Living in Darkness

This story is copyright © 1995-9 Samuel Marshall. All rights reserved. May not be distributed without permission of the author.

Foreword [from 1995]

This story does not have a 'proper' ending. I tell you this now in the unlikely event of causing disappointment when it stops, some might feel prematurely. This was intentional and not caused by the story stretching to too long; everything was planned out in advance.

The name might not seem particularly relevant; it's the name of a record I like, and there is no symbolic connection between story and record, but my mind hit on it as a slightly appropriate name.

Thanks very much for looking at this story. If you have comments, praise, criticisms, or typos for me, feel free to get in touch.

Last Rites

Jenéissi Rillanth, of Kieth-Maré, wept. She did so quietly, occasionally wiping tears from her eyes with one pale-skinned hand, for the occasion was not supposed to be sad or even sombre. Her other hand clutched that of her brother, in an attempt to give comfort - though she knew she received as much as was given, and felt perversely guilty for it.

The scene before her, glistening with unreality through damp eyes, was one of brightness and of shadow. Of contrasts. She was among a group of about fifty elves, their pale skin contrasting as ever with the deep blackness of solid rock below and above - some way above, in fact, as this was a massive cavern. And the darkness of the cavern above and at the edges contrasted with bright, fiery volcanic red shining from the central crevice the elves were standing around. There were no glowlamps here, just fierce red illumination that was almost like nightvision - but the other people in sight did not glow red, looking as if they were cold and dead. Their shadows splayed out from the room's centre like the legs of an enormous spider. Whatever the occasion, this was not a cheerful place. Nor was it a safe one, Jen thought, catching sight of a guard with sword and spear who was peering nervously down an exit tunnel.

The priest began to speak. "This one, though young, had in this life achieved much. He was accomplished at patrol duty as well as in the tending of crops. Many times, he had saved the lives of those..." Jen looked at her brother, who was staring straight ahead - remembering, she knew...

* * *

The only thing wrong with this trip, Jen thought, was that she wasn't in charge. She glanced at Will, the designated leader, with a slight tinge of jealousy. Oh, well - her brother had earned it, she supposed, and it would be her turn in a few day's time, or maybe even tomorrow... Then she stumbled on a loose piece of flint, drawing the glances of her fellow group members with the noise. Embarrassed, she bent down to pick up the stone and then continued with somewhat more care - it seemed nothing had been attracted by that small sound, but any noise could be dangerous.

The group stopped for a meal, five young elves sitting in a circle chewing bread and sweet biscuits. Will - medium-sized like her, with unremarkable dark hair that flowed back over long pointed ears, unremarkable large grey-green slanted eyes, and an unremarkable small nose - looked remarkably average. But she knew his experience in the dangerous caverns and tunnels around Kieth-Maré was far above the norm. Knew because she'd been with him while obtaining that knowledge at the same time, on almost all of those occasions.

"We're nearly there now." Will was telling the group - the rest of them relative novices but still well-practiced in stealth and in combat - "This is where the other group had to give up their mapmaking as they were chased. From what they said, the fungus grove is about a mile ahead, but along a small side tunnel, so we'll have to watch carefully. Remember, if any of you see the grakanth, scream and we'll all run like hell back this way, to pick it off with arrows. It's slower than we are so the main danger is its pounce - don't let it get close enough for that. Ready?"

As he'd been speaking, Jen and the others had been checking their shortbows and ensuring their equipment would not impede movement. They got up and Will extinguished the small glow-lantern - it wouldn't be used in the search, for fear of attracting monsters at the worst possible time, but was helpful in examining the map. After a second or two their eyes had adjusted to see the cavern lit by a dim red radiance - actually somewhat brighter than the lamplight - from their bright bodies, glowing with warmth. Will signalled to move on, in silence, which would be the rule from now until they left the grakanth's territory. Good luck! Jen thought to him, and then he to her, a ritual exchange before possible danger. The group set off warily.

Fifteen minutes later, their search had so far been fruitless. The rock tunnel they were traversing had narrowed, with side branches confusing in their profusion, but no-one had caught sight of vegetation. Suddenly:

I found something! Jen looked for the sender, found him - Syrus, lagging back almost at the edge of her vision.

Just a moment, Jen thought to him, We'll be right there. Signing to the rest of the group to stop, go back.

I'll be all right, Syrus sent, It could be nothing, only take a second to check. Then stepped out of contact, leaving solid rock between them and her annoyed at his breach of procedure - and them a scream, followed by a snarl and a nasty-sounding crunch, while Jen and the others sprinted back towards the tunnel Syrus had gone down. Violating the letter of the plan themselves by the by, but his scream had not been followed by running footsteps and the crunch had sounded - and then the monster was in front of her, huge yawning mouth, spiked back, four powerful legs poised for a pounce, no sign of the elf but no time to think as she sprang towards it, rolling in the air and landing to one side of it, warm mammal ahead of its cold-blooded reflexes by a fraction of a second. Pulling out a long sharpened flint dagger, to plunge it with all her strength into the front of a short, thick leg, flipping over with her momentum and the dagger as a lever onto the thing's back as it roared in pain, not paying heed to her own agony as reptilian back-spikes dug into flesh through soft armour, instead forcing the other dagger around large grakash head and deep into one eye - where it stuck and the thing still turning its head towards her, her with no weapon left and no idea what to do, frozen for a terrible moment - until someone's arrow found the creature's other eye and presumably its tiny brain so that it finally had the decency to die and she could concentrate on freeing herself from the thing's spikes, and then - falling to the rock floor, at which point all feelings receded into smooth darkness.

* * *

She'd woken, wounds - four painful gashes in her side - aching but bandaged, to find that half an hour had gone by, her injuries weren't serious, and that Syrus's neck had been snapped in his original encounter with the reptilian beast. Will had ordered the collection of the particular type of fungus necessary from the grove, which had indeed been where the ill-fated elf had thought it. Then he'd told the group to take turns carrying Syrus' body, and they had left immediately for the village. That had been - gods, just a few hours ago. Jen had felt numb and she'd known that Will blamed himself to some extent for the accident, for not keeping the group close together and in better order. They'd both set off with the hastily-assembled funeral party, at which Jen's feelings had finally broken through; she'd known Syrus, because everyone knew everyone in the village, since he was a child. Which was why she was crying, somewhat against protocol, but then who cared.

