Tradewinds 17: Underneath by shadesmaclean

1. I by shadesmaclean

2. II by shadesmaclean

3. III by shadesmaclean

4. IV by shadesmaclean

5. V by shadesmaclean

6. VI by shadesmaclean

7. VII by shadesmaclean

8. VIII by shadesmaclean

9. IX by shadesmaclean

10. X by shadesmaclean

11. XI by shadesmaclean

12. XII by shadesmaclean

13. XIII by shadesmaclean

14. XIV by shadesmaclean

15. XV by shadesmaclean

16. XVI by shadesmaclean

17. XVII by shadesmaclean

18. XVIII by shadesmaclean

19. XIX by shadesmaclean

20. XX by shadesmaclean

21. XXI by shadesmaclean

I by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
It's a trap!
“Yo, Shades! You gotta see this!”

Shades slept, splayed out across the rear lounge seat of the
Maximum, grey cap over his face.

“Yeah…” Rather sleepily. “What is it, guys?”

That was definitely Justin’s voice.

He took the hat off his face and sat up.


Throwing his legs over the side, he sat all the way up, donned his shades— puzzled that he could not recall taking them off to begin with— and put his cap on straight. He looked around, a frown touching his lips at the observation that no one else was on deck. Seeing no one at the upper helm, either, only a blank, sunless slate of sky overhead, he figured they must be inside. Though that still didn’t quite mesh with the voice he was sure he heard just a moment ago, he went to look anyway.

Grabbing his denim jacket, he entered the cabin.

Inside, it only took a moment to notice that the main cabin was unoccupied, as well. The engines were off, and Justin’s gunbelts hung from the helm seat, both double-barrel power pistols holstered. There was a box of crackers on the table, and the stereo was playing the Twylight’s rendition of The Song on low volume.

With growing unease, he went below.

A quick glance at Max’s quarters, with his door characteristically hanging wide open, revealed only the usual mess of blankets and other assorted items scattered across the bed, upon the middle of which shone a square of light from his open sunroof. Perfectly framing his laser sword, a sight that put Shades in mind of Bodeen, much to his dismay.

Justin’s room was also open. And empty.

“Hey, guys!”

The bathroom door was also open, and he could see no one was in there, either.

After finding the storage room empty, as well, he headed back up, wondering how such friendly, familiar surroundings could feel so ominous.

“Guys…” he muttered as he came back out on deck again, his own voice making him feel nervous in spite of himself, “This isn’t funny…”

In fact, it was fast becoming very eerie, as far as he was concerned.

Still no one outside, he looked around some more.

“Guys, if this is a joke…”

Shades trailed off, spotting something he hadn’t seen before: a ship, sitting almost side by side with the

Unnerved at how he could fail to notice that sitting there all this time, he stepped back to take it all in. The vessel itself wasn’t much bigger than theirs, but was much more luxurious-looking. The only thing to mar its austere aesthetic was that everything was blank, save for the nameplate, which read

The Empty Set… Shades recalled the term from Algebra class. For sets of equations with no solution. Why don’t I like the sound of that?

Wondering what else he may have somehow missed since he woke up, he looked around. What he saw left him feeling even more disoriented than the spontaneous existence of a ship he had never seen before. Miles and miles of water, all the way to a hazy horizon that was indistinguishable from the from the empty sky above. Water as still as a pool, and not a hint of a breeze.

Not even the doldrums they slogged through before the Isle of Castaways were this dead.

Walking over to the lounge seat and picking up his power pistol, frowning again, as he was fairly sure he had a shoulder holster. Having armed himself, he decided to board the
Empty Set, figuring there was nowhere else his friends could have gone. Telling himself that this must surely be what they tried to wake him up for, he climbed up onto the railing and hopped across, seeing the deck as deserted as their own. Though he found the ship’s abrupt and unexplained appearance rather disturbing, he could think of no other explanation for where they were.

“Hello!” he called out.


Keeping his power pistol handy, he explored the deck, finding even the far side deserted. By now certain that something was very wrong with this picture, he approached the cabin door. Finding the door unlocked, he entered, no longer sure what to expect. Not liking this situation at all, he went inside, finding the cabin as devoid as the deck.

Part of him expected Max and Justin to just pop out at this point and tell him it was all just some weird prank, but was soberly silenced by the part of him that remembered their fun exploration of the
Sweet Lady of Twylight. That part of him expected to find them dead, or held captive, or something. Quickly found that last line of thought, recalling their battles with Striker and Erix, made him wonder for a moment what that crazy son of a bitch might actually do if he got a shot at revenge.

Then he shook that thought off. This whole situation was disconcerting enough as it was without dragging old enemies into it. Everything was just so damn
still, combined with the interior walls being all grey, and unfurnished as a house no one had moved into. Felt the atmosphere becoming increasingly stifling, being all alone out here with these two ships, surrounded by endless miles of Ocean.

When he was certain his friends were there only a matter of moments ago.

Minutes stretched out like taffy as he explored this dull derelict. His search, though, turned up no one. Just to be thorough, he decided to check the bathroom.

Which proved just as vacant as the rest of the ship.

He was about to turn around, this whole business getting to him more and more by the minute, when he spotted a movement in the mirror, passing right behind his reflection. A shape he instinctively disliked the outline of, and wheeled around as if attacked. Above all else, wanting to know how that trenchcoated figure got in here to begin with.

Only to discover, to his horror, that he was not nearly as alone as he was a moment ago. In that brief moment he turned his back on the cabin, he was somehow surrounded by a gang of identical figures. Mobbed by a memory of a stormy night back on Earth, assailed by hitchhikers.

…Or should I now call you stowaways?

Now that he got a good look at them, he wished he hadn’t. Under those wide-brim hats, none of them had a face. Just a blank stretch of pale flesh where eyes, mouths, noses, should be.

Even as his mind chased its own tail over where so many enemies could possibly have hidden in such a sparsely-furnished vessel, coming out of the woodwork, he noticed that the interior was somehow getting dimmer, like a cloud passing in front of the sun. The glimpse he caught out the cabin window was overwhelming enough to distract him from his bizarre attackers. High above, looming over them, was of a vast, cyclopean ceiling of green-grey stone, without a single wall or pillar in sight out there.

So mesmerizing was this sight, it wasn’t until a couple trenchcoats grabbed him with their cold, clammy hands that he belatedly realized his own perilous lack of focus. As they pressed in around him, he struggled to break free. In his panic, he pulled the trigger several times, but with his arms pinned, his shots went nowhere useful.

Shades heard himself cry out in horror and revulsion as their blank faces started to bubble and blister, slits ripping open into glowing red eyes, and gaping, ragged maws of darkness—

“Hey Shades! Wake up! You’re gonna miss it!”

Shades sat bolt upright, cap falling into his lap. At first blinded by sunlight much brighter than the sunless haze of what he was fast realizing was a only a dream, he blinked it off, his surroundings coming clear. Clear as the sound of Justin’s voice, only now coming from the upper helm.

Clear as the “official” Twylight bootleg playing on low volume, which he now realized had grown fainter during his ethereal ordeal aboard the Empty Set.

Despite it all being just a dream, he still couldn’t repress the instinct to look around frantically for a moment. Only to see he was surrounded by ships. Remembering that they were, in fact, in a harbor, he looked up at the ancient city of Alta looming over them.

The main city of the island of Konosha, built upon layers and generations of buildings, mostly made of the same red-orange stone quarried from farther inland. Reflecting the late morning sun a radiant red-gold. Much like in Bodeen— as Shades was beginning to suspect— its social strata was as stepped and terraced as its topography, with its most influential residents dwelling among the upper reaches, several towers and spires standing above the entire island, even some leftover scaffolding from the ongoing earthquake repairs.

“To the right!” Justin shouted, pointing toward something among those towers, binoculars in hand. “You’re gonna miss it!”

Turned out Shades was looking in the right direction to catch it, his startled eyes most likely drawn to the movement. A bright green triangular shape, standing out in sharp contrast against the tower it just passed in front of. Shades could hardly believe his eyes as he watched it drift down along the skyline, about the last thing he expected to see around here.

“A hang glider…”

“What?” Justin demanded as that green wedge vanished behind a massive block of buildings in the direction of the Market Quarter. “You know what that thing is?”

“Yeah.” Shades stood up, then went to join his friend up top, still feeling a tad disoriented after his harrowing experience only moments ago. “They’re mostly used for recreation in my world, but they do have practical uses, too.”

“You mean it can fly?” Justin blinked, putting away the binoculars now that the show as over.

“Sort of,” Shades explained. “It just gets some lift from air currents, but its range really isn’t that far. Whoever was using that one was probably just riding the updrafts from all those buildings, but he probably had to land by now…”

Despite the peculiar spectacle, Shades’ ears were still ringing from that whole nightmare. And with good reason, for it served to drive home to him just how complacent he had become during their (mostly) peaceful stay in Para-Para. How much he was paying for it now.

About a week after departing the Isle of Castaways, they stopped on the small island of Tovar. After staying the night in the sleepy fishing village of Tovar’s Landing, they picked up some supplies and continued on their way. The frequently moody weather since they left probably hadn’t helped with that, but for the next twelve days it sped them on their way, arriving in Konosha the day before, passing by its sister island of Amarrah, and the city of Alta by late afternoon.

During their time back there, Shades had slept quite soundly, in spite of Rod’s talk about the dreamplane, but it slowly crept up on him once they departed. As if the island’s influence extended even into his dreams. After Tovar, though, it came back with a vengeance, as if to make up for lost time. The whole reason he went back to sleep and took a nap today was because he was getting so little peaceful sleep in recent days, and was surprised at how much trouble he was having getting used to it again.

Even so, most of them weren’t even about him, whereas, now that he was awake, he couldn’t help but feel targeted. Recalling how these sorts of things worked before, he now understood that the other ship, Ø, was a trap. Understood now that he was safe enough aboard the Maximum, as it represented Home Turf in his mind, but the moment he set foot onto the other deck, he crossed the line. Even knowing the other ship was meant to lure him deeper into the dreamplane, where he couldn’t wake up as easily, he got the sinking feeling that his own growing anxiety might have eventually empowered the enemy to board the dream-Maximum anyway.

The most ominous part, that nearly dropped the bottom out of the pit of his stomach, was the dawning certainty that his faceless foes were no ordinary nightmares, but Zeroes.

They came in as many forms as there were fears in this world, creatures made of nightmare. But unlike normal nightmares, even weaker Zeroes could kill, and the stronger ones… You either ran like hell (as Rod recounted) from them, as few could fight them at all, or you try your damnedest to wake up. A tall order, as the deeper layers they lurked on were harder to come back up from. Though he and his friends, the Zero Hunters, managed to fight them on more or less equal terms…


It bothered him deeply that he couldn’t remember that part; it was like forgetting how to swim, or ride a bike, it just seemed so natural back then.

If they were indeed back, as Rod feared, it was not a prospect he looked forward to at all, even less at the thought that Amy may already have been grappling with this all on her own.

“I didn’t get to see what the guy looked like— too far away,” Justin cut back in, “but ya still gotta wonder who he was anyway. Hell, maybe Max might get to see more, ya think?”

“Could be,” Shades replied, turning his mind to the here and now. Figuring it would be a little awkward to thank Justin for waking him up. Bailing him out of, was more like it, and very likely saving his life while he was at it. Always the early riser, Max left Bandit napping below and went out for a morning stroll in the Market Quarter, possibly within walking distance of wherever that glider landed. “I’m more curious about why than who. I think I might just wander over there and poke around. There’s got to be a story behind that.”
II by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
wrong time, wrong place
Max wandered down one of the broad, angled streets of Alta, taking in the sights. While the roads were wider than the ways of Bodeen, many of which barely qualified as alleys, the buildings in this section were taller, on average, leaving many streets in the lower quarters in dusky shadow, even at high noon. Yet at least the place didn’t feel as seedy and disreputable as Bodeen.

Of course, the fact that most of this section had been repaired, if not rebuilt, in the last couple years, probably helped. Since the earthquake, the very one in which their friend of recent acquaintance, Ma’Quiver, and his master Lazlo got separated in, this sections was in pretty good shape, unlike some parts of town. Despite parting ways with him back on the Isle of Castaways, landing in this town still felt like crossing his path after a peculiar fashion.

And despite Ma’Quiver’s grim account of his time down there, Max still found he was fascinated with the idea of seeing the Undercity for himself. Though there were occasional rumors of secret tours and expeditions, the official word was that it was too dangerous down there, too unstable. From all he could gather, the Alta Assembly had made a point of blocking all known entrances to the ruins that weren’t part of the larger reconstruction projects.

Though disappointed, he still had to concede their point about preserving the safety of the surface city.

In several booths around the market were a dozen or so merchants hocking what they claimed to be artifacts from the ruins. Most of which even he suspected to be of dubious origin. Shades had spoken of poking around, seeing if he could find anything that looked legit if he found the time, but didn’t sound terribly confident about their prospects.

For now, he decided to take a peaceful walk before attempting to find out what sort of welcome Bandit might receive outside the Harbor Quarter.

In the midst of his meanderings, he heard several startled gasps, followed by shouting and pointing, mostly upward.

Sure enough, when Max looked up, he saw it, too. A sight the like of which he had never seen before, what appeared to be a bright green triangle sailing through the air above the streets. There was a hooded figure hanging underneath, apparently guiding it as it glided down this artificial canyon. While others pointed and yammered, Max took off down the street after it.

Dodging through the crowd, he tried to keep it in sight as it drifted around a corner. Seeking higher ground, he hopped on a crate, using it as a stepping stone to reach one of the terraces above the main street level here. Another dash down a less crowded way, then he hopped over a black-and-yellow striped fence.

It wasn’t until after he lost sight of the glider that he realized just how drastically the scenery had changed. Not only had his surroundings become dingier, but cracked and damaged, whole sections of buildings were collapsed and crumbled. Not merely deserted, but abandoned, as only the most desperate would try to live in these surface ruins, clearly left over from the Alta quake.

As he wandered among the rubble-strewn streets, his footsteps the only sound to be heard, he found himself having to shun harrowing memories of that rat’s nest of alleyways in the Harken Building creeping into his head.

Shaking it off, he figured if They walked the streets here, the locals would probably have a thing or two to say about it, and would surely have put up more than just a flimsy fence to hold them in.

Instead, he focused on listening, looking around for anything that seemed out of place as he continued to wander the ruins. Reminding himself to check what was left of the upper levels, as that thing could easily have landed up there. In the course of his search, he found his way into a trash-littered courtyard, a heap of shattered orange bricks and stones spilling out into one corner.

Seeing that the other streets and alley entrances were buried with debris, he quickly concluded that this way was a dead end.

He was about to turn around, when he spotted movement in one of the second-storey windows. Crossing the courtyard as quickly as the lumpy cobbles would allow, he stopped short at the entrance. The sheer quantity of ceiling that now occupied the floor, to say nothing of the gaping gaps where the floor used to be, gave him second and third thoughts about going in.

“There you are!” an unfamiliar voice echoed to him from across the courtyard.

Max pivoted to see several men stride into the area from the same way he just came from, fanning out as if to cut off his exit. None of them wore any uniform, instead dressed in casual street clothes, yet there was no mistaking the coordination of their movements. The leader advanced ahead of the others, casually sidestepping all of the rubbish.

“Okay, Max,” he spoke again, and now Max knew for sure who it was who addressed him the first time, “you’ve had your fun, now come quietly. If you go into that deathtrap, I swear I will break your legs this time when we get back.”

Of medium height and build, short, dark brown hair and cold, calculating eyes. Decked out in a grey duster that cut a solid frame, and worn boots that bore the look of many miles. The way he carried himself making it abundantly clear he was their leader.

“Do I know you?” Max demanded, already bracing himself for a fight, as none of their posture suggested they were here for a friendly chat.

“Don’t play dumb with me, Max,” he replied. “Just because I have to babysit you doesn’t mean I have to play nice. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way, take your pick.”

“Are you looking for the guy on that flying thing?” Though Max already wondered if he was doing right by that mysterious stranger by giving him away. “I think he went somewhere up there.”

“You insult my intelligence, boy,” he replied. “You’re not even wearing your disguise anymore. Now give it up before you get hurt.”

While they spoke, the others moved in to surround him, putting his back to that doorway, which he fast concluded was nowhere to retreat to.

“What do you want from me?” Max demanded.

“Kid, you’ve totally lost it…” the man muttered, hand signaling for them to attack. “The hard way, then.”

Max was already on it, already expecting a fight. The first guy got punched in the face, hard enough to send him staggering. Max blocked the second attacker’s punch, grabbing him and slamming him into the doorframe next to him.

When he saw one of them attempting to draw a gun, Max took the brief opening to whip out his laser sword, rushing in and sweeping him with his stun blade.

The others immediately jumped back at the sight of this apparently unexpected weapon.

Max was about to break out and make a run for it, when that grey duster swept out in front of him, and he lashed out at it.

Only to realize, too late, that it was just an unorthodox feint, as the ringleader stepped in behind him, catching him off-balance. In that slow-motion second, even as he tried to shift his feet and turn around, Max felt the barrel of a power pistol press against his back just a hair before he felt the zap of a stun shot.

Hitting the ground just seconds before that man’s duster fluttered to the cobblestones next to him.

“Damn…” the leader muttered, shaking the dirt out of his coat before he threw it back on. “I never knew the brat learned so much from that bastard. He must be getting more desperate than I thought.”

“Say, Rawne,” one of the others said while rubbing his jaw, “ya think we should, break his legs?”

“No, not if he behaves himself better after he comes to,” the one called Rawne instructed them. “Much as I’d like to, he’s still more valuable to us alive, so we won’t rough him up any more than we have to. Boss’s orders and all.”

He reached down and picked up Max’s laser sword.

“Interesting toy,” he mused. “Never knew they had one in the Collection… Then again, we also had no clue about that glider, either. When we get back, you’re going to search the tower and be damn sure to throw out anything else he might use to escape.”

“That was the third escape attempt this week,” one of the others remarked.

“And it’s also his last,” Rawne warned them. “This is the last time Maximilian gives us the slip.” Turning to the others, he ordered, “Pick up the rest, and get back to the Manor. I don’t want to have to explain to the guards what we were doing in a restricted area. That, and I hear the Squatters have been getting bold lately, so stay sharp.”

With that, a couple of his henchmen picked Max up and dragged him off.
III by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
wrong name, wrong face
Shades browsed the Market Quarter, still trying to shake off the unsettling feeling that weird dream left lingering in the back of his mind.

Now that he had a chance to slow down and look around at his own leisure, he found the city even more intriguing than his first impressive impression. Despite how much this quarter had been rebuilt since the quake, most of it looked to have been patterned after the old layout. Which, in and of itself, mostly consisted of building on top of older layers of the city. Alta seemed to have an ancient tradition of stacking, the end result being a hodgepodge of paths, stairways, terraces and ramps, with only a few main roads leading into the upper quarters. The upper levels newer and more thoroughly repaired than the lower levels. Looking at some general maps, he also noted how uneven the quake damage was, with some sections thoroughly demolished, and others mostly untouched, and he wondered if it really was a natural earthquake, or if something had collapsed in the uncharted piles of ruins underneath; word on the street was that not even the Assembly had any complete maps of the oldest, deepest levels of the Undercity anymore.

Everything was interconnected in ways that made navigation more a matter of memory than directional bearings, much to his chagrin. In some sections, it was hard not to think of it as one giant building, a city-size pueblo structure. To his eyes, it was a work of art, centuries in the making.

And still a work in progress, gauging from all the reconstruction work.

Of course, he had been warned several times to stay away from the ruined sections. Aside from the obvious structural instability, a troublesome combination of Alta’s homeless and its criminal element gravitated to those areas, and he had heard talk of dangerous factions called the Squatters having taken up residence in them. Due to the lingering quake damage, even the authorities had little reach on their turf.

Just thinking about it made him glad he was exploring by daylight; he could all to easily picture his faceless stalkers from earlier prowling the twists and turns of this ancient city in the shadowy moonlight.

The more he thought about it, the more he wondered why landfall in such a relatively safe port would prompt such a harrowing dream. Though he supposed he should have expected as much after leaving the Isle of Castaways. Thinking about their last day there, how they had their final meal with some of those mysterious guavidu fruit, which just thinking about set him looking among the various stalls and store fronts, to no avail.

Not that he was really expecting much, he reflected. After all, they had no idea if they’d ever get to taste it again, definitely something to keep an eye out for in their travels. Though sadly, a victim of its own short shelf life. More like half life, once they’re picked…

Instead, he tried to stay focused on scouting out supplies, as their late-afternoon arrival cut them short yesterday, as well as his ongoing search for his friends, his most recent dream having lit a fire under his ass on that front.

In the midst of his search, his roving gaze caught a glimpse of a blue hoodie in the crowd off to his left, passing through a narrow alleyway. Hood up, though there was something about it that seemed almost familiar to him from somewhere…

“Stop! Thief!”

Shades’ musings were interrupted by a commotion at a nearby shop. He turned to see a grey-cloaked, hooded figure dash out the door to one of the shops. Clutching a curved, sheathed sword in both hands as he stole into the crowd.

Shades probably would have chosen to remain a spectator in this common street crime if someone hadn’t reached out, most likely trying to stop the thief, only grabbing his hood and exposing his face.

“Max?…” Shades blinked, as surprised at his own double-take as he was at this bizarre turn of events.

