The earth tried to eat them.
Her mind beginning to fog with exhaustion, Klya misread the marking on the wall. The danger was not above them. It was below them.
With a single step, the hard-packed dirt and stones turned to sand. It sucked down her right leg and her staff, nearly pulling her arm from its socket.
Klya yelled, leaning back, digging her left foot into solid ground. She scrabbled for the wall, trying not to drop the honeygrass, struggling with one hand to pull the hefty stick free. The wolf growled, his teeth snagging her cloak, pulling her back, back, back.
With a grating burp, the sinkhole reluctantly released her leg and staff. The sand tumbled and rolled around, sliding back into place, until it looked exactly like the hard-packed earth once again.
“Well,” Klya said. She could feel the grains inside her boot, grating against her skin.
Leaning forward as far as she could, reaching beyond the sinkhole, Klya tapped the ground. It remained firm. More tapping, until she found the far edge the sucking sand. It was not so far that she could not jump it.
But then there was another to jump, and another, and another.
The cloud of honeygrass smoke and the swarm of Fire Sprites bobbed along with her.
Klya was panting by the time the next safety mark appeared. Leaning against the wall, she forced herself to study it closely, carefully. She did not want to make another mistake.
“You stop again,” the wolf growled.
“Yes. Just for a moment. Need to catch my breath.”
He made a noise of disgust and dropped onto his haunches. The dark arrow of fur down his chest bristled. “We lose time, and we have still to cross the Glass Lake and pass through the Cutting Trees. How long until we are done with the Hag’s Teeth?”
“I don’t — I don’t know. The lore says that it took the One Hundred nearly a sevenday to make their way through the Teeth.”
The wolf’s fur bristled.
“But they were the first, mapping the passage as they went. The Red Cloaks who returned — the few who survived the battle with the Snow Witch — marked the safest path as they made their way home. They were mostly on foot and injured. A day, or more. The lore says it took them a day or more.” Klya shook her head. “I do not know how long we have been in here, how long ago we entered the Hag’s Teeth.”
“It is not yet sunset, but the sun nears the horizon.”
“I — how do you know this?”
He tilted his head. “I am a wolf.”
“Ah. Yes. Of course.”
“Are you rested yet? You are like a newborn cub — but without the teeth.”
Annoyance shoved exhaustion aside, just for a moment. Klya tossed a handful of frostberries into her mouth, chewing loudly. She flashed her pitiful human teeth at the wolf, stained dark purple-red. “Yes. Shall we continue?”
The canyon closed over them, the mountain arcing overhead. A true cavern, only slightly wider than the trail behind them, sharp stalactites hanging from the high ceiling. Klya could just make out some of them by the light of the Fire Sprites.
The mark upon the wall was a circle again, quartered — and every quarter contained a deadly spiral.
Klya squinted, lifting the honeygrass closer to the mark. The Sprites moved with the bundle. The second mark was visible now: a jagged horizontal line with an arrow on one end.
Swallowing, she backed away slowly and knelt beside the wolf. She leaned close, her voice low. “The lore tells us of a place inside the Hag’s Teeth, where the rocks tremble at even the slightest sound. They shatter like fragile crystal. When the Hundred trod this path, they had no choice but to run — but even then, five of their number were lost.”
The wolf’s ears flattened, twitched, and perked upright again.
“As I said, Red Cloak, you are as a newborn cub. You cannot run as I can. You must ride me.”
He tilted his head at her. “You trusted me to lead you safely through the forest to the Hag’s Teeth. And I, in turn, have trusted you to lead me safely through the Hag’s Teeth.”
Klya drew a deep breath, eying the wolf’s massive shoulders and thick pelt. “I will not … I will not hurt you? I am not small for a human.”
The wolf barked a loud sound. A laugh, she realized.
The bark was cut off by an echoing snap-snap-snap. A handful of stalactites splintered and tumbled to the floor below, hundreds of pieces of rock slamming into the ground. They shattered further at the impact, filling the air with shards and pebbles. The echo snapped more stalactites, then more and more. The floor of the cavern was quickly buried under the storm of rock.
