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Depths of Agony

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The stories traded by the wandering drovers had proven true, and we stood in a sheltered depression in the desert dunes facing an arch of black stone and a small exposed section of black stone flooring. There were eight of us and a massive lizard of a beast of burden, all that could be spared from those that were meant to be securing this area. Our leader floated under the arch, sand shifting slightly as the magic that suspended her pushed against the Earth. Her floating staff came in front of her, then tapped hard against the ground at an unseen command. What looked like stone rang like a bell of glass.

“Endless ruins, exactly what we were after. Clear this sand, find a way in.”

I swapped my spear of woven glassteel for a shovel of plain iron, and along with three of my fellow Telsem began to clear the surface. We potholed in a simple grid pattern, trying to find the edges of the slab that made up the floor. One of the edges lined up with the archway that was the only protruding feature and was quickly identified, then we focused on the direction it faced, assuming that it marked the entrance to a hallway. Maybe twelve paces from the arch and under a mighty pile of sand we found a seam in the slab. It was another hour's work to clear the whole seam, revealing a slightly lowered section of the same material that the floor was made from. A waterskin was passed around as our leader probed the edge with her staff, bare feet just skimming the surface. Satisfied with what she found, the staff floated to the middle of the slab and touched down, then she lowered herself onto her toes. There was a slight sizzling sound as her toes began to burn from the heat that had been absorbed by the black stone. I watched her smile slightly, and then the sizzling noise was overwritten by grinding as the stone slab began to move. It dropped maybe a hand, then tucked itself underneath the stone we were all standing on with a noise that could raise the dead. Walking dead were a possible issue with Endless ruins, somewhere in the middle of examples of horrific remains of their works.

I retied the shovel to the back of the pack beast, and took up the spear again. It moved cleanly and smoothly, refracting the low sun through it's clear shaft and head. Sweeping curves on it's head swept back into beautiful rear-facing points. I pricked my smallest finger on one, refreshed when it went straight through the skin and triggered a small light of pain. My second had just finished strapping his hand claws on, three lines of blood welling on the inside of his arm where he had touched himself while tightening the leather straps. He and I formed up next to the hole, looking down into the darkness. A third Telsem shook a stoppered glass jar and when it started to glow dropped it into the hole.

What we had opened was a shaft, maybe four men deep. It stopped with another floor of the black stone which was now lit by the glowing liquid that had splashed over it when the glass jar broke. There were two openings in the wall below, facing back towards the arch. A line of rope was fastened to the arch and thrown down, the excess coiling on the floor. My second took the rope in hand and dropped, kicking off above the first opening so that he fell past it instead of into it. As soon as he was off the rope I took it in one hand and spear in the other, and followed him down.

Light from the sun above and the glowing fluid at our feet allowed us to move a short distance into the tunnel that was past the opening. Just far enough to allow us to hold against whatever might come before the others could join us. No sounds stirred in the darkness before us as the rest of my warriors aligned themselves. Half with spears, half with hand claws. Last to arrive was our mage Arrakis, descending like a Goddess.

Arrakis ran her hand across the spikes on her staff as it floated past her, and the faceted jewel that capped it's glassteel and Dust length glowed. Our shadows stretched in front of us, almost impossible to pick out on featureless black stone. She floated to the middle of our group and gestured us forward.

The passage continued for easily forty paces, ending with a T-junction. Three of us formed up facing each way, while Arrakis pondered in the exact centre of the junction. Clicking sounds from the passage on the right made the decision for her. We reformed with claws front and spears behind, the second best of us standing behind and facing the other way. The procedures for exploring these ruins had been written in blood, too much of it ours.

What came into view were two of the servants of the Endless. Approximately the shape of man in gleaming white shells, featureless ovals for faces and tubes showing at the joints where the shells opened to allow for movement. They may have been patterned after humans, but they didn't move like us. Joints flexed and rotated far beyond the reach of normal tendons, allowing them to scutter across the floor on four limbs towards us. We held position to meet them, allowing ourselves a chance of retreat.

The first stopped just beyond reach of my spear, then braced feet and hands and spun around it's front left hand. A leg came up, armoured foot heading for the head of the Telsem. He reacted exactly as the forms taught, taking the leg in his palm and guiding it around his face as he ducked. As it came overhead he wrapped his palm over it and pulled down, while driving the claws on his other hand up and into the knee joint. Fluid dripped from cut lines, then the automaton hissed like steam from a kettle and rotated it's whole body around the hip joint. The warlock had to drop to his knees to support the sudden added weight and the automaton used a free hand to strike at the chest of the next Telsem. A straight blow with stiffened fingers harder then any iron was caught and redirected, the moving arm drawn forward and then trapped between elbow and body of warlock. The wrist rotated and folded, stabbing fingers into the exposed ribs. Blood was drawn and pain was felt, but that wasn't the plan.

