“How can there be no toadstools?” Chief Strongarm shouted, his eyes wide with panic.
“The bridge I used to reach them was destroyed in the tremor, my chief.” Rifter said in his defence, his eyes downcast as a sign of respect.
The rest of the clan was gathered around the two men, fear painted on every face.
“There must be some another way to reach them!” Strongarm shouted and cuffed Rifter on the ear. The young man flinched and bit his lip to keep from crying out. “You should have brought rope and climbed to the patch.”
“I did, my chief. The rope is too short.” Rifter explained, and then dared to look up. “Even if I had a rope a hundred paces long, the momentum of my swing crossing the gap would surely crush me against the chasm wall.”
“Bah!” The chief cried and threw up his arms.
“The Quickening Spear will be here soon to get Teela. We need to collect the rest of our food for the dowry.” Red said, gesturing at the empty sack on the floor. “Perhaps we will have enough to satisfy them.”
Thus mobilized by hope, the rest of the clan began gathering up whatever food they could find and dumping into the sack. All except Teela. The bride to be was curled up in the sleeping area, rocking back and forth as she cried. She did not want to marry the groom, Killingblow, but she had no choice. Clans of lower levels had to obey the wishes of those above them. Quickening Spear was located nine leagues southup of Deep Fathom, and once a cycle they sent their warriors down to collect tribute from them and other lower clans. Last cycle Killingblow had taken an interest in Teela and decided that she would be pledge to marry him. He had told the clan that he would return next cycle to collect her, and that they must have a sack full of fresh toadstools as a dowry.
Chief Armstrong had agreed to arrangement; he had no other choice. Quickening Spear was a larger, healthier, more prosperous clan. Nature taught that the strong always preyed on the weak—human beings were no different.
“But some of this food is rotten.” Swiftrunner whined as they rushed to fill the sack.
“Put it at the bottom then.” The chief instructed. “They probably won’t notice until they back to their clan. They will think it went bad on their trip back.”
Swiftrunner shook his head like he did not believe Strongarm, but he did as he was told and shoved the mouldering food deep into the bottom of the sack.
Rifter heard the distant hoots of spider monkeys echoing through the tunnels, signalling that the Quickening Spear warriors had arrived. Strongarm and his wife stood in the center of the cavern with Teela between them, while the rest of the clan stood behind them at attention. Teela was dressed in her finest bodice and skirt, the hide painted with swirling patterns. She sobbed softly until Strongarm elbowed her in the ribs to quiet her.
The monkey handler entered the cavern first. He led in five spider monkeys on long leather leashes, their tails lashing back and forth in agitation as they spread out behind their trainer. Next came two tall warriors dressed in boiled leather armor with metal studs. They carried metal bowls filled with light fungi mounted on long handles. Behind them strode Killingblow proudly. His armor fit better and was cleaner than his bodyguards’, and at his side he carried a sheathed sword. Finally two more warriors brought up the rear, each of them carrying a long spear. All of them were muscular and well fed, none of them looked older than twenty cycles except for Killingblow, who looked about twenty-five.
Strongarm led his people in a low bow, with one open hand, palm down, placed upon his head. This was the traditional greeting of a lower clan meeting a higher one. Killingblow and his men placed a flat hand under their chins in acknowledgement.
“I have come to claim my bride, Teela, and the dowry I am rightfully entitled.” The groom said loudly as he surveyed the clan with obvious distaste.
Rifter hated him. He hated that Killingblow belonged to a higher clan, hated his arrogance, hated that he could steal food from them and claim it as entitlement. But he also feared the Quickening Spear warriors. They were stronger and their weapons and armor were far superior to his clan.
“It is my humble honor to present to you Teela of the Deep Fathom Clan.” Strongarm said as he pushed the resisting girl forward, his voice shaky. “We also willingly share with you our food.” He held up the sack of food. “May your journey home be safe and without incident.”
Killingblow stepped forward and looked Teela over appreciatively. “You have grown even more beautiful since I last saw you. You shall make a fine addition to my harem. You will eat only the finest of foods and the purest of water.”
He placed a hand on the side of her face. She shied away, but he did not seem to notice.
“Now fetch me the sack, wife. I am hungry and I have been looking forward to these toadstools all day. They are the sweetest of any I have ever had. I envy your clan’s access to such bounty.”
Rifter could feel the tension of every person in the clan. He wanted to shout, to distract Killingblow from opening the sack, but his terror was too great.
The groom frowned as he hefted the sack. “It is lighter than I expected. If you have not given me all the toadstools that are rightfully mine, I shall take it as a great insult.”
The clan was silent; everyone stared at the hide-covered floor.
Killingblow reached into the sack and pulled out a shrivelled piece of dried monkey meat. “What is this?” He roared. He flung the meat to the floor and then opened the mouth of the sack wider for a better look. He growled as he angrily dumped the contents of the sack onto the floor, spilling out dried meat and rotting mushrooms. Nobody moved, nor uttered a sound. Dropping the sack, the groom unsheathed his sword and plunged it into Strongarm’s stomach in one fluid motion.
The spell was broken. Strongarm gasped, staring down at the blade sprouting from his abdomen. The chief’s wife screamed and turned to flee.
“Capture them all!” Killingblow shouted to his men. “They shall return as slaves for this outrage.”
The monkey handler released the leashes and yelled a command. The spider monkeys rushed forward and leapt onto their startled prey. Swiftrunner struggled and fell over as a monkey wrapped its long arms, legs and tail around his body. He screamed as the creature bit him on the nose.
The warriors with the light fungi ran to block the other two exits from the cavern, knocking over fleeing clan members who got in their way.
Rifter ran towards the sleeping area in the corner, pulling Red behind him.
“No, no, no...” the elder cried as he hobbled along.
When they had reached the sleeping area, Rifter tore down a hide hanging on a wall, revealing a darken tunnel. Rifter heard a cry from behind him and turned to see Red had been slashed by Killingblow. Reacting instinctively, Rifter pulled his machete free and thrust it into the attacker’s face. Killingblow screamed and dropped his sword. His hands flew up to cover his left eye, blood spurting between his fingers. He staggered about like a man drunk on fermented toadstool juice.
For a brief moment Rifter considered continuing his attack on the wounded man. He could dispatch the unarmed groom and then come to his clan’s rescue. But a quick scan of the cavern showed that the Quickening Spear warriors and their monkeys had already overpowered all of the men. One of the fighters had heard Killingblow’s cries and was now looking their direction. Rifter estimated it would take the warrior a dozen breathes to get here. I’d be dead a few heartbeats after Killingblow, he thought ruefully. Rifter snatched a satchel holding Deep Fathom’s meagre medical supplies, then pushed Red into the tunnel.
The escape tunnel had been hidden specifically for a situation such as this: an attack by another clan. Unfortunately they had no inkling of Killingblow’s violent outburst. Strongarm should have thought of this, Rifter thought angrily as he guided Red down the tunnel. Red held up his magic amulet and bright blue light lit up the tunnel.
Soon Rifter could hear the sounds of pursuit. A warrior and at least two monkeys were coming after them. Risking a backward glance, the young man saw the faint glow of light fungi far behind them, and rapidly advancing simian shadows. Red was starting to slow down and Rifter found himself having to drag the older man.
“We’re nearly there!” Rifter urged as they came to a sharp bend in the tunnel.
