Toyie had no idea where the man calling himself pastor Edwin had come from. It was like he appeared out of nowhere.
She became no less surprised when a red headed woman in full armor and a huge sword on her back stepped up next to him, followed a moment later by a short man with a big black beard.
This trip keeps getting stranger and stranger.
“Excuse me”, said Ellen. “We’re in the middle of a discussion here. No one invited the church.”
Toyie sighed. Like many other varangians in Vent, Ellen and Issy viewed the church as just another sign of human weakness.
Pastor Edwin bowed towards Ellen a second time, but a bit less deep.
“It was hard not to hear your discussion”, he said. “What is harder to understand is what three varangians and three committed are doing in the ruin city of Vicariat.”
“Wow. That’s where we are?”
“It is”, said pastor Edwin. “You must have been very lost to turn up here by accident. It’s two days walk back to Vent.”
Joelito elbowed Mikeloto, who grunted.
“We got stuck in the fog”, said Linuto. “But we thought we knew the way. We must have gone the wrong direction.”
“To say the least”, said pastor Edwin.
“Wait a minute”, said Linuto. “If this is the middle of nowhere – what are you doing here?”
Toyie nodded. She had wondered the same thing. Pastor Edwin didn’t seem surprised by the question.
“We’re looking for something that might be here”, he said. “Something important.”
“Oh, something important!”, said Ellen sarcastically to Issy, who giggled.
“You said you could solve our problem”, said Linuto. “That you knew where we were and had a solution to our problems. What did you mean by that?”
This time the pastor was a bit slower to reply.
“You’re lost in the wilderness. You’ll have to excuse me, but you don’t look prepared for it.” He looked at Toyie. “With possibly some exceptions.”
Toyie felt she was blushing.
“Three of you needs to return to a manor …”
“How is that any of your business?” Mikeloto interrupted. He seemed to have finally recovered from being yelled at by both Ellen and Linuto. “We’re going to Vent.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple”, said pastor Edwin.
“And why not?” said Linuto. “Why would a pastor have anything to say about where loons go?”
“Wait here”, Edwin said as a reply.
He went into the trees again, but returned shortly leading a horse. He brought out a leather-bound book from one of the saddlebags.
“This is The Law, the book that is the foundation for the church.”
“I know what it is”, said Linuto.
“The section I’ll read is from chapter eleven, the first three verses:
And this was was the word to Terlin from the Most High:
The way you treat those with the most need, is the way you will be treated on the day of doom.
Hear our word and know that it is truth.
If you find a human that have had his mind stolen by the powers, don’t leave him, but bring him to those appointed by us, so that he doesn’t perish in the wilderness.
This so that you yourself will not perish,
when you stand in front of us on the final day.”
Edwin stopped talking and returned the book to his saddlebag.
“Linuto, what does that mean?” whispered Joelito.
“It means that this pastor will return us to the closest manor”, said Linuto. “Which is Dohr’s manor.”
“A valid interpretation, if circumstances were different”, said Edwin.
“Yeah?” said Linuto. “So what does it mean now?”
“We are not able to interrupt our journey to bring you back to Dohr’s manor. But we also can’t leave you here, The Law is very clear on that.”
“I don’t understand”, said Joelito. “Will you bring us home or leave us here?”
“He can’t decide that we have to go home!” said Mikeloto.
“His friend has a very big sword”, said Joelito.
“What is she going to do, chop our heads of if we don’t come? I’m sure there is something about that in The Law as well”, said Mikeloto.
“Gentlemen”, said pastor Edwin. “I can’t bring you to Dohr’s manor and I can’t leave you here, so only one option remains – we have to bring you on our journey to Harir.”
“Harir!” Mikeloto burst out.
Toyie was surprised as well. If Edwin and the others were in a hurry anywhere, then she was hard pressed to see any option that would take longer than to bring the loons along. For one, they didn’t have any horses, and as far as she knew they didn’t know how to ride. And more than that, they weren’t exactly the three most disciplined people she’d ever met.
“I’d like to see Harir”, said Linuto. “But …”
“No buts now, Linuto”, said Joelito, at the same time as Mikeloto rushed to say “Linuto! Don’t say anything!”
“No?” said Linuto. “Or what do you … Pastor Edwin, can I speak to my friends for a bit?”
“Of course”, said Edwin.
He nodded to his two companions, and they disappeared into the trees.
“Dokaius and Junia are in Harir”, said Joelito. “We can travel home with them in the wagon.”
