Chapter 19—The Basement
“You want us to go down there?” Brandon’s eyebrows shot up.
“Yeah,” Max said.
The stairs leading to the basement started under the stairs in the foyer. The door had been wallpapered and trimmed to match the rest of the walls, like a secret passageway to hell.
Max looks more like he’s ready for a nap than a battle with a demon prince. Lucas stood behind Brandon, gazing down the uneven cement stairs that led to a dark basement. A single bulb hung from the sloped ceiling, the only element holding back the blackness that swallowed the final steps. Lucas shuddered. He could sense Phil getting agitated behind him.
“I’ll go first,” Vanessa pushed herself between Lucas and Brandon, and stopped at the top of the stairs. She looked at Max, “Are you sure about this?”
“Very sure.” Max turned a little grayer and his shoulders slumped.
“You can’t lie,” Lucas squeezed Max’s shoulder through his black tee shirt. “Even to make it better for somebody else.” He looked at Vanessa. “I’ll be right behind you. After all, we’ll both be trying to get our deals.”
“So you’re sure about this?” She asked Max again.
“Not at all,” he gave her a weak smile. His color got a shade lighter. The edges of Max’s lips turned up as Lucas dropped his hand from the other boy’s shoulder, but the half-hearted smile didn’t reach his eyes.
Taking a deep breath, Vanessa stepped down, her booted foot making a soft ‘thunk’ on the hard cement.
The one place we want to sneak into had to be the only place in the house without carpet. Lucas held his bangs out of his eyes as he looked down into the undefined darkness. “Shouldn’t we have a flashlight or something?” he asked Max.
Max pointed. Vanessa had pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and was using the glow from the screen to cast an eerie light on the steps in front of her. The stairs looked like they went a long way down.
I guess you need a pretty big basement if you’re going to keep over-sized evil pets. Lucas followed Vanessa after she was a few steps down. She was almost out of the light cast by the bulb on the ceiling, and her phone didn’t reveal much below.
“Okay, here goes,” Brandon’s voice was a hoarse whisper, then he started humming an action movie theme. Lucas looked up to shoosh him, but Brandon was bent over to his toes. Cassy stood behind him, her face saying ‘Ew’ as Brandon’s butt ended up higher than his belly.
“What is he doing?” Lucas mouthed to Max.
Max shrugged and mouthed back, “I don’t know.”
Brandon straightened up and stretched his arms above his head, still humming. He pulled his beanie down to his ears and tucked his hair inside the edges. He tiptoed on the first step and checked both directions, looking at Cassy behind him and Lucas in front. She looked like she might kill Brandon before Zagan would even have a chance to do anything to him. Brandon only followed Lucas for a few steps before he tapped him on the shoulder.
“Um, maybe I should go up and help guard the top of the stairs with Zombie Girl.”
With the light behind his head, Brandon’s face was in shadow. Lucas couldn’t see his expression, but he didn’t need to see it to know that Brandon couldn’t decide what he wanted more, to leave the basement, or to be with Sandra. Either way, Lucas didn’t blame the kid for wanting to cut on him and go.
“She’ll be fine.” Lucas whispered.
“I know. I’m just not sure I will.” Brandon whispered back.
As Brandon bobbed his head in uneasy agreement, the light above him flashed in Lucas’s eyes. He turned toward the stairs, waiting for his vision to adjust to the darkness enough to see the back of Vanessa’s suit jacket. By the time he could see again, she was several steps down, and Lucas hurried to catch up so that he could peek ahead in the light of her phone.
The stairs ended in a section that was roughly framed, the two-by-fours exposed in the eerie glow. Beyond that was more unknown blackness. From the length of the stairs, Lucas guessed that the ceilings were high, at least ten feet, and there was no telling how far it went in any other direction.
Brandon pressed against his back as the group all made it down the stairs and crowded behind Vanessa. She stalled, unsure where to go. She waved her phone around, hoping to find something that would give her a clue about Tate.
The basement smelled like damp cement and dirt, oozing a chill that was from more than just the subterranean temperature. Lucas shivered. He caught a glimpse of uneven stone walls on the very fringes of the light.
One of the tall boys grunted as the group shuffled. Max pushed his way out of the press of bodies past Brandon and Lucas and stood next to Vanessa.
“That way,” he pointed to the left.
“How do you know?” Tom’s voice echoed hollowly off of the stone.
“Smell,” Max answered.
A thin draft of air brushed at Lucas’s bangs. “Formaldehyde.”
Max nodded. Vanessa looked at the group with an uncertain smile, then flashed her cell phone light to the left and picked her way along the floor. It shifted from cement to dirt, getting colder as they left the stairs behind and ventured into a tunnel of some kind. Lucas wished they had more for light, but as it was, the cell phone glow would probably be harder for one of Zagan’s minions to discover than the beam from a flashlight.
“At Mendacium we look for Truth, which I know can be rather ugly sometimes,” Lucas said, trying to mimic Zagan’s deep voice.
