Chapter 6:



The uranium shaft deposited Sulla on Level 20; the shaft itself extended all the way down to the Floor where uranium had been mined in ages past, but Johannes’ men had sent Sulla to an abandoned warehouse the Bastard’s Brethren used as a transportation node. This was where the raw uranium had been processed and packaged before being sent up to the refinery on Level 31. The shaft itself continued down to the Floor but the Bastard’s Brethren had only granted him access as far down as Level 20. Sulla was told that a mining accident at the bottom of the shaft decades ago had contaminated the area around the Floor. Skeptical, he suspected the Bastard’s Brethren were likely keeping something at the bottom of the mine they did not want him to see. He had asked Johannes about it earlier, but his query was promptly deflected. Inside the warehouse he met two low-ranking Brethren waiting for him in the warehouse. They had the signature pale skin and dull eyes characteristic of most Undercity dwellers, at a glance Sulla could see that neither of them had ever experienced direct sunlight. Veii relied on a series of lenses and mirrors to refract light down into the Depths of the city, but around Level 30 was where the smog was too thick for the weakening rays to penetrate.

Sulla walked past the two men wordlessly and stepped out of the warehouse. The street was dimly lit and shrouded in fog. Pedestrians shuffled by silently, their eyes vacant and their faces downcast, Sulla had once been like them. He took a moment to inhale the smoky air, reacquainting himself with his home. This was the world that he had been born into, the world that had raised him and molded him.

Initially, Sulla was not sure what to look for. He had come to the Undercity to escape from Syphax and investigate clues about Ennoia, the Shining Path, and Sophia. Every decision had to be made with great caution; much of the Undercity was effectively run by the Bastard’s Brethren. He knew that the Council would be watching his every move. Taking a second to think, Sulla recalled Draga’s words. She had warned him that the Council was trying to play both sides by supplying information services to both the Church and the cults and revolutionaries who operated from the Undercity. This business was extremely profitable for the organization and gave them a high degree of political protection. But Draga could see what the rest of the Council was blind to: that the increasing levels of violence and terrorism were eroding their political cover. The Council had blinded itself in the pursuit of profit. Truth be told, Sulla was not an expert on the political dynamics between the Church, Dynatoi, and military. He often had held the sentiment that such things were beyond his control. But now even he could see the growing fragility of this equilibrium. As casualties from terrorism mounted, it was becoming more difficult for the Church to justify its dealing with the Bastard’s Brethren. Sooner or later one of the groups with ties to them would go too far, and the government would be forced to crack down. There would be Blood Raids on a scale not seen since Operation Anvil. After this he could see the Holy Church being forced to abandon their relationship with the Bastard’s Brethren. Sulla wondered what thoughts the Bastard, if he even existed, gave to this situation.

Sulla walked past rows of dilapidated, gray and black buildings. Boarded up windows, graffiti, and broken glass littered the landscape of the former industrial sector. Abandoned warehouses and factories occupied the area, now turned into slum housing and bases for local gangs. Decades of privation in The Undercity had forced people further into desperation. To many, their best option for a better life was to cast their lot with a criminal organization, hoping to climb the ranks.

Making his way past the slums, Sulla ignored the many lowlife criminals eyeing him in fear. They could tell he was a dangerous man, and from several meters away he could detect anxiety in their heartbeats and body temperatures. Focusing back on Ennoia and the Shining Path, he weighed his options to get in contact with them. The easiest way would be to forcibly attract the Shining Path’s attention, but this would likely lead to him being targeted and ambushed. He figured there was no way to tell if the Shining Path would be hostile to him right away, and so he did not wish to unnecessarily antagonize them. But before he could even begin, Sulla knew that he needed to find a way to slip past the Brethren’s surveillance. Through the windows he felt eyes carefully tracking him, undoubtedly reporting his movements back to the Council. As the main criminal organization of the Undercity, the Brethren ran an extensive network of spies and informants throughout the Undercity. Coupled with their control over much of the illicit information in the Interface, they had a massive advantage in intelligence gathering. Thinking carefully, Sulla surmised that the Undercity was still too large for any one organization to control. After all, even the Government had given up on maintaining order down here. Growing up, he knew places isolated enough to where even the Bastard’s Brethren would not be able to find him. As he continued walking, his memories started to flow back. His thoughts dwelled on the house where he had lived with Kore and Ennoia, the only place where he had ever felt safe, it was a place so destitute even the gangs saw no profit there. Brushing aside his mixed emotions, Sulla knew he needed to go back to the Floor.

