Milo led Charlie and Bear to the elevator and hit the button for the first floor. They stood silently as the elevator descended, shaking precariously the whole way down until they arrived on the ground floor. The door slid open to reveal Juno, waiting for the elevator.
“Hey guys,” she said, clearly surprised to see them together. She wore a jean jacket over a light blue shirt with blue jeans. Her Ukeytar was strapped to her back. She looked them over and then smiled broadly as she noticed Bear standing between them. “And who is this?” She knelt down and offered her hand to Bear who, surprisingly, trotted up to her and started licking her fingers.
“This is Bear,” said Charlie. “I found him on the roof.”
“What was he doing up there?”
“I have no idea.”
“And you got him a little wheelchair!” she said, petting Bear’s head.
“Actually I pulled it out of the backpack. It’s a, er, a relic.” Charlie stumbled.
Juno looked up at him in surprise. “You made a relic? Already? How?”
“I, um, I don’t know,” said Charlie sheepishly.
“Believe it or not, that’s not even the craziest thing he’s told me,” said Milo.
Juno stood up, worry in her eyes. “What do you mean?”
Milo glanced at Charlie, waiting for him to be the one to break the news.
“The backpack keeps saying that fighting monsters is one way to help level it up,” said Charlie, starting to feel a rising sense of concern.
Juno’s eyes shifted from Charlie to Milo. “Is that what this is? Is that why you brought him down here?” she asked.
“Juno–” Milo started.
“He told us not to go down there,” said Juno harshly. “He told us to keep that door shut, Milo.”
“I know,” bit back Milo. “But the backpack is telling him to do it and Arthur owned the backpack. He left it to Charlie. I just think…” Milo paused. “I know what Arthur said, but he’s not here now. And sure, when he was alive, there was no reason for us to go down there, because he was going down there. He had it under control. But now…we’re on our own, Juno.”
“So far we’ve been fine, though,” she said, but her voice wavered.
“Sure, but for how long?” asked Milo. “The backpack is telling Charlie to go fight monsters. Why would it do that? What if, someone has to fight them to keep them under control? I know I would much rather go to them than wait for them to come up here and find us with our paws in the kitty litter.”
“Is that a cat idiom?” asked Charlie apprehensively.
Juno thought this over, chewing on her bottom lip. She shook her head, but then sighed as resolve filled her eyes. “I’m coming with you.”
“Absolutely not,” said Milo.
“Wait, why not?” asked Charlie.
“Because she’s gonna get herself killed,” said Milo.
“I’m not the one who shows up at all hours with stab wounds!” snapped Juno.
“You got stabbed?” asked Charlie, turning to Milo. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Mom,” snapped Milo.
“You need me,” said Juno. “I’m guessing Charlie’s never fought anything before and you,” she motioned at Milo, “have the unique ability to get hurt … a lot. You two can be the muscle, but you need someone with support skills. Plus you need a healer. And I am both of those things.”
“I can make fences, so I don’t know if that is technically considered muscle,” said Charlie, sounding more and more unsure of himself. “Also I’ve never even thrown a punch. I can almost guarantee I’m useless in a fight.”
“You,” she pointed at Charlie, “can pull things out of a backpack. You’re basically a wizard. You,” she pointed at Milo next, “have your sword-like umbrella that Jericka made you. Plus you can take a hit. You’re the tank.”
“Tank?” asked Milo.
“Oh my God, I know you used to be a cat, but can you get with the picture and play a video game for once in your life?” Juno stomped her foot.
“That sounds boring,” said Milo, who was already losing interest in the conversation.
“You’re like the warrior of the group,” she clarified. “We’ve got a mascot,” she pointed to Bear. “An adorable one, I might add.”
Bear barked in approval as she petted his head.
“And I’m your healer. I can also cast an offensive spell. Not to mention that my powers are way stronger than either of yours. The point is, you need me or you guys will be out after a few hits.” She crossed her arms, clearly proud of the point she’d made.
