Megaera gave Lydia a vicious shove so that she gagged against the tether of Bugclaw’s coil. “How do we keep them from opening the door?” she demanded. Heartsickness and fear threatened to make her rash, but she was pragmatic. She knew killing the werewolf would be no good. Also, she refused, against the evidence of her own eyes, to accept that Zadrian’s father had been killed. She could sometimes sense another’s death, a byproduct, maybe, of her morbid training, and she did not feel the baron’s. Even so, she would not offer Zadrian false hope.
Lydia growled, and looked back hatefully, pupils shrinking against the magical light in Megaera’s left hand. Zadrian wiped clean her glowing sword on the werewolf torso that hung out from the wall and then strode up and thrust the tip quivering under Lydia’s chin. “Those were good men!” Tears stood in her eyes. Without turning her head, she addressed the others: “I’m going to gut this bitch.”
Arslan stepped forward and put a hand on Zadrian’s sword arm. “We need her.”
Lydia jerked her head away, twisted hard, and tried to spit at Zadrian, but the saliva barely cleared her mouth and dripped down her chin. She slumped, dejected and humiliated. A minute of tense calm followed. Megaera’s heart pulsed fast and steady in her ears; she glanced over to see a vein throbbing in Zadrian’s neck even faster; the werewolf panted shallow breaths that rebounded like hoarse whispers from the cavern walls. At length, Zadrian said, “We don’t need her if she won’t talk,” took up her sword, and cocked it back with clear determination.
“The door will open only once, every three hours,” Lydia said. “It is fueled by water dripping down in the cliff to fill hidden reservoirs.” Zadrian restrained the half-loosed stroke, arms tense, and lowered the sword with painful effort.
“What will we find ahead?” asked Megaera.
“Death,” the werewolf mumbled, but then said directly: “The tunnel meets up with a highway. One way, it leads to all the exits in these hills; the other descends to a crossroads. The crossroads is guarded by giants. The left branch runs on for fifty miles to the dungeons of King Raglar, a cruel mountain giant. His fortress, where it rises aboveground, is magically disguised as a hill. The right branch drops to the lower highways, to the city of Barathrum and the Nightwater Sea. Where do you want to go? All the ways are deadly.”
“A city?” said Arslan. “Rumor of these highways under the earth should have reached the kingdom, but they have not.”
Lydia made a derisive chuckle. “The memory of human kingdoms goes back a few thousand years. The memory of the creatures under the earth is old. These highways were made, used, and long abandoned before men ever came to this world. The giants have reopened them, with the help of those below, because Cax will soon have his hour. All who serve him, or seek to placate him, understand that he cannot be defeated.”
“And who lives below?” asked Megaera. Awe and dread began to run cold down her limbs and neck. She felt she had entered an older and vaster country than the world outside, and her imagination fell, like a hapless mountain climber, into its bottomless gulfs.
“As well ask, ‘Who lives above?’ Many things, many races. Principalities, kingdoms, masters, slaves, and then there are gates to the Worlds Outside.”
“And where will we find the hag, Annabis?” Megaera asked.
Lydia sneered so deeply that shadows lined her face like running ink. “Wherever you find her, she will not be alone. She comes and goes, from the giant castle, to Barathrum, to places even more farflung. The highways are cleared before her. Orcs and ogres roust all from her path; behind them, giants; then vampires, iron-skinned succubae, and demons that spread a choking fog. They say she rides a great spiky dragon, or a demon in the form of an armored spider.”
“Who rules Barathrum?”
“Cax, or his lieutenants, but maybe not yet. It has been a neutral ground among several great powers: the demons of the Nightwater and their amphibious worshippers, the spawn of the Webspinner, the Father of Dragons, the Master of Rats, and many others, both certain and fabled.”
“And what about the giant—Raglar?” asked Dirk.
“He is a hunter and takes skins for trophies: dragons, men, demons, lions. But he grows old and less fierce but no less wicked. Annabis controls a vampire who also serves him— as messenger. Raglar has held his new citadel only a score of years, and already its dungeons are famous throughout the underworld. He stages gladiatorial fights with the prisoners, including some of my people. The brother of our clan leader was turned over to him for sport.”
“Why?” said Megaera.
“He tried to gather followers and splinter the pack. His plans were made known. He has survived a dozen pit fights, it is said, but eventually he will fail, if he already has not.” Lydia’s eyes shifted sideways.
Megaera had a sudden inspiration, followed by nervous excitement. She would have to tread warily. “You care for him?”
She met Megaera’s gaze with an abject expression. “Why?”
“Please,” said Megaera.
Tears welled up in Lydia’s eyes. “No,” she said. “Once, Sigurd might have been my mate, but Genevieve first stole him and then betrayed him.”
“Maybe we could free Sigurd,” said Megaera. “We have enemies in common.”
