At the sound of his foster sister's voice - loud enough to even cut through the music produced by a good-quality discman - Majic Matthew Rin shut his book and looked up through the front window of the car.
I don't think I've ever heard anyone call a rented cabin perfect before.
All the same, that was just what Cleao Everlasting had done - and she didn't seem anxious to take back the declaration any time soon. Majic hooked a finger around the band of his headphones and slid them off, packing both the book and the discman back into his bag - just as the car began making its slow way up the gravel-lined driveway.
"I can't wait to go exploring!" Cleao was practically bouncing in her seat. Any sort of road trip that lasted longer than a half-hour and involved Cleao and a small car could justifiably be called torture. "I want to see the ruins!"
Her older sister Marian turned her head to smile. "I'm looking forward to a nice long shower myself," she confessed, then turned her soft blue eyes on Majic. "Do you need to use the bathroom before I do, Matthew?"
"I think I should." It was still strange to be called by his middle name when he was supposed to be around family. Before he'd joined the Everlastings, only Majic's father had known his real first name - but he had died in an accident almost a year ago. "Thank you."
"Majic starts high school after the holiday!" Cleao announced, emphasizing his name. Majic winced. It was only after he had made the mistake that he realized the blonde seventeen-year-old was not exactly the best person to share a secret with.
Fortunately, both Marian and her mother customarily responded to any corrections with indulgent smiles. "Grade ten already." Marian smiled. "Do you feel any older now that you're fifteen?"
Majic volunteered a smile. The Everlastings were nice people - and he guessed he was lucky to be placed with friends of his father's rather than complete strangers. But as much as he wanted to fit in and be a part of their family, he couldn't seem to break out of the 'outsider' role. "I don't know. Should I?"
His foster mother chuckled. "No one ever does. Not until you're my age, anyway."
"Mother! You're not old!" Cleao protested, leaning over the seat with her eyes fixed on the cabin ahead. "We're here!" Abruptly, she was out of her seat and flying toward the building with all the pent-up energy of a hyperactive four-year-old just coming out of a morning of confinement. "I'm going to see if I can find more of those old ruined buildings!"
"There won't be anything around here, Cleao," Marian reminded her. "We'd have to walk over to the tourist site if you wanted to see the ruins."
"I'll find something!" Cleao struck an exuberant pose, two fingers held up to signify certain victory. "I'm a fantastic explorer!"
Majic smiled faintly, letting the rest of his foster family talk while he freed his bag from under the seat. Sometimes, when they all talked, or when one of them tried to talk to him, he had the half-dazed feeling that, somehow, he just wasn't quite real. Often he felt like he didn't belong; and it wasn't just with the Everlastings. He never had problems at school, but he'd never quite fit in, and being around too many people at once made him feel like he was some kind of alien - unremarkable, maybe, but not human like everyone else. The only time he'd ever felt completely comfortable was at home, with his father.
It wasn't as much of an ache now, but it still made him feel small and lost. It had been shortly before the accident - about the same time of year as it was now - when he and his father had taken their own vacation, just the two of them. The trip had only lasted three days, which was all they could afford, but they'd spent the time together, and he would've traded this cozy cabin for that cramped motel room any day.
"Can you help me with the bags, Matthew?" Marian asked suddenly, bringing his mind back to the present. She had the trunk open, and was just lifting their suitcases out. "I think we can get them inside faster with two of us."
"Sure." He moved to help her, letting the activity push aside his memories and the loss that came with them.
"This place is great!" Cleao was by the window when Majic carried two of her bags into her room. "Look at that lake, Majic! I can't wait to go swimming later, can you?"
He put the bags down and joined her. Out of his three new family members, Cleao was easily the most interesting, and she didn't seem to have any misgivings about spending time with someone two years younger. Despite an unfortunate incident where Majic had been dared by one of his friends to sneak a glimpse of her getting out of the shower, she liked him well enough. And even though her attempts to get her mother and older sister to call him by his real name were embarrassing, at least her intentions were good.
