The Ascent from the Buried City

Summary: The underground city of Haven was built eons ago to survive a catastrophe upon the surface. When a scholar's disconcerting findings reveal the possibility of something outside, a renegade swordsman must face what awaits them on the surface.

1. The Bastion Beneath

Haven believed itself the grandest, final bastion of humanity, descended in more ways than consanguinity from those whom first buried themselves within the subterranean city. Having established a series of traditions to guide the habitat and ensure its proper guidance for posterity, the dangerous knowledge of the ancients and their failed societies was Stricken from written memory. Names of people and places upon the surface were also consigned that historical oblivion, for the survival of the present was placed above any nostalgia for the surface.

Haven itself continued through centuries of history, but the achievements of previous generations were systematically removed. As political generations wore onwards alongside the indelible march of time, a generation of administrators would often purges of their predecessors' records to magnify their own achievements and diminish that influence of their predecessors.

That historical catabolism allowed retrenchment of that eons-old social structure. Titles changed, but power ossified amongst bureaucracies that lingered without traces of their original name or purpose. The Magistrates were the latest clade to ascend to Haven's stratified society, and they continued their forebears' traditions under new names. In this way, they were the unwitting continuation of identical practices to the generations that proceeded them.

Having restricted education, martial arts, and technical knowledge to the castes beneath them, the Magistrates consolidated power. As per the standards established by the Stricken, each Magistrate bore an entourage of personal duelists with which to resolve disputes by arbitration or ritual combat. A handful of professions pledged themselves to no individual magistrate, but instead swore to work for the survival of Haven itself: healers, peace officers, chief scholars, and technical specialists that maintained the vast, unknowable machines that sustained Haven. At the very bottom of the structure came the servants, unskilled laborers, and food-vat growers that dwelt on the lower levels.

With all physical needs accommodated within Haven, the Stricken designed Haven as able to weather any catastrophe conceivable to their esoteric sciences. Unspoken but often debated among the few intellectuals in the city was the implication that unwanted discovery revealed some cosmic truth or discovery so disconcerting, it warranted total erasure of their heritage. Unplanned innovations were seen as novelties at best and threats at worst, so technical knowledge was obscured and concealed to overbearing degrees. Growing as complacent as slothful worms, the Magistrates failed to consider that the greatest discovery in Haven's history would inadvertently come from a Duelist.

2. The Unsworn Duelist

The clangor of sword upon sword echoed in the Dueling Hall. A handful of blade types had endured the ages, although their initial names and heritages had been long lost. Among the most common ones were two-edged long-swords, single-edged chopping sabers, and thin rapier blades. Men and women sparred with dull-edged weapons, practicing strikes under the stentorian shouts of the Master-at-Arms. Like the other professions, each of the skirmishers was selected for their calling after the civil service exams of their teenage years. Trained and equipped far more thoroughly than security officers, the Magistrates relied upon them as trusted enforcers.

Haven's greatest warriors were forged in that training crucible. Sparring partners were paired by build, height, and experience. The older duelists primarily remained as instructors, while the youngest were separated by age. Their skin tones ranged from pale to the coppery brown that was most common in Haven. Hair was cut short for all duelists, so that an opportunistic opponent would be unable to grapple it. Geometric tattoos of neon green were etched onto their faces, each sigil telling their name, class, rank, and Magistrate affiliation. The most elaborate of the tattoos corresponded to the most storied lives.

One of the most elaborate tattoos belonged to a bronze man looking as though he was five or six lustrums in age. His muscular body resembled an eidolon of athleticism, but his eyes belied an intelligence uncharacteristic of his appearance. Scars from uncounted duels marred his face, torso, and arms, but he moved without abnormality from visible injury. The most astute who met him noticed his tattoo lacked the patronage of a single Magistrate. As the most feared man in the Dueling Hall, Orti would not have it any other way.

Orti the Evenhanded received his moniker not from his saber and dirk style, but his professional oratory style in mediating disputes. Able to understand the concerns of multiple parties from the impartial perspective of an informed outsider, he had successfully resolved more cases by tongue than by sword. Consciously aware of his skill, he lived below his means and allowing the Magistrates to seek him out. Spurning them, he instead preferred to represent lowliest laborers for the same reasons they toiled, for the survival of Haven. He remained Unsworned to maintain his treasured impartiality to Haven, but one case threatened the precarious but coveted autonomy he had achieved.

3. The Evenhanded Assessment

A rapier-wielding duelist in a dearth of patience arrived in Orti's quarters early during first quarter of the twenty-four hour cycles of light and darkness that Haven lived under. Strutting about like a bird of prey stuffed in an undersized coup, Rak the Needle stood unapologetic for waking him up in the dark phase of the cycle. She sat in sweat-soaked armor, as if she had been in some undue haste to meet him. Orti suspected other reasons, but greeted her as both knelt facing each other. Her eyes, nose, and mouth were completely surrounded by the hexagon tattoo that denoted her as serving the Security Magistrate. The lines of fractal triangles that sprouted from each of the vertices like wall-hanging ivy listed her noteworthy duels and cases, such as the diamond signifying her decapitation of a captured assassin.

"Greetings, Duelist Rak," he said with a bow and traditional greeting to Haven's most lethal Duelist. "What brings you to my room so early? Can I get you something to eat?"

"No, Duelist Orti. You can assist me in catching a dangerous fugitive," Rak said, spewing out each syllable as though giving orders. "A rogue scholar has stolen something from the Magistrate of Security."

