The Duke's Wolf, Part Four
by Amber E. Scott
Illustrated by David Esbri
With nothing but a light and a dagger, Bun plunged deep into the tunnel complex, Duke Hessel’s finest hunter only steps behind her.
Her speed was so great it frightened Bun. She felt that she was constantly on the brink of tripping and sprawling onto the cavern floor. Her light wavered off the walls and illuminated only a few feet before her; Bun felt that she could almost outrun the light, sprint ahead into the darkness and skid into a wall or lose control going around a corner. Her lungs ached as she ran, as if she couldn’t draw enough breath.
She couldn’t hear Kaeton’s footsteps, but she knew the hunter had to be close behind her. Bun knew she should be terrified at the thought of Kaeton stalking her. An unusual feeling overshadowed her fear, though; this place seemed so familiar to Bun. The familiarity distracted her. It was as if she’d seen this place in a dream.
Bun couldn’t keep her breakneck pace up in the slick tunnel. She slowed and caught her breath. A glance over her shoulder showed no Kaeton. Of course, I can’t see anything beyond my light.
“Keep running, Bun.” The hunter’s voice echoed down the tunnel, and Bun’s heart jumped. “Run as far and fast as you like. I will still catch you.”
“Why haven’t you caught me yet?” Bun whispered under her breath. Then she remembered Kaeton’s limp. Maybe he hurt his foot more badly than I thought.
Hope blossomed inside her. Perhaps I can outrun him after all.
As Bun fled down the tunnel, a low hum built around her. The hum grew louder the farther she ran, and the moisture on the walls worsened until tiny rivers dripped continually down the rough stone walls. Threads of silvery lichen covered the walls like ivy, fluorescing in Bun’s light. The sense of familiarity returned, twice as strong this time. Bun stumbled under the weight of the memory.
“I have been down here before,” she said to herself. She stopped for a moment and touched the wall. It vibrated under her hand.
The memory came back in its entirety. She recalled standing in this same tunnel, only it had been much larger then. No, I was smaller. A child. Her father had reached out and touched the wall. “We’re close to the river. That’s why it’s so damp down here. Come on, Bun. Don’t be scared.”
“You should carry her,” Bun’s mother had said. She couldn’t remember her mother’s face, but the sound of her voice suddenly rang clear in her memory. “Are you sure the hunters can’t follow us down here?”
“I hid the entrance.” Her father had picked her up and hugged her close. “You shouldn’t have been out by yourself at night, Bun. You’re lucky we saw you.”
“I woke up and you were gone,” Bun had said.
“We can’t both go out at the same time anymore,” Bun’s mother had said. Then she had stopped walking. “Did you hear something?”
Bun’s father looked back over his shoulder. “If he’s found the entrance…quick, run. Back to the inn.”
The memory was jerky, jolting, fragmented because Bun had bounced in her father’s arms as they ran. He was hampered by Bun’s weight, and her mother had outdistanced them. So it was her mother that had screamed and disappeared from sight as the ground gave way, the rocky tunnel eaten away beneath by the river’s relentless waters. She remembered her father’s agonized cry, a brief glimpse of the yawning pit before her, and then all had gone dark as Bun buried her face in her father’s shoulder.
Bun came back to the present moment with a shudder. So much makes sense now. Father…mother. Father training Dein. I never knew. Or did I just not want to know? Was that why I forgot how she died?
A rock skipped down the tunnel behind her, and Bun jumped. She knew she had to run, and that even injured, Kaeton would be upon her quickly. But she also now knew that this tunnel was treacherous, honeycombed with hollow patches.
Kaeton doesn’t know that, though.
“One at a time.”
Gingerly, Bun stepped farther into the tunnel. The ground felt solid under her feet. She took several more steps and then glanced back. No sign of Kaeton, yet, but she knew he was coming.
The ground gave a little under her next step with a crack like ice breaking on a pond, and Bun quickly retreated. She pictured her father and Dein creeping along this same tunnel in years past, taking cautious steps to test the ground, perhaps tied together. Bun wondered at the strength of her father, continuing to use the passage where his wife had died. The cause must have meant so much to him.
“You’re slowing down, Bun,” came Kaeton’s whispery voice. “Are you getting tired?”
