Reiter gasped himself awake, hands clutching the fabric of his torn-up sleeves. He looked around wildly, trying to get rid of the feeling of extreme fear, his heart beating like a galloping horse.
His vision cleared almost immediately. A strange smell – a damp, wet odour – tickled his nose. He blinked.
“What the…?” He murmured, seeing a line of people laid down all around him. Groans slowly filled the room, echoing across cracked walls.
“What’s going on?” Someone asked moments later, voice filled with shaky fear.
Reiter snapped his head and saw a black-haired boy with his hand clutching the shirt of a taller, older teenager. She squeezed his hand but didn’t reply.
Instantly, the whole room filled with whispers, booming in the otherwise empty room. Splashing began as people began to move, and Reiter realized that there was a thin film of water on the stone floor.
He frowned. What the hell?
“STOP!” Someone shouted, his gruff voice ringing out sharply in everyone’s ears. There was an instant hush. Everyone turned to look at the man with old, wary eyes. He looked to be the oldest in the room, and very unfamiliar. “Stop. Do not panic.” Silence rang sharply. “Now, can anyone tell me if they know where we are?”
The collection of fifteen or so people – all under twenty, it looked like, except for the man who had suddenly taken leadership – shook their head in unison.
The man’s hands clenched, a dark vein throbbing in his neck. “Well, then,” He said stiffly. “I believe…” His eyes glanced around the room in a matter of seconds, taking in every single male and female, all of them with terror displayed on their features with various measures of subtlety. “I believe we may have been kidnapped.”
A spasm of surprise raced across the room, and the youngest child, a small girl in the corner, burst into sobs. She looked only eleven.
Annoyance glanced across the man’s face, but Reiter felt he was the only one who noticed. “Is there anyone who knows that child?” He asked.
No one came forward, but whispering didn’t start again, either. A few tense moments later, the sobs grew too much for Reiter. The crying girl reminded him too much of his little sister.
“I’ll help her,” He said quietly, standing up and heading over to the corner, his footsteps making small waves in the water.
The elder man gave him a look of approval. Reiter almost smiled back as he reached the little girl. “Hey,” He whispered softly. “It’s okay. No one’s going to hurt you.” He soothed.
The tears slowed down a little.
The man in the centre of the room inhaled deeply. “My name is Alex. It seems we’ll be here together for a long while, so let’s introduce ourselves.”
A whisper of fear trailed across every spine. No one looked brave enough to answer.
Then the girl opened her mouth. She was the elder sister of the boy who had spoken first. “I… I’m Beatrice. This- this is my little brother, Edward.” She swallowed as all eyes came to rest on her.
Reiter smoothed down the little girl’s hair and stood up, not moving only because her hand was now clutching his. He smiled kindly at her. “My name is Reiter.”
The girl sniffed. “Joy… Kalern.”
An encouraging smile from Alex, and everyone else was naming themselves as well.
“I’m Raven,” Said a blonde around fifteen years old and looking like one of the preps on campus.
“Lacy,” was red-headed and tall, looking around seventeen, Reiter’s age.
There were also three nineteen-year-olds, all dark-haired; Carter, Mason and Tara.
A twelve-year-old boy had his eyes shut tight, his mouth trembling as he stuttered out his name. “I- I’m Xa- Xander.”
Another girl, twelve or thirteen, with short, croppy hair and squinted, glaring eyes, spared no one but Alex a glance. “My name’s Jane.”
Alex nodded at everyone.
Carter scratched his head. “I don’t remember being kidnapped.”
Half of the other teenagers voiced their agreement, and the rest nodded.
Alex’s mouth tightened. “There are ways to catch people unaware,” He said, eyes glazing over as if remembering his past. Then he came back. “But that is not the point. We must look for a way out of here, whatever the case.” A flash of worry crossed his nearly wrinkled face. “The water-level is rising.”
Everyone’s gaze fled to the ground.
The water was, indeed, rising. Little streams trickled from the walls, and a spout opened in one corner.
