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Authors: Janet B. Taylor

Into the Dim (39 page)

BOOK: Into the Dim
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“That must be her,” Bran said. “The lady. The entrance to the Source has to be around here somewhere.”

While he searched the perimeter, I puttered around the base of the statue, staring up into the serene face. Curious, I scrambled onto the square plinth, using the statue's marble skirts to steady myself. As I perched next to her, my arm around her slim waist for support, I leaned out to peer down into her hand.

A globe-shaped object rested in it, as if she kept watch over the world in miniature. Reaching out, I touched it. Something flaked off. I scratched at it, and another white chunk fell away. Frantic now, I gouged at the object. Tiny pieces of ancient painted clay crumbled beneath my touch, revealing what was hidden beneath. As the object came free at last, I plucked it from her palm. And stared.

“Bran.” Excitement edged my voice. “Come here. Now!”

I beamed down at him. “Heads up.”

His nimble hands flew, snatching what I knew, without a doubt, had to be the true Nonius Stone. “Bugger me,” he breathed. “You found it.”

This time there was no question. Even in the low light, the black stone sparked with all the colors of the rainbow, just as Pliny had described. Red and violet. Green, orange, yellow, and blue.

“The lady lies beneath their knees,” Bran said in a whisper, looking up at the shadowed ceiling. A smile danced across his lips as he held up a hand to me. “Come here,” he said in a smoky tone that took my breath away.

As Bran held out a hand to help me down, his grin faded. I followed his gaze to where the statue's arm met her shoulder. There was a dark seam in the otherwise flawless marble. He helped me down, handed me the stone, then reached up and pulled on the statue's outstretched arm. Her shoulder joint gave way with a loud creak, followed by a horrible screech of stone as the statue began to turn.

When it stopped, it had turned ninety degrees, revealing an opening no more than two feet across. Situated at the base of the plinth, a perfect square of black now marred the white marble. It looked like a mouth waiting to consume us.

As we stared at what could only be the entrance to the Source, I took an involuntary step back. My throat closed, and the phobia I'd experienced since my time inside the nightmare tree roared to life.

That can't be it. No way. It's too small. Too small.

“Nope. Can't do it. It's too tight. I mean, don't you see? There has to be another way. Yes, another way. Just have to keep looking.”

Understanding dawned on Bran's face. “That's what happened to you in the tunnels earlier. You're claustrophobic.”

“Oh, okay,
Einstein,
” I said. “Yeah, that's one way to put it.” My voice had gone all screechy and black dots now danced at the edges of my vision. I recognized the sign. The onset of a full-blown migraine.

Bran spared a quick glance over one shoulder. “How about this?” he said. “I'll go in first. Scope it out, so to speak?”

Before I could argue, he grabbed the torch, dropped to all fours, and crawled into the entrance. An orange glow rimmed his body as he moved inside. After a moment, even that disappeared and I was left alone with only the bronze sculpture's dwindling fire for company.

An eternity passed as I paced back and forth in the flickering circle. With every rotation, I glanced at the hateful square of blackness, praying for a glimpse of light. “Bran?” I whispered.

Nothing.

Is the fire going out? What if he never comes out? What if I end up alone here in the dark?
I glanced back at the opening.

Darkness. Nothing. Alone.

I crouched before the entrance and tried again, his name wrenched from my lips in a primal scream. No answer. I closed my eyes and dropped back on my heels. “Where are you?”

Fire blazed up in my face. I yelped and I scuttled backwards—crab-like—damp palms slipping against gritty tile.

“Well,” Bran croaked as he crawled out. “That's hardly the hero's reception I was expecting.”

Feeling foolish, I rushed to help him to his feet. In an instant I could see that the exertion had cost him. He looked ghastly. Dark circles ringed his eyes, and he was shivering convulsively. I knew by the way his skin scorched my palm that the fever was worse, so much worse.

How's he still standing?

Bran's elegant hands rested on my shoulders. “Okay. It's not
so
bad.” His voice was gentle, coaxing, though I noticed he wouldn't quite look me in the eye. “I mean, we probably wouldn't want to summer there or anything, but it opens up nicely once you get inside.”

