A half-hour later, they found the spirit stone chamber. Amber took a deep breath. The Wyld magic smelled like pine and water and blue sky, entirely different than the stale, humid cave air around them. Amber’s ears twitched in rhythm to the Wyld-touched water, dripping somewhere in this cavern, feeding power into the stones.
The stones themselves lay scattered around them, looking like eggs laid by a very large, very confused bird. Some were even starting to glow.
The rat bent down and sniffed. “One of these is ready. I can smell it.”
But he’ll have to see the glow to know for certain. Even his nose couldn’t sniff that out.
Amber looked over the clutch of stones before her. If she found it first—and surely she would—should she lie? But if he caught her in a lie, he might use his powers against her. Whatever spell he’d put on her to help her fight the monster was long gone. Worse, he might put that spell on himself.
She threw back her shoulders. What did it matter if she had to fight? She couldn’t let a spirit stone fall into the paws of that scentless, ghoulish rat!
She could pretend to leave empty-pawed, but stash it in her things. But if he thought they were both empty-pawed, mightn’t he want to travel back with her? He might discover it then—and make off with it through the caverns.
She began picking the egg-shaped stones up one by one.
He had picked a bed of stones on the opposite side of the cave. The cavern echoed with clicks and sniffs as the rat pawed his way through his patch of stone.
Amber lowered the torch to see better.
Most of the stones weren’t glowing at all—just plain rocks. Others were almost ready, but the etched lines of power upon them glowed reddish or violet, not the true Wyld blue. Amber searched as quickly as she could, turning over the more bluish ones, ignoring the rest. She had finished searching her third clutch of stones when the rat stood up.
“Aha! Found you, you little morsel.”
Amber hurried over the stones, splashed through a puddle of water to the rat’s side. Spots of wet darkened the rat’s robe, but his nose was fixed upwards, towards a high ledge of rock in the middle of the cavern. A blue light shone from it, but she couldn’t see the stone itself.
Amber joined him in sniffing.
“Does it smell ready to you?” asked the rat. “Tell me it does!”
It did. Amber lifted the torch. She still couldn’t see the finished spirit stone, but the light cast shadows over the rock tower, revealing pawholds. She could climb it.
But he doesn’t have to know that.
“I don’t know. I’d have to look at it to be sure. but it’s too high up for me to see—and the ledge is too sheer to climb.” He’d have to turn back now. She could come back for it later. Without him.
His whiskers quivered. The bare flesh around his whiskers grew ruddy. Then he flung himself forward, flattening his body against the stone.
“Maybe too sheer for a rabbit to climb!”
Pressing his body to the stone, he arced his arms, feeling its surface in a half-circle. He was too short to feel the first pawhold right now, but once he got on his toes, he’d find it. Then it’d be all over. Blind or sighted, what mattered was that he was a rat, and undoubtedly a great climber.
He rose up on his toes. His claws felt the ledge, clamped on. The nails of his feet scraped the stone.
The rat turned on her. His teeth flashed in a snarl for an instant, but as quick as that fierce expression had come, it vanished, replaced by an oily smile.
He let go of the pawhold. “You’re right.”
“I-I’m right?” What’s his trick?
The rat dusted his robe off. “Yes. It’s sweet of you to be concerned. I’m a little too…” there was a long, long pause, “senior to go clambering up walls the way I used to. You should be the one to climb. With your strong legs, you’ll be up there in no time! And when you bring it back down, we can both examine it!”
“Sargon, if you please.”
“Sir, I’m afraid I cannot grant your request.”
“Hmmm? Why not?” He folded his fingers together and rested his hands on his belly.
Thoughts ran helter-skelter through Amber’s mind—but the best excuse that fell out of her mouth was: “I…I haven’t got my gloves on.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right. You highborn rabbits put all kinds of stock in cleanliness. Not that that’s a bad thing! Anyway, if that’s what you require to climb, by all means! I shall wait here to mark the spot.”
He held his paw out for the torch. Amber recoiled. “I need the torch to search my pack—I need light to see.”
He took his paw back, placed it over his heart. “Of course. Excuse me, I forget myself.”
She moved off to the side, shoved aside the plain stones to make a flat place, then opened her satchel—to the wrong flap. Using one paw, he pretended to rifle through her things, planning her next move. If she ran towards him, would he sense her coming, or would she be able to knock him down? Could she go up, then bring him back a false stone? But there may not be any other stones up there. Did he have enough connection to the Wyld to be able to sense if the stone was ready by feel, or could she lie about the way it looked?