"In life he helped us body and soul," the priest intoned, coming to the end of the ritual, "But in death his soul cannot any longer warm us who knew him. Only his body can help, providing fuel for the fires that give us life." So saying, he gestured, and attendants lifted the broken corpse in their arms, walking with quiet and measured tread to the edge of the glowing crevice. For a second they paused. Then, in one smooth motion, they drew their arms back and swung, releasing the body into a low, lazy arc. An instant later it was out of sight and then a brief flicker of yellowish light announced the dead elf's incineration.

Wishing comfort, Jen turned to her brother, who'd had the same idea and was holding out his hands. She firmly gripped both and immediately felt her brother's pain. But the mental touch told her that he was feeling her inner agonies as well. Share your pain, a philosopher had once said, for a lonely pain is pain indeed. Cryptic words that simply meant you felt better knowing for real, for sure, with no uncertainty of spoken language, that someone else understood why you were hurting.

People were heading back to the village. Jen and Will stumbled after them, half lost in each other's shared minds, trusting in the guards if there was any trouble. They stayed that way until reaching the village, which was sited in the central cavern of the old town. There Will left her, he was going to the library, but she was going to clean up and rebandage her injuries, and then get some sleep. Although she would almost certainly dream of the day's events... but it couldn't be helped. She needed rest even if it would be painful - and anyway, life always seemed less bleak after a good night's sleep.

A Decision

Willthazi Rillanth of Kieth-Maré thought. Head buried in hands, arms resting in turn on an ancient stone-slab table that was strewn with books and maps, he pondered the plight of the elves. Once there had been many - so many! - but then came the demon wars - so long ago! - when most had been wiped out, and some of the survivors had moved underground to escape the demons' wrath, forming this village, so small... Except that once it had been a town, but the difficulty of growing food and the constant danger from murderous beasts of the underdark had conspired to reduce the population. Will had never known anyone die of old age. Within the rest of his lifetime, if he lived to an average age, he figured the village's population would be down to about thirty.

The question Will was asking himself in a somewhat roundabout way was, should he and Jen travel to the surface? He knew the village council would never permit it because they "couldn't spare the numbers needed for such an expedition" (That had been the response when a similar idea had been suggested nearly a hundred years ago, before Will had been born). But surely just the two of them leaving would not render the village defenceless or hungry? The village council wouldn't permit such an ambitious expedition to leave with just two members, either. But surely the two of them would be safer without others to slow them down? Despite still being `children' - who had to take on many adult responsibilities, anyway - he and Jen could take care of themselves.

Would there be anything helpful on the surface? Friendly elves, ancestors of those - surely there must be some - who'd survived the war without moving underground? Or hordes of demons fighting amongst each other with no mercy for those in the crossfire, having destroyed their enemies so long ago in the wars and lost all cohesion? Will didn't know. But deep down he wanted to make this expedition to find out. And if by some lucky chance the surface world was hospitable and friendly, then the two of them could return to lead the elves into a new era. Gods knew he was sick of the present one.

* * *

Will spent the next hour gathering together equipment and provisions, which basically meant finding rope and climbing gear for himself and his sister. Although it was early in the sleeptime, most elves were resting, so he was able to search for what was necessary in the communal store, without challenge. He also took food, though not much; they'd have to forage for suitable fungus and mosses as they went along. Weapons they already had, of course. Now all he needed to do was ask his sister if she would come. He felt a twinge of worry - supposing she felt her duty lay with the tribe? But anyway, he'd ask her in the morning - late in the sleeptime, so other elves would not notice their going. If they went. Suddenly he was exhausted. He'd been sorting out equipment into packs on the floor of his small bedchamber. Reaching out with his mind, he shut off the glowlamp and collapsed onto the spongy mattress that was his bed.

* * *

When he woke up it was due to someone shaking him. Eagerly he dragged his brain into alertness, retreating from his dreams at the earliest opportunity.

"Jen?" he said, looking up with sleep-mazed eyes. It was indeed her. "Thanks for waking me. I was... it was horrible..." Then he stopped, realising she must surely have dreamed yesterday's events as well, realising she understood. At which point he realised it was quiet, no elven footsteps or animal snorts to be heard. Still not waketime.

"Well, are you coming or not?" Jen asked, mock impatient but with a serious question in her eyes.

Will pulled himself to his feet. "How did you know?" he asked, checking his clothes - which he'd slept in, meaning he was ready to go. He could wash himself at any small stream along the way. Picking up a backpack, he began to strap it on, waiting for her answer.

"Well, I know you." Jen retorted somewhat archly. She grinned. "If you hadn't already sorted things out, I would have suggested it anyway - that's why I came to wake you. Do you know where we're going? Or is it `take any tunnel that leads upwards'?"

"I copied out an old map." Will said. Checking bow and long daggers as he spoke. "We head for Raksh Chasm. Follow that for a day, then head up by the side of an underground river. We cross the river at a stone bridge, it says."

"And then what?" Jen asked resignedly. "The map finishes, doesn't it? And it's so old there could have been any number of rockfalls to block the path... well, it's better than nothing." She'd spoken quietly and Will didn't reply, for they'd left the family house - both parents had died long ago, so they were its only occupants - and were making their way between other crude but beautifully-decorated rock dwellings. After a few minutes they were away from the village, walking among abandoned homes and grey, forbidding ruins from the old town. Still the two were silent, walking now in alert formation with Will scanning the confusing array of monochrome patches and shadows to their right, Jen watching the left. It was relatively safe this close to the village, but caution was a habit as well as a necessity.

Glancing back, Will could see the first flickers of light from glowlamps, tiny stars visible through the tall, wide tunnel to the village's cavern which they had traversed minutes ago. He felt a small tug of worry and loss on leaving his home - suddenly remembering that this evening, if they'd stayed, they could have danced and sang and played games along with the rest of the village, in celebration of the new baby's first month of life. He tried to imagine the social event - joyous but tinged sad with Syrus' death - but could not, his mindset now locked firmly into survival, brain and cold reflexes with his heart hidden away.