The first automaton threw it's free limbs out and away from us, where the second could grab them. The second pulled hard, and the front rank of warlocks fell forward, trapped as they were by the automaton they were fighting. With the same momentum it threw itself over the falling bodies at those of the second rank. It was met partway by my spear.

Glassteel head skittered over white oval chestplate, no marks or ridges to catch and let me punch through. It's momentum was barely reduced and it hit me chest to chest with my spear out on the left and no use to me. I went over backwards and hit the ground hard, spine and shoulders crying in pain as they hit, followed by my forehead when the blank oval faceplate I was looking at bounced off my head. I'd missed this.

Pain focused the mind. It washed away distractions and minor concerns. Pain reminded us of the truth of our world, and I embraced it. My spear flicked down, it's shaft smacking across the back of the automaton and I trapped it under my elbows, crushing our bodies together with strength that I hadn't had seconds ago. I smiled even as my own strength crushed at my ribs and kept me from taking the breaths that my body would need. Pinned to me and with it's limbs spread, it couldn't get the leverage to move again, and a spearhead punched through from the back of it's neck almost to my own throat, then twisted sharply. The whole head separated with a popping noise, bouncing away behind me. The suddenly limp automaton was pushed off me with a foot, and I pushed myself back upright with my spear, leaning on it as lungs refilled. The first one had been dealt with by this point, two severed limbs scattered far from it's torso and a spreading pool of fluid showing where something vital had been opened.

We walked quicker after that, following passages in the hope of finding where the two had come from. Working Endless tech meant Dust, or possibly something even more valuable. Quickly the walls began to take on ornamentation. At first it was just small, gently glowing lights set in them and indicating something that was beyond any of us. Then patterns of gold appeared, drawing the eye in swirls to openings, most far too small to fit anything through. Within another forty paces thicker traceries of gold appeared, showing that what looked like yet another patch of wall was most likely a door. Arrakis' staff knocked three times in the centre, and the power of the Ardent Mage opened it.

The room was storage, racks of the automatons hanging from the ceiling. These ones were unmoving, and likely never would again. Parts lay partially disconnected and puddles of shiny black on black marked the floor under where they hung. Worthless to us, bodies like these would not give up their secrets to any skill that we knew. The number of them suggested that this was a decent size facility, and there would probably be things much more valuable in the depths below, if we could get down there.

We checked two more marked doorways, each leading to more storage. Just beyond the second room, the passage took another hard turn to the right. Fifty paces more, another hard turn to the right brought us to a corridor that was lit on it's own.

It was a hard change at the corner, smooth blackness shifting to gold and bronze archways that seemed to glow. Smaller doors sat between each archway on our left, entries to what would have been private rooms. We checked each as we moved past, but they had been stripped at some point far before we got here. They had been sealed so well that not even dust remained to tell us of what they used to be. Exactly in the middle of the corridor by count of the arches was a larger door, which opened into a shape we had seen before. This was the Endless version of stairs, a cage that moved between the levels. From the glow surrounding it, it still functioned. Arrakis paused just outside of it, staff turning lazy circles around her. It paused and tapped the floor, a gentle rhythm.

“What we need is below. Form up in the cage.”

Nobody was sure where the gentle music that always played when the cages moved came from. This one had some arrangement of strings that sounded like a lullaby, but had the opposite effect. When those doors opened again, anything could be on the other side and the roiling anxiety kept us awake and focused. The air inside hummed with power as blades were dragged against skin, the kiss of pain granting the focus to find the strength within. The gentle music quietened, and the doors we were facing opened.

Onto an empty foyer. The ceilings here were lower then the floor above, the walls muted tan stone with golden mortar and archways of shaped bronze. Seven passages led outwards from this room, equally spaced with the cage we had just come from finishing the circle in place of the eighth passage. The centre of the foyer was a lowered section, circular and probably five paces across. It may have held art, it may have held a desk and a clerk. The Endless took all such knowledge with them when they left.

