We are back in London. Riding in carriages and trains is not particularly pleasant, when your head hurt, so Mackenzie is put directly to bed upon our arrival. Put she really doesn’t want to spend more time in bed. We start practicing again – nothing too stressing, mostly it’s just to regain strength and movability. And we practice defensive moves that does not involve moving the head too much. Mackenzie is getting loads better, but is still easily tired. No wonder – head injuries takes time!
Cassie and Henry spend all their time working on Dr Husk’s case. Some snags have turned up. Mostly because it seems that in doing what he did, he didn’t really break any mundane laws… And you can’t condemn someone for just being a despicable person – unfortunately.
Vincent sleeps in my bed every other night. I have decided to set boundaries. I have to get used to this sleeping alone or I will never be able to stand on my own two feet! Vincent seems very understanding. He says he totally gets what I am going through, and that he will give me space, if I need it. I almost wish he wouldn’t. I feel an urge to yell at somebody, to make a stand, to make this my own achievement. This is my space, my life! I can do it and back off! But I don’t have to fight him at all. He just says ‘It’s ok. I get it. We’ve all gone through something similar’. It’s confusing that I feel frustrated. Why do I want to yell at Vincent?
Callum is back! He looks healthy and tan and weatherbitten. And happy, most of all. I don’t know if he found what he was looking for in the north, but he seems determined now to do things that makes him happy. He has taken up music, and made me a song! It’s a wonderful song, and I love it! He really gets me somehow. He also made one about seagulls. That one I didn’t really get. It was very abstract.
Mrs M has summoned us! She sent her butler AND a coach to fetch us and no dawdling! I have never seen her so upset before. She paces and wrings her hands and is not in control of herself. It scares me a bit. If there is one thing I could count on, it was that Mrs M was steady as a rock! She is very worried about Niall and his family. He has been travelling abroad with his … wife (I guess?), Caroline, and their little daughter, Diana. I don’t know how old Diana is, but she must be very little. Niall has written home faithfully to Mrs M and all has been well. But now she haven’t heard from him in over a month and she is afraid something might have happened to them. He was last heard from en route to Media, where they wanted to seek out some mysterious valley, so he is probably there. She is holding back a postal boat to Media, so we can go immidiately. We rush home to pack. Cassie and Henry obviously can’t come with us just now, and Alejandros is journeying – still looking to recreate the beautiful music he heard in the underworld – so we must leave him behind as well. Mackenzie helps me pack – and she discreetly asks me to pack her batons, as Callum doesn’t want her fighting on this trip. On the other hand Callum discreetly asks me to pack the fighting helmet for Mackenzie, should fighting actually occur.
The sailors are impatiently waiting for us in the harbour. There is a favorable breeze the captain wants to catch. And we do catch it. We blow over to Media in record time. Only a few days, when it would normally take a week. One evening over dinner Callum and Mackenzie nods to eachother, and Callum begins. He says that there is something we should all know, but that should not go further than our little group. He talks about Mackenzies headinjury, about the things she has forgotten, and that he expects it to blow over eventually. I smile encouragingly at her, but she is looking at her hands in her lap. She then blurts out: ‘Alsowe’vemarried’. I sigh relieved ‘Does this mean I don’t have to keep it a secret anymore?’. ‘It’s still a secret beyond this group’ Callum says, and I nod in understanding. The others burst out with congratulations. Everybody are happy, and not very surprised – only that they have managed to keep it secret for 6 months. Mackenzie asks us not to say anything to Niall about it, since he will likely tell Mrs M, and Mackenzie is not ready to say anything to her yet. And could be please not tell Cassie or Henry, before Mackenzie has had a chance to say it herself. We all swear secrecy.
We come ashore in the very picturesque port of Paraktia Poli. We seek out the harbourmaster and ask him about Niall and his family. He points us in the direction of the Hotel Royale, which they had booked rooms.
We approach Hotel Royale which lies on a promenade along side other fine hotels – none as fine as the Hotel Royale, though. It looks like a mansion – with a wide marble staircase leading to the gilded double doors manned by two uniformed servants. ‘They stayed here?’ I ask incredulously. Mackenzie nods ‘That’s what the harbourmaster said’. I blink ‘Mackenzie, is Niall very rich?’. Mackenzie shrugs ‘He didn’t used to be’, she says. ‘Is Caroline very rich?’ I ask, recalling the rundown manor we arrived at, when we saved Caroline from a gruesome fate orchestrated by her greedy uncle 3 years back. ‘Well, she is a countess’ Mackenzie says thoughtfully ‘And that uncle of hers might have hid more money than we expected’. ‘Come to think of it’ she continues ‘I did read in the paper that Busby-Falsingham had been transformed into a hotel’. ‘It must be a great succes’ I say with wonder. ‘It would certainly seem so…’ Mackenzie says. We enter the vestibule, and it look even grander inside. Fancy guests and uniformed staff pretty much ignores us, and sees only Mackenzie, who looks considerately more in place here than the rest of us. The consierge approaches Mackenzie with a very polite ‘How can we help you, marm?’. He confirms that Niall and his family were here for a couple of days about a month ago. He recalls them well – a pleasant couple with a darling little girl, who stole everyone’s hearts. He refers us (or refers Mackenzie, since he still ignored the rest of us) to the chef, whom Niall spent a good amount of time talking to. A servant shows us the way to the restaurent, where we are seated.
