Journey to the Hollow World
Danger in the night
"Everyone stay alert. Adriana?" Sylarin turned to his magic-using colleague while the others readied weapons and formed a defensive stance. "Your evaluation, if you please."
Gathering her robes, Adriana stooped where the drayer lay immobile on the ground. His flesh had turned ashen grey. His face conveyed several emotions, chief among them being surprise. "He appears to have been taken unawares. As for what caused the petrification spell casting is a possibility. Or a basilisk's gaze. However -" her fingertips moved to the lower section of Junzo's leg which he was clutching, "he has clearly been attacked, perhaps bitten." Her brow creased. "Or pecked."
"It is likely that the physical attack which injured Junzo's leg and the means by which he suffered petrification were one and the same."
Sylarin nodded. "That sounds plausible. A pre-meditated attack, do you think?"
She shook her head. "Probably a random attack by some sort of magical monster. Strange that such a phenomenon should occur in an environment such as Aegos."
"Well, yes and no." Scupper spoke up from the rear of the group. All present turned to look at him expectantly. "Wha'ever creature this was, it pro'ably escaped from the zoo."
Dudley's expression turned blank. "Did I hear you correctly? A zoo? Here, on Aegos?"
The old man nodded. "Aye, though it closed a long time ago. The Alphatians ran a zoo in them hills to the north. Till there was some sort of accident, that was, then all 'avoc broke out. The wizards at the time, fair play to 'em, tried to track down all the monsters that got loose and have them transported elsewhere, or plain kill 'em, but it's a big island and they musta' lost interest after a while... never really finished the job."
Jeremy looked less than enthused. "So monsters are roaming the island and we're only being told this now..."
Dudley glanced round. "Whatever creature attacked Junzo is still at large. Our camp won't be safe if it's nearby."
"Agreed," Sylarin nodded. "Who among us can track it?"
"De light be far from ideal," Torkia said, stepping forward, "but I could try to follow de ting's tracks."
"Allow me to assist," said Solchia. The cleric murmured a prayer to her Immortal Patron and a sphere of light - warm and bright like the midday sun - enveloped the tip of the Pearl Islander's spear.
Torkia gave a nod of appreciation. "Dat be makin' me task much easier."
Keeping a firm grip on her spear and accompanied by Stryl, the Pearl Islander took several minutes to walk the perimeter of the area, before announcing that she had located not one set of fresh tracks, but two, both leading in the same direction. This revelation proved disconcerting to Jeremy, who announced that he would return to camp to guard the wagons. The tracks which Torkia had found were smaller than expected, suggesting claws which ended with talons. The group followed the tracks north to a hollow in a large earthen bank, near which two birdlike creatures were pecking the ground. Tree roots and small plants in the vicinity of the nest looked to have been turned to stone.
"Cockatrices," Adriana whispered, before casting a spell and levitating to a safe height. From afar she then imbued the party with magical Haste. Dudley slipped on his magic ring and vanished from sight. Sylarin cast a protective enchantment upon himself, while Solchia invoked Ixion's will to strengthen the party's resolve. Without further ado, the party launched its attack missiles both mundane and magical flying before the cockatrices closed the distance and engaged the party in fierce combat. Feathers flew as both sides pressed the attack, Sylarin lunging with his flaming rapier while Dudley did his utmost to land attacks with his own enchanted shortsword, blocking the creature's attacks with his enchanted shield. The cockatrices attacked with worrying speed; their main weapons were their beaks which were now known to possess a terrible petrifying ability, and they attacked with alarming speed. Dudley and Sylarin, both of whom were nimble and well-armoured, attempted to draw the creatures' attacks away from their companions; thankfully none of the blows hit home.
At last the creatures were overcome. Their burrow was found to contain several treasures mainly trinkets of jewellery including an unusual necklace made of stone beads. None of the items exuded a magical aura. With the threat lifted, the party returned to camp. En route, Scupper was heard complaining that he would need to arrange to have Junzo's statue transported back to Aegopoli where, all being well, King Haldebaran would see fit to reverse the enchantment.
Back on the road
With help from Adriana's floating disc, Junzo's frozen body was loaded onto a wagon the next morning and the caravan resumed its journey along the trail. Still the surrounding terrain showed no signs of habitation. Jeremy was observed glancing into the northern hills from time to time, wondering what monstrosities might emerge. His worries materialised all too soon, when a group of individuals were spotted on the trail ahead. Scupper called a greeting however as the wagons drew close, it became apparent that these were not normal men. The creatures' grey skin, elongated noses and needle-like teeth conveyed their true nature trolls!
Kelter charged bearing his two-handed sword and lost no time laying into the creatures. Stryl and Torkia marked something of a contrast, still pressing the attack however they displayed markedly more caution than Kelter and seemed willing to let others draw the creatures' attention. The trolls with their natural regenerative ability proved to be tireless opponents sapping the party's stamina as they fought long and hard to incapacitate their foes. Sylarin's flaming rapier proved most effective at this task, supplemented by Solchia whose faith gifted her the ability to summon flame in her bare hand. Once Kelter had hacked the troll corpses into separate parts, Dudley and Jeremy doused the remains with oil and Solchia promptly ignited the whole lot. The party was left exhausted but were free to continue on their way.
As the wagons rolled away from the battle's smouldering remains, Sylarin could not help but think that a fight with trolls would have been an ideal means to 'recharge' the Wanderer's Staff which he carried in addition to Rheddrian's artifact. The former item, which the party had rescued after a band of goblins desecrated the grave of a great elven adventurer, possessed both harming and healing capabilities. Imbalanced use of either ability, so Sylarin and Adriana theorised, would risk permanently disempowering the item. At present, most of its length was blackened and unliving, since the Staff had been mainly used for healing rather than harming. The fight with the trolls would have been an opportunity to inflict magical harm, heightening the staff's capacity for healing and returning its wood to a healthier-looking state. Oh well, Sylarin thought.
