Voices. Confused by echoes, but not colored by anger.
“Fishing,” I heard Bags say; he must have been standing closer to the mouth of the well. His statement was met by gentle laughter. The kind of laugh that comes from someone who has you by the balls and knows it. “Is that why she’s soaking wet?” The question was asked by a man, older than middle-age if I had to guess. One bit of good fortune: They would assume she was the diver, and not suspect another lurked below.
I slipped into the niche where my clothes were waiting, careful not to show my pale face to anyone who might be staring down into the darkness. In my left hand I held the dark blade, pure in its purpose. My hunting knife I put aside, wrapped in my tunic.
“You don’t have to die,” I heard the older man say. I heard Bags say something that might have been, “we all have to die.” I imagined his half-shrug and hint of a smile, and had to smile myself. He is not a philosopher, but Bags understands the truth.
“You don’t have to die tonight,” the older man amended.
I waited, cold and wet, the rough stone scraping at my waterlogged skin, while my guts twisted around inside my belly. But the thing the Soul Thieves wanted was down here, so eventually someone was going to come after it. I could wait. It was decided, I gathered, that Bags’ muscles had earned him the job of holding the rope. That would also keep his hands full, forestalling any other mischief he might be inclined to try.
First to descend was a lantern, dangling from a brand-new rope, clean and white and stiff enough that the weight of the lantern didn’t pull it completely straight. I shrank back into my niche and covered my eyes with my hand to avoid being dazzled. The lantern hissed when it hit the water and was extinguished, then rose again, leaving a film of oil on the surface.
More voices above, still civil. I waited below, motionless and silent. Ready.
It wasn’t long before the next visitor to the depths began his descent. When he was partway down he spoke a phrase and the shaft of the well was illuminated by a soft blue light. As the source of the light descended I was faced with two contingencies. Either my new wellmate would see me or he wouldn’t. Only one of those contingencies had any real options.
I saw his feet first as they dropped slowly into view. His bare heels, cleaner than those of an ordinary traveler, lacking the ground-in grime earned by days on the road. His calves followed, then the leather-clad backs of his knees. He was turning, but slowly, and as his feet hit the water I was still behind him. “Fuck this is cold!” he shouted up. I studied him through my fingers as I struggled not to be blinded by the tiny sphere of light hovering over his outstretched palm. He wore pale leather breeches and a heavy almost-white silk tunic. His dark hair was cropped close, his ears stuck out comically from the sides of his head.
As the cold water reached his testicles he cursed again. He spoke a word I didn’t know, but he didn’t take a breath as his head disappeared below the surface. I watched as the glow from his hand slowly descended into the depths. After a few moments I took a deep breath and slipped into water, as silently as possible, following the light.
His feet had just reached the pale sand of the riverbed when I caught up to him. At the last moment he heard me, looking up, his pale eyes wide with surprise. He spoke, words bubbling from his mouth, meaning lost. I pulled on the rope and closed the space between us. He pushed at me with his non-lit hand, a gesture I have seen many times before, a desperate action from a part of our minds more animal than human, a part of us that must try to live, even when the human knows he is already dead. I jabbed with my lovely dark blade, the water resisting my motion but also slowing his defense. A burst of air propelled a cloud of blood from his throat and the light faded and died.
I followed the rope back to the surface, replenished my breath, and dove again, to find the dead man rising to meet me. I pulled the corpse to the surface and cut the rope so I could slip the silk tunic over its head. I almost drowned myself pulling it over my own head while trying to be silent, tangling my arms. So falls many a hero, surviving the battle to be kicked by his own horse. I took hold of the rope. I splashed the water and did my best to match the timbre of the wizard’s voice. “Fuck!”
“Are you all right?” the older man called down.
“Fucking freezing! But I found bags. Get me the fuck out of here.” I put the knife between my teeth and took hold of the rope. Quickly the slack was taken up and I was rising, hoping exactly one person above knew who was dangling from the rough hemp line, wondering how close to the top I’d get before someone was able to tell I wasn’t the one they were expecting. I wished I had better tools at hand for killing at a distance, but .
I took a calming breath as I neared the top, the rope humming and shedding water as it passed over the edge of the well’s stone wall. Worst case, I could just let go of the rope and allow gravity to hasten my retreat.
Almost to the top, I pulled on the rope, hard, to propel myself the last couple of feet, and with my fingers on the lip of the well I pulled myself up. As my head appeared over the edge of the wall the old man, the same wizard who had come for Elena back in the forest, stepped back in shock.
“You!” he said, right before Bags punched him in the face.
Bags is fast for a big man, but that doesn’t diminish the power of his blows. The older wizard staggered back, stunned, as blood began to gush from his shattered nose. By then I was up, my feet under me, my knife in my hand, while I regarded another familiar face, though now her cheek was adorned with a hot red scar. She was the other wizard from the woods — minus a hand, I noted.
Before I could act Wizard Lady did her thunderbolt thing directly at Bags, sending him into the far wall, the roar filling that confined space and crushing me, the shock hammering at my ears. I opened my eyes in time to see Hazel thrust her knife at the woman, but she was tossed aside by a flip from Wizard Lady’s hand. I rushed to close the distance to her as Bags recovered and punched the stunned older man again, sitting him down on the cold stone floor, blinking with surprise.
Things went to shit from there. Wizard Lady punched the air a second time, this time catching both Bags and me in the direct blast. I felt my ribs flex and I almost toppled back down the well. Hazel made another try at the wizard’s back but by then our adversary was in control, wielding power far beyond anything the three of us could muster, seemingly effortlessly. Wizard Lady gestured again and Hazel collapsed. She lay like a sack of meat stolen from a butcher — muscle and bone but not connected.
I was still shaking the cobwebs from my head when Kat appeared, sword drawn, probably shouting. She fared no better than Hazel had. She got barely a step into the chamber before her feet went out from under her and her head hit the floor and bounced. Her eyes rolled back until only white was visible; she twitched once before falling still.
Wizard lady turned her attention to me, her face twisted with a special sort of hatred reserved for men who cut your hand off and slice the once-pretty face you thought to be invulnerable. Anger beyond the rational; it generally takes me much longer to generate such animosity. She said something to me, but all I could hear was the ringing in my ears. She smiled, revealing a gap in her teeth on the side with the scar. I had come close to killing her.
Behind her, the older wizard’s lips moved. She didn’t react. He raised his head and spoke louder, but she was as deaf as the rest of us. Or she didn’t want to hear what he was saying. She lifted her hand, and directed her palm toward me. She took a breath and I imagined I could feel the energy gathering inside her. At that moment she was willing to bring the whole cave down on herself if it meant I died. The old guy knew it, too. Wizard Lady had become, in the poetry of the military, “a liability to her mission”. He called out again to the woman, even tried his own feeble thunderbolt, but Wizard Lady’s crazy eyes grew wilder as the power filled her.
I lay, pinned against the unyielding stone floor, and I knew that in the next moments there would be death, and it was not for me to choose who would die.