Born on the 3rd day of the third month of the year 3290. 15 years old. A third-year student at the 4th Capital Secondary School in the Capital District of the Roxcheanuk Confederation. His hometown is far from school, so he lives in the dorms. Not a part of any school clubs.
Born on the 14th day of the second month of the year 3289. 16 years old. A third-year student. She is from the Allied Kingdoms of Bezel-Iltoa. ‘Strauski’ is her family name. Because she started school a year after moving to Roxche, she is a year older than her classmates. A member of the chorus club.
Born on the 12th day of the fifth month of the year 3290. 15 years old. A third-year student. He is from military family with a very long history, and trains daily to become a soldier himself. Seron’s best friend.
Born on the 8th day of the sixth month of the year 3290. 15 years old. A third-year student. Her parents are famous musicians. Part of the orchestra club, and is skilled with musical instruments.
Born on the 4th day of the fourth month of the year 3290. 15 years old. A third-year student. He has an androgynous appearance and is not part of any clubs. He and Seron are acquainted.
Born on the 17th day of the first month of the year 3290. 15 years old. A third-year student. She is the daughter of one of Roxche’s richest people. President of the newspaper club.
Chapter 9: The Basement
“All right. No one’s around, and no one’s watching. It’s going well so far.” Said Larry.
“Is anyone here? Please answer if you can hear me!” Seron yelled into the window, crouching down. “We need to tell you something very important. Please, can you hear me?”
Seron repeated himself multiple times, making sure to state that the windows were set to be blocked and that it would be best if the man were to come outside.
He then waited, straining his ears.
But there was no response.
“Should we try the west side? That’s where he was in the picture.” Larry asked.
“No, let’s not. It’ll be the same no matter where we yell from.” Seron replied, getting up and turning to Larry. He met his gaze. “It’s all up to you now.”
“All right. Leave it to me.”
Larry pulled off his backpack and went up the stone steps to the doors.
“You think he can do it?” Natalia wondered. “If this doesn’t work out, we’re outta options.”
“We must simply believe in Larry. And if he should fail, we will think of something else. Perhaps going to watch a film is still a viable option?” Nicholas wondered.
“Please… we are asking you, Larry. We want to help the man…” Meg pleaded.
“Good luck, blondie. I’ll let this one slide without any incriminating photographs.” Jenny nodded.
Larry got down on one knee before the doors.
He took out Natalia’s hairpin from his pocket. It had been snapped in two and the ends filed into points. Seron stood beside him.
“All right. Time for the Confederation military’s secret technique…” Larry joked, pushing the two pieces into the lock. He held one in place in the direction the lock turned, and pushed the other piece down along the grooves as he moved it back and forth.
Several seconds later.
There was a click.
“I got it.”
The open lock was in Larry’s hand.
“Not bad, Larry!”
“I suppose the film can wait for another time. The theater will wait for us.”
“Incredible, Larry! It is very incredible!”
“Hm. You’re more useful than I gave you credit for.”
The others commented, one after another.
“Great work, Larry.” Seron added.
“I’m only doing this ‘cause it’s an emergency.”
Slowly, Seron and Larry unwrapped the heavy, rusted chains from the doors.
They heaved open the squeaky double doors. Afraid that someone might jump out from behind, Seron and Larry quickly took defensive stances.
But all that escaped the storehouse was a damp, cold breeze.
Seron and Larry went back down the stairs and returned to the group.
“That was great, Larry. Give me lessons sometime—if all else fails, I’ll just go into a life of crime.”
“I’ll have to refuse, Lia.” Larry said, shouldering his backpack again.
“All right. We’ll be back soon.” Seron said.
Natalia, Meg, Nick, and Jenny responded at once.
“Hold on a moment, Seron. Do you plan to leave us behind?” Asked Nick. Seron nodded.
“The two of us are more than enough. It’s too dangerous for all of us to go when we have no idea what’s really down there. This was how we planned the mission in the first place.”
