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Here's the next installment of our Metallum Nocturne story.  If you need to catch up on any of the previous episodes, click here.

Episode Thirty-Four

The eighth ward was mostly residential except for the Invictus Menagerie and Cryptozoo which Claire had yet to visit despite living in the city for the last five years.  The area Elle had told her to wait wasn't a concern, though she kept checking over her shoulder expecting a black SUV full of Terrors to burst out and throw her into the back.  She spotted a group of kids riding their skateboards in the half-empty parking lot of a Wizard's Coffee.  Their wheels flashed with lights and sounds, minor illusion that could be purchased at any corner trinket shop.

Claire didn't realize it was Elle walking up the sidewalk until she gave her a curt wave.  The normally brightly attired reporter wore dark clothes and had her blonde hair pulled back in business-like ponytail.  The backpack hanging from her shoulder looked trail worn with carabiners hanging over odd loops.  The choice of traveling gear made Claire regret her own clothes, which were comfortable, but lacked the functionality of Elle's outfit.

"I feel underprepared," said Claire, receiving a shoulder hug from Elle who wasn't wearing the floral perfume she usually wore. 

"That's why you asked for my help.  While this won't be the same as hiking through the Rockies, certain aspects are similar."  Elle wrinkled her nose at Claire’s footwear.  "You could use better shoes.  Those look like they're ready to disintegrate into nodules of rubber and frayed threads."

"I wore my old workout pair."

"They'll have to do since we don’t have time.  We have an appointment."

"We do?"

Elle took long purposeful strides down the sidewalk.  "Half of journalism is finding and developing sources.  The whole point is writing about the world that people aren't aware of, but that involves gaining trust.  My guy promised a short window for bypassing the guards to get into the Undercity."

They rounded the corner.  A seedy looking bar called the Goblin's Romp appeared to be their destination.  A lump of rags covered with a blue tarp moved as they approached, followed by a gravely voice asking, "Change?"

To Claire's surprise, Elle dropped a twenty-spot into the waiting hand.

"Thank you, ma'am."

As she followed Elle into the noisy bar, she asked, "Won't he just spend it on drugs or alcohol."

"Possibly, but you'd be surprised what you can learn from the homeless.  They've got nothing better to do than keep their eyes out."

The interior of the Goblin's Romp made her ears hurt.  Thumping, voluminous music blared on the speakers making thinking difficult.  Her threadbare shoes kicked sawdust as they crossed the interior, heading around a square bar that sat in the center of the space.  An ochre-skinned humanoid with a squat nose and patchy hair was serving beers to a couple of guys in biker jackets.  Further in the back she spotted a gray-skinned city fae in a tailored purple jacket having a hunched discussion with a pale woman wearing gold sunglasses.  Claire had met non-humans before, it was hard not to encounter them after five years at the university, but she'd never seen so many in one place.  Before she could ask Elle about the reason why, they headed into the back past a room with pool tables beneath a brick archway where a single hulking figure with brown skin in a muscle shirt stood before a gate.

Claire expected to be turned away, but the guard broke into a gap-toothed grin, holding his arms wide for Elle.

"Hey Turtle."

"The Dark returns," said Turtle, squeezing her gently.  "I'd love to catch up, but the guys will be back soon, amigo."

He unlocked the gate. 

"Thanks, Turtle.  I appreciate it."

"No Elle.  I appreciate what you did for my sister," said Turtle with a wink.  The big man gestured towards Claire.  "Take care of her for me.  They don't make 'em like her anymore."

"I will," said Claire, checking over her shoulder.  When they were away from the gate, headed down a circular ramp with the middle descending into the deep darkness.  "What was that about?"

"Turtle's sister Gina got mixed up with the wrong crowd.  They wanted her to be a mule."

"Drugs?"

"Nah.  Forbidden reagents, the kind of stuff that shouldn't be trafficked like freshly culled human brains, unicorn penises, or demon ichor.  My senior thesis was on that black market, which is how I knew about the Undercity and how it worked.  Some weird stuff gets bought and sold in the shadows."

"What happened to Gina?"

"She's in Canada, working as a forestry ranger.  My university had a big Ag program, which includes forest management.  I got her in with a friend who graduated with that degree."

