Saturday, July 23, 2022

WoAF - Game Session 35

Ratta-tatta-tatta-tatta-tat! -- Ratta-tatta-tatta-tatta-tat!

Once his machine gun emptied its clip into the open turret of the tank, Good Captain Samwise pushed the dead Lizardman Captain to the side and took a long look downward.  It was too dark to see anything other than a few blinking lights on a control panel.  Inside the ricocheting bullets had resounded against the hull for a few moments, after which only the thundering roar of fires all around him could be heard.  The heat was getting unbearable. He turned his mind to the mind of the last living Lizardman inside.  There was a torrent of garbled guttural fury and pain, but the mind soon cooled, faded, and then, with a final agonizing realization of death, it was gone.  It was a bit disturbing to be inside the mind of a brutal, hostile, dying Lizardman, actually.  But Captain Samwise was made of stern stuff and shook it off; there was no time to waste.

He glanced around the area of the tank. The pain radiating from his leg sent rippling spasms of agony throughout his body.  He was, literally, on his last leg, he thought grimly with a slight smile. There was a raging brush fire on the south side of the tank where the tread had been melted through by the AGV's Plasma Cannon earlier.  On the north side was a plume of white smoke, but as yet no fire was visible.  Holding on to the cannon he made his way to the front of the tank, and leaned over precariously to look down the two hundred foot drop to the AGV below.  Through the diamond-glass dome of "the Perch" he could see Guns inside.  He was alive, although somewhat shell-shocked from the hits that struck the AGV a few moments earlier.  Through the front window he caught sight of Fred, covered in black soot, a thousand mile stare, and a little smile on his face as he watched the flames on the top of the ridge burn.  

So both of them were alive.  Good enough.  Samwise returned to the tank hatch.  There was no sign of the four Delta-Z tanks from his position. He decided to climb inside and find out what systems were still working.  Perhaps he could still turn the turret and fire the cannon, he thought.  He gazed for a moment at the large icon on the side of the tank turret.  It was the Manticore, and the words Delta-Z.  Damn that beast!

He shoved the Lizardman Captain down the ladder so he could make his way inside.  The climb down was painful and treacherous but he made it to the bottom without injuring himself further.  There was a good deal of smoke inside.  A small fire had broken out near the driver's seat. Sparks were spewing out in cascades at the rear of the cabin. It was hot in there. 

He scanned the interior with squinted eyes and saw the dead gunner, his blood-spattered crocodile maw still wide open in a last horrendous grimace.  He sought and found the gunner's satchel.  Inside he found three machine gun magazines and a hand grenade.  He looked around for a first aid kit.  On the south wall he found a panel in which he expected there might be one.  Below it was another dead Lizardman.  The light of the flames flickered more brightly.  He grabbed the panel door and yanked it open.  Inside was a medical kit.  He took it.  The fire was now climbing along a thin rivulet of oil along the floor.  He looked around for anything else that might be useful.  At this point it would probably be a good idea to exit as quickly as possible, he thought.  There was some chance that the fire would ignite a pool of oil somewhere, or get into the ammunition, which would be bad.  He grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall and tried to suppress the fire, but quickly realized that was futile.

Meanwhile, down below, Fred revved the AGV engine.   It was working.  He wiped the soot from his face with his sleeve and threw it in reverse.  With his left hand he set the radio to Major Sekston's frequency.

"Major Sekston, come in," said Fred. "What's your status?  Major Sekston, can you read me?  Over."

There was some static but then her voice came through.  They tersely exchanged status reports.  She had made it further south in the Rhino, taken out another tank, and was at the moment concealed behind a set of earthworks as the remaining Delta-Z tanks had a bead on her position.  Fred explained the situation with the AGV.  She informed him that the four Delta-Z tanks that had been climbing the ridge to engage the AGV had been forced back down by the forest fire and were now circling around the major spur to the southwest of them.  She was in the process of distracting their attention.  Fred thanked her and said they would try to make it back north to her position.

Meanwhile, Samwise pulled up his wrist Comm and got on the line with Fred.

