There was no time for talking. With Ellred there was always time for talking. But not today, not now. Ellred’s words were usually soft and tenuous, clouds of speech, a great deal of them amounting to very little. This news, however, was made for bludgeoning, a verbal hammer—small, but dense and powerful. As much as Vahn wanted to sit and recover, take a few moments to let things sink in, it was impossible. His mother was alive. Somehow.
The nightmares were always the same, the same sequence of events beginning with the first fragments of memories when he was a baby and ending when he found his father dead and his mother missing. All the memories were a single line of thought, a string of anguish with knots where each image appeared chronologically.
When the nightmares stayed away, his dreams were mundane by dream standards. It might have been a trip to the market, it might have been a show at the theater, or it might have been sitting in school naked—the specifics didn’t matter. Yet every so often a specter would appear in the dreams, a ghost haunting what would have otherwise been a banal trip through the subconscious. It was his father, alive, still living in his dreams, still living in pain. Even in his dreams he knew it was not possible and shouldn’t be happening. He was dead. His father was dead and there could be no doubting it. But in the dream realm he was a living spirit, visiting his present life, his adult life. If only the meetings between the living and the dead were pleasant. But alas, they were terrifying encounters. His father was still in agony, his life somehow prolonged and the pain extended year after year. Vahn saw the pain end some years ago and knew his father’s body and spirit were at peace. In the dreams, however, his father still ached, still suffered, still lived through what he had finally escaped in death. Worst of all, his dream-father could never die. Whenever Vahn closed his eyes there was always the chance that his father would live on, inserting his suffering into Vahn’s modern life.
His father was a ghost haunting his dreams, but his mother was different. Dreams with his mother were dreams of reality—the memories of what had happened, as it happened, not nightmares of what never could happen, like his father. Never once had she existed as a ghost in Vahn’s modern life or an anachronistic memory. Her memories were where they should be, as they should be, never more or less than that. So was it all that surprising that she was still alive? Had his dreams given it away, had they been whispering that she was still out there somewhere, that she wasn’t living on in his twisted subconscious because she had yet to actually die?
“You must leave immediately,” Ellred said. He had repeated it several times as Vahn sat in a hard chair in an austere room in an empty temple in a city consumed by violence. Vahn managed to ask how but Ellred only shook his head and repeated his motto. It was just as well—he had no idea what ‘how’ he wanted to know (how Ellred knew, how to leave the city, how it was possible she wasn’t dead). Duncan, sitting still beside Vahn, said nothing. “If you want her to live you will leave now.” Vahn inhaled sharply. “No, there is no time to visit your friend’s bar. And would you wander the streets again? Who knows what might impede your progress? No, we leave now or you don’t leave at all. The choice is yours.” It wasn’t, clearly. Ellred stood up and pushed his chair underneath the desk as though the insignificant formality of ushering them out brought reason and sense to the situation. “Are you ready?” How long had he sat there without answering, mute, dumb, perplexed? It might have been a full five minutes.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Duncan said. Ellred had walked around the bare table and was standing near the door.
“Out of the city—with you.”
“You know that’s not possible, yeah? Unless you can swim faster than a dolphin and jump over fallen bridges we’re absolutely done.”
“Yes, it is.” Ellred spoke without emotion or inflection.
“Then why are you loafing about? Shouldn’t you be out of the city if it’s so easy?” Even in his trance Vahn could hear Ellred grumble before answering.
“Because I must stay. I cannot leave, I must not leave, I will not leave. Though I may go for a short while to guide you, I cannot leave this temple or this city for good.” His words were sharp, quick, loud in the humming silence of the temple. Ellred walked out the door and to the right. “Follow me”. His words were already muffled by the distance. Duncan stood up and sighed but otherwise remained still. Vahn was still fastened to his chair, weighed down and secured by a combination of words that should never have been spoken together.
