If his descent into the pit had filled him with foreboding, his steps across the threshold were a forced march into nightmare. Darkness veiled the mouth of the shaft like a black velvet curtain, swirling to envelope him as he crossed over. Yet even in such dark there was one thing darker: his right hand seemed to suck every last bit of light from the air.
Gorlen wished he knew more of gargoyle physiology. Did their stone eyes require light? If he lit a lamp, would they notice the glare, or were their eyes insensible to such phenomena? The fact that they woke and traveled only by night might simply confirm they were nocturnal by nature, or preternaturally shy. He wished to give no advance warning of his presence, and yet he feared to go on without illumination. This darkness was utter, and it seemed absurd to assume the tunnel would be perfectly straight — let alone perfectly safe.
Faced with such uncertainty, he pulled a small lumen from his pack and gave it a twist to set the crystal glowing at its faintest setting. Even the slightest light it gave was almost blinding in this dark.
For a time, as if mocking his caution, the shaft continued straight ahead, the gentlest of declivities. But before long, he had his first encounter with the abyss. Here the trail opened suddenly at the edge of a huge cleft, forcing him to pick a direction, right or left along the dark rim. Had he happened upon this spot without the lumen, he would have stepped right out into a gulf that might as well have been bottomless.
Gorlen scrutinized the gouged floor for some time, eventually determining that the preponderance of scrape marks tended to the left.
After he had followed that path for some time, he felt confirmed in his guess by distant echoes of the earlier grating and grinding. The sound, instead of fading away this time, continued to grow louder as he drew nearer.
At some point he became aware of occasional flickers of movement at the edge of the lumen’s influence. He stopped to study the stone walls. Gray, brown, speckled with occasional crystal planes and rough pyramidal points; otherwise most unremarkable. He continued on for a few more minutes, until the impression that something followed him — not at a distance, but immediately at his side — became too strong to ignore. His own shadow, pacing him, that’s what he told himself it was. But his shadow, cast by the lumen, was plain to see, tossed back toward the pit and not against the wall at all. And this companion was not on the surface of the stone, but seemed to move deeper within it, like an enormous eel sliding along beneath dark kelpy waters.
He stopped again, and this time extended his right hand.
Tink-tink! He tapped the stone fingers against the wall. A few feet further on, he tapped again. Tink-tink! He went on. Here was a darker swirling texture in the rock. He tapped that. Thwick-swish….
It was as if he had brushed against velvet.
He tapped harder on the dark patch, and it seemed to tremble like a drumskin. He jerked his stone hand away, and hesitantly reached up with the hand of flesh.
To the fingers of his left hand, the dark patch felt hard and cold as any rock. He put both hands together and pressed them, joined, against the stone surface, angling to divine how one bit of rock could feel so different to his different hands. With his flesh fingers, he probed the point where his stone fingers touched the wall; but it was as if his right hand blurred with the rock. This notion caused him to pull completely away from the wall, or as far as he could without exposing himself to the bottomless dark at his right.
Soon he was glad for the distance; soon it began to seem far too little. For as he crept deeper into the mines, always listening for the gravelly susurration that had drawn him in the first place, the walls began to darken. The small patches of blackness became pervasive, spreading and swirling like ink in milk, slowly replacing the nondescript gray till the passage was composed almost entirely of the pure black stone.
At that point he became aware of movement within it, small twitches like the tics of an irritated eyelid, which he could not blame on the fitful glow of his light — for unlike a candle, the lumen burned steadily. He was afraid to move closer for a better look, but that proved a needless concern, for the life signs within the rock became ever harder to deny.
The first sight that stopped him utterly was a black stone arm, carved free almost to the shoulder, beyond that continuing up into the ripples of a muscular neck and the delicate curve of a long-lobed ear. The ear twitched slightly at his approach, listening; but that was less bothersome than the frantic groping of the arm, which patted and clenched at the air, struck futilely against the wall with a soft thunking sound, and seemed to be reaching, desperately reaching. In the lumen’s glow he saw a faint gleam on the ground at the base of the wall, and despite deep misgivings he bent closer and held out the lamp. A chisel lay there, dropped no more than half an inch from the hand’s fullest extension — but that half-inch might just as well have been leagues.
At least it had not carved itself a mouth, he thought, trying to take some satisfaction in that as he quickened his step.
And now he must steel himself against more sights, of which the scrabbling arm, being the first, was also the mildest.
Torsos, half freed from the wall, heaving as if suffocating in the matrix that bore them.
Mouths full of rock, with cruel lips and needle tongues, but no throat, no voice, only the grinding of sharp black teeth and molars.
Blind eyes…blind although they looked right at him.
