The stone path to the temple was surprisingly stable. There was nothing on either side of us except for that damn mist. Couldn’t see a single thing through it. For all I know, there may not have even been anything to see, other than the void.
What would it look to see nothing? Would it be blackness? Or would it be something else entirely?
I shoved these questions out of my mind. The door to the temple was approaching. I looked back to make sure the rest of the party was still following. They were. I motioned to the door, which seemed sealed shut, with symbols all around it.
“Ursula. Norman. I think this may be where you come in,” I said.
Ursula approached the door and began running her fingers around the frame. Norman stood a few feet behind and observed.
“What are you looking for, Ursula?” Carolyn asked.
“Not sure yet,” Ursula said. “But the script looks the same as what we saw before. Perhaps… Agnes?”
Agnes stepped forward through the group and stood at Norman’s side. “I can try to be of some assistance,” she said quietly. Her eyes seemed to trace out the symbols all around the outside of the door.
“Well, while she’s doing that, somebody should be watching our back,” Mark said. “We don’t know if this mist is safe.”
He wasn’t wrong. I don’t think anyone had even thought about the possibility of something emerging from this mist at this point, other than Mark.
“I doubt there’ll be need for it,” Jenny said. “Based on what I heard from Mandy, whatever is behind the byakhee appearances is inside the temple itself.”
“How much did Mandy tell you exactly?” Skids asked. I was beginning to sense there were more connections going on here than I had been told, and it was making me uncomfortable to be leading some kind of group I knew so little about. I wished I had a gun on me, like some of these others, in case someone pulled some kind of stunt.
“She told me-”
“It’s a riddle,” Agnes said. “That’s what it says.”
“Well, let’s solve it and get in,” Calvin said. “Read it out to us.”
Agnes took a deep breath and then continued. “What has four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?”
“It’s man. That’s easy,” said Minh. It was the first time I had heard her speak the whole time she had been with us. She seemed quiet, but a sharp one. I would have to keep an eye on her.
“That’s literally the riddle of the Sphinx from Greek antiquity. What is it doing written in some alien script around the edge of this temple door? A temple door in what I can only assume is some other dimension?” Daisy asked.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Mark said. “We solved the riddle. Let’s just get this door open and be on our way.”
“No, Daisy is absolutely right,” Jenny said, holding Mark by the arm. “There’s something weirdly human about this. I don’t trust it. We have to be even more on our guard.”
Mark brushed Jenny’s arm away. “If we have to be on guard, then I’ll have something to contribute to this little operation.” Mark pointed at Roland and Joe, the two who had held him down back at the funeral. “You two. We’re keeping guard.” Roland and Joe looked at each other and nodded.
“I’ll help, too,” said Zoey. “I might not look like it right now, but if anything comes for us, I’ll strike it down. Human or not.”
“Well, we were certainly not expecting literal humans to come for us in the temple, Zoey, but thanks for bringing up that disturbing image,” Jenny said dryly. “Agnes, if you know this script, try saying “man” in whatever language it is.”
Agnes spoke. It was one syllable, rough sounding and dry as it came from her throat. Everyone collectively felt a shudder down their spine as it was uttered. But it worked. The symbols around the door glowed bright red and the door slid upwards into the wall, revealing a dark room inside. Sunlight streamed in, illuminating only the first few steps in. I had gone forward into temples with less to go off of. So onwards, we would go.
I walked in and slowly, the bravest among the group followed. The first order of business, of course, was to find some torches to light up the room. Mark had a lighter and Pete was able to get Duke to retrieve some sticks for us in the near total darkness. From there, we were able to make a few rudimentary torches. Once we had light, we were able to see that in the middle of the room was a brazier. We lit it, and the room felt much safer in the warm glow.
Once it became clear that the room was lit and there was nothing really dangerous inside, the last few hesitant ones – Preston, Lola, Mateo – followed us in. “I hate this place,” Preston muttered, as he stepped over the threshold.
As soon as Preston stepped in, we heard a rumbling noise above him.
“Preston, hurry in!” Skids yelled. “The door is falling.” Preston scrambled into the room faster than I’ve ever seen him move, and promptly curled up into a ball on the floor. “Finn, Carolyn – see if he’s doing okay. We don’t want to be losing people.” The two nodded and went to check in on the trembling Preston.
“Everyone, look!” It was Sefina. She was pointing to the walls all around us. “As soon as Preston came in, all these symbols lit up and one at a time they’ve been disappearing.”
“Agnes, what do they say?” Jenny asked.
