By the time I had re-joined the living, the trek was already taking its toll on everyone. Everyone but Hadolko that is. It wasn’t marching twelve hours a day, it wasn’t that we had to ration our food since most of it had been lost in the crash. It was the constant dark. There is no sun, no moon, no stars, no day or night, only darkness underground.
Without me to contact the camp in Gadios the company was forced to press on. I had been out for three days and it took a fourth before I was strong enough to march. The medics did their job well. They told me that just ten years ago it would have taken weeks to recuperate from the swelling and blood loss I had sustained. Soon I was able to rejoin the company, my first order of business was to send a report to camp.
The situation was worse than I had thought. Twenty transports and two tanks were lost in the crash. Two train cars had been torn in half and their contents plummeted down the train shaft. We were very lucky that the car that the majority of our company was in remained intact, but it meant that the rest of the trip would be on foot. Hadolko said that the trip to the surface would probably take two weeks.
The Artifact has it’s own version of the internet, it is the only way to communicate through the thousands of walls that separate any two points. The problem with this network is that the Chezbah closely monitor every computer. Any communication is read by them so any information about the Scimrahn must be protected or it will endanger their lives. Even alerting the Chezbah to our position might prompt a visit by any local forces and endanger Hadolko. The solution is a bag of tricks. No one works every time. For instance, I can send a message without giving my location, but then Headquarters won’t know how to get a message back to us. I can encrypt a message or scramble it but this only slows the Chezbah down. They have the ability to crack any code, it’s just a matter of how much of a delay it will provide.
I was finally able to make a report of our situation to Headquarters at Gadios. We had hoped that they could provide some support or re-supply but we were already too far out. There was nothing they could do for us before we arrived at the surface. We would have to make it on our own.
Our luck took a turn for the better six days into our journey when I was unexpectedly called to the front of our column. There Crowley and a shadowy group of figures waited for me.
“Concade, find out who these people are and if they can be of assistance.” Crowley grunted unceremoniously.
Three figures stood forward from the group of sixty. They were Scimrahn from their clothing and facial tattoos. The one in the middle was older than his two companions but still only appeared to be in his early twenties.
* The following is translated from the Scimrahn language *
“We are ASO, who are you?” I asked.
The trio looked at each other. With a smirk the middle one said “We are Scimrahn” and left it at that.
“I am Onix Concade, I am a Communications Specialist. Who are you sir?
“I am Ub Enforcer of the Hidden Light tribe.” He responded.
At that moment Hadolko arrived at the front of the rank. “Good health to you and many children!” He called while still ten meters away.
Ub responded “A full belly and a warm night’s sleep to you! I am Hadolko.”
Hadolko quickly walked up to us and embraced Ub and his companions. “It is good to see a Scimrahn face.”
“How long have you traveled with these Earthers” Ub asked him.
“Not long. We came by way of the Tunnel Rider up from Gadios to aid our Sisters the Kwi.”
“Where is the Tunnel Rider?” Ub asked with great interest.
Hadolko’s face grew sad “An enemy trap destroyed it and nearly us along with it if it had not been for Concade.”
Ub stepped forward, grasped me by the base of the neck and drew my head to his. This was the Scimrahn equivalent of shaking hands. I tried my best to co-operate
“It is good luck and good will to save the life of a scout like Hadolko. We will accompany you to our Sisters of the Kwi.”
I took this opportunity to try again. “We would be proud to have you with us. What does your tribe do so I may tell my leader.”
“You are in too much of a hurry Earther. You don’t know how lucky we are to meet. But I have heard that you Earthers put work first so I will overlook your rudeness. As I said before, I am Ub of the tribe Hidden Light. We are Minstrels.
Hadolko’s eyes lit up “I had thought you were! Onix, this is a great honor to actually travel with a Minstrel tribe!”
*** End translation ***
Crowley was tired of waiting “Well? Who are they Concade?”
“Sir! This is Ub, he is the Enforcer of this tribe. They are Minstrels and they want to accompany us to the surface.” I reported.
“I’m not babysitting a bunch of musicians, can they pull their own weight, or are they expecting us to feed them?” Crowley seemed particularly grumpy today. The darkness in the underground was having a demoralizing effect on all of us.
“I think you’d be surprised sir, they’re not only musicians but Minstrel tribes are the intellectuals in Scimrahn society. Ub may be able to tell us a good deal about tactics the Chezbah and Kelrath use.” This was an opportunity I did not want to miss.
“We don’t have time, we are already five days late and can’t afford delays, no matter how interesting they are.” He growled.
