I am absolutely certain that some reader of this memoir is asking herself why this crazy old lady saw it as being suddenly necessary to make a fuss about her very privileged and bizarre teenage years. I would like to inform the little hussy that these memoirs don’t follow my teenage years, they follow a specific year and a specific adventure that no other group of people on this planet has probably ever had. I would also like to inform that little hussy (who happens to be a granddaughter I do actually adore) that this has been a long time coming, and I waited until I was very old to do it so there would be nothing to lose. As soon as my memoirs are completed and published, I will probably be found to have “suddenly died.” This is not true one little bit. It won’t have been sudden; I’m ninety-goddamn-five, and I know lots of government secrets; it’s about time I bit it.
Anyway, Orcus Locke was a Class A Dickhead, so I didn’t meet him down by the river, which must have angered him to no end, because he came throwing stones outside my room at half-eleven that night. At first I’d thought they were the new sixth-graders, out of dorms on a dare. Orcus didn’t typically throw stones, or much of anything for that matter. He preferred projectile launching incendiary rou – guns. He preferred guns, is what I’m trying to say.
I threw open a window and glared down at him.
“What in St. Mary’s name do you want?” I hissed.
“I need to speak with you,” he called up in a stage-whisper.
“I – what?!” I spluttered.
He must have rolled his eyes. “I. Need. To. Speak. With – ”
“I understood the words perfectly!” I snapped. “What I did not understand was the context of the request, and frankly, I could give two shits about that, as I am not coming down there. You need to go to bed. Better yet, go drown yourself somewhere not in my presence.” I slammed the window shut and turned back round to the very sleepy faces of my roommates. A stone hit the window again, and I ripped it open and poked my head out again. “WHAT?!”
“Get down here!” he hissed.
“Orcus Locke, I am not some pet to come at your beck and call! Go to bed! It’s eleven-thirty!”
He took up a childish stance then, standing with his hands on his hips. “Please come down to the courtyard.”
“NO!” I snapped.
“By the gods of Egypt, woman, if you don’t get down here—”
“You’ll do what?” I taunted. “Spank me? I’m terrified.”
“I’ll tell the whole school we started sleeping together over the summer.”
My mouth dropped open about a mile. “You wouldn’t!” He would, I don’t know why I was being so dramatic.
“I would, and we both know I won’t be the one suffering for it,” he sneered. “Now come down here.”
I looked back at my roommates, one of whom had gone back to sleep; the other, Raechel, who also happened to be my best friend, was sitting on her bed, staring at me tiredly, her wiry black curls all askew, as though she could give a hoot about what was happening.
“You know that if you don’t go, and he does tell everyone, he’s going to give you a certain type of power over him?” she asked.
“Yes, I know.”
“And you also know that if he doesn’t tell, he will still have played into your hands?”
“Yes,” I answered sullenly. “But is it worth it?”
Raechel shrugged. “Who cares? Are you going?”
I looked around nervously. “I don’t know. You heard him. What should I do?”
Rachel gave me her “don’t-be-ridiculous” look. “What should you do?” she said in a whispered shriek. “What should you – I’ll tell you what you should do: go down there, snog the boy senseless, and then split.”
I gave her my own tired look. “I am not kissing Orcus Locke. Have you lost your mind?”
“Darling,” she said matter-of-factly, “he’s begging for your company. The least you could do is humor the poor fool, whatever it is. And if it happens to be sloppy and sexy, that’s just a perk.”
“I am not kissing Orcus Locke!” I repeated angrily.
“Pity,” said his voice from below us. “It would make this relationship far more interesting.”
I felt myself turn bright red, and I whirled to face him through the window again. “You shut your little slut mouth,” I snapped.
“Are you coming down any time soon?” he said impatiently, and gleam showed in his eye; it must have been prominent if I could see it this far away. “There’s something I want to show you.” Damn. He knew me well. Curiosity is my greatest weakness, and Orcus Locke knew exactly how to exploit it. I’d been given three weeks of detention once because of it.
I turned to Raechel. “I’m going. Cover for me.”
She’d already laid down again, and was dropping back to sleep. “Oh, yes, I’ll do that. Because that’s what I live for. Covering your sorry stupid ass.”
