Kull’s master bled him to the point where he couldn’t even stand. It, or she, Kull still wasn’t sure, caught every drop in a wide, shallow bowl. “Normally I have to kill someone to get this much blood,” his master said. “You do have your uses, don’t you?”
Kull didn’t answer. He wasn’t supposed to. His master dismissed him then. He didn’t leave, of course. Such effort was beyond him. He merely shuffled a few steps over and fell down where he wouldn’t be in the way.
The bowl was directly in front of him on the ground, barely three feet away. His master hunched over it, hands moving like a puppeteer. The blood jumped in time with the movements, tugged by invisible strands of magic. Human shaped figures made entirely of Kull’s blood rose up from the middle to stand on the surface. Two more came up out of the blood on the far side of the bowl, but his master’s hands didn’t hover over them.
Instead, it manipulated the clump of people in the center. They marched forward in unison as new shapes emerged from the blood. Then the fight was on, with Kull’s master skillfully directing the blood people. Some of them dissolved and splashed back into the surface of the bowl, but the rest just closed ranks where they could and kept fighting.
Everything in the bowl paused at the same time, and blood bubbled up around the puppets’ feet. “What is this?” Kull’s master said, a hint of confusion in its voice.
“Ah, I see,” it said a moment later. “No help for it then. Can’t kill them.”
The blood puppets turned and ran. They stayed centered in the bowl, but the two figures they’d been trying to reach disappeared off the edge as they moved. With a click of its tongue, Kull’s master pulled its hands away from the bowl and let the blood splash back down to form a flat surface.
* * *
“Where the hell are they going?” Mira asked.
“I don’t care right now. This whole place is going to be underwater in 5 minutes. Move.”
“We need more light, anything that glows. There isn’t enough time to check each wall for marks anymore.”
Shy stripped her top off and hunched over. Before Mira could ask what she was doing, the tattoos across Shy’s back had pushed themselves up onto her shoulders and arms to make room for a bear-shaped thing with obsidian plates and glowing joints. It clawed its way up off Shy’s flesh until it had grown to full size and straddled her.
It ambled forward and Shy climbed to her feet. Her breaths came in ragged gasps, but she didn’t stop to even put her shirt back on. The bear sped up, running the left side of the tunnel, while the salamander scurried to keep up opposite of it.
“Should be… two… no three more intersections to the next mark,” Mira said, trotting after Shy through water that was up past her ankles.
“I’ll watch this wall for the mark, you take the one that’s better lit,” Shy told her.
They almost missed it. The bear was already past it when Mira spotted the mark and called Shy back. The tunnel, fortunately, sloped upward, and all the water in it ran down in ever-thickening rivulets to join the tunnel they’d just come from.
“Any sign of those people who attacked us?” Mira asked as they rounded another corner.
“How are they keeping ahead of us?” Mira wondered. “They didn’t even have a light to see by.”
“They’re probably not. Their owner abandoned them down here to drown.”
Part of Mira was horrified, but only a small part. The rest was too busy trying to navigate the way out and keep a lid on the rising panic she felt. Everything else would have to wait.
The tunnels gave way to an open cavern, but not the one that led back to the surface. Mira skidded to a stop on the slick, water-covered stone and looked around. “Shit,” she said. “I don’t remember which way, and I don’t think we have time to look.”
“Here,” Shy called out, not stopping. She darted across the cavern and disappeared into a tunnel, leaving Mira to scramble after her.
“I don’t see the marking,” Mira yelled from the mouth. “Are you sure-”
“Yes! Come on.”
The salamander was following Shy, which left Mira with no choice but to tag along, unless she wanted to be left with only the dim glow of the inferolisk heartstone for light. Swearing, she ran into the tunnel.
It sloped downward far enough that there was a foot of water in it, and it was still rising. The water had a current to it, one that Mira had to actively fight against. The walls were no help either. They were so slick that it was almost worse putting a hand against one than trying to keep her balance.
She was confident that she could have navigated through the tunnel except for one thing. The salamander lighting her way slipped off the ceiling and fell into the water, its light all but extinguished. Frantically, Mira groped in the dark for the little creature, but the current swept it away before she could catch it.
* * *
“What are they doing, the idiots?” Kull’s master said. It studied the bowl intently, watched the back one flail about. Only one of its slaves was nearby. Kull wondered if that limited the connection somehow, not having a dozen minions to send feedback to the bowl.
