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Chapter 09

Dark. Dark and quiet.

Very quiet.

Feral debated picking himself up off the floor, but without any idea where he was, or even knowing if he had space to stand, it wasn’t easy to make the commitment. He waited, hoping something else would happen. After several seconds, nothing did, and since there were several pebbles digging into his chest as he lay on them, he rolled over and sat up, his head feeling sluggish. For a moment, he wondered why he was lying face down in the dark... The events leading up to where he was now seemed to have got blurred somewhere along the way, his memory uncooperatively reminding him that it had been six days since arriving at the mines, that yesterday they had had chicken soup which marked the high point of the saga so far, and that this morningthe panning crew had been reassigned almost in its entirety to the mines.

That was it, he realised. The mines. Tessa had ranted angrily at Ironblack that productivity was far below what she wanted, much to the temporary amusement of all the workers out by the lake. Ironblack’s response had been to send all but one old man into the mines to dig. They’d been down most of the day when there was an ominous rumble from somewhere overhead, a grating noise, and then utter chaos as rocks thundered down from the roof. Somewhere in there had been a feeling of the floor giving out underneath him, being thrown forward into empty space and...

...Buried alive? Feral fought off a surge of panic. No, no he thought, he could sit up, that meant he was in a reasonably large space. And, presumably, if he was still under where the rocks had fallen, that wouldn’t be the case. He raised an arm above his head carefully, but felt nothing. Slowly, very gingerly, he stood, his fingers stretching high over his head as he straightened.

Well, that was something, he concluded. Whatever space he was in now, it was somewhere over the seven feet he could reach upwards. Another tunnel perhaps, one that ran below the mine?

It was still quiet, he realised. From somewhere behind him he could hear the faintest of tappings, a soft whisper of motion, probably small stones and dust still falling from the collapse, but that was all. He supposed it was good that the major part of the rockfall had only lasted a few seconds – had it continued, it could easily have sent boulders rolling over him as he lay on the ground.

Putting his hand out to one side, he carefully sidestepped, trying to maintain his orientation lest he lose all sense of direction. After three cautious, shuffling steps his fingertips encountered vertical rock and he stopped. What now? Go forwards and see where this new tunnel led to? Wait here? He strained his ears, but heard nothing above the continuing tapping of small stones from behind him. A horrible thought that maybe the noise was something other than stones rose somewhere in the back of his mind, and he quickly squashed it. This was not the time for such foolishness.

“All right,” he spoke aloud, drowning out the noise behind him. “Think... I can’t hear anything except those pebbles falling. That means I’m either too deep to hear the rescue team, nobody’s looking, or they’re all... no, that can’t be, if the ground had given out in a larger area around me, I wouldn’t be where I am... wherever this is. So they’re ok, which means that ifthey're looking, then I’m too deep or behind too much rock to hear them. And let's face it, those slavers aren't going to care very much about finding me, even if Cassanya and everyone else does.” He swallowed and continued his monologue, the increasingly deep quiet becoming heavy and oppressive.

“So, staying isn’t much of an option. What is then? Well, the air isn’t as stale as some of those closed side tunnels that we passed this morning were, so that means there has to be an opening somewhere... even with the cave in, this much fresh air couldn’t have come in with me... So all I have to do is find where it is coming from, and I’ve found a way out!” A surge of hope welled up inside him, momentarily driving back the dark confines.

“Right then, how do you solve a maze when you can't see it? You always turn left. Or right. Either works, but I'll go with left.”

Keeping his hand against the rocky wall, he took a careful step forwards.

“One,” he said as brightly and confidently as he could, hoping to push back the darkness with a relentlessly chipper attitude. And another. “Two.”

“One hundred fifty...” Feral’s voice had long since lost it’s cheeriness, and was now developing a noticeable tremor. “One fifty one, one fifty two...” he tried to fight a growing sensation that something was following him. “It’s not real,” he told himself firmly. “I know its not, if it wasn’t dark I wouldn’t feel a need to look behind me, it’s only because I can’t that it bothers me.”

“One hundred fifty three...” Was that light? Feral felt sure it was. Another twenty seven steps brought him to it.

