squeezed out of the breach and kept running, holding the lantern before him.
The lad dropped the lantern at the foot of the ladder and leapt up, grabbing hold and climbing, rung after rung, boots slipping on the squelchy metal. Trent launched after him, a rung behind, filth from the boy’s boots splattering his face. He didn’t care.
Hands scraped against stone, sloshed through water. Glass shattered and the lantern below winked out. Moonlight shone down from above, bathing Trent in a soft glow.
Iron was up, out. He turned and reached down, grabbed hold of Trent’s hands, heaved. Hands wrapped around Trent’s boots, pulling him back. He kicked at them.
“Don’t let go!” he pleaded.
Iron heaved again and Trent pulled free of the clutching hands. Both of them spilled out onto an abandoned street of Kutvekar. The light of two moons shone down on them as they sprawled on the cobbles, desperately trying to catch their breath.
The darkness of the tunnel into the sewer seemed oppressive. Trent heard hands flopping over each other down there. But none of them ventured up into the moonlight.
They were out. They were safe. Trent doubled over and cried in relief, buried his head in filthy hands.
“It’s over,” he said between his fingers. “It’s over. We made it, Iron. You’ll get a passing grade for this, I promise.”
There was no reply.
Trent pulled his hands from his face and looked around. Iron was gone. The street was empty.
He turned back to the sewer entrance. Inky darkness filled the hole, so thick it was like oil. There was a splash of red near the tunnel entrance Trent was sure wasn’t there before. As he watched, a grey long fingered hand reached up out of the black into the moonlight.
Trent turned and ran.