“Fine, fine. Just don’t keep us waiting too long.” He said as he defiantly refused to eat.
Time would pass as he waited for Týfurkh to finish.”So are we ready to go?” The man would say coolly. He was ready to explore these tunnels and see if there could be anything gained from this exercise. Truthfully he was hoping for yet another exit/entrance than the one they were shown.
”Yes I’d say so. So which direction do you want to go ?”
“Let’s scout the tunnels on the outer perimeter first,” Ferris suggested. Always taking the left or rightmost path meant reaching the wall of the Kharu’s domain at some point, and perhaps finding some paths out on the way. Looking down the tunnel to the door where he’d exited the dining room, he made a turn or split in the tunnel further down.
“Let’s go this way,” he said, turning towards the tunnel leading the other way from their sleeping quarters. If there were secrets in these tunnels, they’d be placed away from the guests.
“Sounds good to me. Either direction is fine as we’re trying to be through so it’ll all get explored eventually right?” The man would say to Ferris. It would be expedient to go with Ferris’s suggestion. Get to the outer area first and then move inwards. Hopefully they wouldn’t need to go too inwards as that would mean crossing paths with these dubious allies.
Ferris nodded, leading the way down the tunnels. With the crystal jade candle he’d gotten earlier, he was able to light their way through the darkness, refusing help from the slaves they passed. Down the hallway they went, the faintly-lit room up ahead revealing itself to be a kitchen. Slaves bustled around the room, tending to pots and fires as others prepared ingredients on the side. Their faces were rather devoid of emotion as they worked, making it difficult to tell what they were thinking, or if they were thinking at all.
“They’re treated better than most slaves,” Ferris commented as they paused by the doorway. “Better trained too.”
”They are still slaves though and I very much dislike the fact.” Týfurkh commented on the view, holding his voice low enough so only his companions could listen. ”What boggles me most is how they got all those resources here and, maybe even more importantly, why. Wouldn’t the surface be a nicer place overall ? I mean… the madmen there haven’t been around long enough for all of this to be built in order to get out of their way, have they ?”
Ferris nodded. The concept of a slave was a low one, and the stigmatisms that came with it made the situation seem worse than it was, though Ferris doubted they’d seen it all.
“Being underground offers secrecy and mobility,” he noted in a similarly low tone as they passed the kitchen. “They could come up from anywhere in the city, provided they dig the tunnel.”
The next room along the hallway appeared to be a storage room, with baskets, pots, and vases of varying sizes lining the floor and shelves. A few slaves were inside, poring over the supplies, though without any hint of meaning to keep a written record of their supplies. Were they looking for something, then, or were they counting and making mental note of the stock?
“Maybe this is easier for them,” Ferris suggested. “It seems like it’s their choice to stay underground. Theirs or the Kharu’s.”
“Truthfully I think there’s some sort of criminal operation operating here using these tunnels.
They can easily evade the notice of the authority figures here real easily. And no doubt with the Cult running around, that this is also helping them from having the Cult attack them.” The man would say to the two. He just wondered what exactly they were doing to make money now that the cult was controlling the town.
One of the nearby slaves passing by looked to the man as he spoke and frowned. “Freshlanders.” She said, walking away with the shake of the head.
Ferris watched the slave pass, noting the word she’d muttered. “Freshlanders.” It was clearly a label meant for the three of them, but perhaps it applied to all of Salencia’s residents. The word seemed to imply that the slave came from a place where the land or waters were not fresh, but there was little way to tell exactly what she’d meant.
“What do you mean, ‘Freshlanders’?” he asked, raising his voice a bit so that it’d reach the slave, but not so much that it’d echo too far down the halls. It wasn’t meant to be a rude question, and he didn’t think it rude, but he was interrupting the slave so he’d understand if she ignored him. At the same time, though, he was mostly expecting an answer, if only because he knew himself to be a guest and therefore somewhat more important than a slave’s time if his usual experiences with slaves applied here.
The women paid the mercenary little more than a shrug. “No manners.” She said as she turned a corner and disappeared from sight.
