We were looking at our third dormitory when Kylie caught up with us.
“This whole place is abandoned,” she announced. “I’ve seen nobody except you guys. That’s weird.”
“It can’t be abandoned,” Max said. “It’s just sparsely populated at the moment. If it was abandoned, who’s making the food?”
“Don’t mind him, he’s an obsessive pedant,” I stage-whispered to Kylie.
She ignored me.“What are you guys doing?”
“Looking at this room for no reason,” I said. “I want the smallest room possible and he wants the biggest room possible, so it seems like counting all the beds should be a pretty quick and efficient process, but instead we’re standing around these eight beds while this guy does maths.”
“I just think that it’s important to pay attention to the actual position of the rooms,” Max insisted. “If all the large rooms are a twenty minute walk from the cafeteria, it’s worth settling for a smaller one. And as initiates, almost all of our lessons will be in a small group of classrooms, so staying near those is also a good bet, and they’re not rooms we can just transfer into later because they’re going to fill up fast when other students start arriving.” He frowned at the map. “Perhaps we should just put our things in some acceptable rooms for now and spend the next few days walking the halls to get a better idea of actual travel distances.”
“Have fun doing that,” I said. “I’m going to spend the next few days playing minesweeper.” Which was a lie. Of course I was going to be exploring. But I wasn’t going to be using maths to do it.
“What sort of room are you looking for?” Max asked Kylie.
“I’m not sure. I was hoping to just find some nice girls and room with them, but nobody’s here yet.” She was clenching her fists tightly, I noticed. Like me, she was going to be among total strangers.
Max nodded. “Well, as a witch, I’m sure you – ”
“Don’t call her that,” I snapped.
He frowned. “It’s an academic term.”
“Well, it’s an academic term you can shove up your arse. Being a ‘witch’ implies going around and cursing people or something, like it’s her fault, but it isn’t. It’s just something the world did to her.”
“I prefer the term ‘witch’, actually,” Kylie said. “When people say I’m ‘cursed’, they start to feel sorry for me and say stupid things like ‘oh, you’re so brave for carrying on’, like they’re surprised someone can be so unfortunate and not commit suicide or something. ‘Witch’ has more power in it.” For the first time, she met my eyes without glaring at me. A challenge.
I crossed my arms and looked at Max. “Well I guess that’s none of my business, but just so you know, I’m cursed as well, and if you call me a ‘witch’ you’re going to get punched.”
“Uh… noted,” Max said, looking puzzled. He probably thought I didn’t notice the way his eyes skimmed up and down my body, like he’d be able to find my witch mark through my clothes.
Before he could ask any stupid questions, I pressed my hand against the nearest bed-claiming panel, waited for it to turn green to announce that the bed had been claimed, and tossed my bag onto it. “I’m off to find the supply shop,” I announced. “You guys have fun dorm-hunting.”
I headed out into the corridor, went to bring up my map, and hesitated. The situation might suck, but I was in a new, exciting location; why spoil that with maps? I should be able to find my way around. It was what I did.
Where would a shop be? Heading down the hall in one direction would take me to the area with the cafeteria. Heading the other way would take me… to the classrooms, probably? Classrooms would be near the rooms, right? No; classrooms would be near the cafeteria, so students could have lunch and get to their next class without sprinting halfway across the school. And Mr Cooper’s little office had been off the cafeteria; teacher offices would probably be near their classrooms. And the shop would be… near Reception? There didn’t seem to be a Reception area; we’d been taken straight through to the cafeteria. Or maybe the Reception area just wasn’t staffed in the middle of the school holidays.
Well, if there wasn’t a Reception area, then the supply shop would be behind the classrooms, right? Which were probably near the cafeteria. I shut down my tablet and strode confidently back to the cafeteria.
Half an hour later, I stood in a narrow, slightly damp tunnel, completely and thoroughly lost.
Above me, the crystals glowed blue, indicating that this was part of the school and a place I was allowed to be. This was the only such indication, because the floor they lit was dirty and uneven and the walls looked natural and were strewn with cobwebs. In places, the rough stone had been smoothed over by milky layers left by years of trickling water.
I lifted my tablet, then hesitated. Checking a map would be cheating. Maybe I would need one to find the shop after all – it wasn’t unreasonable to use a map to find a specific building – but I could at least backtrack to civilisation on my own.
