"I have no intention of reneging on our agreement. Select a member of your tribe to protect this book and you may hold it until hibernation. It goes to our tribe at that time. Any bruin from your tribe has unlimited free access to this book but we safeguard it. I know we must divulge any secrets we learn from this specific book, a clause that binds your tribe if you discover something first. That too is per our treaty."
The four bruins stood as one, each dusting themselves off after their undignified collapse. Their spokesman took possession of the book in spite of the many protests voiced by the other staff members. Lockvor demanded silence and once restored, apologized for his colleague's comments. The bruins withdrew.
Lockvor faced the collective wrath of his staff. "We break a treaty negotiated by the porcupines and our tribe can never expect another morph to trust our word. We will stand alone and without protection. Against another tribe we might prevail, but an endless series of wars will destroy everything we have achieved since the Dark Times. All our discoveries, destroyed forever. Even a treasure as priceless as that book cannot justify a genocidal war. I'll not have it!"
Every member of the staff sat, their heads bowed. The resulting silence settled on all like a wet woolen blanket. None spoke. Plezwerk reached into his backpack and withdrew one of the ancient book of maps.
"Your Chief Digger asked what the inside pocket held. First time I cracked that shell, I broke it. Second one, I was more careful. Take it. I give it to you as a gift; perhaps you can translate the lettering 'mac orb pc.' It baffles me as I cannot think what the missing letters might be. Maybe it's an unknown human language."
Plezwerk passed the object to the first rat. As he said, one side was all white with faded lettering. Only the strange letters he read remained visible. One rat extracted a strange glass that fit to his eye and extended out the length of three fingers. He touched it to the white side and slid it around for several moments before he relinquished the large disk. A few rats examined the shiny silvery side while the stove's fire turned the surface into a colorful rainbow to everyone else in the room. The staff even allowed Calator an opportunity to examine the disk. When all had their chance at viewing the object, Lockvor took it.
"Your generosity creates an onus on us. One we must repay. Calator said you intend going further south, into unexplored territory. Tell us your reasons and we will do all possible helping you."
Plezwerk lifted the cup of tea, savoring its warmth. "When I left my tribe, I wanted to reach the Known Lands. My goal, nothing more than learning what happened to the morph races living there since our exile. The Inn resolved that mystery. It left me unfulfilled."
"How so," asked Lockvor
"Stories of the Before Time when our Makers ruled this world speak of marvels beyond belief. Back at the Inn, I heard of a fox who found a human military base that was intact. A ram spoke of a weapon that caused terrible pain without doing physical damage. Both stories sounded recent. Once I knew my first destination was Eugene Oregon, I searched my book for a place most likely to contain human treasures."
He pulled out one of the books he carried and motioned the others to draw closer. Plezwerk pointed to the overview map and the location of Eugene Oregon. Pages turned and he showed the rats a more detailed map of the city and the surrounding area. A reference number took him to a third map. With a firm tap to the page, he indicated his final destination.
Calator read the map. "A military training facility? Your sense of logic is sound. If two other morphs have found treasures and marvels at other military bases, one marked on a map must contain wonders beyond comprehension. Makes me wish I was going with you."
Questions regarding his quest came from every rat. Lockvor called for order. That is when the real work started. First came inquiries regarding necessary equipment for a trip there and back. Plezwerk admitted he never thought that far ahead. In his haste to discover something, he overlooked the logistics of such a mission.
Fortunately, Lockvor knew about such things as he led the expedition that found this ancient city. His first list considered just the basics needed. The one for just food and equipment soon exceeded what Plezwerk could ever carry alone. That realization had the rats debating who and how many must accompany the squirrel. With each additional morph, the rats recalculated the supplies needed.
Plezwerk didn't want to admit it, but his ambitious quest was doomed to failure. He never planned further than the next moment, thinking this adventure no more strenuous than a simple hike in the woods. Seeing this dig site convinced him otherwise. If he pressed on by himself he might become hopelessly lost. If he expected to come back with any treasure his quest had to extend well beyond winter. Doing this in unexplored territory made success near impossible at best. Once again, he felt defeated.
However, Lockvor sounded too optimistic. He convinced Plezwerk that this first trip had to do nothing more than scout the area in hopes of finding the human base. They had the maps as a guide but the conversion from human miles to what morphs used varied. Lockvor had the experience navigating unfamiliar territory with maps from a time so far removed that landmarks changed. In spite of such difficulties, he found this human settlement.
"As much as it pains me to say this," Lockvor said, "we will need those bruins. The problem is our friend here is not a party to our treaty. If something is found at this military base, its ownership will be disputed. Are you willing to loose anything found if the porcupines later rule against you?"
The Chief Digger froze in place, his paws held up towards the sky. Like the young diggers, his mouth hung open and a look of utter amazement could still be seen in the dim light of the campfire. The one exception, Calator. He placed both paws over his face as if that simple act hid him from those still stunned by Plezwerk's outburst.
"As a matter of fact," said the Chief Digger, "that is indeed what we discovered. It took us all winter solving that one mystery and you say it as if you question our integrity. How is it you know this when we are yet to make our findings public?"
Calator never moved, he just spoke to the nearby fire as if it asked the question. "My companion has two Rands in his possession, both in mint condition. Last night he showed me our destination and how we got the name incorrect."
"Nay, sir, we did not get the name wrong. What we had was incomplete information. Hence the name Eug On. Incomplete information can be amended, which is what we did. Mistakes are wrong and unacceptable under any circumstance."
There was do denying the defensive posture of the rat. No amount of logic would sway him to see his initial blunder. He would never admit he jumped to a conclusion years back and that his mistake took on a life of its own. Plezwerk suspected he might need this fellow's support once he got to the dig site. Good thing being the son of a tribal elder taught him how to placate the rat's overinflated ego.
