Into The Deep

Ronin stared at the distant pinprick of daylight at the top of a vertical shaft. He touched the walls. Slippery. Maybe he could jump. Before he could try, there was a noise like a struggle, and a yell, and the light momentarily eclipsed. Something came clattering down. A leaf man's sword landed, still in its scabbard. Then the owner followed, rolling to a stop with a curse. She rolled over, and to Ronin's dismay, he saw a junior, complete with the markings of the recently christened leafwoman. Great. A rookie.

'Bastards,' she breathed. She hauled herself to her feet to retrieved her sword. Rubbing a sore arm, she went for the wall, and started to climb. Ronin followed. The light was barely adequate for climbing. He couldn't see where to grip. The walls were too slippery.

'Isn't this just great,' she turned towards him.

Ronin drew level with her and found he was looking into dark eyes. Under the shadow of her helmet, he could see her dark skin. She stared at him in shock and a bit of awe, too.

'Commander? Commander Ronin?' she was surprised to see him. 'Oh thank God. How do we get out of this?'

'What's your name?' Ronin asked. Introductions first. That was important when you were captive together.

'Thistledown, Padme.'

Ronin touched the slippery walls.

'Start climbing, Thistledown.'

Neither got more than ten feet before they slid back down, and landed sprawled on the cavern floor. Four or five more attempts and the rookie bent to catch her breath. She kicked a bit of wood, and looking up with her hands on her hips, she said;

'This isn't working, is it, sir?'

Ronin came sliding down. He stood too, staring up. Then he bought his hands to his nose to sniff the strange wet on his fingers.

'Oil,' he said. 'This was lined to stop us climbing back up. What did you see up there?'

'Not much, they blindfolded us. Boggans, camped out. And a few cages.'

'Us?'

'My whole group,' she said.

Ronin nodded.

'Alright, let's check down here, see if there's another way out.'

The cavern went some way back, into darkness. Ronin took out a small box, which had been outfitted with air holes and tiny, transparent spots. He shook it. It began to glow as the bugs inside produced their natural phosphorescence.

'Glow bugs,' he said. 'Handy in these situations.'

Padme pressed her hand against the back wall. There was nothing here but dry wood, no way in or out, except the shaft down which they'd fallen. At the very back there was a small dip, in the rocky floor that was just big enough for one person to lie stretched out.

What do we do, she thought. God, at least she'd landed with the commander and not another newbie. This was Ronin. The big guy. The commander. He could get out of anything. He was famous for it. You didn't mess with Ronin. She didn't want to screw up. Or worse, look useless. But she felt it. The light left Ronins face as the glow bugs stopped glowing, and he was plunged into darkness.

'Sir? Do you hear that?'

Ronin looked up. Indeed, from high above, there was shouting. Then a scuffle.

'Should we call for help?'

'No. Wait.'

Then from high above, the clattering and yelling of a falling man. Half way down, he stopped making any noise, and he rolled to a stop not far from their feet. Then the light dimmed a bit. A distant, familiar voice yelled from above.

'Fallen into a little trap!'

'Rot,' Ronin said quietly, angrily. 'I should have known he was behind this.'

'Dear me!' Rot called down, 'maybe use these last days to contemplate the past, and all that was taken from me!'

Ronin gritted his teeth.

'Passed out are we?' yelled the voice again. 'Maybe that's for the best. Goodbye, Ronin.'

'You greasy little bastard,' Ronin breathed. He clenched a fist. He wasn't going to give Mandrakes heir the satisfaction.

Then silence, except for the wounded man, whose breath came fast and shallow with the pain. Thistledown knelt beside him. Ronin watched the light above flicker, and die. And they were plunged into darkness. The boys breaths came faster. Ronin knelt slowly, and shook the bugs again. In their pale luminescence, he saw clearly now a leafman soldier of about eighteen. Ronin didn't know his face well. Somebody that Nod had trained maybe. His legs were ruined by the fall. His blood was leaking slowly from twin fractures. It soaked into the floor.

'Help me,' Ronin gestured quickly to her. Padme watched with wide eyes and barely disguised fear. 'Use your belt, tie them off.'

So two belts were fastened tightly just above his knees. The blood stopped coming so fast while the solider made noises of pain that soon became moans, and as the silence stretched, he began to cry.

'Easy, son. What's your name?' Ronin asked.

'Eric,' he stammered.

