Staring the portal in the face, we realized, finally, our true predicament. We would not be returning to the surface soon -- if ever.
Beside me, Brid, whom I'd had chance to at least meet before they brought the other three and escorted us to the portal, was starting to breathe hard, fear coming into her eyes. I could barely see her eyes in the poor light…
I looked up. Way up. Far, far above us -- yet closer than ever the edge of the atmosphere had been -- was our new skyline. A rock ceiling perhaps a thousand or more feet above reached from one edge of my vision to… a rock cliff on the other side. Fungi adorned the ceiling, and that scant glow now lit our lives, for there was no other light beneath the surface.
With my eyes, I followed the infinite expanse of rock to my left until I could no longer make it out, then back the other way. Mercilessly the rock dropped down on my right, just outside town…
Town? Yes, a town in this place, I realized. We were inside it. Buildings made of cut stone, and strange materials of which I could not even fathom a guess, were all about us. And people -- people everywhere. This small town, this fort, was surely but the tiniest corner of what was around here, and it was filled to bustling. It shocked me, even though I knew that the Empire had been exiling people since before I was born -- thousands, tens of thousands pushed through a one-way portal into the underground. The enormous cave system had become a prison for anyone they didn't like but couldn't sanction killing.
Other things were going on that people were never allowed to talk about -- in fact, those who talked about them ended up down here too. The surface was entirely in the control of the Empire -- and it scared me, more than anything else I'd ever feared in my life, to think that perhaps… just perhaps… it was better to be down here and on your own than up there and in their clutches.
Beside me, Brid was softly crying, and I put my arm around her shoulder to comfort. She buried her face in my side, and I drew in a breath for I, too, was dismayed. What could we accomplish here? Would we even survive this place, or might some of us (let it not be, and I'm not saying I'm above it myself) commit suicide to escape in the only means possible?
Off to the side, the two male latecomers to our "party" were talking to a pale man, but I didn't try to make out what they were saying. My world had collapsed. I didn't even worry about Rafe's yelps as he tried to push through the portal, a wholly unsuccessful maneuver. His hands came out bright red, as if they'd been burned, but the color quickly faded. I saw that much, but it didn't truly phase me.
Then my eyes crossed those of the last member of our party, and paused, slightly startled. I had never taken the time to really look at her.
She stood with that glaring, burning light in her eyes, angry at what had happened, at where we were. Her stance was that of a rebel, but not as harsh, and it was clear to my mind at least that she would not choose the grievous path of self-destruction were a better choice offered. Even as I sought out this part of her psyche, I wondered if that path might offer the best chance at avoiding misery in this strange and possibly dangerous world. Madness could come down here… I felt it around me, in the weak minds of so many villagers. I could not stand to think of such madness possessing the lovely body before me.
She was taller than Brid, though not taller than most of the girls I had seen in my life. Her bright red hair ran down behind her shoulder, almost to the middle of her back. The color of her eyes I could not see in the low lighting, but I noted that they were smaller than those of an average person, which added to her appearance of defiance.
Then the woman saw me looking, and her eyes narrowed -- though for anger, surprise, or appreciation I did not know. I was not allowed to find out just then, for the other two came over from talking with the strange, nervous man. Breaking my observations, they announced to the whole party that they'd found out where to get supplies and, most importantly, food. Realizing the importance of their find, I followed them toward what I assumed was south, if I took orientation from the portal's placement.
On the sign on the door were the words Outfitting -- new arrivals please enter. The six of us did, and we saw before us a small room with a counter. Weapons and armor adorned the walls, and there was a man sitting behind the counter. He was dressed in bronze armor, and smiled somewhat falsely as we came in. I could see false when it was there, and this man was not at all happy at his job, whatever it was.
The smaller man of the two in our party that I did not know moved forward. I started when I read his expression -- and not only because he clearly saw the falseness in the man before us, which was fairly covered up to a mind not as sharp as mine. An equally false smile, a mask much better made than that of the man, covered his own feelings. "Sir," he said easily, in a bartering sort of way, "we've just arrived, and we were told to come here to get some things for our delightful stay."
The man fairly startled, but a grim look lit his face, and he gave half of a snarl, losing almost all pretense of good humor. "Delightful, huh? You won't think so after a night or two. And if you go outside -- well, let's just say, I wouldn't be surprised if you never came back."
"Why, whatever's the matter outside?" the man asked with a completely startled -- and completely false -- look.
"There's the kitties. And then there's the lizards."
