“Just hang on!” Drake snapped. “Do not fight this fight right now. We have two choices, all three of us. We go forward or we go back. If Sully’s really still alive, I’m not leaving here without him, and I’m guessing both of you need to know what’s at the heart of this place, yes?”
“I’m not going back,” Jada said.
Henriksen’s eyes blazed with his own intent.
“Then let’s get going,” Drake said. “One fight at a time.”
They had lost time with revelations and argument, and as they renewed their exploration of Diyu, Drake felt constantly aware of the darkness they’d left behind. Every shadow and crevice breathed with menace because they had no idea how many hooded men might remain, but the longer they went without being attacked, the more his main concern became Olivia and the surviving mercenaries. It had sounded like Massarsky had taken charge when Perkins had been killed. He’d seemed okay for a guy who used his military training as a soldier for hire, and maybe a killer for hire if the price was right. But Drake had a feeling they wouldn’t be having a beer together anytime soon.
They moved swiftly, making fewer wrong turns, working half on instinct now. Jada froze Henriksen out as if he weren’t there at all, and that sat just fine with Drake. If the two of them weren’t talking, it meant he didn’t have to worry about breaking up a fight. Having to walk through three additional torture chambers—they were more plentiful down in the twisted bowels of the maze—only put more of a damper on any idle conversation. No one was feeling chatty except for Drake, and even he stopped trying to fill the silence after a while.
When they discovered the living quarters of the Protectors of the Hidden Word, they drew their guns and didn’t holster them again. Yet amid the stone chambers—filled with wooden frame walls and floor platforms, as well as blankets and makeshift beds from a variety of eras—they met no resistance. Drake tried counting rooms and beds but decided the quicker they left the place, the better.
“Nate, do you hear it?” Jada whispered, her breathing low and even, her gaze shifting about with a new degree of skittishness.
Drake nodded. They could hear the sound of running water, but not from pipes. He led the way with his flashlight, and at the rear of the warren of rooms that made up the living quarters, he found a small door that led into a natural fissure. The smell hit him even before he entered, and he knew he’d found what passed for a bathroom. Twenty feet below, a narrow river sliced through rock, rushing along an underground course it must have followed for centuries, even millennia.
“That’s disgusting,” Jada said.
“But necessary,” Henriksen said. “Somewhere they’ll have a kitchen. They must hunt for their food and gather greens in secret. They might even go into the city to find—”
“We don’t care about their culture,” Drake said, giving him a hard look.
Henriksen nodded. Interested as he was, he understood this wasn’t why they had come. It wasn’t an anthropology study.
Drake threaded back through the rooms, ducking through doorways until he had led them back to the tunnel they’d diverted from to investigate the quarters. The river had him thinking, wondering if the ravine they’d jumped also once had had water at the bottom. He had a feeling they had almost reached their destination, so he was surprised when the contortions of the labyrinth began to take them upward.
The sound began as a dull roar.
“What is that?” Drake asked.
They backtracked along a dead end turn and then started along a zigzag tunnel that had started as a natural cave and been smoothed and widened by human efforts. The sound diminished and then built again, growing ever louder, until the hissing roar filled the tunnel around them.
When Drake’s flashlight beam picked up the gleam of moisture on the tunnel wall ahead, he knew what they had found.
The cavern was longer and wider than either of the others they’d encountered thus far. The river came rushing in from the right and over a ledge, creating a forty-foot wall of crashing water that filled the vast cavern with a damp chill and a deafening white noise. Their tunnel ended on a plateau at the top of the waterfall.
“It’s beautiful,” Jada said in surprise, raising her voice to be heard.
Their flashlight beams strobed the walls, picking out faded characters and symbols painted in some places and engraved in others. Far above, slits of moonlight provided no real illumination but a glimpse of eyelet crevices that would allow the tiniest bit of sunlight in on a clear day. Long strips of moss ran down the far wall and covered the rocks on either side of the waterfall, both there on the plateau and in the lower half of the cavern below them, and vines of white hellebore, long since adapted to this bizarre subterranean hell, were plentiful amid the moss.