"Should that not be an issue for the security officers, Duelist Rak? I am sure they can catch a petty thief, especially a scholar with no combat training."

"Do not presume to trivialize this case. This man threatens the survival of Haven itself."

While Orti had heard such an expression used before, he had grown skeptical and jaded of exaggerations of minutiae. Nevertheless, he obeyed the traditional politeness due to a fellow duelist. "Duelist Rak, may I inquire what he stole?"

Rak's nostrils flared, as if he had directly challenged her to a duel. She leaned forwards, turning her hips to the side as if considering to draw her sword or not. She hesitated for a moment, which was all Orti needed to tap on his own worn weapons. Reminded she was precariously close to her host's shorter weapons, her hands returned to being folded in front of her.

"He has stolen an instrument vital to the engineers, and he has hidden it somewhere in the lower levels," Rak said. "Given your prior advocacy for the lesser castes, he may try to contact you. I hope you will not be foolish enough to believe any lies from his mouth. He has murdered two security officers and a novice Duelist in cold blood, and those outside the Duelist code behave like uncouth animals."

"If I happen across anything related to this man, I shall keep you informed," Orti said, bowing his head. "Now, would you like anything to eat?"

"No," Rak said as she rose to her feet. "Goodbye, Duelist Orti."

"May the sacrifices of the Stricken honor you."

"And you as well."

Rak headed towards the front door, only stopping to bow discourteously like a half-considered afterthought. She slammed the metallic door behind her, causing the riveted walls of Orti's quarters to resonate like a chiming gong. Orti waited for a moment to ensure she was gone before standing up and righting a cup that had fallen on his sheet metal desk. Confident that the Security Magistrate's most lethal underling was gone, he locked the door and opened his closet.

A perspiration soaked young man with verdigris skin, barely to his fourth lustrum, stepped out of the closet with a metal cube in his hands. He bore the octagonal tattoo of the scholarly clade, but he lacked the distinguishing marks of accomplishment that experience and age brought. He wore only a ragged green raiment that was all that remained of his jumpsuit. His fearful, almond-shaped eyes stared up at Orti with a look of simultaneous terror and relief.

"I had anticipated visitors, but you must have truly drawn the ire of the Security Magistrate if Rak is here," Orti said. "She is no mere thieftaker."

"T-thank you, Duelist," the boy said as he bowed low. "I-I owe you my life."

"Under the Duelist Code, I am entitled to choose my cases," Orti said. "I cannot determine the truth of your claims against hers, until I see the evidence."

After the young scholar recomposed himself, Orti listened to his story in full once more. Named Itos, the youth explained how Security Magistrate Tupa hired him to illicitly delve into deepest workings of the machinery that sustained Haven. Orti was aware of the escalating vendetta between Utilities Magistrate Wera and Tupa, especially as the security officers were split evenly in support of both. Tupa believed the continuing lighting blackouts, sewage leaks, and ventilation failures to be part of some conspiracy to undermine his legitimacy, while Wera had taken the opportunity to cast blame at Tupa's most vocal supporters. Lesser Magistrates and their Sworn Duelists rallied behind both, while the machines continued to falter.

"Is it not obvious that Haven is dying?" Orti asked with a heavy sigh. "But that we once more tear ourselves to bits, only to die alone in the darkness?"

"The truth is our continued existence has always been precarious," Itos explained. "Among the Stricken lore was the knowledge of how and why the Great Machines functioned, while all of our repairs have been piecemeal improvisations without knowledge of that underlying theory."

"Yet you claim to have found something even more troubling."

"Yes," Itos said, pausing once more as if in guarded utterance of some manifold blasphemy. "We are not alone."

While it was not the first time Orti had heard the boy repeat that statement, the implications greatly unnerved him to a degree beyond facing a fearsome combatant in the arena. The central conceit of the Magistrates and their forebears was that nothing had endured whatever doom had fallen upon the world long ago. Most Havenites never imagined anything beyond the walls of their synthetic cavern, for the dimming glow of lights under concrete ceilings was the only conceivable universe. That something existed beyond it was a blasphemy that would shatter the tenuous peace.

Officially, the Magistrates retained their forebears' policy that no other survivors remained, but Orti sometimes questioned if they were aware of some terrible truth they concealed from the public. While troubling, he wondered if the outsiders were even human. What if they were some invading, hostile race coming to finish what that long-ago catastrophe failed? What if they were the forgotten nation that built Haven in untold antiquity, coming to save their kin? These and more questions whirled in the Duelist's head as he discussed the implications with Itos.

"Perhaps it is best if you see the evidence itself," Itos said. "The metal box I carry is a cipher of sorts, which will allow us access to the ancient machine containing the evidence."

"But you have said the machine is far below, in the lower levels."

"The lowest level."

"That will take us through both warring Magistrates' territory. I will escort you there, and then judge the veracity for myself."

The ever-grateful Itos uttered a litany of kind words and complements, but Orti ignored them for other reasons than boredom. The boy was no Duelist, and was bound by a different code than his own. Reflecting that their destination would take them outside the rigid structures that defined Haven, he gave the boy a parrying dagger and short-sword to defend himself with. With a few quick lessons, Itos was using the weapon as deftly as any neophyte Duelist. His gratitude only deepened, Itos kissed Orti. Never one to decline an offer of intimacy before facing death once more, he accepted it.