“Sigurd is no friend of yours. Your people have hunted us.”
Exasperated, Megaera said, “You know, that’s what I like about you, your honesty. What other creatures does this giant keep in his dungeons?”
“Humans, dwarves, half-ogres, werebears.”
“Those sound like good allies. Once we free them, we’ll tack Raglar’s skin to the wall of his own trophy room, then go and pull Annabis off her giant spider.”
“You are mad.”
“Now you’re beginning to get it.”
Zadrian cut in, voice strained with hate. “We can’t take this creature with us. We would have to watch her every step, to keep her running off and sounding the alarm.”
“I don’t know,” said Megaera. “I think the werewolves will already be running to alert their masters. They know that some of us escaped. Lydia may be our only chance to get away. We can’t afford a wrong turn.” She tugged at Bugclaw slightly to get Lydia’s attention. “If I release you, will you guide us to Raglar’s dungeons to free Sigurd?”
Lydia dropped her head, squeezed her eyes shut, and nodded.
“Let’s put it to a vote,” said Megaera. “All in favor?”
“Aye,” said Dirk and then, after a hesitation, Arslan echoed him.
“Nay,” said Zadrian.
“You’re outvoted,” said Megaera, and she let Bugclaw slither loose from around Lydia’s neck. The werewolf turned and stepped back, astonishment on her face.
“Well?” said Megaera. To her surprise, the werewolf crouched down to the floor and licked her boots, then leaned back with her neck exposed and eyes shut. Suddenly Megaera understood, and she stroked Lydia’s neck with the back of the flail handle. “I accept your submission.”
Still crouched, Lydia glanced up through her brows, glowering. “I will go forward as a wolf. My people have leave to roam this tunnel. We must go quickly.” With that, she fluidly transformed, face elongating to a snout, brow flattening, ears riding up on her head. Her fingers thickened, retracted into paws, legs shrunk, twisting. She snapped and tore at her clothes and once she had wriggled free, she launched into the darkness.
Megaera scooped up the rags and handed them to Arslan. “Here, take charge of this.”
“Oops.” Arslan tossed the rags over his shoulder.
Megaera shook her head. She put up her hood and the others did likewise; then, cloak drawn tight, she led the way, a disembodied hand clutching a ball of radiance. After a hundred yards, she caught the gleam of the werewolf’s eyes, and glimpsed her outline, half-turned toward them. With a flash of her white-tipped tail, Lydia sprang away before the light could fully expose her. Megaera increased her pace, keeping the tail just in view.
An ancient lava tube about twenty feet high, the cavern tended downwards at a gentle slope. The floor was rough clay mud, pocked with holes from centuries of dripping condensation. These mountains held no limestone, and thus no stalactites or stalagmites. Even so, the going was treacherous. In places the floor had been worn smooth and was nearly as slick as ice. They came upon boulders tumbled out of the ceiling, and many folds and pockets in the walls that might shelter ambushers. Megaera glanced back, and was reassured to see that the others moved in a faint blur, like the wake of a fish through clouded water.
After about half a mile, Megaera heard a low growl ahead, followed by a bark. She extended Bugclaw beyond her cloak sleeve and waved a halt. She felt, rather than saw, them crowd about her.
Zadrian whispered, “I told you. Already we’re betrayed.”
“I can see in darkness. I’ll scout ahead.” With that, she extinguished the light. A moment later, metal rasped faintly and a cool low gleam from Zadrian’s magical blade lit a patch of what seemed like empty air. The glow was dim enough that it did not disturb Megaera’s darksight, and the cave walls resolved around her in lines of white and gray. “Sheathe that sword either until I say or until you’re threatened.” After a pause, Zadrian put the sword away, and the cavern became much clearer. Megaera stole off quickly and as silently as she could.
After a dozen yards, she began to pick up a whispered, intense conversation. A hoarse, slightly whining voice was saying, “…light ahead just went out. I know you dogs don’t see well in full dark, so why did the others send you out?”
Megaera crossed around a high wall of tumbled boulder that left only a narrow gap on one side, and as she did, she could make out the form of a hairy goblin giant, nearly as large as an ogre, crouched on a ledge thirty feet above the cavern floor. Lydia had assumed a half-wolf shape, and her fangs were exposed on one side in a snarl.
“I don’t need to see you to find you, smelly gruant scum!” she growled.
“Don’t provoke me, dog! Go fetch your curs.”
“How many more checks are there? We have news to bring the crossroad guards,” Lydia said.
“Two, maybe three.”
“Then give us an escort. We’re in a hurry.”
“Why should I?” asked the gruant.
“Because we’re under attack, you hairy slug! A group of elves and fighters killed my giant and half my brothers outside and are coming this way!”
“Do they know the door?” asked the gruant, suddenly attentive. His fangs crowded his mouth and pushed upward beyond his lips in a vicious underbite.
