Voices float past me like ghosts. I try to catch them, these ethereal phantoms, but they’re too nimble. Sometimes I think I hear Kamiron and Dace arguing about trusting someone. And then a woman screams, and there is a slashing sound and gurgling. Next I swear I’m being dumped into a tub of water pulled straight from a glacier, but I can’t make myself move, open my eyes, or even protest. Then I’m swaying and thumping down what feels like steep steps. More arguing, this time a voice I don’t recognize. It sounds angry, the accent is foreign. Arabic. Dace then tells Zakk to let him negotiate.
“We want safe passage, time to heal her.”
But another ghost voice is there, whispering that I’m a lobisomem now. Kill me or someone else will.
Time passes and the ghosts recede. I sleep, I think. And then I feel my body. Heavy but warm and comfortable. I smell fire and dirt. Mints and incense. There is a weight against my stomach and I hear soft snoring.
My lashes take coaxing but finally I’m able to lift them. I find myself on a cot made of cloth and rotted grass taken from the Hallow Wastes. The ceiling above is made of limestone and compact dirt. I wiggle ten fingers, ten toes.
Okay, I’m still intact with all my limbs in place. That’s always a plus.
I raise my arm and notice that my forearm is bandaged with a motley assortment of shredded cloth in all shades. I’m sure I recognize part of a faded Old Navy logo buried in the patchwork bandage. Expecting to feel sore, I attempt to sit up but find I cannot. A glance reveals Kamiron snoring against my belly.
That explains the pressure on my stomach.
I am reluctant to wake him so I scrutinize our unexpected surroundings. We seem to be in a cell. There is only one cot and a squat stool on which Kam slouches. Fat iron bars welded into the limestone prevent all escape and torchlight glimmers just beyond the bars. I cannot see any further into the dungeon.
There’s no sign of Zakk or Dace but surprisingly our weapons rest against the far wall near what looks like a hole for bodily waste. Wrinkling my nose, my gaze shifts back to Kamiron. He looks oddly peaceful as he sleeps, though the angle he’s contorted his body can’t be comfortable. His messy ink-black hair falls across his forehead, brushing against his long lashes. Dirt mars his sharp cheekbones and his full lips are slightly parted as he snores. I find dried blood staining his neck and shirt and suddenly I remember our battle with the lobisomem. I remember how he took down the first werewolf, the grace and power behind his attack. He moved with confidence, his expression one of boldness and determination. He is a natural warrior, and I wonder about his Japanese ancestry. I can imagine he’d fit in perfectly amongst the samurai of feudal Japan.
I must have shifted because Kamiron springs to his feet. He whirls, searching for the threat that startled him. He blinks at our empty cell in a brief moment of confusion. Gray eyes that look silver in the firelight land on me. The tension leaves his muscular shoulders and he wipes the drool from the corner of his mouth before returning to the stool.
“How you holdin’ up?”
“Fine, considering. Where are we?”
I attempt to sit up, but Kamiron places a hand on my shoulder and holds me down. His fingers then drift up to my cheek, trailing my brows before smoothing back my hair. I imagine I look a fright, but his expression is one of wonder. “You’re incredible, you know.”
My heart patters. It’s not often a handsome guy calls me incredible. Especially not one who watched me kill his girlfriend. Instead of taking the compliment with grace, I blurt out, “Have you been drinking?”
Kamiron chuckles. “I could go for one, actually.”
He allows me to sit up--slowly. The room spins a little. I rub the sleep from my eyes and adjust to the sudden vertigo. Kamiron joins me on the cot, drapes his arm over my shoulder and answers my earlier question. “We’re in a dungeon somewhere. I don’t know exactly where, but it’s a series of underground tunnels and caves.”
“Then . . . what . . .?” I try to remember what happened after the firewall. I’d heard voices and an argument.
“Yeah,” Kam acknowledges, “It was me and Dace. When I opened up the ground with my sledgehammer, it uncovered this tunnel entrance. There was a girl standing there, told us to follow her. Dace didn’t want to, but we didn’t have a choice. You were burning up in my arms. I had to do something. Then more werewolves showed up, only two, they made it through the fire.”
He takes my hand in his, his golden skin gleams in the ambient torchlight.
“Why would Aterians help us? Are they Blood Shield?”
“I don’t think so. We didn’t see any brands on them. Their leader claims they’re refugees. Survivors of ‘The Hunt.’”
“The Hunt?” I whisper, and a chill flickers across my skin. “One of Andy’s games. He releases a few dozen captives into the tunnels that weave beneath his keep, claiming that if they can escape the labyrinth, they will be free.”
“Sounds too good to be true.”
