After what felt like an hour of carefully planned mining I needed one last Honey. The problem was the badger blocking my way to it. Well, it wasn't exactly blocking, more like, if I didn't kill the badger, it would kill me first. If I had enough durability I would charge my bow and destroy it but I only had a few points left, with no energy bubble in sight.
The honey trap sparkled under a cage where a badger crawled from left to right. Above that an ice boulder perched, ready to crush. My only path to victory lay with drilling down into the cage, dropping the ice, and then using my last four points to drill under the ball so it could drop onto the honey.
After waiting for the badger to walk to the far end of the cage, I created a hole directly above the honey and pushed the boulder. In my mini map, I saw the creature turn and hiss.
I took the chance and dropped down next to the ice then dug into the floor. I moved left under the boulder. The badger dropped into the hole I’d created. It raised both claws and froze. I was trapped in my own plan.
I could say yes. It would be so easy. But then I'd have one less Death Saving Crystal for the fight with Nenvari. One less chance to succeed at saving Matt.
Its sharp claws tore into my flesh. Bones snapped. Pain. Blackness.
“Would you care to continue, Miss Knight?” Mr. Black said. He held my book in one hand, his scythe in the other.
“Not just yet. Did you finish that?”
“Many times over. For me, it's been weeks.”
The realization hit me that he could spend years in the place between life and death without ever seeing me. No wonder he treated me differently every time we met. And how long had it been for him since he fought the demon? Apparently, long enough that his severe injuries had healed without a trace.
“I don't think I'm ready to reread that history so, go ahead and keep it until another death.”
“Then what do you plan?”
I held up the etiquette book.
The manners of the Fae courts were strange and ethereal. They would never ask a direct question, only imply it. They took pleasure in figuring out what each of them wanted through their subtle hints and use of quotes from classical Fae literature. They punished courtiers for bad insults and celebrated the good ones for years. Deciphering the book made my head feel like someone hit me in the temple with a soccer ball, even when the author wrote for 10-year-old readers.
My eyes ran over a highlighted section for the tenth time and I finally registered what it said. I set down the thin book as adrenaline ran through my system.
“I figured it out!”
“Hmm?” He peered over at me.
“In order to defeat Nenvari and rescue all the children, I need to challenge him formally!
“If I win, I free the children and he and his kingdom agree to never kidnap them again. If he wins, he'll get me.”
I grinned at Mr. Black.
“I'm afraid that won't work.”
“Right now, you are already in a challenge with the Prince. If you win you only get the children, not an agreement to never again kidnap children from your realm. And if he wins he already gets you. There is not a sufficient incentive to change the challenge.”
“So what would be sufficient?”
“First, discover why they’re taking children.”
“I thought kidnapping was just what the Fae did for entertainment.”
“They have been known to steal a child now and then, but a scale this large is unusual. Why are they doing that?”
“I don't know. Maybe they’re siphoning off their life force or something to save someone?”
Mr. Black snorted. “Why would they need to do that when their magic can heal any wound? And the rich can hire Reapers to bring back the dead?”
“Then, I don't know.”
“Find out and offer something of nearly equal value or something Nenvari cannot say no to.”
“I'm stuck in these mines and everyone is as closed-mouthed as you. How am I supposed to find out more information about what they’re doing with the children?”
“Win against the next floor protectors and select information as your prize.”
“Considering what I went through with Meeks that is harder than it sounds.”
“Well, I better get started on that.”
“Reread the history first.”
“But all it has in it are wars against Light Fae with an emphasis on, generals, kings, princes, and princesses. It doesn't tell me how to defeat Nenvari.”
“No, but knowing who the people are around him and what he's been through will give you a greater understanding of your enemy.”
I sighed a tapped my chin. “He's been through so many wars. He's going to be impossible to beat.”
“Not impossible. He's also seen long periods of peace when he let himself relax and forget the horrors of war.”
“Kind of how I let myself relax here. I notice that I take things slower every time I stay here for long periods of time.”
“Okay. I'll reread it and then I'll prepare to defeat the next floor boss.”
“Don't take too long. Every minute you're in the mines is a minute you're away from your home and family.”
It had already been over a day. My mom must be worried sick. “I'll try not to tarry.” I blinked. “Look at me using words like, ‘tarry.’ Stupid Etiquette book.”
“It's for the best that you internalize it. You never know if you’ll slip up when it becomes important not to.”
I eyed him. “That kind of sounds like you know from experience.”
“I'll take you back now, after all.”
“Aww, did I hit a little too close to the truth? Hey, don't glare at me like that. Fine. I won't mention or ask about it again. But I do find it suspicious that only the rich can afford Reapers and yet you're working in these mines for, as far as I can tell, no money.”
“You don't know anything about my situation. Nor can I speak of it. Now, follow me, Miss Knight.”
“All questions and no answers makes Kelly a sad girl.”
“Stop dawdling or the things between life and death will haunt you.”
I ran after him.