His master seemed agitated, worried even. Admittedly, Kull had only been bonded for a few days, but it was the first time he’d ever seen the shadowy figure that controlled his life not in complete control. It worked up some spark of… something… in him, defiance maybe. It was too feeble and small to examine. But it was something that hadn’t been there before.
* * *
Shy’s hand snapped out and caught the salamander as it swept past her. She lifted it up to cling to the back of her hair and kept walking. Mira closed the distance between them and said, “Damn. Nice catch.”
“Not now,” Shy said. “Something is following us.”
“How the hell can you tell? I can barely hear your voice over the water.”
It was true. There was so much noise from the water running past them, dripping down, and generally echoing through the tunnels that it was disorienting. Mira was doing her best to block it out, since it did nothing but feed the panic she was keeping pushed down in her chest.
Then she emerged into a wide open cavern with light streaming in through a hole in the ceiling. “Oh thank God,” Mira said. The water was already up to her waist and, if anything, was rising faster. The web line they’d come in was gone, but Shy threw two streaks of ink into the air that resolved into spider shapes and scaled the hole to the top.
They dropped web lines down to Shy, who didn’t even wait for them to be anchored before she started climbing. It was a matter of seconds before she reached the top. Mira waded over, using the obsidian-plated bear as a water break to keep the current from taking her off her feet.
In the time it took Shy’s pets to make the line and for her to scale it, the water had risen from Mira’s waist up to her armpits. By the time she had the line firmly in her hands, it was up to her shoulders. The current was so great that her feet no longer touched the stone.
Then the bear disappeared, willed by Shy back up into her skin.
The current hit Mira full force, swept her straight out and ripped the line out of her hands. She couldn’t quell the rising panic after that. The logical part of her mind that told her to swim, to fight, was overwhelmed as she thrashed in the water.
She bumped into something solid, still too close from the center of the room for it to be the wall. Hands grabbed her and shoved her forward. The line slapped against her face, and she scrambled to snag it out of water that was past her chin. As soon as she had it, Shy pulled. Mira rose half a foot out of the water, still clinging to the line.
She had enough presence of mind to loop it around her arms several times as Shy gave another tug. A third one pulled her completely free of the water and set her to spinning in place. Mira looked down to see a man, one of the ones who’d been in the group that had attacked them, staring up at her. He was tall, much taller than her. But the water level was going up inches every second, and between the third pull and the fourth, it rose over his head.
Once she was clear of the water, every heave of the line shot Mira up several feet. She had just enough time to see the man, completely underwater but still staring up at her, swept from his feet and carried into the darkness. Then Shy pulled her out of the hole and away from it. Ten seconds later, the water level shot up enough to be funneled into a geyser and burst into open air.
“Thought I was going to lose you for a second there,” Shy said. “Jorath would have killed me.”
“There was a man down there, one of the ones from the tunnels. He caught me and pushed me back to the rope, I mean to the… I mean… He got carried away in the water. If he’s not dead already he will be in the next minute. Why did he save me?”
Shy’s lips thinned into a line. “We’re in trouble. Jorath must not have been as clever as he thought. I know he’s still alive and free right now, but he’s slipped up somehow.”
“How do you know that?”
“His sister just saved your life, and I promise you that you’d rather be dead than let her catch you.”
* * *
Sybill kicked the bowl over, spilling blood across the cave. It splashed off her newest slave, the one with the strange regenerative abilities. The whole job had been a complete disaster. Failing to capture the Montrose girl or Lord Ilrot’s daughter was bad enough, but then to have to intervene to save the human brat’s life was just galling. It was no wonder Annidra had been another reject, if she couldn’t do a better job keeping the human alive.
Sybill had always thought Jorath had had a hand in her escape. More than that, she suspected he’d shielded the fledgling demon from being captured. No amount of pleading had moved her master on the subject though, and with no concrete evidence, Jorath continued to serve and Annidra was left to the world.
Sybill’s lip curled into a sneer. That was all over now though. She fully planned on torturing her brother to within an inch of his life before she delivered him to Lord Ilrot. Even if she hadn’t wanted to, and she really, really did, it would have been necessary to prevent him from escaping. His blood wasn’t suitable for her powers to affect, and his own magic made him almost impossible to contain.
The trick was catching up to him, but she was sure she could find the right bait to lure him in. Annidra wouldn’t be able to protect the girl, and as soon as Jorath realized that Sybill was on his trail, he’d have to show up personally to save the human. It would be so simple after that.
“Get up,” she told the blood slave. “We’re leaving. There’s still so much to do, and so little time to do it.”