© James J. Doyle, Jr. 2014
The shock wave almost knocked him over.
Uncle Joe rocked back and forth as the subsequent surges of pressured air washed over his body and diminished in intensity. In the distance, he watched flames climb high into the blue sky, followed by a thick black smoke that billowed, folded and rolled inward, obscuring the column of fire.
The fertilizer plant in West, Texas, about eight miles from the farm, had exploded.
Uncle Joe saw it, but he didn’t know it was the fertilizer plant. He thought it was the road construction on Interstate 35. Something had gone wrong, terribly wrong. They would need help.
Joe headed for his pickup and the interstate.
If he hadn’t, if Uncle Joe had gone to West, the events recorded here would not have occurred.
No one would have heard of the Tunnels of Nith and the other things.
* * *
Sirens blared and emergency lights flashed as the fire trucks and ambulances raced past above him on the interstate. Under cover of the partially constructed overpass, Joe wondered if he had guessed wrong. Should he head for West? He scanned the grade for a way to get his truck up the slope and back onto the main highway.
That’s when he saw the creature.
About three feet tall, dressed in a worn brown suit, floppy hat and no shoes, whatever it was waved him forward, large furry hands motioning excitedly.
Uncle Joe stopped the truck and lowered the window. “Can I help you?”
“I Fetch be,” the small person answered. “You help be.”
Joe was puzzled. “Are you hurt?”
“Hurt not me. Fast go we. Coming they be.”
“Hoot-Hang-Alls, Hooties. No time. Out follow.”
Uncle Joe hesitated, then opened the door, stepped down and faced Fetch.
“My name is Joe.” Uncle Joe paused. “What are you?
“Tibboh me be. Fetch name be.” The Tibboh bent his head to look around Joe, seeming to search for something in the cab of the truck. “Light-shine find.” Urgency was in the short one’s voice.
Joe reached under the front seat and grabbed the long LED flashlight. When he turned, Fetch had already moved away. The Tibboh’s body disappeared around a pile of construction debris, the floppy hat bouncing between the rocks and dirt. Uncle Joe jogged to keep the small person in sight, squeezed between two boulders, slipped down a grade, regained his footing and followed along a trough that looked like something had collapsed and folded the ground downward. Joe stopped. He couldn’t sight the Tibboh.
“Down climb,” a voice echoed from a symmetrical hole in the ground.
Kneeling, Joe saw a soft green light. About seven feet below, the surface seemed even.
“Quick be.” Standing at the edge of the shadow the opening made on the floor, Fetch beckoned Joe to descend.
Lowering himself through the opening, Uncle Joe hung for a second, released his hands and landed. The surface was smooth. He stood in the green-lit tunnel.
“Fast follow.” Furry hands waved above the brown-coated back as Fetch rounded a bend.
“Wait up.” Uncle Joe broke into a run. The floor dipped deeper. Joe tripped on his feet, caught himself and glimpsed the Tibboh ahead.
* * *
“What is this place?” Joe turned, rotating his body, bending his neck up and down.
The space had to be two football fields across, circular at floor level, rising to form a half sphere. Walls glowed with a green material and curved upward to ten or so stories. Around the edges, round doors were spaced at even intervals. Each door was equipped with a polished knocker, handle and hardware and was flanked by two round windows with curtains. No two doors had the same paint. Under the greenish light, the color of the doors was difficult to describe. Some doors were open. Tibbohs of various sizes and ages stood at the thresholds and spilled out into the open space. Their dress was old-fashioned. Women wore long skirts over flouncy blouses, both adorned with intricate stitching, which was incorporated into the head bonnets. The men’s attire resembled Fetch’s, woolen suits with pocket-handkerchiefs and floppy hats. Children pushed between their parent’s legs in mini-outfits that mirrored the adult’s garb.
“Place where Tibbohs be,” Fetch answered.
“For long?” Joe asked.
“Long here be. Long there be.” The Tibboh slipped an index finger under the floppy hat and scratched. When he spoke again, the manner of his speech changed. “The old books say we once lived above the ground in our own burrows, and some Tibbohs lived with the Long Legs in their towns.” Fetch smiled and switched his words. “Not now be. Changed backwards see. This Erihs. No other. Last Tibbohs we be. Here Tibbohs live we.”
