Mann!

Malik slipped through the basement window legs-first, careful to slide down slowly. The crates below creaked, but didn't give way as he gingerly settled his weight on them.

The building had been abandoned for some time. The windows had been blown out, there were cracks running down the walls, and it even leaned a little bit. He was surprised it hadn't been torn down. Oddly, there hadn't been any graffiti. It looked like the walls hadn't seen paint of any sort in decades.

The interior was no better. Besides the wooden crates, there was a broken desk collapsed on the floor and the rusted frame of a chair. Faded safety posters still hung on the walls.

He pulled a respirator out of his bag. Sometimes old buildings had asbestos. Especially ones that were suspiciously empty like this one. He turned on his flashlight and shined it down the hallway.

There were more rooms like the first. The stairs leading up had rusted out, and he was trying to decide if it was worth trying to climb them when he spotted the hole in the wall. it was covered by an overturned shopping cart with a cinderblock on it. There was an odd symbol drawn on the block.

The hole itself was large enough for someone Malik's size to get through. It was hard to see through the shopping cart, but he thought he saw something glittering on the other side.

He moved the shopping cart carefully and crawled through the hole, noting the white objects scattered on the floor.

He had just recognized them as bones when his flashlight went out and something siezed his wrist. He screamed—tried to pull away, but was dragged through.

There was a scratching sound and then a flare of light as a match was struck off the wall. A bony hand lifted it to a candle which sat in the crown of a broad-brimmed hat on greasy-gray hair. Two bloodshot eyes stared over a bulbous nose set in a birdsnest beard. The rest of the figure resolved into a heavyset man in a dusty, dirty overcoat and heavy boots. He pulled Malik close up to his face.

"You're clever, very clever, oh yes, but not smart, not by a long mile, feller me lad." The man's breath smelled of ash and rotted plants. His grip was iron and leather. "Clever was figurin' out a way around into here. Smart, though, contrariwise, would've been wonderin' why it was closed off in the first place."

Malik struggled like a trapped animal, but no matter how he twisted and pulled, he couldn't free his hand. He'd encountered vagrants and squatters in abandoned houses before, but most were harmless if you left them alone and didn't go near their stuff.

"Now, you are not the first clever lad to have made it in here," the man continued. His voice was scratchy and hungry. "And they are scattered now around us. But what differentiates you suchwise from them what are now bones is this: You are lucky. For today I find myself in need of a clever lad."

The man dragged Malik through a broken, leaning doorway. The floor inside as littered with dead rats and pigeons. The skins on the rats hung loosely, and bones poked through. There was a brittle crunch as the man's boot settled on a loose wing. The air was dusty and smelled only faintly of decay.

There were larger bony shapes in the shadows of the corners. Malik tried not to look at them.

The man shoved Malik into a rotting wooden chair, though he did not release his wrist. "The name, jimmy-son, that you can address me to, is Eljer Whelve, and I am the soleful inhabitant of this here domicile." With his free hand, Eljer waved broadly at the rest of the room. The brown-stained grey sleeve of his coat hung loosely over an arm that seemed too long, that bent too many times.

"Let go of me!" Malik shouted, kicking the man in the legs. It was like kicking a pair of small trees wearing trousers. He could hope that his yells would carry through to the window, but he knew it was doubtful anyone would hear or care even then.

"In time, good time, but in no time suchlike the present, for presently I still require your cleverness. As my attempts to cut the cleverness out of a boy have heretofore failed in the particulars, that necessitates the remainder." The man's unblinking eyes burned with a terrifying intensity and his expression never changed from mad interest.

"What do you want with me?" Malik asked. He hoped faintly it was just a robbery. That would make things easy and simple. He carried a twenty on him for just that reason.

"There are many things that I am capable, but contrariwise, some that fall outside my bailiwick. It is, boyo, to you I cast my gaze as one to get things done! I am in need of retrieval for a specific artifactual item that has left my possession." He swung Malik around to a hole in the wall. It was even smaller than the one he'd used to enter. With his other hand he grabbed the back of Malik's head. Malik felt the fingers curve around his head, a finger and a thumb on either side of his field of view. The nails were long and filthy.

"Look here, look with those two fine eyes presently in your skullpiece, through this aperture. There is an item that I am in need of, yet I am embarrassed for I cannot fit through there my magnificence. Thus it is that I am in need of a cleverish boy." He shoved Malik's head through the hole, and then the rest of him.

