Chapter 3

           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.”

 

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Chapter 2

           She needed to recover for several days. The boy was called in again to tend to her. She hadn’t noticed before, but she had been given a bad gash across her forearm and face. Both were easily stitched, but the boy insisted that she could be ill due to the blood crossover. After a week, he said that she was clean. He also needed to take another look at her nub and leg. Her nub had healed, but her ankle had gotten worse. She’d run on it, and it hurt more than it had in weeks.

        The Specter seemed annoyed, but agreed to the boys wishes. She’s stay off her feet, or at least, off the streets, for another three months. It was the only time she’d ever seen The Specter not get his way, though, The Specter seemed more occupied with other matters. She didn’t ask. Instead she spoke with the boy.

        “Oh,” The boy blushed. “You can speak. My name? Page. Though, all students committed to the church are called that. What is yours? Mouse? I’m glad to finally know.” He smiled at her. The smile seemed suspicious. Anyone who had ever openly smiled at her had wanted something from her. “He said I can’t ask about your work but… can you tell me a little more about yourself?”

        She shook her head. “Oh, well, okay.” His fingers tapped the wood. “Well, I like learning. And the Magister just began teaching us letters. I can help now if you’d like.” She shook her head. “Oh, you don’t need me? Okay. Well, how about… what do you like doing?” she shrugged. “When you aren’t working, I guess. Or, what do you like?”

        “…Food.” She shrugged and murmured.

        “Food is good.” He smiled. “I can be sure to get you the best I can when I come here. New and interesting ones, not just the stew.” He made a disgusted face. “What else? I know you don’t like talking, so I’ll stop if you want. But I was told I had to watch over you until The Specter returned, and the Magister always says I was born to talk.” He nervously chuckled.

        “Watching.” Mouse said after a pause. “I like watching.”

        “Like, people?” he asked. She nodded. He smiled, “Like, guessing what they are talking about?”

        “And where they are going. And where they’ve been. And what they want.” Mouse answered.

        “I do that too! Sometimes, when someone is confessing to the Magister, I like to make up stories for why they are taking so long. Sometimes I pretend the Magister is the one confessing!” he chuckled. She gave him a brief, half smile. He seemed to like that. “He doesn’t like when I do that. He’d like you. He says all the time that I should be watching and listening more.” He awkwardly looked around the room. “Do you ever watch The Specter like that?”

        She receded her smile and turned away.

        “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just curious. I just… no one really knows what he does. Some say there is more than one of him, going around to different towns. But no one knows why. I guess I was hoping… no, sorry. I guess that’s a question about work.” He twiddled his thumbs. “Do you know any games?”

        She raised an eyebrow. “You know, like, guessing games? Games with pieces or… well, I’m not allowed to use dice. But when the Magister is not looking, sometimes we flip coins.“

        “I like winning.” She nodded.

        “Well, it’s all in the journey, not the destination, that’s what the Magister always says. I can teach you some games if you want. But can’t promise you will win all the time. I’m pretty good at games myself.” He took a coin from his tunic. It was made of wood; she had never seen anything like it. “See here,” he showed one side, “This is my face! I made it myself… well, it’s doesn’t really look like my face, but I’m not too good at woodcarving yet.” He showed the other side. “The other side is blank. That can be tails.” He put the coin in his fist. “Now I flip the coin and you guess what side it will land on. If it’s that side… you win! If not, then I do. Do you want to play?”

        She mulled it over. “Are those all the rules?”

        “It’s not a hard game.”

        “What do I get if I win?”

        He blushed. “Um, gambling certainly isn’t allowed…” he thought about it, “but it’s not really money… how about, I’ll give you my wooden coin?”

        “If I lose?” She asked.

        “Then… I win!” He smiled. “I don’t think I really need anything. I’m really just bored.”

        “Flip in between us, so it’s fair.” She said.

        “Me? Cheating?” he rolled his eyes. “The Magister would beat me. Well, if he knew I was flipping coins and gambling he would too…” he shook his head. “Fine, fine.” he stuck his hand out, then put the coin on his thumb, ready to flip it. “Ready? Guess!”

        “Heads.” She spoke. He flipped the coin into the air.

        She grabbed it, and placed it on the ground heads up.

        “Huh, hey!” Page narrowed his eyes. “That’s not fair.”

        “Did I break any rules?” She asked.

        “I, um, well…” he seemed grumpy. “I don’t want to play any more games with you.”

        “…Do you want the coin back?” She asked.

        “No. Keep it. The Magister says every failure is a learning experience. I’ll consider this a lesson to learn from.” He massaged his temple out of stress. It was then that the door opened, revealing The Specter. Page rose, took his things, and left hurriedly. Mouse stayed silent, awaiting his next words.

        “Have you understood those texts yet?” he asked.

        “Not yet.” She responded. He grunted. She noticed now that he held a black case. It was the same that he had taken from the Watchmaker. He placed it down before Mouse and motioned for her to open it.

        Inside was clothing, tools, and a number of objects she had no knowledge of. “The Watchmaker got what he deserved, but he was very skilled. This clothing is what you will wear when you leave this place. You will become familiar with these tools by next summer, just as you will know those texts. The boy says you cannot strain yourself, but I need you to be ready. Do what you must to make it so.”

        She nodded. “Good. Try it on.”

        It fit her like a glove. She opted not to try on the footwear, as her leg was still swollen, but it did fit the other leg. The boots were soft leather with metal cleats at the toes and wooden heels. They would be useful running on stone, earth, mud, and even while climbing up surfaces. Though they’d probably also damage any wood flooring, which was why they was a pin that could be pulled that retracted the cleats.

        There was light armor hidden inside the clothing made of something rigid but soft to touch. It was thin, and she could barely bend it with her hands. There was a cloak much like The Specters, but new, clean, and almost formal. She almost felt like wearing the suit was a sin, and that she dirtied it by putting it on.

        “The armor plates are linen sheets laminated and lacquered. They overlap.” The Specter explained. “The cloak is silk, the other garments underneath are cotton. ”

        The cloth was loose, not betraying any sense of armor underneath. In total, her suit was comprised of boots, trousers, shirt, vest, coat, and cloak. There were copies of the same garments but with different colors. Some were completely black, others looked very expensive and ornate, made with vibrant dyes.

        Beyond the clothes was a small pickaxe. She looked at it curiously. “Try it on.” She heard The Specter say. She picked it up, realizing it was a prosthetic. When she put it on she had to strap it not only to her elbow, but to her shoulder, and chest. This was meant to hold her weight while climbing.  She stretched her phantom fingers and found they fell upon the pick as if it were a knife in her grip. Where her thumb would be two thin lines were cut into the piece. She wondered at their purpose.

        “Rope.” The Specter explained. “It is for climbing up rope. The correct knot will allow you to pull yourself up without fear of the rope slipping.” She nodded, trusting him. It annoyed her how familiar the image was of something where her hand should be, and yet, she could not turn her wrist. She had to move her whole arm to change the angle of the pick. It would be difficult to learn to climb again with this, but she welcomed the challenge.

        “There is also rope in your tools.” The Specter explained. He motioned to a separate item, “In addition, there is a crossbow,”. There was a contraption of wood, metal, and cord where he motioned. The Specter explained. “Use it to throw a hook higher that you normally could. Or use a bolt to shoot through armor. It needs to be cranked.” There was a place on the suit to hide each part of it.  

        When all was explained and shown Mouse considered asking why she would need all this. But then she remembered that The Specter did not like questions. “I will practice.” She said. The Specter nodded and left.

        She spent her days practicing as best she could. She would keep off of her injured leg, but would find things to lift up on with her new pick to test it. She found that while it was not as dexterous, it could fit into smaller areas, grip better, and even make new grips if she was patient enough. There were diagrams of how to use the rope and pick to climb and she practiced the art. She first secured the rope to a beam up above, then secured and tied it to the pick’s notches. There was a clip as well to keep the knot from slipping off the two notches. Kept at one angle, the rope would stay. But when tilted towards the narrows ends she could move it up the rope, tilt again, and then lift herself up. It depended on her having a strong surface to rest her weight on while adjusting the knot higher on the rope.

        The Alsciotian book continued with histories and myths. There were great prophets, who told of new wisdom from their goddess, and Magisters, who taught this wisdom and enforced her will. She remembered the Watchmakers words about being a prophet and shuddered. Page said that he had a Magister that schooled him. The book said that both prophets and Magisters needed to be recognized by the church before such a title was handed down. There were also varying ranks, but she could not be bothered to remember them all.

        She tried again on the mysterious third book with the other form of writing. Last time she had tried to group them into distinct letters. This time, she tried to organize them into groups. Symbols that looked similar may be similar… she hoped. This too was difficult, as some symbols looked like a mix of many others. She began identifying common elements in many symbols. One was a loop with two curved lines sprouting out, like a loop mixed with half a loop. This sign was common, but never alone. There were also crosses, and x’s, that seemed distinct from one another. One sign looked like an eye, another was a circle within a circle. Other signs were common, but even more complex.

        She still could not make sense of it after a week of study and classification, but she felt that she was getting somewhere. The marks were alien to her. The structure did not seem the same as hers. The study was frustrating. She had no pictures to jump off from here.

        She made a guess that there had to be names in this book. She looked to where one might write a name, like in the Alsciotian book, and found what she was looking for. There was a single shape made of many flowing together. This shape could have additional information like the other, like a date of writing, or an acknowledgement, but at least she had an idea for what part of the book was for.

        At the end of that month she had a breakthrough, and found line numbers, or, more accurately, “section” numbers. They would appear at regular intervals, but would repeat and lengthen in a sequence that seemed numeric. Sections were not always the same length, but they averaged a fourth of a page. There was a sign denoting “one”, “three”, “nine”, “twenty seven” and new signs continued from there, each being three times the last. The first digit would blend into the next into a new shape, and when the number was done, the line would continue to the next shape. These symbols also were treated differently, and were written differently than all other symbols. She could now separate the book into sections, and analyze them from there.

        She had to question the breakthrough momentarily however, because it insinuated many things. The text would not simply blend left to right, it would sometimes blend below, or around. Some pages read from left, to right, to down, to left, then up, and then circle round until the text ran out of room in the center. Other pages would twist the other way, or they would rise and fall in strange patterns. These numbers helped to solve one riddle, but from their placement, she found that lines would sometimes jump from section to section. Perhaps the strange directional writing was to let some sections be close to one another, to link certain signs. It meant that these sections were “soft” barriers, and she still was not sure where to begin reading from page to page.

        Regardless, she tried comparing sections to each other to find commonalities. The language now seemed to have a rhythm to it. There was repetition in the form of the lines that linked back to previous section. Perhaps there was some musicality to it? Perhaps this was a book of songs?

        She surmised little more by the time her wounds had healed. By the time Page said she could walk on her ankle again, she had not deduced the meaning of any other words. He had become the closest thing to a friend she had however. Despite his reluctance to try again, they played more games. She begrudgingly had to admit that he was smarter than her in some ways. He knew better where to place bets, or plan decisions. It was something else to do when she was too tired to train her body and mind anymore.

        The crossbow was unwieldy with one hand to construct, crank, hold, shoot, and deconstruct. She knew little about its combat ability. She knew what she had learned on the streets, but that was mostly how to run away and hide. She vividly remembered killing the Watchmaker, and how terrible it had been.  If faced with a similar opponent that wanted her dead from the start, she had no idea what she would do.

        Her leg was weak from disuse, but as the brace was removed from the last time she suddenly noticed how strong she had become. She’d eaten full meals every day for the first time while training, and had grown noticeably; either that or Page had shrunk. Climbing no longer felt like an arduous task. It was just as hard as walking, though, walking was something she was getting used to again. She still did not feel comfortable with running, and Page said as much. It was still weak, and needed time to heal completely

        Physically, she had never felt better in her life. Mentally she still dreamed of the Watchmaker, and the language of the book still confounded her. When The Specter came she was anxious to leave. She was still unsure as to the assignment, but she was more ready for it than ever, whatever it was.

        “Simple job,” he explained as Page left. Mouse was dressed in her new clothes. “But important. There are high stakes for failure.” She nodded. “If you are captured, I don’t know you. And no one will come for you.” She nodded again.

        The Specter took one last moment to scan the room. He spoke low and quiet. “There is a unique item within the depths of Lord Cassiel’s oubliette.” She knew of House Cassiel. They held lordship over the city and nearby keep. She also knew that they were not favored amongst the populace. She did not know too much of recent politics to know the details. “To the west, up on the hills, lies the Cassiel’s Keep. Carved into the stone below are the dungeons. And even lower than that is the Oubliette, where they send prisoners to be forgotten. There you will find a vial with a peculiar artifact inside. An eye that seems to move on its own. You will take the vial and return here to me before midday tomorrow.”

        Mouse didn’t question the strange orders. “How will I get in?”

        “There are cliffs off the edge of the keep to the west that fall into the Black Stream. On those cliffs are many ancient towers. The tallest is also the oldest, and not usually manned by guards. The highest room is home to the young Lady Shani Cassiel. You will climb there to enter. You will need your crossbow and grappling hook. You will avoid the guards. It is important that your presence not be detected until after you leave, as escape may be impossible otherwise. There will be guests when you arrive. That will help distract the guards, servants, and nobility.”

        She nodded.

        “Any other questions?” He asked.

        She had none that were relevant.

        “Good. Go to the shore of the Black Stream tonight. Come back here with the vial. Show it to no one. And should you see anything else you desire…” he shrugged. “If you can carry it out with you, it’s yours. Consider it payment. You will soon need to learn to provide for yourself.”

        He rose. “And again, let no one see you.”

        It was surreal moving in public with her suit. When she walked others would move out of the way. There was a respect there that she’d never had before. She no longer kept to the alleyways. On the large roads she was respectable enough for the beggars to avoid, but casual enough that she was not a target for theft.

        In public she wore a realistic prosthetic, much like the one given to her by the Watchmaker. Wearing it, and looking at it, sent shivers down her spine, but it kept her looking normal.

        After traveling through the city, and out the city gates, she turned and walked along the stone city wall. Two guards at the gates looked at her with raised eyebrows when she left the main road, but kept to their post.

        She saw a horizon filled with farmland. Small buildings littered the landscape between fields. Rivers budding from the Black Stream poured through artificial channels and nourished the land like veins in flesh. As she continued to walk she came closer to the Black Stream, a great river filled with fertile silt. The sun was just below the horizon when she reached its shores, and the towers that overlooked it. As she walked the wall began to rise upon a hill, the earth adding height to the wall.

        There were three towers built into walls upon a cliff of stone and clay. Against an army, it would be the hardest place to pierce along the walls. For that very reason, guards seemed scarce here. Most were on the other side of the keep, the city side, as the people were a greater threat than foreign armies in these times. The one that jutted out the most was the tallest, and was her target.

        She constructed the crossbow, wondering if it was truly powerful enough to reach the top of the tower. She cranked, loaded, aimed, and braced the weapon against her shoulder, holding the end up with her false hand. She pulled the lever and felt the kickback. She fell to the ground, off balance, but the bolt flew true. She saw the rope fall between the crenellations of the tower like fiber stuck between teeth. She pulled it taut, and then deconstructed the weapon.

        She twisted the trunk of her false hand and the prosthetic came loose. She placed it in her cloak, replacing it with her pick. Once on the trunk, she tightened it on with another twist. It would not come loose unless she used her left hand to twist the trunk again.

        Tying the rope around the notches and securing them with the spring-loaded clip in her pick she began to climb. It was slow work, but significantly easier than traditional climbing. The cleats seemed to make the work too easy on the dirt and clay, and they found spaces between the stones of the wall as well. She slowed when she the stone as to keep her presence quiet. It was night by the time she reached the height she needed and she clung next to the window she planned to enter.

        A simple glance down was enough to remind her that she had never been this high before. Sand was soft, but not soft enough, and the Stream was deep, but not deep enough. A fall would surely kill her. She took a breath before setting her eyes on the window to her side. It was several dozen stones away, not enough to reach from the safety of her rope. She also did not trust the rope enough to swing from it, nor pull it sideways. She trusted her fingers and toes much better.

        Unfortunately, she only had one hand of fingers. The training she had done for the past months would pay off here and now. The stones were weathered, but her cleats and pick were narrow enough to fit between them. She put some slack in the rope by holding onto a stone with her left and pushing herself slightly up. Then she picked at the top of a stone until she had half a finger’s worth of grip and put tension on it. It seemed to hold. She then used her left to loosen the rope to create more slack. If she lost her grip for any reason the rope was her only lifeline.  She worked slowly sideways, increasing the slack as she went.

        “My lady Shani.” She heard and hugged the wall. “The guards say the visitors are waiting in the baily. You must get dressed!”

        Another voice replied, “Patience! I can’t disappoint our guests. Lord Amerah is in the King’s court. I need to make a good first impression.”

        The voices came from the window she neared. She’d have to wait for them to leave. Mouse did however take the risk of getting closer, slowly, to listen in.

        “Surely you don’t think…” The first woman began.

        “I am unmarried, and I hear he is a serial adulterer. Loose lips may lend our house the secrets it needs. Since father’s death my baby brother has done remarkably well, but he still doesn’t see the terrible shape our country is in.”

        “Where did you hear such rumors about the Lord?” the first woman sounded embarrassed.

        “From other loose lips. Now, what do you think, this one or that?”

        “Well, he is foreign, but I’m not sure what styles they prefer over there.”

        “You are useless.” the Lady seemed exasperated. “Fine, Help me with this and…”

        Mouse became weightless for half a breath as a stone chipped under the weight of her shifting pick. She withheld a gasp as her grip tightened on the stone in her left.

        “What was that?” The Lady asked.

        “This old castle creaks my lady.”

        “But it doesn’t just fall apart does it?”

        Mouse heard footsteps. She quickly tried climbing down. There was a ledge that would hide her.

        However, like a chain, the rope bound her pick. She had no time to adjust the rope. Instead she changed directions and climbed up and around the window. If she fell from her she could be flung far over the stream by the slack. It offered very little protection here.

        She looked down and saw long chestnut hair on pale, freckled skin. She was quite beautiful, several years older than Mouse, but not old enough to be a woman yet. Her nose was pointed in a dignified way. Mouse saw little else of her from this angle. She looked left, then right, then down, then shrugged and retreated back into the castle.

        “I suppose this castle is falling apart,” the lady continued.

        “I’ll be sure to call the masons to have a look,” the other replied.

        “No need, I hope to leave this hellhole as soon as I can. If not by marriage then by other means. My brother is sticking his fingers into the broken hull of a sinking ship in an attempt to vainly staunch the flow. This city will take him when it crumbles. It won’t take me.”

        “…Room for one more when you leave then Mistress?”

        “Of course Diane. Where would I be without you… no, tighter!”

        “But my lady will need to breathe…”

        “There will be time for that later. Tighter. Good. Now, let’s get going.”

        Mouse heard two sets of feet leave the chambers and allowed herself to breathe normally once more. She slowly slunk down and into the window, the ledge providing ample support. She now untied and unclasped the rope, letting it swing then rest naturally against the stone wall. At the same time she pulled a pin on her boots and the cleats receded.

        The room was lit by candlelight by all four corners. The decoration was entrancing, and the room was spacious and strangely warm. The bed was unmade, but beautifully crafted. There was a table Mouse had to step over to enter. On it were papers and a quill, and ink. Mouse was about to leave the room when something else caught her eye. On the bedside table was a golden necklace with a green gemstone set into it.

        Mouse had seen jewelry before, but only ever glimpses. Even then the treasure had been behind half a dozen swords and men who knew how to wield them. It was just sitting there. She almost felt that it would be crime not to take it. She was told that it would be part of her payment to take anything she wanted, after all. She imagined the thing around her own neck. With the clothes she wore now it would not be completely out of place. Besides, the lady surely had more than this trinket. She probably wouldn’t even miss it.

        She hesitated. She felt as if the gold might burn her if she touched it with her impure hands. But eventually the desire won out and she touched it delicately with her finger, testing it like it was bathwater. It was cold and heavy. When she took it in her grasp it seemed to have a power all on its own. She had never seen true wealth before. Now that it was in her grasp she now knew why so many stories had been told about it. She slid the gold into a pocket of her suit. She thought to leave…

        But there could be more. Certainly she had time. A few more trinkets wouldn’t be so bad. If she was just letting them out in the open, perhaps in the cabinets…

        She heard footsteps. Two pairs. She quickly rolled under the bed and looked at the doorway. Sure enough, the Lady and her servant returned to the room. “Yes, I know… wait-” the lady seemed confused. “It was right here.” She walked to the other side of the room, fumbling with papers on her desk.

        “My lady is just as beautiful without it.”

        “A fine sentiment, but I’d rather have the necklace back. I know it was around here somewhere. Perhaps it fell.”

        Mouse saw the servant begin to crouch. There was nowhere else to go. Mouse turned away and held herself in a ball.

        “No, I don’t… eh?” Mouse closed her eyes in panic. She should have just left the room when she had the chance.

        “Did you leave something below the bed?” Mouse heard. She then felt a tug on her cloak. “I don’t remember you having these…” She held her breath and played dead as best she could.

        “Diane!” Mouse heard the lady shout and return to the servant’s side. “I need your help!”

        Mouse felt the grip on her back loosen as the servant got to her feet. “But there is something under there…”

        “There is nothing under there-” Mouse dropped the necklace silently. Then she scrambled away from the two, and out from under the bed. She put one toe of her boot and her left hand on the bed frame, and pushed on her pick to support her right side, the flat end resting on the carpeted stone floor. She quickly turned the pick to hide it behind one of the bed’s support beams. The mattress hid her body, just barely. ”See-” She heard, then shocked silence. “Oh…” she heard the scraping of metal on wood.

        “My lady should learn to trust her servants…”

        “Silence Diane. Or you’re not coming with me when I leave.” Mouse heard some chuckling as the two left again. Once the steps went silent Mouse let her body go limp and she sighed in relief. Gold was going to be a tertiary priority from this point on.

        Mouse left the room after scanning the staircase beyond. A colored carpet hid the stone steps and tapestries hid the walls. The servant must have held a candle, because the way was dark. Mouse was okay with that. She put her left hand on the tapestry of the wall and felt it as she descended. Every step was slow and calculated.

        It took some time, but she eventually found her way down to ground level. There were many doors she had decided not to open. Her goal was the deepest part of the castle, so as long as she could she continued down the steps. She finally faced a heavy oak door with iron reinforcements. It was not locked. Beyond it was light. A dining room with a lit chandelier projected shapes of color like fairies dancing around the walls of the room. It caught her eye, but only for a moment. She spent little time in the room, instead keeping to the walls and corners and sneaking towards the nearest doorway.

        Beyond that room she tried many doors, and came upon a number of rooms. most were empty. One was the kitchen, but she heard the cooking inside and avoided it. Eventually she found herself on the second floor of an entrance hall. The floors here were marble, and lit well with a hearth and with lanterns. A giant statue of a blind angel greeted visitors above the fireplace. The face of the angel was on the same level as Mouse.

        Mouse had been getting more and more annoyed with every moment that passed without her finding a way into the dungeons. However, from her vantage point she could see on the ground floor a stairway leading down. It was out of the way, on the far side of the room. Mouse could find her way to the ground floor again, but every moment was a risk, and the statue intrigued her. The wings spread to her level, and she could touch them simply be leaning over the railing. The feathers made good handholds, and she could climb her way down, hidden by the shadow of the angel.

        The room was empty, so she felt safe in the risk. Even if she fell there was a carpet underneath. She had fallen such distanced before. They did not scare her. She took to the wing and shuffled to the side, her pick and her hand gripping the top of the wing with ease. She reached the head and looked down and to the stairway. It was directly above the tip of the angles other wing. She found some grips in the folds of the angels robes and slid down to the ground.

        Unfortunately she took no more than two paces past the robes before hearing doors open. She dived back into cover and waited. She heard voices.

        “Lord Amerah, you are just as knowledgeable as your reputation suggests. And so fit! You look more impressive than any knight I’ve ever seen. Please, tell me about your homeland! And the court!”

        Mouse eyed the nearby stairway with anxiety. If she were careful, she could climb to the other wingtip and drop down, being visible for only a moment. It could be safer than hoping the group would not see her in passing.

        “I apologize for my daughter’s excitement.” An older women spoke deep and calm like breeze through a well, “We have invited you here to show you that House Cassiel is still strong despite my husband’s passing, But you must be tired from your travels, and in no mood to speak of business.”

        Mouse climbed back up the angel, at the very least, it was a place that they’d be less likely to look. Once at the shoulders she heard another voice, a young boy.

        “I’m sure my sister’s intentions have nothing to do with business.” Despite its youth, the voice contained power and confidence.

        She heard an eerie laugh. It must have been from Lord Amerah. “You are a very observant boy Janus.” There was something off about the Lord’s voice. As Mouse crept across the statue she risked a glance over it.

        She saw Lady Shani from before. She looked very different from the rest of her family. Her auburn hair and freckles made her stick out despite the obvious similarities of build with her mother. She had an annoyed glare aimed at her brother and mother.

        The older woman, Lady Cassiel, was a long sultry shadow upon the wall with pale skin that flickered with the fire of the hearth. She was very tall and had long flowing charcoal black hair was quite beautiful herself. It was not hard to see why her late husband had married her.

        Her son was around Mouse’s age, though it was hard to tell, as he held himself like a man twice his age. His hair was also black. He and his mother were quite slim, and very soft in facial features, while his sister’s were more hard. The son also wore black, while the sister had on something a bit more gaudy and red, once again separating herself from her family.

        Then, finally, Lord Amerah came into her view. He was tall, strong, dark skinned, and dressed in a dull purple. But unlike the others he was staring right at her. In the time it took for her to find him, his eyes darted to her like a hawks. Like a rodent her heart froze when the glint of his eyes flared and her cover as blown in an instant.

        But then, with the glint in his eyes, she suddenly knew why his voice had sounded off to her.

        The Specter looked away from her and Lord Amerah continued, “But where is the wine? I’ve been traveling for so long…” The man continued as Mouse held her position. The Specter was a Lord; Lord Amerah. Why did he need her to break in if he was invited? Why did he even need her here in the first place?

        This, and many other mysteries flew through her head. The revelation had not given her any real answers, only more questions. She’d have to figure it out later. Now, she had a job to focus on. She climbed to the tip of the angels wing, checked one more time to be sure that the group was all distracted, then dropped to the staircase. Her boots were quiet enough landing on the marble steps. She then descended deeper into the castles depths, the talk of the lords and ladies above her slowly dying out.

        Eventually she came upon a door. It was heavy, and could be locked from the outside, but was slightly ajar. Mouse was careful when approaching it and slipped into the darkness beyond with as much agility as she could muster. The dark was suffocating, but not total. She could glean dots of reflected light from the doorway off of metal bars along the outside wall and wet stone.

        There were cells all along a spiral stone staircase that continued down.  However, the staircase was wide and hollow. If she were to take two steps from the outside wall, she’d fall into the center of the staircase and into the mysterious dark abyss. The gap was just too far for her to leap across at its widest, if she had dared. Looking down over the edge she did see dots of light, but not enough to aid her decent.

        A fall from this distance was about as great as that from the highest tower to the Black Stream. The dungeons extended not only into the hill the castle stood upon, but dug far below the normal ground level as well. To make matters worse, these steps were at a slight decline towards the center, and were worn and slick with water and moss. If she met anyone on her way she doubted her ability to avoid them on the narrow path.

        She slowly began her decent, keeping her hand on the outside wall to guide her. The dungeons seemed to beg her to enter deeper with the angled steps. She touched bars, then stone, each time she passed a cell. She did not know which were empty. She went around several times before the darkness became all she could see. Every action became louder as she continued still deeper. She could hear the stone across her skin, each step echoed despite her best efforts.

        “Hello?” She stopped when she heard a voice ahead of her. It was sick and manic sounding. “Another? You are not the warden. She already came. Who are you?” She waited, hoping the voice would think it was mistaken. “You smell young. And clean. And sweaty. A knight from battle? A thief from crawling? Ah, you smell like a girl. A thief then. But what are you to steal from here from those with nothing but time?”

        She surmised that it was impossible to hide herself any longer, “Are you a prisoner?” Her eyes strained in the dark, but saw nothing. She heard a coughing laugh in response.

        “Yes. A misunderstanding I assure you. But my time is up after another week. Still, a new voice is good to hear after so long. And a pretty voice too. What is your name thief?”

        “I must be going.” Mouse responded. She took a step.

        “Wait!” The prisoner floundered, “Girl, come here and let me touch you.”

        Mouse hesitated. “No.”

        “It’s been so long!” The voice cried. “If you don’t then I’ll scream! The warden will come and push you over the ledge! Then the only ones touching you will be maggots!”

        “I must be going.” Mouse replied and continued.

        “I’m not joking!” The voice was raised, echoing loudly through the chamber, “The warden will warn the guards! And then you will be sorry!”

        Mouse hesitated again. “You sound sick.” She said. “And how do I know you won’t hurt me.”

        “I’m not!” his voice cracked and another fit of coughs erupted from him. “and I’ve no reason to harm you. But I’ll scream if I have to!” he warned again.

        Mouse sighed. “…Fine.” She walked along the wall and carefully extended her right hand. She found the bars directly where the voice had come from.

        The right hand was snatched from her grip, the prosthetic yanked into the cage with violent force. “Wha-” She heard confusion, then laughing. “Sneaky bitch.” She heard him seethe. “Bravo girl. I’ll let you pass this time. But only if I can keep this. It feels soft…” Mouse heard disturbing giggles from inside, and the shuffling of a ragged body. She quickly made her way past the cage, hoping that the inmate would be distracted for a time. She felt her pick to make sure it was still firm, just incase the prisoner wanted any more of her.

        She made her way even deeper, and somehow, the blackness became even darker and more wet. The air was heavy and cold like a blanket of snow and the silence made every drop of water a piercing splash. As she continued she began to lose track of time and distance, only the sensation of continually spiraling down. Every sound became thunderous. Every step was a stomp and every breath was a wheeze.

        “Someone there?” She heard another voice, high, female and old. It croaked again, “You’re not supposed to be here!” Mouse heard whoever it was pace towards her. She took a step back, “You stay there! I can hear you!” The crone began to quicken her pace. Mouse considered running, but there was only one direction to go. There was also no promise that she was faster than the woman making it up the stairs. “Last chance! Tell me who you are or I’ll…”

        Mouse found the end of the stairs and carefully hung herself over the edge. She had no idea how long the fall was, but other than a small scraping sound of leather and metal on stone, the transition was silent. She held onto the slick stone with her pick and fingers. Her fingers held very little traction, but the pick held firm, piercing the wet moss and hitting stone. She heard the woman reach the spot she had been standing previously.

        “Hmm? I swear I heard…” The woman stayed there for some time. Mouse held her breath. “… hmm. Curious…” The woman mumbled. “And before I thought I heard voices… The prisoners playing tricks again?” She heard steps as the woman continued up. Mouse did not breathe easy until the footsteps were muffled by her own heartbeat. She then carefully pulled herself back up. She needed to use her cleats again, but once back on the steps she continued down.

        Finally, with a sickening tripping feeling, she reached the last step and found level ground. She saw some lights like stars, but nothing to illuminate the area. The beams came from the outline of a door several paces away. Mouse crept up to it and tried listening. Nothing. She saw no shifting shadows either. There was however a terrible smell coming from beyond the door. It was a mix of rot, sewage and fearful animals. It mixed with the thick humid air. It felt like the smell was grabbing onto her to pull her in. She opened the door and found that there was no one there; a dying candle with less than a fingernails worth of wax was still burning. The light almost blinded her. The room was a narrow corridor with grates to either side.

        She walked down the hallway with a new sense of claustrophobia. She had no idea how many stones and how much earth was above her, and she had no idea how this cavern supported itself in the depths. Now the walls felt like they were closing in. There was only just enough room for her to stand and walk forward, but if she had been taller of shoulders more broad, she’d have had to squeeze or crouch.

        Along the hallway the grates dug down still deeper, somehow. The channels were about a leg deep into the floor, then a grate sealed off whatever lay below. On sleepless nights Mouse had sometimes wondered how deep the world went, but had never fathomed that this depth was possible. She feared that any further would mean she’d fall down below the ground into some bottomless abyss. Perhaps that is where the grates led. It was just large enough to squeeze a human through. After looking down into the shadows of one such grate she continued and withheld a gasp, holding her mouth.

        Fingers reached out of a hole down the hallway, and just barely gripped onto the floor. The hand was missing pieces and parts, and looked long dead and rotten.  Yet, the fingers moved, tapping against the stone irregularly, as if the owner did not realize some fingers were missing.

        “Warden?” The voice gurgled. “Again? Please. Another candle. Not more dark. A rat can’t stand the dark. Another minute more.” Mouse held still. “No?” The voice asked. “Ah, another trick of the light.” The fingers left a bloody trail as they slithered back down the hole they came from. “If you are there, please consider it. A rat can tell another story for you. A story for a candle. It isn’t much, but it’s all I have you know.”

        Something between pity and fear ate at Mouse. She knew what it was like to have nothing to give, but to be desperate for relief. Yet she feared the monster that lived under the earth. She looked again to the candle and found several others lying by it. It would take no time at all to light another and grant this thing what it so desperately wanted.

        She did so, lighting a candle with the light of the first. She then walked to the grate of the old, decrepit hand. “Here,” She said, placing the candle by the hole. She half expected to see the creature grab at her, like the other prisoner had. The light reflected off of the eyes of the thing below her. They were like a dog’s eyes, inhuman yet capable of emotion, and possibly restraint. A hand did reach for the candle, but slowly, and carefully, as if he suspected some sort of trick. Once he had the candle in his grip he lowered it into his cave with the utmost care, as if it were a baby.

        The light revealed the thing in the dark. Through the grate she saw the face and still did not know if it was human. It should have been dead. Sores, scars, and cuts covered in muck made up his skin. A new wave of disgust blew up from the chute and into Mouse’s face with the hot air of the candle. She nearly vomited from the smell.

        “You are not the warden… or maybe, a new one? A rat has seen three, each a child of the last. No, you look pretty. The warden is not pretty. She is also blind, a great boon in a place like this.”

        Mouse stood back up with a cough. The deed was done, she wanted nothing more to do with this thing.  “You do not want a story?” The thing asked. “Then, this is an act of pity? Kindness? It has been so long since a rat has seen that. A rat… I… I’m sorry, it’s been so long, I can’t remember my name. The Warden calls me a rat. What is your name?”

        “Mouse.”

        “Apt.” The thing did not question it. “I’ve made friends with mice before, but you are much bigger than them, if you don’t mind me saying so. And they never gave me a candle either. You are a talented mouse. If you are a kind person… and I believe you are… I have one more favor to ask of you, if you’d hear it.”

        Mouse stood in the hallway for a moment. She heard nothing but the breathing and shuffling underneath her. She’d hear out the creatures proposal. She nodded.

        “The other day… or maybe, week… or month… or year… there was a boy screaming. He was at the end of the hallway. He has since stopped, but may be alive. I don’t know who he is, or why he is here, but I am old. I grew up here as a boy, and now I am an old man. I know nothing of the outside. There is nothing for me in this world and there never was. My time is done, but if I could spare another it would mean the world to me, and make me feel like I have done… something. You know what I mean don’t you? You know how good it feels to be of use? It almost feels like having power.” He chuckled. “Something about that feels right doesn’t it? Being in control of something. That is why I kept this ring a secret from everyone… a dirty thing. But it is mine. My only thing. I’ve always kept it. But if you try; If you agree to try to save that boy, I’ll give it to you. It may not mean much to you, but it means the world to me. Will you do it?”

        There was power in the phrase. The man spoke with some authority and trust that Mouse felt like she did not deserve, even from such a lowly being. She could easily agree and say the boy was dead for the reward regardless, but the idea of that felt wrong. She’d betrayed people before, lied to them. But strangely, now, to this man, it felt so wrong. More wrong than anything else she’d ever done, and yet, she could not bring herself to say no.

        She nodded. “Please, if it isn’t to much to ask…” the man continued. “Promise me. Say it. It means more than you could ever know…”

        “I promise.” She was surprised at herself. She felt the words bind her, for better or worse.

        “Good. Once you are back I will give you my ring. I promise this.” He shuffled away from the grate. Mouse found it impossible to breath deeply without choking down in the depths of the oubliette, but covering her face she managed to reach the door at the end of the narrow corridor. It seemed that the rat was the only living thing here. Either that, or the others did not want her attention.

        She opened the door and the smells changed. She noticed the smell of iron and acid overwhelm the previous sewage. It was not a pleasant change. The smell of rot was just a terrible as she made her way in. Blood had stained the walls and ceiling. All around were mechanisms that Mouse dared not interpret the purpose of. There were no bodies, living or dead. But there was movement.

        A golden eye lay on a simple wooden table suspended in a glass vial. With the new burst of light in the room it turned in the solution with supernatural precision and intense curiosity. It could not blink, but the pupils did shrink. It anxiously turned about, studying her and the area beyond. It was unnerving and unnatural. It was, however, obviously what she was looking for. She walked to it, studying the room for any other persons or traps, but finding nothing. She picked up the glass and placed it inside her cloak. It almost seemed afraid to be put back into the dark, but she tried not to consider how sentient it might be.

        There were no other doors or areas of inquiry. It was the deepest, and darkest part of Castle Cassiel. She felt that, in a way, she had conquered it. She had been to both its highest and lowest points.

        Well, that was not entirely true. The rat had been slightly lower. She would have to return to him now with the bad news. Though, if the boy was not here, she had no idea where he might have gone. She turned back to the hallway and closed the door behind her.

        She came to the trough that the rat called home and sure enough found a ring on the edge of the stone. She picked it up. It was golden, with a pitch-black stone inset into it. It was heavy and cold like the necklace from before, but somehow, even more so. Perhaps it was the value with which she placed it. It was earned, not taken. It was hers by right. Like the bread from The Specter, but somehow even more valuable because it was for a purpose she understood, and not the strange machinations of a man she did not truly know. She put the ring with her other treasures.

        “Rat?” She asked. She felt that she should at least say goodbye, or that she had found nothing, but there was no response. “He was not there.” She said. Again there was nothing. She raised and eyebrow and looked down. The candle still flickered, but she saw no shifting shadows. After looking both ways and finding a key next to the extra candles she went to the rat’s cell and unlocked the grate. The rat did not seem dangerous, and perhaps deserved to be set free. She lifted the metal up and out of the deep hole that it was inset into. “Hello?” She asked again. “You are free now.” Again, no response.

        She felt an urge to go down to check on him, but every muscle in her body told her it was a bad idea. Already the walls seemed to close, down there she could hardly imagine the size of the room. The smell was as suffocating as ever. “Rat?” She willed herself down feet first, against her better judgment, keeping an ear for any sounds outside the room. She could not allow herself to be trapped over such a silly curiosity.

        She had to bend awkwardly to fit down the hole and into the cavern below it. It was the very lowest point, the bottom of the world as she knew it. She had to breath out to squeeze her diaphragm against the stone and finally she slipped in. she had to crouch to turn and see the room.

        At her first breath the nausea became unbearable. Then the sight hit her. It was not large enough for her to lie down in, let alone stand. There was yet another grate on ground level that could not be detached, but otherwise there was no other exit. The ground was filth. There was a small hole on the ceiling covered in sewage from the castle above. Everything was covered in urine and defecation, and a human shaped carcass was in a ball just a few steps away from her, against the far wall. It’s head was bloody and broken, fresh gore trickling from the wound. The man had slammed his head against the stone until the skull had cracked. The rat was dead, his body half rotted away, half chewed by what was left of his own teeth. There was more death and human waste than air in this pocket of hell, and even the air was so thick she found it impossible to breathe.

