A/N: This story was written for the Sciles Big Bang and I had the privilege of working with two incredibly awesome artists! I want to give a huge thank you to pinshekonsha and thepaintblot for their time and their amazing work. You can find links to their tumblr accounts and the art for the story embedded into the AO3 version, if you want to check that out. Credit for the story's cover image goes to pinshekonsha (the seal) and thepaintblot (Stiles and Scott).

This is set after Season 4, and is more or less canon-compliant up to that point. As a warning, there are some pretty intense horror elements later on in this story, which is why it's rated M. There will be a lot of whump and peril in this fic.

I worked really hard on this story, and I hope you enjoy it. :)


Prologue


Stiles awoke in darkness. He was cold. Wet clothes clung to his body. His head throbbed unmercifully and there was a humming in his ears like someone nearby was constantly running their finger along the rim of a glass. Unless he was trapped in a dark room with a sadistic busboy or a tone deaf armonica player, there was probably something wrong with his ear drums. Groaning softly, Stiles rolled onto his side and started to push himself upright. His hands brushed something warm and he froze, dread tightening his shoulders and cutting through the disoriented jumble of his foggy mind with the clear realization that he was not alone.

"Hello?" he croaked, and was surprised at both the unexpected hoarseness of his own voice, and the fact that he could barely hear himself. Everything was muted, like he was deep underwater. Where was he?

Receiving no response but the continued ringing in his throbbing ears, Stiles hesitantly ran his hand over the form of the body beside him, trying to figure out who or what it was.

Don't be dead, don't be dead... unless you're some scary creature that might want to eat me, then in that case, please be dead, please be dead.

The body was human, or at least, human-shaped. His fingers glided over what felt like a jean clad leg, then snagged on something sharp. He jerked his hand back instinctually before returning to his exploration more cautiously. He couldn't tell what the sharp object was, but it wasn't the only one, He found a number of them protruding from the denim material. Light, experimental prodding didn't budge them. His fingers came away wet with something thicker and stickier than water. Blood. He couldn't see it, but he knew the feeling; the smell. His stomach tightened against the memories of loving that sensation. They weren't his, but they would always feel that way.

He continued on, feeling his way up the leg, to the person's waist and ... okay, the person was a guy. Yup, definitely male. Moving right along...

He skimmed his way across an arm, a sleeve, the fabric was as wet as that of his own. Moving ever higher, his questing fingers finally found the other person's head in the darkness. Thick, curly hair. Smooth features. A slightly crooked jaw.

It wasn't easy to guess what someone looked like by feel, Stiles didn't know how blind people did it, but in this one instance, no guesswork was required. He knew almost immediately who was beside him, and a new kind of fear filled him as his fingers fluttered over the face he knew as well as his own. Better, some days.

"Scott? Scott!"

Still no response from the still figure next to him. Shivering, Stiles' fingers prodded about urgently, trying to find a pulse. He finally settled for pressing his hand over Scott's nose and mouth instead, relieved when he felt the steady inhale and exhale of air against his palm.

Stiles had unconsciously been waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but no matter how much he blinked, it remained utter and complete. The absolute lack of visual information was strangely smothering, making him feel both claustrophobic and unsettled. He tried to rise to his feet and the world spun violently around him. Losing all sense of which way was up, Stiles dropped quickly back to his hands and knees, clutching the ground as if desperately trying not to fall off it. Nausea washed over him and his stomach heaved. He tasted bile, his head throbbing as he threw up food he couldn't see from a meal he didn't remember.

Moaning softly, he held onto the surface under him until stability slowly returned, illusory lights popping and sparking randomly before his eyes. Crap, his head hurt and his ears felt like they were on fire from the inside. Cautiously freeing one hand from its death grip on the floor, Stiles ran his hand through his hair. He winced sharply when he reached the back of his head and his fingers came away sticky with blood again, this time his own.

He sat back his knees, moving slowly so as not to set the world to spinning again. He concentrated on breathing as he tried to figure out where he was and what had happened. He was disoriented and it was unusually hard to think or to hold onto a train of thought for more than a few moments.

He remembered jumbled bits and flashes; the pieces falling into place only reluctantly, like a badly crafted jigsaw puzzle that didn't quite fit together.

They were in the woods. Lydia's fingers were white around the police radio he pressed into her hands. Derek was bleeding black blood. There was a little girl with dark hair and frightened eyes ... Megan. Her name was Megan. She'd been kidnapped, they had been looking for her. Her and the others. All the ones who were taken. Why had they been taken? Where had they been taken?

Stiles moaned again, rubbing his face as if that might stimulate some clarity. His mind stuck and whirled around the questions he couldn't answer until he finally forced it away.