“They are numbers,” Agnes said. “But I’m not sure…” Her voice trailed off, as she went to stand next to Sefina. Sefina whispered some things to Agnes and Agnes whispered some things back.
“What’s going on, Agnes?” Ursula said. “What do we do?”
“It’s a clock,” Sefina said. “By my estimation, looking at the proportion of the symbols and the way they’re aligned around the wall… there were originally 600 of them lit up…”
“… and they’re disappearing one per second…,” Agnes added.
“So it’s a countdown timer,” the two of them said together.
“10 minutes long,” Norman said.
“A countdown timer to what?” Ursula asked.
“Well, I can only assume it’s the door closing!” Mark yelled. “If that door closes behind us, we have no way out of here. So, here’s a question for you, ladies, if you’re so insightful – how do you make it stop?”
Sefina shrugged. “We haven’t figured that out yet.”
Just then, there was another rumble sound. A flicker. All the symbols lit back up.
“Sorry, was that me?” Lola said. She was leaning against a wall, perhaps to calm herself. But when Sefina and Agnes ran to her to investigate, it appeared that Lola had leaned against a button, and pushed it.
Sefina pushed it again. The same thing happened. The symbols continued back at, what I can only assume, was 600. Ten minutes, again.
“Leo! Leo, we found a second door!” It was Rex’s voice. I turned to see Rex, Daisy, and Yorick standing next to an opening, big enough for all to pass through one at a time. They must found a second button in the walls, one that opened this passage. “It leads somewhere. The room on the other side of this hall is already lit.”
I hurried over to them and motioned everyone to follow. “Let’s go everybody! Hurry, before something happens.”
“Wait!” Sefina said. “We still don’t know what happens if the timer reaches 0.”
I paused. “And we’re not going to find out, because we’re going to leave someone here to keep pushing that button.”
A silence fell over the group.
“Leo…” It was Daisy. “We can’t…”
“We have to!” I yelled. The rest of them didn’t know how dangerous a temple could be. Let alone a temple in another dimension. This was for the good of everyone. They would be made to see it.
“I can stay,” said a quiet voice. It was Minh. “I doubt I’ll be much help further in.”
I shook my head. “No. You’re too smart to leave behind. We’ll need your mind.” I looked around the group. “And you – Mark – you and your crew of muscle all have to follow us.” I continued to go down the line. “Agnes, Sefina, you’ve proven yourself indispensable to us. Akachi, I don’t know how you did what you did at the Mausoleum and I don’t know what else you can do… but, I’d be a fool to leave you behind.”
“Okay, I get it, a bunch of us have to stay on the expedition,” Jenny said, turning to stand next to me as though she were my second-in-command. Given how these events had gone so far though, perhaps I was the second-in-command. “The real question is who is the most expendable. And I guess it would be the most scared among us. The people who don’t want to go further. This is your opportunity to stay behind and not see what comes next.” She paused. “Preston?”
Preston shook his head. “No, no, not me. Don’t leave me alone in here! Pushing the same button over and over again for who knows how long? The fate of all of your lives on my shoulders? It’s enough to drive a man insane.”
“Well, who’s going to do it? It’s a simple task. And whoever volunteers will allow everyone else to go forward.”
A voice piped up from the back. “I’ll do it.”
It was Lola. The famous actress from the Ward Theatre. While back home she may have been a star, here, in this strange temple, I was already struggling to see how someone like her could contribute. Perhaps she felt the same way.
“I’ll push the button.”
She looked sad. Resigned.
“You don’t have to…” Daisy said softly.
Lola shook her head and took a deep breath. “Preston’s right. It’s enough to drive a man insane, being left alone with the button and these symbols.” Her eyes brightened and her lips thinned into a straight line. “But I’m no man. I’ve faced my fair share of insanity. I am Lola Hayes! Star of the stage! No role is too small! I’ll push the button! I’ll push the button until I die if I have to! If it saves us… if it saves you… I’LL MAKE THIS ROOM MY FINAL STAGE!”
“She hasn’t even pushed the button and she already seems to be losing her mind,” Sefina whispered. I think she thought she was quite enough to talk to herself, but we all heard. And we all agreed.
Lola walked back to the button, yelling about her roles on the stage the entire time. One at time, we left her to walk down the hallway to face what came next. From what I heard, Carolyn was the last to go. She stayed behind, to watch her. She said she was still screaming, the symbols flickering over and over and over again on the walls behind her. But she said, from her observation, Lola had turned so manic that she felt confident she would push the button out of sheer insane compulsion.
If it kept the damn door open and that alien timer from hitting zero, that was fine by me.
June 1st: LOLA, abandoned in the button room
Vote for the next episode below: