They heard it together, a murmur in the distance, as if the planet itself was stirring. A gentle vibration resonated through the tunnels below the mountains of Muldaenuia. Haldron almost convinced himself he’d imagined it. But then the others began to react, first Rowtenat with his typical standoffishness, then Benellen with his usual levelheadedness.
“It felt like an earthquake”.
That seemed about right. There weren’t any major fault lines near Chintell but they did get the odd rumble from time to time. That was the most said between then and the loss of Helerenna. The joking and laughing were gone, replaced with only the storm cloud of tension floating above them every step of the way. From his place at the head of the group, Haldron eavesdropped on the whispering going on behind and, while he didn’t make out many words, his mind was more than ready to fill in the blanks. No one was happy. They may have chosen to stick with him but that didn’t mean morale was any better. They were fumbling around in the dark with no transport and only the blue fingers from the ends of their rifles to light the way, practically begging to be picked off by the Trassani. Loyalty might have saved him last time, but it wouldn’t last forever.
Their footsteps blended into a single clap of boot on rock, but then Haldron heard an outlier, a set louder and faster than the rest. Benellen appeared at his side. “We can’t stay in this tunnel for much longer”, he whispered, just loud enough to be heard over the footsteps. “We’re practically gift wrapping ourselves for the Trassani, and it won’t be long before the Imperium catches us up”.
“You think it was Searyuhb who set that mine back there”?
“I have no doubt”.
“This is his plan. He’s wearing us down. First he takes our spirit, then our transport. You know what’s next”.
He did. Of all the Trassani warlords to rain terror upon the Ebol, Hukijib Searyuhb had proven himself to be one of the smartest, and most sadistic. Where most Trassani preferred to dispatch their enemies quickly, he almost seemed to delight in toying with his prey. They were playing straight into his hands. “If we don’t get out this tunnel soon, we are all dead. But I wouldn’t put it past Searyuhb to have the other passages covered as well”. If you lifted up the snow-covered mountains of Muldaenuia, you’d find what looked like a spider web beneath, every one of the mains tunnels snaking across the continent connected by the thousands of secondary tunnels and passageways splitting from them like the branches of a great tree.
“That’s just a risk we’ll have to take”. Haldron nodded in agreement. “How are you doing”?
Haldron didn’t answer right away. “I’m fine”. A complete lie, but the last thing he needed was his squad questioning him any more than they already were.
“What was that back there? When we found the bodies”?
Haldron wished he could tell him, but, in truth, he’d have no idea where to start. He said the only thing he could think of. “I don’t know”.
“You’re my best friend, Haldron. We’ve been through more than most people can imagine. If there’s something going on with you, you know I’m here for you”.
“Yes, I do. I wish I could tell you. But I honestly don’t know what’s going on with me. I’m sorry”.
“It’s OK. Just try and hang in a little longer. When we get back, we’ll find you some help. You don’t have to go through this alone”. His best friend’s concern was appreciated but Haldron wasn’t sure if there was anything that could help him.
The conversation seemed to die. Benellen dropped back and Haldron was walking by himself again. Time was non-existent to them. He wondered if they would be wandering these tunnels for an eternity. They were walking but it seemed like they were going nowhere. Everything looked the same. Haldron wondered if this was what death was like, just wandering around in the dark, endlessly. He wasn’t sure whether to find comfort or horror in that notion.
Eventually, it seemed they were getting somewhere. The air was heavier, then came a smell that was very familiar.
“I smell smoke”, said Erdam
“Me too”, replied Rohbalt.
Haldron raised his hand to bring the squad to a halt. No one said a word as he scanned for noise. Nothing; just the wind.
Their steps were slow and calculated now. So still were their rifles they were like extensions of their bodies. Dust particles danced in the air like waves in the breeze. Haldron was surprised. He’d expected to find more smoke ahead, along with whatever it was emanating from. They found neither. The air should have thickened the closer they got but breathing was no more difficult here than when they first detected the smell. It seemed more like they’d stumbled upon remnants rather than something in progress. Then Haldron remembered; the rumble. What if it wasn’t an earthquake? The dark retreated with every step until there was no more ahead. The black faded, and then there was only grey before them. The Guardians found their progress halted by a chaos of boulders, rocks and rubble that looked to reach the ceiling. The dust was thick as fog here, so dense they might as well be breathing nothing else. The light at the end of Haldron’s rifle poked the rocks.
“What the fuck is this”? growled Rowtenat, the first words he’d spoken in hours.
