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A low pitched scraping noise echos through the chamber followed by shaking, I nearly fall on my butt but steady myself on the wall.

Vivi looks back at me and almost jumps back down the stairs, “It opened!” She grabs my arm and tugs me through the opened doorway. As we breach the entryway the room lights up to many times more than the rest of the ruin. We take a few moments for our eyes to adjust.

“Cool,” Vivi says.

Cool is one way to put it. It’s as though we walked into a completely different place. Unlike the rough stone walls of the higher level of the ruin, the floor, wall and ceiling are all smooth tile. The barricades also seem to be more robust, as bolts line the perimeter on the left and right doors, combining multiple sheets of steel.

I probably won’t be able to convince the kids this time that Vivi’s opening the doors, if I can even open them. The keypads next to the doors are lit now, if I’m right, the bypass switches won’t work if the keypads have power.

The center of this room has a marble pedestal jutting up from the floor. On top is a black chest no bigger than a box of tissue paper. It’s trimmed in gold and silver. I walk around the pedestal, looking for some sort of switch or mechanism hidden from view, as a trap, but I see nothing.

Vivi is walking close beside me watching what I’m doing.

Vivi may seem a bit dense at times, but I think it’s just her background. She is very curious and I think with the right motivation she could go far. Her abnormal strength doesn’t hurt either.

“Vivi,” I ask, curious.

“Yes?” Vivi replies.

“Do you cultivate?” I wonder.

“Some, but I find it so boring,” Vivi informs. She gets close to me and whispers, “Plus, I have a gift.”

“Oh yeah, what’s that?” I ask.

“Secret!” Vivi replies with a giggle.

I chuckle, “Well, we all have gifts,” I say as I stand in front of the pedestal, looking at it for any signs of foul play. I’m sure her gift is her unusual strength and physical dexterity, which she’s terrible at hiding. “You know what though?” I ask, as I touch the box.

“What?” Vivi replies, hovering a bit close.

“As cultivators advance, each Realm is a many times stronger than the last,” I pause focusing my attention to the task, I look around and see nothing untoward has happened since I put my hand on the box. I lift the box up, looking under it as I do, all clear.

I look Vivi in the eyes, “I think that would apply to you as well.”

Vivi gets excited and blurts, “Even though I’m…” she stops herself and moves in closer.

“Even though I’m more than ten times stronger than normal, without cultivating?” Vivi whispers.

More than ten times, without cultivating, lucky kid. “Maybe, but without question, everyone in the realm above us is stronger than you.”

“Hey,” Bola interrupts. I turn to him and see him next to one of the keypads. “These seem to work,” he continues, pressing buttons on the keypad.

Bola is an idiot, a bonafide idiot. I chastise him, “Stop mucking about, we don’t know what that does.”

“Duh, it opens the door,” Bola mocks as he continues to punch away at the keys.

I frown at Bola and growl. It’s not very effective. This reminds me of his stupid jaunt in the maze because he was trying to impress Reena. What’s with him?

I look at the door and try to find a trace from it to a button that opens the door. I see an unclear trace that leads down to the floor but unlike the others, the button that I would usually push has no color to it. It’s inactive.

I continue to look at the entryway and notice on the floor in front of the doors are circles leading away from the door frame for a few feet, then across the entryway and back to the door. I look at the ceiling and see the same pattern of circles. I start to get a knot in my gut.

“Bola, quit that, now!” I yell.

“Calm down, he’s just playing around,” Vivi says.

I start walking toward him from the pedestal and when I reach three feet from him a loud “shhht” sound comes from the ceiling with a loud snap. Metal bars have dropped from the ceiling at blazing speed. The panel was outside the perimeter and Bola’s wrist was in the way of one of the rods.

“Ahhh!” Bola screams, “Kracken’s knockers tugging on Griblin’s giblets that hurt.” He’s holding his left wrist with his right hand. The hand and part of his forearm is hanging down, his shirt is torn open from the impact. He doesn’t appear to be bleeding much. His arm is definitely broken though.

“Are you okay Bola?” Vivi says rushing to the bars. She grabs hold of them and tries to pry them apart to no avail. “This stuff is tough.”

“Vivi, do you remember your way through the maze?” I ask, locking eyes with her.

“Yes,” Vivi nods vigorously.

“Run and get someone to help, I’ll stay here,” I request, I see she’s about to complain when I add, “You’re twice as fast as me and someone should stay here with him.

“The rest of you lot, clear out, the less people here the better,” I chastise. It must be something in my tone because they all go back up the stairs. Ian and Vora have a better sense of direction than Vivi does so they should be fine.

"Okay, but I need to tell you something first,” Vivi says, she looks at Bola who’s got tears in his eyes, “Turn around Bola.”

Bola stands there I guess in confusion, “Why?”

Vivi growls at him and ignores him, she takes my hands in hers which confuses me. She stands nine inches taller than me, tall for a girl her age. Her light brown hair is up in twin buns on either side of her head, her bangs cascade over the right side of her face. I see her face flush and she rushes forward, dips down and kisses me on the cheek.

Before I can process what she just did she’s already bolting toward the exit.

“Wow, if you both weren’t so flat and I weren’t in so much pain, that’d be hot in a way.”

“Shut up Bola,” I glare with a blush. I’m not sure what just happened, but I push it out of my mind for now.

“Let me see your arm,” I ask.

Bola tries to push his broken arm through the bars but stops when part of his appendage hits a bar eliciting a cry of pain.

“Just hold your arm near the bars,” I command.

Bola does so and I put my hands through the bars, I take care to unbutton his sleeve and pull the cloth away to reveal a mangled mess. I’d say he was lucky but his forearm looks to have shattered under the impact. I’m not a doctor so I don’t know how to set it, or if it’s something that can be set without pins.

I look up to Bola who is wincing at the small bit of touching I’ve been doing to his arm.

“Sorry, I can’t do anything with it,” I admit, not sure what compelled me to look in the first place.

Bola smiles, “It’s okay, knowing that you care means a lot.” He has to stoop to let me even look at his arm. When he’s not being a dingbat he’s not so bad.

We both look up as a rumbling starts, dust falls from the ceiling as the section of stone inside the cage starts to scoot its way down from the main room’s ceiling.

Shit, I have no idea what to do. I look back to where I thought I saw the trace from the door and try to press the button but nothing happens. I look around the door with fervor in hopes I missed something. I look up after a few minutes and see the ceiling has moved down three inches.

“Anessa,” Bola says in a calm voice.

“Yes Bola?”

“This may sound stupid, but could you hold my hand?” Bola requests.

“Sure,”

Bola sticks his right hand out of the cage while sitting down and I hold it. We don’t say anything and I keep looking while holding onto his hand.

Two hours pass, Bola has moved to lower his form as much as he can.

I’m crying because the more I look the less I seem to see.

Bola’s breathing is loud and labored, the last thing he says to me is, “Tell Reena” He breathes in a few times and coughs, “I love her.” I hear a crack and his breathing gets worse. A moment later, another crack, then another.

I’m holding Bola’s hand and crying, closing my eyes tight. I don’t move when I feel a warm sticky fluid cover my feet and knees.

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Allen Clark Copeland, Jr.

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