His feet always did have a mind of their own, and they just made up theirs ahead of him as he took off after his friend, a thousand questions racing through his head.

“Max! Wait up!” Shades called out.

For his part, Max looked over his shoulder, pausing for only a moment, eyes bugging out for some reason, then started running even harder.

“Dammit…” Shades muttered, darting and weaving through the crowd in a frantic effort to keep up with his wily escape. Though uncertain if he could keep up with Max at an all-out dash, he was determined to get some answers. And all this time, I thought I only had to worry about Justin pulling this kinda shit…

He got his first taste of what Max had in store for him when he hopped up on several crates, bounding up onto a walkway above. Accepting his challenge, Shades scrambled up the crates, too, barely keeping up with Max’s wild grace. By now, Shades could hardly hear the hue and cry back in the marketplace, but as long as there was still anyone hot on Max’s trail, he refused to slow down for anything.

And that was just the start. Shades’ quarry next led him on a merry chase up and down stairs, often taking several steps at a bound, across half a dozen rooftops and terraces, including a ten-foot leap over an alleyway he followed only in the heat of the moment, willing himself not to look down, then ran up to and scrambled right up a vertical wall.

That move surely would have lost Shades altogether if he hadn’t spotted a stairway leading up to that level close at hand. As it was, the detour gave Max a troubling lead. Shades was just about to give up, and go back to the ship to tell Justin what he had seen, when Max’s harried glance over his shoulder caused him to trip on a loose cobblestone, nearly falling on his face, giving Shades a chance to close the gap.

Before long, Shades noticed that there was nobody staring at them anymore. In fact, there was nobody at all soon after they vaulted a black-and-yellow striped fence. The terrain here was buckled and uneven, slowing Max down and allowing Shades to press his advantage of running miles through the mountains, acquiring a surefootedness that rivaled even his friend’s.

Even so, it wasn’t until Max ran into a dead end, the alley beyond completely barred by collapsed walls, that the chase drew to a close.

In spite of his mad parkour skills, Max stopped short of the tumbled heaps of brick and stone, apparently too unstable for even him to try anything. Seeing that Shades had him cornered, he turned around to face him. With a desperate look on his face that seemed as out of place as everything else his friend had done of late, Max drew the blade he had stolen.

“Who are you?” Max demanded, raising that blade— which looked to Shades like the spirit and image of a katana, even in this world— holding it before him in an awkward manner that seemed nothing like his friend’s graceful swordsmanship.

“Max?…” Now that Shades got a good look at him, something just seemed a little off. “Is that you?”

“How do you know that name?” he shot back.

“You’re acting really weird,” Shades remarked, keeping one hand close to his stun-sticks, though he found he was even less enthusiastic about drawing it against his friend than he was about the idea of using his cutting blade to destroy such a fine— and very functional-looking— antique. “So tell me, what happened to your laser sword?”

“What are you talking about?”

Not only did this not seem like anything Max would do, even his voice and manner of speech were nothing like him, as well. Then again, the more Shades looked at him, the more he could tell there was something decidedly different about him. For one, he didn’t seem quite as… rough around the edges as he recalled. More slight of build, but still a consummate athlete.

“You’re really not Max, are you?” he concluded.

“Who?…” Max stammered, looking and sounding more and more harried with every word. Eying Shades with growing suspicion. “You’re one of Freedan’s men, aren’t you?”

“Who the hell are you talking about?” Now it was Shades’ turn to be taken aback. “I thought you were my friend, and I wanted to find out when exactly you took up shoplifting. Even Justin doesn’t steal on a whim…”

“You’re no friend of mine!” Max shouted at him. “I can’t believe you’d try such a lame trick! Did you really expect me to fall for that? I know Freedan’s got spies all over this city. I’m not going back this time, no matter how many of you I have to fight!”

“Now that sounds more like the Max we know and love,” Shades told him, “but I’m not your enemy. Why don’t you put away that sword, and tell me what’s going on—”

“More lies!” Max snapped, taking another step toward him. “You’re just stalling for time, waiting for backup, aren’t you?” Blade quivering, he warned Shades, “I will find my father, even I have to go through you!”

“I’m not going to turn you in, if that’s what you…”

Shades trailed off, hearing footfalls approach from behind. Keeping Max in the corner of his eye, he turned to face three men as they entered the alleyway. It hardly took past experience dealing with lowlifes to tell that their posture was anything but neighborly.

“See!” Max retorted, “There they are!”

Shades had no idea who this guy was expecting, but these folks gave him the distinct impression of being here for their own reasons. From their shabby clothes to their surly demeanor, he doubted they ‘worked for’ anybody. The fact that one of them had already pulled a knife wasn’t very encouraging, either.

“You guys must not be from around here,” one of them snickered. “Not too many people just come wandering into our turf, ya know…”

“Uh, Max,” Shades tried hesitantly, “you know these guys, don’t you?”

“These guys aren’t Rawne’s crew…” Max’s expression shifted from hostility to dismay as their situation became clear. “Dammit! Squatters!”

About the same moment Shades finished piecing it together, things going from bad to worse.

“So, why don’t ya just hand over those nice toys,” one of the Squatters threatened, “and we might just let ya walk back outta here.”

“Max, stay back,” Shades cautioned, already questioning if this Max would be any good in a fight, “this is about to get ugly.”

“But those guys are too dangerous for—”

“That does it!” The one with the knife rushed forward. “You had your chance, assholes!”

Wasting no time, Shades whipped out his stun-sticks, cleaving the blade of the knife even as the thug slashed at him, tripping him and smacking him with the stun blade in his other hand. Even as the other two reached to their weapons, Shades sheathed one of his, drawing his power pistol, his enemies also caught off-guard by his new concealed shoulder holster, as he aimed at the closest one.

“That’s what happens when you bring a knife to a gun fight,” Shades warned them. Silently thanking Justin for all the quick-draw pointers. “We’re trying to have a conversation here. Now get lost.”

Both of them glared at Shades, glancing at their fallen companion, and that seemed to settle it for them, as they ran off, spouting threats and curses.

“Who the hell are you?” Max demanded. “You don’t act like any of Freedan’s men. Now that I think about it, you kinda remind me of…”

“I told you, I’m a friend of Max’s,” Shades replied, motioning for this Max to follow him. “I don’t know what kind of trouble you’re in, but I imagine those bastards will be back, and they’ll probably bring their friends.”

“I suppose you’re probably right,” he replied, lowering the sword, but still keeping it unsheathed. “I still don’t trust you completely, but I’ll hear what you have to say.”

“I’ll show you the way to our ship,” Shades told him. “I think Max and Justin’ll want to meet you. But if people are looking for you, you should try to be less conspicuous.”

“Oh, right,” Max mumbled sheepishly. “So you really do have a friend named Max, and he really looks like me?”

“Close enough for government work,” Shades admitted. “Enough that you could easily be mistaken for each other. All the more reason I want to know what’s going on, especially before someone accuses my friend of stealing that sword.”

And so Shades led the way back to the Maximum.
IV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
out of character
At first, all Max heard was indistinct voices talking, but it gradually resolved itself into one voice, which didn’t sound like anyone he had heard before.

“Ah, you’re awake, Young Master.” The voice of an old man addressed him as he blinked his eyes, his tone walking a tightrope between formality and personal concern. “I should scold you for your recklessness, but more than anything, I’m relieved to see you’re still alive after such a stunt. I don’t know how I would ever face your father if anything happened to you…”

“My father…” Max looked up into a face that was no more familiar to him than the voice. An older man, slightly jowly with a narrow, short-cropped moustache, as salt-and-pepper as his curly mid-length hair. Hazel eyes gazing down upon him in nigh-parental concern. “Who are you?”

“Who am I?” He blinked as Max sat up in a large, four-poster bed, seeing the man who addressed him was wearing a dark grey suit with a stiff collar, but, much to his relief, no apparent weapons. “I have only served your family since before you were born, you’ve known me since childhood. How could you forget your own butler, Sebastian?”

“Sebastian?…” Max tried to wrap his head around that name, even as he focused on his surroundings. Which appeared to be a bedroom of some sort, arranged with an assortment of expensive-looking furniture and decorations. The walls the same red-orange stone as the rest of the city of Alta, the window nearby offering a sweeping view of it outside. In sharp contrast to the grim, quake-damaged courtyard which was the last thing he remembered before… “My sword!”

Max started checking his person frantically as it all came back to him.

“Sword?” Sebastian raised an eyebrow. “I thought they already removed all the weapons from the Collection the first time…”

“My laser sword,” Max explained, finding it nowhere, much as he feared. “That man took it, didn’t he?”

“Laser sword?” Sebastian frowned. “What are you talking about? Oh dear, Young Master. Confusing your escape attempts for one of those adventure novels, they must have hit you really hard this time…”

“Do you know who those men were?” Max demanded, noticing that his laser sword wasn’t the only thing missing; clearly he had been searched. Much to his surprise, though, he still had his teal backup blade in its boot sheath. The only conclusion he could draw was that his captors never expected him to have a second energy blade, given how rare they were in most realms. “Why did they attack me?”

Deciding for now to keep his undiscovered weapon a secret, even from this Sebastian, until he knew who he was dealing with, and what was going on around here.

“Because they work for Mr Freedan, of course, of course…” the old butler paused again. “But you should know all of this already… What’s happened to you, Young Master? You are not acting like yourself.”

“Why do you keep calling me that?”

“Because I’m your butler, of course.”

“What’s a butler?”

“What did they do to you?” Sebastian stepped back, eying Max with visible alarm and dismay. “You don’t even talk like Maximilian…”

“Maxa-who?” Max cocked his head, beginning to wonder if perhaps that name held some clue to understanding his situation. “And why do people keep calling me that? My name is Max.”

“What manner of devilry is this?” Sebastian continued to stare at him all the while. “You look so much like him, it’s scary. But your personality, your manner of speech, and that headband… If you’re not Maximilian, then who are you?”

“I already told you: I’m Max.” Seeing the perplexed look on Sebastian’s face, it dawned on him that perhaps he was not explaining himself very well. “You see, I’m not from Alta. I came here with my friends yesterday. I was in the market, when I saw this weird flying thing—”

“The glider?” Sebastian pressed.

“Is that what it’s called?”

“That’s what Maximilian called it,” the butler explained, “part of the family collection. But I thought I talked him out of it. It was far too dangerous, even more than his childish suggestion of tying sheets together into ropes like in some fairytale… I don’t even know if that thing worked back when his great grandfather purchased it. I was a fool. I should have known you— he— would do it anyway, after his other escapes failed. But what were you saying?”

“Oh, um… glider…” Max was still a little off from the stun blast. “Oh yeah! It was flying over everybody, so I decided to see where it was going. I ran and ran, and then I got lost in one of those areas that’s still wrecked.”

“Did you see him?” Anxiety written all over his face. “Did you see Maximilian?”

“I don’t know,” Max admitted. “I didn’t really get a good look at him, and he was wearing a hood. I saw somebody inside one of the buildings, but then those guys showed up and attacked me.”

“I see,” Sebastian concluded, “so they thought you were him.”

“Do I really look that much like him?”

“The resemblance is most uncanny, Young Master,” Sebastian assured him.

“You don’t have to call me that,” Max reminded him.

“Oh, I suppose you do have a point… Max.” His sheepish expression nearly making Max laugh in spite of himself. Then his face took a turn for sober, as if remembering something important. “Then again, it might be a good idea, after all. If they find out you aren’t the real Maximilian, I don’t trust them to just let you go, not with that man in charge. It might be for the best to keep pretending.”

“What do they want from me?” Max thought for a moment, then rephrased the question: “From him?”

“Control, I would imagine,” Sebastian sighed, shaking his head, “of the family, of the company… But for now, though, they pretend to be ‘guarding’ you while your father is missing.”

“Father?” Max intoned, quietly wishing he hadn’t brought it up again.

“Yes, Young Master, he’s been missing for nearly a week now,” the butler explained. “That’s when this whole mess began. I suppose, though, that it really all began with that quake two years ago, but things became even worse when he disappeared. I fear Master Percival picked the wrong man for the job…”

“What do you mean?” Max asked.

“Well, you see…”

Sebastian trailed off at the sound of at least a dozen footsteps out in the hall. Slipping up quietly, Max opened the ornate wooden door a crack, peering outside. Though he recognized no one specific, he was still pretty sure they were the same crew that accosted him before.

All of them carrying boxes and crates and other assorted items from a stairway at one end of the hall, and around a corner at the other end.

“What are they doing?” Max whispered.

“Clearing out the tower, they said,” Sebastian told him, gesturing for him to come back away from the door. “After that glider stunt, I would suspect they don’t want you using anything else up there in another escape attempt. And I have to admit I am somewhat relieved, in a way. Watching that thing take off…”

“But what now?” was all Max really wanted to know. Though relieved to still be armed, he could see that he was considerably outnumbered out there. And increasingly certain there were more of them on the levels below. For now, he concluded, it might just be wise to go on impersonating this other Max.

“For now, you should probably lay low,” Sebastian recommended. “Even once those men are gone, they will still be patrolling the ways in and out of the manor. As the sole heir of the family, I don’t think they will go any further than capturing you, but I worry about how this may go if Master Percival doesn’t return soon. They wouldn’t dare do something like this while he was around, but it doesn’t look like they recognize his son’s authority. That bothers me deeply.”

“You’re really worried about him, aren’t you?” Max was fast beginning to regret his suspicions of what might well be his only ally in this place. Especially since his concern came across as genuine.

“Yes, both of them,” he replied. “As selfish as this sounds, the other reason I would like for you to continue being the Young Master is because as long as you’re here…”

“They won’t be looking for him out there.” Max nodded, walking over to the window and gazing out from his luxurious new prison. “I understand. But I still need a way to tell my friends what happened to me. They must be getting worried by now.”

“You have a point,” Sebastian conceded. “Unfortunately, our situation is practically house arrest, and I fear young Maximilian may have gone and done something rather rash.”

“My friends could be of help.” As uncomfortable as Max felt about dragging them into this, he was fast beginning to understand that his own resemblance to this Maximilian had already gotten them all in too deep to just walk away. “And they won’t give up until they find me. If they go around asking about me, they might give away your friend to those guys. And if my friends found him…”

“I don’t think they will,” Sebastian cautioned him, “not where he’s going.”

“What do you mean by that?” Max asked, already not liking the sound of it already.

Looking down from Maximilian’s room, he could see at least one hundred feet of sheer stone wall stretching down to the courtyard below. The stones too tightly fitted for reliable climbing, not a single window on any level close enough together in any direction to move between floors. It would take a ninja, as Shades would probably say, though he couldn’t help thinking of Justin’s crossbow grapple right about now.

“Well, it has a lot to do with where I think he’s going,” Sebastian explained. “Since I fear we shall be here a long while, I will brew up some tea, and tell you the whole story.”
V by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
getting in on the ground floor
Justin sat at the lounge table, tapping his foot.

Not only had Shades been gone for a good couple hours, but Max still hadn’t returned, either. Not only had he prepared lunch, but had finally gotten fed up with waiting and ate already, having finished his portion more than half an hour ago. Now the rest had simply gotten cold, and he was seriously debating between putting it all in the fridge, or eating Shades’ lunch, too.

Just as he was about to reach over for his plate, he was interrupted by Shades walking into the cabin.

“You’re damn lucky,” Justin told him, shoving his plate back. “If you took any longer getting back, you were gonna have to make your own…”

He trailed off as he saw Max walk in behind him. Peeking cautiously back out the door as he closed it behind him. For some reason wearing Shades’ cap, as well as random clothes Justin had never seen him wear before, his pilfered blade wrapped in his cloak in order to draw less attention on the street.

“Um, what’s up with Max?” he demanded, increasingly feeling that something wasn’t right in here.

“It isn’t,” Shades replied, with that cryptic grin of his that made Justin already regret not eating his lunch half an hour ago. “Allow me to introduce you to Maximilian Vandenberg. Maximilian, this is my friend I told you about, Justin Black.”

“If this is some kind of prank…” Justin cocked his head as he tried to sort this out, even as this Maximilian gave Shades his hat back.

“I know,” Shades laughed. “It is one hell of a resemblance, isn’t it?”

Even as Justin continued to scrutinize this newcomer, Bandit ambled up the steps from below, tensing up for a moment, as if at something unexpected, then stared at Maximilian. Who subsequently stepped back, clearly also alarmed.

“Oops…” Shades scratched the back of his head. “Guess I forgot to mention him.”

“A cat…” Maximilian stammered. Seeing that the others weren’t afraid of him, he stepped forward, saying, “A really big cat.”

“Come on, Bandit,” Shades’ tone a touch playful, “Say hi to Max!”

The two of them stared at each other, Bandit sniffing him for a moment, then turning to his human companions, the confounded look on his face the final word on the matter.

“That really isn’t Max, is it?” Justin finally conceded. “What the hell is going on here, Shades?”

“You’re not the only one who wants to know,” Shades informed him, “but given the circumstances, I thought it would be best to come back here first. I imagine you’d also like in on the ground floor.”

“And his real name is ‘Max’?” Maximilian asked one more time, as if he still wasn’t completely sold on it. “Do I really look the same?”

“So far, everyone but Bandit’s mistaken you for him,” Shades remarked. Then he turned to Justin, asking, “I suppose it’s too much to ask for that Max already came back, judging by that other plate?”

“Damn straight,” Justin muttered. “I haven’t seen him at all since he went out to look at the Market Quarter earlier today.”

“The Market Quarter?” Maximilian’s eyes widened, as if having a really awful realization. “If he really does look that much like me…”

“Then somebody might turn him in for stealing that sword!” Shades gasped, as Maximilian unwrapped it.

“Stole a sword!?” Justin blurted. “But Max— our Max— would never do something like that!”

“Of course,” Shades agreed, “but if a bunch of guards start making bogus accusations and try to arrest him, I’m not sure how he’ll react.”

“It gets even worse,” Maximilian warned them. “Even without the authorities, there are already other people looking for me.”

“Come to think of it,” said Shades, “you were saying something about that earlier. Perhaps you could start by telling us who these people are, and what they want with you.”

“They work for Freedan, and they want to control the Vandenberg fortune,” Maximilian told them. “I’ve been a prisoner in my own home for days, ever since my father disappeared.”

“And who is this Freedan fellow anyway?” Shades asked.

“My father’s business partner,” Maximilian snorted, “but anymore, I think he’s been scheming against us all along. The moment father disappeared, he was suddenly in charge of everything.” He sighed haggardly. “I think Sebastian is the only ally I have left in that place…”

“Who’s Sebastian?” Shades inquired.

“Our butler,” Maximilian answered.

“Um, what’s a butler?” Justin demanded.

“A sort of family servant,” Shades enlightened him, “but I think that’s beside the point. If I may ask, why haven’t you gone to the authorities with any of this, Max?”

“I tried to,” Maximilian explained, “the first time I escaped. But Freedan just greased everybody’s palms and smooth-talked them into sending me back. He has the Assembly convinced I’m having a mental breakdown. As far as they’re concerned, Freedan is ‘guarding’ me while they ‘investigate’ my father’s disappearance. But they won’t find him, because they’re looking in all the wrong places…”

“And you know where he is?” Shades intoned.

“Yes,” Maximilian replied. “You see, the Vandenberg fortune started with my great, great, great, great, great grandfather, Edric Vandenberg, who came to this island as an explorer. Back then, there were a lot more entrances to the Undercity, but few people dared to venture down there because most who went never came back. And even those who did return only found dirt and junk, but there were always rumors of great treasure in the deepest, oldest parts, so Edric decided to brave the depths all by himself.

“Unlike anyone else in centuries, he did find treasure, something he believed to be from Alta’s earliest history, forgotten for ages. He sold it for a small fortune. Certain there was more down there, he used the money to mount an expedition, as the treasure, since its discovery, had caused a renewed interest in the Lower Ruins. But before he could do anything, there was a massive earthquake, and the ways into the ruins were lost. The Assembly decided it was too dangerous to dig, so Edric ended up using the money and connections from the expedition to start the Vandenberg Trading Company. And the rest is history.”

“So you’re saying…” Justin twirled his finger.

“He didn’t!” Shades gasped.

“I’m pretty sure he did,” Maximilian told them, “in fact, I’m certain of it. Ever since the quake a couple years ago, my father’s seemed more and more restless. I’ve often seen Edric’s memoirs on his desk… But that’s not all. I think he didn’t want to worry me, but something’s going wrong with the company, and I think that’s what drove him to do it. I think he wants to find the rest of the treasure our ancestor didn’t, to turn out fortunes around…”

“And I’d bet money the financial troubles started around then, too,” Shades muttered. “Anything else unusual happen after the quake?”

“Yeah,” Maximilian answered. “Freedan started bringing in a bunch of people. Said they were for the ‘relief effort’ but I’ve never seen any of ’em helping with the repairs. Now I’m pretty sure they’re all mercenaries, the same ones who locked me up in my own home.”

“You don’t say.” Shades frowned.

“They all answer to Freedan.” Maximilian slumped in his seat. “He’s got this mercenary, Aden Rawne, working for him, and those other guys are all his henchmen. He’s got a small army— on our payroll— and I don’t know where he got them from, or what else he’s doing…”

“So you escaped,” Shades concluded. “I take it that glider we saw earlier was yours?”