"I never realized journalism required so many favors."  Claire peeked over the edge into an unfathomable abyss.  "How far does this go down?"

"Thousand feet or something?  Some areas are deeper, but we're not going there."

"And we'll be able to find ghost-eye mushrooms?" asked Claire.

"That's the plan.  We're hiring a guide in Big Dave's Town."

"More favors?"

Elle shook her head, making her ponytail dance.  "Cold, hard cash."

"I can't afford that," said Claire.

"Don’t worry.  For the chance to get to know you better, it's my treat," said Elle with a wink.

On the way down, they chatted about the ring and the need for fresh ghost-eye mushrooms.  Claire explained that dried mushrooms would be less effective.  To truly get the maximum effect, she would need to place an enchantment on them before harvest.  That way the crucial aspects of the ghost-eyes would be preserved until needed.  Claire was so busy extolling the virtues of her methods she didn't realize they'd exited into an enormous cavern until she saw the buzzing neon lights. 

"Woah.  This is bigger than I expected."

Big Dave's Town extended across a space of a few city blocks.  The mixed architectures had gothic three-story mansions next to ramshackle huts that served as curiosity shops.  She spotted men and women holding automatic weapons with the same neon tattoos on their forearms.  The residents matched the consistency of the bar at the top of the ramp, a mix of humans and non-humans, going about their day as if nothing was out of the ordinary. 

"Close your mouth, you'll catch flies."

"Sorry.  It's just so different."

"What were you thinking you'd find?"

Claire shook her head.  "I guess I thought caves meant waterfalls and stalactites, not shops selling powdered manticore spikes as dick hardeners."

"There's plenty of those too.  The few settlements are tiny compared to the empty areas between.  Tunnels and caverns crisscross the entire space beneath the city.  Supposedly there's a connection between the heavy magic use in the city and the existence of the unusual spaces, but no one has been able to explain it satisfactorily."

At the bottom of the ramp, they passed two guards with the neon tattoos who barely gave them any notice.  The female guard had green hair with the sides shaved.  Out of hearing range, Elle added, "This is Razor clan territory.  They keep the peace.  There's nothing to worry about."

Elle led them to a restaurant called The Devil's Lipstick.  The crimson neon sign cast its light across street.  Once again, Claire was surprised by the familiarity of the interior.  It looked like a larger version of a greasy café.  A row of locals were seated at the bar, chatting with a woman with brown frizzy hair and loud, barking voice that cut over the electronica music.  At the back of the dining area, Elle stopped before a table.  The gentleman in the single seat wore brown khakis, an outback hat, and was smoking a cigarette.  He raised his half-drank beer towards them. 

"Miss Dark?"

"Abe Scott?

"At your service.  You bring the fee?" asked Abe.

Elle reached into her backpack, revealing a brown envelope.  It landed with a healthy thump. 

"Half now and half when you bring us back out safely."

Abe peeked into the envelope, briefly thumbing through the bills before tucking it into his jacket.  He downed his beer and tossed the lit cigarette into the remaining foam. 

"Shall we?"

He didn't bother waiting, marching out of the Devil's Lipstick, forcing Claire to hurry.  As they left the restaurant, she caught a frown from the bartender, which had her checking over her shoulder.

"You see that?" she whispered to Elle.

"What?"

Abe appeared to be listening so she said, "Never mind."

"What exactly are we doing on this little expedition?" asked Abe.

"Ghost-eye fields.  You said there are some a few hours hike from Big Dave's," said Elle.

"That I did."  He stopped, turning his head and then moving in that direction.  "We'll leave by the north tunnel.  What's this about?  Researchers?"

"Hall business," said Elle.

"Which one?"

Elle elbowed her.  "Metallum Nocturne."

"One of the maker halls, gotcha," said Abe.

As they passed the clan guards on the way out of Big Dave's Town, Claire wasn't enthused by the way they stared at their guide, Abe.  Maybe she was paranoid due to everything that had gone wrong since the accident, but he was giving her bad vibes.  He had a pistol on one hip and a machete on the other.  Claire wished she'd practiced her five elements spells.

"Okay, we're about to leave the relative safety of Big Dave's," explained Abe.  "From here on out, you listen to my directions.  Move when I say to move, stop when I tell you to stop.  Under no circumstances should you be talking or making unnecessary noise.  The Undercity is a dangerous place."

