imbus’ feet pounded against the stone floor of the tunnel, the sound echoing slightly throughout the empty passages. He skidded to a halt as the tunnel branched. His head snapped to the right, but he saw nothing. His head snapped to the left. Was that Hermes rounding a corner, or just a trick of the torchlight?
“Hermes!” Nimbus shouted.
No response. Nimbus stamped in frustration before taking off down the left tunnel. Why do I always end up back in the stupid tunnels? Why? He charged around the bend he thought he saw Hermes take, but there was no sign of the kid. It’s probably fate. Either fate hates me, or fate loves wolves. Nimbus sprinted onward, looking down branching passages for any sign of Hermes. It probably hates me; the wolves’ breath is just way too bad to garner any genuine love. He kept looking, peering down the rough stone corridors.
“Hermes!” he called again. No response.
Movement flickered in the corner of his vision, causing him to jump and fumble for the handle of his sword, but it was only the shadow cast by a wavering torch flame. Nevertheless, he could feel his chest tighten with panic. What am I doing out here? Hermes is too long gone. He’s much more likely to catch up with Stinger than I am to catch up with him. Nimbus started heading back, panting from his exertion. I should never have come out here. It was stupid. Nimbus turned down a passage and hurried along as quickly as he could without winding himself again. I’m going to get myself killed if I’m not careful. Then where will I be? For that matter… Nimbus slowed to a stop. …where am I now? In his haste to reach Hermes, Nimbus had lost his bearings.
He was lost in the tunnels. He was alone in the tunnels. He was lost and alone in the tunnels. Again. Nimbus’ knees began to shake. Not since the very beginning had he been so hopelessly vulnerable, and, this time, he knew what else was in here with him.
A howl echoed in the distance.
Still no wolves. Nimbus edged through the darkness, sword in hand. That howl must have been ten minutes ago. Maybe it wasn’t for me? The thought didn’t give him much relief: he was still lost, at least mostly. He had found a tunnel that looked fairly familiar, but, of course, he had no idea which of the many branches he had first come through, and none of them, once he had explored a few feet in, looked particularly familiar. So he paced, too afraid to remain stationary, yet too afraid to abandon the one area he thought he recognized. He wanted nothing more than to call out for help, but he knew he could not risk attracting the attention of bloodwolves.
I wonder if the people at the Vinefront will look for me? Will they notice I disappeared? It’s a big place; they might think nothing of it for a few days. I’m going to die. Nimbus took a long, slow breath. He knew he shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but he also couldn’t see any other likely resolution. Get a hold of yourself, Nimbus. You’re fighting to not lose; you need to fight to win. If you stay here, you’re doomed. If you move on, there’s a chance you might find the Vinefront. Nimbus pointed himself determinedly toward the exit at the far end of the passage, the one he thought to be the most likely way back. With reluctance, he stepped across the threshold.
This is the correct direction, he decided after a minute of walking. His stride quickened. I remember that side passage, and that dip in the floor. This tunnel goes on a ways, but when do I leave it? Do I turn here, or go on for another quarter mile? And which way do I turn? I think the exit should be on the right… So focused was he on navigation, that he didn’t hear the sound coming from the side passage up ahead. So busy was he reconstructing his route, that he didn’t see the ominous shadow cast by the torch. So intense was his concentration that…
“Augh!” Nimbus’ heart almost exploded as he collided with a pair of figures. “Oh, Hermes, Stinger, you would not believe how good it is to see you guys!” Nimbus almost laughed in relief.
“What are you doing here?” said Stinger, his arms crossed.
“I came after Hermes. He ran into the tunnels after you, but I couldn’t catch him.”
“Well, thanks for trying.”
“Seriously?” Hermes objected. “I’m perfectly safe out here! Bloodwolves can’t touch me.”
“Hermes—” Stinger began.
“Well, OK, I got clawed once.”
“Twice. Three times max. But that was when I first got here! I’m older now! I haven’t been hurt in years!”
Stinger turned to Nimbus. “He’s an idiot. We’re going back.”
“Perfect.” said Nimbus.
“But…” said Hermes, dejectedly. “I can help you with the map. Just let me try. Just once?”
“No,” Stinger began, “I will not…” Stinger’s demeanor shifted. He cursed, drew an arrow, and turned towards the direction from which they had come. “I wasn’t paying attention!”
Then Nimbus heard the sound: claws on stone. He drew his sword and waited, tense, afraid, but not overly so. Somehow, after being alone with the prospect of possibly facing bloodwolves, being in the company of allies with the prospect of absolutely facing bloodwolves didn’t seem so awful. He was ready to meet this challenge. He was ready to defend himself. He wasn’t ready for the bloodwolf to round the corner, charge towards them, then sprint down a side passage.
“What just happened?” asked Nimbus.
