That thought faded as the kidnapper's voice followed me on my path toward the castle, saying things like, "That's the wrong way!", or "Go back while you still can!" I gritted my teeth and continued onward until I spotted another building made to look like a tent.
While I was wary of going inside, I nevertheless approached so I could read the sign on the door. To my surprise, there were only three letters printed on the sign: L, O, and another L.
"I'd leave that one alone if I were you." My kidnapper said.
"Oh?" I said, a grin spreading across my face. "Something there you don't want me to see?"
"Well, no, but it's an unfinished attraction. I'd hate to give you the wrong impression of my wonderful little paradise.
I paused; there was a definite change in tone; almost as though he were a little frightened himself. Interpreting this as a sign that he was hiding something, I said, "Now I'm really curious."
As I grabbed the handle, the voice on the intercom tried one last time to dissuade me. "Look, Jimmy, take my word for it; I'm not in there, and you aren't going to like what is."
Ignoring him, I opened the door.
The room was dark. Moments after I opened the door, a light activated in the center of the room, lighting up the entire building enough for me to see dozens of hunched over figures scattered around the building.
The figures wore colorful costumes with bells and fluffy bobbles, and their shoes were strangely large.
"Uh, hello?" I said, taking a hesitant step forward.
Slowly, each and every figure stood up and turned to face me. Dozens of painted smiles greeted me throughout the room, the silence broken only by the occasional chuckle. It was a little unnerving, I grant you, but I wasn't afraid. I'd never really understood the fear clowns generated. These weren't even real clowns; from the whirring of motors, they were mechanical. Just after I'd written them off as robots, all the clowns slowly smiled at me, showing rows and rows of jagged, metal teeth.
"Uh, sorry to disturb you." I said, slowly backing through the door as the sound of giggling filled the building.
The laughter grew louder and more maniacal. Several clowns drew items from their belts; never before had rubber chickens, juggling pins, and brightly painted balls seemed so threatening.
A loud laugh made me spin around; one of the clowns was bearing down on me, his maniacal grin just a few feet away.
I ducked beneath his outstretched arm and darted through the open door. I tried to slam the door shut, but a gaily clad arm shot through the opening just before the door closed.
As I pressed against the door to keep the clowns from escaping, I heard my radio activate.
"Uh, Jimmy?" Arc's voice asked, "You got a moment?"
"Kinda busy here, Arc." I slammed the door against the clown's arm. I doubted it was designed to feel pain, but my efforts apparently were enough to make it draw its arm back enough for me to close the door.
"I've, uh, got a problem. There's this animatronic pirate fox trying to-"
"Clowns, Arc. Clowns with sharp metal teeth."
"Ah. Never mind. I'll figure it out."
"Good." The metal blade of a large kitchen knife pierced through the door right beside my head. I fumbled with the handle, but there was no lock.
Laughter echoed from the other side of the door as the knife stabbed through the door again and again, some coming uncomfortably close to my hand as I held the door closed.
I turned to see Mick's head poking through a large manhole in the ground. Fortunately, he seemed to realize I was in trouble, and quickly motioned for me to follow him. Nodding, I made a run for the manhole. I barely made it a few steps before the door slammed open and creepy laughter filled the air. There was no reason to turn around; I kept running until I reached the hole. I climbed through and with considerable effort, pulled the manhole cover over the opening. As it slid into the recession, I heard a loud click.
"Don't worry." Mick said, "It's just a locking mechanism."
"Thank the Creator for that." I said as I climbed down the rungs and joined Mick. He looked no worse for wear, though his clothes were a little dirty.
"Are you injured?" Mick asked, his scanners already sweeping over me. "Jimmy, what are you doing here?"
"What am I doing here? Mick, what are you doing here? Why'd you run off without us?"
"Did Bethany not tell you?" Mick said, a puzzled look on his face. "I hoped to rescue the princess and bring her back to the Saybaro without anyone coming to harm."
"And what would've happened if you came to harm, Mick?" I asked him. "What if you were hurt? How do you think the rest of us would feel if we found you injured or dead?"
His cheeks gold, Mick said, "I just figured that as a core unit-"
"What, that you were more expendable?" I let out a sigh, more from disappointment than anger. "Mick, you've known me for months. Do you really think I think less of you because you're artificial?"
