Skylar ran up the tunnel, pulling Libby after him, both of them ducking low to avoid the rush of leather wings above their heads. His hand, which had been trailing along the wall to keep his balance in the darkness, suddenly felt metal rather than stone.
“This way!” he shouted over the surprisingly loud noise of the bats. He shoved open the side door, and they ducked inside, panting.
Skylar slammed the door shut on the bats. “You okay?” he asked Libby.
It was pitch black, but he could hear that she was breathing harder than him—not from exertion, but from fright.
“I hate bats,” she said in a low, low voice, each word as distinct and sharp-edged as a blade. “Hate them. Hate, hate, hate, hate—”
“Right, I get the idea.” He put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, resting his chin atop her head. “I’m not too crazy about them myself.” Skylar didn’t have much practice comforting girls, but to his relief, she didn’t try to pull away, allowing him to soothe her for a long moment. Outside the door, the noise of the bats faded, until there was complete silence in the tunnel. “Better?” he asked.
She stepped back. “Better,” she agreed. “Thank you.”
He gave a half-smile in the darkness, and reached for the door, pulling it open just a bit. “They’re gone,” he said, listening to the darkness. “Wonder where they go?” They hadn’t seen any bats—or at least, not many—until just now. There must be an opening of some kind that led to the outside, something he and Libby hadn’t seen on their way down.
Opening the door fully, he squinted the way they had come, hoping to see the reflection of Libby’s torch on the walls.
Nothing. No light of any kind met his eyes. He jumped when Libby took his hand. “I think you broke the torch,” he whispered.
“Prof’s going to kill me,” she whispered back. “Can you get us out of here?”
Skylar thought back, over all the rooms they’d come through, the turns they’d taken, the places where there was more than one door out of a place, more than one hallway…
“Sure,” he lied, suddenly aware of how far they were from anyone who might help—Maricossa, the Professor, even Hez. But Libby must have heard the slight tremor in his voice, because she squeezed his hand.
“Don’t lie, Skylar.”
He grimaced. “We’re pretty deep, Lib,” he admitted. They should at least make their way back to the cave in, and make sure that the torch hadn’t just rolled to where they couldn’t see it. “Let’s double check the torch, ok?”
Still holding each other’s hands, more for balance and a sense of space than anything else, they retraced their footsteps. Skylar used his metallic arm to feel along the rough wall, the raspy clanging of metal against rock a harsh sound in the otherwise silent tunnel. Suddenly, he bumped up against something.
“The cave-in,” he whispered.
“I don’t see a light…”
Skylar lifted Libby’s hand and placed it against the wall. “Stay here,” he said. “I’m going to see if I can find it. Maybe it just…switched off.” As if, he scoffed mentally. But at this point, it was their only hope. It could take days to find their way back in the dark—if they didn’t get hopelessly lost and end up falling down an open shaft or something.
Carefully edging around the pile of fallen rubble, Skylar found the edge of the doorway on his third try. “I’m going in,” he said.
If we get back, he thought to himself as he wedged himself through the narrow gap, No—when we get back, I’m going to make the Professor install some sort of light in this eye of mine. What’s the point of having something like this attached to your head if it’s not useful all the time? “Oomph,” he muttered, falling through the other side with a considerable lack of grace. “Alright, I’m through. Where did you drop the light?”
Muffled through the layer of stone and other fallen rubble, Libby called, “I don’t know.” Her voice was high and slightly breathless. “I was swinging at the bats and it sort of rolled away anyhow but I’m not sure where it went because I was kind of distracted by the little monsters swooping at my head like they were going to rip all the hair out of my scalp like those savages you read about in books like The Travails of Edward Beckett where he gets captured by cannibals and—”
“Libby.” She only did the motor mouth thing when she was really nervous. He wanted to go back and hug her again, but the torch was priority right now.
Skylar crouched down, sweeping his arms slowly across the floor on either side. He found pebbles and splinters a-plenty—and a disgustingly crumbly substance he knew to be bat guano—but no torch. “Do you think it could have rolled under a shelf?”
“I don’t know.” Libby’s voice became clearer as she moved to the doorway. “I don’t remember if they went all the way to the floor or not.”
“Hey—stay out there.”
“I’m not coming in.” She was silent for a second, and Skylar moved over a few feet, still sweeping the floor with his hands. “What do we do if you can’t—”
“Ah-ha!” Skylar’s fingers lit on something cool, round, and metal. “Got it.” Please work, please work, please work…He jabbed the switch with his thumb.
“Turn it on,” Libby pleaded.
Skylar felt as though every inch of the earth over his head was suddenly weighing down on him, intent on crushing out his breath. “It’s broke, Lib,” he said. “I can’t turn it on.”
She said nothing, and Skylar stood. It took every ounce of self-control in him to not burst out in anger, cursing everyone and everything and every blasted reason he was lost in a labyrinth of long-forgotten passages in a long-abandoned bunker miles under the earth. All the angry thoughts that he had been shoving back into the corners of his mind sprung forth, and he gritted his teeth in the darkness.
A week ago, he had been enjoying life. He lived with the Professor, Mrs. Monday, and her son Coll in a warehouse by the banks of the Shandor River, and was learning to read in a hidden library deep in the Forgotten Sector, where he had met Libby. Coll was his best friend, Galvin Maricossa was a mysterious but fascinating presence in his life, and his relationship with Libby was moving someplace he didn’t really understand, but was pretty sure he liked.
Now, Maricossa was a double-agent that Skylar still couldn’t wholly trust, the Professor had no time for him, and Coll was dead. Libby was the only thing that hadn’t changed.
“Skylar?” Libby’s voice came through the darkness of the room and the thicker darkness of Skylar’s frustration and brought him back to reality. “What do we do now?”
Skylar shook his head, sweeping away his anger to deal with later. He fingered the useless torch in his hand and thought. Why hadn’t he carried a package of matches with them? If only there was something that could lead them out—a rope, or a groove in the floor or…It hit him with sudden clarity. “We need to follow the bats.”
“We need to follow the bats.” Certainty and relief combined in a heady rush, and Skylar felt along the wall until he found the door again. Squeezing back out into the main hall, he explained, “We haven’t seen them going out the main hanger, so they must have some other exit. We’ve just got to find it. That many bats—it ought to be big enough for us to get out.” The last bit was pure bluff—he had no idea how big a bat’s egress had to be. But he couldn’t bear to think that they might find it and be unable to escape, or worse, not be able to find it at all.
“Come on, Lib,” he said, managing to fake a cheerful, brave tone. “Keep your nose peeled—we should be able to smell fresh air. Or…or feel a breeze or something. And they can only go through open doors, so we don’t have to worry about any of the closed ones.”
“Except that we opened most of them on the way here,” Libby pointed out, her tone getting high and breathy again. Skylar groped in the darkness until he found her arm, and took hold of her hand.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey. We’ll get out of here.”
Skylar swallowed. Then he squeezed Libby’s hand, and tugged her away from the caved-in doorway and back toward home—he hoped.