You know something?” the girl asked. “That was a terrible time to be indecisive. I’ll never get the smell of smoke out of these clothes.”
Donny tried to respond, but it only triggered another coughing fit. He curled sideways on the stone floor with his arms across his stomach. His eyes and lungs still burned. He blinked and tried to focus, but saw everything through a blur of tears. All he knew was that they’d ended up in a corridor, away from the smoke. Only one other person was with him: the girl.
She kneeled beside him. “Jeepers. You’re all singed,” she said. He could smell it: the stench of burnt hair. His nose wrinkled.
It took a few minutes, but he was finally able to breathe deep without coughing. “How did we get here?” he asked quietly. “Is this the basement?”
She laughed. “Not the basement.” Her hand gripped his arm, helping him sit up. “Can you see a little better now?”
He blinked some more, then rubbed his eyes and looked again. The corridor came into focus at last. He saw smooth rock walls all around and an arched doorway ahead. Behind them, the corridor curved out of sight, but he saw a shimmering orange light on the walls cast by flames around the bend. “Wait. What . . . There was a tunnel under the building?”
“Noooo,” she said, sounding a little impatient. Donny could see her better now. She was definitely pretty. Striking was more like it. There was something sly about her features. She had dark eyes, not quite black and maybe even purple, framed by lively eyebrows that angled wickedly down. Her hair was long, straight, and midnight black.
She offered her hand. “Angela Obscura.”
What a name, Donny thought. He shook her hand. The flesh of her palm was feverishly warm. “Donny Taylor,” he told her, adding another hacking cough at the end.
“Pleased to meet you, Donny Taylor.”
Donny took another look around at the floor and roof and walls of solid rock, the fiery glow behind and the arch ahead. “I don’t get it. Where are we? We must be under the brewery. But we were on the roof. How did we get down here so fast?”
Angela pursed her lips and tapped her cheek with
one finger. The other hand, Donny noticed, was clad in a tight red leather glove. Around that wrist she wore a thick timeworn gold band that looked like an artifact from a museum. “How do I break this to you gently?” she mused, almost to herself. “Let’s start with this. Donny, you are nowhere near that old building, which I imagine is a steaming pile of rubble with a load of hunky firemen standing around it right now.”
Donny frowned at her. “Nowhere near?”
Angela shook her head. “Far, far away.”
Donny’s frown turned into a glare. He had woken not long ago with his life in ruins, and then been scared half to death. Now on top of that, this weird girl was messing with his head.
“Don’t give me that look,” she said. She tugged at the bottom of her glove. It seemed like a habitual gesture. “Let me give you a hint.”
Any other time, Donny would have been polite. But his nerves were shot, and that made it easy to be blunt. “I don’t want a hint. Just tell me.”
“Trust me, this news is best received in small digestible portions. You are nowhere near that old building. In fact, you are nowhere near Brooklyn. How far, I can’t even tell you. We got here through a passage that was opened in the fire, because . . . well, because that’s how I get around.”
Donny let out a laugh, which turned into another cough that took a minute to rein in. “Oh yeah. Of course,”
he finally said. “We came through a magic passage.”
“Was that sarcasm?” she asked, one elastic eyebrow arched high. “I love sarcasm. Good coping skill. Now, here’s the next thing you should know: on the other side of that door is a place you have certainly heard of, but you weren’t sure it was real. A place where sane people hope they never have to go.”
Donny stood and brushed a fine layer of dark ashes off his shoulder. “This is getting creepy.”
“You’re getting warmer.”
“What the heck are you talking about?”
Donny opened his mouth to speak but suddenly couldn’t find any words. Angela stared at him, nodding. “Take a good look at that door,” she said, pointing over her shoulder.
He swallowed hard, ignoring the pain in his throat. He stepped closer to the door. The scarred, knobby, blackened wood looked almost petrified. How old is this? he wondered. Words were chiseled deep into the stone above the door, in a language he did not understand. HIC · INEST · INFERNUS. Latin maybe? There was no chance he could figure out the phrase, but that last word: INFERNUS. That was familiar somehow, and he knew words like it. Infernal. Inferno. He took a sudden sharp breath, and it stuck in his nose. It brought a smell with it. It wasn’t just the burnt odor of his own hair—there was something new mingled
in. A faint whiff of rotten egg. He leaned closer, and the smell was stronger, as if it had leaked through the cracks of the door.
Donny knew that smell.
And suddenly he was aware of how warm everything felt, even the stone under his feet.