“Who are Dokaius and Junia?” asked Issy.
“Our loonkeepers”, said Linuto.
“They are on the way to Harir to get money from the king”, said Mikeloto.
“By the king? They know the king?” said Ellen.
Mikeloto nodded enthusiastically – a bit too enthusiastically, but Ellen didn’t seem to notice.
“I want to see Harir”, said Issy. “Do you think we can come as well?”
“If you can’t come then I’m not coming either”, said Mikeloto.
Toyie didn’t take part in the conversation, she was to preoccupied with trying to understand what was going on. It was almost to weeks travel by foot to the capital from Vent, and they were not in Vent but in the middle of nowhere. Edwin’s offer made absolutely no sense.
“Toyie”, said Linuto. “Do you want to come to Harir?”
She looked up. All eyes were on her now. She shrugged. She didn’t have anyone waiting for her in Vent.
“Why not?” she said.
“Then we are agreed”, said Mikeloto. He raised his voice. “You can come back now!”
Edwin, the woman with the sword and the man with the beard showed up almost at once. They all brought horses.
“We’ll come with you”, said Mikeloto. “If Ellen, Issy and Toyie can come as well.”
“I’m assuming that is your varangian friends”, said Edwin. “They are of course free to do as they please, as long they are willing to follow my lead, even though I am a part of the church.”
The last bit was obviously aimed at Ellen, but Toyie knew she was to proud to let it bother her. When neither of them said anything Edwin continued.
“Are you ready to do that?”
Toyie nodded, and saw that the others did as well.
“Good”, said Edwin. “This is Pudas and Winson, you’ll get to know them better as we travel. We’ve already broken camp, I suggest you do the same. We’ll have to take a break soon and we can have our morning meal there.”
“Okay”, Mikeloto said doubtfully.
“Good”, said Edwin again.
Toyie, Linuto and the others gathered their few belongings. Winson helped Ellen and Issy pack the tent, when it became clear that it would otherwise take all morning. Twenty minutes later they were moving, not as Toyie had supposed back the way they had come but deeper into the ruined city.
After a little over ten minutes they reached a small paved square. Now she could see more ruins around them. On one side of the square there was a small building out of marble, with a gate made of dark green metal. The house had not suffered the passage of time in the same was as the rest of the ruins, except for being blackened by the flame and overgrown with vines.
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Shortcuts”, said Edwin. “They were built more than eight hundred years ago, and connects many of the most important cities of the time. Travelling through them is much faster than using conventional routes. One of the entrences are here, since this used to be one of the largest cities of Ireus.”
Toyie had never heard of shortcuts before, not of the type Edwin was talking about.
“What’s the catch?” said Linuto.
“‘The catch’ is that the Shortcuts are not safe. They were … used during the war of the Dragon. It’s said that they changed. They are not in use anymore.”
“So we don’t know …”, Ellen started.
“So we don’t know if they still work. We don’t know if we’ll arrive where we thing we will”, said Pudas.
“What’s the rush?” asked Joelito.
“A very valid question”, said pastor Edwin. “I haven’t told you about the quest my group is on, and I’m afraid I can’t do so now either. But I can say this much, that if we don’t reach Harir soon then there is a high likelihood of war.”
He grew silent.
“War”, said Toyie.
“Yes, war”, said Edwin. “Because of this it’s very important that we reach as soon as possible. But I still don’t want to put you through the risks of th Shortcut without you agreeing to follow me willingly.”
“Didn’t we just do this?” said Linuto. “I thought you said we didn’t have any choice.”
“I don’t have a choice”, said Edwin. “But you do. The free will must never be limited.”
Linuto looked at Toyie, who shrugged. She had already given up understanding the pastor.
“I’m coming”, said Mikeloto.
“Me too”, said Joelito.
“We’ll come”, said Issy.
“Yeah”, said Ellen.
“I don’t know”, said Linuto.
He looked at Toyie, as if his decision in some way rested on hers.
“I’ll come”, she said, without really knowing why she said it.
“Then I’ll come as well”, said Linuto.
“Good”, said Edwin. “Then we just have to get in. I hope it won’t take all day.”
They were standing in front of the gate. The breakfast had been finished, everything was packed again and everyone was ready to go. Toyie yawned. Pastor Edwin was walking back and forth in front of them. His hands were moving, as if he was painting something in the air.
