They were now in a new cavern of dark, almost black, crinkled rock, the floor a thick, soft dirt. Small, glowing snowflakes of light drifted down around them, illuminating the cavern.
A series of metallic clanging sounds echoed throughout the walkway like that of hammers hitting anvils. Small drafts of heat passed by her cheek, and she noticed the floor beneath them had a subtle downward slant.
With each passing minute, new, far off noises could be heard: cracks, thuds, hisses, scrapes, the sound of machinelike activity. The ground was becoming stickier, almost muddy, and down side passages faint red light would flicker on and off.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Dwarves,” Deacon replied.
Before she could inquire, a flash of yellow brightened the wall beside her, and in the quick light she saw hundreds of cockroaches covering it.
“Miss, please!” Deacon whispered fiercely in her ear.
She put a hand over her mouth.
She stood still and stared at the wall, waiting for another flash or a wisp of light to float leisurely down. When it did, she saw no movement on the wall.
She took two steps and could just make out the wall moving with her.
She stopped abruptly. It stopped.
As another glowing flake passed by, she took 2 more careful steps. This time she could hear the faint sound of tiny little bug feet moving with her.
She stopped. They stopped.
This time, upon halting, there was a faint, high-pitched noise coming from the wall of roaches, almost out of her range of hearing. It sounded like a hundred cockroaches… whistling.
She walked, the whistling stopped and they crept silently along with her. Whenever she froze, they would freeze and whistle nonchalantly.
“It sounds like they’re whistling,” she whispered quietly to Deacon.
“They probably are,” he whispered back.
“Are they fucking with my head?”
Now, no longer attempting to hide the fact of their whistling, they began some “dum de dum” humming.
“What the hell?”
“Well miss, they are very musical.”
“Musical. Cockroaches. What do they want me to do, sing to them?”
From the walls on both sides of her, suddenly came an outburst of high, thin, reedy little voices shouting “Oh yes! Yes!” “Oh do!” “Please, yes, please oh do!” “Oh lovely please let’s do!”
She started to stammer, then collected herself. “Stop!”
In a chorus of voices that sounded like a reel-to-reel tape player being forwarded at high speed, they cried out in unison “Hello!”
She stared paranoid around her. “Okay, you guys are freaking me out.”
There was a banter of apologetic “Oh no”s, and other sad and ashamed murmuring. A collective sigh sounded out.
Deacon nudged her ear. “I think you hurt their feelings.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
There was some light shuffling, a moment’s pause, and then a single tiny voice spoke, although it was too thin and small for her to hear.
“What’d it say?”
“He said they’re very sorry, but maybe you could please sing them a song. They’d like it very much.”
“I’m in a cave with dwarves and cockroaches and they want me to sing to them?”
The lone high voice said something.
“He says the dwarves only sing fun songs when they’re drunk, and most of the time their songs are about working and drinking and are a little boring.”
She stood staring dumbly around her, fidgeting and shaking her head. She couldn’t tell whether she was going to giggle or choke.
“Yay!” They all cheered in their twisted ‘Chipmunks on crack’ voices.
She sang Walking In Memphis.
The cavern made her voice, shaky at first, sound rather pleasant, and as she made her way through the 1st verse she started to enjoy it. When she reached the chorus, the cockroaches all joined in and almost bowled her over. At the beginning of the 2nd verse they all lightly chanted the chord changes behind her, singing “ooooo,ooooo…..” By the last verse they were singing the backup vocals behind her:
“And I was walking in…”
“Waaaaaaalking in Memphis”
It was the single funniest thing she had ever heard in her life, and at the end of the song as they all cheered uproariously, she began to laugh and laugh, and her laughter grew hysterical, and 5 minutes later she couldn’t breath but couldn’t stop, and she was down on her knees, elbows in the mud begging for mercy, but none came and she could feel something deep inside of her head twist and little splinters begin to crack.
The gusts of heat and noises of activity increased as woman, mouse, and hundreds of cockroaches continued their twisting descent down into the red and yellow lit caverns. Pipes jutted out of cragged stone and wrapped around walls, radiating heat and occasionally hissing and clanging.
The roaches kept up a merry chorus of whatever song had last been sung, and whenever she would tire of the particular tune, all she had to do was clear her throat and the chorus would hush and wait for her to begin another song.
Letting them pipe away happily, she eyed the mouse still riding atop her shoulder.
“There’s an awful lot of commotion down here, Deacon.”
“Yes, miss. The dwarves are always hard at work.”
