They reached the mountains without another incident.
Not to say the ride was particularly pleasant. Rain continued to pelt down, and Aleksandr could hear wind howling through the rocky slopes of the Midland Mountains ahead of them. But they saw no more sign of the domovoy—the goblins.
“Be good to get out of the rain for a while, at least,” Dylan offered.
“Keep on the bright side, eh Whip?” Yorrin said, smirking.
Dylan shrugged. Aleksandr couldn’t help but share Yorrin’s skepticism.
I would happily take this rain of frozen water over last night’s rain of arrows. Aleksandr thought. One slip, one unlucky move, and one of them could have killed me. He tried to put the thoughts out of his head.
When the mountains stretched so high overhead that Aleksandr had to crane his head back to see the peaks, they finally reached the end. He looked ahead, and there was no mistaking what lay before them.
The entrance to the Underpass looked very much as it had been described, in the stories Aleksandr had heard.
It sat at the base of a sheer, rocky cliff. The looming granite was marked with occasional outcroppings and dotted with hardy little evergreens. The entrance rose a little less than twenty feet high, an almost perfectly formed arch. All it took was a single glance, and Aleksandr knew it was not a naturally occurring cave.
The arch was clearly manufactured, and Aleksandr saw the Cassaline road give way to smooth stone within the mouth of the Underpass. The Underpass was not just a cave, conveniently cut through the mountains. It was a road.
And not just a road.
“Think the stories are true?” He asked as they approached. “That it was built by the Thaumati, in the days before history?”
For once, Borthul was not dozing on the back of his mount. “For a certainty, young fellow,” the old man rasped. “You need only look at it, and the evidence stares back at you!”
The entire group approached the mouth of the Underpass together. Ostensibly to keep their eyes peeled for any more ambushes by the domovoy. But Aleksandr knew it was as much because the Underpass was a thing of myth, one of the dangerous and mysterious ruins of a lost civilization.
He’s right, Aleksandr thought. Looking at the arch, it was unmistakable. The stonework had been damaged in a few places, where the natural stone above it had crashed down and damaged it. But where the smooth arch was still intact, it all shared one notable feature.
It showed no sign of being carved by man’s hand.
Not to say the arch was natural. There was no way a shape like that could occur by chance. But there were no marks of the chisel, no sign of many stones mortared together. Not even the marks so common of the Cassaline roads, where the bricks were fused together in liquid stone.
Liquid stone. The lost Cassaline art of cementecium, of concrete. It was said the Cassalines of old had used their mastery of concrete to build their great works. To connect half the world with a vast network of roads, and erect fortresses that dwarfed the work of every other culture and withstood centuries of neglect.
Amazing feats indeed. And yet, liquid stone or no, works built of concrete still showed clear signs of having been made by human hands. The arch of the Underpass was something else entirely. It showed only the signs of millennia of weathering, and even that less than Aleksandr might have expected.
“The Thaumati…” Aleksandr said, drawing out the thought. “Is said they could work stone without tools? Using sorcery?”
“So it appears,” Borthul said. “Don’t ask me how. Even the fellow men of my Order know little and less about true thaumaturgy.”
“Does it make anyone else nervous,” Prudence said. “That after all the horror stories Borthul and Alaina have been telling us about the Thaumati, now we’re going to be taking a road that they built?”
“Enough,” Aleksandr said. He didn’t raise his voice, and he felt almost surprised when the group fell silent around him. “The Thaumati are dead and gone for...tysyacheletiya?” He groped for the right word, glancing at Alaina.
She smiled. “Millennia,” she offered. “Thousands of years.”
Aleksandr nodded. “Da, thank you. Dead for millennia. That I find much more concerning.”
He gestured up ahead, just outside the arch.
Two more goblin totems had been erected. They were small, ugly things. It had been easy to miss them, compared to the size and strangeness of the Underpass. But they served as a stark reminder of the real danger they faced. The remnants of a forgotten, long-extinct civilization held no real bearing on the troubles that lay ahead of them. But the domovoy were very much alive, and had already proven themselves to be a threat.
“Aleksandr’s right, of course,” Yorrin agreed. “The goblins are the issue here, not ancient history. That place is like to be crawling with the little bastards.”
“Good!” Bear growled. “More little fighty men mean more for Bear to kill!”
The barbarian’s bluster always brought out smiles from the others, but Aleksandr looked Bear up and down. The big man’s complexion was still a little pale, his breathing more labored. The wound he’d suffered just the night before obviously pained him, though he hid it well enough.
“Borthul,” Aleksandr said.
“You have traveled the Underpass before?”
“Once, yes. Years ago. The goblins weren’t so active, then.”
“Anything to tell us, before we enter?”
The old wizard shrugged. “The road crosses dozens of natural caverns and tunnels. We kept to the road, though.”
Yorrin nodded. “That’s what they say, about the Underpass. Even as far as Nasarat, I’ve heard merchants say that. Keep to the road and you’ll make it through fine.”
“And we will know?” Aleksandr asked. “The whole road, is like this? Smooth? Worked by magic, not mortal hand?”
“Yes, yes, precisely,” Borthul said, waving a hand dismissively. “Keep to the road, and we should be through in a few days.”
“Less, if we push through, and only stop when we must” Alaina said. “Which is what I suggest we do.”
“Agreed,” Aleksandr said. “But we do nothing while we wait in the rain. Come.”
