the underdark

The morning dawns in muted tones, the sky an undifferentiated slate grey. Dipper doesn't remember the forecast including the possibility of rain, but his recently repaired phone has no signal, so he can't check. As much trust as he has in Ford and McGucket's expertise, he can't help but wonder if the pre-EMP version of his phone would have successfully connected to the network.

The overcast nature of the day is unfortunate, as it limits the already sparse light available beneath the thick boughs of the forest. The general terrain is clear enough, but it will be all too easy to miss the finer details, which makes their anomaly hunt more difficult. Of course, the same difficulty can also be introduced on overly bright days, where the contrast between the beams of light piercing through the openings in the canopy and the dark of the shaded spaces produces a similar effect. The dense woods of Oregon are a difficult environment to find things in, magical or not.

Good thing they don't need to rely only on their eyes. Ford has his spectrometer in hand as they venture further into the abandoned property, searching for any sign of the abnormal.

There's something off about the woods, an aspect that Dipper at first attributes to his having become accustomed to the Weirdness-enhanced woods of the valley, where even the non-magical parts of the deep forest are enchanted by normal standards. Oregon is full of lush forestation, but nowhere else is the foliage quite so green, or the trees quite so imposing. There's a primeval quality to Gravity Falls that Dipper hasn't encountered outside of the crater.

If anything, these woods should seem ordinary by comparison. Instead, he can't shake a persistent twinge of disquiet, a constant scratching at the back of his mind. There's a quality of wrongness to the trees, in the way they seem to bend over him like giants peering downwards, the bark of their trunks dark and mottled with twisted shapes. And yet, when he looks closely, he can find nothing wrong. The silhouettes which seem so threatening in the corner of his eye reveal nothing when examined. Every tree is just a tree.

This constant stress upon his nerves begins to weigh on him. He is mentally perched upon one foot, perpetually on the verge but unable to find a direction to fall. Everything feels wrong and looks fine. He can find no justification for his sense of alarm, but this fact does nothing to quell it.

Ford halts next to a huge tree whose roots have twisted out of the soil like great black worms. He turns in place, completing a full rotation. "This is the epicenter," he declares.

They haven't been walking long. In fact, Dipper estimates they are no more than a quarter mile from the house. The anomaly is literally in someone's backyard. He looks around but doesn't see anything immediately suspicious. He knows this means nothing; the maze heart hadn't been any more obvious.

"Let's search the area, but be cautious," Ford warns. "I'd like to avoid creating another maze if possible."

That would actually be one of the better outcomes, considering they have no idea if they're looking for another heart. Dipper carefully explores the forest floor, wishing he knew what he was trying to see. He might be looking right at it.

The next twenty minutes of effort yields nothing. He finds himself retracing his steps back towards Ford, hoping to come across something he missed.

"Dipper!" Ford calls out.

Dipper immediately abandons his search and goes to Ford as quickly as he is able, nearly tripping over a root. He finds his great-uncle standing over the tangled foundation of a tree with bark that is nearly black in hue. Its roots are so thick, and they arc up from the ground so close to the trunk, that they look as if they are frozen in midmotion, boiling out of the earth. Dipper realizes this is the same tree where Ford declared they entered the epicenter. If Ford has in fact found something, then their search will end where it began.

"Be careful," Ford advises as Dipper approaches. "The ground is not what it seems."

He points at a large gap in the roots, a spot where the tangle curves around a patch of forest floor—or so it looks from Dipper's angle. When he gets closer, he realizes that there isn't any forest floor between the roots. Hidden from view by the slight elevation of the tree's base, the roots obscure what looks like a sizable hole. It isn't until he is standing right over it that he realizes that 'hole' isn't an accurate descriptor.

It's a pit—a black void in the dirt. It sinks so far that Dipper cannot tell how deep it is, its dark soil walls disappearing into earthen gloom. He realizes that the pit is bigger than the gap in the roots, expanding beneath the tree. Concurrent with this insight is the queasy recognition that he is likely standing over that plunge right now, the ground beneath his feet held in place by the network of roots and plant fibers. He quickly climbs up to where Ford kneels.