"It takes a greater morph than I to realize incomplete information can lead to errors. It also takes an intelligent fellow to amend what was thought to be true for what is now known as factual. You are such a morph and I bow to your superiority in this matter." Plezwerk said.
Success. The Chief Digger's posture relaxed. The fellow sat on a tree stump, his head shaking back and forth at a slow pace. When he stopped moving, Plezwerk waited. If the fellow rejected his explanation, he had an entrenched enemy. Good fortune smiled on him when the rat glance his way.
"Two Rands? Both in mint condition? Than you can answer the question that has baffled many. What is in the book's inside pocket?"
"We have a long journey tomorrow and I don't feel like repeating myself, so let's wait until we reach camp and I can tell those who need to know at the same time," Plezwerk said.
Though reluctant to let him go, the Chief Digger agreed with the suggestion. One by one the other rats returned to their tents, tired but eager to continue the journey. Plezwerk expected at least one visitor during the night. Maybe even one with either a blade for his throat or his maps. Either possibility made the night less than restful.
Morning came and things went from peaceful to hectic. Tents went down and everything had to be packed. Meals were eaten in haste as the sun signaled the beginning of another day. The way the Chief Digger kept pushing for more speed, he knew the rat's sense of curiosity needed satisfaction. Whenever the fellow came within whispering range, he fired a volley of questions that Plezwerk fended off without insulting the older rat's position. It made any observations of the surrounding area impossible.
When the Chief Digger announced they had arrived at their destination, it was a bit of a disappointment. Plezwerk didn't know what to expect but somehow this seemed anticlimactic. The area to the south consisted of a cleared forest. Bruins pulled wagons that shifted fallen logs and mounds of debris to the camp. He saw nothing that came close to the term excavation or anything matching the marvel of a legendary human city.
Where he anticipated a virtual village of rats, he found three camps. One consisted of a single rough log building that could withstand anything the weather threw their way. He counted a dozen bruins moving about this area. Across a dirt road, four log shacks, each half the size of those used by the bruins. Rats coming from the field went to one of these buildings before returning to their assigned location. The last camp sprang up a distance away and was nothing more than two or three dozen one-morph tents arranged in rows.
Introductions were made between the newest diggers and the staff. Like the night before, the rat staff insisted Plezwerk tell them everything once the Chief Digger mentioned the two mint condition Rands. At least the camp's leader, a rat named Lockvor had the decency to forestall any additional inquiries until the staff had a chance to enjoy the evening meal. Lockvor considered Plezwerk's books an engraved invitation and insisted that he join them. As a courtesy, Calator was asked to attend.
The dinner rivaled that of the Inn when it came to quantity. Quality was another issue but one Plezwerk didn't raise. It was better than the dry rations served on the raft but lacked much in taste. Still, hot food trumped whatever the ringtails served their passengers.
Between courses, conversations swirled about the cabin. Lockvor led the conversation, discussing anticipated finds at different dig sites around the human city. Others speculated about the significance of items recovered. Theories regarding some unknown artifact often caused sharp divides among the staff. If anything became too heated, Lockvor intervened and all agreed to either change topics or wait until additional information became available.
When all those sitting at the table finished their speculation on the latest find, they shifted their attention to their guest of honor. His Elders mentioned ancient stories about the predatory stare rats had. It came nowhere close to the looks he received from the principle members of the dig. Lockvor had the look of a morph too long denied a decent meal and now found himself at a feast. Plezwerk repeated the story of his tribe's discovery of the cave, his exploration, his treasures, and the reason behind his self imposed exile.
Lockvor leaned back. "Calator is right, beyond this dig your riddles would confound most of those within our tribe. To those who have been here, it is as understandable as the rising of the sun."
Several rats at the table nodded. Lockvor explained how an unknown disaster destroyed the Maker's city, leaving three types of ruins. Most buildings imploded, collapsing into impressive mounds of rubble. Sifting through these yielded few artifacts. Other structures snapped like a giant tree with the upper portion lying across a long stretch of ground. The stump of these buildings remained exposed to the weather and like those felled by the disaster, eventually became nothing more than shards of building material. These had more artifacts and some remained in reasonable condition.
The third type resembled Plezwerk's winter home. The unknown disaster caused the very bedrock to shift downward, sucking the structure into the hole. Depending on the magnitude of the shift, several floors or the entire building dropped below the ground level. Lockvor speculated that the building housing the squirrels shifted to the bottom of the hill it originally stood upon, burying it in a near watertight container. When a landslide from a neighboring hill covered the site, it preserved everything until its discovery.
"That explains the uniformity of the structure's overall shape, but does nothing to explain the interior," inquired Plezwerk
Lockvor took a sip of his drink before continuing. "Tall buildings had rectangular cells used by our Makers. They had doors on them of wood, which rotted away. I'm willing to bet the walls were just as rotten."
A simple nod had the rat leader continue. "Humans used stairwells built at either end for travel between levels. These have ramps that circle a wall. Like yours, we have found them dangerous. What you call 'demon's eyes' are elevator shafts. Speculation is that these moved heavy objects between floors, items too large for the stairwells. We have never found what was contained in any of these shafts due to the structure's dilapidated condition. I'm betting the answers we seek about elevator shafts might be contained in your winter home."
"What of my treasures, any idea what they are?"
"We have found wooden writing sticks, useable when stored in a dry, airtight box. Nobody has any idea what the metal tip does; perhaps its function broke over time. Different writing implements of all sizes and shapes can be found. Why so many similar objects for the same purpose confounds us. Since none work. nobody gets too excited finding one. As to those metal disks, they might be a medium of exchange. None have ever been found in such great condition but we do find them scattered about the area."
