Staring into the Darkness

Hell is underground. In the depths of the mines, in the heart of caves, in the far reaches of ancient cities, it waits. It claws into the darkness of the underworld, flowing through it like sludge through the seas, looking for a way out to the sky. Things move in the hell-tainted darkness, formed from nightmare and black light. They dig towards the surface, lay traps, and always seek to claw their way into our world. Sometimes, they find it, breaking open a dungeon maw, their corruption spreading across the night to terrorize nearby innocents until driven back inside by the dawn.

These assaults inevitably inspire heroes to rise up, put down the incursion, and seek to seal the newly opened dungeon. Sometimes, it is enough to collapse the entrance and hope it will be years, again, before something else digs free. Others establish a vigil of light at its gate, burning great fires so the blacklight cannot slip free and form horrors anywhere in the night, and fighting back the creatures that brave the light. But some, the truly brave or the truly mad, descend into the dungeons, carrying what light they can and seeking to destroy the heart of the incursion, making the warrens safe for an age. These adventurers find more than just danger, however.

Every dungeon has a story, some event that allowed evil to crawl free. Some were the lairs of criminals. Others were dead-ends where innocents fled and died. Many were once great cities, before the last great civilization was struck down by its own greed. A few have gathered new stories of the adventurers that died within. In almost all cases, the artifacts of the dungeon’s story remain, foul creatures forming around them like cysts, living out shadow versions of the tale. If the guardians can be dispatched or bypassed, the artifacts make great prizes, wealth beyond the rewards of honest labor, treasures rarely seen in the modern age. Many that delve into the darkness on a simple mission of hope soon develop another agenda for braving the shadows.

These adventurers find not just gold and magic, but knowledge. Something about fighting these creatures teaches skills long lost to the world. The few great sages claim that the last era of heroes led directly to the fall of civilization and the rise of the blacklight, and the darkness remembers its forebears. Whatever the reason, those that delve into dungeons emerge with prowess and potency far beyond the common warriors and adepts who make up the armies of men. They are paladins and rangers, sorcerers and bards, and many other titles known only in songs. Quickly, their horror-won proficiency makes them without peer amongst normal men. They are sought not just to protect against new dungeon breakthroughs, but to bend the course of wars.

Skilled in might and magic, rich from ancient treasures, and possessed of skills unknown to this age of the world, adventuring seems a noble and worthwhile effort. But there is a secret known only to the few that have delved into dungeons and traded the stories of their journeys. The blacklight creatures are formless nightmares as they lurk unmolested in their tombs. It is perception that catalyzes them into being, and they take their forms and powers from the darkest reaches of the minds that perceive them. Great men have so much more to dread, and adventurers quickly progress from simple things like goblins to much greater horrors than the common mind can conceive. At every turn, these heroes marvel that most of what they face seems just within the limits of their skills, not realizing that what they face lies just within the limits of their imaginations. The blacklight grows stronger with strong minds to pattern it. Breakthroughs near a town with experienced adventurers can be truly terrible to the population, and true horrors lurk in tombs that great heroes failed to destroy. In time, many adventurers come to wonder whether they are truly helping the world, or merely feeding some dark, hellish agenda that seeks to remake the powers of the last age… and once again pull civilization to the brink.