“I could have fought him,” Justin grumbled.
“That thing was not…” Katarin started.
“Alive?” asked Brynne.
“Natural.” Petra shuddered. “Didn’t you feel how cold it was?” she asked the young man.
“I still would have--”
“If we would have fought that… thing,” Katarin said, “we would have ended up like those knights.”
Justin stopped. “The knights!” He turned, making ready to go back through the library. “We must--”
“We must leave that thing to its rest,” Brynne said, tugging at the young lord’s shoulder.
His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. “We should put that thing to eternal rest,” he muttered.
“He was resting just fine until we got here,” Petra said.
“Now let’s go,” Jasna said, tapping her foot.
They retraced their steps to the intersection with the main corridor. Petra swallowed, audibly, adjusting the grip on one of her oaken batons. At Jasna’s questioning glance, the other girl nodded. “They’re there, but further away.”
Justin snorted, hefting his pack and lifting the lantern. He led the way down the hallway, stopping short as the group drew near a pair of wooden doors.
One hung from a single hinge, the other laying flat inside the chamber beyond, the surface showing signs of taking several impacts. As the young man bent to inspect the doorway, the telltale hum of another speaking carving began.
He straightened, looking to the girls, then at the floor, but they just shook their heads.
“It was a greeting,” Brynne said.
Justin shook his head. “I don’t see how you can make sense of that. It’s no language I’ve ever heard, and at court--”
Jasna gave an exaggerated sigh, and rolled her eyes. Petra dug an elbow into the girl’s ribs.
“I don’t think anybody ‘at court’ would be speaking that language,” Jasna said, mimicking the young man’s enunciation of the words. “It’s been dead for thousands of years.”
Justin barked a laugh. “And you four just happen to be able to understand it? You can barely even read, for Ixion’s sake.”
Jasna’s hands closed into fists. “Some of us are a bit too busy trying to scratch out a living to be cozied up in the library…. reading!” She said the word as if it were a curse. “We don’t all have a private tutor to spoon-feed us our lessons.”
Petra half-raised a hand. “Actually, Druid Misha is sort of a--”
“You shush!” Jasna snapped.
The taller girl scowled. “Don’t you shush me! I’ll--” She stopped, her eyes darting towards the doorway.
At the edge of the lantern’s illumination, glints of light cascaded across several sets of multifaceted eyes.
“Don’t you dare say those are ‘just ants,’” Petra whispered.
“They’re…” Justin swallowed.
“Hungry!” Brynne said, as one of them scuttled into the light. It was longer than Justin was tall, standing taller than Jasna’s waist. The mandibles looked to be able to snap the girl in half.
The brewer’s daughter lashed out with her staff, wielding it overhand like a spear. The tip thudded off the ant’s carapace, but it did not pause in its advance.
The ring of steel echoed loudly in the corridor, and the lantern’s light waved back and forth as Justin thrust the lantern at Jasna.
“Hold this!” he said, and lunged at the thing.
“What are you doing? That’s not a dueling sword!”
The blade’s broad tip slid across the ant’s head, not even scoring it.
While he didn’t wound it, the young man succeeded in drawing the thing’s attention, and it turned, antennae waving in his face, mandibles clacking.
He gave a cry, and danced back, but there wasn’t much room to retreat in the hallway.
“What’s wrong?” Jasna asked. “It’s only a little ant!” She thrust the lantern back at Justin, and dove around the thing’s head, rolling, bringing the dagger up as she rose, the blade biting deep behind the creature’s eye. Dark ichor spattered across the room.
The thing wrenched its head around, the mandibles snapping less than a hand’s breadth from the girl as she danced away.
“Now you’ve just made it mad!” Brynne said. She darted forward, jabbing at the thing with the tip of her staff.
But it would not be distracted from the smaller girl. It scuttled after her, backing Jasna further from the doorway, towards one of the corners of the chamber. And more ants were crowding forward, intent on aiding their wounded.
“Sticks aren’t working!” Petra said. She’d drummed at the thing’s back and legs with her batons, only to be forced away as the hairy appendages kicked her away.
“What else do you plan on using?” Justin spat. “Your teeth?”
Petra sucked in a deep breath, looking over at Brynne, who shook her head.
“No!” Katarin warned. “Matera has less than this night left. What if you lose control?”
Jasna lashed again with the dagger, the silvery blade’s gleam muted by the ichor as she opened gash across the front of the ant’s head.
“Her knife will work just as well on me if it comes to that,” Petra said. She began unfastening the ties along the neck of her tunic. “Now stand away.”
“A gentleman at least turns his back when a lady is disrobing,” Brynne said.
Justin blinked. “Is she-- But we’re-- The fight…..”
Petra yanked her cloak about herself, turning her back on the young lord.
There was a crashing of wood from the other room, and Jasna gave a sharp cry.
“If you’re going to do it, do it!” Brynne shouted. She swung her staff again, managing to capture the attention of one of the ants.
“I’ve never done it in front of anyone,” the younger girl cried. “Especially not a boy!”
“I’m closing my eyes!” the young lord said. His cheeks were even brighter. He tried to ignore the breeches the girl had kicked away.
“Get in here and put that sword to some use!” Brynne called.
Petra huddled on the floor, clutching her cloak tighter.
“You don’t have to do this,” Katarin said, kneeling next to the girl. “We’ll find--”
In the room beyond, Brynne voiced an unladylike curse, and there was the sound of more wood splintering.
Petra looked away from the other girl, towards the room. Her sobs had quieted, but her shoulders still heaved as she drew short, sharp breaths. She began to shake, and Katarin drew back, as the undulations beneath the cloak grew beyond mere shivers. She closed her eyes, tried to blot out the popping and creaking of bone and sinew. To the younger girl’s credit, she did not cry out, but gave voice to the pain through a sharp and constant whine, pushed through the clenched teeth of an elongating jawline.
In moments, the cloak collapsed, and a gray-furred rat the size of a small dog dashed from beneath the folds, charging across the fallen door, into the chamber beyond.
Katarin couldn’t help but smile at the sound of Lord Justin’s cry.
“Oh, for pity’s sake!” Brynne said, rapping at the head of the giant ant she’d been distracting. “Get this thing away from me!”
The young man tore his eyes away from the streak of gray that disappeared amidst the forest of ant legs, and thumped the ant on the abdomen with the flat of his blade.
The thing kicked at him, but turned away from Brynne, giving her enough room to start spinning her staff. She thrust it forward, the length drumming along the ant’s antennae, and the creature reared back, scuttling backwards, nearly bowling Justin over.
In the corner of the room, Jasna and the giant rat harried the other ants, striking when the other would distract the beasts, slowly driving them back.
Katarin huddled in the doorway, Petra’s clothes bundled in her arms. Brynne called for her to save her magic for after the fight, when the girl had made to cast a weave into the fray.
Finally, Brynne and Justin managed to fight their way over to Jasna’s corner. A lucky stroke had severed one of the ants’ antennae, and the creature hobbled away, shaking its head and bumbling over the rotting wooden pews of the great room.
“They’re not giving up!” Jasna shouted, turning the jaws aside with a two-handed swing of her knife. She reversed her stroke, driving the blade, and her arms up to the elbows, into the thing’s eye. It gave a great shudder, and collapsed to the floor, legs scrabbling, weaker with every scratch.
“Of course not, they’re ants!” Brynne said. The ant was trying to shift the wood between its mandibles, but the girl kept it from getting any kind of grip on the staff by wrenching it this way and that.
“Twist it to your left!” Justin called, and Brynne hauled on her staff, turning the ant’s great head towards the young man.
He brought his sword up in a backhanded swing, lopping the antennae off the creature. It flailed its head left and right, throwing Brynne into the wall, sending her staff clattering across the floor.
