The tunnel she chose went on and on, a small, rough fissure through the subterranean darkness, widening and narrowing, still giving Alexandra the impression of crawling through a stone intestine.
Water ran through it, sometimes pooling in the wider passages, sometimes running in a rivulet alongside a shelf of rock she could walk along, but several times filling a section she had to wade through. She stepped carefully, grateful for her waterproof boots, and managed not to come across any sinkholes that might plunge her into water to her knees.
Although pain and fatigue dominated her thoughts, Alexandra was also becoming unable to ignore her hunger. She continued moving for another twenty minutes, acquiring more bumps on her already battered elbows, and a scrape on her forehead from a tight squeeze through a keyhole formation that she didn't negotiate carefully enough.
When she reached a much larger cavern, with water stretching out to the edge of the circle of light cast by her lantern, she decided to sit down and rest. She needed to think. Wandering around hoping to find a convenient sunlit exit looked increasingly unpromising.
The water here was as calm as everywhere else in the cave system, but in this cavern, it had some sort of algae or moss growing in the black shallows. Wherever her lantern light fell on the water, strands of white stuff waved eerily below the surface. That made her think twice about drinking the water. If she got any thirstier, she might have to figure out a way to boil it.
Alexandra reached into her pack and let out a sigh of relief that was almost a cry when she found the magical pouch. The dwarves hadn't gotten that far, too distracted by the goodies closer to the top of the pack. She opened it and grabbed a handful of pemmican, which she stuffed into her mouth as greedily as the dwarves had wolfed down her biscuits and fruit. Charlie would sure mock her for her own greediness now! How she wished Charlie were here to mock her.
She took stock of her remaining supplies. If she was going to be down here much longer — and it didn't look like she was going to find her way out of here any time soon — she would need to sleep, and she'd be grateful for that Warming Blanket after all. She had changes of clothes, the pemmican would last her for a while, and there was plenty of water, even if it needed to be purified.
So she could survive for days. What she couldn't do was find her way out of here. The dwarves had taken her Lost Traveler's Compass, and now she'd lost her Skyhook. For a moment she wallowed in bitterness, thinking about all the things Max had left her that were lost, one by one.
A small motion in her peripheral vision and a faint dragging sound. She turned her head, and realized that the magic pouch was no longer at her side. Like some sort of creeping thing, it was edging toward the water.
"What?" she exclaimed, and slapped at the pouch to stop it. She saw a thin white hairlike strand stretching from the water to the pouch. Then something jerked hard on her ankle. It was the white stuff in the underground pool — it had emerged from the water and wrapped itself around her foot.
Another tendril of mossy white hair was stretching toward the lantern sitting opposite her. It moved more tentatively, as if trying to sneak up on the lantern. As Alexandra was pulled away, she saw the tendril snake quickly around the base of the lantern and twitch, hard, flinging it across the cavern, as if it were red-hot.
Alexandra kicked and tried to grab the rock beneath her, but the rope-like strands had wrapped around her ankles and she couldn't break free. Her fingernails scraped and tore against the rocks, her wand tumbled out of her hand, and she hit the water with a splash. For a moment she simply lay on the rock beneath the one she'd been sitting on, in only a few inches of water, and then she was jerked deeper into the pool. She took a deep breath, as her lantern sank to the bottom of the pool, still casting light for several seconds before it winked out and the entire cavern was plunged into pitch darkness.
She didn't know what it was that was pulling her through the water, but it didn't seem to be trying to drown her — at least not immediately. She was pulled across the surface of the water, rather than down. This caused her to bob and splash, and holding her breath had been prudent as her head was dunked underwater several times. She felt like a fish being reeled in by some monstrous, underground fisherman. She didn't like where that thought led. Something wet and ropy snaked around her wrist, and though she twisted and jerked her hand away immediately, this forced her face down in the water as she continued to be hauled across the cave. The tendril around her wrist constricted and pulled at her arm, flipping her over so she was able to gasp for breath, but also making her feel even more helpless. The stuff, whatever it was, was strong and now had three of her limbs.
She hit the far edge of the pool, and barely slowing down at all, was hauled out of the water and dragged across more rocks. Unable to see a thing, she had the feeling that she was in another cave. This one stank. The smell was moist and rank, like mildewed fish guts and wet dog and bad breath. Alexandra sensed, rather than heard, something moving in the direction she was being dragged toward.
She thought of the lantern hastily, fearfully snatched off the rock and tossed into the water. Surely a tiny flame like that couldn't have scared whatever this was?
Maybe it was the light.
Impossibly, the smell got worse. Alexandra fought not to gag. Forcing words out would be difficult. But the thing must be very close.
Her Name — Troublesome — came to her lips in an instant. It felt right, given the Quest she was on. The words were pieces of a rhyme she'd memorized some time ago. Improvising light had to be one of the most useful bits of magic one could prepare.
"When Troublesome's threatened by evil at night,
Then magic is needed, so let there be light!"
She shouted the last four words, letting all her will go into them as she opened both her hands, the one held by the ropy tendrils and the one still free.
