Day 108. 85 pages, 37,951 words.
The basement was unusually deep and extensive, but I wasn’t particularly surprised. It would have been difficult for a Barbarian horde to vanish into a normal one. Let alone for a nagilabeast to gestate.
The reason for this depth and extensiveness soon became apparent. There had been a certain amount of tunnelling, some collapses, the exposure of the sewer system and other underground infrastructure, and then – as I peered down into the darkness and my eyes adjusted – a cave system underneath all that had also been opened out.
The result, from the bottom of the basement stairs and the little precarious rim of broken concrete flooring that surrounded it, was like looking into a canyon, or a reverse amphitheatre. The spaces increased in size, for the most part, chambers and tunnels broken open like a disturbing Lovecraftian cross-section diagram, going deeper and deeper. One of the tunnels, a dusty cement thing that might have been an aqueduct or a subway or a pneumatic transportation network for all I knew, was lit by flickering old neon lights. Another shone with what looked like gas lamps, or might even have been exposed gas deposits that had been set alight in some fortunately-controlled way. Deeper down, I thought I saw the ever-present convenient glowing fungus of your classic cave system. Either that, or I’d finally stumbled on the Great Radium Clock Graveyard of myth and legend. I hefted my little hatchet, wishing it was a Geiger counter instead.
Wondering how the Hell the horde had managed to get down here with their horses – but it was undeniable, as I was still seeing the occasional hoofprint in the dust and gravel – I edged around the remains of the basement floor, past a stack of old magazines and newspapers, and descended a sort of ramp formed of broken foundation slabs, rocks and packed dirt. At the widest part of this, in a big hollowed-out section of earth and limestone, the main concentration of nagilablood, not to mention human blood, told me this was where the monster had built its chrysalis and, ultimately, lost its life. The hollow was easily thirty metres long, and raw gashes on the outer section of the ledge showed where the Barbarians had simply shoved the carcass over the side after collecting its blood. This made sense, since nagilabeasts had a nasty habit of exploding when their internal organs decomposed and collected enough pressure. That might have been what had opened the levels below, come to think of it.
From the next section down, I followed the prints to a twisted steel walkway that had pulled free from a tunnel and collapsed into the space below, making another ramp of sorts.
I descended this, grimacing as my footfalls set it bouncing and caused the occasional pebble to dislodge and rattle away along the tortured metal. Part of the walkway angled over a particularly deep part of the chasm, a sort of crack that jagged through the centre of the space. The crack was dark and chilly and silent, swallowing air like it swallowed the constant rain of small bits of debris and basement-junk, and had swallowed whatever had been left of the thirty-metre nagilabeast after the Barbarian Convention had been at it and it had exploded. I didn’t breathe until I’d passed the crack, and when I reached the end of the walkway I found I had to jump a not-inconsiderable distance to the wide opening adjacent.
Fortunately the walkway was sloped down and jutted like a diving board, and the opening was slightly further down and not too far away, so I was able to fling myself across without requiring much in the way of acrobatics or lift. Still, I reflected, a steed might have been a nice thing to have at this stage.
The next level wasn’t a tunnel, and wasn’t quite a cave, but looked like one of those neglected old concrete-bunker style utilities rooms you find in the sub-sewers. This one had a row of cabinets along one wall – smashed open and apparently looted, although it seemed as though all they’d contained were some clunky old porcelain resistors and the horde had left them lying around on the floor – and a metal door in the wall opposite. This had been smashed open, but the passageway beyond was collapsed in a mass of concrete and limestone just a few metres in. I turned back to the open section into which I’d leapt, and saw that the Barbarians had jumped into this room, regrouped, and doubled back to continue their heroic, whooping descent into the unknown by leaping down to the top of a loose mound of debris between the chasm wall and the nearest cave mouth.
I jumped down as well, slid on the broken scree, and stumbled into the cave.
I wasn’t sure if it was a cave, after a few dozen metres – it was smooth and seemed almost man-made, but I couldn’t really tell because it was too dark. Fortunately the regularity of the sloping tunnel meant I wasn’t in immediate danger of banging my head or falling, and when light finally began to creep back into the space I could no longer see the chasm by which I had entered. The cave boomed deeply with the distant sound of surf, or perhaps some underground waterfall, or maybe even traffic. It was hard to say.
