“You’ve only been bitten by one spider—of the nonvenomous variety, from the look of it, no swelling or leeching to indicate venom—and cut your leg on a sharp rock.” He gently tapped the wounded area on my leg. “This needs to be rinsed. And a plaster would be rather nice.”
“I left my medical supplies in my other dress. How inconvenient.”
Thomas’s lips twitched, the first sign he was warming from that cold, isolated part of himself. He dug in his trousers and brandished a small roll of gauzy material. “Lucky for you, I remembered mine.”
Without wasting more time, he cleaned my wound as best he could and wrapped it with mechanical efficiency. Once he had addressed that matter to his satisfaction, he stood and scanned the cavernous room. Several passages marked by numbers spread out before us. None of them correlated to the poems we’d read in class.
“I don’t think we’ve been followed, or else we surely would have heard sounds of pursuit by now,” he said, holding the lantern up. “Which nasty little passage should we try first?”
“I’m not—” A thought struck and I couldn’t stop myself from exhaling. I pointed to the narrowest tunnel. Above its arched entrance were the Roman numerals VIII. “It’s almost a clue within a clue, Thomas.”
He raised a brow. “Perhaps it’s the dankness or the spiders, but I’m not exactly following the relation.”
“The Roman numeral eight very well might be code for Vlad the Impaler. V Three. Vlad the Third. Prince Dracula.”
“Impressive, Wadsworth,” Thomas said, turning his gaze to me. “If we weren’t about to face another terrible passageway filled with life-threatening danger, I’d take you in my arms this instant.”
22 DECEMBER 1888
Once inside the passageway, I grabbed the lantern from Thomas and played the light around the space, spinning slowly.
Words were hard to come by as I studied the walls. Instead of another forgotten tunnel far beneath the castle halls, this passage ended in a perfectly square stone room. The walls, floor, and ceiling were covered in carved cross patterns a bit smaller than my hand. Jewels and tiles glinted in the lamplight.
There were more riches in the glimmering mosaic than I’d ever seen. It reminded me of ancient temples where magnificent painters had spent a lifetime capturing each detail. What purpose such a chamber served here in Vlad Dracula’s former fortress was beyond me. Perhaps this was a secret meeting place of the Order of the Dragon. It certainly had a Crusader aura about it. I did not think it was another chamber of death.
I walked toward the nearest wall and traced the outer ridge of stone. Each and every cross was identical. I scanned the chamber, surprised to see algae growing in patches along the top and bottom corners of the room.
“This is… incredible.”
“Incredibly suspect. Look there.” Thomas pointed to another carved Roman numeral, XI. “Will you read that poem?”
“Yes, give me a moment to find it.”
Thomas slowly rotated in place, taking in as much of the damp stone chamber as possible. I opened Poezii Despre Moarte and scanned the poem correlating to the passage we were now in. I had no idea how to decipher it the way Radu had done, nor any clue what doom might be waiting for us here.
“Well?” he asked. “Is there anything more to it?”
“No. It’s the same verse from earlier,” I said. “‘Lords weep, ladies cry / Down the road, say good-bye. / Land shifts and caves dwell. / Deep in earth, warm as Hell. / Water seeps cold, deep, and fast. / Within its walls you will not last.’”
In the exact center of the room, a stone table stood about four feet high and was covered in more of the same cross carvings. A pang of anxiety struck as if it were a chime in my chest, but I breathed through the nerves. The table was likely an altar used for sacrifices.
Knowing to whom the castle had belonged conjured ghastly images of torture. How many people had been brutalized in the name of war here? How many boyars tortured and maimed for the sake of creating a peaceful nation? There were no winners during times of war. All suffered.
“I’m almost certain there’s a tapestry in the servants’ corridor that depicts a chamber like this one,” I said, cringing at how loudly my voice echoed. “The walls in that image seemed as if they were covered in blood, though.”
Thomas glanced in my direction. An expression that could almost be interpreted as fear crossed his face before he blinked it away. “Covered in blood, or filled with it?”
I conjured up a mental image of the artwork, the downward drips.
“Raining with blood, actually.” My lip involuntarily curled at the distinction. “I didn’t study it too closely.”
He moved across the room and pried an egg-size ruby from the wall, tilting it one way and then the next. It reminded me of a giant drop of crystallized blood.
