Depth

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2015 Barrett Winner

3rd Place Lauren Church

Her history course was never that interesting. Dry reviews of the local natives and how much it sucked to be them. But today the professor had promised something different - a field trip. She gazed out the window of the small bus and watched the countryside roll by. The other students talked and laughed, white noise fading behind her. Her eyes followed the moving vegetation and power lines. She was skating along it somehow, so fluid and fast. Gray and brown, dust and dirt, until a sea of green emerged.

The bus turned down a hidden road and drove along an unseen path for some time. The highway disappeared.

"Everyone off! This is us."

The class disembarked in front of a long, tall hill. She found it remarkable she hadn't seen it or heard of it before, but on further inspection she gathered clues as to why. At the foot lay a long chain-linked fence with razor wire at the top, grinning at the young group below it. Down away from them, clinging to the fence was an old hand painted sign:

KEEP OUT! VIOLATORS ARE SUBJECT TO PROSECUTION NO VISITORS BEYOND THIS POINT

She turned back to the group to find many of them following their instructor through a gap in the fence. A student protested, "I don't think we should be doing this." "It's fine, it's fine. I spoke with the landowner."

Lies. But she followed anyway.

The class trudged up the hill. At the bottom, it hadn't seemed so high. The slope took its toll on the class, many of the students complaining their legs burned and they were out of breath.

She hadn't noticed. Her mind was nowhere. Gazing just ahead of her feet at the now matted grass. Steps falling behind, one after another. They crested over the hill and the students gasped.

Spread out below them was an amphitheater.

The craggy stairs and seats descended at a sharp angle below them; carved back in a distant time, placed deliberately with careful hands. The stones were still smooth and defined, incredible that they were not awash with overgrowth. How could they fight back vegetation after all these years? Her eyes traced over them, following them down, down, down into the pit.

"The orchestra would usually sit in the flat circular area at the bottom of these seats, but as you can see, the water would now make that quite difficult." The pit was a pool of deep blue water. The stones that surrounded it now in stark contrast, so white and well defined next to the murky water. The lip of the stage hung over it, mostly intact. The proscenium stretched up to the sky, but fell short of the height of the amphitheater, even with its impossibly seamless pillars and what remained of its grand arch, cobbled together piece by piece. Again, lush greenery was rare. More prevalent were dark patches across the rock, surely some moss or organic growth slowly inching along over ages.

"Now, this style closely resembles the amphitheaters seen in Greece. Why we have one here is a very good question. Any thoughts?" The students crawled over the steps, slithering around the stony bowl, investigating as they threw out various hypotheses. But she did not speak. She did not dither. She stepped down the stairs, so awkward with their large drops, and stood at the water's edge. She peered into its stillness.

It stared back.

Some of the students sat in a small group as their teacher lectured, looking so small in the gaping maw of the amphitheater.

A few went to investigate behind the stage. A student past behind her, along the water's edge, climbing up the side of the platform, followed by a few others. Words of caution were exchanged, but they just echoed in the air.

She followed.

Carved into the side were more remains of - what? She wasn't sure. More pillars and archways, smaller than those out front. The edge of the hilltop cast generous shadows into their world below. As her eyes scanned upwards she wondered what this place was for. It was hidden. It was built for a purpose. She knew it, as she looked into the half built rooms and passageways that surrounded them. The students she trailed gawked with amazement and wound through the cavernous maze as one might explore the skeleton of a half built home they didn't have the blueprint to.

She stopped at an open doorway. Meeting her gaze was a ragged boy. He couldn't have been more than seven. He was dirty, his face expressionless. She knew the face. It was like her own.

As they stared at each other, the boy took a step back. It was a movement that spoke to his fear, though his face did not betray him.

"I'm sorry."

She looked at him quizzically.

"I'm sorry we're here." He said, his voice barely more a whisper, swallowed by the stillness of the air. Then a scream.

She looked over her shoulder towards the cry, and then back to the boy. But he was gone.

