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Where Secrets Lie

Where Secrets Lie

A Chapter by Rising
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Part 2 of the short story series, The Well of Images.

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It had been a sight unlike any Hope Emerson had ever seen, frightening yet fascinating. In a place more real than a dream, she had stood before an open door, a dark-tinted rippling liquid mirror, casting an image of her third eye that danced and warped around a central locus. Eighteen years of fantasy novels and video games had not prepared her to stand before such a sight.

Now she stood in the delving room in Shelley Hall at Athens University, watching Samuel Locke, her fellow student and the only person she knew of who could explore that place with her, walk out the door as if the discovery of a magical world was nothing more than a curiosity to tug at one’s attention for a moment and then be forgotten.

“Well,” the voice of Professor Eli Berkeley broke through her thoughts. “What about you?”

Hope jumped at the sound. Eli stood a few feet away, his hand resting on the desk behind him. “About me?” she said.

“How would you like to learn about Knowledge Tree and the study of the Unconscious Realms?”

A smile tried to sneak onto her face, and she let it succeed. There was no reason that someone else’s indifference should dampen her own excitement. “Definitely. Tell me everything.”

“Okay, come with me.” Eli led her through the door and down the hall, explaining as they walked. “The Unconscious Realms are a literal manifestation of the collective unconscious.”

“The ideas within our minds that exist there because we’re human,” Hope said. The collective unconscious as theorized by Carl Jung had been the topic of Eli’s class for the first two weeks. It was supposed to have been metaphorical, not so much collective as similar, but the existence of the Unconscious Realms seemed to suggest otherwise.

“That’s right. The Realms are created from humanity’s perceptions and beliefs. While delving through them, you might meet manifestations of mythical archetypes, like the Hero or the Wise Old Man.”

They entered a room that looked like part office and part lounge. A pair of bookshelves stood against the walls, holding titles like The Origin of the World’s Mythologies and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Two students sat, one at a coffee table hunched over a haphazard pile of papers, pushing them around and making notes with a pencil, and the other at a desk, tapping away at a computer keyboard.

“These are Harriet and Pascal Wolfe,” Eli said.

The one leaning over the table looked up, revealing a feminine face. “People call us Hattie and Skull.”

“We’re twins,” the other said without turning around, the clicking sound of keys not slowing.

“They’re my research assistants,” Eli said. “Much of our theoretical knowledge of the Unconscious Realms is due to these two.”

Hattie struck her pencil across the page with a scratch. “What we really want is to figure out how to become delvers. That’s what keeps us working late.”

At last, some peers who shared her interest. Maybe she could help them. “I get there by clearing my mind and imagining myself outside of my body,” Hope said.

Hattie made a face. “We know that, but it doesn’t work for us. So . . .” She reached beside her chair and produced a clipboard with several papers attached. “Here, sign this.”

Eli held a hand forward, a look of frustration on his face. “Hattie . . .”

Hope took the clipboard and lifted a few of the pages. They were all covered in dense text. “What’s this?”

“Medical tests we want to do on you while you’re under,” Hattie said, “to figure out why you can delve and we can’t.”

Eli gently took it from her hand. “You don’t have to sign that. My students can get a bit zealous.” He handed the clipboard back to Hattie, who stuck out her lower lip. Eli continued. “If we wish to conduct experiments on you, we’ll ask you about each one individually.”

“Oh come on,” Hattie said. “You were supposed to be rendered speechless by my boldness until she signed it.”

Hope did not know what to make of the twins. Hattie seemed uncaring toward her, almost hostile. Skull had not once turned from his laptop, which either meant he was snubbing her, or didn’t care for the game of social graces.

“So,” Eli said, “how about it, would you like to join them? Become my third research assistant?”

Hope perked up, looking at him with wide eyes, a grin spreading across her face, despite her first impression of her partners-to-be. “Yes,” she said, “I would. Can I start now?”

“Sure,” Eli said. “Skull, why don’t you show her the basics of phenomenal construction theory.”

“Wait,” Hope said, “I thought I was going to be delving.”

“That’s the hope,” Eli replied, “but it’s not safe to do alone. It would have been nice if Samuel had decided to join us, but,” he shrugged, “it’s his own choice. You’ll have to wait until we find another delver to go with you.”

Hope felt like the floor had just dropped out from under her. “But we have no idea how long that could be. It might be years!”

“I’m sorry. The Realms are not like dreams; if you were to get hurt, it might have some negative effect in real life.”

“I’ll be extra careful.” She continued protesting, but Eli would not give in. Eventually, she had to concede. There would be no exploration of the Unconscious Realms without at least one other person.

She tried to study under Skull, but had trouble concentrating, and left after half an hour. Back in her dorm room, Hope glanced at the copy of Final Fantasy XV lying on her desk, still in its plastic wrapping, before flopping onto her back in her bed. A video game might take the edge off her mind, but she was not in the mood to enjoy it. Closing her eyes, she pictured the white ruin of the dreamscape and her third eye in the mirror. A world of mind created by humanity’s collective unconscious. Was that possible? Did it even make sense?

