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Chapter I: Descent
When one considers a descent into darkness, they often consider a plunge. A sudden drop from light to dark.
Not the slow, steady decline of well worn steps.
Adrenaline faded quickly despite their dire circumstances. The danger they faced now was less immediate than their disturbed slumber.
An endless line of stairs pulling them deeper into the encroaching dark.
None of this appeared to affect Selene, who was still coming down from an adventure high. She found her mind, and mouth, racing as she bounded down each and every step.
“That was…amazing! That was so intense wasn’t it?” Selene asked as she practically flew, circling around the party as they descended. “Ari froze the building and Hamish took down that giant guy and we jumped between those buildings and raced past those giant spider crab things. Then Argent and Hamish teamed up, fought back another giant guy then shoved it into that pit. Then the bad guys tried to crush us by bringing down a whole building on us. That was so…” Selene paused, trying to come up with another word other than amazing, finally settling on, ”…Crazy, right? Right?”
“Calm yourself, Selene,” Hamish said, his tone placating but grinning at her antics, “Many stairs left and we need all the energy we can keep.”
“I just can’t believe that actually happened, Hamish!” she said, slightly breathless, “We must have killed like a hundred monsters back there!”
Argent chuckled, “I don’t know about hundreds. I only killed seven, if we’re counting the small squid creatures.”
“We are,” Selene stated matter of factly, “Which means I killed five. How about everyone else?”
“Five for me as well!” Ari said, raising her hand slightly.
“I only remember killing big one,” Hamish said, rubbing his chin as he added, “…what was it called again?”
“A Baresch,” Jezran answered.
Hamish grinned, “Oh, yes. Of course. I killed this, maybe the first one, but we did not get chance to check.”
“What about you, Jezran?” Selene asked.
“Hmmm, I don’t know. I didn’t count,” he said, scratching the back of his neck, “I was kinda caught up in the moment.”
“What’s your best guess?” Selene offered.
“Hmm, I’d like to say…six, maybe eight? I zapped quite a few drowned.”
“Adding all that together is…” Selene quickly counted them on her fingers, “Twenty-seven.”
She frowned slightly, stopping in her tracks as she thought about it, “That’s not enough for a good story.”
Hamish chuckled, “Then tell it for however many you think, my friend.”
Selene nodded, returning apace, “Okay. Then you all slayed at least a hundred on your own.”
“Haha! Sounds like plan.” Hamish grinned but then thought for a moment, “How about you, Selene?”
“Two hundred, obviously.” Selene grinned back, “Gotta look the best when I tell it.”
Everybody chuckled and the mood lightened somewhat. A nice distraction from the endless staircase.
The reprieve was short lived, however. The descent continued unabated.
Time passed slowly as they continued in silence, but it felt like it had been hours.
“How far down do you think we are?” Selene asked, hoping to start the conversation again.
Argent shrugged, “Hard to say. At our speed, I imagine we would have travelled around three miles on flat land, but that doesn’t tell me how deep we are, or how deep things will get.”
“Hmmm,” Jezran mused, almost to himself, “All the steps are about the same size. I could measure them and find out.”
“We’re not stopping until we find another safe place to rest.” Argent stated, matter of factly.
“If we find another safe place, you mean.” Ari muttered, clearly not amused by the current discussion.
Jezran thought for a moment, “Well, if I had to take a guess, I would say we’re at least a mile down.”
Selene gulped, “What are we going to do if there’s no bottom?”
“There’s always a bottom, Selene.” Argent said, sounding tired for the first time, “But we’ll do what we can.”
Silence soon followed.
Time continued to pass, but with no end in sight to the stairs, Argent reluctantly called for a short break. “Whatever trap awaits us, we should be rested for it, if we can.”
“As best we can, anyway,” Jezran said as he sat upon one of the steps, “I doubt we’ll get enough rest to recover much.”
Everyone got comfortable and pulled out some dried rations. It was not a pleasant meal, but they ate in a comfortable silence.
“I wonder what they’re planning,” Ari mused after she finished eating, stretching out on the step in an attempt to get more comfortable, “It’s not like them to just appear randomly.”
“Who?” Selene asked, sitting next to her.
“The Sep’tha,” Jezran answered, earning a sharp glance from Ari. He was growing accustomed to these and showed no outward sign of regret.
“Yes, Sep’tha, one of them was leading the group that was chasing us,” Ari said.
“With a few distorted thralls and merfolk to boot,” Argent grumbled, tending to one of his swords, cleaning and sharpening as needed, “That group would have easily killed even an experienced party of adventurers. They were not taking any chances on us escaping.”
“So, what are they? Some kind of walking, talking, fish…people?” Selene asked.
“More or less,” Ari shrugged, “They’re a pretty mysterious race. Mostly find them here and a couple other strange places.”
“We do know a few things, though. They have powerful psionic abilities, which allow them to control less intelligent species with relative ease. They have lived in this city well before the Hollow was founded, but we do not know why they are here or where they came from,” Jezran explained, “My current theory is they are a remnant of the old civilization of Lendrigol, possibly afflicted by some arcane influence caused by the magics found here.”
He paused, then added as an afterthought, “Maybe even the Realm of the Abyss.”
Ari looked around nervously, while Argent stared ahead, stone-faced.
“The Abyss?” Selene asked.
“I have heard of this thing,” Hamish said, “In my homeland, is said to be birthplace of ocean. Nothing but endless dark waters.”
“Yes, exactly,” Jezran explained, ”The College believes it might be one of the Realms of the Cosmos, but we still don’t know for sure.”
Selene nodded, “Okay, and what’s a Realm?”
“Oh. Well, you see…” Jezran thought for a moment, “It’s…it’s an Arcane theory from the College about the way our world works. It suggests that there are these separate…things we call Realms that are the source of everything in creation. They then flow into and out of our world. The Abyss is one proposed in the theory, as the idea seems to pop up naturally across the world.”
Selene gasped, “Wow, how many of these Realms are there?”
“We…don’t know,” Jezran stuttered, “Some have proposed as many as twelve, but it’s still only a theory, I’m afraid.”
“Regardless, the Sep’tha are hostile.” Argent cut in, “We can expect to see them again, with more of their thralls.”
Jezran nodded, “Yes, they never liked the Hollow settlement, and will likely treat us with similar prejudice. A number of monster attacks in the past are believed to be orchestrated by them in the hopes of driving the residents out. If it wasn’t for the College, there would not be enough funds to keep this place from falling apart.”
“Your college funds the town?” Selene asked.
“Correct, though it’s a sizable investment, there is enough value in the phenomena here that the College has allocated a reasonable budget here for many years, mostly handled by my teacher, Master Kalrei’beshiru. If we didn’t, the Hollow would not have the defensive walls needed to protect itself and we’d have no way further inland.”
Selene wanted to ask more, but Argent cut in again. “I believe we’ve had enough rest, let’s get going.”
Selene groaned slightly as she got up, starting to feel the wear of travel as a dull throbbing came from her legs.
The descent continued once more, but not much longer.
Selene was no longer paying attention to her next step. The descent was so long and the steps so consistent, she found herself on autopilot. Suddenly, her foot caught on something where air should have been. Selene gasped as she stumbled forward, landing on the floor.
For better or worse, the party reached the bottom of the stairs.