A day’s travel from the city there was an abandoned mine. Mouse did not know what had been mined here before, but it had obviously run out. The Specter led her through the caves with a lantern in his grip. It was for her benefit, not his, as she had learned that the dark was nothing to his eye.
Her ring would glint every now and then, even in the dark. Shadows flickered all around them. It was cold, and her boots dug deep into the mud. It was raining outside and the cave tilted inwards, streams of water rushing past them; she tried to avoid stepping in the mud flows. Soon they came to hardwood supports under their feet, a rudimentary floor. Even further along she saw a gate inset into the dirt and stone walls. The Specter unlocked it and allowed Mouse to enter first.
Another few paces in and she could see another source of light. There was a fire in the center of a large room, a skylight up above led to a metal grate with rain lightly dropping from above, sizzling into nothing in the heat. Light came from both the dim sky and the fire. Around the large room were a number of cloaked individuals sitting at wooden tables and pacing the rotten floors. It was an area for resting, or eating, and something was cooking over the fire. Including the gate she had entered, there was an exit at each cardinal direction.
None greeted her, though most turned to look their way; some had their hoods up, others did not. They did not look happy to see another face. Most were taller than her. She suspected she was the youngest there.
“This should be it,” the Specter said. “Go find a seat.” She did as she was told, finding a seat far away from the others, though, it was impossible to find a place where she could keep an eye on everyone. She’d never seen as many people as paranoid as herself gathered in one place.
“I believe food will be made available shortly,” the Specter continued. He paused for a moment. She hoped for some kind of explanation, perhaps some introductions. “You will stay here the night,” he said. “I will come midday tomorrow to unlock the gate. Until then, your mission is to survive. If you can’t do this much then I have no need of you.”
“What is the meaning of this?” A female voice came from one of the figures. “I’ve done everything you asked…”
“If you are scared then you can go,” the Specter said simply.
Mouse considered it. And yet, like all the missions before, she was left wondering where she would be if not here. The woman pondered it as well.
“I’m leaving,” said one of the figures. He grumbled with disdain, “You’ve dangled mystery before me for too long without any answers.” He moved to the exit without any light to guide his path. The Specter let him leave.
“Anyone else?” The Specter asked.
Two others joined him after some thought, leaving an even ten people in the room.
“Good.” The Specter commented after those who would leave did so. “To the rest of you, good luck.” He joined those who left and Mouse heard the metal gate shut and lock. She scanned the area and the people around her.
“What did he mean?” Asked a figure down the table from her. He was a large man with an odd weapon. His hood was down. He had a full brown beard, short hair, and a weapon she had seen some guards use. It was a gauntlet with a large spiked buckler attached to the forearm with a blade piercing out from under and parallel to the arm. Inside the buckler, pointed out, was what looked like a lantern. Under the lantern, in the center, was yet another long spike. Guards would use it to patrol the streets sometimes, and saw it as more effective than holding a lantern, sword, and shield at all times. It also took little skill to use, as flailing it about was as effective as anything. The man also seemed more heavily armored than most–either that, or his shoulders were unnaturally broad.
“I had hoped you could tell me…” The woman before who had protested responded. Mouse could not see her through her cloak. She was small and angry. “Do you know anyone here?” She continued. “Do you know what challenge awaits…”
“Food is ready!” Another woman interrupted. She was larger than most men, and built stronger than most as well. She seemed to have a jovial attitude. Her skin was dark, her hair was braided down and into her cloak. She passed around bowls. There were greens she could not name, a cup of wine, and a boiled egg, with each portion. Groups began to separate and speak amongst themselves. There were too many others to keep track of.
She did also take note of two who kept to themselves, one touching hands with the other. Friends? Family? Lovers? They, at the very least, seemed to know each other.
No one approached her. She anxiously scratched against the table with her finglernail, looking at her food. She devoured some of the greens but found them bitter and hard. The woman who had cooked the meal had given her a sideways glance, but no words. She had joined the group of the armored man and the angry woman.
She was alone. It seemed like a tactical disadvantage for once. Her only real practice speaking had come from Page. She missed him now, strangely. Not that he’d be of any help here.
Something creaked with the sound of an approaching vagrant. But it wasn’t the floor, it was the man that creaked. Every other step caused a metallic whimper from his fake, spring loaded left leg, covered in a boot. White hairs sporadically explored out from his cloak. He sat down across from Mouse. He gave a grin that was missing most of it’s teeth.
He spoke, “You eating that, girl?” His voice sounded like a parody. It was decrepit and hoarse, like one might fake to sound like some evil warlock. His finger was ragged and blistered, his nails chipped and sharp. She looked to where his finger pointed and spied the egg.
She was about to reply the affirmative when she saw him drinking from a cup of wine. Something wasn’t right. He hadn’t come with wine. Her eyes narrowed as she looked to where her cup had been and found it gone.
“Looks like you’re as bad at spotting thieves as you are at thieving.” He motioned to her pick. “But I like you girl. I think we can be friends. See, I never trust a man who wants to be my friend. But you, I’ve been watching you. You don’t want any friends. That makes you the best friend I can make around here. And what better way of making friends than sharing wine?” He asked, motioning to the cup. “Thank you, by the way. Now about that egg…”
He reached. She tried piercing the hand with her pick, slamming it on the table before her. However, in the blink of an eye the hand was gone, back to the cloak of it’s master. She suddenly realized how silent the room had become. She looked around and saw all eyes on her. She pried the pick from the table and took it back slowly.
“…Alright, so you like the egg then!” He shouted and laughed, slapping the table. It was such a loud and infectious laugh that Mouse smirked a bit, more out of anxiety than anything else. He continued far longer than he should. By the time he was done most of the crowd had chuckled a bit themselves, or had completely lost interest and continued their conversation. The mood had returned to something more lighthearted. “How’s about we make a deal then.” He coughed out the last of his laughter, “I like to see friendship like a business. Trust comes with history, so let’s make some history. A trade, to show each other we mean well. You give me that egg and I’ll give you… information.” He finished. “What do you say? Information is power after all.”
She considered it. She wasn’t that hungry anyway. She pushed the bowl to him. With a grin he seized the egg in his gnarled hand and put half of it in his mouth. He then sucked the rest of it in with a “pop” and played with it with his tongue, his eyes rolling back into his head. Mouse grimaced at the wet slurping noises. He took his time until finally he closed his mouth and bit down, the pleasure on his face earning Mouse a new feeling of nausea.
Thankfully, once the spectacle had ended, he began, still chewing, “You are surrounded by murderers and thieves. The Specter is the worst of them all. I’ve known him for years. He preys on the weak and the desperate. If I can give you any advice little girl, it would be to stop following him. I know he has his ways. I know he means the world to you, and you owe everything you are to him. I know these things because you are not his first. I know also that there is no happiness down this path.”
