Beneath the Crimson Sky, Part I
The cave entrance loomed before him, a cold, dark blight in the icy mountainside. His feet slipped on the narrow ledge and Dusty moved into the darkness as quickly as the slippery surface allowed.
There was no visible light source but Dusty realized he could just make out the smooth walls of the cave on either side as he slowly made his way farther into the cavern, hands outstretched and teeth gritted, his breathing coming in shallow gasps. Several times he almost lost his balance, arms flailing wildly, but he regained his footing every time, stubbornly refusing to allow himself to fall.
Dusty inched forward ever more slowly as the passageway narrowed. Whatever light had seemed to illuminate the way forward seemed to dim and the passage grew darker and darker before him. Still, he pressed on, thoughts of turning back the way he came never crossing his mind.
All at once, the passageway opened into an enormous circular space. Jagged shapes rose up on all sides, strange figures that seemed to reach out from the frigid surface of the crystalline rock walls. A faintly bluish glow seemed to emanate from the walls themselves and Dusty beheld his surroundings in stunned silence for several moments.
Dusty drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, sending vaporous tendrils into the frigid cavern. The eerie beauty of the ice cave threatened to lull him into an almost meditative state and Dusty shook his head slightly as he forced his thoughts back to the task at hand. He took several steps toward the center of the cavern, unsure as to how to proceed in the utter stillness that surrounded him.
“Who are you?”
The voice was low and strangely melodic, and Dusty turned abruptly toward what looked like a hallway cut into the rock face to his left. As his eyes grew accustomed to the strange, blue light, Dusty realized that he could see at least six black holes in the icy rock around him, entrances to corridors leading into the unknown depths of the mountain in which the cavern lay. He could only make out the silhouette of a figure standing at the first tunnel’s entrance, and Dusty squinted at the shape that almost seemed to shimmer and blend into the ice wall, shifting and changing as it phased in and out of sight.
“My name is Dusty Grein.” His voice seemed somehow small and insignificant in the vastness of the ice cave.
The shape pulsed oddly, all at once blurring like a reflection in the rippling surface of an opaque pool of water, before coalescing into an almost painfully distinct form, the form of a young woman. Dusty watched, his heart pounding, as she moved swiftly into the center of the room to face him. From out of the folds of the black cloak appeared two snow white hands that reached up to push back the cowl. Long dark hair spilled out over her shoulders and she fixed her coal-black eyes squarely on Dusty’s face.
“Why are you here?”
Dusty almost shrank back from the woman before him but managed to maintain his composure, forcing himself to match her unyielding gaze. Something about her filled him with unease and it was several moments before he could answer her question.
“I... I’m looking for Onyx City.”
The woman nodded slightly, an almost imperceptible smile playing at the corner of her lips. “Are you?” she whispered.
Dusty returned her nod, his confidence wavering. A chill ran down his back, a chill originating not from the frozen rocks around him, but from some primal instinct deep within his own mind.
Show no weakness. The words rang in his mind unbidden, speaking not in the voice of his mind but in tones that seemed strange, alien, as though the thought was not his own.
A smile slowly spread across the woman’s face like frost on a window glass. Her eyes narrowed as she appeared to consider Dusty’s words carefully before responding.
“I am Onyx City,” she said finally.
Relieved even in the midst of his disquiet, Dusty drew in a deep, ragged breath. “They told me I would find you here.”
“Yes. I mean, you know, they.” Dusty turned his head to the cavern’s ceiling, bedecked with giant icicles that seemed to point all over in impossible directions, suddenly desperate for relief from Onyx City’s penetrating stare.
Onyx City murmured something under her breath. She took a careful step closer to Dusty, her cloak swirling inexplicably around her feet in the still air of the ice cave. “So they told you about me. And for what reason might they have done such a thing?”
Dusty swallowed hard and looked back to Onyx City. “I need to find the artifact.”
The glow of the blue cavern light seemed to intensify for a split second as Dusty spoke the words and he winced as though struck, taking a step away from Onyx City before the action registered in his own awareness.
“The artifact.” Onyx City sighed deeply as she spoke, lowering her gaze for the first time since appearing from the tunnel. “Do you truly know what that would entail? Do you know what you would have to do, where you would have to go, to find it?”
“I do,” Dusty replied softly. “I need to go to the other side.”
“Not just to the other side.” A scornful note entered her voice.
Dusty’s brow furrowed and he turned away from the coldness of the woman’s visage, rubbing his face with one freezing hand as he struggled to make sense of her words.
