Below are the first two chapters of Power Trips book 2. They are edited but haven't undergone a professional proofread because it's remotely possible they might change. But I didn't want to leave you hanging, if you wanted to know what came next! So: Enjoy!
“Is it over?” Prefect Tey asked. “Is it all over?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Canopus said harshly. “Of course it isn’t over.”
I didn’t lift my head or shift my cramping knees on the rough wet concrete. Faith clung to me, skeletal arms encircling my neck, head pressed against my sternum, hair rough under my chin. She stank like she hadn’t bathed in years, which might have been the case. We couldn’t stay in this embrace forever, but I didn’t know what to do next, and I was terrified of doing the wrong thing.
Footsteps scuffed over the floor, and clumsy hands lowered cheap, heavy cloth over my arms. My eyes shot up, and I clutched Faith closer, but it was only Prefect Batata. He’d settled his worn brown blazer over Faith’s shoulders and back, covering her nakedness. He shifted awkwardly under my scrutiny, but he didn’t stop until the material was firmly tucked around her. “It’s cold down here,” he muttered. “It isn’t right.”
Pride flushed through me at that, rare pride that I could call Batata Prefecture my own. I inclined my head to Batata and wriggled one arm free to wrap it around the back of the blazer, holding it against the child. Faith stirred and I tensed, but she only burrowed closer, making small, wordless noises.
Sweat gathered around Batata’s thick neck and his hands shook as he shuffled backward, but he didn’t go far, and he never took his eyes off us.
The others were watching us too, those who could watch: the prefects clustered in the far corner of the basement, crammed on the far side of the summoning circle, avoiding the bleeding chalk lines. Sr. Nordfeld slumped against the wall beside them, chin to chest, alive but unconscious. Torben and the king climbed to their feet on the other side of me, barely six feet away. They staggered, dizzy from the lingering effects of Ignorance’s proximity—disturbing but not, as he had never touched them, devastating.
The boy himself lay beside me, neither dead nor functional. For all our sakes, I dearly hoped he stayed that way.
I breathed slowly, carefully, not disturbing Faith, trying to slow my racing heart. I had forgotten something. It was important, whatever it was. I needed to remember it, but whenever I tried to focus, back around my mind snarled—to Faith and to how to keep her from reverting to Want.
I moved my fingers in small circles on her back and crooned nonsense and reshuffled my thoughts.
She’d strangled the word within a letter of its life, until I almost didn’t register it as Plishan. But the voice was unmistakable. I twined my fingers upward to pet Faith’s hair and eased my face in the right direction.
Prefect Lindo had gone rigid, her face crevassed with hideous anger. One arm jerked up in a series of stiff micro-movements, half-crooked finger angled at King Emil.
“Graça,” Hemmel said gently, pressing down her arm with sea-weathered hands. “Don’t. Let me deal—”
“No!” Lindo tore her arm from Hemmel, striking his face in the process. He stepped back stunned, but she didn’t notice: already her attention was back on King Emil. Rage closed around her, constricting voice and body. Her arm swung back up, and she lurched at him on unbending legs. “Murderer. Zita’s murderer.”
Swaying slightly with dizziness, Torben planted himself in front of the king, hands spread loosely by his sides. “My lady, stop,” he commanded in a voice like the crinkling of jagged-edged leaves. “Control yourself.”
“No,” King Emil said. He shoved at Torben, who barely rocked in his stance—and then, astonished but obedient, stepped aside. “Let her come.”
“She cannot hurt me,” the king assured him. He drew himself up, his presence expanding to fill the basement.
I blinked at him. This . . . this was the king. This was the king, as a king ought to be. His voice had been kingly before, but here was the whole package, and I suddenly understood why some people worshiped kings. His power oppressed and supported, and I found I desperately wanted his approval, wanted him to look at me and say, “Well done, Mercedes.”
My jaw dropped and tears prickled. I felt sure Prefect Lindo would fall to her knees, but she barely hesitated. Her stiff hand plunged down the front of her blouse and withdrew an tiny gun from its bra holster.
Torben’s gun was in his hands in an instant, and he’d fired in the blink of an eye. But even as his finger squeezed the trigger, the king knocked his arm aside. The bullet flew wide and Hemmel crumbled, clutching his groin. A horrible, raw scream ripped from his throat, and it did not stop.
I’d once thought the wretched girl in my arms could wring no maternal instinct from me, but I’d been wrong. It didn’t matter that death stained or lips or that she’d proven time and again that no bullet could pierce her. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d flipped us around and curled over her, protecting her body with my own.
“Enough, Nass!” the king roared. “I said let her come! Well, Graça, you’ve shown your true face at last. Did you think you had deceived me all this time? You never did! I always knew you were lying, using your sister to get to me. You thought to use her to steal my throne, but she betrayed you.”
“You liar!” Sobs wracked her body, great gulping sobs that did nothing to diminish her fury. “You lying pig! You murderer!” Her hands jerked and the miniature gun fired wildly. The sharp claps of the shots overlapped with two echoing booms as Torben fired at her heart. His hand was steady, his eyes narrowed, his aim point blank.
Lindo’s slide locked back, her gun empty. Torben lowered his weapon.
No cries joined Hemmel’s, and no blood pooled into the brackish water. Movement caught my eye as Sr. Nordfeld sat straight and smoothed his hands over his hair, like I’d often seen him do after an arduous work session. It wasn’t the shots that had roused him; he’s deaf to anything, when submerged in intense concentration. He only surfaces when he’s finished or when further work becomes impossible.