Normally she'd have tried to conjure a ball of light, or a circle of radiance, or something else more enduring, but her desperation drove the spell, so light like a hundred lanterns blazed from her hands. Caught in the blinding flash, a hideous, gnarled creature crouched over her, mouth agape with square, brown and yellow teeth inches from her head. It might have been humanoid, but it was impossible to tell beneath the heap of filthy, matted white hair that flowed over its entire body and spilled across the floor of its lair and out into the water. It was like a hideous Rapunzel with impossibly long hair, growing for who knew how many years down here in the darkness.
Its mouth gaped even wider as it screamed shrilly. It was that wretched stench that assailed Alexandra more than the noise, but she flinched and covered her ears as the monster shambled away from her with astonishing speed. It moved like a demonic great ape, but the effect, beneath its gnarled carpet of hair, was more like a cat zipping beneath a bedspread. It ran up against the far wall of the cave, which Alexandra now realized was actually not that large, and cowered as if trying to press itself into the rock, turning its head away from the light. All around her, ropy tendrils of hair twitched and writhed like snakes. The hair clinging to her left hand tightened; the strands attaching it to the living carpet underfoot frayed and snapped and she was left with dirty white hair wrapped around one wrist.
Then the light blazing from her hands dimmed. She had expended all the light her doggerel verse could summon in one brilliant flash. She was half-blinded herself, even as the cave plummeted back into darkness.
This is bad, she thought. She concentrated, trying to keep the light alive. The glow from her hands didn't die entirely, but it was barely visible. The creature made a sound deep in its throat.
"Eat this!" she shouted, thrusting her hand forward, palm outward. Another burst of light flared in the darkness. The thing screeched again and buried its head in its arms, trying to protect its eyes.
Already, that illumination was fading too. Frustration was almost greater than her growing panic. Alexandra was desperately trying to cast a spell any sixth grader could manage — at least, a sixth grader with a wand. She wiggled her fingers and managed to throw sparks from her fingertips. She blew on them as if they were burning coals, then pressed her fingertips together, took a deep breath and closed her eyes, brushed them with her lips, exhaled slowly, and imagined magic in her breath. I am a witch. I am not a helpless little girl. I have magic, even without a wand.
She opened her eyes, and was rewarded with ten glowing fingertips.
It was pathetic. It was barely enough light to read by. But it seemed to be sufficient to keep the cave creature away. It huddled in the corner, covering its face.
Alexandra turned slowly about, keeping one eye on the ground. She was stepping on the creature's hair and she'd seen what it could do, but there was nowhere to step that wasn't covered with it.
This had to be its lair, because bones littered the edge of the cave. Lots of bones, mostly very old ones by what little Alexandra could make out from the dim glow of her fingertips. She grimaced as she spotted child-sized, elongated skulls. They could only be hill dwarves.
But then she saw a couple of skulls that were larger and rounder. The nearest one was turned away from her, but she didn't need to step closer to confirm her suspicion — those were human skulls.
She looked for her wand, hoping to see it floating on the surface of the water, but if it was, it was beyond the range of the glow from her fingertips. It might still be across the pool on the opposite rocky bank.
Alexandra contemplated what to do next. If not for the creature, she could probably swim back, or splash around in search of her wand. Then she could retrieve the lamp from the bottom of the pool. There was more Ever-Burning Oil in her pack, which was now on the other side of the cave. But she didn't like the idea of diving, lightless, into the water, where this thing's hair could once again snatch her out.
"Well," she muttered, "this sucks." The creature stirred, and something slid around her ankle, sly and soft. Alexandra clapped her hands together and green sparks flew from her palms. She clapped again, harder, then repeated it. Each time she clapped, more sparks flew. It was quite pretty, if primitive — a trick that would not impress a stage magician, and could be duplicated by any Muggle with a box of firework-stand sparklers. But the creature cringed away from the sparks, and its hair coiled away from her feet.
"That's right, Thing!" she yelled, not having a better name for it. "Sit your hairy butt right there and don't move or I'll… make a really bright light."
She was definitely going to have to work on her intimidation skills.
"He doesn't understand you," said a small, high-pitched voice. "He doesn't speak human."
Alexandra jumped and spun, immediately trying to look less startled and probably not doing a very good job. She held her fingertips out as if she could ward away whatever had snuck up on her.
Standing at the lip of rock above the water's edge was a small elf-like creature. Perhaps it was an elf. Alexandra could only make out a silhouette.
"If he's a friend of yours, tell him to stay back, because I'm a witch," Alexandra said. "A really powerful witch. Don't make me summon fire and lightning."
The smaller being seemed to consider that. "Why don't you have a wand?" it asked.
"I don't need a wand," Alexandra said. "I'm on a Solemn Quest. Witches on Quests don't use wands. We solve puzzles, answer riddles, slay monsters, all wandless."
"I see," said the little creature. "I have never heard of such a thing, but humans are strange folk."
"So, what's your name?" Alexandra asked. "And are you friends with this hairy… person here?"
"He is not a person. He is a bugbear. He would be very insulted to be called a person."
