I knew what would happen within the next few hours. It was an event as inevitable as a river flowing to the sea. After wallowing in misery for an uncounted number of minutes, I began preparing the arguments I expected I would need. I had to prepare to push back against that inevitable force, or else... What might happen after that was unquantifiable. So I could not give in. I had to be ready. I had to stand firm.
The list of laws I had violated was clear, etched into my mind like a resin recording cut by a diamond. I could not simply run from that. The state of guilt would stay with me, tarnish my life like rust. And on top of that was the deaths and the destruction. The loss of the blacksmith was a loss of livelihood for many in Forrester's Crossing. I knew enough about how the city functioned to see that this would hurt our productivity for months, and would delay projects in other cities too. Any economic blow would wound the Pure, especially at a time when we were bent close to the breaking point by the loss of Nearton's Bend.
I could not live as an outlaw, and I did not deserve to survive in any capacity. Accepting the just judgement of the Great Maker and the clerics was the only way I could possibly begin to make up for what I had done and caused. As I had seen the previous day, any attempts at making things right on my own initiative were doomed to failure.
I reiterated these points over and over to myself, until I either dozed off or blacked out.
An unholy noise startled me awake. My mind took a few seconds to surface from the sea of confusion and find its way out of a fog of numbers and letters and symbols. I was still in my cell, and the door was gone. It had collapsed outward, and I could see the mangled remains of the hinges.
Skids stood proudly on the door, much as I had anticipated. Not the door part, but Skids' presence was no surprise. The mage drone was brandishing a device as large as dro's arms, which was obviously a weapon, or at least a very destructive tool that could certainly function as a weapon. "Did someone call for a jailbreak?" dro asked, flashing a jaunty grin.
All the arguments I had carefully rehearsed now seemed hazy and unimportant. "Yeah," I said, grinning back. I had known Skids would come back to me, and until this moment I had not welcomed dro's help. I had only thought about the situation in terms of condemnation, not escape. But maybe, just maybe, with a friend like Skids beside me, I could learn to live with what had happened. Maybe I did not need to accept so much blame. Skids didn't seem to, and we had both been involved. Skids was the one who had supplied the device that had exploded, who had come to our city uninvited. Skids had not wanted to cause any harm — of that I was certain — and I couldn't find it in me to blame drome.
I knew full well that any other person in the city — in any Pure city — would immediately think the worst of Skids, or any mage, but I felt that I knew better. No, it was not just a feeling. It was the result of experience. No one else had met a mage. I had enjoyed several conversations with Skids. We had travelled together, eaten together, suffered together. Dro had saved my life multiple times, and I had aided drome a few times. Perhaps we could continue to aid each other. Perhaps helping Skids was something worth escaping for.
Maybe we could quantify what I had thought unquantifiable: my life with all the expectations stripped away, continuing in spite of the laws demanding otherwise.
Common sense — or the most basic of our laws — should tell me not to trust, listen to, or have anything to do with a mage. But at this moment, they were barely audible and easily ignored. Why should I listen to laws that told me to give up and let my story end here? Was the judgement I was fleeing just? Perhaps. Did it actually achieve anything? Not really. There was no reason to fear making the situation any worse either. If I fled and never returned, there was no way for anything I did to ever hurt my people ever again.
But what would the Great Maker think about my—
"Hellooo? Charity, are you with me?" Skids was waving a set of keys in front of my face.
"Sorry, what was that?" I belatedly noticed that I was no longer chained up.
Skids' concerned expression turned into a mischievous smile, but I saw a hint of worry not quite hidden behind it. "We need to get out of here before the patrol people realise they're running after a distraction and send extra guards up here. You ready?"
"Uh..." I was barefoot and wearing a light dress that was barely warm enough indoors.
Skids saw where I was looking. "Sorry, you'll have to run barefoot unless you grab some shoes on the way out. Spire should be retrieving your gear."
"Spire came back?"
"Come on!" Skids grabbed my arm and pulled me out of my cell. The fallen metal door chilled my feet as I walked over it. Cold feet were bad enough, but they also got sticky from residual apple juice. Throwing a tantrum to annoy the guard had seemed like a good idea earlier, but now I was paying for it. "If you have the guard's keys, why did you not simply unlock the door?"