He shivered. He was cold. Wet. Why was he wet? That one, at least, he could answer. It was raining. Or... it had been raining. He could hear no sound of rain or thunder in here now, wherever here was.

The woods, he'd been in the woods. It was raining. His father's hair was slicked down to his scalp, tan uniform clinging to his body. The gun in his hand was steady, his eyes blazing with intensity as rain sheeted down around him. "You don't want to do this," he warned.

There was a man with salt and pepper hair and a tanned, weathered face. A discolored scar that looked like a spider web crawled up his neck and the lower part of his jaw. He had a gun, too. Stiles felt the muzzle against his head, a hard, steady pressure digging in just above his ear.

Some part of Stiles' mind caught on that memory with panic, clamoring at him that his head hurt because he'd been shot. He shoved the nauseating thought back with effort. That was stupid. If he'd been shot in the head he'd be dead. No, he must have hit his head when he fell ...

More memories washed over him then, sickeningly fast and disordered. The rain cutting off abruptly. A wet, twisting curtain of green. A dark cave. Scott, dripping water onto the rocks. Shouting. Thunderous noise. An unearthly green glow. A blinding light. An explosion. Scott, slamming into him, throwing him backwards, covering him as they fell...

Stiles squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep his heart and lungs from speeding up and increasing the uneasy nausea he was starting to get under control. The fragments of memory were jagged and broken, melting away into confusion when he tried to grab onto them too tightly. He remembered being in a cave with Scott. Remembered an explosion and falling. He definitely remembered falling. The sensation of seemingly endless weightlessness, like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Turning his head carefully, he looked around again. He could still see nothing but blackness. They must still be in the cave, only ... somewhere deeper, perhaps? Had the explosion he could only vaguely recall have knocked out a wall? Perhaps opened up some old mine shaft or natural sink hole and they were sitting at the bottom of it right now? But then why was it so dark? Shouldn't he see some kind of light from the mouth of the opening above? If they'd fallen too far for him to see the opening, he'd be dead, wouldn't he? Or at least have significantly more broken bones?

Stiles pressed the heel of one palm into his eyes, gritting his teeth against a gnawing headache. He was pretty sure he had a concussion, but no other significant injuries were making themselves known as yet. Maybe it was night time. Maybe the explosion had sealed up the passage after them.

Or maybe there was plenty of light and he just couldn't see it. Maybe the blow to his head had done more than concuss him. Maybe he was blind.

Terrified by this ghastly new thought, Stiles waved his hands in front of his face, trying desperately to see any sign of movement. That did no good. He needed something that he knew should cast a light, that was the only way to be sure. What did he have that could ... phone! Scrambling in his pocket, Stiles searched for his cell phone, kicking himself for not having thought of it before. It spoke to how clouded his mind was that calling for help hadn't occurred to him sooner.

The familiar feeling of his phone was comforting as it slid into his hand. He struggled to extricate it from his wet pants, then thumbed it on.

He let out a whoosh of relieved breath when the brilliance of his phone's lock screen made him blink and reflexively look away. Even automatically dimming to its lowest setting, it still seemed very bright after the complete darkness. Swiping the lock screen away, Stiles squinted at the display, frowning when he saw that he had no signal.

He muttered a curse, although if they were in some kind of underground pit or sink hole, it wasn't too surprising that he didn't have any service. He held the phone up over his head, moving it around and craning his neck to see if that helped. It nearly made him fall over when his tenuous sense of equilibrium made the earth shift under him again, but that was about all.

Sighing, Stiles dropped his arm and turned on the phone's flashlight app instead. He supposed that being able to just call for help was too much to hope for with the way their luck ran. Maybe it wouldn't matter, though. They hadn't been in the woods alone. The others would know what had happened. Hopefully, they were getting help and trying to dig them out right now. Hopefully, they were okay and able to do those things.

Shining the light upward, Stiles saw the shadowy shape of some kind of solid obstruction high over their heads. It was just out of the reach of his mobile's little light beam, even on its brightest setting, and he couldn't see detail. The ceiling high overhead seemed disconcertingly uniform and not like the jagged hole or jumble of rocks he'd expected, but maybe it was just a trick of the inadequate lighting. Shining the light around him in a circle, Stiles saw smooth, dark stone walls around them on three sides. The fourth side was open, some kind of passageway or tunnel leading off into darkness.

Stiles blinked, brows drawing down in confusion. He wasn't sure if he could trust was he was seeing, because it didn't make a lot of sense. The tunnel walls were too smooth, the angle where they met the floor too purposeful for this to be some kind of naturally occurring cave. It had to be man-made.