We started as a group with the first room to the left of the cage we had entered through. More of the same stone walls and vague lighting. More lowered sections in the floor with no sign of what may have been using that space. It was the fourth room before we found something different. And like the procedures said, different meant dangerous.

The room had been tunneled into. Sand had been tracked in from a large mostly circular opening in the far wall, and stumbling around in the middle of the room was a bug nearly as big as two warlocks. It was an off shade of green that would have blended into a swamp, and had two massive claws that were adapted to digging, but would do equally well on destroying flesh.

“Necrophage!” I yelled, and charged.

It was turning to face us even before I called, and got a claw between my spear and the gap in the carapace I had been hoping to hit. The head skimmed off hardened chitin and the barbs didn't find anything to catch on. The other claw came around in a swing, but I got a hand on it and a touch of pain magic had me cartwheeling over it.

As I kept it's attention, two of the claw wielders got past it by sprinting around the edge of the room, and started moving on one of it's back legs. A second spear wielder came up alongside me and we braced together, him getting his spearhead into the join behind the claw that had just tried to crush me while I recovered my footing. The Necrophage skittered it's footclaws over stone, trying to get everybody into sight of it's multifaceted eyes. Which means it got to watch Arrakis float around the corner.

Her staff stopped it's motion in front of her, then leaned forward slightly to point the glowing crystal on top at the Necrophage. The glow grew and shifted from a clear white light into a red that shone like blood. Lines of red grew over the Necrophage's body, linking across joints and restricting it's movement. It scraped it's free claw across one leg, trying to remove the Dust-forged bindings and snapped the claw loudly when it found that it couldn't even touch them. It was noticeably slowing, and that was when we struck.

The two that had gotten behind it each grabbed the same leg and pushed upwards. Legs powered by pain and Dust straightened and flipped the Necrophage onto it's face. Even as it pushed back with it's primary claws to try and get back on it's feet, a free claw wielder leapt onto the exposed belly and managed to get the claws in between two sections of shell. Bracing with his feet he twisted the claws and pulled a section of the carapace open. The fluid within spilled out and the whole room suddenly smelt like rotting flesh. He fell away and rolled clear as the Necrophage pushed itself back onto it's feet.

Footclaws slipped on the liquid that used to be part of it as the Necrophage tried to stabilise itself enough to attack. It wasn't given the chance. Two Telsem grabbed onto the undamaged claw and weighed it down enough to open the joint at the shoulder, and I got my spearhead into the gap. I spun it half a turn to catch the muscle inside and wrenched back as hard as I could. The backward facing barbs on the spear dragged white strings of flesh out but I couldn't break them, so I let go and left the spear where it was, jamming the joint and taking the claw out of the fight.

One of the two who had been holding onto the claw threw himself on top of the claw, wrapped a hand around my spearshaft and pulled himself forward, to where he could ram the other claw into the Necrophage's closest eye. More fluid poured out of the damaged eye with each blow, and on the third the claws caught on one of the carapace plates making up the face. He let go of the spear, letting all his weight hang off that claw. The Necrophage moved it's head trying to dislodge the weight hanging from it, but the Warlock brought his legs up before he could touch the ground and then I grabbed him around the waist and added my own weight to the claw. His back and arm muscles popped in sudden definition as one wrist took two Warlock's worth of weight. His grip didn't fail, the Necrophage's face did.

Two pieces came flying off the face and splattered on the ground. Without the support from the external armour plates the Necrophage's head started to collapse, helped along by having a spear head stabbed through it. We rolled away from the suddenly blind insect warrior swiping out with it's one remaining weaponised claw. Without it's best ability to find targets, it was a short matter to flip it back over and tear the last of the armour off it's underside to get at the soft internal organs. When it finally stopped twitching all except Arrakis were stained with the foul liquid that made up most of it's internals. But none of us were dead, and we recovered weapons and scraped what we could off with the sand that was in the chamber.

The next chamber was empty, but the one after that still had an Endless device in it and had a door beyond that. Arrakis laid her hand on the device where the controls would have been, and her staff stabbed into her foot. Blood dripped onto the floor as the device activated, lights in the chamber dimming as power was diverted to something else. The second door to the chamber opened and revealed a room that looked like a vault. Every wall was covered with small square boxes with handles in them. Arrakis poured another pulse of power into the device, and all of the boxes swung open. In each one was golden Dust, refined and ready for use.

