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.