Perilous

Short story From a Prompt: Prompt is a movie quote taken out of context.
PROMPT: “We’ll never succeed!”
“Nonsense! You’re only saying that because no one ever has!”

Maxine skirted the edge of the lake, clinging tightly to the small clammy hand of the frightened child she pulled along behind her. The murky water promised relief and a safety that the land currently couldn’t provide, but the timing had to be perfect. Hurried feet and gasping breaths, Maxine led the way, glancing over her shoulder often, and eventually pulling the child into her arms. “We’re going to have to jump in, do you understand?” She instructed with quiet words between breaths.

The little one nodded solemnly, clenching tiny arms around Maxine’s shoulders. Just ahead, the grove of trees she aimed to reach beckoned her forward, one specific and familiar one rising up sooner than the others. Maxine measured the distance in bounding footsteps.

“Are you ready, Dee?” she asked the child. Frightened blue eyes stared back, but tiny fingers came away from their tight hold around Maxine’s neck to plug the child’s nose. Maxine nodded, picking up speed with a renewed strength and finally leaping into the cool abyss.

Underwater, Maxine opened her eyes, peering through the murk for the promised glow that would guide the way. Dee wiggled free, changing grips to make swimming more easy for Maxine, who glanced gratefully back at her young companion. The light came into view, and Maxine swam at once towards the glow, hoping desperately that it wasn’t far. She swam hard, her arms stroking through the water, her legs kicking in synchronicity. As the light grew closer it gently illuminated its surroundings, and Maxine glimpsed the rock edges of the mouth of a cave she now approached. Dee’s tiny arm tightened around her neck, staying attached, though Maxine feared for how long.

Hoping that the information would not lead her and her companion into a trap, Maxine swam towards the light, surprised to see that the surface had become visible inside the bizarre cave. The pressure in her lungs had become nearly unbearable, and Maxine released some of it, allowing the bubbles to rise to the surface, one hand reaching desperately up towards what she hoped would be a ledge.

Another hand caught her wrist with thick, strong fingers and pulled her up out of the water, setting her down on the floor of the cave. Maxine coughed, and Dee slid off her back to the ground beside her, also coughing to regain the much needed air. Maxine examined the child through grateful eyes, glad for their accomplishment. Above and behind Dee, a blurry figure wearing a skintight full body swimming suit stood with hands on hips, watching the two, and another pair of masked people wearing identical uniforms stood behind the first with swords. The closest, a man with strong shoulders and thick legs, offered a hand to Maxine.

“Hello. I’m Roger.” The gruff voice of the man came from behind a thick mustache attached to a bushy beard. “Who are you?”

Maxine looked down at her tiny companion, who eyed Roger suspiciously, but nodded. “I am Maxine.” She replied, taking his hand and allowing him to pull her to her feet. “This is Dee. The Watcher told us how to find you.”

Roger scratched his chin. “Were you followed?”

“We can’t be sure, but I think not.” Maxine responded. “We were pursued on land, but I believe we lost them before we entered the lake.”

The two figures behind Roger approached. Roger turned to the one on his left. “Kill the lights. Just in case.”

The person nodded, exiting through a doorway behind them with the other sword-wielder following close behind. Maxine helped Dee up, taking the child’s hand for comfort, though she didn’t know whose body trembled more, nor if the shaking came from the cold caused by wet clothing, or the mistrusting of their newest acquaintance.

Roger nodded for them to follow him through another doorway. Dee tugged on Maxine’s hand, looking up with worried eyes. Maxine nodded, an understanding passing between them, and proceeded cautiously.

In the dark stone tunnel illuminated only by the sparse torches, Roger led them around a corner and up a slanted slope, making Maxine wonder how far below the surface they were. When they reached the final room, the mouth of the tunnel opened up to reveal a nature-made, man-improved space with a high ceiling and an unnaturally even floor. The walls curved in a rocky circle, jutting out strangely in some places. Roger turned on them with a sword of his own, raising the blade to touch Maxine’s throat.

“The Watcher is dead. We found his body yesterday, so who really sent you?”

Maxine gasped, trying to push Dee behind her, hiding the child from the attacker. Dee clenched the back of Maxine’s water-heavy garment, though one would be mistaken to assume that the child felt any fear. Maxine stared into the eyes of her attacker without blinking. His lip pulled back over his teeth with a snarl that made his strong face appear menacing. He pressed the blade into her skin with slightly more pressure now.

“I won’t ask you again, who sent you?”

