“It’s a risk I’ll have to take. I made a vow.”
“I know you did,” said Prue. “And I think you’re keeping it by helping me. You’re not doing anyone any good by getting yourself killed. Even Brendan would tell you that.”
Curtis looked at her blankly.
“It’s for the good of the Wood, I know it,” she continued, her voice growing more urgent. “You have to trust me on this.”
Curtis looked over at Septimus; the rat had made his way through one granola bar and was about to sink his teeth into a second. When he saw Curtis looking, he froze. His eyes darted bac
k and forth between the two kids before he shrugged and kept eating. “Meither way,” he said through his full mouth, “sounds mrisky.”
“Okay,” said Curtis. “One thing I did swear: I said I’d keep you safe. I intend to do that. But only till we find your maker. And then you’re on your own. I’m going back to the camp.”
“Fine,” said Prue, relieved.
They picked through the stockpile for the least suspicious food items and the ones that wouldn’t require a can opener; they fit what they could into Prue’s knapsack. There was no telling how long they’d be traveling. The shadows of their complaining and empty stomachs from the days prior to discovering the moles still hovered in their minds.
A grand send-off was arranged; Prue, Curtis, and Septimus were each given the highest decoration the moles could offer: the Star of the Underwood. The medal itself was a tangle of rusted wire around a salvaged badge that had clearly found its way to the moles’ possession from the Outside: Prue’s read I’M A RAINBOW READER! above the crude drawing of an open book sprouting the identifying rainbow. Septimus’s badge boasted the logo of some forgotten food co-op. Curtis’s just had a picture of a middle-aged man giving the camera a thumbs-up. Below the face it simply read ZEKE in bold letters. They accepted the medals with a quiet dignity.
Leaving the city behind, the three travelers followed the thick green cable that had been stretched along the floor of the tunnel. It led them over long, thin bridges across wide wells. It led them up staircases and down raked floors. It led them down iron ladders and up wooden ones. So many were the twists and turns in the cable’s path that they became amazed by the amount of attention and diligence the marking of the way must’ve demanded of the mole and her Overdweller friend. Prue, for one, could only imagine the potential wrong turns one could take in the maze of tunnels. It was best to just concentrate on the green cable, to follow it blindly.
The way was far. They were forced to stop many times in their travels.
The rough-hewn stone, after a time, gave way to rougher brick as the construction of the tunnel system seemed to transform into the product of a distinctly more modern era. It began to remind Prue of the passageways she’d traversed in South Wood, when she’d gone to see Owl Rex. It gave her hope that they were making progress. However, judging from the kind of cast-off junk that the architect had brought to build his mole city, it was clear that he was sourcing from the Outside—from beyond the Wood. If this was the case, then the two of them seemed to be walking a conduit between the Outside and the Impassable Wilderness—something she believed even many of the older citizens of the Wood that she’d met didn’t know existed. Frankly, the implications seemed astonishing. She’d just about gotten around to considering whether the Periphery Bind extended into the underground when a loud clank disrupted her from her thinking.
“What was that?” she asked.
Curtis, in front of her, was bending down, inspecting something on the tunnel floor. He’d accidentally kicked it as he walked. “A bottle,” he said.
“What? What kind of bottle?”
“A beer bottle,” said Curtis. He handed it to Prue. She studied it in the glare of the lantern light.
“Pabst Blue Ribbon,” Prue read from the torn label. That, to her best recollection, was not of Woodian brew.
Septimus, at Curtis’s shoulder, began to wax somewhat pathetically about how he imagined a cool drink would taste right about now when suddenly they heard whistling coming from the darkness ahead. Prue lifted the lantern; the outer rings of its illumination revealed a crude open doorway. The whistling was persistent, growing closer. A click; light flooded in.
Prue’s eyes had grown so accustomed to the faint glow of their lantern that this new light, harsh and fluorescent, felt as if they were looking directly into the sun. They cringed and squinted. A figure came into view; he was carrying a box.
They moved forward cautiously. The figure must’ve heard them, because his whistling abruptly ceased. As they approached, they were better able to make out the man’s features. He was a young man, perhaps in his twenties, and he was wearing a bowler hat and a natty vest. He was clean shaven, save for a thick mustache which he’d pomaded into little curls on either side of his mouth. He looked like he’d emerged from another century—which made him a dead ringer for a citizen of South Wood.
“Hello?” called Prue.
The man had stopped and was peering down the passageway at the two of them; he seemed to be having trouble making sense of their presence.
“What are you doing down here?” he asked.
“We’d ask you the same,” said Curtis.
“I’m just working,” explained the man.
“Is this South Wood? How near are we to the Mansion?” Prue was tired from all the walking; her patience was stretched thin.
This question seemed to flummox the young man completely. “Huh?” was all he managed.
“South Wood. Are we below South Wood?” repeated Curtis, irritated by the man’s stupor.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is Old Town. Like, downtown Portland. I’m just stocking the reach-in.”