CovetedBy: Stacey Brutger
Only to be confronted by nothing but empty space.
The tumbling walls and buckling floor should’ve made her feel better.
The age of the place pressed down on her. The light made the shadows deeper, more ominous. The oppressive air weighed heavily against her bones, a warning that bad things had happened here. Not wanting to see more of the ancient passageway, she focused on the path and trudged through the small current.
The water was going somewhere. There had to be another way out. She’d bet the trapped dog had already fled topside, having better sense than to remain underground and drown.
An interminable amount of time passed while she trekked through the tunnel, ever downward, the only sounds of running water, the squeak of rats, and her own heavy breathing. Debris floated past. When a rat sailed by on a piece of wood as its own personal sailboat, she nearly fell on her ass to scramble out of the way. The little rodent lifted his paws, chattering as if calling her stupid for standing in the water.
After that, she stopped trying to figure out what was below the surface. Call her a coward, but she was better off not knowing.
One disturbing fact became apparent five minutes later. The rainwater was rising, pushing her deeper underground.
At the squeal of a rat just around the corner, she jerked her head up, and stumbled to a halt. She stared into darkness as she waited for something to emerge, so hyped up that she’d probably bolt if even a mosquito appeared.
The small rodent screamed bloody murder, and her heart thudded in her ears.
That wasn’t anger.
That was pure terror.
Something else was in the dungeons with her.
Shayla reluctantly flicked off her light so she wouldn’t draw attention, and silently waited another minute while her eyesight adjusted.
Not wanting to forge ahead empty-handed, she cast about for some sort of weapon. She was short, ten pounds overweight. Though her brother had trained her in self-defense, she had no special kick-ass ninja moves.
Debris had caught on something a few feet behind her. She slipped the strap of her satchel over her head and backtracked toward the mini-dam. Gritting her teeth, praying she wasn’t about to lose her hand, she plunged it into the water.
And encountered wood.
Relief almost sucked the air out of her lungs. She yanked, grunting when the stubborn stick refused to budge. Her fingers felt like icicles by the time the branch finally tore free. She stumbled backwards, slamming into the wall with a grunt. Her elbow tingled, threatening to go numb, and the wood slipped from her hold. She sloshed after it, barely catching the stick before it eddied downstream. She hefted the piece, unsatisfied with the weight, but she had no time to go back and search for a sturdier weapon.
She was getting too cold.
Her feet were frozen blocks, the icy chill had seeped insidiously through her body, down into her very bones.
She needed to get out of the water.
Pushing forward, very conscious of the way her heartbeat thundered in her ears, Shayla half expected to see skeletons reach out with their bony hands and drag her into hell until she became one of them.
So when she saw a flesh and blood man standing not ten paces from her, it took her a moment to process that she was not alone. The relief was instantaneous, and she leaned weakly against the wall, locking her knees to keep from sliding into the water.
The sight of him here, of all places, dumbfounded her. She opened her mouth to call out when small details filtered into her brain.
She was staring at an honest-to-goodness dungeon.
And he was very firmly locked on the other side of those bars.
The last thing she expected to find in a supposedly haunted castle was a living, breathing man.
She stood rooted to the spot, water swirling around them in a nosy rush, and stared at him through the bars of the cage. She could scarcely make out his form as he darted back and forth, frantically plucking things out of the current like a mad scientist bent on creating some masterpiece.
His hands were scarred, nicked and dirty, streaked with dried blood that water couldn’t wash away without some soap and heavy scrubbing.
It was then she saw the rat clutched in his fist, wiggling, scratching to be free. The man hunched over, lifting the little rodent to his face.
Then his intentions became clear.
A strangled sound caught in the back of her throat.
He pivoted in her direction, the movement so incredibly fast his shape blurred.
It was a toss-up which of them was more surprised. His face emerged from the darkness, a full beard covering him like some prehistoric caveman, making him nearly indiscernible from his surroundings. He sat crouched in a creepy way that made him seem more beast than man.
Thankfully, the old bars stood reassuringly between them, keeping her from bolting into danger like a halfwit.
▶ Also By Stacey Brutger
- · Coveted