“A secret door disguised as a bookshelf?” Marcelas demanded indignantly. “Did we trip and fall into a goddamn Scooby Doo episode?”
“That makes you Daphne,” I pointed out, but my heart wasn’t in the jab. I was too distracted by said bookshelf. It had swung smoothly inward when we’d hit it, and at a guess, all the books were secured, because none had fallen off. I hauled myself to my feet and tested it, but to my surprise, they actually did seem to be real books, and not glued in place. They were just packed tightly enough that only a deliberate application of force would get them out. Which made sense, I supposed; it’d be a pretty obvious sign of a fake if none of the books moved.
I swung the door back away from the wall, pulling out my phone and using the flashlight to inspect the hinges. “This is… ridiculously well-engineered. Who do you even call when you want a professional-quality secret door?”
“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing yourself,” Marcelas said, in a startlingly accurate impression of the doctor. She pushed past me, using her own phone to look around the seams. “This wasn’t on the plans, was it.”
“Of course not,” I replied sardonically. “Hi, here’s the plans to my house and also my secret bookcase lair.”
“There are perfectly normal reasons to have a secret room,” she countered.
I scoffed, turning around. “What, for all your secret orgies?”
“Sure, actually; that’s perfectly legal.”
“I didn’t say legal, I said normal, and while I’m all for sex positivity, secret orgy rooms aren’t normal. Plus, even if that was what it was for, she’d probably be able to do better than-” the words caught in my throat as I turned. “…this.”
Up until that point, I don’t think either of us had really paid any attention to the room’s other direction. I certainly hadn’t, the whole “secret door” thing had distracted me pretty well, and from the little whispered swear I heard from Marcelas, I was pretty sure it’d worked for her too.
The “room” wasn’t really so much of a room as it was a corridor, a few metres long. It looked pretty standard, a wooden floor like outside, but with walls exposing the frames and insulation. After those few metres, though, the floor and walls ended as they ran up against a dark stone archway.
“Okay, so,” Marcelas said after a second. “This is weird, I’ll admit, but not actually any of our business. So how about let’s just-”
I was already halfway down the corridor before she’d finished speaking.
In the thin beam of the phone’s light, the arch revealed itself to be made of roughly-carved blocks, covered in moss and faded inscriptions.
“Young,” Marcelas said as she hurried to catch up, “seriously. This is not…” she trailed off, looking at the archway. “Wow,” she breathed. “This is ancient.” She pushed past me to get a closer look. “A few centuries, at least.”
“There isn’t a thing in this city that’s older than two,” I said flatly. I paused, then reconsidered. “Or, any buildings, at least. People, I dunno.”
“So either it was here before, or it’s been transported here.” She scraped away some of the moss with a fingernail, holding it up to the light. “Probably the latter.”
“Great,” I said sarcastically. “Old stone. Are we going to discuss the stairs?!” They were hewn from the same stone as the archway, and quickly disappeared into darkness.
“Young, there shouldn’t even be any stone here; this should all be earth. I think it’s pretty relevant that will you stop?!” The last part was directed at me as I slipped around her and began descending the stairs.
I could hear her muttering obscenities from behind me, but my focus was mostly ahead. The stairs was slightly uneven, enough that they were probably hand-carved, and there was a strange, humid quality to the air that I couldn’t quite place.
“How deep does this go?” I demanded after a minute of walking.
“Why are you asking me?!”
“Then why did you bother to say it out loud?”
“Do you not understand what rhetorical means?”
Our bickering was cut short by the almost surprisingly sudden arrival of the bottom. Because of the slope of the ceiling, I hadn’t been able to tell until I was only a few steps away.
“I bet you,” Marcelas said, “that this is going to end up being incredibly uninteresting and a waste of time.”
“Now that’s projection if I’ve ever heard it.” I reached the bottom, and found a small room, with a doorway shrouded in darkness. “Besides, you really think that…”
“What?” she demanded, catching up with me. “Do I really think…”
For a moment, we stood together in stunned silence, letting the beams of our lights illuminate the scene.
We stood in the entrance to a cave. Maybe even a cavern, though I was hazy on what the distinction was. The flashlights illuminated a veritable forest of thick stone stalactites hanging from the ceiling, some the size of a person or bigger. Rough, uneven stone stretched out in all directions, so far that the light faded before reaching the end. The faint sound of dripping water could be heard in the distance, along with the faint rasp of moving air.
“So,” Marcelas said after a moment, sounding slightly hoarse, “I think we can both agree that we’re not underneath the house anymore, right?”
I opened my mouth to make a sarcastic reply, but it withered in my throat, the vast emptiness of the space seeming to swallow it up. “…yeah,” I said instead. “That seems likely.” Even that seemed to fade too quickly, quieter than it should’ve been. “Where are we, then?”
In the half-light, I could see Marcelas bite her lip. I quickly looked away. “Not sure. I think we would’ve noticed if we’d gated.”
“Stop being a brat and think,” she snapped at me. “How did we get here?”
“By walking down a tunnel,” I shot back, but my heart wasn’t in it. She was right, we hadn’t gated, there was a distinctive feeling to it. There was always the possibility that we hadn’t moved, that someone had simply excavated the ground and built the tunnel hundreds of years ago, somehow, but we hadn’t gone that far down, and I was pretty certain that the roof of the cave was high enough that it’d be above ground. So we hadn’t travelled, but we definitely weren’t in the same place.
I snapped my fingers, then immediately winced at how loud it seemed. “Pocket dimension,” I said. “Gotta be.”
“…shit,” Marcelas acknowledged after a moment. “Yeah. Or a compressed space, but tomato-tomato. How did she-”
“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing yourself,” we repeated in unison, then immediately glared at each other.
“Okay,” Marcelas said, after breaking eye contact first, “we’ve indulged our curiosity now, so can we please go back now? This is getting to the point of invasion of privacy.”
She wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t going to let her win. “You’re welcome to go back,” I said, pointing my light downwards so I could start moving forwards. “I certainly won’t stop you.”
I could actually hear her teeth grinding.
The cave had a natural incline towards the centre, angling upwards quite sharply before leveling out and forming a small plateau. There was something in the centre of the flat area, raised up to about waist height, and for a moment I thought it was just an extension of the stone, another tier on the plateau. As both our lights settled on it, though, it became evident that the colour was subtly different, the shape slightly too angular. In fact-
“Please tell me that’s not an altar,” I groaned.
It was an altar.
As we drew closer, the detailing on the dark stone came into focus. Runes in some unknown language or system were carved around the sides, circling the altar in a thin band. At the corners, the stone curved down and thinned into points, lending it a sinister, gothic appearance. The top was perfectly smooth, showing off the veins running through the stone, which reflected the light in odd ways.
It was also completely covered in dark crimson stains.