Chapter 10.4: Military Games - Preliminaries

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Cheering and thunderous applauds echoed down the hall. "Are we underneath the spectator's stadium?" Astral asked. Had they travelled that far? She peered up to the ceiling that she couldn't see and watched the lazy drift of the gold haze. She reached up to check the height of her narrow world, pressing her palm against the cold stone surface above. Interesting: no metal, no plastic.

"Not quite. We're definitely under the combat zone. I'd say we're about ten minutes from the stadium. The path split back there if you didn't notice. Not that it matters. I assumed you wanted to check the shield tech around the program chamber." Seth assumed correctly.

"I could have sworn that it felt like this passage would have looped." She allowed her statement to hang, hoping that Seth would fill in the blanks. Maybe her theory was off.

"It used to." There was humour in his voice.

Astral was less than amused. "What did you do?" Her words dripped with suspicion.

Circles were very important in rituals. Natural elements were important too. She wondered if the stone structure that they were exploring matched the mineral resources of the canyon. She'd have to collect samples to know for sure. Depending on the intended purpose of the ritual, which stone was used to create the tunnels could drastically alter the flow of energy to point of preventing certain types to circulate.

There was also the river, she reminded herself. Flowing water had a way of purifying the energy in an area and prevented corrupted the energy from leaving the network of tunnels. All these elements supported her theory that someone had intentionally trapped the demon.

If the canyon had been engineered, then it stood to reason that the river hadn't always run through the rocky divide. If she checked the topography maps, she was sure that she would see signs that the river had been re-routed to block off the access point. An expert would be able to tell her when that action would have occurred, giving her an idea of how long the ghost in the machine had been festering beneath the school. It might even give her a clue about who was orchestrating the attack against the Academy. Who was she kidding! If the two events turned out to be related it would be one hell of a happy coincidence.

"In my second year, there used to be a couple of land bridges to tied both sides together. We got a little carried away. Why?"

If she was right about the wards, then it was broken not once, but twice. She hoped for the sake of the students that she was wrong. She hoped that the passage they were following was just a means to reach underground facilities and nothing more. Astral shrugged, searching for a different tangent to distract Seth. "It's a huge hassle getting this far. I'm having a hard time figuring out how you discovered the chamber." And how he managed to breach the shields.

"Like I said before, we got carried away with the battle. It was a capture the flag event. We knew we didn't stand a chance. The year I joined, our squad was a joke. Most of our members didn't even show up for the game, leaving us out numbered three to one. My captain was stubborn. Kind of like you, only friendlier and less attractive. As planned we cut off the enemy's primary access routes, but Wallace had convinced me that we could win the game and by winning the game we were making a statement. Knowing what our plan was, we prepared for the scenario. We packed some climbing gear, rope... We thought we had the advantage. We were idiots. But I think you've already caught on to that." He maintained a steady pace down the tunnel, his left hand brushing the outer edge of the ring.

"We underestimated just how deep the canyon was, and ran out of rope not even halfway down. 'No, problem!' Wallace shouts down at me. 'We can scale the canyon walls with our hands. People do it all of the time, it'll be easy'!" Seth mimicked Wallace's carefree tone. He smiled at the memory. "As it turns out, scaling a sheered cliff is not as easy as advertised. I fell into the river. It runs sixty feet deep on either side and shallows out in the middle. I happened to fall on the right side of current and was able to pick myself up by the time I reached the shallow area, but just barely."

"I was looking for a way up when I saw the ledge we took. I tried to climb on, lost my footing and ended up getting slammed into the hologram by the current. I was in pain. I was angry, with myself of course, and I just needed a minute to think." Seth shook his head. "I thought this was a maintenance tunnel. I figured I'd find some stairs or a ladder or something to would take me back to the game. Until I found this." They had come to a stop. Astral stroked the edge of the wall where Seth had felt his way through the darkness. She felt the marker under her finger tips, but she could tell what it was.

Seth held out his hand and touched the void in front of him. The darkness fled from the light. Astral joined Seth at the opening as he basked in the majesty of the scene. The gold fog drifted out of the tunnel like over excited escaped convicts.

Seth told her. "To get to the program chamber, we'll need to cross here. You can't see it, but there's another opening straight across from us."

"Why didn't we just climb down from up there. Or you know, from the other side of the canyon!" All that time shuffling down that pathetically narrow ledge wasted, for what? A little appreciation of Seth's discovery?

"Can't," he replied. "It won't let us. There's a reason why it took me as long as it did to do the repairs."

"What do you mean: it won't let us?"

Seth pinched the bridge of his nose. "I mean we can't get in from the outside. And no, I didn't just climb down in the wrong place."

"Are you sure?" She stuck her arm out of the hologram and waved it around. She could feel the static tingle of the projection along her arm.

"Are you done?" Astral got the impression that he was a little less than amused. Still it was fascinating that a dual barrier had been put in place. She was starting to have her doubts about the system being setup as an elaborate ward. What else could it be? Maybe she was over complicating what she was seeing by projecting what she wanted to see.

She retracted her arm from the illusion. "Turn that off."

Seth complied and waved his hand in front of the opening, biding the barrier to return. The pair stood in complete darkness; the haze that had been their companion throughout their exploration gone.

"I get it..." It was a ward, but wasn't.

"You get what?" Her discovery wasn't going to bode well for him.

Astral pointed to ventilation system. Without the trapped energy stored in the passage, she could see what the system was pumping into the lower levels. A chorus of cheering thundered from above as gold dust poured into the passage as though it had been shaken loose. "We're in an energy deposit. The student's energy is being pulled into these tunnels where it's filtered out to the combating squads."

Seth considered where she was going with her revelation. "That's a bit farfetched don't you think?"

"Fine," she shrugged. She didn't need his two-credits to see what was going on. "I just don't get why it's setup this way." She pressed her palm against the shield and it flickered out of existence. "I'm assuming that the same shield exists on the other side, how do we get across?"

Seth waved his hand in front of the opening. A digital interface appeared and Seth set to work to call up a bridge. Astral could see the grid set around the their new path. She assumed it was to project the illusion that no one was crossing. She had her doubts about crossing a digital projection of a bridge that was nearly a hundred-and-fifty feet over an angry river. If she wanted to do her job right, she needed to see the system that kept the ghost in the machine contained.

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You know the drill, fave it if you liked it. This part revisits the warding stuff I introduced in chapter 1. I need to know if it's easy enough to follow.

Re-write: This is what I get for posting segments of an unfinished chapter. I've condensed a few ideas and removed a few of the actions that i didn't think did anything to add to story or characters. That and i felt that the tunnel exploration was getting a little long and needed to move things along.

The next segment is almost done and should be posted later on Saturday (today).

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