‘Nikka,’ said a voice in the darkness.
Nikka used to have a surname. A lifetime of man ago, before he had been taken to this place. But it had been lost, along with everything else. It was never his anyway; it was his father’s name. Nikka had worn it like a hand-me-down cloak; patched and repaired, discarded by its previous owner. It sloughed from him in the black depths below the Rathou, and its loss had gone unnoticed.
‘Nikka,’ the voice repeated, insistent this time. It was Lidla Cotte. Of course it was him, for who else could it be? Lidla was the only other Cerni in their gang, the rest were all Volni – the pale skinned dwarfs.
‘You will get us all whipped if you sit about dreaming,’ warned the old Cerni through pain-gritted teeth. Nikka grunted in reply then he returned to the stone. The stone had saved him when all else had been taken from him. He had finally come alive when he discovered that he could work the stone. Melding it had been called back in Sordir, his home city. At least it was as close he had ever come to a home.
And so he concentrated on the stone; felt the fractures and frailties of the granite. As his senses became sensitive to the stone, he focused on his task. It had taken him years of working with the stone, moulding it, shaping it to achieve this level of mastery. At first, the immensity of the surrounding mountain had overwhelmed him to the point that he was able only to delve; to gouge great, inaccurate hunks of rock from the mountain. But with repetition came an understanding and with understanding came proficiency.
Melding stone was not the only thing he was adept at. A lifetime ago he had been a murderer and a damned good one. He was highly paid and sought after; an assassin some like to name it, but Nikka knew it for what it was. Assassin gave it too much gravitas; too much style. He had been a killer. A ruthless and efficient killer, he had never wasted any time on the vagaries of finesse.
The guttural voices of the Volni slaves beside him brought him back to his immediate task. The main entrance to this home had to be enlarged, at present it resembled a rat-hole. Even a pale skin would struggle to crawl through that hole.
When he had first been captured, he had been surprised to learn that the pale-skinned Volni enslaved their own people as well as the Cerni. The two dwarven races had never known peace between them, as far as Nikka was aware.
So he moved around the oval opening, behind which many Volni worked at connecting the void to other passageways and rooms in the dwelling. He felt the stone start to move, tasted the ferrous tang of meld in the air as he worked. It was ever present down on these black depths, but when he was working the stone directly it filled all his senses. He spat out at the bitter taste in his mouth and then continued around the gap.
‘Still not used to it after all this time?’ Lilda asked. ‘I think my sense of taste is nearly as dull as my eyes.’ The chuckle which broke from his lips was overtaken by a rasping cough. There was no light in this place, for the Volni had no use for it. Having lived under the Rathou for innumerable generations they had no use light. Their eyes had become sensitive to differences in heat rather than light. This was a trait that the black-skinned, surface dwelling Cerni shared with their Volni cousins.
‘It is not that, it is just…’ Nikka’s voice trailed off before he completed the sentence. It reminded him of blood he was going to say.
‘Aye, Son,’ said the older Cerni. ‘I know.’ Nikka had told him of his past many years ago. He had told his tale twice. Once to the darkness and once to his friend. Every detail was spilled out into the blackness with only the stranger to hear him; the stranger and the Volni that comprised his work team, not that any of them could understand him. All the details of his life he had given him: every life taken, every debauched encounter; the wealth accrued and squandered. It was a charred piece of his soul he had spat out for them to examine. He hoped that perhaps, baring his worst sins, it would leave him clean, purged of his dirty deeds, but it had just left him empty.
Lidla dragged himself towards Nikka along the short corridor that would act as an entrance to this dwelling. Nikka could hear sharp barks coming towards them, echoing around the cavernous fore-hall that surrounded the dwelling area. The guards were doing their rounds.