He had been doing so for quite a while now. Toyie wasn’t sure, but she assumed that he was trying to open the door. It didn’t seem to go very well. She saw sweat on his forehead as the morning sun rose higher and higher. Ellen was rolling her eyes. Joelito looked like he was about to fall asleep. Mikeloto seemed taken by the moment, and was uncharacteristically silent.
When she looked at Linuto he smiled. She smiled back. He came over to her.
“The pastor seems to have some problems”, he said quietly.
“It looks that way“, she replied.
“Quite the anticlimax if we can’t get in after that speech he gave.”
“But I think the two of us are the only ones that actually understand how serious he was. I mean – believe that loons will reason logically about something like this. Of course Mikeloto and Joelito will come when he puts it like that. An adventure is what they are looking for.”
“But not you?”
“Well, why not? Now that I don’t need to take care of everything.”
Linuto looked over to Edwin.
“Wait a minute”, he said.
“No, I mean … do you see it?”
He was pointing at the gate. Toyie tried to follow his eyes, but she couldn’t see anything special where he was pointing.
“It’s hard to explain. I’ll be right back.”
Linuto walked up to the gate. Edwin had had his back to him but turned around, surprised, and stopped.
“What are you doing?” he said.
Linuto didn’t seem to hear. With his finger he followed the trail of one of the decorations of the western door in the gate. Then he put his hand on it and pushed. At first nothing happened, and Toyie heard Ellen sigh dramatically.
The next moment they all felt how the ground shifted and then both doors opened, towards them. Inside was a compact darkness.
Pastor Edwin looked stunned.
“After you, pastor”, said Linuto.
Toyie laughed. Edwin at first seemed unsure about what to do, but then gathered himself and led the group into the black.
The gate closed with a deep thump as soon as everyone was inside, and the darkness was complete.
Issy, Joelito and Toyie shouted. Linuto was close to doing the same. He heard how someone was rummaging around in a bag, then the sound of a fire maker and then a short moment later a torch was burning in the hand of Pudas. Edwin removed and lit two more, one for Winson and one for himself.
Linuto had hardly had time to see the room they were in before the doors closed. In the shifting light of the torches it was hard to get a propper overview, but he and Toyie followed when Edwin stepped up to one of the walls. The pastor put his hand against it and stood like that for a while. The wall was made of stone, not marble like the exterior but smooth granite. Toyie followed Edwins example and put her hand against it.
“Oh!” she said and removed her hand.
Linuto felt the wall. He had expected it to be cool, but it was pleasantly warm. And it vibrated. He wanted to ask the pastor what it meant, but Edwin had already left and were standing by his horse again.
Linuto looked around in the torch-light. It was at least five meters between the walls on the left and right of the entrance. He could not see the opposite wall. The ceiling were high, he could only just see it in the shifting light. The floor slanted downwards, below ground level.
“Gather around me”, said Edwin.
“It is immensely important that we don’t lose each other in here. There are plenty of side paths that are no longer safe, but as long as we stay on the main road we will reach our goal.”
Linuto looked at the others. He wondered if they had changed their minds. Joelito was looking around with large eyes. Mikeloto seemed nervous and Toyie excited. Ellen was looking at Edwin, still mostly annoyed. Issy on the other hand was stealing glances of Mikeloto.
“I’ll be in the lead”, Edwin continued. “Linuto och Toyie, stay close to me. Pudas will be in the middle, and I want Ellen and Issy to stay within her line of sight. At the end will be Winson with Mikeloto and Joelito.
Mikeloto looked like he wanted to protest, so Linuto spoke up quickly to stop him from talking.
“That’ll be fine, pastor. How long will we be in here?”
“I don’t know for sure”, said pastor Edwin. “More than a day. Let’s go.”
He started to walk, torch in one hand and the reins of his horse in the other. Linuto walked next to him, Toyie just behind. Linuto saw how the others followed a few meter behind.
Ten minutes later and the floor leveled out. He could no longer see the ceiling, and hardly the walls on either side – the tunnel was more then ten meters wide now. They must be far below ground level, but still the floor and walls were made of stone, not dirt.
Now and again they came upon side tunnels, just as the pastor had said, but it was always obvious which was the main road. After some hours they reached a bridge over a dark abyss.
“How deep is it?” asked Linuto.
Pastor Edwin produced a piece of cloth that he tied around a stone before lighting it with the torch. He released it into the darkness, and they looked at it until it disappeared. It didn’t look like it landed, it just became smaller and smaller until they couldn’t make it out anymore.
What in the Most High is this place?
Mikeloto liked the darkness.
