A lone figure staggered through the brush clutching his side. He looked back frequently, panicky, hearing the sounds of pursuit behind and around him. Goblin voices could be heard barking out orders and breaking into frequent arguments. He heard his enemies all around him, the sounds of feet crashing through the underbrush, the clatter of poorly-made or salvaged armor and weaponry.
Judging that he had no chance of escaping through further flight, Yens leapt into a half-hidden depression and sought a place to take cover. Nearly crushed with terror, he nevertheless also felt the grim reality of the situation as liberating. Escape was unimaginable, which clarified rather than obscured his thoughts.
Then, there it was. Only a few feet in front of him, its entrance almost entirely hidden by branches and debris, was a strange peaked aperture of large stone blocks. He would not have seen it had the bright sun not broken for a moment through the canopy overhead. A way out? Or a way in? Who had constructed it or what it was doing out here in the woods was an utter mystery, but his danger did not permit reflection.
Ignorant of the purpose of the tunnel, Yens withdrew into it as he thought he caught squabbling goblin voices descending into the hollow, then clearly heard them shrieking their malicious joy at discovering the flattened bracken where he had briefly lain. It was only a matter of time until they discovered and investigated the tunnel, so he advanced into the darkness as best he could, crawling on his elbows and knees and suffering frequent cuts and bruises as he went. An inch or so of oily water beneath him soaked his chest and legs.
Suddenly Yens felt a cooler air ahead, and seemed to perceive a dull luminosity ahead of him. Thinking that perhaps he had reached the end of the tunnel, the desperate gnome hurried forward.
The tunnel opened into a large chamber of strange proportions. Faint light from an unidentifiable source bathed the space. Though more round than square, the chamber did not exhibit sufficient regularity to be called any particular shape; nevertheless the evidence of extraordinary care in the room’s construction and design was obvious.
The chamber seemed to be a nexus for dozens, maybe hundreds of arteries such as that which harbored him now. The openings yawned open in different shapes, as from simple to bizarre. The largest seemed to almost draw the room to themselves, with smaller tubes exerting more limited local distortions of the chamber’s interior space. More puzzling still, these strange mouths closed and yawned through slow, almost imperceptible changes. He could perceive no coordination between these oscillations, though the effect was one of grotesque rhythmic pulsing. The masonry appeared both idiotically mechanical and impossibly alive.
Yens’s wonder and revulsion was broken by sounds behind him. The ugly, whining voices of several goblins betrayed his hunters in the tunnel. Goblins are small and well-used to living underground, and made little effort to conceal their pursuit, confident they would soon overhaul the wounded man they sought.
The gnome stood upright as he emerged onto the floor of the chamber before him. The surface upon which he stood was smooth but curved, featuring the same array of openings slowly furling and unfurling by the force of some unknown power as the walls and, now that he saw above him, the ceiling of the room.
Yens stood upon an amorphous, pliable floor, experiencing a number of strange sensations at once.
He underwent an overwhelming vertiginous shift, as if he were being pulled hard toward the center of the world. He no longer seemed to walk upon a solid surface but, rather, his weight drew the worked stone floor down beneath him like a marble on a thin membrane. He could feel the shape of the chamber under his feet and all around him shifting chaotically, reacting to his sudden intrusion.
He also found that this pull followed him wherever he went, so that he was able to walk easily where gravity should have prevented it. Indeed, though the chamber had no distinct walls or ceiling, wherever he walked his head pointed toward the center of the space while his feet pressed down against the soft masonry beneath him.
Moreover, like a grain of sand in some great mollusk, he felt a sort of pulpy, massive weight pressing upon his body, though nothing in the room actually touched him.
He heard the grating sound of goblin voices growing closer in the tunnel. Yens threw himself into the mouth of the nearest aperture and crawled until well after the glow of the chamber was visible.
The gnome awoke some time later. Yens was immediately struck with terror at having fallen asleep with his pursuers so close behind him, and the last he remembered was crawling frantically away from the room before the goblins could enter and observe his escape. He remembered his flight into the tunnel, diving down into what had once been a wall to him, but his recollection faltered shortly after that.
Yens awkwardly turned himself around in the narrow tunnel and began to crawl back toward the strange chamber. Though he feared the goblins, he also dreaded becoming lost in a subterranean maze. As quietly as he could, he stole back the way he had come.
