The room at the centre of the building was some kind of hall, although it was like no hall I’d ever seen before. It was about the size of a house, and completely circular. Stone benches stood in even rows, all facing a podium at one end of the room, but there was a space in the middle for… was that another well?
It looked like one; much bigger than the one in the entrance room. And on top of it, a dome of mirrors. It was quickly obvious why; in the ceiling above the well was a huge hole leading to the room above. So it seemed that light from above would shine onto the mirrors and be reflected throughout the room. Efficient, I supposed, if you were going to build a massive stone building with indoor rooms that had no place to put windows to the outside.
I stepped forward to inspect the well, but Kylie’s hand gripped my elbow tightly and pulled me back. Her eyes were wide; her face bloodless.
“Don’t,” she whispered faintly.
“I was just going to look at – ”
“Okay, okay.” Instead, I inspected the room from where I was.
Woven banners and penants lined the walls in colours that shone brightly in the light of our tablets. Some of them had images of dragons and lions and big crosses and soforth that I was used to; others had complicated networks of symbols and lines that looked more like mage marks. A couple of them were embroidered in what looked like lines of Arabic script, or something similar. I couldn’t read Arabic, so I had no idea what they said.
Around the hall wrapped a broad set of stone steps, leading to the next level up. They were made of the same solid red stone as the whole building. I made for them, but Kylie gripped my arm tighter.
“We shouldn’t,” she said.
“Why not? Are you afraid of heights?”
She shook her head. “I just think we should go back.”
I understood what she meant. With every step into the room, the feeling that I was somewhere I definitely wasn’t supposed to be just grew stronger. But I didn’t think we had a choice.
“Look,” I said. “That well out there was full of sand, and I don’t think the one in here is going to be in much better shape. It’s clear that no one’s been here for a while. Which means that we have no food, no water, and nobody knows where we are. That puts us on a time limit to find our way out of here. I get that none of this feels safe, but tell me – do you think it’s going to get safer if we wait around and get weak before we try anything? There has to be a way out of here. Or a way to send for help. Or something.”
“How can you be so calm about this?” she asked.
“I have a lot of practice at not letting emotions get to me. Now if we – ”
“I know, but you’re about to die! I don’t think that counts!”
“We’re not going to die. We thought we were going to die last time, and we didn’t, right? Same thing. We’re not going to die.”
“I’m not. You are.”
“You heard the prophecy as well as I did. There are two people here. One of us is going to die and one of us isn’t, unless we figure out what the actual danger is and avoid it.”
“Then how do you know you’re not the one who’s going to die?”
“Because it never tries to kill me. It needs my body to keep speaking misfortune into the world. We got here, trapped, and it’s going to take me out of here just fine but it’s got the perfect opportunity to kill you first.”
“But all that stuff about dreaming dreams or whatever doesn’t apply to us! What makes you think it’s about us?”
“We’re the only people here! Who else would it be about?”
“Okay. Okay. I think you’re wrong, but let’s say for a moment you’re right. The things you prophesy don’t necessarily come to pass, right? They can be avoided. And your curse only prophesies death or severe misfortune, right?”
“So what makes you think that prophecy was a bad thing? I mean, this place is dangerous; death is a possibility. We already know that. What if it just plucked one of the possible deaths out of the air so it could speak, and tell us what we need to know to get out of here? You’re acting like it talks these risks into existence, but they’re already there. Maybe death is actually really unlikely, and the best thing to do is push on ahead.”
“It brings misfortune. People it’s around are way too unlucky for it to be coincidence. If it’s mentioned a death, it’s got a good chance of killing you. We shouldn’t do anything until we know what the risk is.”
“You don’t really believe that curse brings bad luck.”
“You don’t know what I believe. You also don’t know anything about my curse.”
“I know you want to learn to use it to keep helping your family. You wouldn’t want to do that if you really believed it could only bring bad things.”
“I know I don’t have control over it yet, and neither of us have control over this situation.”
