Ellis’ words hung in the air. He watched Jacob expectantly.
Jacob looked down at his exposed tattoo. The twin circles, heaven and earth converging. To him, now, pride and shame, faith and confusion. In Cassidy’s face he saw mistrust, in Frida’s, wariness. Nelya peered in wide-eyed curiosity.
The big lad, almost as big as Jacob, looked up but chewed on his fingernail disinterestedly.
Jacob slowly wound the binding back around his palm and up his arm.
“My faith is my own. I am not the threat here.”
“Oh right,” Cassidy scoffed. “Since when have you preachers ever kept your faith to yourself?”
“Just as all Outliers will throw a stranger to leercats as soon as look at him? As all Darklanders will offer your flesh to their knife and Death the moment your back is turned?”
Nelya growled at him. Cassidy opened her mouth to retort but a slow, dry chuckle cut through the tense atmosphere. They all turned to the old woman at the table, still hunched over her bowl of misty soup.
“Heh,” Her voice was like rustling papers. “And so goes today’s lesson in tolerance.”
She looked straight at Jacob. Her skin was withered and lined and he thought she might be the oldest person he had ever met. He was amazed she was even alive. Her rheumy eyes, as milky as the liquid in front of her, couldn’t possibly see him, but he felt as if she was peering into his soul.
“Alice,” Ellis said in a voice full of doting reverence. “We have disturbed you.”
“Grey Alice, they call me.”
She was still staring blindly at Jacob and he shifted uncomfortably.
“You have a preacher’s mind, but a heart of green.”
Cassidy gasped, “Alice, with all respect -”
“Oh hush, Cassidy. So impetuous, it is your weakness and your strength.” Alice paused sadly, “Just like your father.”
Jacob frowned, a heart of green was how those of the outliers' Earthbound religion, Domarah, described themselves. A false religion, of course, but you could wish for worse doctors were you ever wounded; their herb lore was second to none. He felt offended, but knew that was not Alice’s intent.
“And you,” Alice’s unseeing eyes went unerringly to Nelya. “Quiet, jumpy thing. A Darklander, eh, girl? Far from home. Are you looking for something, or running from it?”
Nelya’s eyes went even wider but she didn’t say a word, just looked from person to person, spooked. Her breathing quickened.
“But I’m keeping you.” Alice chuckled again. “Ellis, take them up.”
“Of course, my lady.” He sketched a wide bow to Alice, equal parts humour and respect.
“And Garth, close the door would you, there’s a draft in here.”
Cassidy looked guiltily over at the open hatch in the floor as Garth ambled over. He pulled it up, secured it and began putting the planks back in place.
Ellis led them from the room to a wide corridor with a number of closed, heavy-looking doors. At the end a square shaft plunged down to darkness and Ellis casually swung himself out onto a ladder made of metal rungs hammered into the walls. He began pulling himself upwards, closely followed by Cassidy and Frida.
Jacob leaned cautiously into the shaft and looked up. Above them he could see the light from another opening spilling in, providing a twilight illumination by which to climb. He swallowed hard and gingerly reached for the ladder, testing the first rung within reach. He stepped out and, without looking down, hauled himself up the ladder firm grip by firm grip. Jacob guessed the next floor up was ground level.
The corridor they climbed into had a strange scent, it was faint and Jacob sniffed, trying to get a better sense of it. Something like flowers.
Ellis led them to a door with two men stood by it, large and mean looking. Their eyes skimmed over Cassidy and Ellis but scrutinized the other members of the party.
“We’re here to see Cameron.”
“Course you are.”
“C’mon, weapons on the table.”
Cassidy easily gave up her rifle and a short knife. Ellis added a knife of his own to the pile. Frida hesitated only a moment before parting with a pistol and her own knife. Jacob shrugged, he had never carried a knife outside of his pack, and his pack was back at his lodgings.
“You too, girl.”
Nelya’s hand was on the hilt of her knife. She looked back and forth between the two men, sizing them up. The closer man took a step towards her.
“You’ll get them back,” Cassidy said, placing a hand on the guard’s chest, halting him. “It’s just a precaution.”
For a moment it looked as if Nelya was going to hold out stubbornly, but she relented and put her knife and bow down. Her hand lingered on the blade before she stepped away.
“Right, you’re in luck, boy. They’re all in.”
Ellis opened the door and a billow of thick smoke wafted into the corridor in its wake. There was that smell, not-quite-floral, thick and heady. As they filed in Jacob waved his hand in front of his face but couldn’t help inhaling the vapour. He felt light-headed.
The room was dim inside and Jacob saw it was lit with tiers of candles that ringed the walls. At the far end of the room three men were sat behind a broad desk, conferring. They stopped talking and looked up at the new arrivals.
Jacob gasped, a reaction echoed by Frida and Nelya. The men had white hair and pale skin, they all had the same thin lips, high cheeks and slender noses. All three were identical, with the same milky, blind eyes as Grey Alice, and the same impossibly piercing gaze.