“I feel like shit,” said Laura.
“I think there’s a good reason for that,” said Sam.
Sam was holding her rifle warily in case the bat creatures returned from the black expanse above them. Khuong Mai and the rest of the (now ex-) slaves were huddled beneath a dank, broad-leafed, high-trunked bush. Its leaves glistened, an off-purple, in the light from Laura’s lantern.
“I’ve got to resume research on that Hot Bath spell,” muttered Laura.
“I feel a… drier… breeze coming from this direction,” said Sam. “It isn’t cool or warm, it just isn’t as damp. It’s very slight, but it must lead somewhere else.”
“Somewhere else is where we want to go,” said Laura.
Sam shouldered her .45 caliber rifle and led the bedraggled troup through the wet and fungous “forest” beneath the Earth. Laura brought up the rear, her fan in hand, in case the bat creatures returned.
The forest was devoid of the sounds of an above-ground forest. There were animals, certainly: insects of bright colors and shining lights, tiny blind birds, and even grey snakes slithered through the mold and the fungous flora. But the flora itself made no sound. No breeze fluttered the broad, rubbery leaves. They sat there. The wet, sinous “flowers” and “ferns” did not reach for the sun as an above-ground plant would. There was no sun. It was all a giant still-life, with bugs and slimy creatures walking across the mildewed canvas.
After an hour or so of walking, they realized that they were no longer in a vast open cavern, but that they had been for some time walking through a smaller cave tunnel. Now the plant life thinned out and they saw the walls of the cave occasionally on both sides, and white striped rats crawled on the ceiling as well as the walls. The rats had no use for the huge creatures that walked on two-legs like the giant bats, and the huge creatures that walked on two legs, for their part, had no desire for pale striped rats. “Although,” Sam remarked, “we may change our mind if we haven’t found an exit before these meagre lunches give out.”
“I’ve heard that rats are quite a delicacy in some cultures,” said Laura. “Perhaps in yours you know some recipes?” she added to Mai, hoping, perhaps, that if they were forced to dine on rat, they would have some faint taste of familiarity.
“No,” said Mai. “I’ve heard the same thing. Perhaps in New York City?”
“It would be a Yankee taste,” said Laura. “Perhaps we should send for a recipe before it is too late.”
Perhaps you can help us: we are currently stuck miles beneath the surface of the earth. All the air is dampness and stench. The only food source is rats, which abound. We understand that this approximates the conditions of your city and thus hope that you have useful recipes for converting rats into edible dishes.
The Lost Tribe of Madame Zhuong”
“Perfect,” said Sam.
A low and windy howl permeated the cavern. They walked, and they walked, and they walked. At times they had to walk single file, which was made worse by the fierce wind funneled through the tunnel at those points.
“This was an awfully expensive glass, Laura,” said Sam.
“You negotiated payment.”
“Maybe we should just bring it back for a refund.”
It was a soft click of something hard on something hard, in the distance. Sam and Laura both, at both ends, put up their hands to stop all motion, all noise.
It was coming from further down the tunnel. Laura hurried through the ex-slaves to be with Sam and Mai.
They stayed listening for a few more minutes, but that was the end.
“How far was it, do you think?” asked Mai.
“Hard to tell,” said Sam. “Noise travels so well in this cavern. It could be quite far away.”
“But we can be fairly certain it knows about us, can’t we?” asked Laura.
“With the breeze, who knows?” replied Sam. “But yes, we have to assume so. Is this a dead zone?”
Laura rubbed something in her pouch, and looked inside.
“No, it does not seem to be.”
“Well, let’s hope whoever or whatever it is up ahead doesn’t have gunpowder, because we’re sitting ducks here.”
Laura put the fan away and pulled her rifle from her shoulder. She checked the chamber and held it ready.
“At least the bat creatures should find it difficult to fly in here,” she said.
Sam readied her rifle as well, and signaled for everyone to start moving again.
“Mai,” said Laura, “go to the back and make sure everyone stays together. And tell them, if we fire, they need to cover their ears. It’s going to be loud in here.”
They headed down the tunnel this way, Sam and Laura leading with their rifles, for a long time, perhaps half a day or more. The “click” returned occasionally, quickly upon each other for five to twenty times. Their entourage almost certainly began to grumble, but neither Sam nor Laura knew the language and so chose to ignore it. “There just isn’t anything to do about it,” said Sam. “Our first task is simply to find a way out of here.”
