“It’s a bad plan.”
Tanner and I sat in the questionable shelter of a rotting hut. The Outlands spread out for miles on every side of us, broken only by the brush and thornbushes and the ugly silhouette of Whiskey Hill.
He looked up from the map with the sort of grin used exclusively by older brothers. “So, you just don’t like it?”
I gave him the glare perfected by generations of younger sisters. “I said what I meant.”
“Alright, hotshot.” He shoved the map towards me across the dusty floor. “Come up with something better.”
I snatched it and scowled down at the crude lines representing the discouraging sum of our knowledge about the system of caves that ran beneath the Hill. We’d gotten the thing from Dalton, the little town that had hired us, and they’d only been able to give us that much because a couple of them had been out here years ago, hunting and exploring. Their recollections, reliable and otherwise, were what they’d used to draw it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly detailed, and beyond one passageway in from the west, a chamber of some sort in the center, and a tangled warren of smaller passages to the east, we didn’t know what we’d find.
“So, Miranda, my great and mighty strategist. What do you see that I don’t?”
I grunted. “Not a damn thing. Looks like your idea’s the best we’ve got.”
An odd half chuckle escaped Tanner’s throat. “And here I was hoping you were going to pull our butts out of the fire again.”
A wry grin crossed my face. “Not this time. Don’t beat yourself up too much, though. I’m sure we’ve used worse strategies than this.”
He made a face at me, and I sent it right back.
The sky turned orange, then purple as the sun went down, and the outline of Whiskey Hill showed black against the stars. Tanner and I pulled on our packs and geared up by the light of a flashlight, keeping quiet as we did so. My pistol hung from my belt. Tanner strapped his rifle across his shoulders.
“You ready?” I asked, more because I wanted to hear my brother’s voice than because I needed the answer.
“Just about. Yeah. Let’s go.”
I grabbed the flashlight and extinguished it, slipping it back into my pack, and we started off into the dark. I went first. I’m a little quicker and a little more sure of foot, and I’ve always been better at picking a path than Tanner. That, and it meant that he got to keep watch for trouble.
The march to the Hill would have taken an hour under the best conditions. In the dark, worried that someone would see us and start taking potshots, it took even longer. We didn’t talk as we went. We didn’t linger. We just hiked, one behind the other, going slow and steady until we reached the low ridge that led up to the western entrance.
Whiskey Hill hulked above us now, massive, rocky, and unmoving. We crouched down, keeping low and inching up towards a scraggly tree that might disguise our presence. Whether it did or not, nothing greeted us. No shouts, no challenges. No telltale lights. No gunshots. Just nighttime bugs and birds conversing in hums and whispers.
I leaned towards Tanner. “Still think this is a good idea?”
“I never said it was good.”
He hadn’t. Bloody semantics.
“They couldn’t know we were coming, could they?” I asked.
“I don’t see how, unless someone told them.”
A second or two of silence stretched between us. “We’re sure the people in Dalton aren’t still pissed at us, right?”
Tanner’s non-commital answer was less than comforting.
The cave entrance was barely visible fifty yards up, a slightly darker black than the surrounding rock face, and the starlight was just bright enough to illuminate a narrow path leading up towards it.
My brother and I exchanged a look, and I shrugged. “Cover me?”
He nodded and swung his rifle off his back, settling its stock against his shoulder as I crept out and up towards the mouth of the cave. I picked my way between rocks and scrub brush, managing, by some combination of luck and practice, to avoid making too much noise. By the time I reached the cave, I got the impression it wouldn’t have mattered either way. There was no one there. I gave a sharp whistle, and Tanner joined me a few moments later.
“We’re sure this is where they took the kid, right?” My whisper sounded harsh in the interior of the cave.
There was just enough light for me to see Tanner shrug. “That’s what Cole said. They could have moved him.”
“If they were here in the first place.”
Tanner shrugged again. “At least no one’s shooting at us yet.” He gestured down into the darkness. “Shall we?”
“You want to take point?”
“Works for me.”
I slid my pack from my shoulders and retrieved my flashlight as Tanner did the same, and we gave a quick countdown before switching them on and searing the cave with light. Even prepared for it, it took our eyes a moment to adjust. As soon as they had, we started down the passage. I had my pistol out and ready in my other hand.
Our path was straight and even for just a few yards, and then it dipped down sharply into a savage descent that caught us by surprise and nearly sent us tumbling while the ground veered away beneath us. We both yelped soft words of surprise, and the silence that held our echoes was unnerving. The mountain felt empty. We kept on anyway.
