Ash lowered himself down the rope, hand over hand. The shaft of light from the crevasse above cast a weak, sickly light over the ground. Now that he was so close Ash could make out the debris and bones that Warren had mentioned mingled and scattered across the uneven floor.
Warren had already made it down the rope and stood stock still by the bottom, silhouetted by the sunlight. Ash supposed he was searching the area for danger. He gets to search for danger and I get to be blind. He hadn't realized how much this mission was going to rely on little things like light.
"Anything?" he whispered, clambering down the last few knots.
Spinning around, Warren glared at him fiercely. At least, Ash assumed he did. His face was entirely in shadow. "You idiot!" Warren hissed.
"What?" retorted Ash. "What's wrong?"
Warren glanced around at a large pile of debris in the corner nervously. "The things that live down here don't go for sight. They go for-"
Ash slipped and tumbled the last five feet to the ground.
"-sound," Warren finished, and drew his knife. "Get ready."
This time, Ash didn't say 'for what'. He unsheathed his ax - correction, his two axes - and lit a torch for good measure, jamming it into a pile of debris so he had his hands free. As soon as he did so he realized that the torch had been shoved through the eye socket of a giant rodent skull, but he didn't have time to fix it. Rustling noises started coming from the heap Warren had been staring at earlier, and it was starting to look horribly like a den.
"Dire rats?" he guessed, and was rewarded with a terse nod from Warren. The torch light flickered over the ground and rubble, casting long shadows from every chunk of rock or bone. The shaking of the den-like structure caused even more confusion, enough so that Ash didn't notice Anastri had appeared until she was right beside him.
"What's going on?" she whisper-yelled. "I leave you two alone for one minute-"
"No time to explain!" he real-yelled back. "Dire rats! Warren's fault. We don't know how many there are."
Warren looked indignantly over his shoulder and started to respond, but fell silent. His expression was a mixture of exasperation and terror, and he was looking right behind Ash and Anastri.
Dread settled in the pit of Ash's stomach as he turned around. Surely they couldn't be that smart.
They were. Another dire rat stood behind him, its beady eyes upon him. Ash had often considered rats cute, and sometimes tasty if he needed a snack. Now though, he wasn't so sure. This creature was almost fifty pounds, its blown-up features revealing all the little imperfections in its visage. Bent and chipped teeth snapped in its jaws, and little flecks of foam ringed its mouth. Its eyes were small, red, and very, very mad. Its claws reminded Ash of a bird's talons, bare and mangled, with several toes missing.
The rat hissed, as if aware of Ash's description, and pounced. At the same time a cry from behind him told Ash his friends were occupied with their own battle. Until one of their remaining group members arrived, he was on his own.
He tried to concentrate on the rodent and raised his axes, but the noise of fighting behind him served as enough of a distraction for the rat to make the first move. It leaped at his chest, raking its claws across his face before pushing off with its back legs and scampering away.
Roaring, he lashed out with his right-hand ax, and scored a line down the rat's flank. At the same time he brought his left-hand ax down in a sweeping arc, slicing off most of the tail. Behind him Anastri was whispering something. A glimmering blue light began flickering off the surroundings, telling him that she was casting a spell at her opponent. With a blinding flash, she released it. In spite of himself, Ash turned his head to look and saw the body of a rat, impaled by numerous shards of ice. The other rat in that direction also looked injured, and several shards of ice were sticking out of its side.
Something knocked him over and turning, he came face to face with his rat. It hissed and bared its fangs, breath hot against his face. He brought his legs up and pushed the rat off, sending it flying nearly twenty feet across the cavern. It landed with a crunch and lay still, bleeding from numerous gashes caused by his clawed feet. Breathing hard, Ash scrambled to his feet and turned to help the others with their rats, but the fight was over. The rat Anastri had hit with her ice spell was clearly dead, and the other had attempted to limp away before Salorien jumped down from the rope and slit its throat.
The heavy breathing of the group was loud in the silence. Salorien and Warren looked none the worse for wear, but Ash worried about Anastri. They had traveled together for some time before meeting up with the others and he knew that she didn't like killing things. Her face was set and she was holding the acorn on her bracelet so tightly Ash was worried it might crack.
He stepped toward her, but before he could say anything there was a thump from behind them. They all spun around, and came face to face with Ria landing on the floor by the rope.
"Hello," she said, breathing slightly harder than usual. "What happened?"