The crowds stared at them, of course. Even wrapped in a blanket, it was obvious just what the body was. Parading through the street with a corpse simply was not done, but Sanura’s uniform parted the crowd despite any doubts they had.

            The walk to the groundlings’ lot was not long. No place where humans lived could be too far from one. They had long cohabited with the humans, gathering the garbage and eating the waste. In a city like Tagerden, they were essential to keeping the population from wading through their own muck. Only once had humanity made the mistake of chasing them from a city, and the howls of the dead still haunted the streets of Zurui.

            The west side was part of the newer section of Tagerden, so the mounds had not managed to reached the heights that the groundling lots near the dock had. Still, they were taller than any human, although partially hidden from the street by a solid wooden wall. A squad of blood knights and a border beast could easily hide in there, invisible among the piles except for the sounds of battle.

            The real sounds at the groundlings’ lot were much more mundane. Humans in ragged clothes combed through the piles of broken wooden cabinets, rusting pots, and crumbling bricks, searching for an overlooked coin or some reclaimable treasure. The long caws of seagulls filled the air as the birds picked over the few scraps missed by the lot’s owners. The short, swooping howls of the groundlings punctuated the birds’ chatter.

            Celeres followed Sanura through the gap in the fence, puffing a bit from carrying the body. Directing them further in, Khenet took the lead until the street was invisible, if not inaudible.

            “This will do,” she said, gesturing to Celeres. Gratefully, he settled the dead man on the ground.

            Raising her head, Khenet cupped her hands over her mouth and squawked out a call identical to the sounds of the groundlings. Then, she waited with a small frown while her eyes flicked over a nearby pile of junk. Sanura pivoted slowly, scanning the area for witnesses. Celeres stood awkwardly, looking back and forth between the women.

            After a couple of minutes, a groundling loped down the path, its claws scoring the dirt. The light of the sun glinted off its brown scales, highlighting its sleek canine body. Shiny black eyes peered at them above a wide snout and measured their intentions.

            Khenet bowed deeply to it. “Greetings, burrowing one. I am Khenet. We have need of your services.”

            The groundling considered her calmly. “I am Yudetamago. We already supply our services to the city, which gives us everything we desire. What more requires our attention?”

            Khenet gestured to the body on the ground. “We have an object we need disposed of promptly.”

            The groundling pulled aside the blanket with its front paw and examined its contents. “This is a human,” he said, bluntly.

            “A hirudin, actually,” Khenet corrected.

            “Same thing. Yellow tabards say we’re supposed to let them know when we run across dead people,” he said, looking speculatively at Sanura.

            “A good procedure, but this is a special case. The remains of this person would inconvenience them. We are merely trying to make things easier for all.”

            “Indeed,” the groundling said dryly.

            “We also need passage through your tunnels,” Khenet pressed on.

            “No. Take your deceased human and go elsewhere.”

            “Now, let’s not be unreasonable. There’s a long tradition of travelers purchasing passage from your folk. We can surely reach an accommodation.”

            “I have no interest in allowing monkeys to traipse through our sacred paths,” Yudetamago hissed, baring his fangs.

            Khenet’s face flushed a furious dark blue. “Now listen to me, you little shit-eater. This day or another, I will find myself again in the heart of Tiran. I will seek out Tamashii and tell her of Yudetamago’s inhospitality. She will ensure your next molt is your last.”

            The groundling drew back, shocked at her knowledge of the sacred ancestor, a secret long withheld from humans.

            Khenet continued more reasonably, “Now, dealing with us comes with its profits. After all, imposing on strangers is always facilitated by providing gifts.”

            From the folds of her robe, Khenet pulled out a vial filled with a thick, cloudy liquid. She took out the stopper and waved it under the groundling’s nose, giving it a good whiff.

            Even from where she stood, Sanura could smell its strong sulfuric stench. “What is that?” she asked.

            “Dragon’s oil,” Yudetamago hissed in delight.

            “From Maxilar of the Boulder Crushing Claw,” Khenet confirmed. It’s yours if you let us use your entrance into the earth and dispose of the body. Oh, and these, as well.” she said, casually tossing out the heads of Saith and Braen.

            Yudetamago looked nervously between the dead and Sanura, trying to decide if it was a trap. A final sniff of the dragon oil convinced him it was worth the risk. “Deal,” he snarled, grabbing the vial from Khenet. “I’ll take you to the tunnels now.”

            “Actually, we’ll need a few minutes,” Khenet said.

            The groundling’s eyes turned suspiciously to Sanura. “Call out when you’re ready,” he said. “If you leave the lot, the deal is off.”

            “Of course,” Khenet said soothingly.

            Grumbling, Yudetamago slung the body onto his back and scurried off awkwardly on three legs, Khenet’s dragon oil clenched in the fourth.

            “What’s the delay?” Sanura asked.

            “Oh, we just need an item or two before we go. I should be able to find it here,” Khenet said.

            For the first time since leaving Didrika, Celeres spoke. “Why did he want the dragon’s oil that badly?”

            “Groundling molts tend to be rather difficult. The oil should help him and the others in this lot survive their next ones. Now, unless you want to spend all day here, I suggest you let me get moving.”

            Celeres frowned, but let her go.

            “This is crap,” he said when Khenet was out of earshot.

            “Easy, beautiful,” Sanura reassured him.

            “Break it, Sanura, this is going to get everyone killed!”

            “Maybe,” she admitted. “Do you have any better ideas?”

            “No,” he sighed.

            “Then why worry about it?”

            “I don’t like how we just left Didri.”

            “Staying wouldn’t have helped, and I wouldn’t want to take an egg on the road if we didn’t have to. All the choices left are bad. Sometimes, you just have to make a decision and pray.”

