191. Heart of Dimness

“What was that?” said Marv. She was crouched down with her arms covering her head. 

“That, my friend, is the future of Requbar,” said Schneed proudly.

“Are you saying you caused the earthquake?” I asked him. 

“Of course! The women might not think they need us, but they don’t know what we’re capable of. Soon they will look at us with fear and respect.”

There was a murmur of agreement from the men around us. They were willing to risk everything, even their own lives, to impress the ladies. What woman doesn’t want a guy who can make the earth move?

“Haha, just you wait!” Schneed was very excited by the prospect. “The looks on their faces. Ha!” He did a little jig.

The men around us joined in his dance, laughing and linking arms. Another tremor, a much smaller aftershock, rippled through the ground. It dislodged hardly any rocks, although a couple of shacks fell over (which they were probably going to do anyway).

The men all froze in place as though their jumping up and down had set it off. When no more tremors followed, they relaxed and laughed nervously.

“Right,” said Schneed, “let’s get something to eat. Follow me.”

Marv, who had thrown herself flat on the floor when the second tremor hit, slowly got to her feet, legs shaking, arms stretched out on either side like she was trying to keep her balance. 

I turned to go after Schneed but my shoulder was grabbed as I tried to leave. I kept going with Marv stumbling along attached to me, her eyes searching the dark recesses of the cavern roof for falling stone.

She refused to release my shoulder and it wasn’t a light hold. I’m not sure what good she thought I’d be if the roof fell in. Possibly she’d hold me over her head like an umbrella.

“I’ve never felt anything like it,” she said in an awed voice. “The world shifted beneath my feet.”

“Yes, but it’s stopped now. You can let go. Shouldn’t you be looking for a chance to take him out with your sniper’s blowdart or whatever?”

“What can I do now?” Marv whined into my ear. “He can see me. He’s one of you, isn't he? A Visitor.” She said the word with great disdain. Didn’t care about hurting my feelings at all. She needed to snap out of it before her ever-tightening grip drew blood.

“You have a mission. You have to save the city.”

Her chances of sneaking up on Sonny when he couldn’t take his eyes off her were slim, but even if she messed up, she might provide enough of a distraction for me to get away.

“What kind of man is he that he can do something like… that?” she continued, holding on even tighter so that I had to drag her along as I staggered after Schneed. 

If the tremors were new to Requbar, then things were coming to a head. They were nearing completion of their plan, whatever it was, and that meant I didn’t have much time to effect an escape. Being slowed down by my ball and chain wasn’t helping either. 

I tried to shake off Marv with a series of wild waves and flaps of my arms. “Pull yourself together, woman. I mean, man.” I looked around to see if anyone had heard my slip but most of the men were too busy falling down from exhaustion. They looked like they were on their last legs.

Marv released my shoulder from her vice-like grip and we caught up to Schneed. He was winding his way through the camp quite slowly, careful not to lean on anything. Every structure gave the impression it was one knock away from becoming rubble. 

The odd thing was, back in the cell the care with which Schneed had taken apart and reassembled the wall had hinted at some master craftsman level of ability. Whoever had come up with such an elegant and simple way to escape from the dungeon had clearly had nothing to do with building Camp Topple-Over.

Schneed stopped in front of a pile of rocks that formed a wall around an enclosure serving as a kitchen. There were a number of small fires burning, each with a large pot hanging over it. A group of men were chopping things up and putting them in the pots. The smell provoked a rumble in my stomach.

We were served some kind of stew in wooden bowls. No spoons. It didn’t taste bad but could have used a little more salt. There was a barrel of water you could drink from. I wondered where the water came from, but I didn’t have time to ask the cook before I was roughly pushed aside as an influx of men came from somewhere to grab bowls and demand feeding.

A man covered in a thick layer of dirt with only the whites of his eyes showing dumped a carcas on the ground, a familiar looking dead dog. “Found another one,” he said.

“Great. Well done,” said one of the cooks. He dragged the body around the back. I was glad I’d already finished eating.

We were tossed and turned out of the way as more men poured in. I had no idea where they had come from until I saw the men who had been resting get up and make their way to the far wall. 

With only the light of the fires scattered around the large cavern it was hard to make out where the men were going, but as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I was able to make out the ladders. They were leaning against the wall and so tall their tops were hidden from view. The men carried picks and shovels and other tools for digging as they scurried up them.

“What’s going on?” asked Marv, doing her own digging. “Where are they going?”

“Working on the Ocean Man’s plan,” said Schneed. “No one understands this land like the Ocean Man.”

I’d tried my hardest to resist, but I couldn’t help but ask. “Why do you call him Ocean Man?”

Schneed looked surprised. “You haven’t heard of the Legend of Ocean Man?” 

“No.” I turned to Marv. “What about you? You heard of this legend?”

“Of course,” said Marv. I couldn’t tell if she meant it or was playing her role. She didn’t say anything else, just pretended she needed to lick her bowl clean.

“He came from the sea,” said Schneed, like that made any sense. His voice took on a wistful reverence. “Walked across the water.”

Somehow I doubted it but if they wanted to make him their false messiah, good luck to them.

“Do the ladders lead to the surface?” I asked Schneed. “Can I get out that way?”

“There’s a network of tunnels you’ll never be able to navigate,” said Schneed. “Very dark, very dangerous and, they say, haunted.” He was doing his best to make it sound unappealing and he was doing an excellent job.

“As long as there’s a way out, I don’t mind ghosts.” Even if they existed, what were they going to do? Scare me to death? The thing I’ve never understood about ghosts is if they can touch you, then you can touch them, preferably with a big stick with nails in it. And if they can’t touch you, who cares? “I’m willing to chance it.”