”You see?” King Emil said, hands sweeping smugly over his suit. “Bullets cannot pierce me.”
Lindo’s tiny gun clattered onto the concrete. Her fingers clawed the air and she shrieked wordlessly, momentarily eclipsing Hemmel’s agony. Her stiff legs bolting into action, and she charged—and rammed into absolutely nothing with such force that she crumpled, fingers shattered. Then up again she climbed to her feet, tears flooding her cheeks. She kicked the air and met a solid wall. She threw herself shoulder first at it and screamed again. She threw herself forward again, and I saw her sleeve flattened against the air as if against a pane of glass.
Torben kept his gun trained, but he did not fire again. The king folded his arms, enjoying the show.
Fifteen feet separated me from Lindo, but a niggling theory prompted me to gingerly sweep out one arm. My fingertips touched something smooth—like a vertical wall, but one that felt neither warm nor cold, and not like metal or plastic or glass. I pressed harder, but the surface remained impenetrably hard and undimpled.
When I withdrew my filthy fingers, no smudges marked the barrier. The bullets had not marked the barrier either, as far as I could tell. Barriers, I should say—since the one separating Lindo from the king could not be the same one as I’d felt, not unless it took a sudden turn or curved.
Lindo pounded the barrier, beyond curiosity, screeching obscenities, completely out of control. “You!” she accused, but whether of King Emil or of me, I couldn’t tell. “You did this!” her broken hands pawed the air and she began thumping her body further down the barrier, hunting for a gap.
“Come away, sire,” Torben said to the king, pulling him back. “You have proven your bravery. Your country needs you.”
As he turned half away from them, the remaining prefects came to life. They were too used to Lindo to be shocked by her for long, not when they had other a agendas to attend to.
Canopus slid to the snide, sneaking away to fight another day. Tey followed her, grateful for a leader. Fjordland grabbed Silvertip, begging him to explain what was going on. Batata uncurled himself near me. He had been guarding the boy who had been Ignorance even as I had been guarding Faith. I wondered if he would also protect us from Lindo, should it come to that.
In the corner, Sr. Nordfeld made no effort to stand. He settled himself more comfortably against the wall, watching with unreadable eyes. An extra layer of fatigue lined his cheeks, slumped his shoulders. Resolution and resignation lined his back, but neither surprise nor alarm aggravated his composure.
He had planned this.
I took my cue from him and didn’t try to stand yet. I sat only, pulling Faith up with me. She hadn’t resisted my swift movements to protect her, collapsed and limp and, yes, having faith in me.
For the moment. And I couldn’t say how generously that moment would extend.
Lindo began feeling her way along the barrier with angry but methodical movements. Her arms stretched to either side of her, as if she stood between two walls rather than against a single barrier. Tapping with her feet and wrists, she walked along the walls and then gasped as both arms moved freely through the air. Not the end of the walls: a T-section. She turned to the right, toward the king, but made it only a few feet before hitting another barrier.
Making progress then, but I suspected it wouldn’t be much. Not in an invisible maze created by the personification of making and solving puzzles. Created by Cipher.
Canopus made better progress, unhampered by injury or emotion. She’d pulled a tube of lipstick from her suit and marked the floor as she walked. Handy for her, that she happened to be the sort of woman who carried lipstick with her everywhere.
As was I. But I’d make arrows or angle brackets at intersections, not waste my resources on continuous trailing lines. There was no telling how many miles I’d have to cover to get out, or how over and how treacherously the maze curved back upon itself.
“Torben!” I called.
He stood with the king, leaning in, trying to convince that august personage to move. He swayed my way at his name. We weren’t far apart, though another barrier divided us. More importantly, I’d finally remembered what had been niggle at me. “Torben! I told Olaf to burn down the manor if I wasn’t out in fifteen minutes!”
Torben’s eyes widened. Most of the prefects froze a moment only to begin running in panic. Only Batata stayed where he was, kneeling over the boy, waiting for my instruction.
I watched Sr. Nordfeld.
He met my eyes, and I saw only calm acceptance in his. We were too far away for a private conversation, but most of the others were too busy running around like headless chickens to bother us—and they wouldn’t be able to interfere anyway. So I told him, “The maze has served its purpose. It must be unraveled before the manor burns down on top of us.”
Sr. Nordfeld didn’t answer for a long moment, and then he climbed wearily to his feet and came forward a couple of steps. He stopped before he hit the barrier, though he didn’t put out a hand to feel for it. “I am sorry you came here, Mercedes,” he told me. “I was not fast enough, or I would have prevented it. I underestimated the difficulty. You understand, I do not practice this sort of thing; I suppress my personification as much as possible or expend it in my work. However, under the circumstances, I thought it best . . . but I did not mean for you to be caught with us. I had hoped,” he added, and I did not begrudge him the acerbic touch, “that you would have had the sense to stay outside.”
“I did have the sense,” I said. “I decided there were more important considerations. Listen, Sr. Nordfeld: the situation has changed. Lindo is out of bullets, and Torben can handle her. This place is going to burn down, and all of us along with it, unless you take down the maze so we can get out.”
Sr. Nordfeld said, “The maze is not for Prefect Lindo.”
I closed my eyes briefly. Of course it wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t.
Faith’s breath puffed warm against my neck.