"No." He said, gold spreading across his face. "You've treated me as an equal."
"That's because you are." I said. "You're my friend, and I don't want to see any of my friends hurt. Sure, we're all at risk here, but at least together, we can watch each other's backs. Okay?"
He smiled at me. "Okay … and I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it." I said, patting him on the shoulder. "You're okay, and now that we're all here, we have a better chance at finding the Princess. Speaking of which, have you found anything of note yet?"
"I'm afraid not. I was in the Aetherial Plane when I thought I saw someone slipping into a manhole; turns out it was a trap."
"He trapped the sewers?" I said, glancing around the long corridor in which we stood. Truth be told, it didn't look particularly sewer-like; while the passage did have streams of nasty-looking water on either side, there was no smell whatsoever.
"Well, it's not really a sewer; that's a few levels down. I'm not certain, but I think this might be some kind of tunnel system for park employees." He gestured to the corridor on his right and said, "I passed several changing rooms and a breakroom earlier. That's where I found this."
He held up a slightly dusty identification badge, the name 'Finnegan Cresste' visible beside a photo of a young man with butter-blonde hair.
"Good thing, too, or it would've taken me longer to open the access hatch." Mick said, tucking the ID in his shirt pocket. "Strange, that our kidnapper was trying to warn you about the clowns."
"Speaking of which." I pulled out my radio and activated it. "Arc, you still alive?"
There was no response, so I tried again. "Arc? You there? Casey? Meryli? Terry?"
Mick let out a small cough. "This 'Sewer Level' seems to be shielded from outside contact. I lost contact with Yaevin the moment I came down here."
"My radio was working just a moment ago." I said. "Either our kidnapper just turned on a jammer, or they shielded the Sewer Level to keep them from using their cellphones on their breaks."
"Perhaps all we need to do is go above ground."
"Not here." I said, glancing up at the manhole. "Let's find another opening … preferably in a different section of the park. Perhaps there's a tunnel that leads straight to the castle."
"There are." Mick said, "But they've been closed off. Recently, from what I could tell."
I frowned. "How recently?"
"Hard to say. No more than twelve hours at most."
"Cautious, or did he know we were coming?" I said, again thinking of the message in my sketchbook. "She would've made the call about twelve hours ago, right about the time we had dinner."
"Pardon me for asking, but who would've made the call?"
"Meryli." I told him. "I'm not saying anything for certain, but she might bear watching … provided we can get out of here."
I half-expected Mick to question me about this, but he simply nodded and said, "Then let's proceed. Going by the design schematics, the closest areas would be either the Shroom Woods or the Shadowlands."
I pulled out my map of the park. "As ominous as the Shadowlands sounds, it's closer to Crystal Cove. Arc sounded like he might be in trouble, so I'd like to make sure he's okay."
"Agreed." Mick gestured to the open corridor. "Shall we?"
There wasn't much to say for the Sewer Level. While obviously playing off the whole video game theme of the park, it really was just a set of tunnels and a few employee rooms of little interest. We checked each room in passing, but other than a few disused mascot costumes, found little of interest.
Of more interest to me was the lack of taunting from the kidnapper. We didn't hear so much as a peep from him as we walked through the tunnels. It worried me; perhaps he was taunting one of the others, leading them astray.
Eventually, we reached a ramp that led up to a set of doors set into the ceiling. The doors slid open after Mick swiped the employee card, revealing the dark sky above what looked to be the inside of a mausoleum.
My suspicious were correct; after Mick broke the lock, we opened the massive doors to reveal a moonlit graveyard. This would've surprised me if our visit to Wukice hadn't shown me how easily creative holography could be applied.
"Very spooky." I said as the doors slid shut, their presence disguised by two sarcophagi sitting above them.
"According to the design documents, this area was designed to represent the horror genre." Mick said.
I chuckled. "Nothing more classic horror than a spooky graveyard, I suppose. Surprised they didn't put the clowns over here either."
"Indeed." Mick said, turning to face me. "Is your radio still malfunctioning?'
