A bolt of raw brightness flashed across the permanent dusk of the drainage tunnel junction, illuminating Eleanor in its stark glow before silhouetting Thrace against the far wall. The renegade shielded his face against a spray of shattered masonry with the hem of his cape.
The junction again sank into its dim twilight. The only illumination came from rows of small, ineffective skylights chiseled into vaulted ceiling of the tunnel. No, not skylights, storm drains.
Pattering footsteps sounded against flagstones, fading as he fled deeper into the maze beneath the Splinter Rock. The border fort was old, and its hidden depths stretched far beneath the mountains.
Cole lowered his bow. He couldn’t see the renegade lost to the gloom. He turned at the sound of heavy footfalls to barely make out the vague outline of Ula trundling up from behind. The mercenary captain bowled him over before he could stop. The stocky man mumbled an apology, as Cole picked himself up.
Along the walls, cast iron sconces held dusty, unlit torches. “A huntsman does not bring a lantern into the forest,” Cole thought. His eyes were still adjusting to the gloom, though. The tracker kept his arrow knocked and crossed to the far side the tunnel junction.
behind him the rustle of Eleanor’s robes told Cole that the Pact Keeper was close on his heels. Ahead, he could make out another branch in the corridor. Reaching the split, he stopped and dropped to a knee, trying to find some mark of Thrace’s passing in the dust on the hallway floor.
Elanor cursed bitterly, impatiently. “Quickly, which way did he go?”
Cole squinted in the darkness. “Not enough dust for large tracks and not enough light for faint ones. Do you have another ribbon of finding?”
“No, I used the only one I had earlier.”
“Alright,” Cole fumbled in his pouch, and came out with a pair of linen strips that he hoped would furnish a quick light spell. He clenched the spell ribbons in his fist and whispered in the First Language:
Light – Exist
The ink faded from the linen swatches, and a faint glow, something that might have been stolen from a lightning bug, shone in his cupped palm. He could see the tracks in the dust now. They lead left. He closed his hand around the light, snuffing it out. “This way!”
No sooner had they committed to the left-hand path, then a First Language invocation sounded from the darkness ahead:
Iron – Shatter
In quick succession, the iron sconces along the hallway burst apart. Cole threw himself to the floor as the braziers above them splintered, showering the group with metal fragments. Behind him, Eleanor cried out. Heard a grunt from Ula, shrapnel clattering against the sellsword’s breastplate.
Cole sprang to his feet and shot an arrow blindly down the hallway, then another, and two more.
The patter of running feet faded into the distance.
“Gods’ spit!” He lowered the bow, then picked his way over to Eleanor.
The Pact Keeper was leaning heavily against the passage wall, holding her shoulder.
The tracker patted her down to see where she’d been struck. His hands came away wet with blood, dozens of small wounds pockmarking her face and arm. On the other side of the passage, Ula felt his way toward them along the wall.
“What’s that?” the mercenary growled, stopping in his tracks.
Before Cole could ask the sellsword what he was talking about, the tunnel shook violently. The masonry on which Ula’s hand rested collapsed, and a hulking four-legged thing resembling a mastiff exploded into the passageway. Beneath steel plating, ember-bright eyes glimmered. Smoldering cinders spilled from its open mouth over a row a jagged teeth. In the space of a breath, its jaws seized around Ula’s arm.
The mercenary struggled, mashing his mace against the beast’s skull. Cole yanked his hunting knife from its sheath but was rooted to the spot by the sight of those gnashing jaws. Behind him he heard Eleanor calling out an invocation:
Stone – Kill – Enemy – Crush – Creature – Beast
In the dim light of the tunnel, she was leafing through her folio with abandon, grasping at any spell ribbon she could. The invocation was jumbled and barely a spell, but the wall shuddered in response. It crumpled in on the curse wrought beast, armor buckled against the stone. With a cracking sound, it went limp and the embers in its eyes cooled. Steam wafted from its slack jaws, as its head lolled to one side.