Bun looked over her shoulder. She saw nothing but blackness beyond her light. She swallowed and turned back to the deadly tunnel. “Yes. It would be strange if I wasn’t tired by now.” Carefully, cautiously, she advanced a few steps. The ground felt solid, but Bun knew one wrong step could be fatal. “You’re not tired, though. Are you?” Bun asked.
“A hunter cannot let anything distract him from his prey.” Bun tried to gauge his distance from her by the volume of his reply, but the echoes made it difficult.
“And you are a fine hunter,” Bun said. “It’s pointless for me to run, I see that.” She took another few steps and the ground cracked below one foot. She skipped to the side, heart racing. The rush of water behind the walls grew no louder, but its relentless surge seemed to sink into Bun’s bones, shaking her apart from the inside.
“Then why do you continue to run from justice? If you’d told me the truth to start, I’d have captured my prey and gone on. You’d be up in your inn right now, preparing dinner for your guests without a care in the world.”
“I don’t believe that,” Bun said. “I’ve heard the tales. You’d have arrested me for conspiring with vigilantes, and dragged me along with them to one of your biased tribunals. I’m not an idiot!”
“No.” Kaeton’s voice was low and soothing, as if he spoke to a wild animal. He’s catching up. “No, you’re not an idiot. You’re a brave and intelligent young woman. It’s a pity you chose to ally yourself with these criminals. Had you been honest with me, perhaps you could have found your own place among the duke’s hunters.”
“I doubt that very much. You see, I understand you, Kaeton. And I’ll use that knowledge to destroy you.” She couldn’t bring herself to say “kill.” Kaeton didn’t immediately reply. Bun took advantage of the silence and pressed on. “From the moment I saw you, you reminded me of a wolf. Not a fox, not a wild cat, not even a human hunter. A wolf.”
“There are some who call me the Duke’s Wolf.” Kaeton’s voice was suspicious, but also curious.
“Wolves are dogs. You said hunters care for nothing but capturing their quarry, but they do. Hunters care about their lives and their families and all sorts of things. Dogs only care about one thing, though.”
“Oh? And what is that?”
Again, Kaeton did not reply. Bun’s words hung in the air, and she felt as if she’d struck a telling blow. “You’re utterly loyal to the duke.”
“Perhaps not. But it’s a weakness.” Bun broke off, choked momentarily by a surge of fear as she caught sight of movement in the shadows behind her. He was there, almost close enough to touch. She scrambled forward a few feet.
“Your loyalty means more to you than your life. You’re an outdoorsman; you must see the danger in this place.”
“This treacherous tunnel? I see.”
The ground crumbled beneath Bun’s next step, and she staggered forward, clutching at the slick wall to try and keep her balance. “Yet you follow me. Dein didn’t want us to split up. But I knew you were a loyal dog, and you’d track your quarry down to the grave if that’s what it took.”
A crack reverberated in the tunnel, and Bun’s heart leapt. She looked back and saw Kaeton’s shadow lurching wildly in the darkness. But after a moment, he steadied himself and came forward, so close now that Bun could see his features in the light. His eyes gleamed as they watched her, and Bun chose her next few steps with haste.
“So you will sacrifice yourself for your friends? How noble.”
“They’re not my friends. Dein was, long ago, but I don’t know this new Dein. My interests are for myself, my home and my workers.”
“Rational, resourceful, and mercenary. You would indeed have made a fine hunter.”
“I’m not mercenary.” Her protest was automatic.
“No?” Kaeton said nothing more, but his tone made Bun blush as she scrambled along. Gods, let this tunnel end soon!
“Alright, I am mercenary. I tried to turn Dein away at first. I would have sent him out in the rain to protect my inn and myself. I felt guilty over it, but I did it anyway. Then he blackmailed me, he said he would give my name to you when you caught him. So he was mercenary too, for his cause. He said he didn’t mind forcing me to do the right thing.” She lifted her chin. “Well, I don’t know what the right thing is anymore. But I know this cause claimed my mother, and my father, and it’s important enough for Dein and Selisai and Garanel to risk their lives for it. The least I can do is risk yours.”
“And I shall return the favor.”
He lunged at her from out of the darkness, so swiftly and silently that Bun didn’t think to scream. She tried to sprint away, disdaining caution, but Kaeton was right behind her. He caught her by the shoulders and Bun heaved herself forward. They both stumbled heavily on the treacherous floor.
