“How big is this place?”
Nic’s question echoed through the cavern, bouncing off the innumerable tunnel walls. They spread out in every direction, some large enough for him to pass through at full height, others so small a mouse would struggle to fit. All of them were formed of scrap, the same fusion of raw metal and discarded electronics as on the surface, yet somehow even more hazardous. Traversal was a struggle, Nic having to be on constant lookout for sudden dips or loose metal waiting to bite into his ankles.
“Must be quite aways,” Nic continued, fresh echoes erupting in reply. “And they must go down, otherwise we would have come out the other side by now.”
If his companion had any thoughts on the matter, it did not share them. The suit strode forward through the tunnels, unconcerned by the fact it was even less suited to moving down here than Nic was. A constant stream of clangs sang out as its bulky form struck low ceilings and outcroppings, many of them leaving long scores in the armor. Several times it had broken pieces off, up to and including chunks of limbs, once even losing one of its feet to an especially deep pitfall.
It had weathered each of these as Nic would a stain on his shirt: dismissed as not that bad and promptly forgotten about. Even the worst damage, such as the foot, was attended to on sufferance, the suit pausing only long enough to find suitable replacements. So long as it could keep moving, the suit seemed not to care about the state it was in.
Or at least that was what Nic assumed. The suit had continued its staunch campaign of largely ignoring the young techne’s presence. It hadn’t tried to lose him, Nic very much doubting it even could given the amount of noise it made, but they were companions only in the technical sense. No matter what he did or said, the suit simply was not interested in chatting.
“You’re not much for talking, huh?”
The suit gave no reply as they came to a junction of many tunnels. There was little difference between them, all vanishing into shadow past the range of the light cantrip. The suit turned its head to examine them in turn, considering each for less than a second before moving on to the next.
“We should try to go back up,” Nic said. “Maybe find a wall thin enough to dig through.”
The suit as it finished its examinations and selected a path without hesitation. A very small one that it had to hunch to fit inside. And one that went down at a very steep angle.
“Or go in deeper, that works too I guess.”
The smart thing would have been to head the other way and try his own plan. Of course, the smart thing would have been not to follow the suit in the first place, and he’d ignored that without much issue. It would be easy to rectify that now, head up instead of down, but something gave him pause. Something about the unnatural nature of these tunnels was playing at Nic’s imagination, conjuring images of what might have made them. And what might still be hanging around.
With a frustrated grumble Nic turned to follow down the descending tunnel. It was even smaller than it looked, Nic having to hunch as well to fit. He still managed to catch up to the suit quickly, the latter stopped by a partial cave in. It was in the process of clearing the debris, stymied by the poor construction of its arm, constantly bending under the weight.
“You want a hand there?” Nic asked. “No pun intended.”
The suit ignored him and slammed a shoulder into the blockage. With a mighty crash the largest piece tilted over, taking the bulk of the obstruction with it, a cloud of dust scattering in its wake. The suit didn’t even wait for it to settle to carry on walking.
“Okay then,” Nic said.
Another chamber sat beyond the cave-in, large enough that even the suit could stand without difficulty. It looked much the same as the tunnels behind, a twisted amalgam of metal pressed together by time and gravity. Even more tunnels branched off from it, numbering in the hundreds and ranging even more wildly in size from chasm to pinhole.
“I don’t think these tunnels are natural,” Nic blurted out, mostly to himself.
To his great surprise, the suit stopped and turned to look back at him. Even without eyes Nic could feel that undeniable intelligence looking out from behind that scarred faceplate. So much in fact that Nic stumbled over his next words.
“That is, I mean, I don’t think they could have formed on their own. They’d never link up like this with just random chance.” He paused, gesturing at a bit of steel embedded in the wall. “And even if they had, the amount of weight that gets dumped on top daily would crush them. There’s got to be something else keeping them stable.”
The suit stared, standing still as a statue.
“Question is,” Nic continued, if only to fill the silence. “If they’re not natural, what made them?”
If the suit had any answers, it kept them to itself. It turned back to the chamber at large, pausing to scan the walls with its inscrutable gaze. It resumed walking at a slower pace, picking its steps much more carefully than before. Nic began to do the same, suddenly painfully aware of every scratch and creak his own feet made.
They walked in this fashion for only a short time, crossing to the far side of the chamber towards another cluster of tunnels. The suit repeated its process of staring at each passage in turn, assessing them with criteria that were a mystery to all but itself. Whatever they were, the suit followed them without delay and set off down a random tunnel without even the slightest twinge of hesitation.
Nic followed, directing the cantrip to tail him. He was just about to enter the tunnel when he caught a glint out of the corner of his eye, though it vanished when he turned to look. He was about to set off again, all but convinced he’d imagined it, when it happened again. A quick flash of dancing light, not enough to illuminate its surroundings but not his imagination.
