The labyrinth of underground tunnels was fairly cool and I couldn’t stop the shivers that wracked my chest as we walked. Marie kept eyeballing me, trying to hide the action, and it was annoying as hell. I’m fine. Just from lack of adrenaline… I glanced down at my bloodied arm. Maybe loss of blood. Or shock. I was glad she knew where she was going, because I was so completely lost.
We rounded a crumbling bend and the sudden lack of light left me blinking. The tunnels were much darker here. I was actually surprised that any of this section had lights, but to go from one every fifty feet or so to none was a drastic difference. That creepy “something is going to get you” feeling punched me in the gut and I paused. Marie’s almost fluorescent white seemed so dim here. I struggled to breathe as I backed up several steps, hoping for light.
It wasn’t until my back rested against a wall that I could breathe again. I closed my eyes as my chest trembled and arm throbbed. The wall was warm though and eased my shivering. When I finally opened my eyes, Marie was standing on her back paws and resting her front ones on my abdomen.
“Mace?” She asked worriedly. She put on such a tough act but it was always reassuring to know she actually did care. I reached down and flattened her ears as I ran my hand across her head. She growled at me and got down.
“I’m fine,” I said, though not as steadily as I intended.
“Okay. Well if you’re done snuggling with your shadows can we please go?” She looked around with a twitch of her ears. “I want to see the sun.”
I cocked my head to the side before turning around. The lit stone wall of the tunnel I thought I had been by was a good twenty feet away. There was nothing behind me besides the ever-changing darkness out of the corner of my eye. Oh so they give hugs now? I shook my head, trying to keep calm.
“Uh yeah. I want to go too.”
I hurried to keep up with her as she started off into the pitch dark. My eyes strained to grab any light, but there was none. I found myself glancing backwards, feeling the shadows there but also wanting to see them. I let the elbow of my ruined arm lightly trail along the cracked stones of the wall as Marie mumbled to herself in front of me. We walked for at least an hour. Okay, it was more like thirty minutes. Maybe. I didn’t own a watch.
“You know, this would be a good time for that leash and harness I mentioned,” I joked to break the tension. Marie’s scoff of disapproval was perfect.
“Absolutely not. I already tolerate you petting me.”
“You don’t have to say it with such hatred. You like it.”
“Shut up, Mace.”
My chuckle echoed throughout the tunnel. I paused as it returned in a higher pitch. “M…Marie?”
“Shhh,” she hissed, though not literally. The laugh sounded again, proving it definitely wasn’t mine. Well shit.
“I smell blood,” a feminine voice sang from ahead of us. I tried to press my arm closer to my chest, but it was a useless gesture. I was soaked in blood.
“No you don’t…” I sang back hoarsely. The laugh came again, ridiculously closer. Suddenly the overhead light flared to life and I threw my arm up to my eyes to shield them. It took me several agonizing minutes to get my vision back as Marie growled lowly at my feet.
The overhead light wasn’t very bright, but after having walked in the dark for so long it was brilliant. Across the tracks was a slim figure that was staring down the tunnel with her head at an angle. Her hair was bright red, not ginger, but lipstick red. It rolled down her back in soft waves. It was a drastic contrast to her black, almost shiny skin. She wore a tight vest and jeans and when she turned around she revealed a beautiful face. I watched in panic as she leaped off of the edge onto the tracks and quickly pulled herself up on our side.
Marie had quieted, which surprised me. Maybe she’s tired from the fight. As she approached, it became clear she was much taller than me. It wasn’t until the female was close that I could see the lines of age on her face. The feature that really drew my attention, however, was her eyes. Each eye held three distinct, but touching, amber irises and pupils. The pupil closest to her nose was lower than the furthest one. There were slanted lines of black on each side, top and bottom. Since I knew better, I knew that all 7 black spots were pupils. It was disorientating as she searched my face, the rounded pupils all moving together but also slightly independently.
“Hello human,” She crooned before letting her gaze fall to my feet. “And Faeline.”
“Hello, Araneae,” Marie said smoothly, like she met with spider people every day of the week. Marie’s unwavering gaze told that she knew the female’s inner creature. Christ. Quit picking fights, Marie.
“Why are you in my tunnels?” the female asked haughtily. Marie sat down and tucked her tail around her legs.
“Why are you?” Marie challenged.
“I-“ The female stopped and cocked her head to the side again, her long hair falling across her shoulder. “I own these tunnels. I can go wherever I wish.”
“Oh. I see.” Marie sniffed before lifting a paw to clean. A cat equivalent to filing nails I’m pretty sure.
The female didn’t like that response. She straightened her back and crossed her arms. “What does that mean, feline?”
The female’s creepy eyes widened briefly before she wiped her face of expression. She looked up at me, searching my face for who knew what. I shrugged. I’m just an innocent, injured bystander. Seeming satisfied with my ignorance, she turned back to Marie.
“How did you know?”
Marie put her paw down and looked up. “I’ve heard of you. Traveling the tunnels alone. Your guards are probably close by, aren’t they? On your trail.”
The Araneae looked down the tunnel before uncrossing her arms and relaxing her stance. “My name is Hasselti. Who are you?”