He washed down what was left with the wine, then continued. “Ah, but I see on your face that it’s too late. I’ve seen that before. He has you. I guess you’ll need information on today then.” He turned to look around the room once again before continuing, “Watch the girl. She went for the big guy first. Smart. She knows what she’s doing. The big guy though, poorly dressed. You need to be light in you feet in the mud and the muck. The cook, poor girl, won’t last long. Her body is strong but she isn’t a murderer like the rest of us. As for the danger we are up against…”
He shrugged, “Some are saying one of us must have been hired to kill the rest. Fools! The Specter wants to test us. He is always testing. That wouldn’t be a fair test. No, he likes things to be fair. The bastard. The coward. He wants to weed out the weak ones.” He shook his head. “That’s all the information an egg will buy I’m afraid. You can tell me if you get another one however.”
He stood, then chuckled, “One last offer. Now that you know I’m true to my word. We both seem to be in the predicament of having both eyes facing forward. If you could, I’d like you to watch my back, and I’ll watch yours. While I’ll agree my job is certainly more enjoyable than yours, I think this deal would serve us both splendidly.”
Mouse was silent for a moment, then nodded. “Are you mute girl?” She shook her head. He chuckled. “Well, my name is Maurice. I suppose I’ll just have to call you “Girl” then. Or perhaps, “Kindly girl”? Well, I’ll figure something out.”
He went on to stumble elsewhere. Mouse scanned the room again. She began dividing people into groups; it was a trick she had learned when teaching herself to read. Groups were easier to remember. The couple touching hands and the cook were speaking together in one corner, she called them “The nice ones”. The second group included the man with the odd looking shield and the angry woman. With them was yet another man who wielded a spear. He held it like a walking stick. She called the group, “The angry ones”. Other than herself and Maurice, that left a man with a bow and a woman with a sword squatting next to the still burning fire. It wasn’t too many people, not if she focused on their weapons and their eccentricities. She labeled the last couple as “The warm ones”, herself and Maurice excluded from the groups. Three groups, two others.
Was one of these people likely to be a threat? Maurice said that wasn’t the point of the exercise but he also said to be careful. She wasn’t sure how much weight to put into his words, but he was the closest thing to a friend she had here, sadly.
Group three, the bow and the sword by the fire, stood after speaking softly and nodding. The man with the bow started, “This lady and I will go scout the caves.” He said, motioning to his partner. The other whispers stopped as the groups listened. “We’d like another to join us. When I was in the king’s army we’d always move in threes, or Talons, we’d call them. Four leaves too much mess. Two is crippled if one is crippled. Three is a good number. Any volunteers?”
The groups seemed too nervous to send one of their own. Mouse realized quickly that each group had at least one seemingly formidable fighter. The least intimidating was the woman with the sword in Group three. Group one had the large woman, and Mouse could see some sort of weapon hidden in her robes. Group two had the man with the shield, and the man with the spear. The bow would not be too useful in these cramped caves, and the woman with the sword was not above average height. Also, her shoulders were not as broad as a man’s would be.
No one wished to sacrifice their muscle, nor did they wish to join a weaker party. Mouse however found herself in need of more friends. She eyed Maurice standing in a dark corner of the room. He had already made the connection and motioned for her to join them with a grin and a shrug. She did not need his approval, but it was a deciding factor. She stood and kept two paces distance from the two.
“Excellent.” The Archer nodded. He was half a head taller than the woman, and she was a full head taller than Mouse. Mouse saw a smile underneath his hood. “Keep an eye behind us little one.” The woman gave Mouse a paranoid glare as she followed. Mouse then took up the rear. The Archer took a candle with a brass holder from his cloak and lit it with flint and a rusted, but still dangerous looking knife. He then handed it to the swordswoman and made his way forward.
“Always keep the light source behind the forward scout.” He said as they entered the southern cavern. “That way the light won’t blind him, or ruin his sight in the dark. My name is Clever, by the way. And this here is Ember. Not her real name of course, but it’s not mine either. What is your fake name?” He asked Mouse.
“Mouse.” She responded, realizing that her silence would do nothing to aid her here.
“Splendid.” He smiled. “You might be the youngest here Mouse. I’d have reached out to you sooner, but to be honest, I was a little intimidated by you, walking in with The Specter like that, like you were his favorite. And then just sitting there on your own like you didn’t need anyone.”
Mouse didn’t respond to that.
“Silent type?” Clever asked. “Glad to have you with us then. I’m a bit of a talker myself.” The cave had wooden supports throughout, but soon the rotten floor disappeared. Gravel and rock replaced it making a surface more firm than the mud, but not by much. Their footsteps also made a terrible racket to Mouse’s ears. There’d be little chance of sneaking up on anyone here.
“This place has been abandoned for years,” Clever continued. “The supports are nearly all rotted out. Don’t touch anything. Some animals have been in here, judging by the tracks, but nothing larger than the bars of the gate, I’d imagine.” He stooped down for a moment, inspecting some filth. “Rats,” he explained, and then continued walking. “No sign of large game or humans for a very long time.”
They continued walking until they found a fork in their path. The hunter found a stone, etched in a mark, placed it by the left path, and then walked down it. “I can’t stand this hood any longer,” Clever stated. “Too hot and humid.” He lowered it. He had short cut black facial hair, and was, in Mouse’s modest opinion, quite attractive. His eyes were large and his grin had a certain naive hope to it. “What about you two?” he asked, still walking, but turning halfway towards them.
Ember huffed but lowered her hood. She shook her long scarlet hair out from under her cloak. It had been braided into a tail bound by colored thread at the end.. She looked like nobility; her sweat seemed natural on her though, indicating a life of labor. She had lightly tanned skin, pronounced cheekbones and a rounded, button nose. She also walked with her weight forward, with purpose and speed. Her left hand rarely released the scabbard of her sword.
“You spoke like a pretty girl,” Clever joked. Ember snarled at him. He chuckled and continued to Mouse, “And what do you look like?” Mouse cautiously lowered her own hood. Clever seemed surprised, “You are quite young.” Ember also seemed surprised. “And why are you here?” He asked. Mouse decided not to respond to that. “I was caught hunting the king’s stock. The Specter offered to take me into his service, killing the old me and giving me and my family another chance.” He motioned to Ember “She’s a bastard to a far away noble, and the only living evidence of his infidelity.”
Ember huffed again, interrupting and speaking for the first time, “The Specter whisked me away in the night and said he could offer me a knighthood if I proved myself.” She then glared, “No more about me.” She squinted at him with spite.
“She’s sensitive.” Clever shrugged. “And easy to read. Sorry, I said I was a talker. But you…” His smile faltered. “When I was your age I was just starting to chase girls around. But you look… Are you okay?” He asked. Mouse nodded. Clever raised his eyebrows. “Well, if you ever want to talk….”
“Up ahead.” Ember interrupted. Clever quickly turned. “Cave in,” she said before he did. Stones and dirt formed a sloping wall ahead of them.
“Welp, now we know.” Clever turned on his heals and led the way back. “Nothing dangerous yet, but still, stay on your guard. That looked recent.”
Mouse felt another question coming from him and decided on another tactic. She’d ask him one first. “You said you were a soldier?” Mouse asked. If he was the talker he claimed to be, this would be enough to keep her from talking for quite some time.
