he tunnels wound and crept onward, splitting and fragmenting like the delta of a river. The walls were as rough as the day they had been dug, and walking on the jagged, uneven floor was treacherous.
“So…” Nimbus began, “What were those wolf-things?”
“Don’t have a proper name.” Stinger responded, “I call ’em bloodwolves, but they’re also called deathdogs, hellhounds, and less savory things.”
“Well, at least arrows trivialize them.”
“Hm.” Stinger seemed to disagree. “You’re in a good mood.”
Nimbus smiled, literally for the first time in as long as he could remember. “Well, considering that, five minutes ago, my life’s plan was restricted being torn apart by wolves in an underground labyrinth, I’d say that the change of affairs more than validates my ‘good mood’.”
They walked on for a minute, and, while the tunnels did slope up and down, it didn’t seem like they were making much net progress upwards.
Finally, Nimbus broke the silence again: “Is it much farther to the surface?”
“Very. We’re not going there.”
“What!? I thought you said we were going to the… uh…”
“To the Sanctuary. It’s down here, underground.”
“Oh, OK. Uh… when can we go to the surface?”
“We can’t. Not yet.”
“Alright,” Nimbus stopped, crossing his arms. “This may come a surprise, but I don’t actually remember coming here, so a bit of explanation—”
“There is no explanation.” Stinger shot back sternly. “You have amnesia. I have amnesia. Everyone in these blasted catacombs has amnesia. I’ll tell you what we know later, if you don’t get me eaten on the way back.”
“Well…” Nimbus wasn’t sure how to respond to that, whether to be upset or apologetic, but Stinger didn’t give him time to piece his feelings together.
“Listen,” Stinger added, in a softer tone, “Things are just gonna be rough from here on out. For now, follow me. Almost there.”
Less than a minute had passed before Nimbus and Stinger reached a cross-roads. Torches had been spaced sparsely in the previous tunnels, but here there were three of them, lighting up the intersection like a hot coal. Stinger stopped in his tracks, and Nimbus barely avoided colliding with him, almost stumbling on the angular cave floor.
“What? Are we los—”
Stinger clamped a hand over Nimbus’ mouth. “Shhh! Listen!”
Listen to what? The crackle of the torches? I don’t… Nimbus heard it, echoing down the right tunnel. Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.
“Hear that?” Stinger whispered. “The snorting? There’s a bloodwolf is coming this way, but the snorting means it hasn’t heard us yet. Still in tracking mode.”
Nimbus started edging back the way they came, but Stinger grabbed his wrist.
“We’re cut off from the Sanctuary.” Stinger explained. “We can’t escape. If we go back, it will just follow us farther and farther away from safety. We need to confront it here.” Slowly, he let go for Nimbus’ wrist and drew an arrow from his quiver, sidling the wall.
The snuffling was growing louder.
“Got 5 arrows.” Stinger mumbled. “Can’t waste ’em. Nothing to make more with.”
“I don’t think it’s a waste if they save our lives.” Nimbus objected.
The snuffling was closing in, and Stinger carefully retreated into the tunnel they had come from, just far enough to conceal himself and Nimbus around a corner.
When Stinger spoke, it was in a scarcely audible breath: “If the rest of the bloodpack is near when we attack, we won’t have time to get to the sanctuary, not if it calls them. Do you have a weapon?”
“Yes, I… No. No, it’s in the pool back in the cave.”
“Blast.” Stinger peered around the corner, then pulled back quickly.
Well, it looks like my luck has run out, if luck’s what you’d call it. A lot of good that sword’s doing me, rusting at the bottom of the reservoir. At least I have my armor. Is there anything could I use for a weapon? Nimbus remembered the torches, but of course, the closest torches were in the intersection ahead, and Nimbus dared not step forward, around the protection of Stinger’s bow and into the view of the bloodwolf, to risk retrieving the fire. He could only stand behind his ally, listen to the wolf, and watch as the flickering shadows of the torches that were just out of reach around the corner taunted him.
Suddenly, the torches cast different shapes. The shadow of the wolf crawled around the corner, a figment to watch them tremble as the true beast shambled closer, a harbinger of the demise that, in mere seconds, would find and devour them.
Nimbus could feel a dull throb spreading through his chest, he imagined his heart was caving in. He wondered, as he watched Stinger draw back his bow, if the man was truly fearless, or if it was only the discipline of a master archer that kept his hands and body steady.
The snuffling was so close, so clear. It had texture. It was damp. It was feral.
Nimbus held his breath.
A howl echoed from far in the distance. Nimbus nearly jumped. The wolf, its actions clearly visible by the shadow it cast, stopped short. Its head oscillated as it looked back, then forward, then back again. Finally, it took a few reluctant last sniffs, let out a long cry of its own, and bounded back the way it had come, towards the howl.
It was almost a minute before either Nimbus or Stinger moved.
Finally, Stinger relaxed and returned his arrow to its brethren nestled in the quiver, and said the only word Nimbus needed to hear: “Hurry.”
The two ran as fast as they could without tripping on the jags and crags of the cave floor. Through the intersection, and down a tunnel until, finally, Stinger stopped.
The tunnel wall was interrupted by a hole, big enough to be a door. It was blocked on the other side by a large stone slab, carved with crude, seemingly meaningless symbols. The bottom of the slab was scraped and worn like an ancient whetstone, and bits of gravel lay on the floor. Clearly, the rock barrier had been heaved across the floor numerous times, countless times.
Stinger wasted no time in hefting a rock from the floor and giving the slab a few solid raps with it. Seconds passed. He rapped again, and, at last, with a grinding noise, the slab moved a few feet to the side, revealing the dirty face of a boy.
“Sting!” chirped the boy, who was probably about 13. “You’re back! And who’s the slate?” The boy turned to Nimbus. “Is he a namer?”
“No, he’s got one already. Let us in, will you?”