“If he can get us out of here we might as well go. We were trying to do it anyway.” Duncan placed a hand on Vahn’s shoulder and shook a bit. It was enough to bring Vahn’s focus back to the room. “We might be able to catch up to Sam if we’re quick.”
“Right.” Vahn stood and looked around the room hoping to bring his sense into the moment. Dull light snuck through the milky windows, a few motes of dust drifted by without any concern for the destruction beyond the temple. The hum and energy he felt earlier was gone, or at least it had dissipated. Other than their breathing everything was silent and as calm as still image.
“You made the right choice,” Ellred said as Vahn and Duncan exited the tiny office at the back of the temple. As soon as they pulled the door to the office shut the entire hallway was engulfed in darkness. Ellred was standing at the end of the long hallway halfway between the light and the dark, his expression and features split. “We don’t have any time to waste.” As the pair approached the end of the hallway Ellred turned and walked on. When Vahn turned the corner Ellred was standing near the doorway into the main chapel. “This way.” He pushed sturdy double doors open revealing another dark room. Ellred disappeared into the void leaving Vahn and Duncan standing in the threshold. “Just a second.” His voice echoed. Vahn could see the faint outline of pews just ahead but no farther. “There.” A single torch sprung to life at the far end of the chapel. Ellred was standing behind a pulpit resting on a tall dais at the head of the room. The torch was stuck to the back wall and positioned to the side of a cream-colored statue. “Back here.”
“You said we were getting out of the city?” Duncan said it as a question. Rich orange light painted the pulpit and dais. Beyond the tiny swathe light surrounding the dais were heavy shadows that refused to shrink away from the glow, pooling between pews and behind decorations and ceremonial torches positioned against the walls. The light ascended halfway up the marble statue before it was too weak to expose details. It was one Vahn recognized, the statute, one that was fairly common throughout the city. It was a half-man half-serpent rendering of Gent, his snakelike jaws open to devour the valley. But this one was immense, taller than any he had seen before, at least 40 feet tall and rising towards the top of the grand ceiling. Details vanished above the statue’s waist, devoured by the dark. There were likely orb lights throughout the chapel to fully illuminate the cavern. There was even another torch on the other side of the pale statue, the partner to the one Ellred lit. Nevertheless Ellred made certain the darkness won out the light. “Come this way.” He stood behind the pulpit and was looking down at something. The pair hurried along the aisle towards the front of the chapel, the path wide enough for them to walk side by side. Stairs led up to the pulpit from either side of the dais and the pair ascended them carefully in the dull light.
“Where are we going?” Vahn asked. He looked around the pulpit and saw nothing of any importance. A few dense tomes were piled on a low shelf near the statue, tall candelabra flanked either side of the pulpit, and as he guessed there were a few orb lights set into the floor beneath a layer of glass, none of which were lit. But that was it.
“In here,” Ellred replied. He ran his hands along either side of the pulpit, patting it as searched for something. Finding what he was looking for, he plunged his fingers into two almost invisible holes on either side of the wood structure. From somewhere within the solid pulpit came the unmistakable sound of locks and latches unfastening. Before Vahn could ask what was happening Ellred pulled open two doors on the back side of the pulpit that swung outwards. “Here.” Ellred pointed to the opening.
“What is this?” Vahn asked. Ellred pulled a handheld orb light from his robes, turned it on, and shone the light in the opening. The pulpit was at least three feet tall, maybe four, and half as wide. What appeared solid from outside was in fact a hollow and rather flimsy wood structure concealing an uneven hole hewn out of bare stone. As Ellred moved the light, the orange beam reflected off of a dull metal object stuck in the temple’s stone foundation. “Here.” Ellred handed Vahn the light before removing his blue temple robes. Once the robes were off he wadded them into a ball and set them on the top of the pulpit. Vahn had never seen a priest disrobe and couldn’t have guessed what they wore underneath. When he saw Ellred wearing a plain white shirt and brown pants held in place by a belt he wasn’t sure whether that was what he expected or not. But right now, it didn’t matter—Ellred was descending the ladder and disappearing into the circular hole. “Follow close behind. Make sure you use the light; it’s a long drop if you fall.”