The chef arrives – all dressed in white – with a waiter on hand that serves us beer. I ask for cider, if possible, and the chef looks at me appreciatively. Apparently he personally makes a number of different ciders, and is gratified that someone specifically asks for it. I get a wonderful buckthorn cider that is to die for! Cider is certainly my favorite beverage, even if – as Mackenzie kindly reminds me – I can’t drink very much of it, as it has a dizzying affect on me. The chef tells us that he did indeed talk a while with Niall and his lovely family. They spoke in particular about the mysterious and secretive valley that rumors near and far speaks of. Apparently this Median valley is filled with animals indigenous to Nanga. Very odd! And clearly something that would intrigue Niall endlessly. The chef also tells us that Niall spoke to a number of rather shady characters, who seemed to know the way to the valley, and eventually Niall and his family left with them. The chef suggests we ask in the pubs around the harbour, as there is where Niall found these characters.
We struck out in the first pub. Callum thought he would gain the patrons’ trust by performing for them. It was open stage night, and it … might have gone better. Callum have certainly sounded better tha this night (his song to me still comes to mind), and I am afraid the patrons didn’t appreciate it very much, and didn’t feel likely to share anything with us. Once we had coerced Callum to leave his hiding place in the loo, we went on to a second pub. Here we had better luck. I played a wonderful new game called ‘dart’ which is throwing darts at a board. It was great fun! I didn’t really scrounge any knowledge, but I had a good time. Mackenzie and the others chatted with a few people. Someone told them about a furry elephantdeer with mouthantlers… Sounds really strange! Well, we learned that Niall and his party went by horseback, so we will look up the horsetradesmen tomorrow and see what we might learn there. We find a cheaper place to stay than the Hotel Royale. A place where people acknowledge our presence.
We find the horsetrader who sold horses to Niall. He suggests that riding will be much more sensible than travelling by any sort of waggon, as the roads we will travel by are ill suited for waggons. I am none too fond of riding, and only Callum seems to know the hang of it. Vincent and I share a horse, and Mackenzie rides pillion with Callum. Max rides with our gear. It is extremely uncomfortable! We get down and walk occasionally, and I would walk all the way if it didn’t slow us down. We slowly leave the coastal landscape and move inland into rocky and less hospitable surroundings.
Finally ahead, as we have been moving upwards for a while, we see a hut in the distance. As we get closer we see a lot of goats in the vicinity. An old woman comes out of the hut and invites us in. She serves a delightful goatcheese and bread for us, and tells us that Niall did come by here. She speaks at length about what a darling child Diana is, and I am really beginning to look forwards to meeting her! I do hope she is alright!
The old woman point us towards the heights. It seems like cliffs rising ahead. It looks like an ancient hefaist – the fiery mountains that Hefaistos was said to keep his forge in. Well, not this particular one, but one like it. When we reach a place where the cliffs get too steep to ride up, Callum, Vincent and I climb up to see what we can see. We reach the hefaist’s edge and look down into a vast green valley. It looks like a whole jungle has sprouted inside the dead hefaist. Mist obstucts the views a bit, but it looks very much like a mysterious and secretive valley to me! The walls are very steep, though, and there is no way to climb down into it. One can fall, however, if one is not careful… Since we left the coastal port Vincent have been wearing his fine coat – he does not like to be ignored by people, who think themselves better than him. And now I lean forward for a better look at the valley, and pepples roll under my feet and I stumble. I grab a hold of Vincent – or rather his coat, and we fall backward onto safe ground, Vincents’ sleeve in my hand. Vincent rolls a bit further down, and when he stands up again, the fine coats practically falls of him in seperate pieces. I stare at him horrified ‘I am so sorry, Vincent!’ I say ‘I am so so sorry!’. Vincent makes a face ‘No worries’ he says ‘I should not have worn this now. A shame. I really liked it’. I pick up the pieces ‘Maybe… maybe I can fix it…’. Vincent smiles at me wryly ‘I wouldn’t bother. It is just a coat. Luckily nothing happened to us’.
We return to the others – Max has set up his transportable samovar, and he and Mackenzie are sitting on a picnic blanket drinking tea, looking like they merely on a trip of leisure. It looks great! What a practical packer Max is! What one really needs after such a day is in deed a cuppa tea! After tea we move a bit further on. There must be an entrance to the valley somehow. No one could have climbed down those steep sides. Especially not with a cradling baby. True enough: a few hours later we discover traces of a camp. There is traces of a campfire and several shelters, and since it is time to set up camp for the night, we adopt the one already made for us. We eat, drink more tea, and Callum tells us stories, and I look up into the stary sky that seems to hold even more stars than usual. So clean is the air, so crisp the night.
We wake early. The horses are restless, and when we pay attention, we hear it too: other horses, whinying far away. We pack up and follow the sound, and soon stand in front of a natural tunnel of sorts that lead into the valley. A wave of heat roll over us as we enter the valley proper. It is much warmer here! And much more humid. It is lush and green here in stark contrast to the brown and sunburnt landscape outside the valley. Two horses are running around in the high green grass. They look shaggy and unkept, but still have bridles on. Obviously they have been left behind. I change into my tartan and high boots, which are much more comfortable and sensible than my dress. Callum and the others built a cairn and leave a message in it that we are here and are proceeding in to the jungle beyond. The green is not as much grass as ferns, and they are quite high! We leave the horses, and pack what we can carry – which in my case is everything I packed from home. We work our way in and I am glad that I followed the old packing advise of Nialls: ‘pack a machete’.
We come upon a campsite – abandoned and detroyed – apparently by two men, who are searching through the debris. They look up as we approach and grab their weapons. “We are the Median freedom fighter support group of the Lydian freedom fight” they cry and rush towards us. As I throw off my pack and get a better hold on the machete I just have time to think ‘they really need a better name’.
They also need to learn strategy… Callum grabs one of them, and the other one fires his pistol – and hits his friend. This upsets him so much that I without any trouble can take the pistol from him. They start babbling about their hostages and how we will be sorry, when their very large group of companions discover we have hurt them. They are being silly. We haven’t hurt them. They hurt themselves. But we ask about their hostages and it sounds very much like it is Cassie and Henry, so we make them take us to their camp outside the hefaist. Though how Cassie and Henry could get here so fast is beyond me!