Suddenly, she realized she was in the pre-delving state, on the brink of separating mind and body. As if a switch had been thrown in her brain, Hope made a decision. Putting her thoughts aside, she focused on that mind-body separation, willing it to happen, feeling her senses slip away, as if they belonged to somebody else.

As usual, her eyes opened to the now familiar scene of the boughs and green foliage of the lone tree on the hilltop. She stood, feeling not the sluggishness of climbing out of bed, but the soreness of skin and muscle newly free from being pinched between her bones and the ground, as if she had been lying there on that hilltop for hours. A cool breeze caused strands of hair to tickle her cheeks and temples.

Before her lay the white stone and brick of a place so run down she could not tell where the buildings began and ended. The layout made no sense to her, pillars, arches, and walls standing or lying broken haphazardly, as if they had been placed by a child toying with a sandbox computer game. Hope wondered who had lived here, and what catastrophe could have made stone structures crumble like this.

The body-sized oval mirror with the ornate golden rim was where she remembered. It seemed so out of place, polished to a shine and completely untouched among the crumbling stone. Her reflection’s third eye stared eerily back at her, moving with her other two eyes when she looked from side to side. Standing there, gazing at this manifested impossibility, she felt something intense stirring in her chest, fueled by the air she breathed. It was strange, stronger than anything she had felt before, yet familiar. Something like awe mixed with an almost-panic, combined with a disconnect between what her eyes saw and what she felt could be real.

Overcome with energy, she whirled around to gaze past the ruins and down the hill to the forest beyond. The world was hers to discover, and she felt like a child with a make-believe sword braving the backyard woods for the first time. But no, she couldn’t. Eli, her professor turned advisor, had told her not to come here alone, that it might be dangerous. Though nothing about this place felt especially unsafe, she had no reason to dismiss his concern. The Realms might be as safe as dreams, but they just as easily might be as dangerous as the wilderness.

A wave of resignation washed over her as she unclenched her heart and let the prize go. She took a last look at the ruins, the mossy grass, and the forest in the distance, before raising her hand to her third eye to wake herself up. She would return soon, with a partner. If Samuel was the only other person who could reach the Unconscious Realms, Hope would talk to him and persuade him to come with her.

In Eli’s class later that week, Hope’s eyes kept drawing back to Samuel, who sat several seats over. He spoke little and kept rolling the tips of his first two fingers against his desk, the joints closest to the ends popping forward and backward. The class period seemed to last an eternity. Hope kept glancing at the clock expectantly, only to find a mere minute or two had passed each time.

At last, class finished. Hope picked up her backpack and followed Samuel into the hall. She called out to him, and he looked over his shoulder. When he saw her he stopped. After a moment, he looked forward again, his shoulders sagging a little, and then he turned around, leaning against the wall so that others would have room to walk past.

He looked at her expectantly, so she took a breath and began. “About what happened a few days ago . . .”

Samuel made no reaction whatsoever, which Hope interpreted as, “go on.”

“That was pretty weird, wasn’t it?”

After a moment, Samuel dropped his gaze. “Yeah.” From his ensuing silence, Hope started to think she might have to prompt him again, but then he looked up. “I’ve been thinking about dropping the class.”

“Really?” The thought had not entered Hope’s mind. Did the whole business of the Unconscious Realms upset him so much that he couldn’t deal with having Eli as a professor, or did he just not care for Mythological Studies?

Samuel shook his head. “I mean, professors do sometimes say weird things.”

Hope noticed he was fidgeting, running his short-clipped thumbnail over the tips of the first two fingers of his right hand. A hunch took root in her mind, and she decided to act on it. “And yet . . .”

Samuel met her eyes. “And yet what?”

“And yet you still came to class today. You seem like the kind of guy who doesn’t waste time. Could there be a reason you’re hesitating to drop it?”

“What are you talking about?” Samuel said.

She pointed to his hand, the one he would not stop fidgeting with. “You hurt yourself while we were there. I saw it, black like some kind of chemical burn. But it’s still bothering you out here.”

“What, that?” Samuel said, biting his lip. “It’s nothing. Just a ghost feeling, like when you have a dream where you have a sore, and then you wake up and scratch the place where the sore was even though it’s not actually there, and then it gets irritated because you scratched it.”

Hope raised her eyebrows. “Are you sure?”

“Of course.” Samuel turned back in the direction of the door, and Hope felt the pit of her stomach sinking. “I’ve got somewhere I need to be.”

The next morning, Hope checked her e-mail as part of her new morning routine. Next to the campus newsletter was a message from Samuel. Do you have time to talk at 3:50 today in front of the library?

On impulse, she clapped her hands together above her head and cried, “Yes!” She could only hope that this meant he had reconsidered the legitimacy of the Realms.

She spent the morning and afternoon invigorated. At the appointed time, she made her way to the lawn in front of the library, where Samuel sat in a bench, reading. He looked up when she approached.

