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TODAY

Saturday, February 23

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Airbags

Soldier Field a little off-color
Bears fans watching last Sunday's game on TV may have noticed the center of the playing surface looking less than the vibrant green expected at the beginning of a season.

The center of the field between the numbers was resodded earlier this month. "Given the size of NFL linemen now'' the center of the field typically needs to resodded twice a year, and the sidelines redone annually, said Soldier Field general manager Tim LeFevour.
— Chicago Sun-Times

Through the trees we sprint, away from our would-be captors and the horrible creature they have set loose upon this world. Crashing, rumbling from the clearing where Wilhelm Warhammer betrayed me to the Hag Queen M'yrrgh, where the Dark Lord Kayne bound me in a magical field, where I watched as they called forth this foul behemoth from another realm.

The earth trembles and somewhere a tree-trunk cracks in two, falls to the earth. I hear M'yrrgh's raspy voice raised in an earsplitting screech, Wilhelm shouting, his voice shot through with fear. And then Kayne, projecting his voice over the others — "I'll subdue the beast! Find the Axman! Do not let him escape!"

We run on, my ax still in my hand, pumping beside me. Ahead of me is Nan, the mysterious magician who tailed Wilhelm and me to this place, who disappeared when Wilhelm moved to kill her. It was she who destroyed the jewel Kayne used to control the monstrous horror he summoned here, allowing just enough time to free me and give us a head start.

That head start now appears to have officially ended, as red-hot bolts of crackling energy begin flashing between the trees and bushes around us, blackening the bark and igniting small fires. Wilhelm's annoyed grunts are audible now, and suddenly a knife sails past and lands throbbing in a tree beside Nan's head. The gnome's work, most likely, and Nan pauses long enough to flash a crooked grin before whirling and heading off in a new direction.

Ahead we hear the dull roar of the rushing river, and Nan makes directly for it. We are losing ground to our pursuers, and with every thicket we rampage through, every loose stone we slip on, they gain a step. Wilhelm is closing when the river comes within eye-shot, and more knives flit past us. "Look for a crossing!" I cry to Nan before turning to face the Warhammer and his well-trimmed blond curls.

"So this is how it shall be, then," he mutters, closing both fists around the hammer's shaft.

"I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't looking forward to this," I growl, and then we clash, immediately grappling; the gnome steals up beside me but I level him with a well-placed kick. Wilhelm maneuvers to the side, attempting to slam his knee into my groin, but I deflect this and engage him with a head-butt that sends him reeling. Massaging my forehead, I grin in spite of myself, until Nan shouts out.

"Down, Blagg!"

But it's too late — M'yrrgh's ragged cloak moves among the trees and I look up in time to see her mouth the last word of an incantation. Blazing red light streaks toward me, and I am falling back, down... untouched by any spell. Nan tackles me, brings me down over the river's edge, and the water takes us. As I struggle to draw breath and sputter my thanks, more red bolts are fired toward us, and we dive beneath the surface.

When we come up for air we have put much distance between ourselves and our pursuers, and I rejoice until I see where the river is headed. A solid rock wall, where the water drives into a low-ceilinged cave, and from there — down. I look to Nan, who nods.

"Do you know where these waters end up?" I shout.

Again, that crooked grin flashes. "I can make an educated guess," she remarks.

And that is all. We enter the cave, and everything falls away, all but the deafening roar.

~*~

There is sand beneath my face. I can taste it.

Rolling over, I wipe it from my cheeks, nose, tongue. Open my eyes. Dim blue light. Somewhere, the sound of rushing water, and beyond that, eerie silence.

It is around this time that I realize I cannot breathe because my throat is clogged with river-water. After a few moments of choking, gasping and retching, I am sitting up and better prepared to contemplate my situation. I see the pale figure of Nan sitting 20 feet away, watching me with a half-smile. "Happy you decided to join me, Axman."

"I'm glad of your concern for my well-being."

She shrugs. "I was fairly certain you'd live."

But already I am leaping to my feet, casting about for my ax, finding it and putting it at the ready. "Where are they? Kayne, Wilhelm, the hag– "

Nan is dismissive. "If they attempted to follow us down here, they're in worse shape than we are, because nothing else has come to the surface." She indicates the shoreline — white sand, the color of the moon, stretching endlessly along grave-still waters of murky blue. Far off I can make out the rumbling waterfall, cascading out of the domed ceiling of this enormous cavern, ceaseless.

I narrow my eyes, rub my throbbing head and search overhead for the source of the pale luminescence. It seems to emanate from clusters of enormous crystals, which burst forth from the walls, corners and pillars of the cave. "What is this place?"

"Ever heard of the Buried Sea of Undermer?"

"I assumed it was a myth."

