No one knew quite where the network of tunnels came from. They were dank, dark, riddled with rats and pests, and the very walls themselves were coated with a layer of thick, slippery dark green slime. In the winter the tunnels would let in rain water, and that would then freeze, and thaw, and freeze again, absorbing the murky brown colour from generations of previous rainfall.
In the winter , the smell was awful, but just about tolerable. In the summer, it became an almost physical presence, a cloying cloud of the most miserable odours, that would seep upwards to the streets. Ideally, no one wanted to set foot in the tunnels, but they did provide the easiest direct links to different parts of the city, and allowed people to bypass sentries if they needed to.
That was why, despite the unusually warm early Spring weather, the young man moved through the tunnel, having slipped in via the old crumbling stairs at a place called ‘Holborn’, making his way across the rumble to the actual tunnel itself. He let his pale blue eyes sweep the strange metal lines once more, yet again wondering what they were, and headed in the direction of what was called ‘Piccadilly Circus’. The stench of various rotting substances (and most likely, rotting animals, among other things) was nearly overwhelming, but his insatiable curiosity kept him moving forward. His leather boots squelched unpleasantly upon the layers of organic residue on the ground, a sensation nearly as awful as the smell, but he, kept going, keen to reach his prize.
It was a long walk, but he knew it would be worth it. He felt the thrill of defying the rules, knowing the gruff, grouchy guards would deeply resent him, except they didn’t even have a clue where he was. He emerged from Piccadilly Circus and carefully removed his boots, his bare feet now upon the crumbling concrete, and stared up at the buildings in awe.
He knew, as every pup knew, who had built them, but for him, it wasn’t enough. Why had humans built all this, only to abandon it? What was the Schism? How did half these buildings manage to remain standing, whilst half had collapsed? As he made his way past (and through) the remains of once mighty structures, his snout wrinkled, picking up the scent markers from the spray bottles, signalling the path back to the book place. His mottled brown fur caught a light breeze as he sniffed his way through, trusting his nose even more than his eyes.
When he found it again, he smiled. He picked his way through the vines, moss and rubble to the archway that had once held a rust-red door, and crept into the building once called London Library. Peeling back the grey cloth hood from his face, he let the sunlight and beautiful blue sky wash over his light brown fur and gazed at the derelict building.
The flood had ruined the ground section’s selection of books, something that he still considered a tragic affront, every time he stepped foot through the archway. Pages of delicate paper had turned to mush, then dried into an unintelligible mess. The boy tiptoed past them, over the threadbare red carpet, ignoring the rotting wooden tables and focusing on his prize. He ventured up a small flight of stairs and ran his eyes over the volumes of knowledge.
Yes, it was dangerous to wander so far into the city. The buildings were unstable, and the few inhabitants that had claimed the old town centre as home guarded their lairs jealously. There was so much unknown about the various items left behind from the pre-Schism days, that anything could be a hazard. With a small smile, he wondered what his friends would think. That smile vanished as he thought of his mother, but how could anyone reasonably resist the temptation to explore all of this? Feeling like a small child in a bakery, he struggled to decide where to begin.
His paw ran along the books, until one title in particular drew his eye. The Survey of London by John Stow. It wasn’t one book, but several – ruby red and gold spines all neatly lined up in a row. Volume one slipped easily enough from the shelf, and he gazed at the cover. The picture was faded, it looked hand-drawn, showing a vista of an old city, with wooden homes, and a few familiar structures. There was little question to him that this was from the past, but before the Schism? Well, surely it had to be, but how long before? There was just no way to know. He sat in the corner, legs crossed, tail swished to one side, and began to thumb through the pages.
Day turned to the pale orange glow of dusk as time passed, and the young pup realised, with a start, that he had cut things pretty tight. With even more of a start, he realised his mother would be starting to worry, a thought that drew his lips back in self-rebuke. She hated the very thought of him skulking through the half-washed out, half-crumbled remains of the city. With a heart filled with a combination of guilt, and regret at having to leave the library, he pulled himself to his feet, and walked down the stairs, before pausing abruptly, as a new scent hit his nostrils.
It was another wolf, which was usually a small comfort, but in this place, it filled him with worry. He didn’t recognise the odour, save for it belonging to a male. Unsure as to exactly where the other wolf was, he stepped lightly, delicately, over the carpet, sniffing the air to narrow down where the other wolf might be. Stepping into the cooler dusk air, his eyes swept the courtyard, but no one else was immediately visible. Keeping close to the walls, he tried to stay in the shadows as he headed back to the street, but he knew he’d have to accept being exposed at some point.
The scent was growing more potent. Whoever the other wolf was, he was close, but so far hadn’t done anything to announce himself, a detail that concerned him – if it were just another curious, innocent passerby, why not say so? Then again, I haven’t announced my presence… And he wasn’t going to, just in case…
Once, there had been towering buildings lining what was once known as Duke of York Street, but now, there was largely just rubble, with the occasional building still half-standing, like the library. Some of the taller buildings to survive loomed large in the distance. He could only assume that the gods had decided the library, with all of its magnificent knowledge, had to survive, even as so many others fell, or were reclaimed by the inevitable crawl of nature. His thoughts, wandering as they often did, kept him from fully focusing, and so when the voice called out, he yelped.
“I know you’re out there.” Came a deep, yet raspy growl. “I can smell you, and I can hear you.”
Fear sent adrenaline pumping through him, and he scanned the roads and wreckage, yet he couldn’t see the other wolf. The voice called out again.
“This is my territory, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll scram.”
What do you think I’m trying to do? He thought to himself, annoyed, but he erred on caution’s side to keep moving quietly towards Piccadilly Circus.
“Don’t ignore me son, you’ll regret that. Answer me.” The raspy, grumpy voice seemed closer. His ears flicked at the sound of stones rolling down a dirt mound. It wasn’t far away at all.
“I… I’m going!” He called back, hoping he didn’t sound too high-pitched.
“A nosey little pup huh? Get lost kid, and know your manners.” The older wolf shouted. “And next time, don’t ignore the scent markers.”
“What scent markers?” He muttered to himself as he walked.
“Didn’t even bother to check, did you pup?” The elder wolf stepped out from behind a semi-collpased wall to stand behind him, making him jump out of his fur. Out of reflex, he hunched down, teeth bared, a low growl escaping his lips.
“Hah!” The older wolf stood there, hands on hips, seemingly amused at his posturing. Then again, the older wolf was taller and broader, and there wasn’t a trace of puppy fat on his grey and white-furred face. The ears were a little knarled, the fur a little thin here and there. A brown leather, hoodless cloak was draped loosely around him, save for around the waste, where, from a darker brown belt, hung several small leather pouches, tied with string. Strong black boots completed the look, and sea-green eyes looked at him studiously, as though examining a prospective meal.
“You are far too young to be this deep into the city, and you’re obviously far too ignorant too.” He added. “You got a name?”
“Well, Jacob, consider this your only warning, and consider yourself lucky I found you.” Always, always, check for scent markers, and do not stray into forbidden territory again. If I catch you, you can expect to lose part of an ear.”
“I’m, I’m sorry, I was just…”
“I don’t want to hear it kid. Get out of here, and don’t come back.” When Jacob just stood there sullenly, the older wolf narrowed his eyes, and let out a low growl.
“Okay okay, I’m going.” Jacob turned, and began to half-run, but kept looking over his shoulder. The other wolf remained in place, until Jacob reached the stairs down to the tunnel.