More quickly than he would have imagined, he re-emerged into the room with the pulsating tunnel mouths. Near one of them, he saw, were the pulpy ruins of several goblins. Almost unrecognizable masses of smashed flesh clung to the masonry surface to his left and slightly below him.
Yens was as horrified as he was relieved. Whatever had so annihilated the goblins left no sign of its coming or going. Again he wondered how he could have slept through it all. The titanic force needed to reduce a creature no smaller than he to jelly must have produced a deafening sound inside the narrow tunnels leading off the chamber.
As quietly as he could, Yens again turned into the hole which sheltered him. He feared to depart the way he had come, lest the goblins who had chased him should still patrol the woods outside.
The conduit into which he wormed his way stood almost square, the ancient stonework worn and irregular. Though he did not recall the slope before, he now found the tunnel rising slightly before him, carrying him away from the gruesome scene in the chamber.
Following a long, straight crawl up through the tunnel, Yens was forced to stop. His back ached, his hands and knees were bloodied, his head knotted from many a low-hanging stone overhead.
Yet it was not these which forced him to stay his path. The oily water which soaked him now ran strong and swift, driving down the ever increasing slope of the channel and making further progress impossible. Cursing his luck and loosening his knife in its sheath, the gnome again turned back the way he had come.
Though he had crawled for at least an hour, Yens saw the sickly glow of the chamber ahead of him in less than half that time.
As Yens cautiously scanned the room from the darkness of the tunnel, he saw with horror that the smashed goblins now lay almost directly below him not ten yards distant across a sloped floor. There was no sign of their having been moved, not could they have been shifted without leaving bloody evidence of the act. They seemed just as he remembered them, simply out of place.
Fearing the author of such carnage as lay before him, Yens shuddered as he left the mouth of the channel and re-emerged into the chamber. Once again he experienced the sensation of vertigo as his feet planted themselves right where he placed them, though perspective and all prior experience predicted another orientation to the space. Again he felt the heavy crush of the air, the doughy but massive pull toward the floor, the soft exhalations of air puffing from bizarrely gawping orifices on all sides.
Yens seemed to walk up the wall in front of him to approach the remains of his enemies. As he looked overhead, Yens saw bloody pools directly opposite the goblins, as if the chamber itself had clapped shut upon the vermin. Shards of bone, flattened hunks of meat, and pieces of clothing and armor clung to both surfaces equally, like a fly caught between one’s hands. Though he feared a similar attack, the sheer hopelessness of his situation again cleared his mind and steeled his will, as it had in the forest. Yens was a reasonable man, as he had proven in dire straights before; this was a danger to be investigated, not fled. If he was to be crushed by forces beyond his comprehension, he chose to attempt, at least, to learn something of those forces while he could.
Standing over the wreckage of what once had been maliciously intelligent creatures, his dark-accustomed eyes picked out something written nearby. He knelt over the bloody letters and read, “No return.”
Who had written this cryptic message, written in the letter and language of the common tongue? Who else was in the labyrinth with Yens?
The gnome debated the meaning of the words. On the face of it they indicated that he could not return by the tunnel which had carried him back to the chamber, the one outside of which the goblins had met their deaths. Yet that offered him no relief from his longer-term crisis.
Hunger had begun to gnaw at his guts, cold and a thousand minor hurts had begun to sap his strength. Yens recognized that he would need to return to the surface before long, goblins or no. His best chance, he reasoned, was to return the way he had come. Stepping around the mess on the floor, Yens crawled back into the original arched tunnel and began to pull himself along the floor.
As he went, it seemed to Yens that the way was different than before. The way was wider than he remembered, at times high enough for him to sit upright and rest. The floor was smoother, as if worn by frequent use over many years. The disgusting oily water, while not entirely absent, lay in pools and corners rather than across the whole breadth of the floor.
In time Yens was able to stand upright in the tunnel. It was wide enough now that he had to spread his arms to touch the opposing walls. Fearing that he would crack his head on a low-hanging stone, he made his way forward with one hand on the wall and another in the darkness in front of his face.
At length he came to a side passage. The course of the tunnel continued in front of him, but a second led off to his right. Hoping without conviction that his initial memory of the tunnel had been grossly distorted by his fear of the goblins behind him, Yens continued straight ahead at a quicker pace. Again his studied pragmatism served him well; though he was filled with a sickening dread by this uncanny space, he was not petrified by fear of death itself. Death would not find him hiding from it when it came.