'Ease up. Deep and slow, yes? Keep the air flowing.'

A little nod. Ronin's lips tilted up encouragingly.

'That's it,' he said. 'Good lad. Now, Thistledown. Keep him warm any way you can.'

And standing he went back to the wall. It was slippery with a hundred years of mould and damp, rotting leaves. He climbed. He wasn't six feet up before he slid back down. The definition of insanity, he thought, is repeating the same action again and again, expecting different results.

000

Ronin found a log to sit on to catch his breath. At his feet, Eric had gone pale and sweat beaded on his forehead.

'What happened, son?'

Eric opened his eyes long enough to look at Ronin.

'Ambushed,' he said, because he lacked the air for the pain. 'Boggans everywhere. Threw us into holes.'

'How many?'

'I don't know,' Eric shook his head. 'Seven or eight leafmen...before me. Caught...in a net...'

A seizing breath took his lungs, and for a long time Eric concentrated on trying to breathe, trying to drive the pain down.

Padme returned, and covered him with dry leaves. Ronin picked a handful up.

'These will burn. That's handy, if we're here for the night. Any water on either of you?'

Two canteens were presented. He set them aside.

'Easy, now. We're getting out. Just keep your head together.'

000

Somewhere near mid afternoon, Ronin put the boys cries to good use, calling for help. He didn't expect any to come. Once the light flooded in briefly, but it was quickly obscured. Padme sat with her bent knees under Eric's skull, and holding his hand she asked him questions.

Ronin tried again to climb, but succeeded only in getting himself covered in oil. Every time he tried, he slid down like before. At the bottom, he pulled a knife out of each boot, and dug one deep into the cavern wall. It hit rock and sent a shock up his arm, but the oil lubricated the blade, and he slid down with a screech of metal on stone.

'Rot!' he yelled. His voice echoed. Come on, I know you're there. 'Rot!' he tried again. 'Let's talk.'

A few seconds later, the cover was moved and the light flooded in. It blinded Ronin.

'Ronin,' Rot smiled into the hole. 'What do you want to talk about? How about...how do I get into Moonhaven without being bothered by pesky guards?'

Ronin gritted his teeth and feigned relaxation.

'Come on, Rot. You can do better than that. You have me. You know how much they'll pay to get me back?'

'Ah, but I don't want any payment for you, Ronin. I want information. First.'

'Well I've got quite a bit of that,' Ronin promised.

'I see. Well. We can start with the entrance to the emergency tunnels.'

'I can't tell you that, Rot. But I could tell you other things. Let these two go and we can talk all you want.'

'You'd best get that knot out of your tongue, Ronin,' Rot crooned. Ronin could hear his smile, and he wanted nothing more than to smack his clever face. He wouldn't talk so smart with a broken jaw. 'When the sun comes up, we're going to add a little...excitement to your predicament.'

'Rot!' Ronin yelled. 'I'm still down here! What do you want for their lives?'

Then the light extinguished.

Ronin resisted the urge to curse. He shook the bugs. They emitted their pale glow. He picked his way over the leaves and the bracken, and the odd root from whatever weed had passed this way looking for water. Padme wiped her bloody hands on Eric's trousers. She held them up helplessly.

'I can't do anything about a fracture down here,' she said, frustrated. 'No bandages, no lint, not even a shirt. I can't do anything but tighten the belts.'

'Water-' Eric breathed.

Ronin passed a canteen that he knew was only half full. 'Go easy, that's all there is.'

000

Eric's breath began to fog as evening advanced. Ronin rested the glow bugs, and listened. He listened to the cave, for any signs that Rot had left them to starve. It was a fools hope. He'd want to watch them suffer. Or at least listen to them suffer. It got cold. So cold that their teeth chattered, and the damp chill began to seep into their bones. There would be no rest with the boy in so much pain.

'Commander-' she asked, when she came away from Eric for a few minutes. She gestured him away from the boy. Ronin went.

'What is it?'

'Sir, he's bleeding out. If we can't get him out, we're going to lose him.'

'Tighten the belts,' Ronin said.

He dragged them tighter. Eric made noises of pain and held Padme's offered hand.

'Jeez, I could have landed better,' he breathed.

'Least you landed on your legs, not your head,' she pointed out.

'Might have been better the other way,' he said.

Padme glanced at Ronin.

'None of that talk,' the commander passed them both water.

