The door in the alleyway was hardly visible beneath the heaping shadows of the city, and seemed incapable of leading to anything but the lowliest of accommodations. Once beyond the door, I encountered a species of darkness that I had come to expect from the forgotten corners of the city, having some portion of its construction owing to an elder blackness that, should it choose, could stand firmly against even the brightest light. However, these shadows were not to be trusted, as they answered only to the lords of Nighthead.
The tunnel was winding, and remarked upon the basest kind of usage, sporting litter and dampness just as a chameleon would put on the colors of its surroundings, tempting one to put aside curiosity and to accept illusion. And only after I had traveled further than any accidental or casual observer would have, the hallways began to offer up small hints as to its ultimate destination, along with the possible identity of those who were conducted down the darkly rambling course. Granted, normal eyes would never have seen past the alien dark, and even with the assistance of artificial light, trespassers would have been confronted only by the masks that ancient darkness can put on, tricking all but the most attentive of inquiries. But I spoke some small portion of the shadow’s murky lexicon, and so the darkness admitted a sliver of my vision into the primordial places hidden away behind solidified shadow.
There were ‘batteries’ filled with darkness at every turn—objects that had set for miniature eternities beyond even the weakest touch of light, filling-up with the pitch that defied the stars. Everything here had been infused with the oldest shades. The stone of the floor had been inlaid with grave-dust, and pressed into the walls were forgotten toys recovered from crumbling attics and cellars, alienesque bones that had lived longer under the earth than mankind had walked upon it, and some of the oldest funerary idols ever offered to the groaning bowels of the world: things that magnified the common darkness into otherworldly bastions for the “Walking Dark,” the true high priests of the Order of Nox.
When I reached the end of the tunnel, I encountered a man sitting within a large seat hewn from a great protrusion of onyx, which projected from a gigantic, open mouth that had been carved into the distant wall. The man was nearly part of the enshrouded atmosphere, and I could feel his eyes open upon me from every pore of gloom that haunted the deeper recesses of the chamber we occupied. His voice was the sound of nightfall and of the spaces hidden beneath beds and of forgotten openings into the earth.
“Stand there,” he said, gesturing to a small platform to his left. I said nothing, but only did as I was instructed. When I assumed a place upon the dais, the man rose from his seat and pulled a lever that seemed to simply appear from the wall. Within seconds I was descending deeper into the earth. How long I traveled or how deeply I descended I cannot say precisely, save only that I was lowered to a depth where the caverns beneath Lastrygone would have seemed like the shallows that flit about the rim of the deepest sea.
At some point during my descent, the walls around me disappeared, giving way to a vastness that, like the titan ghost of some long-dead prehistoric sky, opened dark and primal, offering black heavens to the dead and damned. There was also movement all around me, and I was reminded of sharks gliding casually around their intended prey, waiting. And regardless of how much I strained, even my eyes failed to pluck shapes from the surging void. I was hesitant to summon my sisters, despite their pleading, as I had been invited to this place, and a show of arms would be poorly received, I reasoned.
After the platform settled atop something solid, making a sound that was immediately reflected within great emptiness that unfolded all around me, I was unsure how to proceed, as there was but oblivion and silence to greet me.
It wasn’t long before cold words floated up to me from below.
“I shouldn’t be impressed that you chose to come, being who and what you are, and yet I am impressed, none the less.” The voice seemed inhuman, but not for a different arrangement of vocal mechanisms, but rather the odd modulations affected to the speaker’s tone by way of, what seemed, an intervening mechanical filter. I could feel something drawing closer to me from somewhere below, and I could hear the careful and repeated contact of metal meeting stone.
“No. You certainly shouldn’t be impressed, but if you choose to be there is nothing I can do about it. And I thank you for meeting with me. Few others would take such a risk,” I said, seeking to match the speaker’s level of insinuated menace. I could still hear the sounds of a metallic stride catching in the wide silence around me, suggesting something rather large was approaching. I muted my instincts to kill, and I could feel the silent and searing reproach of my family.
“I’d guess we both know, to some extent, who it is that we are dealing with, which is good, I suppose. And as far as your reason for coming to us is concerned—yes, we do know something about the entity you mentioned, the Shepherd of Wolves.” His words were now drifting down to me, as he was speaking from a height well above me. “Let us sit and talk, now.” As he reached the end of his sentence, the darkness shifted into intelligible shapes and discernable distances, but not through the ordinary medium of light, but by means of some alien wavelength of darkness, which did not expand on what could be seen, but only revealed what my mind was allowed to know.
The darkness showed me my host—a gigantic and apparently mechanized thing that stood well over eight feet tall. Tumbling from its back were great lengths of black cable, which fell across the ground and slithered down a great stone stairwell that unraveled into oblivion. All told, the thing looked something like a vintage deep-diving suit, replete with the round, iron helmet. The creature noticed my curiosity at its appearance and offered me a small justification for its attire. “The dark, even at this depth, is far too bright for the likes of me, and so I must channel the stuff of purest pitch through the mechanical apparatus that you are now admiring. But now let us discuss the matter at hand, shall we?”
I hadn’t at that point adequately absorbed my surroundings within the underground world, and as I seated myself at the small table that had been put out for our meeting, I realized that we were situated atop a great, black skyscraper, of sorts, and apparently carved from the dullest anthracite. It was but a single structure within a never-ending crowd of the things, each one made from darkness as much as it was from stone. This was a city that surrounded us, and one that was made to the specific comforts of living shadows.
I was at last in the darkly fabled City of Unduur.