Chris awoke before dawn the next morning to find Darren pressed up against his back. Feeling Chris stir, Darren wrapped his arms more tightly around him, murmuring “It’s too early. Go back to sleep.”
Chris relaxed into his friend’s embrace, immensely relieved that things seemed to be back to normal between them. He allowed himself to drift back off to sleep.
The next time Chris opened his eyes, the sun was up, and so was Darren. He’d stirred the embers of their fire back to life, and was roasting a couple of fish on sticks that looked suspiciously as though they’d come from the Thornbush Pit.
“Good morning,” Darren said, when he noticed that Chris was awake. “I didn’t know how long the fish Brittany gave us would keep, so I thought we should eat them now, even though they’re not really breakfast food.”
“Sounds good. Do we have any bread left?”
“Yeah, but we’re almost out of just about everything else.”
“Well, with any luck this will be our last meal here. So let’s eat it all.”
Their breakfast was a strange hodge-podge of leftover bits of this and that, but Chris didn’t mind. He was just glad that the weird vibes from the night before seemed to have dissipated. He and Darren didn’t say much as they ate, but at least they were once again able to meet each other’s eyes.
After breakfast, Chris led Darren around to the far side of the Thornbush Pit, where he’d noticed on his previous evening’s reconnaissance mission that the sides were less steep. As they made their way down into the crater, Chris and Darren were relieved to find that their shell necklaces were effective in repelling the living vines, but they still had to be extremely careful to avoid being cut by the thorns on the dead brush.
Chris had an advantage over the twins he’d written about in his book, since he knew exactly what the saber from the deepest sea would look like. Still, it took him and Darren a long time to locate it amongst all of the other detritus that people had tossed into the pit. Finally, though, Chris’s hand closed around its hilt, and he held it up in triumph.
“Great,” Darren said. “Let’s get out of here. This place is giving me the willies.”
“Yeah. You know. The willies. Like the heebie- jeebies. That skin-crawling, I don’t care what you call it but get me the fuck out of this place right now, feeling.”
“Oh. The willies. Right. Well, let’s go.”
Climbing back out of the Thornbush Pit was more of a challenge than climbing down in had been. Chris and Darren had wandered around so much searching for the saber that they couldn’t retrace their steps, and everywhere they looked, the sides of the pit seemed to rise straight up to the sky. They finally chose a spot that at least seemed to have plenty of dead brush to use as hand and footholds, and began their ascent.
It was hard going. Chris felt as if they were scaling a rock-climbing wall designed by sadists. It was almost impossible to make a move without being scratched or poked by thorns, and several times he barely avoided impaling his hand while searching for a hold.
At last, they neared the top. “Almost there,” Chris breathed in relief.
As Darren turned to answer him, a long, sharp thorn caught his necklace and ripped it from his neck. Chris watched in horror as it fell to the floor of the pit, where it shattered. Instantly, the light in his own necklace went out.
“Shit!” Darren cried.
“Hurry!” Chris urged. “We can make it!”
They scrambled upwards as quickly as they could, heedless of the thorns lacerating their skin. Their fingertips had just reached the top when the living vines, no longer repelled by the magic shell necklaces, seized their ankles and began to drag them back down.
Chris plunged the saber into the ground outside the mouth of the pit, and he and Darren held on to it for dear life. Attracted by the struggle, more vines slithered over to wrap themselves around their prey. Darren lost his grip on the saber and began to fall back into the pit, but Chris grabbed hold of him just in time.
Chris felt as though he were being torn in two. His left hand was clenched around the hilt of the saber, and his right hand was clutching Darren’s wrist. He knew he couldn’t hold onto both much longer.
There was nothing in this world – or any other – that could make Chris let go of Darren. As the pull of the vines became too great to resist, he slowly allowed the handle of the saber to slip through his fingers…