“It is. He lets his hounds chase the captives throughout the tunnels, killing any they encounter. The rest are flushed from the depths of the labyrinth and most end up in some region of the Hallow Wastes.”
Kamiron pales and his hand squeezes mine so tightly I wince. He immediately loosens his grip. “Where the lobisomem wait for them.”
“They think they’ve gained freedom, but they’ve only succeeded in escaping The Darkness-That-Hunts. No one can escape Ater.”
Kam’s look is appraising. “You did.”
My fingers trace the pendant at my neck. “I had help.” The memory of Gjinna vanishes in a puff of blood-colored smoke. “For all the good it did me. I’m right back where I started.”
We stare at the iron bars and listen to the fire. The air feels closed, stale. I wonder how long they intend to keep us down here.
“Guess we were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
I tilt my head at Kamiron but he doesn’t look at me. He stares beyond our cell door to the darkness that swallows our dungeon.
“The werewolves were fighting over territory,” he continues. “Control more of the entrances to the labyrinth . . .”
“Get a better harvest from The Hunt.” I feel sick and am relieved when Kamiron changes the subject.
“The survivors weren’t going to let us stay. Dace negotiated with their leader, a guy they call Scalpel.”
I vaguely recall that part of the conversation, the gruff voice I’d never heard before, the thick Arabic accent. “Scalpel thinks I’m a lobisomem?”
Kamiron licks his lips and glances at my bandaged forearm. “If you are bitten by a werewolf and survive, the fever eats you up and you either die or become one of them.”
My body tenses. “I thought that was just in movies.”
“So did I, but apparently that’s what makes them so feared here. They can change anyone. Unseelie, vampires, mages, anyone.”
No wonder The-Darkness-That-Hunts uses them as his personal guards. “Then they replenish ranks by infecting others and transforming them?”
“And Dace stopped them from killing me?”
“He got them to spare your life for twenty-four hours. In return, they split us up and put us in these dungeons. For our protection.” The faint anger that laces his tone lets me know that “our protection” had little to do with the decision.
Fear makes itself at home between my ribs and I force myself to voice the one question I don’t want to know. “Am I . . . changing?”
“It would have already happened if you were going to. That’s why you’re incredible.” Kamiron’s sidelong gaze is admiring and he squeezes my fingers again, though this time more gently. “First you save us from the outpost werewolves, then you made a firewall that took out the war party and you even survived the werewolf’s bite. Do you not realize how amazing that is?”
I can’t help my own flush of pleasure. “But you couldn’t have known that. I could have changed while we were locked up in here.”
His chuckle is dry and bitter. “I think they were counting on it, since I refused to let them give you a merciful death. They wanted me to be forced to kill you if you changed, or get killed in return and they’d come down here and finish the job.” His frown loosens and gray eyes meet mine solemnly. “I doubted you once, Shari. Never again.”
We sit in silence, our arms and fingers tanged, our bodies drawing warmth from one another. I think about all he’s been through, how I literally stumbled into his life and turned everything upside down. Even killed the girl he loved, and yet he’s still willing to stay by me and put his life on the line for mine . . .
Before I can lose my courage, I tilt my head toward him and plant a soft kiss against his cheek. “I’m sorry about Sandra.”
Kam stiffens and draws a shaky breath. His fingers untangle from mine. “You did what you had to do. I . . . would have done the same. I’m sorry for holding it against you.”
The fire from the torch crackles and shadows play against the curves of the empty stool. I feel our cell settling around us with minor sighs of stone and earth. I want to say something to break our awkward silence, but my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth like it’s become taffy. Taffy . . . The thought of food makes me realize how hungry and thirsty I am but Kamiron distracts me with an unexpected question.
“Want to know something that’s been on my mind lately?”
I lean my head on his shoulder and his palm slides up and down my arm. The sensation of his rough skin smoothing out the wrinkles and tears of my aketon is comforting. “Of course.”
“For the longest time, my mother wanted kids.”
“But she was barren.”
“Exactly. She and my dad went to dozens of fertility clinics, consulted specialists, adhered to strict diets that were supposed to promote fertility, nothing panned out. She’d finally given up having a child of her own by the time she met the kami.”
“Kami?” I fumble with the pronunciation. Kah-me.
“Think of it like a spirit of nature, a kind of localized deity.” Kamiron tugs his fingers through his messy hair in a nervous gesture. “She was visiting my grandparents and stopped at the local shrine. She’d been there dozens of times, but this time she made a wish. She pled for the kami to help her have a child.
“She said it was like the earth rose up to embrace her. She could feel its presence like cherry blossom petals caressing her skin through her yukata. A male voice said, ‘Chieko, I will give you a child, a true son of the earth, and his destiny will be to change the world.’”