Ford has laid the spectrometer aside and has his flashlight out. He reaches down and rubs away some moss and dirt on the one side of the hole where the edge of the roots corresponds with the edge of the pit. His fingers reveal stone.

"Look familiar?" he asks.

It does. The rock is pitted and grey, covered with the carved shapes that immediately conjure memories of being trapped in the heart's maze. "The maze!" Dipper exclaims. "This must be an entrance! I wasn't sure there was a way in or out last time…"

"You had no way of knowing, given the maze triggered around you. This maze is already activated… and from the look of it, it happened a long time ago," Ford says.

He reaches into his coat and pulls out a glow stick he must have borrowed from Mabel. He snaps it into life and drops it down the shaft. Dipper watches as the green light falls, illuminating a few feet of the vertical tunnel at a time, sinking into a blackness so absolute it is as if the light is forming a small world around it, its feeble glow creating a four-sided box of stone that rapidly shrinks. Its light narrows into a single point of green and then suddenly shoots sideways in a sharp lateral turn. A second later, it disappears.

"Further down than I'd hoped," Ford says with a shake of his head.

Dipper is trying to visualize what happened to the glow stick. "There must be a corner right there, but it acted more like it was curved."

"I saw. Interesting that this maze generated vertically instead of horizontally."

"When Pacifica activated the heart, it made the maze around us," Dipper notes. "Do you think that means this maze was triggered underground? Maybe in a cave?"

"Possibly, but this opening corresponds perfectly with ground level. Even assuming the maze always provides an exit, there appears to be no way to navigate it without equipment—there's no stairs, no built-in ladder, just a straight drop. That suggests to me that the maze didn't generate at a random depth."

It suggests, Dipper realizes, that the maze is faulty. "It's curved at the bottom because it's not supposed to be the bottom!"

"That seems likely." Ford stands and carefully picks his way back to solid ground. "The question now is whether we have enough rope to descend!"

The shaft is deep, but not insurmountably so. In the sheer darkness below, the relatively tiny size of the falling glow stick exaggerated the depths to a degree. They lower their backpacks down on one rope and then secure another for their use. The climb down is a bit tricky, though it could be worse. It's a long way down but it isn't quite the stomach-tightening plunge that serves as the entrance to Crash Site Omega. The shaft walls are thick with roots and vines, providing good handholds.

The floor at the bottom curves, forcing them to slide down it to even ground. There's a thick layer of leaves resting there, all the detritus of the forest piled on top of what Dipper thinks is another heavy layer of dirt. Ford is right: This maze has been here for a long time.

The tunnel has a very strange shape when illuminated by the beam of his flashlight, one which takes him a moment to comprehend. Like the first maze, this one has a floor, two walls, and no ceiling. The walls are huge slabs of stone about thirty feet high—or in this case, long—that lean in towards each other but don't meet. With the maze oriented on its side, the result is a righthand wall which is flat and normal, and a floor and ceiling which slant to the left until they narrow and sandwich a strip of earth, some of which has spilled out. The only way forward is to travel the slanted floor, which sits at an angle shallow enough to make it passable, if awkward to walk on.

There's no question now that the maze was generated in error. But it's also fundamentally the same kind of maze, and that gives Dipper an idea. He orients himself, knowing that the ropes are hanging down the north-facing wall. Sure enough, when he pulls out his compass, it points a different direction entirely.

"Great-Uncle Ford, look!" He holds out the compass. "It's pointing towards the center of the maze, just like last time."

"Excellent!" Ford says as he hoists his pack. "That will make things easier, and hopefully quicker. We're going to be limited by battery life. Of course, I expect we won't make it too far in today. With the maze vertically aligned like this, it's going to be impassable without more rope and proper climbing equipment."

Dipper shines his light around the entrance, noting how grimy and worn the stone is compared to the other maze, wet with water seeping from above. It smells like a cave, like mud and musty air. There's a sense of decay that permeates the place; it feels like an abandoned building.

While Ford makes some initial notes in his journal, Dipper pokes around the debris a bit, trying to guess how long the maze has been activated. He knows it must be decades old, at least. He kicks a few brittle branches aside and his eye is caught by something blue, standing out from the mottled browns. He nudges it with the toe of his boot, moving it out of the soggy pile of leaves.

