By: Stacey Brutger

By the time she was hip deep, there was no escape. She kicked her legs, frantic to reach something solid. There was only empty space below her.

Relief was instantaneous.

The fear of being buried alive lessened. That one second of inattention was all it took. The ground beneath her arms dissolved, sucking her under, and she fell into emptiness for what felt like an eternity.

She flailed like a ninny before her brother’s training took over. She crossed her arms over her chest, tucked her chin down, and bent her legs.

She landed with a jarring thud and rolled. She came to a stop flat on her back, her satchel crunched beneath her, while the pounding rain did its best to drown her. Clawing away from the downpour, she dragged herself out of the small river of mud and water.

Then she encountered stone.

Man-made blocks.

Fear of the unknown diminished.

She was in the basement of the castle. The random thought nearly sent her into a fit of giggles. As soon as her fingers touched the wall, Shayla climbed to her feet and leaned against it, relief weakening her knees.

Hell, she didn’t need a stalker to kill her, she could manage that all by herself. She pressed her face against the cool stone when her actual location hit her.

Castles didn’t have basements.

They had dungeons.

Dread crept down her spine, and Shayla shivered, eyeing the shadows suspiciously.

A bark echoed around her, and she whipped around to see the dog from the inn loom over the gaping hole ten feet above her head.

There would be no going back out that way.

The dog paced, then crouched as if preparing to jump after her.

She waved her hands in a shooing motion. “Hey, Lassie, go get help.”

The furry face froze in his frantic search, eyes locked on hers…almost as if he understood, which was ridiculous…then he yipped and darted off. Shayla sighed, already missing the pooch, the passageway seeming colder and so much creepier without his company.

As she looked at possible escape routes, she saw roots had tunneled through the ceiling over the years, enough to weaken the structure. The rain had loosened the ground, and her weight had done the rest.

The rules her brother had pounded into her rang in her ear. After each confrontation, assess any injures. Shayla moved each limb, probed her ribs, searching for any wounds. Besides bruises and a few scrapes, she was fine.

She wondered if the animal she’d heard howling had fallen into the same trap. He still could be there. If she found him, they could use his nose and escape together.

She felt better with a plan of action. Using her hands, she followed along the wall, shuddering when her fingers slid through slime so thick it reminded her of slugs, all smooshed and lumpy. Her gag reflex kicked into overdrive, and she scrubbed her fingers on her pants. She stumbled two more feet when she came to a halt.

The passageway was blocked by thousands of pounds of rubble.

No way out.

Heart pumping a little too fast, Shayla quickly ran through her options. She could wait for rescue, but no one knew where she’d gone. They’d just assume she was another in a long list of missing people. Worse, she was a foreigner. Even if Lassie managed to get back to town, what could he do?

She could wait for the rain to stop and use the rubble to build a ladder, but she feared tampering with the pile of rocks might bring down more of the ceiling. The terror of being buried alive shivered through her again. If she stayed, she’d be a babbling idiot before midnight.

If she survived that long.

With her luck, she’d slip, hit her head and drown long before morning.

That left her only one possibility.

Going further into the bowels of the castle.

Taking her courage in hand, she charged through the steady downpour. The now frigid water nearly knocked her to the floor, the impact stealing the air from her lungs. She sputtered, ducking her head as she ran, the three-inch-deep water doing its best to sweep her off her feet. Her shoulder slammed into the wall, scraping off a patch of skin, and she struggled to regain her balance.

As soon as she turned the corner, the roar of the deluge faded. Water tugged on her as it swirled past. She leaned against the wall, her chest heaving as she greedily sucked in the thick, earth-damp air. Her heart slammed so hard against her ribcage it felt like something was in her chest and wanted out.

Complete darkness crowded close.


Fresh panic came screeching back. A wisp of air brushed the back of her neck like fingertips. She hiked up her shoulders and whirled, scanning the darkness, a sudden conviction that she was not alone making her flesh crawl. With trembling fingers, she rummaged in the bag, breathing a sigh of relief when she encountered plastic.

Her phone.

She had no service, but her battery was fully charged. That meant she had an hour or two of light. She yanked out her florescent pink cell, and nearly wept when bright light burst in the tunnel. She spun and braced herself to find her stalker looming in the shadows.

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