I looked over the tunnel, holding up the makeshift torch to get a better view. It was just me and Valtrak. Asher was still on watch, so we did not have to worry about the boys. I was much more interested in the tunnel that we had, without my knowledge, passed on the way up here. Valtrak had been the only one to notice it, but he told me that he had naturally assumed that we had seen it too. Dwarves, I realized, were extremely good at seeing hidden caves. When I asked him why, he chuckled.
“Because, Filynora. The entrances to our caves are always hidden. This tunnel was definitely carved by Dwarves; no other race would think to hide it like this. I would not be surprised if nobody knew about this.”
The cave was tall enough to allow even the tallest Centaurs through it. That plus the fact that it was built into the side of the mountain near a Human town made me believe it was dug back before the rift between the races. When I voiced that thought, Valtrak agreed with me, pointing out that the Dwarves that had carved it had used a very old technique that had not really been used for a long while. When asked how he knew that, he pointed out chips and cracks.
“We now have a much better way of carving tunnels that makes the walls smooth and reduces the chance of chips happening. This is nothing like the tunnels leading to different sections of the city.”
I frowned. “What do you mean by sections?”
“You only saw and lived in one part of Crystalmoor. There are five different sections, each unique.”
I hummed. “Really?”
Valtrak nodded. “Mayhap when all this is over, you could come and I could show you around?”
“That would be nice. If we survive,” I stated, my voice too calm for the words I had just spoken.
“True,” Valtrak agreed, his tone light and pleasant. We may have well been talking about the weather.
“Did you explore the cave?” I asked, intentionally changing the subject.
“A little bit,” the Dwarf said with a nod. “It seems sturdy and quite unused. The floor is littered with small stones and a layer of dirt that is unstirred by any footprints but my own.”
“Excellent. You and I shall sneak in this way first thing in the morning. The boys can go into town and try to gather information about the creatures. Maybe they could even get a few recruits for our cause.”
We walked back to camp to see Asher nearly falling asleep. I sent him to his bedroll and he was out almost immediately. Valtrak and I spent the rest of the shift discussing in quiet voices everything from how to instruct the boys to how much we wanted to see our friends. Valtrak went so far as to even say he wanted to see Gabrithon again. When I asked him why, he responded that he missed teasing the Centaur. I knew that he was telling the truth, but I suspected that he was not telling the whole truth. I let it go though and before long we woke Kelvin and Colton for their turn at watch.
The next morning we shared our plan with the boys, who were not happy. They wanted excitement and adventure and a fight. They were not happy about just going and talking to people. I silenced them and sent them on their way after breakfast. Once they were gone, Valtrak and I headed to the cave. I was much more relaxed around my friend than I was around those boys. Even Jaiden made me a little uncomfortable. Maybe it was because Humans had always hurt me, but I was much more at home with those of a different race.
Valtrak and I paused at the entrance of the cave to light a torch that the Dwarf had made the night before. He held it and we went forward. There was a sharp curve about twenty-five feet in and it became quite dark after that. The tunnel was not straight like the tunnels in Crystalmoor had been. It wound this way and that, going deep under the mountain. It finally ended and we found out why the tunnel was so unused. There had been a cave in. Valtrak handed me the torch and began to press his hands against the rocks.
“Is it possible to get through?” I asked, my heart sinking.
“From the other side? No,” Valtrak said then turned to look up and smile at me. “But we can from this side.”
“What is the difference?”
“The way the rocks have settled,” the Dwarf replied. “A nice push on this side should send the rocks tumbling down.”
I shoved the torch in his hands and searched inside myself for that strange physical strength I seemed to have. Just as I began pushing, Valtrak gave a cry of “Wait!” but it was too late. The rocks gave under my hands and, with a rumble, they collapsed into another tunnel, settling over the floor. I looked at Valtrak, who was looking up at the archway with a gaping mouth. He settled his violet eyes on me and snapped his mouth shut.
“That tunnel might have collapsed on us!” he sputtered incredulously.
“Well it did not,” I stated with a smile.
He shook his head and we stepped through. When I looked up I saw Pinnathir right across from us staring open-mouthed. Shackles were around his wrists and his ankles and he looked exhausted, bruised and bloodied, and too thin. He suddenly smiled, his bottom lip trembling, and he moved to the end of his chains, his eyes hopeful and desperate at the same time.
“Please tell me they did not slip me more hallucinogens,” he said hoarsely. “Please tell me you are real!”
