The tunnel opened up to a grotto. The walls and ceiling here did not look manmade as the first rooms and tunnel had. Stalactites hung from the ceiling dripping water down into the river.
The boat slid onto a sandy patch of land and they climbed out to observe their new surroundings.
Before them was a wide doorway with torches that burst to life on either side. An inscription was written above the door, but water had worn down the letters to the point they could no longer be read. Through the doorway was a vast, high ceilinged room, obscured by a towering wall that blocked their path. The wall contained three identical openings leading in three separate directions.
“Which way now?”
Jethrow growled, “This is bad. We cannot afford to get lost down here.”
“Do you think this is the entrance to the labyrinth Mordekah mentioned on Terrason?” Noddie asked.
Lorance peered through each of the doors to the identical corridors beyond. “A labyrinth? You mean a maze?”
“I heard once that if you keep your hand on one wall of a maze you should be able to find the way through,” Sarah said.
Jethrow rubbed his charm. “That might be true in other cases, but I doubt the same would apply to a place where Mordekah and Isca have been working mischief. Remember these obstacles were created to keep all but Mordekah out.”
“Mordekah must have had a way to know which way to go to keep from getting lost. Perhaps he left a marker of some kind.” Mehsa’s eyes shifted to the top of the doorways.
“That would be too obvious. Mordekah, had a compass to help guide him through, but the compass has since been damaged.”
Lorance looked at Noddie. “What about those notes of his? Maybe he drew a map.”
Noddie shook her head. “There are maps, but none of them include a maze.”
“Let’s look again.”
“Um, It’s moving.” Sarah had taken her compass out of her pocket and was staring at its surface. “It’s moving!” she whispered.
One by one they all crowded around to look over her shoulder. The black spindle on the compass began to spin so fast it looked like a thin gray disk
“It must work by magic.” Mesha observed. “Activating solely for this purpose. It was never broken in the first place.”
The arrow came to an abrupt halt pointing to the path directly in front of them.
“I say we go that way,” Lorance said with confidence.
They walked through the center opening as Jethrow growled, “I just hope that thing is reliable.”
There was nothing in the labyrinth save the path and bare golden walls, so high and smooth, they would be impossible to climb. Sarah went before them keeping her eyes on the compass in her hands. The spindle made fast, swinging sharp turns to direct them through openings the moment they reached them, while ignoring others. It was so accurate Sarah never even needed to glance up to see where she was going.
Their group was brought to a standstill when, out of nowhere, a low roaring erupted from beyond the walls. Noddie looked about in alarm and Jethrow snapped into defensive mode.
“What was that?” Lorance asked trying to sound casual.
Jethrow muttered, “I don’t know.”
When the sound did not repeat and it was clear nothing was going to happen, they continued.
They heard the sound several more times. The second time sounded further away, the third much closer, but nothing ever appeared. Noddie found herself wishing something would happen. It was much more frightening hearing the sound without knowing what caused it.
“I feel as if I have been locked in a box with a monster.” Lorance shivered and looked over his shoulder.
Jethrow grunted, “Yes, I feel it too. There is something unnatural in this maze.”
Sarah pulled a strand of her hair behind her ear, but said nothing as they walked on.
They had just turned into another passage when the low groaning noise emerged directly behind Noddie. She spun around in time to see a wall slide shut behind her blocking the way they came.
In dismay they stared at the dead end that had, moments ago, been an open path.
Jethrow growled. “I was afraid of this. The walls are shifting.”
What little color that remained in Lorance’s face left. “You mean the maze is changing around us?”
Mesha put his hand on the wall. “There is no way to tell how far into the labyrinth we are. Everything looks the same. For all we know we could be walking in circles.”
“We could be stuck in here forever!” Sarah panicked.
“Calm down,” Jethrow ordered. “We need to focus on what’s unchanging. The compass has thus far been constant and steady, even if our environment hasn’t. Sometimes you have to put all your trust into something even if you don’t understand how it works. We can’t stay here. We have no choice but to keep going and hope the end is near.”
Jethrow’s firm faith and calm demeanor helped to settle their rising nerves as he turned back to Sarah. “Lead on.”
They walked for a long time down the never-ending corridors of the maze. Noddie grew tired of seeing the same blank walls and lost count of how many turns they had taken and intersections they passed. Her feet were aching when Jethrow called for a halt.
Noddie had been so scared and worried she didn’t realized how hungry and parched she was until Jethrow took the lunch Vince had prepared for them out of the bag .
“It shouldn’t be taking this long should it?” Sarah asked as she folded her legs beneath her.
Jethrow passed around a canteen of water. “I don’t know.”