“And we won’t get control standing around here. Look. If I’m the Hero in this prophecy, I’m supposed to have some kind of dreams before I die, right? So we shouldn’t hang around long enough to need to sleep. That’s probably a bad sign.”
Kylie nodded. “Dreams, screaming, stuff about wishing upon a star… sounds like delirium, maybe? Maybe we both get really sick? And you die, and I’m rescued in time. Yeah. We should avoid that.”
“So we try not to get any horrible infections, and we try not to be here long enough for dehydration to start shutting our brains down,” I said. “Sounds good to me.”
She looked up. “It’s way up there, isn’t it? That where we need to go.”
“In the tower. I think so, yeah.”
“Why are we so sure of that? There’s no way we can know that.”
I shrugged. “Maybe it’s just a psychology thing? You see a tower, you climb it? Look, what have we got to lose by checking?” With that, I took off up the stairs. I didn’t want Kylie to see my expression.
Because she was wrong. The prophecy wasn’t about us.
There was no point arguing about it, though; our goal was the same. To find a way out as quickly as possible. A portal had taken us to the old school, so there had to be a way to reactivate it and make it take us back, right?
It was impossible to tell what the next couple of floors had once been; they’d been entirely stripped of furniture. The only things that remained were some mirrors around the holes in the floors and ceiling, presumably to reflect a bit of daylight about, and (for some reason) the tapestries on the walls. Said tapestries were in a variety of shapes and sizes, some set in little picture frames and others hanging the full height of the rooms, and were a lot more interesting than the banners on the first floor, depicting glorious battles, carefully woven portraits of presumably rich and important mages I didn’t recognise, and scenes from myth and folklore such as women riding unicorns and men with the heads of bulls. I paused in front of a tapestry that I was pretty sure depicted Eve in the garden of Eden. A black woman stared intently into a bright red apple that took up most of the tapestry, and in the reflection of light on the apple someone had embroidered, with thread so fine as to nearly be invisible… everything. Fire, aeroplanes, armies, constellations, body diagrams, mathematical formulae. I stared, and realised something. “Kylie. Look at this.”
She did. “Impressive work. But what about it?”
“It’s in good condition. Look how fine that thread is, and it’s not broken. None of these are torn or moth-eaten or faded at all. The stuff we found in the dormitories was all rotten, but these are perfect.” I reached up to touch the thread, but Kylie snatched my hand back. Good call; it’d be awful if this thing had survived decades in the desert untended, only to be marred by some kid’s oily finger.
The third floor was a library. This would have been incredibly useful if it had still contained a single book. Instead, the rotting wooden shelves contained nothing but cobwebs and some unusual-looking types of mould, which we were careful not to touch.
Remembering the modern door handle from downstairs, I took care to look around for anything that had been replaced with something a bit more modern. Metal filing cabinets, plastic chairs, whatever. There was nothing.
There were, given that we were now on the first floor higher than the surrounding building, windows! They did have glass, which was dirty but intact, keeping the sand out. Because a set of very thick stone stairs ringed the interior of the tower, the windows and tapestries climbed the tower in two spirals in a kind of candystripe pattern; on the thinner part of the wall next to the stairs were large windows, and on the much thicker stone under the stairs, there were tapestries. The sandstorm outside had died down enough that I could see the roof of the building. It it wasn’t for the pane of glass in the way, I could’ve walked out of the window to the flat stone roof.
A couple of levels of unidentifiable rooms higher, I got a better look at the roof of the building. It wasn’t entirely flat; it was dotted with little chimneys and uneven bits (small rooms, maybe, built on top?) and rows of skylights, presumably to light halls underneath. Anything protruding had sand piled against one side of it, but the sandstorm itself seemed to have stopped, and the moon was bright. We stopped for a rest in a room that was empty but for complicated inscriptions carved into the stone floor and some very unsettling stone altars scattered about. I told myself that the dark stains on the altars were probably sap from symbolically crushing plants, and the ditches in the floor leading to a recess clearly designed for a replaceable bucket were just there to make mopping the room easier.
