Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 16

     Though your average passerby might doubt it, due to his rugged, rat-like exterior, Liam occasionally dabbled in friendships. Friends were a rare currency in the big city, and good friends were even rarer. A good friend who also happened to be your boss, who took you out drinking and then took you for a cup of coffee the next morning, was the best friend in all creation. He had even bought Liam a muffin, which his stomach eyed with the suspicious disdain of a career drunkard. Liam mulled these thoughts over as he downed his cup of scalding hot coffee, wondering how Simon had managed to talk him into a drinking contest with two half goblins and a rather inebriated talking rabbit. Simon was speaking to him, but Liam wasn’t catching most of the words.

     Liam adjusted a pair of dark sunglasses his friend had given him to combat his skull splitting headache. Simon sat across the table from him, also wearing a pair of dark sunglasses and looking much worse for wear than he normally did.

     “I’m being followed. I can see something, someone, out of the corner of my eye. It starts when I leave the house and it follows me wherever I go. I need you to watch my back today, Liam.”

     “Are you sure you’re not being paranoid?”

     Reaching across the table, Simon snatched the glasses from Liam’s face, exposing his red streaked eyes to the vengeful gaze of Mr. Sun, “Because I’m kind of a big deal. I’m honestly surprised that nobody’s tried this before and also that you still haven’t picked up on that yet.”

     Following the sound of his voice, Liam knocked his employer’s sunglasses to the floor. He was rewarded by a sharp intake of breath, “I know you’re a big deal, that’s not what I’m getting at. Why don’t people just spy on you in your study? It’s kinda stupid to follow you around when even I know roughly where you’re going to be about half the time.”
“Do you want the job or not?”

     Liam hesitated for an instant, “Sure. I’ve wasted days doing dumber things.”
Resting a hand on Liam’s shoulder for an instant, Simon rose to his feet, “Thank you, Liam. I can’t trust anyone else to figure out what’s going on. It might take a couple of tries, even with your help. “

     Turning towards the front door, Simon suddenly turned on his heels and headed behind the counter. Grabbing his sunglasses and slipping them over his tortured eyes, Liam called out to Simon, “Wait, we’re starting now?”

     Simon stopped at the door into the kitchen, “What? Of course we’re starting now. I’ve got work to do, and we don’t have time to waste.”

     Darting through the kitchen door, he was gone. Quickly cramming his uneaten muffin into a pocket, Liam desperately followed. This was hardly the Simon which Liam had been working for over the last few years. Something had changed, either in their relationship or in Simon himself. He was careful, crafty and he planned several steps ahead whenever he took action. This spontaneous Simon was something new and that scared Liam a little. Spontaneous got people killed, usually the spontaneous ones and sometimes, the people around them.

     Striding from the coffee shop’s back door, he took a left immediately. Liam waited a discrete amount of time before following. If Simon was being followed, Liam couldn’t stay too close. When you’re tailing someone to find out if they’re being followed, you need to remain unseen, but keep your target in your sights at all times. As the morning wore on, Liam started to feel uneasy. Simon never overreacted to anything, the privilege of the truly strong, and if he thought he was being followed, he was. From that moment on, to Liam’s eye, every man in a dark suit eyed them carefully. Every random bump and encounter seemed forced, as though Liam was being tracked or warned off following his employer. Sometimes, he thought he could make out a creature following Liam, but it always darted out of his own vision so quickly that Liam dismissed it as his own imagination playing tricks on him.

     Whenever possible, Simon stuck to alleys and stayed off the main roads entirely. The path he took was more erratic than the one Liam vaguely remembered taking the night before, and he had been six sheets to the wind, with one sheet not on duty on account of drunkenness. As they travelled, Liam wondered if this was what Simon’s life was like when he wasn’t around. He always seemed so at ease, but Liam and Simon rarely met outside the Nair mansion. If this tension, this unbearable tension, was true power than Liam wanted no part of it.

     As the sun rose high above them and the shadows in the alleys ceased to provide any relief from the heat or the piercing light, Simon came to a stop in the middle of a small alleyway. Liam paused at the end alley’s entrance to watch him carefully. Whether someone had been following them or not, Liam could hardly say. If someone was following him, they were invisible, or they were doing it from a distance. Focusing on Simon again, Liam realized he was gone. Reaching the end of the alley should have been impossible, but he was gone. Walking cautiously to the center of the alley, Liam turned to look at what Simon had been examining.

     It was a door, but unlike any door Liam had ever seen in New York. It was made of wood, and was miraculously free of any dents or graffiti of any kind. On the door was an engraving of a tree. It reached upwards with branches full of leaves towards the top of the door, and towards the bottom of the door with its roots. If Simon went anywhere, he went into this door. Opening it, Liam discovered a set of stairs which went on endlessly into the darkness. Before taking the first step, Liam briefly wondered where Simon was leading him.

