I woke up naked, someplace I'd never seen. This probably happened to my mom all the time, at least before she was married, but I bet she woke up purring in silk sheets, not in a bare cell. My shoulder and hip hurt from the hard floor, my knee hurt, my belly hurt, and my brain hurt (even though people say it doesn't have any nerve endings), but other parts didn't hurt, so nothing too terrible had happened.
How did I get here? I was at home... no, I went out... with Pamela!
* * *
"This place only has the second-best hot chocolate in town, but it's the best coffee shop because my sister doesn't work here." It looked nice, big and busy and full of plants, and smelled like happy people and coffee and spice.
"You know we're trying to hire her away from the Frog," said the Asian college boy cleaning off a table. He was cute in a floppy-haired way, like an artist, and Pamela's scent changed when she saw him. His changed when he saw us, too, but he was nervous, not attracted.
"Noooooo! But you'll never get Chathurangani away from the college students. She says she gets five phone numbers a night." Working someplace where guys hit on me all the time sounded terrible, but Pamela's sister was a high-school senior and human, so it was probably different for her.
"She'll get tired of those callow youths eventually," he said, putting his nose up. "I can wait."
Pamela giggled and sat down at the now-clean table. "Patience is a virtue, they tell me. Two of your chocolatiest, Benjamin."
Benjamin bowed with one hand across his waist and went off to do her bidding.
Pamela was the only friend I'd made at this school in a week. She was kind of weird, like going by Pamela (accent on the mel) instead of her real Sri Lankan name, but nice and in most of my classes. She's grown up, but not out yet, has long smooth dark hair and perfect makeup, and isn't in my computer class because she has some kind of special individual advanced study to avoid wasting her time. Her brain is too busy being brilliant to waste any time on tact, so she says things like, (when we first met) "Wow, those claws are pretty scary. Do they make it hard to masturbate?", or (now) "So does he really have the hots for her?" Nyaaaa!
"He thinks your sister is very pretty," I said. Pretty doesn't change someone's hormones, but I'd rather put it that way than think about what that change in scent really means. Especially for a guy, even one who seems nice like Benjamin.
"Ha! I knew it! He's much better stock than those losers she's going out with now."
"One mega hot chocolate with chocolate marshmallows for you, Mam'selle Pamela, and one for...?"
"This is Nefertari Nelson, she just started at my school this year. I'm showing her the best parts of Rhodes."
"6th grade?" He flinched back at my expression. "Oh, in Pamela's class."
Digitgrade feet are like walking in 3" heels, and I still have to pile all my hair on top of my head to break 5', never mind that even if I did have a figure he wouldn't be able to see it under my sweatshirt, so it wasn't fair to get mad at him, but he was the 4000th person to say something like that in just my first week in Rhodes. "Yes, I'm in 8th grade."
"She's just a midget," Pamela said helpfully. I drank hot chocolate and pretended I didn't know her. Really good hot chocolate. Really really good hot chocolate. OK, she could keep being my friend.
Someone came up behind Pamela while she had her eyes closed, lost in chocolatey bliss, and went to tap her on the shoulder, but stopped short when I hissed at him.
It was a boy I'd seen around school and Pamela had pointed out, J-something, Jonah Armstrong. He's black with long brown hair, tall and starting to have shoulders, almost as smart as Pamela. He looked good in a brown bomber jacket and Red Knight shirt, but maybe not as good as he thought.
Pamela jumped a bit when I hissed and looked around. "Jonah, what are you doing?"
"Nothing!" He was embarrassed, and nervous of me, but he was attracted to Pamela. Ugh.
Pamela thought he was cute too, although she was trying not to show it. "That would be a first."
A smaller boy (but still bigger than me!), maybe a real 6th grader, came up beside him. He had the same dark skin and long lashed eyes, but his hair was piled up on his head in a bun like mine. He was just nervous, or maybe too young to like Pamela in a way I could smell. "Jonah, if you make someone spill Benjy's hot chocolate again, he's going to kick you out for good."
"It's true," said Benjamin. He put on a Chinese accent. "The cocoa is just like my father and mother." Pamela started giggling again, while the rest of us looked at him blankly. "Kids these days, don't recognize the classics, get offa my lawn, etc." That part was a joke, I could tell, but he looked at Jonah in a way that wasn't joking.
Jonah put his hands up. "I'm not disrespecting the chocolate!"
Benjamin left, and Jonah and his brother – Jake? – sat down at our table, on the side away from me. I felt a little bad about hissing, but only because it's rude, not because I thought making someone spill her chocolate was funny.
The younger boy smiled tentatively at me. "Hi, I'm Jacob Armstrong." He smelled nice, kind of hopeful, but there was something strange under it, like he was carrying bugs in his pockets or something. Well, he was 11, maybe he was.
"Nefertari Nelson." I shook his hand, careful to keep my claws away from his skin even though I was wearing my nice new carbon-fiber sheaths. "I just started at Peasley this year."
"You moved here from California?" His face was too dark to show much, but he smelled like blushing. "Sorry, you kind of have an accent. It's cute!" He looked even more embarrassed at himself. "Never mind!"
"I talk perfectly normally, it's you Ohioans who have the accent!"
* * *
Oh, crap! I'd met new boys, and now I was naked, couldn't remember what happened, and had a headache?! It takes a bigger dose, but most human drugs work fine on the Changed! Crap, crap, crap!
I was starting to hyperventilate, and my claws (no sheaths?) were digging into the concrete, but I made myself take deep breaths until I didn't want to scream. There wasn't any unexpected pain or, um, mess, so whatever happened, nothing happened. Not to me, but where was Pamela? Was she OK? Was she the one who— no, I didn't think she would do anything like that, but that didn't mean no one would do anything to her!Still trembling a little from adrenaline, I got up and looked around. It wasn't a cell, just the dead end of a square concrete tunnel lit by yellowish light bulbs in metal cages. No scent of anything except damp concrete, not even garbage or bugs. Whoever put me here must have been wearing a full-body suit, or it had been so long their scent was gone. But I didn't need to go to the bathroom, and hadn't gone while I was out (ewwww), so it couldn't have been that long.
There was nothing there to stay for, and only one way to go, so I went.
* * *
Jonah had stopped in to invite Pamela to a flea market. The flea market, so some special one, but they hadn't said what it was. "It'll be awesome," Jonah said, but he smelled like he was imagining what was under my sweatshirt, so I didn't believe him.
"It really will! Please come, Nef," Pamela said, making ridiculous puppy-dog eyes. She knew these boys, and I was sure I could protect her if anything happened, so I said yes.
The Mighty Bean-O-Tron was right next to a park that was fifty yards wide and about five miles long, where there used to be a train track. The rails were long gone, but it looked like there was still a right side and a wrong side, and we were going to the wrong one. The park was nice, with dogs and some high-schoolers playing frisbee, but right past the other side, the buildings got a lot grayer, and the cars on the streets were older and rustier. (I heard the rust is from the salt they put on the roads to keep them from icing up in the winter. I'm not looking forward to winter.)
The people were different too, still mostly white but not as nicely dressed, and smelling just a little bit more scared and more angry. We were still on a business street, with 4-story stores (not strip malls like in California) and office buildings and lots of traffic, so I wasn't too worried, but I was a little worried. I would have held Pamela's hand, but she was holding Jonah's arm, and Jacob was offering me his arm so I took it and tried to not squeeze too hard. His brother looked pretty strong, but Jacob was still scrawny.
I wasn't afraid of him, but I had no idea what to say to a boy when I was walking with him like this! Did this count as a date? He hadn't asked me out, it was all Pamela and Jonah dragging us along, and a flea market didn't scream romance. He looked like he was thinking the same thing, but I wasn't going to be the first one to say the word "date"!
Jonah and Pamela were flirting up a storm, and she was trying to walk sexy and bump him with her hip even though she doesn't have hips, so Jacob and I just trudged along behind them. After the first couple of blocks, the buildings got even shabbier, and there were more people hanging out and giving passers-by the hairy eyeball. A lot of them were young men, grouped by race, and it was taking more work to not squeeze Jacob's arm.
"Hey, look, lesbian midgets," one of them (Asian) said. That really upset Jacob, I could smell, but although he was practically shaking with the urge to kick their butts, he just stalked onward. It was a good thing, too, since there were five of them and they were all adults, and even if I could have taken them, I couldn't have protected three people at the same time if they were dumb, and boys are practically always dumb. On the other hand, Jacob was smelling even more of whatever it was, so maybe he wouldn't need protecting.
"Don't mind those idiots," I said when were past and out of earshot. "They're just trying to pick a fight. You don't look like a girl."
Jacob sighed. "Eh, I get that a lot, 'cause of my hair, it just pisses me off when it's from punks like that. I mean, so what if you were walking with a girl anyway?"
"I'm Changed, no one thinks I'm straight anyway."
He blushed. "Um, yah, good point." He didn't take his arm away, though.
Pamela and Jonah were too busy being cool at each other to have noticed much. Jeez.
Another few blocks, and we were definitely not in the good part of town any more. The buildings were industrial, factories and warehouses, but more importantly, I could smell the Columbus Pit now, a sharp scent that made me think of burning and crystal, but not really like anything else. It wasn't surprising the streets were half-deserted here.
Most people's phones give an alarm when they get this close to a Pit or other known source of contamination, but mine didn't. Neither did any of the other three, which was interesting. Jacob's bug-smell was definitely something, but what was up with Pamela and Jonah? Were their phones just on vibrate?
"Down this way," Jonah said, steering Pamela into an alley. He didn't smell like violence, and Pamela wasn't worried, but I balked at going into a deserted alley in the bad part of town. I also checked the claw sheaths on my free hand, making sure they were ready to pop off when I needed.
Jonah stopped when I did. "What's wrong?"
"A dark alley near the Pit, with no one around? This is exactly the sort of situation my mom made me promise to stay out of when she let me go out!"
Pamela laughed. "I guess it does look pretty bad, but I've been here before, and I'm completely unstabbed and unmolested. And it really is awesome." I didn't smile, so she stopped. "We can go back if you want. But it really is safe. There are people paid to keep it safe for everyone."
I wouldn't trust security guards to be on my side if something happened, but they could keep things from happening, and they were probably better than police. I bit my lip. "OK, but if anything goes wrong, you owe me hot chocolate for the rest of my life."
"It's a deal," Pamela said, and led us down the alley and around a corner, to where a tall woman was standing in front of an iron gate.
She was very tall and very fit, with mirrored sunglasses and a black tank top and leather jeans, but more importantly, she had black horns curving out to each side of her head and black hooves that clattered on the concrete alley. She was Mina Tauros, a supervillain who specialized in guarding things, and my mom once threw her off the top of a 10-story building.
My feet stuck to the ground, but Pamela was already going ahead. "Hi, Mina! Did you get those recombinator gems I sent?"
Tauros's voice was deep and slightly accented, although I couldn't say from where. "Hey, Pamela. Yeah, thanks. If I do this week's quest every day, I'll be able to get that tanzanite behemoth." Then she noticed me, and her voice got even deeper. "Who's this?"
"Oh, this is my friend Nef, she just moved to Rhodes a couple of weeks ago. It's OK, she's..." Pamela trailed off as Mina came forward clack clack clack to loom over me. I couldn't help cringing. She was a serious supervillain, with a body count, in addition to being about three times my size.
Tauros's smile slowly changed from welcoming to nasty. I wanted to run, but enhanced reflexes and speed are no good when you can't move a muscle. "She's Slink's little kitten," she breathed.
* * *
I really didn't remember the next bit, but now I knew where I was: the minotaur's maze. It was her main power (besides being able to lift trucks and survive 10-story falls). My mom (Slink, the semi-villainous catgirl cat burglar, famous for stealing all kinds of treasures and all kinds of hearts while rocking skin-tight low-cut ninja gear) had mentioned the maze in lots of her stories, but had never given me a thorough briefing on it. I knew it was made of bits and pieces of the area around the entrance, but the bare concrete could have come from the industrial wasteland where she'd mugged me or any of a million other spots around the world. There was always an entrance, but that didn't mean it was easy to find: Mom had found mummified bodies in here before.
How had she gotten out? One time it was by "sweet-talking" Doktor Vengeance, who was in there with her, but I didn't see any supervillains, and even butt-naked I didn't have what it would take to charm one. Another time someone had talked Mina Tauros into letting her out because he wanted to get back something she'd stolen. I think most of the other times she'd been with X-Wave, who could teleport too.
I got to a T-junction, but neither branch had a helpful teleporter. Either someone on the outside would get Tauros to let me out, which I couldn't do anything about, or I'd have to find my own way out.
It sounded like her and Pamela were friends, so maybe that would happen? But she'd turned on allies for being too friendly with her enemies before, so maybe Pamela was in here too. And Jonah and Jacob? Naked? I blushed at the image, which was silly, because there was no one here to make fun of me. But if they were in here, maybe we could at least be mummified corpses together.
"PAMELA!" My voice echoed back from the flat concrete of the next junction, with a strange reverb as more echoes came back from further. That seemed weird, but I'd never actually been in an endless concrete maze, so maybe not. "JONAH! JACOB!" I waited, but no answer.
I scratched DEAD END into the floor of the tunnel back to where I woke up and tried to remember the way to get out of a maze. Follow the right-hand wall? Or was it the left-hand wall? No, it would be the same either way. I picked left, because most people are right-handed and would pick right, and Tauros probably expected that, and started walking, trailing my claws along the wall to mark where I'd been.
There were a lot of T-junctions, plus some crossroads, and plenty of turns so that I couldn't ever see more than 100 or 200 feet in any direction. At first I yelled for everyone at every junction I came to, but that was hard on my throat so I cut it down to every third one, more or less. I marked any dead ends I found, and eventually thought to mark a direction at each corner. I didn't know if I was marking north, south, east, west, or the 4th dimension, but the maze was all straight lines and right angles, so I felt like I was staying oriented.
No one answered. The lights never brightened or went out. The concrete smelled damp, but there was no actual water, so after a few hours? 1 hour? a day? I was getting pretty thirsty and really scared. If Pamela weren't in here, or weren't in cahoots with Tauros, she would have gone to the League of Justice and gotten them to come get me out by now, wouldn't she? Or was she dead? Pamela was weird, and maybe part of the community, but I hadn't seen anything to make me think she could survive having her head twisted off by an angry minotaur.
I was so wrapped up in my fears that I walked right past the DEAD END scratches before I realized that the wall here already had claw marks.
The maze wasn't endless! I literally fell over in relief, sliding down the wall (yay for enhanced skin) to sit in a heap and hyperventilate for a while.
The left-hand wall was used up, so I'd have to switch to the right-hand to get to the rest of the maze. Unless it was changing when I wasn't looking, but I wasn't going to go around that loop again just to check!
I wasn't really tired, and there was no food or water, so I picked myself up, put my claws on the unmarked wall, and started going again. This time I marked a 2 on every section of wall, just so I would know it was the second section I was checking.
It was right after that that I found the bodies.
There were three of them, or at least three skulls in the shrivelled-up mess in the middle of the tunnel. They weren't quite skeletons, but they were pretty well mummified despite the dampness of the air. Maybe that changed depending on what place Tauros was copying. They didn't stink, at least.
Around them was a circle of dried blood with twisty-looking glyphs at different places around the inside. I was sure it was dried blood and not brown marker; I'd only ever seen it in pictures, but it was pretty distinctive. I wished my dad was there to tell me what it did, because I wanted to know if the bodies had anything useful like a sealed water bottle. (He isn't a sorcerer, but he analyzes the aftermath of horrible rituals for a living; snooping in his work stuff is how I found out what a magic circle drawn in blood looks like.) OK, I just plain wished my dad was there. Except then we'd both be stuck, and dying alone was better than my family dying too.
The circle was right in the middle of a crossroad, which meant things could attack from every side, but crossroads are magically important, I think. Anyway, the circle wasn't scuffed, so I don't think anything got in and killed them, they just huddled there until they died of thirst.
I'd gotten used to it, but looking at the pile of bodies, I realized that they weren't naked. Maybe some of their clothes weren't too gross! (Yes, that excited me more than water. Being alone in a labyrinth outside of space and time does things to your head, and I'm sticking to my story.)
My claws are harder than diamond and sharper than glass, so I was able to cut a piece of a corner off without too much work (I thought about trying to dig all the way through the wall, but Mom said that didn't work) and toss it into the circle.
Clatter clatter. Nothing happened.
Maybe the circle only noticed living things, or only things that wanted to hurt what was inside. I thought both of those were things, so with some work I scratched through the skin on the inside of my arm (my skin has to be tough, or I would have cut myself to shreds as a little kid) and smeared blood on another piece of concrete. Then I threw it hard enough to smash one of the skulls. Sorry, dead person, but you're not using it any more!
Crunch! Still nothing.
I could either keep "tasting the sand" (my dad's term for experiments that don't tell you anything you actually need to know) until I died of thirst too, or I could go for it. I crouched down (suddenly feeling extra-naked) and slid my right pinky across the line. Still nothing, so I scratched through the line, breaking it. If there was a curse, it was slow and sneaky enough that I could deal with it later.
I was as careful as I could be in getting the three bodies apart, but there were some horrible sounds and feelings as I pried their grips open. Mummy joints cracking, ewwww. When I was finished, I had the bodies of three women. Two were wearing street clothes that were like 50 years old – OK, maybe only 40, from when my parents were kids – but the third was in a silver bodysuit with red and orange stripes wrapping around the torso at angles like they were covering her except the rest of the suit wasn't transparent. That and the long, still-permed blonde hair trailing from the broken skull were familiar, although it took a minute to place them. Lady Blaze, the first one, who'd gone missing in the 70s. If I got out of here, I was going to have to edit Wikipedia.
One of the other two had a huge purse, bigger than Pamela's, mostly filled with dried-up rotten gunk but there was a canteen in there. Completely dry, of course, because they would have drunk everything before they died. She also had a shoulder holster with a big clunky automatic that wasn't rusty at all. My mom never carried guns, so I don't know much about them, but it looked like it should still work, and maybe a gun or gunpowder would be handy. The shoulder holster would never fit me – her rib cage was twice the size of mine, she must have been bigger than Mina Tauros when she was alive –, but the other woman's long shaggy-fringed white vest was big enough for a dress on me, and I figured out how to buckle the shoulder holster around my waist to keep it from flapping around. Probably my butt showed through the tail-hole I cut, but I was still a million more times more decent than before.
The one time I asked my parents if God was real, Dad laid out in detail all the reasons why it isn't and we should be glad, but I still felt bad just leaving them there, even though it wasn't them. "I'm sorry," I whispered. "I'll tell people... you were brave and you didn't die alone."
I wiped my eyes and set off following the right-hand wall again.
There were a lot more empty concrete tunnels, 8 feet tall and 8 feet wide, lit with dingy yellow electric light. My throat was sore enough from thirst that I'd given up yelling and just banged the canteen against the fall every so often. Lady Blaze and her sidekicks might have thought there were monsters in here, but I hadn't seen any sign of anything living, and anyway I was completely ready to kill a monster and drink its blood.
The next thing I found was a staircase. It was the same gray concrete, and went up about three stories to the same kind of tunnel, but it was the only different thing I'd seen. I didn't care that it was on the left side of the tunnel, I just ran my clawmarks across the floor to that wall and went up!
Did the concrete smell slightly less damp up here? I wasn't sure, and that would have been the only difference between this floor of the maze and where I started, but I felt a lot more like I was making progress, until I came back around the corner I hadn't taken at first and found myself right back at the stairs.
It's not pride that goes before a fall, it's hope. I finally broke down crying. I was going to be trapped here until I died, and I hadn't even done anything! It was because a monster was pissed at my mom! And I was going to die sooner because I was wasting water by crying, but thinking that just made me cry harder. I was so busy hating Mina Tauros and missing my family and feeling sorry for myself that I literally screamed and jumped when someone touched my shoulder.
I landed in something like a fighting stance, at least, ready to fight the monster, but it was just Jonah, sprawled naked on his butt with his hands up defensively and his legs embarrassingly apart. "Holy crap, Nelson!" (He didn't say "crap".) "Don't kill me!"
I didn't kill him, I just stared while he picked himself up. "Jonah! You're alive?! You're here?!" Without waiting for an answer, I tackled him against the wall and hugged him until he squeaked. I didn't care that he was a boy or that he was naked or that I didn't even like him much, I wasn't alone!
"Ow! Careful, my ribs! They're only bone!" I loosened my grip a little but didn't let go until I realized that I was getting tears and snot all over his bare chest. A boy's bare chest! And I was barely dressed myself! I jumped back and tried to look less pathetic than I really was. At least I wasn't actually naked!
He looked me up and down. "How come you have clothes?" he demanded. "It's your fault we're in here to begin with!"
I felt guilty for about half a second. "It's Mina Tauros's fault we're in here, nobody else's! And I got the clothes from someone else she murdered." It was harder than I expected to look at his face, even though it was about the least romantic situation I could imagine. A naked boy looked just as silly in person as in pictures, but not as disgusting as I expected.
"Oh. Um." He noticed me looking and covered the bare minimum with his hands, which was also pretty silly-looking. "Was there any more?"
"It was a long ways back, and downstairs..." Without my phone, I had no idea how far or how long, but I guessed it was miles. "Here, maybe we can share."
It made my "skirt" dangerously short, considering I had nothing under it, but we managed to get enough cloth off the hem to combine with the shoulder holster straps to make him a breechclout kind of thing that covered about as much as his hands had. He was only technically not naked, but it did make both of us feel better.
Then we traded notes on what had happened since we walked into that alley and Mina Tauros decided she had a grudge against me. Apparently she'd kicked me in the stomach, which is why I'd been sore when I woke up, but then she'd shot me with some kind of electrozap gun, and shot the rest when they objected. it sounded like Jacob had tried to fight, but Jonah was too cagey to say what his little brother thought he could do against someone like Tauros. As best we could tell, Jonah had been out a lot longer than I had, but he hadn't lost his memory of what happened before he got zapped, probably because he was human.
He hadn't been awake for being tossed into the labyrinth, so he couldn't say for sure that Pamela and Jacob were in there too, but we agreed it was pretty likely. As for what to do next...
"Oh yah! I had an idea, but I didn't have any tools. But you're made of tools! I mean, claws. That sounded bad, didn't it?"
It was kind of racist, but, "Never mind, what's your idea?"
"See how these lights have conduit running between them? I think they might be running on real electricity, from somewhere outside. But I can't get into the conduit with just my fingernails."
I'd been walking under the lights for hours, and never noticed the conduit. Good job, Nefertari! But it didn't matter where the idea came from, only if it would get us out.
First step: rip the cage off a lightbulb and unscrew it. Jumping up and hanging by one hand while I cut through the metal with the other was easy (yay enhanced strength), and unscrewing the bulb made it stop giving light. The socket looked like a regular lighting fixture, although I wasn't willing to test the current with my finger.
Next step: tear open the conduit at a junction and let Jonah mess with the insides. He had to stand on my shoulders for that, but at least I could look up without dying of embarrassment. I ended up cutting some pieces of leather off the holster for him to use to handle the wires, but finally he got the lights all down one hallway to blink off and then on. Then two of the 3 hallways. "HAH! IT WORKS!" he bellowed. "The power is coming from this way, I bet!" The other one of the 2 that had blinked, blinked without the 1st one. "YES! The power is coming from this branch!" He jumped down and ran that way toward the next junction, laughing maniacally. I followed a little less certainly; being trapped in an enclosed space with a mad scientist was not a good thing, and even though this was just ordinary wiring, he was showing the signs. But, a way out!
The next junction box had the same pattern of power coming in from one side and going out the other two sides, so I scratched into the walls (both walls, just in case) "PWER FRM THIS WAY ==>" and that's the way we went.
We got faster as we went, but it still took a minute or two for me to rip the junction box open and then Jonah to get up there and check all the wires, which meant we were going about (as Jonah calculated when I asked) ½ mile an hour. Not that it mattered, since we had no idea how far it was to the exit. If it was an exit and not just the center of the maze, but it had to be something.
