And the Portal to the Unknown
The ancient chamber was thick with choking dust. Tiny motes exploded into showering displays of bright light as they danced in the shafts beaming down through the crumbling ceiling above. Dense vines covered the walls seeking purchase on any available surface. They had wormed their way into crevices in the stonework, toppling columns and leaving the floor strewn with debris. Although late afternoon sun was able to fight its way through the vines and rubble to reach the room, its corners were still dark. The black mouths of two passages leading deeper into the structure stood at opposite ends; and although nothing stirred in this gallery, a strange, far-off rustling sound came from somewhere deep within the building where sunlight had not touched in generations.
The tranquility of this untouched site was suddenly broken by the clatter of metal on stone. Gravel rained from the roof, setting the dust motes off anew into a swirling dance through the chamber. All the while, excited shouts could be heard, muffled by the thickness of the rock. After several minutes the voices fell silent as a large chuck of ceiling gave way and crashed to the floor.
A head poked through the hole, and from this upside-down position, quickly surveyed the room. A mop of wild brown hair hung down forming a mane around a small, gnomish face. “We’re in,” the gnome exclaimed happily.
The head popped back up through the hole. Immediately, orders and commands could be heard shouted back and forth. A few minutes later, a rope dropped down into the chamber. The gnome from before quickly followed, lowering himself in a leather harness with an intricate series of pulleys attached.
About halfway down another gnome stuck his head through the hole and called, “Digby! Do we need to do this right now? The light is failing, and we’ve been going at it nearly twenty-four hours straight. Can’t this wait ‘til morning?”
Digby paused, locking a clamp to hold his position. He looked back up, saying, “Wrenn, really!? We’re already here. We’ve been searching for the horn for days. We’re so close, it will only take a minute. We can be halfway back to Kapsian before nightfall. We’ll be able to deliver the artifact to Grandfather at the museum before this time tomorrow.”
Wrenn pursed his lips and rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he said after a moment’s thought, “But let’s be quick. We’re all exhausted.” With that, Digby continued down.
The logical part of Digby’s mind agreed with his cousin; he was running on pure adrenaline. But he couldn’t wait another night knowing that after all his searching of Yatellnor, the Horn of Craeborg might be right beneath his feet. He had to attempt to locate it. Of course, he had used up most of Grandmother’s incantations and auguries over the course of the day, he was pretty much down to his research and wits at this point.
As Digby’s feet settled on the chamber floor, he heard a creaking sound and felt a little give. “Be careful,” he yelled to his cousin and a few others coming down,” the floor is made of timber, there could be some rot. There must be more levels below this chamber.”
He unhooked from his line and began to carefully move across the floor. He spotted a dark alcove, and Digby made his way there. Wrenn and the rest were down now. They, too, began to fan out to look for the horn.
As Digby entered the side room he flicked on his fire-starter to get a better look around. He knelt down and removed his backpack, intending to pull out a torch, when a twinkle in the corner of the room caught his eye. His small flame held high overhead, Digby walked across the room slowly, trying to make out what was there. As he neared, he realized it was a pile of rotten wood, probably at one time a table or perhaps an altar of some sort; and in the rubble sat a small, jeweled horn. The Horn of Craeborg. They found it!
Quickly closing the space, Digby stopped himself and took a deep breath before slowly plucking the horn from the debris to inspect it. As he turned it in his hand, he marveled at the jewels encrusted in the rim of the horn. Then he looked up, noticing the symbol on the wall above where the horn had sat. Just then, he heard some commotion from back in the main gallery.
“They must have found more artifacts,” Digby thought absently as he studied the symbol carved into the wall. It was two interlocking rings, with a wreath of clouds encircling them. Something tugged at Digby’s mind. He knew he’d seen this symbol before, but just couldn’t place it. “I’ll have to check my notes once we get out of here,” he thought to himself.
He knelt again to lay the horn safely in his backpack, placing his fire-starter on the ground to give him some light to work by. He quickly withdrew a notebook, which he always kept attached to his vest by a chain, and sketched the cloud symbol as a reminder to determine its origin.
This whole time, Digby realized, the noise in the other room had been increasing. “I told them to be careful,” he thought as he stood and swung his backpack into place, “Wrenn is going to be so happy we found the horn.” As he stepped back into the main chamber, his triumphant announcement died on his lips.
The scene in front of Digby was surreal, and it took several moments for his exhausted mind to process what was happening. Nearest him, he could see a man on top of Zanna, holding her down. But this man was covered in heavy vines that seemed to wrap themselves around Digby’s friend as she struggled against them. Across the room, two other men, thin and pale, dressed in rags lumbered toward Gil as he cowered on the floor, dagger held out in front of him; he had a look of sheer terror on his face. Erky was halfway up the rope back to the hole in the ceiling, and Wrenn was hoisting Orla up so she could start her assent, too. Wrenn’s face was tight with worry as his head swiveled around and he locked eyes with Digby.
