Chapter 43 ∞ Swamp
“Hellen, you get the lights,” Mistress Neilly said. “I thought I saw some lamps over to your side.”
There was some rustle and clanking over to my right. I couldn’t see anything at all, but I still felt Maun and Erenol clinging to either side of me. My arms were starting to feel numb from their death grips, but I didn’t have the heart to push them away. What happened—was happening—tonight was nothing short of traumatizing after all.
There was a small spark. A crackle, a pop. And a light flickered to life. My mother held up an antique gas lamp—one that came with a sparker to help light up the wick inside. It was very old technology that people hardly used anymore, but it still came in handy during moments similar to right now.
When the light flooded the room, I was finally able to see where we were and what kind of place it was. Old bricks lined up the walls. Cobwebs hang in the corners. The air was thick and musty. It had probably had not circulated properly for the last ten…twenty years or so. Before us was a lengthy tunnel that looked like something out of a horror game while there was furniture scattered about next to the stairs that led up to the surface. The light wasn’t very bright to be able to illuminate what was ahead of us well enough to make me comfortable.
“Where does this lead to?” I asked.
“Outside,” my mother replied. “Only for desperate moments.”
“You expected we would have something like this?” I followed.
“Oblivion deals with a lot of things, Evy. Some of them are more complicated than we would like to acknowledge ourselves,” Mistress Neilly said.
“Are we going to leave without the others?” I continued, stepping towards my mother while peeling off the fingers that were gripping me so hard. “I need to breathe, dammit,” I told the two on either side of me. “Can you stop being koalas for a minute and just…I’m supposed to be the youngest here, double dammit.”
At least physically. I’m actually older than these two by a lifetime.
“Just a little longer please,” Erenol muttered, clinging to me while sniffing. Her eyes were rimmed with tears though she was trying hard so that they didn’t fall. “I just don’t want to be left behind.”
Maun, on the other hand, was just…quiet, frozen…scared stiff. His eyes were wide and blank. Whatever I said just now seemed to have just breezed over his head—into one ear, right out the other. I pursed my lips guiltily, looking at the two of them with brows furrowed.
“No one’s going to leave anyone behind,” Mistress Neilly firmly stated. “You three listen to Hellen and me, alright? You three precious morsels will not be left behind. Oblivion is strong. Leave it to your mistresses to figure it all out.”
“Your mistress is right. We’ll stay here for now to see what happens, but we best make preparations first,” my mother replied. “We have got to find out what is happening and who sent those people into Oblivion. Judging by how they were able to get in without a hitch, that must mean they pack considerable power and means.”
I looked at the two of them and said, “I’ve got to say something.”
Neilly and my mother exchanged glances.
“Evy, what is it?” my mother inquired.
“I actually stayed up late tonight and opened the windows. This guy came in through the them and I hid in the bathroom,” I said. “He…wasn’t normal.”
“How?” she prompted.
“He had these eyes…like those of a snake. I think you might’ve seen it too a while ago,” I told my adoptive mother. “And there were things around him. Around all them.”
Mistress Neilly walked up to my mother’s side and faced me. “What things?”
“They were the same shadows I saw around Maun when I found him. No one else can see them, I think. They may have something to do with death—when the person is close to it, at least. They’re just small shadows. I don’t really know what they are though.” I paused, eyeing my mistress and mother’s faces as I confessed. “I don’t know if this would be of help at all, I’m sorry. I might just be making a big deal of everything.”
“What are they? They clearly aren’t human?” my mother muttered softly herself, confused. She sought Mistress Neilly’s opinion, head turning to gaze at her in the eye.
“Obviously, Hellen. Just take a look at what happened when you tried to smash that man’s head in,” Mistress Neilly pointed out. “Even a metal pole gave up. That isn’t something you see every day.”
“Are they even Conduits?” Hellenia asked. “I have never heard of Conduits having such eyes or inhuman physique.”
“They might be, but it’s hard to say. Though…Vertvaldenians aren’t like that either, are they?” Neilly supported.