I was a lot more tired and hungry and thirsty than Jonah, because I'd been awake longer and I needed more food and water to begin with, but neither of us was in very good shape, which is probably why it took so long for him to realize that I'm a girl and I wasn't wearing much and we were all alone down here (up here? in here? out here?). His scent gave it away before I even noticed him trying to peek through the armholes of my vest-dress. Hungry Nef = cranky Nef, so I didn't stop to think about how glad I was to not be alone, and have an idea how to get out, before I slammed him up against the wall by his throat. "I know what you're thinking, so stop it!"
"Ulgk!" When I eased off, "Sorry! I didn't mean to– I didn't mean to mean to? You're really pretty, you know." He gave me the big dark long-lashed eyes that probably melted Pamela like chocolate.
They must have worked on me too, or maybe thinking about chocolate weakened me, because I let him down. "Just don't."
That pretty much ended any chance of conversation beyond "Hurry up" and "Hold still, I've almost got it". Our conduit-tracing dance got more and more refined, and Jonah didn't do anything that made me have to find my own way out, but it was still taking forever.
We went through two more levels before we found anything different. Around one corner, a branch cut back right along the tunnel we'd just come down, instead of 150' away, and it was made of brick. Plain red brick, weathered and faded, but after however many hours of yellow-tinged gray concrete, it was bright as flowers. We both just stopped and stared at it for a while before thinking to check the conduit junction. The brick tunnel was the way to go, but the conduit ran up the concrete wall where the higher arch of the tunnel ran up against the concrete section and disappeared into the brick. The lightbulbs were the same, but now the wiring was buried.
Jonah scowled at the first light. "Do you think she did this on purpose?"
"My– I mean, I never heard that she could rearrange the maze, but I never heard of anyone finding their way out instead of escaping by teleporting or something. Anyway, it's just brick." I swiped at the wall with the claws that had been around Jonah's throat just a couple of hours before, leaving inch-deep grooves. He was too dark to turn pale, but his scent said the same thing.
I'm not big, and Jonah is pretty athletic, but he couldn't lift me from the floor to over his head by my ankles. After some embarrassing experiments that left both of us sprawled in awkward positions, bruised and blushing, we finally settled on me climbing up the wall to where it started to curve, and then steadying myself with my hands while I stood on his hands to claw away the bricks around the lightbulb. Then I jumped down and we traded places so he could fiddle with the wires. This took more like 5 minutes at each intersection, and I was starting to think we wouldn't make it out before I was too thirsty to do gymnastics any more.
I have to admit that I did think of killing Jonah for his flesh and delicious watery blood, but no. I could maul someone in self-defense, but I wasn't going to become a cannibal. It was just plain wrong, and anyway I wouldn't give the "Changed are just ghouls with cleavage" crowd the satisfaction. (Yes, people really do say that, and not just on Twitter!) Before my resolve was tested too much, though, someone stuck her head around the far corner and shushed Jonah while he was cussing at the wires.
"PA–" I heard Jonah clap his hand over his mouth at the same time I did, and then he was falling to the floor while I dashed (quietly!) to tackle Pamela in a hug. Seconds later, Jonah got there on his clompy human feet and threw his arms around us both. Then Jacob (also naked) showed up and we were a big pile of skin and weird shag fabric and relief on the floor together.
Pamela was still naked, and Jonah noticed, but I couldn't get mad because I was sort of noticing too. But more importantly, "Pamela! You're not dead!" I was crying again, but not quite as messily as when I found Jonah.
"Nef, I'm so glad you found us!" She wasn't crying, but she was holding on tight enough that I had trouble breathing with my face crushed against her shoulder. "I knew your mom got out, but I didn't know if you'd be able to!"
I pushed away from her with some effort; she was awfully strong for such a delicate-looking girl (she hadn't been hiding muscles under her clothes any more than she'd been hiding curves). "Wait, you know my mom?"
She let me breathe, but didn't let go altogether. "I know about your mom. She's kind of famous, you know. Although you're not much like her if you and the boy ended up with more clothes during an adventure!"
I was pretty sure those were supposed be fighting words if someone said them about your mom, but I couldn't really argue. Anyway, I remembered that Mina Tauros had outed me before zapping me. I made a face. "Whatever. Why are we being quiet? Do you know how to get out?"
Jacob whispered, "Let's go back a ways, now we're all together." He was naked too, of course, but although his rich brown hair hanging down almost to his knees made me want to run my hands through it, he mostly just looked like a little kid. Maybe in two years he'd be handsome like Jonah.
Pamela didn't have a sexy body or a wiggly walk, but she was pretty to look at. She had a lot of scars, though: parallel lines across one shoulderblade, pink splotches down her spine, and a thick ring around one ankle like her foot had been cut off with a chainsaw and then stuck back on. Humans don't heal as well as Changed, but it still seemed like a lot for someone my age. Maybe she'd been in a car accident? I had only known her for a week, after all; she probably had lots of secrets left to tell.
Around three corners further back, after Pamela had hugged me for leaving all those messages scratched in the wall in case she was behind me, we huddled for a conference. "The exit is just a couple of corners from where we met up," Pamela said. "But, it's got a locked metal door, and Mina Tauros is right outside. Jacob and I could have got the door open, but she would have just beat us senseless and tossed us back in. With all four of us, though, we can scatter and probably one of us can get away to get the League." I was glad she didn't say "the cops"; she probably could get them to help, but two black boys and a catgirl would just end up falling down the stairs in a 1-story jail.
Jacob was eyeing my legs in my super-short dress, but I didn't feel as violent now that we had some hope, so I just glared at him until he looked somewhere else. Why was he looking at me when Pamela was completely naked, anyway? "What's the layout? If we have to all run down an empty alley while Tauros shoots at us like one of those carnival games..."
"The walls are brick, like here, so I thought maybe you could climb to a window. Jacob can climb on this side, and Jonah and I will have to take our chances running."
"That's a terrible plan." I thought about it. If we had anything to distract her with, maybe we could do better, but the best we could do was throw a spare magazine from the gun. Or shoot her, but it looked like a regular gun, so it wouldn't be any better. If we could cause enough of a commotion to get someone else to call the League, that might help, but we weren't in the right part of town. If Tauros had a secret weakness, it was still a secret, and we didn't have anything to work with anyway. Nyaaargh! "I'm better at sneaking, so I'll go out after you guys are attracting her attention."
They all nodded. I guess my mom's reputation as a burglar was good for something, although it was true that if they could get her to look at them, I could probably get away and get help.
When we snuck back to the door, though, it wasn't there. At least, that's what I got from Jacob's cussing when we came around what should have been the last corner and there was just a dead end there. "Darn it," said Pamela (she didn't say "darn"). She must be letting people into the flea market. Will the door come back in the same place?" None of us had any idea.
The bricks at the end of the hallway cracked along lines that made a rectangle, and fell away from the yellow metal fire door that pushed into place. It did have a window, gridded with wire and too small for even me to squirm through, but there was only darkness on the other side. What time was it? We'd been in there for hours and hours, how was the flea market still going on? Was there a special night-time market? It didn't matter, any time was the right time for getting out of there!
There was a metal plate over the gap between door and frame to protect the bolt from tampering, but that would be easy to cut through. Jacob elbowed me out of the way, though. "I got this, babe." Looking up my skirt did not entitle him to call me "babe"! Before I could explain, he stuffed the end of his hair into the gap above the plate and it crawled in like a thousand tiny tentacles. That was why his hair smelled weird!
The door clicked open, and the other three dashed out– into another arched brick tunnel, lit by the sunlight at each end. They stopped dead in surprise, and I walked quietly out behind them, suppressing my presence.
There was surprise all around: Mina Tauros was at the left end, silhouetted against the day beyond so I couldn't see her expression (but I hoped it was horrified), and a group of half a dozen people at the other end were turning around to see what the noise was. I recognized the two in front, a tall gray-haired white woman in a suit and a Latina in a floaty white dress that outlined curves in places other women don't even have places: Bonnie Fisher and Terry Velazquez, better known as Ironstar and X-Wave, my mom's old teammates and the founders of the middle school we all went to. I was so relieved that I almost dropped my powers.
Pamela, Jonah, and Jacob all yelled at once, which came out something like "Threw Mina attacked Tauros maze mugged us!"
Ironstar walked back into the tunnel, moving like she didn't weigh anything, in the way that superstrong people have, but her feet thumped on the floor with the weight of her altered body. "Mina, what is the meaning of this?"
Tauros yelled, "You didn't tell me that witch Slink was in town!" (She didn't say "witch", or anything that rhymed with it.) Her voice filled the tunnel, so loud it seemed to make the bricks vibrate. "We had a deal!"
Ironstar didn't raise her voice, just kept walking forward, past the naked kids. "Your petty grudges were never part of any deal. Your behaving yourself was."
Tauros shouted something completely unrepeatable, and the walls cracked and pivoted. She was sealing us in! X-Wave appeared next to my friends in a smeary blur of yellow-green light. "Close your eyes and hold on tight," she said.
They were leaving me behind! I dashed toward them, but a wall dividing the tunnel crunched itself together out of suddenly-appearing bricks right in front of me, too close for me to do anything but bounce off it. No! I shrieked, but the heavy walls absorbed the sound, and though I clawed away the first layer of bricks, there were just more behind.
I said some words it was a good thing my parents weren't there to hear, and slid down to the floor. Even if I could figure out Jonah's trick for finding the way out from the lights, I didn't think I could last long enough to make that trek all over again without water.
I jumped and shrieked again, but it was just X-Wave. Of course! She could see through the 4th dimension, so finding me in Mina Tauros's labyrinth would be easy! "Ms. Velazquez!" I wasn't really that close to her, but I flung myself into her arms just the same. "Oh god I'm so glad to see you!"
She hugged me to her generous, soft, and perfumed bosom. "I wouldn't leave you behind. I'd never hear the end of it from 'Kita. I mean Nita." (My mom's real name is Nikita, but officially in Rhodes she was Juanita. She doesn't look Hispanic even with her hair dyed black, but most first-generation Changed don't look that much like their old appearance.) "Hold on tight and close your eyes, sweetie."
I was tempted to keep one eye open, to see what the 4th dimension is like, but my mind is human enough that I'd probably just throw up, faint, and then have PTSD for years. It was bad enough with my eyes closed: everything flipped upside-down and inside-out, and mad ghosts howled and gibbered in my ears even though vacuum sucked at my skin. We crashed back into 3 dimensions like slamming into a vat of jello, gravity and air squishing in around me. Somehow I didn't scream, although if it had lasted a second longer I probably would have.
Pamela tackled me from the side before I even opened my eyes, squeezing me tight against X-Wave's voluptuous form and mumbling something into my hair. I curled my tail around her bare legs. "What was that? Oof." Jonah and Jacob piled on, although I was pretty sure they were there for X-Wave, not my skinny body.
"I'm so glad you're all right," Pamela repeated, and kissed my head.
"I'm glad all of you are all right," said X-Wave, but I only barely heard her because the whole building shook in the middle of her sentence. "Go downstairs and out into the street now. I have to help Bonnie." She disappeared in green-gold light that blurred through me (I didn't feel anything).
We were in an abandoned, stripped office, with a couple of overturned metal desks across the door. It smelled like someone had been living here and not bathing. We climbed over the desks and ran down the stairs at the end of the hall, into a double-height factory floor with concrete pedestals where machines had been mounted. Pamela and Jacob were still naked, and Jonah and I almost were, but when the building shook again and concrete dust sifted down from the ceiling, we ran into the street anyway. Even Ohioans know to get out of a building that's shaking like that!
It was afternoon, of some day, but the street was deserted, probably because of the booms coming from behind us as Ironstar and Mina Tauros tried to beat the tar out of each other, or maybe just because we were still that close to the Pit. Maybe we should have stayed and waited for X-Wave and Ironstar to come back and bring us clothes, but we looked at each other once and took off for the far end of the street.
My throat was so dry and my stomach so empty that I couldn't keep running past that, but I could stumble along until someone hissed at us from an alley. I don't know why he didn't talk normally, there was no one around, but maybe lurking in alleys naturally leads to hissing. "Hey! Kids! You OK?"
Pamela ducked behind Jonah, which I could tell they both liked, and Jacob behind me, which he liked but made my tail lash annoyed against his legs. "We're not hurt," I said. "But do you have a phone?"
The alley-hisser, a skinny middle-aged black guy with a shaved head and denim work clothes that seemed stiffer than normal cloth, looked us over, but not like that. "Oh, hey, you're the Rajapaksa's kid, Pam! Yah, you can borrow my phone, but be quick." He kept glancing back down the street toward the fight, but fished a phone out of his pants pockets and handed it over to Pamela.
She dialed from memory. "Hey, Doofus-Head. It's me. I know, I know, just come get us, Waverloss and 195th in the old city. Bring clothes. Yeah, I hate you too." She hung up and handed the phone back. "Thanks!"
There was a crackling roar, and a tower of light shot into the sky behind us. "No big you kids get outta here that's my cue," he said in a rush, and ran off toward the destruction. He must have been part of the community, but what he was doing, I had no idea. I hope he wasn't going to help Mina Tauros!
The alley wasn't being used any more, so we hid out there for the ten minutes or so it took Pamela's sister Chathurangani to show up. She was driving a light blue Prius, possibly the most generic car imaginable, but screeched up to the alley like a getaway driver and shoved open the passenger door. "Hey, Brainless, you brought me naked boys! You can be my sister after all!" She didn't sound like she meant it, but Jonah and Jacob both shrivelled up in embarrassment. They got in the car, though, three of us squished into the back seat and Pamela riding (naked) shotgun.
Chathi, or Doofus-Head to her family, was clearly Pamela's sister, but with grown-up curves on her delicate frame, and a tattoo of a mathematical equation full of Sanskrit characters on her forehead. She was wearing a tight tanktop and running shorts that distracted Jacob from being pressed up against my side, and her short black hair was sticking up in most directions except where it was flattened on one side. She must have jumped right out of bed to come get us, which was pretty nice of her. Pamela's family must have been worried sick.
"Clothes are in the trunk. Anyone need a doctor? A sorcerer?" She started the car without waiting for an answer.
It was actually the back of the hatchback, not a trunk, so we pulled the sweats and T-shirts out and scrambled into them. Mine fit like a tent, but a tent that covered my body, so it was completely fine by me. Under the clothes was what looked like sports gear, including a bottle of Gatorade! I grabbed it and popped the spout open, just as Chathi said, "No! Don't–" too late.
The instant it hit my tongue, my whole body spasmed from the horrible bitter metallic horribleness of it, spraying the backs of the seats and Pamela's face with some light green liquid that was not anything anyone should ever drink. Pamela laughed and laughed as she wiped herself off, but Chathi said, "Sorry, I should have warned you. That's, um, special."
I managed to click the spout shut before I doubled over coughing and choking and throwing up a little. It was so horrible, but it hadn't smelled like anything. How was that even possible?!
"Nef? Are you OK?" Jonah thumped my back, which didn't help at all.
"Gack, no!" I was actually coughing up blood, although I think just because my throat was so dry. It only felt like that stuff was eating my flesh. "Kinda, ugh. Oh god, that's terrible. Why do you even have that?"
Chathi at least smelled embarrassed. "It's for a thing. I guess I should put it in a different bottle, huh?"
"Do you have anything that's not poison?"
"No, but there's a 7-11 up ahead. Bottled water?"
"Yes please! And something to eat, I don't even care." Nothing at a 7-11 was really food, but it would keep me alive until I could get something better. But water was most important.
"How long has it been?" Jonah asked. "We should call home."
"Four hours," said Pamela. That couldn't be right! "I guess there's extra time inside the maze, just like there's extra space."
Mom had never said anything about that, but I don't think she'd ever been in there very long before someone got her out– which was how I got out, so I couldn't make fun of her. Oh, crap, she needed to know that Tauros was in town and knew she was too! "Chathi, I need a phone!"
We pulled into the parking lot, which was full of bright red motorcycles and Hispanic guys with shaved heads and red leather jackets. They didn't look like they were making trouble, though, and Chathi didn't seem bothered. She passed her phone back got out. "Try not to get kidnapped by supervillains again, Brainless." Pamela stuck her tongue out.
The bikers all watched Chathi walk into the store, but none of them made a move on her, or even whistled. That made them better than Jonah and Jacob, who practically had their tongues hanging out.
Mom's phone rang and rang. Had Tauros already gotten to her? No, it was only five minutes since she'd been fighting Ironstar and X-Wave, she couldn't have tracked us down already.
"Nelson here." Mom sounded out of breath, but otherwise wasn't giving anything away, since it was a number she didn't know.
"It's Nefertari. Mom, Mina Tauros is in town and she knows we are too."
"Are you OK? You sound terrible!" Now she sounded like a mom, and it made me melt a little. More than a little, although I tried not to cry. "Where are you? Is Mina around?"
"I'm fine, just thirsty. I'm with Pamela and her big sister. Tauros was still fighting Ironstar and X-Wave five minutes ago, out by the Pit. 195th Street, I think. We're at a 7-11 near there. Not too near, I guess." I ran out of business-like and started sniffling. "She dumped us naked in her maze, I was in there for hours, we only barely got out!" Jacob patted my back awkwardly.
"Oh, sweetie! Did she hurt you?"
"She clobbered me and zapped me with something–"
"Nerve disruptor," Pamela put in from the front seat.
"– a nerve disruptor, but I'm not hurt." Deep breaths. "She got my phone and new claw sheaths and my Magical Girl Polyp-chan shirt."
Keys clicked. "She disabled the phone. Did you have anything on it?"
I tried to think. The only numbers I had besides Mom and Dad were Pamela and the school, nothing from before I moved. (Were we going to have to move again?) "Nothing special, it wasn't even jailbroken."
"OK, stay where you are, we'll come get you."
Chathi leaned into the front of the car, riveting everyone's attention except Pamela's (I guess I was feeling better!) and passed me a bottle of luke-warm water. That distracted me from her cleavage just fine, although Jacob tried to drink and ogle at the same time and spilled water all down his front. Half a bottle of water and ten seconds later, I said, "Chathi, I love you!" She laughed and ruffled my hair, which I usually hate but it was already so messy it didn't matter, plus she was beautiful and gave me water.
"Nef?" Mom said over the phone. "Are you still there? Who's Chathi?"
I swear, I could feel the water seeping through my body, revitalizing every shrivelled cell. "Pamela's sister. She brought me water!"
Mom smirked so much I could hear it. "Well, as long as you know your price. Are you at 191st and Glauer? That's the only 7-11 in that area."
Chathi was asking Jonah and Jacob if they wanted a ride home, or somewhere else, and they were trying to figure out how to explain coming home in borrowed clothes without phones or wallets. I looked around for a street sign. "191st, yeah. But I think we're heading back into town to drop off Jonah and Jacob."
"Armstrong?" It wasn't too surprising Mom knew them, she probably know about everyone in the community who went to Peasley. "Do you really trust this Chathi?"
"I don't think she's going to kidnap us! Even if she just takes me to her and Pamela's house, that's fine, right?"
"I can drop you home, you're right by the school, right?" Chathi put in.
"It'll be fine, Mom. I'll see you in a bit. I should give Chathi her phone back."
"OK. Come right back here, don't get kidnapped again, and if you see Mina, run." With those reassuring instructions, she hung up.
I offered the phone to Jonah, but he shook his head. "We'll be home in a few minutes, no point giving them time to think of even worse fates." I passed it up to Pamela (Chathi was busy buckling in), and didn't complain when she kept hold of my hand. That still left me a hand to drink water with.
The boss biker (I guessed, he had a row of spikes on his helmet like Vlad the Imapler's mohawk, and the others didn't) saluted Chathi as we pulled out and she waved back. "What was that about?" Jonah asked.
"The Sanctified Dragons of Nineveh," Chathi said. "Nice guys, as long as you aren't dealing ghoul sweat or slaves on their turf. I went out with one of their initiates once." It must have been quite a date, from the way she smelled. Ew.
I was starting to come down from the stress and outright panic of the past however-many hours, so I wasn't much of a conversationalist, but neither were Jonah or Jacob. They both ended up leaning on me in the middle, but it seemed mean to push them away.
Their house was a big new two-story place in white stucco, the kind of place that would have been a McMansion if it been in a development with a bunch of similar houses. A plump black lady in a dazzling green and blue and red dress met them at the door and whisked them inside without coming out to talk to Chathi.
My house was a lot smaller and funkier. It was all red wood, with windows at strange places because inside it was rooms offset by half a story so there were stairs everywhere, and a big balcony at the top with potted trees to match the ones half-concealing it from the street. We'd gotten it cheap, because humans found the stairs a pain, but Mom and I could go up half a story in one jump and Dad was OK with any house that had us in it. My mom came out as we pulled into the driveway. I noticed that she had one hand out of sight behind her, but I don't think Pamela or Chathi did, and I'm sure Jacob and Jonah wouldn't; she has that effect even on a lot of straight girls.
Slink, AKA Nikita, AKA Juanita Nelson, is almost 6' tall and super-curvy, with immense quantities of black hair tumbling to her waist and huge brown eyes. (Her hair and eyes were blood-red, like mine are sapphire-blue, but we got them changed to something less conspicuous when we moved to Rhodes; lots of Changed dye their hair black anyway). She was wearing cargo pants and a top somewhere between a leotard and a tank top, all black, and looked much more like a ninja than a retired mother of a middle-schooler. It probably messed up her dangerous vibe to have a tiny catgirl in baggy sweats tackling her around the waist, but I didn't care.
"Hello, Pamela. And you must be Chathi. Please, come in for a minute."
She was perfectly polite, but I could smell Pamela and Chathi bristling a bit. They could tell she didn't trust them, but they couldn't say it was wrong of her, since they were somehow involved in her only child being kidnapped by a demented supervillain. They looked at each other, but then Chathi said, "We'd be glad to, Mrs. Nelson," and turned off the car.
Dad scooped me up as soon as we were inside. "I'm glad you're OK, Fuzzy!" I hugged him around the neck, not spoiling his cool because he didn't have that kind of cool. He looks like a computer geek, but one from the Bronze Age with his reddish hair bushing out, his beard in a 6" braid, and old-fashioned blue tattoos all over his hands. I could sense Chathi drawing herself up to charm him, which probably usually worked great on middle-aged men, and then looking at my mom and giving up.
Mom got Pamela and Chathi settled on one couch with us on the opposite one and served everyone lemonade before she started grilling us about the Great Mina Tauros Incident. I told her everything from meeting Jonah and Jacob at the Mighty Bean-O-Tron to getting picked up by Chathi, with some help from Pamela for the parts I didn't remember right after meeting Tauros. I could tell that something about Pamela's story was a slip on her part, and my mom caught it, but I couldn't tell what she'd given away. Maybe I was still a bit freaked out, even snuggled between my parents on my own couch.
When the report was complete, Mom said, "Excuse me for a moment. Howard, could you please get everyone some more lemonade?" and went into another room, probably to call Ironstar or X-Wave. While Dad was doing that, something made Chathi suddenly feel relieved, but I couldn't see anything happening. I would have worried about it more, but I was pretty much out of caring. I just stayed curled up on my couch, even when Pamela came over and put her arms around me. Dad sat next to me and chatted with Chathi about college until Mom came back in and said, "Thank you for bringing Nefertari home, girls. We shouldn't keep you any longer."
I fell over with my head in Dad's lap as soon as Pamela stopped holding me in place, and that was it.
* * *
It was dark outside the windows when I woke up, and the lights were off. I reached for my phone to see what time it was, but it wasn't on the nightstand. Right, because it had been crushed beneath Mina Tauros's stamping hooves! I thought about going back to sleep, but I was hungry. Being terrified for hours takes it out of you.
There were lights and voices downstairs, but it wasn't until I got to the stairs between the Solarium (really just the upstairs hallway, with a skylight) and the front room that I recognized the voices and the scent: Ironstar, X-Wave, and X-Wave's hormones.
"Sweetie, are you awake? Terry and Bonnie are here." Mom wasn't upset, so they probably weren't here to tell us to leave town.