Raksh Chasm

They reached the Raksh Chasm at about midday (with no clock, they couldn't tell exactly). It was an impressive sight. The enormous tunnel ran as far as the eye could see, and much further, Will knew, to the northeast and southwest. Its proportions were like an ancient hall but without support columns and without end walls. The chasm itself was a giant's knife cut that zigged and zagged unevenly through the centre of the tunnel's rock floor - which sloped gradually down towards the crack as if to assist the clumsy to their doom - and extended the length of the tunnel. It was far deeper than heat-vision could have penetrated - not that Will was going to stand on the edge and look over - and so it was only the immense, if somewhat muffled, roar that told travellers of the raging river at the chasm's base. The crack was about thirty metres wide and the tunnel was twice that, leaving plenty of room each side for walking, but no way to cross.

The pair had entered the tunnel from the west, and now they turned left along it. Side passages were infrequent, which meant that less caution was necessary here and they could make better time. They had travelled quite a distance before the two elves became tired enough to consider rest. They finally made camp when on the outside edge of a long, smooth curve to the right, setting down their bedrolls in a shadowy alcove at the tunnel edge where they would be out of sight of any predators. Both of them needed rest, so standing watch was impractical. Instead, after a short meal from their provisions, they both lay down to sleep, trusting their sensitive ears to waken them if danger approached. If it was quiet enough not to be heard above the chasm's dull roar?... Well, then so be it, Will thought. And turned over into a more comfortable position, from which he quickly fell into deep, troubled dreams.

* * *

It was almost a relief to wake before fully rested, leaving the world of the night and getting to his feet quickly and quietly, fully alert. The elven shortbow he carried, made from rare and precious wood that had found its way down from the surface by river, was always prepared and, during the few seconds it took to string it, he peered out into the tunnel. Jen was awake and ready also, checking the other direction. There was nothing in view and for a moment Will considered the possibility they had both been mistaken. But then he caught sight of a dim glowing spot at the edge of vision, which meant thirty metres away. At that exact moment there came a plaintive, chittering howl.

"Cavewolves!" Will said - involuntarily, and too loud. Gods, sorry, he sent to Jen, and they're this way. She came over to him while Will drew back an arrow and berated himself for giving away their position so carelessly, like a novice. Jen didn't say anything, just readied her own arrow, and they stood there waiting for the wolves to come within range and present a clear target.

The creatures were close enough now to be distinct shapes in Will's night vision. Just one moment more - then - He drew his bow back fully and released it, sending the arrow flying, and it just missed the target, but he had another ready and hit one wolf directly between the eyes - a lucky fluke - as he drew back the bow again, wolves howling loud and angry now as they charged, two more slumping to the ground with shafts protruding from their hairy bodies - that was Jen's doing - and his next arrow only wounded a wolf, time for one more shot, which surged through the air, whistling directly into the wounded thing's flank so that it collapsed. For a fraction of a second as he dropped the bow and drew flint daggers, he imagined he saw surprise in the dying wolf's eye, and then the remainder of the pack was upon them - save one, which was flung to one side and down, down the chasm, howling from fear and the point-blank arrow shot that had caused its demise. That one was definitely surprised, Will thought, with a grim smile, his last conscious action before reflexes took over and hurled him to one side, avoiding snapping jaws, and back again to dodge flailing pincers and plunge a dagger deep into wolf-flesh, then jumping on the collapsed body - not quite dead - for a higher position, spinning around, darting hands in and out, as three menaced him, so he let one behind think him distracted and, listening for the moment, swung around to slice its neck and throat in mid-leap. And it was dying but its momentum continued and he was knocked from his perch to rocky, blood-smeared ground, trying desperately to gain his feet against lightning attacks by cavewolf pincers, finally rolling to an upright position - as a wolf mouth slammed shut on his side, biting away flesh, but he ignored the pain and instead twisted and jumped, sure feet grabbing the thing's back in a precarious hold as it reared up, a hold that nonetheless lasted long enough so he could plunge a stained, dripping dagger into the back of the wolf's neck before falling again, this time landing badly, and there was a moment of real terror as he struggled to get up while an enemy's horrendous jaws swung towards his face, and in that instant knew he couldn't make it in time, knew this would be the last half-second of his life - until the thing slumped to one side, two daggers in its back, and Jen, gods bless her eternal soul, was crouching over him, clothes and face wet with (he hoped) wolf blood.

"We got them all, then?" he said, or tried to but he was out of breath, had only just noticed he was panting furiously for air, and she just nodded, landed down beside him with a bump, and almost immediately pulled off his blood-spattered shirt to tie a bandage over his wound, then they both sat there, recovering their breath from the damp air.

* * *

The adrenaline rush over, both of them were exhausted, but they roused to drag the cavewolf corpses over the chasm edge, else carrion eaters would have been along in profusion. Then they again had to get up, to pick up equipment and carry it forwards a few hundred metres - but it seemed like miles - to a small stream falling into the chasm, which water they used to bathe Jen's scratches and Will's injury (that he'd rated as serious but not life-threatening) and to rinse off the blood they were both soaked in, neither wanting to be caked in dried wolf blood come morning. Only then could they sprawl on hastily-laid out bedrolls, heedless of shadows or safe places, needing rest more urgently than security even though they wouldn't again be woken by such slight noises as had saved them before.

A Peculiar Stranger

When they were rested, the two young elves awoke. Will was first. Trying to stand, he winced at aches all over his body and a jab of pain from the wound in his side. He staggered over to the stream to wash himself and to clean the gash again, then rebandage it. The cut was already healing, and had not become infected. These necessary tasks completed, Will felt a little more awake and ready for the day ahead. Jen had awakened, and enquired after his health before taking her turn in the stream. Since that they had not spoken, both preferring to concentrate on the mundane tasks of eating and checking equipment rather than discussing deeper issues. Like how this was turning out to be a more dangerous journey than either had envisaged.

They left the stream and its small waterfall, a white-flecked dribble against the chasm edge, and trudged on. Will got out his map to examine while they travelled. From the roughly-copied parchment, it seemed the way to the surface led up by the side of an underground river that fell into the Raksh Chasm. Niels River, according to the map, was less than a day from their current position. Assuming he had estimated it right. Well, when they found it it should be hard to miss.

