28. What He’s Been Looking for All Along

Soundtrack: Download, Suni C

Two days later, then, Krysztof and Inglorion set off by wagon to find the closest Drow egress point. Inglorion’s not a bad woodsman, but he doubts he could find the cave opening on his own. It’s literally a gap between two limestone slabs.

“Well, that’s anticlimactic,” he says, peering down the small, wet hole. It’s a warm, damp day at the tail end of the summer rains, so he can feel a distinct current of cool air from below. The earth scent blossoming upwards is unfamiliar, evocative.

“Once you’re through the gap, it widens out quickly, and you should be able to walk upright,” Krysztof says. “Follow the passage down. After about 50 yards, it opens out into a chamber. Wait there. Have you ever been spelunking?”

“Lord, no,” says Inglorion. “We spent some time in mines and dungeons, but always in areas that were man-made and stable. Solid dwarfish engineering and construction. That kind of thing.”

“This is quite different. The Drow rely on heavily on natural passages and caverns. Except for living areas and public buildings, it’s rough and unstable. They’re lazy engineers, too. If a passageway becomes unstable, they just abandon it and let it fall on some unwary traveller.” He adds, “Your cloak and boots will never be the same. You’ll be covered in red mud — it actually dyes fabric permanently, to an undesirable shade.”

“Well, this cloak is no great thing — I bought it from a pawn shop in Amakir.”

“Nothing can prepare you for what you’ll face,” Krysztof says. “You’ll learn as you go. And you are already dead.”

“That’s all very reassuring,” says Inglorion. They shake hands, and he eyes the hole again. “I feel like an idiot asking, but do you go down feet first or head first?”

“Either can work. You’re small, so you won’t get stuck.”

“I knew that would come in handy some day. OK, thanks for everything.” With that, he doubles over and squirms awkwardly into the hole, head first.

The entrance isn’t tight, but it isn’t roomy, either. He crawls about 20 feet on his hands and knees, through three inches of sloppy clay and reddish water. After this, the passage opens up enough to allow him to scramble along, hunched over but upright. His weapons and pack keep catching on things. Clearly, carrying two longswords and a longbow and ammunition will be a constant misery in the Underdark. Perhaps this is why the Drow fight with short swords and hand crossbows.

Within another 10 or 15 yards, he reaches a long, straight passage that slants steadily downwards. It’s wide, if your idea of wideness encompasses a space that would allow three very slim people to walk abreast, jostling each other and stopping periodically to disentangle themselves from each other’s gear. Inglorion takes this opportunity to stow his bullwhip and strap both swords to his back. His center of gravity is behind him and too high, and if he’s attacked he’ll have to call a timeout to retrieve his weapons. He privately declares this arrangement excellent, however, since it frees him from the necessity of constantly yanking some weapon free while issuing a string of increasingly vile curses. This is Inglorion’s second insight about his home and people: They’re sure to hear his stumbling, swearing progress well in advance of his arrival.

He’s left the sunlight far behind and is relying on darkvision by the time he reaches the promised chamber and sits down on a handy stretch of dried mud. The temperature is charmingly cool. The little time he’s spent underground has been in areas meant for humans, or for races with primitive darkvision: other elves, half-orcs, dwarves. Those passages are like poorly lit alleys or rural highways: dim, but regular and predictable. This passage is unimproved, and has only been marked by the clumsy passage of people like himself. The scene around him is deeply unfamiliar, but it has a subtle beauty.

In the absence of light, the only radiation is heat. The scene is visible to Inglorion as a subtle grayscale pattern of currents and surfaces. The large cave area beneath emits a gentle, steady air current; it’s perceptibly cool, and visible as a dark, velvety stream flowing past him on its way to the surface. The water welling up from below appears colder — and therefore darker — than the nearby rock. As he watches, he notices clusters of pale dots on the ceiling: slumbering bats nestled together in sleep. They form a lush, gently glowing veil. At first he perceives only simple vectors of air and water moving over rock. Within moments, though, he becomes aware of the delicate interplay between these waves; he notices charming little eddies and swirls, oscillating patterns that repeat over time. Now that he’s stopped grumbling and fussing, he can hear the gentle trickle of water down the walls, and single drops falling here and there with metronomic precision. He realizes that when he first entered, he subconsciously judged the size and shape of the chamber from the pattern of sound and echo.

Every day of his life, Inglorion’s senses have been flayed by the presence of the tyrant sun. It’s as if he’s always been surrounded by banks of amplifiers shrieking with feedback, or trapped in a stadium ablaze with spotlights. That horrifying, constant presence has receded abruptly, and he’s beginning to sense the rhythms of life underground. A subtle, orderly landscape emerges. He finds this delicate, half-glimpsed pattern beautiful and, above all, soothing. As he waits and watches, his body and mind begin a slow unfolding, a tentative reaching out to his surroundings. He doesn’t know what drives the rhythms of life here, in the absence of heavenly light, but he can feel himself sampling and ordering sense-data.

The endless visual assault drew him away from himself, obscured even basic animal sensations. He’s spent his entire life struggling to reset a frantic and disordered rhythm within him. Prayer, combat, sex, rigid routine — things as simple as how he ordered his few possessions on a shelf. Within a few moments of sitting quietly underground, Inglorion feels his breath and heartbeat as he never has. When he first hears and feels that signal from within, it’s shockingly strong, almost entirely overwhelming. As he senses the environment, something rises up and responds within him — an answering flow of sensation and emotion, a violent, inrushing tide of joy.

It is so beautiful here.

As he settles in, his body, soul and mind exhale in a series of violent sobs. He finds himself making a gesture he’s made his whole life: Wrapping his arms around himself as if to keep himself from flying apart under the force of a wild spinning motion. His fingers trace the faint pattern of scars on his wrists and forearms. 

So much has been hidden from him.

He has known himself so little.

It is beautiful, and unutterably strange.

Now is is actually crying with relief. He’s come home to a place that’s utterly strange. Absurdly, he thinks of the most gratifying sensation he knows: Entering a woman whom he adores. Here, underground, he feels pleasure, familiarity and ease mingled with anticipation of sharper pleasures to come. He realizes what he’s been looking for all along. It’s both humbling and exquisitely funny.

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