Before I send you off into the world of Underking, a little back story is due. Rather than give you the first part of the story, I have chosen a scene from a bit further on as I felt it would be more interesting. As a result, there are things you must know. Previous to this excerpt, our protagonist Joshua Hopkins has determined that it's high time he investigates the abandoned coal mine behind his house, which he has decided must be full of dwarves (or that he's hallucinating - he's a fairly
cynical practical teenager in that respect). So, guided by an apparently magic rune stone (hence the accusation of cynicism), he descends into the mine. However, his little adventure takes a turn for the worse when he realizes something is following him. Now, running through the dark, he's not watching where he's going...
His feet slid out from under him, losing his footing on a puddle he hadn’t noticed. Scrambling for a handhold, he slid on his back and found himself falling feet-first into a hole. It was a short drop, maybe a foot at most, but it knocked the air out of his lungs as he continued to slide. Trying to protect his head, he lost his grip on the flashlight, and it bounced away in front of him, leaving him in darkness.
He couldn’t tell how long he slid down into the darkness, being tossed to and fro as the seemingly endless hole carried him deeper into the earth. He was sore and battered and probably bleeding from being flung against the rough stone surrounding him. He could only hope it ended soon.
At last, the hole opened into a larger space and he was flung out, landing in what seemed to be wet sand. A quick check found that he still had all his limbs and, thankfully, nothing seemed to be broken.
The room was not entirely dark, thanks to his flashlight, which had survived the trip and was now shining on the cavern wall opposite him. By the light, he was able to determine three things.
First, he’d managed to keep hold of the rune stone, which was now clutched in his right hand, twitching madly.
Second, the room wasn’t very wide, but was rather long, stretching off into the darkness on his left.
Third, there was something standing between him and the flashlight.
Backlit as it was, he wasn’t able to see much more than a silhouette, but that was enough to worry him. The creature was short, only two feet or so, with a head somewhat bat-like (at least, it had ears like a bat). It was a knobby, bony thing, with claws on its hand and feet. And it was looking right at him.
Joshua’s hand slipped into his pocket and gripped his pocket knife. He didn’t think it’d do much good, but it was all he had. The thing tilted its head at him and made a harsh crackling sound, which might have been laughing.
Then it did the one thing Joshua hadn’t thought of – it turned, grabbed the flashlight, and shut it off.
Absolute darkness descended upon them.
“Well, well, well,” said the creature, its voice barely more than harsh growl, “what have we here? A human child, eh? Haven’t eaten one of those in a while. Oh, but this one has something special, oh yes. Mustn’t eat it til we have the little bauble safe, eh? Oh, mustn’t do that.”
Special? Bauble? What was it talking about? And why did it talk like a Canadian Gollum?
Just then, the rune stone twitched.
Ah, it probably meant that.
Backing away slowly, Joshua put his hand out behind him, feeling for the wall. When he reached it, he pressed his back against it and pulled out the pocket knife.
The creature just laughed again.
“Oh, it has a sharp thing, does it? What’s it gonna do with that, eh? Knife’s barely big enough to clean my teeth with. Now, are you gonna hand it over and get eaten like a good lad, or am I gonna have to eat you and take it for myself?”
Joshua strained his eyes, trying to make out anything at all, but the darkness was too great.
“Could I get another option?” he asked.
Joshua jumped at this, and the creature did too, for this was a new voice that came out of the space right by his ear.
Suddenly, there was a sound of feet running across the floor, a sharp cracking sound, a soft noise, and then silence.
Finally, after a few moments, something walked towards him. He shielded his face, uncertain which of the voices had won, or even if either of them were friendly. Or human.
“Now now, there’s no call for that,” said the voice, which proved to not be the thing that’d threatened him, “are you alright, lad?”
“Yeah, I think so,” said Joshua, lowering his hands, “thank you for that, I don’t know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t shown up.”
The voice chuckled.
“Well, from what I heard, he wasn’t giving you many options. And you, with a pen knife? Wouldn’t have lasted five seconds against a goblin, lad.”
“Aye, we get them sometimes. It can’t be helped – they’re smallish, like dark holes, and nobody’s using these tunnels anyway.”
Though he couldn’t see anything, Joshua had the distinct impression that the thing in the dark had turned and was eyeballing him.
“Now, I think I said it clear enough the first time, didn’t I? Or do I need to dunk your head in a stream to clear your head? GOBLIN, G – O – B … uhh… yeah, well, you get the idea. Come along then, this is no place to have breakfast, he might have had friends, after all.”
“But I can’t see anything – could you fetch my flashlight?”
