Author’s Note: Long chapter today, I hope you enjoy!
Volume 1 – Chapter 6
When I opened my eyes, I found that I was laying on the floor, still dressed in my makeshift armor from the previous night and with a large blanket thrown haphazardly over my body, covering only my right leg and half of my torso. After a moment of grogginess in which I heavily debated with myself on whether to get up or go back to sleep, I pushed myself into a sitting position, letting the pot fall off of my head and clatter to the ground.
Miller was at my side, laying on his stomach with the lower half of his body hidden under the bed and the upper half covered by a blanket identical to mine. Although he seemed to be sleeping soundly, he woke up when the cookware made contact with the floor, fumbling around under the cover for a few moments before poking his head out and squinting at the sudden presence of light.
“What happened?” he asked, standing and stretching with a yawn. I did the same, and was surprised to find that, after moving, I didn’t feel tired at all, despite only getting around five hours of sleep.
“I’m not entirely sure,” I replied after Miller and I were both fully awake. “All I remember is running at Cat. After that, it’s all a blur.”
“Oh, I can tell you what happened after that.” Cat’s voice cut in suddenly, and I turned to see her standing in the open doorway. Her timing was uncanny–it’s almost as if she knew when we were going to wake up. “You two tried to run at me and ended up falling to the floor unconscious. After that I just threw some blankets on you and went to be myself.
“Oh.” That made sense, but for some reason the thought of being unconscious around Cat made me uneasy. As I was worrying about what could have went on after things went black for Miller and I, Cat made her way further into the room, and for the first time I noticed what she was wearing.
Aside from a t-shirt, shorts and comfortable looking shoes, which were normal for her outside of school, she had placed a small clip by her ear to keep her hair from falling into her face, was wearing plain black socks and, most evidently, had a backpack slung over her shoulders. They were all small things, by themselves, but together they told me that Cat planned to go somewhere today.
“What are you looking at?” Cat asked, breaking me out of my observational trance. I moved my eyes from her shoulders to her eyes.
‘Sorry, I was just wondering why you were dressed like that. Are you planning on going out?”
She looked at me quizzically. ‘What are you talking about? I’m going to Italy, obviously.”
“Wait, Italy?” I asked, looking at Miller, who replied with a shrug. “We’re not leaving for Italy until tomorrow.”
“That would be true, if today were yesterday,” she said, “but it’s not. You two slept straight through, and now it’s Sunday morning.”
“Sunday morning…” It seemed far-fetched, to say the least, but the more I thought about it the more sense it made–it explained why I felt so well-rested and why there was such a bad taste in my mouth, at least. “So, you’re saying we slept for a whole day and a half?”
“Yep.” She nodded. ‘you both slept like kings. Or sloths.”
Disregarding her last comment, I sat on the undisturbed sheets of the bed, and Miller accompanied me, laying his head on a pillow and looking even more shocked than I felt.
“Wow….” he muttered, and left it at that, continuing to stare at the high ceiling. I felt about the same level of amazement as him, and was about ready to lay down and stare with him.
But, as you probably guessed, Cat wasn’t about to let that happen.
“I wouldn’t just sit around and do nothing, if I were you,” she said. She walked over to the side of the bed and tapped me with her foot, the hard sole digging into my side and waking me up slightly. “We leave in forty-five minutes, so you might want to get a move on.”
“Forty-five minutes?” I pushed her foot out of the way and stood up. “What time is it now?”
“8:20? That means we’re leaving at 9:05?”
“Why 9:05, instead of 9:00.”
Cat shrugged. “Why does it matter?”
“Nevermind,” I sighed, and shuffled over to nudge Miller, whose face was now buried in his pillow. As I shook his shoulder, he stirred slightly, muttering into the soft fabric.
“I’ll be up in….a minute. Just st……without me…”
I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I shrugged it aside and shook a little harder while saying his name. A second later, he woke up again, nearly smacking his face off of the headboard.
