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Eigengrau

Prologue

By Madoka MoriPublished 8 months ago Updated 8 months ago 16 min read
20

Aoine, 29th Aibreán

Scamall Naoi at anchor, Otmel Bay

There weren’t always dragons in the valley, nor the dvargir before them. Both were brought here by the same thing: wealth. The dvargir mined it, the dragons hoarded it.

That wealth is still down there. Unfortunately, so are the dragons.

Shadrak’s plan is cunning in its simplicity, predicated upon some simple truths:

  1. The main treasuries of the great hearth-mines are the most likely place to encounter those fearsome beasts.
  2. The under-empire of Város stretches beneath the mountain ranges beyond living knowledge; the dragons cannot be everywhere within it at once.
  3. A small company, then, may reasonably expect to escape notice if they move carefully and quietly, and avoid the treasure-rooms.

The riches of the dvargir were many indeed, but not all of them took the form of worked gold and gems. The craftsmen of that extinct race excelled in whatever they turned their hand to, creating wonders of architecture, metallurgy, engines of all manner… and weapons. And in the twilight years of their war with the dragons, when they teetered on the brink of annihilation, they turned their hand to weapons almost exclusively. Dvargir wargear fetches a fine price in any market along the coast.

So, Shadrack’s plan: find our way to an armoury, and carry away all we are able. A share of a modest haul is more useful to a live man than a dead man’s share of a fortune. Gods willing, this could be a route we repeat a few times a year. Delving into the earth to pull out its treasures would make me a miner of sorts. Ha!

*******

Satharn, 30th Aibreán

Throat of the Zhelob

With first light we left our ship at anchor and rowed the people and supplies of our company ashore. The wharves of the city-ruin were in remarkably good shape, yet the shipmaster did not want to risk fouling the vessel on submerged wreckage.

And wreckage there was indeed, in great abundance.

It was a full day’s journey from the mooring to where the River Zhelob flowed, sluggish, from beneath the mountain. An entire day through the vast, dragon-shattered city of Khvost. The ruins awed us all, I think. Cyclopean towers of stone stretched in every direction and towered above us, smashed as they were. The roads example of dvargir craftsmanship such that not a blade of grass sought its way through gaps in the pavingstone, long-abandoned though they were.

Our normally-boisterous company sang no marching songs as we walked within that blight. When we stopped for our noon meal Runan pointed out what all of us had missed: there is no birdsong here. No animals of any kind. The whole place is truly dead.

The size of the city was humbling, yet we all knew that Khvost was nothing more than a threshold to the true underempire of Város. An outpost. Like an iceberg, this was merely the visible surface-breach of something which extended much, much further into the depths.

We made camp in the shadow of the great stone arch from whence the river flows. A hemisphere of purest dark in advance of the coming night, surrounded by smashed statuary the height of trees. Like broken teeth in the mouth of a brawler.

Tomorrow we go below.

*******

Domhnach, 1st Bealtaine

Reka Passage

We followed the broad road carved next to the river into the lightless halls of Város. Each of us is laden down with lantern-oil and candles enough for our long trek below, but the depth of the darkness is shocking nonetheless. It is utter and absolute, slinking around our wan flickering pools of light like something alive. Like a malicious liquid. All of us unconsciously drew closer together as we progressed into these black depths. Even the pack mules do not like it, blinkered as they are. They whinny and stamp, setting the oil-bladders they carry to sloshing. They will be less happy on the return when laden down with treasure, I think.

The walls are scribbled with graffiti near the entrance, and much of the fittings and goods of the city has been carried off. We are not the first to investigate these dragon-haunted ruins. Throughout the day the signs of vandalism decreased, until we walked through unspoiled dvargir halls. These empty caverns are too broad for the light to reach the other end, the ceiling, the walls to either side. When we enter a large enough hall - and there are plenty of size - wandering to the middle of it is like standing upon some mindless plain. One would think that it would be the tunnels that were claustrophobic, but it is these large rooms where one feels vertiginous. The lack of visual reference makes one stagger. More than one man has stumbled, even fallen, when crossing these colossal, night-clad halls.

Shadrack checks his map (purchased at great expense) frequently and asks me to translate the runes carven into the wall on occasion, but we hew closely to the river for the most part. Even when we follow some road leading away we can feel the water trembling the rock around us like the heartbeat of some great beast.