It feels silly backtracking, when we are on a rescue mission, but we cannot let Cassie and Henry be held hostages by some silly revolutionaries. We reach the camp after a few hours. Vincent sneak closer to see if he can found out if they are there and where they are kept. He comes back with news that they are in deed in the camp – and seems to look well – and that there are at least a hundred people in the camp. Our captured freedom fighters weren’t kidding. We tie up our hostages. Callum and Mackenzie will go into the camp to negociate the release of Cassie and Henry, while Max and Vincent and I will stay in view of the camp, so we can help, if they get in trouble. So we wait. And wait. Fortunately our help is unnecessary – after a while Mackenzie and Callum returns with Cassie and Henry. Unharmed. They managed to trade the return of our friends, maps and letters of Nialls plus a lot of spelunking equipment for the promise of publicing their revolutionary agendas. Seems like a bargain much in our favor! We release our two prisoners and send them home, while we peruse Niall’s maps. There is a cavesystem inside the hefaist, and everything suggests that there was where Niall and his company was going. It is so good to see Henry and Cassie again! We all hug, and the group is whole again. Henry and Cassie tells us that they travelled here by zeppelin! It sounds absolutely gastly to be so high up in the air (especially with Cassie’s fear of heights), but they both sound quite excited about it. Mackenzie takes Cassie aside. I guess it is to tell her about the marriage, and I am afraid Cassie’s reaction is exactly as Mackenzie feared and hoped: she is excited about the marriage, but really angry and dissapointed she was not told about it. I am guessing here – I am not close enough to hear what was being said. But I can hear Cassie yelling ‘You did WHAT?!’ and then a lot of gesturing, and then a hug and then ‘What?! Six months ago?!!’ and then some more angry gesturing. For some reason Henry isn’t told what is going on, so I guess we still have to keep it a secret.
We return to the hefaist and travel deep, deep into the greenery. Everything here seems to be of giant size: the ferns, the trees, even the insects. Henry says that these trees ought to have died out centuries ago. He says he has seen petrified versions of the leaves, but never real ones. I take the lead. I have brought my machete with me (as Niall said one always should) and hack a way for us into the jungle. Eventually I see a path parallel to the one we are using, so we change to that one. Much less work for me, and much more likely to bring us to Niall. It is warm here. Warm and moist. A bit like the jungle in Nanga, in fact. Niall must have felt right at home here.
We hear a loud buzz coming closer. It sounds like mosquitoes, just much louder. And then we see them: it IS mosquitoes! But the size of my head! They buzz around us and we try to wave them away. Max goes into hiding under a curious hat with a giant mosquitonet. He is completely covered. I want a hat like that! I feel a piercing pain in my left shoulder! I turn my head and one of the giant mosquitoes have plunged a stinger like a knifeblade into my shoulder. I hear a slurp as it starts sucking blood. If I do not get rid of it, it will suck me dry in minutes! I cannot reach it, so I throw myself down on the ground, squashing it. The stinger seems to plunge a bit further into my shoulder as I do so, and it hurts terribly, but the monter is dead. I get up, and Mackenzie helps pulling the thing out of me. Another mosquito comes at us and we slap at it. Then our eyes met, and Mackenzie nods and when it comes back at us we make a high five smashing the creature between our hands. It is dead. The rest of the mosquitoes seem to give up, and I am the only person stung. Callum cleans my wound, and Henry finds moss soaked in water so I can wash the blood off. The sting swells and itches like crazy.
After a few more hours we find the cave opening that is indicated on Niall’s map. The sky is getting dark and we are all tired, so we decide to set up camp. I try to lean against the cliff to cool the sting, but the rock isn’t cool at all. It seems to emanate heat. They are warmer than the air and doesn’t help at all with the itch! Henry tells me to stop scratching it. Vincent tells me to stop scratching it. Callum tells me to stop scratching it, and grabs my hand. ‘See?’ he says ‘ You are all bloody again. It’ll get infected. Seriously! Don’t scratch!’. I really try not to… He cleans it again, and gives me some laudanum to calm me, but it doesn’t work, so he gives me some more, and I fall asleep.