He could tell by the excited hoots that the spider monkeys were nearly upon them. Grabbing Red around the waist with one arm and lifting him, Rifter staggered the last few steps around the corner and dumped the wounded man on the ground. There was a metal chain hanging from the ceiling. Rifter grabbed it and pulled on it with all his strength. The monkeys leapt into view just as an avalanche of rusted metal came crashing down upon them, their hoots turning to shrieks of pain. Swiftrunner had rigged the tunnel to collapse to prevent enemy pursuit. If only he could have benefited from his ingenuity.
Rifter could hear frustrated shouts from behind the mound of debris filling the throat of the tunnel. It would take an entire wake period to dig through to them; they were safe for now.
A coughing noise broke through Rifter’s reverie. He looked down and saw blood on Red’s lips. The sword had pierced his lung. Deep Fathom’s elder was dying.
- Last edited Thu Apr 18, 2013 7:49 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Mon Apr 15, 2013 12:36 am
Re: Rust - Chapter 2
“Did we escape?” Red groaned. His eyes were closed as he lay on the tunnel floor.
“Yes, esteemed elder.” Rifter said as he squatted down beside him. “Swiftrunner’s trap worked perfectly.”
Red slowly opened his eyes and looked up at Rifter. “He has great engineering skills. Quickening Spear shall find him to be a most valuable slave. They should treat him well.”
Rifter lowered his eyes, ashamed that he could not save more of his clan. Then he felt Red patting his arm.
“There was nothing more you could do. They had strength, superior weapons...and those damn spider monkeys.” Red launched into a coughing fit, spraying blood from his mouth.
“Here, have some water.” The young man lifted Red’s head up and brought the water skin to his lips.
“No, no.” Red shook his head weakly. “You would be wasting precious water on a dead man.”
“Do not argue with me. I have little time or energy for it. Help me sit up.”
Rifter helped him into a sitting position, his back against the tunnel wall.
Red grasped the amulet that hung around his neck, bathing them both in blue light. “What do you know the Talisman?”
Rifter was taken aback. Everyone in the Deep Fathom Clan knew the story of the Talisman.
“You’re great, great grandfather, Seer, found it in a chamber that had been uncovered when one of its walls collapsed after a minor tremor. There was a hole in the ceiling, a hole he said that went straight up forever. The Talisman was lying on the ground directly below the opening. He determined it must have fallen from one of the levels high above, higher than any of us could imagine. When he touched it, the Talisman gave off light. Seer felt it held the power of the Ancients and treated it with reverence. He said that he who posses it shall be granted great wisdom and become the elder of the clan.”
Red nodded. “Well that part of the story is pure monkey shit. It grants me no more wisdom than a tin cup. As for belonging to the Ancients...I don’t know. I have seen many artefacts crafted by the Ancients’ hands, intact or otherwise, and none of them posses the attributes of the Talisman.”
Rifter shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“The light part for instance. When a person touches it with their hand, it glows brightly. But it only gives off light with contact from the skin of my hand. If I touch it with gloves—no light. And it has been doing so for over a hundred cycles—nothing the Ancients have made has lasted so long.
“Then there is the metal. It does not rust or tarnish and it cannot be damaged. There is no metal I know of that cannot be marked by something. My father once tried to scratch it with the tip of a diamond from his ring, and the diamond’s edge was dulled. A diamond, Rifter!”
“So who made it then?”
“The Others.” Red intoned mysteriously.
“The others? Other who?” Rifter was baffled by what Red was saying. Perhaps it is the ranting of a dying man.
“There is a part of the Talisman’s story you do not know; a part that has been passed down from father to son not shared with anyone else. When Seer found the Talisman, there was something else with it: a metal tube made of the same material. It had a twist-off cap and when he opened it, he found paper inside.”
Rifter knew about paper. Scraps of it were found in the tunnel walls all the time. Usually it was yellowed and very fragile, covered with mysterious lines of markings that must have had important meaning to the Ancients. Teela liked to draw pictures on paper using charcoal or monkey blood. Thinking of Teela caused another pang of guilt.
“There were several dozen pieces of paper, intact, crisp and white. On both sides there were rows of markings, and there were also pictures. Not pictures drawn by hand, but images that looked like they had been captured in real life, like a mirror holding a frozen reflection forever. These pictures showed people in great open spaces, spaces filled with light and nothing above them but a vast expanse of blue. Some of the pictures showed them standing on a green fur carpet that stretched on forever. No tunnels, walls or ceilings—just open space! The people appeared happy and healthy, their clothing clean and new. There were also pictures of structures made of brick, stone, steel and glass, and they were intact—no damage, no rust. Whole!”
Red was enraptured as he recounted his tale, and Rifter found himself hanging on his every word.
“There were other pictures, ones that looked drawn, like Teela, only finer, with greater skill. They showed the Talisman and a door. The Talisman could be used to open the door, like a key opens a lock. Seer believed that the Talisman will open a door that will lead to the place in pictures, a place of open spaces and healthy people where everything is new and intact. And this place is somewhere above.” Red pointed upwards with a trembling finger for emphasis.
Red had another coughing fit, and blood on his lips was brighter; a bad sign. When he had stopped coughing, he continued.
“The tube and the papers were once in my possession, but I lost it in the tremor that killed your parents. I have seen the pictures, seen the paradise that is hidden behind the door.” Red grabbed Rifter’s arm tightly, his strength surprising. “You must go up, Rifter! You must seek a path upwards and continue climbing until you find this door. Open it with the Talisman and lead people to paradise.”
Red’s grip weakened. “Promise me this. Swear to me by the Ancients you will seek out the door.”
Rifter gripped the elder’s elbow so their forearms were locked together. “I swear by the Ancients that I shall do as you say.”
A look of relief washed over the old man’s face, as though a great burden had been taken from him. He smiled up at Rifter, and died.
- Last edited Wed Apr 24, 2013 8:33 pm (Total Number of Edits: 2)
- Posted Thu Apr 18, 2013 7:49 pm
Rifter carried Red’s body to a nearby fungi patch. Respectfully he lay elder’s corpse in the center of the mushroom colony, to provide it with precious nutrients.
“From the fungi you came, to the fungi you return.” Rifter intoned as knelt beside Red. “May your body provide life to the fungi, as the fungi has provided life to us.”
When he had finished the ritual, he gently removed the amulet from around Red’s neck and held it. He had removed his gloves and saw the dazzling blue light emanate from within its crystal parts. He also notice it felt warm to the touch, as though the light also produced heat like a flame, only less so. Reverently he put the leather thong around his neck so that the Talisman lay on his chest. He picked enough mushrooms to last him several days and left the cavern without a backward glance.
Rifter spent the sleep period in the hidden tunnel that had led to the toadstool colony. It was the first time he had ever slept alone. He had always slept with other clan members nearby, even when hunting since no one ever hunted alone. Chief Strongarm’s rhythmic snoring had been silenced. Rifter hugged himself tightly in the dark and eventually sleep claimed him.
He awoke in the darkness, fear squeezing his heart. He clutched at his chest and a bright blue light suddenly filled the tight space—Red’s amulet. He felt the tears coming but he fought them back. Crying was a waste of the body’s moisture.
Rifter approached Deep Fathom’s cavern carefully in darkness; stopping to listen for any sounds of the enemy or their spider monkeys—but there was only silence.
The cavern was deserted. The Quickening Spear warriors had taken everything of value, including Strongarm’s body, since they would use it to fertilize their own crops.
He briefly considered going after them. Perhaps he would find an opportunity when the warriors were distracted to rescue one or more of his people. He did not know the exact location of the other clan’s cave, since he had never been there, but he knew how to track. It would not take much effort to follow the trail of six warriors, five spider monkeys and a dozen captives.