“For a time, yes.” He nodded. “Never did any heavy fighting. I was a scout. I helped gather and hunt food, and warned if any enemy forces were nearby. I had all the proper combat training of course, but I never had the build they were looking for in a front line position. They almost kicked me out, but I made myself useful enough.” He courted danger when he motioned to Ember, “She on the other hand has a real sword sense, I can tell. Took to it naturally I recon. Either that or liked it enough to practice every day. Probably better with that thing than most, and that thing also is better made than most. Work of a real craftsman that is. Can’t tell too well when it’s sheathed like that, but I saw a bit before when she drew it an inch. It’s polished to a mirror finish. Probably better than anything I was ever given.”
“I said no more.” Ember said. It was less aggressive than before, as if he was finally wearing her down.
“What? I think it’s interesting!” Clever shrugged. “Anyway…” He stopped and knelt down, holding his hand up. Ember and Mouse stopped again.
“What? More droppings…” Ember began. Clever shushed her and widened his large eyes, tracing something with his pointer finger.
“A string.” He said. “A fine string… A trap.” He scanned the area, and then pointed. “There.” Mouse followed and saw a stick wedged behind a half buckled support beam, it was being lightly supported by the string. “This trap was made to cave in the tunnel.” He stepped over it and marked the area with a nearby stone. Both Ember and Mouse followed over it. He scanned the area ahead, led the women several more paces away from the trap. After walking a safe distance away he took a stone in hand. Clever threw it towards the trap.
The tunnel roof fell where the stone landed. Mouse took several steps back as a rush of wind and dust extinguished the candles light and left the three in complete darkness. She heard a scream and quickly found a crevice in the wall to hide in. Mouse covered her head as she felt stones and clods of dirt fall upon her. She crouched and closed her eyes as the sand shifted and the scream continued. Finally, she noticed a light and the screaming subsided.
Clever had lit yet another candle. Mouse saw Ember rolled into a ball on the ground. Mouse slowly rose as Ember continued breathing in panicked gasps. With the light back on she calmed down somewhat. She rose after some time.
“Everyone okay?” Clever asked calmly.
“You could have gotten us all killed!” Ember shouted.
“Afraid of the dark are we?” Clever asked. Ember growled. “Alright, alright, no more of that.” He turned to see the wreckage. “I just wanted to make sure it worked.”
“Why?” Ember asked in exasperation.
“Because we are dealing with a master.” Clever said gloomily. “That was a perfect spot. It was perfectly controlled. And it was a spot that would buckle under the smallest pressure. Someone here is trying to kill us, and they know what they are doing.”
Ember paused in thought. “But,” she began slowly. “Maybe that was just from years ago…”
“It was placed in the time it took for us to double back.” Clever explained. “Someone was following us, and exploited the weakness in the walls with specialized equipment. This was premeditated, and worse then that…” He looked down. “No footprints.” Mouse looked down and scanned the gravel. He was right. Their feet had moved the gravel, but otherwise it was relatively smooth. No sign of anyone other than mouse and the other two. “He, or she, knows how to hide their tracks, and can walk silently on gravel. And they have training with traps, and know structure of mine shafts.”
Ember and Mouse waited for someone else to say the next word. Mouse decided to be first, “Let’s get back.”
“Agreed. Exploration over.” Clever nodded and led the way again, this time with less idle chitchat. Ember held the lit candle once more, pocketing the old one. Mouse checked behind them every few moments. It was impossible for something to be there… but she had to be sure. Soon they found the fork they had passed before. Clever paused. “The stone was moved.” Mouse checked. He was right. It was now in front of the other path. “Lets double time it.” He walked faster. Mouse had to jog every other step to keep up.
They finally reached the main room again. “Where are the others?” It was the angry woman who asked.
“Who…” Clever looked around the room. “Oh, so they left as well…” Mouse checked the room. The couple, and the large woman were gone. Group one had left.
“They left to find you!” The woman tried to keep her voice even. “We heard a scream. The cook wanted to make sure you were safe, the twins went with her.”
“What about Maurice?” Mouse asked,
“What about who?…” The woman looked around. Maurice was also gone. “That other guy! Where did he go? When did he…” She cursed.
“Someone tried to kill us.” Clever explained. “A trap went off, but I saw it coming. There is an assassin here.”
“I knew it!” The woman’s fist clenched.
“We don’t know if it is one of us…” Ember tried to calm her down. The woman angrily murmured something under her breath before nodding her head from side to side, reluctantly agreeing.
“Well.” This time it was the large man with the shield who spoke. “What should we do? They are out there and they don’t know they are in danger…”
“We stay put.” The woman ordered. “They decided to leave. It’s their fault. No need to sacrifice anyone else.”
“I can go alone,” Clever suggested. “I’d feel better with a full Talon, but if anyone had to go alone, I think I have the best experience running from things and laying traps.”
“…no.” The woman spoke in a disappointed tone. “You’re right. We can’t go anywhere alone. And we can’t be in groups of two or we may be setting someone up with a traitor.” She cursed again. “We should all go, or no one,” she advised.
“We can vote.” It was the first words Mouse had heard the Spearman speak. He shrugged. “If it’s a tie, one group leaves and they other stays.”
“You’re a bandit aren’t you?” Clever asked the Spearman. “The only fans of democracy I know are pirates and bandits.”
“Right now I’m locked in a cage with you lot.” The Spearman didn’t seem happy about the circumstances either. “And I’d like to stay right here.”
“As would I.” The woman cast her vote.
“I’d like to go.” Ember voted. “It’s our fault they left… Well, my fault…”
“I can’t just sit on my hands all day.” Clever shrugged. “I vote we go.”
Mouse took a step towards the woman, shieldman, and spearman. It seemed safer. Ember and Clever didn’t look like they blamed her.
The man with the shield sighed. “I think we should wait,” he said. “Sorry, I’ll change my vote if they don’t come back soon. Right now, I think it’s too risky. I used to be a guard in the keep of Castle Cassiel. This is not an unfamiliar situation for me. We send a large party, or none at all. And in unfamiliar territory, we need to be more careful than ever.”
It was at that point during negotiations that a scream came from the southern tunnel. Everyone stopped and turned. Another scream followed, and another.
The shieldman cursed. “Well alright then. I can’t just let them die.” He got to his feet. “That’s three.” He held up his shield and opened the lantern port, lighting it. A glass lens magnified the effect and a powerful beam of light came from the shield, lighting where he was pointing. “Archer, to my right. Lady, to my left.” He grumbled it like he’d said it a thousand times before, but to different people.
Mouse shifted her vote and followed. The woman cursed and did the same. The spearman wordlessly took up the rear. Clever gave Mouse a lit candle upon a brass holder and she walked just behind the man with the shield. Clever nocked an arrow, but stood at attention as he walked. Ember had her hand ready to draw. They moved slowly enough that the spearman could walk backward occasionally to check from behind.
Mouse and the woman were the odd ones out, with no weapons to speak of. At least, none Mouse could see. She did have her dagger, taken from the warden of the dungeons, but it was hardly a weapon compared to the others. She wondered what the woman had that The Specter wanted.
