The Duke's Wolf, Part Three
by Amber E. Scott
Illustrated by David Esbri
Behind them, the door rumbled shut again and plunged them into darkness. Bun stumbled as she ran down the tunnel, and Dein pulled up on her hand to keep her steady. Bun caught herself and tried to slow down, but Dein was almost dragging her along.
“Wait — wait!” she gasped.
“We can’t wait,” came Selisai’s voice from the blackness ahead. “He’s right behind us.”
Her voice echoed in the dark. Bun stumbled again, realizing now that the floor was uneven bare ground, not the smooth boards of the inn. Cool air misted her face, and the tunnel smelled like the time Bun had left a bag of mushrooms in a cupboard and forgotten about them for a month.
“I can’t see,” Bun whispered. Her throat clenched with fear. Her face was on fire where the arrow had scored her, and she pressed her free hand to the wound, trying to staunch the blood.
“Selisai will lead us,” Dein whispered back. “Just follow me.”
She obeyed because she had no choice. This is madness, she thought as she ran. She couldn’t seem to draw enough breath; her lungs struggled painfully to suck in air as she ran. Her fingers stuck together with blood. At every step she was certain she’d fall in the impenetrable blackness. This can’t be happening.
It seemed like she scrambled along in the dark for hours, but it was probably only a few minutes later when Dein halted. Bun slammed into Dein from behind. Her heart almost jumped out of her chest, and she squeaked in shock. “Sorry.”
“I think we’ve gained enough ground,” Selisai said. “Dein, light a candle.”
Bun heard Dein fumbling beside her. His arm brushed hers. “Do you hear anything?”
“No,” Selisai replied. “He must not have made it through the door yet. It won’t bar him for long, though.”
The metallic ting of flint on steel rang out, and a candle flame flickered into life. Bun blinked in the faint glow.
The tunnel was too narrow for two people to stand abreast. It wound forward into blackness. Rivulets of moisture trickled down the craggy walls, leaving silver-green smears of moss in their wake. Their boots left tracks in the packed earth. Shadows marked side tunnels that led off into more darkness.
Bun pulled her hand away from her face and looked at it. There wasn’t as much blood as she’d expected. She touched her face again, but the arrow wound was already drying up and crusting over.
Dein held his candle higher and looked back at the trail. “Damn. He won’t have any trouble tracking us.”
“The tunnel branched several times on the way here,” Selisai said. She shifted Garanel so he leaned more on her shoulder, his arm around her neck. “We could go back, try a different tunnel. Confuse him.”
Dein nodded. Bun shook her head. “That won’t stop him. He’s a hunter.” Selisai started to reply, but Bun cut her off. “We’re heading east, aren’t we?”
“I think so,” Dein said.
“Then let’s keep heading east. Remember when father tried to dig us a swimming hole? It’s all solid bedrock once you get near the river. He can’t track us as easily over a granite floor.”
Dein flashed her a smile, one of his easy old smiles, not the strained grimaces he’d been using lately. “Brilliant, as always.” Bun flushed and looked away.
“Come on, then,” Selisai snapped. She murmured something soft and sibilant to Garanel. The wounded half-elf nodded and straightened. He had to lean heavily on his sister, and his flushed face dripped with sweat.
The group pressed on as quickly as they could. Garanel’s stifled grunts of pain echoed off the stone walls. The tunnel wound and twisted, sloping down and then rising steeply by turns.
“There’s a fork here,” Selisai called back. They halted again. Bun peered around Dein’s shoulder and saw two branches heading off into the dark.
“It’s been a while since I was down here,” Dein said, rubbing his jaw. “I think right takes us out faster.”
“No,” Bun whispered. “See those stains?”
Dein and Selisai turned to follow her pointing finger. Grayish streaks marked the right-hand tunnel floor. Wrinkling his nose, Dein asked, “Darkmantle droppings?”
