Nicole stopped and looked back the way she’d come. She was beginning to wonder whether this tunnel would ever end. It had been well over an hour since she, Brandy and Albert stepped through the north gate of the hive-like City of the Blind and yet the walls of this passage continued to unfold from the darkness before them, threatening to go on forever.
Her feet hurt. Her legs were sore. She could feel the cool air upon her naked skin, but the sheer exertion of pushing ever forward was adequate to fend off the chill.
“Tired,” Brandy sighed as she stopped walking and leaned against the wall of the tunnel. It was the first thing any of them had said in a while.
Nicole turned and looked forward again, her eyes washing over her friends. All three of them were still filthy from entering that awful, mud-filled chamber. The drying, putrid sludge had hardened into a malodorous crust that covered their flesh and hair. The stench of it still filled her nostrils, refusing to fade away and let her forget that it was there. She could even taste it on her lips. It was foul. And it was a constant reminder of what she and her friends had already endured within this strange labyrinth, this “Temple of the Blind,” as Albert called it.
And it was not done with them yet. They had only begun to explore the corridors beyond the city. How much longer would they have to endure? And what unpleasant things still remained in store for them?
Brandy pressed her back to the wall and then let herself slide down the cool stone until she was sitting on the floor and resting her aching feet and legs in front of her.
Albert had gone several steps farther before stopping. Now he stood silently in the beam of Nicole’s flashlight, staring into the endless darkness that constantly filled the passage ahead. She stared at his bare back, wondering what he was thinking.
There was no lack of troubling things to weigh on his mind. So much had happened in such a short amount of time. It seemed like days ago that she stood in the bathroom at Albert and Brandy’s apartment, listening to the ringing phone that no one wanted to answer. It seemed almost silly now, after all they’d been through, that those silent messages had filled them with such dread. They had no way of knowing then that the real nightmares were waiting for them in the dark corridors of Gilbert House and this temple.
Was he contemplating the numbing reality of Beverly Bridger’s horrific death? The disturbing memory of that moment was still vividly fresh in Nicole’s mind, and unlike her, Albert actually saw what became of the poor woman. He had actually seen her body. She was sure that it must weigh even greater on him. And now that she thought about it, she remembered that Albert was also the only one who saw the bodies in Gilbert House…
She did not envy the things his eyes had seen.
Or was it instead the heavy words of the Sentinel Queen that occupied his thoughts? She had burdened them with a mysterious task, a quest vital to the very future of humanity, if she could be believed, and yet she refused to tell them how to get there or even what it was that they sought. She had mentioned only a doorway of some sort. However, she’d had no problem thrusting that whole psychic thing onto Albert and Brandy. Nicole had no idea how she would feel if she were in their place, but she suspected it would bother her considerably.
Or maybe Albert was merely worrying about Wayne, all alone in some other ungodly passageway, trying to rescue poor Olivia from that nightmare forest.
Nicole stared at Albert, her light illuminating his dirty back, tiredly admiring his build, barely aware of her eyes lingering on his mud-caked buttocks.
“I’ve got to rest for a while,” Brandy said. “My feet are killing me.”
Albert stood where he was for a moment longer, still staring into the darkness ahead, not speaking. Then, finally, he slowly turned and faced them.
Nicole looked away from him, embarrassed, and stared back the way they came. She had become perfectly comfortable with her own nudity by now, accepting that Albert was her friend and that it was okay if he saw her naked. In fact, it was much easier to stand naked in front of him than she would ever have imagined. But it still made her feel strange to look at him
like that. It felt so wrong. She envied Brandy. As his girlfriend, Brandy had no need to feel embarrassed by the sight of him unclothed.
But then again, she rather envied Brandy for a lot of reasons…
“I think that’s a good idea,” Albert agreed. He walked back to where Brandy had stopped and sat down beside her. Immediately, she seized his left arm and pressed herself against him, resting her head on his shoulder.
“You’re stinky,” she told him.
Brandy smiled tiredly and closed her eyes.