        She vomited almost immediately, adding to the pile of decay. She did not wait any longer. She turned and tried desperately to leave the cavern, heaving and coughing. The panic held back the churning of her stomach as she raced to leave. Her panic made her rush and she found herself trapped in the narrow hole, her arms pinned by her chest. Her fear was doubled. She heard herself whimper against her will as her arms trapped her body in the stone and she crawled more like a worm than anything else, the walls getting tighter as she continued up. She kicked and finally began screaming as her bones became bound by her panicked muscles in the narrowest part of the shaft. She slammed the back of her head against the stone in a panic. The pain blocked out some of the disgust and fear.

        Though it pained her, she shook herself down, and left herself fall back down into the little piece of hell. Once free she reached her hands and arms completely out before hopping up and grabbing the outside edge. Then, bracing her back against the stone, she crawled up and out, rolling onto the stone and vomiting once more after holding it in for so long. She gagged on the air and spat out all the sick she could before scrambling back to her feet, panic again filling her body, and rushing out of the hallway, back into the cool darkness of the dungeons.

        She was glad that she had been too scared to vomit when trapped; otherwise she’d still smell of sick. The smell of blood and feces faded from her nose as she moved away from the door and back onto the wet, mossy steps. She still felt less clean, and her boots did still track the mess, from what she could hear, but in time she scraped off all she could and began going up the steps once more. Her limbs shook and her breathing was ragged, half from fear and half from the retching before.  Before she had felt like she had conquered the castle, now she felt a more sincere sense of defeat. She had seen the lowest point and could not for a moment take what that rat had endured for his whole life.

        Her chest shook as if sobbing, but she continued forward. The dark did not help her. It still weighed her down, as if it did not want her to leave. She tore against it, rushing more than she should. She slipped on the wet steps once or twice, but kept her hand against the wall to track her progress. In time, she began to calm down. Her breathing became even. She was tired. The climb, the steps, and the panic had all been trying. In addition she did not know how late it was. The cold kept her awake, but her muscles ached.

        She stopped for a breather. She hadn’t realized how stressed she had become. She sat on the stairs and waited for a time. She felt inside her cloak and found the key she had used to unlock the grate below. It was probably useless, but perhaps not. Beside it was the ring. The rat had been generous enough to give her everything he had before ending his own life. She caressed it in her fingers, rubbing it as clean as possible with her cloak. She could not see it, but it was smooth and felt good to touch nonetheless.

        She let herself try it on. She could not see herself with it, but she imagined it looked pretty on her. Putting it on was awkward with one hand, but so were many things. She decided to keep it on. If she was found, it would be the least of her concerns. More than anything else the ring seemed to calm her. It was like a cool breeze across her heart and body, relaxing her muscles and slowing her heart.

        She was ready to continue. She scaled the steps on more, even more quiet than before. Strange, even though she knew her senses were exaggerated, she could no longer hear her own careful footsteps, nor her breath, nor even her own heartbeat over the water drops and shuffling of the occasional prisoner. Perhaps all she had needed was rest.

        She even seemed to pass the inmate who had stolen her arm without suspicion. After passing she heard him snort and grumble, but was able to continue unmolested. Her luck was beginning to turn around. She reached the top of the stairs and found the door to be closed completely, and locked.

        Mouse took a risk and took the key from her cloak. Maybe they used the same lock at the grates in the oubliette. She snuck up to the door and carefully put the key into the lock and tried to turn it. It failed. She tried with a bit more force, shaking the key against the lock. Suddenly, she saw a glimmer on her hand. The black ring seemed to shine dimly.

        At the same time she heard a voice beside her, hidden against the wall, “I knew it!” It was the warden’s voice. Mouse flinched and felt a heavy strike land in her midsection, knocking the wind out of her. She reeled back, the heel of one foot falling off the edge of the staircase. She then felt human claws clasp her arms, “Intruder! Guards! Guards!” the crone screeched. “They’ll scrape you off the stone steps they will…” she felt the woman push, and she felt herself losing traction.

        Mouse struggled, tearing her right arm from the warden and coming down on her with her pick. She aimed for where the head might be. She heard a screech as her pick entered flesh and stopped at bone. The screech continued as Mouse tried to free her pick in vain, it had dug too deep into something. She tugged too hard and found the body falling forward towards her. Mouse lost her balance and began falling backwards.

        She crouched and tried to hold onto something, anything. The body of the warden fell and took her arm with it. Mouse slid off the staircase with her, her fingers vainly trying to dig into the wet stone. Her fingers finally found traction, but only after the rest of her body hung below them. The screeching did not stop, in fact, the warden screamed in even greater pain and fear, and Mouse felt the wardens nails scrape against her arm. The pick was certainly deep in something. The more the warden struggled the more Mouse fingers slipped. She was already beginning to lose feeling in them. Mouse kicked at the warden, but to no avail. All it did was muffle the screams for a moment each time.

        Mouse finally made a plan and nudged her boots across the trunk of her prosthetic. After several twists the pick finally fell loose, and Mouse felt the weight of the warden fall from her. Her shouts continued for a few moments, then stopped suddenly. Mouse heard her body crunch and crack off of various sides of the staircase until finding a final resting place.

        “Hello?” She heard a voice up above her, and recognized it. It was a guard. Not Fallow, but the one who had been with him all those months ago. The voice sent a new electric chill of hate and fear through her, “What is the matter…” She heard the sound of the door unlocking. All the man would have to do was look down and see her fingers clinging for dear life. She could try falling, but that did not seem to work well for the warden.

        The door opened. Mouse closed her eyes and willed the shadows to hide her. She willed for the guard to look away. She waited for a moment as the guard walked in and stopped, presumably looking around. “Agatha?” He asked. “Was that you? You know I can’t hear anything from up there.” Had he really not noticed her? All he had to do was look down. The guard made a confused grunt. “Must have been rats. Her shift ended an hour ago.” She heard him pace away and close the door once again, locking it behind him.

        Mouse sighed and prepared herself. She was still not safe, not until she lifted herself back up. She pulled with all her might. It felt like the bones of her fingers would dig out of their flesh. Without her cleats her feet were of no help either. She managed to lift her chin to the stone before throwing her right arm over and desperately trying to clamber back onto solid ground. It took far too long to put her weight back over the stairs and finally rest once more in relative safety. She winced as she tried flexing her fingers again, the tendons and muscles resisting her every command.

        She felt an odd sensation around her midsection and felt it out. In shock, her fingers came upon a blade stick out of her chest. She felt the surrounding area; no blood. Another sigh of relief escaped her. The linen armor, at least, seemed functional. She pulled the blade out and placed it in her cloak as another payment for her job. She’d bruise, and her arm would be sore.

        But she was alive. That rush had still not died down. She got back up and made the trek down again. She would need her pick, and the Wardens keys, if she was to get out. It added some time to her mission, but she still took her time to remain silent. It also gave her time to think.

        What was that glint on her ring? Perhaps there was more to the stone than she first thought. It had been a long time since she had seen the creatures in that tower, but the way the gemstone glowed somehow reminded her of that day. Regardless, she felt a certainly loyalty to the ring. It would have to prove to be a hindrance to her before she removed it.

        Eventually she came upon the body, feeling it with her foot. She searched it and found her keys in addition to the pick lodged into her shoulder. The pick had hooked into and around the clavicle. Mouse winced at the realization. After finding the right angle it came loose and she was able to stick it back on her arm and lock it back in place.

         She used the keys and escaped the underground. The light seemed bright to her, but must have been very dim to others. Starlight entered through windows to light the staircase from above. Upon reaching the entrance room she found no candles or lanterns lit. Outside the window she saw the occasional light mark the patrol of a guard.

        She kept to the shadows and slowly made her way through the castle once more to her exit. If the room was occupied once more she’d have to think of another plan, but at the moment it seemed the safest route. Before reaching the staircase to the tallest tower she had to cross the dining room. Unfortunately, upon slowly creaking the door open, she found it occupied. The boy from before sat at the table with papers in front of him as the guard from before stood on the other side.

        “Lord Cassiel.” The Guard spoke, continuing a conversation, “Leaving the orphan issues, there is also the matter of finances.”

        The boy seemed deep in thought, “Will we have enough to pay the Alsciosians?” He asked.

        “Our coffers are nearly dry.” The guard continued. “This month, yes. Maybe even the one after, but this is not sustainable. Nor is it actually helping our populace in the long run. We lost a man this week as well. He was defending a cart of fruits when a gang of thugs rushed him and cut him down.”

        “Only one guard?” The young lord asked.

        “We are spread thin. Again, our wealth is lacking. We hardly have enough to guard the marketplace and the keep.”

        “Then divert some from here.” The lord said quickly.

        The guard spoke patiently, “More guards will not make the people happier, and public opinion is already low. Our garrison as it stands could hold out against a riot, but any less and I can’t insure your safety.”

        Janus Cassiel looked over the papers before him. “What other pressing matters are there?”

        The guard paused before replying, “Increased taxes would be a poor choice. I personally think the people could be taxed doubly without incurring a loss of productivity, but the people would surely revolt and the town watch does not the power to enforce order in its current state. The city is in turmoil and the gangs have become more devious and headstrong. We’ve done our best to make deals, switching imprisonment for hangings and the like for promises of temperance, but these tactics will only give these criminals more courage to defy your authority.”

        Janus rubbed his temples, “What do you suggest Dante?”

        The guard, Dante, shuffled back and forth awkwardly. “You won’t like it my lord.”

        “Do tell.” Janus implored him. “Please.”

        “My lord, our town is a modest one. Most provide more than enough to survive. If it weren’t for our duty to the king we would need take no action. As it stands we need supplemental income, not only to pay the king but also to feed your obsession… er, your humanitarianism.”

        “Explain.” The Janus motioned for him to continue.

        Dante said, “We are within three days of the capitol, and on a popular trade route. Many merchants stop here to rest and sell their wares. If we were to charge a toll, and perhaps a tariff, it would add some income, through, discourage some trade.”

        “That would depend on the steepness of the toll.” The lord nodded. “But not too many traders come here because…” he paused in recognition. “Ah, so that is the suggestion.”

        “My lord, we are one of the few principalities that have disallowed the slave trade from our lands.” Dante rushed the words out. “The Alsciosians approve of it, as does most of the kingdom. Our old rules keep many nobles and merchants away. I suggest you allow them to enter, with a toll, a tax on their property, and a tariff on their trade. I know that it breaks the ancient laws of these lands, held long before the rise of the king, but under these measures even the most loyal of citizens will understand that while you may allow the sale of flesh, you do not approve of it. It would be popular and profitable. The trade already exists here in the shadows. I have seen it. It is simply darker, less safe, and more ugly. It exploits those you wish to protect most.”

        Janus did not immediately refuse the idea. Dante continued, “The Alsciosians have rules about it as well my lord. If we kept to them, slaves would be treated much like the youngest child of a home. While lacking in agency, they do have assured safety, and excessive abuse is still a crime.”

        Janus was not yet sold on the idea, “I know that this was an issue that your father also disagreed with me on. And I know it was one of the few you both saw eye to eye with. I simply ask you to consider it.”

        Mouse could see Janus tighten his fist at the thought. “Dante, are there any other concerns?”

        The guard coughed, “I do wonder if you are getting enough sleep. Your father never worried this much about these matters, and you act far older than he ever did.”

        Janus smirked at that. “That is all then. Make the arrangements for that thing in the oubliette. I will think about your proposal.”

        “Don’t think too long my lord.” Dante made his way out of the room. Janus sighed.

        From the corner of the room, his mother wandered towards her son like a dark cloud and murmured, “To bed?” Janus nodded wearily, letting his mother take his hand and lead him away from the table and towards another exit.

        Mouse let the room wallow in it’s silence a moment more before making her exit. She snuck to the door of the high tower and scaled the steps as fast as she dared. She only slowed when she heard a noise coming from one of the many rooms along the way. She paused and snuck closer to it. Creaking and groaning of boards signaled something moving inside. Light shone from the outline of the door. She could not see through the cracks.

        She did hear a grunt however and took a startled jump back. And then she heard a lighter murmur, like a woman in pain. Then the noises stopped in waves, settling back down into silence. She heard voices inside. She recognized the Specter as one. The other was whispered too quiet for her to recognize.

        As much as she was curious, she could not bring herself to risk The Specter seeing her, mostly out of embarrassment. She continued up and found the Lady Shani’s room empty. She went to the ledge and hooked her cleats, fingers, and pick into the stone. It was slow and steady progress until she reached the hanging rope, and then after tying it down to the notches on her pick she slid back down, and to safety.

       

        “Report.” The Specter stood before her in his normal attire, and normal demeanor, in the safe house. She showed the vial. He took it in his grasp. The eye dilated at the sight. “Good. Any complications?”

        “Two dead. A prisoner and the warden.” Mouse admitted. “And I lost my false arm.”

        “Sloppy.” The Specter grumbled. He turned his head, looking once more at the eye. “But still, nothing of real value lost. What have you taken for your payment?” He asked.

        Mouse took out the book and the knife, and placed her hand on the table to show the ring. The knife blade was about as long as the handle and curved back at a slight angle.

        “The knife is hardly worth the iron.” The Specter shrugged, flipped through the book with mild interest, then closed back once more, “Anything else?” She looked to the ring in his sight, then to him. Then she shook her head. “You’ll need to do better.”

        The Specter raised his hood, revealing his face. “If I could notice you there, any of them could. You are lucky.” It almost looked like a completely different face up close and without the mask of social pleasantries. Up close his features still looked mildly hawkish with a large nose and a hairline high on his forehead. His chin was pointed low and his eyes were a dignified black. She could tell he had on a great deal of makeup the night before to cover a number of blemishes and scars, and to tint his skin slightly lighter. He was not altogether ugly; in fact there was an exotic quality to his features. He could look like a dignified scholar, or disciplined soldier, or even a flamboyant nobleman based on a small change in his expression.

