Chapter XVII.

23 May

A rusted iron cover lay over the entrance hole.

With a strenuous effort, the fugitive pair succeeded in lifting it, crawling onto the descending ramp, and then placing the heavy lid back in place.

Complete darkness enveloped them as they walked down to a horizontal bottom.

Hand-in-hand, Gauge and Saluma advanced as one single unit.

Walls of wet clay grew closer together until only narrow passage space remained. The floor of the tunnel had rocky obstacles that had to be climbed over slowly.

Occasionally, eerie subterranean sounds horrified both of them.

As they became exhausted, their forward progress became slower. Gauge kept one hand up against the low ceiling, the other pointed outward ahead of them.

If only they had brought a portable torch sac to light their way through the tunnel, they both wished.

Each of them separately imagined how the place might look if its enclosing clay were visible to them. What color might it be? Would it appear friendlier than this chtonian blackness did? What sort of objects might become visible?

How long had they been underneath the surface? Neither knew. No one said a word. Were they still within Avia, or had they passed beyond its jurisdiction?

Gauge almost grinned. Free of the Dux, yet buried subterraneously, for the time being. How was their subterranean adventure going to end?

They clung to each other’s hand, each step harder to make and more difficult than the last one was.

The Sachem had said nothing about how long it would last, or where they were going to exit. It was certain that he himself had never dared take this particular tunnel to its termination point.

Saluma stumbled and nearly fell as they passed small stones and large rocks.

“Let’s rest a bit,” suggested Gauge, lifting her up.

“No,” she replied. “We must not allow any slack.”

Onward, therefore, they continued with minds stunned.

It took a while to realize that they were again on a ramp. There was increasingly more space on both sides and above them. Both of them felt greater energy from somewhere inside.

The final steps became a joyful rush ahead. There was one last lid to lift. Bright yellow daylight flooded in. They were now free, no longer within Avia.

What horrors had they left back there? both fugitives wondered.

Mountain peaks soared up to the east of their path. That was the direction the pair now were compelled to take. They now moved away from the boundary they had succeeded in passing under.

They emerged from out of a smoketree grove, onto a ridge overlooking a steep valley with farm fields. Gauge and Saluma stopped to peer down at the simple old cabins of a small upland village. It was close enough for them to reach in minutes, they both realized at the same time.

Their hike down to human habitation was fast. The pace grew and accelerated as they drew nearer their goal.

Out of breath, the two made their way to the single narrow street along which stood the homes of the small farmers of the community.

What should they do first?

Gauge pointed to a small building with display windows.

“A general store,” he said hopefully. “Let’s go in and see if anyone can help us.”

They entered the interior, full of shelves and stacks of everyday goods of all sorts.

A plump man wearing a white butcher’s biggin stood behind a lighted display case red and pink with cuts of slaughtered and dressed meat. To his left, a telephote screen held the man entranced and spellbound.

The grocer, noticing the strangers, pointed to the images of light.

“What do you think of that? The Avian dictator was killed and a new regime set up the very same day, in minutes. That country has always been weird. A horribly bloody land it is. A giant bird swooped down and did in their blasted Dux.”

Stunned and shaken, Saluma and Gauge hurried as close to the screen as they could get, going behind the butcher’s case to see and hear the news broadcast then in progress.

“Details are still scarce out of Arom, but our Landian embassy has learned that Dux Urias Asaph was brutally torn to pieces while at a raptorial institution located at Mount Gyps. His guests were unable to defend him from the mammoth winged predator. Only after the death of the head of government could the vicious bird be driven off.

“The name of the successor to the Dux is one unfamiliar to journalists and news analysts. It is rumored that the members of a group called the Raptorial Association are seizing power in all the localities of Avia. The president of the shadowy organization, an obscure figure named Sud Lozon, has flown to the capital to take the vacated position of the deceased Dux. Streams of large carriers and lorryvans have rushed into Arom, clogging the streets and avenues. Crowds of the raptor-lovers are proclaiming their leader, Mr. Lozon, the new dictator of Avia…”

Saluma turned to Gauge with flames of excitement in her sapphire eyes. “He didn’t send the teratorns into Landia as he was supposed to, but back toward the raptorium and the Dux.”

