For our final featured Tale of the Underworld, I will let Grandmaster Bard Holt Ironfell make his own introduction.
Follow Grandmaster Bard Holt Ironfell and his most trusted friends as they escape a world where the villains have already won, in order to protect a dangerous secret. Stepping through an ancient and hidden moongate, they end up lost in a vast and foreign Underworld, only to encounter a horrifying evil of the depths.
A Forgotten Secret in the Underworld
as told by Grandmaster Bard Holt Ironfell
Or for those weary of reading, just listen! – Narrated by the bard himself.
Perhaps you think all adventures end well, but travel with trusted friends long enough, and you witness death, and worse. That is the Underworld as I know it: death, and worse. I have been but once, and only great necessity would drive me back. I shall tell you my tale. Perhaps in doing so, I shall save your life, or make the wise amongst you forget the idea altogether.
I once told you that the world I am originally from has no heroes, I told you that the villains won. You know me as a Grandmaster of Bards, a man who has forgotten more secrets than you have ever known. When I sought to escape, the methods I was forced to use were not only illegal, but jealously guarded by the most wicked and powerful evils of my world.
To accomplish my escape from my birthplace, a desert world which now threatened to profoundly destroy me, I had to bring some old friends with me. Heroes we were not. We wanted out, needed out, before our pasts caught up to us, and we were willing to do anything… Try anything.
In the middle of the tablelands desert, past the warlike tribes and feral humans, inside a mesa’s deep fissure, hidden on a dark wall, was a gateway surrounded by runes, the likes of which had faded from the memory of this world, if they were ever a part of its history in the first place.
It was the Omari ranger, Moonblade, who had come to me about it. He had ventured into the city-state that controlled the Northlands, in search of me. A rare event, as the Omari were of the deep desert, and preserved the larger part of what precious virtues they could hold onto by staying clear of the so called ‘civilized’ places. So it was that Moonblade found this ancient thing in the lost and dying lands.
I was affluent and connected, powerful enough with the Bardic Circles and rich enough to have bribed myself into relative comfort and ease, but there was something very dangerous now that would inevitably lead me to a fate much worse than death. Sorcery of all sorts — psionics, elementalism, any deviant knowledge of any kind — was illegal in the city-states, for they were ruled by terrible and mighty god-kings. Even reading, which I had learned how to do long ago, was punishable by death for the common man. But I had learned a secret about my world that had terrified me to my very core, a secret at long last, which would be my doom.
I told Moonblade to meet me at the ruins of an old fortress to the west, in eighty-six moonrises. Although time was short, I had made promises to some people which I intended to keep; that is not to go alone.
First, Jobi Mockery: my jester. He and I had long ago stolen an elixir from the gypsies, back when they were favoured by a powerful sorcerer and had access to such treasures. We could not be sure of our success, as to measure its effects would take a long, long time. I admit, we could easily have stolen a potion that did nothing. But seventy five years later, we hadn’t aged, and everyone who knew of our heist was dead.
I have many tales of Jobi’s exploits but the gist of it is that of all my friends, Jobi was the most at home in a world of villains. If he wasn’t possessed by a lust for poetic justice, he’d have been one himself. But, a more clever thief and abstract thinker, I knew not. If there were puzzles in our path, or traps to overcome, Jobi could take on the perspective of those who had put them there in the first place.
He was not hard to find, always where the trouble was. The problem was the trouble. I found him in the South, posing as a noble of questionable but unverifiable origins. Did I mention we’d faked our deaths a few times? A consequent necessity of elixirs of everlasting life.
There were others that I had sent for, and who came.
Caitlin-Ji had served honourably and blindly in the North and gone deeply into the trust of the powers that be. She had been hard and cruel, but there was virtue hidden in her, and she had hidden it from even the mindbenders of the Sisterhood, to whom she had almost been made a brainwashed slave. But she had turned it around. She knew their powers, knew that they controlled the North with their psionic manipulations. Before she left with me, she desired to fulfil one last task: to slay their Precentor, who possessed a legendary longsword made of steel, the rarest of metals in my world, though common in yours.
The Sisterhood’s Precentor knew what a man was thinking before he thought it. It was unthinkable to kill Her… except for someone with an escape plan like mine. And Caitlin was the best of the best. No one understood how she did what she did though, because no one understood the virtue she had hidden within, driving her.
Ceridwen, my great grandson and an Ironfell, was older than I technically was, but he had believed my tale when I had revealed it to him. He was an accomplished bard, with an apprentice, Kialyra Greyroot. He played the violin with such soul that it had possessed a nation with its enchantment. Who could suspect that violin? It was impossible for most to comprehend why someone would use outlawed magic not for power but for music, and so, in this wretched world, it went unremarked upon by the authorities.
