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Two Trails - Title

Chapter 43

“We can’t keep sitting here! It’s been a week already!” Storm’s frustration and anger bubbled dangerously near the surface. He paced back and forth in the small quarters the priests had given them.

Lorelei tried to calm him down but she understood and shared his impatience. Armed troops from the Temple of Adrammelech were covering every exit from the Temple of Light and the demon, apparently healed of its wounds, circled endlessly overhead. They were trapped and they knew it. The minuscule size of their quarters wasn’t helping things either; cabin fever was setting in.

“They can’t keep us boxed in forever,” she reasoned with him. “Eventually, they’ll have to leave.” She wasn’t sure she believed it herself though. Adrammelech was immortal and his fury was unending. He could afford to keep them bottled up in the Temple of Light until they died of old age.

The only piece of good news was the unexpected arrival of their pegasi several hours after they’d barely managed to get inside the Temple, just seconds ahead of the demon. Its damaged wing had prevented it from being able to intercept them. Now though, seemingly restored to perfect health, it was ready and able to stop them if they tried to leave by air.

“Look, Tikvah is hopeful he’ll have some good news for us today,” she reminded him.

He snorted disdainfully. “Tikvah is hopeful about everything.” The High Priest of the Temple looked more like a line backer for the Dallas Cowboys than a priest and his insufferable good cheer was beginning to wear thin.

However, their enforced isolation with the attendant personal attention of the High Priest had given Storm an opportunity to question him about the gods. While Tikvah’s temple didn’t have the same records Aram’s did, in their vaults they had an ancient journal, written by a long-forgotten wizard from the First Age named Aqalathorn, which claimed the gods were bound by their word should they ever give it. It dovetailed nicely with the information Aram had given him about the gods having to reach an agreement in order to create Gaia. But since they’d never be able to get Adrammelech to give his word to leave them alone, Storm wasn’t sure what good it was. It was interesting tidbit of historical information, he supposed, but ultimately, useless.

The door flew open, proceeded by only the most perfunctory of knocks. Tikvah burst into the room, filling the already tiny space with his larger than life personality. “We’ve got good news!” he boomed cheerfully. His voice matched his size. A small, nondescript man in gray, colorless clothes following close behind him went virtually unnoticed in the wake of Tikvah’s exuberance.

Storm’s gaze flickered over the small man out of habit, then cut back to him for some reason. There was a vague sense of danger around the man, like a dusky layer of smoke.

“Who’s he?” His manner was shorter than he intended.

If Tikvah was perturbed he didn’t show it. “They call him Fingers. I don’t know his real name.” He shrugged as if it was of no account.

Storm and Lorelei exchanged a distrustful look. “‘Fingers’ sounds like the kind of name a thief would have,” she replied primly.

Tikvah laughed heartily. “Then he’s well named. Fingers belongs to one of the more prominent thieving guilds in Nahor, the Shadow Children.” He paused uncertainly, pursing his lips. “Although, I’m not sure guild is the correct word for it.” He waved it off. “No matter. He’s promised to lead you out of here.”

Storm was more suspicious though. Any group of crooks sounded like a gang or the mafia to him. “How do we know we can trust him?” Lorelei appeared dubious as well. The Biqah’s harsh code of honor strictly forbade such things, as well as making thieving a risky livelihood; the penalty for the first offense was the loss of a hand, the second was the loss of a head. She couldn’t imagine trusting their future to a man who stole for a living.

Tikvah crossed his arms. “He owes us his life. His sort worship Tartak, but when they need healing and don’t have any potions, guess who they have to come to?”

Storm nodded, seeing how it worked. “And then, they owe you favors. Still, working with thieves . . .”

The High Priest sighed. “It’s not perfect, I’ll grant you, but they have come in handy occasionally, and to be honest, you’re not really in a position to be picky.”

Storm wanted to argue with him but couldn’t. He knew as well as Lorelei that, despite her earlier comments, Adrammelech could very well afford to keep them trapped for the rest of their lives. He stared at Fingers suspiciously then addressed Tikvah. “What’s the plan?”

Tikvah understood Storm’s decision for what it was and took care not to antagonize him further. “The sewers under the city run for many leagues in every direction. A lot of them are actually streets from the under-city so they’re everywhere.”

Lorelei interrupted. “The under-city? What’s that?”

