Chapter 51 – Underground World

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It was at least thirty minutes before I caught my first fleeting whiff of the park that Ceria had detected. Not long after that, we entered a gallery with three exits.

Ceria pointed at one and said, “The scent is that direction.”

While digging out my locator stone, I shook my head. “We aren’t looking for a park. We’re looking for my friends.”

But after checking their direction, I gave a dry laugh. “Or maybe we’re looking for a park after all.”

The stone had shown the same direction as the tunnel Ceria had indicated.

“Hey, you two,” Bruna said. “Have you noticed the walls?”

I looked around, then approached one of the features Bruna had noticed to get better light on it. It was a fresh-looking blast in the wall. You can tell when wall damage is fresh because the ever-present mana-feeding lichen hasn’t grown back.

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Fairy sight told me this was a fire-magic mana blast. And it and several others in the room were really large. Furthermore, the mana residue had a very familiar flavor to it.

“Ryuu did this with his sword,” I said. “This is his so-called [Spirit Shot].”

“‘Loo?'” Ceria asked, puzzled. I had pronounced it Japanese-style like the otaku Robert was, and Ceria was doing her best to imitate the foreign sound.

“Spirit shot?” Bruna echoed.

“Ryuu Kowa is one of my former party members. One of the people I’m looking for. He has a habit of causing wasteful overkill damage like this. And [Spirit Shot] is what he calls his mana wave sword strike.”

She blinked. “Wow. I’ve heard of that, but never saw someone do it.”

“That’s because it’s stupidly dangerous,” I answered with some bitterness. Tiana had caught glancing blows from that dumb move more times than I can count. And all because of an old manga.

Now, I also found myself a little amused. Tiana had not known it, of course, but the manga move Ryuu was seeking to reproduce was nothing like his sword swing. He’d learned [Mana Strike], but that attack moved too slow and didn’t have the power he wanted. By using the sword swing, he found he could amplify both speed and power.

Moving around the gallery, I determined that quite a few blows had been landed by other magic users, including Arken. This might have been the place where the party had been split up.

And Fairy Sight showed me one more thing. I picked it up, and saw it to be a silver coin from an ancient, long-dead kingdom. I knew that, because I had seen this item before. It had a hole drilled in it, and nearby, I found its broken silver pendant chain.

“You dumb girl,” I softly chided a certain young healer who couldn’t hear me. “You knew you didn’t have your amulet, and you let me do that anyway.”

Bruna had noticed me picking it up. “What did you find?”

“Something that belongs to a friend of mine,” I said, showing her. “If you two want to call it loot, then please let me pay you for your shares. I’d like to give it back to her.”

Bruna and Ceria looked at each other, then Bruna grinned and said, “A crown each.”

“What?…” I started, then sighed. “Fine. It’s worth it to keep you two friendly. I really want to return it to her, so…”

With a dissatisfied tone, Ceria said, “Bruna…”

Her sister rolled her eyes, then grinned. “Let’s make it a quarter-crown each, Lady. I doubt it’s worth much more than that.”

I nodded, and slipped the amulet and chain into the wallet on my sword belt.

Once we entered the tunnel I had identified, I finally could smell clearly what Ceria’s beast-kin nose had detected over a half-hour earlier. Subterranean plants use strong perfumes to attract insects to their flowers, and something is always in bloom. My nose identified ghostflowers, which wasn’t a surprise. They’re basically the dandelions of the underground world.

Underground forests, meadows and parks, and the plants that grow in them and sustain underground monsters, are a feature of this world I’ve never seen in any fantasy book. Subterranean places like caverns always develop them, but in addition, they appear eventually in mines as well.

The natural places, called ‘underground meadows’, or ‘underground forests’ when they get taken over by trees, begin simply as cave systems that eroded their way into underground mana streams. Once a mana spring erupts, life begins moving in, especially creatures like cave ants and stone worms. Plants like moonglow grass and ghostflowers appear, then other insects, animals and low order monsters move in.

