he snarls and growls tore through his ears, filling his mind with their din. The flash of fangs and crimson, glowering eyes inches from his face were all that Nimbus could make out in the darkness. The wolves bit at his eyes, ripped at his chest with their claws. He struggled desperately, but his limbs were weak and feeble. Finally, he shut his eyes and tried to ignore the sound…
When his eyes drifted open once again, all that he saw was the cavern roof. Just a dream, then? Ugh. I’m not going back into those tunnels.
It was still Darkhours, but Nimbus could hear the echo of conversation emanating faintly through the Sanctuary. Well, I’m not sleeping anyway. Nimbus pulled himself up and stretched, trying to alleviate some of the throbs and aches that came with sleeping on the rock floor. After several unsuccessful attempts, he reluctantly capitulated and set out to find the origin of the conversation.
“…dragged them off. We barely escaped ourselves.”
“I see.” said a voice that sounded like Gilgamesh. “Who have we lost?”
Nimbus rounded a corner and surveyed the main entrance chamber. Three weary men in armor sat beside a makeshift cart, laden with an enormous pile of vines. Gilgamesh stood before them, head hung, listening as one of them listed the several names.
“…and lastly, Enkidu.”
“I see.” Gilgamesh’s voice was ragged. “If Enkidu is gone, there must have been a whole lot of them.”
“Dozens, but that wasn’t all. The Alphabeast was there.”
“I see.” A moment passed.
“Please, we’d like to rest now.” a man spoke up.
“Yeah.” said Gilgamesh. “I’ll get the vines.”
The men thanked him and quickly made their way towards the sleeping quarters. Nimbus stepped aside to let them pass. Gilgamesh grabbed the rope attached to the front of the cart and began to slowly drag the sledge forwards. He looked up and noticed Nimbus for the first time.
“Shellfish, give me a hand with this.”
Nimbus didn’t argue.
They dragged the vines slowly over to the food chamber and began to unload them, tossing them onto the vine pile that lay next to the water supply. Nimbus wondered whether or not he should ask about the conversation he had overheard. Just as the last of the vines were thrown into the pile, Nimbus spoke up.
“So… what happened?”
“Some guys got killed.” Gilgamesh said. “They were hauling these up from the Vinefront. Bloodwolves attacked, and the idiots didn’t stand a chance.”
“Yeah, and what’s that worth? What good have you done? Messed up the water run, fried Talos, won’t join my unit, all you people are useless!”
Nimbus was too astonished to reply.
“If you lot really wanted out, you’d do something about it, instead of just whimpering in your cave eating this rubbish!” Gilgamesh viciously kicked a several of the vines into the pool of water. “Everyone’s so scared that they sulk when they should fight! We’re all gonna die! We can do it for certain in these filthy caves, picked off by rabid monsters, or we can take a chance at dying above, on our own terms! Even if we fail, at least it will be over with!”
Nimbus took a step back. “I haven’t decided about joining your unit yet.”
“You won’t. I can see it in your eyes. You’re a coward just like everyone else, everyone but Enkidu!” Gilgamesh stomped first in one direction, then another, as if he couldn’t decide where to vent his rage. “Enkidu, he always said if I just got a few more guys together, he’d join the crew. Now he’s gone too. I’m back where I started.”
“Gilgamesh, be still.” Methuselah appeared in the doorway. “Now is a time of mourning… for Enkidu and all our fallen comrades.”
“It’s always a time of mourning in this pit, old man. Not everyone is content with a pile of dirt for a friend.” Gilgamesh shoved Methuselah to the side and stormed out.
Methuselah staggered to the side, catching the wall for support. Nimbus rushed over.
“Are you OK?”
Methuselah waved him off. “Please pardon Gilgamesh: he has lost an old friend today, and such an outburst only speaks to his torment.”
“So we all are, I’m sure. The travelers informed me as to what occurred, a grievous affair, to be certain.”
“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand what happened. Gilgamesh didn’t explain it much.”
Methuselah lowered his head and pondered for a moment. “It is time for sleep, not ill tales. We can speak of it at the dawn of the morrow, if you wish.”
“If you’d rather, but I can’t sleep.”
Methuselah dipped his head. “Nor can I, child. Very well. I shall explain, but first I need to sit down.”
When Methuselah and Nimbus were seated on the mat back in the main chamber, the old man began.
“Do you know of the Vinefront, Nimbus?”
“Not really; I’ve only heard it mentioned. Is it where the vines come from?”
