We meet Godry, an explorer of the underworld.
In The Underworld, Volume 3 by Antony Limerk, the entrance to the Underworld is described as being a plain cave opening in an otherwise inconspicuous hill, except that nothing grows within a hundred meters in any direction around it. Not in the nearby woods, not on the hill itself, not in the ground around it. The air nearby is described as still and cold, and uncomfortably dry. In Death and the Depths by Simone Moreau, a dense text of more than 700 pages, the entrance was an enormous gate made out of wrought iron that required blood of an innocent dripped on its intricate metalwork to open. In The World of the Dead by Jan Harrack, the entrance to the Underworld is described as a vast chasm that requires a length of rope several hundred meters to reach the bottom of it. While they didn’t agree on the method of entry, they did agree on the method to get there– and that no one had attempted the journey in over a thousand years.
“The Underworld is never far”, Limerk wrote. The first direction asks you to put your back to the largest body of water in the area, and move forward until you leave civilization and find yourself in nature, crossing rivers, valleys, and even mountains if necessary. Once you find yourself in nature, there are a number of winding turns, measures of paces, antiquated units, dense metaphors, and other details to fully confuse anyone. If followed correctly, though, they should place you right at the entrance. While I intend to document the journey within the Underworld as fully as I can, it is not in my interest or good for my conscience to tell anyone how to seal their own fate. Jan Harrack gave a full disclaimer in The World of the Dead, and even still he found himself facing families and loved ones of those who had for one reason or another gone in pursuit of the Underworld using his directions. Their relatives were never to be found, and that knowledge weighed on him heavily as noted in his personal memoirs until he himself disappeared after scribbling “and now I go” on the last page of one of his journals, as reproduced in The Collected Journals of Jan Harrack. It is unknown if the end of the journal had symbolic meaning, or if that is merely when the whim had crossed his mind. Obviously, no one knows where he went for certain, but it seems likely that he followed his own directions. If you want to find the way, you’ll have to look elsewhere. I will have only my own blood on my hands. Just how much is yet to be seen.
In The Underworld, Limerk described the best documented journeys of kings and emperors and chieftains, all with differing intentions. Hugo the Strong took a hundred horses, fourteen carriages, and 75 loyal servants. His preparations are noted in detail. Rations for several months. All kinds of scientific contraptions and supposedly magical concoctions. Experts in nearly every field. He sought to bring back a lost lover: his servant and assumed mistress. Not one of his crew returned. Lady Wye brought a hundred carriages and enough horses and servants to man them all. She sought wisdom that would aid her in the war against her enemies in the neighboring kingdom. One of her servants was found screaming and naked in the woods a year later. He was totally aphasic and died from heart failure not long after being rescued. Emperor Slumber VII brought his entire army. A thousand soldiers, many highly skilled and knowledgeable. He sought information that would help him live and remain emperor forever. Slumber did return along with no more than twenty servants. Much of what we know about the Underworld, then, comes from his journey. He described wide corridors suitable for bringing an army. He described darkness. Unimaginable darkness. Darkness that seemed to suck up and devour light. Darkness that devoured hope. Darkness so thick it required roaring flames to pierce it. Much of his recollection defied common sense, and he didn’t seem to remember how he lost so many people. But he did remember making it to the city. He remembered speaking with the dead. The prophets. The ancients. The people from the legends. And he remembered all of them laughing at him. In later years when colleagues asked him if he’d learned the secret, he would nod slowly and say nothing. In the hundred years after his death, there was a hunt for any details or clues that he may have learned that could help others to enjoy eternal life. They assumed that he must have written down the secret, or that he must have tried to attain never ending life for himself. They did not believe that he could make the journey, learn the secret, and then ultimately decide that it would be better if he simply died when it was his time, and to take the secret with him. Having no heirs, we learn from history that the empire fractured as each relative sought to take the throne, beginning three separate dynasties. Each dynasty claimed to have Slumber’s secrets, but time has shown that they likely did not.
