Ralphie was alone when he came to. Confusion washed over him as he scanned the room, trying desperately to remember where he was and what was happening. Standing up, his body ached all over and the clear gem in his palm still emitted its faint glow.”Ms. Frizzle! Carlos, DA, Keesha! Anyone!?” Throat burning, his voice felt so small in this muffled space. No response came so he continued in the direction they’d been going before he… fell into that hole? Or passed out? It was hard to remember. Something about fire. He held out the gem to help light his way.
Each step up the staircase was lined with that same plush velvet, each step squishing under his weight, that clear liquid seeping into his shoes. Twice he thought he’d heard a light squish behind him, somewhere in the main room, and both times he had to strain through the darkness just to see nothing. His back prickled as he reached the landing and looked down the corridor before him, stretching on for what looked like miles. At the far, far end he could see a pinprick of light. Something about it called to him, made him think of friends, Christmas dinner, and a carefree summer day– not of these things specifically, but of the feelings they inspired.
It felt warm. It felt safe.
But there were countless doors lining the hallway and Ralphie’s curiosity got the better of him.
He approached the first door on the left side of the hallway, no different than any other door he could see. Reaching for the handle brought no ill feelings and opening the door revealed a small room just as dark and ill-defined as the main entryway. The second door he checked offered much the same, as did the third; velvet adorned the walls and floor, and occasionally pieces of furniture could be found stuffed in the corners, but there was never anything worth a second glance. Twice again he thought he’d heard the whisper of a footstep behind him, and twice again he saw nothing. When Ralphie reached the eighth door, he felt an unpleasant tingle run down his side and turned to look against his better instincts.
Initially he saw Phoebe standing a few feet to his right but, as the shock of her appearance faded, he noted there was something slightly off about her. Primarily that the skin of her face had been split vertically and peeled back to the sides. Where her skull should have been, an enormous yellow eye bulged through the ragged slit. Ralphie stared at the eye-face of his friend for what felt like minutes, his mouth suddenly very dry.
The pupil never wavered, trained with laser-focus on the glow leaking from Ralphie’s fist.
He fought the urge to run. “Phoebe… is that y–”
The eye darted to him for a moment then slid out of view below the skin, pulsing and protruding as it forced itself back under the folds of Phoebe’s face. Patches of rotting fur and scales slithered past the opening and, with effort, the end of some great half-melted beast’s snout forced itself into the confines of her face. It stretched and tore the slit further up her head and down her chin in its ferocity, blood intermingling with the viscous fluids soaking her clothes. The mouth opened, drooling and furnace-hot.
“THIS ONE IS NOT PHOEBE THOUGH IT WEARS HER FLESH”
Its voice disoriented Ralphie, demanding his attention and making him nearly drop the gem. It was deeper than any voice he’d ever heard, like Vin Diesel with a flu but slowed down and drowned under layers of static. The snout pulled back into the head, more fur and broken scales sliding past the opening until the large eye swelled to fill it. It returned its stare to Ralphie’s fist.
He knew he should have been terrified, he knew that he should have been frozen stiff or sent screaming, but he wasn’t that afraid. He felt like this wasn’t so bad compared to… something. He couldn’t keep his thoughts clear but, somehow, this situation felt manageable.
“Have you been following me?” he asked. The creature didn’t move, remaining standing straight with Phoebe’s hands folded politely in front of her. Ralphie cleared his throat. “Who are you?”
The enormous mouth contorted into view again, opening but only breathing, seeming to consider its answer.
“WASP,” it drooled, drawing the S out into a bubbling hiss. Ralphie silently mouthed the name back, half in bemusement, half in awe. Wasp’s jaws closed and the huge nose inhaled deeply, grotesquely stretching Phoebe’s face as it sniffed the air. It coughed a low bark that Ralphie could have almost mistaken for a laugh. “YOU SEARCH FOR HER AND THEY.”
“Her and… yes! Yes, Ms. Frizzle and my friends! Have you… have you seen them?”
“HER WATCHED YOUR DEATHS THROUGH THE DEEP PIT, TO SCREAMING END WITH THE MOUTH MOST VILE. THEY WASN’T SEEING. HER AND THEY LEFT, CALLED BY THE VERY SAME. DO NOT TURN.”
Ralphie furrowed his brow and he considered the words. “I don’t understand. Do you know where they are?”
“THE LOCATION IS KNOWN TO MANY HERE.”
“Can you take me to them?”
The beast churned violently under Phoebe’s face as its snout pulled back and the yellow eye replaced it. It pushed against the tension of her skin, then retracted and rotated across to its other enormous eye, the pupil contracting as it focused back on the gem. Thick, dark liquid seethed out from the tears of flesh.
The mouth stretched into view. “THIS ONE WILL TRANSPORT YOU,” Wasp spat voraciously, “FOR A PAYMENT.” It sniffed again, pulling so hard that the gem’s glow was sucked towards it, smearing in the air. It let out a rumbling, ravenous sigh.
Wasp’s breath nearly knocked Ralphie out, his eyes rolling from the stench. He looked down at the gem in his hand, only faintly remembering that it was important but he wasn’t sure why. Something Ms. Frizzle had said… that he’d know when to use it? Was that right now? It was exactly the bargaining chip this situation called for, so it had to be now… right? The eye had swiveled back into place and was staring wildly at Ralphie’s fingers.
“Is this what you want?” he held out the gem in his open palm, its light brighter than before. The creature’s pupil dilated. Phoebe’s hand rose to take it.
Ralphie yanked his hand back. “First, take me to them.” Wasp looked frantically from the gem, to Ralphie, and back again. “When I see Ms. Frizzle and my friends – all of my friends – you can have it.”
The eye stopped on Ralphie’s face and raised Phoebe’s arm. She pointed down the hallway to the dot of light at the end. Ralphie felt his vision move down her arm like a periscope, to her hand, down to her finger, to the light, and the hallway retracted until the bright doorway was directly in front of them. Ralphie looked back, the entryway they’d stood near now miles behind. He walked into the light with Wasp on his heels.