As Sulla continued his journey, the abandoned factories and warehouses gradually gave way to more vibrant districts of sprawling shops and businesses. The dilapidated remnants of industry were replaced by markets, bars, lupanars and restaurants. Patrons spilled out, chatting, drinking, laughing, and occasionally fighting with each other. Along the street prostitutes plied their trade or advertised for local brothels. Smiling, Sulla thought to himself that maybe people from vastly disparate Levels may not be so different after all. While the buildings were more rundown, and the people more ragged, the basic human instincts of business, desire, and socialization were common to all. The only difference was that in the Undercity, business operated at the pleasure of criminal gangs instead of the government. It was accepted practice for businesses to pay the mafias protection money. The ancient tradition of racketeering was a staple to mafia moneymaking for generations. The advent of the Interface had simply provided organizations such as the Bastard’s Brethren with new methods of pressuring businesses to pay them a cut of their revenue. Nowadays, racketeering had taken a backseat to information smuggling as the primary method of profit for organized crime, but it was still symbolically important. The lack of a government or police presence in the Undercity meant that extortion had taken the place of taxation, with the gangs operating as a sort of quasi-government. They provided a degree of stability, maintaining order in exchange for money and services. Racketeering was a way to enforce their will and remind people who was in charge while providing a modest, but stable amount of profit. Over the centuries this practice had acquired a mythical status among criminals. Many saw it as the purest form of criminal endeavor, a sacred tradition passed down from the ancient days.

According to Johannes, the largest criminal organizations in the Undercity were the Bastard’s Brethren, the Untamed, and the Lilies. These three mafias controlled vast slices of territory in the Undercity and maintained substantial operation in the rest of Veii, together they were known as the Triumvirate. They each controlled a section of the Interface and commanded armies of enforcers. Recently, the balance of power had been tipping in favor of the Brethren, as they expanded their dealings with more radical cults and revolutionaries. Thousands of smaller gangs loosely operated under their supervision, and they constantly competed for influence and profit. Small scale turf wars were a constant fact of life and every few years would escalate into a major conflict. Violence was just another way of life in the Undercity; Here, only the strong survived and the weak were conquered or exterminated. Sulla credited much of his success as a soldier to his upbringing, growing up in the Undercity had toughened him. Interestingly enough, Sulla had recalled Syphax spouting a similar philosophy along these lines. Shaking his head, he pushed away these bygone experiences from his mind, going further down into the center of the level.

Sulla’s goal was a bar called the Hub: a nexus of information, housing transient people and many petty criminals. Ihe Hub was considered neutral ground by all three of the major mafias. Its owner: a woman named Myra had strong connections with all three organizations. This allowed the Hub to function as a conduit of information, goods, and people independent of any mafia. The mafias themselves frequently used it for negotiations and business deals with each other. If there was a way to get to the Floor without the Bastard’s Brethren knowing, he would find it there.

After a few more minutes of walking, Sulla finally reached The Hub. A large, faded brick building with a damp wooden sign swaying from the overhang of the roof. Wasting no time, he walked inside. He found the bar was spacious and dimly lit, there was a festive atmosphere inside; patrons were chatting, laughing, and drinking. On one side of the room three dancers were performing on a low stage. Groups of people milled about, occasionally getting into fights with each other. Around the room Sulla spotted eyes scrutinizing him; agents of the Bastard’s Brethren or one of the other mafias no doubt. By now, word would have reached the Untamed and the Lilies of his exploits on Level 35 against the Battlecrows.

Sulla approached the bar counter.

“I’m here to talk to Myra.” Sulla said to the nearest bartender: a short, stocky man with red hair and one missing eye polishing a glass.

“And just who do you think you are? Never seen you ‘round these parts. Plus, she’s busy.” The bartender said gruffly.

“Who I am is none of your damn business. Go get her.” Sulla demanded impatiently.

“Or what?” the bartender retorted.

“Or I'll snap your neck before you pour your next drink.”

The bartender was unimpressed.

“Just try it. The Hub’s under the protection of the Triumvirate. You’ll be dead before you hit the ground.”

His patience exhausted, Sulla was about to make good on his threat when a sharp voice interrupted him.

“Now I’d think twice about that! Jyr here is right, this establishment is under protection. Best be careful if you’re gonna pull something like that.”

Sulla turned around. Behind the voice was a handsome woman of about forty, almost as tall as Sulla.

Realizing she was right, Sulla relaxed his stance.

“Myra, I assume?”

“That’s me. Now what would you be having to drink, soldier boy?”

Myra’s voice lowered to a hushed murmur.