I wake at dawn to Max’s screams. My head is a bit foggy, but I scramble out of the tent with the others. As I get to my feet I see Max fighting off a giant centipede that has latched on to his arm. It is about a meter in length. We get it off him and it scuttles into the greenery. Henry is extremely worried, as centipedes can be very poisonous. Apparently the creature wandered into our camp during Callum’s watch, where it curled up around the campfire. As he found it harmless, he let it be, and when Vincent took over after him, he let it be also. It was less harmless, when Max started making coffee on the samovar, and it scuttled over to this new heat source and eventually bit him! Henry starts yelling at Callum and Vincent. Centipedes are extremely dangerous, he says, and should by no means be allowed to camp with us. I find it rather callous too, to allow a creature of that size into our camp – especially with our former experiences with the wildlife here. I understand Callums unwillingness to kill an animal that has posed no direct danger, but had it been me I would at least have tried to remove it from the camp. After a bit of yelling Mackenzie asks us to pipe down as her head hurts, and that puts and end to the discussion. Max is tended to – Callum sucks as much poison as he can out of the wound – and we let him rest a bit, while we pack up camp and get ready. Mackenzie and Cassie walk off to bathe, and are discussing something with some agitation when they return. They call Henry over to referee. Cassie looks livid and throw some papers at Henry, while she hisses something. Mackenzie shouts ‘CHEAT? I DON’T CHEAT, BUT DO YOU KNOW WHO DOES? SHE DOES!’. She pokes Cassie in the chest, hard enough to push her backwards a bit. ‘C. H. E. A. T’. And Cassie yells back ‘OH! NO! YOU HAVE SOME NERVE, MACKENZIE! YOU CHEAT! YOU! STOP IT!’ I have never seen Cassie loose her temper like that. She throws herself at Mackenzie and they fall into a pool of mud, rolling around, scratching and pulling hair. I am terrified. What is going on? How can they get so angry at eachother? I grab Vincent’s arm for comfort, while Henry yells at the two, calling them a pair of guttersnipes, telling them that they obviously can’t handle that list. He takes the papers that Cassie threw at him and jams them into his pocket. I am guessing it is their old bucket list of things they’ve dared eachother to do since they were kids. Cassie starts giggling and Mackenzie says something and they hug, and then Mackenzie puts some mud down Cassies back…
Callum walks up to pull them apart, and Mackenzie seems completely calm. I am shaking with distress. These are our leaders! These two woman lead us, and they fight like children! Warm tears roll down my cheeks. Cassie looks up and sees me crying. She runs to me and hugs me tight. ‘I’m ok’ she says ‘It’s ok. We are good friends again. I lost my temper and it was stupid. It happens with Mackenzie. She can be SO annoying! But we are never really angry with eachother. Not really. Don’t be sad, Grace’. Vincent pats me awkwardly on the back, and Mackenzie comes over too. ‘We’re not really angry’ she says ‘It passes quickly’. ‘But you were yelling’ I hiccup ‘You said really mean things to eachother! I would be so sad if someone yelled at me like that’. Cassie strokes my hair in a comforting manner ‘You are right. It was a stupid thing to do. I lost control’ She looks really contrite. ‘It’s just that Mackenzie and I can get really cross at eachother, but we don’t really mean it. Not deep down. Don’t be sad, Grace, we are alright. But it was stupid. Sorry, Mackenzie’ she says and looks at Mackenzie, then turns to Henry ‘And sorry, Henry’.
‘Don’t apologize, Cassie’ Mackenzie says ‘We were two people in this. And Grace, this has happened before loads of times, and we always make up. ALWAYS! It’s just the first time you’ve seen it’. ‘Well, now wasn’t really a good time’ I say, my face blushing. ‘Niall and his family is in danger. And you two yell at eachother over som old list that was supposed to be fun. And you are our leaders! It makes me feel very uncomfortable!’ Cassie looks sorrier than ever. ‘I am so sorry, Grace. You are right. I certainly wasn’t thinking. I just got so mad. But it’s no excuse’. I sniffle ‘Should we find another leader, or can you behave now?’ I ask ‘We wouldn’t want you to start fighting once we are in the caves’. I am still very uncomfortable with all this. ‘But that is why we did this now’ Mackenzie says, an edge to her voice ‘To get it over with’. Mackenzie looks at Cassie, and looks a little bit sorry. I look at Callum standing behind Mackenzie. He looks every bit a leader, and I suggest that he might take over temporarily, if they are not ready. ‘We are all good now’ Cassie ensures me ‘I promise. But if you all think it might be better for Callum to take over… It might be best…’
‘Was that really necessary, Grace?’ Mackenzie says haughtily ‘First of all Callum isn’t normally part of this group. Second of all Cassie and I are both human, and we make mistakes. What you just witnessed was not a mistake. We are sorry you were hurt by it, but as you see, neither Cassie nor I are angry anymore’. She sounds a bit angry. I am a bit hurt by her words. ‘What you did was not a mistake? Fighting with eachother while we are in enemy country and on a rescue mission to save your brother and his family was not a mistake?’ I am baffled that she would say that. I frown ‘But I am glad that you are no longer angry…’. Cassie grabs my shoulders and smile at me ‘Well, it certainly wasn’t the right time for it. But what Mackenzie means, is that sometimes we just get really upset with one another, and we argue, and it… feels better afterwards. And sure, I make mistakes, and I can’t guarantee I won’t make more in the future. But I will sure try!’ I give her half a smile ‘I never expected you to be perfect. None of us are’ I cast a glance at Callum, who sure do look perfect ‘I just hoped that you as leaders would be better at picking the time and place for such a showdown’. ‘Well, under the circumstances I assessed that this was the right time for it’ Mackenzie says with some authority ‘For both Cassie and me to get this out of our systems. Especially since what we might face in the days to come. You don’t agree and I am sorry you got so upset by it, but there were reasons, and it was in no way random’ She looks determined and just a little bit flushed. I feel confused at the reasoning and honestly a little bit dissapointed in my friends. I shake my head at her ‘No, I don’t agree. To fight over some old list you made as children did not seem urgent to me. But if it helps rolling around in the mud and yelling at eachother, so be it’. And I leave it at that. Humans are strange!
The mood in the camp is a bit subdued after that. Everybody are suddenly very polite and friendly to eachother. Mackenzie tells Henry that she and Callum got married, so now everybody in our group knows. Vincent and I goes to look at the cave entrance. The cliffs are warm to the touch. Those of us that feel religious make small sacrifices to our gods before entering the cave. I have no possessions on me that I don’t need, so I give Artemis drops of my blood. It feels welcomed, and I am more optimistic as we enter the caves.Time in the caves moves slowly. Or fast. I am not sure. I have no sense of how long we have been moving in the darkness. There is a strange sort of algae on the wall that light up when touched. We find out the hard way not to touch it with bare skin, as it seems to be corrosive. A bit up ahead we see a heap of light. A human figure lies under a layer of algaes. Fortunately it is not Niall or Caroline. Cassie puts on gloves and examine the body as far as possible. Whoever it was, was stabbed multible times. This does not bode well.