“To be fair, I’ll probably be out after no hits,” said Charlie, who was not at all looking forward to being hit by anything ever.
“Fine!” growled Milo. “You can come, but don’t die. If you die, I’ll be pissed.”
“Fair enough,” said Juno.
“I would also like to not die,” said Charlie.
“You’ll be fine,” said Juno. “Just don’t get your head cut off. That’s kind of hard to heal.”
Charlie’s stomach dropped. “Is that something we’re concerned about happening?”
“No idea,” said Milo. “We’ve never been down there.”
“Okay, now that we’re all going, can one of you tell me where we’re going?” asked Charlie.
Milo and Juno looked at each other, as if expecting the other to speak. After a beat, Juno sighed. “Fine, I’ll tell him.” The four of them moved into the lobby together. It was as if by taking those few steps, they were committing to their mission. “Have you ever heard of the abandoned subway stations beneath the city?”
“Sure, I guess,” said Charlie. It was a well known fact that several stations and tunnels had been abandoned throughout the city’s subway system throughout history, due either to disuse or simply the fact that some stations had not been built to harbor the larger trains that eventually became the heart of the system itself. “I even toured one back when I was in high school.”
“Right,” said Juno. “Well there are some stations and tunnels that you can tour and learn history about stuff.” She paused for effect. “But there are others that run deeper. Stations and tunnels that people have forgotten about, and for good reason.”
“What kind of good reason?” asked Charlie. He felt as though he was about to learn something he really didn’t want to know.
“Because these stations weren’t abandoned by choice. They were … taken.” Juno bit her bottom lip.
“Taken?” asked Charlie. “By what?” But somehow he already knew the answer. “Or … who?”
“The monsters your backpack wants you to fight,” said Milo.
Charlie eyed them both and then smiled, waiting for one of them to break and start laughing and tell him they were just playing with him. “Come on. This is New York. There aren’t monsters hiding under the city. That’s like some crazy story we tell tourists.”
“Oh they’re real,” said Juno. “Arthur would go down to fight them, to keep them at bay. That’s why he forbade us from ever going down there.”
“Okay but why did he even have to fight them at all?” asked Charlie. “If there are monsters deep underground, couldn’t we just, I don’t know, leave them to their monstering?”
“If only it were that simple,” said Milo.
“There’s a door in this building that leads down to the tunnels, the catacombs he called them.” Juno took a deep breath. “It’s the only door that leads down there. The only door anywhere.”
Charlie looked at Juno and then at Milo, then back at Juno. Bear whimpered from the floor. “What does that mean?”
“It means,” said Juno, “that this building, along with being a home to a bunch of really amazing people with really amazing gifts, is also the one and only gateway to a dark underground lair of monsters. Or to put it another way, this building is the last defense against a very old evil and your grandfather was the man keeping it at bay so it didn’t rise up and consume the city.”
“Oh,” said Charlie, feeling his pulse quicken. His head suddenly felt very light. “I see.” His eyes rolled back into his head as he toppled backwards, and everything went dark.
* * *
Charlie awoke to Bear licking his face. “Argh!” he said, pushing Bear away. “Stop it!”
He blinked his eyes open and looked up to see Milo and Juno standing over him.
“Are you okay?” asked Juno.
“Are you done being dramatic?” asked Milo.
“I had the worst dream,” rasped Charlie. “I dreamt you two were going to take me through a portal to hell underneath the apartment building.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” said Milo.
“Dammit,” said Charlie. “I guess I just hoped it was a dream.” He used his arms to push himself up to a sitting position. Milo and Juno backed up to give him room. “So what? We just go down there and get eaten by the orcs of Mordor?”
“What’s an orc?” Asked Milo.
“It’s from the Lord of the Rings,” said Juno.
“Movies are boring,” replied Milo.
“I once saw you watch four hours of a pre-recorded aquarium on TV,” she snapped back.