Again, the thought of old, abandoned mining tunnels came to him. He accepted it reluctantly and only on a provisional basis. It was not a satisfactory conclusion, because he'd never heard of any kind of significant mining being done out here. Then again, this was California. Back during the gold rush days, people had probably prospected all over the place. Maybe this tunnel was from back then, boarded up and long forgotten. He felt like he was stretching to make the theory cover the facts, but no other explanation was presently coming to mind.

Turning the light on Scott, Stiles winced as he got his first real look at his friend since he'd woken. Scott was laying sprawled his back on the ground, very much as if he'd just fallen from above and landed there. There was a small halo of debris around them; mostly shards of rock and bits of twisted metal and other things too small and blackened for Stiles to recognize.

Scott was wearing a denim shirt over a black tank top. The black material didn't show stains well in the low lighting, but underneath the glow of his mobile, he could see the fabric glistening with blood. Two deceptively small tears in the fabric across Scott's stomach marked where bullets had entered his body, even though the tan skin beneath had already closed over the wounds. The sharp things Stiles had felt on Scott's leg turned out to be jagged slivers of stone that had embedded themselves in the side of his thigh, his jeans stained crimson around them.

Most disturbing of all was the puddle of blood framing Scott's torso and staining the sides of his jacket. There were clearly wounds back there. Carefully, Stiles rolled his friend over onto his stomach so he could get a better look. His jaw tightened as he took in the damage.

The back of Scott's jacket was slashed and pocked with burns. Two jagged tears marked the exit wounds from where he'd been shot and the denim was liberally stained crimson. The damage to his clothing said that his back had been seriously lacerated. It was already healing up nicely, except for where jagged shards of shrapnel were visible. They stuck out sickeningly, like overgrown porcupine quills. Several of them were still sluggishly oozing blood. The worst of it seemed confined to the back of Scott's left shoulder and his right leg. Most of it looked like slivers of rock, but there were a few twisted, wicked looking pieces of metal driven deep into the base of his thigh and the back of his knee. It was clear that Scott had had his back to the explosion when it happened.

The man with the spider web of scars, glaring. Blinding light. A concussive force. Scott, slamming into him. Scott grabbing Stiles' head and tucking it against his chest, covering Stiles protectively with his body...

Stiles breathed deeply and re-focused himself. Scott would be okay. The injuries looked nasty, but Stiles had seen him heal worse. This shrapnel was going to have to come out though, or his body was just going to try to heal around it. Probably already was. Removing it was going to hurt like hell. It would be better to do it while Scott was still out.

Steeling himself, Stiles leaned forward cautiously. Holding his phone with one hand, he carefully and methodically started working the shrapnel free with his other. With a normal person, Stiles thought you probably should leave penetrating objects in the injury to restrict blood loss, but Scott wasn't normal. Thankfully. Because Stiles wasn't so sure a normal person could have survived this level of trauma.

Some of the fragments were seriously embedded into Scott's flesh and Stiles had to really work at getting them out. He had to grip onto the sharp bits of projectile tightly, sometimes wiggling and twisting them back and forth before they would come free. The sharp edges dug and cut painfully into his fingers. Stiles winced and cursed repeatedly, but he kept going. About halfway through, he had the idea of wrapping his hand in the lower tail of his outer shirt for some added protection and that helped.

By the time he was done, Stiles' fingers were scraped and bleeding and Scott was finally starting to stir.

"Scott?" he asked, wiping his stinging hands on the thighs of his jeans. "You with me, buddy?"

Scott groaned softly by way of answer and it rumbled in his chest like a growl. He was disoriented and confused and his wolf was struggling instinctively to the surface in an effort to protect him, the red of its presence seeping into his eyes. He blinked, trying to make sense of his surroundings and started to push himself up to hands and knees. Almost immediately he gave another, sharper groan and crumpled back to his elbows. Ducking his head, he panted softly, hands fisting against the floor as his wolf retreated under the pain and his eyes bled back to brown.

"Easy! Easy..." Stiles warned, leaning over him in concern and laying a gentle hand on Scott's shoulder. "I just pulled half a mountain out of your back and you got shot, like ... a lot. Give yourself a few more minutes for your wolfy healing to do its thing," he suggested.

Scott nodded tensely, his breath coming in sharp, contained little gasps that gave away how much he was hurting. Stiles kept his hand lightly on his friend's shoulder.

"Where are we?" Scott asked. His voice was both hoarse and cautious, as if he were trying to find a way to speak that didn't aggravate his healing injuries.

"That is an excellent question," Stiles replied. "Working hypothesis is that the explosion blew us into some kind old, abandoned mine shaft and sealed it up behind us." His voice betrayed a hint of his dissatisfaction with that explanation, but he let it stand for the present. "My phone survived, but I'm not getting any signal. We should try yours."

