Tris cast a probing look at the entryway a few yards in front of her. To any other person, the red haze emanating from the caged lights on either side of the expansive ingress served as an eerie repellent; the chasm of darkness beyond, a dissuasion from closer inspection. Her heartbeat quickened as she took in the depth of the dark, the untouched look of the natural stone walls. Everything in her trilled in anticipation of slick palms, cool, dark depths—the familiar unknown.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” Tris squinted against waning sunlight, at the perfect angle in the sky to at create an eclipse around a broad-shouldered human with light eyes and a worried look as he passed Tris a harness. It was packed with the silver shine of a tightly wound thermal blanket, a small flashlight, a lighter, fire starters, and other charms.
“I will be absolutely fine.” Tris eyed the pack, well intentioned and completely useless. She grimaced, pushing the harness back infinitesimally and quickly turning to another human with a bright smile and her own doubts.
“Tris, have you ever thought that these things might be traps set by some evil, trying to pull you away from us?” The bright smile flipped off in a moment, concerned brown eyes set earnestly in a pleasant, sun-sweetened face.
“‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’” Tris smiled wryly, though she hoped it came across as a comfort, rather than a chide.
Tris surveyed the klatsch of people, each representing a piece of her and currently present to wish her luck in what some of them viewed as a folly and others saw as bravery—another deep dive into places few dared venture. She felt each pair of eyes on her, and, regardless of their view on her sanity, an air of morbid curiosity seeped from most of them. Their gaze was a constraint that she would be free from once she delved into the mystery beyond. The darkness beckoned to her as the babble of a brook to those seeking respite.
She breathed the leaden air, closing her eyes to begin to focus on her task. To be challenged and wholly met, to be heeded and allowed to explore in her own power—each lungful of air and tick in time and space it represented cleared their judgement. Tris opened her eyes, mind clear and calm. Her skin, eyes, hair—all were radiant with light that could be felt rather than truly seen. Her footsteps were sure and unhurried, resolute, as she approached the darkness. She did not turn to see who stayed to watch.
On the wall outside of the darkness, Tris took a mallet from her belt along with a peculiar screw stretching into an eyelet on one end. She efficiently clocked the top of the eyelet twice, pummeling the sharp end into the wall between two stones, then twisting to create notches that would catch the threads. She attached a carabiner with the end of a length of rope to the eyelet and made sure the rope let out smoothly from her belt as she moved into the deep. The lifeline pulled easily away from her as she fingered the edges of the sarsen inside of the cavern. The edges of the rock whispered back to her in a solemn tone, wholly unintelligible. Further down the dark, rocks pattered onto the pathway.
The walls of the cave changed from the natural, though wind-polished, stone to sharp, rough earth in a matter of minutes. The solidity of the ground changed as well, the clay floor sliding to limestone half steps as the walls closed in subtly around her. Tris stomped in some places, lips upturning as the floor gave way and she slid feet, sometimes yards, into the depths. She bent to the shape of the cairn, the walls and ceiling now twisting irregularly to produce odd and narrow spaces in the stone.
The quiet pressed in on her ears until it wasn’t silence any longer. The rocks held voices like before, all at once dissonant and too quiet to understand, but perfectly evident nonetheless. Tris’ pace quickened as she realized she could understand more with each step deeper into the depths hidden by stone. Ahead of her, small stones pattered into the pathway.
“What are you?” The words slipped from Tris’ mouth faster than her mind could stop her.
“Fire and flame. And what are you?” The rich voice emanated from the same rocks around her.
“Careful and sure.” Her words again came unbidden.
“Are you sure?”
She bit her lip, wryly noting that her hesitance negated her answer. She stared at her surroundings, focusing with extra caution on a small fissure at her feet.
She stepped carefully through the narrow openings, placing her feet with delicate assuredness. A sure wrong step in this tight place could be better than one placed without confidence. One small decision could be the difference between fates.
“I know what you are.” The deep voice came stronger from the rock.
