CHAPTER 5: Nighttime Visitor
By the time the shadow came for him again, Valien had dismissed the first incident underneath the Spire as his imagination, a trick played by an overworked mind. It had been three months since then, two weeks since the incident with Aennan in the town. Although Valien continued to train with Aennan, the other student never brought up the incident again, and Valien sensed that a rift had grown between them somehow. Jasel insisted that that was a good thing, but his fellow apprentice had also been rather tight-lipped about the issue, except for the few times when Valien mentioned it. Valien himself didn't particularly mind that. He was perfectly content with never bringing it up again.
The shadow came in the night.
In the end, it was instinct that alerted Valien again, the sudden inexplicable feeling that something in his room was not right. He remained with his eyes closed for a moment, listening. Someone was stirring in the room. He could hear footsteps, the light shuffling of feet against the room's wooden floor. He didn't immediately react, continuing to lie there. One of the others, he guessed, sneaking off to relieve themselves. The door swung open a crack, almost silent, but just loud enough for Valien to hear in the quiet. Then it settled closed.
The room fell silent except for his companion's breathing. Valien opened his eyes, staring up at the ceiling. Something was wrong. He turned his head, facing the others and doing a headcount.
Valien sat up in alarm, his hand slipping under his pillow and closing around the hilt of his knife. His heart pounded in his chest. Someone had been in the room and left. Someone other than them had been in the room and left.
He threw the blankets off of himself and jumped out of bed, landing lightly on his feet. Valien held his knife in one hand and crept silently across the room, avoiding the squeaky patches of wood and moving towards the door. He didn't go for his sword. The blade was too loud and too heavy. It would almost certainly have woken someone.
He opened the door with bated breath, slipping out of the room and into the open space between the washrooms, Master Samran's quarters, and their dormitory. Valien's eyes flicked towards the left, already adjusted to the gloom. The door to Liall's washroom was open a crack, a tall figure slipping inside. For one chilling moment, Valien imagined that the figure looked back at him, slipping into the room.
He tightened his grip on his knife, gathering up his courage and running into the washroom. He caught a brief glimpse of someone bent over by the far wall, across from the bath. The figure's hands were pressed up against the wall, feeling the stones.
He didn't catch more than a glimpse before the figure vanished from sight, leaving him standing in the doorway of the small washroom.
Valien froze in place. The room was empty, but there had been someone here. He was sure of it, as sure as he knew his own name. He felt as though he was waking up from a dream, but this was no dream, and no trick of the mind.
Hesitantly, he stepped forward, examining the room. It was smaller than the washroom he, Cantiel, and Jasel shared, but that was to be expected. Although they weren't unheard of, women were rare in the Department of Arms. Liall herself was known to be the first female apprentice Master Samran had taken on since assuming his position. Other than that, there didn't seem to be anything amiss. The room had a larger window that overlooked the gardens and the grove, he noticed. Moonlight filtered in through the window, the solitary figure of the Spire towering in the distance.
He turned towards the wall the shadow had examined. It was a stone wall, occupying one end of the bathroom. It looked as though it had once held a painting at some point—there was a hook high up on the wall—but the painting had been removed. Valien reached a hand out towards it slowly, hesitating. He drew his hand back, taking a deep breath. His eyes narrowed in renewed resolve, and he took a step forward, moving to place his free hand on the wall.
A hand closed over his wrist.
Valien tensed, getting ready to attack, but a voice stopped him.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" asked Liall, jerking him around to face her. Her eyes were narrowed dangerously as she glared at him.
"Liall," said Valien, quickly. "I can explain!"
Liall stepped forward, her fists clenched. Valien took a step back reflexively as she moved towards him, raising his hands up in defense. "This room is the only room in this whole freaking department that hasn't been turned into some disgusting man cave, and if you think for one second that I am just going to let you waltz right in here and—."
"Liall, there's someone in here!" said Valien.
"Yeah, no shit, genius. It's a dangerous girl with a sword who's freaking pissed at you. You've got till three to get out—"
"Goddammit, Liall, shut up for a minute and listen!" said Valien, clenching his fists and stepping forward. Liall glared at him but stopped talking, her mouth twisted in a scowl. Valien stared at her for a moment, then turned away, facing the wall. "I saw someone come in here," he said, placing his hands on the wall and running his fingers over the stone. "They were messing with this wall. I think it's kind of suspicious."
"…Why do you say that?" asked Liall after a few moments. She was still frowning, but it was a more thoughtful frown now, and she was staring at the wall too.
"I've never seen the inside of this room before," said Valien, crouching down and running his fingers along the edge of the wall.
