Quara would later tell the story, and say that the shaking went on for at least ten minutes, but whenever she made the claim when Lina was in the room, Lina would laugh and shake her head. Still she never corrected her sister.
When the shaking began Lina had begun to count. The first time she counted to ten. There was a pause. In that moment Lina was internally berating herself for bringing Quara down under the tower after the earlier explosions, as if she could have predicted the outcome of the nearby mining. The second time the shaking lasted for exactly thirty six seconds, although it did feel like it was much longer, particularly to Quara. Time has a tendency to stretch itself out so that seconds feel like hours when the world feels as though it has come crashing down about you.
The crack that they heard was the great spiral staircase, which was suspended along the interior wall of the tower, breaking free of its supports. If they had been up above, peering through the door, they would have seen it suspended for just a moment by its own rather flexible yet surprisingly sturdy structure before it came crashing down, from top to bottom, so that all that remained was an open space that ran from the map room on the top floor to the level area where the bottom of the staircase had once been. And had they been at the top of ladder they would have seen that it was no longer flat at all, but a jumble of stone stairs and metal supports, smashed into a variety of pieces that would in no way help them reach the large, arch shaped doorway that led to the library and that now opened from the library into a twenty length drop. When the half minute of shaking stopped the rubble was piled mostly up from the tower’s base, on the far side, away from the door, rising nearly five lengths from where the first pieces had landed.
They would never see any of that though, at least as it was in that moment after the third blast, which had lasted for a mere twenty two seconds. Lina didn’t manage to count when the shaking started up again. The two girls lay in the bed, eyes closed, hands clasped, nearly certain that the entire palace was going to come crashing down upon them. There was a sound, very much like thunder and as the sound came rushing towards them Quara squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her free hand against her forehead. The clatter and crashes around them, of things falling or tipping over in the room itself, seemed like nothing compared to the sounds that came from overhead.
Less than two minutes after the shaking began it stopped and silence descended over the entire City. Its outer walls remained standing. The trajectory of the vein that the miners were following had led them to blast just to the north of, and slightly below, the City itself, missing the City’s old mine by a relatively small span of space. The girls stayed in the bed, staring up at the grey ceiling less than a length above their heads, for nearly ten minutes before either of them dared get up.
“Do you think it’s over?” Quara was the first to speak and her voice shook, as though the adrenalin that was pumping through her veins caused even her words to tremble.
“For now. They detonated all three sets of explosives, which is how they usually work.”
“What do you think that sound was?”
“I’m not entirely sure. But there were only two options of what could fall in the tower above us.” Lina pointed and flexed her toes and then flung her legs over the side of the bed as she moved to sit up.
“And they are?” Quara bit her lip and continued to stay in the small safe bed as she waited for her sister’s response.
“The staircase or the top level of the tower. I guess you could count the roof itself too, but for that to reach us the floor of the map room would have had to collapse too, which maybe isn’t really a stretch if the roof caved in.”
“Those all sound bad. Really bad. ”
“They are. But you heard the crashing. It was horrible. It was certainly far more than books falling off of shelves. Oh the library!” Lina was sitting up. She shook her head as she pictured the state that the library was likely in after being racked with the waves that had shaken the palace and the entire City around it. Then she stepped forward so that she could peer up the ladder and survey the doorway above.
“This is without a doubt the very, very worst thing that possibly could have happened. I mean short of the ceiling collapsing and us being crushed all at once. Or maybe that would have been better. Because this. This is bad.” Lina was standing, staring at the ceiling. Her words came out in short half sentences and she took a deep breath between each one, as if steeling herself against what she was seeing.
“What is it?” Quara was finally sitting up.
“See for yourself.” Lina moved towards the ladder. “Maybe it isn’t as bad as it looks. Maybe I can budge it somehow.” Quara rolled to the edge of the bed as her sister continued speaking and stood on shaking legs, moving towards the middle of the room.
Casting her eyes upwards she followed her sister’s slight form as she moved quickly up towards the doorway, or at least, towards the space that had once been the doorway. Now, in the place where the door opening had once been, there was a solid wall of grey slabs, broken here and there, and with one gap, hardly larger than her hand, near the top that led away into darkness, or just as likely, into the center of an enormous pile of splintered and broken stairs. Lina reached the top of the ladder and held tightly with one hand while pushing on a few promising looking stones with all her strength.
“Be careful, Sis.” Quara called the words out, feeling as though one of the rocks had sunk deep into the pit of her stomach. The rocks above didn’t budge even a fraction in any direction, no matter how she pushed. After trying every surface that she could reach, Lina climbed down, far slower in her descent than she had been when she scrambled upwards, and sank onto one of the two chairs that stood next to the small table. “Well. This adventure has certainly taken a turn, hasn’t it?” She chose her words carefully, watching her sister’s face, “Because at the moment it looks like we’re trapped.”
