Chattering, they returned. Ronin had been awake most of the night. He'd been listening. Sometimes he prayed, silently, to the old Gods. The Seven Sisters. Ronin was a boy educated on the cusp, the meeting point where one faith was replaced by another. While others still appealed to the new, singular deity, Ronin prayed to the Seven Sisters.
Sisters protect me. Sisters watch over me. I give you faith, you give me luck. Get me out of here so I can go home, for Ma's sake. Protect my family. Sisters protect me. Sisters watch over me...
'Commander,' Padme disturbed his train of thought. 'I need to...er-' she gestured to the log with her thumb.
'Oh. Alright. I'm not looking,' he nodded.
She padded over and went about the business of trying to keep her business quiet. Staring at the leaves on the floor, Padme figured her night vision had never been so good. It seemed she'd adjusted to the dark, and now she was seeing details where before she'd only been able to see blur and darkness. Being able to see a bit made it easier to cope. Padme looked at the commanders back. His pristine white jacket wasn't so white anymore. She'd lost track of how long they'd been down here.
She had to admit, when she'd first laid eyes on Ronin in basic training, she'd thought him a bit of an arsehole. A big man with an attitude to match. She hadn't seen much of the good side his closer officers spoke of. But he'd surprised her, and she was growing a grudging respect for him now. His way with the dying man suggested it was something he'd had to do a lot. She wondered how many times he'd been captive. She already hated this hole. Dank and now stinky, and not a place she wanted to die in. If she'd been with anyone but the commander, she'd have given up hope.
Before she'd buttoned herself up she felt a familiar gust of fresh air. Caught somewhere between fear and excitement, she fled for the back of the cave. Only a moment behind her, Ronin came through the gap and handed her helmet over. He settled in front of her. Then sure enough, the stones were parting and through them came the noise of the Wailers. Ronin gestured for Padme to hang back.
'I'll go first,' he said softly.
But then, slithering down the tube, Ronin saw that more Wailers were coming in from above. Something made him stick to the shadows. Then in the light from the distant cavern, where water dripped in the wrong direction, and bugs could be seen flying upside down, Ronin saw the line of Wailers begin to filter into the underground world. Each one carried a body. Dead leaf men. Ronin counted. Seven.
'What're they doing?' Padme hissed.
'I don't know.'
'What are they!' she breathed.
Ronin held a hand up for quiet.
'I don't know,' he said.
Padme shivered. She'd been down here overnight now. The damp was creeping into her bones, making her ache. Then the Wailers began to slither closer to their fire, and Padme realised, sooner or later they were going to see they had human company.
'Oh God-' Padme breathed, as the monster folded its bulbous red body to sniff around the dying embers. Then it wailed, once, loudly, to draw attention. And they were approaching.
'Commander-' Padme was panicking. Trying not to was pointless.
Ronin could hear the fear in her voice. He backed her up against the wall, and one hand on his sword, knelt in the tiny space, tense and ready.
The thing came closer. Shuffling forward on its soaking base, the light from their cavern scythed down its crimson skull as it leaned in, and extending a long neck, it peered right into Ronin's eyes. Its silver eyeballs flamed with deep lights. There was no mouth. It generated the strange wail by the opening and closing of tubes in its skin. It shook the air around it. Behind him, Padme gripped his shoulder and made a little noise that spoke right to his heart, and made his insides tremble.
'Hello?' Ronin tried, because he knew from experience that it was make or break. A greeting could save their lives. A gust of warm air blasted over his face from the siphon tubes, which opened all at once. He'd been expecting the monster to stink. He found it didn't. Or maybe his nose was just desensitized by the smell in the cavern now.
'Can we talk? Do you speak?'
The silver eyes blinked. Once. Slowly.
'OK. It's OK.' he said to it soothingly. He slowly bought his hand away from the hilt of his sword. Whatever it was, it had the mass of at least two men. Ronin didn't want to gamble that it was always so slow to move. He didn't want to check for teeth either.
'This was just a precaution, OK?' he went on. 'I'm freaked out, just so you know,' he gestured with his thumb. 'So's she. Bit weird meeting someone else down here.'
No answer. The crimson slug with its odd, extendable neck, tracked around, and focused on Padme, who was now hiding behind her commanding officer. Before Ronin could guess what it was doing, it extended a single tendril to touch her face.
'Hey, what are you doing!' she tried to swat it away, but the creature persisted.
'It's OK. Let him,' Ronin encouraged her. He held his hands out where they could see. 'See? We're friendly enough. Except for when we have bad gas.'