“Yeah,” Maximilian admitted. “Most of the tower contains things my family picked up over the years. I imagine Rawne’s got his men ransacking it now, so I guess I’ll have to make this escape count… Anyway, once I made it to the rooftops, it took me a while to find my way down. In fact, I’m pretty sure Rawne’s crew was already there, prowling around.”

He paused for a moment, a horrified look crossing his face.

“What?” Shades thought for a moment. “No way! You don’t think?…”

“I fear it could be.” Maximilian nodded gravely. “There was some commotion outside the building. I’m pretty sure I heard Rawne’s voice, too. But I thought they just ran into some Squatters…”

“Wait!” Justin cut in, “Are you saying they took our Max instead!?”

“The more I think about it,” Maximilian mused, “the more I’m sure of it. I was too busy trying to get away to give it much thought earlier, but Rawne’s not the type to give up that easily. Unless he thinks he’s already found me.”

“What do you think they’ll do with him?” Shades pressed, increasingly certain that must be the reason why his friend still wasn’t back yet.

“Well…” Maximilian thought, “as long as they think he’s me, they’ll just lock him in the manor again, post more guards…”

“But what if they find out he’s not?” Justin didn’t like to ask, but the question still bothered him.

“I don’t know…” Maximilian’s expression showing he clearly didn’t like the sound of his own uncertainty. “At least Sebastian’s there, so he’ll probably help Max play the part…”

“For a while, maybe,” Shades said darkly. “But what if your theft tips them off that you’re still on the loose? I think we should try to find Max as soon as possible.”

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Justin butted in, “but if you’re so damn rich, why the hell did you have to steal a weapon in the first place?”

“Because Rawne’s men took all the weapons,” Maximilian slumped in his seat, “and Freedan’s sitting on all the money.”

“But what did you need it for?” Shades pressed. “Surely you know you’re no match for those guys all by yourself.”

“I know,” Maximilian shook his head, “but I knew I would need to be able to defend myself if I was going to search the Lower Ruins.”

“The Lower Ruins?” Shades raised an eyebrow at that. “What do you hope to find down there?”

“My father, remember,” Maximilian replied, more firmly. “I’m certain that’s where he’s gone. If only Ma’Quiver was still here, I know he’d help…”

Ma’Quiver?” Justin and Shades both remarked in unison, turning and blinking at each other.

“You know Ma’Quiver!?” Maximilian gasped. “How is he these days?”

“Just fine, last we met,” Shades assured him, “but don’t get your hopes up. We parted ways with him on the Isle of Castaways over two weeks ago, and haven’t seen him since.”

“I see,” Maximilian sighed.

“So how do you know Ma’Quiver anyway?” Justin asked.

“I first met him after the earthquake,” Maximilian recounted. “He was still injured, but already training again.”

“That sounds like our Ma’Quiver.” Shades nodded.

“I was so impressed with his skills, I talked my father into taking him in. In exchange, he taught me some cool fighting moves when we hung out. I was hoping he would teach me more, but his master…”

“We know,” Justin pointed out.

“He told us about that,” Shades elaborated, “and, unfortunately, he still hasn’t found him.”

“So that’s how it is,” Maximilian said. “I guess that means we’re on our own.”

We?” Justin cocked his head.

“We don’t have much choice,” Shades pointed out. “They got us involved the moment they kidnapped Max. We need to get him out of there.”

“You’re not thinkin’ what I think you’re thinkin’…” Though Justin sounded like he was trying to come off shocked, his tone sounded more resigned than anything else.

“It’s probably only a matter of time before they get wise to Max…”

“Or until he blows his cover.”

“Or until they find out about… this.” Maximilian looked like he wanted to hide the stolen sword.

“We’ll need to rescue Max first,” Shades thought aloud, “then search for your father. I imagine Max’ll be down for a good treasure hunt, don’t you think?”

“I think we’re in over our heads,” Justin retorted. “How the hell do we even get past that many men?”

“Don’t forget, you have inside information,” Maximilian reminded them. “Vandenberg Manor is my home, and I know it from top to bottom. And I don’t intend to hand the place over to Freedan without a fight.”

“If what you say is true,” Shades remarked, sitting down for the meal that had already gotten cold before he arrived, gesturing to Max’s plate, “it looks like Max won’t be making it back here for dinner, so dig in, and we’ll figure something out.”

And so the three of them began planning their infiltration of Vandenberg Manor in earnest.
VI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Stately Vandenberg Manor...
Maximilian Vandenberg. Or ‘Max’ for short.

In between Rawne’s men’s periodic patrols of the mansion, Sebastian continued to explain their current situation. About the origins of the Vandenberg family fortune. About Albert Freedan.

“He’s an accountant from New Cali, or so he claimed,” Sebastian explained. “He arrived almost ten years ago, very quickly worked his way up the ranks, and in only a few years became Master Percival’s closest advisor. For years, we thought he was a loyal partner, and he’s always had a sharp mind for business. Once, I would have thought him a good teacher for the Young Mas— er, you— now that you are coming of age to take your place in the family business…”

“What happened?” Max asked. Both Sebastian’s tea, as well being up and moving around, helped clear his head, and this was but one of many questions now racing through it.

“The earthquake,” Sebastian sighed. “Though now I fear Freedan was likely plotting against us all along, he started moving as soon as the dust settled. At first, it looked like he was carrying out Master Percival’s plans to help with the rebuilding and relief efforts, but as time went by, we ran into more and more delays. Money started disappearing. And that mercenary Aden Rawne appeared, as well.

“By that time it was becoming apparent that all those men Freedan hired to help with the repairs weren’t laborers at all, but mercenaries, too. When Master Percival confronted him about it, Freedan said that the sites needed to be protected from Squatters, but the whole reason they’re causing so much trouble in the first place is because sections of Alta never got rebuilt, even after two years…”

“But what happened to the money?” Max wondered aloud.

“Anymore, I’m certain he’s been embezzling funds for a long time, even before the quake. Freedan became more and more secretive about the bookkeeping, and I have no doubt he and Rawne mean to take over Vandenberg Trading. Of course, our investors here in Konosha have become quite concerned in the last year or so, and while Master Percival was busy meeting with all of them, Freedan took advantage of his absence to take control of a greater part of the company, even as all of our old allies began to turn against us. It all came to a head ten days ago, when they took up the matter with the Assembly, wanting to dissolve Vandenberg and divide up the remaining fortune to pay off old debts Freedan has been shortchanging them in Master Percival’s name.”

“And that’s when… Percival disappeared?” Max made no attempt to conceal how much that bothered him. Found he was increasingly wishing he had Shades’ head for politics, or Justin’s for scams and shenanigans, to consult right now. “Don’t tell me Freedan did something to him?”

“No, that’s not what worries me,” Sebastian replied. “I know where he went, and that’s the real problem, because I’m sure Freedan knows, as well. Since then, he’s been parading around the place like he already owns it. As if he doesn’t expect to see Master Percival ever again. And, even worse, he doesn’t seem to regard you as any sort of contender for control of your own inheritance.”

“Why is he so sure he’s seen the last of him? Where did he go?”

“The Lower Ruins,” Sebastian reminded him. “Remember what I told you about how the Van-denberg fortune started with a treasure from the ruins underneath the city? Both the company and the family fortune started with that artifact. Ever since the quake, Master Percival kept talking more and more about launching an expedition down there, for the first time in generations, to finish what his an-cestor started, but the Assembly wouldn’t hear of it.

“As the company’s situation became more and more precarious, he spoke even more wistfully of fulfilling Edric’s dream of finding ‘the rest of’ the treasure. Even took Edric’s journal with him. I tried to keep the… Young Master from finding out, but it seems he knows his father all too well. I think they both believe another treasure could turn things around…”

As Sebastian spoke, Max gazed upon the paintings on the den wall, lined up in chronological order: Founder Edric, Hanlund, Rumpert, Elward, Chadwin, Chauncey, Percival, according to the bronze plaque on each one. Arranged so that there was a blank space on the wall, waiting for Maximil-ian when he was ready to take the reins.

Though this Edric bore no resemblance to anyone he knew, as the generations progressed, he couldn’t help noticing how the last two looked like they might be distantly related to his own father. Cousins, maybe. A line of thought that led to his next question:

“Sebastian, what happened to my… Maximilian’s mother? Why isn’t she here?”

“I’m sorry,” Sebastian mumbled, chagrined at forgetting he would also have to relate this part of the family history, as well, “the Young Master’s mother, Lennay, took ill and died when he was still very young… And I fear now, at this rate, he may soon be without a father as well, if not already…”

“I see.” Max nodded solemnly, trying to shake off the unexpected burden of wondering if his own mother was still alive and well back in Layosha. Shaking such thoughts off with an effort, he got back to the matter at hand. “We need to tell my friends what’s going on. They might be the only allies we have left.”

“That may be,” Sebastian replied, “but it will be easier said than done. Anymore, Freedan con-trols most of the company’s personnel, as well as the manor staff, and the rest are afraid of Rawne and his men. I fear his plans to take over the company have only sped up these days, and neither you, nor the Young Master, will be able to stop him at this rate. Do you really believe just two people can make that big of a difference?”

“Yes,” Max told him, the certainty in his tone taking the butler aback for a moment. “Though I don’t like the idea of just dragging them into this…”

“Exactly what the Young Master said,” Sebastian remarked, “which was why he decided to go it alone. Even if most of the family’s oldest friends had been turned against us, he still didn’t want to en-danger them.”

“Of course,” Max conceded, “unless his friends had experience fighting pirates and mercenaries and security robots, it was very wise to leave them out of it.”

“Young Master Maximilian always rebelled against his sheltered upbringing,” Sebastian sighed, “insisting on practicing climbing and sailing and swimming. Then again, so did Master Percival in his youth, so I imagine that was why he indulged his son’s hobbies, however reluctantly. The Vandenbergs started out as a family of explorers, which surely explains their long-standing penchant for collecting contraptions and exotic objects from other realms, like that glider… Though I fear it may have distracted him from studying to take his place as the next head of the family.”

“I can’t speak for them about challenging Freedan,” Max cautioned him, “but my friends will at least want to help me. I don’t know how long I can pretend to be someone I’m not, and I don’t like the odds of anybody going down there alone if it’s as dangerous as everyone says… Wouldn’t it be better to go down there and help him out?”

“Perhaps,” Sebastian shook his head in grave thought, “but as much as I want to help my Young Master, I worry that Freedan would just find a way to take control of the whole thing without anyone from the Vandenberg family here to represent it.”

“So the real question is, how long can we keep it up?”

Max stood there for a long moment before retiring, pondering both the outer beauty, and inner darkness, he had found in this place.
VII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Professional Burglary For Dummies
They had spent the last few hours resting, and Maximilian drew them a rough map of Vandenberg Manor, which they all went over carefully as he covered where to expect Rawne’s men.

Maximilian now wore a hooded jacket from the Maximum’s limited wardrobe, not wanting to give himself away now that he was on the outside. Much as he disliked splitting up on general principle, he also had to admit that Shades was probably right about the pitfalls of trying to sneak in as a group. If a single fight broke out, the commotion would surely sound the alarm for the rest of them.

To say nothing of the fact that, though he had the advantage of knowing his home inside out, his new companions would have to rely solely on his map and descriptions. They had decided to break in during the wee hours of the morning because the guards would be tired. At the same time, it would still be difficult to predict whether they would be on-edge so soon after Maximilian’s latest escape, or somewhat complacent so soon after recapturing him, let alone how the other Max’s behavior might figure into it.

If nothing else, as Shades so astutely pointed out, they would most likely be positioned to watch for someone trying to sneak out, not in, and they should try to play that to their advantage.

To that end, Maximilian decided to take an approach everyone he knew always tried to discourage him from. All except Ma’Quiver, who even gave him a few pointers, but also reminded him, with a wink, that doors were invented for a reason. With all the doors under guard, now seemed as appropriate as ever.

Taking as quiet a running start as he could get away with, he scrambled up one of the partition walls around the corner from the manor. Crouching precariously on that ledge, he waited until both sentries turned around, one of them stopping to light a cigarette, quickly balancing across the partition and chinning up to the next ledge, hopping over the railing onto a small balcony. He was fairly sure he spotted one of them turning around, but given that the guard turned, scratching his head, to light his partner’s smoke, as Maximilian peered over the railing a moment later, looking more like they were worried about getting caught slacking off while on duty than catching anybody else, so he was pretty sure he was in the clear.

Much as he figured, Rawne was well aware of his climbing hobby after his first couple escape attempts, and had all the windows on the lower levels locked up. Fortunately, the room inside was empty, because even he hadn’t figured out how to ascend any higher without equipment. Following Shades’ advice, he whipped out a roll of duct tape from the ship. Struggling against an unexpected sense of shame at doing this to his own home, he slowly, quietly, strapped duct tape several ways across the glass near the window latch. Checking to make sure the guards were still preoccupied, he jammed the pommel of the stolen sword in the taped section, yielding a muffled cracking sound.

When no one responded, he shifted the broken part aside, and reached in to unlock the window, quickly ducking inside. Paused for another long moment, half-expecting Rawne’s men to come barging in. Then quietly sidled up to the door, listening intently.

Hearing no one in the immediate area, he eased the door open and slipped out into the hallway, figuring that Max would probably be held somewhere near his own personal quarters, and that the closer he got, the more on-guard he could expect them to be.

While Maximilian was skulking around his ancestral estate, Justin strolled along an alleyway running beside the place. Its lowest windows so high up that imposing slab of wall, no one bothered to guard this section. Still, that didn’t stop him from looking both ways before unwrapping and unfolding his crossbow, then aiming it at a high ledge.

Back in the Kona Islands, he had taken the opportunity to test out his crossbow’s grappling hook, and was pleasantly surprised at its capabilities. The winch built into the buttstock could even lift Max. Even so, he had never attempted such a height before, reminding himself of all of his successful tests as he scaled the wall.

He had carefully selected this section, as it was a straight line with no windows, but even so, he kept expecting someone to start shouting— or worse, shooting— at him at any second, still things remained quiet.

Recalling the times he crept around the shantytown of Benton, with its ramshackle rooftops, he quickly learned that most people never bothered to look up.

Sure enough, he made it all the way to the roof of the main structure unhindered, figuring that the spires of Vandenberg Manor were overkill. Much like how most folks don’t look up, he doubted anyone was expecting him to drop in from above. The only part left was to figure out a way to get back inside without a hitch.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the estate, Shades hung back around the corner from the back gate, observing the guards. As far as he was concerned, it was troublesome enough just getting here at this hour without arousing the suspicions of the mix of private and city guards on the prowl here in the Upper Quarter, putting him in mind of some gated communities back in the Valley. Now that they were here, he found himself re-evaluating his approach.

Much as he feared, there was no formal uniform, and none of them wore a helmet or visor, either. They were also conservative enough in number that they would surely know each others’ faces well enough to recognize an impostor, even if he knocked one out and took his stuff, let alone just wandered in claiming to be the New Guy. Hell, if the place wasn’t under such tight lock and key, he would be tempted to try to pass himself off as part of the manor staff, just like posing as a janitor or a maintenance technician back on Earth.

His main advantage, he quickly concluded, was that both of them were primarily facing inward. As if more concerned about someone trying to leave than enter. This allowed him to sneak up to a statue standing upon a massive pedestal near the doorway.

Yet still left the question of how to get past it.

Deciding that he had no real choice but to take the risk, he dug in his pocket. Fishing out a small, flat stone he had spotted on the ground on the way up here. Peeking around the side, and seeing them both facing away from him, he cocked his arm back for a sidearm throw, skipping the stone across the ground around the corner.

Both guards turned in that direction, then turned and looked at each other.

One of them shrugged, but the other admonished him, “We better go check it out. If that brat gets out again, Rawne’s gonna have somebody’s ass.”

And so, much to Shades’ relief, they both went around the corner to take a look, and he wasted no time sneaking through the doorway to spot another door inside. Which was locked, leaving him with little time to figure out what to do about it. Things went from bad to worse when he heard someone opening the lock from the inside. Fearing he was caught between a rock and a hard place, he thought fast, flattening himself against the wall next to the door just a couple seconds before it swung open.

Another guard stepped out and, seeing no one at their post, immediately rushed forward, calling out to his companions as Shades slipped quietly through the door behind him.

Finding himself in an empty corridor, he ventured forward cautiously, as even Maximilian didn’t have an exact number on Rawne’s henchmen. In addition to finding Max, there was something else their new friend mentioned that intrigued him. Despite the temptingly simple explanation of repairing quake damage, there was still something that bugged him about all of Freedan’s apparent insistence on renovations all over the mansion.

After all, this was a very old mansion, that had been in the same family for generations, and no matter how silly or cliché the idea sounded, he just couldn’t drop the notion of there being a secret room or passage somewhere in this old place, possibly containing secrets of Maximilian’s ancestor Edric’s original expedition into the ruins, something that would surely be of use to the young man in his search for his father.

Freedan’s definitely up to something in here, he thought. We need to rescue Max, and also find that clue…

While the others were working their way inward, Maximilian hid on an ornate gallery balcony overlooking the cavernous Great Hall, surprised and taken aback by who he saw below. None other than Freedan himself, accompanied by Aden Rawne and flanked by several of his men. They had just sent Sebastian away in the direction of the upstairs living quarters, but Maximilian arrived too late to hear what they were talking about. After that, they just stood around, waiting.

So Maximilian decided to wait, as well.
VIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
When Sebastian woke him up at this hour, Max could only think of how surprised he was that he even fell asleep at all, given the circumstances. When the butler looked so alarmed and spoke so urgently, it jarred him several more notches awake. The mere mention of the name Freedan was enough to make him double-check that he still had his backup laser sword before stepping out for this late night audience.

Then he followed Sebastian downstairs.

Under other circumstances, the Great Hall would have been a most impressive sight. Stairs connecting three levels of walkways under a vaulted ceiling, hung with tapestries and various adornments. All of it carved and tiled in the same red-orange stone as the rest of Alta, only more polished and ornate and intricate than anything Max had ever seen.

Right now, though, he didn’t have time to fully appreciate it, given the imposing company he currently entertained.

Nearly a dozen of Rawne’s men ranged around the cavernous chamber, but it was the two figures standing in the center beckoning to him. Aden Rawne he had seen before, but the smaller man, who fit Sebastian’s descriptions to the letter, could only be one person.

No taller than Justin, and slight in build, wearing an expensive suit, leaning idly on a cane with a heavy silver knob. Blond hair spiked in a distinctly Outland style for this realm, face looking decidedly younger than his thirty-odd years. As Max drew nearer, he made out ice blue eyes that matched his arrogant expression, which made no secret of his reputed intellect and cunning.

“Ah, young Max,” Freedan greeted him, his tone sibilant and condescending in spite of his friendly words, “it is good to see you safely home. I hear you had quite an adventure yesterday. You really mustn’t run off like that with your father still missing.”

“Is this really all you came here to say?” Sebastian asked. “Could this not wait until morning? In this crisis, the Young Master should really be getting his rest.”

“It already is morning,” Freedan told him curtly. “Then again, perhaps someone who lacks the will to put in long hours isn’t cut out to run a company. Why don’t you go back upstairs and make yourself useful? Go dust some vases or something. The Young Master and I have some important matters to discuss.”

For a long moment, Sebastian looked like he had a thing or two to say about that, but then he turned, nodding to Max with thinly-veiled worry, then plodded back up the steps.

“We know this has been trying for you,” Freedan continued, though Max could clearly hear more condescension than concern in that voice, “but there is something very important we need to talk to you about.”

“We’ve been hearing some strange rumors on the street,” Rawne informed him. “It would seem that, not long after we brought you home—”

“Captured me,” Max corrected him.

“—for your own good,” Rawne resumed, “I heard that a young man matching your description stole an ancient sword from the Market Quarter.”

“Why would I steal a sword?” Max shot back, bristling at the accusation. “You stole mine!”

“The question is really more along the lines of how,” Rawne replied, completely ignoring Max’s outrage as he reached into a flap in his duster, “since you never made it that far.”

Producing Max’s laser sword and firing it up.

“Where did you get this?” Freedan demanded. “We know you stole a sword, but not this one.”

It took an effort of will for Max to refrain from drawing his concealed spare, with his father’s blade held right before him, reminding himself to wait until he could find a better opportunity.

“Who does this belong to?” Freedan pressed.

“I doubt Ma’Quiver gave it to you,” Rawne added, increasingly certain there was something different about him.

Knew Maximilian had learned a few moves from that fellow he insisted on taking in after the quake, but what he experienced yesterday was more intense than any fight the boy had put up before. Rawne could tell, even while he was still injured, that Ma’Quiver was a warrior of exceptional skill. At first, he and Freedan were worried the boy might go and do something troublesome, like take him on as a bodyguard, but it seemed the itinerant swordsman had some unfinished business elsewhere out there. Still, he was the only person Rawne had ever seen in these parts with an energy blade, so it was hard to dismiss the connection.

“It…” Max almost said belonged to my father, but instead, recalling Sebastian’s account of Ma’Quiver’s stay, tried, “It’s a friend’s…”

“You’re a terrible liar, Maximilian…” Freedan shook his head. “You really must face reality. We’re doing everything we can to find your father—”

“Have you tried searching the ruins?”

“Now, now, we’ve been through this…”

“If you won’t,” Max countered, “then maybe I should.”

“We can’t allow that,” Freedan declared, tapping his cane for emphasis.

