The Illumination of Karen
The little group picked up the pace and moved swiftly for some time. They saw no sign of any inhabitants. The amount of abandoned furniture decreased, and nearly all the doors were gaping, open holes. Distance is hard to gauge by eye when you are underground, but Karen tried. She estimated that they had moved about three kilometres when they heard a sound other than their own somewhere in front of them. It was clearly the noise made by someone moving carelessly among the little rocks and other debris of the tunnels.
Somewhat emboldened by their numbers and very anxious to find a way out, they approached the perceived source of the sounds. With any luck this would finally be someone who was familiar with these surroundings, and willing to show them the way. Their wishes were halfway fulfilled. They did indeed find someone who was very much at home there. It was a group of large rats, rifling through a heap of trash. They didn’t seem to mind the newcomers, at least not at the distance they kept.
Karen and Chetna both gave vent to little sighs of disappointment, but Thisha and Aadesh seemed more intrigued. The two youths crouched and started collecting small rocks while keeping the rodents fixed with their eyes. Having gathered a dozen or so each, they rose and stepped forward slowly in unison. They only took a few steps, spoke to each other briefly, and then threw their rocks at one especially large rat. The first hits seemed to daze the creature, all of its companions fleeing instantly. It was then pelted with rocks from the slowly advancing hunters while Chetna and Karen looked on in astonishment.
Once the rodent was dead, the youths exchanged a few cheers and compliments, found a sharp rock each, and started skinning and disembowelling their prey. “I say” exclaimed Karen. “The advantages of a countryside upbringing I guess” laughed Chetna. Thisha and Aadesh smiled up at them from their work with pride and joy. “Now at least we have good nourishment for a day or so” said Thisha. The rat-meat was quickly cut into thin strips, then cooked lightly in the lamp, using two pencils from Karen’s bag to hold the pieces over the fire. All the while, she and Chetna analyzed this new development.
“It strikes me that we must be in the vicinity of someone’s living quarters” said Karen.
“Yes, this trash must come from somewhere. And given how many rats were here, I’d say it is refilled regularly.”
“How do we locate the owners? Do you think we can find our way to their dwelling from here?”
“I should think so. There is much dust and debris in these halls, so there should be some traces to mark a more frequently used passage.”
This felt like a much more substantial plan than just wandering aimlessly. It felt like a proper chance. Once the meat was done and Karen had gotten her coal-stumps in return, they set about looking for tracks. The ground was carefully examined around the trash heap. First, they looked only at the immediate vicinity, but could spot no particular differences in the various directions. Then, each passage leading away from that place was examined systematically for about 100 metres. There were of course only a few main corridors passing that place, but they also included the ones radiating from a nearby intersection. Having examined all of them, they finally agreed on following one in particular. It seemed to have a lesser concentration of debris down the middle, as from frequent use as a thoroughfare.
It was with mixed exultation and apprehension that they discovered more and more signs of this being the right track. Most notably, there was a blacking of the ceiling which, once discovered, became their main feature of reference. It must have been made by people passing to and from, holding smoking lamps, for it was quite clearly marked.
The path did go down a flight of stairs, but this didn’t worry them since they were already far down and lost. After that it was not long before they all stopped simultaneously, holding their breaths. The unmistakeable sound of voices had reached their ears. Now they all stood there like statues, each listening intently. Where did the voices come from? What manner of people were the speakers? What did they say? Karen was convinced that they were all pondering these exact same questions.
The voices did seem to come from further ahead. But among the myriad passages and chambers, determining the exact location of a distant sound was utterly futile. Considering the problem of approaching these people without revealing themselves, Karen had an idea. She took off her bag, and then also her tunic. Replacing the bag over her shoulder, she draped the tunic over the lamp, dimming the light considerably. She then whispered: “Let us advance a little further. Either we can spot their light before they see ours, or the location of their voices will become clearer once we are closer.” The others nodded their assent and started moving forward.
The voices had been some way off. Even knowing how deceptive sound can be in such an environment, Karen hazarded a guess of 100 to 200 metres. As they got closer, she tried to make out what the conversation they could hear was about. The sounds were gruff and guttural. The timbre seemed to remind her of dwarves, but the inflection didn’t suggest their tongue. Actually, it was remarkable that she could not make out one single familiar word. Having lived among Arcaport’s multicultural masses for so long, Karen had a fleeting acquaintance with a large number of languages. She couldn’t remember the last time the identity of someone’s parlance had so completely escaped her. Judging by rhythm and volume alone though, the subject matter seemed trivial.