Moving at a faster pace, Yens was able to discern the familiar leaden glow brightening the space in front of him. He no longer needed to hold out his hands for safety or direction, able instead to navigate by his keen gnome’s eyes instead. To his horror he saw tunnels of various sizes and shapes leading off to either side, overhead, underfoot.
When he approached those tunnels at his foot, he did not fall in as one would expect, but held firm to their floors by the same inexplicable trick of gravity that he had experienced in the chamber before. By merely walking forward, Yens had almost certainly turned off his intended path without knowing it. With no better idea to hand, Yens proceeded into the light, hoping to take his bearings when he reached the source of the glow.
The tunnel opened into another of the amorphous chambers he had entered before. Again tunnels of various sizes and shapes opened from all directions, their mouths gumming moronically open and shut to some unheard rhythm of their own. Far in the distance ahead of him, he saw something dark on the ceiling and made for it, easily reorienting his path so that it lay now on the floor upon which he tread.
Looking down upon the ruined corpses of the two goblins, Yens’s mind lurched at the possibilities. Not only had his path carried him back to where he’d started, but the room was now definitely different than before. On either side of the goblins, a pair of arched tunnels now stood, mirror images of each other. Before there had been only one. Written in slimy mud beside the bodies were the words “Return within.”
More hungry than ever and growing frustrated enough to compete with fear, Yens plunged down the nearer of the two arched tunnels without hesitation. Unaccountably, the dim light did not abandon him as he traveled farther from the large chamber, but seemed to surround him, allowing him to see a few feet in all directions, though the light failed after that. He made good speed through the wide, even passageway and soon came upon the first fork in the tunnel.
Determined to solve this maddening riddle, Yens pulled a piece of chalk from one of his bags and wrote:
If he returned this way, he reasoned, he could at least avoid the route by which he had arrived there. The gnome set off down the tunnel ahead of him.
With the light accompanying him, Yens kept a quick pace. He was dizzy and weak from loss of blood and lack of food, but he pressed on with a hard-headed determination close to anger.
Though practical by race and temperament, Yens couldn’t help but shudder at the incongruous mplace that imprisoned him. What purpose could such an elaborate maze possibly serve? Who could have built it? He could not explain the strange properties of the place: the warped gravity, the causeless lambency, the tunnels which shut upon themselves like the mouths of some hideous bottom-feeding fish. It was a place of nightmare, a nightmare of a place. It felt as if it had been designed only to torment him.
After about an hour, he spotted something scrawled upon the ceiling. Peering closely, he made out:
He screamed then, and collapsed once more. He slept.
Arriving once more in the large chamber, the gnome again made for the corpses. The smell of blood now hung thick around them. Jens saw written in chalk, “The way up and down is one and the same.”
He knelt down and swept the words from the floor with his hand. Using the water issuing from a nearby tunnel, he washed all traces away. He took his hammer from his belt and began to scratch into the soft masonry.
As he worked, he began to strategize about his next course of action. Clearly the maze was not solvable by mere flight. Jens took a break from scraping and found the cleanest water near him and drank. He filled his wineskin. Thirst was not a problem, but he was definitely starving now. His cuts had clotted, but he had lost much blood and was weak from his exertions. He cleaned his wounds as best he could and bound them with scraps of cloth torn from his tunic. He resolved to husband his strength, avoiding the rush of terror and frustration that had led him so far to neglect his long term vulnerabilities. He opened his pouch and considered his resources.
Inside he found a small block of hardtack. He’d finished his the day before he found the tunnel entrance in the forest, a day after he left the foothills of the mountains with the goblins on his trail. He was sure of it. Recognizing the blessing and hardly surprised in this realm of impossibilities, Jens snapped off a bite and chewed as he scratched at the stone. Though the biscuit was dry and tasteless, he had never been more grateful for something to eat.
He could have eaten all the hardtack easily, but Jens placed half back in his pouch. He finished carving and hitched up his belt. At his feet was scrawled, “Proceed within.”
The gnome placed his forehead upon the floor and pushed. He felt the stone give way and a cold shiver ran down his body. He pushed harder. As he drove himself headfirst into the floor, his equilibrium failed. He became sick. Still he pushed. The sensation of being gently crushed increased, till breathing became hard. He clawed at the floor, at the ceiling, and felt the way opening before him and beneath him, its weight upon his shoulders. The distended masonry stretched slowly open like a snake’s mouth engulfing a rat.
Jens looked behind him and saw the goblin corpses in the distance. He was making progress.