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.