Practical details settled, Will's thoughts wandered back to Kieth-Maré. By now, the underground village would certainly have noticed their absence and found the note he'd left to explain. What would they be thinking? He knew well enough; they'd be thinking Jen and he had set off on a foolish, no-hope mission, in the meantime depriving the village of two of its best warriors. This thought made him slightly guilty, as he remembered those adults he liked and trusted. Old Shezzi, he reckoned, might understand. 'Twas said he'd been a bit of a young hothead in days gone by. And of course, according to the ancient books, he had hundreds of years to go before he truly deserved the 'old' title. Still, the oldest, strongest, quickest, and (some said) wisest elf in the village deserved such a mark of respect. A hothead he most certainly was not, and tales of his past were told about him, not by him, so lacked authenticity. And yet there must be something in them - and suddenly Will found himself with a vague memory of tale in which Shezzi set out to reach the surface. Oh, gods, he thought with renewed despondency. If Shezzi couldn't make it, how will we? Because we are two, he rationalised, and Shezzi was always a loner. Besides, he taught us everything he knows, and we're almost his equals. The arguments failed to convince him completely, and a moment later another thought struck him.

"Gods!" he exclaimed, out lout. "Why didn't we ask old Shezzi for advice? He's been this way before."

"He would have forbidden us leaving," Jen responded, quickly enough, though he could tell she too was cursing herself for not having had the idea when the time was right. "Besides, by your books, we're only children. We can't be expected to think of everything."

Will grinned; he hadn't thought of that before, and also it seemed slightly preposterous to call them children, what with all their accumulated skill and experience. Feeling slightly better, he continued walking with a new spring in his step.

And it was not long before they reached the falls. The rushing roar of gallons of water hitting rock every second was audible over the chasm's background water noise from quite a distance. When they had got close enough for a good view, the two stopped to stare. It was an impressive sight. Twenty feet above the path's level, a jagged hole in the tunnel wall spewed forth vast quantities of white-bubbled water in a long arc that took the mighty stream clear over the tunnel's side path (narrower than usual at this point) and neatly into the chasm proper, where it fell hundreds of feet to pound on the unseen rocks below like the breaking of millions of glass bottles at the same time as a giant played a tremendous drum roll. The air hereabouts was filled with a misty haze of water vapour, making vision more difficult and giving a smudgy, mystical aura to the brightness of their bodies.

"How do we get up there?" Jen asked, talking close to his hear to be heard, and gesturing at the hole above. Climbing was clearly out of the question; quite apart from the dangers of the slippery rock, the hole from which the river flowed was solidly occupied by gushing water. Presumably upstream it quietened a bit to resemble a more normal river.

"Look for a side tunnel!" Will responded, now yelling to be heard as they'd continued walking and were closer to the noise of the falls. Sure enough, a side tunnel - narrow and damp, sloping steeply upwards - came into view close to the falls. They entered in single file, Will first, to find that it wound around a lot but continued its ascent. Until a short time later when renewed noise heralded their approach to a low-ceilinged tunnel, path continuing on with a lesser gradient over rocky, sharp ground - that would make for slow travelling - alongside a raging torrent of a river, ferocious with white water and constant spray.

They travelled the rest of the day - or what they considered a day, with no clock they could not be sure - by the rough waters of Niels River. When the time came to sleep, both had become used to the river's roar, which had anyway lessened slightly as had the water speed, with distance from the falls. The two were tired and drifted into sleep soon after they lay down, even though bedrolls had not been able to completely obviate the effects of uncomfortable rocks.

* * *

The next day, the pair continued along the rocky, sharp ground by the river, moving slowly to avoid accident on the sections of the path that were slick and glistening from spray. Jen peered at the map when Will took it from his pack, retracing mentally the route they'd taken so as to match it up with the scrawled lines that barely contrasted with meerkesh-hide parchment. After several seconds she figured out their location; almost off the map. It seemed that after - she compared the distance with the way they'd already travelled - after about half a day, they would reach a bridge across this river. Gods knew who would want a bridge there, or if it still stood. But thankfully, even if it didn't, there were points when the river looked calm and deep enough to safely swim. Once they had crossed Niels River, the map ended. It had once been the last in a whole series of maps, following the route elves had taken from the surface, so long ago. But this was the only one her brother had been able to find in the village's small library.

Suddenly, Jen caught sight of movement in the corner of her eye. Shouting to alert Will, she span round in the direction of it. And was shocked to see what seemed to be a short, fat elf, floating rapidly down the river. His clothes were strange and Jen didn't know quite what to make of him, but he was apparently unconscious, and floating around him were wooden fragments she guessed to be the remainder of a boat. Then she saw the stranger twitch slightly in the water. Hesitating only for a fraction of a second, she plunged into the water - reasonably calm at this point - and with a few strokes had reached the unconscious elf, and grabbed hold of him. The river's strong current had pulled them some way downstream and Jen, one hand clutching the short elf's clothing, immediately turned for shore. But the person she'd rescued was much heavier than she had expected, and she found herself having difficulties dragging the two of them to the riverside. Glancing behind her worriedly, she saw the next section of fast, dangerous white water. Where currents could smash a person's face into pulp against harsh grey rock. Redoubling her efforts, she tried to halt their motion, but the current's relentless grip was strong. For just a moment, she considered releasing the heavy weight holding her back, but she immediately discarded the idea. She couldn't do that, he would certainly die. If he wasn't already, she'd seen him splutter water involuntarily a moment ago, he had to be breathing. She looked back again, still working frantically against the current. The white water was frighteningly close now and she could see vicious, pointed rocks in sharp detail, looking much larger and more dangerous from the water than from the riverside path. Now she could feel the river quickening and they were being pulled back ever faster. She prepared herself for a painful, sharp collision and prayed momentum wouldn't carry her through the whole section of river, bouncing painfully and possibly fatally on each rock...

"Rope!" Will cried from the riverbank. He was running towards her along the path, a length of rope uncoiling towards her from his hand. It was going to fall short... not if she could help it, she decided, and kicked her legs in a frantic attempt to slow her progress, expending the last strength in them, then shot out her left hand, arm at full stretch - and grabbed the end of the rope. Clutched it hard, so as not to let it go now, and strengthened her grip on the person she'd rescued, determined it was going to be a rescue, after all that effort. Will couldn't pull the rope in, but he was holding it tight and winding it around a rock, and then the current swung them round towards the shoreline, and it was shallow enough to stand. Which Jen did, thinking her legs would give in, but still straining with Will as he came to help her lift the short, fat elf from the water and to shore.