“Ah, so you are not quite so prepared as you thought. You enter my realm uninvited, speak so brazenly of seeking the artifact, and yet do not fully understand the true nature of your own request.” Laughter lurked beneath Onyx City’s words that twisted and floated around the ice cave as a snowflake borne on a winter breeze.
All at once, Dusty felt his chest tightening, his head pounding in frustration. He spun around to face Onyx City, who now stood only so many feet away. “Are you going to help me or not?” he asked, not bothering to restrain his exasperation. “I don’t have time for lectures, or your riddles. I just need to know if you’ll help me or, if not... I’ll find another way.”
Onyx City’s expression darkened, the icy formations along the cave walls glinting in her coal-black eyes. “There is no other way,” she said matter-of-factly before pressing her lips tightly together as she considered Dusty’s outburst. “Understand that it matters not to me whether you find that which you seek, or whether you are lost forever among the twisted alleys and abominable spires of the other world. But I can see that you are sincere in your request, though your understanding of what lies ahead is clearly deficient.” She sighed again and a cunning gleam flickered through her eyes.
Dusty remained silent, inwardly seething at the woman who, for the moment, had become the decider of the direction his journey must take.
“I will help you.” With those words, Onyx City turned and started for the tunnel from which she came. “Follow me,” she called back over her shoulder as she disappeared down the passageway.
The cavern floor was slippery and Dusty had a hard time keeping up with Onyx City, who seemed to glide easily over the icy surface. The passage was dark but almost completely straight, although Dusty perceived a slight downward slope, and he remarked inwardly that they must be heading ever closer to the center of the mountain.
The corridor opened up into a small, bright chamber of white ice. The far wall appeared to be engraved with an intricate pattern of concentric circles and strange runes that appeared somehow disturbing to the senses. Onyx City stopped in the middle of the room and turned, motioning for Dusty to remain where he stood.
“You say you seek the artifact. To find it one must travel to the Onyx City. There is but one portal to the city in this world, and that portal is here.”
“Wait a minute, I thought you are Onyx City.”
A laugh, crisp and cold as a river in winter, escaped her throat. “Yes, well, that name is as good as any, I suppose.”
“So that’s not your name?”
Onyx City narrowed her eyes at Dusty. “No, it is not my true name.”
“Then who are you exactly?”
Onyx City raised a hand to silence Dusty before he could press her further. “That is not important. It has been a long time, a very long time, and I suppose they no longer remember. The Onyx City is a place of mystery and of terrors unknown. Of all the worlds on the other side, it is the most feared and the one shunned the most by travelers.” She paused meaningfully before continuing. “I am the guardian of this place, this doorway to the city on the other side of this world. My true name was once known by all but, over time, I have become nothing more than an idea, forever joined with that fearsome place of which no one dares speak. For now, that is all you need to know.
“But back to the matter at hand. To reach the Onyx City, you must enter through this gate,” she continued, gesturing behind her with one hand as she spoke. “I, and I alone, can open this gate, and know that it can only be opened from this side.”
“How do I get back?” Dusty asked nervously, glancing behind Onyx City at the strange markings on the wall at her back.
Onyx City raised one arm slowly, one snow white finger pointing toward the passageway.
A sudden gust of wind blew past Dusty’s head and he flinched, drawing back as a large raven burst into the room from the darkness. It circled three times before landing on a large, irregularly shaped block of ice in the corner of the room where it shook itself, ruffling its glistening black feathers before fixing Dusty with an all-too-human stare.
“The raven can pass freely through the barrier. When you are ready, call out to him and I will open the gate.”
Dusty looked quizzically at Onyx City. Call him? he thought to himself. How?
Onyx City’s lip curled in a sneer and she shook her head derisively as though hearing Dusty’s unspoken thought. “When the time comes, you will call,” she snarled through gritted teeth.”
The sense of uneasiness that had seemed to pervade their entire exchange up to that point intensified, and Dusty waited, wary of Onyx City’s impatience and the apparent changeability of her nature.
“To find the artifact, seek out the Tall One. He dwells somewhere on the dark side of the Onyx City.”
“Somewhere? Where? How do I find him?”
Onyx City glared at Dusty, clearly irritated at his eagerness. “Listen. And listen well, for what I tell you I will say only once. I do not know where the Tall One dwells. He can only be seen by those who wish to see him, and I have never had reason to seek his presence. No one from this world has ever laid eyes upon him and I cannot tell you exactly what path will lead you to him.
“There is a paladin who lives on the west side of the Onyx City. He is known only as the Western Paladin. He might be able to help you.”
“Might?” Dusty could not resist interrupting.