“No. Of course not. They have amazing physical prowess, but I don’t think they are like those men at all. And we have no grudges with them. They are much too busy fighting their own wars at the moment to even be bothered to come all the way here and find trouble with us. Then again…”
“Lamia must have an idea,” Neilly said. She wrung her hands nervously. “Did she find trouble with someone recently?”
“Other than Prince Thoran? Not that I know of,” Hellenia replied.
Find trouble with somebody? “I might…” I intoned.
They looked at me.
“You found trouble with these people?” my mother dubiously inquired.
“No,that’s not it,” I replied exasperatedly. Even if I wanted to find trouble with anybody, it wasn’t like I left the House at all during the past few months. Ever since that time in the alley where we almost got killed…or kidnapped, we stayed in Oblivion. Not once did we step foot outside—and we were contented because we had each other, as cheesy as that sounded.
“What is it, then?” Neilly asked.
“I accidentally overheard Captain Leiran and Mistress Lamia talking some time ago,” I confessed. “I don’t know if it’s this, but Mistress Lamia wanted to expose the empress and keep the prince away from the throne by doing so. Apparently, the empress had ties to something she called the Poison Syndicate and was probably the reason why the emperor had fallen ill.”
Hearing my words, Erenol gazed at me, stunned—so much that she forgot herself for a second, even her fear.
“Poison Syndicate?” Mistress Neilly echoed. “How in the world could Lamia have found trouble with these people? I thought they were just myths. There wasn’t even proof that they were real.”
“She found evidence, apparently,” I said. “She sent Captain Leiran to investigate.”
“Good dragons above,” my mother whispered, her fingers wedged between her teeth as she paced about worriedly. Looking at her body language, I realized her anxiety had reached new levels. While I didn’t think they were seeing each other formally, Captain Leiran had courted her for nearly…ten years now. Talk about devotion. If a guy was that persistent and sincere, I don’t think any woman would be so stiff and cold as to not reciprocate the affection—unless they were truly not interested, which, from what I could recall, didn’t describe my mother at all.
“Hellen, calm down for a moment,” Mistress Neilly said. “Let’s focus on preparing. We need to make sure the children are safe first and foremost.”
“Alright.” She took a deep breath, regaining some calm as she nodded. “Let’s make our way out of Oblivion,” my mother said. “This should lead to the sewers.”
“The sewers?” Erenol shuddered.
Maun was still motionless.
“Do you remember how to get to Safia’s?” Mistress Neilly asked.
“Through there? No, not really.”
“We’ll just have to make do. I know a way which will lead us to Inning Street. It should be a short travel from there.”
“Alright. Come on, everyone. Let’s go.” Hellenia began rounding up everyone, lifting the gas lamp to the level of her eyes and walking on ahead.
“I thought you said we weren’t going to leave anybody behind,” Erenol said. “What about the others?”
“There’s a difference between leaving for a moment and abandoning completely. You have to understand that the other mistresses will want you all safe before they save themselves first. We need to be able to deal with everything and we can’t do that properly if we’re worrying about you,” Neilly told us with a firm voice. “So please, everyone, move. The faster we go, the sooner we come back.”
“You’re planning to return?” I asked, throat tight with worry.
“We have to,” my mother replied. “Safia will be able to take care of you.”
After that was silence. Our labored breathing bounced ominously on the walls along with the sound of our rushing footsteps fluttering through the aged, brick floor. Maun and Erenol finally had a will of their own to break away from me and move by themselves, but they stuck really close and clung on my clothes whenever they would fall behind a little. I didn’t admonish them as I had because even I felt it better if they were close. Despite my actions and attitude towards these two, I still worried they would do something stupid.
We journeyed for minutes—ten or fifteen. The tunnels were long and a stench eventually hit our noses, getting stronger the farther down we went. Eventually, the tunnels began streaming with foul water and it took a lot of effort not to shudder in disgust every second. My soles were already drenched in the substance along with the ends of my clothes. Erenol was much more vocal than I was, but being reprimanded and told to keep quiet had her holding back from complaining too much.
Eventually, we came upon a gated opening that led to a much bigger tunnel. As we made our way to the mouth, I picked up on the sharp coldness which made me halt.