The squad stared up at the blockage before them. “Looks like a tunnel collapse”, said Benellen, levelheadedness now tinged with confusion. “A recent one too”.
“The rumble earlier”, said Kallem. “The earthquake did this”?
“I’ve been driving these tunnels all my life”, Erdam replied. “I’ve never seen an earthquake bring down an entire tunnel”.
“Then what else could have done it”? Torben sounded worried again. Haldron was starting to wonder if he was a good fit for the tunnels. Anything, it seemed, had the power to get to him.
“Just one thing”, muttered Cravvik.
Haldron finished his thought. “A bomb”.
“A big one”, Benellen added.
All this talk of bombs only agitated Torben further. “You think the Trassani did this”?
“Seems most likely”.
“Why would they do that”?
“To slow us down”.
Or direct us down a particular route. Haldron didn’t allow the words to escape his lips. He couldn’t risk the squad being set any more on edge. There was already enough evidence they were headed toward an ambush.
Erdam looked to the ceiling. “It would have taken a shitload of explosives to do all this. Not many bands have access to that kind of firepower”.
“I guess we’re on the right track”.
“But what do we do now”? asked Rohbalt. “We can’t go through that”.
That was very true, but Haldron wasn’t about to let that stop him. “Then we’ll go around. Everyone fan out and look for passages. We’ll find another tunnel and get back on track. Stay sharp. There may well be traps here”.
The squad did as they were told. It shouldn’t have taken long. The tunnels were like tree branches, hundreds of smaller twigs breaking off from them. They’d soon find another route. Haldron concentrated on the area closest to the blockage when he was joined again by Benellen. “You know what he’s doing”.
“Why didn’t you say anything back there”?
“We can’t afford to have people panicking. I need everyone focused”.
“Still, don’t you think the others deserve to know the kind of danger they’re in”?
“Maybe, but the mission has to come first. We already nearly had one desertion. How long before someone else decides they don’t want to do their job”?
“It’s not our job to go on revenge missions, Haldron. We’re guardians. Our job is to protect our city”.
Frustration smouldered inside. “This is protecting our city. As long as Searyuhb lives, Chintell won’t be safe, or any other city. We wouldn’t be out here right now if we’d gone after him after the first attack. We could have ended it then. It’s like you said, when he’s gone he won’t be able to take anyone else’s loved ones from them. Sometimes revenge is the answer”.
Benellen opened his mouth to reply, but then Cravvik emerged. “Hey guys. I think I’ve found something”.
They were about to accompany their comrade when another blast rocked the tunnel and sent them diving in all directions. Haldron landed on his front and brought his arms to his head in anticipation of the rocks that looked set to crush it into pulp. None came. He doubted his arms would have been of much help if they had. In what felt like no more than a millisecond, whatever was happening was already over. The tunnel was silent again, the echo having faded into non-existence though Haldron’s heart continued to race like it’d had the most powerful electrodes in the galaxy applied to it. He took his arms from his head, satisfied the roof wasn’t crashing down around them. He then grabbed his rifle, ready for the raiders that were certainly about to descend on them. But there was nothing. The wind whispered.
“Is everyone alright? Sound off”!
Erdam called back, then Rowtenat, both fine. Then Rohablt called out. “Kallem’s hurt”!
Haldron rushed to the spot from which the Guardian’s panicked voice originated. In the beam of his flashlight, he found Rohablt crouched over Kallem, body so still he feared he was too late. It was only when the hurried footsteps had ceased that he heard the medic’s wheezes and splutters. Haldron aimed his weapon to Kallem’s neck to glimpse the deep red flowing from the smile across his throat.
“I think he took some shrapnel”.
Torben was next to appear. “Is he alright”?
“Does he look alright”?!
“What the fuck was that”? Rowtenat exclaimed as he and Erdam appeared.
“It sounded like a mine”.
“We’ll worry about that later”. Haldron was fighting to control his nerves. It had been a long time since the squad saw a serious injury on patrol.
“What do we do”?
Haldron knelt beside Rohbalt. “We need to stop the bleeding”. He pressed his right hand to Kallem’s neck, red liquid oozing between his fingers. “Where’s the cauterizer”?
“What about ECM”?
“It won’t work fast enough. We need to close the wound”.
