Carol batted a friendly hand toward the boy’s voice. “I’ll be fine. I could use a little walk around the place, anyway. Been settin on these bones a little too long.” He pulled on his pipe again. The clinking of dishes in the washing sink had ceased; the children had all moved to their tucked-away beds. The candlelight reflected from the painted-on pupils of Carol’s eyes. “Dark now,” he said. “Best to head out first light. Let’s not let the little ones in on this; don’t want them to get their hopes up about nothin. Could be it’s just a trick of the light; a well-used game trail through the Periphery. No offense to the girls here; it’s easy to get confused in these woods. They got a lot of tricks.” He thumped his pipe against his dungarees, the smoking ash falling to the floor. “Could be, though, it’s our ticket out.”
Michael eyed the two sisters as he smoked. Cynthia stirred her tea. Carol ground his boot heel into the scatter of ash he’d made. “Could be,” he repeated.
Sir Timothy’s Conveyance to the Beyond
The moles spared no expense or extravagance for the funeral of the High Master Commander Sir Timothy Mole. He was borne from the fortress in the ceremonial armor of his grandfather, on a pallet covered in the greenest lichen. The townsfolk lined the labyrinthine city streets to watch the procession pass by. The air was filled with the mournful cries of the citizenry, so great was their appreciation to Sir Timothy and his valiant cohort of Knights Underwood for saving them from the domination of Dennis the Usurper, who was now serving a life sentence in the deepest cell of the Fortress of Fanggg’s dungeon. A petite brass band led the way; they played a loping fanfare that sounded to Curtis’s ears as being both joyous and heartbreaking at the same time. The two Overdwellers watched on from the open plaza beyond the outer wall of the city.
The parade followed a well-worn path to a part of the chamber Curtis had not seen before. About thirty feet from the walls of the city was a massive pool, fed by a steady drip from the unseen ceiling. It occurred to Curtis that this must be the pool that was being referenced when the moles spoke of the passage of time: “this many emptyings and refillings of the pool.” Moles, young and old, lined the path from the front gate to the water’s banks. When the parade had arrived there, a few words were spoken by the deceased knight’s sister, the Sibyl Gwendolyn, before the pallet was pushed into the water. An eddying current took the body away from the mourners into the farthest dark of the chamber. The knight’s soul, so said the Sibyl, had gone on to join its brethren in the world of the Overdwellers.
As the congregation returned to the city to host a banquet at the recently liberated Fortress of Fanggg (for which the reconvened Mole Council had proposed a name change to the Fortress of Prurtimus—in honor of the three Overdwellers who had been so instrumental in Dennis’s defeat), the Sibyl tarried at the feet of Prue and Curtis, nodding up to them as she approached. Septimus, finally freed of his armor, bowed low to see her.
“It was a beautiful ceremony,” said Prue, breaking the silence.
The mole nodded solemnly.
“Sorry for your loss,” added Curtis.
“He’s in the Overworld now, at peace.” This was Prue; she was sensing the deep sadness in the Sibyl’s comportment. She’d spent the entire service searching for the appropriate thing to say.
She was surprised to see Gwendolyn make a dismissive wave. “PISH,” she said. “IT’S ALL HOGWASH. I DON’T KNOW WHERE HE’S GOING, BUT I DON’T SEE MUCH EVIDENCE OF HIS SOUL TAKING FLIGHT TO THE VERY CORPOREAL ABOVE-GROUND. THAT’S JUST SUPERSTITION, AS FAR AS I CAN TELL. YOU DON’T HAVE TO KEEP UP THE MASQUERADE WITH ME.”
Curtis was taken aback. “Aren’t you, like, the religious leader?”
“I’M A PROPHETESS,” said the Sibyl. “KIND OF THE SAME, KIND OF DIFFERENT. AS FAR AS I CAN TELL, MY JOB IS TO SEEK THE TRUTH, BY WHICH I CAN BETTER COUNSEL MY LEADERS. AND IN MY SEARCHINGS, I’VE NOT HAD A WHOLE LOT OF EVIDENCE THAT SUCH A THING AS THE OVERWORLD EXISTS. AT LEAST NOT IN THE WAY THAT WE UNDERWOOD MOLES SEE IT.”
