Jeremy couldn’t believe the size of the cavernous opening which led to the tunnel. The twin pillars, between which The Boulevard flowed, continued to dominate the scene – but up close the did so only through the magnificence of their beauty. From a distance they appeared to have been carved into the face of the mountain, as Jeremy approached he saw that they’d been carved from the sides of a hollow in the mountain-face. Fully cylindrical, they looked as if they were truly holding up the overhang of the mountain, far above. Jeremy especially took note that the carvings into the pillars only appeared where they could be spied from the platform they’d recently vacated. He couldn’t imagine what it took to form such great works of art.
“Do you like them, Jeremy?”
Jeremy turned to Ama and nodded, but then added, “I guess ‘like’ isn’t the word. These are inspiring.”
“Yes, they are one of the greatest wonders of The Valleys. People from all over travel here to study them, or to simply bask in wonder before them. They are one of the reasons why I sought a position in Water Gap. Being so near their magnificence is inspiring.”
“Yah, well, be inspired later. The day’s getting on and we’ve gotta be movin’, if you get my meaning.”
“That’s alright. Let’s head over and pay entry, I want to get started.”
Walter chuckled. “Yah don’t think they let folks travel through here for free, do you? The cost of upkeep alone is staggering. ‘Sides, the Senate’s gotta make money somehow.”
“Oh, it’s a toll-tunnel?”
“That it is, lad. That it is. Now, let’s go pay the toll, shall we?”
Walter led the group to a small booth just outside the entrance to the tunnel. A slightly bored-looking man sat behind a window. Noticing Walter approaching he smartened up slightly and produced a plastic smile on his face.
“Good morning, sir. Party of three plus animals?”
“That we are.”
“And given the time I’m assuming over-night lodging in Shelter?”
Walter shook his head. “No, we’re headin’ all the way through. Are there rooms in the Emergence Lodge tonight?”
The man’s brow creased. He flopped open a book and scanned down the page with his finger. Finally he looked up and nodded. “There is room for your party, sir, but you’ll have to travel quick to get through today. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay in Shelter this evening?”
“Yah, I’m sure. Now tell me the price and let me get moving.”
The man’s smile faltered slightly at Walter’s response. “Yes sir. Sorry, I meant no offense. For your party plus lodging and board your total will be twelve pieces.”
“Twelve! For a walk and an overnight? Last time I was here I paid six for a party twice this size.”
The man’s smile disappeared. “Well, sir, I can’t help if you haven’t been here for quite some time. Twelve is the current rate.”
“Old Fox, you’ve fulfilled your obligation as a miserly trader. Pay the man and let’s be off.”
Walter shot Ama a short glare, but then composed himself and nodded. He assumed an exaggerated smile and pulled open his money pouch. Finally depositing twelve silver pieces in the man’s waiting palm. He, in turn, handed Walter a slip of paper, marked with their overnight reservations.
“I will alert Emergence Lodge of your reservation, but don’t lose that confirmation, it will make things easier.”
“Yes, thank you very much for your assistance.”
The man’s smile didn’t return. “You are welcome, I’m sure.”
Walter quickly ushered the companions over to the tunnel entrance, where a closed gate blocked their path. As they approached a bell rang out above and two men in uniforms sprang out of a guardhouse to open the doors. As they moved through the portal one of the guards addressed Walter.
“Full passage? I’d not stop long in Shelter if I were you.”
Walter huffed, “Wasn’t plannin’ on it, but thanks for the advice.”
With that the guards ushered the party fully through the gate and then stepped back. Once confident their whole party had passed, the slowly pushed the gate back into place, ending with a deep final thud. Suddenly devoid of sunlight, Jeremy’s eyes took some time to adjust to the honey tinged light of the evertorch. As he did so, he looked past Walter and saw two lines of the now familiar lamps, marking each side of the tunnel. They stretched out to a point far ahead.
“I can’t see the other side.”
“You won’t from here, lad. We’ll be walkin’ most of the day before you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even before that we’ll have to pass through Shelter.”
“It’s a place where highway robbers think they’ve died and gone to Heaven.” With that, Walter started moving down the tunnel. Jeremy and Ama followed, deeper and deeper into a realm where darkness was the norm and light the invader.