The following week was spent traversing the dangers of the cave. It was a process by which Adria was somewhat used to. Having to be hooked up to a harness and lowered into a pit by another student still unnerved her, the ground a spinning vortex that made her lightheaded and short of breath. She got through it by staring at the wall. Once on the ground, the others were quick to unhook her and usher her away from the spot the others would be landing.
Merriweather, as was usual, pushed ahead with that troubling frown on his face. Sometimes Adria wondered what went through her professor’s mind, wondered at the thoughts that twirled in that mad consciousness of his. When Tamara passed her, Adria brushed aside her thoughts.
There was plenty to do.
The smaller, dark-skinned girl grabbed her backpack off the ground and chased after her friend, conscious of how her shorts slid down her hips. She grabbed the waistband, holding it tight as she tried to catch up to Tamara’s longer stride. The girl in question turned, walking backward, and grinned.
“Come on, Adria,” Tamara gestured to the cave they were in. “Tell me something about this place!”
“No matter how good my grades,” Adria focused on breathing, on turning her mind away from how her chest was already burning from the short workout. She glared at the taller girl. “I’m not an endless void of random knowledge.”
“Do you really go blind when left in total darkness?”
Adria sighed. “That’s a myth, as far as adults are concerned.”
Tamara blinked. Adria was tempted to pinch the bridge of her nose, and, after a moment, continued for the sake of avoiding a conversation starting with ‘why?’ She slowed her pace, voice steady when she finally said, “When an adult’s eyes are exposed to complete darkness, the eyes adjust to receiving low light.”
That was as bad as asking ‘why,’ as far as Adria was concerned.
“There’s low light and high light, Tamara,” Adria eyed the ground, attention on the steps they were taking deeper into the cave. She paused halfway down the stairs, kneeling to feel the stones beneath her hands. The stones were intact with few cracks, manmade. She didn’t look up as she traced the grooves cutting through the old stone. “The eyes adapt to the amount of light they’re exposed to. Take a theater as an example. Once the lights are turned off, you can’t see anything. Then, after a minute or two, you can start to make out shapes. When the movie starts, it’s almost as if you’re blinded by the light.”
Tamara made a noise in the back of her throat. Adria stood. “I think we may be nearing our destination.”
Ahead of them, Merriweather was admiring a pillar that was half-buried in a wall of broken rock. She could see the hard angles as she made her way over, see the way the pillar squared off at the bottom yet curved and twisted in the middle. A work of art, something old yet preserved. A few of the others were making their way over, soft questions escaping their mouths. Adria ignored them in favor of letting her fingers ghost over the old, cracked stones.
“We’re nearing our destination, aren’t we?” Adria didn’t look at her teacher even as the question slipped between her lips, unbidden but spoken regardless. Merriweather stood beside her, hands folded behind him in what was reminiscent of a pose a military officer would strike. She looked over at him then, blinking owlishly as she murmured, “The stairs, the pillars, the broken road we’ve been traveling…it’s all leading us to wherever you’re taking us, isn’t it?”
“You are correct, Miss Lynch,” Merriweather turned his attention to her, a smile in his eyes.
Behind her, Emo-Boy whispered to Tamara, “What road?”
Adria opted to ignore him in favor of asking, “Where are we going, sir?”
Merriweather’s smile spread to his mouth. He turned back to the pillar, palm grazing the stones, before he began making his way down the path. Adria followed on his heels, eager to know what was going on in this dark cavern they had been exploring. Her professor was calm, silent for a time.
He led them along a ledge, confident as he stepped over gaps in the crumbling road. Adria leaned into the wall, swallowing thickly. There was a rail, old and rough, to the right – it looked like it hadn’t been used in a hundred years, chipped in some places and missing entirely in others. She didn’t want to take a chance on using it as a crutch, aware of how fatal the fall would be if it caved in under her weight.
As they rounded another bend, Adria wanted to cry – another bridge waited for them.
On the other side, however, was a massive, towering structure unlike anything she had ever seen.
Her fear of heights was swiftly forgotten as she drew to a halt at her professor’s side, arms limp at her sides as the towering, multi-leveled, multi-platformed fortress extending out of the stone wall on the other side of the bridge drew her attention. From where they stood, she could see the stone enclosure that wrapped around the front of the building that the bridge connected to. She could see old, faded banners wavering lazily in the air from the archways, see ropes and unlit lanterns swaying between massive pillars in the courtyard.
It was a scene right out of a fantasy movie, an underground castle silently beckoning the ill-fated.
