Lilita stood behind Wilhelm, leaving just enough distance between them to not be touching. They waited a moment longer while their eyes adjusted to the lack of light. There was little to be seen, even after they had gotten used to the darkness, there was only the faintest light that their eyes could pick up on and no clear source. Wilhelm walked carefully forward into the room, Lilita staying close behind him. She did not expect him to protect her, but she feared they would become separated if they let too much distance come between them, and that could prove to be far more dangerous for them both.
As they moved forward together, little could be made out further than a few feet. They could tell, however, that they were in a passageway. Stone was built up on either side of them to separate them from the earth around them. The ground was packed soil, as solid as stone beneath their feet. There was no telling how deep this passage ran, how many rooms or other passages would branch off of it. They continued inching their way forward, knowing that this was a poor decision, not thinking to turn back.
Some sound pulled them forward. Nothing they could identify, no more sliding or thumping of falling rocks, no footsteps or bugs humming, no water dripping or running. The sound was in the air, distant and near at the same time. It filled the space, but it was almost as if it were coming from some other place. The sound was not of this world, it was audible, but it had not formed fully.
They followed the sound, if they could even really follow it. It was so difficult to place or identify, Wilhelm did not even check to see if Lilita could hear it too. He feared she would think he was crazy if he brought it up. So instead he kept it to himself and moved forward, Lilita a small comfort at his side.
The air was colder underground. It felt and smelled damp. The walls were freezing to the touch when Wilhelm reached out to trace the wall with his hand to keep from straying from it should the space open up as they proceeded. He did not keep his hand on the wall for more than a moment, just long enough to feel just how cold it was, then had to draw it away. He remained close enough to it to see that it was still beside him though.
The passage felt longer than it probably was. They took small steps, proceeding slowly forward for fear of moving too quickly and walking into something or falling into a hole.
A noise was heard to their right, away from the wall. It sounded like something scuffing against the ground. A footstep perhaps. Wilhelm stopped immediately. Lilita placed a hand on his back, partly to keep from colliding into him again, and partly to keep herself from panicking in the darkness at the presence they could not see.
They stared into the darkness, hoping for enough light for their eyes to see what lay before them in the dark, to recognize the source of the sound. They had assumed they were still walking down a passage, but a room had opened up on the other side that they had not noticed until that moment.
As they watched the darkness, listening carefully, an outline of faint light gradually appeared across from them. They waited a bit longer as the light became part of the room and not an intrusion of the void they were looking at before. Wilhelm convinced himself this was simply his eyes adjusting to the light that was barely present and not something that had just appeared before them while they were standing still.
It was both fortunate and unfortunate for the light to reveal not a person or creature, but a room. They could finally see the space around them. The passage behind them was still completely dark, but the room before them was just light enough for them to see the whole of it. Four pillars stood evenly spaced throughout the room, not in the corners, but adjacent to them. In the center, a small pedestal. On three of the sides, with the side of the passage left empty, were stone altars.
Wilhelm entered the room. The light had begun at the altar opposite them, but now it seemed to sit on everything. There was no visible source, but everything was illuminated just enough to become visible. Wilhelm looked around for where the light could have been coming from, but found nothing. There were no torches placed around the room, no candles on the altars.
Lilita let some distance come between them now that they could see, but uneasily entered the room behind Wilhelm to avoid too much separation. She felt the presence he could hear and she feared it would separate them completely if she let too much physical distance come between them.
The greenish hue of that almost yellow light did little to make the room more welcoming, but it was better than shuffling around in complete darkness. From what could be seen, there was nothing on any of the surfaces. Upon closer inspection, the pillars had images carved into them. The light was so faint they did little to illuminate the pictures and they were difficult to identify. They were symbols of some sort carved into the stone.
“What is this?” Lilita asked in a whisper.
Wilhelm lifted a hand to trace one of the symbols with his fingers.
“We should not disturb anything,” Lilita warned.