“We don’t have time for this,” said Lydia. “I told you that they’re coming. They got the key from the giant.”
“But you already came through. They can’t enter for hours.”
“Maybe, or maybe the lightning they called down to blast half my pack will serve for the doors as well!” Lydia sounded appropriately desperate and impatient.
“Call your curs. Once I’ve had a look at them, we’ll go.”
Megaera knew this was the end of the discussion and turned back. A gleam in the distance indicated that Zadrian had already drawn her sword. She lit her own globe of radiance as she walked up to the others. “Come,” she said. “Put back your hoods. There’s a gruant ahead, and he’s going to lead us. Lydia has told him we’re werewolves.”
Now in human form, Lydia sprinted naked out of the gloom. Her lean body was well muscled and slashed by many scars. One breast was half scar tissue, the nipple largely missing. Even in her most vulnerable form, the werewolf looked dangerous. “I smelled your approach just now,” she said to Megaera, seemingly untroubled by her own nakedness. “You heard me speak to the gruant. He is stupid, but not too stupid. We need a lie to explain your armor and cloaks.”
Megaera hefted Bugclaw. “We are a special contingent of were-assassins, favored by Cax.”
“You are an elf. The gruant is not blind. Even he knows an elf cannot be one of us.”
“I am the leader. The rest can be werewolves.”
“Who is Cax?” said Zadrian.
“Their demon,” said Megaera. “Vidal mentioned him.”
“Why didn’t you tell this to my father?” said Zadrian.
Lydia bounced, obviously impatient with the exchange. In a reckless mood, Megaera decided to let all of them in on her secret. “This flail is alive. It’s one of Cax’s tentacles that he sheds every thousand years. Vidal called it the ‘Night Talon,’ but I’ve renamed it.”
The werewolf wrinkled her nose and drew back with alarm.
“Yes, that’s right. Anyway, we’ve got our story. Let’s go.”
Zadrian muttered, “You seem almost at home here, Megaera.”
They found the gruant watching them from his perch above the cavern floor, a huge crossbow held cocked at his side, and Lydia introduced the three humans as fellow werewolves. He wore a thick leather belt from which hung a pouch on one side and a massive scimitar on the other. Lydia introduced Megaera as a “fallen elf,” apparently a species known in the underworld. The gruant drew back his shaggy head and stared down his raised muzzle, eyes wide and suspicious. Megaera whipped out Bugclaw dramatically and held it aloft, its arm thrashing in slow looping arcs, the claws extruding and retracting as if raking the air. “I am a lieutenant of Cax and the leader here!” she said. “Enough delay.”
The gruant crouched and uncrouched in agitation. Finally, it clambered down off the ledge, dropping the last few yards with a slap of its broad flat feet. It towered a full head above Arslan. “Come,” it said, and padded off swiftly.
After another half mile, the tunnel sloped down more steeply and wended through mounds of fallen ceiling. Megaera’s darksight was confounded by the globe of light in her hand, and she could not see into the many shadows just beyond its reach. Now and then feral eyes winked from hollows and fissures in the mounds, and once the entire upper half of a dark pile, a bulk twenty feet square, adjusted itself with a sinuous ripple.
The cavern widened out after another few hundred yards, and the walls and ceiling showed dim on the edge of sight. Several large forms emerged from ledges above and plopped to the floor. Zadrian began to draw her sword and slow her pace, casting about, but Lydia waved her on impatiently with a shake of her head. A troop of six gruants coalesced out of the dark and began to pace them at a respectful distance, swinging spiked clubs in their casual stride. They all proceeded this way for another tense quarter mile, when Megaera hit a growing odor of rancid musk. Dirk and Arslan had their arms within their cloaks, hands evidently on their weapons and turned their faces into their shoulders as if against the smell. Suddenly, their guide turned and barked orders, and the following gruants went off to the right and passed into a huge gap in the wall. Megaera paused, uncertain. “This way!” said the leader, and sprinted down the main passage.
As they went by the side cavern, Megaera heard a metallic rasp and clank and the ratcheting of a chain. Up ahead, their guide vanished into the darkness, but a moment later, they caught up to him. He’d stationed himself next to a massive winch bolted to the floor, just beyond where the bottom of a portcullis hung from the roof. The chain from the winch led into a hole in the wall. Just as Megaera and the party crowded around, the other gruants flooded out of the dark and passed them by. Their guide put his hand to a pawl beside the winch, thrust it free of a gear, and the portcullis came shuddering down. It landed with a reverberating boom—and not a moment too soon.
A gigantic, dragonlike creature slithered into the space behind; its slick wall of flat gray scales, big as roof shingles, reflected the light in Megaera’s hand like a window onto a cloud-veiled moon. Two muscular forearms were folded along its sides. In place of lower legs, a pair of tiny spurs trailed on the monster’s flanks. As thick through its snaky body as the gruants were tall, it reared up and gripped the bars, trying to work its fingers toward them. But the portcullis had been built strong.