Meadows don’t happen in mines. The kind of geology that leads to big natural open spaces isn’t safe to mine in. But throw gnomes into the mix and something amazing happens.

Gnomes are another fully intelligent monster race. They prefer to live away from others, either in burrows deep in forests or underground, and they are very industrious. They sneak into mines and seek out mana eruptions, then dig their way back to the surface to create their own entry. These burrows usually start out with soil the gnomes bring in, where they grow mana-rich plants. They need plant-stabilized mana for the same reason I need human-stabilized mana.

Then they somehow enlist the aid of venomous moles and other diggers, sometimes including earth dragons, and enlarge their beachhead into a massive burrow. As they expand the burrow, cave ants start chewing up the rubble to make dirt where they can build their colonies, and before you know it, there’s soil and plants and it all takes off. These places are called ‘parks’.

The final step is that other monsters move in and drive the gnomes away from their lands. They will be able to hold parts of their burrow, but not the majority. The final form is still called a ‘park’, but it now resembles the natural underground habitats.

We reached what was clearly the reason this branch of the mine had been abandoned about ten minutes later. The miners had broken through, right into a park larger than any I had ever heard of. I wondered if the mines offices knew about this one. It became dangerous to mine so close to a large open space, so they would have abandoned not only this tunnel but many others in the area.

Illumination created by plants that thrived in mana instead of sunlight, like moonglow and ghostflowers, painted the cavernous space as a subterranean dreamworld. It was just enough light that we could see the open areas below reasonably well, like early twilight.

Quickly, I extinguished my circlet.  My action broke Ceria out of her mesmerized state and she stopped her light as well. It wasn’t a good idea, as long as we could see, to continue drawing attention to ourselves.

“This is… kinda amazing, isn’t it?” Bruna asked.

“It’s at least twice as wide as the largest room in the underground forest of Gval,” I said. “That’s the biggest one I ever saw before this.”

“I can’t see the other end,” Ceria said.

She was right, I realized. The far wall wasn’t visible. The space just kept going, until the foreground light prevented one from seeing the dim background. The space was like a gargantuan tunnel. To our right, we could see the tunnel wall a few hundred paces away. To our left… it appeared the miners had broken into a bend. The tunnel receded into the distance there as well. The tunnel was generally over a half-mile wide.

Before the bigger monsters moved in and took over, this must have been some sort of gnome metropolis. It must have been in truly ancient times though, because I had never heard of there ever being enough gnomes to justify such a place.

It would be impossible for such a structure to stay up and not collapse in nature. These places had manipulated miasma buried in the the walls, courtesy of the monsters who mined it. The stuff could be used to make incredible hard and strong materials, and would be wonderfully useful to civilization if it wasn’t horribly dangerous to living creatures.

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I pulled out the locator stone and put it to my forehead. Sure enough, it pointed me into the far dimness straight ahead of us. Probably still several miles away.

“Guys,” Ceria said, with a sharpness entering her voice. “Look over there.”

Naturally, Ceria’s cat-kin eyes had spotted it before us. To the right of our opening, the open ground turned from meadow to field. There were fields and fences, evidence of gnome farming. But something was wrong. The little gnome houses were demolished, and we could see a couple deer grazing in one of the fields.

That particular settlement had clearly been overrun by monsters. Gnomes are geniuses at using tamed monsters to defend their territory. They are also excellent Earth element magicians. It should have taken a huge stampede to overpower them.

“Well?” Bruna asked. “What’s next?”

I was still holding my locator stone. I waggled it and said, “We have to go in.”

Pointing into the distance, at roughly the place the stone had shown me, I added, “My friends are out there.”

“Alright,” Ceria responded, peering down at the considerable drop below us. “So how do we get down?”

- my thoughts:

I can see the place in my mind's eye. I don't know if I am describing it well.

I tried to come up with some things to make Huade a clearly different world. This was one of them. I hope it works.

Check out my other novel: Tales of the ESDF

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