Xander gasped and fell into the water. Jane glared at him, while Beatrice, being closest to him, hurried to help him up.
Alex looked grim. “This is why we must look for a way out. Carter,” The boy looked up, gulping. “Take Raven and Jane, and search on that wall.” He pointed to the wall on his right. “Tara, you get Beatrice and Edward. Take the wall beside Carter’s. Mason, you’ve got Lacy and Xander.” He pointed to the third wall. He turned toward the last wall left. “Reiter and Joy, come with me.”
Everyone nodded and turned towards assigned walls, grateful to a distinct course of action provided to them in the midst of all the chaos and fear. The eldest few started pushing and letting their hands flit across the tallest stones, trying to see if any were loose, while the younger ones manned the stones closer to the ground.
A strange, tense silence of held breaths and barely heard sniffs weighed down the atmosphere.
Reiter let his eyes look at the wall first, and quickly traversed the grooves in the wall with his fingers. There was nothing, only holes so tiny that escape seemed impossible.
He shook his head in Alex’s direction and headed towards the only door. The others had started looking again, panic flickering through their eyes and trembling hands as the water rose to the chest of the smallest girl – Joy.
Joy tugged Reiter’s shirt, eyes watering just like the walls. He stopped in mid-stride to squeeze her hand reassuringly, then told her to check again; maybe a rock had dislodged because of the water.
The door was sealed completely shut, some sort of wax or water-proof material blocking the sides, so as to make it impossible for water to leave that way.
“It was intentional,” He pronounced grimly, loudly.
Mason’s eyes widened. “What kind of sick person does that?!” He demanded.
Joy and Xander flinched, suddenly starting to cry again.
Whoosh. A spurt of water, more than all the other trickles, suddenly burst out from above Jane, dousing her and dragging her down.
Without stopping to think, Reiter took and deep breath and dived.
It took seconds to pull her back up, but it was the breaking point for the young girl. She had tried to be tough, but reality was setting in. Was she going to die?
“Look, Jane, don’t cry,” Reiter said, pushing hair away from her face, a feat he could barely accomplish with her trying to bury herself in his chest in terror. “It’s okay, nothing’s going to happen. We’ll get out – I promise.” The words just poured out. Reiter couldn’t stop them, no matter how empty they sounded.
Lacy scoffed. “Stop lying.” She shrieked, loud enough for some of the group to clamp shut their ears. “There’s no way out! We’ve searched everywhere! Escape is impossible!”
Tara’s eyes narrowed. “Unless he’s an accomplice.”
There was silence, only the rush of water. Joy turned to look tearfully at Reiter, face about to be submerged.
Reiter quickly shook his head, depositing Jane in Carter’s hands and scooping up Joy. “No, no, no. I’m not the one who did this, Joy. I couldn’t-”
He was cut off as Xander was suddenly fully pulled under.
“Someone grab him,” Reiter shouted, spurring everyone into action. Alex pulled out Xander, putting him on his shoulders, gasping for air, while Beatrice instantly seized hold of Edward, even if he was a little taller than the other children. He was too scared to refuse.
“What do we do?” Raven asked. Strangely, though, she asked Reiter not Alex.
Alex raised an eyebrow, but didn’t interfere.
Reiter bit his lip, mind whirring. How was he going to save these kids? What hadn’t they done? There had to be a way out.
His gut told him the people who put them there didn’t put them there to die. There had to be a way they could save themselves...
His eyes widened. “The ceiling!” He exclaimed. “We haven’t checked the ceiling!”
A half-smile played on Alex’s lips, which made Reiter feel somehow proud, as if impressing this man was worth it. “The tallest ones, give the children to the shorter kids.” Alex said, taking charge and loading off Xander onto Raven. “Put the children on your shoulders, and then everyone, try to check the ceiling.”
The group nodded. Carter gave Jane to Raven, and the rest began to jump towards the top of the room, trying to keep steady in the water.
Reiter took a deep breath and hoisted up Joy. “Do you think you can try?” He asked softly, quiet amidst the sounds surrounding them.
