Kiss of the Dragonfly

30. Grapple's Gift

The din in the tunnel was terrible. Beyond its mouth, which seemed to draw no closer however fast Petra ran, lightning crackled and thunder boomed. The tunnel throbbed with the humming of the staffs; Petra’s bones and teeth rang with it. Blinding light etched the silhouettes of stepped columns in her eyes, and painted the Rull’s floor with silver.

The silver—what was it?

Veering to avoid erupting molars of rock, she plunged ankle deep into cold water. The flood had come. Behind her, Otger yelled as he made the same discovery.

Gods’ piss, thought Petra.

The rising flood would drown them all. They had minutes to escape the tunnel and the Rull. And close behind came Lucan, who was already dead and could not die again.

The water rushed and swirled, and from the silt rose clouds of bugs. Petra splashed to the side, where the pillars made steps and tables. It would be slower-going there, for them and for Lucan, too.

She ran on with Bane, dog and girl skipping and leaping like the goats they’d herded all their lives. As she ran, she stole backward glances. Otger panted behind, less agile than she. Still farther back was Cort. But where were Canuut and Jakko? And Mistake? She expected to see the glint of his teeth. She glanced back just as Otger fell.

His yell was lost in thunder. His torch went spinning through the air.

Petra turned and scrambled back to him.

He was head-down in black water swirling between pillar stumps. Just his backpack and legs were picked out by the next flash.

Gods! He’ll have broken his head open. She grabbed his pack and hauled. One hand came up, fingers scrabbling for purchase.

Suddenly a long arm appeared beside Petra’s, seized the straps and hauled out Otger. Cort set him on his feet.

Otger spluttered and coughed out water.

With a howl, Mistake bounded past, sending up sprays, moving faster than Petra had ever seen him move before. But no sign of Canuut.

By the time Petra, Otger, and Cort had reached the tunnel mouth, the stream had become a flood. It would be a torrent soon. The water cascaded over fallen columns, carrying bushes and branches with it. The three had been pressed back to the higher stumps along the edge of the palisade and had to scramble and climb to make progress.

As they passed beyond the overhang, a waterfall of ground wash drenched them. The roll of thunder was deafening and unceasing, and the lightning—the lightning! Petra had never seen anything like it, though she’d seen tremendous mountain storms. The lightning snapped and cracked, blinding, heart-stopping, like vicious slaps. Eye-searing blue-white flame danced and skittered through the Rull, clawing the howling sky from the tops of the staffs.

“Herm’s teeth,” gasped Petra. Fire, flood, and the risen dead—she’d led them into the mouth of Hell itself. She cast around. A hundred yards ahead, a great column had fallen, and now lay at a shallow angle across the Rull. Could they climb it? She pounded on through driving rain.

The fallen column was too high to reach. She passed under it, saw broken staffs like high stools. The first was too high—a dozen feet—but after that they might climb higher. A copper tree clung to the staff; it gave her an idea. She called to the others, screaming to be heard above the roar and sizzle of the storm.  From the spinner on her belt, she pulled a length of wormcord and Grapple’s hook. She snapped the hook open, gauged the distance, and whirled it as she’d seen Grapple do. A gentle throw should be enough.

Otger knocked her arm down. The hook clinked against the side of the column and fell.

“What,” exclaimed Petra, whirling on Otger.

“No!” he shouted. “It’s the trees—look!” He pointed up the Rull.

As she turned, her skin pricked and her feet tingled. Her soaked hair lifted on her scalp. There came a squeal, a flash, and a resounding crack. Bane gave a yelping howl. Petra landed on her bottom, and nearly fell off the stump she’d been standing on.

The tree above her head glowed and threw off sparks. Lightning had struck it. It was the same all through the Rull. The lightning spat and fountained from the copper trees that clung to the staffs, sometimes making webs of blue fire that rose and danced between them across the surging water. The tang of metal filled the air. Petra’s teeth hurt.

Otger, crouched beside her, shouted, “Up ahead: a better way.”

Petra pulled up the hook. Cort was waiting, but there was no sign of Mistake. Behind, only the blackness of the tunnel—no Canuut or Jakko. And Lucan must be almost through. With ears ringing and despair rising, Petra chased after Otger.

His ‘better way’ looked hopeless. The first step was fifteen feet above.

Petra swung the hook once around, twice. Too far to the side, it clinked against the neighbor staff and fell back. She reeled it in and tried again. Freezing rain got in her eyes. Lightning snapped and banged. The hook flew up, but she didn’t hear it strike.

