As soon as I take a step back from the window, Faladel grabs my arm. “Briareth,” He hisses, “These people know a way around the city that avoids dragons! Shouldn’t we–”
Before he can protest that we should stay and try to talk to them, and before I can roll my eyes in reply and come up with a proper argument, we are surrounded by a dirty group of street urchins of all three races, staring at us with suspicion and hostility.
“What are you?” The shortest of the Zytherlings, Lethbal, asks, glaring at us. “And what exactly were you doing, spying on us like that? Going to report us to the authorities?”
“Give them a break, Lethbal,” the Zytherling who had been studying the floor, Auxen says, smiling at us, deep set blue eyes glittering with interest in his angular face. “I think I know them. Take off your face coverings, you two.” I immediately move my hand towards my face, but Faladel hesitates. Auxen’s smile turns a little savage, “What’s the point in resisting? We could just as easily do it for you.” Faladel stiffens at the threat, but pulls his mask down obediently. At the sight of our faces hushed whispers and murmurs break out in the crowd.
“They’re the ones who killed…?”
“What are they doing here?”
“Do you think they’re in cahoots with…”
“There’s only so many tall-folk with no wings.” Auxen grins triumphantly at us. “They’re not going to turn us in. After all, they’d be arrested as soon as they appeared before the guards.”
“The question remains; what should we do with them?” Tina, the Kashan leader asks, and quite a few people nod in agreement.
Thinking fast, I raise my hands up defensively. “We don’t mean any harm, and we don’t want to get in your way. You could just let us go. You already know we won’t go running to any authorities about… well, whatever it is you’re trying to do here.”
Some of them actually look convinced, until one of the Tadhiel raises his hand and calls out. “Yeah, but they did kill both Chairholder Thraughl and Chairholder Finnagund. And I kinda liked Finnagund. He was running that program for the soup kitchen sundays.”
“His soup tasted terrible.” Tina calls out, and a few kids nod.
“What would you know about taste, bloodsucker!” Cries one of the other kids.
Small scuffles and shouting matches break out between the twenty or so street children surrounding us. But they all go dead silent and huddle close to the wall as soon as a dragon flies overhead.
“You could just take us with you.” Faladel suggests as soon as the dragon’s tail disappears into the smoke. “We want to stay out of sight as well after all. We won’t ask for any of the goods you find robbing these mansions blind.” I blink, who said anything about robbing people? “I promise we didn’t kill anyone, and if it helps, we can tell you our side of the story. Just take us to these underground passages.”
Auxen glances from us to Lethbal, Lethbal glances at Tina, who then glances at the Tadhiel who spoke up about the Chairholders. The three of them, excluding Auxen, huddle together, heads down, whispering too low for me to overhear.
Finally they spit on their hands and do some sort of complicated handshake that ends when everyone gets each other’s spit on their hands, and turn towards us and Auxen.
“Auxen will take you to the underpaths with us.” Lethbal announces, “But once you’re there, we’re going our separate ways. If you end up finding your own way out, you’ll be too late to bring any guards down on us.”
“But my payment–” Auxen begins to protest, a glimmer of greed sliding into his eyes.
“Will not change.” Lethbal overrides the older Zytherling. “They are going with our group, so we are still only paying the price for one group’s safe travel through the city.”
Auxen rolls his eyes and sighs. “As long as I get my cut I suppose. Now let’s get out of these streets. We don’t want anyone to spot us. I’d hate to get in trouble for this when things die down.” With a wave he leads us and the children back into the small shop, and in a few minutes has opened up a pretty large hole in the floor, revealing an old wooden trapdoor.
“Back when this was a minin’ village,” He explains to Faladel’s curious questioning, “the tunnels ran all over the place. Some of them have collapsed o’ course, some got filled in, and some got turned into underground canals, but if you’re a smart cookie and have the time to put in decipherin’ the old half-ruined maps they keep at the citadels, you can roughly locate some of the old access points. And o’ course, the fanciest houses that want running water an’ whatnot have to be built above these old tunnels. It’s simple logic that someone like me would stumble across it one day and seize the opportunity.”