His smile soon faded as three more heads crowded into the doorway. Ronin swallowed hard around his own fear. Behind him, Padme worked herself into the corner and he extended a hand her. It closed around her shin. He hoped she got the message. Cooperate. Don't panic.
Then they started wailing, and even Ronin had to admit the sound was enough to make even the bravest warrior want to use the boys room. It sounded like the cries of a tortured soul, and it went on and on. Like a discussion one would wail, and then the other. Ronin didn't want to see them in the light. He didn't want to know what was happening to the people they'd carried down. But this cage had been built to contain him. They were probably his only chance. It chilled him to the bone. Ronin could hear the rookie crying. He felt sorry for her, but that was as far as he could go.
'Does anyone...talk?' he said finally. 'Do you understand me?'
'Living,' said a red face, then, in a low, breathy whisper. 'Living.'
Again Ronin received a face-full of that air they expelled, and oddly it still didn't smell bad.
'Sorry?' Ronin shifted position. 'We don't mean you any harm. We were trapped here.'
Then the glistening heads retreated, and left only the one who'd spoken. Padme peered over Ronin's shoulder.
'Mate-' he gestured to her, with a single tendril. 'It's strong. Healthy.'
'What, no, I-' Padme objected.
'Quiet,' Ronin commanded her.
'Mate,' said the slug beast again.
'Yes,' he agreed, though he knew it would upset her. He was pretty sure he could figure out what it meant.
Then the thing retreated. Glancing over its shoulder, it blinked once, slowly. Ronin's hands were shaking. He pulled Padme to her feet and put a hand in the hollow of her back.
'It could save our lives. Don't let me down. Walk slowly. No sudden moves. Agree with everything I say.'
Padme didn't have the strength to argue. She walked, the commanders hand warm and safe.
'Easy,' he breathed, as they gazed into the upside down world.
'Down,' said the crimson beast, and he slithered into the light.
Padme nearly retched. Ronin too, had trouble now, keeping his cool. Even fighting Mandrake he hadn't been as scared as he was now. He could feel the tension thrumming in his muscles, and he wanted nothing more than to run and keep running until they were as far away as possible. Stepping into the subterranean world seemed like a step in the wrong direction. Still, some deep instinct was pushing him to try. He followed it.
Mould and rot, fungus and bones, old fragments of death and decay, and all around them, the Wailers exchanged conversation in their odd voices. The smell of a world persistently turning from life to decay. It was choking, but Ronin could smell fresh air, too, implying this place was habitable. Or at least, well ventilated. He stepped inside. Padme's legs nearly gave out. Ronin hauled her up against his side and put his mouth by her ear.
'Easy, Thistledown. We'll be out of here by nightfall.'
'Sir...they're made of blood-' she gasped.
'So are we,' he pointed out. 'See the similarities, Thistledown, not the differences. It might save our lives.'
Walking upside down felt so odd. Ronin wasn't sure he could keep his head down here, and he definitely didn't expect the girl to last long. She was so pale she might as well have seen a ghost, and he was sure he didn't look much better. His hands shook. As they walked, his balance began to adjust a little bit and his brain seemed to block the fact he was the wrong way up. he found himself treading the walls, the ceiling along perfectly round corridors, unsure of which way was up or down. A drop of brown, red liquid came from below, and dripped upwards. Wherever he stood, gravity predictably pulled him down. Padme walked in silence. She was clearly terrified, but he had to hand it to her, she had the sense to put her trust in him. And to hold herself in check. For now.
'Where is this?' Ronin asked. Nobody answered. 'Where the hell are we going.'
'I need to go back-' she breathed.
Ronin grabbed her hand.
'Stay where you are,' he commanded dangerously.
'I need to – go-'
'Strong,' said the strange, red face, which glistening like fresh blood seemed to be made of the very same. 'Healthy.'
'Yes, she is. Where are we?'
'It's the underverse,' Padme breathed, trying to keep air in her lungs and whatever was left in her tummy, in. 'It's a story, from a long time ago. They're the Breakers.'
'What are you talking about?'
'This way,' breathed the Wailer, and gesturing with a tendril, he offered them a lengthy corridor.
Once inside, it was hard to see which way was up and which was down. Ronin tried to forget about that, despite having had fifty years of gravity behaving very consistently. He looked at every surface he could, trying to persuade his brain to adjust completely. He felt uneasy, but so far nobody had either demanded his weapon or shown him hostility. There were doors here. The blood beast approached one, and he slid right through the black, shivering slick that was strung like a thin membrane of oil. Ronin cringed.