“At least we’ll have a soft landing,” Duncan whispered. Though he didn’t laugh, Vahn smiled, smiled because he was supposed to, not because he wanted to. “You go next and shine the light up as you go. I’ll follow behind, yeah?” By now Ellred had vanished into the darkness but his grunts and footfalls were still perceptible, trickling up and out of the hole like it was a bubbling cauldron. Ducking to get a better look, Vahn leaned over the hole and shone the light down. It was a circular hole dug straight down through the temple’s foundation and into the dirt below. Metal rungs were inserted into the foundation stone and dirt. Those in the dirt were uneven and anything but straight. The hole smelled of old, damp earth and mold. It was as though the narrow hole amplified and intensified the smell, the aroma wafting out like it was being shoved through a chimney.
As Vahn moved the light around, Ellred’s sweaty hair reflected the beams like a prism. He was already half a dozen feet down. Placing the light in his mouth Vahn reached out and grabbed the top rung and shook. It was cold and rough, but sturdy. He leaned back, sat down and dangled his legs into the hole and looked back at Duncan.
“Just like the arena,” Vahn said stoically. “Sliding into the darkness.”
“No smoke though,” Duncan answered. It was supposed to be a joke, but he couldn’t laugh at this one.
“Are you coming?” Ellred said. His voice was more distant and muffled now. Even if the light wasn’t stuck between his teeth he wouldn’t have answered. Vahn slid off the edge and placed his feet on a lower rung, grabbing the top rung immediately after. By twisting his head to the side and looking down he could aim the orb light with his mouth well enough to see where he was going, for at least a foot or two anyway. At once he began descending the narrow shaft, each rung and step just like the other. It smelled strongly of moldy dirt and faintly of sewage, or it could have been Vahn’s imagination (or Ellred, now that he thought about it). Once he had climbed at least six feet Duncan stepped overhead and grabbed the first wrung. “It’s not much farther.” Ellred’s voice was so muffled it sounded like a thought.
“It’s so damn tight!” Duncan’s voice was deadened but not as much. Vahn’s shoulders barely fit between the sides of the tunnel and judging by the amount of loose dirt falling on his head, Duncan was already a few feet down, his hips and shoulders rubbing the shaft’s sides.
“That’s it, come on.” Vahn took the rungs slowly but steadily. After descending a few more, a rush of cool and damp air swirled around him and the narrow walls opened. The rungs continued straight down, only now they were attached to the side of a flat wall in what looked like a large hollow. After that brief pause and spurred on by the debris Duncan was loosening Vahn continued. “Let me take that.” Ellred’s hand appeared near Vahn’s waist a moment later. Vahn held on with one hand, pressing his chest against the wall, and took the light from his mouth. Ellred took the light and stepped back far enough to shine the weak light over the rest of the rungs creating a spotlight around Vahn and the ladder.
“What is this place?” Vahn asked. He stepped off the last rung and moved away as Duncan finished his descent. Once Duncan was on the ground Vahn had only a moment to look around before Ellred swung the light in the opposite direction. The shaft connecting the temple dais to the cavern was a good seven or eight feet above them in the ceiling. It opened to a large cavern dug out of the dirt and reinforced with pieces of dry and gnarled wood placed vertically and in random locations, the ladder continuing down the side of the wall all the way to the floor. The entire expanse was probably fifteen feet in diameter and somewhere between square and circular. There was a tunnel just to the right of the “ladder” they climbed down that led into a wall of darkness as tangible as the walls of earth around them. It was just over six feet tall and just as wide. The opening was mostly circular and slightly uneven with chunks and streaks from the carver’s tools still visible. As Ellred swung the light away from the ladder and in the opposite direction the dim light fell over another opening opposite the one he had been staring into.
