Echo didn't need to be told twice. She turned on a heel and hauled ass back the way they had come, her strides as wide as she could make them. Tariq, for all his size, was fairly quick himself. He caught up with her in no time, eyes wide enough that Echo could see the whites all the way around.
"Those aren't normal beasts," Echo wheezed, careening around the corner. She could hear the barks and hisses growing louder. As a rule, four legs were better than two. no matter their head start, the beasts would overtake them soon. Echo was going to die, and Riot wasn't even here to say, 'I told you so'.
Something heavy landed on her back with enough force to knock her to the ground. Echo had enough time to twist her neck so she wouldn't take the brunt of the fall with her face, but the rest of her couldn't be helped. She heard a muffled crack as white-hot pain bloomed from her ribs. The beast's hunting cry was cut short as Echo felt Tariq's magic rush along her skin as the monster that brought her down was thrown off. As soon as she was free, Echo scrambled to her feet. She whirled toward the wall, belatedly whipping her knife free. She was going to die, but Echo would be damnned if she went out like a punk in the street.
Echo prepared herself to fight, but the beast that had attacked her did not get up again. It flopped against the stone, braying as blood pooled around his nostrils.
Echo gave a low whistle as she picked up the pace again. Combat magic was a rare skill to master, and in the handful of times Echo had seen it at work, the spells had always required physical contact with the opponent. Tariq, it seemed, was doing quite well working his spells from a distance. However, one of the monsters was quick enough to avoid the volley, winding its way past five separate attacks to lunge at Tariq's leg.
The arcanist went down with a roar as the creature sunk its claws into the meat of Tariq's thigh. Realizing mid-step that her little dagger wouldn't make much of an impression on something with so many sharp ends, Echo switched her approach and reached out for the power surrounding them.
Everything around her was roiling and red, dyed with the frenzy of the hunt and Tariq's desperation. Echo pulled on that magic, doing her level best not to cry out as it seared through her veins. She drew that hot power up and let it build and when she could hold it no more, she sent it into the swarm.
There were deafening shrieks of agony as the power Echo had loosed tore the closest monsters apart and roiled through their remaining ranks. But Echo didn't take the time to survey her work. She lunged for the floored arcanist.
"Come on," Echo roared over the beasts' distress, hauling Tariq to his feet. The two took off running again. Well, Echo ran. Tariq was moving at more of a desperate limp. They needed a better plan. Something more permanent. Echo considered the sticks of dynamite jostling around under her coat.
She turned to Tariq, lungs screaming as she ran for her life. "Can you manage a trap circle?"
"Yes," Tariq huffed. "But the more of these things I have to hold in place, the less time I'll be able to keep the circle up."
Echo risked a glance behind them to the writhing mass of bodies growing steadily closer.
"Build one up," Echo said. "As big as you can make it."
Criss-crossing paths of luminescence glowed as the spell started up. One by one, the witch's creatures screamed as they found themselves caught like so many flies in a spider's web. Echo could barely hear herself think over all of the noise. With the explosives in one hand and her knife in the other, Echo got as close as she dared to the stalled horde.
The steel of her knife bit into the frozen earth as she hacked a hole into the wall. She chopped and stabbed at the heavy dirt. Faster, faster.
"Hurry it up," Tariq grunted as sweat poured down his face.
"I'm hurrying," Echo snapped as she slid the dynamite in. Ripping her mittens off with her teeth, Echo mastered her shaking fingers enough to twist the fuses together. "Don't rush explosives, that's how people lose limbs."
"We're about to lose our lives," the arcanist argued.
Echo scrambled for her flint. "I am well aware."
She knocked the stones together, careful not to drop them at the last minute. The fuse flared up in a shower of sparks and angry applause.
"Go," Echo said. "GO."
The two took off again, rushing around a bend in the tunnel a fraction before the blast went off.
The tunnel quaked and shuddered. Echo hit the dirt and curled in on herself, terrified that Tariq's earlier comment was coming true and she had just sent the entire mine shaft falling down around their ears.
Echo counted to a hundred after the world finally quit shaking, just to be super safe. And when that was done, she counted to two hundred to give her poor, battered heart time to calm down. When she was fairly certain that she could speak without descending into hysterics, Echo unfolded herself and sat up. "Tariq," she wheezed, drawing in more dust than air. "You dead?"
"Not quite," the arcanist groaned from the darkness.
"Good." Echo braced herself against the wall and pushed herself up to stand. "Give us some light."
The tunnel was dark for a moment more before the soft ball of light reappeared. Echo loosed a breath she didn't know that she was holding as she beheld the x scrawled along the dirt wall. They had been fleeing in the right direction, at least. But that was the only bit of good news.
With the light now illuminating the mine shaft, Echo could see Tariq's ripped up leg quite clearly. It didn't look like anything had nicked an artery, but he was still bleeding plenty.
They had no time to waste. Echo ripped off her parka and sweater to get to the linen shirt underneath. Fear made her hands shaky, but she managed to tie the wound off anyway. The tourniquet wasn't pretty, and it would not last long, but it worked for now. She helped the arcanist to his feet, her stomach sinking as she felt his weight settle against her shoulder. She would be spitting blood by the end of this, she just knew it.
