White hot pain punched through Lisette’s body, pinned her in place. A distant boom echoed in her ears; a warm wind gusted against her face. White washed her vision.
Everything stopped: her heart, her lungs, her thoughts.
Her suns flared. Absorbed energy. Her sight grew dark.
Lisette drew in a shuddering breath. Even that small movement hurt.
She was on her hands and knees. An electric crackle danced over her. Something must’ve caught on fire—a singed smell was in her nose.
The darkness cleared, revealed blurred shapes.
One of these was Naia scrambling towards her.
“Stay away,” Lisette commanded. The words came out thick, slurred. Her ears rang. Her muscles jumped with residual energy.
Only one raw thought burned in her mind. They have to stay away! They can’t take it.
“Lisette! Grab a hold of this.” Something touched her hand, her fingers curled around it.
The crackling pain poured out of her body, her suns flooded her muscles with healing light. Lisette clutched the rope and just breathed. In and out, sharp pain receding to a dull ache.
Voices above her head:
“… couldn’t do anything in time… Will she be all right?… They’re still out there… we have to leave now.”
Fibers prickled against the palm of Lisette’s hand. Smooth metal cords were also woven throughout the rope. She forced her fingers to unclench, to sit up.
Her body protested the movement.
The hut was covered in debris and dust. Pieces of the roof littered the floor, their ends blackened and burnt. Lisette looked down at the scorch marks on her clothes and sniffed.
She was the source of the singed smell.
Naia peered out the glass-less window. “I don’t see anyone out there right now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be back.”
Tamsin nodded, her face grim. She still held the glowing test tube in one fist. “That much magic from that great a distance? They may have had an amplifier. We won’t stand a chance against one of those. Lisette, can you go?”
Her eyes met Lisette’s, wide, desperate.
She’s afraid. The shock drove away the last of the fuzziness in Lisette’s mind, left her cold and taut. She nodded.
“What do you mean, amplifier?” Amber asked. The pattern mage had drawn her grey cloak tight around herself.
Tamsin didn’t answer. “Out the back, quickly. I’ll go first, Naia, you bring the rear. Amber and Lisette in the middle.” She thrust the test tube into her pouch and made a sharp gesture at her rope. It snaked ahead of her, its spiked front end raised, as if it could somehow see.
Amber helped Lisette to her feet. Her legs were a little shaky, but they held her up.
“Are you all right?” Amber’s face had a pinched, strained look. “You were hit hard by that lightning bolt. I thought your suns would fail.”
“I’m not that weak.” Was that really her voice, so raw and hoarse?
And she really did need Amber’s support after all. She had to lean on the other girl as they followed Tamsin into the empty sleeping chamber.
“If that had hit me, I’d be dead,” said Amber, staring straight ahead. “Thank you.”
“Just evening the score,” whispered Lisette as Tamsin’s ropes smashed through the flimsy exterior walls. Naia gestured, and a blast of air sent more boards flying in all directions. Lisette leaned away as a piece of wood brushed past her shoulder.
They hurried through the gap. Lisette’s back prickled as they came out into the open. Tamsin was heading towards the nearest wall, right for one of the boarded up mine entrances.
“Hurry!” Amber cried out.
Magical pressure began to build.
“Not this time,” muttered Naia and air stirred sluggishly around them.
“No time!” yelled Amber.
Tamsin was at the entrance, tearing at the boards. Wincing, Lisette quickened her pace as Amber tugged her along. