Chapter 9.2

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We left to explore down the slippery tunnel late that night. It might have made more sense to leave after a good night's rest, but neither of us could sleep, and spending so much time down there meant night and day were increasingly academic concepts anyway. Niko caffeined up (I was jittery enough already), and we loaded our packs with canned food and power bars, thick gloves, and crampons from the sporting goods store. "12 points of contact ensures solid grip on ice," the box had said. We didn't expect the manufacturer had tested them on moldy carpet, but it was the best we could do.

In my pack was also a gun. I bought it from a place I'd driven past every day on my way to work but never gone into until that morning. The friendly clerk agreed to waive the mandatory waiting period in exchange for the last of my ATM cash. I didn't tell Niko about the gun. I thought it would make me feel safer but it just felt heavy.

It had been a hot day and the old house clung to that heat through the night with grim brick desperation. Descending into chillier air was a relief. With every step down the headaches diminished, our mood improved. It was almost addictive, being down there.

We retraced our route through the upper halls to the top of the shaft, and reset the grapples. This time, Niko hammered them into the doorjamb, face set, until he'd driven the steel spikes three inches into the wood. Even so, neither of us really expected they'd still be there when we got back.

When, or if.

Getting down was a familiar exercise now, danger mitigated by procedure and repetition. We retraced our route to the tiled room with the sink via the shortcut we'd found. The water was still running, hot and steaming, rushing across the floor to the corner with its angled hallway lined with slimy black carpet. We shined our lights down the hot throat and the steam grabbed their brightness, bounced it back to us maliciously. We couldn't see more than a few body lengths down.

Niko ran a hand through his curls, deflating again in the hot moist air; scratched the hair behind his ear furiously, like a dog with an itch. He was shaking. "Are we sure about this? Really really? Because it sort of seems like a colossally stupid thing to do."

"You have a better idea?"

"No. Is that what lemmings say to each other, you think? Before jumping?"

"The lemming thing is a myth." I shrugged out of my pack and unzippered it, digging for gear. "Walt Disney made it up because a bunch of wiggling rats made for boring footage. Good story, though, isn't it?"

He sighed, looking down the steaming shaft unhappily.

"No, I don't have a better idea," he said at last.

We pulled on the crampons and the heavy gloves. Harness, rope, knots. Check. Niko pounded two new Grapple Buddies into either side of the angled tunnel entrance. We tied on. Double-check.

Then, each holding our rope, kicking hard to sink the sharp toes of the crampons deep into the slimy carpet, we started down.

It was slow, hot work. Once we got inside the slanted hall, the steam was oppressive, everywhere: we were instantly drenched with it, like rot-smelling sweat. Even with the crampons our feet constantly slipped. The sludge was deep and slick, a stew of algae and mold and fungal slimes, green-black and stinking of putrefying jungle, of horrible things happening under your carpet, inside your walls. We held tight to the ropes with steam-wet gloves. The floor and walls twisted and bent as we descended, as if the constant moisture had warped them, but the downward angle stayed relentlessly vicious.

It was a gullet. We were letting ourselves be swallowed. No—worse. We were forcing ourselves in. Eager. Like we couldn't wait to be digested.

We were nearing the end of our first hundred feet of rope when everything went to shit.

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