4. The Old Bones of Haven

Orti checked that the corridor was clear before permitting Itos to emerge from his quarters. Securing the door behind him, he adjusted to the weighty armored coat he now wore over his jumpsuit. With links of chainmail between layers of metal plate, he felt confident the protective gear would continue to turn aside the blades of any Duelist that stood before him. As Itos led him into an access hatch at the end of the steel and concrete corridor, he was reminded of his admittance to a realm where the onerous rules of the Dueling arena no longer held sway.

Like a rodent compressing itself through bricks, Orti squeezed behind the limber and lithe youth in those rusted tunnels. The corrosion of massive iron beams that held up Haven was visible in the eerie chemical glow of the glass tube the scholar used to illuminate their path. The Duelist wondered how long the foundations of their society had been unmaintained, or if some day, Haven would simply collapse like a tottering cairn of stones. In his deepest cynicism, he ruminated if the moral decay was contemporary with structural decay. The tunnels eventually yielded to a lattice of naked iron and steel, with only ladders and precarious walkways between primary supports over the yawning abyss. Had he ever seen a forest, he would have seen the skeleton of Haven as a jungle of deadly hazards.

In that abject blackness between the walls, Orti beheld the metallic entrails of the shelter's utilities. The humble conduits, ducts, pipes, and wires that supported a million souls meandered like a den of serpents through the blackness. A thick patina of rust and grit gathered upon each, densest in the places where they rested upon beams. Ancient rivets popped from timeworn girders like metal mushrooms. Though his gloves prevented him from feeling the jagged, discolored beams, he imagined that falling from the narrow walkway would result in a painful demise. A smell between carrion and excrement made the Duelist wish he had worn a face-covering helmet.

Orti tightly grasped onto the rope Itos had tied to their waists, in case either of them should fall from their perches. Like birds in the mouth of a crocodile, they moved with deliberate care amongst the old bones of Haven. The Duelist nearly fell from his perch, only for Itos' small hands to pull him back with surprising strength. The scholar proceeded the larger Duelist's movements, as his lighter frame enabled him to scout ahead without the perils of blindly blundering through. Through that lightless, eternally nocturnal realm, they descended to a point that Itos halted at.

Orti looked down and divined the reason for halting the celerity of their descent. Beneath the current layer of bridges, no ladders, walkways, or platforms remained to safely convey them below. Whether such aids had rusted away or had never been built, the Duelist did not care. Itos instead lead him into an aperture in the concrete similar to the one they had entered the ancient metalwork with, drawing him back into the habitable area of Haven by means of the ubiquitous access tunnels. He perceived the cement around them was faded, brittle, and chipped relative to that on the higher levels.

Moving through the access tunnels at the lower level reminded Orti of the time he had required an engineer to clear a section of clogged piping in his quarters. The proper corridors had little to differentiate themselves from the access tunnels. The mildew-scented dampness of the corridor was a contrast to the antiseptic sterility of the upper levels. Strange black growths stewed in pools of moisture across the tunnel floor. The handful of artificial lights that worked flickered and glowed with the dimness of the shift-end cycle. He had no idea how much time had elapsed since he entered the shaft, but the neglect of the lower levels' well-being was now wholly apparent to him.

Itos led the way around the bend, peaking cautiously around the corner. A yawning chasm in the floor dropped a level below into a band of squalid rooms with scavenged items strewn about seemingly at random. Orti did not know if some catastrophe or erosion had riven the corridor, but he did not care to find out. A narrow ledge along the wall was the sole way forwards, and he struggled to flatten himself against it. With the added bulk of his armor, the toes of his steel-tipped boots overhung the ledge to a degree to give him vertigo. With each step, he heard the floor beneath him creak as flakes and chips fell towards the level below. While the fall was potentially survivable, he did not care to experiment.

As they reached the other side, Orti succumbed to a sense of false security. As he crossed the last meter until solid ground, the ledge collapsed. He fell like a sack of rocks, suspended only by the climbing rope around his waist. Itos laid down on the level above him, grasping the edge for security. The youth feigned strength, but the weight of the armed and armored Duelist threatened to pull him to into the cleft. Looking down, he realized the fall would only be a meter, and likely terminate upon a rotten table beneath him. Ordering the youth to meet him at the nearest stairwell, he cut the line. He did not expect to find the denizens of those festering rooms staring directly at him.

5. The Magistrates' Reach

Orti first panicked as he made eye contact with the large brown eyes of a laborer. He stood up, bowed as if in apology, and smelt something off. The muscle-bound man's facial tattoos were darkened by rust-colored stains. As the Duelist approached, the chemical light on his shoulder revealed the lacerations and bruises upon the man's head. Staring deeply into dead, empty eyes, the Duelist stepped backwards and drew his weapons as if expecting an ambush. Only the echo of footfalls down a distant corridor broke the silence, but he felt he would not have to wait long to meet the man's killers.

Orti saw other corpses as he surveyed the rooms, each a grisly abattoir. Children were pummeled into blood pulps that made it impossible to tell where the remains ended and floor began. The adults were beaten and mutilated in seemingly whimsical ways, leaving long sanguine trails across their makeshift dwellings. The nausea that overcame him was both repulsion at the charnel stench and revulsion of the savages that would butcher the poorest people in the Haven in cold blood. From the way the bodies were strewn about the room, no evidence remained of peaceful or quick deaths. What appeared to him as a broken, improvised crossbow stoked his hopes they had taken down some of those their persecutors with them.

Orti began life slathered in blood, and in all likelihood, he would leave it in a similar way. He took cover beside a collapsed wall as he listened to the direction of the footsteps. It was not the soft footfalls of the young scholar, but the metallic reverberations of armored boots upon stairs. He estimated their number to be at least half a dozen, perhaps more. They moved with synchronous steps like a military unit, marching with one mind and heart. He had no illusions that these interlopers would not look kindly upon him.