The Ember and Clever re-introduced themselves as they marched forward. The ex-guard did as well, “I’m Samuel. Never did well with fake names. I was Captain of the guard for years, until I found out what Lord Cassiel was hiding, and what he ordered me to do…” he shook his head. “It was not honorable. I’m glad the bastard’s dead. No, I can’t talk about it, so don’t ask. Just know that the idea of being loyal to anyone now gives me the jitters. I began working for The Specter ‘cause no one else would hire a traitor like me. Is he honorable? No, but he doesn’t pretend to be. And I’ve got a child to feed. He said he wouldn’t make me do anything against my conscience, and I believe him. He is a bit of a loon though isn’t he?”
“Mind if I call you Captain?” Clever asked, blinking rapidly. “Old habits and all.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere.” The old captain smirked.
“How about Miss Happy?” Clever looked back for a moment. “You have a name?”
“Eyes forward.” She commanded.
“Weird name but I won’t judge.” Clever joked.
“Agatha.” She said in exasperation.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Clever.”
“No, you aren’t.”
“Well that’s just mean.” Clever grinned again. “And what about you Pointy?”
“Pointy’s good.” He chuckled. “Friends call me something similar.”
“Really? Aren’t we friends?” Clever asked.
“Yea well…” He looked to, and then away from Mouse, “It’s not really child friendly name.”
Clever laughed heartily at that one. Ember and the Captain chuckled a bit under their breath as well. “Alright, ‘Pointy’, nice to meet you.”
“Heads up.” The Captain ordered. There was a fork in the road.
“Right.” Clever said. “We went left last time. They must have gone right. Otherwise we’d have run into them.”
“But the stone…”
“It was moved.” Clever explained. That shifted the mood as the group went right. Even Clever was quiet as they moved forward.
“I haven’t heard another scream,” the Captain started.
“I didn’t say anything at first, but there was something off about that scream from before,” Clever added.
“Enlighten us,” Agatha replied.
“It sounded…” Clever was at a loss. “Never mind. It’s just a coincidence.”
It sounded again. A harsh shriek from ahead of them. “They’re in trouble.” The Captain sped up his pace. Clever still seemed perturbed. Mouse had to admit that she thought something was off as well, but could not quite place it.
They stopped at the entrance of a large chamber. There was dim moonlight coming in through a high, narrow skylight. It was enough to show the shape of the room, but little else. It was much like the meeting area from before, but this time reinforced with stone. This place seemed like a far more permanent residence. Clever etched a symbol into the stone right by the doorway as a marker.
They came in and scanned the area. The beam from the Captain’s shield was narrow, but powerful, and the candle kept the group’s immediate area from the danger of the darkness. Their own shadows shifted and danced along the walls. Their movement kept distracting Mouse.
“Blood.” Clever was the first to notice. Fresh blood was in a puddle in the middle of the room. “Not too much.” He checked around the blood pool. “Another trap.” He stated, picking up a nearby wooden dowel. It had been sharpened and was stained with blood. “I don’t see a trigger mechanism. It must have stuck into someone, and they chose here of all places to remove it and patch the wound.” He looked around and saw a small droplet where they had come. “They were being chased. Or they were chasing someone. There was not a fight as I can see.” He looked around the puddle again. “They went in this direction.” They continued until they found an archway leading to yet more tunnels. Here, Clever looked around. “They might have come in this direction. I’m not sure. Someone certainly did. The injured person may have doubled back.”
“Hey!” The Captain shouted, jarring the rest of them. “Anyone down there?” He shouted again. Nothing. “It was worth a shot.” He shrugged.
“We can’t separate the group,” Ember advised.
“Of course.” Clever nodded. “But that leaves an exhaustive search. This way is as good as any.”
“This is stupid.” Pointy seemed jumpy. “We’ll get lost here. Best to double back. They’re probably dead already.”
“I have to agree,” Agatha said. “That was a lot of blood. Even if alive, they’d be useless, and would require one of us to take care of them at the very least.”
“If there is a chance,” Ember started, then looked to Clever.
“It’s more likely that they’d find their way back then us finding them,” Clever finished. “And every step we take is another risk to more people.”
Ember seemed unhappy, but the Captain turned and the rest followed. They found the doorway that Clever had marked and continued back. The tunnels had a way of twisting and turning that made Mouse even more anxious.
“Something’s wrong,” Clever finally stated after walking for a time. “We’ve been walking too far.”
“You led us through the wrong doorway?” Agatha asked.
“No.” Clever squinted, looking around. “But the gravel ends here.” He was right. They had never walked in the dirt and mud before in the caves.
“Then this must be a different path…” Agatha continued.
“Look at this wall.” Clever motioned to the side of the cave, “Smooth dirt.” He pointed down. “The gravel goes under it.” He then turned again down the cave. “And there is no support structure down that way.”
“Are you suggesting that someone caved in this tunnel, then dug out a whole new one, just to mislead us?” Pointy spoke, and he seemed jittery, as if the question was not entirely a joke.
“No, of course not.” Clever shook his head. “But something did.”
“That’s crazy!” Agatha shook her head. “You just chose the wrong path. We’re doubling back.”
“No arguments there.” Clever shrugged, and the group turned.
“These caves give me the creeps.” Pointy spoke up. “You see those holes in the walls…”
“Animals tend to dig those,” Clever answered. “Mice, rats, the like.”
“Yea, I know,” Pointy agreed. “Just… got bad memories of caves. Don’t like closed spaces you know? And I always think something’s going to jump at me from one.”
“Keep moving.” Agatha seemed perturbed. “Don’t let your fears get the better of you. We need to stay sharp.”
Mouse saw the Captain ahead of her stop. “No.” She heard him say. She looked around him as saw it. Just like before, the gravel seemed to end. The cavern turned into a newly dug cave without supports. “No, No, that’s not possible…”
“I think we can rule out that one of us did this,” Clever stated.
“There is no way out,” Pointy murmured.
“Shut up!” Agatha shouted. “We need a plan.”
Before anyone else could speak, another scream sounded throughout the cave. It seemed close.
“That scream sounded different…” Clever started. Then Mouse could hear something approaching from the darkness of the newly made tunnel. Ember drew her blade and held it firm ahead of her. There was a smoky pattern on the steel that flickered with the flames. Pointy darted his head both forward and back, unsure of where to aim his spear. The Captain braced himself, Clever crouched, ready to draw and loose a shot.
The steps were wet and panicked. She could hear the suction from boots being drawn out of mud. She saw the outline of something human, then it fell headfirst into the mud. It scrambled up, crawling to its feet and continued towards them.
“Shoot it,” Agatha warned.
“Wait,” Clever responded. Eventually the Captain’s beam illuminated it.
“Help!” It cried. A female voice. It looked like one of the “twins” from before. It was Ember who sheathed her weapon and went to her. Helping her onto the gravel, Ember wiped some of the mud off of the other woman, but Mouse could not get a good look at her. “We need to get out of here!” Her voice shook.
“Where are the others?” Ember asked.
“Mace disappeared. My brother…” She turned to the darkness wide-eyed. “He was behind me. By the spirits he was right there…”
“Don’t worry, everything is going to be…” The woman stood and tried to run back into the darkness. Ember held her back.
“Let go! He needs me! It won’t attack if you aren’t alone!” Ember pulled her back, she fell backwards onto the gravel.