While he’s explaining himself, I take the chance to open the recently revealed hatch. There is an old, half-rotted rope ladder above a fifteen foot drop. Not trusting it to hold my weight, I glance at the wall, and see a far older similar ladder carved into it. It’s a lot more rough, but a much safer way to climb down. Almost immediately, dirty Zytherling, Tadhiel and Kashan kids start to join me, crowding the space to near bursting. I tap my heels impatient, my headache already worsening despite being out of the smoke and ash filled air. The tunnel runs pretty parallel to the street above, and as soon as Faladel makes his way down the ladder, I start pulling him uphill, my throbbing headache confirming we’re going in the right direction. Faladel is loath to leave his new friends, but when I insist that we’re getting closer, he quickly relents.
The rough stone passage is unevenly carved out of the bedrock beneath the city. The floor is riddled with uneven dips and tiny hills, perfect for tripping on. Some of the support beams have fallen, others, despite being rotten through, are still barely standing. Faladel has a torch that one of the kids must have given him, but it’s hardly enough to light up the area around us. Even with it’s ‘help’ I still nearly stumble off the edge of a collapsed portion of the tunnel. Faladel holds his arm out as far above it as he dares, but we can’t see the bottom. The warm air is stifling. The darkness and constant rumbling as we navigate is unsettling. Everything feels slightly wrong. And after the third time we’ve had to turn around due to collapsed passageways, Faladel halts me.
“Briareth, I’m not sure going around below ground is that much safer than above.”
“Faladel, did you forget there are dragons and mobs up there?” I ask him confused, “Of course it’s safer down here! Sure there’s your average pitfall, but if we’re careful, we can avoid those. And I’m almost certain the magic-disruptor is below ground! Ever since we came down here, my headaches have been slowly getting stronger!”
Faladel frowns, his eyebrows furrowing slightly. “I’m no tracker, Briareth,” He admits, “But I think you’ve missed something. Take another look at this pile.” He taps the collapsed rock in front of us, holding the torch close enough that I can feel its warmth.
Slowly, I take a second look, studying the stone. As I lean in close Faladel adds in a whisper. “I think I’ve heard someone following us as well. I don’t know when it started, I’m not even completely sure it’s there, but if it is, we could have trouble.”
“I’m sure it’s just an ech–” I stop mid reassurance. Faladel was right. I had missed something. This rock fell quite recently. No dust is on the stones, the edges are jagged, and the rumbling suddenly is a lot more ominous. Possible dragon wings above, perhaps a few collapsing buildings, but more likely, the rumble of rock giving way as tons of weight from broken buildings falls on it. Very suddenly, I can almost feel the weight of all the rocks above my head. I can vividly imagine the pain of being crushed under all of them. The smell of blood mixed with dirt, and the taste of stone dust as I gasp a last breath. Still, as terrible as that is. The likelihood of that, vs being burned or trampled to death or caught out on the streets and identified as fugitives.
“I’m sure the magic-disrupter is below ground.” I claim, turning to Faladel, “But I’ll follow your lead, Faladel.”
Faladel fidgets clearly uncomfortable, glancing at the stones in front of us, and then at the passage behind, weighing the options. It takes a few minutes for him to make up his mind. “We continue on then.” He eventually says, nodding to himself.
No matter what Briareth claims about dragons being intelligent beings, these ones have clearly lost their marbles. They aren’t working together at all, and good thing too or they’d have killed us long ago. I have a growing hunch that the largest one, the bright copper and bronze who lead the group on its merry chase, is Smay. Briareth and Faladel’s former friend, and the one who had been slowly breaking out of his cage when we saw him last.
He fights like a dying man, desperate thrusts and snaps, no logic, no reasoning. If he had any semblance of sentience, he would have realized that a few coordinated and well timed wing-flaps could send us bowling over to the other side of the square. Instead they use their bodies as clubs. Trying to smash us, tear us to pieces with their claws and teeth. They don’t even use their flames!