'Come on,' he encouraged Padme, and he stepped through it into a large, spherical room.
With the tendril, the beast gestured to food, and to a large, soft surface that might be a bed. He extended a second one to the window, where Ronin could see oily, slick curtains and beyond it, a view of a great cavern. He guessed,
'For us to rest in?'
A blink. Once. Slowly.
'Much appreciated,' he nodded. 'Thank you.'
And with a single backward glance back, the Wailer left. Padme sank, and Ronin went with her just to keep her from falling. When she was on her knees, she shut her eyes tightly and he could hear her trying to breathe steadily. It wasn't working.
'Easy,' he said gently. 'Easy, Thistledown.'
Then thankfully, she started to cry. Actually he was quite grateful for that, because crying was better than panicking any day. Crying was a bit more productive.
'What're we going to do?' she sobbed.
'What I always do,' he said softly, 'find a way out. You wanna stay down here Thistledown?'
'No!' she squeaked.
'Then follow my lead. We'll get out. This is better than the cavern, isn't it?'
Padme swiped the tears off her face and gripped his armoured forearm.
'Barely,' she admitted.
'It's better,' he mused softly.
Padme was shaking.
'This is...I think I'm going to be sick-'
Ronin listened to that next bit and tried to keep his water down too. When she'd finished retching into a fruit bowl, she laid back and gazed up at Ronin.
'My Grandmother used to tell me stories,' she said. 'About the Body Breakers. They happen when the stompers have a great battle. You see, the stompers bleed so much that they turn the fields into marshes. The Breakers come out of the ground, hungry for dead things. They don't have real bodies, so they have to make them out of whatever they can find. Then they eat the corpses, and feed them to their hive.'
'Wailer suits them better,' Ronin said. 'You know, two days ago I'd have laughed at you and written up up a sick note. Now I couldn't care less what they are as long as we can get out of here.'
He went to the huge, lens-like window and peered out. A vast world awaited, but there were more floors and more ceilings than he was used to.
'Ugh,' he made a noise of complaint. 'That's more dimensions than I want to see at this point. Even I'm starting to feel sick.'
A quick exploration revealed they were in some sort of accommodation. Ronin pushed open a door and found something quite like an en suite. A deep pool was fed by a constant stream of trickling water, and it was temptingly warm. An arrangement in the corner was probably the toilet, and they'd even provided paper.
'Thistledown! Get a look-'
She came to the door and peered in.
'Guests of honour, it seems.'
'Why?' Padme said. 'Why are we being treated so well?'
'I don't know,' Ronin said. 'Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying we should trust them. But there's food and a bed and we need both. Take advantage for now. We'll rest, then we'll find a way out.'
Wandering back into the main room, he found his brain was almost managing now. He could more or less map the floor, by virtue of the fact it was the bit his feet always landed on. So his head ended up in weird positions, like he was waling around inside the skin of a big fruit. Big deal. Ronin was starting to wonder if he needed the fruit bowl himself. He glanced down at the girl, who sagged against a pillow. She did look awful.
'Is this edible?' he wondered aloud, picking up an apricot.
'Probably not,' she said.
Ronin bit into it.
'Don't be so sure,' he said, with juice on his lips. 'Tastes OK to me.'
He tossed her an apple.
'Come on, fill your stomach while we've got the chance.'
'What do you mean, they're gone!' Rot leaned over his general, a skinny bug. 'Gone where?'
'We don't know-' Sludge admitted.
'You don't know. What do I pay you for, Sludge? Wait. I don't pay you.'
He turned to the pools of steaming, festering rot and breathed out through his nose.
'Those blasted blood demons. Straight from hell. We should wipe them, out.'
Rot shuddered. He'd never see anything so horrible as the walking sacks of blood that had so easily shooed the Boggans off their land, and reclaimed even the pits and the prisoners. They'd probably been eaten by now, he mused. Or sucked dry. Then he got angry. Because it was his job to kill Ronin, no one else's.
'Send a patrol!' he turned on Sludge. 'Go. Find out where they went. Do not fail me.'
Ronin sat awake while the girl tossed and turned. Eventually she sat up and dragged the band out of her hair. It fell to well below her shoulders. Ronin turned for a good look at her. She was pretty, he thought privately. But this was entirely the wrong time to be thinking like that.
'It's no good. I can't get to sleep when I'm surrounded by...flesh eating blood monsters.'
'Well, they don't seem to want to eat the living,' Ronin said quietly.
Padme had to concede that point.
'You know, sir, I've never had any faith since I was fifteen. But if I get out of this alive, I'll go to the temple every day until the day I die.'