Nicole lingered for another moment, looking back and forth into the looming darkness that filled the passage on either side of them, and then she joined them, sitting down on Brandy’s other side and scooting close to her.
“How much farther?” Brandy asked, not opening her eyes.
Albert did not respond. He merely shook his head wearily.
“We haven’t even got to the labyrinth yet, have we?”
Albert kissed her head. The lovely, apple scent of her shampoo was gone. A deep, vulgar stench clung about her from the crust of stagnant mud that clung to every surface of her body. “I don’t think so,” he admitted.
There were no branches in the road, no decisions, no wrong ways. There were not even any turns in the path. There was nothing here that even remotely resembled a labyrinth. This was all merely one single passage.
Immediately after they passed through the north gate, they found a set of steps leading up a short distance, exactly like those leading away from the south gate, except that there was only one flight. At the top was a small, oval-shaped room with two sentinels.
Albert had stopped at the top of the steps and studied these statues for a moment. They seemed different than the others, warmer somehow. The one on the right was reaching toward them with its long left arm, its deformed hand open and inviting. Its right arm was stretched out in the other direction, its freakishly long index finger pointing the way forward. The blank surface where its face should have been was fixed on them. There were no eyes or mouth or other features to suggest emotions of any kind, but it was clearly urging them forward.
The statue on the left was identical, but facing the other way, as if inviting someone coming from the other direction to venture forward into the Sentinel Queen’s city. Albert passed between the statues and turned to view them from the opposite side of the room. It was eerie to see the same view from both sides. It was easy to imagine forgetting which way was out. But of course, there was nowhere to go but back to the north gate should they get so turned around.
Brandy had stood between the two sentinels for a moment, looking at them. She commented that they were contradicting each other, but Albert knew better. “Don’t forget what the Sentinel Queen said,” he reminded her. “She was talking about fourteen women who entered the city from the north gate.”
“Could that be true?” Nicole asked. She found it very difficult to imagine that humanity somehow migrated into the world through this very room.
“I don’t know if it is or not,” Albert replied. “But it doesn’t matter. If anyone
ever came through here, from wherever this leads, these guys would have greeted them exactly like they greeted us just now. It’s a two-way door, of sorts. A welcome mat that points both ways.” He stared up at the statues for a moment, wondering. “If it is
true, if those women were real…we could be standing in a very important place. It’s like a crossroads in time. Thousands of years apart, but seeing it exactly the same way they did… Even if those women weren’t all the Sentinel Queen said they were, even if they weren’t carrying the entire human race in their wombs, they might still be significantly important to our history.”
They said no more about it. Silently, thoughtfully, the three of them moved on past the room with the two welcoming sentinels, ready to get started on their long (and likely very unpleasant) journey into the labyrinth. But there had been nothing beyond that room but these same four stone surfaces. The passage had merely stretched on and on.
The three of them sat together for a while, listening to the eerily empty silence, thinking about all the things they had seen and done in the hours that led them to this quiet moment.
“Do you think we’ll ever see him again?” Nicole asked.
Albert and Brandy both lifted their faces and looked at her. It was a question that had troubled them all since the Sentinel Queen tore Wayne away from them. It seemed so cruel after all they’d been through. They faced the monster in Gilbert House with him. They suffered together. They journeyed together into this insane temple. He became their friend in the midst of all the horror and wonder. And then he was simply taken away, as suddenly as Beverly Bridger, if not as gruesomely.
But they had to let him go. They had to believe that Olivia might really still be out there. They had to believe that death was not the only inevitability of this insane adventure.
Brandy wanted to say yes. Of course they would see him again. He was big and strong and brave. He would certainly endure whatever silly trials awaited him in his quest to find Olivia. But she didn’t know that. Not really. For all she knew, he was already dead. After all, what did they really know about the Sentinel Queen? What reason did they have to trust her? For all they knew, she could have lied to them and led him away simply to shove him into another pit of spikes or feed him to a pack of hounds.
