Originally posted on Facebook Notes, 15th May 2008
They'd been walking for some time now, the organic rock of the natural cavern giving way to a crudely blasted man-made passage. Its floor sloped gently upwards. Here the luminous algae did not grow, so that Mike was forced to use his Maglite to illuminate the path in front of them. Just as they were beginning to grow accustomed to the routine of trudging along in silence, a new space opened up before them. Rudolf swore as he nearly pitched forward into nothingness, dislodging a few skittering stones.
Flicking the beam of the torch upwards revealed that their corridor had opened onto a broad shaft, stretching into the blackness above and below them as far as the eye could see. It was circular in diameter, and the pathway spiralled both up and down in a deep groove around the circumference.
Rudolf surveyed their options. "Upwards or downwards?" he asked.
"While a journey to the centre of the earth might be appealing under other circumstances," Mike replied grimly, "right now a girl's life is at stake. We go upwards."
The taller man nodded. "Whatever you say, Chief." Without further words, they began to climb.
Neither of them noticed the wooden plaque affixed to the wall by the entrance to the passage. In worn, barely legible letters, it read:
STRICTLY NO ENTRY UNLESS ALL SEALS BROKEN
"Me," Cat repeated, barely able to believe what she was hearing. She stared incredulously across at her dark-haired co-prisoner. "You were looking for me."
Mirabelle emitted a short sigh, and glanced at the stone flags beneath her feet. "I probably shouldn't have started by saying that. But yes, I was sent here to find you and two others..." She stopped short as Cat laughed abruptly. "What?"
"I don't even know where to begin with my questions," the mousey-haired girl responded ruefully, shaking her head. "Fine. Never mind. Let's start with: where exactly is here?"
"That, at least, I can answer," Mirabelle returned, stretching out her legs into a more comfortable position and crossing them at the ankle. Her voice had the confidence of a woman accustomed to teaching. "This place was one of the oldest Colleges of the University of Cambridge, although technically its name has been stricken from all records. It was known as Midwinter College, after its founding in 1358 on the 25th of December. Seven years later, the Master and Fellows of the College were found guilty of all manner of terrible crimes, not least among them necromancy and daemonology."
"Necromancy and daemonology?" Cat queried matter-of-factly, brushing hair out of her eyes as if it would help her see the issue more clearly. When she received a nod in response, she smiled. "Okay. Carry on."
Mirabelle was evidently taken aback by Cat's nonchalance, because it took her a moment to resume what she was saying. "Well... the Fellows of other colleges got together to protest, and the end result was that, by the Chancellor's decree, four of their number enacted a spell of banishment that spirited the whole college away to this dank pit. Which is where their members have been trapped ever since... until recently, that is."
"Magic," Cat mused. "Magic exists. That makes a lot of sense, I suppose." She shook her head and smiled. "So what happened recently to change the situation?"
"A lot of things," was Mirabelle's terse response. "But the result was that the spells of banishment were weakened. It became possible for individuals to travel from Cambridge to here, and vice versa, except for the most powerful of beings. Which is how you got here."
"And you," Cat prompted.
The dark-haired woman looked surprised at being asked about herself, then nodded. "Yes. Me too."
They had reached the top of the tower.
A massive plate of flat, dark metal cut all the way across the shaft above them, preventing all upward progress. It was smooth and unmarked except for two hatches. The smaller of the two was ahead of them on the path, which spiralled up to it and stopped. It was only just large enough for a person to pass through. The larger was circular and sat above the shaft proper, with no obvious access to it.
"I wonder what that's for?" Rudolf thought aloud.
"They must use it to haul things up and down from the surface," Mike replied. "Larger things, that wouldn't fit down the path. Imagine trying to get a grand piano down here. Or an Austin Seven."
"An Austin Seven?" Rudolf queried.
"You never heard that story? I'll have to tell you about it some time," the engineer responded. "Right now, let's get this door open." He grabbed the wheel-shaped handle on the hatch and turned it first clockwise, then anticlockwise, then grunted. "Huh. It's locked."
"There's a keyhole just above it," Rudolf pointed out. "Try the porter's keys."
Mike examined the lock for a few seconds, then shook his head. "Wouldn't do any good. The porter's keys are all lever lock keys. This one's a tubular pin tumbler lock - it needs a different type of key."
Rudolf, hunched over where the path spiralled into the metal disc above them, sighed and sat down. "Can't you get through it somehow with your special tool thing?"
"No," Mike shot back. "Can't you get through it somehow with your razor sharp wit?" They sat in resigned silence for a few seconds, then Mike reached into his pocket and pulled out the copper casket he'd picked up from the Praelector's room. It clicked open, and the first item within it was a long tubular key. Mike shook his head. "Well, I'll be damned." He pushed the key into the lock. It fitted, and the hatch slid upwards and backwards away from them.
They weren't greeted by sunlight. In fact, the room before them was as dark as the rest of the shaft. It was circular, fitting neatly on top of the tower, and about three metres in height. The walls and ceiling were formed entirely from plates of the same dark metal that formed the floor, welded solidly together.
"This floor is over a foot thick," the tall rower remarked as he emerged through the hatch after Mike. It slid shut behind him. "Somebody really wants to keep these people in."
"Smells strange in here," Mike muttered. "Like salt."
"Yeah, well shall we let in a bit of fresh air?" Rudolf responded, making his way over to a ladder set into the wall which led to another, similar hatch in the ceiling. "There's no keyhole on this one. God, I'll be glad to get out of here. How long have we been down here? A day?" There was no response from Mike. "Well, it seems like forever. Come on, let's go." He began to turn the wheel. There was some initial resistance, and then with a metallic screech it started to rotate.
"Wait," Mike said suddenly. "Rudolf, don't open it. I don't think this is all designed to keep us in. What if it's designed to keep something else out?"
But the taller man wasn't listening. The wheel reached its final position, and the hatch swung open.
"It's a good thing the spells are weakened," Cat continued, "or my friends wouldn't be able to get out."
Mirabelle's eyebrows drew together in concern. "There are others? Where did you see them?"
"I met them a while ago," Cat replied. "We couldn't find the way out, so we sneaked into the building - the College - and stole a map. I think the other two got away, so they'll be heading for the surface if they have any sense."
The older woman's already pale face blanched even further. "No... the surface..."
"What?" Cat demanded. "What's wrong? They'll be coming back to rescue us! Once word gets out that we're down here..." She trailed off.
Mirabelle was shaking her head. "I didn't tell you the full story," she said urgently. "This place... it's not just underground. It's in... what you might call a parallel world. Another version of Earth. Getting to the surface won't get them back to Cambridge. This world was never inhabited by humans."
"So?" Cat inquired. "Surely they'll just figure it out and come back. What's so bad about the surface?"
"The average temperature of this world has been a fraction of a degree higher than on ours for the last three thousand years," Mirabelle responded heavily. "And there were no Dutch engineers to build channels and drain the Fens."
It took a second for the implications to sink in, then Cat's eyes widened.
Cold saline water crashed in upon them.