Deep in the dark, beneath everything she knew Sir Danielle Longbow was introduced to one strange species by another. Kutharma, a cenaga, held a flaming torch high to reveal four bipeds that were more and less like Danielle than the quadruped serpent with antlers that was making the introduction.
“I am Broken Hand,” said the foremost of the uamhith. Its arm was the length of Sir Longbow’s, but the width of a finger compared to her tree trunk arms.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” said the knight. She bowed.
A wide smile revealed predator’s teeth. “There is no need to bow Danielle,” said the creature which looked older than the rocks of the cave around them. “I can only know you are bowing because I see you through Kutharma’s eyes.
Now you wonder how I see through his eyes? My people are telepathic. We talk with thoughts the way you do with words. The odd thing is that I cannot read your mind. I am old enough to remember wars with humanity long ago. I could hear their thoughts, not yours.”
“Perhaps humans have changed since you last met them.” Danielle tried to be diplomatic.
“No,” the eyeless uamhith shook its head. “It was only four thousand years ago. Not even humans change so quickly.”
“FOUR THOUSAND YEARS AGO?” Sir Longbow clapped a hand across her mouth to stop herself shouting. Her voice echoed up and down the cave. Four uamhith winced. Their enormous ears were used to hearing drops of water a mile away. Her yelling was agony to them.
“I’m sorry. I’ve never heard of any creature that was four thousand years old. I didn’t think that was possible.” She kept her voice low and spoke to her feet. Shouting had been a serious screw up. Not the kind she could make in the darkness miles beneath the surface of the world.
Taking their hands away from their ears the uamhith looked at each other and nodded.
“I thought Kutharma might have told you that we are immortal. I hoped he would have told you that we have only brought you here to ask a favour of you.”
“A favour? What favour would immortals who can speak through thought need from me?” Danielle looked between the four uamhith.
“You are open to a friendship with us. You have proved yourself trustworthy to the cenaga, keeping their secret. You are a warrior with experience killing monsters.”
Danielle turned to look at Kutharma.
“I watched you in the tournament,” said the wise one. His yellow eyes with the black slits looked at her from the head of a snake which sat on a near humanoid torso with four legs and a long tail. The antlers were the oddest part of a cenaga in Danielle’s opinion.
“You fought well against Lord Fabian Castel. You are our friend and no soldier of Crann has more experience fighting monsters than you.”
“Oh dear,” she said.
“You are afraid?” Asked Broken Hand. The left hand it had offered for her to shake was shrivelled the way any human’s might be when they had lived to the limits of longevity. Its right hand was mangled and scarred. The wounds on that arm were battle scars Sir Longbow guessed.
“Anyone who isn’t afraid to fight monsters has taken too many blows to the head. My reputation for killing dangerous beasts keeps obliging me to fight more.”
“You would be under no obligation, surface dweller. We only ask in the hope you will help us. You of course have the right to refuse. This is a strange, dark world for you. If you do not wish to help. I understand.” The heads of the four uamhith fell with disappointment.
“Tell me about the creature you need killed before I make my decision. Will silver harm it? Is it a cursed creature or a natural beast?”
“The creature was one of our own, missing far out from our caverns. It returned as something else, reborn with fury. More beast than uamhith. Taller. Stronger. Longer teeth. A wider jaw. Ears more finely attuned to the slightest sound than our own. It seems to smell blood from great distances. Because it was one of us it can read our thoughts. When we try to do the same a maddening screaming sound fills our minds.
The fact that we cannot read your mind may protect you from its telepathy. Silver should harm it since it is a mutation, undead.”
“How many of the uamhith has it killed?” Danielle asked.
“Seven so far. Two who first encountered it. Then three who went to hunt it down. It has returned regularly. We find the bodies chewed. It is eating its own.”
“Wow.” Danielle sighed. “Fuck. That’s a lot.” Lupita would miss her if she died down there. It had been two days since she’d left Leonor. Two days travelling deeper and deeper into the warren of caves and caverns beneath the continent. “If I agree to do this and die, you must tell Lupita how and why.”
“Deal,” said Kutharma. “What do you need to prepare?”
“I need weapons made of silver. A spear or a sword. Arrows for my bow. I need to set a trap for it. Do you know where it comes into your caverns?”
“There are three ways that it can enter our home.”
“Can you block up two of them while I return to Leonor to find the weapons I need?” Deep down Danielle hoped her father’s sword would be reforged when she returned. Not having it by her side felt like a piece of her soul was missing.
“Temporarily we could.”
“Just until I have killed the monster, or until it’s killed me.” Danielle assured Broken Hand.
“I realise I should have introduced my friends.” Broken Hand turned to put a hand on a smaller uamhith who reminded Sir Longbow more of a woman. She had curves and was shorter than hunched Broken Hand. “This is Song Voice,” said the elder, patting her shoulder.