With a wave of his hand, Nic directed the cantrip closer to the second tunnel mouth. The shadows melted away to reveal a dead-end passage, several steps long and oddly straight compared to the others. At its end there lay a small pile of detritus, unremarkable save for what sat atop it: a second casting rig.
“Hey, hold up a second,” Nic called. The suit turned to look back at him, its featureless face still somehow managing to convey both curiosity and annoyance.
“There’s something down here I want to check out,” Nic said, pointing down the passage. “Just need a minute.”
Without waiting for an answer Nic entered the tunnel and knelt before the curio. It was a different design to the one he’d found on the surface, being compact and triangular rather than brick shaped. More notable however was that the screen mounted to its side. It flicked intermittently, not the whole thing at once but random clusters of pixels flaring up and burning out like embers. This close, Nic could feel a tingle on the back of his neck, slight but just strong enough that it couldn’t be a coincidence.
Moving very carefully, Nic reached out and tapped the screen. Instantly the light returned, brighter than before, crackling away with abandon. Eventually they coalesced into distinct shapes and colours, heavily distorted by fractures in the display but distinct enough to be read. This rig, somehow, still had power.
Many thoughts rushed through Nic’s head at that realization. Amazement first and foremost, that any machine still worked after being churned this deep into a pile of trash. It might look like it had been fed through a threshing machine but that just made its survival all the more miraculous.
Following at a close second came suspicion. Impressive though its presence might be, the question remained: how it had gotten here? Or indeed, why hadn’t it been properly decommissioned before being thrown away? That was equal parts wasteful and irresponsible for a device literally meant to cast magic.
Questions for later. For right now, he needed to shut this down, at least until it could be properly neutralized. With a delicate touch, Nic ran a hand over the device, searching for any access ports or catches. He found one quickly, a small button that clicked under his finger, and a small cylinder popped up and out of the casing. It slid out easily and the screen winked out the instant he did so, leaving the device dark and dead at his feet.
Satisfied with his work, Nic stuffed the cell into his bag and began to stand. He’d just made it to his feet when the attack came.
A shadow burst forth from the wall, a blur of darkness and hissing malice flying at him like a demon. Nic had no time to think, pure instinct taking the reins and forcing him back in a panic. This proved both the best and worst possible decision as his stumbling feet became snared in a pitfall. Best because it neatly dodged the attack, the creature sailing clean overhead without even touching him. Worst because it left him in a prone pile of tangled limbs and confusion.
It was a handicap his attacker did not share. Nic watched as it turned to face him, not a shadow as his panic addled mind had originally thought but a creature. It looked something like a rat, though one the size of a large housecat and absolutely bristling with sharp edges. Bone spines that ran along its back and flanks, long wickedly curved claws upon each of its four feet and a narrow maw filled with stubby, gnashing teeth. Before Nic could do much more than acknowledge the danger, the creature pounced.
Nic, still in a daze, was barely able to summon the presence of mind to shout, let alone move. He didn’t even have time to fully appreciate that he was mere seconds from death before the rat was upon him, teeth snapping scant inches from the tip of his nose.
Only the intervention of the suit saved his life. A familiar hodgepodge limb thrust into view; teeth that had been meant for him sinking deep into the forearm. Metal bent under the jaws powerful bite, bending as if it were no more substantial than tinfoil. Nic shuddered at the thought of what such force would have done to him. Could still do, in fact.
The suit showed no signs of pain, regarding both the wound and the rat with the same non-expression it did all things. With blazing speed of its own, the suit grabbed the latter by the throat and slammed it against the wall. The rat squirmed and hissed its fury, but the suit did not falter, pinning its opponent firmly to the wall. Reaching out with its free hand, it pulled a shard of broken metal from the wall and thrust the pointed end into the creature’s neck. It squealed in pain, thrashing anew as it desperately fought to escape, biting down hard enough to nearly sheer the metal in two.
But the suit refused to relent. Ignoring the damage, it withdrew the improvised blade before plunging it back in on the other side. The creature had no time to screech before the suit wrenched sideways and opened its throat. A fatal wound by any metric and the rat at last fell still.
Silence followed, broken only by Nic’s heavy breathing. The entire exchange had taken only scant seconds, not even a minute having passed since he’d started certain death in the face. Nic was still working on processing that when the suit stood back, letting the corpse fall to the ground with a dull thud.
“I-I…” Nic stammered, unable to form words.
The suit knelt next to Nic and reached out with its good arm towards his ankle. With casual ease it pulled loose the debris that had Nic entangled, snapping them like twigs and holding it aside so he could pull himself free.
“I- Thanks-” Nic said, pulling back his foot without breaking eye contact. “Where did you-?”
Nic was cut off as the suit turned away, eyeless gaze drawn further down the tunnel. Nic turned as well, his own eyes going wide as he heard the echo of sounds in the distance. The sounds of many skittering feet and hissing jaws. Close. And getting closer.
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