They entered then the newly opened tunnel passage, which had been unlocked for them by a volumetric presence summoned by Benda’s strange experience in otherspace. The tunnel air was fresh, and the ominous yellow glow faded as they plunged deeper in.
At first glance, the tunnel was much like all the others they’d traversed through the ancient Lagom warren system, which extended below much of the Kremellian subcontinent — and perhaps beyond. Dema, the female golek, was the first to become agitated by a subtle difference. She chittered in their language, which Eradus translated.
“She says there are watchers in these walls.”
They went on, in the dim suffuse light which pervaded the passage. And they all soon became aware of it, as the watchers took solid form. Here and there, marked in the walls were petroglyphs of unknown age and uncertain origin. Strange faces, with empty eye sockets which seemed to watch them, and, Benda thought, mocked them in silent laughter.
“They are the blathmari,” Machef said to them. “There is nothing to fear. As the sylphs are to the currents and airs above, so are they to the veins of ore running deep below the surface. They look out from silent eyes that see not the passing even of our generations, let alone the footfalls of our trespass, for theirs is geologic time, and we to them are nothing.”
Benda marveled in silent wonder anew at these ancient, ageless faces. They passed on with a kind of reverence, their fears falling back down to baseline in this subterranean realm.
The tunnel began to slope gently downward, and before long, opened out into a dark cavern, into which no light penetrated. As they stepped out in it, and the last one passed the threshold, a torch on either side sprung to life. Together they cast a circular glow, outlining a small stone outcropping — a landing — and what appeared to be a vast black body of water. Upon that black water, floating docked at the landing was a small slender boat, of fine dark wood. As Benda approached it, two small lanterns — one each fore and aft — affixed to metal stanchions sprang also to life and light.
“The vessel knows its pilot,” Machef remarked.
Benda shook his head, looking from the sable golek over to Dema, Selef, and Eradus. “It’s too small for all of us. There must be another way.”
“Wayfinder,” Machef replied, “this is your way. The silver thread lead you to this place.”
“I won’t just abandon you all here. It’s out of the question. Let’s turn back.”
As Benda went to turn, Eradus blocked his way. He stood in the center of the passage, torches illuminated on either side, and the two goleks stood beside him.
“Benda Lost,” Eradus said. “I found you once before, with my brother on the beaches of Devera. I can find you once again, wherever you end up in this wide world, now that I know your voice. Of this, I have no doubt.” He smiled, and stretched his hand out to Benda’s shoulder, and they embraced.
“Take this with you,” Eradus said, rustling under the folds of his cloak. He produced the goblet of the old man in the Cloud Spire, Banarat. “You might need it.” Benda took it, and proceeded to scratch each of the two goleks under their chins. “I’ll see you soon. Take care of him!” he exclaimed. They chittered back loving goodbyes in their language.
“Go then,” Machef said. “Follow where you’re lead, but be always wary, and know who you follow. Before long, our paths will cross again.”
Benda bade the others one more farewell, and stepped into the boat, which rocked slightly accepting his weight. There was barely place to sit, and no bench, so Benda simply remained standing, with his cloak wrapped about him, and the harp on his back. The boat slipped from the landing, and he didn’t look back.
The boat went from darkness into darkness. The only lights visible were the lanterns of the boat and their dim sorrowful reflection, making their slow way across the vastness. Benda had no visible landmarks against which he could judge their speed or progress. And there was no sound, but for a slight rippling of the water as the prow cut quietly through its surface. He stood perfectly still, and as his eyes strained to penetrate into the darkness, he fell into a light trance.
Though fully conscious of his body, his awareness dropped deep, deep into the blackness below him. And somewhere in that blackness, he perceived great dark forms which swam far below in the silent depths. A fear arose in him that they would sense him too, and he awoke out of the trance with a start, and looked around. All was the same, but he could sense still the forward motion of the boat as it cut through the black water.
He fell into a lull, until suddenly, without warning, the motion ceased, the rippling sound died down. The two lanterns of the boat sputtered and died out. Benda stood in total darkness, on a sea of vast proportions, with unknown lurkers in the deeps below. He trembled.
Benda’s courage began to fail him. His spirit quailed. He stood motionless, not knowing what to do. He lost all track of how long he stood there in that state. A dark and nameless panic began to set in.
Before it reached its peak, however, the barest glimmer of a light seeped into the place, like mist crawling in from the ocean. As he waited there, stone-still, he watched the light increase. And instead of a vast black water, there was revealed a great stone sea, complete with petrified waves, and ripples extending out in all directions captured as a solid. And he realized then, his boat had changed from fine dark wood itself to stone, being lodged now indistinguishably in the stone waves around him.
He marveled at this as the light increased, and at long last, motion stirred in his limbs again. He mustered his energy, and stepped out of the boat onto the stone ocean. Furtive footsteps were emboldened as they found purchase upon the surface of the stone waves, and he followed the light to shore. From there, he discovered its source, an illuminated passage issuing forth back into the world of light, the world above, and he climbed up out of the Place Below.