Rat? He doesn’t smell like a rat!
Maybe he was infected—come down here to get a stone, heal himself—until he fell into the pit.
She lowered her sword—a little.
“No,” she said. “I wouldn’t hurt an old rat. Not unless he gave me a reason to.”
“Rest assured, my dear, I bear you no ill will.”
Her hackles rose. Strange—the charm oozing out of him wasn’t anything she hadn’t encountered in a rat-run inn.
“I’d say, ‘rat’s honor,’ ” the voice continued, “but I’ve seen that doesn’t hold any weight with you.”
“Who are you, and what are you doing down here?”
“Sargon the Veil Gazer at your service. As to what I’m doing here…you don’t happen to have a rope, do you?”
“I do. But there’s nothing up there for it catch on, even if it were long enough to land up there.”
“Ah. Well then, do you have the makings of a torch?”
Amber sniffed. “Of course.”
“That will be useful for our protection, but it won’t help us escape. Hmm…I didn’t see quite that far back…”
“Protection? From what?”
“We’re not alone down here. Every day for the past four days a multi-legged…something has been trying to make a meal of me, heh!
“I’ve been fending it off with my torches, but I used up the last of my fuel…let’s call it yesterday. You came just in time, Amber.”
“How did you know my name?”
“Oh,” said the rat. “That’s right. You didn’t introduce yourself yet. I’m afraid I get a little confused…”
“Confused about what? How do you know—”
A distant scratching turned Amber’s ear. The scratching turned into a hiss like rain. Whatever it was, it was big, and approaching quickly.
“Would you be a dear and light a torch now, please?”
Amber dumped her pack and felt for a stave. Using her teeth, she snipped a length of cloth from its roll and began unscrewing the lid to her fuel.
The scrabbling was getting louder. It sounded like the movement of an army.
“I know you’re going to hurry, but I can’t help but ask that you hurry a bit more.”
The lid popped off her fuel, spun away into the dark. She ran the cloth through the fuel, coating it in the flammable jelly. She wrapped the cloth around the stave, dashed her paws against the floor to get the jelly off, then grabbed her flint and steel from her pockets. She struck them together. Orange sparks popped in the air, died on the ground.
The chittering filled her ears. It was in there now, with them. The rotting smell was suffocating.
She smashed the steel again. The torch caught fire. The instant it did, the rat swept it up. Amber followed the motion of the light, saw the horror towering over them.
It was a giant centipede, big enough to fill a warren tunnel. Its segments were spirit-stone blue, and venom dripped from its giant pincer-mouth, hissing when it hit the ground.
Its mandibles clattered and it recoiled from the light of the torch. But Amber wasn’t quite within the circle of light.
The creature lunged for her. She threw herself out of reach and ran. The clicking of its hundreds of legs sounded like daggers hitting the ground. At least the torchlight kept her from running into the side of the pit. She rebounded off the walls instead and went into a tight turn. The monster ran up the wall, its legs chipping off bits of stone.
“Over here!” The rat waved his arms. The torchlight stretched his shadow crazily. “You’re too far from the light!”
The beast had formed a circle around her. Its head—or at least, she thought it was its head—was making its approach. Amber rushed towards it, then gave a mighty leap. She touched a paw down on the top of its hard carapace. Before the creature could change direction, she had vaulted over it and was next to the rat, in the firelight.
“You’ll be wanting your sword,” said the rat, tapping his foot where she had thrown it down to make the torch. As she took it up, the centipede made another circle around them.
Behind them: legs. To either side, legs. In front of them: the armored head of the monster.
“Hm,” said the rat. “I did not foresee this part. Before you arrived, I was keeping my back to the wall.”
She lifted her sword and steel parasol. Where she could strike was not clear: when she had vaulted it, the carapace had felt as hard as a crab’s shell.
“Don’t you have a weapon?” she asked. “A dagger, a stick—anything?”
“Well, they do say forewarned is forearmed…”
The centipede reared up, revealing its pale yellow underbelly.
A smile lit the rat’s face. “Ah! This, I foresaw!” He grabbed Amber’s arm. The rabbit jolted. Her fur began to glow blue. A heartening warmth spread up her arms, down her chest and through her legs. Suddenly, Amber felt like she could dig a thousand tunnels with one paw tied behind her back. The rat let her go.
“Run. And keep your sword up. It will work.”
Sword raised, Amber charged under the beast.
Its legs closed in on her. She parried them with her shield, left-right-left. The legs’ sharp tips slid off the metal curve of her parasol easily, clang-tssp, clang tssp!
She ran the length of the creature, the tip of her sword splitting the creature from below. As she ran, fewer legs were attacking her.
“Yes!” The rat clenched his fist. “Glorious!”
The legs stopped moving. Amber dashed out from beneath it. The creature teetered, then collapsed on its side and was still.
Amber rejoined the rat in the circle of torchlight. She wasn’t even winded.