Caron stumbled as the urdefhan threw her into the cage.
She went sprawling across the ground as the shadow man slammed the cage shut and fired the bolts into place. Pain lanced up her thighs as she landed on her knees and pitched forward.
A voice in the dark. "Caron?"
It was Caleb. The boy scurried forward and threw his arms around her.
She wrapped her arms around him in turn, pulling back for a moment when he winced at her touch. Beyond the cage, a single torch provided enough light to expose the bruising and stains of dried blood where he'd been beaten.
"How bad is it?"
"I'll live," the boy said, firelight reflecting from the tears running down his cheeks. She wanted to tell him he was safe now, that she wouldn't let anything bad happen to him, but she said nothing. There was no point lying to him.
More urdefhans gathered around the bars, watching them intently.
She pushed herself up to her feet, standing protectively in front of Caleb. "Let him go," she said. "Let him go and you can have me."
One of shadow men moved closer to the cage, pressing his face close to the bars. He stood directly in front of her, close enough to reach out and touch, his vile organs bright in the dim light, and inclined his head to one side. "I already have you. You have nothing to bargain with. Nothing I want that I don't already have."
The laugher was accompanied by a strange gurgle as if coming through liquid in the creature's throat. He turned his back on them and walked away. The others followed in his wake, leaving the two alone again in the dark.
Caleb rose slowly to stand beside her. He wasn't steady on his feet.
Caron turned to look into his eyes, only to see the shadow of a ghost.
For a heartbeat it was as if she faced Neve, the boy's mother, but it was different now. Neve was an old ghost. Everyone carried old ghosts. It was how the living moved through the world that was important, not the dead who walked with them.
"It's going to be all right," she said, running her fingers through his hair.
"It's not, is it?"
"You father's waiting for you," she said. "I promised him I'd get you out of here, and I will."
"But how? How do we get out of here?"
She didn't have an answer to that. She hadn't thought that far ahead. "Our chance will come," she said, making another promise she didn't know she could keep. "Can you find your way back to the stairwell?" She couldn't, not without going back through the fissure the tunnel rat had led her down, and she had no idea where that fissure was because she'd been unconscious when the urdefhans dragged her here.
"Good. You have to be ready. No matter happens. When I tell you to run, you run. Promise me. You run and you don't stop running until you're at the top of the stairs." The boy nodded, rubbing away his tears. "Be strong, son."
It was the first time he'd called her that.
She couldn't let it get to her, even though she felt a surge of love for the boy. They both needed to be strong. The darkness weighed heavy on them. There was no easy way of knowing how long they would be alone down here. She could only pray that Keir wouldn't get it into his head to come and save them. She needed to know he was up there, ready to help them get out of this hell if she could work the opportunity to escape.
But that time in the darkness gave her time to think.
She needed a plan, which meant trying to think through her moves, and think how the shadow men would react to them. This was their element. Down here they were kings. For all of her skills, for all that she had dedicated her life to the land, to nurturing it, this, down here, this was a different kind of evil. It existed purely to cause pain.
In the distance, hammers and the grating of stone haunted them as work continued endlessly on the urdefhan outpost.
The cage would have to open soon. They'd want Caleb to work. Would they use her, too? Would she get a chance to fight their overseer and buy Caleb a few precious seconds to run for the stairs? Or would they keep her imprisoned while they worked him into the ground, knowing what she was from the sigil of Erastil on her travel-worn cloak?
She unclasped her cloak and bundled it in the corner of the cell, as though making a pillow to rest her head.
Her one hope came from the possibility of the urdefhans underestimating her. If they saw her as some helpless human, not the warrior she was, then maybe, just maybe, she'd be able to do something.
She thought about huddling at the back of the cage, forcing them to come in and get the boy. It was an option, but not much of one. Since she had no weapons, she needed to turn the environment into her weapon, and that meant using the cage somehow. It was the only thing she had. Of course, she was her own best weapon.
So she waited, leaning against the bars rather than pacing the confines of the cell. She didn't want them to know she was a bundle of pent-up energy. Let them think she was beaten.
The sounds of work continued. She heard screams and what could only be the feeding frenzy that followed a fallen worker.
Then they came for the boy.
"You. Come here," one of them barked, pointing at Caleb while the other opened the lock to release him. Caron pushed herself to her feet and put herself between them and Caleb, ready for the moment the door swung open. He started to move toward the open door. She held out an arm to stop him. "I'll work," she said. "I'm stronger than I look. Let him go. I'll carry his load as well as mine. Just let the boy go." She kept on talking. What she said wasn't important, it was purely meant to keep their eyes on her.
"Quiet, human, your turn will come. Give us the boy."
She stepped aside, seemingly in surrender. The side step took her just out of line with the open door. It was a single step, but it might just save Caleb's life—if the gods were on his side.