He urged Dascha forward, towards the yawning black mouth of the Underpass. The others followed a moment later. Aleksandr crossed under the threshold, and felt the rain pelting his cloak stop. He still heard it, the susurrus of the steady rainfall reverberating within the confines of the cave mouth.
There was no light in the Underpass. He couldn’t see more than thirty feet into the cave, until the blackness completely swallowed the daylight from outside. Dascha snorted nervously, and stamped one foot against the smooth, hard stone beneath them.
Without being prompted, as soon as he crossed out of the rain Yorrin dismounted. He rummaged in his pack, drawing out a lantern and a pouch of flint and iron. He hunkered down in the road with the tools. Nearby, Dylan followed suit.
In a few moments, both men held lanterns aloft. Dylan lit a third and passed it to Alaina. Both Dylan’s and Alaina’s lanterns were simple affairs, iron frames covered with thinned sheets of horn. Yorrin’s lantern looked different. More metal on it, for one, and Aleksandr realized that it sported a little door through which all the light spilled forth. It shed less light around them, and instead projected its illumination forward in a single direction.
“That lantern,” Aleksandr said. “Is strange. I have not seen its type before.”
Yorrin smiled. “You like it? Bullseye, it’s called. Used to have one back in Nasarat, before—” he paused.
Before he was captured, his possessions confiscated, and his life nearly taken as well. Thought Aleksandr. Not a pleasant thought. No wonder it clouds his smile.
Yorrin forged ahead. “Anyway. Great for nighttime work. Good visibility, easy to conceal—” He snapped the door shut, and the lantern went almost entirely dark. Then he opened it again. “Picked this one up in Nashim. Figured we might need it.”
“Good thinking,” Aleksandr agreed.
“I’ll creep ahead a bit, see if I can roust out any gobbos,” Yorrin said. “Follow slow, for now?”
“Da. Prudence, go with him. Watch his back.”
Yorrin rolled his eyes as the young woman slid off her mount. He turned, and started quietly padding deeper into the Underpass. Prudence moved quickly up to catch up, but even so, Aleksandr could barely hear her footfalls on the stone. Soon, they disappeared into the blackness. Aleksandr saw only a bobbing glimmer of orange glowing out of Yorrin’s heavily shrouded lantern, and then that too vanished.
Aleksandr nudged Dascha over to Yorrin’s steed, brushing up alongside it. The horse was well trained, and Dascha was a huge stallion with a commanding presence. The smaller animal instinctively began to follow. In his periphery, Aleksandr saw Dylan snag the reins of Prudence’s steed, and guide it to follow as well.
They walked the beasts forward. The hoofbeats echoed loudly against the cold stone around them. It did not take long for them to get so far ahead of the Underpass’s mouth that it vanished into the darkness. Their two lanterns shed enough flickering light to travel by, and even to illuminate the ceiling above them. The smooth stone was disrupted in many places by places the natural stone had broken through, or formed on top of the ancient Thaumati work. A few jagged little stalactites were hanging down, casting angular shadows. The Underpass was not small—wide enough for two wagons to pass on their sides—but Aleksandr still felt a flicker of apprehension at the cave walls.
They felt close, hedging him in on too many sides.
The deeper he went, the more uncomfortable he felt. He had never been in a place like this. The theory of the place had not concerned him, but the reality… It was more unnerving than he had expected.
The air smelled earthy, musty, with an underpinning of something fouler. A cool draft brushed across his face. In truth, it was less cold than the biting wind outside had been. Yet it gave him chills nevertheless.
And then there were the sounds. He heard a distant rustling. An echoing clatter, like a stone bouncing across a rocky surface. A faint grinding sound, almost like a mortar in a pestle. And he heard—
“Aleksandr?” Alaina’s tone was hushed, but it was still unmistakable. Her voice had a smooth, lyrical quality that Aleksandr never tired of.
He looked over at her. Her brow was drawn in concern. “Are you alright?” she asked.
Was it that obvious? Aleksandr swallowed his nervousness. “Fine, thank you,” he said.
“You didn’t look it,” she said.
He nodded. “Da, I suppose not. Is this place, I think. I have never been in a place such as this, so deep underground. Is very disconcerting.”
“It is,” Alaina agreed. “I’ve never passed through here before, but I’ve seen other ruins of the Thaumati. They’re always unsettling, to say the least.”
“This place is—” Aleksandr paused.
He heard it again. A grinding sound, stone on stone. And then… something else.
On instinct, halted Dascha abruptly. His hand went to Dascha’s side, where Kholodny hung. He wrapped his fingers around the hilt, and yanked the blade free. The ripples in the metal drank in the light of the lantern, and the blade gleamed orange and black.
Alaina’s eyes widened. Without questioning him, he heard Dylan and Bear following suit. The rustle of metal and leather, the soft clack of an arrow nocked in a bow.
For several long moments, the passageway was still, cold, and quiet as the grave. The only sound Aleksandr could hear was his pulse thrumming with adrenaline.
“Aleksandr?” Dylan asked, softly. “What is it? Did—”
Aleksandr held up his free hand, and Dylan fell silent. Aleksandr focused his attention, and listened.
There it was again: stone grinding on stone. It was close. He urged Dascha a few steps forward with his knees, towards a section of natural cave wall. The stone was dark gray, rough and pitted, but otherwise featureless.
Until a rough stone slab in that wall fell away, revealing a hidden side passage. And howling goblin warriors began pouring out into the tunnel.