Chapter 42 – In a ruined Place
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I climbed down the rope ladder and found myself in a tight, square shaft. After ten yards of the ladder, there was a stairway spiralling down the walls, half crumbled and at places fixed with boards recently, as well as a rope affixed to the wall to hold on to. I had to duck my head in to not hit it on the stairs above me. 

The structure of the city was straightforward and I shall describe it here. 

At the end of the winding stairway was a door leading into a vast hollow chamber, right at its very top. There was no way down to the ground except for a tower standing in the middle of the chamber. To this tower led from the door a bridge, now destroyed and replaced recently with a bridge made sturdily from spars and boards. Inside the tower, another stairway led down. The floor of the chamber was empty safe for rubbish and rotten wood. Beneath the chamber, accessible through the tower, was a long hallway with empty and dead-end rooms leading off from it. Throughout the hallway, I had to keep my head ducked in, while the two crolachans could stand upright. 

The walls of the hallways and rooms from thereon out were covered in fine stone carvings of trailing lines and sparse inscriptions. The gisrin who had built this place must have truly been master stoneworkers. At places, the walls were crumbled or otherwise worn, yet no rubble ever blocked our way, in its stead, the rooms often had piles of cleared rubble in their centre. 

The hallway led to the top floor of a 2-floor gallery surrounding a large courtyard, where trees and grasses once grew, now withered and rotten. Two tents had been pitched there. The ceiling had deep grooves that spiralled across the entire room’s width, most likely to channel the luminous mist in the chamber for as long as possible. Sarita said that the absence of a draft inside the tunnels meant that the mist had also not flown through the ruins in a long time, which was most likely the reason why it was abandoned. A further down level or the caves through which the gisrin had siphoned the mist had probably collapsed and blocked fresh air and mist. 

The tents in the courtyard did not look abandoned, bedding material, rations and some notes still inside, but according to Brad, not used in at least three tides. According to the note Sarita had been given, the expedition had consisted of ten people, so the two tents were by far not enough to account for them all. 

From the garden courtyard led a broad and tall hallway into each of the four cardinal directions, leading to four different quarters of the city. We continued into each of the quarters, yelling for anyone present but receiving no answer. The city itself consisted of hallways and tunnels of varying width leading to rooms hewn into the rock, all with marvellous smoothness and accuracy. We found no map but still could make our way through the maze-like structure quickly; this was not some kind of secret lair of a select band, no, it was a city for many people to live their daily lives. Occasional plazas or intersection offered stone benches, sometimes even planters or patches of open dirt, once probably bearing trees and flowers like in any surface city. We found a few collapsed hallways and only one of which we could not bypass by other alleys or streets. We also found wooden scaffolding where stairs had collapsed or where walls seemed unstable, to stabilize any part of the rooms about to collapse. 

One quarter offered more spacious rooms; another held many workshop-like areas. Much of any furniture was either splinters or gone. A few pottery shards remained, many of them with designs similar to what Magus Alfvin had shown to us. In a quarter housing many storefronts, we finally found a way further down. A ramp led into an open basement, separated only by pillars, most likely something like a storehouse once, the remains of shelves and crates strewn across the place. We found five more tents there, too. 

We searched the tents and again found no signs of the expedition. We did find, however, plenty of supplies and equipment around, showing signs of recent habitation, along with crates stuffed with straw containing a few well-preserved finds, such as vases with that intricate pattern, clay tablets, remains of tapestries, discarded tools and many other artefacts, ready for transporting out through the narrow hallways. 

Sarita was holding a clay tablet aloft, trying to find the right orientation to decipher it. “Technically, we could just take these and return, right? I mean, the task was to get some of the found artefacts back so Alfvin can get more funding, right?” 

Brad, who was still searching the tents angrily hissed through the entrance. “Do you ever think of anything other than taking stuff and making off with it, Princess Magpie?” 

“No, I mean there is no reason to find those guys and have a chat with them. It seems they’re busy and I don’t want to disturb them.” 

“Oh, no you just don’t want to look into things because there might be trouble!” 

“What if I am? Is it so important?” 

I had to step in between the two quarrellers. “I agree with Brad. If something happened to the expedition, which it looks like by all the desertion, we owe it to the Seekers of Fregna to investigate. We want to commission their help, after all. It would be dishonourable to leave their members alone if they were in trouble.” It occurred to me that Sarita had little incentive to find her way home, she just wanted to survive. “And if you prove a reliable contractor, they might protect you from the reach of the 88 chieftains.” 

Sarita seemed to search her mind for a moment, then sighed in defeat and let the tablet fall back into the straw. We searched the basement further and soon found another ramp down. Through another broad tunnel, it led to a cave hewn from the rock, but not smoothed or adorned, almost like a mine. At the end of the cave, we came upon a large chamber with several wells in the floor and the last tent, a heap of torn cloth with broken poles. 

