To the Glen - Part II

At the very least, Charles slept peacefully. His dreams were filled with bright images, of Lady Kimberly and he frolicking and enjoying each others company out in one of the gardens of the Keep. They sat beneath an espaliered wall, nuzzling against the thin trunk of the tree, sharing each other in ways that so far had been confined to Matthias’s dreams. One paw clutched a branch set against that wall, holding on as his dream exploded into brilliant rays of light.

And of course, it was at that moment that he felt Zagrosek’s hand upon his shoulder rousing him from his pleasant sleep. Struggling from the confines of his robes, the last images from his dream still clouding his mind, he gazed about him with an embarrassed smile, but of course, no candle had yet been lit, so none could see his chagrin.

But, the darkness was short-lived this time thankfully, as the sound of flint against steel rang in his ears. Moments later, Jerome brought a small flame to life on one of the candles. In quick succession, the other candles were brought to life, and soon the room was bright once more. Wrapping his cloak tightly about himself, Charles nodded to the rest, noting that the Sondeckis appeared much less haggard than before.

“Charles?” a voice from behind him asked, and for a moment, that embarrassed smile crept back onto his muzzle.

“Yes?” the rat asked, turning to stare at Elliot who stood with a candle held gingerly in one paw.

“What happened to your tail?”

“My tail?” Charles asked, certain that Elliot had been going to ask about something far more private. Glancing back behind him to where his tail peeked out from beneath his cloak, he grimaced. The portion that had been scalded in Wessex’s first attack was slightly puffy still, and quite pink. “It was burned a little, but it should be all right. I don’t even feel it that much anymore.”

Elliot nodded and then glanced back at the others. They were all bundled up in their thick wool cloaks, even the rats. Jerome was lighting the two lanterns that they’d brought with them, extending the wick inside the receptacle barely past the hole through which it was twined. The flame that rose from it was slender, and very petite, but it glowed with a resilient orange fire.

“Well, we’re depending on you four,” Zagrosek said, looking back at the door that had remained shut for the last two hours. “Which one of you knows these cellars the best?”

Goldmark raised his paw over his head. “That would be me, I’m afraid.”

The Sondeckis nodded, his black hair shifting only slightly with that motion. “I suppose Jerome and I can watch the back, while you and Charles lead.”

Goldmark looked over to his fellow rat, dressed the same way as the humans in that black robe with the shield, hand, and sword insignia. “I don’t suppose you want to wait any longer?”

“We’ve waited long enough already,” Garigan said hotly, crossing his arms, his short tail shifting beneath his green robes.

“He’s right,” Charles murmured softly, taking one of the lanterns from Jerome and handing it to Elliot. “Stay behind us, and keep that light shrouded as best you can. Do you think you can handle that?”

Elliot held one paw before the light, obscuring most of it except for what slipped through the cracks in his fingers. “I think so.”

“Good, then we should leave once we are sure it is safe to do so. Julian?” Charles pointed towards the door, and the white rat solemnly pressed his ear against it, sliding his claw once again into the lock. It took him barely anytime at all to catch the latch and draw it open now that he’d done it twice before already. The door gently drew inwards, slowly, though, for which Matthias was thankful. The hallway stood empty outside, and neither sound nor scent greeted them except the drafty mustiness of the cellars.

Nodding once, Julian stepped out of the way to allow Charles and Goldmark to step outside, with Elliot and Garigan following closely behind. The pale light shone over their shoulders and gave the hallway beyond a spectral cast. Old stones hung overhead, and now, Charles could see the faint traces of moss and fungus that clung between the cracks. Yellows and greys filled the spaces between the stones, while rivulets of filthy water dribbled along them, charting the course of their growth as the moisture led down towards cellars even more remote from the lives of the Keepers. Where in places the stone had grown too mouldy, and had crumbled to the ground, the cavities remaining were filled with that creeping life, and sometimes, the rats found that they could see those amorphous masses shining with gangrenous light even before the lantern illuminated their mildewed form.