“So why did you …,” began Prue.
Curtis finished for her: “Say all those things back there, about his afterlife?”
“TRADITION,” said the Sibyl. “FAITH. IT’S AN AWFULLY BEAUTIFUL IDEA, ISN’T IT? I’M FOND OF THE POETRY OF IT. AS LONG AS IT’S NOT DOING ANYONE ANY HARM, I DON’T SEE THE REASON FOR PULLING THE VEIL AWAY. BESIDES, I’VE NEVER BEEN TO THIS OVERWORLD OF YOURS. DON’T THINK I’D BE ABLE TO SAY ANYTHING DEFINITIVELY UNTIL I HAD EVIDENCE.” The Mole marked the two children’s confusion. “IT’S COMPLICATED,” she said. “SOMETHING I’M WORKING ON. HOWEVER: I CAN SAY FOR CERTAIN THAT IT’S NICE TO BE BREATHING CLEAN CAVERN AIR AGAIN. I’VE BEEN LOCKED UP IN THAT DUNGEON SO LONG, AT THE BECK AND CALL OF THAT IDIOT, DENNIS MOLE.”
“Right,” said Curtis. “At least … that.”
“WALK WITH ME,” suggested the Sibyl. “I’M NOT SURE OUR MOLE FOOD WILL SATIATE YOUR OVERDWELLER APPETITES, BUT THERE IS A BANQUET TO BE HAD. AND I’M SURE YOU’LL BE EXPECTED THERE; YOU ARE GREAT HEROES IN THIS STORY.”
She approached the City of Moles, carefully watching each footfall so as to avoid adding any undue bloodshed to the chaos.
They did so, though walking with the mole was more akin to walking in slow motion as they allowed the Sibyl to keep pace with their gargantuan steps. Septimus strode proudly at her side, the darning needle still hanging at his waist. It was the only remnant of his battle attire.
“I SUSPECT YOU’LL BE WANTING DIRECTIONS TO THE REALM OF THE SOUTHERN OVERDWELLERS, CORRECT?” asked Gwendolyn as they walked. “BARTHOLOMEW HAS TOLD ME AS MUCH. THAT WAS THE DEAL?”
“Yes,” said Curtis. “Thanks for remembering.”
“We have friends—Overdwellers—who have gone missing,” said Septimus. “Long story; but we have to find them. Somehow.”
“And you know the way?” asked Prue.
“I DO. AS I SAID: IN MY SEARCHINGS, MY TRAVELS, I’VE DISCOVERED MANY SECRETS HIDDEN IN THIS PLACE WE CALL THE UNDERWOOD. IT WAS I, IN FACT, WHO FIRST FOUND THE ARCHITECT AND BROUGHT HIM TO THE RUINED CITY OF MOLES. THIS WAS BEFORE I WAS MADE SIBYL, WHEN I WAS JUST A WANDERER, CURIOUS ABOUT THE WORLD THAT SURROUNDED ME.”
“Who was he, this architect?” asked Prue. It was a question that had been swirling in her brain, ever since she’d clapped eyes on the City of Moles, with its incredible array of man-made junk repurposed as buildings, monuments, and thoroughfares.
“HE WAS AN OVERDWELLER, LIKE YOURSELF. I FOUND HIM IN ONE OF THE DEEPEST RECESSES OF THE UNDERWOOD. FINDING LIFE IN THAT DARK ABYSS WAS THE LAST THING I EXPECTED, I CAN TELL YOU. I’D NEVER GONE SO DEEP IN MY EXPLORATIONS. YOU CAN IMAGINE MY SURPRISE. HE
WAS IN TERRIBLE SHAPE; HE’D BEEN CAST OUT BY HIS PEOPLE. WHAT’S MORE, WHOEVER HAD DECIDED HIS FATE HAD ALSO TAKEN THE VERY ODIOUS EXTRA MEASURE OF SEVERING HIS HANDS FROM HIS ARMS.”
“Eugh,” said Prue, reflexively.