“I appreciate you, Rae.”
“You’d better have naked pictures of him when you get back,” she said sleepily.
“I definitely will not,” I informed her.
“I don’t mean to interrupt what I am sure is an extremely important conversation,” came Orcus’ impatient voice up through the window, “but do you mind hurrying your shit up?”
“This had better be worth suspension on the first day of school,” I hissed.
“It will be if you hurry up,” he growled. “Get down here. We don’t have much time.”
I turned back round, looking to Rachel for support; I didn’t get anything. She was simply looking at me, holding out a camera. “You may as well take pictures, whatever you’re doing.”
I huffed, but took it from her. “I hate you,” I sniped as I walked out the door.
“You’ll thank me for it someday, I’m sure,” she said. “Just be sure to use protection, and make sure the condoms aren’t expired.”
“Raechel!” I’m still not really sure why I was surprised.
Orcus was pacing the courtyard by the time I got down to where he was waiting.
“Took you long enough,” he griped.
“Shut up,” I retorted. “What are you going to show me, and why is it worth my so very precious time?”
He snorted. “Your precious time?”
“Yes,” I said indignantly. “My precious time. I could be sleeping right now.”
He held my gaze for a long minute, and then abruptly turned on his heel and stalked in the opposite direction, across the courtyard. When he reached the columns on the other side, he stopped to look back at me. He must have thought I was following him, because his eyebrows shot up when he saw me rooted to the same spot, unmoving.
“Are you coming?” he asked.
“Fine,” I replied, suddenly pushing myself forward in his direction.
When I caught up to him, he was shaking his head. “Honestly,” his tone was exasperated, “for the brightest girl in school you can be surprisingly dense at times. How do you do it?”
I shoved him. He shoved me.
“Watch it, Mallory,” he said with a grin. “You could get hurt if you’re not careful.”
“Did you bring me down here for a reason, because if not—”
Orcus cut me off with a huff. “Stop talking. Come with me.”
And I did. I don’t know why, but I did. If I hadn’t, things would have been a lot different; life would have continued the way it did normally, and I would have been safe and sound and all that happy stuff. Or just ignorant and endangered. One of the two; probably the second one. Following Orcus Locke, though, released a chain of events like nothing I could have ever imagined (I probably could have, but I would be older than I am now, and probably surrounded by iguanas. I’d be that crazy cat-lady, except they’d be iguanas. So the crazy iguana-lady. I’m just trying to say it’s better for me that I did follow Orcus Locke).
Behind our school there is an old mine-shaft, abandoned back when the world was just discovering the fact that it curved ever so slightly. The shaft had been walled off when the school was built in the ‘60s, and the students had been forbidden, on pain of expulsion, to enter it. Why exactly they didn’t build the school somewhere else (or maybe, I don’t know, properly seal the fucking thing) was a mystery to me, but I had never really questioned it, mostly because I didn’t care, and also because I’d broken the rules and had a few naughty nights just above the shafts (pun very much intended). In any case that was where we were going; I froze as soon as I saw it.
“Orcus, we can’t go in there,” I said. “We’ll be expelled if they find out where—”
“Yes, Mallory; if they find out. But ‘they’ won’t find out,” he snarled, “because things will begin to go very badly for the one who lets it slip. . . .if you catch my drift.”
I did get his drift; I got it rather well, actually.
He pointed to the wall. “See how it’s broken down, and fallen apart?” I did, but didn’t dignify his observation with a response. He didn’t seem to want such a thing, anyway. “It wasn’t an earthquake, like they told us, put a hole in that,” he said. “Somebody’s got into it.”
“Could it possibly have been you?” I snapped.
Orcus looked offended. “I do value my education, contrary to popular belief,” he answered. “And anyway, it was broken from the inside, you can tell by the way it scattered. I didn’t break the shaft open; they did.”