'Don't tell him-' Eric gasped. 'Don't tell him anything.'

'I might have to, son.'

'No,' Eric shook his head hard. 'No. The queen...is more important...Don't.'

Ronin moved in closer.

'You got any faith, either of you?' he asked.

'No,' Padme said quickly.

Eric gazed up.

'My Ma raised me the old way,' he said. 'That's the only way I'll ever live by. Don't tell him anything.'

000

'Rot!' Ronin yelled.

A few seconds. Then an oily voice answered.

'Yes?'

'I might consider a trade. The boy in return for...say...haven't you been trying to acquire a certain meadow. I'm sure we could arrange something.'

Silence. Ronin prayed. He couldn't bear the idea of the borders pulled back, and any more land given to Rot, but right now, it was the life of the boy that mattered most.

'What would you like me to do with him?' Rot asked.

'Set him free.'

'I could do that.'

'And send him home.'

'Ah,' Rot paused. 'That might be trickier.'

'Use my bird.'

'Oh. Ronin. I'm so sorry,' Rot said, and it was so insincere that Ronin gripped the handle of his sword hard enough to mark his palm. 'She's already...how do I say it kindly. Stuffed. And a very nice meal she's going to make too!'

Ronin held his temper by the strength of a single hair.

'Ronin. Honestly, I get more pleasure seeing you suffer. Good night, Commander.'

Settling beside the injured boy, Ronin put a hand on his damp forehead. He was freezing. An idiot could see he wasn't going to last. A glance by the light of the glow bugs revealed a pool of blood as large as Eric's body. Whatever was left was held in only by the clotting, and the belts. Ronin smiled.

'How many boggans did you see, son?'

'Probably...twenty. Commander - are the others going to come for us?'

Ronin looked up.

'I don't know, son. They won't leave us behind. If they even know we're here.'

Behind them, Padme persisted in her efforts to climb.

It got colder still.

'They're not coming-' Eric said, through pain and chattering teeth. He was shaking so hard that Ronin could feel it in the hand he was holding.

'No, they're not here yet,' he agreed. 'They might come before you have chance to lose your hope.'

Eric just nodded, and his eyes closed again.

'Don't go to sleep,' Ronin gave him a shake.

Eric mumbled something. Half in, half out.

'Why'd you join the leaf men, son?'

'My...mother. I wanted to...defend my family.'

'That's a good reason,' Ronin nodded. 'She's proud of you, is she?'

'Dead,' Eric said. Then he smiled, but it was half grimace. 'The last words she said...tell Eric I love him.'

He smiled up at Ronin. Then, breaking, Eric began to cry. Ronin squeezed his hand.

'Easy,' he said. 'It's just the cold. And the dark. Just a night at home. You got a lady in your life?'

Eric shook his head.

'No. Me neither. Why not? Want one?' Ronin arched an eyebrow.

'Want...the right one-' Eric tried to smile.

'Yeah,' Ronin tilted his lips up. 'Got to be the right one. Stay awake, and you'll have grandchildren.'

'My...legs,' Eric got out. 'They're cold.'

'It's just the night, son. Bad time of the year to be stuck in a hole. Somebody told me once it's warmer underground.'

Eric managed to smile.

'Doesn't feel it,' he said.

'No it doesn't. Shake it off. Keep breathing.'

A nod.

Time stretched. Ronin lit a small fire in a hollow he'd made in the leaves. They burned slowly and reluctantly because of the damp, but they put out a bit of heat. Padme kept trying. Again and again the slippery slope thwarted her.

000

'Rot!' Ronin yelled.

No answer.

'Rot!' he put all his anger into that yell, but Rot didn't answer.

'I've got a man down, Rot. Tell me what you want from me.'

'Ronin. Ronin-' Rot called down. 'Only your pain. Or the tunnels.'

'No!' Eric yelled at Ronin's back.

'If you tell me, I'll winch him up and send him home.'

'Don't-' Eric choked.

'How do I know you'll keep your end of the bargain?' Ronin called.

'By the sound of things, he's as good as dead Ronin. I can't put off the Angel of Death you know.'

Ronin rubbed his face. Ronin leaned over Eric.

'I..can't...breathe-' Eric whispered.

Ronin unclipped his armour so it hung looser, and grabbed the waving hand that asked, silently, for comfort.

'Hold on, son. Climb, Thistledown for Gods sakes.'