“W-what is it?” he asked groggily, and I explained the situation. “oh, alright. You can get ready first–it shouldn’t take me long.”
“Okay, then! I’m going to go wait in the main hall. Come down as soon as you’re ready.” She turned and walked towards the hall. “See you in forty minutes, sharp!”
The door slammed loudly behind her, and Miller and I were left alone to get ready. It took me a little longer than usual, considering I had an entire extra day to catch up on, but eventually I finished up, as did Miller, and we made our way downstairs with our already-packed bags.
Cat was already in the main hall, sitting near the large door on top of one of her suitcases, her legs dangling over the side freely. When she spotted us, she smiled and immediately glanced at the imaginary watch on her wrist. She shook her head.
“You’re cutting it close, boys,” she tisked, planting her palms on the top of her suitcase and pushing herself off onto the marble floor. “We leave in two minutes.”
“Where is everyone?” Miller asked.
Cat surveyed the room with a surprised look on her face, as if she had just noticed we were alone. She shrugged.
“Don’t know, but I’m sure they’ll be here any second. Mom likes to cut it down to the wire, but she always makes it on time.”
That seemed about right for Cat’s mom, and so we waited in near-silence, the only noise coming from the glistening chandelier swaying gently above our heads, until it was time to go.
“Looks like they’re l–” Miller began, but his smug tone was immediately overtaken by a resounding “clack” coming from outside of the hall.
“There they are.” Cat smiled as her parents walked through the ornate wooden door to our left.
“Hello, children!” Cat’s mother exclaimed happily. The intensity of her voice was beaten out only by the scent of her perfume, an intoxicating lilac that filled my nostrils and rendered all of my other senses useless for a second. “Are you all ready to go?”
The three of us nodded, and Cat said “Yeah, we’re good.”
“Wonderful!” Her mom clapped loudly, the crack echoing across the room. I took a step from underneath the chandelier.
“Okay, let’s head out,” Cat’s dad said as the noise vanished, pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his nose and heading to the door.
We all followed him, luggage in tow, outside of the house, where we took a path which led us in a semicircle to the rear-side of the mansion. The path led directly through a botanical garden that Cat’s mother had designed, and i took a moment to enjoy seeing plants and smelling fragrances I had never experienced before.
It didn’t last long, however, as the garden ended as quickly as it began, the ground beneath my feet transforming from a rustic stone path into flat, gray asphalt in a second. I had been looking at the ground when the transition took place, and turned my head towards the sky to see where we had ended up.
But the sky is not what I actually ended up seeing.
Instead, a large, slate gray jet that easily cleared twelve feet high filled my vision, and I stared at, partly out of necessity and partly out of wonder. As my eyes scanned the length of the aircraft, the large metal door anchored to its side slid open, and a previously invisible crew wheeled a set of stairs up to the opening. Our bags were quickly taken from our hands and, without so much as a word, we were ushered onto the plane.
Within five minutes, the five of us were all seated in the large, gray padded seats, listening to the crackling voice of the pilot instructing us to buckle up and take off. Complying quickly, I clicked the metal piece into place and, not even a second later, the turbines began to roar, and we propelled forward, rising into the air and speeding towards Italy faster than I would have thought possible (or at least thought legal).
The trip officially underway, I settled back in my seat, opened up my bag and pulled out a book, and flipped to the first page…
The plane touched down about 9 hours later, rolling down the dark landing strip before halting abruptly and letting us all stepp of of the metal aircraft and into the cool Italian air.
While Anderson eagerly handed me my bags, I turned my eyes to the sky, blocking the intrusive rays of sunlight that inevitably followed with my hand , and took stock of the weather. Overall, it seemed pretty nice, with the sun emitting constant waves of warmth, only a slight breeze, and a small scattering of gray and white clouds across the blue sky.
Once everyone had stepped off of the plane we walked, luggage in tow, to the hotel we would be staying at, which turned out to be a beautiful building situated just off of the central plaza, with a great view of both the canals and downtown. Looking at the hotel, with all of its amazing architecture and wonderful positioning within the city, i couldn’t imagine how much money it must have cost to secure enough rooms for all of us, and I got the urge to thank at’s parents once again.