“Yes, I dropped it before I fell in here. It’s somewhere over by the thing… I mean, the goblin.”
“Alright, half a minute.”
There was the sound of footsteps, then a groan.
“Umm… the flashlight wouldn’t be the tube-shaped thing with a glass on one end, would it?”
Well, it certainly sounded like a flashlight, but were there really people… or things that didn’t know what a flashlight was? Maybe this was a dwarf… or it could be a hermit or something…
“Yes… that would be the flashlight.”
There was an awkward silence.
“Ah… I don’t suppose it would still work after being cleaved in twain, would it?”
“It’s broken? But it was just working a few minutes ago!”
“Yes, well, that was before a goblin tried to defend himself with it.”
“That was my lucky flashlight, what’d you do?!”
“Well, I couldn’t just let it eat you, now could I? That wouldn’t be right, letting a fellow get eaten while you’re standing there. Anyway, I’d say it was a lucky flashlight in the end.”
Joshua’s anger evaporated at this remark. What did that mean?
“How is a broken flashlight lucky?”
“You weren’t the one holding it. Now, we really really ought to be going.”
It was then that Joshua noticed that the smell of goblin, ever present from the one in the room, was getting stronger. The only way that could happen was if…
There were clawing noises from somewhere above them.
Joshua felt a hand close gently around his arm. A hand, thankfully, not a claw.
“Shh,” said the stranger, “stay close. They don’t know where we are yet, so we should be able to slip away quietly. There’s a safe passage just over here, just try not to hit your head or anything.”
So, stepping carefully as he went, he let himself be guided down the tunnel, away from where he’d fallen and further into darkness.
After a surprisingly short distance, they came to a halt. Joshua, feeling around with his free arm, could feel a stone wall in front of them. It was rough, but fairly flat, with no sign of a tunnel leading into it.
“Where are we?” he whispered. The stranger had let go of his arm and, by the sounds he was making, was patting himself down.
“You shall see in a moment, lad, just as soon as I find the key. Tell me, are you good with animals?”
“What?” Joshua felt a chill roll down his back… there was water dripping from somewhere.
“Animals, you know, usually on four legs, some have tails, often domesticated?”
“I know what an animal is, but why did you ask?”
There was a brief moment where his only answer was the sound of fabric moving.
“Here, hold out your hands. This isn’t something that bites, I just need you to hold him while I dig out the keys.”
Joshua, unsure what to do, slipped the rune stone into his pocket and held out his hands. Almost immediately, something small, warm, and soft was pressed into them. As the patting sounds continued, Joshua carefully ran his thumbs over the small creature he held.
It felt like a mouse.
“You had a mouse in your pocket?”
“Yeah, sure, good for keeping your hands warm.”
“But why a mouse? How do you keep it from going in your pocket?”
The patting noise stopped.
“I will have you know that he is house-trained, thank you,” said his rescuer, sounding slightly miffed.
A house-trained mouse for a hand-warmer. Lovely. That couldn't possibly work in real life. Maybe there was still a chance this was all a dream?
No, probably not - dreams didn’t hurt as much as he ached right now.
“Ah, here we are,” said the stranger, “found it at last. He’d made a bed of lint on top of it. Now, the keyhole should be… here.”
There was a click, followed by a soft noise kind of like whoomph, and then there was a breeze coming from somewhere.
About to reach out for the wall to see what had happened, Joshua realized the mouse had fallen asleep in his left hand. He didn’t have long to contemplate this before the stranger grabbed hold of his right arm and lead him through the space that had formerly been a wall. Shortly after he stepped through, there was the whoomph again, so the wall had probably fallen back into place.
“We’re nearly there now, just one short tunnel and we’ll be back in the light.”
Despite the absurdity of the situation, he felt a bit of relief about this. He was beginning to feel like he was blind.
Even as he thought this, he began to see a dim glow coming from somewhere up ahead. It wasn’t enough to reveal anything about his surroundings, but it was enough to tell that he was in another long room. It must have been coming through a door or something up ahead.
“Here now, what’s the meaning of this then?” said a voice, “what’s that you’ve got by the arm, Gulbrandr?”
It only took a moment for Joshua to figure out that “that” probably meant him, so Gulbrandr obviously must be the name of his rescuer.
“I found him by chance in one of the sand caverns,” said Gulbrandr, letting go of Joshua’s arm, “he was being set upon by a goblin.”
A little of the edge came out of the other voice.
“Well, alright then, I suppose you did right by it, but what is it?”
Joshua’s stomach began tying itself in knots. “That” wasn’t so bad, he guessed, but “it”?
“Oh come off it, Völund,” said Gulbrandr, “if you’d paid half as much attention in school as you pay to a pint, you’d remember that HE is a human.”
