After a night of constant vigilance, we’re now preparing for our second expedition. We’ve agreed to maintain stealth for the entire mission and minimise any sound. As for the issue of Hachirou’s lack of vision, I tried to fix the broken lantern but found it was beyond repair. As a result, I resorted to an alternative solution using its remains.
“Here Hachirou, wear this.”
“Um, what are these spectacles?”
“It’s my own makeshift item. I used the magic core we collected to enchant the lens with basic rank <Night Vision>. Unfortunately, it has a few blind spots but it’s better than fighting in the dark.”
“You used our only prize from yesterday’s venture and spent an entire night making this… all for me?”
“Yes I did, Hachirou. Don’t look so apologetic. We can always collect more later and I would gladly make the investment if it can help.”
“I understand, Enbos. This time, we will not falter against those creatures.”
With newfound confidence, we give each other a nod and return to the mouth of that abyssal cave. At the end of yesterday’s trip, we discovered a stone gate and decided to investigate it on our current endeavour. Despite the threat of the magical beasts, if that entrance is what I think it is, it could very well lead to a wealth of ancient knowledge…
We return to the location of yesterday’s battle and silently survey the surrounding area. We’ve pretty much explored this entire section of the cavernous network, which only leaves the mysterious door. Looking closely, it’s designed to resemble the surrounding rock, but after hundreds, if not thousands of years of erosion from condensation and tectonic movements, it now has a faint outline with a distinct gap in what would have been a seamless gate back in its prime. With utmost care and weapons in our grasp, we crawl through the narrow opening and emerge on the other side.
We find ourselves in a long and unmistakably artificial tunnel leading to another door. Smooth stone pillars line the way with foreign symbols etched on its surface. The second gate is made of metal, but contrary to its secure construction, a narrow gap has been dug beneath its frame. Countless scratches scar the floor around the breach, detailing how it came to be.
(Hachirou, I think it’s safe for us to talk in here.)
(Enbos, just what is this place?)
(I’m not too sure, but I think… we may have stumbled upon a ruin from the Golden Age.)
(… I-I’m sorry.)
Well, I can hardly blame Hachirou for exclaiming like he did. After all, it’s an archaeological site predating the Apocalypse, during the height of cultural and magical achievement. Ruins from this era tend to be uncovered at life falls, and several books have reasoned that the advanced civilisations of the past relied on the abundance of mana provided to sustain their magical lifestyles. If it’s in any reasonable condition, this place would hold great historical value. However…
(I-I think there has to be a nest on the other side. The areas around this place were devoid of any other magical beasts. I think those things drove them away.)
(True, and judging by the concentration of mana, this settlement was built on top of the life fall’s centre. Heck, the two we encountered the other day may have been driven out as well, by something even stronger.)
(Should we just leave and finish the quest report up to here?)
Right now, it feels like some kind of test of greed. For all we know, sticking in our necks could result in our deaths, and yet there is so much to be gained from this untouched vault. For one thing, there are likely many rare relics to be had, but due to the mechanics of the World Stream, these formerly enchanted items will probably be powerless. For an enchantment to be recognised by the World Stream, the knowledge needs to be within the circulation of living or dead souls, and after three millennia, most of these old symbols are now obsolete. Still, many mages are willing to study these artefacts in hopes of uncovering a working spell, and I’m no different.
(I’m going in, Hachirou. I don’t detect anything on the other side so now is as good a time as any for a quick peek. You don’t have to follow me if you…)
We return to absolute silence and cautiously crawl through the hole.
What… What is this place…
Standing at the edge of a protruding platform, I gaze over a vast cylinder space resembling the interior of a hollow stone tower. We appear to be near the top of this underground building judging by the domed ceiling hanging above our heads. Looking down, the depth of this architecture exceeds the range of my <Night Vision>. At regular intervals in a spiralling fashion, I spot numerous identical platforms scattered around the walls with yawning entryways leading deeper into this ancient labyrinth. Puzzlingly, not all of these extended surfaces have stairs connecting them. If you have to venture into one entrance to reach another, then where’s the point in building a platform?
As I ponder the logic behind this construction, Hachirou taps my shoulder and points towards the top of the door we just passed under. An elaborate carving of a man with feathered wings has been etched into the stone. Suddenly, the design of this place makes complete sense, and yet none at all.
The platforms are landing areas for these winged demi-humans. That’s why there are few stairs and no bridges extending across the centre. But if that’s true, why on Garea would a race of flying humanoids build their cities underground? Looking at the roof, I can faintly tell it’s been painted to resemble the sky, though the colour has greatly faded and the paint has largely peeled. It would make more sense if it were a subterranean race, like dwarves for example, and yet this deliberately open and perilous space does not add up.
I turn back to check on Hachirou, but find he is staring at the walls more so than the stone construction itself. He appears to be unsettled, and it takes me a few moments to realise his concerns. Scratched into the walls in the most chaotic manner, with uneven proportions and in frenzied haste, is the same symbol repeated infinitely along every surface. It’s a symbol of an triangle pointing up with an X mark within the centre. Every inch and every stone brick has this bizarre sign. As my eyes further adjust to the darkness, what I first thought were decorations are nothing more than this crazed vandalism.
I wonder what could have entered this place, and why they would deface everything they could find. I turn towards the door behind us and notice countless scratches on its metal surface.
Hachirou stares at me with waiting eyes. He clearly has a bad feeling about this place, and so do I. I’m no longer driven by simple greed but utter morbid curiosity. I have to know more about this devastated place. This is not the Golden Age city I read about in the books. Something much darker occurred during that era, and the idea of uncovering this forgotten stain on history is enough to move my feet down the nearest flight of stairs.
We advance to the nearest open entrance and walk along the long corridor. It looks nothing like a city and the sparing, solid design reminds me more of a military fort. Around every corner and every dark space, we remain ever vigilant of any wall crawlers. To avoid getting lost, we continue to follow one side of the wall, and unintentionally, we begin to make our way down this silent dungeon. With every uneventful second, our tension continues to mount. The triangle symbols are also becoming more frequent as we delve deeper into the unknown and closer to the tragic truth. Hachirou seems especially nervous, almost jumping at every shadow or sound. Unlike me, it seems he’s not used to this deathly silence and constant pressure. He can’t keep going on like this.
Eventually, we reach a hallway with dozens of rotten doors. It seems to be some kind of residential area, and worryingly, most of the doors appear to have been smashed in. After checking with <Spectral Sense>, we enter one of the rooms and erect a <Kinetic Barrier> to muffle our voices.
(Relax, Hachirou. Just relax.)
(T-this place is… It raises every hair on my skin. This settlement proves nothing of the glorious demi-humans my father aspired to be. What happened to the winged denizens of this place?)
(I don’t know, but I want to find out. I know it’s a selfish request, but please see this through with me. I can’t go any further without you.)
(I’ll… I’ll watch your back, Enbos. I will not disappoint you.)
I hand Hachirou one of our rations and wait for him to ease his nerves. In the meantime, I look around the room and find it to be incredibly frugal. There appears to be the remains of an antique sleeping mat, a hole in the floor that may be a toilet and a brittle bucket with a washing board, all in the same space. There is nothing here that suggests a comfortable life, and instead I think they were living like prisoners. Maybe it really is a military outpost.
(Enbos, I’m ready to go on.)
(Okay, just tell me when you want to talk and I’ll cast <Kinetic Barrier>.)
We continue along the eerie hallways of this long dead civilisation. All around us are signs of its gradual decay, both physically and historically. Remains of weapons from infighting, scorched masonry detailing fires, collapsed tunnels segregating areas. The devastation we see at the heart of this catacomb is a final testament to its demise, and yet not a single skeleton can be found. I have to wonder if this place fell apart well before the Apocalypse.
Without warning, Hachirou begins shaking my shoulder and signals to follow him quietly. We deviate from our usual pattern and I soon notice the trail of blood at our feet: the surviving crawler from yesterday’s battle. With heighted awareness, we approach the side of a large arch leading into an evidently important room. I check with my skills and find there is nothing within. On the count of three, we enter into the room at the same time.
What greeted our eyes was the half eaten corpse of our prey. Evidently, its soul has already passed on under the flow of the life fall. We carefully make our way to the cadaver, wary of whatever ate this creature. However, for a moment, I let down my guard and gawk at the majesty of the room we’ve stumbled in.