Calator interrupted Lockvor. "Any idea about the location where our tree hugger found his greatest treasure."
"Ah yes, the Rands. Simplicity itself," Lockvor said. "The metal boxes he describes are like the wooden file boxes our tribe keeps back home. Most human files are locked and have proven difficult opening. The ones we do open contained rotting papers. His were in a storage room the Makers considered important for some unknown reason. The closed metal door created an airtight seal, which is why it was so well preserved."
"That wasn't the only reason," Plezwerk responded. "Each book was in a hard transparent shell. Very difficult opening."
Lockvor ears perked up when Plezwerk described what encased the Rand. He darted out of the room without saying a word to any. Nobody had a chance to speculate on his departure as he returned at a running pace. With a flick of his wrist, he sent the object he held skidding across the table.
Plezwerk had no way of opening the clear shell attached to the book while he sat at the table and said as much. Lockvor offered him the use of whatever equipment he needed if he would open it now. He considered the idea and quickly agreed. At least it stopped Lockvor from looking at him as if he was dessert. Another rat rushed outside with the list of tools needed.
A paw saw heated over a cooking stove took time. Patience warred with expectations as the rats fidgeted in their chairs. Calator agreed to using the paw bellows to increase the heat of the fire. After a dozen passes, the saw's teeth wore down to worthless stubs. Plezwerk grabbed a second saw and continued attacking the clear cover in the same spot. When he discarded the fourth saw, he announced success.
Near the middle, he had a crack no bigger than his fingernail. Hammer and chisel came into play. Plezwerk initially tapped at the crack, driving the chisel towards the floor. Every rat expressed some worry that he might damage the treasure but didn't intervene. Little by little, the crack expanded. Whenever he rested, Plezwerk tried inserting two metal rods into the opening. At last he got one rod on each side of the book.
"We need a winch to pull this apart. With enough tension, it will crack," said an exhausted Plezwerk.
The Chief Digger stepped outside saying he knew what he needed. When he returned, four bruins followed him into the cabin. A strong knot on each rod and two bruins on each rope stood ready. When the Chief Digger nodded, the four bruins pulled with all their combined weight and strength. At first, the book hung in midair. The loud shriek preceded the shattering of the transparent cover, sending four bruins onto their rumps. The book dropped at Plezwerk's feet.
Lockvor picked up the book before anyone else could grab it, "We found this in a buried building called 'Fraternity.' Other books inside this buried structure rotted into paper mulch, but not this one. 'Third Year Algebra,' I wonder what secrets it holds."
One bear stood up and pointed at the camp's leader. "Per our contract, since we were the ones responsible for acquiring this specific treasure item, our two tribes share its contents. Or do you intend to contest our claim?"
Anyone who writes knows the editing never ends. Same with my latest story. Chapter 11 has been eliminated as it adds nothing to the story. That means the last chapter will be posted on May 24, 2017. To those who are reading, my thanks and appreciation.
An unexpected gust of wind caught the raft's sail, shifting it towards the distant shore. The raccoons made a slight adjustment to the tiller and the boat continued tacking upwind. Unless one noticed the crew's reaction, the change caused no harm to ship, crew, or passengers. The pleasant ride upriver continued uninterrupted.
Calator adjusted his straw hat to shade his face. "I know of the Rand, but what other treasures did you find inside that sealed chamber?"
Plezwerk leaned back against his bedroll. "The Elders hold a tribal counsel with the first full moon of Spring, which is when all leave the cave. They do that to debate what the tribe needs to do during the upcoming growing season. I decided to brag about how many levels I descended and to show off the treasures recovered at that time. It didn't go as planned."
"Bad," Calator asked.
"I had fifty boxes, each holding a dozen wooden writing sticks. The Elders saw no use to them since we kept few written record and only the families of Elders knew how to write. Rolls of different sized silver disks turned out to be worthless, good for melting and recasting as nails but not a valuable treasure. The copper ones had value, but nobody though it warranted the risk of venturing back that many levels. My biggest treasure, six glasses used to make fire they dismissed, saying one was enough for the entire tribe."
"You didn't show them the Rands you found?" Calator's expression showed shock at such an oversight.
"It took a month for me to open the first one. Caution slowed me when I wanted to race the eagle. Another week passed before I opened the second book. Everyone laughed, thinking my collection of ancient maps worthless. Who needs inaccurate pictures to travel the nearby forest? Elders told me the world changed too much since the time of our Makers. I dug a pit, lined it with bricks and mortar to make it waterproof, and buried what I found."
Humiliated, Plezwerk left after the next new moon, traveling south. It made no sense to him recreating their legendary exile migration from the Known Lands. Elders told tales of a fierce tribe of dogs who guarded the pass in a castle built in the time of humans. If such a story proved accurate and he couldn't convince the guardian Dog Tribe to let him through the pass, it would force him to backtrack homeward.
That he would not do. Instead of backtracking, he took a simple compass and kept moving in a southerly direction. He spent that first winter on the north side of the Barrier Mountains. When the snows melted, Plezwerk made it through the mountain chain all considered impassible. One of the maps showed the location of a tunnel built by the Makers that allowed passage through the mountains. Its one drawback, it took him a great distance to the east.
A search of the maps never revealed the location of the Dog Castle. That didn't exist when these maps were printed. However, the mountains didn't change that much over the more than thousand years since the time of humans. Plezwerk did find a road with the distinctive shape of the Badland Pass between the Known Lands and the Northern Wastelands. Tribal myths said morphs occupied the southern side and he wondered if they still did. His curiosity led him westward until he discovered the paved road and the porcupine's Inn.