Thankfully, the floor was free of those cancerous infestations, but instead was choked with dust that rose into the air as they walked and clung to their noses, nearly causing Charles to sneeze several times. Though, the path that Goldmark led them was much less clogged than many of the other side passages that they happened to pass by. It would be obvious to any tracker, skilled or otherwise, that somebody had recently passed this way, but they found it hard to believe the Lutins would reach this far beneath the surface of the Keep. Of course, they found it hard to believe that the Lutins would reach the Keep at all, and so Jerome and Zagrosek kept a wary eye behind them, their nervousness unspoken, but known by all.

Even so, they descended further and further into the dank confines of the cellars without incident. Several times, they had to skirt around an unseemly fragrant pool that had filled portions of the hallway. Charles feared even dragging his clothes through the noxious water, for fear they would be covered by the mucous clinging to the pool’s membranous surface like cadaverous flesh upon bone. Sometimes he fancied things lurking beneath the calm surface, waiting to reach out and snatch at his foot paw should it stray too near, only to smother him in some necrophagous abyss. Yet, they remained preternaturally still, aside from when a droplet of water fell from the ceiling, rippling outwards along that mucus in a rather subdued fashion.

The entire cellars possessed that same feel of being subdued, as if life and motion here were foreign concepts, ones that were squelched by the unbearable weight of the years and of the stone that rest over their heads. Charles was reluctant even to speak, for fear it might conjure some unsightly ghast from the walls of Metamor itself, covered in that profane muck and slime, and turn him into much the same, as punishment for his blasphemy. Again, he chided himself on letting his prodigious imagination overcoming his senses, but he still kept as quiet as he could be.

In fact, aside from one snippet of conversation that Garigan and Elliot had near their backs, none of them spoke a word the entire time they descended into the dark and untrod chambers of the Keep’s cellars. The dank and clogging mildew almost made Charles wish to be in the dungeons themselves, for they were much cleaner and not nearly as dreary. In fact, the walls about them felt almost hostile to their intrusion, as if they were trespassing on hallowed ground. That feeling clung to his heart the entire time they remained in that passage alongside the darkened rooms.

He did not even notice what they truly were until Garigan spoke, his voice hushed, but audible. “Was that a bedroom?”

Elliot nodded and replied, “Yes, they have mirrors in there, but they are too old to even show you your reflection anymore.”

“Who lived there? And why would they live so deep in the cellars like this?” Garigan’s voice stung Charles, springing up all sorts of unnatural fears. As his eyes traced along the walls, he could almost make out indistinct faces glaring back at him, their features twisted in fashions that were not recognizable even as human.

“As to who lived here, none of us know. But it must have been a very long time ago indeed, because I don’t think that these rooms were this far beneath the earth then. Hector thinks we should be right beneath the killing grounds now, so several thousand years ago, you might have been able to look out a window at the mountains from here. I don’t know for sure though.”

Neither Garigan nor Elliot spoke after that, for which Charles was glad, though he certainly would not say so, or even smile while they walked on past those glaring faces. After a moment, the rat realized that they were not just his fanciful imaginings glowering down at him from the walls, but they were the last remnants of statues carved into the walls themselves from ages long ago! With a trembling breath, he sucked in air that he supposed had not been breathed in several millennia.

However, it was only a short time after they had left that passageway that Goldmark stopped. They had come down more flights of stairs than Charles bothered to count, and had more stone hanging above their heads than he wished to reckon either! Before them was a thick portal of black stone, chiselled as if from the side of a mountain. It was clearly not the same sort of stone used in fashioning the rest of the Keep, for where mould had overtaken much of the structure that they’d passed on their journey, this was still solid and smooth, as if it was freshly cast.

Finally, after holding his tongue for so long, Charles asked, “Is this it?” He trembled as his paw felt the cold surface of the stone, as if it contained the icy chill that billowed outside.

Goldmark nodded, looking back towards the others. The light from the two lanterns glistened on the surface of the portal, lighting a small handle that was inset into the centre of its frame. “We’ve never been able to move this portal, but we know it points roughly Northwest. If there is anything that could take you from this keep, it must be beyond this door.”