Camp was made on two subsequent nights, Scupper refusing to allow anyone else to prepare meals and serving up slop which was even more unpalatable than the previous nights' fare. Then, on the fifth day of travel an unusual sight came into view.
"What in the world is that?" Astride his mount, Jeremy strained to make out further detail. Ahead was a settlement of some description, though it marked a contract to the ramshackle buildings of Aegopoli and the villages through which the caravan had passed.
Groups of individuals could be seen milling about, all of them able-bodied and not all of them human. Warehouses and supply buildings were clustered around an enormous central structure which with its domed roof might have passed for a concert hall back in Darokin. While none among the caravan were expert builders, it was easy to tell that none of the buildings up ahead were more than several years old.
"Well," Scupper announced, "we're here."
Seated beside him on the lead wagon, Dudley frowned. "Could I ask you to be slightly more specific," he said, "and tell us where exactly is 'here'?"
The old man grinned. "Pittstown."
While the wagonhands began unloading the caravan's contents, the companions dismounted and were led through toward the central construction. There was a great number of men and woman about however dwarves and gnomes were just as numerous, which surprised the party greatly. Even though the newcomers had reached their supposed destination, Scupper remained as tightlipped as ever about what awaited them. From time to time he would titter to himself, seemingly enjoying the fact his companions knew nothing of what lay in store. A number of vehicles were positioned outside the central building not currently in use. Many of these resembled giant caterpillars with drills attached to their fronts, and were clearly of gnomish design and construction.
The reason for the town's name soon became apparent. Entering the massive central building, a broad pit lay at its centre. Steel girders had been fixed in place over and around the pit, to which an intricate assortment of winches and pulleys had been attached. Most significant was a length of metal chain, the breadth of which not even Kelter could have hoped to close his arms around. The chain hung upon a gigantic wheel just below the roof's heighest point, both of its ends descending into the pit.
The Darokinians gaped at what lay before them.
"Careful now," Scupper warned, as Dudley approached the side of the pit. "Wouldn't want you falling in! Har har, har "
Dudley gazed downward in amazement. He could not see the bottom of the pit. A warm breeze blew upward from its depths, lifting the rim of his broad floppy hat.
"It looks as though it might go on forever," the halfling commented.
"You might be surprised how far it goes," Scupper snickered.
Sylarin turned to regard the old man sternly. "Don't you think it's time you told us more about what's expected of us? Surely all this mystery can be dispensed with, now that we're where we need to be."
"Ah..." Scupper held up a finger. "That's where ye're mistaken, see. Ye've further still to go." His expression soured slightly. "Fact is, we all do, more's the pity..."
"I don't follow," Sylarin stated. "Where are we expected to go, I thought Pittstown was our destination."
"'Twas," Scupper nodded. "Now we've anorr." He inclined his head toward the pit. "Down 'err."
Giovanni's throat constricted. "Do you mean... we're going into the pit?"
"Aye indeed," Scupper nodded, seeming to relish the looks of confusion on every face before him. Stryl and Torkia conversed with one another in low tones. Perhaps the only face which didn't register immediate shock and surprise, unknown to anyone present, belonged to Kelter.
"How exactly are you proposing that we make this descent?" Adriana demanded.
Scupper grinned. "Wait an' ye'll soon see."
Adriana rolled her eyes. "My reserves of patience are close to being worn out," she muttered to Sylarin. The elf could only nod in response.
Moments passed and a clanking sound started up. The massive chain suspended above the pit began to move. After several minutes something emerged from the pit's dark depths, attached to the side of the chain which was rising toward the surface. A metal container, drawn from below. The Darokinians watched, amazed and unnerved, as the cylinder rose to the surface and a metal walkway extended from the surrounding array apparently of its own accord to allow a door to open in the container's side and three gnomes to exit. They gestured upon leaving whereupon workers stepped forward to unload crates of machine parts from within the container.
"Where... did they come from?" Dudley asked.
"Down below," Scupper replied. "Midpoint. Which is where we're for, if ye'll follow me in."
"Fascinating," Dudley commented, doing as Scupper bid. Stryl and Torkia did likewise, though they crossed the walkway with visible caution.
"Can't say I trust gnomish engineering," Jeremy muttered as he boarded the gangplank. "It has a reputation for malfunctioning, which as far as I'm aware is richly deserved."
"Let's hope that won't apply in our case," Sylarin nodded. He took a final look at his surroundings and at the glimmer of daylight outside the building before following Jeremy into the canister. Adriana and Giovanni followed, both clearly unsettled.
"Wait," Solchia called, before setting foot onto the walkway. Scupper who was ushering the others into the canister looked at her. "We will be returning to the surface, won't we?"
Scupper gave a curious look. "If ye're worried about not seeing the light of day again..."
Solchia nodded. As a follower of the Sun Prince, she had been gazing into the pit's depths with apprehension.
"... then never fear," Scupper concluded.
"Come on, Solchia," Kelter said, in a well-meaning fashion. "Didn't you say Ixion has been encouraging you to seek out new places, to undergo new experiences in his name?"
"Yes," she replied, "though I had not thought that I would be required to distance myself from his domain so greatly." She stiffened. "Yet, he is known as the Lightbringer. I will venture to whatever dark place awaits us, and carry his influence with me."
"That's the spirit," Kelter enthused.
Solchia accepted her fellow cleric's arm as they both stepped onto the walkway and into the waiting container, a warm breeze still blowing from the pit's depths. Inside the canister they found that seats had been fixed to the inside of the walls. Evidently the seats were of gnomish design; they were mounted within devices which required each seated individual to maintain balance. Otherwise, the seats would revolve and might even turn upside down. What exactly this achieved, none of the Darokinians could fathom.
At the rear of the small container was a tiny chamber, whose purpose was not immediately obvious.