There was a clang, followed by muffled cursing. It seemed that Völund had dropped something on his foot in surprise. Joshua tried his best not to feel smug about it. The mouse squeaked slightly at the noise, so he put it in a pocket of his jacket, as Gulbrandr had done, weird as it seemed.
“A human?” asked Völund stupidly, “by Vestri, I thought they were just stories the old folks told. Does he speak English?”
“Course he does,” said Gulbrandr, “it’s a human language, innit?”
“I guess so,” said Völund, “so, where’d you come from?”
It took a moment for Joshua to realize that Völund was talking to him now.
“Uh… I came in from the mine.”
“The mine? You’ll have to be a bit more particular, you’re in a mine now. Come on then, what do ya call the place you came in from?”
“…The Bauer mine?”
There was a moment of silence.
“Good glory lad, the bower? That place is a maze... literally!”
“I kind of noticed that. Where am I now?”
“You don’t suppose it’s alright to tell him, do you?” Völund asked.
“Tell who what?” said a voice from the darkness behind them.
“Osgar! Where’d you come from?! You know it’s against regulations to sneak up on a guard, especially when he’s manning an outside gate and I have had enough people showing up unannounced already,” said Völund.
“Well, seeing how grand a job you’re doing guarding, I thought you must be off duty. ‘Sides, I brought breakfast.”
“Brought breakfast?” asked Gulbrandr, “But you haven’t got anything on you.”
“Oh, that’s because Sindri’s got them… wait a minute, where’d he go?”
There was a fair amount of noise then as the three of them tried to find the fourth. Joshua simply stood where he was. Seeing as he still couldn’t see anything, he didn’t see… that is, he couldn’t think of any way he could help.
“He didn’t go past me,” said Gulbrandr.
“I can’t see anything, so I can’t say whether he did or not,” said Joshua.
“That’s alright, I’d have seen him if he passed you,” said Völund.
“I can’t see any sign of him,” said Osgar.
“Me either,” said Osgar.
Silence fell over the group.
“Osgar, was that you just now that said that?” asked Völund.
“Brand, he’s at it again,” said Völund, sighing.
“Right, I’ll take care of it.”
There was a whistling sound as something flew over Joshua’s head, followed by a loud clanging noise, then a heavy thud.
“Ow, Brand, why’d you have to go and use a rock? You could’ve thrown a potato,” said Sindri, from somewhere behind Joshua.
“A potato? Where would I have gotten a potato?”
“Your pocket, I stuck three of them in there when you were talking to Osgar.”
There was a rustling noise.
“Well, I’ll be smoldered…”
There was a burst of laughter at this, though Joshua couldn’t see why.
Actually, he was getting a little tired of not being able to see anything, and this was starting to feel less like an adventure and more like an awkward family reunion... for someone else’s family.
Also, he was basically blind again - someone was standing between him and the door.
“Now, I do believe I said something about breakfast,” said Osgar, “your shift’s over now, Völund, it’s been over five minutes now. Your replacement’s been waiting patiently on the other side of the door for you to let him take over.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?”
“I did, when I came in. It’s not my fault you weren’t listening. Anyway, I don’t think the lad you brought in can see anything.”
“He can’t?” asked Völund and Sindri together.
“Oh aye, have you forgotten? Humans need sunlight to see, poor fellow’s been blind as my grandmother since he got here, right?”
Joshua nodded gratefully.
“Yes, I can’t see right now, and I lost what light I had back in... well, another part of the mine.”
“Torch burnt out?” asked Osgar.
“Ahh, candle then,” said Osgar, nodding.
“No, not that either.”
“Jar of fireflies then?”
“It was something we’ve never seen before, Osgar,” said Gulbrandr, sounding flustered, “we’ll talk about it over breakfast, I think.”
This seemed to please everyone, Völund especially. So, feeling Gulbrandr’s grip on his arm again, Joshua followed them towards where he could still see the dim glow of light under a door.
At first, he could barely open his eyes – having been in the dark as long as he had, his eyes had been trying to let in as much light as possible. When he stepped through the door, however, they suddenly found themselves taking in a very great deal of light indeed.
Osgar called this “eyes remembering to be eyes”… Joshua mostly called it “ow.”
All in all, he decided - when he saw the people he was standing with - it was worth it.
And there you have it! Yes, I know I cut it off at a bit of a cliffhanger, but I felt that was the best way to end this excerpt and I am invoking auctoris praerogativam, which Google Translate tells me is Latin for "I win". There will be more in the future, I promise, this is just an introduction.
And I offer my apologies to Canada.