“We are going this way,” Ellred said. He spoke with both fear and eagerness, walking away from the pair in the process. “If you wish to stay in the city you can return to the temple or take that path; but I highly doubt that is your intent.”
“Hold up yeah? I can’t see a damn thing without that light.” Duncan grabbed Vahn by the arm then shoved him towards the vanishing light.
“That won’t be a problem for long.” Ellred pointed the light towards the ground in front of his feet. The light was completely lost within the massive cavern and only brightened a tiny area immediately ahead. Just as they reached the far tunnel Ellred stopped again. Before Vahn could ask what was going on a flash of light blinded him. “There we are.” There was an immediate flash and then dozens of individual balls of ghost lights lined his vision even when he closed his eyes. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust and the points of color to disappear.
Ellred stood in the entrance of the far tunnel, his hand on a switch. A row of small orb lights lined the right side of the tunnel and were fastened to the middle of the wall at shoulder height, each one connected to its neighbor by a thick black cable. Individually the blubs were no brighter than Ellred’s portable light, but spaced only a couple feet apart there were enough to make the cramped space seem like an open-air park at midday. The lights followed the gentle curve of the tunnel and eventually disappeared around a bend several hundred feet away.
“What is all this?” Vahn asked. With proper illumination it was easy to see the room was nothing more than a hand-dug cave with a few supports. The tunnels were exactly the same only smaller. He hadn’t noticed it before, but a narrow stream of water lay to their right, moseying along so gently that it made no sound. It exited from a semicircular opening in the wall to the right of the lit tunnel. It was only a couple of feet wide and lined with odd shaped stones. It traveled the length of the cavern and vanished into another stone archway dug into the wall on the near the ladder they descended.
“Most of this is from the old aqueduct and sewer system,” Ellred replied. “Most of this comes from the FreePort river; I’m sure you know about this since you live here, but underground rivers are quite common in the Valley. Some reconnect with the river later and others drain into the sea. It’s why there used to be so many wells in the area and why there are so many little streams just outside the city. Sometimes it’s easier to connect a well to the underwater rivers than it is to build an aqueduct from the river itself you know.” Vahn couldn’t tell if it was meant as a question or a statement. For a sewer system the smell was actually somewhat pleasant now that he was used to it. It was a rich and earthy smell, slightly moldy, but otherwise clean. “Enough history; hurry.” Ellred turned and sped down the hallway leaving Vahn and Duncan to catch up. The only sound in the tunnel came from the gentle hiss of the lights and the trio’s muffled footfalls.
“So what the hell is this place?” Duncan asked. “I get the river bit, but someone would have to be mental to dig all this when there’s that giant river to the north.” Before Ellred could answer Vahn interrupted.
“This must be what Jonas was talking about—the tunnel system. I’ve never been down here before.” He wasn’t asking anyone directly.
“Maybe?” Duncan said.
“Not all of this is part of the sewer and water system,” Ellred said, almost interrupting Duncan. “I told you already—some of these tunnels are for the wells and sewers because it’s easier to connect to something already underground than to divert the entire river.” Condescending, but not waiting for an answer. “Most of this is from something else entirely and it is older than that, much older. The tunnels just happened to connect with the major sewage and well access points.”
“Who built ‘em?” Duncan asked. Scars from shovels and picks still lined the walls, signatures and memories of the people who built it, signatures that would last for centuries. The pick and shovel marks were evidently ancient. But there were boot prints in the soft dirt, dozens of them going each and every way. They were so cluttered and overlapped so much that it was impossible to tell whether it was the work of a single person over the span of several weeks or dozens of people marching back and forth. Deep beneath the ground the soil was packed hard. It was a mixture of peaty dirt and sand, the result was easy to compress and wouldn’t reveal any secrets. Whether they were made yesterday or millennia ago, the footprints all looked the same.
