There was noise in the dark.
At first, it started low — an almost indistinct buzzing in Dan’s ear, resembling almost the never-ending buzz of electricity in his old Hazen. He looked left and right, up and down, but the buzz was steadier even than his own breathing. Until it got louder.
It was gradual. At first it was loud enough to go over the sound of Jamie’s shuffling, somewhere around him; then, it went over the sound of his breathing. Finally, he couldn’t detect the rhythm of his own heartbeat, instead falling into the trance of the buzzing buzz, buzzing buzz, which got louder and morphed into white noise, into a static that wouldn’t let off.
He thought he tried to get away from it, stepping, moving, shoving away with his hands, but he couldn’t really tell in the dark. His back hit a wall. His world turned upside down. At one point, he felt his hands covering his ears, felt his chin touch his knees, but he heard nothing but the static, the static, the static that got so loud it started hurting him.
He thought he yelled. He felt something go raw in his throat. But the sound only thinned in his ears, stretching, pulling and pulling, until his hands pressed harder against his ears, his teeth were biting his lips, his eyes were squeezed shut hard enough that he felt it in his cheeks.
And suddenly, as suddenly as it had taken over, the sound dissipated.
The static fell away in drops, dropping away the white and the grain and the pain, and he suddenly heard his own voice, too frail to be a yell. He pressed his face to his knees, loosened his grip over his ears, and tried to count his breaths.
He got to twenty three when Jamie’s voice reached him. A hand touched his knee. “Hey, Dan, Danny, you alright?”
“The hell was that,” Dan muttered, still fixed in his position. His eyes were closed, but without the force of before.
“I don’t know,” Jamie quietly said. “But the lights are back on.”
Dan looked up to to see Jamie crouched right in front of him, face leveled with his own. There was light in the room, coming from what looked like white, luminous grains of sand imbedded in the ground. There was also the dust and the red sand, swirling in the air around them. “But we’re still stuck.”
“Not exactly,” Jamie said, gesturing behind Dan. Dan shifted, turning to look back. His back was pressed not against a wall, but a wooden door — engraved with faded illustrations of blue, red and black, which swirled around the door’s edges, all trailing into nothing toward its center.
“There’s something here except for us,” Dan realized. He looked back to Jamie, who sent him a small, reassuring smile. But his eyes were hooded. “What was that?”
Jamie shook his head, looking over Dan’s shoulder again. “Maybe we should keep going, instead of asking questions.”
So they gathered their bearings, Jamie climbing to his feet and pulling Dan up. Dan, still slightly dizzy and fuzzy, had to take a few long, deep breaths to calm down his racing heart, but he was back to himself soon enough.
Beyond the door, there was a small room. The specks of lighting in the floor stretched to the shallow ceiling and the close walls, illuminating perfectly well the stone sarcophagus standing in the middle of it, fixed to the ground. Its lid, heavy and thick, looked as if it hadn’t been moved in a very long time.
Dan and Jamie looked around them, but there was nothing else in the small room except for the sarcophagus. There was the door behind them, which Jamie held slightly open in case it, too, disappeared; but there was no other exit.
“What’s buried in here?” Dan quietly asked, stretching his neck as if to look forward but not daring to actually approach. “Should we… I don’t know, should we open it?”
“That sounds like a horrible idea,” Jamie said back, voice just as quiet. It carried uncomfortably in the closed space, and both of them had the sudden, irrational fear that whatever had laid here to rest was going to hear them.
A low hum rose in the air, and Dan whipped his head toward the sarcophagus, eyes widening. It was low, just as low as the first hints of that noise, but it didn’t rise like before. Jamie clenched his teeth, knuckles going white against the side of the door. “Who’s there?”
The hum shifted into a faint chuckle, and something puffed into existence in front of them.
“It’s stuffy in here,” said a thin, high-pitched voice, surprisingly befitting of the little creature leisurely floating in the air. It — she? — had wings, translucent and thin, flapping slowly; she wore what looked like a dress made of dust and red sand, and her hair, frail and wild, was a washed-out color of rust. “Wouldn’t you say?”
“Uh,” Dan stammered, stepping away. “Have—have you been here the whole time?”
The creature nodded enthusiastically, and floated back until she was sitting on the edge of the stone lid, legs dangling in the air. Her feet were bare; she leaned her chin against her hand, her eyes intently fixed on them. “You two have noooo clue, do you?”
“What are you talking about?” Jamie cautiously asked.