Agatha spoke. “It? What is it?”
“I don’t know!” She stood. “But it has him now! It has to! I have to get him…” Ember held her back from the darkness again.
“We need to stay together, you said so yourself!” Ember tried to calm her down again. Eventually the woman seemed to lose her energy, devolving into tearful sobs.
“He’s all I have left…” She croaked, her body going limp.
Ember kept a hold on her as the Captain led the group forward. “You’re safe now. Well, as much as any of us are. Come on. We’ll get him back alive, I promise.” That vow too sounded like something he had said many times before. It was more recitation than anything heartfelt. Regardless, it seemed to help the woman find her footing. She followed along next to Mouse as Ember cautiously took up her position again.
“What’s your name?” Mouse asked. The woman was wiping mud from her face. Normally she wouldn’t start a conversation, but the silence was disturbing everyone’s psyche.
“Leaf,” she said, her voice still shaking. Mouse saw that her skin was an unnatural green, and her hair too white for someone her age. Scars marked much of her face, but the marks were in symmetry with each other. It was an intelligently designed pattern. Mouse also did not recognize the accent; it was much stronger now that she spoke calmly.
“Oh, one of you.” Mouse looked to Agatha. Her voice was filled with a mix of pity and disdain. “A runaway then?”
Leaf looked away, hiding her face. “My brother and I, yes.” Mouse did not know enough to understand, but realized it was a sensitive subject.
“Tell us more about this thing.” Agatha changed the topic. “What happened after you left?”
“We tried to follow the tracks, but Mace fell into a pit. A wood spear gored her. Then we heard growling from behind us. We ran forward and found a stone room…”
“We were there.” Agatha nodded. “We saw the blood, and the spear.”
“My brother and I patched her up the best we could and tried escaping that thing. We… We split up. We thought, maybe, it would only follow one of us. My brother went with Mace because she couldn’t walk on her own. We tried to find another way back. I heard whatever it was behind me and ran. When I saw my brother again Mace was not with him, and he told me to run. I thought he was beside me when I turned. And then…” She sniffed and wiped her eyes, “That when I found you. It was right behind me, and my brother… I don’t know what I would do without him.”
Mouse’s feet sank into the wet mud more than ever now. She heard everyone laboring over it. If they were forced to run from something it could be catastrophic.
“…Help…” A voice from the darkness interrupted their travels.
“That’s him!” Leaf shouted. “I need to…” She tried running forward but this time Clever held her back. “No, we will get there, just wait…”
“Ah!” A shout of pain. Leaf fought against his grip and began marching forward in the thick mud. She broke free and burst forward. The group followed as quickly as they dared. Soon the beam of light that guided them fell upon a entryway. It led to the same stone room as before. However, this time the room was pitch black, not even the moon or stars seemed to be shining. Also, there was a body half visible on the ground. It was the woman from before.
“Mace!” Leaf stumbled, trying to speed up.
“She wasn’t the one calling for help.” Clever spoke up, trying to close the distance. Leaf was halfway to Mace, far ahead of the rest of the group, and Clever ran to catch up with her. “Wait!” he shouted. Mace seemed to murmur something. She was on the ground, moving slightly from side to side. Leaf was almost to the doorway when Clever caught up with her. “It’s a trap!”
In the blink of an eye Mouse saw a long spear-like object fly from the top of the doorway, right towards Leaf. Leaf had enough time to freeze in fear.
Clever pushed her out of the way at the last moment. The tip pierced his chest and came out the other end with a crack and a slash. Mouse heard a gasp of air escaping him as the object removed itself and he fell to the ground backwards.
Leaf screamed, scrambling towards the wall. The Captain took a position between Clever and the door as Ember went to him. “It’s going to be okay…” Ember started. Clever coughed up blood and wheezed from his wound.
“It…” He started. “It’s a hunter.” Mouse heard a scream from the other room again, this time, beginning to understand why the noise sounded off… “It copies sounds…” He continued. “That scream… It’s your scream, Ember. It heard it, and copied it. It copies things it hears. It’s a “human” call…”
“You all are on your own!” Pointy shouted in a frenzy and retreated into the darkness.
“Wait!” Ember called out, but Pointy was gone without a trace in the blink of an eye.
“Ahh!” Another shout from inside the room. It sounded like a woman’s voice. “My stomach!” Mouse looked to the meek body of Mace. It wasn’t her speaking, but it was certainly her voice. “Help!” This time, a man’s voice. Leaf immediately recognized it.
“I need to help… That’s my brother…” She got to her feet.
“Leaf, don’t…” The Captain spoke, but Leaf disobeyed and continued running into the room. “Alsciosia save us…” He prayed. “Nothing behind us, and nothing here. Might as well die charging forward!” He followed. Ember picked up Clever, holding him over one shoulder and drawing her blade with her other arm. Mouse followed as well, noting Agatha’s reluctant compliance.
Mouse expected a bloodbath, but whatever was here before had gone into hiding. The stone made for a good foothold and she felt safer here. Ember put Clever down on the stone and dragged Mace to him, placing them side by side. Mace seemed half awake. Her midsection was bandaged.
“Stone!” Leaf shouted. Mouse supposed that was his name, or the one they chose for this mission. “Stone!” She shouted again.
“Shut up!” Agatha seethed. “We need to stay quiet!”
“Why?” The Captain asked. “It’s not like it doesn’t know we’re here.”
“Well, I’d rather be able to hear it coming.” She continued searching the black walls. The candle in Mouse’s grip was not enough to pierce more than a few steps in any direction. The Captain patrolled his beam across the room like a searchlight. Mouse stayed by Ember and the two wounded bodies.
“Does anyone know how to help?” Ember asked, awkwardly putting pressure on Clever’s chest wound.
Leaf stopped her shouting to answer, “Mace does. She told us how to patch her up.”
Ember looked to Mace and cursed. “Of course.” The large woman was more pale than before, but not deathly so by Mouse’s reckoning. “Clever, how are you doing?”
“Just… peachy…” He rasped. He had one hand on his chest. “A little dizzy… A bit hard to breathe…” Ember rifled through Mace’s clothing until she found bandages and began to apply them as best she could.
“I think we should stay here the night.” Agatha advised. “The thing controls where we walk outside this room. Every time we go out to search we lose someone else.”
“I’m not leaving my brother!” Leaf countered.
“No one cares what you think!” Agatha yelled back. “You and your brother are hardly human to begin with.” Leaf’s fist clenched but she held her tongue. “You can go out alone for all I care!”
“No one else leaves alone.” The Captain spoke forcefully.
“And why is it so dark?” Agatha looked up. “The skylight…” The Captain shone his beam up. The skylight was gone. Something had covered it up with soil from the outside. “Great…”
“It’s going to try to lure us out.” Mouse spoke for the first time in a long time. Agatha and Leaf turned to her. “Clever said it copies us. It sets traps and it forces us down predictable paths. It doesn’t want to fight us head on.”
“You think it’s weak?” The Captain asked.
“Maybe.” Mouse shrugged. “Maybe us being afraid is what it wants. Maybe we need to take the offensive.”
