After passing though the checkpoint the companions stopped for a brief lunch in the small settlement which surrounded the entrance to the tunnel. It was a cheerless place, filled with people wearing annoyed expressions and mediocre food. After the sumptuous meals of Shelter, the lukewarm platters in the building marked “Hospitality Cafeteria” were quite disappointing.
As Jeremy navigated his tray through the crowd he couldn’t help but overhear the unhappy grumblings of the other travelers who had also stopped in the hall.
“Can you believe he charged me an entry tax for my produce? I’ll be lucky if I break even this trip!”
“The guard found out I was from Plantation and acted as though I carried some disease! Old Griffin never teated me like that, he was a fine guard.”
“When I told him I was planning on heading to Steppetown after selling my wears he told me I’d better do my business and then turn around and go back to where I belong!”
“The Senate is going to get an earful when I get to The Ravine!”
“Well, if this is how I’m going to be treated, I say to blazes with ‘em. Let the Inner Valleys take care of themselves if they’re so high and mighty. They’ve been livin’ off us for too long as it is!”
Each of the comments caused Jeremy to become more and more wary. There was anger in the room which seemed to be fed by the noisy conditions and bad food. By the time he reached the table Walter and Ama had picked out he was making sure he gave wide berth to the complaining diners. He wanted to give no one an opportunity to take their frustrations out on him.
Jeremy sat at the table, and we greeted with a cold smile from Walter and a look of relief from Ama. As he set his tray down he leaned in and spoke loud enough for his friends to hear, “Everyone is so angry.”
“I know, lad. I’ve never seen it this bad. I mean, you’ve always had some friction between the Inner Valleys and the outer settlements, but nothing like this. I don’t mind saying, that guard’s attitude was more chilling than facing shadows.”
At the mention of shadows, the small ever torch showed a flicker of darkness. A whisper of a voice formed in the companion’s mind, “*Frightened, great anger. Treaty broken.” Shocked, the three companions looked at one another in silence.
Walter leaned in and and was sure to whisper so as not to be overheard, “I guess, this Shadow’s decided tag along with us.”
“It would seem so, yes. It’s very interested in Jeremy.”
“I noticed him following us in the tunnel. I wish I knew why, though.”
“It’s a bit of a Watermelon, lad, the Shadows never act this way. You said he was following us in the tunnel?”
Jeremy nodded. “Yes, I saw a shadow streaking through the evertorches as we walked. It was small, but I guess I was looking for it.”
“Walter, do you know what this means?”
“Yes, Meddle, I do. The evertorches aren’t stopping the Shadows any more.”
Jeremy shook his head. “No, Walter, I don’t think that’s it.”
“What do you mean, lad?”
“He has trouble communicating in light. When he spoke to me in the bath room back in shelter I could tell overcoming the evertorches took a lot of his energy.”
“You think that’s why it was so cold in the room?”
“I do, Ama. The torches keep them from… manifesting, or forming, or… I don’t know what we should call it.”
“But, lad, this one here seems to be traveling through the torches. They’ve never done that before.”
“How do you know?”
Walter cocked his head in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“Well, what if the shadows have always been in the torches, but you never noticed? I know I haven’t been here long, but I’ve seen that the people here don’t really see the evertorches – they’re just ‘there.’ And since people assume they keep the shadows away, why would they bother looking at them?”
When Jeremy finished speaking the tiny streak of shadow spun through the evertorch. The voice whispered again, “Understanding, wise-seer.”
Ama gazed at Jeremy with profound respect. “Jeremy, you show great insight. Insight worthy of a healer, in fact.”
“So you think I’m right?”
“You may be, Jeremy.” Turning to Walter she added, “It would seem our world may not quite what we have thought it to be, Old Fox.”
Walter had paled steadily as Jeremy had expressed his thoughts. Collecting himself he turned to Ama. “You could be right , Meddle, and that ain’t good. The senate will have to be told when we get the The Ravine.”
The shadow buzzed angrily in the evertorch. “Anger, fear, treaty-breakers.”
Jeremy managed to flash Walter a small grin. “Or not?”
The old trader’s shoulders slumped. “This nonsense is why I left the Inner Valleys in the first place. The Coastlands are a lot more straightforward.”
Ama reached across the table and, bringing her hand to his chin, turned his head toward her eyes. “I know, Old Fox, but the guard was right. You may have come back just in time to stop this nonsense.”
Walter reached up and moved Ama’s hand from his face, but Jeremy noticed as he lowered her hand to the table he didn’t let go. “Ama, I’m an old man and things like this happen all the time. It’ll blow over, it always does. Woodhall and Water Gap will line up the outer settlements and the Senate will calm things down.”
Ama patted Walter’s hand and shook her head slowly. “No, Walter, I don’t believe it will. Something has changed. Look at what’s happening. Jeremy’s arrival, the Shadows are communicating in ways we’ve never known, and people here are angry. Far angrier than I’ve ever felt.”
“Meddle, traders are always a bit angry. It keeps them on their toes and the profits up.”
“Not like this, Walter, and you know it. Most notable is how quickly this anger has formed. We’ve heard nothing of these new attitudes in Water Gap, and even Shelter is blissfully unaware of the hostility present at their own front door. Something is causing this to happen.”
The shadow spun once more as the voice spoke more clearly. “The treaty is broken. The Old Fox is needed, you have been summoned”. Jeremy and Ama both looked as Walter’s eyes widened in shock, a brief mist of breath rising from his mouth. The temperature at the table had suddenly dipped dramatically.