"Are we all in?" Scupper asked once the last of the crates had been taken out. "Good. Then let's get going. Ye might want to hold on to something." He waved to an individual outside the container before shutting the door and securing it tightly. Seconds later, as he took his seat, there came a shudder and a great clanking sound as the chain lurched into life. The canister shook from side to side as it began to move. Through small windows in the canister's exterior, it became apparent that they were descending deep into the dark.
A lantern was fixed to the inside of the canister within a similar mechanism to those which housed the seats and gave off enough light for the passengers to see one another.
"Let's hope we don't suffocate in here," Adriana muttered.
"Ye don't need to worry," Scupper replied, "the gnomes thought o' that. And we've food and drink to last the trip, or at least tha first part. And if any of ye feel tha need," he jabbed his thumb toward a tiny cabin at the rear of the canister, "ye can use the facilities."
Dudley was standing on his seat to enable him to stare through one of the porthole windows. "I can see something moving out there! Something with..." he squinted into the dark, "a light, two of them in fact, greenish unless I'm mistaken. Thankfully they're not coming in our direction."
"That'll be one of the gnomish machines," Scupper replied. "Pay it no attention, there's a good few of 'em, broadening the shaft. They drill the excess rock and take it up to the surface."
"Well," said Sylarin loudly. "Since we've left the surface and we're on our way to wherever our new destination is, might now be a good time to tell us where we're going?"
The Darokinians looked at Scupper expectantly.
The old man looked around to make sure he had everybody's attention. "Spose I could. You are all heading - " he paused for dramatic effect "- to a whole new world."
Silence followed, during which the Darokinians looked at one another in confusion.
"A whole..." Scupper repeated the words slowly, "new... world."
"You've lost us," Dudley said. "You mean some sort of settlement below the ground? Like an underground city?"
"Oh we're going underground alright, but we won't stay there. We'll come right out the other side."
Adriana scoffed. "What do you mean by the other side?"
"I mean," Scupper replied, "tha' the Alphatians have discovered another world right under our feet, and tha's where we're headin'. A new, undiscovered place. One the Alphatians think is theirs for the taking. Mind you they might have to fight some others for it first..."
Jeremy looked unimpressed. "This is a joke. Right?"
The old man shook his head. "Nope."
Sylarin's eyes had grown wide. "Are we to believe you when you say we're travelling to some undiscovered territory, which can only be accessed by..." he stopped to take check of his own senses, "by journeying to the centre of the earth?"
Scupper nodded. "Turns out the world isn't solid like people think. There's this whole other world right at the centre. Jus' like the one up top." He looked philosophical for a moment. "Only diff'ernt."
"Impossible!" Adriana exclaimed. "How could such a place exist? And how could the Alphatians know about its existence but nobody else?"
"I never said nobody else knows 'bout it," Scupper said defensively. "But it's like this." He settled back in his seat, trying to make himself comfortable. Evidently a long story was coming up. "Years ago, decades in fact, there was this Alphatian explorer by the name o' Haldemar. Prince of 'is own kingdom, he was. Had 'is own flying ship the 'Princess Ark' it was called. He journeyed far and wide, paving the way fer Alphatia's forces to follow and conquer new territories, new peoples an' extend the Empire. Right popular with Eriadna, he was. Began travelling further and further, he'd be gone fer years at a time. Finally 'im an' 'is crew dis'peared completely and nothing was heard 'bout them fer years. Magic couldn't find 'em, so everyone thought they were all dead. Then out o' the blue one day the Princess Ark re-appeared in the sky over Sundsvall!" Scupper surveyed his audience, as if he expected them to cheer. "Nobody would say where they'd been. But Eriadna knew. Haldemar told 'er how he'd discovered a new world, hidden inside the planet. Turns out he'd deen trying to fly over some great area full o' snow an' ice way down at the south end of the planet. Think there's a place jus' like it up at the north end. Well, turns out there's a great massive hole down there. Anyhow the ship lost power and couldn't fly so it landed and had to be dragged for several miles. Massive job, that musta been. Anyhow, the ship's magic came back and Haldemar and 'is crew took off again. Turned out they were in properly uncharted terrain, even more undiscovered than they were used to, in fact they'd gone through that ruddy great hole into the other world." Scupper gave an informed nod at this point. "See, there's ways to tell it's a diff'rent place. Ye'll find out soon. Haldemar and 'is men spent months explorin' down there, they even founded a colony which they named after the explorer himself, then they made it back to the 'outside' world, I s'pose ye could call it, and reported to the Empress. It don't take me to tell ye how excited she was to hear tha news. She made 'im an Admiral an' everything.
"Rumour is," he added, "the Empress used magic to stop anyone with information 'bout this other world talking 'bout it to other people. She don't want word gettin' out, see."
"So when you say a 'whole new world'," Giovanni said, sounding faint, "you literally mean there's... a whole new world. Down below."
This elicited a nod.
"Fascinating!" Dudley breathed, his eyes gleaming with anticipation. "And are we heading to the colony which Haldemar founded?"
Scupper gave another nod.
The party took a while to digest the enormity of what they had heard. Scupper seemed keen to diffuse any tension, and began singing sea shanties to provide some distraction. This did nothing to help the companions' ability to think clearly. Stryl and Torkia did not seem phased by the revelation of one world inside another; they brought out some dice and cards began playing a game. Neither Kelter nor Solchia said anything, or interacted with any of their companions, both clerics seeming lost in their own thoughts.
As the descent continued, the air inside the cylinder grew stuffier and harder to breathe. Giovanni seemed the worst affected by the change in conditions, his breath taking on an audible wheeze. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead.
"Tell us about this New World," he asked Scupper after a while, hoping that his questioning might divert his attention from his inability to draw breath. "What can we expect from it?"
"Oh no." Scupper held up a hand, reluctant to be drawn on the matter. "Best jus' to wait an' see fer yerselves. Words can't do it justice."