“It is more than you have a right to expect. The Onyx City is a dangerous place and those who reside there have no interest in your mortal concerns. Find the paladin, and you might persuade him to help you in your quest. There is a chance, and that is the best I, or anyone, can offer.”
Dusty nodded slowly. Though Onyx City’s tone was harsh, deep down he knew she was right.
“Once you step through the gate, the rules of this world will no longer apply,” Onyx City continued, turning away from Dusty as she spoke. She walked slowly over to the runed portal and reached out with both hands. “There will be no landmarks to tell you in which direction you are traveling.”
Two of the strange runes were carved in the center of the circular portal, separate from the patterns that adorned the outer rings of the door. Onyx City gently pressed her two palms against the central runes and Dusty watched as the carved designs turned a deep, glowing blue.
“In the center of the city there is a tower. Go to it. Only from the tower can your bearings be discerned. From the tower, travel due west until you reach a glade of black flowers. The Western Paladin resides on the far side of the glade. Be warned that you must get from the tower to the glade by nightfall as landmarks change every night in the Onyx City. The journey will be dangerous. I cannot guarantee that you will be able to make it to the Tall One, even should the Western Paladin deign to help you, nor can I tell you whether you might successfully obtain the artifact. Even if you are successful, you must make it back to the gate in order to re-enter this world. There is a chance, a very good chance, that you will be lost or killed on the other side. That is the reality of what you face on this quest.
“But, if you are ready, I will open the gate.” Onyx City turned her head to one side, speaking over her shoulder at Dusty as the door’s runed patterns glowed even brighter.
Dusty took a deep breath and approached the portal, shaken, but not deterred, by Onyx City’s words. “I’m ready.”
Onyx City raised her head as if beseeching the Heavens, eyes closed and lips parted. Her hair cascaded down her back and turned somehow luminous, the cloak seeming to harden, tightening around her body and shimmering as a precious gem in the ethereal light.
“Brenna. Myrkyr. Hljota opnask.”
The glow of the intricate carvings intensified until Dusty had no choice but to turn away, shielding his face with one hand. His feet slipped out from under him as a low rumbling assailed his ears, and he fell to one knee as the sound grew louder and louder to an almost unbearable point. He felt all awareness of the chamber around him disappear, his very being seeming to dissipate like a wisp of smoke in a gale, and he cried out as he felt himself falling, reaching out with both hands and grasping at nothing, his eyes blinded by a sudden painful flash of brilliant blue light.
A split second later, the light disappeared and all was silent. Dusty gasped at the realization that he was standing as perfectly still and upright behind Onyx City as before she spoke the mysterious words. Where the carved door had been, there was now only a grayish mist, and Dusty suddenly dreaded walking through to whatever lay beyond the portal.
“How...?” he began before trailing off, uncertain as to whether he should ask any more questions. “How long might this journey take?” Dusty finally asked. “Will you...?”
Onyx City cut him off with a glance. “Time as you know it has no meaning on the other side. It could take hours or days.” She shrugged dismissively. “Or it could be ten thousand years. But, if you make it back, I will be here. As I have always been. As will he,” she continued, gesturing at the raven who sat preening importantly from his seat of ice.
“Ten thousand years?” Dusty muttered under his breath. “I guess I’d better get going then.” He stepped up to the swirling mist, steeling himself for whatever lay ahead.
“One more thing.” Onyx City spoke out suddenly, reaching out and grasping Dusty’s forearm, which turned instantly numb at her touch. “Neither this world nor the one beyond the gate may be sacrificed for the sake of the other.”
“Remember my words. There are many worlds on the other side and, to them, this one is as strange as the Onyx City will seem to you. Each world exists, in part, because of the presence of every other world. If one falls, so, in turn, shall every other.” Onyx City fixed Dusty with a steady gaze, the undulating mist reflected as a rush of storm clouds in her coal-black eyes.
“What? Why are you telling me this?” Dusty asked as he tried to pull his arm from Onyx City’s vise-like grip.
“Just remember.” Onyx City squeezed Dusty’s arm once, hard, the numbing cold of her touch dissipating the second she released him. She beckoned to the raven before walking briskly toward the corridor leading back to the central cavern. “Remember all that I have told you.” At the entrance to the passageway, she stopped and turned back, the raven flying swiftly over her head and out of sight. “Good luck, Dusty Grein. Perhaps we will even meet again.” With those words, Onyx City disappeared into the darkness.
Dusty turned back to the portal, relieved in spite of himself that the enigmatic woman was gone. The finality of the situation hit all at once as he realized a choice had been made, one that would take him irrevocably into a world for which he was utterly unprepared, and there was no turning back.
Without a backward glance, Dusty stepped forth into the mist.