“What do you eat?” Joe wondered, not seeing any gardens.
“Above food. Long Legs not see. Tunnels move. Holes appear.” Fetch laughed a deep rolling rumble. “Tibbohs fast. Little take. Few guard-watchers we be.”
The Tibboh smiled. “Guard the heir.” A worried look crossed Fetch’s face. “Watch the drain.”
“Who’s this heir person?
Fetch laughed. “You he be.”
Joe frowned. “Me? What do you . . .”?
“This my son, Nippip,” Fetch interrupted hurriedly. “He help. You help. We go.”
“Slow down, Fetch. Why do you need my help?”
“Big sound. Drain crack. Come they.”
“Who? Those ‘Hooties’ you mentioned?”
As he said the word, the Tibbohs shivered as one and clenched their jaws. The men reached for short swords that hung from their wide belts. Joe had not noticed the swords.
“Who are Hooties?” Uncle Joe asked.
“Not Tibbohs. Not Long Legs. Books say scros and snilbogs served Dark Lord at Final Battle. Last King win.” Fetch nodded in agreement. “Seal he evil under drain. Dark Lord there make new bad thing from two before.” The Tibboh wrinkled his nose. “Make Hooties. Tibboh guard watch. Drain seal crack. Hooties here come.”
“I’m sorry, Fetch. I don’t understand much of what you’re saying, but what I do says to me you have a problem. A pretty fantastic problem. We should go back and talk with the authorities. Get you some real help.”
“Joe, no. Sword your blood take. Your blood right make.”
“My blood? Why? This makes no sense.”
Fetch closed his eyes and chanted. “Blood sword cup know. Drain seal make close.” The Tibboh opened his eyes and showed a wide grin. “Blood yours. Drops few. Need you.”
“Now I know we need help.” Uncle Joe turned back toward the tunnel.
As if from nowhere, Fetch stood in front of Joe. “Take they Nippin’s brother Yrrem. No more be. Other youngers and smallings. No time. Hooties come. For us. For you. We need your help to stop them.”
Fetch moved aside. A Tibboh with a long white beard stepped forward. In the oldster’s outstretched hands was a long sword. The ancient raised the bright blade to Joe and said something in a distant singsong language.
* * *
“I don’t know why I’m doing this.” Uncle Joe adjusted the scabbard and sword that hung from the leather belt around his waste.
At Joe’s side, Fetch stared forward. “Long Hall soon end, Joe Redirts.”
Behind them, Nippip and the other six Tibboh guards slapped their swords and echoed, “Redirts.”
“Why are you calling me that, Fetch?”
“Carry you Lirudna, Blood Sword. Sword take. Blood make.”
“More strange language and more blood talk.” Joe shook his head and took a deep breath. “Well, let’s get on with this. Maybe it will make sense in time.” He stared ahead. “It seems like it’s been hours since we left Home Hall.”
“Time same not here. Change place. Change time.” As Fetch spoke, the grade steepened. “Tunnels of Nith near start.”
An unpleasant aroma reached Joe’s nose. He noticed the Tibbohs wrinkle their rather large olfactory appendages and make faces. “What is that smell?” Uncle Joe asked.
“Hooties,” Nippip answered. Anger rose in his voice. Together, the Tibbohs beat their palms against their swords.
“Down walk, Redirts.” Fetch motioned the company to silence. “Nith Tunnels. Walls hear.”
The tunnel spiraled downward, narrowed and branched to face three openings.
“Secret know,” Fetch whispered to Joe. “Down straight. Up left.” The Tibboh’s hand indicated the directions. “Old one tell. Secret ours. Hooties not.” A weak smile crossed Fetch’s face. “Nith Tunnels change way. Hope same this day.” Fetch pointed the group to take the middle tunnel.
* * *
Legs aching, Joe leaned against the tunnel wall. He had no idea how long they had been going down, always spiraling down, to find the next split and the next choice of doors, two or three, never more. He figured he knew how Fetch chose the correct door.
