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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190507
Serpent’s Grotto
CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Serpent’s Grotto


“You don’t care much for tides. People like you just breathe the water.”

FOY
Divider (2)
Provinces
Bryce Valley
Diamond (April) 26, 2013

Malcolm plucked the arrow free and lifted it to eye level. It was good enough – he’d barely touched it – but in his mind every little flaw stood out: Slight imperfections left over from the time, not that long ago, when the wood was taking shape beneath his hand.

It commanded his thoughts for only a heartbeat; nothing showed on his face.

His body continued to move, mind and form detached as he dipped to catch his brown cloak and tuck it into the crook of his arm. It wasn’t until he heard Cleo shift, her hand brushing against his wrist, that he felt united in one person—

His front heel touched the stone at the same instant she grabbed him.

She’s faster than I thought.

It was forgotten as quick as he heard her little alarmed squeak.

“You’re gonna go with him?” she asked. “Why?”

“He’s headed the same way we are, isn’t he?”

“Well, yeah, but ...”

“But?”

“Well, what if he’s—” Malcolm raised his head, the faintest sign he was listening; she went on in a hurried whisper, half-shielding her mouth. “You don’t think this whole thing is a little weird?”

She darted aside to look around Malcolm, following the even sound of the old man’s tread. His bag jogged squishily against his back as he went. When Cleo noticed it, she wrinkled her nose. At her ankle, the cat sat on its haunches like a tiny stone sentinel.

“Sure is,” Malcolm acknowledged. “But I don’t see what choice we have.”

“What if he tries something?”

Malcolm shrugged, finally stopping to turn to her.

“Well,” he drawled, “it’s not as if you’re a damsel in distress.”

He winked, then turned away in pursuit – Foy had not slowed a beat.

For a while, Malcolm was poised between the echo of the man’s sure footfalls and the staccato tap of a slightly higher and thinner heel questing purposefully for the next step. With all his senses engaged, the sweep of the cat’s tail made it almost as obvious as the others.

Altogether, it was a three-note symphony he alone could appreciate.

Malcolm stood at the old man’s back with Cleo a whisper behind.

“Reckon my valley’s the hot new vacation spot for the Republic,” said Foy. “Fancy that.”

“We won’t be pitching tents up here if I have anything to say about it,” Malcolm remarked.

“You could do worse, I’d say. Thought you kids might be Outriders at first. Time was there weren’t many.” He coughed a bit, then went on – his voice drifting from creaking lows to sing-song highs. “Alas! No Outriders here. Couldn’t have gotten the drop on ‘em in a century.”

Malcolm and Cleo exchanged a glance behind him.

“Not in a place like this, leastways,” Foy said thoughtfully.

“Like this?” Cleo asked; but Foy seemed not to have heard.

“No, no – not one of those lads,” he was musing to himself – before stopping suddenly to turn and look Cleo in the eye. “Or lasses, beggin’ your pardon, miss.” With that, he doffed his straw hat before swinging around and starting off again. “Everybody knows of the Fallen Angel.”

“I’m sorry,” Cleo said, and cleared her throat daintily. “Did you say your valley?”

“I did, indeed,” said Foy, raising his arms in an all-encompassing gesture as he led them beneath a rock formation that spanned overhead like a bridge. As they passed it, Malcolm’s eyes fixed on the gently glowing moss that hung like curtains along the underside; Cleo nibbled her lip.

She was about to say more—

“It’s a figure of speech, is all,” Foy said mildly. He began arcing to the side, and Malcolm slowed, raising a hand to warn Cleo to halt. “Don’t be ‘spectin’ to find the lost king of Sindell or anything such as tha heret. Only in tales, lass. Such ideas will bring you nothing but misery.”

Cleo stopped short, staring wide-eyed as if the old man had somehow read her mind—

But he never so much as glanced back to her.

“No, not Outriders – too skinny for that ... all sinewy and too young even for them. But something almost as good. Or ...” His voice became speculative, edged with venom. “Or just as bad. I suppose that depends on who you ask, doesn’t it, lad?”

Malcolm shifted suddenly. His whole body was suddenly tense.

It took Cleo plucking gently at his sleeve to point out the obvious: Foy had loped around them in a slow circle and was now turning to continue the journey as if nothing had happened. The old man was gazing down in his reverie, a thumb rubbing his bristly chin..