"Nephilim. I won't spoil your surprise -- don't worry, you'll find out about them before too long, either from talk or… experience."
"You are an expert on such things, then? Whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?"
The man raised himself up, without pride but more for show, and said grimly, "I am Tor, weapons handler of Fort Exile."
"What kind of work do you do, then?"
"Well, sometimes I maintain the weapons of the guards, sometimes I guard travelers going to Silvar, but mostly I give supplies to newcomers."
The small man's ears perked up. "Silvar?" he said, catching on the thread of most interest at the moment.
"The town to the west," Tor said, motioning with his head. "You'd never make it, anyway. But you should ask Thairl about it. He lives down the road to the west. Take the first left. He lives on the right."
"Many thanks, sir," said the man smoothly. "And now, about weapons?"
"Ah. Yes." He dug out a backpack and filled it with food, a small pouch of money, and some crude weapons. "Here you are. Good luck." I knew that he didn't mean it.
The smaller man picked up the backpack, weighing it with his hand, I saw, to make sure that everything was there -- obviously Tor did not see that part -- and headed for the door with a murmured thanks.
Once we were outside, the man looked around. "Well, looks like we'll be together for a while, group," he announced somewhat softly. "Let's see if we can find someplace to talk -- and to sort out what we have and what we need to get."
Knowing that we were safer in a group than alone, we all agreed, so our next mission was searching the town for a secluded place where we could sit and talk without much fear of being overheard.
We found a sign as we searched: Passed through portal 117832. None of us could fathom what it meant though the small man got a peculiar gleam in his eye while professing ignorance. He was telling the truth, but… what was he thinking?
Next, we found a small home filled with a bed, table, chair, dresser, and some boxes and plants. The small man assured us that it was one of the worst places we could choose: We had no idea when the owner would be coming back. However, the rest of the town held nothing good that would not be bothered eventually, and we made our way back to the small house. After ascertaining that no one was in the house, Rafe guarded the door, and the rest of us sat down. The smaller of the two men began to preside over our discussion.
"I'm Nereth," he said with an easy manner, while rummaging through the backpack. "Listen, the first thing we ought to do is pass out our names. I'm sick of thinking of you as 'the red-haired lady', 'the temper-y guy', 'the shy girl', and 'the perceptive guy'. Oh, you may call me Ner -- Nereth's a bit long for my tastes, really."
He shot a glance at me, for I was sitting next to him, and I spoke up quickly. "Forn."
"No, with an 'f': Forn."
Ner said it to himself a few times, then motioned for my brother to speak.
Rafe glowered at Ner, to whom he'd taken an almost immediate dislike -- my brother was sadly known for quick decisions, usually made without any knowledge and with less intelligence -- and spoke his name quickly, then turned back to watching the door. Ner caught it the first time, but looked to me to repeat it for the rest of the group, and I did. He'd obviously caught on to our relationship very fast, though we did not look very much alike, and he asked for affirmation: "You are brothers?"
"Yes," I said, nodding. "I'm the older."
Ner chuckled inside his throat. "And elder. Yet, you follow him, not the other way around."
I was surprised that he'd seen so much. "Yes… yes, I usually do. He's very strong-headed."
Ner murmured a rather unkind phrase that was meant only for me to hear, and I could see I was the only one to catch it. It was true -- but it still wasn't very nice. I sighed and nodded despondently. Ner grinned, as if to say that it wasn't that bad. I knew he understood, as far as he was able.
The next to be motioned to was Brid, and she shyly murmured her name; once again Ner picked up that I could repeat it for the group's benefit. I saw in his eyes that he knew we weren't related, and he said nothing to the effect either way.
Then the red-haired woman spoke up fiercely: "Ada." I realized from her voice that she was younger than I had thought -- close to my age, perhaps 24 at most. I was 27 myself, and Rafe was 23. Brid had told me that she was already 19, although she seemed younger because she was so soft-spoken and did not stick up for herself much. I had no chance of guessing Ner or the other man's age because neither looked close to their age, as I would find out.
Ner seemed amused at Ada's reaction to the simple question, but he nodded toward the other man, who spoke in a low voice that yet carried to each of us: "Koshoa." As I looked over perhaps the strangest and yet most normal of all of us, I got the feeling of great power, great strength, and it was not that of physical or metaphysical powers, though they were there too. He was neither as strong as Rafe nor as swift as Ner; neither was he more intelligent than Brid. His magical powers were not extensively strong, though he was the only one among us to possess the dual talents of Priestery and Magist knowledge. I was assured that he would be an asset to us in the future, in many ways, some more than I could guess. Perhaps he would be the rock for us to lean on, for certainly the only one who *wouldn't* need someone like that would be Ner. The small man seemed fully happy with his situation somehow, as though this was more an adventure or a vacation than an exile, as though it didn't matter that he'd lost the surface life, probably for forever.
