“Where do we go? Which way to the gate?”
“I think that way.” I pointed left.
Arion stilled a moment, then turned to me sharply. “You think?” He hissed.
“I was told that this level had been changed so drastically during the battle that the chances are, the map was useless.” I grimaced. “I was, uh, also told that if I found myself in this level, it didn’t matter if the map was perfect or not because I would never make it out anyway.”
He looked like he was about to strangle me, and I didn’t blame him this time. Rian touched my shoulder gently and made a motion with his hands, then tilted his head. His face looked worried but not angry.
I answered his silent question, understanding him now so well that it was almost as if he could speak. “The nearest gate is about six hours away.”
He grimaced but made another motion. Stairs?
I shook my head.
“We’re dead then.” Jaz stated simply, sounding irritated but completely unsurprised.
I shook my head, then rubbed at it. “No, no, I just need to think.”
“Go ahead, take your time, we’ll just sit here and watch the beasts rip us to shreds.”
If it hadn’t been Aitch that said that, I would have felt insulted.
I sighed. “The level above us has four gates in this general area. If we can find an old werm hole to climb or a collapsed area of the ceiling, we can reach a way out. Maybe even find a place to fix ourselves up.” I wasn’t the only one with injuries, though my glove was filling with blood in the most alarming way. I held it tight to my chest and put pressure on it as I spoke. “There’s even a gate that leads to–”
There was an enormous roar and no more words were spoken as a slim, black beast leaped from the shadows. Arion ducked and twisted while Aitch dropped an ax down on the beasts’ head with a squelching crack. It fell instantly but looking at the creature – like a mountain lion but with black scales and a head much too narrow to be a cats’ – I realized I had absolutely no idea what it was.
We all shared a look of wariness and began moving silently.
It was easy to tell it had once been a dungeon within moments. Iron cages, still solid though rusted, were lined up in a row, some with chains, many with bones still inside them, or pieces of bones. We saw a grumplin on the ground waiting for us, but Jaz shot it with an arrow before any of us could even think to warn the others. A snake as thick as my neck and longer than triple of me hissed and reared back its head in warning from inside one of the cells. We backed away carefully and it didn’t bother us any further.
I was almost beginning to relax. Almost starting to feel like this wasn’t as bad as we had originally thought, that maybe we would make it to the gate. Sure, we’d probably come across something else dangerous, but as it was, this wasn’t too bad. Perhaps all the creatures had spread out all over the kingdom instead, leaving this area near-forgotten.
Of course, that was precisely when all shenz broke loose.
It’s when you feel safe that you are in the most danger.
Yes, Jovian, I have definitely learned my lesson.
The chill broke through my body violently, and for a moment, I didn’t understand what had caused it. Then, just as quickly, I knew.
I had a bad feeling about this.
I grabbed Arion’s arm and shook my head at him frantically, not daring to mouth a single word, motioning back to the way we’d come. We would find another way around.
But Arion apparently hadn’t felt the ghost walk through him and so was confused and more alert at the same time, searching the shadows for something that I had seen that he had not.
I tugged him again, demanding his attention.
But it was too late.
The sound of the spikehog was frightening enough as it drew nearer, with that echoing rumble as the spikes dug through the stone to move. However, when that sound was accompanied by that slightly musical sound, like a hollow drum beneath the rumble barely heard but there with a song of mourning, it was terrifying. And it was familiar. It was the sound that was behind ghost wolves. This was worse.
I never thought I would see one of those in my lifetime.
But why? How? The type of magic that created ghosts with sharp enough forms to injure was one not brought on by beasts or even elves. In fact, it was so rare that it was only found in one place inside Nahdiera. Inside...
The twenty-first level was in the northern part of the mountains, very near – if far beneath – the North Mountains. The North Mountains which were surround by...
“We’re beneath Eastwood.” I whispered with dawning horror.
No one said to run, we simply turned our tails and ran as a single unit. Fear guiding us all.
With a speed I had no idea I possessed until that moment, I ran as fast as I could back the way we came. If we could get out of Eastwood, we could stay out of the reach of the ghosts of the creatures. Never mind that we were running in the opposite direction of our only way out, we needed to get out of this area right now.
I screamed as the snake we’d avoided earlier suddenly smacked into the stone ahead of me so hard that I was surprised it didn’t kill itself, missing Jazera who ran in front of us by only a single hair. Arion cut off the head before it could even think about turning toward us and we leaped over the withering body.
But my startled scream had caught the attention of something else, of whatever that mountain-lion-like beast had been before, because we heard another roar, then another.
And we were running right toward them.
I searched my mind, going over the map as best I could remember. Oh, why hadn’t I memorized this level better? I should have known I would end up exactly in the worst part of the entire Black Mountain range.
We needed somewhere to hide, and these cages were too old to do. We needed stone and there were some cells with stone walls, but where were they? Right? Was it to the right?
“Turn right!” I shouted.
Oh, I hoped it was to the right.
Passed the next set of cells, we turned right, just as another set of creatures joined the fray. More mutts. These ones looked healthier than the last. Fed better. I hated mutts.
I hated witches, and I hated mutts.
They nipped at our heels and I was quickly beginning to tire. Arion grabbed onto my waist again as he’d done before when I began to slow, and I forced my legs to keep moving, my hand still clutched to my chest from where it was drenched in blood, dripping from my glove and through my cloak and leaving a perfect trail of red, slathering drops for anything with eyes or scent glands to follow.