"Tell Magistrate Tupa we found the boy he was after, and we're going to search for the Unsworn and any stranglers in the lower levels," ordered a man with a bellowing officer's voice. "Some got away from the first sweep."

From this, Orti understood the thin and spiteful logic the killers justified their actions with, that these lowliest of Haven's workers would be natural supporters of the Utilities Magistrate. He reflected of the grim irony of Magistrate Wera caring far less about the fates of the laborers than Tupa's death squad. As horrific as the massacre was, the thought of what iniquities Tupa's minions would inflict on Itos was far more unnerving. As green as the boy was, Orti began to enjoy his company.

Orti waited for the security squad to move into view before planning his attack. The fires that burnt within him relished the chance to send the murderers to ends more agonizing than their innocent victims. While a handful of Magistrates paid lip service to the workers that toiled beneath, it was the Unsworn Duelist that found himself battling for them alone. The only difference was this engagement occurred outside the sclerotic traditions of the arena. Part of Orti welcomed the opportunity to experiment outside the boundaries that choked him. He would not let Itos succumb to the capricious cruelties the Magistrate's minion would inflict upon him.

Orti observed four security officers, clad in gray robes with their traditional brace of daggers, baton, and buckler. The four had a dagger and buckler drawn, ready to turn aside any makeshift weapons that would rain down upon him. One attached a chemical lantern to his buckler, and he led the other three north from the stairs.

Another four descended, with poor Itos bound in chains in the center of their formation. Two of the officers had only their batons drawn in their left hands, as their right hands were bandaged tightly. The third officer held Itos' bloodied sword, and the Duelist found himself proud the scholar had injured two trained security officers. The fourth one nervously scanned to their south, shoving Itos before them as if to test the stability of the floor before them.

Loathing to see his client abused so thoroughly, Orti made his decision. The Duelist sprinted from his hiding place with swords raised. A manic cry escaped his lips as the quartet wheeled towards his location. While well-trained and experienced, the single fighter was faster in the corridor's narrow confines. With an alacrity honed in years of spilt blood, he brought his swords crashing down on the head of a baton-armed guard. Finishing what Itos had started, his heavy saber blow left the man's head attached to his body only by a strip of narrowly connected flesh.

Orti laughed as an arc of purple arterial blood spurted from the ravaged stump. The walls and floor of the moldering tunnels were painted with an arabesque of human bodily fluids as his dagger found a comfortable opening in the second club-man's armor. Finishing the wounded warrior off first, he effortlessly slipped past the human cordon. The two remaining fighters called for their comrades, and the Duelist knew he had to finish them quickly.

Orti turned aside a clumsy blow from the officer with Itos' sword, only to take a thrust in the torso from the officer with a buckler and dagger. The scraping of the blade against his breastplate was enough to remind him uncomfortably of his own mortality, but it was the second movement he anticipated. As the buckler collided with the top of his helmet, he burst upwards with his saber. Trapping the shield-hand with his dagger, he drove the saber's edge into the officer's shoulder. Slicing through tendons and bone, he felt the arm go limp and drop the shield.

With a step back, Orti beheld two blades flash at him from different directions. Darting away with a rapid sidestep away from the longer blade, he countered with a saber cut that cleaved the officer's helmet in two. Unflinching in his own attack, he relentlessly pressed his attack against the final officer. Orti's lucky strike knocked the dagger from the limp-wristed grasp and sent the officer charging back upstairs. While wary of eventual reinforcements, he was more immediately concerned with the four armed men bearing down upon them.

Eager to even the odds, Orti wordlessly cut through Itos' bonds. Retrieving his weapons, the scholar stood behind the Duelist as their foes boldly advanced. Their backs pressed against each other, the sword-wielding barrister prepared to defend his case with the song of razor-sharp steel. Like an infernal maelstrom, he let out a war-cry and charged towards the enemy. His assistant followed behind him, moving at a gait as fast as his lanky legs would carry him.

Orti flinched as the lead security officer shone his chemical lantern directly into the Duelist's eyes. Like a school of starving piranha, the opportunistic security officers grasped their daggers and moved to give him a fatal flensing. Itos pulled him back as a dagger-point thrust towards where Orti's head was a moment before. Narrowly avoiding having his brain matter displaced by a rusty metal stiletto, Orti hammered the nearest shielder-bearer with a relentless barrage of hammer-strikes with the heavy blade. The scholar skirmished amongst the other guards, drawing them away from the Duelist's victim. Each of Orti's heavy blows bit deep into the security officer's armor, leaving a mutilated mess of lacerated tissue where the guard's head and torso used to be.

The remaining guards scarcely noted their comrade's agonized demise. Observing their preoccupation with their liberated captive, he took a powerful swing at a distracted guard. The officer feebly attempted to raise his buckler in defense, but the movement was too late to save his life. The curved blade smashed the small shield out of the way, and embedded itself in the dagger-man's neck. He twitched a final time as Orti jammed his dagger into the dying man's armpit, providing a small mercy before returning to the frenzied combat.

Orti observed the final two guards had made a wise move in falling back to the stairwell. Pressing themselves back-to-back like he and the scholar had done mere moments before, they fought defensively and determinedly. Itos hurled a discarded buckler at one of their heads, which bounced off the helmet and clattered off to some unseen portion of the floor. In the split second it caused him to recover, the Duelist's blade had already cut his spine. As his comrade registered what happened, Itos struck a killing blow in the guard's armpit.