“Hello, warrior,” Song Voice said and bowed to Danielle as if she was a queen. Her voice was musical compared to the ancient rasp of Broken Hand.
“This is Quick Foot,” a withered hand patted the shoulder of a less wrinkled creature that was more than six foot in height. It inclined his head. “He is my youngest grandson. Only two hundred years old.”
“Two hundred and nine, grandfather.” Quick Foot’s words raced off his tongue to correct Broken Hand.
“And this is Long Ear.” The last of the four had ears that went as far up as the top of its head. “She is Quick Foot’s bride and in just three years will be the mother of his child.”
“She has been pregnant for two years grandfather. She is already the mother of my child. We talk. You talk to the baby. It will be a fine new boy for the family.” There seemed to be some family dispute behind the words, spoken aloud for her benefit. Clearly embarrassment didn’t work the same way for uamhith.
“I should leave immediately to fetch what I need,” Danielle said. “Thank you for introducing yourselves. Thank you for trusting me with this task. I will return as soon as I can.” She bowed to the creatures who looked grey to her.
“I hope you understand why I brought my family to meet you Sir Longbow,” said Broken Hand. “My people are dying out. It is no chance that we were driven beneath the earth by your kind long ago. Eternal we are, but we reproduce as if we have all the time in the world. Five years to make a child, during which time anything can go wrong. Four years of infancy. Many more before the child is fully grown. Every loss we take puts us another step closer to extinction.”
“As a citizen of Crann, I know the feeling. I cannot promise I will succeed Broken Foot. I promise to try with all my strength.”
“Then farewell and hasten back, my friend.”
Kutharma showed Danielle the way back through the myriad tunnels beneath Crann, back to the forest where five soldiers were waiting to escort her back to the capital.
Two days after leaving Broken Hand, Danielle was back at the place where they had met. The border between the caves of the cenaga and the uamhith was marked by white quartz dug into the walls.
Quick Foot waited for Danielle and Kutharma. The cenaga wise one had two warriors to escort it, pledged to fight with Sir Longbow against the undead uamhith.
“You’re too late,” said Broken Hand’s grandson.
“What happened?” Danielle asked.
“Wandering Heart, I mean the beast, returned. My grandfather is dead. He was closing one of the paths into our home.” Quick Foot’s voice was the low growl of a dog defending its master.
“I’m sorry Quick Foot. I came as fast as I could, please believe me. I never wished harm to come to your grandfather. Never.”
“I know. I can hear it in your voice. My anger is not for you. It is for Wandering Heart. The fool who strayed too far from home now murders his own.” Quick Foot turned and began walking into uamhith territory.
“Is your wife safe?” Danielle asked, thinking of the child in Long Ear’s womb.
“She is under guard in the heart of our largest city. If not for the child she would be with us, ready to fight.
I am ready. There is only one way into Dark Home now. When Wandering Heart returns, we will kill him. Then we will destroy him in the burning river.”
In her armour, with a sword tipped with silver, Danielle followed. It was not the reforged sword of Darren Longbow. It was a blade commissioned by her friend Lord Fabian Castel after they had fought loup garous in Leonor Prison.
In perfect darkness lit only by torches the cenaga carried, the walk to the uamhith city seemed to take hours.
It felt like seeing the cenaga city for the first time all over again. Orange glowing veins snaked their way between homes cut directly from the rock. It was not the granite found beneath Crann. The rocks formed natural hexagons.
The homes themselves followed the form of the basalt on the outside. Inside they were furnished with furniture made of bone. Giant creatures had been sacrificed for the uamhith creations.
“What in all hells was that?” Danielle asked, pointing to a skull the size of a house.
“That’s a drake skull. Slain by my ancestors,” said Quick Foot. He smiled with pride.
“Drake, as in a small dragon?”
“Related to dragons, the way that uamhith are related to humans. Somewhere, long before the uamhith and humans we know now, we were one. Along the way we went our separate ways, never to be one again.”
Danielle ran her hand down a tooth that was as long as she was tall.
Broken Hand’s blood still stained the ground where Wandering Heart had fed upon him.
“You remember Song Voice?”
“I do. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“This way is closed now, Sir Longbow. I will take you to the last entrance.”
The walk was a long way through basalt homes into the same white quartz which had marked the boundary between the territory of the cenaga and the uamhith. There were no streams of lava. The carved homes of the uamhith peeked from pillars that propped up cavern ceilings. Uamhith focussed on Danielle, not with eyes but ears. Everything about her seemed alien to them. Children who came up to her knee cried for a parent’s comforting embrace. A creature they could hear but not read was a horror that painted their faces with terror or revulsion.
“They’re scared of me.”
“Telepathy is one of our most important senses. We read every creature that walks or crawls through our caves. Only stones and plants are as blank to us as you,” said Quick Foot.
Eyeless immortals with fangs for teeth scared of her? Danielle smiled and shook her head as she walked. Whenever she thought she’d seen it all life turned a new page for her.