Bun nodded. “We had an infestation last summer, mostly in the wild, but a few moved into barns or hid under eaves.”
“They’re not very dangerous creatures,” Dein said to Selisai, “but they can be deadly in packs, and we can’t afford to slow down. Best go left.”
The hairs on the back of Bun’s neck prickled. She looked over her shoulder, but saw nothing but darkness. “Hurry.”
They hustled down the left-hand passage. The ground turned from packed earth to solid stone under their feet. Weariness settled into Bun’s bones. She was used to far more exertion than this in a normal day, yet she felt unbelievably fatigued. She wanted to lie down and sleep for hours. The tunnel angled down and Bun almost lost her footing. Dein turned and clapped a hand on her shoulder to steady her.
“Easy,” he whispered.
“I’m so tired.”
“It’s shock,” he said. His hand enveloped hers again. Bun’s fury at how she’d been treated still burned, but Dein’s hand was warm and comforting. She let him lead her for a few minutes in silence.
“How could father have dug this without me knowing?” Bun asked.
Dein faced away from her, but she heard him sigh. “Most of the work was already done. The kook who built this house also built a maze of tunnels down here. Your father told me they were originally store rooms and hiding places, guarded by domesticated — or captured — creatures. Maybe that’s where the darkmantles came from. After he bought the manor, your father expanded one of the tunnels to make a hidden exit.” Bun heard a smile in Dein’s voice. “Many times the duke’s men tracked him down to the river, but they always lost him there. It was so far from the inn, no one ever suspected him.”
“He told you about this but not me.” Bun stared at the floor as she walked. “I suppose he wanted to protect me. I always was his little girl. After mother died…” A memory struggled to surface; Bun paused, tried to recall whatever wanted to be remembered, but it was gone. “After she died I became his little princess. You remember; he put me off by asking me to take charge of the inn while you and he went hunting or camping or anything even remotely dangerous. I was so proud that he thought I was big enough to be in charge of everything.” Her mouth twisted unhappily. “Those weren’t all hunting and camping trips, were they?”
“Not all of them, no. Your dad was real good to me, Bun. He taught me that I could make a difference. And yes, he did want to protect you. Keep you out of it. He always said I should take care of you if anything happened to him.”
“I think you were like his son. I always thought of you like a brother.”
Dein’s voice was low. “Just a brother?”
Bun groped for a reply, and when nothing came to mind she tried to pull her hand away. Dein’s grip tightened. “Bun…”
Garanel slipped through Selisai’s arms and hit the ground, his cry echoing weirdly down the tunnel. Selisai called her brother’s name and dropped to her knees beside him.
Bun jerked her hand out of Dein’s. Dein hurried forward and crouched down. “What’s wrong?”
Selisai drew her brother’s cloak aside to reveal crimson-stained bandages. She muttered something in a fluid language. “He can’t go on like this.”
Bun looked back the way they’d come. “Kaeton must have made it through that door by now. We can’t stop.”
Selisai snapped an angry look at Bun. The woman’s face looked pale and strained despite her dusky skin. “Aren’t you listening? He can’t travel. Look at this.” She touched the sodden makeshift bandages helplessly.
“We’ll have to stand and fight,” Dein said. His hand slipped over the hilt of his sword.
“No!” Bun rubbed her temples. “Might as well say stand and die. I’m not a warrior, Garanel’s hurt, and Kaeton is a monster.”
“I’m not leaving Garanel behind,” Selisai said. Her voice rang off the walls.
“I’m not asking you to,” Bun retorted. “But we can’t stay and fight.” She looked at Dein. “Here’s a plan. Selisai, we’ll help you and Garanel ahead a little bit. Find a place to hide him. Dein and I will backtrack and take a side passage. Maybe we can draw Kaeton off, keep him running in circles until you’ve had a day to rest. Then we’ll see if he’s strong enough to travel.”
It seemed a logical plan to Bun, but Selisai’s expression didn’t change. There was an awkward silence. Then Dein cleared his throat. “It doesn’t work like that, Bun.”