"Too many keys, too slow," was Skids' brief answer. It seemed reasonable enough, though I could not help but wonder if it was the entire reason.
Stepping off the door onto the wooden floor outside my cell, I somehow misjudged the height of the floor and almost fell over. Skids barely caught me, but made it look effortless. "Are you alright?" dro asked as dro helped me find my balance. "You look pretty beat up. What happened to you?"
"I'm not entirely sure," I said as we stepped over my unconscious guard and ran down a hallway, which was decorated with framed pictures and documents. I didn't really have time to look at them, but they clearly marked this as a place of importance. "About either of your questions," I added.
"You can run and you can see where you're going. That's enough for now." We reached a corner, around which was a downwards staircase.
"Not well," I said as I reached for the gleaming metal handrail. "Stairs are going to be a challenge."
"Yeah, what's with the pirate look?" Skids said, helping to steady me as I awkwardly controlled my descent.
"The eyepatch? Is that some sort of punishment?"
Huh? "No," I said, trying to keep both my confusion and my pain well hidden. I wasn't entirely sure why.
Skids made a sound that I interpreted as 'pained sympathy'. "Sorry to hear that. It must be bad given how the uncovered part of your face looks."
That was an understatement. "Yeah, there was a mirror in my... cell? Do you know where we are?" It was hard to judge from the one hallway and a staircase.
"Top cleric's house. In Forrester's Crossing, in case that was in doubt."
"Oh." That made a lot of sense. "Then I think I was in... a prayer room?" I vaguely knew the head cleric's house had some rooms devoted to solitary meditations, but I did not know that they were so... secure. Had they been altered specifically for me, or had they always been like that? There was no way of knowing, and it really didn't matter to us.
We reached the bottom of the stairs, and I could finally turn and see the finery that filled the head cleric's house. Polished wooden panelling, patterned wallpaper, and soft, thick carpet that felt luxurious to my cold feet. My stained, dirty feet.
"Is this house normal, fancy, or plain? I can't tell," Skids said as we headed for the front door.
"Fancy. Very fancy. Only the best for the clerics."
"They must do something very important for the community."
"The most important thing. They guide the Pure in the way of the Great Maker, ensuring we do what is right and do not fall prey to corruption." We carefully navigated around a series of low tables bearing a variety of curios, mostly carved wood and blown glass. I narrowly avoided knocking over an entire collection of weird miniature statues. They were incredibly ugly, but then their accidental destruction would not have been worth the pain of bashing some bruised part of my anatomy against the table.
"Wow. Who decides who gets to be a cleric?"
"The clerics train up their sons to be clerics, but the Great Maker can reject them," I said as we reached the door.
"I'll see if the street is clear," Skids said, and poked dro's head outside. "Nope!" Dro stepped back inside, shut the door, and ducked down. Dro was just in time to avoid being poked by a crossbow bolt, which penetrated the door with a solid 'thunk' sound. "They're onto us," dro said redundantly.
"Back door?" I half suggested, half inquired.
"Nah, they're sure to be surrounding us by now. We'll have to go down. Hey, decoy team, did you catch that? Going to plan 'dome'. Yes, you heard me right, plan dome. You better be... No, that wasn't the deal. You'd better be there!"
I was briefly confused, then noticed that Skids was wearing dro's helmet, which could throw dro's voice to other such helmets. "So... we're going into the cellar? Then we'll be stuck in the cellar." Was 'decoy team' meant to do something so we could have a chance to escape later?
Skids had other ideas. "Not if we go through the network of tunnels connecting all the cellars until we join up with the railway tunnels and can get out of the city."
A journey through the unmapped underdark. That was a terrible idea, but it beat being turned into giant pincushions. "If you have a way to keep us from getting horribly lost, that could work. But the tunnels between the cellars are kept securely locked, and we do not have several hours for you to pick each one."
Skids' grin grew wider than ever. "I brought a better lockpick." Dro hefted the weapon-tool, which was balanced on dro's right shoulder.
"You mean you're going to blast all the doors off their hinges?"
"I thought you didn't like magical weapons," I said, confused by the gleam in Skids' eyes. "Isn't that a weapon?"