“Hi,” Hope said. She sat down on the grass across from him. “You wanted to talk?”

“Yeah.” Samuel marked his place and put the book aside clicking his fingers on it, and not looking at her. “I thought about what you said, about my hand.”

So she had been on to something. “And?”

“I went back to the Realm, or whatever it is, and I’m . . . I think it might be possible that it is not just a dream.”

“Okay, so how do you feel about it now?”

“I think we should talk to Berkeley,” Samuel replied. “I’m still suspicious of him, but he might just be telling the truth.”

“When do you want to do that?” Hope asked.

“His office hours end in about ten minutes. If we go now, we can probably get him without risk of being interrupted by other students of his.”

“Sounds like you planned this,” Hope said, smiling and standing. “All right, let’s go.”

Eli’s door was open when they arrived. Samuel knocked, and Hope stepped up next to him in the doorway. When Eli saw them, his eyebrows rose.

“Ah, come in, come in.” He gestured to a couple of chairs near a small circular table. “Are you here to talk about the class, or . . .”

Samuel spoke. “Actually, we’ve come to ask you about the Realms.” Considering how uncomfortable he had been about the topic yesterday, he sounded confident, though Hope saw by the way his Adam’s apple moved that he swallowed.

Eli nodded. “All right. The Unconscious Realms are a collection of worlds created by the collective unconscious---”

“Yeah, yeah,” Samuel interrupted. “Can something that happens to you in the Realms affect you in real life?”

“Oh.” Eli met Samuel’s eyes. “Considering that delving within them puts your conscious mind directly into contact with the unconscious, where our psychological drives are synthesized and put into action,” he took a breath, “yes.”

After a moment of tense silence, Samuel sighed. “I’ll participate in your experiment, for a little while.”

Hope reined in the excitement that tried to grip her at these words. It wouldn’t be right to exult in something caused by another’s pain. In a quiet voice, she said, “what happened?”

Samuel looked absently at a stack of papers on Eli’s desk. After a moment, he told them about what had happened the first few times he had delved.

“The Trickster,” Eli mused, “disguised as the Wise Old Man.”

“He called himself the Deceiver,” Samuel said.

Eli nodded. “And your fingers still feel agitated where they touched the oil in this Serpent’s Gate?”

“Yes,” Samuel said.

Eli turned and leaned onto his desk, sighing. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have dragged you into this. It was a mistake.”

“You’re damn right,” Samuel said, narrowing his eyes, “and now I’m caught in this Deceiver’s trap. I have to get out, so I need you to tell me how to find the Deceiver so I can get that antidote from him.”

Hope raised her hand toward him, as if to calm him, but she didn’t touch him.

“I understand how you feel,” Eli said to Samuel, “but are you sure that’s wise?”

“Do you have a better idea?”

Eli sighed, and then stood up. “All right, but we should go to Shelley Hall, where there are facilities to take care of you if you run into problems in the Realms. As you found out, delving can be dangerous, and there may be times when you cannot wake up right away.”

When the three of them arrived at Shelley Hall, they met Hattie and Skull in the study lounge. Introductions were made, and Samuel shared his story again.

“The Trickster, huh?” Hattie said. “Sounds like you might be in a bit of a pickle.”

“Deceiver,” Samuel said. “And what would you know about him?”

Skull spoke up. Hope wondered if he ever looked away from his laptop. “The Trickster---or Deceiver---is a well-known mythological archetype. He has shown up as the Norse god Loki, the Serpent of Eden in the Bible, and Anansi the Spider of West Africa, to name a few.”

“Hold on,” Samuel said. “Those are myths. You’re not trying to tell me you believe they are actually true?”

“Ha! No, of course not,” Skull said. “The point is that even though they come from different parts of the world, they are all the same type of character, a trickster. Being human, we all have this kind of character in our minds, pre-loaded from birth. That’s what an archetype is.”

“So you’re saying the Deceiver Samuel ran into is another one of these?” Hope asked.

Skull’s fingers stopped moving on his keyboard for a second. “No,” he said, “this Deceiver is the original on whom all of the mythical characters are based.”

The room fell silent. Then, Skull resumed clicking his keyboard.

“What?” Hope gasped, as the meaning of Skull’s words solidified in her mind.

“We’re talking about the Unconscious Realms, remember?” Skull said. “They are the phenomenal manifestation of the collective unconscious. So naturally you will find the archetypes themselves walking around within them.”

“Wait a minute,” Hope said. Something about that did not seem right, and she searched her brain, grasping at threads of logic. “Carl Jung said that the mythological characters aren’t themselves the archetypes, but just representations of them. Wouldn’t that make the Deceiver not the actual archetype, but a---what did you call it---’phenomenal manifestation’?”

Skull turned, and Hope was taken aback by the image of his face. His head was tilted, one eyebrow raised. One of his eyes was squinting, and his mouth was pressed tightly together and slanted. Taken together, it looked like someone had arranged his features just well enough so that they could be recognized as human, and then left it without bothering to make sure everything was straight. It was probably just his expression, but that didn’t make it any less weird. “I see a phenomenal manifestation of you right now,” he said. “Does that make you not you?”