        Then, with little warning, The Specter took one of his dignified eyes and popped it out of its socket. Mouse retreated back a step as The Specter calmly put the glass eye in a silk lined box and put it back in his cloak. He then took the vial and emptied the contents into his hand. She smelled brine, vinegar, alcohol, and other powerful solutions she had never smelled before as the clear liquid flowed into his hands, through his fingers, and onto the stone floor. Finally the eye itself was drawn to his palm and he took it by the tips of his strong fingers. He began to insert the golden eye into his newly empty socket.

        From the eye exploded a mass of veins and wiry muscles that found his skull and pulled itself in like an animal seeking shelter. The Specter did not seem scared or frightened, though Mouse took another few steps back in horror. The monster used The Specters skull as a shell and she could see the tendrils of it pouring into him under his skin, making itself at home in his body and brain. Even fully in the socket with the lid as shelter it continued digging inside of him. He shook, and lost his balance momentarily. The muscles dug into his hands through his arms and into the tips of every finger, seemingly melding with the ones already present.

        Finally, after another single shudder The Specter rose and turned to look at Mouse. The golden eye slowly morphed to match it’s new home, becoming another white orb with a plain black iris. Once the transition was complete The Specter seemed happier, as if he had just found an old friend.  “Now I finally get to see you Mouse.” There was an unnatural grin on his face. “The old Lord Cassiel had taken this from me. Now I can truly see again.”

        Mouse wondered if this was the same Specter. “What is that?” She asked. “What are you?”

        The Specter’s smile wavered, soon he looked much more like his normal self. “I suppose you would begin to ask questions eventually.” She looked away from his disappointed glare, but was at least happy that he had not changed too much. “I think it’s time I gave you a promotion. There are some people I’d like you to meet.”

 

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Chapter 1

           Fear the Watchmaker, trust the Specter, don’t upset guards. These were the laws she had lived by, and the ones that had kept her alive until this point. She was afraid. But she was hungry. She looked up and saw the Specter at the top of the tower blanketed in swirling gray clouds. Down she saw hard stone at a deadly distance. She clung to the wall by her fingertips, knowing that she had to move quickly or risk losing her grip. The wall had been hurriedly built, and had many places to grip. However, the next grip was too far to grab without jumping, and she did not have the heart to try.

        Another child on the wall was more courageous. A boy tried to leap up across the polished stone to reach the stones beyond. If the Specter had done so, it must be possible, and hunger made the children try stupid things.

        It was the first time she had seen someone die. She saw the terror in his eyes when he realized he hadn’t jumped far enough. His hand tore at the air and slick stone for anything to break his fall. She watched him tumble and collapse as his back struck the ground and the body floundered. His eyes were fixed on the sky when the body calmed. She could still see him blink as blood pooled around the body.  

        Nearby she heard guards laugh. She watched as the fear overwhelmed the hunger in the other children and they began to descend. She looked again at the hooded figure up above. He was watching intently, unmoved by the death of the child. In his hands a loaf of bread was still warm.

        She felt her fingers getting weak and looked around. There had to be another way. She circled round the tower, looking for any other way up. The polished stones seemed to have no end until she found a window. The top of the window frame seemed to have easy access to other grips, but the window itself was still too high for her to reach by leaping. Her forearms began to stiffen with overuse. Her toes and fingertips begged for release. Despite this there was a forlorn hope that the other side of the tower had some magical gap in the smooth stones.

        Strangely, there was. Another window, this time she could find some grips leading up to it, but not up from it. If there was a path from one window to another inside, she could make it.

        For a lowborn like her to enter the tower would be a terrible crime, punishable by removal of a foot if she were lucky, a leg if she weren’t. Though, if she was not inside for long, it could be done. She spared a glance to the guards who had taken to cleaning the streets of the boy’s body, then up at the Specter, who had changed positions to watch her. His head darted curiously like a bird’s in an unnerving fashion.

        She climbed to the window as quickly as she could and glanced in. She saw red curtains, and nothing much beyond. If there were anyone inside it would mean disaster for her. Regardless, her mind reminded her of how many days it had been since she ate and she took the risk.

        She slipped in quietly and cautiously. Upon entering past the scarlet satin she was shocked to see rows of cages on either side of her. More shocking still were the creatures inside.

        They were monsters. She had never seen any like them. Some hurt her mind to look at; others were far too entrancing for her to dare take time to investigate.  

        The first she saw, and the closest to her, seemed to be a darkened outline of a man, but it had no features. It seemed to pulse and buzz loudly when she looked at it. It shifted across her sight when she moved, like it was a shadow cast from an invisible object, and she was the light. She turned her eyes away but the buzz persisted until she began to walk away towards the window across the room.

        She passed another monster. It was a massive black slug with skin that crawled with human faces. Thin limbs jabbed from the body, violently breaking at many odd angles to form joints that moved in an awkward fashion. It moved slow and effortlessly like a cloud. She thought it smiled at her, and quickened her step, hoping not to stir any of the other beings.

        The last she passed was a human-looking thing that writhed as if in pain. At first she stopped to inspect it. A large blood red gash stretched from shoulder to hip. However, she soon realized that the gash was toothed. The monster thrashed against its chains and against the bars the moment she slowed, biting and gnawing the air and iron with his body-sized mouth. Inside the gaping mouth were other mouths. They all squealed like children.

        Panic granted speed to her limbs, though she found her body shaking. She wasted no time in leaving from there, and climbed up and back out onto the side of the tower, this time above the smooth line of stones. Her arms screamed as she put them back to work, but one floor later and she was clambering onto the top of the tower out of breath from panic and exhaustion,  

        She had to take some time to recover; her limbs felt cold. As feeling returned into them they began to ache. However, in no time at all she noticed that the man was holding out the bread and she snatched it from him like a hound to meat, quickly forgetting her past fears. No words were exchanged; she simply mauled it into nothing.

        “Brave.” His voice was deep and commanding, but casual. It was an off duty military tone. “But not stupid.” The man looked down at the dark red stains below the shadow of the tower with a shrug. In-between bites she saw the reflection of his eyes behind the hood, but not much else. All it did for her was suggest the Specter was human. “But more impressive still, is that you never thought to share that with anyone else.” A pang of guilt for her friends down below was short lived. They had given up. She had not. “You are promising.” As he made his way to the edge of the tower he ruffled up her hair like she were some kind of pet. She did not mind. She hardly noticed. She was high on adrenaline and bread. She did spare a glance to see him hop of the edge and adeptly attach himself to it on the way down, breaking his fall as he descended.

        She quickly became the Specter’s favorite. Sometimes she’d even share her bounty if she’d beat his test several days in a row. Rivals came and went, some stronger, some faster, but none as clever as her. The Specter even had a name for her. “Mouse” he called her. She never had a name before, but she was glad to have one. The others started calling her the same.

        Mouse had been eating well for several weeks. Before, the Alsciocian priests would arrive monthly with alms, but this was gone within days. It was enough to continue to starve. She had tried saving some for later before, but had been attacked for her trouble.

        Sometimes the Specter had them swim, or pick a lock, or distract guards. Small things. When she was old enough to wonder why he was doing what he was doing, she had already accepted it and no longer cared, much like the monsters in the tower.

        When she had first seen someone die, she had been the smallest child among the crowd. On this day she was the tallest girl, and only one boy she knew was taller. This was due to time, and the death of older children. She was also old to the point that the dead boy and the monsters were distant memories. Everything before was a blur. No person other than the Specter had lasted long enough to have a true relationship with her, or any lasting impact. She trusted him and him alone, though knew that she was of little importance to him.

        Mouse found the Specter in the marketplace. He was flipping a coin in his hands. It looked valuable. The silver circle had the king’s seal on it, and was as long as her big toe. She wondered if that was the prize. It shone despite the overcast sky. She got a good look at his fingers. They were scarred, calloused, strong, dexterous, subtle, and brown. It was an oddity; rarely did anyone tan in this city. Mouse was outside all day and was still very pale. He must have been a foreigner.

        Mouse was hesitant. There were many guards in the marketplace. Many were looking at the group of street rats gathering. She tried to slouch to hide herself.

        The Specter spoke, “This coin is very valuable. By nightfall, at the top of the northern tower, should one of you return this to me I shall have an important assignment for you.” He shrugged. “Or you can keep it for yourself. It’s your choice.”

        A simple challenge. But this was different. He would rarely speak to anyone before a challenge. Her uneasiness peaked. She wanted to skip this one. She could skip eating this day. If she were wrong she’d do better tomorrow. Her eyes darted to the guards, who had eased up at the moment, sometimes glancing in their direction in a bored fashion.

        “You may sit this one out, if you’d like.” She noticed for the first time that he was looking at her. The entire time his hood had been in her direction. Being the object of his attention forced her to step back with embarrassment, almost shame. She shook her head. “Good.” The voice insinuated a smile underneath. He flipped the coin in the air in the direction of the crowd.

        Mouse was quick and tall. Her only rival had been caught off guard by the sudden motion. She snatched the coin out of the air with a grin developing on her face. She liked winning, especially if it was easy. For a moment she savored the look of the boy’s face as he slowly swiped the air behind her. If she could avoid the other kids well enough the coin was hers.

        “Thief!” She turned to hear a sudden scream. The Specter was pointing at her. “Guards! A thief!”

        The true nature of the game had finally been revealed. Her sense of betrayal was short-lived as the children she had once thought were threats suddenly turned and fled, taking with them her only cover. She followed low down as best she could, covering her head and face and sprinting for cover.

        Don’t upset the guards. She had broken the rules.

        A zipping sound, and a child by her side fell screaming, clutching his bleeding leg. Another zipping sound loudly passed right by her head as she ran. No time to stop and look. The guards were well known for their slings. She hoped they had decided she was not worth the lead. The stones were less accurate.

        Another zip, and she felt like she’d been hit in the side by a hammer. She gasped but fumbled forward. A graze. A solid hit might have gone through the cloth and skin both. Finally taking some time to look where she was going, she found herself running down one of the many alleys that made the veins of the city. She turned into a yet smaller one.

        A stone of a nearby building exploded into shrapnel as a bullet struck it. She ran as fast as her bare feet could and enjoyed a brief moment of peace. The narrow corridor was perfect for her. If she could just manage to get to the next fork a few dozen paces away she’d be free. Her side reminded her of her injury, but she kept running, no longer shielding her face.

        She was only two strides from the exit when a guard charged from behind the corner. She yelped in surprise, grabbed the wall and turned back the way she came.

        “You!” She heard, “Stop!”

        She dodged as much as she dared, hoping the guard would lose his aim. She was more scared than she had ever been in her life. She knew the price of thievery. The only thing that kept her calm was the thought of winning. Of overcoming the odds. She always did. She always came out stronger. The Specter never gave an impossible mission. There was always a way.

        A stone grazed her head. She grunted, holding her ear for a moment. It was wet with blood and numb. Too much adrenaline, or maybe it had been torn off. She could take care of it once she escaped.

        Another guard turned the corner before her. Her body felt cold as she stopped and turned either way, seeing a guard in either direction. She looked up at the sky and walls. Two stories. She’d never climbed this fast before but it was her only option. She put the coin in her mouth to free her hands; it was just small enough to fit behind her teeth. She took to the wall and scaled with foot and hand as if she were crawling on the ground. She did not dare look down.

        A crack, and pain. She had not gone more than two strides up the wall when her ankle gave way, half numb and half agony. She screamed against the coin in her mouth, willing herself to stay on the wall. She looked down to see a strong hand grab her limp ankle and pull. She was plucked like an apple from a tree and collapsed on the hard stone, knocking the wind out of her.

        She grit her teeth trying to breathe as a hardened hand pulled her up and slammed her again against the wall. Her eyes were wet. One leg could barely support her weight, other failed to respond.

        “Got ya missy.” He was old and fat. Hairs sprung up where they shouldn’t, and his nose was entirely too big for his face. He was just taller than her, but small for a guard, and stocky. “Where is it?” With a swift, strong tug her removed her weak clothing with a tear. It was a raggedy dress she had worn for several years. She whimpered like an animal as they searched her. “Not here.”

        He held her down as the man placed his fat fingers in her lips, forcing them apart. “Eh?” He looked around. “Good teeth on ya. Could sell ya to the Watchmaker for as much as you stole.” He commented. “Alright.” He slammed her bare back on the cold wall. “Who ‘as it?”

        They thought she didn’t have it. She could not bear to feel relieved, but it gave her hope.

        “Well?” He asked. She could not speak. “Protecting them are you? He took a leather wrapped weapon from his belt. A blackjack with a core of lead. “That makes you an accomplice!” He tapped the leather on her bare skin threateningly. “You going to talk?” She whined again through her nose, trying to look away, to look at anything else, to think of something.

        “You are a pretty one aint ya?” He said. “You want us to cut a deal?”

        “Fallow.” It was a more regimented voice coming from the other guard.  “We dispense with the King’s justice. No more, no less.”

        “The girl wants to lose an arm ‘tis fine. But she’d not actually done it, jus’ coverin’ for ‘er boys. Think she may be entitled to, uh, lessened punishment.” He looked over her. “You bled yet girl? Don’t want to be contributing to the problem ‘ere.”

        “You’d just be saving someone else the trouble,” the other guard scoffed. “She’d probably riddled with illness though. Just take the limb or beat her and be done with it.”

