The evergreens here were taller than those back home, she thought. They stretched up towards the sky, becoming long & spindly by the tree tops, swaying only gently in the breeze. She wondered how they managed to stay so strong, being as slight as they were. The fog spilled around them like molasses poured onto a plate. It swirled around her, & she drew her hand through it as if testing the water. She brought her hand up to her face the the fog dripped off of it, spiraling down as it tumbled back into the stream.
The trees went on for gods knows how long, longer than anyone had the patience & ability to survey. The deeper you went, the darker & more dangerous the wood was. Still, that didn’t stop a few brave & stupid souls from setting up shop. Often times these were criminals, vagabonds, those that didn’t fit into society. It was those sorts of men she would often track into these woods, into the lion’s den, before returning to the walled city with them or their corpse in tow.
There was no contract today, only whispers. She wondered if she was wasting her time. Still, she waded deeper into the dark. She placed her hand on the bark of one as she passed, & found sap on her hand. Her nose crinkled, her lip curled. She wanted a drink, to feel the warmth of a fire.
The only break in the woods were the ridges that rose up from & out of the Earth. These jagged gashes were like stone tents, rough & unhewn. One side almost always carried the grass up from the forest floor, while the barer side was damp & held sparse moss.
She didn’t know what she was looking for, only that she would know when she saw it. It was the kind of structure you would almost miss if you weren’t looking for it. Especially because the surrounding scenery was all the more beautiful. This was its danger. Once you started in on the woods, there was some sort of pull drawing you to find its core.
Buried amidst the ridges & fog, a small building stood.
It was shaped like a small house, rectangular in base, with a roof just barely rising to a point. It was mostly made of glass, but lacking any of the irregularities she was used to seeing. It was like a mirage, both invisible & iridescent in the dark woods. Even given the glass walls, it’s interior was hidden behind a layer of steam.
The door didn’t seem to have a lock on it, but it wouldn’t budge. She slipped the blade of her knife in the seam between the door & the frame, & worked it between the ribs. A deep sigh came from the building, & steam met her hands before dissipating into the sky. It was warm enough to make her recoil, but not scalding. She removed her knife & tried the door once more.
It opened slowly, its hinges rusted out from the humidity, & scraping against the dirt floor. As she stepped inside, she felt the change in air like wading into a pool, warm & embracing. She was greeted by a sweet aroma, almost too sweet, like fermenting crops on a freshly manured field. It was a greenhouse, like they kept in the city. But why build one out here, where the ground is so fertile?
A long row stretched back the entire length of the building, flanked on both sides by rows of big bushes. They all seemed to be the same plant, one she had never seen before, like grand peonies, as white as snow. She leaned in to smell one. An ant crawled across the flower, pausing as if to look at her, before returning to its work. Had it found its way in as she had, or had she invaded its home?
Other than the two rows of bushes, the greenhouse was empty. The row went to another glass wall, & abruptly ended. She paced the path carved in the center, worn in by an unknown hand. She tried to imagine the greenhouse like a river stream, eroded away, shaped naturally but leaving a trace. She checked the base of the plants, looking for a way forward, not finding even a seam between the fauna.
She turned her attention to the dirt. With her boot, she started to poke through the ground for anything that might lead her. Any sense of guidance. She made it down the row, & nearly tripping into the bushes, caught her toe on something metallic in the ground. She crouched down to see what it was.
A ring, just smaller than her palm, like the missing link in a giant’s chainmail. Once more, she pulled her knife from the sheath at her waist, slid it into the dirt, & wedged the ring free. Luckily, this gave way much easier. It was stuck into the ground at one point, & lifting revealed a square door, about two feet across. Notches cut into the wall created a sort of ladder down. Dirt spilled into the black hole, & a different aroma greeted her. This time, she smelled something like a clean mountain stream. She could swear she smelled the hint of oranges.
The blackness gazed up at her, so dark it seemed like not a space at all, merely a nothing, a void in the Earth. She might have torch somewhere in her pack, she thought. She knew she should go back to the town, but had come so far… & now she had begun to be curious.
She realized that she did have a torch, but without any place to hold it while descending the ladder, left it to her bag. Lucky for her, the descent grew darker & darker, until it could get no darker, & beyond that started to get more light again. This gave her hope. It meant at least that this path lead somewhere.
With the light, came sound.
As she got lower & lower in the pit, (though, who could really be sure?) she was met with a rushing sound, gently growing. It sounded like a stampede, heard through the ground, a few miles away.
She went to take the next step down, before her foot caught only air. A few pebbles fell, & splashed. She looked down. The tunnel that had been her passage gave way to a larger cavern area, of which she could only see a small still pool directly beneath her. Another fork in the road. She could drop, or come back up. If she pressed on, there would be no getting back, at least not through here.