A bit further on the caves split into two. Callum finds tracks that lead into one of the tunnels. It seems a larger group have moved down this passageway and a smaller group have followed. I don’t know how the others can see this. It looks like a passageway just like the other to me. We continue down the tunnel. Suddenly the tunnel ends in a vertical drop. It seems the only way onwards is down. Good thing we got loads of rope from the revolutionaries! I volunteer to go first down. There is old rope hanging in metal hooks, but the rope looks old and frayed. The hooks seem to hold well enough, though, so we reuse them. I repel down and reach a second hook. I attack a second rope to the hook and proceeds downwards another 30 meters. Vincent climbs after me. 60 meters down there is another hook, and Vincent climbs back up after more rope. When he is back, we attach the new rope to yet another hook and I continue down. Suddenly the wall stops and I am swinging in free air. I can see the bottom of the cave below us. It is glittering and moving slightly. It is water. When I reach the end of the rope (90 meters down) there is still about 3-4 meters to the water. Vincent climbs up to tell the others, who are attaching more rope to metal hooks and are climbing down slowly. I climb up to a bit of old rope hanging in a hook, and I climb down with it and tie it too the end of my rope. The knot seems pretty solid, but the old rope is slippery and I drop into the water. I grab the rope before a slight current drags me away. Vincent responds to my calls and help me out of the water. Interestingly it is not cold as I would have expected it to be.
Max has made it down to the drop and lights a shining light. We are in a great big cave with a wall to wall lake in the bottom. Dark shadows seem to move in the water and Vincent and I climb up a bit more. It seems impossible for anyone to travel here, let alone with a small child. Can Niall and his family really have come this way? It seems very reckless. Callum sounds my doubts and yell down ‘Should we go back? This looks like a dead end’. Max joins us at the bottom. He can swim, as Vincent and I cannot, and swims around a bit in the lake to check it out. The big shadows are merely fish that seems harmless, and he finds a way out of the cave: at one end a river slowly flows out. Here there are rope to hold on to and a dry walkway. So not a dead end apparently. I climb back up a bit to relay this news. Henry comes down, but there seems to be some holdup with Cassie. Her fear of heights have kicked in, and she is reluctant to climb down. I think of the one thing that might get her moving, so I call up ‘Cassie, please come! I need you!’ and lo and behold: mere minutes later she is by my side. She is undaunted by the lake and drop in to swim around. I need to be helped to dry land. Oneads really aren’t natural swimmers!
We climb along the river and finally find a flat surface with the remnants of a campfire. We take a short break. Who knows for how long we have been climbing? All the time climbing up and down ropes have left me aching a bit. The only upside is that I am surrounded by rock, and I quickly feel better after a little rest. Our way onwards is through a very low tunnel, which we have to climb through on hands and knees. Mackenzie and Max climb in first, and I think too late that Mackenzie really ought to wear her helmet here. Further in there are crude paintings on the walls. Hunting scenes, but wrongish, somehow. There is nothing Artemis in this. There are pictures of small dark figures hunting animals, and further on huntings scenes of the same small figures hunting taller, lighter human figures… And the pictures of celebrations, bonfires and the tall humans over the fire. Did cannibals make this pictures? How horrid!
I sense it before the others: the trembling of the rock around us. Drums resonate in the rock, and the rock doesn’t like it. I feel it as strongly as if the rock had spoken to me in words: the people who beat the drums are evil. And the rock doesn’t like them at all! I say so to the others. Callum looks at me strangely. ‘The rock speaks to you?’ he asks. ‘Well, not in so many words’ I say ‘I can feel it’. I put a hand against the rock, and it shudders. ‘The drummers are bad’ I say. Callum frowns ‘But how can rock communicate? It’s not alive’. I feel it like a punch in the gut. Rock may not seem alive to humans. I feel the rock is alive, like a fields of wheat is alive. Rock is just slower, and may seem dead to those without the patience to see it. But it feels alive to me. ‘Well, I AM an onead’ I say, and adds a ‘DUH!’ in my head. Callum nods and looses interest. ‘Will you give me that thing you know, that you put in your backpack for me?’ he asks, and I dig out Mackenzie’s helmet. She puts it on with a sheepish look, and I stiffle a giggle. Why is it that safety gear always look a bit silly? And I think about my own armor – my beautiful stony skin that comes when I hold things titanic. My thoughts go the shard of scull I still carry in my pocket. I won’t use it until I need to. Titanic magic is dangerous, and I am not stupid. Duh!