It was only when they put down the stranger - making sure he coughed out all the water in his lungs - and sat down themselves, Jen dripping wet in icy water that was almost uncomfortably cold, even if you liked being damp, which she didn't - that they noticed some of the person's more unusual features. Quite apart from being much shorter and fatter than any elf Jen had ever seen, his eyes were straight and small, his nose was unusually large, and there seemed to be hair growing on his face. And, most shocking of all, his skin, instead of being pale almost-white, was dark. Not coal-dark, but a kind of reddish-brown dark, as far as the two elves could tell in the dimness of the tiny glowlamp Will had brought along. All in all, the stranger did not seem to be an elf. He certainly wasn't an animal. And the descriptions they'd read of demons did not seem to fit either. It was a puzzle, but maybe one that would be answered when he woke up.

In the event, they never found out in that way. For though they tended the creature's wounds, a nasty gash on the head and some minor cuts and scratches, he never woke up. He died an hour later, some parts of his skin having faded inexplicably to a bluish colour. Feeling guilty, they searched the body but found only a few metal discs, playing pieces for a game perhaps, and a ring on one finger - plain gold, but with writing around the outside in a strange, crude-looking script they could not comprehend. There were loops in the small one's belt where weapons might have been placed but these had apparently fallen out in the rough river ride. No wiser, and a little depressed at the death, though they had never even spoken to the creature, they threw the body - possessions and all - back into the river, for there was nothing else to do with it.

Crossing Niels River

Despondently they continued by the side of the river. After one more particularly long and dangerous-looking period of rapids, the river grew smoother. It also dropped slightly from the level of the path, creating a trench along the tunnel's centre. After a couple more hours' walking, they came almost to the bridge. Almost, because Jen considered it dangerous to approach.

They were entering a large, dome-shaped cavern. The river flowed in through a tunnel in the opposite wall, path continuing that way. Now in a deep trench, the river divided the cavern floor into two, exiting along the tunnel they were hesitating in. The two halves of the cavern were joined by a slender bridge across the river that, by its roughness and narrowness, could possibly have been natural, though that seemed an unlikely coincidence. Across the bridge, a single narrow tunnel led out of the cavern. There were three similar tunnel-mouths on this side of the river as well. But none of this was worrying. Peering upwards, Jen could not see the cavern's roof. But she could hear strange squawking noises from that direction, and the floor was covered in droppings. Some kind of avian lurked above, and though it could be small and harmless, Jen thought differently.

If they're intelligent, she sent - in case `they' were, and could understand speech - they'll ambush us on the bridge. Then we'll be relatively helpless in the water if they knock us off.

We haven't got many options, Will replied, but maybe if we walk up to the bridge like we're not worried, then sprint across it, we'll be safer. It's not far across, and we could make it before `they' get down to our level.

Jen could see the drawback in that plan - the bridge was rough, narrow, and probably slippery, making running across it quite dangerous - but they needed to cross the bridge and she didn't have any better ideas. She followed Will out into the cavern, trying not to glance around nervously. By the time they had made it - uneventfully - to the bridge, her nerves were screaming in terror and she was tense with anticipation of danger.

Suddenly Will broke into a run across the bridge. Instantly she followed him, just a few metres behind. There was a great cawing from far above but she didn't dare look up, concentrating on her footing as they pelted across the bridge. In front of her, Will stumbled, and for a moment she was struck with terror, thinking he'd fall. But he regained his balance without missing a stride, and they were two thirds of the way across now, sounds of beating wings threateningly close, then Will was across and she was only three metres behind - and suddenly keen senses and reflexes acted to force her into a forwards somersault, arms wrapped around her head, and she felt the gust of air behind meaning something had arrived in her previous location, before hitting the ground hard on her arms, rolling up and spinning to catch sight of her attackers. Marking the locations of the large winged creatures - which had ferocious looking sharp claws and curved beaks - and realising there were far too many to fight, so turning to run some more towards Will - part way to the exit now - who'd unshouldered his bow and was snapping off a couple of shots to give her some kind of cover. A downwards blast of air warned her of an aerial attack, and weaving to one side she dodged the deadly streak of the avian's claws, and slashed at its underside with a dagger. Which struck home. The thing cawed in pain and veered off a little, whereupon she turned again to run, making a mistake that would have been fatal had not Will - now holding off three of the things as he neared the exit - screamed at her mentally, so that she dived to the floor, heard claws slice through the air above. Presence of mind sufficient so that she flung a dagger behind her and to the side, injuring another winged monster that had been following in for the kill as she regained her feet and started running again. Now she had a quarter of a second to glance ahead at Will, who was near the exit but having trouble with his attackers. One avian lay dead in front of him but he was dancing from side to side, avoiding attacks from two more. And then one he hadn't seen was falling towards him from above, she was damned if she'd let him be overwhelmed like that, so almost without thinking she threw her remaining dagger in a steep curve, hitting and - by the screech - wounding the target, which was distracted towards her as the dagger fell to the ground near the exit. Distracted to her, her now weaponless, her only hope being to dodge it - and then it came hurtling towards her, vicious beak open wide and claws held out in front to maim, and she froze in terror, literally froze, and Will noticed and screamed - out loud this time - at her, then finishing an opponent quickly, taking a claw wound as he did so, and rushing towards her, but she still could not move, and he could not reach her in time, so she watched with detached interest as it sped towards her - and then missed her completely. In a moment of confusion she realised there'd been something wrong with it, its feathers were charred slightly and it must have been blinded somehow, and then she was recovered and running for the exit, Will ahead of her still, the two of them swerving from side to side to avoid airborne attacks, and then somehow they'd made it to the exit tunnel, and a way down it, and the avians weren't following. And they were safe.

Then the pain hit her, from numerous cuts and slashes gained in the dash for safety. She couldn't help moaning a bit with the agony, and it hurt even more as Will bandaged the injuries. Then she tended his wounds, and as she did so realised that she'd somehow retrieved her dagger, the one that had fallen near the exit, in the rush for safety. Which meant she'd only lost one dagger. And their wounds were bad but not so bad they wouldn't heal in a few days with the proper treatment. Looking at if from a practical viewpoint, the episode had in fact been quite successful. They'd been lucky. Even so, she didn't feel lucky; with minor wounds on every inch of skin, she felt like hell.

A Weird Encounter

Will groaned as he stood up, feeling jolts of pain from a hundred minor wounds. They'd rested for about an hour, by a small stream that crossed the path a few hundred metres from the avians' cave, discussing what they had to do next. The conversation had mostly been speculation, as they knew little of the route ahead. But one decision had been based on concrete facts; they were almost out of food, and here, near the river and the plethora of small streams that would feed it, was a likely area in which to find some of the edible fungi and mosses that provided food.