There was a snap and then nothing as Bun fell through the air. She had no breath to scream, and though she scrabbled for a handhold on the edge of the pit, she lacked the reflexes to catch herself. Kaeton tried to halt his fall as well, but he was tangled up with Bun and couldn’t find purchase. Bun had a moment to wonder if this was how she would die too, swept into an underground river like her mother.
But this pit held a stony floor, and Bun suffered nothing worse than a crack on the head and a bruised back. The moisture in the air kept the collapse from releasing much dust. Bun sat up, her head spinning, and wiped damp grit from her cheek. Her stomach heaved with nausea, but nothing seemed broken.
The pit wasn’t terribly deep, perhaps nine or ten feet down. It was narrow with sheer slate walls that glistened in the light. The glowing rod lay on the bottom of the pit, a sloped, jagged surface laced with tiny cracks. Water dripped down the walls and through the cracks.
Kaeton’s crumpled form lay next to her. Bun reached out and touched his shoulder.
The hunter’s body shuddered under her touch. He inhaled, and the breath turned into a laugh, and then a hiss of pain. His leg jerked, and Bun saw it was bent at a strange angle.
“You could have gone down without me,” Kaeton whispered. “Taken a wrong step. Broken through the surface. You could have died.”
“Honestly,” Bun said, “I was certain you’d kill me anyway. Besides, I’m lighter than you are by at least fifty pounds. I’d have been fine if you hadn’t grabbed me.”
“Worse luck for you,” Kaeton said, his voice dry. He tried to turn himself over and grunted with pain. He ended up curled on his side, his face visible. His wolf eyes gleamed. Bun stood hastily, finding herself bruised and sore but intact.
“And now what, Mistress Bun?” Kaeton asked. “Do we fight to the death down here? Or are you counting on your friends to rescue you?”
“Dein can handle the ankheg,” Bun said, hoping it was true. “And they’re not my friends, I already said that.”
“Yet you’ve sacrificed everything for them.”
“Not willingly,” Bun replied. She stood on tip-toe and tried to reach the edge of the pit, but it was too far away. The walls were smooth and slick, and her fingers found no purchase there. “And with luck, I’ll go back to my life as soon as Dein pulls me out of here.”
“You care deeply about this inn, and your workers,” Kaeton said, and he spoke as if Bun were a small child.
“It’s my home,” she said.
“A shame you now must leave it forever.”
“What do you mean?” Bun demanded. Kaeton gave her a small, tight smile.
“Your associates won’t hesitate to kill me once they see how you’ve trapped me. When my hunters realize I’ve gone missing, they’ll return here and tear this place to the ground looking for me. They’ve probably already started back, as they can’t have found any tracks of the vigilantes’ passage. You’ll be arrested and questioned as to my whereabouts. Your workers too, possibly. Do you think you can successfully lie to one of the duke’s ‘biased tribunals’?”
Bun went cold all over. She wanted to protest Kaeton’s scenario, she wanted to insist it wasn’t possible and that it wouldn’t happen like that. She couldn’t find the words, or the belief to back them up.
“Now, if you help me out of here,” Kaeton continued, “I’ll repay your kindness by moving on. I’ll return to track Dein and his companions, of course. Their crimes are well documented and unforgivable.”
“By your standards.”
“You, however, are nothing more than an innocent bystander. Your crimes were perpetrated only because Dein extorted you.”
“Dein did what he thought was right,” Bun said. “But there is no leniency, no margin for intent, in your laws, are there?”
“Dein knew the rules when he chose to break them.”
“You provide no legitimate means for changing the rules,” Bun snapped. “The duke seized control of us by force, and that was right to you. But we use force to fight back and we are wrong?”
“We? Are you a vigilante now?”
“They do, then. You still call them wrong for doing what you yourself call right.”
Kaeton’s voice sent chills up Bun’s spine. “We can debate politics later. Right now, I’m telling you your options. Let me die, and you lose your home. Let me go, and you can stay.”
Bun stood motionless, her mind racing, listening to the hum of water behind the walls and Kaeton’s ragged breathing. She didn’t know how much time had passed when a familiar voice echoed above. “Bun?”
“Dein!” She looked up, straining to see his face. “Dein, I’m down here!”
