The overpowering smell of raw sewage began to fill the nostrils of the young Marcus Trent as he sloshed his way through the maze of passageways beneath the ancient city. He looked over to his best friend, Avedor, and started to shake his head. There was his friend, olive skin glowing with a light bronze tone as the dancing flames of the torch flicked shadows all about the granite tunnel. Clearly they had made a wrong turn somewhere, which had become somewhat of a mantra for the day itself. Avedor’s eyes were beginning to run as the stench continued to grow stronger, and finally, gagging, Marcus held out a hand and stopped his friend.
“I can’t do this,” Marcus called out, looking forward into the darkness, wondering how much further the tunnel would go before they either came to a side passage or perhaps the main sewage flow. He was hoping for the former, but the stronger the odor became, the more he felt it would be the latter.
“It’s a little late for that now, don’t you think?” There was a fire in Avedor’s eyes that wasn’t simply a reflection of the torch’s flame. “I tried to warn you that what you were about to do was stupid, but you never listen!”
Marcus looked down at the black, murky water. Finally standing still for a moment, his muddled reflection in the black, murky ripples of water shivering with him as the he registered the cold water that had been flooding his boots. He honestly had no idea how long they had been in the catacombs, much less how long it had been since he had walked on dry ground. When they had first run in, there had at least been pathways lining the dank waters, but those had run out quickly, and he and Avedor had been splashing around since.
Trying to avoid taking blame for their current situation, Marcus desperately wanted to avoid looking at the huge lump under his tunic, but the more he tried to resist a glance, the closer his eyes got to bringing it fully into focus. Issuing a deep sigh, he looked at it and knew Avedor was right: This whole situation was his fault.
“We’re hungry though!” he protested, looking at Avedor, hoping for understanding.
“Yeah,” Avedor nodded as he stared back at Marcus. “Yeah, we are, but I wasn’t planning on eating in a sewer. Now I’m twice as hungry as I was when we came to market this morning, but I’m pretty sure I’d vomit if I tried to swallow a single bite of that loaf at this point. We’re going to die down here.”
Looking at the varied bricks of the granite wall, hoping for some answers to appear within the mortar between them, Marcus tilted his head desperately. He could feel his emotions starting to overwhelm him, the hopelessness of being lost and not knowing which way to turn finally overcoming him. All of this over a single loaf of bread hefted from a cart outside the bakery.
“If we head back out, the guards are going to catch us though,” Marcus said, staring into the distant darkness ahead. “You know what they do to thieves. We’ll both lose our hands.”
“Yeah.” Avedor’s tone was harsh and judgmental. He shook his head in quick short bursts as he curled his lips inward. “That’s why I said we should just tell the baker our situation. Maybe he’d have helped.”
“You don’t really think he’d care about a couple of younglings, do you?” Marcus knew men like the butcher and baker cared only about the coin they could take home at night, not for the random folk living in the wilderness who had fallen on hard times.
“Maybe not,” Avedor shrugged as he pointed angrily in the direction they had come. “Point is, you never gave him the choice. Instead, you took what you wanted, and worse, you tapped me on the shoulder and made it clear I was with you.” He looked away, shaking his head. “Now we’re both stuck down here and have to hope we find a way out to the river so we can escape with our hands. And we’ll have to head for another city too, because if we’re seen back there, we’re done for.”
Marcus hung his head low and looked at the torch. The bright orange and red flames licked about the tan cloth wrapped at the end of a medium length club. The mesmerizing dance of the fire did little to calm his nerves and he decided to start walking forward. There was little point in discussing things now. Avedor was right that their only choice was to press on and hope to find the river. The guards had surely given up chase ages ago, but going back the way they had come—if they could figure out which way to go—would only lead back to a city they would no longer be welcome in.
He heard Avedor sloshing next to him, his steps slow and labored, and he knew his best friend was getting tired. He was too. Not having eaten in a couple of days and now the excitement of the chase having worn off, Marcus’s body was protesting the continued push to move, but what choice did he have? There was nowhere to sit, nowhere to rest. Eating was pointless too. Like Avedor, he too wouldn’t be able to hold down a bite of bread in this stench.
