Curtis again screwed up all his listening prowess; this time, he heard something, something other than dripping. “What is that?” It sounded like metal dragging over stone—but something small, like a key being slid along a brick wall. In the cavity of the tunnels, the sound took on a terrifyingly ominous aspect.
Prue didn’t answer; she was too busy staring at the space in front of them. They’d just turned at a Y intersection, taking the left passageway, and were in the middle of one of the longer stretches of tunnels they’d been through. The sound seemed to be coming from the darkness ahead of them.
The lantern cast a dim light on the ground ahead; Curtis envisioned some eldritch creature, all tentacles and glistening eyeballs, carrying a—what?—an ax, maybe. Dragging on the ground. He shivered at the image. There was a nagging tug at his ear; Septimus had winnowed his claws into Curtis’s earlobe and was holding on to it like a child squeezing a teddy bear. “Snake,” he whispered. “I’d know that sound anywhere.”
“Hello?” called Prue.
The sound stopped.
Prue thrust the lantern out farther, edging forward down the tunnel as she did.
bsp; A voice came from the deep black. “WHO GOES THERE?” it said. It didn’t sound like any voice Curtis had ever heard; it sounded as if it’d been buried underground for centuries, deprived of the warming rays of the sun—if a voice could sound like such a thing. It was dark and pitched low; menacing.
The voice sounded again, echoing off the walls of the tunnel. “TRESPASSERS OF THE UNDERWOOD, STATE YOUR NAME AND BUSINESS. IF YOU BE AGENTS OF DENNIS, I WILL BE FORCED TO DECAPITATE YOU.”
Septimus gave a terrified yelp before jumping from Curtis’s coat and scurrying away down the passageway in the direction they’d just come. Curtis grabbed hold of Prue’s shoulder, hard; to his mind, this was far worse than snake-transformed James Earl Jones appearing from the dark—at least that would be a known quantity. Rather, this thing seemed to be coming from the very core of the earth itself, its being having been forged in the crucible of the molten depths.
The metallic noise sounded again, this time as if it were right at their feet. Prue swung the lantern about them, trying to gauge where the sound was coming from. “Where is it?” she whispered.
“I don’t know!” Curtis whispered back, shaking.
The voice gave an audible gasp. It sounded like it was coming from their feet. Prue let the lantern drop a little, lighting the floor. There, standing directly in front of them, was a small, furry mole.
Curtis’s face fell. “Did you say that stuff?” he asked.
The mole, all of three inches tall, was aiming his snout in their direction. He wore, strangely enough, a kind of suit of armor that looked to be fashioned out of old bottle caps. A sword hung at a belt around his diminutive waist. Except it was not so much a sword as it was a standard Walgreens-issue darning needle. “HEAVENLY CONFUSION!” he cried in his weird, plaintive voice. “OVERDWELLERS!”
Curtis and Prue exchanged a confused glance.
The mole, with not a little panache, pulled the needle from his belt and planted its point on the stone of the tunnel floor. He then took a knee, like a football player in pregame meditation, and said, “GREAT, HOLY OVERDWELLERS, HAVE OUR LABORS BEEN BLESSED BY THE PANTHEON OF THE OVER WORLD? HAVE YOU COME TO AID US IN OUR STRUGGLE TO PREVAIL AGAINST DENNIS THE USURPER AND RETAKE THE FORTRESS OF FANGGG? HAVE OUR SUPPLICATIONS TO THE OVERDWELLER MOTHER BEEN ANSWERED?”
Curtis stood for a moment, shocked by the barrage of information, by the intense devotion of the small animal. He reached for Prue’s hand in the expectation that they would then share a quiet moment of consultation—it seemed to him that the gibberish the strange mole was babbling held some grave importance and that their answer should be carefully deliberated before they went about engaging with him. But he didn’t get a chance.
Prue, without a moment’s hesitation, said, “Yes.”
And that was that.
In the misted distance, the roof gables of the pagoda were the first things to come into view. They were draped in heavy pillows of snow that followed the roof’s sloped contour. The dragon heads that decorated the eaves were dusted with the white stuff, giving them the illusion of being bearded and white, wise to the ages. Seeing the building, the woman inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. The snow covered the sand gardens that surrounded it, obscuring the meticulous patterns raked into the fine gravel by the younger monks. A gosling, clearing snow from the stone path to the pagoda, stopped to greet her as she approached. The horrified look on the bird’s face was enough to let the woman know that she probably looked terrible; she felt as much, her arm hanging like dead weight at her side, held straight by a cobbled-together splint she’d made from tree branches. Her left leg smarted—a bright bruise that had shifted, chameleon-like, through every color in the spectrum graffitied the skin of her thigh. Her dashiki was rent considerably, and she knew that her face was marred with dried blood, all black and chalky.
The old man was there at the top of the steps, waiting for her. His ancient face betrayed no emotion as she approached; he looked at her disinterestedly, as one would seeing the postman approach or a stranger on the street. When she reached the midpoint of the pagoda stairs, she fell to her knee.
“It’s done,” said the old man.
Darla found it hard to meet his eyes. “The old Mystic, yes. The half-breed children … are likely dead.”
“The employer has signaled satisfaction.”
Darla looked up at the man. “Satisfaction?” She paused, searching for the words. “I can’t, in good conscience, confirm the kill.”
“They fell. Into the Long Gap. I couldn’t follow.”
“Come in, Darla,” the old man said. “You must rest.”
Inside, a brazier emitted a glow of heat from its red coals. The central chamber of the pagoda was decorated in an ascetic fashion: A few benches lined the wall; a series of woven mats covered the floor. The old man, in a simple burgundy wrap walked to the end of the mats and, flourishing the hem of his robe, sat down. Darla followed suit, lowering herself, with some difficulty, to her knees in front of him.