Chapter 9

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Chapter 9

Matthias opened the door with more force than was necessary. He'd expected the blackness to stick it in place and when the door gave easily he stumbled back. He nearly knocked Trav over, righted himself, and gaped out into the hall. Blackness. Nothing but. The oozing, creeping powder covered every angle and corner. There was a pool of exposed floor at Matthias' feet. His voice caught and he couldn't make a sound as he turned to the chain of friends behind him. He knew the color must have drained from his face.

Ben swore again and Cas didn't even glare at him. She leaned around the others to look at the overtaken hallway. Her intake of breath was audible.

"We waited too long." Ruby whispered. Her eyes were so wide and frightened Matthias could see white all around her retinas. "What do we do now?"

"Close the door!" Ben said.

"But we have to stop the blackness." Trav rasped. His face too had gone pale as milk. Matthias thought his friend might be about to collapse.

"Close the damn door!" Ben roared.

Everyone jumped and electric panic seared up Matthias' spine. He grabbed the knob and was about to whip the door closed again, locking them all in to await death. He hesitated, fingers white on the nob. "Wait."

"What?" Ben's voice was too loud, but maybe it wasn't with anger, but fear. "Matt, close the door!"

"The princess leads."

"What?"

"In the story, the princess leads!" Matthias let go of the doorknob and turned so fast he nearly dislodged Trav again. "Amber needs to be in front!"

"Are you kidding me?!" Ben boomed. "No! We are shutting this door and – "

Cas stepped from the back of the line, Amber still on her hip. She walked to the front and took Matthias' spot. As she passed he heard her whispering into her daughter's hair. "Don't look, baby. It's okay. We're going to get out of this. That's my big girl." Once she stood at the front of the line Cas straightened and said, "Matt, grab my elbow."

"Babe!" Ben broke the line to reach for her. Penny grasped his hand and pulled him back.

Matthias slipped his fingers around Cas' upper arm and she swallowed, squared her shoulders, and stepped onto the only patch of floor that remained in the hall. Matthias didn't dare breathe, but braced to yank her back should so much as a thread of blackness reach for her. Instead, right before his gaping eyes, it slithered back, the open space widening.

"What's happening?" Penny called.

"It's working." Matthias said in an exhale. Then louder, "It's working! No one let go of each other!"

Trav's hand tightened, vice-like, on Matthias shoulder and Matthias threw his free arm under Trav's to help hold him up. Cas took another step. The blackness on the floor fell back, a fast waning tide. Matthias' heart leaped. This was real. It was all real and they were doing it. April was never going to believe this.

Movement was painfully slow and careful. Cas inched out the door, certain not to let so much as a shoelace make contact with the black. Matthias trailed at the length of his arm, eyeing the path that was spreading before him in Cas' wake. He expected it to close back up behind her, stranding him and the others to burn. Instead it cleared just enough for them to walk. He also expected to feel some malice, like a malevolent force, intent on harm, but instead it was like they were walking beside deep water. Deadly, but lacking any conscious aggression.

Trav limped behind Matthias, leaning to whisper in the taller man's ear. "I'm really sorry about this."

Matthias exhaled a sardonic laugh. "I don't think anyone could have reasonably predicted this.

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