I can’t tell what it is that’s climbing down the tiny hole to us. Before I have the chance to think about it, though, Finn’s half-running, half-crawling at me, and he taps my shoulder, indicating I should follow him down the tunnel. But I don’t need telling; I’m right on his six back down the tunnel we walked down not fifteen minutes ago.
All I can hear is the padding of our feet on the soft tunnel earth and our breathing. I keep my right hand on my sword, the stance second nature to me now. Adrenaline courses through my body, and I find myself fighting the urge to let out a laugh. Then I quickly realize how weird that is and shake the idea out of my head, but a smile still escapes.
We dash through the winding dirt tunnel for about five minutes before we hit the first fork in the tunnel. I can see ahead of Finn that it splits off to the right and left, but Finn doesn’t even hesitate before darting through the one on the right. Then, about twenty steps into the tunnel on the right, he pivots, nearly smacking me in the face, and, with his back to the wall and feet pressing down lightly, he heads back to the fork. Nothing to do but follow him, I follow suit, lightly skirting my way back to him. Breathing heavy, I reach Finn as he gives a small nod, and then he sprints yet again down the left side of the tunnel.
It takes a few minutes of my legs being on fire and my muscles throbbing to realize Finn was trying to throw whatever is following us off our track or at least confuse it. I wonder for a minute if he knows what it is.
Those few seconds of backtracking, however, cost us a bit of our lead. I hear something that sounds like…scuttling coming from behind us. I flip my head back to see if I can catch a glimpse of anything, but we’re still far enough away that we can’t see it.
The next second, I slam straight into Finn’s back at full speed, bumping my face against his shoulder. Even the entirety of my body weight can’t move him, however, so I fall backward, landing on my butt and surely bruising something in the process.
“Ow!” I say from the ground, rubbing my nose which took the most damage from his weirdly bony shoulder. “Little warning next time before you stop randomly.”
He doesn’t answer. In fact, he’s not even looking at me, not even helping me get up. I heave myself to my feet, mouth open, ready to admonish him, when I finally look forward.
The tunnel in front of us opens up to a huge cavern. And by huge, I’m talking like as big as a city. Because there is a city there.
Sleek black stone, totally unlike the sandy brown dirt of the tunnels, stack up in columns…no, buildings. Finn and I stand on the edge of a cliff, looking out over the rows and rows of buildings, with a small path leading down to our left to the city. The cavern’s ceiling hangs huge stalactites, nearly touching the tops of the flat rectangles of buildings forty stories high. The stalactites give off a bluish glow, an unearthly light for this underground city.
“Woah…” I say softly, creating an echo that bounces around the giant cave. That’s when I realize there’s no other noise coming from the city, no bustling of people or insect creatures or whatever built this place. There’s a thick silence that’s stuffy even in the giant cavern.
And because of the heavy silence, I can hear the scuffing behind us, and I remember that we’re being followed. Finn nods toward the path into the city, and we silently make our way down the beaten path, where it looks as if hundreds of creatures or people have trodden there in the past.
Soon, we’re amidst the sleek, rectangle buildings. Underneath them, I crane my neck up to study them, barely keeping up with Finn’s brisk trot. The buildings stick straight up here and there from the ground, and I get the feeling that they’ve been here for years and years. There’s no harm to the stone, however, except around the edges of doors and windows, which are just holes, no glass or anything. Deep scratches cover every edge to any opening in each building, and it makes me think that maybe these buildings were hollowed out. Like, they were just huge rocks, already here until someone or something came along and made them homes. Well, a lot of someones or somethings.
But no one’s here now, besides Finn and me and the thing coming after us. I have the horrible thought that maybe our pursuer has already been here, already emptied out this city, and I shiver and run back up next to Finn.
Suddenly, Finn takes a sharp right, and we start weaving in and out of the buildings. I study his face, and he seems to have come to the same conclusion as I have, that this thing could have caused the people to leave this city one way or the other. I can tell he’s deciding at random when to turn, trying to throw our pursuer off, but the scuffing is always there, faint but constant. After about ten minutes of that plan, to no avail, I catch Finn’s eye, silently asking if we’re going to confront this thing or what. I mean, technically we don’t even know that it’s bad. He gives a short but firm shake of his head, probably because we have no idea what this thing is, but I roll my eyes. I’m not going to wait another half hour while Finn comes up with a different plan.