More cries. Shouts. Demands. She went around a corner and crouched low near a stout stone.

"What are you doing here? Get back over here!" A harsh and ratty tone that clawed at her ears. An old woman. The yelps of one of the girls, presumably caught, echoed as the woman dragged her along the dirt and rocks. The woman drug her past the stout stone, back into the winding halls. She peeked out to see her.

Dirty clothes, wretched teeth, with a bulging eye. A large trundling dollop of a trollwoman.

Her heart was racing.

She forgot it could do that.

She wound her way back to the edge of the amphitheater seats and stood behind the lump of students. Their professor paced and ranted.

"Shit! What am I going to do? I can't believe I fucked this up. I'm going to be fired. Fired? Arrested! I'm going to be arrested."

The classmates murmured with worry. She knew they shouldn't be here. He probably had no idea the place was occupied. Just as we shouldn't be here, that woman too probably shouldn't have been there. It's why they panicked. It's why she took the girl.

"YOU."

His voice leapt out at her, shaking her from her thoughts. His eyes were wild, brimming with tears.

"You have to go back for her. You saw them take her, yes?"

She nodded.

"Please. Oh god, please. Please ask them for her back." He grasped her hand. It was wet. Sweaty.

She never answered. She never had to. The eyes of fellow students cast on her, choosing her.

She knew she had to, even before he asked.

Back inside the maze of limestone she found her way, traveling among alcoves and platforms that surely served some sort of purpose in their time. In the dead air she could hear nothing and everything.

Reaching the back of the carved hillside, she looked up and saw a section more fully constructed. The walls were more complete. More like shelter.

Voices.

She looked around and crouched behind a wall of stone that ran next to some shallow stairs leading into the area.

"'Ere we are! She's a pretty one, ain't she?" The troll woman's voice crackled.

Another voice blubbered up, a man's. It was feeble and nasal. "Sure is. Hello there, honey." Whimpers of disapproval.

"We could ask for a ransom for ya. Pretty girls fetch a pretty penny. Or maybe you stay with us. Lovely home we have 'ere. Just happened on it and thought we'd stay a spell."

"Base of operations." He volunteered, before hawking up some offending phlegm and spitting it away.

"You get used to it. Living off the grid." She cooed, before barking, "Don't you, Boy?"

The boy said nothing. They laughed at the boy.

What were these people?

Their voices were just distant enough; she felt she could just glance around to see them. She slowly peered out from behind the corner. The living area was sparse. A box next to some piles of dirty fabric, maybe bags. A lazy fire built of low coals smoldering in the middle of the space. The boy in the corner, standing, staring at his feet.

"Or maybe... Maybe you're DINNER." The troll grabbed the girl, bound and gagged with dank rags against the wall. Muffled howls as she closed her eyes and stiffened, the troll's hands digging into her arms.

"Carve you up and toss you in the fire!" The man cackled, rocking back and forth on the ground, slapping his knee.

Quieter now, the troll caressed her cheek, "We do need to do something with you. We can't have you going home and telling mummy and daddy about your little visit."

As she peered out of her hiding place, assuming the role of voyeur, she felt eyes on her. The boy had found her. She considered crouching down out of view, but instead silently stared back, meeting his gaze as if to say she was there to change things, if she could.

"And you'll never tell anyone, of course!" The trollwoman laughed and the man reeled. "The boy never did either, did you, Boy?"

They laughed and laughed while the boy stared back at her.

"Boy. Boy, what did I say?" She climbed to her feet and grabbed the boy's arm, hard. She moved inches from his face, but he never broke his gaze with her.

"BOY." She shouted, showering him with spittle. Finally, the troll followed his stare.

"There's another one! Get the gun! After her!"

She ran.

She bobbed and weaved and ran. The gravel underfoot caught her a time or two. She scraped her knees, her elbows. The stony walls and pillars turned in on themselves endlessly, like a mirrored maze. But he always sounded to be just behind her. The man looked emaciated as he sat there, delighting in the torment of that poor girl, but he was spry.

