Two minutes later, they were coming back down the ramp, Tom and Angelica in front, and behind them Cloudius, Arnulf and Daphne, balancing the blue gem on their three swords, and doing no better at it than they had a right to expect. They dropped it twice, which did it no damage; they themselves were experiencing feelings ranging from desire for the gem to despair to panic to nausea. They were spared the pain of bringing it any closer when it suddenly began to float off their swords and drift, then fly, toward the gate, where the gem clanged as it landed square in its hole.
“Whoops,” said Cloudius.
“Great,” said Arnulf and Daphne. They were looking back up the hall: they could make out figures moving down it toward them.
The gate swung wide open. The five charged toward it with no particular plan other than not meeting those figures.
When they got to the gate, Tom and Angelica looked at each other, and then immediately set about prying the gem out of the holder. Meanwhile, Arnulf got knocked down by an onrushing pedestrian—a perfectly human, and somewhat wet, cultist. But the two behind that one both went down with hard slaps from the flats of Daph’s and Cloud’s swords. Others were behind them, but held back. Arnulf rolled his over and just started wailing on him. Cloudius gave the unfortunate cultist a swift kick and ran on through the door, Arnulf behind him. Daphne stepped in between Tom and Ange and used her sword to pry the gem out. It fell and rolled through and on down the passage past Arn and Cloud.
The gate immediately started to shut. Before its inexorable swing, Daphne threw the other two through and then followed. With one last look back at the delayed cultists, Daph turned to follow the others.
The passage from there went on and on, miles perhaps. When they stopped for a rest they had a look at the walls. They were all covered in bas-reliefs, and now they had a chance to inspect them closely, they weren’t sure they wanted to be near those walls.
On they went, ignoring the surrounding decor or the culture or species that could have created it. In front were Angelica and Daphne, both thinking how little they had wanted to go this way after all. Behind them, Tom and Arn carried the light, set low; last came Cloudius, keeping an eye and an ear behind them in case the gate got opened again.
Then they were out in the open, in a level, and evidently enormous, cavern of pillars. Limitless avenues of black night there were, shadows that have never been penetrated by even a photon of light, dirt indescribable, grime of ages, and a thin stench that nonetheless seeped deep into their souls.
“Ha ha,” said Daphne, “I don’t have a soul.”
Far ahead the floors sloped and then dropped toward a ragged, wide, dirty pit, darker even than the darkness. Minute by minute, hour by hour perhaps, the five walked across the open space. The floor was interrupted now and again by a sort of triple-size manhole; verily, a dismal moaning under several of these did seem to alternate with a sort of slippery thumping.
And then they got to the wide drainage into the central hole. The steep part of it was perhaps ten feet across. There was no manhole cover over it. The five teens lined up right along the edge where moderate slope turned to plummet. Thingges moving downe therre… blacke blobs movinge…
“Blacke blobs,” said Cloudius.
“Movinge,” said Tom.
“Illusion!” said Arnulf. “Ange!”
“I was hoping those things were the illusion,” said Daphne.
“Mraaow,” said Eva softly. They looked down. She looked completely real here.
“Where do you want it? Down there, or up here?” asked Ange.
“Up here,” said Arnulf. “I read some of those reliefs on the walls. Those things down there were slaves, but they rebelled. Up here, that illusion’s scary to them down there. Down there, they mob it and pull its head off, until they notice it’s not real.”
“Okay,” said Ange, “you got it. Poj!”
“Yipes!” cried Cloudius, diving for the dirt.
“It’s not real, you baby! Is it working?”
“Yeah, I think so,” said Tom. “Uh—!”
“Just glance every now and then,” said Angelica, concentrating on her illusion, which was disturbing enough. She didn’t envy the view Tom was getting.
A flapping sound turned Arnulf and Daphne around. Cloudius jumped up.
“Great,” said Arnulf, wondering how many times he’d said that today.
“When pigs fly,” muttered Daphne. Before them, a twelve-foot-tall thing came down from the darkness above, a sort of giant pig with wings and a huge, fanged maw. It grabbed at Arnulf, who jumped out of the way and brought the black sword down on its paw. Owie, a paper cut. It kicked out and knocked Arnulf sliding; he stopped a foot or so before the edge of ye Hole.
Daphne stabbed it deep and hard and it bled green ichor, but it wasn’t much fazed. Cloudius joined the fray, getting in a nice stab under the arm before being kicked back into the pillars. Daphne kept whacking away, and it turned its attention to her, until Arnulf jumped on its back leg and started in on some Canadian bacon. It tried to kick him again, but he fell off first; then it tried to grab him, but he rolled out of the way. He found himself right under its fat belly, which he drove the black sword straight up into. It finally tried to sit on him, but he swung around and it more or less stabbed itself in the heart with his sword.
The demon started glowing. Its eyes popped out and blew up like little firecrackers. Its back spines shot off like bottle rockets and blew up in the dark among the pillars. Daphne and Cloudius pulled each other back out of the way; Tom and Ange fell back too, leaving the illusion Elder One on its own. It managed nicely, until the demon actually blew up.
“Arnulf,” said Daphne. “Arnulf was in there!”
“He can’t have survived,” said Angelica.