‘Get back to it old man or the guards will batter you,’ warned Nikka and so Lidla managed to turn back to the wall before the first of the Volni guards appeared. But it was too late. The guard spat a guttural obscenity at the elderly Cerni before thrusting his curved baton into Lidla’s ribs. Lidla spasmed with pain as the stick discharged its eldritch energy. Nikka shot to his feet. This would get the whole crew disciplined, but he would not let Lidla take this punishment. It would kill the old Cerni, so he drove his fist into the ugly colourless face. The satisfaction he felt was as short lived as he feared it would be. Two or maybe three of those damned sticks were thrust into him and he lost all control of his body. The explosion of pain that ricocheted around his senses was too much to bear. He felt the boots and fists that assaulted him afterwards, but now it was almost irrelevant. He had been beaten bloody and senseless so many times that he had become inured to it. At least Lidla would be spared.
The guards eventually tired of kicking him and with unintelligible threats in his ears, they wandered away. Nikka spat out gobs of congealed blood on to the dusty stone floor and then he rolled over and sat up. Lidla doubled over as he wheezed and coughed. ‘We must get back to work or they will be back. And this time they will not go so lightly on us.’
Nikka shuffled over to Lidla and forced him up. He was as gentle as he could be, but the guards would kill Lidla if they found him idle once again. Then the enslaved Volni were beside them. At first Nikka thought they meant to take revenge for Lidla’s failings, for it was they that would suffer, but one of the colourless Volni held the old dwarf. Its pale limbs wrapped around Lidla. In years gone by this would have been impossible, but the meagre rations that they received were not intended to preserve their bulk.
After a few moments, the Volni released Lidla. Lidla’s coughing stopped and he managed to walk over to the wall and start work. Nikka put his back to him, working on the opposite wall. In doing so he could take some of Lidla’s weight and talk without drawing the attention of any unwanted eyes.
The Volni that came to Lidla’s aid had melted back into the blackness, working on whatever part of the encampment they had been sent to. Nikka shuddered when he thought of those white fingers touching him.
‘How are you?’ he said to Lidla. ‘Did they harm you?’
‘Harm me?’ the Cerni laughed in response. ‘I feel at least half as old as I did this morning – which would make me only twice as old as you.’ The ghost of the rasping cough was still there in his voice though, putting the lie to his words.
Nikka tried to see the Volni slaves, but his vision was not as developed as the Volni’s. With no idea which one had helped his friend, he offered a silent thank you to him or her (or it). Then he laughed to himself; the thought of him thanking one of them, here in this dark hole that they had kept them prisoner in for so long.
‘Sign of madness that,’ said Lidla. Nikka smirked and pushed his hands through the brittle top layer of sandstone. This had taken him years to master and he still made mistakes, although these were only due to fatigue and the conditions.
He rearranged the stone that made this opening so that the surface of it would shine. He did this with every surface he could. It took him a little longer to do this and cost him a little bit more energy, but it felt like a small victory to him. The fact that there would never be enough light down here to highlight his work did not matter at all. The intricacy of the finish would be a reminder to him that he could be more than just a killer.
As he removed his hands from the stone, he felt the full weight of Lidla on him. Then it slid away from him and Lidla crashed to the floor. Nikka spun and dropped down to his friend, but he was too late. Lidla was so cold that Nikka could only just make him out. He had been dead for some time. Propped up against Nikka, his legs locked in place.
He shouted Lidla’s name, but regretted it at once. Already he could hear the guards coming. There would be no burial for his only friend. The Volni would drag the corpse away and throw it down whatever hole they could find, for there were innumerable chasms here that led downward.
As Nikka heard the clatter of figures approaching, he felt dark anger rise from within him. The terrible rage that he used to feed upon came rushing at him. Nikka reached down to pick up a rock, but as he did he felt the hard jab of a Cerni’s stick in his shoulder and the familiar agonising pain that accompanied it rushed into his body.
But he was ready for it, and his anger welcomed it, for where his anger led, pain would always follow; his pain or someone else’s or both, it did not matter. No, it did not matter at all.
He turned around and grabbed the stick in both hands, letting the bolts of hateful agony sear his soul. Then he pushed himself through the stick, for it was made of stone. It was black stone from the bottom of the earth, but it was stone and he knew it intimately. The Volni opened his mouth to call out, for the arrogant guard had come alone, knowing he could deal with whatever a single team could do. But Nikka’s anger was too keen to let the Volni make any noise.