According to the texts I have had access to, while many, many others have attempted the journey, the only other person to make the journey and return was a monk named Owusu who traveled in alone and emerged several weeks later. While generally regarded as a liar and a fraud, and even the other monks thought he was foolish for attempting the journey, according to Places Below by Jerome Night, there is some of his story that agrees with Slumber’s, and it is somewhat doubtful that he had access to Slumber’s accounts. It is possible that word traveled to his monastery, but unlikely. It is also said that Owusu brought a message back to the Countess Ilana that proved with certainty to her that he had gone to the city and back. In Secrets of Death, Rasmus Yappo claims this message came directly from her deceased grandfather, and allowed Ilana to unlock and access the Lost Vaults. Owusu was knowledgeable about both the sciences and matters more spiritual. According to Yappo, Owusu claimed to have whistled and sang on his journey, using the sound to combat the despair, and also for some degree of echolocation. He brought with him two pairs of shoes, a basket of flowers, a large jug of water, and a condensed powder made from nutritious vegetables. When others asked him why he made this journey, he said merely to bring the dead some flowers. When others asked him if traveling through the darkness was difficult, he said no, that he kept his spirits up, and he made a friend of his fear. When others asked what he would do differently if he had to go again, he said that he would have brought a third pair of shoes.
According to Journeys to the World of the Dead, by Quil Jaspen, Owusu did not claim to bring back any truths, or anything else for that matter. No knowledge. No tools. No weapons. And he claims to have left several dozen flowers behind in the city. When asked what kind of flowers he brought, he said those that grew around the entrance. I find this part of the story to be somewhat unbelievable. I discovered no flowers by the entrance where I found it. I had every intention of bringing flowers with me on the off chance that that was where Owusu had succeeded where others had failed. I spent the better part of a day and more rations than I should have looking for flowers in the area just beyond the area where nothing grows. It’s the right time of year. I recognize several of the plants as flowering varieties. Yet they did not have flowers, and I was forced to enter without.
Despite that inconsistency, I have to hope that Owusu’s story was true. For I do not have an army. I do not have any highly trained servants. I have a blind horse I’ve taken to calling Gideon, saddlebags filled with the best supplies I could afford, and myself, a student. I am already several years beyond my expected graduation date because of my middling abilities and other difficulties. Something has to change. A brand new book about the journey. Knowledge. A secret. Can the Underworld really be any worse than mediocrity?
There are also stories in Deepest Explorations, by Noelia Abda, of some who began the journey but quickly returned. They agreed with the others about the size of the caves and the carvings, and the darkness. There are few records of why these people returned early because they found themselves unable to explain it to someone who had not seen. The records do indicate that at least one of them returned totally blind, and another returned transformed. He was only referred to by his last name Greaves. Bones grew from his skull through the skin in the shape of terrifying, mangled antlers, and his skin itself turned a faint green. It seems that time in the Underworld can do strange things to the living. He couldn’t remember how long he had been down there when he returned, and no one on the surface had noticed his absence.
The entrance to the Underworld was simply a cave in the side of a hill when I found it. It had a larger opening than any natural cave I had ever seen. I can believe that armies and caravans fit through it with ease. There was no gate, which was good, because I had no blood of the innocent, and I didn’t have high hopes for the stuff in my veins. The entrance was also not a hole in the ground, which was good because I could not afford more than twenty five meters of rope without sacrificing too much food to make the journey. If I had encountered these obstacles, my journey would have been halted in its tracks, and I may have had to return empty handed. I have no idea if the entrance changes. I do not know if it makes itself accessible to anyone for a price they can pay, or if I was lucky, or if some of the authors merely recorded erroneous reports. All the same, I’ve started to privilege Limerk’s work over the others I attempted to memorize from the forbidden section. Perhaps the entrance molds itself to the needs of the traveler. I can’t expect the same from the rest of the journey.
Instead of returning empty handed as I may have secretly hoped, I find myself deep within the cave. The path to the City of the Dead. Gideon and I have set up camp for a rest. I have a timepiece that glows faintly. It tells me that it’s mid morning, but I won’t see the sun again for some time, so it doesn’t matter. Gideon and I pushed as far as we could.
Just beyond the entrance, the wide path began to turn to the East, as though the path itself could only tolerate so much sunlight, and then it became much steeper. After only a few minutes of riding, I began to feel the pressure building up on my ear drums. I have brought with me a gas lantern, a number of torches, and a firestarter. I wanted to bring electrical lights, but Death and the Depths described their narrow bands of light being more easily consumed by the darkness of the underworld. I have with me what should be plenty of lantern fuel for the journey, and the lantern has some optics in it that allow me to narrow its spread to a single spot in the distance, although the trade off is that I myself become engulfed in darkness.
