Half a mile from the bottom of the well, the tunnel forked. They stood at the intersection for some time before Sera tossed the mage-light down one path. It bounced some distance—carried by magic, Rune sensed, as the damp sand would have stopped it otherwise—before she released it and sighed. Producing a second mage-light from a stone on the floor, she tossed it down the other path.
“Feel anything?” Rune asked, voice low.
They both felt something; they’d established as much some time ago. There was water, he was sure of that much. But there was also a shifting energy he suspected belonged to living beings. He couldn’t tell the difference between most energy sources from a distance. Some mages could, but his education had never been that robust. He could only hazard a guess based on the fact it moved. More often, in fact, as they approached. If whoever waited ahead felt them coming, too, it meant a brawl was the least of their worries.
“Nothing has changed,” Sera said. “The closer we get, the stronger it gets, but it feels no different. We must be close to water now. But I think whatever else is down there, it’s probably just normal people.”
Rune nodded. “We should-”
“We are not splitting up,” she snapped. “The last thing I want is for you to go gallivanting off to face these people on your own.”
“But you have no concerns about facing them by yourself?”
“No, because I have the sense not to start a fight somewhere like this. We don’t know how many there are, or what the area they’re in is like. We pick one side and we carry on together.” She planted her hands on her hips as if challenging him to defy her.
He shook his head and trudged down a path to pick up the mage-light on the ground. “Fine.”
The ground still vibrated beneath their feet, stronger at some times than others. Now and then it stopped completely, which set Rune’s nerves on edge. If they weren’t drilling, they might be returning to the surface, and that meant they might be caught as much off their guard as the people they sought.
“If the path forks again, I choose the next direction,” Sera said. Her tone stayed light and playful, but her hand fluttered toward the knife sheathed at the small of her back now and then, betraying her own nervousness.
He doubted they’d encounter another branch. “Why do you think there are two paths?” There was little reason for it, unless they’d encountered something they didn’t want to dig into. The base of one of the arches aboveground came to mind; drilling through one of those might destabilize it on the surface. If they were trying to avoid damage to the city, there was probably a reason, hinting at politics and motives they couldn’t guess. But they encountered no obstacles, leaving him to assume any blockage would have been in the other tunnel. They’d chosen either right or wrong, depending on whether they wanted speed or clues.
“We’ll have to ask when we find them.” Sera nudged his arm, pointing ahead. “Look. I think it forks again.”
So it did. Rune grunted softly, holding the mage-light aloft.
This time, the path split at what was nearly a right angle, the new tunnel veering left, the corners of the intersection all rounded off. They stopped in the junction, Sera looking left, Rune looking right.
She pointed down the tunnel. “I think we should go left.”
“This doesn’t make sense,” Rune murmured. “Why change the path so dramatically?” He rolled the glowing pebble between his gloved fingers, taking a few steps down the right path.
“I thought we decided I’d get to pick?” Sera crossed her arms, jerking her head toward her chosen tunnel and setting her white braids to swaying.
The vibrations underfoot grew stronger.
“Hold on.” He cradled the light in his palm, curling his fingers around it to dull the light. He inched farther down the tunnel, squinting into the dark.
Something glittered in the distance, just catching the light from the stone.
“It’s not a drill.” Rune paced backwards.
Sera snorted. “What in the name of-”
“It’s not a drill!” Energy swelled in his senses, tremors growing in the earth beneath his feet as he spun and ran.
He flung the mage-light to the ground and bolted up the path, grabbing her by the arm on his way past. Three steps farther and he stopped, twisting back and jerking her toward the corridor to the side, just as a massive something surged up to the mage-light he’d left in the hall. Its wet skin glistened mud-brown in the light, its blunt end splitting into fourths that peeled back to reveal teeth like a thousand curved needles.
It exploded past the side path just as they ducked into its opening, its fat, writhing body shooting up the tunnel faster than anyone could run.
“What is that?” Rune demanded.
“It’s not a drill,” Sera spat back, tearing her arm from his grasp and swiping a stone from the floor. It sparked to life as a mage-light to replace the one he’d dropped and she froze, staring at the rippling mass of muscle obstructing the exit.
He bit back a curse and caught hold of her again, pulling her farther down the tunnel. “We need to move. Now!”
Already the monster slowed, coming to a stop before it began to shimmy backwards.
Sera didn’t resist, her long legs matching his stride with ease. “We don’t even know where this leads!”
“Away from that, if we’re lucky. Have you ever-”
“Do you think I would have come down here if I’d known there were giant snake-worm-monsters?” she almost shrieked, her voice cracking at the end.
The ground rumbled so that they barely kept their footing, slipping often in the wet sand.
Wet. Very wet. Rune skidded to a stop—or tried. His leather-wrapped feet shot out from underneath him and he slammed into the ground with a wet slap. Shocks of pain lanced through his elbows and back, stealing his breath and making him wheeze.
Before he could move, Sera was at his feet, tearing the wrappings free. “I told you to take all this off,” she snarled, her wide, panicked eyes darting up the tunnel behind them.
“Later,” he gasped, stripping off his gloves and abandoning them in the sand. He scrambled upright, catching her arm and beginning the run again. His exposed toes flexed wide, his claws pressing deep and offering sure footing. He was light on his feet and ran best bare-footed, springing off his long, reptilian toes and hauling Sera along at a faster pace than she ever could have managed on her own.
She stumbled at his side. “It’s behind us!”