His fingers fit easily into the carvings, each half as deep as his fingers were thick, just wide enough to fit the width of his index finger into. He traced the gently curving symbol and, as his fingers moved along it, a line of light began to fill the carving wherever his fingers touched. The light held the same color as the soft glow that illuminated the room, but more concentrated into a thin line that grew as it followed Wilhelm’s hand. Fascinated by the phenomenon, Wilhelm watched the symbols fill with light as his fingers rested in the carvings. Lilita watched on with a mix of fascination and horror. She was as drawn to the symbol as he was, but she knew they should not be here. That nothing good could come from them disturbing whatever spirits were present.
Lilita reached up and placed her hand gently on Wilhelm’s wrist, interrupting his focus just enough to get him to lower his hand from the pillar. The light continued to flood the symbol, revealing smaller, more faintly visible markings around it.
They watched until a square of bright symbols took over the area of the pillar. The light subdued just enough that they could make out the symbols more clearly, no longer squinting at the intensity of the light. It appeared to be some sort of text, written in even lines and careful hand. Whoever carved these markings must have taken great care to ensure they were neat and evenly placed so they could be read easily. The dark, damp room had not been kind to the stone here and, without the mysterious light, the faded text was hardly even visible if one did not know to look for it.
Wilhelm looked at the text, amazed, but entirely unsure what it was written for. He had never seen such script before, even in his lessons of other languages and texts of the distant past.
“It is the old language,” Lilita said, finally recognizing what they were looking at.
“Do you know what it says?” Wilhelm asked.
“No.” She strained her eyes at the foreign words, trying to place them in her memory. “I do not know it well enough to read, but…” she examined the symbols one at a time, as if she were reading it carefully, trying to remember what any of them meant. “Zofia has books written in this language. I’ve seen some of them, but I only recognize a few of the symbols.”
“Do you have any idea what it might say?”
“Something about…eternal rest.” Lilita scrunched her face in uncertainty and concentration. “Trials…and this one…” she touched a symbol of an uneven squiggle underlined three times, two dots beside it. “I forget how to translate it correctly, but it is something like passing onto the next realm, once your physical passing is complete.”
“A passing after your passing?” Wilhelm did not understand.
“It is a pagan belief that when a person passes on their spirit leaves them, but then their spirit must pass on from this world into the other realm. The spirit realm. This word is for the spirit passing on to the spirit world.”
“Is that not all the same as dying?”
“No. They are separate passings. A body passing does not mean the spirit has passed into the spirit world, it only means the spirit has left the physical body it was inhabiting. The spirit sometimes lingers in this realm for a time before it is ready to do its own passing.”
“So what is this? A text about the spirit passing on? We are beside a cemetery, could this just be a prayer to the dead?”
“It would make sense. Whoever built this place must have carved these to wish the spirits well after their physical deaths, their ‘eternal rest’, and passing their trials so they may move on.”
“What sort of trials?”
“I am not certain. It is believed that everyone who dies must pass a trial to prove that they are ready to leave this world. It may be as simple as accepting their death as reality. It could be something more complicated like overcoming a vice or forgiving someone who had wronged them.”
“Do the other pillars have something different carved on them?”
They walked to another pillar and looked at it. There was something there, less visible than the first pillar. Wilhelm placed his hand on it, just as he had done with the first one, but nothing happened. No lights filled the symbols, no new words appeared around it.
“Why is nothing happening?”
“I’m not sure that is a bad thing,” Lilita answered. “We should get back to the castle. Leave the dead to rest.”
Wilhelm nodded, still curious to know what the other pillars said, why this one did not light up when he traced it, but he knew Lilita was right. He may not have been taught about where a soul goes when it is no longer a part of the body, but he knew to respect the dead and allow them to rest in peace. They approached the passage they had travelled down when they entered the building, but it was no longer there. They were instead met with a stone wall, no doorway built into it, no dark tunnel to take them back to the surface. It was as if the tunnel had never existed. As if someone had finished building the room they were stood in while they were reading the pillar. There was no trace of the way they had come in.
“Where is it?” Lilita asked, her hands moving over the wall, looking for some sort of lever or loose brick to reveal the way out.