Instead of melding the staff and transforming to into something harmless he pushed his talent further out, feeling the particles of rock that were in the Volni’s body. Nikka had never been aware that these invisible pieces had been present when he stared his attack, but he could not stop himself now.
In an instant, he had turned those unseen grains of sand into magma and the Volni burst in a dull thump that was lost in the cacophony of the background noise. Nikka dropped the hated black stick and vomited what little was in his stomach upon the floor beside the puddled remains of the Volni. Then he kicked the stick as far as he could.
He waited there, shaking in the afterglow of anger and self-revulsion for an eternity of heartbeats, but no-one came. Then, he became aware of the eyes upon him. From every opening and crevice, the Volni slaves in his team looked upon him with their tiny blind eyes.
One shout from them and he was dead. He looked down to the floor, avoiding where the splashes of putrid liquefied Volni was, towards Lidla. There was nothing he could do for him now.
He had to get out. Right now, he must try and reach the surface or die. He turned back and saw that the Volni were still there, watching and waiting. Then, as he took his first step away from them they smiled.
He thought of taking them with him, as perhaps they would know the way, but he doubted that. Having no way to force them to go, he returned their smile and then he turned his back on those poor wretches. If they wished to be free, then they would need to find their own way out.
So he crept forward, toward the nearest exit from this chamber. His temper cooled and his instinct for survival began to assert itself. He did not know what lay through this opening, but he seldom seen anyone go this way.
He approached the opening by pushing himself as tight to the wall as he could. Then he eased himself along the rough stone until he was close enough to look into the opening.
There were guards here. Only two, but what could he attack them with? He would not go back and retrieve that damned black stick. Then a cry from behind him made up his mind for him. He ran at the two guards and barrelled into them both at the same time. He managed to keep hold of one as he went down, so he grabbed the Volni’s unprotected head and rammed it against the floor. It made a satisfying crunch as it connected with the stone.
The second one swung his hammer into Nikka’s flank. The crack that this made rivalled the one from seconds earlier, but Nikka grabbed the shaft of the hammer and pulled the Volni to him, lowering his head as his opponent over balanced. He knocked the Volni unconscious and before he had time to think he swung the captured weapon over his head and down upon his fallen foe.
The cries were louder now and there were screams too. Screams of pain and cries of fury intermingled in the dead air. The Volni slaves were paying the price for allowing his escape. One of them would break and give him away. He had to go.
More shouts came to him, this time from ahead. Not angry shouts of pursuit, but barked laughter and raised voices of confident Volni moving through this section of the labyrinthian underworld. They would not be looking for him, but a stray Cerni would either be captured or killed. And once they discovered what he had done he would be put to death.
Nikka should crave death. He had when he had first been caught. Better death than imprisonment, he had thought. But his mind had other ideas. And now he wanted to live – wanted to breath air that moved – wanted to see natural light; sunlight not this urchaid-light. If he could only get to the surface.
But his problems were more immediate. He could not risk being seen, but he could not go forward and he could not go back. So he climbed. There was a shelf up near the roof, if he could reach it in time he could hide. With arms burning with lack of use and legs threatening to rebel at any moment, he scampered up the jagged rock face.
But he could not reach it in time. Pinned between the roof and the wall of the chamber using his bare hands and feet, he held his breath as the Volni came around the corner. This was when he was at his most vulnerable. All it would take would be for the damned things to look up and he was lost.
But what came round the corner were three shambling figures followed by a couple of Volni guards. The three figures stumbled around as if they were blind, or lost. Colliding with each other and the walls of the cavern, they slowly progressed towards Nikka. The two Volni guards were using long metal poles to hit these creatures, laughing to each other as they did so. The three figures seemed immune to the abuse, making no sound or acknowledgment of the blows they received.
Closer and closer they moved toward the hiding Cerni, whose arms now trembled with strain. He ground his teeth together as he watched them come.
One of the three figures wandered away from the others, moving out from the centre of the passageway toward the spot below Nikka. It walked until it struck the wall that Nikka had just climbed. Then it tilted its head back and stared at Nikka.
