The stale air whizzed by, echoing off the narrow passage, invisible in the dark. Seconds before Roland hit the water, it seemed as though the passage opened up into a larger cavern.
He sank deep; his weightless body curled into a fetal ball, tumbling in slow-motion through the dark medium. A mass of soft tubercles pressed against his naked arm, then slid away like a spooked snake.
Roland opened his eyes wide to the black; his body uncurled and flailed. His foot struck a rocky surface and he pushed against it, kicked. He broke the water with an involuntary yelp, took in air, then tried to hold still, steady his breathing, to be as quiet as he could. He heard the tinkle of other bodies in the water.
“You better move out of the the way, the others are going to land right where you’re at.”
He paddled toward the sound of his brother’s voice.
“Something’s down there,” he found himself saying, as if, inspite of his dreams and palpable fear, he didn’t really believe it until just now.
“Yes,” came Sarah’s voice. “It stirs in its slumber. Soon it will awaken.”
They paddled in silence for a moment, beating their legs in circles, toes tingling with expectation.
Some minutes past. Nothing happened.
Then, a commotion from above, and a splash.
“Welcome to the party,” Ben said dryly.
The two new sacrifices did not reply. They began murmuring softly with words Roland could not understand. The three youths listened to them for a while until Roland turned to where he suspected Sarah might be.
“What happens now?” he asked her--the witch.
“Soon the beast will awaken just long enough to sate its hunger, before going back to sleep to await the proper alignment of the stars--the end of days.”
She said it almost by rote, as if she had been waiting for the question.
Ben chimed in.
“Basically, its cranky and hungry and ready to wreak havoc if it doesn’t eat every decade or so.”
Inspite of the situation, Roland felt sudden heat at the sound of his brother’s voice. He wanted to demand an explanation. Why had Ben kept him in the dark? Why had he sent him to the witch house when he was in league with the witch all along? Then the darkest thought. Was Ben trying to get him killed? It didn’t matter now, he reasoned. So instead of demanding answers he simply said, “Eat us, you mean.”
“It might have had to eat my corpse,” Ben said; it sounded like he was leaning back in the water, resting. “I almost drowned when I fell in. That duffle bag dragged me down, couldn’t get it off my wrist.”
“The duffel bag,” Roland said, an idea forming. “What’s in it?”
“Some silver bars, a knife, a tire iron, some bullets.”
“My oblivion bottle?”
“Yeah. That too.”
“On the bottom?”
The water roiled off in the darkness.
“Holy--! You feel that?” Ben said.
One of the voices speaking in tongues went silent with a final, watery gulp.
Roland reached out and found his brother’s bicep. He gripped it and pulled himself closer.
“We have to get to that bag,” he hissed. “The oblivion potion.”
“Dive down? Are you kidding?” Roland could hear the horror in his brother’s voice.
“You don’t understand. Dad got it from a sorceror. It’s very powerful. And it might push the thing back into hibernation.”
Sarah spoke up.
“It’s worth a try. We all dive and look for it.”
Invisibly, Sarah could be heard taking a deep breath, then a splash as she dove under.
“Well. Let’s do it then,” said Ben.
Roland clamped his eyes closed against the pitch, as if it would shield him against whatever held sway in this subterranean nightmare. He kicked down, pushed water up. The bottom could not be far. The deeper he swam the more he felt jostled by some capricious tide--perhaps the thrashing of a monster as it devoured the first of the sacrifices. The air he held in his lungs pushed painfully against the inside of his chest and just as he felt he had to turn back, his fingernails scraped against something slippery and hard. He forced himself, against his own panic and desperate need for oxygen, to remain a second longer and feel around for the duffel bag. Nothing. He flipped his legs forward and pushed off.
A moment before he broke the surface, he heard a muffled cry. His brother’s voice called for him over the sound of his own gasping.
“Roland? Is that you? I got it, I got the damn bottle. Oh my god! What was going on down there? It felt like I was swimming down into a hive of bees.”
Roland paddled toward the sound of his brother. He took hold of his arm and found the glass in his hand.
“What do we do with it now?” Ben said. “Dump it in the water?”
“No,” came Sarah’s voice, panting from exhaustion. “It might dilute the concoction. We have to feed it to the monster.”
Ben let out a bleak laugh. “We should have given it to that last guy before he went down.”
“I’ll do it,” said Sarah. “Give it to me.”
Roland gripped the glass. Could he trust her? The witch. The Murderer.
“No,” he said. “No, I need to do this. I was supposed to be Dad’s apprentice. It’s--it’s my duty.”
He kicked away from them.
“Rolly, no!” his brother called out.
He knew his brother was paddling toward him, trying to find him in the dark, to wrestle the bottle from his hands like he had done so many times when they were young and Roland was playing with a toy he coveted.
Roland swam silently away from the sound of his brother’s thrashing.
“Rolly you stupid, little brat! Get over here!”
Whatever Sarah’s motives were, he knew the anger he heard in his brother’s voice grew out of fear--fear for Roland’s safety. Now, with one last desperate chance, one of them had to go down. One of them would not make it out of this well alive.
“I love you, too,” he told his brother and filled his lungs with air.
Then, darkness. Just like my dream, he realized. He pushed deeper, closer to the chaos. Seconds later, he felt it drawing him in, like a dust mote pulled by an inhaled breath.
