Cassidy allowed herself a wry smile at Jacob. There was precious time for thought, let alone humour and it took her by surprise.
The tunnels were vaguely familiar. She'd walked them as a child, playing hide and seek with her brother, Ellis. It'd been a decade or more since she'd stalked around the network of filth-encrusted pipes but as they advanced deeper she began to tick off the mental landmarks. There were chalk markings they'd made to reference the town above; a crude scrawl at waist height pointed the way to an access point below The Oasis, another to the central reservoir; a hub of several pipes that drained straight into the water table.
Cassidy took point as they set off, scrambling over generations of detritus.
"Stick to the edges," she called back "You'll be less likely to step in something"
As they turned a corner she recognised the junction ahead. Kneeling down she eyed the chalk scribblings. One pointed toward 'The Den'; her and Ellis's long abandoned secret headquarters. The other pointed towards 'Warning - D Basement' and was surrounded with skulls, exclamation points and other warning symbols.
"What's 'D Basement'?" asked Frida
Cassidy replied without turning her head. "You'll find out in a minute."
Several turns later they arrived at a hatch in the ceiling. The whole door was covered in more skulls and warning marks. Cassidy reached up and grabbed hold of a valve wheel thick with dust. It didn't give easily. She'd spent plenty of time wrenching on this to make sure it stayed shut the last time she was here.
With a whining, scraping noise the wheel began to turn until eventually the heavy door swung free exposing what looked like floorboards.
"Dammit they've covered it over!" she exclaimed.
Muffled voices echoed down through the boards.
“Wait. Hang on.”
More scuffling. The sound of something heavy sliding across a wooden floor.
Suddenly the wooden boards above them disappeared, replaced with a blinding rectangle of white light. The group all cowered, covering their eyes.
“Hey Garth, look, we got rats!” came a voice.
As her eyes adjusted a beaming smile attached to a grubby face began to resolve out of the glare.
“Who else? Me and the man-child were hoping you’d stop by for a visit.”
“Just pull us up. It smells worse‘n you down here.”
Ellis reached down and pulled Cassidy up through the aperture in the floor and she helped him heave the rest up after her. They were sat in a rather well-presented drawing room. Around them sat various stuffed leather couches and chairs. One of them was occupied by an elderly woman in a red shawl. She stared intently into a bowl of cloudy water on a mahogany coffee table in front of her and seemed completely ignorant of their intrusion. The walls were lined with bureaus and bookshelves, all overflowing with books, maps and other scraps of paper. Brass sconces were dotted around and a tarnished brass chandelier hung from the centre of the ceiling.
Behind Ellis a large man in a dirty vest was engrossed in poking his finger into his ear and waggling it furiously. Ellis himself was surprisingly well turned out and fitted perfectly with the wood and brass of his surroundings. He wore a fine leather waistcoat over a plain shirt and a pair of trousers to match.
“I'd ask what you're doing charging about in the midden, but we were on the roof when you got cornered. Saw the whole thing. How’d you like the distraction?”
“I’d like it better if I could see,” Frida snapped. “I’ve been blinded twice in the past ten minutes.”
“Not much of a view inside a pine box, honey. I’d be grateful I still have all my spleens n such if I were you. The Grinders have a habit of taking what ain’t theirs if you catch my drift. Anyways, I couldn't just let them cart Cassidy off now could I?”
“Wait. You two know each other?” asked Jacob.
“Yup.” Cassidy replied. “This barrel o’ farts is my kid brother and the one in the corner with the stupid look on his face is Garth. No offence Garth”
”None taken.” Garth was busy examining something stuck under his fingernail and didn’t look up.
Ellis flopped down onto a red leather couch and lit a cigarette.
“The cherry bomb was Garth’s idea. He’s been down in his room cooking up a few non-lethals for when we go hunting. One of those goes off in a kitty cave you can sit outside and pop ‘em in the eye as they run out. We were out there a couple of moons back with a rifle and a case o’ beers. It’s poor sport but rather that than they get back inside the walls again.”
“Wait, where are we?” asked Nelya. Her eyes were darting madly from wall to wall looking for an exit.
“We’re under the old courthouse”, Cassidy replied. “Home of the Domarah elders.”
She turned to Ellis. ”Is he..?”
“Meditating.” Ellis interrupted. “But he’ll want to see you now you’re here. He ain’t gonna take too kindly to that one though.” He waved the cigarette at the torn rags hanging from Jacob's arms, the tattoo on his wrist clear for all to see.
“You know how he feels about clergy.”