“What do they do?”
“Mine, mostly. They also forage tunnels and expand the pipe network that carries the ore, but mining for the ore is their main task.”
“Ore? What kind of ore?”
The singing stopped.
She turned about to see what potential problem was causing the soundtrack to her mental deterioration to halt. Down a yellow-lit corridor to her right stood a short, stocky figure, dark for being backlit. He was carrying a pick and obviously examining her intently.
“Oh, hello,” she said. “I don’t mean to disturb you.”
“Hmph,” the figure answered. “Haven’t seen one o’ yer kind in a long while.”
“Uh, are you really a… a… what do you do down here?”
The burly dwarf shuffled towards her. He was insanely hairy, with thick leather skin, much coarser then a human’s, and red eyes with jet-black pupils. He peered at her curiously.
“Just what yer friend there told ya. We mine the Chaos, refine it into an ore, and feed it to the Engine.”
“What engine? What do you mean by Chaos? Molten lava?”
“If I’da meant melted rock, I’d have said melted rock. Chaos, I said. The primal, potential of essence. Tricky stuff to work with. Real messy. Dangerous, too.”
“Where do you find it?”
“The world’s a womb, lassie. Every womb has a portal of Chaos in it. Just like yers.” He pointed at her stomach. “’Course yers is smaller than the head of a pin, and ya probably keep it closed most of the time,” he gestured around him, “but in a womb this big, there’s several hundred miles of it, and more pouring through all the time.”
The pipes around them banged and shook. The dwarf carried on, obviously delighted to boast of his work. “We liquidize it and send it through the pipes, into the great Engine. We mine, we run, and we maintenance of the Great Engine, all big jobs. Beyond the capacity o’ any o’ the other Races, ya can be sure. Only a dwarf could do each and all and still out drink ya at the end o’ the day.”
“Wow,” she said, patting his ego. “What kind of engine?”
“The Great Three-Wheeled Engine o’ History. Want to see it?”
After promising her that it wasn’t the least bit out of her way, he led her down the corridor he had come, through the shadows in the walls some of which turned out to be corridors, until they came to the end of a tunnel.
The tunnel stopped abruptly, high up in a chamber the size of a football field wide, and two legnthwise. In the center were 3 gargantuan wheels, each the size of a 6-story tenement building, intersecting each other at different angles. Beneath them were gears, boilers and pipes, all manner of outlandish, archaic machinery interconnected in an indecipherable jumble.
She stood transfixed.
“Count yerself lucky, lass. Yer only the 42nd o’ your race to see it this entire Aeon. I used to deal with yer kind a lot more back in the last Age. Always had a soft spot for ya.”
He glanced back at the Engine. “’Course with the next wheel in ascendance, I bet yer species is going a bit spastic up there, eh?”
“What does this thing do?”
“It drives history.”
“What, you mean like the the seasons? That’s caused by the Earth revolving around the Sun.”
“Nay, that’s not what I meant. Nature takes care o’ herself sure enough. This isn’t about the seasons or the day’s journey into night. This is what drives events, eras, ages, epochs.”
He pointed down at the Engine.
“Three wheels, see? The Material, the Transcendent, and the Magical. The wheel of the Material’s just finishing its dominant arch. Treated Man well. Man was well adapted for it.”
Each wheel was made up of a series of smaller wheels inside of it, much like what she had seen of the Mayan calendar. Straining her eyes, she could actually see some of the circles near the center moving.
“This Engine is what powers the rise and fall of Civilizations, what determines them congruency o’ forces there that bring favorable conditions to the evolution of species and the progression of Races. Or unfavorable for that matter.
“Yer seeking the Sidhe, I hear. Now there’s a Race that’s had a tough time of it. Lots of famine, been driven back to wait out this Epoch in the few remaining Lands habitable to them. They’re almost through the worst of it, though. It they can hold out a little longer, they’ll start ascending soon.
‘As for your kind…. well… things’re gonna get a lot more crazy up ahead.”
“They took my baby,” she told him.
“Hmph. I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that. But I do know them crazy little buggers are always fair. They never break the rules. ‘Course them rules are’t your rules, but still.”
A loud clamor of falling metal echoed from a corridor behind them.
“Pus and ass hair!” the dwarf swore. “Alright, off I’m goin’. Nice to see your kind again. Good luck.”
“Wait. Do people make it through this next wheel or whatever?”
“Hmm. Not sure. It’s possible you don’t. Then again it’s possible you just become unrecognizable.”