“His bag”. Rohbalt grabbed Kallem’s medical bag and began rummaging. The others stood silent, the beams of their rifles trained on the opening as he sifted through bandages, bottles and vials. Haldron kept his palm clasped to the wound as hard as he could but the blood escaped regardless. The pool by Kallem’s head expanded by the second. Rohbalt’s hand emerged, a thin, metal instrument clutched tight. He handed it to Haldron who took his other hand from Kallem’s neck. The red river ran unimpeded in the blue moonlight. Haldron pinched the broken skin together, pressed the button, and the silence was shattered by the screams of his comrade as flesh was melted and skin was fused together. Benellen, Cravvik and Erdam all set upon Kallem, pinning his arms and legs as Haldron worked on his throat. He had about a quarter of the wound closed but the blood was still coming.
The screams pierced Haldron’s skull like rusty nails. The current was calming, now with the urgency of a running tap. Kallem’s screams relaxed into moans, pained thrashes now tired flails. There wasn’t much time left. About three quarters of the wound was closed before Haldron stopped. Kallem stared at the darkness. He’d gone still, muscles loose, grips relaxed. A final breath passed his lips, then nothing. Those holding him released his arms and legs. The blood was still flowing, just a trickle now. Haldron’s hands were glazed so completely not a spot of his gloves could be seen. The silver of the cauterizer was stained the red of rubies. He took the instrument away but couldn’t bring himself to rip his gaze from his friend’s vacant stare. Then Rohbalt’s hand appeared, index finger reaching for one eye and middle finger for the other before pulling the eyelids down and then it was as if Kallem was fast asleep. Haldron brought the back of a bloody right hand to his forehead, his comrade’s blood staining his own sweat-glazed fur. Nobody said a word. The squad remained where they stood, heads bowed and eyes closed. The Trassani could have been about to descend for all they cared.
Again, Rohbalt was first to move. He drew his combat knife and made for Kallem’s right breast where the mark to be added to the Wall of Remembrance was sewn. When a guardian died, whether it was in the tunnels on their first patrol or in their bed after decades of service, their mark was always added to their city’s Wall of Remembrance, a reminder of the eternal debt owed to them. Rohbalt was as gentle as he could be, slicing a crude circle around the yellow symbol before taking the patch of material and stuffing it into his pocket.
Haldron searched for meaningful worlds within the fog of grief gathered inside. “He was our brother. We will always remember and honour him”,
“He’ll be missed by everyone who knew him”, Benellen added.
No one else spoke but they didn’t have to. Their silence said enough. “What do we do with him”? Torben then asked.
“The only thing we can do. He’ll have to stay here until someone can come and get him”.
No one was happy with that but there were no protests. “Fucks sake”, grumbled Rowtenat. “That was our fucking medic”.
“We know”, Benellen growled.
“So what the fuck are we supposed to do when someone takes a bullet or loses a limb”?
“We’ll deal with it”, Haldron said though he wasn’t sure exactly how.
“Fat lot of good that did him”.
“Shut the fuck up, Rowtenat”! Benellen snapped.
“Yeah I’ll shut up. I won’t say anything about what led us here. About why our friend is dead”.
In barely a second, Haldron was on his feet and face to face with Rowtenat again. For a moment, he thought to knock his head from his shoulders but the notion passed. They stood in silent incongruence, each waiting for the other to do something. But the moment never came. Benellen stepped between them.
“We don’t have time for this. We need to figure out what we’re gonna do now”.
“What the fuck does it matter? Without a medic. we’re fucked out here, even more than we already were”.
“There’s nothing to figure out”, Haldron said. “We carry on. We can’t turn back now, not after coming this far. We’ll move Kallem and leave a marker and then we’re moving on”.
Erdam and Rohbalt took their fallen comrade between them and carried him to the side of the tunnel. They left a marker by his corpse. The metal sphere would send out a signal so the authorities at Chintell could find him easily. With that done, they headed for the passage Cravvik spoke of. It was only a few dozen yards back up from the point of collapse. Haldron couldn’t believe they’d missed it. The passageways were a far more chaotic affair than the transport tunnels. They varied in size and length; many weren’t lit, or even charted. This was no exception. They were forced to move two abreast. There were no tracks or lights or wires. The way ahead was so dark, Haldron couldn’t see an inch without the aid of his torch. There could have been a lurker ready to open him from stomach to throat and he wouldn’t have known until it was too late. The tubes of light danced all over like panicked fireflies. If they were on edge before, they were on the verge of dropping dead now. Every step was slow and certain. Lights and eyes darted from the floor to the walls to the ceiling and back again in search of mines and any other surprises Searyuhb might have left them.