Hope blinked twice, wondering when the conversation had gone over her head.

“Whatever the case,” Samuel said, “I need to go in and find him. I don’t suppose you two would have any special knowledge of the Realms that would be helpful?”

“Here.” Hattie slid a piece of paper toward him on the table. On it was what looked to Hope like a snowflake, with several branching lines that connected at the center. “Look for this symbol. It represents the creation of knowledge from converging lines of thought and perception. Find it, and you might find a clue for what to do next.”

“Really?” Samuel asked, scowling. Hope understood his feeling. How was a symbol supposed to help?

“Hey,” Hattie said, “you two are the only ones who can delve, so all that the rest of us have is theory. I can point you to the books and academic papers on the subject, and you can take a few months to learn it yourself, or you can trust us.”

“Fine,” Samuel said, “I guess I’m ready.”

“Let’s get this party started,” Hope said.

Samuel looked at her. “You’re coming too?”

Hope cringed. She was the one who had basically dragged him here, and he assumed she was going to stay behind?

Eli spoke up. “It might be dangerous to delve alone, so you should always go together.”

Samuel grunted in assent. “Come along, then.”

Everyone except Skull made their way to the delving room. As Samuel sat on one of the beds, Hattie thrust a clipboard toward him, along with a pen for his signature, which he brushed away after a single glance. Soon, Hope was lying in her own bed a few feet away from him, eyes closed. Then, she awoke again on the familiar mossy hill. She wondered if she would ever get used to the shift between body states that happened every time she delved or woke. Standing, she took a deep breath of cool, spring air. She was finally here, ready, a whole new world lying just out of sight.

“Well, let’s get going,” Samuel said. Hope whirled to see him walking toward the road leading down the hill. As she did, she caught sight of his right hand and gasped. No longer were the black blotches confined to his first two fingertips, but they had spread down his fingers and started creeping into the main part of his hand.

She fell into stride next to him. “Does it hurt?” she said softly.

“Hm?” He glanced at her. The dark clouds over his face told her the answer before he spoke. “Like iodine on a scraped knee.”

They walked without speaking for a time, the only sound the rhythm of their footsteps on the dirt road. After a while, Hope asked, “where are we going?”

“The Gate,” Samuel said. “Remember how it disappeared when we took the stone with the fang symbol out of the slot? There were plenty of other stones in the bin too. When that girl drew us that symbol, it was the first thing I thought of.”

The pieces came together. The rock at the end of this road must not actually be the end of the road, but a split. Choose a stone, and a door appears to the realm corresponding with its symbol. Of course, Hattie couldn’t have known about this. She had seemed confident, but all she’d had to work with was theoretical psychology. Put that way, did Hattie see Hope and Samuel as playing parts in a science experiment?

They arrived at the end of the path, where dirt met a wall of stone. Without the imposing presence of the black gate, it seemed rather ordinary. Wasting no time, Samuel stepped up to the nook in the rock where the key stones were kept, and rummaged through it. With a cry of success, he pulled out a smooth, round rock, and placed it in a recess just above the nook. When he pulled his hand away, Hope saw that the stone was indeed printed with the same symmetric symbol that Hattie had drawn.

Three chimes played in a delightful jingle, and the rock wall before them began to glow, the brightness increasing until Hope could no longer make out the wall’s texture. As the glow faded, it revealed a door, white like marble. Hope’s eyes roamed all over the carved stonework, unable to take it all in fast enough. A raised impression of a Greek pavilion covered the scene, with a lion on either side. Hovering above a pedestal in the center, the snowflake pattern appeared, this version larger and with more branches. Seen like this, it looked more like a road map than a snowflake.

In synchronicity, Hope and Samuel reached forward and each grabbed one of the carved handles. The doors swung slowly, yet easily, revealing a town lit by a late afternoon sun, along with the smell of streets and the sound of bustle. Stepping through onto brick paving, Hope felt a change in the air, in the signature feel of the two joined places.

To her great surprise, people walked around, chatted, visited stores and vendors, and did other things, just like people in Reality. Were they all archetypes? There seemed to be too many for that, and they did not appear to be acting out archetypal roles. Could they be actual humans? Full-time delvers, or people who somehow live exclusively in the Realms?

In front of them, a girl looked up from behind a street table. She was about the same age as Hope, with large blue eyes and curly blond hair. With an energetic smile, she called out, “Welcome to Rome, where all roads lead! How may I help you today?” The girl talked fast, gesturing all over and bouncing around like she was going on several cups of espresso. “I can help you find a hotel, recommend some great pasta joints---oh! and also there’s bowling, and a library if you’re into that kind of stuff, and speaking of which there’s also the creepy mansion on the hill. Oh I almost forgot! If you’re just passing through, you can buy maps for your journey at a great dis---”

“Hold on,” Samuel said, holding his hands outstretched as if to push her away. Hope silently thanked him, unsure how long the girl would have gone on. “Why don’t we take things one at a time, and cut out all the unnecessary stuff.”

