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The Temple of the Blind was more than any of them had ever dreamed. But all of it, from the first sentinel statues with their grotesque proportions and empty, featureless faces, to the tower with its vast belly full of fire, was only gray stone and shadow. What awaited them at the end of this final passage was far more.
A soft glow greeted them as they approached, like the first light of a new day. But it was no sunrise. They emerged from the labyrinth and stood beneath a sky that was as black and as empty as the tunnels they left behind them. Rising into this pitch-black sky was a great, gray mountain. The light was coming not from the horizon, lending hope to some distant sun, but from the mountain itself. Columns of fire blazed from hundreds of unseen vents in the stone, illuminating its rocky face in an angry undulation of light and shadow, and from its highest peak spewed a towering inferno of orange and yellow flames.
More fires rose up from cracks in the ground on either side of them, scattering the shadows at their feet and lending a dreadful hue to the path on which they walked. It was as if they’d finally descended all the way down into the blazing pits of hell.
“Where are we?” asked Nicole. “What is this place?”
“It’s the Temple of the Blind,” replied Albert, still staring up at the burning mountain. It was easily the most frightful place he’d ever seen. “It’s inside there. All of it. This is what it looks like from outside.”
Brandy gazed up at the mountain, confused. “But the Temple of the Blind is underground…”
“In our world, maybe. Not here.”
Andrea turned in a circle, her wide eyes taking everything in. “We’re in a different world?”
“We’re in the Wood,” said Olivia, her voice edged with unmistakable anxiety.
“How can you tell?” asked Nicole.
“It has the same sky.”
All of them lifted their faces toward the darkness above them. It could’ve been nothing more than an overcast night sky, but it wasn’t. Peering up, they could somehow tell that it was utterly empty. An eternal abyss filled the heavens here, and looking into it was deeply unsettling.
“I don’t like it here,” Brandy decided.
“You don’t get used to it,” Olivia assured her. She recalled cowering beneath the fallen night trees, staring out into this perpetually empty darkness, trying to decide if a place this black could really exist or if she’d been struck blind.
Last time she looked into this sky, Wayne came to rescue her. It broke her heart to know that he wouldn’t be coming again.
Albert scanned the landscape. A pool of rippling water stood between them and the rocky terrain at the base of the mountain. The smooth, right-angle edges of the temple’s interior weren’t apparent here. This stone was raw, rough, indistinguishable from any other natural formation.
Except for the fire belching from it.
These flames also illuminated the road ahead. It surged from narrow fissures in the stone, hot columns of fire reaching for the sky, lighting the way so that, for the first time since he descended into the steam tunnels the previous evening, he didn’t need a flashlight to see.
But he found little comfort in the light. Inside that mountain was coiled every terrifying passage they’d traveled during the night, and countless more they never glimpsed. He thought of all that they’d already been through, all that they’d accomplished. And still there was no end in sight. How much farther would they be forced to go? How much more would they have to endure?
Andrea moved closer to the nearest flaming vent, her hands in front of her, cautiously testing the heat. “At least we can warm up out here.”
“I think I warmed up enough back there on that tower,” Nicole decided. She could still feel the baking heat that had beat down on them as they fled the burning structure. It felt like sunburn on her back and shoulders. “I’d say I’m already at least medium-rare.”
Andrea felt that, too, but it was still nice to know that they now had the option of warming up. They didn’t have that inside the temple.
“So what now?” Brandy asked.
Albert looked at her, his eyes washing over her pretty features. He couldn’t stop thinking about how he’d almost lost her back there. He didn’t want to take another step. He only wanted to put his arms around her and never let go. “We could use some rest, I think. Help me get the first aid kit out of my backpack. We need to look at Nicole’s hand.”
“Right,” grumbled Nicole, annoyed. “The guy with the broken arm is worried about the girl with the scratch on her hand.” She’d been trying to hide her injury, determined not to let anyone worry about her. But very little ever got by Albert.
“You kind of stabbed your hand,” Andrea recalled. “All the way through.”
Nicole rolled her eyes. “Not helping.”
“Let’s just all take a break for a little bit,” said Albert, wincing as Brandy eased the backpack off his shoulders. “We’ll get everyone patched up.”
Olivia stepped toward them. “I can help. I’m not hurt.”
“Can’t tell it by looking,” observed Andrea, staring at her back. “You’re covered in bruises.”
She looked down at herself. Her arms and legs were spotted with black and purple bruises from her ordeal in the forest. Her belly, too. There was even a blemish the size of her hand on her left breast. She had little doubt that her back looked equally bad. Probably worse.