I spin the wheel as far right as it can go, jerking us left as the lurid green dragon swoops down in a strafing attack, going for Fin and the sails with it’s claws. I feel the wind whipping at my short hair and tearing at my smile, turning it into a wild grimace. Nothing can ever beat flying. Nothing in the world, no magic, no set of wings, will ever substitute for the strength and recklessness of the ship under my feet. I feel the power in my hands, the adrenaline coursing through my skin as I turn us up- up- up into the sky, looping around Smay’s head and sending the black dragon on our tail pummeling headfirst into his jaw. Then we plummet, my only connection to the ship the rope at my waist, my death grip on the wheel, and her song of triumph burning in my ears. I scream my success. “Elen! GO!”
My Tadhiel companion jumps from the ship right before Fin and I snatch her from the jaws of the inglorious death of crashing prow first into the ground. She lands nimbly on her feet, immediately taking right back off to avoid being crushed by the flailing black dragon as he collapses on the ground behind us. She dashes, quick as she can towards the center of the square we’re fighting in. Just like we planned. Fin, the ship, and I are a distraction. If Elen can get her hands on the object thrown by that thief, we’ll have done our jobs here and can skedaddle. But before she’s halfway there, the enraged dragons, Copper, Green, and Black, have abandoned pursuing us completely in favor of going for us.
I grit my teeth, diving back into the heart of the frey, desperately trying to distract them. Fin even lets some wind out the sails, making us an easy target as he grabs the revolver from his belt and shoots the green one once in the eye, once in the side, and once in the wing. I don’t know if they had any effect though. The dragon just screams angrily and dives towards Elen.
“Abandon course, Elen.” I plea under my breath, sizing up distance and speed. She’s not going to make it. She can’t possibly make it. “Just this once.” I breathe, and then shout the message, knowing she almost certainly won’t hear me above the screaming of the dragons and the thunder of their wings. Twisting the wheel again until my small boat groans in protest and Fin hollers about just what I think I’m doing.
But I’ve looked at the angles. I know what I’m doing. “Give me all you’ve got Fin!” I scream, “We’re going to pick her up!” I look at the emergency button next to the wheel. I’d never thought I’d actually press it. It drops over half of our floatstones, the stuff that makes the ship fly. But Elen’s life is worth more than any stones will ever be.
I feel a shiver of excitement, the same shiver I always feel when doing something I’ve never tried before. Half adrenaline, half pure desperation that it works. Then I press the button, and feel the ship drop out from under me as we snap through Smay’s back legs, diving faster than freefall towards the ground. Towards Elen.
Fin’s shouting something, but the wind whips his voice behind us, I can’t hear it. I can’t hear anything. I can barely see from the tears whipping out of my eyes. The pressure hurts. I’ve never gone this fast before. Elen looks up, dragons coming at her from all sides. Fear is written all over her face. But when she sees us, instead of subsiding, it multiplies. She points up. At us, no behind us. I can’t read her lips, but she’s shouting something. I feel a shudder run through my ship, and I instinctively jerk her upwards. A loud clap resounds from behind us. A half twist back, and I see two claws right where our hull would have been, but then there is no time to feel relief. No time to gasp in fear and then relax. I jerk the ship out of her dive, and send her skidding through the legs of the black dragon, who’d gotten unsteadily to his feet to chase Elen towards the center of the square. His left wing looks damaged. But there’s no time to analyze. Elen crumples as she lands onto the deck, feet swept out from under her due to the sheer difference in speed. I take us up, to the far side of the square. The dragons gather around the center. The Copper one, the one I suspect is Smay, sends a blast of dragonfire to challenge the night sky. He doesn’t aim at any of the buildings, or at us, he just sends it straight up. Almost like a signal. I shiver as we cruise to a stop. My ship is noticeably slower to respond to the wheels commands now, her height gain is sluggish, and she feels heavier under my hands. I grimace. We’ve failed, but we’ll just try again with a new plan. The only thing that bugs me is Smay’s strange actions. Why would a wild beast not use all the weapons at its disposal? Why would any intelligent one forgo tactics? And one question nags me above all others, why did he only breathe fire once, into the sky?
