Part 3

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They followed the winding tunnels for what seemed like hours, treading carefully every step of the way. The tunnel system was vast and labyrinthine; they crossed over narrow ledges spanning vast chasms, passed by subterranean lakes with water as dark and clear as the night sky. It was a place of beauty, yet also of horror. Eddy had to be pushed onward by Azrael on several occasions when they encountered the corpses of both beasts and humans who had fallen victim to the many dangers of the caves.

On one occasion they stumbled upon a mummified corpse no one could recognize at first. Cocooned against the wall, it had no head. Instead, a spider the size of a cat rose up from the shoulders, its legs curled below its body in a fashion that made it look as if they belonged to the torso. Eddy thought for a moment that the dead man was coming back to life. The sight almost sent Eddy running back down the tunnel, screaming. He managed to endure somehow, the guns to his back outweighing the dangers in front of him just slightly.

It was much to his relief when he saw sunlight, bright and pure, illuminating the end of the tunnel ahead of him. A fresh breeze played with the cobwebs shrouding the tunnel walls, yet his relief was cut short, because carried on the wind were the baying, screeching, and roaring of dragons. Inching his way toward the light, Azrael closed behind him, while the others waited back. Eddy saw that the tunnel ended abruptly and opened into the gaping maw of a shaft of enormous dimensions. As he edged closer, the cacophony of sound became louder, as did an almost oppressive smell of reptile.

Overcoming his disgust with the cobwebs covering the walls, Eddy slid past them and closer to the opening, trying to make himself as small as possible. Once he reached the rim, he saw himself staring into a shaft at least three hundred feet across that spiraled downwards into a bottomless pit. Swallowing hard, he wrested his gaze from the depths and, staring up, saw that the shaft reached upwards for several hundred feet, gradually widening to a funnel. The sun was just setting, and shadows were beginning to darken the walls of the shaft. Against the darkening sky, Eddy could see dozens of bat-like shapes flying and gliding above him.

It was a dragon den, the largest Eddy had ever seen or heard of. The gargantuan reptiles had made their lairs and nesting spots all along the walls of the shaft and soared in and out of their habitat by the dozen. The craggy walls were soiled by dragon guano and littered with the split bones of their prey. The air quivered with their roars.

Suddenly a strong hand pushed Eddy toward the pit and into oblivion—his heart skipped a beat—but then the hand was back, grabbing his arm and pulling him to safety. Eddy jerked his head around, his one hand coming up in defense while the other clawed for some hold on the wall. Secure again, he found himself staring into Azrael's skull-face. He was grinning like a boy.

"Just kidding," he said.

There was a gleam in the eyes of the dragon killer as he looked past Eddy and at the flock of dragons, something that Eddy had learned to recognize as sincere happiness. He didn't want to spoil this moment for the bounty hunter—even though he very much wanted to punch him in the face.

"So," Azrael said, his eyes still fixed on the soaring dragons, "where to go from here?"

A good question.

Eddy scratched the back of his head, peering again into the shaft. It was riddled with holes and openings, like maggot-infested cheese. He didn't fancy the thought of climbing out into the shaft to another tunnel, but the thought of going back was even less appealing. And probably more dangerous, considering how edgy the soldiers were by this point.

At least there seem to be no spiders in the shaft, he thought, and it was true. There was no proof of arachnid life in the vast shaft apart from the odd torn web. Probably the dragons picked them off from time to time, adding the spiders to their menu. The thought of him hanging out there pushed itself into Eddy's mind. He would be defenseless while a flock of dragons soared above him.

If just one of them looked down . . .

Before he could conclude the thought, Azrael nudged him and pointed toward the left side of the shaft. Following his outstretched finger, Eddy saw an opening not far from them in the wall that was unlike all the others. It was caked in filth, and a constant trickle of dirty water was flowing from it. Its size seemed big enough for a man to crawl through on his knees, and a vile smell wafted over to him. It reeked of rotting flesh, waste, and human excretions. He turned back to Azrael.

"Shit," said Eddy.

The dragon killer gave him a queer grin.

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