His father had taught him how to track before he died. Rifter could determine when the ground had been disturbed and for how long. He could read rusted metal and other materials, know if they could support his weight, their strength and flexibility. He could identify the spoor of all the animals in the region around Deep Fathom’s cavern. They’d be easy to track. Just the thought of confronting them again made his gut clench. He knew how to fight monkeys and gorillas, but armed men? I’m a coward, he thought ruefully.
But I also swore an oath to Red that I would go upwards, to find this doorway to paradise. He felt comforted by this. He grabbed some furs that had been left on the ground to use as bedding, and then left his home for the last time.
- Last edited Wed Apr 24, 2013 8:33 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Mon Apr 22, 2013 3:04 pm
At first Rifter’s journey did not require much effort. He knew most of the tunnels and caverns within half a dozen leagues of his home. He picked out a route that led off in the opposite direction of Quickening Spear and headed northup. He jogged as he travelled tunnels he had known since childhood, keeping his ears keen for sounds of forging animals or tearing metal.
After half a waking period he stopped in tiny alcove off the tunnel to eat some mushrooms and rest. He was almost at the limit of his knowledge of the area. Half a league from here was a large cavern with many passageways leading off it. He had only been there once, when he was with his father long ago. One of the passageways had led off to Deep Fathom’s old location, but it had collapsed in the same tremor that forced them to find a new home. Father had told him which tunnels had led upwards and which journeyed downwards. He hoped he remember which were which he got there.
Initially Rifter was dumbfounded. He stood in the center of the cavern, first staring at one tunnel entrance, and then at another. There were seven in total, not counting the one he came in and the caved-in passageway. He strained his memory, trying to recall which ones his father said led upward. He narrowed it down to two entrances, side-by-side. He walked up to them and lifted the Talisman to shed more light. Both tunnels appeared level. It might be many leagues before either of them changed in elevation. He sniffed the air; the currents from the one on the right smelled fresher, so he took it.
He had travelled over a league before he noticed the passageway angling upwards. He sighed with relief. I picked the right one. By Rifter’s reckoning he was moving westup at this point.
It felt strange travelling a tunnel he had never been in before. He found jagged pieces of metal sticking out of the irregular shaped walls and floor, sharp edges that could cut to the bone if you weren’t careful. Nobody is maintaining this passageway...there must be no clans nearby. He had to travel slowly, using the amulet’s light to spot obstacles. There were holes in the floor that could twist an unwary man’s ankle, and points where he had to squeeze sideways to get through.
As he walked he would pause every once in a while to study the walls or floor, examining some crushed item embedded there, trying to puzzle out its purpose before it was destroyed. At one point he discovered a long knife with a chipped plastic handle. The blade was dull, but he could sharpen it with a whetstone if he found one. He also found some wire tangled up in a breach in the tunnel wall. He could spend time unravelling it during a rest-period and use it for making a snare for catching a monkey.
Several times the tunnel would suddenly branch and he had to choose which way to go. At one point he reached a dead-end where the passageway had collapsed and he had to backtrack two leagues. Rifter conserved his water as best he could, as he did not know when he would find a water source. He tried to listen for running water or tell-tale drips as he walked. After emptying one of his water skins he began urinating in it in case he ran out of water.
Near the end of the waking period he came to a small cave with a high ceiling that initially appeared to have no other exits. He felt anxious as he held the lantern high to study the rusted walls. Then he spotted a hole ten paces up that looked big enough for a man to pass through. He used his rope and grappling hook to climb up and discovered the narrow tunnel continued upwards beyond his vision.
Rifter decided to climb back down and sleep in the cave. After eating some more mushrooms, he sat on some rugs and patiently began untangling the wire he had found earlier. He strung it up in front of the ground level exit, wrapping it around the strongest pieces of debris until in resembled a giant spider web. The wire would allow only the strongest of simians through, and even then he would probably have enough warning to climb the rope to the higher tunnel.
As he slept he dreamt about Red. The elder wouldn’t speak. Instead he pointed at the amulet around Rifter’s neck then pointed upwards. Red grasped the talisman, but it did not glow, reminding Rifter that the elder was dead.
Rifter awoke hungry and thirsty. He drank some more water, noting that his second water skin was now only half full. He would need to find a water source soon.
After taking down the wire and stowing it in his bag, Rifter climbed the rope and headed up the new tunnel. He had to crawl slowly on his hands and knees, carefully feeling ahead of him for any sharp pieces of metal. When he found one he would bang it down with his hammer. After several leagues of crawling, the tunnel exited into a low, irregularly shaped cavern, lit by patches of phosphorous fungi. He estimated that he was now above the level of the Quickening Spear Clan. He felt a surge of joy when he heard the trickling of water at the far end. He let go the amulet and pulled out his knife. Cautiously he moved towards the sound of running water.
The sound was coming from around a bend in the cavern. He crept up to the edge and slowly peeked around. About a dozen paces away was a small pool, fed by a tiny rivulet of water coming from a hole in the ceiling. A spider monkey crouched at the pool’s edge, its head down as it drank. Without hesitation Rifter charged.
The monkey sprang up and shrieked in surprise. It tried to dart around the edge of the pool. Rifter grabbed it by the tail, swung it around and slammed its head into the rusty metal wall. Stunned, the creature was unable to react as the young man stabbed it through the heart.
Since the monkey had been drinking the water—and he did not see any bones scattered around the pool—Rifter determined it was safe to drink. After drinking his fill, he emptied out his two water skins onto the ground and then refilled them.
Rifter started a small fire on a large chuck of concrete. He used fuel he found embedded in the walls and floor of the cavern: yellowed paper, ragged cloth and scraps of wood that had not yet rotted away. He knew there was enough air movement that the fire would not take all the good out of it. He efficiently skinned the animal and cooked its meat so it would last longer. He also managed to catch a few of white crabs that were living in the pool and cooked them as well. He used a rock to crack their hard shells, releasing the succulent meat inside.
He searched the cavern to see if there was anything else he could eat. The glowing fungi were poisonous, but there were small patches of lichen growing on some shattered rocks. He tore off strips of the dry vegetation and chewed it, washing it down with sips of water. When he was no longer hungry, he peeled off the rest of the lichen and added it to the sack filled with cooked monkey meat.
Rifter thought about staying in the cavern for a while. There was plenty of water, and much spoor, indicating that many different animals came here regularly to drink from the pool. He could set up snares near the water’s edge and he would never go hungry. But he thought again of the promise he made to Red, and he felt an urgency that he could not explain. It was time to leave.
There were four passageways exiting the cavern, excluding the one he crawled in from. Three of them of them were quite narrow and would be difficult to navigate, but one was large enough that he could walk upright. It appeared to be angling upward, so he grabbed all his gear and took it.
Rifter continued along the tunnel for the majority of the waking period. For the most part it continued angling upwards, and there were no passages branching off it. Then it began to narrow, the passageway getting smaller and smaller until he was forced to wiggle like a snake through the tube. He was beginning to fear that he would have to turn back when he saw it open up ahead.
He was barely able to pull himself out of the tight crack and fell into a large tunnel. He lay on the floor, panting, staring in wonder at what he was seeing. The tunnel was uniformly shaped, with a flat, even floor and a high ceiling. It was well lit with many colonies of phosphorous fungi growing on the walls and roof. He looked both ways and saw that it was slanted upwards to his left. After drinking water from his canteen and chewing on some monkey meat, he headed in that direction.