“Don’t you get it?” Rawne extinguished the energy blade. “If he went down into the Undercity, then your father ain’t comin’ back, kid…”

Rawne stopped short at Max’s conviction. At something ablaze in that kid’s eyes he had never seen before, and he didn’t like it. Every exchange only served to reinforce that sense that he was dealing with a completely different person.

“I don’t care what it takes…” Max muttered, fists clenched against his own memories, “If there’s any chance his father is still alive, he won’t end up…”

Then trailed off, seeing the gleam in Freedan’s eyes.

“What did you just say?” Grinning viciously. “His father? You really aren’t Maximilian Vandenberg, are you?”

“I mean…” Max stammered, already realizing his mistake, too late.

“Could it be?” Rawne cocked his head.

“Sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one, no matter how preposterous it may sound,” Freedan mused, the very face of satisfaction. “I didn’t know the boy was clever enough to find a body double…”

“What are you talking about?” Max demanded, not sure where Freedan was going with this, even less sure that he would like it.

“It’s no use trying to hide it anymore,” said Freedan.

“You’re the spittin’ image of that boy,” Rawne remarked. “You must’ve switched places before I caught up with you…”

“Now tell me, who are you really?” Freedan asked. “I don’t know where he found you, or what he offered you, but I hold the purse-strings around here. One way or another, this company will belong to me, but if someone like you were to cooperate, we would both stand to profit.”

“Freedan…” Rawne paused, trying to figure out how to tell his employer a little something he had learned along the way as a mercenary: that some folks just aren’t moved by money, and he was already quite certain this young man was one of those folks.

Sure enough, Max answered: “No deal. I won’t help you steal this man’s home.”

“Don’t be rash,” Freedan warned him. “It’s really your only choice. You could never convince the others you’re the real Maximilian. You’re clinging to a sinking ship…”

Max stepped back, already resigned to the fact that this was going to come to blows, concluding that taking Rawne out first was his only chance of getting out of here alive.

“He’s not going to join us,” Rawne said darkly, “which means he’s just a loose end.”

From his crouched perch up on the balcony, Maximilian watched and listened as this total stranger defended his home. Even from here, he could see the righteous outrage in this Max’s eyes, and knew this was the look of a true warrior. It reminded him so much of Ma’Quiver that he couldn’t help but feel ashamed of hiding.

“You’re going to tell us where Maximilian went,” Freedan continued to threaten him, “even if we have to beat it out of you.”

“Wouldn’t tell you, even if I knew.” Max’s tone flatter than Bandit’s ears when his hackles were up.

“This is your last chance.” Rawne stepped forward. “Where is Max—”

“I’m right here!”

All eyes turned to Maximilian as he stood up on the balcony above them.
IX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
“Ah! Young Maximilian!” Freedan crowed, “So nice of you to grace us with your presence! You’ve spared us the trouble of having to go looking for you. Again.”

Before anyone could give any orders, two of Rawne’s men aimed up at him—

But before either of them could fire, Justin zip-lined down from somewhere near that vaulted ceiling, plowing through both of them to break his fall as he landed.

“Leave him out of this!” Maximilian shouted, gesturing to Max. “I didn’t ask him to do this! He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time!”

“You expect us to believe that?” Rawne demanded, reaching for his sidearm.

In response, Maximilian hopped over the rail, dropping down onto a decorative landing, then running and jumping to hug and slide down one of the smooth stone pillars, and finished by stepping around face Rawne, who had barely turned in time to catch up with his assailant’s unorthodox moves.

“I don’t expect you to believe me.” Maximilian finished with his pilfered blade pointed at Rawne. “I expect you to let him go.”

All the while, Max tried to figure out a way to warn his unexpected doppelganger about the dangers of bringing a mere metal against an energy blade.

“Now, now, Young Master,” Freedan crooned, “you must understand, we can’t just let an impostor in the Vandenberg family just waltz out the front door…”

“After all, he knows too much, right?” Shades intoned.

“Precisely,” Freedan replied, “which is why—”

Freedan’s words ground to a halt, noting both the looks on everyone else’s faces, as well as the fact he had no clue who he was even talking to, belatedly noticing that the speaker was right behind him.

“No, it can’t be…” Freedan stammered, afraid to turn around now that he saw a gun pointed at his back out of the corner of his eye.

“Thanks for holding their undivided attention, Max,” Shades remarked, keeping his power pistol trained on Freedan.

Of course,” both of them replied in near-perfect unison.

“You’re not Ma’Quiver,” Rawne observed.

“Sorry if I disappointed you, but he won’t be joining this party,” Shades told them, figuring there was little point in bluffing about an ally who wouldn’t be putting in an appearance anyway. He was quick to catch Freedan’s sigh of relief, though, pressing him, “You’ve been skimming off the top for years, haven’t you? You’re the one who drove Vandenberg to this level of desperation.”

“Is that true?” Maximilian’s voice stern enough to stun even Rawne.

“Young Master,” Freedan tried again, “we’re only trying to keep you safe until—”

“Don’t you dare call me that!” Maximilian snarled. “I overheard the whole thing!”

“Methinks thou doth protest too much,” Shades chided Freedan. “There never was a real search for his father, was there?”

“What he said,” Justin seconded, keeping the men next to Rawne covered with his crossbow.

“Rawne,” Freedan hissed, seeing his few bodyguards completely out-maneuvered, “what the fuck am I paying these people for?…”

“Don’t make me get Shakespearean on your ass!” Shades warned him. Having helped his friend Vince practice his lines for a couple too many plays over the years. “Now drop that cane, or I drop you.”

“Please don’t,” Justin pleaded, recalling one too many sparring sessions. “Once he starts…”

“Young Master!” Sebastian cried out from the top of the central stairway, jaw gaping. “Is that—”

That instant of distraction was all Rawne needed to slip a blade from up his sleeve and flick it at Shades, striking his wrist, making him fumble his weapon.

“Shades!” Max turned belatedly.

“Shit!” Freedan snapped, reaching around and smacking Shades upside the head with that heavy silver knob.

“That is so Nineteenth Century,” Shades muttered, rubbing his head and shifting to keep Freedan from going after his power pistol, relieved that the casing of his watch had deflected Rawne’s knife, even if it did leave a deep scratch in the glass.

Only to find, much to his chagrin, that Freedan was better armed than he originally thought, nearly facepalmed as he turned the knob, unsheathing two feet of double-edged steel blade.

“Let’s hear that smart mouth of yours now!”

“A sword! A sword!” Shades yelped, dancing backwards, seeking an opening to draw even one of his stun-sticks, “My kingdom for a sword!”

“Goddammit…” Justin muttered, aiming up at the stair railing, at Rawne’s men, and firing as they attempted to make their way down, their targets too closely intertwined with their fellows and their employer for them to shoot back, “Ya shoulda just shot him…”

Meanwhile, Max whipped out his backup laser sword, stunning the two nearest guards before they could make a move against Maximilian or Shades, then, seeing his friend’s plight, interceded between him and Freedan to confront this unexpectedly spry and nimble adversary.

En garde!” Freedan flourished his blade at him.

“Thanks for the warning,” Max replied. Though a quick glance over his shoulder revealed one who was even worse off than Shades.

Once Rawne fired up Max’s laser sword, Maximilian found himself frozen on the spot.

“Tell me, kid,” Rawne quipped, figuring that it would only take a matter of seconds to destroy his young foe’s weapon and overpower him, so he could turn his attention back to defending his employer from the Young Master’s mysterious and worrisome double, “do you even know how to use that?”

Maximilian swallowed hard, refusing to back down. Though Ma’Quiver refused to teach him swordsmanship, he had still watched him practice many times, and was pretty sure he had the basic gist. Even so, he had a bad feeling about that energy blade…

Max, seeing that he wouldn’t have enough time to take out Freedan’s weapon if he was going to make it in time, rushed over and grabbed Maximilian by the wrist, switching opponents, as he doubted the young man was any match for a battle-hardened mercenary like Aden Rawne. To say nothing of the weapons disparity.

Telling him, “This is my fight.”

His father’s blade, glowing before him.

“I don’t know what this thing means to you,” Rawne warned him, “but don’t expect me to just hand it over.”

“I don’t,” Max answered, bringing his own teal blade to bear. “I’m going to take it back.”

Maximilian, on the other hand, found himself face to face with the mastermind behind this whole mess.

“You’re making a big mistake…” Freedan informed him. “This blade was crafted of carbon-cobalt steel, and can pierce body armor.”

“But have you ever used it?” Maximilian countered, recalling an important point Ma’Quiver taught him.

“More times than you.” Freedan assumed his fighting stance, relieved to be facing someone less experienced than that other Max. “I’ll have you know I was trained by the best fencing instructors in New Cali, boy! Now let’s see if that Ma’Quiver actually taught you anything, shall we?”

As Maximilian clashed with Freedan, Justin hid behind a pillar at the far end of the chamber, the last two guards up top shooting at him any time he poked his head out long enough to spot either of them.

He was about to try again, when a couple shots from the far side brought one of them down.

Justin quickly leaned around the corner and nailed the other one while he was still trying to figure out what hit his fellow. Then he turned to see that Shades had reclaimed his power pistol.

“Hey! You’re gettin’ better!” Justin told his friend. “You got that one in only two shots!”

“Let’s wrap this…” Shades turned to see one more mercenary sneaking up on Maximilian as he fought Freedan, but both of them were too closely entangled for even Justin to shoot past them.

Much to both of their surprise, Sebastian stepped from behind a pillar, cracking a very expensive-looking vase over the man’s head.

Maximilian heard the crash behind him, barely parrying as his opponent pressed him back.

“Pathetic!” Freedan taunted. “Even Percy did better than that on his first try!”

“Bastard!” Maximilian lunged forward—

And Freedan parried, tweaking his weapon out of his hand with a deft flick of his cane sword.

“Too easy!” Freedan sneered. “Even the rankest amateur at that prep school wouldn’t fall for that!”

With a most dismayed expression, Sebastian scrambled up to the second level, pulling free a tapestry and draping it over Freedan below.

“Young Master!”

While Freedan stumbled back, cursing profusely and flailing his sword in his opponent’s general direction as he struggled, Maximilian made a mad dash for his lost weapon.

At the same time, Max and Rawne dueled their way across the floor. Yet no matter how hard Rawne pressed him, Max not only refused to yield, but continued to solidly hold his ground. Demonstrating a level of swordsmanship that confirmed the wisdom of diverting him from fighting his boss.

“Unlike that brat, you really are a warrior,” Rawne remarked. “The last time I saw anyone with the same potential as you was Ma’Quiver.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Max replied. “I’m sure he would, too, given how much I trained with him.”

“As I thought…”

Rawne immediately sidestepped, throwing off his duster and sweeping it in Max’s face with the flourish of a bullfighter. But this time Max ducked, sweep-kicking Rawne and tripping him up before he could attack. He tossed the duster aside as Rawne staggered back to his feet.

“I won’t fall for the same trick twice.”

Shades and Justin continued to monitor both fights, deciding it was too risky to intervene. Max and Rawne were too unpredictable to engage, and now that he was clear of that tapestry, Freedan and Maximilian stood toe-to-toe, blades locked. Even Sebastian looked on in worried indecision.

“You’re beginning to piss me off!” Freedan snarled, as his young opponent continued to press him back, wishing he could spot someone still on their feet so he could order them to take that damn butler hostage.

“You’re the one trying to ruin my family and steal my home!” Maximilian shot back, continuing to push his size advantage. “If anyone has a right to be pissed off around here, it’s me!”

For his part, Freedan sidestepped and disengaged, letting Maximilian go staggering up against the nearest pillar with the full force of his own push.

“This… wasn’t how I planned it…” Freedan panted, drawing himself up to his full, if diminutive, height, “but after all these years… I won’t allow… even you… to stand in my way, boy…”

Justin, meanwhile, was glad he was still keeping a lookout, as he was the first to spot more of Rawne’s men arriving on the scene.

“Guys!” he warned his friends, “We’ve got company!”
X by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
face to face
Drawn by the commotion of the ensuing battle, the rest of Rawne’s henchmen converged on the Great Hall, their mere presence barring most of the doors.

“Ha! You fools couldn’t have timed this better!” Freedan cackled as he began to regain his composure. “It seems young Maximilian will be killed by burglars!”

“Don’t expect us to just go along with that!” Justin shouted, ducking back behind his pillar.

“Dead men tell no tales,” Rawne informed him darkly.

“Of course,” Freedan told them, backing away toward his men, he cocked his head at them, “we will avenge him, but unfortunately, we will be too late to save the Young Master. It will be such a tragedy!”

“Young Master!” Sebastian called out, peeking out from behind a door farther up the stairs, gesturing for them to follow. “This way!”

“You’re not going anywhere!” Rawne declared.

Before their reinforcements could fan out and flank their cover, Justin leaned out and snapped a smoke bolt into the tight cluster choked into the hall’s entrance.

The others quickly took their chance as Justin fired into the smokescreen, making most of their attackers hit the deck in a general panic.

Rawne tried to take a parting shot at Max, who sidestepped and tripped him up with a handy move Ma’Quiver taught him, sparing him a glare over his shoulder, as if to assure Rawne that this wasn’t over yet, by any means, then following his friends up the steps before Rawne’s men could get their act together.

Sebastian led them deeper into the manor, down a hallway and around a corner, into Percival’s study. The others were too busy covering their retreat as the enemy regained their initiative to see how the butler opened it, but by the time they shut the door behind them, they found themselves facing a hidden passage behind one of the room’s many bookshelves. Hearing the thunder of footsteps out there, and Rawne’s voice barking orders at his men outside, they made their way, quickly and quietly, down several twists and turns as the hidden door clicked shut behind them, eventually coming out in a small, ornately furnished room.

Here, the two Maxes stood face to face for a long moment before anyone spoke.

“I know it’s long-winded,” Shades requested, “but do you mind if we call you ‘Maximilian’?”

“We’ve already got a Max,” Justin remarked.

“This is just like that time we had a transfer student named Dexter in the fourth grade…” Shades mumbled to himself.

“Um, sure…” Maximilian stammered.

Now that they both stood face to face, both parties couldn’t help but marvel at the resemblance between the two Maxes.

“Young Master,” Sebastian interjected, “I’m so glad to see you safe again. When I saw that contraption take off, my heart skipped a beat…”

“So did mine!” Maximilian laughed. “That was quite a wild ride!”

“I told you the Collection was dangerous.”

“Oh, Sebastian, the glider worked just fine, pretty much as that book I found with it said it would,” Maximilian assured him. “Even lasted me long enough to land on the rooftops. It was getting back down from there that was the trick. That place was falling apart so bad, even the Squatters didn’t want it…”

“So, Max… imilian,” Justin posed him, “if you had this handy secret passage in and out of here, then why the hell did we just go through all that?”

“Because the Young Master didn’t know about it,” Sebastian explained. “This place was originally built by Edric himself, where he kept his most personal possessions. It’s a secret that’s been passed down through the Vandenberg family ever since.” Seeing the look on Maximilian’s face, he added, “Don’t fret. When you came of age, your father would have shown this to you. I think he wanted to sooner, but we both figured this was what Freedan was after all this time. Under the circumstances, I think Master Percival would understand…”

“But why didn’t you show me?” Maximilian demanded. “I could have escaped for sure with this.”

“I was afraid to,” Sebastian confessed. “I was afraid you would follow Master Percival, and I would lose both of you. I was also afraid that if you got out without leaving any clues, Freedan would have had an excuse to dig deeper for this.”

“You said this was where Edric kept all of his secrets,” Max asked, “so does that mean there’s some clue down here about the treasure?”

“After all,” Shades mused, “that seems to be what Freedan is after.”

“Perhaps there was…” Sebastian shook his head, gesturing to the scroll desk that the rest of the room seemed to be arranged around. “When Master Percival disappeared, so did Edric’s journal, which contains details he didn’t include in his published memoirs, along with anything else in here that might have had information about the Lower Ruins. That was how I knew where he’d gone. Like father, like son, I suppose, that you figured it out without any clues…”

“I imagine he hoped one of his descendants would finish what he started,” Max commented, the certainty in his tone ringing true to everyone’s ears.

“And that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” Maximilian confirmed. “Now it’s my turn.”

“I suppose there’s no stopping you now, is there?” Sebastian sighed. Turning to Max and his friends, he pleaded, “Please, you’ve already done so much for us, but I’m no adventurer, I would only be a burden to him down there…”

“We understand,” Shades nodded. “Besides, they already got Max involved anyway.”

“But this isn’t our problem anymore,” Justin protested, though his tone sounded more resigned than resistant.

“I thought you were always up for a treasure hunt,” Max remarked.

“So, any leads?” Justin shrugged.

“I believe I know where Master Percival may have entered the Undercity,” Sebastian told them, again wincing at Maximilian.

“Can you tell us about it on the way?” Shades asked, thumbing toward another tunnel continuing past this room. “I’m assuming there’s a back door to this place, isn’t there?”

“Of course,” Sebastian replied, “otherwise, there would have been no point in hiding in here.”

“Good to know,” Justin remarked as they resumed their escape, “because they now have a good idea where that secret door is, and we don’t wanna still be here talking when they find it.”

Around a couple corners and down three narrow flights of steps, illuminated by a sparse series of bare bulbs, they descended as Sebastian described the location of the Undercity entrance, they came to a dead end. Or at least until Sebastian reached for a secret latch behind the wood-paneled segment, and a whole panel slid aside with a faint whisper, and they found themselves in a small supply shed, just on the edge of the Vandenberg estate.

“This passage is exit-only,” Sebastian cautioned them as the panel slid back into place. “It only opens from the inside.”

“So, even if we knew about it beforehand, we couldn’t’ve used it to get in.” Justin understood.

“You might want to find someplace to hide out until this is all over,” Shades advised him. “By this point in the game, they’ve already demonstrated that they won’t hesitate to resort to foul play to get what they want.”

Sebastian mentioned a name.

Maximilian nodded.

“We should go back to the ship for supplies,” Max suggested as their next move.

“Agreed,” Maximilian concurred. “It’s way too dangerous to go down there without any gear.”

“Says the guy who was going to try anyway,” Justin quipped.

“It’s not like I had a choice,” Maximilian responded. Turning to Sebastian, he said, “I promise I’ll do everything I can to find my father, no matter how far down he’s gone.”

“Just promise me you’ll come back alive,” Sebastian replied, clapping his Young Master’s shoulder. “Stick together, and watch each other’s backs. I fear Freedan’s men may follow you down there, as well.”

“Rawne will.” Of that Max was certain. “And I won’t leave this island until I get my sword back. We have unfinished business.”

“Then let’s be on our way,” Shades recommended, “while we still can.”

“Please, stay safe,” Maximilian told Sebastian. “I know you want to fight for us, too, but we both know they won’t let you get anywhere near the Assembly Hall on your own. The fight for the company can wait. Father cannot. Please wait until we return before we make any appeals. I don’t want to lose you, either, ’Bastian.”

“You haven’t called me ‘’Bastian’ since you were a little boy…” he replied. “Please remember, your father did all of this for your sake, so please… don’t do anything too rash.”

Their battle inside Vandenberg Manor, and the ensuing manhunt inside, left the exit near the shed completely unguarded, so they wasted no time slipping away into the wee hours of the morning before anyone could come along to stop them.
XI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
beneath the streets
Thirty men of varying degrees of armor and armament stood ranged around the small, rubble-strewn clearing, Rawne and Freedan standing at the head of the group.

The morning sun still low on the horizon, casting the entire area in deep shadows. Amidst the debris sprawled several Squatter corpses in front of a door hanging at a crooked angle. Two more mercenaries emerged from the blackness beyond, giving Rawne the All Clear signal.

“Sir, we’ve secured the entrance,” Rawne announced.

“Excellent,” Freedan replied. “No telling how much of a head start they might have. This way we don’t have to worry about the guards at the known entrances flapping their lips, even if we pay them off. Nobody’s going to miss this trash…”

Stepping over one of the bodies as they entered.

And was immediately greeted by a miasma of squalor that made the fetid air outside smell pristine by comparison.

“Damn!” Freedan gagged, holding a handkerchief over his nose. “What died in here?”

“A lot of things, I would imagine,” was Rawne’s toneless response. “It’s still not too late to return to the mansion. Just because there hasn’t been a peep out of our quarry doesn’t—”

“I already told you,” Freedan hissed, “I want to see that brat die with my own two eyes. If they haven’t tried to go to the authorities already, it means they chose to go after the treasure. I’m not letting either get away from me now, not after all these years.”

Couldn’t facepalm hard enough at how cliché the secret passage in Vandenberg Manor turned out to be, like something out of a hundred cheesy movies he’d seen back in New Cali, let alone at where it let out.

“My informants reported several unidentified individuals causing a scene when they passed this way, only hours ago,” Rawne informed him, “but I’ve also got my people keeping an eye on the seaport.”

“He’s not going to run away.”

“Of course not,” Rawne concurred as they strode deeper into the gloom, illuminated now only by lamps and flashlights. “And neither will that impostor. But they’re obviously not from around here, and I want to know how they got here. If they have any friends, or a ship, we could use that as leverage.”

“And what of the butler, Sebastian?” Freedan asked. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and find him down here, too.”

“Definitely not coming down here, as I figured,” Rawne replied. “Not only is he too old— too soft— to be crawling around a place like this, but my eyes in the harbor last saw him taking the ferry to Amarrah, though he gave them the slip not long after he arrived. Most likely hiding out somewhere, waiting. At least I’ve taken measures to ensure that he can’t get anywhere near the Assembly Hall without being intercepted.”

