THEY WERE STURDY, SQUAT AND rowdy, but also virtuosi of fire and metal – which was only one of many reasons why Prosatio Silban always enjoyed the Delvers’ company.
He had arrived for the first time at their northern realm – aptly named Deephall – just that morning and immediately felt at home. He had had dealings with their people before, but not this branch. The Skydiggers of the Exilic Lands’ southern mountains were a grim, hardworking bunch, coarse of manner and gruff to outsiders. But these four-armed, bright-eyed underground folk, who had consented to teach him their foodways, were quite their opposite: friendly, easygoing, with large hands and long slender fingers which made them matchless tinkerers and machinists. They were also on good terms with the mysterious M’zei – mystic sages whose city lay not far from the entrance to the Delvers’ home – and courteous (in their way) to foreigners.
To illustrate: the entrance to their hidden kingdom lay behind two massive granite doors – doors that were locked open wide, and guarded only by three Delvers in brilliant scale-mail armed with short spears. They cordially saluted the beefy cook as he approached, and one broke ranks to conduct him through a capacious and colorfully appointed entrance-hall to the king’s throne room.
“You honor me by your approval. I cannot wait to hear about what and how you eat.”
“MASTER COOK!” cried their king when his visitor had been ushered into his presence. “It has been too long since we have laid eyes on each other!”
Prosatio Silban bowed deeply. “King Medlekh,” he said. “You honor me by your approval. I cannot wait to hear about what and how you eat.”
King Medlekh waved a dismissive lower hand, and grasped his visitor’s shoulders with his upper two. “When last we met, it was at a M’zei banquet. You will find our own culinary customs to be quite different and relatively simple. Spicy roasts, roots, mushrooms and foaming stout” (here he patted his large belly and laughed) “are more the order of our day.”
“Anything you can teach me, I will be grateful to learn,” said the beefy cook. “Where shall we begin?”
The king winked one large and glowing blue eye. “We are not accustomed to teaching our gastronomic secrets to those who are not our intimates,” he said with a toothy grin. “We know you from past association – but we must know you better than that before we divulge to you our dietary customs.”
With that, he rose from his bejeweled throne and gestured to his two guards. “To the Hammered Home!” he exclaimed.
* * *
Although the Delvers built according to their own proportions, making them cramped for the Exilic Lands’ taller races, they also built to profound depths. Prosatio Silban soon lost count of the number of steep stairs, cavernous chambers and narrow but well-maintained corridors through which the party passed. But the burrowing folk did not burrow at random. There was a plan at work here: at every stair-landing, three passages led left, right and forward; each chamber had closed wooden doors at the four compass points; and the corridors had similar side-doors fifty paces apart. All were lit from the ceilings by well-spaced but dim amber sunstones. The whole was impressively excavated, but also confusing for newcomers; this, King Medlekh explained, was done a-purpose.
“We are on excellent terms with our M’zei neighbors, as you know,” he said. “But there are other neighbors not quite so neighborly. Some lie above us, and some below. In either case, it is good to confuse interlopers by – ah. Here we are.”
They were standing before a large, iron-bound onyx door at the end of one long corridor, its diorite frame a carven bas-relief of vines and berries. On the door itself was bolted a hammer-and-tongs wrought of pure gold and engraved in the Delvers’ angular script.
“This is the Hammered Home,” the king said in a reverent whisper. “You would call it our temple or crypt. Either would be correct. It is an expression of our most heartfelt gratitude to Amorden the Souls-Forger for creating our people and giving us purpose.” He cleared his throat and took a deep breath.
“’The lovely Deep was lonely and unloved / So Amorden wrought Delvers in fire / And dark halls rang with light and joy / Of hammers’ clang and forges’ roar…’” he intoned. “So say our Annals, first told hundreds of centuries ago when the world still smoked from the Maker’s flame. Thus were we created to quarry Amorden’s secretive bounty – and to adore it.”
“You are here to touch part of our souls – and so you must behold, in part, from where those souls spring.”
“Why have you brought me here?” Prosatio Silban asked. “It seems an unlikely place to show casual visitors.”
“But as I told you, you are no casual visitor,” replied King Medlekh. “You are here to touch part of our souls – and so you must behold, in part, from where those souls spring.”