“Let’s start with our names,” Hope said.

“Splendid idea,” the girl said, clapping her hands together. “I’m Belle, a town greeter, welcoming travelers and providing a fountain of information, at your service!”

“Yes, we can see that,” Samuel grumbled.

Hope elbowed him. “It’s nice to meet you, Belle.” She gave her their names. “We’re from Athens University, Indiana.”

“Indiana? I don’t think I know of that realm, and that’s saying something considering my job.”

Hope shared a glance with Samuel. “Uh, no,” she said, “it’s not a realm, it’s a state.” Belle’s face showed no comprehension. “In the U.S.” Still no reaction. Hope lifted her eyebrows. “Planet Earth?”

Belle’s eyes widened to unbelievable size, and her jaw dropped. “You’re delvers?

“Well, yeah.”

Words began to tumble from Belle’s mouth even faster than before. “I’ve never met a delver before. What is Earth like? Does everyone really hunt dragons and take their treasure? How do you feed---”

“Wait, hold it!” Samuel shouted. Hope didn’t blame him, but his volume might have been just the tiniest bit excessive. “For a greeter, you sure aren’t easy to have a conversation with.”

The girl quieted down, nearly hyperventilating from talking so fast. “Sorry, I got carried away. Anyway, you probably want to find the beacon. You do know what beacons are, right?”

Hope exchanged a glance with Samuel, and then the two of them shook their heads.

“In that case, let me enlighten you. When you delve from Earth, you always come back to the latest beacon you’ve set as home. You should always set home to every beacon you come across so you don’t have to go back through places you’ve already been before. It’s a must-do for delvers. The one here in Rome is just down the street. Take a right at the bakery, and eventually you’ll get to the plaza. The beacon itself is a giant obelisk; you can’t miss it. Just touch it, and it will be set as your home.” She clapped her hands together and rubbed them vigorously. “Oh, this is so exciting, I’ve never gotten to say that before!”

Hope chuckled inwardly. So much for Belle’s apology about getting carried away. These beacons did seem important, though. “So it’s like saving your game?”

“I don’t know what that means, but if it works, then yes.”

“That’s great and all,” Samuel cut in, “but there’s something really important I need to ask.”

“Ask away,” Belle said. “Anything you want, I can help you with.”

“I need to find the Deceiver. I’ve got a score to settle with him.”

The smile vanished from Belle’s face. Her head darted to either side like a frightened chipmunk, and then she vaulted over the desk, leaning in toward Samuel so closely that he had to recoil. “We don’t say that name around here,” she hissed.

“But I must find him,” Samuel said, pushing her away with a finger to her collarbone. “He has something I need.”

“No, no, you don’t go searching for that beast,” Belle whispered. “He is bad news. He lies and tricks you and always comes out on top.”

“But he already---”

“That doesn’t matter! If he’s gotten the best of you, just take your loss and run away, because if you don’t, he’ll get you even worse.”

“I don’t have any other option,” Samuel said, holding up his right hand, showing the black splotches defacing his fingers, “unless you know of another way to get rid of this.”

Belle looked at the stain for a moment, then without a word walked back around her table. “You could try old man Isaac, the alchemist,” she said without expression. “His workshop is just past the plaza, and he can cure all kinds of stuff. Wounds, sicknesses, infections, you name it.” She shook her finger. “But don’t mention you-know-who.”

Samuel dropped his hand to his side and wiggled his infected fingers. Hope guessed he was subconsciously trying to alleviate his discomfort. Then he looked at her and nodded his head in the direction Belle had pointed. As soon as they were out of earshot, she heard him mutter, “Alchemist, huh?”

The plaza was small and inviting, paved with brick like everywhere else. In the center stood a light gray, almost white obelisk, which must have been the beacon Belle had described. It was about a foot wide at eye level, and a good deal taller than Hope. At the top, a white flame burned under a pyramidal cap. Hope followed Samuel around a bench and a plot of flowers to get a closer look.

“She said to touch it, right?” Hope said, lifting her hand toward the beacon a little.

“I think so,” Samuel replied, looking the obelisk up and down, then taking a peek around the side. “But where? Just anywhere?” He reached forward and touched three fingertips against the stone, and then looked up quickly as if he had heard something. His eyes widened and he took a quick breath in.

“What is it?” Hope asked, looking up at the flame. Was he startled just because it was white? That was certainly unusual, but not shocking.

Samuel glanced at her for a moment, and then pointed upward. “It changed color.”

Hope curled her tongue in puzzlement. She was sure it had been white when they had arrived. Almost absentmindedly, she reached forward to lean her own hand on the obelisk, and jumped when there was a sound like a sudden rush of air. At the top, the flame turned green.