We have set up camp in an old store-room for grain and trade goods, all long since taken. It is solid and defensible, but we creep about in the circle of our lanterns hushed and fearful as mice. Shadrak set a double-watch yet I heard no-one complain of missing sleep. We are interlopers here and all can sense it.

*******

Luan, 2nd Bealtaine

Square-Stone-River-Place

Two days without the sun. This place has a grandeur about it that is undeniable, but I already yearn for the open sky.

And the cold. The cold doesn’t bite, it gnaws.

We came to an intersection of sorts and, after consulting his map and our surroundings for quite some while, Shadrak bade us to set up camp and wait. Soon enough the olm found us, creeping from corners and the lee of columns with a damnable stealth. The newt-folk move with a sinuous, creeping grace.

They are pale creatures, colourless even, and diminutive. They come up no higher than the ribs of a man, and are so very slender. They have no eyes and are quite blind. Their faces (such as they may be called) are smooth except for two small nostrils and a neat, lipless mouth that gawps in a kind of permanent smile. Fronds of pink gill-stalks hang about their head. None of them are clothed, although the warriors wore trophy-bands about their middle, studded with the bones of honoured foes and ancestors.

They approached shyly, but were well-armed with weapons of knapped obsidian. This was the main purpose of my inclusion in the party. Shadrak caught my eye and jerked his head towards them.

Their speech is beyond the capability of a human throat. I centered myself in a light trance and pushed - gently - broad concepts out towards them, like shoving off a boat from a dock.

FRIEND

PEACE

They scuttled in consternation, but with consistent urging and a demonstrable lack of threat on our part eventually one stepped forward. A leader or shaman perhaps, judging from its extensive scarification patterns and ornate bone-harness. It stopped a few paces away and spoke in his click-snap tongue. I could not understand his language, but the essence of his words wafted among the sound of them like a scent on the breeze. I replied.

TRADE

BARTER/EXCHANGE

KNOWLEDGE

We unloaded the mules and laid out our tradegoods before them: weapons of good steel, fabrics, gewgaws and trinkets we thought would impress them. They were not interested in such things at all. In the end we struck a deal; for their service as guides we would give the tribe our mules for meat. A funny thing to think: down here under the earth, food is scarcer than gold.

The deal made, they asked us what we were looking for.

WEAPON

STOREHOUSE

WEAPON

I demonstrated some of the dvargir runes that may mark such a place. They conferred amongst themselves. They shall take us to a place they know, several days journey hence. I will endeavour to record our path as a map there, with the hope that we may retrace our steps in the future.

*******

Mháirt, 3rd Bealtaine

Halls of Vedr

We follow the olm as they cut us a route through these endless rooms, their broad soft feet slapping on the flagstones in the dark. Being totally blind they of course carry no lanterns. It is unnerving.

Charting a map is proving to be more difficult than I anticipated. It is hard to shake the presupposition of buildings and roads arranged normally. In a subterranean world of solid stone this is not the case. A tunnel-city is constructed from negative space; empty air instead of brick. Construction is subtraction, not addition. Thus rooms are not arrayed next to each other in parallel, not directly following the floorplan of those above or below. One must alter one’s perception of ‘city’ from ‘hundreds of buildings’ to instead ‘thousands of rooms.’

In my map-making I often find myself drawing a room where one already exists, and know not whether this means we are above it, below it, or simply that I have made an error. I wonder if it will be of any use.

Distance, too, is a problem. Normally one might make an estimate of 3-4 leagues covered in a day, but in this permanent night we do not have any reference to what a day might be. We march until we are too tired to continue, set up camp, and then resume once everyone has awoken. With no dawn or nightfall it is possible - likely even - that our rhythms of sleep have become unmoored from the true day far above. I simply record the date based on how many times I have slept, but we could well be sleeping twice a day, or once every two days. I have no true way of knowing.

Nevertheless, our camp tonight was merrier than those before. The olm sang around our campfire; a haunting, warbling refrain. Later we amazed them playing a simple game of throwing small pebbles at a nominated olm. Blind as they are they do not understand how we can tell them apart at a distance. Both we and them found their amazement enormously amusing.

