Circa hopped through the halls like how one ran in a dream. She disappeared around hall corners and skipped entire stairwells. Aida, shoeless, did her best to keep up, but the threat of the entire platoon of officers behind her made her rethink chasing a Goddess.
The feeling of dancing with Lorian in a place not meant for either of them had felt wonderful, and daring, and fun. She’d felt pretty beside them and felt confidence she hadn’t yet discovered about herself. The way they’d looked at her filled her heart with that feeling, and she hated leaving them.
It made her chase all the more clumsy.
The clocks all around the palace chimed for midnight, repeating her failed time limit of saving Lorian from their own wedding.
It was a voice she was unfamiliar with, just a ghost in her memories, and she turned to find that cloaked guard from Zaahir’s palace. She forgot his name. He had his hand on the hilt of his scimitar.
“Are you trying to stop me?” she called out to him.
“No, though I feel like I should.” He easily caught up with her and met her pace. “Prince Zaahir told me to defend you. Where exactly are you going?”
She pointed at Circa, who was waiting for her on a chandelier. She was upside down. “Do you see her?”
He looked up, but before he could denounce her hallucinations, the sound of incoming officers drew his attention.
“Ugh, why’re the following me, anyway?” Aida asked.
“Might it be because you just publically and verbally humiliated the king in front of some of the most important people in the country?”
Aida blew out her cheeks. “He ain’t the king of my country,” she said confidently. They were deep into the palace now, towards the gardens near the northern side. Circa kept teleporting without a care, leading them.
She made them take a quick turn too hard and almost made Aida lose her footing.
The knight cursed in his own native tongue and kept on her heels. The officers did as well. Four armed men were gaining on them, shouting for them to stop.
“What was your name again?” Aida asked.
“Kadar Basan,” he said. “I’m Prince Zaahir’s consort.”
“Consort?” She smiled at herself. “We’re fighting for the same fucking team.”
“It appears we are.”
“What idiots we are.”
“I’d gladly be an idiot for him.”
Aida shrugged, unable to deny that she hersef had done some pretty stupid things for Lorian in the past few months, save for calling herself their consort.
“May you please enlighten me on the whereabouts of where you’re going?” Kadar begged, “before I die making sure you get there safely?”
“I have absolutely no idea, all I know—” She pivoted and stared down a normal-looking hallway, but towards the end, almost invisible to the naked eye, was a door. It’d been glazed over by paint and barely had a silhouette. Other than the padded lock chained together by several old locks, Aida would’ve run past it in search of other, more important doors.
Circa had one hand delicately draped over its stones. She gave Aida her wide, uneasy smile before vanishing for good.
“There,” Aida said. “Down there.”
“The Catacomb entrance?” Kadar asked.
She turned to him. “You can enter the Catacombs by way of the Palace? How morbid.”
The officers turned the corner, their rapiers drawn.
“Well,” Kadar said, backing Aida up against the door. “I don’t know much about being criminals to the law aside from romantic affairs with royalty in certain backwards countries, but if I were you, I’d think about heading for that door.”
“I’m not sure I want you to kill yourself for us getting a ten-second lead on armed officers.”
“I thought you were all about seeing into the future, Miss Mirko. I’ve been given the task of keeping my amar safe in this country and mine for more than ten years. Do you think Aldaían standards are so low that my skills are comparable to that of three alqatat?”
She didn’t know what that word meant, but before he had time to translate, the officers unleashed their swords. All Aida saw was metal raised into the night and the anticipation of death.
Kadar sidestepped, took the arm of the nearest officer, and shoved him into the curtains across the hall. He brought the momentum of the two others and heaved them across the hall. He easily switched positions of his sword’s grip and readied for the offense. Each slash cut through the clothes and skin as the officers tried and failed to land a hit on Kadar. One moment he was facing three armed officers, next one of their swords was in hand, a trick of hand that sent the unarmed officer onto the ground just as the one in curtains unraveled himself and got back up to fight.
Panting with a bit of blood on his tunic, Kadar noticed Aida still standing there, and he sliced the air behind her ear. How he knew where the door was in relation to him amazed her, and he cut apart the locks keeping the door sealed and kicked the heavy metal open with his foot. “Go, please,” he said impatiently, and pushed back the scarf covering his forehead to reveal his own Visatorre marking, “before your time runs out.”
