The Boarding House sprawled there, eerily silent, its charred remains a blackened jungle wreathed in lingering wisps of smoke and haze.
Jeena, Sarah Jane, Yan Lin and I crept with terrified caution through the crumbling corridors, revolvers gripped in our clammy hands, decked out in enough bulletproof armour to make the SWAT guys look like ballerinas from the Nutcracker.
Every step I took made the floorboards creak and shudder like a hundred voices screaming out in pain.
Sweat broke out on my forehead. I wasn’t trying to look out for the enemy soldiers. I wasn’t trying to conjure an elaborate plan for us to raid the Boarding House kitchens, while staying unseen and unheard. I wasn’t even thinking about finding food for our fellow survivors waiting back in the PE centre.
I was trying not to wet my pants.
Hey, I’m no superhero. When you’re creeping through some darkened hallway with a half-destroyed ceiling swinging precariously over your head, and shadows are leaping out at you left and right, it’s not hard to lose control of your basic bodily functions.
Add that to the fact that at least twenty terrorists are breathing down your neck at this very moment. Not exactly a walk in the park, I’d say.
My skin prickled with a sudden surge of electricity.
“Guys,” hissed Yan between clenched teeth, her voice barely a whisper in the night. “Guys!”
Sarah Jane flicked a glance at her, fearfully. “Yeah?”
“Keep–your–voices–down,” muttered Jeena.
Yan reached into her jacket and pulled out two huge revolvers, holding them out in front of her with trembling hands. “Something’s not right. Let’s get in and outta here as quick as possible.”
We skulked into the dining room, bent almost double, our feet soft on the burnt carpet. My knees knocked together as I set my gun down on the counter and plundered the food trays, digging out a couple of roast potatoes that were reasonably fresh, and stowing them away in my bag. Cold perspiration trickled down my brow, dripped into my eyes, blurring my vision into a painted smear of black and grey. I mopped my face hastily with one hand, then checked my watch.
Relax, Grace. Breathe. Plenty of time.
The others were already in the kitchen and storerooms, hoarding soft drinks from the fridge and picking up whole crates of fruit and vegetables. I picked my gun up and hurried to join them–
–but not before something round, cold and metallic pressed against the back of my head.
A single, ominous click.
And then a voice, a voice as smooth and beguiling as honey, but underlaid with a tone of utter smugness, superiority and malevolence.
“Hello, darl,” it drawled.
If I hadn’t wet my pants before, now was definitely the time.
Large, calloused hands spun me around and I came face to face with the man I knew as Snakeskin shoes. Others called him Flash Fiorelli. He had a double-barrelled pistol aimed at my head. Behind him hovered the beautiful, elusive Vera, her face hidden yet again by a wide brimmed hat. And behind Vera stood a rank of black-clad soldiers, grim, forbidding. Their rifles were trained on me.
“Now, what have we here?” Flash smirked. He had a most interesting accent, definitely European but not exactly British, not exactly French. His words were clipped, distinct, yet flowed together in a musical lilt. He used the tip of his gun to lift up the visor on my helmet.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even process a single thought. I knew only two things: one, my knees were not holding me up properly; and two, I was going to die.
“Why, Vera!” The man laughed pleasantly, his brown eyes dancing with suppressed fury. “If I didn’t know better, I would say this was a student.”
Vera lifted her dark gaze and scowled. “I thought you had disposed of all of them by now. Really, Flash, you are getting quite slack.” She waved a manicured hand, carelessly.
For a brief moment, Flash grinned at her. Then, with frightening suddenness, he turned upon me, eyes blazing with inhuman rage, and seized me by the collar. His grip constricted my throat and I choked, fighting for air.
Dammit, you psycho! Let me go!
“I don’t know who you are,” Flash snarled, spit flying into my face, “or where the HELL you come from–but know this: NO ONE walks on my turf without playing the game MY WAY.”
I gasped and tried to scream, but no voice came.
There was the noise of boots behind me, and then three soldiers dumped Yan, Sarah Jane and Jeena down on the floor before Flash.