"Well, of course," said Liall, rolling her eyes. "It's a women's bath."
"It's smaller than I expected."
"Well, sorry," said Liall, folding her arms. "It's not exactly the lap of luxury."
"Not what I meant," said Valien, not looking up at her. "It's bigger on the outside than it is on the inside."
The silence told him that Liall was thinking over what he said. After a while, she spoke.
"So you're saying…" she began.
"Either the room was built with damn thick walls, or…"
"Yeah," said Liall, quiet now. "Or."
Valien's heart pounded with excitement as his fingers worked, carefully slipping into every crevice of the stone and feeling around through every crack. His muscles coiled with a familiar tension, his body humming with barely-restrained energy. He knew this feeling well.
Valien Altare was about to discover a secret.
His fingers found the trigger, pressing down on it and releasing it.
Noiselessly—suspiciously noiselessly—a great chunk of the stone wall slid back, revealing a narrow set of stairs, just wide enough for one person to walk through. The stairs seemed to go down forever, disappearing into the inky blackness. Valien and Liall stared, peering down into it, but they couldn't see the bottom.
Liall straightened up. "I'll get the others," she said, suddenly serious.
"Bring my sword," said Valien as she went. "And a light."
Liall nodded, heading towards the door.
"And Liall?" asked Valien, glancing at her.
She looked back, a frown on her face. Valien raised an eyebrow.
"Disgusting man cave?"
She rolled her eyes at him, slipping off into the night.
It seemed forever until she came back, although Valien knew that it couldn't have been longer than three minutes. He spent them staring into the passage, torn between his natural curiosity and the urge to tell Master Samran before any of them came to any harm. But how much harm could there be? It was just a secret exit. Not the first Valien had seen, just the best-constructed. There was no point in raising alarm if he didn't know where it went.
Liall returned with Jasel and Cantiel, both of whom were clutching their swords, blinking sleep out of their eyes. She tossed Valien's blade to him and he caught it by the sheath, belting it to his side. The two other apprentices clustered around him, immediately awake.
"How did you find this?" asked Jasel, turning towards Valien.
"I thought I heard someone walking around and came out here to look when I realized it wasn't any of you," explained Valien. His hands moved as he worked, going through the now-familiar motions of belting his sword to his side. He tugged the strap into place. "I saw someone messing with this wall."
Cantiel frowned, staring into the passage. "He went through here?" he asked.
"No," said Valien, straightening up. "He vanished."
Jasel frowned. "Vanished?" he asked.
"He was here," said Valien, gesturing at the wall. "And then he was gone."
"Valien, are you sure you weren't dreaming?"
Valien opened his mouth and then thought better of it, the denial dying in his throat. When it came down to it, he wasn't sure. It seemed too absurd, that a shadow would be here and lead him to this exact passage. But at the same time…Valien had never dreamed this way before. He was usually sure of when someone was sneaking around and when they weren't.
It could have been a trick of his mind. Maybe he was so unused to having nothing to fear that he was simply inventing shadows. But it still didn't explain the passage.
He shrugged. "Maybe," he said. "I don't know. The point is, the passage exists. What do we do about it?"
"Any idea where it leads?" asked Jasel.
"No clue," said Liall, shaking her head. "It's too dark down there to tell." She held up her hand, revealing a small hand lantern and some matches. "That's why I brought a light."
"I say we tell Master Samran," said Cantiel. "It's none of our business what's down there."
"It'd be a waste to give it up without even seeing where it goes though," said Valien. "I mean, come on, you can't tell me you're not curious."
Cantiel looked unsure. Jasel frowned, glancing from Valien to Liall.
"Well, I'm curious," he admitted. "A quick peek won't hurt anyone."
Outwardly, Valien nodded at his friend. Inwardly, he cheered in excitement. He turned towards Liall. "Liall?" he asked.
Liall's response was to give him a flat stare. "I'm holding the damn light," she said, shaking it.
"Then it's settled," said Jasel. "Cantiel, you can stay and keep watch if you like."
"Forget it," said Cantiel, shaking his head. "If all three of you are going, I'm coming along. You aren't leaving me here to face Master Samran alone."
"Speaking of," said Jasel, taking a step back. "Give me just one second."
He slipped out of the door. Valien and the others waited for a few moments, Valien shifting from foot to foot in impatience. Jasel returned in a few moments, a small pocket watch in his hand. "We need to know when to be back," he said, closing the door to the washroom behind him.
"Good idea," said Valien, nodding.
