Both of my questions went unanswered. Chrysander seemed to have entered a kind of bounty hunter trance and pulled me cautiously along, his eyes sweeping the tunnel for further clues and pieces of the trail, and Demetrius, though he fell into deep thought, must not have had any ideas. Or he just didn't want to share them.
I considered repeating myself, then abandoned the idea as a foolish one. We had finally found something that was if not comfortable, than at least silence.
Then Chrysander stopped again. I followed him to the ground, kneeling right with him and examining the ground at least as closely. There were flecks of something, and a tuft of... "Is that hair?"
"Why are you whispering?"
"Why are you?"
"Because you are. I thought it'd be polite to let the lady set the volume of the conversation."
It sounded perfectly ridiculous, and for some reason, my mood lightened. I felt guilty for it, but even that didn't sink me. Not abandoning the whisper, I pointed to the clump on the tunnel floor. "Just there. What is it?"
He leaned closer to the ground, as if he intended to sniff it like a dog. "It isn't blood, at least. And that's not hair, it's cloth. Here." He picked it up, pinched between his thumb and forefinger, then held it up to the torchlight. I added my own to make the light brighter, but he didn't seem to need it. "Can you tell what colour that is?"
"I can," Noni piped up. She sounded a little shaky, but she moved up to kneel with us, gingerly letting go of Demetrius's hand. Oddly, he was the one who looked lost, standing there with no one to cling to. "You spend as much time in beauty parlours as I do, and you get real good at telling the differences between colours."
"Truly, it is good we brought you along. Who else could explain for us the subtle nuances of blue and not as blue?"
She ignored Chrysander's remark, squinting at the torn bit of fabric. As if afraid to touch it, she moved her face closer, then drew back. "It could be green or brown. I think brown."
"That's so precise, professor. How do you do it?"
"Look, it's dark!"
"I know, I can tell. It's the subtle clue that I can't see much without all this torchlight in my face. Move back before you melt someone or set your friend's hair on fire."
I had the sensation that he wanted to push her away, but he did not. Maybe friendship counted for something, although I didn't know if I classified them as friends, exactly.
Noni did as he asked anyway, if with a bit of an annoyed expression, her nose in the air. "No worries. I don't want to smell all that ink on the ground. That's strong stuff. Expensive, but it's made from the most ghastly things."
"Ghastly ingredients generally make for expensive stuff," Demetrius said, not sounding quite there. He had handed his torch to Soterios and stepped up to kneel with Chrysander and me. My ankles were starting to feel weary under my compressed weight, but I didn't want to be the first to stand up.
The two young men pored over the fabric together, as if it held some secret.
"I've seen that somewhere before," I heard myself say. Not sure why. It brought a lot of attention my way, of course. They all looked at me expectantly, and I nearly held up my hands to ask for some space. "No, I don't know where, hang on and let me think." Taking a couple of waddling steps back, I sat on the tunnel floor and stretched out one leg, easing the pressure on my previously bent knee. I wondered if I was getting old or just out of shape. Possibly just tired. "It was recently."
Noni took Demetrius's hand again, pulling him back up from his crouch. "Think about where you've been recently, that'll help," she said, as if I were trying to remember where I had left a textbook, or someone's keys. "The laboratory and the mansion, right? But mostly the laboratory. We were only in the mansion for about five minutes."
Although it had certainly been longer than that, I saw her point and so did not press the issue. Besides, it was hard to enter into the general spirit of arguing that the rest of them--barring Soterios, of course--enjoyed so frequently. "Perhaps it has to do with the ink. What do you know about it, Noni? I mean, how do you know it's so expensive?"
"Oh, that's easy," she said, almost cheerfully. "It's something that a lot of government officials are very insistent upon, having that particular brand of ink. It's named after someone's old grandfather. Or grandmother, I can't recall. One of those names that's impossible to say without biting your own tongue."