I came all the way down, and sure enough, all four of them were just sitting around in casual clothes, not packing or fortifying the house or anything. In Mom's case, that meant yoga pants and sports bra (you can take the spandex out of the supervillain, but you can't take the supervillain out of her spandex? except people did all the time before she was married, so never mind) which explained what X-Wave – Ms. Velazquez, she was in civvies – was feeling. "Is there anything to eat? I'm starving?"
"I'll make you a sandwich. Come sit down here."
I settled down in the warm corner of the couch opposite my dad and tried to focus on guests. Guests I'd last heard fighting a supervillain. "Did you get her?"
Bonnie – no, I couldn't do it, she had to be Ms. Fisher – frowned, although I still couldn't smell anything at all from her. "She's very difficult to capture, but we chased her off. I don't think she's left town, but I also don't think she wants a rematch."
(Lots of people think Ironstar and X-Wave are a couple, but they don't smell like it (X-Wave doesn't; Ironstar doesn't even smell alive), and my mom says not. Ms. Velazquez runs around almost as much as my mom, or at least people assume she does, and I think Ironstar is ace, probably because she doesn't have hormones any more. They're just the kind of partners who always have each other's back.)
"Is she going to come back?" Even cozy and sleepy, the idea of being trapped in that maze again made me shiver. Or maybe next time she'd just stomp me into the dirt; she was more than strong enough. "Why did she even do that? I know she doesn't like Mom, but I never did anything to her? And why did she take our clothes?"
"Probably because after 'Nita' knocked her off that building, she had to run naked through the streets of Chicago until she found some clothes to steal," Ms. Velazquez said.
Why was Tauros naked when– "MOM!"
"What?" she called from the kitchen. "You've seen her! But it was a mistake, she wasn't very good. Too selfish."
Nyaaarrgh! I pulled the oversized T-shirt up over my head like a turtle shell so no one could see me blushing, but they all laughed at me, even Ms. Fisher. Even Dad!
The shirt smelled like Pamela, which was nice, but I had to come out to eat the sandwich Mom balanced on my head. Grownups!
"What are we going to do? You two can't stay here guarding us forever, and I don't think we can fight her off by ourselves. Can the League help?"
Ms. Fisher smiled like I'd asked a good question in class. "Most of the League is unavailable. They're in Chicago working on the Mr. No One issue."
I thought about that. "Can you stay nearby, enough to stomp her again if she attacks?"
"Not in the long term. We have other obligations."
Why was she being like this instead of coming up with a solution? I didn't need guessing games, I needed my family to not be trapped in a maze forever! "How do we make her go away? She's a mercenary, can we pay her to leave us alone? Or is she too crazy?"
"We might be able to. She does pride herself on not breaking a contract, once she accepts it. But she might not accept the deal to begin with."
Ugh. I took another bite of my sandwich (buffalo turkey and avocado, definitely not ugh!) and thought more. "Can we get someone somewhere else to hire her?" The crowd got more approving. "Can we get Mr. No One to hire her in Chicago, where the League can accidentally beat the cr—snot out of her?"
Ms. Fisher actually beamed, which I'd never seen before. It made me a little goopy inside, not because I liked her but because if someone who's survived to 60+ as an active part of the community thinks your plan is good, it probably really is. Go me! No, wait. "How do we get Mr. No One to hire Tauros? I don't think he takes advice from Ironstar and X-Wave, even if you're retired from the League."
Everyone looked at me. Nyargh! I finished the sandwich and waved the plate hopefully in the air while I thought some more. "Mina Tauros guards things against being stolen, so we threaten– Slink never officially retired, did she?"
"I'm just waiting for you to go off to college," Mom said from the kitchen. "Then I can return to a life of adventure to compensate for Empty Nest Syndrome."
"So we make him think Slink is going to steal his... conflict diamonds? drug formulas? boyfriend? What does he have that he really wants to protect?"
"I hear he has a working duel lash," Ms. Velazquez put in.
My jaw dropped. Almost all of the Vermillion Pupae technology worked on broadcast something, so when Earth Serpent and Sky Phoenix and most of the rest of the community kicked them out of the Solar System, what they left behind turned into junk. But there were always rumors of self-powered gadgets, and people would kill for that. They probably had even for the rumors! "So we make him think Slink is after his duel lash... we make Tauros think that too, of course! So we're going to Chicago?" Mom handed me another sandwich and I shoved most of it into my mouth, completely forgetting to be cool in front of big-name superheroes in my excitement. This was a good plan!
"Howard and I are going to Chicago. You are staying here because you have school on Monday."
"WMPH?!" I chewed hurriedly and swallowed. " What?! You can't leave me behind! What if it takes too long to lure Tauros out of town and she has a chance to jump me again?"
"You'll be staying with Terry and Bonnie while we're out of town," my dad said, and ruffled my hair. "Perfectly safe."
"What about you? You're..."
"I'm neutral, and the League has offered me a gig there anyway. Mr. No One has been working with cultists, it looks like. I'll be fine."
"Then I can stick with you!"
"No," my mom said. "You have school. You're making friends. You'll have your whole adult life to run around the world causing trouble if you want, so for now you're going to have a childhood." She bent down to hug me, almost smothering me, and I could tell she loved me, but stubbornness has a distinct smell and she was covered in it.
"But– NYAAARRGH!" I almost threw the plate across the room, but it still had sandwich I hadn't eaten. "OK, but if you get killed, I'm going to..." not go to her funeral? get her a really tacky headstone? hold my breath until I turned blue? "Don't get killed, OK?" I was starting to sniffle, which I'd already done enough of in the past day, darn it!
They both hugged me tight. "We'll be fine. It's nothing we haven't both done before. Mina's not that big of a problem when you know she's coming, anyway."
It probably wasn't as dangerous as sneaking onto Vermillion Pupae spaceships, which she'd done just a couple of years ago, but that had been for the Earth. This was just for us, our family, and if she died, that would be even worse than Mina Tauros coming after us again. I pulled the T-shirt up over my face again, this time because I was crying.
As my mom said, "This brilliant plan won't execute itself," so we packed right then and I was in the back seat of Ms. Velazquez's little red sports car (I had to ride in back, neither of them would have fit) leaving my new house and my only parents behind before 10pm.
Ironstar and X-Wave might have had quarters at the League HQ, retired or not, but Ms. Fisher and Ms. Velazquez lived in a nice little Spanish-style house with roses growing up the walls on trellises, only a few blocks from the school. As soon as we walked in the door, I could tell more people lived there: 2 girls, kids not teenagers yet. There was something I couldn't place, too, a faint smell like ozone and metal and snakes. Not surprising that superheroes had weird smells in their house, but I hadn't expected them to have kids. They smelled like each other, but not like Ms. Velazquez.
Ms. Fisher figured out why I was looking around in confusion. "You can meet Daisy and Posey tomorrow," she said. "We'll put you in my room for tonight."
The idea of Ironstar's bedroom was weird and scary. "No, I can sleep on the couch."
"I don't mind. I don't sleep very much in any case."
"No, really, I'd feel better." It was a nice couch, too, plush and a little satiny."
Unlike a lot of grownups, they stopped arguing at that point, and just got me some thick fluffy blankets and a few pillows, and left me to change into a nightshirt and tuck myself in. I don't usually like new places (moving had been awful for a few nights), but I was still worn out from all my adventures, so I cried myself to sleep pretty quickly.
* * *
Something hit me in the face. "Hey, are you awake yet?"
I pried my eyes open and saw a little girl, maybe 8, folded upside-down over the back of the couch so that her long blonde braid was in my face. She was plump, but not cheerful, and dressed all in black, which was kind of weird.
"I am now. Are you Daisy or Posey?"
"I'm Posey. Daisy's in the shower. Are you a supervillain?" Her words seemed a little younger than her body; maybe she had some kind of developmental issue?
"No! Ms. Fisher and Ms. Velazquez wouldn't have me here if I was a villain."
Bacon smell leapt out of the kitchen and seized me by the stomach, which growled loudly. Posey looked scornful, which fit too well on her face.
Ms. Velazquez, in a bright red silk kimono that gaped at the chest in a way that would have given Jacob a heart attack, leaned out of the kitchen. "Posey, give Nefertari a chance to wake up before you start pestering her! Nef, you can use the bathroom at the end of the hall."
I really needed a shower, since I hadn't taken one since being dumped naked into a labyrinth. Taking off all my clothes made me a bit nervous, in fact, but the tile floor didn't open into a pit under me, and the hot water was wonderful.
What I thought about during the shower was not so wonderful. With X-Wave here, how was Mom going to get out of the minotaur's maze? What if Tauros ran across Dad and dropped him in? He knew about sorcery, but he wasn't a sorcerer. The League would protect him if they could, but Mina Tauros was a serious supervillain, and I knew she'd already killed Lady Blaze, and probably more people who'd just disappeared were in there somewhere.
I hadn't told X-Wave and Ironstar about Lady Blaze! That was enough to get me out of the shower and into clean clothes, and then the bacon got to me. I was helpless in its grip!
Daisy was obviously Posey's sister, a couple of years older and rounder, and a lot more cheerful. Her hair was bobbed short, but from the way she moved her head, I could tell that was recent. She smelled, very faintly, of the strange electro-snake scent I'd noticed before, but I couldn't spot any way she was different.
"Nefertari! I saved you some bacon!"
"You are a wonderful person," I told her. She had an amazing smile, and she had bacon, so I was pretty much guaranteed to like her.
(Posey sulked until I broke off half a piece and slipped it onto her plate. Even that didn't make her smile, though.)
Ms. Velazquez piled pancakes onto my plate. "Eat up, sweetie. We have to leave for school in 20 minutes."
Daisy raised one eyebrow when Ms. Velazquez called me "sweetie", and I was instantly jealous. I'd practiced and practiced, but both eyebrows still went up! Then it sank in. "School?! But..."
"What kind of board member would I be if I let students skip school?"
"I should get a day off for each dead body!" Oops, that was completely the wrong thing to say: Daisy's smile faded away, and Posey crumpled up in her chair and started crying silently. "Sorry! I'm sorry!" I reached for Posey to hug her or something, but she edged away. I didn't have claw sheaths on.
Ms. Fisher's hand landed gently on my head. "No, I'm sorry. We didn't get a chance to fill you in on the household rules." She moved on to scoop up Posey. "Shh, it's OK, Posey. No one's going to die. Nefertari was just in a graveyard." Daisy wasn't buying it, but Posey calmed down and that made her less unhappy. "Girls, get ready for school."
I'd tell someone about Lady Blaze later.
Dad had made sure I packed all my uniforms, which were just navy blue slacks and button-down white shirts. Daisy had the version with a knee-length skirt but the same shirt, so she went to Peasley too. I guessed she was in 6th grade, so I said, "7th grade?"
"Next year! If I pass French. Tenses, ugh!"
"I probably have to take a foreign language when I'm in high school next year. But maybe not French?"
"Well.. it's not horrible, just a lot of stuff to memorize. I want to go to France sometime and see if immersion helps."
"And you'd get to eat French food!" I'd actually been to France once, when I was 9, when we all went with Dad for a job. The people weren't very friendly to the Changed, so I hadn't been able to practice much French at all, but the food was awesome. Even the simple stuff like bread.
"Yes! That's all the important words, anyway, right? Oui, non, plus de chocolat..."
Maybe it was hypocritical, since I have the enhanced metabolism that goes with enhanced agility and strength, but I was glad she wasn't weird about her weight. Living with Ms. Velazquez probably helped a lot.
Daisy wanted to grill me more, and Posey wanted to listen in, even if she didn't want to talk to me now, but Ms. Velazquez bribed them with a ride in her car, and I went with Ms. Fisher in her Tesla. "Is this where I get the talk about not mentioning dead people?" I asked as I buckled in.
"It would be nice if you could avoid it. Daisy and Posey's father was killed in front them, and their mother is... effectively dead, although perhaps not technically. It would also be best if you avoided talk of aliens."
Aliens + dead + effectively dead = caught up in the Vermillion Pupae invasion. The space pirates (some said it was more complicated than that, but real pirates were pretty complicated when you look at the world they lived in, so close enough) had killed quite a few of the local primitives, sometimes just for fun, and also turned some of them into super-powered slaves with a machine that combined people with war machines in a way that no one really understood. When we'd driven them off, a lot of the slaves had gone with them, and most of the rest had died in the fight. Only a few had been freed.
I thought about how Posey must have felt to have some weird new girl come into her home and talk about death so flippantly, and shriveled up in my seat.
Ms. Fisher patted my hand. "It's all right. They do live in the world, and sometimes hear things they'd rather not, as do we all. But a little sensitivity would make life easier for them."
I nodded mutely.
Normally I get to school on my bike, since it's only 1.9 miles from my house, so it was weird to arrive in the back parking lot and go in through the faculty doors. Teachers preparing for class looked at me curiously as we went through the faculty room and I automatically suppressed my presence. Ms. Fisher didn't notice right away, which was reassuring, but when we got to the door to the student part of the school, she looked around suspiciously. Dad always said we could become invisible to every sense except common sense, and Ironstar had plenty of that. I dropped my power when she was looking away and cleared my throat.
"Ah, right, Nefertari," she said as I became noticeable again. "Here, I understand children your age go into withdrawal if deprived of these for too long." She passed me a phone, a generic low-end Android smartphone but able to text and browse the web. "Have a good day at school, and try to avoid causing any trouble."
She meant to not say anything about what I'd done yesterday, which of course I wasn't going to. "Will do, Ms. Fisher."
I was the first one in homeroom, which gave me time to check out my new phone. It had Ms. Fisher's and Ms. Velazquez's numbers already entered, along with Mom's and Dad's. I added Pamela, but I didn't know Jonah's or Jacob's or Chathi's numbers. I'd have to get those later.
I should have expected it, but the next person into the room was Alice Yamaguchi. Wonderful.
There are a dozen Changed at Peasley this year, but Alice is the only other one in 8th grade, and the prettiest of us all. She's actually Japanese (so her name is really Yamaguchi Arisu), but tall and golden and way ahead of the curves for a middle schooler, and she pushes the parts of the dress code about hemlines and necklines to the limit. When she came in with her short skirt and long fluffy foxtail swishing, I tried not to stare, but she was wearing stockings that were almost transparent except for white roses up the length of her legs, and her perfume smelled like roses and sunlight (instead of synthetic whale puke, like most perfume).
"Morning, Nelson," she said with a sideways emerald glance. How can she have eyes that big and green and still look Asian? "Decided to study?"
Foxgirls have the same enhanced senses as catgirls, so she couldn't not notice what I felt when she walked into a room, but she never smelled anything except cool and amused. No matter how much I wished she had a thing for undeveloped catgirls with unglamorous hair and baggy clothes, I didn't expect her too, but she never seemed to be attracted to anyone, even when she was flirting outrageously with them. Second-generation Changed aren't necessarily bi and super-hormonal, but I had never thought one could be ace!
Fortunately, the teacher came in and she turned her attention to him. "Good morning, Mr. Wilcox!" I swear, she batted her eyelashes at him. She does it all the time, and people respond by putting her in charge or giving her whatever she wants!
"Good morning, Yamaguchi. How's the cheerleading squad shaping up?" (Of course she's the captain of the cheerleaders.)
I tried to not pay attention to them, and mostly failed (shouldn't a foxgirl have a long pointy nose? But her flat, round-tipped nose is so cute!) until more students started coming in, including Pamela. "Pam!"
"Nef!" She dropped into the desk behind me and leaned forward to hug me. "Did you have a good weekend?"
"It was OK, I guess," I said, noncommittal, because Alice could probably smell my unhappiness about the horrible yesterday through a room full of kids. "You?"
"Nothing much." I could tell she was thinking about seeing Jonah almost naked, though, and Alice glanced over at us from under her dramatic eyebrows. "Did you do the homework for History?"
I had honestly meant to do the homework, after I was done having a pleasant Sunday around town with my friend and had all evening to work on it! I had my history book, since it was 1st period, but there was no way I could do the whole three pages in the fifteen minutes of homeroom. I had to try, though.
One of my Dad's weird old Dad songs has the line "Two outta three ain't bad", but I was pretty sure Ms. Bajoa wouldn't agree. At least when Alice handed back last week's homework (leaning close so I could see movement under her tight white shirt and smell her skin through the perfume, nyaaargh!) I had a 98, which might make up for it. "Good work, Nelson," Alice purred before she moved on to torment someone else.
I put my burning face down on my desk and suppressed my presence a little, just enough to make people pay more attention to Kenny Macdonald turning red.
Jonah is in my Algebra class, but I didn't get a chance to talk to him. I can do math if I concentrate on it, but not if I don't. Good thing Alice isn't in that class! But Pamela isn't either.
Last class of the morning is PE. The first week of school was all lectures about the human body (and Coach Mathieu emphasized the word "human", which was a bad sign), but by this week we were supposed to have PE uniforms. I actually did, since we went shopping on Saturday, so I was able to change with the other girls. When I tried to claim a locker in the middle of the row, though, a girl who wasn't in any of my other classes, Cathy something, asked if she could have it, and when I moved to the next one, Betsy Schumer wanted it so she could be next to her friend Tanya. It was hard to pick out scents in the stinky old locker room, so I was just realizing that Cathy and Betsy both smelled pretty hostile when Alice said from the far end of the room, "Give it up, Nelson. Those lockers are for humans."
"What?!" Of course I'd been discriminated against before, but I hadn't expected it to be so blatant, not at Peasley!
"It's not like that!" said Betsy. She looked to Cathy and the other girls for support. They all had her back. "We just don't want you perving at us when we change!"
"So you're not racist, you're just homophobic. And racist."
"We're realistic," insisted Betsy, less afraid and more angry. "You can't deny what you are!"
At least 3 of the girls backing her up were all afraid and not angry, and maybe still a little interested in the nakedness that was about to happen, but mad as I was, I wasn't going to out someone even if I could figure out which 3. I settled for saying, "There are twenty girls in this class besides me and Alice; if you think none of them aren't straight, you're probably failing math."
Making a stink with Coach Mathieu wouldn't get anywhere, I was sure. I could complain to Ms. Velazquez or Ms. Fisher, but that seemed like cheating. Nyaaargh! I went over and took one of the lockers around the corner of the L-shaped room, behind the showers.
Pamela came over and took the locker next to me, because she is wonderful. Betsy said, nastily, "I guess we know which team you play for," which was kind of dumb because she'd been in the same school as Pamela for years, but Pamela just shrugged. "You know what they say about homophobes and repression."
"Darn it, this locker is stuck. Here, hold this." Alice handed me a bundle of white fabric with a wisp of white lace on top so she could use both hands to struggle with the latch. I took it without thinking before realizing that it was her shirt and bra, and still without thinking looked over at her.
Of course some people said she padded her bra, but no, that figure was all her. The latch came loose with a jolt that rippled through– I made an embarrassing embarrassed noise and turned my head away so fast my neck crackled. It was far too late for anyone with a good sense of smell, of course. How pathetic did she think I was, right now?
I stayed focused on my feet while I changed my pants and shirt and shoes, but that didn't keep me from hearing the rustle of cloth right next to me. I could touch her skin just by reaching out...
Pamela is such a good friend that she only laughed when I put my sweatpants on inside-out.
Alice wore the running shorts variant of the PE uniform, of course, and her shorts were about two sizes too small, because she has hips too. Unlike Betsy and Cathy and the girls who were worried I'd want to look at them.The first thing that happened when we got out on the field was that Coach Mathieu yelled at me for having my claw sheaths (second-best, but still carbon fiber and not too heavy) instead of the official school ones. So I had to go back and get some horrible old metal ones that didn't fit right and made my hands look like some kind of robot monster. Then I got yelled at for delaying class, and automatically assigned to the opposite team from Pamela (and Alice, which is why I got put there) for flag football.
Of course I can run faster than any of the human girls, and as fast Alice despite her long legs, but I couldn't get hold of the flags at all with the robofingers, and Cathy and Betsy both complained that I hit them too hard and Mathieu upheld the foul. At least Alice didn't complain, although since she only has long sharp fingernails and not real claws, she didn't have to wear sheaths and didn't have any trouble getting the flag from anyone except me.
Then I got yelled at again for "unsporting behavior" because I ran faster than everyone else. Pamela didn't get yelled at, so maybe only running exactly as fast as her will keep me from getting in trouble, but I had the horrible feeling that only not being Changed would make Coach Mathieu happy. I managed to not hiss at her, this time.
I hadn't broken much of a sweat, so I didn't bother to take a shower before changing back, like most girls, but of course Alice took a shower right there where everyone could see. I felt like my skin was going to catch on fire, but I hardly looked at all. (No tan lines.)
Finally we made it to the cafeteria. Unlike my last school, everyone at Peasley eats at the same time, so lunch is loud and crowded, but I got to stand in line with Pamela. Who had just watched me make a fool of myself over someone I can tell isn't interested in me at all. I was so embarrassed I suppressed my presence without even thinking about it, and then wondered why Pamela wasn't talking to me. I figured it out before I had to wonder why the lunch lady wasn't giving me pizza, at least!
"Oh, there you are," said Pamela. "I saved your place in line."
Her mood seemed a bit off; had she figured out that she hadn't noticed me for some reason other than my not being there? I couldn't tell for sure, so I just said, "You're a good friend." It was true whether she was saving my spot or keeping my secret.
It was nice outside, so we took our trays of pizza and chicken sandwiches that way, but Jonah and Jacob intercepted us. "Hey, can we sit with you guys?"
"Um, OK? Outside?"
We were early enough to get a table in the courtyard, but it was the worst one, tucked in a corner where it was mostly shaded even at noon. Or maybe the best one, since it was a little away from the others.
Jacob smelled nervous and fidgety, but Jonah was more normal. He was still interested in Pamela, and her in him, so seeing each other naked couldn't have been too embarrassing. He leaned across the table. "How are you guys after, you know? Nefertari, are you in any more trouble?"
"No, my parents have a plan to take care of it. Everything should be OK soon."
Jonah was really cute when he smiled. "Oh good. Did you get in trouble with your parents? We're both grounded, since Mom doesn't think we can stay out of trouble."
"That's not fair," said Pamela. "Nothing that happened was your fault and I don't think anyone is going to hold it against you!" Meaning Mina Tauros wasn't holding a grudge against them.
"I know, but what can you do? At least we can still do stuff at home. We can even have people over, as long as they're under 6' tall."
Jacob was being weird, looking at me and then looking away, still nervous but hopeful too. I had a bad feeling about it, so finally I asked him, "What's the matter?"
"Um. Can we go talk over there?" He shrugged his arm in the direction of the bridge over the little stream that flowed through the courtyard.
The bad feeling got worse. Boys wanting to be alone with me was not something that ended well. We were in public, though, and he didn't seem hostile. Anyway, I was pretty sure I could take him, even with his bug-smelling tentacle hair.
Once we were a little ways away from everyone else, he took a deep breath and turned to face me. "Nefertari, would you like to, um, go out sometime?"
Oh, god. He was a 6th-grader! And kind of obnoxious. I didn't want to make an enemy, though, so I tried, "I thought you couldn't go out."
"But I can have guests over, as long as they aren't Mina Tauros in disguise. We could watch a movie in my room or something?" Now that he'd jumped off the cliff, he was determined.
"That's very sweet, Jacob, but no thank you. I think we should just be friends."
His scent fell. "You're friend-zoning me?!"
He was young, but he should know better than that! "Only because you girlfriend-zoned me first!"
"What? That's not even a thing!"
"It is, it's just so common people don't give it the right name! What's wrong with being friends, anyway?"
"I don't want to be your friend, I want to– I want to go out with you!"
"I know, you said that, but I just don't feel that way about you. You're only 11."
"We're both in middle school! It's not that big a difference! And it's not like you're–" He realized he was putting his foot into his mouth and shut up, but too late.
"I'm not tall and curvy, like Alice, so I should be grateful anyone wants me at all?!" Boys are butt-heads in so many ways! I stormed off (which is tricky when you can't stomp, but I didn't care) and almost ran over Erika Yamaguchi.
