Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
The shouts of battle and clanging of armor overhead were muffled by the dirt between the troops above and the tunnel below, but were still clear enough to make Jerica’s stomach feel like there were slugs in it. She walked as quickly as she could in the narrow space, focusing her attention on not slipping on the damp stones under foot.
There were two metal doors along the tunnel, one about a kilometer away from the palace, and another about a hundred meters before the end of the tunnel. They silently unbolted each in turn and pushed them open, readying them for a quick exit. An explosion overhead shook Jerica to her very bones, and caused the small gravel on the ground to rattle.
She swallowed hard, trying to calm her racing thoughts. It was clear that Valeren was somewhere overhead; where, exactly, she hadn’t a clue. She’d only have a partial second to evaluate the situation once they opened the hatch – one, maybe two arrows, tops, before they’d need to retreat. She looked at Rekard.
He was close to her right, eyes wide and fearful in the dim torch-light. He cleared his throat when he saw that she was looking at him, and shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. For a moment it looked like he was about to say something, but instead he looked back down the tunnel the way they’d come. “It’s not going to be easy to run.”
“No,” she agreed. “But we have the advantage of no armor. It’ll take them a minute to find a man small enough to chase us in his armor.”
“Yeah.” He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “We’ll be okay.”
“Yeah… I’m not worried.”
“Yeah, I’m not, either,” Rek scoffed. “Obviously.”
“Obviously.” Jerica turned her back on Rek and took a deep breath, wondering if he could see through her lie as easily as she could see through his. “I think this hatch is intended to open downwards. If you open it and step to the side, I can lift myself up and look for Valeren.”
Rek stepped forward, brushing his bare shoulder against hers. “Alright. I’ll stay over here on the side until after you’ve run.”
Jerica snapped her head around to glare at him. “No, you won’t –”
“You can fire past me with your bow if someone chases us. My sword is useless if it’s trapped behind you.”
She thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “Fine. But you better be right at my heels.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He saluted sarcastically.
She rolled her eyes and nocked an arrow. “You ready?”
“Ready when you are.”
She stepped just to the left and hooked her quiver over her left arm, then grasped both the arrow and bow in her right hand. “Let’s go kill a sorcerer then.”
Rek stepped forward and reached upward to the hatch. There were several cross-bars on this one, and the opening was larger than any of the others had been – plenty of space to climb through with a weapon, rather than needing to pass the bow through first.
“One… two… three!” Rek yanked the hatch downward suddenly.
Dirt and grass rained down on them, small pebbles scratching Jerica’s arms as they fell. She leapt forward, grabbing one of the foot-pegs near the top of the hatch and pulling herself up as her left foot found one of the pegs around waist-height off the ground. She emerged from the hole up to her mid-chest, hurriedly trying to orient herself.
The scene around her was pure chaos. Nykerians darted back and forth shouting; cries rang out from somewhere off to the right, closer to the castle, and closer to the clattering of weapons crashing into one another. She saw War Lord Femola just ahead of her by about five meters, back turned towards her.
I’ll take the bastard out and end this here. She twisted towards him, pressing her right foot against the side of the tunnel to stabilize herself as she drew her bow.
Her head snapped towards the left to find the source of the voice. It was just an enlistee, far enough away she wasn’t concerned. She turned back towards Lord Femola, only to find him facing her with a shield raised. She muttered a curse, twisting once again as a flurry of motion in front of her caught her eye.
He was tall, broad-shouldered, and grossly overweight. He waddled slightly as he came towards her, magnificent purple robes flowing as he walked and fingertips glowing dark cyan. He pointed towards her with his glowing hand. “Ylanmo—”
She loosed an arrow before he could get his incantation out. The tip struck the base of his jaw and cut through the flesh until it lodged itself in the roof of his mouth. He let out a guttural yelp – the arrow in his mouth glinting in the sunlight before becoming coated in crimson blood. She grabbed another arrow from the quiver and knocked it then sent the second shaft into his Adam’s apple.
Jerica reached for another arrow, looking back towards where she’d last seen Lord Femola. He was nearly to her now, shield still blocking any shot she might have had at him. The soldiers were beginning to press nearer to her, the nearby men all realizing that the threat was within their formation rather than in front of them.
“Archers!” Lord Femola bellowed.
Jerica stepped off the peg she was standing on. Her back slid down the slime on the wall as she leapt to the ground. She met Rek’s eyes for the briefest moment. “Run!”
She turned down the tunnel and lunged forward. She slipped on the damp floor, sliding into the wall for a few panicked steps as she scrambled forward. She caught her footing and sprinted as fast as she could in the narrow tunnel.
Arrows clattered in the tunnel behind them.