“What?” Brandon asked from the darkness behind him.
“Something Zagan said to me this morning. I thought he was telling me not to lie, but he was talking about Tate.”
“Shhhh,” Cassy hissed behind them. “You are being so loud.”
Lucas glanced back in response, then bumped into something warm and wearing cotton. Max. His blond hair had a subtle gleam. He grabbed Lucas’s arm, holding him steady as the group stopped in a huddle. Ahead the tunnel veered sharply to the right. It took Lucas a moment to realize that Vanessa was no longer holding up her cell phone. A glow lit the stone wall of the tunnel, the source somewhere beyond the turn. Where Vanessa’s phone had cast a weak, grayish green puddle of light, this glow was more of a silvery white, like a mix of sunlight and moonlight.
Vanessa stood and stared at it as the group collected behind her. When Hayden and Gaevin stopped poking each other and everyone was still, she took a deep breath and turned around.
“If…” she paused.
Lucas wished he could see her face, but the light behind her cast her features completely in shadow.
“No matter what happens,” she began again. “I wanted to take the chance to tell you I’m sorry that I helped Zagan bring you here. I never meant to put any of you in danger. He just…he has my sister, and–”
“We get it,” Tom cut her off. “You are here for your sister, Lucas has his dad. But, for the rest of us, this is all there is. Nobody’s coming for us.”
“Yeah, we think it’s cool that you came for her,”Cassy added.
“Even if you were willing to sacrifice our souls to get her back,” Hayden or Gaevin said.
The group stood a moment in silence. Lucas listened to a couple of them fidget, waiting for somebody else to say something.
“This is so cool,” Brandon whispered loudly. “It’s just like the movies.”
“Except that it’s cold,” Cassy whispered back.
“Yeah, and it smells like dead frogs,” Tom added.
In the faint, strange light, Lucas watched Brandon shrug and play with his beanie.
“Now that we’ve had the sort of confessional goodbye moment of the movie,” Max whispered. Brandon got a goofy smile on his face and lifted his head, ready to go. “We have to actually see if that,” Max pointed at the light, “is Tate and deal with Zagan.”
Hayden and Gaevin gripped each other in a football huddle looking hug, with their foreheads together and their hands on each other’s shoulders, whispering something Lucas couldn’t hear. The rest of the group looked ahead at the turn in the tunnel.
Vanessa’s shoulders heaved as she took a deep breath and stepped carefully on the uneven dirt floor with her heeled boots, Max behind her and then Lucas. He didn’t know who was bringing up the rear, but he guessed it would be the Triforce of Contention, who didn’t seem to argue nearly as much while they were on their way to fight a demon prince and save Truth as they argued over pool.
The stones that stacked to make up the wall were uneven and discolored in the silver white glow. Lucas ran his fingers over a few of them, like he had done along a chain link fence just a couple of days ago. The stones were uneven but smooth, the odd coloring fuzzy and damp.
Thinking of the chain link fence and the kids in the park, Lucas reached into his pocket and ran his fingers over the tiger’s eye marble.
Pa, I’m coming. He promised. Just have to fix a few white lies.
As they turned the corner of the tunnel, Lucas flipped his bangs over and peered ahead over Vanessa’s shoulder. The tunnel opened into a large natural cavern, stalactites hanging from a ceiling that the light didn’t reach.
He felt a tug on his pants and looked down. His satyr grinned up at him with sharp teeth.
“No,” Lucas frowned and looked ahead. “Didn’t even notice you were gone.”
“Well, shadows only exist where there is light, and it’s sure dark in this basement. This is much better.” He sounded like he was stretching. Lucas ignored him.
“It’s Tate,” Max whispered loudly. He was in front of Vanessa now, and shorter than she was, so Lucas couldn’t see him until Vanessa stopped and the group spread out at the mouth of the tunnel.
It was Tate, but he wasn’t the awkward ugly kid with the pants that were too short and the tattered baseball cap. He was the Tate from Brandon’s sketch, giant even though he crouched on the ground, with his skin stretched over massive shoulders and long arms and his adam’s apple exaggerated in a long, sinewy neck. Tate glanced at them, his eyes pure white, almost glowing in contrast to his gray skin, then hung his head over his knees.
I wouldn’t be very hopeful about a bunch of lying orphans coming to my rescue, either. Lucas still felt weak from the lie he told Zagan about knowing who Tate was.
At first it looked like the glow came from Tate, but as Lucas looked closer, he saw that the glow came from a chain wrapped around the gray giant in a web of links. Several tiny elf creatures, like the ones from Brandon’s sketch, climbed along the chain and chewed on it with little teeth that were sharp, but not as long as the satyr’s. The chains reminded Lucas of the tubes that had glowed in the strands of sunlight coming into the hospital room. He felt sick.
Zagan’s voice filled the cavern. “I’ve been waiting for you.”