“What?” Samuel asked. Hope glanced at him to find him looking at her with as curious expression. It was as if he had not noticed what had happened. Just like . . . Just like when he had first touched it, and Hope had noticed nothing. An idea crept into her mind. “I think,” she said slowly, “you saw it change color when you touched it, and I saw it change color when I touched it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think about it. There are different rules in the Realms than in Reality. Might it be possible that you and I perceive some things differently?”

Samuel said nothing for a moment, looking to the right and upward, thinking. Then he nodded. “Could be. Anyway, let’s go find this alchemist.”

“Already? Don’t you want to test out the beacon first? Belle said it would let us return here, right? So let’s wake up and come back, and see if we spawn here.”

Samuel waved his hand, scanning the signs on the buildings. “A waste of time.”

Hope blinked. “What?”

“If you’re wrong, and we’re put back at the ruins again, we’ll have to walk all the way back here. Better to just do what we came for.”

Hope was stunned. “But come on,” she said. “You still only care about healing yourself? After all we’ve found and the promise of so many secrets to be discovered, none of that means anything to you?”

Samuel groaned. “You know what, why don’t we split up. Go get your exploring out of your system.”

“Split up? But isn’t the whole reason we came here together because Eli said it could be dangerous?”

“Berkeley doesn’t need to know.”

Hope pushed. “But remember the first time you decided to talk to a stranger here? How did that turn out?”

Samuel finally looked at her, his face darkening. “Look, just go and have fun with your diversions for awhile. We can meet up again here in half an hour.” He turned and headed toward the street opposite the one they had come from.

Hope watched him go, feeling like walls were closing in around her. Should she go with him, as Eli would want? If she did, and the alchemist could cure him, then would he agree to join her, or would he just walk away, and she be back to analyzing books and papers with Hattie and Skull?

“Lovers’ quarrel?” Hope turned at the sound to see a head of blond curls grinning at her, sitting on the back of a bench with an arm wrapped around a lamp pole.

“We’re not like that.”

“Aw, too bad,” Belle said. “You two would be so cute together.”

Hope felt the right side of her face contract, her eye squinting, the corner of her mouth rising toward it. “I really don’t think you know what you’re talking about.” She changed the subject. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be welcoming people by the gate?”

“I had Tommy take over for me,” Belle said, hopping down and walking toward her. “I just couldn’t pass up the chance to see more of you delvers. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“Well I guess I’m free,” Hope said. “Got anything interesting to do?”

A glint appeared in Belle’s eye. “I have just the thing. There’s this door in the library that’s locked behind some kind of secret code. No one in town knows what is behind it, not even the old people. So come on, let’s check it out.”

A secret door? That was definitely intriguing. Belle led the way, chattering about things that had happened on this street or that corner. They arrived at the library, a brick building with a large, oak door.  Inside, the smell of leather and old pages permeated the air, and the light from tall, thin windows illuminated brown decor. Rows of shelves were piled with books up to the ceiling. Hope pointed up to one of the topmost. “What kind of books are stored up there, where no one can reach them?”

“I don’t know,” Belle replied. “Probably tedious details of esoteric branches of obscure subjects that nobody cares about.”

“If somebody wrote about it, then somebody cared about it,” Hope remarked.

“I doubt anyone wrote those,” Belle said.

Hope looked at her quizzically. “Nobody wrote them? What do you mean?”

“I mean they’re just there. Don’t tell me that in Earth books only exist if someone writes them.”

“Uh, actually, yes.”

“Weird.” Belle led Hope down a flight of stairs into a dark basement, opening the shutter of a lamp on the wall so it gave light. “Here we are!”

The room had more bookshelves, their contents covered in dust. A few boxes sat in one corner. On the far side of the room was a large, arched door, with sixteen squares set into it in a grid.

“The door of mystery,” Belle said, in a dramatic whisper. “It is said that this door can only be opened by a delver. Many travelers and townspeople have tried, but none have ever solved the puzzle.”

As Hope approached, she noticed that each of the squares had a word written in it. She read a few of them. Venus, Neptune, Jupiter . . . The planets of the solar system.

Belle spoke from behind her. “It’s a combination, or so everyone thinks. You have to press them all in the right order, and then lock it in with the one in the corner.”

Hope looked, and sure enough, the square in the lower right corner had a circle in it instead of a word. The two squares adjacent to it were blank. “I assume just going in order doesn’t work?”

“In order?”

Hope looked behind her and found Belle genuinely puzzled. Understanding dawned on her. “Here in the realms, you don’t know about the planets, do you?”

Her guess was confirmed when Belle tipped her head to the side and said, “Planets?”

“Yeah, there are eight of them in the solar system. Earth is the third one from the sun.”

“Earth is . . . so these planets, are they like realms for Reality?”

Realms for reality? The thought was strange, but a lot of science fiction did portray them not too dissimilarly to that. “Not really, but kind of, I guess.”

“So then. Does that mean you can actually do it?”

