“Walking!” Hunter declared excitedly.
“Yes, and that gets less funny every time you say it!” Lina snapped. “Honestly, man! Cut it out!”
“Would it help if I rode my invisible bicycle?” Hunter asked as he mimicked the motions of a person on a bike.”
“You know, acting strangely doesn’t float real well around here!” Lina winced. “These are simple people, with simple morals and beliefs. I left home ten years ago because I knew there had to be more out there.”
“But you did use actual magic,” Hunter commented. “Your battle with Hidakots is legendary, even in my circles.”
“A lot of people around here know a little magic,” Lina shrugged. “Most of it is highly trade-specific. Shopkeepers know spells that lock down items, blacksmiths learn spells to create heat; the magic is very simple and small, and for most it’s just simple, second-nature. They learn it as children, as part of the trade, and never give it a second thought.”
“So basically, you’ve been running around doing actual sorcery since you were a precocious young scamp,” Hunter began. “But if I were to, say, pull out this disposable lighter and start a fire, I’d be burned at the stake for witchcraft?”
“Yeah, that about sums it up,” Lina nodded.
“That’s the screwiest thing I ever heard,” Hunter spat. “And I grew up in a democracy. What on earth would compel people to act like that?”
“Magic they understand,” Lina shrugged. “Technology… not so much.”
They continued walk in silence.
Rowen was a beautiful country, full of majestic hillsides and picturesque vistas. The road they were on was wide and well traveled, but from horizon to horizon it was the only sign of human habitation.
The pastures and meadows had no fences. Here and there they would pass a shepherd tending to animals. Occasionally another road would join theirs, heading off into the hills. Signposts would mark the intersection, maybe a few feet of half-standing fence.
From time to time, ancient ruins were visible through the undergrowth, and in worn stretches of the dirt road, flagstones poked through.
“Neat place,” Hunter breathed.
“I used to go adventuring down into some of those ruins,” Lina whispered quietly. “What’s on the surface is just the tip; many have very extensive undergrounds, whole cities, deep beneath the surface.”
“Ever find anything cool?” Hunter asked.
“The money was good,” Lina admitted. “Occasionally I might come across a magical artifact or two. But… it was really scary down there. The… no one actually knows where those ruins came from. There are spirits down there, ghosts. And I don’t mean real ones; I’ve got plenty of magic for that. There’s… a feeling, in those places.”
“Well they definitely aren’t Ebetan in origin,” Hunter spat. “Ebetan culture is renowned for sky-worship; they built up, not down. They were afraid of the dark, held deep beliefs about underground, never ever went in caves. I could go on, but I won’t.”
“It’s just a little worrisome that so much could be right beneath our feet and have no clue where it came from,” Lina sighed.
“That’s what ‘archeology’ is for,” Hunter grinned. “I bet if we sent a Gudersnipe team in here, they could give you some answers. In fact…”
Hunter left the road suddenly, marching fearlessly through the underbrush. He snapped branches and trod over small trees, and quickly reached the heart of a small cluster of ruins.
He climbed onto a causeway, and extended a hand to help Lina up. Then began walking along, eyeing the ancient pillars and arches.
“What are you doing, Hunter?” Lina hissed. “I told you, it’s not safe in these places!”
“Then let’s be unsafe,” Hunter shrugged. “Look at these archways; it’s a distinctive tear-drop shape.”
“So?” Lina snapped.
“Just saying,” Hunter shrugged.
At the end of the short causeway he found a raised dais. Since they were several feet off the ground, the trees and brush had failed to do much here. The stone was heavily weathered, but still pure white.
All the natural rock Hunter had seen so far in this land was dark gray or black, making these ruins more than a little odd. At the center of the dais, a spiral stairway led down to a square-shaped doorway. The depression was filled with dead leaves and dirt, blown in by storms, but it wasn’t much work to make their way down to a door.
“Why hasn’t this been completely filled in yet?” Hunter questioned.
“People dig them out,” Lina replied sourly. “Bandits often use these places to hide—they often never come out. There’s monsters down there, to. Creatures underground, hideous beasts who never see the light of day.”