"Well, now that we're all acquainted," Ner said, "I wouldn't mind hearing how each of us annoyed the officials enough to get down here." He dug out food and passed it around then began sorting out the weapons and working out their purposes, which wasn't that difficult despite their odd construction.
Koshoa made a moue and tilted his head. "I would hold that most of those who end up here have committed a crime only in the eyes of the courts -- the eyes of the Empire, really -- not in the eyes of any fairness."
Ner laughed. "Just because we're a little different, huh? I'm here, don't forget that, Kosho. Not all of us have clean records, so to speak."
The stout man sighed and raised his eyes to the ceiling. "I'm sure I wouldn't forget, Ner."
Here was a perfect opportunity to answer one of my questions. "You know Ner, Koshoa?"
He nodded with no sense of embarrassment. "I met him while we were awaiting the trial's end. He is a crook--"
"Please!" Ner broke in with an expression of distaste. "I'm not a crook; I'm a thief. There's a *world* of difference."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Yeah, some theory," said Ada disapprovingly.
"It's not theory, it's fact. A thief, like I," he said, putting a hand delicately to his chest as if prouder of that than of anything else he could ever have or do, "steals things. A crook deceives and tricks people into acting against their best interests. I'm not at all like a crook. And Koshoa thinks worse of me than that -- I'm sure he thinks I might murder, rape, destroy, pillage, and commit all sorts of other atrocities. I'm not that kind of person -- that's why I ended up here instead of being sent first class to the afterlife."
"You disgust me," said Ada with drawn brows.
Raising his eyes heavenward, Ner gave a comical sigh. "I've never gotten on well with redheads. Some flaw in their genes, I'll warrant."
"You're a weasel-y coward of a man, aren't you?" The rest of us backed off, orally, as the two of them went on.
"Coward?? Coward??!" Ner sat up straight and looked at Ada with a mix of incredulity and mock anger.
"You're so cowardly you couldn't face real life, so you became a thieving crook to escape the only way you thought you could."
Incredulity won out. Ner gaped at her, and paused before speaking. "…That's not what my line of work is about. You have no respect for one of the most honored lines of work in the history of the world," he said with some amazement in his voice. "Now, I'm definitely a weasel -- but I'm no coward!"
Koshoa sighed tiredly, and I could see he didn't quite wish to jump to Ner's defense. "He had shown evidences of bravery, miss. He's not cowardly in the least, as far as I can tell." I could have affirmed the same thing, and I assumed that Koshoa had a talent similar to my own, which was magical but ever-present -- not something that could be used or not used at will like magical powers. Talents were very different.
It was Ada's turn to look incredulous.
Ner smiled winningly -- but not for Ada, apparently. "At least someone's got me straight. Is anyone else going to discuss their own method of getting admitted to their delightful place?"
He wasn't joking.
"Delightful? That's the second time you've called it that! How can you say that?" Rafe glared angrily from where he was barring the door.
"With a straight face, at least," Brid added softly.
"Oh, I'm great at poker, lass," Ner said with that winning smile again. "But I'm not joking about this. Thing is, about this place… so far as I can tell, it seems to be perfect. Piecing together what I've heard, in such disreputable places as you couldn't imagine (and even they weren't entirely safe from the Empire), and what I now see, it's going to be a great stay for me. I want to find the exit as soon as possible so that I can leave when things get too rough, but I don't think I'm going to leave for quite a while anyway. There's a life down here just waiting to be seized. Everything's so right for me, I'd be crazy not to check it out. I'll admit that most others wouldn't be so happy here. It's quite perfect just for me in ways I couldn't number."
Ada grimaced. "Such as?"
"Hmm… I'm quite at home in the dark, for one. With all of the places I've snuck into, I have to be at home in the dark. The fungi here even makes it a whit too light for my… heh heh… best work. I'm used to both wide, dark, unknown areas -- like the houses I steal into -- and small enclosed places -- like where I hide when owners come back at unexpected times. I'm slightly claustrophobic but I control it well, because of the small places I often hide in. In my business, I can't afford claustrophobia. You'd never imagine the small places I've hid in, and there's always a part of me that goes Let me out! Set me free! I have to get out of here, hurry! I've become an expert at controlling and suppressing that."