And even if he did
survive, even if he did
manage to rescue Olivia and find his way home, who was to say they would ever cross paths with him again? Either way, they may never know what became of him after the Sentinel Queen took him from them.
“I think we will,” Albert said after a moment.
Brandy and Nicole both looked up at him, their eyes hopeful.
“Everything that’s happened down here… It’s so far beyond ordinary. It has to mean something, right? It can’t all just be cruel chance. Whatever the reason for us all being down here, I’m sure he’s as much a part of it as we are.”
“You really think so?” Brandy asked.
“Is that your psychic sense telling you that?” Nicole wondered.
Albert smiled. “I have no idea. Maybe.” It was still so weird to imagine that he was actually psychic. He was still getting over the shock of such a profound idea. He certainly didn’t know how to use it. “I just feel like we’ll see him again sometime.”
Brandy squeezed his arm a little tighter and rested her head against his shoulder again.
“I hope so,” said Nicole. She watched them for a moment, her two closest friends in the world, then lowered her eyes to her flashlight and wondered what Wayne was doing at that very moment.
It was embarrassing to think about, but she’d actually been nurturing a little bit of a crush for Wayne. After all, he had appeared out of nowhere, seemingly for no other reason than to keep them safe as they wandered blindly into the dangerous hallways of Gilbert House. It was not so very unlike the way Brandy and Albert were brought together. And she couldn’t help but feel a small pang of jealousy whenever she thought about Brandy’s amazing story of how she fell in love with the man of her dreams. She’d give anything to have made such a powerful connection with someone half as wonderful as Albert.
Of course, Wayne hadn’t really been quite
as impressive as Albert. He was handsome, sure, and brave. He was bigger
than Albert. Stronger. But it was clear that he didn’t have nearly the patience or the even-temperedness that Albert possessed. The anger he displayed toward Beverly certainly didn’t win her affection, even if she was
sympathetic of the emotions beneath his temper.
Wayne also hadn’t seemed to be as keenly intelligent as Albert, either, but that had since proven to be a gross misperception. Wayne may not have been the impressive mystery-solver that Albert was, but he was definitely very smart.
He was full of surprises. Just like Albert…
But Wayne wasn’t bravely charging into that terrifying forest to rescue Nicole. He was doing it for Olivia.
She looked again at Albert, who was tiredly staring past her into the darkness that led back to the City of the Blind and the mysterious Sentinel Queen. She considered asking him if he really thought they could do this, if he really believed they had what it took to survive down here. She considered asking him how they expected to navigate a labyrinth this size when they didn’t even know what they were looking for. She considered asking him how long he thought they could continue to keep away from the hounds. But she didn’t get to ask him anything. The tired thoughtfulness on his face suddenly vanished. He sat up and aimed his flashlight into the darkness where he’d been staring.
Startled, Brandy and Nicole both swung their flashlights in the same direction.
“What is it?” asked Brandy. There was an unmistakable edge to her voice.
Albert continued to stare into the darkness, his expression puzzled. Finally, after a moment, he shook his head. “Nothing, I guess. Imagining things.”
“I’m sorry, Sweetie,” Brandy retorted nervously, still searching the empty tunnel for whatever compelled him to shine his light toward it, “but you’re not the most imaginative
person I know.”
Albert glanced at her, amused. “Maybe.” Again his eyes returned to the empty passageway. “But there’s nothing there.”
But something did
seem to be there a moment ago, some indefinite shape in the darkness, something that was gone now.
“Maybe it was that blind guy,” Nicole suggested. “The Sentinel Queen’s son. Maybe he was checking up on us.”
“Maybe,” Albert agreed. Although the last time they saw the man with no eyes, he didn’t seem to be in the best condition for stalking.
Nicole hugged herself tightly and shivered as a sudden chill gripped her. She wished this place had lights. It was unnerving to see nothing but darkness at the end of these tunnels for so very long.
“We’ll rest a little longer,” Albert decided. “Then we’ll move on.”
Brandy squeezed his arm again and nuzzled a little closer.
Nicole rested her head on Brandy’s shoulder and stared back into the darkness, watching.