The Floating City - Chapter 14

The Secret Cave

“Go!” Syd whispered, and Simon glided down the mountainside, skis strapped to his feet. Three heartbeats later and then, “Go!” Syd whispered again, and it was Isa’s turn to race perilously down the mountainside. She moved with much less fluidity than Simon, but she made up for it in speed and enthusiasm. Another three heartbeats. “Go!” and Rika took off in Simon’s and Isa’s wakes, moving swiftly and silently down the slope.

The cold air stung her cheeks, and her eyes began to water as she picked up speed. Ahead of her, Isa and Simon disappeared down either side of the rise that led to the side-entrance to the mines. Rika continued straight over the lip, triggering the Fòrsic crystals in her boots to boost her up and back rather than out. Below her she saw the three sentries standing in a triangular formation, two on either side of the entrance further down the slope, and one in the center by the tunnel. That was her target. She used the charge from her boots to flip, cursing her now ungainly skis as her momentum continued to carry her out into the sky. With her boots pointed upwards, she triggered them again, shooting herself like a spear towards the central guard, who was now staring at her in openmouthed surprise. With a grunt of effort, Rika twisted in midair, turning to slam feet first into the guard’s stomach before the woman could react. A second before impact, Rika triggered her boots a third and final time, the woosh of the discharging crystals sending the guard flying into the stone wall of the tunnel with heavy thump. It also flung Rika into the soft snowdrift near the entrance, and she watched upside down as Isa incapacitated the second guard with crackle of electricity from her baton, and Simon took down the third sentry with the flat of his blade.

Rika let her head rest on the cold snow until Trentor appeared, upside down, in her vision. He jerked a finger toward the tunnel. “Your beauty rest is over, oh sleeping princess. Time to get a move on.” When she groaned getting to her feet, he grinned at her. “You know,” he said sounding serious, “that was a serious piece of athleticism. I’ve just got one question though…”

“Ask away,” she said, eyeing Trentor warily as she stripped the broken skies from her boots.

“Why didn’t you just stop up there and take her out like a normal person?” He inquired, pointing at the rock ledge overhanging the tunnel.

“Can I tell you something,” Rika replied, leaning close and pitching her voice low and conspiratorially.

“What?” Trentor asked, cocking his ear eagerly.

“You’re an ass.” Rika whispered, and then headed up the slope. Trentor gave a bark of laughter, which was cut off as Syd shot him a quelling look. He joined her right outside the entrance with the others. Both Isa and Simon had dragged the two men they had incapacitated up the sloped, and tied all three sentries together. All three were hooded and gagged as well, to keep the party from being identified or the guards from calling out.

“Everyone alright?” Simon asked. When everyone nodded, he looked at Syd.

Before she could speak, a sardonic voice came from the tunnel entrance. “Oh well done,” the voice exclaimed, the speaker clapping slowly.

Everyone whirled towards the entrance, brandishing an impressive display of weaponry. Isa flourished her staff, knives appeared in Trentor’s hand, and Rika brought up her buckler. Syd and Simon had whirled with the group, but made no movement towards their weapons. “Brother,” Simon said wearily, inclining his head at the speaker. “I did not know if you would come.”

Rika and Isa’s jaws dropped open in shock, and both of them peered closely at the figure. He was as tall as Simon, dressed in the canvas and leather mining garb common to the region. His closed-cropped red hair matched as well, as did his brilliant blue eyes. “I didn’t know you had a brother,” Isa said incredulously.

The man grinned humorously. “My little brother has left his family behind, although we have not left him,” he turned to look at Simon. “Mother insisted that I come, she worries, you know.”

“I know, we had tea yesterday.” Rika and Isa exchanged glances. Simon and Syd had visited his family? Simon looked back at them, “This is my brother, Sean. Syd and I thought we needed a guide, my family have been miners and… smugglers, among other things, for generations. No one knows the mountains like them, inside or out.”

Sean nodded. “We do not approve of our little brother’s… allegiances, but family is family, no?” He shrugged, unsmiling.