Do you ever have those days when you’re really sure you’ve gone bat-shit cuckoo, but the only evidence of this insanity is the really insane thing in front of you, and nothing else? It felt like that, being down there that night. Like I’d lost my fucking mind, and I was stuck watching it ride off to some castle in the clouds which was shaped suspiciously like an Imperial Warship. I looked at the forbidden entry once again, and, sure enough, people were climbing out of it. Orcus jerked my arm and I went down on my stomach next to him. “They come out every night about this time,” he said.
“How do you know?” I said with a frown. I’d quite forgotten the camera Raechel insisted I take with me. (This is because I am not actually as clever as I like to make people think I am.)
“I’ve been up here watching them for the past two weeks,” Orcus replied.
“Why have you been here every single night for two weeks? School started, literally today.” I made a mental note to discreetly check for surreptitious bombs that might be planted around the school.
“Never mind,” he said impatiently. “Every single night, without fail, they come up from the mine and wander about.”
“No, really, why have you been here for the past two weeks?”
“I came back early with my aunt; that’s not important. They’re what’s important.”
This wasn’t making any sense. “Why?”
“I'm sorry, is it strange that I want to know why there are other human beings crawling out of a closed mine? Because I thought that was a perfectly normal concern to have.”
“No, I mean, why did you come back early with your aunt? Why did you come back early at all?”
“I told you,” he said through gritted teeth, “it doesn’t matter.”
“Are you sure?”
He reverted to the original topic of discussion. “D’you know why Stoltzfus didn’t come back this year?” he whispered.
I shrugged. “His parents grew balls and sent him somewhere else?”
Orcus rolled his eyes again. “Those people got hold of him.”
I sent him a dubious look.
“I was there, Tourney,” he said. “I was hiding right here in the hope of catching him doing something against the rules, maybe even something embarrassing if I was lucky. He was walking around the shaft wall, when it just came apart. The lady,” he pointed again, “grabbed him by the shirt and dragged him inside; he was putting up a mad fight, let me tell you. Not sure what happened. I do know he was putting up a ruckus for a good five minutes.”
“A mad fight?”
“Will you not?”
“That just seems a like a strange turn of phrase!”
“And you’re being petty,” Orcus snapped. “Look at this, and tell me convincingly it’s not a little bit worrying to you.”
The shivers crept down my spine. It had been a long time since I’d even considered such things as ghost stories to be true; this didn’t look like a ghost story, per se, but it had all the markers of impending doom. I thought about it a moment, and then shook my head. This was Orcus Locke; God only knew what he was up to, but I didn’t believe him. Stoltzfus hadn’t been the type to break rules for the sake of breaking them.
“You’re lying,” I said, my voice flat.
He rolled his eyes and began muttering under his breath. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and then shook his head. “Naturally,” he continued. “You wouldn’t believe me. But Stoltzfus is gone, so you had better be careful around here.”
I huffed my annoyance. “Okay, I don’t come down here, anyway,” not strictly a lie, but it was in the sense I was presenting it, “and why would they take Stoltzfus? I mean, Stoltzfus? Not exactly highly desirable; he was anemic, under-sized, and his mouth ran like a busted water main.”
Orcus gave me an exasperated glare. “Does it look like I would know?!” he hissed. “How am I supposed to have—what could possibly make you—MUST YOU BE SO INFURIATING!!!” The last bit was hissed even more ferociously than anything he’d said, and the long fingers of his left hand had curled around my upper arm in a vice-like grip. “Just stay careful!”
“I won’t be coming down here, Orcus.”
“Doesn’t mean you’re safe,” he retorted, pointing back to the mine. The people were crawling over the rocks a bit too rigidly, as though they were nothing more than the giant steps of some palatial home; they looked starved, even from this distance. I attributed it to the overly-bright moon hanging overhead.
“Why do you care?” I snapped.
He hesitated, and then smirked. “You’re going to help me, Mallory. You’re going to help me figure it out. Then we’ll clear them out of our school.”
I grinned. “No.” His smirk disappeared. “I’m not going to be helping you with anything. I’m going to ignore your ghost stories, and I’m going to bury myself back into my work. Get it? I have things to do, Orcus, things that actually require my attention, and this – whatever this is – is not one of those things.”
Orcus was growling. “You’ve got to help me, Mallory.”
“Why have I got to help you?”