“Makes no nevermind. The enemy fears your kind, too,” said Foy.

With that, he vanished from sight.

Malcolm had just enough time to break into a sprint before he realized what had happened: The old man simply slipped around a corner. As Malcolm turned it, he slammed to a stop – Foy’s craggy face was inches from his own. His mouth broke in a big chin.

One eye was gray, like the greatest sharpshooters; the other, green.

The skin around those eyes crinkled as Foy let out a chuckle.

The sound bounded off the rocks overhead, making Cleo flinch.

Then, louder: “They hate you more than anyone, you know!”

“Is that so?” Malcolm muttered.

“Yeah. They call you – well, nevermind that,” Foy said suddenly, cutting himself off. “I suppose you’ll know soon enough what they call you. I’d think you might be able to pick it out even in that awful bird-language of theirs. You oughta have brought an ornithologist, y’know.”

Foy turned toward the path, gazing at it until the cat meowed resolutely at him.

“The little lady’s getting upset,” he declared. “The page is, too. Best be about it.”

Malcolm sought Cleo’s eye for another furtive glance, but she wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“You know a lot about us, it seems,” Malcolm said, fixing a narrowed gaze on the man’s back. “Gotta say I find that more than a little unnerving given we lost one of our own up here a little while ago. What do you know about that?”

“One of your own?” Foy shrugged expansively to show he disagreed. “I wouldn’t say that. Can’t be one of your own without the ring. As for me, I’ve seen as much as anyone could hope for of your own. Difference is, I’ve lived to tell the tale!”

He let his head back and laughed – this time, with abandon.

Cleo took a step back, slowly reaching for her weapon.

“Won’t be needin’ that blade of yours, girlie. Thought’s appreciated, though.”

Cleo’s voice was cold. “How do you know so much about the man we lost?”

Foy shrugged one shoulder again, shifting the weight of his burden as he did.

“Watched him,” he said plainly. “Watched him come up. Watched him go in.”

“And?” Cleo demanded.

“Watched him not come out. Someone sure did, though. Someone with fleas.”

Malcolm shifted subtly, just enough to put him between Foy and Cleo.

The bowman asked: “He didn’t have a ring, you said?”

“A wedding ring, yes. Too bad about that! A ring-ring ...”

Foy simply shook his head.

Malcolm twisted away from the old man to face Cleo.

“Tell me ... who was it Creed sent up here, Miss Bright?”

Cleo’s gaze went to Malcolm’s face, then over his shoulder to indicate Foy.

Do you really—?

“Who was it?” Malcolm repeated.

“Shane Bevan,” she bit off frostily. “What does that matter right now?”

“Shane Be—” Malcolm let out a growl. “He’s not even a sharpshooter!”

“Look, there’s no time—must I point out you’re due to be somewhere?”

“Oh, don’t you worry,” said Malcolm, voice taut with a menacing calm. “I understand perfectly well without your help. Why risk the asset of a real live sharpshooter? Ten years from now, you might still be looking for a kid who could attempt the training, let alone pass it.”

“Stop it.”

“Why not send some poor archer instead? If he gets killed, it’s no big deal!”

“Oh ... would you please – SHUT UP!”

Cleo’s voice boomed against the stones. As the echoes died down – bounding over the stones for what felt like eons – both men were aware of a leathery shifting somewhere far, far away. If Cleo noticed, she gave no sign; her pale cheeks were livid, her body taut as a bowstring.

At her foot, her cat was hissing – a sound so low even Malcolm almost missed it.

Foy had pivoted toward her, but not taken a step, when she fixed her gaze on Malcolm.

“Just because you think you’re so damn intuitive, it doesn’t mean you have to find conspiracies under every rock! If you could shut your damn mouth for even one minute, you’d see this wasn’t supposed to be a dangerous mission. The Outriders didn’t meet a single enemy here.”

At this, her eyes shifted to Foy; his bundle was at rest, hands clasped behind his back.

Cleo’s final words came in a whisper – and somehow, that was much worse.

“Shane Bevan requested this mission. He requested it.”

“Why?” Malcolm asked. “Why would anyone do something like that, let alone him?”