"Are there native peoples?" Sylarin queried.
"Yes," Scupper replied, "plen'y - pale skinned types called the Neathar. They're jus' simple savages an' live in tribes. We've already conquered the Nogai tribe but there's plen'y others causin' trouble. There's other people down there 'sides the Neathar but you'll be briefed fully in Haldemar."
"And how are the Neathar taking to the Alphatian incursion?"
Scupper shrugged. "They're fightin' it now but that's only 'cause they don't un'erstan' they'll be better off not resistin'. The sooner they bow to Alphatia, the better we can protect 'em from those evil bastard Heldanners."
"The Heldannic Knights, do you mean?" Adriana asked. "So it's not just the Alphatians who have established themselves down there..."
The old man nodded twice in response.
"So..." Adriana went on, "are we expected to defend this new settlement against the Heldannic Knights? Are they being particularly aggressive? What resources do they command?"
"Oh yes," Scupper replied, "the knights are right evil bastards an' nothin' but trouble. They mean to conquer the new world in the name of their precious Vanya. Lots of 'em are clerics so they 'ave magic an they know 'ow to make flyin' ships - their 'Warbirds' they call 'em. There's been plen'y of fightin' and there's bound ta be more."
"Flying... ships...?" Adriana echoed. Scupper nodded to indicate that she had heard correctly. She settled back in her seat to consider the gravity of this statement, wondering how on earth a clerical order had managed to acquire flight capability on as wide a scale as Scupper seemed to indicate.
Sylarin was next to voice questions. "This shaft is truly a remarkable construct, but I don't understand why you've chosen to build it using nonmagical means? Surely Alphatia could have excavated such a passage with impunity? And why choose Aegos to create such a portal? Surely the Alphatian mainland would be more defensible?"
"My guess is the Empress don't want the Council findin' out 'bout the new world 'til she's good an' ready ta let 'em know; keep control o' tha situation ya know? Tha wizards 'aven't been in'rested in Aegos since tha zoo collapsed hunerds o' years ago. Simple folks like us on Aegos be a lot easier to control than a bunch o' mighty wizards an' in any case magic would o' only got 'em so far. If there's two things dwarves can do well, it's dig an' keep their mouths shut so really it makes sense when ya think 'bout it."
"What about those digging contraptions?" Dudley asked. "The ones the gnomes are in, they seem rather active. Is the shaft still being completed?"
Scupper shook his head. "Tha Pit goes all tha' way ta Haldemar but we're makin' it bigger an' stablisin' it. Tha more o' these 'cars' we can get get goin' up an down the more troops we can get down an' the more treasure we can get up. Those gnomes, they're tryin' ta engineer a new type o' conveyance. This one'll go all tha time in tha same direction. Each car'll 'ave ta pass through some kinda thingy at each end ta 'elp it stay 'tached ta tha chain when tha chain passes through tha' pulley. I don' know 'ow it works, but tha gnomes say it'll work a'right. When that's done, we can 'ave bigger cars 'rivin' every hour or so ... an' then we'll really begin movin' troops in an' treasure out."
"Why build a shaft at all?" Sylarin asked. "Surely your wizards could simply teleport or gate your troops to this new world?"
"Har, har. Don't they wish! Ha! They would if they could, but magic don't work tha same down there. Some spells jus' won't go. An' no one seems to be able to get from tha world above to tha new world below by means o' magic. Somethin' 'tween tha two worlds keeps it from happenin' ... I'll desribe that a lil further down."
Despite his aversion to the heat, Giovanni was making a concerted effort to keep up with the conversation. "You mentioned treasure," he said weakly, "what resources are there to exploit in this new world?"
"Well there's the people fer a start - a ready made workforce jus' needin' some direction. An there's plen'y - an' I mean PLEN'Y - o' wood which we need fer buildin' our skyships. But there's real shiny treasure too - gold an silver an gemstones all buried in tha ground waitin' to be dug up. The savages don't 'ave no industries - they don' even farm - so they 'aven't mined any of it. It's jus' lyin' there fer Alphatia ta take an' take it we will. Har har."
Scupper glanced through a window as the cylinder passed yet another gnomish caterpillar-machine. Lighted from within, the glowing front windows resembled shining eyes. The machine crawled along the shaft wall, stopping to grind away a rocky projection with its nose cone and catching the debris in nets.
"Crazy gnomes," said Scupper. "Yer wouldn't get me in one o' those things."
As the cylinder continued its descent and the temperature kept on rising, Solchia spoke for the first time since entering the cylinder. "Where do you suppose Alphatia got all these gnomes and dwarves to do their digging for them?"
Jeremy shrugged. "Rockhome?" Then he said, "Think how much the Alphatians must be paying the dwarves for this. It must be..." He strained to think of a number but, never the most imaginative fellow, concluded with "lots!"
"Why does it grow so unbearably hot?" Giovanni gasped between attempts to inhale. "What can there be in these dank depths to provide such temperatures?"
Scupper smirked. "Well I reckon we must be more 'an five hundred miles down by now. Down in the earth there's these rivers o' fire. You 'eard of volcanoes right? Well all that fire o' theirs 'as to come fro' somewhere don't it. Course, some wizards say it's all gates to tha Plane o' Fire. I don't know 'bout stuff like that. Whatever - we're headin' for it."
Hearing this, Giovanni appeared less than reassured. "Could the gnomes not have seen fit to install some cooling devices?"
Scupper shrugged. "I guess tha Empress is more worried 'bout getting her troops down there quick than their comfort."
Down and down the cylinder went. Kelter changed out of his black-lacquered armour into the travelling clothes he had been wearing when the Darokinians first met him. Stryl and Torkia continued their game, while Scupper kept singing. His singing ability was only marginally better than his cooking.
