First off, I want to say how humbled both myself and the team were by the amount of amazing stories that were submitted. What I thought would be an easy task in selecting the best turned out to be quite the epic quest! One that I must admit, I could not complete without some alterations to my plan! Which is why every day this week, I will be publishing one of our favorite FIVE Tales of the Underworld!
Today, we begin with a tale of unexpected adventure. Join me in celebrating Corlag the Bard’s Tale of the Underworld.
Krelm and the Underworld – Part 1
A Shroud of the Avatar Fan Fiction
It all started when Krelm ventured north east into the forest, to hunt for a stag to feed his family. It had been a lean year for crops, and what little they had after their tithes had not lasted long. They would starve if he didn’t make the journey. That would be a worse fate than risking the danger that lie within these woods.
The Baron’s men had set upon him as he was taking aim with his bow on a great beast of a stag, with ten points adorning its velvet covered crown. It was punishable by death to be caught hunting in the Baron’s woods. Without hesitation, and with little regret, he loosed the arrow in their direction, falling one of their steeds, which fell on and rolled over its master, crushing him beneath its weight. Chaos broke out amongst the small band of patrolling guards. Five remained, and they all had horses.
He had fled deeper into the forest before they could recover from their shock. The thicker forest and gullies would provide him much needed advantage if he was going to have any chance at escaping. Thankfully, the large hood of his cloak had hidden his face. All he had to assure was that they did not catch him, and they would be none the wiser as to whom was in the forest, hunting the Baron’s stags.
He bounded up a root strewn hill, and leaped off the other side, landing in on his right thigh into a slide. Nothing mattered but escape, not the pain, not the lack of breath; not the hunger in his belly. For his family, he would risk everything. His feet hit the bottom of the ravine and he sprung up into a run immediately, following a shallow creek bed south into the darkest part of the forest.
Shouts echoed out over the ravine has the patrol crested the hill, hot on his trail. He risked a glance over his right shoulder at them. They were cautiously guiding their horses down the hill. Soon they would catch up if he didn’t make it to the thick forest ahead. They would be forced to pursue on foot from there. Vines, roots, rocks, and thorn bushes had claimed this inner most sanctum of the forest as their own, and they had grown thick as a wall baring invaders from their realm.
His feet splashed and sloshed as he bounded through the stream. He slipped his axe out of his belt as he approached the wall of foliage, and bolted up the opposite side of the ravine, looking for the easiest place to cut a path beyond the barrier. He hacked and slashed his way through a promising hole in the brambles, barely big enough to crawl through. He could hear the horses in the ravine below now, and knew he had little time left. He pushed forward on his belly through the brambles, using his arms to shield his face and neck from their cutting needles. His heart was racing, and it felt like a full day had passed by the time he had made it beyond the first barrier to an overgrown clearing full of green leafy plants and canopied by towering pines, poplars and firs. Only the slimmest bit of sunlight made it through the canopy.
He needed to find a place to hide. The soldiers would not tarry long here, for days end would mean death most certainly in this place. Wasting no time, he bounded over bushes and clumps of tall grass, leaving as little natural path for them follow as possible. The thickness of the trees would provide him cover as he moved further away from where they would emerge. Distant curses alerted him that they had made it through the barrier, just as he spotted an ancient tree that towered above all the others around it. A hollow barely big enough for a slender man without armor to squeeze into. Risking whatever may lurk within, he tightened his cloak around himself, un-shouldered his bow and quiver and wiggled his way inside. It was dark beyond measure inside, but spacious enough for many men to fit comfortably. He was able to stand to full height, and could not feel a roof above him as he reached into the darkness above with his axe. He sat against the inner trunk of the tree, facing the opening, his bow in his lap with a nocked arrow, preparing for the worst.
It felt like hours passed as he sat in the dark bowels of the ancient tree, like a trapped rabbit waiting to be pounced on by a wolf. He could see what little light there was outside beginning to fade as the sun began to set behind the western mountains. A glimmer of hope entered his mind for a moment, but was shattered as he saw the flicker of torchlight on the ground outside. A dry branch cracked beneath a solid footfall, followed by a muffled curse. He slowly and quietly stood and moved further back in the darkness of the tree, ready to draw and fire his bow on whoever dared to look inside.
