Tunnels 01 tunnels, p.34
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       Tunnels 01 - Tunnels, p.34
 

           Roderick Gordon

  Eventually, after haring down several staircases, they entered a large room echoing with the sound of gurgling water. Imago came to a halt. He appeared to be listening for something.

  "Where's Bartleby?" Tam whispered to Cal as they waited.

  "He saved us from a stalker," Cal said despairingly, and hung his head. "He never came after us. I think he may be dead."

  Tam put his arm around Cal and hugged him. "He was a prince among animals," he said. He patted Cal on the back consolingly before moving forward to confer with Imago in hushed tones.

  "Think we should lie low for a while?"

  "No, better to make a break for it." Imago's voice was calm and unhurried. "The Division knows the boys are still here somewhere, and the whole place'll be riddled with patrols in no time at all."

  "We keep going, then," Tam concurred.

  The four of them filed out of the room and traveled along a colonnade until Imago vaulted over a low wall and slid down a slimy bank into a deep gulley. As the boys followed him, the stagnant water came up to their thighs, and thick fronds of glutinous black weed hampered their movements. They waded laboriously through, lethargic bubbles rising up and clumping together on the surface. Even though they were wearing masks, the putrid stench of long-dead vegetation caught in their throats. The gulley became an underground channel, and they were plunged into darkness, their splashes echoing around them until, after what felt like an eternity, they emerged into the open again. Imago motioned for them to stop, then scuttled up the side of the channel, squelching off into the fog.

  "This is a risky stretch," Tam warned them in a whisper. "It's open ground. Keep your wits about you and stay close."

  Before long, Imago returned and beckoned to them. They clambered out of the water and with sodden boots and pants crossed the boggy ground, the city finally behind them. They went up a slope and then seemed to reach a plateau of sorts. Will's spirits leaped as he spotted the openings in the cavern wall ahead. They had reached a way back into the Labyrinth. They'd made it.

  "Macaulay!" a harsh, thin voice called out.

  They all stopped in their tracks and wheeled around. The fog was patchier here on the higher ground, and through the thinning wisps they saw a lone figure. It was a single Styx. He stood there, tall and arrogant, with his arms folded across his narrow chest.

  "Well, well, well. Funny how rats always use the same runs…" he shouted.

  "Crawfly," Tam replied coolly as he pushed Cal and Will toward Imago.

  "…leaving their grease and stinking spoor on the sides. I knew I'd get you one day; it was just a matter of time." The Crawfly uncrossed his arms and then snapped them like whips. Will's heart missed a beat as he saw two shining blades appear in the Styx's hands. Curved and about ten inches long, they looked like small scythes.

  "You've been a thorn in my side for too long!" the Crawfly yelled.

  Will glanced at Tam and was surprised to see he was already armed with a brutal-looking machete he seemed to have conjured from nowhere.

  "It's time I righted a few wrongs," Tam said in a low, urgent voice to Imago and the boys. They could see the look of grim determination in his eyes. He turned in the direction of the Crawfly. "Get going, you lot, and I'll catch up to you," he called back to them as he began to advance.

  But the saturnine figure with swathes of fog curling around it didn't give an inch. Brandishing the scythes with an expert flourish and crouching a little, the Styx had the appearance of something horribly unnatural.

  "This isn't right. He's too bloody confident," Imago muttered. "We should make ourselves scarce." He drew the boys back protectively to one of the tunnel mouths of the Labyrinth as Tam closed in on the Crawfly.

  "Oh, no… no…" Imago drew in his breath.

  Will and Cal turned, searching for the source of his alarm. A mass of Styx had appeared through the mists and were spreading out in a wide arc. But the Crawfly held up one glinting scythe and they came to an abrupt halt a little distance behind him, swaying and fidgeting impatiently.

  Tam stopped, pausing for a moment as if weighing the odds. He shook his head just once, then drew himself up defiantly. He tore off his hood and took a large breath, filling his lungs with the foul air.