“He thought—” Cleo took a step closer. “He thought it could made him as big as you.”

Malcolm’s mouth dropped open. For a long time, no one said a word.

“What’s the matter, cat got your tongue? Or did you run out of things to accuse me of?”

“Hey!” Malcolm yelled, pointing – for an instant, he looked sure to argue back. Cleo just crossed her arms, a smug look on her face; she hadn’t given an inch. After a long moment, Malcolm let his arm drop back to his side. He sucked in a breath and let it out slow.

Once he had deflated, he went on—

“I’m sorry for what I said at camp. I didn’t mean any of it.”

Cleo’s expression softened a touch, but she said nothing, merely bounced in place with eagerness to be on. She couldn’t help but notice that his gaze hadn’t faltered with this blow to his pride, as with so many men she’d known. He’s looking me in the eye in such a strange way.

“I actually think you’re great,” said Malcolm. “I ... I really mean that.”

The silence was total, the last drumbeat of leathery wings lost in the far distance.

“Well!” said Foy, drawing the others’ eyes. “The young, eh? Energetic as ever.”

Cleo blushed, her concentration finally broken. Malcolm simply shook his head.

“You’re one crazy old man, you know that?” he said – amused despite himself.

Gabriel Foy tilted his head to the side as if listening to some faraway sound; it was hard to tell if he had heard Malcolm at all. Half to himself, continuing a thought from long ago, he went on: “They say intuition is the language of the soul. I find it more a compass, myself.”

He lifted his head – and his voice – warbling the rest as he plucked up his catch.

“How else would we navigate the tides of our lives on this storm-tossed sea of time?”

He began to hum; then, indeed, to sing in a strange language. The first notes soared skyward—

“Keep it down,” Malcolm hissed, rushing to close the gap between them. “What if someone—?”

With that, Gabriel stopped. Then he turned, far faster than Malcolm would ever have dreamed. With his free hand, he grabbed the bowman by the chin, cupping his face in gnarled fingers. Cleo looked aghast; Malcolm could imagine her expression; the warning she wanted to shout.

He only wondered: Which of them was she planning to warn?

The sight of her faded away, and all familiar thoughts with it.

Divider (2)

In his mind’s eye, the world is dark:

As dark as the sea, as dark as faces.

For a sharpshooter to pursue the enemy is a grave mistake, and to be pursued a worse one. In open camp, it would send him running into a trap. Here, he was alone: Just him, his enemy, and the fear. Fear had scoured every corridor of life. Now, it dogged his every step.

The train depot had been desolate long before he was born, but Malcolm knew its every turn; knew what lay beneath his tread, knew which turns the paths would take. He had pored over maps from as far back as its founding; had been briefed on record from weeks earlier.

Then the dirt and gravel and steel he expected underfoot gave way, with a thump, to stone.

It seemed unthinkable: That the enemy had somehow dug further tunnels, transforming the patch of earth they’d stolen from the Republic. What little they held was a fortress now, half-hidden underground, sprawling ever further for some dire purpose no one knew.

Malcolm found himself in darkness, cocooned on every side and knowing only one thing—

Nothing he could do would stop his steps echoing against the stone.

When he held still long enough, he could hear the enemy’s uneven steps.

Relentless, pursuing, ready—

If he fled deeper, who would save him? If he turned to fire, he would miss—

He would die.

Malcolm’s legs pumped until they were numb, but nothing changed: Not a flicker of light, not a twitch in the stale air; nothing. His hands trembled as he drew into a crouch beside the first turn he came to. There would be no hitting a mark in this endless darkness.

He shuddered with fear to think the last sound he heard might be a bowstring.

Steadying his bow, his hand fell instead to the knife.

He weighed it in his hand a moment. He could feel every vein in his body thumping, each one ablaze; he wondered if he had breathed poison and was dying even now. Still, long after the signs of his passing were at last still, the enemy came on.

Malcolm felt fear. It was the same fear, he knew, he had visited upon countless others.

Not countless. He knew exactly how many. The thought strangled the air from his lungs.

His eyes were watering, yet it did not matter; he tried to scream, but he could not.

There was a hand on his shoulder. Something giving him the strength to stand up.