        “Don’t be buying that Alsciosian nonsense!” The guard that held her said. “Curses ain’t contagious. They be witches’ doing. And I got a lucky Talisman!” He motioned to a wooden trinket on his coat. “So she’s fine by me. Now little girl, what do you say, hm? Life without a hand or a minute or two with old Fallow?” He seemed hopeful.

        Mouse could only think to grunt and shove. It earned her a firm shake, and the back of her head hit the stone. It took everything she had not to cry out and to stay standing. “Pity.” He shrugged. “Resisting arrest again. Was going to settle for a few fingers if you was good, but it’ll be your hand then.” She did not fully comprehend the statement until she was stretched out on the stone ground, a firm hand on her forearm. She saw the glint of a blade realized what was happening. She seized with all her strength. “Settle!” Fallow said, putting his weight into her body. “You don’t want my friend to miss aye? You want to keep all you can get right…”

        She screamed as the blade hit stone, not slowing down a moment as her flesh got in the way. Her mouth opened reflexively her body shook, and when released, she curled up quickly, her stump on her bare chest, her other hand pressing hard into the forearm. “Bloody shame.” She felt a cloth come over her and heard the footsteps leaving her. She could hardly see past the teary blur in her eyes, but she was able to force herself to tie the stump with what was left of her clothes.

        At least, she thought she did. Someone had by the time she awakened several hours later. She only remembered the cutting pain that had become a low throb. She shook with cold and shock when she blinked her eyes open.

        Failed. She had failed. Utterly and completely. She almost wished she had nodded at the man’s suggestion. She was not noble. She had no reason to value that part of herself. She was valuable only to the Specter, and now she was not. Another spasm of grief wracked her body as the gray sky began to turn black. As she moved and sobbed she heard a metallic scraping sound.

        The coin. They still had not found it. She rolled, slowly, her body aching, and found the shining coin. She could use it to buy food. She had no other reason to keep it. No mission that the Specter would give was something she could do. She was dead to him now.

        But a part of her grabbed the coin and placed it in her mouth. It was the part of her that she let climb and run when she thought of other things. It was the animal part that took her somewhere, when her mind was elsewhere. The human in her groaned as her body moved. Her side looked blue and black, as did her ankle. Both were swollen and unusable. But she got onto her good leg, naked and grief-stricken. She unwrapped the soggy limb, the cloth slowly tearing at the wound. She somehow got herself half dressed in the bloodstained mess without breaking the black scab. She tied it to itself, the cloth nearly tearing against she did with her shaking fingers. She noticed how pale her body was. She’d seen a girl die from lack of blood before. She had the same pale skin.

        She wondered why she was so determined to move, but assumed it was the Specter. She didn’t know why, but the feeling in her heart was that she was his favorite, even now. Even broken. She almost laughed, but that would have made her drop the coin. Instead she braced herself against the wall with her hand and hopped. Pain doubled her over, her stomach lurched and her ankle felt like it would fall off at any minute. It took her four or five deep breaths before hopping again, gritting her teeth and groaning. She felt dizzy, even with two legs keeping upright would have been difficult.

        It was dark when she reached the tower. She was late. She did not see the Specter. There was no reason to climb. It was an Alsciosian tower, an old and weathered one. The stones were smooth all the way up, but some chipped stones offered meager hand holds. Naked figures danced along the top, some missing pieces and parts. She looked around and saw an empty barrel. It was enough to get her started.

        She winced at the thought, but found it to be the natural action of her body. She went to it, flipped it onto its head with all her might, and began trying to get up onto the flat bottom of it. She sat down on it, bent her legs, and pushed up with one while bracing herself on the wall. Her leg shook.

        She fell, tumbling to the ground and hitting her side and ankle. She screamed, the coin and her senses once again leaving her. The stump of her arm opened, a subtle flow of blood trickled from the black, crusted crack.

        She shoved the stub into the clothing on her chest with her good hand. Then she pressed down on the stone and pushed it back with the other. Her hand was once again wet with fresh blood. She sat up, placed the coin back into her mouth, and got back to her foot, her knee shaking with strain and pain. She once again set the barrel up, sat on it, and was careful to keep her balance on the way up. The barrel was uneven on the stones.

        She fit her bloody fingers into a crack and lifted herself up onto the wall. Her good leg found a spot to rest and the other dangled. She looked up and saw the inviting sky she looked down and saw the ground, one stride away. She saw another handhold and grunted in preparation. It wasn’t too far.

        Like plucking the coin out of the air, her hand shot out and took hold of the molding one brick above the last. She then pulled herself up, lightly hopping with her leg, and found another place to put it. She continued in this way for what seemed like the better part of the night. At one point, her clothes caught on a gap and pulled themselves apart again, revealing herself to the black sky and empty street. For some reason it didn’t bother her here, though the cold did. The aching pain of her wounds lessened as her limbs grew tired, but it would quickly return if she made a single mistake, or hopped too fast.

        She was exhausted by the time she reached the line of small statues. Here, the regularity of the stones was gone. She had to make a plan to grab something else. She looked down and saw a deadly distance. Up above she saw cracked faces and arms. Anything that jut out from the tower too much was already weathered smooth or too cracked to trust.

        There was an angel’s wing, the outcropping of which was so high, she’d have to jump further than she thought possible. The headless angel attached to that wing was bare-chested, her breasts pointing outwards, weathered smooth, but within reach and stable. Closer than the other targets was an outstretched hand as small as an infant’s. It was unlikely to carry her weight.

        She was scared and tired. She was still not certain of what she was doing. Maybe she needed to die this way. She remembered the boy who fell all those years ago. It was hard not to. She took a deep breath and chose her target.

        Her hand darted to the breast and grabbed it. Her fingers strained as she pulled. The surface was so smooth that her grip was as tight as she could possibly manage.

        The blood on her hand was too much and she slipped, leaving bloody red streaks across the angel’s chest. As she pulled she scrambled for any other handhold but it was too late. She was weightless. She’d had this nightmare before, and hoped that this was just another dream. Her body felt cold. On instinct she reached out with her phantom hand towards the angel’s broken arm as she fell.

        She nearly screamed when something jerked at her arm. Her eyes watered and she seethed as she looked up and found a strong, dark hand on her bloody forearm. The Specter had grabbed her.

        He pulled her up, as easily as he would a baby, and set her down on the solid base of the tower. She spat out the coin and sobbed uncontrollably. She heard her heart in her ears and felt it in her limbs. “You did well.” She heard, and felt a strong, warm hand on her back. She was suddenly very aware of bare skin. She wasn’t sure why she cared now and not before, but she huddled into a ball and cried. “You did well,” she heard again. Her eyes closed and for the first time in a long time, she felt safe to close her eyes and sleep. She allowed herself to slip away, and perhaps to never return.

        She could no longer tell reality from her dreams. Angels edged her on as demons nipped at her toes. She was climbing. Always climbing. The wall she climbed would sink into an ocean of fire, and angels would provide more and more stones for her to reach for. The ticking of a clock timed the demise of the stone. The fire burned but still felt cold. She thought maybe she should just drop into the fire, but could not bring herself to, not yet. The angels would sing to her for her to continue, words too pretty for her to understand fully. It was something between the chanting of priests and the falling of rain.

        Then she looked down and saw the Specter, walking up the wall like it was the ground, and she was the angel. The world spun like a broken gear, skipping some ticks, and jumping around at others. He looked at her wondering what to take from her, and she didn’t care what he chose, because she was of use. He measured every piece of her with string and then he took her all. He took her arms, her legs, her head, her body and then she was nothing. Nothing but the rain above, hellfire below, and the stones and towers crumbling down as she ascended up the tower.

        The first thought that she could understand was wondering where she was. She blinked, unsure of when she had awoken. She was inside somewhere wooden. There was something cold and wet on her forehead. She heard rain outside. She tried to move, but the effort proved too painful to consider again. She whimpered. She was tired.

        “Mouse.” She heard the Specter. Her tired eyes darted around for him. “A boy will come to help heal you. Obey him.” She obeyed, hearing the closing of a door. She was still curious, but found it strangely easy to once again fade into sleep.

        Pain woke her as her body was shifted. She smelled something better than anything she had ever smelled before and her eyes opened. There was a boy, brown hair, about her age. Her head had been pushed up, a bowl was being held to her lips. It was tilted till the broth entered her. She’d tasted old dried meats and rotten vegetables before, but this tasted fresh, with spices and sweet nectar.

        “Not so eager.” His accent was foreign, like an Alsciosian. “It won’t run from you.” He spoke like he was talking to a friend. If she had any energy left she’d have used it to feel awkward. “You were sick but you are past the worst of it now.“ He dropped the bowl and she let the fluid slowly drip down her throat.

        She tried to ask where she was, but only managed to murmur incoherently. “It’s fine. Just rest.” She obeyed, and drank more of the broth. “You really like it huh? I never did. Hated it when the cook made it. ” She faded off again, almost forgetting her injuries in the taste.

        When she woke again she was full of energy. Her body creaked and resisted, but she willed herself to test some motions. Her right hand was numb. No, it was gone, she remembered. The rest of her was there, though her ankle was stiff and bound. Reaching up with her resistant left arm she felt cloth around her head. She assumed she still had her ear.

        She managed to sit up, the blanket over her fell to her waist. Her torso was bandaged. Looking lower she saw a hard brace around her shattered ankle. Someone had also cleaned her. Not just in water, but in some sweet smelling oils she could not describe.

        “You are up.” She turned quickly, covering herself. The Specter was there. “Good. The boy tells me you won’t be in condition to walk for at least three months, but I need you in one. You will be wearing a brace.” She looked to her phantom hand and then back at him. “You will not be climbing, or stealing. Or swimming. You will be killing a man. Are you ready for that?” It was an odd question. But she found herself nodding. “Good. You have another mission as well in the meantime. There are books on wall.” He pointed and she looked. “I expect you to know the meaning of those by next summer. You will need it for another mission.” His gaze lingered on her for some time after. She avoided his glance nervously. “You don’t ask questions. I like that.” And he left.

        The Specter said little else to her over the coming weeks. The priest would come to feed and treat her. “I’m just a student,” he’d tell her, “I was raised at the church as an orphan. What about you?” She’d never respond. “Mute? Are you… no, Apostates are branded as well as muted. But your arm… are you a thief? That can be forgiven you know. Though, I’m not sure how’d you confess…”

        When free she would scan through the books. She had only ever seen a book once before, carried by a priest. She thought perhaps that same book, or a copy, was one on the wall, as the cover had the same symbol. The marks inside were small and straight, sometimes the symbols would repeat. Clumsily, she took a small piece of coal and used the floor to copy the symbols that repeated. Then she wrote the small combinations that would repeat between empty spaces, since some were common. Another book had pictures with markings below them. She learned these as best she could, and attempted to match them with other known markings.

        “Oh, me?” The boy asked when she motioned to her work one day. “No, I’ve seen the book, but I’ve yet to learn the drawing of sounds. Sorry…” It was worth a try.

        Other books were less helpful, and seemed to have even more strange markings and pictures. In these she drew over a hundred symbols before giving up. There were too many, and worse, they would blend together and there seemed to be no end or beginning to the thoughts. She hoped it was another language and went on to decoding the first book once more.

        She treated it like just another wall to climb. Unlike those she faced in the past, there was always something to try. She wrote out the marks in different ways, guessing at their meaning or how they would be spoken. She had a lot of time. It took a full week to put possible sounds to some marks with the help of the picture book, but the rules were not always the same, in fact, she worried that it was the wrong way to see the marks. Perhaps they did not mean sounds at all.

        After the second week she believed the theory more fully, and understood the simple rules of the marks, but not the more complex. Some words with known mark sounds would sound like something she’d never heard of. She could go word by word now, sometimes missing a word, and understand parts of the passages.

        The picture book was for teaching. It had been put there to help her, she thought. The other was a history, or myth, she wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was both. It spoke of a Goddess Alsciosia, and the laws she made. She made the earth pull and she made the stars shine. Her children formed the major branches of the Alciosian order, the sea, the land, the sky, and the heavens. The first three dealt with simple matters of the world, while the last concerned the human mind and soul.

        The worship of things made of water: animals, plants, rain, and the secrets to preserving, and destroying life, went to those who followed the sea. Alsciocians of the land prayed to stone, earth, and metal, and built towers as monuments to the gods they knew, kept up by the laws they believed in. Those who looked up to the sky heard Alsciocia in the wind, and saw her in the stars. Then those that looked inward found her in words, poems, hymns, and in every other expression of thought and feeling.

        Alsciocia placed laws both on the material and spiritual realm. Just as one could not crush a stone into nothing, simply change it’s shape to dust, a villain can never go unpunished. They must always serve penance, either in this world or the next. A confession, and time and action served to right your wrongs, allowed you to become one with Alsciosia upon your death.

        Crimes against her were heretical. They included taking a life entrusted to you, taking property from another without permission, causing unnecessary pain, the telling of secrets, and preaching falsehoods in her name. Repentant heretics were given opportunity to right their wrongs with toil. Otherwise permanent punishment fitting the crime was administered. These punishments also served to prevent a second offence. A hand from a thief, the taking of a liar’s tongue, the eyes of a murderer, these were all given to Alsciosia. If they proceeded to again offend her, their life, or freedom, would be forfeit, depending on her nearby agents will and accommodations.

        But those who followed her will were granted fantastic powers based on how they worshiped her.

        Those of the sea held life in their hands. They could cure curses upon entire kingdoms, turn the tide of battle by granting strength, or imparting weakness, and they could turn infertile sand into nurturing soil.