“What?” She gave him a blank stare. “Doesn’t work like what?”
“We don’t split up,” Dein said. “We don’t leave people behind. It’s a rule we have.”
“We? You mean vigilantes?”
He nodded. “If they split us up, they weaken us.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Splitting up gives us a chance at surviving this nightmare.”
“It does make sense,” Selisai growled. She pulled off her cloak and began tearing it into bandages. “In the south, the hunters try to split you up. Get you alone, panicked, wondering if your friends made it. Leaving you alone to be run down by the dogs. Then when they do catch you, they lie to you, tell you you’re the last one, that everyone else has given you up.”
“At least if we stay in a group, we can protect each other.” Dein’s face looked as if it were carved from stone. “And, if necessary, ensure that none of us are alive to capture.”
Bun covered her mouth. “You don’t — really,” she stammered.
It seemed like she was seeing Dein for the first time. The lines of worry around his eyes and on his brow; the set of his jaw; the determination in his eyes. “We can’t afford to take chances, Bun. We’ve learned over the years to never split up. For everyone’s safety.”
“She won’t understand,” Selisai muttered.
“I do,” Bun whispered. “I do understand.” She crouched down to look Selisai in the eye. “I didn’t want to believe that’s what life is like in the south, but now I see. I won’t say, ‘if we don’t split up, we might as well kill Garanel.’ Because I know now that you consider it an option.” She reached out and touched Selisai’s shoulder. “Let’s patch him up again. I’ll think of another plan.”
The half-elf looked back down to where her brother lay curled on his side. Her hands moved rhythmically, shredding her cloak. Bun reached out and gathered up the strips, knotting them together into a long bandage. “Lift him up a little.”
Dein set the candle down and maneuvered over the crouching girls. The cramped tunnel afforded him little movement, but Dein wriggled into position. He hoisted the wounded half-elf in his arms. Garanel moaned and whispered a string of broken elven words. Selisai pursed her lips and wound the bandage tightly around her brother’s chest.
“Anything bubbling in that brain of yours?” Dein asked as Selisai worked.
Bun sat back and watched the scene before her. She closed her eyes. Her heart beat faster than normal, thumping an uneven rhythm in her chest. I feel like a trapped animal.
There has to be a way to give us an advantage. I know this area. Dein knows it. Kaeton’s the stranger. He’s in my home, and no one knows my home better than I…
A trapped animal…
She opened her eyes. “We go back. Just a little bit, to the darkmantle tunnel. Can we move Garanel that far?”
“I think so,” Selisai said, “but why? We don’t need to slow ourselves down any further.”
Bun rubbed her chin. “We had to drive off the darkmantles last summer because they drew larger predators to the area. You’ve heard of ankhegs, right?”
Dein nodded. “One used to live under the Eastfield farm.”
“Right, an old one. It’s dead now. But a young, aggressive one showed up hunting the darkmantles. We killed it, but never found its lair. Ankhegs are subterranean. Maybe it was hunting the darkmantles down here, too. Ankhegs dig tunnels; there could be all sorts of old pits and traps in the area. Even if there aren’t, we’re a large group, and darkmantles probably wouldn’t attack us. But they might target a lone figure, like Kaeton.”
“We’ll lose time backtracking,” Selisai said.
“We can’t outrun him regardless,” Dein pointed out. “This is about making a stand in the most strategic location possible. Bun’s right; it’s the best chance we have.”
“Hurry,” Bun said again. She straightened and looked back the way they’d come. “He can’t be far off.”
Selisai met her gaze momentarily. Bun saw weariness and a faint gleam of hope in the other woman’s eyes. “Alright.”
It seemed ridiculous to be hurrying backwards. Bun felt as if they were running straight for Kaeton. Dein led the way this time. He shielded the candle with one hand, reducing its glow to a minimum. “Watch for the hunter’s light.”