"Yeah, I borrowed it from Spire. I'm not keen on hurting anyone, but I'm all for taking out my frustrations on some doors. Let's go!"
We went, backtracking through the house to find the hatchway leading from the kitchen to the cellar. We descended via a metal ladder built into the cellar wall. The area closest to the ladder was stocked with food preserves, and beyond that were shelves and crates of various supplies that had been stocked for the coming winter. It was not greatly different from the Wilison home's cellar.
Further into the cellar, the light was too dim to see. "We could do with a magelight," I said.
A short pulse of light from Skids' glove lit a fair bit more of the cellar. But only a pulse. "I used up a lot of my aether reserves running the spinnerbike out to parking distance as quickly as possible," dro explained. "So I don't want to waste what I have left. Did you spot the way out?"
"Not yet," I said, feeling worried about our chances of escaping in time. "Try a bit to the left of where you were pointing before."
After three more pulses of light, we found the rather small door to a connecting tunnel, which was half hidden by a bookcase. In the brief moments of light, it looked as though the books were wrapped with protective cloths. Skids handed the bulky weapon to me and shouldered the bookcase out of the way, spilling its contents onto the dusty floor. I hoped the covers would keep the books from harm, and briefly considered taking one or two. But there was no way to tell what was worth holding onto, and I really needed my hands free for feeling my way through tunnels and cellars.
I very carefully passed the 'lockpick' back to Skids, being careful not to activate or adjust it in any way. Skids felt around for a while to figure out where to aim first, then did something that caused the weapon to hum loudly. After an indescribable sound — more animal than machine, to my ears — the hum rapidly faded away, leaving only the soft clatter of falling debris and the muted sounds of the city above.
"Blew the lock out, rather than the hinges," Skids said, and I heard the creak of the near-forgotten door opening. "Less shots means the aether lasts further, and there's no one on the other side of the door to worry about this time. Alright, let's see where this goes."
I heard Skids step into the low tunnel, and tried to follow close behind. I could see little more than a tiny blinking orange light on the back of the weapon, and had to move slowly with my hands testing my way so I did not injure myself further. One blessed upside of the near total darkness was that I could almost forget that I only had one eye. And now I was thinking about it again. I really did not want to think about it again. A future with part of my body missing, with one of my primary senses diminished... if I dwelt on that, I knew I would find myself wishing I was back in my cell awaiting the end.
"Hellooo?" Skids called.
"Yeah? I'm right behind you."
Skids said nothing for a while. "Uh oh."
That did not sound good. "What's wrong?"
"Cards was meant to meet us down here. Clearly, sa had other plans."
"Really? Cards came back too?"
"Sall were heading back to Wonambi, City of Darkness, City of Magic, where the blind fish stares and the water spouts, so sall circled around the city at a safe distance. We got back in contact some time after I lost the ventril with you."
"And both Cards and Spire agreed to help you rescue me?"
"After I made it clear I was going in regardless. Spire retrieved your gear while Cards used one of my ABAMs to draw everyone's attention elsewhere. I was worried Cards might shoot someone and needed a way to get you out fast, so I traded the ABAM for loan of ra's aetherrailer. And sa definitely wants it back, so sa shouldn't even consider abandoning us. But leaving us to find our own way out of this tunnel network apparently doesn't count as abandonment to sarm."
"Oh." It was nice to hear that Skids would not have abandoned me. It was far less nice — but not a big shock — that Cards had abandoned us. Cards did not seem to like Skids, and I was fairly sure sa disliked me. "Can your scryer help us find the way out?"
"So, uh, here's the thing. Cards really didn't want to lend me an aetherrailer. Especially not for a single ABAM. And I didn't want to give up both my remaining ABAMs. And I shouldn't have needed my scryer, and plan D was for Cards to find us in the tunnels before we went very far. Sooo..."
I put together what Skids was reluctant to admit. "Cards has your scryer."
"Yeah." Skids managed to fit a lot of sheepishness into that single word. "It was only meant to be for a few minutes. I definitely wasn't expecting to be in a dark tunnel without it. Should have traded my jacket. Though it's pretty cold down here."
