Originally posted on Facebook Notes, 16th March 2008
Mike sucked air in through his teeth. Rudolf and Cat remained silent.
The river was deep, wide and fast-flowing. Much like the Cam, it was opaque to the point that one could only guess at what horrors were to be found in its depths. Its near bank was, as one would expect, bare of vegetation. The far side of the river did not have a bank; instead a sheer wall of black basalt rose fiercely into the heights of the great cavern, supported by flying buttresses plunging back into the murky water. Unlike the garden, this cavern did not have a ceiling covered in luminous algae, and the tops of the serrated spires thrusting upwards were shrouded in darkness. The cavern's light came from the series of blood-orange lamps that flanked the path to the only bridge across the river, a slender, single-span construction, and from the building itself, whose narrow vaulted windows seemed to glare down at the three intruders.
Mike hadn't been easily convinced of the merit of Rudolf's plan, but eventually he'd acquiesced. After all, as Cat had rightly pointed out, it was the only plan they had that didn't involve sitting around doing nothing. Furthermore, it quickly became clear that Cat was quite taken with the idea, which in itself made up Mike's mind. He wasn't about to leave her to go it alone with the tall, cocky historian.
Cat waved frantically at him to get down, and Mike ducked behind a stalagmite-tree with the others. A skeletal porter was emerging from a small door set into the college's studded metal gate, making its way unhurriedly across the bridge. The engineer held his breath until it had disappeared into a side passage, then let it out in a long sigh of relief. "So this is your Midwinter College," he stated. There was a hint of reluctance in his voice despite his best efforts. Until the building had come into view, he'd still secretly been hoping that Rudolf had been making it up, and that by accompanying him he and Cat would be calling his bluff. However, the evidence in front of him was too stark to be ignored. He jerked a thumb towards the cavern opening into which the porter had disappeared. "If they're in league with the animated skeletons, I don't imagine we'll have much luck if we simply walk in and ask for their help."
"You're probably right there," Rudolf conceded. Annoyingly, he seemed unfazed. "We should take a stealthier approach. Perhaps we could take a look further down the bank, see if there's a side entrance. All colleges have a side entrance. If we - " He was cut off by a curse from Mike. Cat had emerged from behind the stalagmite-tree and was rapidly picking her way down the scree-covered slope towards the bridge and the gatehouse beyond. A second later, Mike took off after her. Shrugging his broad shoulders, Rudolf followed, his longer strides easily enabling him to catch up with the other two.
Mike reached Cat first, just as they had traversed the bridge, grabbing her by the arms and pulling her into an alcove under the archway. Seconds later Rudolf piled in. "What were you thinking?" Mike hissed to Cat. "Any number of people could have seen us crossing the bridge. If another one of those skeletons had come out..."
Cat glanced back with something like amusement in her expression. "That was why I took the opportunity," she explained in a patient tone. "I'd be willing to bet they patrol at regular intervals. If we go now, we probably won't run into another one for another few minutes at least."
Mike was too exasperated for words, but Rudolf regarded her with eyebrows raised. "You're actually enjoying this, aren't you?"
"And this is a college, after all," Cat continued, ignoring both of them. "I doubt it has any security other than the porters. Since we're finding it difficult to get out to the surface, I'm guessing they don't have many visitors, especially unwanted ones. I bet that door isn't even locked." So saying, she wriggled out of Mike's grasp and made for the door handle. It clicked open on her touch, and the door swung inwards. She disappeared through it.
Rudolf let out a low whistle. "She's a woman who knows what she wants," he remarked.
Mike glared as he made to follow her. "If you can't come out with anything useful," he muttered, "then don't say anything at all."
Cat found herself in a quadrangle that could have been part of any college in Cambridge - save, perhaps, for the forbidding black stonework and the utter darkness above. Two paved paths crossed the courtyard, slicing the lawns into four neat squares. She noticed that the grass had a strange purple tinge to it.
"Nobody about," came the voice of Mike in an undertone behind her. "I'd say we're lucky. Come on, let's get out of the open." He began to move rapidly off to the left, heading for a corner of the quadrangle where a door stood ajar. Cat once again marvelled at Mike's almost unnatural ability to make the best of even the worst situations. Brushing a strand of hair back behind her ear, she followed closely. Both of them almost ran straight into the man who emerged from the doorway.
The newcomer, of a similar age to their own, was dressed all in black with bowl-cut blonde hair and pale pink skin. He wore a gown, and his left forearm was bare, showing a simple red tattoo in the shape of a serpent biting its own tail. For a few seconds he was too shocked to move or speak, his eyes flitting from Mike to Cat to Rudolf in amazement. The broad rower was first to spring into action, barrelling past Cat and rugby-tackling the blonde man to the ground - but the man reacted by rolling away, reaching a leg out to trip him as he moved closer. Losing his balance, Rudolf sprawled heavily into Mike, and both went down in a heap.
As the blonde man rose unsteadily to his feet, Cat let out a fearsome howl and ploughed into him. Her scare-tactic certainly had the desired effect, for the man's expression changed from one of puzzlement to utter incomprehension. Arms windmilling, he staggered backwards and tripped over the border of the neatly cut lawn, his feet becoming entangled with Cat's as he fell. She landed heavily atop him on the lawn and could feel his wheezing breath through her hair. But now his expression wasn't just one of confusion. It was one of horror. He screamed.