“No one else in this school is bright enough to keep up with the research,” he hissed. “No one else knows the books and records half as well as you, and nobody else can piece together puzzles as quickly as you – well, nobody but me; but one mind on this project is hardly adequate, wouldn’t you agree?”
Yes, I would, but I didn’t want to at all.
“I have more important things to do, Orcus, than to help you chase monsters. If you would like to speak to me without wasting my time, you may do so in the future, provided it’s not in the middle of the night. See you in the morning.”
And with that I stood and stalked away, anxious to return to my bed. Odds were stacked against me as to how warm it would be still, but I was beyond caring.
I wasn’t beyond lying, though.
I had as good as told Orcus I didn’t care. If he bought it, he was a fool; Orcus Locke, unfortunately enough, was not a fool. The world revolved around him, so if he thought something was amiss, something was definitely amiss. He had had a valid concern with the breaking apart of the wall, Stoltzfus disappearing, and the strangers coming in and out regularly, if that was all actually happening. The sleuth in me was naturally roused by the mystery, and I was, I’ll admit, fast becoming keen to solve it. I determined to do so, as long as I didn’t have to join forces with Mr. Locke.
The thing, however, about scary stories in the middle of the night, is that they stick with you. All the way back to my dormitory, I kept looking back over my shoulder, convinced I was hearing things. I hadn’t seen Orcus leave our hiding spot down by the mine, but that didn’t mean anything. He had top marks in stealth, and would probably have followed me back just to be an irritating sack of wet pancakes. My gut was telling me it was something else entirely, but I never trust my gut, because most of the time it just wants food.
As soon as I got back to the hall, I headed straight for bed. My head hit the pillow, I closed my eyes, and a few minutes later, I was dreaming that I was back at the mine, for some reason freezing beyond all sense or reason. I saw Stoltzfus being dragged backward into the mine shaft, his hands scraping against the rocks and pebbles and shards of concrete. His mouth was open, releasing a terrified, yet muted scream. The scene shifted and all I saw was his mutilated body, eyes open and staring into emptiness, limbs splayed in odd directions. A sudden geyser of blood shot out of Stoltzfus’ mouth. His face began to rot before my eyes, and I jerked myself suddenly awake, not keen on seeing anymore. I have never very good with nightmares, and I happen to have them regularly. Scientists say this is because I am predisposed to mental degeneration in my old age. I think it may have something to do with being a child soldier undertaking my education at Blackthorn.
The sight I beheld nearly stopped my heart mid-beat: a boy, maybe about my age, had leaped away from me when I had been roused from my nightmare. To my complete and utter horror, he was starkly nude, and apparently very unashamed of the fact. My parents being art-collectors, and basically self-aggrandizing experts, I was used to seeing nude portraits. And while nudity itself doesn’t bother me, there is a very big difference between seeing a nude portrait and seeing the subject of the portrait nude. Could you say, “Slightly awkward,”? You could, but, “Intensely horrifying,” would be rather closer to accuracy, considering he was in a dorm room full of sleeping girls.
Ignoring whatever was below his waist that I certainly did not want to see, and blocking it from my sight with a pillow, I focused my eyes on his torso, specifically his face. I couldn’t know him, could I? He had a long nose, sharp cheekbones, and a high forehead. His hair was clipped short, and hung about his head in a giant goddamn mess; bits of it stood at spiky attention. In the dark he had black, glittering eyes, which looked entirely too fierce for his face to be kind. His chin was pointed, and his cheeks sunken. His mouth wasn’t small, nor was it large, but it was characterized by fierce lips; I guessed they would be extremely pale in better lighting.
His torso, however, was another matter altogether. He was blatantly malnourished, his frankly-sickeningly-pale skin stretching tight over his protruding ribs; his stomach was virtually non-existent.
I looked back up to his face. He jaw was strong, despite his plainly weakened state, and his ears were proportional to his head, probably because they were shriveled from lack of nourishment. His eyebrows were two black, thin lines, and they seemed to be trying to knit themselves together in scrutiny of my figure.
All of this, of course, takes time to say, but the look between us lasted for only a second. A question popped out my mouth before I could stop it:
“Who are you?”