"Are they more of your 'visitors?'" I asked.
He shook his head. "None come so deep as this. They are four, all well equipped and clean. Administration, from the description."
Holy shit. What the hell was going on? Admin never even showed up in the nice parts of D-block, let alone the worst. I'd only ever seen some once, when a VTOL full of Enforcement had taken a fugitive (I assumed) on the street near Sawada's place. They'd hit the poor guy with a microwave pain beam from the plane, fast-roped down wearing power armor and their famed red-eyed masks, scooped the guy into a straitsack and winched back up. Whole thing done in ten seconds, not a word or glance for anyone but the target. I could think of no good reason for them to be hanging around in here.
Our local mutant hellforest wasn't much of a tourist attraction.
"Wait, seriously?" said Sawada, shocked. "I gotta see this."
"Are you sure they won't shoot us just for, I dunno, existing near them?" I said.
Sawada frowned and Northmarch rubbed the patterned scars on the back of his hand, something I'd noticed he did when he was thinking. "I cannot discount that possibility entirely. I have had very few dealings with their ilk." I was pretty fucking shocked he'd had any dealings at all, but that could wait. "However, it is more likely they will ignore us so long as they are not given a reason not to. Such lesser beings as ourselves are usually beneath their notice." The grin he followed that up with was not a nice one. "I should tell you, though, that to engage in combat with them would be an incredibly ill-advised decision. As much as they are made fun of, any Admin caste sent to a place like this will certainly be able to fight, and they tend to be rather better equipped than we are."
"No arguments from me, bud," said my dad, nodding. Then both of them had the gall to look at me, like I was going to start taking potshots at a samurai who could probably take my head off before I finished pulling the trigger.
I turned a disapproving glare on the two of them and raised my right hand. "I solemnly swear that I will not shoot at the aristocrat or his friends. As long as they don't give me a reason to. Happy?"
"Yes," was all Northmarch said. Dad laughed, and I almost managed not to while Morranne watched us like we weren't right in the head. They made the right decision, which was to just turn around and get moving. We all scrambled to follow.
The roof of the tunnel got lower and lower until we were forced onto our bellies, packs scraping the ceiling. The confined space was awful. It was impossible to crawl and hold my light forward at once, so I was trapped in the dark with my breath sounding loud and ragged in my ears. I knew all I had to do to escape was keep going, but a tight feeling still built up in my chest. Each breath seemed to get me less, and less, and less air, like I was constantly on the edge of suffocation. Just when I thought I would go nuts we emerged.
I immediately began to stand up but a small hand on my shoulder gently pushed me back down. I looked over and saw Morranne and Northmarch there, still prone. A moment later Sawada popped out of the tunnel, dirty but none the worse for wear. He saw we were all still down and followed suit. I thought I heard voices coming from somewhere ahead of and below us.
We were lying in waist-high grass that put out a soft aqua-colored light. Other than being slightly sticky and waving ticklishly against my face when I brushed into it, it seemed harmless. Probably that meant it was giving us radiation poisoning or something.
Morranne began to whisper and Northmarch translated. "This is a cave, of sorts. We are on a ledge about fifteen feet up from the base, where the temple and our unexpected visitors are."
"Probably shouldn't head down just yet, then," muttered Dad. I got why he was disappointed. All this effort to have someone else beat you there and maybe fuck the place up.
"We could still have a look though, right?" I asked. I wanted to see what we'd come all this way for-and, I'll admit, get a look at the Administrators.
Nobody had any objections so we shimmied up to the edge under Morranne's direction. With the grass out of the way I could see that calling this a cave had been a grave disservice.
"By Queen Sia's bones, bless her..." Dad breathed. I agreed. It was a massive space, a hollow cylinder more than a hundred feet across. I could tell because of the huge roots and tree-trunks that crisscrossed it above our heads, thickly wound with vines whose bell-shaped flowers glowed a blue-white remarkably similar to lifelight. They lined the walls like pillars or punched right out of it like scattered crossbeams. Craning my head, the ceiling seemed to be a few hundred feet up. The walls were profuse with roots, bitey grass, creepers, stickers, strangler vines, flytraps, mushrooms that glowed or bulged with nerve poison or bobbed their caps as if to music, patches of sparkling lichen, strings of pitcher plants, even some ring bushes perched precariously on ledges. Streams of water trickled down here and there, entering from side passages like we had.
Down below was the temple itself. It looked to once have been a square building topped by a tall, pyramidal spire, with walls of white stone between beams of steel formed into artful, fluted shapes. Now, though, the spire was toppled and bits of white stone were tumbled everywhere, their color no duller after what must have been a long interment beneath the dirt. An absolutely monstrous tree had grown beneath one corner, its trunk growing up diagonally but still pretty vertical by this place's standards. It was a variety I hadn't seen before, with silvery bark and a canopy of dark purple, sickle-shaped leaves. A fairy circle of blood-red mushrooms grew around its base.
Out front of the ruined church was a patch of ruptured flagstones, a stream babbling happily across them. Standing at its edge was a group of three people. Two were Masks, Enforcement soldiers like those I'd seen years ago. They wore tungsten-gray power armor with round, red-litten eyeports. One carried a chopped-down commando-style beltfed, the other a bulky plastic-cased thing that might have been a laser weapon.