It's a blue knit cap, its threads ragged and loose. It's so small that Dipper almost didn't recognize it as a hat; he realizes it must have belonged to a child. His stomach clenches as he turns and looks back at the shaft, imagining a little kid falling in. They wouldn't survive the drop. He comforts himself with the fact that there's nothing here but the hat, so it must be a piece of random litter, probably blown in by the wind.

Ford puts his journal away and pulls out a smaller notebook and a pencil. "I expect we'll be stymied at the first turn. Still, I'd like to at least take a look. I'm going to make a map of our progress, and I want you to mark the wall with this chalk at regular intervals."

Their exploration begins, the dim light beaming down the shaft behind them quickly fading as they delve into the stygian depths of the broken maze. Within five minutes of leaving the entrance, the oppressive darkness has the presence of a physical thing, a force Dipper can nearly feel pressing against him. His flashlight cuts through the corridor and illuminates whatever it lands upon, but it barely seems to bounce at all, creating a silver splotch amidst the maze's suffocating ink.

Dipper is no stranger to the underground; he's been through caves before. This is different. There is a quality to the darkness and to the maze itself that he cannot express even in his own mind but is inescapable all the same. This maze is more than malfunctioning—it is wrong.

Even Ford seems to be feeling it. His face creases in a deepening frown, his posture tense and wary. "Did you encounter traps often?" he asks.

"Just the walls moving around," Dipper replies. He looks down at his feet, which are on a slanted portion of what should have been the wall. "Which… could be bad here."

The further they go, the chillier it gets. Dipper retrieves a jacket from his pack and puts it on, the thin, waterproof layer not helping as much as he would like. Caves are usually colder than the surface, but it's been consistently warm outside lately. The chill of the maze doesn't seem natural. It makes Dipper wonder if the mazes have climate control, and if this maze is broken in that respect as well.

He's surprised the tunnel hasn't curved yet. It isn't shaped like he remembers the other maze was. It has slight rises and dips, wiggling from one side to the other without ever committing to an actual turn. Ahead, the corridor looks even stranger; when he gets closer, he sees that the hallway is twisting, corkscrewing into the distance, the walls and floor trading places by degree.

Dipper is already shaking his head when Ford turns with a questioning look. "There wasn't anything like this before," he tells his great-uncle.

"More evidence of a malfunction?" Ford ponders.

Walking through the twisted hall is disorienting, especially in the darting beams of the flashlights. One moment Dipper is walking on the floor, the next he is inching his way along the strip of dirt and clay that should have been the open air if the maze were oriented right. It's hard to tell, but he thinks they're moving gradually downwards, a notion which is soon confirmed when the angle steepens. Sliding down the last section, he finds himself on a ledge as the twisted hall abruptly ends at another shaft.

He's disappointed, but not surprised. "Guess that's it," he says.

"I wouldn't be so certain," Ford says. He shines his light at Dipper's feet.

It's hard to see the wall on his side of the shaft, but as he leans forward slightly, Dipper can see Ford's light catching on divots in the stone, deep and evenly spaced. Handholds!

Dipper is taken aback. "Someone's been here before?"

"I'm not sure. Let's get a closer look." Ford sits and carefully backs over the ledge, his feet blindly searching for the holds. As he descends, he says, "These don't appear to be carved."

Dipper follows a moment later and must concur. These are not crude handholds chopped into the rock by someone's pick. They are a literal ladder: The stone is scooped out in symmetrical holes, leaving intact a perfect tube of stone to serve as a rung. Climbing down the wall is no more difficult than climbing the ladder at the entrance to the UFO.

"This was made by the maze," Dipper realizes.

"Fascinating!" Ford exclaims, his voice echoing up from below. "The maze's generation… It's flawed, malfunctioning—and yet, still attempting to compensate. We're seeing a form of error correction!"

"It really is just a computer," Dipper says. "Maybe this is procedural generation, but from a messed-up seed."

"Possibly. When we return to the lab we should investigate, see if we can't find a way to interface with the heart." Ford's boots make a loud clap against the floor, letting Dipper know it isn't too much further to the bottom. "Ah, our first intersection. A compass should provide an educated guess."

