The Caverns of Kronos

      Thomas Gown and his companions have escaped from captivity, but only by fleeing deeper into the unknown, to face new dangers. They are carrying a secret that could save the world, though, and they have a duty to take it to those who can make use of it, but to do that they must return to the city of Kronosia, to go back among those from whom they have only just escaped…


 

Extract from The Caverns of Kronos

     Malefactos’s first glimpse of the Puncturium chamber left even him stunned and speechless with awe and wonder, much to the amusement of Karm, the rak mainly responsible for the room’s maintenance. He’d been working here ever since the early days of the Shadow, a hundred years earlier, and had seen many an arrogant, self important rak humbled and laid low by his first visit here. Four walls, a floor and a ceiling, he thought, in no little awe himself despite the time he’d served here, his familiarity with this place. This could be any room anywhere in the world, except for what it contains.

     Once, it had been a ballroom, one of several in the eight wings of a palace that was so large it was almost a city in itself. It was almost a hundred yards long and half that wide, and the ceiling was so high that rock giants could have walked around inside without bumping their heads. Six giant chandeliers had once hung from the ceiling, each one supporting hundreds of false candles that had shone with continual light spells. Beautifully carved tables and chairs had once stood against the walls, giving the dancers the chance to rest their feet and enjoy a glass of wine now and again during a long night of dance and music, and a low stage had once stood at the end of the room on which the smartly dressed orchestra had played waltzes and talatas on their beautiful, magical silver and gold instruments, but now all this had been cleared away leaving only flaking plaster and disintegrating wood paneling to make room for the room’s new function.

     The whole room shimmered with power, like the heat haze rising from a hot road in the middle of summer, and even with his rak vision Malefactos had trouble seeing details in the pillars and alcoves that lined the room’s far wall. He had the sense of tremendous energies just barely held in check, energies so powerful that they could lay waste to half the city if released, and it was all focused inwards, towards a spot in the exact centre of the room where something terrible and insane was happening.

     “Go ahead,” said Karm. “Have a closer look.” Malefactos glanced at him, thinking for a moment that the other rak was mocking his evident fascination, but Karm seemed to be totally sincere and so with a shrug of his shrunken, leathery shoulders he stepped forward. He paused uncertainly for a moment as the room’s energies closed around him, making him feel as though thousands of ants were swarming all over his body, but it seemed to be harmless and so, with another look back at Karm, he continued on.

     The feeling intensified as he got closer to the centre, where the power was denser, and he noticed with interest that a crackling nimbus of rainbow colours was dancing all over his body. The phenomenon distracted his attention only for a moment, however, as he got close enough to the object at the centre of the room to get a better idea of what it was.

     It was a spinning, dancing, shimmering, vibrating area of pure chaos, pure insanity. It was impossible to look at directly. The eye seemed to keep sliding off it, or perhaps it was the object itself dancing off to the side whenever he tried to focus on it, so that he could only see it out of the corner of his eye. What he could see of it, however, suggested that perhaps he was better off not being able to see it properly, as if its behaviour and properties were so crazy that a proper look at it would twist his mind. He didn’t need to see it to know what it was, though. It was the place where all the magical energies in the room came together, came to a focus, pulling at a single point to prise it open against the almost unimaginable stiffness and resistance of the fabric of space itself, like the jaws of a mantrap held an inch apart against the full strength of its steel spring by a million lengths of cotton running away in all directions. It was the Puncturium, a tiny opening in the structure of space connecting Tharia’s universe with the seething nightmare that was the Pit.

     Malefactos felt a moment of real fear as he imagined what would happen if the spells holding the Puncturium open were to fail. The transdimensional opening would immediately slam shut, and the energy released would be enough to blast him and half the city to oblivion. He suddenly remembered Karm watching him, though, and, realising that he may have seen his fear, decided to put on a show of bravado to prove his courage. He looked at the Puncturium out of the corner of his eye, getting an idea of its position, and then reached out his hand towards it.

     There was a satisfying gasp of shock from the other rak as he realised what he was doing, and then he felt a strange prickling in his hand as it entered the transdimensional rift. He looked at his arm, and found to his surprise that he still couldn’t see the Puncturium properly, even though he now had it pinned down. His eyes still refused to focus on it, as if they knew better than he what was best for him.

     He pushed his arm in further, and watched in fascination as it vanished up to the elbow. My hand’s in the Pit, he thought in wonderment. I’m in two planes of existence at the same time! I wonder what it looks like from the other side. He pushed his arm in further, wondering how wide the hole was. Maybe I can get my head in, he thought excitedly.

     Suddenly, though, there was a sharp pain in his hand and he snatched it back hurriedly. He stared at it in horror and fascination. There, dangling from his bony, mummified hand, hanging on by the teeth, was one of the most horrible creatures he’d ever seen. It looked a bit like a common earthworm except that it was about three feet long, an inch thick and had a small human head, its red eyes glaring at him in mindless, stupid malice and its teeth gnawing at his fingers as it tried to do him as much harm as possible. He pulled it free with his other hand and held it up to get a better look at it.

     It was a Wum-Gubba, one of the nastiest but least dangerous inhabitants of the Pit. Like everything in the immortal planes, it had once been the soul of a living creature, a man by the look of it, but whereas most souls gained a spiritual body identical in outward appearance to the ones they’d had in life, this one had led such a petty, spiteful life, so full of trivial, gratuitous nastiness, that he’d been given a body to match. This had once been the sort of person who stole sweets from babies and pinched them to make them cry, who told lies about people just to get them in trouble and who stole or smashed people’s most treasured possessions just to hurt them, and Malefactos felt nothing but loathing for the pitiful worm wriggling in his hands, mewling in terror.

     And yet, even a Wum-Gubba could hope for better things in the future. If it was one of the few spirits of the dead that could endure eternity without growing weary of it and fading out of existence it would slowly grow in knowledge and power, even though it was starting out far below the level of most immortal souls that wound up in the Pit, climbing with painful slowness up the demonic hierarchy until, unimaginable ages from now, it became a demon in its own right. Everything in the immortal planes had started out as the soul of a dead person, even the Shadowlord. Even the Gods Themselves, although they’d certainly never been human. It took so long to reach the top that, to be Gods now, they must have started the long climb millions of years ago. The Gods worshipped by humans had probably once been methane breathing creatures living on a frozen moon thousands of light years away, or something equally strange.

     Having reached such a pinnacle of power was no guarantee of security, though. Power could be lost as well as gained, and the most common way in which it was lost was by the deliberate action of others, either ambitious youngsters coming up from below or jealous oldsters up above. Many people claimed to have killed demons, and they could indeed be killed although it was unimaginably difficult, but what usually happened when a demon was ‘killed’ in its own plane of existence was that it lost much of its power, falling back down the ladder of achievement, in the worst cases maybe ending up a creature like the one he was holding in his hand. As one of his teachers had told him in his youth, the afterlife was a bit like a game of snakes and ladders.