Sable cowered between Kallima and Shay. The dungeon-like room the entire freshman body had crowded into was dim and musty. Coach Drummer stood over the quintet, watching them prepare for their first run in the Labyrinth, bouncing a small ball that Kallima recognized as a recorder in one hand. Marcus stretched as Acacia shifted nervously. Kallima adjusted the quiver of bolts at her side, silently questioning Shay’s decision to give her the handheld crossbow he had picked out.
“Okay,” Shay said, running over his plan yet again, “Sable and Marcus on point. Kali tailing. Keep the safety on until I tell you to take it off, okay?”
Kallima nodded as Drummer asked if they were ready. Shay indicated that they were. The coach blew his whistle, and the large grate fell forward like a drawbridge, stopping at the group’s feet with a thud.
“Time starts… now!” Drummer shouted.
Sable whimpered as Shay and Acacia pushed her after Marcus. Kallima kept to the back, checking the safety before loading a bolt into the crossbow. She watched with a shudder as the grate shut behind them, a small white orb of light following their movements.
“It’s just a recorder, Kali,” Shay assured her. “Coach will watch it later and grade us. And next week, we’ll get to watch it to see where we need to improve. Come on, Say, move!”
Sable sobbed as the team pressed deeper into the dark halls, her beacon lighting the damp walls with a soft, pink glow. Kallima whimpered at what looked like legitimate pain on the tiny girl’s face.
“Sable,” she asked, “My dad sent batteries in the mail. For the Discman.”
“Batteries?” Sable huffed.
“They give it power.”
“Like a source?”
“Yes, like a source. And he sent new songs, too.”
“That sounds nice, doesn’t it?” Kallima said.
Shay whined, “Kali…”
“If we can make it in less than an hour, I’ll let you listen to it all day,” Kallima promised.
Sable bit her lower lip, contemplating the situation. She shut her eyes and lowered her forehead to the beacon, touching it gently.
“I need you, Mama,” she whispered.
The rosy glow lifted out of the beacon, leaving it dark and grey. The light took on the guise of a young woman with long, pale hair in a toga. Thick, feathery wings cupped her back. She stared at Sable, her head tipped gently to one side and eyes wide. The tiny grey girl sucked in a shaky breath.
“Get us outta here,” she said.
The woman smiled and dipped her head, her hair flowing gently down her back when she straightened up again. Then the figure glided down the hallway and through a wall, leaving the team in the dark.
“Man, beacons are great,” Marcus chuckled from an unseen location.
“I thought your mum was a gargoyle,” Kallima said.
“Yeah. This is just an echo. The beacon was part of her when she was made, so it’s like a ghost, but it can’t talk,” Sable said.
The rosy illusion returned and pointed down a branch down the hall. Sable rushed towards the light as though desperate for air that it would somehow provide.
“This way!” she called.
Shay drew his twin short swords and chased the clay teenager, Acacia and Marcus close at his heels. Kallima glanced behind her, eyes resting momentarily on the recorder, then followed after her teammates.
After a few dizzying turns, the echo passed through a door, beckoning them inside. Shay nodded to Kallima, and the redhead flicked the safety off, carefully aiming the point at the floor. Sable squeaked as she placed her hands on the door.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Mama,” she whispered.
She pushed the door open and dropped into a ball, turning to solid stone in a fluid instant. Shay leaped over the girl, and Acacia sighed and kicked the rock. A mewling, catty noise reached Kallima from the room ahead. She craned to see inside and gaped at the contents.
A sepia feline the size of a rhino with massive wings and a human face laid along the far wall, an air of exhaustion hanging over it. Kallima could see a hint of a door frame behind the huge form. One smaller, retriever-sized version of the creature played with the larger one’s tail. Two identical cats circled Shay, who hesitated before lowering his weapons.
“Ma’am, c-can we pa-p-pass through here?” he asked the big one cautiously.
The queen groaned and covered her face with her wings.
“A riddle,” she asked, “for the babies. They hate to be locked up! It’s so hard on them.”
“Oh, oh,” one of the small monsters said, “I’ll go first! What has one eye yet cannot see?”
“A needle?” Sable peeped, softening back to clay.
Acacia kicked the girl again as the three small animals groaned in defeat. Sable yelped. Kallima edged forward to see the room better, still admiring the cats.