My knees hurt. Concrete is not kind. Neither are high heels, for the sort of acrobatics I’d been indulging in. I had to press a hand against the air barrier to press myself upright. My joints cracked and protested, and blood stabbed ruthlessly as it rushed into head and legs. Faith hung heavily, arms around my neck. She didn’t wriggle or complain as I moved, but her leg encircled my stomach and her grip tightened.
Behind me, Batata stooped over the boy. Ignorance. Except I’d better not call him that anymore—not if I wanted Faith to believe in me. But what was Ignorance—Willful Ignorance, as Sr. Nordfeld had called him—when made ignorant in truth? When unconscious or—or comatose or vegetative or whatever my makeshift solution had made of him?
“Call him ‘Will,’” I told Prefect Batata. “And let his willpower be better used in the future.”
Batata glanced at me. His hand hovered above the knife in Will’s eye, unsure of whether to remove it, wanting my permission.
“Give it to me,” I said. “Wipe it off first.”
“Yes, prefect,” Batata agreed humbly. Oddly humbly. Not just deferring to a leader, but—was it possible? Could it be that this man, whom I’d seen on television throughout my childhood—this man who’d given speeches at my school and handed us awards—this man who’d spent a life of hard work in a hard prefecture . . . could this man be afraid of me?
As afraid as Silvertip had been, that night?
As afraid as the slaves in the auction house?
The difference was, I found I had some respect for Prefect Batata, which I certainly hadn’t had for the others. I hadn’t thought enough of them to care that they were afraid, but for Prefect Batata—how strange. How horrifying. How—God help me—how thrilling.
I must not become addicted to this, I told myself, and wondered whether I would have the opportunity to be tested.
I did not reassure Batata or tell him not to be afraid. Nor did I lessen the strictness of my expression—not even when I turned my gaze back to Sr. Nordfeld.
“You took over their bargain,” Sr. Nordfeld said wonderingly. He had been taking in the situation, beginning to understand, putting together the many little details before him with his accustomed sharpness. “That was foolish, Mercedes. You will not be able to control them, not forever. You cannot master unmasterable forces.”
“I never claimed to be their master.”
“Their mistress, then.”
I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t been arguing semantics—but I also didn’t have an answer for him. I hadn’t exactly planned ahead for this.
“No?” Sr. Nordfeld asked. “Then what? Their prison guard? Their murderer?”
Faith turned her pale, pointed face against my chest, to face him. It was the first purposeful move she’d made since attacking me. Seriously, clearly, she stated, “She’s our mama.”
Sr. Nordfeld regarded her evenly, and I wondered what had passed between them in my absence—and how he alone had survived the ravages of Want. Then he turned his extreme disbelief on me, and I flushed beneath it. Instinct demanded I deny Faith’s depiction, and pride demanded I uphold it in the face of such doubt. True, I had no desire to adopt the children—maybe Batata would? Perhaps in exchange for a pardon?—but I certainly could if I wanted to.
Assuming Sr. Nordfeld released the maze before we all burned to death. If it wasn’t already too late.
“Sr. Nordfeld,” I said,” I do not believe you have properly met my children. This is Faith, and Joel there is taking care of Will. Don’t worry: Will isn’t dead, just lobotomized.”
Sr. Nordfeld’s incredulity stretched his eyebrows ceilingward and his chin floorward. Lest I shrink away from it, I continued in a rush: “He wanted to know nothing, you see, and now he can’t know anything. Nonfunctional but alive. An elegant solution.”
Incredulity was better than the scorn his expression now settled into. Only the increasingly heavy Faith in my arms prevented me from squirming under his tone as he said, “If you think that nonfunctional is the invariable result of even properly performed lobotomies, then you know nothing of the subject. Less than nothing, if you believe that an unsterilized pocket knife is a suitable substitute for an orbitoclast.”
I flushed deeper under his criticism, so fairly leveled. And flushed deeper still as my treacherous mind began wondering why and how Sr. Nordfeld knew so much about lobotomies. Pure curiosity? It sometimes seemed to me he researched every other topic. Once, I would have assumed there was nothing more to it. I would not have immediately wondered if he had considered brain surgery to correct the personification he had believed to be schizophrenia.
He must have tried other things, though. Seroquel, maybe. Electroshock therapy. Anything to make it better—and everything that made it worse.
Sr. Nordfeld heaved a sigh, releasing the harshness. “I am sorry about this, Mercedes,” he said. “I did not mean for you to be trapped with us. I had hoped to sacrifice no one but myself, but I was not fast enough. No matter: you know it had to be done. You were the one who convinced me.” He gave me a sad smile. “What nobler cause, than to give one’s life and freedom for one’s nation?”
“The king is trapped with us,” I reminded him. “Are you going to sacrifice his life also?”
“It is the duty of any king to sacrifice himself for his people, should it become necessary.”
He was right, of course. He nearly always is. And yet—“A king is the protector of his people,” I said, “and should be sacrificed only as a last resort, for his sacrifice leaves his people unprotected.”
“Only if he has not properly prepared for his succession.”
“His succession,” I said, “is a teenage boy. Don’t get me wrong—I agree with you. That’s why I instructed Olaf to burn down the manor, if we weren’t out in fifteen minutes. But the situation has changed. Keeping us down here no longer protects the nation from Want and Ignorance, because Faith and Will are not a threat. Avior’s deal is broken.”
“And you think yourself their mother.”