Bun glanced over her shoulder, to where Selisai helped her limping brother along. “Can’t Selisai see in the dark?”
“No. She can see better than we can, but she needs some ambient light. We all trained to fight in the dark, though. She has a knack for it.”
“Thanks for backing me up.”
He smiled back at her. “Thanks for sticking around and giving us a hand.”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t get too flattered. The faster you’re out of here, the sooner I can get back to my life.”
“You’re not bad at this, you know. Maybe you’ll miss the excitement after we’re gone.”
“I don’t think so. I like my life just the way it is. We didn’t miss the tunnel, did we?”
“No, it’s the next one, I think. And rebellion gets into your blood after a while. It can be hard to leave behind.”
“I don’t think I’ll have — did you see that?”
Excited at the prospect of having a plan, however farfetched, Bun had momentarily calmed. Now sharp panic stabbed her chest again. For a second, she’d seen a glow of light far down the corridor.
“It’s him!” she hissed.
Bun’s joints locked up with the surge of fear that shot through her. Dein’s sword flashed into his hand. “Move!”
Bun forced her unwilling legs into motion and sprinted after Dein. Behind her, Garanel whimpered as his sister dragged him along.
They were only twenty feet from the turnoff. The flash of light had disappeared, but Bun knew Kaeton was out there. She imagined him fitting another arrow to his bowstring, eyes narrowed, watching them as they stumbled around in the candlelight. She’d almost forgotten the pain in her face, but now her wound throbbed again.
“Here!” Bun found herself pushed against the wall. Selisai thrust her brother’s limp form into Bun’s arms. “Take him, I need to fight.”
Reflexively, Bun closed her arms around Garanel and held him mostly upright while Selisai darted ahead, drawing her swords as she did so. “Bun, you and Garanel down the tunnel first.”
It was hard to move quickly; Bun was afraid that hurrying would injure Garanel further. But every second mattered, and so she pretended he was a couple of unwieldy flour sacks and bustled him down the corridor. All that heavy lifting in the kitchen is paying off now, she thought, and fought down the urge to laugh hysterically. The whole situation was so surreal it was almost ludicrous.
Dein’s candlelight didn’t reach far, and Bun couldn’t see more than an arm’s length in front of her. She gamely staggered on, though Garanel’s form seemed to grow heavier with each step. Her shoulders ached already and she’d only gone ten feet.
Then the tunnel walls fell away. Bun looked up and felt a cool breeze brush her face. She dragged Garanel forward a few more steps. “It’s a cavern,” she whispered. She saw only blackness above, but it seemed a familiar blackness. “I feel like I’ve been here before.”
Dein and Selisai caught up to her. They brandished their blades back towards the tunnel. Dein looked up as well. “Stick together and watch for movement. Keep going back in a straight line. Step gently in case of pits. You alright, Bun?”
“Fine,” she gasped, though her shoulders burned now and her back hurt. She forced herself to keep moving.
Brilliant light exploded in the room. Instinctively Bun dropped to her knees, pulling Garanel down with her. She was so dizzy and tired the ground seemed to move beneath her. She reached down and touched soft, churned earth. I was right. The ankheg did hunt down here.
Then she remembered the flash of light. She looked back to see Selisai and Dein fanning away from a brightly glowing rod, about as long as Bun’s forearm, that clattered and rolled on the dirt floor.
“Demon’s blood,” Dein swore. “Get ready. Bun, find a place to hide.”
“There’s a soft spot here,” Selisai whispered. “A creature’s burrow. Rush him over here if you can, Dein, we’ll try to cripple him.”
“There’s another here,” Dein whispered back. The two fighters made a wide sweep over the cavern, learning the terrain.
Sweat trickled down between Bun’s shoulder blades. Despite the cool breeze her face felt hot and sticky, and strands of hair stuck to her brow. She scanned the now brightly-lit cavern and spotted a pile of rocks against the near wall. “Come, Garanel, just a little further,” she whispered. She stood and heaved the nearly unconscious half-elf over to the rock pile.