After affixing head lamps to their foreheads, Abe led them into the tunnels.  The passages had markings on the walls, and a plaque pointed in two different directions.  The background noise of Big Dave's was replaced by the crunch of their boots on loose rock.  Abe walked with his hand on his pistol.  Claire might have thought the concern staged except that Elle was taking his precautions seriously.  She watched his back, looking for signs of betrayal. 

Claire kept up her vigilance for the first half hour, but over time in the constant beam-lit darkness, her attention wavered, and she found herself wondering if the Night Mother was real.  It was a concern that was growing in her mind, given the strange thoughts and cursed luck.  She had no proof, but that didn't mean she wasn't right. 

During their traverse, they crossed through many small caverns.  Some had trickles of water passing through, or limestone cascades along the wall that glinted in the light of their headlamps.  But then Abe led them into a larger cavern which their light couldn't see to the other side.  She heard the splash of a heavy waterfall far to her right and the flapping of small winged creatures fleeing their arrival.  Dust motes and tiny insects were revealed by Abe's scanning headlamp.  Claire sensed his unease and focused her attention on the cavern, wondering what he'd heard or seen.  When he reached for his pistol, Claire wished she had a knife or crowbar in her hand. 

Abe motioned them forward as they crossed the wide space.  Halfway across, he paused, his light spearing a bloody lump along the path.  The three of them examined the dead creature which looked like an angry porcupine with a skull-like face and fangs the size of her fingers. 

"What is it?" whispered Claire, hating the way her voice echoed in the space.

He crouched down, using his knife to poke at the body.  "I don't know."

"You don't know?"

The surprise in her voice prompted a quick reply.  "The excess faez in the Undercity has warped some creatures that made their home down here while others were purposely made by curious mages.  There's also rumors that there's a pathway to the Infernal realm in the Undercity and sometimes critters cross over."

"Oh," said Claire, swallowing. 

Abe rose, using his headlamp to scan in various directions.  "Stay here.  Let me follow the blood trail, make sure nothing is lurking nearby."

"Wouldn't it make more sense to come with you?" asked Elle.

Abe glanced over his shoulder.  "If something gets me, run back to the tunnel as fast as you can and hope you can make it back to Big Dave's."

He moved ahead, light alternating between the path and the surrounding cavern.  Claire got a sense of the scale as his lamp revealed stalactites or other rocky glittering features at a distance from his location. 

"You okay?" asked Elle.

"Better than getting shot at in a church or rescuing a Kentucky warlock from the Veil."

Elle tilted her head.  "What?"

"Oh, I haven't told you that story."

"Not now, but later, yes please."

Claire huddled next to Elle, shoulders touching, which brought a sense of protection despite logically knowing that it wouldn't help a damn bit if something came out of the darkness.  She watched Abe's headlamp weave through the cavern, wanting to tell him to come back once he'd gotten a hundred meters away.  He seemed to be following a trail.

A prickly sensation formed on her back.  Claire checked to her right.  The darkness closed in on her.  She felt like something was lurking just beyond the light.

"Turn off your headlamp," she whispered.

"What?  Are you crazy?"

"Just do it."

She switched off her lamp at the same time as Elle.  The darkness entombed them.  Only Abe's distant light could be seen on the other side of the cavern moving with a lazy sway. 

Gripping Elle's hand, she turned slowly, peering into the gloom.  At first, she saw nothing but the aftereffects of the light on her eyes, but as they faded, other details came into focus. 

"What are you doing?  I can't see shit," whispered Elle.

Claire shushed her as she continued to examine the area around them.  She saw the path, a ridged line of rock, and the row of potholes from when water must have filled the cavern in the past.  Then she saw the eyes.  Big, luminous forward-facing eyes.  The creature lurked on the path behind them.  Larger than the body at their feet.  It looked like a bony tiger creeping forward, stalking them.  The creature was only fifty feet away and closing. 

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About

Thomas K. Carpenter

Thomas K. Carpenter is a full time contemporary fantasy author with over 50 independently published titles. His bestselling, multi-series universe, The Hundred Halls, has over 25 books and counting. His stories focus on fantastic families, magical academies, and epic adventures.

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