Distantly, over the sound of rushing water, Freja could make out some sort of faint snuffling noise, perhaps like breathing. “Targa?” she asked. “Gryn?”
The noises paused, and she heard a rumbling growl that echoed off the stone walls. Definitely not one of the others. Bloody Covenant, the others. She had to help them.
Her right arm ached badly when she tried to move it, and she flexed her fingers experimentally. Sprained but not broken. Lucky. Freja crawled forward, but her leg screamed in pain when she tried to move. It was caught under a heavy rock, the leather soaked in water and blood. Possibly broken.
Something in the pocket of her coat ground into her leg, and with some effort she pulled it out: the tiny illusion projector Milka had made her. Her lurid, leaping pose cast surprisingly bright orange light, illumining glistening stone walls covered in clawmarks. Not promising. The Last Word lay on the grimy floor just past her hand. She set the projector down and reached for the gun, but her trapped leg exploded in pain and she fell just short.
Freja pulled back, panting. “Bloody and damned,” she said.
She pushed tentatively on the rock, grunting at the effort, but she didn’t have the leverage or the raw power to move it. She heard the growls again, growing closer.
The light trickled down a tunnel, and she saw movement at the very limit some twenty paces. The creature didn’t seem to react when the light appeared. It was, however, coming gradually closer, scraping itself along the walls.
“Bloody!” Freja pulled harder on her leg, biting her tongue against the pain. Fresh blood welled as the stone scraped through her leathers, but she was almost free.
A blood-chilling shriek echoed up the tunnel, and she saw the thing running toward her. It looked like a hound at first, based on its size and shape, but as it closed she saw that it had quills and spines instead of fur. It had no eyes, either, but it must have sensed her. Freja had heard of razorfiends but never actually seen one. If she didn’t move fast, she would get to inspect it much more closely.
With a cry of pain, Freja finally wrenched her leg free and scrambled out of the water. She snatched up the Last Word and took aim at the charging razorfiend. The weapon clicked.
The razorfiend tackled her into the shallow pool. Freja managed to catch her breath before she went under, but hitting the bottom blew it right back out in a swarm of bubbles. She broke the surface with a gasp, and the razorfiend scrabbled madly atop her. It thrashed, shredding her coat and skin with its spines, and its mouth snapped at her face. Half submerged, Freja fed those jaws her leather-wrapped arm instead of her throat, and she could feel the teeth digging into her flesh.
The Caliban dagger dug into her hip. Without thinking, she drew the blade and plunged it into the side of the razorfiend’s head. It wasn’t the strongest blow, but the creature yelped in pain and leaped off her out of the pool, taking the dagger with it.
Fighting to breathe, Freja half-crawled, half-stumbled toward her gun, lying on the stone where she had dropped it. She palmed a fresh cartridge, sealed in wax, from her belt pouch. Her right arm pulsed with waves of pain.
Half a dozen paces away, the razorfiend yowled and mewled and smashed itself against the wall in a vain attempt to dislodge the dagger stuck there.
Freja reclaimed the Last Word, and the trembling left her hand. Slowly and perfectly, she lifted it and cleared the misfired cartridge.
The razorfiend whirled toward her and charged, fangs slavering.
Calmly, Freja broke the wax and inserted the fresh cartridge. She ignored the razorfiend.
The creature was upon her, leaping for her throat. She could feel its hot breath—
Freja clicked the cartridge into place and fired, the bullet exploding into the razorfiend’s mouth from less a than a thumb’s breadth distant. Blood and spit spattered her hands and face. The creature sailed back and slapped into the wall, a broken hunk of smoking flesh.
Hands still, Freja breathed out, letting the panic burn down to a low, smooth surface of tension.
That was when laughter rippled down through the hole in the ceiling, resonating through the running water. Of a sudden, Freja’s calm shattered and she felt like a frightened little girl. The Exodite was up there, and it was waiting for her. Her hands began to shake, and her legs felt like dead wood.
“Shut it out,” Freja said. “Let it bleed away. You’re a corpse anyway.”
Slowly—agonizingly slowly—she grew calm once more.
She had work to do, and she didn’t have time for fear.
Freja pulled up short when she heard the moan echoing down the tunnel. Closing the projector in order to bring back the dark, she crouched behind a natural bench of stone and peeked over at a muddy source of firelight somewhere ahead. The moans were louder now, as well as a series of scrabbling, snuffling sounds that reminded her of the razorfiend.
“Bloody perfect,” she said under her breath.
Without her pack, she had the equipment she’d carried down through the waterfall. Milka’s projector cast some light, but she used it sparingly: it both let her see and made her a target. Several of her spare cartridges were ruined, and she could only salvage the Last Word of all her guns. The others were either missing or too broken to repair in the field. She had six cartridges she thought would fire, but she wouldn’t know for sure until she tried them. She had the Caliban dagger, her armor, and her hat, which made her feel a little better.
Time to move again. The tunnel sloped upward, which was progress. She let a little of the projector’s light out around her sleeve as she went, so that she could at least see where she was going. It wouldn’t do to brain herself on a stalactite or stumble into a pit.
Abruptly, Freja caught herself on the edge of a gap, sending bits of stone down into the yawning darkness. The scuffling noises came from below, she realized. She shone her light that way, and it illumined at least a dozen razorfiends scurrying and rolling like a swarm of ants. They clearly detected her and were literally crawling over themselves to get to her. Wonderful.
Freja looked up at the opposite ledge. “I can make that,” she said, trying to believe herself.
She drew out the projector and tossed it up onto the ledge, bathing the narrow tunnel in light. Making sure her gun was tightly bound in its holster, she backed up, braced, and ran for the edge, ready to leap across the gap.
And she would have made it, had not the ancient stone edge crumbled under her foot.
She half-jumped, half-stumbled into a moment of weightlessness, and her stomach slammed with bruising force into the opposite ledge. Gasping, she scrabbled at the stone, trying to find some sort of handhold, then slid backward. She caught just the edge with her left hand, dangling by one arm for a heart-stopping moment. She tried to reach up with her right, but the arm screamed in pain when she tried to put weight on it. She hung there, trembling, as the razorfiends scrabbled far below her.
Her hat shrugged off her head, and the creatures tore it to pieces before it hit the ground.
“Bloody come on,” Freja said to her body, demanding it pull her up.
Her wet fingers slipped on the stone.
Then thick, red-skinned hands closed around her wrists, and she looked up into the yellow-gold eyes of Chenoa Gryn. The Prymidian was bruised and covered in blood and mud, his eyes glazed and his face pale, but he was whole and alive. His arms strained as he pulled, and she kicked her legs to try to push herself up. Finally, Gryn hauled Freja up from the abyss and they lay gasping on the stone. The Prymidian groaned, and Freja realized it was the sound she had been following.
“You’re injured,” she said.
Gryn shrugged. “I came when I saw your light.”
After a moment, Freja sat up, bruised and not wanting to move. “The others?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“How—how long?” she asked. “How long have we been down here?”
“Hours,” he said. “It is still day outside. The Exodite is waiting until nightfall to sally forth.”
Freja frowned. “How do you know that?”
The Prymidian’s eyes glittered. “Exodites fear the sun,” he said at length.
It hadn’t looked to Freja like that woman needed to fear anything. “If she’s still up there, what do we do?” she asked. “We can’t fight her.”
“We steal past her,” Gryn said. “Voshtet’s necklace. That’s our best chance.”
Freja nodded. “Well, at least it’ll be impressive.”
The Prymidian’s eyes glowed in the darkness with something he had not and could not say.
“What?” Freja asked. “Don’t tell me. No healing yet?”
He shook his head. “Night draws close. We must go.”
Freja nodded, though every bit of her hurt. “Just keep moving.”
Gryn led them efficiently to the main chamber of the crypt, which was blasted and littered with the remains of the exploded sarcophagus. Purple fires crackled at half a dozen isolated points in the room, consuming bits of leather, wood, and flesh. Freja could make out Targa’s arm and leg poking out from behind a pillar. It took her a moment to find Garrull: the P’tan’s body was partly imbedded, spread-eagled, into the far wall. Blood and other juices had drained down his furry corpse and hardened like a glaze left too long in the cold. It made her sick to her stomach, but she suppressed the urge to retch. The chamber otherwise seemed empty: no Exodite.
