Curtis swore and looked longingly back toward the sliver of light above them. “We’re stuck. Done for. Bones. Skeletons-to-be.”
“Unless,” interrupted Prue. She was staring down into the void.
“Well, there was something else that the tree said, that the tree said through that little boy.”
She called down to Septimus. “Think we could make it down to that other rock, the one below you?”
“Yeah,” said the rat. “Though in this instance, I’m thinking we should focus on going up.”
Prue smiled. “That’s the thing. That’s what the boy told me.”
“What?” asked Curtis.
“Sometimes, you have to go under to get above.”
Curtis held his hand to his mouth, as if in disbelief. “You want us to go … deeper?”
“I think it’s pretty clear, don’t you?”
Eyebrow raised, Curtis said, “That was a little boy who said that to you. Speaking for a tree.” He repeated, “A tree.”
“Like we have a choice,” said Prue, gesturing to the precipice of cliff surrounding them.
“We should wait. Maybe there are survivors. Someone would hear us down here.”
“Curtis, we’re too far down. It’s a miracle we even survived. There was no one in the camp. The whole place was empty—even if there were stragglers, how would they hear us? How would they get us out? On top of all that, Darla might be up there, just waiting for us to make a move. She might have more of those … those things with her.”
“I don’t know, Prue. I mean, we have no idea what’s down there. Right?” He soon realized that his objections were still doggedly anchored to the belief that the bandits were still alive; that they hadn’t been completely routed by the assassins.
Without answering, Prue swooped up the lantern and undid the cord attached to the handle. She threw one end of the rope to Curtis and tied the other end to her midsection. “Hold tight,” she instructed before slowly lowering her body over the edge of the rock. Curtis strained under the weight, gritting his teeth and wedging his feet inside the recess between the boulder and the cliff wall. Finally, the weight abated, and Prue gave the rope a few tugs. He found he had no more energy to fight. Breathing a quiet oath, he looped the rope around a tooth of rock on the far side of the shelf. He then lowered himself down with Prue anchoring from below.
“Welcome,” announced Septimus when they’d both arrived.
They continued on that way, slowly moving themselves downward from rock to rock. Each time they tested the depth of the darkness below them by dropping stones and judging the time that passed before they heard the noise of its landing, like a boat sounding the depths. With each passable drop, they marveled at their good fortune. They wondered, inwardly, when that fortune would run its course.
Finally, after perhaps ten such descents, they found themselves on a small niche of rock where the two sides of the ravine wall came together in a V shape. In front of them was a jumble of stones that had fallen and become lodged in the V. Prue inspected the pile and, finding a loose stone, began to pry it away. Curtis helped. When the stone had been cleared of remnant rock, they were both able to peel it back from the pile to reveal a small, angular hole. He wasn’t sure whether it was his imagination, but Curtis thought he felt the whiff of a breeze emerge from the hole when they’d removed the rock.
They stared into the blankness of the opening.
“What do you suppose is down there?” said Curtis.
“I don’t know,” said Prue. Then: “What did Brendan say about this place? So
mething about people living down here? A long time ago?”
“Cliff people, yeah,” said Curtis. “Sign of it. I guess they found, like, paintings and things. But that was a lot farther up. As far as I know, no one’s been down this deep.”
Prue’s eyes moved from Curtis’s face to the rat that was sitting on his shoulder. “Septimus,” she said, “this is where you could really come in handy.”
“Let me guess. You want me. To go in there.” He smoothed back his whiskers nervously.
“Please,” she said.
“Come on, Septimus,” said Curtis. “We need you.”