The light is mostly for my benefit. Gideon can’t see. He lost his eyesight some months ago. His owner was about to destroy him, but then I purchased him. I figured I didn’t need a sighted horse deep within these caves, and in fact sight might prevent a horse from going where I need him to. I may not have accounted for the trip to the entrance, however, which may have been an oversight. I did my best to forage for supplies so that the slow and deliberate pace of Gideon’s steps would not draw too heavily from our resources. There will be no foraging down here. The extra time allowed me to become more familiar with Gideon’s pace, and it allowed Gideon to grow more confident in my guidance. And if it were not for Gideon’s steeply reduced purchase price, that of a few hundred kilograms of horse meat, I would have no horse at all. The owner felt sorry for Gideon, and probably me as well.
While he can’t see, I can tell that he knows something is amiss. The smell on the air. The humidity. The echoes. He trusts my guidance, and we have been moving much more quickly than I might have expected otherwise. I pray that I never have to break his trust. The humidity makes it hard to breathe at times, and sweating does nothing at all to cool me down. I dry my sweat with a towel. I have brought a filtration system made out of a still and a few other components to make my water supply last a little longer. I also have a small machine designed for air filtration should the air in the cave become unbreathable for myself or Gideon.
The path thus far has been interesting, though perhaps less so than I might have expected. The path has been spacious. I have taken to walking along the right wall to make sure I don’t get lost and so I can hopefully fumble my way out if the worst occurs. Along the wall, I see some carvings in languages I’m not familiar with. The carvings are precise, almost mathematical. The horizontal and vertical line segments are all the same length. The diagonal line segments are slightly longer. The curves seem to be taken from a circle with a diameter of the horizontal and vertical segments, though a complete circle is rare. They are transfixing, and I find myself having to force my gaze away from them. They seem to dance with the flicker of my lantern. The path itself appears as though it was carved into the stone to provide greater traction. The rock beneath my feet and Gideon’s hooves is cut to look almost like pavers. I do not know if this is because the paths were at one point more heavily travelled, or if the carving was merely there to taunt those travelers who might wish to attempt the journey. I wish I had a greater opportunity to study the stone work and carvings. I wonder if they are significant at all or if they are merely here as an exercise in futility. Do they mean anything, or are they only meant to squander the precious hours of the living? According to Diamon Lisowen in Torment, those who have made attempts to study the walls have rarely returned, and one who did return could only cry when questioned about the meanings. Best to keep my eyes on the path ahead of me.
It’s somewhat humorous to me now thinking about the ancients making the journey. The rulers and leaders. You cannot see gold shine in this darkness. And no amount of class or breeding can prevent this fear. To say that it is dark is an understatement. I made the mistake of looking back as we first began to descend on this road. The cave mouth disappeared, closing, swallowing the remaining light, and then there was nothing behind me. Not even a hint. No wall. Just black. Even when I use the optics in the lantern to shine a great distance behind me, it is not enough to see all the way back. Something could be following me, and I would never know until it is too late. But I can’t think like that. With the lantern’s light spread out, I can see just far enough in front of me to avoid obstacles. I would need a roaring bonfire to comfortably light this path. I have made a mark on the stone where I’m resting so that, if I fall asleep, I’ll remember which way to go.
The fear is so strong. The knowledge that I won’t be seeing the sun or breathing fresh air again for some time has shaken me to my center. It’s almost like a drug the way the fear controls me. When it wanes, it feels similar to coming to my senses after a night of drinking. When it is in fullest force, I barely notice it, but it colors everything. My pace. How much I have to push Gideon to continue. My appetite disappears. I don’t feel thirst. Until it becomes dire. I barely breathe. This fear will not be departing. It’s best to use my education to control it. To feel its every tendril pressing deep within my body, sliding the muscles and tendons wherever they fit, and leaving hardened, paralyzed flesh in its wake. I’ve thought a lot about Owusu’s journey. I use his example to guide my breathing. I haven’t warmed up too much to the idea of singing or whistling, though. I’m still afraid that something might whistle back.
Around four hours into the journey, we came to a bridge. At first, it appeared only to be a different sort of paving with a guard rail, but taking the first step onto it changed the sound around me dramatically. I have no idea how wide or tall the cavern was, but it took considerable time for the echo of Gideon’s hooves on the stone to make it back to us. Even the focused light of the lantern was little help. I peered over the side and I could only make out a small reflection of the lantern in what must have been some sort of water or other liquid.