"Fred, Fred, this is Captain Sam.  What's your status?"

They also exchanged status reports, and Fred relayed what Major Sekston had told him. 

"We're retreating North.  That's it.  This is over," said Fred.  "We can't get the AGV up the cliff, so you're going to have to make your way North on foot, sir."

"My leg is kinda busted up, but I think I can make it," replied Sam hoarsely.  

Guns interrupted to state that he intended to exit the AGV, climb along the north face of the cliff (where there was no fire as yet), and get over to Sam in order to help him make his way north.   It was agreed that they would meet at a rendezvous point at the southern-most tip of a road that went along the top of the ridge from Panguitch to within a half mile of Sam's current position.  They could make it if they scrambled. 

Guns hopped out of the AGV and closed the airlock behind him.  He whistled to himself as he surveyed the damage.  Once again, the AGV was a mess.  Smoke was coming out of one of the holes the tank fire had made, and he could see that a good deal of the armor had been blasted apart on the port side.  Not so great.  He checked Ilene, his ever trusty Springfield rifle, and slung her over his back.  It was going to be a rough haul to get up to where Sam was.  He got going.

Fred took the AGV northeast.  He spotted Penelope walking along the far eastern road heading north.  He planned to pick her up, and then swing around to go pick up Sam and Guns on the top of the ridge to his west.  Since there were no Delta-Z tanks on his side of the ridge, he figured this was the best thing to do.  It was flat desert scrubland so the AGV could get up to roughly 40mph, which should be sufficient to execute his plan.  Off he roared, heading due east.

There was a lot of smoke along the top of the ridge. Guns made his way over to Sam's tank, but the flames from the brush fire were already starting to engulf the north side as well.  He only had a minute or so to get the Captain out before the entire tank was engulfed.  He swore under his breath at the Manticore symbol, and then heard Sam clambering about trying to get up the ladder.  His leg was pretty bad by now.  He could hardly walk.  Guns scrambled up the side of the tank, made his way to the turret, reached down, grabbed Samwise by the back of the collar and pulled him up.  Guns, in case anyone didn't know, was as strong as a bull.  Maybe two.

"Come on," said Guns, "Let's get out of here."

The two of them began making their way north along the ridge line.  But Sam's leg was too damaged for him to walk, let alone run.  Guns lifted him onto his back and they made their way toward the rendezvous point.  Unfortunately, the winds were such that the fire was catching along the brush and trees just about as fast as they could run.  Looking over Gun's shoulder Sam spotted one of the Delta-Z tanks round the corner of the southern spur, putting them in line of sight with it. It rumbled towards their position.  Then another tank rounded the corner behind it.  Two tanks! 

"Guns, pick up the pace.  We've got company," said Sam.  Guns glared at this news, furrowed his eyebrows and began trying to find cover as he ran.  Their best bet was for him to dodge along the ledge of the eastern side of the ridge, and pray they didn't step on a lose rock.  The fall over the edge of the ridge would probably have been enough to finish Sam off given the condition he was in.  And so Guns, carrying his Captain on his back, scrambled along the eastern-most side of the ridge as quickly as he could. Sam clenched his teeth and grimaced in pain, but said nothing further.

Fred, was roaring towards Penelope.  He honked the AGV horn.  Penelope stopped on the road, turned and when she saw the smoking, rattling hulk of the AGV being driven pell-mell by Fred toward her, she waved.  She had mixed emotions.  Fred was, after all, a drug addled maniac who had a penchant for being as rude and crude as possible.  He also wanted to leave her to die on the Salt Flats a couple of days earlier.  But on the other hand, it was war, the enemy had just shot her and Sam out of the sky, she was lucky to be alive, and Fred was coming to the rescue.  Okay.  Fred.  Fine.  She waved.

"Get in, loser," he said as he skidded to a stop in front of her, "We're saving the world."

She smiled. Fred, in his own weird and obnoxious way, was still one of the good guys. She hopped into the airlock and they roared off, heading back west to the rendezvous point, and leaving a long trail of dust behind.  Once inside the cabin, Fred directed Penelope to climb up into the turret and so she began figuring out how to work the flamethrower. 

