“Take me? What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said. You won’t be able to leave the mine anymore. It’s the same as death. Maybe worse.”
The platform stopped moving and everyone got off in a layer that gave me the vibes of a market. It smelled like spices and steel.
I could tell the temperature had dropped, seeing how the merchants and hagglers were dressed, but just like they did in the heat of the day, my clothes kept me at room temperature.
As opposed to the upper floors, the walls were plain jagged rock and either covered by paintings or used to display pelts and weapons.
There were also fewer warriors. The only ones I saw seemed to have been hired by store owners, though they looked less threatening than their comrades upstairs.
We left the balcony for a small uneven path.
“So... no one talks down there?” I asked Bo, when it got quiet enough that we could hear each other. “How do you manage to communicate?”
“We use our hands,” he said. “There is a sign for most of what anyone would want to say while working, but people avoid using them as much as possible. It’s best to not interact with anyone as long as you are in the mine.”
“Does that include you?”
“Especially me. The mine creates illusions and tries to trick people into making mistakes. If you lose sight of me even once, don’t assume whoever looks like me to be the real deal until we get out. It could be a knocker. They won’t attack you... but you never know. Only worry about yourself. Do not try to help anyone.”
I soon noticed the high numbers of kids that were around compared to the adults. They were everywhere, young teenagers moving in small groups and caused most of the commotion I would catch in the corner of my eye. Girls and boys, barely dressed but covered with scars and piercings that couldn’t be sanitary.
They all had black noses and shifty sunken eyes. Merchants would yell at them as soon as they got a bit too close to the stalls. Calling them “rats”.
“Sometimes even being quiet isn’t enough,” Bo said after a moment. “But I have a rule. It’s to never stay around if there are three weird things happening at the same time. I leave then wait until whatever is going on to pass. It kept me alive when others only thought about making a bit more money and were never seen again.”
The further we went, the fewer people there were. At some point, Bo went into a narrow alley, checked the surroundings then waved at me.
“This is safe enough,” he said as he hid me from the main path.
I double checked for any prying eyes, then brought a massive bag out of my inventory. It contained the clothes made by Sarn the day before.
We went back to the main path and soon reached a small wooden door in the stone, and the boy knocked with a musical rhythm. I heard the sound of moving furniture, two or three bolts being pulled, and the door was opened to reveal squinting eyes.
“You’re late, boy,” a ragged voice said. The eyes landed on me, “Who’re you bringing, uh? I keep telling ya, no rats here!”
“Does he look like a rat? We’re in a hurry, open already,” Bo said with uncommon annoyance.
They squinted a bit more as they studied me, “Hmm, you might be right.”
The door was fully opened and a panda even shorter than myself stood in the frame scratching his big round ear with a mean look on his face; which I found adorable until he spoke again.
“Gimme the stuff,” he said with his coarse voice, before visibly realizing that the bag was as big as himself. “Nevermind, take it in yourself and take your things while you’re at it. Imma starting charging ya for the nights that damn bird has been ruining for me.”
“Don’t even think about it,” Bo said as he walked past him.
When he came back out he handed me a patched up coat, a big pair of gloves and an old pickaxe, “It gets colder the lower you go. And this is in case you want to help for a bit.”
I didn’t think I’d need either but still took them and put the coat on without much thought. What I was interested in was the small cage he had brought along. It had a golden bird inside.
I think they used to do something similar on Earth.
We hurried back to the balcony and got there just in time to catch the only platform that went as low as we wanted to go. The people standing on it were as heavily dressed as us, with tools and birdcages.
No one was speaking, as if in preparation for what was coming. No chirping from the birds either.
During our silent descent, I noticed that the number of torches present in the layers decreased, and the people were thinner.
At some point, the only source of light was the one on the platform. The lower layers seemed completely abandoned, but I would occasionally hear a distant scream or sense something moving in the shadows.
Before long the platform stopped moving. Someone took the torch out of its socket, and we followed them without any words being exchanged.
I heard the lift go back up behind us.
As we walked, I could see some people fervently praying to effigies they held in both hands. Others had serious expression and tightened their grips on their pickaxes. Others just had a vacant stare.
But we all followed the flame in silence to the heart of the mountain. It was like a ritual.
