There are a lot of them. At least a score. Like Karl, but different too.
The twins’ senses were unaffected by the dark tunnel. They “saw” as clearly here as anywhere else.
Yes, they know we’re here. Mist answered Deirdre’s unspoken question. They haven’t decided what to do about us yet…oops, never mind.
Flares hissed into lurid red life. The darkness fled. They were floating at a junction between several concrete drainage pipes, sluggishly moving water pooled here for a time before oozing along in the direction of the river.
There was a slender walkway along the side of the sewer, inches above the gooey liquid. Perched precariously on this slimy abutment were several men in oft-patched grey uniforms.
They were a ragged and desperate looking bunch, but the rifles they had pointed at Konstantin and his companions’ bobbing heads were very real, if somewhat antiquated.
Karl, with Naoise’ gnarled hand gripping his hair to keep him afloat, saluted smartly.
“Volksgrenadier Karl Franz reporting for duty, Lieutenant.”
One of soldiers dropped his flare into the water, where it fizzed and popped sporadically, illuminating the floating local.
“You’re out of uniform Franz.” A tired looking man addressed Karl, an annoyed frown on his strange face. He stood ramrod stiff, as if conducting a parade ground inspection, and not interrogating a nearly naked man floating in a vermin infested drainage pipe.
Even standing as he was the man could barely top four feet. Long clever grey fingers gripped the worn stock of a homemade looking blunderbuss. His feet were bare, equally long grey toes splayed for purchase on the wet concrete. Behind an impeccable goatee, sharp, uneven teeth filled an otherwise ordinary looking mouth, and softball sized eyes bulged in the darkness.
Though he wore no visible insignia on his plain uniform, Konstantin decided this was the Grey lieutenant. Officers rarely displayed their rank openly in urban warfare; it made them a target for snipers.
“Make your report soldier.”
The officer made no move to help the man bobbing below him, content to let Karl float alongside his strange new companions until he completed his story.
Karl’s tale about being trapped in the bomb crater elicited sympathetic groans from the Grey infantrymen, about half of which were built like the bizarre Lieutenant. When Karl told his fellow countrymen about the Green raiding party and they broke out in angry murmurs, the lieutenant silenced them with a disapproving glare. His scowl deepened at Karl’s description of the successful ambush and his subsequent rescue, not the least because his men so clearly approved of the foreign warriors.
Lieutenant scratched his neatly trimmed goatee, deciding what to do about the dangerous newcomers floating at his metaphorical doorstep.
“Alright lads,” he addressed his men, “keep them covered.”
“You in the water. Out. Slowly.”
Passing Karl up into his countrymen’s waiting hands; they in the water slithered onto the narrow walkway.
One of the soldiers asked them to surrender their remaining weapons, earning himself little more than a gargoyle grin from Felix. Lieutenant rolled his eyes.
“You can stay with us for now, but don’t think that we aren’t ready to kill you the minute something doesn’t jive, savvy?”
Konstantin and his companions shrugged indifferently. They were savvy.
“Right now we need to get someplace safe, where we can reestablish contact with central command. You are coming with us. You will be blindfolded.”
It was not a question. Tearing strips of cloth from their already threadbare uniforms, the soldiers went to work, covering everyone’s eyes. Before she was blinded, Deirdre shared a look with the twins. Would they be able to remember their route?
They nodded confidently.
When Lieutenant was finally satisfied with his men’s work, they set off, moving as swiftly and silently as their guests’ handicap permitted. Every few hundred yards they stopped momentarily, and one of the smaller Grey soldiers would tap a complex code against the nearest pipe or wall.
After a dozen or so of these stops, a faint tapping could be heard in response. The Grey soldier holding Konstantin’s arm shifted in relief.
Here ended up being an ancient U-Bahn terminal, a long dead train resting at the platform. The train had been gutted and converted to barrack style housing, the station itself served as an emergency training and staging area. Both the incoming and outgoing rail tunnels had collapsed and been walled off, narrowing the points of entry to a heavily guarded stairway to the surface, and a cramped utility corridor underneath the platform, small enough to discourage entry by the cumbersome Green troops. As it was, Naoise and his younger brother had a rough time squeezing through.
For the past three hours the neo-Viking giants and their dark skinned leader had been in conference with the Grey lieutenant and his under-officers. Judging from the muffled yelling coming from their closed door meeting, Konstantin decided negotiations were not going well. Lieutenant’s gravelly voice could be heard almost clearly, snippets of “by the book”, and “highly irregular” interjected freely throughout his fiery oratory. At one point discussion paused, the door cracked open, and over-sized eyes tracked Konstantin’s wanderings.
The Inquisitor used the time provided for his lectio divina and to prowl around the bunker, appropriating what food he could find and taking stock of the locals’ condition.