Calator had no opportunity to question him. The raccoon captain lifted a horn and blew a long note. A moment later, another horn replied. The crew's pace changed from casual to hectic as the raft made its way across the lake. Eager paws operated the sweep as other raccoons raised extra canvas.
The village came into sight. Plezwerk decided his companion's description inaccurate. This place didn't have the feeling of temporary. The stockade consisted of tall wooden poles buried deep into place. Each touched its companion forming a solid wall and the tops had been sharpened into stakes. Even from their position out on the lake, figures could be seen patrolling a walkway near the top. One or two watchtowers might signify a temporary place, but not the six he counted.
Near the center, three piers jutted into the lake like fingers of a mighty hand. Great pilings had been driven into the lake and the dock had a feel of permanence. The one at the near end remained devoid of any craft. No doubt their final destination. A raft that dwarfed this one floated at the end of the middle pier. The third one extended twice as far into the lake and had a virtual flotilla of small craft tied to it.
A scan of the lake revealed similar boats hard at labor gathering fish. Some had raccoons casting nets. Others rowed towards shore towing nets that churned the water from the bounty they hauled shoreward. Along the beach the raccoons sorted, cleaned, and smoked fish while others worked on nets that hung like a month's worth of laundry.
Closer to shore, Plezwerk observed the village itself. Not one tent anywhere. Every building a solid wooden structure with a stout roof. The outer wall protected three sides of the village and extended a fair distance into the lake itself, which acted as the fourth wall to any would be invader. Instead of a simple box layout, the wall projected off the straight line, making it a formidable defense to any approaching from the land side.
It made Plezwerk pause a moment. Such a high number of raccoons in one area made this a permanent camp. The heavy defenses spoke of possible tensions with others in the area. Stories of ancient wars between morphs during the Dark Times had him shudder. It made him wonder who these walls protected.
"Something tells me our Elders didn't reveal everything about this camp," Calator muttered. "Wonder who they anticipate attacking their settlement."
"A good defense discourages a foolish attacker. It may all be for show."
As the raft drew nearer to the empty pier, a crowd gathered. It took no intelligence picking out which youngsters had family on the raft. They jumped and waved while holding onto the paw of another. The adult showed more restraint but they too waved a small colored cloth as a means of catching somebody's attention. At least they remained on the shore while the crew tied up the raft. Once the Captain ordered the plank lowered, the raccoon crew dashed off the raft and into the waiting crowd.
Time to leave the raft. Each rat strolled down the ramp to the dock and proceeded to the shore. It didn't take Plezwerk much effort finding who waited for them. The fellow was a classic rat, overweight and dark of fur. He stood apart from the raccoons, possibly to be easier to find.
"Seven . . . eight . . . nine, all present and accounted for," the older rat muttered loud enough that all could hear. "Welcome all. We have a short overland hike to the dig site. One more night of roughing it and we will be at camp before the next sunset. Everyone ready?"
"You have one more traveling with you," Plezwerk said. "I didn't realize I needed to pass through your dig site to continue south. If I need some appropriate documentation or permission, I don't have it. Just give me my backpack and I'll push on without any bother."
Calator jumped to his companion's defense. "I'll vouch for him, Chief Digger. We have been together since the Inn and he has no interest in our dig."
"Leave your backpack where it is. An unexpected visitor is always welcomed, though any morph going further south is a rare thing indeed."
Four bruins transferred the cargo from the raft to a large wagon. Plezwerk marveled at their strength. When the raccoon crew loaded the raft at the Inn, it took six of them working together to move just one crate. One bruin lifted a crate as if it were nothing more than a minor inconvenience. At the rapids, it took two raccoons per cart pulling one crate. This wagon held all ten crates and everyone's backpacks.
The bruins took their place between the wagon's trace and lifted the poles. Without even a grunt, they marched forward. Everyone followed the bruins. The caravan proceeded through a large gate and over a wide drawbridge to the outlying buildings. Plezwerk noticed the division of labor among the raccoons. Those inside the stockade concentrated on fishing while those outside the walls cultivated fields of vegetables.
Beyond the raccoon village, all signs of civilization ceased. The trail they followed couldn't be called a proper road. It was nothing more than hard packed dirt with many ruts and deadfall that had the cart bouncing more than the raft ever did. Sometimes a wheel lodged itself in a deep hole. Two of the bruins would pull while the other two pushed. If a fallen tree blocked the path, all four bruins worked at moving the obstacle. Such hazards were frequent but seldom delayed them long enough for even a short rest.
Since he and the rats remained unencumbered, the trip turned into a pleasant walk through the wilderness. Two quick stops during the day for about an hour allowed everyone a chance to grab a bite to eat and to massage sore feet. Plezwerk hated to admit it, but without the caravan showing him the trail, his progress to his anticipated destination might extend through spring, summer, and autumn. That would mean spending winter in an unexplored wilderness. Been there, done that, but still not a pleasant experience.
Darkness and an open field equals an acceptable campsite. Each morph pitched their individual tent. Once camp was set, the bruins retired to one side. Plezwerk wanted nothing more than a good night's rest. However, all the rats had no intention of sleeping. Questions regarding the dig were asked and answered by the Chief Digger. There would be no peace and quiet this night.
"Since last year's dig ended, we have made a monumental discovery. One that will forever change our view of this site," the Chief Digger announced.
"I hope this 'monumental discovery' is something other than learning the name of this ancient human city is Eugene Oregon."
As winter approached, Plezwerk learned his hope of inheriting his father's title as tribal elder would never happen. With the birth of twin nephews, Plezwerk's ambitions vanished. Not that he had much hope as the second son. Now his nephews stood second and third in line behind his older brother.