     The moment he placed both his feet on the steps, the door slammed shut behind him. No matter how hard he tried, Liam couldn’t get it open again. Quickly giving up, Liam started down the steps. It wouldn’t be like Simon to get them both killed so easily. Ahead of him, torches hanging along the walls lit the way ahead of him. For what felt like hours, Liam walked the steps. The torches ahead of him lit up, chasing away the darkness and revealing more steps. Behind him, torches would extinguish themselves, hiding all traces of the path back upward from his sight. Once, in an act of desperate frustration, Liam threw his muffin into the darkness behind him. He never heard it land, and there was a loud chewing sound for a few minutes after that.

     Just as he was beginning to wonder if he was going mad, another door appeared in front of him. It also had a tree engraved on it, but this tree’s branches bore no leaves. Instead of leaves, all the branches were filled with birds. What concerned Liam were the roots, which each bore a skull at its base, deep below the earth. Pushing the door open, Liam’s eyes were again assaulted by the brilliant light of the noon day sun. It took his poor eyes a minute to adjust, after the long darkness, but he could hardly believe what he saw once he opened them.

     Most Mythic peoples lived in plain sight. The old ways were dead, magic was dead, and those who lived on the Earth did so in fear of their human counterparts. This underground paradise bore no resemblance to the Mythic world Liam knew. This was the old ways, the manner in which Mythic People lived before humans became so dominant. High above Liam was the closest approximation of the sky Liam could imagine. Mist covered the impossibly bright blue earthen ceiling, approximating clouds. Beneath his feet, grass swayed in the breeze. What took his breath away was the city laid out in front of him. The grass at his feet quickly gave way to stone pathways, which led away between buildings and off into the distance. Rising up above the city, looking down over the city, was a massive tree which reached into the artificial sky. Far ahead of him, Liam could make out Simon. His suit was an instant giveaway in a city filled with point eared elves wearing tunics.

     The city was surrounded by an enormous market, filled with wooden stalls. They swayed in the light breeze which ran through the streets. The smell of cooked food wafted through the winding pathways the stalls created, and while Liam couldn’t understand Elvish, he got the gist of what the vendors were saying. “Buy from me, it’s better and cheaper here.” As he followed Simon, with his eyes only on him, he bumped into a child and knocked him over. Leaning over, Liam was surprised to find fear in his eyes. Liam had never been feared before, but he had never knocked an elven child over before either. Giving him his hand, Liam helped the boy to his feet. Smiling, the boy offered Liam a candy, which he took and put into his pocket.

     Many of the elves ignored Liam as he followed Simon through their streets. Those who paid him any mind, viewed him through suspicious, narrowed eyes. He decided against trying to steal from anyone. It’s best not to steal when you have no idea how you’re going to get out of a bad situation. Instead of working, Liam took the time to observe his surroundings as he followed his boss instead. Every city had a story to tell. If cities are living things, the streets and people are it’s lifeblood and veins. The city told Liam a story, and he didn’t fancy it.

     The majority of the buildings had stone first floors, but the floors above them were wooden. Every building was ornately carved with the faces of previous occupants, or famous family members from bygone ages. Some houses were completely covered in such faces, their regal features looking down on the streets. Some of them only bore a few, and their houses looked newer as well. Planted between the houses were tall Elm trees. Some of the trees were being used for housing or shops. Some of the shops bore carvings, ornate works of the sun or the stars, which Liam couldn’t understand the meaning of.

     Even though the city looked prosperous, the lifeblood, the people were a little thin on the ground. Many of the houses were empty or boarded up. Having worked around Simon and his life for a while, Liam had assumed the elvish population in New York was steady. All the empty houses made Liam wonder where they had gone. It didn’t take long to reach the center of the city. Towering above him, four massive trees grew together into one, having been gradually coerced through generations of careful tending. The intertwined trunks shot up towards the ceiling, where they had long ago pushed through the earth and upwards towards the city.

     Underneath the trees, two thrones sat surrounded by elves. Their occupants made no motion to rise as Liam’s friend approached. Simon strode confidently up the two thrones and bowed. Liam would have gotten close enough to hear what they had to say, but the glares he was shot dissuaded him somewhat. He waited until Simon was done talking.

     Returning the way he came, Simon stopped to check on Liam, “You, my friend, are one of the few individuals who have seen the one of the World Trees and lived to tell about it.”

     Arching his head back to look at the ceiling, Liam cupped his hands over his eyes, “Where does the tree go from here?”

     Simon looked up with him, “Some of the branches go to Central Park. I don’t know about the rest. Now, I know I was being followed by someone since before I got to the coffee shop with you. Are you absolutely certain that nobody followed me?”

     Liam rubbed at his eyes, “Maybe? I couldn’t tell. You’ve got me a little freaked out right now.”

     Nodding thoughtfully, Simon resumed his walk, “I trust you, Liam. Let’s give it another shot. I’m not sure you’re going to like where we’re going next, though.”

     Liam perked up at that, “And where is that?”

     Simon’s next response sent a shiver down Liam’s spine, “The gnome village in Grenwich Village. This is your world, now Liam, and these are your people, even if they aren’t. You’re going to have to see them at some point.”

     Liam waited for a good few moments before following Simon. He wanted to help his friend, but nobody likes walking back into their mistakes. Maybe, after all this time, Liam had to grow up a little and stop running away.

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