He wondered if some final work of craft or art or magic were needed to dispel the rock’s blindness. This question seemed even more pertinent when he entered a lengthy gallery of faces, none of which noticed him though he paraded past with his lamp upheld.
It was this that made him cocky — the realization that he could walk into the enemy’s lair completely unobserved. The visages seemed to be mouthing at the air, but the more well-shaped among them were learning how to form syllables of sound by grating and champing their stony teeth, clacking the chiseled tongues, smacking and clicking and tapping the hard black lips together. This was the sound he had heard coming from the mines; idiot speech, wild and unlearned, communicating nothing to no one. The deaf stone ears did not register the horrid harshness of the sound. Inchoate, meaningless, yet frightening him with the prospect that he had come this far for no reason. The clamor grew around him the deeper he went, and at such a pitch that he began to doubt he had ever heard anything else in it.
But then came a thin thread of something more lyrical, more shaped with meaning, not a tumble of rock but a slow and deliberate grinding as of stonemasons carving out sentences. This — this it was whose whispered echoes he’d caught from the surface. It might have given rise to the chaotic murmur in the first place, but in itself it was the beautifully measured speech of stones, and he remembered well the first time he had heard it, among the priests of Nardath, on the night a certain gargoyle had agreed at their bidding to curse him. A gargoyle he had hunted since that time.
A thin bluish light grew along with the sound. Before long he came out into a vast chamber where countless forms of darkness had gathered, silhouetted against the glow of an enormous lumen stone. The lamp was of a size he had never imagined. He had seen only small shards of the stuff gathered into tiny twistlamps like the one he carried. This luminous massif towered to the height of the cavern, where it was capped by an elaborate metal cap and collar, screw-threaded so its custodians could twist the collar tighter to emit an ever brighter light. The gathering needed little in the way of light, but he was reassured they needed it at all, otherwise he would surely have stood out in this particular crowd.
He pulled his cowl across his face, keeping his visage well back in shadow, and clasped the folds of fabric at his throat with his pinched right hand. Slowly Gorlen sidled into the chamber, keeping near the tunnel mouth, thinking himself well away from the nearest of the crowd. Even so, several turned and looked at him with blank suspicious eyes, only turning away again when they saw the black stone fingers at his throat. He found it hard not to stare back, but once he saw they accepted him, he was able to study them in the glow of the gigantic lumen. What a myriad of faces! Some beaked, some nearly human, some long-snouted or tentacular, others keen as the glass edge of a skin-flint. All were black, although not uniformly so, for many were shot through with constellations of glitter, impurities, chemical inconsistencies afloat in the stone that had bred them. All were formed of quickstone, but he had not realized how the same black rock could be so heterogeneous. And remember, these were only the nearest few faces he could see, lit by the lumen as they listened intently to gravelly voices coming from somewhere much closer to the enormous lamp.
What was their topic of discussion? Gorlen thought he caught the barest drift of meaning, and wished he could hear more. He tipped his head forward, pulled the cowl aside the merest fraction, and raised his stone hand to his ear. His adamant palm caught the sounds and made them sharper, colder, before scattering them into his ear; and something in the process conveyed understanding. He was partly one of them, after all. This was the speech of his right hand’s homeland.
“…our turn again, our turn again…”
And with the sound thus lodged in his ear, the language crystallized for him. Gorlen knew it as if he had always known, as if the hand had carried the seed of this knowledge within him.
“How could it have come round again so soon? Scant decades ago our last shift ended merely!”
“That’s right!” another voice cut in. “The Southern Seamers never worked a millim at the labors; they never did!”
“And where’s the Deep Gang and the God-Cutters who should’ve taken over years aback? It seems impossible it could fall on us again!”
Why, they’re arguing! he realized. The tone and timbre of the voices was strange to him, but the course of the discussion was familiar enough. A town rabble, a mob gathered to air bitterness and resentment, as in any town hall meeting, any insurrection in the public square. Grumbling and agreement filled the chamber, and suddenly he feared what this mob might get up to. A human mob could buffet him about, sure enough; but here he was likely to be chewed up like a morsel in a giant’s molars. He prayed for continued calm, that reasonable heads would prevail. Among his own kind, Gorlen might have expected the elders among them to sway the crowd toward wisdom; but here it seemed that all gave voice to ancient grievances, and the longer held, the heavier they weighed.