The words took Ferris aback for a second since he hadn’t expected the slave to answer back so brusquely, but he took it in stride, turning to DB and Týfurkh. “They retain more individuality than I’d expect of slaves treated poorly.” Then, focusing on DB, he nodded. “These tunnels are definitely well-suited for covert operations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if trafficking slaves is one of those. But, I’m glad that they’re the ones in control of these tunnels instead of the cult. Having to deal with an underground army would be difficult, if not impossible if you aren’t aware of the full extent of the tunnels.”
”If I were you I wouldn’t even dare to think about dealing with any kind of army in the first place, not even if this was my own home.” Týfurkh added with concern in his voice. He didn’t feel very comfortable with this whole underground thing as well, but wasn’t sure if Ferris’ expectancy in terms of the Pactmakers’ capabilities wasn’t an even more serious threat than that. He kept his voice low so as to deny any eavesdroppers to do their dirty work. ”If we stick to our original plan to go outwards I’d say this is the right tunnel to go.” and he pointed towards… Well towards what ? Just another entrance, basically. Speaking of ‘North’, ‘South’, ‘East’ and ‘West’ felt a little weird in this underground maze for Týfurkh. ”Does anybody have a candle and some means of lighting it ? I mean a real candle with a real flame, not a jade candle. Got an idea…”
Ferris nodded at Týfurkh’s comment about armies. As a mercenary, his scope of focus had mostly been individual or limited to a small party. He had not, however, forgotten about the might of armies and nations, and coming to the Nation of Sight had reminded him again. There’d been no shortage of the visible effects of war along his path through the Nation of Touch, and even the country folk enjoyed the novel conversation topic. While he felt out of touch listening to talks of drafts and militias, he’d paid attention to what snippets he’d heard of the war, if only because he’d be heading into a potential war zone. The machinations of nations worked on the larger scale, but their effects trickled down all the same.
“The right tunnel it is,” he said, noting Týfurkh’s confusion. The connection between Týfurkh’s pointing, looking confused, and asking for a candle didn’t click for Ferris, but he figured it wasn’t a big deal. Jade candles weren’t a great source of light, but they were a helpful and freely offered source that Ferris didn’t mind. Trying to navigate the dark by touch and smell alone was much harder, after all, and he’d done it enough to appreciate most sources of light.
“I’ve only got this jade candle and some scented oils. If either of you has something to burn and something to start the burning with, we could get a fire going for a bit.” he offered. Týfurkh didn’t strike him as the type to make meaningless suggestions, so he figured he’d trust the archer’s judgment.
“Would this work? ” The man broke his silence as he slyly produced an oil lamp with a manicured wick. Laying it on the floor, he’d kneel and light the lamp. The oil lamp would produce a warm light compared to the “cool” light of the Jade candle. “Lead the way.” He’d say passing the lamp to Ferris.
Týfurkh smiled a little. One could even argue if it was a slight smile of supremacy as apparently none had got the true reasoning behind his request. ”I’m not interested in the light or the warmth, the jade candle does enough of that. I’m interested in the movement of the open flame, so please hold still for a moment and don’t speak. I doubt it’s possible to perfectly seal such an extensive network of tunnels, so we might have a very slight draft of air around us without noticing. If it is present it will probably lead us to the nearest exit and guide our way.”
Týfurkh’s words prompted a nod from Ferris. It made sense, and his statement made Ferris wish he’d thought of it first. But, there was no use dwelling on that, and Ferris raised the candle as asked, waiting silently for the tip of the flame to settle. After another few seconds, its left and right flickers stilled into a steady tilt towards the tunnel on their left, and Ferris looked in the indicated direction, not making out much in the darkness.
“Left then,” he said, glancing between DB and Týfurkh before leading the way down the dark hallway, one candle in each hand.
The sound of echoing footsteps came from down the hall, behind the group. "Have I become your errand girl now?" A woman’s voice said. Her words sounding almost musical. "I find your requests growing increasingly dull."
“Insolent women. One would think you would be more respectful to the one who liberated you from servitude.” Remarked a peckish voice.