“Yeah,” Hope turned back to the door. “I think it does.” She started pressing the panels, which, with a click, sank a few millimeters into the door. Mercury, Venus---her hand hovered over one of the squares. It read, Vulcan. That wasn’t one of the planets, at least not a real one. Suspicious, she looked over the rest, and found three other imposters, Nemesis, Nibiru, and Mobius. Could she be wrong about the solution? Well, there was nothing to do but try. She pressed the real planets in order, pausing at Pluto, and then deciding to go with just eight. If this did not work, she could easily try again.

When she pressed the confirmation panel, the sound of sliding metal emanated from the door. Perhaps it was a bolt unlocking. She held her breath, heart pounding, as she lay her hands on the door and pushed. It moved, swinging open. Beside her, Belle squealed in excitement.

As the room beyond came into view, a lone desk was revealed, bearing a lit lamp and a single thin book. Hope approached, lifting it in her hand. It had no writing on the outside, so she opened its leather cover, and found hand-drawn images and chunks of script to go with them. She started reading from the top, above the snowflake symbol of Rome. Dear reader: it said, However fate’s hand has called you, whether you see yourself as chosen or cursed, your journey begins here.

On the next page, the words, Seek the Sage. appeared over a yin-yang. Beneath a pictograph of a lit torch, read, Follow the light, let it be your guide.

“So this wants you to follow a trail through the Realms,” Belle said, reading over her shoulder.

“What do you mean?” Hope asked.

“Look, it says ‘follow the light.’” Belle pointed to the torch. “This is a realm symbol, probably the one for where this Sage lives. That means there’s a chain of realms between here and there. Each one has this torch symbol carved somewhere, and if you find it, a gateway will open to the next realm.”

“Is that so?” Hope said quietly. This was exactly the kind of treasure she had hoped to find in the Realms. No, this was better than the aesthetic wonders and physical oddities she had imagined. This was a quest, a purpose, an open-armed sign that she was welcome here. Now if only she could think of a way to get Samuel on board.

“And would you look at that,” Belle said, pointing to the desk. “The first torch is right here.”

Sure enough, etched into the desk’s surface was the same pictograph as she had seen in the journal. As soon as she recognized it, a noise like an electric bolt shattered the stillness, and she turned to see a hole opening in the wall, leading to an autumnal scene, with yellow and red maple leaves blowing about in a steady gust of wind. The portal widened until it was the size of a doorway.

“Ooh,” Belle said, “I don’t know this place.”

“So this portal appeared because we saw the symbol on the table?”

“Yep-a-doodle.”

Hope took a step toward the opening, drawn to the scene beyond. If she stepped through, would the portal disappear, stranding her on the other side? She took another step, and, without thinking, placed her hand on the portal’s edge. It felt warm. Suddenly worried, she jerked her hand away. It might be infinitesimally thin and slice through her. In almost-panic, she scanned her palm for any hint of blood or abrasion, and when she found nothing, she sighed in relief. It looked like the edge of the portal was safe to touch.

With that worry out of the way, her attention turned back to the woods. They beckoned her, so close that she merely needed to step forward and she would be there. Of course, she should wait for Samuel, to be safe. Still, just a few minutes, just a peek; surely that couldn’t hurt, could it?

Hope looked over at Belle. “Want to check it out?”

“Dying to,” Belle said, “but it’s not meant for me.”

“Oh come on. Just because whoever wrote this book intended it for a delver doesn’t mean you can’t take a peek.”

Belle shook her head. “No, I can’t. That would be a bad idea.”

“How could it possibly make a difference whether the person who walks through is from here or Reality?”

“There are plenty of ways.” Belle drilled Hope with a stare. “I don’t know if it’s because you’re from Earth or if you’re just crazy, because everybody knows this.”

“Well I don’t,” Hope replied, putting her hands on her hips, “so explain it to me.”

Belle looked up at the ceiling, her mouth moving as if she were chewing a lump of especially tough caramel. “How do I explain something so basic?” She rubbed her eye with a finger and rolled her head. “You know how when you’re two and your mom tells you not to go to the park on Thursdays, but you go anyway, and you’re twirling yourself around on the jungle gym, but then you fall and get hurt and start to cry, and there’s a wood chip stuck in your hand, and then some scary men show up with sunglasses and let loose their dogs on you and you run all the way back to your mom crying? It’s like that.”

Hope raised her eyebrows. “Um, what does that have to do with anything?”

“Don’t you see? If you had gone on a day other than Thursday, none of that would have happened.”

Hope desperately tried to make sense of what the other girl was saying. “So, are you telling me you’re superstitious?”

“I don’t know what that means. I’m telling you that if you do things you’re not supposed to, bad things happen.”

“Yep, that’s superstition.”

Belle stuck out her lip. “Well if you already knew about it, why did you act like you didn’t?”

“That’s, well . . .” Hope couldn’t just tell Belle she was being silly. That wouldn’t solve anything. If she was scared, Hope couldn’t force her to come along. Besides, there were plenty of ways she had already seen in which the Realms differed from Reality; maybe here some superstitions were real. She sighed inwardly and smiled. “I guess we should go see how Samuel is doing.”

