The Central Chamber, Part 2
“You would think that the tunnels would mirror the streets above,” Roshan said, as he carefully wedged a crowbar in behind an ornate iron grating.
“Uh huh,” Isa made a get-to-the-point sound of agreement. She, Rika, and Eithne stood watching him. They were dressed for a fight, Isa and Rika wore leather armor embroidered in runes sewn with spun crystal thread and had their weapons in their hands. Roshan had nothing so fancy, but before they had left Alsce he’d dug up an old dark green surcoat that he thought looked quite fetching. It might stop a slash from a dagger, if he was lucky, but it was more protection than Eithne had in just her cloak and blouse. He was worried about her. She’d never have let them leave her behind though. He’d tried.
“You’d think that,” he continued, working the crowbar in deeper. “But you’d be wrong.” Once he’d wedged the bar in deep enough, he leveraged it backwards and the grate popped out. He caught it, and gently lowered it to the cobbles.
“And why would that be?” Eithne asked, playing along. Roshan grinned at her, and she smiled back. If she was nervous, she was hiding it well.
“Because doing it that way would have made sense,” Roshan wiped his forehead of sweat and stood up. “And nothing the Volantean government has done has ever made sense.” He gestured at the hole.
“In we go.”
“Are you sure?” Rika gave the hole a dubious glance. It was about three feet wide, a circular hole of yawning darkness set into the side of a building. A trickle of some indeterminable liquid shimmered in the sunlight.
“It’s not very deep,” Roshan said, feeling a trifle defensive. “We used to use it as a shortcut to the taverns during the winter. It’s an air duct that connects right to the main thoroughfare.”
Eithne patted his arm. “I’m sure it’s fine tunnel.”
“Er, yes.” Roshan struggled to regain his trail of thought.
“The tunnels,” Rika prompted, smiling.
“Right, the tunnels. The city has six central avenues, plus various boulevards and smaller streets and alleys in the districts. The tunnels have one central corridor. Just one. Everything else either connects on to it, or doesn’t according to the whim of its builders. It spirals up from Cliff’s Edge all the way up to the Prime’s Palace. Supposedly, anyway, the upper portions beyond Eolas are blocked off. Something about thieves.”
“Thieves?” Isa asked.
Roshan waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is that students at the University spent a lot of time and effort mapping the secondary passageways. The useful ones, anyway. There are several guard posts down there, too, so normally I wouldn’t want to poke around, but if Aki is acting as bait…” he shrugged. He face creased in worry for his friend, but he shook it off. They had more important things to worry about.
Rika was nodding along with him. “The corridors will be clear, we can rush right through!”
Eithne pursed her lips. “Not to be discouraging, but we still don’t know where we’re going.”
“The central chamber is a blank spot on all the maps,” Roshan said. “But it’s got to be there somewhere. I figured once we were in the tunnels, we’d make our way in the right direction and listen for sounds of combat. I’m sure not all the guards are gone.”
Isa clapped her hands together decisively. “Right, let’s go. I’m tired of waiting.” She knelt down and started to clamber into the tunnel.
“After you then, I guess.” Roshan sighed, and knelt down to climb in behind her.
They plopped one by one into the wide avenue of the main tunnel, and Roshan took a moment to regain his breath. The ventilation shaft had run upwards into the side of the Ater-Volante, and though they had only travelled a short distance, crawling uphill on hands and knees was always tiring. He looked around to orient himself. To his left and right, the smooth cut walls of the tunnel curved away into stygian blackness. The only illumination came from the undulating glow of Isa’s arms, pulsing in a steady heartbeat rhythm. Someone had put out the lights. Under normal circumstances, Forsic lanterns lined all the main tunnels, providing a comforting orange glow, but no longer. As Roshan peered into the blackness, he could see those crystals now, lying dead and cracked in their sconces.
“How welcoming,” Isa said, looking around herself.
Eithne shivered, “Is it always this dark?”
Roshan shook his head, his expression grim in the darkness. “No. The Don’s been through here.” The darkness swallowed their whispered words. Other than the slight noise made by their movements, the area was quiet, possessed of an utter silence that seemed very final. Roshan felt goosebumps rise on his arms and the back of his neck.
“There used to be a checkpoint further up,” he said. Like Isa and Eithne, he kept his voice low and quiet.
“Lead on,” Isa said. “I’ll be right behind you. Eithne, follow me. Rika will watch our backs.”
Rika nodded and slipped back behind them, her eyes darting back and forth in a watchful silence. Being underground again so soon escaped from his last ordeal made Roshan’s heartbeat tick upwards, but he strode up the tunnel with a confidence not entirely feigned. He felt his friends behind him as a comforting weight in the darkness.
They moved within a sphere of light, soap-bubble thin. The shadows cast wavered and fled, returning in greater numbers only to flee again with the next brightening of Isa’s arms. The effect had a trancelike quality, and Roshan forced himself to keep his mind on the task ahead of them.
The checkpoint was just where he had remembered it, at a crossroads beneath the border where Cliff’s Edge blended into Brickbottom. When he was a student, the members of the watch stationed there had been uninterested in anything other than the largest ruckus, although many a drunk student made the point of detouring around them anyway. Now they were dead. Their bodies had been moved beneath a shadowed alcove, but streaks of blood decorated the stone floor of the corridor.