“They aren’t a threat.”
“Maybe not,” he agreed—“for the moment. Trauma does not disappear simply because its cause has ended. But it is too late to matter. I designed this maze to be unsolvable, even for me. How else could I guard myself against temptation?”
He was being so grave, so weary, so noble that I wanted to cry—and wanted to cry the more because of how unnecessary it all was.
Had fifteen minutes passed? They must have. How long would it take the fire to spread? Would we suffocate first from the smoke, or would the ceiling collapse upon us, burying us in wood and concrete and ash? How long?
“All mazes are solvable,” I reminded him; “otherwise, they wouldn’t be mazes—that’s what you’ve always said. Mazes must have an entrance and an exit; that’s what makes them mazes. In the same way that ciphers must have solutions, or they are only random collections of letters—and you’ve never met a cipher or puzzle or maze you couldn’t solve. Not even one you made yourself. So solve this one.”
There it was again, that immovability. I had seen it when I’d asked for help defeating Want and Ignorance; I’d seen it a hundred times before, when I’d pushed too hard. I’d gotten past it once, in his apartment, to save Francis. I could get past it again, given time.
We didn’t have time.
What nobler cause?
There was my answer, and I didn’t like it one bit. I closed my eyes, inhaled his calm. Then I said, “You are in a different section of the maze from us—from Faith and Will. We cannot see your path, and you might not pass us. There’s no way we could follow you out, no way we could contrive to meet up with you. So there’s nothing to stop you from finding the others—finding King Emil and Torben, at least—and leading them to safety. The children will still be trapped, and you can maintain the maze from the outside.”
His attention rested heavily upon me, and I had the singular pleasure of seeing how deeply unhappy I’d made him. But he did not argue with me, and the dangerous immovability faded. “It has been a pleasure working with you, Mercedes,” he said, and I knew him well enough to recognize his words were meant as a gift. “I have learned much from you, and I am glad you have finally allowed me to see you as you truly are. I have spent these three years puzzling over what you were hiding from me.”
I nodded mutely, but he had already retreated into deep concentration. He did not look at me again as he traced a path through the maze, twisting and turning through empty air until he’d disappeared into the depths of flickering fluorescents and drowning concrete.
Rapture of the Deep
All mazes are solvable. Sr. Nordfeld had confirmed that. Maybe he was even out already—maybe that’s why the building hadn’t collapsed on our heads.
Many mazes have multiple exits. I could find an exit by working out where it was logically, or I could stumble upon a way out by accident. But I would get out. I had no intention of spending the rest of my life starving to death in this horrible basement. So I made lipstick arrows and kept my eyes peeled and felt the walls and kept going.
Faith walked beside me, clutching my skirt, pressed tight against my leg. She stopped when I stopped and watched me mark the intersections with lipstick, but she did not speak again. Nor did she scream or wail or bite me. She hardly seemed aware of her surroundings, and she certainly didn’t seem afraid. In fact, aside from her proclamation to Sr. Nordfeld, she acted so placidly that she might’ve been the one brain damaged.
Maybe she was.
Batata followed us at first, carrying Will, but at some point, we got separated. One moment, he was trailing me confidently; the next, he stood on the other side of an invisible barrier. I retraced my steps, but he couldn’t retrace his, and I didn’t know where he’d gone wrong. I took a guess and he took a different guess, and the closer I thought we got, the more distant he grew, until I lost sight of him entirely.
He was the last prefect I saw; I’d lost track of the others hours ago. The basement had grown impossibly vast, an endless expanse of dank floors, ugly pillars, weak lights, and invisible barriers.
More hours passed. I lost all sense of direction, if I’d ever been going the right way to begin with.
The ceiling didn’t collapse, and I didn’t smell smoke. If I could find a wall, maybe I could climb it and—and what? Break through a solid concrete ceiling? Knock until someone heard me? No, I’d be better off wishing for the building to burn down and the ceiling to cave in, as long as it didn’t cave on top of me.
My feet hurt.
We kept walking, and I kept making lipstick arrows at intersections. Once or twice, my marks saved me from turning into endless loops; but for the most part, the maze was simply too large to lead me down the same path twice.
Now and again I got a flash of a distant wall—and then, without warning, we ran up against one. It must have been the wall against the hill—the south wall—because the ceiling sloped lower and the puddles oozed over the toes of my shoes, and because the wall was rough stone and dirt rather than the smooth pour of concrete.
My invisible path followed the wall for a considerable distance without turns before abruptly, for the millionth time, ending. But unlike the previous dead ends, this one did not force me to turn back. A gash in the south wall slit the rock and concrete maybe four feet high and two across—plenty big enough to crawl down and through. The mouth of the opening was dark, and cooler air wafted along my skin. But when I craned my neck into the gash, I could see the glare of light somewhere ahead.
Mr. Nordfeld was not a man to relish creeping through dank holes, and under other circumstances, I’d have dismissed the possibility of him passing this way. But he had designed the maze to be one he’d have difficulty solving—and what other choice did I have? Turn back and try to find another path through that endless basement?
If I played his game, the game I expected him to play, the game he presented to me, I could never win. Not against him. I could not out-logic him, but I could be rash and stubborn and—
And hopeful. This was the first time anything about the maze had changed substantially. That had to mean something. It had to be the way out. “We’re making progress,” I told Faith, and marveled at how cheery I sounded. “This way.”