Erika is in 6th grade, so she's not tall and curvy either, and she doesn't even try to be glamorous like her sister. Or maybe she's differently glamorous, with her punky hair buzzed up to the top of one foxy ear and then swept over from right where the white streak was so it was white over gold. She's still taller than me, though, so I would have just bounced off. "Whoa, what's wrong with you?"
I tried to stop glaring. "Boys!"
She looked over at Jacob, who was looking at us with an expression so dismayed even I could read it, and made a face. "They really don't like hearing no, do they?"
Having someone even a little bit on my side took the wind out of my sails. "Nope. 'Friend-zone,' what a stupid idea."
Jacob must have overheard us, because he gave Erika a dirty look when she walked over the bridge past him. She flipped him off – right there, in the middle of school! – and kept walking, leaving him flabbergasted. Serves him right!
I started back toward Pamela and Jonah, and that's when my new phone rang. It was Ms. Fisher. "Nefertari, Terry and I need to go take care of something in the League's absence. We should be back by the time school's out; if not, I'll call you again. Don't worry, everything we talked about before is fine."
It wasn't like they could stop covering for the League while they were away, but I felt a lot less safe with no one able to beat Mina Tauros around, even if Ms. Fisher said she was successfully being lured to Chicago. "OK, Ms. Fisher. I hope everything goes well. Hurry back."
"I'll try." She hung up without saying goodbye, which was fine by me. The sooner she went, the sooner she'd get back.
I flopped down at the table and stared at my pizza, which didn't have that wonderful warm-tomato-cheese smell anymore. Stupid Jacob made everything worse!
"What was that about?" Pamela asked.
"Boys suck," I said. Jonah looked confused, but Pamela nodded understandingly.
"A lot of them do, yeah." She patted Jonah's hand. "Not all of them, though." I must have looked skeptical, because she laughed. "Maybe it's just that some are cute enough to put up with."
Jonah's scent darkened. "Did Jacob do something stupid again?"
"Yes, he used the word 'friend-zone'."
Back to confused. "That's stupid?"
"Yes!" Pamela and I said together. "Boys can start using it when we can start saying they girlfriend-zoned us," she added.
"But–" He was cut off by the bell for 4th period ringing, which must have given him a chance to think about what he was going to say, because he didn't say it.
The three of us had Language Arts together right after lunch, but Ms. Hamilton wanted us to work on summarizing news articles and then compare our work in small groups (I got Jonah but not Pamela in my group) to try to come up with the perfect summaries, so we didn't have any more chance to talk.
5th period is Science, which I have with Alice and Jonah but not Pamela. Of course Alice got to hold the light-up marble that represented the Sun when Ms English had people line up across the front of the room to show the planets' orbits to scale, but I don't think that was the heavenly body most of the class was looking at. It did make me think of the Vermillion Pupae, and how far they must have come just to push people around. At least the Gravekeepers were hunting ghouls, which most people agree is worth doing.
6th period, Computers. I didn't know anyone in the class very well, so I had to either pay attention to the lesson (tips for doing web searches, almost all of which I already know) or daydream and risk being called on. Still no call from Ms. Fisher.
Before 7th period, Daisy caught up with me in the hall. "Nefertari, have you heard from Bonnie? Usually she calls by now if she's going to be late."
"You can call me Nef. No, I haven't heard anything since lunch. I hope everything is OK."
"Me too. I'm worried about Posey. She'll freak out if there's no one to pick her up after school."
The elementary school was more than a mile away, so it would take a few minutes to get there, but Posey probably wouldn't accept me. The teachers wouldn't either. Maybe we could get one of the teachers to help us out? They worked for Ms. Fisher and Ms. Velazquez, at least kind of. "Let's meet back here after 7th period," I suggested. "Does Posey have a phone?" Daisy nodded. "So we can at least call and let her know what's going on if we have to improvise."
Daisy nodded again and ran off to class, but didn't look very happy. I wasn't very happy either, but I had class of my own.
You can get to the Art room by going through the halls, and I probably would later in the year when there were blizzards or sleet storms or whatever it is they have in Ohio, but from my locker, it's easiest to cut across the courtyard.
I was following Alice (not like that!) over the bridge when Mina Tauros crashed down right between us, concrete cracking under her hooves.
"Was that plan supposed to be clever, kitten?"
There was a lot of shrieking and shouting from the other students in the courtyard, but also a few comments like, "I wonder if I can get her autograph," and of course, "Wow, she's hot!"
This time I didn't freeze, but I didn't do much except gibber. She was supposed to be in Chicago!
She did the looming thing again. "If Mr. No One had anything worth being guarded, I would know about it and he would already be paying me to guard it."
I wasn't sure she was being completely honest there, although maybe she thought she was that smart. Maybe someone tipped her off? But who? While I was trying to figure that out, I was backing away from her, but she lashed out with one ridiculously long arm and grabbed Alice (who was also edging away) by the front of the shirt. "Don't make a run for it, or I'll pop your little girlfriend here like a zit."
Tauros never had a reputation for killing bystanders, but something about me, or just about Slink's kid, had her acting crazy. I wasn't willing to risk someone's life on it, anyway. "What do you want?"
"You're coming to Chicago with me, and we're going to have a little chat with your mama."
While she was talking, and holding Alice casually in the air, Tauros was turning slightly, so she ended up facing a little to the right of where I was standing. Maybe she really did have something wrong? Then Alice shot me a look that said, "Get a move on, Nelson" as clearly as the little voice in my ear. She had powers?! But I wasn't going to pass up an opening like the enemy not knowing where I was. I suppressed my presence and circled around to the left, discarding my claw sheaths on the way, to come up behind Tauros on the side where she was holding Alice. She didn't notice a thing until I leapt onto her arm and clawed at the inside of her wrist. It was like clawing into steel, and I barely got as far down as her tendons, never mind cutting them, but she bellowed and jerked her arm. Alice's shirt-front ripped free and she went flying, but I clung on, still slashing at her wrist.
Tauros yelled some really unrepeatable things about me and my mom, and grabbed me by the neck with her other hand. My heart just about stopped, certain that she was going to twist my head off, but instead she threw me after Alice, which turned out to be into the stream. It was only about 3' deep, so it should have cushioned my landing and not much more, but suddenly the water rushing under the bridge picked up speed and force, dragging me and Alice with it and over an edge that hadn't been there before.
I tried to take a deep breath and hold it, but the fall went on long enough that I might have yelled a little. I hit a watery surface, though, so though I went awfully deep and had a bunch more breath knocked out of me, I was able to swim back up to where there was air. It was pitch-black, so even I couldn't see. "Alice!" No answer. Oh crap. "Alice! ALICE!" Still nothing, and now my throat hurt from yelling after Mina Tauros had squeezed it.
I still had my purse! Even though I was only going between classrooms, I'd slung it across my body, and it had survived the fall and swimming. Most of what was in it was probably toast, including my new phone, but I did have a little LED flashlight that turned out to be waterproof. Above water, there was just a flat concrete ceiling, like the underside of the courtyard bridge (I guessed). The water was still flowing, but not rushing, and I could hear the cascade behind me fading out as the last of the water from the stream finished falling.
I tried putting the light underwater, but it didn't show much until I put my face underwater too. The water was surprisingly clear for something that had been filled with water weeds and mud, but that wasn't saying much. Alice had gone down ahead of me, so I tried paddling in the direction of the water. There! She was stuck underwater on some piece of piping or something hooked through the pieces of her shirt, waving in the current as it sped up toward a narrow channel.
I took a deep breath and dove, hoping I wouldn't get caught on any of the other bits of plumbing on the wall. A faucet did try to snag the cuff of my pants, but I wasn't unconscious, so it was easy to slip free. Once I got Alice off (leaving most of her shirt behind), she floated up without too much trouble. Girl curves were mostly fat, after all.
It took enough effort to keep us both above water that I couldn't keep us out of the channel, but the ceiling didn't come down or anything, so I just let us drift and squeezed Alice around the middle to get her to cough up water. She twitched a little, but nothing. Crap, crap! If we were on a solid surface, I could do CPR! But here, I couldn't do– I tried sticking a finger down her throat, which was gross, but when I touched the soft flesh at the back of her mouth, she suddenly bent double and vomited water and bits of cafeteria pizza, then coughed and gagged and choked up water and snot. (Is it still snot inside your lungs? Still gross, anyway!) She kept coughing and choking, but she was getting enough air to do it, which would have to be good enough for now.
The water flowed around a corner, and I thought there was light up ahead. I turned out the flashlight, and sure enough, there was a faint glow ahead. As we got closer, I saw that it was coming from a side channel that ran back for a ways and then was dimly lit from above. Alice didn't sound like she was dying of whooping cough any more, but wasn't in any shape to help me, so it was a little trick to get into the side channel, but once I got past the entrance, the water was pretty much still. There was more plumbing here, although from what I could see it didn't make any sense – pipes going in circles, three different valves all in a row, faucets pointing upward – so I was able to hold onto that with one hand and Alice with the other and get a bit of a rest. I like swimming, but I'd never practiced treading water for endurance.
"OMG." (She really said "Oh em gee".) "What the hell happened? Nelson?!" Even if I wasn't the person she wanted to be rescued by, she clung on with both arms. Her chest squished against mine, which was embarrassingly nice, but I could tell she was in cold water, which was just embarrassing.
"Alice! Are you OK? Did you hit your head?"
She raised one hand weakly to the top of her head. "Ow. Yeah. It was a long drop, so I tried to dive, but it was shallow. Where are we?"
"In Mina Tauros's maze. I think."
For such a teacher's pet, she knew a lot of cuss words. "People die in here!" More cussing. "And I wouldn't even be in here if you hadn't been staring at my butt!" (She didn't say "butt".)
It was true: I'd gotten an innocent bystander thrown into the labyrinth of death, and I'd gotten thrown in for the second time in about 24 hours, and X-Wave wasn't around to save us this time. A normal day of school should have been enough to recover, but it obviously hadn't been, because I started crying. Not just in front of Alice, but on her (bare) shoulder. I was a complete failure, and I was going to die, and I'd gotten Alice killed!
She should have pushed me away and tried to find her own way out – she couldn't have done worse than I'd been doing – but she held on to me and helped hold us onto the wall and didn't say anything. I was probably so embarrassing that she was speechless in the face of my uselessness.
The water wasn't super-cold, but neither of us was used to it and although I still have baby fat, it's not really a seal-like layer of insulating blubber, so pretty soon we started shivering, and that was enough for Alice. "Get a grip, Nelson. I appreciate the depths of your regret at getting me sucked into your weird supervillain feud, but let's not die of hypothermia."
Her tone was so dry that I almost laughed. "OK, OK. Can you climb on your own?"
"I should make you carry me." She didn't, though.
The channel dead-ended, or rather turned directly upward, and that's where the light was coming from. It looked like fluorescent lights, and when we got up the wall, it turned out to be a school corridor lined with lockers. Only every third or fourth light fixture was lit, but that was plenty for us to see by. Being able to see somehow didn't make it any less creepy. I tried to not pay attention to how Alice was wearing only a fairly skimpy bra above the waist.
Alice looked at the parallel rows of lockers running off to the vanishing point in both directions, only occasionally interrupted by gaps that might be classrooms or side corridors or drops into freezing water or anything. "Lovely place. Do you think there are monsters?"
"There weren't last time, although after I got hungry and thirsty enough, I was kind of hoping."
"You've been in here before?! How did you get out?"
"X-Wave got us out. But we were almost out already when they showed up. J–" I probably shouldn't talk about other people being involved without their OK "–we followed the wiring for the lights!" Here, the boxes of fluorescent tubes were mounted on acoustic tile, just like in the real school. I jumped up and knocked one of the tiles up into the drop ceiling, which only had about 8" of space between tile and concrete. There were wiring conduits, but I had to admit, "I'm not sure how to check which side is upstream and which downstream."
"Can't you just cut the wires with those murder talons of yours?"
Alice's own claws were pretty much just very long and fairly thick fingernails that came to points, not arched cat claws like mine, but they would still have done a fine job on the thin metal of the lighting fixtures, so that was kind of rude. It was my fault that we were here, though, so although my tail lashed, I didn't snap back. "That would leave anyone else in here stuck in the dark, with no way to find the way out." Just thinking about it made me shudder; I really wasn't over being stuck in here before.
Alice looked ill, and not just because her bare skin was pale with cold. "You think there are other people in here?"
"No idea. I didn't see anyone except us get thrown in just now, but people can be stuck in here for... I guess forever, although about three days after they run out of water, they probably stop caring about the dark. Less for us."
"Unless things move around, we have water. Food could be a problem. I had some energy bars in my purse, but I don't want to go back looking for it."
I poured the water out of my purse. After last time, I had a bottle of water and a bunch of energy bars, but split between two ravenous Changed stomachs (Alice's belly button was so cute) they wouldn't last more than a couple of days, and it would have taken longer than that to get out by the right-hand rule. I should have brought one of those foil emergency blankets, but I hadn't expected cold water.
We were both still shivering as we slowly dried by evaporation, which was ridiculous. Alice had already seen everything I didn't have in the locker room, so I peeled off my soggy shirt and pants and wrung them out, mopped myself off, and wrung them out again. She did the same with her skirt and the cheerleader shorts she had on under them (her underpants were the same Peasley navy blue as the skirt, not that I was looking). "Do you want to borrow my shirt?"
"Maybe after I'm dry. It's still your fault I'm in here."
I shriveled up, but at least I didn't start crying again. "That's fair." Then I had a sudden terrible or else wonderful thought. "Wait, should we be trying to get out the way we got in? Last time I got knocked out and woke up somewhere inside, but this time I know where we came in. I didn't get a chance to see if there was a way to climb back up, though."
"OK, but let's dry off and warm up before we try to give ourselves hypothermia again."
We spent some time walking around, as far as the first side passage in each direction (one was on our side and went down to water, the other was on the other side and had more lockers going off to infinity), did some cartwheels and backflips to warm up even more (Alice arching her slender body way backward to do a back walkover raised my temperature plenty), ate an energy bar each, and finally decided we couldn't put off going back into the water any more. We bundled up our clothes and stuff to carry, instead of trying to swim in them– and the lights went out.
After a moment, Alice said, "What does that mean?"
"I don't know! It didn't happen last time! Maybe someone is trying to follow the lights out and did cut the wires?" I got out my flashlight again, because being in the dark was way too creepy. "But we can't follow the lights out, so it really is back into the water."
We climbed back down, into the water which felt even colder this time, and swam back out and upstream. It would have been really hard with wet clothes dragging us down, but in what I could pretend were bikinis, we were able to get back to the room where I had rescued Alice. There was no opening anywhere in the ceiling that we were able to find, though. There had to have been one before, but although we searched as thoroughly as we could with my tiny light and the water sucking our body heat away, we couldn't find even a suspicious crack in the concrete. Shivering and blue, we dragged ourselves back to the hallway of lockers, where we tried to dry off again and ended up just huddling together in the middle of the hall, in the dark (to save on batteries). It should have been wonderful, me and Alice and hardly any clothes, but it was miserable for a long time.
Eventually, though, we got warm enough that my skin could feel the warmth of Alice's body, and then I was running a fever again. I was sure she was going to shove me out of her lap, because she still didn't smell interested, only worried and a little content, but she didn't. Did that mean she liked the snuggling? I thought about kissing her, but when I turned around, my arm rubbed against her chest, which was very nice, but maybe too much, because then she did push me away. "Nelson, we need to find a way out of here."
My burning skin switched from excitement to embarrassment at being rejected, but I couldn't say she was wrong. And she hadn't said to get my disgusting pudgy curveless body away from her! Too bad I'd been thinking about how soft her skin was, and how nice she smelled even after two dips in the water had washed away all her perfume, instead of how to get out.
"Well, there's always the right-hand rule. Or left-hand."
"What, always turn the same direction?"
"Kind of. Pick one wall and follow it, no matter how it turns. We have to mark where we've been so that we can tell if we've gotten caught in a loop, but that's easy. It takes a long time, but it's guaranteed to explore the whole maze as long as you switch to an unmarked wall each time you find a loop."
"Does that really work?" She thought about it. "I guess it would. OK, let's try it. Can we have some light to get dressed?"
I used some more of the precious electricity, and we put our clothes back on (she did take my shirt, even though she looks way better in just her bra than I do) and I carved "NEF + ALICE STARTED HERE" in a locker. Then I felt like an idiot for not checking earlier, but after I tore open half a dozen lockers and they were all empty, not so much.
Almost immediately we found the flaw in my plan, which was the next opening onto a drop with water at the bottom. Climbing down would have been easy, but we'd both had enough swimming for a while, and getting cold and wet just wasted time and food. I marked it "WATER NOT CHK'D" and we skipped over it. Eventually we might have to come back and check those, but no matter how much I wanted to see more Lingerie Alice, I wanted to put that off as long as possible.
Neither of us could remember whether LEDs were one of those things that wore out from being switched on and off, but a flashlight was supposed to last longer than one battery, so I only used it at corners. The rest of the time, we navigated by my left hand on the row of endless lockers and Alice holding onto my right hand. Semi-naked lap-sitting aside, I was still too shy to talk to her about anything that wasn't immediate and practical, and holding hands wasn't actually helping, so for a long time we walked in silence that was still infinitely better than being alone in here.
The maze this time was different, longer between intersections, but it seemed like fewer turns until the first time we found a dead end. It wasn't a real dead end, though, but a drop into water, so maybe it didn't count. When I mentioned this, Alice asked what the maze had been like the first time, and I ended up telling the whole embarrassing story. I tried not to implicate Pamela, Jonah, and Jacob, but toward the end I slipped up and Alice figured it out. Sorry, guys!
"Is it true that Jonah asked you out after seeing you naked?"
"No one saw me naked! Entirely. But it was Jacob who asked me out. I turned him down, because he's kind of a doofus, and only in 6th grade."
"He probably hoped that by the time he got buff like Jonah, you'd look more like your mom." Wait, did she actually smell attracted?!
"Oh my god, you're a Slink fangirl?!"
"Your mom is Slink?!"
Oh, crap. "You didn't know?"
"I just saw her when she was at the school filling out your paperwork or whatever. She's gorgeous." The scent was gone now, but it took a little longer for Alice to get her excitedly-swishing tail under control. If she could control what she smelled like, then maybe she wasn't as immune to flirting as I thought! I thought about kissing her to see how she reacted, but she wouldn't be interested in me (you just had to compare my silhouette to hers, or my mom's, to see that) and even if she were, the horrible school carpeting was not where I wanted to make out with anyone. Maybe when we escaped, she'd be so happy that– "Earth to Nelson. Don't space out now."
My face was burning again. "Sorry." But if I did start looking more like the infamously sexy Slink when the Puberty Fairy paid me a visit, maybe Alice would think about me a little differently? With my luck, though, I'd take after my dad's side of the family in build as well as height and end up a stick figure girl, too short even for modeling.
Our family doctor was a mad scientist who lived in an underground base accessible by parking garage elevators in at least two different states. Maybe she could help make sure the right side of my genetics came out, although she might not want to interfere with the process she was studying (2nd-generation Changed growth and development). Could I get Mom to bribe her with kisses? Dr. Kaguya (not actually from the Moon, possibly not a licensed MD) totally had a thing for Mom.
It was quiet, but we were so used to the silence of the maze that we both shrieked and jumped, and then I flinched as a green flame blazed right in my face!
Alice had fire powers?! I thought she was an illusionist!
"What the heck was that?!" (She didn't say "heck", or even "hell".)
There wasn't anything except locker-filled maze visible in the green light of the flame floating over Alice's head. It should have been crisping her hair, so maybe it was an illusion, just a hologram-style one instead of a mental effect. Why had we been wasting batteries when she could do this all along?!
It was coming from my purse! I dug through it, and came up with the new phone Ms. Fisher had given me. It was still working, or maybe working again after it dried out! Not that it was getting any bars or even a mesh connection, but it was complaining about hazardous levels of emanation, like it would have near the Pit.
Alice let the flame die and peered at the glowing screen. "No surprise it's weird in here. Good thing we're both Changed."
"Too bad, I was hoping it would tell us something useful."
"At least it's another source of light when the flashlight runs out."
"What do we need lights for? You can make green fire!"
She looked embarrassed, which was a first. "Not for very long. It's pretty tiring. Sometimes it causes hallucinations, too."
"Oh. Still, that's pretty cool. We'll just save it for emergencies, I guess."
I went to turn off my phone, to save the battery, but didn't. "I wonder how many corners a mesh connection could reach around? If there's someone else in here with a phone..."
She shrugged, barely visible in the dim light. "Then we could all be trapped together, sure."
According to the phone, we'd already been in here 5 hours. I wondered how long that was outside. I would have sworn I'd been in for more than a day the first time, when it was only 4 hours outside, but it would be stranger if being alone in a nearly-featureless maze didn't mess with my head. I took Alice's hand again, so glad to not be alone this time.
I thought that was the end of the excitement with the phone, but about an hour later, it stopped beeping. At first I thought it had run down, but no, it was fine. It just wasn't sensing hazardous emanations anymore, though it had been for 56 minutes. We tried backtracking, but after going several times as long as the time since it stopped, there was still no beep.
"Nyaaargh! What is going on with this stupid thing?"
Alice asked, practically, "Is this getting us out?"
"I don't know! It's weird, so maybe it means something that will help us, but I don't know what! Did something emanating pass by us? We didn't hear or smell anyone! Or did something happen to the whole maze?" I resisted the urge to throw the phone on the floor, although it was hard.
"The maze can move, right? Mina Tauros has been all over the world since the 70s, but you found Lady Blaze and Black Diana in here, so it has to be the same maze. Maybe she went somewhere with emanations. She said she was going to take you to Chicago and use you against Slink."
Chicago was still a city, unlike Columbus, but it did have two Pits next to it. "You think that was the Gary Pit, or the other one, leaking in?"
"Or the Scar near Cincinnati."
That made sense, actually. The emanations from the Pits and other creepy stuff probably leaked into the 4th dimension, which had to be where we were because X-Wave could get there. But we'd only been in here (according to the phone) about 4 hours, which meant less than that outside, and Chicago was 5 or 6 hours away. Unless Tauros flew, or had a mad science motorcycle, or something. Or the time difference changed. "That's a really good idea, but I don't know how to tell if it's right. Or if it helps us."
She preened a little, puffing out her chest (which looked extra-dramatic in the shadowy light of the phone). "And it would explain why the lights are out: there's no outside source of power in her car or helicopter or whatever. If the maze is even connected to the outside world when she's travelling."
"So when the lights come on, she's arrived!"
Alice nodded. "And then she'll get us out." She made a face. "Not that we did great against her before."
"It might go better if we ambush her. And probably my mom will be there. Maybe my dad too." Alice's hormones perked up a tiny bit when I mentioned Slink, but died back down when I reminded her that she's married, in addition to being literally old enough to be her mother! "And hopefully some of the League. But maybe Mr. No One instead."
"That would kind of suck. But if I'm right that the maze is closed, there's no point in wandering around. There's no way out until the lights come back on. We just need to camp out near water and wait."
"And hope it's not so long that we starve."
"If the lights come on, we start searching again if she doesn't come get us immediately."
She was still making sense, but I didn't like the idea of sitting in the dark and waiting for the enemy to make a move. "Last time, the way out was at the top. I'd like to get as near as we can, in case she opens the maze but doesn't get us right away."
"Are you sure there's nothing in here with us? I don't want to stumble into I don't even know what in the dark, I'd rather hole up in a dead end that we can defend."
"Last time, the only living things I found were other people she'd thrown in with me."
"Did she thrown anyone in this time?"
"I didn't hear anyone splash down when she washed us in with the stream, but there might have been people from before, when she was breaking into the school, or after, when she was leaving."
She made a face again (which was actually pretty cute). "OK, but you better be right about this."
"I have twice as much maze experience as you!"
"And a million times less than Mina Tauros." She took my hand, though, ready to resume exploring.