For a heartbeat Nikka was caught in those dead eyes. It was a Volni that stared at him, but one whose life had left him. He had seen them being moved around, these aberrations; dead but animate, animate but without purpose.
A Volni guard approached the dead figure and struck it with his metal rod. The figure ignored him and continued to stare at Nikka. The other Volni guard roared with a guttural laugh and then barked something in their own tongue. The first Volni retorted with a similar shout and then cracked his bar harder over the head of his captive.
The dead figures head imploded with the strike, but there was no explosion of blood or gore. Instead the Volni began to disintegrate, piece by piece of him falling off in dry sheets which broke into powder as they hit the ground. The Volni guard that had struck him leapt back uttering a curse, the other was doubled over in laughter.
Nikka saw his chance then and let go of his grip with his feet. Using his momentum, he swung his body using his hands and landed on his back on the shelf. He breathed heavily as he landed, knowing that he had done all he could. If the Volni spotted him move then he was dead, but he could not have held himself up any longer. Nikka stared at the roof which felt like it was mere inches from his face. He risked too much to fail now. But he knew that life did not care for fairness or want. Chaos and uncertainty had been as much tool of his former trade as had stealth and secrecy, and knowing when to employ them had served him well.
So he lay there and let chaos have its turn of the dice. He lay there and lay there listening to the noises grow louder from where he had fled from. At first there was outrage. Then there was pain.
Screams and commands echoed all around Nikka as he lay on the shelf of rock. He closed his eyes trying to fight the disorientation that the reflecting sounds caused.
And he wept as he heard the Volni slaves take the blame for his escape. He doubted that they would kill them all. He just hoped that he had run far enough so that the slaves he left behind would not know where he went. His capture now would not spare them any pain.
Then it came to him. The only way he could be sure he would not be spotted. He rolled himself on to his side beside the wall and pressed his face and body to it. The he placed his hands on the rock and pushed his mind into it. At once the rock responded as began to meld the rock. He began by pushing his arms inside. He needed to use more force than he wanted to, as this ran the risk of exhaustion, but the alternative was to be discovered.
Once he hollowed out a space big enough to fit in, he started to seal himself in. The work was rushed and would be incomplete but that would suit his purpose. He wanted the rock to look rough and unremarkable.
Nikka collapsed on to his back when it was done. There was no room for him to move, but he did not care. The only gap left to the outside world was a small one near his mouth which brought a little air in from outside. Then, with his task done he slept.
When he awoke, he tried to sit up but he could not. He struck his face on the rock which was only a foot or so above him. It took him several moments before he could beat the panic down. He put himself in here and now he would get himself out.
But where could he go, once he was out? Back to where the Volni still searched for him? Also he was desperately thirsty.
He put his hands back on the stone and sought some comfort from it. By instinct, he pushed his mind out into it. And there it was, a yard or so from where he lay there was a void. And it was big, vast even. He ran his mind along the edge of the stone as far as he could but he still could not feel the edge.
Instantly, Nikka began to form a plan. The stone he must remove he could fill the ledge with. He could not be certain, but he thought it would be enough.
So he began to work. Without sustenance and with only a little hope, he widened the hole he had left himself. Nikka gasped as the foul; air rushed in. Then, without any further delay, he began to move the stone.
For an age, he moved little pieces of rock, melding them, repositioning them, until he had made himself enough room to roll back and forth. Then he began to accelerate his work rate.
He tore ragged lumps of rock from the tunnel he was creating. These he piled behind himself. His work was not heedless though, the shelf outside had to be filled carefully. If it were made too large, too quickly, it would collapse or draw attention to itself. Once he had frozen in horror when he thought himself discovered, but Chaos’ die had not landed yet.
When he was forced to stop for a rest, he realised that it was not going to work. There was just too far to go. The shelf had too little room left on it and he had nowhere else to put the melded stone. He could throw it out, but that would be noticed. And even if he made it through, the Volni would come after him, for they too could meld stone.
He knew what he must do, but he feared to do it. But there was nothing else for it, so he tore an indelicate lump of stone from the wall and placed it behind him. Then he repeated the action and, piece by piece, he sealed himself in.