“Well, hello there, nice to see you too,” he spoke to the solitary patch of glowing crystals sticking out of the tunnel wall. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Just enough to illuminate the tunnel for twenty feet either side. He looked forwards into unknown darkness, and back into the known. He really wished someone was there with him.

“But nobody is,” he told himself. “So stop wishing for it,” he gritted his teeth. He looked at the crystals, wondering if he could dislodge some and take them with him. Trying with his fingers, he discovered they were firmly rooted to the wall. He looked around for a loose rock, anything he could strike them with, but found nothing but dust and pebbles. For a moment, he tugged at the iron collar around his neck, wondering if he could use it as a tool, but it stayed firmly in place, as Tessa had gloatingly assured him it would. Swearing in frustration, he sat down, back against the wall under the light.

“Got to go on,” he told himself. “Got to.” He looked along the tunnel. It was so dark. He shivered, feeling as if the tunnel had suddenly dropped several degrees in temperature. “If I don't get out of here, who's going to find Shara, eh? Nobody. That can't happen, so move!” he whispered, standing. Even the thought of leaving the one patch of light in that dreadful darkness made his legs feel weak, but if he didn’t he would surely die, as inevitably as a moth fluttering around a candle.

“One hundred eighty one,” he stepped forwards, his stomach tightening inside him. “One eighty two. One eighty three...”

“Two hundred twenty three.” Light was now a distant memory, his only guide his hand on the wall. Please, please don’t let there be a junction in the tunnel. He knew the logical choice was to take it, but some instinct told him that side turnings were a mistake – and not taking it meant striking out in the pitch darkness across and unknown span and trying to find the wall on the far side without losing his sense of direction. And hoping there were no unseen pitfalls into which he would plunge.

Was that a noise he heard? Despite his best intentions, he turned his head to look behind him, seeing nothing but darkness.

“Nothing,” he stated loudly, trying to ignore the way his voice echoed. He took another step forwards, slightly faster this time, his count increasingly loud in his ears.

“Two hundred fi... what?” he turned again, almost losing contact with the wall, certain he had heard a soft tapping somewhere behind him this time. “H-hello?” he called into the dark. “Nothing...” he said again, turning forwards again. “D-don’t panic...” he told himself, his feet moving faster, his hand still tracking the wall. “It isn’t there, it’s just your imagination and you know it!”

Three hundred. Three hundred fifty. His footsteps echoed behind him in the tunnel, adding to the feeling of pursuit despite his best efforts to convince himself otherwise.

“Go away!” Feral found himself shouting at the darkness. “Go away!” without thinking, he broke into an all out run, his fingers battering against the rocky wall as he sped blindly through the darkness. “Go away!!”

Even holding one hand out in front of him didn’t help with the impact has he hit the thing in front of him. Falling flat on his back, the wind knocked out of him, he scrabbled about the floor for some hint of what he had collided with. Stone... a cold square of stone, about six inches high... that wasn’t enough to knock him down. He followed it upwards, recoiling as he felt the shape of a boot, then laughing at himself. It was still stone – a statue. That meant he must be in a part of the ancient tunnels that was meant to be well used, perhaps even an entry way. Please let it be an entrance!

He found his hands continuing to trace up the statue. The legs were quite slender, the hips subtly rounded. It seemed likely that the statue was of a female figure. It lacked a tail – human then? The surface was remarkably detailed, every crease of the clothing, every bump of stitching seemed to have been carved with dedication. The arms hung loose to the elbow, the forearms bent forward, the right hand holding the hilt of a sword that lay flat over the left palm.


A sharp sword, too. Interesting – why would anyone put a real metal weapon on a statue? Feral investigated more cautiously, reaching out to steady himself on the statue's right hand and nearly falling over backwards in surprise as instead his fingers closed over the unobstructed hilt of the blade, the whole thing coming away in his grip.

“Ok... that's a little weird...” he told the statue, instinctively clutching the sword defensively in front of him. “Weren't you just holding that?” A noise behind made him turn, the low grind of moving stone.

A slit of light somewhere above his head, rapidly growing, illuminating him and the chamber around him as a stone slab slowly slid downwards. As he looked around in the brightening light, edges began to resolve out of the darkness until he saw that he was in the middle of an arched hallway. He turned to the statue.