'Don't...tell him-' Eric mumbled. 'Don't-'

'Look at me,' Ronin commanded. And to his credit, Eric tried. But his eyes slid shut as soon as he'd opened them. 'Come on, lad. Don't go to sleep.'

'Last wish...commander. Don't,' he breathed.

Ronin watched him fade. His breath fogging, shallow and frequent. Ronin wondered. It hurt. It was all wrong. And the frustration was written all over Ronin's face. But giving the information wasn't possible. Not even for the boy. Ronin knew, his end had been written when he'd broken on the way down. There was no way to get up there easily, and a long fly back to Moonhaven. It didn't change anything. It didn't change how Ronin felt.

'Alright,' Ronin nodded his resignation. He laid a hand on Eric's shoulder. 'Alright, lad. Easy. Easy.'

Then as Padme slid down the walls and the fogging breaths stopped. Eric went still.

Ronin's heart constricted. The boys face went slack. He hung his head over the corpse and gripped the sword. Then the air filled with the sudden smell of the recently dead.

'Shit!' Ronin yelled, and he punched a log nearby. 'Shit.'

And when Padme returned, covered in slime and mud, Ronin scrubbed at his face and sat back like a man on death row. He as silent for minutes. He was hardly surprised when Padme covered her mouth with her hand and began to cry.

'I shouldn't gotten him out-' Ronin said.

Padme didn't know what to do. She stared at the dead boy and gulped back her fear.

'Sir...it wasn't your fault. You can't betray the queen!'

'Maybe I could've gotten back to Moonhaven to stop Rot in time, maybe-' Ronin tailed off, and rubbing a hand over his skull he shook his head and stared at her.

'And if you hadn't, sir? It's not your fault. It's rot, that ugly little bastard!'

'No, he was my responsibility. I failed to protect him.'

Padme sat down, tiredly.

'I don't dare jump,' she whispered.

Ronin shook his head.

'Shit,' he breathed.

000

Night wore on. Beside him, the girl sat staring at the dead body. More than once her breathing hitched, until Ronin dragged him to the other side of the cave and covered him with bracken and leaves. At least it gave the impression they'd tried to give him a bit of dignity, and it got him out of her sight. Ronin looked at her in the light of the glow bugs.

'You're a junior,' he observed. 'How long since you joined?'

Padme nodded, then she remembered who she was talking to.

'Yes, sir. Nine weeks, sir.'

'Did you know him?' Ronin gestured to Eric.

Padme shook her head.

'Neither did I.'

Padme tried to make herself comfortable against the wall. It was damp, and so cold that she shook under her armour. She'd never been so cold. Not far away, the commander turned.

'Go to the back,' he said, 'there's bare rock. You might as well sleep.'

'What about you?'

'I don't fancy my dreams,' he said. 'Go on.'

000

Padme woke to strange noises. It was brighter in the cave. Her back ached with the damp. She was hungry.

'What's that?' she said softly, and turning her head up, Ronin realized he could hear something too.

Rustling, then the cover slid back over the hole.

'Enjoy my little...pets,' Rot called down.

Ronin drew his sword, and stood facing the light. Rustling, creeping down, something climbed down the shaft, and Ronin realized that Rot was going to leave the light, to give him a fighting chance.

'Oh Shit,' Padme whispered.

Then Ronin realized what she was looking at. Slipping out of the dark, shriveled black bodies. First he thought they were slugs. Coming one by one. They raised their noses, caught the scent. Ronin could hear the girl breathing hard. She was scared.

'Not leeches,' she breathed.

He laid a hand over hers, where it gripped the hilt of her sword.

'In half,' he said. 'So they lose their speed. Then quarter them. They'll keep moving. We'll make mince meat of the bits later.'

'One for each of you,' Rot called.

'Thanks,' Ronin said to himself. 'I appreciate the heads up.'

Padme almost danced away in horror from the twitching, writing body of her first kill. Ronin grabbed her by the arm, dragging her down before the thing dangling from the ceiling could get her by the back of the head.

'You don't like leeches,' he observed.

She yelled when something brushed past her leg.

'I could handle snails. Slugs. Even snakes. God I can't stand leeches-'

'Nothing wrong with leeches,' Ronin had to smile. If this was all Rot could come up with, it was going to be easier than he'd assumed to stay alive. He'd just given them dinner. 'They roast well. And I've never met such cooperative prey.'