A glow reached the edge of the pit, brightened, and then she saw Dein lean over the pit. His eyes lit up at the sight of her. “Bun, thank the Lady of Serenity you’re alive!”
“Get me out of here!”
“Hold on a moment, I’ll get my rope.” He disappeared, and Bun heard him rummaging through his pack. Then he poked his head over the edge again. “Is the hunter dead?”
“Not yet,” rasped Kaeton.
Dein scowled at the hunter. Bun tried to defuse any brewing conflict. “We can talk about that later, Dein. Please pull me out.”
A rope slithered down to her, and after much exertion and scrabbling, Bun clambered back into the main tunnel. She stood up, dusting off her palms, and then squeaked as Dein caught her in an unexpected embrace. She put her arms around him instinctively. Dein squeezed her gently, his face in her hair. “I’m so glad you’re alright.”
“Me too,” she stammered, and pulled away.
“You’re sure you’re okay?” he asked, brushing strands of hair out of her eyes. Bun nodded.
“Good,” Dein continued. He looked battered, one sleeve soaked through with blood and his face bruised, but otherwise sound. He drew a knife and walked to the edge of the pit.
It took Bun only a split-second to understand. “Dein, no! Wait!”
Dein halted in mid-throw. “What?”
She moved beside him and looked down in the pit. “Don’t kill him.”
“Why not?” Dein stared at her, his expression grave.
She hesitated a moment. Why not indeed. Because he’s telling the truth? Because he’ll let me live like I always have, if I spare him?
I could never go back to that life. Not now.
“Don’t kill him because if he dies, so does everyone upstairs. Other hunters will come looking for him. If he lives, he’ll hunt us, but only us. And don’t kill him because…” She took a deep breath. “Because I’m not ready for it yet. I can’t go back to the way I was, but I’m not willing to take lives yet. He will escape, I’m sure of it, but we can cover a lot of ground before he does so.”
Dein turned to face her squarely, his eyes fixed on hers. “We?”
She nodded. “Even if I stayed, even if I could somehow make this go away, I’m different now. Learning about father and you and this place...it’s changed me. I want to see what you see; I want to know why my father did this. Why he gave so much for this.”
Dein’s voice was husky. “I have to be honest, Bun. I won’t always be able to protect you. I can’t guarantee anything.”
She smiled. “It will be an adventure.”
. . . . .
With the pressure of Kaeton’s hunt momentarily eased, Bun and the others took the time to properly tend to Garanel’s wounds. The wounded half-elf looked pale but better than he had before, and slept soundly in the wagon. Selisai sat beside him, her wounds bandaged as well. Bun stood beside the wagon and stared at the Weary Wayside Inn.
Dein put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Bun. I know you’ll miss it. I regret dragging you into this, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
She nodded. Someday I’ll forgive you. “Selisai will be alright too?”
“Yes. We took some bad blows bringing down that ankheg, but she comes from hardy stock. Hopefully we’ll find a healer soon who can fix up all of us. Are you ready to go?”
“No,” she whispered. “I’ll never be ready. But it’s time.”
Bun climbed into the wagon and rolled away from her home. To die, perhaps, without ever returning. I may never see this place again.
But she kept the front-door key with her, just in case.
Amber E. Scott (known in some circles as Medesha) lives in a dark hole in the ground with her D&D books and an internet connection. Born in Canada, she now roams the land like a tumbleweed of gaming goodness, going wherever the wind may take her. She has had several articles published in Dragon Magazine, including the "Ecology of the Will-o'wisp" and "Giants of Xen'drik," with more scheduled to appear. Her first D&D sourcebook, Secrets of Xen'drik, is now available. Amber likes playing rogues and paladins the best, but prefers DMing because of the POWER. The absolute POWER! Yes, she really is a gamer chick, no, she's not available. She just celebrated six years of wedded bliss with her husband. Amber lives entirely on praise, and will starve if you do not feed her ego. You can read more about her at www.medeshafreelancing.com.
David Esbrí is an illustrator born in distant lands who struggles to squeeze his works in as many gaming products as possible. He's somewhere close to being the resident RPGA illustrator, as well as an usual suspect in many RPG publishers. He has published a few comic books in Europe and finally has fullfilled his dream of painting for his favorite CCG, A Game of Thrones. Now the sky, his physical exhaustion, and his lack of healthy habits are his only limits. Reach him at his website.