“You look a little pale,” Angela said. She leaned closer. “Have you guessed?”
His voice fell to a whisper. “It can’t be that place. It can’t be.”
“It is, though, Donny. This is the way into the Underworld. It’s had lots of other names, though. Infernum. Hades. Hell. Gehenna. Baratrum. The Abyss. The Land of Everlasting Torment. The All-Inclusive Resort for the Terribly Naughty. These days, we like to call it Sulfur.”
Her hand rested on his shoulder and steadied him, because he was wobbling. “I know what you’re feeling,” she said. “You’re confused. You’re sick with fear. But I bet you’re curious, too. Are you ready to see what’s on the other side of that door?”
Donny put a hand on his chest and felt it heaving under his palm. “I . . . I . . .”
“Oh, come on,” she said, grabbing his wrist with her gloved hand. “You don’t have a choice anyway. I can’t leave you here. And I’m not taking you back. Let’s face it: you didn’t look like a boy who had someplace better to be, up
on that roof. But you can tell me that story later. Now, before we go in—” She turned his wrist so his palm faced up, and pressed her other fist inside. She had a ring on that hand that he hadn’t noticed, with a black insignia inlaid in gold. Donny felt the ring push into his flesh, and then a moment of tingly pain. He yanked his hand away and stared at his palm. The ring had left an impression of whitened flesh on his skin.
“What was that?” he asked, rubbing the spot with the thumb of his other hand. He thought he could massage the color back into it, but nothing changed: a symbol, an ornate fancy letter O with curling wings on either side, seemed to be there for good. “Did you just brand me?”
“Sorry, had to mark you as one of mine,” she said. “You wouldn’t last long without it. We have rules about unauthorized mortals wandering around. Actually, one rule: kill on sight. Now, enough with the preamble.” She walked to the door. There was an enormous brass knocker mounted in the center, and she slammed it into the iron band below with three resounding clangs.
Donny held his breath for a moment and watched the dark door. Moments passed with only the sound of Angela’s toe impatiently tapping the stone floor. A little rectangle of metal near the top of the door slid open and created a peephole. “It’s me,” Angela said. “Would you kindly let us in?”
Whoever was on the other side slammed the peephole shut. Then there came another noise as heavy things ground
together. The door swung inward. Donny craned his neck to look through. A tall burly figure stood in the doorway, clad from head to toe in dented armor. If someone hadn’t just opened the door, Donny would have thought it was simply an oversize, oddly shaped suit of armor standing on display.
Beyond the threshold was another, much shorter, tunnel. The opening at the far end was a rectangle with a rounded top. Like a tombstone, Donny thought with a shudder. The space beyond was orange-lit and, he was certain, immense. Angela stepped up beside him and slipped her arm inside his. “Come on, I’ll prop you up. It can make you dizzy the first time you lay eyes on it. I promise you, it’s not what you expect.”
Donny gulped. What did he expect? Flames and creatures with pointy horns and pitchforks, he supposed. His joints felt weak, and tremors ran through his arms and legs. He might not have moved if Angela hadn’t tugged him along.
Donny stared as they approached the armored figure. It was easily eight feet tall, and strangely proportioned with long arms and a grotesquely thick chest. It was so still and silent that Donny nearly shrieked when a cheery high-pitched voice rang out from within the helmet. “Lovely to see you, Angela.”
“And you, darling,” she replied. She stopped and smiled up at the hulking figure.
“Who’s your little friend?”
“Oh, just someone I bumped into topside.” She stared up, still grinning, and rocked on her heels. A long, strange, silent moment passed, and then finally she giggled and opened her red bag. “You thought I’d forgotten it, didn’t you?” She pulled out an extra-large pack of beef jerky, ripped the plastic wrap off, and held it up. The armored thing squealed with delight and lifted its visor. A long pale tongue shot out, stuck to the jerky, yanked it from Angela’s hand, and pulled it back in. Donny clapped a hand over his own mouth to stifle a shriek.
“Enjoy,” Angela said, and she tugged Donny along.
“Mmm-hmmm,” said the armored thing, waving a metal glove and then slamming the door shut.
“Grunyon loves the jerky,” Angela said brightly.
Donny’s brain felt like it was rattling loose inside his skull. This must be what it’s like to go crazy, he thought. If Angela were to let go of his arm, he would simply fall over. The tombstone frame grew bigger with every step forward, and when he finally passed through the opening, Sulfur came into view.