She wanted to go inside. Adria was forced to her senses when a strong hand caught her shoulder, and she blinked, confused, when she realized she was in front of her professor with her back to his chest. He kept his hands on her shoulders, voice low as he said, “Keep your head, Miss Lynch. Don’t get swept away.”
Adria trembled, an intense shiver cutting through her body. What had just happened? When had she moved? Why hadn’t she noticed? She pressed back into her teacher’s chest, arms rising to cross over her torso as her shoulders curled inward. Something hot and dark curled in her gut, a spark of fear rising to the forefront of her mind.
She had been compelled. Adria knew that, yet it was impossible. There was no distant music, no whispered words. This wasn’t a batched fairytale or horror story. This was reality and there was nothing but the fortress on the other side of the bridge, and all it did was sit there, staring ominously. It was almost as if it was pushing them away while drawing them forward at the same time, yearning for them to come closer yet also ugly and upset about their presence.
‘And I’m thinking of an old, ruined fortress like it’s a living, breathing entity,’ Adria exhaled, slowly. She focused on her breath as Merriweather squeezed her shoulders. She realized he was talking to the other students. She couldn’t hear anything he was saying over the low droning noise that was starting to rise, a sound that seemed to echo within the confines of her thoughts. ‘I’m being irrational. It’s just a building. It’s just a stupid pile of old, forgotten bricks on the other side of a godforsaken bridge that’s likely to break if I step on it. I’m just paranoid. I’m tired. I haven’t slept well. It’s just a stupid building.’
She still wanted to go inside. If Adria squinted, she was sure she could see shadows walking through the halls. That when the banners whirled, there was someone standing underneath it every time it flicked out of the way. If she stared long enough, she was sure that she saw a man standing before the entrance, a slow, cruel smile spreading across his face before he turned and vanished inside the ruin.
“I’m paranoid,” Adria grabbed onto Merriweather’s wrist, hands shaking. She barely noticed Tamara at her side, barely felt her hand brushing across her knuckles. Emo-Boy was waving his hand in front of her face, but Adria couldn’t draw her gaze from the ruin as she whispered, “I’m scared, that’s all. My mind’s playing tricks on me. That’s all.”
She turned to her professor. “Shall we get started?”
He didn’t waste time. He tied her belt to his, as a safety measure. While the bridge was considerably wider than the first one out in the canyon, it was old. It wasn’t safe. It was telling her to turn back, to leave to the sunlight where the horrors of this forgotten, unground fortress wouldn’t taint her. The building itself beckoned, still. Banners twirled lazily in the air, inviting them closer. She couldn’t make out the colors. She wasn’t sure how long it took, but when hands were unlatching the clasps connecting her to her teacher (and wasn’t that humiliating, being in high school but having to hold onto a teacher because of fear) she was forced to blink and accept the truth.
She was going inside, inner voice be damned.
The courtyard was barren, though there were raised platforms lining the walkway that once, maybe, held extravagant displays of floral lifeforms. Adria let her hand brush across the stones, let her fingers dip into the lifeless soil contained within. The earth was hard and dry, as dead as the memory of this place.
“Any thoughts?” Adria turned her attention to Tamara and Emo-Boy, a slight smile spreading across her face as she processed the question. She looked across the open layout, her own words a whisper on the wind as she replied, “I have too many thoughts, Tamara. This place, it frightens me. Yet, at the same time, there’s this sense of wonder and sorrow. Can you imagine what once grew in these beds?”
Tamara looked at the waist-high, stone enclosures and the dried soil. “Nope. Can you?”
Adria shook her head. The canyon that rested on the surface, far above their heads, was devoid of floral life that came to mind when she thought of gardens. It was all dull brown shrubbery and cracked earth, up there. Down here, though, where there was no sunlight? She couldn’t picture how a garden looked, not when there wasn’t a sun to offer the plants a means to thrive.
She said as much as they walked, slowly closing the distance between themselves and the entrance of the ruin where her mind conjured a pale monster with a cruel smile. She wondered why this place made her so uneasy, why her skin crawled as they began to climb the curving stairs up three flights of steps to the stone entryway and the shadowed door that Merriweather stood before.
‘Why am I afraid?’ Adria rubbed her hands along her arms, missing the warmth from above.
The answer eluded her, ambiguous yet lingering on the edge of her awareness. As Adria waited for her professor to finish whatever he was doing, she pondered on the sensations washing through her. It wasn’t the first time she had felt that sense of dread. Her brow furrowed, mind whirling as it tried to retrace the memories of her short life to pinpoint where, exactly, this sensation had first come to be.