The cages opened out more as the floor dipped down, slanted slightly. Here, pools of rotting, stale water had formed or wide gaping holes of blackness, bringing back memories of Eastwood, my mother, and drowning. No time to swerve, we leaped over them, hoping beyond hope that nothing reached out and pulled us in. I saw a reptile of some sort leap out at Aitch’s leg just ahead, but it missed. Jaz, right behind him, somehow shot it as she leaped over it. It was still making its dying splash in the water when Arion and I leaped over it as one.
Then there were the stone cages.
Relief washed over me. It had been to the right.
“Get in one!” I cried hoarsely, almost tripping as a mutt pinched my calf again. There was a roar closer behind, but I didn’t dare look back. Not now. If I looked back, it would surely be leaping for me. If I looked back, I would never look forward again.
Rian swirled and leaped into a stone cell. Aitch went in next and Jaz twisted with her arrows, shooting one over my shoulder – so close that it grazed my ear – before she leaped in as well. Then Aitch was reaching out and grabbing the door, already beginning to close it with screeching hinges when Arion and I burst inside.
The force of the mass helped slam it shut.
"Are we out of Eastwood?” Jaz asked immediately over the sound of the snarling that smacked through the bars that were set into the stone like a window. Paws came through and flicked back out, talons of an unknown beast tried to rip the iron from the bars, a gaping mouth with dripping fangs slammed up and crunched down, taking rust and stone with it as it fell.
“Think so.” I gasped, searching desperately for water with my uninjured hand.
“What now?” Asked Arion dryly as he let go of my waist. “Wait for them to get bored?”
Bladder halfway to my mouth, I realized I was quite dizzy and went to my knees.
Rian was over to me in an instant and before I could protest, he had pulled off my leather glove.
It didn’t matter – it was literally painted red from my blood pooling inside the glove. My blood covered the marks. I yanked away anyway.
Even Arion was alarmed though, and I heard Aitch curse.
I tucked my hand away beneath my cloak against my aching chest, though I was a bit alarmed myself, I tried not to show it on my face.
Arion knelt at my side. “Let me see.” He said gently.
“Mir,” he put his fingers under my chin, lifting my face calmly. “That needs to be dealt with now.”
“Just give me something to wrap it with and I’ll be fine.” I kept my arm tucked in, gripping it tight and refusing to allow anyone to see it. They couldn’t see the marks. They couldn’t.
When Arion tried to pull my hand forcibly away, I snapped at him. “I don’t want your help!”
He snapped his head back and narrowed his eyes, gentleness gone from them in an instant.
Rian whistled to get our attention and motioned to the walls, even as he held out a roll of linin to me along with my glove. I took them gratefully and turned away best I could to wrap my hand tightly after tucking the leather inside the pocket of my cloak, listening to Arion’s side of the conversations.
“Why? Why would we do that?”
“Have you gone mad? That will kill us, Ri!”
“That’s not my point.”
Then there was Jaz. “Rian does have a point.”
“No.” Aitch said, his tone firm. “No way.”
Jaz: “It could work, if you think about it.”
I finally finished wrapping my arm. It was already soaking through the bandage, but it was tight enough so that it should be alright. I felt dizzy, but not in any immediate danger... well, except for from the snarls and the sound of cracking stone under the force outside the cell door.
“What are you planning?” I finally asked as I stood shakily.
Arion looked at me with a look decidedly grim, while Jaz answered, and Rian started banging on walls with his sword sheath.
“Bring a werm here, then use his tunnel to reach another floor.”
I made a noise with my throat: part squeal, part mew. I had never made that noise before, but it perfectly described how I felt at that moment – bug-eyed and tongue tied.
Aitch was grimacing in a way that made it looked permanently etched into his skin. “This is a terrible idea.” He stated.
Arion gripped my arm as if that would keep me alive and kept his eyes up at the ceiling. Jaz cursed the growling and snarling from the window and shot a few arrows to pass the time. A snake came through the bars, black and venomous – Aitch chopped its head off with his axe, hard enough to chip the blade on the stone. I popped the blood blisters that were forming on my calves from the pinches of the mutts and wrapped them tightly.
All the while, Rian banged on the ceiling and wall over in the one corner, occasionally switching hands when his one got tired.
Believe it or not, I had actually, somehow, begun falling asleep out of sheer boredom when I felt the change in the stone.
It was a rumbling, but not like a spikehog. No, this was the rumble of an earthquake, the rumble of stone being ground up and forced away. This was a sound you would know even if you had never heard it before. You could be in any land under any circumstances and if you heard this sound, you would know exactly what was coming. Even if you did not know the name.
It had a head and body width that could grow up to eight twigs wide, with a head as hard as diamond built for borrowing through stone and a body with skin so tough no known weapon could pierce it, sometimes growing as long as two or even three arms. It could not see but could hear minute sounds through stone at over five arms away and were well known to get very, very angry when disturbed.
And we were the idiots that disturbed it. On purpose.
This was a terrible idea.
I stood up, noticing that the beasts outside the door were running away in fear. Obviously, those creatures were the more intelligent species.
The ceiling began to crumble right where Rian had been pounding. He and Aitch grabbed Jaz and jammed her in the far corner while Arion grabbed me and jammed me in one as well, covering my head with his arms. I tucked my head into his chest just as the sound of grinding stone pierced our ears with a deafening groan.
If it was too large, or if it was curved in this direction at all, or if the ceiling above is had any weak spots, we were dead.
That was all I had time to think before the stone rained down on us.