“YOU-” a voice boomed down the hallway. “WILL-” And the sounds of many dogs barking in fear and terror, teeth gnashing wildly.
Harley twisted herself and leapt ahead, beating fast tracks down the hall, faster than I could run if I were a marathon runner. Vali and I locked eyes, and then she grabbed two of the wounded in her arms and urged them forward. Jerome dropped to the ground, picked up the last in her arms like a bride, and dashed forward.
The last harpy and I met eyes, and we nodded once, and we raced forward, just as the soldiers behind us joined in a marching order after us. An arrow whizzed in the darkness, clattering off of the stones, close enough that I could smell the oil.
The tunnels shook ahead and I heard bones pulp somewhere up ahead, metal flattening into a paste, and then a bark of laughter, and then the cries of wild hounds.
“HURT-” I turned the corner, and a man in armor nearly took me out. Another wave of soldiers sat in front of us, cowering in terror. Half of their number were already dismembered, armor flattened or dented or otherwise destroyed, and the other half were backed into a corner. A white thing, streaked with blood and grease and metal polished picked up one of the struggling men and threw him into the mess of the rest. Dogs were scattered in various stages of death, a few cowering far away from the battle.
“CHARM!” Sev roared, and the Chef clinging to his back like a rider struck out with his spear, skewering through a shoulder joint. At his side, the professor swept through like a wild creature, sword in his hand, twisting off fingers and shattering guards for the chef to take advantage of. At his lips came the laugh, a wild noise like hungry dogs in the city streets far away, and his sword went snicker snicker snack against the phantoms of the past.
“Sev!” I shouted, and as Sev turned as he lurched out with a massive arm and clobbered through the ranks of armor, sending them scattering again. He was standing tall instead of hunched over for once, and he’d grown two feet taller, tall enough this his fluff scraped the ceiling. His wide eyes caught mine, and he lumbered forward far faster than something his side should be able to move, and then he picked me up on his back.
“Beast!” Harley called out. “We’re leaving. Come with us or die here in a pathetic last stand!”
I clung to Sev’s back and he shuddered from a number of wounds, scores and flesh flapping among his fluff. Some of his bulk had dented the impacts and wounds, but others had struck true, and he bled from those, hot enough in places to mat his fur. “Y-yes ma’am,” he squeaked.
“She’s not our captain,” I corrected him. Behind us, the armor chased us, angry with vengeance, and Sev snarled, picking up a downed man and hurling him into their ranks. His muscles flexed, thicker than my trunk, and he roared loud enough to make my ears ring.
The professor darted over to our side, his chest ragged. I could smell blood raising off of him, compounded by his previous wounds. His eyes were still wild, but the very second his guard came down, I could see he wasn’t long for the world.
He may have been a deadly warrior once, but now he was a professor.
“You good?” Harley asked, distantly, but she was rather close. My hearing was a bit out of it from there.
Sev bounded past her in response, moving on all fours. The chef soothingly patted him, gripping into the fluff with one hand with the spear in his other. “I…” The professor shook his head. “I don’t think I am.”
“How… the hell, did you get him to fight?” I asked.
“I told him you were going to die,” the chef said. “And that he could stop it.”
“So we stopped it,” The professor said. His arms and legs shook from exhaustion, and his eyes were half glazed. “I took a hit to the head.”
Sev lumbered past the others, and Jerome slid the wounded onto his back. Vali kept a grip on her own, and Harley paused to send another arrow behind the train of the wounded, the injured and the angry.
After another moment, Vali broke away from the rest, dragging a spear away from one of the wounded, and she struck out, cleaving into the meat of one of the dogs. It let out a horrific squeal and then slammed into the far wall, blood smearing out of some broken part of the once vicious creature. She swung again, and the rest of the dogs darted out of the way before she could land the hit, and she back pedaled when an archer lined up with her, the arrow darting past her and smashing across the far wall.
“Vali, get back here,” Harley spat. Vali hesitated for a moment, and disengaged.
“We’re moving too slow,” Vali hissed. “We’re not going to get anywhere!”
But with Vali holding them back, we had scored paces where once we’d had mere yards from the chasing soldiers.
I was starting to come to a conclusion I didn’t like, not at all.
And then I heard the other tunnels echoing with the sounds of many feet, armored, approaching, and my heart skipped a beat.
Sev could feel it pounding against his back and his pace quickened, but the great beast carried not only the wounded, but wounds himself, and each step sent a shudder down his body as adrenaline trickled away. But even that didn’t stop the thoughts from coming.
