Originally posted on Facebook Notes, 30th March 2008
Less than an hour ago they'd been hiding behind the same stalagmite-tree. But back then, there'd been three of them, and they'd been filled with an optimism that certainly wasn't present any more.
Four skeletal porters were making their along the riverbank toward the bridge, flanking a heavyset man in a gown. Draped over one of this man's broad shoulders was the bedraggled, unconscious form of Cat, who he bore as if she weighed nothing at all.
Across the narrow space between them, Rudolf could feel Mike's hackles rise. "Steady," the historian murmured, glancing over at him. "Rushing in there isn't going to improve our situation. There's five of them, and only two of us. Now I'm no mathmo, but those odds don't sound good to me."
"So what do you suggest we do?" Mike shot back. "Just sit and watch while they take her back in there to be killed?"
The engineer's tetchiness was almost contagious, and Rudolf had to force himself to keep a cool head as he replied. "Who said anything about killing? If they wanted to kill her, don't you think they'd have done so by now? They've had ample opportunity." He could see that his words did little to calm the other man, but persisted anyway. "Look, I just don't think it's a good idea. And I know you've got the hots for Miss Cat, but believe me, I want to see her rescued just as much as you do."
These were even more evidently the wrong words. Mike's visage darkened like a stormfront, and his knuckles paled to white. The taller man took an involuntary half-step backwards and hastily continued. "Hey... I'm sorry. It was just an observation. One fella to another. Forget I said it if you like. But the point is, she's still alive, and so are we. If we charge down there, they might just decide to kill all of us. Or, best case scenario, take all of us prisoner. On the other hand, we have the map now. If we get the hell out of here, we can come back later, with backup."
Now Rudolf's words did seem to be reaching Mike, but he still shook his spiky-haired head. "You're ascribing logical common sense to the sort of people who hobnob with the living dead and cultivate man-eating lawns," he pointed out sullenly. "I'm still not sure they won't just kill her once they get her inside."
"Believe it or not," Rudolf replied earnestly, "it doesn't change the way things are. We've got nothing to gain from showing ourselves now. If we..." He trailed off as Mike prodded his lycra-clad arm. Someone was emerging from the college. Tall and slender, he walked with purpose and grace. His most distinctive feature was the colour of his eyes, which were crimson red.
"It's him," Mike whispered. "I saw him when we were upstairs in the room, back in the College. I think he's the Praelector."
Words were being exchanged between the bulky man and the dinner-jacket-clad newcomer, and Rudolf strained to make out what they were saying. However, only the red-eyed man's final words were clear enough to be perceived. "The Master wants her alive." His crisp, clear voice was laced with distaste. "Take her to the Old Cellars."
Rudolf turned to Mike as the procession proceeded over the bridge and into the College, and grinned. "I do so love being right."
Mike didn't take the bait. "Just get the map out. If we're going, then let's go."
Rudolf shrugged, and opened out the piece of paper they'd stolen. For the next few minutes the two men pored over the map in silence.
For the second time in one day, Cat opened her eyes to find herself in a dark place. It took her a few seconds to remember where she'd been when she was last awake. She'd been fighting futilely against the current, and then...
"Mike!" she called. "Rudolf!"
Details of the room she was in began to make themselves clear to her. No light entered into it from any source, and the ceiling above was vaulted like a chapel - or a crypt. Her clothes were already drying off well, perhaps because the room gave off an air of mustiness. The bowler hat she'd been wearing was gone. She realised she was cold, and shivered.
"Good. You're awake."
Cat cast around for the speaker. Seated against the opposite wall, with her knees up to her chest, was a woman in a plain but elegant black dress. She was plump and ruddy-cheeked, but young-looking; Cat judged that she couldn't have been out of her late twenties. Her curly dark brown-black hair didn't quite reach to her shoulders.
A pang of fear jolted through Cat. "Are you... one of them? From the College?"
The woman laughed shortly, a rich, resonant sound. "If I was, would I be locked in here with you?" She gestured to a thick metal door, which rather reminded Cat of the ancient door to the safe room of her village bank. "I'm sorry. My conversation skills may be a little rusty - I haven't had anyone to talk to for at least a few weeks, although I've lost count of the exact amount of time I've been down here. My name's Mirabelle, anyway."
"I'm Cat." Cat didn't move from her position against the wall, although she shifted herself into a more comfortable angle to talk to the newcomer. "If..." she began. "If you're not from the College, then... where are you from?"
The woman who called herself Mirabelle seemed to laugh again, a little ruefully. "I could ask you the same question," she replied lazily. "But since you asked first, I suppose I should give you an answer. I'm at Darwin. I'm reading for a PhD in Philosophy. Or perhaps I should say was."
Cat was still a little suspicious of the dark-haired woman, and so she asked a further question. "Then how did you end up down here?"
"My supervisor sent me," came the immediate response. "I was looking for you."