“Do you know much about the city?” Ellred asked. His tone was neutral still, punctuated by deep breaths. He was almost jogging.
“Some, yes,” Vahn answered. Duncan was silent beyond his deep breathing.
“Do you know what happened here about 750 years ago?” The group rounded the gentle bend in the tunnel. Instead of another long corridor of tan-brown dirt and a string of lights, the path curved to the left at a near 90-degree angle. As the path turned it curved around the broad face of a huge boulder. The Valley of Gent was freckled by huge boulders and portions of exposed stone bedrock. Where the forests weren’t as dense as the bars on a jail cell it was impossible to look in any direction without seeing dozens of slabs jutting out of the dirt. That one was here and seemingly hidden until the diggers found it was no surprise. Not waiting for an answer Ellred continued. “There was a war between the lumber mills outside the city and the then-Count of FreePort because of an embargo. After a large battle the Count erected a wall around the city and continued the trade ban.” Ellred sped around the acute corner at the boulder’s tip. “He was despised by everyone inside the city and out. But I’m afraid our current count is going to be known for something much worse.” Ellred paused for a moment. “During the embargo a number of the men from the mills dug these tunnels as a way of getting in and out of the city without notice. Some of them are large enough to transport wood, others, like this one, are just big enough for a few people. They wanted a way to ship their goods despite the embargo and built tunnels to do just that. Some of the men knew where the aqueduct and sewer passages were and connected to those to save time I suppose. Seems foolish to connect to something the city is already using though—that’s just asking for disaster.”
“How did you find out about these?” Vahn asked, panting. Most kids learned about the tunnels below the city in school when kids would tell fanciful stories of monsters and murders hiding underneath. You were just as likely to hear a tall tale in a local pub as you were the schools, as most adults couldn’t help but add their own spin to the stories. But few people ever mentioned anything specific about them. And fewer of those stories seemed to hold any truth.
Meanwhile, Ellred’s pace increased and all three men were now jogging. Even without the accumulated fatigue from the past few days it would have been difficult to maintain a conversation at this rate. When Vahn changed a glance back at Duncan the man was usually holding his ribs with one hand. Still, Ellred gave it a good go.
“I’ve worked in the temple for many years, Vahn. I know everything there is to know about it and the city itself. Being a Private Guard and the head of a temple means I’m privileged to certain information, as you can imagine. Nobody on the outside knows about the temple access hatch, outside of the temple I mean. You two should consider yourselves lucky.” Once they rounded the stone the path straightened and continued following the line it had before the blockade. They were probably heading due north given the location of the pulpit and the direction of the first tunnel, but there was nothing to use as a reference down here. “The temple workers of the day did not agree with the former count’s policies and agreed to aid the mill workers. There are plenty of other exits throughout the city, some of which I’ve never discovered. The one in the temple was used quite often because of how secretive it is—not for shipping wood, mind you. Too small for that. We don’t use it much today; and frankly I don’t know how safe it is to be down here; those wood supports look like they’d be more at home in a fire pit.” The tunnel curved around yet another stone. For the next few moments the trio jogged in silence, gulping the stale air in the process. Before long the path opened into another room almost identical to the one they climbed down into. The trail of orb lights wound around the right side of the tunnel then stopped abruptly. Two more tunnels led elsewhere, one to their right the other to their left. Another pair of tunnels sat next to each other straight ahead. All of them were completely black, though a faint breeze blew from the tunnel to their left. “Just a moment.” Ellred walked into the darkness, fumbled with something metallic. A second later another string of lights burst to life and traveled down the one of the tunnels directly ahead.
“Who put these lights here?” Vahn asked, glad to have a moment to catch his breath. “Orb lights weren’t around 750 years ago.”
“I don’t know,” Ellred answered. Vahn and Duncan exchanged bewildered glances. “If you pay attention you can see that some of the lights are mounted to old torch brackets. They had to use torches back then, you know.”