Nan shrugs. "This must be some other underground sea, then."

"Undermer. So this was your educated guess?"

Again she gives me the half-smile, tilts her head. "We need to get moving."

And so we walk, hewing close to the sparkling shoreline, the dull roar of the waterfall growing steadily softer as we move. Neither of us carries food, and neither mentions it. Hours pass, and soon our sifting footfalls are the only sound to be heard. Later, we make camp for the night — if it can be called night in this nether-place, for the phosphorescent crystals never darken. Upon waking we trudge on, saying little.

"What were you trying to say to me?" I ask Nan at one point. "When Wilhelm appeared, and drove you off the cliff?"

"That he meant to betray you. I overheard him plotting with the gnome at night about how they would deliver you to the Dark Lord Kayne and M'yrrgh."

I nod. "And what of your power to become stone? You told me that doing it three nights running would permanently transform you into a statue. Yet when you stepped off the cliff, you turned to stone before you hit the ground, and then were able to change back."

At this she grins. "I suppose I was as surprised as you, Blagg."

The shoreline suggests no end, but as we proceed the cave wall gradually falls further and further from the quiet-moving water, opening onto a small plain that stretches away into the dim light. At length we stop. "There are tunnels in the wall ahead," I murmur to Nan, for in this place murmuring generally seems the most appropriate form of communication. She nods, and after we take what water we can, we leave the silent sea behind.

Several more hours pass before we reach the first tunnel, which winds a few dozen yards into the cavern wall before dissolving into a bed of the glowing crystals. We move on, exploring several more, until we come upon a much larger opening with pieces of broken crystal scattered about the entrance. Nan enters, but I hesitate, indicating my concern for the wreckage outside.

"If there's anything alive in there," she reasons, "it must either have a way outside, as there's no prey in here, or it will be small enough to serve as prey for us." With this my rumbling stomach cannot disagree, and so I take my ax in hand and we enter.

This tunnel delves deep, the air carrying a strange scent of ammonia and ozone. More shards of crystal litter the ground, in some places deep enough as to cover the cave floor entirely. Our boots crunch over this and I cringe at the way the sound echoes off the cavern walls. Something else I discover — those crystals that have been broken off go dark, a dull brown-blue color.

After much winding we enter a nexus of sorts, a brightly lit room with tunnels branching off in several directions. I open my mouth to speak but Nan silences me, turning her face upward. I do the same, and realize then that she has caught the scent of fresh air, wafting from one of the tunnels to our left. We turn to one another and then we hear it — a far-off echo of smashing crystal.

I turn, raising my ax as I try and discern from which tunnel the sound came. The crashing comes again, closer this time. Nan weaves her hands in the air beside me, no doubt beginning some incantation, and far back in the tunnel a brighter glow becomes visible, the smashing sound louder.

When it appears, the creature is far larger than I pegged it — easily 15 feet high. It is nearly blinding to look at, covered in needle-like crystals that jut forth in all directions from its globular body. Four thick, spider-like legs propel it through the tunnel, crunching and smashing off bits of its own crystalline body against the rock, and its enormous eyes, the size of saucers and pure white, seem to stare through us.

Nan's fist closes over my sleeve. She apparently has abandoned the idea of employing sorcery against this thing. "Run, Axman!"

It has nearly closed on us, and I make a half-hearted swipe with my ax before following Nan down the nearest tunnel, the scent of fresh air overpowered by the ammonia stink, which clearly comes from the crystal creature itself. It smashes after us, bits of crystal pelting my back as I run, grinding against the sides and ceiling of the tunnel.

The walls narrow as we flee and I expect the thing to fall behind, but still it comes, and I turn to see it crushing itself through crystal beds, great pieces of its own body cracking away. One glowing talon leaps forward and I have just enough time to bat it away with my ax before turning again to run. Ahead Nan has fallen to her hands and knees as the tunnel narrows further. The phosphorescent crystals gone, we scrabble forward in the claustrophobic dark, the creature's talons scraping the tunnel behind us as it emits a piercing screech.

Rock scrapes at our shoulders, knees, our elbows as we lower our bellies to the floor. But then, hope — I can smell fresh air again, strong. Nan bursts through the last few feet of wet sod as the crystal monster makes a final stab at my boot, and we collapse out onto a hillside, heaving in the dewy grass.

"There they are," says a voice, amused with a hard edge. "Right on time. Lord Kayne was right."

"He's always right," says another. I look up.

Kayne's Black Guard. We are surrounded.

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About the Author(s)

A former mercenary for hire, Blagg is an axman by trade and still carries the banner of King Mandrake, the once and true ruler of the realm. Gapers Block readers are invited to contact Blagg for advice, insight and recommendations at blagg@gapersblock.com. His column appears every other Saturday.

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