Hadolko ran up to Crowley. “Sir! You can not say no to them! It is very important.”
Crowley looked at Hadolko as if he were still speaking Scimrahn. He rolled his eyes. “Fine! If they can keep up, they can follow us.”
I don’t know how Ub found out about Crowley saying that, Hadolko probably told him, but from that moment on the Hidden Light tribe illumined the path in front of us. As hard as Crowley marched the men, Ub marched his harder. Women and children, old and young kept ahead of trained soldiers in their prime. It became apparent to us that they were determined not to be outdone.
It was obvious Hadlolko was taking great pride in his brethren outdoing us, he was having a hard time keeping his amusement to himself.
One woman named Neeah had to be carried by one of the warriors. Ub said that she was the oldest Scimrahn on this half of the planet. Ub wasn’t really sure how old she was, but knew she was older than a “full span” which is about eighty years.
* The following is translated from the Scimrahn language *
“She must be very important to your tribe.” I ventured.
“She is very important to the Scimrahn people. She is one of The Enlightened.” He remarked, but I was unfamiliar with the term.
“Does ‘Enlightened’ mean more than special knowledge? I don’t understand ‘one of the Enlightened’”.
Ub smiled a wry smile. “Many Scimrahn do not either. There are very few that have ever met an Ehell, Neeah is one who has.” Ub obviously knew that I also had no idea what an Ehell was because he continued without interruption. “The Ehell are powerful creatures that have helped the Scimrahn oppose the Chezbah. Some think that without them, the Scimrahn would have ceased to exist long ago.”
“I don’t understand, I’ve never heard of them, and I’ve studied the Scimrahn’s history. Why hasn’t anyone mentioned them before.”
Ub smiled again. “The Scimrahn shun idolizing anyone or anything. We have rejected gods and men as unquestioned superiors. Many are uncomfortable in acknowledging the roll of the Ehell because of their godlike power.”
This revelation was becoming stranger by the moment. Not only were Ub’s comments revolutionary to our understanding of The Artifact, by his own words they were apocryphal. “Then why do you believe in them?”
Ub bobbed his head, in agreement with the question “Primarily because of Neeah. She is the reason why we are here. It was very important to the Ehell that we accompany you.”
“Why?” I asked.
Ub stared into the darkness, his face straightened. “I doubt Neeah even knows. The Ehell do not tell her more than is needed. It bothers me that we must know so little. But Neeah says that the Ehell are not treacherous. I do not have the same faith in the Ehell that she does, but she has never been wrong about the guidance they give.”
“So who are these Ehell? Where are they from?”
Ub shook his head slowly “Those are not easy questions to answer. I myself used to doubt if they exist, but they give Neeah unusual insight. And one time…” he trailed off.
“What?” I prodded.
“There was one time, just before I became Enforcer of the tribe, she took us far from our path. I was worried that such a diversion would cost us too much in supplies. The Enforcer before me would not listen. He had already come to know what I know now. Neeah walked out in front of the tribe and as she entered a dark greir, a ball of light shot out from her body, it grew larger and larger as it flew, until it illuminated half the grier. When it stopped, the light revealed a division of Chezbah. We thought they would kill us, but from the darkness plasma bolts rained down on the Chezbah. We added what small fire we could until the Chezbah division was wiped out.”
He continued, “Later we learned that the Chezbah were making ready to ambush a Carrier tribe. The light was a gift from the Ehell and it both revealed the Chezbah and obscured us. The Chezbah did very little damage to either tribe. The Carriers re-supplied us in thanks. We do not know why the Ehell chose that tribe to save. Neeah often says that they follow a design and gently nudge things in the direction they choose.”
The conversation was taking an odd turn now. This meant that Ub believed Neeah preformed some kind of miracle. For a people that professed to follow no gods, Ub was talking about something that sounded awfully religious to me.
Ub turned and looked at me “You don’t believe me? That is good, a man should not accept the word of a stranger. But I think your people here have some role to play. Maybe it is for the very purpose that you travel for, to assist the Kwi. Who knows?” He said throwing his head back, a gesture that was the Scimrahn equivalent of a shoulder shrug.
Later on I tried to relay the story back to Crowley but he had little interest in cultural issues at that point. He was more interested in our dwindling supplies.
“We’re not going to make it to any tribe if we don’t re-supply. By my best estimate, we have three more days of food.” His face soured “I don’t think we’ll be much use to anyone even if we make it. If only there was a way we could restock.”
“Let me talk to Ub again sir, You’ve seen how little they carry with them, they must have some way of acquiring food.”