The passageway was well maintained. There were no sharp edges sticking out and he didn’t have to climb over or duck under anything to travel it. He also found signs of recent travelers, like chewed monkey bones and rags. Here and there the passageway would widen into a cave where he would find fire pits and discarded bedding. One even had an alcove off of it that appeared to be used for disposing of the body’s waste. He was using it when he heard noise.
He froze. It was the sound of people talking, and they were coming this way.
- Last edited Wed Apr 24, 2013 8:34 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Tue Apr 23, 2013 4:40 pm
Rifter stood still and listened as the strangers approached. It was hard tell how many people there were since it sounded like several overlapping conversations at once, but he heard both men and women in the group.
“Tal will be so excited when he sees the new—“
“Maram told me that I should—“
Their words and manner of speaking sounded strange to his ear, as though they had a different way of saying things. Now they were in the cave with him. He still could not see them since he was in the alcove, but they sounded quite close.
Rifter felt terror clutch at him. If they find me, will they kill me or take me as a slave? Since early childhood he had been taught to be wary of strangers. Except for Quickening Spear, Deep Fathom had little contact with other clans. Anyone who was not a part of your clan was considered completion for the limited food and water in your area. There were some small nomadic groups of two or three individuals that roamed the tunnels looking for substance. Sometimes these encounters were beneficial to both groups and there was some trade. But many times the strangers were aggressive and would steal and even kill to get what they wanted.
“Should we stop here for our sleeping time?” A woman asked nearby.
Rifter held his breath, his hand on his knife.
“No, no, Sharill.” Responded a deep male voice, speaking with reverence. “The next cave has running water and a wider area for sleeping. It’s not far.”
“Ah good. Then let’s carry on, shall we?” Replied the woman called Sharill.
Rifter tried to count footfalls as they walked passed, guessing there was eight to ten people in the group. He had never seen so many strangers all at once in his life. The most he had met were the six Quickening Spear warriors and that encounter had gone badly.
After the strangers had gone past, Rifter slowly counted to five hundred before cautiously poking his head back into the cave. There was no one there. Should I follow them or head back? Rifter chewed on his fingernails as he pondered this. If he was to fulfill his vow to Red and find this special door, he would eventually have to make contact with strangers. The man sounded tough, but the woman had a reasonable, pleasant voice. If he was going to parlay with others, perhaps this was the group to start with. But he needed to learn more about them first.
After making sure all the metal he carried was padded so it would not make a sound, Rifter headed down the tunnel after the strangers.
It didn’t take long to get within earshot of the group for they were walking at a leisurely pace. Though the walls were mostly smooth, there were enough bends and curves in the tunnel that he could get close without being seen. While he crept silently, they made no effort to be quiet. They are in a territory where they feel safe and secure. Surely their home cavern must be close.
As he followed, Rifter took the occasional chance to sneak a peek at his quarry.
There were nine of them, grouped close together. Four were men, two of which were armed and took the role of warriors. The warrior in the lead was thick and stout, his face heavily bearded. The other one was tall and lean, travelling at the rear of the small band. There were also three women and two children: a boy and a girl. The boy was nine or ten cycles in age, skipping about with boundless energy, while the girl appeared to be only slightly younger then Rifter himself. And the girl was wearing pants. He had never seen a girl—or a woman—wearing pants before.
The first thing he noticed about the strangers was their clothes: they were the best he had ever seen. They had very few patches and some were dyed bright colours; and they all appeared to be quite clean. Most of them wore hides and furs, but a few had cloth made by the Ancients. Five of the adults were carrying sacks, or dragging carrying cases on wheels behind them. From their conversations Rifter learned they were returning home from a successful trading expedition with another clan.
The other aspect of the group that stood out to him was their apparent overall good health. None of the adults needed a cane or staff to aid them in walking. Though he was mostly too far away to see them all clearly, he did not see any with signs of tunnel rot: no open sores or their hair falling out in clumps. Rifter felt a sudden stab of envy as he gazed upon them. Why couldn’t Deep Fathom have this health, this blessing?
The girl intrigued him. She had long, unmatted black hair and moved quite gracefully. She appeared to be the boy’s sister and teased him occasionally as they strolled along. He was gazing at her from around a bend when she turned in his direction. He pulled quickly back, his heart racing. He expected a cry of alarm, but he heard nothing. The conversations continued on as normal. He let out a heavy sigh and continued following, chiding himself to be more careful.
By the time the group reached the cave where they would spend the sleep period, Rifter knew most of their names. Tor was the stout warrior and appeared to be their guide; he was the one with the deep voice. The other guard was called Quoten, who didn’t seem to have much to say. Sharill was tall with short red hair, and she wore pants as well. Her daughter was Meah, the girl with the younger brother. Rifter was shocked to discover this, for Sharill did not look old enough to have a daughter so close to his age. Perhaps she gave birth at twelve cycles instead of fifteen...
The boy was named Tylair, and Sharill’s husband was Razzor, who also did not look very old. Perhaps the father of her children had died already and she had remarried a man her own age? These strangers were a puzzle to him.
Should I try to approach them now? The thought filled him with fear. He might be able to take on Quoten in a fight, but Tor looked far stronger. He decided he would sleep on it and see what the next waking period brought.
Rifter walked back the way he came until he found an alcove he could sleep in. He ate the last of his mushrooms along with some meat and lichen and washed it down with water. He thought of stringing up his wire, but this passageway seemed free of predators. In fact he hadn’t seen any animals since he had entered the tunnel system, though he saw the occasional cricket or crab. He lay down some furs and was almost instantly asleep.
Meah waited until she heard a chorus of snores before opening her eyes. She cautiously lifted her head and looked around. Everyone seemed to be asleep. Quietly she sat up and pulled back the sleeping furs.
Quoten was supposed to be on watch duty during the sleeping time, but he was already slumped in a sitting position against the cave wall, snoring. There was no real danger since they were only one awake time from Clan Hearth’s home and these tunnels were regularly patrol by the Tri-clan Association, which made her very curious about the boy following them.
She had caught a glimpse of him peaking around the bend behind them, and then he had quickly ducked out of sight. She probably would have said something to Tor, but the boy seemed more frightened then anything...a young man, actually. His clothes were rough and patched, his hair tangled. Was he from one of the other two clans: Homestead or Haven? Was he travelling alone or were there others hanging back? And why was he trying to remain hidden as he followed them? Why didn’t he simply introduce himself and join up with them on the journey to Hearth?
It would be nice to have someone new to talk to. She liked meeting new people so Meah always enjoyed going on these trade expeditions with her mother. They had different stories, different jokes, and even different food. Every time she visited either Homestead or Haven, somebody would show her a newly found marvel made by the Old Ones. This time the chief of Haven demonstrated a machine with a crank that turned meat into almost a paste. When it was cooked the consistency was quite pleasing.
Meah snuck past Quoten and headed down the tunnel.
It didn’t take long for her to find the stranger. He was laid out on some very ragged furs, fast asleep. He had taken off all his clothes except for a loin cloth. She stood there silently and studied him, biting her lip. He was long and lean but very muscular, with many small scars on his arms and legs. He had a strong chin, high cheekbones and a narrow nose, making for rather pleasant features. This was all topped off with a dishevelled mane of light brown hair. He looked like he was a cycle or two older than her. I wonder what color his eyes are?
A sudden pang of guilt made her whip around to see if anyone had caught her sneaking out. Her hand struck the side of the tunnel, knocking a piece of debris to the floor. The boy bolted upright, clutching a knife that seemed to have come out of nowhere. Meah jumped back, her hands up in a warding-off gesture. They locked eyes for a moment, and then the boy scrambled to his feet and looked wildly about.
