Caron woke in darkness.
Stale smoke had brought her round. The only sound on the entire mountainside was her own breathing. Her hands were tied behind her back. A cloth, damp with her own saliva, was bound across her mouth.
Hands moved behind her head. She felt them tugging at the knot that was caught in her hair. Instinctively, she struggled against them.
"Don't fight me, please." An old woman's voice. Caron couldn't see anything.
Finally, the cloth blinding her was tugged down from over her eyes and the gag was pulled free, leaving Caron's mouth harsh and dry.
An old woman leaned over her.
Caron stiffened, ready to fight for her life, but the woman shook her head and whispered fiercely, "Your husband went after the boy..." She looked up toward the mountain.
The woman struggled with the ropes binding her wrists and feet together. She wasn't working fast enough.
"What were those things?" Caron rasped.
"Shadow men," the woman said. "Daemons to some. Old creatures from the dark." She cut Caron's ties.
Keir had gone after Caleb. He wasn't like her. He wasn't a fighter. He was a good man. A peaceful one. Kindhearted and quiet, thoughtful. And now he'd chased the monsters back into the damned earth they'd crawled out of. He would tear the mountain apart rock by rock if he thought it could save his son, but what he couldn't do was face down the shadow men and win. He would die up there.
She had to stop him before he reached their sanctuary.
Caron could only hope that she could follow them all the way and that they hadn't gone deep into the Darklands yet, because that, surely, was where they had come from. Some crack in the earth or tunnel down into the dark. They would be moving much faster than Keir. They knew where they were going. He was driven by fear and panic. For all she knew, he could be stumbling around in the dark, lost.
That was a better, safer alternative than catching up with them.
"They've taken all our children," the woman said. "They took my son. My niece. They took Jakan's three boys. We were trying to save ourselves..."
That explained the lack of children, but not why they'd offered Keir's child to the daemons.
"Why did you do it?" Caron spat out the words like a curse.
The old woman shook her head. "We have no young men or women of our own left for them to take." She said it as if it was a reasonable explanation. "It's too late to save your son, but if you're fast you might still have a husband. Go, and may your god go with you."
Caron's arms ached from being bound so tightly. She tried to massage the life back into them and get the blood flowing.
"Where are my things?" she asked. "My bow, my sword?"
The woman shook her head again but offered her a rusty knife she'd probably rescued from the communal cooking area. "I have this," she said hopefully.
Caron took the knife, but it was a useless thing, with no balance for throwing, its blade too short to be particularly good for cutting. But it was better than nothing. Barely. She tucked it into her belt and set off.
She moved fast, racing back up what had been the path of light. It had burned out while she'd been unconscious. She saw the dark shadow of the Briar Throne up ahead, and paused, remembering where she'd first seen the so-called shadow men up in the fissures of the mountain above her. She called out Keir's name.
There was no reply.
She pushed on, stopping a couple of times to check the ground for tracks. It was all but impossible to see anything, with dawn still an hour or more away, but the shadow men hadn't been particularly careful when they'd come down from the mountain. She could just make out the trampled undergrowth where they had descended.
Up ahead she saw a light.
It was the faintest glow coming through the dense foliage that clung to the actual rock face. She pushed her way through, bracken cutting her hands and pulling at her trousers. Two burning torches were driven deep into the dirt, between them a wide fissure in the stone. Her breathing slowed, but her heart beat faster.
There was no sign of any of the thin-skinned, ivory-boned creatures, nor of Keir.
She stood at the mouth of the cave, listening to the eerie cry of the rising wind and the shell-like echo as it funneled through the mountain. She knew that Caleb was down there somewhere, and that Keir had plunged into the darkness after him, desperate and unprepared.
The bones of a savaged sheep carcass festered on the threshold, surrounded by the smaller bones of small forest animals with strands of meat still hanging from them. They marked the way. The shadow men weren't picky when it came to their diet: meat was meat, be it sheep or boy.
She was dragged from those dark thoughts by the distant sounds of shouting and the clash of steel.
Then Keir's voice split the night.
Caron pulled the knife from her belt and snatched up one of the guttering torches. Then she plunged into the darkness.
She ducked beneath an overhanging spur of rock, moving over loose stones as she closed the gap between her and the sounds of Keir fighting for his life. The acoustics inside the cavern mouth were disconcerting; all of the sounds seemed so much closer than they really were. Caron had never felt comfortable underground, with the weight of the world just a few feet above her head and pressing down on all sides. She moved as quickly as she dared, the light of her torch seeming all too weak. The place smelled fetid and foul. It reeked of carrion and dead air.