This time, we talked as we walked through the darkness. First we tried to figure out where we could have been that triggered my phone. I didn't think I'd been inside 10 times as long as the 4 hours outside; after 40 hours without water, I'd be wrecked, not just really thirsty. So, call it 5 times, which meant we were at about an hour. If Tauros jumped right back out of the school and into a fast car, she could have just barely made it to Cincinnati, where there was a giant crater that was a refugee camp before the Gravekeepers burned it to lava. If she had to mess around finding transportation, it might have been the Columbus Pit on her way out of town. There was no way it was the Gary or Joliet Pits; we had a full day (more or less) before she could get there driving at a normal speed.
When we ran out of the tiny bit of planning we could do, Alice asked for Slink stories. I mostly trusted her, but I didn't want to implicate my mom in any felonies, so a lot of the stories were the kind that she probably actually wanted to hear, about all the people Slink ran around with before she got married. I also told her some of what my mom did against the Vermillion Pupae, which probably just fed her crush. Sneaking onto a space pirate ship to scout out their weaknesses is actually pretty awesome, although I was worried sick at the time.
At what the phone said was 11 PM, we decided to call it a night and made camp as much as we could in the next dead end we found. The halls of the maze were just as wide as the ones at school, so it wasn't really defensible, but it made us feel better to think that monsters could only come from one direction.
The temperature was pretty normal, maybe 70 or 75°, but when Alice lay down on her side, I gathered up all my courage and snuggled against her front like the little spoon, and she didn't push me away! In that dark maze, though, even with a plan, I would probably have snuggled up with anyone, even a boy, just to be less alone.
* * *
Something woke me up sometime later, but I wasn't sure what. I lay still, trying not to notice Alice's chest squished against my back or her hand draped on my belly.
I fished the phone out of my purse with one hand, moving as little as possible so that I wouldn't wake Alice and make her let go. It said 4 AM, which I eventually figured out was 14 hours after we entered the maze, or 3 hours (more or less) outside. If the first beep was Columbus Pit, this could be Cincinnati Scar. More than 10 hours ago, 2 outside, so she wasn't making great time, but maybe she was keeping a low profile. Why was she going to Cincinnati anyway? The best route to Chicago would be I-70 through Dayton to Indianapolis, not I-71 to I-74. Maybe she was picking up more people who wanted to see Slink get her comeuppance, maybe she wanted to eat at her favorite taco joint before her hour of triumph, who knew? I hugged Alice's arm to my chest, wishing it was more like Mom's, and went back to sleep.
* * *
beep beep beep ... beep beep beep
The phone was still in my hand, so I only had to move one finger to see what the new problem was. Really high levels of emanations, enough to worry even Changed. This particular Changed was still fuzzy enough that it took a minute to realize I should be doing something, but before I managed to get moving, I smelled it.
It was dirt and mushrooms and the stuff at the back of the fridge that you hold your breath while throwing out, something that I could only barely smell but that scraped at the inside of my nose, and under all that, something like an unwashed Changed, but male. It was the last part that made my heart speed up, and not in a good way. Alice's body stiffened against my back, and I know she smelled it too. I was ready to spring into action, but I didn't know what to do, so I just lay there, trying to suppress both our presences and getting more and more scared. I did think to turn off the phone so its glow wouldn't give us away, even though that left us in complete darkness.
No, not complete: there was a faint bluish or purple light coming from the side passage about 100' down, and getting brighter. Or maybe that was just my eyes adapting? No, it was definitely brighter, and I heard padded footsteps on the stiff carpeting, and then raspy breathing.
Both our hearts were pounding with the urge to run away, but of course we couldn't because there was a wall there. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
The light came around the corner, and it was just as bad as I feared.
The wavery indigo light (not underwatery, more like under poison or inside a nuclear reactor) was coming from the eye of a gray-white creature bigger than a person but hunched way over until it was no taller than my dad. Its face was a little dog-like, with muzzle and hanging jowls, but its teeth showed in an irregular row like a crocodile's, and it was crusted with what I could tell even from there was dried blood. One eye was a black pit, but the other had glowing spiky crystals growing out of it. Gray-black hair or lichen or something hung all down its front, hiding things I really didn't want to see, and from its spindly arms and backward legs with digitigrade feet horribly like mine. Its hands were more like dog paws, but good enough that it could carry a polished black walking stick with a silver bird-head handle.
The ghoul stood there in the middle of the fake school hallway, staring at us and smelling horrible and hungry and– I didn't even want to think about it. I would rather have died than let it touch me like that, and I know Alice felt the same way.
It knew it too, I could tell, and liked it. It stood up a little straighter, so the moss wasn't covering everything any more (not ewww, more like oh god please no), and said, like talking to itself, "Pibluumagug". Or something like that, gibbering with chirps and hoots mixed in, and too clearly language for something so inhuman.
There was no point hoping it wouldn't see us, so I stood up and shifted to one side of the hall, claws ready and tail lashing with hatred. Alice went the other way, so whoever it went for first, the other could jump it from behind.
The hall filled with fire so bright I could barely tell it was green. The ghoul let out a hissing shriek, something I couldn't see in the brightness whished past my head, and the fire vanished with a loud crack and a squeal of pain. I was already charging, and although I could barely see through my watering eyes, the ghoul was even worse off. It blocked my first strike with an arm that felt like hard rubber over a steel bar, but my other hand got past to tear at its face. It was totally luck, but I hit the eye crystals, and although I didn't yank them out of its head, I felt them crack and splinter and shift.
The ghoul howled and slammed me right in the chest with one paw so hard I felt even my ribs crack and I went flying back toward Alice. I landed on my side, so I was able to get up just in time for the ghoul to kick me in the face. It was obviously still mostly blind, though, and just caught my ear. I grabbed its raised leg with one hand and pivoted in to disembowel it with the other. The skin of its belly slipped disgustingly and tangled my claws, but I dragged down with all my strength, raking over something like nails driven into its stomach and then to something hard and horrible that sprayed blood when I gouged it. Another howl, and the ghoul was running! I leapt after it, but stopped at the corner because even in full fighting mode, I wasn't going to chase a ghoul into a dark labyrinth.
There was a groan from behind me, and I whirled, heart pounding even harder, but it was just Alice. And blood! I rushed over to her, but she was already sitting up, holding her cheekbone. There wasn't much blood, just a trickle from under her hand. Her voice sounded OK when she cussed, so probably she wasn't concussed (ha ha). "What is with me and getting knocked out in here?"
"I got knocked out before I even made it in here the first time, so I think it's just what happens here. Are you OK?"
"I think so." She rubbed the back of her head which had probably hit the wall. "I didn't expect it to throw the cane! What about you?"
"I'm fi–ow." I was not fine, now that I was done freaking out and could feel the stab every time I took a breath. It didn't seem to be a real stab, though; I was pretty sure a broken rib flailing around inside my chest would hurt a lot more, and I'd probably be coughing blood or something. Right? "I'm OK, just sore." I offered her a hand up, which hurt more but I tried not to show it.
"Thanks." She was already letting go of the wound, which really wasn't that bad, although if we had an emergency room, I'd be taking her to get a stitch or two. Luckily, the Changed don't usually scar much. "Do you think it will come back?"
"I don't know, but we should probably move just in case." I looked at the cane lying in the corner. It would make a good weapon for Alice, who didn't have my claws.
"No, leave it. I don't want it hunting us down to get its cane back."
We gathered up our stuff and moved on. Following the left-hand rule would have taken us down the hallway the ghoul had taken, so we marked it "DIDN'T CHK - GHOUL!!!" and skipped it like we had the water ones. If we ended up back here sometime in the future, maybe we'd try it.
I couldn't decide whether to save batteries or keep the light on, but when we both jumped a foot in the air at the sound of a water droplet falling into dark channels, I decided to keep it on. I also left the phone on to give us warning. Even with all the apps except the emanation monitor closed, it probably wouldn't last as long as the flashlight, but it seemed to have pretty good battery life. I'd have to give Ironstar extra hugs when we got out of here.
After a while we calmed down enough to not just stare twitchily in every direction. "That scream was pretty terrifying," Alice said.
"What, the ghoul? I did claw up its eye crystal thing."
"No, you. You just screamed and charged it, no hesitation."
I'd been screaming? I didn't remember doing that at all, but if I was screaming, I must have been breathing, which was good. "My mom taught me that, I guess. If you have to fight, don't give the enemy time to plan or prepare."
"Everyone knows that, but you really did it." She squeezed my hand. "You saved us." Then she dropped it. "From the monster you said wasn't even in here!"
"There wasn't one last time! It's not like I'm an expert! Ow." I used my free arm to hug my rib. "Maybe she put it in here specially to annoy us."
Alice shuddered. "It wanted to do a lot more than annoy us."
"Yeah." I sighed. "Well, this time there was the screaming and blood, but I think I was already going to have to move to another state."
"This time? Oh!" Her beautiful green eyes got wide. She didn't say anything more, though, and after a minute she took my hand again. Did she have something like that in her past too? Probably most Changed did, at least 2nd-generation ones who started off small and vulnerable. Not that guys weren't terrible to human girls too, and they weren't as good at defending themselves. If I hadn't had claw sheaths that popped right off– It wasn't helping anything to think about that day. I needed to focus on getting us out of here, somehow.
We hadn't really had enough sleep, so after another hour or so we were getting tired again, but neither of us wanted to be asleep if the ghoul came back. We thought about tearing some of the lockers off the wall to make a barricade, but it seemed like a lot of work. Maybe when we got more tired.
At about 6 AM, Labyrinth Time, we came back to where we started the left-hand rule. "Ugh," said Alice. "Do we switch to the other wall now? Or do we have to start swimming?" She didn't mention the one passage we hadn't taken, and I didn't want to think about it, but I had to.
"Or we follow the ghoul. Maybe it knew the way out, or the way that will be out. It got in somehow."
"I really don't want to run into that thing again."
"We beat it once. I bet I could have killed it if you hadn't blinded me too."
She blushed, and even smelled embarrassed. "Sorry about that. I didn't want to give it any warning, and I thought you'd be able to handle the light better."
"You were right! But we should have a code word."
"OK, how about 'parsnip'? It's not something I'm going to talk about any other time."
"You don't like parsnips? They're pretty much like carrots, only different."
She made an exaggerated gagging face. "They're all white and squooshy! Like zombie carrots!"
"No way, put some butter and salt on them and they're great!"
"Still gross! It's your love of disgusting vegetables that's brought the curse of the labyrinth on you, you know."
"Hating them hasn't saved you! But really, you should come over and try them the way my dad–"
The lights came on.
Alice made an adorable squeak and we both covered our eyes until we could see again. "Quick, try to find which way to go!" she said, and laced her hands together to boost me up to the lights.
I hopped up on her shoulders (why was the one with the short skirt not on top?) and got rid of one of the acoustic tiles, but before I could do anything with the wires, the lights went out again. Alice cussed, and I was tempted to join her. "We must not be anywhere yet. Maybe she just opened the maze to put another ghoul in."
"Or a cop who stopped her for speeding. 16 hours here is about 3 outside, so she'd be halfway to Chicago, or a little past Cincinnati." She patted my leg until I jumped back down. I hadn't thought to turn off the flashlight, so it wasn't as dark as it could have been, but darkness that could have a ghoul in it is extra-creepy.
We had some water and another energy bar each before setting off along the opposite wall. Just like last time, we found something within an hour of switching directions, although this time it was a shaft going up, not a staircase. It was just like one of the water openings, except up instead of down, and until we shone the light up the there, I half-expected to see upside-down water hanging over us. It was more acoustic tile, though.
I had no idea if the ghoul had stayed downstairs or was already ahead of us on the way to the top, and it probably wouldn't stay where it was anyway, so all I could do was carve "BEWARE GHOUL!!" at the bottom and top of the shaft and hope anyone Tauros had thrown in would find the warning before finding the ghoul. Or ghouls.
The new level was pretty much the same, but it seemed like it was shorter between intersections, and it only took another three hours to find the next shaft. There was no sign or smell of any ghouls, so by the end of it we were starting to fall asleep again. The smell of gasoline woke us right up, though!
The 4th level (counting the water as the 1st) of the maze had cramped round metal hallways that stank of gasoline. There didn't seem to be any liquid gasoline, or enough fumes to be flammable or really toxic, so we went ahead and climbed up.
I tapped the wall, which rang like it was an inch thick. "The maze is made from copies of what was around when it was opened, but what the heck is this?"
"I think it's storage tanks from a gas station. Good thing she didn't bring the gasoline with them!"
I imagined a flood of gasoline pouring through the lower halls, soaking into the carpet and just waiting for a spark to incinerate everything. Yikes. Not that I'd mind if it happened to any ghouls, though!
"Is this new?" Alice wondered. "Maybe some poor gas station clerk overcharged Mina Tauros for soda and she opened the maze to throw them in so it copied the underground tanks."
"Before, I would have said we should yell into each side tunnel, but now we know not everything in here is friendly. But a human would have a better chance with us."
Alice rubbed her cheek, which was scabbing over but still looked pretty awful. (She'd gotten hurt helping me defeat a ghoul, though, so I didn't think it made her any less beautiful.) "Would Mina Tauros have opened the maze and not thrown anyone in?"
"I don't know! Maybe she was getting someone back out. Maybe she uses it like a purse. Maybe she just has to open it every few hours because her brain gets tired holding it closed. But it seems likely, I guess?"
"Let's yell, then. We have a plan in case it attracts the ghoul."
The curve of the tunnel was high enough for Alice to walk comfortably down the middle, so I had no trouble at all. I didn't want to risk sparks by clawing the walls, though, so we made do with a marker from Alice's purse, and only marked the way we were turning at intersections to save ink. Every time we passed a tunnel we didn't take, we yelled down it, "Hello! Any non-ghouls here?" Our voices echoed weirdly down the metal tubes, but we never got any reply back. Eventually Alice switched to yelling silly things like, "Olly olly oxen free!" or "Half-naked nubile catgirl for sale, cheap!" (we were getting pretty sleepy, but the storage-tank tunnels were too hard and smelly to nap in), but it didn't make a difference.
We were so sleepy we didn't even spot the way up until we were past it and looking back to see if anything was following us. We'd been looking for more shafts like the ones that had gotten us this far, but it was a hatch just big enough for one person, with a complicated locking mechanism that didn't matter because it had a big yellow lever to let out anyone who got trapped in the storage tank by accident.
"Let's hear it for safety standards," Alice said, and giggled. Between lack of sleep and the gas fumes, we were both pretty goofy. It's a good thing the ghoul didn't catch up with us then.
The next level up was back to concrete and industrial carpeting, but narrow and lined with prefab wire shelves. Weirdly, there were cardboard boxes on the shelves, some of them with logos and labels for things like paper towels and "processed meat snacks", but all the boxes were empty. The energy bars were long gone, so we would have eaten the processed meat snacks even though they sounded terrible, but Tauros either couldn't or wouldn't copy anything useful into her maze, even when it was cloned from a gas station storage closet. Maybe that's why she didn't just live in here.
We were pretty sure we were getting close to where an exit would be, but we were so wiped out that more searching was just too much. We made blockades from shelving units tangled together and piled up (loud, but they'd be equally loud to dismantle), curled up together on the stinky carpet, and were out like lights before I could think anything about Alice's body except "warm".
* * *
Light? I blinked and saw that the flickery fluorescents were on. "Lights! On!" I leapt up at the same time Alice did and our heads clonked together. "Ow!"
Alice boosted me up to the light fixture again (all the shelves had been piled into our deliberately unstable barricades), and I tore through the acoustic tile and sheet metal with my claws. The wiring was just twisted together and covered with electrical tape, so with a little care I was able to get one junction untwisted without shocking myself. Our light went out, along with the ones to the right, but the ones to the left stayed on, which if I understood Jonah's idea meant that left was closer to the source of power. "YEAH!" I twisted the wires back together with the electrical tape (messy but who cared?) and jumped down. "This way!"
While Alice worked on dismantling the barricade, I checked the phone. We'd been in the maze for almost exactly 24 hours, which we guessed was 5ish outside. Driving fast, that was enough time to make it to Chicago, although maybe not to find Slink.
We got the barricade down and "PWR FROM -->" carved into the wall, and then the lights went out again.
Alice put her arms around me, all warm and cushiony in the right spots and still somehow smelling wonderful. "We're definitely getting closer. Us to the exit, I mean. And Mina Tauros to Chicago, too. Another few hours and something will happen. We just have to be prepared."
I leaned into her embrace and put my arms around her waist. I was frustrated and hungry and thirsty, but I would have been glad to let her distract me from all that. "I know, I know."
She must have smelled what I was thinking, because she let go. "Come on, let's keep searching. At least we know which direction to go."
It was only a few minutes after that that we heard an answer to our yells.
At first, all we could tell that someone was yelling, but we took off running (and yelling), but pretty soon we could make out a woman's voice calling, "I'm over here!" Alice swung around a corner, with me and my stubby legs right behind, and ran right into another girl's arms. They both shrieked and clung to each other to stay upright, and then I caught them both around the middle.
The person we'd found was college-age, maybe a couple of years older than Chathi, with short curly dark hair and a pudgy figure in a horrible yellow polyester polo shirt. She smelled of relief over hours of fear and freaking out, which made perfect sense, especially since she smelled like a normal human. Some nervousness came back when she realized we were both Changed, and then delight when she realized her arms were full of Alice. All perfectly normal reactions, but that doesn't mean I liked them.
"Hi, I'm Nefertari, this is Alice! I'm glad you're not a ghoul!"
"I'm Lou, Louise Abbot. Wait, there are ghouls in here?!"
"There was one, but we chased it off," Alice said. "I don't think it will mess with us again. How did you end up in here?"
"Mina Tauros, of course. She came in and said she was never here, but I couldn't resist sneaking my phone out, because the guys were never going to believe, and she noticed, so she picked me up by the front of my shirt and threw me into the stockroom, and I ended up here." She pulled a phone out of her jeans pocket. "I still have the video, but unless we can get out, it's not going to do me any good."
Lou apparently liked strong women, or maybe women with horns, or maybe just supervillains. I hoped she wasn't going to sell us out to Tauros when we tried to escape. I also hoped she was going to let go of Alice, but that didn't seem to be happening. OK, she had thought she was alone in here and didn't have claws or anything, but how clingy did she have to be?
"So what's your guys's story? Why don't you have a shirt?"
"Nelson here got me mixed up in some feud her parents have with Mina Tauros, so it's only fair she loaned me her shirt."
Since it was only girls, I admitted, "Last time I was in here, I was butt-naked, so this isn't so bad."
Lou raised her eyebrows, which were kind of thick but not bad. She seemed Mediterranean, maybe, but her accent was completely Ohio. Actually, she was kind of cute, although nothing to compare to Alice. (To be fair, I would have had to see her in her underwear too.) "How did you manage that at your age?"
"Not like that! She took all my stuff, including my clothes, before she threw me in here. Something to do with her grudge against my mom."
I got a sudden whiff of something like hunting instinct. Had Lou figured out who my mom was? Oh well, we were going to have to go underground again anyway. "If you were in here before, you must have gotten out."
"X-Wave saved us that time. But I think we could have gotten out by tracing the lights. These ones haven't been on enough for that to work, we're mostly waiting for her to settle down somewhere."
"The lights get power from outside? Why are there lights in here anyway?"
"I think it's because the maze is made out of copies of what's around, and most inside places have lights. We think the next level down is made from the gasoline storage tanks, and it doesn't have lights. 3 levels below that, it's concrete water channels and tanks, with no lights again. I wonder if the levels in between don't have working lights any more because there isn't any wiring in the storage tank level?"
"I'm not going back down to find out," Alice said dryly.
"No! And I hope ghouls don't like gasoline!" I shone the light around for Lou's benefit. "I'm not sure where to go from here. Back to where we slept and try following the left-hand rule?"
"We might as well start from here," Alice said. "We went in the direction that we thought the power was from, and that's all we knew, so does it make a difference?"
"I guess not." I pushed one of the shelving units out of the way and scratched our names into the wall with an arrow, and we started walking.
"What's the left-hand rule?" Lou asked, so we had to explain, and I told an even more evasive version of my last labyrinth adventure, without mentioning who my mom is or that she slept with Mina Tauros (ewww) and then threw her naked off a building, or exactly who was in there with me and what they looked like naked. I definitely remembered that last part, though, and I could tell Alice would have made fun of me if she wasn't helping me keep my secrets. I was glad she was still on my side, even if she seemed to like holding Lou's hand. (Lou definitely liked holding her hand until she found out we were both in 8th grade, not high school and elementary like she first guessed. Hah.)
Then Lou told us her story, which was mostly a case of wrong place and wrong time. She was a student at University of Chicago, but their semester hadn't started yet, so she was still working at her cousin's gas station on I-65 near Lafayette (I wasn't sure exactly where Lafayette is, but it didn't really matter). She was majoring in journalism and minoring in 20th-century, which was cool. Her roommate, who I could tell she had a huge crush on, was majoring in xenology, which was kind of scary: alien artifacts drive humans crazy as much as sorcery does (if there's even a real difference; some of what the Vermillion Pupae did looked like machines and some looked like sorcery or fairytale magic, and the Gravekeeper artifacts we had didn't make any more sense). We got to hear all about Trinity the non-binary clotheshorse genius and their beautiful brown skin and their brilliant theories about synthetic space-time, which made no sense to me but the way Lou smelled talking about them made me glad I was wearing clothes.
The lights went on again, and Alice and I leapt into action! Before I could start opening the light fixture, though, the ceiling and part of the wall crumbled away to nothing and a huge concrete pipe took their place. It slid forward and down at an angle like the mouth of a giant worm trying to eat us.
Alice ducked out from under my feet, tackling Lou out of the pipe's way. I landed fine, but had to roll out the other side to get away in time. The pipe was probably 10' wide, so it blocked the whole hallway, but it was moving so fast that it was only a couple of seconds until the other end of it came down. I could see that Alice was standing over Lou with a crown of green fire burning on her golden hair, and Lou looked fine just sprawled on the floor. Then the tail end of the pipe dragged the floor down with it into a conical pit and we were tumbling into it after all.
I hooked my claws into the tough gas-station carpeting and grabbed for Lou's hand, but she was too far away and went rolling down the slope into an orange glow. It was a familiar, yellowish, sort of orange glow, though, not like lava or fire. I looked over at Alice, who was clinging on at the far edge of the pipe. She shrugged and let go, so I did too and we went run-sliding down the steep concrete slope side by side.
The slope levelled out a bit at the bottom and we came out of a huge concrete wall into a canyon covered in round rocks and shallow water. Up above was a row of sodium streetlights, and standing there on the edge of the arroyo (called something else in Ohio, probably) was Mina Tauros. She was wearing a black biker jacket with metal studs that gleamed like poisoned gold in the sodium light, and casually swinging a twisted stick longer than I was tall and probably heavier than me in one hand.
Lou was lying in a heap on the rocks, groaning but not smelling very bloody. Alice went to help her up while I glared at Tauros. "What is your damage, cow-girl? If you have a problem with my mom, take it up with her! I wasn't even born then!"
She grinned that nasty grin. "I don't care about you, kitten. But I know she does."
"So, what? You're going to beat me up because it will hurt my mom more than beating her up?"
"A beating doesn't stop people like us, kitten. Just another day at the office. Slink humiliated me and she has to pay!"
"So this is all for just your hurt pride? That was 15 years ago, no one even remembers it!" She was standing right there staring at me, so I couldn't suppress my presence entirely, but I could keep her from paying attention to my eyes while I checked that Alice and Lou were getting away. They were, although they kept looking back with huge eyes to see what Tauros and I were doing.
"Pride is never mere, kitten. Do you think Troy fell because of a woman? No, that city was razed to the ground and sown with salt for pride. Why should your mother get off easier?"
I had no idea what Troy had to do with anything. Was Tauros trying to imply she'd been there? I knew she was older than the 30 she looked, but like 70, not 3000! That was impossible! Wasn't it? Did it matter? "These days, we expect people to handle being dumped more gracefully. If you can't handle one bad breakup, no one's going to respect you!"