“And how do we do that, little girl?” Agatha asked, advancing towards her. She was a bit taller, perhaps a few years older than Mouse. “You don’t seem to contributing much here, candle holder.”
“You’re one to talk.” Leaf came back at her. “All you do is complain!”
“At least I do that much!” Agatha shot back, then glared at Mouse from behind her hood. “Maybe she’d make good bait? Hunters like going after the weak ones don’t they? Or maybe this is all the doing of that cripple. She seemed cozy with him before, and as soon as our eyes were off of them people started disappearing!“
“Stop being paranoid.” Ember spoke up, finishing up with Clever. “We need to work together here.”
“She’s right.” Mouse spoke again.
“Right we need to…” Ember started.
“No, Agatha was right,” Mouse continued. Ember and Agatha were silent at that. “…I mean, about being bait.” Mouse looked to Agatha. “It’s a good plan. If it were going to go after anyone, it would be me.”
“…We can’t do that!” Ember shook her head. “You’re just…”
“What?” Agatha turned to her. “It’s her decision.”
The room silently turned to her. Mouse felt awkwardly forced to speak once more. She looked to The Captain, “Nothing behind us, nothing here…” She shrugged. “Right?”
The Captain had a melancholy smile. “I suppose you’re right kid.”
“So what’s the plan?” Leaf asked. “My brother is still out there…”
“Let me go scout in front.” Mouse said. “I have a rope with me, I can tie it to a support beam or two. You can hold onto the end. If I shout to “Pull”, then pull. Hopefully it will follow me, and I’ll be able to crush, or trap it. If I travel alone, it may feel safe to follow me.”
No one seemed happy with the plan, but there were no complaints either. Ember spoke, “Everyone…” Mouse turned to Ember. Embers voice was cracking. “I think Mace is dead.” The woman seemed more pale than ever now. Her chest no longer rose and fell. Leaf held a hand to her mouth and murmured something. The Captain cursed and also uttered some sort of prayer under his breath.
“I guess that means Clever is as good as he is going to get.” Agatha shrugged. Clever coughed again, resting on his side. “We better do this fast. Light a candle before you go. If you wind up like Mace we’re back where we started.” Agatha looked to Mouse. “Ready?”
Mouse nodded. She took out her rope and handed one end to Agatha. She and Ember both held onto it as the Captain continued to scan the room. Leaf took up the job of looking over Clever. Everyone was still within eyesight of everyone. Mouse slowly stepped into one of the many caves that acted as exits. She breathed deeply and calmly as the dark took her in. She willed herself to be silent and hidden, but there was only so much she could hide the sloppy steps of her boot in the mud.
It wasn’t long before the darkness was complete. It only took a few serpentine twists of the tunnel before she had to touch the wall to know where she was going. Again, she noted that running would be difficult. Once or twice her feet touched gravel, but they returned to mud soon after. She heard steps echo off the walls, unsure as to whose they were, or if they were her own. After a time in the dark she stopped and lit her candle. Something skittered off into the dark, something small. She progressed slowly, the candle in her hand, the rope in the nook of her right arm.
She didn’t take two steps before cold hands wrapped around her from behind. Strong fingers clasped her mouth and chest, pulling her back. She could not scream in time. “Shush girl.” She heard Maurice. “Calm yourself.” She did so, and the arms retracted. She turned to look at him. He was none the worse for wear. “Good to see you snuck away from them. That crowd’s too loud. Attracted too much attention. No matter where I was I heard every word you all were saying, I bet the beast did too.”
“The beast?” Mouse questioned.
“Haven’t seen it, but heard it creeping around.” He added, “It digs, it sneaks, it calls out in fear as it hunts you down, screams in pain as it hurts you… I myself found a nice quiet hole to hide in. It didn’t seem to bother me much. I’d suggest you do the same. Not my hole though. Go find your own hole.”
“Have you seen Pointy?” Mouse asked.
He chuckled. “The beast found him quick enough. Him and that runaway fellow. If both aren’t dead yet, they soon will be.”
“Where is it?” She asked.
“Inquisitive are you? Well, it’s here, it’s there… by the time I’ve found it it’s somewhere else. Best to just keep out of its way. There’s no finding that thing, it just finds you. You aren’t seriously thinking of… oh, you are. You want to catch it. Well good luck with that, you are going to need it. But if you want my advice, your plan was flawed from the beginning.”
“How’s that?” Maurice was about to respond, then stopped, his ear in the air and his hand on a support beam.
“…You’ll find out soon enough. But now we must be going our separate ways. You should put out that light as well.” She saw him fade into the shadows of another cave jutting out from the one she was currently in.
Then a gust of wind blew out her candle and the area shook violently. She took cover as best she could and waited for the shaking to stop. It was a cave in from behind her. With panic she realized that she was now cut off from the others. Maurice had left her as well. She was alone. She tugged at the rope and fought it taut. She cursed.
A scream sounded from behind her, muffled behind the rocks and dirt. Then another yell, a series of shouts. Either the beast was trying another tactic, or those were all real and coming from the group she had left behind. She let go of the rope and put the candle in her cloak. She gripped the wall and hoped to not fall into any traps. She felt out each step carefully, ready to dive back if she felt at all worried. Progress was slow, and the screams sounded out periodically. She could not recognize them. Maybe they were old victims, maybe they were new.
She heard a click and felt weightless for a moment. She tore her pick into the side of the cave and it hooked into the earth, catching on a stone. Her fall stopped and she paused for a moment, gasping in surprise. She fumbled in the dark for some sort of foothold and found one. Then she progressed forward, past the trapdoor and whatever lay below it. Traps like these were probably periodically placed. She continued cautiously.
The screams eventually stopped, but it took quite some time. A battle had taken place without her, she thought. She wandered about the caverns aimlessly, trying to find her way back. Eventually, she heard a groan and stopped. As silently as she could, she investigated.
She turned a corner and saw light. It was another room with another dim skylight. She saw a bundle of thread, like the one used in the trap they had found, but this time it was wrapped around a person. The hood was down and she saw that the man had matching features with Leaf.
Mouse went to him. He seemed dazed. She moved her hand past his field of view. He did not seem to react. His limbs were splayed, the thread lightly holding him down as he swayed side to side incoherently. She took out her knife and found it just adequate for cutting the bindings.
“…Stone?” Mouse whispered. The man did not respond. She nudged his arm. The muscles were completely limp. She grabbed his hand and pulled, hoping to remove him from the webbing.
Instead, his arm sloughed off like cooked meat off bone. Mouse dropped the appendage and scrambled away in a panic. A yellow ooze seeped from the body and the arm and into the mud. The face did not betray any feeling or awareness, just a dazed eyes looking forward.
Mouse spent no more time with the body. She rushed back into the darkness and tried not to think about what she had just seen. She traversed the dark until eventually Mouse heard soft sobbing from up ahead. “…Leaf?” She asked. The sobbing stopped.
