Under Wildwood (Wildwood Chronicles 2) - Page 77

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ially if he talked, because then you could hear James Earl Jones’s voice in real life. And before he knew it, Curtis was mumbling something aloud in his best James Earl Jones voice.

“You have failed me for the last time, Admiral,” he said.

“What?” asked Prue, stopping in her tracks.

“Did I say that? Sorry.” He realized his mind had been wandering, though the natural reverb of the tunnel did lend a kind of authenticity to his impression.

“Come on, I think I see something ahead,” said Prue.

The tunnel hit a T intersection, some thirty feet from where they stood. A little stream of water dribbled from a hole in the masonry. Another stone had been set into the endless repetition of gray rock: the now familiar coiled circle. Below it, the designers of the tunnel had set two decorated stones, faded with time, next to each other. A circle was carved into one; a triangle in the other. Prue and Curtis studied these stones for a time, each alternately stepping forward and wiping the accumulated mud from the stones’ engravings.

“I’m thinking triangle,” said Curtis. “Though circle is awfully tempting as well.”

Prue was silent. She held the lantern out and studied both of the options; each direction from the junction looked identical.

“Don’t suppose the circle means bathroom, do you?” asked Curtis. “I should’ve gone in that pool, but it was just too cold.”

“You’re in an abandoned tunnel system,” said Septimus, having caught up. “I think it’s safe to say the world is your commode.”

Without speaking, Prue turned left and began following the “circle” artery. Curtis followed, Septimus astride his epaulet.

“What’d you do there?” asked Curtis.

“Just following a hunch,” replied Prue.

They came to several more such intersections; and with each one, it became increasingly arbitrary which direction they chose. A few times they found themselves dead-ended in a chamber similar to the one into which they’d fallen; in such cases, they simply turned around and chose the other direction. Since they didn’t really have a viable entryway—they’d fallen through a makeshift tunnel that itself had led from the bottom of an unscalable shaft—Prue had reasoned that it didn’t really matter which direction they went or that they kept track of their steps. She’d said this much to Curtis and Septimus while they were sitting at an intersection, sharing another piece of jerky. The unspoken subtext there, Curtis decided, was that they were basically marching until they ran out of food and starved to death or found an exit to the surface—whichever came first. It was enough to send shivers up his spine.

They continued on; finally, after several hours of wandering the maze, they saw that the walls of the tunnel seemed to fall away, and a cool, empty breeze suddenly passed over them. Holding out the lantern, they saw that they had entered a massive chamber, for which there was no visible ceiling or floor, and the stone path they were walking on was, in fact, a bridge to the other side. To their dismay, the light of the lantern revealed a dizzying crisscross of identical bridges, spanning the chasm directly below them; the scene repeated above them as well. It reminded Curtis of the videos he’d seen at the local science museum: the vast linking tendrils of tissue that made up the human brain.

“Oh man,” Curtis heard Septimus say at his shoulder.

“Just …,” began Prue. She was sounding desperate, afraid. “Let’s just keep going.”

As if to underscore the seriousness of their situation, Curtis’s stomach let out a little hungry grumble. “Ignore that,” he said.

They crossed the bridge. In time, they came to another split in the tunnel; both sides led to short flights of stairs. They took the one to the left. It split twice more before they found themselves again crossing a massive chasm, spanned by a multitude of other bridges above and below them. It was impossible to know where they were in relation to their previous position—or, really, whether this was the same chasm they’d traversed just a short time before. Prue’s limping was becoming more pronounced. “Let’s stop,” suggested Curtis. “You look like you’re in pain.”

Prue ignored him and kept moving, blindly following the myriad pathways of the tunnel system. “There has to be a way,” he heard her whisper.

They climbed stairways that seemed to get more and more vertical as they went, until they found themselves scaling the footholds of the stone wall the staircase had inexplicably become; they followed bridges that narrowed, at points, to barely the width of a single step. They wandered tunnels that seemed to curve, looping, impossibly in on themselves; tunnels that were fashioned for the easy passage of mutant-tall giants but then would end abruptly in a short doorway, leading on to passageways that they would have to follow on their hands and knees. A great, spiraling stairway led them down the wall of a massive cylinder-shaped chamber, at the bottom of which was a broken ladder, leading farther into blackness below them. At one point, at the crown of an arched bridge, they stopped and ate. Curtis, while munching on the last of his apple slices, saw Prue nod off into slumber. Pushing himself against her, he too fell into a deep sleep. Septimus prodded them both awake some time later, though it was impossible to know how long they’d been out; in this dark underworld, the passage of time seemed irrelevant.

They checked their remaining rations; they had perhaps another day’s worth of sustenance. Curtis massaged his temples with his fingers. The idea that they would perish in this underground labyrinth was steadily becoming more of a likely outcome. How had he been drawn so far astray from his bandit cohorts? He was sure there was something in the oath, the one he’d taken that night at the strange altar in the woods, that insisted on you sticking with your fellow bandits. Not leaving their side—or something to that effect. He’d only been a bandit for a few months and already he’d failed them. Brendan, Aisling—all of them. His family.

He stopped there. What family? That wasn’t his family; Prue had been right. His real family, he’d already left. What was his father doing now? His mother? He imagined his two sisters, going through their daily routine without a thought to the dire circumstances he presently found himself in. He scarcely had time to recollect the never-ending chirping of his younger sister’s Intrepid Tina doll before he saw Prue’s hand waving in his face. She was standing in front of him. Her face was flat, unemotional.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s keep moving.”

They hadn’t traveled far—perhaps an hour or two—before Prue stopped abruptly. Curtis nearly ran into her back.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“Shhh. Listen.”

Curtis held his breath; the omnipresent drip, drip from the lichen was the only thing he heard.

“I don’t hear any—”

“Shhh—there it goes again!” Prue had her finger to her mouth and was holding the lantern high.


Tags: Colin Meloy Wildwood Chronicles Fantasy
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