Darkness. Darkness was the feel of this place, the thought that came to the githzerai’s mind when he tried to capture this alien world in his mind, and yet this landscape was not without light. A strange glow arose here and there, casting strange shadows with dull bio-luminescence. The ground was rough and moist, pebbled with slick scales. Wiliken half-expected a light rain, like those that arise in dense, murky forest, not because of clouds in the sky but because the muggy air had become greedy in its liquid holdings — like all others punished for their hubris its prize was forfeit. Thus the rain. But not so here. Where there should have been water, there was a hot, acrid stench. The githzerai was certain that no life could form in this place. Perhaps they had finally arrived at that preached of place where darkness rules and the inhabitants bite down on stone and bitumen, the place of living death. Perhaps this was the final chapter for Wiliken and his allies.
In death there is nothing left to fear. Wiliken could not remember the source, but the quote had long resonated with him. When he entered this world from the other one and all who came with him were put to the sword, though he was just a boy he would not let the despair of death defeat him, and when the allure of death brought him into the service of the Iuzian empire as one of their most feared warriors he feared neither the foes who stood in his way nor the punishment of his leaders were he to turn from their orders. Perhaps some dark prophet of the god Iuz emerged from one of his ecstasies with only those words on his tongue. Perhaps it was some profound poet of revolutionary peace. To the githzerai, it did not matter. These words were in his blood. They commanded him to move forward one footstep at a time, to trust his senses, to surrender to the inevitability of the landslide of time.
The strange light revealed mounds to either side of the githzerai, few taller than his tallest comrade, mountains in the miniature. He’d seen similar in some of the villages he’d walked through, those less advanced than the cities he’d always called home. These mounds marked where the people had put to rest their loved ones once they had passed away. Even in those days Wiliken had felt reverence for such mounds. It could have been that he’d valued life even in his darkest days or even that he knew that he had put many of those people in the ground either directly or due to the consequences of his choices, but he felt reverence no less.
Time and time again, the githzerai had noted that life will show itself in the most unlikely of places, for even in this place tiny pests skittered this way and that, revealing themselves in the gloomy light. Larger sounds spoke to the possibility of larger beasts. Wiliken drew his bow and readied an arrow. He’d expected a grey-scale gloom and eternal nothingness, but perhaps he ought to have readied himself for the vicious beasts that had proven strong enough over the generations to survive in this horrid clime. Wiliken detected a shuffling behind one of the mounds some fifty paces to his right, and, having decided that the best defense is a good offense, he sneaked off toward the origin of the sound, himself the night-stalker.
His keen ears detected a strange variation of a yawn, a quiet shuffling, and then rest. As he stepped sideways, one foot over the other, he noticed that the sound had died down. His prey was alerted to his presence. Though the beast was clearly attempting to go noiseless, Wiliken heard its labored breathing on the stink-filled air.
Wiliken paused, uncertain how to proceed. He heard the familiar footsteps of his allies as they crept up behind him. The beast might be dangerous, but the githzerai would not die alone if the battle went poorly. It’s better than I deserve, he thought before shouting out, “We have the greater numbers! Show yourself!”
He heard a slight shriek followed by a skittering not unlike a two-hundred pound rodent. What emerged from behind the mound was certainly human, a pitiful old cripple covered in a shroud and stinking of his own waste. The man pulled back his hood to reveal a pair of rheumy eyes, and an unmistakable complexion, if not marred by wrinkles and scars. “Hello,” said the tentative voice. “Who are you?” He raised a staff, still brimming with the spunk of a man accustomed to winning at quarrels.
It was Jean-Baptiste who uttered the impossible words that everyone was thinking: “Jenkins?”
The old man cocked his head sideways like a trained dog at the sound of an unfamiliar command. “Do I know you?”
The last syllables of his question were drowned out by a sudden din as the ground around them erupted with seismic waves. It was as if the stones of the earth themselves were attempting to take form and eject these foreigners.
“Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!” Jenkins said, clutching at his few remaining wisps of hair. “You’ve really done it this time! You’ve really done it this time!”
There were enough explosions in quick succession that it began difficult to track exactly where the sound was coming from, but what was present to the githzerai’s senses was the fact that large nests of insectoid creatures emerged in a blast of puss-like ooze with each blast. Where once there was complete and utter waste, now there emerged a swarm of aggressive beasts that had already began to take quick and painful swipes at Wiliken and his allies.
He raised nocked an arrow and halted. Something else had changed. Something perhaps more dangerous than the flying parasites. The darkness here was different somehow. It was more complete. No sooner had Wiliken posed the mystery to himself than Grace solved it.
“The portal,” she said, holding a limp coil of rope in her hand. “It’s closed itself. We’re trapped here.”
Campaign Stories continues in Wiliken 23.