Watching Connie climb up the natural chimney that lead out of the cavern they’d been trapped in, Val found herself wondering where a librarian had gotten muscles so amazingly toned. Not that lifting weights hadn’t done the same for Val, but if shelving heavy books could give definition like Connie had then Val wanted to look into the benefits cross training could provide.
Of course first they had to get home safely.
For a change they seemed to be off to a good start on that. Once they left the crevasse Connie and Joe had hidden in, they’d found a warren of natural and carved caves connected by irregular, time-worn tunnels. Avoiding the “zombies” as Connie called them proved to be easy. They tended to scurry away from light that Tam carried, rather than shambling forward like any other self respecting undead menace would.
With their travel unhindered, Connie was able to lead the rest to the exit to the higher levels of the ruins. She explained the significance of the various inscribed artwork as they went and made guesses as to each chamber’s purpose. That was mildly interesting to Val, but what really caught her attention was the well maintained vault door that sealed what Connie deemed to be the exit tunnel.
Someone far more modern than the original builders had remodeled the ruins to their own ends, which wasn’t too surprising. Val had a decent idea who might be responsible based on the briefing Tam had assembled and, if luck was on her side, she hoped she’d get a chance to meet them face-to-face before the current dungeon crawl was done.
“You doing okay up there Connie?” Joe asked in a whisper. He’d recovered from his fainting spell and looked horribly embarrassed by it, despite Connie and Val’s reassurances that it wasn’t his fault.
Extreme stress did nasty things to humans, both physically and psychologically. No matter how brave you were, even a relatively small shock could knock the wind out of your sails if it hit you right. That Joe was able to keep moving forward was a more important measure of his resiliency than anything else, but Joe had a lifetime of cultural programming that told him any sign of weakness proved him to be unfit as a man, and no rational argument was going to completely wipe away the effects of that, especially not while he was still under a life threatening amount of stress.
“I’ve been better,” Connie said, grunting as she grabbed another handhold and pulled herself up another foot in the natural chimney. “But been a lot worse too. We’ll call today a ‘5’ or so I’d say.”
With the primary exit blocked, it had been up to Tam to find them an option for escaping the cave complex. As far as Val could tell Tam hadn’t used any actual magic to do so. The spell to transport them through the shadows between the Second Chance Club in North America and a long forgotten cavern in Peru had left Tam ‘chilled’ in her own words.
To Val, Tam’s hands had felt as warm as they normally were but there was a slight frost that followed each puff of breath that Tam took. Val didn’t want to guess what other costs the spell had exacted. It was enough to know that Tam wasn’t at 100% and that she was relying on Val to carry the load until the mystic consequences of getting them to Peru wore off.
“Do you need a hand?” Joe asked.
“No applause please,” Connie said. “This isn’t as difficult as our star is making it look. She’s just a bit out of practice. And possibly still drugged.”
Connie rose another few feet as she spoke, putting her about twenty feet above them, and roughly half the distance up the chimney. Her movements were neither sluggish from drugs, nor particularly weak or uncertain though. Any claims of difficulty she made seemed to be for dramatic effect or to convince Joe not to worry about following her.
That was a kind gesture. The climb itself wasn’t trivial, and Val guessed it might have stymied either Tam or Joe. Connie was already extending her limbs far enough to show a visible strain while she climbs. Tam and Joe, both being shorter than her, would have had to extend farther and hold their weight at a more difficult angle. Connie’s angles weren’t optimal ones either, but she handled her movements and transitions with a reassuring ease, which was what Val had been interested in observing. Val could have gone first but Charlene was hoping to recruit Connie as a new associate for the club, and it was always a good idea to know what you could expect from your teammates.
“I think I’m right,” Tam said, as she examined the carving on the wall of the chamber they were standing in. “This should lead up a bath chamber in one of the sealed areas of the ruins above.”