Callum dictates the order we are to move on in. The tunnel is narrow and the ceiling low, so we can only move forth one and one. Mackenzie and I are short enough to walk bend over, while the tall men are almost on all fours. Mackenzie is in front, with Vincent – who can see in the dark – right behind her. Then follows Henry and Max with his light and Callum, and I bring up the rear to cover our backs. ‘We have to keep you safe’ Callum says ‘As you can speak to the rock’. ‘I can’t really’ I explain ‘It’s not as if it talks really, I can only feel what it feels, it’s not like words’, but Callum hold up his hand. He is not interested in how it works. ‘I only thought you’d like to know, since you are a xenobiologist’ I say grouchingly, but he shushes me and we move on down the tunnel. Not long after the rock shudders differently: someone is behind us now. I say so. Vincent sounds a bit panicky, when he says ‘How can they be behind us? There were no sidetunnels or anything’. I shrug ‘I dunno. I just know that whatever evil creatures are ahead, they are now also after us’. ‘No dawdling’ Callum says ‘Move on’. And we move on. Finally there is an eerie light up ahead, and we crowd around an opening. Mackenzie looks back at us ‘There is a giant slug right over the opening’ she says quietly ‘As in a humungus giant slug’. I can hear the sound of feet on stone behind us. ‘We can’t stay’ I say ‘They are running now’. We burst into the cave ahead. It is a perfect dome – a round cave with eight exits, including the one we came out of. Glowing moss is on every surface and gives off that eerie light. Our eyes are all drawn to the enormous slug over the exit. It is a couple of meters long, but otherwise just like a slug. It is munching on the moss. ‘Maybe it is harmless and only eats moss’ someone suggests. Mackenzie snorts ‘Every thing else we’ve come across the last couple of days have been dangerous. I think it is a safe bet that this one is too’. I agree wholeheartedly. Now we can all hear the running footsteps. ‘Choose an exit’ Callum says to Mackenzie, and she runs towards one and stops at the mouth of it to look back. Vincent runs in to stand right behind her. The tunnel is so narrow and low that the others block it up as they run in and stop just beyond. ‘Get it!’ I yell. There is no room for me in the tunnel. I turn around to face what is coming, just as Mackenzie says ‘We’ve got company’. Finally the others get a move on. Max is in front with his light, as far as I can tell. Mackenzie and I face the newcomers: They are very odd looking! They are shorter than I am by a head, their skin is black like obsidian and they are completly naked. They have no genitals and they look completely the same. Their eyes are large and white, almost glowing. When they open theirs mouths, they open wide and an absurd amount of tiny sharp teeth are visible. They carry spears and knives. They hiss and growl something at the slug, and it moves towards us, too fast. ‘Go go go!’ Mackenzie yells, and finally we can get into the tunnel. Mackenzie and I bring up the rear, looking over our shoulders at our pursuers. Five of the humanoids run into our tunnel followed by the slug that almost fill it up. There is no way to tell if there are more of the creatures behind it.
The humanoids are short enough to run in the tunnel without bowing their head, but fortunately they are not very fast. We stay ahead of them for a long time. When they are getting too close for comfort I yell ‘Fight’ and I stop and draw my baton. Mackenzie stops beside me, and draws her weapons too. Then Max yells ‘Look out’ and throws a sphere of some sort that stops rolling about a meter in front of Mackenzie and me. We back up quickly. Mackenzie yells ‘Did you just throw a bomb right in front of us, Max?!’ She is not pleased. ‘No, no’ Max says almost chuckling ‘When touched it sprouts sticky ropes in a radius of about 5 meters’. As Mackenzie and I are still only 4 meters from it, we keep backing up, which is hard when the others are moving so slowly. Finally we are out of its reach, when the humanoids reach it. The first one runs past it, but the second one hits it with his foot and kicks it towards us. The thing sprouts long, curling ropes everywhere. Mackenzie and I duck, but yells behind us indicate that some of the others were hit. So is four of our five pursuers. The one who got free charges with his spear, but I knock it out of its hand and break it against the tunnel wall. I yell at it to scare it away, but it merely hisses back at me. Mackenzie charge the others. The one I disarmed attacks me and bites me in the thigh. And that is some bite, when a mouth opens so wide and has so many teeth! It hurts like almost nothing I have felt before! Its jaws are locked on my leg and I hit it repeatedly over its head until it finally lets go. Blood runs down my leg, but I cannot rest. The slug is coming closer. Mackenzie is fighting hard against the humanoids. Henry has freed one arm (he is almost completely wrapped up in Max’s ropes), and throws a handful of salt on the path in front of the slug. It stops just before it reaches it, and goes no further. The humanoids attack Mackenzie, but she ducks away and I take out my machete to kill the slug. My machete almost bounces off its tough hide. I try to jab at its head, but it couldn’t care less about my feeble attempts. The slug starts to move up the wall away from the salt. Mackenzie kicks one of the humanoids at it, and it falls under the slug and is crunched, as it moves over it. I feel Callums warm hands on my shoulders ‘Back up, Grace’ he says, and we back up. We almost pass Henry, who is still tied up, and we cut off the ropes frantically. Max makes wonderful gadgets, but he can’t throw worth a damn! Vincent returns from scouting ahead. ‘There is a slide of sorts up ahead’ he says ‘Let’s move’. At the end of the tunnel there really is a slide. It’s made of solid rock, not quite smooth, but effective enough. We slide down it, hoping that we end up somewhere nice. 150 meters of slide and we end up on a small landing. I am not sure if it counts as ‘nice’.
We are in a gigantic cave. All around there is glowing moss. We can look into a valley of moss and small black huts and larger huts and a very large building that looks like a Zeus temple would, if Zeus was evil. Every building is made of stone and black as night. Henry scatters some more salt – apparently it is the magical Götaland salt that he carries in bulk – at the end of the slide to prevent the slug from following us. ‘Let me take a look at your leg’ Callum says to me, and he staunches the bloodflow with a bandage. It still hurts like anything, but at least I am no longer bleeding. ‘Can you walk?’ he asks and I nod. The moss around us is a couple of meters tall. It is the same glowing and slightly acid moss as we have seen everywhere. Everybody wrap up, so no skin is exposed. I put my hand in my pocket and pry the piece of skull out of its pouch. I close my hand around it and feel its power flow through me. ‘Stone skin’ I think, and I can feel my skin tingle from my scalp to my toes. My skin hardens. Not in a heavy, solid way, but like my whole body is covered in tough, smooth armor. I can still move with ease. It not exactly like in the arena, but similar. I feel strong and powerful. I smile at Vincent and he absentmindedly smile back. The light is apparently too low for him to notice my beautiful skin. ‘Who takes lead?’ Callum asks and I say ‘I do’. So I walk first into the moss that rises over my head. It can’t harm me. I am invulnerable.
