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.