“I was hoping we could bring him along as a hostage,” Freedan shrugged. “It would serve him right, after causing so much interference back there…”

Leaving behind four men to guard the lower entrance, they proceeded through a gaping hole in the wall, into a passage visibly older than anything above it.

“Either way, it looks like the Assembly won’t be an issue if they’re down here,” Freedan mused, “it’s almost a shame we cleaned up after the incident. We could have spun it as a kidnapping and ransom gone wrong— complete with Squatters to blame for it— but I guess we’ll just have to settle for the Young Master losing his grip and getting ‘lost’ down here instead. Pity he’ll never be found.”

“I would have preferred a smaller company,” Rawne told him, “as it will be all but impossible to sneak up on them with these numbers, but those three strangers are a troublesome bunch, that much we’ve already seen. And of course there’s the matter of your personal safety.”

“Just leave the boy to me,” Freedan told him. “You handle the impostor and his friends. With them out of the way, we can finally leave this Low End dump and go back to New Cali. With the Vandenberg fortune at our disposal, and your crew to back us, we’ll make a killing, and be up in the Towers in no time. I can finally take back my life…”

“We also need to make sure to do something about the butler,” Rawne pointed out. “He already knew too much, even before last night’s incident, now he’s just another loose end. I’ve already left word for my contacts on Amarrah to start looking into it, but we’re probably going to have to take a bigger group when this is over. We can’t leave this many witnesses behind here.”

“Yes, yes,” Freedan agreed. “Fortunately, we have a ship that can hold it all, and a crew we can hire on when the time comes.”

“I will get back to them about that as soon as possible,” Rawne replied. “Word on the street is that Mercer is still looking for a buyer—”

Somewhere farther down the passage, they were interrupted by an echoing scream, followed by several indistinct shouts and noises.

“That must be them!” Freedan whispered triumphantly.

“No more talking from here out,” Rawne ordered his men. “Whoever’s out there, they haven’t noticed us yet.” Motioning them forward, he said, “We can still get the drop on them if we’re quiet.”

Freedan nodded, grinning from ear to ear at the thought of being the ones to spring the trap this time.
XII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
The five of them slipped quietly down a narrow alleyway, hoping the rain hoods would help against prying eyes. The four humans just hoping their potential pursuers had no info yet about their feline friend. For it was indeed a tense debate about whether or not to bring him along.

In the end, both Bandit’s tendency to follow them anyway if Max was gone too long, combined with that time in Bodeen, when they came back to find Bertona’s men sitting on their ship, made up their minds.

Maximilian had warned them that Rawne had eyes and ears all over the Harbor Quarter, so it was a very long morning, sleeping in shifts. With no real contingency plan for what to do if they actually found the Maximum, let alone if they dragged the local authorities into it. Especially since Maximilian was certain Freedan would charge them with ‘kidnapping’ him. It was no less of a relief after they woke up, worrying every step of the way about being followed.

Their first relief so far being that they found the entrance Sebastian told them about unguarded, as it held out the hope that Percival may have actually gone this way.

The entrance itself was a bent-up sewer grate that seemed to have been overlooked by repair crews. Tucked away around a corner, down a little-used alleyway, revealing a glimpse of a cramped passage even most Squatters would turn their nose up at, the grill frame bent and warped by the same compression that cracked and split the stonework all around. To top off the long-neglected look, a mangled dog lying near the opening.

They all looked among themselves a moment, as if having the same thought, double-checking their weapons.

“When we got these supplies,” Shades remarked, “I hardly had spelunking in mind. But it’s probably for the best, given how short on funds we are…”

“I’m so sorry about this,” Maximilian said yet again, “but my father is down here, and hasn’t been heard from in days. Freedan will surely drag out any dispute about the estate, and no one else will go down here…”

“We know,” Max replied. “Your home will still be there, waiting for you.”

“Thank you,” Maximilian repeated. “I promise, when we regain control of the company, I will see that you are rewarded handsomely.”

“We’re not doing this for the money,” Shades assured him, noting Max’s solemn nod. Also noting Justin’s glare, he hastily added, “But donations are always welcome.”

It took both Maxes to wrench the grill out of the way, but the reason was readily apparent once it was open: someone had jammed a piece of scrap metal in the hinge, from the inside.

“Looks like somebody didn’t wanna be followed…” Justin commented as they crawled in.

The one thing they dared to pick up along the way was some respirators, which they now donned in preparation for their descent.

Much as Shades had warned them, the smell down there was nearly overpowering. In addition to as many charcoal filters as they could get their hands on, they also packed as much fresh water as they could carry. After all, these ruins sat underneath generations’ worth of sewers.

Still wary of being followed, they decided to re-jam the grill behind them, figuring their energy blades would make short work of such an obstruction in a pinch, if they needed to make a hasty retreat from this section.

“We should keep our radios handy,” Shades suggested. “I’m not really sure what their effective range will be underground, but it’s better than nothing down here.”

“I say we test them out as soon as we find a good location,” Max recommended.

“Let’s just try not to get separated down here,” Justin piped up. “It seems like the most fucked-up shit happens to us whenever we get split up…”

“Like what?” Maximilian asked. From all their talk, these three sounded like they’d seen a lot of action.

“Oh, you know,” Shades rattled off, “dimensional anomalies, haunted houses, endless buildings…”

“Evil robots, angry spirits, ghost ships…” Justin continued.

“The walking dead, dangerous animals, and, more recently, Squatters,” Max finished.

“If we make it out of this alive,” Maximilian told them, “you’re going to have to tell me the whole story, you guys.”

At first it was a struggle to avoid bumping their heads on the low, uneven ceilings, while trying to balance not tripping over ruts, despite a general aversion to paying too much attention to what they were stepping in in these dank passages, but eventually it gave way to more accommodating ceilings as they descended. Suggesting places originally built for humans to tread. The sewers themselves fast turning into a maze, a rats nest built and modified haphazardly over the centuries without any central plan, but they kept to any passages with a downward slant.

At first they could hear faint echoes of the city above, even spotted a few scant shafts of light hinting at other ways out, as well as the only visible sources of fresh air, but as they worked their way down, those hints of the surface grew fewer and farther between, eventually vanishing altogether as they passed through a collapsed wall into a series of catacombs.

Even Max found himself doing his best not to let his light linger too long on any of the shriveled shapes and jumbled piles of bones littering those ancient alcoves, like his friends, beginning to wish he hadn’t brought up so many of the creepiest places they’d been along the way.
XIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
feeding frenzy
Freedan’s hunting party continued its advance into the Undercity, fanning out and regrouping as they explored and marked passages that ended in collapsed or rubble-choked dead ends. Their own path working its way downward, one tedious search at a time. The hours becoming abstraction in the absence of daylight.

“Sir,” one of the men reported, from the head of the search party, “we have a situation.”

“What is it now?” Freedan demanded. “I grow tired of these delays. Rawne, I thought you said we were almost on top of them.”

“It would seem those echoes came from farther away than they sounded,” Rawne admitted, “and all these branching paths have only slowed us down.” Turning back to the scout, he asked, “So what’s the problem?”

“There’s a fork in the path up ahead,” the scout explained, “and both ways go on for some distance.”

A short distance down the corridor, the reached the point he was talking about. Two hallways branched out from this one, both uncommonly free of rubble compared to any other sections they passed at this depth. Hinting at the possibility of more stable, intact, sections of the ruins beyond, with even more areas to explore.

“Just as I thought…” Rawne muttered, noting that the scouts’ own footprints were the only clear trail he could make out, “Whoever came down here, they had at least a couple hours’ head start on us. Though I doubt they would risk splitting up down here, there’s no way to tell for sure who went which way. It’s possible old man Vandenberg passed through here, and others might just as easily have gone the other way.”

“So what now?” Freedan tapped his foot. “I will not let Percy, or his brat, live to see the surface, and if there is any treasure left to be had down here, it’s going to be ours, not theirs.”

“I say we split up,” Rawne proposed. “We’ve got the numbers. I’ll take a detachment down the left way, and you take the main group down the right. If either of us hits a dead end, they come back here and follow the other group. These allies the boy found have proven resourceful enough that we should kill them on sight, rather than risk another mess like back at the mansion.”

“Agreed,” Freedan nodded sourly, “but no matter what, I want to see them dead. There will be no loose ends down here.”

“Of course,” Rawne replied.

One of the men whipped out a spray can and marked each fork, as they had all of the previous ones, while the hunting party split into two teams. Half a dozen men going with Rawne, the rest accompanying Freedan. As if as an afterthought, one lone sentry remained at the fork as a go-between.

Down the hall and around the corner, Rawne’s team advanced down a series of passageways, past rooms of ruin filled with rotting heaps and stacks that might have once been anything from furniture to burial caskets before the rats made their nests out of it.

Rawne quickly noted that he was not the only one bothered by how many bones were strewn around those piles, both human and animal. It was obvious enough to his men, as well, that this pattern did not look like looting. Judging from the foul reek that prevailed in this region, he doubted he was the only one who pegged this primal arrangement for some kind of den.

What bothered him most, though, was the glaring lack of any living specimen to gather intelligence from, as he was increasingly certain this was not the work of rats.

All they could really do was proceed with caution, even as they began to notice more and more strange faded red symbols marked on the walls, like some kind of warning.

If not for the intuition that some recent disturbance may have cleared out this area, the only immediate clue about other activity down here, combined with their last couple attempts to check in with the others resulting in mostly static, had him wondering how much longer he could hold his men back from trying to regroup before they even found anything.

Though most of them were battle-hardened soldiers of fortune, he was pretty sure this was the longest any of them had spent underground, and combined with the scenery, it was already starting to take a toll on their demeanor, and surely their morale. Likely their own desire to not appear weak in front of their peers the only thing staying their tongues thus far.

“Sir,” one of them finally piped up, “perhaps we should double back and check with the boss.”

“I don’t like this…” another one voiced from the back of the group.

“I don’t either,” Rawne told them, “but until we find something, even if it’s a dead end, I’m not going back to him empty—”

They were immediately interrupted by a cry of horror from their point man.

It only took a moment for the rest to spot the cause of his alarm. A pair of yellow glowing eyes glaring back at their lights. As Rawne signaled them to drop into a defensive crouch, weapons drawn, they watched in growing alarm as that one pair of eyes was joined by yet another pair.

In the time it took any of them to blink, there were a couple dozen more.

As the eyes began to move forward, and all their lights focused on them, the rest of the creatures’ bodies became visible. One to two feet tall, bipedal, reptilian, of a dark grey that made them one with the shadows. Even at fifty paces, they could still make out long, hooked claws on both front and hind legs, and gleaming fangs that protruded out from under their lips.

The lights shining on them only seemed to halt their advance for a moment before they charged.

Rawne’s crew opened fired without any need of orders, mowing down the first wave. They soon learned that whatever was attacking them was like fighting the tide, as more and more flooded in from around a corner somewhere back there, washing over their fallen fellows’ corpses in even greater numbers. Much to their dismay, grim numbers that were fast becoming proportionate with all the nests they walked among.

Those screeching, hissing, scrabbling sounds threatening to drown out their screams of terror as more joined the small army rushing to overwhelm them now that their prey was located.

Rawne quickly realized that they did not have nearly enough firepower to hold this passage against them, the blazing barrage of energy beams lighting up the tunnel taking down only a fraction of their attackers, and made a hasty retreat behind his team’s covering fire to draw Max’s laser sword. The others, not having energy blades, had to fend for themselves as the feeding frenzy closed the gap. Though most wore varying degrees of body armor, it availed them little at close range.

Once they started crawling up one man’s leg, his shots went wild, hitting one of his teammates before he lost his weapon. The other man screamed in agony as he went down, a large mass of reptiles burying him from head to foot. One of the others was overwhelmed by an impossibly large wave of them, still screaming into his staticky radio for reinforcements that would never arrive in time, even if they heard him, to suffer they same tormenting fate as his companions as they were swarmed.

Aden Rawne continued his retreat as their defense collapsed completely, the neon green blade becoming a blur of streaking lights as he cut down anything that got near him.

The one who accidentally shot his partner was now down on the floor, rolling frantically in a vain attempt to shake off the creatures that had gotten through his armor. Once the blood loss from all those fangs and claws began to take their toll, all he could do at the end was shriek as his flesh was stripped from his bones. It was fast becoming the same gruesome story for the rest of his crew as they fell one by one.

All Rawne could do was continue to hack and slash as he worked his way backward, desperation lending him extra vigor. The whole experience blurring into an endless, painful horror show. He had to slow— but never stop— his slicing and dicing to shake one off his boot.

As he backed around the corner, he caught a glimpse of the last living member of his party. Having shaken off enough of his tormentors to move, he tried to crawl over to where he had fumbled his power rifle, its mounted light still illuminating the carnage unfolding around him. In mid-motion he slumped to the ground, only vaguely aware that he no longer had the strength left to save himself, glassy eyes staring blankly ahead.

Rawne was fast beginning to realize that the only reason he was even still alive was because most of these subterranean predators had shifted gears, instead fighting over his fallen henchmen’s remains, as well as their own corpses. Once there were no scraps left to squabble over, their full attention would turn back to him. And that would be the end of it.

If I make it out of here, Rawne thought grimly, Freedan’s gonna owe me a fuckin’ fortune…
XIV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
already done for us...
The catacombs eventually led into a series of crumbling corridors and passageways whose original purpose Max and his friends could only guess at, there was so little left of it.

Thus far, they had encountered no one, and found no clues to Percival’s whereabouts, nor any hint of treasure. Anything of material worth was clearly stripped from this place centuries ago. And that was to say nothing of all the distinct eras of architecture they had wandered through, hours and hours of blundering around.

“The history of this city truly is arranged in layers…” Maximilian marveled as they came into a new section, appearing to be more sturdy than the section before it.

At least the portions that were still standing, mostly main hallways with a few rooms and side passages.

“Ya know,” Shades mused, “the more I see of this place, the more certain I am that that was no natural earthquake two years ago. I mean, if you look at how much this place has fallen apart, as well as the uneven damage on the surface…”

“Yeah,” Max agreed, “that might just be it.”

“Another dead end,” Justin muttered, the hallway ahead blocked by a long-settled flood of dirt and debris.

“Yeah, I doubt Freedan would be blasting anything down here,” Shades agreed. “This structure’s unstable enough as it is. The last thing he’d do is risk trapping himself, or just bringing the whole thing crashing down on his head.”

“This place would be his tomb.” Maximilian nodded. “Ma’Quiver told me about how his flashlight only worked the first few hours, and after that, he had to crawl around here for three whole days to make it out. Now that I’ve seen this maze for myself, I’m even more amazed that he made it out at all. To think, my father may have got lost down here…”

Staring at a collapsed section like this, they could all feel the full, palpable weight of the entire city of Alta pressing down above them.

This. Is. Nuts. Shades, for one, was ever more certain he had left his common sense behind somewhere back on Earth.

“We have to keep looking.” Max knew all too well, from personal experience, that sometimes the only way to keep it together was to just keep doing, even if it was no longer about results, the first to turn back to the main passage.

“Too bad your pop didn’t think to mark any of these ways.” As Justin had been doing since they left the sewers. “That was the only way I could even begin to find my way around—”

Justin’s remark was cut off by a terrified cry, followed by several more yelps and loud, panicked footfalls, echoing down an unexplored corridor.

The first solid evidence any of them had found that anyone else had been down here in their lifetime.

“Father!” Maximilian cried, dashing down the hall ahead of the rest.

“Wait!” Shades shouted as they took off after him. “That might be one of Freedan’s men!”

Down the hall and around a couple more corners, Maximilian stumbled to a halt in the midst of a hallway full of scattered bones and ragged clothing. Broken sticks stuck out from the walls at random heights and intervals. Only a couple of the wall-protruding spears still intact, sticking out fruitlessly.

The remains of ancient traps, and the remains of ancient people who fell for them.

“Slow down,” Max urged him as he caught up. “This place is dangerous enough as it is. If there’s anyone else down here, we want to find them.”

“Not the other way around,” Justin added for emphasis as he approached the next corner, double-barrel power pistol already drawn.

“Already done for us…” Shades solemnly thanked them, be they graverobbers or just unfortunate explorers.

At least this grim find served to put Maximilian back on his guard.

Justin motioned for them to come forward, giving the All Clear sign for them to turn the corner. In the middle of the short hall was a spiked ball dangling from the ceiling by a chain, its left side painted a sticky, dripping red. A broad streak of blood smeared down the wall, marking the limp form slumped against it.

“Looks like one of Rawne’s men,” Max observed.

“Which means they did follow us,” Justin muttered, “just as I thought.”

“But why was he here all by himself?” Shades wondered, keeping his power pistol trained on the body, even as he knelt down to examine it. Leaving its blood-soaked face against the floor, he laid his finger on its neck, confirming his first impression. “Either way, he’s dead.”

“To think, one of these traps still works…” Maximilian gasped, visibly trying to take his mind off this macabre turn of events.

“Great…” Justin commented, “Not only are there a shitload of traps down here, but enemies as well?”

“Looks like,” Max replied.

After claiming the dead mercenary’s salvageable gear, and giving Maximilian his power rifle, they proceeded with even greater caution.

Off one side passage, they found a small chamber whose floor was all spikes, littered with bones and fallen masonry and part of a metal grating. So far, they had yet to find any of the trigger mechanisms, but that didn’t keep them from second-guessing their every step. Even the fact that both time and tremors had taken their toll on most of the works, the fact that even one trap was still operational was hardly reassuring.

When they started finding sinister red symbols slathered on doorways, it only increased their anxiety.

“It is about the traps?” Shades pondered, “Or something else we’ve yet to run into?…”

Their ominous thoughts came to a grinding halt along with their steps when they found another dead body in another rubble-choked corner, just off to the side of the hall.

A dead body to go with that dead end, one that Maximilian recognized all too well.

“Dad! No!” he wailed, falling to his knees before his father’s remains.

At first, the others wondered how even his own son could recognize Percival in his current condition. Unlike the mercenary, who had blundered into a booby-trap, it was obvious that this one had run into something nasty. Obvious from the way those raw bones had been stripped-down, as if eaten alive. Obvious from what was left of its contorted, agonized pose and gaping jaw.

Those tattered clothes surely the only thing left of him to recognize anymore.

The others stood watch for a long, awkward moment as Maximilian grieved for his father.

“If only I made it sooner…” he sobbed. “I can’t believe I failed… Why didn’t you bring me with you!?”

“You did what you could,” Max assured him, his own voice sounding uncharacteristically choked-up.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Shades told him, though he had quietly feared an unpleasant end to this expedition from the start. “If you need someone to blame…”

“Blame Freedan!” Justin finished. “Blame Rawne! They’re the ones who stopped you all this time.”

“And he’ll pay for that…” Maximilian hissed. “This is not over yet. I swear, no matter what happens, I will not let them take everything our family built! And if there is any treasure to be had down here, I won’t let them take that, either! I will avenge you…”

Then, as if just remembering something important, he reached over for his father’s pack, digging around in growing dismay.

“What is it?” Max asked.

“Edric’s journal!” Maximilian waved his empty hand frantically. “It’s missing!”

“But that makes no sense…” Shades mumbled. “A predator would have no use for a journal. Unless…”

“Rawne!” Justin snarled. “I bet he got here first! We already ran into one of his men…”

“But surely we aren’t going to leave your father like this,” Max pointed out.

They all paused for a moment in indecision.

Before their debate could resume, Bandit started snarling, low and defensive, turning back toward the way they just came, hackles at high mast.

“What now?” Shades tensed up.

They got their answer in the form of creeping shadows crawling down the passage, yellow eyes glaring back at their lights. Looking for all the world, to Shades, like an army of tiny dinosaurs marching on them.

“The fuck…” Justin nearly fumbled his gun.

“Underdwellers!” Maximilian gasped, recalling the trophy in his father’s den.

“Raptors!” Max cried, recalling that creepy statue from back in Layosha.

“Run!” Shades screamed as he did just that, surprising himself by actually finding a second to wonder where Max got that name from…

Justin and Max fired frantically over their shoulders as the ravenous reptiles came racing toward them. By the time one was already nipping at Maximilian’s heels, it was becoming frighteningly obvious what happened to his father, as obvious as it was that they now shared the same fate.

Shades, already seeing where this was going, hastily switched to his stun-sticks, sweeping and twirling both energy blades in a desperate effort to hold the frenzied creatures at bay. Justin fumbled out his crossbow, deciding that now was a good time to use a strategy he originally had up his sleeve for Rawne’s crew down here.

“Close your eyes!” he ordered, firing a flash bolt into the midst of the horde.

His friends didn’t even wait for a reaction before they started running blindly down the tunnel.

The blinding flash of light only seemed to slow them down for a moment, though, before they resumed their pursuit of fresh meat.

“I… don’t get it…” Maximilian panted, “Under… dwellers… haven’t been… seen in Alta… since… Edric’s day…”

Just when the underdwellers were about to catch up with them, leaving no time to worry about dead ends, and Justin running too fast to even attempt reloading his crossbow, the ones at the head of the pack began to slow down.

They could hardly credit their eyes as they looked back to see the whole feeding frenzy grinding to a halt. Wasting no time, Justin slowed down enough to load another flash bolt, just in case. Maximilian, meanwhile, tripped over some debris, skidding and scrambling back to his feet with a horrified cry.