Faith watched me, placid as a rag doll. Taking her hand, I hunched inelegantly and sidled into the gash. It was too narrow for us to walk side by side, and I had to let go of Faith’s hand when trickles of water slicked the steeply tilting path and my heels skittered. She didn’t like me letting go, and I didn’t blame her. Not if I could lose her as easily as I had lost Batata and Will. So I didn’t protest when she grabbed my waist while I propped us upright.
Slippery through it was, the tunnel wasn’t that hard going, because the ceiling expanded upward, and its rough surface provided plenty of handholds. The concrete crumbled off in chunks like old foam, and the air smelled older, earthier—more like a cave than a basement.
The path turned once, right at the end, and then we were standing on a ledge maybe eight feet above the main floor. The ceiling stretched thirty feet or more above us, but the lights shone no brighter than the ones in the basement. Vague, unreal, creeping shadows clung to concrete like cobwebs, and darkness gained life and substance.
So maybe this hadn’t been the best idea. It wasn’t too late to go back—but no. Negative thoughts would only sabotage me. I’d made the right decision.
I shook my head and forced myself to focus. This was a small room, not an endless maze; it had further exits. Where? There—and there and there. Three tunnels leading off this mini-cavern, all from the floor beyond my ledge. Three ways that I could see to go—not that I was inclined to trust my eyes in this maze.
I walked the length of the ledge, feeling for invisible walls and exits. I didn’t find a one. So I’d have to get down there somehow.
The eight-foot cliff at the edge of the ledge cut steeply, the rocky edges providing no challenge to an experience rock climber and a nearly insurmountable difficulty to me. If this was the wrong way, I was going to have a time getting out.
So it’d better not be the wrong way.
“I’m going to climb down first,” I told Faith. “Wait until I’m ready, and I’ll catch you.”
She didn’t answer, but she let me pry her fingers loose, and I’d grown accustomed to her new unresponsiveness. I didn’t know why the personification of Faith would behave like a placid doll, but I supposed it was better than her being a ravening cannibal.
As she watched, I dropped my shoes over the driest patch of ledge and scrambled down after them. Then I planted myself and held out my arms for her. Placid she may have been, but she wasn’t stupid: she lay down exactly as I had, dangled, and dropped when I told her to. Then, hand in hand, we followed the wall toward the leftmost exit—leftmost, because most people instinctively take right turns, and I know how Sr. Nordfeld thinks.
Down here, the shadows lurked yet deeper and more substantive. Obscure anxiety pressed on my forehead, thrumming too loudly to fully ignore. I smashed it aside time and time again, sternly informing it that I absolutely could not afford the distraction, not when I had to concentrate on getting us out. But it kept sneaking back anyway, snickering to itself, until I felt too cold and tired to crush it and so embraced it instead.
No more invisible barriers bisected this part of the maze—nor any other optical illusions, as far as I could tell. We walked unobstructed to the leftmost passage. I marked it with lipstick and in we went.
I know a bit of maze theory, of course, but without a computer, what it mostly comes down to is being meticulously methodical. Don’t become overwhelmed, frustrated, or distracted, and be very, very careful about marking your path no matter how good you think your memory is. If you do these things perfectly, you will eventually succeed.
Assuming the maze doesn’t alter itself as you go.
We followed that first passageway through half a dozen forks, sticking to each leftmost tunnel until it ended in an impassible wall. Then back we went one intersection and tried its options. This passage forked once, led us into an uncomfortably narrow and convoluted path . . . and took us right back to the fork where we’d begun. Which, of course, I might never have realized without my arrows.
We were still exploring the permutations of that leftmost passage when I ran out of lipstick. In the main basement, that would’ve been checkmate; but down here, there was so much breakage that I could draw on the floor with a chunk of concrete and build a pyramid of rubble whenever I thought my markings ambiguous or insufficiently visible under the unsteady lights. In this way, we tracked up and down every fork of the leftmost passage until I’d determined as far as possible that every option led to either a dead end of a loop.
The central passage, in contrast, ended in a pile of concrete rubble larger than anything we’d encountered yet—larger than I’d imagined possible. Hunks of concrete ranged in size from dining table to semi-truck—the largest of these latter broken in half under the strain of its own weight.
I told Faith to stay on the floor as I climbed the pile, it looked so precarious, but she followed me up anyway. Behind the apex, we found a single tunnel; but it soon grew so narrow and jagged that I didn’t know if I’d be suffocated or punctured to death first, if I tried to squeeze through.
Down again we went, trembling with fatigue and scattering ill-balanced boulders. “Back the way we came,” I said, dreading the return passage to the previous intersection, which had been narrow, dark, slippery, and generally unpleasant. Faith gazed wide-eyed at me, and I felt compelled to add, “There’s no way through.”
She tilted her head, considering, wanting something more from me. When I couldn’t give it, she dropped my hand and dived into the pile of rocks, feet disappearing in seconds.
I flinched away, expecting the whole pile to tumble down on is, but she wormed her way through with an agility I hadn’t had in years. It must’ve been completely dark in there, but I heard no cries of distress—only the shuffling of clothing on rock.
Was I supposed to go after her—into that? Find her, get her out somehow?
While I was grinding up my courage, Faith’s head popped back out of the pile, followed by the rest of her. She beckoned me and dove back in, this time waiting until I followed and could use her feet as a guide.
