Caron braced herself against the uneven rock, staring down at an impossible sight.
She didn't know what she'd expected to find down here—some rat-infested lair, a warren of caves with dripping stalactites, lichen smeared walls, maybe a subterranean river winding through the cavernous space, but not this. Not what looked like the foundations of... of what? She stared down at what looked like some monstrous outpost and for the first time since stepping into the darkness was truly terrified.
Spires of stone rose toward what should have been the sky, the twisted columns supporting the overbearing weight of the cavern's roof. Lights burned in a few windows, like tears on the face of the rock walls where the oil burners lit the workplace. She watched as dozens of shadows swarmed over the scaffolds like ants. She knew where the children had gone; they hadn't been slaughtered for food, but were being used as slave labor down here, worked until they dropped, useless. Only then would they become meat for the shadow men.
It was all of her worst nightmares brought to horrific life.
The pit opened up as it descended, its circumference growing wider and wider as the shaft plunged all the way down into the depths. It was cold, too, colder than she'd ever imagined possible with no wind.
The air was dead in her lungs.
She was still above the outpost, looking down on the slack-skinned slaves as they worked mindlessly carving the stones, lifting, carrying until their knees buckled and the inevitable moment when the shadow men fell upon them. Somewhere among them was Caleb. She prayed that he was, like she'd never prayed for anything before in her life. The fact that they needed the slaves meant she had a chance of fulfilling her promise to her husband.
She crept closer, working her way down.
More than once she had the unshakeable feeling she was being watched.
From one of these openings she caught sight of something glinting; something that could have been a pair of eyes.
The opening was barely wide enough for her to climb inside—not that she wanted to.
She tried not to think about it.
The noises from below grew louder the further she descended, the sound of metal against stone echoing up around her toward the surface. It wasn't fighting she'd heard; it was the sound of industry.
Now she was sure something was watching her as she descended.
Whatever it was, it had to be smaller than the shadow men, but that didn't mean it was any less dangerous.
Caron pressed herself tight against the rock, feeling sharp edges dig into her back, and waited for a moment, no more than an arm's length from the opening.
Another flurry of dust and grit slid from the edge.
She moved quickly, trusting that she wouldn't lose her footing on the wooden slats, and reached into the tunnel with one hand.
Her fingers closed on leathery flesh, her grip causing whatever it was to squeal in surprise.
She clutched the thing tightly and hauled it from the safety of the tunnel, wary of snapping teeth or snatching claws. Looking at the creature's miserable hide, she found it difficult to imagine it posed any kind of threat. It stood less than half of her height, its body a pale leathery gray that had never seen the sunlight. The creature's hands—grubby black hands with clawed fingers—looked good for clawing through the earth. Its eyes blinked hard at her in the feeble light, unused to even this pale brightness. It wasn't a creature at all, she realized. It was a boy, but he'd been down here so long he'd lost almost all semblance of humanity.
"Please," it wheedled in a high-pitched voice loaded with fear.
She pulled it so close she barely needed to whisper: "Did they bring a boy this way?"
"The urdefhans?" he said, stretching out the word. So that's what they were.
The youth nodded rapidly. "I saw them, I saw them."
"Did they have a boy with them?"
"Yes. Yes. Down and down. They took him. Working now. Digging. Digging. Always digging. That's what they do with them. Work, work, until they can't work no more. Then they eat them."
"Show me," she said.
Keeping a tight grip on his hand, she followed the ragged boy down deeper into the pit, struggling to keep an eye on both him and the outpost for signs of danger. She had the urdefhan's two-bladed sword, and was ready to use it if the pathetic thing turned on her. She certainly wasn't about to trust him. Caron had no intention of dying down here. She was going to get Caleb back to his father.
They reached another landing, still high above the outpost, yet to descend below the stone sky. Caron knew she couldn't hope to hold the boy captive all the way down. The climb was impossible. "Don't make a sound," she said.
He nodded eagerly, glancing at the sword in her hand. There was fear etched on his gaunt features, but whether it was of her, the sword, or the urdefhans, she had no way of knowing. All she could hope was that the blade wouldn't be put to the test.
The lights were closer now. This was clearly the last landing before the stairway reached the ground below. From here she could see the shadow men and the slaves moving like a wave of blackness between the lights.