With hand signals, Fetch got the group up and moving again, down to more doors and more choices.
Abruptly, the tunnel floor leveled. In front, a single tall archway framed a dark tunnel. Inside the arch, the green stones and their light stopped. Squinting, Joe saw a red glow that pulsed, faded and brightened. It was hard to judge the distance, but the red light did not seem far.
“Light-shine, Joe.” Fetch whispered.
Lifting the flashlight from his belt, Uncle Joe focused the beam into the dark.
“Now quick.” The Tibboh leader pushed Nippin and the guards in single column to follow the light and Joe, who was ahead, playing the beam forward and off the sidewalls. Fetch took the last place in line.
Joe noticed the tunnel widening. Then he couldn’t find a wall. Pointing the beam up, the light disappeared into darkness. His stepped over a shallow ledge, took a few steps and stopped. Dust covered a hard floor that seemed to have a slight slant forward. Uncle Joe scraped with his boots. A white porcelain surface appeared in the light of the flashlight.
As if materializing from nowhere, Fetch stood at Joe’s side, bending to touch the exposed portion of floor. “Pool of Years.” Fetch’s voice sounded as if he were reciting the phrase from memory. “Dry long. Tears gone.” The Tibboh rose and pointed to the red spot in the floor. “Drain of Tears.”
Joe traced the beam across the floor. At the red glow, he played the light over what looked like a large medallion that had been cracked into jagged halves and separated. Uncle Joe had seen pictures of ancient symbolons, the parts of broken coins that could be fit together to identify common companions and purpose. The halves of this symbolon were parted and pulled back. Red light throbbed through the exposed opening.
“Drain broke.” Fetch sighed.
The Tibboh extended his fingers to a short shape that stood beyond the broken drain.
Running the light beyond the symbolon, Joe focused the beam on a column of stone about three feet high. On the flat top sparkled a gold cup, a chalice.
“Cup of Sword,” Fetch stated softly. The Tibboh turned, placed a hand on Joe’s sword and then placed the other hand on Joe’s chest above the heart. “Sword take. Blood make.” Fetch paused. “It is time, Joe Redirts.”
Uncle Joe heard a clinking and saw something move in the shadows.
A dark sword appeared above the Tibboh’s head.
“Fetch, watch out!”
Joe pulled his blade and swung hard.
A gray arm bounced to the floor oozing a thick black fluid.
“Hooties!” Fetch shouted. The Tibboh drew his sword, spun and stabbed into the shape behind him.
From the drain the red glow intensified, illuminating the space in an eerie half-light.
Short bent misshapen figures hopped and waddled toad-like at the band. High screeching “Hoot, Hoot, Hooteee” hissed between broken, discolored teeth. Rusted armor plates covered scabbed, putrescent skin. Around the necks of the misanthropes hung the hollow bones and shrunken skulls of victims, the foul trophies clinking to the clumsy gait of the nightmare creations. The clumsy monsters chopped with broken swords and poked with sharp knives, slobbering and hissing “Hooteee, Hooteeeeee, Hooteeeeeeeee.”
Joe parried and struck.
Tibbohs jumped, somersaulted and spun with such dexterity they seemed to disappear and re-appear to cut and stab at the unguarded sides of their confused assailants.
Even as he fought, Uncle Joe was amazed at the speed and skill of his companions.
The Tibboh troop sliced and hammered, protecting Joe at their center.
Fetid bodies sank to the floor, sticky and muddy with dust and viscous fluids.
More Hooties screeched, slipped and crawled insect-like over the fallen forms of their own.
Joe backed against a hard surface. His glance caught a flash of gold as a gnarled hand with a sharp stabbing knife reached under the guard of Nippin, who raised the pummel of his sword to crack the skull of the Hootie, but not before the tip of the instrument pierced Joe’s flesh. Blood swelled from the wound and fell in droplets to the cup beneath Joe’s arm.
A high-pitched unearthly howl echoed from the hole in the floor.
Around them, the walls shook and shifted.
The eyes of the attacking Hooties glazed. Mouths widened, legs bent, bodies slumped and swords clanged to the hard dry surface of the Pool of Years. Joe and the Tibbohs watched the flesh of the Hooties pull inward, crumple, thin and burst into tight clouds of dust that vanished before their eyes.
The floor tilted.
A grating sound drew their attention to the symbolon.
The broken edges of the Drain of Tears moved together as the red glow faded. With a loud crack, the drain snapped shut.
In the dark, Fetch shouted “Light-shine” and picked up Uncle Joe’s flashlight. “Quick speed. Nith shifts.” Shaking the light in the direction of the tunnel exit, Fetch reached to support a limping Tibboh. Together, they started a broken run toward the exit.
Others followed, most injured, all moving.
With his good arm, Joe bent to pull Nippin onto his back. The young Tibboh held his side with one hand and gripped Joe’s neck with the other arm, leaning his head close to Joe’s ear.
In a fading voice, Nippin said, “King sword true take. King blood whole make.”
* * *
Fetch and his injured companion sank to the tunnel floor.
Joe carefully lowered Nippin to the ground and started working on his side. The troop had been running since leaving the Pool of Years, and they all needed to rest and care for their wounds.
“Redirts lead.” Fetch spoke as he bandaged the leg of his running mate with torn shirt strips. “Path find he.”
Joe’s hand felt the heat of Nippin’s forehead. “He needs more help, Fetch. I’ve stopped the bleeding, best I can, but the wound is deep.”
“Long Hall must reach. Old one there be.” Another small quake shook the tunnel. “Nith Tunnels change way. Hope same this day.”
“How much time do we have?”
“Path longer down, always. Way shorter up, maybe.” Fetch fixed his eyes on Uncle Joe. “Secret the choose be. Remember the secret thee?”
“I remember. Down straight. Up left.” Joe lifted Nippin in his arms. He had bandaged the cut in his own left arm, and it felt better, but he didn’t know how long he could carry the young Tibboh. “Ok, everyone up. Follow me.”
Around the corner, three openings appeared. Joe took what he thought was left. As he did, he swiveled his head to catch Fetch’s affirmative nod.
The floor shook back and forth, halting the troop. Between labored breaths, Fetch spoke in his other voice. “Joe, even with the drain sealed, the Dark One holds some sway over these tunnels. Choose well and fast.” The shaking stopped.
Joe nodded and took off at a slow jog, the rest increasing their pace behind him.
* * *
Nippin opened his eyes. At the foot of the Home Hall bed, Uncle Joe smiled.
The door opened and Fetch and the rest of the fellowship entered and stood around the bed. The Tibboh guards poked young Nippin and laughed low rolling laughs.
“Young one heal well,” Fetch grinned.
“I’m just glad we got him here in time.” Joe commented.
“Tunnels of Nith know a different time, Joe Redirts. Path down long. Path up short. The secret is the choice. You made good choices, Redirts.”
“Why do you call me ‘Redirts,’ Fetch?”
“It is an old name, Uncle Joe.” The Old One had entered unnoticed and stood beside Joe, who showed his surprise. “Really, it’s more a nickname.” The elder Tibboh paused in thought. “Before the Last King was king, his companions knew him by that name. In Tibboh speech, it’s been turned – as many of our words have. In your tongue, it would be ‘Strider.’ Our people honor you.”
“Honor me? Why?”
“Because, Joe Redirts, we know who you are. You are the descendant of the last true king, the one whose blood confined the Dark Lord to his prison.” Holding up a hand, the Old One asked, “May I continue with my use of your Long Legs way of speech?”
Joe nodded in the affirmative.
“Thank you. Fetch speaks some, but I’ve had more practice. I worked in a circus to learn the above language.”
“Yes, at times we travel. More often we stay close. Close to you.”
“Why close to me?”
“For that, we go back to the Final Battle. Tibbohs, though small, played a key role in that ancient conflict. Our reward, our honor, was to take responsibility for the Dark One in his prison, to watch the drain, and to restore the seal — should it ever be broken. King’s blood made that seal, and only blood from a descendant of the King can restore the seal. Your blood has done that.”