Scraping and wriggling through a pile of hazardous concrete slabs was about the most nightmarish way I could think of to spend eternity, which was approximately how long it took to get through. But I couldn’t very well not go; and once I’d started, there was no turning back. I only hoped, desperately, that the path she’d found was the correct one, and that we wouldn’t have to retrace our steps. I didn’t think I could endure the return journey.
On the far side of the pile, the maze weighed upon us more than ever, the darkness breathing in our ears and slithering through our clothing. We swam through it like deep-sea divers crushed by pressure. I squinted up at the grimy fluorescents, hurting my eyes. The unstable, flickering lights shone by turns too close and too far away, and the clarity they provided never rose above gloaming.
More dirty water dripped and soaked and schemed down here, trickles widening into streams and waterfalls; puddles deepening into murky sumps. I waded across three with Faith perched on my shoulders, and lost my shoes in the second of these. I was barely sorry: they might have been fashionable a lifetime ago, but they’d rubbed half the skin off my feet.
If only the stone below my shredded tights were so cold.
I was soaked, shivering, famished, anxious, and so exhausted that I shook with it. But it was only when I forgot to mark a turning and barely caught my mistake in time to go back for it that I stopped. “It’s time to sleep,” I told Faith. “This spot is as dry as any.”
Our path had left us on a ledge. It had taken some maneuvering to reach, but it was nine or ten feet wide and didn’t have any streams running down its walls. I lay on my side with my back to the tunnel ahead—a horrible future that I told myself involved merely a low ceiling and now a giant press barely a foot above the earth. Plenty high; higher than a bed above the carpet, and I had never suffered claustrophobia underneath beds. But then, mattresses aren’t typically thousands of pounds of earth and concrete.
I brought my knees to my chest, shivering. But before I could hug my legs, Faith crept in close, wedged her back against my chest, and grabbed my arm for a pillow. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was arguably less cold—and I couldn’t stay awake long enough to care.
I dreamed, but not of anything in particular: of shadowy images, vague dread, suffocating entrapment, icy tombs. I tried to open my eyes to wake myself up, but everything remained closed and lightless. I could hear my breathing and feel Faith’s heart and smell rotting concrete and taste the cave, but my eyes remained closed. I pressed my eyelids with my fingertips until colored blotches drifted across my vision. Then I peeled apart my upper and lower eyelashes.
I didn’t understand. One numb hand grabbed at a rambling blotch, rocking Faith. She moaned, and I woke up properly and opened my eyes.
The darkness remained. Perfect darkness, entrapping us, chuckling low. Not the darkness of a moonless night; the darkness you find only underground, where not a single photon of light can enter your pupils. Darkness as heavy as dirty and as airless as ice.
“Faith,” I rasped, “are you awake?”
Filthy hair scratched my face. A nod.
“Can you see anything?”
Movement side to side instead of up and down. So I wasn’t blind.
“The light strip must have burned out,” I muttered. It shouldn’t have surprised me: this deep in the maze, two-thirst of the lights had gone extinct, and many of the others danced their death throes. I should have known this would happen eventually, but I hadn’t let myself think it. Had only let myself go on, on, on far past the point when I should have rested.
How many other mistakes had I made?
“Don’t worry,” I told Faith—I told myself. “We know where the tunnel is. Go back to sleep.”
Faith relaxed, and soon her breathing evened and slowed. I tried to emulate her, but pinball thoughts disturbed the inside of my skull, and the dam cracked. Water rushed through my thoughts, swamping them in despair and drowning reason in fear. I became certain that we law now before the low tunnel but directly beneath it, and that with every breath, it pressed lower upon us. Slow, crushing, inescapable. And it had already begun. I could not convince myself it had not, no matter how I patted the air above me and felt the lip of the tunnel. The spiders laughed their trickling water, clicking their legs and spinning their sumps. They lived in concrete slivers at the bottom of those sumps, scratching the soles of passersby and stealing shoes to make homes in. They’d be coming for the rest of me soon, to lay their eggs. They’d be here already, except that they had to scale the wall—
“Mama?” Faith asked, and I wondered what I had screamed, for her to awaken. Her small hands on my face broke my paralysis and scattered the spiders.
I squeezed them in my fist until they died. “I don’t like this darkness,” I told her, my voice foreign and distant and terribly sensible. “Let’s crawl through to the next room and see if we can find some light. Keep hold of my hand so we don’t get separated.”
Eternity beneath that wide, low passage. Forward, then right and tilting upward halfway through. More than once, it pressed down so low that I had to flatten myself and exhale to squeeze through. But I made it, and then there was light. Not much—a single strip of fluorescent—but infinitely, gloriously more than before. I gazed a long time at the stream it illuminated, at the bubbles and trickles and spray, and marveled at its beauty. I marveled too at the fifty-foot waterfall from which the stream flowed.
I might have been able to climb up the wall next to that waterfall, if I’d been warm and rested and aboveground and wearing climbing shoes . . but there was no way Faith could have managed it. No way Sr. Nordfeld could have either—but since neither Sr. Nordfeld nor the king could have squeezed through that last tunnel or the rock pile or half of the other obstacles we’d passed, I’d long since given up using him as a measure of things to come.
Beyond climbing up the sheer wall, we had two choices: a pair of window-like passages on our right about eye level. One was slightly larger, and I liked the smell better, so up I lifted Faith and in we went.