"We want to get the whole west side of the ridge on fire," he said. "We're gonna light this whole thing up, ok?"

"Sounds exciting," she answered enthusiastically as she studied the firing mechanism. She'd never seen an M32-A up close before, but she was a scientist, and a mechanic.  It only took her a few moments to assess how to operate it.

Fred drove the AGV hard, bouncing over obstacles and cutting corners wherever he could.  He watched on the Vizi-Screen as the forest fire crept forward, just behind Guns and Sam as they darted along the top of the ridge.  He was half-convinced that they might not get there in time.

"As soon as you can see Guns and Sam, use the flamethrower to lob a line over their position onto the woods on the west side of the ridge.  We need to provide them as much cover as possible," he shouted up the Perch ladder.

"Aye-Aye, sir," she said with a grin. This would be fun.

Sam, looking over Guns' shoulder, estimated the tanks to their west were approximately a quarter mile and closing fast.  To the east he watched the AGV kicking up dust in a ragged line along the desert floor.  

A small drone swarm was fanning out ahead of the tanks. There was no question they had already come into firing range, but Guns' dodging between boulders along the east side of the ridge seemed to be working.  It was likely that the tanks were not able to get a targeting bead on their position, as line of sight was constantly being broken.  If they were relying on computer targeting (which they were), then there was a good chance they couldn't acquire the target.  

Sam heard a loud "KRACK-Ka-BOOM!" as the second tank that had come around the spur fired its cannon.  The shell sailed due north.  It was aimed at Major Sekston's Rhino.  Fortunately, the shot missed its target as she darted the flying tank into a gully.  The explosion blasted a cloud of dirt into the air, but Sekston was already hundreds of feet away.

Fred contacted Guns by radio and requested his coordinates. 

"We're hugging the east side of the ridge," reported Guns.

"You ahead of the fire?"

"Yes, but it's slow going," reported Guns.

"Penelope is getting ready to light up the west side of the ridge," said Fred.

"Great," replied Guns with a mix of terror and enthusiasm, depending on which way his mind saw that playing out.

About thirty seconds passed as the Rhino dodged more tank fire, and itself returned fire while dodging among the rills.  Major Sekston was making her way eastward to try to get a good line of sight on the remaining tanks as they came around the spur.

When he got to the top of the ridge, Fred parked the AGV, and told Penelope to begin lighting up the western forest.  He jumped out of the AGV and ran over to where Guns and Sam were struggling forward.  There was a lot of smoke, and the fire was hopping along the bushes and undergrowth close behind them.  Overhead suddenly launched a long narrow stream of flames with black smoke pouring off of it.  Penelope yelled out loud, she was so excited.

"Woooo-Hhoooo!", she cried as she guided the flaming stream across the entire western ridge line.  Huge plumes of fire sprang up along the western side of the ridge.  Fred, Guns and Sam hustled into the AGV and slammed the airlock shut.  Sam laid himself down on the couch in the rear.  Penelope gave up her seat to Guns, and climbed down to help Sam.  He was not doing so well.  Fred checked to see if he still had control of his drone swarm, but unfortunately the cannon fire that hit the AGV earlier took out control system antenna.  So those drones were hovering up there on their own, and were effectively useless.  "Damnit," he muttered under his breath.

"Fred, why don't we take a shot at one of the tanks with the Plasma Cannon?" said Guns, with a tone of determination that suggested this was less a question than an order.

"I don't think that's a good idea," replied Fred.

"Why not?" asked Guns.

"We have a wall of fire between us.  If we shoot at them they'll notice us and start shooting back, don't you think?" answered Fred, his intonation more as a counter command than a question.

"Well, sure but..."

"Guns!" yelled Sam from his couch. "Don't listen to Fred. Fire up the Plasma Cannon and take the shot!"

As the AGV turned onto Dd Hollow Road bearing west Guns got a clear line of sight on the lead Delta-Z tank as it came into view.  He turned the targeting system off and eyed the tank.  Fred was going to stop the AGV to give Guns the best shot possible, but Guns would not have it.

