Chapter 3a

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As soon as the light from Delphin’s lantern faded, I flipped the switch on my torch so that the moon globe gave off a soft greenish-white glow only bright enough to keep me from tripping.

A cool, damp draft rolled past me as I peered into the darkness of the cavern. Delphine’s lantern glimmered faintly on the far side. The grind of rusty metal creaked through the silence, like a sigh. 

I eased myself up on the ledge formed by the opening, swung my legs around on the gritty surface, and stood.

Another soft, metallic moan. Delphine’s light grew even smaller, then winked out. I needed to hurry if I didn’t want to lose her. 

On full power, my torch lit the cavern, which stretched for nearly a city block. Stone columns rose at even intervals, forming the support structure beneath the theater. Rubble blanketed the ground, and the air was cool and heavy. A dark shape skittered past the edge of my light. A rat, probably.

I ran across the cavern and powered down the torch to moon-glow, looking for the tunnel entrance.  

There it was, along the foundation wall—an arched opening about four feet tall lined with brick. A second grate with rusty iron bars criss-crossed the entrance. 

Like a cage.

My breath caught, and the cavern seemed to close in on me. 

Small spaces. Cages. 

In my mind, I heard again the wheezing, eery melody of a calliope organ and the dark voice of my nightmares. 

I shook my head to clear away the images. They were only memories. I wouldn’t let them control me.  

But my hands shook as I unlatched the grate and eased it open. My stomach twisted as I faced the black tunnel. I couldn’t move. 

His voice echoed in my mind. See this crank? If I turn it, the walls of your cage get smaller. Just…like…that. Smaller and smaller and smaller. Make it stop, Claire. You know what to do.

Shift for me.

A hot, rebellious surge of energy roared through me. I swallowed the sour acid of fear. “Not this time, bastard,” I whispered to the dark.

I jammed my torch into its holder on my harness and took out my pepper-spray gun. I forced myself to stoop into the tunnel. 

Watch out for alligators. Thea’s last message taunted me. I feared being caged far more than I feared sewer alligators. Yet I couldn’t risk one finding its way into the storage vault, still open across the cavern.

I gritted my teeth. Then reached behind me to grasp the iron bars of the grate.

Pulled it shut. 

And prayed I wouldn’t vomit.

The narrow brick tunnel was sandy and only big enough for me to shuffle hunched over. I forced myself to breath deeply and slowly. All I had to do was put one foot forward. Then the other. 

Don’t think. Just move.

When it widened and I was able to stand upright, I thought I would cry. I took a shuddering breath and swiped away the sudden tears. No time to be emotional. I had to hurry.

I chased Delphine’s lantern like it was a fairy light, always teasing and bobbing just out of my reach. The tunnel twisted and curled. I tried not to notice the cobwebs or the shadowy creatures that scattered at my approach. Once I nearly tripped over the skull of what must have been an alligator. Shortly after, I stumbled over a dead rat. I learned to watch my steps. 

This tunnel housed utility pipes—steel for gas, lead for water, and even a few clay pipes for the new electrical wiring. Other tunnels joined or branched from it, and I had to be careful to keep the lantern in sight or I would be totally lost.

Delphine left the utility tunnel where it connected to an even larger brick drainage tube a little over a story tall. The summer had been dry, and only a thin channel of stagnant water ran down the middle, leaving plenty of space to walk on either side. I was only dimly aware of the strange beauty of it. 

Something long slid out of the water about two feet from me. The moon-glow of my torch glinted off wet, knobby scales. Glittering, hungry eyes. 

I froze, my heart pounding. 

A sewer alligator.

It looked like a baby—only about four feet long—but still dangerous. It blocked my path, staring at me. I stomped my foot at it. 

Bloody thing didn’t even blink. 

I glanced the direction Delphine had gone—I could barely see her. This show-down had to be quick, and I had to win.

My death by alligator would give Delphine no end of satisfaction. We couldn’t have that, could we?

Before my fear could overtake me, I squeezed the trigger of my pepper-spray gun. Hopefully, it worked on alligator skin as well as it did on human skin. 

The fiery liquid squirted the beast’s face. A deep growl burst from its mouth. It flinched and thrashed. 

It charged toward me.

I stifled a scream and scrambled back into the tunnel. A second squeeze sent another jet of pepper spray. I waved my arms and stamped my feet again. 

The writhing alligator growled louder. 

I searched frantically for something to climb on. 

Nothing. 

Blood racing, I backed further into the tunnel. The alligator blindly lurched nearer, hissing… 

And slithered back into the water.

I exhaled, closing my eyes briefly. Then I ran. 

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