She heard a cry. The sound echoed back to her, seeming to come from all sides at once.
Her heart hammered in her chest as cold sweat broke and ran down her back. She gripped the dagger tighter in her hand and went deeper into the twisting passage, quickly losing her orientation in the darkness. The sound of her own breathing filled the cramped confines.
The passage opened into a wider space. It offered her choices: three tunnels feeding off it. There was no obvious way of knowing which way Keir had gone. She kicked out in frustration at a cairn of stones, sending them skittering across the ground and raising a high-pitched chittering from high up above her. Caron raised the firebrand over her head and saw a chimney that stretched up and up. The flame guttered in a draft and she realized the flue must open out somewhere. The chittering intensified. She felt a sudden surge of air and in seconds the sound transformed into a flurry of wings. Blackness came sweeping down the shaft, swelling until it seemed to fill the entire the cavern. Then she was being beaten and battered on all sides as bats stormed out of the chimney, swooping through the cave back toward the mouth.
She stood stock still, letting the bats flitter and flap all around her, until finally they were all gone and any hope of stealth with them.
Caron dropped to her knees at the entrance to the first of the three choices, looking for some sign of disturbance, something to signify that Keir had come this way. There was nothing. She did the same at the middle passage before moving on to the opening on right-hand side, where she saw a single score mark cut into the stone at waist-height, marking the way.
She smiled; even in the heat of the moment Keir knew she wouldn't abandon him.
Caron set off down the tunnel. The ground inclined steeply after a turn and turnabout, with a series of staggered drops taking her down fifty feet in a tight stair.
The air was thicker down here, but not cold. That was peculiar. But then, there was nothing natural about this passage.
The torch in her hand burned low, the fire consuming the reeds woven around the wood. It wouldn't burn forever. She felt the heat against her fingers.
And then a cool breeze touched her face. That shouldn't have been possible this far under the mountain. Suddenly, the walls echoed with a low cry of pain. It was the only sound in the darkness and seemed to fill the entire mountain, as though the rocks themselves were crying out.
At the foot of the stair another series of choices confronted her, but scoring on the stone marked the way ahead. More choices met her, but with each one came another of Keir's marks.
Time lost all meaning in the darkness.
She kept moving, following the occasional cry or clash of steel, not understanding how the sounds could carry so far, or if they could be trusted. Abruptly, she came upon the edge of a vast pit lined by a winding, wood-and-rope stairway. The stair coiled its way down and down, disappearing into the darkness long before it reached the bottom—if there was a bottom.
The pit's walls were lit by shallow bowls of flaming oil set into sconces every so often, creating a spiral of light that corkscrewed its way down into the heart of the earth. From where she stood the sight looked spectacular, but the lamps provided scant light for anyone making the journey down.
Movement caught her eye.
Halfway down the staircase—before shapes lost all meaning to the shadows—she saw her husband fighting for his life.
Caron didn't hesitate. She stepped out onto the first rung of the wooden ladder-stair, gripping the guide rope as the wooden slats swayed alarmingly beneath her weight. Then she was racing down to reach Keir.
The entire construction creaked alarmingly as it took the strain. But it held. She felt the vibrations and impacts of Keir's desperate fight shiver up through the timbers.
One of the shadow men would have been more than a match for a simple man like Keir, no matter how strong his heart, but Keir wasn't facing just one. There were three of the vile creatures down there. He didn't have a prayer. Caron sent a silent entreaty to Erastil, hoping Old Deadeye could hear her from so far deep beneath the land that was his domain, offering up her life in return for Keir's.
Her shoulder scraped against rough stone as she descended deeper and deeper, eyes fixed on the shadows fighting below her. More than once, hugging the stone wall brought her perilously close to toppling one of the oil bowls.
The three black shapes clustered around a fourth one unmoving on the ground. Keir. She had heard no screams. She desperately hoped that the shadow men had feasted before their battle with Keir, but even if they had, the reek of blood and the promise of fresh meat must surely be irresistible to their kind.
The platform lurched precariously beneath her. Keir couldn't defend himself. It was as simple as that; she was his only hope—if he wasn't dead already.
The black shapes looked up at her as she charged down the curving wooden platform, the feeble knife held out before her.
"Keir!" she called, turning his name into a battle cry, desperate for him to respond in some way, any way, even if it were just a sound—anything that meant he was still alive. She refused to believe she was too late. Refused with every bone in her body, every ounce of her being. She used her fear and anger as a font of energy, channeling it into her weapon arm.
She would save him.