“Digby! Monsters!” Wrenn shouted.
Zanna let out a strangled cry, cut short by the sickening sound of snapping bone. This brought Digby out of his reverie. He raised his hand instinctively, recalling the mystical word Grandmother taught him years go and spoke it, “brann.” A ball of flame engulfed Digby’s hand. He took aim and hurled it at the creature covered in vines. The fire landed squarely on its back. It let out an inhuman wail as it leapt back and began to roll around on the floor trying to put the flame out.
Digby looked to Zanna. Her wide, unmoving eyes told him all he needed to know. He looked back across the room and saw one of the pale creatures had descended upon Gil, a thick gurgling sound coming from them that made Digby want to retch. The other creature had noticed Wrenn, who had been holding the rope to help Orla, and it began to shamble towards him. Luckily, Erky had reached the top and was hauling on the rope now, speeding Orla’s climb.
Just then two more creatures covered in vines burst into the room from the passage closest to Wrenn. He looked back and forth from creature to creature, before looking back at Digby. He did not look afraid, though; he looked sad, almost disappointed. As if to say, “We almost made it, Dig; almost made it home.”
That made Digby furious. Hot, angry tears welled up in his eyes. They had come so close, he could not let it end like this. He would not lose his cousin this way. He shook his head violently, crying out, “NO!” and gestured toward the pale creature approaching his cousin.
Digby wound up and shot his palm forward, as if trying to push something away from him. At the same moment he shouted the word, “pil,” and three blue shards of magical energy formed above his shoulder. Instantly, the shards streaked across the room, slamming themselves into the creature: ‘THUNK, THUNK, THUNK’. The force of the concussion sent the creature flying through the air before it came to rest in a heap on the floor.
Wrenn and Digby locked eyes again. In that moment, Digby noticed Wrenn’s foot was entangled in the harness Digby used to lower himself into the room. A quick glace past Wrenn told Digby the vine creatures would be upon his cousin in a moment. Without another thought Digby pointed to the harness and flicked his finger. He spoke the word, “makt,” and a ghostly hand appeared near Wrenn’s foot. The hand mimicked Digby’s own gesture and the clasp that held the pulley system in check released. The pulleys controlled a system of rollers that would race up the line. It was designed to help the wearer make a quick exit, if ever needed; and right now, it was needed. The harness shot up the rope with a ‘ZZZZIP’, taking Wrenn by the foot and depositing him within Erky’s grasp in less than a second.
Digby smiled and blew out a relieved sigh. He had barely a second to enjoy his victory before realizing what he had actually done. The two creatures across the room were now barreling down upon him. He turned to run, but it was too late. He was leapt upon by the third vine creature, still smoldering from Digby’s fire spell. The two skidded across the floor, their weight causing the timbers beneath Digby to creak in protest. As Digby tried to wiggle free, he realized these creatures were not actually covered in vines, but had tentacles growing from their sides. The slimy, slithery appendages pulled at Digby as he tried to get away.
As the scuffle continued Digby could hear his cousin calling out to him. Then he heard Wrenn screaming for a crossbow. Digby continued to struggle but could feel the other two creatures drawing near. The tentacled fiend atop Digby suddenly went rigid and fell to Digby’s side, a bolt protruding from its back. He was able to catch a glimpse of Wrenn hanging from the harness handing the crossbow back through the hole, yelling for another.
The floor beneath Digby shrieked as the weight upon it became unbearable. The other two tentacle creatures were the final straw. As they pounced on Digby the floor collapsed and all four bodies tumbled into the darkness below. The last thing Digby remembered before hitting his head and losing consciousness was the sound of Wrenn screaming out his name.
Digby’s mind floated in semi-consciousness. He was aware of locating the ancient chamber, of finding the horn, of the creatures attacking. But he was unconcerned. Instead his mind was going back to his time in Kapsian, growing up with his parents and sisters. He thought of his grandmother, and her teachings about magic that had helped Digby so much these last few years. He thought of him and Wrenn scrounging ancient metal and other bits to build their childhood toys. He thought of his grandfather and the museum, and how proud he was of it. He though of the library where he spent his youth reading and learning; and that thought caused the nagging at the back of his mind to return. The library. The symbol on the wall. A book. A book about ancient religions. Two intertwined rings encircles by clouds. A name. Storm and sky. Illemketh. That’s it! The name of a god.
Now Digby’s mind raced forward. Through his continued training and research. Of his travels with his cousin, and their merry band of explorers and archeologists. Of the trinkets and artifacts they’d returned to their grandfather’s museum over the years. Now all he could hear was Wrenn calling his name, over and over again. Dig, Digby, Digby, DIGBY!