            Celeres grunted.

            Sanura said, “We’re a little light on items for traveling. We might as well look around here for anything useful until Khenet gets back.”

            Pulling himself from his worries, Celeres joined her in searching the collection of junk. The groundlings ate all the softer organic waste, so the only scent that rose from the pile was the soft mustiness of rotting wood. Together, they hefted a scorched chest of drawers across the path. Sanura plunged into the exposed area while Celeres carefully considered how to untangle his section. Soon, broken chairs, rotting clothes, and a twisted iron gate had joined the drawers on the other side. Still, the area had long been picked over for useful items, and fifteen minutes of searching did little beyond making them sweaty and causing them to sneeze.

            Finally, Sanura pulled a rusted dagger from the pile. “Here,” she said, handing it to Celeres.

            He took it and said, “Well, that’s something, I suppose.”

            After a few more minutes of digging, Khenet rejoined them. “Alright, let’s go,” she said shortly.

            “What did you get?” Celeres asked.

            “Something to light the way,” Khenet said, holding up a small rusty lantern. “It gets pretty dark in the tunnels. That’s something else to delay pursuit. Hirudin don’t like the dark.”

            Sanura and Celeres followed Khenet as she walked into the lot. With his first stride, Celeres kicked a marble that had been bounced loose by their digging. He paused just long enough to pick it up.

            “Do we have enough stuff to get through the tunnels?” Sanura asked.

            “We’ll only be underground for a day or so. After that, I’ll be able to take care of things.

            “You’ll have to stow you armor for a while,” Khenet said, glancing back at Sanura. “You wouldn’t want to wear it underground, anyway.”

            “What if we get into a fight down there?”

            “There’s nothing down there but groundlings. They won’t bother us. Shouldn’t, anyway.”

            Celeres grumbled for a while at that answer.

            Yudetamago waited for them at the entrance. It was a small thing, just a hole at the bottom of one of the piles, barely large enough for a human to crawl through. “Ready?” the groundling asked.

            “Almost,” Khenet said, setting down the lantern. While Celeres helped Sanura out of her armor, Khenet pulled out a small, dimly glowing petal. She opened the lantern and placed the petal on the oil reservoir. As the oil crept up its stem, the petal burst into a radiant glow.

            Celeres, taking off his belt, glanced at the light. “Taking flowers from the glowing garden is illegal.”

            Khenet snorted in amusement.

            Sanura tied off the top of the sack with the belt, then looped the other end around Celeres’ leg. “I’ll follow you. Don’t get stuck,” she told him.

            Khenet said, “Alright, let’s go.”

            Khenet lead them to the entrance and crawled in, holding the lantern in front of her. Celeres got down and followed, the bag clattering awkwardly behind him. Sanura watched nervously as the bag just squeezed through the entrance. Fighting the flutter in her stomach, Sanura settled herself on the ground and shimmied into the hole.

            It was every bit as bad as she feared. The groundlings had built the tunnel for themselves, not humans. The ground scrapped her with stones, while the ceiling pressed down on her, threatening to steal her air. Little of the light from the lantern reached her past Khenet, Celeres, and the bag. Sanura did not know whether to curse the fact that she did not know how far she had to go, or to be thankful that she could only see shadows of how tight the tunnel got. Finally, she squeezed her eyes shut and concentrated on pulling herself forward while trying to control her ragged breathing.

            After a half hour, the sweat ran freely down her face, despite the growing chill of the ground. Wiping it away with her dirt encrusted hands helped little. Even closed, her eyes stung from the salt. Vaguely, she heard Khenet calling back down the tunnel and Celeres responding. After some back and forth, Celeres shifted to speak to Sanura. “How are you doing, brave?”

            “Fine,” she said shortly.

            “Khenet says we’re about halfway through this section. She wants to know if we want to take a break or keep moving.”

            “I’d rather keep moving,” Sanura said, her voice tight.

            “Okay, I’ll tell her.” The young man paused, then asked with concern, “Are you sure you okay?”

            “Celeres, let’s just not stop, alright?”

            “Sure. Hang in there, brave,” he said and turned forward and spoke with Khenet.

            Grimly, Sanura followed the renewed clatter of the sack, crawling forward by one hand and the next.

            A change in the scrapes and grunts of her companions warned her that they had almost reached the end. Khenet’s steady shuffle ended first, finishing with a long skid and a lessening of the light. Then the constant clinking of the armor sped up before ending with a few final bangs while the light seeped into Sanura’s now unobstructed view.

            Khenet grabbed Sanura’s wrists as they extended out of the hole and pulled her clear. The soldier remained on the ground, watching Celeres remove the belt from his leg while she caught her breath.

            Celeres picked Sanura up, sat with her against the wall, and put an arm around her. While she caught her breath, he noted that the tunnel here was much larger than what they had just crawled through. Three soldiers could march down it side by side. The walls were scored with deep gouges, as if some awful creature had gnawed at them. Near the hole they had exited were five other low openings, looking like oversized rat holes in the steady light of the petal.

            “What did this?” Celeres asked, perplexed.

            “Groundlings,” Khenet answered, dusting dirt from her robe.

            “No way. Groundlings aren’t that big,” he protested.

            “They head underground as they get older and larger. They start living off dirt and stone instead of garbage.”


            Khenet examined Sanura. “Are you ready to go?” she asked gently.

            Sanura look up, not really seeing her at first. Finally, Khenet’s words and the chill of the ground began to sink in. “We should probably keep moving,” she said slowly. “The temperature down here will make us sick if we don’t.”

            Celeres helped her to her feet, then slung the bag over his shoulder with a grunt. Pushing away their mounting exhaustion, the lovers followed Khenet into the dark.