"Don't even stop!" yelled Guns.

The tanks, which had been tracking the battlefield with their drones, took the first shots.  Four tanks fired their cannons.  The first one missed.  Two shots hit the Rhino as Major Sekston dodged between two rills on her way to rendezvous with the AGV.  One of those two shots glanced off her hull, but the other was a direct hit.  And a critical one.  The Rhino shuddered under the concussive impact of the explosion and spiraled down into a gully, smoke billowing from its side.  The third shot hit the AGV just as Guns was taking his shot. 

The Plasma Beam flickered out from the AGV's top turret.  Guns, despite being jolted and the targeting computer going off-line, aimed with cool handed precision.  The coruscating beam bored a neat basketball sized hole directly into the engine block of the lead tank, and punched its way through to the back.  It ground to a halt, thick black smoke billowing into the blazing blue sky.  Fortunately the tanks were not equipped with Plasma Shields.

The Rhino had crashed down on its side and slid about 40 yards down into the gully.  Major Sekston was badly wounded in the crash, but alive.  Inside the cab smoke and flames emerged from the control panels.  As the Rhino descended, Sekston assessed the situation through the shattered windshield.  Three tanks were still operational on the plain, and two were still moving north on route 89.  Fred skidded off-road and headed west toward the Rhino's position at 65 mph.

The tanks fired again.  One of the tanks was hit by friendly fire, ricocheting off its hull with a blaze of sparks.  However, two shells hit the AGV.  One of them square on.  The entire crew was hit with the shock wave as the last of the AGV's anti-tank armor was blown to smithereens.  Everyone was braced for the impact except Captain Samwise.  Having been so gravely wounded to begin with, this was an impact he could not take.  He was thrown to the floor of the AGV, his head impacting with the corner of a bench.  He fell unconscious.  Penelope leapt to his side and immediately began attempting to revive him.  It didn't look good.  She pulled him back onto the couch, and strapped him in with the seat buckles.

Just as the AGV was hit Guns fired another shot with the Plasma Cannon.  But the shot went high and that was that.  He watched in dismay as the scintillating orange beam vanished over the horizon.  "Damnit!" he muttered under his breath.

* * * 

Somewhere many miles to the north Pita scanned the horizon from within the cool confines of his Lemurian Steel helmet. The force field that covered his face shimmered slightly, though it was nearly invisible when put in transparency mode.  His Lemurian cloak also kept him cool.  The shimmering white sands of the salt flat surrounded them for as far as the eye could see.  With him was Vilar, his Lemurian guide.  They were at the start of a mission that would hopefully resolve the question that the Queen of Lemuria wished to have answered.  What was the cause of the mysterious vibrations coming from the south?  They had five days to investigate, and return to Lemuria with their findings. Returning was a matter of proving his loyalty to Linda.  He patted his horse on the neck and turned to look westward.

The yellow flowers of the Sacred Hawthorn Tree, mysteriously growing in the middle of the salt flat, waved in the slight breeze that was blowing across the desert from the north.  This was a tree that could grant visions and Pita had had his fair share.  He thought about the white haired mage who had handed him a calling card - a small black gem which he had said would summon him in case of dire need.  Pita had secreted it into an inner pocket and hoped he wouldn't need to use it.

Vilar had set his cloak to "Translucent Camouflaged", so at the moment he was nearly invisible, but then changed the coloration to metallic sand, and blended into the scenery.  Finally he decided to use the Camouflaged mode which blended automatically.  He recommended Pita do the same. 

Pita was thinking about which way to go.  They had a map, and it showed the region, and there was an "X" where the Queen's scientists believed the  strange vibrations were coming from.