*******

Déardaoin, 4th Bealtaine

Halls of Vedr

We lost two men today. As we progressed down a narrow gallery some great arthropod carried off one of our number. It escaped noticed by clinging to the ceiling, reaching down to pluck Breathnach off his feet as he passed beneath. A great hue and cry went up as several of his fellows rushed to his aid.

Although the segmented body of the beast was not much larger than a small pony, its profusion of limbs were abominably elongated - being on average roughly three yards in length, although no thicker than my wrist. Those insect limbs each ended in a chitinous simulacrum of a human hand.

As the beast fled, still clutching poor Breathnach, it flung Tuiren into a wall, breaking his neck. We could not bury him in these rocky halls, nor burn him, so we merely covered his body as best we could in a cairn of rubble.

The olm asked if they may have his meat, a request I did not translate for the others.

*******

Aoine/Satharn, 5/6?th Bealtaine

Visok Bridge

The way ahead is shut. There was once a bridge over the great chasm before us, now collapsed. Whether the doing of dragons, time, or some other calamity; we cannot cross here. The olm say they know a way around, through the natural caves which riddle the rock. The alternative is retracing our steps to the previous intersection, a trip of two days with no guarantee that the next bridge along shall fair better.

Shadrack rages at the setback. Morale is very low.

I yearn to see the sun again.

*******

Satharn/Domhnach, 6/7?th Bealtaine

Olm caves

We have followed the olm into their caves. They are partially flooded and we have been waist-deep in icy water for the better part of the day - a detail the olm neglected to mention. They are perfectly at home in the freezing torrent, their sinuous bodies slipping through the water with ease.

Eriu lost his footing and fell in a deeper part of the stream and was dragged under by the weight of his metal plate. He drowned. The rest of us took heed; everyone has abandoned most - if not all - of their armour. In this place it is too cold, and too heavy. We cannot climb nor swim.

We have made camp in a large outcropping. Water drips constantly and the walls and floor are damp, and we have no fuel for a fire. Supplies are now halfway gone. All of us, to a man, are wet, cold and exhausted.

We conferred about the possibility of abandoning our quest and returning to the surface, but Shadrack insisted we continue.

*******

??, 7/8/9th? Bealtaine

???

More losses. Re-emerging from the caves to the dvargir halls had us fording a great cistern, and the realisation that we had spent the last day of our journey (or was it two? time bleeds from clearly-defined boundries down here) in a section of Város’ sewage system.

The cistern was infested with huge white eels, as thick and as long as tree trunks. They swallowed Iseult and Orna whole. Isealt was pleading with us to pull him free as it enveloped him in jerking gulps, like a pelican with a fish (they had no teeth to speak of). He was looking at me when that yawning mouth closed around him and bore him under. He was looking at me.

One of the olm was taken as well. They must have encountered beasts such as these before, and with their assistance we eventually fought the eels off, killing one. We dragged it up into the stone halls of the dvargir and ate it raw. Olm and man alike hunched and feeding off the great carcass. I think the dark is in us somehow, now. We are not conquering this darkness but adapting to it.

There are fourteen of us left.

*******

???, ??th Bealtaine

???

There are lights in the halls, glimmering and soft. Barely perceptible. First in the distance to the left, then around a corner to the right. I asked the olm about it but how do you explain light to a race without eyes? It is quite amusing!

Runan is gone. We do not know where or how. He was not numbered among us when we stopped to make camp.

The olm say we are close. They seem to be nervous.

*******

???, ??th Bealtaine

???

The olm refuse to go further. The most I can get out of them is a vague warning, and something about territory. Perhaps the end of theirs, or the start of that of another olm tribe? Something else?

Shadrack was apoplectic and it seemed like it would come to blows between us and the olm, but they retreated into the darkness muttering apologies and warnings in their chittering tongue.

Their directions and some intact dvargir carvings lend us hope that we are close to our goal. The dvargir runes for this place are unlike any I have seen before, but they include radicals used in weapons and warfare. There are radicals for dragons in the runes also.

We are resting before the final push to our prize. I barely recognise my fellows in the lamplight; they are so sallow and begrimed that they look like a new race entire, coughed up from the underdark. I laughed to think of it, and the others laughed with me until we were all of us roaring with laughter, though I never explained what I was laughing at.

*******

???, ??th Bealtaine?

???

They are all dead.