Every hour or so the chain, and thus the cylinder, would pass through a short metal tunnel, fixed to the sides of the shaft with metal rods. As time went by, the heat which had been uncomfortable became unbearable. Eventually, it grew so hot that Stryl, Kelter and Scupper stripped until they were wearing just enough clothing to maintain a modicum of decency. Torkia did not even bother with that much but seemed comfortable wearing nothing more than a tiny strip of cloth around her waist. Jeremy joined in the disrobing. Solchia held out for as long as she could, proclaiming a little heat to be nothing to a servant of Ixion, but eventually she too was obliged to remove a few items.
Adriana seemed oblivious to the heat but stared at Kelter as if mesmerised. Dudley wasn't prepared to strip beyond taking off his hat so he endured the heat without saying much to the others, but sipped regularly on his waterflask. Ever the gentleman, Sylarin joined Dudley in maintaining decorum. Both did their utmost to not look at any of the ladies present in their varying states of undress. Giovanni loosened his clothes but was too focused on trying to breathe to give thought to anything else.
The heat continued its inexorable rise, to the point where Giovanni lost consciousness. The others did what they could to make him comfortable but made no attempt to rouse him, mainly out of compassion so that he wouldn't need to endure Scupper's singing or Stryl's tantrums when he lost at the dice game. Time slowly passed. The remaining party members drifted uncomfortably in and out of sleep until they became aware of a faint red glow coming from below. At this point Scupper informed them that roughly sixteen hours had passed since they had begun their descent.
"Comin' in ta Midpoint! A chance ta stretch yer legs." Scupper rose from his seat and moved to a nearby window. Dudley did likewise. Peering downward he observed a pool of lava filling the entire shaft beneath the cylinder, around three hundred feet below. Slowly the distance closed. Three hundred feet became two hundred. Became a hundred and fifty. Then the cylinder shuddered violently as it slowed and came to a halt one hundred feet above the lava. A large, rectangular platform could be seen about ten feet away and beyond that lay a large illuminated cavern. A drawbridge extended from the platform to connect with the cylinder. Once it was securely in place, Scupper unlocked the door and gestured for the passengers to disembark. They exited the cylinder and crossed the short bridge. The heat from the lava blistered their skin but once they stepped off the bridge the air proved much cooler.
"You 'ave an hour," Scupper called as the passengers cautiously exited. "Get somethin' ta eat or drink if ya like. 'Fraid you won't be gettin' no more meals from me. Stretch yer legs. Enjoy tha cool air. Jus' be back 'ere in an hour.
"Oh," he continued, "and mind ye don't touch the outside."
A howl went up, followed by whimpering. Everyone turned to see Jeremy pressing the fingers of one hand into his armpit, and biting his lip to suppress pain which was visible on his features.
Scupper turned back to address the others. "It's hot." His eyes widened to better convey his meaning. "HOT."
"Intriguing," Adriana murmured as she stepped off the walkway and onto the platform beyond where she surveyed her surroundings. "No human tool carved this surface. Nor any dwarf or gnome, for that matter. Do you see how smooth this edge is? And look - " she pointed "the same finish extends through the whole place. The area has been fashioned from the rock by magic. It must have taken a team of Alphatian wizards weeks to accomplish."
"Impressive," Sylarin commented. "Truly a colossal project for whoever carried out the work."
The platform was located within a large cave. Behind the passengers were a railing and four bridges extending out over the lava. In front were three of the gnomish centipede-like tunnelling machines.
While the others took in their surroundings and inspected some of the gnomish tunneling machines which were parked nearby, Giovanni (whom Kelter had helped to cross the walkway) walked away from the ominous red glow of the lava, heading toward the north. The others followed, apart from Torkia and Stryl who departed in the opposite direction.
Not wishing to be overheard by Giovanni, Solchia whispered to Sylarin. "Did you see that the chain our 'vessel' is on goes down into the lava?"
Sylarin nodded. "We will be placing our trust in gnomish engineering to an uncomfortable degree... But while we're here let's see what opportunities there are." He looked thoughtful for a second. "Think of the business opportunities such an environment presents - cooling baths, light clothing, cocktails "
Up ahead, Giovanni could be heard talking to himself and laughing quietly.
Solchia cast a concerned look at Giovanni and asked Sylarin, "Is he alright?"
"Not by the sounds of it," muttered Jeremy. "I think your friend is going mad. Aren't you glad you brought him along?"
"We'll keep an eye on him," Sylarin replied flatly.
Another drawbridge was passed on the right before the party descended a flight of steps into the cavern proper. It was dimly lit with a magical glow and the air was cooler. "More magic?" asked Solchia. "Almost certainly," replied Adriana. There did not appear to be much in this part of the cavern. The rough cave wall rose up ahead. To the right was the ominous glow of the lava however there was no safety railing along it. With a rumble and clank, one of the gnomish devices clambered up over the rim and then began to climb the cave wall, demolishing the odd rocky outcropping as it went. Looking to the left the cave appeared brighter in that direction and there were some buildings. The Darokinians were happy to head in this direction, seeing how it led away from the lava. It did not take long before they were at one end of a brightly lit open plaza. The air was pleasantly cool and easy to breathe. There were many tables and benches surrounded by stalls selling food and drink and the area was full of humans, dwarves and gnomes. Beyond the plaza were more buildings - some of these were two or three stories in height.
The companions wandered idly through the plaza area. Dudley received the odd curious look and dwarves muttered into their beards when Sylarin passed however nobody challenged their right to be there. The stall owners had boards advertising their produce - all written in Alphatian of course so it was a matter of looking to see what was available. Sylarin admitted that his recollection of Alphatian script remained dusty. Surprisingly, there seemed to be a great deal of choice: beef, mutton, duck, goose, smoked fish, various soups and broths, bread, cakes, pies, sweet pastries, fruits, cheeses and stuffed olives. There was also bewildering array of 'chilled' drinks - wines, water and fruit juice. One stall, run by a dwarf, offered mead, ales and strong spirits.