Wilhelm walked the perimeter of the room, checking the walls carefully for the passage. Surely it had not just disappeared without their being aware of it happening. Lilita continued checking the corner she was in while Wilhelm walked the entire room. He ended up back in the corner where Lilita stood and together they had come up with nothing.
“It is gone,” Wilhelm said.
“No, it cannot be gone. We cannot be trapped here.”
“There must be another way out.”
Wilhelm and Lilita both stepped back from the wall where the passage used to be. They took opposite directions around the room, looking around for some other way out, another doorway, a hatch in the floor, an opening in the ceiling. Anything that might get them out of the room.
Moving away from the walls, Wilhelm stopped next to another pillar, looking over the top of the altars. He was losing hope at finding a way out. While Lilita felt over the top of another altar, Wilhelm rested a hand on the pillar beside him, leaning against it as he watched her while trying to think of another way the could escape.
Lilita turned to face him when she came up with nothing, no signs hidden in the surface. She looked at Wilhelm, then her eyes grew wider with concern. Wilhelm was not sure what troubled her, until he realized she was not looking at him, she was looking beside him at the pillar he was leaning against. Startled by the idea that something might be on the pillar, he pulled his hand off of it and looked. To his surprise, the symbols on the pillar had begun to glow.
“What did you?”
“I didn’t do anything. I was just standing here.”
“Maybe you need to not be trying?” Lilita suggested, not believing the idea even as she spoke it.
“I do not think that is it,” Wilhelm said.
Lilita looked at the pillar then at the others placed evenly around the room. “This is not the same pillar you touched before.”
“No, it was that one that would not react,” Wilhelm pointed to the one across from them, still just plain stone with faint carvings.
“Maybe they need to be activated in a certain order.”
Wilhelm looked at the pillar that was still filling with light. Again, the larger symbol became surrounded with smaller symbols. The text was not identical to the first one, but the style and language was the same.
“Can you recognize any of these words?” Wilhelm asked.
Lilita was already looking over the script. “Home…peace…I don’t know the rest.”
“I hope that is a clue as to what we will be rewarded with when all of these pillars are glowing,” Wilhelm said.
Lilita wished to agree with him, but her gut told her they would find something much less inviting.
“Shall I try another then?” Wilhelm asked. “Or do you insist on finding another way?”
Lilita looked at him, considering. She did not want to activate the other two pillars. But they had no other options. They had no way out. At least this might open up some sort of exit. Or summon something else that might be willing to assist them in escaping their underground tomb.
“Try that one,” Lilita said, pointing to the fourth pillar.
Wilhelm nodded and walked over to the pillar. Lilita stayed put while he touched it. When he did, the pillar remained the same, but the one Lilita stood beside dimmed until the light went out entirely.
“What happened?” Wilhelm asked.
“It was not the correct one,” Lilita said.
“I suppose we do need to do this in a certain order then.”
“Try this one again,” Lilita said, motioning to the no longer lit pillar beside her.
Wilhelm touched the pillar and the light filled in the lettering once more.
“Well, there is really only one other order to do this in,” he said and went to the fourth, previously untouched pillar. He traced the symbol in the center with his fingers and they illuminated, just as he expected them to.
“One left,” he said. He went to the only pillar that was not lit up and touched it. It filled with light as the others had, more script in smaller hand filling the space around the larger symbol in the center.
Lilita was examining the pillar that was lit third while Wilhelm finished illuminating the stone. He was looking at his work with admiration, proud that he had solved the puzzle, waiting for the passage to re-open. Lilita stood beside him, examining the symbols on the last pillar.
Wilhelm looked at her, a bit smug, then turned to the corner where the passage used to be. Wilhelm’s pride diminished when he realized that the wall had not changed back. They were still trapped.
“Something should have happened,” he said, sorely disappointed.
“Maybe something did,” Lilita said, looking over the rest of the room. Her eyes stopped at one of the altars. Wilhelm followed her gaze as she walked over to it. A small box had appeared. He would have sworn it was not there before. One of them would have seen it.
“What is in it?” Wilhelm asked.