I lift my head to gape at Kamiron but he refuses to meet my gaze. I notice a flush of pink darkening his cheeks. I nudge him with my elbow. “That’s pretty incredible.”
“No it isn’t. I’ve always thought she was insane.”
His bluntness startles me.
“Obviously it was the fertility treatments that made her pregnant, not some demigod hanging out at a shrine.” His free hand tugs at the rotted cloth that covers the straw mattress of our cot. His left hand continues to rub my arm as if he, too, finds the contact soothing. “I used to be so ashamed. Ashamed of her and her crazy stories of spirits and gods, ashamed of my Japanese name. Ashamed she wasn’t more American. Normal.” He bites his lip and stares at his right hand as if seeing it for the first time. I watch as he curls and uncurls his fingers into a fist. “But now that I’ve seen this place, the things I can do beyond my psi-abilities . . . maybe she wasn’t so crazy after all.”
I don’t know what to say about that, so instead I inquire about something he said earlier. “Kamiron isn’t your real name?”
“It’s my American name. My Japanese name is Kamichirō. It’s . . . not a typical Japanese name, and the way it’s written--”
Rusty hinges wail and scream somewhere above us and I feel the shift in the dungeon’s closed, stale air. Kamiron leaps to his feet and retrieves his sledgehammer. He tosses me my longbow before approaching the bars and squinting out at the darkness.
My fingers glide up and down the yew. It nearly hums with power and I’m surprised how much calmer I feel holding it. “For them to be so threatened by us, I’m surprised they allowed us keep our weapons.”
“I cautioned them that our weapons were enchanted.” Zakk’s disembodied voice echoes through the dungeon somewhere to my right. “If they were to touch them, they’d die a horrible death.”
Zakk’s solemn declaration freezes the relief I feel at hearing his voice. “Is that true?”
“Oh, it’s complete crap.” I hear the smile in his soft voice, “But the bluff worked.”
Kam shakes his head, a grin plastered to his face. Dace’s voice, slurred with sleep, floats up to the low dungeon ceiling.
“Glad you didn’t wolf out on us and eat our Chameleon for lunch, Shari.”
Kam’s smile fades as a succession of boots trample down a staircase hidden somewhere to our left. The torch just outside our cell dips and twists as eight people clamor into view, each gripping some sort of makeshift weapon. Mostly handmade swords and axes crafted from a combination of stone, bone, or in rare cases iron. A young woman with skin darker than mine steps into full view of the torch. She looks vaguely Polynesian to me with almond shaped eyes like Kamiron, though they are dark. Her thick black hair curls just below her ears in a severe bob cut.
“I see you’re still alive.” She doesn’t speak to me but to Kamiron.
“I told you I would be.”
Grunting, the woman reaches into her dingy shirt. Unlike our clothes, it’s modern and I notice that all the guards’ clothes are modern but patchworked. An Old Navy logo mixed with Aeropostale stitched with some nameless brand into a new T-shirt. A chest piece made from slivers of bone and limestone, linked one over the other like scales, guards their torsos. The woman’s jeans are frayed at the hem but clean.
A set of iron keys jangle. “No sudden moves,” she orders. Locks pop and creak as she turns the key. Our door swings open and we step out. Instantly three of the guards form a ring around us, forcing us to back up against the wall just beside our cell door. The smoke from the torch above my head stings my eyes as I watch the woman and four other guards surround Zakk and Dace’s cell.
“Well hullo, Gorgeous,” Dace greets as she unlocks his cell door. She stiffens and a look of irritation feathers across her face.
“Shut up, put your clothes on, and get out here.”
Kamiron and I raise our eyebrows. A half second later, Zakk strides out of the cell with a three-guard escort. From their furtive glances and tense postures, I realize these refugees consider Zakk, with his magic and nine-foot naginata, its blade currently sheathed in wood, their primary threat.
But my money would’ve been on Kamiron. His huge sledgehammer and the dexterity with which he wields it is enough to inspire terror. I can still see him sprinting towards the nearest lobisomem, a powerful creature that easily outweighs him by a hundred pounds, and promptly bashing in its head with just the steel shaft of his weapon.
Dace finally strolls out of the cell with his chakram clanking at his hips. Surprisingly, he’s taller than the woman. He dips his head to her and flashes a winning smile. “Thanks for the hospitality, Gorgeous. Now, how about some breakfast?”
She shoves him before falling into stride behind him. I notice he only has one guard eyeing him. “My name is Risa. Food might be provided once you have explained yourselves.” She motions to her guards and I notice several fingers along her right hand and one along her left appear to have been chewed off. She catches me staring and scowls.