“That’s news to me, Seron. You’re taking us with you.” Natalia said with a glare.
“Yeah! We didn’t come all this way just to sit back and wait.” Jenny agreed, holding up the camera bag she had slung over her shoulder.
“If it is possible at all, I would like to go together as well. Is it not possible, Seron?” Meg pleaded.
“Huh? Er… I… I didn’t think you’d all want to come along.” Seron explained awkwardly.
“I thought it was pretty obvious we’d all go together, considering how the conversation was going. For being smart and handsome, you’re a pretty dense guy.”
“We don’t know who might be down there. It’s too dangerous—”
“Which is why you’re not gonna go in there without us. The more eyes and ears, the better, right? Though my eyes aren’t gonna be much help.” Natalia said, pushing up her glasses. Seron did not seem convinced.
“I was hoping you guys would keep an eye out in case someone approached the storehouse.”
“And what if someone does? Then we all get in trouble. Or did you want us to run off? If whoever comes here decides to go, ‘Oh, somebody left the door open’ and locks it right back up, we’re done. Larry’s the only one who can open it. So it makes no difference whether we stay or go with you. And if things go wrong, we can always muscle open one of the windows from the inside.” Natalia argued.
Next to her stood Meg, looking at Seron like a puppy begging to go on a walk. Seron fell silent.
“We do have enough gloves and flashlights for everyone.” Larry commented.
Seron thought for a moment. Then he reached a conclusion.
“…Stay right behind us and don’t wander off.”
“Then we will go too!”
“I suppose we are.”
“Of course we’re going along!”
Larry whispered to Seron as the others celebrated.
“Going on an adventure with the girl of your dreams in a dark basement, eh? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!”
Seron whispered back.
“I don’t even know what I’m trying to do anymore…”
“What? We’re going in there to rescue someone.”
“…Yeah. Let’s go with that.”
Natalia cut in.
“Hey, you two! Stop leaving us out of the conversation!”
Everyone had a pair of gloves and a flashlight.
“We’re good to go. Let’s get started, Seron.”
The group started towards the building with Larry and Seron in the lead. After a short climb up the steps, they entered the cool interior.
The girls followed right behind Larry and Seron, and Nick brought up the rear. They left the door wide open as though daring a teacher to see.
The storehouse interior was symmetrical in design. The large rectangular building was divided in four by two intersecting hallways with high ceilings.
Next to the halls were rooms with wooden walls, but the ceilings were lower in the rooms. The rooms were not furnished.
It was cool and humid inside. The air stank faintly of rusted iron.
The group stood in the middle of the building, examining the interior with fascination. It was quite bright inside thanks to the windows on the roof and near the ceiling. No one had to turn on their flashlight.
There was a thin layer of dust in the halls, but it was otherwise clean—someone must have been regularly cleaning the storehouse. The stone floors were slightly sunken in the parts that were most trodden on, speaking for the three centuries’ worth of history that the building represented.
“Hm… I don’t see anything that looks like a basement entrance.” Larry said.
They could not find any stairs or steps leading down. None of the halls led to any other levels.
“Then maybe there’s an entrance in one of the rooms.” Said Seron.
“Should we split up?” Asked Larry.”
“No, we’ll stick together.” Seron replied. “We’ll check the rooms in order, starting from the ones on the east.” He began walking cautiously down the long hallway.
The moment Larry made to follow, Natalia whispered to him,
“Countin’ on you.”
Natalia walked protectively next to Meg, as though escorting her. Jenny took out her camera and put the strap around her neck, looking around as she snapped the occasional photo. Nick followed behind her.
Seron and Larry stopped at the nearest door. Larry grabbed the handle and cautiously opened it, slowly peering inside.
The room was about 4 square meters in size.
Like in the hallway, the floor was made of stone here as well. Heaped on the floor was a pile of old timber bent from humidity. There was nothing—and no one—else.
The room across the hall was full of roof tiles. The dark dust made clear their age. Some of the tiles were cracked around the edges.
