For the first four hours of their journey, Dixie and his team felt like they were in a massive underground shopping mall -- or a giant mineshaft with endless mazes of tunnels that with the dim lighting appeared to go on forever on either side. When anyone in Dixie's group cared to peak further, they would notice multiple staircases intertwining to levels above and below them, and dead ends everywhere.
"You may notice the illuminating glow of signs everywhere too," Boroka noted.
"They almost look like 'exit' signs in a real mall!" Ricardo observed. "Except in some messed up language. What is that?"
"Kayo, I think," Boroka replied. They are hung above so many doorways. Our first expedition down here we had noticed that following these blindly would almost lead to a bad end."
"Like what?" Richard asked him, but Boroka would say no more and shook his head with a dark grin.
Indeed these were no cave dwellings but well-paved structures resembling the intentions of a giant city that might have been flourishing here at one time, and after a while Boroka was able to lead the group into an area that for several hours had thousands of glowing stones on the walls and gave off the proper illumination of lighting. All around them they could see the markings of skeletons, heat blasts along the walls and strange symbols written on them. As resilient as Dixie was now, he gasped.
"Those marks," he noted "they look familiar! Bill, look at them. Like the strange building thing that grew out of the ground on our way to the Bel-aar Tower! Don't they look..."
"Mongolian" Bill blurted out with a groan. "That is not good." Everyone in Dixie’s company immediately thought of their tragedy at the Eastern Pordula Door, but they dared not think or speak of it at all.
"Ampladius," Dixie muttered thoughtfully after a while. "Maybe the path to the Halo Firmament," although nobody else happened to hear him.
"Why is this not good?" Apple asked Bill after a while. She did not like the looks on their faces barely made visible in the dim light. "Have you seen these before?"
"Well, something like it," Bill finally said as he turned towards Boroka with concern. He felt brave, and extremely insane at the same time for bringing it up. He had had nightmares just like this. "You mentioned there were other 'bad ends' that you stumbled onto out here. What did you mean by that?"
"It was dark, we could not see much" Boroka explained. "Shades of red in the darkness. I do not care about doubting the credibility of old Berrebo legends stories; they are real enough down here! I told the Berrebos to keep this secret while you were recuperating at the Croneyard. You did not need the extra fear told to creep into your hearts. Many of the original teams of expeditioners that went with us to discover the door stumbled onto lost paths down here, and soon we could not communicate with them through our receivers. I along with a few key leaders were sent to locate them and steer them back, but by the time we reached them there was nothing left but the residue of what once were their bodies. Pools melted, bones. Insignias of the Croneyard. Things of that nature."
"Boss was telling us how they did stumble onto specters down there. Shades of red like he said," one of his guards explained to the group. "But the things fled to tunnels -- and it was so dark they couldn't fully tell what they were."
"I don't need to run into any more monsters before we run into monsters," Dixie muttered to the others. His 'enlightened' self was taking a back seat in this darkness and his old self was winning. "I just want... I just think we need to rest, right? How soon before we pitch our campsite?"
Boroka told him and the others to hang on. At last he led them down a long flight of stairs that for whatever reason he seemed to have been able to pinpoint accurately out of the thousands of other staircases they had bypassed along their journey. In fact, Boroka had only descended three times like this since they had started; ascertaining that the right time had come to descend into a lower level of the giant labyrinth. Every time they did this, Dixie and his company marveled at the sheer size of this entire structure. It was as if a whole underground metropolis might have existed down here. After reaching the bottom of the stairwell this time around, Dixie studied the surrounding environment in more detail. The rooms down here appeared more cavernous; with some traces of stalactite protruding from the ceilings above whenever a 'light-stone' was able to provide enough illumination to look around.
On the next day of their journey, the company stumbled onto more and more stadium sized chambers that housed the most bizarre statues lined up on either side of the walls. They were thrones about fifteen meters in height, and on them were the carvings of humanoid beings the size of ancient Nephilim -- or even bigger. Had they been standing up each one would have been thirty meters in height and reached the ceilings of these rooms. Each one was robed and had various pieces of armor strapped to their persons and wearing iron masks covering up a face with flowing locks. With the dimly-lit glow of the light stones all around them, the apparitions of them were very unsettling. Only Boroka and one of his men were glad at them, for they were the only ones who had ventured this deep into the earth before.