Both females looked to me. “I’m M…Mace.” My cheeks heated at my suave response. Hasselti dismissed me and returned her focus to Marie.
“Why are you here, Marie and Muhmace?”
I cringed at the mispronunciation but couldn’t bring myself to correct her. Marie’s tail twitched against my shoes, in amusement I’m sure.
“Muhmace here is injured. We were targeted by some thugs and are on our way to a healer.”
“I see.” Hasselti’s gaze shifted towards me again, taking in my blood soaked clothing and swelling arm. Christ it hurts. “If I help you to the surface, will you tell no one you saw me?”
“That seems like a deal.” Marie stood. “Do you have anything we can wrap his ar-“
“What the hell!” A deep voice hissed from the dark tunnel ahead of us, cutting Marie off sharply. I jumped, painfully, because moving hurts. Marie dropped low to the ground as her fur stood on end. I looked for Hasselti but she was nowhere to be seen. Where the hell did she go?
“You, human. What are you doing here?”
The voice materialized into a body. The male was short. And by short I mean he was maybe an inch taller than my 5’2. His hair was spiked, giving him a tad more height as well. His shiny black arms were huge and his chest strained the tunic he wore. I couldn’t see any visible weapons, but who knew. I’d never fought an Araneae before. I had no idea what to expect.
“I asked you a question,” he growled as he sauntered over to me and got in my face. I averted my gaze. No way am I picking a fight with this guy right now.
“I’m on my way to a healer,” I said softly, hoping I sounded pathetic.
He huffed and backed up a step. “Who were you talking to?”
“No-no one,” I stuttered in response. God I hope Marie doesn’t think I’m actually scared. Cause that would be embarrassing. My heart beat quickly in my chest though so I didn’t fully believe myself about not being nervous. Before I could look up for his response, hands were grasping the front of my shirt and I was flying through the air. Okay well not actually flying, but suddenly I was on my face twelve feet away from him.
Of course I landed on my arm. I gasped before clenching my jaw and fighting the tears that burned my eyes. Deep breath. Just breathe.
“That was not necessary,” Marie growled from wherever she was. I focused on not crying.
“Oh so you talk too? Perfect.”
“Oh put your fangs away. They don’t scare me.”
“They might not scare you, but my venom works on Faelines too.”
“Oh so you torture poor, defenseless animals in your spare time?”
“Oh please. Everybody knows the stories. You are far from harmless.”
“I’m glad you understand, jockey. Now stay the hell away from my human.”
I turned over onto my back with another gasp. As I opened my eyes to look for Marie, tears leaked out and ran down my face. Marie had placed herself in front of me, blocking the male’s path. He looked pissed.
“I am an Araneae Guardian,” he spat at her, but she calmly held her ground. He took a step towards her and she growled.
Part of my leg started to itch. I tried to ignore it as I mentally urged Marie to win the imminent fight, but the itch quickly grew to a burn. I reached down and my hand settled on the orb in my pocket. I quickly fished it out to find it jet black again. As I held it, my thoughts cleared a little and I looked up at the guardian as he had called himself. I struggled to pull myself to my feet, but settled with kneeling. Gasping through the pain, I brought my hand up which caught the eye of the Araneae.
He turned his malicious glare from Marie to me for a moment, before his creepy gaze focused on the Raxia I was holding. His eyes darted between it and my face several times before he took a tentative step backwards. I grinned.
“Dammit, Mace!” Marie growled, but I was too focused on the urge to kill the threat before us. The darkness swirled quickly in the orb as I tried to recall the words I needed. I stared into the swirling black as the words came to me. It wasn’t until a punch to my chest sent me sprawling backwards that my mind registered Marie had moved.
“Put it down, right now!” she growled at me as she stood on my chest and stared down with her pale eyes. Her claws dug into the flesh of my chest and it hurt. The orb was burning in my hand but I couldn’t release it. She needed to get off of me. This was bullshit. I readied the words I needed to make her move.
Before I could utter anything, I was encased in ice. I couldn’t move. My limbs felt frozen to the bone, so cold and solid I couldn’t even shiver. I could see my shredded arm from the way my head lay. It wasn’t covered in anything besides dried blood. I stared after Marie in panic as she jumped off of me and swatted the orb from my hand. I could hear it roll across the uneven stone ground behind me. Slightly muffled voices argued in the direction it rolled but they didn’t make any sense.
“Why is it swirling like that? Shit I’m out of here,” the guardian said.
“You can’t! Your venom might neutralize it!” Marie growled.
“Hell no. I’m out.”
“It’s going to kill you, right now, if you don’t do something!” Marie threatened.
“Like hell it is.”
“See how the colors are changing? Light colors mean it is getting ready to enact the spell he just cast! YOU were the last target!”
My brow furrowed in confusion. No I wanted Marie off of me. Besides I had to be holding the Raxia in order for the magic to flow through. There was a moment of silence before a low curse sounded and a distinct clink of fangs on glass. The guardian cursed again and the sound of bouncing glass echoed throughout the tunnel before an explosion blew hot air against my back. It was a slight relief against the intense cold that was holding me down. As some small debris rained down from the aged ceiling, the ice disappeared and I gasped.