Though the flashlights were powerful, they could make out few details below. But Drake saw at least one tunnel leading away from the area around the bottom of the waterfall, and he suspected that what looked like deeper patches of darkness beyond all but the dimmest glow of their lights might be other such tunnels.
“This is it,” he said. “Down there somewhere.”
Jada scanned her flashlight beam across the other side of the rushing river, then ran it along the plateau toward the edge of the waterfall. Drake saw the stairs the same moment she discovered them, carved into the wall beside the waterfall, descending into the lower cavern. They gleamed with spray, and he knew they would have to watch their step.
The violence began so quickly, Drake barely knew what was happening. Henriksen grabbed his shoulder and spun him around, reaching for his wrist. Drake held his gun in one hand and the flashlight in the other, and for several heartbeats he thought that Henriksen was attacking, making his move now to eliminate them to save the white hellebore. He cracked the man across the skull with the barrel of the Glock, and Henriksen staggered back, dropping to one knee, blood welling on his forehead.
But he was waving his gun the other direction along the plateau, toward the dark cave mouth from which the river spouted.
“There!” Henriksen shouted. “Turn the bloody light over there!”
Drake swung the flashlight beam. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jada just beginning to turn.
Then he saw them, five shadows rushing along the river’s edge into the pool of light. Only five, Drake thought, which had to mean that their numbers were thinning badly. Their odds of surviving to see the sky again were improving.
One of the figures broke away, picking up speed. Henriksen raised his gun, steadied his aim, and fired. The killer crumpled, but forward momentum brought him rolling along the rock shelf toward them, and in the circle of Jada’s flashlight beam, he tumbled to a halt and lay dead, gazing up at them with hollow, lifeless eyes.
Sick dread clutching at his heart, Drake directed his light at the others. Henriksen was taking aim again.
“Don’t shoot!” Drake shouted.
His flashlight found four faces, but only one of them was not half hidden beneath a black hood. Drake swore.
But Drake could see in his eyes that Sully did not know him. The Sully who had been his best friend for nearly twenty years did not live behind those eyes anymore. Sully did not know him.
For half a second, Drake wondered if he could shoot him just to wound, but he wasn’t that good a marksman and they’d never be able to carry him out of the labyrinth if he couldn’t walk on his own.
It was half a second too long.
“Sully, it’s me!” Drake yelled.
Then Sully barreled into him with enough force to knock the flashlight from his hand and the air from his chest. Drake staggered backward, only just managing to hold on to his gun as Sully put both hands around his throat and squeezed.
Struggling, trying to retreat, Drake felt his boot slip off the plateau’s rocky edge. Jada screamed his name, and then he and Sully were falling. They plunged into the cold, roaring river, Sully still with his hands wrapped around Drake’s throat. Drake’s mind was screaming for oxygen, his chest tight and burning after Sully had knocked the air out of him, and he wondered if Sully or the river would do him in.
Then they were spilling over the waterfall, falling, punished and dragged downward, and he realized it would be the fall that killed him.
Drake thrashed in the water, tearing loose from Sully’s grip. The river rushed around him, but for long drowning seconds he could not discern up from down, life from death. Then his left foot hit something hard and unyielding, and he knew that it must be below. Fighting to keep himself from flipping over again in the powerful current, he thrust his legs down, struck bottom, and propelled himself upward. His chest convulsed with the need for air, and when at last he broke the surface, he gave himself over to a helpless primal gasping, his mind devoid of reason, desiring only to breathe.
A hand snagged his shirt, and then Sully latched on to him, arms and legs wrapped around him from behind, trying to force him down. Drake shot an elbow into his gut, felt the sharp exhalation behind him, then reached around and put Sully in a headlock. Choking and dragging him at the same time, he pushed for the rocky riverbank. He’d dropped his flashlight up on the plateau, and though he didn’t remember letting go of his gun, he had lost it when they’d plunged over the waterfall. All he had to fight with were his hands and his wits, and he hoped they wouldn’t fail him.