“The best case scenario would be if they break through and find us. But we can’t count on that possibility. I was in the City for a year before I came upon this place. And while there’s more of them than there was of just me by myself, and while, if they end up in the city they’ll nearly certainly head straight for the palace, we can’t depend on that fact. Because we don’t even know if they’ve made it in or if they’re chasing some vein of gold deeper down under the City.”
“The City’s mines lay mostly to the south and east of the City. There’s a fair chance that they’ll miss us altogether. I mean of all the directions they could go how likely is it that they’ll take the one that brings us exactly to the point that they need to be at to break through. Besides the fact is that we have no idea if there are any defenses beyond the city’s natural stone walls. Are they reinforced in any way?” Lina had sat in the chair for nearly five minutes before she began to speak again and as she spoke Quara was struck by the distinct feeling that she was mostly speaking aloud to herself.
“I’d be surprised if they weren’t. I don’t imagine the builders of this great city leaving absolutely anything at all to chance. Do you?” Snapping out of her monologue she turned to her sister and looked at her expectantly, waiting for a reply.
“I don’t know. I can see the walls not being reinforced. I mean this city is deep, deep within a solid granite mountain. Isn’t that protection enough? What other protection would they need? I can see the gates being reinforced. I imagine they were quite grand, but the actual walls deep below the surface, buried under all that granite? What could possibly reach them here if it wasn’t through a tunnel? And with tunnels that exist, what need would there ever have been to barrel through solid stone to get here when paths, like the one we came through, already existed?”
“Preventing anyone from sneaking in?” Lina stood and walked back over to the bed, then knelt to scoop the little light source up from where she had left it, next to the pillow. Quara realized that she must have rolled over it and not felt the small glowing light. “The entrances were guarded. Anyone who tried to come in that way would have, at the very least, been announced long before they made it to the City itself. And besides they would have been met with force and probably traps, just like the ones that lead into the Cavern.” Straightening Lina walked back across the room and placed the light on the center of the table, then sat heavily, tracing its shape with the tip of her finger. “I’m not saying that they did reinforce the walls for certain. I’m just saying that it’s a definite possibility. I have a feeling that the rulers of this place left little to chance in the defense of their kingdom. Why else build a place like this? Were they hiding from something?”
“Did you find anything in all those books you’ve obviously read?” It was Quara’s turn to stand and pace back and forth across the room, casting her eyes upward now and then up at the blocked doorway.
“Not a word. There’s talk about the City originally being the home of a dragon. And then there’s talk of the City when it’s small, and began as a mining village, but I never found any books that told the in between story. Although I guess that’s hardly surprising. There are so many books up there and I only had so much time.” Lina shrugged.
“So that’s the only way out of here?”
“As far as I know.” As her sister answered Quara climbed up the ladder, placing her hands and feet carefully until she reached the top and pressed on the stone barricade, hoping for a different outcome.
“Please by careful.” Lina said the words in a worried tone and Quara rolled her eyes.
“I’m not that clumsy,” she called back over her shoulder.
“Actually you really are. Which is why I’d rather you be down here with your feet on solid ground.”
Shaking her head, Quara didn’t respond, but climbed rather quickly back down to the ground. “How thoroughly have you explored this room?”
“Thoroughly? See for yourself. Look around. There isn’t much to it.” Lina made a sweeping gesture with one arm in a wide circle around the room. “There’s the bed. Let’s look under it, shall we?” Standing she strode across the room and knelt down then pressed her cheek against the cold stone floor as she looked under it. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Springing to her feet she strode back to the small table. “Nothing’s hiding near the table. There’s no rug in this room. And I’ve read most of the books in the book shelf. There’s not much more to this place than that. For the most part it’s just a big, empty room.” She sank back down into the seat and stared up at the doorway.
“You’ve read most of the books in the bookshelf, but not all of them, right?”
“Not all I guess.” Lina glanced back over her shoulder at the shelf.
“Well than maybe we do have hope. Think about it. This is an old castle. Ancient really. It must be full of secret passages. Who knows, maybe one even leads to this very room.” Quara crossed the room quickly and stood before the book shelf, her hands at her sides.