We stepped further in and searched the room separately, for the vastness of the room did not allow our moonlight stones to illuminate it all at once. It was Sarita who made the gruesome find. Her sudden shriek travelled through the room and back, making me reach instinctively for my flux pouch. 

I saw her standing in the middle of the room, pointing at something pinned to the floor with a long needle-like spike. “A-A-A-ARM!” She stuttered while walking away from it. The spike did indeed pin a crolachan arm to the ground. By the pattern of the wound, I thought it to be bitten off by a large predatory creature. 

Brad stepped closer and inspected the arm. “Seems to be a man, young.” He looked at the spike. It was roughly a foot long and as thick as a thumb at its base. It had not been broken off but rather separated neatly from its former bearer. “What kind of creature can do this?” He looked to Sarita, who sat with her back against the wall.  

She merely shook her head. “I want out. I want out of here!” She drew her legs close. 

Brad and I looked around the rest of the room. Supplies were scattered around; a pickaxe lay close by with blood on its tip. Again, Sarina’s shrill scream made us whirl around. She pointed to a corner of the upper edge of the room at the wall from which we had come, but then dropped her pointing arm. At the very top was a narrow slit and behind it, an eye and a voice. 

“Hey, are you with the Seekers?” 

I stepped closer and saw a grey, pointed face behind the slit, where obviously a tunnel had been dug too close to the room. 

“Are you?” 

I stepped even closer. “Yes, we were sent by the Seekers of Fregna.” 

“Thank the gods.” The face said. “It’s been days in here and we're running out of food.” 

I looked to the nearest tunnels. “Where are you?” 

“In a close-by chamber. I collapsed two tunnels to lock us in against the Bodugii, but most of our supplies are out there.” 

“How many are us?” 

“Just me and Fridolf, but he is not well, I can tell you that much. We need water, bandages and maybe a stiff drink, all will be found among the tents in the storage cellar.” 

I looked around. Brad had entered the torn-down tent but was now sticking his head out, paying close attention to our conversation; Sarita looked much less distraught in paying attention to the living rather than the dead. 

“How can we get to you?” 

The grey face looked at me for a moment. “You're a mage, aren’t you? You have a staff but don’t wear the robes of an apprentice or a magus, but I don't care. If you go through that tunnel over there” a claw pushed through the slit and pointed to a nearby mine tunnel. “and go the second on the right, you will loop around to a large hall with a collapsed pillar. If you lift the pillar, you can get through the doorway to us, then you can magic a way for us out of here.” 

I looked to the tunnel, then back to the slit. “Where is that monster that did this?” 

“The Bodugii?  It is down there, near the river, and sleeps most likely. It usually sleeps for long times between meals and it ate at least six of us, but you never know, it might have smelled you already. You better grab what you can find back in the storage cellar or we’ll just be starving together in here.” 

I nodded, then addressed the others. “Come on, we need to gather the supplies.” 

Before we left the room, the voice called after us. “Get the cask, there’s fresh water in there!” 

Quickly, we returned to the storage cellar and grabbed all supplies we could from the tents and crates. Small wooden boxes, bundles of leather wrappings, the typical paper in which vrata biscuits were sold, we shovelled it all into the little spare space our packs had and tying them close with the leather straps. Brad also grabbed a closed casket of water under his arm, then we hurried back to the room with the wells. 

As we were hurrying with our cargo in tow, I had to think of a way to magically lift the pillar. Lifting masses was not difficult, once I had the formulae apparent in my mind, but under these circumstances, thinking of the formula was harder than I expected. I tried to test what I knew to be true and ran an example calculation I knew the correct answer of, when we arrived in the room with the wells. Something was slowly rising out of one of them. 

It was head not unlike the beaked maw of the tunnelwyrm which had chased us into the very world below at the beginning of our journey, but much smaller, only as wide as a human of considerable girth, but still enough to swallow each of us whole. The bodugii’s scales were grey and dull in colour with occasional streaks of brighter or darker grey, yet its eyes glowed almost white in the light of our moonlight stones, fixed on us as it crawled further out, two thin legs with four-fingered claws gripping the rim of the wells, carving deep grooves in the soft limestone. 

“RUN!” I told the other two and Brad pulled Sarita by her hand towards the tunnel as indicated, then I grabbed a fist-sized rock that lay nearby. 

The bodugii’s gaze followed the two crolachans as it pulled more and more of its body out of the well with more pairs of legs. 

I concentrated on that formula that came natural to me: accelerating a projectile. With the help of the staff as a focus, I flung it in a wide arcing motion with speed enough to shatter on the walls, it hit the beast’s skull with a considerable THUD. 