“I saw you following us.” Meah blurted out. “I came alone...I-I was curious.”
The boy stared at her for a long moment. He seemed to consider something and put the knife back in its sheath. He looked down, his face turning red, as though he was ashamed of his reaction.
She put her hands down and swallowed hard. “I am Meah of Clan Hearth.”
“I know.” The boy said, still not looking up. “I’ve been listening.”
Slowly he lifted his eyes to look back at her. They were a green so pale they were almost gray. “I’m called Rifter.”
“Rifter? I’ve never heard of that name before.”
“I have never heard of Meah either,” He said defensively, “or seen a girl wearing pants.”
“I wear them all the time. They’re...comfortable.” She decided to change the subject. “What clan are you from? Homestead or Haven?”
“Neither.” He looked around again. “I’m from Deep Fathom. It’s...down from here.”
“Oh?” Meah mentally winced; she was saying that a lot. She had never met anybody from below before. She had heard stories that they were all savages and dangerous. Rifter certainly looked savage enough, but she didn’t feel she was in danger from him...at least not now anyway. “What are you doing up here then? Where is your family? Are you lost?”
“I’m not lost!” He snapped. Then his tone softened. “I’m sorry. My clan is gone...they are now the slaves of Quickening Spear. I’m alone now. My elder made me vow...”
Rifter paused, and clutched at something around his neck. A bright blue light burst forth through his fingers.
Meah jaw dropped in wonder. “It’s beautiful. May I see it?”
He hesitated, and then opened his hand to show her. It was some kind of pendant made of crystal and metal. It was the crystal part that was producing the light. She stepped forward to get a closer look. He tensed up and she was suddenly reminded of his near nakedness. His chest was very smooth with no hair. She could see his pulse beating rapidly in his neck. He was scared of her...or at least she made him nervous. That makes two of us, she thought.
She took a deliberate half step back. “What is it?”
Rifter seemed to relax a little. “Red—our clan elder—said it’s some kind of key, and that will open a door to paradise. That’s why I am up here; I’m looking for the door.”
“Paradise? Where is it? What’s it like?” She felt like she was interrogating him, but she couldn’t help it.
“It’s a giant open space with no ceiling and lots of green vegetation. The people are all healthy and have many wonderful things to eat. Everything the Ancients have made—buildings, machines—are new, whole.”
“That sounds wonderful...but impossible, Rifter.” Meah shook her head sadly. “I have never heard of a place like the one you have described. There is no such thing as a space without a ceiling. There is always a ceiling.” She gestured above. “How do you know what your elder says is true?”
“He saw pictures of it. Pictures that looked like mirror reflections frozen forever.”
“Have you seen those pictures?”
Rifter sighed heavily. “No. Red said they were lost when Deep Fathom’s old cavern was destroyed in a tremor.”
“A tremor?...” She stared him at the blankly for a moment. “Oh, you mean a tunnel quake.”
“I have noticed that some of the words of your clan are different from my clan. You say awake time when we say wake period, as well as sleep time versus sleeping period. I do not know why.”
“Well let’s go ask my mother. She’s very smart and she might know the answer.”
Rifter took a step back. “Is it safe? Won’t they attack me?”
“No, no. Of course not. You would be with me. Just don’t go pulling out your knife when you meet them.” She looked him up and down again and giggled. “And you might want to put on more clothes, too.”
Rifter was surprised by the group’s reaction to him. He was certain at the very least they would chase him away. Following the girl’s plan, he stayed just out of sight while she went into the cave. He heard her loudly call their names, followed by the confused voices of people abruptly woken from a sound sleep. He listened as she told them about him, prepared to run at the expected angry shout; but there was none. Instead there was muted conversation for several moments, and then Meah called him in.
Rifter stepped in reluctantly, disbelieving that his acceptance could happen so quickly and easily. The two warriors, Tor and Quoten stood in front of the others and watched him warily as he entered, but otherwise did nothing.
Meah stepped forward. “Mother, Father, this is Rifter of Clan Deep Fathom.”
Rifter bowed low and placed an open hand upon his head. He expected them to respond with the traditional greeting of a higher clan, but they did not. Instead they smiled at him uncertainly and nodded.
“Greetings, Rifter of Clan Deep Fathom.” Said Meah’s mother as she took a step forward. “I am Sharill and this is my husband Razzor and our son Tylair. I am the Trade Master of Clan Hearth. I welcome you in the memory of the Old Ones.” She made circles with the thumb and forefinger of each hand and joined them together at the tips.
Rifter was taken aback. Trade Master sounded like a very important title, and yet it was held by a woman. Rifter had never known a woman to be in a position of authority, and this one wore pants too. He tried to cover up his surprise by bowing low again.
“Please, stop doing that.” Sharill said with a touch of annoyance. “Once was already too much.”
Rifter immediately straightened up.
“Meah tells me your clan was taken as slaves by another clan. Quick Spear, was it?”
Rifter simply nodded, too nervous to correct her.
“And how far away are these two clans?”
“It took me two wake periods to walk here from my clan, which is southeastdown from here. Quickening Spear is another wake period’s travel southup from my home, though lower than this level.”
“You said your clan is called Deep Fathom?” Tor asked suspiciously.
“There used be a clan with that name eastdown from here, but they were wiped out by a tunnel quake ten cycles ago.” Tor studied Rifter’s face as he waited for a response.
“Only half of my clan was killed, including my parents. We fled and made a new home in another cavern.”
Tor lowered his eyes. “Much tragedy has befallen your clan. My condolences and may the Old Ones be with them for eternity.” He made the same gesture with his hands as Sharill.
Rifter was surprised by the warrior’s sympathy. As he stared at Tor, he realized the man had lines at the corners of his mouth and eyes like Red, but appeared to be quite healthy otherwise. “How old are you?” he exclaimed.
Tor barked a laugh. “No one has ever asked me before. Thirty-eight cycles, I reckon.”
Two cycles older than Red, and yet the warrior was in better physical shape then people Rifter knew that were fifteen cycles younger. Rifter looked at Sharill and Razzor and realized they were almost as old as Tor. How could they be so healthy?
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
“Would you like something to eat?” Sharill offered.
“You are willing to share your food with me?” Rifter was dumbfounded by their behaviour.
“Of course, Rifter.” The woman said with a laugh. “You’re our guest.”
She gestured to the rugs laid out on the floor. “Please sit down and we will serve you.”
Rifter started bowing low again before he caught himself and then quickly sat down in embarrassment.
The others all bowed their heads and closed their eyes, making circles with their fingers. “May the Old Ones bless this food and watch over us until we join them for eternity.”
A younger woman that Rifter remembered was named Sealy brought him a battered tin mug filled with water. He sniffed it, found the odour agreeable, and drank. Meah handed him a small plate covered with various meats and fungi, including a few he did not recognize. He tentatively smelled each kind before eating. He easily recognized the taste of howler and rat meat, plus the water mushrooms and toadstools, but the others he had never eat before.
“What is this?” He asked, pointing at some flakey pieces of fried meat. “It’s delicious.”
“Fish? What kind of animal is that?”
“Fish are not animals—they’re...they’re fish.” Meah smiled. “They live in water.”
Rifter stared down at his plate in amazement. “I have caught crabs in big pools, but nothing large enough to have this much meat in it.”
“Then I guess the big pools you saw just weren’t big enough.”