Hunter placed his hand on the door. It was low, a little under six feet high. He pushed on it, and to his great surprise, it opened without much effort.
The electric tinge of magic touched his nostrils, and made the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
“All the entrances are like this,” Lina explained. “Identical.”
Hunter reached under his cloak and unbuttoned his shirt, finding the tactical field vest hidden beneath. From this, he produced a pair of glow sticks and cracked them, activating the chemicals inside. He handed one out to Lina.
“Why not just use a light spell?” she asked.
“The defenses are probably magic-activated,” Hunter replied. “Did you ever go down into one of these places with a torch?”
“No,” Lina shook her head. “I always used a spell…”
“Let’s try it without the magic?” Hunter cracked a grin.
Lina took the glow stick and followed Hunter. Beyond the doorway was a steep, straight flight of stairs with no railings. The stonework was rough-hewn here, but betrayed a hidden secret of craftsmanship. There was no mortar, the bricks were meant to look haphazard and poorly made, but really whoever had built this place held great skill.
The end of the staircase let them out in a narrow hallway. The ceiling was vaulted, but much of it seemed to be excavated directly from the bedrock. Stonework was added here and there, and alcoves which held rusted metal urns.
Hunter produced a small but powerful flashlight from his hidden vest and shined it down each hallway, then took the right passage. He also took out a device with a small screen and flipped it on, eyeing it as they walked.
“Life-signs detector?” Lina asked.
“Always,” Hunter replied.
“Don’t rely on it,” Lina warned. “Some of the monsters down here are already dead. Some never lived.”
“Monster isn’t a term I like,” Hunter commented. “People call things ‘monster’ when they don’t understand what they are. Find out what it is, give it a name, don’t just label it ‘monster’ and refuse to understand anything else about it.”
“How about ‘thing-that-dies-when-I-hit-it-with-a-fireball’?” Lina asked tersely. “Because after my extensive studies of them, that’s about the only thing I’ve managed to learn about the ‘monsters’ I’ve encountered down in these places had.”
“Good ‘nuff,” Hunter shrugged.
The passage let out very suddenly into a gallery. They were on a ledge high up, and as their eyes adjusted to the dim light of the glow sticks, they were treated to a view of a fantastic hall.
Twelve huge pillars held up the vaulted ceiling. The floor stretched out, opening a wide plaza shrouded in darkness.
Save for a few moving torches and a smoldering campfire.
“Bandits,” Lina growled.
“That a problem?” Hunter asked.
“The fear these places bring on makes them mad,” Lina explained quickly. “While they might be calm and reasonable, even polite while above ground; a few days down here in the dark and they become vicious, willing to fight to the death for their territory.”
The two adventurers could hear pounding footsteps and shouts.
Counting off the seconds and listening to the bandits’ approach, Hunter took his time as he surveyed the hall. He could faintly make out the opposite edge, and was now calculating the dimensions.
It was fully three stories up to where they stood, looking down on a grand plaza. The hall was around a hundred yards by forty yards.
The pillars were wide around the base and fluted out as they approached the ceiling, coming together around the fantastic vaults. But more importantly, they again formed the distinctive tear-drop shape he’d noted in the ruins outside.
In his mind’s eye, he carefully reconstructed the exterior, throwing away the dense forest and building a picture of what the place should look like when it was new.
There wasn’t much to it. The entire thing was no more than a few buildings, a covered walkway, all leading to the entrance through which they had come.
“Let’s go,” Hunter announced, and began briskly walking towards the entrance.
Lina went ahead of him, climbing the stairs two at a time.
They reached the surface, closed the door behind them, and quickly found the bandit’s secret trail back to the road. They followed this at a trot, then reached the road and sprinted for a few hundred yards before finally slowing back down to a walk.
“Well, that was a fun adventure,” Hunter commented as he took a draft of water from Lina’s skin bag.
“It was a pointless waste of time,” Lina spat. “And very unnecessarily dangerous.”
“I disagree,” Hunter shook his head. “In fact I learned something very valuable.”
“Oh?” Lina rolled her eyes.