"What? Oh, right." I pulled out the radio and activated it again. "This is Jimmy. I've found Mick, and he's okay. Can anyone hear me?"
"Jimmy? Oh, thank the Creator!" Casey's voice said. "I'm stuck in the Aetherial Plane!"
Mick and I exchanged glances at this rather confusing statement. Raising the radio to my mouth again, I said, "Um, could you clarify that please?"
"I can't! I just stepped in the building, and now it's like I'm floating in an epileptic's nightmare."
"Sounds like she's run afoul of one of the attractions as well." Mick said.
Nodding in agreement, I said, "Okay, just … float there for now, and we'll head your way after picking up Arc."
"Can't you get here first? If the kidnapper finds me here, I'm history!"
"What about your camera?" Mick asked.
Casey sighed. "I dropped it when whatever this is started. I can see it floating in front of me, but I can't reach it. Besides, Arc's probably fine; you know how he-"
"I am so not fine!" Arc's voice said in a loud whisper. "Stop talking, or they'll hear you!"
Rolling my eyes, I said, "Where are you?"
"In the hold of one of the pirate ships near the gate to Galactic Central. The name's something with an 'A': Arcadia, Alundra, Astynax, something like that."
"Great. Terry, Meryli, can either of you read me?"
Someone responded, but I couldn't tell who; there was too much static to get a clear answer.
"Out of range." I said. "Damn."
"We could split up." Mick said. "One of us goes to Arc, the other to Casey."
"That puts us at risk as well." I said.
"But if we delay, Arc or Casey might not make it." Mick said. "You are our leader, Jimmy. It's your choice."
I let out a sigh. "No pressure then."
None of the options seemed good, but I didn't want to risk being too late to save a friend. With a sigh, I said, "Fine. Go save Casey; you're faster, and the Aetherial Plane's on the other side of the park. I'll get Arc."
"Understood." He was off in a flash moments later.
"Mick!" I called after him. He stopped and looked at me.
"You be careful, okay?"
He smiled and nodded at me before resuming his egress. Sighing, I turned my sights back upon the Shadowland and started walking.
I have to give the designers credit; the Shadowlands were definitely creepy. While horror was the overall theme, the area was laid out like a small abandoned city. Sure, I passed a few horror-themed rides like the Bone Grinder and the Doom Train, and even spotted an impressively spooky mansion (The Macabre Manor, going from a stone-chiseled sign on one of the posts on the outer gate), but the people who had built the place were definitely going for an overall ghost town effect.
I quickened my pace as I passed what looked like an old elementary school, its true nature as an attraction given away somewhat by several food stands amidst the shells of old floaters and cars in the parking lot. Every now and then, I could have sworn I heard a clownish giggle in the distance … and that was by far the least of the creepy sounds coming from the fog.
Despite the sounds, the streets were completely abandoned. I tried to keep my direction constant, knowing it would be all too easy to lose my way. Unfortunately, the layout of the town made this difficult. I'd reach the end of one street, only to be blocked by an old church or a hospital. In one case, the road itself was simply gone, like some massive hand reached down and tore a chunk out of the road.
Every door I tried was locked tight. I eventually stopped checking; while I knew the princess could easily be hidden in any building, with the fog blanketing the area, the kidnapper could be in his dragon machine twenty feet away and I likely wouldn't notice.
The whole area seemed like the perfect place for an ambush; I could barely see, the abandoned town and strange sounds had me on edge, and the wide open streets left me exposed. Strangely, however, nothing happened. The kidnapper didn't even taunt me.
Eventually, I came to a wall of buildings. Different paint, different signs, different materials … different buildings, yet put so close together that they formed a solid wall. I wondered if this was the edge of the Shadowlands and looked for the parapets of the castle towers in hopes of confirming I was still headed the right way. Unfortunately, between the fog and the night sky, I couldn't make out anything more than fifty feet away.
I considered asking Arc via radio; after all, he must've come through the Shadowlands to reach Crystal Cove. If he was still in danger, however, using the radio could give him away. He clearly thought as much from his last communication. Having no other recourse, I started walking down the sidewalk of the wall of buildings, my eyes searching for some kind of gate or passage.