Orti smiled wide at his companion, proud of his clever improvisation. He bid the scholar to depart from the lower levels with undue haste, for fear of reinforcements arriving. Eager to leave the seven freshly created corpses behind them, Itos lead the Duelist deeper into the bowels of Haven. Navigating the identical hallways by means of some signage of half-faded glyphs, Itos guided him towards their intended destination. The Duelist still found himself in the habit of nervously glancing behind him, watchful for enemy reinforcements that never came.

6. Deepwatch Sanctuary

Orti was underwhelmed by what he saw in the dancing light of that chemical lantern. The entrance to the room was a rectangular metal door with its hinges caked in rust. Scrawled across the ingress in half-illegible characters was some message that brought a long, white smile to Itos' face. He ran a gloved finger along it, holding the strange metal device from earlier up towards it. An invisible mechanism opened the door like a ghostly butler, ushering them past the threshold of a haunted house.

Beyond the door, Orti recognized how little he truly knew about Haven. Strange machines of all shapes and sizes filled every corner and covered every wall. Some were tall, rectangular boxes of unknown alloys that issued forth musty air currents like the breath of mummies. Strange lights of every color Orti could name, and some he could not, flashed in unintelligible patterns upon the opposite wall. The floor issued with a deep rumbling, like a chthonic siege engine of a daemonic army. He was only able to recognize a single device in that room, but the Duelist wondered if it did not have some other purpose.

Itos dragged Orti to the table it was placed on. It was a scale model of Haven, a rectangular tower made of an unknown material that rendered itself translucent when a portion of the outer wall was touched. Within was a perfect model of the entire subterrene city, and all the locations he remembered were present. From the food vast to the dueling arena to his own quarters, the sculpture seemed an inhumanly perfect, precise replica of his community. He wondered of the Stricken names and technologies, and exactly how such a thing had come into existence.

What caused Orti a small amount of discomfort were the sectors of Haven he did not recognize. While Haven resembled the gigantic cube he always imagined it as, cylindrical pillars ran parallel to each corner of the structure. Within each were living quarters and Brobdingnagian engines of unknown purpose, as well as recognizably smaller versions of life support systems. Only a labyrinthine passageway connected the machine-filled chambers, such as those he and Itos now occupied, to the remainder of Haven, as if they had been intended as separate, isolated structures. That the room he now resided in bore no signs of life indicated that the room had been long abandoned or never inhabited. He wondered what other secrets had been Stricken by those ancient builders and their nescient successors. What had once been their sole hope of survival was now a barely-habitable ruin.

Itos turned his attention to the top of Haven, a shaft terminating at the apex of the model. Orti followed the scholar's nimble fingers. The shaft bent at a perpendicular angle relative to Haven beneath it, before terminating with a series of titanic metal doors. Made of steel or an alloy of Stricken composition, a pair of disk-like doors blocked off the primary entrance between Haven and the outside world. A series of lights activated on the model, denoting small devices between the doors. Placing his metal cube in a shelf-like receptacle, Itos explained his findings.

"As you can see, these doors keep everything inside Haven in, and everything outside out," the scholar explained. "The ancients put sensors, synthetic ears of a sort, to listen to everything outside."

"And what is that cube?"

"An archive of sounds from outside the front door. Just listen."

His attention fixated upon the sounds that issued from an unknown machine, Orti heard the whistle of the wind through caverns for the first time in his life. It spooked him as though a grotesque apparition arose from the floor to drag him to some netherworld. After Itos began snickering, the Evenhanded found himself joining in for reasons he could not determine. Despite the mirthful atmosphere, the mood turned once more to fear when the unexpected sound played.

An explosion echoed in the ancient control room, causing Orti to nearly leap out of his pants. The recording captured with only a sliver of its original magnitude, but it was more than sufficient to send the Duelist diving for cover in the corner of the room. For a moment, he laid there embarrassed. As he removed his hands from his ears, he heard the troubling murmurs playing from the sound-machine.

The babble of hushed voices spoke like a congregation of hushed phantoms recounting an antediluvian litany. As they increased in tenor and tone, Orti could make out the voices both harsh and melodious. While he did not comprehend the words, their presence was miraculous enough to him. At least one other group of people existed upon the world, and they spoke a tongue different than Haven. He wondered if they were perhaps kin abandoned on the surface, trying to make contact with their lost relatives. His mind considered darkly that they bore more insidious intentions.

The recording continued with voice uttering a short, sharp syllables that preceded an explosion even bigger than the previous one. Recognizing it immediately as a form of countdown and observing Itos' arms, Orti was able to anticipate what was coming. Again, the recorded reverberation of the blast shock that small room, and was followed by more discussion in the strange tongue.

The cycle continued twice more, until a novel sound was heard in lieu of an explosion. Some mechanical droning was heard in the background, like that of a colossal engine stirring to life. A litany of cheers went out in that foreign tongue. The sound of metal grinding upon stone followed, with the noise of some massive, burrowing beast. The tempo of activity raised, and the recording abruptly terminated after that.

"They want to come in," Itos said. "That's what I think."

"We need to warn Haven. The Magistrates. Wera. Even Tupa," Orti said as his heart raced. "Do you know how long ago this was?"

"I have not yet determined the entirety of the machine's dating system, but I believe it to be anywhere from two weeks to two months ago."

"And now?"