When Dipper reaches the bottom, he is confronted by a three-way intersection a short distance ahead. Its orientation is strange; instead of being fully vertical, it is partially twisted to one side, as if the maze attempted to correct it but only managed to turn halfway. The result is one branch which sits at the bottom of the left side, another that continues straight ahead, and a third that veers up and right. The passage that goes up lacks any form of handholds, making it impassable. That leaves either continuing straight, or going down the left corridor, which is on a forgiving enough angle to be accessible in both directions.

Ford raises his compass. "Down," he assesses. "Unsurprising. If the heart is always at the center, then it's likely quite a way beneath us. I wish we had a better grasp on the general size of these things."

He heads for the downwards-tilted tunnel and Dipper follows. He's only a few feet behind Ford, waiting his turn to step in, when the intersection begins to change.

There isn't a hint of warning, not a sound or shudder, before what had been the floor is now the ceiling. Dipper is knocked from his feet immediately, rolling with the spin. The stone flies beneath him with dizzying speed, and his attempt to keep his arms and legs tucked in becomes useless when he finds himself briefly airborne, the impact of meeting the stone again disrupting his posture and sending his limbs akimbo. He comes to a painful, jolting halt when the spinning ceases, arms and legs aching, elbows and knees badly abraded.

"Aghhhh…." He groans, rolling over and briefly assuming the fetal position as pain washes over him.

When it partially subsides, he grits his teeth and staggers back to his feet, battered and disoriented. He is fortunate that his flashlight rolled with him, and he retrieves it from the floor. The light reveals that Ford is gone. The intersection now sits at a different angle entirely, its side branches positioned vertically. Dipper has no idea which way is which, or even if Ford went down the tunnel he'd been trying to enter. For all Dipper knows, Ford was tossed the other way.

"Great-Uncle Ford?" Dipper shouts.

There is no reply. He shouts a few more times before giving up, hearing nothing but the echoes of his own voice.

What should he do? He checks his phone—no signal, as expected. His walkie talkie proves equally useless, blocked either by the stone of the maze or its magical qualities affecting the electromagnetic spectrum. Picking a random tunnel is a great way to get lost, and there's no guarantee he'll find Ford. Maybe the best course of action would be to return to the entrance, knowing that Ford will try to work his way back. If Ford doesn't show, Dipper can always return to the maze to search for him. He reaches into his pocket for his lump of chalk, figuring he can write a message on the wall, letting Ford know that Dipper went back to the start.

It's only then, as he turns to face the wall, that he realizes the tunnel leading back isn't the same tunnel anymore. The short section of straightaway and the ladder shaft are gone, replaced by a slope that descends into new territory. He's trapped, and every exit has been randomly shuffled.

His only way out is through.

He stands there in the dark, his entire world narrowed to the splotch of light on the wall that wavers with his hand, trying to fight back his building sense of panic. He needs to be logical. He's not in trouble yet. He has food, water, and batteries. Ford can't be far—after all, it hadn't been difficult to find the girls again when they had been separated. His situation is worse because of the faulty maze and the darkness, yes, but not insurmountable. He can survive on his own until he finds Ford.

It occurs to him that he wouldn't be on his own if Ford hadn't insisted that Mabel and Pacifica not be told about the signal.

He does his best to push the surge of resentment away, knowing it's not a remotely useful thing to be feeling. What's done is done. He's in the maze and he has to get out, one way or the other. Reaching the heart will reboot it, disassembling the maze and depositing anyone inside safely on the surface. The first maze returned its hapless occupants to, roughly, their point of origin, scattering them randomly within a small area of the forest. He's hoping for the same result here, given the alternative is being trapped in solid earth. But in order for the maze to be triggered by someone or something, it had to be reached by them, so at the very least he should end up in a cave somewhere. Unless a mole ran into a buried heart.

He decides he's not going to think about that.

His priority is to find Ford. With that in mind, he edges up to the lip of the tunnel that heads in a downward direction, making sure to continue chalking the walls. He's not sure if this is where Ford ended up going, but knowing Ford intended to go this way is the only information he has to act on. He carefully lowers himself down, finding the curve just gradual enough to allow him to slide in.

