Nikol was beginning to be a little sick of Aran’s attitude. “I didn’t say, ‘get down there and hunt me some sewer alligator.’ If you don’t want to, we have stores enough that you don’t need to.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to! Just that…” He trailed off, muttering. “This is stupid.”
“It is,” she agreed. “We’re not in safe territory. Let’s save the fight for when we’re off in the countryside again, why don’t we?”
“Ma’am, yes, ma’am.” He did another fake bow.
She didn’t rise to the bait, just rode a little further. Suddenly, her mental map showed her something – what? An obstruction. Where had that come from? She lifted her hand, using military sign her troupe had used and hoping it was close enough to what he had used: stop, proceed with caution, unknown ahead.
It was moving slowly but determinedly. She consulted her mental map again and couldn’t tell where it had come from nor where it was going, except that it seemed to fill the road.
And then the weight and the feel of it slogged slowly a little further across the road. They managed to take a few steps forward, then another few, the horses dancing and tossing their heads. They didn’t like what was coming – or the tension they were getting off of her and Aran.
He made a sign she could clearly recognize as what the fuck?
She made a sign for obstruction and possible hostile. They rounded the corner.
It was – it was a slug? The world’s biggest, greenest slug. It looked like something out of a nightmare, something some mad fae had dreamed up in a sewer somewhere. It seemed to take up the entire road.
It seemed to be looking at them.
The slug turned at the sound. It was moving much more quickly now. It was getting lined up, facing down the road at them.
“We should leave.” Aran’s horse barely needed a suggestion to do just that, reel and go the other way. Nikol’s was right behind her.
Aran was heading without goal, it seemed, but away was seeming like a bright idea. Then he clattered his horse over a bridge and she found herself smiling.
His hands clenched on the reins. “Stop it.”
“What, calling you smart?”
“Yeah. That. What? Oh, the bridge. It’s that or a salt mine and I don’t know where one is around here.”
The slug had caught up with them, but it inched out onto the bridge and stopped, inched again, stopped again.
“So? New plan, boss?”
“Good call.” She closed her eyes and pulled up her mental map again. “Right. The horses aren’t gonna like this one, but they’ll have to deal. Forward one block, to the left, then forward again.”
A few minutes – and no slug following them – they came to a building that was more or less intact, the or less involving part of the first floor. It looked far less stable than it was, according to Nikol’s senses, but there were a couple missing stairs on the way up to the second floor.
“Can you convince them to climb that if I make the stairs stable enough for them?”
“With effort.” He dismounted and closed his eyes, murmuring a Working as if he was saying it to the horses. While he did that, she did her own Workings, putting in stairs where there were none, made out of force and her own will.
“Good to go?” He had both bridles in his hands and had the horses lined up with the stairway.
“Good,” she nodded.
Even with the Workings, even with Aran’s hands guiding them, the horses were skittish all the way up the stairs. Nikol gave them plenty of space as she followed them up, and circled wide around them. “Two rooms this way. Think it was an office suite. Horses can go in the first one, we’ll go in the second one.” She let up the Working holding the stairs in place and opened the door for the horses.
“We owe them some apples,” he muttered. “I promised them apples and sugar cubes, and I’ll have to promise them more to get back down.”
“Then they’ll get their apples. And sugar cubes,” she agreed. “We might have to do some scavenging to find them, but I’ll get what you promised them.”
“That’s kind of you.” He led the horses into the former office. “Looks like… CFO Hettie Johnson is going to have to deal with horseshit on her carpet.”
“Somehow, I doubt she’ll mind.” She helped him move the remaining furniture out of the way to give the horses the most room to move around and measured out some of the grain she had Worked at their last stop. “Can you water them?”
“Of course.” He sounded a little offended. “Are we camping in the next room?”
“Yeah, I’ll work on that and dinner.”
When she had the second room – something like a conference room, she thought – set up into a passable bedroom, in part by stealing all the cushions from every room on this floor and the next, and the grains she’d put to cooking were ready to eat, Aran came in from the “stable.”
“You really get homey fast. I bet if we’d stayed in that cave more than one night, you would have hung curtains.”
“You should’ve seen my campaign tent. I miss that,” she admitted. “It had curtains.”
“I – wow, I was kidding, but okay.” He sniffed at the food. “No more ‘Lucky Charms?’”
“I don’t think those are actually food. This, on the other hand, I’m sure of.” She laid out food in two bowls she’d found in a cupboard. “Bonus? The lady whose office this was kept a bottle of bourbon in her bottom drawer. Also some meds in the top drawer.” She laid out her finds. “I’m not sure about the Twinkee, but maybe we can feed it to the slime monster if it trails us again.”
“Your, uh, your thing will tell you if it’s coming up the stairs, right?” He sniffed at the Twinkee package and settled for the grains and the bourbon instead.
“It will,” she assured him, “but if it does come over the bridge, I don’t think it will come up the gaps in the stairs. On the plus side, if anyone is tracking us, that thing is now on our backtrail.”
“Almost makes me feel sorry for them – except that they probably work for the Mountain if they’re coming after us.”
“Or more mercenaries,” she pointed out. She’d found a couple old Chinese-take-out sauces to add to the grains and quite liked the effect. “I don’t know what happened to my troupe, after all. They might still be intact.”
“But you ran. You took me and ran.” He picked up the bowl of food but was watching her, not eating yet.