When I turned around to do so, however, they weren’t there–in fact, no one was there, aside from Cat and Miller.
“Where did everybody go?” I asked.
“They all went inside while you were spaced out staring at the windows, or whatever it was you were just doing.”
“Oh.” It hadn’t felt like I was staring at the hotel for that long, but I do have a habit of zoning out sometimes, so I took Cat’s word for it. “Well, let’s just go in.”
I turned and entered the building, but was forced to wait once inside–Cat was the only one who knew where our rooms were. Within moments she appeared at my side, and led Miller and I through the ornate lobby, into a crimson-walled elevator, and to our floor.
Within a few minutes, we were in Miller and my room, Miller and I sitting on our beds and Cat trying to find a comfortable position to sit in the old-fashioned chair in the corner of the room.
“So, what do you guys want to do first>” she asked, squirming a little more before eventually deciding to just stand up.
Miller, who had just picked up the TV remote, arched his eyebrows. What, we can just go and do whatever we want?”
“Yeah, I’m not entirely sure what my parents are planning to do, but I know it’ll be pretty boring and I don’t want to join in, so they’re letting us do things on our own. Any ideas on where to go first?”
“How about we go to bed?” Miller grumbled, flopping on his back. “That plane ride kind of messed with me, so I’d rather just rest and go in the morning.”
“It is morning,” Cat reminded him. “Time zones, remember?”
“Doesn’t matter. I didn’t sleep at all on the plane, unlike the rest of you, plus I’m still worn out from all the stuff that went on the other night. I’m taking a nap.”
“How about we do something that you can rest during?” Cat asked, obviously determined to get everyone in on the activities. “We can ride on the canal, get something to eat, and come back here. Doesn’t that sound fun?”
Miller had his eyes closed, but when Cat approached him , he snapped them open and sat up about as fast as a tortoise on sleep medication. He turned his head and mumbled a response which none of us could make out, but which Cat immediately took for a yes, pumping her fist in the air victoriously.
“Okay, I’m gonna go take my stuff to my room. We’ll head out as soon as I get back, so be ready.”
And with that she raced out of the room, the plastic wheels of her suitcase echoing on the tile floor and ringing throughout the fourteenth floor.
It took only seconds for Miller to drift back into sleep and, although I considered waking him, I eventually decided to let him catch what few minutes of rest he could, and went to organizing my belongings.
There wasn’t much in my bag, aside from necessities, but I did have a notebook and some pencils which I took out and set on the short desk in the corner of the room. It seemed to me that everything else would be fine in my bag, and I set it on the ground next to the desk.
I don’t know how I didn’t hear her come in–Cat’s not really known for her stealth–but when I turned around, she was already standing over the sleeping form of Miller, face no further than an inch from his own.
There wasn’t any time to try and stop it.
“Millerrrr…” she said, in a low voice. He didn’t respond, and Cat took it one step further, blowing a puff of air directly into his face.
He jolted upwards immediately,unceremoniously smashing his forehead into Cat’s own in the process. He let out a grunt and fell backwards, while Cat stood, completely unaffected. It might have been me imagining things, but I could have sworn I even heard a small laugh escape her.
“Are you ready to go?” Cat asked, looking down at Miller. He sat up once again, more carefully, and rubbed his forehead.
“What’s the big idea, Cat?” Miller asked, ignoring her question. “ You slam me in forehead, and then ask if I’m ready to go? Of course I’m not.”
“Actually, you’re the one who slammed me in the forehead. I just woke you up.”
Miller opened his mouth to respond, and closed it immediately. Cat smiled, just a little, ready for his rebuttal, and I decided that it was time for me to step in.
“Let’s just head out now, if we’re going to,” I said. “There’s no sense in wasting our time arguing.”