The humans in this area had mostly the coppery or golden brown skin tones of Stryl, Scupper and most folk who had been seen in Aegopoli. Some had darker coloration like Torkia whilst a few others were a more 'normal' colour. All were fit-looking adults in their prime. The Dwarves sat together or with Gnomes but the Gnomes and Humans seemed to be mixing freely with one another.
The food and drink turned out to be very reasonably priced, the total bill coming to just a few silver pieces. Worryingly, Giovanni was seen ordering strong liquor from the Dwarven vendor who was overheard issuing what might have been a warning. Dudley meanwhile had bought a leg of mutton and a tankard of ice-cold ale and approached a long table where some gnomes and two Alphatian-looking men moved up to make room for him and the other newcomers. Sylarin seated himself beside Dudley but, after partaking of some bread, cheese and chilled fruit juice, excused himself and slipped away in search of a quiet spot. His companions noticed that he left the Wanderer's Staff propped against their table, but took Rheddrian's blackwood staff with him.
Dudley smiled at the gnomes who were dressed in rough work clothes. They were red-faced and looked tired despite their cheerful demeanour.
"Good day and well met!" Dudley said, speaking Darokinian. "I see you are taking a break to enjoy this fine fare."
The Gnome blinked rapidly. "What?" he said in Thyatian. "Thin fur. Is that a reference to my going bald?"
A female Gnome said something in what the Darokinians assumed to be the Gnomes' own tongue.
"Oh you're Darokinian?" says the first Gnome. "Sorry, don't speak it." Then, very slowly he says, "Ahhh dooo NOT spayak tha linguini."
The female furrowed her brow and extended her head, which Dudley shook. "I'm Hydilly Firehand," she said in Darokinian. "The food is very good, isn't it? "I'm afraid not many around here will speak your language. Alphatian is obviously the preferred language for the humans and we speak our own tongue with the dwarves. You're best avoiding Thyatian but sometimes it's the only way to communicate if you don't speak Alphatian, Dwarvish, Thothian, Nuari or that strange Minrothad language."
"Alas," said Dudley, "most of our party don't speak any of those languages. Do you hail from the Republic? There certainly seems to be many of your kind here, where are most people from and how did you get involved with this digging endeavour?"
"I'm not from Darokin," Hydilly replied, "but I've spent a lot of time there and in the Shires... and in Karameikos too. A bit in Thyatis and a spell in Ierendi. You're on your way down right? Well, you'll soon pick up a bit of Neathar then. Everyone does. It's easy - a Kobold could learn it. What was I saying? Oh yes. There's a lot of us here but as you can see this is a BIG project and very exciting - a real challenge. Some came with the Dwarves from an Alphatian kingdom called Stoutfellow, which you've probably never heard of but most of us are from somewhere else. The Alphatians couldn't do this without us, that's for sure. Their Empress must have spent several dozen Dragon hoards on this dig and you might think she's mad but she knew there's no such thing as impossible where a Gnome's concerned and came straight to us for advice so she must be as wise as they say."
"How long has it taken to excavate the tunnel?" Dudley asked.
"Well this is my second year on the dig. I suppose planning began about five years ago and digging a year after that. We would have started sooner but the Dwarves insisted on testing everything beyond the BT before we began. We finally broke through earlier this year."
Dudley took this in. "And I'm curious how we are to penetrate the lava field beneath our capsule - can you explain the principal?"
His question prompted an excited and highly technical lecture on specially treated self-regulating alloys. It continued for around ten minutes. Dudley nodded politely at intervals but really only understood the first twenty seconds or so of the discourse.
"Well," he interjected when Hydilly finally resumed eating. "I hope the Empress is remunerating you handsomely for taking on such a massive project and for being so far from home. Come to think of it," a thought occurred to him, "you never mentioned where you hail from...?" He left the question hanging.
"Didn't I? Oh well, there you go. I'm from Serraine. So anyway, the Empress sent a personal invite for some of our senior engineers to meet with her and once word got out of the nature of the project there were plenty of volunteers. We're getting plenty of gold of course but it's the challenge that has been the real reward."
"Serraine? Is that another Alphatian kingdom?"
"Um no. No it's not. Most certainly not."
Dudley appeared totally confused. "Where IS this Serraine then?"
Hydilly met Dudley's eye and said, "I don't know." She then excused herself, said something to the other Gnomes around the table and left.
"So where is Serraine?" Dudley asked aloud.
The remaining Gnomes smiled blankly at Dudley. Either they didn't understand or were pretending not to. One or two nodded and mumbled, "Mmmhmm, Serraine."
Unwilling to let the geographical mystery lie, Dudley targeted one of the gnomes who had mumbled about Serraine. "Ah so you're familiar with Serraine? Excellent. Whereabouts is it exactly?"
Some of the Gnomes looked at him. Some looked very interested in their food or wandered off. The humans at the table (or others nearby) glanced curiously at the Halfling who kept saying 'Serraine' over and over. One Gnome shrugged and appeared to ask a question in Alphatian of the humans in general. Everyone shook their heads or shrugged in return.
Solchia said, "I don't know if anyone else here speaks Darokinian. It seems remarkable that even that one Gnome woman did."
"I imagine you're right, Solchia," Dudley replied. "But I'll say this." He cleared his throat before raising his voice. "It's a sad day when folk of modest stature can't be open with one another. A sad day indeed!" He swigged from his tankard before setting it down and staring morosely at the tabletop.
Sylarin rejoined his companions a few moments later, setting Rheddrian's staff to rest against the table.
"Well," he whispered, keeping an eye on Kelter who he wished to remain out of earshot, "I've made contact and reported our progress. We're to attempt to re-establish contact in a week's time, but otherwise we have no further instructions."