It was surprising, at least to himself, since he had always been a little bit afraid of the dark. This was not something he would ever admit to anyone of course, but it was the truth.
At first it had been like that here too, but after they passed the bridge and the pastor dropped down his fireball into the deep something had changed. The darkness that should be much more scary than any back home in well known Dohr’s manor didn’t make him afraid anymore. To the contrary, actually. He felt excited. Energetic. Happy.
For a while he continued to walk at the end of the group together with Joelito and the little smith, just as the pastor had told him. But as the feeling of happiness grew and grew his stride grew as well. He passed everyone else until he was walking next to pastor Edwin. If he had just known where they were going then he would have passed him as well.
Edwin told him to wait for Winson and Joelito again, and he did – but it didn’t take long until he was back at the head of the group again.
He heard the pastor try to question Linuto about how he had known how to open the gate. Linuto didn’t seem to have an explanation to give him. Mikeloto wished that it had been him to find the opening. Now Linuto was in the lead with the girls again.
They passed many side paths. The pastor seemed to know where he was going, and always stayed on the wide main path, but Mikeloto couldn’t help to wonder about what you would find if you followed one of the other paths.
When he found the others walking too slow he went to a side path and stood there waiting as everyone passed and Winson came and told him to stop fooling around. Soon he was back next to the pastor and the whole thing repeated again: He was told to wait for Winson, stood next to a side path and waited, Winson told him to start walking. And again, and again, and again, with just a break for lunch.
He was standing in just such a side path when something or someone suddenly reached out and pulled him back into it. He fell, but a strong arm caught him before he hit the ground. He felt a strange sleepiness wash over him, and when he was lifted up and thrown over the shoulder on something that was obviously very strong he felt like he was spinning.
I should probably call for help, he thought, but it didn’t seem worth the effort. And it was quite comfortable to hang like this. He closed his eyes and fell asleep.
A dream woke Linuto. He didn’t remember anything from it, but it felt like something he should remember. After trying recall for a while he gave up, and tried to fall back asleep instead. Just as he was about to Issy screamed, and he was wide awake again.
He sat up and sighed.
Everything had gone wrong since he opened the gates to the Shortcut. They had walked for half a day when Mikeloto disappeared. Winson didn’t notice until the passed the second bridge. They made camp just after it, in a big hall that was lit by a weak green light without and obvious source.
Edwin, Pudas and Linuto went back to search for Mikeloto. Linuto first thought that he had hidden somewhere to mess with the others, but when they didn’t find him he became worried for real.
Not as worried as Issy, it turned out when they returned to the camp for dinner. She had become hysterical, and finally Winson, left behind to mind the camp, had to put her to sleep. Why she had become so distraught by Mikeloto’s disappearance was more than Linuto could understand. She had only known him for a couple of days.
They went back and searched for a few hours more, before Edwin called it off for the night. Linuto didn’t know if he planned to continue the next day, or if they were moving on. And if Edwin said they had to leave, what would he and Joelito do then? Just abandon Mikeloto here?
They had not walked very far into the side tunnels when they searched. The pastor had warned that it could be hard to find your way back if you walked too far, even if you hadn’t passed any branches. The Shortcut was a magical construction, and did not behave like ordinary roads.
Which means that if Mikeloto have disappeared, then he is really gone, Linuto thought. He felt empty. It had taken him a long time to sleep in the evening, and he didn’t feel rested at all.
Issy screamed again, a muffled scream that echoed through the hall. Linuto stood and walked over to her. For some reason she had been placed at the edge of the group, and she had rolled out of her sleeping mat and was shivering. No one had bothered to pitch the varangian tent this night.
Linuto considered if he should wake Toyie, but decided to do what needed to be done himself. Toyie was taking care of everyone enough as it was.
He bent down and lifted Issy gently. She weighed much less than he had expected. He put her back next to Ellen and covered her. She was still shivering, and Linuto quickly decided to take the blanket Winson had given him and lie down on the other side of her. Suddenly self conscious he settled a little bit away, but overcame his shyness when he heard Issy’s teeth chatter and moved closer so she would be heated up by his body.
He hardly slept after that, and when Pudas woke everyone in the morning he felt like punching her.
Mikeloto was woken by the horrible stench.
He was in a huge bed. Two eyes were watching him.
Again he was filled by the enormous feeling of excitement, yes, maybe even lust, that he had felt before. The stench was gone, and he had a harder and harder time thinking clearly.