The buildings of the abandoned town began to thin with the fog, the wall of buildings becoming instead a massive iron fence with a fast-moving river just beyond, a moonswept plain seemingly lying beyond. There was a hint of light on the horizon; as though morning were just moments away from breaking. Hearing the hopeful sound of waves in the distance helped me put a little more spring in my step, as I realized I must be getting close to the pirate-themes crystal cove.
The gate eventually opened to a single covered wooden bridge. I shook my head at the irony as I started across to the plains beyond. No sooner than I'd set foot on the creaking planks, a deep voice whispered, "Turn back."
I'll admit, it made me jump. After a few moments, however, I only felt annoyed. "Very funny." I said aloud. "I wondered when I'd hear from you again."
"Go back to the Saybaro." The voice breathed. There was something different about the tone, but I wrote it off at the moment as simple voice-changing software.
"Not without the princess. Now if you don't mind, I'm a little busy at the moment." I continued walking down the bridge, the boards creaking under my sandaled feet.
A ghoulish howl set the hairs on the back of my neck on edge. More angry than scared, I said, "Would you knock it off? I'm not running away. I came here to rescue the princess, and it's going to take more than spooky noises and empty buildings to scare me off!"
A long moment of silence followed, prompting me to let out a sigh of relief. Before I could take another step, however, I heard a low growl behind me. I slowly turned to see a skeletal knight astride a spectral horse, the green fire that was its eyes boring into me like diamond-tipped drills. After a few moments, it slowly drew a twisted black blade from its sheath. The moment it was fully exposed, the blade burst into blue flame.
"Okay," I admitted, backing up, "That's a much better trick."
With an unearthly howl, the skeletal knight spurred his spooky mount into a full gallop. I quickly considered my options; fighting was iffy; while this was obviously a prop, I knew first hand that didn't mean it was safe. A holographic blade can still cut, holographic fire could still burn, and holographic hooves could still trample me to death. Unfortunately, that ruled out the possibility of running as well; I couldn't hope to outrun the horse on foot.
There wasn't anything for it; the moment the spectral horse's hooves clattered against the bridge, I threw myself over the railing and fell into the raging river below. The current was even stronger than it looked; in a matter of moments, I was swept away.
I wasn't free yet, though; the skeleton knight and his horse followed on the side of the river. To my surprise, he sheathed his sword and swung himself to the side of his spectral ride. As he pulled one arm free, I realized what he was trying to do; sure enough, he used his longer arm to try and claw at me as I struggled to swim away.
I batted the long bone arm aside; ahead I could see the circular opening where the river flowed under the wall of buildings, just beyond the iron gate. If I could make it that far, he would either have to give up or jump in the river with me, which would at least take the unearthly fire out of the equation.
Just before I could slip though, however, I felt the skeleton's bony hand squeeze my shoulder, holding me fast. Bracing myself as best I could against the side of the concrete walls of the river, I hammered glint against the bone to no avail; the few times I managed to hit between the armored plates of the skeleton's gauntlets, Glint didn't even manage to chip the bone.
The skeleton started to pull, its grip on my shoulder painfully tight. I tried to pull back, but I simply didn't have a good enough purchase on the side of the river to push back with full force.
"LET GO OF HIM!"
To my astonishment, Terra landed on the back of the spectral horse. With one swift swipe of her energy dagger, she separated the skeleton's head from its body. It hit the grass on my side of the fence, the green fire still in its eye sockets.
With another swipe, she had the long boney arm in her grasp. Shoving the rest of the flailing skeleton from the horse, she met my gaze and said, "I've got you, Jimmy."
The skeleton let out a wicked cackle. I felt surge of relief immediately followed by a sense of panic as the skeletal hand let go of me and bent to grab at Terra. Her eyes went wide as she fought off the elongated arm, but the concern there wasn't for hersel, but for me. I could feel it somehow. Still fighting off the skeleton, she reached out for me, desperation in her eyes.
"Jimmy! Grab my hand!"
I lunged for her hand, only for the skeleton to pull her arm out of my reach. My fingers scrambled in the grasp, eventually grabbing the skull itself and pulling it along with me as I fell into the river. The strength in my arms all but gone, the river's current pulled me into the dark tunnel beneath the buildings.