'What's this?' Padme squeaked, backing away from the tide spreading from a slit body. 'Oh SHIT!'

'What is it?'

'Commander? It's trolls blood. And they have a centipede. I saw it on the way down.'

'Great. How do you feel about things with legs?'

'I'm not keen, sir, to be honest.'

'I think you may have to get used to them,' he gestured to the sticky, green goo bleeding from the leech. 'It's a trap. That's...really clever.'

'Why doesn't he just kill us?'

Ronin realized she was quite a bit shorter than he, then. Still, those eyes, barely visible in the dim light. They were almost haunting. He'd never seen eyes quite like them. So dark they seemed to absorb all the light.

'He wants us to suffer,' Ronin said. 'He's hoping to wear us down. He left us with weapons. He's not interested in straight murder. He'll keep us going like this for as long as he can.'

And above, something struggled, screeched, began to scuffle and was turned loose into the hole. Ronin shook the glow bugs and tossed them against the wall. They landed on the leaves, and glowed. He glanced at the rookie.

'I'd say go for the head. But in this case, with so little room, I think it might be smarter to...segment it.'

Padme just nodded.

'Alright,' she said. Then with a hint of humour, she said; 'slice or dice?'

Ronin's lips tilted up.

'Either,' he said. 'So long as it stops moving.'

It came faster than the leeches. It spilled, writhing into the chamber, and rearing it twisted toward them. A bite of the leeches and the rippling, scuttling thing surged forward, jaws open. It'd been a long time since Ronin had battled a centipede high on trolls blood. Whatever they had floating around their system did something to centipedes. Turned them into monsters. Maybe, he thought, as he swung for the back end to take a few legs out, it gave them the munchies. He sliced off four, and the thing turned and snapped for his heels.

Curling around its injury, it lashed out at Padme. The pincer jaws snapped shut inches from her belly. She escaped a second snap by diving over its back, and rolling off its legs, she was spared a gruesome end by Ronin's sword, shoved up through its lower jaw.

It pushed so hard onto the blade, Ronin wondered if it'd impale its own brain to get to him. Lifting him off the floor, he hung on, and swinging his weight he managed to work the blade free. He hit the floor flat on his back, and rolled before the centipede could crush him with an uncoordinated thrust of its head. Reeling back, it hit the cave wall and sent leaves and bracken falling in an avalanche with a great whoomph. Ronin caught sight of the cracks in the wall it exposed, but he didn't have time to think about it too deeply.

The centipede coiled around and tried to climb, but the walls were too slippery. Ronin swiped its blood and spittle off his face and chest and held the sword up. Padme bumped his arm with her elbow.

'Legs,' she said.

Ronin looked to where the severed legs were leaking the fluids responsible for the centipedes motion. He smiled.

'Hey!' she yelled, waving her arms. 'If I dance will you chase me!'

The centipede turned for her, lunged, and Ronin sliced off six more legs.

Curling hard and fast, Ronin gasped when it grabbed him by the body, and lifting him, it slammed his head against the wall and bought him, drowsy and confused, to the crunching mandible which – fell off. Padme balanced on its back, her sword pointed at its face.

Ronin shook himself, but it was hard to throw off a concussion. Squirming, he got an arm free and looked for his sword. He caught it by the moonlight that shone off the blade. Ronin glanced up. Rookie's not so bad, he thought, as she shoved the sword forward into its skull, and was lifted on the screeching thing and tossed back and forth, until she came loose and landed on the dead man.

Ronin grabbed his sword, pulled a knife from his boot, and ran, even in the tiny space. Skidding under the writhing body, he held the blades out and the huge body came crashing down, writhing on top of him. Trapped, hydraulic fluids leaked through his armor.

He heard the girl drag her sword free of its face, and deliver a blow to the back of its neck. He was surprised when she grabbed the body and pushed, and revealed him squished underneath.

'Commander!' she breathed, and bending she grabbed him by the forearms and dragged him onto the leaves.

Ronin hauled himself up, clutching his head.

'Seven sisters, I'd have thought I'd had enough head trauma for one lifetime.'

'Are you OK, sir?'

Ronin nodded. 'I'll have a splitting headache tomorrow. Yeah.'

'Better that a split head,' Padme smiled.

'Yeah,' he had to agree. 'Who trained you?'