They finished checking all the rooms on the east.
They could not find anything resembling any staircases. The only things in the rooms were construction materials from an unknown time.
“It looks like they’re not going to be using those. They probably left the materials here because they’re too lazy to move them out.” Said Seron.
“The teachers must’ve personally done repair work back in the old days—the really old days. Now you can just call a company to do that work for you, and they even bring their own materials.” Larry added.
“Next?” Natalia urged them. Seron turned west. The group went back down the hall to examine the other rooms.
The two in the lead braced themselves for anything to pop out at them at any point as they continued to search.
They began with the doors near the middle, but all they found were rooms full of rusted metal scaffolds, coils of metal wire, and old materials that would never see use.
“Just two rooms left.” Larry said. They had yet to explore the two rooms on the western edge of the building. In terms of location, the window featured in the photograph was just underneath the last two rooms.
Larry slowly opened the door to the room on the northwestern corner and peered inside. And,
“Hm… is this the place, you think?” He asked, gesturing Seron over.
Larry was crouching low by the door. Seron peered inside from just above his head and scanned the room.
It was different from the others.
There were no construction materials to be found there. Instead was a large brown rug, which covered most of the floor. Atop the carpet stood an old wooden desk.
Seron instructed the others to wait and entered the room alongside Larry.
Silently, they exchanged glances. They each picked up either end of the desk and slowly carried it out into the hallway.
All that was left was the rug. Seron and Larry stepped back inside and began to slowly—ever so slowly—roll it up.
The others watched from the hallway.
“This is it.”
Under the rug, between the stone flooring, they found a wooden trapdoor.
The trapdoor was about 1 square meter in size and was at nearly the same level as the floor. It emerged fully as Seron and Larry completely rolled up the rug.
“Can I open this, Seron?”
Larry took hold of the handle. He pulled on it, and the trapdoor opened easily. From the gap they could hear the sound of wind passing through the barred windows.
The gap widened as Larry heaved open the door, and eventually became a 1-meter-square hole.
Seron and Larry pulled back the door, letting it down on the rolled-up rug. And they slightly adjusted its position so it would not close on its own.
“Is anyone in there?” Seron yelled into the opening.
His voice was sucked into the darkness. All he heard was an echo of himself. There was no answer.
Seron pointed his flashlight into the hole.
A steel ladder was securely affixed to the stone foundation. It was about 2 and a half meters in length, and touched the bottom of the basement.
There was nothing in his line of sight, save for the floor and the ladder.
Seron called out into the basement once more, and turned.
“All right. Come over here, everyone.” He said to the others in the hallway.
Meg, Natalia, Jenny, and Nick entered the room, curious. And soon, all six students were squatting around the trapdoor, staring inside.
“Hm. So now we know somebody’s going in and out of this place. We’re getting more and more clues as we go.” Natalia said.
“So this is the entrance to our secret labyrinth, I suppose.” Nick commented.
“Whoever’s inside, come out here where it’s bright. I’ll snap a really nice photo of you.” Jenny grinned.
“We must save him as fast as possible! It will be very bad for his health if he stays always in a place like this!” Meg cried.
“So we’re really going in together?” Seron asked one last time.
“Why’d you have to be so stubborn? We’re all ready to go.” Natalia sighed.
All six of them were wearing green work gloves and were holding flashlights. They checked the flashlights several times over to make sure they worked.
“…Let’s go. Make sure to stick together—it would be terrible if someone got lost.” Seron said.
“I’ll take the lead.” Larry said, putting down his backpack and climbing into the trapdoor first. He put his feet on the ladder and cautiously put his weight on his feet, making sure that the rungs were strong enough to support him. Then he slowly climbed down to the floor, which was lit by Seron and Natalia’s lights.
And even as Larry climbed down the ladder,
“Is anyone in there? We’re coming inside!”
Seron continued to call out into the basement.
Eventually, as Seron and Natalia watched, Larry safely made it to the basement floor. He turned on his own flashlight.
