In advance of the publication of Mouth of the Underworld on December 14, here is a short excerpt:
“Help me. I am here. Help me. I am trapped.”
The words, carried on the wind, from somewhere within the mountain, were so faint I could barely make them out. I leaned forward, straining to see if there was any more to be heard, but only the sharp whistle of the wind on stone and the stirring of the trees behind me reached my ears. I stayed rooted where I was for five minutes or more, my sweat cooling on my back, but the voice did not return. I stood on the threshold of the Mouth of the Underworld, peering uneasily into the darkness that lay beyond the narrow ingress, knowing that I had to step within that void, but fearing to cross into that unknown realm.
My father had forbidden me to enter this place, and it was not in me to disobey him.
“Only the past lies there,” he had said. “We have forgotten the entrance for a reason.”
I could have argued that the past was who we were, that we had to face it and exorcise those demons if we were to ever be free of the Ven and their rule. But I had not, for there were many in Huispar who still believed in demons, in the terrible gods of the deep our ancestors had once worshipped. They believed the old laws still applied and that no Hautlyrun should enter the caves, for they were the path to the underworld, where the living had no place. That I knew differently did not matter, the cataman’s son had to obey the ancient laws.
The breeze coming from the mouth of the cave died and silence descended in the surrounding cloud forest, as though the whole world was hushed, awaiting my decision. I had imagined the words, I told myself, imagined the voice, my own disquiet playing tricks on my mind.
But, even if that were true, it did not matter. Jasryl was still down there somewhere below. He had been gone for the better part of two days and there was nowhere else he could be. I had to go after him, because no one else would dare. More than that, he was the truest friend I had in this world. If I left him to die I would never be able to forgive myself, no matter that it went against my father’s word and my own nature.
The decision made, I felt the weight lift from my shoulders. I slid through the narrow gap, the jagged edges of the stone almost touching my arms, giving me the distinct sensation of teeth closing in for a bite. I tried to ignore the feeling, though it was difficult, telling myself it was just the stories I had heard as a child coming to life in my head.
Three days before I had crossed this same threshold with Jasryl. That had been a different occasion, both of us filled with awe and excitement. Now every harbinger seemed to point toward doom.
I knelt in the opening of the cave where there was still enough light that I could see and fought with the lantern I had brought, trying to get it to stay lit. The wind was very strong, gusting at times, almost sweet smelling, alive with the earth itself. As I crouched over the lantern, trying to spark the oil, the words came on the wind again, more distinct this time, the voice clearly recognizable.
“Help me. I am here. Help me. I am trapped.”
The entrance to the cave had been lost for several lifetimes, until Jasryl and I found it while exploring in the cloud forest in the mountains that surrounded Huispar. The caves that ran through the mountains had long been the source of tales among our people, involving the end of the beginning of the world, and gods and demons and such. Now they were little more than stories used to frighten children to bed.
The Mouth of the Underworld, it was called. Any who passed through it were eaten and became lost souls. It was some unfortunates emerged years or decades later, their bodies twisted and gnarled, their feet pointing backwards and their eyes gone blind.
Such tales carried a great deal less weight after the Ven brought the railroad through the mountains to Huispar and, with it, entry into Niedellun. Jasryl and I were the first generation of Hautlyren to grow up with no memory of a time before the railroad, and we embraced this new era with open arms, while our parents talked of the old ways and shook their heads sadly. Before the railroad Huispar had been isolated, little more than a village, places like Yurital as fabulous as any tale told of the Mouth to the Underworld. Now it was Yurital and the rest of Niedellun that were the eaters of souls, for many, like my older brother, had gotten aboard the train never to return.
We had no lanterns with us that first day, so we could only descend a short way past the narrow fissure that provided the entrance, before the darkness became too great. We stood for a time in the cave’s mouth, peering at the impenetrable dark that lay beyond. Gusts of wind struck our faces, coming from far below, weighted with the scent of earth, stone and water. That night we returned to Huispar, with word that the Mouth to the Underworld had been rediscovered and that we intended to explore it.
“If there was air moving it means the caves are deep,” a Tiso man named Der Ab Vyul said. He was new to Huispar, an overseer at the Ven’s latest timber mill.
Catar Ven Ottan, the other overseer, nodded in agreement. The Hautlyren with us were mute, unmoving. The youth with shining eyes, glistening with excitement, while the elders, including my father, were expressionless in a way that I knew connoted disapproval. We were all gathered at the square at the center of town, sipping at cups of beer or coffee.
Around us, couples wandered among the trees of the square, whispering arm in arm. Children played as well, running to and fro, chattering like the gathering blackbirds in the trees above. Their clamor grew as the dusk settled into darkness. It was an evening like any other in Huispar. The crowds would dissipate as the night took hold and everyone returned to their homes for their evening meals.
“In Lysel they have an explorer’s club that leads expeditions into the local caves. Perhaps you could form one here. In one they discovered paintings on the walls of mammoths and tigers.” Der Ab Vyul said.
“Would you help us?” Jasryl said eagerly and the Tiso man assented.
On the way home my father muttered darkly that all we would find were bones, all that remained of the souls that the cave had eaten.