        Those of the land could make castles taller than a score of men and stronger than any battering ram, create machines to conquer time and distance, lift mountains, sink cities, and find gold and silver by reading rivers and stone.

        In the sky the Alsciosians could tame the untamable seas, fighting off storm gods and guiding sailors with paths set by stars and guided by clouds. Some, it is rumored, could even tell you both the future and the past, as they also kept the time, and knew the secrets of when to reap and when to sow.

        Those heavenly minded knew the will of Alsiocia. They were the ones who interpreted her will, spoke it, and judged those in her kingdom. They could see through lies, read thoughts, mend, or create rivalries, and break the will of any heathen. Their bards wielded satires that could ruin any lord, their priests wielded men with faith unshakable.

        Mouse read all this in the first few pages of the text. Some words she missed, some passages she skipped, but she was getting faster every day. She found walking on her braced leg more easy near the end of the month, but it would be a long time before she could climb or run. Once her arm seemed well enough her bandages were removed and she could see a sewn seam where her hand had once been. It was eerie. She still sometimes forgot that it was not there. Her fear of uselessness was abated however.

        Her side had all but recovered by the time she was needed for The Specters wishes. Her body was still sore, but it was only a matter of time now. As the month drew towards its end she wondered for the first time who it was she would be killing, and if she had the stomach for it.  She could only think of that boy those years ago and his eyes dumbly staring at the sky. Would it be the same kind of hopeless horror? Perhaps it would be as easy as pushing someone off a ledge.

        She wondered who the target was. She hoped it wasn’t a child like that boy, or a strong soldier like Fallow. Perhaps an old decrepit man that was on death’s door anyway, with a life filled with doing terrible things.

        The Specter was dressed the same as always, but gave her something new to wear. It was a clean, white nightdress that she’d seen noble girls sometimes wear in high towers and merchants selling for a handful of silver. There was not much to it, and it felt too cold, light, and smooth on her.

        When bade to leave the wooden room for the first time in weeks The Specter offered his hand. She took it in hers as he led her away. The hard hand was as gentle as it could be, she imagined.

        She limped at a slow pace through the crowd. Cleaned and dressed, she imagined anyone who had known her before would not recognize her now. The Specter led the way to a shack in the center of the oldest part of town. The boards were almost falling off the frame, and candlelight tore through the gaps.

        Before they entered, the Specter stopped and stooped to her level. “You can leave now if you like.” He said, taking one knee. Some passerby’s were present, but none seemed too interested in them. “Otherwise, you must play along, and kill him at your first opportunity once you are alone with him. Then you must meet me back at the northern tower. Do not fail. Do not let him live through the night. Do not wait too long. The longer you wait the harder it will become.”

        Mouse looked away. She wasn’t sure if she could do this. “If it helps, he is a bad man.” It did help. “Ready?” He stood and held an outstretched hand. “Last chance to leave.” She took his hand. He opened the door and slowly entered.

        She’d seen the Watchmaker in town, but never considered that he’d be in a place like this. He had small, bright eyes that shone like pearls and a bald head with a dull leather cap. His teeth were too white and he smiled too broadly. He was scrawny, but sinewy, denoting strength inherited in his youth that was mostly lost in time. He was dressed in a polite and unimposing manner that made him hard to make out in a crowd. All around him were mechanisms and devices that she could hardly guess the use of, and of course watches of all kinds.

        By him were two guards. She recognized neither. The Watchmaker had a reputation for being off, and the mark on the outside of his left hand was eerily familiar. It was a broken gear, missing many of it’s teeth.

        “Well hello little girl.” He smiled on her way in. “You seem to have recovered nicely. I don’t know if you remember, but I was there when you were sick. And… oh, it’s good to see you again.” He nodded to the Specter. “How have you been?”

        “Very good. Your work as always has been a great help. And how have you been?” The Specter spoke in a friendly manner. They advanced on the Watchmakers table.

        “Excellent.” His smile broadened. “It is always good to be of use, and to be appreciated. What can I do for you this evening?”  Like a spider’s legs his thin fingers skittered across his table and cleared it of what had had been working on before with meticulous intent as he focused his attention on the customer.

        “Have you finished the project I had asked you about?” The Specter questioned. His attention was idly on a trinket that spun in a chaotic fashion.

        “Oh yes! Just in time.” He bade on of the guards enter a room in the back to retrieve a black case. It was heavy enough to require two hands to carry comfortably. It was placed on the table and the Specter inspected the contents. Mouse could only see partially inside, just enough to see some clothing, and iron.

        “As promised, this girl shall be your ward.” The Specter closed the case. “I trust you will keep her safe.”

        “Of course.” The Watchmaker responded, then looked to Mouse. “We’ll have a lot of fun together won’t we?”

        Mouse looked up at the Specter, his eyes reflecting the candlelight.  “Be good.” He said to her, and then turned. “Oh,” He stopped before he left, “Your apprentice, does he still live in the capital? I may need to travel there, and could use some adjustments.”

        “He is a silly boy.” The Watchmaker rolled his eyes, “But if you are fine with something second rate, he can fix my machinery. Just don’t expect as much craftsmanship.” The Specter nodded, gave a final glance to Mouse, then left.

        “Come.” She turned to the Watchmaker. His hand motioned her closer, around the table. She came to him. “Look at you.” He examined her. “You must be famished. You are all skin and bones! It must be hard living day to day out there, not knowing where your next meal in coming from. It is a dreadful problem, but you don’t have to worry about that anymore. Those days are gone.”

        He brushed her hair out of her face with his careful, spindly digits as if she were a doll, “You are very pretty. You are a pretty little girl you know that? But this old thing,” he pinched the fabric of her dress, “We can do better, don’t you think?”

        He expected a response. She nodded. “Don’t be so nervous! Your life in changing for the better I can assure you. Now, I need to close up shop, but if you would like there is a room in the back with toys and clothes to try. If you go play for just a moment, I will be there soon. And then we will eat something. And maybe even something sweet.” He delicately tapped her nose with his forefinger. “Run along now.”

        She left the man and the room, and the gaze of the watchful guards. The back rooms were numerous, but two were unlocked. One seemed to be a closet with boxes and cleaning equipment. She checked the boxes, but found nothing to help her in her mission. The other room was small, but cozy. There were wooden figures strewn across the floor and clothes hung up along the wall. The clothes did look very beautiful, and the figures were painted and lacquered smooth, with joints that moved and held their position. They intrigued her, but not enough to throw off her nagging desire to get away from this place. Though she could not do that until the mission was complete.

        “Hello.” She turned quickly. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I startle you?” The Watchmaker had his hands behind his back. “My apologies, I’ve been told that I can be very quiet. But I wanted to give you a surprise. A gift for being so strong for so long.” Mouse resigned herself to wait. The only exit was the one occupied by the Watchmaker.  “Hold out your arm.” He asked, motioning to her stub. She did so.

        He revealed and slipped on a prosthetic, slightly tightening a single strap to keep it snug. Like the toys it was painted and lacquered smooth on the inside, but also covered in leather and linen to give the appearance, and feeling, of a gloved hand. “Fits perfectly!” He smiled. It looked so real that for a moment, she tried to will her fingers to move. Even feeling it with the other hand it felt soft; cold, but soft. Squeezing it, she could feel the wooden bones and joints shifting underneath. “Do you like it?” She nodded. “Good. You can pick out a dress to match, and then we can go to dinner. Would you like that?” She nodded. ”Do you need any help getting dressed?” She shook her head, “I will wait outside.” As he left and closed the door his smile never left him.

        She picked something colorful. It felt nice, and looked as good as any dress she’d seen before, though she was not a good judge. She left and found the Watchmaker waiting. “Good. I hoped you’d chose that one.” He fished out a key ring from his coat pocket and used one of the many keys on one of the many doors. Inside was a staircase leading down. He struck a match and lit a candle. As he led her into the cavernous deep with a candle’s light she took note of something that looked like a blade also buried in his coat pocket. It was small and built for craftsmanship.

        Once he led her down there was another door that he unlocked, and then locked again behind him. They were underground now, but there was a lot down there. The tiles on the floor were very smooth.

        He used the light in his hand to restart the fixture at the table. Glass spread the light to reveal the entire room, and the doors leading away from it. Food had already been placed, and was warm. He moved a seat and offered it. She took it and he sat across from her.

        “Please, eat.” She did. The food was good. He watched her clumsily use her left hand. She took note of the sharp metal utensils around the plate, but did not use them. Instead she subtly covered one with her prosthetic, hoping to nudge it inside over time.

        “You know, I grew up much like you.” He started. She listened as she ate. “I was poor. My earliest memories were of my mother reading stories to me as I slept, but that did not last long. After she was gone I had to do terrible things to get by. At one point I turned to religion. I learned to tinker and I dabbled in medicine. But my skills were focused more in military pursuits. I was good at it, but eventually I left.” He looked down at the symbol on his hand. “I wished fervently to take back what I had done, to turn back the wheel of time, back to those stories of my youth. I studied the arts of timekeeping, thinking Alsciocia may offer a way. After years of study I learned of many ways to stall it and keep it at bay… but I was released from my service, as the Magister who taught me believed my work to be heretical. He believed time was meant to go on, and that these were her laws.”

        He shrugged. “But he could not keep me from my worship. I should have been praised as a prophet… but I do not seek that kind of title.” Mouse was almost done eating. “Ah, but I am rambling. I am sorry, children are not so entertained by this kind of story. You must be tired. I can show you your quarters now, and tomorrow will be the start of your new life.”

        Once finished she followed him out of the room and into another hallway. Strangely, she was getting tired. Then, a door among many was unlocked and a room much like the one upstairs was revealed. “Here we are.” She stumbled and lost her balance. “Oh.” He caught her. “Careful now.” Something was wrong. Her balance was off.

        “You sleepy thing. I am sorry, I did put something in your food to help you relax, but I didn’t expect you to eat so quickly. Just rest now…” Panic flowed through her. She could not rest. Not yet. The Specter gave her orders. Don’t wait. No time.

        She resisted his grasp and went limp. “What’s wrong?” he asked, “Come, on, you can make it to…” He leaned over just enough for her to thrust her hand in the direction of his pocket and grab something metal. “Eh…” He was still smiling in confusion when she finally took hold of the knife and blindly thrust it.

        Her wrist was caught by the man’s quick hand. “Tut tut.” He shook his head. “Those days on the streets are over. You are going to be a good little girl now.” She struck with her right, but it was also caught.

        She pulled her arm out of the hand and thrust her elbow into his face. He finally fell back in pain, covering his nose.

        She turned and stumbled as best she could with the brace on her leg, “Get back…” She turned to see him just steps away, getting up. He was not running, but his legs were so much longer than hers. She tried the next door but found it locked, then tried to hop to the end of the hallway to the next one. “There is nowhere to run.” He was calm in his certainty. She found the next door to be unlocked and swung it open. Then she stepped in and slammed it closed. She was panting.

        It was pitch black. She took the few seconds she had to get some distance between her and the door and find something to hide under. There were several tables and she chose one. She lay on the tile floor and waited. Her breath was loud and echoed off of the chamber walls. The door opened and light entered the room once more. The Watchmaker was calm despite the minor injury. She tried to hold her breath.

        Upon seeing the light entering the room her eyes darted around. The room was filled with pieces and parts of toys and large dolls. Arms, legs, and torsos would be lying about in pieces, or together. They were all childlike.

        And after holding her breath for several moments she reached a terrifying realization. She could still hear it. The breathing was coming from all around her. The dolls were breathing.

        “Just close your eyes and you will wake up in the morning.” She let herself breath. She just had to keep it even. She saw him searching in the darkness, striking a match and lighting another’s candle. The doll’s faces were in various states. Some had perfect and shining eyes and teeth, and others had none. Some had delicate and motionless limbs, and others had none. But the torsos were all breathing. Muscles moved under the skin and some even darted their faces this way and that.

        “There.” The dolls had distracted her. Her eyes focused on those of the Watchmaker as he set his gaze on her. “Now, you can run and work off all that extra energy, or just lie down there and let me pick you up in a few moments. It makes no difference. But I want you to know that I didn’t want you to see this. You should have remained innocent.”

        Mouse stood up and looked for something, anything, and found a heavy looking wooden leg. She picked it up and tried to swing it at the Watchmaker. He grabbed it with one arm and pulled it from her with deceptive strength and she lost her footing. She fell to the ground, dizzy and sleepy. “Rest now. We will talk more in the morning.” she felt his hands on her but her body failed to respond. The breathing of the room felt like it was getting louder as she drifted off.

        She dreamed of the demons she saw so long ago in that tower. She had almost forgotten about them. She saw colors warp into shapes and shapes into monsters. Eventually, she realized that she was awake, and not dreaming. The monsters shifted into things, walls, stones, tables, chairs. She found herself looking up at the flickering stone arches lit in lantern light above her.

        She could not feel her limbs. She panicked, remembering the breathing dolls, and struggled. She heard a thunk and stopped, her breathing ragged. She looked to the noise and saw her crippled arm in the shadows. She moved it again, and let it fall. It was strapped to the surface she lay on. She could not feel it. Another strap around her shoulder cut off life from it. Looking around, the same was true of all her limbs, even her legs had been bound at the thigh, removing feeling below. But only her nub could move freely. She saw an empty binding beyond her nub. It seemed that the table she was on was built to hold down those with wrists.