“How do you know it is a door?” Jerome asked, peering overtop of Julian’s short head.

Goldmark knocked on the metal several times, and a hollow sound echoed back. Jerome nodded, smiling slightly. “Are you sure it opens outwards?”

“It has to,” Elliot interjected, pointing at the sides. “Look at the sizes of those hinges.” And indeed, a set of large hinges framed one side of the circular portal. “We’re just not strong enough to move it, and only two of us can hold that handle at a time.”

“Krenek,” Charles called, and the large man stepped past the two rats before him. “Let’s see if we can move it.”

Zagrosek nodded and put his hand around a good portion of that inset ring. He lifted it with ease, and peered down at the rat. Charles calmly slipped his own paw beneath that black iron, feeling the way it slid over his skin for a moment. Then, tightening his grip, he nodded emphatically, and began to usher his Sondeck through his arm and into the portal. It groaned, a loud resonating groan that made bits of mouldy stone dribble from the ceiling in consternation. The rats all stared at the ceiling and the walls, hoping that they would remain intact as the black door began to slowly but inexorably come loose.

Both Charles and Zagrosek grunted as they heaved. Jerome leaned back and forth on his feet, holding one of the lanterns over his shoulder so that he might see, but it was clear to all those around that he wished to assist. Finally, after the two Sondeckis gasped for breath, leaning back against the portal, no longer pulling for a moment, he saw how he could help. He moved over between the door and the wall, and began to push at the frame. Charles flashed him a quick smile before he gripped the handle again and yanked for all the might he could muster.

With all three of them using their Sondeck, the door did finally come to rest wide open. It had been a rather thick door, at least a foot wide at the middle, and so it was no surprise that the rats had not been able to make it budge. Lifting the lantern, and shaking the stress from his arms out a bit, Jerome peered into the blackness that awaited them beyond. He was greeted only with another hallway, that appeared to be slightly fresher than the one that they stood in, but otherwise, unremarkable. Though, the four Sondeckis were quick to note that it appeared to head off in the same direction for as far as the light could shine, and their eyes could penetrate.

“This looks promising,” Charles murmured, glancing back at the four rats who stood in the hallway, peering down past the portal as well. “Thank you very much, we owe you a great favour.”

The four of them smiled then, even Julian. Hector though spoke for them all. “Thank you for coming to us and warning us of Nasoj and his Lutins. We’re going to go back up and see how we can help.”

“You could come with us,” Charles offered, indicating the other Sondeckis.

“No, this is our home, and we will defend it. You defend yours,” Hector said, though the last was meant for Garigan alone, and the others knew it. Charles nodded, and then patted his fellow rodent on the shoulder. Hector leaned forward though, and whispered into Matthias’s saucer-shaped ears, “And I do hope you plan to tell us what that symbol you all have on your cloaks means.”

Charles found himself laughing, something he had never thought he’d do in these dank passages, or in relation to the Sondeckis. “I’ll tell you after this is all over. I’ll tell everybody I think.” That brought a rather quirky smile to the muzzles of his friends. He disengaged himself from his fellow rats, and stepped towards the portal and the dark hallway beyond. “Best of luck to you, my friends. Do take care of yourselves. And remember, use what you have, and take pride in it always.”

“You too, Charles. Don’t get yourself killed!” Elliot called back, even while Goldmark lit one of the candles he’d brought with him by one of Jerome’s lanterns.

Then, after a few more nods and smiles, as well as farewells, the four rats were nothing more than a faint glimmer of light beyond the portal. Charles watched them until they disappeared around a corner and up a set of stairs. Sighing, he turned back to his fellow Sondeckis and gestured into the darkness before them. “Shall we see if this takes us where we want to be?”

Jerome handed Garigan the other lantern, and soon, they were walking down that narrow passageway. Charles took the lead, with Jerome at his back. Garigan followed quickly on the heels of the broad man, while Zagrosek stayed in the rear, watching behind him, though all that could be seen was a passage dwindling into darkness. Of course, that was all Charles could see before him as well, and that did not appear likely to change anytime soon.