Malik wriggled, and finally slipped through the other side. The air was surprisingly fresh and cold. He started to scramble away, and then realized he couldn't see a thing.

The man reached into his own mouth and pulled out a yellow-streaked candle six-inches long. The wick looked disturbingly like hair, and there were flakes that looked like skin embedded in it. He lit it from the candle in his hat and handed it to Malik. "Hold tight, for light is hard to come by in the deepsome of the darks.

"Wh-what am I looking for?" Malik asked, holding the candle gingerly. It was uncomfortably warm, even away from the burning wick. It let off a sickly green-yellow light, revealing a narrow, concrete hallway.

"Nothing so grandsome as you might be thinking. Just a trifle. An old glass bottle, beer-brown in color. Stopped closed with wax and pitch. Do not, my laddy-buck, think of unstoppering it, or I shall have your skin stretched to the wall before you. There is no way back but here, so don't let dangersome thoughts flit to your brainspace. Are we savvy?" He tapped Malik's temple with a long finger.

"Sure," Malik said. "Savvy."

"Good to hear, clever jack. Now off you scamper. I'll be waiting…"

Malik hurried away. He wasn't going to trust that the weirdo was telling the truth about there not being another way out.

Once he was out of sight of Eljer, Malik stopped and tried to calm down.

The man was clearly nuts. Probably a serial killer. But at least for the moment, Malik was safe.

He reached into his pocket and checked his phone. No bars. Not a big surprise this deep down under concrete, but it had been worth a shot.

He powered it off. No sense in letting it run its battery down searching for signal. Once he found someplace a little closer to the outside, he could call someone. His brother and his friends, by preference, but at this point he'd even take the police.

The candle ran a finger of warm wax over his thumb. He started again down the corridor. No telling how long the light would last.

The air was warm and damp and still, like a held breath. Rusted pipes ran along the top of the wall. Steam occasionally hissed out from old joins. Mold grew on the walls in impressionistic patches.

He saw a pair of red dots above him from atop the pipes and then realized it was a rat. It stared back at him a moment, and then turned and scurried along the pipe and further down the tunnel.

Malik shrugged and followed. Rats didn't bother him much. He saw a lot of them in abandoned buildings and tunnels, and he'd never been bitten before. Live-and-let-live got you pretty far in forgotten places.

There was a sudden startled squeak which cut off as quickly as it had started. Malik slowed his pace and moved a little more cautiously. Probably just a trap, he told himself. Or it had fallen down an unexpected hole…

There was a steel grate on the ground ahead. It was about five feet long by two feet wide, with little inch-wide slots.

The rat was held fast against the grate, with strange bulges and indentations across its body. For a moment, Malik though someone had somehow tied it down with wire. Then he realized it was being pulled down by ropy, sea-through tendrils. Its eye still looked around in a panic and its tail was twitching, but it was held down tightly and whatever it was seemed to be trying to pull it through the grate.

Malik pulled out his pocket-knife. He wasn't sure what this was, but it wasn't in him to let an animal suffer. He flicked it across one of the tendrils. It broke away with a snap, spraying a viscous, transparent fluid. He got the next one and the one after.

Soon only the rat's foreleg was caught. As Malik reached down, a tendril snapped up and almost caught his hand. Malik pulled away. His skin burned where it had touched him. Quickly, he cut the rat free and moved back from the grate.

A dozen eyes stared back at him. Then a dozen tendrils grabbed the grate and pulled it to the side. Malik jumped away, but instead of moving from the hole, the entire hole slid across the floor and under the wall. Malik stared. He tried to see if there was some sort of conveyer belt, a seam in the concrete, but it all seemed quite solid.

The tendrils had been freaky enough, but this was just crazy. This was not how floors worked outside of cartoon shows.

The rat limped away. It reached a more broken, flaking part of the wall, climbed back up to the pipe, continuing down the tunnel. It stopped after ten feet and looked back at Malik.

Malik followed with a shrug. It was going his way, after all.

After a few minutes, he found himself at an intersection. He was pretty sure by now he was no longer under the building. If he could find another exit, he'd be home free.

The rat turned right. Malik followed, but kept a mental map in his head in case he needed to come back this way.