Ronin had to smile.
'I'm not so sure the gods demand quite that much. Maybe you could get away with once a week?'
Padme shook her head.
'Every day,' she said decisively, 'I really love being alive. Can't you sleep?'
Ronin looked at his sword, which he'd been holding since she dozed off.
'I'd sooner not, not just yet. Not until we know what we're dealing with.'
'Do you really want to know?' she quipped.
Ronin's lips lifted again.
'No,' he said. 'Try and get some rest, Thistledown. One of us should be on the ball, even if I'm the walking dead by morning.'
Some time later, the girl rolled over and spoke softly to him.
'Commander? Why do you think they haven't killed us?'
'They want us alive,' he shrugged, logically. He was laying on his back fully clothed.
Ronin peered out from behind the drawn curtains. Below, a hive of the blood beasts were building something that looked like a chamber. Its honeycomb structure implied some sort of storage. He breathed out slowly through his nose.
'Alright,' he said to himself. 'So they make baby blood bugs. Everybody needs to breed. Just deal with it.'
Padme looked at him from the bed.
'Or food,' she suggested. 'We might be part of that.'
Then the doorway veil rippled, and absorbing through it, three Wailers approached slowly. When they saw Ronin and Padme standing by the window, they emitted a weird, hissing sound. They slid forward.
'Wow...wow, what are you doing!' Ronin resisted the tendril. It took him by the wrist and pulled his hand towards Padme. Meanwhile, she was having similar difficulties.
'No, stop that-' Padme grimaced as the tendrils united her hand with the commanders. Ronin nodded.
'That's nice,' he said to them. 'Nice to see you so interested. What do you want exactly?'
Then two tendrils began to move. One made an 'O' and the other gesticulated quite clearly what they wanted.
'Oh my God-' Padme breathed. 'No fucking way-'
'Now, now love-' Ronin adapted like a chameleon. It was what had kept him alive. 'Keep your hair on, yes? They know we don't do that sort of thing in front of other people.'
Three Wailers discussed. Ronin begged Padme with his eyes to get the point. The big, red faces blinked together. Once. Slowly. Then he was pushed forward gently but quite firmly. Padme too, was encouraged into his arms. Before long, he found himself holding her. Her big, brown eyes were full of fear.
'What're you doing?' she whispered.
'Trust me,' Ronin dropped his voice. 'Easy. Trust me.'
Then as the last one absorbed into the doorway, Padme pushed him away.
'No fucking way,' she hissed.
Ronin rolled his eyes, his hands spread wide.
'Thistledown, use your head. You think I did it for the kick? You want to take on a whole hive of those things?'
Padme stared at him.
'I don't even want to be here.'
Ronin approached her.
'Well that's just tough. You are. And you've got to survive, and help me survive. If they want us to look like I'm your boyfriend, we damn well do it because the alternative might be a fight.'
'I'm down here alone with...no offense...a rookie,' Ronin breathed, clearly frustrated with her inability to understand. 'Leafmen work as a team. We've got you. And me. And nobody's gonna come and wipe up the mess, or toss me a rope here.'
Padme wanted to cry. Ronin went on.
'You follow my lead and you do whatever I tell you to do. And you trust me not to go too far. And maybe, we'll be out of here before we're turned into bug food.'
Ronin shook his head.
'I don't want 'yes sir,' he said.
'What do you want then?' she said, exasperated.
He leaned in.
'I want yes Ronin. I want yes, I see you're alive like I am Ronin. I want you to understand what you're dealing with. Right now we're not leaf men. We're a man and a woman trapped in a nest of monsters. Alone. We've got nobody to rely on but ourselves. Without our armour we're dead,' he said. 'Never mind attack. Trips. Falls. Poison.'
'Yes Ronin,' she said. Using his name did have the desired effect. It made her realize he was real. Not just the commander, but a man who was fighting like she was for their survival.
'Try to get your head around it. Take your armour off and see how you feel without it. That's how I feel now, trying to protect you and me and get us home safe.'
He calmed down. Padme ran a hand through her hair.
'I don't leave anyone behind,' Ronin said then. 'You better turn out to be the same, Thistledown.'
Ronin tried the door a bit later. He found it bent and stretched, but it wouldn't let him pass.
'Great,' Padme sighed, from the bed. 'We can get in but we can't get out. I feel so great here. Can we book in for a holiday?'
Ronin shook his head.
'No,' he said. 'I want to go somewhere warm where I don't have to sleep in my armour.'
Padme looked up at him. She wasn't sure but that sounded like a joke. They moved around the room, testing pictures, moving objects, trying walls.