Cole could feel his heart pounding, the hunting knife was still in his hand.
Slumped across the creature’s bulk, Ula lay still.
Eleanor had conjured a light, and it sounded as if she was leafing through her folio once more.
“Lady Eleanor, is he…is he dead?” Cole could not look away from the gruff mercenary’s slouched form.
“I don’t know, but he’s no good to us now.” The light flickered out as she found the spell ribbons she’d been searching for. “Come on.” The Pact Keeper started picking her way down the corridor after Thrace.
Cole tucked his knife back into its sheath and followed.
As they rounded a long bend in the tunnel, sunlight spilled in ahead, and the crashing of water on rock echoed off the stonework walls.
“Be ready,” Eleanor cautioned. “Strike before he can cast a spell.”
Emerging into daylight, they found themselves on a broad platform cut into the eastern mountainside. To their right, an alpine stream had carved a channel down the rockface, crashing and roiling through into the gorge below. It was too slippery to climb, and Thrace was nowhere to be seen. Cole surveyed the eastern slope: swaths of gravel scree, twisted pines, and sparse patches of sage. There was nowhere for their quarry to hide.
“There!” Eleanor called out, pointing.
Cole followed her gaze to the base of the slick precipice, where the cascading water turned to a fine mist amidst among clustered boulders. Somehow, Thrace had descended the cliffside and was wading through the streambed, dragging his waterlogged cape through the swirling eddies. He turned at the sound of Eleanor’s cry, but she was already beginning her incantation:
Lighting – Destroy – Human
From the corridor behind them, the cacophony of metal crashing against stone echoed. Cole wheeled, as did Eleanor. The curse wrought beast, alive but crushed and broken, was charging out of the darkness.
Eleanor loosed her spell.
Lighting struck from a clear sky.
The creature’s armor was blackened, its flesh seared, but the spell had been crafted to kill a human not a war-beast. Its bulk collided with Eleanor, and she stumbled backwards, the beast on top of her, and she fell screaming into the gorge. The foaming water swallowed them both.
Below, Thrace had lost no time. He pointed at Cole on the ledge above and spoke an invocation.
The ground beneath the tracker trembled, then cracked, fractures running the length of the platform.
Cole leapt back seconds before it broke apart and tumbled down the rockface. He drew a chosen arrow from his quiver. One wrapped with a spell ribbon scribed with the First Language word for “destroy” twisted around the shaft and bound tightly with twine. He aimed over the lip of the ledge and fired, speaking the invocation.
The arrow struck above Thrace’s head, but instead of splintering, the ash-wood shaft rent the wall of the gorge, dislodging small boulders and chunks of stone. The renegade threw his arm up, a panicked shout escaping his lips as the rockfall buried him.
His life intact and the quarry felled, Cole cast about for the means Thrace had used to descend. After several seconds of searching, his gaze lighted on a trail of broken scaffolding that jutted from the side of the gorge. He tested it with his foot. It was rotted but might still hold his weight. He clambered down to the streambed.
The curse-wrought beast rested nearly submerged at the base of the rockface, the falling water pummeling its armored side. A stone’s throw away sprawled Thrace, half buried under broken stones and loose dirt. Eleanor was nowhere to be seen.
Cole approached, his knife in hand, meeting the renegade’s gaze with his own.
“Don’t come any closer,” Thrace warned, hand raised. “I’ve studied the Lexicon of Ages. I’ll use it if you force me, and I can’t vouch for what will happen.”
Strike, before he can cast a spell. Cole lunged.
Thrace shouted unintelligible words.
The world came apart.
As the sun tracked backwards across the sky a hundred times, Cole stumbled. It was as if his steps were out of time with an unseen drummer. He tripped on something that wasn’t there, fell backwards into the shallows and felt the waters ice over and thaw with every breath he took.
He shut his eyes tight against strangeness of it.