Together, as Lilita looked around the room nervously, they went down the open passage that awaited them. As they walked down the narrow passage, darker than the room they were previously in, but lit just enough for them to see the way, a rumbling could be heard behind them. It was a startling sound at first, until they turned around to see that the light of the room behind them was shrinking, disappearing as the door returned to its secure position. There was no turning back. Once they were finished with a room, the room was finished with them as well. Even if the first passage reopened, they would not be able to get to it. There must be another way out somewhere. Wilhelm continued down the passage cautiously, Lilita close behind. It was narrower, yet shorter, than the first passage. The room it led them to, however, was much larger than the room of altars.
The room was wide and long and the ceiling rose up high above them without the support of pillars or beams. It was a wonder the earth above them had not collapsed into this space. Surely they had not gone deeper down, so far from the surface to allow a room of such height. The passages did not feel like they were slanted downward. Then again, this place was certainly unusual, unlike any building design Wilhelm had come across before entering this building. Perhaps they were beneath a hill.
The majority of the room was filled with a stone platform. Four stone steps, wide and low, lead up to the platform. Planters lined the outside of the platform, dark dirt filling them to give the deep green, leafy plants a place to take root. The plants’ leaves were large and thick, unlike the delicate ferns that covered the forest floor on the surface. Again, there was no light source, no opening from above to let sunlight filter in. It made no sense that plants were growing here, thriving underground.
Wilhelm climbed the small steps to the top of the platform. The area surrounding the platform, a hallway sized space, was covered by a ceiling about the height of the room they were in before, the height of an average room, and simple pillars held up the ceiling, though the place did not seem to need these physical supports to stay up. The rest of the room, most of the room, opened up to a ceiling far out of reach. Higher than that of the great hall of either castle, higher than the church’s roof that reach up toward the heavens. There were no openings, no balconies carved into the walls of tightly packed earth. No way to imagine how these people had carved out such a perfectly squared, perfectly structured room at this size. There was nothing to give it away. And no apparent reason for why the room was so large.
The light looked more natural in this room, more of a sunlit white. There was no sky, of course, but it was much more normal looking than the yellow green glow of the room with the altars. The edges of the room were darker, hidden in the shadow of the lower ceiling that bordered the platform. Looking around, there were no obvious doorways, although the room was so large it was likely that there were, they were just out of sight from where Wilhelm and Lilita were standing due to the distance and the shadows.
The platform itself was not a plain, flat expanse. There were shallow ditches carved into them. Large, rounded sections of perfectly smooth recesses. They did not seem to be dug in any particular order. None of them connected, none of them had anything inside of them. Despite their apparent lack of purpose, they were perfectly formed. They looked like they were dug at first glance, but upon closer inspection, Wilhelm and Lilita discovered that they were actually carved of stone. Even more impressive still that something of this size and shape be carved so perfectly into the stone slab they stood upon.
They walked around the ditches, trying to figure out what shape they were meant to represent. They were evenly spaced around the platform, all different shapes, but taking up the same amount of space and arranged in perfect columns and rows. A few of the spaces were filled with more shallow planters containing the same plants that surrounded the platform. They were standing on a grid of thirty-six ditches and planters.
“What is this?” Wilhelm asked.
“I have no idea,” Lilita said.
They were both impressed at how well built this room was, but neither had any idea what it could have been meant for. They walked through the maze of ditches, circling between them to avoid walking into them. One of the sections had water in it. Just a small puddle, but there was some sort of drain built into the bottom in the center. This ditch was mostly round, but it protruded out to one side, ending abruptly at the edge of that section.
Wilhelm leaned closer, trying to see the drain better. He was wary to touch the water, but he got as close as he thought he could without risking slipping into the puddle. The drain was a small hole, but there seemed to be something blocking it. Another bit of stone, matching the cold brown tones of the rest of the platform.
Lilita looked at the area around the ditch, near the bit that was sticking out, keeping it from being a perfect circle, more closely. “These are not all a part of the same stone,” she said, moving a hand along the stone platform. There was a seam there. Subtle, but visible.
Wilhelm went to her side, looking at the seam. The stone was not carved directly in place. It was fitted together with different sections, each a perfect circle that sat in its place in the platform. Still an impressive feat, carving out such perfect circles into such a large piece of stone. It was impressive enough to have such a large piece of stone to carve at all.
He looked at the other pieces of the grid. They were all the same perfectly round sections containing whatever shape was carved into them.
“Some sort of puzzle?” Lilita suggested.
“What are we meant to do here?” Wilhelm responded.
“There was once water here,” Lilita said. “Maybe we are to return water these pools.”
“There is no source,” Wilhelm said, growing frustrated. This did not make any sense. They had no way of knowing what this was, nevermind how to use it. His frustration summoned his temper and he kicked the side of the ditch beside him. As soon as he did, a rumbling noise started. Stone grinding against more stone, the ditch Wilhelm had kicked rotated a quarter of the way around in the direction he had kicked it.
Wilhelm watched in disbelief, then shot a sideways look to Lilita. She watched the stone stop in its new position before looking up at Wilhelm. “I suppose we are meant to change the pattern,” she said.
Wilhelm looked back to the ditch, an oval shaped piece that was originally running alongside the piece with the puddle in it. Now, it was connected to the other piece. The oblong shape extended the protrusion of the almost perfect circle. They were touching as if they were one piece now, as if they had been carve to be one trench.
“They must all connect somehow,” Wilhelm said.
“I suppose we must make them all form one shape together.”
“Then what? Fill them with water?”