He gestured with a lower arm and murmured some words in his own guttural language. The door slowly opened inward to reveal a vast cavern, adorned with statuary and sarcophagi carved of every variety of rock and mineral that Prosatio Silban could recognize – and some he couldn’t. The dark gabbro ceiling was set with sparkling diamonds in a facsimile of the Exilic Lands’ starry nightscape, supported by mottled porphyry pillars fashioned like enormous tree trunks and topped by branches of native silver. The pillars themselves were festooned with tool-belts stuffed with machinists’ and clockmakers’ implements of varied description: calipers, files, squares, end mills, loupes, screwdrivers, hand drills, tweezers, even miniature lathes. The copper plaques on which these were hung were inscribed in the same alphabet as the door had been.. Arched tunnel-mouths gaped in the cavern’s walls, leading nowhere the cook could see.
“The statues depict our history: our kings, our notable characters, even our esteemed adversaries,” King Medlekh said reverently. “Each is sculpted by an immediate descendant. The tools are likewise hung to mark the owners’ death. Just as we each have a place in Amorden’s Deep, so are we represented in these Halls. Now – we must blindfold you.”
* * *
“You may remove the blindfold,” King Medlekh said.
Prosatio Silban, a bit winded from his long and twisty march, slipped off the silk kerchief that had been hiding his eyes. The stick-mounted sunstone he was holding revealed a snug, circular chamber with three open archways evenly spaced around the walls.
And he was alone.
The baffled cook considered the exits.
“You are now in the underparts of our hallowed Hammered Home,” came King Medlekh’s voice from one – but which one? – of the exits. “Your task now, o Master Cook, is to find your way to the surface. No harm should come to you; and if your innate skills are insufficient to the errand, we will rescue you. But in that case, you will not learn our culinary secrets. I wish you good fortune – and good hunting.”
The baffled cook considered the exits. The arches were inscribed with more of the Delvers’ angular script, but otherwise identical in shape and size – and mystery. If only I spoke Delver, or had learned to read their runes, he thought. Alas for missed opportunities! Perhaps if I offered a prayer to an appropriate deity…?
As the Patient Reader knows, Prosatio Silban had once been a devoted – now self-defrocked – servitor of his people’s six-hundred-thirteen Flickering Gods. His command of liturgy was still as impressive as it was occasionally helpful, and the situation certainly called for a supplication or two. But to whom?
He thought carefully, before selecting one of the ten gods who oversaw the other six-hundred-and-three. A bit of authority is on order here, he thought. He bowed his head, raised his hands, and spoke as devoutly as he could the following words:
“O divine Ghu, Architect of Making, Lord of Applied Creativity, hear my plea and grant my boon. You are the closest deity I know to That of the worshipful Delvers; You have gifted me with undeserved skill and acuity, and I am appreciative of it all. Please: Aid me in my current circumstance. Strengthen my intuition that I may make the proper path-choices to continue in your service. I will tell of Your grace and mercy wherever and whenever I can. This I affirm.”
He waited for several desperate heartbeats, but received no words, images or visions in any of the ways he had come to expect. Perhaps this is not Their domain, he thought with disappointment. Perhaps They have a courtesy-pact with this Amorden not to intrude on his influence. If that is the case…
Prosatio Silban again pondered the carven archways. I suppose I should just pick one and see where it takes me – divine help or no.
He pointed the light-stick at one exit, then the next, then the third, mentally running through a childhood counting-game before stopping at the archway at which he had first pointed. Apparently this is the one, he said to himself with a sigh. I hope. So thinking, he decided to try his best and get moving.
Five minutes later, he was lost. The selected exit had led to another circular, three-exit chamber, then another, then another. He had lost interest in the counting-game and was instead trying to focus his intuition. If I am making progress, I’ll never know it. Am I closer to my goal? or at least nearer the surface?
At that moment, a voice sounded in his mind with crystal clarity. It was a high-pitched whine dropping down the scale and concluding with two words: Help me.
“Where are you?” he asked aloud.
Help me. Please.
Prosatio Silban closed his eyes and attempted to center his own thoughts on the voice’s origin. Where are you? Help me to find you.
Please. Help me.
“I am trying to!” the cook shouted. As his echo faded, the inner voice came again: You are very close. I can hear you. Please – help me?
He passed through three more chambers before he came upon the source of the mind-plea. It resembled nothing so much as a large, legless horseshoe crab lying on its back. Its long and prehensile tail flailed in helpless frustration as it tried to flip itself over.
Please, came the voice in his head. Please.
Stifling the urge to flee, Prosatio Silban approached the creature and, with one mighty heave, righted it to propriety. “Better?” he asked.
I know them too well. Follow.
The being’s tail stood straight up in evident glee. Thank you! Thank you for your kindness, it thought at him. If I can ever help you…
“You can, actually,” replied the cook. “Do you know the way back to the surface?”