Gauge nodded in agreement. “I did not suspect ambitions for total power in Sud Lozon. But they were hiding there, behind his outer mask. Remember, he did not betray you to the Auspex, but kept both of us alive for his own purposes. He is a very clever man, shrewder than I ever suspected or imagined.”

“And today he has the country under his thumb,” sadly said Saluma. “The raptorials will become his new secret police, with the teratorn their ultimate weapon against opponents and enemies.”

Gauge, after a moment of thought, stepped over to the butcher who stood mesmerized by the words and images on the telephote screen.

“Can you help us?” he asked loudly. “My companion and I need transportation to Plumbago, where I keep an apartment flat.”

The whir of passing tracker trains was audible when the windows were open, Saluma learned immediately.

Everything about the mining metropolis fascinated her. Avia had none of the friendly bustle of Plumbago, the Landian capital for the last generation.

It was an unfamiliar pace of life, she realized. Adjustment would take time. Her mind occasionally wandered back to her own country and what she had lost by leaving it.

The pair who had escaped Avia began to make plans for a guide book on migratory birds covering all of the Continent. They outlined to each other what they thought it should contain. Both of them grew enthusiastic. This was a project that would help both of them to forget the troubles and hardships they had experienced in Avia.

One evening, as they sat discussing their project in the sitting room, there was a knock at the front door. Saluma got up to see who it was.

Her father along with Ban Nephis stood there.

Shedding tears of exploding joy, she and Azael Talmon embraced each other. Both were overflowing with awakened feelings.

Gauge ran to the door and stared in disbelief at the men he had believed dead.

The gyroplane pilot gave an explanation of their presence.

“Secretary Daisan and the other officials the Dux put in prison were summarily killed under orders from the old dictator. But the Auspex operatives classified us as criminal prisoners rather than politically suspect and therefore allowed us to escape execution.”

Dr. Talmon, staring searchingly at his daughter with his arm still around her waist, continued the explanation of his survival.

“In the confusion of the raptorial takeover, the Auspex released all the non-politicals held in its cells. We seized the opportunity to flee to the Landian embassy. They issued us papers to leave the country for outside destinations. Hundreds like us have been helped in that way.”

Ban then went on with the story.

“As you have probably heard, Dux Lozon has begun a bloodbath throughout the land. No mercy is shown to anyone under the slightest suspicion. There has never before been such heartless terror there.”

The refugees moved into the sitting room and took two soft chairs.

“A friend of mine took the risk of flying us to the border in his orthopter,” explained Ban Nephis. “We crossed over in a group of old and ailing people, mostly invalids. They cooperated in sheltering us from too much scrutiny by the Avian frontier guards. There was no trouble on the Landian side, none at all.”

“The police helped us find Gauge’s address here in Plumbago,” continued Azael Talmon. “We believed it best to take a tracker train at once, not knowing what had become of either of you. I hope our arrival here was not too startling.” He looked across at his daughter, standing next to Gauge Krave. “We can never go back there. Sud Lozon is not a forgiving man. He will remember what we did there. The birds of Avia are now lost to us, Saluma.”

She suddenly gave out an unintended laugh.

“But there are many wonderful birds in Landia, father. And throughout our Continent, as well.” She turned and looked at Gauge. “Let’s tell them about our project for the album. Father will want to join us, I am certain. And when we get financing for it, Ban can be our pilot. There are many lands and regions for the four of us to explore.”

Dr. Talmon beamed with joy at the young couple.

“When do we start? I’m itching to look at unfamiliar birds.”

The four of them set to work at once on future plans centered on research on bird species.

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