"It is," I agreed. My thin cotton dress was not helping much. "And I do not have an emergency light source with me, or else I would be using it now," I said, thinking of a pair of cloth-wrapped glass vials of the liquids we used in lanterns. "That is in my handbag. Which I hope Spire has."
"Sa should, if it was with all your riding gear," Skids said. "You'll have it back after we find out way out of here." That made me relax a little, even though it did not help us in our current crisis.
"And either Cards is too far away to hear you, or is pretending not to hear you, or isn't even in the tunnels at all," I figured.
"And I'm going to guess that your magical voice-throwing helmet isn't working either?" There was a word for that, but I couldn't recall it.
"The ventril, yeah. Nothing's coming through. Again, that could be a range problem, a power problem, or Cards ignoring me."
"Do you have any idea what direction we're facing?"
"Nope. But we won't get anywhere if we just stand here, so let's get a move on. Perhaps we can find our way without getting lost or turned around."
There was nothing else to do, so we continued walking carefully in the dark. Skids stayed in front, pointing out potential hazards dro encountered so I knew to be careful not to hit my head on a low part of the ceiling, and could take extra care where I stepped with my bare feet. Walking in a dark and unknown tunnel with no footwear was an extremely unpleasant experience, simply because of everything terrible I anticipated discovering with every step. Occasionally, Skids would flash dro's magelight to check for dangers or doorways. A few times the tunnel twisted and turned, and there were multiple doorways leading to other cellars. We ignored those. After ten minutes, we reached a door at the end of the tunnel.
"I think we have to go through a cellar," Skids said. "I looked at the scryer before we split up, and there's a few places where that happens."
"How does your scryer show our underground?" I wondered, finding it weird and worrying that mages would have part of our city mapped better than we did.
"Would you believe... magic?"
I groaned. "Today, I'm not sure what I would not believe."
Skids used the so-called 'aetherrailer' to punch out the lock, revealing a cellar behind the door much like the one we left. There was another door on the other side of the cellar, but not directly opposite, so it took some time to find. Navigating around all the miscellaneous contents while using as little light as possible was slow and tedious too, as well as painful on the shins and occasionally elbows. Skids demolished that lock too, and I managed to get a look at what the aetherrailer did. In some ways it was similar to a crossbow, except that it was different in nearly every practical respect. The 'bolts' it fired were not sharp at all, being more like bars. There was no bow of any sort, just a whole lot of heavy magical paraphernalia. The role of these was to accelerate the slug of metal so fast that its mass could tear through other objects with surprising effectiveness.
The aetherrailer was also louder than most other things. It didn't just sound loud because of the confined space we were in. That became apparent when we heard angry shouts from the house overhead. As we stepped into the uncomfortably narrow tunnel, I saw light out of the corner of my working eye. The cellar hatch was opening. "Run!" I hissed.
Skids switched dro's magelight on and we dashed down the tunnel. It soon bent, and we kept going, putting as much distance between ourselves and our pursuers as possible. We kept at it for three more corners. I ran into the back of Skids when dro suddenly cut the light and stopped. Somehow, dro stayed up right while I sat down heavily, wincing at the newfound pain. "Whyy?" I whined, on the verge of tears.
"That wasn't me," Skids said, managing to sound gloomier than the coal-black tunnel looked.
I understood what that meant all too clearly. Skids' negativity was well warranted. Whatever magical energy or 'aether' powered the magelight had been exhausted, leaving us with no way to light up the tunnel. We were trapped in the dark without remedy. Whoever was giving chase would probably have a light source, meaning the next light we saw would bring only more terror. "Is there a light on the aetherrailer?" I wondered. Aether... perhaps... "Or can it power your magelight somehow?"
"Technically yes. Practically I have no way of doing that in the dark, and if it actually worked then I'd be draining the aether we need to have a chance of ever making a way out of here."
"Oh." That was no use then. "Well we need to do something."
"We have to push on through the dark," Skids said. "Stay close to me, and try to shuffle your feet. Slowly."
We shuffled onward. It was not a pleasant option, but it was the best we had.
A light appeared in the tunnel, but ahead of us, not behind. For a moment I hoped that it was an exit. Then I saw that it was moving. Someone had come from the other direction to cut us off.