She actually snarled, showing her teeth like a wolf. "She betrayed me!" She turned her face toward Alice and Lou. "Go ahead, run away and call the League of Paladins. I have no interest in you."
While Tauros wasn't looking at me, I suppressed my presence and sprinted right, back toward the end of the arroyo where we'd come out of the culvert. I was already halfway up the corner where the dirt wall met the concrete one when Tauros gave a booming laugh. "Oh, kitten, are you hiding from me? Maybe I'll have to take an interest in your friends after all!"
Someone who's 13 can text a lot faster than someone who's 3000 (or 70 with 2930 points of crazy) would expect. Well before she could get around to doing anything except threaten, I said, "I was just getting a sore neck watching you try so hard. A really good loomer wouldn't need a 20' cliff."
She came toward me, hooves loud on the asphalt, and stopped a few feet away. I wasn't as terrified as the first time we met, but she was still intimidating enough that I had trouble coming up with a smart remark. It was nice to know that she was easy to manipulate, but unless I could do something, setting her up didn't help!
"Is this better, kitten? I wouldn't want to hurt your neck without the proper audience."
"Stop calling me kitten! I drew your blood, you have to respect me at least that much."
"That's fair... Nefertari Nelson." I didn't like the way she said my name at all. Maybe "kitten" wasn't bad. "If you hadn't picked the wrong mother, you could have been something."
I knew talking like I was already dead was just cheap theatrics, but there in the strange glow of the streetlights, with a pit of darkness to one side and no help anywhere in sight, it was pretty effective theatrics. "Don't count your chickens before–"
Blue-white light blinded me, and the shockwave knocked me backwards, not fast enough to keep pieces of road and ground and maybe biker jacket from pelting me like shotgun pellets. Mina Tauros went flying, on fire, out into the arroyo. She was probably yelling or cussing, but I couldn't hear a thing. The ground wobbled under me, but I picked myself up and ran to the edge. Was she dead?
She wasn't dead, but her fancy jacket and most of her clothes had been burned or blown off, and were lying in burning rags on the ground around her. (I hope I look that good when I'm 70, never mind 3000!) She was obviously bellowing something, but I still couldn't here.
My mom strolled up next to me, carrying some kind of huge rifle, or more like a mad scientist machine as big as she was that had some grey plastic curves tacked on to fit a person's hands and shoulder. The business end glowed red and wavered with heat like a huge amount of energy had just been pumped through it. I'm not good at lip-reading even when people aren't bellowing incoherently, but the wink she gave made me just about collapse with relief.
Then her smugness changed to alarm, and she threw the gun up to her shoulder, but it was too late. Tauros's face contorted as she yelled something and slammed the bottom of her stick on the riverbed stones, and the ground everywhere crumbled away and burst open at the same time.
I leapt for Mom, but a sheer wall of rock shot up right in my face, and the street under me fell away. I almost bounced off the cliff, but managed to latch on with all of my claws and not fall into the darkness... until the cliff shook me loose and I plummeted.
It wasn't a long fall, but the rounded rocks slid out from under my feet when I landed and I tumbled onto my butt, landing right on a smaller rock that would leave a nice circular bruise. Ow. When I dug out the flashlight, I saw I was back in the arroyo, but the side was stone now, not dirt, and arched over into a ceiling. I didn't think Alice and Lou had gotten very far downstream, but there was no sign of them, or of my mom who had been standing right next to me. If I'd just hugged her, we'd probably still be together! But it would have been stupid to hold onto her in the middle of a fight, and I hadn't had any idea what Tauros was going to do.
Behind me, the ceiling curved back down into the far side of a much narrower arroyo, or really just an underground tunnel with a floor of water-worn rocks. One way it still ended in a flat concrete wall with two round openings, and the other it disappeared into darkness. I'd never seen it look so natural, but obviously I was back in the maze. I hadn't even been out for 5–! I used some of Alice's cuss words, especially the ones I didn't know because they didn't make me as embarrassed. Not even 5 minutes and here I was back again! I was still dressed, at least in pants and shoes and bright pink bra (I hoped Alice appreciated my shirt, but Lou was probably even now helping her take it off, nyaaargh!), and had my purse full of useful things but no more food or water. No idea how much battery the flashlight had left, but the phone from Ms. Fisher still had a half charge. No bars and no mesh connection, of course.
The maze felt different this time, though I couldn't say exactly how. Last time Tauros hadn't had a stick or really done anything to get us sucked into the maze, and Pamela and Jonah and Jacob hadn't said anything about anything like that the first time. I wished that Pamela was here, if my mom couldn't be. Or even Jonah. But really I was glad they were safe and sound back in Rhodes, even though it meant I was alone here. Well, my Mom and Alice and Lou and maybe even some of the League were in here, all I had to do was find them.
No lights, so it was back to the left-hand rule. The two culverts both slanted down and out, although at different angles, and going up had always worked out OK before. Maybe that was the thing that was different: it wasn't all right angles now, even the parts that were artifical. The arroyo even curved, it looked like, and the sides had a few bumps and ledges and cracks, like natural rock. I tried yelling, but I could barely hear even myself, never mind someone elsebumps and ledges and cracks, like natural rock. I tried yelling, but I could still barely hear even myself, never mind someone else. Whatever Mom had shot Tauros with, it made a serious boom.
Around the curve of the arroyo, it split into three different-sized channels. By then, I could hear the rocks clattering under me when I stepped on ones that were loose (I could have snuck, but it would have taken a lot longer to get anywhere), so I tried yelling again, but no answer. Only the right-hand fork didn't go down, so I had a decision to make. Would the left-hand rule still work in a maze that was really 3D, instead of just a bunch of flat mazes stacked up? After thinking about it for a while, it seemed like it should, as long as there weren't places where I had to go straight up or down, so I scratched my name and an arrow into the wall and kept following the rule.
Because the tunnels curved around so much, it didn't take long for me to have no idea of where I was or which way I was going. That was exactly why the left-hand rule was invented, I was sure, so I felt better for following it. I was pretty sure that I was quite a bit lower than where I came in when I found a large room, or cave, or something. It was only the height of the arroyo-tunnels, about 20', and floored with more of the round, wiggly stones that were already making my ankles hurt, but it was wide enough to take my whole house and yard, and had about a dozen ways out. Maybe more important, it dipped down in the middle and the hole was full of water. I had no idea where the water had been, and if we were in a city it was probably unsavory, but it smelled OK, and thirst would kill me a lot faster than cancer from industrial pollution. I drank until I sloshed, although I had to pop my head up and look around after every couple of gulps to make sure nothing was sneaking up on me. Then I filled my water bottles, found the tunnel where I'd come in (even that little bit had been enough to make me lose track!), and kept following the left-hand rule.
More than Mina Tauros's maze, this looked like some of the dungeons from Quest of Unknown Dreams, but there was no sign of ghouls or other monsters. Now that I wasn't thirsty, I felt OK about my chances against a ghoul, even without Alice to light its face on (illusionary) fire, but a level 50 Corrupt Lamp-Eft would have wiped the floor with me as badly as Tauros would have, so I was fine with that, even if it was boring.
About an hour or so later, I did find a treasure cache in a little cave where four tunnels met, but some adventurer had already looted it!
The magic circle around Lady Blaze and her two friends was the same as far as I could remember it, but now the blood was smeared on a sort of pedestal of grayish rock that rose just above the river stones. It even still had the scratch that I'd made when I first found it, between the glyph that looked like an eye with a worm coming out of it and the one that looked like a wasp stinging a virus (that's what they reminded me of, anyway; they didn't actually look like anything, they weren't hieroglyphics). My ankles really hurt, so I hopped up and sat next to Lady Blaze and Black Diana (the one I'd taken the gunbelt from, I guessed by the remaining skin, and what happened to that gun? was it still in Chathi's car?) and the other one.
"I'm sorry, Blaze, Diana, whatever your name is. I'm not doing a very good job of getting you out of here and properly buried. And I should probably rob your grave again, since I could use a canteen. And maybe a shirt. I hope you don't mind." The skulls grinned at me, even the one that was partially shattered from when I'd tested the circle before, which was horrible, and didn't even mean anything, but made me feel better about taking the canteen, and one leg from a pair of slacks that I wrapped around my torso and safety-pinned in place. It wasn't a shirt, and the visible bra straps were pretty tacky, but it was more or less clothing, and would be a little warmer than nothing if I started getting cold.
I made an embarrassing squeak, but it was just the phone alerting me to an increase in emanations. Were we moving again? I hadn't felt motion before, when we knew that Tauros and her maze had been moving at least a little, but this didn't seem like a place that could move. Buildings move, I'd seen houses being trucked down the freeway, but caves don't move.
If I wasn't moving to the emanations, then the emanations were moving toward me. Oh crap, ghouls! No, only maybe ghouls; it could be supers, or something about whatever was different this time. But I was sitting right next to something ghouls were famous for liking. "Desecrators of corpses," the Gravekeepers had called them, when they were scolding humans for having a nuclear war instead of concentrating on the real problem. If it was ghouls, I just had to wait right here and hope there was only one and it didn't blink fast enough when I flashed the light in its eyes. But I couldn't tell which way they were coming from, so any way I went could be right into them, even if there was a 75% chance of not–
Far off, but horribly clear, I heard the meeping and glibbering of ghoul language. It was just a short phrase, maybe even the same one the other ghoul had said, so I couldn't get a fix on where it was, but when I moved into the tunnel that the left-hand rule would have taken me into and waited, that was definitely where it was coming from. It didn't sound much closer, though, and it sounded like only one.
I didn't want to, but I had to check it out. What if the ghoul was hunting someone else and they needed help? Even if they didn't need help, meeting up with someone would probably be better than wandering around by myself. It was hard to concentrate with my ankles throbbing every time rocks shifted under my feet, but I kept my presence suppressed and the light almost entirely covered, and went.
A couple of times, I had to stop at an intersection and wait for more ghoul talk to lead me, but after about 5 minutes, it was getting pretty loud. During a quiet bit, I rounded a corner and almost lost hold of my power because I just about walked into a ghoul!
There were two of them, neither the one I had fought before. One was almost entirely grey-skinned, and had what looked like iron nails driven into its body all over, while the other was covered in a thick layer of the mossy stuff and carrying an astrolabe or sextant or one of those old-time astronomy things, a bunch of metal rings one inside the other so they could turn and twist at all angles. It had bones stuck to it with alligator clips, and the ghoul was moving rings around, then moving them back, then muttering under its breath, then adjusting the bones, and so on. They must have been doing something to cover their scent, because I didn't smell them until I was right there, and then I could tell they were thinking the same thing as the ghoul we'd met before.
More important, I could smell but not see people very near: 2 human girls, and one of them was Pamela! Maybe they were around the corner just past the ghouls, but if so, why were the ghouls just standing around? Were they doing ghoul sorcery rock-paper-scissors to see who got to go first?
Nails snarled and grabbed the sphere from Mossy, who smacked him in the arm. Black, stinky ghoul blood oozed from the gouges that left, but Nails didn't seem to care. They struggled over the sphere, which meant they turned a little from blocking the entire passage to only most of it. There was just enough room for a midget catgirl to fit past, and it might be my best shot at getting around that far corner, so I went for it before they could turn back. Mossy's elbow almost hit me in the face, but I ducked and then I was past without them having noticed or even touched me. (Not quite the same thing, but too close for comfort.)
Around the corner, there was a big patch where the rocks of the floor were blackened, and a big black circle scorched on the wall. It looked like a fireball the size of a room had burned everything there, but the lingering smell was as much ozone as smoke. That explained why the ghouls weren't attacking!
Back from the blast zone, 3 people were squeezed into a cavity in the rock wall. Pamela was pointing something that looked like a hand vacuum cleaner in my direction, so I went wide around them and got a better view of the two white girls huddling behind her. They looked like twins, although not the identical kind (which was why I hadn't been able to distinguish them by smell before), with strawberry-blonde hair and lots of freckles. Their faces were pretty similar, but the one dressed in a knee-length giant sports team shirt was built like Pamela and the one in tank top and running shorts was more like Alice. Not as beautiful (but who is?), but the lines of her body where she squished against Pamela's back were worth seeing. Why was I even noticing, when I could smell the ghouls were thinking something kind of similar but horrific?
I didn't want to get shot with whatever Pamela was holding, so I went down the tunnel a ways before I stopped suppressing my presence (which felt like pushing a heavy rock off of my brain) and walked back toward them. "Pamela," I whispered, trying to project my voice as far as her and no further. "It's me, Nef." I was too quiet, so I went closer, not walking as carefully, until Curvy Twin noticed the rocks scraping under my weight, and had to clap both hands over her mouth to keep from screaming. (It didn't matter, the ghouls were right there, but I understood the urge to keep quiet.)
Pamela looked around, vacuum cleaner following her gaze, and her face lit up. "Nef! I'm so glad–" Mossy Ghoul poked his head around the corner, Pamela saw my face change and my eyes go past her and whirled around, and the ghoul ducked back. "–so glad you're here!"
Unlike the twins, Pamela was wearing jeans and sneakers to go with her tank top. "Sneakers" doesn't do them justice, though: one was hot pink with bright purple sole and laces, and the other was bright purple with hot pink sole and laces. I wouldn't have worn them when I was 6, never mind 13! She also had a backpack that looked full of stuff, way bigger than my purse. Had she been ready for this, or did she just keep all this stuff in her bedroom in case she got sucked into an alternate dimension while studying? It didn't matter, I was so glad to see her! I threw my arms around her, careful not to catch her shooting hand, and squeezed her tight like I wished I had my mom.
"Nefertari Nelson, right?" said
Flat Thin Twin.
"What are you doing here?" She looked pretty suspicious, although I
didn't know if it was general nervousness or dislike of Changed or just
that she'd noticed me ogling her sister.
"It's a long story, but basically, Mina Tauros hates my mom and wants to make me suffer. What about you guys? You look like you were in bed."
"This is your fault?!"
"It's Tauros's fault and no one else's! If she'd just died when my mom shot her with a plasma cannon, instead of... what did she do?"
"I think she put a big chunk of Rhodes into her maze," Pamela said. "Incidentally destroying a huge number of buildings – including my house! – and probably killing a bunch of people who were in the hospital or driving or too old to take being banged around or just unlucky."
"And ours!" said Curvy Twin. I noticed that she had a big scrap that ran up one bare leg under the hem of her shorts, and her tank top had some rips that showed skin and no bra. The other girls were kind of banged up too, but none of them were seriously hurt. "Mom and Dad and Tyche were out of town, at least." She didn't seem as suspicious as her sister.
I really didn't want to tell even more people who my mom is and why Tauros has a grudge against her, so all I said was, "She had some kind of stick, like a magic staff but more like a log, that she slammed on the ground when my mom and I got dumped into the maze. We got separated even though we were standing right next to each other, and the maze isn't as artificial as before, so something weird's going on, but I don't know what."
Pamela thought about that for a minute. Since she was still hugging me, I was glad to give her the time. "Was the stick about 7' long and 6 or 8" thick, kind of gnarly, with green and blue glyphs in the cracks?"
"The size and shape sound right, but I didn't get a good look at the carvings. Maybe?"
She let go of me and swung the vacuum cleaner toward where Nails was edging around the corner. This time she pressed the trigger, and a blinding bolt of lightning blasted through where the ghoul had been standing and exploded in a huge blue-white globe against the far wall. I twisted away from Pamela, to go after the ghouls while they were still blinded, but she grabbed my hand. "What are you doing?"
"That flash hurts your eyes, what do you think it does to ghouls? I can take a blind ghoul!"
Her eyes got wide. "You can?! When did you do that?"
"Earlier this afternoon, real time. I don't even know how long ago for me. After Tauros kidnapped me and Alice, anyway. We flashed lights in its eyes and I jumped it while it was blind. I didn't kill it, but I got it to go away and leave us alone."
Now both the twins were staring at me with big eyes. "She really did kidnap you?" Thin Twin asked. "People were saying she just kicked your butts and then left."
"She didn't need to carry us away by the scruff, we were already in the maze when she left."
"So you were all alone with Alice? Is that how you lost your shirt? Good going!"
I knew Pamela was just teasing me, but I could feel my skin turning guilty red. "No! I mean, yes, but only because she took my shirt to replace the one Tauros trashed! We didn't– nyaaargh!" I wasn't going to say anything about going swimming in our underwear, or snuggling up together to sleep, but it felt like everyone could read it all from my face. It wasn't like I hadn't wanted to do more, but if Alice wanted to, it would only be because it was like getting closer to Slink, and I wasn't going to say anything about that either! "A labyrinth is not romantic!"
They were all laughing at me, but not so much that Pamela didn't notice a ghoul trying to sneak around the corner and aim her vacuum cleaner at it. "Why do they keep trying that?" Curvy Twin wanted to know. "It never works."
"They have some kind of astronomy thing that they're messing with, like metal circles that turn at different angles, with bones stock to it. It didn't seem to be doing anything, so I didn't worry about it, but maybe it's supposed to let them sneak up on us."
"Well, it's not working," said Thin Twin. "I thought ghouls were supposed to be smart."
"It only has to work once," Pamela said ominously. "We better do something about them first."
"Why don't we just leave? If we keep going, they can't catch up to us without giving you plenty of time to shoot them."
Pamela shook her head. "It's a dead end. We were coming back to try another tunnel when we ran into them. I wouldn't want to have to rely on being able to shoot them both before they ran us down, anyway. At least here they have to turn a corner, which slows them down. Hey, how far is it to the next corner?"
I'd had plenty of time to study the area while I was creeping past the ghouls. "About 30'. It turns the other way, not back this way, if that helps."
Oops, Thin Twin had had time to put 1 and 1 together. "It's not a dead end, you came from that way!"
"No, I came past the ghouls. Don't ask."
She didn't believe me, and had cuss words for how much. "Why would they let you past? Is it because you're practically a ghoul yourself? Did you just flutter your eyelashes at them? Or did you promise to help them get some tasty humans?" She was almost yelling by the end of that rant.
Curvy Twin clapped a hand over her sister's mouth. "Alison, shut up! Are you trying to call more ghouls?" She looked at me apologetically. "Sorry, she's weird about Changed ever since– never mind."
Most Changed are pretty nice, or at least mellow, but there are a few pretty nasty ones. Ones who think they're better than humans and entitled to do all kinds of things to them. Or maybe it was just that before I got to Peasley, Alice grew a figure and stole Alison's boyfriend. She was right that it didn't matter. "Should I just take the vacuum and go shoot them?"
"What?! How can you call my precious lightning gun a vacuum cleaner?!" Pamela looked really offended, but didn't smell it. "I thought of that, but can you shoot them both from hiding? If not, the other one will be right there to grab you, or it can come over here and we'll be defenseless."
My mom could probably shoot someone with a lightning gun while suppressing her presence, but I couldn't. I shook my head and tried to think. That there were two of them was the big problem. And that we had only two things that could hurt them, one of which was me, and if we put them together by giving me the lightning gun, everyone else would be defenseless. Alison and Curvy Twin– "What's your name, anyway?"
"I'm Minya. Hartwell." The name sounded familiar, but I didn't think she was in any of my classes. 7th-graders? But more important, she was really pretty when she smiled, even though I don't usually like freckles. I smiled back, wondering if she had freckles all over, not just on the parts I could see, and then realized what I was thinking about and blushed. She was smart enough to figure out what I was thinking and blushed too.
No! Bad catgirl! Flirting later! Surviving now! "Pamela, do you have any other weapons? If 3 of us were armed, not just 2, we'd have more options."
But then we didn't have any weapons at all, because a ghoul had appeared out of thin air and grabbed Pamela's lightning gun. I lunged for it, one hand going for the gun and the other for Mossy's eyes, but it was just as fast as I was and slipped sideways into the middle of the tunnel. Rather than spend time figuring out the lightning gun, Mossy threw it back around the corner (where it crashed and cracked). It crouched even more, lowering its center of gravity to be more stable on the river rocks, and launched itself back at me.
I was still moving, because I had been thinking about how to decoy the ghouls and assumed the ghoul I could see wasn't the main threat. Mossy gleepled something in Ghoulish, but it was too late for Nails to stop. He came around the corner right into my claws. I blocked his reaching hand with a grab, sinking my claws into his horrible squishy rotten-feeling skin, and raked his face down to the bone. Blood and some clear fluid spattered like I'd popped a monster zit, but he didn't make a sound. One digitigrade foot caught me right in the crotch, hard enough that I went flying even while a bolt of sick pain made me curl into myself.
I landed on the river stones, which would leave my back spotted like a leopard with bruises later, and probably recracked my rib, but didn't knock me out. I sprang back to my feet, which hurt amazingly everywhere from my thighs to my neck, but I was too busy to worry about that. Mossy had grabbed Pamela from where she was standing in front of Minya and Alison and was holding her pinned to his chest while he opened his muzzle full of crocodile teeth (and more– did you know ghouls have teeth all down the roof of their mouth? Ewwwww!) to take a bite out of her neck. I ran to help her, but before I could get there, she kicked the ghoul in the ribs so hard she broke free and went sprawling across the rocks. I had no idea how she did that, ghouls were stronger than me, but it put Mossy off-balance so when I did a stomping kick to rake my claws down his shin, he fell over and had to use his hands to catch himself. That left his neck unguarded for me to tear open from spine to throat.
Ghouls aren't just strong, they're tough: that barely slowed him down. He punched straight into my chest, and I realized that what I thought was a broken rib before was barely a bruise. I collapsed to my knees, helplessly hugging myself as I tried to breathe through the jagged (metaphorical) monster claw crushing my chest. Mossy covered the five spurting slashes in his neck with one paw and moved toward Pamela and the other two.
From a standing start, Pamela jumped 8' in the air and kicked at Mossy's head. He knocked her foot aside with his free hand, but the blow was so powerful that it still spun him around and knocked him to his knees. I thought she was human!
The ghouls had had enough of us. Nails, his horrible dog-crocodile face a mess of blood and eye fluid, grabbed up the astronomy sphere, yanked all the bones off, and threw it right in the middle of the triangle of me, Pamela, and the two paralyzed Hartwell sisters. The ceiling caved in, the floor and walls and falling ceiling dissolved into dust, and the metal rings exploded into fragments that shot everywhere with horrible "vweeeee" noises.
We landed in a huge mound of dust that puffed up in choking clouds. It went right up my nose and into my throat, making me cough and whimper from coughing with broken ribs and puke and cry from puking with broken ribs until I nearly passed out. Awful things had been happening ever since I first got chucked into the maze (slightly before, really), but this was worse than all of them together. The convulsions in my chest and belly were so bad I was seriously afraid I was going to suffocate, but trying to breath just made it worse and I almost inhaled vomit. If I had been alone, I might have actually died from freaking out too much to breathe, but Pamela wrapped her arms around me and Minya held my hair out of the way, and after a long time I was able to inhale on my own. It hurt so much I started crying again, but I was breathing regularly and that was the best thing ever. The disgusting mess where everything that had come out of me had soaked into the dust wasn't even very bloody; it might feel like the broken ends of my ribs were flailing around inside my chest, but they really weren't.
Pamela wiped my face with a kleenex and said softly, "Are you OK now?"
I tried breathing a bit more before saying, "I think so. Thanks." I looked at Minya by only turning my head (everything else hurt too much to move). "Sorry, I don't usually throw up on pretty girls I just met."
She flushed. "You and Pamela saved us from ghouls. For that, you can throw up as much as you like." But she smiled a little, which made me feel tons better that she wasn't traumatized.
Alison came around to kneel next to where I was slumped in Pamela's lap. "That was... pretty amazing. Both of you. I thought we were toast."
I sighed. "We almost were. These ghouls were tougher than the one I fought before, like they know Corpse Desecration style kung fu. If had been just me..." I sat up a little straighter, which was painful but not agonizing. "Pamela, how did you do that kick? Normal humans can't jump like that."
"Special shoes." She flexed her ankle to show the pink one off, but it was still a mortal fashion sin. "They're for mobility, but applying force through your feet is pretty much the same either way."
"Are you a mad scientist? Or a sorcerer?" Chathi had asked if any of us needed a sorcerer when she was getting us away from the maze the first time.