Isa knelt to inspect the corpses, the glow from her arms brightening.
“No signs of a struggle.” she checked the bodies with a casual thoroughness. “Throats were slit, they never saw it coming.”
“Who would do such a thing?” Eithne asked, her eyes wide.
“The Don, obviously,” Roshan said through gritted teeth. “This is all his fault.”
“In this case,” Isa said, flipping one of the watchmen over, “It was probably Harshun. Syd said he had a knack for this sort of thing.”
Roshan’s blood ran cold. “Wait, Harshun? The Engineer in Alsce who helped me with my research?”
“Why do you think he was assigned to you?” Isa said. She didn’t look up. Instead she traced something on the stone floor in front of her with her hand.
“The Don probably wanted one of his killers to keep a close eye on you. Come look at this.”
Roshan shook his head, the sudden reconceptualization of his time in Alsce a punch in the gut. His head swirled.
A whispered, “I thought he was my friend,” escaped his lips. Eithne caught him in a hug, and he started to lay his head down on her shoulder. Then, he stopped. He drew in a deep breath, and let it out all at once, and pulled his mind back into focus. Gently removing Eithne’s arms, he went over to crouch next to Isa.
“What is it?” If his voice sounded hoarse, Isa didn’t mention it. Instead, she pointed at a patch of blood beneath the lifted body. Someone had shaped it into a rune.
Roshan read it out loud, “Seek? Seek what?”
Isa pointed, “Look closer.” One of the lines of the rune made an arrow, pointing off down the passage way to the left.
Isa wiped her hands on the dead watchmen’s clothes and stood up. “Probably a small team, relying on stealth and speed over strength.”
Roshan nodded, that fit with what he had learned of the Resistance’s methods. Isa would be familiar with their tactics, Syd’s group having relying on similar.
“Who left the sign?”
“Trentor or Simon, Syd wouldn’t have been tasked with moving bodies, no matter how small the group.” Isa looked around.
“Here,” came a whisper from the darkness further up the tunnel. “I hear something.”
Roshan’s head snapped around. Together he, Isa, and Eithne made their way towards Rika’s voice until she was back in their bubble of light. Isa grabbed Rika’s hand and gave it a quick squeeze. Rika smiled at her, and held her free hand to her lips in a quieting gesture.
“Listen!” She pointed out into the darkness. Roshan strained his ears, but all he could hear was his own breathing.
“What is it?” This time all three women shushed him, and he subsided, growing frustrated. He still couldn’t make anything out.
“Sounds like… metal clashing on metal,” Eithne’s breathed.
“That’s what I thought, too. Is this the passage the rune pointed at?” Rika looked at Isa for confirmation. She nodded.
“This way does lead deeper into the hillside,” Roshan said, musing.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Isa asked. “Let’s go!”
They set off down the tunnel, once again in a diamond formation. This time, Isa lead the way, with Roshan and Eithne in the middle. Roshan spared a moment to reach out and squeeze her hand in what he hoped was a reassuring gesture. She returned the squeeze and smiled at him. She looked less nervous than he felt, and he was glad of her presence.
As they moved down the tunnel, Roshan started to hear the sounds the others had picked up on. There was a ringing sound of metal and metal, along with an occasional shout. They passed several more desolate checkpoints, each with their own small, sad pile of bodies. They stopped to check each one, but no messages were in evidence until the last one. There, Isa found another rune arrow, which directed them off the main passageway at last.
The darkness grew more claustrophobic with the narrowing walls. There was no longer space to move as a group, and so they walked in single-file, Isa’s lights now augmented with a glow-crystal in Rika’s hands at the rear of the line. Roshan was glad of Eithne’s hands on his back. The close and narrow walls and the darkness brought back unpleasant memories of the last time he was under a mountain.
As they followed the twists and turnings of the path, the sporadic sounds of conflict ahead continued to grow. The increase in volume did not feel reassuring. Although Roshan took it as confirmation they were on the right track, the sounds echoed strangely along the rock walled corridors. One time the clamor seemed as near as the next corner, but when they crept with utmost caution around the bend the passageway remained empty. Another time, the noise struck them as they rounded a sharp twist in the trail. Everyone reached for their weapons, but once again they could see nothing and no one. Still, the noise continued to grow. Roshan could almost make out individual voices when Isa stopped abruptly and he walked straight into her back.
“Hey, watch it.”
“Sorry. What is it?” Roshan whispered. He felt Eithne and Rika halt behind him as well. He supposed they had been paying closer attention.
“There’s a shaft…”
“Is there a rune?” Rika asked from the back of the line.
“No,” Isa said, “I mean there’s a shaft. A vertical one. It bisects the corridor.”
“Oh,” was all Rika could say.
Oh, indeed, Roshan thought. He peered over Isa’s shoulder, and muttered a curse at the sight. Isa had chosen the correct descriptor. The corridor they had been following opened into a great, square void, perhaps six feet to a side. The smooth stone of the walls glimmered disconcertingly in the light, and the wind whistled up and down in eddying gusts. The far side disappeared into darkness. He couldn’t see the bottom.