Scott just nodded and Stiles took a moment fishing it out of his back pocket. Unfortunately, Scott's phone had not survived. Either the explosion or the fall had done it in. The screen was cracked from end to end and it wouldn't turn on. Stiles sighed. "Well, that's that then. How you doing?"

"Okay," Scott said as he carefully rolled to his side. He grimaced as he moved, but managed to make it all the way to a sitting position this time. "Better. You okay? You're talking really loud."

"I am?" Stiles tried to modulate his voice lower, although now it sounded to him like he was whispering. "Huh. I think my ears are messed up." He shrugged his head, then wished he hadn't because it set the world to dancing again. "Other than that, a raging concussion, and the general feeling that I was just blown through a stone wall, I'm fab," he said dryly, although the truth was that aside from a generalized aching sensation and the massive throbbing in his head he didn't really feel like he'd been thrown through anything, or fallen any great distance. It all was more than a little puzzling.

Scott was frowning at him, looking worried. "Stiles, your ears." Scott reached over and brushed his fingers against Stiles' left ear, the gentle touch skimming lightly over the other boy's jaw as it drew away. Scott lifted his fingers to show they were now tipped with red. "They're bleeding."

Stiles blinked, focusing on not seeing double images of Scott's hand. "Huh. Yeah, okay, they're definitely messed up then," he said simply. "I can still hear though, everything's just a little ... muffled," he dropped his voice again on the last word when he saw Scott wince slightly in a way that indicated he was talking too loudly again.

"So, it looks like this tunnel goes off that way," he continued, flicking his mobile's glow in the direction where the darkness stretched away from them. "Maybe there's a way out." Holding onto the wall for support, Stiles struggled slowly to his feet. His balance still felt tenuous, but the earth wasn't moving as violently as it had before and he was keeping a lid on the nausea for now. Standing wasn't very fun, but he couldn't stand sitting around any longer. He needed to understand where they were and, more importantly, how to get out.

Scott started to join him, but no sooner had he straightened up than he was dropping back down to the ground again with a cry. He curled his right leg to him, grimacing and digging his fingers into his thigh.

"Scott?" Stiles asked in concern, moving closer.

Scott experimentally flexed and straightened his leg, his breath coming ragged and harsh. "Something's wrong," he grit out. Unfastening his pants, he pushed them down, trying to move his right leg as little as possible.

Stiles crouched down beside him, shining light onto the other boy's leg, trying to see what the problem was. "What's wrong? Where does it hurt?"

"I don't know," Scott responded. "Here," he indicated the back of his right knee and thigh. "I can't..." he flexed it experimentally and hissed. "It hurts like hell when I bend it."

Stiles frowned, prompting Scott to turn a little so he could get a better look at the problem area. The skin was smudged with blood, but he didn't see any open wounds or injuries. "You had some pretty nasty shrapnel damage back here," he said thoughtfully. "Maybe it just isn't all the way healed yet?" The surface certainly appeared to be, Scott's tanned skin whole and unbroken beneath a smattering of hair and freckles.

Stiles ran his hand across the area to see if he could feel anything. He almost immediately yanked his hand away because the sensation was just wrong. "Holy -"

"What?" Scott was looking at him with wide eyes. "What?"

Stiles shook his head. "I don't ... hang on," he said. Replacing his hand, he ran it across Scott's skin again. He checked up and down his thigh and then across the back of his knee and calf. Scott's skin looked smooth, but his fingers told a different story. His fingers skimmed across a couple of hard little bumps that felt like ... well, he couldn't think of an appropriate analogy. They didn't feel like anything natural, that was for sure, and that was what had initially creeped him out. It felt like there was something hard just below the surface instead of the smooth, firm planes of muscle and tissue that should have been there. He ran his hand up around the top and sides of Scott's thigh, but here the skin was smooth and normal.

"Stiles?" Scott asked after a few long moments of silence. "Are you just feeling me up, or is there actually something wrong?"

Stiles looked up to find Scott watching him questioningly from a few inches away. "Why is it an either or?" he retorted, sarcasm only slightly covering his growing concern. He hoped he was wrong about his suspicions. "There's something under your skin," he said slowly. "I can't see it, but I can feel it. You feel this?" Stiles pressed on one of the hard lumps on the back of Scott's thigh. It gave under his touch and Scott winced. "Yeah," he started to say. Stiles slid his thumb over and pushed on another spot, directly above the back of Scott's knee. He didn't actually feel a bump here, but if his suspicions were correct...

