Prue held up the lantern; its illumination cast a glow into the hole.
Septimus grumbled. He then hopped from Curtis’s shoulder to his elbow and from there to the hard floor of the chasm’s bottom. He paused for a moment at the opening, sniffing at the ground suspiciously.
“It’s what a true bandit would do,” prompted Curtis.
“I’m no sworn bandit,” said the rat. “I’m a free agent. And I choose to go in there on my own terms.” With that, he disappeared into the hole.
Prue and Curtis waited patiently. The minutes ticked away. The chill of the cavern’s air needled at Curtis’s skin below his torn and dirtied officer’s coat. Finally, there came the unmistakable noise of Septimus’s claws against stone. The rat reappeared at the mouth of the hole, now coated in a fresh layer of gray dust. He held his paw out in front of him, his face puckered and flinching.
“What did you see?” asked Curtis, alarmed.
The rat continued to hold out his hand. He waved it frantically; his eyes were tightly closed, and he shook his snout back and forth as if he were trying to cast something from his mind.
“Septimus!” yelled Prue.
And then he stopped. Opening his mouth wide, he batted at his nose with his thin fingers. “Sorry,” he said. “Thought I was going to sneeze there.”
Prue and Curtis, together, released a breath of relief.
Once the rat had recovered, he continued, “There’s a tunnel in there. And I think it’s big enough for all of us.”
They traveled downward.
They’d only needed to chip away a few armloads of stone before the opening was big enough for the larger members of their party. The passageway beyond was not so much a tunnel as it was an emptied vein in the rock made of fallen slabs of stone, pinioned together. Several times, the going became so tight that Prue and Curtis were forced to slide on their bellies to arrive at the other side of a particularly small fissure. Occasionally, Curtis would discern that the tunnel was beginning to climb, and he felt a thrilled leap in his stomach. But invariably, the ascent would be minor, and then the tunnel would slope down and they would lose, to Curtis’s best estimation, whatever altitude they’d gained. The longer they spent down here, the further they got away from the true goal of this journey: to get topside, to find out what had happened to the bandits. He worried that Prue did not share the same thinking.
The tunnel continued down.
Curtis remembered a trip he’d taken several years ago, with his school, to some nearby caverns. The caverns, he was told, were discovered by spelunkers who’d happened on a small crack in a cliff face and decided to explore; one of their number had died after he’d followed an artery of the cavern and, not reading the geography correctly, had gotten stuck. They didn’t find his body for three weeks. Despite Curtis’s best efforts to dispel this thought from his mind, it continued to haunt him. At one point, he grabbed Prue’s boot and shook it.
“Hey,” he called.
She stopped. “Yeah?”
“So when do we finally decide this is crazy?”
A pause. “I’ve kinda already decided that.”
“But as long as there’s an opening here, I think we should continue.”
“I was just thinking—”
Prue interrupted him. “About that spelunker who got stuck in that cavern, the one that we visited on the class trip a few years ago?”
“How’d you know?”
“I’m thinking the same thing.”
“Let’s not do that, okay?”
Septimus’s voice came echoing down the shaft; he moved more swiftly than his humanoid compatriots, using the extra time to check out the upcoming terrain. “It gets bigger,” he hollered. “Just ahead.”
To their relief, the rat spoke true: The tunnel gradually began to widen until it was big enough for them to sit up in. They stopped and opened Prue’s knapsack, rifling through it for the last of the remaining victuals she’d packed. The tally was three pieces of jerky in parchment, two apples, and a few heels of bread. They split one piece of the dried meat and shaved a few slices off an apple with Prue’s hunting knife, which had miraculously survived the fall from the rope bridge, landing within inches of her head. Curtis, who was starting to feel a pang of thirst, sucked at his apple slice, drawing every bit of liquid from it before popping the desiccated thing into his mouth. Prue pulled off her boot and they inspected her ankle; the swelling seemed mild.
“At least I don’t have to walk on it,” Prue said with a half smile.