Krelm listened to the men argue amongst themselves as to who would take a look inside. Eventually one of them felt brave enough to show them all how silly they were being, and poked his head inside, his arm outstretched before him with a lit torch so that he could see what lurked in the depths of the shadows. Before his eyes could adjust to see past the torchlight in front of his face, an arrow hit the soldier in the left eye, killing him instantly. His body slumped to the ground awkwardly in the opening, and the torch hit the ground and rolled towards Krelm. He lunged to put it out with his foot as he nocked another arrow. There were four men left that yet threatened his life. His first flurry of stomps failed to scuff out the flames, so he jumped on the torch with both feet, in an attempt to smother it of oxygen as he pushed it into the soil.
A loud crack deafened him into a state of shock as the ground beneath him and the torch gave way to emptiness beneath, and began a freefall decent. A surreal sense of falling in a dream took over all of his senses, and his life flashed through his mind as he flailed his arms, losing his grip on the bow and nocked arrow as he did so. All he could see was darkness as he prepared for the end. His scream finally found his throat, moments before he saw a feint glow rising to meet him.
A moment later the darkness shot away in all directions as he cleared whatever dark hole he had been in, and the sudden awe shocked him harder than his predicament of falling into the unknown, drowning his scream in his throat once again. A giant pool of water was rising to meet him swiftly, its depths glimmering with a greenish blue glow. The site of it all overwhelmed his senses as he fell into the ancient stone cavern, with pillars of rusty brown stone holding up the world above him. Stalactites and stalagmites were everywhere, and islands of dirt, stone and crystal littered this giant cavern. He thought he saw something purple and pink flutter about near a distant pillar.
He slammed into the surface of the water awkwardly before he could fully take in his surroundings, unaware of its sudden arrival. He felt his left arm go numb, and immediately he was flailing against the warm water, trying to find the surface through a storm of bubbles that filled his vision. He let his natural buoyancy do the majority of the work, and he broke the surface like a cork shooting out of a wine bottle as he gulped in a number of large breaths. He tread water as he looked around for solid ground. Not far to his left was an island covered in yellowy green mushrooms that towered like trees, and purple plants with tiny blue flickering orbs of light moving about them like bees after pollen on flowers. A few layered stalagmites reached toward the chamber’s stone ceiling far above, and water trickled out of the top of the center most spire, eddying in small pools along the mineral’s surface, before following a small stream out into the pool of water. Everything glimmered in this place, and an overwhelming sense of peace filled his heart and mind. He swam ashore and lowered himself against the smooth stone to catch his breath. A hiss and a splash sounded as the torch he had attempted to stomp out hit the water where he had been, followed by a small shower of debris that used to be the floor of the tree above.
Exhaustion hovered like a threatening storm cloud at the edges of his vision as he tried to focus on his surroundings, and his thoughts became muddied. He failed to get up off the ground half a dozen times before laying still. Darkness crept across his vision until his new world faded from view. He dreamt of his family, and cried out for them in his nightmare, forever just out of reach. Then there was the fall. He dreamt about it over and over, forever falling. As he dreamt of the ground rising to meet him, he startled awake just before impacting. He had no idea how long he had been unconscious. Hunger ripped at his belly, and he looked around for anything that looked edible. He had no idea what he could trust in this environment, but if he didn’t try eating something, he would starve to death either way. Clumps of mushrooms were everywhere, sometimes forming small circles. It seemed as good a thing to try as any. He picked a number of them and ate his fill.
A tingled began to spread throughout his body, starting from his belly and spreading in all directions. At first he feared the worst. Had he had ingested deadly poisonous mushrooms? When pain or convulsions failed to follow his heart settled. He felt oddly energized, and he felt as though he could lift a mountain. He laughed as he jumped to his feet to survey his surroundings with fresh eyes and energy.
Crystals of all sizes jutted from the stone pillars and walls of the cavern all around him, and the glow from the water lit everything with an almost sun like quality. A land bridge just beneath the water’s surface formed a path that wove through the center of the water, branching out to circle around each of the stone pillars. A dark violet haze formed the only darkness in the distance, and even that emanated a glow of dancing colors. Little orbs of bright blue floated and fluttered about the cavern, and once again he thought he spotted a purple and pink creature moving about on one of the stone pillars.