Scott yelped and instinctively tried to scoot backwards. Stiles immediately let up. "Ow. Yes. I felt that," Scott said a little sardonically. "What is it?"

Stiles sighed. "My guess? Shrapnel from the explosion. I took out everything I could see, but those were just the pieces long enough to still be sticking out of you. I think there are other, smaller pieces that buried themselves completely and now your body has healed over them." Stiles poked experimentally at another one of the small lumps on Scott's calf. Scott grimaced but didn't pull away.

"Most of the ones I can feel are probably pretty superficial. I think your body's just closed them off and is like, trying to either break them down or work them back out. But I think there's a some back here," he lightly brushed the problem area above the back of Scott's knee, "that are buried deep. All the way down to the bone, maybe. I think your body's healed around them, but because of where they are, moving aggravates them. If it's actually stuck in the bone, it could be basically re-injuring your muscles and tendons and things every time you move," he added thoughtfully. He had read about something similar once, although it had involved a reckless teenager and a nail gun, not a werewolf and a shrapnel, but he felt like the same ideas could apply.

Scott made a face. "Great. What a lovely idea. Can we get it out?"

Stiles sucked his lips and frowned. "I don't know, maybe. Only thing we have to use is your claws though." He looked dubious. "How bad is it?"

"Bad enough," Scott said, popping the claws out on his right hand with a grimace.

Stiles had to look away as Scott tried to carefully dig into his own flesh to remove the shrapnel, but after a minute or two the young werewolf had to abandon the attempt. Perspiration beading his forehead, Scott leaned to the side and hung his head, panting in pain. Blood stained his hand and dripped from his leg onto the ground beneath him. The fact that the self-inflicted wounds mended rapidly as soon as he stopped slicing and digging didn't make the process any less painful.

"Okay, so, that's not going to work," Scott breathed through grit teeth. Claws were not precision implements designed for delicate slicing and extraction work, and trying to work semi-blind on the back of his own leg wasn't helping.

"So... you can't just do the Wolverine thing and make them pop out of you?" Stiles asked.

Scott gave an uncertain head waggle. "I guess not. Maybe that would happen if it wasn't stuck in the bone? Or, maybe it will eventually? I don't know, man." Perhaps Derek or Peter would know, but he didn't. It wasn't as if being a werewolf came with a manual.

"If we had a knife, maybe..." Stiles trailed off. He wasn't actually sure he could bring himself to slice into Scott's leg and dig around amid his flesh and gore even if it had been possible. Maybe, if he had to, he could; Stiles could do a lot of things if he had to. It was just that he had a weird relationship with blood these days. Gory pictures or movies had never been a problem, but seeing significant physical injury in real life used to make him feel faint. Then the Nogitsune had gotten into his head and turned it into something disturbingly erotic instead. Now he didn't know what he felt anymore, other than extremely uncomfortable and anxious about the whole thing.

Scott shrugged and shook his head. "I don't know, Stiles. We don't really know what we're looking for. It could be really small, like when you have something stuck between your teeth and it feels like it's the size of a mountain, but it's actually barely as big as dental floss. I think we better just leave it be, I'll be all right."

Stiles nodded, unable to argue with that. Short of surgery they weren't equipped to perform, there didn't seem to be much they could do at the moment aside from hoping that maybe Scott's body could take care of the problem itself.

Screwing his face up into a mask of determination, Scott pulled his pants back up and pushed himself to his feet, keeping his right leg slightly bent and one hand on the wall for support.

"You gonna be okay until we can get you to Deaton?" The human boy was still resting one hand on the wall for balance himself, but he reached his other arm out towards Scott, offering to try to support him.

Scott clapped Stiles' arm in a friendly gesture, but didn't take it, continuing to use the wall for support as he experimentally tested putting weight on his injured leg.

"Yeah, it's fine," he said with a smile, the words made distinctly unconvincing by the way he grimaced and grit his teeth as he hobbled forward. He kept moving, however, and Stiles fell into step, using his cell to illuminate the way ahead of them. Scott had excellent night vision, but even he couldn't see in total blackness. Stiles had tested that out a while ago when they were still trying to discover the breadth and limits of his new abilities.

Stiles frowned as he shone the little beam of light around them, having to blink to clear his vision every so often. There was something really weird about this tunnel. The walls and floor felt like stone but they were an unusually dark, black color with little flecks of iridescence that caught the light like basalt. The ground crunched underfoot like loose earth, but the walls and ceiling were almost disturbingly smooth. The large, square channel they were traversing was definitely man-made, and yet there weren't any wooden support beams like he'd expect to find in an old mine shaft. Honestly, he had no idea how this tunnel was staying up and that scared him more than he wanted to admit. He moved forward a little faster.

