The ladder creaked, sending shivers down their spines. It was timeworn, but well made, squeaky, yet stable as they continued down, passing several wooden support beams bound with iron at the joints, interwoven together like a wooden spider web holding up the cottage above them.
They were both astonished how in the sixteen years of their life, and as adventurous as they were, they never knew this placed even existed right under their feet.
After descending a few dozen or more feet in almost total darkness, the only things visible by the torch-light were themselves, the ladder, and the square opening above them, where the dim light of the fireplace shone through. A few moments went by and Blaine finally saw the ladder’s end. He climbed down the rest of the way and jumped from the remaining two steps. His boots hit the ground with a clack! that echoed all around them. He thanked the gods to be back on solid ground, and it was solid indeed. He was standing on what looked like cobblestone. Like the ones they made castles out of in the stories.
Vaan reached the bottom and helped his mother off the ladder who followed shortly behind him. “Quite the down climb, Ma. You sure it was a good idea for you to come down here?”
“I’m fine,” Luma told them and grinned. Even in her old age, she was in great health. “Besides, we won’t be coming back the way we came.”
Vaan gave his mother a curious glance.
Blaine had started looking around and noticed they stood on a circular stone platform. Off its edges linger nothing but black abyss. “What is this damned place?”
“Be careful, Blaine,” Luma called out. ” Watch your footing, dear!” she waved a hand, gesturing her sons to follow.
Vaan gave a final look up the ladder at the now faint light through the hole they had entered.
They all walked away from the ladder to the edge of platform. There was a little wooden bridge, if you could call it that, leading out. It was more like a plank, or wooden board, like the floor of the cottage with a stretch of rope tied to wooden posts on both sides to hold onto like handrails. The board wasn’t very long, and they could see the other end where it connected back to stone.
If the ladder held all three of us coming down, surely this would hold. Vaan thought. It’s only about fifteen, twenty feet long at most. He looked at his mother and even she seemed skeptical.
“One at a time,” Luma said hesitantly. “I’ll go first.”
“No, I’ll go,” Vaan insisted.
“I said I’ll go first.”
Luma turned around quickly and gave Vaan a hard stare. Her crystal-grey eyes blazed with the reflection of her torch.
Vaan dropped his head and gave a subtle, “Yes ma’am.”
Luma carefully started across the bridge. The old piece of wood moaned under the pressure of its walker and made a terrifying creak that reverberated through the chamber but held fast. She reached the other side and told her sons to join her.
Vaan was next, and then Blaine. Blaine walked across unsteadily, thinking of how far the fall would be if it were to break. He looked off into the black abyss, a part of him wanted to drop his torch to see just how far it’d fall---another part of him didn’t want to know. He made it across safely, and the three continued forward into the darkness, listening to the sigh of their torches, and the satisfying clicks and clacks of their hard-soled boots resound through the acoustics of this place. They came to a wall made of the same ancient stone brick as the floor and ran all the way up to the base of the cottage.
Another torch hung on the wall before them. Luma reached up her flame and set the torch alight. To the left of that, there was the beginning of a large stairway against the outside wall that descended and spiraled into the dark. Taking no time at all, they started down it.
As they walked Vaan ran his right hand along the stone. It was old, but smooth. It almost had a polished feel to it. Some of the brick had started to crumble and break apart revealing soil and rock on the other side. The air was slightly dank and stagnant as they made their way down. Wall torches hung every twenty or so steps, and Luma lit them as they went. They continued to descend in dead silence. Neither brother said a word, but their minds raced with questions and wonder. It wasn’t much longer when they finally stepped off the last stair, and stood in the base of a colossal, hollow, stony cylinder.
Vaan and Blaine looked up and stared at the flickering torches that spiraled down along the wall. At the base here, they saw nothing. Only a large, empty, circular stone room with the stairway behind them, and the large stone pillar that they first stood on after coming down from the cottage, sitting center.
“Now what?” Blaine asked.
Luma’s eyes danced as she studied the wall in front of her. “Hold this,” she said, extending her torch to them.
Vaan took it and watched his mother curiously run her hands along the bricks of the wall.
“It’s got to be around here somewhere.” Her hand sank into one of the stones, pushing it in with a loud click. “Found it!”
Suddenly, there was a deafening rumble and sounds of clicking mechanisms, and time-worn, rusty gears beginning to turn. A section of wall before them dislodged and separated in two, revealing an archway that led into a dark corridor.
Once the rumbling and dust settled, Vaan and Blaine looked at each other. Their eyes glinting their adventurous gleam.
“That was crazy!” Vaan shouted, handing his mother’s torch back. “What is this place?” he almost stuttered from excitement.
“All will be explained ahead, son.” Luma smiled. “I know you both have many questions, and there will be many more, of this I’m certain, but there will be things you won’t understand. I will explain them to the best of my ability. Now let’s continue: we are almost there”
They walked through the archway. Blaine judged it was about twelve to fourteen feet high and eight to ten feet wide. Beyond it was a dark corridor. They continued on.
Ahead, down a seemingly never-ending corridor of darkness, they walked and walked quietly for nearly three minutes. There was a low, droning sound down here. The sound you’d hear if you covered your ears with your palms. Blaine finally broke the silence. “Just how far does this passage go, Ma?”
Luma, who was leading, turned and looked at them, again with a smile.
What’s up with all this smiling? Blaine thought. His mind was running circles thinking of what in the gods could their mother be leading them to. He hadn’t the slightest clue. Blaine hated surprises. Unless, of course, it was a fresh cooked pie, which definitely got the pass.
“I was wondering how long it would be before one of you would ask,” Luma said. “The reason we walked this far was to show you this.” She pointed behind them. “Look.”