"I thought you wanted to go exploring," he said, looking out at the small wooden dock leading into the water. Maybe it would be nice to go swimming. Or to just sit and relax; the weather was warm enough. He could find a nice spot to sit, with one of the books he'd brought… Majic smiled. Maybe I'll do that now.
"Well, we are here for two weeks." Cleao tossed her hair impatiently. "Hey, Majic… how long do you think it'd take to walk over and see those old buildings?"
"Maybe a half hour." He shrugged. "Why? Are you going?"
The smile she sent his way was positively wicked. "We are going. So hurry up and go use the bathroom, because I want to leave soon."
If he hadn't shot up another inch over the past few months, his jaw probably would've hit the floor. "Wh-What!? Hey… wait a minute…"
"Hurry, I said!" She braced her hands on his shoulders and firmly steered him toward the door. "The day won't last forever. Honestly, Majic!"
So much for reading… Majic parted ways with his foster sister at the bathroom, wistfully thinking of the books stowed in his suitcase. There was no use in arguing with Cleao when she set her mind on something; the blonde girl had ways of getting her own way, no matter what the situation. I should be used to it, after a year of living with her.
Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the past year with the Everlastings had felt a lot like one long dream that he just couldn't wake up from.
"All right!" Cleao nearly pounced on him when he came back out. "Let's go!"
Since it was only the first week of the summer holiday, there weren't as many tourists as there were likely to be later in the month. People milled about, mostly in small groups or pairs, taking pictures and studying brochures. There was enough space to move freely, but 'enough' space wasn't anywhere close to being enough to satisfy Cleao.
"Why are there so many people around?" she demanded in a loud voice, hands fisted on her hips as she surveyed the area with displeasure.
"They wanted to see the ruins too, I guess." Truthfully, Majic didn't care who was around. He liked the sight of the decaying buildings. They were supposedly the remains of an estate that had belonged to a very old family, whose descendants had vanished or died out, and the 'ruin' was more from age than attack. In his mind, the weed-choked fortress and temple looked like they'd come right out of a book. "Let's go look at the temple first," he suggested.
"Oh, all right." Cleao huffed a little. "It's not nearly as romantic with so many people around," she complained. "I thought it'd be a deserted castle, waiting for a couple of adventurers to uncover its secrets."
He couldn't help but smile. "That's the worst cheap paperback plot you can pick up at the bookstore these days."
"Don't make fun of me!" She smiled back to show that she wasn't really bothered. "Anyway, just because it's so overused doesn't mean it wouldn't be fantastic, right? I could fight with a sword…"
He couldn't help it; Cleao did this to him every time. "I could be a great sorcerer."
"And we'd find a really cute guy who desperately needed our help."
"To rescue a beautiful girl who was trapped in a tower."
"We'd confront the evil magician who wanted to take over the world!" Cleao waved an arm as she walked, beaming at the thought of adventure and excitement. "Show him a thing or two!"
"And there'd be a red dragon, too," Majic added, thoughtfully.
"I don't know." He shrugged. "It sounded right. A huge, really powerful dragon that everyone was afraid of but only we could deal with."
"You're weird sometimes, Majic," she told him. "But I like the way you think. Aaaand," she added, looping an arm around his shoulders, "we'll find it all… in there!" This she emphasized with a finger pointed sharply at the temple entrance, right in front of them.
For some reason, the thought gave Majic a strange feeling. "It'd have to be a lot bigger on the inside than it was on the outside," he commented, pushing the feeling aside.
"You just don't have enough imagination!" Cleao laughed, moving ahead of him and up the stairs that led into the ancient building. "What if there's a magic portal waiting to take us to a world where all of that is real?"