'Out of the frying pan,' she breathed.
'I need some sleep,' he admitted, collapsing onto the bed. 'Is this thing worth sleeping on?'
'Quite comfortable actually.'
'Alright. Keep watch.'
Padme glanced at the commander, who was breathing steadily now, laying on his back on the bed. Padme sighed. How had she gotten into this stupid situation? Joining the leaf men had looked like an adventure. It definitely was. She'd just been so sure she was going to walk out alive. She reached for the chain that hung around her neck and looked at the locket. It was the only thing she had of her mothers. Wearing it to work probably wasn't a very good idea.
Padme was in the en suite when the Wailers came through the doorway slick. Her wet clothes were laid out and she was wearing only what she needed to have on to be decent.
'Oh shit!' she hissed, as they noticed her absence.
A crimson head preceded a bulbous body into the wash room. The thing took her by two tendrils, and forcing her to abandon her wet clothes, it pulled her, kicking and protesting, toward the sleeping man.
'Get off me!' she yelped, as it dragged her over the bed. She had to admit, it wasn't exactly hurting her. But its grip was firm enough and its strength enough that fighting wasn't really an option.
'Oh God-' she yelped, as she was placed carefully over his hips. 'Get off me!' she yelled, wrenching her hand out of its grip.
Then Ronin opened bloodshot eyes and stared up at her. The Wailers blinked approvingly.
'OK,' Ronin held his hands open. He had no intention of actually touching the half naked leaf woman sitting on his body. 'Wow. This is a...surprise.'
Padme struggled upright, but the Wailers took hold of her and pushed her back down. She fought the tendrils, until Ronin sat up beneath her and intervened.
'Alright,' he said. 'I'm not in the best place, so we'll make this quick. A man has to be gotten in the mood, alright? You don't just dump a half naked lady on his lap and expect him to perform.'
He sighed, casting a guilty glimpse at the girl, who was actually quite close to tears now. Ronin sat up and tipped her gently onto the bed. An arm around her shoulders he said patiently;
'I'll grant you, I can think of a few ways it might work, but you've got to let us get some sleep first.'
Padme covered her face with her hands and cursed as they retreated again. Ronin released her quickly.
'Are you OK? Why are you naked?'
Padme swallowed her tears.
'I tried getting the blood off,' she said.
Ronin's jaw tightened.
'Why did you take your armour off for a bath?' he stared at her. Then he shook his head. 'Seven sisters I'm down here with an idiot. Go to sleep. You might as well.'
Padme did sleep, eventually. First fitfully, with bad dreams. Then solidly, until she woke to a dark room. She stirred, but a hand grabbed her and drew her down quickly.
'Quietly,' Ronin breathed.
Padme searched for his face in the dark, and as he eyes woke up, she found him. He was lying on his side, his hand on his sword, fully clothed. Padme put a hand on the mattress. It was soaking wet.
'I've found a way out,' he breathed. 'Every couple of hours or so they come and check on us. Always three. Put your armour on, in the dark, quietly.'
'But we tried everywhere-' she breathed.
'Not exactly,' he said.
Padme crept towards the en suite, and pointing down into the water, Ronin said;
'Down there, there's a drain covered by a grille. Just big enough for us to slip through. If we can get it off-'
'It could go anywhere!' Padme hissed.
'Anywhere's better than here,' he said.
She couldn't argue. But then, without warning, the lights came up suddenly and Ronin heard the distant sound of Wailers. Then they came through the veil, and it was too late. Ronin peeked through a crack.
'Oh shit, they're going to know!' Padme hissed, looking down at herself, fully clothed. She had no reason to be in here with him, in armour, staring into the bottom of the pool. 'Gods, I can't believe I'm doing this. Take your clothes off.'
Ronin smirked at her.
'In her, this end,' he said, and shed his armour with a few practised moves, stripped off his shirt and plopped into the pool. Padme covered her eyes, and her privacy, and tried to look relaxed. 'Over here. Come on, I'm not gonna hurt you, Thistledown.''It's not that,' she whispered, as she slid towards him, a bit reluctantly. 'Nevermind. Just make it look like we mean it.'Padme settled at his side. She was suddenly very aware of how warm his body was. She could feel a firm, flat tummy at her side. Finally, she thought, I'm in a warm bath with a fella, only I was kind of hoping it'd be under different, more romantic, circumstances. She'd never felt so vulnerable as she did now, sharing a nearly naked bath with a man she hardly knew. Just so some freaky blood beasts might think they were about to get it on. Then a red tendril pushed the door open. Ronin turned his head, and by the time the Wailers saw him he looked genuinely grieved.