The creature sighed, cheek squishing against her palm. “I know, I know, nobody these days does.”
“What’s this place?” Dan asked. The creature turned to him.
“It’s a tomb,” she lightly said. “Duh.”
“Obviously,” Jamie echoed, with an infliction that suggested anything but. “Was it someone you knew?”
The creature smiled at him sadly. “I’ve known him like the waves know the moon,” she sighed. She leaned back against the stone lid and looked up, as if the moon would suddenly reveal itself to her from a place very, very far away. She tilted her head back at the two of them. “I’ve been waiting for you to find this place.”
“You have,” Dan warily said. The creature nodded vehemently.
“At long last, a being appears that can break the curse that lies on this tomb,” she said, jumping off the stone lid to stand on the air, wings flapping behind her. She stepped forward on nothing, and Dan had to resist the urge to step back. “And an ancient being shall finally find peace.”
Dan and Jamie exchanged glances, before simultaneously looking back at her.
“What curse?” Dan asked. The creature smirked and twirled around, laying a flat palm on the stone.
“It is not for me to disclose,” she said, voice lowering to a whisper. When she spoke like that — quietly, timidly — Dan could hear the undertone of static lacing her words. He tensed ever so slightly. “You’re our only hope.”
“We don’t know anything about any curse,” Jamie carefully said. “We got here by accident. We didn’t even mean to find this place.
“But you listened,” she mused, keeping her back to them. The sand and the dust swirled gently around them, making them wonder whether there were any more creatures like her listening in. “You followed our guide.” She glanced at them, a bright glint passing through her eyes. “You’ve met our satisfaction. Now, the only thing left is to dismantle the curse.”
Dan eyed the sarcophagus, wary. “We can’t break a curse you’re unwilling to tell us about.”
“Oh, it’s no problem,” she said, her tone brightening again as she dismissively waved her hand. “All you need to do is to remove the lid. Open the grave. It shall release the spell.”
Jamie grabbed Dan’s shoulder, even though Dan wasn’t planning on stepping forward. “I don’t like this,” he quietly told him.
“It makes you wonder,” Dan said, eyes still fixed on the sarcophagus and the creature. “What would be left for dead in a place so secluded?”
“Nothing good,” muttered Jamie. “I think we should go back.”
“Oh, but you couldn’t,” said the creature, voice pitching up. Dan and Jamie both turned cautious eyes to her, and suddenly, the door dissipated right out of Jamie’s grip. His eyes widened wildly as he spun around, reaching out for the opening — but it was gone, the walls all stone, as if no pathway has ever led into the tomb.
They turned back to her to see her smiling innocently. She was once again sitting on the grave’s lid, leg on leg. “I promise to let you out once you help us.”
“And if we don’t?” Dan challenged. The creature’s innocent smile shifted into something malicious, her features as if sharpening; the dust and the sand stilled, and the room around them chilled.
“I thought it was obvious,” she said, tapping her knuckles against the stone on which she was sitting. “We would so love the company.” Her lips curled down sadly, and she shook her head. “It gets so lonely.”
Dan’s jaw set. “We’re not staying here.”
She shrugged. “It’s your choice, after all.”
“I still don’t like it,” Jamie quietly told Dan. “Remember what happened in Hazen? We shouldn’t mess with things we don’t understand.”
“I don’t think we have a choice, Jay,” Dan replied, voice level. “Otherwise, we might as well never leave this place.”
Neither of them liked this. But that didn’t matter; they couldn’t do nothing, and stay in this small tomb forever. Forever would turn out to be a brief time indeed, if they did. And Dan didn’t think anyone was likely to find them in here.
He stepped forward, catching a grin twisting up on the creature’s lips—when a door materialized out of thin air in front of him. He staggered back, yelping in surprise as it opened inward; the creature hissed and lunged forward, before a hand reached out from within, grabbed his shirt, and pulled him inside. Jamie darted in after him, and the door slammed shut, cutting the creature’s furious scream as she leapt at it.
Dan stumbled back, steadying himself against a familiar table. It took him a moment to register that he recognized this place; Jamie’s bewildered expression told him he wasn’t imagining it.
They were at the Polaris Café. Small, pointy stars hanged from ceiling by thin, semi-translucent strings, dimming in their sleep; the curtains were all drawn, the chairs turned upside down on clean wooden tables. Aiu, the girl who’s pulled them inside, was currently stomping across her café, the words streaming out of her mouth not registering at first.