Pita drew some circles and arrows on the upper portion of the map while he thought. The red circle is where the Sacred Hawthorn tree was located, and where they were currently.  The green arrow was the general location of the secret entrance to Lemuria, but where exactly it was Pita could not say because he did not know.  The purple arrow to the southwest was the direction of the "X".  Lastly there is the purple circle to the east which is where Pita and Linda had been instructed to leave their Rocket Bikes.  He wondered if there was an significance to the fact that the map divided the east and west regions of the salt flat on the exact line where the Sacred Hawthorn tree was located.  Other than the tree, and a few stones indicating that some structure had once stood there ages ago, there was nothing.  The desert looked indistinguishable from the ground.  At any rate, he presumed the Queen was good to her word, and that their Rocket Bikes had been faithfully guarded, even after all the time they had spent down in Lemuria.  As his first sight of open land in such a long time, Pita was inwardly thrilled.  Fresh air.  Open sky!  How grand and beautiful the upper world was! The bliss of it was enormous.  Could he really ever return to the dark underworld of the Lemurians?

But now it was time to decide which way to go.  He thought about the options.  They could head straight southwest across the salt flats directly towards the "X".  They could cross the desert to a range of brown hills on the western edge and follow those south.  This might provide some cover, but Vilar knew nothing of that area, having never ventured that way.  There were the hills to the east which Vilar knew well, and those could be followed south. However, these hills were hazardous to cross, due to the fact they harbored tribes of feral mutant tribes that dwelled in those hills, among other Upper World dangers.  Finally, Pita asked Vilar which way he would choose to go if it were up to him.

"The caves," replied Vilar.

"Of course," returned Pita.  "The caves. Naturally."

"We are a people of the deep earth.  It is our home."

"Do you know the caves that could bring us south to our destination?"

"Yes," replied Vilar.

"Have you gone this way before?"

"Once," answered Vilar.

"Once, huh," laughed Pita lightly. "Was there anything living down there, or was it pretty quiet?"

"There are things that live down there," said Vilar solemnly.  The word "things" in Mon'Tang (the language of the Lemurians) had many meanings, but in the context of the sentence Pita had the impression it meant "monsters of the deep").

"I see," replied Pita.  "Ok, sounds good.  To the caves it is then."  Pita checked his weapons.  He patted his trusty Lewiston Beam Pistol in its sleek leather holster.  He felt behind his shoulder for his Adaptive Combat Rifle.  Good.  He checked his belt for the scabbard of his broadsword, and then slid his hand to the satchel at his side in which were two Frag Grenades and two Pepper Grenades.  And lastly, he reached around to his rear belt-holster to check on his FN Browning 9mm.  Yep.  All good.  He felt a little better now. Monster Caves? Ok.  No problem.  He was ready.

They rode their horses along the faint but perfectly straight dirt road  across the salt flats due east.  As they came closer to the line of low brown hills they passed the secret Lemurian Watch Post that looked like a mere cluster of rocks and sage brush on a slight rise, just east of a long narrow prominence that crossed the pathway perpendicularly.  Beautiful, silent, secret eyes watched them as they passed, but Pita was unaware of this.  

Once they reached the hills they soon came upon the outcropping where the Lemurians had stationed a guard to watch over the Rocket Bikes.  Had the guard not stepped out from the comfortable shade of his hidden vestibule in the side of the low hanging cliff, they'd not have seen him at all.  Looking past the guard, Pita could see their Rocket Bikes positioned along a wall of the inner stone chamber, next to which was a small stone table with victuals, a chair, and in the far corner a cot.  The fellow had been faithfully watching over the bikes for quite some time, and seemed a bit eager to be relieved of this duty.  However, it was not to be.  Pita and Vilar saluted him, but rode past him toward the brown canyons ahead.  Pita took the time to indicate that he appreciated the man's dedication as they passed.  The guard saluted and soon the two of them had passed out of sight.  He signaled back to Lemuria by his broach radio, went back into the vestibule, closed the entrance, and took his place at the watch station.  His eyes peered to and fro across the salt flats. Nothing. It was a tedious job, but he was a dedicated Lemurian soldier who never failed to perform his duty, and he knew he was likely to be well compensated for his efforts by the Queen upon his return to Lemuria.

After an hour or so of riding along a narrow stream bed at the bottom of a narrow gully Vilar stopped.  The terrain ahead widened out where an ancient long-forgotten river once formed a small flood plane, now only dirt, a few small bushes, brambles and rocks.  He scanned the ground carefully with an experienced eye.  He got down off his horse, and went on one knee.