It’s more like sliding through the moss than walking through it. Every once in a while Vincent jump up to look above it and make sure we are still walking in the right direction. The moss becomes shorter and shorter, and soon we can walk and see – and be seen – clearly. The light is low – nothing but the luminescent moss to light the place up. The village seems empty. There is not a soul in sight (presuming these creatures have souls). We walk through the village towards the temple. The houses are funny: there are no doors or windows, just the smooth black surface. I touch a surface as we pass it, and a strange thing happens: an opening appears! It grows larger and larger and within the building a dozen pairs of large white eyes stare back at us. They hiss at us, and we start running as fast as we can! Callum and Vincent and I race ahead, and when we look over our shoulders we see that the others have fallen back. So we spin around and head back to find them surrounded by the humanoids. Henry stands in the center and has started chanting something. It sound a bit like an atlanthean lullaby, but it scares the humanoids, who back away falling over their own feet in their hurry. This time we run together and for a short while no one follows us. We almost run into a couple of the creatures, but manage to skirt around them unseen. The houses near the temple are larger and have only three walls. They are full of offerings, and we duck into one to catch our breath and make a plan of sorts. The inside walls are covered with murals. It shows how our gods chase the titan spawn and kill and bind them – but from the titan’s view. We also see scenes of celebrating and offerings of animals and humans made to the titan gods. We decide that these people have abducted Niall and his family in order to sacrifice them to their gods – if they haven’t already! I take off towards the temple where they must be kept, and the others follow.
We almost run into a procession of them, but stop just in time not to be seen. Some of them are banging on drums of a sort, some carry large pieces of meat between them. We gag, when we see the unmistakable shape of a human, that turns out not to be Niall or Caroline, but some other unfortunate wretch. They carry something that looks like a hairy elephant-leg of unbelievable size. A wall in the temple opens before them, and we sneak in behind them, before it closes again behind us.
It is even darker in here. The temple is lit solely by several large pits of lava in the floor. Over some of the pits there are metal grids, that reminds me of barbecue pits – which I realize it probably is… Over the pit furthest from us a cage hang from a stalactite in the ceiling. Max gasps, and whispers ‘I can see Niall! He’s holding a bundle. It must be the baby! I can’t see Caroline’. The cage is 10-12 meters up. There is no chain and there seems to be no way to lower it. How these creatures got him up there is a mystery! There are murals on these walls as well. As our eyes get used to the dark we can see them. They tell a story very like our genesis, only in reverse: Our gods are portrayed as evil and unfaithful children rebelling against their kind father, Thanos. They slay him and forms our world from his flesh and bones. As his last dying deed he makes small black creatures – almost like maggots – from his decaying flesh. Maggots that grow into these creatures around us.
Every once in a while a wall open and let in more people. We realize there will only be more of them the longer we wait. There are already about 30-40 of them in here. Most of them are unarmed, but they all have teeth and I know better than most that that is plenty! Many of the priests (?) keeps banging a rythm. Suddenly in between booms we hear the cock of a rifle. Max’s sharp eyes can see Caroline further in behind some collumns, and hasten to stop her firing. She looks terrible. She must have been through hell – her baby stolen and Niall taken prisoner and being here all alone. But now we are here to help! She tells us that the creatures can manipulate stone (which we’ve already seen) and that they somehow can make the stalactite lower or raise up the cage. The cage is locked and if we can only break the lock (which she was planning to do by shooting at it), and get a rope up to Niall, so he can climb down, then all we have to do is run. And, well, probably fight a bit too. Caroline says there is a boat by the underground river that we can escape by, even if it can carry only a few people. So we make a plan: Vincent will distract the creatures, and I will open a door (I demonstrate on a wall that I can. It’s pretty easy: I touch the wall and think ‘open’ and it opens. It makes my skin tingle like crazy), and he will draw them out after him. Meanwhile Mackenzie, who is our best marksman, will shoot at the lock, and Max will use one of his gadgets to get a rope up to Niall. And then we run to the underground river.
It sort of works… Vincent and I sneak to the opposite side of the temple. Max has given Vincent the other of his rope bombs to throw after his pursuers. Vincent starts yelling and throwing stones at them, and I put a hand to the wall. And nothing happens. My scalp prickles like anything, but the door does not appear. I look back at Vincent in horror, as he comes running at me expecting the door to be open. Then the door does open, but not because me – by someone outside! We face yet another procession. Vincent jumps in their faces, yelling, and they scatter back, and he starts running head over heels. He’s taking a long run through the village, and aim to loose his pursuers and head back to the river. Fortunately he is a fast runner, and they are not. The creatures from the procession outside and many of the creatures from inside the temple, follow him. The priests stay behind and keep beating their rythm.
With a single shot Mackenzie breaks the lock. Max shoots his grablinghook at the cage and it lands neatly on the door. The priests starts beating a new rythm, more urgent, eviler somehow, and the lava in the biggest pit starts to bubble and something very large slowly emerges from it! I run to the priests to try and stop them, but they are totally indifferent to my attacks – they just keep beating their drums. While we fight the creatures, Niall manages to lower himself from the cage, craddling the baby in his arms. He falls too fast, unable to get a good hold on the rope with only one injured arm. Callum stand ready to stop his fall, and they both tumble to the ground. The baby stays safe in Niall’s embrace. We take off out of the only opening in the room, and race towards the river. Callum is half carrying Niall, and Caroline takes the baby. Vincent joins us at high speed from the side. The whole place is throbbing viciousness. The titan rising from the lava growls and makes the whole place tremble. I feel nauseated by the amount of evil around us. Even the slugs seem to flee the place.
We reach the river, where a bunch of little boats lie on the shore. All but one are smashed to pieces – probably by Caroline, who at the time only needed the one boat to get out. I think that now is not the time to be made of stone, so I put the titan scull piece back in its pouch. I feel light, and the nausea evaporates. As powerful as the scull made me feel, it also made me feel a little ill. I hadn’t noticed, until now that I am no longer under its’ influence. Caroline climbs into the boat with the baby, and Callum helps Niall in, and I climb in after them. Callum leaves his pack behind, while Mackenzie puts her backpack with her and Henry’s things in the boat as well. Everyone not in the boat takes a good hold on the sides of it, and I take a good hold on Vincent (who like me cannot swim – but at least do not sink like I do). Then we push into the water, and let the current grab us. Only now the titan spawn has reached the river, but their spears cannot reach us, and without boats they can’t catch up with us.