“I don’t know…” said Stinger, stepping forward cautiously. Bow at the ready, he advanced to the side passage through which the wolf had made his exit. Satisfied that the beast was truly gone, he knelt to examine the ground. “Fresh blood. It was bleeding. It was scared.” He straightened up. “Bloodwolves only run from a losing fight.”
“Who else is out here?” asked Hermes.
“No-one we know.”
“Yes. A slate is fighting bloodwolves.”
“And winning.” added Nimbus.
“For now.” said Stinger. “Let’s find them before that changes.”
“So, to clarify, a ‘slate’ is like a ‘newcomer,’ right?” said Nimbus.
“Yeah,” said Hermes, “it’s because, you know, amnesia and stuff.”
The trio rushed through the maze of tunnels as quickly as possible, moving aside occasionally to accommodate fleeing wolves. It hadn’t taken long for Stinger’s trained ear to pick up on the sounds of battle ahead. Now that they were closer, it was unmistakable: the scraping of metal, the yelping of injured wolves. In fact, it was only as the group rounded the last corner that the sounds died down.
Unlike the surrounding caves, this room was made of stone slabs, like the room Nimbus had first awoken in, but larger. Additionally, the room featured a similar glowing crystal light and circular engraving in the floor. The carcasses of dismembered and maimed wolves were strewn all about, and in the center of the room stood a figure coated head to foot with heavy plate armor, just sheathing his sword in conclusion of the final kill. Despite the battle that had just taken place, his armor was unmarred and pristine, its silver surface reflecting what little light the nearby crystal emitted.
“You got a name?” asked Stinger.
“Return to the complex.” The words echoed through the man’s slotted visor.
“You must be confused. We can help.”
“Return to the complex or suffer punishment.”
“There is no complex. We’re not your enemies.” Nimbus was starting to feel very uncomfortable.
“Your noncompliance has been acknowledged and will be discontinued.” The man drew his sword.
“Now, hold on just a—”
The man rushed forward with surprising speed for a fellow in full plate armor, bringing his sword down with supreme vigor. It was only by a hair that Nimbus evaded the attack.
“Hey!” Nimbus drew his own sword and parried the next blow, a horizontal slice. The shock of the attack almost made Nimbus drop his blade. This guy is strong!
Fortunately, Nimbus didn’t have to endure a followup attack, as Stinger tackled the aggressor to the ground. At least, Stinger tried to. The armored man did not fall. Reaching over his shoulder, he grasped Stinger by the arm and casually tossed him onto the stone floor. The man shifted his grip so that he was holding his sword with the point towards the ground, preparing to impale Stinger.
Nimbus had seen enough. He lashed out with his sword, but the blade just glanced off the heavy plates of armor without leaving so much as a scratch. It was Hermes who came to the rescue, summoning a gust of wind that threw the armored man off balance just long enough for Stinger, who was still on the ground, to kick the man’s legs out from under him.
The armored man crashed to the ground in a reverberating clash of metal, and in a second, Nimbus had him pinned.
“What’s your problem?” said Nimbus.
“I have not erred.”
“Yeah? I beg to differ. Stinger, happens when slates turn out to be homicidal cookie tins?”
Stinger stood up and brushed himself off. “I don’t know. It doesn’t happen. Not like this.”
“We just sit on him until we work something out?” said Hermes.
“You have made a tactical error.” said the armored man. “You have not the means to detain me.”
With that, the man stood, brushing Nimbus off easily with his incredible might. Hermes scrambled off to the side as Nimbus and Stinger raised their weapons, Nimbus his sword and Stinger his bow.
The first attack was for Nimbus: a crushing overhead slash. It was all that Nimbus could do to stop the blade with his own. His muscles ached from the shock of the blow, but he tried to retaliate with stab at the chink in his opponent’s elbow, only to see his blade once again glance off the surrounding metal. He quickly stepped back into a blocking stance, locking blades as his enemy pressed the advantage. Nimbus’ arms shook with strain has his blade was slowly forced back towards his own throat. Nimbus knew he couldn’t hold out against another attack.
Fortunately, it was then that an arrow appeared in the armored man’s visor. The figure reeled as Stinger launched a carefully aimed shaft of flint-tipped wood into his eye-slot.
“He’s done.” said Stinger.
He wasn’t. The armored man regained his balance and strode forward unperturbed. Nimbus and Stinger retreated in horror.
“That’s impossible! That arrow must be inches deep! How can he live?” said Stinger.
It was at this moment that Hermes struck the assailant from behind with a sizable chunk of rubble. With a reverberating sound, the man’s helmet toppled to the ground.
“Oh, now I understand.”
There was no head underneath, only a gaping neck-hole that revealed a hollow suit of armor. With a hum, the helmet shot back up from the floor and affixed itself once again to the rest of the armor.
It was at this moment that Nimbus and company made the sudden and unanimous decision to run.