||TW: body horror||
The stairs went so far that even with his sight, Kiol only saw them fading into nothing. It likely just looked like a pitch black void to the others. He still had the candle he came with but he grabbed one from the floor for good measure and descended into the darkness. After some minutes of walking he finally saw ground, and turned back around to get the others.
With the twins holding the candles, the four of them stepped into a dirt tunnel. Three people could stand with arms outstretched along the width and the ceiling was equally tall. The dirt was packed tight so that it was almost as clean as any building. And it was all very familiar.
“This is…” Kiol looked back at Nirin. “That tunnel system I told you about. Under the bath house.” Nirin nodded. His pale face looked even more solemn in the flickering candle light. It may not have been the exact same, but surely there wouldn’t be two entirely different tunnels beneath the city that were dug so similarly? Kiol rubbed between his eyebrows and kept walking. There was no sign or scent of another person having been in here recently. They walked for nearly fifteen minutes and nothing changed. Kiol was about to suggest they go back when Nirin suddenly took Caelin’s candle and the front of the line, continuing forward. Kiol had no choice but to follow close behind.
“What is it?” he signed.
Caelin and Corva were walking at his side now and Corva glanced at him. “You don’t hear that?” she asked. Kiol curled his lip at her and her face smoothed in guilty revelation. “There’s a weird noise,” she explained. “Like… squelching? And… groaning.”
Kiol’s scowl only deepened into disgust. “Why would we go towards that?” he asked. Corva shrugged and gestured to Nirin.
“It might be something important,” Nirin signed, awkward and one-handed. “Or… maybe someone who needs help.” Kiol’s mind went to the thirteen people he’d lost in these tunnels and his pace quickened. The path diverged for the first time into three separate tunnels. Kiol couldn’t see any trail, but Nirin only paused for a few seconds before continuing down the right one. After several more forks Kiol reached out and grabbed Nirin’s collar, yanking him back from the precipice he almost stepped over.
The four all stumbled back, Corva with a protective arm in front of Caelin and Kiol hugging Nirin to his chest. But after the initial shock, Nirin was already straining to move closer again, holding the candle out to try and see into the depths.
“It’s just darkness,” Corva said.
“But the noises,” Caelin said, face twisted in disgusted horror.
Kiol pushed Nirin behind himself and walked to the edge.
His eyes widened and his heart stuttered. For a second he couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.
Then blood rushed to his head and he staggered back a few steps, colliding with someone behind him. He spun around. It was only Nirin, who immediately grabbed onto his arm and peered up at him worriedly.
“What?” Corva asked. The twins were both unsettled to see Kiol, of all people, shaken like that. “What’s down there?”
Kiol gripped both of Nirin’s arms, practically carrying him as he strode far from the cliff edge. Corva and Caelin followed without question.
How could Kiol describe what he saw? Mangled flesh, as though someone had twisted it like clay. Dragging limbs, too many for one body to have. Swollen heads on broken necks and bulbous eyes like they’d burst open at any second. Almost a dozen of them, milling around listlessly, schlepping their bodies along with great agony but so warped they could not rest without more pain. Too human to be called monster, too sickening to be called human.
“Go,” Kiol said, suddenly out of breath. “We must go.”
“What was it?” Caelin signed. Kiol shook his head and pulled Nirin back into the tunnels. The boy followed without protest and after exchanging a look and glancing back one last time, the twins did as well.
Once they were far enough away Kiol tried, haltingly, to describe what he had seen.
“Like the monster in the procession?” Corva asked when they finally understood what he was saying.
Kiol nodded, paused, then replaced the nod with a shrug. “Maybe,” he said. “It was… worse.”
“Creator was supposed to kill all those monsters centuries ago,” Caelin said.
“They were trapped,” Kiol said. “They were surrounded by walls.”
“So some of them got stuck in here and escaped Creator’s notice?” Corva suggested.
“That’s impossible,” Caelin said. “Monsters or not, they have to eat or something, right? They couldn’t have survived centuries.” She frowned at Kiol’s expression. “What?”
“Maybe… can’t eat,” he said slowly. “Their mouths were…” Well, they were all different. Their bodies mangled in different ways, with different limbs, some had normal mouths, some crooked and skewed. He sighed and looked to Nirin.
Nirin tilted his head back and smiled.
“You have nothing to say to any of this?” Kiol signed.
“Tunnels,” he signed.
Kiol looked around at them. The tunnels had led to the precipice. “Were the tunnels already here even back then?” he mused out loud. The creatures had to have been trapped down here somehow. "Or were they made because someone was looking for them.” Had the Archbishop been looking for those creatures?
“Or someone put them in there,” Caelin pointed out, then quieted. For some reason that was the worst possibility. They stared in silence, the flickering candles making their dread even more dramatic. None of this was looking good for the Archbishop.
“Well what can we even do?” Corva asked. “Should we tell the Temple General?”
“No,” Kiol said. He wanted to pretend like they never saw anything. But Caelin looked doubtful.
“From old legends, they did a lot of damage to humans. They could be used as weapons, maybe that’s why they’re being kept… saved for that purpose. We should destroy them.”
“How?” Kiol asked, but it wasn’t a real question. Everyone knew, the Harvest Celebration retold it every year: no amount of people had been able to defeat the monsters, only Creator was able to. Kiol glanced at Nirin again, but couldn’t discern what emotion hid behind his calm eyes.
“That story could be exaggerated,” Caelin said. “Maybe they aren’t so invincible. We can try burning them?”
Kiol wondered, if they knew how truly human those things had looked, if they would be suggesting these things. “Where did the monsters first come from?” he asked. He’d never heard anyone explain that, but he never paid much attention in the first place. From the looks the others exchanged, though, they didn’t know either. “They may have once been human.” Shivers crawled up their spines and tingled their scalps.
Corva scowled, annoyed at her own apprehension. “And what could have possibly turned them into that?”
Kiol shrugged. “Nothing we can do now,” he reiterated, then started to walk again. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
He followed the trail of disturbed dirt they’d left behind. With no natural light it was hard to tell how long they’d been in there, but Kiol thought it must have been an hour or more. They had to get back to the surface and close the passage again before their trespassing was noticed.
A dark splotch caught his eye and he paused. A sigil was painted on the wall with fresh blood. It definitely hadn’t been there before, when they were coming this way. But there was no sign of another presence. Kiol moved closer, examining it. The candlelight from the others was coming closer, but he didn’t need that to see it perfectly. It was not anything like the other two sigils he had seen. He raised his hand to give it the barest of touches, curious.
Nirin’s candle lit the wall just in time to see Kiol’s hand approaching the sigil there. The candle fell to the ground and Nirin lurched forward to stop him, but his arms made contact with nothing. He stumbled forward, catching himself on the wall.
He spun back around, eyes wide and breaths harsh. The twins had came up as well, shocked. “Where the hell did he go?” Corva asked, bumping protectively closer to Caelin as her hand gripped the hilt of her dagger. Nirin yanked Caelin’s dagger from her belt and sliced it across his forearm.
They wanted to stop him but he ducked out of their way, dropping the dagger. He swiped two fingers into his blood and began frantically writing a sigil on the wall beside the other. Before it was finished a hand burst from the wall, grabbed the front of Nirin’s robes, and pulled him inside.