Even in the grim half-light she could see Keir had given as good as he got. The three creatures were badly injured, with deep cuts flaying their eerie flesh, the opening folds exposing brightly colored organs beneath. Keir had given everything to try to save his son. But it wasn't enough.
The first of the damned creatures launched itself at her, but Caron was ready for it.
She held the knife as tightly as she could. She couldn't afford to lose the blade if it caught against one of those ivory-white bones visible beneath the shadow man's transparent skin.
The first slice tore through the creature's flesh, slicing its throat and showering her with a fountain of its acidic blood.
The acrid-smelling air burned her lungs, but the shadow man fell, convulsing as it clawed at its own throat, unable to stem the flow of death pouring out of it.
She moved lightning-fast, dropping on the fallen spawn and rising with its vicious, two-bladed weapon in her hand before either of its kin could fall on her.
Caron plunged the blade into the second shadow man's heart, ripping it open with the weapon's serrated edge as she pulled it clear, and turned on the third before it could flee.
She roared her primal rage and launched herself at the thing as it charged at her. Their weapons met, the impact shivering down the length of her arm. The jagged blades ground against each other, slipping hilt to hilt as both combatants refused to break. The creature came in so close she could smell the vile, sulfurous reek of its breath as it bared its teeth and tried to take a chunk out of her neck. She drove a knee up, and its jaws snapped together, forced closed inches from her throat by the body blow. The shadow man loosed a howl that echoed from the rock to the very depths of the pit. She forced it away, but it came back at her twice as hard, twice as fast, driving her back up the unsteady platform, trying to use its momentum to take her over the edge.
Caron felt the wood beneath her shift alarmingly, cracking around her heel, as the shadow man launched himself at her again. She felt something explode inside her, pain threatening to blind her as the creature's clawed hand gouged into the soft meat of her side.
The pain was excruciating—but so much worse when the creature withdrew, pulling at her flesh.
The thought of death, here, beside the man she loved, flashed through her mind, but she clung on to the possibility that Caleb was still alive down there and focused on that instead of the pain. She rammed her borrowed two-bladed weapon up into the multi-colored organs of the beast, and forcing it up until it tore through the creature's throat. Gore and blood spilled forth as the mocking howls of the shadow man went silent.
It was over.
But even in death the thing was still a danger. She fought against its corpse, the cumbersome bulk of which sought to pull her from the platform. After an awkward struggle, she managed to extricate herself from it, but then lost purchase on the corpse and watched as it fell from the platform and was swallowed quickly by the darkness below. The impact came long seconds later. The shadow man's blood dripped from one step to another like something alive.
Keir still hadn't made a sound.
She could not leave him, but she couldn't abandon Caleb either. It was a dreadful choice.
She crouched beside her husband, running her fingertips across his cheek, barely holding back her tears. Her thumb touched his lips, split and caked with blood. She almost pulled it away when one swollen eye flickered open. He groaned. It was the faintest of noises, and she wouldn't have heard if her ear hadn't been so close to his lips. He was alive.
"Caleb," he said. One word. It was all he had the strength to say. It spoke more eloquently to the man he was than a million fancy words could have. Even now his only thought was for his boy.
"I'm going to get him back," Caron said. "Trust me." He didn't argue with her. "You have to go back to the surface. I will get him. I promise you, my love."
He tried to rise, but even in the dim light of the oil lamps she could see the agony etched on his face.
"Promise me," she said, and meant it. She loved him. She would bring his boy back, though it might cost her everything. It was a price she was willing to pay, for him. For them. Because that was what love really was. "Please. Promise me you'll get out of here."
"I need... to come with you... He's my son."
"You'll only slow me down. Trust me. I won't let you down."
It was an impossible promise, but she needed him to believe in her.
With his teeth clenched tight he nodded and took her hand as she helped him to his feet. He had to brace himself against the wall to stay standing.
"Promise me. I need to hear you say it."
Keir looked at her. He knew.
He nodded again. "I promise."
She kissed him then, on those cracked and bloody lips, and said, "I love you."
"I know," he said and turned away, using the guide rope to haul himself step by agonizing step up the winding stairway. When he was thirty feet above her, Keir turned. She wanted to believe he was smiling. "I love you, too," he called down to her. She swallowed. It was the first time he'd said those words to her.
"I'll bring him home," she whispered. It was a promise not just to Keir or herself, but to the world.
She turned her back on the love of her life and descended.
Far below, she saw the glow of more lights. There was nothing welcoming about them.
Coming Next Week: Subterranean pursuit in Chapter Three of Steven Savile's "Queen Sacrifice."
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.