He needed another way of proving his dominance. While all stayed in the safety of the cave's upper levels, he intended going deeper than any squirrel ever ventured. He might never inherit his father's title of Tribal Elder, but others would seek his counsel if he proved himself braver than anyone else.
Others made a similar boast every year. None returned who attempted anything deeper than the seventh level. The fifth and sixth levels no longer held anything valuable as earlier generations scavenged everything. Plezwerk learned the stories of those adults who successfully reached the seventh floor. Those bold adventurers used the winding ramp, which required one to shift from one end to the other since the ramps became more dangerous the deeper one went and they continued to deteriorate. The ramp that seven winters back appeared sturdy and solid now had a hole big enough for a misplaced foot.
He anticipated such setbacks. He devised another plan for reaching the lower levels that circumvented the ramps. It took him time devising a way of testing his idea. A few failed, others proved themselves impractical. Those failures did him no harm and led to modifications. Over the last few days before the first winter storm, he tested his latest idea and found it feasible.
Plezwerk awaited the first heavy storm, eager to put his plan into action. When the snows did fall, he rushed to his designated living cube. Too young to be considered an adult and too old to be accepted by children, nobody pestered him. He checked and recheck his gear, as he waited for the right moment.
He did seek others, hoping to lead them on the deepest exploration ever. If he lead others as deep as he hoped, those who came would not only boast of their achievement, but of his resourcefulness and leadership. Tribal Elders would risk the wrath of the entire tribe if they dared to dismiss his voice after he came back triumphant.
Now that winter had them huddled in the cave, his contemporaries changed their mind. Instead of exploring the lower levels, those on the cusp of adulthood expressed no desire for such adventures. The ones who backed his play before the snows decided the move far too dangerous or the anticipated gain insufficient.
Trapped, that one word described Plezwerk's emotions. He made such lofty claims prior to the winter snows that to back out now would destroy whatever role he hoped to play in the tribe's power structure. Boastings without backing would relegate him to the role of tribal buffoon. Not going to happen if he had anything to do about it.
Reaching the sixth level wasn't too difficult. Most of the tribe's adults had gone that deep at least once in their lifetime. The seventh proved harder, but with the advice of those who also ventured that deep, he made it. The first trip from the sixth to the seventh floor scared him. As he ferried his supplies from one to the other, he gained confidence. Tired from all the work, he rested in a nearby chamber.
When he awoke, he put his plan into operation. Instead of using the deteriorating ramps at either end, he intended to use the demon's eye. He had fashioned eight grappling hooks and carried enough rope to drop as deep as twelve levels. He dropped the first hook and tried catching the upper rim of the demon's eye one level down. With the rope secured, he threw the line into the eye across the hallway.
A second rope lowered a lantern. If it didn't provide enough illumination, his adventure ended. He grasped the first rope and slid down to the first knot. No way out, just up or down remained. Another knot and still another knot slid between his paws. A quarter of the rope gone and the opening remained far below his feet. Had he miscalculated?
Two more knots down and he reached his goal. In the lantern's light he saw the grappling hook and breathed a sigh of relief. It remained anchored to the upper lip of the eye opposite to him. He kicked out at the wall between the demon eyes and swung away from the illuminated corridor. His momentum changed and now he approached the opening. Plezwerk released his grip and skidded to a halt halfway between the two staring demons. By throwing the rope around the narrow wall between two eyes, he secured the rope. He had his means of returning to the higher floors.
As he did on the stairwell, Plezwerk lugged his gear from one floor to the next. Once he accounted for everything, he repeated the process with a second rope, leaving the first one in place. He thought it would become easier with repetition; it didn't. By the time he lugged his supplies to the next level and freed the lantern, he needed to rest.
These levels remained as uniform as those where his people lived. The one difference, the thickness of the dust and dirt. He didn't care about the mess. Plezwerk cleared enough space for sleep and turned out the lantern. The absolute darkness felt heavier than any winter coat.
Time had no meaning. When he awoke, his applied steel to flint until the lantern flared to life. Within that circle of light, Plezwerk feared nothing. It was what laid beyond that boundary that scared him. His current success spurred him to continue his descent.
When he finished ferrying his supplies another three levels, he made what had to be a monumental decision. He would go no further down. As much as he hated to admit it, this adventure took more energy out of him than he anticipated. Worse yet, the air grew fouler the deeper he went.
Six levels down and still alive. Plezwerk went deeper than anyone ever attempted and did it solo; that proved his bravery. Him doing it without challenging the ramps showed his intelligence and resourcefulness. His next objective, find a treasure worth the risks taken. It had to be something the rest of the tribe would speak about for years to come.
Refreshed after a short rest, he tried lighting one of the torches he brought. It sputtered to life, the flame giving off a dim glow. Plezwerk hunted for one of the corner ramps curious to know their condition this far below the four occupied by the tribe. When he pushed the door open, the torch flared to life.
In its illumination, he found one ramp to his left and nothing else. Lying on it was the skeletal remains of an unknown morph. Male or female, young or old, long lost friend or just another tribal youth, it all remained a mystery. Plezwerk wondered if the adventurer trusted the solidity of a ramp or the security of a rusty railing before his fatal fall. Did he misjudge a jump or was he inept with knots? Plezwerk wondered if the others plunged to their deaths trying to do what he was doing now.
Once the door closed, the torch's light waned. Now he knew why the air seemed so foul. No circulation. When he opened the door, air entered from the ramp shaft. Problem, the door kept closing due to a device he couldn't disable. The expected landing didn't exist at this level so he couldn't reach the mechanism that kept closing the door.