“No, wait, stop,” I said.
“Someone’s coming,” I told them. “It’s the same guys.”
“Are you sure?”
“Hellen, the lights—put it out.” Mistress Neilly grabbed the gas lamp my mother was holding. She lifted the top open and blew, putting out the fire and enshrouding us in darkness.
Mistress Neilly then pulled us all with her and retreated back into the tunnel to hide. As there was no light, it was hard to see so we settled with patting blindly on the walls to make our way through. Eventually, we finally came to the left turn we came out of earlier and immediately sat down to keep quiet. Neilly then had us putting our backs pressing against the cold, damp walls. We let ourselves be blanketed by the deafening silence, having nothing else to break it other than the sound of our breathing—even that, we had to keep down.
Mistress Neilly leaned past the walls to peek while I, nestled in her arms, jutted my head out a little as well. The presence grew sharper and signaled that they were finally there. I clenched my hand tight around her sleeve and tugged a little. She held my hand firmly.
The only way we actually got to see the enemy was through their neon eyes. They glowed in the darkness ever so faintly.
I recoiled, but I didn’t dare move. I felt everyone else tense. They probably had their backs pressed so hard against the walls that it would only take a little more to completely merge with it.
We didn’t dare make any more sounds as they marched past. They paused briefly to check the tunnels but, finding nothing, continued on their way.
They passed by and I felt a cold draft rush in as they did. It wasn’t from the wind because there was hardly any current down here at all. Rather, I got a peek of them and saw that they had those things—Veils—floating around them as well. Mistress Neilly leaned out a little bit to catch a sight of them leaving before turning to us and saying, “They’ve got the whole place locked down.”
“How did they know?” my mother whispered.
“It doesn’t matter,” Mistress Neilly said. “We’ll just have to make a run for it. At this point, we cannot stay down here for too long lest we get discovered. We have to go to the nearest exit—the problem is that it’s…a little way away. Things are looking a little bleak.”
“I can sense them,” I told my Mistress Neilly and my mother. “I know when they’re near. That might be of some help to us.”
My mother and mistress exchanged glances.
“Alright, Evy. You tell us,” my mother said. “I don’t understand though—how are they related to your element?”
I shook my head cluelessly. Perhaps Amber would be able to answer that.
We first made sure the men who went past us just now were no more before we climbed our way out of the mouth and into the main tunnel. The place was dark and there was virtually no light. Navigating in the darkness was impossible so my mother had to reignite the fire in the gas lamp, but she set it to the lowest setting, barely enough to let us see an arm away from where we stood.
We had to jump down from the mouth of Oblivion’s tunnel, which caused sounds that didn’t settle well with our nerves. We tried to be quiet as much as possible, trying not to make so much splashes as we moved through the water. At this point, I had long since adjusted to the foul odor rising from the putrid waters in the sewer.
We descended on the walkways. I scooted away from the funnel that contained the sewage, turning my head away from the foul scent. The waters looked quite deep and was breaching on the walkways a little. We had had to stick to the corners so as to not get wet—more than we already did. Maun very nearly fell over if I hadn’t caught him and pulled him back.
“Honestly, be careful,” I said. “That looks deep. I don’t think anyone here knows how to swim.”
We made haste for the exit under Mistress Neilly’s command. She seemed to have familiarized herself well with the path. Thankfully, we had had not made contact with any of those men so far.
Until we did.
The same taste of death breached my senses and I hurriedly informed everyone.
“Mistress, mama,” I said with urgency.
I didn’t need to say anymore. Both of them looked around in panic, wondering where we could go to hide. The silence after that drew our attention to the whispering waters at our feet.
Mistress Neilly and my mother exchanged glances before looking at the waste waters.
“No,” Erenol said. “No. No.”
“Down, everyone,” Mistress Neilly said as she took the lamp from my mother’s hands. “We don’t have a choice.”
“No need to point out the obvious, Eren,” my mother told her with a sigh. She decided she would go ahead of everyone, descending into the waters. It was deep enough that she sunk midthigh. “We’re actually quite lucky. It’s autumn so it rains a lot, otherwise, this would be empty. Evy, come down first,” she said, holding her hand out to me.