“Rek?” she screamed over her shoulder.
“Good!” he called back. “Keep going!”
They sprinted until they got to the first metal door. Jerica got to it first and stepped to the side, grabbing the edge and slamming it shut the instant Rek was through. He grabbed the first cross bar and secured it in place as she grabbed the second one.
Jerica cackled, falling back against the wall and rubbing her face. Her heart was racing, chest heaving for air. She let her head fall back against the cold stone, trying to still the trembling in her hands from the adrenaline pumping through her. “We did it!”
“You got Valeren?”
He rushed forward, throwing his arms around her. “My gods, you’re incredible!”
She laughed again, patting his shoulder then stepping away. “I almost got Femola too, but I couldn’t get a shot.”
“Hey, you got what we came for.”
“True enough,” Jerica agreed, starting back down the path. “Let’s get out of here.”
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Jerica and Rek found Zaire just where they’d left him, and together the three of them started back towards the monastery, securely fastening each door and hatch they came to behind them. They walked with high spirits, congratulating themselves for a job well done, and got back to the entrance of the tunnel quickly.
“Teryn!” Zaire called as they approached the opening. “We’re back!”
“Great!” Teryn’s face appeared over the opening of the tunnel. “Hand up your weapons and I can help you up.”
Rek held his sword up for Teryn to take, then climbed up the pegs leading out of the tunnel. Zaire stepped to the side, out of the way. “After you, General.”
Jerica reached her bow through the opening, grabbing the spike to climb out.
“JER, NO!” Rek shouted.
She grabbed for her bow, but Teryn yanked it out of reach. “Climb the rest of the way out of the tunnel. Now.”
Jerica hesitated a moment, turning a suspicious glare on Zaire.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Zaire shouted.
“Shut up!” Teryn bellowed. “Get up here, whore, or I’ll kill him, I swear on the gods.”
“He has my sword.”
“COME UP NOW I WON’T SAY IT AGAIN,” Teryn screamed.
“Alright, alright, I’m coming.”
A knot was stuck in Jerica’s throat, making it hard to swallow back the fear as she slowly ascended into the monastery. Teryn was holding Rek’s own sword against his neck. Rek looked at Jerica as she emerged, hands raised.
“Nice and slow,” Teryn ordered.
“Get over there, on your knees,” Teryn said, gesturing at the ground. “Hands where I can see them.”
“Alright.” Jerica held her hands up. Her quiver still hung from her left forearm, resting in the crook of her elbow.
“Put the arrows down!” he screamed, eyes flashing with a mixture of fear and anger.
“Alright,” she said soothingly. “I can’t do anything with the arrows. You’re safe.”
“No one is safe until you’re dead,” he snarled. He whipped his attention back on the hole as Zaire emerged. “NOT YOU! BACK IN THE TUNNEL!”
Zaire’s gaze flicked towards Jerica.
“Does she look like she’s in control of this situation?” Teryn growled. “IN THE TUNNEL NOW, OLD MAN!”
Jerica nodded silently, setting the quiver on the ground just away from her knees as she knelt. She raised her hands again as Zaire lowered himself into the tunnel. Teryn turned his gaze on Rek. “Seal the entrance.”
Rek stepped forward slowly and obeyed, pushing the podium back into place on top of the hatch. Teryn stepped towards Jerica, pressing the tip of the sword against her neck. She lifted her chin, looking into his eyes.
He looked young, afraid and angry as he glowered down at her. His facial features were soft; naïve. He clenched his jaw. “You’re a monster.”
“Why are you doing this?” Jerica asked, making her voice as soothing as possible. “Let’s talk about—”
“I DON’T WANT TO TALK TO YOU!” Teryn spat. “You’re nothing but lies and hatred! The world will be better without you in it.”
“Be that as it may…” Jerica said carefully. Her head felt light, knot in her throat pressing against the tip of his blade as she tried to swallow. “You know what happens when I die…”
“I don’t care.”
“You’re young,” Jerica said. “Got your whole life ahead of you. There’s no point in sacrificing your own life to end mine.”
“My life is over no matter what I do,” he said, voice bitter. “If I don’t kill you, I’ll be executed. If I do, your aura will strike me down. That method seems faster – and with any luck will kill the old bastard down there too.”
“Think about what you’re doing.”
“Oh, I have,” he answered. He pulled the sword back, swinging it towards her neck. She dodged under the blade, whirling around to kick the back of his knees as she grabbed an arrow from the quiver. He brought his blade down towards her as he fell, desperately searching for a mark to sink the sword into.
She grabbed his sword arm, twisting as they fell so that he was only partially on top of her. She brought her left hand up, grasping the arrow for dear life, and plunged it into his throat with her bare hands.