"Liberated?" The woman laughed. "Oh, Talon… I wonder are those your words or that of your master?”
"You give him far too much credit." The woman continued, cutting Talon off. "Your master did not liberate me, he simply empowered me."
"It’s true, Talon." Pitched in a third voice. "I did merely empower the girl. Though, one would think she would still be grateful? Mayhaps I supported the wrong one then… It would be a shame if history had need of repeating itself."
Svephraey and the Kharu-Natjer, with Talon perched on his shoulder, turned the corner, entering the same corridor as DB, Ferris and Týfurkh. The Kharu-Natjer’s stare turned immediately towards the three explorers, almost as if he expected them to be there. Talon’s gaze followed soon after. Svephraey, however, seemed too caught up in the conversation to notice. It was only after the Kharu-Natjer came to a halt that she noticed their new company.
"While I do not restrict my guests from exploring these ancient tunnels, I do request that they not light any fires in areas without ventilation." The Kharu-Natjer said.
Svephraey looked from the group to the Kharu-Natjer, her eyes narrowing with a hint of annoyance. Both Talon and the Kharu-Natjer seemed to ignore the look.
“Foolishness.” Talon said while making a clicking sound with his beck.
"Foolishness?" The Kharu-Natjer repeated, his gaze wandering from the men to the flickering flame. "Perhaps… though also clever." His lips curved into that smile of his. The one which did not meet his eyes.
Ferris’ eyes narrowed slightly as the Kharu turned the corner with his familiar and Svephraey. He and the others had fallen silent when they heard voices, and judging by the way the Kharu immediately looked to them, the slave owner had known they’d be here. His knowing gaze, which was unafraid to admit that he’d known of their presence, was as unsettling as his smile. Though Ferris had seen many smiles in his years, it was the personal ones—the ones that said they knew something that he did not—that stood out to him. He was a hunter, and as such he tended to have the upper hand when it came to the flow of information. Under the Kharu’s gaze, though, he felt closer to prey.
With a quick breath, Ferris blew out the wax candle, lowering it in favor of the jade one. The Kharu-Natjer nodded in appreciation. “We were trying to figure out which way to head,” he said, though he had a sneaking suspicion that the Kharu already knew that. “You could guide us instead, though.”
It was a straightforward ask, and Ferris was aware that it could come off as rude, but it was the one he defaulted to. Mincing words was only helpful when he wasn’t caught in the act, so he stood firm, meeting the Kharu’s eyes solidly.
"A tour?" The Kharu-Natjer asked, brow raised with amusement. "Is that what you seek?"
”Why beat around the bush." Svephraey interjected, looking to the Kharu-Natjer. "You know just as well as I that these pups are sniffing around for answers. Is that not why you led us here?”
The Kharu-Natjer looked to Svephraey and smiled. Svephraey’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Well then, now seems like as good a time as ever to take my leave.” Svephraey continued. ”After all, I have gratitude to be showing, don’t I? Best I be getting started on gathering your requested sl-" -The Kharu-Natjer gave her a sharp look- "-ew of supplies." Svephraey continued, undeterred by the man’s menacing glare.
Svephraey eyed the Kharu-Natjer with delight, as the man quickly smothered the look. "Yes," The man agreed. "Best be off with you." Paying the group one last glance, Svephraey gave the Kharu-Natjer a nod and took her leave.
Talon hunched forward, his silvery feathers alternating back and forth from a ruffled and smooth state. Looking eager to follow, he trailed the woman with hungry eyes. A stern gaze from the Kharu-Natjer seemed to put an end to that, as the familiar quickly eased up on his perch.
The Kharu-Natjer then turned his attention back towards the group. "So," He said. "Where is it you would like to go?"
The man known as DB had stayed quiet during the meeting with these people. More importantly he succeeded into not rolling his eyes when referred to as “pups” by that woman. They would be asked what they were looking for. “The exit of course.”
"These tunnels have many exits leading all across the town. Is there any exit in particular that you would like to go?"
Ferris paused. “Is there one that leads to the clocktower?” He suspected that there likely was, just as there was probably an exit that led to or nearly to every important building or landmark near town.
"There is one nearby, yes," The Kharu-Natjer said, "but that is in an area closely monitored and controlled by the Cult. So it is an exit we tend to leave alone."
”How about showing us all the exits ?” Týfurkh, of course, was aware that the number he was talking about could be quite large, but so was his degree of disappointment when it came to certain statements. The word ‘pups’ had not slipped through his attention,and neither had the statement that lighting a fire was a clever move despite being against some rules. These, in themselves, seemed rather ridiculous and probably were nothing but a pretense. This was a stone tunnel, nothing could burn here, and if a flame was considered to be too oxygen-consuming then what about the growing number of persons walking around here ? ”If we are going to make a tour then I suggest we make it a big and thorough one.” he added, trying to remain calm.
The giant couldn’t resist to stare a little at Talon though. This creature might not be talking about metal men sitting on donkeys, but still Sil had already won the competition about his sympathy. If a stare had been capable of putting a nail into somebody, the feathered familiar would have found himself dead on the wall now. His conscience reminded him about having tried to convince DB to stay here just… half an hour earlier maybe ? If put into that same situation again he probably would be a bit less eager to do the same thing now despite his rational thinking giving confirmation that all arguments used were still valid.
"I’ll happily show you one or two," The Kharu-Natjer said, "but all of them? That is a tall order for someone such as I."
The Kharu-Natjer nodded for the three to follow as he led away from the direction they had initially been heading and around the passage from which he had appeared.
”This labyrinth isn't unique you know." The Kharu-Natjer said after a short period of silence. "Since coming to these lands of yours, I've identified several other locales which appear to have tunnels hidden under its structure. Sadly the entrances to many of these sister tunnels have been sealed away. Some have even collapsed. This town, however, was one of the unique few. Nearly all of its entrances were left intact.
"It was an odd thing to find such passages, let alone to find them unknown to the ones above. They had... a sort of protection on them. A ward which encouraged onlookers to turn a blind eye... This magic... It is a special kind. A magic only a rare few can use."
The Kharu-Natjer paused, looking to Talon. The familiar was to shift uncomfortably on the man’s shoulder. The bird paid the Kharu-Natjer a quick glance. Then with a snap of the beak and a quick ruffle and smoothing of his feathers, Talon seemed to settle down. The Kharu-Natjer continued speaking soon after.
"Such powers are not unknown to my kind. Though we tend to see more natural forms of this power rather than artificial. In my homeland, it tends to seep forth from the land and the creatures that dwell there. It is more rare in your land, however. The most you see of it here typically comes from The Being of Many Names and also... well..." The Kharu-Natjer looked to his shadow. Its shaded form reached unnaturally towards a nearby crystal jade candle. An effect caused by the Distortion.
"I had to disperse the ward in order for us to effectively use these tunnels. It wasn't easy, but I managed... However, this made the entrances, the ones more available to the public, a risk to keep around. Such entrances we decided to seal off. The rest of them, we do our best to keep hidden."
The Kharu-Natjer came to a halt at what appeared to be a spiralling stairwell guarded by two of his slaves. They looked to the three but did not make eye contact with the Kharu-Natjer.
”And here we are." The Kharu-Natjer said. ”This here is one of my favorite entrances. It is built into a well, you see. The stairs spiral around the well, opening up into a shed. The entrance is covered with a stone slab sealed by a lock. By sequentially sliding some of the stone bricks built into the well, you can unlock and open the stone slab. The stone bricks even have handles on the inside of the tunnel. It allows us to open and lock it from the inside as well. Clever, isn't it?"
Hearing that the Kharu hadn’t ordered the construction of the tunnels surprised Ferris, as did the Kharu’s mention of the Being and another form of magic not tied to a person. Such broke the laws of the world as he knew it, but it made sense; there were things he couldn’t explain, like the Being’s abilities and the shifting scent in the stairwell on Ferris’ first meeting with the Kharu, and thinking of those as other forms of magic helped them make sense again.