From above Seron and Natalia saw Larry look around with his flashlight. The light circled the area once and stopped.
“What’s it like down there?” Asked Seron.
“It’s empty. It’s an empty room made of stone. And it’s pretty big, too. About half the building upstairs, I’d wager. But there’s no one and nothing here.” Larry said curiously, his voice resonating slightly.
Seron left his things to Natalia and climbed down the ladder.
Cautiously following Larry down to the basement, Seron also turned on his flashlight and scanned his surroundings.
The basement’s walls, ceiling, and floor was all made of stone.
The ceiling was a little lower than on the ground floor. It was cooler in the basement than aboveground, but thanks to the barred windows the air was not very humid.
The windows also let enough light into the basement. By the time his eyes were adjusted to the darkness, Seron only had to use his flashlight to examine the minutest of details.
Before his eyes were stone walls, the floor, and the ceiling. It was like he was standing in an empty box.
And just as Larry had said, the room was large.
It was square in shape, almost 10 square meters wide. It was about half the size of the building aboveground. There was a doorway leading into the next room on the eastern side.
Seron turned to Larry.
“It really is completely empty in here. The walls around the doorway probably serve as supports.”
“Should we check out the other side, while we’re at it?”
“Sure. Nat won’t like it, but let’s do this.”
Seron and Larry walked through the basement with flashlights in hand.
“Hey! Guys!” Natalia cried from aboveground, but they ignored her.
“Is anybody here?”
Seron and Larry called out loudly as they headed for the doorway leading into the next room.
They stopped at the doorway and exchanged glances. Then—
“Are you in there?”
They pointed their flashlights into the room in unison and stepped through.
And they went quiet.
There was nothing there.
“This doesn’t make sense…”
“No, it doesn’t.”
Larry and Seron furrowed their brows as they headed back to the trapdoor.
“Hey! Don’t wander off without us!” Natalia yelled from upstairs, her bangs falling forward. Seron responded.
“Oh, feel free to climb down now, Nat.”
“Hm? What’s down there?”
“Nothing. And no one.”
“All right. Thanks for the permission, your majesty.”
Natalia climbed down first with Larry’s backpack on one arm. The moment she stepped onto the floor, she held out the backpack towards Larry.
“Oh. You didn’t have to lug it all the way here.”
“Forget it. Take it already.”
Meg carefully, cautiously descended the ladder next under Natalia’s watchful gaze.
She was followed by Jenny, who climbed down with ease. Nick was last.
“So now we’re all down here.” Larry grumbled.
“Problem, Larry? Anyway, did you find anything?” Said Natalia. Her voice resounded slightly.
With four people’s gazes on him, Seron repeated himself.
“There’s nothing here.”
“It’s kind of weird for me to say this, since I was against everyone coming along. But I think it’ll be faster for you to take a look yourselves.”
Led by Seron, the four latecomers began to look around the basement.
And they were done in a matter of seconds.
“It’s certainly a very tidy place.” Nick noted. It was hard to tell if he was being sarcastic.
“Much cleaner than my room.” Larry added.
Seron narrowed his eyes at the exchange.
Jenny went over to the window on the west side—where she had captured the mysterious face on camera.
“Over here! He would have been standing right here! I just know it!” She cried, jumping up and down.
“There is nothing here, and there is no one here. What in the world happened? Why?” Meg wondered. But no one could answer her questions.
Larry put down his backpack and looked at Seron.
“Hey. I know this isn’t the best time to say this, but…”
Everyone turned to Larry when they heard his voice trail off. Larry seemed to feel even more self-conscious.
“Maybe… maybe that picture was a trick of the light after all?”
“What the heck, blondie!” Jenny exploded.
“I’m just suggesting a possibility.” Larry replied.
“Impossible.” Seron shook his head.
“If it really was a trick of the light, our culprit wouldn’t have stolen the film.”
“And if there really isn’t anyone in this basement, something’s not right.”