After staring at it for a moment longer, Lilita cautiously picked up the box. Small enough to be easily grasped in her petite hands, it was still lighter than it appeared. Old and worn soft with time, the dark stained wood had no chips or scratches on it. The decorative accents on the corners were unbent and the lock still intact, though it was not a familiar shape.
A hole had been forged into the metal locking mechanism. Larger than the gems adorning Lilita’s fingers on delicate bands, but smaller than the brooch Queen Frieda always wore. The hole was empty, the gem likely falling out at some point in the years it must have been down here. Unusual considering the state of the box itself.
Trying the lid, Lilita said, “it is locked,”
“Of course it is,” Wilhelm said.
“There must be a key.”
“I’ve never seen a key in that shape before.”
“And have you been inside of a room with disappearing passages before?”
Wilhelm scowled at her, annoyed with her smart remark.This was no ordinary place. It was no surprise that the key to the box that appeared as if by magic after they lit up the mysteriously marked pillars would not be an ordinary one. “No,” he said, rolling his eyes as he looked to the box again.
“Maybe something else appeared when the box did,” Lilita suggested putting the box down to check the rest of the room.
Wilhelm picked up the box for fear that it would disappear back into whatever void it came from. Then he looked around the room as well.
They searched the other altars first, the more obvious places. Nothing. While Lilita checked the sides of the altars for any other markings, Wilhelm looked up toward the ceiling hoping that something had opened or appeared that had the potential to be opened. He noticed nothing new and his eyes drifted down to the floor. Then, something caught his eye. A slight glimmer that only just reflected the greenish light in the room. Just enough for him to notice.
He walked across the room, keeping his eyes carefully fixed on the slight reflection for fear of losing sight of it if he looked away. It was too small, too dim to be sure he would locate the reflection again if he lost the angle. Nevermind the fact that the room did not seem to be reliable. The object in the floor, mixed in with the dust and dirt that had collected, could disappear at any moment if he did not keep it within his sight.
Wilhelm bent down to see what the glimmer was. As he knelt down, the light caught more on the object, the brightened reflection hiding whatever it was. He reached down to pick up the object, risking whatever the thing was. He pinched it between his thumb and forefinger, lifting it closer to see it. Between his fingers, he held a green gem. Almost perfectly rounded in shape, mostly flat on the top, not quite pointed on the bottom. Just the size of the hole in the front of the box.
He turned around, gem in one hand, box in the other, to face Lilita. She looked up from beside the altar she was searching, noticing the new object in his hand. “Does it fit the box?” she asked.
“It looks like it will,” he answered
He tilted the box in his hand, facing the hole toward himself and placed the gem into it. A perfect fit. As if they had been waiting to be reunited, the gem immediately fixed itself in place in the box, shifting slightly as it did so and becoming tightly attached as soon as it did. The gem no longer had any room to shift around or fall out of place. They were attached to one another, the box completed.
“Does it open now?” Lilita asked.
Wilhelm held it up, balancing the box on his palm and grasped the lid with his free hand. The lid opened easily this time, no longer locked.
Inside the box, lined with thick green velvet, sat a key, small and simple. Unlike the box, which had been undisturbed by time, the key was worn with decay and filth. Lilita took the key out of the box when Wilhelm hesitated to do so himself. She turned it over in her hands, small and unassuming.
“What do you think it is for?” she asked.
“Maybe a door will appear now,” Wilhelm suggested, not taking the idea seriously himself, though he felt it was not entirely out of the question after what had already happened.
They looked around for a moment, reassuring themselves that they had not missed anything so obvious as a door appearing. They confirmed that they had not and looked to one another again.
“Did you find anything new on the altars?”
Lilita straightened as if she had forgotten that she was searching them before. “I did not get to the one in the center,” she said. They went to the smallest altar in the middle of the room. A square slab of stone stood about as tall as Lilita’s waist. Like the other pillars and altars, it looked as though it was completely white at one time, now cracking and greyed.
Together, they examined the altar more closely, beginning with the top and working their way down opposite sides.