It was indeed a human woman, and very intricately carved. Her hair was pulled back into a short, bushy pony tail, her expression kind and somehow trustworthy. Oddly, he seemed to have placed himself so that the statue was looking right at him, although her head was turned to the left to do so. Feral wondered why she hadn't been sculpted to face the entrance that had opened up... The entrance!

Forget the statue, he decided. It had been there quite long enough already, it could stay – the important thing was to make sure that door wasn't about to close again!

Looking back at the source of light, he realised that the stone slab that had started to move had now come to a rest, its top level with the floor, a stony threshold to the doorway that was now revealed. Visible outside, the bottom of a flight of steps. Cautiously, he leaned through the opening and peered upwards, blinking. Now, just make quite sure he was on the right side of the door should it decide to move...

And have a little sit down on the stairs, feeling very shaky. He could still see the statue through the doorway, hands extended and empty. Feral looked at the sword he had automatically laid across his knees as he sat.

About two feet eight inches of blade, the metal smooth and polished to a gleaming shine that cast a reflection against the wall even in the dim light coming from behind. The blade flowed seamlessly into the hilt, made of the same shining metal, but decorated with a finely crafted pattern of what Feral suspected would be dragon scales. Despite lacking any form of binding, the bare metal handle felt comfortable in his hand. Somehow it didn't seem as cold as it should have, given it had just been pulled from a grip of stone.

Very strange, Feral thought, glancing at the statue as it continued to regard the wall a little to the side of the doorway.

“Well, thank you,” he said to it, feeling slightly foolish, yet with a strange sense it was warranted. “Not sure how much good this will be, I'm not exactly a swordsman, but I appreciate the thought.” Looking upwards, he noticed an inscription above the doorway, like those on the front entrance to the cavern, but this one seemed to be written in many languages. One he recognised as Tradespeak, a basic language that used the common sounds and symbols of every place passed by on the great trade routes, and possibly one of the oldest languages known.

He got as far as “Here lie the brave,” before turning and running up the stairs, casting glances over his shoulder at the dark doorway, trying not to think about what he might have wandered into had he taken a wrong turn in those dark, deathly silent tunnels.

Left alone in the ancient, lonely catacombs, the statue regarded the wall for several long seconds. After all, statues were known for their patience and slow moving ways, so what else would one expect?

What would almost certainly not have been expected was the flush of colour that began seeping into the stone, as if something were painting it from the inside. Hues of brown, orange, and pink appeared over its carved clothing and skin, swirling at first randomly, but gradually settling into sensible places. The stone gave a little shiver, a ripple passing over its surface, as if a rock had been thrown into a millpond, and rather suddenly the statue wasn't a statue. Instead, standing on a stone dais, was a woman in a brown leather tunic, fur topped boots, and with brilliant orange hair. Indeed, hair of such a hue that even the commonly russet furred vulpani would have nudged each other and said, “Hey, that woman's hair is reallyorange!”

The woman that wasn't a statue took a breath, then coughed “You're welcome!” to the doorway through which Feral had just retreated. She grimaced, a shower of dust falling from her as her hands moved to the small of her back.

“Ok, that hurts!” she announced, arching her spine and scattering several small stone chips. “Ow!” she added, as if expecting the surrounding tunnel to answer in sympathy. It didn't. Glancing at the dust and rock that had fallen off her, the woman narrowed eyes that were every bit as brilliant an orange as her hair, eyes that threw back so much colour that they might almost have been internally lit.

“Oh I hope those are from my clothes...” she thought aloud, raising her hands to her face, fingers passing over smooth, lightly freckled skin. “Good, good, I–” a thought suddenly struck her, and she jammed both hands up the front of her brown leather tunic. “Phew,” she signed with relief. “Would hate to lose those. Hair?” she patted her head. “Still there. Right then!” she said brightly to the shadowy corridor. “I give him, what, five minutes? Yes, that should be enough. Five minutes, then I can sneak out without anybody noticing. Good. What then? Oh, geez, that spell does bad things to your memory.” She slapped the top of her brightly hued head a few times. “Think, Jinxie, think! Aha! Yes, that was it. Right,” she nodded assertively, then looked at the door.