“No,” I whimpered, thrashing and throwing my limbs in all directions, struggling to escape this madman’s grasp.
Flash drank in the sight of my three friends with satisfaction, his eyes gleaming with an almost barbaric hunger. His silky brown hair flopped over his forehead. “Three more? What a lovely occasion this is, that we are all gathered here so conveniently.”
I managed to hiss one word. “Vile,” I spat at him, and I was glad that some of my spit flew into his pretty, leering face.
Flash didn’t seem to care. He dropped me beside my friends and took a step back, while his soldiers drew a tighter circle around us, aiming their rifles. I felt like a sacrifice, helpless on the floor, ready to become the victim.
“Is this all there is?” Flash demanded of us. “Four of you? Are there any more?”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane panted, loud and clear.
Excuse me? Did she just turn over all our friends to the bad guys–voluntarily? Has she gone mad?
Jeena’s face turned bright red and she looked like she would strangle Sarah Jane.
“Yes,” Sarah Jane repeated. “There are over one thousand of us, hiding underground, and when they see that we’re missing, they’ll storm out and rescue us. You’ll never suppress them!”
Ah. Reverse psychology. Very smart. Flash would never have believed us if we’d told him we were the only ones.
As it was, Flash just laughed in amusement. “Very funny.”
I met Sarah Jane’s eyes in obvious relief. I could have sworn that she was smiling at me, subtly, through the darkness. Telling me that it was okay, that at least our friends were going to be safe.
One of the soldiers pulled out a chair for Flash as though he were some sort of emperor. The horrible man sat down and leant back, completely at ease, and regarded us over steepled fingers, contemplatively.
“We’re going to play a game,” he said in that silky smooth voice. “And we’re going to play it my way. Vera here loves games, don’t you, Vera?”
Vera laughed under her breath and blew him a kiss.
I was nowhere near as pleased as Vera. I wasn’t ready to play any games at that moment, especially not sinister ones that Flash Fiorelli seemed to be conjuring up.
Flash beckoned to his men. “Bring ‘em out.”
And they did. Three figures, bound and gagged.
“Recognise them?” Flash smirked.
Heaven help us. The three figures were Jess Yoong, Janine and Monica. I hadn’t seen them since the first day of school — since this whole ordeal began. I hadn’t even known that they were alive.
Vera paced forward, sauntering coolly with graceful, long-legged strides. “We found them when we overtook the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Seems two of them took a bullet wound to their legs. How sad. They managed to escape the school and receive treatment for their injuries.”
“Escaped, but not for long,” Flash growled. He turned back to us. “Now listen closely. Here’s the game you must play…”
My blood turned to icicles, bitingly cold, splintering into a million tiny pieces inside my chest. No. Not this. Not here. Not now.
“There are three bombs hidden in three different locations around the school. Your job is to find and dismantle the bombs before they explode–which will be in thirty minutes. For each bomb that you successfully defuse, we will free one of your oh-so-dear friends. But for each bomb that you defuse incorrectly, we will kill one of your friends. And, of course, the bomb itself will blow, most probably rendering you dead or physically incapacitated. For life.”
And he smiled.
“You can’t do this!” I screeched, unable to contain my words. “We’re not terrorists like you madmen! We’ve never seen bombs in our lives! This is impossible–you can’t expect us to dismantle three bombs!”
Flash glared at me, pompously. “I’m not finished. Here are the clues to the locations of the bombs:
The first lies deep, beneath the leaps and bounds of men, where land the foam-flecked ocean waves before they leave again;
The second lies bound, within that which all search, but never read;
Third and last cut out of tree, a door to what is barred to you.
“As I said, you have thirty minutes.” Flash glanced at his Rolex. “Starting now.”
Vera giggled, “Have fun, darlings. Isn’t this exciting? Run, my little mice. Run.” And there was a sinister gleam in her black eyes.