After the group had finished eating, they packed away their belongings and headed up the tunnel, this time with Rifter in their midst. Everyone wanted to take a turn talking to him, even Quoten. He was bombarded with hundreds of questions about his clan, his level, and his way of life. They were fascinated at how isolated his people were, how little contact they had with outsiders.
“So you never had regular trading expeditions with other clans?” Sharill asked as she walked along side him. She was the tallest woman he had ever seen; almost as tall as him. It was strange to talk to a woman near eye level, and a woman wearing pants at that.
“There was the danger that they would see how wonderful our cavern was and want it for themselves. We occasionally traded with nomads, but that wasn’t very often. Usually we just chase them away. With so little to eat, it is always a struggle to survive.”
Sharill studied him closely. “You seem healthy enough.”
“The younger people always get more food and water...since they take care of everyone else. I was the main hunter and gather, so I needed to keep my strength up.” Rifter said with a pang of guilt. He always felt badly as others of his clan watch him hungrily as he ate his fill, but Chief Strongarm had insisted Rifter eat more since he was usually the one who got the food in the first place.
“So what is below where you lived?” Tylair asked, skipping more than walking beside him.
“Nomads mostly—and mad hermits. We didn’t know of any clans living lower than us.” Rifter said with shame.
“Any strange creatures?” Tylair’s eyes were bright and he clawed his fingers for emphasis.
“I don’t know what is strange by your standards. I have never heard of fish before, remember.” Rifter reached out and ruffled the young boy’s hair. “When I was about your age one of those mad hermits visited our cavern. His name was Dweller, and he had brought with him a large pot—with no holes!—to trade for dried monkey meat. Dweller stayed with us for three days and told us lots of stories of what was below.”
“Like what?” Tylair bounced with excitement.
“At the very bottom of our world is a large pool of water stretching for hundreds of leagues in every direction. Living in the water are huge creatures, like your fish, except much larger. Dweller said they weighed as much as a hundred men put together. He also said every time there was a trem—a tunnel quake, debris would fall into the pool and the water would rise a little higher. He believed that water would continue to rise and eventually swallow the whole world up.” Rifter playfully lunged at the boy, his arms raised above his head.
Tylair squealed and ran away laughing.
“Is that story true?” Meah came up beside him.
“Dweller really told it, but he was crazy, so—“ Rifter shrugged.
“I’m so glad you joined us, Rifter.” Meah said shyly. “I swear you are most interesting person I have ever met.”
“I could say the same about you and your people.”
The tunnel continued to gently slope upwards, making for easy walking. Occasionally passageways would branch of the main tunnel, all them appearing as well maintained as the one they travelled. At one point they met two warriors heading in the opposite direction. Both groups stopped and greeted each other warmly. The two men, Taub and Rigel, were from the same clan and on patrol. They were armed with strange weapons that Rifter had never seen before. They each had a stick that was bowed, with a string of dried monkey sinew attached at each curved end. Each man had a leather holder on their back containing a dozen miniature spears with tufts of stiff fur at the ends.
Taub pulled out a small battered sheet of metal from the tunnel wall and propped it up about twenty paces away. Everyone stood safely behind Taub as he showed off his weapon. The people seemed more interested in watching Rifter’s reactions than Taub’s demonstration.
“We call them bows and arrows.” Taub explained as he the curved stick in one hand and a tiny spear in the other. “There is a notch at the back of the arrow and the string goes into it. Then there is a grove in the bow that you place the arrow shaft against, like so. The monkey sinew creates tension, and when I pull the arrow back, it bends the bow and creates more tension.”
Rifter could see Taub’s arm muscles quivering with the strain of keeping the string pulled back.
“I lift the end of the arrow up to my cheek and look down the length of the shaft. I use my right eye to sight the arrow head on the target. I take a deep breath...and release.”
Rifter heard a sharp twang as the arrow shot out from Taub’s fingers. The rusty sheet flew end over end and landed flat, pierced in the center by the deadly projectile.
Everyone clapped while Rifter stared in awe.
“A man can carry only two or three spears. And once he’s thrown them he’s defenceless.” Taub said as he looked Rifter in the eye. “I can carry two dozen arrows in my quiver. And can fire them farther, with more accuracy, and with deadlier force than your average spear chucker.”
Rifter nodded mutely in agreement, wondering what other marvels clan Hearth would reveal to him.
I have to ask. Where's chapter one?
I have to ask. Where's chapter one?
Oh...well here it is, Peter.
Rifter awoke to tremors and screams. He sat up quickly in the darkness, his heart pounding. He tasted rust flakes on his tongue. Above the cries of his clan Rifter could hear the rending noise of weaken metal giving way. He reached over and tore away the cloth covering the phosphorous fungi growing on the wall. A dull glow illuminated a scene of chaos in Clan Deep Fathom’s cavern home. The chief’s three young children were running wildly back and forth in the low chamber while their mother stood screaming in the center, her bony arms tightly wrapped around her body. Chief Strongarm stood beside her in his loin cloth, looking up at the ceiling, mouth agape. Swiftrunner and his mate Clearwater cowered against the far wall, sheltering their young son Goodheart in their arms. A cloud of chocking red dust filled the air.
Rifter winced as a small piece of metal fell from above and struck his head. He was just struggling to get to his feet when the shaking stopped. He froze in place, waiting for the dreaded tremors to resume, waiting for the cavern to collapse in a screech of rusted steel; to die like his parents did when their home caved in. But the tearing noise had ceased as well. There was only the piercing shriek of Strongarm’s mate until he slapped her across the face. She stared at him for a moment, a hand over her mouth, and then she collapsed to the hide-covered floor.
“That was a close one, eh?”
Rifter turned to see Red standing at his side. Deep Fathom’s elder gave Rifter a toothless grin and shrugged his thin shoulders. At over thirty-six cycles—more than twice Rifter’s age—Red was very old. His long copper hair was thinning and there were lines beginning to form at the corners of his mouth and eyes. The elder was hunched over, having to lean on a metal rod for support. Yellow pus oozed from running sores on the left side of his face—tunnel rot. May I never live to be that old, Rifter thought with a shudder.
“I thought I was going to die like my parents did ten cycles ago.” Rifter gestured to the ceiling. Hundreds of interlocking pieces of rusted metal, cables, masonry and plastic composed the roof of the cavern. Every ten wake periods Swiftrunner would inspect the ceiling for points of weakness, walking on stilts he had fashioned from aluminum he had found. He was already checking the area above the sleeping quarters for damage. Swiftrunner limped as he walked, his name now ironic. He also had tunnel rot, a terrible disease that struck all the clan’s adults as they got older, causing open sores on his legs that never healed.
“Good people, your folks.” Red said. The elder wore the trappings of his station: a long robe made of valuable gorilla fur, a headdress made of real feathers, and the mysterious Talisman that emitted a bright blue light when he held it. The metal and crystal amulet had been passed down from elder to elder for many generations, and it gave Red’s office an air of inscrutability. He sat down on a rug made of spider monkey fur and gestured for Rifter to sit beside him.
All around them the clan members were beginning to settle down. There were eighteen of them in all, more than half of them children. Teela, who was two cycles younger than Rifter, was helping to distract the chief’s youngsters. Her mother had died recently from a fever after getting scratched by a rusted spur while gathering water mushrooms in the tunnels. Rifter had always like Teela, but she had been promised to the son of a chief from a higher clan, Quickening Spear.
Rifter sat down beside Red, adjusting his leather loin cloth for modesty. The wake period was coming soon and he knew he would not be able to get back to sleep before then.
“What were my parents like? My memories of them are dimming like dying light fungi.”