We stopped. Skids' lips pressed very close to my ear. "Maybe we can backtrack and find an alcove or something to hide in until they pass us," dro said, the words barely more than a breath.
The light moved closer, slower than expected. Lower too. A child? Children?
"Oh!" I said, unable to control myself, not in surprise so much as relief and joy. It was a cat. No, two cats. And zero humans.
"Kitties! Good kitties. Here kitties, come to Charity. Who's a fluffy kitty who wants a hug? You are!"
We soon successfully coaxed the soft and softly-glowing floofballs into our arms, and I knew everything would be alright. We had a minor but ongoing source of light, and we had new friends who greatly appreciated every bit of affection and attention we could spare for them. With our morale raised and our path visible, we made good time through the tunnel. It was rather unpleasant to walk through. The ceiling was low in many places, and the walls were twisty and occasionally very confing. The floor was uneven and sometimes damp, which was worse. We regardless persisted with good cheer, aided by our warm, cuddly companions.
"Hey, about what I was saying earlier, about the clerics, I was wondering—"
My attempt at conversation was cut off by a scream and a splash. Before I could understand what had happened, I was slipping in mud. I completely lost my footing in an instant, and went down very suddenly. There was almost nothing I could do to prevent myself from falling directly on top of Skids, who was more than half submerged in a puddle. I managed to twist to one side at the last moment, planting an elbow in dro's ribs and most of my mass beside in the ambiguous liquid with a slightly smaller second splash. My cat was blue and Skids' was a colour close to red, so it was difficult to judge the true colour of anything else. What we had landed in was probably just dirty water. I succeeded in sitting up before I had to worry about tasting it, and Skids did the same.
We stared at each other for a few seconds, equal parts stunned and forlorn by our miserable predicament. Then we simultaneously burst our laughing at the absurdity of our predicament. The laughter was somewhat tempered by my assorted bruises angrily reminding me of their presence. That was quickly eclipsed by the anger of our drenched cats who had been smooshed together and trapped between our bodies in the fall. We quickly dragged ourselves apart, and the cats fled the water as if the very demons of Baduk were reaching for their heels.
In the cats' absence, a sliver of light remained. It came through a drain in the ceiling above us. Logically, that was the source of the water we had fallen into. "That's a good sign," I said as I stood and tried shaking some of the water off me.
"This is good?"
"I mean we're headed the right way. The water's from the firefighting, so we're getting close to blacksmith. Where it happened."
There was just enough light for us to navigate to the next corner. From there we could still see the blue cat, which was standing miserably in one of the drier patches. Water was dripping from its fur, which was plastered against its little body. I knew that I probably looked worse. Skids, who lacked hair, did not. We could not see the red cat, but we could see where the tunnel ended. There was a cellar door, looking just the same as all the other cellar doors we had passed through. Notably, it did not look similar to the cellar doors we had not passed through.
"Are we going around in circles?" I wondered as we reached the open door. Its lock had been caved in by extreme force, just like those I had seen Skids open.
"Not unless a silent bomb went off," Skids said, pointing into the cellar. It was a complete wreck, with charred and splintered remains of shelves and their contents now scattered around the periphery. The floor of the structure above was shattered and burned too, with shafts of light punching down through gaping holes, illuminating the wreckage below. Some warped pieces of metal had fallen into the cellar from the room above. I knew where they were from because I recognised them. These decorative display pieces had been meticulously shaped like trees and birds and flowers, an axe, a pitchfork and a plough. We were under the blacksmith.
"Something definitely exploded down here, but not today," I said.
"You... survived this?" Skids said with obvious awe.
"Well, I was on the top floor. I think I got thrown into a wall? Or maybe a ceiling. Or fell through the floor, who knows? Whatever happened, I hit my head hard enough that it knocked the memory right out of me."
"Yeah, I... I think you must have a very hard head not to have cracked your skull. Unless you did?" Skids asked, suddenly very concerned.
I was not sure how I would even tell, given what I was and was not feeling. "I... don't think so? I think I had better have your carers look me over again. Come on, we need to find a way out before someone finds us down here. Is there another way out of this cellar?"
"It's this way," said Cards as sa stepped out of the shadows. "Let's get out of this place. I'm hungry."