Desperate, we scrambled to our feet and fled the Boarding House, leaving the rifled men trailing their weapon sights after us, leaving the twisted Flash and Vera — who, personally, reminded me of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth — and worst of all, leaving Yoong and Janine and Monica lying helpless on the floor, their soulful, pleading eyes following us as we ran.
This was it. I knew it. This was the night we were all going to meet our end.
For a full minute we sprinted aimlessly, swamped by panic and fear, hearing only Flash’s terrible words ringing in our ears, seeing only our three friends tied up, ready to be slaughtered like lambs.
Then Jeena grabbed my arm wildly and said, “To the Library. The second clue said something about reading. That’s gotta be in the Library.”
We didn’t waste time going into the building. Yan grabbed a few stones from the garden and hurled them at the window, smashing it to smithereens. Frantically, we climbed into the Library. I nearly tripped over my own feet as I landed, and stumbled to the carpet.
It was quiet as a graveyard, the sombre rows of books untouched. I pulled a flashlight from my belt and switched it on. Now I stood still for a moment, steadying my breathing, listening to my thoughts. “What do we search but never read?” I wondered aloud.
“The Internet?” Sarah Jane said. “Google?” She raced back and forth along the row of computers, but saw nothing. Jeena tried dismantling one of them.
Yan Lin looked hopelessly around the dark room. Then, suddenly, her eyes fell upon the reference section, and it dawned on her. She understood. “I know what nobody ever reads,” she cried, running forward. “A dictionary!” She found the biggest dictionary lying there, and opened it to the very middle.
A chunk in the centre of the book was cut out. And sitting within the hollow was a black box covered in wires. It didn’t flash or beep, or hum or do anything. It just sat there, and on its tiny screen numbers counted down. Twenty six minutes and eleven seconds. Twenty six and ten. Twenty six and nine.
“What do we do?” Yan shrieked. “Smash it? Cut the wires?”
I don’t know why I did it, but I reached for the bomb and picked it up, very, very gingerly. I turned it over.
There was a bigger screen on its underside. It said this:
In a castle of ogres atop a great mount
There broke out a brawl between some of their count
Claw and his son Boar,
Jeer and his son Leer,
Smash, Snitch, Itch and Sneer,
And Sneer was no relative of the others.
Two fathers slew two sons then died themselves,
Two mothers slew two daughters then died themselves,
How many died in ogre house?
There was a number pad beneath the words, with the digits 0-9.
“Jeena,” I said immediately, turning to her. “Work that genius brain of yours! I think if we solve the riddle, we defuse the bomb!”
Jeena stared at the screen, mouth agape in horror. Then she got down to business. “Okay — Claw, Boar, Jeer, Leer, Smash, Snitch, Itch and Sneer are the names of the ogres. Two fathers killed two sons, then committed suicide. That’s four dead. Then the two mothers and daughters died. That’s eight in total. But wait–how can Sneer be either a mother or daughter, when it says Sneer was not related to the others?”
Sarah Jane closed her eyes momentarily. “I know. The fathers and sons died — that’s four. And then a mother killed her daughter. And then the mother’s mother killed the mother.”
“What?” Yan Lin said, fighting to keep her panic under control. “You mean Mother Ogre killed Daughter Ogre, then Grandma Ogre killed Mother Ogre?”
“Yes!” I cried, suddenly seeing it. “That is still two mothers killing two daughters. That would mean only three of them died. Four plus three equals seven. So Sneer is the only one still alive!” The bomb was ticking. I pressed 7 on the number pad, and Sarah Jane hit enter.
The timer stopped counting down. The numbers froze at twenty three minutes and forty eight seconds.
“Yes!” I screamed, and suddenly I was hugging Jeena, and Sarah Jane, and Yan, and then all three at once. Ecstatic. We did it! We actually did it! For a fleeting moment I forgot that we were in a dark library, forgot that we were still playing Flash’s horrible Game–then, in a rush, my wits returned to me.
The first lies deep, beneath the leaps and bounds of men, where land the foam-flecked ocean waves before they leave again.
“Where do ocean waves land?” I mused. My thoughts were a complete jumble; my mind scrambled uselessly for answers.