"Pray do not bite your tongue before you tell us what's relevant about it," Chrysander said, mild amusement colouring his tone. How he could stay sitting like that and not even sway was quite irritating.
She stuck her tongue out at him before continuing. "What's relevant about it is who uses it, of course. I know that Grandmaster Trevino doesn't. He told my dad once that it was a pompous waste of money. But even scholars love it."
Then, her eyes widened, almost as if they were going to fall right out of her head. I blinked and rubbed my eyes as surreptitiously as I could. The torchlight was playing tricks on me again.
"Dr Cordet," she said, her voice a hoarse whisper. "Oh, bloody beloved something or other. Demetrius," she turned to him, putting a hand on his arm and squeezing it. "It has to be her. There's--her coat is that colour. I know it is. We saw it every day for who can say how long."
But she didn't pay any attention to him. "It fits together, doesn't it? She ran off as soon as we got back to the mansion. Maybe she was shocked to show up so close to the scene of her crime."
"Couldn't be," I said, but I heard the doubt in my own voice. A piece of cloth and special, snobby scholar ink. It wasn't exactly directly incriminating, but it did point an insistent finger. Noni's, at any rate. "Dr Cordet left through the front door."
Chrysander glanced over at me, his eyes narrowed, brow creasing in deep thought. With him making that kind of face and still crouching in the semi-dark as the torches had been spread apart again, he looked like some kind of cave goblin. "She did? Why would she do that? I may not be able to lead us back there, but I'd be willing to bet my license that the best way to get to her laboratory is through the tunnels."
"I don't know, but she definitely left through the front doors. She said something about wanting to go home, I think."
"That doesn't sound like the Cordet I know."
Soterios spoke up, cutting into the conversation like a chilled knife through melting butter. "It sounds reasonable to me. We've all been through a lot, and she pushed herself hard in the Hollow Man's cave." He sounded almost defensive. "Come on, it's only some scrap of cloth and spattered ink. Pretty shoddy clues, I'd say." Looking over at Demetrius, he added, "I mean... what do you think? You know her better than I do. This doesn't sound cooked up to you?"
We all turned to Demetrius then. His face was odd, a mixture of doubt and rage. Chrysander stood up at last, just a fluid stretch from crouching to standing. Impatience flickered on his face along with the light.
"It couldn't be her," Demetrius said at last, but he didn't sound any more certain than I felt. "She and my dad have been friends for years."
"The kind of friends who argue about everything," Chrysander said, looking back at the clue he had stopped at some ways behind us. "Is there any way he would ever let her take him through these tunnels? Willingly, I mean."
"Yeah, I guess. He went with her to the laboratory once."
Chrysander half spun to examine anew the splattering of ink. "That might explain why we got so far into the cave before I saw any signs of a struggle back there. And this is far enough that whoever was with your dad could have talked him out of it until this point, if she knew how to talk to him."
"Stop going on about it like that," I said, wishing I didn't sound so uncertain. "Dr Cordet was with us, when did she have time to abduct a government official?" As I spoke, my voice grew stronger, but that didn't do anything for the high pitch. The smell of the ink was getting to me, but I was reluctant to stand and delve back into the heat of the combined torches. "Besides, what reason could she have?"
"This is getting us nowhere," Demetrius growled. He started to push his way on, but Chrysander held out an arm to stop him. They exchanged a glare, venom and desperation on Demetrius's end, and a sort of professional determination on Chrysander's.
The latter set his jaw in a firm line, not blinking even as he torch guttered and nearly went out. There was a breeze coming from somewhere. "It's better than telling you everything all at once. Speculation is more clue than we may get farther on." He pointed down at the marks. "Noni has to be right about that ink. Smell how strong it is? I've been in one of the factories where they make it. There was one right by the monk's school, I'd hide in there when I was skiving off."
"Touching bit of your history, but I don't see your point."
"My point is that as strong as that smell is now, it's usually a lot stronger. And they bottle it up tight as a drum. You can keep the stuff on shelves for a year, but when you open a pot to fill an inkwell, it's like walking into the bloody factory." Chrysander let out a sigh that sounded almost frustrated. "These signs are all old. At least a day, maybe two."