“This isn’t on any of the maps,” he said, half to himself.
“I want to see,” Eithne said from behind him. Roshan and Isa crouched down to give her a good look at their predicament. She gazed at it in silence for several moments. Roshan’s knees started to burn, and anxiety grew in his heart. How could they be stopped here? He glanced back at Eithne, and saw her brow creased in thought.
After another moment, she said. “I think I know what this is.”
“Really?” Roshan asked.
She smiled. “Hey, give me some credit at least. I think it’s a Fòrsic lift.”
Roshan sucked in his breath. A lift? He’d read about them, but he hadn’t known one could be this large. Lifts were things wealthy nobles used as flashy accessories to their houses.
“Think about it,” Eithne continued. “There has to be a direct service route to the central chamber, and what better way than this? I’ll bet the Don took it down, and pulled the Fòrsa out behind him.”
Roshan nodded. It did make sense. He looked closer at the walls. Ahead of him, Isa trailed her fingers around the shaft’s edges.
“There are crystals here,” she said, a hint of wonder creeping into her voice. “The walls are studded with them.”
“Roshan,” Rika said from the back of the group, “Could the Foinse-rod reactivate them?”
Roshan slapped his head. Of course! “I should have thought of that.” He smoothed the stubby hairs on his chin, thinking. “Maybe. The crystals have to be linked together, somehow, but guiding just enough energy to reactivate them without blowing them up is next to impossible. If I had a week to work the calculations, maybe, but on the spot?”
All four of them went quiet, thinking.
“I’ll do it.”
“What?” Rika asked.
“I’ll do it,” Isa repeated.
“No. You’re an engineer, you don’t have the knack,” Rika sounded adamant, a hint of defensive panic creeping into her voice.
“I’ve been practicing,” Isa’s measured, matter-of-fact tone was not one Roshan had heard from her before. Usually she was much more declarative, and he realized with a start that he and Eithne were stationed right in the middle of an argument. He pulled Eithne down so that Rika and Isa could glare at one another.
“And besides,” Isa continued, still in a calm and persuasive tone. “I have these,” she flexed her arms.
“Whatever’s happened to you is no substitute for years of training.”
“Rika, I can feel the flows of Fòrsic energy. I can sense them! If we doused all our lights now, I would still be able to see. Would you?”
“That has nothing to do it,” Rika’s voice grew stricter, and more worried, angry at Isa landing her points.
“It has everything to do with it, and you know it.”
“What if something goes wrong?”
Isa shrugged. “Then something goes wrong.” Her voice softened. “You can’t protect me from this forever, Rika.”
“I know, I just,” Rika struggled with her composure. After a moment, she cleared her throat and said in a husky voice, “I love you.”
Isa flashed a grin. “I know.” She winked, and said, “I love you, too.” She looked down at Roshan and Eithne, “Oh, stop smiling like idiots and hand me the Alos damned Foinse-rod.”
Roshan gave it up, not without feeling some trepidation, but if Rika believed in her then he could do no less.
“The runes on it allow it to charge other crystals, but if you put too much Fòrsa out, they will explode,” he said by way of warning.
Isa sat cross-legged at the lip of the pit and held the Foinse-rod out with both arms. Both she and the rod began to shine with pearlescent glow. Roshan held his breath. The light continued to grow in intensity, pouring out from Isa in rippling waves to fill the shaft around them. He blinked watering eyes, peering closer. Were those… lines? Shifting black streaks had appeared, wavering in and out of sight. They swarmed like ants up and down the sides of the corridor, a mighty river that writhed out from Isa and danced out into smaller tributaries.
Roshan reached out to touch one, and felt a familiar tingle in his fingers. He exhaled slowly, almost unable to believe his eyes. Theorists had long been taught to envision Fòrsic flows as they worked with crystals. It was part of the Focus training essential to their discipline, but it was all in the mind. He had never thought he would be able to see them with his eyes. To concentrate that much energy together… he shook his head. Isa had not been exaggerating her abilities.
As the light brightened, the crystals that studded the walls came to life as well, yellow flashes almost invisible against the milky glow emanating from Isa.
Sweat beaded on her face. The light around her began to shimmer, pulsated in time with her now trembling arms. Roshan reached out a hand to steady her, but then thought better of it. Breaking her concentration could be fatal.
“Come on, Isa,” he heard Rika mutter. “You can do it.”
Isa’s shoulders tensed; she seemed to be gathering herself. For what, Roshan didn’t know. The muscles in her jaw clenched. The timbre of the air changed, stillness replaced by a static buzzing that itched Roshan’s skin and hurt his teeth. Isa screamed. More light poured forth from her in a sudden burst, rocketing through the side corridors and up and down the lift shaft like a dying star. Blackness followed.
Roshan blinked his eyes in desperation, trying to regain his vision.
“Isa?” Rika said, her voice tremulous.
Roshan reached out, trying to find her, to touch her, only to feel the edge of Isa’s leather armor as she slipped, soundlessly, over the edge.
Chapter 31 can be found here.