The odor continued to grow stronger as he pressed on and he held his tunic up to his nose to help abate the fumes, but even his eyes were beginning to tear. The rushing water was growing louder too. Time had lost all meaning, the growing sound in his ears and the pungent air both constant reminders that everything was going to get a lot worse before it got better. If they could but make it out of this maze, if they could get to the river, he and Avedor could sit and dry and eat their ill-gotten meal. They would have to save a little for their travels to the next town, but they certainly deserved to eat well after this.
Ahead, he could see an intersection coming into view, the waters rushing across it, spilling little crests of foamy gray bubbles toward him. He turned with a smile to look at Avedor and shouted, “We’re almost there! This has to be the main artery to the river!”
“It smells like dung!” Avedor cried back. The look on his face made it clear he was unhappy about the prospect of wading through whatever might be rushing out of the city.
Marcus pushed forward. “We’ll soon be able to eat!”
The water was now knee high and seemed to be getting deeper with each step. It was harder and harder to press against the current too and Marcus was doing everything he could to keep his footing. Avedor too was struggling but Marcus figured everything would get better once they were walking with the water. He pressed on and reached the intersection, taking one last step out of the side tunnel they had occupied. In that moment, he realized there was no floor beneath him and he was unable to halt his momentum. Too shocked and surprised by the lack of solid ground in front of him, Marcus fell into the water and was quickly swept away. He struggled to break the surface and wondered if Avedor had made the same mistake.
Letting go of the torch, his clothing weighing him down, Marcus heard the sound of rushing water filling his ears with a strange, echoed amplification that made it sound deeper, somehow almost a part of him. Pushing upward with his arms, exerting what little strength he had left, Marcus broke the surface in time to see himself being spat out into the river underneath a starry night sky. Kicking his feet as hard as he could, his arms cutting the water in as best a swim as he could muster, Marcus managed to make it to the nearby bank of the river, laying down amongst the tall grasses, sputtering as he coughed up a little bit of the murky water he had been encased in.
It was but a moment later that he realized there was a soggy mess under his tunic no longer fit for eating. Looking down at the deformed lump starting at his breast, his entire being deflated. He stared, crestfallen, unbelievably depressed by the loss of the meal he had struggled so hard to pilfer for himself and his best friend to enjoy.
Without another thought, Marcus leapt to his feet and stared into the mouth of the sewer and then scanned the nearby waters.
“Avedor!” he cried out. “Avedor!”
For hours he waited by the side of the river, finally collapsing to the ground, tired, hungry, and now feeling ill. Fever was quickly overtaking him as he stared up into the night sky, looking off at the constellations of stars, and wondering if there would be anything to follow this life. As the sun finally began to break the horizon to the east, vibrant reds breaking through the varied blues of twilight, he finally gave in to the exhaustion and closed his eyes.
* * *
The light vanished in an instant. One moment, Marcus had been stepping into the main channel, the next, everything had gone dark, and Avedor Woodard couldn’t see a thing. He stood still for a moment, hoping his eyes would adjust to the darkness, but he could barely make out the slightest glow of light from his left, the direction he had seen Marcus disappear into. Every other direction was dark now, and he had no idea what to do.
With no other options, he took a step forward, cursing Marcus mentally in his head, ready to pummel him to death for this horrible adventure that had been forced upon him. A moment later, Avedor was swept away into the darkness, and he quickly realized the main tunnel was much deeper than the side branch they had come from. He struggled to break the surface but he couldn’t even tell which way was up anymore. Worse, he had never learned to swim. He flailed about wildly as he tried to right himself, but there was nothing right with the world anymore.
He couldn’t breathe, his chest was tightening, and he had no idea what to do. It was hard to keep his mind focused, hard to move, hard to do anything. The water continued to push him along, though where he was headed, he had no idea. There was nothing but an eternity of blackness about him. The sound of his heart pumping filled his ears, drowning out the deep, harsh rush of water, and everything became difficult.
As he lost the ability to struggle against the current, his mouth gasped for air that wasn’t there. His lungs swiftly filled with the putrid liquid he’d fallen into, and Avedor had one final thought…