'Corporal Nod,' Padme smiled. 'I'm starting to feel pretty grateful for that now.'

'You weren't before?' he quizzed.

Padme wisely said nothing. She was keeping her secrets. At first she'd thought Nod was an arrogant fool. Now she was thinking differently.

'Commander? What's this?'

Ronin went to the wall, and running his hand down it, he found it was cracked deeply. Like someone had come along with a chisel actually, and carved weaknesses into the rock.

'Probably just loose stones,' he said, though they looked like they'd once been a single rock face.

Ronin pushed, first carefully, then with all his strength. Padme joined him, but the rock didn't give. In the end, he gave up and leaving it, he all but collapsed onto a log.

'Sir? Is this edible?' she pointed to the centipede.

'Edible...yes,' he nodded. 'But you won't want it when you taste it.'

'What about those?'

'Trolls blood isn't deadly. But you'll puke like you've never puked before. Centipede is the better option. If you can stand the...consistency.'

Padme sat down beside him, dropping her sword on the leaves.

'What's the consistency?' she asked.

'Jelly,' he turned to her. 'Are you hurt?' he asked.

Padme held up an arm. There was a break in her armour and blood surrounding it, but it didn't look serious.

'Just a battle scar,' she said. 'My Mum will be so proud.'

Ronin's lips tilted.

'Mine was too. At first,' he said.

'Are we stuck here, sir?'

Ronin nodded.

'Seems that way.'

'In a hole with a dead body and a leaky bug,' she said, then she looked at him, and seemed to remember who she was with. 'Sir.'

'You think tagging sir on the end means you can say what you think?' Ronin asked.

Thistledown dropped her eyes.

'No, sir. Sorry, sir.'

Ronin breathed out slowly.

'Good idea. I want you to think. Think a way out of here, and when you've got one, say so. I like soldiers who can think for themselves, and I like it even better when they speak up, Thistledown.'

'Oh. Yes, sir. OK.'

'It could be worse,' he said. 'It could be two dead men and a leaky bug, and no toilet.'

'There's a toilet, commander?'

'Over there. Behind the log.'

Padme stared at him, the humor gone from her face. She wasn't sure what to do with him. Should she take it as a joke, or assume he was serious? She'd heard plenty about Commander Ronin. You didn't mess with him. You didn't cheek him either.

'Oh God,' she said. 'Tell me you're...not serious? Are you pulling my leg?'

He gestured to the centipede.

'Ask him, he has some going free.'

Then at her worried look her shook his head. 'I'm joking, Thistledown. We're stuck in a hole together. I'm trying to put you at ease.'

Padme relaxed. Just a bit.

'Oh. Thanks,' she finally said, nervously. 'I'm just grateful I fell in here with someone who can fight.'

Ronin took his helmet off and laid it on the ground. He rubbed his skull.

'What're we going to do?' Padme asked.

She followed suit. She laid it in her lap, and gazed at the commander with big, brown eyes. Ronin took her in. No, he definitely hadn't seen her aside from once in a line up. She was quite pretty. Tall and slender – perhaps bordering a bit skinny, though muscular. Her eyes commanded a certain attention, and he'd been right when he thought they were quite enchanting.

'Sit tight. Wait for rescue,' he said. 'Unless we can figure another way out of here.'

'There's food for...maybe three days,' she said, referring to the bug.

'In three days, you'll be sick of it,' he promised her. 'But it's good to see a positive spirit in a fellow captive.'

000

Ronin didn't know how much time had passed. He sat over the small fire. Beside him, the girl shivered for some time. Then she went to the log, and uncomfortably too. He could feel her watching his back nervously.

'I'm not gonna look,' he called. 'A sexual harassment case is the last thing I need,' he muttered.

He heard a little snort and wondered if he'd made her laugh. When she came back, she was half way across the path they'd cut when she turned suddenly.

'What's that smell? Sir? Can you feel that?'

Ronin turned.

'Feel what?' he said, before the flames flickered in a cross wind.

Ronin followed the trail. It lead to the cracked wall. Padme crept up behind him, still fastening her armor back together. Dangling over her shoulder, long dark hair was coming loose from a bun. She turned to look at him.

'Fresh air,' she said.

'But how do we get through?'

Padme shrugged.

'We tried brute force and ignorance,' she said. Ronin gazed at her.

