As I emerged through the ceiling of the room below, it was to see that it was occupied by a ghoul. What appeared to be—from her withered breasts—a female ghoul. I’d carelessly flung myself too low into the room and her beady eyes shot up at me. A freakish grin split her face, and she lurched for me. I was forced back into the butchery room, but now two ghouls had already entered.
I whizzed upward through the ceiling of the chamber, praying I wouldn’t encounter yet another ghoul-infested room. I was already being chased by three now. Thankfully, it was empty. I hurtled with supernatural speed again, barely paying attention to where I was going. I zigzagged left and right, moved up several floors and then down several more—attempting to travel through the thick stone walls as much as I could, rather than in the open chambers. But in my hurry, I couldn’t always be so calculated. I found that the higher I went, the more crowded the rooms appeared to be, and by the time I figured out that the safest place for me would be downward, I must have already rounded up at least a dozen ghouls behind me in the chase. I was sure that the old werewolf’s words were true. They seemed to enjoy the chase. It was like a game for them.
A game I cannot let them win.
I focused on shooting downward, level after level, even as I tried to travel diagonally, rather than a straight line. I figured that would get them off my tail faster. And eventually, I succeeded… at least, as far as I could tell. By the time I gathered courage enough to stop, I’d gotten so thoroughly lost in the depths of The Underworld, I didn’t want to think how long it would take me to find my way back to the exit. I realized that I was back in a familiar setting, although many, many miles deeper. Ponds surrounded me on either side, except these ponds weren’t nearly as luminous as the ones above. They emitted only a faint, dull aura, like the light of a dying glowworm. These ponds didn’t swarm, either.
Moving closer to the nearest pool to me, I could make out the forms of ghosts deep beneath the surface. They appeared to be piled together and lying at the bottom of the pond. I couldn’t spot the slightest bit of movement from any of them. Still anxious that some of the ghouls had kept up the chase, I figured that down there would be a good place to wait until I’d recovered my nerves and figured out what to do next. I sank into the pool, my eyes raking over the comatose ghosts. Some of them were curled up in a fetal position, while others just floated on their backs, faces panned upward, with blank, vacant expressions. It was freaky to see that some even had their eyes open, just staring listlessly up at the surface. None gave any signs that they had noticed me. It really was as though they were dead.
I was beginning to have second thoughts about stopping in this creepy pool, wondering whether I should just keep moving after all… but no. After that harrowing hunt, I wasn’t willing to just keep moving blindly through the walls anymore. I needed at least a few minutes to recover, gather my wits about me and come up with some kind of strategy. I was certainly safer down here—where I could merge in among the other ghosts—than out in the open.
At least I had some new information about this place now. First, I could pass through the main door, and second, the entrance to the whirlpool—which I suspected was the only exit from this place—was guarded by ghouls, but… there was an exit nonetheless. I just had to figure out how to pass through it without getting caught. That seemed to be the impossible task before all of us ghosts, and what everyone had apparently failed at thus far.
The exit would no doubt be guarded by ghouls twenty-four hours a day. And with dozens of those things around the relatively small exit at any one time, I could see why it was so difficult. A part of me wondered why they didn’t just close the exit off. But I supposed, if what Marcilla told me was true, there was a lot of traffic coming in and out of this place, with the fae and the ghouls embarking on their own grim excursions…
I drifted further downward, looking for a spot to settle. The floor was uneven, sloping downward from the edges and dipping at its lowest point in the center—where all the ghosts were bundled. I chose a nearby corner to rest. Down here I felt more secure, less noticeable beneath the casual perusal of a ghoul.
As I began to furiously brainstorm my next move, I spotted something curious in the elevated corner opposite mine. It was the outline of another ghost. I found it odd that, although slouched and still, he was sitting, rather than lying like the rest of them. I narrowed my eyes to try to see clearly through the gloom. It appeared to be a man. And even more curiously, it looked like he was staring right at me. He was the first ghost in this pond to register my existence. As I scrutinized the man… I noticed something even more odd about his appearance. Despite my need to stay as inconspicuous as possible, I couldn’t help but leave my corner and move closer. I wanted—no, I needed—to get a closer look at his face.
It was bizarrely familiar and yet I was also certain that I had never met this man in my life.
As I arrived within six feet of him, I froze, gaping. I could no longer believe that my eyes were deceiving me. Even in the dim light, I could make out his features well enough to see that he was almost a spitting image of my father. But this man’s features were sharper than my father’s, his jaw narrower, his build less bulky.
I was wrong that I had never seen this man before.
I had, in an old photograph.
I felt as though I’d lost my mind as the name spilled from my mouth: