Ten people crept down the spiraling stairs of the basement of the Wizard Academy. Well, nine crept and one was carried.
Mr. Budny, in the rear, was wearing his flat cap, his mind connected to a bunch of old Polish men sitting in non-suspicious locations around the neighborhood of the Wizard Academy.
Warren the Scaly Man, next in line, had a lizard on his shoulder. Various lizards were positioned closer to the building. If the Wizard Police looked like they were heading for any of the doors, Warren's lizard could give a signal.
Mahalia, in front of Warren, was along to lend a fist if necessary, for it was probable that any Wizards we met would be relying on magic to fight and fail to reckon with analog forms of combat. I had cautioned her against coming, but she had insisted.
Clem, I carried. If any of the trees inside or outside the building noticed Wizard Police heading our way, they would tell Clem, and he would start rustling.
Sameer, in front of Mahalia, was following behind me with his mirror in hand. Mirrors in the building tended to reflect people even when they were invisible -- as a security feature. If an invisible wizard passed in front of a mirror, Sameer would see it in his.
Aurore came along to get us out of trouble quickly if we needed it.
Sean came on high alert, because if a fireball headed in our direction, he was the only one able to block it effectively.
Jo came along in case we needed utterly overwhelming force. Hopefully it
wouldn't come to that. I had no idea what the use of overwhelming force
might do to her, and I didn't want to chance it. She chose to walk right behind me, for some reason.
And then there was me, the one who started this infiltration -- still unable even to cast a basic spell.
And Jim-jimmy-jim-jim-jim, in front, was along to use his big ears and
listen for any whispers of Wizard Police below us. As a result he had
commanded us to be utterly silent. Not that we needed much prompting.
And so ten people crept in a spiral down, past the floors made of wood, past the floors made of concrete. After a certain point the walls stopped having wood panels and turned into white-painted brick. After a certain point the walls stoppedbeing made of white-apinted bricks and started to be made of concrete. After a certain point the walls stopped being made of concrete and transitioned to field stone. After a certain point we got past the field stone and the walls became solid stone, as if we were walking down into a mine.
Although most mines have torches or floodlights on the walls, instead of glowing patches. Most mines have side passages. Most mines do not have wind rising up from the darkness below. Most mines have a bevy of activity, a ring of hammers and pickaxes or a grind of machinery and whir of elevators and cough of black lung, instead of deafening silence. Most mines have a bannister or some kind of guard rail along the stairs, instead of nothing. Most mines do not have an increasing number of spiders running along the walls.
You could accept our help, said a teeny voice in my head. You do not have to keep walking downward. After all, no matter how far you walk, the bottom will always be out of your reach. It descends at the same rate you do. You are attempting to reach a part, a Color, of your city, that few humans have ever seen, and fewer have survived. Please, accept our aid and you will have a much easier time finding what you seek.
"Hold up," I whispered, "I'm getting an offer from our eight-legged friends here."
Jim-jimmy-jim-jim-jim jumped at the sound of my voice. He whirled and put a finger to his lips, clearly annoyed.
"The spiders are telling us that we need their help," i whispered even more quietly.
Jim-jimmy-jim-jim-jim frantically motioned me to keep my voice down.
Well, how was I going to get any quieter than I was? I didn't know the sign language for "We're never going to reach the bottom of this place because it's always dropping away from us." So I turned around and pointed to Jo, then at me, then downward into the darkness, and then flapped my arms. She appeared to get the message, because she grabbed me by the waist and spread her cloak-wings as we tumbled off the stairs.
And so we spiraled down, and down, and down, and down.
Thirty minutes of spiraling down and I was fairly certain that we'd gone farther into the earth than the atmosphere was tall. The walls had, after a certain point, transitioned from rough stone to smooth, dark glass, which reflected the glowing patches of light. Within the dark glass I could swear I saw the darker shapes of creatures. All of them composed of more segments and limbs than I cared to count.
"Alright," I said, "Time to head back upwards, if we can."
"Hang on to your face when we accellerate," said Jo.
She swooped upwards. I heard the sound of whirring and clanking, and then a roar. I nearly blacked out from the g-forces as we rocketed upwards.
"I heard that roar for a thirty whole seconds before you got back here," said Jim-jimmy-jim-jim-jim. "You gave our position away."
"Thirty seconds?" I said. "Jo, how long were we flying upward?"
"Five minutes, I think."
"Then we don't have to worry about keeping our mouths shut, do we? If this shaft is deep enough to swallow the noise of a jet engine, there's no way any Wizards below us can hear us talking. And the rats said there aren't any obvious spells at Pantagruel's location."
"I'm curious," said Warren. "You told us that the rats said Pantagruel is getting farther away all the time. What if that's because this shaft really doesn't have a bottom? What if the Wizard Police just...chucked Pantagruel off the side and let him fall forever?"
"I wouldn't put it past them," said Mahalia.