"Nothing," Itos answered, pushing a series of buttons marked with characters Orti could not read. The whistling of air through empty caverns replaced the energetic medley of voices and machinery that captivated his imagination a moment earlier. "I believe they have left, or at least halted their excavations for a time."

"Could they have covertly breached the habitat, or made contact within using some ancient device?"

"I do not believe so, as I have personally inspected the seals," Itos said. "Magistrate Tupa originally hired me to map out the maintenance tunnels from the old entrance downwards, as he feared Wera would use them against him. I found this place over the course of my explorations."

"Have you not considered leaving?"

"I have, and I have found a sequence of symbols I believe will lead outwards," Itos said, pulling a roll of paper from his pocket. "But I was forced to flee before I could try them."

Orti observed that string of characters, committing it to memory for his own curiosity. He recalled Tupa's wrathful paranoia, lashing out at imagined enemies with the spiteful, petty vindictiveness born of power. With Wera marshalling her own forces, Haven was a volatile admixture. He momentarily entertained the idea of informing Wera of their findings and seeking shelter in her ranks, but he quickly reminded some past duels he had fought against her Sworn Duelists. Like her counterpart, she was driven by seething urge to expand and consolidate power.

Orti and Itos discussed that idea and others in their private sanctuary. They discussed other, radical possibilities: seeking asylum with Wera, trying to establish an alliance against the outsiders, establishing an alliance with the outsiders, or simply leaving Haven. As they discussed the acerbic personalities involved, Itos simply proposed casting open the doors to the outer world. The rigid social structure within Haven had long stagnated, so Orti shared the youth's optimism that the Magistrates' power could not withstand so drastic a change as access to the surface world. While the possibility the outsiders could bring them great harm, subjugation, or annihilation, Orti forced himself to remember how few true friends he had in the great, underground city. While he did not know how to survive on the surface, he had no doubt he would join the Stricken if he should succumb to the latest civil war between Magistrates. In the end, the pair decided to make for the exit.

7. The Quest for the Surface

Haven had been a tomb for untold millions, but Orti was determined he and Itos would not join them. From the model in that ancient surveillance room, they plotted the various routes to their destination. Some meandered like snakes through long-forgotten side tunnels. Others went directly up the main shafts, brazenly marching through the Magistrates' quarters. Given the paucity of supplies available to the duo and the increased tensions across Haven, they selected on the route that granted the most covert and expeditious way to the surface.

By means of access tunnels and side-corridors, Itos instructed Orti they would emerge on the topmost level of Haven. While home to a handful of Magistrates and their personal guards, it directly connected with the surface. As most strategic locations were towards the middle levels of the city, it was thought the entrance to the surface would be relatively unguarded. Itos forced Orti to commit the route and exit sequence to memory, should the unthinkable occur. Using supplies Itos had cached in the observatory earlier, they enjoyed a dinner and then a night in that forgotten chamber.

After relaxing night, Orti made ready to head to the exit. Out of a Lethean stupor, he remembered the ephemeral images of half-forgotten dreams. He wondered if the exit was in a cave below the surface, or if it was in fact built into an impossibly tall mountain. He considered that in all ironies, the exit did not lead to the surface, but instead to another Haven, a similar overly insular community forever condemned from sunlight. He wondered if the surface still harbored whatever hazards brought about the original catastrophe, or if these outsiders were something worse. As peculiar as these images were, none swayed his resolve to leave the blasted hole of a home.

Orti began his ascent up the forgotten layers beneath the laborers' levels with the vigor of a youthful climber. The route that Itos led him upon was a disorienting trek through eternally darkened hallways, places sounded only by the echoes of higher levels or the dripping of water through eroded stone. They walked places where the dust had grown thicker than his thumb, where no human had visited since their construction in the Stricken past. He wondered exactly how long the community had lingered in isolation, or if that was even the original intent of the founders.

As Orti recalled, portions of Haven's structure had been forgotten, such as the four towers constructed at the convergence of two walls. It was up one of those towers they went, which had been sealed off and consigned to oblivion long ago in Haven's history. If not for Itos chancing upon the model, they would have been unable to bypass the hundred levels that held a million sun-deprived souls. He wondered if Haven held even more in its more ancient past, as so much of the structure was now empty or otherwise uninhabited.

While physically isolated from the remainder of Haven, Orti was sometimes haunted by what transpired outside. Isolated snippets of conversations would sometimes echo in, due to some quirk of the structural acoustics. Itos thought aloud that perhaps the towers had been designed thusly as some method of illicit surveillance upon the residents. The occasional clangor of swords or frenzied shouting served to remind the duo of the turbulence that undoubtedly laid just behind the walls. Each strange noise further strengthened Orti's drive to depart, as he pushed through the hunger pangs of missing his daily rations.

Within those walls, Orti saw remnants of things neither Itos nor himself could explain. They saw small carven statues without facial tattoos, with faces unlike any he had ever seen. He saw what may have been a map, but had faded away beneath its translucent casing. He saw devices that looked like black glass mirrors, eerily reflecting the chemical lights that he and Itos bore with them. He saw a skeleton that might have once been a warrior or officer, clad only in threadbare rags of a uniform style neither of them recognized. They saw rusted piles of metal that were sealed away in netherworldly armory-crypts. They saw antique tomes of alien characters, half-crumbled to the dust around them. Despite their interests, they forced themselves to press on, unbidden to the detritus of long ages.

