The Rock Collectors

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Ch 3: Broken Wood, Stone, and Bone

Thea turned around swiftly, the heel of her converses scraping noisily on the pointed rocks, and then began to speed-walk away from Barry. He didn’t have to walk all that fast to catch up to her considering her leg length. Once they were side-by-side, he looked down at her with a mixture of paranoia and curiosity and asked,

“You know the way out of here, right? Because if this is anything like the time you took me for some harmless spelunking, then—”

Thea raised a hand to stop him; she looked like she was getting impatient with him.

“Dude, I got this. What, do you have, like, no faith in me?” she questioned, her impatience starting to show in her tone.

Barry shook his head quickly and replied,

“No, I have faith in you. It’s just that you didn’t warn me that I was going to be surrounded by walls of human remains!”

He heard her give a little huff through her nose.

“Hey, I’m just trying to help you out! If I had told you about the skulls, you probably would’ve chickened out and ended up passing out in detention! He could’ve killed you!”

Barry pursed his lips slightly, looking down at her again.

“I, uh, I don’t think he can do that.” he said, and after a pause, “Hey, did you know he went to jail once?”

Thea suddenly gained a look of interest and jerked her head up, grinning.

“Wait, what for?” she asked eagerly.

As they were continuing to walk, Barry took another look at the skulls lining the walls, searching his brain for an answer to her question. The idea of Mr. Burg being in prison at least once wasn’t that farfetched to him, but he was almost afraid to know what put him there in the first place.

Just then, Thea cleared her throat and gave a low hum, lowering her head. In the deepest voice she could muster, she murmured,

“Maybe he’s the one who caused all...of...THIS!”

Without any warning, she shoved Barry by his shoulder, sending him careening towards the wall. He couldn’t stop himself as he tripped over a jutting slab in the floor and slammed nearly eagle-spread into the skulls. But instead of the wall breaking him, he snapped right through the bones and fell through.

Just after he landed with a pained grunt on the unveiled section of floor, he heard Thea’s sneakers slap loudly against the stone floor as she was rushing to his side. Through the ringing in his ears he could hear her say,

“Whoa, sorry! I definitely didn’t mean to do that!”

A hand grabbed a fistful of his t-shirt, which was now wet from the tunnel’s moisture. With Thea’s helping hand, Barry shook his head to clear it, putting a hand to the slippery slabs beneath him and pushing himself up to a kneeling position.

“Uh...what did I...?”

He shook his head a second time; that ringing was getting louder. Thea tried getting him to stand, but he found that he was perfectly fine where he was at the moment. He blinked and looked back at the spacious tunnel he had just been in, his eyes widening at the gaping hole he had just created in the catacomb wall. It had just snapped like peanut brittle, not as he had expected it to do.

“Did you...no, you must’ve shoved me really hard!” he said, giving Thea an exasperated look.

Thea raised her hands quickly and replied,

“I said I was sorry! Hey, I thought you were just going to crumple up against the wall instead of, you know, going right through it!” she paused for a second, then took a glance up at this new tunnel surrounding them. “What is this, anyway?”

Barry took his gaze away from Thea and he too looked around at this supposed secret tunnel. It was much darker in the space around them, barely taking in any light from the small torches outside. The walls and ceiling were much closer as well, which made the space seem much smaller than that of the other tunnel.

“This is cool!” Thea shouted suddenly, her voice bouncing around inside the passageway. “A hidden passageway!”

She walked past Barry, going further into darkness. This got him to quit with his lying about and jump back to his feet.

“Thea! You’ve got no idea what’s down there!”

He followed her, that bad feeling from earlier just becoming more powerful as he took each step. He made sure to keep track of Thea’s footsteps ahead of him so he didn’t lose her as it was close to being pitch black. Unfortunately for him, Thea could be awfully quiet when she wanted and soon he couldn’t hear her anymore.

“Thea?” he whispered into the shadows enveloping him.

There came no response. His gut wrenched as the realization of abandonment set in. He was alone in the catacombs, muffled beneath who knew how many hundreds of feet of earth and bones. Quickly, he shuffled forward and groped around, trying to find either wall.

“Thea?! Oh, come on...”

Suddenly, something light flicked his face and he gasped, ducking instinctively and swatting the air blindly. A few seconds of this passed before he got a hold of himself and slowed down his breathing. He paused for a second, letting out a puff of air before gradually lifting his hand above his head. He groped around in the darkness for a few seconds before that light something brushed his fingers.

It felt like metal, something like a thin chain. He found that at its end was a small, smooth ball, which he gripped between two fingers. Without thinking, he pulled on the chain and ball and was immediately greeted with a bright light from above.

He had to squint because of the lighting change, but he could definitely see the large bulb hanging from the stone ceiling above him.

More eerily, however, was the fact that the light brought to his attention the tall steel door that stood in front of him, embedded in the skeleton wall. It looked very out of place in the catacombs, even more so than the light bulb over his head. Its frame was a murky gray, though the door that filled it was shining silver.

Naturally, he searched it for the doorknob and found one jutting out from its right side; the knob itself was also steel, what looked a falling comet burned into its surface.