“Wars of Za’Reek. A History of the Kings of Charcha. Charchan Coats of Arms. The Centaur Wars. Charchan Law, Volumes 1 through 22.” Quara glanced at Lina and raised an eyebrow than carefully tipped each of the books on law forward, obviously hoping that one would trigger a switch of some sort and reveal a secret door offering them a way out. “Granite Caves and Caverns, Living Under Ground: A Practical Guide, The Royal House of Charcha: A Genealogy, Mining and Mining Cities.” Quara began to read the titles silently to herself as she moved from shelf to shelf until Lina was certain that she had half removed each and every book from their places, carefully sliding them back into their slots against the wooden backing of the shelf.
“On the Plains of Za’Reek. That’s the last one.” She pushed the book into place with the palm of her hand and her face fell. “I’d hoped…” She let the words trail off into silence.
“I know.” Lina stood and stalked back across the room to stand at the bottom of the ladder staring upward.
“It makes me wish that we’d told someone where we were going.” Quara said the words in a small voice, and Lina knew that if she looked back in her sister’s direction she would see her brushing tears off her cheeks quietly with the back of her hand.
“Not me.” Lina forced her voice to sound confident. “This isn’t the tightest spot I’ve ever been in and I’m sure that I can get us out.” As she said the words she wondered if they were true, or if she was just trying to comfort Quara because she was obviously terrified. Lina wasn’t entirely certain. She had certainly been in some tough predicaments before, but had any of them been more hopeless than being trapped in the bottom of a tower, underground, in a forgotten ancient city that was buried deep within the earth? She had been to the City plenty of times and never once had she had a moment’s trouble. Now it seemed that all the trouble from years past had accumulated and poured over them in this one moment.
“Quara, do you remember when you did that project on levers? And it was all you talked about for a month?”
“I don’t think it was all I talked about.”
“It was. It really and truly was. But if it gets us out of here that might not be a bad thing. Do you think that if we could find a piece of wood long enough that we might be able to slip it through that hole there and press down on it to try to shift the stones? I mean it’s a long shot, but it’s all we’ve really got right now.”
“What would we use for the wooden lever?” Quara glanced at the table and chest than turned to stare at the frame of the bed that lifted the little mattress above the floor of the small cave it was shoved into, but none of those pieces of furniture seemed up to the task.
“There’s only one thing in here that would work.” Lina was already halfway across the room. Walking up to the ladder she put one shoulder under a rung and used her body to push the entire thing up quickly, so that it came free from the four metal hooks that held it in place.
“But if the ladder was broken apart to use as a lever, how will we get it up high enough to insert the end through the hole?” Quara was watching her sister with wide eyes willing her to understand that the prospect of being down here ladder-less, would only make things much, much worse.
“I think we can take it apart. But before we do I’ll show you how I’ll get high enough to insert the lever. Help me empty the book shelf.” Quara didn’t move and so Lina continued to explain her plan while moving towards the books and shoveling them by the armload onto the bed. “We’ll move the bookshelf over next to the far side of the bed away from the door. We can brace it against the end of the bed with the table. I’ll have you steady it. Then I can climb up and stand on top of it while I put one of the long lengths of the ladder into the opening. It went nearly all the way up to the ceiling of this room, so it was longer than the height from the floor to the door to begin with and hopefully that space on the other side of that hole will be big enough that it will go a good ways through. I mean, maybe we’ll just widen the hole and we’ll be able to see our way out from there.” Both girls knew that that was extremely unlikely, but they were clinging to any ideas that offered hope and with their limited resources, ideas were scarce.
Quara bit her tongue to keep from telling her sister that the plan wouldn’t work. She was certain it wouldn’t, but glancing around she had nothing better to offer. Grabbing a stick and trying to pry some of those rocks free really did seem to be their only option in that moment. It gave them something to do and perhaps a small measure of hope to distract them from their imaginings of what would happen if they couldn’t find a way out, which was better than sitting still at the table and feeling the walls shrink in around them. Stifling a sigh Quara picked up a half dozen books and carefully lowered them onto the bed, wincing as her sister dumped another arm load on top of the ones she’d already left piled in a neat stack.
“Could you be a little more careful? These things are ancient.” Quara took the next load of books from her sister’s arms before she could dump them on the bed and carefully laid them in place.
“They don’t seem ancient. Haven’t you noticed? Nothing here does. It’s somehow all been preserved. It’s like they all got up and left yesterday, instead of however many thousands of years it’s actually been. There’s no dust anywhere. None of it really makes sense.”
“It’s almost like we’ve stepped into a fairy tale.” Quara ran a hand over the books and shook her head before heading back to the book shelf. “Except that something tells me that there’s no handsome prince charging up the steps of the city to the palace to rescue us.”
“We don’t need a prince to rescue us.” Lina said the words with far more bravado than she actually felt, because in truth she would have been thrilled to hear just about anyone digging through the rubble that was piled up above them, blocking the doorway. Quara rolled her eyes in response and lowered another armful of books onto the mattress.
