CHAPTER NINETEEN

THOSE KULASHKASstill alive and alert to the danger fled for the doorway. Some made it to safety, but most were trapped beneath the pillars and roof, which caved in around them as they ran. Stumbling to my feet, I set off after the Kulashkas, but Harkat grabbed me. "We'll never make it!" he gasped.

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"There's no other way out!" I screamed in reply.

"Have to - shelter!" he yelled, dragging me away from the main path. He hobbled across the floorboards, his green eyes darting from left to right as he watched for falling debris.

"We're in fer it now!" Spits hollered, popping up beside us, eyes alight with crazy drunken glee. "Face the heavenly stairs and cough up yer prayers!"

Harkat ignored the ex-pirate, dodged a chunk of heavy masonry, paused, then started jumping up and down on the spot. I thought he'd lost his mind, until I saw the hole in the floor where his foot had gone through earlier. Twigging to his plan, I bounced up and down beside him on the fragile floorboards. I didn't know how deep the pit was beneath, or if we'd be safe in it, but we couldn't fare any worse below than up here.

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"What in the devil's name are ye?" Spits began. He got no further, because at that point the floor gave way and the three of us plummeted into darkness, yelling wildly as we fell.

We landed in a heap several metres beneath the temple, on a hard stone floor, Spits on top of Harkat and me. Groaning, I shoved Spits off - he'd been knocked out during the landing - and looked up. I saw part of the roof give way far overhead and come crashing down. Yelping, I stumbled to my feet and dragged Spits off to one side, cursing at Harkat to follow. There was a fierce, thunderous roar at our heels as we only just cleared the section of falling roof, which exploded upon contact with the floor and showered us with splinters and chips of stone.

Coughing - the force of the impact had raised a thick cloud of dust - we pushed ahead blindly, dragging Spits between us, into darkness and what we hoped was safety from the crumbling Temple of the Grotesque. After several frantic metres we came to a hole in the ground. Exploring with my hands, I said, "I think it's a tunnel - but it drops sharply!"

"If it gets covered over - we'll be trapped," Harkat said.

There was a heavy bang overhead and the floorboards above us creaked ominously. "We don't have a choice!" I yelled, and crawled into the tunnel, bracing myself against the walls with my hands and feet. Harkat shoved Spits after me, then came himself - the tunnel was only just wide enough to accommodate his bulky body.

We clung near the top of the tunnel a few seconds, listening to the sounds of the destruction. I peered down the tunnel, but there was no light, and no way of telling how long it was. Spits's body weighed a ton and my feet began to slip. I tried digging in with my nails but the stone was too smooth and tough. "We have to slide!" I bellowed.

"What if we can't get - back up?" Harkat asked.

"One crisis at a time!" I shouted, and let go. I lay flat on my back, allowing my body to shoot down the tunnel. It was a short, fast ride. The tunnel dropped sharply for many metres, then gradually levelled out. I came to a stop several seconds later at the end of the tunnel, where I stretched out a foot, searching for the floor. I hadn't found it when the unconscious Spits barrelled into the back of me and sent me sprawling out into open space.

I opened my mouth to yell, but hit the ground before I could - the mouth of the tunnel was only a metre or two off the floor. Relieved, I got to my knees - and was promptly knocked flat when Spits toppled out on top of me. Swearing blindly, I pushed him off and was rising again when Harkat shot out of the tunnel and bowled me over.

"Sorry," the Little Person muttered, easing himself off. "Are you OK?"

"I feel like I've been run over by a steamroller," I groaned, then sat up and took deep breaths of the musty air, letting my head clear.

"We've escaped being crushed by - the temple," Harkat noted after a while, as the noises echoing through the tunnel decreased and then ceased.

"For whatever good it'll be," I grunted. I couldn't see my friend in the gloom of the underground cavern. "If there's no way out, we'll face a slow, miserable death. We might wind up wishing we'd been squashed by a falling pillar."

Beside me, Spits groaned feebly, then muttered something unintelligible. There was the sound of him sitting up, then, "What's happening? Where have the lights gone?"

"The lights, Spits?" I asked innocently.