Kelter finished his meal and looked up when Sylarin finished speaking. "Hello. Done exploring? Anything more to see?" He pointed out Torkia and Stryl making their way across the plaza, heading in the direction of the platform. "Perhaps we should be getting back to Scupper."
The party cleared away their empty plates and drinking vessels before making their way back across the plaza and back to the steps leading up to the rectangular platform. After the pleasantly cool atmosphere of the plaza, the heat of the lava below the bridge hit them with force. Scupper was waiting by the walkway. "Fed and watered?" he asked. "Go to tha plaza did ya? They 'ave some good stuff thar."
Sylarin answered him. "Yes indeed - a surprising array of commodities considering the location - how many people live in this settlement?"
Before Scupper could respond to Sylarin's question, there came a commotion at the back of the group. Giovanni, who had been mumbling under his breath, took a step backward from the chasm and said, "No. I won't go back into that thing! I won't go down into that... that inferno! You can't make me!" He reached to his scabbard and drew forth his rapier while continuing to back away from the bridge.
"Great!" said Jeremy cheerily.
"Exactly how much has he drunk?" Adriana asked.
"Dunno," Jeremy replied. "But it's a good thing he had that dwarven liquor."
"Come, my friend," Dudley said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. "Look at all these folk who regularly come and go from down below, this must be a safe means of transport or they wouldn't let us get on it."
Giovanni shook his head, continuing to back away.
Scupper swore loudly. Kelter approached Giovanni with both hands held out. "My friend," he said, "I have seen your bravery and your swordsmanship. Even the greatest heroes know fear sometimes but that does not make them cowards. No one is going to force you to do anything. Just take my hand for a moment..."
Giovanni hesitated for a moment, his rapier pointing towards Kelter as he advanced, then dropped the point of his weapon and beckoned for Kelter to approach.
Kelter smiled and closed the distance. He reached to take hold of Giovanni. Grasping his hand, Kelter said, "May Balthac release you from your fear." In that moment Giovanni felt his fear and anxiety evaporate.
Giovanni looked into Kelter's eyes, nodded, then lowered his head in shame. He sheathed his rapier and walked towards the rest of the group. "I'm sorry, my friends, I don't know what came over me."
Scupper clapped Kelter on the back. "Well done lad. We can't 'ave no disruptions now." Torkia and Stryl glanced at Giovanni and exchanged looks with one another as they re-entered the cylinder. Scupper asked everyone to shut and fasten their windows. He then checked to make sure the windows were all shut correctly before handing out cheap-looking leather bags and finally sat down in his chair muttering to himself. Sylarin heard him say, "I hate this part," in Alphatian.
"What part?" Sylarin asked.
"Jus' 'old on tight" Scupper cried as the cylinder jerked into sudden motion and plummeted a hundred feet, bringing everyone's hearts into their mouths. The cylinder hit the lava pool at high speed and immediately sank into its fiery depths. The temperature inside the cylinder rose rapidly and the air became very hot and stuffy. The cylinder continued to sink into the lava for what seemed an eternity, downward and downward. Soon the passengers were all struggling to draw breath and felt as though they were burning alive. Then something very strange happened. They each began to feel dizzy and had an odd sensation of becoming lighter. To Sylarin and Adriana it felt like the effects of a Levitate or Fly spell but without any control, which was rather alarming. Then they began to float out of their chairs. Holding on wasn't easy as the chairs were rotating at random in their spherical housings. Dudley began to wish he hadn't eaten at Midpoint as his stomach considered rebelling... He managed to exert control however, as did Jeremy, Scupper and Stryl. Solchia, Adriana and even Kelter looked very ill but managed to keep it together. Sylarin and Torkia needed to resort to their little leather bags. Meanwhile Giovanni's body, after his vast consumption of alcohol at Midpoint, had been left ill-prepared to cope with the experience. He was horribly sick before losing consciousness for a second time.
A brief moment followed when the cylinder seemed to be almost stationary. After a few minutes, the queasiness subsided and the passengers could feel their weight again. Their chairs gradually swivelled around until they all faced the same way. The cylinder was beginning to slow down; oddly enough, it seemed to have reversed direction during the period of weightlessness and was now rising instead of falling.
Then, unexpectedly, the cylinder popped back out of the magma and was back at Midpoint. "Everyone out," said Scupper.
Disorientated and compliant the passengers did so, emerging back onto a metal walkway. The outside of the cylinder was glowing red. "Don't touch 'less you wanna burn yer 'and off," Scupper warned.
Jeremy nodded obediently.
Giovanni was unconscious and covered in vomit, and needed to be carried out by his companions.
The Darokinians stood looking at each other, trying to come to terms with their journey into the heart of the world and all it had entailed so far. Scupper didn't look to have enjoyed the previous stage any more than anybody else.
Finally, Jeremy broke the silence. "So why are we back in Midpoint?"
"Actually," Solchia replied, "I don't think this is the same place." Looking around, Adriana and Sylarin to nodded to signal their agreement.
Scupper explained. "The Midpoint we stopped at on tha way down is Midpoint Up, on the other side o' tha lava. This is Midpoint Down. It may feel like we're goin' up now but then everythin's turned round down 'ere in fact, we're still goin' in the exact same direction we were before an to answer yer question from 'fore yer friend went mad - a few hundred folk stay in Midpoint at any one time. Dwarves are happy to stay for months on end but no human has to stay for more than a week unless they want to. Course, our new slaves won't be gettin' much say in the matter but the plan is for them to be fighters, not miners or food merchants."
Strangely, it did not take long for the cylinder to return to a temperature that was merely uncomfortable, rather than potentially fatal, and Scupper ushered everyone back inside. He opened the windows and announced that any 'used' bags could be discarded into the lava.
Then the cylinder began to rise once more.
"So wha'd'ya think so far?" asked Scupper cheerfully.
Sylarin piped up: "I don't think we're being paid enough."
Scupper scowled. "Well that's a pity," he said sharply, "but you're in tha army now an' that's that."