"I'm sorry," Tariq said weakly. "I know I'm probably crushing you."
Echo forced herself to laugh, despite there being absolutely nothing funny about their situation. "This was why I told you not to talk about your family," she teased. "It invites bad luck, every time."
Tariq managed a weak chuckle against her ear. "Point proven."
Echo jostled him a little with her hip. "Save your energy for breathing," she instructed.
Tariq wheezed, but shut up, leaving Echo to march in silence. Between Echo's ribs and Tariq's bulk, it was slow going. They plodded along at a snail's pace. And when the rover's strength started flagging, when she could barely breathe around the taste of metal in her mouth, Echo drew on the only thing she had left. Spite.
"You really stepped in it this time," Echo hissed to herself as she dragged the arcanist along. "Go to Vholdayr on vacation, cross the fucking mountains, and let's just add a witch hunt to the mix. Why not?" Tariq grew heavier with every step and after a while, Echo couldn't tell where she was hurt because everything hurt. "You're an idiot. A feckless idiot and if you die down here, you more than deserve it because you've got nothing but sand between your ears."
"You're being a little harsh. Don't you think?"
"Hush," Echo said. "I'm on a roll here."
The galvanizing powers of rage often went overlooked. When Echo ran out of intrinsic insults, she started in on the weather and worked her way down from there. There was no limit to what she could complain about given the proper motivation.
"I see someone," a male voice cried.
Echo blinked at the sudden burst of light born from a kerosene lamp burned her eyes. Too weary to even cry out, the best Echo could manage was a pitiful croak as she redoubled her efforts to reach the light.
Three figures emerged from the lamplight. Or, at least Echo thought it was three. Every time she she blinked, the figures merged and swam. There could have been six men standing before her, or three, or ten for all she knew. What Echo did know, was that they looked like miners, sporting coveralls and dirt streaked faces, so the chance of them attacking was slim. Not that she had the strength left to fight them off.
"Holy shit," the man in front breathed as he got a good look at Echo and Tariq's battered state. "Are you alright?"
Spirits spare her from stupid questions. The man was lucky Echo was too tired to do more than stand, otherwise she would have said something cutting. Echo supposed she should have been more grateful, but at this point she could have dropped dead without caring in the slightest.
The man with the lamp craned his neck back to face his companions. "Leigh, Riley, come give me a hand. These folks are hurt."
Leigh and Riley raced forward, lifting Tariq by the arms and sharing the burden between the two of them.
After shouldering him for so long, the sudden loss of Tariq's weight left Echo off balance and sent her tipping forward.
"Hold on, young lady," the lamp man said. He caught her before she could eat dirt for the eightieth time today but made the mistake of grabbing her by the ribs. Later, when she was safe, Echo would be embarrassed by the whimper she let loose. But for now, she was far too preoccupied trying to keep herself upright.
The lamp man shifted so that he held her hip instead. "You just lean on me," he said. "We'll get you topside. Come on boys."
Echo must have fallen unconscious at some point, because at the end of what felt like a blink, Echo found herself staring at dusty ceiling rafters instead of black dirt.
No matter what town she blew into, Echo had noticed all clinics looked roughly the same. There was an old, wooden medicine cabinet pushed against the far wall, a laden desk under the window. The floorboards were worn but scrubbed clean. It was nothing she hadn't seen before. Echo let her head roll to the side to watch the doctor. Although his hair was whiter than the snow outside, and the years had carved creases onto his face, he moved with a steady, solid assurance.
"Three cracked ribs," he said, prodding Echo's skin with a bony finger. He caught her stare and lifted a feathered eyebrow. "Something knocked you for a loop. You're lucky there's nothing ruptured. Even luckier Joss and those boys found you when they did."
"Yeah," Echo griped, her voice like sandpaper. "Laid up with busted ribs. I'm the picture of providence."
The old doctor snorted. "Don't be so cheeky, child. The other option was a punctured lung and death."
Echo rolled her eyes. Even that was painful. "Well when you put it that way…" But she quit struggling and let the doctor do his work.
The doctor finished wrapping her ribs with quick, deft strokes smoothed over with years of practice. Gritting her teeth, Echo pushed herself to sit up.
The doctor eyed her as he made his way toward the medicine cabinet. "I can give you something for the pain," he offered.
"Don't worry about it," Echo told him as she tried to find a comfortable position that didn't leave her ribs screaming. From the countless times of Echo had to patch herself up, she knew there was nothing to do for her ribs but give them time. The bandages were mostly for her own peace of mind.
The doctor frowned. "Don't be proud, girl," he warned. "I can give you a discount if money's an issue."
Echo shook her head. "I'm fine," she said again. Money was always an issue, but Echo avoided medication as a matter of course.
It wasn't like she wanted to be in pain, but the risk was greater than the relief. Medication made her head fuzzy and for someone like Echo, losing her wits was dangerous. Normally, Echo could control which world she saw into, but that was a skill she had earned through grueling practice and keeping those walls up required a level of focus she couldn't maintain without a conscious effort. Medication made those barriers harder to hold. If Echo wasn't careful, she would stop being able to tell the difference between the physical world and the spiritual one. After that happened, madness wasn't far behind. She didn't drink alcohol either.