An idea came to him. He searched the immediate area, expanding it a little at a time until he located what he wanted, a metal box a bit taller than him. The five compartments opened, revealing moldy papers, which he discarded. By pure chance, he discovered a way to remove the compartments. Plezwerk dragged the metal box to the corner shaft. Once wedged into the doorway, it kept the door open.
Time to check out the other side of the cavern. At least the shaft's ramps were present on this side, but his sense of self preservation kept him off the landing beyond the door. Thanks to the torch flashing to its maximum brightness, his eyes traced a path up and down four levels. However, these ramps appeared to be less than half the width of those in the living area and the metal barrier no longer existed.
The added air from the two open shafts kept the torch burning brighter, which made exploration easier. Now he concentrated on finding something worthwhile. Stories of the first explorers said the chambers had a wooden barrier in front of them. Pressure from a single paw had it crumble to a pile of rotting splinters. He found such legends hard to accept until he proved them true on this unexplored level.
Two such doors crumbled when he pushed them with his shoulder. He remained near the destroyed doors and held his torch high. The light reflected off a shiny barrier located in a distant corner. Metal bars, including a broken gate, extended as high as his hip, separating a portion of this chamber from the rest of the room. Plezwerk figured something of value must lie beyond it, so he hurdled over the low wall. He discovered a metallic ball marring the smooth metal surface of one wall. It reminded him of something he found on the wooden doors. This must control access to whatever lied beyond. He tried lifting it, pushing it down, and moving it side to side. Nothing happened.
It resisted his efforts when he twisted it to the right. A turn to the left produced a loud bang that made his heart race. A sense of terror claimed him as every horror story replayed in his mind. When no demon attempted to steal his soul or take his life, he relaxed. His second attempt at twisting the bulb had it turn with ease but the door remained closed. He placed his foot on the neighboring wall and with a mighty grunt pulled with all the strength he possessed. It opened.
Long before either parent drew breath, the Squirrel Tribe existed. They lived among other morphs trying to survive the Dark Times. Things did not work out well in these lands so the tribe moved north, beyond the Barrier Mountains. Some said they backed the wrong faction in one of the many morph wars and suffered the consequences. Others claimed they departed the Known Lands when the forest died leaving them homeless and hungry. A few claimed it happened due to the wanderlust nature of those who ruled the tribe. None can say they know the actual reason but these are the most logical explanations offered.
For more than a generation, they wandered a wilderness where trees often numbered less than the fingers on a paw for as far as the eye beheld. One day, in the morning shadows of a mountain named by the ancient humans, they discovered a pristine forest, unclaimed by any morph. They settled here, in a land where the trees provided a never ending bounty.
Legend tells of two amorous youths racing through the trees, across the forest floor, and atop a rocky knoll. During their extended game of tag, one of them darted inside a small cave near the summit of an unknown hill. The other pursued their intended into the same opening. Moments later they came out, all thoughts of romance deferred to a more appropriate time.
Within the mountain, they discovered a huge cavern. They notified the elders of their discovery, eager to show them what they found. The tribal elders investigated the cave. Before the next winter's snows buried the land, the tribe constructed a stronghold and sunk two ventilation turbines deep into the mountain. Now the tribe had somewhere to stay during the harshest of winters. Each morph still needed winter fur and blankets, but the temperature inside never dropped low enough to threaten life or limbs.
Everyone found the cave a bit strange. The four explored levels measured the same length and width. Ceiling heights on each level matched, regardless of which end one occupied. The cavern had chambers, all rectangular in shape but in various sizes. The tribal elders declared the first two levels as living quarters and the next two they set aside for food storage.
Not all was ideal. On each explored level, two demons with vacant eyes that never blinked stared across a narrow corridor at two other eyeless demons. One elder tossed a torch into an eye and it disappeared below them. Several elders pushed a heavy object they found into a different eye. It fell into the darkness and none ever heard it hit bottom. That first year the tribe constructed a wall before each eye so none would wander into the void, but only on the four occupied floors. Until they needed to go deeper, they saw no reason to employ such precautions.
Two other square openings descended into the darkness at opposite ends of this strange cave. Around the outer edge, a continuous ramp led downward. Beyond the fourth level, either the metallic railing crumbled or parts of the circling ramps fell away, leaving large gaps. The deeper they ventured, the more deteriorated the ramps until even the most athletic squirrel risked their life crossing these openings. Like the demon's eye, the central shaft held only darkness. Anything tossed into the void disappeared. Elders warned all about the dangers of going deeper than the fourth level.
Most obeyed. For the young, the allure of the forbidden claimed a few each winter. Almost every youth ventured onto the fifth level, wondering what made the place such a mysterious place. Those who ventured deeper and returned unharmed were hailed by their contemporaries as the bravest members of their tribe. All such explorers brought artifacts from these lower levels to prove their claim.
These artifacts had no practical use to anyone. Odd bits of twisted metal or some device that had no obvious use were discarded a short time after their return. Those who either lost their prize or decided not to show useless items spent much of their time substantiating their claims. Even without proof of their success reaching an unexplored level, those returning youths gained respect.
Saddest of all were those youths who intended going deeper than the seventh level. To date, nobody ever returned from such a mission. A day or two after the winter snows sealed the entire tribe underground, they talked about the how or when of their trip. On the designated day, these bold adventurers departed the living area boasting of their intentions. A few friends followed them to the fifth or sixth level, but withdrew when their friend insisted on going deeper. They disappeared into the lower levels, their final fate unknown.
Calator interrupted the narration. "If nothing else, you have given me a riddle to confound even the wisest elder of our tribe. However, it tells nothing of the Rand you carry."