“Pinnathir,” I said, horrified and sickened at the poor Satyr’s condition.
“What did they do to him?” Valtrak asked softly.
“Fily,” a voice called, just as hoarse as Pinnathir’s.
“Gabrithon!” I gasped, turning to look at the Centaur, who was in a cell cattycorner to Pinnathir. His condition was just as bad as my Satyr friend’s, if not worse.
“Is it really you?” Gabrithon asked, shifting in his chains.
“No, mule, it is Nolan,” Valtrak said, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“Valtrak,” Gabrithon sighed, a tone of relief in his voice.
“Who else?” the Dwarf asked as I looked into an empty cell.
“Where is Elthinor?” I asked tersely, looking from Gabrithon to Pinnathir.
There was silence and both of my imprisoned friends looked away from me. I immediately grew alarmed. I grabbed the bars of the cell and Gabrithon looked up at me sadly. He sighed and shook his head, seemingly unable to speak.
“He gets taken out of his cell every couple of days,” Pinnathir finally said softly.
“Nolan beats him in front of all the servants, making an example of him,” Gabrithon admitted in a low voice.
“Then he comes back and is starved for the rest of the day,” the Satyr finished.
Tears of anger burned my eyes and I leaned my forehead against the bars, gritting my teeth. I had known it would be bad. I just had not thought of what could be, too afraid that I would be right. I felt Valtrak touch my arm and I looked down at him. I could practically feel my eyes change and my designs flow across my face, yet he did not react to it. Instead, he squeezed my arm lightly and kept his eyes on mine.
“We shall get him back,” he said firmly.
I nodded. “I know we will,” I said darkly as I straightened up, very aware of the threat my voice carried.
“What are we doing?” Valtrak asked.
“You are staying here and getting these two out of the cells. I am going up into the stronghold to find Elthinor,” I replied decisively.
Valtrak looked worried. “Try not to draw too much attention to yourself, Filynora.”
“I cannot promise anything,” I said honestly.
“We know,” Pinnathir said weakly, his lips curling up into a small smile.
“Do you know where they take him?”
“Wonderful,” I mumbled then began to move down the hall. “I shall be back.”
“Be careful,” Gabrithon called.
I laughed softly as I hurried deeper into the fortress. I climbed up some stairs and found myself in a long hallway with no windows or doors. I was obviously still within the mountain, as the walls on this level were the same dark brown color as the one beneath it had been. I walked down that hallway and around a corner. And another corner. And another. I finally got to another set of stairs and I hurried up to find…another hallway. After going around two corners on that floor, I got to a set of stairs that led down.
As soon as I went down them, I knew I was out of the mountain. The walls were stacked stones, but instead of various browns and grays, they were blacker than a starless night sky. I shuddered as soon as my fingers brushed the stones, but not because they were slimy. In fact, they were dry to the touch, but the black was like an outer shell. Something worse than bad had stained these stones. It was like the blood of the creatures we defeated, except it did not burn my skin. Instead it seemed ice cold to the touch and made me feel physically ill. I drew back and stared intently at it. What could have made something that felt so wrong? No, wrong was too light a word. Evil fit it much better.
I started down the hallway, feeling suddenly small and out of place. Fear began weighing on my heart. Why had I not met anybody yet? Or seen them at least? I began moving faster, looking down the hallways that began branching off to the left and right of me, trying to find a single soul…or a creature. I was glancing down one hallway when something caught my eye on the wall. I turned and stopped in front of it. It was a slashed picture. I squinted at it as I took a part of the canvas and reattached it. It was quite a grisly sight. There was a man hanging down on a long piece of wood stuck into the ground. His arms were outstretched onto another piece of wood that was horizontal to the first one and huge nails pierced his wrists, anchoring him to the wooden crossbeam. He hung there nearly completely naked, only a blood stained cloth wrapped around his hips to preserve what little modesty he had left. His body was bloody and bruised, and another nail was driven through his feet, which were crossed on top of each other. More blood oozed down from the puncture wounds.
I felt horrified yet I was unable to look away. I wished I could see the man’s face, for the part of the canvas that had held his face was missing. I could see a band of thorns just above the torn bit that had blood covering it and it was also leaking out of the part of the skin of the man’s forehead that was left. Despite the gruesome image, the painting felt a little too clean. Maybe it was the missing part. I was suddenly grabbed my shoulder and spun around. I went for my knife and everything stopped when I pressed the blade against the throat of my attacker.
My jaw dropped along with the knife. “Laetitia?!”