Chapter 26: Walk the Earth; Hannibal and Beyond
This area is too confined and the footing is poor. It would be wise not to linger.
Travelling within the kingdom was easy: Follow the roads north. Chloe’s group arrived in Hannibal, the largest city in the kingdom before nightfall. Chloe had only ever been this far north once, for the Legendary war, which had destroyed many parts of Hannibal. They did as the King instructed and stayed at his satellite home. Later they would have to exit the giant walls that surrounded the entire nation.
The walls were nearly as old as the kingdom, and legend had it that the founder built it alone with his own hands. Legend also had it that the founder was the King. Chloe would vouch for both claims.
Astore left the Hannibal home to prepare their exit through the north gate. It was the least used of the three, so he wanted to makes sure that the process would be as quick as possible when they were on their way the next morning. The kingdom’s gate was guarded by regular Hannibal guards. Astore happened to know these women well, so he simply explained the situation and handed them the correct letter from the King. There were no issues, so he moved on to his next task: hiring a night guard for their overnight stay. The King had been wise to suggest this. Even Astore was a little paranoid about potential Lussa assassins.
“You call this a house?”
“I mean, it is a royal house. King’s quarters.”
“Well, even from that perspective I have issues. If this is King’s quarters, it’s much too small.” Senica said.
“You know, I have never been to this city. Not as it is now, and certainly not since the invasion.” Chloe said.
“Is that what this ‘Legendary Event’ was?”
“Yes. When it ended, we opened up the kingdom to outsiders for the first time in centuries.”
The room was comfortable, expensive even, but not especially lavish.
“And here, no servants?” Lilllith asked. “Even I have servants.”
“Ah, typically the King will hire local workers, as well as bring his own. We prepared for nothing of this sort and so…”
“And the cupboards are all empty. Kent and I checked.” Senica said. “What are we going to eat?”
“Perhaps we will, ah, we’ll visit one of the local dining establishments.”
Astore returned. He had hired a guard that he knew to watch over the building at overnight, in case Ammelia or anyone else was still after them. He hadn’t gone with the Hannibal guard, but rather to a group of mercenaries who usually hired themselves out to travellers. The men were very happy to work a local job.
The party agreed to leave the house for the afternoon, so they woke up Siren who had fallen asleep, and then Astore led them to a place he knew well.
“Hey you know this is the first time we’re dining together as a group,” Kent said.
“So?” It was Siren.
“I don’t know, it’s just—hey you still grumpy about being woken up? You gotta eat even if you’re tired you know.”
Chloe said, “How long is the trip? What will it be like?”
Lilllith sighed, and put down her knife. “We should be there by nightfall tomorrow, assuming all goes well and we move at a pace faster than a walk. It is not very far, oddly enough; I’m surprised that we hadn’t made contact until now.”
“Well, we had not been looking until very recently. Maybe it was the same for you?”
“Maybe. Anyway, they will be expecting us, though perhaps not tomorrow. This is fine. I own a very large property, so only have to worry about…”
“About Ammelia.” Chloe became serious. “Or rather, the presumably better organized people that stand behind her.”
“And dessert!” Col said.
They returned shortly after without incident. The night, too, was uneventful, even for the mercenaries. This worried Astore, but for Lilllith it only confirmed that their issues would present themselves later, perhaps even after they crossed over to the Underside.
While the night had been uneventful, the morning was not. It turned out that very few of them were morning people, and so Lilllith’s calls at sunrise were unwelcome to all but Astore, who was already awake, and Kent and Senica, who didn’t have morning issues.
They didn’t stay in Hannibal very long, making their way north toward the kingdom doors; stopping only for breakfast. They arrived at the gates, and Astore spoke to the guard for a moment and then they were let through. One of them hollered, and then pulleys started turning.
“I never realized how large these doors were,” Alexandre said.
“Yes, seven cubits. Ah, that is three storeys. It used to be two, but we replaced the doors a few decades ago.”
“Huh. Seems excessive.”
The giant doors finished sliding open—all the way for Royalty.
“My father used to have good reasons to be…apprehensive.”
The party went through. On his way out, Astore called, “Expect Agent traffic through here over the next few months.” And then, they were outside, outside of the kingdom.
Chloe had been north, but she had never exited north. The outside world was open before her, without the hind of any walls in the distance. To her right was a cliff face, on top of which lived the N’Tariel. Left was the Elken jungle. In between, where they would be travelling, was the EntElken valley. The plane was barren; just sandy soil and little shrubs.
“What direction?” Chloe asked.
Lilllith pointed straight ahead. “The land moves upward and almost reaches the height of those bluffs. Only a little further, on the edge of a forest, is the hole to the Underside.”
The gate closed behind them.
“Hole?” Alexandre asked.
“Yep!” Said Col.
Chloe had never thought of how they would actually get to the other side of the planet. “So we just…fall?”
Lilllith added, “Gravity changes halfway though. It is dangerous. Best to jump so that you have a little extra force on your way down.”
Chloe, a little agitated, said, “ What if you miss the other side and fall back down? And then get stuck?”
Lilllith frowned. “Come, this is a one-hundred kilo-cubit trip. It will be near dark when we arrive, assuming breaks, and also assuming a mostly safe trip. We can speak as we walk.”
“Of course. So?” Chloe tilted her head down to look at Lilllith’s face.
“The Lussa-Djeb hole has safety installations. It took years to perfect, but all of the problems inherent to jumping down a giant hole to cross over to the other side are solved—well, addressed over there.”