"Patience," Plezwerk responded. "How it came into my possession should be obvious. Why it is here is another story."
"Admit it, Plezwerk. A river raft upstream beats hiking through that forest with a backpack equal to your own weight."
Calator startled him and he shoved the book he held into his backpack. "It is faster and easier on the feet but eventually I must learn to shoulder this pack. So what brings you aft when your fellow diggers occupy the bow, or will all of you become ticks in the fur?"
The rat pulled a notebook out of his pocket, his writing stick racing across the page like a hummingbird's wings as it darted through a field of flowers. "'Ticks in the fur,' an idiom that any morph can relate to via some descriptive passage. I'm guessing it infers we are an annoyance and you prefer we go somewhere else?"
"Didn't I say you excelled at puzzles? There's your proof. Now let me rest, Calator."
"Rats have the reputation of being sly, and most other morphs say that in an unflattering way. Nice seeing tree huggers can stoop just as low. You had those porcupines thinking you cannot read, but you can. Bet that book proves your skills equal mine."
"Hiding such talents lets me gauge the honesty of a merchant. As to a book, I have no idea what you mean. These are maps I hope will help me find my intended destination."
"Maps? If I uttered the word book or map, you'll not have a moment of peace. My friends sense of curiosity will overwhelm you. Think us ticks in the fur now, imagine the nine of us crawling under your skin and you without any repellant. Best we share this discovery while their attention is on the surrounding forest."
Plezwerk hated to concede to his logic. They had another five days travel and he didn't want to jump ship and walk. That would double his time. Worse yet, if the rat was right, he would have to go through this archeological dig to reach his destination. It became a case of now or later. He muttered under his breath at both his stupidity and the inquisitive nature of rats. Yet he tried delaying that inevitable discussion.
"Everyone will be extra tired tonight. Our ringtail Captain used the word portage and rapids in the same sentence twice with his Second during the last watch. We will be undertaking an extended walk before nightfall. At least that's what I've heard."
As if on cue, the raccoon Captain shouted. "Rest while you can, we reach shore in less than an hour. Once on land. we hike above the river's rapids so have your personal gear packed and ready. We must not dawdle if we intend reaching our destination by sunset. Not to worry, nothing will be lost. The trail is well marked and the remaining journey will be much faster once we get above this canyon."
The raft glided across the water to a wide clearing. Once the raccoon crew secured the raft to a convenient pier, everyone walked to shore. Supplies went into wagons while each passenger shouldered their personal backpack. The trek started with the raccoons pulling several supply wagons and everyone else following them. An overcast day kept things cool while the sounds of the forest faded, replaced by the roar of rapids. A dry path allowed for faster travel since the carts rolled with ease across the hard packed dirt.
Their Captain spoke the truth, the path was well marked and the uphill climb proved an easy one though the frequent switchbacks increased the distance traveled. In spite of frequent breaks, everyone gave a satisfied sigh of relief when they reached their eventual destination. It didn't meet the standards of any traveler's inn, but it did beat sleeping out in the open as they did every night since leaving the Inn. Each raised platform could hold ten of them without crowding. Better yet, they had an overhang that kept the night's drizzle off them. Tonight, everyone would sleep in dry comfort.
Calator convinced his friends to share a platform while he and the squirrel kept to another one. All agreed to the suggestion if he allowed them to store their backpacks on the other platform, which would give them more room. A few of the ladies offered Calator condolences on his choice of bunkmates, their comments both barbed and amiable. By the time everyone ate, what started out as an evening drizzle progressed to a steady rain. None would wander far in such a downpour.
Plezwerk didn't need any verbal reminder of his promise; the rat's hungry expression did that. He opened his backpack and dug out the book he inadvertently exposed earlier. The rat took the pristine pages as if they were made of egg shells. Calator used their central fire pit to illuminate the object of his curiosity. The rat opened the book of ancient maps, examining each as he flipped from one cover to the other.
"How did you get your paws on a mint condition Rand? Such books are nothing less than the Holy Grail of cartography. Those we have are so deteriorated that much of the information we have is conjecture based on bits and pieces from dozen of fragments. I know elders back home who might kill to have this, and you treat it as if it had minor importance."
"My story is long, so keep your questions for later." Plezwerk settled back until he felt comfortable.
A good night's sleep always helps the morning look better. Plezwerk gave a stretch while lying on his bed. The scent of cedar and pine filled his sleeping box as he shifted positions. For just a moment, his mind wandered to his home tree. If he kept his eyes shut, he imagined himself there. Such pleasant memories faded to the reality of another day as sunlight invaded the place.
Plezwerk checked his gear and found nothing missing. He expected otherwise. Such thefts were commonplace, at least according to his tribal elders. Since other tribes proved to be inhospitable, he pressed onward rather than stay longer than one night. The rumored pilfering considered routine, proved unfounded. The expectation of a full belly and the prospect of making good timing on his trip had him feeling perky. This day kept getting better by the moment and it was less than an hour old.
He locked his room and jogged over to the receptionist. A different lady porcupine stood behind the counter. This lady's fur had a golden blond hue to it and where last night's receptionist had a bounce to her step, this one grunted with every shift in weight. They negotiated a price for the additional nights he needed and received an assurance they would notify him when the raccoons arrived.
According to the receptionist, his room fee covered his evening meal. He did learn availing himself of the breakfast menu, would cost him extra. That didn't bother him. He found the prices quoted here reasonable considering how much he received. If the morning meal proved as filling, he would regret his return to travel rations when he departed.
The morning cook / bartender kept himself behind his counter despite the near empty room. He preferred this porcupine over the intrusive fellow from last night. He provided the waitress with his order, which allowed him time to enjoy his meal in quiet solitude. Plezwerk decided to nurse his cider drink as he had no idea when the shops opened for business. He anticipated a quiet wait.