That window’s tunnels were as frustrating as any we had found: a series of narrow squeezes connected by low rooms. Two of the squeezes split into separate tunnels no less asphyxiating. It was too dark between rooms for me to see my marks properly and too narrow for me to leave intact rock piles, so I deposited scraps of clothing instead. And probably smears of blood, the condition my legs and arms were in—but I was having a hard time caring about that. The darkness was clustering in my mind again, conspiring with anxiety and claustrophobia and frustration. But I think I could’ve gotten past those, if only a single ray of sunlight reached me down here.
On we went and on, and one by room the rooms and squeezes dead ended. The squeezes were far worse than the room, when they stopped or got too small to continue, because we had to leverage and shuffle and scrape our way backwards, which was many times harder than forwards. Once, thinking I saw light beyond, I wedged myself in too tightly. I believed I would never get out—and I never would have, if not for Faith. She pulled on my foot and I pushed and exhaled and tried not to thrash in panic because that would only wedge me further in and I did not want to die like this.
Once after that, I made the mistake of letting Faith go first. But she blocked any hint of light ahead, and she could compress herself through spaces I could never manage, and when she began to panic—
I didn’t let her panic. There must not be panic.
And so back we went, back to the last option in this window. If it didn’t pan out, we’d have to retrace hours of agonizing travel back to the second window. Never for a moment did I believe we wouldn’t have to go back, and yet on I went, exhaling and scraping through one last squeeze and into the cavern beyond.
It was blessedly large, a misshapen hollow of rough concrete. Black streams of fetid water streamed down the walls and onto the floor below. Spray soaked every inch of the room, and droplets stung my face and blurred my deeply-scratched glasses. In the feeble fluorescents, which burned and spat high above and more unstable than ever, I could see the black stain of water spread before me. The floor slumped down into it, deepening the stain into a sump maybe fifty feet long and twice as wide.
It was too dim to see details from a distance, so I took Faith’s hand, and we circled the sump to the right, trailing our fingers over wet concrete and peering deep into suspicious shadows. Twice, we found side passages—but the first ended abruptly ten feet on; and the second, completely lightless, shrank into razor-edged nothingness. Like the throat of a lamprey, I thought, and threw Faith out of the tunnel before the teeth could snap upon us.
The tunnel waited patiently, open for our return. The sump swirled peaceably where we’d left it.
Back we went to where we’d started, and then around the left side of the sump. But here we had even less luck: there wasn’t a single hole or tunnel or passageway, high or low. Worse, this side dipped down abruptly at the end, and in the dim light, I misjudged my step. I plunged into the sump up to my knee and nearly catapulted us both into the cold water.
“Sorry, sorry,” I told Faith, my voice blurring with the rivulets and splashes. “Are you all right?”
I think she nodded in reply, but the fluorescents were playing tricks with my eyes, and I couldn’t see her properly. No: the lights were dimmer than before. Another tube had extinguished. Only one remained.
I shuddered and concentrated on the walls. They went up awfully high, but did they go all the way up to the ceiling, or was there a passage somewhere above us, out of reach? Could I climb them? If I lifted Faith to my shoulders, she could feel for a ledge; we’d found an early passage that way. Sr. Nordfeld was a head taller than I was.
I didn’t want to go back. Not past that lightless press. Not to a place I couldn’t see my markings, couldn’t see which way was back and which way merely deeper.
“Faith,” I said, and she let herself be lifted up. She looked and felt without a word. I swayed and leaned against the wall and concentrated on not dropping her.
We hunted back and forth, three times over, for a hidden way through. We must’ve been in that room well over an hour. In the end, I had to concede defeat. “It must have been the smaller window passage,” I told Faith wearily. “Or maybe we should have taken the rightmost tunnel at the beginning. We’ll have to backtrack.”
The last fluorescent blinked, popped, and died.
I didn’t move. I concentrated on continuing to breath, on standing upright. I had known this might happen again. I could survive it. I knew the layout of the room, and I knew how to get out—there was only one way. Of three passages, two ended immediately and the third led out. It wasn’t possible to get lost. I only had to follow the wall back to the crack and follow the light.
I’m not afraid of the dark, normally. I’m not. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Nighttime escapades were my forte. I slept without a nightlight. I’d be back in the lit room soon.
Unless that one’s gone dark too, the insidious water trickled in my ear. Really, it’s a miracle the lights have lasted as long as they have.
Nonsense, I snapped back. Sr. Nordfeld wouldn’t want to be stuck down here in total darkness!
Sr. Nordfeld isn’t stuck down here in total darkness. He never could have fit through half those passages. You should have stayed in the main basement. You’re going to die down here, and no one will ever find me.
He wouldn’t leave me here! Not in the dark.
Why not? The dead cannot see.
I shook my dizzy head and sat on the floor. It was cold and wet, but what did that matter? I couldn’t get any colder or wetter.
I pulled Faith onto my lap. She was shivering. I held her loosely and thought empty thoughts.
(What was this hand in mine? It could not be skin and bones I felt, if I felt anything.)
Fireworks burst like water droplights in my vision. Riotous, maddening. It wouldn’t let me alone. “It’s important not to panic,” my hypocrite voice told her. How raspy it was! “We’re going to feel our way back.” Steadying myself with one hand on the wall, I creaked upward.
I had a horrible moment then, when I couldn’t remember which way the entrance lay, which way I faced. Which side of the sump was I on? I’d gone back and forth so much. The left? No—the right. I shuffled forward, tracing the wall.