Sarah Jane massaged her forehead, nervously. “On a beach?”
“The shore? The coast?” Yan was jittery, distracted, checking her watch again and again. Time was ticking.
“Well, there are no coasts or beaches in PLC,” snapped Jeena. She wasn’t angry, she was simply panicked, and trying to maintain a grip on the situation. “It’s gotta be–”
She broke off sharply. Then restarted breathlessly, grasping at another train of thought, eyes shining. “It’s gotta be sand! Waves crash onto the sand! And where is sand in PLC? It’s in the long jump pit, which lies beneath the leaps and bounds of men! Do you get it?”
I gaped at her. “Jeena, you’re a genius. Let’s go!”
When we got to the middle oval where the long jump pit was, we were out of breath. Snipers watched us from the roofs, but didn’t shoot. Flash and Vera wanted us to play their Game, and we couldn’t play it if we were dead.
“The clue said it lies deep,” Sarah Jane huffed. “Dig!”
And we did. With our hands, our feet, our knees, our teeth–anything that moved dived into the sand and dug.
“Bloody hell,” I panted, close to tears. My arms were screaming in agony, my shoes filled with clumps of sand and grass. My face stung, covered in sand that sprayed up at us as we dug. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever, ever had to do. Worse than a hundred VCE exams. Worse than eating cow dung.” I felt like keeling over and crying.
Yan checked her watch for the millionth time. “We have twelve minutes and ten seconds. Quit talking, and move those arms!”
“We’ve been digging for eternity,” said Jeena, helplessly. “What if I’m wrong? What if it’s not in here after–”
That was when we found it. The bomb, caked with gritty, irritating, blister-your-skin sand, still partially buried. With renewed vigour we wrenched it out and looked for the riddle on the bottom that would help us defuse it.
A little riddle, short and sweet, to guide you on your way:
What comes next?
“Short, sweet and utterly IMPOSSIBLE!” I cried.
Sarah Jane frowned deeply at the numbers, her brow wrinkling. “I don’t get it.” She looked like she would cry too. She glanced over her shoulder towards the Boarding House, back to where Yoong and Moni and Janine were tied up.
“Come on,” Yan urged. “We can do this, guys. We are PLC people! We’re renowned for our brains! Look, we may not be able to beat that idiot Flash and his gang using guns and force, but we can beat them using our minds, and using our wills. Our will to save our friends.” She stared at the numbers. “There has to be some link. One. One one. Two one. One two one one.”
“Wait,” said Jeena, very slowly. “Say that again.”
Yan seemed puzzled, but obliged. “One. One one. Two one. One two one one. Want me to keep going?”
And then Jeena gasped. “Each line is describing the previous line! One. One one. Two ones. One two, one one. One one, one two, two ones. Okay, so the last line is given to us as 312211. That means the next line should be: one three, one one, two twos, two ones.” And quick as a flash she keyed it in: 13112221.
And the timer froze. The bomb stopped.
This time, we couldn’t pause to celebrate. Yan screamed out, “Shit! We have eight minutes and forty seconds!”
No one could understand Flash’s last clue. Third and last cut out of tree, a door to what is barred to you.
We ran around in circles, literally, staring at the trees that were planted nearby. “This is ridiculous!” Jeena yelled. “There are a billion trees in PLC. How can we expect to find the right one?”
Sarah Jane scowled. “And when have we ever seen a door cut out of a tree?”
I stopped short. Flash’s voice rang in my ears. “He didn’t say cut out of a tree. He simply said cut out of tree. Perhaps we’re not looking for an actual tree after all.”
“Well, what are we looking for?” Jeena cried. “Tell us, because we only have five minutes left!”
I shrugged, at a total loss. “Something that is barred to us? I don’t know. I don’t know!” I had never felt so hopelessly stupid in my life. “Think, think, dammit! What is barred to us? What do we want, but can’t access?”
“Our families,” said Sarah Jane, and cast a mournful look at the high metal fence surrounding the school.