They both kept quiet, and Cat nodded with a smile on her face, swiveling and walking towards the door. Miller didn’t say anything, which I took as a sign of agreement, and we followed her out of the room, grabbing our keycards and shutting off the lights behind us.
Cat lead the way, taking us down multiple flights of faded beige steps and into the main hall, where we pushed our way through groups of men in suits and women in dresses, and then a second wave of women in pantsuits and men in sweatervests, eventually making it through the front doors.
Outside, I was hit with a sudden blast of cold air as the previously mild-tempered wind slammed into my face with more force than I could have imagined it to possess. my eyes dry and my nose overtaken by the scent of too many people and concrete characteristic of cities, I blinked and looked at my friends.
“It’s a bit colder than when we got here, isn’t it?”
“Definitely.” Miller nodded, his eyelids mimicking the gesture in their attempt to remain open. “How about we head back inside?”
“No way.” Cat said. She was already eyeing up the canals, searching for signs of potential adventure. “It’s just a little wind. You guys can handle it.”
“I don’t know, Cat.” Miller said. He didn’t sound convinced. “We could just get our jackets and come right back out.”
“Not necessary. Remember the time zones, Miller. It’s only eight in the morning here, so it’s going to warm up soon. We’ll be fine.”
Although I would have made no arguments to going back and getting a jacket, Cat’s logic was technically sound, so I didn’t try to fight her on it. Besides, it’s not like she would have been able to hear me, as she had already made her way over to the edge of the canal, waving her hands around as if she were hailing a cab or entreating a late-night driver to make a questionable decision.
“Guess we’re just going, then.” Miller looked at me with an eyebrow raised. His cheeks were infused with a small amount of pink, lips pressed tightly together.
“If we don’t we’re going to lose her, and who knows what kind of trouble she’d get into then.”
His sigh served well enough as an answer, and the two of us walked forward to reach her, taking care to avoid stepping on the cobblestone sidewalk the wrong way and falling on our faces.
By the time we made it to the edge of the canal, Cat had actually succeeded in flagging someone down, and as he rowed over, paddles churning the cloudy water, she reached into her bag and pulled out a small paperback book.
Flipping through, she stopped at a page bookmarked with a post-it note, and began rattling off a few shaky sentences in what I could only assume was Italian. After a minute, and a few more turned pages, the man in the boat nodded, his moustache bobbing over the edges of his smile, and gave a slow response (which sent Cat searching through her book once more).
While she attempted to carry on a conversation with the man, Miller whispered “Good thing she brought that book, huh? Honestly, I didn’t even think about having to talk to the people here.”
“Yeah.” I nodded, and while it was impressive that she had thought so far ahead, I was caught up thinking about the post-it notes too much to really appreciate it.
This whole time, Cat had made it seem as if the ride through the canals was a random idea, which was part of what made Miller and I agree to it in the first place. But, if she had sentences and words concerning that ride already picked out in her translation book, it was possible that she’d had the idea a long time ago, and just rigged it to make it happen how she wanted to.
And, of course, that train of thought led me to question pretty much everything about the trip–was it all just an elaborate setup, with each of us wrapped around Cat’s little finger, subject to her every whim?
Eh, but I’m probably thinking too much into it.
As I thought, Cat wrapped up her conversation with the rower, and was already stepping onto the vessel as I snapped out of it. Although when she only had one foot on the white-stained wood of the boat she was steady enough, she was a bit too eager in getting all the way on, stumbling in her excitement and nearly falling over the side of the boat.
“Careful.” I called down to her, smirking as I stepped onto the boat myself. It swayed and rocked underneath my feet, making my stomach feel like a tilted carousel, but I took a deep breath and sat down. “If you fall, I’m not coming in after you.”
Her response was to stick her tongue out at me as she continued to stand, one foot on the front of the boat and her arm resting on her knees like she was some kind of military official crossing a river to victory.
“I’m not going to fall in. I’ve got great balance.”
I decided not to bring up the fact that she had once tripped over a crumpled up piece of paper in the school hall–for her sake.