“Hurry up, Foxy, we don't have all day, and I'm running late already. I think. Probably. Or maybe I'm right on time. Never was very clear on that bit. Anyway, just move your tail!”

Feral was moving his tail, although he was quite ignorant to the specific instruction to do so. Along the dimly lit tunnel, scurrying quietly from each little source of light to the next until he rounded a corner.

Crates, barrels, a handcart with a pair of boots in it, and a pickaxe leaning against the rocky wall. Feral realised he had come out into what was now a store room, and his heart leapt inside him. He crept forwards quietly, instinct now telling him to stick to the shadows and stay silent.

As he approached a second bend in the tunnel, he began to make out voices.

“Three of.”

“Hah,” a second voice replied. “Got yer again. ‘And it over, chum.”

“Oh fer…” the first voice sounded exasperated. “I don’t get it… ‘ow can anyone be so damn lucky?”

Feral peered over the top of a large crate at the corner. In front of him, the tunnel widened, and then joined the large cavern. He could see the lower half of the great statue. He could also see two of the slavers sitting in the mouth of the tunnel.

“Luck’s got nothin’ to do with it,” the vulpani stated, pulling a pile of copper coins towards him. “Brains is what it takes.”

Feral ducked his head down and put his back to the crate. What now? He could, he supposed just surrender to them, at least that should get him back with his friends, but… he looked down at his hand, still clasped around the hilt of the strange sword. This time, he was not unarmed. Nor, he felt, could he ignore the chance that had been given him. The slavers must surely think he was dead, and wouldn’t be looking for him. He could wait for these two to move on and make a run for it…

No. He couldn’t leave his friends. Running out on them, tail between his legs, was simply not an option. That left his first option of surrender, or a third one of try to break the other prisoners out. If he could get them free, and get them armed, they could all get out together. Of course, that option probably meant getting into a fight with the first slavers he ran into… perhaps he should wait until these two had gone and he could at least try to sneak around to the slave enclosure undetected?

The uncomfortable feeling somewhere behind his stomach suggested that if he did that, his courage may well fail him and send him scuttling out the door on his own. It had to be now. He had to try now or he wasn't going to.

Feral stood up.

“’Ere,” Archer set a mug of something steaming in front of Cassanya. He looked at the leonin a moment longer. “I know you ain’t asleep, drink it.”

She opened her eyes and looked at him, then at the drink. She closed her eyes again.

Archer sighed. “Look, missus,” he said softly. “I know you feel terrible. So do I. Red saved my backside first day I met him, and now I can’t repay that. But I can’t bring ‘im back neither, an’ nor can you. Now you can lie there, feeling miserable, an’ wishing about the maybes and could-‘ave-beens if you like, but it ain’t gonna change anything. I’d never ask you to put what 'appened out of your mind, won’t ask you to forget, but get your focus back where it belongs – ‘ere, and now. There’s other people need you. Yon old lutrani for one, an’ though you may not ‘ave noticed,” he leaned down and spoke more softly. “There’s a lot o’ people in ‘ere have seen that you stand up for the ones weaker than you. You’ve ‘ad people moved out of the mines to keep ‘em safe, done yours and someone else’s share o’ digging when they couldn’t keep up, kept Balthor’s ‘ead down while he recovered… not to mention put the wind up the guards. There’s a lot o’ these folks respect you, and more and a few look up to you.”

Cassanya shook her head silently. “And the first time I tried to help, Thor got flogged for it,” she whispered unhappily.

“That was ‘is actions caused that, not yours,” Archer stated. “What you did was put yourself on the line, not ‘im. It was ‘im that chose to take your place, and he did it willingly. You should be grateful he loves you enough to do what he did, not blame yourself for the fact he did it.

“Now, you’re damn nigh the strongest person in ‘ere. It’s well known that Tessa wants you on ‘er team, but you keep sayin’ no. Its things like that that keep these folks’ spirits up, and that’s exactly what you need to keep doing. That’s your job.” The sciurel smiled as the leonin looked up at him. “Have a sugared nut,” he said, pulling a small cloth bag from a pocket.

“Where…?” Cassanya asked, propping herself up on one elbow.