Ash rains down from the sky, as Folas, Valkallyn and I chase the wingless figure through the streets. The very air feels weighted, heavy with warning and heat. He has recovered from his limp, or perhaps is ignoring the pain as he leads us through streets blackened with ash and blood. I cast a quick charm to help our boots keep traction, but it’s still insanely slippery, and I don’t know how he manages to not fall once. He skids around bends, shoving himself off walls and doorways, using signposts to round corners faster and tighter than we can.
I’ve never been athletic, and I can feel my blood pounding in my heat, each footfall sounding louder than the dragons overhead. Air feels like ice in my lungs, even as heat sizzles my skin from a nearby house fire. Suddenly a screaming mob rushes towards us. Behind them, I can see the dark red cloak of our mysterious thief, the bottom stained black with ash, disapear down an alleyway. Straining my magic, I blur my hands into a familiar set of movements as I whisper words that will let me jump over the lines of people rushing uphill towards us. But at the last minute I hesitate. Folas and Valkallyn, I can’t leave them behind. I don’t have the magic to take them with me though.
In that half a second, the magic snaps, my hesitation overworking my already suffering veins. I recoil from the backlash, it’s the first time in ages that I’ve felt the results of a magic-starved spell. My muttered words devolve into curses as I lose my footing and fall towards the mob. Valkallyn grabs the back of my cloak though, and then we’re surrounded, being carried away from our goal by a terrified mass of panicked people. We’re drowning in the mob. Lost in a sea of noise, hair, wings, arms and legs, all thrashing, all desperate. All running, running further and further away from our destination. When I’m spat out, I’m left gasping for breath, lost and bewildered, my head spinning. Where did we go? How far out of the way did that mob carry us? Folas is spat out next, somewhere behind me. I can hear him retching. Valkallyn comes over to me, as I study the skyline, trying to guess where we are, or even what cardinal direction I’m facing. But it’s useless. The sky is a blistering mix of orange flames and the dark blue of the night sky. Stars twinkle above, but I don’t recognize any of them. As I watch, one of the tallest buildings on the horizon collapses, consumed by its own flames.
We’ve lost the thief. We’ve lost ourselves. And if the item he tossed up in the square was a decoy, we’ve lost the scales.
I don’t know how long we’ve been wandering around down here. It could be just a few minutes, it could be over an hour. I have a terrible sense of time. Especially under pressure. And since the last few dead ends and easing of the headache have had to cause some serious backtracking, to the point that Faladel has mentioned he thinks we might have gone in a giant circle, I’ve been a bit stressed out. I know it’s somewhere around here. I can feel my headache getting worse by the minute. But there aren’t any tunnels going in the right direction.
I hiss in pain as I stub my toes on yet another uneven cut of floor. Glancing up, I see a wall in front of me. Collapsed stones that I’d swear weren’t there the last time we were here. Like Faladel suspects, we’ve been going in circles. He always was a bit slow to catch on to those things. I turn away, wary of more cave-ins. We need to find a tunnel that goes in the right direction, and soon. The light of Faladel’s torch flickers, over the uneven wall, casting strange shadows from small cracks and crevices. Suddenly I see something.
“Faladel! Bring that light closer!” I call out excitedly. The shadows make an arch, a perfect, six foot tall, arch. Scrap that, it isn’t perfect. But anyone hiding a secret door would never make their lines perfect, that would draw too much attention. I hold my breath as Faladel obligingly bends near.
“Briareth is something–”
“Hush!” I chide him. “I’m trying to think.” Now, if I was a secret door, how would I want to open? I run my fingers over the crack. “Some sort of sliding stone puzzle? No, too easy.” I mumble. “Not to mention this is all very hard in place.” Hidden locks would be nice, but quite difficult to carve out precisely in the stone. And equally difficult to hide. I hiss angrily. I’m missing something.