The enemy rounded the bend and Malcolm jolted up; his free hand found the juncture of neck and shoulder and he made to squeeze. But his knife nearly skittered from his trembling fingers, and when he felt the kiss of heat on his face it was too late.

The world was as bright as a nova—

Flickering green flames made to leap from the enemy’s hand, but his body was pressed against Malcolm’s outstretched blade. He shuddered once, his injured leg giving way suddenly as he convulsed. Using the knife as a lever, Malcolm guided his would-be killer to the ground.

The light faded from the foe’s hand; he reached up, fingers dancing numbly against his mask. Somehow, Malcolm knew what was needed. Without wondering why, he pulled the mask free and dropped it, letting it clatter onto the ground.

At once, they were eye to eye.

A young man no older or greater than he; a man who’d leapt after him in pursuit and gotten hurt.

A young man who told himself, perhaps, that this battle would be his last.

Whose family, whose friends, would never see him again; at least not alive.

A haze of light still shifted in the air, some remaining trace of exhausted magic. Malcolm heard the other hiss out a breath; gasp a few desperate words he did not know. Removing the knife would hasten the death, the last few seconds a horror. Instead, he waited, his breath held tight.

The fallen shooter reaches up, but Malcolm seizes his wrist to stop him.

As the seconds stretch on, he let his fingers trail into his enemy’s hand.

He feels the man’s dying breath.

And he remembers this was what he had been hiding from all along.

He takes a breath, the first one he can remember taking in months.

And passes his hand over the fallen foe’s face to close his eyes.

One gray, one green.

He reaches for the fallen mask—

Divider (2)

“Not you, though,” said Foy, patting Malcolm on the cheek twice before releasing his grip. “You don’t care much for tides. People like you just breathe the water.” Foy let out another musical laugh, and Malcolm found he could imagine the crinkling in the corners of the man’s eyes—

Though all he could see was the jaunty, jolly way that great straw hat tilted up with the action.

Malcolm gasped for a few seconds; then, slowly, his breath fell into a new, relaxed rhythm.

“What was that?” Cleo asked; belatedly, Malcolm sensed her beside him. “What did he do?”

Gabriel Foy sketched a little dance step, a sort of pirouette that almost made his bindle slap Cleo in the face. She stepped back at the last second, nearly treading on her cat in the doing. The gray beast hopped backwards, gaze following Gabriel Foy wherever he went.

“I do not know,” said Malcolm. “But it was a wonderful ... feeling.”

“Yeah,” Foy was saying as he walked on. “I like them ones of your own. Very contributive sort of people. It’s useless folk I cannot abide. Cannot abide them in the slightest. There are them who get lost in their own back yard, even when they planted every seed. Such a pity.”

Cleo rested her hand on Malcolm’s forearm for a few seconds, drawing him back to the present.

“The caverns are up ahead,” she said; she was leaning close, but her face was turned toward ...

The cat.

Pudrei was following the old stranger, ears back and body lowered. Great white paws, still a bit too large for its frame, carried it with a far longer stride than Malcolm would have guessed. In a murmur only he could hear, Cleo asked the air: Where are you going?

Malcolm blew out a resigned sigh – when he spoke, his voice was firm.

“We need to get this over with.”

“Right,” said Cleo, bouncing in place once more. “So, we should ...”

Malcolm pointed wordlessly in the direction the man – and now, the cat – had gone.

The old man couldn’t have made it far, yet they had all but lost the sound of his passing.

Now and then, the two of them stopped to scramble up slabs of smooth stone stacked one upon the other like crooked limestone stairs that pulsed where the soaring spires of rock all around them permitted spears of light to stripe their surfaces.

In short order, Malcolm found himself bending to pull Cleo up one of the tallest steps—

Only to find her gazing out over the horizon when he reached the summit himself.

As he came to her side, one ragged breath announcing him, she mumbled: “I don’t see them.”

“That’s impossible,” said Malcolm, clapping her on the shoulder as he passed almost as he might with one of the boys in his unit – perhaps a little lighter. It was a wordless gesture: Not a dismissal, but an acknowledgement. Impossible or not, we have to deal with it.

As she fell in step behind him, he knew she understood.