The third person was facing away from us, dressed more strangely. He had on a flowing orange shirt with loose sleeves and high-waisted, baggy black trousers. They were tucked into high boots probably worth more than everything I owned-each. He carried no gun, but tucked into a broad, patterned sash around his belly was something like a two-handed sword hilt with no blade. A hotwire, the signature weapon of Admin's warrior caste. Man, would I love to get my hands on one. All of it looked so incredibly fine and high quality it seemed computer generated, like my eyes just wouldn't pick it up right. All together they completed a picture I'd seen in a hundred movies and shows: the samurai and his retainers.
"Place is fucking wild..." Sawada whispered, eyes wide with wonder. I'd been staring so hard myself I'd almost forgotten I wasn't alone. Even Northmarch seemed impressed, his usually collected expression replaced by unabashed wonder. On my other side, Morranne was less affected, staring down at the samurai with ears flattened back. Yeah, seemed like there was more than a little bitterness there.
As we watched, one of the Masks turned toward their boss and spoke. "Sir. I've got possible detection of potential hostiles in the vicinity." Their helmet rendered the words as a smooth, deep electronic monotone.
Translated from tacticalese, we'd been rumbled. Possibly. I kept still as possible, the others doing the same.
"Explain 'possible,' lieutenant," the samurai said without moving. His voice was a harsh tenor and his accent uptown, saying the last word 'leftenant.' Where the fuck did the 'F' come from?
"The anomalous plant life interferes with our sensors, sir. Can't get a solid fix on the contacts."
The samurai looked around, as though he could spot us where the million-denar reconnaissance suite in the Mask's armor could not. Depending on who made his optics, maybe he could. He was on the older side, his sallow face pinched into a frown beneath close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. A rough scar marred one cheek, left proudly unremoved.
"Scavengers and eaters of carrion, most likely," he finally said. "Not worth our notice, and if they've even a whit of intelligence they'll keep it so."
Well then. I felt vaguely insulted, but mostly just glad we weren't going to get julienned by a live-action role-player.
At that moment they were joined by a fourth person, a short figure in a bright-orange hazmat suit who came crinkling out of the ruins. A huge armored box like an industrial suitcase dangled from one hand.
"Find anything else, Dr. Hesypha?" The samurai's tone and raised eyebrow suggested he doubted it.
"No, my lord," said the doctor. The voice was female, though made scratchy by her helmet's repeaters. "Nothing that we don't already know. The site's degradation is severe."
"As I expected. What a waste of time this has been." The samurai bent down, picking a glowing flower from the mossy ground and tucking it into a pocket.
"Inform Augur One that we are departing, lieutenant."
A moment later, a thick nanopolymer rope shimmered into existence-no, into visibility- next to the little group. They wasted no time clipping themselves on, and within moments they were ascending, with the Masks occasionally kicking off of stray trees to keep the line from hanging up. I craned my neck to keep watching, and finally they disappeared through a previously-unnoticed hole in the cavern's roof.
My dad was the first one to break the silence. "That was certainly...something."
I shook my head. "How they hell...did they have a stealth flyer up there?"
"Probably. There’s rumors they exist, though no one I know's ever seen one. Guess that's the point."
Northmarch kept staring at the hole they'd left through, muttering something in his native tongue.
"What was that?" I asked.
"They act like angels who've deigned to visit the mortal world." He shook his head. "Such self-assured elitism continues to astound me. I am also wondering: Why, by the Voice in the Dark, were they here?"
"They didn't seem like historians," my dad muttered. Morranne stared back and forth between the two of them, then began doing something over by the cavern wall.
"Maybe they want to put in a theme park. Revitalize the local economy or whatever." They gave me a pair of remarkably similar flat looks. "Fine. Seemed like they were looking for something, and maybe found it."
"You may be correct..." said Northmarch, rubbing his scars.
Dad nodded. "Must've been something in the big case. But what?" I saw that Morranne had passed a length of 770 cord around a big root and had tossed the other ends off the ledge.
"Maybe we'll figure it out if we go down there. Right, guys?" I pointed as Morranne looped the cord around themselves and abseiled out of sight. They both turned and stared, then hurried over to the edge.
"Yes. Of course."
"Good call, El."
Northmarch showed Dad and I how to wrap the cord through our legs and over our shoulders to slow our descent. Being the heaviest, I let the two of them go down first. After they were off the line, I gave it a few wary tugs. The knot seemed solid and the doubled line was good for four times my weight. I'd read something about not using vegetable holds for climbing, but the root Morranne had picked was thick as my arm and didn't seem to be going anywhere. I got the rope set up and slowly stepped off the edge.
While most of the floor was around fifteen feet down, the drop was closer to twenty due to a stony pit directly below the ledge. Maybe there'd been a waterfall here, once. I managed to rappel down without dropping myself or getting a friction burn in an awkward spot. My dad hadn't been so fortunate, based on the way he was rubbing the back of his thigh.