The High Priest smiled indulgently. “That’s right, you Biqah have never been much interested in Nahor or its history. Well, it’s time for you to learn. Namak lake is constantly rising or rather, the bottom has continued to sink for centuries. The waves eat away at the shoreline and the lake grows longer and wider. At one time, Nahor was on the banks of a river flowing out of the lake but as the lake grew, the waters crept closer and closer until finally the city was right on the edge of the lake. But still the water rose and the shoreline crumbled until they had to start filling in some of the old streets and building new streets on top of the buried buildings, as well as adding onto the city on the southern edge away from the lake.” He shook his head. “Three times the city has been rebuilt and still the Namak continues to rise and expand. Who knows where it will end?” He shrugged. “So, those buried streets and buildings are called the under-city and believe me when I say, it’s a dangerous place down there. There are more than just thieves in the muck and the mire. Fingers,” he gestured at the colorless man who still hadn’t spoken, “is familiar with the sewers and under-city. He can guide you to an exit northeast of the city. From there, make your way to an inn, called Harak’s Rest, on the Lake Road heading north along the lake. They say Harak, a dwarf from Thangadrim, is buried there. That’s where it gets its name. In any event, the inn is run by a believer named Pagiel. We’ll sneak your pegasi out of the Temple disguised as ordinary horses and leave them at Harak’s Rest. Pagiel will take care of them until you arrive.”

Storm kept his face impassive throughout Tikvah’s recital. There were a thousand things that could go wrong with his plan, not the least of which was its dependence on the reliability of a known criminal. According to his cop friend on Earth, ‘honor among thieves’ was more of a theory than a reality and he hadn’t seen anything on Gaia to contradict that proposition. A glance at Lorelei confirmed her feelings were identical to his. If looks could kill, Fingers would already be a crispy critter.

He forced himself to smile. “What are we waiting for?”

Minutes later they found themselves staring down a black hole in the basement of the Temple, the heavy iron grate pulled back to reveal an opening nearly three cubits across. A heavy, fetid odor wafted out of it, causing Lorelei to crinkle her nose. Next to it were three paddles. Storm stuck his head out over it and looked down. There was a wide shaft with a ladder attached to the side. At the bottom, floating in the sewage were three round, bowl-like objects. “What are those?”

“Coracles,” Fingers told them in flat, emotionless tones. “Some call them bowl boats because of the shape or bull boats because of the cow hides used to cover the frame. Only one person per boat. Most don’t have seats in them but these do. You use a paddle to maneuver.” He took one of the paddles and climbed down the ladder into the sewers.

Storm grabbed Tikvah’s arm. “How far can we trust him?” He pointed down the shaft.

The big man shrugged. “About as far as you can spit upwind. He knows the sewers, but keep an eye on him.”

“That’s what I thought.”

He grabbed a paddle and climbed down after the thief. Moving gingerly, he put first one foot, then other other in the small boat and sat down on the flat board that served as a seat. The tiny craft was surprisingly steady once he was seated.

Lorelei followed him down moments later. Her nose still wrinkling at the smell.

Tikvah stuck his head out over the opening. “Remember,” he called down to them. “You want to go north. The deeper the water gets, the closer you are to the lake.”

Lorelei looked at the tunnels branching away every direction, beyond the light of their torches they were pitch black. “North. Sure, no problem,” she muttered.

Storm waved at him and Tikvah disappeared. Moments later the grate was shoved back into place with a grinding sound of metal on stone and the light from above vanished except for a few pinholes in the grate.

“Coracles can float in less than a span of water, which makes them perfect for use in the sewers,” Fingers told them. “This way,” he added as he began rowing down the tunnel. He used a simple sculling motion in front of him, moving the paddle in a gentle figure-8 pattern, pulling the tiny boat forward through the water.

Soupy muck was more like it, Storm thought, trying not to think about what might floating in it. The smell already told him more than he wanted to know. He waved Lorelei ahead of him so he could be the rear guard.

“I already feel like I need a hot bath,” she whispered to him as she sculled past.

He gave her a sympathetic look. He felt the same way.

The sewers weren’t anything like he’d imagined. He’d always thought of them as big round pipes like in the movies. Instead they were simply open spaces underground. Tikvah’s tale of Nahor’s history was proving accurate. They floated through streets that were half buried in dirt and silt, the remains of ancient houses facing them on either side. Overhead were stone arches from one rooftop to another, supporting slabs of stone that served as the foundation for the newer parts of the city built on top of them. Sometimes the roof was twenty or thirty feet above them, nearly invisible in the darkness. Other times, they had to duck to keep from hitting their heads on it. As often as they floated through buried streets, they sailed right through the old houses, floating in through gaping holes in the walls or what looked like the frames of a picture windows, through old bedrooms and hallways, then out the other side again. Other times they went through old civic buildings, temples, museums, or such. Most of the time it looked as if they were traversing the upstairs floors but occasionally it was clearly an attic, the rest of the house or building buried under the muck and mire of centuries. A few times they had to get out of their coracles and carry them over slanted rooftops.

“These aren’t sewers,” Lorelei protested after several hours of traversing through the malodorous darkness. “This is a maze. A stinky one,” she added unnecessarily.

“It kinda reminds me of Venice,” Storm said in a quiet voice so their unsavory guide couldn’t overhear.

She looked at him. “Venice?”

He nodded. “A city on Earth. Not the smell, but the water. Venice is half-flooded by the ocean. A lot of the streets are canals. People use boats called gondolas to get around. Underneath the dry part though, it’s similar to this.” He waved a hand around them. “The thing is, if you knocked out a couple of key supports, it could start a chain reaction that could bring down the whole city.”

