The Flight of the Hummingbird

     Lexandria University becomes the hub of a gigantic research project in an attempt to find a way to counter the new threat facing the planet Tharia, but spies and saboteurs are everywhere, and one of their key men, responsible for one of the most important elements of the Rossem Project, dies with his work uncompleted. Without his contribution the project will fail, but to complete his work an expedition must go all the way to the dreaded Southern Continent, from which few people have ever returned...

Extract from The Flight of the Hummingbird.

     With a glance at the others he led the way out through the room's second door into another room, the far wall of which contained a door back out into the forest. A window in that same wall showed a large pile of loamy soil outside, overlaid with a larger pile of soft, pumice rock, the rock from which the whole volcano was composed. A hole in the middle of the floor was the obvious source of the material, the soil having been dug out first and then the rock as the wizard dug deeper. Thomas's magic sense was jangling like an alarm clock. The source of the field of magic that surrounded the cottage was at the bottom of that hole.

      "He must have been passing by for some reason, sensed the magical field and thought he'd discovered an ancient magical artifact thrown up by the volcano," mused Thomas thoughtfully. "He decided to dig it up, and brought the cottage here as a base of operations." He went over to a rack of digging tools hung on the wall and passed his hand over them. "They're carrying a charge of residual magic, probably from invisible servant spells. As I expected. No self respecting wizard's going to get his hands dirty with manual labour."

     "Who cares how or why he found it?" said Matthew, however. "It's not important." He sat down next to the hole and lowered his legs over the side, holding on to the rope ladder that led down into the depths.

     Tana went next, followed by Thomas, a little disappointed to have surrendered the lead. He was surprised to find that the loamy soil went down to a depth of over twelve feet. The crater must have been forested for thousands of years for that much soil to have been laid down. The rich dark brown of the soil was streaked through by layers of light grey, some of them several inches thick. Each one must be ash from a nearby volcanic eruption, he realised, and part of him was amazed that he was still capable of calm, rational observation on this historic occasion. I'm on my way to meet a god! he told himself sternly. I should keep my mind on the issue at hand. The god may be angry that I'm not devoting my full attention to the honour I'm receiving.

     Further down, the soil turned to softer pumice, its surface bearing the marks of the picks and mattocks that had dug through it. Here and there the sides of the tunnel bulged inwards around large boulders of harder rock that the magically animated tools had failed to break up, but for the most part the shaft led vertically downwards, finally leading to a smooth, level floor nearly fifty feet below the surface. Here, a narrow tunnel led off to one side, and Thomas arrived to find that Matthew and Tana had already gone to follow it to its end.

     Thomas looked at the floor he was walking on. It appeared to be some kind of shiny metal, glowing with a soft greenish light of its own, and it appeared to be slightly curved, as if he were walking on top of a huge metal globe at least a hundred feet across. The further he went the more it sloped downwards until it became quite treacherous to walk on, and he was relieved to find a series of metal spikes hammered into the soft pumice from this point on, allowing him to proceed as if climbing down a ladder. His heart pounded with excitement. He was getting close! This curved metal surface glowing with holy light could only be a manifestation of the god itself! Perhaps the roof of a magnificent underground temple! He reached down to touch the slick, cold surface with trembling fingers. Not long now!

     At the bottom of the shaft the glowing metal surface had become a wall beside him, and as his feet touched the rough and uneven floor of the shaft he gasped with excitement to see a door, or at least an opening of some kind, leading inwards. Only part of the doorway was visible, more of the soft, crumbly pumice would have to be dug away to reveal all of it, but those parts of the oval surround that he could see made his heart pound even harder with excitement. There were figures impressed into the smooth, luminous metal. Strange, alien figures, but with a kind of alien beauty unlike anything he'd ever seen before. Were they depictions of the god itself? Maybe they were some kind of servants or attendants. Perhaps it was even some kind of language. The god's language! He realised that the god was still waiting, no doubt with increasing impatience, and he hurried through the opening, suddenly anxious not to displease his new master.

     Once out of the narrow confines of the rock tunnel, he found himself in a large oval corridor, fifteen feet tall and eight feet wide at its widest point, halfway between floor and ceiling. The sloping floor was as slippery as an ice rink under his feet and he was forced to slow to a cautious creep to keep his balance. It wasn't a long corridor, however, and it opened out into a vast, cathedral like chamber at what he estimated was the centre of the metal globe.

     Tana and Matthew were there before him, and so were Saturn and Rin Wellin, lying flat of the hard metal floor and moaning in overwhelming awe and terror. They were groveling before a huge throne that seemed to have been carved out of a single massive block of ivory. He called it a throne only because he didn't know what else to call it, but it was unlike any other throne he'd ever seen before. This had been designed for something completely inhuman, something besides which humans were nothing more than worms wriggling in the mud.

     All around the throne were dead animals. Rabbits, lambs, piglets, horses and calves. All shrunken and mummified, the fur stretched tight across dry bones, but apparently untouched by the god. Offerings laid before it by the wizard. Failed offerings. Rejected by the awesome being that squatted on the throne even now, regarding the new arrivals silently. Thomas dared not lift his eyes from the luminous metal floor to look at it, and his eyes fell upon another corpse, directly in front of the throne. This one had been stripped to the bone, just as the dead wizard had been, and every bone had holes bored into it where, presumably, the marrow had been sucked out. This offering had been accepted. He remembered the sheet of paper they'd found in the cottage above, the sheet of paper that the wizard had not had time to encrypt. At last the offering was accepted, he'd written, and the Eminence descended from the ivory throne to take it. He wondered what had made this offering different from any of the others and found himself taking a couple of steps forward to get a better look. He nodded, realising that he should have guessed. The skeleton was that of a young human child. The offering, the first nourishment the Eminence had taken for who knew how many thousands of years, had merely whetted its appetite, however, and it had followed the wizard back up to the house. Thomas could only guess how great its hunger must have been for it to consume its only worshipper, a man who could have provided it with any amount of nourishment if it had only been able to show a little patience and restraint. It had the whole crew of the Hummingbird to serve and worship it now, however, and soon it would have all of humanity. After fourteen thousand years of recorded history, fourteen thousand years of pointless, endless strife, the human race would finally find fulfillment.

     The thought sent a surge of joy through him that prompted him to raise his eyes, to gaze upon the being whose aeon long slumber the nameless wizard had ended, the being to whom he was pledging his heart and his soul. He raised his eyes slowly and reverently, ready to cover them again if the Eminence showed the least sign of displeasure. The throne was high, and carved with the same alien figures he'd seen around the entrance, and the Eminence that squatted upon it, silent and still, towered above him, bulky and massive. Folds of rubbery flesh drooped and sagged on it, openings and orifices gaped and pulsed and, clustered around a pale white head looking like a giant drowned slug, seven eyes peered unblinkingly down at him, as blank and expressionless as the eyes of a dead fish. It was awesome and magnificent, the most beautiful thing Thomas had ever seen in his life! It was truly a god! It was the natural and rightful master of the world, and Thomas was nothing beside it! Less than a wriggling insect! What madness, what affrontery had prompted him to come here, into its very presence? What arrogance to think that he was worthy of a personal audience! And how would that arrogance be punished? Sudden terror filled him, fear that he had angered it with his presumption, and he threw himself to the ground, prostrating and abasing himself in an attempt to regain its favour. "Forgive me!" he begged, tears of misery and despair springing to his eyes. "Oh please, master, forgive me, I beg of you!" He writhed and moaned on the ground, while the creature squatting on the massive ivory throne gazed down upon its five new worshippers with unblinking, emotionless eyes.