Conveniently, the first side passage they came to was both parallel to the river and inclined upwards, making it a doubly ideal route. They turned along it: it was an irregular tunnel, with lichen crusting parts of the jagged, damp rock walls. It seemed to keep to a constant gradient, and turns were both rare and slight, meaning their vision reached some way ahead. After another few hours of painful travel, during which they rested frequently, and occasionally investigated a short way along side tunnels, none of which had turned out to lead to food, the lichen on the walls became more frequent and more uniform, which was a good sign. The atmosphere also grew slightly damper. Finally they came upon a side tunnel which, by the smell and the atmosphere, both elves were certain would lead to a fungus grove.

They hurried down the passage, which twisted and turned, vegetation on the walls becoming more vibrant as time went on. If desperate they could probably have eaten some of the mosses growing on the walls, though collecting enough to be worth eating would have been somewhat time-consuming. As they continued, the air got steadily damper and warmer, until it was almost humid, when they turned a corner and found themselves in a medium-sized cavern.

The cavern's ceiling was about three metres above. It covered a roughly circular area, fifteen metres between opposite walls. The room's centrepiece was a bubbling pool of steaming water, around which a profusion of fungi grew, in a thin layer of soil which extended some way towards the edge of the cavern. At a glance, all the fungi looked harmless - harmless in the sense that none seemed to be types that attacked with tentacles or that spewed deadly spores if touched, although some would certainly cause harm if eaten - but by this point Will's attention was no longer on food. He was staring at a figure that bent down, hacking away at a toadstool with a metal knife. This one was definitely not an elf. He carried a lantern - with a flame, not a glowlamp - and in its flickering light Will could see the same red-shaded skin as on the short person they'd tried to rescue earlier. The stranger stood, seeming ridiculously tall. And as he turned, realising finally that he was under observation - no sharp combat reflexes, this one - his face was revealed, with tiny eyes, a nose slightly wider than usual and looking almost animal-like, a prodigious amount of hair hanging below his mouth. With a shock, Will realised that even the thing's ears were the wrong shape, with an ugly rounded tip that wasn't really a tip at all. Then the creature opened his mouth as if to speak, but what came out was nonsense sounds, and ugly, grating ones at that.

"What are you?" Will asked in what he hoped was a calm voice. He wondered if the thing was intelligent after all, but then decided it must be, given the clothes it wore. Flowing purple robes which shimmered slightly, definitely far beyond the constructive powers of even a smart animal.

"I'm human!" the thing responded curtly, "What did you think I was, some kind of demon?"

"Well, it was a possibility," Jen said. "Anyway, do you have a name? I'm Jen and this is Will. My brother."

"Of course I have a name!" the human snapped. He didn't venture it. "What are you two elves doing here? Elf children even, if I'm not mistaken. But of course I don't have time to find out, I must be going." He picked up the toadstool head, which he'd slipped inside a small sack.

"Have you seen the surface?" Will asked, slightly confused by the tall human's speech.

The robed man looked puzzled. "Of course..."

"What's it like?" Will persisted.

The human seemed to lose his patience. "I really have no time for this!" Half turning away as if to leave, though the only exit was in their direction.

"Please tell us!" Jen pleaded.

He looked back at her with a strange expression. "I'll show you." he said perfunctorily. Then waved his hands in a complex gesture, muttering something. Will stared in amazement as a bluish glow formed around Jen's head. The elf girl raised her hand to her face, then sat down hard on the rock floor. Meanwhile the human was gesturing some more. And before Will could say or do anything, the human disappeared. Literally vanished, with a crack of sound and a sudden brief rush of air. Will stood there in shock for a moment, glancing around, but the strange human was nowhere to be seen. Then he remembered his sister and turned to her.

"Jen?" She didn't respond, just sat there, braced against a wall, blue aura still surrounding her head. Even though the man and his lantern had gone, so that Will could see only in the monochrome heat vision, the light remained deeply, impossibly blue. Suddenly worried, Will sat down beside her to check her pulse and breathing - both normal. He tried to wake her but she would not. After a few minutes, he gave up - there seemed nothing he could do except hope it would wear off - and started collecting food, mainly to take his mind off his sister's condition.

After an hour, he had collected all the food they needed, waited around some, and tried to wake Jen a hundred times. He was beginning to despair, or else panic, when the blue aura veiling her face dimmed, flickered, and then vanished completely. The elf girl blinked, shook her head, and stared at Will, who was looking at her in turn, his face a picture of relief.

"What happened, Jen?" Will asked. "Are you all right?" Anxiously searching Jen's face, trying to read her expression.

She nodded. Numbly. "I saw the surface world..." Trailing off weakly as if there was more to say than would fit in words.

"Will you show me?" Will asked, holding out his hands to take hers as she nodded again. But unprepared, breaking contact in shock as he felt the flood of concentrated emotion that made no sense, provoked no pictures in his mind.

"I'm sorry." Jen said. Sounding guilty and disturbed as he was by their inability to join minds. "It's because you don't know, you can't even imagine what it's like. There's no roof, and it's light some of the time and dark the rest, but never really dark like here... there aren't even words to describe it."

She stood up, Will watching her. "Let's go. We must reach the surface."

"Yes," Will agreed. Thankful he at least knew what she meant now, "To save more people from dying, and to ensure there still are elves in a hundred years time, we must reach the surface and then lead our people to it."

Jen was shaking her head violently. "No! Not just because it's safer up there. Because down underground here, we're not whole, we're missing essence, missing part of ourselves."

She finished and lead the way from the cavern. Leaving Will more confused, uncertain, and unsure than ever.


Jen set a fast pace up the narrow passages. If they kept it up, maybe she could actually be at the surface in a few days. Then she could feel the sun and the rain, touch the wonderful trees and plants and grass, dance and sing under the pale, ethereal light of moon and stars. Then she could be whole again. She quickened her walk in anticipation.

"Slow down," Will advised. "We can't keep up this pace for long, it'll be quicker if we hold a steady speed."

Reluctantly she followed his instruction. They travelled on, at reduced speed, for several hours, taking the upwards-sloping route at each of a handful of intersections. Then, they were stepping gingerly up a steep incline, avoiding the treacherous patches of loose rock wherever they could. The climb continued up ahead until ground, rocks, walls, and roof merged into a featureless grey at the limit of their vision, and presumably beyond. It was steep enough that it would be difficult to arrest a fall if one of them slipped.