"This doesn't really feel like a mine," Stiles murmured aloud, speaking to allay the claustrophobic feeling of the earth crushing down on him. "But somebody went to the trouble of building it out here. Why? Bank robbers? Old timey bootleggers?" he postulated, trying out and discarding ideas as they didn't fit. He sighed as he came around to what he considered the more likely conclusion. "With our luck it's probably the lair of some supernatural beastie that likes to maim and eat people in horrible and unusual ways," he said resignedly. "I swear these woods are like monster central. Do other places have this issue, or is it just us, do you think?"

Finally pausing for an actual response and not getting one, Stiles looked over his shoulder and then turned, bringing the light back around. "Scott?"

He'd thought his friend was right behind him, but Scott had fallen back a good half a dozen paces. Scott put his hand up in front of his eyes when Stiles accidentally shone the light in them, but Stiles could see the other boy's brow was glistening with perspiration and his mouth was set in a grimly determined line. Stiles quickly shifted the light down to their feet so it wasn't in Scott's eyes and waited for him to catch up.

"Should we take a break?" he asked out of habit as much as concern. Before two years ago, Scott having trouble keeping up with him had been a normal occurrence. He was used to the new Scott now, the one who could pretty much outdo him in everything and was more leader than follower; but old habits died hard, especially when his head wasn't entirely clear.

Scott shook his head, but stopped when he drew level with Stiles. "I'm okay," he repeated.

He obviously wasn't, but they both knew how relative that term was most days. Stiles suspected it was more than just his leg that was the problem and that Scott was still healing internal injuries they couldn't see.

"Do you think this will lead out, or only deeper in?" Scott asked, glancing questioningly over his shoulder at the passage behind them. "The others have to know what happened. They'll be trying to dig us out. Maybe we should just stay put and wait for them?"

It was a good question and Stiles mulled it over for a moment. It was possible this tunnel would go nowhere or even lead them into worse danger. Normally, if you got lost, it was smart to stay where people had the best chance of finding you ... however, when had their lives last been anything close to normal?

Stiles shook his head. "I don't know, Scott. Something's... something's just wrong about all this. I don't think we should hang around. If anybody comes through after us, they'll find the tunnel and follow it same as we are. If it branches, we'll make sure and mark which way we went," he suggested. The truth was, he couldn't sit and do nothing when there was this unknown tunnel leading off to somewhere. Inaction did not suit his nature at all. Doing was always better than waiting.

"Besides, for all we know it could lead us right up out of some secret door in the woods and then they won't need to come for us." He shone the beam ahead of them again, wondering if there was any point in trying the compass app on his phone. If he knew which direction they were heading, would that offer a clue as to where this tunnel might lead?

"I've kind of found it's usually better not to wait around for rescue, you know?" he added distractedly, saying a little more than he intended, as he all too often did. A scintilla of something dark and raw twisted in his stomach, uninvited, before he quickly pushed it away in favor of focusing studiously on the problem at hand. He decided that which direction they were going probably didn't matter much. Given how deep in the woods they were, this tunnel would have to stretch pretty far to end up anywhere other than simply in the middle of more woods.

Focused on his own thoughts and the passage ahead, Stiles didn't see the look of guilt that passed over Scott's face at his words.

"Why don't you wait here and I'll go on ahead a bit, see where this goes?" Stiles suggested. "It's so still in here, you can probably hear for miles. I can call if I find something..."

Scott was shaking his head before Stiles even finished. "I don't think we should split up," he countered. "We'll both go."

"You sure?" Stiles pressed, looking Scott up and down to assess his condition. "Because I mean, it could just dead-end somewhere and then we'll have to walk all the way back, anyway. Maybe it'd be better to let the leg rest a while, see if your wolfyness can't work things out?" Stiles wasn't one to coddle, but the suggestion seemed practical to him. Scott was obviously in pain. He wanted to explore, but that didn't mean Scott had to come.

Scott just looked at him for a moment. "Right. Just you, your mobile phone and your somewhat concussed wits. You're going to go explore the dark, creepy, unknown tunnel - alone."

Stiles squinted at him. "Hey, my somewhat concussed wits are better than yours on a good day, okay? And I am a phone ninja, gimpywolf."

Scott actually laughed. "Okay, okay. But I still think we should stick together. I'm fine, I think it's getting better," he lied, pushing himself forward and trying to keep his limping to a minimum.

"Okay," Stiles said skeptically, but didn't offer any further argument. As long as Scott felt up to it then sticking together really was the better plan. After all, despite what Scott seemed to think, he didn't actually want to be that idiot in the horror movie who went off into the dark alone so the big ugly could pick them off one at a time. Why exactly he expected this to turn out to be a horror movie he wasn't sure, except that somehow it always did.