All of us except Arrakis downed weapons and started shoveling Dust into sacks that we had brought with us. She stayed with the Endless device, probing it with power and testing it, trying to find out what else was in the ruins. This proved to be a mistake when the lights flickered, died and the doors slammed shut. Arrakis' staff ground into the existing wound in her foot and she pushed harder at the Endless technology. In response the interior glowed red, and then it melted through the floor beneath us.

With that section compromised the whole floor of the room collapsed, taking all of us with it. Arrakis lost control of her power and followed the rest of us down under the pull of Auriga.

I slammed into a curved surface that I couldn't see and rolled off it onto the floor. Thuds and groans announced the rest of us landing and there sounded to be enough of them for all of us to still be alive. The only light in this chamber was from the device that had broken the floor to get us down here, but that was rapidly fading as the power that had been forced into it dispersed. I fumbled in my bags and found an uncracked light flask. Mine lit up at the same time as another on the far side of the room, and both were placed as high as we could to light up the space.

This room was black featureless stone again, but down both long walls were glass-fronted half-circular tanks. What ever was meant to be inside them had long since gone, only hanging cables to show that they were not just some sort of art installation. There was a door to the room, but with no power to anything it would not open. We were all recollecting weapons and sorting the sacks of Dust that we had gathered before the floor broke when Arrakis called me over.

“I need the pain. More then I can give myself.”

I nodded, then turned her to face away from me and into a clear section of wall.

A kick to the back of the knees and pushing off hard slammed her face first into the wall. From where she was on her knees a knee of mine into the small of her back kept her pinned while I twisted her non-dominant arm behind her back and set it just at the point where the tendons started to stretch.

“Feel the pain touching you, reminding you of truth. Focus on it, reach out and draw it inside you.”

I started to put more force on the elbow, beginning to pull the ball out of the socket.

“You know pain, and it knows you. It never abandons you, never lies to you.”

Arrakis opened her mouth and let out a low sound. I bent down and whispered into her ear.

“Embrace the Agony.”

And shoved against her elbow.

She screamed, raw and pure. And then the room screamed back. Dust and dust floated off surfaces, lights within the tanks came on and the door opened. I held her elbow in place and she kept screaming the same note. Lights in the room above came on. The note she was screaming deepened and minor Endless devices in the room came alive with moving lights and sparks. Then I released her.

The scream stopped as soon as her shoulder could return to it's normal position, but the devices in the room remained powered. The last of the Dust was bagged and we reformed around the open doorway, Arrakis once again floating in the middle of our formation with her staff circling around her. This deepest level had only two doors and the base of the cage. The other opened directly across the cage from where we were, and showed a room with a single large device in it. It was covered in lights and buttons, with two trays high up and one at the bottom. One of the lights, in the largest button facing us was flashing.

Stacked next to it were sheets of metal foil, as pristine as everything else in these ruins. While Arrakis was studying the front panel with all the buttons I noticed that the sheets were the same size as the trays. I fitted some into each tray, wondering what they were for. Arrakis' staff poked the flashing light.

The machine started almost noiselessly, a gentle humming the only change. Then the foils in the top hoppers started disappearing, and new ones covered in Endless script started to appear in the bottom tray. Another armload of sheets was dropped into the top trays as fast as we could move them. We watched it for nearly twenty minutes, more and more sheets of foil covered in script appearing in the bottom tray. This was a prize beyond any amount of Dust. When it finally stopped we all kept staring, unsure of how to take our prize.

Arrakis eventually ordered us to split the block of sheets between the six Warlocks, each block tied with leather thongs to keep it together and marked with a number indicating the order they came out of the device.

The cage lowered itself when Arrakis called it, her staff tapping against it's bottom. The music that played when we re-entered it to travel back to the highest level was different, faster and skipping as if something vital was damaged but it was still attempting to play. On the highest level damaged and partially built automatons dragged themselves around, the pulse of power from the depths reactivating them for one last grasp at life and our ankles. But without all their limbs, and often without sensors or leaking fluids they were easy to knock out of our way.

When we reached the gap into the surface, the packbeast herder that we had left behind called out to us. Arrakis floated up into the sunlight, arms spread to catch the warming rays after the trip into the depths. The rest of us climbed the rope we had left hand over hand, hauling all our spoils up on our backs. By the time we had all gathered on the surface, Arrakis had marked the ruin as explored on our map, and with a tap of her staff was ready to reseal the slab that had let us inside.

The grinding noise of it moving followed us as we marched away from that lonely black stone archway. We would take these prizes to the city, then we would be out again. The Endless had left much beneath the surface of Auriga, and we would find it all.