They ran. She felt her heartbeat in her wrists as she ran. The cuts burned and her breathing was ragged.

Lost. She was lost. Confronted with a sudden dead end; a room with no windows and no passageways. Nowhere to run.

She felt the man behind her. She turned.

It was the boy, staring back. He raised a hand and pointed left. She nodded and ran past him. She moved down the corridor, down some deep stairs that cut into the earth. She smelled the wet mud as she ran through the trench. The green of the growths that had somehow thrived in this dark place. To the left, then up the stairs and out to the open expanse of the stage, reaching out above the water. She staggered to the center of the stage.

Her hands grasped her knees as she drew in air; precious air. The class gazed up to her. Their professor leapt up.

She started to speak. "I-"

A gunshot ripped through her.

Her knees buckled and her eyes flew open. Her hands flailed outward as her body started to fall, blood seeping out of her side. Out, over the edge of the stage, she crashed into the waters below.

Adrift. Sinking.

She didn't know how long.

There was only the black and blue of the water, and the sides of the rocky cave she was falling into. Falling? It felt like falling.

Her mind was nowhere. She felt only her heartbeat. She still had a heartbeat.

Ages passed.

Then a voice.

"DO YOU KNOW ME?"

"What?" she asked, without her voice.

"DO YOU KNOW ME?"

She felt out into the depths with her mind.

Something was there.

Something greater than her. Greater than all of this. Older.

"Yes?"

"YOU CAME HERE."

"I did."

"YOU CAME BECAUSE I CALLED YOU."

"...you did?" The voice filled her mind. It came from everywhere. She felt so small within it.

"I CALLED YOU HERE. YOU ARE MY INSTRUMENT. THERE IS WORK TO BE DONE. I WILL SEND YOU OUT TO DO THE WORK AND THEN YOU WILL RETURN TO ME."

She let the words rush over her. She knew they were true.

"YOU WERE EMPTY. YOU WERE A BROKEN PIECE OF ME. YOU RETURNED. WE WILL BE WHOLE WHEN THE WORK IS DONE. WHEN THIS SACRED PLACE IS CLEANSED."

She knew it was right. She knew everything now. She no longer felt the voice around her. The voice blended into her own thoughts and memories. It was her.

This wasn't an amphitheater. It was a temple. Once, they would gather and worship and sacrifice. There was always blood and water.

It was being violated by those who were not worthy. They were intruders here. They did not sacrifice.

They would now.

As She crested out of the water, She moved without consciousness. Feeling of floating. No longer her heartbeat.

Her classmates stared out at her as She emerged, soaking from the depths. Their eyes described the shock of the grim circumstances.

Her body rigid, She turned her head towards them and uttered one word.

"Go."

They quickly scampered up the tall stairs, crawling out of sight.

She turned and ascended the stairs from the water to the edge of the stage with slow, deliberate steps. The man was there now, joined by the trollwoman, gripping tightly at the girl.

"You don't come any closer now! Don't you dare! We'll shoot her!" the woman sputtered. Her hands fought against the squirming girl as she writhed and cried.

The man leveled his weapon at Her sopping frame. She stood still.

Then from the corner of her eye, She spotted the boy. Staring out at Her, he once again appealed to Her with a silent apology.

"They don't belong here. This holy place must be cleaned." She said, unwavering, her voice mightier than it had ever been.

"What?" The troll asked, before a dry hiss of a laugh.

Her eyes burrowed into the woman. The laughter stopped.

"Sacrifices must be made."

As She rushed them, an otherworldly cry ripped through the air. There was thrashing and tearing and anguish. This was beyond pain. Like the old times. It was the smell of rust and meat and earth. It was a performance. Respects were being paid. Teach the young. Payments made. Debts fulfilled. Visceral acts that restored balance.

As She lowered herself back into the water, her task done, She realized this was truth. This was real.

She was finally alive.