Ada humphed. "Right. What next?"
"Glad you asked, redhead. There are plenty of villains down here, as I've learnt from that Tor guy and the first guy we met, so my crimes will be minor and not of much import -- if they even have enough law force to deal with the more serious criminals. All the tales I've heard include treasures, great magical and natural things to be had that I can quest after, which is my favorite pastime."
"How did you hear things like that?" I asked. "People who come down here don't return."
"That's what you think, and what the Empire would like you to believe. There are ways out of here, believe me; but I don't know where they are so that will be the first thing I'll be going after." He paused and rubbed his chin. "Let's see… no technology here, such as that which caught me -- security cameras -- to foul up things. All in all, this is a happy place for me to end up."
Brid's head came up and she had tears in her eyes. "Not for me!" she cried out.
"Nor for me," growled Rafe. "I'd like to teach them a lesson. Call me a misfit! I'd love to bring them down here! Let's get out of here and send the Empire down here!"
"Don't go overboard, kid," Ner laughed. "In the first place, I completely doubt that we'll be able to get out of here anytime soon. Your thoughts of revenge may not even last that long. In the second place, even if we got out, we have neither the strength nor the opportunity to hurt those who sent us here. In the third place we'd end up in worse trouble for trying -- and worse than that for succeeding -- and-"
"I don't care!" shouted Rafe. "I don't care how hard it is, I just want to get out of here and hurt them!!"
Ner waited a moment, then gave a piece of wisdom that I never expected. "Rafe," he said softly, "if you send the Empire down here -- even without weapons or anything -- do you really think that they wouldn't be able to harm the people down here? They'd take over, and then the people who have gone through so much but finally escaped the Empire's presence by coming here, they'd be in the same horrible circumstances but under Empire rule. The people of the Empire are strong enough."
It didn't penetrate Rafe's head, and he spat out angry words in response, but it got the rest of us thinking. Revenge of that sort left our heads. If we got back at the Empire it would have to be another way.
Ner looked at me, leaving Rafe to his own thoughts. "I can't imagine why they sent him down here," he said lightly. "His genes wouldn't have the slightest adverse effect on society, I'm sure. There's no real reason they shouldn't want raving lunatics pervading their communities."
Again, I had to try to cover for my brother. "He's just a little high-strung. He wasn't sent down here for a crime, exactly, nor for purifying the gene line, may that law be stricken from their books. He did commit a crime; to please his peers, and against all my cautions, but trespassing is still not enough to Exile you. Thankfully."
Ner looked curious. "Why are you two down here, anyway? I'll admit he seems the kind to get down here, Forn, but you're not."
"I chose to come with him," I explained, without expecting him to understand. "I'm all the family he had but for out sister, and she's older than we. She can take care of herself, and Rafe needed me more, so I convinced the judge to send me too." Ner whistled. "Which wasn't hard," I added, "considering that he was almost ready to send both of us anyway because of the insults."
Eyebrows raised, Ner waited for me to go on.
"He insulted the judge. It went farther than that." I sighed. "He practically attacked him."
Ner crowed. "Woo, hoo, hoo! What a sight! Attacking a judge! Was that Judge Drew? How I'd like to have been there!!"
Koshoa raised his eyebrows. "You have something against Judge Drew?"
"Mmm-hmm. Wouldn't you like to know what it is…"
Brid gave a small laugh, and her sorrow seemed to have alleviated a little. "You're kind of funny, Ner." Her smile lit my day, for I loved to see her happy, she being so like a little sister the short time I'd known her.
"Kind of? What kind of a compliment is that half-hearted remark?" He paused. "Say, what got you in, girl? You're not the type to run around committing crimes."
Her situation crashed back down on her, and she crunched up a little. "It wasn't a crime," she said, her voice again low. "Not unless you call refusing to be unfair a crime. I will not cheat -- not even for my uncle. That's what got me in here, not being shy, though they'll say it was that rule."
"Being shy?" I questioned. "What had that to do with getting sent down here?" Even I hadn't had a chance to hear her story.
She shrank down more, but suddenly gained strength from something and raised her head almost proudly. There was a streak of backbone in her, and it showed up at the oddest moments. "My uncle's a congressman," she said without love. "He's never liked me much. It really got bad after he discovered that I had priestly powers. I can bless people, right -- and help them fight harder, better. My uncle wanted me to bless a wrestler he'd bet on, and when I refused, he got very angry with me. It wasn't much until my parents died. Then he became my legal guardian. He tried to persuade me to help him, even pay me for it, but I wouldn't. He couldn't refuse to care for me, because it would cost him votes, so he thought up a law that would send me here. It's all in legalese, so no one realizes its true meaning, but it sends shy magic-users to Exile. So here I was sent."
