Three flights of dry, white-stone ramp-way below the rubble-strewn ground floor they discovered signs of the Grunters. A severed human hand gnawed-off at the wrist like some grisly child's treat. Bortho blanched at the sight of the thing. It was not his mate's.
The ground floor was reasonably secure. Bortho's tribe had cleared the worst of the debris and were in the process of inspecting and securing the outer walls. All the trees and bushes within fifty feet of the outer walls had been chopped down and either converted into supports, replacement timbers, or stacked as fire-wood. Hunters ventured out into the surrounding ruins and returned with more meat than the small group had ever seen before. Game was plentiful. The cisterns seemed to replenish themselves without need of rain. Life was good, for the first time. The tribe worked hard. Their lives depended on the Keep's defenses and they knew it. But not one of them would go down below. Not for anything. They were terrified of what lurked down there. The Grunters.
The first two sub-levels had proven unspectacular. Mostly empty barracks, storage and arsenals that had been stripped down to a few shoddy pole-arms and other weapons that Bortho insisted on lugging and stacking at the foot of the ramp-way for his people to gather-up later. Bujilli shook his head and Leeja scowled as they left Bortho to his labors. They seriously doubted that Bortho would get any of his fellows to collect the weapons. Bujilli was able to find a reasonably suitable short bow and six arrows with wickedly barbed heads. Cold iron. The fletchings were thin vanes of slightly flexible yellow metal with a nasty edge all their own. They found the cold, dead remains of a fair-sized smithy and armorer's workshop. A few choice tools found their way into each of their pouches or packs. Beyond the well-ventilated workshops were more storage areas. Metal stocks. Exotic hardwoods. A carpenter's workshop. A ceramicist's workshop, but one devoid of pottery--here they molded parts of armor, helmets, gauntlets, and other things. A fortune in raw materials. A fortune extremely difficult for two people to transport. But they took a few odds and ends here and there and kept moving.
By the time they had made a complete circuit of the second level, Bortho had completed, or at least given up on his stock-piling effort.
Past the point where they discovered the maggoty-hand there was a cold, dark circular chamber. Right at the very center of the Keep's internal axis. The portcullis was still raised and locked in place. It must have weighed a good ton or more, all of it blackened iron. The dim luminance seeping from the rough walls played-out as they approached the portcullis and the dome-like chamber beyond. Bujilli made use of his Gloomlight spell.
It grew colder.
They could see their own breath.
"So, do we drop this thing and head back now, or go on a bit farther?" Leeja whispered as she gripped Bujilli's arm.
"Let's see what there is to see in this chamber ahead." Bujilli whispered back.
Bortho watched them both intently. Quietly. Almost expectantly. His eyes were wide with barely suppressed fear.
The chamber was cut into the rock. It formed a dome. There were four entrances, each one equipped with a massive black-iron portcullis. None of them had been dropped into place. At the center of the chamber was a heavily reinforced, inward-sloping crenellated railing, really a parapet, with several large, wheeled manlets set along the circumference as though it were some sort of inverted version of the outer defenses. Everything was covered in a thick coat of dust.
Braziers. Metal tubs of congealed tar or sugar-fine sand. Stout metal rods for lifting the tubs into place over the braziers. Sealed bins that when opened disgorged heavy lumps of anthracite. Racks of flanged javelins, arrows, pole-arms. This place was set-up to defend against an army. Bujilli filled his newfound hip quiver so it held a full twenty arrows and then he slung a second quiver of another twenty of the metal-fletched arrows across his back, just in case. It was more than he was used to carrying at any one time, but he wanted to make sure he had enough arrows at-hand if they found themselves faced with a situation where he needed to be using his new-found bow.
"Bizarre." Bujilli leaned over the parapet to peer below. He slowly eased the Gloomlight over the edge in order to not betray his position to any...thing...that might be down below. The parapet overlooked a sloping, spike-laced shaft. He estimated it as descending at least a couple of hundred feet down. straight down. Every four or five feet there was a spike, more like a sword-blade really, set slanted downwards to deter or impede anyone, anything from making its way up through the shaft.
Nothing moved down there. Not that he could see.