Back in the surface world it would have been the middle of the night so, with conversation having been long exhausted, one by one the passengers drifted off to sleep. They awoke an unknown period of time later to find the cylinder still ascending. They passed another cylinder going in the opposite direction and several of the Gnomish tunnelling devices crawling around the walls of the shaft.
"Just a few more hours," said Scupper. "When we get up top you'll find out what yer duties'll be."
Sylarin looked over at Dudley once both were awake. "I think we'd need to review the travel arrangements before we opened this new world up to the tourist trade..."
The new world
Thankfully the suffocating heat was no more. Eventually, more than a full day after the cylinder had begun to descend, the travelers became aware of a reddish glow filling the shaft. The glow grew brighter until finally the cylinder emerged into open air. Scupper directed the passengers to gather all of their belongings and to make sure nothing had been left behind. That done, they exited into the new world.
Stiff, sore and weary the Darokinians left the cylinder, blinking as their eyes struggled to adjust to the light. They were standing at the mouth of a giant pit surrounded by apparatus just like that where they had first boarded - but here there was no building housing the machinery. They were in the centre of a town. Dwarves and Gnomes busied themselves inspecting the newly arrived 'car' as the party stood gazing around. It was very warm and seemed to be high noon. The sun hung directly overhead but was very different from the sun of the surface world. It was red and although they did not gaze at it directly they thought they could see it 'pulsating' out of the corner of their eyes.
"Ixion," murmured Solchia, clearly unnerved at the discovery of this 'second' sun.
Scupper heard her. "Yes," he said, "the sun's the first thing most folks see that's diff'ernt but that's not all. Remember this: on our maps we've reversed west an' east. If yer headin north and are told to go east you turn LEFT. Got it? Now, time to find out what you'll be doin'. There's five groups here. The Pliers and Yardarms are two of 'em but you won't be joining."
A pair of officials approached to speak with Scupper. A gnome scrambling over the cylinder nearly fell down the pit. A shadow passed overhead and the Darokinians looked up to see a flying ship pass over them. "Oh look, a flying boat," said Jeremy dully.
Sylarin and Giovanni stared in awe at the airborne vessel. Sylarin said, "imagine the trade one might conduct with one of those at one's disposal... incredible."
"Right," said Scupper, speaking in Alphatian (which Sylarin translated) and gesturing to Kelter, Stryl and Torkia, "you three are going into the Army of Alphatia." Stryl nodded, seeming pleased. "The rest o' you come with me. You're in the Army of Aegos. Now, yer barracks are in the northeast of town. That way is north so who wants to lead us the right way?"
After Scupper was done speaking, Sylarin pointed in a direction forty-five degrees to the left of the direction which Scupper had indicated as North. "I believe from your preceding statement that this is the correct route to embark upon."
Sylarin then turned to Kelter, Torkia and Stryl. Despite his bedraggled state he struck an upright pose and said, "my friends, we have come through much together and find ourselves in a wondrous new land. I thank you for your assistance and companionship and hope to meet you again before long." He drew his rapier and issued a sharp salute to the three, returned it to its scabbard and executed a low bow.
Feeling emotional, Dudley mumbled something which echoed what Sylarin had said before bowing and sweeping his floppy hat - mainly in Kelter's direction.
Watching Kelter getting ready to depart, Adriana looked as though her world was falling apart but said nothing.
Kelter waved a cheery farewell. "This town can't be that big. We're bound to see each other again before too long."
Torkia said goodbye to all the others on behalf of herself and Stryl. The Alphatian fighter spoke only to Sylarin, saying "You're good to have in a fight. The Empire could do with a few more like you."
The trio departed, leaving Scupper to address the Darokinians:-
"Right you are. Not 'ard is it? You'll be fine. Now, I'm taking you to meet your commanding officer - Lieutenant Stolander. Don't know 'im myself; he's not from Aegos. I gather he's harsh but fair. As I said, there're five groups 'ere in Haldemar. The Army of Aegos is responsible for defending the town and putting the savages in their place. The Army of Alphatia is mostly made up of the savages. They're natural fighters but they need trainin' to fight like Alphatians. Tha's what yer friends'll be doin'. Then there's the navy - he points up at the ship above you. Lastly, as I told yers, there's the Yardarms - tha's the gnomes - and the Pliers - tha's the dwarves from Denwarf-Hurgon."
The town streets were just dirt tracks, there was no paving. The buildings were clearly built for function rather than beauty - they suspected dwarves were responsible. Most had porches under which individuals who wished to talk could group to escape the glare of the noon sun. The newcomers noticed that, in this light, the colours of their skin and clothing seemed deeper and richer than they did before.
"Better let Sylarin talk fer yers," said Scupper. "I'm a man o' tha world but Stolander won't put up with no one talkin' nothin' but Alphatian."
"I wonder will they promote us to the Navy?" Dudley mused out loud. "Imagine the escapades we could have on one of those enchanted vessels." He turned to address Scupper. "I don't suppose you know where the gnomes come from? Those we spoke to at Midpoint Plaza mentioned Serraine but they weren't more specific."
Scupper chuckled. "No, I don't suppose they were. Serraine is a gnome city of no fixed address."
Dudley stared at the man in disbelief. "No... fixed... address," he repeated. "Do you mean to say it wanders between locations? How can a place be capable of movement?" He reflected on his own query and his face registered alarm. "To imagine a city whose exact location can't be mapped, what horror!"
Sylarin wandered up in the midst of the conversation. "For that matter I don't recall hearing of Denwarf-Hurgon before - is it a location here in the Hollow World?"
"Denwarf-Hurgon," the old man said slowly, "and I'll be damned if I'm sayin' that right is the capital of Stoutfellow. Never been there myself but I hear it's a kingdom in Alphatia that's jus' full o' dwarves, gnomes and halflings. Well, here's yer barracks."
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