A second glowing rod soared into the room and struck the floor, rolling almost to the back of the cavern. Bun saw another tunnel leading out of the room, to the east. The walls here looked rough but deliberately carved, and they seemed even more familiar now. I’m sure I’ve been here before. But when? Bun slid behind the rocks and settled Garanel in a comfortable position.
Dein and Selisai had moved to either side of the tunnel entrance. They held their swords raised, waiting. Bun stayed still and watched, grateful for the respite and the chance to catch her breath.
Another object flew out of the tunnel; not a rod, this time, but a stick. The stick struck the ground and silently exploded. Billowing gray smoke filled the tunnel mouth and rolled out to envelop Selisai as well. Bun cried out a warning as Kaeton slipped through the smoke, as easily and silently as a wraith, while Dein and Selisai coughed and choked, blinded.
Kaeton looked like he was enjoying himself. A smile played on his thin lips, and his lean frame was relaxed, his shoulders slumped. In one hand he held his long, curved sword, longer and thicker than Selisai’s elegant scimitars.
Kaeton’s cold wolf-eyes met Bun’s frightened ones as she crouched behind the rocks. With a swift, mocking gesture, the hunter swept his blade up to touch his brow in salute. Then he turned to face his enemies.
Selisai recovered first. She gave a wild cry and charged Kaeton, her blades flashing. Kaeton stepped forward into her charge and deflected her attack with a single, quick swipe. Selisai growled like an animal and stepped back, readying herself for another swing. Kaeton snapped his blade forward but Selisai twisted, and the blade skittered off her leather breastplate.
Dein followed Selisai’s charge with one of his own, but the wiry hunter brought his scimitar up to parry. Selisai pressed her attack and Kaeton was forced to give ground, his blade flashing like silver ripples on a pond as he deflected blow after blow. The rhythmic crash of ringing steel echoed in the cavern, reflecting off the walls again and again till Bun almost screamed at the din.
Kaeton watched his opponents’ forms with narrowed eyes, and after a few steps back he thrust forward and skewered his way past Selisai’s defenses. He caught the woman under the collarbone and Selisai fell back with a scream. Bun saw dark blood stain her shoulder. Dein, to her surprise, withdrew. Kaeton lashed at Dein, but the boy was quick and threw himself back onto the ground, somersaulting out of range of Kaeton’s deadly blades.
The hunter smirked and said, “It was foolish of you to try and escape. None can hide from the duke’s hunters. Now you and this girl you’ve dragged into your business will pay the price of disobedience.”
“Not today,” Dein said tightly. He continued to give ground. Kaeton charged, blade first.
Then he hit the soft spot. Kaeton’s boot sank into the aerated earth and he lost his balance and sprawled forward. He hit the ground hard and Bun cried out in encouragement.
Selisai charged back into the fray. One scimitar dangled from an apparently useless hand, but she swung eagerly with the other. Kaeton rolled over and over as Dein and Selisai slammed their weapons into the ground. Dein scored the hunter in the arm, eliciting a curse, and then Kaeton was up on his feet again. Bun noted with satisfaction that the hunter was limping.
The warriors traded more blows, filling the cavern with a cacophony of smashing steel. Bun looked up at the roof uneasily. Any darkmantles in this cavern must know we’re here. She scanned the craggy ceiling but saw no signs of life. There were darkmantles living here, I’m sure of it. Where are they? It occurred to Bun that she’d seen no life down here at all, no burrowing badgers or fat centipedes, no overgrown spiders like the ones that surfaced in the area from time to time.
Dein roared in pain. Bun’s attention snapped back to the fight. Kaeton’s blade was red, and Dein’s face was open from temple to chin. His collar was soaked with blood. Selisai panted and shouted taunts in elven. Dein circled around, trying to line Kaeton up for another rush into a soft spot.