'Seven sisters!' he said, frustrated. 'I'm working on it!'
Padme covered her mouth with her hand and tried not to look at Ronin. She could feel his broad shoulders behind her, and hear the water sloshing against him. She turned her face away. She really didn't want to look. If they did ever get home, she was never going to be able to look at the commander again without thinking he had a beautiful bod.
Then red tendrils snaked outward, and the three Wailers touched each other. Ronin watched, with a sense of rising dread. It seemed they were conferring. Then the red face turned to him.
'Closer,' it instructed.
Ronin stared at it.
'Closer. Close. New? Hard to know how-'
Now he cringed.
'Guys, when I was new to this, I was a whole lot more interested than I am now-'
Then they paused and turned their attention to Padme.
'New-' they said, as one.
Padme blushed. She stared at the side of the pool and said nothing, which was explanation enough. Ronin felt for her. That wasn't something most recruits wanted to admit in front of their commanding officers. Then, hissing, the Wailers took hold of her and began pushing her towards him.
'I can work it out for myself-' she said, blushing furiously.
'We know what to do,' he said. 'Privacy?'
The Wailers didn't look convinced. They stood back. Ronin didn't need to speak their language to understand them. Then two sets of tentacles dived under the water. Ronin backed up as they dived to his thighs.
'Wow, hold it there buddy-'
'No, get off!' Padme panicked, kicking at them. 'Ronin!' she yelped, as they grabbed her legs.
Ronin grabbed for the tentacle that was trying to climb her thigh.
'What the hell is it doing!'
'Interfering,' Ronin said.
Then something touched his waist, and snaking down the band of his underwear, it went one step too far for any man. Ronin grabbed the tendril and squeezed, hard. It resisted, but he bent it back, just as hard, and it finally retracted. He hadn't been expecting that much strength. It was worrying. He couldn't fight off an entire world of them.
'Get your damned hands off my-'
Then Padme actually screamed. Kicking her legs, Ronin saw what the tendril was trying to do. He grabbed it from between her legs and dragged it off her body, then hauling on it with everything he had, he was surprised the Wailer yelled and retracted it sharply.
'Shit-' Padme breathed.
Her heart thundered. She could remember seeing the commander for the first time just a few weeks before. And she'd never imagined that she was going to end up mostly naked in a bathtub, being encouraged to mate with him by weird blood beasts. He was disturbingly warm against her back.
'I don't need your help,' Padme said to them. If this was how they had to play it, she realized a few things – like pride- might have to take a dirt bath. 'I have it all worked out. Have you ever heard of waiting, any of you? God almighty. Can't a girl get round to her first time in her own time!'
Conferring. Blinking. Then they retreated. Tensely, the leaf men waited while they crossed the room. Then as they slipped through, Ronin released her quickly. Padme backed up against the side and covered her face.
'Shit!' she breathed.
Ronin held both his hands up in surrender.
'I won't even remember what you said,' he claimed.
Padme gazed up at him.
'Thanks,' she said. 'But I will. I've got to get out of here before I lose more than my mind.'
'You're not losing it to me, kid. I mean. I forget.'
Padme caught the little smile at the corners of his lips. She pointed to the door.
'They don't agree,' she said. Then she burst into tears.
Ronin had to sympathize. Especially since it wasn't hard to find her attractive. He was concerned about a more...direct...intervention too. And he didn't want to stick around to find out how that went. Ronin climbed out and wiped the water off his face.
'Come on,' he said gently. 'So you're a virgin. It's not that big a deal.'
Trembling, she slipped her shirt back on and went for the wet clothes, too.
'You think you're the first girl with a secret?' he said to her back. 'Come on. I joined up when I was sixteen. I was captured by a Boggan patrol at seventeen. They raped the girls, predictably. And then they raped the boys. You have to survive it.'
Padme stared at him.
'You heard me. Or did you think life with the leaf men excluded that sort of thing? Sure they don't talk about it much in basic training. But it's a cold, hard world out there, Thistledown. The Boggans will sink to any depths to demoralise the men. That's a great way to do it.'
Padme shook her head.
'Come on. Up you get.'
'You were raped?'
Ronin pulled her to her feet.
'Think of it like a waking nightmare, Thistledown. When you wake up, it's over. If I were you, I'd find a nice boy and lose it, before the Boggans can use it against you.'