“Is this a door of some kind?” Faladel asks, studying the arch over my shoulder.
“A secret door, leading exactly where we need to go.” I confirm, my brain coming up with more and more ridiculous ways to seal a door, one even using tree resin, which reminds me of that special wax Smay had, which in turn makes me think of dragons’ fire as a key which…
“Perhaps this is the back of the door, and the opening mechanism is on the other side?” Faladel offers, staring at the door. “Although how we’re supposed to open it from this side…” He frowns. “I don’t think we can break it down, but I don’t see any other obvious way. It’s fitted quite cleanly into the stone.”
I gape at him. Of course, there isn’t any lock or bolt. We are on the inside of the box. This door leads into the general caverns, it isn’t meant to be accessed from this side. “How are you such a genius?” I ask, pulling my bow from my back. “Now, you should probably get back.”
“Uhh… Briareth, what exactly do you plan on doing with that–” Faladel begins as I pull the string back. I didn’t get the chance to test it like Adamar had suggested earlier, and I’m relieved when the arrow of pure light appears on the drawstring like magic. I remember the first time I ever used it. I’d been confused, enthralled, and delighted by the chaos surrounding me. We’d been at Mossblossom Central, and there had been an undead monster on the loose chasing my friends around Master Cellica’s greenhouse and effectively kicking their buts. Nothing had damaged it, but when I pulled back the bowstring I saw strings of brilliant white light coming out of the creature. Adamar had told me to aim for them. And when I had shot them all, the creature had collapsed. The one arrow that had gone astray had done massive damage to the surrounding area. I’ve used the bow only rarely since, but we need that blast damage now.
“You could bring the whole ceiling down on our heads, Briareth!” Faladel exclaims, fear flickering in his eyes.
“I won’t!” I say confidently. “But you should probably back up a little more just in case!”
“That’s not exactly reasur–” Faladel begins, but I don’t need to hear the rest. I fire the bow, and the arrow of light rips its way from my hands and into the rock before me. It crumbles to dust without a sound, the arrow’s light winking out. I gasp, all air suddenly gone from my lungs, like I forgot to breathe. But it takes barely any time to recover and stow my bow.
“Come on!” I shout at Faladel, charging into the tunnel that yawns beyond the broken doorway. He quickly follows me, his long legs making up for the speed of my reckless charge. Behind us the whole tunnel rumbles, and then it shakes its way through the ground we’re standing on and out into the wide T-intersection in front of us. Faladel stops.
“Left or right?” He asks me. I grin wildly, adrenaline making my every cell feel like it’s about to burst with life. That was amazing. I should really use that bow more often!
“Right! I respond confidently, my feet already moving in that direction. I slow down to a loping pace, trying to conserve my newfound energy. Faladel moves ahead a bit, his light leading the way. This tunnel is much better crafted than the ones we were in before, the floor is smooth, no rocks litter it, and the support beams look more recently built. Someone put a lot of effort into this. But before I can question anything, a loud twang snaps from behind us. Something long and slender whips past my face, shaving my hair, nicking my ear. My hand goes up just a half second too slow to grab it. My gaze follows its trajectory, straight to where it landed in Faladel’s side. His face twists in shock and pain as he spins around. I spin as well. Someone is attacking us. Faladel has dropped his torch, but its flickering light reveals long curly blond hair and a familiar pair of blue eyes. I gape. It can’t be Adamar, the hair is too long, the clothes aren’t right, not to mention, this is clearly a woman. Her dark clothes hug her curves.
“Too low and not enough force! I knew it was shoddy workmanship!” She spits, dropping her crossbow. Barely realizing I’ve already drawn my sword, I charge at her, fury making my vision go red. How dare she shoot Faladel. He’s my Faladel! I’m supposed to protect him! His parents told me to protect him!