“You don’t know?” Duncan snapped. “What does that mean?”
“It means someone installed them very recently. Only a couple strands of lights were here when I took my first job in the temple. Few of the priests knew about the tunnels and those that do never come down here. Back then the lights connected the pulpit to the park—why there I couldn’t guess. But then more started to appear recently. The last time I came down here was just before the festival last year. I always like to check the tunnels and make sure there won’t be any problems with the temple’s foundation. I’ve traveled these tunnels a fair bit over the past to make sure there weren’t any signs of danger and to do a bit of exploration. I fear these tunnels would be perfect for miscreants and deviants to idle their time and deal in illicit substances. When I came down here after the attacks I found all of these new strings.” Vahn inhaled sharply and held his breath, listening for something. It was so absolutely quiet in the cavern that each heartbeat was like a thundering drum. It was profound silence, complete and deep.
“So other people know about these tunnels?” Vahn continued.
“Someone would have to.” Ellred scoffed quietly. “Only two other people in the temple know anything about the entrance and neither of them have explored the tunnels like I have. So, who might know is anyone’s guess. I don’t imagine the drugged-up miscreants would have the wherewithal to complete something of this magnitude.”
“And I don’t see why the people who attacked the city would spend so much time down here if all they wanted to do was destroy the city.” Ellred nodded, or at least it looked that way from behind.
“Well someone sure as hell knows about this place,” Duncan said. “They put up some damn lights!” Vahn had to close his eyes to keep from seeing imaginary beasts in the shadows of the black corridors. While his eyes were closed he heard Ellred walking away.
“It doesn’t matter who put them here,” Ellred replied. “Let’s go.” Vahn and Duncan caught up and the three resumed their journey.
Vahn could argue that knowing who put the lights up did matter, and mattered quite a lot. But Ellred drove such a fierce pace that Vahn and Duncan could barely keep up.
The path continued straight for some time, snaked gently left and right, rounded a few boulders, and continued straight once more. For more than 20 minutes the group jogged through the serpentine path, none of them speaking, all of them choking on the dead air. During that time they passed through another open cavern with four more openings. Ellred lit the next row of lights without stopping and motioned for all of them to continue. Like the second room, the third was just a room, not part of the water system. None of them brought water or food and by now Vahn was beginning to crave water more than answers. After another 15 minutes they reached another open room. Ellred again lit the orb lights and went to continue down another path (this one to the left) when Duncan grabbed him.
“Not so fast man, not so fast!” Duncan was panting, wheezing as his lungs filled with heavy air.
“We don’t have time to wait!” Ellred’s face was red but he looked otherwise composed, his breathing quick but controlled.
“Why!? Why don’t we have time to wait?” Duncan bent forward, his shoulders heaving as he inhaled, wincing from the occasional stabbing pain.
“Dames is two weeks away at the least,” Vahn added. “Running now isn’t going to make any difference.” As much as he wanted to see his mother he knew a long journey still lay ahead. Once out of the tunnels he would still need to find a way north or south, find a boat to shuttle him around the cliffs, then hire a transportcart to take him the 500 plus miles to Dames. A bit of running now certainly wasn’t going to make a difference.
“No it’s not,” Ellred answered. “You aren’t two weeks away.”
“I don’t know if you really understand what happened out there, but the only way out of the Valley is by boat and the nearest port is miles to the north! Without a motorcart it’s going to be almost impossible to even make it to the port! What good is sprinting going to do us here?”
“You aren’t taking a boat; it’s too dangerous and will take too long.” Duncan was still holding Ellred though he was beginning to try and shake free.
“Then where are we going?”
“The Cliffs of Gent.” For a moment everything paused, even Vahn’s heart. The past few days provided him with combinations of words that should never have existed. This, the “Cliffs of Gent”, was another. It wasn’t logical; it was like saying they were taking a canoe to the moon. “You two are going to hike the Cliffs of Gent.”