Kialyra clung to Ceridwen and was as lovely a songstress as he could have hoped for: meek, humble but intensely loyal. In the South, where Ceridwen owned a tavern and a home across the plaza, they were like an oasis in a desert of cruelty, poverty and corruption. They would be needed, wherever we ended up: this world was undeserving of them, and if they did not come with me, once I had left in the manner I would leave they would be hunted down as accomplices anyway. I would not leave such beauty stranded here. If only I had realized… well, we’ll come to that soon enough, I promise.
And so it was that that eighty-sixth moonless night came where we gathered at the old ruins in the west, the last remnants of civilization before the ash of the desert consumed all. I, Holt Ironfell, Grandmaster Bard; Ceridwen, my only living decendant; Kialyra, as I learned, his truest of loves; Jobi Mockery, my oldest friend, and Caitlin-Ji, having concluded her own epic tale in this world — met the Omari, Moonblade, and we six set out into exile across the hateful expanse of the tablelands in order to escape the world forever.
Hidden by the short night and in the long hot day that followed, a large drably garbed group like us could pass unharassed, at least one way through the unruled territories, before a warparty of insane ferals or brutal tribesmen could respond. Fortunately, we only needed to go one way.
As dusk drew near, a curious thing happened in the sky. A secret so well kept that it was a thing forgotten, but a thing Jobi and I knew, because we had seen it once before. So precious and so dangerous was this secret, that we had lived two hundred years hiding it.
We knew the secret of the moongates. The true secret. Knowledge that had started wars between powerful Avangeons and members of the ancient Council, leading to one of them turning to wickedness and becoming a creature so powerful that he laid waste the land, sucking the life force from it and then mysteriously disappearing from the world. So were our oldest legends, our oldest myths.
As the sun set perfectly over the dust and silt, the three moons rose over the tablelands, like slow soft notes in a chord of a heavenly hymn, a synchrony that had happened only once in our unnaturally long lives before. But we were young then, and we hadn’t stepped through. We didn’t know what we’d stumbled upon, and it had closed. When the Templarate in the North had found out about the occurrence, they destroyed the site completely. They’d have destroyed us too, had they known we were witnesses.
For two hundred years we had sought another gate, and waited.
Moonblade stepped back from the fissure and uttered quietly: “We have little time. Come my friends.”
My gaze turned from those familiar moons for the final time and I entered the rocky fissure. The darkness grew as night came on, but the moons rose and their dim light found its way through the cracks and hit the runes upon the wall, which began to resonate with immense power. The stone wall warped into life. Energy, beautiful beyond imagine, welcoming us. Within minutes it would be gone. We looked at one another, knowing not the perils that awaited us on the far side of the moongate, but knowing well the ones on this side, and that it was too late, even now, to turn back.
I have promised you a tale of the Underworld, but to understand my tale, one must understand how I got there.
It was dark on the other side. There were no stars, nor moons, and the shining gate was gone. All was a cold silence. We could hear eachother’s breath, and the echo of our own scuffling feet and gear. We had absolutely no idea where the moongate had taken us, save that we must be deep underground. I had the immediate and disorienting sense of being hopelessly lost.
“Are we alright? Ceridwen? ‘Lyra?” I spoke, echoing as if a large cavern lay overhead.
“Do not move.” Moonblade’s voice. “There could be a chasm, I’ll have light going soon.”
A torch flared in his hand, held aloft, lighting first his weatherworn face, and then the ground around us, and dimly, a circle of stones, which we stood in the middle of. A fine layer of undisturbed silt lay everywhere.
Caitlin-Ji, the pragmatist amongst us, spoke: “We must get to the surface.”
“There might not be a surface,” Jobi Mockery, unhelpfully offered, but he was right.
Kialyra frowned, crossed arms, worrying about what lay beyond the light of our torch, with Ceridwen placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.
Moonblade was silent, listening, watching. He was our ranger, after all, and served us well. The Omari were fearless, one with the land, and even untold trillions of miles from his desert, on another world, was the first to figure it out.
“There is oxygen enough for the fire, and the smoke rises and catches a faint current of air. The fire seeks the exit too. We shall be like the smoke, and rise to the surface.”
A very shamanistic moment, all told. We followed the smoke. There was no time, in the Underworld. No directions. We were ever watchful of down suddenly opening up, as a drop into some chasm or cavern could easily be lethal. Movement was tedious.
That’s when we heard it. Water. A faint but constant echo, an unmistakable tap tap tap of water. We did not question Moonblade’s Omari instincts. In the desert, water was life, for obvious reasons. It was the sound of survival.