“Here is something,” Lilita said, not entirely sure what the something was.
Wilhelm looked to her side of the altar as she was inserting the key into a crack. It did not look to be distinctly a keyhole, but the key slid in effortlessly nonetheless. With a bit more effort from Lilita, the key turned inside the hole.
The altar remained unchanged, but the wall in the corner shifted apart, revealing the outline of a door that then began moving. That section of wall moved into the corner with a deep rumbling, grinding noise, disappearing until the doorway was cleared. Nothing else appeared to have changed in the room. Ready to leave, deciding that the doorway was better than waiting in this room for something else to appear, Wilhelm placed the box on the small altar as he and Lilita rose to their feet. As soon as he did, the light in the middle of the room became brighter, illuminating the altar as if a beam of sunlight were shining down onto it through the ceiling.
Curious and startled, Wilhelm looked from the box to Lilita. She had the same expression on her face, although she seemed a bit more calm. He looked up to the ceiling. There was no opening, no light, nothing new. The light appeared to be coming from nowhere. It rippled above them, having no specific source. Just to see what would happen, Wilhelm picked up the box from the altar again. The light remained. He replaced it, closed it, opened it again. The light remained and the box was still empty.
“Shall we see what is in there?” Lilita asked, motioning toward the newly opened passage.
“There must be something else here,” Wilhelm said, determined that this was not a random light. That nothing happening in this room was random. It was as if the room were trying to get them to do something, guiding them carefully. He was not sure they should complete these tasks, unsure of who exactly was guiding them, unclear of their intentions, whether they were trying to help Wilhelm and Lilita or trying to coax them into helping them accomplish something more sinister.
Wilhelm picked up the box one last time, tilting it to check underneath. He noticed a split in the wood that he had not seen before. He lifted the box closer to himself to examine the crack. It was even and subtle, intentionally carved into the wood. He tried to pick at it, to pull it open. When that failed, he tried pushing into it and it wiggled just a bit. He pushed it in a different direction and eventually found the correct one and the bottom of the box slid open to reveal a thin compartment. Inside, a piece of parchment was tucked away.
Wilhelm removed the parchment and the light in the middle of the room that had signalled to the box dimmed, returning to the same glow that still filled the rest of the room. Wilhelm returned the box, now stripped of its contents and turned the parchment over to find a small drawing filled the small page. It was an image he had never seen before, not a crest of a family or nation, nor representation of any guilds he was familiar with. This building was old and far from his home, however, it may have been of Lelonian origin in days long past.
Lilita leaned closer to Wilhelm to get a look at the image as he shifted it around in his hands trying to make sense of it. When she saw what was on the parchment, she stood straighter, eyes losing focus, lost in some unpleasant memory.
“Have you seen this before?” Wilhelm asked when he saw the look on her face.
She looked to him, still unsettled. “It is the mark of a people who lived here long ago. Before this land became a part of Lelonia.”
“A dangerous people?” Wilhelm guessed at the color having drained from her already fair complexion.
“There are stories,” she said simply.
“Well,” Wilhelm put the parchment into his pocket, “they are not here any longer.” He looked at her, hoping this would reassure her. She nodded with uncertainty and he accepted that as good enough. “We should keep moving. We need to find a way out of here.”
“Yes, of course.”
Neither of them wanted to be trapped underground any longer, even less so upon discovering the symbol. Something about it made the place feel more dangerous, less certain. Even with the strange light and the mysterious objects appearing. Doorways opening and closing, disappearing entirely, on their own. The idea that they may be trapped down here by the work of a dangerous group, that the people may not be gone as Lilita was brought to believe they were, made their situation even more dire. Those people could be living down here, in the hidden space beneath the cemetery that even the royal family did not know existed so close to their castle. They needed to press on before they ran into someone, before someone caught up with them from some other hidden passage. They would prefer to leave the place with many questions than risk being trapped underground forever, or held prisoner by a people previously defeated by Lelonia, their lands taken away from them. Still, they could not deny their curiosity caused by these questions, their lingering desire for answers.