"I can't see!" he gasped. "It's pitch black.'"

"Really?" I said, eager to punish him for fouling things up with the Kulashkas. "Ican see fine. How about you, Harkat?"

"Perfectly," Harkat murmured. "I wish I had - sunglasses, it's so bright."

"My eyes!" Spits howled. "I'm blind!"

We let Spits suffer a while, before telling him the truth. He berated us with some choice insults for scaring him, but soon calmed down and asked what our next move would be.

"I guess we walk," I answered, "and see where we end up. We can't go back, and there are walls to the left and right?" I could tell by the echoes of our voices "?so it's straight ahead until a choice presents itself."

"I blame ye fer this," Spits muttered. "If ye hadn't gone prancing about in that bloody temple, we'd be waltzing through the fields now, with all the fresh air in the world t' breathe."

"Weweren't the ones who - tossed bombs when there wasn't a need!" Harkat snapped. "We'd agreed a deal with - the Kulashkas. They were letting us go."

"That lot?" Spits snorted. "They'd've strung ye up and had ye fer breakfast!"

"I'll stringyou up if you don't - shut your mouth," Harkat growled.

"What's eating him?" Spits asked me, stung by Harkat's tone.

"Many Kulashkas died because of you," I sighed. "If you'd stayed outside like you were supposed to, they needn't have."

"Who cares about that lot?" Spits laughed. "They ain't of our world. What's the difference if some of 'em got squished?"

"They were people!" Harkat roared. "It doesn't matter what - world they were from. We had no right - to come in here and kill them! We?"

"Easy," I hushed him. "We can't put it right now. Spits was only trying to help, in his clumsy, drunken way. Let's concentrate on finding a way out, and leave the finger-pointing for another time."

"Just keep him away - from me," Harkat grumbled, pushing to the front and taking the lead.

"That's not very polite," Spits complained. "I thought, as an imp, he'd be delighted to cause havoc."

"Be quiet," I snapped, "or I'll change my mind and set him on you!"

"Crazy pair o' landlubbers," Spits snorted, but kept further comments to himself and fell in behind me as I stumbled after Harkat.

We limped along in silence for a number of minutes, disturbed only by the sound of Spits slurping from his jug of poteen (no fearthat got broken in the explosion!). It was completely dark in the tunnel. I couldn't see Harkat, even though he was only a metre or so ahead of me, so I concentrated on my sense of hearing, following him by sound alone. His large grey feet made a very distinctive noise, and because I was focusing on that, I didn't hear the other sounds until they were almost upon us.

"Stop!" I hissed suddenly.

Harkat came to an instant standstill. Behind me, Spits stumbled into my back. "What're ye?" he began.

I clamped a hand over his mouth, finding it with little difficulty from the stink of his breath. "Not a word," I whispered, and through the throb of his lips I felt his heartbeat pick up speed.

"What's wrong?" Harkat asked quietly.

"We're not alone," I said, straining my ears. There were very slight rustling sounds all around us, ahead, at the sides, behind. The sounds stopped for a few seconds when we stopped, but then picked up again, slightly slower and quieter than before.

"Something just crawled over my right foot," Harkat said.

I felt Spits stiffen. "I've had enough o' this," he muttered fearfully, and made to pull away and run.

"I wouldn't do that," I said softly. "I think I know what this is. If I'm right, running would be avery bad idea."

Spits trembled but held his nerve and stood his ground. Releasing him, I bent to the ground slowly, as gracefully as I could, and gently laid a hand on the floor of the tunnel. A few seconds later, something crawled over my fingers, something with hairy legs - two - four - six - eight.

"Spiders," I whispered. "We're surrounded by spiders."

"Is that all?" Spits laughed. "I'm not scared o' a few wee spiders! Stand aside, boys, and I'll stamp 'em out fer ye."

I sensed Spits raising a foot into the air. "What if they're poisonous?" I said. He froze.

"I've a better one," Harkat said. "Maybe these are babies. This is a world of - giants - the Grotesque and that monstrous toad. Whatif there are giant - spiders too?"

At that, I froze like Spits had, and the three of us stood there, sweating in the darkness, listening - waiting - helpless.

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