"Someone has passed this way, recently," he said pointing at some faint markings on the ground.  "They came to this point from the east," he said pointing up the canyon, "stopped here, and then turned around and returned the way they came."

"Could it be other guards, having come down this way?" asked Pita.

"No," replied Vilar.  "We come from opposite directions. It would be unlikely."  

"Do you think they may have been spying on the enclosure?" asked Pita, suddenly concerned about his Rocket Bikes.

"I do not know," replied Vilar tersely, though he thought this too was unlikely, as these footprints were an hour's ride east of the enclosure, and they stopped here.  It was possible they returned northeast to try another route, but as there was no evidence of that he simply raised an eyebrow and said, "It is strange though.  Do you want to go back and try another way?"

"I think perhaps we should follow the tracks and get further information.  What do you think of that idea?" inquired Pita.

"It is your decision," said Vilar.  He had been instructed by the Queen to follow whatever directions Pita might give, and he was as curious as she to see the measure of the man by his choices.

"Can you tell how long ago the tracks were made?" asked Pita.

"Within a day," replied Vilar.

"So they came, they stopped, and then went back. Hmmm...", said Pita.  "Let's continue to follow them as we are heading in the same direction."

And so they continued in silence another hour or so.  The ravine had widened into a flat sunken plain, walled in by cliffs on both sides.  The air in the canyon was hot and without a breeze.  The clopping of their horse's hooves echoed off the cliff walls as they went.  Up ahead the canyon forked.  One branch lead northeast, the other to the southeast.  They stopped.  Vilar surveyed the ground carefully. 

"They went northeast," he said. "Our path leads us this way," he concluded somberly, pointing to the southeast.

"Where does the northeast way lead to?" asked Pita, wondering whether they should pursue the mysterious tracks, or continue on their journey to the caves.

"We have not been there in a long time, but in that direction lie the Great Salt Flats.  We have scouts who ventured that far in the past, but not in recent years."

"Perhaps on the way back we will check that.  Let's stay with our first task, which is to find out about these vibrations."

"As you wish," replied Vilar as he hopped back up on his horse.

They continued for a half day until they came to a maze-like area in which crisscrossing gullies formed a dizzying pattern.  They led the horses on foot for a while as the gullies became more narrow and rocky, and then Vilar stopped below an overhanging cliff, where in ancient days there had been a waterfall that carved out a small grotto.  

"We must leave the horses here," he said.  At the base of the cliff there were green plants nestled around a spring that was burbling up from the ground.  Buzzing insects swished excitedly through the air. There was a pool of clear water about four feet wide and six feet long.  The horses drank as the men did likewise and filled their canteens.  Pita, looked around.  The gully at this point had cliff walls some fifteen feet high, so they could not be seen from the desert, nor would anyone have seen them enter in through the maze.  He felt satisfied that the horses would likely be safe there, provided no one happened upon them by chance.  Vilar was unconcerned, as he knew the Lemurians would come to pick up the horses if they became stranded.

They continued on foot, passing into a narrow ravine, and then making their way over rough, rocky ground, surrounded by tall cliffs.  Eventually, they arrived at a cave entrance in the side of the ravine that was hidden from above by an overhang.  It was now starting to get dark.  The air began to cool in the desert.  A wind picked up.  It would be a clear, cold night out on the salt flats.  Not a cloud in the sky.  The rippling river of iridescent radiation that was a remnant of the Ultra-War could be heard over head.  Other than that, all was quiet.

The opening to the cave was rather narrow.  About two feet wide, and four feet high, so it required a bit of crawling to get inside.  They crept forward and then the passage began to slope gently downward for about a hundred and fifty feet.  The tunnel turned a corner and widened.  They entered a grotto.  Tunnels led out in a dozen directions. At this point Vilar stopped and took a careful look around.  They could see by virtue of their helmets which provided them with Dark-Vision, despite the pitch blackness within the cave.

"This is the spot," said Vilar, pointing to one wall.  "Notice the striated green and yellow stone work over here."