“This sewer also collects rainwater?” I asked.
“It’s a combined sewage system,” she replied. “But this is not the time to entertain those questions. Come down.”
“See? That means it’s not purely crap. Feel better about it?” I looked over to Erenol.
“No,” Eren countered.
I obliged and prepared to hop over the edge. She supported me by my waist as Mistress Neilly held my shoulders. I quietly sank into the putrid waters, fixing my golden jacket around myself when I felt one side of it sliding off. To think the first time I would be wearing this would be on a swim in the sewer—I would not forget this ever.
It was freezing cold. I shuddered in disgust and discomfort just thinking of what could be inthis, but I would rather be here than out in the open if ever those men come.
Just thinking of all the infections that I could catch just swimming in these, I immediately felt myself getting sick.
Maun came next. He had grown significantly over the past few months he had stayed with us in Oblivion. He was healthier with more meat on his bones, though still quite runty compared to the average kid around his age. He maintained that androgynous physique.
Mistress Neilly was the last to come down. She handed the lamp to Mistress Lamia and slowly descended herself. I was in a bit of panic because the presence of death was getting stronger.
“Alright, everyone, hold your breath—” Mistress Neilly began.
“I already am,” Erenol cut in whining.
“—Evy, tell us when they come.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
I waited for a few moments. When I sensed the sharp presence coming our way, I gave the cue and everyone descended under the murky water. It was very hard to hold my breath in—not when I was repeatedly gagging. At some point, I had to cover my nose and puff my cheeks, closing my eyes tight just so I wouldn’t know where I was. We all kept a close grip on one another and, somehow, that support went a long way to enduring this whole suffering.
The sharp presence came and I knew theyhad arrived.
For some reason, those bastards even lingered. I could feel that they knew something was off. I was already suffocating where I was sitting—it took a lot of effort not to just inhale the water. However, remembering what it could contain, I held myself back.
I felt Erenol shaking. Her hands grasped at my arms and she gripped tight in desperation. She was probably drowning.
It wasn’t time yet though and if she broke to the surface now, we would definitely be discovered. And, as predicted, she did try. I grabbed her shoulder and kept her down, nonetheless, and my mother did so as well. We pinned her tight under the water. I felt my mother shuffle for a bit, her hand leaving me to wrap around Eren. I forced my eyes open, tried to see what I could in the darkness—but there was nothing.
I didn’t know what was happening.
Eventually, they did leave, but by the time they did, I realized I was beginning to lose consciousness. Had my Mistress Neilly not pulled me to the surface, I would probably not be breathing anymore.
We didn’t make a lot of commotion rising because we knew that should we make something too big of a noise, we would be found out. I tried not to be too greedy with the air that greeted me, but I could not hold back the sharp sound as it streamed into my needy lungs.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” Mistress Neilly said.
We were soaking wet in sewer waters. We probably smelled like it too.
“The gas lamp is no longer working,” my mother whispered. There was a clutter from the tin cover and dreadful silence filled the atmosphere.
“How would we see our way out?” Eren anxiously inquired.
“Just stay close to the walls. The manholes aren’t completely covered. We should see the moonlight when we go,” Mistress Neilly informed us.
“Stay close and lock arms so no one gets separated,” my mother told us.
We got out one at a time very carefully and steadily made our way through the tunnel. We settled with clawing through the darkness—which was awful and nerve-wracking.
After a long time of blindly making our way around, we finally got a glimpse of light.
“Over there,” I said.
We made our way to the light source and found a manhole. It had a small hole in the very middle of it which was emitting a ray of silver and orange light from both the sky and the streets.
“Up, up,” my mother told everyone. We climbed the rusty ladders that were pinned against the wall. Mistress Neilly headed up before everyone and pushed at the manhole, lifting it and sliding it open. The groaning of the heavy metal against the stone pavement rumbled throughout the tunnel like a growling beast. My heart leapt to my throat when I thought of how those men must’ve heard it.
We made our haste out of the sewers, crawling out like smelly rats.
I couldn’t even begin to say how good it was to finally get a whiff of fresh air.