“How far inside?”

He waggled a hand back and forth. “Ehh . . . not that far.”

“Bran.”

He looked away. “A hundred meters or so.”

I did a quick conversion. “You expect me to squeeze through that tiny toothpaste tube of an opening, the length of a freaking football field?” Close to hyperventilating now, I eked out the words between inhalations. “I can't. I'm sorry. I just can't. You go. I'll just stay here. I'll become a seamstress or something. I'll—I'll whore on the streets if I have to. I don't have any personal experience, but how bad could it be? And it's nice here. No pollution. And—”

I stumbled over a fallen column and sat down hard, panting. Already I could feel the walls closing in around me.

Bran knelt before me. “I'd wager you can't sew worth a damn. And as far as whoring goes”—he cocked a half grin—“I hear it's an awful return on one's investment. Especially during this age. You'd end up spending half your money on powdered goat balls, or whatever it is they use these days to get rid of the clap.”

“They didn't have the clap in the twelfth century,” I rasped

“Syphilis, then.”

“Nope.” Wheeze. “That didn't start until—”

“Either way,” he cut in, “I have to say prostitution wouldn't be
my
first choice in career paths for you.”

Wheeze. Pause. One side of my mouth twitched as I met his eyes. “No?”

“No,” he said. “Decidedly not.”

In the uncertain yellow of the flame, Bran's eyes burned like jewels in a face gone pale as porcelain, with beautiful, gaunt planes. The fever was eating him up from the inside. Without the proper treatment, the infection spreading from his wound would get worse. He'd get sick. He would die.

Die.
The word tasted like poison in my mouth. I swallowed hard. Of all people on this godforsaken world, I could not—
would not
—let him die. We were the same, he and I, aliens in our own time.

His voice was fierce as he whispered, “Listen to me. You are the strongest, bravest person I've ever met. With barely any warning, you traveled a thousand years into the past to save your mum. And who do you know that would sacrifice their only way home for someone else?”

“I know you,” I said, softly.

“Yes, well . . . aside from my brother, I haven't much to go home to.”

“Neither do I.”

Bran shook his head, staring hard into my eyes. “Untrue. Besides, no one can come close to matching that lovely brain of yours. You melted iron bars, for Christ's sake.” That crooked incisor peeked out. “I think you're a bloody superhero. Of course,” he said, eyebrows waggling, “you'll need a cape and some tights.”

I tried to scowl, but I couldn't hold it. He wrapped me up in his arms. When his lips grazed my ear, I shivered though I was no longer cold. Not at all.

When he pulled back, I skimmed the pads of my fingertips across his forehead. “Your temp's getting worse.”

He stood, smiling down at me. “Then let's go home and get some blasted ibuprofen, shall we?”

When I took his outstretched hand, electrical pulses sizzled along my nerve endings. He cocked his head to the side, studying me.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Just imagining you in those tights. I'm not sure my heart could take it.”

A buzz of pleasure shot through me at the lazy look in his eyes. Somehow, I managed to whisper, “There you go with the talking again.”

Bran grinned and wrapped an arm around me again, tilting his head to rest against mine. We stood like that for a while, staring into the square of darkness.

“So,” I murmured, “crawling into the bowels of hell, huh? That should be fun.”

His chuckle rumbled through me. “Loads.”

When his knees wobbled, I held him up, giving strength for once instead of taking it.

Chapter 46

A
S SOON AS WE ENTERED
, I
FELT IT
. T
HAT ELEMENTAL
, cell-invading tremor I'd first experienced under my aunt's home. It quivered up the bedrock, through my palms and knees, and across my skin. This was it. The way back.

Just ahead of me, Bran struggled to push the torch out in front of him. He called back over his shoulder, “See? Not so bad, is it? Keep holding on to me. We'll be out of this in a jiff. Just breathe.”

The bony skin of his ankle burned my palm as I clutched at it.

Keep going. Don't think about it.

Choking on the dust, I moved one hand forward. Knee, hand. Knee, hand. Grit scraped my palms, but I focused on the dancing light that glowed around Bran's slim body.