“Maybe we are not meant to fill them,” Lilita admitted, looking around the room again to confirm that there was no water source for them to use. “Let us connect them for now. At least that is something we can do.”
Wilhelm looked around at the remaining pieces. There did not seem to be any reasoning to how they were arranged, all currently facing different directions, broken up by planters. They were not even sure where the other end piece was located. He hoped he would not have to kick all the stone pieces before they were finished.
Fortunately, he did not have to kick any more pieces to get them to turn into new positions. Lilita pushed one with her hand, triggering its movement. The pieces needed little more than a nudge. It seemed as though they wanted to change position and be reunited with the pieces beside them. They were eager to get back to their intended arrangement.
The beginning was easy, they went piece by piece, connecting them in the only logical way they could. There was little chance for error based on the way the pieces were laid out for them. It seemed as though the whole thing would be a lot easier than they had originally thought based on the size of the puzzle. It was not until about halfway through that the puzzle became more challenging. The second half of the platform began in the middle and there were multiple options at each turn. Wilhelm and Lilita began planning out their moves before they started rotating pieces. They talked out which piece would be their best option to move and tried to plan ahead two or three moves before setting themselves up for failure and having to redo a number of spaces.
They grew eager when they reached the final three pieces. It was obvious how they fit together, and the final piece was rounded with one side sticking out, just like the first piece with the puddle inside of it. They finished the puzzle, completing the trench. They stood on the platform in nervous anticipation of what would happen, what door would open or object would appear out of nowhere. Instead, there was a faint scraping of stone against stone, muffled by something else. They listened until it the scraping stopped, then looked around for the source. It was only a second before they realized what had moved. The piece of stone blocking the drain in the first section. It had moved out of the way of the water. Instead of draining, however, water filled the large stone bowl. The water continued to rise up until all of the pieces were full of water, almost to the brim. Wilhelm worried for a moment that the water would not stop coming in, that they would be forced to swim on the surface until the whole room was filled up. Fortunately that did not happen. As soon as the water filled the final section, it stopped.
Beginning to tire and sweat with the effort of hurrying around the platform and the stress of worrying over what would come of their success, Wilhelm and Lilita listened for any more shifting of stones. Another scraping began, this one unmuffled, as a space in the middle of one side of the room opened up. They hesitated briefly, both wishing to move on and uncertain about what mysteries lie ahead in the new room. As they were about to go through the new doorway, the wall opposite also opened up to a second passage. They stopped and looked at one another, now unsure which way they should choose.
“This one opened up first,” Wilhelm said, trying to be logical about the situation.
“Maybe that is the point. We should have been patient enough to wait for the second passage to open,” Lilita said.
“Then maybe we should await a third,” Wilhelm suggested sarcastically. “Or we could wait for these ones to close back up and trap up here forever.”
Lilita’s look darkened. She did not appreciate such talk from Wilhelm. She was trapped just the same as he was. He behaved as if he were the victim and she were the one who had laid out all these puzzles for them.
“You may choose whichever path you like,” Lilita said, an edge to her voice. “I am going this way.” Lilita turned to walk across the room to the second passage that had opened up.
Wilhelm clenched his jaw, willing himself to keep calm and not insult the princess further. He almost let her go her own way. He started walking into the first passage, then stopped, fists clenched, giving in to his own conscience. He could not let Lilita go alone. He would not forgive himself if something happened to her because of his own stubbornness.
“Wait,” he finally said.
He turned around reluctantly to face her. He was relieved and annoyed to find that she had listened. She was standing on the platform, waiting for him to say whatever it was he wished to say. She made no move toward him, simply waited for him to speak.
She waited patiently, but her eyes gave away how annoyed she was. Usually unreadable, her stare made him wish he had just let her go her own way. His gut knew better than to believe that he truly wanted that to have been the case.
“I do not think it is wise for us to go on separately,” Wilhelm finally said.
“You go your way and I will go mine. We can meet back here once we have seen what is beyond each passage if you like.”
“There may not be a way back to one another if we split up.”
Lilita’s chest rose and fell visible as she took in a breath to calm herself. She was fighting with her own temper, though hers expressed itself in far different ways than Wilhelm’s. She knew he was correct, but she would not admit that out loud to him. Instead, she waited, turning her attention to the size of the room, looking over the high ceiling, the perfectly formed walls of securely packed dirt. She did not say a word in response, nor did she confirm what he had said to be correct about the danger of splitting up, validating his concern. She stood there until he gave in and came onto the platform with her, making his way to the passage she believed they should go through. She kept her satisfaction to herself as she followed him across the platform and into the passage.
As soon as they passed through the doorway, the entrance closed behind them, sealed shut with the grinding halt of the stone door. For a fleeting moment Wilhelm worried that they may have missed something, a new object, another passage in the large water room. Something now trapped in the room they had left behind. Or, worse still, that they had chosen incorrectly and they should have gone through the first passage.
The passage ended at a turn, a banner hanging in front of them on the wall. Faded purple with gold edges, a matching colored symbol taking up the center.
“Patience,” Lilita said, stopping in front of the banner.
“What? We may not have as much time as you choose to believe.” Wilhelm was immediately set off at her composure in their situation. “We need to find a way out of here. We-“
“No,” Lilita interrupted his rant. “It says patience.” She looked at the banner, drawing his attention to it. The symbol was, once again, something Wilhelm had never seen before, but it was clearly the same language that the pillars in the first room were carved with.
“And I suppose you think that means we made the correct choice in going this way?”
“Perhaps. It is certainly not a bad sign.”