Yet, the passage did not contain the same sort of stink and disrepair that was prevalent in their descent through the cellars and sub-cellars of the Keep. Even so, the passage, or at least what they could see of it in the hooded light from the two lanterns, appeared to be rather old, with a dry musty scent that neither Charles nor Garigan could place. The stone lining the passage was uniform black for the most part, though no signs of tunnelling or other construction could be seen. Even the corners were seamless, or very nearly so. It was as if the passage was formed from a single slab of stone, shaped according to the will of the very earth.

“I must show this to Murikeer sometime,” Charles said aloud, without realizing he had done so, for the very thought that magic could have been involved in its construction was startling to the rat. He knew that the skunk was familiar with the magics of the earth, and in fact, that was his specialty. Surely he would be intrigued by this ancient passage that did not appear to have any normal construction.

“Who?” Jerome asked from behind him, peering ahead, and seeing nothing but the endless shaft.

“A friend I’ve made recently. I think this passage might have been made magically.”

“It does appear to be abnormally straight and smooth,” the larger man confessed, his head nearly touching the roof of the hall. It was not a large passage, despite its length. Instead, it was narrow, barely five feet across, and only two feet more from floor to ceiling. Charles was grateful for the light, for otherwise he knew the madness that had crept upon him only two hours ago would overwhelm him here. As it was, he felt confined and squeezed on all sides by the chamber. The way it appeared to narrow only made him more nervous with each step forward he took. Yet, it never turned and it never changed its proportions.

And so far, it did not appear to end. “I wonder if we won’t end up in the Dragon Mountains before we leave this tunnel.”

Jerome let out a guarded laugh at that. “If it does, the fighting will be done and over with before we even escape this place!”

“And we’ll be damn hungry too,” Charles murmured, gently pressing a palm to his belly. The thought of food had stirred his stomach in revolt, and it voiced its misgivings to him quite vocally then, gurgling through his fur and clothes.

Jerome heard it and gave another of his light chuckles. “I’m sure we will find something to eat when we leave this place. It will be at least a day’s walk to this Glen Avery if I reckon the distance correctly.”

From behind the two of them Garigan spoke softly. “That sounds about right. But I have no idea what time it is down here. For all we know, a day could come and go and we may never see the sun.”

Charles let out a bitter report. “With this blizzard, we could never see the sun anyway!”

There was silence for a few moments after that, as the four of them trudged on in the dark, only that feeble light from the two lanterns any consolation for them. Yet every step felt like the last, and every new bit of the tunnel looked just like the rest of it had: endless and unchanging. The rat found himself half-wishing for the fungus and mould that had been a common feature of the Keep’s cellars. To see it adorn the walls in any fashion, even a tiny bit of it, would relieve the monotony the black stone represented.

Running his paws across its shiny black surface he pondered aloud, “Is this obsidian?”

Jerome reached out to feel the wall as well as he walked, the lantern held in the other hand. “I’m not sure. It doesn’t feel quite right. It’s not glossy enough, I don’t think. It isn’t jet at least, doesn’t have the right smell.” Charles tried not to snort. He could have told him that! However, Jerome, not noting the comical nature of his statement, went on. “Strangely enough, it almost reminds me of pearl.”

“Pearl?” Charles said in some surprise. “Do you have any idea how expensive even a fragment of this wall would be if this were indeed pearl?”

“I have more an idea of that then how this wall came to be if it is fashioned from pearl,” Jerome pointed out, letting his hand fall from the stone. “Do you know where they find pearls?”

“Somebody told me once, it had something to do with the sea if I recall.”

“Oysters,” Jerome exclaimed, though in a subdued tone of voice. It was clear he found the process a bit disconcerting. “They’re found in oysters. So I ask you, how could they possibly have found enough to fashion a tunnel as long as this out of black pearls, which are the rarest of them all?”

