Chapter no 12

Daughter of the Siren Queen

THE STENCH OF THE cave is overwhelming. I can’t believe we couldn’t smell it from outside. It’s decaying flesh and human waste all wrapped into one. The airflow is limited, making the scents almost overpowering. Mandsy pulls her blouse over her nose.

The smell is not nearly so disturbing as the bones, however. They cover the floor like a carpet.

I lower one of the torches, which we fashioned out of branches, ripped cloth, and tree sap, to get a better look.

“I recognize deer, mountain cat, and rabbit bones,” Deros says. “These are human,” I say, pointing to a pile of skulls.

“I thought we were following human tracks,” Riden says. “But this is the lair of some kind of beast.”

“I don’t understand it, either,” Deros says.

“Are we to stand here talking about what we don’t understand, or are we going to save my sister?” Deshel asks.

“I can’t pick out a trail in this, Captain,” Deros says. “I’m sorry.” “I’ll take the lead now,” I say.

We walk single file, each of us holding a torch for light. Riden is at my back. He is followed by Mandsy, Deros, and Deshel. Sorinda takes up the rear.

We move slowly, doing our best not to make a sound, which is difficult when the bones crunch under our feet.

The cave walls are not smooth like the tunnels at the keep. They’re jagged and rough. Everything is wet. Water drips from the roof and trickles down the sides. There must be small openings all along the cave for the rain to get in.

It supports all the insect growth.

Webs dotted with raindrops nestle into the corners. Bugs with far too many legs race across the walls. Worms wriggle on top of the rocky soil at our feet. Crickets fill the space with their chirps.

My skin crawls at the sight. I would brave far worse for anyone in my crew, but did there have to be bugs?

When we come to a fork in the path, I make everyone halt. “What are you waiting for?” Deshel asks. “Just split us up.” Our group is small as it is, we need to be—

A scream—a sound of pure agony—rips through my senses, making my hair stand on end.

“Lotiya!” Deshel shouts. “I’m coming!”

She takes off like a shot down the right tunnel, and the rest of us can do nothing but follow.

Bones scatter in Deshel’s desperate footsteps. She winds around corners, picks random paths when the tunnel forks again and again.

I’ve almost caught up to her when she halts abruptly. The tunnel tapers down into a dead end.

“Damn it!” Deshel shrieks. She tries to turn, but I grasp her by the shoulders. Hard.

“Deshel, we will find her, but not like this. You need to stop. Listen. We won’t find her this way. All you’ve done is get us lost.”

I grasp her arm. Together, we turn around and start back up the way we came. Another scream chokes out of the tunnels. I squeeze Deshel’s arm so tightly she gasps in pain. When I have her attention, I point to one of my ears.


Carefully, quietly this time, we follow the sounds, tracking them to their source. Down thin tunnels, up a slight rise, left at two more forks. I’m about to go around another corner, when the screaming cuts off.

Dread rests low in my belly. Screaming is good. Screaming means Lotiya is still alive. But now—

“Wait here,” I say to the group. I hand Deshel over to Deros, so she can’t disobey orders. Quiet as ever, I duck around the next corner and immediately crouch down low. There’s a ledge where my tunnel ends. Below it is a wide cavern, with several tunnels branching out from it in different directions.

A body kneels next to me. Riden. I could smack him right now for not listening to me, but that would alert the men in the cavern ahead of us to our presence.

From our vantage point, the backs of three men are to us. I glance at Riden, who is just as surprised as I am. I was sure we’d find some monster first. Why would there be men in the feeding ground of a vicious beast? Their attire is not unlike ours, save it’s quite dirty and worn with rips and tears. They’re not natives, then. Perhaps they’re men from the land king’s fleet who were shipwrecked here during one of their excavations?

Whoever they are, they’re huddled over something in front of them, chomping loudly and smacking their lips together. Aside from the men and their meal, there doesn’t appear to be anything else in the space except several lit torches that have been staked into the ground along the edges. I size up the room and the exits thoroughly before indicating to Riden that we should back up around the corner.

“What is it?” Sorinda whispers.

“Men. Three of them. No signs of Lotiya.”

“We should jump them,” Deshel says. “Make them tell us where the creature could have taken Lotiya.”

Sorinda pushes off from the wall she’d been leaning against. “And we can threaten to tie them up and leave them for whatever is in this cave if they don’t give us answers.”

“Let’s do it,” I say. One by one we silently drop down from the ledge into the cavern. The men don’t stray from their meal as our feet touch the ground. They probably can’t hear us over the sounds of their own chomping. Men can be so disgusting, especially when they think no one is looking.

When Sorinda drops down last, I speak forcefully to the men we’ve stumbled upon.

“Turn around slowly.”

Their backs go ramrod straight at my words. They turn, and I expect them to run or draw the swords at their waists or call for help.

Bright red blood runs down their chins. Their eyes are dull, lifeless, as though their bodies are only empty shells. And then, in one of their hands, I spot the remains of an arm with part of Lotiya’s shirt still attached to it.

Deshel begins shrieking as the men spring at us. My hand goes to my pistol, cocking it back as I raise it. My gun isn’t the only one that fires.

All three of them go down, blood pooling from multiple holes in their chests. The shots echo down the tunnels long after the men fall.

I stare at the bodies for a long time, until a sickly realization comes to me. I know who these men are.

Deshel runs toward her sister’s remains. Lotiya’s throat has been ripped out. She’s missing a leg and an arm and so much blood. It’s all over the cave floor.

Animal-like shouts and growls sound down the cave and grow closer, alerted to our presence by the gunshots.

Mandsy goes for Lotiya’s body, as though there’s something she can do to help. But it’s useless. She’s gone. My eyes sting to see what’s left of her. Deshel pushes Mandsy aside and grabs her sister’s body. She hauls it over her back. “Let’s get out of here,” she says, a look of steel in her eyes.

She’s right. No time to grieve now. I have to get the rest of us out of here alive.

There are four pathways leading out of the cavern, not including the ledge we dropped down from. One of them has to lead us out. With a body to carry, the ledge isn’t our best option.

“They’ll come through this one,” I say, indicating the second tunnel from the left, the widest tunnel, naturally, where the growling sounds are the loudest. “Can you see anything down the other tunnels?”

The group disperses, trying the other surrounding tunnels. “Captain!” Mandsy shouts. “I can feel a breeze down this one!” The inhuman growls grow louder, uncomfortably close to us now.


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