By Stephen Thom
The decline was steep and hazardous. They remained on their feet and guided the horses as best they could, at times slipping and tripping down the dry bank. An oppressive gloom enveloped them as they descended. Through the darkness they could vaguely discern sheer walls soaring above them in every direction.
They reached the base of the depression shaky and exhausted. A narrow brook split the base like a shimmering ribbon, but the land around it remained rough and arid, save for clumps of purple sky pilot and more withered black oaks. Snow reached the hollow in scattered drifts, and laid a white dusting over everything.
Emmett slumped down beside the brook. The water ran dark and glossy. He felt exhaustion in every limb. Abigail sat in the snow beside him. Her breath was ragged and shallow, and her face was cherry-red. She pulled her shawl close, and her knees shook beneath her long white blouse.
Buck stamped and nickered, and Emmett stood reluctantly to see to him. Piru described a wide semi-circle around the banks of the stream, stared up at the black cliffs, and then led her horse down to join them.
'I'm real sorry for all you and your people have been through, Miss Piru,' Emmett said, as he shook out grains into Buck's feed bag.
'Me too,' Abigail whispered.
Piru smiled at them and nodded briefly, but her attention was on the stark walls hemming them into the vale. She waited until Emmett had strapped Buck's feed bag on, and then led them into the shadows at the base of the cliff-face to their west. Abigail trailed behind, her arms hanging limply at her sides, and Emmett backed up and took her by the hand.
They scaled a slope. Above them a jagged overhang extended out from the rock face, and beneath it - amidst sky pilot thickets and uneven arrangements of large stones - was a black opening. A cave.
Emmett shivered and stared into the aperture. Piru watched him and pointed upwards.
The night sky was sheared into a dark sphere by the surrounding cliffs, and within this inky hole floated a tiny wedge of moon. Emmett caught a glint in the darkness, and then he saw it.
An enormous metallic hoop was suspended in the sky. It hung weightlessly above the overhang; a vast, elongated circle. An ellipse.
Abigail let out an odd sound: a slow, high-pitched moan. Emmett felt her gripping his hand. His eyes narrowed and he pulled her closer to the cave entrance, straining to see the strange ring hovering above them.
It was immense. In places it was sleek and darkly silver, and at other points it was discoloured with rusty reddish-orange spots. Faded arcane runes ran along its curves. It looked like an ancient thing, as if it had hung there through all the ages of the world. Snowflakes danced through its span.
'What is it?' Abigail said, and breath left her mouth in hazy curlicues. 'How can somethin' just hang there like that?'
'We do not know,' Piru replied. 'We can only guess.'
'This is to do with them things Emmett took, ain't it,' Abigail muttered.
Piru turned away and stepped back down the slope, her moccasins leaving indentations in the fluff. She turned left and walked slowly towards the steep hill preceding the vale. She seemed to be counting out steps. Suddenly she knelt and brushed snow away.
Emmett recognised the actions and tensed. Piru waved them over. They joined her in the shade of the overhang. Abigail stood shaking as Emmett squatted down beside Piru. The Chumash girl took his hand, and guided it towards the cold earth. He felt the little spherical tip of the pin buried in the ground. His breath came quickly. He shuffled uncomfortably and met her eyes.
'There are eleven more,' she said. 'I am given to understand that this is a safe shape. But I do not know its exact form. This is an old place, and this shape has existed here through many ages.'
'Safe as in nothin' can get in?' Emmett said. 'Seeds... you said seeds. Other seeds.'
'That is correct,' Piru said. 'But it must be the exact shape. It cannot be changed by degrees.' She rubbed her hands together and breathed into them.
Abigail stamped her feet and pulled her shawl up over her hair.
'Show me the book,' Piru said.
Emmett caught himself frowning. He pulled his backpack off and withdrew the cloth bag inside. He lifted the wooden box out, opened it, and passed the leather notebook to her. He felt a twinge of anger as she took it from him. Piru arranged herself cross-legged in the snow and opened the notebook on her lap. She flicked through several pages. She paused, and her forehead creased. She flicked back and studied the complex symbols and shapes.
'I believe these ones are safe,' she muttered. 'But not with certainty. There may be others on your path with more knowledge of these things. But I believe this symbol to be indicative of a safe shape. It also corresponds to the shape here, as I can gauge it. The People did not make this. It was always here. Perhaps from old troubles, when the world was still benighted. But they guard it now.'
Abigail settled beside them and rested her head on Emmett's shoulder. Emmett received the book back from Piru and looked at the opened pages. He did not recognise the shape. It looked complicated. Piru leaned over and pointed to a symbol at the top right-hand corner of the page: the outline of a closed loop. Lined marks were drawn through the loop, cutting it off at points.
'I wouldn't even know where to begin,' Emmett said.
'You would,' Piru said, 'And you already have. The properties of the various shapes are all here, you only have to translate these measurements. It is most important to be precise. But let us hope that it is not a requirement to use these again. I hope it will not be the case, but I feel that it may be. This is why I am showing you. I would urge you to seek to learn more of these symbols, and this language,' she said, pointing out the hieroglyphs running along the length and width of the shape. 'The recovery of your count may also depend on this.'
