Is this where the PFY first meets the BOFH?
Darkness so thick and black that it seemed to be breathed into our lungs like a viscous liquid. So complete that the optic nerve sent flashes of colour to the brain, just so it would know it was still connected.
The Kobolds led us. True residents of Earth's depths, they sensed the rocks without seeing them, unlike the mining dwarves with their coldfire lamps. Indeed, the light would have confused our guides, preventing them from finding the precise spot where we had to be.
Behind us trailed our personal Ariadne's thread - a fibre-optic filament unrolling from a reel next to our relay on the surface. In time, light would traverse the darkness without disturbing it, carrying our words; for now it carried darkness and silence. The floor under our feet was irregular, but all the loose bits of debris had been swept to the sides in anticipation of our visit. The little hand trembling in mine belonged to Annalise, our token 'maiden', the eight-year old daughter of our German host and who was possibly now regretting her insistence on coming with us, but was too proud to back out.
I was happy she was there; dragons might remember the time of the sacrifices, and, while most races had dabbled in necromancy from time to time, no-one had attempted a summoning such as this for many generations.
'Such as this' - This summoning would be unique in history, if it worked.
The cessation of the shuffling footsteps and a gentle pressure against my knees told me we had arrived. Packs were opened, artefacts distributed and the laptop unlimbered. The screen lit blindingly bright, revealing that whatever this mine had once produced was long since exhausted. If we were depending on those pit-props, halfway to fossilisation or pulverisation, to hold the roof up, we would be wise not to sneeze. There was no doubt that the 'Danger - No admittance' signs at the entry had not been exaggerating.
The blue light reflected back from a collection of faces, their expressions different from race to race, but all containing the same mix of anticipation and muted terror.
The computer was informing us that it was booted up, in contact with the outside world, and that it was ready and eager to get to work. Poor imagination-free, stupid machine, that had never read the descriptions of what could happen to magic channels. The requisite runes, symbols and incantations had been programmed into it. The buzzing in our nerve ends told us that this was indeed a correct use of 'Power point' - and then there was no excuse left to delay.
Symbols flashed on the screen, as we sat in as near a circle as we could manage in the cramped space. The artefacts - some borrowed from museums or private collections for the ceremony, some made specially by techniques handed down through the generations in some very long-lived cultures, had been placed on a velvet cloth between us on the ground.
Melodies which had seemed banal when originally programmed resonated weirdly in these tunnels, the light from the shifting patterns on the screen animating the rocks and props around us in an arrhythmic dance, sometimes bringing the walls rushing in towards us, sometimes casting us into an enormous, intangible space, bordered all around with the compressing darkness.
Voices differing in timbre but alike in intent delivered responses to barely understood questions. The suffocating pressure of the dark was transmuted by the gathering power, and we were breathing crystallised fire, exhilarating and terrifying.
Needing both hands for the keyboard I could feel a warmth of little girl pressed up against my side. Why me, rather than her father, whose strong Saxon voice was mumbling its way through the responses a bit further round the circle? Perhaps because I seemed to know what I was doing?
Suddenly the 'activity' bar on the screen swung from almost zero towards full. If the roar we all felt had been transmitted through the air I am convinced the roof would have collapsed, burying us all instantly and terminating the experiment, but the only acoustic noise (still clearly audible despite the enormous mental shout) was the whirring grind of the laptop's hard drive racing.
The verbal responses from the assembled beings were replaced by what I assume were prayers to their assorted deities. Annalise's father, Kurt, was surrendering his many years of paganism and regressing to his childhood Catholicism, various gods of springs and hedgerows whose presence here would have been entirely inappropriate were being invoked; and the computer made known its devotion to Murphy by, for once, not crashing (anything that can go wrong...)
The 'available space' indicator was emptying like a ruptured water tank, and it was obvious that there was no way in which whatever was happening was going to fit on the hard disc. Still, there was a back door to this prison; and suddenly it was operating. Up the optical link poured something - a ghost, a dream, a spirit? It didn't matter. And the spiritual roar grew more distant as the disc wound down to stillness.
One of the candles flared like an acetylene torch and burnt out in seconds; the others went on quite normally, except for a violet tinge in their flames. A single quartz crystal, surrounded by more fragile objects, fragmented into talcum-fine dust. All this in total silence, with the fan of the laptop and breathing of the observers dying before they reached the walls to reverberate.
A 'ping' prompted me to move, and hook up the supplementary batteries I'd brought with me. It couldn't have been that long.
Looking at the computer's clock, it hadn't. The thing was merely absorbing power at an incredible rate. Then the screen went dark, leaving us with the light of a couple of candles and a frantically strobing 'activity' LED.
"Hab kein angst, liebling, sie ist ein geist, sie canst nicht du schlecht machen" I said, as much for my own reassurance as the little girl's. She gave a nervous giggle, whether for my wording, pronunciation or the idea that it was only a ghost, nothing that scary, I never found out.
The meter on the auxiliary battery pack was getting alarmingly close to zero when everything stopped, with a last 'clickit' from the hard disc. The tension, the impression of an impending subterranean thunderstorm vanished from the air, and with it the two remaining candle flames disappeared, not as if they'd been blown out, but as if they'd finished the job and just packed up and gone home. The darkness that flooded in round the last tiny yellow LED was comforting, not menacing as it had been earlier.
We sat silent round its glow, knowing that there was nothing left to say, then: "Well, we've done it, whatever it was. Let's make our way back to the surface. But first..." I indicated the refreshment bag. Thermos flasks of beverages were still hot, and the chocolate and cereal bars still tasted the way they ought to. Even the Kobolds joined in the laughter as I attempted to translate my previous statement into German (they are not totally devoid of humour; it's just that their idea of a good joke frequently involves somebody getting buried under a few thousand tons of rock)
Torches worked, too; it would seem that the eldrich atmosphere of the ceremony had entirely dissipated.
The fatigue we all felt was only partly from our efforts, and in part to the removal of pressure. What was done, was done, the genie well and truly unbottled.
We refilled our rucksacks, and started on the long walk/climb towards open air, carefully winding up the optical fibre as we went; no need to leave any evidence.
Once or twice Kurt had to suggest to his daughter that skipping along and checking out the echo was likely to bring the roof down on us and, while not nullifying our efforts, make it difficult for us to appreciate the results (at least, that's what I'd have been saying, and her reactions were consistent with that translation. Nearly five minutes of sticking close to us and not shouting quite at the top of her lungs, that's about par for an eight-year old, no?)
The future was even more uncertain that when we had come down, but it was uncertain in so many interesting ways.
© Chris Penycate 2008 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 09:52 Wed 12 Nov 2008
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