But other things survive by water. All living creatures, on every world, require water. We had come thirsty from the desert, into a silent and dry system of caverns and tunnels, and approached, ever closer, ever more jubilant — forgetful that that tiny sound, bouncing off the walls in vibrant echoes, must be the compass of many a blind being in this Underworld.
We should have been more quiet. When we first heard a rush of water, we moved double-time down the tunnel, and when we caught sight of the falls into a deep chasm, we celebrated and knew that it was the first real sign that we might indeed quench both our thirst and follow it upward to the sun. But the instant we Bards began our jig, Caitlin-Ji descended into an unmistakable and characteristic seriousness, drawing the long steel blade she had acquired from the Precentor.
“Silence, fools!” Caitlin-Ji snapped, and her tone froze us in awareness.
There was something hateful in the air then. Something worse than all the foes we could have imagined facing. We had forgotten, that the age and power of the forces we’d tampered with might also be known here and that guardians might watch over this side of the moongate.
It rose like a living moon from a chasm, the crystaline formations in the cavernous chasm beginning to glow as if haunted. In all my years I had never heard tale of such a thing. It was a terrible creature to have forgotten about, to have left living down here. The Underworld, like the world from which we had escaped, had no heroes.
My dear companions cannot tell you what they saw, but I know what their fates must have been like. Levitating from the dark waters below, the creature was made of eyes and mouths all over, tentacles and teeth, a magnificent evil from the depths of the world. It gibbered endlessly and was large enough that its chanting voices shook the chasm, filling our minds.
The caverns were populated with specters then. The world we had travelled from had travelled with us — inside our own minds. Men Jobi had killed when we were young, gypsies, wicked things we had witnessed and done. The jester shrieked and ran into the darkness, fleeing miserably, unable to cope.
Kialyra went mad with fright, and I went to shelter her. Ceridwen was blinded, held by hallucination, and must have thought me an enemy of some sort. He drew at me, roaring, and I fell back, the creature in full view behind my friends. Moonblade crouched, covering his ears, and only Caitlin-Ji was clear minded and stalwart enough to have drawn upon this horror. Would the Precentor’s sword have any use against it?
“My mind is shielded, Holt.” She screamed over the gibbering behemoth, “It can hear what you think. Empty your thoughts, lest it consume you! ”
She’d not killed the Precentor of the Sisterhood without learning a few things. Pulling a glass throwing star from her side, she whipped it at the creature and struck it in one of its eyes. Its’ chanting was interrupted only a moment.
“Run damn it! This foe is too great.” Moonblade grabbed my arm and pushed me away as I protested.
Suddenly, in a scene forever cursed to remain in my memory, Ceridwen fell to his knees, eyes wide in shock as Kialyra, meek and innocent, had plunged a dagger into his heart, possessed, only to come back to her senses too late. Her lover, and the last of my blood, dead by her own hands. Crushed in realization, her body went limp, and she fell off the cliffside into the void below, heartbroken.
“Holt, you must go. You of all of us must go. Your mind must not fall to this beast!” Moonblade was beside me again.
But I had forgotten why I must go. The creature had attacked my memory, was feasting on the rich knowledge and lore there, growing stronger, its eyes awakening more fiercely its mouths chanting more powerfully. It spoke our language now, formulating recognizable nonsense.
We huddled into a crevice, and Caitlin-Ji backed into it with us. “We can defeat it. The Omari has the discipline, I have the mental training, but Holt, you must go. It is stealing from your mind, I hear it name … names it should not know.”
I stared at Moonblade, in silent question.
He stared back gravely, shaken, teeth clenched.
“Cait and I might win, and survive. Not with you though, Holt. Your mind is too rich. Who knows how long it has starved in the darkness. It feasts on an entire other world! Go! If we survive, I will follow your trail. Flee, now!”
I ran and the sound of battle and the creature faded behind me. I stumbled as I heard Caitlin scream, but I could not tell if it was a battle-cry or death-cry. I went toward the water, and followed snaking paths and tunnels by intuition alone. There was no sign of Jobi. Eventually I climbed what appeared to be old stairs made of sandstone, worn by the ages. I did not know how Moonblade would ever follow me, but he had found me before.
I wandered alone in that darkness for untold lengths of time, my memory damaged by whatever psionic attack the creature had used. I crossed a wooden bridge and realized that wood must mean trees, and a bridge some form of constructive intelligence.
Eventually, I found the light. The sun. Long I waited by the entrance to that cave, a forgotten sinkhole in the middle of another nowhere. But no one came. For a time, I forgot all things, cursed, and wandered the surface of a new world.
I had forgotten a secret I once knew, a secret I had hoped to keep the evils in my world from capturing. Now, it had been stolen, somewhere deep in the Underworld. Perhaps it’s best I never return, never try to relearn what was lost.
My only worry, is that I still remember how important that secret was to keep.