More of the bones she’d seen before formed bridges between buildings. Eyeless grey children climbed the ribs of monsters the size of castles. She walked through a drake’s jaw. The eye sockets alone were large enough to ride a horse through.
The clothes of the uamhith were mostly woven from dried algae that grew on the walls. Living algae glowed a pale green. Patterns of squares covered signposts and the walls of buildings.
“What do the patterns represent?” Danielle asked.
“It is our language. We feel it with our fingers. Writing on parchment as you do would be far simpler. Sometimes reading each other is not enough to preserve information.”
“Language for the blind?” Danielle wondered. “Lupita would love to know it. We could teach so many to read that never had a chance.”
“Slay Wandering Heart and we will teach you our language,” Quick Foot said absently. “We’re here.”
Camping out behind a barricade was equally boring and terrifying. Danielle handed out weapons to the warriors of the cenaga and uamhith. She kept a silver tipped sword by her side. To the cave dwellers she gave arrows with silver tips. As she had when she fought loup garous, she drank beer with silver dust mixed into it. The others drank water mixed with the silver. If Wandering Heart ate any of them it would be his last meal.
A day passed in the darkness. The torches the cenaga had brought with them died. Uamhith brought them jars of glowing algae. Jars piled up around the entrance. Green light basked Danielle’s eyes.
This is a terrible and beautiful place to die. Don’t let me die, gods please.
As they sat on bone stools after what felt like eternity Quick Foot grabbed Sir Longbow’s arm.
The others drew their bows. Danielle stepped into the space where Wandering Heart had to enter the caves.
CRASH. A glass jar by her side exploded. Her heart tried to leap out of her chest. Goosebumps covered her arms. Nerves brought the taste of vomit up from her stomach.
Quiet. Be quiet, she thought.
CRASH. Her shoulders twitched involuntarily as another jar spilled its glowing guts across the white stone. The biggest difference was that all the light was around her feet.
Pitch blackness watched her from the cave ahead.
CRASH. A third jar showered the ground with glass and a green glow.
TING! Danielle stepped back as a rock hit her armour. The metallic ring was deafening after days of near silence.
“It knows I’m here,” she whispered to herself.
“It’s seen you in our minds,” said Song Voice. The uamhith loosed an arrow into the darkness. They all heard the arrow hit stone and clatter to the ground.
“Hurry up,” said Danielle. She stepped forwards. “I know you’re there.” She hooked the rope of an algae jar on the end of her sword. Her shield was little comfort as she left the light behind her.
“What are you doing?” Quick Foot asked.
“What you asked me to,” she said. “Don’t shoot me in the back.” Each step into darkness made her heartbeat faster. Lowering her sword, she let the jar slide down to the cold stone.
CRASH. Glass pinged against her armour.
It hit her from above. Sitting on the shield it had her left arm pinned to her chest, crushing her.
“Shoot now, it’s on top of me!” The thing twitched as an arrow hit it. A heavy blow struck her face, slapping her head to the side. “GET OFF ME.”
It did. Reeling back as if she’d struck it, Wandering Heart fell off her into the mess of the broken jar. Lit from beneath she saw the mutations that made the beast so dangerous.
“TOO LOUD?” Danielle roared. “YOU CAN’T TAKE SOME SHOUTING?” She hacked at it with her sword. Arrows flew past her, most hitting cave walls far off.
The jaw opened. Canine teeth the length of her hand welcomed her sacrifice. The ears were enormous compared to even the other uamhith. Danielle thrust her sword into its wide-open mouth and pushed as hard as she could. Wandering Heart shook with the blade peeking from the back of its neck. His arms grabbed her sword arm and squeezed. She heard the metal crumple.
“NO!” It flinched, clapping hands over its ears as she screamed. Grabbing its sinuous arms, she screamed again.
Wandering Heart thrashed around, trying to shake her off. They crashed into the cave walls. She wrapped her legs around its neck, yelling hard enough that her throat stung. Arrows thudded into the beast. Some pinged off the wall behind them.
Jaws wide, it pressed towards her. She screamed until its hideous breath invaded her nostrils. The stench was death and decay. Bite or be bitten. Danielle sank her teeth into the monster’s nose. The taste was revolting but as it thrashed and ran into another wall, she could feel its breath begin to fade. Arrows whistled and chewed its back.
Together they fell. Wandering Heart’s last exhalation was an anguished whisper.
“I’m stuck,” she yelled. “Get it off me.”
“Stop shouting please, it hurts,” said Song Voice.
“Thank you,” she whispered as many hands pulled the beast away.
They were carried back through the home of the uamhith. Bones of ancient drakes passed her by. Wandering Heart disappeared into a stream of lava that twisted between basalt hexagons.
Carried in the arms of the cenaga wise one, she slept until she was in the forests of the world above. Blinding moonlight welcomed her back to the surface as it clawed through the canopy.