Crowley grimaced “I can’t imagine anything living down here, but we don’t have a lot of options right now. Do you really think he’ll help? So far these Scimrahn haven’t been very consistent. One minute they’re all for us the next, they’re acting like we owe something to them.”
“I understand sir, but Ub seems to be following direction of the old woman named Neeah who he says is some kind of prophet, and she says that we’re important for some reason.”
Crowley raised an eyebrow “Now that worries me. You be careful with what you say to them, this situation is not to my liking and I don’t want to become dependant on them. I can’t be caught up in some fanatic’s idea of what we should be doing. I already have a task to complete.”
I took up the task immediately. I realized that Neeah’s interest in us could be a useful tool, but Crowley’s perspective was also valid, if I were to play it up, and Neeah clarified what these “Ehell” wanted it could cause a lot of trouble. I felt it prudent to act as that conversation had never occurred. This saddened me because the idea of a Scimrahn religion was something that we had never heard of and most Scimrahn say did not exist.
Hadolko was talking to Ub when I went back to find out if anything could be done about our dwindling supplies. The conversation seemed innocuous, it sounded like they were discussing their families, but the broke the conversation as I approached.
“What can we do for you Communications Specialist?” Ub hailed.
“You know me, always business. . .” I caught myself breaking from good Scimrahn manners. I had gathered that it was polite to engage in some chit chat before getting down to business.
Ub reached into his cape and drew what appeared to be a small pastry and offered it to me with a gesture.
“Thank you.” I reached out without thinking and nearly took a bite when I realized that this was not a simple pastry. The Scimrahn do not stigmatize drug use like much of Earth does, they often live too short a life to see the real long term effect of drugs, and do not have a commercial drug trade that focuses on the most addictive drugs. Most of the Scimrahn’s use of drugs started out as performance enhancers for combat, but recreational drugs are also common. For instance marijuana would be readily acceptable to Scimrahn but the use of crack-cocaine would be seen as unproductive.
“Um, is this. . . ” I trailed off because the Scimrahn word for drug is also the word for gift because it often plays both roles. It was difficult for me to know how to differentiate the two ideas with my limited knowledge of the language. Thankfully Hadolko came to my rescue.
“Like Onix said, always business.” Hadolko took the ‘gift’ from my hand and took a bite. “The Scimrahn also recognize the need for a sharp mind while working.”
Ub smirked “Yes but Earthers need to learn that always working is not healthy.”
“Ub, when I am off duty, I will be happy to buy you and Hadolko a drink but right now I do need to talk about work. The trap that damaged the Tunnel Rider also destroyed most of our food, we need to get more somehow or we will not make it to the Kwi.”
Ub shook his head. “I have seen how you Earthers eat. In one meal you eat enough for three days of walking, you must eat less to make your food go further.”
I hadn’t considered this as an obstacle in getting food before now so it took me aback. Most of the Scimrahn’s struggle is for food and as a result, they live hard lives on very sparse diets. In contrast the eating habits of a majority of our company was gluttonous.
“What you say is true Ub, we eat much more than any Scimrahn does, but these men are not accustomed to your diet. If we try to force it on them now, we will take too long to get to the Kwi and this journey will have been for nothing. It ask for your understanding in this.”
Ub looked unconvinced. “Hm. I know many people that have gone with nothing but water for days. The knowledge that food waits at your destination will motivate them.”
“That may be true, but some may desert. It is unfortunate that you will not help, now we will have to try to get food by ourselves and it will take longer to get to the surface.” I replied.
Ub threw his head back. “Very well I will have my Warriors teach your men how to find food.”
“I thank you father Ub.” Calling a Scimrahn father is like saying ‘sir’, a way of showing honor. I hadn’t expected him to acquiesce.
The foraging trips began immediately. I accompanied the group most of the time to help in communicating, but in many cases the Scimrahn didn’t bother to talk, usually using simple visual ques to communicate. Most days the foraging party found nothing. Twice we found a small patch of edible plants, but it was hardly worth the effort. Sadly Crowley began to get frustrated by our failure to find any significant amount of food and started cutting back on the number of men he would allow on the party. This angered Ub, who reduced his tribe’s involvement over time until only a few would go out to look for food.
One outing proved to change the rest of my life. I went out with one of the Minstrels named Toliec on a foraging trip and we were headed back empty handed, when we heard what sounded like ten bears roaring all at once.
“What was that?” I shouted.
Toliec put her hand over my mouth and whispered “Quiet! I’ve never heard that before! Whatever it is, we don’t want it to know we’re here.”