Max was the first to stop in spite of himself, to point out to the others that the little monsters had stopped entirely, and immediately started running in the opposite direction.

“What got into them?” Shades muttered, not liking this at all.

“We’re safe!” Justin crowed. “Let’s get while the gettin’s good!”

“Wait!” Max warned them, wondering why he had such an ominous feeling. Seeing Bandit also stopped in his tracks, staring apprehensively ahead, combined with the concerned look on Shades’ face, he added, “What are they running from?”

They all ground to a halt, as if the same horrifying thought occurred to them: Freedan’s men. Then there was a second pause, considering that these creatures had shown no fear of man or beast. Or energy weapons, for that matter. In that light, it begged the question of what down here might such mindless monsters be afraid of.

“Something even worse than them?…” Shades tried not to picture what that might be.

Just as they were about to start forward again, deciding to take their chances against the unknown, after seeing what lurked back that way, they spotted a greenish glow up ahead.

Flowing down the hallway, filling it from floor to ceiling, a dense cloud of glowing green gas.

Trapped between a rock and hard place, they fumbled to don their respirators again, Shades having warned them of the perils of underground gases, as that mysterious cloud swirled around them like a living, breathing thing.
XV by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
grim find
Freedan’s party came to a complete halt at yet another fork in the path.

Neither of the scouts had yet to return when they heard that final transmission, which consisted mostly of Rawne’s team’s frantic, garbled screams and intermittent laser fire over the radio, followed by silence. Most of them looking ready to panic, Freedan ordered them to form a circle around him, trying to remain as calm as he could while all but begging his own hirelings not to desert him. Weapons bristling, lights trained on all three directions to cover any angle of attack.

The minutes dragged on, and no news from any front, the tension visibly getting to everyone.

Finally, the two scouts from the left-hand passage returned, reporting another dead end, then joining the others’ defense amid creepy rumors Freedan couldn’t find the words to squelch.

Much to his consternation, he was beginning to fear he might have to call off the entire expedition if they received no word from Rawne soon.

Unsure if any amount of money could persuade any of them to go after their leader, Freedan was about propose the idea anyway, when they spotted a light around the bend back the way they came from.

“Hold your fire!” Freedan ordered, hoping it would stick. Wanting to see for himself what was back there before they started shooting blindly.

A lone figure stumbled into their concentrated light, shielding his eyes against the glare. His own men recognized him first as Aden Rawne ran up to them. Relief quickly gave way to dismay as they got a good look at him.

Duster shredded, pantlegs torn, combined with the mortified expression on his face, of fear as Freedan had never seen before, fear that might be the last straw to break his own men.

“What the hell happened to you?” he demanded.

“Underdwellers…” Rawne breathed, his voice reflecting his ragged appearance. “They’re real…”

“What are you talking about?”

The men began to murmur amongst themselves.

“There were hundreds of them,” Rawne reported. “Just kept coming… I escaped only by using my last flash grenade.”

“And they killed the rest of your party?”

“It was a slaughter.” Rawne already seemed to visibly pulling himself back together, now that he was back in the company of his own men, to say nothing of the presence of his employer. “They may have got the sentry, as well. He was nowhere to be found when I got back to the fork.”

“Wonderful…” Freedan muttered, trying to figure out a way to not say what seemed like the most logical course of action under the circumstances. “So does that mean that no one used that entrance? I thought your spies were more reliable than this.”

“Sir, with all due respect, I really think we should return to the surface,” Rawne recommended. “We need more men. A larger force, more lights, maybe a flamethrower…”

Freedan stood there, fists quivering, torn between the threat Rawne had uncovered, and the fear that his own right hand would overrule him.

And that was when the other search party returned from the right-hand passage.

“Sir,” one of them reported, “we’ve found another passage up ahead. We also found the remains of someone who has been down here recently, though it’s kinda… Um, what happened here?”

Trailing off at the apprehension of the other men, as well as Rawne’s ragged-out state, as some of the others began to fill the two in in ominous whispers.

“So, what now?” Rawne deferred to his employer, who looked to him to be just about ready to call it quits.

“Show me the body,” Freedan said darkly.

“But sir, what about the un—”

“I’ve come too far to turn back, Rawne.” Freedan’s demeanor having changed drastically since he regained his voice. “I will not let them slip through my fingers this time! I told you I want to see them dead with my own eyes, and I meant it.”

After a long, tense moment, Rawne turned to his men. Ordering them to stay alert, and doubling the rear guard. Their reduced numbers alone incentive enough for greater vigilance.

After a long, slow trudge, they finally came to the corpse that the scouting party spoke of.

“Percy?” Freedan cocked his head, barely able to place anything of his old partner’s remains.

“Has to be,” Rawne affirmed. “Looks like the work of underdwellers.”

“Even better than I’d hoped…” Both Freedan’s voice and expression receiving odd looks from the rest of his men. “The old fool did himself in, all on his own!”

Rawne stooped down to examine the body.

“Someone’s been here before us,” he said grimly. Holding up the man’s bag: “The dust has been disturbed, and something’s clearly missing.”

“Edric’s journal?” Freedan pressed him. “Is it there?”

“That’s what appears to be missing,” Rawne muttered, tossing the bag aside.

“Dammit!” Freedan stamped his foot. “That brat and his friends got here first! And now we have to deal with another fork!? Which way did they go?”

“Sir!” One of the guards pointed up ahead. “Take a look at this!”

“Underdwellers.” Rawne recognized them immediately. Or rather what was left of them. “It looks like a chase went down this tunnel, so at least we know which way they went now.”

Even Freedan seemed visibly shaken by the sight of these subterranean predators, now that he had seen them for himself, looking just like the trophy in Percy’s den, his expression looking little different than the rest of the crew as they whispered among themselves.

“Let’s follow them,” Freedan said, sounding more and more stubborn with every syllable. “If they have the journal, we have no time to lose.”

“Freedan,” Rawne reminded him, “we’ve marked all these tunnels. It would only take a few hours, and we’ll be back with a larger company to face the under—”

“We’re not wasting any more time,” Freedan cut him off, forcing Rawne and his men keep up with him in order to continue the conversation as he advanced. “Send a team back to the surface to bring more men, if you want, but they’re not getting away this time. They’re going to lead me to that treasure.”

And so the argument went for the next couple minutes, ending with Rawne’s exasperated sigh, and resolution to round up the four or five men who seemed most anxious to return to the surface, who would likely be the weakest links down here, when the chase abruptly ended.

No more underdweller corpses, no more stampede of tiny clawprints in either direction, and no more human footprints, either.

“I don’t get it…” Rawne muttered. As if all trace of their quarry had been wiped away entirely. “And I don’t like it, either.”

Even as they stood, milling about, Freedan fuming furiously at yet another delay, one of the scouts cried out in alarm at a faint, shimmering green light down the tunnel.

Fearing it might have something to do with those creatures, Rawne drew his new laser sword again, fearing the worst.
XVI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
unexpected discovery
Justin was the first to uncover his face, and what he saw left him speechless.

Unsure of where he was, or what was going on, as everything around him appeared to be made of the same grey-green stone from floor to ceiling. The floors, even the walls, of the dim hallway were dark and glossy, like polished marble, with sections of symbols carved into the walls. The corridor itself stretching in both directions into an indeterminate greenish haze.

He whistled under his breath, having no words for what he was witnessing.

Perhaps the gas that just wafted through here was making him hallucinate. Or perhaps he had finally lost it. Either way, he couldn’t shake the troubling feeling they were no longer where they used to be only a moment ago.

Max was the next to open his eyes and look around. His stunned, perplexed, look was enough to tell Justin that his friend was also seeing things he clearly didn’t expect to see.

“What… is this?” Max finally managed. He recalled the faint smell of sulfur and smoke, the air quivering while the ground remained constant.

“I don’t know,” Justin replied, a trifle relieved to know he wasn’t just conjuring this up all on his own, “but I’m glad I’m not the only one seeing it.”

“Me, too,” Max confided, testing his footing to find, as glossy as the stone looked, it at least wasn’t slippery.

“What are you doing…” Shades trailed off, apparently having finally opened his eyes, as well, staring around for a moment, then asking, “So, any of you know what the hell’s goin’ on?”

“Nope.” Justin and Max both shook their heads.

“Is it safe to open my eyes?” Maximilian asked shakily. Gazing around the hallway, he asked, “Are you guys seeing the same thing I am?”

Bandit’s incredulity seemed the final confirmation that they were all indeed sharing the same experience.

“I think that makes it official,” Shades remarked as he walked up to the nearest wall, reaching out to find it not only substantial, but smooth to the touch. “If this is any sort of hallucination, we all seem to be having the same bad trip.”

What he quickly noticed, the more he examined it, was that the stonework was all of one piece. No cracks, seams or bricks. As if the entire place was carved out of the same impossibly colossal block of stone.

The whole thing raised more questions than answers.

“But what the fuck was that?” Justin demanded. “You’re the ‘expert’ on paranormal shit.”

“Yeah, but most of the shit I read back on Earth was all hypothetical, at best,” Shades countered, “whereas, so far everything we’ve run into in this world is real.” Pausing for a moment, he added, “There is one thing I can think of, though I’m not sure you’re gonna like it. Remember any of those Bermuda Triangle stories I told you?”

“I’m sorry I asked…” Justin groaned.

“It gets worse,” Shades continued, “because it’s connected to the only phenomenon we have any corroboration for. Remember the ship’s log? About the yellow fog that transported the Maximum to this world in the first place?”

“Wait just a damn minute!” Justin snapped. “You’re not saying we just got lost in another dimension?”

“Another dimension?” Maximilian gasped. “What are you talking about?”

“Well, it’s hard to explain,” Shades told him, “but I’m not originally from the same world as you, or them. I’m from the same world— I think— as our ship came from. According to the ship’s log, the previous crew went through some kind of space-time anomaly that involved glowing fog, like what we just encountered.”

“So you mean we’re in another world?” Justin muttered.

“Most likely.” Shades shrugged.

“Maybe that was what those underdwellers were scared of…” Maximilian mused. “They did seem to know what it was they were running from.”

“Guys…” Max called out to them.

“Perhaps,” Shades said, “but at least this doesn’t look to be where they’re coming from.”

“Don’t even think it,” Justin warned him.

“Hey guys!” Max piped up again. “Check this out!”

They turned to see him standing next to one of the lines of text inscribed in the wall, holding his medallion up to it.

“What’s up?” Shades asked, hungry for any insight into their situation. Taking a closer look at the symbols, he stopped in his tracks. “No way…”

Even as he drew near enough to examine them closely, he could already make out matching characters, all the way down to their proportions and styling.

“You’re shittin’ me…” Justin breathed. “Here, of all places?”

“You see it, too, don’t you?” Max pressed. “Take off your Tri-Medal and take a look!”

“Tri-Medal?” Maximilian cocked his head.

“Where to begin…” Shades so abruptly found himself having to switch gears in this strange place, he was having trouble sorting this thoughts. “You see, we were sorta already involved in a treasure hunt of our own before we came to Alta…”

“Not that we’ve ever found much of anything,” Justin grumbled, “mind you.”

“Until now,” Max pointed out. “Aside from Kato’s Tri-Medal, this is the only thing we’ve ever found that looks like it’s even got anything to do with them.”

“So,” Shades asked Maximilian, “does that mean the treasure this Edric fellow found was part of the same treasure we’re looking for?”

“But that means…” Justin muttered, already hearing that old pirate Rude Bones’ jovial laughter from their first night at Bankshot, “Someone else got it first?”

“Maybe,” Maximilian reminded them, “but don’t forget, even Edric didn’t think he found everything down here, so there might still be treasure to be found.” He paused for a moment, a stern look on his face. “There has to be. I refuse to let my father die for nothing. As the last of the Vandenberg bloodline, I swear, if there is anything of worth to be found down here, I’m going to be the one to do it.”

There was a long, awkward moment of silence before anyone else spoke.

“Now I remember…” Shades brought up, surprised he had, given all that had happened in the past day or so. “This ceiling, it’s just like the one from that dream I had yesterday.”

“I hate it when you say things like that,” Justin muttered.

“Well,” Shades shrugged, “as long as there are no ghost ships, or guys without faces, I suppose I can handle this…”

“Don’t go there.”

“What’s he talking about?” Maximilian asked.

“Don’t ask.” Wanting to change the subject, Justin instead said, “Guys, I’m all for finding treasure and all, but I think we might want to give some thought to how the hell we’re gonna get out of here.”

“You’ve got a point,” Shades admitted. “Now that I think about it, how we ended up here doesn’t offer any clue about how we get back out…”

“And we only have enough food and water for four or five days,” Max added.

“And since I don’t see that fog anywhere on this side,” Shades noted, “it might well be a one-way phenomenon.”

“Then it looks like we might just have to explore,” Max concluded.

“If this is where Edric got the artifact from,” Maximilian proposed, “then there must surely be a way back out of here.”

“If we have no choice,” Justin said, whipping out his laser staff and stepping up to the wall, “then we shouldn’t wander around blindly. Back in Tranz-D, I marked all the paths I could like—”

But when he put the tip to the wall to carve his mark, the energy blade ran right up against the wall.

“What the hell!?” Justin checked his weapon in consternation, making sure it wasn’t in stun or solid mode, then swung at the wall, getting the same result.

As if seeking to confirm this, Max fired up his teal blade, swinging at the wall with all his might. Just as with Justin’s, the blade stopped right at the wall, even at full cutting power. A closer inspection of the stone betrayed not a single scratch.

“Mysterious…” Shades commented, reaching into one of his many pockets, whipping out a marker and attempting to scribble on the wall.

Despite having a wide tip, the ink just seemed to bead and congeal, like trying to write on oiled or wax paper, it just wouldn’t take.

Without warning, Maximilian whipped out his power rifle and fired at the far wall. Three rounds failed to put a mark on it, as well.

“Watch it!” cried Justin.

“At least it didn’t ricochet…” Shades mumbled.

“So how are we supposed to mark it?” Max wondered aloud, folding his arms.

“Y’know,” Shades remarked, “maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, we still don’t know what happened to Freedan’s men.”

“With any luck, those damn lizards ate ’em!” Justin suggested.

“Have we ever been that lucky?” Shades intoned.

“Still,” Justin conceded, “I’m pretty sure that bastard NK-525 was following my marks back in Tranz-D…”

“Since there’s no exit around here anyway,” Maximilian recommended, “maybe there’s no need to mark this place.”

“Short of leaving our stuff behind like a trail of breadcrumbs,” Shades pondered, “it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to mark anything anyway.”

“Well, I don’t see how we can get any more lost than we already are,” Max declared, “so we may as well explore and see what there is to see.”
XVII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
the Lower Ruins
A couple hours— or over a hundred rooms— later, they were still at it.

Though they had crossed the occasional intersection in some rooms, with squarish pillars at regular intervals, all inscribed with the same unknown script that flowed along sections of the walls as well, they decided to keep to one direction in the hope of finding some sort of landmark in this ever more monotonous place. They stopped for a short lunch earlier, grimly agreeing to ration out their already limited food and water stores against an unknown time in this place where nothing of either sort appeared to be available. A tacit understanding beginning to brew among them that, if they didn’t find anything soon, they would try a different direction.

Even, they soon noted, the unease of letting even one of their small number out of sight, around a corner, for even a few minutes, to relieve himself.

On the subject of things they had a limited supply of, they were relieved there was somehow enough light to see by in this place, allowing them to give their flashlights a rest.

Unlike the weight of the city of Alta, which felt like it hung overhead like a ton of bricks just waiting to fall, this place felt like unfathomable depths of stone, both above and below. The silence of this place was complete and utter, there was no ‘settling’ to be heard. Even their own echoes sounded muffled and subdued to their own ears.

Among his supplies, Shades had packed some scrap paper and crayons from the ship for this expedition, using it to make some rubbings of the symbols on the walls. Thus far, the markings in each hallway had proven identical, even most of the rooms, as well. Prompting them to ponder if the markings were perhaps some kind of directions.

The whole place seemed to shimmer with a faint luminescence, even when they turned their lights off. Shades quietly hoped this place wasn’t radioactive or something, but kept his mouth shut about it, not wanting to worry the others with something none of them had any control over.

Justin was just about to suggest trying a different direction, when Max spotted something farther down the hallway.

Up to this point, they had given their lights a break, given that this faintly diffuse illumination was enough to see by, but now they turned them back on to examine the shape in the corner up ahead. Even before they reached it, they could already discern the huddled shape of a human corpse.

“I tell ya, I don’t like this…” Justin muttered, gazing down at the tattered, mummified form. Not even the fact that it held no weapon could do anything to stem the tide of grim memories bubbling up from the murky haze of his time in Tranz-D.

“Looks like he’s been there a while…” Shades observed, judging by the degree of desiccation. “Probably from before Edric’s time.”

“He doesn’t look like he died a violent death…” Max speculated. “Does that mean he starved to death or something?”

“Don’t go there, man,” Justin told him. “At least in Tranz-D, there was some fuckin’ food layin’ around, but this place…”

“Doesn’t even look like it was ever inhabited to begin with,” Shades remarked.

“You know,” Maximilian commented, “this is all starting to remind me of something father told me once, an old family secret. You see, Edric claimed to have found the treasure in a ‘strange part’ of the Lower Ruins that he could never find his way back to. His descriptions didn’t match any part of the Undercity anyone else had ever seen, before or since. Of course, a lot of folks thought he was just pulling everyone’s leg, or trying to cover up the ‘real’ location, but father said Edric’s journal described the place more thoroughly than his published memoirs, and what my father described sounds a lot like this place…”

“You don’t say…” Shades mused, wondering if this wasn’t what befell some of those who were never seen again after venturing down here.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Maximilian breathed. “To think it turned out to be true…” Brushing his hand against the smooth stone wall. “To think, there was something like this under our city all this time…” Sighing, “Father, if only you had lived long enough to see this with us now…”

“Still it does offer some hope,” Max pointed out. “If what your father said is true, that means Edric found a way out of here.”

“Even so,” Maximilian sighed, “I wish we found the journal. I’m sure it also would have contained more clues about this place.”

He seemed to ponder something long and hard in that moment of silence, before turning back to Max, looking more stern than they’d ever seen him.

“Max?” he asked, “Would you teach me how to beat Freedan’s disarming technique?”

“Perhaps,” Max replied, “but you must understand, no kind of training can make up for the gap between your skills in just one day.”

“Maybe instead I should lend you one of my stun-sticks to turn the tables,” Shades suggested.

“Yeah!” Justin crowed. “Destroy his weapon, and you win by default!”

“No,” Maximilian told them, “I want to defeat him for real. To avenge my father.”

“This is no tournament,” Shades warned him. Realizing, much to his dismay, that he finally recalled where he’d heard the name Vandenberg before: the Book of Fate. Will die by the hand of a formidable foe… or something along those lines, and all he could do was hope that his reading was a Saving Throw for others he had read of, and not just his companions, as he imparted some grave advice: “In a real battle, there’s no such thing as ‘cheating’… The only rule is survival.”

“The only thing you can hope to ‘cheat’ is death,” Justin added. “If you get yourself into a fair fight, it’s your own damn fault.”

“I won’t rest until he’s paid for what he’s done to my family.” Maximilian’s words made it final. “I appreciate your concern, but this is something I have to do for myself, or I’ll always regret it.”

“I can respect that,” Shades conceded, making a resolution of his own to knock that Starscream smirk off Freedan’s face before they leave this island.

“Very well,” Max agreed. “I can understand. After all, that sword Rawne stole has been in my family for generations, and I have every intention of taking it back before I leave this realm.”

“If those monsters didn’t get him first!” Justin pointed out grimly.

“That sword’s been through worse places than this.” Recalling his father’s words on the subject: “A weapon well cared-for will also take care of you.”

“Oh shit!” Shades muttered. “I just remembered! We forgot the supplies!”

“But we might have to leave Alta in a hurry…” Justin mentioned, while they were on the subject of things to do before leaving.

“Still,” Max reminded them, “if you hadn’t bumped into him…”

“We might never have figured out what happened to you,” Shades finished, turning to Maximilian, “so I guess things worked out… sort of.”

They stopped to take a breather for a while, Max coaching the Young Master on his swordsmanship. To say nothing of letting Bandit rest, as the unyielding stone of this place made his bare feet uncomfortable. Then they resumed, Shades convincing them to continue for one more hour before changing direction.

The rooms and halls seemed to expand into infinity, but for now they kept to their conviction that if there was a way in, there must also be a way out. Perhaps it was for the best, given what they eventually found.

“So,” Maximilian wondered aloud, “you don’t suppose any of those underdwellers found their way in here, do you?”

“Don’t even think it,” Justin shot back.

“I doubt it,” Shades told them. “Aside from the fact that one guy seems to have died of starvation rather than being eaten, the creatures themselves appear to be afraid of whatever phenomenon drops things in here…”

“But how are they still living down here?” Maximilian pressed. “Underdwellers haven’t been seen in Alta in over a hundred years.”

“I would imagine they got blocked from the surface, just like you guys got cut off from the ruins,” Shades proposed. “They apparently formed their own ecosystem down here.”

“What do you mean?”

“They probably just ate whatever was available down here,” Shades elaborated, though he was increasingly uncertain if ‘up’ or ‘down’ even applied to their current location in relation to Alta, “possibly even eating each other. Kinda like some ravenous fish called Piranha in my world. Can strip an animal to the bone if they fall in the water, but will resort to eating each other in the absence of prey.”

“Scary,” Maximilian remarked. “I mean, some of the workers— even the Squatters— were telling tales about the underdwellers being back, but nobody took them seriously…”

“Say Max,” Shades asked, now that they were back on the subject, “you wouldn’t mind if I ask you where you picked up the word ‘rapt—”

“Hey!” Justin called out. “There’s something up ahead!”

At first, all they could discern through the green haze was that it didn’t look like an empty room. By the time they reached the end of the corridor, they were all relieved to see something different, finally an end to the endless repetition of rooms. To know that their eyes weren’t just playing tricks on them.

This new area was vastly larger, with twenty entrances feeding into it, five along each wall. The walls themselves reaching to cyclopean heights as sprawling as their breadth. Far above them, a stone ceiling they could barely make out against the haze.

Still more than enough room to contain the massive structure that occupied the center of the enormous chamber. Rising from a broad base that covered most of the floor was a series of stairways, walkways, platforms and decorative pillars, working their staggered way upward to its apex, a good twenty or thirty stories up, to a squarish block of a building that seemed somehow separate and aloof from the structure it rested upon, despite being all of one piece. Some small outbuilding towers stood at several points, as well as waist-high retaining walls lining many of the paths.

“What is this place?” Shades wondered aloud. “It’s completely different from the rest of it…”

“About damn time,” Justin muttered. “Maybe this place will have something useful.”

“Let’s find out,” Max proposed.

“Maybe it’s the treasure!” Maximilian crowed, dashing forward and racing up the nearest steps.

“Wait!” Shades called out. “What if it’s dangerous!?”

But the Young Master showed no sign of slowing down, having already reached the first, terraced, landing.

“Wait up!” Max took off, Bandit bounding alongside him.

“We shouldn’t let ourselves to get separated down here…” Shades shrugged, then joined them.

“Dammit!” Justin made his way up, cursing how briefly he got to rest his aching feet. “Wait for me!”

It wasn’t until he was about a third of the way up that Maximilian finally stopped to catch his breath.

“See!” he remarked as they caught up with him, “It’s perfectly safe!”

“And quite the view, too!” Max added.

Looking out from this high only served to reinforce their already breathtaking impression of this mind-bogglingly massive indoor space.

“Say,” Shades asked, “why are you so sure there’s any treasure up here?”

“I’ve just got this feeling…”

“I sure hope so,” Justin told him as they turned to resume climbing. “I’d really hate to go all the way up here for nothing, then have to come all the way back down!”

They all had a good laugh at that one.

“Well, that’s exactly what you’re going to be doing!” a by-now familiar voice called out from the bottom of those steps.
XVIII by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
tower struggle
They turned to see Freedan, Aden Rawne, and at least a dozen of their henchmen, emerging from a doorway near where they entered.

“Now that I’ve finally caught up with you,” Freedan shouted at them, “you’re going to march your ass right back down those steps!”

Even at this distance, they could all see Rawne facepalm at Freedan giving them away before his men could move into position for a proper ambush.

“Why don’t you come up here!” Max challenged.

“Yeah!” Justin seconded, whipping out both double-barrel power pistols and opening fire on them. “There’s no way in hell I’m goin’ back down there for nothin’!”

Shades immediately ducked behind one of the squarish pillars that adorned some of the corners of the platforms as Rawne’s men started shooting back wildly. There had been all the air of a dream about this place before Freedan and his crew shattered that dreamlike calm. Yet he also felt an unsettling tension weighing down on him, as if something big was going to happen.

And now it finally had.

As he drew his own power pistol and joined in returning fire, Rawne’s men scattered, attempting to reach the cover afforded by the lower levels of the tower. Justin managed to take out a couple of them while his friends laid down some suppressive fire, but once they started reaching the entry pillars and other safe places, they started up a cover fire of their own, pushing Justin back into a defensive posture. From there, it didn’t take long for Max and the others to scramble up different paths in search of a more defensible position.

Much as Shades suspected, the enemy was indeed in for a surprise, as the tower turned out to be every bit as durable as the rest of the stonework they’d encountered earlier— and he would not be surprised at all if it turned out to be all of the same piece as the rest of this place— shrugging off their barrage of laser fire like a pelting of rainwater. Their own shots only helped to keep the enemy at bay, but while their firepower couldn’t cut their cover apart, by the same token, they couldn’t penetrate the enemy’s, either. Providing unbreakable cover for what could easily become a long standoff.

At first, Rawne’s men found themselves bogged down, but as they began to spread around the substantial base of the structure, the more limited defenders had to spread themselves too thin, allowing the enemy to resume their previously steady advance.

Justin’s two-fisted gunning taxing his ammo and his peripheral vision as his targets spread out. Shades struggling to keep tabs on one group that split off to the side. Maximilian firing at any enemy that crossed his sights, while keeping a very specific eye out for Freedan, who— for all his bold words— seemed to have vanished without a trace now that the shooting started. And Max focused almost exclusively on covering Rawne, whom he considered to be the biggest threat in the bunch, already having worked his way up higher than the rest, advancing from cover to cover.

Finally had him right where he wanted him. A place where Rawne couldn’t make a move in any meaningful direction without exposing himself.

Shades, meanwhile, began to reconsider their mostly instinctive retreat up the tower. At first their defense played out like a game of Whack-A-Mole, but as their attackers became fewer and farther apart, he feared it would quickly degenerate into a game of cat and mouse instead, now that each of them were becoming isolated in their own separate struggles. Wondered if perhaps their only hope at this point was to reunite at the top level and watch each other’s backs.

Justin, on the other hand, found himself pinned down behind one of the pillars, a pair of enemies tag-teaming him from two different angles.

After a good minute or so of stillness from his quarry, Max began to wonder what was up. As far as he was concerned, it had been too long since the last time Rawne tried to make a break for it. Struck him as too wily and hard to pin down to resort to just waiting out his attention like this.

That was when he noticed a hand reaching around the edge of the wall, realizing belatedly what Rawne was most likely counting on. Him being so focused on the biggest threat, he had forgotten there were also smaller ones, as well.

He kicked the hand, and an angry mercenary revealed himself, trying to aim a power pistol with his off-hand. Max kicked again, nailing him in the face, sending him rolling down the steps to hit the next level in a groaning, twitching heap.

Cursing the fact that Rawne had surely slipped out of his tight predicament during that little episode, he turned back to the battle at hand, spotting an enemy sneaking up on Maximilian while his attention was focused in the other direction, but he slipped back behind cover before Max could draw a bead on him.

“Behind you!” Max warned him.

He got to see Maximilian retreat around a nearby corner for cover, even as he went diving for his own, his shout having drawn others’ attention.

In his own corner, Shades was beginning to wonder why the battle was starting to quiet down when he was sure they were still amply outnumbered.

It was about then that he noticed one of the small doors leading into the structure. Hoping he wasn’t cornering himself, he ventured in, finding that the door led into a narrow warren of passages and stairways that appeared to connect to other parts of the tower. Relieved to know that mysterious iridescence still provided enough light to see by, even in here, without his flashlight giving him away.

Fearing their adversaries may have already found these passages, he moved cautiously, hoping he might use these back ways to turn the tide against them.

Down below, Aden Rawne wanted to kill somebody.

It was not often that anyone kept him pinned down like this, and he was fast beginning to wish he had given his men permission to break this Max’s legs the first time they met. It was bad enough that he hounded him to each foxhole, and then some, but finally trapped him someplace where all he could do was hide with his back up against the wall.

The wall, he now noticed, that contained a door he had been ignoring all this time. It appeared to lead into the tower, possibly leading to higher levels of it. Deciding to leave Max sitting scarecrow, he entered.

Still cursing Freedan for ruining what could have been a perfect ambush, demonstrating once again that his business acumen did not carry over onto the battlefield. Freedan, who was becoming more and more unsettled since they came down here, and he hoped to turn things around with his own surprise attacks. Even without the underdwellers killing a portion of his crew, they still would not have enough men to fully surround something this huge, but if their quarry kept retreating further up it, they just might be able to surround them anyway. It was fast becoming all he could do to compensate for even bringing him down here in the first place, as his employer was becoming more of a burden and liability than a benefactor.

Wondering every step of the way where the flighty little man had run off to, now that there was a real battle to be fought.

Little knowing that Freedan had also had the same idea, having noticed the mysterious doors at the base while he was busy fleeing the firefight. Having worked his way up more than a dozen levels already, finding it an easy way to the top. Allowing him to slip past all of his enemies’ defenses, determined to show up the seasoned mercenary and kill at least one of them first. Already pretty sure none of the others had discovered this exploit yet, he peered out of the doorway on this level.

Seeing, to his delight, that he had the Young Master right where he wanted him.

Elsewhere in the tower, Justin continued to hide behind the pillar, pinned down by the same two mercenaries.

Realizing that if he stayed like this for too long, other enemies could out-flank him, he switched to his crossbow. As long as his attackers hid behind that impenetrable stonework, they could tag-team him, and cover one another, making it near-impossible to hit either of them during the brief windows when they popped out of cover. Arming a smoke bolt, he decided to lob his next shot behind their cover.

Just as he finished reloading, and was prepared to arc one over on the nearest of the two positions, he heard something clatter to the floor next to him.

To his horror, he realized that his opponents beat him to the punch, apparently having the same idea, as he recognized the small object as a hand grenade.
XIX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
upward battle
Even as he turned, mind reeling, trying to figure out how they could reach him up here, already aware that he had nowhere to hide from the snipers, and couldn’t possibly outrun the shrapnel from the explosion, Justin accidentally pulled the trigger, firing at the floor.

At the same time, a power pistol went spinning across the floor, hitting the grenade and knocking it down the stairs next to the pillar.

Both the grenade, and Justin’s smoke bolt, went off at the same time, resulting in a massive cloud of smokescreen, sending the power pistol clacking and clattering down the steps to the enemy.

For all the good it would do them now.

Justin crawled through the smoke and confusion, coughing and sputtering, a barrage of beams from both adversaries lancing haphazardly overhead, as a hand grabbed him and dragged him off to the side. Not sure what kind of trick this was, Justin lunged at his assailant, knocking them both to the floor in a narrow corridor, face to face.

“Shades?” Justin blinked as the smokescreen dissipated.

“You’re welcome,” Shades grunted as Justin rolled off of him, and they both struggled to their feet.

Finally taking note of his surroundings, Justin asked, “Um, what the hell is this place?”

“It was here all along, but you were probably too busy being shot at to notice,” Shades explained as he led them deeper inside. “They appear to connect to doorways all over the tower, and I fear some of the bad guys may have already found them. I was just about to cover you so you could duck in here, but then someone tossed a grenade…”

On the other side of the structure, Maximilian didn’t even see the blow coming as Freedan smacked him upside the head with a clean swing of his cane, that heavy silver knob hitting him hard enough to make him lose his grip on his power pistol as he stumbled back.

“You son of a bitch!” Freedan swung again. “There’s no way in hell I’ll let a pampered brat like you stand between me and my return to New Cali!”

He swung again, but Maximilian regained his initiative, blocking Freedan’s cane with his still-sheathed sword. Freedan felt himself slam hard into his large opponent, feeling him move backward a step. Then, with a short blast of wind, got sheath-butted back against the wall behind him.

Freedan staggered to his feet, already wondering what possessed him to attack like this when he could just as easily shoot him when he had the element of surprise.

Before either of them could draw their blade, though, Maximilian was tackled by one of Rawne’s men, the two of them struggling across the floor in an attempt to take control of the situation.

“Good work!” Freedan cackled, drawing his power pistol, watching the Young Master’s struggle with unabashed amusement. “Hold him down so I can finish him off!”

But before he could do any such thing, Shades stepped out of the same doorway he just used and kicked him upside the head, causing him to fumble his gun. Justin stepped out behind him, drawing a bead on Maximilian’s stubborn opponent and blasting him off of him.

“Thanks!” Maximilian muttered, yanking his hard-won weapon back.

“No problem!” Shades replied.

Even as Justin turned to warn him, Freedan unsheathed his cane sword, charging and thrusting at Shades with a look of barely contained fury. Shades, seeing him out of the corner of his eye, side-stepped and tripped him.

“Wait!” Maximilian called out as Justin took aim, drawing his own sword. “This is my fight.”

“You sure?” Justin cocked his head. Seeing a fierce look in his eyes that was hauntingly similar to their own Max, he shrugged his shoulders, saying, “Suit yourself.”

“Then let’s go,” Shades suggested. “I haven’t seen Rawne since the battle started, and I have a bad feeling about Max.”

Seeing several enemies converging on Max’s position, as he was— sure enough— preoccupied fighting Rawne, they turned to help him, leaving the Young Master to contend with Freedan. With their defenses disrupted to deal with these surprise attacks, the others were free to ascend and bring on their attacks fresh. All chance of mounting another defense lost, it would be all they could do to watch each other’s backs, and take it as it comes.

“You made a big mistake…” Freedan sneered as the two of them squared off. “Without your friends to help you, there’s no one left to stop me this time!”

“We’ll see about that,” Maximilian answered darkly. “You’ll pay for what you’ve done.”

In the meantime, Aden Rawne emerged from a door higher up the tower’s immense structure, finding himself in an ideal position to target that pesky kid with the crossbow, who appeared to be the group’s sniper.

Seeing his own men at a stalemate, he took out a grenade. The one weapon he held back during his run-in with the underdwellers, the risk of burying himself under tons of rubble a last-resort alternative to being eaten alive, if it came to that. Fortunately, it hadn’t, so now he tossed it down at Justin’s feet, catching him completely off-guard.

Then something happened, and there was a big cloud of smokescreen. Not wanting to let him get away now that he had the advantage, he unslung his power rifle. Watching the smoke carefully, to see which way he might go—

Back turned as Max ascended from the shadows, his teal energy blade slashing through the darkness, taking Rawne by surprise.

Rawne barely dodged, Max’s attack cleaving his rifle in half. He threw what was left of his weapon in Max’s face, buying himself enough time to draw a laser sword to counter.

“I owe you from back at the mansion,” Rawne told him, a tight smile on his face. “You’ve humiliated me for the last time, kid.”

“And you’ve hurt my friends for the last time,” Max responded, both his face and tone dead serious. “You also have something that doesn’t belong to you.”

“Kid, possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Reaching inside his tattered duster with his off-hand, he produced a knife. Wishing all the while those underdwellers hadn’t wasted all of his flash grenades. “Now that I’ve seen your swordsmanship first-hand, don’t expect me to play nice.”

“The weapon doesn’t make the warrior.” Max shifted his stance, having neither an off-hand weapon, nor any good tactics for one. “As long as you can’t use both hands equally like Erix, then I’ve faced worse.”

“Don’t get cocky,” Rawne warned him, starting to sweat in spite of himself after the mention of that name. First Ma’Quiver, then the dreaded outlaw Erix… “Bluffing will get you nowhere with me, kid. Aside from that crazy bitch, no one fights him and lives.”

“Then see if I am,” Max challenged.

That finally provoked Rawne to take the offensive.

As the two of them dueled their way across one of the larger platforms, Max quickly picked up on the method to Rawne’s madness. Having no other choice, he constantly countered Max’s energy blade with his own, at the same time angling to stab or slash at him with the knife while Max’s lone weapon was occupied. Most likely based on some dual-knife style, judging from how readily he adapted it, but at least it betrayed no hint of Erix’s natural ambidexterity.

Dangerous enough, though, given that he shared Shades’ close-range knack for stepping inside his zone.

The main thing Max had going for him was that the very nature of their weapons forced a measure of predictability on his opponent’s tactics, and he was starting to see the kinds of opening Ma’Quiver always warned him about. Still he held his ground, not wanting for fall for the sort of feint he could easily picture Erix offering him.

Just when it looked like he might have a feint or two of his own to try out, he spotted a movement out of the corner of his eye, seeing that another of Rawne’s men had made it up to this level in the absence of resistance.

Taking advantage of Max’s moment of distraction, Rawne moved in for the kill. Trapped between a rock and hard place, Max decided to deal with the greater threat first. Borrowing a page from Erix’s playbook, he maneuvered around Rawne, placing him between himself and these fresh enemies, silently hoping these guys weren’t keen on friendly fire, at least against their own boss. Parrying Rawne’s attack at an angle that blunted his knife thrust, and taking a page from Ma’Quiver’s playbook, Max brought up his back leg and kicked Rawne, staggering him, but also getting his leg slashed for his trouble.

He then followed up with a move he had practiced countless times with Ma’Quiver, flipping his laser sword out of Rawne’s hand smoothly enough to do even his childhood friend Cleo proud.

As the neon green energy blade winked out in mid air, Max followed it with his eyes as he dove after it, catching it just before it could roll off the platform.

Only to find himself staring up at the other mercenary pointing a power pistol down at him, too late to deal with both threats.

Before the man could do anything, though, he was kicked square in the ass by Justin, who had somehow gotten behind him.

Not only had this guy made it up here, but the remaining half-dozen or so of Freedan’s henchmen had regrouped, making their way up to the next level down just in time to get bowled over by that man as he rolled down the stairs, the whole thing snowballing into an avalanche of flailing forms.

“That’s what you get for messin’ with Justin Black!” he crowed triumphantly.

“Justin… Black?” Rawne gasped, blinking at him as if seeing him in a totally different light.

“Thanks,” Max told his friend as he rose to his feet, relieved that the wound on his right leg only stung, but didn’t seem to hinder his movements.

“Look out!”

Shades’ warning already coming too late, as Rawne flung his knife at Max.

Barely spotting the movement, Max tried to dodge. Though he managed to turn enough to avoid being hit in the chest, the blade still buried itself partway in his left arm, near his shoulder. Seeing that his attack failed to kill Max, Rawne scrambled over the edge of the platform, apparently retreating through one of the doors.

“You alright, Max?” Shades gasped.

“I think I’ll live,” Max remarked, carefully removing the blade, but still visibly wincing.

“Stay there!” Justin told him as he and Shades hit the stairs, overrunning the mercs at the bottom, leaping into their midst with energy blades flying before they could get their act together.

While Shades bandaged Max’s wounds, and Justin covered them in case there were any more hostiles still afoot out there, Rawne decided to go see what was up at the top of this thing, hoping to find a suitable place to spring a better ambush.

What he found on the way up there would prove far more interesting.

His employer, meanwhile, continued to push Maximilian around, keeping him constantly on the defensive.

“You’re really starting to piss me off!” Freedan told him, pressing the attack.

“That’s my line!” Maximilian shot back. “I won’t let you get away with what you did to my father!”

“Ha! Your father did that to himself,” Freedan countered. “Still, he did save me the trouble. I’ll show Rawne by dealing with you myself. And then I’ll take Edric’s journal, and the treasure will be mine!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Maximilian demanded. “It was you who looted it off my father’s corpse!”

“Don’t lie to me, boy,” Freedan snarled. “I’ll loot it off of your corpse!”

Though Freedan might have superior fencing skills, it was quickly becoming apparent that he was not conditioned for prolonged combat, and even Maximilian could see his form starting to suffer as much as his stamina.

In spite of this, though, he found it hard to think about killing him, even as he kept his father’s mangled remains furiously fixed in his mind, while facing down a psychotic side he never dreamed anyone as composed and modulated as Freedan even possessed.

And that was when Freedan tried it. The same disarm he had used back at the manor. But this time Maximilian was ready for it, parrying and pushing him back, Freedan staggering under the onslaught.

“Ha! I don’t fall for the same trick twice!”

Deciding it was now or never, Maximilian put all his force into one mighty slash.

And Freedan dodged, tripping him up, his elbows hitting the floor hard enough to break his grip.

“I’m no one-trick pony, boy!” Freedan informed him, looming over the Young Master. Grinning with triumphant satisfaction: “I made this company! I deserve more.”

Seeing his only chance, Maximilian kicked upward, nailing Freedan’s wrist, sending his cane sword sailing through the air and clattering down the steps— chipped, cracked, finally shattered against the indestructible stonework as it hit the bottom.

As Freedan gaped, Maximilian rolled out from under him to reclaim his own weapon.

He turned to find the Young Master’s blade pointed right at him.

“This is all your fault…” Maximilian hissed, his chipped, but still deadly, blade quivering in his hands. “My father is dead because of you…”

He took a tentative step forward, and Freedan took a shaky step back.

“Then do it,” Freedan goaded him. “You can’t, can you? You’re still just a pampered little shit who can’t do anything for himself! You can’t get what you want in this world without getting your hands dirty. You’re a bigger fool than your father!”

“You murdering bastard!”

At his next faltering step forward, Freedan didn’t even bother backing up.

It was right about then that he noticed that Freedan was paying more attention to something behind him.

Maximilian barely dodged the scarcely-visible blade that slashed past his arm, slicing his own sword clean through. As he staggered back, he realized, too late, that Freedan was just stalling for time.

“You were a pain in the ass this whole time, always having to keep dragging you back alive,” Rawne told him with a wolfish grin. “Now I have different orders. You’re going to disappear in this place, never to be seen again. Another mystery of the Lower Ruins, just like your old man.”
XX by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
Both Maximilian and Freedan stared at the mysterious sword Rawne now wielded.

Though slender and curved, its length seemed suited to someone of much taller stature than Aden Rawne. A matching sheath hanging over his shoulder, the end clearly visible behind his hip. A hilt that was long enough to easily accommodate the two-handed grip Rawne employed, and only the most minimal form of a crossguard at the base of that smoky dark blade.

