But it was too late. Trying to shake the feeling that I was stepping into a grave, I grabbed the ladder and started to climb down.
There are probably a few things worse than climbing into a hole that is actually underneath a creepy basement, but at that moment, it was hard to think of any of them.
I was only a few steps down the ladder before I was plunged into darkness. The dim light in the cell ar wasn't strong enough to penetrate the gloom. I was also pretty sure that the tunnel was narrower now, and as I took another step down, both my shoulders brushed the walls.
The metal ic taste of fear flooded my mouth as my suddenly sweaty hands slid on the iron rungs.
"Mercer?" Archer called from above me. "You okay?"
I rested my forehead on the back of my hands, and tried to keep the panic out of my voice as I replied, "Yeah, fine. Why do you ask?"
"Because you're gasping."
Oh. Now that he mentioned it, my breath was heaving in and out of my lungs pretty quickly. I made an effort to slow it down as he asked, "Is it the dark, or-" He grunted a little and shifted. Dirt rained down on me, and I shut my eyes.
"Both," I choked out. "Apparently I'm claustrophobic now. That's, uh, new. Probably a side effect of fleeing a burning building through an underground tunnel." I took another shaky breath. "Yay for psychological trauma."
"Come back up," Archer said automatically, and I kind of loved him for that.
"No," I said, willing my feet to keep moving. "We're trying to save the world here, Cross. No time for panic attacks." I kept going, one rung at a time, and eventually, Archer started moving, too. I wasn't sure how long it took us to make our way down. It felt like hours, and my heart was in my mouth the whole time as the earth itself seemed to press down on me.
Finally, the tunnel began to widen, and a dim glow penetrated the gloom. When my feet finally hit the dirt floor, I turned and found myself facing another, shorter tunnel. This one was at least six feet high and about four feet wide. Whatever the light was, it was coming from something at the end of this bigger tunnel. I turned to see Archer standing behind me, a wary expression on his face. "In my experience, nothing good glows," he said.
"That's not true," I answered, slipping my hand in his. We began walking toward the light. "Lots of good things glow. Glow sticks. Glowworms.
Awesome glow-in-the-dark shirts..."
He snorted with laughter, but his fingers tightened on mine. We kept walking, and something cold and wet dripped on my neck. I shivered but kept moving. The light grew brighter. Archer and I turned a corner, and as soon as we did, a low moan filled the air. It took me a second to realize that it had come from me.
We were facing a large, brick-lined room. The glow we'd seen came from a single bare bulb on a cord, just like the one upstairs in the cell ar.
Standing in the chamber, shoulder-to-shoulder, were about a dozen kids. Or at least, they'd once been kids.
They gazed sightlessly ahead, arms rigid at their sides, like mechanical dolls waiting for someone to turn them on. Behind me, Archer muttered something, but I couldn't really hear him. A wave of nausea swept over me as I moved in front of Nick, staring into his blank eyes. Daisy stood next to him, her dark hair messy, lips slightly open, as if she'd been in the middle of saying something when she was frozen. Behind them, I saw Anna and Chaston. The glamour they'd used to make themselves as beautiful as Elodie was gone now, so they looked a lot plainer than I remembered.
They also looked younger, and pain shot through my chest.
I remembered joking with Nick in the garden at Thorne, using magic to dress each other in stupid clothes. And how he used to look at Daisy.
The way she'd unconsciously curl into him whenever they were sitting together.
"She's keeping people down here in storage," I said, my voice echoing. "Like they're things. Archer. This is...Look, I knew whatever was down here would be bad. It's not like Lara Casnoff would use a powerful blood spell to guard her chocolate chip cookie recipe. But this?"
"Yeah," Archer said softly. "This goes beyond bad, and straight into nightmarish." He rested his hand on the back of my neck. "This is the guy who attacked me in the mill, right?" He nodded at Nick.
"Yeah. They must've caught him somehow." I reached out and touched Nick's hand. It was cold and waxy.
"What do you think happened to all of them?"
"I don't know. It might be the holding spell. Or it might be some other kind of magic on top of that." There was so much dark power coming off these kids that I knew they were all demons. Every single one of them. Between that and my own powers so frantic inside of me, I couldn't get a sense of just how much magic was actually going on in this horrible little cavern.
Archer blew out a long breath. "I never thought I'd feel sorry for someone who tried to disembowel me."
"It wasn't him. I mean, it was, but it wasn't. The Casnoffs made him into a monster. Since they raised him, they...I don't know, sicced him on you. They made all of them into monsters." I waved my hand at the other kids standing there in this little holding cell. "And if the Casnoffs have their way, we'll all end up down here."
Pulling me closer, Archer murmured, "We're not going to let that happen."
"How?" I cried out, the word bouncing around the room. "Look at what we're up against, Cross. We can't use magic. We can't leave this place." I flung my hand out. "We don't even know what's going on in the rest of the world. All we can do is-is play Scooby-Doo in the cell ar."