“Am I… careful? Sure? That’s what I’ve said, anyway.”
“No. You are stubborn, calculating. You are a shrew, digging deep into places that ought not be delved.”
“Hmm, no. But I implore you to try again.” Tris smiled through her words, the presence of the darkness pressing close, exploring her shape even as she contorted again to make her way through a large gouge in the stone.
The voice spoke again, but far off, and Tris quickened her pace to catch the words in their energy, “…to... me.”
“Let me ask a question…” Tris’ voice echoed in a larger chamber, startling herself.
“Anything.” The voice breathed back gently.
“Tell me who you are?”
“I am impulsive and aggressive. I am self-serving.” The low voice spoke matter-of-factly.
“Yet you’re… dependable. Expressive. Kind?” Tris matched the energy.
The energy settled into a companionable silence.
“I can shape what you are.” The deep voice emanated once more from in front of Tris, far enough away to quicken her steps once again.
Tris shook her head, “Only should I choose.” She ducked into a smaller space, then inched her way through a tube to hear the even voice. The line on her belt tugged at her impatiently as she moved from the tight tube to the next small path. Tris sighed, untying the next bit of line to connect to the current one and back to the carabiner at her hip. She could hear the voice ahead of her, softly.
“I’m retying my line,” Tris called to the… What am I talking to again?
The light around Tris’ body dimmed as she tied off the line back to her carabiner. A deeper darkness crept across Tris’ boots as she slid her body through the slight openings in rocks. She breathed heavier than she had been.
“You’re slow. Are you going to give up?” The voice observed and asked without inflection.
“Hell no. I have to prove them wrong.” Tris stumbled over a low ledge in the stone floor. Her hands groped at imaginary supports as she tipped forward onto the hard, jagged floor of an open cavern. Tris hissed, pushing onto her butt, and touching her knees and shins where they smarted. Cool liquid from hot skin lubricated her fingertips. Tris stared into the darkness, eyes wide shut against the expansive room and the being across from her.
The being glowed in infrared, red under black, like cooling lava, and flowed outward, darkness engulfing darkness as it perceived Tris’ presence. Small rocks pattered onto the stone floor. Tris’ eyes had yet to adjust to the change in their lighting, and she sat utterly blind in the darkness as she sifted through supplies at her waist by touch. She touched the nylon of the small first aid kit, tugging at the zipper, before she felt the distinctive edge of the carabiner she used for her lifeline holding it firmly in place. She unhitched the carabiner, momentarily setting it beside her, before sifting through the small nylon pouch for gauze and a Neosporin packet.
“I know what you are.”
Tris froze as she noted the difference in the origin of the voice.
This time, the voice was much closer and tinged with something Tris was having trouble placing. “And I have told you what I am. It’s my turn.” The voice whispered through the air next to Tris’ ear, sending a shiver down her spine. She heard a slight scraping noise at her side.
“Your turn? For what?” Tris whispered back, the second darkness creeping up her collarbone and closing around her throat.
“More.” The voice sounded from behind her, back where she had tripped against the ridge in the floor. Tris placed her hand at her side to grab the carabiner and started. She moved her hand back and forth over the space next to her for a moment before she realized what she had heard as the voice had passed her.
Her throat was tight as she jumped to her feet and spun. “No!” Her voice was too loud, echoing around the cavern. Then the sound morphed. A deafening noise rent the air as the pathway collapsed, sending a whoosh of air into Tris’ face. Tris felt the patter of several small rocks against her legs as the debris settled in front of her.
All at once, the voices of doubt and caution of the gaggle echoed through the cavern, taunting as they matched the final reverberations from the fallen rocks. Tris stilled with the ebb of the sound, until the blackness around her and the silence within her threatened to do away with her completely.
Another moment, and the pitch shifted.
"No." She set her jaw and moved forward, slowly climbing a mound of rubble from the pathway’s roof. She began to silently unpack the stones.