We appeared at the top of a spacious cavern with a set of crude makeshift wooden stairs leading to its floor. There were at least two hundred people there, waiting for something with a few disseminated torches.
I saw the Undermine’s entrance. It was a simple circular hole in the dark stone of the mountain. Even though there was no one standing close, there was no evil miasma or screams oozing from it.
But the air in the cavern was dry.
We reached the floor and Bo guided me to a group I recognized to be the one from the temple.
“What’s going on?” Bo whispered to one of them. “I thought I was late.”
“You are,” the boy said without sparing him a glance. “The warriors are still inside. So we wait.”
“This is good,” Bo said to me. “I thought I would find someone at my spot. Is there anything you still want to know?”
I had planned to take him aside to ask him questions anyway, but it was indeed a good thing that it wouldn’t cause him trouble.
“Wait, you always work at the same spot?”
“The dungeon resets when the day ends and everything goes back to the way it was. So we all have our own spot that we work at and know well. By now I can tell how many hits it takes me to find the ore.”
That means that they have an infinite resource. Surprising that they still need money.
“Alright,” I said. “What are the birds for?”
“Oh, they react to the magic in the mine,” he said. “They are called bolevals. They do not react to everything though, but when they start singing it means something big is happening and to be on your guards.”
“Oh, yeah I was named after them,” he said with a smile.
That was a funny piece of information. A dog boy named after a bird.
“What’s in there? I mean, what are the warriors fighting against?”
“They aren’t really fighting,” he chuckled. “More like slaughtering. The creatures in the upper levels are half blind and not that strong... for a warrior. They look like big toads, you should be fine against them.”
I figured I’d have to see the rest by myself, so I just laid back on the rock and waited like everyone else.
The only thing perturbing the silence was the whimpering of a thin woman a few meters from us. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she was tightly hugging a young man I assumed was her son, not letting go. Next to them was a man with an incredibly tired face.
After a moment noise came from the dungeon and a group of armed people came out and went straight for the stairs. They didn’t speak nor interact with anyone.
When the last of the warriors came out, a group of kids went inside, pushing old screeching metallic carts.
Then it was the turn of the rats. They ran inside with smiling faces and vacant eyes, jumping and daring each other.
Bo grabbed my shoulder. We were next.
“Don’t forget,” he whispered. “Never talk.”
Not far from us the whimpering woman had let go of her son, who went to his friends with a determined expression. I saw the girl standing next to him grab his hand.
There soon was no more rats, and our group started moving. The hole in the stone quickly got closer, and then I was inside.
You have entered the Undermine.
I dismissed the notification and kept walking, pickaxe on my shoulder, following Bo’s lead.
The tunnel we were in looked like it resulted from the passage of a giant worm. Mostly smooth as it gently, but surely, spiraled down.
It soon broke into several paths that separated us from a good chunk of the people we entered the mine with. At the end of that path was a lift that took us down to the lower level. Though unlike the ones in the city, I couldn’t tell how they worked.
On the second level, we did the same. We followed the branching paths until we reached another elevator to take us one floor down.
The third level was different from the previous ones. It seemed somehow more... civilized.
Sure, the walls were still rough and jagged but they had torches put at regular intervals and facilitated our progress. The floor and ceiling were paved and smooth, unlike anything I thought they were supposed to be in a mine. No one tripped on protruding rocks anymore.
We stopped walking after a few minutes. There were still people walking past us and going deeper into the mine, but we had reached Bo’s spot.
There was a metal cart in the middle of the path that we shared with five other kids, who started working as soon as they arrived. One of them turned out to be the son of the crying woman.
The rhythmic sound of metal hitting rock soon filled the tunnels. Another day of work had started.
Knowing everything there was to know about his spot, Bo showed me where I should aim my tool. Without any technique or thinking much about it, I started hitting the stone.
It was hard, but not as much as I thought it would be. It probably had to do with my strength attribute, and I wondered how much stronger than normal I really was. How long did it normally take for people to get used to bigger increases in stats?
After hitting the rock a few times, it revealed a shining object that took some more effort to fully dislodge.
This isn’t how mining is supposed to happen. And this isn’t silver.
