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.
-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!