The professor cleared his throat. He was staring me down, reading my face, and another set of armor hit the ground in the distance. I could see him doing math in his head, quick little nimble calculations of a man raised in war and hardened in academia.
“We’re not moving fast enough.” The professor scowled. “They’ll just run us down at this rate. Two down the joining hallways; they must be following the noise!”
“Do you have any suggestions?” Harley asked. “Beyond dropping the wounded.” Her voice said that despite her harsh nature, dropping the wounded wasn’t an answer.
The professor scowled, then drew his sword. “The next passage… I’ll lead them off. I’ve been all up and down these for the last few days, mapping them for Pinion. I can lead them off, give you a fighting chance.”
“Professor,” Sev hissed, and winced at a hard stop on his injured legs. His fluff has taken most of the blows, but they’d still gotten hits into his bulk. “You can’t just-”
“It’s for my love,” The professor said. “Like I said. This isn’t about me. I have students that need to be saved. You have to understand. Besides,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ll be right behind you.” He paused, and all I could hear was my heart roaring in my chest, and the many many footsteps behind us.
“I…” Sev said, and then he looked away. I could see tears running through his fluff, matting it down just as easily as blood had. “Fine.”
“And what’ll make them chase after you?” Vali asked, looking up. Her eyes narrowed at the professor. I could almost read her mind. Most of the wounded weren’t real people.
“There’s a turn up ahead,” The wolf said. “You know the right path. I’ll throw fire behind you and slow them down.”
I wish I could just abandon the injured, but even if they weren’t real, they were convincing.
“Just you wait,” The professor said, snatching a lantern off of the wall, turning the steady flame into a flickering nightmare for the passage. “We’ll meet up later, alright?”
“And if you don’t?” I asked, looking at him.
“Then-” He shook his head. “Tell Irony to break into my suitcase back at the academy. There’s a false bottom in my desk with the key you’ll find there. Tell her to get what’s inside to Jericho, she’ll know what to do from there.”
“Don’t,” The professor said, limping. “Don’t ask. Not unless I don’t come back.”
The harpy missing an eye slid off of Sev’s back, hitting the ground running, and stole her spear back from Vali from where she’d placed it, pointing it back behind her. “Then I’ll join you while I still have strength.”
The wolf laughed. “I thought you birds didn’t trust outsiders.”
“I trust blood,” The siren grunted. “And I can see you intend on spilling it if you get cornered. I trust that doesn’t bother you?”
“Not this time. Prepare yourself!”
The turn came up ahead, branching passages marked with colored paint. One tunnel went down into the mountain, and another went up, and another went straight..
“A bientot!” The wolf barked, and we slid down the lower passage, and he stopped at the top, then tossed the lantern down into the tunnel leading up. It hit the ground and erupted into flame as the wick laughed across the surface of the oil. I could hear the fire at our back, and the bark of the wolf as he went down the central passage.
He’d thrown it behind the wrong passage-
No, we’d been discussing our plans out loud. He’d thrown it behind the passage he’d wanted them to think we’d gone down, and we’d split up into the other two paths.
Sev’s sprint turned desperate as the great creature’s heart beat in his chest like a drum. He joined the sirens with their longer legs. “We’re going down- isn’t that wrong?”
Harley held up her hand and we skidded to a halt, then listened.
I listened, keeping my ears perked I shook my head. “They’re chasing the wolf. They’ve got to be.”
I could hear his heart thumping even from here, the injured bird at his back, and my lungs burned and my stomach flipped, and I tore myself out of my heart. “Fuck.”
“He’ll be fine,” Sev lied, doubled over to catch his breath. “He’s got to be fine, right?”
“Idiot,” Vali said, shaking her head.
Harley straightened, glaring at Vali. “We do not disrespect a warrior’s decisions like that, not here.”
Vali’s posture softened. “What now?”
Harley swung her hips into a small out tunnel, then gestured at a window carved deep into the mountain. It angled up.
“It’s a tunnel carved to let the complex breath,” Harley said. “They must’ve found another and slid down inside.”
The angle was rough, but Harley spread out her wings for balance to clamber up. Vali joined her, and then Jerome, whose eyes glinted with unshed tears. She occasionally paused to look back at me, and then further, like the professor or the one eyed bird might slip into our ranks when we weren’t looking. It was a seductive fantasy.
It didn’t come true.
Sev figured out how to clamber up, digging powerful claws against the stone for purchase, and between the lot of us (including the chef, who hadn’t once stopped looking behind us to make sure that nothing was sneaking up in the darkness, or perhaps to catch a fleeting glance at what we’d left behind) he managed to slowly clamber up, following the birds.
And just like that, we’d escaped the mountain.