“Sure he can,” said Cloudius. “Look.”
And there, where the demon had been, stood a glowing figure. It was glowing in the sense that it was covered in green ichor, which was swiftly burning off in a cool fire. Under it all was Arnulf, give or take a few burned parts. He was holding a big egg-shaped milky pink stone.
“Amulet of demon, anyone?”
“Arnulf,” said Daphne, grabbing him in a hug. Before he could really enjoy being hugged by a naked girl, she let him go and walked past him, saying, “Pick up your bleeping sword and let’s get the bleep out of here.”
“Over there,” said Tom. There was indeed, in the spotlight he shone on it, a narrow crack in the wall and a narrow stair upward. They all headed that way, bone tired and dirty but basically unscathed—physically, anyway. Inside, they would never be the same. Arnulf was scarred. Cloudius had been scared out of his skin. Tom had been forced to look down the hole at the progress of things he didn’t want to know even existed. On his property.
“I kind of like the fighting naked thing,” said Daphne. Arnulf was thinking of other ways in which he would never be the same. He imagined Ahir taking up Daphne’s hobby. He smiled.
Angelica was running to catch up with them when she saw a glint off to the side. She slowed and looked. Down the wall a hundred feet, maybe, from the crack, there was a little set of steps leading up to a golden pedestal. On top of it was a faintly gleaming square. Angelica jogged over to it and looked. The altar was not the sort of thing she wanted to go near. And on top of it was what she could best describe as a sort of evil Scrabble tile.
A minute later, Angelica came through the crack. “Oh, thank goddess,” said Daphne, “we thought you’d fallen in Ye Hole.”
“I found this,” said Angelica.
Up the steps, up and up they went, Tom in front with the light, Arnulf in back with the other light. Behind them they began to hear sounds of weird music—piping, perhaps, and a sort of rhythm. They also heard distant screaming, or possibly a kind of singing.
Presently they came out into a large room. It was an Indian barrow, inside, and the dead Indians were mulling about drinking tea and reading what appeared to be a newspaper in petroglyphs. The shades shied away from the teenagers, until Eva went over and rubbed among their legs.
Meanwhile Daphne and Arnulf went up the rungs cut in the stone wall and wrestled the stone on top out of the way. They crawled out. It was well into the evening. Beautiful stars were overhead. Around them was a ring of standing stones: they were on top of the tallest of the three hills surrounding the pond.
They all got through, even Eva, and they pushed the stone back into place and covered it over with leaf litter. Then they stood there in awe.
Finally, Cloudius asked, “So what is it?”
“It’s one of the Great Glyphs,” said Angelica. “There’s eleven of them too. And they have their own powers. You know, spells? You can literally spell things by arranging them.” She looked at it in her palm, and then she closed her hand on it and giggled. “We have a Segment and a Great Glyph! We are officially in the big leagues.”
“Loving it,” said Arnulf. “Because our enemies will also be in the big leagues.”
“So what is a Glyph?” asked Tom.
“Check your Glyph Notes,” said Daphne.
“So,” said Cloudius, “wasn’t there supposed to be treasure or something?”
“Well, we got this Glyph,” said Angelica. “And we borrowed, um, some books. Knowledge is treasure.”
“Yeah, sure. What about gold and gems and stuff?”
“Amulet?” said Arnulf.
“Wait,” said Angelica. “Gold. Cloudius, you may be in luck.”
“I’ll tell you in the morning.”
The kids talked their way back into the house and into the good graces of KC Hexane, who was understandably miffed that they had not been home when she and PJ returned. But they explained that they had gone hiking and fallen in the mud, and that was why Daphne wasn’t wearing her clothes, and that they would clean the house tomorrow and cook dinner, and everything was okay. Daph put on a tee shirt and shorts, and everyone had a nice game of Munchkin: Papers and Paychecks Edition and turned in.
The next two weeks they went to Acadia, down to the Maine Mall, had real lobster at a real lobster place, hiked on the Appalachian Trail, and went up Tumbledown, where Daphne skinny dipped and found an Amazon cave under a little island in Tumbledown Pond.
And Angelica and Cloudius went out, early the morning after the journey to the Pit of the Shoggoths, took off their outer clothes to reveal their swimsuits, and dove into the square hole. They didn’t turn down the tunnel, but groped around, breathing with the brass tubes for half an hour or more while they piled up their loot.
“Two hundred and seven,” Cloudius told Arnulf and Daphne on the train home. They were in a private compartment, somehow taken from British Rail, on an Amtrak train.
“Who minted them?” asked Daphne.
“Leo VI,” said Angelica. “Leo the Wise.”
“Oh,” said Daphne.
“Yeah,” said Angelica. After a moment she added, “The one after Basil I. The one in whose reign Ignatius and Photius disappeared from history.”
“Who cares, it’s gold,” said Cloudius. “We’re rich.”
“We can’t spend this,” said Angelica.
“We’re wizards, anyway,” said Arnulf. “That’s better than being rich.”
“No doubt!” Cloud grinned at Daphne. “Ready to be back at school?”
“Not as much as Arnulf,” said Daphne. They looked at Nulf, who was muttering sweet nothings into a circle drawn on his hand.