Soon, just like when Karen had discovered the light of her new friends, they saw a reflection on a wall ahead. Sneaking into a nearby apartment, they put their lamp on the ground with the tunic over it. Thus leaving them in near complete darkness. Karen and Chetna stood at the door, peering down the corridor towards the point where they hoped the strangers would pass. The distance was no more than 50 metres, and they could already hear the approaching footsteps clearly. It was the sound of a briskly moving party with several members. Then they appeared, five figures, two of whom where bearing lamps, visible for a few moments only. They were large, tall and heavy by human standards, but there was something not quite human about them. Maybe it was the way they carried themselves, backs and necks hunched as though holding something heavy. Maybe it was the faces, prognathous and thick. Karen racked her brain, she knew of no humanoid species like them. Maybe they were just humans of a particularly rugged build? She couldn’t decide, especially with such a short glimpse. One thing was very clear to her as she glanced at Chetna’s face beside her. The strangers had inspired the same feeling of uneasiness in both of them. “What do you think?” she asked quietly once the footsteps of the other party had dwindled a bit. Chetna drew a few deep breaths, face set rigid and eyes flitting back and forth. She was wrestling hard with her decision, but once the answer came, it was with a determined look. “I think we must follow them. At least as far as we can without risking detection. In my opinion it is our best chance of finding a path to ground-level. And if following them leads to nothing of value, we also have the direction they came from to investigate. We should mark it somehow.”
“I agree fully, though it scares me. I’ll get Tisha and Aadesh.” replied Karen. It took but a moment to explain their decision to the other two before setting off. The sound of the other party had resided considerably, but was still audible. Determined to close the gap somewhat so as not to lose this opportunity, they advanced quickly to the point where they had seen the others pass. So quickly in fact, that they actually collided with someone at that intersection. It was another one just like they who had gone before. He came jogging from the same direction the others had originally come from, as if a straggler, trying to catch up. Chetna bounced right into him, face to chest, and fell on her bottom. It could have been comical, had it not been terrifying.
Even though they had only a dimmed light, and the stranger had none, they saw him much clearer than they had seen his predecessors. He was indeed large, and even though his physiology was similar to a man’s, that he was clearly not. His nails were more like stubby claws. And when he opened his muzzle of a mouth, they saw his great fangs, like those of a baboon. He was sparsely dressed, had a bag over his shoulder, and carried a short, thick staff in one hand.
He seemed as surprised and, initially, as terrified as they. But regaining his composure before them, he started yelling loudly in his strange language, obviously trying to alert his comrades to their presence. Meanwhile, he kept menacing the little group with his cudgel. Chetna had regained her feet with the swiftness of a cat, and while the other three made as if to flee, she aimed a vicious blow to the stranger’s jaw. Twitching his head backwards, he managed to avoid most of the attack. Nonetheless, blood spurted freely from his mouth as, with a beastly roar, he assumed a fighting stance.
They all froze and looked on in disbelief. Chetna could not weigh more than a third of this monster, who was also armed. But there was not a trace of fear in her expression or bearing as she faced off against him.
Seeming determined to finish the encounter quickly, she dashed forward aggressively, presumably to get inside her antagonist’s guard. He, in turn, stepped back almost as fast, striking a backhand blow with his weapon. It struck Chetna nearly full in the stomach, slamming her against the wall by sheer force. She had caught part of it with her right elbow, but Karen doubted that it had helped much. Seemingly not feeling any pain, Chetna pushed his massive arm aside while he aimed another blow with his unarmed fist, to her head. Ducking inside and under his oncoming attack, she struck a blind left to his chin that connected fully. It dazed him so that she had time to take one short step back and aim a quick second punch to his abdomen. This one with even more force behind it.
Karen still stood petrified, staring incredulously. Chetna must be a true prodigy of body-control if she could generate so much power, so quickly. The way she had manhandled Karen earlier paled in comparison. With the last strike, her opponent had folded his midsection until their heads were almost level. He was obviously in great pain and out of breath, but Chetna was not done.
Drawing one deep breath and planting her feet firmly, she delivered one final attack. A merciless uppercut, squarely on the chin. With horror, Karen heard the loud crack of multiple bones breaking, as the man was thrown up and backwards. He fell instantly, legs bent at the knees, hands thrown out, and his head at a weird and disgusting angle.