“Easy,” I panted. “Climbing ten billion giant stairs is easy. This is no problem.”
“I still don’t feel like we should be here,” Kylie said.
“I know what you mean. But if this place didn’t want us here, it shouldn’t make it so hard for us to leave.”
“Something really powerful is up there,” Kylie said. “My spell is freaking out. I can feel it.”
“Are you okay? Do you need to go back down?”
She shook her head. “What’s the worst it can do, prophesy again?”
When we got our breath back, we kept climbing.
Room after room. Most of them empty, but for mirrors to reflect window light down to lower levels; some of them with a bench, or a shelf, or a discarded tool to hint at what they might once have been. An abandoned place, with a distinct aura that it didn’t want to be found; at least, not by us. But nothing jumped at us from the shadows. Nothing even fell on us, or caused us to slip.
And then, we were at the top.
The highest room was different to the others. The lower floors all had a hole in the centre of the floor to channel light; the highest was the opposite. Interrupted only by the stairs and multiple metal support rods, a ring of empty space surrounded a disk of stone that made up the floor of the room. Gingerly, we stepped out onto it. It didn’t even tremble; held up by thick iron for all that time, the weight of two little humans was nothing. There were shelves around the edge of the room, mostly empty but for a curious selection of small flags, but far more interesting was what was in the middle.
It was a map of the building.
Well, technically, it was a map of everything except the building. The building itself was represented by a pentagon of low stone walls, each reaching about halfway up my calf and with a gap in the middle to represent a grand entrance door. But it was obviously the building, because the little stone arches surrounding it looked exactly like miniature versions of what the ones outside must once have looked like. And a little way inside each ‘door’ stood a tiny replica of a well, surrounded by a little circular ditch, and from each well radiated four straight ditches reaching to the other wells, making a giant pentogram that encompassed most of the building. And in the centre stood the tower.
It wasn’t a realistic replica. It was a metal pole, engraved with thousands of tiny symbols like the ones on a mage mark, or surrounding the Pit. Like the tapestries, rust hadn’t touched them. The pole reached far, far higher than the actual height of the tower would dictate; my eyes followed it upward to see… stars.
The room was topped by a glass dome. Faint etchings in the glass were almost invisible in the moonlight, but the stars outside were very clear. I felt like, if I stood in just the right place, got just the right perspective… they’d line up somehow, and talk to me.
“Look at this,” Kylie said, crouching by one of the replica stone arches. One of the tiny flags was stuck in the stone behind it. I glanced outside, but the actual arch it represented was covered in sand.
“There are little holes for flags behind all the arches,” she said, pulling the flag out and sticking it behind an arch we could see. As soon as the flag was in place, the inside of the arch lit up.
“The portals! It controls the portals!” I grabbed a handful of tiny flags and sorted through them.
They weren’t complicated. Each had a picture on it – a book, a sword, or a set of scales, the old kind where you’d have to balance the weight evenly on both sides – with a solid coloured background. Seven book flags, in the colours of the rainbow plus white; five sword flags, in various bold colours; three scale flags, in gold, silver and black.
“Three, five and seven,” Kylie noted. “All prime numbers.”
“Is that important?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Maybe. They’re magical numbers in all the stories.”
The poles of the flags all had little notches etched into them. Each one different. That was probably the real key; something in the holes would read those notches. The flag part was just a label.
I didn’t know what the scales or swords might mean, but a book imposed on that specific colour set was pretty self-explanatory. I put Acolyte to Master back on the shelf and handed Kylie the white Initiate flag. She set it behind a portal, and the corresponding one outside lit up.
It lit up blue. The familiar blue of the initiate corridors of Skolala Refujeyo.
“Yeah! Woo! Screw you, creepy old school! Come on, let’s get out of here before anything else weird happens!”
And so we began to descend the staircase and head for the portal. The portal that would take us home.