8. Departure from Haven

Orti caught his breath when they finally ascended to the summit, as if he had just climbed a jagged sea-cliff bare-handed. While he devoured what remained of his paltry rations, Itos caressed a portion of the wall as though it were a sculpture of sand. Ancient concrete came off with the ease of sculpting clay as the youth's gloved hand passed over it. Recalling the aged material filled what should have been a door, Orti grabbed a rusted rod and proceeded to beat the wall like a reeling opponent.

Chunks of concrete flew across the room with each of Orti's blows. Hardened plaster was reduced to powder underneath each of the Duelist's hammer-strikes. It took him far longer than he would have liked to clear through, as the rod itself bent and deformed under the unceasing impacts. Eventually reduced to using his sword-hilt, he saw light on the other side. Peaking eagerly through that hole as though it was water in a parched desert, he beheld the corridor he had hoped to be in. Fortunately, he saw no others.

Orti kicked the wall with his foot until the hole was wide enough to half-crawl through. Itos proceeded him, as the Duelist had his blades ready in case anyone emerged to challenge them. Before them was an ascetic corridor of alabaster whiteness, illuminated by an inviting glow far more intense than even the well-maintained overheads of the middle levels. The antiseptic aesthetics extended as far as he could see, punctuated by sealed doors of a reflective alloy along the corridor. He saw no security officers or Duelists, and he wondered if anyone truly lived within. While no patina of dust covered the walls or floor, the floor was unmarred by any prints like his own boots left. He wondered if he had stumbled onto long-forgotten quarters for some aristocratic class predating the Magistrates, sealed up during one of the many revolutions throughout Haven's history.

For curiosity's sake, Orti tried to open a door, but it would not budge. Each bore no lock or hinges, so he assumed an unseen mechanism would control access. Itos hurried him on, urging him not to touch anything he did not have to. He wondered of strange things that might lie behind the door, such as mummified corpses or ancient traps. Nevertheless, he felt that he was not alone in that hallway. He hurried after Itos, who briskly moved towards a particular door in the center of the hallway. He held the metal box in front of it, which caused it to slide opened. Through it, he saw only darkness and smelt the pungent odor of viscous oil. The door became jammed on some mechanical fault, forcing the Duelist to squeeze through with the scholar's help.

Before Orti, the chamber illuminated. First, lights parallel to his current location activated. One sparked and flickered for a moment, bathing the room in a peculiar strobe light. He could see himself in a truly cyclopean room with a vaulted ceiling, like a cathedral for troglodytic giants. The room was made of the same alloy as the doors in the prior hallway, only it was subdivided into massive sections. A series of translucent walls, broken by tube-like airlocks, guarded access to each segment. Hung high along the upper walls were metallic protrusions of unknown purpose, perhaps sensors or weapons of a type long Stricken.

Orti wondered if the sequence of doors between one portion of the chamber and the next were some type of defensive checkpoints meant to stem and control inward traffic. He wondered if this titanic chamber had been the receiving area for that stream of refugees relegated to their subterranean destiny long along. He could easily imagine security guards shouting orders to move them inside, dressed in silver suits similar to those sitting in the second portion of the chamber. Itos opened the way to the second sub-chamber after leading him through a pair of automatic doors.

Orti saw the other end of the chamber terminated in a gigantic cylindrical door, wedged in place by the teeth of a massive cog. Like a titanic discus, it would rotate until it reached a slit in the wall until it was fully displaced. He wondered how many times it had been opened and closed, or if it had been sealed shut from inside at some point. Itos reassured him it would move, and he believed the young scholar's optimism. His companion directed him to move through the second pair of translucent doors to the final third of the room, but halted him midway.

Trapped the tube, Orti asked why. Itos told him that the air had been completely removed from the other side, so it would be necessary to equalize the pressure to proceed. As the youth fiddled with a console, he entered the sequence of characters that both had committed to memory. Above them, the titanic metal cylinder groaned as it started rotating for the first time in eons. Mechanisms wretched against the neglect of millennia as the circular door yielded to their desires. Through a narrow corridor was an identical door, but it moved in synchronicity with its twin.

Orti was so mesmerized by the door to the outer world moving, he failed to notice that he was not alone. He turned to see Itos, wide-eyed and forever looking forwards, die. The youth never saw the blade rammed through his neck, and the Duelist followed the blood weapon back to the hand that wielded it. The long, lethal rapier ended in the gloved hand of Rak the Needle, the deadliest Duelist in Haven. Like the guardian of some hellish threshold, she advanced toward as the now solitary Orti.

Orti saw the progress of the outer doors was not yet wide enough to permit his admission through. He saw the airlock doors had not halted Rak from passing through the first section, and he doubted they would deny her access to the chamber he remained in. He did not know the specifics of how she accessed the room or knew they were close to exiting, but Itos had informed him the Magistrates likely had silvers of Haven's secrets, hoarded like treasure from rivals and used solely for their own gains. The anticipatory intentions of Rak flicking the blood from her blade indicated she had not come here to talk.

Orti wondered if perhaps he should confront her in the narrow airlock. He considered his shorter, heavier blades would be a distinct disadvantage in an environment that would permit his nemesis to take advantage of her weapon's greater reach and speed. His sole advantage was that Rak had not brought backup, likely as all soldiers were needed for the civil war downstairs and Rak was confident she was more than sufficient in dealing with a renegade Duelist and fugitive scholar. With his blades cleared of their sheaths, he stepped forwards to meet the most fearsome opponent he had ever faced.