“How do you use this form of magic, then?” It was obvious that the Kharu knew how to use the magic he’d mentioned, but how did the magic work? Ferris wanted the answer to that, and to whether or not the shifting scents had been this strange magic, but without informing the Kharu of his abilities. Whether or not the Being already laid him bare to the Kharu, it was good form to conceal one’s hand, and Ferris saw no reason to help the Kharu acquaint himself with Ferris’ ability. As for whether the Kharu was telling the truth, Ferris saw no reason for the Kharu to lie. Bringing up the magic was necessary because the Sightless were using it, and pooling intel on a common enemy was as trustworthy a process as any.
”Oh?" He said, amused. ”Did my tour of this entrance not interest you? Well, no matter.
The Kharu-Natjer eyed the Crazed with a smile. ”How do you use this magic? Well… you can’t. At least not usually. It’s... hard to explain…”
The Kharu-Natjer led them away from the tunnel and motioned them to follow. ”In truth, my understanding of it is limited… It is an understanding wrapped in myth and personal experience. Some say it is the ultimate magic, and all other magics spawn from it. Others say it is another magic entirely. External to the world we know. Me though? I’m of the opinion this magic is of the world."
”This magic… it is world shaping. It alters that which should be. The distortion afflicting this town, that is the magic at work...
”This power… it is more like an entity than anything else. To use it requires one to be of such power. So, you either control it, or you connect to it in some fashion.
”Our legends tell of wars fought over the power long ago. Wars fought amongst gods. Wars where the people were used as pawns. I dare say these labyrinths are remnants of such wars… When traveling to this land I searched the libraries of Hearing for similar tales, but found little of use. I found it rather strange that your people seem to be ignorant of such stories.”
The Kharu’s explanation left something to be desired, and Ferris doubted his asserted lack of familiarity for a second, thinking it was possible that the Kharu was lying or misleading them in order to maintain his upper hand. The next second, however, had him realize that the Kharu wouldn’t have mentioned the novel form of magic if that were the case, and Ferris figured it wouldn’t hurt to take the man’s words at face value, at least for this conversation.
“Maybe the wars were not waged here then,” he suggested. The simplest conclusion was often the correct one, in his experience, and helping him reach this conclusion was his doubt in the Kharu’s stories. As far as he was concerned, religion was a means to an end for those in power. Believing that a higher power would right wrongs in the afterlife rendered subjects more docile, and purporting to be chosen by said higher power helped establish the authority to rule. The many Mistresses of Merchants had already shown that those in power had their choice of avenues to exploit, and the Kharu’s story made Ferris think that perhaps the man had already taken his pick. His hold over his slaves, for starters, seemed to be deeper than simply owning or training them, and Ferris didn’t think it a stretch for the Kharu to have convinced them of a false narrative to gain their loyalty.
Still, Ferris was reserving his opinions for now, so he pondered the Kharu’s question from a more neutral standpoint. “Or, if this town is under the thrall of this magic like you say, it’d be difficult to say how far its influence extends. We could all be under its thrall right now and be none the wiser, if what you say is true.”
What he’d just suggested was a conspiracy theory of sorts, ridiculous and all, but Ferris was entertaining the notion. After all, there was no explanation for the Sightless’ abilities in regards to the magic he was familiar with. Besides the possibility that this novel magic type might render his nose useless, there wasn’t much that would change how he approached the situation. After all, the Being’s magic had been too far out of his comprehension for him to try resisting it, so perhaps there was a large, all-encompassing nugget of truth to what the Kharu was saying, and perhaps his disbelief was more due to a desire to maintain control than due to ignorance. Considering everything that had happened so far, upending his worldview didn’t seem like such a drastic step, but he’d need more concrete proof first. Something to tie the types of magic, perhaps, or a better explanation of the Kharu’s type of magic. Without more foundational evidence, it was hard to imagine trusting a theory, much less a simple story from the Kharu.
The Kharu-Natjer smiled politely but said nothing. They spent most of the remainder of the tour in quite. The Kharu-Natjer, showed them two other exits, nowhere near as intricate as the first. He led them back to their rooms and bade them goodnight.