My eyes were still trying to adjust to the darkness. I was propped up against a hard, slick concrete wall, my legs stretched straight out in front of me. My back felt bruised and sore, but cautious stretching reassured me that everything was still in working order, more or less. I felt around on the floor near me. There – just within reach was a canvas strap – that felt promising. I pulled; the bag (I hoped it was a bag) slid towards me. I felt around the other side, too, just in case. Yes, there it was – an envelope. I put that in my lap, so that I wouldn’t lose track of it. Something soft and curious nosed the back of my hand and scurried off. I stilled my breathing, focused on the task at hand, and quelled the scream that rose up like bile.
I felt the object attached to the strap. It was, indeed, a satchel or a backpack. I hoped it contained a flashlight. My fingertips found a zipper, grasped the tab, and pulled. I began to rummage through its contents, identifying them by feel. Round barrel, slide switch – a small, bright, LED flashlight! Yes! I flipped it on and glanced around in time to see a smallish, damp-furred rat scuttling over to inspect my foot. Inquisitive, bright-eyed little thing, he turned to look me in the eye, more astonished to find me there than I was to see him. Thank God for shoes.
Move, I told myself. I struggled to my feet; the cold concrete had a way of making stiff muscles ache exquisitely. The envelope, momentarily forgotten, slid to the ground. I put the satchel down and bent to pick it up. It had my name on it, and I swung the flashlight around just in case there was another. I had the odd thought that there might be a small mountain of envelopes and was momentarily glad I hadn’t had to search through it to find mine. But it was the only one. I ripped it open. “A path forged of steel will forge your backbone.”
Well, that was obvious enough. I’d already guessed that I was in a sewer or an abandoned subway tunnel. Sure enough, several feet in front of me, there was a long “steel path” that stretched out as far as the light could follow in either direction. If I chose the wrong way, I might be walking for hours, only to hit a dead end and backtrack. I didn’t like wasting time and energy. I searched the bag – and my brain – for more clues. What about my frat brothers’ last words to me as they tied the blindfold around my head and stuffed me into the trunk of Billy’s car? “Stay true, North.”
My name is Edmund North. I hadn’t thought it more than a frat slogan, at the time, but now… sure enough, my fingers found something round and flat. A compass! “True North,” not “true, North.” GPS would’ve been nice, but I supposed it wouldn’t work down here in this concrete cave. Sometimes, old and proven tech is the best tech. The needle pointed north – to the left. I grinned, and set off on the “steel path.”
Eventually, I came to a junction. The track split off in a Y shape, and I considered my options. I swept the track with my flashlight, and decided to follow the steel path – the rail pointed to the right, so logic suggested that as the most likely path. The tunnel narrowed, and the flashlight began to splutter. Of course they wouldn’t leave me with fresh batteries, I thought. Here I thought they’d gone easy on me. The light didn’t die, but it did grow dim. My ears were acclimating, and I could hear water dripping somewhere. I heard the faint squeaking of rats – more like tiny grunts of satisfaction, I imagined, whenever food or an interesting bauble was found. Rats intrigued me, as long as they weren’t crawling on my leg in a subway tunnel.
There was a yellowish light up ahead, and movement. Just shadows, softened by dust and distance. I quickened my pace. When I got to about 400 yards from where the light seemed to emanate, an angry, otherworldly roar rumbled against the walls and a burst of flames shot out from the left. I stumbled backwards and turned to run. “Edmund,” called a low, menacing voice that sounded a bit like James Earl Jones. “I’m waiting.”
Holy shit no. I almost wet my pants.
I sidled along the wall, retracing my steps, when I heard a scream. It sounded human. I tried to remind myself that this was nothing more than a bit of pre-induction frat hazing. Man up, Edmund, I muttered to myself.
“Edmund? Edmund, thank God – is that you? We’re in trouble, man–” It sounded like Rory, head of this year’s pledge class.
Flames roared out again. I could feel their heat. James Earl Jones laughed softly in the distance. I smelled burning flesh.
Oh, Hell no. I screwed up whatever courage I could muster from whatever was left of the jellied molecules of my leg muscles, and ran towards the beast. I wasn’t going to let my asshole frat brothers be fried and fricasseed by whatever unholy demon lay down that track.
As I rounded the corner, envisioning dragons and demons, I stopped dead in my tracks and nearly had a heart attack – torn by adrenaline and an urge to kill. My frat brothers stood there laughing. Rory was projecting video from closed circuit TV onto the far wall, while James tended the barbecue grill they’d dragged down into the subway. The “dragon” was a flamethrower manned by Brian – the same one we used to light the smoker out back of the frat house. “You should’ve seen your face when Rory screamed, man. Priceless.”
“I hate you all.”
“No you don’t,” said James. “You were hell-bent on saving our sorry, undeserving asses. Just like a real brother.” They surrounded me, clapping me on the back, squeezing my shoulder. Congratulating me, proclaiming me one of their own. Yeah, I thought. I do hate you now, but I’ll get over it. I smiled as Brian handed me a cold beer and nodded.
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