Journey to Faded City
“Down here,” hissed the ratfox and dove headfirst into the rocky hillside.
Soon stifled a cry of shock as her guide vanished, then crept closer. If she unfocused her eyes slightly, she could see, swimming in the rock before her, a tiny hole. She had grown used to such strangeness on her journey, but her senses still balked at recognizing it entirely. Still, the hole was clearly there and that was where the ratfox must have gone. She took off her pack and began to squeeze through. The rocks tore at her already ragged tunic and for a second the space was too narrow; the hard rock clamped down on her small, human body. She fought for breath; she could see nothing but she had to keep going down.
The tunnel entrance seemed to be alive, some malicious purpose clutching at her, squeezing the air out of her lungs and threatening to break her ribs. She would have cried out if there were any air to spare. Closing her eyes, she gave it one last squeeze. The pressure of the rocky tunnel vanished. She was through.
Gorki stood before her, his red eyes glowing in the dim light of the entranceway. “You made it,” he said, his voice a soft growl. “The passage doesn’t like humans much.”
“I gathered,” she said, after her breath had slowed. She didn’t have it in her to be cross at him for not warning her ahead of time, not after weeks on the road together. She shouldered her pack again. “Onward?”
“Onward,” he agreed. “Keep close to me. There are things in the tunnels that are not known in the daylight worlds and they are not all content to let us pass.”
He turned and plunged on. She followed close behind, letting the tip of his bushy tail brush against her chest. She could see nothing, but so long as she felt that soft touch, she knew she was on track. If she had been foolish, she would have been inclined to grab hold of it, to have a solid anchor between her fingertips; but she was not foolish, so she contented herself with that small reassurance that he would not abandon her in the tunnels below Argnot.
She did not know how long they walked, black tunnels giving way to more black. Every once in a while, she felt the cold air of an opening in the tunnel to her right or left, but Gorki plunged them unerringly onward. She could hear whispers in some of the other branches of the tunnels and they turned her spine to ice. Eventually, though, light began to filter into her vision, showing the grey on grey stone making up the roof and walls of the tunnel. When she could see everything clearly, albeit without colour yet, Gorki turned around and motioned for her to stop. She did, perplexed. This part of the tunnel looked no different from anything else they had walked through.
“Take this,” said the ratfox. In his open paw he held a small white capsule. Soon picked it up and raised her eyebrows at him. On its side, in a clear, institutional font was written 20 MG.
“Drugs?” she asked.
“Faded City is not only a place; it is a perception. You need to have the right filters to get there. If you don’t… I don’t know what you will see, but it won’t be Faded.” He paused. “Your perceptions are nearly right,” he said, once she’d nodded. “So I’m giving you the smallest doze.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a mind-altering drug made from the powdered bark of the tsokin tree,” Gorki said. His tone made it clear that he was humouring her and did not expect her to know what the drug was. “My people back home use it in a recreational capacity. Here, you can think of it as a slight adjustment. The only difference you will notice is that you can see Faded.”
Soon sighed and accepted the pill. She had not come this far to get squeamish now. Uncorking her waterskin, she popped the capsule into her mouth and drank it down. Then she recorked the skin. “And now?”
Gorki took off his own pack and sat down. “Now, we wait.”
“For it to kick in.”
Soon licked her lips nervously, but sat, her back against the cold stone of the tunnel. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes; there had not been much time to rest the past few days. She was glad of the chance to sit down.
After a moment, she opened her eyes again and dug in her pack for a piece of waybread. She chewed it for a bit, then washed it down with just a little more water from her waterskin. After that, she took down her waist-length hair from its bun and began brushing it. She was dimly aware that she had grown unused to having free time while on her journey. It was certainly nice to have a rest, but she kept trying to find ways to fill the time.
After some time (after she’d finished brushing her hair and put it back up in its severe braid), she noticed that she could see colour again. Her guide’s reddish fur with its golden highlights became clear and her own skin no longer looked grey-white in the half light. The walls of the tunnel, too, were not simply grey-on-grey; another look revealed many earthen shades among the rock.
“Has it grown lighter?” she wondered aloud.
“You’re seeing colour?” Gorki asked.
“Yeah,” Soon said. “But I haven’t seen the light grow.”
“It means the pill has worked. We are very near the border now and that affects things.” He leapt lightly to his hind legs, grabbing his rucksack as he did so. “Time to go.”
Soon rose, massaging her tired thighs as she did so. “Great,” she said, her voice warm. She was nearly there.