The ore was trapped in the stone instead of being part of it and the “mining” was all about breaking enough stone to free it. The ore itself was heavy, sparkling and chrome-like.
I threw it in the cart and gave a glance to the workers around me. Bo had already made a respectable hole in the wall, which made me wonder if he had attributes despite being forsaken. The other seven kids were also working hard and minding their own business. So I figured I would do the same and got back to it.
Still, something didn’t feel right. Even if I chalked up the odd mining process to this world being different, why did the mine become more hospitable the lower one went?
It’s almost as if it’s invit-
I froze and blinked.
How many kids were Bo and I we working with again?
I glanced back. There was now eight of them, working diligently one next to the other and throwing the ore they found in the cart.
Was it possible that had just not noticed them arriving? Sure.
But was it probable in the current situation?
I looked for a tell and found it. They seemed perfectly human unless I paid real attention to them. Then I could see that their skin was cracked at the joints and there was black sand seeping through the cracks.
I got back to work but my mind was elsewhere. Three of these kids weren’t really with us, and Bo had told me to leave if I noticed three weird things happening.
Did this event count as a single “thing” or three? Since I wasn’t sure, should I just take the safe option and leave? If yes, should I try to catch Bo’s attention?
Would he even pay attention to me?
That’s when I heard sobbing.
This time, I could tell I wasn’t the only one to notice from the reactions. The rhythm of the pickaxes weakened for a moment, like a scratch record.
The sound got closer until I saw a small figure walking down the tunnel. A child, terribly underdressed for how cold it probably was at this level. He was crying and wiping his eyes.
In the corner of my vision, I saw the girl make quick hand signs at her friend and then point upward with her index with pleading eyes.
He shook his head and kept hitting the stone with the same determination he had shown when he had left his mother.
The crying child got closer, then stopped when behind the boy and girl. He raised his head and I shivered. His eyes were milky white.
“Dom?” he said. “Dom is that you?”
Dom ignored him but his pickaxed was hitting the stone twice harder, veins appearing on his forehead. Probably hoping the sound would cover the voice.
“I-I’m sorry Dom. I know you told me not to. I know you told me not listen. But there was a dancing light and it was so pretty...”
Something hit me on the shoulder, and I saw Bo. He pointed at me, pointed at my pickaxe, then pointed at the wall in front of us.
I figured he was right and gave him a smile.
However, if I was going to venture alone in this place, I needed to have a better idea of what could come from behind the next corner.
“Are you angry at me?” the child said. “Are you angry at me because I touched the lights? I’m sorry Dom... Roma, please tell Dom to talk to me?”
The girl let out a whimper but otherwise kept working. Dom’s part of the wall had become a hole big enough for him to fit inside.
“It’s so cold... I miss mom.”
Those words made the teenager’s pickaxe stop moving.
“I understand if you’re angry Dom,” the boy cried. “I understand. But please, tell mom I’m sorry? Tell her I love her, and I miss her stew, and I miss when we would cook together, and..”
Dom threw his pickaxe and it flew centimeters over the boy’s head. His eyes were bloodshot.
Immediately, the girl and one of the boys he had come down with grabbed him by the arms and held him against the wall. The girl covered his mouth with her hand.
“Tell her it was your fault, okay?” the boy continued. “That you had promised to take care of me but you didn’t, even tho you’re the one who convinced her to-”
The child stopped talking and looked down the way he came from as if he had heard something. We all looked but saw nothing. He began crying harder.
“They are coming! Please don’t let them take me! Please! I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”
He was thrown against the ceiling like a rag doll and his head hit the stone. Long bone white arms came out of the stone and started slowly pulling him in.
Dom was trashing against the wall, trying to escape the grasp of those trying to save him from himself.
But then long bony fingers started wrapping themselves around his little brother’s throat, and that was too much for him to handle.
And he was gone.
One instant, he was being carried away by his friends, the next one their hands were empty and his tools were landing on the stone with loud clangs. The girl similarly fell to her knees, tears streaming down her face.
Chuckles of a child who had long ceased to be one softly echoed down the galleries, momentarily causing the sound of the pickaxes searching for the ore to stop.
Then it restarted, as monotone and numb as ever.