  In reply, the Crawfly yanked off his goggles and breathing apparatus, dropping them at his feet and kicking them aside. Tam and the Crawfly both stepped closer, then stopped. They faced each other like two opposing champions, and Will shuddered as he spotted the cold, sardonic smile on the thin face of the Styx.

  The boys held their breath. It had grown so deathly quiet in that place, as if all the sound had been sucked from the world.

  The Crawfly made the first move, his arms whipping over each other as he lunged forward. Tam jerked back to avoid the barrage of steel and, stepping to the side, brought up his machete in a defensive move. The two men's blades met and scraped off each other with a shrill metallic scream.

  With incredible dexterity, the Crawfly spun around as if performing some ritual dance, darting toward Tam and back again, slashing and slashing with his twin blades. Tam retaliated with thrusts and parries, and the two opponents attacked and defended and attacked in turn. Each sally was so blisteringly fast, Cal and Will hardly dared blink. Even as they watched, there came another salvo of silver and gray, and the two men were suddenly so close they could have embraced, the razor-sharp edges of their weapons grinding coldly against each other. Almost as quickly, they fell back, breathing heavily. There was a lull while each man's eyes remained fixed on the other's, but Tam seemed to be listing slightly and clutching his side.

  "This is bad," Imago said under his breath.

  Will saw it, too. Between Tam's fingers and down his jacket seeped dark ribbons of liquid, which looked more like harmless black ink under the green light of the city. He was wounded and bleeding badly. He drew himself slowly up and, apparently recovering, in a flash had swung his machete at the Crawfly, who sidestepped effortlessly and swiped him across the face.

  Tam flinched and staggered back, Imago and the boys saw the patch of blackness now spreading down his left cheek.

  "Oh my God," Imago said quietly, holding on to the boys' collars so tightly that Will could feel his arms tensing as the fight resumed.

  Tam attacked yet again, the Crawfly whirling backward and forward, this way and that, in his fluid and stylized dance. Tam's swipes and thrusts were decisive and skillful, but the Crawfly was too fast, the machete blade time and time again meeting with nothing but misty air. As Tam was twisting around to face his elusive opponent, he lost his footing. Trying to straighten up, his boots were slipping hopelessly. He was off balance, in a vulnerable position. The Crawfly couldn't miss this opportunity. He lunged at Tam's exposed flank.

  But Tam was ready. He'd been waiting for this moment. He ducked forward and rose inside his opponent's guard, bringing up the machete in a flash, so smartly that Will missed the devastating slash to the Crawfly's throat.

  The air between the two combatants filled with dark spume as the Crawfly reeled back. The Styx let both of his scythes tumble to the ground and gave out a bloody, hissing gurgle as he clutched his severed windpipe.

  Like a matador delivering the killing blow, Tam stepped forward, using both his hands for the final thrust. The blade sank up to the hilt in the Crawfly's chest. He let out a bubbling hiss and grabbed Tam's shoulders to steady himself. He looked down with sheer disbelief at the rough wooden handle protruding from his sternum, then raised his head. For a moment they stood there absolutely motionless, like two statues in a tragic tableau, staring at each other in silent recognition.

  Then Tam braced one foot against the Crawfly and wrenched out his machete. The Styx teetered on the spot, like a puppet suspended by unseen wires, his mouth shaping empty, breathless curses.

  They watched as the mortally wounded man spluttered a last choking snarl at Tam and, tottering backward, collapsed to the ground in a lifeless heap. Excited whispers passed down the lines of
Styx, who seemed paralyzed, unsure of what they should do next.

  Tam wasted no time in such hesitation. Holding his injured side and grimacing with the pain, he sprinted back to join Imago and the boys. This in turn mobilized the Styx, who scuttled forward to form a ring around the body of their fallen comrade.

  Tam was already leading Imago and the boys down a Labyrinth passage. But they had hardly gone any distance when he lurched to one side and sought out the wall for support. He was breathing hard and sweat was pouring off him. It streamed down his face, mingling with the blood from his lacerations and dripping from his bristly chin.

