“Probably can keep wondering. Looks like it’s been here a long time, whoever carved it,” said Prue.
“At least we know somebody got down here. There must be a way to the surface.” Curtis, by the light of the lantern, had taken his socks off and was busy wringing the icy cold water from them.
“Sure,” said Prue. “But given the choice, is that where we want to be right now?”
Curtis regarded his friend coolly. “You may be right.”
“Even if Darla didn’t survive the fall, who knows if there are more of them, these foxes, out there. Not quite sure how we’re going to find the makers and get Alexei reanimated, down here.”
“That’s still the goal, huh?”
“Of course it’s still the goal,” said Prue.
Curtis shared a glance with Septimus before saying, “What about the bandits? We need to find out what happened to them.” Little rivulets of water were pouring from the fabric of his socks; his bare feet were the color and texture of one of the jarred pig fetuses that had lined the shelves of their Life Science lab room.
“Also,” added Septimus, “we did almost die. Twice. Sometimes that can, you know, rejigger priorities.”
“Twice?” asked Curtis.
“I’m counting the fox-woman attack as one. Then the fall.”
“Got it,” said Curtis, before adding, “Though I tend to think the whole episode was one big death-avoidance thing.”
Prue, annoyed, rounded on them both. “Well, it hasn’t. Rejiggered priorities,” she said.
“The whole camp was wiped out, Prue,” said Curtis. “It’s sort of a miracle that we survived the fall. I mean, for all I know, Septimus and I are the last remaining Wildwood Bandits. We owe it to the rest of the band to find out what happened.”
Prue seemed like she was prepared for Curtis’s objection. “I have a really good hunch that the tree knew about this all along. I’m thinking that, somehow, reanimating Alexei will go a long way to helping everyone. Including the bandits. I mean, think about it. We fall into the Long Gap—that certainly wasn’t part of our plan—and we wind up finding this tunnel—that boy had said to me, ‘You have to go under to get above.’ I swear. I’m totally quoting him there.”
“So you said.”
“And the tree—or the boy—also said that we needed to reanimate the true heir to save our lives and our friends’ lives. However that works, I think the meaning’s pretty clear. This is what we have to do.”
“You’re the oracle here. You’re the one with the voices in her head.”
Prue ignored this little slight. She was dragging her fingers through her hair, squeezing water from the damp strands, and thinking. “It’s just that it’s not entirely clear how we go about it, being underground. I mean, clearly it’s going to be hard to do what the tree wants us to do in our, you know, present circumstances. South Wood’s a far way away. And who knows how many of those assassins are out there. One thing is certain: We’re safest down here, out of sight, in the underground.”
“Or aboveground,” said Curtis. A light had come over his face. “Hear me out: If things are really as they are in South Wood, everyone thrown into a patriotic tizzy over this and that, and we know that somebody with a horse in that race is wanting us killed—don’t you suppose that being out in the open might be safer than hanging out in some anonymous hole where we could be dispatched without anyone knowing it? I mean, I know I’ve joked about it, but you’re the Bicycle Maiden. You’re, like, the mascot of the revolution. I mean, who knows, right? You show up and everybody might be bending over backward to please you and make sure you’re—and hopefully, me too—safe.”
“And that’s how we get to Alexei, and start looking for the makers,” said Prue.
“We’ve got to tell them what’s happened to us, to the bandits,” Curtis added. “Someone’s got to help.”
Septimus interjected, “Don’t we still have an emissary there? Brendan sent Angus not too long ago. He’s got to still be there.”
Prue nodded. “Maybe that is the best course.” She paused and stared at the lichen-covered walls of the chamber, their greenness an almost neon in the lantern’s light. The void beyond the archway was chilling to her. “Assuming we can even get out of here. It’s just as likely this tunnel will just lead to a dead end somewhere. Though—I do remember …” Here, she began chewing on a nagging fingernail, trying to conjure a memory from the previous autumn. “Penny, the housemaid at the Mansion. When she snuck me out of there, when I went to meet Owl Rex, she took me through these crazy tunnels. I think she said something about them being there before the Mansion had even been built. Maybe they extend all over the Wood!”
“Maybe so.” Curtis, having wrung as much water from his wool socks as he could manage, cringed as he rolled them back onto his feet. When he was done, he slipped his boots back on and stood gingerly. He made little sloshing noises as he shifted from one foot to the other.
“Close enough,” he said. “You guys good to go?”
Prue tested her bad ankle with a few steps. “I think so,” she said.
“You two first,” said the rat. “You can soak up all the snakes.” Curtis waved the way for Prue; together they crossed through the archway and into the tunnel.
The dampness seemed to engulf them. Even if their clothes weren’t already drenched to the skin, they would’ve felt the air, thick with moisture, closing in around them. Thankfully, it had grown warmer as they traveled farther into the tunnel, which went a long way toward making their slow progress at least somewhat comfortable. Prue had to walk carefully, her ankle still smarting from the fall. The walls of the tunnel climbed high above their heads to arrive at its arched spine, aloft at the height of a basketball backboard. The stones that made up the wall looked as if they’d been meticulously chiseled into usable form by hand, with the aid of some archaic tool. Prue wondered what sort of hands would’ve done this work: The amount of time it would’ve taken to do even a small section of the tunnel seemed unfathomable to her. She imagined the creatures, animal and human, working together over centuries to craft this single artery, so deep in the underground, the chamber echoing with the sounds of their work, with the sounds of their songs.
Curtis, meanwhile, took up the rear with Septimus, looking behind him every now and then to make sure the inevitable serpent the rat kept going on about wasn’t mounting a rear attack. James Earl Jones horribly transforming into a giant, toothy snake in the original Conan movie was branded on his brain, ever since he’d watched it with his dad when he was younger. He wondered if he’d be that creeped out, though, if whatever specter he imagined arriving was, in fact, James Earl Jones, who came crawling up behind them and transformed himself into a poisonous reptile; Curtis thought that that might be cool. Espec