“Well, I was the same age as them. We all grew up together in Deep Fathom’s old cavern, six leagues northup from here.” Red recounted, scratching his head. “The clan was much bigger then; there were almost forty of us. There was a large patch of toadstools nearby, so we never went hungry. Your father, Gasher, had a great imagination and was always dreaming up new games for us to play. ‘Who’s the howler monkey,’ the game the kids play now, was made up by your father.”
Rifter grunted in approval; he loved playing that game as a child. Everyone would sit in a circle with their eyes closed, then the person who was it would get up, walk around the circle and at some point yell like a howler monkey, then quietly get back to their spot in the circle. Everyone had to guess who the howler monkey was.
“Speaking of toadstools, I should get ready to go gathering. The Quickening Spear groom and his warriors will be arriving today and will want their dowry ready.”
“Good idea, Rifter.” Red slapped him weakly on the back.
He might not last another cycle, Rifter thought sadly as he got up and walked over to his sleep area. Red had no children and not yet named a successor to replace him as elder.
Rifter began to dress. Since the floor and walls of the cavern were lined with furs, hides and scavenged scraps of rugs and cloth made by the Ancients, there was no need to wear much clothing or footwear while at home. Most of the men wore a simple loin cloth, while the women covered their private parts with skirts and bodices made of thin hide. But when someone ventured out into the wilderness, they needed more protection.
Rifter first put on pants and a long-sleeved shirt made of tanned howler monkey hide. The material was tough enough to keep from being scratched if he brushed up against a jagged piece of metal. Then he buckled up a belt with a sheath for his machete, its wooden handle long rotted away and replaced with bone. Next he put on some boots he had made with rubber soles he had found in a tunnel wall a league westdown from home. The thick leather gloves he pulled on had been his father’s but they still had plenty of wear in them. Finally he strapped on a helmet made of hard plastic; more than one clan member had been killed from falling debris.
Clan Deep Fathom’s home was lit by several colonies of phosphorous fungi growing on the walls and ceiling. It gave a soft comforting glow that was not as harsh as open flame, and did not consume valuable fuel. But when someone left the cavern, they needed another light source. They couldn’t pick the fungi and carry it around because it would eventually die and it was not very fast growing. Swiftrunner had tried growing some in a metal pan and carrying it with him, but it didn’t cast enough light and he nearly fell into a hole the first time he tried it. So the clan had three lanterns fuelled by monkey fat that its members used when venturing out. Two were homemade using tin and valuable glass, while the third was an actual lantern crafted by the Ancients.
Rifter always wondered at the craftsmanship of the Ancients; how they were able create glass and plastic and mould steel. Their discarded works surrounded them, encased them for leagues in all directions, and all of it was slowly decaying, collapsing into the levels below. He could smell the rot and mildew when he was younger, but now his nose detecting nothing except the sweet smell of cooking meat.
Rifter took the Ancients’ lantern and checked to make sure its reservoir was full of fuel. Then he grabbed two empty sacks and threw them over his back; one for their food and the other for the Quickening Spear dowry. Before he left he went to each man and clasped hand to elbow so the skin of their forearms touched. It was a ritual performed every time someone left the safety of Deep Fathom’s cavern—they might never come back.
Using flint and steel, Rifter lit the lantern and turned it down low to conserve fuel. Then he exited the cavern through the western entrance.
Rifter’s world was made of rust. The tunnel bore through compressed layers of crushed rusted metal of mostly unknown design or function. The floor, walls and ceiling were composed of bent pipes, crumpled metal panels, slabs of concrete, gilders, rotting furniture, and all other manner of refuse from the Ancients. Why did they discard it all? Rifter thought with wonder, and how could they have created so much?
The first two leagues of travel were fairly easy. The tunnels closest to home had been travelled for many generations by others; most jagged edges had been pulled out or hammered in for safety. Rifter still had to keep an eye out for any settling that had occurred since his last gathering trip thirty wake periods ago. Whenever he found a sharp spur of steel sticking out of the tunnel floor or walls, he would pound it in with a hammer he carried. He would also look for anything useful, like a pot for cooking or a strip of stainless steel that could be fashioned into a weapon.
Rifter needed to be wary of other dangers besides his environment; predators roamed these tunnels as well. The most dangerous—and the rarest—were the gorillas. They traveled in packs under a dozen, foraging on mushroom, toadstools and other fungi, but they also ate flesh. The males would surround their prey and smash it to death with their mighty fists, roaring as they pounded their victim to a bloody pulp. Howler monkeys, though smaller, could be just as deadly since they travelled in greater numbers. Rifter had hunted them many times with other men from the clan since their meat was quite tender and their hides made excellent clothing and rugs. They always had to be careful to stay together and not allow the howlers to separate someone from the group. The howlers did not punch—they pulled. Two cycles ago Rifter had watched helplessly from a distance as his best friend Freesoul had his arms and legs pulled from their sockets, then the pack dragged away his still screaming head and torso. Rifter had spent much time training with his machete to defend himself from such an attack.
Rifter reached a part of the passageway where the ceiling dipped low and he had to hunch over to continue on. After about a hundred paces he stopped and held his lamp up against the left-hand wall. There was a square metal panel with a dark circle of cracked glass at center. He carefully felt along one edge with his gloved hand and found the catch, pulled it, and the panel swung back on creaking hinges, revealing a smaller tunnel. Pushing the light ahead of him, Rifter crawled inside, pausing to close the panel after him.
Movement through the smaller tunnel was slow and treacherous. There were pinch points where Rifter had to suck in his breath and wiggle furiously to make it through. If he became stuck, there would be nobody to rescue him since only he knew the location of the secret passageway to the toadstool patch. Knowledge was power in the clan, and Rifter wanted to ensure his position as head gather of Deep Fathom. After three leagues of crawling along the cramped tube, Rifter saw a dim light ahead. He paused, and then turned down the knob on his lantern until it barely produced a flicker. He continued moving ahead, the tunnel gradually starting to open up until he was able to walk upright again. He stopped at the threshold of a great space.
The chasm was lit by countless colonies of phosphorous fungi, though its depths he could not detect. Rifter felt dizzy every time he encountered this vast open space within his normally closely confined world. He always had to get down on his hands and knees and crawl up to the edge for fear he would suddenly fall over and plunge to his death. The gap was almost a hundred paces across, and its jagged walls stretch off to either side beyond the limits of his vision. The roof of the chasm was several hundred paces above, uneven and lit by the fungi.
Rifter crept forward, then froze; the bridge was gone.
Across the chasm had been a bridge linking the two sides. It was a long, crumpled tube of rusting metal that had jammed between the walls. The tube had been hollowed, filled with rows of seats covered with rotting fabric, its function and purpose known only to the long dead Ancients. Every thirty wake periods Rifter would carefully climb the aisle between the rows of seats, then emerge from the end of the tube onto a broad ledge. A large colony of toadstools grew there, enough to feed his clan for generations to come.
But now his bridge was gone, the far ledge had a large gouge where the end of tube had rested. His stomach roiling, Ridge laid down flat and crept up to the edge of the chasm. Looking down he could see fresh gashes in the walls where the tube had struck when it fell. The ledge must have given way during the tremor, he thought with despair.
He carried a rope and a three-prong grappling hook with him, in case he needed to climb an obstacle, but the rope was only thirty paces long—far too short to be of use here.
He lay there for a long time, staring into the depths, trying to will the return of the bridge to his clan’s main food source. What would he tell them? That they needed to find a new source of toadstools? One not already claimed by another clan? He knew of no such colony within a dozen leagues of Deep Fathom.