Rika couldn’t think of a response to this, but Trentor smiled welcomingly. “Any brother of Simon’s is a brother of mine,” he exclaimed.

“Do not mistake me, little man. I am here for familial duty, not for brotherly love,” Sean replied harshly. He looked at Syd. “Let’s get this farce over with.”

Rika and Isa both looked at him, startled at his vehemence, but Syd ignored the byplay and beckoned them close. “Our target is the vault, first,” she reminded them. “Take care to make as little noise as possible,” she looked at Simon, “you and your brother are on point,” she said, jerking her head towards the entrance. She turned to regard the group. “The rest of you follow on my mark, make no offensive action without my signal. If we have to take someone out, silence is paramount.” She grinned suddenly, “Let’s take it to them. And mark!”

Rika smiled as they dashed into the tunnel, glad that the introduction of Simon’s brother hadn’t completely ruined the mood. Syd was just as excitable as the rest of them, deep down, but it was a side of her that came out only rarely.

The tunnel was stone, carved smooth using Fòrsic powered mining tools. Fòrsic lamps at regular intervals lit the tunnel, but as they moved away from the entrance, the lamps became pools of fiery light surrounded by an inky darkness. They went quickly from shadow to shadow, Syd motioning them forward one at a time as Simon gave the all clear signal from ahead of her. Being a seldom used side-exit and glorified ventilation shaft, the tunnel was empty. As they got further in, however, more and more side passages emerged from the gloom. Down them, they could hear the clink of pick axes and the distant murmur of conversations. Under the mountains the mines were a vast hive of activity and they were only just scratching the surface of it. The vault would be at its heart.

As they moved in, the walls of the tunnel changed. The smoothness of the entranceway gave way to rougher, more natural stones. The tunnel began to widen, turning into a main shaft. Rika heard approaching from up-ahead, and Sean was quick to direct them down one of the now ubiquitous side passages. They huddled together in the shadows of the narrow corridor until the group of miners had passed. “Shift change, already?” whispered Isa, questioningly. Simon shook his head and looked at Sean, his blue eyes worried. Sean only shrugged, looking supremely concerned.

Sean paused for a moment, and Rika could see him thinking, consulting his mental map of the mining complex. He leaned his head close to this brother, and had a whispered conversation, pitched so low that even though the group was huddled together in silence, she couldn’t make it out. Judging by Simon’s expression they seemed to be arguing, an argument which Sean clearly one, as Simon put up his hands in a placating gesture, his expression stormy. Sean turned on his heel and stalked off further down the side tunnel, forcing the rest of them to scurry to keep up. As Simon passed by Syd to resume his place at the front of the line, Rika saw her lay a comforting hand on Simon’s shoulder, his back straightening as he strode to catch up to his brother.

The narrow side tunnel gave way to a maze-like cross section of corridors. They crept along carefully, spurting quickly across crossways and intersections to avoid detection, but mainly sidling between and around the dim pools of light that filled the tunnels at regular intervals. Sean led them unerringly through the twists and turns, and Rika knew that she would never be able to find her way back to the surface alone.

It was difficult to keep track of time down in the tunnels, but the softly glowing dial of her pocket-watch indicated that almost a full bell had passed since they had taken out the sentries when Sean suddenly halted. With only three bells remaining before the next guard shift arrived and the alarm was sounded, every moment was becoming precious, and Rika hoped that their stopping meant that they had arrived. No such luck.

Sean beckoned them all to close in, so that their heads were mere inches from one another. “There’s something I want you all to see,” he said, pitching his voice so that it wouldn’t carry beyond their small circle.

Frowning, Syd asked, “is it the vault?”

Sean shook his head. “It is nearby, but closer to the main thoroughfares. This is… something else.”

“We do not have time to delay,” Syd started to protest, but Sean cut her off. Simon gave him an angry look, which he ignored.