Shadows dance from the fallen torch. My eyes can’t adjust. Sometimes I can see her, sometimes I can’t. But I don’t hesitate as I chop where I saw her face just a few seconds ago. My sword hits wood, and I yank it out violently to parry her blade that flashes in front of my eyes. A clang. A long, suffering, screech as steel bites and slides against steel. My breath comes hot and fast. A slash. Another parry, I lunge and jab, not caring about the misses, only the strikes that land. I drive her back, determined, desperate. She snarls at me, and spits. I jerk my head to the side so it doesn’t go in my eye. It lands somewhere on my cheek, cool against my fever hot skin. I press down, using my leveraging my bulk and weight against her slim form. Her sword bends slightly. Her wrist trembles. For just a second, my heightened senses catch a whiff of oleander flowers from her cloak. I bite the inside of my cheek, using pain to dismiss the thought.
It doesn’t matter what she smells like. She dies today.
I step forward, moving my left hand from the hilt of my blade all the way up the blade. I don’t care that the edges cut into my palm, that my own blood runs down my sword. I care that there is now fear in her eyes. I press down hard, grating my sword against hers as she buckles under its weight. My lips pull back from my teeth. I’m not sure if I’m smiling or growling. She will die.
Rumbles start behind me, but I’m so close I don’t pay attention. Only when the walls behind me collapse, and the roof caves in, and the torch goes out, and I can’t see do I spin, realizing what’s happening.
Faladel is wounded. Faladel is on the other side of the cave-in and he’s wounded! Behind me I can hear the woman scrambling away, abandoning the fight, just as I have. Desperate, I dig at the collapsed wall.
“Faladel are you okay?!” I scream, trying to loosen some stones. I can’t see any of them though. I can only tell by touch which ones are small enough to pry away. But Faladel can’t have been caught under it, he just can’t.
“I’m fine.” His voice comes through to me. His voice is slightly higher than normal. He coughs, and it’s not a pleasant sound. “Well, as fine as I can be considering I just got shot with a crossbow quarrel. But the cave-in was far enough away that I didn’t get too caught in it.”
“Just hold on.” I beg, “I can find a way through, or perhaps I can blast it like I did with the secret door.”
“NO! Don’t blast it Briareth, you’ll bring the whole place down!” Faladel sounds serious, and then he coughs again. “You destabilized it enough with the first blast, and then your fight took out the support beams. If you blast it again, this whole section of hallway might come down.” He says, more calmly. “I’ve already removed the bolt from my wound. I’ll bind it as tight as I can, and then I’ll continue. We were getting pretty close right?”
“It should be at the end of this tunnel.” I admit defeatedly, taking my hand off the wall separating me from my wounded friend. “I’ll find some other way around. Some way to come find you.”
Faladel chuckles, and this time it doesn’t end in him coughing. “No Briareth, it’s probably best if you don’t try and find a way to me.” His voice turns firm. “You’d be better off finding whoever was following us, the person who shot me. We need to know who they are and who they’re working for. We can’t have any variables show up at this point. We’re missing something if there is still an unregistered player on this chessboard.” I glare stonily at the ground, suddenly noticing that there is a small amount of blue light that makes my toes visible. I give them a half-hearted wiggle.
His logic is infallible, as always.
“I’ll go and dispose of the magic-disrupter on my own.” Faladel continues. “That was our original plan wasn’t it, you lead me to it, I dismantle it? Well, you’ve done your part, now it’s time for me to do mine.” I can almost hear his grin.
“Promise me.” I say, leaning on the stone wall between us. “Promise me you’ll be okay.” It’s the only way I can leave him. I can’t leave him alone.
“I’ll be fine, I’ll just bind this wound up as tight as I can, and then make my way down the hall. It can’t be that hard right?” He offers. I stay silent. I’ve had to bind my own wounds before and it definitely was hard. And it hurt like hell.
He hears the meaning behind my silence. He hears my doubts. “I’ll be fine, Briareth.” He promises, quieter, but just as clear. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
Grimly, I pull my bow from my back, the runes carved into its side glow a faint sickly teal. “See you on the other side, Faladel.” I reply.
And I set off to hunt.