Charles had no choice but to shrug helplessly. “I really don’t know. I don’t even know for how long we’ve walked! It feels like forever already.”

Zagrosek’s voice came from the rear of their group, and despite how he whispered, they both knew he was being sardonic. “At least we won’t have to worry about Lutins attacking us down here. You two will bore them to death first.”

They ended the debate on the composition of the tunnel walls, though both Charles and Jerome continued to ponder it. Even so, the walk soon took their minds to other places. After what seemed hours, the rat finally stopped a moment, stretching both of his legs. The others saw this and did likewise. Soreness had begun to creep into their bodies as if it were born there. A short while later, after having travelled a bit further, they did the same thing again. A third time they stretched, not twenty minutes after, and it was about that time that they realized that they had to make a decision.

“This is longer than I had realized it would be,” Charles said, leaning against the black wall. He rubbed his paw over the stone, no longer wondering whether it was obsidian or pearl. The aching in his joints occupied his thoughts. “I think we ought to take a short rest before moving on.”

Zagrosek, who had already collapsed into a sitting position, cradling the compact Sondeshike in his hands, nodded emphatically. “I agree, we’ve walked at least four or five hours, and seen not a single change in this whole place. For all we know, this tunnel may never end.”

Though it had been a jocular statement, neither Charles nor Garigan was apt to take it as such. “What if it doesn’t?” Garigan asked, his musteline frame quite suddenly erect. “I mean, what if this is a magical passage, and this direction continues on forever? There are stranger things at Metamor. We’ve seen as such.”

“That room for instance,” Jerome finished the unspoken thought. They each dwelled on that for a moment. That room had been constructed oddly, with every angle appearing to be a corner, but finding many more of them than should be in any room. Things had distorted oddly about the space in the centre, and every time they touched a wall, gravity would shift with it. Yet, it had disappeared as soon as the vortex had closed. Who could say if an endless corridor did not exist?

Charles shook his head though, slapping his paws on the floor. “Look, that’s merely a speculation. I cannot imagine the Keep herself creating something like this, especially since we are trying to fight invaders to the Keep.”

“Are we?” Jerome asked. “We’re running off to this Glen Avery to see if it is okay. For all we know, they could remain unmolested, and this is just the Keep’s way of telling us where we are needed.”

Charles glanced at Garigan. This whole expedition had been undertaken at his insistence. Only he could lead them to turn around. As long as he was set on venturing to Glen Avery, Charles and the other Sondeckis were dedicated to accompanying him. The ferret though, appeared to take Jerome’s remarks seriously, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Finally, after a moment of silence, he spoke, slowly, and carefully. “If what you say is true, then our travelling to Glen Avery would have wasted our talents in the defence of Metamor. Maybe even give the Lutins some tactical advantage. For all we know, we could be the bird that breaks the branch, as my people say.”

He picked up one of the lanterns, and peered inside the receptacle. “We have about two thirds of the oil we started with left in this lantern. If, as we continue down this hall, it reaches the half-mark, then I am willing to turn around to help the Keepers. Would that satisfy the rest of you?”

Charles nodded and smiled warmly to his student. Though it was just as chill in this ancient tunnel as it had been in the cellars beneath the Keep, he could feel the cold leave his body as he gazed at his student with profound respect. Rising to his feet, he nodded yet again. “All right, that settles it, a few hours more, and if we see nothing, we turn back. Let’s just hope our legs can hold out that long!”

“A-men!” both Jerome and Zagrosek chorused together. Garigan blinked once at the expression, but said nothing as he resumed his place in the line. The two Sondeckis though switched places, and so Krenek carried the lantern behind the rat, the familiar sound of his breathing filling Matthias’s round ears.

Their walk resumed, and so resumed the silence and the never-changing tunnel. It stretched on before the rat in a way that was almost maddening after a fashion. Any change from the endless dark passage would have been welcome, even a sudden army of Lutins pouring down the tunnel en masse would have been relieving to Matthias’s nerves. The feeling of being trapped in this endless corridor was rather oppressive to his mind, and it reminded him far too much of his feral flight down the fissure many months ago. He’d had no idea if he was ever going to escape that ever-present blackness and twisting crack either.