“…You,” Mouse heard her utter. “I never learned your name.” Her voice was pained. “I’m stuck.” Mouse went to her and found her body in the middle of the path. She then touched the woman’s leg. She heard her wheeze in pain at the touch. Mouse herself seethed in empathetic pain when she touched something sharp sticking out of the woman’s leg… bone. Her own bone had broken and stabbed through the skin. “How bad is it?” She heard. Mouse then felt the rest of the leg; the angle was wedged between two sticks. It was a simple trap, simply designed to break the leg of any creature running through it.
“…It’s still there.” Mouse tried to paint an optimistic picture. “You should stay here…”
“Don’t leave me alone!” She said in a panicked whisper. “Please…” Mouse remembered Maurice’s sage advice about finding a hole to hide in. She sighed. “Don’t put any weight on it.” She moved the limb slightly, just to get it out of the trap, then, helped lift the woman off the ground. Leaf held herself on a single leg. She hopped forward, putting most of her weight on Mouse. She now saw what Clever meant about one person crippling two. “We can’t go this way!” Leaf hissed. “I ran from this way…”
“No way is safe,” Mouse said, remembering where she had come from. “This is where the others are right?”
Leaf paused before speaking, “The Captain is dead,” she said with a sob. “When we heard the cave-in he turned and took the light off of me. Then it came. It was… Oh god, it wasn’t anything I’d seen before. The spear that stabbed Clever, that was one of its legs! And it… it stabbed right through the Captain from behind! It must have been in that room the whole time, just waiting in the shadows. Waiting for something to distract us. It had too many legs. When it threw the Captain across the room the light showed it to me. It had fangs like a wolf, limbs like a spider, but when it moved it slithered… you must think I’m crazy. Maybe it was just a trick of the light. I saw it for only a moment. Agatha ran, I don’t know where. Ember tried to fight it but it slashed at her legs and she fell. I don’t know what happened. That’s when I ran. There was nothing I could do. Not against that.” Mouse felt her shaking. “We can’t go back! We have to find somewhere to hide.” Mouse shushed her when she noticed a light ahead. “Spirits please…”
Mouse heard wet crunching sounds from up ahead. She led Leaf as quietly as she could. Around the corner, if Mouse was right, would be the stone room. She was about to turn to look around when Leaf hissed in pain, her leg hitting the ground. Suddenly the wet crunching stopped, and the sound of wind and something cracking stone replaced it. Then silence. Mouse checked around the corner and saw that it was in fact the stone room. The lantern of The Captain’s shield lit the room indirectly, shining upon a wall. It was connected to an arm, but the arm was not connected to anything else. She saw one body where Mace and Clever had been placed, but the other was gone.
“Is someone there?” Mouse heard a voice croak. It sounded like Ember. “Please… help….”
“It’s a trick,” Leaf whispered. “It has to be. They’re all dead.”
“Please…” Mouse heard the voice again, weaker this time.
“… do you have any weapons?” Mouse asked.
“You can’t be serious!” Leaf hissed. “We can’t take it on! No one can!” Mouse waited. “… yes.” She grunted. She leaned against the wall and removed a stone axe from her cloak. Mouse had never seen its like before; it was smaller and thinner than a regular axe for lumber. “I won’t be of much use.”
Mouse recited her plan in her head and hoped she was right. “When I say so, aim for my chest. Swing fast.”
“What?” Leaf asked. Mouse waited again. “… fine.” She maneuvered to get into position.
Mouse took a loud step forward. Nothing. Leaf slowly maneuvered to follow. Mouse took another step. Nothing. Another…
She had an instant to dive to the side and shout “Now!” as a spear-like leg tore through her cloak and shoulder. The axe hit the leg with a crunch and Mouse heard a human scream as the leg retreated. The beast seemed to scramble across the wall as Mouse hit the mud, holding her shoulder tightly. It had cut deep into her arm, possibly into the bone. Her right arm would be of little use now.
She heard it scramble away from the doorway. She tried to get a good look at it, but only managed to see some retreating legs as it slithered out from one of the many exits. She got up. “Let’s go.” She let Leaf use her as support, but could not hold her as she had to keep pressure on her arm. The blood was not stopping. It ran down her arm and off of her pick like rainwater.
She and Leaf found Ember there. She was alive, but severely injured. She had tied a bandage tight on both her legs. Her feet were gone, completely cleaved from her. Mouse saw the dead body of Mace, but Clever was gone. The Captain was in pieces and parts throughout the room.
Ember was pale. Leaf tended to her, tightening the tourniquets and bandaging the wounds as best she could. Mouse was not dexterous enough to do anything with her arm, so she waited. The blood began to pool around her. She was losing too much blood. The wound was very deep.
“Leaf?” A voice came from the darkness.
She turned. “Stone? Is that you?”
“Please…” The voice spoke again.
“Leaf,” Mouse started, but it was too late. Leaf stood and hopped to the doorway.
She looked down the cavern. “Stone, is that you…”
Mouse saw the glitter of a thread by her leg. It went taut and pulled her down, and then tugged to pull her into the cave. She screeched. Mouse let go of her bleeding wound to dive and hold onto Leaf’s panicked grasp. She held on as long as she could, but the loss of blood was making her dizzy and weak, and with a strong tug Leaf was pulled from her bloody grip.
A slashing noise, and Mouse closed her eyes and rolled away. She had to make another plan. Ember was alive, but she wasn’t going anywhere, and she was in no state to make any decisions either.
“Ahh!” A shout from the cave. Was someone fighting it, or had they already fallen? Mouse did not know. When all else failed she fell back to Maurice’s advice. She ran to the darkest shadow she could find and stayed there. She closed her eyes and tried to make herself as small as possible.
Footsteps on stone. She opened her eyes and saw Pointy in the center of the room. The thing had followed him in. In the dark Mouse saw only a glimpse before a long bladed leg attacked and extinguished what was left of the Captain’s flame. But she did see an arrow pointed out from the thing. Was Clever alive? Did he do that? Mouse did not know. She heard screams once more, and heard the tearing of metal and breaking of bone and wood. Mouse tried not to make a sound. She tried not to imagine what was happening. The Monster screamed in terror and pain as it ripped its prey to shreds.
Then, quiet. She heard Ember’s breathing, and once again heard wet crunching noises… it was feeding. Mouse was getting sleepy, but she knew she had to stay awake. Awake and quiet just a few steps away from this thing feeding. She shifted slightly, accidentally running her pick against the stone. Her ring shone. The creature stopped its feeding. Mouse froze again. She heard the scratching of legs on stone growing nearer. She tightened her grip on her wound, hoping the pain would keep her awake.
“Hey!” A glimmer of light on the other side of the room. Mouse saw Maurice there with a candle. “Anyone in here?” Mouse saw the shadow of the creature’s legs, but not the thing itself as it lurked its way to the walls, and closer to Maurice. The man limped into the room. “What do we have here?” His eyes found Ember. “You tired girl? Come on. Rise and shine. It’s almost morning…” Above the candle were black legs and shadows, Mouse could not tell the difference. Over a dozen bladed legs, all slowly reached and preparing to seize the old man.
“Above you!” Mouse shouted. Maurice looked up and quickly dived out of the way. The legs tore at the air, and she heard the sound of twisting metal once again.