Looking up at the vaulted ceiling revealed a system of chains, pulleys. It was an elaborate defensive emplacement. Twelve block-and-tackles were set-up around the circumference of the parapet, each one held a large net of rubble mixed with large caltrops suspended over the shaft. A clever pulley-and-cable assembly allowed a single defender to swing one of the heavy masses of droppable debris into position and let it rain down upon the enemy as needed.
"A small force could hold this position for quite a while." Bujilli continued to walk along the parapet. It was a masterpiece of fortification. But ultimately futile.
"Assuming the enemy did not resort to explosives, cannon or poison gas. Or something worse." Leeja shook her head sadly at some distant memory.
"But surely any army coming up from below wouldn't be using cannon? Would they?"
"Depends. Anything your enemy doesn't expect is precisely the thing to spring upon them, don't you think?"
"Yes. That makes sense. Good strategy. But wouldn't it just end-up caving everything in on their heads?"
"Not always. Not all cannon use blackpowder. Besides, why bother? Look around. What's missing from this place?" Leeja watched Bujilli closely. Her eyes shone green-gold in the dimness. Feral stars that were appraising him.
Bujilli stopped in his tracks. He looked around at everything as if seeing it all for the first time. He ignored Bortho who was cowering back by the portcullis.
"It's too empty. Too ship-shape; everything is in its place. No bodies. No bones. Was it abandoned?"
"How are you so sure?"
Leeja held out her hand. Bujilli took the object she offered to him. It was dry, papery, a chitinous shell.
"Beetles?" he examined the insect in his hand. It was perfectly preserved. There were others here and there about the place, but he hadn't noticed them until Leeja made him aware of them.
"Yes. Beetles. Swarms of the vermin can be raised cheaply and quickly and they can scale a shaft like this in seconds. And they aren't going to be slowed down by javelins, arrows or rocks." Leeja laughed. It was all a big joke. This incredible fortification was pointless. Less than that; it was a veritable death-trap for the defenders.
"Surely fire would stop them..."
"But fire requires ventilation. Breathable air is at a premium in a space like this--that's one reason why those braziers are used to heat-up tar or sand. Open flames use-up air and are as much a liability to the ones using it as to anyone they might be facing...and there are things down below that do not need to breathe." Leeja sat down with her back against one of the tubs of sand with a heavy sigh.
"This area seems well ventilated..."
"It had better be. But what of the section just below this one?"
"I don't know. I would guess that it isn't so well ventilated--no sense in making things easy on your opponents..."
"Exactly. I guess we should be thankful that there aren't any blast-pumps or slime-channels to worry about. Only a fool lets those sorts of things get between them and the surface."
"Blast-pumps? What are those?" Bujilli sat down across from Leeja.
"A way to rapidly flood or drain-out an enclosed area. Intruders drown or are washed away into an underground river or whatever with minimal effort or expenditure. It's a common form of defense back home."
"Home?" Bujilli considered her words carefully. Leeja was revealing things about her past. Things she very likely never shared with anyone ever before.
"AmanUtal. The so-called Nine Citadels of the Deep Regions. Siege warfare works...differently...in Aman Utal. Not like this..." She gestured to the fortified structure around them; "...not often. Only the oldest, smallest, or most isolated enclaves would ever resort to such simplistic, ineffective tactics. This is most likely the sort of things that a surface-dweller would choose. Even those with only a passing familiarity with the miasmas, let alone the vermin prowling the backstreets or sewers of Wermspittle would realize that this is not a particularly sound defense. Not from a real threat."
"I don't know--this shaft could be warded. The cisterns could be tapped in order to plumb a crude flooding trap like you described. It still would allow a small group to hold off a fairly conventional army..."
"If they had a defense against poison gas--"
"Like the masks they use in Kalkendru. Exactly."
"Kalkendru?" Leeja arched an eyebrow. It was his turn to share something with her now.
"A wretched place. It's a jungle-overgrown region deep within a sheer-walled canyon that runs for many miles deep through the heart of a poisonous red desert that is all that remains of a once verdant continent back home. The world I come from." He paused a moment to consider what he'd just said. For so long it had been an impossible dream to escape the world he'd been born into. Now he was in another world, an Adjacent World linked back to yet another world, a new world, at least to him. His dream had come true.
