The few that had gone and returned left tales, naturally, and those tales spread far and wide on the lips of tellers who never had and never would see the place with their own eyes. They said that what you found down there reflected who you were as a person much more than any external, metaphysical reality.

Ellis wasn’t sure what a vast wasteland of frozen mountains and snow said about him. Maybe he didn’t want to know.

In the world above–say, in Antarctica–trekking through such a wasteland would have required more supplies than Ellis could possibly have carried, and far more survival training than he possessed. But that wasn’t the way down below. He got hungry but never had to eat; got thirsty but never had to drink; got cold but never had to build a fire. One might have thought that the removal of those things would have made the journey an easy one.

Instead, Ellis found his pain and suffering focused to a thin, white-hot edge. If there was no death at the end, no unconsciousness, then the pain simply brooded and grew far beyond what was possible–or even conceivable–above. Forget the stories of torments unnumbered, or even other people. The suffering of an unforgiving environment with no company but memories was infinitely worse.

There was no night and day, only a constant gray haze. As Ellis struggled through waist-deep snow and up naked rockfaces savaged by high winds, he occasionally tried to take shelter in a crevasse or eat a little snow to dull the pain. It didn’t work; the snow quenched no thirst, the deepest caves and crevasses were canvassed by the same howling polar winds, and the memories were omnipresent above them all.

Those same dilettantes, seated by cozy fires above, said that the pain down there wore away at a soul until it obliterated every trace of memory and left them to wander infinitely in their own personal “down below.” Ellis wouldn’t let that happen. He’d had no inkling of what was ahead when he had performed the ritual of key and coin to venture down below, even after all the interviews and research and preparations.

But even as the pain threatened to devour him, even as the snow and solitude made him question whether he had ever really seen another living being, Ellis pressed on.

Annemarie and Cassandra were out there, somewhere.

And he had to bring them back.