Demetrius's face drained of colour--at least, I thought it did. The torch Chrysander had been carried went out at just about the same moment, followed by the sound of running footprints and a whoosh of air passing by me.
I tried to push myself to my feet, but the ground began to move. Violent tremors shook the rock, as if we had fallen into a tumbling machine at an old ladies' bingo meet.
Struggling to find my footing and failing miserably, it was all I could do not to land in the ink. My own torch went out, extinguished by a shower of dust and pebbles from the ceiling. I dropped the useless torch and tried to cover my head with my arms, coughing like mad. "What's going on?" I had to shout over the rumbling.
Stone was shifting somewhere. My ears were filled with the earthy cacophony of it. Chrysander slipped his arms under mine and lifted me up off the ground. Behind us, Soterios had allowed Noni to cling to his arm in place of Demetrius, and the fear on her face was so palpable that I almost couldn't feel the loss of the two torches. No, the three torches. Demetrius had run on ahead with his own, and the light was winking ahead a ways.
Then it stopped, and I could see an enormous figure looming in front of him. It was too far to see clearly, but Noni's terrified shout reverberated off the tunnel walls.
"It's a dunderwyrm!" She tugged Soterios forward, then stopped after a few steps as he held her back.
"They don't attack people," he assured her. "It's just working. All he has to do is stand still and wait for it to go by."
But then the horrible, gut-wrenching noise of rock colliding sharply with bone and flesh echoed ahead of us, and we all saw Demetrius fly back. Chrysander had grabbed my hand and started running to Demetrius's side before anyone could say boo.
The rumbling and shaking continued, even stronger than before. My teeth juddered in my head, like loose coins in a glass jar. My arm felt as though it was going to be stretched out of my socket; Chrysander ran even faster than I did. Then he skidded to stop by Demetrius, all but sliding into the ground at his knees.
I nearly tumbled over my friend's supine body. Neither of us had a lit torch anymore, and Soterios and Noni had just to catch up to lend their light. I put a hand on Demetrius's chest, barely deigning to breath myself until I felt the too subtle rise and fall of regular, if unconscious, life. Tears stained my face, but I couldn't say when I had started crying, or if I was just that afraid.
The weapons at my waist clanked and rattled as the tunnel seemed to move. I drew the longer of the two, staring up at the dunderwyrm. Its eyes glowed red in the near darkness, but I'd seen thicker darkness than this, and the eyes were merely welcome illumination. The dunderwyrm was monstrous in size, both up and out. Glancing back down at Demetrius, I found it hard to remember to be afraid.
But before I could leap to my feet and start hacking at the great grey beast, Chrysander snatched at my arm and yanked me practically into his. He held me tightly to him, and I could still smell the acrid smoke of the torches in his hair. "Don't do anything stupid," he said. It might as well have been an intimate whisper. The dunderwyrm was writhing about wildly now, then roaring. "I've never seen a dunderwyrm acting like this..."
Suddenly it shot its head forward, and even with the light still too far behind, I could see that it was just as angular and nasty as aboveground wyrms in books. The same flat, rectangular head and cord-like tendrils coming from between its scaly ears. The same long, sharp teeth.
It snapped its jaws fifteen millimetres from my face. It would have been four if Chrysander had not yanked us both back to lay as flat as possible on the tunnel floor.
A dagger soared through the air, thunking horribly as it sank into the dunderwyrm's long muzzle. The creature howled in agony, spraying dark blood everywhere. It smelled worse than the ink, like a room full of rot. I squeezed my eyes shut and turned away, peeking past Chrysander's other arm.
But the dunderwyrm didn't appear to count the blow as enough reason to back off. After a few seconds, it cut off its own howl, pressing its face into the dirt to scrabble at the dagger with its birdlike talons. It hadn't gone in very deep.
