The climb down the stairs is endless.
Down and down they go by the flickering light of the torch as the steps wind their way into the dark. The stairs seem coiled around a column thrust deep into the rock, with the rain pool in the Storm Hall as its crown.
At times Till can barely withstand the urge to tear his hand out of Hargis’s grip and run back up the stairs, back to the light. But without her torch, he would be lost in the darkness.
And so she continues to lead him further down, step after step after step. He is afraid to ask where they are going, for fear she might answer that they are going nowhere at all, that they will be on these stairs forever, climbing down into a darkness without end. A staircase that just goes on, leading to no place at all—is such a thing possible? What will they do when the torch at last goes out?
Just as Till is on the brink of accepting that they will walk downwards forever, they arrive in front of a door. He almost bumps into it, so unexpected is its presence.
Hargis takes a large black key out of her coat. She does not insert it into the door, but into a lock built into the wall next to it. She presses a spot on the wall, and the sound of stone grinding on stone rumbles somewhere behind it. Slowly, the door swings open. It is made of solid wood thicker than two palms are wide, and covered almost entirely with heavy iron fittings. A door meant to ward off the assault of an army.
They step into a dark corridor. Till runs a hand along the masonry as they walk. It feels damp, almost wet. Another door emerges from the darkness ahead. It looks as strong as the first. Hargis uses a different key to unlock this one. They step through it, and Till expels all of his breath in a single muted cry.
Night stretches before him. Night, and a forest!
But what a strange forest it is. Pale as bone are the trunks he sees, with neither leaf nor crown, and they grow both from the ground as well as from the ceiling, though what they are rooted in up there, he cannot see, so thick is the darkness out of which they jut forth. He stretches out his hand to touch one, and realizes that they are not trees at all, but stone.
Some of these otherwordly trunks are smooth like big shafts of bone, while others have ridges that look like the gills of toadstools, and some have stranger shapes still. No two are the same size; the smallest ones reach hardly to Till’s knees, but most are very tall, their tips lost in the darkness above. Several have fused with others growing down from above, forming solid pillars. The subterranean forest stretches into the gloom as far as the eye can see.
The door through which they came is set in a wall of rock that stretches to the left and right and up into the dark. It seems to Till that when he stepped through it, he entered some fantastic realm utterly separate from the world he knew. He is not at all certain that he could ever go back the way he came, even if Hargis were to let him leave.
“Where are we?”
“Beneath the lake,” Hargis says. “In the great cave that holds the Light in the Dark.”
Suddenly, Till is aware of the sound of water dripping. Nearby and far in the distance, all around him, a myriad drops are falling, slowly, steadily, ceaselessly. It must have been happening all along, but somehow he paid no heed to it before. One strikes his forehead as he looks up into the shadows, and he shudders.
“There is no danger,” Hargis tells him. “Water seeps into this cave, forming the stone spires you see all around us. But it comes only drop by drop, year by year.”
Till tries to picture the immensity of the lake, and the feeling of all that water—more of it than he can possibly imagine—weighs upon him with such a heaviness that even Hargis’s assurances provide him no comfort.
“The water makes the stone needles?”
“Over thousands and thousands of years,” Hargis says. “How you see this cave now is not very different from when it was first discovered. Here and there, a spire has since grown taller, or descended further, but only by little. You would have to stand still for a lifetime without averting your eyes to watch one of them grow the length of even a barleycorn.”
Her hand closes once more around his, cool and rigid, and she leads him onward, into the shadows of the stone forest.
NEXT: The Light in the Dark