“Nice warm beds. And food.”
“Our whole freaking lives,” I answered myself, sourly. “Cause we’re all gonna die here.”
Yan lowered her gaze. “Freedom, I guess. A way out of here.”
Her words hung in the air, making everything seem all the more bleak and mournful, the very fabric of our existence here webbed and interwoven with despair. Then, at last, my thoughts fell into place–where they should have been all along. It simply clicked, and words came tripping out of my mouth in such a rush, because I was so eager. “Tell you what, guys? I believe Flash is telling us to find a doorway to freedom, cut out of wood. And I believe I saw that just the other day!”
Without waiting for a reply, I sprinted off as fast as my legs could carry me–which, to tell the truth, was not particularly fast at all–and reached the wooden fence that lined the Daniet St side of PLC. And there, just outside the entrance to Room H and theDoris Daniel Theatre, was a wooden doorway cut into the fence.
It was wired with explosives.
Shaking with tiredness and fear, I approached it, and the others tiptoed close behind. Extremely, extremely cautiously I reached out my sweat-dripping fingers and turned the little black box over to reveal the riddle on the bottom.
The timer ticked, the numbers stark and ominously white. Two minutes and sixteen seconds. Two minutes and fifteen. Two minutes and fourteen. The seconds slipped by so elusively, so quickly. I had always taken time for granted before this day. I had groaned and moaned in Speech Night rehearsals, wished desperately that the hands of the clock would hurry up with their circular journey.
Not now, thought. Not when we had two minutes left before the bomb exploded in our hands, and one of our friends would be brutally slaughtered, and we had absolutely no idea what we were staring at.
Attached to the screen was a stub of a plastic pen, meant for us to use to draw the fifth symbol. None of us picked it up. My mind drew a complete blank.
We’d come so far, dismantled two bombs, only to stumble so close to the end of the Game. We were going to fail, after all.
I felt as though I were drifting in a dream. The others were talking, frantically, their voices rising to a higher and higher intensity, until I thought my head would explode with the noise of their screaming.
Clarity returned to me in a rush, and I gasped, hearing properly for the first time.
“Maybe they’re letters,” Jeena burst out, bashing her head with the heel of her hand, in frustration. “Letters disguised as weird symbols.”
“There’s an eight,” Sarah Jane pointed out, flapping her arms helplessly. “Some sort of code? I love eight…something. Finish the sentence.”
Yan was frantic. “Those two look like the letter M. But what’s with the line through it? OH MY GOSH, we have ten seconds!”
“We can’t do this!” Jeena and I hollered together. Tears scalded my eyes. “It’s not possible!”
“We have to throw it away from us!” Sarah Jane screamed. “It’s gonna blow!”
“But Yoong and them!” Yan bawled.
“Five seconds!” I screeched, nearly tearing my hair out in terror.
“OKAY! WE CHUCK IT!” Four pairs of hands grasped at the black box, tearing it free from where it was hooked to the fence, and as the timer numbers flipped in slow motion towards zero, we hurled it as far away from us as possible. It soared, arcing high through the air, spinning and spinning, moving so impossibly slowly that it seemed suspended…
Burning force reverberated in violent waves through the air, shaking the foundations of the earth. I felt myself being thrown off my feet, and landed on my arse on the asphalt, scraped and winded.
The heat subsided, gradually. Tears streaked down my cheeks as I stubbornly picked myself up and went to look at the damage that the bomb had wreaked. Sarah Jane and Yan were on my left; Jeena came silently to my right.
We stood on the driveway that connected the Senior School carpark to the Junior School. The steps that led down into the Room H corridor and the Doris Daniel Theatre ended in a jagged, gaping hole, fringed with torn up concrete slabs and floor tiles, like the hungry maw of a great beast. I expected to see plain, boring brown dirt beneath the hole, maybe a little churned up by the explosion.
Instead, we saw a smooth polished corridor, lit by fluorescent lamps.
It was an underground corridor.
“What the hell IS that?” Yan switched on her flashlight and bravely began to descend into the hole, fanning aside the smoke and the blazing heat left by the bomb.