“You found it…” Freedan gasped, recognizing the style of that wickedly curved blade from sketches of Edric’s find. “The rest of the treasure…”

“Deep in the heart of the tower,” Rawne nodded, then turned back to Maximilian. “You should feel honored to even lay eyes on it before you die.”

“Not if we have anything to say about it!” Justin told him, double-barrel power pistols already aimed at him, as he and Shades topped the stairs. Max following close behind, having bandaged his shoulder while his friends guarded him.

Rawne paused to look around, noting, to his dismay, that there was no sign of any of his men around.

Likely also realizing they were outnumbered, Freedan snatched up a fallen power pistol, making a mad dash up the stairs to the top of the structure.

Justin shifted his aim and opened fire at him, but Shades tackled him just in time to avoid another throwing knife from Rawne, even as Max called out a warning.

Rawne then bolted for the nearest doorway, Max in hot pursuit, and Justin and Shades scrambled back to their feet, chasing Freedan up the steps.

“Dammit!” Maximilian shouted as he got back to his feet and took off after them. “Wait up!”

As Freedan staggered out onto the platform at the top, he stopped short at the squarish building that sat at the top, a massive stone cube with only the side facing him open. In the center of the room was what looked like some sort of pedestal, though not long enough for that mysterious sword Rawne found. Yet he could all too easily picture Edric finding a dagger resting there, once upon a time. The far wall glowed and shimmered like a pool of water somehow sitting sideways.

Hearing footsteps behind him, closing fast, he decided to try using the pedestal, which was made of the same stone as the rest of this place, as cover.

Only to find a black-and-white panther already hiding behind it.

Caught completely off-guard by such an unexpected turn of events, he stumbled back against that shimmering wall, falling right through it with a startled yelp, that echoed weirdly in his wake.

“Bandit!” Shades called out as he reached the top, realizing only now that they had lost track of their feline friend during the battle.

Even as it occurred to him to wonder where Freedan disappeared to, Justin yanked him aside, nearly toppling both of them back down the steps, as Rawne thrusted at him from behind.

Stumbling from his failed surprise attack, Rawne spotted the big cat, which he vaguely recalled seeing in their party at the start of the battle, and, putting two and two together, decided that a hostage was in order against these numbers.

Bandit, not at all liking this man’s sudden interest in him, found himself trapped between that sleek blade and that strange wall, finally deciding to take his chances with the wall.

“Bandit! Wait!”

The two Maxes joined them at the top.

Deciding that four against one was not his kind of odds, Rawne decided to try the wall, as well.

Seeing where Bandit went, Max quickly followed, the Young Master hot on his heels.

The former noticed, only in passing, a vaguely familiar tingling sensation as he pushed through that mysterious membrane, stumbling out into a dank, musty-smelling darkness beyond the glow of his energy blade.

Immediately followed by a piercing light in his face, and Rawne charging right at him, flashlight in one hand, his new sword in the other.

Max barely dodged, missing any chance to counter-attack in his frantic evasion.

“Not one more move!”

Freedan’s voice. Seeing a second light now, Max turned to see him standing a short distance away, in what appeared to be some sort of cavernous stone chamber. Though what held his undivided attention was that Freedan was pointing both his flashlight, and his power pistol, at Bandit.

“All of you!” Freedan added, as Shades and Justin shimmered into the middle of the chamber as well.

“You coward!” Max blurted.

“As I thought!” Freedan gloated. “This creature is important to—”

Only to have Justin shoot him in the shoulder before he could threaten them any further, causing him to drop his gun with a howl of agony.

“Justin!” Shades gasped.

“Damn straight, he’s important!” Justin shouted at Freedan.

“Damn you!” Freedan howled, dropping his flashlight and clutching his wounded shoulder. “Damn you all to hell!…”

“Why don’t you just give up?” Maximilian demanded. “You’ve lost. Come quietly, and once we reach the surface, you can answer for your crimes like a man.”

“A risky move,” Shades commented, trying to figure out how to deal with a prisoner in such extreme circumstances, “but if that’s what you want…”

“Why don’t you just die!” Freedan screeched. “I waited ten years for this! For my triumphant return to New Cali! I refuse to go out like that!”

“You don’t have any—” Maximilian began.

“Look out!” Max warned him, belatedly remembering that they were not alone in here.

Maximilian barely noticed Rawne, who had turned off his flashlight, in time to avoid a huge, arcing swing of his new toy, falling over backward as the blade swept by.

Rawne’s swing completely missed him, instead slicing clean through a stone pillar in the middle of the chamber, encountering so little resistance, he lost his balance entirely and fell flat on his face.

Both of them scrambled to their feet, Maximilian barely rolling out of the way of the pillar as it fell over with a thunderous crash that sent everyone else scattering.

Undeterred, Rawne charged at Maximilian again, but was struck in the back by a falling hunk of rock, sending him stumbling to the left, where he shimmered and vanished blade-first, right about where they entered the place.

“The treasure!” Freedan cried, staggering over there to find himself unable to pass through whatever mysterious way connected the two places.

Apparently the only one who failed to notice that Rawne had taken out a load-bearing pillar with that missed attack.

“This place is falling apart!” Max screamed.

Though the place appeared to be part natural cave, part stonework, and it was fast becoming obvious which part had come to support which as whole chunks began raining down.

“Over there!” Justin shouted, pointing to a stone stairway leading up into a tunnel.

They wasted no time, as the chamber they were in was becoming more and more dangerous by the second.

As he entered the tunnel, Maximilian turned to see Freedan just standing there.

“Come on!” the Young Master called out to him. “Give it up! It’s not worth your life!”

Freedan simply glared at him, his baleful gaze only wishing death upon those seeking escape.

“Move it!” Max called back to them.

Then the whole ceiling seemed to give out a once, burying both Freedan and the cavern entrance under tons of rubble.

“He made his choice,” Shades told Maximilian as he dragged him up the stairs behind him.

Justin waited for no one, actually holding the lead as he relived Pullman Mine every step of the way. Up the stairs, around a corner, and down another tunnel. The walls and ceiling shaking and spilling rock and gravel at every turn.

All of them coughing and hacking for breath by the time the dust settled.

Not that any of them tarried, even after the shaking stopped. Fearing the potential instability of the cave system, they pressed on, catching their breath as best they could as they walked. Each of them moving as quickly and carefully, and quietly, as possible, fearing another cave-in.

“Where the fuck are we?” Justin muttered, aiming his flashlight around.

“Hard to say…” Shades whispered. “Even the stone looks completely different…”

Neither the red-orange stonework of Alta, nor the grey-green of that strange place they just escaped from, but instead more of a dull brown color none of them had seen anywhere else down here.

“You don’t think we ended up even deeper underground, do you?” Max wondered aloud.

“Don’t even think it,” Justin hissed.

“The last thing we need now is to be even deeper than those ruins we already visited,” Shades agreed.

The only thing that offered any cause for hope was the fact that the tunnel they wound their way through seemed to be taking them on an upward cant, with occasional steps carved out of the steeper sections.

After about ten or fifteen tense minutes, they came to another cavern, though not as large as the one down below. Adorned with several pillars on each side, and a broad stone stairway leading up to a doorway on the far side.

As they drew nearer, the first thing they noticed was that the doorway was bricked-up.

“Looks like the only way out of here,” Shades noted.

“Unless there were others forks farther back down that tunnel,” Max pointed out. “We were in a pretty big hurry back there.”

“No way in hell I’m goin’ back down there!” Justin remarked. “The only good thing about that mess is that no one can follow us now.”

“We might have no choice,” Shades replied. Any other exits to that chamber were now buried along with the portal. “Though I also don’t recall seeing any other paths down there…”

“Just a minute,” Max told them, seeing Bandit sniffing around one side of the doorway. “Let’s take a closer look at this thing.”

“I think you might be on to something…” Shades stood in front of the seam on the left side of the doorway, no longer needing their feline friend’s nose now that he stood in the right place. “I feel a draft from here…”

“Then that means… it leads to the surface?” Justin tried not to sound too hopeful, but he just couldn’t help himself.

“Perhaps,” Shades cautioned him, “but it’s probably a safer bet than going back down.”

“Only one way to find out.” Max fired up his laser sword, stepping up to the doorway.

“It would stand to reason,” Shades mused, “since it appears to have been sealed from the other side. Any objections to taking a peek?”

Hearing none, Max went to work, cutting out a two-foot-wide slice of the left-hand side, making it wide enough for them to slip through single file, while still leaving most of the masonry intact, just in case.

Seeing that the gap was stable enough, they slipped through one by one, finding themselves in another chamber, smaller than the one on the other side. Not only that, but the air on this side was noticeably less stale and stifling than the other side, and the tunnel appeared to lead still further upward.

“Why does this feel so familiar to me?…” Maximilian mumbled, looking back upon the sealed passageway from this side.

Around the next bend, they saw a faint light up ahead, pressing on with cautious optimism.

That light grew steadily brighter with every turn.

“Daylight!” Justin cried. “We’re free!”

“Wait!” Shades shouted as he took off after him, having had enough surprises for one day. “It might be dangerous!”

Much to everyone’s relief, though, the light at the end of the tunnel did indeed turn out to be the light of day. All of them cheering heartily, even as they blinked away at the full blaze of daylight.
XXI by shadesmaclean
Author's Notes:
easy come, easy go
“Wait a minute!” Maximilian exclaimed, looking around now that he could see clearly, “I know this place! I’ve seen this before!”

The cave entrance was situated in the midst of a fenced- and hedged-in garden, long overgrown from apparent years of neglect.

“You do?” Max remarked. The young man had been so quiet since they escaped from the cavern, he was pretty sure this was the first time he spoke up the whole while.

“Yeah!” Maximilian told them, “But I haven’t seen this place since I was a kid. Come on!”

And so he proceeded to lead them around a corner, and into the garden proper. Though just as abandoned as the rest, looking back it was clear that the area with the cave was meant to be a secluded section. Up ahead was a seaside mansion.

“So, where are we?” Justin demanded, having never seen this place before.

“I don’t get it…” Maximilian stammered, abruptly stopping short “How could we possibly—”

“Young Master!” a familiar voice cried out from the nearest doorway. “It really is you!”

“ ’Bastian!” Maximilian greeted him, sounding as if he’d never been happier to see anyone in his entire life. “You’re safe!”

Sebastian stepped out of the doorway, rushing forward and throwing his arms around him in a fatherly embrace.

“That should be my line, Young Master,” the butler told him. “You were gone so long, I feared I’d lost you! But what are you doing back here?”

“While we’re on the subject,” Shades quipped, “what are you doing here?”

“And where’s here, for that matter?” Max added.

“Well, this is the Vandenbergs’ estate on Amarrah,” Sebastian told them. “This is where I’ve been hiding from Freedan’s men all this time.”

“You see,” Maximilian elaborated as he led them inside, “this house hasn’t been used since I was little, so we figured Freedan…”

“Wouldn’t know about it,” Sebastian filled in. “It’s a very obscure Vandenberg holding that’s been off the books for years. I don’t know if anyone ever told you this, but this was your mother’s favorite place. After she passed on, Master Percival refused to come here anymore, but he also refused to sell it… Tell me, where is Master Percival? Did you find him?”

“I’m sorry…” Maximilian hung his head. “By the time we found him… I was too late…”

“I see.” Sebastian bowed his head in resignation. “I feared as much… And what of Freedan?”

“He’s dead.” Maximilian’s voice cold yet somber. “Rawne, too… Yet I find no satisfaction in it…”

“Young Master…” Sebastian placed a hand on his young charge’s shoulder. “I doubt your father would want to be avenged if it cost you your own life. By now, you may be the only legacy he has left.”

“Only legacy…” Maximilian mulled that over. “What do you mean by that?”

“Amarrah?” Shades backed up, that last part finally registering as he looked out the window. “How the hell did we get way over here?”

“I have no idea,” the butler admitted. “I was hoping you might tell me. You’ve been gone for days, and I have had no word about Freedan or Rawne, either…”

“Days!?” Justin gasped. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Yeah,” Shades remarked, double-checking his watch, “we were only down there for a day, day-and-a-half, at most…”

“More like eight days,” Sebastian informed them.

“But… that’s impossible…” Maximilian stammered.

“Perhaps we should all step out for some fresh air,” Shades suggested, gesturing to the glass doors leading out onto a veranda overlooking the sea. Time dilation… For real? “I have a theory, but it’s mostly speculation…”

Out on the veranda, they could very clearly gaze upon the expanse of water between them and the city of Alta, vaguely discernible on the horizon.

“You don’t mean…” Max second-guessed him, “when we went to the weird place…”

“Don’t tell me…” Justin muttered, already seeing where this was going.

“I think we may have passed through a different dimension,” Shades said it plain. “One where time flows differently than in this one. Not only is there this huge time disparity, but no matter how you look at it, the distances in that place and in this one just don’t add up.”

“But how…” Maximilian floundered.

“I have an idea about that,” Sebastian told them. “It’s not a widely known fact, but Edric originally bought this land because that was where he returned to the surface after his original expedition. I think it’s because it’s connected to where he found the treasure, though he was never able to find his way back to that place. Later generations sealed it, most likely not wanting anyone to get lost down there.”

“I remember going down there when I was little…” Maximilian recalled, even the dead end he found at that sealed doorway. “That’s why that whole place seemed so familiar to me.”

Though he decided it wasn’t worth bringing up, Shades couldn’t help wondering about what happened to Rawne there at the end, pondering if Edric would have sold that dagger if he had any inkling it might be a potential key to that mysterious portal.

“Oh, I almost forgot…” Sebastian dug in one of his pockets, producing an ornate ring. “I believe this is yours now, Young Master.”

“Father’s signet ring…” Maximilian reached out reverently. “So that’s what happened to it. When I didn’t find it on… his remains… I thought Freedan took it, along with the journal…”

“No, Master Percival left it in the secret room when he left,” Sebastian recounted. “In spite of his desperation, I fear he knew his real chances far too well. I was afraid to give it to you before, for fear that Freedan might take it, given how much he was poking around the study before… But I fear it may do you little good now.”

“What do you mean?” the Young Master demanded.

“Don’t forget, you’ve been gone for almost eight days,” Sebastian reminded him, “and your father has been missing for almost twice as long. And no one has heard from Freedan or Rawne in all this time, either, so the other investors…”

“They foreclosed on the company, didn’t they?” Maximilian sighed, visibly crestfallen.

“I’m so sorry, Young Master…” Sebastian shook his head. “The investors pressed their investigation. The good news is that they found evidence of Freedan’s treachery. The bad news is that neither he, nor anyone of the family, was around to confront about any of it, nor to recover the stolen monies, so the Assembly ruled to liquidate the Vandenberg Company assets to pay your father’s outstanding debts. It’s been the talk of the island for the last couple days. Because of Rawne’s men searching for me over here, I have been able to do nothing but hide this whole time.”

“It’s not your fault,” Maximilian assured him. “And after all that’s happened, I’d rather you still be alive than a single credit to my name and nothing left of my family.”

“You’re too kind, Young Master.” Sebastian bowed his head. “Since you’re still alive, perhaps you might yet appeal the Assembly’s decision…”

“Perhaps.” Maximilian looked out to sea.

As did the others in that long, awkward moment.

Which was interrupted by something flashing and strobing out in yonder Alta Harbor.

“What is that?” Max asked, pointing.

“Looks like a shootout…” Shades speculated, even as those flickering lights started moving out from the seaport, away from the city.

Justin whipped out his crossbow, peering into the scope and zooming in on it.

“Looks like a chase…” he told them, spotting one ship fleeing from another, larger ship. “Judging from the rig, I’d say they’re Cyexian, though I wonder why they’d attack someone in the middle of the port like that…”

Looking for clues, he zeroed in on their quarry, wondering why the other vessel looked so familiar… until it hit him.

“Hey! That’s our ship!”

“You sure?” Shades pressed, hoping his friend wasn’t jumping to conclusions.

“Sure as shit!” Justin shot back. “Some assholes just stole our fucking ship!”

And all they could do out here was just stand and watch it happen.

“Guess it’s a good thing we brought Bandit along after all…” Max remarked, as he could think of only one Cyexian pirate who would attack their ship in public like that, deciding that perhaps it was for the best that they were all out of town for that part.

“You know, even though they just stole our ship,” Shades commented, his tone distant, “I still feel bad for them. Whoever they are. No clue what they were getting themselves into…”

“I sure as hell don’t!” Justin snarled. “I hope they do catch up with those bastards! I hope they get what they’ve got comin’ to ’em!”

“What we’ve got coming to us,” Max amended, already quite certain who that was, and what it was all about.

“Mistaken identity all around then,” Shades shrugged. “Easy come, easy go.”

Maximilian cleared his throat.

“I fear I may not have as much in the way of hospitality as I did last week,” he invited, “but I would be honored to let you stay with us for the time being. I owe you my life, so it’s the least I can do…”

They all nodded absently. Battered, exhausted, empty-handed for all their trouble, and now homeless, as well. Each of them stuck with the sinking feeling that, regardless of how Maximilian’s appeal went, they were going to be staying in this realm even longer than any of them really wanted to.
Chapter End Notes:
-original draft: Jun 13, 2011 – March 06, 2012
-word-processed draft: Jan 18 – July 01, 2012
-addition editing: July, 2012
-word count: 34,966

Well, it has been a while, hasn’t it? Of course, to probably the greatest extent in the entire series so far, “Underneath” (originally titled “Seeing Double”) turned out nothing at all like the original story idea from my old notes, but that’s largely for the best, if I do say so myself. The original story took place on an island that was more like 20th Century Earth, and would have involved Max cooped up in a sprawling estate called Paradise for most of the story, while Justin and Shades helped Maximilian investigate Freedan’s activities from the outside. This would have included sneaking around an old library and a courthouse, as well as busting up a few of their enemy’s shadier contacts at a dance club. (Looking back on the 90’s, I think I’m not the only one who would agree that “Kung-Fu Fighting” was used at least a dozen too many times in disco brawls…) Leading up to a final showdown in the mansion, battling Freedan’s “legal team”— a bunch of MIB’s with ninja weapons in their briefcases. (What can I say? I watched way too many cheesy movies last century…) About the only thing that carried over from that was Freedan’s cane sword; even Shades grabbing a sword off a wall decoration got cut with the redesign of Vandenberg Manor.

Of course, Freedan himself underwent a lot of background development, starting out as the “Dark Accountant” (feel free to laugh) who would become a recurring nemesis for the Young Master, even leaving wacky terms in his father’s will to try to cheat him out of his inheritance. Then again, in that version, the Vandenbergs weren’t just wealthy— they were obscenely wealthy, with holdings in other parts of the Sixth Dimension— and Freedan’s attempt to control the family fortune was more of an end in and of itself, than a means to another end. But as the Vandenberg estate shrank down to something more local, Freedan’s motives also became less two-dimensional, instead being based on a desire to buy his way back into his former home of New Cali, after some past indiscretion forced him to flee for his life more than a decade ago.

Much like how the scope of the struggle changed, the island itself also underwent an overhaul, loosely based on an island from a discontinued story I wrote when I was in high school. The city itself built in layers, with more layers of ancient ruins underneath, including connections to an “otherworld” location even older than the city itself, which was also based on material from the same story. One thing that was starting to bother me over the last few stories was how the Tri-Medal plotline was getting neglected, so bringing in the first of the ancient ruins tied to them also served to draw a tighter connection between the main characters and Maximilian, as one of the treasures they sought turned out to be the foundation of the family fortune, and it also allowed both the Young Master and his adversary more character development than they would likely have gotten in the original story concept. (Though I would be lying if I said that Kirkwall from Dragon Age II wasn’t also an influence in the surface city’s overall vibe.) Though I may have overstepped a hair tying in Ma’Quiver to the Alta quake and Maximilian’s background, it also served to set up an explanation for why the Undercity hadn’t been explored in so long, as well as why no one was prepared for the underdwellers.

Which brings us to Aden Rawne. Realizing that Max would curb-stomp an opponent as inexperienced as Freedan in a straight fight, which from a storytelling standpoint wouldn’t be very sporting, I found my answer in thinking up how Max could possibly be kidnapped again after his harrowing experience in Bodeen. And that was to have a formidable “Dragon” leading Freedan’s henchmen. (It also worked out well, introducing him here for other reasons, but it’s far too soon to be talking about that.) Along with having his laser sword stolen, it also gave him a parallel adversary alongside of Maximilian vs Freedan.

While Percival was already dead at the beginning of the original concept, and the story was about finding evidence of Freedan’s involvement, having him become more proactive— if desperate— along with his son actually seeking him out before learning his fate, gave him more of a presence in the story than just a background name, and giving both Maximilian’s grief, and his anger, more immediacy. On the other hand, the original story called for Maximilian taking back his fortune— even if this involved some legal complications with his father’s “modified” will farther down the road— so when their ship got stolen, he would simply buy them tickets on a cruise ship. Between his not being able to do that now, and my own realization that that was a pretty cheap way of showing one’s gratitude for all they did for him, it looks like they will have to make other transportation arrangements for the next leg of their journey.

Though what form that may take, folks, I’m afraid you’ll have to be patient. Losing my job this spring, and taking up one with a long-ass commute, ate up a lot of my time this summer, so I’ve only recently gotten around to transcribing and revising Tradewinds 18, but I’m hoping to have it ready before New Years, if not Christmas. Cross your fingers, and have a great Turkey Day!


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