“My blood?” Joe asked.
“Yes, Joe, your blood. Tibbohs have guarded you all your life. Home Hall and the Tunnels of Nith were created for that purpose, to follow you and keep you close. Blood where is. Tibbohs their be. Watch the seal. Guard the heir. Sorry, I’m slipping back into our vernacular.”
“You’ve been following me?” Joe’s voice was tentative.
“All your life and the lives of your ancestors, Tibbohs are always close, but we try to stay out of sight. I think we’re pretty good at that.” The Old One stopped and touched his lips with a finger. “Fetch is your closest guard. He sleeps in the shed where you keep your farm tools and equipment. I believe you also have a refrigerator there. Tibbohs have a natural tendency to neatness, and he may have straightened things up — from time-to-time.”
“Really.” Joe was thinking. “I have noticed stuff moved around, and some of the newer tools seem to disappear — from time-to-time.”
“Fetch.” The Old One stared at the Tibboh leader and guard.
“Return me.” Fetch fidgeted. “Sorry be.”
“Tibbohs have a fondness for bright things.” The Old One explained. “And we love a good party and good food. Another weakness, I’m afraid.”
Uncle Joe fixed his gaze on Fetch. “That I have noticed. Especially my leftover barbecue.”
* * *
West News, November 7, 2014, Headline, Farm Section, Page 3:
“Unusual Sighting: Is Seeing Believing?
“Farmer Kolchevek reports an unusual sighting last Friday night near Birome Creek. Bernie was traveling home late after helping the Patosckys deliver twin calves. Our good friend was on the old county road where it crosses the Mitzfum Bridge over the creek. This is near the nicely treed area above the banks much favored for noontime family picnics and late-night bonfire festivities. The moon was high and full.
“As he crossed the bridge, Bernie observed a strange green glow emanating from the picnic spot to his left. Stopping on the span, he got out and moved to the railing for a closer look.
“At this point, we stop to affirm that Bernie and his wife are seen regularly in church on Sundays. When the children were young and at home, Bernie coached Little League, and on two occasions his teams represented our community at the state tournament. Ciddy, his wife of 47 years, is a recognized baker of repute, with blue ribbons for kolaches at the county and state fairs. They are not people to make up stories.
“Let’s return to Bernie on the bridge.
“Bernie tells us he squinted and focused and he has little doubt what he saw — which is here reported in his own words:
“’Around a large fire, short people danced and frolicked. A pleasant music drifted to my ears. The fire itself was an odd hue. It lit the grove with a warm green light. I found the effect comforting and inviting, and I wondered if this was a bunch of circus performers on holiday. Then, I saw what looked like a tall farmer in a cowboy hat. I call him a farmer because, even at the distance, he looked like someone I knew from these parts. Well, the farmer was bent over a portable smoker of some size and length. As I watched, the little people lined up with plates and utensils. I remember the utensils flashed bright in the strange light. The farmer started to dispense food onto the plates. It looked like meat, mounds and mounds of barbecued meats. I could smell the sauce in the air, and, boy, my mouth started to water. It was enough to make me want to wander over there and ask for a plate, but being raised right by my momma and not seeing any criminal activity, just some good old fun, I decided it was time to head home and tell the missus. She suggested I write you with this unusual sighting. If you put the story in the paper, remember her name is spelled ‘C-i-d-d-y,’ after her great aunt who won the polka contest dancing on one foot.’
“There you have it, and we thank Bernie and Ciddy for their report. People still talk about her aunt’s dancing, and we’re sure they will be talking about Bernie’s unusual sighting for some time to come.
“Again, remember our motto: ‘If you haven’t heard it here, you haven’t heard it.’
“Keep an eye out for your own story, and let us know if you spy that tall farmer in the cowboy hat with the good-smelling barbecue and his small friends.
“Franz Holzeff, your Editor-in-Chief and owner of Holzeff’s Meats – ‘The Link to a Great Meal is The End of a Holzeff’s Sausage,’ signing off . . . until the next story.”