Joy nodded stiffly, hands trembling but eyes determined. Then she raised her hands, fingertips barely grazing the top.
Reiter began to float. “Hold onto my shoulders with your legs, Joy,” He yelled over the noise. “I need to use my hands!”
The little girl did as she was told, and then they rose another inch, Joy’s hands now completely touching the ceiling.
The seconds felt like leaden minutes. It took all of Reiter’s strength to stay afloat. Joy’s gasp let him earn another burst of strength. “Did you find something?” He asked urgently, for Joy’s head was about to touch the ceiling.
She slowly let her hand fall to his eye-level. Her tiny fist was clenching a key.
“Four keys?” Tara asked, calling everyone to attention. She, Mason and Edward were all holding near duplicates of the key in Joy’s grasp.
“What are we supposed to do with keys?!” Lacy whined again, starting to get on Reiter’s nerves. Yes, they could die in here, but did she see anyone else panicking? No, because it did no good.
Suddenly, Xander gasped. “Keyholes!” He shouted in realization, making everyone stare at him in outright confusion.
“Everyone knows keys fit into keyholes, Xander,” Jane said dismissively, having somewhat recovered from her fall.
Xander blushed but shook his head vigorously, making Raven curse.
It was a testament to the direness of things that no one made her apologize.
“I- I mean,” Xander stuttered. “When I- When I fell, I saw a keyhole. In the ground.”
Alex nodded sharply. “Who can hold their breath for more than a minute or two?” He demanded.
Reiter spoke first. “I’ve swum in a lot of competitions.”
Lacy raised her hand hesitantly, and so did Carter.
“Alright. Mason, get Joy. We’re going down.” Alex proclaimed.
The group nodded instantly, the keys being handed out.
Moments later, Reiter took a deep breath and plunged in.
It took ten seconds for him to reach the ground. The water was dark, the only light from where the water was dropping in from above.
Reiter swam to the wall on his right, where Xander had fallen. Moments later, his hands crashed against a strangely shaped grove. It was the keyhole. He quickly pulled out the key and pushed it inside.
He swore. He had failed to account for the possibility that the key he had may not fit the keyhole.
He clutched it tightly and swam back to the top.
His fellow prisoners’ faces were filled with real, actual terror, their head almost touching the ceiling; barely an inch left.
“Found the key- keyhole!” He gasped. Relief flooded all eyes.
Two heads broke out of the water: Alex and Lacy.
Alex caught his breath first. “The key is in it’s lock.”
“My key di-didn’t fit,” Lacy seemed terrified.
Reiter came near to her. “Here,” He opened his hand. “Mine didn’t either.
Carter surfaced. “Got it.” He panted. “Why didn’t- why didn’t anything happen?”
Reiter took a deep breath and dove leaving the answering to his fellow captives.
It took him less time to find the hole now. And the key fit perfectly.
For a long, agonizing ten seconds, nothing happened.
And then the ground shifted. A grinding noise started all around him, even as he swam in place. A large opening, a dark shaft appeared beneath his feet, also filled with water.
… But still a way out. A hope.
It took him little time to rush back to the top. The children were crying by now, and yet, Alex looked… unconcerned.
Reiter shook his head. No time to contemplate. “Way out,” He gasped, pointing downwards. “But we’ll need to hold our breaths.”
Raven bit her lip. "Maybe the best swimmers can check it out first?” She asked hopefully.
Mason shook his head. “We don’t have enough time left. The fastest swimmers should take the children and the ones who can’t swim very well, and the rest should follow.”
Reiter nodded. “I’ll take Joy. Lacy, take Jane, and Carter, take Xander. Alex, you’ve got Edward. Anyone else who is bad at swimming?”
Jane scowled. “I’m not bad at swimming,” She protested. “I’m on my school team!”
Raven sniffed. “I’m not that good at swimming…”
Reiter nodded. “Then Jane, you have to stay near one of us. Everyone has to stay together, got it? Lacy, you’ll have to help Raven. Can you do that?”
The redhead nodded, subdued.