We arrived in a fortified area, passing ever-increasing murder-holes, portcullises (long since rusted to uselessness), and guard barracks. Our goal: an armoury. It was larger than we were anticipating - an entire sub-region of Város. No mere storeroom, this. The passage narrowed, for defence I assume, to a single broad corridor. The end was barred by a set of orichalcum gates, fully three times the height of a man. The price of the metal in those doors would be enough to have made our expedition worthwhile. As yet untarnished. As yet unopened.

Between us and them stood a man, framed in a light not his own. It wasn’t that he glowed; he was illuminated, but from no source visible to us. From elsewhere.

He stood before the gates as if the ordination of the universe; that he was there for us to meet. Waiting for us, like the ocean waits for a river. Shadrack shouted some challenge and approached him. It’s hard to say what happened next: Shadrack was gone, fizzing away like sea-foam, and the man grew so very bright that it hurt to look upon him, but when I squeezed shut my eyes he stood there in my vision still. As if I looked upon him not with my eyes but some other manner of knowing.

The man laughed at our confusion. He changed. Hands and limbs, the jawline… it is hard to explain. The man stood before us still, but also a looming uncanny shape, and every point of his transition between one to the other. All of it together somehow. It was as if looking at several things that were the same thing. Does that make sense? Like the famous picture that appears to be of two faces when looked at one way, and a single vase another. Like the knowledge that a small rushing stream and a powerful rapid and a broad slow estuary are all of them the same river. My words seem inadequate; do I make sense?

The dragon - for of course that is what it was - was like the city of Kvost or an iceberg: more extended below the surface, much more. Like looking at the blowhole of a whale breaking the surface and being aware of the greater creature beneath. But what surface? What depths?

The others started to scream, and it started to kill them. Gods have mercy on me but I ran then. I smothered my essence as much as I was able, cloaked my lifespark as tightly as my art allowed and I ran and hid. I think I was the only one to escape. I ran until I could no longer hear screaming.

I know not how long I wandered after that. I dare not go back. I do not even think I could find my way.

I lost my pack in my flight . This is my last candle. I have a knife here, and I think I shall use it before the candle burns itself up. I do not want to die alone in the dark. Not in the dark.

*******

Scratchquill on vellum

from the private collection of Alexandru Barbaneagra III

Believed to be from a Cionntsáile Principality Expedition circa 150-200, purchased from Olm trade caravan in 367

Fantasy
20

About the Creator

Madoka Mori

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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    Well-structured & engaging content

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    Creative use of language & vocab

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    The story invoked strong personal emotions

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    Writing reflected the title & theme

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Comments (8)

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  • Robin Andrew Blair7 months ago

    Wow, that's good, really really good. This was the first story I've come across on Vocal where I read the first few lines and I was like "I'm going to read this all the way to the end for sure." And I did. And I enjoyed all of it [the only thing that bugged me is that once you get deep underground on earth it's usually warm all the time I believe, but this is a fantasy world, so...] The challenge was to write a "Chapter 1" but this is a prologue, the downside of which is that we get no sense of the larger story conflict/scope. Honestly the writing is so strong it makes me want to read more anyway, but maybe this would have won first prize if it matched the brief fully? The judges seemed to have gone for something a little rougher writing wise, but more unique however, so who knows. In overall vibe it felt a lot like part of the adventure I ran for my group in the Underdark recently. Very cool. Add a few more chapters and a couple of editing passes to just bring it all up a notch and this would be a book I'd buy for sure! My 'dragons' entry suffers from the forced start point (which if I was a better writer I'm sure I could deal with better), so I'm working on a version that fits better into a full novel, but if you have time to read it and give feedback that would be awesome. Loved your writing!

  • Caroline Jane8 months ago

    😲 This is my favourite! Love it. ❤️

  • Whoaaa this was awesome! So thrilling!

  • C.Z.8 months ago

    Love this mix of horror and fantasy, a well-crafted tale for sure!

  • Jeff Rubenstein8 months ago

    Intense and thrilling!

  • Ashley McGee8 months ago

    A slow burning Lovecraftian piece plumbing the Stygian depths. Always a pleasure to read your work!

  • Call Me Les8 months ago

    Bilbo would be proud to tell this tale. This haunted me "The olm asked if they may have his meat, a request I did not translate for the others." It says so much in so little about the world this is featured in. Well done!

  • Made in DNA8 months ago

    CHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIILLS.

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