It’s a bit of a bumpy ride… The current changes speed and is quite fast, when the tunnel is narrow. Large fish in the water brush against the others, but do not harm them. Finally we clear the tunnel and emerge into a cool and grey daylight – we are on the outside of the hefaist, and it is much colder here. We get out of the water, and onto dry land. We look a mess. Niall looks very ill. He is almost gaunt. He has cuts and bruises, and broken ribs and has burns on his back. He has lain on the floor of the cage directly over the lava, protecting the baby with his body. Callum does what he can for him, while the others change into dry clothes. As Mackenzie removes her leather jerkin, she winces and I ask if she is ok. Underneath her shirt is soaked in blood! One of the titan spawn pierced her armour and everything with an obsidian knife. Callum almost swoons at the sight of her wound. As cool as he is when others are wounded, he certainly has no stomach for it, when Mackenzie is. But he is cool enough to patch her up a bit. We decide to stay here for a couple of hours, resting and gathering strength. Then we will move on for a couple of hours before we camp for the night. Max cooks up some tea. When he brings me a cup, he exclaims ‘Blimey, Grace! What happened to you?!’ I frown. ‘Oh, I got bit in the thigh by one of the spawn people. It’ll be alright. It just hurts a bit’. ‘No’, he says ‘Your hair! Your hair is grey!’ I grab a lock and pull it in front of my eyes. My former dark hair IS grey! Granite grey. It’s pretty. Callum looks at it too – a strange look in his eyes ‘I have heard of people, who’s hair have gone white after a shock’ he says slowly ‘Did you get a shock in the caves?’. I shrug ‘Not particularly’. Vincent touches my hair ‘It’s not like old people’s hair. It’s not brittle or thin. But then it shouldn’t be, since you are just a child’. ‘Hey!’ I say angrily ‘I am not a child!’. ‘You said, you were only a child by onead measure’ he counters. ‘Pfft!’ I say, and point at my boobs ‘Do I look like a child to you?! I am SO not a child!’. Do I see the flicker of amusement in his eyes? How infuriating! ‘I know you have a woman’s body, Grace’ he says ‘But you are an onead child’. ‘Am not!’ I cry ‘I am just a YOUNG onead. Not a child! Really!’. He puts up a hand to fend of my anger ‘Maybe onead age quickly?’ he asks ‘Maybe this is normal for an onead?’. My anger defuses, and I shrug again ‘I don’t know. I don’t know a lot of things about oneads or how they age. The ones I saw in Straithclyde had all sorts of hair. Those that had hair at all’. I bite my lip. Why in deed is my hair grey? I remember the prickling in my scalp, when I took the piece of scull in my hand. Did the piece of titan turn my hair grey? I can find no other explanation. Part of me wants to tell the others of the piece of scull, but most of me resists. If I tell them, they will take it from me, and I will not be allowed to use it anymore. But how else can I access my onead powers? The only time I have made stone skin without touching anything titan, was when Mrs M examined me at the research fascility. And then I was within reach of the Apple of Strife. I want to keep the titan scull. I want to keep my access to my powers. How else can I be me? The true me?
After a few hours we move on. Mackenzie spends most of her time tending to her family. Caroline seems alright, albeit tired, and Niall is just a mess. Diana, the baby, is a little underfed, but seems quite alright, and seems very happy on Mackenzie’s arm. My leg seems to hurt more after the rest than before. Callum walks beside me, and also looks tired. He puts his arm around me, and I put mine around him to hold him up, but soon it is the other way round. My leg seems weaker and weaker, and finally Callum just looks at me matter of factly, and slings me over his shoulder, like I weigh nothing. It’s not very dignified, but at least I got off that dratted leg.
Just as the sun reaches the horizon, and we start talking about making camp, we hear voices nearby. Half a dozen revolutionaries appear around a corner, and draw weapons at the sight of us. But when they recognize us, they are all smiles and open arms. They help us to their camp. We are fed and washed and our wounds taken care of, and as I lay down on a camp bed it is like I haven’t slept for days. All thoughts of my leg, my hair, the titan spawn, everything that has happened that last couple of days, escape my mind and I fall into blissful sleep.
While in the camp Caroline tells us what happened before we showed up: they had camped in the hefaist, and in the dead of night Diana was abducted and taken into the caves. They followed, but was attacked on the way. Their guide was wounded, and told them to leave him behind, while they hurried on. He was the body we found in the tunnels, all covered in moss. They had followed the titan spawn into the cave with the lake at the bottom and swum after them, and camped on the other side. There they had been attacked – by titan spawn who simply came out of the walls. That is how they got behind us: they could move through the stone like it was nothing. I do realize that these titan spawn creatures have similar abilities to oneads – but we are nothing like eachother! The titan spawn managed to capture Niall, but Caroline got away and hid. The titan spawn had ignored the rifles in the camp, so Caroline brought them with her and managed to find the village and prepare the escape before we showed up. They had been there for weeks, and I am full of admiration by how well she managed to keep her head cool. I guess mothers do have a sort of magic to them when their children are in danger.
We stay at the camp a couple of days. I am still sore, but feel loads better. Mackenzie looks better too, and Niall somewhat. It will take a while for him to be really well again, I fear. Callum works day and night, until we point out that he is in fact not the only doctor here (there is a really pleasant woman here, who is also a very capable doctor), and he finally gets off his feet and sleeps for a day and a half. I look forward to getting home. Hopefully Mrs M will give us a good long break after this!