Cat barely had time to ponder this before strong arms were grasping her shoulders and she was hauled off the man and the grass. With the benefit of a wider field of view, she could see what had so terrified him. The purple-tinted lawn was starting to move, long blades of grass rising to encircle and bind the blonde man's arms and legs. Other, sharper blades were tearing at his clothing, ripping his gown, shirt and trousers to shreds before starting work on his skin and the muscles beneath. He tried to free himself, but to no avail. Blood spattered across the dark paving stones as the lawn began to unweave and digest him, steadily and systematically. Bile started to rise in Cat's throat.
"Come on." Rudolf's voice sounded firmly in her ear, and he shook her gently. The man was screeching incoherently now. "We have to keep moving. Soon the whole college will be down here." Cat allowed herself to be led to the doorway through which the unfortunate Midwinter member had just emerged, and up a narrow spiral staircase.
"Where are we going, exactly?" Mike, who was taking up the rear, spoke urgently.
"I don't know," Rudolf replied. For the first time since Cat had known him, there was more than a hint of worry in his voice. "Somewhere... anywhere. We have to keep moving." At the top of the third flight he stopped for breath, glancing around frantically. "We should try this room." The tall man indicated a door to their left, marked 'Praelector's Office'. A sliding sign attached to the frame proclaimed that the room's occupant was OUT. "Praelector's an important college official," Rudolf panted. "If anyone has a map of how to get out of here, he will." Raised voices could now be heard from below. He released Cat, who almost fell back down the staircase, and tried the handle. "Locked, damn it."
Mike reached into his pocket and produced a set of keys, as the sound of footsteps ascending the stairs was added to the noise. "These were on the skeleton we... knocked out," he stated, trying one in the lock at random. Amazingly, it worked: there was a metallic clunk, and when he tried the door it opened.
"A skeleton key," observed Rudolf with a grin.
"Shut it," Mike responded; and Rudolf did, hurrying them into the room and slamming the door shut behind them.
The room was austerely decorated. Its bare walls were mostly covered in bookcases, one of which Mike and Rudolf were already moving to block the doorway. Cat glanced at some of the titles. The Necromancer's Handbook. Applied Haematology. The Science of Eternal Life: Problems and Perspectives. The Night Climbers of Cambridge. Shadowcraft. She frowned. An eclectic collection, to say the least...
While Rudolf was shifting the Praelector's heavy oak desk to support the bookcase blocking the doorway, Mike was ransacking cupboards, drawers and shelves. "We need to find something that tells us how to get out of here," he called across to Cat.
"I've blocked it up as much as I can," Rudolf reported. "I don't know if it will stop them, but it should at least slow them down."
Cat's eyes wandered to the blackboard on the wall by the window. On it were written various combinations of words and letters:
(DR?) DELIA MAINWARING
IDEA LAIN WARMING
AID IN A MINGLE WAR
RAW GLEAM IN INDIA
RADIAN(T?) ANGEL (IIMW?)
A muffled, cruel voice could be heard from the corridor. "Fleshies! Open up, or we'll break you open!"
Cat reached out to touch the blackboard, and it fell off its mounting. Behind it was a recess in the wall. In it was a pile of papers, several spiders, and a lot of dust. A thud sounded against the door; the bookcase shook, and several books fell off its shelves.
"We don't have much time!" Rudolf called.
Cat brushed off the top sheet of paper. It showed the river, the buildings, the 'garden'... it was definitely a map. "I've found it!" she almost shrieked.
In an instant both Rudolf and Mike were at her side. Rudolf snatched the piece of paper out of her hand and looked it up and down. "I'll take it," he announced, stuffing it down the front of his lycra. "I'm the best swimmer. I'm the most likely to be able to keep it dry."
"Swimmer...?" Mike queried. The room shook again as whoever was outside made another attempt to enter, and the bookcase shifted visibly.
Rudolf shrugged his broad shoulders and pointed out of the room's single window. Three floors below, the underground river rushed mercilessly past. "How else are we going to get out of here? Now let's go!"
"One minute," Mike replied distractedly. A small copper casket on a high shelf seemed to call out to him. He grabbed it and stuffed it into a pocket of his jeans.
"Hurry!" Rudolf grated. He pushed at the window, and when it did not open he gave it a vicious kick. The window and most of its lead frame tumbled outwards and into the river below. Wasting no time, he scrambled through the opening and jumped.
"You next!" Mike ordered. When Cat hesitated, he shot her a small smile. "Ladies first. Go!" Cat returned the smile, then disappeared through the window and was gone.
Reluctantly Mike kicked off his precious steel-capped boots and clambered onto the sill, where he sat for a second. He hadn't been swimming since secondary school, and wasn't much of a fan of water. But then the door burst open, and the alternative revealed itself. A tall, rake-thin man stood outside, terrible blood-red eyes blazing out of his gaunt, pale face. Momentarily Mike felt compelled to give it all up, then and there, and to sink into the fiery oblivion of his gaze... but then for some reason he thought of Cat, and the trance was broken. He spun around on the windowsill and leapt out into space.
The fall seemed to last an eternity, but suddenly he was in the water, fighting to stay afloat. Summoning every last reserve of strength he possessed, Mike began to fight the flow, striking out for the far bank. For a moment he knew he wasn't going to make it, sank beneath the surface - and then he hit a rock and was unceremoniously flung out of the river onto the shore. He gasped, retched and coughed up a lungful of water, rubbing his eyes clear to see Rudolf making his way along the bank towards him.
They both asked the question at the same time. "Where's Cat?"