With their eyes on him, Caron kicked out hard—not at the urdefhan, but at the door, sending it swinging into the shadow man's face. Metal jarred against bone on both sides of the iron door. The creature staggered backward, momentarily dazed.
Its sword clattered to the floor. The door swung open on rusted hinges.
This was it.
Ignoring the pain lancing up her leading leg, Caron threw herself out of the cage, rolling fast and snatching up the two-bladed weapon as she rose. It took all her strength to lift the sword. She screamed as she swung, all of her weight behind the blow. The blade's keen edge sliced into her captor, opening it up before it could raise its own blade to fend her off.
It fell to the ground spilling its lifeblood into a dark pool that quickly surrounded its body.
"Run!" she rasped, knowing that her scream must have alerted others of their kind. The echo of running feet confirmed her fear.
She despatched the stunned urdefhan with its own sword. There was nothing merciful about the action; she couldn't leave an enemy at her back. The scent of blood would only bring on the frenzy, though, drawing them like piranhas.
They had to get out of there.
Caleb was already twenty feet ahead of her, running hard, arms and legs pumping in a terrified sprint. She ran after him—as fast as the heavy blade would allow. She couldn't hope to catch him, not carrying the sword, but without it she wasn't getting out of here. That was the grim reality of it. He was thirty feet ahead now, and gaining ground every second they ran. She thought seriously about casting the blade aside and just running, but she knew that she'd never make it.
It was an illusion; a lie of the acoustics. The shadow men circled around them, herding them toward death. Without the weapon, she'd be helpless to make good on her promise to Keir. With it, she had a chance. A small chance, but a chance nonetheless. She'd get the boy to the stairs, and then just pray Erastil was with her for one last time, deep in the darkness of this damned place.
She pushed herself on. She couldn't slow down, even as her lungs burned and the bitter acrid air of this hellish place clawed at the back of her throat. She ran. And she prayed.
Caleb ran close to the scaffolding constructed along the outer walls of the subterranean outpost. Up above, Caron saw slaves watching him run. They were lit by oil burners along the wooden platforms. The flames didn't so much as flicker and the slaves didn't whoop or cheer. The whole thing was eerily quiet. They'd seen others make a run for it, only to be herded like cattle by the urdefhans and then set upon. Every time it happened it only served to drive home the fact that no one got out of this hellish place alive.
Theirs weren't the only eyes watching them run.
She saw the organs of the urdefhans radiating rich spots of color in the dark, like malevolent fireflies swarming around them.
Caleb was fifty feet ahead now, dangerously alone should the shadow men attack.
They were creatures of the dark; they didn't need the oil fires. They lived their entire lives down here, hence the pigmentless nature of their skin. They didn't see light and shade like she did. He mind raced. Did they see by heat? She didn't know, but it was possible, wasn't it? And if that was the case, fire could effectively blind them if it was fierce enough.
If she could reach the bottom of the stairwell they had a chance.
"Run!" she screamed at the top of her lungs, not to urge Caleb on—the boy was flying—but to draw the shadow dwellers to her.
And then the first voice cried out from above.
One of the slaves urging her boy to run for his life.
The cry was taken up by a second slave.
Then a third.
In a few seconds the entire subterranean cavern echoed with that one word called out by first one voice, then a dozen and yet a dozen more, until it swelled into a baying chorus that brought the urdefhans out to silence it.
And then it hit her: down here chaos could be her fiercest ally.
Without thinking, she veered away from Caleb's disappearing light and ran, head down, toward the scaffolds, venting a wild cry as she hefted the double-bladed sword and unleashed a wild swing straight for one of the thick stanchions holding the precarious structure up. She knew even as she did that some of the slaves would be hurt by the collapse—but others could run. And catching one boy in a crowd of frightened, panicked, and desperate slaves running for their lives would be so much more difficult.
With the oil burners toppled, the fire would spread quickly to the wood, consuming it with bright blinding light.
The collapse was fast as it was brutal. And deafening.
Caleb faltered, looking back over his shoulder.
Caron urged him on. They had seconds, not minutes.
The sounds of pursuit came from every direction. Flames moved in the dark space that was the distance. She saw children streaming down from the collapsed platform, bleeding and battered, hobbling toward the lights, each trying to help the other in a bid for freedom. They wouldn't get far, but it was better to die trying to taste freedom than it was to work slavishly to death only to become meat for the beasts. She couldn't save them all, and she couldn't wait for them to climb the stairs; she could only focus on Caleb. If any of them got out, then Erastil be praised, it would be nothing short of a miracle.
She saw her boy standing at the bottom rope of the wooden stairway that led out of the pit, ever upward finally to the sun.
And to Keir.
"Up!" she yelled as he hesitated.