After a while, I became aware of a shifting red-orange light playing on the wall ahead, and as I approached it revealed an up-coming bend in the tunnel. The light, and I already had my suspicions about its source, was reflecting down this bend and gave my eyes time to adjust to its warm, natural glow. By the time I rounded the corner and stepped into the small, innocuously decorated room, the illumination was quite bright but not so harsh as to force me to squint.
The room had no other visible access points and the entire Barbarian horde was not inside it, which would of course have made it seem even smaller but was confusing because there was no other way they could have gone. To be fair, though, the room was cramped enough with just the one guy who was in there, sitting in a mouldy old armchair several sizes too small for him. Most things were several sizes too small for Brutan. I tended to work on the assumption that he came from a world several sizes bigger than this one. Either that, or someone had made him several sizes too big for everything, as a joke.
As I’d begun to suspect, the source of the light was Brutan the Warrior himself. The Burnin’ Dude. Old Big Boots.
Brutan was a strange Barbarian. In fact, I wasn’t at all sure whether he even was one. I was only certain he wasn’t any of the other alternatives, just as I was certain Yoru wasn’t really a cobbler. All of these magnificent thugs just filled a Barbarian-shaped emptiness in the universe, and since they expanded to fill all available space within that volume, that was what they wound up being. Brutan the Warrior’s shape also happened to be on fire for some reason, which was why he was providing illumination to the cave.
The hulking, flame-wreathed figure was leaning uncomfortably forwards in his tiny little normal-sized armchair, an oddly intent look on his big ol’ face. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he looked nervous … but that couldn’t be right.
“Um, hi,” I said awkwardly, suddenly aware that I was holding a small axe. I stuffed it back in my pocket. Brutan’s could-it-possibly-be-nervous expression didn’t change, so it hadn’t been the hatchet worrying him.
“Howi,” Brutan grunted.
“So,” I said, “it’s just you here, then.”
“Just me,” Brutan said. “Do you … know who I am?”
“Of course,” I replied. More seemed expected of me, so I went on, “I’ve read all your … stories. You’re Brutan the Warrior,” I paused again. “Do you know who I am?” I asked, without much optimism.
Brutan squinted at me. “Strangely, no,” he said. “I don’t even know which one you are, which is weird because … well.”
“We’re not exactly similar,” I said diplomatically. “I’m Hatboy.”
“Oh,” Brutan’s expression shifted to something closer to disappointment than anxiety. This wasn’t exactly flattering, but at least it made a bit more sense in the context.
“Creepy’s probably halfway to the fake shipwreck Yoru sent him to by now,” I offered.
“Doesn’t matter. We never had much luck getting through to him. ‘I’ve read all your stories’ is actually pretty good in comparison.”
“Okay,” I said, and looked around. The space really was rather bare. There was something scratched on the wall behind Brutan, but ‘behind Brutan’ was a fairly large subset of the room. “Where did the others go?”
“Back,” he shrugged.
This was a line I’d used during my time in Xix, so I didn’t begrudge him. “Okay,” I said again. “Did you guys find the 1500, at least?”
Brutan spread his enormous fiery hands. “This is it,” he said. “This is the 1500.”
“Sorry, you lost me.”
“Why do your adventures always take you through doors to other worlds,” Brutan said, “or under the ground to some deeper level of your own? Have you looked outwards lately?” he leaned back in his chair, making it groan into its own upholstery. “Have you looked outwards ever?”
“Not much to see in the Wasteland,” I remarked.
“And getting less all the time,” Brutan agreed. His flames began to brighten. I reached up and donned my sunglasses. “You need to escape, Hatboy. You both need to escape, and we can’t help you.”
“That’s what the Myconet said,” I grimaced, shielding my eyes against the glare. “Maybe if you didn’t all speak in riddles … ”
“We can’t give you any new information. I’m only telling you shit you already know,” Brutan’s fire shifted to a heatless blue-white radiance, obliging me to close my eyes and turn my head. “Happy 1500, Hatboy. Get out before it’s too late.”
As I’d suspected, Big Boots was gone when I opened my eyes again, although the armchair continued to emit soft tongues of orange and blue flame to illuminate the room. In its slowly-flickering glow, I looked at the words carved into the rear wall.
DEEPER? I BARELY EVEN META.
The ground shook warningly.
“Fine,” I grumbled, and turned to begin my ascent.