Ronin dived. He hauled on the bars. Planting a foot on either side of the drain, he pulled until his arms burned. Over and over, he dived and pulled, until the bolts worked loose. Then the drain cover burst free, and he could feel the suction. Whatever he'd done, it's broken the membranous seal beyond and the pool was emptying. He waited, until Padme came to his side. The water level went down.
'Go on,' he said. And she ducked under the water and was sucked down. He let go.
On the other end of the wild tunnel ride, Ronin sat on a heap of waste food and groaned.
'Oh God, this is disgusting.'
Padme, nearby, tipped her head back to look up.
'What is this place?'
'Looks like a great big waste container to me,' he said. 'Come on. Let's find an exit.'
Ronin slid down a long bank, and close behind him, Padme followed. When they reached the bottom, Ronin banged his sword lightly against the wall.
'Dig,' he said.
She shut her eyes a moment in disgust, then she did as he said.
Moving banana peels and fruit rinds, scooping away sticky old remnants and leaves. Ronin couldn't help but notice there was very little flesh down here, mostly just vegetable matter. He filed that away. And at the bottom of what turned out to be a new barrel was an opening through which the liquid dripped. He slid into it, stamping it down. Then the floor gave out and he was falling. He landed on a vegetable patch, barely lit.
'Come on, it's OK,' he ventured, and pulling Padme down, they went together down the lines of white cabbages and carrots.
'What is this?' she breathed.
'A garden,' he suggested. 'Underground. Upside down. Like us. What can they grow without the sun?'
'Maybe these plants don't need the sun,' Padme suggested.
'Maybe. Come on, down here.'
And sure enough, at the bottom of the plot, it emptied into a stone corridor. As they walked it became obvious that the corridors were built in a circular fashion, ascending through many levels and branching into multiple garden plots. Around the centre was a honeycomb interior, in which tiny sacks of crimson seemed to be developing within a thick, organic goo.
Padme peered at one. 'It's an embyro,' she said. She felt a bit sick at that.
Ronin looked closer. The pink light reflected in his eyes. Padme didn't look too closely.
'That's kind of weird. but-' he shifted a bit closer. 'Wow-'
'What do you mean, wow!'
'Didn't you see it? It twitched! Look at its eyes-'
Padme shook her head.
'I don't want to look at it. It's gross.'
Ronin came away from the embryo. They walked. Every so often a Wailer would come from one direction or the other. They'd duck or dive into whatever space they could find. Once they squashed together into a tiny alcove, and Ronin whispered,
'Are you OK?'
She nodded. In the low glow from the bioluminscent, white plants, she looked like she had stars in her eyes, and silver in her hair. Ronin found her beautiful. She reminded him so much of Tara.
They crept upward, always upward. Ronin began to entertain visions of the sun. But walking all day didn't seem to have gotten them any closer to the exit. It was then, sitting on a cherry pit that Ronin began to get a deep sense of disquiet. Peering around the hanging, sticky stalactites of rotting vegetable matter that seemed to make the floors and walls in this place, he gazed at the circular corridors.
'The corridors have gotten shorter,' he said.
'What do you mean?' Padme asked.
'I mean, look at how they intersect. The distance between each join is getting less and less,' then he stared at her. 'Shit.'
Padme looked down at her feet.
'Inverse,' he said. 'Everything was upside down. We need to go down, but up. Oh, my head.'
'We're deeper than we were before?'
Ronin looked at her.
Walking down felt worse. It was like trudging toward your doom. It confused the eyes and it made Padme wonder if she'd gone mad down here. Deep in this dark, dank place, where the only light came from the pods mounted behind the embryos cradles, it was like a stroll through hell. Every so often one of them would twitch, and Padme would feel quite sick.
Ronin grabbed her hand and dragged her into an alcove when two Wailers came slipping past. When they were gone, the pair emerged again and continued their twisted descent.
'I've cracked up,' she whispered, in the dark of a long tunnel. 'Ronin. I've cracked up.'
He turned to her in the red light cast by baby bugs.
'You're still alive,' he said. 'I am too. Let's keep it alive, at least. We can worry about our sanity later.'
Padme just nodded. Deeper, and deeper they went. Spirally downwards, Padme began to wear thin. She started to wonder if maybe Ronin was in on all this, and he was secretly taking her deeper. Deeper into the netherworld. Inverse Universe, she thought. Maybe down here. Oh GOD. Padme stopped dead. Understanding dawned.
'What? What is it?' Ronin turned.
'Oh God, Ronin-'
Inside the sweaty little space between two stalactites and a wall, Padme covered her mouth with her hands and tried not to hyperventilate. Her eyes had gone wide, he whole body tense. Ronin grabbed the back of her neck.