Miller got into the boat next, his own unsteadiness transferring into the vessel and shaking it, splashing cool water onto my face. His eyes half closed, he laid down on the wooden seat immediately, closing his eyes fully.
Luckily, Cat didn’t notice.
“Everybody ready?” Cat asked from the front of the boat, eyes narrowed, staring down the straight canal. “Keep your hands and feet inside of the boat at all times. Andiamo!”
I don’t know what it was she said, but the young man in front seemed to get it, as he tipped his hat with a smile and dipped his oars into the water, sending us to drift slowly away from the cobblestone street.
We made it to the middle of the waterway, and he began rowing, churning the cloudy water at an even pace. As we moved forward, Cat remained standing, wobbling every once in a while but, true to her word, never falling in.
It took around ten minutes of slow rowing before we reached the main part of the ride, and we began passing shops, intricately designed houses with brightly colored shades, and various food courts.
Since we were in the heart of the city, we were also surrounded by the largest number of people–tourists and nationals alike. Luckily, we weren’t the only boat in the water, and so the focus wasn’t entirely onus, but many pairs of eyes still turned our way, and a few people even waved.
Suddenly, I wished I was asleep like Miller.
While Cat soaked in the attention, waving and revelling in both the city and the situation, I sat back and waited with closed eyes, hoping too many people weren’t looking our way.”
I’m not sure if it was the slow rocking of the boat , the soft swishing of the paddles in the shallow canal water, or simply my jet-lag catching up with me that put me to sleep, but the next thing I know I was being pulled from unconsciousness by excited shouting at the front of the boat.
“Over there!” Cat shouted, pointing forward and to the right. “Pull over there.”
Typical. I thought as I rubbed sleep from my eyes. Leave it to Cat to wait until Miller and I are asleep to deviate from the plan and take us off course.
As our driver carefully drew our boat over to the side of the canal, I crossed my arms and addressed Cat.
“What are you forcing on us this time?”
Without looking at me, she once again pointed in the direction our boat was headed–a cluster of dark, twisting trees surrounding a rusted metal archway.
“We’re heading in there. Doesn’t it sound fun?”
“Maybe it would, if I actually knew where we were going.”
l think she had forgotten I was asleep, because as soon as she heard my comment she whipped her head around. arching her eyebrows.
“Didn’t you hear our guide?” she asked, as if I would have understood him even if I had. “That’s a cemetery.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t even have time to think about our destination before Cat was dragging me and Miller (still asleep, of course) from the boat and onto land. Before I knew it, Cat had paid the driver, fired off a few sentences in Italian with the ease of a fluent speaker, and waved him off, leaving us alone and stranded at the cemetery.
In essence, there was no turning back.
“Well, then, let’s go in.” Cat stared at the rusty entrance to the dark cemetery as if it were a portal to a utopian society. Without waiting for a response from either me or Miller, she began walking forward.
“I feel like we find ourselves in these situations way too often for it to be considered normal,” I said, almost to myself.
I’d like to think it was simply surprise that made me jump when Miller responded, but if I’m being honest with myself, the creepy atmosphere of the place probably added to my surprise.
“Yeah, but that’s kind of par for the course, when you’re friends with her.” For someone who was asleep only moments earlier, his eyes were intensely alert, and I wondered for a moment if he wasn’t a little scared, too.
But, even if that were so, he ended up following Cat into the dilapidated cemetery first, leaving me to bring up the rear, stepping onto the grounds a few paces behind the others.
The first thing I noticed was the chill–it had to be at least ten degrees cooler beneath the gnarled branches of the trees, the shade they cast drawing every last bit of warmth from my body and seeming to dull all of my senses in the process.
As we continued walking over the mossy ground, my feet seeming to sink further into the earth with each step, I glanced around at the headstones littered throughout the cemetery, thinking of the bones entombed within the dirt beneath them.