“You will want to see this,” he insisted. “We are safe here, no one comes down these corridors anymore. It’s too… unsettling.”

On that ominous note, he stepped around the corner, indicating that they should follow. They did, and Rika gasped in amazement at the sight. The tunnel they had been travelling down opened up suddenly into a small cave pocket, about five paces high and maybe fifteen around. The sight of that much open space was welcome after the dark and narrow corridors, but what caught Rika’s attention was the light. A vein of raw Fòrsic crystals ran through the rock on the cave’s far wall, twinkling in a kaleidoscope of colors. “It’s beautiful,” she said, awed.

“I can’t believe that no one comes here,” Isa commented, a reverent tone in her voice.

“Can’t you?” Sean asked rhetorically, an odd, fearful tone in his voice. “Look closer.”

Rika peered closer at the shifting colors of the crystals, but couldn’t make anything out from far away. Isa, however, ran up close to the wall and stopped, her nose almost touching it. Suddenly, she gave a horrified gasp and backed away hurriedly.

“What is it?” Syd demanded, her own tone worried.

“It’s the crystals,” Isa answered, still sounding shocked. “Rika, come see.”

Rika approached warily, and then her own mouth dropped open and she felt her heart fall deep in her chest. “Alos fend,” she whispered to herself. The crystal vein was a swirling mass of colors, but upon a closer look, only about three quarters of the crystals were actually glowing. They were packed so densely on the wall that it was difficult to see, but there were large dead spots. As she watched, one of the smaller crystals flickered and died, its brilliant cerulean hue fading away into darkness. She, too, backed away hurriedly, and tried to catch her breath and ignore the sinking feeling inside her. “It’s the crystals,” she repeated to the group. “They’re dying.”

Syd hurried forward to peer closely at the wall herself. She was silent for a long moment, and then, nodding, turned to Rika. “How is this possible?” She asked, calmly, although Rika could hear the iron control in her voice.

Rika shifted her shoulders uneasily. “I don’t know,” she said, firmly repressing her mounting hysteria and a desire to giggle nervously, “it has to be related to what we have already seen. There’s no reason to suspect the effects that Roshan observed to be limited to worked crystals.”

Isa looked at Sean and asked “is this the only vein of crystals where this is happening?”

“For now,” he replied. “This was a major vein discovery, and they were planning to excavate further. Now?” he spread his hands in a shrug, “people avoid it as if it was cursed.”

Simon frowned, thinking. “Did the mine overseer mention anything about it?”

“No,” Sean answered disgustedly. “No official acknowledgement at all. Unofficially, miners who do talk about this phenomenon have a habit of… disappearing.”

“Looks like the Prime is hiding secrets from his followers, even here,” Trentor put in, and Sean frowned at him and opened his mouth to speak, but Syd cut him off.

“Save the politics for later,” she ordered, turning back to Rika. “What does this mean for us?”

“Here? Now?” Rika replied, thinking. “Probably nothing. But in the long-term? Nothing good.”

“Then our mission is unchanged,” she stated decisively, a determined look on her face. “Sean, thank you for showing this to us. It has deeper repercussions that we do not have time to discuss here, but you are right to be concerned about this site. Now, lead on to the vault.”

Sean inclined his head in acknowledgement, although he clearly wanted to talk more about something, either the distressing phenomenon or Trentor’s causal disrespect of the Prime. Whatever the case, he kept his mouth shut and led them back down the way they had come, before turning them onto a wider, more brightly lit tunnel. “Speed is more important than stealth, here,” he said over his shoulder. “We can’t linger,” and he picked up his pace, moving them down the tunnel in a fast walk. Doorways and archways sped by quickly, but mercifully they did not encounter any miners or guards. Finally, they halted again at an intersection with another wide corridor. “Two guards. Wait here,” he said, beckoning Simon forward.

The two brothers vanished down the corridor, and the rest of the group waited in hushed silence, hoping that no one else came along. There came the dim sounds of a scuffle, two dull impacts followed by two heavy thuds, and then Simon reappeared. “The vault is here,” he whispered. “Come, quickly.”