"Not exactly. It's complicated, and not something I can talk about."
"It's always complicated with superheroes," Alison sniffed.
"I'm not a superhero!" Pamela protested. "Not yet, anyway."
"You both are as far as I'm concerned!" Minya hugged us both together, which was nice until she winced and pulled away to show a bloody cut across her chest, with the edges of the sliced tank top stuck to it. "Ow. Do either of you have bandaids in those huge bags?"
Minya wasn't the only one with cuts from shrapnel, and Alison had a deep puncture wound in her arm that she hadn't noticed until I pointed it out and she almost fainted. We had not just bandaids, but water, antiseptic wipes, antibiotics, and crazy glue, which got everyone mostly patched up. Minya would have let me clean and patch her cut (which didn't actually sound romantic even though it meant taking her shirt off), but Alison stopped us and made Pamela take care of them. Spoilsport! Pamela showed her confidence in me by letting me clean the ugly gouges she got down her arms when she tore loose from Mossy Ghoul, but she really needed stitches and I couldn't do it. She was probably going to have scars, which didn't really go with her normal well-put-together look.
Somewhere I had lost my wraparound made from salvaged 1970s slacks, and my hair tie, but at least I still had my bra, and Pamela had a spare scrunchy even if she didn't have a spare shirt. "I should know better, after that first time," she admitted.
We were at the bottom of a pit made by the ghouls caving in the rock between the tunnel we'd been in and a lower one running the same direction but made out of culvert pipe. We could probably have gotten back up, me by climbing and Pamela with her springy shoes, and carrying the other two or helping them climb, but there were ghouls up there, and nothing much except dead bodies that we would be too late to keep the ghouls from eating if that's what they wanted to do. Actually, I might not have been able to climb up, since lifting my arms over my head made it difficult to breathe without crying. So, we left an arrow pointing up labelled "GHOULS!!!" and one pointing along the tunnel with our full names, and set out.
"Shouldn't there be more people in here if Mina Tauros really pulled all of Rhodes into her maze?" asked Minya. I was beginning to think she was the smart one, even though Alison was more assertive. "Even though there are lots of levels, most houses have several people, and there's lots of unused space down here as well as in town, I think. Unless all the parts that seem like big gaps of solid rock are really parts of the maze we just haven't gotten too yet. So there should probably be at least one person every... few dozen house-lengths? Something like that."
"You're right," said Pamela. "I think I was wrong about how much got pulled in, or else there are a whole lot of levels. I wish I could figure out whether we're in normal space or not. If we aren't, then maybe there's no limit to how big this maze is, but Nef's right that it doesn't seem the same as before."
"This is why sane people don't want to be superheroes," said Alison. "If you can compare multiple visits to Mina Tauros's labyrinth, you have made some very bad life choices."
That stung. "I haven't done anything wrong! It's all because Tauros has a grudge against my mom! It's her life choices that got me here!" Apparently a lot of her life choices involved taking her clothes off, so technically that was why I was here at all, but still! I hadn't been able to tell Pamela anything I'd learned from Mom and Ms. Fisher and Terry, and I wasn't about to with Minya and Alison listening in. I couldn't complain about my powers, but telepathy would have been awfully useful.
"What, did your mom steal her boyfriend?"
"Um. No. Not exactly. Kind of the opposite. But also threw her off a 10-story building." Butt-naked, I almost added.
"Hey, wait a minute." Minya pointed back the way we came. "Can you turn off the light for a minute?" I did, and something back there in the pile of dust was glowing blue. "Oh, crap, is that radioactive? Did the disintegrator make everything radioactive?"
"I don't think so," said Pamela. "We're not glowing, at least. But let's keep moving just in case."
We found what the glow was just a few minutes later, when I had another coughing/sneezing fit (ow, ow, OW!) and spattered glowing blue snot all over the floor. My eyes were watering too hard to see it at first, but I felt everyone edging away from me. "What?" Pamela pointed without saying anything. "Oh, crap!" I didn't feel like my sinuses were radioactive, but that was the scary thing about radiation. If that's what this was, but I hadn't breathed in anything except the disintegrated rock dust, and everyone else had too. Had I been standing in the wrong place when the bomb went off? The back of my throat felt kind of dry and scratchy, which set off another coughing fit. (Ow, yuck, ow!) "Wait, when you get a cold or something, does the back of your throat feel kind of sandy?"
Alison glared. "What, catgirls don't get colds?"
"Almost never. The only time I've been sick was in 5th grade, when the Stone Philosopher tried to kill all Changed and we broke out in warts for a week. Oh! Maybe that's what this is!"
They all edged further away. "You're radioactive and contagious?!"
"Nothing's gone up my nose except that dust we fell into, and you were all there for that, so if it's radioactivity, we're all exposed. But if it's anti-Changed bioweapons, you're fine. The Stone Philosopher doesn't have anything against humans. I think he kind of likes you, actually." But he was on the "Changed are just ghouls with cleavage" team, and would happily kill us all, according to his Internet manifestos. He hadn't even come close last time, but he'd had 3 years to improve his viruses. I realized I wasn't feeling at all well.
"And what about you? Just because his last plague was a bust doesn't mean this one will be." Pamela looked seriously worried. "Johnny Monsterseed isn't around to put out genetic patches anymore. Nefertari!" She lunged forward to catch me as my knees went all wobbly, but forgot about her special shoes and slammed us both into the wall. "Ow!"
I slid down the curve of the culvert pipe into a sort of half-sitting position. My skin felt cold and hot at the same time, and my brain was too large for my skull. "I don't feel so good." I felt terrified, especially when another agonizing coughing fit brought up a clot of glowing blue phlegm streaked with darkness. Was this happening to Mom too? And Alice? Maybe Mina Tauros would catch it too, at least, even though she wasn't one of Johnny Monsterseed's creations as far as anyone knew. Was I finally going to die in this stupid maze?
Alison and Minya were shuffling back down the culvert, trying to get as far as they could from me without leaving the light I held. Pamela didn't care, she just knelt down astride my lap and took my face in her hands. "Nef, stop freaking out. This is way too fast for a disease that's supposed to take out people worldwide. I think you're making yourself sick."
"What!?" I waved at the blue guck on my lap (ewwwww!). I still felt hot, but now I was shivering. "Are you saying I'm not really sick?"
"How do you know so much about diseases?" Minya asked suspiciously.
"My mom's a doctor," Pamela said impatiently. "Nef, you have blue-snot-itis, but I don't think it's making you faint. You were fine literally 30 seconds ago. Just breathe, OK? In... Out... In..."
I was pretty sure Pamela had said her mom was an astronomer when we first met, but what did I have to lose by breathing? I was so panicked I had trouble matching the slow rate she set and ended up hyperventilating for a minute (ow), but got my diaphragm under control. "Good, good... Now, close your eyes and just concentrate on the process. Cool air coming in, your chest expanding, good, hold it, chest contracting, warm air going out, cool air coming in..." This sounded like meditation, but unless Dr. Kaguya's office had gotten sucked into the maze, some mind-over-matter was the best treatment I was likely to get.
I coughed again, but not very much, and got my breathing back under control after a little choking and gasping. I even started to drift off, but Pamela reminded me to keep paying attention to my breath. Was someone doing this for Mom? Or Alice? Lou didn't seem like the kind of person who would know meditation or hypnosis. "Hey!" My eyes snapped open. "If we're in Rhodes, how come the woman Alice and I met was from Lafayette? What was Tauros doing all the way up there?"
"Something nefarious, probably. Feeling better?"
I was, but that meant it really had been all in my head, because I was just that stupid. I kind of shriveled up. All that drama in front of Minya! Then I coughed another chunk of blood-streaked phlegm onto the floor. OK, just because I wasn't dying right now didn't mean I wasn't sick! But hopefully I could last until we found civilization. "Yeah, I think so. Um. Thanks."
She passed me some kleenexes to wipe off my clothes and face. "Don't worry about it. I think you've been trapped by a supervillain more than not over the past couple of days. Anyone would freak out."
Alison's expression said, "Sure, if they were a mentally defective mutant," but Minya looked kind of sympathetic. I gave her a weak smile and let Pamela help me up, even though reaching up to take her hand made my chest hurt again.
Minya stayed with her sister, but Alison waffled between staying away from the diseased weirdo and staying near the ghoul-fighters, so they weren't far. Not that I was up to flirting with Minya: I might not be dying of fever, but I was still coughing up glowing gunk, and my face felt weirdly swollen, probably from my sinuses being clogged up. Ugh!
We followed the left-hand rule through curving mazes of 8' culvert pipe, but after about half an hour of nothing else happening, Minya started yawning cutely. She and Alison had been in bed or on their way when Tauros did her thing with the stick, and were probably crashing even harder now that the adrenaline of the ghoul fight was wearing off. Sleeping in the middle of a culvert didn't seem very comfortable, though, so we kept on (leaving a glowing blue trail for anyone who wanted to follow us).
The culvert tunnel came to an end in the middle of a concrete cliff. There was another cliff with another round opening facing us about 50' away, but even if Pamela could jump that far with her shoes, the rest of us couldn't. Alison and Minya were scared to go near the edge, so I snuck up with my presence suppressed (which seemed to make the pressure in my sinuses worse) and checked it out. I couldn't see the left end of the chasm, but the right end was only about 20' away, a smooth concrete slope rising from the water about that far down to an opening about that far above. It was tilted about 45° or maybe even a little more, but maybe the others could climb it with friction on their bare hands, if they could get there.
"Do you want to try to go up? Or should we skip this one and keep going?" asked Pamela.
Minya looked nervous at the idea of climbing, but said, "Up is good, right?"
"Probably. The first time I was in here, up was the way out, and if we're actually underground instead of in an extradimensional space, up is definitely the way out."
"I think up was out the second time I was here, too. At least, that's where new stuff and new prisoners seemed to be coming in," I added. "But it looks like a hard climb for you guys. Pamela, do you have–" She held out a coil of nylon rope, like you'd use for tying stuff onto a car roof. "Great! I know I can make it up there, and hopefully I can find something to tie the rope to. Then you guys can use the rope to get to the slope and climb up."
Alison and Minya finally went to the edge and looked around. "I can't jump that!" Alison said. "That must be like a 2-story drop!"
"Just hold onto the rope and swing over," said Pamela. "Nef can be there to catch you." That didn't seem to make the idea any more appealing, but even Alison had to admit that up was the way we wanted to go.
Pamela didn't have pitons and we didn't think crazy glue would hold the rope well enough, so she just tied one end around her waist and gave me the other, and I jumped. Super-agility for the win! I hardly even needed my claws to go up the slope.
The top was a park. Part of one, anyway, with grass and sidewalks and planters and benches between two rows of trees that merged with the stone walls and stone ceiling like columns. It was as wide as the trench, but longer than I could see with my little flashlight. When I checked one of the trees, it was stone (petrified wood?) and so were the shrubs in the concrete planters and the wooden parts of the park benches. The frames of the benches were still metal, though, and bolted to the concrete under them. The grass was still real grass (although it would probably die pretty soon without sunlight), which didn't make any sense, but hardly anything down here did.
I didn't see or hear or smell anything moving up there, so I tied the rope around the nearest bench leg and slid down it to make sure it was good.
As soon as I gave the thumbs-up, Pamela pulled the rope tight and tied a knot where someone would grab on to swing over to the ramp. Then she let it go so I could see where the swinger would end up. I went about 4' below that and gouged a ledge in the concrete so I could stand firm enough to catch someone. That was pretty noisy, but I stopped to listen every so often, and there was no sign of ghouls. Or humans, sadly.
Alison insisted on going first. Despite her complaining, she swung neatly into my arms, but immediately pushed away and scrambled up the rope. I tried to watch to make sure she got up safely, but she was wearing only a nightshirt (and underpants! the same bright pink as my bra). Then Minya, but she grabbed the rope in the wrong place and when she got to me, my face went right into her cushiony chest and my arms around her curvy hips.
She didn't have Alice's trick of always smelling clean and fresh, but she smelled nice under the blood and sweat and fear, and I was pretty sure she had done that on purpose. She didn't pull away even though my face had to have been hot enough that she was risking second-degree burns, until her sister poked her head over. "Hey! What you doing to Minya, you perv?!" I jumped and let go, but then caught her again, this time around the waist, until she could get set to scramble up.
Minya's shorts and tank top showed a lot less than Alison's nightclothes, but I liked watching her climb a lot more.
Pamela, the big show-off, just jumped from the culvert to the top of the ramp in a single bound. I had no idea how those shoes worked, but they were as amazing as they were tacky.
When I got to the top, Alison was scolding Minya for not being more careful around "people like that". I couldn't tell if she meant Changed or girls who like girls or what, but Minya was rolling her eyes like someone who'd heard it all before. Probably she'd heard it every day since she started getting curves and Alison didn't.
The park was long enough that the adrenaline of jumping wore off and we all started yawning by the time we found something that wasn't trees and bushes and benches. My phone said it was almost midnight, so we decided to camp in the gazebo (or bandstand? I'm not sure what the difference is). It had chest-high walls around the outside and benches around the inside so we wouldn't be on the cold ground and people couldn't easily see us. (I didn't mention that wouldn't help against ghouls sniffing us out, because not much would.) The benches were wide enough for two smallish people to cuddle up, but of course the two sisters took one bench, leaving me with Pamela. Not that Pamela isn't pretty, but I don't like her that way.
"We should keep watches," said Alison. "In case something shows up." She scowled at me like I was the danger that we needed a sentry for, but let me go first. I wasn't as tired because my schedule was already completely messed up.
Pamela and Alison went to sleep right away, but I could tell Minya hadn't (sleeping people smell different, unless they're having a really vivid dream). I tried to not wonder what she was thinking or watch her breathe, but I didn't hear or smell any ghouls, so it was hard.
About 20 minutes after Alison was out, Minya squirmed out of her arms (which made her tank top ride up over a cute soft-looking belly, but not enough that it was embarrassing that she didn't have a bra) and tiptoed over to sit next to me on the floor. It wasn't that cold, but I could feel the warmth of her body even without touching, and smell her smugness and flirtatiousness. She wasn't as attracted to me as, say, Pamela to Jonah, never mind Alice to Slink (nyaaargh!), but it was way more than Alison would have liked. I was glad she couldn't smell how nervous I was, or how much I was trying to not remember my mom's stories about stress bringing people, um, closer.
"Hi," Minya whispered. "Is it OK if I sit here?"
"Sure." I was trying to not look at where her tank top was torn, but then I ended up looking at her legs. They had a few scratches and bruises to go with the freckles, but still looked really nice. She had enough muscles that her legs had some shape, not just cones. Not that even slender legs like Pamela's are bad, but strong curved calves are–
"What are you thinking about?" Her voice was teasing, and when I looked up, she was looking at my face, which meant she knew where my eyes had been. I could feel myself blushing all the way down to my bra. Which I didn't even need, unlike her, so she couldn't be really interested in me. She was just playing, and I was an idiot for wanting to find out what those legs felt like or how high the freckles went.
I stifled several things I could have said to make her think I was lame or disgusting. "I was just hoping the Puberty Fairy makes me as pretty as you."
She blushed, but not in an unhappy way. "I'm not that pretty, I just started developing early." She put her hands to her chest, outlining her figure under the thin cloth in a way that would have made Alison froth. "My nose is weird and my butt is fat and I have freckles and aren't you guaranteed to be a centerfold girl?"
"Your nose is fine. Your butt is fine. Your freckles are cute, at least the ones I've seen." Oh god, had I really said that? She didn't smell like she minded at all, though, so I charged ahead. "Your legs are gorgeous. Your smile is gorgeous." Was it too much? I felt hot all over, partly from embarrassment, and my stomach was full of butterflies.
She showed me her smile again, and it was just as pretty as the first time. Her lips weren't super-plush like a black girl's might be, but they looked soft and were redder than her blushing skin. "Nefertari, are you trying to seduce me?" Her scent said it was working.
My heart was pounding as hard as when I thought ghouls were going to eat me, partly from fear that Alison or Pamela would wake up and interrupt, but mostly from excitement. I leaned in and kissed her, and she didn't pull away. Her mouth was just as soft as it looked, and after a moment pressed back against mine. Her hands caught my shoulders, strangely cool against my burning skin, and held me in place while we tried to figure out how kissing worked. I could tell she didn't know any more than me, but we got the hang of it pretty quickly.
If they had been ghouls, they would probably have eaten us, but even so distracted by Minya, I couldn't miss loud smelly boys stomping toward our gazebo. Minya looked surprised and worried when I pulled away, like she thought she hadn't been a good kisser, but I put my finger on her lips and pointed in the direction of the noise, and she got it. I put my hand over Pamela's mouth and went to shake her awake, but she woke as soon as I touched her, without making a sound. Not that it mattered, since Alison freaked out at being woken up and fell off the bench with a thud.
"What was that?!" The voice was male, but young enough that it broke in the middle of the sentence, and scared enough that I wondered if they'd seen ghouls? No, they were still alive.
Hey, I knew one of those scents!
I suppressed my presence and peeked out the doorway (really just a gap in the wall). There were 4 boys, and one of them was Jonah. The others ranged from about 6th grade to maybe 10th, all white except Jonah. They smelled worried and grouchy and jumpy, which was reasonable for being in an underground or maybe extradimensional maze but didn't make me any happier about running into them. I looked back at Pamela and made a face and thumbs-down gesture, but it was too late.
"Hey, we're over here!" Alison stood up and waved.
What was wrong with her?! We didn't need any boys, we were doing fine on our own! I thought about suppressing my and Pamela's presence and sneaking away, but I couldn't leave two half-dressed girls to a bunch of teenaged boys, even if one of them wasn't Minya who I wanted to get back to kissing and now wasn't going to get to! Could I get her to leave her sister? She looked over at me and shrugged, not happily, but stood up beside Alison.
Pamela made a face like mine, but gestured at me to stay low (meaning hidden) before standing up too. "Hi, Jonah!" She was glad to see him, at least, even if she was sensibly wary of the others.
"Pam!" He ditched the others (who were also a bit wary of us, but mostly way too interested in Minya in her torn tank top with nothing under it) and ran over to hug her. "I'm glad you're OK, but we've got to stop meeting like this! Guys, they're OK, this is Pamela Rajapaksa from my school." He looked at Alison, and Minya's chest. "You guys are Peasley too, right?"
Pamela tried to do introductions, but Alison took over. "I'm Alison Hartwell, and this is my little sister Minya." She looked around before Pamela could stop her. "Where did Nefertari go?"
"Nef is here too?" Jonah was glad to hear I was around, and not like he was hoping I would be naked again. Maybe he was OK.
I didn't want to show my powers to these guys, so I jumped up into the rafters holding up the gazebo roof, stopped suppressing my presence, and dropped down like I'd been hiding up there all the time. "If Jonah vouches for them, OK."
They all looked at me because I didn't have a shirt on, but even in just a bra I wasn't as interesting as Minya. Jonah came over and gave me a hug too. I didn't bite him.
"Hi, I'm Will Lee." The high-schooler was tall and athletic and handsome, with features that probably counted as chiseled, blue eyes, and really short blonde hair, not a buzzcut but as short as it could be without standing up. He was only wearing a pair of jeans, showing all kinds of muscles and a trail of hair leading down to his waistband. He was very aware of the twins' half-dressed state and even Pamela in her tank top. Last week I would have been kind of scared of him, but he smelled completely human, so after beating three ghouls in hand-to-hand combat I was just wary. If he put any moves on Minya – or anyone else! – that she didn't welcome, I'd show him just how unimpressive he was. "This is my little brother Jimmy."
"James." The 6th-grader was about as tall as Jonah, so now he was only the 2nd-shortest person here, and looked like a miniature version of his big brother except with brown eyes. He was wearing actual pajamas, tops and bottoms covered with pictures of superheroes. He was old enough I could tell he was interested in half-dressed girls, but mostly embarrassed and nervous.
"George Hunter." He was about Jonah's age, fat on top of a strong build, with black hair and squinty dark eyes, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts and white socks. He was giving me the hairy eyeball, and not because I was showing so much skin. "Do you girls know what's going on with this crap?" (He didn't say "crap".)
Alison to the opposite of rescue again. "Some supervillain threw the town into this maze to catch Nefertari and use her as a hostage for some grudge with her mom." Now all the boys were giving me the hairy eyeball. "Mina Tauros, that's her name." I couldn't say her summary was wrong, but I could glare at her, which didn't faze her. It didn't help that I had another coughing fit (thank god it hadn't happened while I was kissing Minya!) and had to hide the glowing blue mucus in a kleenex Pamela handed me.
"Mina Tauros? She's hot," James said helpfully.
I rolled my eyes. "She's a psychopath, and she put ghouls in here along with half the town. We need to find my mom before more ghouls find us."
All the boys tried to make out like they were brave, but they were sensibly afraid of ghouls. "There are ghouls in here?!" James's voice broke again.
"Nef and Pamela fought them off," Minya said proudly. "They were amazing."
When Minya said it, I felt pretty amazing, and I think Pamela did too (although maybe not for the same reason), but George and Will both looked at Pamela's toothpick arms and my tiny everything and scowled. We both rolled our eyes.
"Anyway, we're all together now," Alison said brightly. "So we should be safer. I wouldn't think a ghoul would want to attack a big group." I'd mostly been worrying about what the boys were thinking, but she was responding to Will even more than Pamela was to Jonah. Pamela didn't seem interested in Will at all, though, never mind James or George. Maybe she really liked Jonah and not just for his shoulders.
I could tell everyone was tired, but the boys didn't want to show weakness in front of Minya, so we ended up setting out again. Back the way we came was too much hassle, so we went the way the boys had come from and took the first side passage they had skipped. It was more park, but this time the sides were slanted and the tree roots slanted to follow the ground even though the trunks were vertical.
It wasn't that the boys only paid attention to Minya, exactly, but she got all the attention unless someone else was demanding it. Of course she liked it, people were basically telling her how pretty she was and some of them were cute guys. She was kind of embarrassed and worried too, though, especially when Alison tried to get Will to notice her. At least Jonah walked with me and Pamela, although he looked at Minya a lot. (I couldn't be mad at him, since I was watching her too.)
Pamela leaned in close. "Nef, what's wrong?" She pointed at my butt, or really at my tail, which was still fluffed up and lashing.
"Last time I was around a bunch of boys who smelled like that, it didn't end well."
"Oh. Oh no. Did..." She paused, obviously afraid to ask the question.
"It was all 'you're so pretty' and 'it'll feel good' until the blood and the screaming and the having to move to another state." Saying it out loud was almost like being there again for a moment, the moment when I said to let go of me and they ignored it. Pamela and Jonah flinched away from me, and I realized I was hissing. I didn't think it was loud enough for the other group walking a ways ahead to hear, but Minya just happened to look back right then. Oh crap! I clapped my hands over my mouth, but she stared horrified at me even after I covered my fangs. She was going to think I was a monster!
Everyone else turned around to see what Minya was looking at. I hid behind Jonah. "Nefertari? Is everything OK?" I heard Minya's bare feet coming toward us, but was too mortified to do anything. I didn't care if the boys thought I was a monster, and Alison already did, but I didn't want Minya to hate me!
"What's wrong?" This voice was deep, and went with the scent of a boy who'd been having two pretty twins flirting with him. It was OK if Will hated me, but I didn't want him to think I was a wimp. I stepped out from behind Jonah and said, "Nothing, don't worry about it" in my least inviting voice.
"OK..." He obviously didn't believe it was nothing, but probably didn't care as long as I wasn't making him look bad in front of the twins. Minya stepped forward and put a hand on my arm, though.
"You're sure you're OK?" She looked down at me with her big hazel eyes all soft. Maybe she was horrified that I was upset, not that I was me? But everyone was staring at us!
"Yes, I'm fine," I said, but too sharply. She let go and stepped back, even when I tried to smile at her. "Sorry, I've been dealing with Mina Tauros and her stupid maze for way too long."