Lucan must appear at any second.

Panting, she reeled in the hook, swung once, twice, three times, and up. It flew, glittering in a lightning flash. Too high; it struck above the top of the staff, then fell back.

Otger stood beside her, watching. “A bit more to the left,” he said.

Cort said, “Petra—”

“Shut up!” she shouted.

Once around, twice, and up. The hook fell behind the column. She pulled gently back.

“Someone’s there!” yelled Cort.

Petra screamed, “He’s a riser and he’s coming to kill us. Now shut up!”

“No, it’s Canuut and Jakko,” shouted Otger.

Petra had to look. Two silhouettes on the fallen column, midway across the roaring flood—dog and man, the man’s arm raised for balance. They were crossing from the far side.

The hook flipped over the edge and fell. Cursing, Petra caught it and whipped it around, clumsily and too fast. The hook soared high, off to one side, bounced from the next pillar, then fell into darkness between the two. There it caught and held. It was close, and it would have to do.

Thunder crashed and water roared between the walls. It cascaded over fallen stone, throwing sheets of spray at them. The silk cord was roughened for climbing, but slick in the rain. Petra gritted her teeth, put a foot in the split between the column and its neighbor, and climbed.

Eight feet, ten; nearly there. She thought the cord would slice through her gloves and her fingers, too. The hook had caught a couple of feet above the platform she was trying to reach, and the angle made it hard to clamber onto the top. She got one leg over, then the other, rolled to face down, then pushed back. As she did, the hook slipped out. She almost dived headfirst to the stone, but just in time snagged a finger in the split where the hook had been.

A shout rose from below. She glanced toward the tunnel in time to see Canuut leap from the canted column to the slab below. Why hadn’t he continued up? He’d be safe there.

From the tunnel mouth ran Lucan, bounding from stump to stump.

Petra slipped the climbing rope around the next step up, hitched the end, then threw the coil down to Otger, who waited with a stolid calm that steadied her. He even thought to throw her staff, lance-like, up to her. Otger and Cort shouted at each other, then Otger began to climb.

Canuut splashed across drowned column stumps, his crossbow in hand. Jakko leapt far to clear the deeper water. And only a hundred yards behind came Lucan, covering the distance with leaps to match the dog’s.

Otger clambered onto the top of her column.

“Help me,” he shouted, and together they hauled on the rope. After a few pulls, Bane appeared, all ninety pounds of him.

“Make space,” yelled Otger.

Petra climbed to the next step, and helped Bane up to the one after that. Then she unclipped her airgun.

Cort was climbing—but how could he? With horror, Petra remembered that Canuut could not climb unaided. Cort should stay to help him! It was too late—Canuut had reached the column with Lucan only strides behind. Canuut turned and aimed his crossbow. With a flash and crack, lightning arced across the Rull. At that instant, Canuut squeezed the trigger.

Lucan jerked, spun, and nearly toppled into the flood. Canuut had got him!

But with arms flailing, Lucan regained his balance and ended up on one knee. The bolt had struck, but not well enough.

Jakko’s and Cort’s heads appeared. The dog’s front paws were around Cort’s neck.

Lucan rose and limped toward the column. He’d held onto his sword.

Now Cort and Otger were hauling on the free end of the rope—and Petra understood. The rope was looped under Canuut’s arms. He rose in jerks. With his good arm, he pulled on the tethered end. It took the efforts of all three to raise his bulk. As they hauled, Lucan leapt. Steel rang on stone.

A moment later, Canuut was on his stomach on the pillar top. The rope jerked down and Lucan vanished. Then he reappeared—and he was climbing!

“Cut it! Cut the rope,” screamed Petra.

Lucan was fast—he ran up the side of the column, managing to grip the sword hilt and rope at the same time. Cort swung at the rope below the hitch. But Lucan was quicker. Holding the rope with one hand, he countered Cort’s swing. The swords clanged, and Cort, surprised, leaned too far forward. Lucan drew back his arm to thrust.

Head or arm? Even dead, Lucan would need the arm that held the rope. It was a narrow shot, and Petra would have only one.

She squeezed the trigger.

The dart struck into the crook of Lucan’s arm. The dead hand loosened and he toppled backwards to splash among the submerged columns below. The current spun him into the deep. Petra glimpsed his head, a pale gray mote in the roaring black, as he was swept away.

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