Orti saw the angular lines of Rak's facial tattoos harden pulsate like the stripes of a predatory jungle cat. Like a drawn weapon, Rak focused in on him like a vice grip, ululating madly while launching her first barrage of strikes. With finesse like a horde of metallic mosquitos, Orti found himself bleeding from small cuts before he was able to respond. He tried to parry with his dagger, but each parry attempt was thwarted by redirected blow in a different location. Orti found himself on the defensive, pressed into the corner like a huntsman's quarry.

Orti took a desperate gambit and ran. He sprinted into the rows of silver suits, hoping for somewhere to hide and recuperate. The glass tubes offered no space between them to hide, and no niches that were able to conceal a crouched adult. Pressing himself against the end of a row, he turned to see Rak sprinting for him with her weapon outstretched in a lethal greeting. His own minor wounds and fatigue were starting to wear upon him, a burden greater than the armor that had saved his life from her honed finesse.

Orti momentarily considered removing his breastplate so he could move faster, but sagely decided against it. His vital organs would have otherwise been skewered with the Needle as though they were specimens in a lepidopterous collection. Faced with another losing battle, he instead sprinted down another row of glass cases. Rak again pursued him, but halted as he rounded the end of the aisle. As it was impossible to see between the rows due to the opaque metal that held the tubes in place, another stratagem formed in his fatigue-addled mind.

Orti moved over not one, but two rows. He checked to make sure Rak had lost him, but he could hear her dash through a nearby aisle in the wrong direction. Taking his heavier sword, he brought the heavy pommels of both of his blades down on the glass case. Cracks spiderwebbed out from the weakened material, and his blades rebounded as though they had struck something much harder. He repeated his blow harder, this time puncturing the translucent material to retrieve the suit within.

As he anticipated, Orti heard Rak coming for him. Replacing his dagger by his side, he grabbed the surprisingly light metal suit in his free hand and turned to face his opponent. As they were outside of the dueling arenas they thrived in, Orti knew he could not face Rak as a fellow Duelist. As she cautiously approached him, he whipped around the metal suit like a cloak, trying to trap and distract Rak. While her rapier escaped his grasp, she stepped back in wariness from the unexpected tactic.

Orti imagined himself as a security officer fighting with dagger and buckler, useful weapons in the cramped corridors of Haven. As he advanced on her position, Rak realized his tactics and once more adjusted. She began to strike at his weapon hand and face, trying to get him back on the defensive. With anger clouding his mind, he took a bold gambit as the Tupa's deadliest weapon advanced.

Orti hurled the suit at her face, causing her to flinch for a split second. In that instant her face twisted, Orti brought his heavy saber down on her exposed face. A sickening crunch issued from the Needle's face as the tip of his blade buried itself deep past her nose. Her tattoos were covered completely in purple blood and oozing brains. Withdrawing the blade from her cleft skull, he left her body where it laid as a final gift to Haven and its Magistrates.

Orti was never a man of garrulous speeches or tearful goodbyes, although he was competent enough when his profession required him to be. He did not think as he made his final plans to leave Haven. Looking over the suit he had used to defeat Rak with, he saw it possessed insulated layers and packets that were some sort of sealed rations. From medical supplies preserved by unknown, ancient means, he stemmed the bleeding to his wounds.

Orti slipped it on out of curiosity alone, and found it fit comfortably over his armor. He placed his sword belt on the outside, so that any who beheld him would note him as a warrior. Fearing enemy reinforcements, he saw the doors to the outside world had finally opened enough to allow exit from the underground shelter. He took the fallen body of Itos, and hoisted it over his shoulder like the battle flag of a lost cause. Walking outside, he prepared to lay his friend to rest under the sky. Burying the scholar's remains in a makeshift cairn outside the cave that contained Haven's entrance, he marveled at the outside world Haven had been deprived of for untold eons.

9. Stricken Ironies

Orti eventually made contact with outsiders, but not a group he knew existed. They were a simple tribe of hill-folk that found him wandering a dark defile, rambling and half-delirious. They could scarcely understand him, but the tongue both spoke had diverged long ago from the same route. After listening to their legends, the former Duelist hypothesized that these tribes had originated in another Haven, only to abandon it in ages past. He had come down with a sickness of the outer world, one in which he had no immunity to in Haven.

Fortunately, the remedies of that hill-tribe kept Orti alive while he learned much about the world. The outsiders that unsuccessfully tried to breach Haven's gate had been a research expedition from the distant Freeport of Onisah, a maritime republic settled by the steely-eyed Polarian people. They had departed due to a sponsor withdrawing support, but they had no idea exactly what they were excavating. As such, a strange curiosity drove Orti to travel to their city and enlighten them.

While he was initially overwhelmed by that wondrous city and its cosmopolitan citizenry, Orti himself became an object of great fame and curiosity. Due to this, his name became an adjective used to describe his home region and all of its people. Other expeditions were sent, and they brought long-awaited news from his buried home.

Orti never found out which Magistrate won the civil war, as the victor was quickly deposed by an ambitious Duelist that had uncovered the opened doorway by following Rak's path. The victor claimed credit for ending the catastrophe that drove the people underground, and the Magistrates' regime crumbled like their predecessors. Now, Haven seeded the surface with colonies. They planned to turn the tribes and any other Havens they encountered into protectorates, for fear of foreign invasions.

Orti's own name was translated back into his native tongue by the Onisahians, which brought him a great amount of fame back home. Declining invitations to lead a colony, he instead recommended his fallen companion Itos be honored. As a result, the scholar Itos became the namesake for a new university, the first academy of learning open to all in Haven. Predictably, it was dedicated to discovering all that had been Stricken from historical records.