“We’re climbing up into a bathroom?” Val asked. “This is kinda big to be a toilet isn’t it?”
“Not a bath like that,” Connie said from above them. “We think it had ritual significance. The room you’re in is a memorial chamber. The ashes of dead were interred in the catacombs below the city. That’s basically where you are. Up here, the people would cleanse themselves and then speak their ancestors and offer them gifts.”
“Like a giant wishing well? Why not just come down here?” Val asked.
“The lower caves were a sacred place, we think,” Connie said. “Of course whenever we don’t understand what people were doing we assume it was had some religious significance. It could be that they just liked rock climbing a lot, and I’m using this chimney as the makers intended all along.”
“What happens if she falls?” Joe asked, trying to be quiet enough that Connie couldn’t hear him. He failed. It wasn’t his fault, Val thought, Connie just had fantastically good hearing.
“You all get to see how high I can bounce,” she said. “Put me in the betting pool for a good six inches on that one.”
“I’ll catch her,” Val said, offering Joe a reassuring smile.
“That’s a bad idea,” Connie said. “Not that I’m going to fall, but trust me you do not want to try to catch me at the bottom of a forty foot drop. I don’t want to kill the both of us if I slip.”
“I’d suggest not slipping then,” Val said. Connie was right, catching someone from a forty foot fall was an excellent method of producing two shattered bodies rather than one, but Val hadn’t come on the trip without a few mystic enhancements of her own. It wouldn’t be fun to act as a breakfall for Connie but it would be a lot more fun than letting her go splat on the hard stone.
“You’re in luck,” Connie said as she reached the top of the chimney. “Today it’s Connie 1, gravity 0. Anyone else want to try their luck against a fundamental force of nature?”
“I’m next,” Val said. “Tam, will you be okay down here while we get that vault door open?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m starting to thaw a little, and I’ll have Joe to keep me company.”
“We’re not going up too?” Joe asked, a mixture of worry and relief swirling across his face.
“I’m not in the best shape for a climb like that,” Tam said. “And I’d prefer not to be alone with the things down here.”
It was a gentle lie, arranged between Tam and Val with nothing more than small glances and nods. Joe’s fainting was, at least in part, due to the drugs his kidnappers had pumped into him. He was mobile but far from full strength and a relapse midway up the chimney would have disastrous results. At the time same time though, leaving him behind and alone wasn’t likely to end well either.
There was also a kernel of truth in Tam’s reluctance to make the climb. The shadow walk spell had taken a toll on her and the extra time to rest was something she would appreciate. Plus it would be easier for two people to scout the ruins than for four.
“You two hang tight then,” Val said. “We’ll be back once we’ve found a safe route out.”
“How long should we wait?” Joe asked. “In case you don’t I mean.”
“I need to spend a couple hours working on some sleight of hand tricks,” Tam said, pulling a deck of cards from a pocket that Val was reasonably certain had been empty a few moments earlier. “If they’re not back by then, we’ll give the chimney a shot.”
“I’ll be in touch if something comes up,” Val said, tapping the earring she wore before leaping up to start as high in the chimney as she could.
She held off using any of the enchantments she was carrying. It was fun to show off but there were enough dangerous people in the ruins above that she wasn’t ready to spend any of her resource if she didn’t have to, and even without magical aid she was able to ascend the forty feet in under half a minute. Far from Olympic time, she knew, but then Olympic times tended to be under more favorable conditions and by people more practiced in speed climbing.
“So, Tam said we’re in part of the ruins that are still sealed,” Val said. “How do we get to the other side of where the vault door is?”
“We’ll need to find the main path that leads down to the lower catacombs,” Connie said. “How does Tam know about this place though? We came here hoping to discover it based on some random notes I found that an 18th century monk wrote. No one thought there was anything here, and she somehow has the blueprints for it?”
“More like a rough sketch of the setup,” Val said.
