Ryan lay on his back, the lantern next to him. He had fallen into a pit about ten feet deep. From what Candice could see, he was still alive.
“Ryan,” Candice called down. “Can you hear me?”
Her cousin’s eyes fluttered open. The lantern cast an ominous glow over his face which was covered in dirt. “I’m...okay.” He sat up. “The ground gave in.”
Candice looked at the edge of the pit where she crouched, just under the roof of the tunnel. She carefully eased back. “Are you hurt?”
Ryan looked at his hands. “Just some scrapes. My ankle is a little sore.”
“Can you get out?”
Ryan looked up and around, then stood. He brushed dirt off his pants and shirt and picked up his lantern. The pit was about six feet wide, the sides a crumbling mess of dried mud and pebbles. Dust hung in the air. “I don’t think so,” he said. He looked up. “Did you bring a rope?”
Candice swallowed. “No, I didn’t. But there’s one by the ship.”
“Those ropes are old. Broke one a few days ago.”
Trisha lay on the ground at the edge and reached into the pit. “Can you grab my hand?”
Ryan stretched up. “Not unless I can find something to stand on.”
“Let me get the rope,” Candice said. “It won’t take long.”
“No. I just need a rock or something.” He swung the light left and right, then stopped. “Hold on.”
Near the back edge of the pit, Candice saw what looked like a large rock, about two feet across and maybe just as high. If he stood on that, he might be able to reach Trisha’s hand and they could pull him out. The quicker the better. If they could get Ryan out and make it back to the settlement, they could explain the boy’s dirty clothes and scrapes away by calling it rough play.
Why had she agreed to go into the holes again?
Right. On a dare.
Ryan stood on the rock, his body against the side of the pit. He reached up and across, but it was still not enough. “I’m going to try to move this thing,” he said. He put the lantern on the ground and pulled at the rock.
“Be careful,” Candice said. Of all the things to happen down here, a cave-in would be one of the worst.
The rock moved a little. With another grunt, Ryan pulled it away from the wall. He slipped and fell backward onto his bottom. In place of the rock, Candice thought she saw another hole.
Ryan picked up his lantern and brought it up. “What is that?” The hole was no wider than the rock, but its darkness was ominous.
“Is it treasure?” Killian asked.
“Get the rock and climb out, Ryan.” Candice believed her voice might sound more mature than she was, and if she had to play the scolding adult, so be it. “We can look at that later.”
Ryan looked up at Candice, then Trisha. “Dare me to peek inside?”
Not another dare. What was it with boys? Was this how people got themselves in trouble or, worse, buried in the ground at Cemetery Hill?
“No,” Candice said. “You get that rock and climb out.”
“Just a peek, Candy.” Ryan smiled. She hated that name, and Ryan knew it.
“Ryan Page. If you don’t climb out of there right now, I will tell your mother. Or worse, your father.”
“There might be treasure,” Killian said, his voice climbing even higher
“There is no treasure,” Candice said.
Ryan put the lantern by the hole and lay on his stomach. He peered inside. “Ground is a little wet here,” he said, his voice muffled by the dirt in front of his face. “Smells horrible.” He scooted a little closer. “I think I see—”
Something that looked to Candice like a red branch reached out of the hole. As Ryan tried to back away, it rose above his back, then plunged into the boy’s flesh.
Ryan screamed. In one second, flesh peeled away and bones cracked as his body was pulled forward into the hole, face first.
Trisha screamed as well, and Killian backed up. Candice watched in muted horror as the hole forcefully consumed her cousin’s body. His scream stopped. Where there was once a boy with a lantern who agreed to go with her on a dare, there was now nothing but a lantern and a trail of blood.
The light of the lantern illuminated water as it seeped up from the ground. In seconds, it covered the floor of the pit and flowed more forcefully out of the hole into which Ryan had been pulled. The blood on the dirt mixed with the water and disappeared as the level rose. In seconds, the lantern was dowsed, and the pit was dark.
Trisha was panicked, her breath coming in ragged, short bursts. Killian, of all people, was quiet. He looked at his sister, then into the pit as the water continued to rise.
“We have to get out of here,” Candice said. She stood and pulled on Trisha’s shirt. “Now.”
“He’s—he’s gone,” Trisha quietly said between breaths. She looked at Candice. “We have to get him.”
“We can’t, Trish.” Candice did not want to believe it either, but there was no other option. With Ryan gone, there was nothing any of them could do but run back to the settlement and tell some grown up. Forget being scolded.
“We can’t leave him,” Trisha said. Her voice was louder, exposing her true panic. “He’s hurt!”
The ground at the edge of the pit crumbled under Trisha’s weight. She backed up, then pushed Killian. “Get back, Killian.” Trisha looked into the pit at the now swirling water, faintly visible in the light of Candice’s lantern. “Candice. Get him out of here.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I can swim if I have to,” she said. “I have to do something.”
“No!” Before Candice could react, Trisha swung around and pushed herself into the pit. She landed with a splash, the water up to her ankles.
“Tish!” Killian screamed. He leaned over the edge of the pit and looked down. “Get out of there!”
Candice froze. What could she do? Now Trisha was in the pit and whatever grabbed Ryan was sure to grab her as well. What was that thing? There were few animals around the settlement, and none that ever showed up on the lakebed. All the furry critters and things to eat hid out in the forbidden forests, but nothing that had creepy long red fingers that spiked people.
Not that Candice knew of, anyway.
“Trisha!” Candice called as she lay on the ground at the edge and reached into the pit with her hand. “Grab my hand!”
Trisha jumped, but she couldn’t reach. The water splashed again as she fell back.
“The rock! Grab the rock!”
Trisha stood in the water and looked around. The rock was to her left, illuminated slightly by Candice’s lantern and still next to the hole where Ryan disappeared. She reached to grab it when another red branch-looking thing shot out of the water and wrapped around her arm. Trisha screamed and pulled away. She pushed herself against the far wall.
“Jump again!” Candice screamed. “You can make it.”
Trisha tried again, but her foot slipped. “The water is turning the floor to mush.”
“Push off from the rock!”
“Tish!” Killian cried from behind Candice.
“Get back!” Candice glanced to her right as Killian approached the edge of the pit, his body quivering in the glow of her lantern. He was crying.
“Tish! Get out! Get out! Get out!”
Trisha jumped again, but still missed. The branch reached for her leg and whipped around. Trisha saw it. She frantically clawed at the side of the pit.
“Tish!” Killian reached down with his own hand, the edge of the pit crumbling under his weight.
Trisha looked up. “Get back! Candice! Get him out of here.”
Candice reached toward Killian as the edge gave way. Killian screamed and tumbled face first into the pit, his head striking the rock. He rolled over into the water, silent.
Trisha reached for Killian as the branch found her arm and wrapped around it. She screamed and tried to pull back. Another branch reached out of the hole and wrapped around Killian’s lifeless body.
Candice pushed away from the edge of the pit as Trisha’s scream intensified—then stopped.
They were gone.
All of them.
She reflexively picked up the lantern and ran back toward the entrance to the hole.
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