The rat reached a hole in the wall and slipped inside. Malik stared after it.

He felt oddly betrayed, though he knew it was irrational. But now he felt even more alone than he had before he had encountered the rat.

Malik thumped a brick in frustration. There was an odd hollow sound to it, and then he heard a quiet scraping sound.

He looked down and saw the brick move. A tiny face peered up at him. It looked like an old woman, but the leathery, wrinkled face was much too small for the wide red eyes. "What's the password?" the quavering voice demanded.

"What?" Malik said, staring dumbfounded. He was sure he wasn't dreaming. Hallucinating, maybe? But his head was clear.

"Yes! That's it! That's it exactly!" she said, beaming with tiny, sharp little teeth. Then she frowned. "You guessed, didn't you? I knew it wasn't a very good password."

"Um. Who… who are you?" Malik asked.

"Who wants to know?" she asked.

"…Me?"

"Oh. Right. That would make sense, yes. I'm Tizzie. But you aren't to tell anyone. It's a secret!" She put a hand to the side of the two tiny holes that appeared to serve as her nose.

"Sure. No one will hear it from me, I promise," Malik said. The little thing was strange, and he wasn't convinced she was real, but she seemed harmless enough.

"That's a promise! You better keep it!" she said, and popped out. Her body was human-like, but doll-sized and thin and wretched. Dusty gray flaps of skin stretched out from her arms. They blurred into motion as she leapt from the hole and fluttered up to his shoulder. Needle claws dug into his shoulder.

"Hey, that hurts!" he protested.

"It'll hurt much more if you break your promise. I'll know. I'll tell my sister Meg and she'll follow you forever and ever and you'll never rest. You'll run and run but she'll follow and hurt you and keep you awake and steal your food and shit in your bed." She grabbed the side of his head and whispered in his ear. "Oaths are important."

Then she let go, falling off his shoulder in a somersault and flying again in front of him. "But don't worry! So long as you keep your promise, we'll be friends. Unless you hate. Then my sister Ally will be after you. Or you're a murderer. I hunt murderers." She grinned, her teeth growing longer and filling her mouth. "You're not a murderer, are you?"

"N-no," he said, backing against the opposite wall.

"Well, there you have it. Friends!" She flitted again and landed on top of his head. "Where are we going, friend?"


"Yes, boy, fine boy, you bring an old sinner his medicine. At last, at long last, I have it here in my ownsome grasp!" Eljer tore the bottle from Malik's hands and bit off the stopper. He spit the pitch and wax and glass into the corner and then poured the contents down his throat. "Yeesss," he gurgled as the gold-black swirls eddied around his crooked, yellow teeth. "Finally!"

Malik edged past him. He had no illusions that Eljer would keep his promise. His best chance was to get past and out while the old man was distracted. If that didn't work, then maybe he'd try the spear.

As the last drops fell past the gates of his chapped lips, a tittering sound came from deep in his gullet. "What the hell?" he asked, clawing at his throat.

"Look at all the candles," Tizzy's voice chimed from inside the man. "Let's light them!"

"No! NO! What tricksome spell did you pull?" Eljer screamed. He fell forward, sending bones clattering across the chamber. "Its in me! A fury in my belly, and you brought it!" His skin began to shine a sickly and yellow light.

Tizzy's laughing echoed from deep inside.

Malik ran, jumping over furniture, crouching as he hit the corner, only to stretch back out and bounce into a sprint. He breathed deeply, but not too quickly. He felt alert, and even a bit afraid, but not panicked. He was a little surprised by that. But he had conquered the down deep, and whatever Whelve might be, Malik was not cowed anymore.

As he reached the last room with its broken desk and the skeleton of a chair, the light shined bright behind him. He leapt into the window, pulled himself through, and rolled away before looking back.

Whelve stared hatefully behind him, a hand reaching feebly through the window. His body was huge, his skin stretched tight and glowing like a paper lantern. Small shapes, Tizzy and her cousins, could be seen dancing inside. Larger shapes, more human, were moving too, pounding on the walls of Whelve's body. "Boy!" Eljer wheezed. "Boy, don't be thinking you've escaped! I am buried, but not dead-down yet! One day. One day…." His hand fell back into the room. Eljer's face faded away, and the light was gone, leaving the street dark but for the stars and distant streetlights.