Barry found himself staring at just the symbol impressed on the doorknob’s flat end. It was incredibly detailed, though small as it was, and made it look like the comet really was moving.

His right hand ventured towards it and soon had it in a tight grasp. He was scared, of course, but now he was pretty dang interested in whatever was behind that door! He pulled it lightly, feeling the pressure of the door loosen as it opened ever so slightly. His heart pounded as a sliver of white light came through—

“BARRY, HOLY CRAP YOU NEED TO SEE THIS!”

He gave a startled yelp and leaped backwards with all his power, just barely avoiding the door as it swung open violently and smashed into the stone wall nearby. Thea was standing in the open doorway, jumping up and down with uncontained excitement.

“THIS IS WAY BETTER THAN KARATE CAMP! LOOK!”

She darted inside this new room, allowing Barry to straighten back up out of his defense position to see properly. He took several steps forward, taking it slower this time, and passed through the open doorway. The room that awaited him could not have been further from what he imagined he would find.

They had stumbled upon what appeared to be a secret training facility for hand-to-hand combatants. Shiny silver tiles made up the floor, a spotless black mat placed in the center of the square space. To his left and right were walls of red that stood twenty or so feet tall. The ceiling matched the floor’s metallic look and sported several rows of fluorescent light panels, with glowed white.

Ebony racks lined either of the side walls, stocked full of countless weapons and training tools. The far wall was completely barren except for a single wooden door.

As he took a few more cautious steps inside, Barry saw that on the space behind him there was a magnificent tapestry, hanging just above the entrance. It looked very thick and, spanning a whole forty feet, touched both corners of the wall.

On it was sewn a large diamond of all colors that emitted ten beams of light from its crystalline body, which then formed intricate dragons at each of their ends, the creatures themselves displayed as creatures of a different color each as well. In addition, there stood a massive blue dragon at one far end and a gold one at the other, the two staring at each other intensely.

Barry was trying to take it all in, but it was all too artistic and complicated for him to make sense of.

“What’s on that one’s tongue?” Thea suddenly piped, startling Barry right out of his skin.

“Jesus Christ!” he cried, taking a step away from the girl who had appeared out of nowhere. “You really need to stop doing that!”

Thea rolled her eyes and lifted a finger in response, pointing up at a white dragon on the tapestry.

“I mean, what’s that rock he’s eating supposed to be? Looks like an hourglass. Or a weird-looking explosion.”

Barry found the dragon that she was gesturing to and quickly noticed that there was indeed a small hourglass-esque stone in the center of its tongue.

“I...Thea, you probably get this as much as I do. There’s a heck of a lot going on here.”

He turned to look at her, but she had already disappeared from sight.

“Uh...”

He didn’t even have time to wonder before Thea’s overexcited voice echoed to his right, making him turn. She was standing at the end of the room, examining a section of the wooden racks with extreme interest.

Lots of weaponized gloves were set in pairs along the rows. Some were spiky, some were plated, one of them had a bunch of holes by the knuckle part.

“Man, look at all these! I just wish that I could use these for fighting in karate tournaments!”

She picked up the pair of hole-ridded ones and slipped them on. She had tiny hands and so the gloves looked pretty big on her.

“It feels like there’s a bar or something in here. Wonder if I pull it it’ll—”

Without warning, double-inch blades shot out of the knuckle holes and narrowly missed Barry’s head. He was down on the ground before he could even let out a scream of terror. Thea was pretty surprised too, because she immediately took the gloves off and set them back on the rack. The shock didn’t show on her face, but her hands were shuddering slightly as she rubbed them.

“Ohhhhhhkay then. As cool as that is, even I know I’d probably maim someone on accident.”

Barry lifted his hands from his eyes and glared up at her sheepish expression.

“Maim?! Maim is an understatement! Try and be just a little more careful next time, alright?”

Thea let out a puff of air through her nose and walked away from him, replying,

“I got it.”

As Barry got to his feet, he too started to take in different weapons from the racks. He found himself wandering over to the section devoted entirely to knives of all shapes, sizes, and shines.

There were some he’d classify as a sword due to being so long, but then there was this other one with a thin, conical shape that didn’t look like it could cut anything. He picked it up and examined its odd shape, fiddling with the spherical handle.

“Hey, Barry! Check me out!”

“Hm?” Barry replied idly, turning his attention up from the peculiar knife.

At the other end of the room stood Thea wearing the funniest-looking helmet he’d ever seen. It was big, bulky, and had a large chunk jutting out the top that ended flat. Thea seemed to be having trouble keeping her balance with it on as it appeared to weigh a ton.

“What do you think people used this for? Better headbutts?”

She teetered a little as she turned her body around to face the wall and leaned into the weight of her headgear. She ran straight at the wall and then smacked headfirst into it with a deafening crunch. She fell backwards a second later and the helmet toppled off, landing a foot beside her on the floor.

Barry took a sharp intake of breath at the sound and hurriedly set the knife down, jogging across the room to help Thea.

“Thea! Are you okay?” he asked, genuinely concerned that his friend might have given herself brain damage.