It was not good. Those soldiers not on guard, or trudging resignedly to the front, huddled wearily, staring blankly into space. Barrel fires provided warmth and flickering illumination, but also filled the poorly ventilated area with tarry black smoke. The room shook violently with every near miss by the heavy artillery pummeling the city, dust and gravel dropping from the poorly reinforced roof. The sandbagged walls were riddled with bullet holes, and spent shell casings coated the cracked tile floor. The Grey’s refuge had been fought over before.
A small circle of life had gathered around the twins; the grimy and war weary fighters drawn to their simple innocence and good humor like moths to a flame. The children’s games brought uncertain smiles to faces that had long ago forgotten how.
These men and women had clearly been fighting too hard for too long. Morale was nonexistent.
Karl tried to explain.
“We’re almost completely isolated here. Our army operates on a cellular structure, to keep the Greens from finding and smashing us all at once. Communication between units is spotty at best, entire divisions have been thought lost for months at a time only to unexpectedly reestablish contact. We fight day and night, nonstop. And we’re still losing. This is a battle we can’t win, and everybody knows it.”
James picked at a scab on his chin. “Then why do you do it? Why not leave this place? It’s a big world, there’s plenty of room for your people elsewhere.”
Karl watched the girls play, a wistful something ghosting across his face.
“Many of us would if we could. We’re all conscripts, not professional soldiers. This heaping ruin isn’t worth one life, let alone everybody’s. Our homes were destroyed long ago. Unfortunately, command,” he nodded toward the closed door behind which Deirdre could be heard ranting and raving, “doesn’t think that way.”
“Lieutenant is a good man in his own way. Before he took control of this unit, recruits’ life expectancy was one day at the front. One day.” Karl plucked at his new uniform; its previous owner had clearly been a much larger man. One who had died violently, judging from the bloodstains. “Those that died were the lucky ones.”
“Yeah, what about him,” James was curious, “what’s his story?”
“Well, he’s one of the True Greys.”
“Oh, that’s the term we coined for the little ones, with the long fingers and big eyes. I’m sure you’ve noticed that some of our soldiers down here are a little…different. They’re all from the same, um clan I guess is as good a word to use as any.”
“Where did they come from?”
“From here. From the city. They’re the real natives. When my parents came back to the city with the rest of the returning refugees, they thought they were resettling an abandoned site. They couldn’t have known that there would be survivors, but once they started blasting and clearing and rebuilding, guess who came up from underground to see what all the ruckus was about.”
“So Lieutenant’s people never left the city during the Dark Times? How did they survive?”
“The same way we all did more or less. They tunneled deep. They ate mushrooms, they drank water. The only difference is that here the water came from above, unpurified, trickling down through the poisoned land. Have you heard about the hard rains that still fall in the west? They used to fall here too, in the beginning. That’s what Lieutenant’s grandparents were drinking. Fallout flavored water. It’s incredible really. Their entire gene-pool mutated, but it was as if the mutagen worked alongside natural evolution, hyper-speeding the process. They’re still humans, more or less. You can mate with them if you’re into that sort of thing. The babies retain a mix of attributes from both parents. Mentally they’re as smart or as dumb as any other person, they just look different. Smaller bodies require fewer calories to maintain, and fit better in the tight confines underground. Those long fingers and toes are super sensitive, great for feeling vibrations in the earth, and their eyes can see in darkness where we cannot! These people have perfectly adapted to their environment. It’s a good thing too, without their help after the Green invasion forced us back underground we would have all been wiped out.”
“Lieutenant may be a hard man, but he is hard out of necessity. When orders filter down from the Chancellor, he has us to carry them out. Without his constant drills and rigid discipline, we would be unable to march in formation, or talk through the stones, or find food in the dark, let alone fight. He teaches us what he can in the hopes that we can stay alive just a little bit longer.”
“As long as the Chancellor orders us to fight, fight we must. It is our duty.”
James shook his head angrily. “That’s insane! Take a lesson from what happened to my people pal. Your duty, as you so solemnly put it, is to do what is right for you, not to follow the whim of some madman who refuses to give up as a matter of principle. You cannot win this fight. Even if you were to win this fight, you’ve gained nothing at all. Wishing it were so will not end the war. If Lieutenant can’t see that, even with his crazy eyes he’s as much of a blind fool as the rest of your leadership.”
Karl massaged his aching temples. “What would you have us do?”
“Do what you want Karl Franz, not what some faceless authority buried in an underground bunker somewhere demands of you. It’s your life.”
Inquisitor-Brother Solomon Rex regarded the child. At least the youth had died silently. A crushed windpipe will do that. Rex supposed he could have been a little gentler. Pity. The boy had been useful.
He shrugged his massive shoulders. Standing upright, he strode to the edge of the rocky promontory. A city lay in the distance below, straddling the confluence of two major rivers. The city was burning.
A cool breeze chilled his shaven scalp. It carried with it the scent of violence. The tattooed Inquisitor pulled off his coarse robes, to better experience the wind’s icy caress. The smell of death danced in his nostrils. Leaning out over the void Inquisitor-Brother Solomon Rex closed his eyes. Then he jumped.