My foot plunged into knee-high water.
I stepped back, holding Faith and shaking. The darkness pressed on me, thick as water, heavy and encompassing. No, not water—earth. Pressing, suffocating earth.
I couldn’t breathe. I gasped for air. Hypoxia, that’s what it was called. Down here, without ventilation, we’d spent the past hour replacing oxygen with carbon dioxide. WE were suffocating on the poison of our own lungs!
I wheezed. Every step shot agony through my lungs. My numb hands fumbled over the wall, barely able to identify passages. I found all three, turned back toward the entrance. OR was this the right way? Which was which and what was what? Two squeezed me tight, but which would eventually release and which eventually crush?
My eyes trained for light, any hint of light. Meaningless phantoms plagued my vision, and the water wouldn’t shut up. It demanded my attention with whispers and roars and thunderous accusations. The rivulets grew into monstrous waterfalls that crashed into the sump, swelling the waters upwards to drown is.
“I’m not listening to you,” I told it—or thought I told it. Nothing was clear any longer.
The room had grown too massive to hear me; that was why it disguised its exit in waves of lard. I was digesting me. The ribbons of water snaking down the walls and over my hand were stomach acid. They had already eaten one hand down to the bone, which was why I couldn’t feel it. Once that had was entirely gone, I’d have to swap to the other one.
Why couldn’t I swap now? My other hand was stuck out to the side, floating midair as if holding a much smaller, lower hand. Impossible! No living being could survive this darkness.
Another crack in the wall, whispering to me of escape. Hah—I knew its game. It couldn’t fool me. There—another phantom: a ghost of light bobbing out over the sump. Misleading. Liar. You’re always lying.
Faith! But yes, that was right—she was still alive! I’d forgotten. It was too late to save me, acid eaten and skeletal, a ghost the twin of the one bobbing temptingly above the water. Too late for me, but I could save her. That was why the ghost beckoned; it was showing me the way out.
“Don’t worry, my dear,” I told Faith. I had to call her “my dear,” because it’s wrong to speak ill of the living when you’re the dead, and it’s not comforting besides. “We’re going to have a swim. That way, toward the corpse light. Will, Will o’ the Wisp, trust your brother to lead us the way out.” I picked her up, and she wrapped her arms around my neck and her legs around my chest.
Stumbling over the uneven ground, I pointed my bony knees at the ghost. The first step into the sump brought the water to those knees, the second to my waist. It was cold, but the dead don’t need head.
Another step, and I had to swim. This was difficult, because the acid hadn’t liked the taste of my clothing, and I had to trust Faith to cling to me so I could use both hands. Since I was dead, I could breathe water if I had to, but she couldn’t.
My ghost bobbed before us, pointing to the tunnel leading out the far side of the sump. I could feel it: a slanted gash longer than I was tall but only about a foot wide. Only the top few inches of the gash rose above the surface of the water.
I considered a moment, and then maneuvered onto my back. I rolled Faith belly up and lay her on top of me, the back of her head on my chest so I could ensure her face remained above water. Linking my feet with hers, I inflated my lungs to help us float, lifted my arms above my head, and pulled us into the tunnel.
It was very narrow, and its rocks chomped at me, but I scorned them. Faith shivered violently, but if she spoke, my submerged ears couldn’t hear her. Since the only way was forward, that was the way I went.
The tunnel narrowed and widened, but it always let us pass, even around tight turns. NO branches streaked off the living water, but I felt a slight current. Which way did it go; which way did it flow? Sometimes I thought one way, sometimes another. I looked to my ghost and couldn’t see it, but other phantoms reveled with us.
Then those disappeared too, because water sloshed over my eyes and nose. I jerked my head up and banged my nose on concrete. The ceiling had lowered. IT was hard to feel with dead fingers, but I thought there was still some air—maybe three inches of it. Enough ot keep Faith’s nose above water, if I braced my legs against the narrow sides of the tunnel to support her.
Forward, always forward. The three inches of air lessened to two. To one.
No more space. No more air. The tunnel had dipped too low.
There was no way to speak to Faith, no way for her to hear. So I snaked one arm down and pinched her nose. She twitched, and I released her nose long enough for her to inhale. Then I pinched it again and pushed off. I held my breath too, even though I could breathe water like a fish, because that’d let me know when she needed air.
My frozen corpse hadn’t been able to hold much breath to start with, and I burned through my reserve oxygen swiftly. Coherent thought disappeared into a red and black feeding frenzy. Then Faith was moving my hand away, because we were in air again, and it was time to breathe.
The second underwater portion of that tunnel was maybe half the length of the first. The third never ended.
I was dead, and Faith must be dead too, starved of air. My body thrashed beneath me, delusion giving way to panic—
And then my back hit concrete and I gasped involuntarily. I must have let go of Faith at the same time, because she tugged at me and called for her mama again and again. I tried to tell her that I didn’t know who her mama was, but I was heaving and coughing and vomiting up water, and I couldn’t get the words out.
She wasn’t listening anyway; she was tugging. She wouldn’t stop. Relentless child! I gave up and followed her.
My ghost had returned, this time transformed into searing light. It pierced from beneath a wooden door, just like the wooden doors of Edenfield manor. I marveled that the light didn’t set the wood aflame. To see why it didn’t, I threw the door open, and we shambled through onto the burnt grass beyond.
Behind us, the door swung closed and collapsed into ash.