Finally the end of the tunnel was visible in the lantern light. Sam motioned for everyone to stop. At the edge of the lantern’s light a creature scuttled on the ground.
Click. Click. Click. The sound of its six huge hairy feet touching the ground, like a spider.
Sam and Laura moved closer, very slowly. It was obvious, now, that the creature was looking at them. It was man-sized, but hunched over. As they moved even closer, its resemblance to spiders grew more pronounced: it was a spider, huge, ugly, and its faceted eyes watched the two sisters as they moved.
“I’m going to be sick,” said Sam.
There were old bat skeletons, and old rat skeletons, and some not so old, and old bat-creature skeletons too, strewn around the creature. Sam slowly took aim with her Marlin. The creature simply watched. Sam slowly pulled the trigger.
The hammer fell forward… and nothing happened.
“Shit!” cried Sam, and she quickly shouldered her rifle and pulled her sword.
Now the creature seemed to understand what was up, and it scuttled into the shadows.
“Well, whatever it is, it hasn’t seen a rifle before,” said Sam. “Pity they don’t work around here.”
“Yes,” said Laura, looking into her pouch at the glass flask, “sometime very quickly past, we entered a dead zone.”
Sam held the sword before her. In the darkness, though lit by the lantern, it gave off a very faint glow.
“It’s either go back or go forward,” she said.
“Let’s go, then,” said Laura.
They motioned for the ex-slaves to stay where they were, and then Sam and Laura moved slowly forward. They stepped past the exit of the tunnel, stepping over the skeletons of tiny creatures. The tunnel exited over a cliff. There were stairs leading down. Somewhere out in the empty space, something shone back from the lantern’s light. Something shiny or bright sparkled. The distance was impossible to gauge.
The huge spider was nowhere to be seen.
“I’d sure like to know what’s out there,” said Sam softly.
“I can show you what is there, I think,” said Laura. “But while it shouldn’t draw attention to us particularly, it certainly will let anything out there know that something is here.”
“Do it, then.”
“Are you sure? It will definitely let everyone know we’re here, even if it doesn’t show them where we are.”
“I think by now everything down here knows both that we’re here and exactly where in hades we are,” replied Sam.
Laura took some raisins from her belt pouch.
“I think we’re going to miss these in a few days,” she said, and then tossed them into the air over the emptiness.
A light burst for a moment over their heads, and traveled across the open space. There was a scuttling as rats—and maybe something bigger?—hid from the brightness. A stone street went beneath a carven arch. As the light moved away it illuminated the buildings that the street went past. They were gaudily colored, but silent and still. Further on, towers of bronze and yellow and blue and green stood proudly, also silent. Far away, spires of bright purple glittered, and the light fell out of sight and died away. It left an impression of a great city on their now-blind eyes.
The light had robbed them temporarily of their night vision. They were overawed by what they had seen. As their night vision returned, and they could once again see by lantern light, only the arch, now that they knew it was there, was visible far at the edge of the lantern’s meagre illumination.
“I looked for a hot bath in all of that but I couldn’t find one,” said Laura.
“So now we have to trek across that,” said Sam. “Do you think anyone still lives here?”
“Can you hear anything that sounds like people? Or that sounds like any form of intelligent creatures? I don’t even think there are bat-people here.”
“I suppose we’ll have to march across. Nowhere else to go.”
“The breeze has gone,” said Laura. “This must have been the source.”
They returned and told Mai what they’d seen, about the huge spider and the great city.
“So we have to march some more? When do we stop? These people need to rest soon.”
“Yes, we need to rest soon,” said Sam. “But I think we can cross the city before ‘nightfall’.”
They stopped at the archway. Laura decided to use her magic to read the writing on the arch.
“The sleeping city, it says,” read Laura, “will awaken when the prophecy is fulfilled.”
“Does it say what prophecy?” shuddered Sam.
“Yes, when two twins walk across with the daughter of a fortune-teller.”
“No,” said Laura, “it does not say what prophecy.”
“Well, let’s hope it really isn’t us.”
And they marched through the dark, sleeping city, shadows growing and shortening on both sides.
“Hey! Is that steam over there?” cried Mai.
“Maybe it’s Laura’s hot bath,” said Sam.
“I think it is…” said Laura, but by then the crowd had seen it too, and rushed towards it.
“Wait!” yelled Sam. “Oh, bloody Apollo, stop!”
