I leaned over the hole and down the full ten feet to the dirt floor. Beams held up the ceiling and the flames in the lanterns precariously flickered. “So if we manage to get through this tunnel alive, how are we going to get onto a pirate ship?”
Luca slipped up to my side and looked into the hole. “If it’s anchored in the port than there’s a chance we can swim to it.”
I winced. “I, um, don’t swim very well-” A familiar look slipped into his eyes and I frowned at him, “-and I’m not stay on shore while you go alone, even if I have to do a tough-love swimming lesson.”
He gave me a gentle smile. “I can see why the Fates decided to join us.”
I blinked at him. “Why?”
“Because you’re as stubborn as I am. Now then-” He stretched out his arms to me, “-shall we?”
I pointed at the hole. “That’s a little deep.”
He grinned. “Let’s just say I’ll get some practice into carrying you, through water or down a hole.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “What does that-hey!” Luca had swept me into his arms and pressed me against his firm chest. I glared up at him. “Did your dad teach you to do this?”
His eyes twinkled with mischief. “My mom, actually. She was rather fond of flying. Now hold on.”
Luca leapt over the side. I clenched my teeth to stifle a yelp as wind whipped past us. He landed neatly on his feet and set me down. I now had a clear view of Luca’s former battles, and couldn’t help but let out a snort.
Draven and his unlucky cohort leaned against a nearby wall with their heads lolled together, sleeping like two babes. They each sported bruised lumps on their faces and stupid, lopsided grins on their lips.
The tunnels themselves were mostly straight with thick beams that stood at consistent spacing to support the ceiling. The wide underground path led past the unconscious men to a dead-end where the area opened to a large living quarters filled with cots and a table and chairs. One wall was complete rock, and a pair of broken shackles were attached to the stone. I couldn’t help but notice that the place over where I’d been tapping was close to those chains.
I took a step closer and my foot kicked something on the ground. I stooped and picked it up. The thing appeared to be a metal cannister with a spray cap. I gave the top a whiff and wrinkled my nose. “This smells like some sort of herb.” The after-scent stung my nostrils. “A horrible herb.”
Luca held out his hand to me. “Let me see.” I passed the cannister to him and he carefully drew the cap close to his nose. He jerked it away immediately and scowled at the cannister. “Dragon’s Bane.”
I studied the can with newfound respect and disgust. “Where does this stuff come from?”
“A far-off island rumored to be filled with monsters concocted from the nightmares of seamen,” Luca explained as he pocketed the can. “The plant itself is rare even there, and thus a king’s ransom is demanded for even an ounce of the liquid drawn from the flowers that bloom only rarely.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “That’s a lot of trouble just to make sure you’re not in the way.”
He looked down the tunnel and pursed his lips. “Yes, and requires some knowledge of how to prepare the herb that is not common knowledge among pirates.”
I tilted my head to one side. “Can’t anybody just juice up the flower?”
He shook his head. “No, because while the juice weakens me, the flower itself is poisonous to humans and many other changeling species.”
“Those with the ability to transform from a human form into that of an animal,” he explained as he offered me his hand. “But I can explain just as well on the way there. Our foes will soon know I’ve escaped and will be expecting us.”
I accepted his hand, but frowned as he led me down the tunnel. “Then how are we going to sneak aboard the ship?”
He shook his head. “I haven’t figure that out yet, but one bridge at a time.”
I squinted down the long corridor. “You said the port was five miles away?”
“Won’t we be too late to get there and back?”
A pensive expression slipped onto his face. “Getting back won’t be a problem with my wings, but I suspect they haven’t dug the whole five miles.”
I tilted my head to one side. “What does that mean?”
“It means magic.”
The mention of the word brought to mind the recent discovery of our close connection. “Speaking of that, what about this connection you and I share? Are we going to feel one another’s side aches and cramps, too?”
A smile touched the corners of his lips as he shook his head. “Nothing so mundane. The agony I felt because of the Dragon’s Bane is a creation of magic, and thus it effects our magical bond. Anything outside of magic won’t run through our connection.”
I snorted. “Well, that’s a relief. I was worried we were going to spread the measles to one another.”
We hurried along for another hundred yards, passing through one intersection after another that veered off toward other parts of Luca’s land. The soft murmur of voices quieted my own as I realized we weren’t alone in the tunnels. At the end of the hundred yards we found ourselves at a dead end.
The corridor stopped at a wall, and chained to the wall was a skeleton. The poor fellow sat in the dust with his arms above his head and his bony wrists still stuck in his shackles. He wore the dried-out remains of his clothes, including a bandanna atop his bald white head.
Luca let go of my hand and strode forward to kneel beside the fallen fellow. He tilted his head to one side and examined the grinning face. “Interesting.”
I wrapped my arms around myself and wrinkled my nose. “And a little bit creepy. Is he a warning for everyone else not to run in the halls?”
He shook his head. “It’s something a little more than that.”
I looked over my shoulder. “How far do you think we’ve come?”
“The whole length of the tunnel is less than a half mile,” he explained as reached out and grasped the lower jaw.
I whipped my head back and my own jaw hit the floor. “What are you doing?!”
He wiggled the jaw for a moment before dropping it in favor of the closest wrist which he gave a bit of a twist. “Looking for the key to open the portal.”
I blinked at him. “You’re looking for a. . .skeleton key?”
Luca paused in his bone teasing to cast a look up at me. “I seem to recall stories from my mother mentioning your world had them.”
I snorted. “Yeah, but they aren’t literal skeletons.” I paused and furrowed my brow. “Your mother was from my world?”
He didn’t look at me as he answered my question. “Yes.” He nodded at the other side of the bone man. “Would you mind pulling on the wrist on the other side?”
I winced, but reluctantly slipped up to the other side of the dead man. “What exactly am I looking for?”
“A button or small mark which may indicate how to open the portal,” he explained as he turned over the fingers one at a time and inspected the joints. “Hidden portals are often opened by speaking an incantation or located on someone’s person at a spot not likely to be touched.”
My eyes invariably dropped to the pirate’s pants, or what remained of them. I caught Luca’s attention and pointed at the trousers. “Have you-um, tried between the legs?”
Luca’s eyebrows shot up, as did the corners of his lips. “That is a possibility.”
He drew back the crumbling waistband of the trousers and reached inside. I watched in horrified fascination as he rummaged around what lay in there before his eyes lit up. The next moment there was a soft click of bone against bone, and the wall behind the skeleton shifted like someone flushed a toilet. The dirt and stones were drowned into a swirling pool of darkness. I felt a slight tug on my clothes as I jumped to my feet.
The skeleton man swayed to and fro with that stupid grin on his face, as though preening himself for holding such a wonderful secret.
“Who’s opened the portal?”
The shout came from behind us. We whipped our heads around in time to see a half dozen men step out of one of the side passages.
“Hey!” shouted the leader as he stabbed a finger at us. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Luca grabbed my hand and grinned at the men. “Leaving.”
He leapt into the portal, taking me with him.