"Jungles are usually hot, humid places..."
"Yes. Exactly. Kalkendru is riddled with geysers and fumaroles, stinking mineral springs and boiling mud. The plants grow so fast that you can watch the vines reach towards you. Some of them will coil around anyone who falls asleep or passes out--they drag them off to be digested by huge carnivorous plant-things. Nothing will burn; it's all to wet or full of sap and sloppy juices. The ground, if you can find it, is muddy and treacherous and squirming with parasites. So it's best to remain arboreal and move from tree to tree. Unfortunately, the trees have all grown up through the tangled and mangled remains of some sort of metallic structure, every surface of which is razor-sharp and dripping with condensation or poisonous ichor. The second most common form of death in that place is poison gasses. Anyone wanting at least a fighting chance has to wear a gas mask. But any given mask only lasts for a week or so before it is rotted away by the fungus, the acid, or the digestive juices dripping off of the plants like sticky rain."
"Yet you managed to make it through this place?" Leeja's voice carried the unmistakable tone of respect.
"Barely. You see...there are creatures that prowl the Blade Maze. Brutish, pox-ridden pig-things. It took me the better part of two and a half weeks to get through the Blade Maze. If there had been any other route to get where I was going, I would have taken it. Gladly. But the Gem insisted on my going through Kalkendru. I was nearly captured by these creatures multiple times. I was able to learn something of their language from..." He shivered in revulsion, "...one of their own sorcerers. She wanted me to serve her." He spat in disgust.
"Serve?" Leeja looked into his eyes. Revulsion and realization came without words. They sat in silence for a few heartbeats, then Bujilli continued;
"She was powerful. A better sorcerer than I. By far. But I grew up among the Almas and I know a few tricks low-landers like her or her filthy clan never saw coming. I learned to fight against the Yeren. They're head-takers. I used the Yeren tactic of setting out a few of the pig-thing's heads each morning in a spot they were sure to find them. Sure enough, they got over being mad and started to fear for their own heads. They eventually abandoned her.”
“And that's when you escaped?”
“No. That's when I took her head. She wouldn't stop coming after me. She was insane. Obsessed. She wanted the Gem.”
“Oh. And what was so special about this Gem?”
“I found it in a tomb deep down in a forgotten little box canyon my uncle had discovered from reading over some old, dead adventurer's journals. It was...alive...I guess. It whispered to me, at first in my dreams, but later, after we'd developed some sort of psychic connection the Gem taught me spells that it said I would need when I got to some place called 'Zalchis.' The Gem promised me just about everything or anything I could name or imagine. I trusted it. Until it betrayed me one time too many. It very nearly got me killed by a Zurian Princess who was also seeking after the damned thing...just like DuKushKa...”
“This Gem sounds evil...”
“Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is that I cannot trust it. So I left it behind when I found the way to Wermspittle.”
“And what about the pig-sorceress' head?” Leeja asked practically. There was power in such things. One did not squander it when it came into your hands. In that regard, her mother had taught her well.
“I sold it to a lemur-eyed shaman. It paid for my passage across the Sea of Ebon Tears.”
Leeja didn't ask what the shaman wanted with the severed head. She knew that there was no good answer.
It was cold. First Leeja rose to her feet then Bujilli followed. They began walking around the parapet again.
“So do we go back and drop the portcullis and get back to the Academy? Or do you want to go a bit farther? Like down one of those three other passages?” Leeja waved at the portcullis hanging above the short passage where they had entered the chamber.
“We can drop the portcullis. But if we do that, we're cutting ourselves off from the rest of this place. And we're not sure where exactly the pig-things are getting in...”
“Bortho is gone.”
Bujilli spat. He jogged over to the entrance, looked at the tracks in the dust. Bortho had left a clear trail. He'd headed right for the passage on their left as they entered. Looking closer he could discern the muddled tracks of one or more persons who had taken the precaution of attempting to wipe-away most of the evidence of their having passed this way. It had been done well enough to get Bujilli and Leeja to both overlook the tracks. But not Bortho.
“He's gone on ahead. He's following these smudged hoof-prints. If he gets himself captured by the Grunters...well...it'll only be a matter of time before they send another raiding party into this place.”
“So do we go after him?”