Larry furrowed his brow.
“What does this mean, Seron?” Meg wondered, also confused.
“It’s too tidy in here.”
“Huh.” Larry intoned.
“Hm. You’re right.” “Indeed.” Jenny and Nick said almost in unison. Natalia nodded again and again,
“Hm?” Meg still did not understand. Natalia explained.
“The basement’s too clean for a place no one uses, don’t you think? With these windows, you’d expect to see some garbage, leaves, or dirt piled up around here.”
“Ah, now that you say it, I see. It is very strange.”
“It wouldn’t be surprising to see the place infested with bugs.” Larry added.
“Thankfully not.” Said Natalia. “In other words—”
“Someone is cleaning this place regularly.” Nick finished.
“So a mystery person really is here?” Larry wondered, looking around with the flashlight again. “Then where could he be?”
“Perhaps he does not reside here constantly? Suppose he simply comes in and out of this building sometimes, and happened to be caught on camera yesterday. Perhaps he placed the rug and the desk over the trapdoor to hide the entrance after he left.”
“Not likely.” Jenny said immediately.
Natalia agreed. “Yeah. Other places, sure. But this here’s a school building.”
“I get it. Entry to a school campus is almost as strict as a military base. Someone would call the police on him in no time if he really kept going in and out of here. The security guards’ll be on him in a flash with their shotguns and rubber bullets.” Said Larry.
“Then there’s only one other possibility.” Seron said.
All eyes were on him.
“There’s more here.”
Five voices expressed their disbelief. Natalia quickly spoke for everyone.
“What’re you talking about? You know Seron, sometimes you think so fast it’s impossible to figure out what you’re saying.”
Seron lightly shook his head.
“…Sorry. I mean that there’s more to this basement than we see here. There should be another passageway. I’m assuming there must be at least one other door that leads somewhere else.”
“I see. That makes sense.” Natalia nodded.
“I’d love to say the same, but where would we find a passageway? You really think there’s a door someplace in this basement, Seron?” Larry asked, casting light on the walls. Seron nodded.
“Yeah. This building was built 300 years ago, and the basement is still preserved. This area used to be the center of an old village, which means that there must have been other buildings around this one.”
“Speaking as a history-lover, I suppose that’s quite reasonable. I seem to recall hearing that basements and underground passageways were a mainstay of medieval architecture in the East.” Nick commented.
Larry turned to Seron for confirmation. Seron nodded.
“Settlements were usually built on exposed bedrock.”
Nick decided to chime in, explaining further.
“Before the Middle Ages, settlements were mostly founded near suitable farmland. But architectural techniques grew more and more advanced, and by the Middle Ages it was possible to build structures larger than ever before. These large buildings, of course, needed a solid foundation to prevent them from sinking. That was how exposed bedrock became the norm for settlements. The availability of material and the extra space offered by basements meant that underground floors became quite common. Some built massive structures in a show of opulence, and others expanded and renovated existing buildings to connect them in complex networks. And supposedly, many such basements were equipped with secret passages often used for illicit purposes such as making secret deals or hiding a cache of valuables. You can often find secret basements as a plot device in period novels.”
“I get it. So it wouldn’t be surprising to find a secret passageway in here.” Jenny concluded.
“Thanks for the info. Mind sharing some of that knowledge next time we have to take a test together?” Natalia joked.
“Then, you are saying that this basement has a door to a secret road, and it is not strange that this basement is connected to a next basement? You are saying that the man is hiding away from us there?” Meg asked Seron. Seron nodded.
“Yeah. So let’s all take a closer look at the walls in this room. There must be a passage somewhere.”
“It won’t be easy.” Nick warned. “If we wish to find the secret passage, we will likely have to physically push the door open. It will take a very long time for us to find that specific part of the wall.”
“Yeah… I wish there was an easier way, but…” Seron trailed off.
“Then I guess it’s my turn.” Natalia said, pushing up her glasses and stepping forward.