  "I'll hold them off," he panted, looking back at the tunnel opening. "It'll buy you some time."

  "No, I'll do it," Imago said. "You're wounded."

  "I'm finished anyway," Tam said quietly.

  Imago looked down at the blood welling out of the gaping flap on Tam's chest, and their eyes met for a fraction of a second. As Imago handed him his machete, it was clear the decision had been made.

  "Don't, Uncle Tam! Please come with us," Cal begged in a choked voice, knowing full well what this meant.

  "Then we'd all lose, Cal," Tam said, smiling wanly and hugging him with one arm. He reached into his shirt and yanked something from around his neck and pressed it into Will's hand. It was a smooth pendant with a symbol carved into it.

  "Take this," Tam said quickly. "It might come in useful where you're going." He let go of Cal and took a step away, but then grabbed hold of Will, his eyes never leaving the younger boy. "And watch out for Cal, won't you, Will?" Tam tightened his grip on him. "Promise me that."

  Will felt so numb that before he could find any words, Tam had turned away from him.

  Cal began to shout frantically.

  "Uncle Tam… come… come with us…!"

  "Get them away, Imago," Tam called as he strode back toward the mouth of the tunnel, and as he did so the full horror of the approaching Styx army hove into view.

  Cal was still calling Tam's name and showing not the slightest intention of going anywhere when Imago grasped hold of his collar and bundled him forcefully before him in the tunnel. The distraught boy had absolutely no choice but to do what Imago wanted, and his shouts immediately gave way to great howls of anguish and uncontrollable sobbing. Will received similarly rough treatment, with Imago repeatedly slapping him on the back to drive him forward. Imago only let up for the briefest moment as they rounded a sharp bend and he seemed to hesitate. The three of them, Will, Cal, and Imago, turned to catch a last glimpse of the big man, his outline dark against the green of the city as he held the two machetes in readiness at his sides.

  Then Imago pushed them on again, and Tam was forever lost from view. But burned onto their retinas was that final scene, that final picture of Tam standing proud and defiant in the face of the approaching tide. A single figure before a bristling field of drawn scythes.

  Even as they fled they could hear his urgent, shouted curses and the clash of blades, which grew fainter with every twist and turn of the tunnel.

  36

  They ran, and Will held his arm tightly to his side, his shoulder throbbing painfully with each stride. He had no idea how many miles they'd traveled when, at the end of a long gallery, Imago finally slowed the pace to allow them to catch their breath. The width of the tunnels meant they could have walked side by side, but instead they chose to remain in single file — it gave them some solitude, some privacy. Even though they hadn't exchanged a single word since they'd left Tam behind in the Eternal City, each knew only too well what the others were thinking in the wretched silence that hung like a pall over them. As they plodded mechanically along in their mournful little column, Will thought how much like a funeral procession it felt.

  He just couldn't believe that Tam was really dead — the one person in the Colony who was so much larger than life, who had accepted him back into the family without a moment's hesitation. Will tried to get his thoughts into some sort of order and deal with the sense of loss and the hollowness that overwhelmed him, but he wasn't helped by Cal's frequent bouts of muffled weeping.

  They took innumerable turns down lefts and rights, every new stretch of tunnel as identical and unremarkable as the last. Imago didn't once refer to a map but seemed to know precisely where they were going, muttering to himself under his mask every so often, as if endlessly reciting a poem, or even a prayer. Several times Will noticed that he would shake a dull metal sphere the size of an orange as they turned yet another corner, but he had no idea why Imago was doing this.

  It came as some surprise when Imago drew them to a halt by what appeared to be a small fissure in the ground and looked warily up and down the tunnel on either side of them. Then he started to agitate the metal sphere with vigor around the mouth of the fissure.

  "What's that for?" Will asked him.

  "It masks our scent," Imago answered brusquely and, tucking the sphere away, he unslung Will's backpack and dropped it into the gap. Then he lowered himself to his knees and squeezed headfirst into the opening. It was a tight fit, to say the least.