A hand was reached out from the one lying next to him in bed. He surprised himself by taking it, and it pulled him closer.
They ate breakfast. Issy had not improved much. She was just staring into the void, while Ellen and Toyie tried to feed her. Toyie gave Linuto a thankful look when she noticed that he was watching them.
“We shouldn’t have left her at the edge”, she said.
“It’s hard to think of everything”, said Linuto.
Nothing happened at first once breakfast was done. Linuto didn’t dare go and ask the pastor what they should do. He was afraid that Edwin would reply that they needed to move on, that there were no hope in finding Mikeloto. Joelito was almost as apathetic as Issy. Edwin, Pudas and Winson was having a quite conversation some space away from the others.
Linuto had no energy. He put down the empty porrige bowl, and then just sat there. Some kind of calm came over the hall, still lit by the unspecified green light. The only thing breaking the peace was a few louder words from Edwin or Winson. Linuto fought a battle of wills against his own eyelids, that insisted on wanting to close.
Edwin turned and waved him over.
“Linuto, can you come over a bit?”
Linuto forced himself to stand, and walked over and sat down next to Edwin and the others.
“We’ve been discussing our next step”, said Edwin. “And …”
He stopped talking. Winson drew in a breath to say something, but Edwin raised his hand for silence.
“Did you hear that?” he said.
“Heard what?” said Winson.
“Did you feel it?” said Pudas.
“Yes”, said Linuto, who had noticed the same thing.
The ground they were sitting on were vibrating. Stopped. And vibrated again. At the same time they could here deep sounds from the path, back in the direction they came from. Pudas and Edwin stood up. The sound was growing louder, the vibrations stronger. Now everyone was on their feet, except Issy who was still out of it. Everyones eyes were on the bridge they had passed the day before and the dark tunnel on the other side of it.
Pudas pulled out her sword, which made Linuto even more afraid. The paladin moved towards the bridge. Edwin walked next to her. Cautiously Linuto followed. In the corner of his eye he could see that Toyie and Ellen had managed to get Issy to stand. Winson was with them. He didn’t see Joelito.
Pudas and Edwin reached the head of the bridge. Linuto stood by them, but a little behind. Now the ground was shaking so badly that it was hard to walk, and the noice was deafening. Linuto strained his eyes to see if something was coming from the tunnel. But Pudas still saw him first.
“There is the boy”, she said, with her almost expressionless voice.
A moment later Linuto saw him as well. Mikeloto was running towards them, running faster than he had ever done before. He was over the bridge and ran straight into Linuto before Linuto had time to react. They fell down and rolled away from the bridge. Linuto hit his leg on a rock, but didn’t even notice until later.
Following Mikeloto was the thing that made the ground shake.
The creature was horrible.
They were all going to die.
One of those teeth is enough to kill me, Linuto thought. One of those claws. One swipe with it’s tail.
Mikeloto got back up on his feet and ran. The creature saw him and roared loud enough that Linuto thought his ears would break. It kept following Mikeloto.
It hadn’t reached the bridge yet. Linuto hoped that it wouldn’t hold, that the bridge would crack and break and the monster fall into the abyss. Pudas had stepped onto the bridge, still with the sword in her hands. Edwin was a half step behind her, mumbling prayers. Toyie and Ellen had pulled Issy back, away from the beast. Winson was standing in front of them.
Linuto forced himself to watch the monster. It was at least six meter tall. It’s patchy skin moved, as if something inside was bubbling and boiling, and he felt sick watching it. The creature was waking on two legs, and didn’t seem to be in any rush. Every step it took made the ground shake.
It’s head was rows upon rows of huge teeth, and fiery eyes that were fully fixed on Mikeloto. Linuto became more and more convinced that it was actually growing.
The creature was now at the apex of the bridge. The sturdy stone construction groaned, and Linuto hoped and prayed that the monster would be too heavy for it.
Pudas took one step towards the monster with her sword high. The beast seemed to finally notice that someone other than Mikeloto were in the hall. It roared again. In the corner of his eye Linuto saw movement, but not who it was that came running. Pudas took another step towards the creature. Edwin was still praying, with no visible effect.
Then everything happened very quickly. The creature decided that it needed to do something about Pudas, and fire shot from it’s mouth towards the paladin. In the same moment Joelito reached the bridge, and he threw himself on Pudas, pushing her aside. She made it, but instead Joelito was struck by the fire and instantly consumed by the flames.
He was gone, as if he had never existed.
(Photo: Igor Lepilin/Unsplash)