Somewhere farther up the tunnel, farther than Rune could see, something screamed like metal on stone.
The striations. Visions of the beast’s endless rows of curved teeth flashed in his head. He’d mistaken them for drill marks. How could be be so foolish?
Because you’ve never seen whatever that is! He shook himself, putting a hand on the wall for stability this time when he stopped. “The water!”
Sera blinked once, then dropped to her hands and knees. Power surged within her, the water in the sand rising to answer her call. It foamed around her fingers, bubbling to the surface, coiling around her arms in long, rippling tendrils.
The mage-light reflected on thousands of needles at the very edge of the light. The metallic shrieking grew, the curved teeth twisting, rotating around the edges of the tunnel, consuming everything that got in their way. The monster spiraled toward them as the tremors in the earth grew stronger.
Except the quake wasn’t only the beast’s, now. Behind them, a new roar accompanied the rumble.
Sera rose, beads of sweat speckling her furrowed brow. The water spiraled around her, the roar at the bottom of the tunnel swelling until it drowned out the monster’s screams.
Rune pressed his back to the wall.
Sera brought her hands together and the water exploded around her.
White foam surged up the tunnel in a torrent, splitting around her body to refocus at her fingertips in a single stream.
The water struck the beast with enough force to cut stone and new screams filled the air, swelling until the single shrill note rang inside Rune’s skull.
Abruptly, the water cut off and Sera fell to her knees, panting. The beast was nowhere in sight. “It scared it, but I don’t think it wounded it badly. It will be back.”
The quivering earth settled and grew still. Rune slipped forward, sliding Sera’s arm over his shoulders and helping her to her feet. “We need to get back to the surface while it’s distracted.” And while it was alone. They had no way of knowing if there were more. Silently, he prayed not.
Another rumble grew underfoot, the ground shaking so powerfully that the wet sand they stood on began to slide downhill.
“Too late,” Sera gasped, pointing into the depths of the tunnel. “Here it comes!”
Water bubbled up the path, the monster surging with it, its quartered head splitting into a gaping maw again.
Rune hissed, dragging her up a little farther and digging in his toes. At the edge of his senses, the air whispered to him, begging to be touched.
Instead, he broke into a sprint, his claws catching the stone beneath the sliding sand, propelling them back up the tunnel.
“More water!” He didn’t dare look back. “Slow it down!”
Sera grimaced, summoning a second wave of power, letting him carry her as she concentrated.
The water bubbled behind them, pushing back against the massive, slick body that charged at their heels, making the monster screech in protest.
Inch by inch, they gained precious distance. Rune gritted his teeth. Magic seared the space around him, calling to the power he held at bay, but he couldn’t risk distraction. Another slip was all it would take to end up in that monster’s mouth.
The slope of the adjacent tunnel was slight compared to the slant they’d just climbed. The muscles in his thighs burned, the cool air scorching his lungs with every breath, but they couldn’t slow. Sera found her feet and darted ahead, graceful as a cat. It was a tactic they’d used a dozen times when running from enemies in war. She’d gain headway, then stop and prepare for a magical assault, leaving him as a last line of defense. Their enemies always assumed he was nothing more than a shield.
They never realized Rune was the true threat.
The tremors slowed. Sera hadn’t pushed hard with the water in the tunnel, but between the foam and the sliding sand, her effort seemed to buy them extra time.
Then the metallic screeching of the monster’s teeth began behind them again, closer than he thought possible.
“We’re almost there!” Sera shouted back. “Up the well!”
Light glowed at the end of the tunnel, where the well opened to the surface. She reached it and suddenly the escape looked radiant, the blinding mage-light still in her hand as she stretched for the rope.
She wouldn’t have time to climb.
Rune closed his eyes, never halting his run, breathing deep and focusing on the burn of the breath in his chest. Please. The shriek of the monster’s teeth grating on stone threatened to drown out his own thoughts. Answer like you’re supposed to. Just this once.
The air itself trembled as if excited by his request.
“Don’t!” Sera screamed, her voice all but lost beneath the blood-curdling sound of the monster’s pursuit.
Rune seized the air at the same instant he reached her, his arm snaring her around the waist as the force of a hurricane swelled beneath their feet and tore them from the ground. The pressure stole his breath, the raw, unfiltered power lashing against his hold and stirring the corruption in his body to a frenzy. Pain surged in his chest and head, pulsing behind his eyes, threatening to steal his control.
He pushed back, flexing his jaw, his ears popping.
They burst from the mouth of the well, sailing into the open air. Sera’s panicked scream turned to howling laughter, her fists pounding his shoulder.
The winds subsided, letting them drift back to the earth as if they were no more than feathers. Rune released the surging magic in the air around them, fighting the way the ground rocked beneath his feet, realizing a second too late that it wasn’t the force of his own magic that left him unable to stand.
“Get ready,” he said, his own voice tinny and weak behind the ringing in his ears.
Sera stepped back, seizing her dagger, the presence of her magic little more than a prickle in the air beside him in the wake of his untamed might.
The earth exploded, the massive, writhing body of the beast arcing toward the moon with a geyser of water spewing around it. Its lips peeled back, its curved teeth spread wide as it screamed frustration to the night.
Rune widened his stance, curling his green-scaled fist around the hilt of his sword. His eyes followed the monster skyward, his wakened power pulsing around him.
The metal sang as he slid his sword free of its sheath, its silver-blue blade all but glowing in the moonlight.
“All right,” he whispered, still panting for breath. “Let’s go.”