The boys turned around and were dumbstruck when they saw that the same archway they had walked through minutes ago, hadn’t moved. It was still only about twenty feet behind them. They could still see the lit torch at the bottom of the stairway.
“What?!” Blaine beamed. “But how? We’ve been walking for at least five minutes!” Vaan stood, mouth slightly agape and said nothing.
“This is only the beginning,” Luma said softly.
She turned back around and held out her free hand in front of her, closing all but her first and middle fingers. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The tips of her fingers began to glow and radiated a soft yellow light. “Only the beginning.”
She began moving her arm through the air in a fluid almost dancing motion. She went up and down diagonally, and came back across horizontally, connecting back to the starting point. As she moved, the mysterious glow followed, leaving a lucent trail of light.
There in front of them plain as day, their mother had drawn a visible luminous triangle that just floated there, floated right in thin air. She continued and finished by drawing a “V” inside the triangle so there was now what looked like a diamond with two smaller triangles in the bottom corners. The boys said nothing and watched with silent fascination and awe.
Luma lowered her arm, subduing the glow at her fingers and dropping her head. She took a deep breath, breathing in the stagnant, earthy air that lingered down here. She reared back her arm and propelled forward with an open palm exhaling with a forceful “Oomph.” The floating symbol burst quite loudly and shattered into hundreds of specks of light that fell and went dim before disappearing completely.
Blaine had dropped his torch from the slight scare he had as the light shattered. He stood with his hands atop his head. Much like the way his mother used to look when he and his brother would mindlessly trek through her flower beds as children.
Vaan blinked several times and ran a hand along the stubble of his growing goatee. He slapped himself slightly just to make sure that he was really here, making sure he didn’t fall asleep after his meal, and hopped aboard the train of dreams after all.
They stood there not saying anything at all. Hell, they couldn’t say anything. What would they say? Their mother just drew some floating symbol in the air with her damn glowing fingers. They watched as the last of the strange specks of light faded out. Their mother stood with her back turned to them, staring into the blackness ahead
Blaine opened his mouth as if about to speak, when unexpectedly he heard a single resounding strike that hit a large bell. A deafening, monstrous BONG rang through the corridor, and up the spiraling cylinder room.
They couldn’t hear themselves think for a good few seconds. As the bell — or at least that’s what they thought it was — stilled, they noticed a new faint light at the end of the corridor, jade-green and white. It blossomed in the darkness, becoming brighter and more brilliant by the second. Something about it was captivating, beautiful even. Vaan didn’t know what it was, but the longer he seemed to look, the more he felt at ease. Something about its brilliant shine was serene. If felt as if the light was beckoning him in some way.
Vaan wondered if Blaine or his mother felt the same way. Brighter and brighter it got. He started squinting, marveling at it, until it suddenly burst with an immense flash.
Luma and her boys shielded their eyes. Down the corridor the darkness dissipated and became a piercing white tunnel of blinding light.
A vivid vision suddenly came to Vaan. He stood at the edge of a grove amidst a dense forest. A blanket of dark storm clouds shrouded the sky. Lightning bolts violently surged through a downpour of torrential rain. The vision felt almost real: he seemed to feel the rain pelting his face like liquid needles, and hear the screaming wind furiously blow it in all directions.
Hundreds of skulls were tied to the bent, crooked trees, and swung frantically from the wrath of the storm. A thick, grey mist engulfed the entire forest. The mist, along with the rain, obscured his vision of most everything, but ahead of him he could vaguely make out what seemed to be an enormous white pillar — a tower. Perched at the top, was the same pearlescent, pale-green sphere of light as before, beaming out into the monsoon.
The way the light shone from up there reminded him of a story his mother once read. About a couple of unlikely heroes who journeyed across the land to destroy a certain ring in the fires of Mount Boom, and an able boy who was plagued by the gaze of the accursed, all seeing, red eye.
He heard a voice from the east. It was anguished and full of sorrow, the moan of someone who was sobbing. He turned to see a woman walking out from the dark forest’s wall of trees, and into the clearing. Her clothes were blood-soaked, unearthly, and tattered. There was a gaping hole in her torso that he could see all the way through, as if something had eaten right through her. Her skin was ghost-white, cracked. and deteriorating. Her eyes were but empty black sockets.
“Help me,” she cried out, “have you seen my baby?! Say true, I beg thee!”
Vaan was absolutely horrified. What is this? I know I’m not really here . . . right? He could still feel the stone brick floor of the corridor beneath his feet, but as he looked down, all he saw was the tall thick grass of this grove, flooded with rainfall. The strange thing was, he seemed to feel that too. He could feel water as it was seeping through his boots. Gooseflesh crawled his skin.
“Have you not seen hi—,” the woman paused, her facial expression changed from a mournful sorrow to a furious rage. Her mouth widened to a snarl, exposing her decayed jagged teeth. “You! You took him, didn’t you?!”
A bolt of lightning shot across doomed sky. Vaan forced himself to say something but failed. His mouth moved, but nothing came out.
The ghastly woman shrieked. Even through the chaos of the storm, it pierced Vaan’s ears, and resounded through his head.
She began storming towards him. “I’ll kill you!” she screamed. The light atop the tower burst with a flash and began shining brightly.
Vaan was in complete shock and stood frozen in the nightmarish storm of his consciousness. He couldn’t speak, move, or pull himself back to reality.
The woman drew closer, wailing. I’ll kill you for taking my baby, bastard!”
His chin quivered. Speechless, Vaan cried for help in his mind. His body grew heavy like that of stone.
The light steadily became stronger. “I’ll sever your head and feed your eyes to the crows, bastard!”
She reached for him and just before she took hold, Vaan released his own horrified scream, and his vision faded. The tower’s bright sphere pierced through, as it did the corridors before it.