Archer chuckled. “That’s my job, ain’t it?” he winked, waited for the leonin to take a nut, then tossed the bag to Dinnael who had woken up and was watching them curiously. The vulpani peered inside, grinned all along his slender muzzle, stuffed several nuts into his mouth and tucked the bag under his sleeping brother’s arm, giving Archer a thumbs-up.

Cassanya narrowed her eyes. “You know a way out of here,” she whispered too quietly for anyone else to overhear. Archer looked at her, then turned away. “Why didn’t you say?” she hissed angrily.

Archer sighed, then leaned to whisper into her ear, ignoring the frown she was regarding him with.

“There’s one loose bar at the top o’ the vent shaft. Just one. There’s only two people in ‘ere could fit through that gap, and I’m the only one can climb well enough to get to it, but I won’t win no fights against the guards outside the gate. If I say anything, then I’m gettin’ up false ‘opes, an’ nobody needs that. Better to just keep sneakin’ out when I can, bringin’ back a few niceties now and again like.”

The leonin pulled back and looked at him. “But why are you still here?” she asked, confused.

Archer chuckled. “Wouldn’t do to run out on you, now would it? Ain’t no way for a knight to act.”

“But… you’re not a knight.”

“Not yet, no, but people don’t change by acting like who they are right now. You gotta act like who you wanna be tomorrow, like who you want to be remembered as. Then you change. Then you become what you wanna be. Besides,” he shrugged his slim shoulders. “I did owe Red a big one, if I run out on you, I dishonour that debt to him because it ain’t what he would ‘ave done. Nearest thing I can do now is look after you lot. Savvy?”

Cassanya blinked, then looked at the floor. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I think I’ve misjudged you.”

The sciurel laughed quietly. “A lot o’ people do, missus,” he chuckled. “But that’s ‘alf the point. I got a reputation to keep up, so don’t you go blabbing, right?”

Cassanya smiled, just slightly, and nodded.

“Good girl,” Archer nodded, and settled down on his mattress. “An’ do me a favour?”

The leonin tilted her head.

“When you pray tonight, slip in a word for Red from me?”

Cassanya blinked, and the sciurel chuckled.

“Thought I wouldn’t notice?”

“But... why don’t you...?”

Archer shrugged, looking at the ceiling. “No point,” he said.

“You don’t believe in...?”

“Don’t matter what gods I believe in, missus,” Archer’s voice held a hint of sadness. “Ain’t any god believes in me,” he said simply, and closed his eyes.

Cassanya looked at the sciurel as he rolled over, putting his back to her, curling his bushy tail over his flank like a furry blanket. “Don’t be so sure,” she whispered quietly, her expression thoughtful.

“What the...?” the lupari reacted instinctively, dropping the cards he had been shuffling and kicking himself back from the table, teeth bared and ready to stand as he registered the movement in the corner of his eye. He wasn’t remotely fast enough, as the hilt of Feral’s sword hit him hard over the back of the head, dropping him to the ground like a sack of wet sand. Without missing a beat, the half-race kicked out at the vulpani on the other side of the table, catching him in the centre of his narrow chest, sending him toppling over backwards, hands over his face as copper coins landed musically all around him.

Scrambling to his feet, the slaver was met by a solid punch to the chin that landed him heavily against the wall, where he slumped, unconscious, to the floor.

“Oh...” Feral looked at the evidence of his victory, not quite sure what to do next. Now that he had done it, he realised he hadn’t really expected to win the fight at all, but now it seemed to be over before it really began. Ok, so, now that he hadn'tbeen beaten up and thrown in the slave pens, what was he going to do?Looking around for inspiration, his eyes chanced upon the coil of rope that had been left on top of the nearest crate. That's a start, he thought.

Leaving the slavers tied up and gagged at the back of the storage tunnel, Feral crept forwards again. Flattened against the wall, peering out of the tunnel entrance, he looked towards the statue in the centre of the cavern. Evidently nobody had noticed the brief fight, or the two missing men – if they had, Feral felt sure that he would already have found himself on the wrong end of a crossbow or three.

Before him, the cavern was quiet and still, the unerring blue glow illuminating a motionless scene. Tent flaps were closed, the fire had burned low. He wondered if he had really been down in the darkness long enough for night to have fallen outside. Thinking about it, his stomach was protesting rather insistently about the lack of food, but that seemed to be a rather low priority about now.

