Side A – Nia
With one look at the steps leading down, Nia knew that descending to the Black Orchard’s basement was going to be more fraught with peril than staying to fight everyone in tavern’s main room.
“So do we step on every other step, or is there some pattern where the boards aren’t rotten to pulp?” Belhelen asked, pulling up short in front of Nia.
“The stairs have been here long before you were a sly smile between your parents and they’ll be here long after you’re dust again,” Feldrak, the Black Orchard’s current owner said with a scowl.
Nia noticed that while he led them down the stairs though, that he didn’t exactly slam his feet on the steps, and so she took care to walk in the same places he had.
“So what’s so special down here that we’re risking death by wood splinters to see it,” Nia asked, wondering if this was some clever method of luring her and Bel away from the valuable breakables in the room above.
“It’s not what you’re going to see,” Feldrak said. “It’s what you’re going to part of.”
Turning a corner in the stairs, Nia passed through a thick curtain to continue downwards. Though it was only fabric, the curtain had held back a stunning amount of light and noise, revealing the room below to be a far cry from the dank, dark tomb-like pit Nia had supposed was in store for them.
The room which spread out before her when she reached the bottom was larger than the Black Orchard. Nia guessed it represented a shared basement area for at least the nearest four buildings and the street which divided them into two pairs. The far walls held doors which might have led to a greater labyrinth, or might have simply allowed an exit through any of the four building the giant open space lay beneath.
From the cacophony that slammed into her as she passed beyond the thick curtain on the stairs, Nia saw that, though open, the space was far from empty. A sizeable crowd, larger than the one in the tavern above, had gathered and was seated around a wide central circle which was devoid of the clutter and people which filled the rest of the room. There was no mystery why the central area was empty though. The metal poles which rose a few inches apart around the entirety of its perimeter made it clear that whatever happened in the Under Inne, the events were focused within that circle.
“What kind of ring is that?” Bel asked. “It’s the right size for a fighting circle but the bars are what they use for wild animal enclosures.”
“You’re not wrong on either account,” Feldrak said. “At least if you listen to how some of the fighters talk about themselves.”
“So you’ve got a secret battle arena?” Nia asked. “And, just to be clear, you want us to beat up someone here to get some straight answers rather than doing the same to the paying customers upstairs?”
“Not exactly,” a refined older man said. Nia was pretty sure he couldn’t have looked more out of place in the seedy fight club if he tried, and a second glance suggested that trying to look out of place was exactly what he was attempting to do.
“Enlighten me then,” Nia said, her tone flat and neutral because something in the older man’s eyes was setting off all kinds of alarm bells in her head.
“Of course. What would you like to know daughter?”
Side B – Yasgrid
It wasn’t unreasonable for Marianne to hurl a knife at King. It clearly wasn’t a conscious choice. Not with how fast it disappeared from the sheath at her waist and thunked hilt deep into the earth a few inches from the shadow cat.
It wasn’t a poor throw on Marianne’s part either. Yasgrid only caught the motion out of the corner of her eye and even then only barely, but she was quite certain the knife had hit dead center where King had been standing when it was thrown. King simply wasn’t there when the knife landed.
“Trouble! Stab it!” Marianne put herself behind Yasgrid in the same fluid motion in which she threw the knife.
“Woah!” Yasgrid called out, far too late had King been in any real danger. “That’s not a Trouble. That’s King. He’s…”
Yasgrid paused, uncertain of quite what the shadow cat was, and, more importantly, what she dared call him.
“A traveler,” King supplied with indifference.
“From where?” Marianne asked, trapped between sharp rocks of ‘denial’ and ‘curiosity’.
“A foreign shore.” King’s answer puzzled Marianne, possibly in part because the Darkwood didn’t border on any oceans or seas.
It puzzled Yasgrid as well but that was because she still had virtually no idea where the strange, sightless realm King hailed from was. Or even what it was. Neither she nor Nia had been willing to look into it deeper given the difficulty they’d had in returning and the unknown dangers which seemed to lurk there.
“Ok,” Marianne said. “Why are you here then? What do you want?”
“A great many things,” King said.
Yasgrid suppressed a sigh. Despite the lack of distinguishing features on the living shadow, it was impossible to mistake King for anyone else than the talking cat he presented himself to be.
“Name one,” Marianne said, her patience for catty evasions far lower than Yasgrid’s.
“I am observing a predator,” King said, looking away as though disinterested in the conversation.
Yasgrid cast a glance over to Marianne. The thrown knife aside, it seemed odd for King to consider her a predator.
He is not speaking of Marianne, Endings said, pulling Yasgrid’s attention in the direction King was looking.
“What kind of predator?” Marianne asked, her voice low and dangerous. She didn’t need Ending’s supernatural assistance to work out that King wasn’t looking away them. He was looking towards something else.
The bottom dropped out of Yasgrid’s stomach and for a moment she refused to look in the same direction as King.
She knew what she was going to find there.