"Well, I sure wouldn't want to insult a cannibalistic bugbear." Alexandra flexed her fingers, thinking about ways to conjure fire and lightning. Fire she'd done before, though without much control. Lightning without a wand seemed like a terrible idea. Maybe she should just try a wandless Summoning Charm to retrieve her wand?
"Bugbears do not eat their own kind. So I do not think you should call him a cannibal either."
Alexandra squinted in the darkness. Was this little person mocking her?
"Right," she said. "I'll still set its hair on fire if it doesn't behave." She noticed the creature hadn't answered either of her questions.
"You're a very rude, angry little girl," said the other. "Do you usually walk into someone's lair and threaten to set them on fire?"
"I do when they want to eat me. Which, incidentally, would make twice today that I've had to set people — Beings, whatever — on fire for trying to eat me. So yeah, I am kind of angry, and I don't like being called a little girl." Indeed, her anger was rising. She embraced it as a replacement for fear. Once again, she was in a terrible position to bluff. It was like facing Martha the Hag all over again.
"Well," said her strange questioner, "I shall call you an angry witch instead."
"Call me… Troublesome," said Alexandra. "What's your name?"
After a pause, the small being said, "You may call me Sees-From-Laurel."
"Nice to meet you, Sees-From-Laurel." Just about every tale of meeting with magical beings emphasized the importance of good manners. And being careful with names. Maybe she should have thought of that sooner, but she had just barely avoided getting drowned and eaten. "I'm, um, sorry for being angry and rude. I've had a really bad day."
"Yes. It could still become worse." Around Alexandra, visible as dim shadows in the light cast by her glowing fingers, a forest of hairy tendrils rose, weaving back and forth.
"Do we really have to do this?" Alexandra asked. She flicked sparks from her fingertips. The strands of hair near her recoiled.
To her surprise, Sees-From-Laurel addressed the bugbear: "Nee tau kataphooei, Geegowl! Hagenik-il magahesh."
All the snake-like coils of hair slid away and then slumped to the ground. The bugbear replied in a voice that was half snarling beast, half petulant child: "Kaganik phooei ish-la-ha!"
"Ne-ne-ne, Geegowl, gawa hengu-ka. Shewan-gashe, magwan-heshe." The small creature tittered.
"Gaaaaoo," rumbled the bugbear.
"You should say thank you," said Sees-From-Laurel.
"Thank you," Alexandra said.
"You're welcome, but I meant you should thank Geegowl. He has agreed not to eat you."
Alexandra scowled fiercely in the dark. "Geegowl should thank me for not setting him on fire. He eats people!"
"So do bears and catamounts. Do you go into their lairs and set them on fire?"
"Look, Sees-From-Laurel, sir, I just want get out of here. I didn't ask to be taken prisoner and dragged down here, and I wasn't looking for a fight. So if you'd be nice enough to show me the way back to the surface, I'd really appreciate it, and I'll be out of both your… hair."
She realized belatedly that she didn't actually know if this creature was a "sir," but Sees-From-Laurel didn't correct her. He cocked his head and considered her words. "How much would you appreciate it?"
Alexandra sighed. "A whole lot. Is there something I can do for you?" Of course there would be some kind of quid pro quo. Probably some tricky bargain. There always was.
"As it happens," said Sees-From-Laurel, "there is. And you being such a powerful witch, I'm sure it will be a very easy thing."
"I'm sure it will be," Alexandra said. Her teeth chattered a bit, cutting off the sarcasm. "But do you mind if I fetch my pack while we talk?" She was cold, with her clothes once again soaking wet. At this rate she would go through all the changes of clothes Constance and Forbearance had packed for her in one day.
Sees-From-Laurel snapped his fingers. Alexandra's backpack did not fly across the watery pool from where she'd left it — it simply appeared at her feet.
"Um, thank you." Alexandra knelt to pick it up. She could not bring herself to strip off her wet clothes and change in front of a bugbear and…whatever Sees-From-Laurel was. An elf or kin to elves, she was certain, not unlike the Generous Ones. "I don't suppose you could retrieve my lantern while you're at it?"
Behind her, Geegowl made a slobbering sound. Alexandra flicked her fingers, throwing more sparks.
Sees-From-Laurel snapped his fingers, and the lamp appeared. Geegowl howled as Alexandra relit it. Sees-From-Laurel spoke soothingly while Alexandra hooked the lamp to the outside of her pack where she could reach it quickly.
"You seem to have dropped something else," Sees-From-Laurel said. He snapped his fingers again. An object came spinning through the air. Alexandra caught it without thinking. It was her basswood wand.
Sees-From-Laurel's expression was unreadable.
Alexandra cleared her throat. "Thanks. I might have, uh, cheated a little. You're supposed to use your wits, when you're on a Solemn Quest."
She suspected he didn't see at all, and that he also didn't really care. "So," she said, "just what is it you'd like me to do for you, in exchange for leading me out of these mountains?"
"Oh, a very easy thing, as I said," Sees-From-Laurel replied. "We would like you to kill the jimplicute."