Cautiously, keeping low, he scurried out of the tunnel, pausing behind a large stalagmite on the rocky floor and peering over it towards the tents. Embers of the cooking fire glowed warmly to one side, but nothing was moving beyond their warm glow.

Directly across the cavern, on the opposite side of the tents, the entrance to the slave quarters. What now? He could go around the cavern, but that meant taking much longer about it, and a greater chance that someone would wake up and notice him. If he went through the centre of the camp, he would be closer to the slavers, and to discovery, but he could be across the cavern a lot faster...

As quietly as he could, Feral slipped out from behind the boulder, padding stealthily across the floor of the cavern towards the camp site. Silence. Not a sound. He paused at the first tent, feeling as if even his breathing was loud enough to wake an army and paused a moment before padding onwards. Past the second tent... the third, a rumbling snore coming from somewhere inside. The base of the statue. He pressed his back against the stone, turning, half expecting to find every last one of the slavers had been silently following him, but no.

Swallowing, the half-race tiptoed around the dais beneath the feet of the statue, peering around the edge. He ducked down again quickly. Of course, the gate to the slave quarters was guarded! Thank goodness he hadn’t gone around the edge of the cavern, the only reason the guard hadn’t seen him was that the statue and the tents had blocked him from view.

Now what? He looked around, his gaze lighting upon a pair of boots at the end of one of the tents. Next to them, a crumpled cloak, and a half empty bottle. Feral had an idea.

The guards looked up from their game at the noise. Staggering towards them, a man, the hood of his cloak pulled over his face and waving a bottle in one hand. He seemed to be muttering under his breath.

“Koren?” the unexpectedly small leonin asked as the other slaver reached down to put his hand on his sword. “That you mate?”

“Aye,” Feral said, his voice low and growling, a fair imitation of the shortest human slaver he had seen around. Both guards relaxed. “Got yer keys?”

The scrawny feline put his hand to his belt, then his eyes narrowed. “What for?”

“Gonna go ‘ave me a word with that damned monk... blasted rotgut soup’s keeping me awake...” he hiccuped.

The other guard chuckled. “Don’t be a prat,” he told Feral as the half-race approached, swaying slightly. “Tessa’ll have your hide if you damage her cook. Go sleep it off, eh?”

Feral growled, and tossed the bottle at the leonin who caught it instinctively. “’Ere, you lads ‘ave a swig of that and keep mum,” he said, walking past the guards and into the tunnel, hood pulled low enough to hide his face.

“Mate,” the leonin got up and put his hand on Feral’s shoulder. “Don’t...” he warned, then stopped as his thumb encountered the metal collar, hidden from sight by the heavy cloak. “Hey, you’re not…” In one smooth motion Feral gripped the hilt of his sword, drew it, slammed his elbow into the feline’s gut and bashed him over the head as he leaned forwards.

As the other guard jumped up from his seat, Feral charged him, dropping low as the sciurel raised his sword, kicking out hard at the other’s ankles. The slaver went over with a yelp, weapon flying from his grasp. The half-race rolled and kicked him in the head as he landed, and he stopped moving.

“Please don’t get in my way, I’ve had a very bad day,” Feral said quietly, checking the sciurel’s heartbeat, relieved to find it strong and steady. He wiped his hand across his forehead, shaking slightly, wondering just when he had learned to fight. Somehow he didn't remember Balthor's training being quite that inclusive... or ever managing to master any of the combat moves his friend had tried to teach him. Maybe it was a case of havingto, he thought.

Glancing at the tents in the centre of the cavern, hoping nobody had heard the noise, he quickly pulled the bunch of keys off the small leonin’s belt, and scampered down the tunnel towards the slave quarters.

“Hey!” he tried to whisper loudly as he fitted the key into the lock on the gate. “Hey, wake up!”

Dinnael sat up, blinking, his eyes going wide as he saw an armed man advancing on him.

“No, it’s all right, it’s me,” Feral quickly pulled the hood of the cloak back.

“Feral! What are you...?”

“Getting out of here, I hope,” Feral answered, quickly moving over to shake his friends awake.

“Balthor! Archer! Cassanya!”