We went sixty or seventy yards more before we got the first indication that we were where we needed to be. A pebble went skittering across the stony floor some way ahead, and a sudden void of sound betrayed the presence of something other than rock and cave. Tanner and I stopped cold. I forced myself to keep breathing, slowly, steadily, anything to keep my blood from hammering between my ears.
A glance at Tanner confirmed the same. So we continued forward. Inch by inch. Foot by foot. Down into the bowels of the mountain. And then we found them.
The passage turned hard to the right and opened up into the central cave. On the far side, a tiny campfire spat and guttered and gave off just enough light for us to see a pair of rough looking men and a slight figure that looked like it could be the kid.
We only had a split second to realize anything was wrong before it all went to hell.
They shot first. Not the ones by the campfire. Others we didn’t see. Tanner and I hit the floor, dropping and scrambling behind something, anything for cover. A bullet grazed past my shoulder. A stone collided with my shin. I doused my flashlight and fired back at sounds and muzzle flashes. Someone yelled. I shot again. And then I ran.
They must have made a lucky shot. Or the noise I made betrayed me. My side exploded in hideous pain even as I stumbled into some opening that led deeper into the caves, and I screamed and fell and rolled.
Nothingness opened up beneath me, and I was gone. I don’t remember hitting the rocks that broke my fall.
It was too long before I woke up. I was cold. Shivering hurt like getting stabbed. And the wave of relief that rushed over me as I remembered sent a weird giggle bubbling up my throat. It could have been so much worse. It should have been so much worse. They hadn’t gotten a clean hit. I wasn’t bleeding out.
I tried to sit up, but my spine and ribs and all the rest howled in protest. I coughed, and the tang of metal on my tongue suggested further injuries. I gritted my teeth and tried to push myself up again, and this time I succeeded. I would just have to wait a minute or two before trying anything else.
Everything was quiet. My movements, my boots scraping across the rocks, sent cold echoes off into the blackness, but that was all. I didn’t hear shouting or footsteps or gunfire. I didn’t hear Tanner. My stomach would have knotted up if it wasn’t already as tight as it could get.
A breath of air stirred up new smells, everything damp and stony and covered with lichen and cave water. I had a good guess where I was. That unmapped tangle of passages to the east. The one that led everywhere and nowhere. The one that Tanner had thought we could escape through, or hide in until we could get back out the other way. Given that I was alive, it seems he might have been right after all.
I called my brother several colorful names under my breath, more because I was here and he was not than because his plan involved bruised ribs. I promised myself I’d yell at him when I got out. He’d already be out, and I’d find him and the kid as soon as I escaped into the air, and then I’d yell at him until my face turned blue.
The worst of my throbbing subsided enough for me to get on my feet again. Slowly. I cast my hand around until I found my gun where it had fallen, and my fingers closed around the grip. I rolled to my hands and knees. I tried to stand.
I nearly rethought the whole thing as soon as the upward motion set my head spinning and reignited the fire in my side. I was about to accept temporary defeat when the sound of voices stopped me cold.
They were still far away. Too far away to understand. Close enough to know that neither one was Tanner. I sank back against the wall; my legs weren’t strong enough to hold me up. I steadied my gun in my hand and aimed it down the empty passage, into the black. I held my breath and waited.
A second passed. All was silent. Another slipped by, then a third and a fourth and more. The tang of blood and fear mixed in my throat, and I wondered if I’d imagined the whole thing. And then the voices came again and footsteps scuffed on rocks. So much closer. Drawing closer still.
“She couldn’t have survived that fall. We’d have heard her if she did,” said one.
“We’ve still got to get the body if we want the reward,” said the other.
I clenched my jaw and licked my teeth just to snatch a little focus. Just to steady my breathing. Just to give myself a fighting chance when they came around the corner. Just so they couldn’t turn in my body for a reward.
The beams of their flashlights preceded them by an instant. It was enough. My gun was up and aimed and ready. I fired as soon as I saw them. My shots went home. It was all over in three seconds. I breathed in deep, ragged breaths and stared up at the pools of light the dead men’s flashlights left on the walls of the cave. I could see their faces in one of the beams, and I recognized the one we’d assumed was the kid. We’d been wrong.
I was too exhausted to react when another voice flew through the quiet of the cave. Too spent. Too relieved. Too happy to hear my brother calling my name.
I heard a scrambling, and then he dropped down next to me. My whole face quirked into a lopsided grin, and I laughed and coughed all at once. “Got any more bad ideas, Tanner? I want to go home.”
Originally published as part of the 2017 Spring Writing Contest on shortfictionbreak.com.