“I got word from our mutual friend. We’ve been waiting for you. You sure took your time to get here, though. Think you can manage to keep a lower profile from now on?” whispered Myra.

“Yeah. Sorry about earlier.”

“That’s better. Now follow me.”

Sulla followed Myra down the stairs to the basement of the Hub and into her office. Once there Myra flicked a switch. The lightbulb flickered on, revealing a floor panel which she quickly opened.

“This opens straight into the Enclosure. Now, it’s not like upstairs where it separates one level at a time. This here runs all through the Undercity. Through here you can go straight to the Floor, we run people and supplies through here all the time.”

“Who is we?” Sulla inquired. “You work for one of the Triumvirate?”

Myra laughed at the thought, though there was no warmth behind her dark eyes.

“Not even close, young man. Doesn’t mean I don’t do business with those three, but my only master is Sophia”

Shocked, Sulla grabbed hold of Myra’s throat.

“What do you know about Sophia?!” He demanded. “Tell me now or I'll strangle the life out of you.”

“She is our messiah.” Myra rasped. “We are not your enemy Sulla.”

Sulla slowly let go of her throat as she fell to the ground coughing.

“You’re a member of Shining Path. Who is Sophia to you?”

“Sophia is our savior, our messiah. Through her we will liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the Demiurge. Yaldabaoth’s minions hunt us but we will prevail and disenthrall our souls from this material cage.”

“You sound like an insane person, I have no idea what any of that means.” Sulla said impatiently. “What does any of this have to do with my sister?”

“Your sister is divine, all will be made clear in time.”

“Take me to Shining Path.” Sulla demanded.

“I’m not authorized to do that.”

“Do it or I'll kill you right now.”

“You could kill me.” Myra agreed. “But then you’ll never find Shining Path, I'm the only one who can lead you through the Enclosure to the Floor. Without me guiding you, you’ll lose yourself in the labyrinth or fall prey to one of the rabid bands of subhumans who live in there.”

Sulla considered for a moment, he did not want to admit it but Myra was right.

“Fine, take me to the Floor.” Sulla ordered with a sigh.

The Floor was largely as he remembered it. Dark, damp, and gloomy on the one hand, yet bustling with activity on the other. People going to and from whatever jobs they could find; usually selling their brain power at one of the information hubs that were scattered around. Yet it was a surprisingly nostalgic feeling. Sulla had not been back here in the six years since Ennoia’s disappearance but this is where he had spent his happiest days with Kore and Ennoia. He turned to Myra who had guided him through the tunnel skillfully.

“So what now?”

“Now I’ll go back up, you find your sister.”

As Sulla walked through the streets of the Floor he recalled memories fondly. He passed by the alleyways where he and Ennoia had played tag, the small bookstore where he had first met Kore. Gripped by a sudden feeling of lamentation, Sulla entered the bookstore, it had once been owned by Kore’s parents. There were no books in the shop anymore, they had long since been looted. The empty bookshelves were covered with dust and the lights were broken. Sulla looked around, there was nothing left. This was where he had first met Kore as a teenager.

Sulla stepped out of the bookstore and made his way to the old tenement building that they had lived in. Along the way he passed by unfamiliar pale faces until he reached the building. This tenement building was less dilapidated than most on the Floor, its owner: a man named Nils was sitting at the desk. He was a short, middle-aged man with white hair and the pale skin characteristic of Undercity dwellers.

“Hey Nils, how have you been?” Sulla asked as he walked in.

“Well, I must say that I never expected to see you again.” Nils replied in a mildly surprised tone.

“What do you mean? I’ve been paying you all these years to keep the room and the items inside it undisturbed.”

“Yeah, but I never expected you to come back, you made it out of the Undercity, you had a bright career in the army ahead of you.”

“Not so bright anymore, I got myself court-martialed.”

“Well, whatever, I'm sure you’ll figure something out, feel free to stay here, you have been paying rent all this time.” Nils said, unconcerned.