Ada frowned. "At least you had a fair life aboveground. I came here unintentionally, but I think it may have solved my problems in the best way. My half-brother Kirek will never get his hands on me again."
Rafe stared at her. "What do mean, unintentionally? Don't we all come here that way?"
"Well, I guess I mean more that I did part of it on purpose but it went father than I would have liked. Sure, I got sent to jail on purpose. That way my brother wouldn't have guardianship of me. I just didn't foresee the court seeing me as 'troubled' and writing me off to Exile."
"Oh, you poor thing!" cried Brid, forgetting her own problems as was her wont. "What did he do to you?"
"Beat me," Ada said simply. "Every day, usually. Never proceeded to anything worse -- he's not that kind of person -- but I couldn't deal with the beatings anymore. I stole a purse from a store, made sure I got caught, and… they sent me here."
"That's awful! Couldn't you get help?"
"From the Empire? Of course not!"
"From friends, I mean."
"Oh! You poor thing!"
"Who's poor?" asked Ada sincerely. "I'm free."
Ner motioned for Koshoa and I to move nearer the door so the girls could talk alone. He brought the backpack with him. In a single motion, he had easily laid out all the items, and we looked them over with a touch of fear. Was this the best we could get? Surely not. Nevertheless, it would have to do for now.
There was a dagger made of stone, and a leather baldric, for each of us. Also there were three sets of small darts, twelve darts per set, that wouldn't do much damage but could be used by someone in the back of a battle formation. Two helms of bronze and two shields of the same completed our inventory. Ner had counted the pouch of gold as holding only one hundred of the little pieces -- "Gold would be the only currency, because resources are not high down here… but gold is too soft to be of much use in things other than money," he explained. We also had enough rations for ten meals apiece, counting the one we had just eaten.
Koshoa looked almost happy. "It's more than I expected," he said in that strange voice. "We ought to do well if we can pool our powers to learn how to fight and earn more money. "I've heard many of the same stories you have, Ner, and it's a way of life to fight down here if you expect to get anywhere. Adventurers are highly needed and even honored in some places."
Ner looked a little more down-to-earth… so to speak. "Well, with these, we will cut it close, but if we keep track of our strength and stop when we need to, we'll be okay." Casting a sidelong glance at Rafe, he nodded almost happily. "Your strength will come in handy, big boy," he said without a trace of mocking. Rafe's eyes narrowed dangerously but he said nothing. I believe he realized that Ner was speaking truth.
"Well, let's hand these out, shall we?" Ner asked with a shine in his face. Forn, you and Rafe get the helmets and shields, because you'll be our strongest warriors, I can tell. Let's see, who's good at darts? Would that be you, Koshoa?"
"More likely to be you, Ner. I can't throw," said Koshoa.
"Well, I had to offer them to someone," replied Ner in an almost complaining manner. "Anyone else able to throw?"
"I can throw," revealed my brother, "but I'll be on the front lines so it'll do you more good."
"All right, then, I'll take them," he said, shouldering the basically empty pack and stuffing the darts in his pockets. The rest of the equipment was passed around and the girls, who had finished talking, came over. "Are we ready?" asked Ner.
Everyone agreed, but Ner suddenly looked shocked. "Say! We need a leader. The position's up for grabs."
"Weren't you going to be our leader?" I asked quickly.
"Me?" laughed Ner. "No, no, no way. First, with such a small group the leader should be in the head, and I'm not all that strong or endurant. Plus, I do better without extra responsibilities. As the leader, I could never sneak off on my own, because someone might need me. No… now, who does want to be the leader?"
Each member passed, in turn, until it came round to me. As I looked in Ner's eyes, I could see that he thought me the best leader. He had never expected any of the others to take the position. I had never led anyone besides my brother, and, at this new opportunity, I was at once scared and elated. Finally, with the strength I found resting easily in Ner's eyes and a feeling of responsibility truly lighter than any I had ever felt before, I nodded acceptance. I noted that Koshoa seemed pleased.
Ner smiled broadly, his eyes full of some slight mischief and a touch of something akin to pride -- as if he felt that the actions of each member of the party reflected wholly on him -- and motioned me to the front of the group, the leader's position.