“And I’ll tell you again, it was the Watcher.” Her hand moved slowly around behind her back, trying not to draw attention to the motion. She folded her fingers to motion secretly to Dee, who tugged twice on the fabric again, signaling readiness.

Six guards filed in around them from the entrance behind Maxine’s back. Each wore the identical suits, complete with masks that revealed only their eyes, and held swords with strong arms. They focused their attention on the two captives. Maxine’s eyes flicked between them, settling only briefly on each one, trying to take in any details she could later use to identify them. No distinguishing marks could be identified, making the effort a fruitless one, until one of the guards winked at her. In a single swift motion, the guard pivoted and pulled the blade in their hand across the stomach of the one next to them, initiating a fight in which Maxine smacked Roger’s wrist, moving the sword away from her throat skillfully, using her momentum to deliver a kick to the stomach of Roger, and crouching down, moving to a back wall with Dee close by to avoid the now chaotic and confusing battle. Maxine couldn’t tell which of the guards were in on this, and which fought blindly against the others.

When the fight concluded, the winking guard removed the mask, revealing her face and a long golden mane of hair. She stepped one booted foot onto Roger’s chest, causing him to raise his hands to her, and pressed the sword in her hand to the man’s throat.

“The Watcher sends his regards, pig.” She woman purred. Two guards remained out of the troupe. Both now stood silently behind the woman, protecting her from anything that could be approaching through the black opening, the hallway they had entered through. “Surrender to me and you may live.”

Roger spat, and his saliva contained blood. The woman pressed harder with her boot and Maxine realized he’d been stabbed, and now would likely bleed out. Roger’s eyes moved to Maxine, who squirmed under the hate in his expression. “I know what you’re after.” He said, the words coming out as something between a gurgle and a whisper.

Maxine swallowed, her eyes growing wide. Roger grinned, knowing he’d hit a nerve. Dee squeezed Maxine’s fingers, holding her back. The woman glanced at the two, then cut Roger’s cheek with the blade, causing him to cry out in pain.

Heavy boot-falls echoed down the hallway behind and the two masked figures tensed, glancing at the woman for a command. She ignored them, touching the blade to Roger’s throat again. “Not another word, unless it is your surrender.” She commanded.

“You’ll never get a surrender from me. Just as this little girl will never get what she came for.” Roger coughed, revealing how much effort the words required. The woman scowled down at him, and drove the blade into his chest just above her boot. Maxine shielded Dee’s eyes from the sight.

“Let’s go.” The woman directed, offering a hand.

Maxine turned from the woman to Dee, who stared at the unknown lady a moment, then nodded to Maxine, who in turn agreed to join the woman. “We will follow you, but there is no way out except the way we came in.”

“Sure there is.” The woman smirked. “Come.”

Running back through the dark tunnels accompanied by the two masked guards, Maxine couldn’t keep the panic in her chest from escaping in sharp breaths. They followed the woman’s long strides to an unfamiliar path in the cave, reaching a sharp incline on a twisting path, leading to a small cavern with a rickety rope-and-plank bridge. The woman ran across without hesitation. Maxine paused, unsure, but at the sound of the pursuit by many boots, her feet carried her forward, until Dee caught her sleeve at the beginning of the bridge. Dee’s brows pulled together, and Maxine stopped long enough to scoop the child into her arms and run after the woman. The two guards followed closely, keeping their swords at the ready.

One board broke under Maxine’s feet, causing her to stumble and gasp in surprise, but the guard on her left caught her under her armpit, hoisting her up and thrusting her forward. Upon reaching the other side, the guards began hacking at the ropes, causing the bridge to collapse with their pursuers just reaching the middle of it.

Maxine panted, holding Dee in her arms, watching the bridge fall. Her hair covered her face, and she made no effort to move it. Instead, Dee’s tiny hand reached around and pulled it to the side, tucking it behind her ear. She turned back to the woman, the leader, who urged her to follow up again, towards daylight. At the end of another tunnel, they emerged onto a high perch of a cliff edge, looking out over a treacherous waterfall which gushed out from an unseen cave beneath their feet, pouring back into another black cave far bellow the level of the earth around the bottom. To one side, the perilous perch lent itself to a staircase no more wide than the width of Dee’s tiny feet.

“We’ll never succeed!” Maxine gasped out, thinking more of her mission, which she weighed as worth the value of her life, than of the path that seemed their only option.

“Nonsense! You’re only saying that because no-one ever has!” The woman retorted, taking the first step.

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