He uncorked the bottleneck, but stopped up the opening with his thumb. The pressure in his lungs pressed hard against his ribs. It would all be over soon. All he need do was wait.
Or perhaps the beast didn’t know he was even there. How big was the monster anyway?
He emptied his lungs with a scream that sounded dull and bassy in his ears. It felt so good to be rid of the pressure in his chest, but the void left in its place filled him with a more profound urgency. He wanted to kick to the surface.
The water warmed around him.
Like hot breath.
He had the sense that the beast’s maw gaped before him; in a moment he would be swallowed.
Something wrapped around him from behind, gripping his chest and shoulders. If air still remained in his lungs he would have screamed again. Instead his body went limp with the tingling paralysis of abject horror. He felt the bottle slip from his quivering grasp.
Reflexive instincts kicked in and he pushed against the stony floor, beat the water with all the energy he still had in his legs. The thing that gripped him did not let go--it seemed to be carrying him along, upward.
The water broke around his ears; he could hear his own breath--and someone else’s breath at his neck.
“You idiot,” Ben panted, horsley. “What were you thinking?”
“What happened?” Sarah’s voice said in the darkness.
“I dove after him, that’s what happened,” Ben said. “Heard him scream and followed the sound. Got damn close to the beast, I’ll tell you that.”
“I dropped the oblivion,” Roland managed to say between gasps.
He felt his brother, still holding him, squeeze.
“That’s alright, man. It was a longshot.”
“I uncorked it first.”
“What? I thought that would just dilute it.”
“We’ll find out.”
They treaded water for several more minutes, but found that it was better to float on their backs. After awhile they started stripping off their clothing until they lay in the dark water in their underwear.
Roland looked up into the void, his ears underwater, listening. He heard nothing. The water had calmed.
As he drifted on the surface, a round circle opened in the upper darkness and the silver disk of the moon appeared in his view. At the sight of it, he felt certain that the oblivion had worked. For now, anyway. For now, the beast slept.
He floated and thought for a while. Finally he spoke into the darkness.
“You were trying to capture it. I saw the cask. You were close. Do you have its secret name?”
Sarah’s voice came back, small and weak.
“It was given to me.”
“By Keziah-Goody. She’s the witch you were communicating with.”
“Yes. She owns the abandoned house I was working out of. My father had long suspected she was the mother witch. The long-lived. The Reis’mahd’loa.”
Roland shuddered at the words, so long forbidden to be spoken aloud.
“You asked the mother witch to teach you witchcraft?”
“No,” Ben cut in, a defensive tone to his voice. “It’s not like that. She was looking for a way to stop this from happening ever again. The sacrifices.”
“I knew it could be trapped,” Sarah continued, “but I needed help. I wasn’t even sure if my father was right about Emma, but I wrote to her anyway. We made a pact. All I wanted was the monster’s secret name, but there was so much more to learn. So much more I needed to be successful.”
“You learned the art of skin changing, Sarah,” Roland said. “You attacked me.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Please, I was so close--.”
“And the baby? Did you really--?” He couldn’t even finish the question.
Sarah did not speak for several seconds.
“She--Emma taught me the skin changing technique. She said I needed to protect the--the project. When I first took on the mantle of the wolf, it changed me, I couldn’t control it. I wanted blood. Then Emma told me to perform a ritual for her--with the child. I would never have done it, not if I was normal, but the wolf--”
She fell silent. Only the sound of softly treading water echoed in the cavern.
“Ben. You knew about this the whole time?”
“She wrote me,” Ben said. “Asked for help. It was way out of hand.”
Sarah’s voice came in through the darkness, cracked and quivering.
“I assure you, Rolly, I will pay for my sins.”
Ben spoke, as if to explain.
“Keziah-Goody. The mother witch. She’s getting old. She needs a new body. The transfer takes a lot of power. The power of an imprisoned god, in fact. They made the pact before Sarah even got in contact with me. I wanted to find another way. But I knew she wouldn’t go for it, so I sent you to destroy her work, but--I couldn’t figure it out. I should have told you. I should have asked for your help, but I didn’t want you to be implicated in all this. And then Wallis had you and was going to sacrifice you. So I decided to help Sarah. I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
“It would have worked,” Sarah said. “And I would have been the only one hurt by it.”
It took Roland a second to put the pieces together.
“Keziah-Goody planned on transferring her life force into your body?”
“And you would--”
“I would... cease to be.”
“Your father was wrong about you. You know more about sacrifice than he ever will.”
Dawn came, a shaft of gold falling from above. They lay under it and took turns shouting for help.
The preacher had them pulled from the well. “Like Daniel from the lions’ den,” he declared. “The Lord has spared them.” But in private, he told them to leave town, he never wanted to see them again. He didn’t even look at his daughter.
At the bus station Ben said, “Is it safe for you here?”
Sarah scuffed one foot against the checkered linoleum floor and shrugged. “I have to keep trying to capture it. I have to.”
The bus arrived and Roland shouldered his bag.
“We’ll find Keziah. We’ll figure a way out for you.”
She shook her head. “No. It’s the only way. That way the beast is destroyed.”
Ben took her hand. “We’ll find a way.”
She gave him her mischievous smile and kissed him against the cheek.