Only the dimmest light existed down there in the lower cavern. It might as well have been pitch-dark save for the gleam of moonlight and reflected illumination from wavering flashlight beams above. That wet blackness gave form to rocks and walls and its absence indicated the presence of tunnel mouths, but otherwise Drake was in darkness.
He felt the river bottom underfoot and knew he must be near the bank. The roar of the waterfall on his right made it hard to hear much else, yet another churning noise came from his left, and he glanced that way to see the glistening blackness of a vertical rock face—the far end of the cavern. The river flowed into a tunnel at the base of the rock.
Panic raced through him. His throat raw from nearly drowning, his profanity-laced mutterings came out a meager rasp, but in his mind he was shouting. If they were dragged into that river tunnel, the darkness would be complete, and there was no way to know when or if they would enter another cavern where they might climb out. The underground river might go on for miles, joining the Qin Huai or Yangtze somewhere beyond the city of Nanjing. By then, they probably would be dead.
Drake tried to hoist Sully from the water, staggering toward shore, fighting the current. Sully had seemed disoriented, but now he thrashed against Drake’s choke hold, elbowed his ribs, and clawed at his hands. He twisted and bucked, and Drake lost his footing. Then he fell into the torrent again, washing toward the back of the cavern to vanish into the subterranean river’s hidden path forever.
“No!” Drake screamed, getting his footing, grabbing Sully around the torso as if tackling him.
He drove Sully toward the shore, dragging them both waist deep through the water even as Sully tried to break his grip. In the shallows, where the river turned almost gentle, Drake gave Sully a shove and sent him careening onto the rocky bank. Lungs burning and heart thundering, Drake stood with his hands on his knees. His muscles were exhausted from fighting the river, and though the air tasted sweet, each sip made his ragged throat ache even worse.
In the dark, he saw the black silhouette of his best friend rise and turn toward him. The only feature he could make out was Sully’s eyes, which glistened in the dark, as wet and black as the rocks by the river.
“Sully, please,” Drake rasped. “It’s me. It’s Nate. I know you’re still in there. Don’t make me fight you.”
Silent as the hooded men, Sully lunged at him. Drake dodged left, grabbed his outstretched arm, and used it for leverage, slamming his knee up into Sully’s gut. He heard the explosion of breath as he knocked all the air out of Sully’s lungs. But Sully held on, wheezing and groaning, as Drake kneed him a second time.
Sully bit his arm, teeth sinking into flesh, and Drake cried out in pain that merged with the waterfall in a roaring chorus. With his free hand he punched Sully in the temple five times in quick succession until Sully’s jaw let go. Drake reeled away from him, careful not to fall into the deep current again. He felt hot blood coursing down his arm, smelled its coppery stink, and knew he had to finish this before Sully killed him.
Drake waded toward him, feinted twice, and then landed a blow to Sully’s gut and followed up with three quick strikes to the face. In the dark, he could make out only the shape of his old friend, but he didn’t need to see the details, didn’t want to see the lack of recognition in those blank eyes, especially now.
With one final blow, he sent Sully crashing to the rocky bank again, but as his friend began to rise, Drake got him into a choke hold again. This time Drake had solid ground beneath him and held on tightly as Sully’s struggles grew weaker. In what seemed only moments, his friend began to sag in his grasp, and Drake released him. Sully crumpled to the ground, where Drake felt for his pulse and found it still beating. He wrapped his arms around his friend and let out a shuddering breath.
Sully’s alive, he thought, frozen with shock and relief. For the first time, he admitted to himself that he had been half convinced that the hooded men had killed him. He had no idea how he would get them out of the labyrinth or what it would take to shake Sully out of the honey’s effects, but he knew he had to take it one step at a time.
Something dark floated by on the swift current, jutting from the water. Drake cursed himself and set Sully down, standing and turning to look up at the plateau. A pair of flashlights moved down the water-sprayed stairs, slowly descending toward him.
“Nate!” a voice cried, carrying to him over the crushing thunder of the waterfall.