  For about twenty feet the fissure descended almost vertically, then it began to level off, narrowing even further into a tight crawl space. Progress was slow as Will and Cal followed behind, the sounds of Imago's grunting and wriggling reaching them from up ahead as he desperately struggled through, pushing Will's backpack before him. Will was just wondering what they would do if Imago got stuck when they reached the end and were able to stand again.

  At first, Will couldn’t make out much through his ruined mask, with one of its eyepieces shattered and the other fogged with condensation. It was only when Imago pulled off his mask and told the boys to remove theirs that Will saw where they were.

  It was a chamber, little more than thirty feet across and almost perfectly bell-shaped, with rough walls the texture of Carborundum. A number of small grayish stalactites hung down in the middle of the chamber, directly over a circle of dusty metal, which was set into the center of the floor. As they shuffled around the edges of the chamber, their boots scattered clusters of smooth spheres, which were dirty yellow in color and varied from the size of peas to large marbles.

  "Cave pearls," Will muttered, recalling the pictures he'd seen of them in one of his father's textbooks. Despite the way he felt, he immediately cast his eye around for any sign of running water, which would have been necessary for their formation. But the floor and walls appeared to be as dry and arid as the rest of the Labyrinth. And the only way in or out that Will could see was the crawl space they'd just come through.

  Imago had been watching him, and answered his unuttered question.

  "Don't worry… we'll be safe here, Will, for a while," he said, his broad face smiling, reassuringly. "We call this place the Cauldron."

  As Cal stumbled wearily to the far side of the chamber and slid down against the wall with his head slumped forward onto his chest, Imago spoke to Will again.

  "I should take a look at that arm."

  "It's nothing, really," Will replied. Not only did he wasn’t to be left alone, he was also too terrified to discover just how severe his injuries might be.

  "Come on," Imago said firmly, waving him over. "It could get infected. I need to dress it."

  Gritting his teeth, Will took a deep breath and, stiffly and awkwardly, removed his jacket and let it slide to the ground. The material of his shirt was firmly stuck to the wounds, and Imago had to work it free little by little, starting at the collar and gently peeling it back. Will watched queasily, wincing as several of the damp scabs were pulled off and he saw fresh blood well out and run down his already stained arm.

  "You got off lightly," Imago said. Will glanced at Imago's unsmiling face, wondering if he really meant what he was saying, as he nodded and went on. "You should count yourself lucky. Stalkers usually go for more vulnerable body parts."

  Will's forearm had some livid welts, and two semicircles of puncture wounds on both sides, but there was
little or no bleeding from these now. He inspected the redness on his chest and abdomen, then felt his ribs, which only hurt if he inhaled deeply. No real damage there either. But his shoulder was a different matter altogether. The animal's teeth had sunk deeper there, and the flesh had been badly mauled by the shaking of the stalker's head. In places it was so raw and torn it looked like it could have been inflicted by a shotgun blast.

  "Eyshh!" Will exhaled loudly, turning his head away quickly as rivulets of blood seeped down his arm. "It looks awful." Now that he'd actually seen it, he tensed up and couldn't stop himself from trembling, realizing just how much his injuries were hurting him. For a moment all his strength deserted him, and he felt so very weak and vulnerable.

  "Don't worry, it looks worse than it is," Imago said reassuringly as he poured a clear liquid from a silver flask over a piece of cloth. "But this is going to sting," he warned Will, then set about cleaning the wounds. When he'd finished, he pushed the flap of his coat open and reached inside to unbutton one of the many pouches on his belt. He pulled out a bag of what looked like pipe tobacco and proceeded to sprinkle it liberally over Will's wounds, concentrating on the lacerations to his shoulder. The small, dry fibers stuck to the lesions, absorbing the blood. "This might hurt a little, but I'm nearly done," Imago said as he packed more of the material on top, patting it down so that it formed a thick mat.

  "What's that?" Will asked, daring to look at his shoulder again.

 
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