She waggled the lid on her cooking pot so it clunked.
Maybe if I get up there, I could throw it at him, knock him out with it.
Her stomach turned at the thought. That could just as easily kill him.
But it’s for a good cause. Isn’t it?
Her ears twitched again. The sound of clanking armor on the march, coming this way fast.
The rat was at her side in the wag of a whisker. “Put the torch out!” he hissed.
He grabbed for it. Amber jerked it out reach. “No!”
“Put it out, you stupid doe! They’re coming!”
“The King’s guard!”
Amber’s heart leapt. The King’s guard! “But why would they—”
The rat grabbed the sleeve of her blouse and yanked her away from her satchel. She stumbled to her feet as he pulled her further into the cave.
“I don’t have to see to hide us, but if they see your light, we’ll be caught!” There was more fear in his voice now than there ever had been facing the centipede. Amber stopped struggling and looked around.
Torchlight sparkled off a leg-deep stream of water she hadn’t seen before. It pooled in the middle of the cave, then followed the cave walls to wrap around the back of the chamber.
“Here!” she whispered, veering towards it.
Their feet splashed in the water. She doused the torch. It hissed like an angry snake.
The rat’s nose was going crazy. “Water! Marvelous, perfect!” He splashed forward in the steam’s path. “It will hide your scent.”
She followed him through the water, around to the back of the cavern. Voices hummed at the entrance.
Amber lifted her sodden traveling skirts and knelt with the rat behind a tall outcropping of stone. There was just enough space between the formations for her to see the rock tower they’d just abandoned.
Metal clanked. The King’s guard filled the chamber. The stoneglow turned their golden armor strange colors. Amber couldn’t see any of their faces. She frowned.
Maybe…just to be safe…
She threw as much of her ranger’s cloak as she could over the rat. He pulled the forest-green fabric over his ears and ducked down. The enchantment worked better in the forest, but it was dark enough in color that they might be overlooked, if the guards didn’t search too closely.
Why are we hiding?
She sneaked a glance at the rat beside her. Was he a fugitive? She had enough gold back home that she didn’t need to turn him in, but if he was notorious enough…well, she could always use another feather in her cap.
The sniffing of the dogs echoed in the cave. What were they scenting for? Amber glanced over. It couldn’t be the rat. Even as the guards drew nearer, no scent of alarm or fear arose from the rat. He held very still. No smell, no sound, no movement—he might as well have disappeared.
The guards’ tails were held stiffly as they searched the cave.
Stones? Could they be looking for spirit stones to save the King?
A guard with a spotted tail wuffed. Another guard, whose helmet bore a white feather plume, hurried over to him.
The first guard held up Amber’s satchel. “Sir, rabbit clan. And recent, too.”
Amber jerked forward. All her gear was in that pack! If she lost it, she might not make it back to the surface!
The rat put his paw on her shoulder. He shook his head no, mouthing something.
White Plume took Amber’s satchel from Spotted-tail. He opened the flap and stuck his snout inside. Then, pulling his face out, he rummaged around inside with his paw. “The doe doesn’t have—”
One of the other guards whined. “Sir! Up here!”
White Plume dropped Amber’s satchel and joined the other dogs. One of the soldiers had climbed the tower of rock. He held in his paw a finished spirit stone. Wyld power ran through the etchings around the stone, shining brighter than the moon. It was perfect. A better cure for Rot you’d never find.
All at once, Amber knew. How silly of her to be hiding here, like a common criminal!
The guard handed the spirit stone down to White Plume. Amber stood. She should march up to them right now and offer to help track down more stones.
The rat yanked her back down. “I saw this!” he whispered in her ear.
She threw him off. What could a blind rat see? The King’s Rot-sickness was only a rumor when Amber heard of it, but if his personal guard were seeking a cure, then it must be true, and Amber had to help them!
She stood again.
The rat pulled her back down. She opened her mouth to shout—there must be a bounty on him—when an enormous CLACK rang off the cave walls.
The sound of the second blow covered Amber’s gasp of horror as she watched White Plume smash the perfect Spirit Stone to pieces.
One of the shards flew up into the air, still glowing. A blue flash, a spark like lightning, then it fell to the ground, nothing more than dead grey stone.
“Good nose, soldier,” said White Plume, shouldering the rock hammer. “The King will be pleased.”
All the dogs’ tails were wagging.
For a moment, Amber had no words.
Wyld help us.