"Go a little too fast there, hotshot?" I flashed him a lopsided grin.
"Oh, shut it. Shoulda just had you lower me down."
"I'm definitely gonna be pulling you back up. This is the least you could do."
"Man, whoever raised you should've taught you some manners." He winked and I couldn't help laughing as we followed Morranne and Northmarch out of the pit.
Ascending the edge, we stepped onto the buckled flagstones where the Administrator had been standing with his guards. The temple was even more impressive close up. The huge, fluted beams seemed to be massive, singular pieces of metal, their silvery sheen undulled by rust. I'd thought the stuff filling the spaces between them to be stone, but up close it looked more like white glass: smooth, glossy, almost translucent. The floor was made of the same, just with a matte finish. The materials and architecture of the place were like nothing I'd ever seen. That massive tree loomed overhead, purple leaves like a stormcloud. They rustled quietly and continuously, though the air was still. Dark leaves and curls of silvery bark like runny solder littered the ground.
My dad was practically vibrating, wanting to rush inside, but Northmarch put a hand on his shoulder. "Let Morranne check for traps first. They have been here before." The excitement in his voice belied his careful words. Morranne had already went in to to just that, and we waited on the crazily tilted plaza for a few minutes. Finally they emerged and gave a thumbs up. We jumped the little creek and went into the temple.
There had been a huge pair of doors, once, made of the same silvery metal as the beams. Now they lay in the entryway, bent and warped by the forces of the earth. We stepped over them on our way in. My dad and Northmarch pulled telescoping work lights from their packs and unfolded them. Their searing-white LEDs gave us a good look at the place.
Despite the strange materials and great age, it was laid out like any other smallish Dakessar church I'd seen. Most of the inside was one big atrium, now filled with fallen ceiling stones and the smashed remains of pews-which were made of some kind of fibrous plastic. Where the walls remained intact they were lined with carvings and what I assumed were engraved quotations from the Sacrificial Record-though I couldn't read whatever alphabet they were in. At the far end were a couple of pulpits, and behind them a huge carven triptych showing the Ten Martyred Kings and some of their deeds. It was engraved beneath a massive, gleaming tencrown. If there'd been any rooms behind the atrium, the tree had grown right through them.
Sawada and Northmarch had already shot off together, jabbering excitedly about "Early Pall Age bas-reliefs" and "transitional Synkolese runic script" and all sorts of other stuff I didn't get. Rather than trying to figure it out I went up front to look at the pretty pictures.
The Regal Icons were in the triptych's center panel. These usually took up space at the front of any Dakessar place of worship and were the holiest things in there. Most sects didn't worship the Kings as actual gods, though. They mostly just held them up as examples or role models-eidolons, to use their term. When you prayed, you were supposed to contemplate the Icon and focus on replicating its qualities within yourself. It all seemed like a waste of time to me-if I wanted to be nicer or whatever I'd just, you know, do that-but it worked for plenty of other people, so I couldn’t really judge.
These icons were beautiful-formed into metal and colored in with something like stained glass. Below each was a small taphios, a bit of each King's associated substance: gold, silver, wood, and so on. They'd been preserved astonishingly well, but didn't look like the ones I was used to. There was High King Aurambard the Krisostomicon in his golden vestments, brokering peace between the nations of humanity. That was normal. There was his Queen, Sia, holding up her silver shield to protect a group of children, there was King Yamagh Shadowlord in his smear of darkness. All regular. Quartersking Glamis looked almost normal, too, though his skin was bright red and he held a weird salt-grinder thing, not a calculator. Past him, though, things got out of whack.
King Nydd the Merrymaker was at a feast, as usual, but he was thin, not fat, and sobbed, not laughed. King Rem Crowned-in-Silicon retained his robe and book and glasses, but was a handsome, towheaded young man rather than a white-bearded scholar. King Ironstride the Warlord was supposed to be an armored knight, but here was a vague silhouette like something between a woman and a monster, crude compared to the others. Vedrian and Garik had no human images at all, just a recursive field of rainbow flowers for the Gardener Crowned-in-Wood and a set of white-hot circuits for the King of Smiths. The last one was the strangest, though: Random, patron of outcasts and wanderers, the usually-neglected King of Nothing in Particular, held pride of place. Though his icon's face was blank, it stood twice as large as any other, grasping a bright light in one raised fist.
The left-hand panel showed the Choir of Armistice, when the Kings had supposedly ended the Lastwar: ten figures seated around the Opheiic Mandala, a geometric shape of circles and squares and stars all circumscribed about each other with a many-pointed starburst in its center. The right-hand one showed a multitude of strange scenes, images I had no context to interpret. A man made of glass embraced a cloud of smoke. A silver star fell from the sky, trailing white-red fire. A woman with a sword faced one with a scythe, each atop their own heap of corpses. A burning figure holding a long spear burst out of a black egg, guarded by a tall thing with a blunt-ended blade. A gunman and a beast stood back to back, surrounded by a dark smear of what I assumed to be the Enemy. I had no idea what any of it meant, but I was sure Dad and Northmarch would tell me if they ever stopped analyzing the material construction of the pews.