Shaking off such thoughts, he decided after a short bit to distract himself with talk. He doubted that any Lutins would invade this way, after all, there had always been talk of tunnels beneath the Keep coming out into the valley, but almost none of them were known, and those that were, were blocked. So, with that knowledge safely in mind, he felt there was no harm in speaking quietly.

Glancing back at the black-robed Sondeckis, he asked in a quiet voice, “So, Krenek, what do you think of Metamor so far?”

Zagrosek chuckled lightly. “What do I think of it? Well, it appears to be a rather exciting place. So far, I’ve been set upon by an undead wizard, a Shrieker, and now these green-skinned Lutins. I should have come here long ago to relieve my boredom!”

Matthias did have to laugh alongside his friend at that. “It’s normally not this tumultuous, I can assure you!”

“I’m sure. From what I have seen though, it strikes me that this is one of the most pleasant places I can think for any to spend out the remainder of their life. I think it a pity though that once here, one can never leave if they so choose. You Keepers have a solidarity that I wish others possessed too. You fight together, not because of hatreds, but almost in defiance of it. A very noble aspiration, I think.”

“You give us more credit than we deserve,” Charles added wryly. “We fight so boldly together because it is the only way we’ll survive.”

“Possibly,” Zagrosek murmured, as if he too were chewing on something. “Still, watching you with those other rats really set me thinking. You looked natural together, as if you all belonged where you were. I don’t quite know how to put it into words, but you were very comfortable as you were.”

Even thinking about his fellow rodents made Charles yearn for his chewstick. As if it had crawled there, he found the shaft of burl walnut in his paws, the tip pressing to his large incisors. Taking a moment to chew at the end, savouring the pleasant flavour, he collected his thoughts on the matter. What Zagrosek had told him was plainly true, a fact that he had not given much thought of late.

“Well, I’ve found that most of the animal morphs here at Metamor prefer the company of their own species in a way that they can’t easily describe. Oh, there are many couples here of different species, but there are also many of the same. My betrothed is also a rat, and the Lord and Lady of Glen Avery are both squirrels.”

“When is the wedding going to be? And are we invited?” Zagrosek asked, nudging him slightly in the ribs with one finger.

Charles laughed slightly. “Kimberly and I haven’t decided that quite yet. We’ll see about the latter.” He then took a breath and went on. “There are eight rats here at Metamor, and we’ve tended to stick together for the most part. You’ve met five of them, including myself now. The other three are my fiancèe, one of the Heads of the Writer’s Guild, and a knight. We’re a motley bunch, but we stick together. I can’t explain it any better than that I think. If you stay here long enough, you might get a chance to understand.”

Zagrosek nodded slowly at that. “It would be interesting to see what I would become should I stay, but I do not think I am ready to find out quite yet. If there is no choice, I am willing to accept that, but I’d rather not have to.”

“Most wouldn’t,” Charles said softly, staring at the black before him, wishing that it would change in even the slightest respect, but it kept on going, as endless as it appeared.

However, Zagrosek said nothing after that, instead, simply holding the lantern near the ceiling of the passage, shining down before the rat. The dry air was beginning to grow stale to the four of them, almost noxious. Charles wished that his friend had not stopped talking, for he could feel his imprisonment in this tunnel begin to weigh heavily on his shoulders, as if the entire ceiling had come to rest there. He did not dare let the oil in the lanterns be spent more than half, for being trapped here in the dark would surely push him over the edge, no better than a common rat, except that this one could bite very, very hard.

He reminded himself of the travails of Prince Phil, their rabbity chief of intelligence. Every night, Phil had to be locked inside a wire cage with hay and food in case he woke the next morning as just a simple bunny. How was Clover taking that fact now that they were married? Surely she was not going to be sleeping in the cage with his Highness. No details of the arrangements of their married life had been disclosed, so the rest of the Keep was left to ponder.