We traipsed into the underground corridor, bewildered, our feet making tapping noises on the glassy floor. “Did the terrorists build this? Is this the base they were talking about?”
The corridor didn’t go far–it ended abruptly in a metal door that had been dented slightly by the force of the bomb. The hinges were melted.
I nudged it open.
An odd smell wafted into our faces. It was a sickly, saccharine sort of smell, sweet at first but overwhelmingly so. And I saw that it was a storeroom of some sort, completely stacked with crates. Crates that overflowed with white powder.
“It’s opium, I think,” said a familiar voice.
“Sharanya?” I gaped, astounded.
We stared into the dimness of the room in shock, as Sharanya elegantly rose out of where she was wedged between a wall and a crate, and ran to Jeena in a hug. Two more figures crept out of their hiding-place–Mabel and Sindy, both with dirt streaking their pretty faces.
“We’ve been hiding here since they set up this underground base,” Sharanya explained quickly. “We figured the last place they would look would be in their midst.”
Mabel seemed fearful. “I think they brought Mel Au down here, not long ago. They took her to a separate section of the base. I heard two of the guards mentioning something about it. But I haven’t seen her since.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but I was rudely interrupted by the noise of gunshots and the ruckus of pounding footsteps.
“Run!” screamed Monica’s voice, from down the corridor. She, Yoong and Janine were racing towards us head on, waving their arms. They were being pursued by Flash, Vera and at least twenty of their men.
“This way!” Sindy dived for a second door in the opposite side of the storeroom, wrenched it open and slipped through.
Yoong, Janine and Moni caught up to us. “Flash came here to make sure all four of you were killed in the explosion. But while they were distracted, gloating over how you guys lost the Game, we managed to escape!”
Sindy led us at breakneck speed through the maze of gleaming underground corridors. The polished, lifeless green-grey walls pressed in on both sides of me. It was so narrow and confined. An irrational fear that I would be trapped down here forever clouded my mind.
We raced through a brightly-lit room much like a science laboratory. I nearly tripped over the dentist-style mechanical chair in the middle. Something tangled itself around my leg. A PLC blazer, shredded and burnt and left without one sleeve. It was so destroyed that it was hardly recognisable. Anyone who had been wearing this blazer would certainly be dead by now.
Still running, I flipped the garment inside out to look at the nametag stitched into the collar.
My mind froze. Then, we burst through one last hatch and came out into the open air, in the middle of the ruined Boarding House. The PE centre was mere metres away.
Numbly, I clutched the tattered blazer close and sprinted with Jeena, Yoong, Janine, Yan, Sarah Jane and Monica–we sprinted with all our might and energy, towards the PE centre where our friends were waiting for us.
Flash, Vera and his men spilled out of the hatch behind us, raising their rifles to aim and fire.
The snipers on the rooftops were running down from their posts.
Riley Robson marched towards us with an entourage of menacing-looking soldiers, all of them loading their machine guns with long ribbons of golden bullets.
King Nicholls, or Blonde Beard, led an army of SWAT team lookalikes up the driveway.
And the fat Asian gang leader came too, directing a band of ninjas who drew long curved swords from their belts and levelled them at us, their blades glinting menacingly in the moonlight.
They were all converging to us, to this point, to the PE centre. The terrorists were mustering their forces and coming here.
This was it. This was a facedown, between us and them. We had tricked Flash and Vera out of their Game, and now we would pay in full.
After this, only one side would walk away the victors. Either we would win, or they would. The time had come for war.
As C.S. Lewis put it in the Chronicles of Narnia, this was the Last Battle.
We fled into the PE centre, shouting for our friends to gather their guns. If they wanted flat out war, they were going to get it.
As everybody surged into the weapons room, I paused for a moment to drape the torn PLC blazer that I was carrying, carefully over the back of a chair. I placed it inside out so I could reread the name on the stitched tag, and even as I ran on to join my friends, I wished desperately that the owner of that blazer would appear now, and join us.