The woman was woken by the sound of footsteps. It was still dark when her eyes fluttered open and lazily drifted toward her bedroom door. However, the disturbance wasn’t coming from the hall beyond her chambers, but from behind a colorful mural on her wall. She immediately sat up in her large bed, wide awake. Just one other person knew about the secret entrance to her bedroom, and their presence could only mean one thing.
A frantic knock came from inside the wall.
“Ma’am?” asked a gruff voice. “Are you awake?”
“Yes, come in,” the woman said.
The secret door slid open and a man covered in dirt peered inside the room. His sunken eyes were wide with excitement, but his body was stiff with fear.
“Well?” the woman asked impatiently.
The man nodded slowly, still in disbelief of the news he was about to share.
“We found it,” he said breathlessly.
The woman flung off her bedsheets and jumped to her feet. She threw a robe over her nightgown, stepped into a pair of slippers, and charged through the secret door. The man escorted the woman down a hidden corridor that snaked between the walls of her spacious residence. The corridor led to a steel staircase that spiraled through the floors below and into the ground beyond the basement.
The duo descended the steps at a feverish pace, causing the stairs to sway and creak. At the bottom, they entered an enormous man-made tunnel that wove through the earth like the hollow root of a gigantic tree. It stretched for miles and miles underground, reaching depths humanity was never meant to reach.
The tunnel was an extraordinary achievement and had taken centuries to construct. If it hadn’t been shrouded in complete secrecy, it would have been considered a wonder of the world—but once someone entered the tunnel, very few were permitted to leave it. The dirt walls were lined with the graves of all the unfortunate souls who had died while digging it and the people who had threatened to expose the project.
The man and woman spent hours climbing deeper and deeper, never stopping for a moment of rest. The man’s lantern barely illuminated the ground below their feet as they trekked through an infinite tube of darkness. The farther they went, the hotter it became, and their clothes were dampened by perspiration. A smoky stench of scorched earth filled the air, making it difficult to breathe. The pressure increased, too, causing their eardrums to throb and their noses to bleed. But still, the pair pressed on, too determined to stop.
Boom-boom… Boom-boom… Boom-boom…
At five miles below the surface, a faint noise echoed from ahead.
Boom-BOOM… Boom-BOOM… Boom-BOOM…
The sound increased with every step they took. It thumped in a consistent rhythm as if they were approaching the earth’s beating heart.
BOOM-BOOM… BOOM-BOOM… BOOM-BOOM…
Eventually, they saw a bright light that strobed with the thunderous beat. Against the light, the woman could make out the silhouettes of people standing in a row. Their thin bodies were chained together and they clutched shovels and pickaxes in their trembling hands. These prisoners-turned-slaves were the last generation of diggers the tunnel would ever need, because they had just made one of the greatest discoveries in recorded history.
The diggers were frozen with shock as they stared ahead, but the woman stepped past them and gazed with fearless wonder.
They were facing a pair of double doors that were over two hundred feet tall and one hundred feet wide. The doors were made from iron that glowed bright red from the heat behind it. Something very big—and very hot—was trying to escape through the doors, but the handles were bound shut by a monstrous chain. As the doors were pushed, flames and magma spewed out from between the cracks, offering glimpses into a world of fire and chaos beyond them.
“At last!” the woman gasped. “We’ve found the gates of the underworld!”
“Ma’am?” her exhausted and sweaty companion asked, a nervous quiver in his hoarse voice. “What do we do now?”
The woman’s eyes went wide and a devious smile grew across her face. She had been waiting not just one but several lifetimes for this moment.
“Open them,” she ordered