        The numbness struck fear into her heart. She still had her limbs. She did not know for how long. She struggled against the bindings again, this time trying to exploit what was left of her free limb. She could run her forearm against the leather strap at her bicep, but no further. She tried moving her head, but found another binding at her neck, loose enough not to cut off blood, but tight enough to keep her teeth from the straps.

        There were metal buckles that sealed the straps together. They were tight, and even with fingers the task would have been arduous. Without feeling, and without dexterity, the task seemed impossible. She shook the table lightly, hoping to loosen something, or discover any other weakness in her prison. She was careful not to make too much noise. Signs of struggle, in any case, would not be good for her.

        The bindings were like those of a belt. If she could pull the remainder of the strap with her teeth she could possibly free the pin of the contraption, and her arm could slide free. The strap was loosely held back by tucking it under itself at her elbow. That was her new angle of attack. She tried to untuck it with her nub, rubbing back and forth blindly and without sensation, shifting her shoulders back and forth

        It was frustrating, but she saw no other weakness to exploit. Eventually the leather strap came free, but was going the wrong way for her to reach with her teeth. She’d have to bend it back, and angle it.

        She heard footsteps. She stopped her efforts just in time for the heavy oaken door to open and close, The Watchmaker entering. He had a bandage around his nose, but otherwise looked the same. Shadows leapt across his face in the dim light. Every wrinkle and small scar was highlighted. He looked disappointed.

        “You are awake.” She gulped. “Shame.” He placed a row of tools upon a bench near the table. “You must think me a monster. But you have never seen true monsters. You don’t know about the horrors of this life. I do. I want to save people from that.” She recognized needles, a cleaver, a saw, a knife, all of a medical sense.  “There are children forced to do terrible things in their youth. Some surrender their bodies, or take the life of others. They must do what is necessary to live.”

        He began sharpening his utensils, his eyes on her between each stroke.  She could not act with him watching. “I think it’s better to hide such things from children. They don’t need to know what must die to feed them. They don’t need to know what acts were taken for them to be born. Such unnecessarily ugly facts can ruin the happiness and innocence of childhood. But I can make the childhood last far longer.”

        He smiled for the first time since she had awoken. “Would you like that? To stay young forever? To never enter the cruel world of monsters outside? To never feel pain again? To never be afraid? That is what I will give you.”

        He had chosen a wide bladed fillet knife as he went to her side. “There won’t be any pain. Not anymore. Without limbs you won’t be able to hurt yourself. Without eyes you will see no evil. Without ears you will never feel the sting that words bring to bear. Without teeth and a tongue you will be unable bite or feel disgust. After many weeks of my acid treatment, even your skin will lose its ability to hurt, and your nose will be unable to smell. You will be in a world completely of your own making. Eventually, you will forget any evil here. I will provide for you here on the outside. You can play in your mind and do whatever you like, for as long as you like, with whoever you like. No worries, no cares, no fears. I envy you.”

        He frowned, “That man who brought you here… he didn’t do anything to you did he? I know he does work of ill repute. I would hate for your mind to be poisoned before… oh well. Nothing to be done about that now.” He put the knife to her skin. “Oh!” He stopped. “Of course, I’m sorry, the blindfold. Silly me.” He turned and put the knife on the table. “Now where did I put it…” he scratched his chin. If he was forced to leave the room then she could… “Here!” he took it from his shirt pocket. “Where is my head today?” he chuckled. “Now then. ” there was nothing she could do to keep the spidery hands tie the black cloth around her head. It was very effective. She was completely blind. “Now, just wait there…”

        “Wait!” She shouted, her voice cracked. Everything was still.

        “…I wasn’t sure if you could speak.” The Watchmaker responded in surprise.

        “Could you…” She desperately searched her mind for something she could ask him for. Something to buy time at the very least. “Tell me a story?”

        “… If you are trying to stall me…”

        “I never had a mother.” She continued. “I’ve never heard any stories.”

        The words seemed empty in the stone chamber. She hoped she had convinced him. She worried that he would simply continue without her notice, or worse, tell a story while he worked.

        She was relieved when she heard a sympathetic, “That’s… terrible.” She heard his footsteps leave her. “I’ll return in a moment. I have a few favorites I’d love to share.” She heard footsteps go past the open door.

        This was her only chance. She blindly, numbly, moved her limbs in an effort to move the leather strap towards her mouth. If she remembered, it was long enough if her nub could angle it, but she had no feedback to know where it was. She was getting nowhere, and felt that she getting worse with each nervous moment. She’d hear herself floundering, and hear the strap slap the table on occasion, but had no sense to tell her how to grab it…

        She tried breathing slowly. She tried to stay calm. Her eyes were watering, but she could not afford to sob. She had to keep working. She had to think. She imagined an invisible scene in front of her. Outlines. She imagined feeling in her arm. She created a phantom limb in her mind and tried moving it, tried to move the imaginary scenery. She imagined angling the strap just right.

        She bit air. She had to try again. She listened to herself fumble with the strap and move it once more.

        She slapped herself with the leather and gasped. She was off, but close. She tried again. She grabbed it, just barely. She felt a rush of victory as she pulled and fumbled again where she thought the buckle was. It took several breaths, but she felt the strap slide and let it go. She fumbled around and felt her arm touch her chest.

        It was free. Her arm was still numb, but the elbow was free. She quickly used it on her face, wiping away the blindfold. The room seemed more bright now. The door was still open. She worked silently, hearing papers move and seeing shadows searching beyond the portal. She had no idea how much time she had.

        With full articulation of her arm, she worked on the strap at her armpit. She fumbled for far longer than she should have, panic and numbness making her movements sluggish. The strap was freed, she pulled with her teeth, and as she released the clasp she felt the familiar tingle of life returning to the limb.

        It hurt as the veins woke up again, like a million needles piercing the skin, but she had to continue. With her arm free she worked on the other, first returning life to it by releasing the strap in the same way as before. However, she could not reach the elbow in any capacity due to the brace on her neck.

        “Aha!” She heard from the other room. “Here we are. This one is my favorite.” She heard the footsteps come close.

        “W-what’s it about?” She asked, franticly working with the clasp around her neck.

        “A boy who learns that he has magic powers…” he was very close to the door.

        “I like girls more.” She tried to keep her voice even. “Do you have stories about girls?” She heard the footsteps pause. “And, flowers, and horses…”

        “I have those too…” He seemed disappointed. “Ah, I should have known. I’ll be back.” His footsteps went quiet again as her neck came free, but his pace was steady and direct. He knew where to go, and she had not bought herself much time at all.

        She pounced on the leather at her elbow with her teeth and tongue, quickly unearthing the strap, pulling, and freeing it from the buckle. She was becoming better at it. Her wrist however was too far for her teeth to reach directly. She needed, again, to use her nub to free and angle the strap.

        “There is a story about a princess, born as a pauper. Would you like that?” He asked.

        “Um,” She tried once again to control her breathing. She was getting dizzy. “What about fairies? I like fairies.”

        “Oh, yes, this one then…” She pulled, her wrist was free. She went to her thighs with her burning cold fingers that were still mostly dead. She almost had forgotten how to use her fingers. She pulled and freed one, then the other, then each knee and ankle, more quickly each time, but more mistake prone as her panic began to overcome her. His footsteps were just by the door now. ”You know, I haven’t taken these out in ages? I must thank you.” She rolled off of the table and onto her half dead feet as quietly as she could, gripping the table with her good hand.  He was distracted when he entered, his eyes in the open book.

        “Now then…” She gripped the fillet knife in her prickling numbed fingers and charged at him. She fell forward, unable to trust her feet to work appropriately, and slashed at his leg.

        He jumped back with a yelp, holding his leg. She got up like a marionette, her limbs vaguely conforming to her orders. He seemed far too shocked to counter. She charged again, leaping, aiming a stab for his throat that was now in range.

        He met her eyes just as the blade touched his skin. He dropped the book and grabbed her wrist with both hands, but not before the blade sunk a fingers length into his adam’s apple.  She saw the blood, a flush of victory coming over her.

        He tossed her aside and she rolled to the ground. She saw him cough and gasp, pulling out the knife. His old eyes were wide with shock and pain. There was not as much blood as she’d hoped. He was still alive. The victory was gone. She whimpered, unable to stop her body from showing fear anymore, and dived for another knife, a cleaver, as The Watchmaker held his throat, bending over.

        She could not align the edge in her panic, and only managed to strike his head with the blunt side of the heavy iron. He was sent reeling to the side, but his attention was squarely on her now. This time, he seemed enraged. “You are not innocent.” He gurgled. “You are one of them now. A monster. It’s too late for you…”

        He began to rise to his full height and she screamed despite herself, holding the cleaver in one hand and leaning on the wall with her stub. The pain in her broken ankle was beginning to return to her as life returned to it. She went for the door and hopped more than ran, stumbling with each hop. Once past the doorway she clumsily fell, having to rise once more on her half dead leg. She risked a moment to turn and saw The Watchmaker patiently walking towards her, holding his throat and growling. He held the knife she had stabbed him with.

        She turned the corner and resolved herself to attack once more. She could not run like this. She needed to surprise him. Her vision was blurry. She made sure the blade was aligned this time. She only had a heartbeat to prepare.

        She made a guess and turned the corner, screaming and slashing. She saw her enemies blade flash with her own, unsure if it hit her or not. Regardless, it didn’t stop her own swing. It hit bone and kept moving in it’s arc. She saw The Watchmaker fall backwards, clutching his side.

        She half charged, half dived, aiming her weapon for his head. He tried turning away, but it struck the skull, sinking in like an axe into lumber. She quickly rolled away, The Watchmaker was screaming… no, that was her. She had never stopped. She tried to breath and control her fear as she crawled away from the corpse. Was he finally dead? Her screams turned to moans in the moment of peace. She watched the body on the ground, blood coming from his chest and head. She touched her own body looking for wounds. She saw blood. Was that hers?

        She heard a groan and The Watchmaker rose. Mouse screamed again, crawling away. The Watchmaker stumbled, his eyes blinking in confusion, the cleaver part way through the skull. She rose to her feet and tried one again to leave the room.

        He grabbed her by her dress. She struggled, but the cloth held firm. She turned, The Watchmaker’s murderous eyes shining with candlefire just as much as the knife was. Still screaming she reached up towards the handle of the cleaver and pulled.

        The glint of The Watchmakers blade once again came across her vision, and once again she was unable to know if she was hit.

        The body of The Watchmaker followed as she pulled however. He fell face first into the stone, she braced the body with her knee and tugged until the cleaver was free from the struggling man’s skull. She pulled it above her head then sent it down once more into the head of the man. Once again it was stuck. She yanked it free and continued. Again. Again. She screamed as if it would somehow scare the soul out of the man as she struck again and again. The body kept moving. She could not risk giving up. It was a long time before the body stopped, and even longer before she did. By the time it was over the cleaver was too slick, and her grip too weak to continue. She fell with exhaustion and crawled away with what strength she had until she found a corner to stare at the body.

        She could not recognize anything above the coat of the man. The body would still twitch on occasion. Her eyes were still cemented on the figure until she could once again feel her limbs completely. Everything hurt.  She tried to see where he had cut her, but there was blood everywhere.

        All she could hear was breathing. She hoped it was hers. It came from all around her now, as her heart began to slow. When she looked as the body she could swear it’s chest would move up and down… but that was impossible. It was as impossible as the demons in that tower. As impossible as the human dolls that surrounded her, that she almost joined.

        She rose on her uneasy legs with paranoia, her watering eyes not daring to lose sight of him for a moment. She crept up to him, and to his pocket, retrieving his ring of keys from the still warm body.

        Then she ran. Half stumbling, half jumping, she ran to the closest door she could and opened it, then closed and locked it. It was pitch black, but she didn’t care. She stumbled through the darkness, whimpering loud enough that she hoped to deaden the sound of the breathing.

        She thought she heard other murmurs in the dark. She covered her ears with her arms. She heard nothing coherent, but she swore she heard other cries for help, groans of pain, and tried desperately to ignore the sneaking suspicion that the vengeful Watchmaker followed her paces, her echo’s masking his approach. She stayed in the dark, forcing her eyes shut, walking till she met a wall, finding a door, opening it with a key, then locking it back and continuing through the labyrinth.

        The underground was vast, and she wondered if she was escaping, or going deeper. She wasn’t even sure if she was going in circles or not. Sometimes she’d run into a table covered in papers and trinkets. Sometimes what she’d run into felt human, and she redoubled her pace until she was sure it was long behind her.

        In time she found stairs. They led down. She avoided them.

        She found others not to far away leading up. She took them. Soon she found light and cautiously limped to it. She opened it slowly, letting light come over her bloody form.

        At first she thought it was sunlight. But the moon overhead surprised her. She had never realized how bright the night could be. The streets were empty. She felt a wave of relief stepping out from the shoddy building.

        But was she safe yet?

        No. She locked the door behind her and quickly continued her mad dash. If a guard saw her covered in blood, she no longer cared. She knew where she was and she silently maneuvered around the streets to her final goal.

        He was there. The Specter waited for her at the tower. She ran, not out of fear now, but longing. She was sobbing and limping. She dared not come too close to him, but stood several paces away as he measured her silently.

        “You’re late.” He said casually.

        She nodded. Why did she feel shame in that? She should have felt lucky to be alive.

        He took a step towards her and embraced her. She was shocked for a moment, but then dug her face into his cloak in response. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry…” they were the first words she had said to him in all the years she had known him.

        “It’s fine little mouse.” He patted her back. “It’s fine.”

           

 

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