For a time they worked in silence, moving back and forth across the room. “Do you ever wonder about the person who lived here?”
“It looks like a servant’s room to me. Doesn’t it?” Lina dropped another load of books onto the ones that were already in danger of tipping over. The new additions sent the entire formation toppling and spilling back towards the wall.
“I don’t know many servants that would have had a bookshelf like that one in their personal quarters.”
“Maybe it belonged to the librarian.”
“Maybe.” Quara sounded as though she didn’t think so.
“Why does it matter anyways? Knowing whose room this was isn’t going to get us out of here any faster.” Quara shook her head and remained silent. Lina was obviously far more upset than she was trying to appear. Quara was certain that she too recognized the direness of their situation, despite her attempts at appearing unfazed by their predicament.
“Here’s the last book.” Quara glanced at the book in her hand as she carried it across the room. Dragons: Ally or Foe? was a fairly large emerald green book bound in leather, with large gold letters embossed across the front and spine. Faintly shimmering across the leather were tiny scales, printed in the faintest of gold. She set the last book down on the table and turned back towards the book shelf. “Now how do you propose that we start to move it? And how do we keep it from tipping over? Is it anchored to the wall? I’m surprised it didn’t tip over during the shaking.”
Now it was Lina’s turn to shake her head as she surveyed the bookshelf. “I’m little but I’m strong. I’m lower to the ground than you are. Do you remember last year when Xav was having such a hard time moving his chest of stuff down to the barracks? He could barely get his trunk to budge a hand span. And when I asked him if he wanted my help he laughed at me. But he wasn’t laughing for long when I pushed it all the way across the floor to the front door. Of course he wouldn’t let me take it any further because he couldn’t have his little sister taking his trunk in for him, so he got Iggy to help and they slowly got it all the way to the end of his bed. But it was far easier for me, at least on a flat, smooth surface. It’s because I’m little and so close to the ground.” Lina had crossed the room as she spoke and stood with her right leg forward and bent, half crouching as dipped her right shoulder and placed it against the shelf.
“Do you want my help?” Quara was standing with her arms awkwardly at her sides, clearly not entirely sure what the best way to help would be.
“I think it would help the most if you stand right over there.” Lina pointed over her shoulder at the opposite end of the room.
“Don’t let it tip over on you.”
“Quara. Hush. Let me concentrate. Of course I don’t want to be crushed.” Taking a deep breath she pressed with all her strength against the shelf. It was tall and heavy. Once it moved a bit she would try to ease it away from the wall to get her hand behind it and begin to guide it, inch by inch, across the room. She thought she could make a half circle of sorts to bring it back around next to the bed. Either direction that she could push it in involved a turn of sorts, and while heading away from the bed was a slightly longer route, she hoped that a more gradual turn would be less likely to bring the enormous shelf crashing down. She knew that Quara was right to worry. The shelf could easily topple and smash down on the solid stone floor. And then what would they use. Their options were few in the sparsely decorated room.
When Lina began to push she expected the bookshelf to move a fraction of a hand span, if at all. Instead it slid easily across the floor, moving at least a length all at once so that she stumbled and put out the hand closest to the wall to catch herself. She registered a momentary surprise when her hand met nothing but empty space and she crashed down heavily into the spot where the book shelf had been a moment before.
“I guess we didn’t need to move the books.” Quara knew that her sister was fine, she always was. Instead her attention was fixed not on the smaller girl who was rubbing her shoulder and bending and straightening her right elbow as if she was checking to make sure that they were still in working order, but on the space behind her. “I have a feeling that that shelf was made to move when it was fully loaded.”
“What makes you say that?” Lina asked as she flexed her ankles and stretched out her knees.
“Because my guess is that whoever lived here wanted to have access to that opening that’s right behind you. And he only would have had that if he could easily move the shelf.” Lina stared at Quara for a long moment, frozen in place as she processed her sister’s words. Then slowly she got to her feet and turned to look at the spot where the bookshelf had stood a moment earlier.
It was a half-length away from where she’d landed, a gaping black door only just smaller than the bookshelf that had been placed directly in front of the doorway to conceal its existence.
“I guess we have a way out of this room.” Quara said the words with a sigh, obviously not entirely certain that this option was any better than staying in the room and dying of dehydration. “Let’s just hope that whatever lays on the other side of it isn’t worse than the fate that we’re trying to escape.”
“What could be worse than sitting around and waiting to die?” Lina said the words with a smile and a shrug as she peered ahead into the darkness and with those words she reached her hand down and pulled the light from her pocket and took her first step forward, holding her hand before her to light up the pitch black passageway that she prayed would bring them a way to escape.