"Jen, we should go back." Will said, after a minute more. He looked at her anxiously. "This isn't safe, we could die from a fall."

"Safe enough." Jen retorted, feeling irritated at his overcautious attitude. "And we're making good progress upwards at this angle. The last junction was nearly an hour back, I'm not wasting all that time and effort."

Will looked at her oddly, then turned his eyes down to watch his tread as they trudged on.

Half an hour later, Jen was in the lead by several metres. She caught sight of what looked like a levelling off just ahead. A few more steps, and it was clear that the incline was coming to an end.

"We're at the top!" she announced triumphantly. Turning to face her brother.

"Grea-" he started, interrupted by a rattling noise from beneath his feet. Jen stared in horror as the small rocks Will was standing on loosened and skittered down the slope, taking the elf with them as, foothold gone, he fell heavily and began to slide down, gradually increasing speed despite frantically pushing against the fall with his hands - which served only to loosen more stone. Jen watched helplessly as he slid down in ludicrous slow motion, certainly to meet with serious injury or death.

But then, it seemed, the elf had an idea. Nearly at the limit of her vision now, he stopped struggling and instead spread out his arms and legs to get maximum resistance against gravity. Was he slowing down? Jen couldn't see him any more, just hear the worrying rattle of displaced stones.

"Will, are you all right? Have you managed to stop?" she called, a tremor in her voice. Please, gods, let him be safe, she prayed. And waited long seconds, fighting the urge to rush down after him herself, before the answer came, in the form of a groan. Then she began making her way down, slowly and with care, until she could se Will - spread-eagled against the rock, blood dripping from fresh cuts in his face as he risked looking up to her.

"Hold still!" Jen told him quickly, praying again, that he wouldn't do anything stupid. Rummaging in her pack for the rope, which they should have used in the first place - or given up trying to climb the slope, she remembered guiltily - and tying one end in a loop about her waist. She couldn't risk going close to Will, disturbing the loose ground and maybe his delicate hold, but instead found the closest secure footing she could, still nearly as far from him as the rope would extend.

"Get ready to grab on." she said, trying to sound calm, not tell him he likely had only one chance. And throwing the rope, watching as it uncoiled towards him like some water creature's tentacle. He watched it approach, judging, then lunged for it, the ground he was resting on immediately becoming insecure and him sliding backwards perceptibly as - thank the gods! -his hands clutched tight on the rope's end, jerking it taut. And then she had to worry about her own footing as she held the rope steady, braced by heels dug in to the loose surface, leaning back against the weight. But Will pulled himself to his feet, and onto a safer area of ground, finally not needing the rope's support. He tied it around his own waist and the two of them began upwards again, stepping even more carefully than before, finally reaching the top without incident, where they sat to rest awhile.

She washed the cuts and grazes on his face with water from their bottle, then they waited in silence for their hearts to slow to normal. Her feeling happier now that they were safe, feeling they'd made good progress upwards, guilt for the accident pushed to the back of her mind.

Recovered, they got up. The passage here at the top of the steep climb was inclined only slightly upwards. The floor was rough and rocky, necessitating careful steps so as to avoid spraining an ankle. Ahead, the rugged corridor bent rightwards, and Jen - in the lead again - quickened her steps slightly to see what was around the corner.

* * *

Will heard a scream followed by a roar of frustration - both of them from his sister. Trusting his luck to protect him from the dangers of the rough terrain - after the near-fall, he deserved a break - he sprinted to the corner. To see, first, that the tunnel was completely blocked by a cave-in. There were no ways on past the pile of broken rock that extended above where the ceiling had been, and up to the walls on either side. He almost sagged in despair. But then he saw his sister. Pulling with both hands at a rock from the cave in, managing to loosen it and jerk it from the pile - causing a clatter of rock falling to take its place, as an ominous rumbling issued from the still-holding roof above their heads. For a second Will stood, holding his breath - and then he saw Jen, pulling at another rock!

"Stop it!" he screamed, running towards her and, when she ignored him, grabbing her arms to prevent her from continuing. Amazingly, the elf girl struggled against him. "You'll have the roof down!" Will said angrily, finding some extra strength and yanking her round to face him. Her eyes stared back, not even tracking his movements. Will paused for a moment, not knowing what to do.

Then there was a fresh rumbling from the roof. A chip of stone dropped from above. "Gods!" Will swore. Then grabbed his sister's hand - she'd stopped struggling - and started to run back the way they'd come, as more loose brittle stone dropped from the ceiling, Thankfully, Jen ran as well, he didn't have to drag her. And so they made it to the corner as a thundering sound of collapsing rock issued from the dead end, growing in volume from tons of falling stone. But they weren't safe, Will knew, as a small rock rolled towards them. The masses of rocks could roll downwards, reach the treacherous climb, and cause a kind of avalanche. So the young elves continued running until they reached the lip of the incline. Will glanced at Jen - still not all there, it seemed - and then back at the tunnel behind. And gasped; at one point, the roof was actually bulging down, splitting gradually under the stress - they could wait no longer. Still holding his sister's hand, he turned and they began to run down the steep incline, Will's heart pounding in terror as well as exertion as he fought to keep moving and keep his balance though the floor shifted below his feet as if it were alive. Somehow, Jen seemed able to cope even in her peculiar state, and the two careered crazily downwards at what seemed a tremendous speed. Time stretched so much that Will felt as if he was dreaming, continuously leaping from one foot to the other in repetitive, bouncy slow motion for ever and ever. There was no way to stop, slow, look back, or even speed up - the only possible option was to keep running.

Several eternities later, Will was shocked from the adrenaline-charged trance by the climb's end. Finally, his feet touched solid ground. He was still clutching his sister's limp hand, and at that point felt it yanked as she collapsed to the floor. Swearing ferociously he scooped her up and over his shoulder - no mean feat in his exhausted state, as they were about the same weight - and staggered on, to be a safe distance from any rocks falling down the incline. Collapsing finally to the ground a hundred metres further on, trying to hear sounds of falling stone above his heartbeat.