Alexandre listened intently, glancing back as they left the Solune Kingdom behind them.
“Here…there is something we can do, but it is neither easy nor convenient.”
“You sent someone down with enough extra weight to pick up the person who is, ah, who’s stuck on the way…” Chloe thought aloud.
“Yes…. You know if this?”
“No, I just…”
Alexandre said, “It’s physics.”
“Ah. I am not so learned, but I suppose it is.”
The walk wasn’t particularly treacherous. In fact, apart from the strain of trekking across loose soil, it was quite easy going; flat, and wide open. The group had naturally split into two groups. The leading party included Lilllith, Chloe, Astore, Kent, and Senica. Those trailing a few steps behind were Alexandre, Siren, and Col.
“So, tell me, why is this place so void of inhabitants?” Lilllith asked.
“Well, it is something of a border zone,” Chloe explained, “it is the land between the Elken, who live in that jungle, and the N’Tariel, who live up on that ridge. Ah, there are good plains up there for living, with adjacent forests for hunting.”
Kent said, “Should we be worried about ambush or something?”
Alexandre called from behind, “Not here. What, they will hide in the Elken lands and be themselves ambushed by those savages?”
Lilllith said, “Ambushed? Our enemies ambushed? How?”
“The Elken are extremely territorial,” Chloe said, “Even the King has only spoken with them a handful of times. They live in isolation, and they seem to enforce it as well.”
“They have much to hide,” Siren said, also calling from behind them.
Alexandre, beside him, laughed. “What?”
“That’s what I’ve heard anyway. My mother used to talk about it. Ghosts and magic.”
“But that is it here? Elken and N’Tariel?” Lilllith interjected.
“Ah, I think…”
“No, there’s the hundred-percent,” Said Alexandre. By now her group was walking very close to front one.
Lilllith looked back at her. “The what?”
“Oh yes…the ‘Hundred-Percent Riley.’ They are…dangerous. But they live far to the north, near where the King’s brother lives, in the woods. We should not—”
Alexandre shouldered into the front group. “Yes Prince Rhye, they live far north. About a day’s walk, am I right?”
Chloe looked away. Her anxieties had flared, and she was starting to tear up involuntarily. “Ah, well…” She fumbled.
“We didn’t encounter anyone on our way down,” Lilllith said.
“Ah, yes, what she said.” Chloe said.
“Well, let us hope that they remain as big a problem as the Elken.”
Alexandre shrugged and fell back again. Astore started thinking.
They journeyed, with occasional banter, for four hours. By then the frequency of complaints, usually from Col, was enough that Lilllith decided they would stop for lunch.
“Should we start a fire or something?” Siren asked.
Kent shook his head. “We have cold lunches for a reason. It’s best not to play with fire. And by fire, I don’t mean making one, I mean scavenging from the Elken.”
As they discussed this, Lilllith and Col (mostly Col) had started a fire using the uprooted desert shrubs. She looked at their surprise and said, “Yes? You know we got some sort of warning attack, this shower of spears, on the way here. So? I found a solution!”
Senica and Chloe laughed. They ate and rested for quite a long time; long enough to surprise Chloe, who had expected more strictness from Lilllith. Then they were off again. The rest of the walk was similarly uneventful. They took another short break at some point, and Chloe asked about their role on the Underside. Lilllith told her that she herself wasn’t entirely certain, and that Prince Ryann would delegate that when they arrived. “For now,” She said, “all that matters is that we arrive and that none of you turn out to be liabilities.”
The sun began to set. Another hour passed, and they were well into dusk, and the world was getting dark and blurry.
“We are very close,” Lilllith said, “I recognize this area. I imprinted it into my memory.”
“There it is!” Astore pointed.
Chloe squinted. She could barely see a dark blotch in the ground.
“Ah yeah” Alexandre said, “I see it.”
“Riley eyes.” Siren shook his head, “It’s like cheating.”
Lilllith took off her bag and took two of her torches out. She lit both. “Someone take one.” Astore did.
“And there they are,” Alexandre said.
“What?” Lilllith tried to see, but couldn’t.
Astore said, “Hundred-Percent Riley. Someone take this torch, it’s disturbing my night vision.” Senica did.
“How many?” Lilllith asked.
“Eh…fifty?” Alex replied. Astore agreed.
“And what are they?”
“They’re well, you could call them the lowest and most base form of Riley,” Alexandre said.
“And they are strong?” Lilllith squinted.
By now it was almost too dark to see, but as eyes adjusted, the mass was vaguely visible to all. Lilllith could see them coming out of the forest on the far side of the hole, and crowding around in front of them. It was quite clear to her that they wanted to prevent them from getting through.
“I mean,” Alexandre thought for a moment. “Theoretically, they’re no stronger than any other person, but they live the most rudimentary lives, so I wouldn’t expect any training. Probably not much muscle either. And, like all Riley, they’re fairly small.”
“They don’t look like soldiers,” Astore said, “but there are a lot. And, the hundred-percent Riley fight like madmen, they are like animals. It can be very jarring to fight them—”
Lilllith shouted, “Here they come. Ready yourselves!”
The party had all drawn their weapons by now.
“Alexandre and I will take the lead. Kent and Chloe, behind us. I hope you two are coordinated enough to throw strikes past us without hitting friendlies.” Everyone took their positions. Lilllith took yet another pose Chloe had never seen and then yelled, “Let’s get to the Underside.”