Garanel shifted beside her. Bun looked down to soothe the half-elf. The hairs on her arms stood up and chill sweat broke out on her skin, making her feel as if she’d been ducked in ice water.
A heap of pink bones lay on the ground among the rocks. The bones looked small and dry, but the color and texture marked them as recently dead, not years dead. Bun had seen enough animal bones in the kitchen to tell fresh meat from old meat.
These bones were crushed, torn apart as if by massive jaws. Shreds of rubbery dark flesh and withered sinew still clung to the mutilated skeleton.
Bun looked back up at the battle, her mouth moving soundlessly. She tried to call out but the blast of sudden comprehension rendered her momentarily speechless. She stuttered for words.
What can I say? Can’t distract them. Can’t help them. Oh no, oh no, oh no…
Dein and Selisai circled Kaeton, blades pointed at him, a tightening spiral of steel. Kaeton looked from one to the other, smirking.
The ankheg erupted from the ground in a shower of earth. Its pincers clicked like a giant pair of shears. Clods of earth clung to its mustard yellow carapace. Only eight feet of the insectile creature showed above the earth, more of its enormous length hidden in its tunnel below.
Selisai was closest to the ankheg when it appeared; the force of its eruption threw her into the nearest wall. Her head hit stone with a crack and Selisai slumped to the floor, her eyes glazed. Kaeton fell prone and stayed there, seemingly frozen with shock.
Dein kept his footing but stumbled back, his eyes huge and mouth hanging open. The ankheg chittered like a cicada and turned towards Dein, waving its long feelers. Dein sprang back and the ankheg lunged forward, snapping its pincers hungrily.
Bun crouched, watching in horror, hands clapped over her mouth. She turned to Garanel and whispered, “I’m sorry, I have to leave you for a moment.” She pulled Garanel’s dagger from his belt and stood up. Just pretend it’s a cleaver, she thought as she stepped out from behind the rocks.
Dein was pinned up against the wall, swinging desperately. He seemed to be holding his own against the ferocious ankheg, but his face was white and his injuries slowed him down. Bun started toward Dein, but stopped when Kaeton rolled away from the battle and came up on his feet. His hair was mussed and dirty and blood streaked his armor, but he still looked calm and in control. He smiled thinly at Bun.
“No, I don’t think I want you interfering in this fight,” Kaeton said. He stalked forward. “Drop the knife and lie down and I’ll take you prisoner instead of killing you here. You’ll be charged with aiding traitors, but might draw a lighter sentence than death.”
“Don’t do it!” Dein hollered. He slashed repeatedly, deflecting the ankheg’s snapping mandibles. Selisai moaned and her eyes fluttered.
Bun pointed her dagger at Kaeton. Helplessness overwhelmed her. I can’t possibly fight him, but I can’t surrender! She glanced at Dein, struggling against his formidable opponent, then looked back at Kaeton. She straightened her shoulders.
“You want me?” she snapped. “Come get me.”
She wheeled around, not back towards Garanel, but facing the eastern exit. Kaeton lunged forward but Bun was quick and slipped past him. She scooped one of the glowing rods up as she ran, and then charged down the tunnel.
“You can’t run forever!” Kaeton shouted. Bun glanced back just long enough to ensure the hunter was following her. “I’ll catch you then return to finish your friends — provided the ankheg doesn’t do the job for me. This is a tactical error, the quarry never splits up.”
“I’m not your usual quarry,” Bun shot back. Terror and desperation lent her speed, and she raced down the tunnel without another backward glance. Please, Dein, just kill the ankheg. I’ll handle Kaeton. Somehow.
Dein’s voice came back to her, as if answering her thoughts. “Be careful, Bun! One at a time!” The cryptic statement meant nothing to her.
With nothing but a light and a dagger, Bun plunged deep into the tunnel complex, Duke Hessel’s finest hunter only steps behind her.
Continue to Part Four...
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.