Mesha thought aloud, “I cannot see Mordekah having the patience to make his way through all of these obstacles every time he entered his lair. While he worked hard to guard this place as much as possible he would have wanted to make it easy for him to have access. It is possible Mordekah used sorcery to create a shortcut.”
“That little book might tell us.” Lorance said sliding down the wall behind him to sit at its base.
Noddie pulled out Mordekah’s book and flipped it open to what she suspected to be the pages regarding Hulz Deep. She found the symbol of a compass and scanned further down the page.
“There are peculiar words here that might be a charm. I can’t read them.” Lorance leaned over to look. “Why not recite them and see what happens?”
“You want me to use the black magic Mordekah took from Isca?” Noddie asked in alarm.
“Might as well. I get the feeling we are going to need to use it sooner or later. Isca might have expected it.”
“We will not perform any evil sorcery,” Jethrow sternly replied. “Especially when we don’t know what the spells will do. We can make it through without perilous cheats.”
“What about that odd bottle?” Sarah asked stuffing the last of her sandwich into her mouth. “It makes sense for the witch to give you some form of magic to use while getting to her amulet.”
“Mordekah was interested in the bottle.” Noddie recalled. “He seemed to think it was the answer to his problems. As soon as he saw it he made plans to come to Hulz Deep.”
“He probably thought the bottle was Isca’s amulet itself,” Mesha said. “He hoped to use it to dispel the curse on his treasure. I do not think the elixir was given for this purpose. I agree with Mr. Tensler. We should play it safe. The easy way is often the path that leads to regret.”
Another groan of shifting walls echoed throughout the chamber.
“We should keep moving,” Jethrow declared.
They worked their way deeper into the timeless maze. Every so often a wall would close or open up around them, but they followed the compass faithfully. After what seemed an eternity, an opening appeared before them. Beyond it laid, not the same blank walls, but another area with rough, uneven stone.
Exiting the labyrinth was like falling into bed after a long day. Noddie fell to her knees in relief as Lorance breathed, “Finally!”
“We made it through!” Sarah smiled in delight and looked down to where the compass had become stubbornly fixed to one spot again, its work completed. “It was as if mother was guiding me.”
“Don’t get too comfortable, we are not finished yet,” Jethrow warned them.
Noddie got to her feet while Sarah stowed the compass back into her pocket. Ahead there was a plain black door with silver edges.
Mesha approached and laid his palm against it. Once he deemed it safe he pushed it open and they entered a room made up of the same black marble as the door.
“Oh sore! This can’t be!” Lorance exclaimed in dismay.
No one bothered to correct his speech as they stared at the empty room around them. There was no other door or tunnel. No way forward. The opposite wall contained a pair of torches and a mosaic of flat tiles carved and painted with colored lines and curves.
Sarah gave a shout, interrupted by a loud bang as the door behind them slammed closed.
Mesha and Lorance forced their shoulders into the door, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Now what?” Sarah asked with a fear-choked voice. There’s no way out of here. We’ll be stuck in this room until we die!”
“Enough of that!” Jethrow silenced her. “There must be another way, Mordekah often built concealed passages for a quick escape. If there is one it will be marked. Search the room.”
They fanned out examining corners and walls. Noddie wandered up to the tiles. There was no picture or symbol. The tiles were all random and there were several blank spots that confused her.
“These walls are warm.” Lorance observed running a hand over the one in front of him. “That is not natural is it?”
“I can’t find anything,” Sarah complained.
Mesha walked over to where Noddie was standing. “I have a feeling that our way forward will have something to do with this. Is there anything in Mordekah’s book?”
Noddie pulled out the notebook again and squinted down at Mordekah’s messy script. The writing was hard to decipher and what she could make out was more notes than actual instructions.
“I don’t understand any of this,” Noddie said in dismay. She flipped through a few more pages. Then froze. She had reached the spread bearing the strange design. Her pulse raced as she looked down at it, then up at the wall.
“Wait—” Her eyes settled on several of the tiles. “I . . . I think we need to make this mural match the design in the book. Piece it together like a puzzle.”
Mesha peeked over at the design. “It looks complicated.”
“I never had any patience for puzzles,” Sarah said regretfully.
Noddie looked at the boys who were just as uncertain. “I—I think I can do it. I used to play with puzzles all the time at my uncle’s estate,” Noddie said, her confidence growing.
“Might as well try,” Jethrow mumbled. “We’ll be stuck here until we figure it out regardless.”
Noddie brought the book close to her nose and tried to memorize the image before examining the wall again. She found, what she assumed, to be the piece that belonged at the center and reach out to touch it. The tiles were smooth as glass and as big as her splayed hand. They were also cooler than the surrounding stone walls.
The piece could not be removed from the wall, but it slid easily when Noddie directed it to its proper place.
Noticing this, Mesha commented, “Take heed, Noddie May. Don’t trap a piece you need in the wrong place or you will have to move multiple others to retrieve it.”
“Uhm.” Noddie made a noise to let him know she understood, too focused to give a more eloquent response.
“Noddie, I think this one goes at the top,” Sarah said sliding a tile higher.
Noddie barely had time to notice that Sarah’s piece depicted the right shape, but the wrong color when the tile clicked into its new place.
There was a crash like lightning striking a mountain and the room was plunged into darkness. It all lasted less than a minute and by the time Noddie’s eyes adjusted to the light again the room had become smaller and Sarah was nowhere to be found.
“S-Sarah?” Noddie’s call was weak.
“Where is she?” Lorance asked, anxiously turning to survey the room. “What happened?”
Jethrow cast an accusing glance at the wall before them. “It must have been because she moved the wrong piece. It looks as though this room has a penalty for mistakes.”
“Noddie? Jethrow? Hello? Where is everybody?” Sarah’s voice was heard, but it was muffled and faint. “Prince Mesha? Lorance?”
Heart beating rapidly, Noddie tried to discern where her friend had gone, but Sarah’s voice floated to them from inside all three walls behind her.
“I can’t see. Please help me!”
Mesha pressed his ear against one of the walls, only to jump away again rubbing his eyes and hissing as though the stone burned him.
“How do we get her back?” Noddie asked.
“The tile must have triggered a type of switch, or activated a spell. Try moving it back to where it was before.”
“Someone, please, I can’t breathe!”
Noddie slid the misplaced tile back to where it had been. A crashing boom and encompassing darkness overtook them again and when it passed the room had shrunk even more and Mesha was gone.
“No! Mesha!” Noddie exclaimed.
“This is bad.” The blood drained from Lorance’s face.
“Mesha? Sarah?” Jethrow shouted. But no answer was forthcoming. “I don’t think they can hear us where they are.” He ran a hand down his face.
Noddie felt like crying. “What do we do?”
“Perhaps if we complete the symbol the room will put itself to rights.”
An animalistic whimper was heard beyond the walls and Noddie’s heart clenched painfully to think it was Mesha who made such an agonizing noise.
With a shiver she stared at the image in the book again. She had to complete the mural quickly. Who knew what horrors were being done to her friends, or how long they would last.
Her gaze darted back to the tiles, afraid to touch them. She dared not make another mistake. Not if her friends suffered with each wrong move.
Another muffled yell jerked her into action. With frayed nerves and trembling hands she slid a few more tiles into their proper places.
Lorance and Jethrow watched her in silence every now and then offering observations or suggestions.
Noddie found the top, center, piece and slid it into place. Then another. Glancing at the image in the book after each move, she realized she needed to find a piece bearing a black and red spike . . . there! She slid the tile.
The room erupted and shrank again, this time taking Lorance away as well. Noddie realized too late that the spike on the tile she moved pointed in the wrong direction.
Guilt and discouragement forced a desperate sob from her lips as Noddie leaned her forehead against the unforgiving tiles. Her friends were counting on her and she kept making mistakes. The expectation and pressure was crushing her.
Jethrow gripped her shoulders hard. “Yes you can. Look, you’re almost done.”
Lorance’s tormented cry caused her to start. Jethrow gave her a hard shake. “Focus on the mural, Noddie. Think of nothing else. It’s just a puzzle. No different than all the other ones you’ve done.”
“Just a puzzle,” Noddie whispered. She locked her gaze on the tiles, trying to block out the rest of the walls in the ever-shrinking room.
She found the tile with the spike pointing in the correct direction and moved it into place. She managed to place five more tiles before a shaky laugh escaped on a harsh breath. She was almost done! Two more tiles and the mosaic would be complete! She prayed her accomplishment would be enough to get them all out of this horrendous room.
Reaching up to the next tile her fingers paused with dread. There was an extra tile in the mural and it would need to be moved for the proper pieces to take their place. Would the room see its movement as a mistake? She looked back at Jethrow, who was leaning against the tiled wall with one hand, his face set with determination. Their eyes met and his message was clear: do it quickly.
No! She couldn’t move that tile. What was she doing? She was disposing of her friends one by one. They could be dying and it was all her fault. Things had been horrible enough before, but now to do so on purpose? Knowing what would happen? She glared at the tile that had become the most offensive thing she ever laid eyes on.
“No!” Noddie cried averting her gaze from both Jethrow and the wall. “I won’t!”
“It’s the only way to get the others back. Do it.”
Noddie shook her head. “We don’t know that for sure.”
She didn’t respond.
“If you won’t then I will.”
Taking a deep breath Noddie opened her eyes and slid the tile away to make room for a proper one.
The room retaliated with the now familiar, but still terrifying, blackout and deprecating boom, leaving Noddie alone.
Noddie slid the right tile into place and looked up at the last piece, still blocked by the extra tile. She would have to move it one more time.
The room was now the size of the closet she had been locked in at the Lazren estate. Her friend’s muffled moans and sobs resonated through the walls. It was just as it was when the plague killed all in the house.
Sweat accumulated on her brow and her breathing became heavy. Again. Again she was shut in this confining space alone; unable to do anything while those she cared for died around her.
An excruciating scream erupted from the wall to her right. Jethrow! In reflex she reached out as though to help him. As her hands touched the black stone she was shocked with a jolt and the image of a young girl she had never seen before, lying dead, flashed before her eyes. Her soul was flooded with guilt, pain, and remorse.
She stumbled backwards and hit the opposite wall. Another picture flashed before her eyes. A smoldering decrepit landscape displaying a scene of death and decay. Her heart drowning in a feeling of failure and hopelessness she could not explain.
Noddie cowered at the base of the tiled wall, her hands gripping her head. Surrounded by screams and cries. She couldn’t do this! She couldn’t complete the mural. She had never felt so ashamed and alone. She had failed. She was as useless as ever, why had she come? What did it matter if she finished the tile puzzle or not? Who cared if they found an old witch’s ornament?
Another sound in the wall gained her attention. It sounded as though someone was trying to scrape through the wall with nails. Or the sharp scurrying of rats. Rats. Jethrow said he was afraid of rats. If there were rats here he would be just as frightened and discouraged as she. Her other friends too. What horrors were they experiencing? Those images she had seen.
Trembling she looked back up at the nearly completed mural. Sarah, Jethrow, Lorance, Mesha, they had all been brave when she needed their help. She must try one more time. The fact they were waiting on her, counting on her, gave her a boost of strength as she arose on shaking knees. Her friends believed in her, and they were all so clever and smart. Surely that counted for something?
Taking three deep breaths she reached up and slid the extra tile to the edge of the mural, and out of the way.
With a roar the room became sticky and hot. Noddie turned her head and was shocked to find herself in a familiar, yet unreal place. She was standing in Rosedust Valley, but it wasn’t the valley she remembered. Everything was dark, dank, and dilapidated. Weeds and the dead husks of dried plants overtook the fertile land. There was no sign of life anywhere. Instead there were bodies. People she knew, strewn about the plague soaked ground with empty eyes and dark sores. Her mother, her father, her neighbors—
The plague was thick in the air making it hard to breathe. A wet, disgusting smoke suffocated her. Noddie squeezed her eyes shut and fought to keep breathing. “It’s not real! It’s not real!” she panted. “It’s an illusion. It’s not real!”
Noddie felt unsteady, as though she teetered on the edge of a high ridge. She leaned closer to the tiled wall, feeling that if she let go of it she would fall away and be lost forever.
“It’s not real! It’s not!”
The atmosphere made her skin burn and she felt lopsided, as though she were about to fall. It took all her energy to ignore the landscape and raise her hand to the last tile. She would save her friends.
The tile was refreshingly cool against her heated skin and she pulled it down into its proper place completing the mural.
The moment the design was complete there was another crash, louder than any of the previous ones. The room swayed, and a sharp pain made Noddie’s head throb.
When it all stopped, she lay panting on the ground. Sarah, Lorance, Jethrow and Mesha were lying around her. Sarah’s cheeks were wet with tears. Lorance’s eyes were glistening as well and both he and Mesha were panting and sweaty. Jethrow was pale, and groaned as he tried to sit up. They looked shaken but were physically unharmed.
“Are you all okay?” Noddie voice was hoarse.
Mesha lay with his arm over his eyes. “I think so,” he breathed.
“Thank goodness.” Noddie collapsed in relief.
“You finished the puzzle.”
“Yes. It’s done.”
Lorance gave her a worn smile. “Well done, Noddie May.”
Noddie’s heart warmed at the compliment, but there was a sadness attached to her victory. The whole experience had been painful in every way and she didn’t know how much more she could take.
They took a moment to catch their breath and summon the strength to get to their feet. The room was as large as it had been when they first walked in, but instead of a mural in the far wall there towered a striking pair of doors. Their edges were framed in gold and it was decorated similar to the tiles with inlayed colors of blue, red, and gold, glowing like a stain glass window.
Jethrow gazed upon them with relief shining in his eyes. “This must be it. Well done, we’ve made it through.”
Noddie took a deep breath. Jethrow’s words were a pat on the back after winning a long, hard race.
Jethrow lifted the latch that lay across the doors, then turned to the others. “Are we ready?”
They all nodded and Jethrow pushed the doors open.