We ran in the direction we heard the sound from, and as we approached we heard the sound of a struggle in the wastewater tunnels underneath us.
Tolec motioned to follow her “We will not be able to see from here, we will have to go down into the tunnel.”
As we descended the sound of struggle got louder, and a strange smell like rotting meat filled our nostrils. The tunnel was too dark for nightvision so I had to rely on an infra-red scope, Toliec faired better with her Scimrahn sonar goggles. What I saw was at first, unintelligible. A mass of heat rose from the curved floor of the tunnel. In the middle of it, a giant man struggled as if the heat was trying to drag him down.
I looked to Tolec for an explanation, but she no longer was aware of me. Her mouth hung open, her face transfixed in a recognition that had eluded me.
In a matter of seconds, I was able to discern that the heat that emanated from the floor was not one mass, but a writhing mass of animals. A moment later I was able to identify these creatures from our journey here. I now had a much closer view of them, each of the creatures was the size of a komodo dragon, but its head much larger and flatter. The short legs tipped in three razor sharp claws. These were a vicious swarm hunting animals very similar to smaller carnivorous dinosaur. They were Seeter and they are among the most feared creatures underground, not because of their size but because of numbers.
Now that part of the scene in front of me was clear, I tried to determine what the victim of the middle of the mass was. It looked human in infra-red, but the Seeter gave me a point of reference to judge its size which was far too large to be a human. The figure stood at least twice my height and there was a crown of horn on it’s head. It had a mane of hair like a lion.
“What is that?” I whispered out the side of my mouth to Toliec
The figure fell under the weight of the innumerable Seeter and struggled to get up. It slowly was moving towards us.
“I thought they were a myth!” she whispered back. “It is a Tanroc Fredar! They started the war against Loc thousands of years ago.”
In my studying the Scimrahn language, I had heard references to the name Tanroc Fredar, but to see one was unbelievable. This one didn’t look like it would last much longer under the onslaught of the hungry monsters that seemed to be eating even each other to get to their prey.
“Well, let’s go help him!” I whispered excitedly.
Toliec stretched out her arm to hold me back, “No, the Tanroc Fredar have descended into madness. They are little more intelligent than animals.”
By this time the mass of writhing Seeters was getting too close for comfort and the battle appeared lost. A legend had been eaten by a common beast. Toliec and I started to back up and climb back up the tunnel when ten Seeter flew into the air, the Tanroc Fredar leapt up and let out a roar that resonated in our bones stopping us in our tracks.
The Tanroc Fredar without looking suddenly spoke! “It is true, that many of us have faded!” He threw several more Seeters. “Some of us still retain the ability to reason.”
“Well what about that!” I shouted.
I realized my mistake. A group of the Seeter turned away from the Tanroc Fredar and toward us. Tolec ran as fast as she could, but the Seeter were faster. In the second it took me to throw the bolt back on my rifle, it was too late.
A Seeter knocked Toliec down and made a killing strike. A moment later my rifle found its mark and the Seeter fell. The second Seeter went down, and then a third, fourth and fifth. They seemed unfazed by the bark of the gun and the muzzle flash. They tried to swarm towards me but my rifle kept them back. I worried that I would run out of ammunition when they started to turn away.
I hoped that I would be able to help Toliec, I tried what little first aid I knew, but the Seeter bite to her neck snapped her spine.
I looked up to see the Tanroc Fredar standing over me.
His deep voice rumbled in melodious Scimrahn “I heard that there were newcomers from another world. It is an honor to meet someone who has come so far. I thank you for helping me. There are few in this world that are willing to help a stranger.”
He sat down and crossed his legs. “This Scimrahn, what was her name?”
“T, Toliec.” I stumbled. Actually talking to a legendary giant lion-man and Toliec’s death was making my head spin.
“I will compose a song in her memory, and I will relate your heroic actions. My name is Takoog, speak my name and the Tanroc Fredar will know you are a friend.”
“Um, okay. Could you help me get back to the camp?” I turned and pointed back the way I had come from. “Toliec was the one who knew the . . .” I turned back to Takoog, but there was no one there. “. . . way . . . back?!? Okay, that’s creepy!”
It took me a while to get back. I took Toliec and three Seeters back with me. I didn’t mention anything about Takoog, after all that I barely believed it, why would anyone else? I simply told them that Tolec was killed by Seeters, after all, that’s what really happened.
I was persuaded to show a hunting party where I last saw the Seeter. This time eighty Seeter came back as food. It would be just enough to get us to our destination.