None of his companions regarded Jolene with complete trust, but the discovery of any ally, no matter how unlikely, was a welcome surprise. Secured in the small airlock, they hoped she was able to shed some light onto what was happening on the floor below.
“Here we have a kind of ‘right-hand, left-hand’ situation,” she began. “I convinced my team to let me down here to guide you, but the other side also sent the imps. Everyone’s working at cross-purposes, but the summoners have the upper hand.”
“This is what happens when you don’t respect ma’at – you get chaos,” Tammy frowned disapprovingly.
“The scientists are being forced to help push the ritual along; they all have hellwasps at poised at their neck, ready to strike if they disobey. All of the demons were brought in by ‘the man,’ a frightening figure with no other name, who seems to be highly connected with other realms. He calls all of the shots down there.” Sighing, Jolene continued. “My father is down below also, working with the scientists – against his will. He is a powerful magician in our order and his knowledge has been key to the tentative successes they’ve seen.”
“Magic scientists below, hellwasps above, and full-fledged demons in front of us,” Ismene counted on her fingers, “including Seth’s friend in there. Where do we go from here?”
A loud roar drew everyone’s attention to the sealed hatch. Tommy gingerly placed his ear against it, cupping his hand to hear better. “I think Camazotz just took down the last of the imps, but now there’s a lot of fluttering – the whole hallways sounds like it’s filled with wasps. This way is a no-go.”
“We continue down,” announced Roger, accompanied by an unexpected hissing and bubbling of the floor at his feet, as if someone had spilled a bottle of invisible hydrogen peroxide. “Demons or not, this project needs to be shut down.” Holding up his hand to silence any questions, he closed his eyes in a look of serene concentration. “Let me work.”
Slowly at first but with quickening pace, he began to sink as the floor below him was eaten away, leaving a mirror-shined staircase in the frothing bubbles’ wake. The rest of the team looked to one another with curiosity in their eyes, before Ismene shrugged, picked up her camera bag, and began to descend the stairs. “What could go wrong?”
Seth hurriedly followed suit, with Tammy and Tommy descending next. Jolene, a tight-lipped grimace on her face, reluctantly brought up the rear. Step by step the team descended into the darkness, accompanied by the effervescent sound of something eating away the building materials that stood between them and the final basement level.
The stairs were eerily smooth, as if perfectly and immaculately carved out of the between-floor iron, stone, and conduit. Descending steeply into the darkness, for Roger had not provided any illumination in his otherworldly passage, the team walked hesitantly, using small pen-lights and Ismene’s camera flash to guide the way.
“Roger, how are you doing this?” cautiously asked Ismene as she caught up to the fearless most recent addition to their adventuring team. He strode casually, apparently not affected by the utter lack of light in the lengthening tunnel.
“You would call it ‘magic.’ I call it a particular application of nanomolecular physics,” he explained offhandedly.
“Got it,” she nodded with feigned understanding, shrugging ineffectually as she turned back to her friends walking through the darkness. “Magic.”
Tommy clicked on a more powerful flashlight, having had enough of the darkness. “We need to see what we’re walking into.” The walls and floor had a curious geometry, far from the clean and perfect lines the stairs and hallway started with. Perfectly passable, but still skewed, as if every surface was viewed in a dizzying maze of carnival mirrors. With eyes closed the surfaces felt smooth, but visually they seemed to stretch and warp, confounding the mind and assaulting everyone’s sense of balance.
“I am under assault,” Robert noted plainly, slight beads of sweat forming on his brow.
“Assault? Where are they?” Tammy growled as she withdrew her sword, ready for an impending attack.
“The nature of reality is different here, attempting to impress itself upon our perceptions and our experiences.”
“Is that why everything looks like it’s in a fishbowl?” Seth piped up, looking at the reflection of his hand in a smooth but seemingly undulating section of wall.
“Yes dear,” Ismene placated, peering ahead in the haze. “Tommy, shine your light there,” she pointed, catching something as he investigated the hallway. Swinging his light forward, everyone’s attention was drawn to an oddly solid, unwavering door seemingly built into the wall of the tunnel Roger had been digging.
“That is a connection to elsewhere,” warned Roger, expressing for the first time severe unease. “This is a place that is not ‘here.'”
“Could this be the crossing we were warned about?” Ismene asked of Jolene, who stood quietly behind the group.
“They’ve parted the veil enough to come this far,” she surmised. “Your friend here has tunneled through and beyond the barrier. This is the final basement, only we’re coming at it from the other side.”
“You’re saying that the ritual is happening on the other side of that door?” frowned Tommy. Jolene nodded.
With a self-satisfied nod Tammy kicked open the door, throwing it wide and flooding the bizarre hallway with a dull, sullen, crimson light.
Header image by Lorenzo Leonbruno (1477 – 1537), painting title Orpheus in Hell