“Yeah, but where did she even get that?” Connie asked. “I mean if this place is well known, then somebody would have published something about it. There’s enough here to explore and catalogue to justify a lifetime worth of grants.”
“She talked to the people in the city below the catacombs,” Val said. “It’s how we found where you were.”
“Wait, the what now?” Connie asked.
“It’s probably something I should explain later,” Val said. “The short form is; the world is stranger than most people know, and some of the strangeness wants it to stay like that.”
“So you’re saying there’s a city’s worth of human beings who’ve lived deep beneath the Earth’s surface for years? Generations? Millenia? And you somehow have their phone number?”
“No,” Val said. “I mean, they don’t have phones, obviously, and also they’re not human. More like lava people I think? We didn’t have a lot of time to go over that, and Tam was very clear that bothering them in person would be a bad idea.”
“Lava people?” Connie asked.
“Yeah,” Val said and waited for the inevitable cry of ‘but that’s impossible.’
“Hmm, ok, that makes more sense,” Connie said with a shrug.
“It does?” Val asked.
“Yeah. Humans living exclusively underground for generations would have all sorts of problems, from fresh air, to viable food and water, to heat and pressure issues depending on how deep they were. Lava people probably don’t have to worry about any of that.”
Val watched as Connie inspected a section of the wall and slid it smoothly out of place, revealing it to be a long unused door.
Acclimating to the stranger aspects of working with the Second Chance Club hadn’t been too bad for Val, but that was largely because Tam and Anna had introduced her to the more fantastical elements they dealt with slowly. Connie didn’t seem to need any of that, or, Val wondered, had the crisis they were in rattled Connie’s hold on reality enough that anything seemed reasonable?
She watched Connie for signs of mania or dissociation, knowing that she might easily miss the clues due to her lack of training as a psychologist. Connie, for her part, was busy examining the carvings on the walls as they walked down a passageway that was flanked by empty rooms. She seemed normal, or at least what passed for normal in the short time Val had known her.
“I think the religious idea was right,” she said. “The carvings here look like they’re related to ones commonly found on tombs, which means this area we’re in was a reserved space, I think, separate from the rest of the living and work areas.”
They turned a corner to find a wide archway leading out to a large chasm. Once upon a time a bridge had spanned the chasm, but only a partial arch worked stone was left on each side, the center having fallen away completely. As methods of sealing one area of a complex off from the rest went, it seemed a pretty solid option.
“There’s another bridge below us,” Connie said. “That must lead to the catacombs Joe and Tam are in.”
“So we need to get to the other side to get down there?” Val asked.
“We could try climbing down, but I don’t like how the walls arc inward from here,” Connie said.
“Yeah, me either. Also, we don’t know if we can get out from that level either,” Val said.
“Only one way to go then!” Connie said and backed up a few paces.
“Wait that’s…” but Val didn’t get to finish speaking before Connie bolted forward like a shot.
It was an impressive leap by any measure. The gap in the bridge was wide enough that crossing it would have been impossible for most people. Where they would have fallen to their death though, Connie managed to make it far enough to hit the edge of the bridge and then grab on before falling back into the abyss below.
With a grunt and some annoyance at the pain, she began to pull herself up.
“Sorry,” she said. “It’s a bit farther than it looks.”
She was trying to protect Val. Val could see that. One person could sneak easier than two, and Connie looked to be the type who didn’t let others take on dangers when she could handle the danger for them. It was a nice thought. Val had a better one though.
With a few quick steps, she breathed in the scent of a spring meadow and bounded forwards with the proportional speed and strength of a jack rabbit. Her leap carried her across the gap, and down the far side of the bridge where she somersaulted to a graceful landing before scurrying back to the edge of the bridge and helping Connie get up safely.
“That was a good leap,” a man said in Spanish. “Maybe we can have some fun later?”
Val turned and noticed two important things. The man in the corridor beyond the bridge wasn’t alone, and he and his friends were all pointing their rifles at her.