“You should put that ba—”
A series of clicks and groans erupted as if a monstrous clock gear had been brought to life. Confusion, then panic, flickered across Thomas’s face. He tried shoving the ruby back in place, but the walls were now shaking and rumbling like giants waking from a long slumber. Bits of rock crumbled around the area he’d taken the precious stone from, ensuring the piece would no longer fit as it once had.
I slowly backed away from the altar, barely missing a round stone that popped as if it were a cork from the wall next to me. Another cylindrical rock burst from the wall, then another.
“Perhaps now would be a fine time for us to leave, Wadsworth. No need to stand around while the ceiling caves in.”
I glared at my friend. “Brilliant deduction, Cresswell.”
Without waiting for a response, I turned and was running for the passage, Thomas on my heels, when he grabbed me about the waist and yanked me back toward him. A steel door dropped from the ceiling like a guillotine, severing us from the world, sealing us in with a loud, reverberating crash. It nearly sliced my body in half. I shook so hard Thomas’s arms trembled.
“Oh… we cannot get buried alive, Thomas!” I charged the door, first pounding it with my fists and then running my fingers along the smooth surface, searching for any latch to free us. Nothing. There was no handle or lock. No mechanism to release it. Nothing but a solid piece of steel that didn’t dent from the kicks I now assaulted it with.
“Thomas! Help!” I attempted to push it back up, but it was stuck firmly in the ground. Thomas tried shouldering it open while I continued kicking. It didn’t so much as ripple. Rubbing his arm, he took a few steps away to survey our situation.
“Well, at least this is the worst of our problems at the moment. Could be filled with snakes and spiders.”
“Why? Why would you utter those—”
A faint hissing started in the far corner. The noise grew louder, as if the chamber wall had been the only defense standing between us and whatever was on its way.
“What in the name of the queen is that?” I quickly drew away from the door. The alarm in my voice pulled Thomas to me in a heartbeat. He subtly shifted his body close to mine, ready to protect me from the menacing sound. I latched on to his arm, knowing we’d face whatever was coming together. And then I saw it.
The trickle streaming down the wall.
I ran over to be sure of what I was seeing. “Water. Water is pouring in—”
More hissing erupted from holes in the floor, walls, and ceiling as liquid came gushing in on us. A hundred tiny cascading waterfalls poured white foamy water into the room. Within seconds, our ankles were covered. I stared, unblinking, at the floor. This couldn’t be happening.
“Look for a trapdoor!” I shouted over the noise of the downpour. “There’s got to be a lever or some way out of this chamber.”
I pulled my skirts up, then stooped low to the ground, hoping to locate an exit. But of course there wasn’t one. There were only more crosses chiseled into the floor. A mockery of whoever was unlucky enough to find themselves in this chamber of death. Or perhaps it was a merciful way of saying we’d be seeing God soon enough. If one believed in that sort of thing.
This chamber cleansed those of their sins.
My mind went utterly blank for a moment. This was the worst fate I could imagine.
“Check the walls, Wadsworth.” Thomas shoved himself onto the table and ran his hands along the ceiling, searching for any kind of escape.
I sprang back into action. “I’m trying!”
Ice-cold water inched up to my knees. This was truly happening. We were not being buried alive, we were being drowned. My fear was nearly as cold as the water soaking my underskirts and almost as heavy to push through. If we were about to die, I’d not go easily.
Running back to the door, I searched a second time for a hidden latch, running my hands frantically over every possible surface. My skirts were weights dragging me down, but I couldn’t get out of them by myself.
Water reached past my thighs, making it difficult to move at all. Thomas jumped down into the rising pool, reaching me in seconds.
“Here, Audrey Rose. Stand on the altar.” Thomas took my hand, but I slipped out of his grasp. There had to be a way to unlock the door.
“I refuse to stand on a table and wait for a miracle—or, more likely, imminent death, Cresswell. Either help me remove my skirts, or stand back.”
“We’re about to die and this is your shameless request?”
“We most certainly are not going to perish here, Thomas.”
His eyes glistened with emotion. He truly thought there was no way out of this. My heart sank faster than my skirts as the water lapped at my waist. He was the master at seeing the impossible. If he were giving up, then we were…
“Thomas—” A memory of Professor Radu’s lecture slammed into my chest at the same time uncontrollable shudders took over our bodies. “Feed the dragon!” I shouted, dodging a stream of water as another spigot opened above us. Water was rushing in so fast it was now covering the altar. “That’s got to be the key!”