“Oh, hullo, guv. I should ‘ave known you wouldn’t let me off that easy,” the sciurel said, smiling, but looking completely unsurprised, as if he had been waiting for Feral's reappearance all along.

“Uh, yeah...” Feral shook Cassanya’s shoulder again.

The leonin opened her eyes, went through a series of expressions ranging from bewilderment to shock and sat bolt upright. She grabbed his shoulders. “You’re alive!” she whispered.

“Yes,” Feral nodded, feeling as if this were obvious. “But not for long if we don’t move before someone finds us.”

“Right,” Balthor nodded, deciding that understanding could wait until later. He rose stiffly, standing straight, but Feral could tell he was still in a fair degree of pain. Unfortunately it seemed like there was nothing to be done but hope the lupari could grin and bear it.

Around them, the rest of the prisoners were waking and questioning the disturbance.

“We’re leaving,” Feral stated, standing by the open gate.

“What?” someone said at the back of the room. “We can’t, they’ll kill us!”

The half-race growled, strode over to glare at the man who had spoken. “Look,” he stated firmly. “I just risked my life to get that gate open, and I am damned if I’m wasting this opportunity. Now for all I care you can sit here and rot, but this is a chance you are not likely to get again. If you ever want to be out of here, you better stand up and do it now. Clear?”

The man blinked, then rose to his feet.

“Right, in that case, move!” Feral strode back to the gate, finding his friends already by it. He was about to go through when Cassanya put her hand on his shoulder.

“Kid... you ok?”

He looked up at her, and for a moment his determined expression slipped. “Not really, no,” he whispered. “But I’m not stopping now. Someonehas to rescue Shara, can't do that in here.” With that, he shook free and led the way out into the tunnel, treading softly, hearing the others follow behind him.

Reaching the entrance to the tunnel, he swore.

“What’s up?” Archer asked, picking up the guard’s sword and passing it to Balthor, figuring he’d make better use of it.

“There were two of them,” Feral hissed, eyes scanning the tents at the centre of the cavern for movement as he stepped forwards.

“Quite right, there were,” said a Tessa mildly, leaning against the cliff to one side of the tunnel entrance, a wicked grin plastered across her canine muzzle. Feral looked at her, looked behind him, and realised they had been completely outflanked, as the slavers were now on both sides of those who had followed him out.

“Now then,” she went on, casually examining her fingertips. “Why don’t you put down those toys, and go back to bed, hmm?”

Feral glared at her, his hand tightening around the hilt of his sword.

“Don’t do anything so stupid,” Tessa told him without even looking up. “Just go back where you belong, and maybe, just maybe I’ll let this one slide. Oh hey, weren't you one of the ones went missing earlier? You had my kitten all upset and tearful! Still, I suppose your day may have been worse than hers, I might find it in myself to forgive a little irritability on your part. If you play smart.”

Standing behind his friend, Archer glanced to either side as Tessa spoke. When he opened his mouth, it was to whisper two words. “Two bows.”

Feral blinked. Looking more closely, he saw that Archer was right. Only Ironblack, and one other carried ranged weapons. The slavers weren’t particularly well armed at all, in fact. Many of them weren’t even properly dressed. Apparently they had scrambled out of bed in a hurry. He felt a stab of satisfaction at the thought that he had caused them such consternation. The question now, was was it enough?

“The lady told you,” Ironblack shouldered his way through the group at his back. “To drop it. Now,” he raised his hand, the light glinting on metal.

Archer muttered something quietly. Feral looked down to where his hand gripped the hilt of his sword, a strange feeling beginning to take hold of him, something like the feeling just after he had beaten the first two slavers he had come across, but much stronger, much clearer. He looked back at the man, his fingers tightening on the hilt, and took two paces forward, getting clear of his friends.

“Feral…” he heard Cassanya’s warning, but he wasn’t paying attention. He felt… focused, sure of himself. He was not going to let these people take him and his friends captive again. He was not.

“Last chance,” the man growled. “Drop it.”

“No,” Feral answered, his gaze travelling slowly up from the hilt of the weapon to the face of the man. “I don’t think I will.”

“Fine,” Ironblack shrugged, “one less makes no difference.” Aiming his crossbow direct at Feral’s heart, he fired.