The darkness was there to embrace him. This was total darkness, even his limited dark-vision would not help him here. He began to work faster, not bothering to wait until the stone was free of the wall before he pulled it off and hurled it behind himself. There would be light soon; light and air. His fingers began to slip on bare rock as he lost his focus.
As his lungs began to burn, Nikka forced himself to stop. If he gave in to this temptation now, he was dead. So he held his breath, and he slowed his heart and he reasserted his authority over himself. Then he put his hands on the stone wall and pushed his mind into the stone. Then he let the stone guide him, let it show him the faults in its creation, where it could be stressed and manipulated; where it could be broken, and with a crack the last piece of the wall fell away.
Air rushed in. Real air. Air from the outside world. It was impossible, he was too far down, too far from the surface, but there it was.
But something was wrong with the air. It was too sweet – it had the tang of spoiled meat – not directly poisonous, but insidious.
Whatever the cost Nikka had to be free, so he grabbed his captured hammer and crawled through the opening and fell a few feet on top on the rock he dislodged. Once he recovered his breath he tried to look around but there was no light here and no sources of heat. He was as blind here as he had been in the stone coffin he just rolled out of.
But there was moisture here. His hand felt the dampness on the stone walls. He could survive here. But he would not have to. The air was moving.
Nikka crawled about in the dark trying to orientate himself. He laughed aloud as he thought of the Volni looking down on him scrabbling about in the dirt. His laugh echoed on and on.
When he found himself back at the start, he guessed he was in a circular pit. He stood up and walked around the structure making sure he had the measure of where he was. There was an exit on the wall across from where he entered. It was just large enough to allow him to crawl in, but his courage would not allow him to do so yet. So he stood before it and stared. There was light in there. It was insubstantial and it wavered, but it was there.
Nikka used the hammer to pull himself up and into the hole. It was a little larger than he first thought, but he would still have to crawl on his hands and knees. And if it became too narrow, what then? He was well past the point of questioning himself, but it did not stop the other voices in his head whispering of death and confinement.
As he moved on, the light improved a little and he realised that the tunnel had a crack in the middle of the floor. It was only the width of his thumb, and at first he thought it was a mark on the floor, a natural fissure in the stone, but when he looked at it, it was as dark as the chamber behind him.
Nikka had to stop himself looking down. He had to convince himself that the darkness was not pouring out of that crack; pouring out to consume him, pouring out to steal the light from the world.
He licked moisture from the walls of his prison to quench his thirst, but this was not the worst thing he had ever done. He chuckled to himself when he realised he had spoken aloud.
When it came time to rest, he lay on his side, for he could not face the thought of having his back to the endless darkness.
Nikka did not bother counting how many times he slept before he came to the end of the tunnel, for it was not important. When he emerged from the tunnel he was cramped and disorientated. At one point the light in the carven he crawled into was so bright he thought himself on the slopes of the Rathou, but as his eyes adjusted, he realised it was only torchlight.
But torchlight meant either Volni or Cerni, and neither would welcome him. He was as likely to be killed by his own kind as by the Volni. When his eyes would let him, he moved around this large space.
It looked like a stop off point, similar to ones he had stayed in many times when being moved from workplace to workplace. All he needed to do now was hide and make a plan.
As long as he could reach the surface, he would make himself a new life. He would never return to Sordir. It was one of many promises that he would never keep. The only promises he ever kept were those sworn in a mist of hatred; those of vengeance.
It was many months later when Nikka made his way to the surface. The light of the first dawn he saw since his imprisonment burned his eyes, but he refused to retreat back underground. So he sat and let the light bathe him whilst he clenched his eyes shut. Little by little, he opened his eyes until he could move around. His eyes stung and his heart lurched when he took his first step away. He had nowhere to go and no goals other than survival, but what more did he need?
Nikka the Cerni Dwarf, assassin and sell-sword (from the Redemption of Wist series) is imprisoned for decades far below his home by the ruthless Volni. When his only companion dies, he can take no more and much reach the surface or die in the attempt. But how can he when surrounded by his captors and lost miles below ground? Will he ever see the sunrise again or will he be trapped forever?