'It's inverse!' she breathed, 'Oh God, it's all inside out! Upside down! An Inverse Universe!'
Ronin looked her up and down.
'How?' he asked softly.
'I don't know. I don't know!'
'Shhh. Calm down, calm down,' he rubbed her arms. 'Come on. If it is, then we know how to get out?'
Then Padme rocked to and fro on her heels. She looked down at the squishy ground. She bent. Ronin made a noise, but she ignored him and she looked closer. She ran her hand over it.
'It's fruit!' she almost yelled.
'Shhh!' Ronin joined her.
'It's fruit! It's...we're in a nest. It's made of what they eat. Have you seen a single bone, a single dead guy!'
'No,' he admitted.
'They're eating the stuff that's alive up there and bringing it down here. Only when they get here, it turns inside out, and upside down! Life becomes death. Death becomes life. Oh...Oh God, I know what happened to the soldiers!'
'The embryos. God that makes more sense than I can get my head around,' he said. 'Life becomes death and vice versa. Why didn't they kill us?'
Padme shook her head.
'I don't know. Maybe we're dead and we just don't know it yet.'
'Well if we are, I'm going home to tell my Ma I'm a dead man.'
Padme had to smile. She stood up.
'Or maybe...they're trying to make life?'
'Oh shit,' Ronin cracked a smile. He gestured between them. 'Life! They're obsessed with life. That's why they wanted us to...well.'
Padme nodded, victoriously.
'We we've got to get out before they turn us into a farm for-' he gestured with his fingers, 'tiny little things.'
'Ronin-' Padme screwed up her face. 'You do have a sense of humour.'
'Of course I do!' he said, as she walked toward the door. He rubbed a hand over his skull, followed her. 'I've got to work on my reputation,' he mumbled.
'Down!' Padme breathed, pointing to her feet. 'As far down as we can go.'
Ronin smirked as he jogged along behind her. Watching her run was definitely quite nice, he thought. Then she danced into an alcove and he slipped in behind her, as Wailers walked by. They carried a small, newborn red body between them. It moved its tendrils and reached for them as they went. The leaf men watched them pass. Padme cast a glance up at Ronin.
'That's so sweet,' she said. 'Not.'
He found himself wanting to laugh.
'It could be quite beautiful. If they hadn't been trying to get me to rape you.'
'I don't think they wanted you to rape me,' Padme said. 'They wanted me to consent.'
Then, standing at the deepest point of the Wailers hive, Ronin looked up at the dome ceiling. Padme tipped her head back.
'We need to get up there,' she said.
Ronin put a hand on the multicolored wall. Then he put a foot on it, and in a moment of madness he trusted this weird place to give him more of that odd gravity. Sure enough, he walked up the wall at the waist, his eyes tightly closed.
'Am I falling?' he smiled.
'No, you look silly though.'
He opened one eye, then the other.
'Get up here, let's see how you look.'
Nervously, Padme followed. Soon they were standing upside down, looking down at what should be up.
'Dig,' Padme said.
Ronin dragged chunks of rotten fruit flesh away, and tossing them side they slowly made a hole in the ceiling. Then as they went deeper, the fruit got blacker and blacker, and tiny grains of soil began to mix with it. Padme dug her fingers in. Then she pulled her knife and used it to loosen the slimy, disgusting mass so she could drag it out with her hands. Widening the hole, Ronin began to feel something. Grass.
Then a moment later, it protruded from the grass in another world, and Ronin could feel the sun on his skin.
A minute later, he was dragging himself through a dirty hole, covered in bits of rotten fruit, and emerging into a familiar world. He reached down and pulled Padme through. She stood unsteadily, as if waiting for gravity to change its mind, and gazed up at the distant sun.
'Oh thank God!' she said, opening her arms to soak up the rays. 'Thank God!'
And she was hardly surprised when Ronin sank to one knee and whispered a now familiar prayer to his Gods. She didn't say anything. She was happy calling the sun hers for now. She was so happy to finally see its face.
'Come on,' he touched her arm. 'Let's get out of her and find some shelter. We need to work out where we are.'
Padme followed, jogging over green grass. She'd never seen this place either, but it hardly mattered. She was closer to home than she'd imagined she'd ever be again.
Inside the hole, within the Inverse Universe, Padme's knife lay abandoned on the ceiling, beside a hole just big enough for two bodies to get through. Slipping into the deepest part of their hive, two Wailers looked up. They extended red tendrils and began to talk. Before long they were joined by ten more. And then more and more, began to flood downwards. They started to climb.
Chapter 3 coming soon. ;)