“—complete idiots, are you? Do you have any idea what you two were just about to do!” she exclaimed, turning around to face them. She was standing by the counter, whereas they by the entrance; the noise woke up the stars hanging overhead, their light bringing out her soft, yet furious features.
They both looked at her with alarm, simultaneously shaking their heads.
Aiu facepalmed, leaning her tailbone against the counter. “How on earth did you two get there in the first place?”
“We fell,” Dan said.
“Into another dimension?” she exclaimed. Then she seemed to realize who she was talking to, and sighed. “I need tea.”
“I would love a cappuccino, if you’re offering,” Dan said.
“Yeah, yeah, give me a minute,” she said, bypassing the counter and disappearing behind the colorful bead curtain, which separated the café from its kitchen. Dan and Jamie, hearts still racing despite their confusion, crossed the café, lowered two bar stools from the counter and sat down on them. Dan instantly put his arms on the counter, burying his head between them.
Jamie only leaned his forearms forward, hands clasping. “Did you know she could do that?”
“Of course I didn’t,” came Dan’s muffled reply. “But it kinda makes sense, you know?”
Jamie scratched the back of his neck, trying to glimpse any view from the windows. Whatever was seen of the outside, beyond the gaps between the curtains, was vacant; not only dark, but missing. The café didn’t seem to be anywhere, currently. “I thought she could only come out where the Polaris had entrances.”
“You’re not entirely wrong,” came Aiu’s voice as she emerged from behind the bead-curtain, a tray with three steaming mugs on it. She put the tray on the counter in front of them, pulled down a chair and sat down on it, facing them. “Most people can only come in and out of the Polaris through its entrances, that’s true. But being the owner grants me a few perks.” She smiled faintly. Dan lifted his head from his arms so that his chin was resting on them, but his eyes fixed on her.
“You can basically teleport, then,” he said, an intrigued edge to his voice.
“We’re not going back for the feathers,” Jamie immediately said, before Aiu could open her mouth. Dan turned a petulant look to him, but Jamie spoke again before he could protest. “Unless you want to spend a happy little eternity with a psychotic faerie, I mean.”
Dan scowled and perched his chin back on his arms.
“I couldn’t get you there, anyway,” Aiu said, her voice serious despite the amused glint in her eyes. Both boys gave her inquiring gazes, and she shrugged. “ I can only come out at places I’ve been to before. That cave system constantly changes; the only thing that’s fixed in there is the tomb itself.”
“You’ve been there before?” Dan asked, curious.
“I went out to explore them, a while ago,” she said. “I’d wanted to map them out. But like I said, that’s impossible. The Dust Faeries like to play with people — once you’re in their territory, you’re unlikely to ever find a way out.”
“Then how come they let you go?” said Jamie. He peered over at the mugs and took the one that had swirling black coffee in it. He blew on it and carefully sipped. “I bet they tried to get you to open that lid, too.”
“They did,” she agreed, sipping her tea. “But I called the Polaris. Got out of there.”
“It’s a handy trick,” Dan noted, straightening. His hands wrapped around the third mug, soaking in its warmth. He sipped from it, then lifted his eyes to Aiu. “Do you know what’s buried in there?”
“Something that’s better off staying sealed away,” she said, a bitter curl to her lips. She pushed back her hair, leaned her elbows against the counter, and looked intently at the both of them. “Why did you think the land above it is such a wasteland?”
Dan and Jamie paled, pulling back a little.
Aiu sighed. “Just a bit of advice,” she said. “If you ever come across that kind of place again, turn around and leave. Without looking back.”
“Would you believe me if I said that’s exactly what we were doing?” Dan said, sipping his coffee.
“Says the guy who wanted to spend the night there,” Jamie wryly said. Dan shot him a dry look, holding eye contact as he loudly slurped his coffee. Jamie pushed him away and turned back to Aiu, ignoring Dan’s spluttering. “Thanks for getting us out of there, by the way.”
Aiu smiled and shrugged again. “You two are hopeless.”
“As encouraging as always,” Dan said, having regathered his bearings. His shirt was stained with coffee, the mug now left alone on the table. “But yeah, thanks.”
The stars above them went back to sleep as they finished their drinks in silence. It wasn’t long before Dan fell asleep right along with them on the counter; it was a nice and quiet sleep, deprived of dreaming.
They left come evening.
Down in The Caves of Aestiria © Michal Rotko