By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: Deep down in the forest, you discover a cavern with a perfectly rectangular tunnel and stairs going deep into the earth. As you go down the stairs, you find a city. A GIGANTIC city.
Ten years ago if you’d told me that everything in my life would bring me to this moment, I would probably have asked you to share your cache of liquor. Only someone drunk off his rocker could have predicted I’d make it here to this forest. But now as I stood in front of the entrance to the cavern, goosebumps bristled on my arms. A tingling sensation began at the base of my neck and undulated down my spine.
I’d read about the forest in a discredited book. No one wanted to believe the forest was real, that it could exist. That someone had accomplished this.
They’d dug the cavern and grown the forest around it. And now I stood at the mouth of this magnificent space, and the dimensions of the tunnel going down came so close to the dimensions described in the book I wondered if someone had stood here as they wrote. The 12’x14’ gaping rectangle beckoned me to descend into its wonders.
I looked over my shoulder. No one, really, knew I was here. I wondered whether I should take a moment to document this event, this turning point in my life. I settled for taking the waterproof bag out of its pouch in my backpack and emptying the pack of all the nonessentials: tissues; my large digital camera (the phone would do); translation guide; extra pens and notebooks; and extra socks. Everything else, from my compass to granola bars to my Swiss army knife stayed.
After one last look around outside the cavern, I started going down the stairs.
The builders had added a metal pole for a banister, which I appreciated. The lower I descended into the earth, the more moisture appeared on the stone steps. Clearly someone had carved them with great precision but not necessarily for recreational use. No, these stairs served a purpose. Their utilitarian nature pleased me. For too many people the frills in life held more attraction than the core matters.
As I descended the temperature dropped, of course, and I stopped about seven or eight stops from the bottom to pull a sweatshirt out of my backpack. I tugged it on and continued moving downward. So intent was I on making sure I didn’t slip that at first the torch escaped my notice. When I reached the bottom of the staircase, however, its light, in blazing contrast to the inky blackness of everything around me, arrested my attention.
Someone else had been here. Recently.
I hesitated then pulled the torch out of its holder and held it aloft. That’s what I saw it. The object of my travels.
That tingling on the back of my neck returned, and excitement released a rush of adrenaline so strong that my hand began to shake. I grabbed my wrist with my other hand and forced myself to calm down. I had made it this far; I couldn’t let my emotions cloud my judgment now.
But how could this wonder fit in this cavern? The ceiling of the cavern, I realized then, reached so high I couldn’t see it. Not with my torch. After a few attempts, I brought the torch back down and approached the metal gates in front of me.
The gates stood at least ten feet tall in a fortified wall that was at least twice that height. Still the ceiling of the cavern rose far above it. An insignia in the metal repeated at regular intervals in the wall, but both looked refined. There was nothing primitive about either. This wall, and presumably the city behind it, were designed and built by people with considerable skill and sophisticated tools.
The book everyone had discounted, that served as a collection of the finest dust in the university library, had been right. Those I’d spoken to about it—the scholars; the professors; even historians—they were all wrong. Just before putting my hand to the gates to request entrance, I put my backpack on the ground and fought with the zipper with one hand before finally managing to yank it open. I fished around for my iPhone and swiped across the screen for the camera app.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
The voice jolted me and made me drop my phone as my head jerked up. The metal gates had swung open so quietly; somehow I had expected them to creak open like in the movies. But if nothing else about this place fit the paradigm of the accepted, how could I have expected this to be any different?
I raised the torch so I could see the speaker. The woman with dark hair and eyes stepped forward and held out a hand.
“Give the torch to me.”
Numb with disbelief, I did as she asked.
I rose. We were about equal height, but her disconcerting gaze made me feel much smaller and younger. Without knowing why, I lowered my eyes to the ground.
“You are right to humble yourself in front of the great city,” she said. “Those who come here either do so by invitation or by compulsion. Of those who come, no one leaves.”
My head snapped back up, and my heartbeat fluttered as it increased in pace. What had I done? What did this mean?
The woman narrowed her eyes. “You were not invited.”
The back of my throat burned with a scream as she grabbed my arm and yanked me forward.