Echo didn't tell the doctor any of that. "How's the other guy," she asked instead.
"Not so lucky as you, I'm afraid," the doctor clucked. He pushed the curtains back to reveal his assistant who was in the middle of helping Tariq sit up in the cot next to her, his left leg bandaged from hip to ankle, suspended in a sling. "Nothing's broken but he lost a lot of blood. Something tore right through him. I knitted together as much as I could, but he's not going to be running around mine tunnels any time soon. Had the boys not found you when they did, we might not even be having this conversation."
"Remind me to say thank you," the arcanist said as the girl fussed around his pillows. He turned to Echo, staring at her with what Echo could only guess was shame and gratitude in his eyes. "You saved my life," he said solemnly.
"You're welcome," Echo said. Then, all at once, it hit her. They had gotten lucky. Terribly, horribly, impossibly lucky. There was no good reason that they were alive. Not one. They simply should not have survived. Echo wanted to vomit.
Tariq frowned, concerned. "Are you alright?"
The door opened, sparing Echo from having to lie.
A flash of red streaked into the room as Ian rushed inside. The wolf pup didn't slow down in the least, leaping bodily onto the bed, a low whine in his throat.
The old cot groaned, and for a terrifying moment Echo thought it would give out and send them both crashing to the floor. And wouldn't her battered ribs just love that? But the bed held. Ian pushed his nose all around her, no doubt smelling dirt and witch underneath her sweat and the fear still sluicing through her veins. Too tired to push him away – and not really wanting to if she was being honest – Echo let Ian sniff until he was satisfied.
Asar entered the room in a cloud of smoke and profanity. "What the hell happened," the watchman demanded. He came to stand beside Tariq's bed, puffing on a half-finished cigarette, thunder darkening his sharp face.
"Sir," the doctor's assistant piped up. "You can't smoke in here."
He shot her a glare, and the poor girl hightailed it out of the room.
"You didn't have to scare the child," the doctor said.
Asar's scowl deepened, but instead of responding the old man, the Watchman turned his frown to Tariq. "How in the hell did you two get so beat down," he demanded.
Echo watched as the doctor took his leave, waiting until the door clicked shut before she spoke.
"We found out where Kane got taken," she said for Tariq who was looking a little peaked. Not that she was doing much better. "It seems like your witch has been hiding out in the old mining tunnels."
Asar's frown didn't fade, but the new information tempered it just a little. "Damn," he said. "I should have guessed that. It's the perfect hideout."
"Alright," he said, pacing the length of their sickroom. "This is good. This works." His steps were rapid, as if he was trying to keep pace with his thoughts.
Echo wasn't seeing the upside of any of this. She shot a glance to Tariq, but the arcanist seemed pretty resigned so she guessed Asar did this kind of thing often. It seemed there was nothing for it but to wait for the watchman to talk himself out.
"If she's hiding down in the tunnels," Asar said, twirling a spare cigarette between his fingers. "She's probably not going to pack up and just abandon them. She's been here for about four months now, no doubt trying to finish what her sisters started back south."
And just what was that original coven's goal, Echo wondered. She kept her question to herself. Asar was on to something and living captive children were more important than dead witches.
"She could always just kill the kids and run off," Echo felt compelled to point out. Ian growled, lips pulling back to bare his teeth at the mere mention of it. Echo gave him a light pat, reminded once again of the sickly scars she'd found him with. At this point, maybe death would be a mercy.
Asar jerked his chin. "That's a possibility," the watchman admitted. Just the thought of it made something cold coil in Echo's stomach. "But I don't think she will. Hana's efficient. Killing the scions for her power isn't a smart move, especially if she plans on completing what she came here to accomplish. What's more likely is that she holes up in a different spot in the mine."
Echo sighed. "Let's hope you're right. But that still leaves five children in the hands of a witch."
The door squeaked open and all thoughts of witches burned away as Echo took in the tall form of the man who pushed his way inside. "Sitka," Echo squeaked. "You're early."
Sitka Temujin wasn't handsome in the traditional sense, between the broad, flat planes of his face, the pale scarves carved into his teak skin, and the mildly amused expression that didn't quite hide the edge in his dark eyes, handsome was not the right word to use. Compelling. He was compelling.
Echo had forgotten, in the months since she had seen him, just how big Sitka actually was. Having him looming over her sickbed made it hard to ignore. Echo wasn't overly short, but he dwarfed her by at least a foot. The leader of a mercenary guild, Sitka kept his body honed as a matter of survival, and it showed. He was built like a brick wall. Heavy muscles rolled under his coat as Sitka crossed his arms. He bent over until they were face to face, his thick, black braid brushing the bedlinens.
Sitka's eyes swept Echo from head to toe before taking in Asar who stood frozen halfway through his pacing, Tariq who sat awestruck, and Ian who was standing on the bed again, a growl low in his chest.
Sitka turned his eyes back on Echo's no doubt bruised face and in a voice as rough as a dry riverbed, said, "Looks like I'm late."