I took a step towards the ladders but a hand on my shoulder stopped me. I winced. I had a bruise on that shoulder, thanks to a certain assassin with gender issues.

“Not without Ocean Man’s say so.” Schneed shook his head slowly. The other men had stopped eating to give me grim looks. 

“Fine. I’ll go talk to him.” I felt confident I could convince Sonny his life would be better without me in it. I handed my empty bowl to Schneed and set off towards the shack Sonny had disappeared into. 

There were no guards, there wasn’t even a door. I poked my head into the darkness. “Hey? Sonny?”

“Sometimes I think I’m asleep,” came a voice from the darkness. “I’m dreaming I’m stuck in a shitty hole.”

“Sounds very relaxing. I was thinking of heading off.”

“You understand why I have to do this, don’t you, Colin?” I couldn’t see him, just hear his voice, tired and shaky.

“Do what?”

“It isn’t natural. Women in charge. I got nothing against them, but they can’t be left to push us around like this. It just isn’t the way it’s meant to be.”

Great. One more nutjob to add to my collection.

“There’s always been bossy women, Sonny. You don’t have to kill anyone because you don’t like being told what to do.”

“You don’t get it, mate.” His head rose into the rectangle of light cast by the doorway. He was wearing his sunglasses, the knob-end. “This is the thin end. They make a go of it here, who knows where they’ll spread to next. Have you heard what they do to the blokes in their army?” His voice dropped to a shaky whisper. “The whores. The whores.”

Sonny was having some kind of breakdown. Deep down, he had issues that needed to be dealt with. He needed someone to talk to. Someone to help him come to terms with the women in his life who had made him insecure and fearful about women in general. And that person would not be me.

“Sonny? Yo? Snap out of it. If you can’t handle it, just go back to Dargot. Report back to Gullen, he’s probably waiting for you.”

“You don’t get it,” snarled Sonny. “These men are relying on me. I’m their bloody hero. I can’t turn my back on them, I’m all they got.”

Well, then they were fucked. “Sonny, chill out, will you?” The last thing I needed was for him to have a meltdown before he let me out of this hole.

“I thought this city was a little piece of heaven when I first saw it. Heaven fallen on earth in the form of gardenias. And a beach, too! I love the beach. Spent half my life in the water, back home. I even showed them how to surf, and how did they thank me? Threw me in prison for being a wizard. They’re savages, Colin. Whores and savages. They’re gonna be sorry, that’s all I know. When their beautiful gardens disappear into the ground, they won’t be so full of themselves then.”

“You’re going to destroy their gardens?” As a plan it certainly seemed doable. As an act of terror… I’d give it two out of ten.

“Not just their pretty gardens. All their fancy buildings. We’ll dig them out right from under their feet. No one will know this place ever existed. The tunnels. So many tunnels. The women won’t go into them because they’re scared of the rats. The rats won’t go into them because they think they’re haunted. We’ve been digging for weeks.  We’re nearly there.”

“You’re going to weaken the foundation of the city so it collapses while you’re still under it?” A brilliant plan. Brilliant like shooting yourself in the head with a diamond bullet.

“Death is a small price to pay for victory,” said Sonny, which was when I realised why I disliked him so much. He was the anti-Colin.

“You know there’s a war going on, right?” I asked him. “Monsters running around. City’s under siege. Can’t all this wait until that’s been sorted out?”

“Why?” said Sonny. “What’s the point of saving the world if it’s the women who get to be in charge of everything? I’d rather let the monsters take over. They took away my surfboard and smashed it to pieces, Colin. Right in front of me. Savages.” He was on the verge of tears. “I’m going to show them. I’m going to show all of them.”

If the reason they thought Sonny could walk on water was because he invented the surfboard, then maybe these people deserved to be swallowed by the earth and never heard from again. The main thing was not to be here when it happened.

Sonny rose from his bed and came towards me. “They’re everywhere, Colin. Everywhere. I can see them. That, er, Marv. You close with him? You like him?”

Sonny was fishing. He was trying to come up with a reason he saw Marv as a woman that didn’t mean he was going loco.

“I understand, Sonny. I get it. You’ve been trapped down here with all these blokes. You have urges.”

“What do you mean?” Sonny backed away from me. “It’s not like that.”

“Don’t worry. It’s perfectly normal. You look at a guy and after a while, he looks a bit like a girl. Quite an attractive girl. You get curious.”

“Shut up. I don’t think like that. You… you get out of here.”

This was more like it. If I could get thrown out of the camp, mission accomplished. If I could get him to fall in love with Marv, I might even save the city. Or drive Sonny insane. Win-win.

“So, the exit… up the ladders and left? Right? You want me to put in a good word for you with Marv?”

“I’m onto you, Colin,” said Sonny from the darkness. “You want me to help you escape from this shithole. No one gets out of here before me. Not you, not them, no one. I’m not here to help you, you’re here to help me.” He came like a monster from the shadows, pushed past me and shouted from the doorway, “Someone get this man a shovel.” He turned back to me, leering. “You want to leave? Dig your way out.”

Perfect! I was happy to be put to work digging my way out. 

Schneed came running over, swinging his hips to avoid knocking over any of the shacks. He was quite light on his feet for his age.

“I’ll take care of it, Ocean Man,” he said. “Which tunnel should I put him in? Tom, Dick or Harry?”

“Oh, Dick,” said Sonny. “Definitely Dick.”

Schneed pulled a face. “Are you sure, Ocean Man. I’m not sure he’s ready. Dick’s nearly at the surface.”

Sonny pursed his lips. “Hmm, maybe you’re—”

“No,” I said, afraid I was going to miss my chance. “I’m ready for Dick, I’m ready for Dick.” Wait, that didn’t come out right.

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