“My leg… oh, I had already lost that one. Heh.” Maurice was still visible, the candle burning sideways on the ground as the beast crept towards the cripple. “Thanks for the support there girl, didn’t even notice you there, but if it’s going to eat someone, might as well be me. It got everyone else. You two are still alive. I’d rather buy as much time for you as I can.” It was well within range to kill Maurice now, but it still was cautious.
“My…” The beast toyed with the phase. “My leg…” It repeated the words in an unnatural tone, like a thousand voices all trying the same words. “Oh, I had already lost that one.” This time, the words seemed spot on. It sounded just like Maurice. “Might as well be me.” It continued, testing the phrases, seeing if it liked them enough to use them again.
“Smart one ain’t ya?” Maurice smiled. “Come on then, Take me…”
“No!” A shout. Mouse saw Ember moving. “Take me! Over here! I’m the weakest!” The Monster backed away from Maurice, its shadow shifting across the wall. She had her sword drawn and waved it about. “Over here!”
“You fool girl!” Maurice cursed her, “You have your whole life ahead of you, let me have this…”
“I can’t be a knight like this…” She almost laughed. “I might as well die fighting…”
A leg shot out and pinned her shoulder to the wall. Ember screamed, her blade escaping her grasp and clanging to the ground. Maurice got up on his good leg. “Bastard!” He hopped to the beast and disappeared under its shadow. Mouse heard screeching and moaning as it fell back, slashing its limbs awkwardly. “Coward! I ain’t even armed!” He hopped further “Hit me old girl! Hit me!” The monster fell back further. Mouse noticed now that the limbs seemed uncoordinated. It retreated back into the caves.
“It’s as good as dead.” Another voice. Mouse saw the shadow of a woman enter through another doorway. She was with a man who supported her. The man was nursing his chest. “Poisoned arrow. It took long enough, but the thing is bigger than most.”
“Oi?” Maurice sat down. “So I’m not as fearsome as I thought I was?”
“Not close.” The woman, Agatha, shook her head. Bandages covered most of her right leg. Clever let her down and followed suit, both collapsing on the ground. Clever coughed, but not nearly as much blood came out as before. He was getting better.
“Where are the others?” Agatha asked.
“I know just as much as you.” Maurice shrugged. “Apparently the kindly mouse is hiding in that corner. Captain’s dead. Pointy’s dead. Stone’s probably dead, so’s his sister Leaf and right there is Mace. Am I missing anyone?”
“So we don’t know about Leaf and Stone?” Clever heaved out the words.
“If they’re alive, they’ll find us.” Agatha said. “Mouse, get over here.” Mouse did as commanded, collapsing with the rest of them. The least injured was Maurice. They all waited there for a moment, in the light of the candle still resting on its side. Agatha lowered her hood, “Someone needs to bandage you…” She was very pretty, Mouse noted. Blonde, and even beyond her cloak her feminine figure was obvious. Her skin was clear and a pinkish blush covered her cheeks. Her eyes were large and blue. “So Maurice, what inspired you to help?” She asked. “I thought you were going to leave us to die.”
“Well, that was the plan.” He shrugged, laying down and relaxing. “But you know, I kept giving that advice to Mouse, but she just wasn’t taking it. I didn’t understand why. I watched her the whole way through. Smart girl. Thought she had a plan when no one else did. Saw a lot of me in her. Then I see Pointy going at it, and Clever getting a good shot in, and I see Ember here all by her lonesome, and I start thinking maybe this thing knows I’m here, and just doesn’t care. It’s going after me after it finishes all you off. Maybe my best shot is to actually help you sorry souls, maybe that’s what Mouse sees too.”
“Or maybe you had a bout of compassion?” Clever asked.
Maurice seemed shocked at the proposal. “Don’t be dirtying up my reputation with that nonsense! It was ego to the last, I swear… just ignore those words I said when in fear for my life. People say odd things at their last moments.”
“Right.” Clever smirked. A shout came from a nearby entrance. All eyes turned. It was a pained cry. “Sounds like Leaf…” No one got to their feet. No one could. But the cries became louder and closer over time. “Anyone have a plan?” Clever asked as the cries grew nearer.
However, instead of the beast, The Specter came from the shadows, dragging Leaf’s body with him. He laid her down on the stone and she rolled to her side in pain. He looked them over, his evil eye gleaming in the candlelight beyond the shadow of his hood.
“I’m surprised,” he said finally. “But not disappointed.”
“You sick son of a bitch.” Clever stood, his voice hoarse. “You left us here without any warning. With that thing.”
“You left yourselves in here. I gave you every chance to leave,” The Specter explained as if he was speaking to a child. “And I can’t say I care for your tone.”
“Captain Samuel is dead. The spearman is dead. The cook is dead. Ember is maimed. Who knows what happened to Stone…”
“Oh, he’s dead.” The Specter shrugged. “Or as good as.” Leaf hugged herself on the ground, half in pain and half in grief. Her moans turning to sobs.
“Why?” Clever asked, his eyes pleading.
“To be honest, I only expected one or two of you to live through this,” The Specter explained. Clever nocked an arrow, his eyes set on The Specter. “Now what do you plan on doing with that?” The Specter’s head twisted like a hawk’s might when sensing movement.
“Clever…” Mouse spoke. “Don’t…”
He drew and loosed.
The Specter caught the arrow a finger’s width from his eye with a simple motion and twirled it in his fingers, inspecting it like it was some expensive jewel. Clever’s eyes were wide with shock, his fingers still by his ear, his bowstring still vibrating. “Decisive. I like that.” The thick hardwood arrow was snapped in his grip like a twig. “But don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Better men have had their families killed for less. You do remember them don’t you?” Clever snarled. “If you make yourself useless to me, then I will find a use for them to pay your debt.”
“What am I to do?” Ember spoke. She was half awake. He stared at what was left below her.
“Ride,” The Specter said as if it were obvious. “You have earned yourself a knighthood. Who needs two legs when you can have four. Besides, the Watchmaker’s apprentice owes me a favor.” He looked to the others. “Any other qualms?”
“Just leave me,” Leaf spoke. The Specter looked down at her. “I don’t want to go on.”
“No.” The Specter shook his head. “No, no… You belong to me. You know that. You are honor-bound, and what do your people have left if not honor?” She sobbed. “Rise.” He ordered. She clenched tighter on the ground. “Your brother looks down upon you now, and your father and your mother and their ancestors before them. Do wish to disappoint them?”
“I wish to join them…” She sobbed.
“Then rise,” The Specter continued. “You know well that only the strongest spirits can wake from the long sleep. Only the brave and the great enjoy that life. Only those who died in battle or in childbirth can see their loved ones again. Should you end your life here you will never leave this cave. You will never see your family again.” He paused. “So rise.” Leaf, still sobbing, came to her hands and knees, and with a groan, rose to her good leg, slowly and feebly. “Good. Your brother’s effects shall be returned to you.”
The Specter waited a moment for any other words, but none came. He continued, “Archer, help her. Beggar, carry the Knight.” He then looked to Mouse. “Mouse, help the whore’s daughter.” Agatha tensed, her face showing an instant of spite before returning to a suppressed, neutral expression. “The beast will clean up the rest.” He picked up the candle on the ground. “Follow me.”