Who Lives Beneath: A VSS365 Story (Part II)

This is the continuation of my Twitter story written through the daily VSS365 word prompts. You can read Part I here. Follow me on Twitter @GaxTZ to catch up each day.


I climb up into the graveyard but have to prompt John to follow. From the way he is acting, I’m starting to think he’s regretting his decision to follow me.
We dart in and out of the memorials, trying to remain hidden against the vast waves of death.
The graves remind me that in year’s past, the dead had fallen like leaves in autumn. I know that I have to put a stop to it. No more shufflers will die at the hands of the overworlders. I set my sights on the goal before me and move forward.
As we push towards another wall, thought float around my head like seeds blown off a dandelion. At the bottom of the sheer stone, we look up towards the carpets.
“How are we getting up there?” John asks.
I answer with a sly smile.
I raise my cane and point it at the wall and concentrate on where I’m aiming. After muttering a few choice words, a green beam shoots from the tip of the cane. I stagger back with the force. After a flash of green light, thick vines grow up the wall and over the top.
After the noise of the growing plants, all falls silent. It’s only shattered by the caw of a blackbird flying high above.
It’s time to climb. I strap my cane to my back, grab a handful of the vine and pull myself up. John is only a little way behind me.
Halfway up the wall, I see a small gap from which a sliver of light is escaping. I pause to look through and can see multiple shadows moving inside. A voice shouts something. For fear that we are found out, I quickly continue up the vines.
At the top of the vines, we hoist ourselves over the crenelations and onto the walkway. Beneath us, the woods are alive with movement. Tiny lights zigzag through the trees. Searching. Crouching, we make our way along the battlements towards a tower.
We hear footsteps coming from the doorway. With no time to hide, we stand our ground. Out of the darkness comes a soldier with a nose like a heron’s beak. He looks at us in disbelief, but before he can make his move, a cold blast of air shoots from my cane.
The man stares in disbelief as a tangle of ice wraps around his legs and grows up his torso, eventually covering his face. He stands, frozen in time, as we dart past and inside the tower.
Inside the stone room, we stare in amazement at the countless jars hanging from the walls and ceiling, each one continuing several fireflies. Their light isn’t doing much to light the space, but there’s enough to cast creepy looking shadows.
Suddenly the wooden door across the room explodes into a million pieces. Shrapnels flies in all directions, striking both John and me despite our attempts to dodge. I feel a warm river of blood streaming down from my forehead where something had struck me.
The room is filled with the ebb and flow of myriad sounds. Shouting, screaming, explosions. The noise assaults our ears. I see John on the floor cowering where is was stood only a few seconds ago. The world around us seemingly dissolving.
In the chaos, feeling that this is the end, my mind goes back to the fun that John and I used to have as children. The times we spent beneath the ground, exploring the hundreds of tunnels. They were simpler times. Before the magic. Before the war.
I open my eyes and find myself beneath a shell of rubble like a scrap yard turtle. My ears ring, and the noises around me sound like I’m listening through water. My body aches, and I struggle to push some of the debris off me while attempting to get to my feet.
Through the ringing, I hear the voice of a stranger approaching. They seem to be telling others to search the ruins. I look around me, and my heart almost stops. I can’t see John.
“John?” I try. My voice is hoarse and dry.
I start to dig randomly, calling out his name.
Across the room, my eyes fall on a body being crushed by rubble. I don’t hesitate to dash over to it and start heaving the debris off this person. I think it’s John, but once I uncover the face, I see that it’s a woman and not someone I recognise. Where had she come from?
Lifting the debris off the woman, I help her to her feet. Once upright, she brushes the remaining dust from her robe.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“I’ll tell you in time. For now, you just have to trust me.”
I think for a minute.
“I need to find my friend.”
She looks around the destroyed room. When her eyes fall on one of the piles of rubble, she walks over to it, turns to me and smiles. I’m not sure what this is supposed to signify, so I hop over the debris towards her. She waves a hand, and the stones begin to move.
The rubble raises from the ground, moves across the room and then drops with several soft thuds. Johns body is now visible, and I rush over to help him up. With my friend now getting to his feet, I look back at the woman.
“We need to go to the cafe,” she says gleefully.
“What?” John asks with innocence and heavy breaths.
“We can get out through the cafe,” the woman says.
Both John and I must look confused because she clarifies, “This place used to be a museum. The cafe has an exit.”
“Oh,” is all I can maage.bin response.
Now a trio, we leave the destroyed room and head down a narrow corridor. We occasionally stop when we hear footsteps somewhere in the darkness. I feel like this hall should be darker than it is, but the woman seems to radiate light. I can’t explain it.