Reiter nodded, motioned for Joy to take a deep breath – took a deep breath himself – and dove.
Down and down and down they went.
Ten seconds, thirty…
Joy sputtered and slapped one hand on her mouth. Reiter swam faster.
And then, a tiny glitter of light appeared. Tiny, but growing larger by the second. The walls of the small enclose were opening up.
Joy sputtered again, and her hand started going limp.
With one last burst of speed, his head broke out of the water and he swallowed air. He’d missed air so much. Quickly, he paddled to the only shore in sight, a grassy piece of land in what looked like a clearing. A pond?
He pulled Joy up onto his shoulders, and paddled to the only shore in sight; a grassy piece of land in what looked like a clearing. A pond, perhaps?
He hoisted a shivering little girl up onto solid ground, even as other people started getting out of the water, eyes filling with relief and surprise.
Reiter helped them out of the water.
He was pulling out Mason when a voice boomed everywhere. “You've cleared the first round! Congratulations, young initiates.”
Beatrice stumbled back, as everyone’s eyes flew to look at the sky.
“Now each and every one of you has two choices. Leave this wonderful little game right now – that’s the door,” An arrow appeared pointing towards a red painted door in a tree trunk. “Or you could play another round. Maybe win a million. What do you say?”
Carter scoffed. “Who the hell are you?”
“Why, the host, of course.”
Mason scowled. “Of course we’re leaving! This game is sick. You do not get to kidnap people and… and play with their lives!”
“Yeah!” Jane piped up. “We’ll report you to the police!”
The voice in the sky chuckled. “Such cute little threats. I thought you might say that.” The laugh turned sinister. “Then again, I’m pretty sure little Beatrice isn’t leaving.”
Tara frowned. “Why would she stay?” She asked, then turned to look at the said girl. “Why would you stay?”
Beatrice was unnaturally pale, eyes frightened beyond doubt. “Edward. They’ve got Edward…” She whispered brokenly.
“Oh, don’t be a girl, Beatrice. You’ll get your brother back. If you fulfil this round. Of course, you can’t do this without help, but that’s not my problem, is it?”
Lacy shook her head at Beatrice’s pleading look at the group as a whole. “Nope. No way. Sorry, Beat, but I am the hell out of here.” She stalked off towards the door and plunged into the darkness behind it.
“Anti-climactic, but as expected. Humans are so selfish. Everybody else made the decision? The door’s going to close permanently in around five minutes. Tick tock, my friends, tick tock.”
Reiter stepped towards the broken looking Beatrice. “I’ll stay, and help. But I’m sending the kids back, okay?”
She nodded in eager acceptance. “I- I don’t want anything to happen to them either.”
“No!” Joy cried. “I don’t want to leave you! You have to come with me!”
Reiter sighed and knelt down. “Look, Joy, I can’t come with you. I have to go help find Edward.”
She set her mouth in a firm line. “Then I’m coming with you.”
“Tick tock, you’re on the clock! Four minutes left.”
Raven shook her head. “I’m- I’m going. I can’t… I just!” She stared for a second at Beatrice, who was in her age group even, then turned and followed Lacy’s footsteps.
Tara, without a sound, did the same.
Xander rubbed his eyes. “Can I… Can I go?” He asked in a small, scared voice.
Reiter gave him a small smile. “Yes, of course.” HE looked at the rest of the people. “Is anyone else… going?”
Mason nodded. “I’ll take him,” He said quietly.
They were gone.
“Thirty seconds left. Anyone else up for it?”
No one moved.
Reiter looked at Jane. She glared. “I’m not going. I’m not a coward!”
“Five. Four. Three. Two…” Sparkles rained down around them. “ONE!” There was a loud, mocking laugh. “What a monumentally stupid idea for the dearly departed.”
“Huh?” Was the general consensus on the ground.
“Didn’t your parents tell you not to accept candies from a stranger? In this case, the candy was the door. Nice to see not all of you are stupid.” The whole place plunged into Darkness. “Welcome to the terrors of the night, group no. 75. We have high hopes.”
And then there was silence.