"That's not all we can do, Sophie," Archer said.
Whenever Archer used my first name, I knew he was serious. "What do you mean?" He backed up a few steps. "Look, you want the Casnoffs gone and these kids saved, or at least.....well, put out of their misery, I guess. You don't want anyone to raise demons ever again. There are other people who want those things, too."
"Please tell me you are not talking about The Eye."
He looked away and shoved his hands in his pockets. "I'm just saying that you and The Eye have a common goal here." I wasn't sure if I was stunned, or angry, or disgusted. It was kind of a mixture of all three. "Okay, is there a gas leak down here? Or did you hit your head on the tunnel? Because that's really the only excuse for you saying something so freaking stupid."
"Oh, you're right, Mercer," he said. "The idea of trying to fight an army of demons with a bunch of trained soldiers is beyond ridiculous. Maybe we can go get Nausicaa and see if she'll give us some faerie dust to make the problem go away."
"Don't be a jackass," I snapped.
"Then don't be naive," he retorted. "This is too big for us to handle, Sophie. This is too big for Prodigium to deal with on their own. But if we could all work together, there's a chance that-"
"What do you think, Cross? That we'll ask The Eye to help us, and they'll be all, 'Sure, no problem! And once we're done wiping out the demons, we certainly won't kill the rest of you, even though that's like, our mission in life!'" Glaring at me, Archer said, "And a few months ago, you thought that's all that the Brannicks were, too.
Prodigium kill ers. But you certainly weren't opposed to getting their help to deal with this." I blinked at him, faltering. "Th-that's different," I sputtered. "They're my-"
"Your family?" he asked quietly. "Because The Eye is mine."
"But you're not one of them. Not really."
"Yeah, Mercer, I am," he said. "And if you don't get that by now..." He heaved a sigh as he rubbed the back of his neck, looking at some point over my shoulder. "Whatever," he finally summed up.
He turned away and started walking back toward the ladder. I stared at his back for a few seconds before following him. It was hard to believe that just a little while ago, we'd been joking and kissing; and thinking about that, I had a sudden urge to burst into tears. Couldn't our relationship be easy and happy for more than a couple of hours at a time?
We made our way back up the ladder, and this time, I was too miserable and angry to feel claustrophobic. At the top, he leaned back in to give me a hand up, but I batted it away and heaved myself out of the tunnel.
I shut the trap door behind me, and without saying anything, we maneuvered the shelf back over it. Then I walked past him, heading for the cell ar steps. I was on the first one when I felt his fingers encircle my wrist. "Sophie, come on. I don't want to fight with you." Turning, I opened my mouth to say I didn't want to fight with him either. But before I could, I saw the tell tale flash out of the corner of my eye, and the next thing I knew, my arm was jerking out of his grasp. "If you don't want to fight with her, maybe you shouldn't suggest she team up with people who want to kill her," my voice snarled.
Archer backed up so fast he nearly stumbled, and I wasn't sure I'd ever seen him look so freaked out. But he recovered quickly. "Elodie, if I wanted to talk to you, I'd do a seance or something. Maybe go on an episode of Ghost Hunters. But right now, I want to talk to Sophie. So clear out."
Elodie had no intention of doing that. "You always were a crappy boyfriend," she said. "Once you left, I chalked that up to you, you know, not actually liking me. But unless I'm blind as well as dead, you really like Sophie. In fact, hard as it is for me to fathom, I think you love her." Shut up, shut up, shut up!
Screw that, she retorted. You two spend all your time making stupid jokes and being all witty. Someone has to get real.
"What's your point?" Archer asked, narrowing his eyes at me. Her. Whatever. God, this was getting confusing.
"Call loves her, too, you know. And the last time I checked, he wasn't part of a cult of monster kill ers. I'm just saying that if you're going have loyalties that divided, maybe it's time to bow out gracefully."
You couldn't say Elodie didn't know how to make a dramatic exit. The next thing I knew, I was pitching forward into Archer's arms, my head swimming.
Archer clutched my waist and then abruptly shoved me at arm's length. "Sophie?" he asked, looking intently into my eyes.
"Yeah," I said, my voice shaking. "I'm back."
His fingers loosened, becoming more of a caress than a grip. "So you can't control when she swoops in like that? She can just take you over...
I tried to laugh, but it came out more of a cough. "You know Elodie. I don't think anyone has ever controlled her." Frowning, Archer pulled his hands back and shoved them in his pockets. "Well, that's awesome." I grabbed the railing to steady myself. "Archer...that stuff she said. You know it's not true." He shrugged and moved past me onto the steps. "Saying the most hateful thing possible is like Elodie's superpower. Don't worry about it." He paused and looked over his shoulder. "We should probably go tell Jenna what we found down there." Oh, right. We'd just unearthed a whole bunch of demons. That probably trumped our relationship issues. Another few seconds passed. "Come on, Mercer," Archer said, holding his hand out to me.
This time, I took it.