And it made Charles wonder how he would deal with being only a rat in mind as in body. It wasn’t so much as how he would deal with it, he’d simply act like a normal rat, but how those who cared about him would handle things. They might cage him, as Phil had been done, if he hadn’t crept off into some quiet corner of the Keep never to be seen again, until one of the felines captured and ate him – that thought made him shudder visibly. He imagined that Kimberly would probably care for him, tears in her eyes as she called to him, and he, barely even able to recognise his old name.

Tears nearly fled to his own dark eyes at the thought of her subjected to such daily torment, to see her beloved but to find her love unrequited. It would be as if he were dead, only his corpse was left to rot in her chambers instead of being buried. If it came to that, he might ask Misha to kill him to spare Kimberly that terrible pain. That thought alone brought a chill to his cheek fur, one that took him a moment to realize was not wholly self-generated.

As he let thoughts of being completely a rat pass from his mind, he realized that the chill did not come from his own imagining, but instead was caused by a slight breeze passing him by, one that was colder than the surrounding air. He blinked a few times and stopped in his tracks, peering ahead at the endless corridor, certain that he smelled something other than the dry mustiness that had pervaded his nostrils for almost half a day. Zagrosek stopped behind, asking a question that Charles did not listen to, while he tried to catalogue that odour.

A smile crept over his muzzle then, as his mind finally brought the pieces together, and the culprit’s name escaped his lips, “Snow.”

“What?” Zagrosek asked, looking ahead in bewilderment.

“Snow, I smell snow!” Charles said, a bit excitedly, and louder than he really ought.

“You do?” Jerome cried, his own voice rather exuberant.

“And I feel a breeze coming this way. Don’t you?”

Garigan was the first to nod to that, as it was easier for him to notice the way it moved his fur and whiskers. But both Jerome and Zagrosek acquiesced only moments later. “There must be an opening somewhere up ahead,” the thick Sondeckis at the back pointed out. His broad face could barely contain his smile.

Zagrosek nodded but he appeared more dour. “We must be quiet then; if there is an opening, then the enemy may be lurking about. No need to alert them that we are here.”

Charles nodded and kept his muzzle shut, though his whiskers did twitch with glorious anticipation. After waiting so long, and walking so far, it was a wonderful relief to know that they might soon be walking out under the sky again. The darkness, as if in protest, only appeared to grow thicker about them, clutching at them as if to keep them locked in that tunnel for all time. Yet they pushed on for several more minutes, undeterred, but renewed.

And soon, they saw a pinprick of natural light streaming into the tunnel from its end. The black stone abruptly stopped, and thick rubble lined the opening. A trickle of snow had collected at the base of the opening, falling through that tiny crack. Yet, by the light they could see pouring through, they knew that it was both daytime, and that the blizzard had passed by.

Being the tallest, Zagrosek and Jerome set themselves to moving the old rocks that had piled in front of the doorway. Drifts of snow poured down in upon them, as did that bright light. Charles and Garigan both shielded their eyes as the sun’s rays fell in upon them even more. And as he peered past the two Sondeckis at that lovely celestial sphere, a terrible thought clutched the rat’s heart.

“Why is the sun in front of us?” he asked, trembling, and not from the chill that was blowing in with the snow.

Garigan’s jaw dropped and his eyes went wide in sudden horror. He looked back down the tunnel, straight as ever, and dark after only a short distance despite the new light piercing the veil of its blackness. He then turned back around and stared in gaping horror at the sun. “We’ve been going South!”

Jerome dumped a rock as wide as his hips onto the ground in the snow that was collecting about his feet, and rubbed his hands within the folds of his robe. “South? But weren’t we supposed to be heading Northwest?”

“Look at the sun, it is staring us right in the face! We’ve been going South!” Charles exclaimed, finding his voice much too loud for safety. Yet, the terrible fact was standing before them, they’d been headed in the opposite direction from Glen Avery! Now they were much too far to ever have any hope of assisting Garigan’s people.

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