An hour passed. They squeezed into cracks between boulders, sometimes flummoxed by how closely the stones fit together. When they were at a loss to continue, it was Malcolm who would weave back and forth among the knife-edge paths, hands diligently searching—

There was always a way forward, but none an outsider was meant to know.

Malcolm slowed now and then, conserving his energy or taking a sip from his canteen. It was one of these moments, when Cleo had taken the lead without so much as asking, when he heard the terrible sound of a scream.

Lightning raced through Malcolm’s veins as he launched himself around the bend.

Cleo was stumbling backwards; she straightened as soon as his shadow fell over her.

Off in the distance was a massive, scaly head: A roaring dragon.

But it was frozen just so: A body all ridged with fearsome plates disappeared abruptly into the rocks that made up the canyon wall. One of the front fangs had crumbled away, but the other remained scythe-sharp. Its spine vanished into the curve of the terrain.

It looked as if it could rise in wrath any moment, but it was stuck fast.

Malcolm could’ve laughed. Instead, he stepped between Cleo and it. “It’s nothing.”

“I-I know,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I know. I’m sorry.”

Malcolm shook his head a little to dismiss the apology, but then gave himself the luxury of looking up – up – up to the highest arc of the carved peak. He felt Cleo step up beside him to look as well: The peaks soared out of sight, each one a death-trap for the likes of him.

And they were all riven with entryways that could only have been made by human hands.

“Gods and bastards,” Malcolm swore. And then again: “Bloody hell, blood and ashes, blood—”

Cleo looked sideways at him as if he had lost his damn mind.

And he could have gone on that way for some while, but then:

“Monks built these entrances,” said Foy, stepping out from between two boulders. “And I doubt they’d care for you cursing their work with such ferocity.”

An instant later, Pudrei joined him; the cat was licking its chops. It settled on it haunches again, gazing up at Cleo with half-lidded eyes. The page, for her part, practically jumped the distance between them before dropping to her knees to tell the cat: “Don’t do that again!”

Foy tried to shoot Malcolm a sly glance, but the archer wasn’t looking.

“So I’ve heard,” Malcolm said at last, and Gabriel Foy snapped his fingers.

“Ah-ha!” With crabbed steps, half-bowed, Foy began to circle around Malcolm. The bowman rotated in place, following his every move as attentively as the cat had earlier. When, at last, the slightest opening presented itself, Foy darted forward to swat at the jewel on Malcolm’s arm—

Very much like a cat himself.

“Ah-ha!” he said again. “Ha!” He raised the hand he’d used to reach out, wagging one faux-accusing finger in Malcolm’s face. “It seems you have an acquaintance among those you fear the most. Ah, such stones! Even better than cat’s-eye! Well, I’ll leave you do it, then.”

Then, with a final tip of his ragged hat, Gabriel Foy turned and continued on his way.

Malcolm watched him go – part of him wanting to call out until it was far too late to do it.

The old fellow was gone in a flash, but his jovial whistling stole over them for a long time.

“Just when you think you’ve seen it all,” Malcolm said dryly.

Cleo only smiled; she was balanced on the balls of her feet, scratching Pudrei behind the ears.

When she saw the look in Malcolm’s eyes, she rose. “Be careful.”

“I’ll be right back,” he answered.

Reaching out, she touched the crystal on Malcolm’s arm and it sprang to life. It threw a pale, magical glow over his chin and jaw as he looked down at it. He turned and began to walk, dropping his cloak right at the cavern’s mouth. Literally, he thought to himself.

He paused under the broken fang and turned back toward Cleo.

“It’s just a cave,” he tried – but she looked frozen like a statue.

Three or four breaths passed before he tried again—

“Are you alright?”

Cleo only nodded.

“Yeah?” he pressed. “Come on.”

“Yeah,” she said, a weak smile on her lips. “It’s, well – I saw Shane going in there. And he—”

Malcolm nodded; he spun on his heel toward the ravening dragon and the darkness of its gullet.

“No sense worryin’ about what we can’t control. I’ll be careful. And you do the same, alright?”

There was nothing left to do, nothing left to say.

“Good luck,” Cleo said as she watched him go.

Malcolm never broke stride, just held up his hand as he vanished into the void.

Divider (2)
 Chapter Fourteen  (E)
Dark Horses
#2190508 by Dan Hiestand
Divider (2)
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