Pita studied the wall carefully, and suddenly realized that they were striated with multicolored bands, which had green-and-yellow tinted striations.  In fact, they formed a consistent geometrical pattern for about six feet, though Pita felt sure that had Vilar not pointed it out he would never have noticed.  

"Do you see any stone here that is out of place?" asked Vilar.

Pita looked carefully.  He scanned every stone.  Nothing seemed out of place.  It was a cave, after all. There were stones and rocks, and sand everywhere.  However, Pita was a man with insane persistence.  He looked more carefully.  And then he noticed it.  A stalagmite was offset against the wall in a way that seemed every so slightly odd, though he couldn't have explained why if he were asked to.  There was just something "not quite exactly right" about it.

"Yes, that's it," said Vilar following his gaze.  "Turn it."

"Which way?  To the right, or to the left?" asked Pita, thinking that it might just make a difference.

"Good question.  To the left," answered Vilar approvingly.  Pita did so, and lo!  The green and yellow-tinted section of the grotto opened up soundlessly before them.  A five foot wide opening led into a long straight tunnel.  Although Pita did not know this, had he turned the stalagmite to the right it would have caused the door to seal from the inside, thus blocking their route, and released an odorless sleeping gas.  Lemurian guards would have then been alerted to assess the situation and take appropriate action.  This had occurred once over the past five hundred years, and the Indian who had triggered the event was released to the desert, never the wiser as to what had happened, and the man never returned to the spot, but instead warned his tribe to stay away from the "maze-ravines", which became taboo thereafter.

"This is the entranceway to the Deeper Earth," Vilar said as he led the way inside.  Once in, he turned another stalagmite, and the doorway silently closed.  The walls were smooth, but looked naturally formed, as if by an ancient underground river.  Along the walls on both sides were a line of one foot tall glyphs which ran on for about ten feet, and were etched into the rock

"Those are warnings," said Vilar solemnly.  They say "Do Not Trespass Here."

"Are we trespassing?" asked Pita, a bit alarmed.

"No. These are Lemurian tunnels.  It is a warning to others."

"I see," said Pita, much reassured.  He examined the writing and noted that it was written in Mon'Tang, and the meanings that reverberated from the words and their patterns of context made his head reel.  They spoke of dire eternal consequences, monsters, traps, and cosmic fury against those who disobeyed the warning.  He shuddered as he peered ahead down the long tunnel.

"I have been this way once.  You must be careful.  There are deadly things here."

Pita noticed that the meaning of the Mon-Tang word "things" in this case reflected more than creatures, but also hinted treacherous terrain, and even, possibly, traps of some sort.  He thought about his various Mentarian Powers, and decided to focus on his surroundings, and linked his center of focus to a point just over his head.  This Mind-Junction would track with him for some time, perhaps a few hours.  He focused and activated it.  It would, he expected, alert him if any living creature should come within ten feet of him, whether hidden or otherwise.  He didn't sense anything at the moment.  Vilar led them forward into the tunnel.

They came after some two hundred feet to an open dome shaped chamber at the center of which was a roughly circular fountain. Around the edged of the chamber were two foot tall alcoves in which sat stone statues of various shapes and sizes. The statues were crude, almost barbaric in nature.  They were, Pita thought, of people in meditative positions, but their expressions were anything but calm or peaceful.

"What is the fountain for?" asked Pita.

"It is for the profane," replied Vilar with finality.  "Whomever shall drink of this fountain will remain here forever," he said after a long pause.

"Ahhh... so I should not drink from the fountain?"

"No one should drink from the fountain.  Let us continue from this place." 

As they departed down one of the many side tunnels that separated the alcoves, Pita might have noticed that the statues were strangely deformed and stylized, grotesque each in its own way, and yet weirdly, faintly, realistic and somehow... all too human.  Faces frozen in terrifying realizations, long since worn down by the dripping waters and the sands of time.  However, Pita did not dwell on these things, but instead followed Vilar past them into one of the dark tunnels without further reflection.