Digby sat bolt upright and sucked in a huge gulp of air as consciousness flooded back into him. It was dark and quiet. One of the tentacle creatures lay next to him, dead. It was the one he had burned, by the smell of it. Digby looked up and saw another creature impaled on some metal rods jutting out of the side of the ceiling above. Digby could make out at least three levels between his current position and the gallery floor where this nightmare began. The floors of each descending level had crumbled and fallen away over the years, leaving a ragged shaft straight down.
Digby found himself in a hallway, running roughly north and south by his estimation. He picked himself up and was surprised to discover, except for a few bruises and scratches, he was relatively unharmed. He was congratulating his own luck when Digby thought he heard something down in the darkness of the northern passage. He froze, straining to listen. He turned his attention to that northern hallway, but was unable to see anything. He was about to relax when he heard it again, a shuffling sound, and then he saw them. More of the pale creatures they had encountered above. They were slow moving and still a good 50 feet away, but Digby turned and ran anyway. He headed south as fast as his legs would carry him.
The hallway continued on for several minutes. The few doorways along the passage were all locked. Digby didn’t even bother to try and force them open. Eventually, the corridor ended at a circular room. Thankfully there was a door. Digby slammed it closed and jammed a piece of wood laying nearby against the handle to barricade the door. He needed some time to think.
He looked around. The room was dark and bare. There didn’t appear to be any other way out, either. The floor was littered with dry, dead vines. On the wall across from the door was a mirror. Since it was the only thing of note in the room, Digby quickly crossed to examine it. It was strange; the glass of the mirror was dark, and the frame had unusual runes etched into it. Digby was sure he had read something about this in the past. He ran his hand through his thick hair as he desperately tried to remember.
Digby’s eyes went wide with recollection and he snapped his fingers. He reached into his pouch and produced a tiny replica of a chest. He concentrated on the toy, spoke the word, “kiste,” and suddenly a full-sized chest appeared in front of him. He returned the replica to his pouch and opened the chest. It contained a multitude of things: weapons, extra supplies, scrap metal, mining equipment, tools and kits, books and papers.
Digby pushed aside some books to get at the bottom of the stack, where he found what he was looking for. It was a transcription of testimony given in an ancient tribunal. He and Wrenn came across it weeks before when they raided some prehistoric structure. It had been an administration building of some type. This particular report had caught his eye. It detailed the trial of a heretic who had been accused of some evil act. But that wasn’t the interesting part; in fact, Wrenn had said the charges seemed mostly trumped up to him. But there was one part Digby wanted to reread.
During the course of the trial, the heretic spoke of a mirror; a black one with runes around the edges. He told how when the runes were read aloud the mirror became a doorway, and a person was able to step through to another place. “An escape route,” Digby said aloud to no one.
There was a heavy thud on the door and Digby jumped. He could hear the creatures outside the door now, moaning. “Out of time,” Digby thought. He quickly replaced the parchment in the chest and closed it. He concentrated for another moment and the chest disappeared, returned to its hiding place.
Digby turned his attention back to the mirror. The pounding on the door increased. He quickly ran his fingers over the runes, making sure he was able to decipher them. He knew the door behind him wouldn’t hold much longer. He spoke the words and the blackness of the mirror began to swirl with a glowing purple.
Digby looked over his shoulder as the creatures burst into the room. He took one last deep breath, then leapt into the swirling blackness.
There was a moment of disorientation before Digby regained his senses. He looked around and found himself in a new chamber, much different than the one he had just left a moment ago. This one was constructed of metal, with unusual pipes and fittings running through it. There was a black mirror on the wall here, much like in the room he had just left.
But everything else seemed strange here, unfamiliar. Digby was still recovering from his disorientation when two small men with crazy hair and white skin ran into the room and yelled at Digby in a language he did not understand.
Normally, he would have attempted to communicate with them, but Digby was out of spells and he was out of patience. He bared his teeth, letting out a bloodcurdling scream. This stopped the two dead in their tracks. Digby ran straight at them, causing them to take a step back, their eyes wide in surprise. Caught off guard by Digby’s ferocity, the two recoiled in fear; and at the last moment Digby sidestepped, sprinting past them before they had a chance to react.
He ran along metal passageways, taking several quick turns before coming upon an open door. He ducked through and the door slide shut behind him. Digby cowered in a dark corner trying to catch his breadth and regain his bearings. He thought to himself, “I’ll just wait here a few minutes before I try to make my escape.”
He kept telling himself that, but as his adrenaline ebbed and exhaustion overtook him, Digby found it harder and harder to stand back up. His last thought before slipping into unconsciousness was, “Just a few minutes more, then I’ll have to find that portal back to Wrenn.”