“Ophidiag,” muttered Lydia. A wave of stench rolled off the creature. “Annabis brought them from the hot swamps. They can hibernate for centuries, and will heal from any wound. One was trapped in a rockfall once and smashed flat. After months, ogres cleared the debris. They were careless. The ophidiag reformed itself and ate them before they could leash it, and Annabis herself had to find and subdue the creature. This may be the one.”
The gruants padded around, watching them, seemingly at ease now that the ophidiag blocked the passage behind.
“How much further to the highway?” Megaera asked Lydia.
Megaera addressed the leader. “Thank you for your assistance. We will mention it to Annabis. If you see anyone approach the ophidiag, send a runner—” She hesitated.
“To the guards at the crossroads,” finished Lydia.
“Yes, to the guards.”
The lead gruant looked uncertain. He shifted on his feet, and then suddenly dropped his eyes toward the pouch at his waist, which leaked a blue light. He set down his crossbow and undid the buckle on it with a clawed hand. Megaera turned to Lydia, and saw her eyes widen with alarm. Then Lydia mouthed two words: “Fight now!”
She spun toward Zadrian, who instantly marked the change in mood and drew her sword. The gruant looked up confused and groped for his scimitar; his fellows stopped milling. Fear seemed to thin the air. Megaera looked to Lydia. Fur emerged along the werewolf’s body, which flowed upward into man-wolf shape. The sight chilled Megaera’s guts with primitive dread. She had to force down the alarm ringing at the base of her skull that the werewolf presented the main threat. The gruant drew his scimitar and backpedaled, slashing to ward off attack. Megaera dodged a swing and then encircled the blade with Bugclaw. The gruant lifted her up with the follow-through. From the side, Zadrian appeared and slashed down. The monster’s arm came off at the elbow. Megaera got balanced, released the blade, and fell back. Zadrian whirled her sword up and high overhead, drove in, and decapitated him. Meanwhile, a gruant leapt out and swung its spiked club into Lydia’s temple. She gripped the weapon. The gruant tugged, but she pulled, dragged the creature forward, and sank her long muzzle into its neck. With an angry growl, she ripped out its throat.
Zadrian met the charge of another gruant, parried its club, and slashed out its guts. It staggered backward several steps, tried to steady itself and instead fetched sideways against the portcullis. Through the bars, the ophidiag curled its fingers around the gruant’s head with one hand and a leg with the other; it cracked and mangled the body. Arslan jumped past Zadrian, cutting down two more gruants that advanced to attack her. The last pair turned and ran. Dirk brought one down with both thrown daggers. Lydia released the limp gruant in her clutch, then slid her eyes up after the last. She gathered herself and sprang after it. Within a few heartbeats, both were swallowed by the darkness; a hoarse, brief cry arose.
The party surveyed the carnage. Over at the portcullis, the ophidiag fished small chunks of gruant through the bars with one questing finger.
Megaera shuddered off this grim sight and attended to the bag at the waist of the fallen leader, a dull blue light still pulsing through its seams. She raked Bugclaw over the gruant’s belt to cut it and tugged off the pouch.
As she stowed the flail at her waist, Lydia came sprinting out of the dark in human form, like some demon succubus, face and hands and chest smeared with blood. At her temple, a gory wound had already begun to close itself. Megaera began to open the pouch. “No!” she yelled, and Megaera stayed her hand.
She stumbled to a halt, panting, and then doubled over to catch her breath and wipe blood from her lips and chin with the back of her arm. When she straightened, she reached out. Megaera reluctantly gave her the pouch and caught sight of Zadrian shaking her head. Lydia turned away and fished her hand in, latched onto something, and then looked back over her shoulder. Zadrian and the men had stepped up to Megaera’s side.
“I need privacy,” she growled. “Move away.”
Zadrian kept a tight grip on her sword as they all stepped back.
The werewolf shielded a glowing sphere. A voice, faint and tinny, could be heard. “Where is Ragnash?”
“Dead,” said Lydia. “He and the others ambushed a group of humans.”
“I know about the humans. Where are they?”
“All are slain. The gruants fell after killing two. I overpowered the others but am injured.”
“You will heal. I am sending Karsk to escort you. I wish to learn how these humans had gotten so far. Your people failed in their vigilance.”
“They slew two beyond the last-hill door.”
“No, fortunately, they subdued them, and they are being delivered for questioning.” Zadrian’s head shot up, and the pain of mingled relief and anxiety showed on her face. “You should not have allowed yourself to be captured. But satisfy my questions, and your punishment will be light.”
“Yes, my queen.”
“Proceed down to the crossroads and wait for Karsk!”