You mean to the four-arms’ home.
I know them too well. Follow.
At that, the creature slid toward one of the chamber’s exits, Prosatio Silban close behind.
* * *
It seemed like hours since the strange pair began their surface-ward trek, and the cook was getting thirsty. They had passed through countless domed chambers and tight connecting tunnels, and Prosatio Silban marveled more than a little at the interconnected labyrinth and his new friend’s sense of directional purpose. He also wondered if they were still lost, but couldn’t bring himself to ask his crablike companion how much longer or farther it would be. King Medlekh had also taken some time to convey him to his subterranean quest’s starting point. Had it been the same duration? He couldn’t be sure, and inquiring seemed impolite, so he kept his peace. On the other hand, he could really use some water…
“May I pose a question?” he asked.
Of course. What is it?
“Are we near a source of water or other liquid refreshment?”
Four chambers later, they entered one in the center of which a man-high fountain bubbled up from a small pool. Prosatio Silban knelt, set down the sunstone-wand, cupped his hands, drank his fill, then wiped his palms dry on his kneebreeches. “Thank you,” he said, rising to his feet. He stopped in alarm.
Somehow, without his seeing it, the chamber had filled with about a dozen of his guide’s fellow creatures, including a much larger one which stood – lay? – directly before him. Its rat-like tail whipped back and forth in agitation; a thought-voice different from his companion’s sounded between his ears, low and intense.
You two-legs’ are unwelcome in our territory. Surely you must know that?
“I did not know. I am but a guest of the other…two-legs, and am trying to find my way back to their realm. I did not mean to trespass, and if you will only show me to – ”
You must pay the penalty. Now.
The creature raised its forward section. Two sharp-looking claws slid out from beneath its carapace; they writhed and snapped in Prosatio Silban’s direction. He took a step back, only to discover that the others were barring his escape. He turned from side to side but saw no place to flee.
Wait. His escort’s thought-voice.
Why? He has transgressed by his presence!
He also rendered me an important service. I owe him the courtesy of return.
Prosatio Silban looked from one to the other, trying to guess their next actions. He inhaled sharply, expecting the worst, before a scene began unfolding inside his mind: he saw his guide on its back, flailing helplessly, then himself approaching and providing the needed assistance.
And that is how the Delvers found them, moments later.
There passed a rapid handful of heartbeats, then:
He requested nothing in return? The larger one’s thought-voice sounded incredulous.
Only passage to the surface. He does not belong here, and he knows it. He is kind; I shall bring him to our country’s border and direct him to find his hosts.
Another pause, not quite as long as the first. Then:
Let it be so. And for rescuing my child, I shall accompany you as well.
And that is how the Delvers found them, moments later.
“Look out!” roared King Medlekh. “He’s surrounded!” One of his two guards discharged his crossbow, piercing one of the smaller creatures. The largest reared up in aggressive defense.
“Wait! Stop!” shouted Prosatio Silban. He stepped in front of his benefactors just as the other guard discharged his weapon. The bolt struck the cook in the right shoulder, and he cried out in pain. He remained standing, however, and as the guards reloaded, he hollered, “They saved me! Do not shoot again!”
“HOLD!” commanded the king. He raised an upper hand in authority, and the guards fell back. “What do you mean, ‘they saved you?’”
Quickly, Prosatio Silban related the details of his underground adventures. “So you see, you have nothing to fear from these beings. They are harmless and, in their way, civilized.”
“We never feared them,” replied the king. “We ate them. We got headaches when we hunted them, but their meat is delicious.”
The large creature stiffened its tail in anger. Your headaches were our screams if anguish. Your meat is delicious also, but we do not hunt you, it thought at the king, who winced. He looked at Prosatio Silban, and the cook translated the crab-elder’s exclamation.
King Medlekh bowed deeply. “Please accept my most sincere apologies,” he told the creatures. “We did not know. Henceforth, no Delver will deliberately trespass on your holdings unless invited. I say this as king of the Deephall and all it contains. Do we have a Pact?”
Both were silent for a moment. Finally: We do, the creature thought. “Yes,” said Prosatio Silban.
“Well then. Guard! See to our visitor’s wound, and that of the injured creature as well. And take care – our visitor has become not only an ambassador for a much-needed peace, but also the first ‘two-arms’ to learn the mysteries of our kitchens. Is that acceptable to you, Master Cook?”
Prosatio Silban returned the king’s smile. “It is,” he said. “Most acceptable.”