Katarin screamed, and made to charge in to the room, but Brynne waved her off.
“No,” she gasped. “I’m-- fine. Look!”
The creature did not press its attack, instead stumbling in a circle, lashing blindly this way and that. Justin drew its attention away with a few jabs of his sword, and Katarin dashed through the opening, going to Brynne’s side.
“Don’t move! You might have broken something.”
“We’re going to have to move,” Justin said. “More are coming through a hole in the wall.”
“Through here!” Justin said, shouldering open a door behind Jasna. He swung his sword in a broad arc, smacking at the waving antennae of the approaching ants, the only tactic that seemed to work in slowing their advance.
Katarin hauled Brynne to her feet, one of the girl’s arms over her shoulders, though Brynne struggled to walk on her own.
Jasna hesitated, her eyes darting this way and that as she scanned the room.
“What are you waiting for?” Justin asked.
“Where is Petra? We were fighting, and she was surrounded, and then--”
“Who cares about that ratling? Do you want to join her as ant-chow? Get through the door!”
Jasna ignored the young man. “Petra!”
An ant ducked under Justin’s swing, mandibles closing on Jasna’s cloak as she scurried backwards. They tussled, briefly, before Justin brought his sword down, shearing through the fabric. As Jasna stumbled backwards, he scooped her up, racing for the doorway. Ants crowded after him, jamming one against the other in the door’s frame.
“There are too many in the way to shut the door,” he said, waving at the hallway that opened around the corner. “Just… go that way!”
The hallway turned a corner, and broadened. Torches leapt to light as they stepped around the bend, the sizzle and sharp scent of burning dust and cobwebs filling the air. At the far end of the hall, a good stone’s throw away, they saw another engraved representation of Silva. Two more faced each other midway down the hall, and the thrumming hum sprang up as they drew near them. The two faces began to speak, meaning once again echoing in the girls’ minds as the carvings’ spoke their long-dead tongue.
“Soon you shall be on your way
As you begin so once did they
Immortals went to ancient Lavv
Show us what they taught Halav”
“What did they say?” Justin asked.
“Put me down!” Jasna landed a kick on the young man’s knee, and his leg buckled, sending him to his hands and knees. Jasna rolled free, and made it two steps back down the corridor before she stopped. Half a dozen ants were feeling their way around the bend in the hallway.
“Jasna, no!” Katarin hissed, grabbing the girl’s arm. “There’s no way we can fight all those!”
“What they taught Halav….” Brynne mused. “He was a warrior. But before that… He was a smith. They taught him to work bronze! Show them something bronze!”
“Don’t look at me,” Justin said. “All I’ve got is steel.”
Katarin and Jasna both shook their heads.
The corridor gave a shudder, and from above, there was a deep cracking sound. Several trickles of dust sifted down from the ceiling.
The carvings animated again, repeating the rhyme.
“We don’t have anything made of bronze.” Brynne said, as more dust showered down from above. “We know the answer, isn’t that enough?”
“I don’t think they listen,” Jasna shouted. “Run!”
The ceiling gave another groan, and the rain of dust became a trickle of loose stones. Cracks began to open between the stones lining the ceiling.
Katarin raised her hands, her fingers moving as if at a loom, or playing at the children’s string game, ryadkyiv.
The two other girls and Justin all screamed, but the stones glanced off the air above Katarin’s head, tumbling into the hallway behind them. The dust billowed, but stopped short, climbing and curling along an invisible wall.
Katarin paled, sweat beading across her forehead, and she groaned through gritted teeth.
“Go, go go!” Brynne called, regaining her senses, and pushing at the young man and Jasna, urging them further up the corridor.
The stones piling in the air over Katarin’s head began to shift, tipping over some invisible edge, less than an arm’s length from where the girl stood.
Brynne hooked an arm through Katarin’s and hauled, leaping and pulling the girl with her. The invisible support gone, the stones crashed into the hallway, and the cloud of rock dust rolled over them, sending them into fits of coughing and choking.