Aida gave him a nod in appreciation before slipping in through the entrance. The door was heavy and swung hard onto her bare heels. It shut with Kadar’s help, but as she was locked in darkness, she heard the heavy footsteps of officers running down the hall: backup.
She almost turned back. It felt wrong leaving Kadar by himself, but she trusted his promise at being better than her expectations and helped him close the door.
Sudden, deafening emptiness welcomed her back into the dark Catacombs. The decorated walls of the Palace were etched away into nothing but freezing, wet, dusty stone. The floor had transformed from elegant marble to cement that chafed the soles of her feet, and the only decoration adorning the wall was a label telling those to be wary of what lay within the Catacombs against a lit torch.
She freed the torch from its holster, not knowing whether to thank Circa for the generous light.
She avoided the wetter puddles formed on the uneven steps down into the earth. Her stockings were completely ruined by her kicking off her shoes. They’d been too big for her, as Carmine thought she’d be anywhere close to a normal girl’s shoe size. She felt a bit bare without them, like a child walking through a nearly empty home.
The realness of her decision didn’t set in until she heard a scurry of a rat or long-legged spider cross her path. Her ears popped, the air grew thicker and colder like a cave. Down, down, the ground slipping her up at etching cuts into her unstable feet. Her cane did little to help as a stabilizer. She nearly lost it on the rougher rock.
The skulls came in slowly like a plague, then multiplied rapidly. They curved around her, pointing outright and watching her from the ceiling. She’d already seen their ancestors once before, but seeing those circles etched into their skulls made her just as sick.
She took in a sharp breath. She hadn’t expected them to come looking for her down here, where one wrong turn could’ve trapped you in your own tomb.
Not knowing what to do, she dropped to one knee and slammed her torch into the ground, trying to snuff it out. The voices of officers echoed down a myriad of paths she couldn’t trace, making them either a kilometer away or six meters to her right.
“Circa, if you’re really on my side,” she whispered in prayer, “and if you really don’t want me to eat it down here in a terrible irony, which secretly, you probably want…”
The splashing grew closer.
She broke into a voice quieter than a whisper. “Show me where to go. Give me a fucking hint, for once. You brought me down here, now finish the job. I’m tired of this game.”
The fabric of one of the officer’s uniforms kissed the corner she was hiding, and before they turned left at the right time, slowly, their voices and footsteps disappeared down an aimless path.
Giving it a ten-count, then another, Aida lifted up her dress and finally exhaled. “Thanks. For now.”
The minutes ate at her mind. She took more wrong turns. She second-guessed herself whenever she thought she was going the right way. “Right way,” as if a gut feeling could be anything more than a wild shot in the rustling dark.
After she thought she’d seen the same outcropping of stone from her left side, she stopped walking and covered her eyes. The officers were gone. Nothing but water drops, spider webs, and buried Visatorre bones were here. She didn’t even know what direction she was going now. She didn’t know how deep she’d gotten.
She whipped her head around so hard, she hurt her neck. It was a feminine voice, but who and where, why and how, she couldn’t place. It was far enough to the point that when her eyes focused into the pitch black, there was no one there.
Her heart beat loudly in her ears, masking the subtle noises she knew she had to be focusing on.
Against all of her better judgments, Aida followed her own voice. She kept closer to the walls, her hand palming where there weren’t any bones. The tingling in her head increased like a persistent bug. What was her future self doing?
She stopped like quicksand had swallowed her feet. To her right was the first door she’d come across. It had no bars, no locks or chains to keep people out. It was just a simple door at the end of a dead-end.
There were no bones in this room. There was hardly anything at all. It was a circular room, the stone molded into a perfect roundness, but whatever Aida had been expecting, be it bones or a crypt or ancient writings scrawled over the ceiling, she hadn’t expected nothing.
Nothing, except for a statue. Staring at the door, a two-meter-tall statue of Circa welcomed her into her room. She wore a Classical Era white gown that flowed beautifully around her curvy body. The artist had taken some artistic liberties and sculpted her with bird wings and a perfect circle haloing around the back of her head, but Aida knew. This Aldaían woman with full lips and relaxed, soft eyes was her Goddess.
The door, too heavy for a non-existent wind to push it, began to close by itself.
“Wait—wait, no!” She fought against it, tried shoving her arm between it and the doorway, but she couldn’t risk losing her arm down here. It dug into her heels, sealed itself shut, and trapped her in absolute darkness, hundreds of feet below the surface.