The Illumination of Karen
Chetna relaxed for a second and then winced hard with pain, clutching at her stomach. All of them rushed in to help, but she raised her head with a scowl. From between clenched teeth came one imperative grunt: “Run!” As soon as the word was out of her mouth, they all became aware of the sounds of approaching people. The preceding party had heard their comrade’s cries and were coming to investigate.
Again, Chetna was the one taking the initiative. Mastering her pain in an instant, she took the light from Aadesh’s hands and rushed back the way they had come. They ran close behind her as she retraced their route for some distance. Soon they heard screams of surprise and rage, then sounds of swift pursuit behind them.
They had rounded a few corners by then. But Karen quickly calculated the distance they had covered, and knew that they had at most a 200-metre head start. Feeling very sure that their only chance to avoid capture was to throw off their pursuers immediately, she quickly made up a strategy. At the next intersection they passed, she took Chetna’s arm with a succinct “Wait! I have an idea.” She then took the light and uncovered it, giving them a good light for a few seconds. Looking up, she saw, as she had thought, that not all paths had equally blackened ceilings. Then, replacing the lamp’s cover, she led them down a corridor which lack of soot pronounced it to be the least used. Her idea being that they would have a better chance of getting away, or hiding, in an area as unknown to their pursuers, as to them.
It was difficult, at first, to tell whether the hunters where still on their track or not. They only heard the same clamour of anger and hasty onrush as before, coming behind them. Then it seemed for a while like they had succeeded, as those noises became slightly more distant, and finally, ceased. This seemed promising until a few moments later, when it was resumed with great vigour. Apparently, their enemies had just stopped for a while to locate them by sound.
This caused Karen to feel both disappointment and hope at the same time. For, while their pursuers were now definitely on their track again, it also meant that they had lost it for a moment. Having passed several branching paths since they deviated from the more used one, it felt as if they now had a real chance at getting away. Those chasing them would not be sure which path to follow, and must either rush on blindly, or try to track them. Thus, either they would be likely to pick the wrong corridor somewhere, or they would be moving much slower.
None the less, it made none of them feel much safer, so they kept running, trying to choose the least likely of routes. As the noise behind them died away for a while, Karen decided to try yet another strategy. Choosing a gaping door in the middle of a long hallway, she led the others through it. Hitherto, they had always followed the main corridors or “streets” of the underground city, thinking that the apartments must be dead-ends. But, reasoning that their pursuers might have the same prejudice, Karen thought it worth their while to explore if that was true. Even if so, it might nonetheless offer a good hiding place. Chetna was still able to run fast, but she seemed very focused, offering no comment on these choices. Karen felt certain that she was in great pain. Thisha and Aadesh were following passively, having obviously adopted Karen as second in command after Chetna.
The apartment was ornately decorated both inside and out, reminding Karen slightly of dwarfish reliefs. They passed through hall after hall, even finding furniture left in some places, mostly of wood. It was an almost maze-like place, but they found no other obvious exit. Karen was just about to ask advice on whether or not they should try to stay hidden in there, when they came to a stairwell. Apparently leading down into another apartment just below, it offered a great opportunity of escape. Going down and exiting on another level would likely throw their pursuers off completely.
Doing so, they found that the stairs continued down further, but elected to descend only one level. Looking through all the rooms of that floor, they soon concluded that there were no exits there, and headed back to the stair. Just as they reached it though, they heard a sound from upstairs. For a while, the sound of pursuit had been quite distant, but now it seemed close again. Were their pursuers in the apartment, or just passing by outside? Thisha pointed down into the stairwell with a panicked face and everyone nodded in agreement. Karen, holding the light, went first. She wanted to run, but was convinced that their only chance to get away, lay in stealth. Her legs and lower abdomen cramped up with the nervous strain, making her feel stiff and clumsy. Then, someone stumbled slightly in the stair behind her, putting a hand against her back to steady themselves. This made Karen stumble too, tripping on the steps and falling forward.
She was nearly at the next floor down, therefore not falling far. But she landed on her face, and the lamp, crashing against the floor, went out. For a split second she lay still, listening intently for signs of her fall having been heard. The others too, stood in silence. To their dismay, they could hear those above shouting excitedly, and then come closer. Just before falling, Karen had seen that the stair continued downwards. Now, as she told her companions to follow, they all descended further in darkness. Karen couldn’t determine how many levels they passed going down, but just kept going until she came to level floor. That it was more than one floor down, she was certain. As yet, there was no light behind them, but the sounds were coming closer, so she headed away from the stairs. Making everyone hold on tightly to the person in front of them, she went forward, hugging the wall.
Again, it was apparent that the people behind didn’t know exactly where they had gone. But it was also apparent that they had descended the stair and found the spilt lamp-oil. Their exulted screams made Karen quiver with fright. Grabbing a hold of Chetna, who was right behind her, she pulled on her to indicate that they should move faster. Hand outstretched, far in front, and only slightly touching the wall, she now shuffled quickly ahead. She dared not run, and cause too much noise, or trip again. The wall soon became very irregular, like bare rock. It also started winding, making it impossible to know how much their course tended to one direction or another. After several intersections, where she just chose a heading at random, the path started slanting downwards. It became quite steep, but the floor was nonetheless smooth. After a long and winding descent, the floor became level again and the wall veered off sharply to the side. As she tried to follow it with her hand, she felt her way barred by some hard and irregularly shaped object. At first, she was startled at the unexpected blockade. Then she assumed it was some sort of furniture and began exploring it with her hands to find a way around. The more she felt of its shape however, the less sure she got about its nature. Sometimes, a familiar line would make her believe that she knew what it was, only to merge with something utterly perplexing. It was most disconcerting, running into something so alien when immersed in total darkness.
Her companions too, started making exclamations as to the unexpected things they discovered all around. Slowly moving out from the way they had come, they felt their way around a plethora of weird, rigid objects. These were of very differing shapes and sizes, and they all seemed stuck to, or part of, the floor. Eventually, they came to the conclusion that it must all be part of an extremely complex décor. That left them with the question as to the nature of the room they were in. Whether a museum, a religious structure or something completely different, they had no idea. None of them had ever, as far as they could remember, been to any similar place before.At first, they had tried to get through as quickly as possible. But as the very irregular shape of the place made progress not only difficult, but also somewhat perilous, they soon stopped. Listening, they heard nothing. Had they finally gotten away? As time passed on, they gradually, with growing relief, believed that they had.