Out of all the things we’ve seen on our way here, this place is by far the most intact and the most visually appealing. It looks like some kind of underground cathedral hall, with stone coffins lining the way to the podium. Stone pillars carved in the shape of winged men hold up the roof. Above the stand, instead of a stained glass window there is a large metal wheel with eight foreign symbols spaced evenly along its circumference. Mysteriously, the foreboding mark we encountered the entire way is now confined to a single wall, and written with even spacing and careful, uniform design. I cast <Kinetic Barrier> and hold a hushed yet heated discussion with Hachirou.
(I don’t know what’s happening anymore. Why is this hall so different from the rest? What killed that magical beast you wounded the other day? Just what the hell do all these symbols mean…?)
(C-calm down, Enbos. I think it’s your turn to take some rest. This is all too much for anybody to figure out.)
(Y-yeah, maybe you’re right. Maybe this place is messing with me more than I thought. Still, I can’t help but recall the second gate, back when we first entered this place.)
(What was wrong with it?)
(On the outside, the metal was unblemished, and yet on the inside, the surface was scratched. Obviously these things were trying to claw their way out, but that means they either originated here or came in from another entry and made this place their nest.)
(I see. Could it be that the creatures are the ones responsible for creating those symbols?)
(More than likely. The markings were made after the winged men’s society collapsed. They must have been trapped here for at least several hundred years. The only confusing thing is why they would leave this place untouched. That wall over there with the triangle symbols were clearly made by the winged people, so that means these creatures imitated them. I just don’t know why.)
(T-then, could it be that these magical beasts lived with the winged ones?)
(… Actually, that’s a pretty good theory. Maybe they’re some kind of mutated livestock or…)
I look up at the circular object hanging proudly above the room. The fifth symbol is the same triangle with the cross…
Fifth symbol… five… five strokes… the first symbol has one stroke, the second has two…
Oh my god.
A chilling sensation settles in my spine as I quietly deactivate my shield and make my way to one of the stone sarcophaguses. Hachirou looks at me in surprise as I activate <Equip Soul: Winter Troll> and use <Enhanced Strength> to shift the lid. I stare down at the skeleton in deathly silence while Hachirou walks over to my side.
(What are you doing, Enbos?)
(Take a look at these bones and tell me what it reminds you of.)
I point at the skeletal wings within the coffin, and then point towards the piercing limbs on the creature.
(By the spirits…)
(Those magical beasts… they ARE the winged ones. After three thousand years of being trapped underground, with all the turmoil and brutality, they devolved into these monsters. Living in a life fall for so long has corrupted them, body, mind and soul.)
(T-then, why didn’t they leave? Why would they seal themselves within this place?)
(Because they were afraid. I figured out what those markings mean. They’re not a magic symbol… they’re a tally. They’ve been patiently waiting for a chance to leave, but as you can clearly see, they were driven mad and it has become an entrenched habit in the remainder of their godforsaken species.)
(T-that’s… What were they waiting for?)
(… They were waiting for the Apocalypse to end. This isn’t a city… it’s a fallout shelter.)
We both fall silent and offer our solemn prayers to this unfortunate race. I recall what Takashi said about the Apocalypse releasing anti-magic radiation over the entire continent. It seems there was enough time to build this underground base. They must have thought the high mana concentration of a life fall could counter the anti-magic radiation, but the Apocalypse lasted for far longer than anticipated. Ironically, in the end their civilisation collapsed not due to lack of magic, but from overexposure to magic itself.
This isn’t an act of god. This is genocide. Just what the hell is the Apocalypse?
(Enbos, I have one more question. How did these creatures survive for all this time? I know they largely sustain themselves with mana, but they would still need some form of physical sustenance.)
(Why do you think there are no bodies? Why do you think the only ones are in these stone coffins? What do you think killed that “winged one” over there?)
I deactivate my spell once more and return to the half eaten corpse in the room. Hachirou watches with apparent dread as a pull out a tooth lodged in its remains. The same kind of tooth the prey has on his jaw.
(Like I said, the winged ones were corrupted, body, mind and soul.)
Suddenly, upon that terrible revelation, a thunderous chime reverberates throughout the chapel. It turns out the circular object is a clock, and although it has lost its arms, the mechanism still works. As I’m about to give a sigh of relief, I realise the horrible connotation of such a loud noise. Sure enough, like the ghosts of the past stirring from their slumber, the sound of crying children and sneering hyenas echo from every direction.