At the midpoint on the bridge, I began to hear the high pitched squeal of bats, that whistle just at the edge of the range of hearing and beyond it. Looking around at this point, I could only see bridge. The tunnel behind me was gone. What lay before me was yet to be seen. I decided to walk beside Gideon and lead him by hand. I couldn’t be certain that the bridge was sound. I have to admit that I hesitated several times, but if I was to make it all the way, then this would be the slightest of my challenges.
The end of the bridge led to another tunnel like the one I had previously left, but just before the end of the bridge, I found a wooden sculpture up against the guardrail. Perhaps it was a god I am not familiar with. I can’t remember any of its features, now that I think about it. This totem was the first evidence I had found of anyone else ever having been in this cave system. Surely, the architects had no need of such a small idol. The wood was cracked with age and part of it had turned a mossy green. If it was from one of the recorded expeditions, a thousand years should have been enough time to reduce it to dust. If it was more recent, then who, and when? I’m not sure why I did what I did next, but I suppose the curiosity got the best of me. I dropped it over the side of the bridge. I never heard it hit the bottom.
The next section of tunnel was a bit narrower. The dark stone around me still ate my lamp light without returning much in the way of detail. After only a few minutes in this new section, I heard a sound that has left me badly shaken. From somewhere behind me, perhaps in the cavern that the bridge led through, something roared. Its sound echoed and reverberated through the tunnels. This frightened Gideon. He began to run through the tunnel. I could tell that he must have been a prized stallion before he lost his sight, but now I found myself at the whim of a blind animal running scared through the dangerous halls. By the lamp light, I could see small pits and piles of fallen stones that we seemed to miss by luck alone. I pulled hard on Gideon’s reins to no avail. I wrapped my arms around his neck and squeezed. He fought me and nearly bucked me from his back.
I attempted calming techniques on him, stroking his mane and whispering kind words. He slowed, but only marginally. I continued for what felt like ages. I am thankful that I had enough time to bring him to a stop. Otherwise, Gideon would have smashed head first into a wall, and I would have had to make a retreat with what supplies I could carry to the surface, back across the bridge, which may have been home to some sort of beast. The owner of the cry. I may yet have to contend with that unknown monster, but that will be a concern for the return journey.
The next eight hours of travel took us down what appeared to be a gently turning corridor. It spiraled counter-clockwise, so I made Gideon hug the inside wall to shorten our journey. I again felt pressure in my ears.
I found myself awake and focused from the rush of fear. I was tuned in to every sound happening around me. The crumbling of rocks. Gideon’s footsteps. I heard nothing approaching. Whatever had screamed out must have been at the bottom of that cavern, I comforted myself, though vigilance persisted.
After spiraling for a time, the path turned into steps. Watching Gideon slowly probe each stair made me acutely aware of just how much effort it would take to make the return journey alone.
After another hour of travel, the stairs ended, and then we found ourselves on a much more level path for some time. At the base of the stairs, I was greeted by several broken wagon wheels, and one abandoned caravan. I am not well enough versed in wagon construction to know the time period it was made in or where it came from. The wood was old and cracked, just like the idol’s. There was nothing inside of it. Not even a scrap of paper. There was nothing I could salvage, except maybe to burn the wood. I didn’t want to burden Gideon any further, and I told myself that I would have more use for the wood on the return trip.
The next section of the path went on for hours in a straight line. Gideon started to fight with me, so I decided to keep an eye out for a place to camp. Then we came upon a huge section of the wall that seemed to have been blown apart by an explosive of some sort. There was a good amount of rubble around the path and some larger boulders to hide behind. I used some of my rope to tie Gideon to a boulder.
I laid out my bedroll. I don’t expect to sleep for some time. Maybe three days. I’m saving my stimulants for later, but I’m not used to the fear yet and it will take me some time to sleep. I will rest my body and give Gideon the time he needs to recover. This will not be a simple trip for him. I only hope he makes the full journey with me. I choked down some food despite this unrelenting nausea. At this point, food is medicine.
As I am speaking my thoughts for this record, I am in total darkness. I cannot waste any of my gas or torches. They are for progress down this road and nothing else. That is why I have opted to speak my record into this recording apparatus instead of writing it down.
The fear has left my body a tangle of pain and tightness that will not in any likelihood allow me to rest. Perhaps I should lay my head down anyway.
It is so unbelievably dark.
Credits: The Hollow Below by Conrad Miszuk. The Role of Godry is played by Conrad Miszuk. The credits are read by Kitt Keller. The Hollow Below is written, produced, directed and edited by Conrad Miszuk. For more, visit hollowbelow.com.