"At least there's no giant slime trails or freshly gnawed bones," he commented, continuing to flick the light around them as they walked. "That's a good sign, right? Not even any big old Indiana Jones spider webs..." He frowned thoughtfully. "Actually, this tunnel is unusually clean."

"Maybe because it's been deserted a long time," Scott said hopefully.

Stiles was about to reply when they felt the ground rumble under their feet. For half a moment, Stiles thought it was because whatever lived down here was coming their way, but the rumble built swiftly into an all-out tremor that was familiar to anyone who had lived in California their whole lives.

"Earthquake!" Scott called out, like it wasn't obvious, as the ground wobbled and the tunnel walls groaned around them. Dust shook down from above, proving that the tunnel wasn't entirely clean.

The quake wasn't terribly severe, but Stiles' sense of balance was still fairly impaired and he lost his footing, tumbling to his hands and knees with a painful jolt. He clutched at the ground, praying the ceiling wasn't going to cave in on them. For one heart-stopping moment he thought it had when something landed on his back, then he realized that the something was too warm and soft to be death by falling rocks. It was just Scott, crouching protectively over him, once again using himself as a human, or, well, werewolf shield.

The shaking subsided without any noticeable ill-effect on the tunnel around them, but Scott and Stiles stayed where they were a few moments longer, wary of aftershocks. Stiles felt Scott's warm, rapid breath against the side of his neck. The werewolf's body was tense against his as he knelt over him, hedging Stiles in beneath him and bracing against any potential incoming blow. Stiles suspected that if the ceiling came down, it would crush them both regardless, but he appreciated the thought.

Coughing, he finally wiggled out from under his friend's protective embrace. "Seriously?!" he protested to their lives in general as he dusted grit out of his hair. "Seriously, now?! We just have to happen to have a fucking earthquake now, when we're twenty thousand leagues under the fucking ground?"

Scott rolled onto his side and had the audacity to chuckle at his friend's indignation. "I think if we were that deep we'd be in like, magma or something."

"Whatever," Stiles shot back wryly, spitting out some of the dusty grit he'd inhaled during the quake and rising painfully back to his feet. "You don't even know what a league is."

"Sure I do. It's like, a sports team or a group..." Scott teased back, intentionally misunderstanding.

"Oh my God, you're an idiot," Stiles groaned, offering Scott a hand up and helping him back to his feet.

They pressed on and were relieved when time crept by without bringing any further aftershocks. After a few minutes, the tunnel opened out into what could only be described as a large, circular room. Yawning black mouths of other passages dotted the circumference of the chamber, making it look like a sort of hub, with spokes going off in all directions.

Scott popped his claws and raked them across the edge of the tunnel they'd just left, marring the smooth black stone and marking their trail.

The two boys turned round and round as they entered the large, echoing space, craning their heads about to see. The area was too big to be illuminated all at once by their small light and they were only able to see pieces of it at a time.

Perhaps if there had been rail tracks or some kind of cart switching station here it would have made sense, but instead there was only the silent, yawning tunnels and the faint outlines of some kind of intricate pattern carved into the dark floor.

"Whoa, okay, so this is getting really ... strange," Scott observed, squinting uncertainly around them.

"Curiouser and curiouser," Stiles agreed with a frown. He made a circuit of the room with his light, examining each entryway. There were thirteen open tunnels including the one through which they had just come, all of which were identical, and one archway that looked like the entry of a fourteenth passage except that it only went in a few feet before ending in a solid slab of stone.

"Which one should we try first?" Scott inhaled deeply, trying to see if he could catch a whiff fresh air from any direction that might guide them, but everything just had the same stagnant, dusty smell.

"I vote for the closed door," Stiles said thoughtfully as he stood beside it, playing his light around the edges. "Always the most interesting."

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Scott remarked, coming over to study the door with him.

There was no visible handle or opening mechanism of any kind. Stiles placed his hands against the slab, giving it an experimental push.

"Are you sure it's not just..." Scott's question trailed off abruptly when a glowing set of unfamiliar, pictographic runes flared to life above the doorway.

Stiles jerked his hands back in surprise and the images immediately started to fade away like the forgotten trails of a sparkler's path. Hesitantly, he pressed one hand back to the door and the lines brightened once more, glowing white and luminescent into the darkness.

"Well. Okay then," he said, craning his head back to try and see the symbols better. "'Cause this isn't at all weird."

"Stiles, look," Scott nudged him and Stiles turned in the direction indicated. He raised his eyebrows as he saw that symbols had appeared over the other entrances as well. The open tunnels had only one pictograph each above them, while the closed one before them had a fairly thick block of them arranged in a large square.

