“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.
“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.