"The spiders implied that there is a bottom we can reach," I said, peering over the side. "Far away, maybe, but it's there...somewhere. And they offered to take us there. Or...we could just jump and see what happens. Who's up for jumping? I'm up for jumping. I love to feel the wind in my hair."
"I had no idea you were afraid of spiders," said Sameer. "You're the one who freely converses with rats, and yet you don't like spiders?"
"I'm wary of making deals with small creatures, after my experiences in Manhattan. Let's put it to a vote. Who wants to jump off this ledge and see what happens?"
Nobody besides me raised their hand.
It looks as though we're your best bet, said a teeny voice in my ear.
Ten little humans with eyes shut tight crept down the stirs, holding onto a slightly sticky rope to guide their way.
"How is this supposed to help?" said Aurore. "From what we could see of the shaft, there's no side passages."
Oh, that's what you could see. But you are making your way into Shadow Chicago, and that space lies beyond what is seen. If you try to use your eyes to reach it, you will never get there. You must trust your limbs. You must be a spider.
"Oh no," I said, "I am NOT going through that again."
At least think like one. What's the harm in trying new life experiences, eh? Open up your mind to the rest of the world. The world under your feet that you humans so often fail to notice. The world we, the many-legged, rule. Who saves you from the flies? Who sweeps away the ants from the places you can't see? Who runs between your floorboards and never asks for more than a little bit of shelter and warmth? We do. Those of us who venture into the rural areas, so to speak...our own city itself is down here.
"Where down here?"
Open your eyes now.
We stood at last on flat ground. That we could feel, at the very least; it was of a color too dark to see in the gloom.
"Let me get a light here," said Sameer.
No, wait, don't --
Sameer waved his hand and a little ball of light floated forward. Was we'd had our eyes shut for so long, the light was almost blinding, and we had to turn away from it just to be able to see. With our backs to the light, our shadows stretched into the space ahead of us -- a space that was less a set of tunnels than a set of lanes, intersecting at the right angles of a proper city, the sky or the ceiling lost far in the distance above. And every surface covered in black webbing, over which moved millions, tens of millions, of spiders.
And then the light disappeared.
I whipped around. There was something taller than me moving in the near-darkness. Something with many segments and many limbs. Heading right towards me.
Half a foot from my face, it stopped, as if it had run into something. It tried to close the distance between us, but as it thrashed, its limbs were slowly pinned to its body, until it was just a writhing mass, held upright by an unseen substance. And then, very slowly, it became still.
Well, you can see what sustains our city. The larger insects are, as they are wont to be, attracted to lights, and that is where we trap them. A constant supply of food for the city. So when you cast a light right next to you, you're setting a trap that you can't actually close. As you journey further into Shadow Chicago, you will need to rely on senses other than sight if you wish to survive. We won't be there for you after a while.
"What the Sam Hill is this place?" said Warren.
This is the Ministry of Spiders. All regulations regarding insects, bugs, and arachnids come from our offices here. We have constant supply of food here, and much more time to think. And so we come up with laws. Currency. International games. Funding for art and poetry.
"What kind of art does a spider do?" I said.
Sculpture and stringed instruments, mostly.
"This is all very nice," said Jo, "But we're looking for a specific person who may be down here. By any chance, are you holding a fellow named Pantagruel?"
Oh. Oh you're looking for HIM. Oh, well, I'm afraid he's not here, dears. i think you ought to look for him elsewhere. I think he must be far away by now. Yes, you really should go.
"Can't you even help -- "
So sorry, dears. There's nothing here to see. Run along now.
"Run where?" I said. "Are you going to help us get back?"
And so, three little humans sat in a dark street far away from a dark city full of dark webs, surrounded by the dark dome of a big, dark cloak. They sat around a little magical light, faces all of them downcast.
"So what are we going to do?" said Jim-jimmy-jim-jim-jim. "How do we begin looking for Pantagruel in this land of shadows?"
"We're going to go right back to the Ministry of Spiders and tear their webs open," I said. "You know and I know that Pantagruel's somewhere in there. Hell, the Wizard Police didn't need to put him in a cell and put spells around him. They could just throw him to the spiders. This place is a trap."
"But how are we going to get in there," said Aurore, "if we just try to stomp our way in? Or burn our way in? Or blast our way in? We'd be overwhelmed by spiders in a second."
"Knock knock," said a familiar voice from outside.
Everyone's eyes got wide. Except mine.
"Open the dome," I said to Sean. "I know that voice. Come on in, Masie."
Masie crawled into the space that Sean opened in his cloak. "Fancy meeting you down here," she said. "And fancy meeting so many of your friends here too. I'd love to hear about why you invited them and not me."
"How did you even -- "
"Later. Later. I heard you wondering about how to get into that Spider City. Well, let me ask you. Have you ever read a book called The Sword in the Stone?"
"You're about to experience my favorite part."