Quickening Spear was coming to collect Teela—and her dowry. But now they had nothing to give. Rifter’s stomach clenched violently and he vomited; a waste of precious food. He rolled away from the edge and took a long drink of water from his canteen. He needed to get back. He had to warn the clan that there would be no toadstools for the Quickening Spear groom and his warriors. Perhaps they would take something else: dried howler meat, or perhaps the Ancient’s lantern.
Quickly recapping his canteen, Rifter turned and headed back up the tunnel as fast he dared.
It was nearly the end of the wake period when they finally arrived at Clan Hearth. Within a league of settlement the traffic in the tunnels had increased. Rifter was introduced to one new face after another, his mind nearly overwhelmed by it all. All of them knew the members of Sharill party, and the group stopped quite often to talk about the trade expedition and to catch up on the latest gossip. Some of them ended up joining their group and by the time they reached the entrance to the clan’s cavern they were twenty in all.
Rifter nearly stumbled in surprise when they entered the cavern. He had expected a cave similar to his own except larger to accommodate more people, with communal areas for sleeping, eating and storage of food and supplies. Instead he stepped into a space almost a dozen paces high and nearly a hundred paces across.
There were structures lining the walls that turned out to be separate living areas for each family, complete with their own sleeping and dining areas. Some of them were even two levels high, using nearly intact building components of the Ancients. A woman leaned out a square opening above an open doorway and chatted with another woman below.
Set up near the center of the cavern were a bunch of tables which were covered with trays of food, jugs and various useful items. A man stood behind a table with small plates of cooked meat laid out and seemed to be bargaining with a woman who held a bowl full of toadstools.
And wandering about this large space were people—lots and lots of people—and all of them strangers to Rifter. And when they noticed the group enter, they all began converging on them, all talking excitedly at once. Rifter shrank back behind Meah, clutching her arm as the unknown men, women and children crowded around them.
“Please, please, give us space.” Sharill shouted over the din. “We have a guest from below who is not use to so many people. He needs time to adapt. I will talk to you all once he gets settled.”
The people pulled back immediately, but they were still excited by Rifter’s appearance, pointing at him and talking animatedly amongst themselves. Sharill led Razzor, Meah, Tylair and Rifter across the cavern, leaving the rest of group behind to talk with other members of the clan.
“What is that for?” Rifter asked Meah as they walked past the group of laden tables.
“It’s the Hearth Market.”
Rifter shook his head in confusion at this new word.
“A market is a place where people bring goods to trade with other people for their goods. Ravita over there is trying to strike a deal with Malack over how much monkey meat she can get for her bowl of toadstools she picked.”
Rifter frowned. “Isn’t food the communal property of the clan?”
Meah laughed. “No. We all share the space and the water and things like that, but everyone owns whatever they hunt, gather or find. People can trade either things, like food or stuff made by the Old Ones, or services, like repairing a building or cutting someone’s hair.”
Sharill walked up to a structure that was larger than most, its walls made of bricks of many colors. She stepped through an open doorway and led them into a large room with much furniture, all of it in good shape. There was a couch and several stuffed chairs near the doorway, while across the room was a table with six mismatched metal chairs. The walls were lined with cabinets and other storage units, and at the back was a set of steps leading up into a hole in the ceiling.
“Welcome to our home, Rifter.” Sharill said with a sweep of her arm. “You can stay with us as long as you like. You’ll sleep in Tylair’s room.”
The child has his own room? The surprises kept on coming.
“We often have guests from the other clans, so we are used to having people share our living space.” Sharill said as she headed for the stairs. “So put your belongings in Tylair’s room—they’ll be safe there—then you can relax in the family area while I make our last meal of awake time.”
Tylair bounded the steps, taking them two at a time, while Rifter climbed them cautiously, testing each step as he put his weight on it before taking the next. Meah watched him from below with an expression of amusement.
The upper level was divided into three rooms: one for Sharill and her husband, and one each for their two children. In Tylair’s room, instead of having rugs on the floor for sleeping, he had a low frame made of wood—wood!—that had a rectangular-shaped bag stuffed with soft materials lying on it.
“We call it a bed and this is a mattress.” Tylair said as he laid down on it to demonstrate. “It’s really comfortable to sleep on—try it!” The boy moved to the edge and patted the space beside him.
Rifter hesitantly sat down on the bed. It was quite soft yet firm. He leaned back and lay flat, feeling his body sink into the yielding material. “This is very...comfortable.”
“It sure is, Rifter.” Tylair said and laughed.
All the rooms had openings that Tylair called windows that allowed them to look into the cavern. From this vantage point, Rifter could see the whole of the Clan Hearth spread out before him. Directly across the cavern was a large structure that constantly had people moving in and out of it. Above the wide doorway were two large metal rings joined together.
“What is that place?”
“That is the temple of the Old Ones.” Tylair said as he joined Rifter at the window.
“What’s a temple?”
“A place where you go to worship the Old Ones, silly.” Tylair punched Rifter in the arm.
Rifter didn’t know what worshiping meant either, but decided that was enough questions for now.
For the meal they all sat on chairs around the table. They had more fish seasoned with lichen, and a drink that was made of fermented mushroom juice. Rifter started to feel a little dizzy after drinking a few sips. There was so much food to eat, enough that everyone could eat their fill.
“How are you settling in, Rifter?” Sharill asked as they ate.
“Everything is so new and strange to me. It is difficult to understand it all.”
“Feel free to ask us any questions you want. We’ll try to answer them as best we can.”
Rifter considered this as he ate, then he finally asked. “What does worship mean?”
Everyone around the table looked at him in surprise, like he had suddenly grown an extra eye.
Sharill was the first one to break the silence. “Well...you know about the Old Ones. I think your clan calls them the Ancients.”
Rifter nodded in agreement.
“We believe—and by ‘we’ I mean all the clans that we know of—that Old Ones who created all this,” she gestured to the space around them, “are still with us in spirit. They are watching over us, silently guiding us, and when we die, our spirits go to join them. Worship is our way of acknowledging them, paying respect to their awesome powers.”
“I had never heard of this before.” Rifter admitted. “My people have wondered at what the Ancients—the Old Ones—might have been like, but we feel dead is dead. When you die your body nourishes the world. ‘From the fungi you came, to the fungi you return.’ But I have never considered that we somehow live on after our body dies. The thought of it is...comforting.”
Meah smiled, reached across the table and touched his hand. Rifter felt his face grow warm, but he did not pull back.
“It comforts us as well.” She said.
That night Rifter slept in a bed for the first time. Tylair insisted he’d sleep on some furs on the floor and give Rifter the bed. At first it was difficult to fall asleep because the bed was so soft, so yielding. Part of him was worried that he’d keep on sinking into it and suffocate. But eventually he drifted away and his mind was filled with visions.
Killingblow was chasing him down a tunnel; the warrior’s left eye was shooting streams of fire. Killingblow seemed to float, his feet drifting above the floor. Rifter tried running but couldn’t seem to move fast enough, as though his boots were filled with lead. A tall, cloaked figure stepped out of the shadows and pointed at staff the warrior and he vanished in flash of blinding light. The figure turned and gestured silently at the Talisman hanging around Rifter’s neck. Now Rifter was standing in front of a door, one that was new and unmarred. In the center a small hole glowed with blue light, a light that matched the glow of the amulet that hung around his neck. He took off the necklace and stuck the Talisman in the hole. The door opened, and all Rifter saw was green.