* * *

When, having rested until his pulse was back to normal, Will headed back to the base of the incline, he was glad they'd run for it. Chunks of broken rock of various sizes seemed to have filled the whole slope - well, the section Will could see - to a depth of about two feet, and stone had spilled out in an uneven slope to the climb's new height, starting about twenty metres before the incline's bottom. It would be far too dangerous to climb up it now - which reminded him. He went back to check on his sister, but found her still in the same unconscious state as when he'd left.

Suddenly, he realised how tired he was. He spread out his bedroll on the tunnel floor, then did the same for Jen, lifting her onto it to sleep - or whatever - more comfortably, before collapsing down himself. Just before he drifted from consciousness, he had a fuzzy idea to comfort his sister, or maybe himself. He reached out a hand to one side and took one of hers in it, immediately disappointed that he felt nothing from the shared touch. Still, just the feel of warmth - of life - was a comfort, so he didn't let go as he fell headlong into the world of dreams.

Later he awoke, still feeling tired. He strained his ears to find why, but for several seconds could hear nothing other than a drip close by and the low rush of water, a long way off. Then he heard it again; a quiet sob. Looking to his sister, he saw a tear running down her cheek. And - his spirits jumped - there was expression in her eyes, she was recovered!

"Jen?" he queried.

"Will? I'm sorry..." She sounded guilty, maybe over causing the dangerous rockfall.

"Don't worry," Will said, reassuring, "We're all right - " And then he stopped, for her eyes had gone blank and lifeless once more. Frustrated, he checked her heartbeat and breathing, both fine, and then could do nothing but drop back to sleep.

A Conclusion (of sorts)

When he woke up, Will felt refreshed but very hungry. He ate some of their food and drank a little water. Then it occurred to him that Jen might need sustenance as well. He tried to wake her but only succeeded in getting blank, expressionless eyes to open. So he tried to feed her himself, but she would not swallow. She spat out any food as soon as he let her open her mouth, and would not take water either. Will had to give up, though perhaps he would try again if her need got more desperate.

She seemed physically healthy, and there was nothing to keep them here, so Will pulled her up to a standing position, which she assumed readily enough, and strapped on her pack. His own equipment was ready for travelling and so they set off, male elf leading female as they retraced their steps of yesterday, an infinity ago, so long that Will was worried he'd forget the way they had travelled. But he did not, and they passed a few junctions, taking the correct urns. Will was heading for the fungus grove, where they'd met the old man who'd caused this trouble. Because it was peaceful and soothing in its soft coloured vegetation, as opposed to hard grey rock. And for some other reason Will couldn't put his finger on for a long time, until several hours later when they had almost reached their destination he realised he was hoping it would feel to her more like the surface world. Irrational, Will thought, as it was images of the surface that'd caused this problem in the first place. But he continued anyway. He had been holding Jen's hand throughout the journey for the practical purpose of leading her, and a few times he had thought he'd felt something. Each time, though, he'd turned hopefully to her face, to be reproached by blank eyes whose only purpose seemed to be to guide her reflexes. Left wondering if he'd imagined the mental touch, wondering - in his blackest moments - if there was any mind left in his sister's body.

They reached the fungus grove, which was warm and comforting. Will washed himself in the hot-water pool in the cavern's centre, then - on a whim - pulled the tiny glowlamp from his pack and thought it alight, placing it near Jen so she could see the beautiful colours illuminated by its dim radiance. And then he sat by her again, holding her hand once more in the hope of comforting her, if there was a `her' to comfort. Stayed that way, thinking, until he felt tired again and ready for sleep, but then suddenly had the answer. He remembered it now from one of the old books. The line was simple but at the time he hadn't really understood it: "And there were many who pined away, died, through not being able to stand the prolonged bleak, barren darkness of the tunnels we were travelling." It still didn't make sense to him - the average tunnel wasn't especially bleak, barren, or dark, it just was. The way tunnels always had been. But with something to compare them against, like a real-seeming vision of the surface world... Maybe that made it seem life wasn't worth living. Or maybe it went deeper than that, something in the elven mind that grabbed hold of the surface's abundant beauty and refused to let go. Well, he knew or at least guessed a little of the reasons for his sister's predicament. Feeling a little more in control of the situation, Will settled down to sleep.

The next day, Will did nothing. He ate, drank, tried to feed Jen again but failed, and otherwise sat next to his sister, holding her hand and staring at the varied colours of the fungus, thinking of nothing, almost in a trance state, until it was time to sleep. The day after that was the same, and on the next day Will was getting seriously worried about water. They had plenty, thanks to the spring in the cavern's centre, but Jen wouldn't drink it. In desperation he spent the morning with both hands linked to hers, thinking entreaties at her - to recover, to respond, just to swallow some water. Until finally he thought he felt a weak response, was almost immediately convinced it was his imagination, but poured a little water into her mouth anyway - and she swallowed it. Thanking the gods, he stayed with her that way for the rest of the day and most of the sleeptime as well, begging her to come back, to recover, but finally had to give up and let exhaustion claim him.

Will woke up, brain fuzzy and aching from yesterday's attempts at communication. So that he didn't notice her voice the first time and she had to repeat.


"Jen! You're back to normal." Hesitantly, questioning.

"No. Not back to normal. But this time, I'll stay."

He saw her face, haggard and pale, but preferable to the serene mask of the past few days. She was eating something, so he got up and joined her where she stood, staring at the cavern's sparse beauty in the steady illuminance of the glowlamp.

"The surface world - is it really worth all this to get there?" Will asked. Meaning the dangers both behind and ahead as well as the ordeal of the last few days.

"Oh, yes." Jen said, quietly, with a sad smile. Feeling anew the joy of the surface beauty and the pain of its distance.


Original '95 note

Hope you enjoyed the story. When editing it just now, I felt again the emotions I'd intended to record, and I hope you did as well. Whatever your opinion of the story, please email me, let me know.

Thanks for reading. Hope to hear from you soon. Peace,


'97 note

There are a lot of things wrong with this story. I like to think my writing is better now than it was back then (despite the fact that I haven't exercised it that much since). My contribution to the "Soaring Heart and Soul" anthology is a tighter (and shorter) short story, and it even has an ending... on the other hand, I'm working on [about half way through, in first draft, though some has also been re-edited a bit] a novel which probably isn't going to have a "proper" ending that many people would like ;)

In any case, this story is some years old. But I hope you enjoyed it regardless.

Be well.


'99 note

Not much to add except that the anthology mentioned is unpublished (still), and the novel was mostly abandoned. But since then I've written a bunch of short stories, so...


Back to index