Cautiously, he made his way along the land path, the shallow water splashing about and sending ripples across the glass like surface as he did so. Ripples reflected in the glowing light on all the surfaces, magnified by some of the crystals in places. As he approached the stone pillar in question, he heard something scuttle across the stone surface, and caught the tail of something as it moved out of view on the opposite side of the pillar. He kept his hand on the hilt of his axe just in case he needed to defend himself quickly, but felt there was no immediate danger. He waited patiently where he stood, hoping to catch a glimpse of the creature, and to ascertain if it was threatening or not. The silence was broken by a series of screams and splashes back from where he had come, and a loud thud. He looked back, and to his horror, saw three of the soldiers flailing about in the water. A fourth had hit the rocky island that he had slumbered on, his body shattered and bleeding.
He cursed under his breath. What drove them to follow him he wondered as he turned and fled deeper into the cave before they could collect themselves and spot him. He needed to find a way out of this place, but part of him felt as though he could live down here forever, and be at peace with that fate. What about his family thought? They needed him more now than ever. It drove him forward into the unknown with a renewed determination. Krelm spotted an old looking wooden bridge over a small chasm in the cavern, and a short ways beyond it, a cave let led into darkness. It was the first opening he had seen leading away from this main cavern. Glowing water trickled and flowed over the edges of the chasm into another body of water far below as he crossed the bridge. Again he thought to himself, ‘What is this place?’ Clearly someone or something lived down here. Where else could that bridge have come from?
It was magnificent, and his mind was racing at all the possibilities of what it could be. He knew that even if he made it out of this place alive, he would be back. It wasn’t a thought so much as a certainty in his bones. He raced into the dark opening before slowing down; looking over his shoulder to be sure the soldiers had not spotted him. There was no sign of them. The tunnel had a slight incline to it which seemed promising, but without light, it would be slow going. He kept one hand on the rock wall on his left as he slowly progressed ever upward. The tunnel began to spiral slightly but consistently, and it felt like days were passing by as he climbed. A gust of fresh air hit his face, and his heart jumped as he thought he saw the darkness begin to break ahead. He picked up the pace, and before long could see light ahead. He burst from the tunnel to blinding light as his eyes quickly tried to adjust, and once they came into focus, he found himself standing in the middle of a thick forest glade. Sunlight pierced the canopy of trees overhead, casting rays of light across the foliage in random locations. He had no idea which way the edge of the forest was that would lead him home to the south west. He needed to see the sky to spot the location of the sun. Deciding that the quicker he picked a direction, the quicker he would find his way home; he chose a direction and headed off into the forest.
Krelm spent the better part of two days finding his way out of the forest, and when he finally emerged, he found himself far to the south, near some farm lands a great distance from his own home. Relief overwhelmed him as he emerged from the forest, falling to his knees and letting the sunlight kiss his upturned face. He had managed to find a fresh water stream and followed it out of the forest. He had not hungered since eating the mushrooms in the cave, nor had he needed to sleep. But he had needed plenty of water, more than usual he felt. After resting on a small hillside overlooking the farmlands for a short while, he got to his feet and began his long journey home to his family. He would need to make a new bow and quiver, and then be off to hunt again to provide for his family if they were to make it through these lean times. The cavern was never far from his mind, and the mystery of what lay deep beneath the surface ached in his mind. It haunted his dreams, filling him with a tingling sensation every night, and he began to hear a voice beckoning for him in his sleep; soft and distant, yet familiar.
His wife and son were going about the days chores when he arrived home four days later, looking worn and ragged. They ran to meet him, wrapping their arms around him as they wept with joy that he was alive and well despite his outward appearance. He smiled as he took his wife’s face in his hands, tilted her chin up and kissed her deeply. They begged to know what happened, but he would not speak of the events within possible earshot of others in the village. They went about the rest of the day completing the chores in silence. That evening, over dinner inside their quaint little home, he told them everything in a hushed voice. His son listened intently, his jaw almost on the floor, and his stew untouched as he was mesmerized by Krelm’s tale. The glint in his wife’s eyes spoke of her amazement and held an unspoken request of never return to that place. She knew better than to ask such a thing of him. He would provide for his family first and foremost, but when the time was right, he would return to that place. He finished his tale, and beckoned for his son to eat his stew and then crawl into bed.
That evening, he slept with his arms wrapped around his wife, a safeguard for his unconscious mind that would keep him tethered to this world if the voice returned. He knew already that the underworld would claim him when he eventually returned to that place.