She turned toward the door, but Belle stopped her. “Instead of walking, why don’t you try out the beacon?”

“Oh right.” Hope felt her spirits perk up a little, remembering she still had that new experience to try.

“Wait a minute before you come back,” Belle said, “so that I can get to the beacon and see you return.”

“All right.” Hope smiled at her and raised her hand to her third eye. Just like that, she was back in the delving room in Shelley Hall.

When she returned, instead of feeling earthy ground beneath her back, she felt a hard, rough texture, and the sensation of being upright. Opening her eyes, she found she was in Rome Plaza, leaning against the beacon.

“That was amazing!” Belle cried, standing nearby. “There was nothing, and then poof, you were there!

Hope smiled as she found her footing. These beacons would turn out to be very useful. She turned her attention to Samuel, who stood next to Belle, looking grim. Softening her satisfaction to sympathy, she said, “didn’t go well with the alchemist?”

Samuel raised his hand, the blackness still there. “I swear that man is hiding something from me. He kept dodging the topic and trying to get rid of me.”

“You didn’t . . .” Belle said, trailing off.

Samuel looked at her with a tired expression. “Didn’t what?”

“You did, didn’t you? I told you not to mention that name!”

“Who, the Decei---mbth!” He was cut off as Belle’s hand clamped over his mouth. He shoved her shoulders and she stumbled away from him. “Hand’s off! Don’t you understand the concept of personal space?”

“Samuel,” Hope said. “We found something you might like to take a look at while you were gone.” Hopefully a change of subject would calm him down. “Belle, did you bring the book?”

Belle pointed at her. “No, you brought it.”

Hope looked down to find the book in her hand. “How . . .”

“Why are you acting all confused? You took it with you back to Earth.”

“But you can’t take objects from the Realms to Earth. How would that even make sense?” Almost before she finished asking, a possible answer came to her. “Maybe whenever you  return to the Realms, you keep whatever you were carrying when you left.” She handed the book to Samuel. “Anyway, here.”

Samuel opened it and started reading. Keeping his first two infected fingers in the air, he used his third and fourth fingers to flip a page, and then another, and another. “What am I looking for?”

Hope felt her optimism sinking away. “Isn’t it intriguing?”

Samuel paused, his fingers beneath the corner of the next page. “As far as I can see, it’s just another diversion. Another waste of time.”

Hope’s heart sank. So much for hoping Samuel would agree to go on an adventure with her. Maybe Eli would find another delver to go with her, or she could convince him to let her go alone. Heck, if it came down to it, she might just delve in secret. She didn’t feel good about the thought of going behind his back, but the mystery of the book was too tantalizing to leave alone.

Samuel moved to hand the book back to her, flipping over the next page, completing the motion he had paused in the middle of. Before she could grab it, he stopped, his eyebrows rising, and brought the book back closer to himself.

Hope stepped forward. “What is it?” When she got to where the page came into view, she saw a pair of inverted triangles like snake fangs. The text accompanying it read, Beware the Serpent’s Fangs. It’s poison will corrupt you, causing you to wither away. But fear not, for salvation lies along your journey.

“This is the symbol on the stone that made the Serpent’s Gate appear,” Samuel said. He turned his eyes toward her and, for the first time she had seen, he smiled. “It looks like this book turned out to be useful after all.”

“Does this mean you’ll go on this quest with me?” Hope said. After all her effort, it almost felt too good to be true.

Samuel nodded.

“Off to a happy start!” Belle cried, slicing through the moment. “Best of luck on your journey! May you find a great destiny and healing and love and all that special stuff. I’ve gotta go now. I said I’d be back to the greeting booth in twenty minutes, and it’s been more like twenty-three, so ta-ta.”

“See ya,” Hope said.

Samuel put his hand up in a quick wave, somewhat limp with lack of enthusiasm.

When Belle was gone, Hope explained how the torch symbols would create portals to the next part of their journey, and how she and Belle had found the first one.

Samuel nodded thoughtfully. “It looks like we’ll be spending quite a bit of time here in the Realms. In that case, we should plan a time to get together and delve. Once a week for two hours at a time might be good for starters, and we can adjust from there if need be.”

“How about right now?” Hope asked, pushing her luck.

“No, it will be supper time soon, and we don’t know how long it will be until we find the next beacon. We should start fresh.”

A tide of emotion swept through her. On the upsurge came a froth of excitement, leaving a simmering residue as it receded, waiting to be cooked into maturity. Grateful for the wondrous and mysterious things she had seen today, imagining the adventures that lay ahead, she knew the wait and worry had been worth it. Looking at Samuel and smiling, she said, “okay.”




© 2018 Rising



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Added on February 9, 2018
Last Updated on June 22, 2018
Tags: fantasy, psychology, philosophical, myth, archetypes, adventure


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Rising
Rising

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I love to think about the universe, life, humanity, and all kinds of things. I love exploring ideas through science, art, literature, and philosophy. I am a graduate student of gravitational wave astr.. more..

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