Then everyone gathered around me and I had to tell the story of my three different adventures. I left out the many secret or embarrassing parts, like being naked and Jacob's tentacle-hair and who my mom is and that Alice has the hots for her and that I can walk right past ghouls without being noticed, but it was still a pretty good story. James and George go to Miller Middle School, the public school for our area, and so did Will before high school, so none of them knew Alice, but Jonah's eyes bugged out when he imagined her with a torn shirt, until Pamela elbowed him in the ribs.
I didn't exaggerate any of the true parts, but I'm not sure the new people (did Jonah count as one of my friends now?) believed all of it, even when Jonah and Pamela and the twins confirmed the parts they saw. When I was done, Will said, "So you fought 3 ghouls?"
"I had help both times, so more like 1½ ghouls."
"Huh." He was trying to be cool, but I could tell he was impressed. He also wasn't as scared of ghouls as he should have been, but I couldn't figure out how to make him take them seriously without bragging that he wouldn't believe. Hopefully it wouldn't make him do anything stupid.
When we got moving again, we were all one big noisy group. George, who thought he was the smart one, had lots of theories about Tauros's stick being a power amplifier and people's houses having been transmuted into parts of the maze and houses with teenagers having been targeted because Tauros was mad at me specifically. Pamela and Jonah mostly agreed with him, but I could tell that Pamela knew more than she was saying. I wanted to grill her, but if she wasn't talking, it was for a reason.
Although we all agreed that we wanted to go up, the tunnels we found by following the left-hand rule kept going down. There was half a mile or a mile of park, each section slanting downwards a little, and then squared-off tunnels made of cinderblock with steps in the middle of each tunnel section. Except for the steps and the lack of lights, this was a lot like the regular maze, but the stairs went down (or sometimes up, but mostly down) about 3' each time, so there was nothing like the definite levels I'd seen before.
The lower we went, the colder it got. At first, it was just obvious that the twins weren't wearing bras under their pajamas, but soon George started shivering, then the shirtless boys and the girls with bare legs, and finally even James and I. (Pamela had a windbreaker in her Purse of Many Things, but wouldn't share!) I wanted to keep going, because we'd never run into anything like this before, but poor Minya was turning blue with cold even though she was huddled against Will's side.
"This is nonsense," George burst out. (He didn't say "nonsense".) "Maybe there's something down there, but we don't want to go down! We want to get out of here! At least I do!" He turned around and started stomping back the way we came. Will nodded, and ushered the twins, one under each arm, after him, with James tagging along behind.
Jonah and Pamela looked at the next set of stairs going down, but Jonah was shivering in nothing but sweatpants, even with Pamela's arm around him. "I think you're right that something's down there, Nef, but we aren't equipped to find out what. If we can get some more clothes..." I put my arm around him too, though it was kind of embarrassing to have that much skin contact, and we got out of there.
Back at the start of the cinderblock zone, we all huddled together in a circle for warmth and planning. By chance (I think) we ended up boy-girl-boy-girl so James was between me and Minya, darn it. At least his pajamas were flannel.
"We should go back and try that one with the gazebos," said George. "It looked like it might lead to people or at least buildings or something."
"We can switch to the right-hand rule, but we should use one or the other," said Pamela. "If we just run after every tunnel that looks good, we'll miss lots of stuff and probably the way out."
"I don't see how this hand rule stuff–" (he didn't say stuff, but I hope you're getting the idea about George) "–guarantees we won't miss anything anyway!"
Pamela started to explain about non-looping mazes being trees and chopping off branches again, but I didn't try to help. "Jonah, did you guys see any water on your way in? We're almost out, and we need water a lot more than we need food."
"Where I came in, there was a pool, but nothing since then."
"If the maze really is made out of Rhodes, the water tower by my house should be here somewhere," Will put in.
"Lots of stuff should be in here, including our parents, but I don't know how to find them except by looking everywhere." I sighed. While I was busy worrying about boys and freezing to death and Minya's legs, I hadn't had any worry left over for Mom or Dad or even Alice or Lou. (Was it terrible of me to think about Minya's legs and not Alice's? That sort of thing had always seemed to work for Mom, except when it caused supervillains to hold grudges for a generation.) "Minya was right, though, there should be more people down here, adults. Something is going on, and I don't know what. I wish we could do something to get Tauros's attention."
"So she could kick your butt again?"
I stuck my tongue out at Jonah, even though he was right. I hadn't managed to do anything against her, not even let Alice get away. But Tauros would have to drag me to my mom if she wanted to tear me limb from limb in front of her, and maybe then we could do something. Or I could get torn limb from limb. I sighed again. "We need a brilliant idea, and I don't have any."
"I have one," said George, and he hit me in the face with a rock.
He was only human, but he had a lot of muscles under his fat, and I was completely not expecting that! The ground smacked me in the back of the head, leaving my brain a fuzz of pain behind the agony in my face. I tried to get my feet under me and my hands between us, but I got squashed under his weight and then hit again before anyone could pull him off me.
There was a lot of yelling that I couldn't make sense of, and Mina Tauro's name, but I was busy curling into a ball around my ribs that had just started to heal when a psycho crash-landed on them. Ow, ow, OW! My chest spasmed, sucking snot down into my lungs, which tried to expel it by clenching up even more and shoving the snot through my broken face. I would have screamed if I could have.
"Nef, Nef!" Jonah and Minya turned me over on my side, which I remembered from first-aid class was to keep me from choking to death if I threw up. I didn't have anything in my stomach, though.
A boy screamed, and I opened my eyes to see through the blue glow (how did I manage to sneeze on my own eyes?!) that Pamela was looming over George, who was on his, hugging one arm to his chest. He must have tried to block a kick from her magic shoes. "What is wrong with you?" She didn't sound upset, but she smelled it.
George was hurt and scared, but determined. "Mina Tauros! Let us go or we'll kill your hostage and she won't be any use to you!"
"I never would have thought of that." I tried standing up again and this time made it, with only a little help from Minya. "Because I'm not a sociopath!"
James and Alison were still staring in shock, but Will was looking like he understood George's plan. It didn't matter what he thought of it, though, because behind them, the cinderblocks rearranged to form a wall where there had been a passage between two petrified trees. Then the wall exploded, showering them with the concrete blocks, and Mina Tauros stepped out.
"That was a good plan, kid," she said, looking down at George. "Cold as heck, but good thinking." (She didn't say "heck", or anything like it.) "If you manage to stay out of juvie, look me up sometime. You could go far."
Everyone was staring at Tauros now, but not because she was wearing only the barely-decent remains of her leather jeans. Even James wasn't paying attention to her naked chest. Pamela took one step back from George, but Tauros looked toward her and shook her head. "I'm not glad you took up with Slink's little mutant here, but I can let it slide if you remember who your friends are." Pamela reeked of rage, but she managed to not say anything.
The culvert behind Tauros cracked and shattered and became a staircase leading up. "You pushed your luck, kids, but you're getting away with it this time. Take your crazy friend and get out of here." She didn't need to tell the Lees twice: Will scooped up George, ignoring his cry of pain at having his broken arm knocked around, and they took off up the stairs.
Alison was paralyzed between fear of Tauros (she'd peed herself at some point) and love for her sister, looking back and forth between us and the stairs. Pamela and Jonah traded a look, and then Jonah was pulling Minya away from me. "Come on, we have to get you and Alison back to your family," he said gently when she didn't want to let go of me. That was so sweet I wanted to give her a goodbye kiss, but I'd gotten Alice in trouble just by watching her walk; if I kissed Minya, Tauros would probably tear her arms off just to spite me. I didn't want to die, but if I had to, I would do my best to make sure no one else did.
"I'm not leaving," Pamela said. "I started this mess by bringing Nefertari to the flea market, so I should see it through to the end." I could smell that she had a plan, but I had no idea what it was.
"No one ever said you didn't have guts. OK, both of you come on." She stomped toward us, hooves thudding on the ground, and past.
The long park tunnel was now stair-stepped across its whole width, and the petrified trees had been replaced by wells that shot yellow flame to the ceiling, forming a broad hall that descended into the depths. It actually looked a lot like the entrance to the Temple of Zarnath in Quest of Unknown Dreams; was Mina Tauros a player? I couldn't wrap my brain around that, even though I knew she played some video game with Pamela.
Tauros was one 20'-wide step ahead of us when she looked back and noticed we weren't following. She didn't say anything, but the ceiling rumbled and sand sifted down. We both took the hint.
My breath still wasn't working right, and I had to lean on Pamela for a ways, while she tried to mop my face off with kleenex, but we managed to keep up with Tauros. By the first landing, I was able to walk by myself and even make smart remarks. "Were you just watching us flail around in the maze to entertain yourself?"
"I had things to do. You weren't that funny."
"You showed up fast enough when George was trying to beat Nef's face in. What would you have done if the ghouls got her?"
She answered right away, "They didn't, did they?" but the scent of surprise gave her away. She hadn't known about the ghouls! Because she hadn't been watching? Because she couldn't watch everywhere in the maze? Or because the ghouls were cloaking themselves from her? Either way, there had to be something we could do with this! I gave Pamela a look that I hope clued her in, but her face stayed blank.
"Was that really the Rod of Ngyasath? You could have gotten a fortune for it."
"I still might. Maybe your family will bid on it."
Who was Pamela's family that they would want to buy some kind of magic log? And that they could afford it (I was sure anything that amplified powers would cost a fortune or 2)? I really wanted to ask her, but I didn't want to give anything away to Tauros, not even that I didn't know Pamela very well even though I liked her. Anyway, if Pamela told me anything, Tauros would probably take that as being on my side and do something horrible to her. But when we got out of here, I was going to have questions for her!
I coughed up another wad of mucus. (Ow. How could something that was just watery goo feel so hard and pointy on the way out?) I though about spitting it at Tauros in hopes of infecting her, but even though she was weird, she wasn't technically a Changed, and deliberately spreading disease probably wasn't a good idea. If Mom and Alice and Erika and everyone didn't have it yet, I didn't want them getting it from Tauros! I spit it into one of the fire-wells instead, hoping it would do something cool like turn the flame blue, but it just disappeared with a faint sizzle.
Another landing. It was getting cold again, making the snot and blood left on my face congeal in a way that felt really disgusting and was probably just as horrible to look at. I felt okay except for the coughing, though. Maybe I could get Tauros to underestimate me?
"What is that crap on your face?" (She didn't– you get the idea.)
"You mean the blood from where your new boyfriend tried to crush my face?"
"You really are your mother's daughter. No, the glowing crap. Are you radioactive now?"
"Just some virus designed to kill people who aren't human enough by the standards of a talking rock. Maybe it'll work better on you than me."
She snorted. "If you give me that crap, I'll use your skin for a handkerchief." Did she smell a tiny bit worried, though? There had to be some way I could use this!
Pamela shrugged out of her jacket and draped it over my shoulders, which was sweet of her since she wasn't wearing a whole lot more above the waist than I was. Or was she trying to play up that I was sick? Tauros hadn't turned around, but she must have heard the rustle of nylon.
I held onto Pamela's hand and tried to suck the ideas out of her brain by osmosis, like some kind of mental amoeba. Nothing, but at least her hand was warm. I guessed we were as far down as we'd been in the cinderblock zone, cold enough to see our breath in the firelight, and the stairs just kept going down in a kind of square spiral.
I couldn't ask Pamela how to kick Tauros's butt without getting her in trouble, but maybe I could ask about other things. "So what's this Rod of Nygsath?"
"Ngyasath. Well, the story is that it was made by a sorcerer named Ephraim Whitekirk in the 1700s, but there aren't any reliable reports from before the Gravekeepers, so who really knows?"
I nodded. When the Gravekeepers had showed up in 1965 and outed the ghouls by bombarding their warrens with energy beams, all kinds of strange things had come out of the shadows. Some of them claimed to be ancient, or at least have ancient wisdom, but they never provided much to back that up. There were a few things that were definitely very old, like the Serpent People and the secret city of plant monsters underneath Antarctica, but not human things. Unless Tauros really was 3000 years old.
Pamela went on. "It's supposed to 'make wreakings great and wondrous strange', but I guess it amplifies and distorts superpowers too. Most powers are pretty strange already, though."
Tauros snorted again. "At least I came by mine honestly."
"How did you get your powers? No one I've talked to seems to know."
"Maybe I'll tell you someday, if you stay loyal long enough to get old enough to drink with me."
"8 more years?!" Pamela pouted, but she didn't mean it. "Oh well."
I appreciated the help, but this wasn't getting anywhere, and I was starting to feel dizzy. I didn't think it was panic like before, but I didn't think that then either. I stopped for a minute to breathe, and cough some more glowing blue gunk onto the nice clean floors. Tauros turned around to glare at us, but I said, "Sick, remember? Do you want to carry me?" and spit out some more yuck.
"Stalling isn't going to help you," she said, but she didn't come any closer, just scowled and kicked gouges into the stone floor until I started moving again. She was definitely scared of the Stone Philosopher cooties, but I still had no idea how to use that against her.
Before we'd gone down another landing, Pamela and I were huddled together inside her jacket. How could it be so cold when there were huge fires on both sides of us? Or maybe the question was, how cold would it be without them? The cold didn't bother Tauros at all, and she kept turning around to glare as we shuffled slowly (more than I had to) along behind her.
I guessed each landing was about a story down, but I had no idea how many we'd passed when we finally got to the bottom of the stairway. It had probably stopped getting colder a while back, since the air wasn't liquid, but I couldn't feel my feet or tail or most of my skin. I was also really thirsty, which seemed to be the other theme of this place. At least we hadn't had to stop for a bathroom break, so I hadn't had to pull down my pants in front of Tauros (not that I had anything she hadn't seen after the first time) or in the freezing cold.
The left-hand wall (and fires) ended, and the long, wide steps continued along the wall of a huge cave. The only light came from the remaining fires, but I could tell that the floor below us was covered with ice, and out there in the darkness was something tall and glittering. Sparkling lines spread out from it across the floor and ceiling, like a tree of ice.
It was too dark for human eyes, so I shouldn't have been surprised when Pamela pulled out a huge flashlight and lit the place up, but I was, and blinded by the glare from the ice. "Nyaaaah!"
Tauros had words, but not repeatable ones. "Turn that down!" Her eyes glowed devil-red in the light.
"Oh, sorry." Pamela adjusted the light so it was a narrow beam shooting off into the darkness. Sure enough, that was a tree of ice out there, bigger and further than it seemed if those little dark spots at the base were people. Its branches forked out to support a domed ceiling of white stone, and its roots were like a maze of low walls across the icy floor. It was hard to be sure through all the reflections, but there might have been a dark core to the trunk, and I was pretty sure I knew what it was.
I had a plan, but was there too much ice in the way? Even if there was, it would only get me killed, not anyone else. Not even George, who was probably safe and warm with the police, planning his career in finance or politics.
Grumbling under her breath, Tauros led us out onto the ice. Even though my school shoes sheathed my claws, I could have balanced, but I played up my dizziness (which wasn't getting much worse, luckily), landed hard on my butt, and began slowly untying my shoes. I tried suppressing my presence just a little, so that she wouldn't look too closely at my pretend fumbling, but I don't know if it worked, because she snarled, "Get a move on!"
"Can't you see she's sick?" Pamela snapped back, and she knelt down to help me. I tried to project that I had a plan through a moment of eye contact while keeping my body language woozy and defeated (if that looked like freezing, then I was golden), and she at least seemed ready to back me up.
The entire lower back half of my body was numb from sitting down, and my feet went beyond numb to agonized when I stood up, but my claws gave me plenty of traction that I tried to not show I had. I leaned on Pamela as we followed Tauros to the giant tree of ice, and tried not to cough.
The base of the tree was probably about as big around as my house, or at least a classroom, and the dark spots were in fact people frozen into it. There was my mom, with only her face free from the ice. She looked dead, pale and shrunken and still, but I could smell that she was still alive, barely. Around the curve of the tree was X-Wave, imprisoned the same way, and Ironstar was completely buried in the ice. Whatever they'd had to run off to deal with had turned out to be a trap of Mina Tauros's.
If I thought about all the things that could go wrong, I wouldn't do it, so I didn't. I let all the coughs I'd been holding back come up as I got to Tauros, spattering her and the ice between us with digusting glowing blue mucus, and she recoiled in fear or maybe just disgust and fell on her butt.
She was back on her hooves in an instant, but it was enough time for me to dig my claws in and leap with all the strength I had left in my frozen body. I latched onto the icy trunk and scampered up just ahead of her two-fisted impact. She made a crater a couple of feet deep in the ice, but couldn't hold on and slipped back to the ground. By the time she could make another leap, I was up among the branches, not higher than she could jump but further in than she could reach.
While she was trying, I was frantically clawing at the ice between the bases of the branches, right over the centerline and the dark shape there. If it had been as far down from there as in from the outside of the trunk, I would have frozen to death long before reaching the Rod, but it was only a couple of feet. I brought up a last handful of ice chips, dug my claws into the bottom of the hole, and hit something so hard even my claws couldn't scratch it.
"What did I just tell you about betrayal?" Tauros roared. She couldn't get to me, so she was turning on Pamela. There was no way she was 3000 years old; I couldn't see how someone so unstable could even make it to 70!
"I had no idea she was going to do that!" Pamela yelled back. "Do I look like an– ULK!"
That sounded like being grabbed intimidatingly by the throat, not being pounded into mush, but I still needed to hurry up. The only problem was, I had no idea how to work the Rod of Nargle-Garble! In stories, power amplifiers usually just worked when you used your powers, usually when you weren't expecting it. Well, I wasn't expecting this to work, so I put my hand flat on the end of the Rod and tried to suppress my presence, Pamela's presence, my mom's, X-Wave's, Ironstar's, anyone else trapped in the ice, and generally everyone except Mina Tauros.
For a moment, I thought nothing was happening, but then the Rod, now back to the size I'd first seen it, tried to pull me into the tree-trunk-sized hollow it had left in the trunk of the ice tree by sticking to my hand. Below, Tauros bellowed "WHAT?!" (with some extra cuss words) and I heard someone fall to the ground and scrabble away over the ice. Then she realized that everyone was gone (as far as she knew) and bellowed without any words at all. The ice tree shook violently and I almost feel into the hollow after all, but I got my claws into the base of a branch and pulled the magic log and myself back out.
When I peeked over the edge, Tauros was punching huge craters into the ice, but so far she hadn't hit anyone because she couldn't see them and couldn't even remember where they had been. (Pamela was on her elbows and butt a little ways away, rubbing her throat but otherwise fine.) Sooner or later, Tauros was going to hit someone just by luck, so I hurried to climb down, but between having a log that weighed more than I did stuck to one palm and shaking from the cold that hadn't disappeared with the Rod's change, I fell most of the way and landed right on my face and chest. I couldn't help screaming, but I didn't drop my power, so Tauros didn't notice.
Between pain and cold, I wasn't able to get up, or at least getting a new mom seemed easier, but Pamela hurried over (did her shoes give her magic ice cleats?) and pulled me upright. "That was brilliant!" She didn't have to whisper, but I couldn't blame her: those punches of Tauros's would have killed a tank, never mind a half-frozen teenager. They would also kill my mom or X-Wave, and they were getting closer!
"I have this," Pamela whispered, and took two steps and launched a magic-shoe-powered kick at the ice over my mom's stomach. I winced, but the ice was thick enough there that it just cracked, and I was able to pull the pieces away and catch Mom as she slumped into my arms and we both slid to the ground. She was barely breathing, but when I leaned my ear on her back, I could hear her heartbeat.
That was when Tauros gave up on punching the tree and started caving in the room.
Maybe it was more like one of those trapped rooms from an old movie, with walls of stone sliding over the stairway we'd come in by and the other sides of the room and the ceiling grinding down, but it was really scary. The upper branches of the ice tree broke off, fell, and shattered like fragmentation grenades even when they missed us. One small branch fell right on top of me where I huddled over Mom, hitting me right on the back and knocking me flat. It almost knocked me out, in fact, but I stayed curled over my mom's head and body even when I wasn't aware of anything except pain and dizziness.
"HAH!" Even with a magic log, I couldn't keep my power up through that, and Tauros pounced, grabbing a catgirl neck in either hand. "NO MORE PLAYING!"
But there was still time for distraction! Before she could actually pop our heads off, there was a shriek that stabbed right through my poor abused brain. Behind her, I could see X-Wave sitting straight up on the ice, eyes and mouth wide like she'd just been given electroshock, and Pamela holding onto her arm. Then I lost sight of her as Tauros whirled around.
I barely had enough time to realize that if X-Wave was awake, I should close my eyes when I got turned inside-out and filled with howling ice zombies that chewed on my nose and ribs and shoulders and chest. Then I hit something hard with my knees, tumbled head-over-heels, and threw up all over myself. Since I hadn't had anything to eat in ages, it was just bile, but ewwwwwww!
There was more minotaur bellowing behind me, but it wasn't getting closer, so I took my time squirming around to see what was going on. I had a good idea what I would see, and sure enough, Mina Tauros was huddled on the ground, digging her hands in like she was afraid she'd fall off, and alternately cussing in a language I didn't know and throwing up. I crawled over to Mom, who was still mercifully unconscious on the stone floor (still cold, I wasn't sure I would ever be warm again), and waited for X-Wave to come back. She did, in a streak of yellow-green light, and this time when she teleported us, I passed out too.
* * *
Thank god I was wrong. It was possible to be warm, although it seemed to involve so many blankets that I couldn't move, and tubes stuck into my arm. That was OK. I wasn't even thirsty any more, although I kind of wanted to go– ow! What had happened to me down there?! I yowled and tried to claw the blankets off, but my dad was there, holding my wrists. "It's OK, Fuzzy! You're safe, we're in the hospital."
When I'm already worried about things happening to me, being restrained doesn't usually help, but if my dad said it was OK, it probably was. "What did they&ndash?" I couldn't gesture, but I twitched, and he got it and blushed.
"Probably the catheter. They were putting warm saline in, for hypothermia and dehydration, and eventually the water has to come out."
It wasn't actually painful, just weirdly uncomfortable and upsetting to know someone had been messing with me down there, so if I knew it was medical I could live with it for the moment. It was coming out as soon as I could get out from under these blankets, though! But enough worrying about me. "How is Mom? Pamela? Ms. Velazquez and Ms. Fisher? Is anybody still stuck in there?"
"Your mom is still out. She was cold a lot longer than you were, but the doctors are sure she'll be fine." He waved toward a curtained bed on the other side of the room. "Pamela and Terry are in their own rooms. They're both still out, but should be fine. Bonnie was fine as soon as she unfroze, so she went home to take care of Daisy and Posey. Mina is in jail, by the way."
"Oh good!" I flopped back down and pulled the blankets back up to my nose (which had something tight stuck to it, matching the tight wrappings around my chest). Then I thought of something. "Is Ms. Velazquez really OK? Pamela got her moving when she was almost dead, that can't be good for you!"
I could smell him thinking about tell me to not worry, but he decided I'm old enough for the truth. "It was pretty close for a while, the doctors had never seen anything like the stimulant Pamela dosed her with, and she kept trying to disappear into the 4th dimension, but she's stable now. We can visit her in the ICU later, if you want."
"Yeah, that would be nice." I sighed. Was it really over? "Did everyone get out of the maze?" Would Minya come visit me in the hospital? I didn't think Alice would.
"Not yet, but now that Mina isn't in there causing trouble, search and rescue teams are working on it.
I almost sat up again, but the heavy blankets and the chest bandages stopped me. "People can get in?"
"Yes, whatever Mina Tauros did to amplify her power also made the labyrinth physically present. All the displaced earth has turned several neighborhoods into a mesa, and thoroughly ruined underground utility lines, but it's nothing that can't be dealt with."
I got the hint: No talking abour the Rod of Nargle-Garble, which I realized wasn't stuck to my hand anymore. That was fine by me, as long as Tauros didn't have it. "So a happy ending for everyone except Mina Tauros?"
"A lot of people are homeless now, and some people got hurt in the labyrinth by falling down stairs and such, so I wouldn't call it happy, but so far it seems that everyone is alive."
"Oh good," I said again, and fell back asleep.
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