Adria’s mind whirled back to a time when she was a small child, body too small and eyes too large. As she waited with the group, she recalled an old, Victorian home with a metal gate surrounding the overgrown property. This sensation she had felt was the same as the one she was receiving now, something old and cold that sucked the happiness straight from her soul. When Professor Merriweather turned to face them, she knew, then, why this feeling was distantly familiar to her.
‘This is how I felt before my parents died, when Granny…’ Adria recalled the pale stranger who had walked into the building, skin crawling. Was he a figment of her imagination or a warning her brain was trying to thrust upon her in the only way it knew how? She was motionless as she stood on the threshold, eyes wide as her classmates brushed past her and made their way inside. ‘This place, it’s buried underground for a reason. This ruin, it was erased from history. We’re shouldn’t be here…’
When a hand settled on her shoulder, Emo-Boy and Tamara were there. Emo-Boy’s eyes were intent upon her face, reading her facial expressions. It took her a moment to realize he was talking. Blinking, she turned her attention back to him and murmured, “I’m sorry I zoned out, eh –”
What a time to forget his name. Adria bit her lip, unsure of how to continue. Emo-Boy scowled. “You can’t remember my name, can you? It’s not a hard name, Lynch! Iroh-Uzziah Takio. Remember it.”
“You call that easy?” Adria gaped at Emo—Iroh–Uzziah, disbelief etched across her face. When he scowled and looked away, she knew why she picked up ‘Emo-Boy’ as his nickname. She remembered why his name slipped from her mind when she thought back to the first time she had seen it – a hyphenated name was a rare thing, even in the town they live in. A hyphenated first name was unheard of. “You’re delusional.”
He shot a look at Tamara, who gave him this hard look that had him balking. Adria blinked when he turned back to her, black-nailed hand presented, palm up, to her. He looked miserable when their hands came together, sighing before he said, “Call me Rozan, Adriana. It’s one of my middle names, before you ask.”
The sensation was creeping back, an imperious force that grabbed at her spine. Adria attention shifted to the building, to the way the hallway before her seemed to breathe. She took that first step inside, body light and skin tingling. If she focused, she could hear the phantom voice of her great-grandmother: ‘It is up to you to decide if our family inheritance is a curse or a blessing in disguise, Ana.’
Though she had never understood what her great-grandmother had meant by those words, Adria had never forgotten those whispered words. Now, standing in the middle of a massive chamber, she had a feeling this ruin would shed light on those words.
Adria made her way inside, brushing past Tamara and Rozan as if in a trance. This place, it wasn’t like any other their professor had dragged them to. As she made her way through her fellow classmates, making her way to Merriweather’s side, Adria knew this place was, somehow, special.
When he noticed her walking beside him, he smiled. “I thought you’d never come in.”
“Why are we here?” Adria kept her gaze ahead of her, on the long hallway they were walking down. It was one that twisted and turned, a maze of stone walls and dark shadow. They were passing from one room into another, each corridor seemingly endless. Once they began their descent into the lower levels of the building, Adria said, “You went to a lot of trouble to come here, Professor. I want to know why.”
“Always quick to see things for what they are,” Merriweather guided the class into a massive, circular chamber that Adria was certain was as far down as they could go. She watched as he made his way towards the center of the room, where a massive, stone rested. It stood well over seven feet tall, a gem buried in the middle that seemed to gleam despite the gloom shrouding the room. “Once I heard of this place, Miss Lynch, I knew I had to come here. I also knew it was only with this class I could come…
“Many a legend surrounds this place,” Merriweather wasn’t looking at them, his attention focused on the writings on the wall covering every surface of the chamber around them. Her attention shifted to the stone pillar, to the gem caught inside of it. As she stepped closer, she began to make out details – a long, slender rode, thin bands of stone twisting around the stone, what she thought was supposed to represent rope, twisted around the staff that were connected to the sphere.
She was intrigued by it, by the stone that seemed to beckon to her. When she reached out, fingers grazing the stone, Merriweather said, “Had I known what these walls spoke of before we came here, I would never have put us on that plane.”
The moment her fingers brushed across the glowing gem, it pulsed once. Then the room seemed to groan, a thick smoke rising from the cracks in the floor. Adria stumbled against the pillar, eyes widening as the stones crumbled and twining robes, once made of stone, began to dance through the air. A sphere of light surrounded her as the staff became wood, the gem pulsing with light as the rest of the room was cast into darkness. It was then that she felt the return of that unnamable darkness, despair killing any wonder she held close to her heart.
She knew, then, that this place should have remained buried.