The weight on Haldron’s shoulders was so heavy it might as well have been him alone holding the mountains up above them. This was the last thing they needed, a friend and squadmate dead, their medic no less, and they were obviously heading into a trap set by those they were in pursuit of. He caught Rowtenat’s meaning back there. If not for him and his mission, they wouldn’t be here, and Kallem would still be with them. No matter how many times he silently told himself what the were doing was for the good of their city and everyone knew what they’d signed themselves up for, Haldron couldn’t help but know his friend’s blood was on his hands, figuratively and literally.
The tunnel wound its way through rock and sediment like some great snake. Maybes it was a giant snake that made it and the many others like it, one with skin of steel and drills for teeth. Very likely not. These tunnels were made over centuries, millennia even, by the ancient Ebol as they spread across the continent. Haldron’s race was never divided. There were never any warring tribes or nations separated by lines on maps. One people united under one goal: to survive and prosper in the harshness of their environment. Each city was another limb of the same body.
It seemed like they’d been walking for hours although it was impossible to be sure. It had been days since the escape from Chintell and certainly more than a day since they lost Helerenna. In all that time, they’d done nothing but walk. The squad had to be tired; Haldron knew he was. He could feel himself slowing down, knees, shins and ankles aching like there were worms squirming inside his bones. They’d need to stop soon. He’d already pushed them hard as it was, more than usual. The hardest squad in the galaxy couldn’t walk indefinitely, and, while they were no pushovers, they would never lay claim to such praise. But where to stop? The tunnel they crept through had its advantages and disadvantages: only two directions with no hiding spots for the Trassani. The narrowness meant they couldn’t be surrounded on all sides. Of course, that also meant they had nowhere to go if they came at them from both directions. They’d come this far, they could manage a bit further. They’d find something soon enough.
Something finally seemed to change. The blackness ahead looked to brighten, ever so slightly but enough for Haldron to notice. He lowered his rifle. The light of his world vanished in a heartbeat, except for the whiteness in the distance. He raised his hand again.
“What is it”? Benellen whispered.
“You see that”?
Benellen looked ahead but didn’t seem to see what he was meant to. Then he lowered his rifle and looked again. “What do you think that is”?
“I don’t know. Stay sharp”.
Haldron crept forward .With his weapon raised, all he saw was the intense blue-white in front of his face, but, when he lowered it, it was difficult to contain his surprise. Not just white now, but purple, yellow, pink and blue. They carried on, the colours growing in brightness until they didn’t need their flashlights at all. The walls shimmered liked starlight, welcoming the guardians and drawing them into their provenance. The tunnel expanded, and became a cavern where they quickly found the sources of the lights.
“Woah”. A sentiment surely shared by the others.
It had been a very long time since Haldron had seen this many crystals. They were everywhere, sprouting from the ground, walls and ceiling in clumps like luminescent mushrooms. Everywhere you looked there was a new colour: pink in the close right corner, yellow on the ceiling near the middle, turquoise coming from the wall near the far left corner, green here and purple there, mingling at the centre to form a single warm and dazzling haze. Haldron nearly didn’t notice the lake. The ground dipped a little way in and multi-coloured water sprawled across the majority of the subterranean cave, rippling with such peace it seemed like they’d left the galaxy behind completely. A place devoid of chaos and pain, where time stood still and the world didn’t turn.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before”, said Cravvik.
“I have”. Erdam sounded far less impressed.
“Me too”, Haldron added though never an abundance like this. Usually, there’d be just the odd outcrop sticking out of a tunnel wall, barely an inch tall. Most of these looked taller than Erdam.
“I’m surprised this place hasn’t been stripped already”, Rohbalt said. The Ebol had little use for crystals themselves but there had once been a lucrative industry in exporting them to the other continents of Karasen, until the supplies began to dwindle several centuries back.
Benellen stepped a little further in. “It must be protected, or no one knows it’s here. This looks like a good place to stop for now. We’ve been walking for over a day. We need to catch our breath”.
Haldron had to agree. He’d pushed them hard enough already. “Alright, we’ll rest here. Everyone stay close and try to get some sleep. Two people keep watch at once. We don’t want the Trassani sneaking up on us. Me and Benellen will go first”.
There were no arguments with that. Everyone was just happy to be able to take the weight off their feet. They weren’t in for an easy rest. Their sleeping bags were left aboard Helerenna. That made no odds. They were strong men, and they’d all endured their share of rough nights. Haldron kept watch over the left end of the lake; Benellen patrolled the right. That suited him just fine. He needed some time to himself. So much there was to process. But at least he had the glow for company. It was cold here but the light made Haldron feel warm. They made him feel safe. They made him feel like they were there with him.