A quick splash behind me told me Luca had followed suit, but I couldn’t see anything but a dim light at the end of the water slide. Pipes above my head allowed more water to drip down over me, greasing the pipe beneath me in questionable-smelling water.
The light grew brighter until I burst out of the mouth and ran in a mesh of rope. It was shaped like a cobweb and I thrashed about for a moment before the bottom opened and I dropped onto a few inches of water. The water flowed over a concrete-hard floor and ran over my arms and legs.
I looked up and gaped at the spectacle before me. The pipe had dropped me into a large room some fifty yards long and nearly as wide. Columns thicker than I was tall sat on pedestals and held up the fifty-foot tall ceiling. All the stone had been carved from white stone that, with the gently flowing water, made the whole room sparkle. The source of the light were a few miscellaneous torches that somehow weren’t extinguished by the damp air.
Luca’s voice brought me out of my stupor. “Look out!”
I whipped my head back and watched him slide out of the pipe. He became enmeshed in the rope, and I took that short interlude to scramble out of the way. I hugged one of the columns at the same time Luca splashed down where I’d dropped. He climbed to his unsteady feet, and I hurried over to loop an arm around one of his and lean his weight against my side.
“Where are we?” I asked him, and my own echoing voice replied back.
“The city cistern,” he told me as he nodded at an elevated walkway at the rear of the room. The walkway ran down the left side of a dark, arched doorway that led deeper into the shadows. “We need to go that way.”
I adjusted his weight and helped him forward. “I just hope it’s only us going that way.”
We splashed through the cistern pool and onto the stone-hewn walkway. The path took us on a slightly descending path. I couldn’t make out the walls, but there was no scent of mold or mildew. A light at the end showed the way and after a twenty-yard walk we emerged into another cistern pool. This one was smaller, and the walkway branched out to our right and left. Arched doorways were situated in both those walls, and another ahead of us.
Luca looked to and fro, and pursed his lips. A slight murmur came from him. “Damn it. . .”
Some of the color drained from my face. “You don’t know which way to go?”
He shook his head. “I can’t recall.”
Movement to our left caught my eye and forced my attention in that direction. My heart skipped a beat as two of the masked people floated into view. Two others came from the right, and a slight hissing noise at our backs made me look behind us. The silhouette of the sixth attacker blocked the light from the first cistern pool. They floated closer to us and forced us into the pool while the others also closed in.
I stood shivering in the shallow water as they surrounded us. Luca drew out of my grasp and held his head high as he met the empty gaze of our foes. “Who are you?”
A few soft chuckles came from the black-clad people. I could tell a few of them were women, but any other defining characteristics beyond that was impossible.
Luca’s sharp eyes darted over them. “We know Trulio didn’t send you. Who did?”
The one that had stepped out of the doorway opposite us lifted their hand. While I couldn’t see the lower half of their face, their soulless eyes and brow told me they held a certain amount of enjoyment at the fear in my face. Our other foes tensed, and at the drop of the hand they sprung at us. Luca wrapped his arms around me and shielded me with his body.
A rock flew out of the darkness to our right and crashed into the face of the lead springer.
The masked fellow was thrown back by the force of the stone, though the others leapt out of his way to prevent being taken, as well. They landed around us on their feet and all whipped their heads toward a column close at hand. A small man hung from the ceiling by a rope wrapped about his waist. He sported a long beard and bushy eyebrows, and his clothes were baggy and tightened at the waist by a belt. Curly hair stuck out from beneath his cap at odd angles, and he sported a badge in the shape of a column on his chest. The rope from which he hung disappeared into a small hatch in the ceiling that had been camouflaged to look like the rest of the stone.
The dwarf, for what else could be down in this cistern, held another rock in his hand and scowled at the masked people. “You want another one? Huh?”
The leader pointed their ring finger at the newcomer. One of their cohorts drew out a dagger and cut the tip of their finger. They flung the blood down and created one of the black discs beneath them which levitated them out of the water. Our masked foe darted upward toward the strange little man.
The dwarf let out a yelp and tugged on his rope. He was yanked upward, dropping the rock which clattered down the column. The ninja-looking person swiped their dagger at the man, but missed by a curly hair.
As the shadow dropped Luca picked up the rock and slammed it into the side of one of the other masked people’s faces. I felt a rush of pain in my chest as he darted to the next one, barely missing them by a hair as he used his supernatural dragon speed. The whole party leapt back except for their fallen compatriot who lay soggy in the water.
The leader’s eyes glared at us as they raised their hand. They snapped two fingers together and the remaining four foes, leader included, rushed us.
A whole rock farm came tumbling down upon their heads. I looked up to see a dozen dwarves hanging from the ceiling and their hands full of rocks of all sizes. Bags were slung over their shoulders and held a large supply of stony ammo.
“Get on wit ya!” the dwarf from before shouted as he threw a rock at one of the black-clad people. The stone hit them in the calf. “Get out of here or we’ll hit ya agin!”
The leader ducked a blow from a heavy rock and clapped their hands together. Together with another of the ninja people, they created the shadow discs beneath them while the other two did the same. The pairs each picked up their fallen comrade, and they took off down two of the hallways. I breathed a sigh of relief.
That is, until Luca’s legs buckled. The stone dropped from his shaky hand and he dropped to his knees in the shallow water.
“Luca!” I yelled as I rushed to his side. I grasped his arms and there was a definite tremor beneath them. “Easy there. Don’t try to use your dragon stuff.” His eyes closed and his head lolled back against the stone column. My heart nearly stood still. “Luca? Luca!”
The roped dwarves were lowered and the first one to attack our black-clad foes untied himself before scurrying over to us. He knelt on Luca’s other side and pursed his lips. “He’s not dead, but he’s not looking so good, is he?”
I couldn’t keep a tremor out of my voice. “I-is he going to be alright?”
He nodded. “Yep, but we’d better git him going.”
“Going where?” I asked him as the other dwarves formed a circle of curiosity around us.
The dwarf grinned. “No need to fear anything, Yer Queenliness. We’re just taking ya to our ‘office,’ that’s all.”
I pursed my lips as I swept my eyes over the many bearded faces. “But we haven’t found the key yet.”
The dwarf stood and shook his head. “That’s not our business to care about the gate.” He lifted his gaze to the dwarves around us and thrust his fist into the air. “Is it, boys? We fight to keep the caverns the beauties they are!”
The other dwarves did the same with their fists, and cheered as one. “Yes, sir!”
Their leader dropped his arm and his smile softened at me. “You both look like you could use a stiff drink, and then we’ll get you out of here and to the castle.”
I looked down at Luca. His breathing was slightly ragged and he clenched his teeth.
I closed my eyes and nodded.