"We Lemurians guard our pathways with great care. It is why we have never been discovered by the Upper Worlders.  We are a secret people.  There are penalties to those who uncover our secrets."

Pita cleared his throat a bit.  "I can tell," he replied finally.

"We have been here longer than all of the civilizations of the Upper World combined.  And yet, we still remain unknown to your people.  Because we are careful.  Remember it well," said Vilar with a tone of warning.

They continued down the pathway until they came to a place where the tunnel ahead appeared to open into a vast yawning chamber.  Vilar stopped and said, "We now will enter the 'Domain of Danger'.  You must be absolutely silent.  Follow in my exact footsteps.  Do not touch anything that I do not touch.  Make no noise."

"Okay, I will be careful," replied Pita.  He thought further about what powers he might employ in this circumstance.  He was already using Detect Presence, but he considered adding Heightened Reflexes.  This would make the odds of being surprised by any attack almost impossible and give him a better chance of walking and doing only and exactly what Vilar himself did. He summoned his mystic reserves and activated the power.  Suddenly he felt as light as a butterfly, and his senses seemed doubled in range and sensitivity.

For a hundred feet they slowly tiptoed, as quiet as mice, until they came to the opening. It was six feet high and four feet wide, and beyond it was a yawning crevasse that spanned a great distance ahead of them.  It was so far that even with his Lemurian Helmet he was unable to make out the far wall.  The bottom dropped down into unfathomable darkness from which a distant thunderous roar could be heard.  But the trail did not stop there.  It bent to the right and vanished out of view.  Only the narrow ledge at the trail's head could be seen from where Pita and Vilar were standing.

Vilar stopped there and turned to face Pita and put one finger to his lips.  It was clear what the intent was.  Pita made no sound. Vilar turned around and gingerly stepped onto the path, turned to the right and walked out of view.  Pita followed close behind.

They found themselves traversing a narrow ledge that clung to the cliff face, which continued to the right, finally vanishing into the vast, looming distance beyond.  The path was a mere three feet wide.  To their immediate right, ascending upward into cavernous darkness, was a jagged stony wall.  It seemed to be glinting in the dark ever so slightly.  Pita took a closer look and found it was covered in tiny white gossamer threads that fluttered and wavered in the slight breeze that was caused by his passing.  He looked up. The veil clung to the wall as high up as his eyes could see.  He did not like the look of that at all.

Pita followed his guide closely.  Vilar took pains to avoid touching the wall.  Pita studiously avoided touching the wall as well.  He stepped diligently into the exact footprints that the Lemurian made as he went.  If Vilar turned his shoulder to the left, so did Pita when he reached the same spot.  His focus never wavered as he strove to mimic every move his guide made.

After three hundred feet Vilar stopped and turned slowly and carefully around.  He again held a finger to his lips and then pointed ahead on the path.  There Pita could make out an opening in the wall ahead.  It was, he estimated, about twelve feet tall, and perhaps eight feet wide, and shaped like a rough hewn archway. It was impossibly dark within it, so he could make out nothing but the shape of the portal.  Above it there was a capstone at the top of the archway. On it was a single glyph, but it was neither Mon'Tang, nor English, nor any other language he recognized. They proceeded to inch along as quietly as possible.  

Pita followed Vilar's every step precisely.  As Vilar passed the portal, he did not do anything but tiptoe past, looking neither to the right side nor the left.  Pita, determined to do exactly likewise, kept his eyes on Vilar and Vilar alone.  As he passed the cave, he declined to even take a single peek inside.

However, his power of 'Sense Presence' began to prickle his skin and tingle along his right side.  There was something, something alive, inside the cave.  He was absolutely sure of it.  And not deep within, but perhaps ten feet or less.  He distinctly felt that someone, or something, was there in the darkness sitting on the floor next to the wall of the cave on the right side, although he did not look inside even for a moment.

As soon as he sensed that presence Pita whispered... "Vilar... there is something near..."

The whisper of Pita's voice echoed ever so faintly throughout the great cavern.  The veils covering the walls wavered with the vibration of those words.

* * * 

And that, my friends, is where we left things that night.

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