The rumble faded slowly. When the last echo had dissipated, new stalactites emerged from the ceiling, the rock shiny and quivering.
Klya stared, her ears still ringing.
She stood and scrambled onto the wolf’s back. She shifted her quiver into a more comfortable position, bracing her pouch under her belly. Tucking the staff under her arm, she leaned down, legs tight around the wolf’s ribs, her fingers buried in his fur. She grit the bundle of honeygrass between her teeth.
She felt him tense, chest expanding as he drew a long, slow breath.
And then he was running. Running. Running.
The cavern was a blur, shadows upon shadows, the Fire Sprites a swirl of color and light. The wolf leaped and jumped and ran and leaped again, moving across the jumble of glittering rocks. Klya clung to his back, teeth clamped so tight around the honeygrass that she feared that she would bite through the bundle. Her quiver of arrows bounced against her back. The pouch dug into her stomach, the apple a solid lump.
Stalactites plunged to the ground around them, the sound slamming into her ears, making her head throb.
Running, leaping, twisting and jumping.
And then they were clear of the cavern. The canyon walls rose above them again, a dull, striated yellowish-brown.
Klya tumbled from the wolf’s back, falling forward over the top of his head. She was panting and laughing, choking on the fine particles that filled the air. Sweat glued her shirt and pants to her body, and her hair was tangled.
The wolf peered down at her, his expression a comical mixture of confusion and exasperation. “Are you well, Red Cloak?”
Gasping, Klya could only nod. Finding her staff, which had rolled almost out of reach, Klya pushed herself to her feet. “That, Suncup, I am definitely adding to the lore book.”
The sky was dark overhead when they finally emerged from the Hag’s Teeth. One moment they were surrounded by stone, the next she could taste fresh air and see the wooded slope of the mountain again.
Klya’s knees were shaking and her feet ached. The headache brought on by the crash of falling stalactites had not lessened. As she moved clear of the Teeth, she sank to the ground. Shoving the last of the frostberries into her mouth, she stifled the honeygrass bundle against the dirt.
One by one, then by the dozens, the Fire Sprites disappeared. Some flew back into the Teeth, others into the ground around them, still others into the forest that lay ahead.
“I suppose you want to rest again?”
Klya dropped her head back, resting it against the awful yellow-brown rock. She whispered a brief thanks to the Fire Sprites before she answered. “Yes, Suncup, but just for a moment. I am not so weak as one of your cubs.”
The wolf snorted, a rough sound that made her hair stand on end. “You may lack sharp teeth and good eyes, but you are clever.”
“Why thank you, wolf.”
Silence descended around them. In the forest that loomed ahead of them, Klya heard the distant hoot of owls; but nothing else.
“You are gathering the other wolves, and the bears and foxes. In case we fail.”
The wolf’s bright yellow eyes settled on her, then swung towards the trees. “Just so. There is a chance, though it is slight, that the Snow Witch will still be weak in the first hours after she awakens. Together, as one, the many predators of the mountain might be strong enough to stop her.”
“But not the owls?”
The wolf snarled, a sound of impatience and disgust. “They are fools. They think themselves safe in their nests, unaffected by anything else that happens on the mountain. The owls of old thought the same. They have short memories.”
“But wolves have long memories?”
He turned back to her, eyes still bright. “We do. We are ancient animals, long-lived. Longer than owls and bears, longer than foxes and humans.”
She caught herself studying the dark arrow of fur over his heart. “And how long do wolves live?” she whispered.
The wind tugged at his pelt, carrying the scent of ice and — very, very distantly — of roses.
Finally, he answered, his voice a rumble across her skin. “Long enough to remember the winters of the Witch. The storms. The bare trees. The starving deer and elk. The cubs who froze to death before they ever learned to run. Long enough to remember the Red Cloaks who faced her in battle, despite their weakness and fear, and who finally forced her into sleep.”
He stood, looming over her. Without another sound, he turned and trotted into the trees.
Klya’s fingers clenched around her staff. She pushed herself to her feet and followed.
[End Part Three. Continue to Part Four.]