“This is it,” Max told Shades as he looked around. “We made it.”
“Damn! You weren’t kidding about this place…” Shades looked around. On one level, he was relieved simply to be out of the Mall, as if he had awakened from a nightmare, and because of that he felt that sense of mystery and adventure he had once tried to describe to his friend also reawakening. So, even in the midst of his relief, this library, just a glimpse of the labyrinth of bookshelves Max had told him of, now aroused his curiosity, and he wished to see the true depths of this place. “If this library is half as big as you say, then it’s the biggest I’ve ever heard of. Even if you lived here all your life, you still wouldn’t be able to read all this!”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Max replied. He wondered if maybe this time he would actually get to look around a bit before they left. Still, his thoughts were mostly focused on Justin, whom he hoped was still alive, wherever he was, and the more immediate concerns of their present location. “We should get off this floor until we’re ready to go to Tranz-D, and go try to find that librarian.”
“Good idea,” Shades agreed. After more than a month imprisoned in that evil mall, now that he was finally free of the curse, he still wasn’t sure how he felt about plunging into another maze so soon. “Let’s get off this floor before we end up someplace else. And also gather what intelligence we can before rushing in.”
“Let’s try to find the stairs,” Max suggested.
“In all the confusion and hustle,” Shades said, still keeping one earphone on in case another rift opened, “I never got to thank you for saving my life back there, against the guards. I thought I was dead. Thanks, Max.”
“No problem. I doubt you would have done any less for me.”
“I’m not so sure,” Shades confessed. He hated to admit it, but he had genuinely frozen up in that critical moment; even now, reliving those few seconds ratcheted up his blood pressure several notches and cut him short of breath. He had always liked to believe that he could be a hero, and now that he had been tried, he was found lacking. In his old life, he had had his share of friends, but few whom he believed were anywhere near as bold as Max. Just thinking about it filled him with a shame he had never felt before; even the fact that he hadn’t soiled himself like that guard leader had was little consolation. “I think my nerves are shot.”
“I still believe you’d help me,” Max told him. After learning what his friend had been through lately, he could hardly blame Shades for stumbling under such grim circumstances. “You’re not a coward, if that’s what you’re thinking. Don’t let it shake you.” As Robert always said: “Somebody once told me that if you truly care about someone or something, you can be as tough as you have to be. Besides, there was nothing you could do. He had you that time. That’s why we look out for each other.”
“I suppose.” There’s somebody out there, Master Al always told him, who’s got a can of whoop-ass with your name on it. Or, as someone else had put it, there’s always a bigger fish. He didn’t like the thought of letting his fear control him, but after the mounting perils of the last few weeks, he wondered if he wasn’t cracking under the pressure. Or was it just fear of guns? After all, now that he thought about it, he couldn’t recall ever having one pointed at him before. Al had taught him that fear can be a healthy thing— a warning signal that could keep you from becoming overconfident— but to freeze up was to let it destroy you, as it would have back there. The fact that Max was giving him his own largely untried advice was proof that he had managed to teach him something, yet he began to wonder if he was going to be a burden in Tranz-D, a liability rather than an asset. “But I’m not sure if I should… Hey! Wait!”
While he was busy brooding over how helpless he had been against that last attack, Bandit perked up, apparently catching wind of something interesting, and took off. Max ran after his feline friend without any hesitation. Leaving Shades just standing there.
Then he also started running, but both of them were so fast, and already had such a head start, he feared he wouldn’t be able to catch up.
Still, he figured Bandit had to stop some time.