“In my defense, I thought it was the Food Network your mom is always talking about,” said Milo.
Juno rolled her eyes.
“What kind of monsters are we dealing with exactly?” asked Charle, was currently very concerned about what they were getting into, and not really in the mood for cat humor at the moment.
Juno and Milo exchanged a look. “We don’t really know,” said Juno. “Arthur never let us go down there, remember?”
“So we’re gonna go down there with no clue about what we’re up against, and just hope not to die?” asked Charlie.
“We’ll be fine,” said Milo. “I once beat up a Great Dane. And that was before I was a human. I could probably take on a rhinoceros now.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, just yet,” said Juno. “I think for this first time, we just open the door, go in and check it out. Then we can come back and discuss next steps. Arthur used to say that the catacombs had multiple levels and passageways. I also happen to know he used a lot of materials he found down there to make things with the backpack. So let’s just take a look, then come back and make a plan once we have more information. And if we’re lucky, Charlie will find something useful along the way.”
Milo and Charlie nodded. Bear barked in approval.
“Fine,” said Charlie. “Which way is the Hellmouth?”
They lifted Charlie off the floor and walked to a door labeled “Basement Access.” Through this door, they descended a small flight of cement steps to a small room filled with things like water heaters and electrical paneling that, presumably, kept power and water running to the building. They crossed the room to find a simple door boarded up with several wooden planks. The area around the door was scorched black as if something had burned it, and a large sign hung on the central plank reading “Keep Out.”
“Well that’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” said Charlie, feeling as though he might pass out again.
“Think you can take care of those boards?” asked Juno.
Against Charlie’s better judgment, he sighed and pulled his axe from the backpack. He approached the door and lifted the axe above his head before bringing it down on the first plank. One by one he removed the planks. When the last one was chopped away, the door opened. A gush of air escaped into the room, like it was taking a breath of fresh air. All four of them jumped back. Bear proceeded to bark angrily at the door.
Charlie put the axe back in the backpack and used his once-a-day ability to pull out a flashlight. He turned to find that Milo had removed his beanie, revealing two large furry cat ears. He’d also unzipped a pocket on the back center of his pants, from which a furry tail now protruded.
“Oh,” said Charlie, surprised to see the actual cat parts of Milo for the first time.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” snarled Milo.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare,” said Charlie quickly. “I just hadn’t seen–”
“My ears help me hear better, and I’m more agile with my tail,” said Milo. “I keep these parts of myself hidden so regular people like you don’t look at me like a freak. But if it means staying alive, I’ll just have to make due.”
“I don’t think you’re a freak,” said Charlie. “Honestly, the ears and tail are kind of cool.”
“Sure,” said Milo, who clearly didn’t believe him. Even so, Charlie thought he saw the faint hint of a blush on Milo’s cheeks.
“Alright, who’s going first?” asked Juno. Charlie, Milo and Bear all stared at her.
“I vote for the guy with the flashlight,” said Milo. “Or the dog. Dog’s are basically cannon fodder anyway.”
“Milo!” snapped Juno. Bear growled angrily.
Milo held up his hands defensively.
“I agree with him about the flashlight part though,” said Juno.
Charlie rolled his eyes. “I hate all of you.” He moved to the door and pulled it the rest of the way open, revealing a completely dark room beyond. He pointed the light down a long set of stairs and was surprised to find that even though the light seemed to be very strong, he still couldn’t see the bottom of the stairs. “This is the point of every horror movie where I would be yelling at the characters to turn around and walk away.” With that, he started down the stairs with Juno, Milo and Bear close behind him.
What good is a Stardew Valley-like story without a fun dungeon to explore? Well I don’t know if fun is the right word but I’m excited to start showing off the catacombs! Like many elements of this story, the catacombs are way more than the initially seem. They’ve got lots of fun secrets to explore. In any case, I love this chapter because we finally get the main four cast together for the first time!
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