Instead, I decide to do something that’s probably stupid. I dart into the closest building, ignoring Finn’s soft and confused protest behind me. Inside, the sleek stone is carved away into some sort of lobby area or something, the black stone enclosing the room and giving it a weirdly homey look. I realize that it has something to do with the way the light from the stalactites are reflecting.
But I can’t take the time to think about it. Finn’s way faster than me, so I take a breath to search for stairs, which are at the end of the room, and I bolt for them, figuring I’d rather face this thing on higher ground. Unfortunately, though, now Finn’s not at a jog and at a full sprint to probably pull me back into his dead-end plan. Eventually we would have run into an end and been screwed; this way we face the thing on our terms. But nevertheless, I’m sprinting up the stairs two at a time, a hair ahead of Finn, who I can hear cursing me under his breath.
By about the twentieth floor or so, I feel like I’m going to pass out. Finn, with his crazy superhuman stamina and the like, hardly even seems out of breath, so he finally pulls me to a stop on a step between the twentieth and twenty-first. Twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth? I don’t know, something like that. I lost count.
“What. The. Hell.” Well, he sounds mad. I have to heave breaths in for a second before I can respond.
“This…this is a better…plan.” I get out. “We’ll have…the higher ground. Face it on…our terms.”
“Considering we even know what the hell it is!” His face is so close I can almost feel the heat of anger radiating off him. Or maybe that’s just my body trying not to overheat itself. “What were you thinking? Oh, wait, you weren’t.”
“Yes, I…” Before I can finish my response, something between a scratch and a squeak rings out from somewhere underneath us. It stops for a second, and Finn and I look at each other for a breath. Then it comes again, a long drawn-out sound that sounds peculiarly like something scratching into, say, a sleek wall of stone. I can almost picture a thin, scraggly cut winding its way up the staircase, as slow and deliberate as the sound coming from below us.
Suddenly, Finn’s grabbing me by my upper arm, and a little petty part of me can’t help but thinking that now of course he wants to go up. But he pushes me ahead of him, so now I’m sprinting again. My lungs scream at me to stop, but the adrenaline coursing through my limbs tells my lungs to shut up.
Before I can think about it, we’re pushing through a thick trapdoor of stone and pulling ourselves up onto the roof. That second is when I realize what a mistake I’ve made.
Up on the roof of that building, Finn and I practice rule number one of being a wegferend: no matter the situation, always assess your surroundings and look for a way out. I get that internal feeling you get when you’re stories off the ground, that shaky feeling in your lower stomach. Well, in the ground, in this instance. I could almost reach up and touch the tips of a glowing stalactite right above us, and if I had the time, I would definitely admire the view of the cavern and the empty city. The good news is that the roof is plain, made of the same sleek stone which is surprisingly stable, and there would be no way for our pursuer to escape.
The bad news, of course, is that we also have no escape.
“Oh, good,” Finn’s looking around as hopelessly as I am, “good, this is great. Do you see what hastiness gets you?”
I refuse to let him have the upper hand here. “Oh, yeah, so we’ll die on a rooftop as opposed to in some dead-end or alley. At least here we have an upper hand. A few minutes to think.”
“Think?” Finn asks. This is the most angry at me he’s ever been. His eyes look like they’re on fire, and he clenches his jaw in between each breath. “Elizabeth, there are two exits here: that trapdoor and the bloody one. That’s not an upper hand. That’s a sealed fate.”
He runs his hands through his hair, making it stick up in weird places. The wind breezes around us, rustling his coat and my hair.
“It wasn’t haste, and this isn’t a problem, alright?” I’m starting to get pissed. It probably was a mistake, but I’ll never admit that. But there’s something here, something to get us out of this. We just haven’t found it yet. “Look, we just need…”
I’m stopped in my tracks by a huge thump on the trapdoor.
I had been right. We had had a few minutes to come up with a plan. We spent it arguing instead.
The next second, Finn’s at my side, one hand on his sword and the other on my forearm. A thump which nearly takes the trapdoor off its hinges makes me jump. Finn drags me around about forty-five degrees from the trapdoor, so we’ll be at the back of our pursuer, and we’re at a decent distance between the door and the edge. I pull out my sword, mimicking Finn, and brace myself for whatever’s going to come out of that door.
It flings open, and we finally face our pursuer.
To Be Continued in Tunnels: Part 3