Some of the square pieces of stone–mostly those close to the entrance–seemed relatively well-kept. However, as we ventured further into the ancient resting place, that change, the best-preserved headstones in sight transforming into cracked, lichen-covered lumps of stone, the names carved into the front so faded they could no longer be deciphered. The worst examples, on the other hand, were no longer any more than piles of crumbled rock, the information they once held lost to time.
“This place is old,” I muttered. “I don’t think there’s been a new burial here in at least fifty years.”
Whether or not Miller and Cat heard me, neither one gave any indication of stopping. Miller continued to trudge forward a few feet in front of me, eyes never staying on any gravestone for more than a moment before flicking to the side to inspect another. Cat, on the other hand, was nothing more than a flash of red in the distance, darting from stone to stone, examining each with equal parts interest and intensity.
I glanced away from Cat, instead focusing my attention on the ground, where tangles of rotting roots had begun to appear–the last thing I needed was to fall and bash my head on a headstone.
Of course, even with all of my attention turned towards the earth, I still nearly tripped over the partially-hidden stump of an old tree, which was so old and weathered that it hardly rose an inch from the ground. Luckily, the ancient wood was rotted to the point that my foot went clear-through it, resulting in nothing more than a loud crack echoing through the cemetery.
And that was when the weird stuff started happening.
First, there was the mist, which seemed to close in instantaneously, going from a thin veil swirling slowly inches from the ground when I looked down, to a thick fog stretching the entire length of the cemetery, obscuring my vision to the point that I could see no more than four feet in any direction.
Then, there was the headstone.
Cat saw it first, mostly by virtue of the fact that she was about thirty feet ahead of Miller and I. While I was floundering around, looking for anything that would help me regain a sense of orientation, she called out from the void.
“Guys, you should really come and look at this!”
I had no idea what she was talking about, but from what I could tell she wasn’t far away, and so I began to walk slowly in her direction, my arms extended in front of me to keep from walking face first into any random trees.
As it turned out, however, it was Miller, not a tree, that I had to look out for, as I ended up bumping into him a few moments later, my outstretched fingers connecting with his cheek and sending him jumping backwards.
“Oh, hey,” he said, when he realized that it was just me. Even though he was just a few feet away, it was still tough to see him over the thickening fog.
“Hey,” I said, and cut right to the chase. “Do you have any idea what is going on with this fog?”
“Not really. He glanced around at our surroundings–at least what was visible of them–and narrowed his eyes. “It’s odd, to say the least.”
“‘Odd’ definitely seems like a good way to describe this.” I grabbed his forearm, and began walking forward. “Now let’s go see what it is Cat found, and get out of here.”
It took us a few minutes of shouting back and forth, and a lot of stumbling over our own feet, before we found her, kneeling in front of an ancient-looking gravestone propped up against a short, dark tree.
“What is it?” I asked, looking over her shoulder. I didn’t see anything unusual–just a piece of rock with its words worn away–but Cat seemed to have caught something that I didn’t.
“There are cracks all along this grave, see?” she said, pointing towards the bottom of the headstone. That was when I saw them, shaky tendrils of inky-blackness running down from halfway up the gravestone and into the rocky soil.
If I didn’t know better, I would have thought they were claw marks.
“What do you think they are?” I asked Cat, now feeling as interested as she looked. Was it just decay? Maybe sap dripping from the twisting trunk of the tree we stood underneath.
Or was it something more?
“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her wrist. “Let’s see.”
She stretched her hand out as she finished the sentence, pale fingers extending towards the jagged marks etched into the stone. Miller, who had been watching the whole thing with a suspicious glance, took a step forward.
But it was too late. Cat’s pointer finger, inching forward all that time, made contact with one of the uneven lines, brushing over it as gently as summer breeze.
That’s when the stone split, the cracks widening quickly and sending forth an earsplitting crack that worked its way through my ears, blowing past my eardrums and reverberating throughout my entire skull.
The sound faded as quickly as it came, and I opened my eyes, looking down just as the remnants of the grave crumbled away, and a shadow leapt out.