She was horrified. “The whole city?”

He held up a hand. “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that’s what I’ve heard.”

She glanced apprehensively at the ceiling. “Well, I wished you hadn’t mentioned it. Now, that’s all I’ll be able to think about.”

“Really? Well then,” he changed his voice to his best pirate imitation, “after we’re done in here, I’ve got plans for you, my pretty.”

A sultry smile crossed her face like warm syrup. “Mmm. I like the sound of that.”

* * * * *

They paddled for hours through the twisting canals, streets, buildings, ponds, and tributaries of the under-city. Fingers halted for lunch as they were porting their coracles over the flat roof of a large building that had once been ornate and beautiful, but was now overgrown with moss and mushrooms.

While they were eating, their magic mirror, thankfully in Lorelei’s backpack when the demon’s fireball destroyed Storm’s backpack, began flashing and making noise. Fingers was on his feet in an instant, with a knife appearing as if by magic in each hand. Storm raised a reassuring hand. “Whoa, there. It’s alright. It’s just one of our magic gadgets.” He flipped it open and Ralt’s face appeared.

Fingers hesitated, then nodded and sat down, keeping a wary eye on them.

Storm turned the mirror so only he and Lorelei could see it. Before they warn Ralt about their eavesdropper, he excitedly began telling them about testing Ashima’s inability to harm them when they stood up to him along with affirmation of the theory the gods needed non-believers to initiate combat before they could strike them, concluding, “Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore and left, roaring like nothing you ever heard.”

Storm compressed his lips, glancing under his eyelashes at Fingers. Ralt wasn’t telling him anything new since they’d already figured it out or talked to Aram, but he was giving their untrustworthy guide more information than he needed. The slender thief was frozen in place, pretending interest in his lunch.

“That’s good, Ralt,” Lorelei said carefully. “Why don’t we call you in a few weeks when we have a little more privacy?”

He paused for a moment, then was stricken as her meaning sank in. “Oh no. I’m sorry, Storm, Lorelei. I didn’t know.”

Storm held up a hand. “It’s alright. You were excited, but you said it yourself once, we need to start being more careful. All of us.”

Ralt nodded. Over his shoulder, Missy leaned forward. “I’ll keep him in line for ye.” She gave Lorelei a conspiratorial wink. Lorelei giggled in spite of herself and winked back.

Storm sighed heavily as one much put upon. “Ralt, I’m about to teach you an old Texas saying – when momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Learn it well, my friend, learn it well.”

Ralt echoed his expression. “I think I’m already getting there.”

* * * * *

After lunch, Fingers kept up the pretense of normalcy the rest of the day, rowing steadily with the occasional comment thrown in here and there. Late in the afternoon he took time to show them some copper cylinders suspended along the walls in various places. Each one was about two cubits long and half as wide. The bottoms ended in points with a spigot on them. Above the cylinders were pipes or outlets of some kind that dripped water into the tubes. They could hear water splashing inside them. “The guild installed these years ago around the sewers to collect drinkable rain water,” he explained. He steered his coracle over to one of them and turned the spigot, letting the water run for a moment before filling his canteen from it. “Always let the water run for a bit to clear out any silt before you drink it,” he warned.

Storm and Lorelei copied him, filling their canteens.

“How long will it take us to get across the city?” she asked him.

“A couple of days.”

She frowned. “Why so long?”

“Coracles don’t move very fast and we have to give the trolls a wide berth,” he answered shortly.


He nodded. “They love this place, but as long as you stay away from their territory they generally leave you alone.” He changed the subject and pointed ahead. “There. That ledge up ahead. That’s where we’ll spend the night.”

“Spending the night in troll-infested sewers,” Lorelei muttered sarcastically. “How lovely.”

Storm grinned then eyed the ledge Fingers had indicated. It was twenty feet long and about half as deep, looking more like an old balcony than anything else, the stubs of the railing still visible where they had been broken off. It was a couple of feet above the water so at least they’d be dry.

They tied up their coracles then ate a cold meal of trail rations.

As they were preparing their bedrolls, Storm debated with himself for a moment then offered to set wards around Fingers as well as himself and Lorelei, explaining how it worked.

“What if I need to get up in the middle of the night?”

“You could get out easily enough, but trying to come back through would set them off,” Storm told him. Ralt had told him about wards that could let certain people pass back and forth through them but it would be a long time before Storm would be able to cast it.

Fingers shook his head. “Nope.”

“Suit yourself.” Storm set up the wards around his and Lorelei’s bedrolls. “We’ll take turns keeping any eye on him,” he muttered to her. “He overheard too much for my liking.”

She nodded. “Smart idea.”

If Fingers noticed their wary attitude, he didn’t give any indication. He rolled up in his blanket and was snoring within moments.

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