Rika and the others rushed around the corridor, and down the wide passage. As they came down it, Sean reappeared from a darkened side room. Before he shut the door to it, Rika spied two sets of motionless boots, clearly belonging to whatever guards the two men had surprised. Of much greater interest, however, was the heavy, iron doors at the end of the corridor. The doors’ surface was intricately carved with runes and sigils, and where the handles would go there were instead a set of eight Fòrsic crystals, four on each side.  She and Isa stepped forward to regard the crystal configuration. “Runic-lock, you think?” Rika asked, and Isa nodded her agreement.

Syd came forward to look at the mechanism with them. “Can you break it?” she asked.

Isa nodded, peering closely at the sigils carved on the raised crystals. Rika looked at Simon and Sean. “There should be a key, probably a crystalline rod of some sort. Did the guards have anything on them?”

Sean shook his head, but Simon produced a fluted rod about the length of two fingers. “Is this it?” he asked.

“Yes, hand it here and then stand back and watch the Maester’s at work.”

He rolled his eyes at her, but handed over the rod, which was carved from a single milky Fòrsic crystal. Rika kept it close, as Isa continued to study the crystals on the door.

The group stood in silence for several minutes, Trentor and Simon nervously checking the corridor behind them. They both jumped when Isa suddenly announced, “I got it!”

“Really?” Rika moved forward to stand beside her. Runic-locks were complicated Fòrsic constructs, designed to keep people out unless they knew both the sequence to activate the crystals and possessed the proper key. Activation methods and codes varied widely, but they all had to be carved onto the crystals themselves, and anyone with a thorough knowledge of runes could decipher them eventually. Many successful thieves carried detailed scrolls of runes with them to consult if they were stymied by a lock, but the Engineers and Theorists who designed the locks were equally clever, and often there were decoys and other traps built into the system as well. Fortunately for the group, Isa excelled at reconstructing an Engineer’s trail of thought. Together with Rika she could break through any runic-lock eventually, and it appeared this one was no exception.

“Yes,” Isa said, pointed to the two top crystals. “It’s a tone lock, see?” Rika nodded, the top crystals bore the rune for music, with several smaller glyphs denoting pitch and inflection. In locks like this one, depressing the crystals produced a lingering musical note, and the crystals had to be played in a special sequence before the door could be opened.

“Do you know the song?”

Isa shook her head. “It’s no song, just a simple scale. Someone really skimped on this lock.” She leaned forward and pressed the top left crystal with her finger. Immediately, a low, sustained note sounded in the corridor. Not loud, but Rika knew it would soon be louder.

“Hurry up!” She hissed. Isa waved a hand back at her, much as Rika had down when she was spying on the sentries yesterday. In quick succession Isa activated the remaining seven crystals, each one playing a slightly higher note until the corridor filled with a harmonious, vibrating tone. Rika gritted her teeth, the reverberations from the crystals making her jaw hurt, but just as quickly as they had begun the notes faded away, leaving behind a small, circular hole in the center of the door. Rika took the crystalline rod that Simon had retrieved, and slid it home with a click.  For a moment, nothing happened, and then the doors swung outward on silent hinges and the inner vault was revealed.

It looked to be a shadowed, natural chamber, similar in size and shape to the cave containing the failing vein of Fòrsic crystals. The light from the lamps in the hallway did little to penetrate the gloom inside, but Rika could see mounds of coin and gently sparkling gems. Almost as one, the group stepped forward into the vault, she and Isa activating Fòrsic torches. The orange light flared off innumerable shining surfaces, but in the exact center of the vault, where the Foinse-stone should have lain, there was only an empty plinth. "It’s not here,” Isa exclaimed into the shocked silence, and then the vault doors swung shut on their silent hinges. Simon whirled towards the door, but it was too late. The doors shut with a hollow bang, and then the lock snapped shut, trapping them in the darkness.

Chapter 15 can be found here.