The room was as Sulla remembered: in the corner was his painting of Kore teaching Ennoia to read. On the shelf was the Tales of Idra: the book that Kore had read to Ennoia. Sulla flipped through the pages, it contained tales of fantastical creatures and kingdoms. Of knights and princesses, kings and queens, dragons, unicorns, wyverns; stories of love and power, conquest, betrayal, loyalty and deception. Next to the book was a gold necklace with a small medallion depicting two husks of wheat crossed: the crest of the House of Ceres. Kore’s family had once been counted among the Dynatoi two generations ago. They had been banished to the Undercity after losing one of the internecine political struggles that frequently gripped the Dynatoi houses. According to Kore, they had been one of the Ulteriores Gentes: the 115 minor houses who each held one seat in the Imperial Diet. The House of Ceres had ended up on the wrong side of a dispute and their lands and wealth were seized by the House of Amal. The House of Amal was the most powerful of the Propriores Gentes: the twenty wealthiest and most powerful Dynatoi families of which Syphax’s House of Ilus also belonged. Kore’s grandparents were stripped of their wealth and status, and banished to the Undercity. Kore’s mother: Cassiopeia was a child of eight when this happened. She had been plucked from a life of wealth and privilege and forced into destitution.

Clutching the medallion Sulla exited the room; there was one more place Sulla needed to visit. Sulla left the building and turned to the right, past rows and rows of other tenements until he reached his destination: a long abandoned building. There was a hole in the ground leading to a tunnel tucked away in the shadows of a corner. Sulla climbed in and followed the tunnel for about half a kilometer until it opened up into a small clearing.

The sight of it took Sulla’s breath away every time he gazed upon it. Against all odds, a ray of real sunlight had managed to pierce all the way down here. There was a patch of green grass, moist with dew. Flowers grew on the grass and in the center there was a large sycamore tree, its leaves a verdant green that matched the grass. A small stream of water fed the plants and the sunlight nourished them. Sulla and Kore had discovered this place while exploring the abandoned building; they had crawled through the tunnel together and beheld a sight that neither of them had ever seen. Sulla recalled the warm memory as he looked at the tree with tears in his eyes. Neither of them had ever seen real grass, real sunlight, or a real tree. They only had the illustrations in Kore’s books as a reference and their own imaginations. But those illustrations were just crude imitations of the real thing. This was where Sulla and Kore had shared their first kiss. With the warm glow of the sunlight flowing over them, they had admitted their feelings to each other. Sulla remembered it as clearly as if it was yesterday. He had gazed into Kore’s soft brown eyes.

“I love you.” He had said.

“I love you too.” She had said back.

There they kissed passionately before sleeping together beneath the sycamore tree. They had been each other’s firsts. To this day Sulla had never been with another woman, though he had encountered many opportunities.

Ending his reverie, Sulla approached the sycamore tree. Beneath it was a small gravestone: the inscription read: Kore of Ceres, age 20, my love. This was where Sulla had buried Kore. Sulla knelt down weeping.

“I’m sorry.” He whispered. “I will always love you.”

As Sulla grieved over Kore’s grave in this beautiful, pristine place he noticed a gleam out of the corner of his eye. He reached up into the branches and plucked out a small silver box. He recognized it as a special type of lockbox called an enigma cube used by the Dynatoi and Holy Church. Lieutenant Vanir had carried one with him at all times and had shown Sulla how it worked. About the size of his palm, it was intricately engraved with whorls and grooves that gave it an organic look. Members of the Dynatoi and Holy Church used enigma cubes to conceal their most valuable secrets. They were widely known to be impossible to break into as they were constructed from an extremely rare metal known as Harpocratium which could not be destroyed by any known process. It must have been left here by Ennoia, Sulla concluded. She was the only living person besides him who knew about the grove’s existence, she probably left it for him to find. Sulla had no idea how Ennoia got her hands on an enigma box; there were supposedly only about a thousand of them in existence, almost all of which were in the hands of the Church or various Dynatoi families. Enigma boxes were unlocked not by a retina or fingerprint scan like most electronic lockboxes. Instead they were opened by tracing a specific pattern on the whorls, a pattern that was impossible to guess. Sulla placed his finger on one of the grooves and began tracing. The pattern would have to be something specific enough that no one else could copy it, but obvious to Sulla. As a child Ennoia had been fascinated with a story in the Tales of Idra of a three-legged unicorn. As Sulla traced the pattern of the three-legged unicorn on the enigma box, the whorls shifted and danced around his finger. When he was finished the box opened. Inside Sulla found a single piece of paper.

It read: “S.  If you're reading this I want you to know that I'm still alive.  This day marks two years since they took me.  But I never had a doubt you'd find your way back here.  I know that you probably blame yourself for what happened.  So stop that, what happened wasn’t your fault.  I didn't listen to you and I wasn't careful.  I've probably caused you a lot of pain, and there's no way I can apologize.  There's been so much I want to tell you, but I don't have much time here. I'm in the hands of a cult named Shining Path now.  On Level 10, look for a man named Seth. Seek him out and he will lead you to me.  Please don't fight them, we are not yet enemies.  See you soon.”