I’d never liked being underground. Let alone underground in the sewer system and caves. The sewers stunk, as most sewers do, and I was thankful my clothing was mostly immune from the filth. It wasn’t part of my construct, so most of it sloughed off as we passed through it. Dare fumed under his breath, but I ignored him.
As we got closer to the caves, the tunnels narrowed. After going past the final sewer grate, the sewage dropped off and we had to bend at the waist to keep our heads from scraping the ‘ceiling’. Not too long after that, the tunnel declined and spiraled, and stairs were roughly carved into the limestone.
“No wonder this loon doesn’t come to the surface often. Would you if you had to climb all these damned stairs?” Dare asked, and huffed out an annoyed sigh.
“Or maybe she wants to discourage visitors,” I suggested.
“Consider me discouraged,” Dare said scathingly.
“Don’t get persnickety with me,” I shot back, and ducked down quickly from a small stalactite. Since Dare was right behind me, and the lighting was poor, he smacked his face on it.
Dare cursed using some of the most vile words I’d ever heard from him. He must have been hanging around the rougher parts of town to pick those up.
“Ooh, I’m telling Mother,” I teased.
Dare scowled. “Mother can go snorg a duck for all I care.”
Shock rippled through me, and I gasped. “Dare!”
“What? Like I care. Let’s get this over with,” he grumbled.
I shook my head and didn’t reply. I wasn’t really going to tell mother, but he couldn’t speak that way around the littles. Guards hate street kids already, without having a seven year-old shouting profanities in the market. If given half a chance they would, and at the worst time possible.
The stairs continued downward. The only sounds in the tight space were the splats of water off the stalactites Dare was more cautious about, and the soft shuffle of our feet. Just when I wondered if we’d reach the Netherrealms, the floor bottomed out. The final step down was jarring. I’d expected another step, but was instead met with floor, and I had to catch myself before I fell.
Dare snickered. “Serves you right.”
I continued my earlier tactic to ignore him, and looked around. The cave had a bluish-green glow. I approached a wall, curious about the light, and discovered it was some kind of fuzzy plant.
“Look at this, Dare,” I said, and reached out to touch whatever it was.
Dare slapped my hand down, and the sound echoed through the large chamber.
“You don’t know what that is, Jolly. Don’t go touchin’ it!” he admonished.
I glowered at him, but didn’t respond. Instead, a scraping sound, like something heavy being dragged across the floor, filled the cave. It was punctuated by something striking the limestone at regular intervals. I swallowed, and exchanged a wide-eyed glace with Dare.
“What is this? Two little godlings come prancing to my parlor, like little flies to the spiders web,” an old woman’s voice cackled.
To say her words bounced off the walls would be inaccurate. They reverberated through the chamber, like the vibration of a bell being rung. Along with the other sounds, it made it impossible to tell where Babaga was.
I swallowed again, my voice not wanting to cooperate. “Not flies to a spider’s web, but instead children to seek a wise woman’s advice,” I replied, voice tremulous and hopeful.
No one knew what Babaga was, or how old. The one god I’d asked who’d been around as long as, or longer than, Kairon, said she’d been there before the city was built.
“‘No,’ proclaims the tiny fly, ‘I’m not here for tea.’ Instead it seeks to gather knowledge of what is meant to be,” she continued in an eerie sing-song voice, then clapped and squealed with glee after she was finished.
“Yes, Kairon sent us,” I said slowly, not sure if I should mention the priggish god. With how Kairon reacted to her visit, and how Kairon acted in general, doing so was hit or miss on whether it would be helpful. Or not.
I inched forward, toward what I guessed was the middle of the cave. Dare held the back of my shirt in a tight grip. Each time I moved forward he protested by pulling on my shirt, but moved along reluctantly with me when I wouldn’t stop.
“‘The snake has sent us from his lair, to roust the spider out.’ Her venom weakened the vain god’s nerve, and with his forked tongue seeks to stay the inevitable with little morselssss.” The final word was drawn out and sibilant, and it made my breath catch.
“Are you saying he sent us down here to die?” I asked. Dare froze behind me, and sucked in a breath. We both stopped moving forward.
“Such a smart little insect. Woe, too late. Dinnertime is upon us, and gazing makes us so hungry.” Babaga’s voice deepened with the final word, and came out as a growl from all sides.
“Hark!” a voice boomed from behind us, shaking the ground and rattling our teeth.
Dare and I screeched in surprise, while Babaga howled in anger. There was also a thread of fear in the sound, or maybe I was projecting. Or hoping.
“The pretty bird has come to eat the ssspider,” she hissed. “Would it care for little insects instead?”
“Nay, vile creature. Speak, and give no further chase,” the voice continued.
Slowly, I turned to look past Dare, whose eyes were closed and his head shaking ‘no’ in a continuous motion. I always had to look.
They were tall and male. Even if the light hadn’t been almost too dim to see him, his hood was too deep and pulled too low to make out his face. A soft, white glow emanated from behind him. It threw a shadow over his body, which was covered from neck to floor with a robe that was gray in the gloom. There was also a strain in the air around him, like a person holding a rope on a pulley, trying to keep a boulder from falling to the floor.
“Clever little flies should remember birds eat them, too,” Babaga said.
I whipped my head back toward her. I’d never actually seen Babaga before; only heard stories. Judging by the scream trying to scramble from my throat like a cat out of a tub full of water, the stories didn’t do her justice.
She’d said she was a spider, and she wasn’t far off. Her mouth was small and pursed, revealing only pointed upper and lower front teeth. She scuttled over the floor. Her elbows were out wide with spindly arms, and her legs were similarly frail and in a position impossible for a human–thighs in a straight line with her hips, and feet flat on the floor. Her hands had only two finger-like protrusions, and an opposable thumb. One of them held a thick, gnarled cane, which was probably what made the thumping noise as she tried to walk earlier. What little clothing she had was ragged, and didn’t manage to cover much of her body and its coarse, white hair.
It was the eyes, though, that got me; twitching and moving in different directions. All eight of them. They were a dull bluish-green, much like the glowing plants on the walls.
“Enough,” the man boomed again. “Speak.”
Babaga screeched and cowered back from the voice, as though it hurt her. She hissed between pointed teeth, and glowered with a few of her eyes at us.
“Three. Questions three I’ll answer thee. Ask them right, or doomed you’ll be,” she spat, unhappy and reluctant.
You ever had one of those moments where you a thousand questions were running through your mind, but the minute you get a chance to ask them you go blank? I was having one of those. It also didn’t help that I was stuck between a creature that wanted to eat me, and likely could, as well as a creature that the first was afraid of.
What had I gotten us into?