The bodugii snapped around and hissed, realigning itself with its new target: me. 

I hurried after the others, into the tight tunnel, hauling my precious cargo, the second to the right and arrived in a long, empty hall, a collapsed column blocking a doorway on the far end. To my shock, I found neither Brad nor Sarita. I whirled around and saw the gleaming eyes from the darkness of the tunnel turning the corner, fixing me, then propelling itself into my direction, its many pairs of legs finding footing on the rough tunnel ground, wall, even ceiling. I now noticed Brad standing in the corner of the room next to the doorframe, and as he saw me, he readied. 

With a scream that would have done the urshog proud, he charged at the bodugii’s head as it emerged from the doorframe, knife in hand, and drove the blade with a wet scraping sound into the monster’s eye socket. 

A roar went through the hall and back, the monster tried to snap at Brad, but I ran forward, swining my staff’s head at the creature’s remaining eye, missing only barely and hitting the ridge of its brow. 

The monster hissed again, then retreated back into the dark of the tunnel, moving backwards as fast as forward. 

The hall fell silent. Sarita again sat with her back to the wall, legs drawn close. Brad let out a loud sigh and fell back on his rear. “I am tired of being chased around by monsters. So goddamn tired!” 

I meanwhile turned to the remaining business at hand: the column. 

It was square in cross-section, six feet on each end, the largest part roughly nine feet in length, and lay before a doorway that was almost as tall. It was of finely carved limestone, close by lied several torn ropes and broken spars, which had probably held the pillar stable during the excavations. 

Its mass was considerable, probably in excess of fifty-thousand pounds, if my knowledge of volumes and the density of limestone served me well. But I also knew it was a feat within my abilities as long as I had an endless amount of flux, which I had in this rich world below. 

“Is it coming back?” Sarita whispered from her corner. 

“I have to concentrate. As soon as the pillar has lifted enough for you to crawl underneath, you do so!” 

Brad nodded, then took Sarita by her wrist again and got into position just before the pillar. 

Lifting a large mass is easy even with a low incoming force, as long as the force is amplified by sufficient leverage. As a wise man once said: give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world. With constructions such as pulleys, ropes, gears and their magical equivalents of force transmission formulae, I could make just that fulcrum and a lever so long it seems endless, but doable.  

I just needed to lift it by two, maybe three feet. “Take off your packs and pull them behind you.” 

The two did as I told them, then I decided on a leverage. I began to channel the latent forces around me, as if the sweat on my brow was a boiling lake of energy. Every iota of life force had to be pushed and packed tightly to lift one end of the pillar by a mere inch. It felt like running two miles to make a foot of progress, but such was the nature of the lever and fulcrum. 

The energies flowing through me began to wear on my veins, I felt the rough and hot grating on my insides and on my skin, like thin torrents of boiling water cutting across and through me. It was my duty to save this expedition, or what was left of it and so I endured the exertion just a short while more. 

Finally, I heard Sarita gasp “I FIT!” then she crawled on her belly to make it through, Brad followed soon after, pulling all our packs behind him. Finally, I heard the voice behind the slit again. “You can let go, Mister Mage, I put a block between, come on through!” 

Indeed, he had placed a piece of a wooden beam, fresh and thick, under the pillar, keeping it propped up. As I laid down on my belly and exhaled to fit through, I heard a dreadfully familiar sound behind me. Many legs scurried through the tunnel, returning to try again for a meal. I looked back and saw the tip of grey beak. Suddenly, hands grabbed my wrists and with a painful skid, pulled me through the slit. Behind me, by a rope, the beam flew out from under the pillar, letting it slam down with sound that kicked up dust and sand all around us in a mostly dark corridor. 

A loud SLAM told of the bodugii throwing its head against the pillar, seeking a way through with its many legs seeking slits and cracks, attempting to budge. An entire body’s length of strength stemmed and buckled against the stone that would not budge. Not without a fulcrum and a lever. 

A light went up in the corridor as the voice behind the slit held a luminous stone aloft. It was a Gisrin of average stature, just above four feet tall, his face grey and pointed as usual with their kind, his hands having nails almost as long as the rest of the finger, pointed and curved to varying degrees. His clothes were dirty and had splatters of blood upon them and had seen good wear, but looked sturdy enough to withstand some more. His scales were not painted and carved with decorations as with others we had seen, but he did have a few nails of polished copper or bronze through a few of them, like some people would wear rings in their ears, lips or nose. 

“Good to see you. My name is Kasp-Bub-Han, but you can call me Kasp, dear colleagues.” He smiled and somehow, I was put at ease, despite our current situation.