She grabbed his knee and pushed herself to a kneeling position.

“I’m fine, but dude...I wrecked the wall!”

Barry glanced up at said wall and his eyes immediately widened upon seeing the noticeable hole that Thea had just made. After letting the sight soak in, Barry whirled on Thea with a wound up look on his face and said,

“Dang it, Thea! This isn’t our place!”

But Thea was too busy laughing her mouth off to talk back. She almost lost her balance, in fact.

“And you scared me for a sec there! I thought you cracked your own head open!”

Thea snatched back the self-control that she had just thrown out the window and took a deep breath, still grinning as she puffed it back out. She cleared her throat loudly and knelt down by the helmet.

“Hmph!” she grunted, lifting the helmet off the ground and taking it back to its proper spot. “Barry, I’m okay! I’ve smacked my head on harder walls than these.”

Barry tried not to get mad at her. Of course, he wasn’t sure why he was being so...mean, all of a sudden. As Thea set down the war helmet with an irritated air, he sighed and lowered his gaze, suddenly feeling guilty.

“Sorry, sorry. It’s just that we’re here, down in some unknown training room full of really sharp, hazardous weapons, which is also next to some catacombs full of dead peoples’ remains, plus Mr. Burg’s probably after my head now that I skipped detention, and—”

“Barry!” interrupted Thea, putting a hand up in front of his mouth to stop him yet giving him a sincere look. “We’re cool. It’s cool. If anything happens, it’s going to be us getting some seriously amazing fighting gear!” she pointed to the right corner of the room and quickly added, “You want to take out some energy on those dummies?”

The wooden training dummies that were leaning up against each other did look pretty pathetic. Barry wasn’t the fighting type, however.

“You know what,” he said, letting himself smile a little, “I’d have more fun just watching you beat up some wood.”

Her grin widened tenfold and she marched off to the corner, raising a finger to the air and declaring,

“To a pulp!”

Barry ended up having to help her set up the dummies first, as they were too heavy for her to carry around. Once they were all set up side by side, Thea darted over to the glove section again and eyed it for about ten seconds.

“Ha!” she said, picking up the pair next to the holey ones from before; they had some basic metal plates fused to the fingers. “Let’s make some splinters!”

Several minutes passed on, throughout which the sounds of cracking wood and Thea’s grunts still filled the air. It did end up being oddly soothing seeing all those dummies being scuffed up and broken apart by Thea’s hard left and right hooks. She packed a surprising punch for being as slim as she was.

“HYAH!” she cried, shooting out her right leg and snapping a dummy’s leg clean off.

Thea’s energetic persona was rubbing off on Barry; he gave an excited whoop and started clapping. Thea turned on her heel to face him and closed her eyes, bowing formally.

“Thank you.” she said quietly, almost covering up that joking smile hidden underneath.

She straightened up and gave a resting sigh, wiping the sweat off of her forehead with her arm. Her hair certainly had gotten messier in her tangle with her inanimate foes. As she walked past Barry, he waved a hand in front of his nose and piped,

“You sure stink like a champion.”

In response, Thea gave him an irritated eyeroll and slugged him hard in the arm.

“Kidding, kidding!” he apologized, wincing a little. “Hoo! Seriously, Thea, you hit hard.”

“I try.”

She took the gloves off and proceeded to wipe her sweaty palms on the wooden rack. Barry cleared his throat, though he wasn’t sure why he did, and raised an eyebrow at her choice of towel.

“Do you think we should be wiping our sweat on these weapon racks? I mean, they’re pretty well-kept by whoever owns them.”

Thea scoff lightly at him, waving his suggestion away.

“Hey, it’s not like anybody actually still owns this place. Barry, it’s in the middle of an underground skull maze. Whoever used to use this place probably left because the walk over was so creepy.”

Barry couldn’t really think of anything better to retaliate with, so he just resorted to a shrug. He watched as his best friend wiped her forehead a second time; she looked parched.

“You got a bottle of water?” she asked him, licking her lips.

“Unfortunately, no.” he had to tell her. “Why don’t we head back to, you know, the real world up above and come back later? Then you can punch some more wood.”

Thea grinned and nodded in agreement.

“Good plan. I could punch wood for days, but I would probably need a pack of water bottles or something. You wouldn’t really know, but karate will make you thirsty as heck!”

The two friends started making their way towards the steel door at the room’s beginning. On their way over, Barry couldn’t help but stare again at the thick, colorful tapestry up on the wall. Maybe coming back later would be worth his time. He might be able to figure out what was going on in that picture.

After one disorienting minute of wandering in the dark, they finally reached the main tunnel. All but the sight of barren skulls was comforting for Barry. As he stepped out into the catacombs, he glanced back the direction they had come from and quickly realized a problem with getting back.

“Uhhh...we’re not going back that way, are we?”

He turned his head to find that Thea was already ten feet down the tunnel.

“Of course not! I told you, this leads out of the school! We’ve just got to make some twists and turns to get to the end.”

Barry sighed and shook his head, jogging to catch up with her. Sure, she made it seem like it would be short, but he had the feeling that they still had quite some walking to do.
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