Just breathe.
It became my mantra. Hand, knee.
Just breathe.
Hand, knee.
Just breathe.

After an interminable time, I began to think maybe we'd make it.

Then we rounded a bend and the tunnel narrowed. On our bellies, we shimmied through inch by inch. The sensation of crawling down a monster's throat became more pronounced as I sucked in air as thick as a tomb's. My ragged nails dug into Bran's ankle, but I couldn't help it. The hot pulse of full-blown panic started to boom inside me.

Can't do it.

“Bran?” I gasped.

He stopped, called back to me in a hoarse voice, “Almost there. I'd sing to you, but since my singing voice more closely resembles a scalded cat than anything else, it would likely only sour the experience. Learned
that
from the choirmaster when I was in second form
.”

The image made me smile. And for a millisecond, I felt better. Forced myself to think of open spaces. The snow blowing over us as we stood before Westminster Abbey. The brutal beauty of the Scottish Highlands.

The press of stone brought me back, and I felt myself begin to shatter, one molecule at a time. I kept my eyes trained on the yellow glow as Bran squirmed forward. The tunnel curved downward at a sharp slope. Down, down, always down. Deeper we crawled. And then a prickling feeling hit the back of my neck, and suddenly I knew something was behind me.

“Something's back there.” My mouth was so dry, I could barely form the words.

He coughed. It sounded awful. “Nothing's there, Hope,” he wheezed. “Hang on. Almost there.”

Terrified I'd lose my hold on him, I kept going. What choice did I have?

I have no idea how long it took. How do you track time when you're living your worst nightmare?

Just when I thought I'd die—when I couldn't possibly exist this way for another instant—the light disappeared, and we plunged into a death-like darkness.

I lost it.

Thrashing and fumbling, I shoved, trying to force my back up through the millions of tons of dirt and stone above me and break through to the surface. I was trapped. Choking. I would die here, buried beneath the stone. Buried alive.

Bran's ankle ripped from my grasp. I shrieked and writhed and raged against the sides of the tunnel. I tried to flip over, but it was too tight, too tight. The blackness was a living thing, eating me. I clawed against the stone, my fingernails ripping until my fingers slipped on blood.

I screamed as something grabbed my wrists. I twisted and bit and gouged with shredded nails. “Noooo!”

I thought I heard someone calling my name, but the panic had me. I was lost.

“Hope!” I was wrenched forward. “For Christ's sake, open your eyes!” It was Bran's voice. Bran's voice!

My eyes snapped open in shock. I could
breathe
. And I was wrapped in Bran's arms, lying on the floor of a large, open cavern.

“We—we're out,” I said lamely. I looked up to see the hole in the smooth wall where we'd emerged.

“Um, yes.” Bran touched a jagged scratch across his jaw. “We are at that.”

When I could stand on my own, Bran used the guttering torch to light several others mounted in iron holders.

I recognized the tingle of power against my skin. The pulse of the Dim, but magnified a hundred times. The cave was narrower than that beneath Christopher Manor, but longer. Forty feet across from where I stood—at the triangle's apex—a chill breeze blew from a man-size opening. I crossed the room to peer inside, but could see nothing except unrelenting darkness. Picking up a stone, I tossed it in.

I never heard it land.

I snatched a torch from the wall and thrust it inside, then gulped as my eyes widened. A chasm. A vast emptiness that was so deep and so dark, it seemed to have no beginning or end. The electrical pulses, powerful and ancient, shivered across my skin.

I skidded back, panting, drawing in the scents of earth and long-faded incense. A desiccated, electric flavor skipped across my tongue.

Ghosts.

A shiver ran up my back. “Bran, this opening, it's a . . .”

I trailed off at the sight of him huddled on a stone near the tunnel exit. He curled in on himself, as though his skin was shrinking.

Bran's exhausted smile wavered around the edges. “I'm fine.” He gestured with his chin. “By the way, there's your symbol.”

Carved into the smooth floor, near the dark opening, was the figure I'd felt under my fingers in the tunnels, and that Bran had drawn in the mud. An elongated figure eight with three wavy lines bisecting it, and a single vertical slash through the center.

BOOK: Into the Dim
13.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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