“We’re going to get out of here,” he said. “We are.”
“How?” asked Prue.
Curtis eyed the rock wall. “I suppose we climb.” Even he knew this was hopeless. It was as if he’d said it in order to give it to the air, this idea. As if by saying it, he’d whispered a necessary incantation, one that dissipated into smoke as soon as it was breathed alive.
Prue just shook her head.
They both hunkered down on the rocky floor of the shelf. “Nothing over there?” she asked, nodding to the place where Curtis had landed; where the dead fox lay.
“No,” he said. “Just a drop on the other side.”
“This is ridiculous,” said Prue. “I mean, we survive the fall just to die slowly at the bottom of this shaft?”
“Someone’s got a cruel sense of humor, that’s for sure,” said Curtis. “You know, God or whatever.”
There came a quiet between the two of them; Prue began to cry. “Oh, I screwed all of this up,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” consoled Curtis. He placed his hand between her shoulder blades.
“This,” said Prue. “The whole plan. What about what the tree said? That we need to reanimate the true heir, before the others do. Whoever the others are. But how are we going to do that stuck in this … this … hole? I bet ‘the others’ are halfway to rebuilding him by now.”
“So? Maybe that’s for the best. Maybe that’s what the tree wanted. Just someone to build him. Maybe Alexei’s a great person deep down, even if he is a kind of robot. Maybe he’ll still restore peace, whoever reanimates him.”
“I’m not so sure,” said Prue. “Why else would the tree have said that? No, it was supposed to be us. And we screwed it up.” She grew silent, her hand to her mouth, and remained deep in thought.
“Don’t beat yourself up. Maybe there are some bandits who’ll come back; maybe if we scream loud enough, they’ll hear us.” Curtis glared up at the little daylight they could see; it seemed improbable.
“Not likely,” said Prue.
“No, I guess not.”
Curtis puffed up his cheeks and blew out a breath through his puckered lips. “Well, I said, ‘This is it,’ up there.” He pointed to the crack of light above. “But I guess I was wrong. I suppose this is it. Kind of funny, in a way. Not often a guy gets to think ‘this is it’ twice in the span of a few minutes. Or maybe that always happens. Maybe death is just a series of ‘this is it’ thoughts until you finally—”
“HELP!” came a voice, interrupting Curtis from his macabre musings. It issued from the dark space beneath the shelf, just beyond the lip of the rock. “I’ve been blinded! Struck blind!”
It was undeniably the voice of Septimus the rat, pitched high with fear. Curtis rolled onto his belly and inched to the very edge of the shelf. He gestured to Prue, who handed him the lantern. Waving it into the darkness, he saw movement some thirty feet below them, on yet another boulder lodged in this narrowing of the twin cliffs.
“Oh,” said Septimus, blinking up at the swinging lantern in Curtis’s hand. “Never mind. I can see. That was an overreaction. On my part.”
Curtis smiled. “Are you okay?”
“It would appear that way. How about you?”
“We’re all right. Prue hurt her ankle. Otherwise, okay. Kind of miraculous.”
“What about that woman? The fox-woman?”
Prue frowned and answered, “We don’t know. The other fox is dead, though. The one she called Callista. The third one might still be up there.”
“Should we try to get down to you?” called Curtis.
“I don’t think so. There’s nothing really here. Hold on. Can you drop that light a little more?” asked the rat.
A length of cord was retrieved from Prue’s bag; by tying it to the handle of the lantern, they were able to lower the light to where the rat was caught. In the glimmer, the rat shook himself, and the small chasm became filled with a talcum of dust. The shelf was slightly longer than the one on which Prue and Curtis were perched; darkness filled the margins.
“There’s a drop-off. On either side. There might be another rock below this one.” The two kids watched as the rat scampered to the edge of his shelf and knocked a pebble into the depths. A tidy pap informed a small drop to the next boulder. “Yep,” said the rat. “Only way is down.”