The outside world was the best kind of terrifying.
Small and quick, Desstra darted from shadow to shadow under the light of the moons. Her teammates crept silently through the trees on either side. She felt exposed in the open air. So vulnerable without tons of rock overhead. But the unfamiliar night sky excited her, and the smell of victory kept her focused. They could win this.
Desstra sensed a pressure against her leg and froze. The trip wire was stretched taut across her shin. An ounce more force and it would snap.
She knelt carefully. She caught the thin wire between thumb and forefinger, holding it still as she moved her leg away. Her gaze followed the line to a bent tree limb. A small cluster of spider egg sacs balanced on the branch. The sacs were the size and shape of rotten fruit. No baby spiders here. They would be filled with poison, acid, gas, or something equally nasty. Breaking the wire would send them hurling her way.
It was a crude trap, hastily constructed. The ones she’d set showed more finesse. Hard to detect, harder to disarm.
“What’s the delay?” growled a voice to her right--Tanthal. Of all the dark elves who lived in the caverns of Deep Shadow, she liked him the absolute least. Couldn’t he see that she had narrowly avoided a trap? Probably saw and didn’t care. Tanthal was always critical of her. He was snide and superior. She hated that they were teammates, even if he was one of the two best students in the school.
Tanthal came up to her, a sneer on his pale face. She indicated the trip wire.
“We are in something of a hurry,” he said.
“How very helpful of you to point out the obvious.”
“If you’re done wasting time here--”
“Don’t get your tips in a twist,” Desstra taunted, but then her own sharp ears twitched. Tanthal noticed and stopped speaking. He was arrogant but far from stupid. The Wyrdwood held worse dangers than rival classmates.
There--a shadow in the tree ahead.
Desstra’s right arm whipped forward even as her left shoved Tanthal aside. He rolled gracefully and came to his feet. Then his lips parted in surprise when he saw the dart buried in the ground where he had stood.
A grunt of pain, then a dark elf dropped heavily out of the foliage. Desstra’s own slender dart gleamed where it stuck in the elf’s neck. He lay facedown.
“Is he--?” Tanthal began.
“Paralysis,” Desstra answered. “Diluted hemlock. He’ll be okay when it wears off in a few hours.”
Tanthal looked as if he might kick the unfortunate elf. She pushed Tanthal aside and rolled her stricken opponent over so he wouldn’t suffocate in the last of the winter snow.
“You’re too soft,” said Tanthal. “Leave him. We have a game to win.”
He stepped over their fallen rival. Desstra gritted her teeth and followed. Tanthal was right on both counts. A stronger poison would have been within the rules. And the stakes were too high not to play to win.
Tonight was the final exam, the culmination of two years of training. The classes had been sent into the Wyrdwood and pitted against each other in a contest that would test all their skills--stealth, sabotage, speed, combat, strategy. And an ability to operate on the surface. Only the winning team would graduate and join the elite members of the Underhand, the secret order that protected the people of Deep Shadow and acted as their eyes and ears in the world above. It was the highest honor, not to be cheaply earned.
Desstra, Tanthal, and a female elf named Velsa were all that remained of their team. They slowed as they approached the enemy camp. Desstra flattened herself against the trunk of a tree and peered through its branches. She saw the black banner where it fluttered atop a spear standing alone in a glade. There was no one around. No one she could see. Guards would be hidden nearby, and the area would be rigged with snares and other hazards.
She caught Tanthal’s eye, then pointed overhead and hoisted herself into the branches. When she was high enough, she climbed slowly out upon a limb. Balancing on her heels, she reached in her satchel for a spool of spider’s silk. The thread was amazingly thin but strong as steel. Her specially treated gloves could handle the web without it sticking to her fingers. She let it spool out, dangling the web level with the banner. The wind caught it and carried it toward her target. When the line brushed the banner, it adhered instantly.
Desstra waited while her teammates readied their weapons. Then she gave a quick jerk on the spider silk, yanking the banner, spear and all, from the ground. She caught it in one hand, then leapt from the tree. Around her, three rival elves broke from cover. Time to run.
Tanthal’s mace collided with one opponent’s skull. The student fell, sprawling, and didn’t move. But another elf was directly in front of Desstra, arms spread wide and wicked stilettos in each hand. His smile told her just how easily he expected to subdue her.
Desstra planted the spear in the snow, using it to vault into the air. As she soared over the surprised elf, she let something fall from her satchel.
The egg sac broke at her opponent’s feet, spattering a sticky fungal paste all over him. The paste swelled rapidly, turning into a nasty yellow foam that would hold him tight until it dissolved.
Desstra allowed herself a moment of pride. The object now was to get the stolen banner back to their own base camp. Her classmate Velsa would run interference for her. Desstra would carry the prize. Tanthal had balked at that--he’d wanted that honor for himself--but she was unquestionably the fastest runner in their class.
Unfortunately, the remaining opponent was almost as fast, and he outdistanced Velsa easily. Desstra skipped aside from his slashing knives. Then Velsa was there, grasping but failing to slow the rival elf. Something whipped through the air between them. Tanthal’s mace. But it didn’t hit anyone. What had he been aiming at?
The trip wire snapped under the force of the projectile. The bent branch hurled its cluster of egg sacs. Enemy and teammate were both showered in an explosion of choking gas. They went down together, clutching their throats and gasping.
It was all Desstra could do not to lob her own egg sac at Tanthal.
“Don’t just stand there after I saved you,” he said, bending to retrieve his mace. “We need to keep moving.”
Desstra hesitated, reaching into her satchel. She might have an antidote for Velsa.
“Leave her,” barked Tanthal. “She’d rather bear the pain now than fail to graduate due to your misplaced kindness.”
Now they were two. They ran on.
Copyright © 2015 by Lou Anders. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.