There were large, blue-black splotches spreading from around the two bite marks. The one on her thigh had grown to the size of a grapefruit. On her arms and legs were a number of long, skinny bruises. These, she realized with something that was almost horror, were finger marks. That was where those zombie things had grabbed her and held her down, their hard, bony fingers pressing into her soft flesh with bizarre, desperate strength. She remembered lying there on the cold ground as they swarmed over her, ready to tear her limb from limb and eat her alive.
The memory gave her a hard shudder and sent gooseflesh racing across her entire body. She couldn’t help but glance around, half-sure that the shambling dead had surrounded her again and were even now closing in, determined to feast upon her flesh.
“We can switch out those dirty bandages,” Nicole suggested.
She nodded, shaking away the awful thoughts. That was probably a good idea. The mud from that room had turned the gauze on her arm and shoulder black. If she survived this day and didn’t contract a serious infection, she’d count herself twice lucky.
“Let me see your hand,” Albert said as he eased himself down onto the ground.
“It’s nothing,” Nicole assured him. “Take care of yourself first.”
But he was determined. “Let me see it.”
“Seriously, stop worrying about me. I’ll be fine.”
“I reserve the right to worry about the people I care about. Now show me your hand.”
For some reason, this caught her off guard. She stared down at him for a moment. She didn’t want to let him fuss about her hand. She wanted him to take care of himself. She almost lost him back there. Him and Brandy. But there was simply something about hearing him say that he cared about her that took some of the stubbornness out of her.
Reluctantly, she knelt down and gave him her hand.
Brandy knelt down, too, shining her flashlight onto her best friend’s palm. “Jeez, Nikki…”
“What did you do?” asked Albert.
She bit her lip as she looked down at the bloody hole and the blistered flesh of her hand and wrist. How did she go about explaining it?
“She slammed it down on a big stone spike up on the tower,” Andrea replied for her as she seated herself on the rocky ground nearby.
Brandy winced. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“It was the only way!” argued Nicole.
“It probably was,” Albert agreed, examining her hand. “Does it hurt?”
“Not too bad.”
“It was actually really cool,” Andrea recalled. “Super brave. Super gross, too, though…”
“Why would you have to impale yourself?” Brandy demanded.
“‘Atop the tower, the secret is blood,’” quoted Albert. “That was the clue.”
“Right,” said Andrea.
“My blood dripped down into the altar and something exploded. Fire came out of it. Burned me.”
“Same fire that’s burning up there now, I’ll bet.” He glanced up at the mountain and wondered how much fuel something like that required. It was like the world’s biggest oil rig fire.
“It was stupid,” she admitted. “I was just standing there, waiting for something to happen. I should’ve been getting out of there.”
“You didn’t know,” Olivia reminded her. “None of us did.” She sat down next to Nicole and began to unravel the filthy gauze from her arm.
“I can make this feel better,” Albert promised. “I’ve got burn gel in the kit. We’ll bandage that hole up. Looks like you didn’t hit anything important.”
“I got lucky.”
“That’s the attitude.”
She gave him a smile.
Brandy pulled the first aid kit out of the backpack and then sat all the way down. Immediately, she gasped at a sharp pain at the base of her back and rose to her knees again.
“You okay?” Nicole asked.
“Yeah… I think so. Hurts to sit down.”
“Probably banged yourself up when you landed on that platform,” Albert reasoned.
“Probably.” She turned around. “Am I bruised?”
“I think so,” replied Nicole. “Can’t really tell how much yet. Your whole back and butt is red.”
“I’ll bet you’ll be bruised tomorrow,” predicted Albert. He could already see where there would be coloration on her buttocks and shoulder blades. Those areas were already darkening from the impact.
“Does it really look that bad?”
“They’re just bruises,” Albert replied. “They’ll heal.” He looked down at his right arm and saw that his own bruises had spread up to the shoulder and halfway to the elbow. How much of his arm would turn black, he wondered, before this journey was over?
“I’m still not sure how you even survived,” said Nicole. She remembered looking down from the tower steps at that very moment. Every detail remained perfectly clear in her mind. The monster simply lifted her into the air and tossed her out into the darkness. It did it without effort, as if she were nothing more than a child’s doll. Horrified, she’d watched as her best friend sailed briefly through the air, turning end-over-end before she was swallowed by the shadows. Her voice wavered a little as she said, “I thought you were gone for a while there.”