A young rat leaned forward at the bar after summoning the bartender closer. He and the porcupine talked for a moment, their voices too low and distant for him to discern the topic of their conversation. Both glanced his way before they continued their discussion. A timely interruption stopped them. The bartender shifted to the far end of the bar, beckoned by one of the wolves he saw last night while the rat remained in his seat.
That changed. The rat stood. He placed one paw on the bottom of the tankard while grasping the handle with the other. He stared at his drink for a few seconds before he turned in place. Now that he faced in his general direction, the rat shuffled across the wooden floor towards him. Both paws steadied the tankard, which he treated with great care.
Plezwerk took the time to compare this fellow to the descriptions he overheard when his tribal elders discussed rats. Seems they didn't know as much about the world as he believed. This rat was skinny without being thin or undernourished, unlike the expected overweight glutton. His fur had a charcoal grayish hue compared to the anticipated midnight black. The last contradiction was the fellow's expression. One tribal elder said rats always displayed a predatory expression, not the long-lost relative look this fellow had. The rat's grin widened the closer he came to his table.
Drunk or sober, I don't need this intrusion. "State your business, rat, if that's why you came to my table. Otherwise, find someplace else. Your presence is neither welcomed nor wanted."
The fellow didn't take the blunt hint and sat across from him as if his comment were some universal invitation. "The bartender tells me you intend going all the way upriver. So am I. Perhaps we can be travel partners."
"I said nothing about my destination. As to a companion, I'm sure you have somewhere else to be as do I."
"There are four river settlements upstream. Two are ruled by otters who have an instinctive mistrust of squirrels. I doubt you would last a night in either. The third one is filled with bruins newly awakened from their winter hibernation. You would make an excellent meal and none of their Watchers would care since you carry no herald's badge. The last and furthest village upstream is inhabited by raccoons and is nothing more than a temporary camp, a rest stop for their raft. No trade, no other squirrels, and nothing they need from your kind since they migrate north when the spring floods ebb."
"So what takes you on such a pleasure cruise," Plezwerk asked, his tone challenging the fellow to explain himself. "Have you business at one of the camps, or are you going as live food for somebody's entertainment?"
"A drool sense of humor, I like that, squirrel. But to answer your question, the raccoon village is where I'll meet a caravan going south. My destination is the archeological site of Eug On, an ancient human city. Our tribe discovered it five years back and have been working the site from early spring to late autumn each year. Unless you intend traveling further south into uncharted territory, we are both going to the same place. An intermediary can open closed doors if you're hoping to find something of value there."
"Rats have a reputation as excellent puzzle solvers, you live up to that expectation," Plezwerk conceded. "Since I am stuck with you for the duration of our travels, I will accept your offer of companionship, until we can part ways. Your hunch that I'm going into unknown territory is right."
"Amazing what one can learn from nothing more than a talkative receptionist and a bored barkeep. May I ask for more details on your trip?"
"No, you may not, rat. My business is mine alone. For now, if I interpret my waitress's signal, the supply shops have opened. Enjoy the hospitality of the bar."
He didn't even give the rat a chance to respond. Plezwerk exited the Common Room and stepped onto the porch. The buildings that displayed no lantern last night each flew a different colored flag. A gentle breeze allowed him to examine each and identify what merchandise they offered. If his haggling skills held up, he would be fully stocked by the evening meal.
His first stop had clothing available. Since leaving home he travelled over very rough terrain, some of his things went from serviceable garments to threadbare rags. The porcupine receptionist was right. He found the merchandise quality superior to anything he had back home and at a reasonable price. They even had a rain repellant wrap that went over his attire and kept his paws free. Satisfied with his selections, he approached the proprietor and after a short conversation agreed to a price. When the shopkeeper handed him the receipt, he hesitated. He kept shifting the document as he examined it.
"Not one for letters and numbers," the store's clerk inquired.
"I can do simple math, but my tribe has no tutors for those of low rank. We never considered such a thing useful since reading or writing will not make the harvest greater."
The shopkeeper exchanged the slip for one with five tick marks and a picture representation of the merchandise he selected. He nodded at the fellow and thanked him for his honesty. The shopkeeper offered the services of his eldest son to summarize his purchases from the other stores so he need pay just one bill instead of several. The shopkeeper promised to deliver all his purchases to his quarters since the local porcupine tribe owned and operated every store.
Another voice intruded. "No need, sir. We rats are well educated and I can assist my friend when it comes to his bill."
"Your assistance is unnecessary, rat."
The rat placed his paw on Plezwerk's shoulder. "I can well understand your anger. We traded riddles regarding our travels, shared a drink, bartered with one another, and yet I neglected to introduce myself. Please excuse my ill manners and let me rectify that oversight. I am Calator, digger third class and on my first artifact hunt. May I ask for your name my dear tree hugger?"
"You may ask all you wish. I'll tell you in my own good time, if I see it beneficial in any way. Otherwise, there are more important things needing my attention than a meddling rat."
"You seem familiar with wilderness travel; I could benefit from your expertise. Like I said, this is my first venture beyond our tribal lands. Let me follow you and we can help each other."
How do you turn down somebody paying you a compliment? Plezwerk felt trapped by the rat's outgoing personality but saw no way to get rid of him. When he told him in words as blunt as possible, it didn't work. Neither did subtle hints sway the rat's fixation on him. He remembered the fellow's name and the fact they would be traveling together regardless of his opinion. For the foreseeable future, he may as well accept Calator's aid and companionship. It wasn't permanent and he could endure the fellow for a short time. Who knows, it might prove beneficial.