'Maybe we could try brains,' she suggested, and she grabbed a stick. She jammed it into one of the cracks and started working it in.

She was sure she felt a stronger gust of wind, before noise from above implied something was taking place on the surface. The leaf men stared up. Ronin listened. Yells, shouts. And...like the wind. Cries like a tortured wind.

'Sir, what is that?' Padme asked, shivers running up and down her arms.

Ronin shook his head.

'I don't know.'

Then the hiss of alien voices, and the wail of air pressured around tight valves and tubes. Like the moans of spirits, trapped in the ground, the fresh air intensified and Ronin backed away from the wall.

Padme turned to stare at it. Then screams. Scuffles. The sound of birds taking off, and camp fires left abandoned. Water barrels sloshed over. Then somebody yelled a retreat, and Ronin knew the prisoners had been abandoned. Sitting in the middle of a rotten marsh, what could be worse than a Boggan patrol holding captives? Something was, he realized. And the sunlight eclipsed as they began to slither down.

The wailing hiss got louder, the pressured air, a pneumatic nightmare was coming down the shaft. Padme grabbed his arm. Ronin stared into the dark.

'Get back, to the back of the cave,' he whispered.

'What are they?'

'I don't know. I've never heard anything like it.'

Fleeing to the back of the cave, the leaf men crouched and watched. Padme gasped when they appeared, slipping through the darkness. Their voices like the distant cries of damned spirits, she wanted desperately to cover her eyes.

'Oh God-' she breathed.

Even Ronin shivered. Goosebumps rose along his arms. Worse when one stopped, and glistening in the light from above, it turned its crimson head toward them. Huge, reflective white eyes absorbed every photon available. Ronin kept absolutely still. Behind him, Padme didn't dare to breathe. Then its gaze swung the dead man.

'Oh God, no-' she breathed, as it removed the leaves, and three gathered around – to feed. 'No!' she whispered.

Crunching and breaking, the sound of absorption and the awful wailing noises. Padme clapped a hand over her mouth. Ronin put an arm out, subconscious protection for the girl. He pushed her against the wall, and listened to her breathing shorten as they munched and crunched, and then a blast of warm, fresh air echoed up from the depths and the rocks parted to a glowing cavern beyond.

Ronin stared. As they slithered inside, the glow illuminated them. They glistened like fresh blood, and their silver eyes scanned the cavern as they left. On the other side, they slithered up the wall and turned upside down, slipping along on the ceiling. Inside their cavern, a drip of water fell in the wrong direction, and broke on the ceiling. And the rocks closed behind them.

Padme's breaths came short and sharp and she gripped her helmet with shaking hands. Ronin felt sick. Sicker than sick. Sick enough to throw up. He held it down, barely.

'Oh God, they ate him-'

'I'm not so sure,' Ronin whispered.

000

Ronin piled another log onto the fire. Then he glanced at the spot where the leeches and the centipede had fallen.

'They were...wailing,' Padme said, rubbing her arms. 'Wailers.'

Ronin nodded.

'That's a good name for them,' he agreed.

'Sir? Have you ever seen anything like that before?'

'No,' Ronin admitted. 'Nothing. They were talking. Animals don't make noises unless they're talking.'

'What could they be talking about?' she asked doubtfully.

'I'm not sure. But if it speaks, then it breathes. If it eats, then it probably shits, breeds, thinks-'

'Sir...are you saying those things were...thinking?'

'And talking about what they thought, yes.'

'What good will it do us, commander? They're gone.'

'But we know where they went,' he pointed out.

Standing at the bottom of the shaft, he yelled for Rot. For some time, he did that, until it became clear that no one was covering the hole to block the moonlight. And nobody was answering. It was silent above.

'We've been left behind,' he surmised. 'Help me track what the Wailers did, when they came down here.'

000

Time passed slowly. Two or three times they went over the moves the Wailers had made. There was no hidden levers, no stones in the floor that suddenly depressed and opened the door. Just the cracked wall.

'They didn't even leave the armour,' she whispered. 'Not even the scales. What are we going to eat?'

Ronin stared at the wall.

'I hope they come back,' he said.

'Sir?'

'Because we can't get out on our own.'


A/N - More to come, when time allows. Let me know what you think.

Also, you may notice I've changed the rating. Re reading this I thought it was best to cover my behind. It is quite dark and it's going to contain some adults themes past this chapter. Enjoy ;)