Time is strange underground. He stumbles through more twisting corridors, still aching from the battering he took, forced to pick whatever direction is most passable, feeling smothered by the silence and the endless dark. Odd artifacts plague the corners of his eyes; it isn't until he turns off his flashlight for a moment that he can see the carvings on the stone are glowing a faint green, too soft to provide illumination. He wonders if the other maze had also been glowing, invisible in the sunlight. The tunnel he's in narrows to the point he has to lie down and crawl. The stone is damp and cold. He pushes himself through with shaking arms, cheek pressed to the glowing rock, scraping the side of his head along the ceiling.

When he first hears the voice, he convinces himself he's imagining it. It comes again, faint as a whisper, snaking through the blackness into his ear. No words, just the last echo of a shout.

"Hello?" he yells. He's in between slabs of stone less than two feet apart, and he can't turn his head. His backpack trails behind him, tied to one ankle. He can see the tunnel widens again just ahead, and it keeps him going. "Great-Uncle Ford? I'm here!"

Free of the crevice, he pulls his backpack through and sits up, gulping a lungful of the chilled air, dreading the thought of reaching a dead end and having to go back the same way. He stills and strains to hear anything besides his own breathing. For a moment that feels eternal, there is nothing but the quiet of the grave. His heart is just beginning to sink when he hears it: the unmistakable sound of another person.

It's still faint, but he can understand it now. "Help!" someone calls, their plea distant and hollow.

"Ford! Great-Uncle Ford!" Dipper shouts. He's shaking with adrenaline and cold, teeth chattering as he slings his backpack on and stumbles in what he thinks is the direction of the sound. "Can you hear me?"

"Help! Please help me!"

But that isn't Ford's voice. It's high-pitched and slight, girlish. Dipper slows his headlong rush, confused. "Who's there?" he calls.

"Help!" the girl cries, her voice tattered with tears. "Daddy! Help me!"

"I'm… I'm coming!" Dipper says. He doesn't know what's going on, but someone is clearly in trouble. "Hold on!"

The girl's voice is coming from just around the next bend, now, loud and clear. "Please help!"

Dipper leans back and skids down an incline, riding it around the corner until the floor flattens out. He steadies himself on the wall and peers ahead, seeing nothing but more tunnel. This one is oriented correctly; his flashlight cuts through the air, scrolling across stone carvings that seem to wiggle in the strange light.

"Hello?" He stares at the empty corridor. "Anyone?"

Something catches his light further down the tunnel. A flash of blonde hair, glinting back at him like winking gold.

"…Pacifica?" he breathes.

It's gone. He blinks, stunned, not sure he isn't losing his mind. He just stands there, frozen, his heart pounding in his ears. He licks his lips, gathers up the courage to take a step forward. The act reveals something blue sitting against the wall to the right, the color stark against the endless shades of grey which make up this sunken world.

He goes to the blue thing and leans down, focusing his light on it. It's a backpack. It's water stained and crumpled, wedged into a crack that seems to lead somewhere, but is too small for Dipper to possibly fit through. He pushes part of the pack flat with one toe. There's a label at the top, the stitched font still readable: Emilia.

"DADDY!"

She's behind him. He turns.

She's glowing, tinged an unearthly green. Her hair is the soft blonde common to some children. Her eyes are rimmed red, and her face is streaked with tears and dirt. She looks past Dipper—through him—caught in the throes of her desperate cries.

"Help! I need help!" she implores. She runs towards him.

Dipper braces for the shock of ghostly contact, but it never comes. The girl flits directly through him without effect. He whirls around, trying to track her progress. She stops near the crevice and kneels down, wrapping her arms around her knees. Her breath hiccups with sobs.

Fingers trembling, Dipper reaches out. He hesitates. Then, he touches her shoulder. As his fingers pass through her nonexistent flesh, he can see her image ripple and reform.

"You're… a projection?" he says aloud. He turns off his flashlight, letting the light she emits be at full strength.

She flickers and pops out of sight, reappearing where she had been a moment before. "Help! I need help!" she pleads. Again, she returns to the crevice and cries.

"You're a recording," he says slowly. "I… I can't help you."

"Help," she sobs. "Please."

She vanishes. Her light goes with her, leaving Dipper shivering in the utter darkness, surrounded by the weight of the unfeeling earth and the fading echoes of a long-dead girl.