“Brita, may I speak with you?” Konstantin touched his sister’s elbow. As she turned toward him, an average sized Grey soldier in soiled surgeon’s dress approached her from the other side. Raising a hand in greeting, his eyes flickered uncertainly between the pair, before addressing the young woman.
“Excuse me Sister, but your friend,” He pointed at a grinning Felix, “said you have medical training. We have a patrol coming back in, and the walls say they were hit bad.” He referred to the strange tapping code utilized by the Grey army underground. “We could use another healer.”
“Of course Doctor,” The young woman gave her brother an apologetic look, and turned to follow the overworked medic, “I would be happy to help.”
Konstantin shooed her away. “Go. Help people.” He tried to send her on her way with a smile. He failed.
In the midst of an enthusiastic session of feeling sorry for himself, Konstantin noticed he was being watched by a small knot of locals. Having been discovered, they moved forward as one, shuffling hesitantly toward the dark eyed Inquisitor. Amateurs, Konstantin thought. They should have spread out to give each other space to attack. He backed toward one of the platform’s tiled columns. He couldn’t defend himself against all of them if they got behind him.
They stopped just out of arms reach, and looked toward the biggest of their number. Konstantin lifted his arms, balancing on the balls of his feet. He exhaled deeply, allowing awareness to spread through his body with each breath.
The big man pulled off his hat, twisting it nervously between ham-like hands.
“Brother Konstantin, this may come as a surprise to you, but there are some Christians among our number, and we, that is my friends and I, well we’re just simple folk,” He took a deep breath, “but we saw you reading your bible earlier, and we would be honored if you would pray with us.”
“Oh.” Konstantin relaxed his fists. “Yes…of course my son. I have neglected my duties to the Lord for too long.” Walking with the big man, he joined the group of locals.
“Yes Brother Konstantin?”
Deirdre was smirking. Never a good sign that. Konstantin excused himself from the prayer circle, his heart warmed by the locals’ humble gratitude. Their prayers were strange to his ears, but the joy they shared in communing together was real, and it felt good. Most of the masses he attended in the basilica were a strange mix of boredom tinged with fear. If he were more artistic he might enjoy the aesthetics of his church’s rituals, but as it was he usually just found his mind wandering as it passed the time. Whenever they reached the sacrament of communion his heart would leap, partially because of the meager snack that entailed, and mostly because he knew that soon he would be free from the suffocating atmosphere inside the church. Konstantin’s relationship with God had always been on a more personal level. These locals’ embellishment free prayer session had been a revelation. He glided over to where the Deirdre stood beside a flickering barrel fire.
“What are you smiling about Witch?”
“Lieutenant has decided to help us get our men back.”
“Isn’t it? His soldiers are going to create a diversion, some sort of coordinated assault they’ve been planning anyway; I don’t know, I wasn’t really paying attention at that point. The man does drone on. Evidently our successful entanglement with that Green patrol has inspired these smelly locals to try something daring. While they do their little thingy with the guns, Mr. Franz is going to lead us to and through the library,” Karl choked mid-swallow, sneezing water down his shirtfront, “where we will battle impossible odds to rescue our sailors. Thrilling, isn’t it?”
“You’re insane.” Konstantin rolled his shoulders, loosening stiff neck muscles. “Well, let’s get on with it then.”
Deirdre raised an admonishing finger. “Just a moment Inquisitor,” Her smirk returned, “we have a special job for you.”
Ever since he learned that he would be remaining behind with the twins while everybody else forayed into the city library, Snorri had been sulking petulantly in an out of the way corner. His one consolation was that Konstantin would also be missing the trip, having already left on whatever secretive mission Lieutenant and Deirdre had drawn up for him.
“Why can’t I go with you?” he whined to the strong-willed woman, “Karl doesn’t even want to go, let him stay behind. Besides, I am a historian. I should be out there to witness what occurs here today. I don’t like relying on secondhand information. You know Felix and Naoise always embellish their stories to seem more heroic.”
“We need Karl because he knows the building,” she explained patiently, “and you’ll just have to edit the stories you receive from the guys accordingly. Besides, I want someone I can trust to watch the girls, and you’re still weak from being sick. I won’t allow you to become a liability, cousin.”
Only somewhat mollified, Snorri stalked off to clean his guns.
Don’t worry; we’ll keep an eye on him. The twins’ blind eyes winked in unison.
The look he shot back in their direction was so annoyed that even the ever-worried Karl chuckled heartily.
Inquisitor-Brother Solomon Rex grinned into the rush of air buffeting his face and body. The ground was fast approaching. He concentrated for a moment, and with the creak of untried tendons his wings unfurled, slowing his catastrophic descent.
Powerful muscles flexed. Angling his body, the Inquisitor caught an updraft, spiraling up and away from the forest canopy. Leveling off, the Inquisitor glided toward the setting sun. Toward the city of fire.