The dagger clattered to the ground as Soterios and Noni caught up to us. He thrust the torch into her hand, and then stood up, drawing his sword.
"You idiot, put that away!" Chrysander bellowed. "Do you want to get killed?!"
Somehow, Soterios spoke at his usual calm, level tone of voice. He stood straight-backed, walking round us even though Chrysander scrabbled at him to keep him back. The tremors were beginning to shake the tunnel into a new shape, but Soterios strode forward, no more worried by it than a sailor on a storm-rocked ship.
He was going to get himself killed.
"Get back here!"
I tugged on Chrysander's sleeve, so hard that I nearly made his head bonk against mine. Then it actually did, and the thudding of our skulls made my head spin even worse. "Let go so I can stop him."
"Never." That single word was so vehement it was almost a person on its own. For once, he did not follow it with another.
It was hard to hear, but Noni was saying something. When I craned my head to look at her, she wasn't crying. Obviously terrified and holding Demetrius's head in her lap, but there wasn't a single mark of a tear on her face. She held the torch up. "Let go of her so she can hold the torch," she bellowed, her voice carrying so far that Soterios actually halted his advance.
The dunderwyrm slowed its twisting dance, and the shaking of the earth around us eased, but only by a narrow margin. Another chunk of the floor rose up like a new island being born out of the ocean, so close that it lifted Demetrius's leg in the air. He sat up, groaning.
Noni cut off his bewilderment, pushing him gently aside to shove the torch at me. "I'll stop them both."
A look of intense concentration crossed her face. I shouted at Soterios, "Get back here! Noni's--" I had no idea what she was doing, but I could feel the magic crackling around her so that it stung to sit so close. "Just get away from the blasted dunderwyrm!"
As if infected by Demetrius's stubbornness, Soterios looked back at the huge stony beast and crouched into what was either a fighting stance, or a sudden change in balance. I shouted again, swearing rather prolifically.
He took a hesitant step backwards, towards us, and then the ceiling exploded into a veritable jungle of vines.
Heat poured in with them, muggier than that of the torches, reminding me of when I had first met Noni. As the vines tangled around the dunderwyrm, choking and restraining it, I realised that they weren't vines at all. They were far too thick. I held up the torch, leaning forward as if that might bring Soterios stumbling back faster. "They're roots," I breathed.
Thick, pale roots flecked with the rich soil of ages. Smaller roots branched from them, still reaching to the earth. They tightened around the dunderwyrm, pulling it back. It tried to roar again, but it was a strangled sound, barely enough to echo. Then it sagged, and the shaking stopped.
The roots released the dunderwyrm, reluctantly, like a child forced to give up a favourite stuff toy to its mother for a good washing. I fought against the reflex to shut my eyes, waiting for it to snap at us again.
But it did not.
Instead, it made a sort of purling noise in its throat, perhaps a whimper, and then descended into the tunnel floor, leaving behind a gaping hole with a circumference greater than my height.
I sagged just as it had, not caring that Chrysander had his arms round me again. I could do something about that later. If he had time to be a jesting lothario now, than there wasn't anything anyone could do about his broken personality in any case.
Soterios skipped round us to catch Noni just before she fell on top of Demetrius. Blood was trickling out of her nose, and her eyes had rolled back into her head. Her hair hung limp around her face, and she was so drenched in sweat that she looked as if she had just come back from a swim. The roots retreated completely presumably putting themselves back where they belonged.
"I didn't know she could do that," Demetrius said, his hushed voice almost reverberating in the sudden quiet.
Soterios held her up, so careful of her that she might have been made of porcelain. "I did," he said.
Or perhaps he didn't say anything at all. My ears throbbed in the lack of din. I thought I heard Chrysander ask if I was all right, but he didn't sound like himself, so I didn't answer. He might have asked again, but I just shook my head.
The tunnel lay in ruins around us, and our last torch was threatening to go out. None of us knew where we were, and no one back at the mansion or anywhere else knew either.