"So…" said Jasel. "If we're all in agreement…"
Liall nodded, striking the fuse. It caught, the lamp flickering to life and illuminating the room in a dull orange light. She stepped into the passage. Jasel and Cantiel followed, with Valien trailing behind the group. He found a door handle on the back of the wall, and slid it back into place. It clicked, and he made sure it was closed fully before releasing the metal handle, nodding at the others.
They descended down the long flight of stairs.
The stairs went down and down for a long time, continuing on into the distance. They were caked in a layer of dust that puffed up underneath their boots as they walked. It had been a long time since someone had last used this passage, Valien realized. A very long time. He counted off steps in his head, trying to determine how far down they were going, but the darkness made everything difficult.
The stairway was oppressive. It was narrow enough that they had to walk in single-file, the walls close beside them on either side. For a moment, Valien thought that it was never going to end, but then the ground flattened and the passage widened by a great amount, enough to allow the four of them to walk side-by-side if they wished to. They gathered loosely around the center of the tunnel, continuing to walk.
"We're underground, probably," Liall commented.
"Yeah," said Valien, nodding in agreement. There wasn't enough room in the building to hide a tunnel this size. Underground seemed the most plausible idea. He tried to imagine what must be on the ground above him, attempting to match up his knowledge of the Academy with the path that stretched on in front of him. Now, they were walking underneath the gardens. A few minutes later, the grove, and a few minutes later, the field.
It was when the ground began to slope upwards again that Valien suddenly realized where this was going. The ground spiraled up into another narrow passage, although not as narrow as the first one, curving into a spiral. Liall took the lead, shining the lantern high above her as they rose higher and higher, until at last the passage leveled off and they found themselves standing in front of a door.
Jasel glanced at his pocket watch. "Fifteen minutes," he commented.
Fifteen minutes. Valien made a mental note of the time in his head. Liall placed her hand on the doorknob, looking back at them. The four of them exchanged glances, and Valien and the others nodded. Liall nodded back, trying the door.
"Locked," she said with a frown, stepping back.
There were murmurs of disappointment. Cantiel stared up at the door, a scowl on his face. He reached forward, shaking it. The door was old, but it seemed to be made of solid wood. It didn't have any weak points, and it wouldn't buckle.
"Door's solid enough," he said. "We could probably cut through it."
"Bad idea," said Jasel. "We don't know where we are. We can't replace the door if we destroy it."
"So what, then?" asked Liall, looking disappointed. "Are we just gonna head back?"
Valien frowned, staring at the door. It was an old wooden door, reinforced with metal bands that crisscrossed against it. The knob was old as well, but it was made of metal, and Valien had the feeling that he knew what type of lock lay beneath it. His fingers itched.
"Guess we don't have much of a choice," said Jasel.
Valien took a deep breath. "Give me a minute," he said, stepping forward and past them. He crouched down in front of the lock, peering into it. His guess was right. It was a primitive lock, but of a kind that he was familiar with. His hand reached for his knife.
"Valien…?" asked Liall, confused.
He ignored her, raising his knife up to eye level and removing a piece of the hilt. He shook the hilt out into his hand, a thin sliver of metal falling into it. It had been a memento from Azimor, one of the few things Valien had owned since then. His knife, with the hollowed out hilt, perfect for hiding a single lock pick.
He had promised Master Samran no thieving, but that didn't mean he couldn't open doors when the situation called for it.
He had it open in less than two minutes. Valien leaned back as he heard the telltale click, sliding the lock pick back into its hiding place and stowing the knife. He was relieved, and quite proud of himself. After five months, it looked like his skills were still sharp.
It took him a moment to realize he had an audience. Jasel, Liall and Cantiel stared, and Jasel had a slightly disapproving look in his eye. Valien rose to his feet, feeling self-conscious as he dusted his knees off.
"Door's open," he said.
"I guessed," said Liall. "Where'd you learn to do that?"
"Long story," said Valien. He placed his hand on the doorknob, opening it and letting it swing open.
Liall grumbled under her breath, but obligingly stepped through with him, holding the light up. The four of them stared.
The room they were standing in was a circular room. It was about as large as their bedroom, but it was difficult to tell, because every spare surface of the room seemed like it was covered in books. Books of all shapes and sizes dominated the room, with a smattering of furniture tossed here and there. Unlike in the passageway, there was no dust, just as there had been no dust by the door. That alone unnerved him.
A window stood across from them, the Academy's banner flying in the crisp night air. It took Valien a moment to realize what he was looking at. He was looking at the main hall, from a height that was taller than it was.
There was only one place on the Academy that was as tall as that.
He knew at that moment, without a doubt, where they were.
They were inside the Spire.