"Stay close." The boy pointed down with a clawlike hand. "This way the urdefhans can't pass. Come with me. Yes. I will take you through an old tunnel. I know the old places. I will take you close to the children. But then"—he shrugged—"I leave you. Where you go is up to you, but I won't walk into that place. I like living."
Caron had to trust him, like it or not, she wasn't getting close to the outpost undetected without him. And if he turned her over to the shadow men, then that was a risk she was just going to have to take. Without his help she had no hope of finding Caleb. It was as simple as that. She'd raised the boy for most of his life, but for the first time she saw him not just as another woman's son, but as her boy.
The bottom of the stairway lay shrouded in shadow.
She could hear the urdefhans moving even above the constant hammering and crashing of metal on stone, barking out orders in their vile tongue, but she couldn't see anyone keeping watch for intruders. Why would they? This was their domain, even if it was only some distant outpost on the far edge of their territory. No one in their right mind would dare enter their nest willingly, especially not the beaten down peasants from the villages along the mountain range. Those souls were broken.
"Here, come, come," he said, keeping her pressed against the wall.
She glanced back upward. The top of the vertical shaft was so far away that it seemed little more than a pinprick in the blackness.
Her fingers ached from the effort of maintaining a grip tight enough to remind the ragged boy he was her captive.
He led the way through narrow gaps in the rock, forcing her to turn side-on and scrape through, knowing he could just as easily be leading her into a trap. She thought of Caleb. That was all she needed to motivate her.
"How much farther?" she whispered.
"Soon there," the boy said. "Just a little further. Come, come."
He motioned below to a narrow opening in the rock. It was barely the size of the tunnel shafts that had lined the walls during their descent. She had no choice but to release the wretched lad and let him crawl ahead of her.
He was fast, much faster than she could possibly be.
She followed him into the rat hole.
The rock closed in on her as she shuffled inch by inch in the dark. Soon she was in total blackness, the tunnel turning and twisting, following the line of least resistance through the rock where the fissure had split it. The boy was out of reach. She was alone in this claustrophobic space. She sent a silent prayer to Erastil and gritted her teeth as she crawled on. In what seemed an almost immediate answer, she caught a glimpse of firelight casting a weak glow into the end of the passageway ahead of her.
The boy was still there, waiting for her.
"Quickly, quickly, quickly," he urged, pushing his head back into the opening. It blocked out the light. She scraped her back against the rock above her, struggling to squeeze through the narrowest of the tunnel with the two-bladed sword in hand. She moved on her hands and knees, eyes forward, focusing on the chinks of light that promised an end to this hell until she was out, the ground in front of her bathed in firelight.
The boy's high-pitched laughter filled the air.
Caron scrambled out of the tunnel, desperately trying to silence him, but she couldn't get close enough.
He clapped his clawed hands together delightedly, squealing at the top of his shrill voice. The sounds echoed around the cavernous space.
"Should have killed me dead, shouldn't you? Too late now. Should have used that big sword. Bye-bye, dead woman. Bye-bye."
Caron realized too late that there was another, markedly smaller fissure in the rock behind the boy, too small for her to be able to follow him as he disappeared out of sight, leaving her alone in this hellish place.
She rushed to the opening, and fell to her knees, vainly reaching inside for the boy that wasn't there.
Hands closed on her shoulders, grabbed at her hair and dragged her to her feet.
How could she have been so stupid? How could she have allowed herself to fall into the hands of the urdefhans so easily?
Because she'd wanted to trust the boy. She'd wanted to believe in the essential goodness of humanity. She hadn't wanted to believe that all this time in the darkness could have made him less than human.
She was turned to face her captors, their internal organs bright in the firelight, their fetid breath causing her to gag. Behind her, off down the fissure, she could hear the echo of the tunnel rat's mocking laughter.
Coming Next Week: A flame in the darkness in the conclusion of Steven Savile's "Queen Sacrifice."
Steven Savile is the internationally best-selling author of almost twenty novels and many more short stories, set in both original worlds and those of Primeval, Stargate SG-1, Warhammer, Torchwood, Dr. Who, and more. He won Writers of the Future in 2002, has been a runner-up for the British Fantasy Award and shortlisted for the Scribe Award for Best Adapted Novel, and won the Scribe Award for Best Young Adult Original Novel. For more information, visit his website at stevensavile.com.
Illustration by Dion Harris.