Behind her came the sounds of dying.
The boy was rooted to the spot, staring at the chaos behind her.
"Your father's waiting. Tell him I love him. I love you. Now go!"
He snapped out of it and threw his torch on the ground to light her way, and started to climb.
She glanced over her shoulder.
Half a dozen rag-clothed children ran toward the light. Behind them came countless urdefhans, their vile faces twisted by the firelight. She couldn't wait for the children. But she couldn't damn them, either. She froze, great sword in hand, knowing she couldn't take the first step up toward freedom while they were so close and yet so far away. Her fate was sealed; she was going to die down here. That was the deal she offered the universe. One moment of divine intervention—these lives saved, her life traded.
And it would buy time for her son to flee.
No matter what she'd thought no more than a day ago, he was her son in every way that mattered. Family was about more than blood.
"Faster," she screamed at the children. "Run!"
She looked up to where Caleb was, near the first platform. He still had so far to go. He looked back down at her. She snatched up the torch he'd thrown down, and raised it above her head. Its flame burst into life as she swung it through the air.
He knew what she was about to do. She could see it in his face. She didn't want to look at him anymore. Now it was all about dying.
Queen sacrifice. It felt like forever since Keir had shown the boy the move.
She turned to face the oncoming blackness, holding out the burning brand in one hand, the urdefhan blade in the other, with just one single thought: keep the enemy at bay. Every moment could be precious, every heartbeat increasing the chance for Caleb to climb further out of their reach.
The first of the rag-clothed children reached her. She urged the girl up the stairs. Then the second and the third. But time was running out. The urdefhans were almost on them. The fourth and fifth made it to her together, but the sixth—a young boy clinging onto some childhood toy he couldn't bear to be parted with—was brought down by the first on the savage shadow dwellers. She should have let the child die, but she couldn't. She hurled herself at the creature, thrusting the flame in its face to drive it away from the boy, then dropped the blade to scoop the frail child up, and sweeping the burning brand through the air stepped back and back to the stairs. "Run for your life, little one," she whispered. Tears streaked down her face. One life for seven. That was a good thing. She couldn't think about the children who hadn't made it to the stairs.
The urdefhans gathered around her, coming close to the flame. The nearest released a gurgling cry that revealed its fear of the fire. But the torch wouldn't burn forever.
She dared not turn her back on them. When the flame died, so would she.
The last of the children was only twenty feet above her. "Keep going!" She yelled at them. There was one last weapon she could use, she realized. "Spill the oil from the burners!"
She had no way of knowing if they'd heard her, but a glance up into the shaft confirmed that they were climbing, Caleb lost to sight now as the slowly turning spiral promised to take him to his father.
The horde grew braver as the torch burned lower, looking to surround her. Caron defended the ladder with nothing more than the dying torch. They knew she was not going anywhere. They knew that it was only a matter of time. And they were faster than the children. It was useless to fight them. This was their world.
Caron felt a single drop of oil fall on her face. They'd heard her.
She retreated onto the first wooden step and with her empty hand reached out for the first oil burner, the only one the children had missed. She upended it, the oil splashing over her arm and down her left side.
The urdefhans came on, crowding the stairs, braving the flame.
Caron swept the torch through the air, causing it to ripple with the oil fumes.
She had to hope it was enough.
She had to believe the boy would make it all the way to the top.
She swung again and again, pushing them back until she felt more oil spilling from above. It wasn't a steady flow. She prayed it would be enough and touched the torch to the rope. A gout of flame rose from it and raced up the twisted threads. She dropped the torch to the floor. The wooden treads began to smoulder. It would be enough. It had to be.
"Remember, I love you, son!" she shouted again, not knowing if her voice would carry out of the pit, but needing the boy to know. They wouldn't catch him now. That was all she'd wanted. She'd kept her promise. It had taken everything she had, every ounce of strength was gone.
As though in answer, the flame caught her oil-soaked foot and leg, chasing up her body as she blocked the way to the children, burning bright, and carried on chasing after them up the stairs. The urdefhans howled their frustration.
There was no way past the burning woman.
Coming Next Week: The web fiction is taking a break next week for Gen Con coverage, but it will be back on Wednesday, August 20 with a preview chapter from Tim Pratt's brand-new Pathfinder Tales novel Reign of Stars!
Steven Savile is the internationally best-selling author of almost twenty novels and many more short stories, set in both original worlds and those of Primeval, Stargate SG-1, Warhammer, Torchwood, Dr. Who, and more. He won Writers of the Future in 2002, has been a runner-up for the British Fantasy Award and shortlisted for the Scribe Award for Best Adapted Novel, and won the Scribe Award for Best Young Adult Original Novel. For more information, visit his website at stevensavile.com.
Illustration by Dion Harris.