Brandy gingerly felt at the knot that had grown on the back of her head. It felt huge. “I thought I was, too.”
Albert stared at her naked back, recalling the way she looked when he found her atop that platform. She was lying on her back, unconscious, her feet hanging off the edge, just inches above those ravenous hounds. “You must’ve landed on your butt,” he realized, staring at her flushed bottom. “That’s probably what saved your life.”
She looked over her shoulder at him and frowned. She didn’t care for the idea that the only reason she was alive was that she happened to land on her ass instead of her head.
“You probably broke your tailbone,” suggested Nicole.
“My uncle broke his tailbone falling out of a hammock,” shared Andrea. “My dad still makes fun of him for breaking his butt.”
“I heard once that a lot of people walk around with broken tailbones and don’t even know it,” added Olivia. “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. But I’m sure it still hurts.”
Brandy nodded. Indeed it did.
Albert studied the marks on his girlfriend’s back. If she was bent over in the darkness, struggling to bring herself upright, he considered, she might have struck that platform bottom first, snapping her coccyx. Her body then uncurled with the force of the impact. Her back and shoulders would have hit next and her head last, which matched the places where her skin was showing the most bruising. If that was the case, then her body likely would have absorbed most of the impact before her head so that she was knocked unconscious but not killed.
He couldn’t be sure that this was what happened, of course, but it made him feel better to analyze it. He preferred the idea that, in her moment of mortal peril, Brandy was saved by her instincts rather than by dumb luck. He couldn’t bear the idea that she only remained at his side by an unlikely roll of fate’s dice. As it was, she was still incredibly lucky. A million other people would have died from a fall like that, their necks broken or their brains dashed across the cold stone. Just thinking of how fortunate he was to still have her was enough to make him feel sick.
Brandy felt along the bottom of her spine, wincing. “It is really tender there…”
“Thank God that’s all you broke,” said Nicole. “You scared the shit out of me.”
“I know,” agreed Albert. “I thought my heart stopped dead in my chest.”
She lowered herself gently onto the ground again, this time with her legs folded carefully beneath her. “Sorry.”
“Not your fault,” Nicole assured her. “We blame the Caggo.”
“And he didn’t end well for it,” promised Albert.
“What happened to it?” Andrea asked. She recalled Wayne saying something about feeding the beast to the hounds.
“It was the dumbest thing,” he recalled. “It tossed me off the tower base, just like it did Brandy. I broke my arm and couldn’t get out. That should’ve been it for me. But the stupid thing jumped in after me.” He shook his head. He still couldn’t believe his luck. “I guess it got between me and the hounds. They tore it to pieces right in front of me.” He could still recall the way the Caggo’s blood sprayed everywhere. In fact, glancing down at his arms and chest, he realized that he was still spotted with it.
“That’s crazy,” marveled Andrea.
“It was. It was also terrifying. If Wayne hadn’t yanked me out of there at the last second, they would’ve killed me, too.”
Brandy felt her stomach tighten into a knot at the thought of how close she’d come to losing him.
Nicole shuddered at the realization of how lucky they both were. How close had she come to losing them? They were her best friends. How could she have possibly gone on if they’d both died?
Pushing the thoughts from her mind, Brandy opened the first aid kit and began examining its contents. “Wow, you bought the biggest one of these you could find, didn’t you?”
He shrugged. “Wanted to be prepared.”
“Good thing,” said Nicole. “We’re obviously a clumsy bunch.” One of those little travel kits that fit in your glove box just wouldn’t have cut it.
“What are we supposed to do next?” asked Olivia.”
“Good question,” replied Albert. “Follow the path, I guess. See where it takes us.”
Nicole groaned. “I don’t want to. I’m exhausted.”
Brandy checked her watch and saw that it was already lunch time. “I’m starving.”
“Me too,” said Nicole.
Olivia was hungry, too, but she didn’t want to say so. It hadn’t slipped her attention that she was by far the chubbiest person here. The last thing she wanted was to be the fat girl whining for food.
She hated that they had to be naked. Why? What was the reason? Was it just to torture them? Was everything just to torture them?
“I’m mostly thirsty,” said Andrea. “Do you think the water’s safe to drink?”
“I have no idea,” replied Albert as he took some cleaning wipes from the first aid kit. He didn’t think he’d want to drink the water here. Who knew what might be in it?
“The water is safe to drink.”
All five of them turned at the sound of this new voice to find the Keeper standing with them, half-concealed in the shadows with its back to the rocks, as if it’d been there all along and they simply hadn’t noticed.