“We should not chafe at our tasks, brothers,” said one voice, perhaps the reasonable one he’d hoped to hear. “It belongs to all of us to share in the Liberation. Surely, even if we have been asked to do more than others, there is that much more measure of joy in the doing of it, and our reward will be all the greater? If anything, we should be concerned that our kindred, by shirking their duties, might miss their share of the bounty. I would bend to the chisel and hammer alone if I could, but that would be selfish. We should show by our example how pure the purest quickstone runs. How else, I ask you, can we sway them? By argument? By force of reason? If the labor is not approached with love, it is not worth the doing. Only bitterness will come of it. Why squabble over the matter of a few decades? Were any of your duties on the surface more important than those in the Deep? Is it that you love sunlight so? Do you care so much that the occasional human, scared off by one of you, refrains from causing suffering to other humans equally unworthy? Our rightful place is here, my friends, or have you forgotten? Do you really owe so much to the clumsy hands that first falteringly carved you in the ugly outward forms we bear today? Can it be that we look to the soft ones to bring forth the true hard shapes of beauty?”
The crowd had fallen silent, musing, but no less than Gorlen himself. This voice seemed strikingly familiar to him, out of all of them. Not only the smooth and practiced way of it, as if it had eliminated all gravel from its speech with great care, but the flow of the words, like water running in sheets and rivulets over polished mountain rock. He had heard that voice twice before; the first time in Nardath, City of Priests (and little else), on the night his life was cursed; and again on the night the curse was, if not lifted, at least halted.
Still, the voice was not enough to go by. He needed to see the face.
The goyles had fallen back to give the speaker space for as long as he desired it; and the speaker must have been waiting for someone to answer his bright ruminations, but none did. Gorlen checked his advance and waited. Any closer to the stone and the lumen would have cast light into his cowl, dispelling his disguise. From here, all he could see was the speaker’s stark form silhouetted against the huge blue crystal, and although it fed his suspicion, it hardly confirmed everything. Many goyles were winged, and many more bore the blunt stubs that resembled the horn-buds of a juvenile cavort; he supposed that quite a few might bear both attributes. He must be sure, and yet he dared not be bold in this gathering. Quite the opposite.
“That’s easy enough for you to say,” came an eventual reply, a voice raised in harsh rebuke. “You who come late, and when you please, and haven’t borne the lot of the rest of us. Off on worldly errands. You talk of paying too much fealty to the tasks of men, while you yourself were scurrying about at the bidding of priests….”
Gorlen barely suppressed a gasp, but it was drowned out by the first speaker.
“Under a geas, no less! A compulsion that none here could easily have defied. And rest assured I have paid dearly for it, still pay in fact, as you all know. Was I not chiseled out as roughly as the rest of you? Was I not one of the first to throw back against the Soft Ones, and dare those first risky strides into the world? Was it my fault I knew nothing of the damned tricks of mages? Any one of us could have been compelled by them, for we were feeble in those years, like infants. I took the risk for all of you, and my continued suffering on your behalf is plain for any here who wishes to see it!” The words rang out like a dare, but they did not quite take it up.
“Why wander then, if you hated it so much out there? Why wait this long to come back to Dint with this hasty errand of yours?”
“It is not easy for a gargoyle to find his way, even once my geas was lifted. I cannot exactly inquire of every fleshy one I meet, and there are no maps that show our places, and the priests of Nardath did a fine job of blinding and bemusing me when they first bore me out of the pillared city. There is great prejudice against us, despite our ancient and honorable services, the customs of old. I will tell you all these stories another time, my brothers, you know I will — but for now we have more urgent business before us. I tell you, I have heard the God’s voice emanating from the mouths of the Earth, warning of our sloth, urging us bend again to the task at hand. It is at his bidding I return. We must take up our tools and quicken the time of emergence, we must look to put an end to all these crimes against stone!”
His words struck a nerve among the mob, which finally found purchase for their ornery mood. Before Gorlen quite knew what they were about, they had begun to groan and creak and aim heavy punches at the unseen ceiling. One of them stepped back just as Gorlen found himself hemmed in, unable to avoid the downward force of a crushing foot upon his toe.
It was like — well, it was, actually — a huge slab of rock falling on his smallest toe. He felt the fragile bone pulverized.
There was no question of suppressing the scream that came out of him unbidden.
Impossible to imagine a sound more out of place in that hall of grinding stones.
Gorlen, gasping, stumbled and wrenched his foot out from under the fixed column that had crushed it. Flailing for balance, he reached out and grabbed the nearest gargoyle by its immovable arm. At that, another kind of cry went up — one of revulsion and rage.
“A Soft One!”
“We have been infiltrated!”
There was no denying it, and he knew that argument would get him nowhere as efficiently as flight. Before the pain in his toe could spread and immobilize him, he scrambled to his hands and knees, charging forward at full speed. But he had misjudged the crowd — mistaken them out of habit for more familiar foes. Among others of his kind, he might have pushed them over and fled, or dodged between their legs and left them looking after him. But this was an unyielding crowd. Plunging through what looked like a cloak of flowing silk, he discovered it was in truth skillfully carved stone. He hit it head on, at full force, and the cavern filled with light. The cavern of his skull, that is. Darkness followed.