There are only two cells down here, but as we climb a narrow, winding staircase, I count five more at varying levels of the dungeon. Each are empty. The tunnel we follow is hewn from solid bedrock. The work is rough and unskilled. Torches mark the distance at fifteen-foot intervals and in the darkness that stretches between each torch, I notice glowing, rust-colored lichen choking the cracks and crevices of the bedrock.
A wrought iron grate greets us at the top of the stairs. Risa passes through first and we each follow. Dace huddles close to me.
“All joking aside, Golden Compass, I really am relieved you’re okay,” he continues. “The refugees wouldn’t touch you but they provided fresh bandages and salves and Zakk healed you as best he could.”
“I owe you guys,” I reply, nodding to Zakk who graces me with a half-smile. He then averts his gaze and focuses on our surroundings. Based on the dungeon, I had expected to find more depressing and claustrophobic caves, dark except for the light from the torches, with narrow alcoves and dirt that smelled of age-old rot. Instead the area is bright and spacious--a massive cavern of polished limestone swirling with glittering veins of blue and flakes of copper. Lanterns and torches dangle from the stalactite ceiling or huddle in bowls carved from the thick stalagmites that grace the floor and look like trapped stars. Small shacks, haphazardly crafted from limestone, wood, iron, and tin squat one on top of the other at least three stories high. Bridges of braided rope and wood arc between each level of the structures and up to the stubby stalactites where the bridges serve as a catwalk complete with more guards.
People, most worse for wear but alive, go about their duties. Several carry woven baskets crammed with foraged supplies; some cook over a spit of anemic flame; others wash clothes in the pools of dark water that dot the cavern floor.
We pass by a woman crafting armor. The clink of her mallet on unformed metal seems overly loud, and at first I can’t understand why this troubles me. And I realize what bothers me about this place: the quiet. For this cavern to be so full of people and activity, sound is oddly muted. Conversations occur in brisk whispers, quick and efficient. Ground out between stiff lips as if the mere act of speaking is painful. It’s as if these people are holding their breath, waiting for the moment when the other shoe will drop. I suppose I’d feel the same if I were a part of a secret community thriving right under Andhakar’s nose.
“I never even knew this world existed,” I say, not really speaking to anyone in particular but Risa spares a glance over her shoulder.
“We like to keep it that way. The Darkness-That-Hunts can never know or he will destroy us.”
And then I notice something else troubling: everyone owns a weapon and a necklace made of grass and twined around a delicate glass vile. Brackish liquid splashes against cork stoppers as heads turn to stare at us. I count at least forty people of varying ages. Most in their early twenties. A few as young as eight. All sport some souvenir from their time in Andhakar’s care. Severed body parts, missing eyes or ears, burned skin, teeth marks.
No way they were going to be taken alive again. If it came down to it, I couldn’t begrudge them wearing vials of poison. “So you all were survivors of The Hunt?”
Risa marches us directly through the center of the cavern and the survivors give us wide berth. From the rope bridges above, guards glare down at us with open distrust. We pass several tunnels that lead who-knows-where but Risa doesn’t turn or even glance at them.
“When The Darkness-That-Hunts first set us free in the tunnels to be flushed out by his hounds and into the jaws of the lobisomem, a few of us were lucky enough to find other survivors. Now we form search parties to find any who are wandering the tunnels and, if they are suitable candidates for our community, we bring them here.”
Kamiron tilts his head to the side. “‘Suitable candidates?’”
“If they are too damaged either physically or psychologically, or they are cowards who would turn on us given a chance, we leave them to their fates.”
Risa’s callous disregard makes Kamrion and Zakk bristle, but before Kam can argue, I step in.
“It makes sense. You can’t afford to be altruistic or charitable. You must survive at all costs.”
For once Risa doesn’t look at me as if I’m a questionable stain on her shoes. “Precisely.”
“Then what are you going to do with us?” Dace demands.
We’ve reached the far end of the cavern where a massive door stands. The two sentries protecting it part for Risa.
“That isn’t for me to decide. Through here.”
We are ushered inside a room with huge drapes stretched across the walls. Like everything else, the drapes are patched together from different fabric though this time all in shades of blue like some kind of blue patchwork quilt. It mutes the stark limestone floor and conical pillars that support the second level. Lanterns drip from chains and cast orange halos across long tables and chairs carved from stalagmites. Votive candles burn on the ground around the pillars and coupled with the drapes give the room the look of a rustic cathedral.
We glide up a swirling staircase to the second level. We pass several narrow doors--perhaps used for storage--until we come to a strange circular door of black stone with iron hinges and a heavy bar across it. Risa takes out her key, fits it into the lock, and turns it. The bar across the door clicks and slides away. Risa grunts as she heaves open the black door.Inside I find a naked, freshly dead body.