“That would be correct. It is a somewhat distant corner of the Catacombs. There lies another of our strongholds, like this one.”
“I thought this was the only one.”
“No, but it is the original. Myself and a few other survivors founded the Sanctuary a long time ago. The caverns were already formed, of course, though neither so deep nor so flat. Those renovations would come later. No, we chose it because we had only to cover the entrance with a stone to safeguard ourselves.”
“So, you were one of the founders? Who are the others?”
“Long… They are long gone. They were always more adventurous than I.” Methuselah peered down at the pile of dirt before him.
How long have these people been here? Years? Nimbus felt suddenly cold.
It took Methuselah a moment to continue. “Here… in the Sanctuary… there was no food, and it wasn’t long before we were eating the very clothes on our backs. However, Jaktur smiled on us that day. To us came a man bearing vines. His name was Carmanor, and, with his help, we found the Vinefront and started a stronghold there as well.”
“But then why didn’t you move there?”
“An astute question. Here, at the Sanctuary, we have water in abundance. However, these tunnels are rocky and lack the rich soil and warmth of the Vinefront. In short, vines do not flourish here, and water is sparse there. As such, both are necessary.”
“So it is, but now you understand the purpose of the travelers’ journey. They come from the Vinefront bearing food, and soon leave bearing drink. It can be a dangerous trip, but always are they well defended. At least, so they were before tonight.” Methuselah’s voice was hollow as he continued on. “Bloodwolves don’t attack large, well defended parties, not commonly. They prefer to pick off stragglers, small detachments. Such is their way. However, they have been known to, on rare occasions, rally and attack in force. When that occurs, there is… another beast.”
“I heard something about an ‘alphabeast.’ Is that it?”
“Indeed. So it is called because, as an alpha, it seems to have subjugation over the entire pack, but it is no wolf. I’ve seen it but once, and it is something different entirely. Tonight, the alphabeast and its pack took the lives of 7 good people. The world is the lesser for it.”
“That’s terrible.” Just when I thought I knew the dangers of this place, when they already seemed implacable, I find there is more terror in these tunnels.
“That it is. I am so very sorry, Nimbus, that you must share this subterranean world with us, our sorrows and toils.”
“It’s not your fault.”
Methuselah gazed sadly into the dirt before him. “I suppose not, but somehow I endure, seemingly only to observe the passing of dozens of comrades. The guilt, irrational though it may be, is stifling.”
The moment passed silently. Nimbus’ mind was full of questions, one gnawing question in particular, but he couldn’t decide whether he should ask his question, try to offer some kind of condolence, or if he should even speak at all. Finally, he did ask, “What do I do?”
“About what, Nimbus?”
“About… anything. I don’t know that I have a goal or a purpose. I don’t know what to do with my time.”
“Ah, yes. You feel like a blank slate in a dangerous world. I understand. In immediate terms, I still suggest you go to the Vinefront and attempt learn more about your magic.”
“Even with the Alphabeast out there?”
“Your concern is understandable, but the Alphabeast appears only rarely, disappearing immediately afterwards. I believe your journey will be uneventful, provided you travel with the convoy. Regardless, the choice, as always, is yours.”
“And then what?”
“Well, Nimbus, there are two ways to live down here. Some have devoted their time, their energy, their very lives to escape; others simply wish to survive, to live the life they can, lugubrious though it may be, down in these tunnels. I cannot chose for you.”
“I think escape would be the better option.”
Methuselah nodded solemnly. “Escape is a beautiful prospect. There is little I would not sacrifice to feel a fresh breeze across my face. However, I’ve seen too many people die on the road to freedom to endorse it, for indeed, we do not even know if freedom truly lies at the end.”
“But there isn’t any life to live down here.”
“On the contrary, while life down here may be grim and devoid of the spices and levity of the surface, it remains life all the same, and there is inherent value to that. When the world was born, I cannot imagine it was ever meant to harbor death; death is too great a burden for the world to carry.”
Nimbus sat with his thoughts. Gilgamesh had told him that even a chance at escape was worth the risk of death. He words, while harsh, seemed to make sense. Methuselah seemed to have told him the opposite, but his words carried a weight with them as well.
“The choice, as always, remains yours, but whichever path you embark upon, survival or escape, I would urge you to journey to the Vinefront. Your magic is strong, and would be of immeasurable aid to you on either road.”
“I don’t know…”
“Well, perhaps you might sleep on the matter. I, for one, am going to attempt to get a bit of sleep before Lighthours.”
“Is sleep your advice for every decision?”
“Is it not good advice?”