That definitely gave him a strange feeling. Majic frowned. It was almost like he had a memory trying to push its way to the front of his mind - but he couldn't seem to grasp it. Maybe I read a book or something where this sort of thing happened…
Cleao either didn't notice his silence or didn't think it was unusual, because she was still chatting away about swords, sorcery, and cute guys as they walked along an ornately carved marble hallway. Majic nodded absently, every so often making an affirmative noise to show that he was listening. It seemed like an awfully long hallway, with no bends or openings into other rooms. He hadn't thought the temple was this length; it didn't look like it from the outside. And there was something else strange about it, something to do with the silence that made Cleao's words seem to echo…
Cleao blinked at him, startled out of her oratory by his outburst. "Eh?"
The hallway was about to lead them into a room - but still, there were no other openings or side paths. "I didn't see any other ways out of the temple," Majic pointed out, "but there haven't been any people coming back this way. And it's too quiet - just listen."
"Oh, Majic, you worry too much!" Cleao waved a hand, brushing aside his worries. "Maybe there's just no one in here right now."
"Or maybe we're not supposed to be in here." Majic looked around, feeling uneasy now that he'd made the realization. "We should go back."
But as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he regretted them. And he was glad that Cleao would almost certainly overrule him. There's something…
"Don't be silly." Stubbornly, Cleao moved ahead of him, almost stalking into the room at the end of the hallway. "There's nothing to - oh!"
"What is it?" He caught up with her. "What - oh."
For a moment, they were both rendered speechless.
Huge, marble-encased pillars lined the rectangular room they'd just entered, their mass not quite so impressive as their height. The ceiling was so high up that one could almost be given the illusion that they were outdoors - except for the stale feeling to the air and the dim shadows cast by buzzing electric lights, set in delicate holdings that had probably been meant for torches. The floor was polished smooth - too smooth to be hundreds of years old - and at the center of the room was a dais raised to the top of a circle of perfectly shaped stone steps. There was a simple cylindrical table built onto the dais - just that. But most unusual of all were the walls. Every inch, for as high as Majic could see, had been covered in strange, intricate designs - carved expertly into the solid grey stone.
"Wow!" He broke the silence first, voice hushed.
Cleao seemed to share the feeling. "This is amazing!" She veered off to the side, pressing her fingers against the walls as she peered intently at the carvings. "How did they get them all over the sides like this?"
"I have no idea." Majic was more interested in the dais; he was halfway up the steps by the time he answered her. The table at the top had some strange grooves carved into its surface, like it had been made to hold - he counted - nine oval-shaped objects. There was no sign of whatever might fit into the grooves, but that wasn't surprising, particularly if they had been valuable. Majic ran one hand over the smooth stone, fascinated by its structure without really knowing why.
Something caught his eyes as he bent to look at the edge; Majic knelt down, and found himself looking at a dull red crystal sitting on a small ledge that had been built inward on one rounded side of the cylinder. Curious, he picked it up; from the smooth egg-like shape, he guessed that this was what the grooves had been designed to hold. But why? It's so ugly…
Something quite vivid was yanked out of his memory for a brief moment: a tall blonde woman, blue eyes laughing, a shower of his shade of golden hair pouring over her shoulders as she leaned toward him. "Just because it's ugly doesn’t mean it isn't important, Majic."
He blinked, and the image was gone. That woman… He knew her; his father had told him often enough that she looked exactly like him. Mother…
Behind him, Cleao suddenly let out a high-pitched shriek.
Alarmed, Majic jumped to his feet and spun around, the red stone still clutched, forgotten, in his fist. His foster sister was running toward him as fast as her legs could carry her.
And with good reason, because the floor was crumbling down into darkness at a frightening rate just behind her.
"Cleao!" Not even thinking, Majic ran down the steps to reach her. She stumbled and let out another scream, reaching desperately for his outstretched hand as the disintegrating floor caught up, tearing the footing out from beneath her.
Majic didn't have time to feel guilty for missing her, because the edge of the widening pit didn't stop at the dais stairs, and he was pulled down into darkness.