"We have gone the right way!" Boroka told them. "Not that I had much doubt. You might have noticed how we glazed the walls along this route with a bright green mark every several miles. I do not think we have to fear anymore. I was concerned that the Orbuloz security forces might have found their way down into this route, but there is no trace of anything. There is nothing from above ground that we need to fear of anymore."
"What about below ground?" Polo pointed out quite miserably. "Shades of red in the darkness, I just don't like the damn sound of that!"
But if the company had anything to dread, it was the imaginations of their own minds more than anything else. Every chamber they passed through for the next half hour were more or less the same as the one with the statues on the giant thrones, and after a while more than one member of the company became so unnerved, they didn't dare to look up. They half imagined one of them staring back at them and suddenly coming to life. After the incident in the plains, Dixie and the LARPers found the whole experience most unsettling.
The last day of their journey came -- even though it was always dark down here below the earth. Ricardo had counted twenty-two descents from the upper surface level of the earth and staircases ranging from fifty to one hundred and fifty evened-out but chipped steps. That morning over 'breakfast' (which consisted of stale energy bars mixed with shocta berries and water), just to make things cheerful, Dixie and some of the others in the group were engaging in a philosophical discussion about being desperate.
"Self-preservation makes people do grotesque things that we’d never otherwise think should be ideal," Dixie pondered. He looked at Apple and Foliage as they ate. "It kind of reminds me of the mess that appears to be your city," he told them. "No offense."
"None taken," said Foliage.
"I don't understand," said Apple.
"All I'm saying is that it makes me think," Dixie went on.
"What makes you think?"
"Desperation," Dixie replied. "Even if you're some evil monster down here trying to protect whatever it is you're trying to protect down here -- what if you thought it was for a nobler cause? I just had this weird thought, that's all. I wonder if whatever is keeping people out of here necessarily is 'evil' per say."
"Chaining people with powerful Gradient and torturing them to become human bombs of fear I would call pretty evil," Apple replied back.
"Yeah, that's a bit of stretch," one of Boroka's guards shot back.
"But what if whatever lurking down here was desperate though?" asked Ricardo. "What if it is for our own good that we shouldn't be here?"
"This is a stupid conversation," Finjuna could hear someone saying behind him. He had steered away from the conversation and was keeping guard by the edge of their camp. He swore he could see flickering lights in the shadows ahead.
"Curious," he told Boroka. "Normally I would be concerned: could it be something is following keeping eyes on us right now?" Boroka closed his eyes and thought about it for a moment. "They might actually be intimidated by us this time around. I wonder."
"Why?" Finjuna shot back. "What happened?"
"It's gotten worse," another one of the guards chimed in. "As the city starts to flee down even more out of desperation because of all the street battles and these portals destroying everything --- the crime will get out of control. But I agree with Alan there: people need to eat, and them looting the Demodads refineries is not a 'crime'."
"Yeah, think about it," the first guard continued. "After a while until your sanity starts to disappear because there's no other thing to give you a fix. Self-preservation starts to kick in to the point that your actions start becoming unnatural. But if that's what people need to make a change in this city, I'm all for it."
"I suppose that's better than being completely hopeless," Dixie admitted. "Perhaps the worse Gradient a person can live under is one where they simply live in the dark all day and they don't ---"
At that moment the sound of something resembling the cracking of bones could be heard all around them. The entire company jumped to their feet. All around them for two minutes they could hear the cracking sound appearing and disappearing all around them in the shadows --- as if something was cracking knuckles everywhere at once. Finjuna and Tarnunen looked at each other.
“The sounds by the gate!” the Summoner reminded his comrade. Immediately Bill and the Berrebos grabbed their lamps and moving them rather rapidly like spotlights they shown them into the dark, but there was nothing there save for dust clouds and other debris moving along the stone floor.
"It's like ghosts!" Polo actually squirmed with horror. "We've gone too deep!" and some of the others shared his sentiment.
"Relax!' cried Apple. "There is something down here that appears on and off in the shadows. Shades of red in the darkness. Always near the door. Same thing happened last time." Something strange came over Tarnunen. Almost recklessly, he grabbed his small Nephilim 'mace-weapon' and before anyone could stop him, he plunged head-first into the shadows.
Excerpt from Book VII: Great South Beyond Time
Copyright 2019 Octavio Rhodes
"Note the excerpts have been slightly edited and abridged for non spoiler content"