Sam followed with her sword ready, and Mai and Laura at her heels.
It turned out that it was hot bath, or hot springs at any rate, and as everyone else was already resting au naturel without apparent harm, Laura decided to join them. She took off her toga and stepped into the water. She brought the toga with her and washed it.
Sam shrugged at Mai and both also joined in. It was an amazing end to the day: and everyone’s anger and frustration melted in the pool of hot water. They laughed; the children played. Sam, Laura, and Mai planned as best they could the next way to go.
“It looks as though the cold water is coming in from this way,” said Sam. “It’s being piped in from somewhere. Maybe a river?”
“You think it leads somewhere?” asked Laura.
“I’d say it’s our only lead right now,” she replied.
“I think we should rest here for the night,” said Mai. “It’s wonderful!”
“No,” said Laura, “we will want to move away from it. If there is anything still living down here, it may like hot baths also.”
“Can anything that likes hot baths be evil?” asked Mai.
“I’d rather not find out,” said Sam. “We camp away from the springs.”
They moved away from the baths as ordered, but looked wistfully back throughout the night. Once another spider creature appeared; the sight of Sam’s sword sent it scurrying into the darkness.
In the morning, they tried to follow the cold water to its end. Most of the time it flowed underground, but occasionally burst into the air through some disgusting statue. The people who once lived here seemed to be relatively normal… except for the tentacles coming out of their heads where eye sockets should be. And occasionally one statue would be depicted holding what looked like a headless baby with stalks coming out of its neck.
Finally, they arrived at the edge of the city, and the river burst into the open as a small stream leading further into the caverns. It had carved a great tunnel and flowed down it. Boats ancient as anything could be were beached next to it. They were brittle and dry with an age that awed.
“But they won’t float,” said Sam as they looked over the grand barges.
“They will if I have anything to do with it,” said Laura determinedly.
She took the scroll case from her side and slowly, carefully removed the paper from inside. It was a thick sheet of paper, inscribed with metallic inks.
“Stand back,” she said. And she began to read, in a tongue as old as civilization. Dust rose from the ground and fell onto the boat she’d chosen. Its prow, cracked, reattached itself. Wood dust lost ages past rushed as on a wind, out of the sky and back onto the boat. Her chanting grew louder, and repetitive, and the glyphs on the scroll glew like diamonds. Oars and poles straightened and strengthened. A howl arose from the ship itself and was echoed in the sky, then died down as the glyphs on the scroll faded out.
And the boat was new. They pushed the boat back into the water, and boarded it, and used the (new) wooden poles to push themselves out. The river took them slowly at first, but faster and faster; they picked up speed. The cavern that the river flowed through was decorated by ancient hands. Every hundred yards or saw was a new arch or statue (complete with those odd tentacle-eyes), or, fewer, docks long disused in the underground.
The river flowed for the better part of a day. It rumbled and roiled around them and tossed them to Olympus and back to Hades.
Towards the end of the day, the rumbling grew louder.
“I know that sound,” said Laura suddenly, and Sam stiffened up straight in recognition.
They started frantically rowing to shore. Their fear caught to Mai, who renewed rowing with vigor, and spread to the ex-slaves, who tried desperately to paddle with their hands alone. They succeeded. With the mist of the waterfall in their throats, they crawled onto the bedrock shore.
There was one small statue here: the headless baby again, and a well next to it. And off to the side:
“Stairs,” said Sam. “That’s the best thing I’ve seen all day.”
“They have to go somewhere, right?” asked Mai plaintively.
Everyone else just looked up the stairs. They certainly didn’t end before the lantern light. Just looking made them tired.
They slept at the foot of the stairs one more night. The meagre amount of food that had been salvaged from the slave quarters was now gone. They looked up the stairs.
“How far can stairs go?” asked Sam.
“Now we find out,” said Laura.
So they climbed, and they climbed, and they climbed. They climbed for what must have been half a day, and the stairs showed no sign of stopping, when suddenly Sam asked Laura to shutter the lantern.
“Look,” she said, after Laura had done so. “Isn’t that light up there?”
“Mai,” said Sam, “keep everyone here. We’re going to go on ahead.”
It looked like sunlight more and more as they neared it. Five minutes later they rounded the stairs and came out into the open air. It was morning or evening.
They were on the side of a mountain, and they looked out over a vast forest. A brightly colored bird flew noisily past them.
“Thank Athena,” said Laura.