"Yeah, I'm gonna call it right now and say that whatever this place is, it definitely isn't an abandoned mine," Stiles opined. "Unless you're talking like, the Mines of Moria, maybe," he added wryly. He pulled his hand away and watched the letters wink back out.

They re-appeared a moment later and Stiles looked over to find Scott touching the wall next to the door way. Interesting, so it wasn't only touching the door that triggered the light show.

By mutual, unspoken consent, the two boys worked their way outward, taking turns touching the wall on either side of the entry way at increasing intervals until they discovered that whatever kind of touch sensor was at work stopped registering about three feet from the doorway in either direction.

They moved back to the door itself, Scott letting his fingers linger on the dark stone as they squinted up at the incomprehensible scrawl of symbols above them. It was clearly some kind of writing, and something about it felt vaguely familiar, but neither of them were sure why.

"What do you suppose it means?" Scott wondered aloud.

"Got me," Stiles shrugged. "Speak, friend and enter?" he joked, his mind still caught in Middle Earth, for obvious reasons. "Mellon," he tried as an afterthought; just in case because hey, you never knew, right?

Nothing happened and this time Scott shrugged. "Well, not Moria then, I guess," he said, because at least those movies he'd seen, which meant Stiles didn't have to totally wonder how they were actually friends.

"Yeah, it doesn't look right except for the glowing part, anyway," Stiles agreed, turning his cell's flashlight off and tucking it in his pocket to save the battery. The glowing runes gave off just about as much illumination. "The question is, is it saying don't open this door because you'll die horribly, or the escape hatch is found by following the path marked with the..." he squinted thoughtfully at the symbols above the other doors. "Vomiting Parrot-head thing?"

Scott's face scrunched as he peered up at the symbol Stiles had indicated, not seeming terribly sure he agreed with his friend's creative interpretation of the glyph.

Another small tremor shook the ground and the room plunged back into darkness as Scott's hand fell away from the door. The quake wasn't as strong as the last one and Stiles managed not to fall this time. He groped blindly sideways in the dark as it subsided, trying to find the wall in order to bring the lights back on. Scott's voice stopped him.

"Someone's coming," the werewolf whispered.

Stiles froze, hairs raising on his arms as he tried to discern whatever cue it was that had prompted that declaration. For a moment all he could hear was the pounding of his own heart. Then he heard it too, the sound of footsteps approaching. The entrance to one of the tunnels on their right started to glow with the wavering, twisting illumination of approaching lights. The fact that Scott had picked up on it only moments before it was audible to Stiles meant that either this place had funky acoustics, or Scott was still a little out of it and hadn't been paying attention.

It could be searchers, looking for them... but there was enough weird about this place that neither boy felt like taking that chance. Moving with the same mind, Scott and Stiles both hurriedly started edging towards the nearest tunnel opening, but Scott grabbed Stiles' arm before they reached it, frowning and shaking his head, a look of concentration plastering his face. He inhaled deeply.

"People down that way too," he warned, although in this case Stiles could see and hear nothing. They changed course, heading for the next tunnel over, but before they could reach it, the approaching footsteps coalesced.

Several men emerged into the room on their right. Heavy-duty flashlights cast thick, twisting black shadows and lit up the inside of the large chamber with an almost painful brilliance that left the two teens no chance of escaping unseen.

Stiles winced, throwing a hand up to shield his eyes as the beams of the flashlights snapped immediately in their direction, training on them like a search light. That wasn't the only thing pointing at them. The click of weapons being drawn and safeties snapped off echoed audibly in the stone chamber as several wary, unfamiliar voices shouted for them to freeze.

Running blindly looked like it would be a really good way to get shot, so Stiles obeyed. He squinted against the glare, able to make out little other than the vague shapes of men pointing distinctly heavy looking weaponry in their direction.

Beside him, Scott had one arm up to shield his face, his head turned down towards the ground as if in pain as his sensitive eyes struggled to adjust to the abrupt shift in illumination. The young alpha's claws had dropped instinctively in response to the sudden threat. Seeing that, Stiles immediately started trying to sidle in front of him, automatically seeking to hide his friend from view in case he'd wolfed out completely. He edged sideways until another harsh warning to freeze forced him to fall still and abandon the attempt.

The lights lowered a little as the newcomers approached, and Stiles was finally able to make out the man in the lead. A man with salt and pepper hair, a weathered face and a discolored scar that looked like a spider web crawling up the lower part of his jaw.

"Well, well, look what we have here," the man said in an unpleasantly amused tone, recognizing the two teens at the same moment they recognized him.

Stiles felt his stomach lurch. Oh. Oh crap.