“Is that a sphinx?” she asked.
Acacia nodded as Sable hummed.
“What occurs twice in a moment, once in a minute, but never in a thousand years?” she offered up to the kits.
The three babies huddled and debated their response as their mother relaxed blissfully along the wall in the relative silence.
“Oh, I know, I know!” a lighter kit called out. “M! The letter M!”
“Yeah...” Sable breathed.
“I cover what’s real, I hide what is true,” the kit said, “but sometimes I bring out the courage in you.”
“Lies,” Kallima chimed, remembering the old rhyme.
“Er, what invention is ages old but will let you pass through a wall of stone?” she asked.
The kits stared at Kallima in shock.
“Something can do that?”
“I want one!”
“Mommy, what’s she talking about?”
The elder sphinx grinned, chuckling, “This is your game, not mine. Admit defeat.”
As the three cubs argued possible answers, their mother stood, slinked towards them, and wrapped herself around them. She grinned up at Kallima and her team.
“You may pass. I believe you’ve stumped them.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Shay said.
Kallima flicked the crossbow’s safety back on and followed her group out of the room. Shay shrugged.
“Left or right, Say?”
Sable shook the beacon like a magic ball, whispering to it desperately. The pink form of her mother regenerated next to her, and the small girl asked it directions again. The figure peered around, then pointed left.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” Shay bowed again. Then he turned to his point guard and prompted them, “Hurry up, let’s go.”
Marcus, Sable, and her mother started down the new hall with a new resolve, sped on by the success they now had under their belts. Kallima continued to tail them, frequently making sure that they were not followed. Again, the pink figure passed through a thick wooden door. Sable pounded a fist against it, cursing the echo.
“Calm down, Say,” Acacia said. “The sphinxes were easy enough to beat.”
“But this is our second door,” Sable cried, “and we’re still on level one!”
Kallima growled then sang, “I’d like to be…”
“Under the sea,” Sable continued, taking deep breaths, “in an octopus’s garden in the shade…”
“What is that?” Marcus asked.
“She’s calmer, isn’t she?” Kallima said, listening to Sable softly continue the song.
Marcus rolled his eyes, pushed past Sable, and forced the door open himself.
Acacia shrieked, and Sable turned to stone as flames flashed towards them. Marcus fell to the floor covering his head. Shay screamed for Kallima to shoot the assailant. Kallima’s eyes searched as she let off the safety, but she could see nothing in the fire.
“Duck!” she called as she loosed a bolt blindly into the room.
Shay and Acacia dropped to the floor. The projectile barely missed Sable’s marble ear and vanished into the flames. A squawk told Kallima that luck was on her side as the flames died down, allowing a glimpse at the attacker.
Kallima had expected an elegant, red bird, but the creature inside resembled a vulture more than the mythical phoenix. The bolt had lodged into one of its orange and brown wings, causing blood to drip onto the floor. Shay jumped to his feet and charged the creature, dodging a wave of fire that the bird threw towards him meekly. With one of his blades, he beheaded the creature. Kallima covered her mouth.
“Phoenix,” Acacia said, spitting on the ground. “Nasty things. No respect for life.”
“Let’s get out before it comes to,” Shay said wiping his brow.
Kallima stoked Sable’s stone hair, watching it turn back to the silky black that was normally. The girl turned to her roommate with wide eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered.
“It’s okay. You blocked most of the fire from hitting me. That’s teamwork,” Kallima assured her.
“Speaking of,” Shay said. Then he began shouting, “Marcus! Where are you, you little bastard? Another stunt like that, and you’ll be rethinking your place on this team!”
The red-haired girl approached the avian carcass and knelt next to it, watching the body collapse and dissolve into ash before her eyes. On a whim, she plucked up one of the stray orange feathers.
“What are you doing?” Sable asked.
“It’s pretty,” Kallima said with a smirk.
The foreigner tucked the feather into her hair behind one ear, where it nearly blended in with her own bright red hair.
“Se-seriously! Let’s g-g-go!” Shay hissed.
“Mama! Get back here!” Sable called.
Again the rosy ghost materialized nearby, and once again Sable begged it to lead them out of the dungeon, tears running freely down her cheeks. The silent specter raised a hand to brush Sable’s hair back, but it passed through the girl’s face. Sable trembled. Then the woman led the group out of the room and down a flight of stairs.