“Where is she?” Freja asked.
Gryn shook his head. He indicated the sparkling rubies on their chain by Targa’s limp hand.
“Right,” Freja said.
She crept slowly across the room, staying as low to the ground as she could. In her unhurt hand, she held the Last Word ready, for all the good it would do. The strange fires cast flickering shadows that made her look up constantly, heart in her throat. The Exodite could be anywhere.
She crept up to Targa’s corpse, and realized that his upper right torso and head were missing, his body a hollowed out shell with only a grayish stew of guts. She set her teeth to keep from vomiting. Her pack lay where she had left it, with her spare gun and cartridge pouch. Ten, maybe. She donned the pack and reached for the necklace.
The shadows parted and the Exodite appeared, standing over her. Her purple eyes matched the pockets of flame scattered throughout the room. The dark woman smiled, her lips curling back too far from too many dagger-sharp teeth. Freja tried to bring the Last Word in line, but the Exodite caught her arm. The black fingers closed tight, making her bones grate in her arm. Her struggles ripped open her coat and the contents of her pockets clinked to the ground.
“Gryn!” Freja hissed. “Gryn!”
He just stood there, trembling but not moving, his face slack.
“You have done well, my pet,” the woman said, making the Prymidian stiffen.
Freja furrowed her brow for a heartbeat, then cursed. The Exodite had charmed Gryn—that’s why he’d been acting strange—and she’d walked right into the trap. Bloody perfect.
The Prymidian walked toward them, his gait awkward. The Exodite smiled, but her expression slipped slightly when he had come within a few paces. Freja saw it too: Gryn was playing up the charm, but his eyes seemed very bright. He’d worked through the spell.
The Exodite hissed in sudden rage, dropping Freja to the floor. Gryn had been murmuring words to a spell of his own, and he vanished even as the Exodite lunged toward him. Half-sitting, Freja leveled the Last Word at her back and squeezed the trigger. The cartridge fizzed and smoked. Misfire. Blood and damnation! Freja reloaded.
The creature whirled, crouched low, and pounced. Freja reached for the necklace, but the Exodite knocked her flying toward the narrow exit tunnel. She hit and the world turned gray-red for a heartbeat. Freja’s teeth vibrated from the force of that blow. She shook her head to clear it.
The Exodite declaimed arcane syllables, and the air tingled as power discharged. Chenoa Gryn reappeared, right at Freja’s shoulder, and she put the Last Word to his throat by reflex.
The Prymidian seemed calm. “Use the necklace,” he said.
Freja looked at her empty hand, then at the Exodite, which had picked up Targa’s necklace and was regarding them with a curious expression.
“We’re dead,” Gryn said.
“No.” Freja took aim, hoping for no misfire. “She is.”
The bullet struck the necklace in the Exodite’s hand. Magic flared and exploded.
They leaped into the passage even as a wave of force shattered the chamber. Fire and smoke washed over them, and they scrambled down the corridor. All around, the stone trembled, and Freja knew it was all coming down. She pulled Gryn along, through the tight squeeze, just before a massive boulder sealed off the passage behind them. They kept running, not looking back, until they climbed out the cave entrance into the dying sunlight. Dust drifted out behind them.
They stood, covered in blood and dust, bodies aching on the verge of collapse.
The Prymidian looked up at the setting sun and breathed out. “A tale for the legends,” he said.
Freja shrugged, looking at the remains of her attire. “You owe me a new coat.”
“Gladly,” Gryn said. “Assuming we survive them.”
The rustling of feet on stone caught Freja’s attention. A score of Caliban stood on the path, weapons in hand, faces furious.
Freja reloaded her pistols. “Time to go to work,” she said.
In the tight, sealed chamber, a faint orange light swelled from a small device that leaned against the broken altar. It projected a heroic, risqué image: a woman wielding two pistols, leather coat partly unbuttoned and flowing around her, rotating slowly to show her in all its glory.
It would take time to find another escape—time to memorize every line and curve, the determination in those eyes and the arrogance in that grin.
A jet-black hand reached out of the shadows and righted the projector.
Plenty of time.