As we proceed down the intimate space, we hear more and more voices coming from all around us punctuated by explosions. It sounds like hell is breaking loose outside as the war continues, detached from our little group. At the end of the corridor, I see a sign, “Cafe”.
After several more dark hallways, we walk into the old cafe. It’s a shadow of its former self, although some of the tables and chairs are still arranged in rows.
“I’m glad you found us,” I say to the woman when we stop.
“It wasn’t an accident. I was looking for you.”
“What do you mean? How did you know we were here?” I ask.
“Think. Who would betray you?” She says in a calm, measured tone?
Betrayal? It was unthinkable. A shuffler turning against their own.
It’s then I notice John slowly edging away from us.
“John?” I ask in disbelief, “How could you be so treacherous?”
“I-I had no choice,” He stammers.
“Did you help them attack us underground?” I still can’t quite believe what’s happening.
John remains silent, but I can tell by his face what he has to say.
I can’t help but feel hurt by John’s actions. After all, we’ve been through together, for him to do something like this was beyond deceit.
“We need to go,” the woman says, snapping me out of my thoughts.
“How do I know I can trust you?” I ask.
“You don’t.”
I don’t know what to do. If John has turned against me, then who else? Would it be easier to flee back to my hovel? No. I can’t. There have already been too many shuffler deaths. I don’t know who this woman is, but I don’t think I have a choice but to trust her.
Still a trio, we make our way to the back of the old cafe. I don’t spook easily, but something about this room sends shivers up my spine. Perhaps it’s thinking about its use in year’s past before the world fell dark. I shake off the feeling and stay close to the woman.
At the door, she stops and looks back at us. I nod to prompt her to open the large wooden door that’s seen better days. It opens with an almost cliche squeal. We pause, hoping that no one heard the noise.
“Where exactly are we going?” I ask.
“Up,” she says simply.
I’m usually pretty good at judging a person’s inscape, but I can’t get a handle on this woman. First, she seems one thing and then another.
We come to a winding staircase that does indeed lead up. To where I have no idea.
I suddenly remember a dream I had a few days ago, before the attack. It involved a winding staircase, a witch and a knife. Did it foreshadow what was about to happen, or am I reading too much into this situation? Either way, I’m about to find out.
I sleepwalk through the next couple of rooms, not wanting to come back to the room to see my fate, whatever it is.
We soon stop though at another huge door, and I realise that we’re outside in some sort of courtyard.
“The gift shop is through here,” the woman says.
“This is where the death happens.”
“Wow, you could sugarcoat it a little,” I say.
“Why? It does. Changing the way I say it won’t make it any less so.”
She didn’t really need to say it at all. You could smell the scent of death and decay all around.
In the centre of the room is a small pit containing still smoking coals. I ask if it was a campfire. She tells me it’s used in the torture of shuffler. I grimace at the thought of how many we have lost over the years. We pick our way through the room, avoiding bones.
Hanging on one wall are ornate wooden objects hanging by some sort of thread. Each one is as intricate as a snowflake. I ask what they are, and she tells me they are the totems of one of the sects of overworlders. Not people you want to mess with by all accounts.
None of them had their own fingerprint as they saw it as identifying them as individuals; they preferred to be seen as a whole. As legion.
Luckily none of them are nearby; otherwise we would know about it. We skirt through the next few empty rooms.
We’re soon out on a street. The smell of primrose drifts through the air from some nearby laboratory. The overworlders were unlike we shufflers; they preferred science over magic. That was more fool them. Magic, in the right hands, was far more powerful.
From here, the town looks like it’s in retrograde. The buildings look dilapidated and are crumbling from their foundations up. The overworlders, despite wanting to take over, don’t seem to want to look after what they have.
Stalking through the town, hiding in the shadows and avoiding guards, we could be forgiven for thinking that we were winning, that our saga was coming to an end, but this was only the beginning of our fight back.
Soon we come up to another wall, the one that circles the centre of the overworld city. We stop as we see the mechanical sentries that stand dormant in large alcoves cut into the stone. Any sudden movement on our part could awaken them.
Any plans I have for once we’re inside are purely hypothetical right now if we can’t get past these metal beasts. As we tiptoe past, I raise my cane, ready to strike at a moments notice should the worst happen. I look back at John, who has stopped in front of one.
He steps closer and raises a hand like he’s going to touch one of the tin soldiers. I look him in the eyes, and without words, I implore him not to do it. Slowly he lays an open palm on a metal leg. In the blink of an eye, steams erupts, and red eyes glow. The mechanical man starts to slowly unfold from itself as it comes to life. John steps back from it, looks back at us and then runs away. I steel my resolve, fix my feet sternly on the cobbled road and hold my cane at waist height in preparation for the onslaught.

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