Emmett placed a hand over the yellowed pages, and closed the book. He sighed and closed his eyes. He felt himself welling up and bit his lip.
'I feel so darn lost,' he mumbled. 'I don't know what's goin' on.'
Piru looked up at the great metal hoop shimmering above the cave.
'The world is covered in a blanket of darkness. It is all strange and unfathomable. All of it is. Perhaps deep down you would not have it any other way,' she said, smiling.
'I would,' Abigail said, brushing snow from her shoulders.
They sat for a while in silence. Within the depths of the vale different types of darkness blended and pushed for definition around the brook. Abruptly Piru stood and whistled twice, loudly. Abigail flinched. They heard two distant whistles pierce the air in response.
'This will be the last thing I shall show you, and then we will part,' Piru said. 'But we must act quickly.'
Emmett looked down towards the stream and the black oaks, but he could not distinguish anyone else in the shadows.
'I told you the People guard it now,' Piru said, watching him. 'Our passage is safe. But I would not have this shape broken for long.'
Abigail glanced at Emmett. Piru knelt swiftly, dug into the snowy earth, and pulled the pin free. She slipped it into her concho belt.
They heard a soft whump sound, and the cliffs around them flickered monochrome. Emmett saw the brook below briefly as a silverish snake, and then Piru was pulling him towards the cave opening. He had that same feeling of pushing against a heavy, obstructive screen. The snow came as black ash, and when he looked up, the runes on side of the enormous metal hoop were lit with a coruscating glow.
Motion and colour resolved as they climbed towards the cave. Darkness descended once more, and he knew that the shape had collapsed temporarily. He felt a tug on his left hand, looked down, and saw that Abigail had urinated herself. Her face was pale and shocked. He dropped down to meet her eyes, but Piru grabbed him by the collar of his duster, and dragged him towards the aperture. Abigail swayed and fell sobbing to her knees in the snow. Piru backed up, knelt, and clasped Abigail's face in her hands.
'Please,' she said. 'This will take two minutes. Two minutes, I promise. You must be brave and wait. Can you do that?'
She rubbed her fingertips on Abigail's cheeks. Abigail's chest rose and fell quickly, and she nodded through the tears. Her fists bunched, and Emmett saw her eyes widen as Piru clasped his hand and led him into the cave. He looked round as a stalactite-strewn ceiling closed over them, and saw Abigail's shivering shape through a haze of snow.
'This ain't right,' he said. His voice was peaky and strained.
Piru did not respond. She held his hand tightly and stepped forward into the darkness. There was space for them to stand, albeit hunched over. The smell was rank and bitter. Emmett moved after her and tottered against the rock wall. Something scuttled over his hand and he snatched it away.
They hit a curve and progressed into the tunnel until the darkness became absolute. His chest felt tight and restrictive. The darkness, the muggy echoes and the smells were stifling. He lost the sensation of where he was in space. Sweat clung to his back and spread under his armpits. Piru was muttering to herself and pulling him along. As they turned another corner he was aware of a familiar noise permeating the gloom. A harsh trilling sound, just on the edge of hearing.
Stagnant air. Heavy drips. Piru dropped his hand and abruptly her face was beside his, a shadow cut from deeper layers of black.
'We must be quiet now,' she whispered.
Emmett swallowed and caught a waft of cooler air near them. The acute noise rose to a quivering peak, and then it stopped. There was silence.
'It is too late,' Piru said, and stepped through an opening to their right. Emmett's breath came in sharp hisses, and he swithered and lurched after her. There was a dull orange wash and he saw her holding a lit match like a protective amulet. Her demeanour was trance-like, and she stepped tentatively, as if crossing a portal between worlds.
He joined her at a ledge framed with a rickety fence. The roof above them opened out into a vast, naturally-arched shape. Towering basalt columns had been sculpted into complex geometric pillars. Beneath them there was a sheer drop, and at its base Emmett could see a small underground lake.
Piru was leaning on the fence, and he moved closer to her. His left boot felt stuck, and he tugged it free. A sticky black fluid clung to the sole. He frowned and squinted down. By the banks of the subterranean lake he could see small figures. Three small figures. They were looking up at them.
His breath caught in his throat. Piru turned to him. Her face was streaked with dirt. Dusty granules floated in the match light. Emmett met her eyes, and saw the sadness and the spark in them.
'This is how you will become if your count is not fixed,' she said. 'This is important to know. It will take a long time, but this is how things will be.'
Emmett looked down into the void again. He watched the figures moving by the lake. They were small, naked, and bald. They were extraordinarily skinny. Their eyes were lidless and egg-white. Black mucus dripped from their mouths.
He felt bile rising in his throat and gripped the wooden fence. Piru blew the match out. As they turned and passed back into the tunnel, a sharp sibilant sound rose from the depths behind them. It became a shrieking crescendo as they pawed blindly back out into the night.