“You were saying, Say?” Acacia said with a mocking laugh.
Sable dropped her face and started humming another song, hugging her beacon to her chest. After several twists and turns, the team found themselves climbing another set of stairs. Sable thanked the illusion for taking them around monsters. The pink ghost nodded with a smile. Down, down the halls they went for what seemed to Kallima like ages. Finally, they arrived at another door. This time, though, the specter waited with her child as she peeked inside.
Sable quickly shut the door, though, her skin popping and crackling as it hardened.
“Drake,” she squeaked.
Shay nodded, instructing, “Okay, let’s try not to hurt it. These are pretty rare and not overly dangerous. Case, I want you to try to tangle it up. Trap it, knock it out if you must. Marcus, help Acacia out. Draw its attention and try to confuse it. Use the beacon.”
“No,” Sable said shortly.
“You want to do it, Say?”
“Then give him the beacon,” Shay said.
Sable whimpered but obeyed, passing the orb to Marcus and threatening to kill him if he broke it. Marcus, who probably weighed about as much as the ball, nodded with a smirk. Somehow, he managed to keep it a few just off of the ground as he held it with both arms.
Shay told Kallima, “Kali, you and Say need to get across and secure the door out as quickly as possible. Once you’ve got it, I’ll signal Case and Marcus to get out. Clear?”
“Got it, Boss.”
“Ready?” Shay asked pressing his back to the door. “Go!”
He threw the door open, allowing Kallima’s first real glimpse of the creature inside before Marcus and Acacia launched themselves forward.
A sleek, dark blue body, maybe four or five meters long, not unlike a frilled lizard with wings, arched and puffed in the presence of the teenagers. Marcus darted along the wall and around the animal’s legs, coaxing it to snap at him while evading it with an unexpected amount of agility. Acacia began an elaborate series of movements that pulled roots and vines from the ground. They wrapped around the legs and wings of the creature.
“Go, go, go!” Shay yelled as he waved Kallima and Sable across the room with one hand.
Kallima pushed Sable across the room at a full sprint. The drake screeched and flapped erratically behind them, making Sable squeak nervously in the gusts it created. Keeping her hand on her roommate’s back, Kallima forced Sable against the exit and spun around, clicking the crossbow’s safety off again. Marcus secured himself to the top of the monster’s head using one of the vines that Acacia controlled. The drake squirmed desperately, its mouth, legs, and wings bound tightly with roots. Shay kept his swords pointed to the creature as he watched Sable.
“Got it!” the gargoyle cried.
“Pull out!” Shay shouted, backing towards the door.
Sable darted out first, followed by Marcus who pushed her orb across the floor in front of him. Acacia held her arms up, keeping the dragon-like opponent confined as she, too, backed towards the door. Shay shouted for Kallima to leave the room, but she hesitated. She stared down into the drake’s horrified, pleading eyes as the flora tightened around it, crushing wings and burning the skin with friction.
“Now!” Shay ordered.
He pushed Kallima through the doorway, and Acacia tumbled after. Kallima tripped over her heels and fell to her back. Her crossbow fired, lodging a bolt in the wall, as Sable yelped.
“What was that, Kali?” Acacia scolded.
Shay added, “Seriously? You could have gotten someone hurt, Kali!”
“Sorry, I’ve never seen one. I wanted to get a good look at it,” Kallima said.
“Be careful next time,” Shay told her, “and turn that safety back on!”
“What?” Shay snapped.
Sable whimpered and pointed over her shoulder. Behind her, a large set of double doors beckoned them with a metallic glint in the dim light. Shay sighed.
“The exit. Oh, thank Mahet. We made it.”
“Thank the stars,” Marcus said. “I need some burn ointment.”
Shay, the leader he was, walked up to the doors and held them open for his followers.
“Thirty-nine minutes, forty-seven seconds,” Drummers voice announced. “Good job. What happened to your face, Kidd?”
Marcus groaned and shook his head. Drummer sighed.
“Get to the nurse. You’re all done for the day. Team two! You’re up!”
“I can have the music now,” Sable asked Kallima, tugging on her sleeve, “right?”
Kallima laughed and said, “Yes, we can go get it now.”She patted the small girl on her back and joined her in the trek back to the locker room, wondering if, perhaps, Shay sensed her pity for the drake.