“No! There is no choice! If one leaves, it affects us all. He will stay.”
The tribune stepped down from the rude da•s at the entrance of the cave. He unclasped his cloak as he joined his companions. The steady glow of the coal-fire in the center of the rough promenade heated the Chamber of Judging too well, though barely lighting it. This small group watched as a guard let the man withdraw to his own chamber.
The most stooped, and angry, of the three suddenly exclaimed, “Why can’t he be sent away? Would it be so—”
“Calm down! It wouldn’t be worth it.”
“Why not?” The short one was still fuming.
“What in earth would that say? We believe in a ‘surface’? Then what would stop others from wanting out as well?”
“But they know as well as we do there is no ‘out’.”
“As well as we . . . or he? He doesn’t.”
“Then let him be the proof.”
The tribune paused a moment, enough to betray his thoughts to the others. “Very well, but I must have the man back in two days.”
The condemned man, the traveller, quietly consumed a bat in his opulent chamber. The fireless room felt not so thick-aired as the outside. He had no need, as his walls gave him light enough without a fire. They glowed gently upon him.
In his walks within the labyrinth, he had collected various phosphorescent fungi as decoration. In the farthest corners of the dark world, along the tunnels least trodden, he would stumble across patches and clumps of fungus which glowed with an other-worldly light. His walls were by now so coated with lime-green and pale silver lights, that it gave him a feeling almost of freedom. The walls seemed to disappear, to him, and instead were replaced by an infinite bright expanse.
That slime with which he plastered the walls, though, also caused his downfall. Day after day, he left the confines of the larger caverns, and entered into his own, small cavern. There, he was no longer confined. There, he had a glimpse of what an Elsewhere might be like. He became obsessed with the idea of light. He had to get out. He needed the light to be everywhere.
Now came a tap-tap from the antechamber. “Mm.”
The short one pushed aside a translucent bat-wing curtain. “The tribune has recanted his judgement.”
“You are free to find the ‘surface’ at your leisure. You are no longer ‘confined,’ as you call it, to the world.”
“Are you not happy about the news?”
“I would have gone, with or without permission. Mine is not an ill for healing of itself. I could not do anything but leave, whatever the consequences.”
“Well, now you are free at least. You even go with his own sanction.”
“Let me finish my meal in peace. I’ll go in a moment.”
“You mean, so late. I already have my water prepared, and food will come. Were it not for the blockade of my trial, I would have long been away.”
“I will search for your body.”
“You will not find it.”
It took him several hours to attain the Outer Reaches. He cast about the border cavern a moment. He had been this way many a time, and knew what he was looking for. Then, seeing a chisel-mark on the floor at the mouth of one tunnel, he entered it and pressed on. After some time, hours longer than a day’s work, he entered an unfamiliar chamber.
He drank long from his leather bottle, lay down, and slept deeply for ten hours. Fitful sleep, it was, but refreshing. He awoke to the utter silence which continually pierced the tunnels of the Outer Reaches, and gathered himself like a Stoic to resume his march.
By his next resting, he had reached a sort of grottoe, containing a small, frigid pool. He refilled his waterskins, and caught a fat, blind fish for his first meal since leaving the others. He had no coal to spare — he needed all his meagre supply for the lantern — and the raw flesh nauseated him, so he discarded it. He was far too tired to go on, and this grottoe had no exit but the way he had come. There was nothing to do but rest; but it seemed he had lost even rest, in the maze of tunnels he had passed through.
He lay on the water-slicked granite by the pool’s marge and tried to sleep. It was of no use; the hunger, still far too new to be dulled by true starvation, left him sleepless. Frustrated, he paced. The back and forth just wore his aching, exhausted, but sleepless body even more. After his thirty-eight hours of taxing, unrewarded labor, his body chose for him. It gave in to its condition, and he fell unconscious.
“I told you we’d find him,” the short one was saying, “and hardly over a day.”
“Here, help me with him.”
“I’ll open the back of the cart.”
His limp body landed in the cart, and the slatted gate slammed to. He awoke.
“No . . .o . . .!”