Chapter 2 - Return

As Mari descended the ramp into The Burrow, the familiar sounds of hustle and bustle gradually enveloped her. She had used this entrance many times throughout her life; it was a shared secret among academy aspirants. She approached a circular door that terminated the hall, with Phlip hopping gently at her side.

The center of the door held a small concave depression. Mari pulled a silver hexagon-shaped pendant from beneath her vest, pressed it into the concavity, and focused her mind on the door. It jarred, dust shuddering from the edges. The door rolled to the side into a pocket while fresh air rushed through her fur and crowd chatter filled her ears.

The door opened to one of the darker alleys. She carefully stepped out into it with Phlip trailing closely. The large stone door rolled back into place, appearing as just another maintenance passage used for sewer and other utility access.

Mari made her way quickly out of the alley and wove herself into the crowded street, dimly lit by the warm glow of bioluminescent tendrils. The smell of perfectly roasted butter stick potatoes hit her like a collapsed tunnel, and her stomach growled. She turned to the vendor and reached into her purse. A large marmot with a grease-splattered apron stood behind a food cart with steaming skewered potatoes lining the front.

“That’ll be 2 greens,” he beamed at her. She slapped down four small round green gemstones, and before he could hand Mari her purchase, she reached up and snagged two skewers, shoving half a potato into her mouth in one huge bite. “Appreciate it!” she grunted, trying to contain the potato in her mouth and giving a wave to the vendor.

She started down the large tunnel street, weaving through the crowds. This was The Market Corridor, one of the larger central tunnels of The Burrow. Shops lined the walls and even curved up into the ceiling. Anything you could imagine could be purchased here: psionic amplifications, healing units like the XB series field portable hyperbaric chambers, grimoires, and history books.

The crowd chatter seemed typical, but she noticed some groups gathering that seemed a bit concerned. She walked slightly slower than usual past one and heard a small hamster say, “The incident at the dam earlier was awful. I hope everyone is alright.” Mari was worried. Jerro worked at the dam; she would have to check on him first thing in the morning.

The tunnel’s diameter slowly expanded, and a cooler blue hue of light began to envelop the space. The crowds also seemed to be dying down. She was nearing The Spine, the central column of The Burrow, which connected all sub-corridors and extended up to the surface. Ascending through the center of The Spine was a massive blue crystalline structure, the source of the light. Within that crystal was the life energy of The Burrow—pure psionic essence that permeated everything.

“Miss Stonepaw,” a shrill voice called out with questioning undertones from behind Mari. She knew this voice immediately and was not excited to turn around and see her least favorite academy instructor, Mister Craghorb. A small ground squirrel with long, wispy eyebrows and a maroon robe stood in the middle of the street, looking at Mari.

“Miss Stonepaw… we missed you at lessons today,” his weirdly deep yet squeaky voice let out. “I assumed perhaps you were unwell… but your constitution seems to be in good quality.”

“Seriously, I just want to get home and curl up in bed,” she thought to herself but quickly cooked up an excuse. “Mister Craghorb, my father has a nasty cold. I’ve been caring for him all day, and you know it’s just the two of us,” she quickly added. “I just came out to get some quantum blue carrot matrices to ease his symptoms.”

“Alright, young lady… you better hurry home then. I expect to see you early tomorrow to make up for the lost time,” he slowly squeaked. While she wasn’t particularly fond of Mr. Craghorb, she was disappointed with herself for missing lessons; that wasn’t typical of her. She always strived to be the best aspirant, and she didn’t have the same advantages that many of the wealthy and well-connected families did.

Mari gave an awkward wave and ran off with Phlip towards the pathway that wound up the cavern wall around The Spine and down the corridor tunnel that led to her den. There was a relatively large courtyard, especially for this corridor. It was calmly lit by bioluminescent fungi and roots dangling from the ceiling. In the corner was a mat of straw. Mari led Phlip into the courtyard, and he joyously hopped over to the straw. She pulled some fresh hay from a storage area near the porch and filled a bowl with water from a spigot. “Sleep well, pal,” she gently whispered to him as he munched away.

She moved to the circular door that was the entrance to her den, placed her paw on it, and gently rolled it to the right into a pocket in the wall. She slid in while it was only about half open and slowly closed it behind her.

The den was dead quiet, except for a faint murmur coming from her father’s chamber. She recognized the sound; it was a Beaverwave broadcast. A game show called “How Deep Can We Dig” was playing. It’s a show where contestants try to guess what the others are thinking to solve a larger riddle. It was one of her father’s favorites.

Mari paused at the open passage and briefly watched her father’s chest rise and fall with each snore. He had always been there for her, making sure she knew he loved her with all his heart. “Sleep well, Dad,” she whispered and quietly went to her chamber in the den.

She flopped down on her bed and stared briefly into the darkness. It blended quickly into a dream. Mari was floating, weightless. She felt a strange sense of calm wash over her mind. It seemed she was suspended in some sort of warm water, but she wasn’t struggling to breathe. Why could she breathe? She touched her face and found some sort of apparatus over her mouth.

“This must be how I’m able to breathe,” she thought. She caught sight of her paw, but it was not a paw—it was hairless, with long fingers and a large flat palm. She had never seen anything like it.

A rush of fluid and the transition to gravity took over as she was dropped or thrown out of whatever container she had been in. She lay cold and shivering on a stone floor. It was dark, and her eyes couldn’t make out anything like they normally would.

Suddenly, a wall began to trace images and letters she had never seen before in a warm glow. “Like the door in the cave,” she thought to herself.

The full mural, undamaged, was laid out before her.

Before she was able to inspect it further, she was awakened abruptly. Her dad stood over her. “Mari, we’ve got to evacuate. There’s been an incident at the dam, and there is flooding all over. Quickly, let’s go!”

She jumped up, and they ran out the door. She gave a whistle to Phlip, who hopped over and quickly joined her at her side.

The main corridor was beginning to fill with water, maybe a tail or so deep. Other residents were running from their dens and sloshing through the main thoroughfare towards The Spine.

Mari hopped on Phlip’s back and outstretched an arm to her dad. He grabbed on and shuffled onto Phlip’s back behind Mari.

“Let’s go, Phlip, get us out of here,” she said to the rabbit. He leapt into the water and quickly moved down the corridor towards The Spine.

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