Roam Through the Gloam

I steal from the masters. Never things they will miss overmuch- no glass or steel has snuck to my pockets- just trinkets and miscellany. Scraps of root-wood that somehow evade their intended fate in the furnace, ancient coins of clay or gold that sit abandoned in the forgotten reaches of the Gloam; that is the extent of my rebellion.

It was not always so; when first I was bound to this lightless place I was possessed of a heart heated by the fuel of brash adolescence. I remember it dimly in both clarity and illumination; what dread I felt when the breeze of the overland world was quelled by the stifling walls of this subterranean cage, the terror of realization that they had stolen the sky from me. I burned with ire, shouting the insults my common people had developed for their kind. Once, I called the Foreman a marrow-slurping mongrel and made a hasty attempt to strike him with a rock. The masters are a wiry sort, but their shape belies a great strength and speed- my arm was broken before my blow could unwind, never to truly heal. No matter what I steal from them, they have ripped more from me.

Theft was my intent this cycle. I departed the Manor proper, wound through the slave-holds of mankind, and found myself before the ancient ruin known as the Shambles. The masters have a different name for it, some slithering word that stretches for far longer than need be, but any slave possessing knowledge of their sacred language would swiftly end on the Butcher’s block. I made a point not to learn of it.  The Shambles were a frequent stop for slaves on their way to gather lumber from the Rootwoods, yet the sheer immensity of that abandoned city hid many secreted treasures.  I always intend to liberate these items from the darkness, though in truth all their wealth would not improve my lot in this place. Still, I pressed through the narrow aperture of the tunnel’s mouth, and looked upon the sprawl before me through the dim mire of the Gloam.

The Shambles are a massive labyrinth of buildings, easily dwarfing any city built by Man or otherwise that I had visited on the surface. The roads were lain in hexagonal grids, as all the ruined relics of antiquity are, with the buildings’ walls stretching like sheer slate cliffs on either side of the open streets, yawning their immensity out until disappearing into the cavern’s uppermost shadows. There were murmurings among some of my kin that these towers were birthed from the bowels of some unknown hell below and stretched clear to the world above. Once, I had climbed one’s innards seeking escape, and found proof enough that, at least, the latter rumor was untrue. Each of these monuments were slowly crumbling, and unskilled steps had sent many scavengers to surprising drops. I found myself more fleet-of-foot than most of my peers, yet still I exercise due caution when daring the ruins.

This visit, I chose to stride deeper into the city than I had previously dared. Common word around the slums was of creatures more dangerous (or at least, more savage) than the Masters habituating the core of the Shambles. Most of the common rumors were false, so placing those thoughts aside, I continued winding through the honeycomb of streets. Around me swirled the detritus of untold ages, dust that had once formed the mighty towers (or perhaps their creators) mingled freely with half-rotted vermin and the leavings of scavengers. As I plunged deeper into the city, the carrion around me seemed to grow more frequent until the miasma of fresh death stung at my nostrils. I may be a slave, but I am no fool – to be curious in the Gloam is to invite death. I turned heel in the city street, and carefully wound my way back to the narrow entrance.

I had been gone for perhaps a full cycle, though the Masters cared little for the goings-on of their slaves so long as the furnaces were firing and they had their precious glass. My fellows, however, would be furious if I trekked to the Shambles and failed to return with anything of use. The Rootwood was still a good half-cycle’s distance away from my position, though my lame arm made chopping the wiry roots exceedingly difficult. I resolved to make for the Riverhead instead, as often my fellows would gather there to harvest the waters or the edible luxuriance that grew along the shores. The silence of the Gloam is enough to drive a man to madness, and all down here seek the comfort of their kin.

As I travelled the broad caverns between the Shambles and the Riverfront, I became aware of a curious clicking trailing me- always it ceased when I turned to face it, and my eyes failed to discern any shapes in the swelling darkness. . . Yet when I lingered overlong in my search, the noise would resume behind me. I returned to my path, emboldened with the haste of repressed panic. I was followed. The clicking continued, and though the intervals were quite irregular it seemed to be closing in. Shortly the noise was matched by the soothing rush of the Riverhead’s currents, though I found no solace in the sound. I was to be the next meal of a lurker.

No slave has ever survived a lurker’s hunt, though many claim witness to their method; a man walks for miles ignorant of the lurker following him until it begins to speak. The clicking inevitably draws the man’s attention, and he turns to face it; the creature stays behind him, always just out of his sight. The man panics, whipping himself around faster in hopes of catching a glimpse, or perhaps running –  either results in the lurker pouncing. Lurkers offer one of the faster deaths of the Gloam, though the rumors vary as to how they do such, and no two accounts of their appearance seem to match. With such a beast at my heels, no amount of strength or agility could save me. This was a time for cunning, and a plan was forming.

I controlled my steps. Careful not to break into a jog from the fright, and equally sure not to slow myself to a degree where I was easily caught. The Riverhead was closer now, close enough to smell yet still out of sight. The rocks here were smoother than elsewhere, providing some relief to my tired feet, yet all of me was tensed.  I could hear the idle chatter of the moss-gatherers now, yet the clicking still pressed against my mind. Closer, closer I drew, until I could spot three gatherers on the opposite side of the riverbed, scraping the edibles from the top of a large, flat boulder. It was near the end of the cycle, and the river coursed quickly at its high tide.

“Hoy, Weller! Could use yer’ help with the haul back-a-way!” Called one of the gatherers- by voice I surmised it was Thresh, a leathery little woman with legs that were perpetually skewed and a frown much the same.

“This is no place for greetings.” I spoke, and at once, the gatherers knew of a danger.  They tensed and fell silent, though as I drew nearer to the waters I detected them staring just past me, eyes haunted by whatever lurked beyond. Slowly, carefully, I began to turn to my left. I glanced over to the three- their eyes now locked on the beast upriver from me. I took in a deep breath, then returned to face them.

“Thresh. If this is to be my end, see to the care of Aldah.” I could hear the panic in my own voice, and at once I spun to meet the fate lurking behind me.

There was nothing in the dim. Behind me, from the river, came a furious splashing – the ploy had worked, the creature so intent on staying in my peripheral that it stumbled into the current. The gatherers cheered as the lurker thrashed, five arms clawing at the water’s surface and failing to find purchase. It sunk further with each stroke, until it submerged completely. The gatherers went back to their task, and I returned home.

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