I started to head back, turned a sharp corner, and found myself facing a fork. Both passages ahead of me were lit faintly blue, both clear of any obvious debris, and I couldn’t remember which one I’d taken. Normally I was careful to remember paths and things, but… I stood right at the fork and turned back around. Right, yes; I’d noticed the weird stalactite hanging in the corner, near the sharp turn. I hadn’t seen the other passage to my side. Had it been to my left, or my right? I stood in front of each passage, trying to recall the specific angle I’d seen the stalactite at. It looked the same either way.
I turned once more and reluctantly started to walk down the left passage. Was this more familiar? I felt kind of familiar, but my element was the buildings and backstreets of a town, not underground mazes of stone. It have been years since I’d explored anywhere where I had any chance of actually getting lost, and I refused to do so now. The Haven would not defeat me.
The amount of relief I felt when I looked up and saw another person ahead of me was embarrassing. I person! I could ask for directions! That wasn’t cheating; people were… were part of the environment, not like maps.
There wasn’t much I could tell about this particular person. The changing height of the tunnel made it hard to make out their height, and they were clothed head to toe in loose brown clothing, like a cross between a desert traveller and someone in hazmat gear.
“Hey!” I called, hurrying towards them, but they didn’t wait around to talk. They turned and ran.
“Hey!” I tried again. “I just need directions!”
This did not appear to sway them. They kept going, and while they were a slower runner than me, they seemed to know their way across the uneven floor littered with loose stones; they moved smoothly from foot to foot while I stumbled and slid.
I kept up pretty well, I thought. At first. Because at some point, the tunnel became darker, the floor harder to see. If I wasn’t chasing someone, I probably would have stopped to check the light crystals or just given up and opened the damn map, but maintaining speed on the darkening floor was taking all my focus. I probably also should have paid attention to my right ankle which, while no longer in a cast, wasn’t back at its full strength yet. That had to have been the reason I’d slipped, anyway. It couldn’t be simple clumsiness. Not with me.
A stone moved under my foot, and I fell sideways. I had just enough time to realise exactly how much the ground was going to hurt when my side slammed into the pointed stone at full force before I hit said ground, which was… not pointed stone. It was surprisingly soft.
It also did not do what ground was supposed to to in this situation – that is, break my fall. There was a sensation of movement, and it took me a little while to realist that I was sliding down a slope on thick, light sand. I tried to get purchase, but the sand just shifted under me.
After a little while, the sand evened out and I slid to a halt. The sand beneath me was dry, but I could hear water trickling somewhere nearby. I patted myself down; I didn’t seem to be hurt.
I pressed my palm to my tablet to turn it on and noted with some relief that things on the screen were indeed visible in the dark. After some poking around, I was able to make it light up bright enough to illuminate the area. This was somewhat less useful than I’d hoped since the whole tablet was transparent, so the light shone out in every direction at once, but with some eye-shielding I was able to survey the area.
The path I’d fallen from was up a huge slope of sand. Some experimental climbing attempts revealed that there was nowhere with sand firm enough to let me walk back up. The sand under my feet sloped much more gently downward to what seemed to be an underground lake. Water trickled from stalactites down into the lake, and the light of my tablet didn’t let me see the far end of it. An experimental taste told me the water was fairly brackish, but not ocean-level salty. Probably not safe to drink a lot of.
I ran some sand through my fingers. I didn’t know very much about sand, but it was very different from the grey stone of the tunnels. Probably came from somewhere else. There weren’t any little shells or anything in it, at least not that I could tell.
Okay. Enough was enough. I brought up the map.
Only to find that my tablet didn’t have a map for the area I was in. In fact, I couldn’t connect to the school intranet at all.
Well, that wasn’t a problem. I hadn’t been chasing the mysterious person for very long. Foot chases tend not to last very long; running is annoying and painful for most people, and I for one wasn’t very good at it. So I had to be pretty close to the lit, technically-authorised path. I wondered if a place like this being so easy to stumble into was grounds for a lawsuit – I could have really hurt myself. Maybe that was the real reason the school had such great lawyers.
Up above me, at the top of the sand slope, I could see the path I’d fallen from. The sand slope was wide enough that there was no way to reach the path around it, even if I’d been dumb enough to try to climb the walls of a strange cave without equipment or help. And the sand was, of course, unclimbable.
So this was it, then. I’d been at Skolala Refujeyo for less than two hours, and already I was hopelessly lost, trapped in the bottom of a giant sinkhole, and nobody had any idea where I was.
This was going well.