A tumultuous thundering reverberated through my skull. I tried to jerk upright, but a paralyzing pain clenched my body. I laid very still, not even attempting to open my heavy eyes, desperately hoping the banging in my head would subside.
‘What do with bad plant?’
I caught my breath. I could hear high-pitch squeaks slowly becoming intelligible.
‘She’s bad, very bad. Will kill us all if find our home.’
‘Then what? Kill bad plant?’
‘Killing bad. Leave to die instead.’
I could feel my fingers again and I pulled myself up, groaning as rocks and pebbles tumbled from my body. Terrified squeaks and the sound of soft pawed scuffling ricocheted through my head. I peeled my back eyelids and was unsurprised to see the skritt had fled.
I felt Stalk stir next to me, whining as he stumbled upright and stretched his sore muscles. I grabbed my bow off the ground and surveyed the scene.
I was in a dark cave. I could only see the faint outlines of the walls in the murk, but it looked like these tunnels had been artificially dug. We must have fallen underground, but the hole to the surface was nowhere to be seen. I noticed striations in the loose dirt and knelt down to inspect them. They were tracks. I had been dragged to this spot and judging by the even bigger streak beside mine, so had the charr. The charr’s trail and abundance of skritt prints continued past my spot.
‘They must have taken him further in,’ I muttered, brushing Stalk’s fur with my fingertips.
I didn’t know which way was out, but if I followed the trail perhaps I could find Farkuz. Stalk and I walked for a while, before finally I saw a faint flickering of light ahead.
‘Sunlight,’ I sighed, my breath heavy with relief.
However, just as quickly as my hope rose, it sunk as I realized it was only torchlight. I heard a familiar growl and I moved forward cautiously. Stalk sniffed the air, and his ears perked as he recognized the smell. He loped ahead and as we got closer I saw a big bundle of fur.
‘Farkuz!’ I said urgently. I sat down next to him, and rolled him over. He had taken much more damage from the fall than I had. The skirtt had obviously dragged him to the torch light and clumsily tried to administer first aid. He growled at me despite his hazy state as I tried to inspect his wounds. He had probably done the same to the Skritt and scared them off. Still, they had done a passable job at bandaging him up.
‘Farkuz, it’s Azalea,’ I said nudging him slightly. His face scrunched tight, then his puffy eyes opened.
‘Ah, the sprout,’ his voice rasped. ‘Water, I need water.;
I looked around and to my surprise there was a small bucket of water beside him. I regarded it suspiciously. Had the skritt left this here? Could it be poisoned?
‘Stop glaring at that water as if it murdered your warband and give it to me!’ Farkuz snapped.
I frowned but passed it to him. He guzzled it down, beads of wasted water rolling down his muzzle and splattering onto the dirt. He then tossed the empty bucket aside and stumbled to his feet with a hiss and grimace. Blood had dried and matted on his fur, but he didn’t seem to care. He instinctively reached down for his tool belt, his paw grasping for a missing object and he swore.
‘Damn thieving rats!’ he growled. ‘Luckily, I didn’t have my pack on. They would have looted me dry!’
I checked all my belongings. They were all intact, even my jeweled pendant. I guess the skritt decided that I didn’t have anything they wanted.
‘Digging up doesnt seem to be an option,’ Farkuz said, inspecting the cave ceiling. ‘The skritt have to get out somewhere. We’ll just have to follow the tunnels.’
Farkuz yanked the torch off it’s crude settings, and we ventured into the darkness of the cave.
It felt like we had been walking for hours. Farkuz’s spirited step slowed to an exasperated amble, and I had given up trying to maintain my sense of direction. I had tried to track the skritt prints but they lead nowhere, or in circles. It was when we passed the same glowing mushroom patch for the third time that Farkuz let out a ferocious roar, causing me to jump.
‘Damn skritt and their blasted tunnels!’
His bellow reverberated through the cave and I heard it mingle with soft chittering.
‘They’re watching us,’ I said quietly. ‘We are not going to get out of these tunnels by ourselves. We need help.’
‘You’re right,’ Farkuz said pensively. ‘Don’t worry. Skritt are a slave to their curiosity. Lay down sprout, and look dead.’
I frowned but followed his example. Farkuz hastily explained his plan in a hushed voice and we laid very still.
It was quiet. The soft sound of dripping could be distinguished from much deeper inside the tunnels. I was starting to get impatient with Farkuz’s strange plan when we heard a dull scratching echo. It was wandering closer. I could feel its erratic, yet hesitant movements through the ground. I felt Stalk stir next to me, but I held him steady.
Farkuz and I had agreed that I’d do this, but I could see his fingers twitching. I thought I’d better do it soon before he’d flinch and mess up the trap.
Using my senses I jumped from my spot, and with lightening reflexes I clasped my hand around the fury creature’s neck and held it tight. The skritt squeaked and chattered, struggling furiously. Its little paws raking at my own dark streaked hand, but I barely felt anything. It was small, and its own claws were not fully formed.
‘It’s a kit,’ Farkuz growled, inspecting the creature. ‘No wonder we caught it. The stupid thing must have wandered off by itself.’
‘Kit?’ I asked, ignoring the small creature as it flailed hysterically.
‘It’s a child, so you should stop holding it by its throat.’
I took his advice and put the creature on the floor, deciding to hold it by the ears. The idea was that if the kit tried to run, it would pull and hurt its own ears. The plan should have worked in theory, but the kit would try to run, squeak in pain, and after a few moments try to bolt again.
Farkuz shook his head.
‘Skritt by themselves are notoriously dumb. They’d wander into a stalker’s mouth out of curiosity.’
Suddenly the skritt stopped pulling and started crying.
‘More are coming,’ Farkuz said looking around. ‘Show yourself Skritt, we want to make a deal.’ Farkuz said loudly.
From the dark a small group of skritt emerged. The leader of the group stepped forward. His scruffy white beard made him look much older than the other skritt. One of his wrinkled eyes was scared, and he wore a large decorative necklace of shiny bobbles and trinkets.
‘Bad dream plant, let her go,’ the older skritt said, his one good eye narrowing on us.
‘We need to get out of the tunnels,’ Farkuz growled.
‘No, no,’ The leader said shaking his head erratically. ‘You fall in by yourself, you find way out by yourself. We do not aid bad dream plant.’ He pointed a long clawed finger at me.
Suddenly, I understood.
‘I am not Nightmare Court!’ I snapped, my grip on the kit unconsciously grew tighter.
‘You look like bad plant, you act like bad plant, you are bad plant!’ one of the other skritt squeaked
‘I am not!’ I yelled.
‘You take skritt and make them sad. You are bad plant.’ The leader said.
I pulled back, horrified, and before I could think, I let go of the kit. It paused momentarily as though confused, but after a torrent of chittering from the group of Skritt it fled into their arms.
‘Good going, now they’re going to leave us here!’ Farkuz snarled under his breath. The group of skritt started to disappear into the darkness, and I began to fear the same.
‘Wait!’ I cried. The older skritt turned to me.
‘I returned the kit, so I’m not Nightmare Court. You said you’d help us.’
‘No, just said don’t help bad plants,’ he said. ‘You must prove to be a friend of Skritt.’
‘Well how do we do that?’ Farkuz asked.
It was hard to tell in the murk, but I was sure the skritt smiled.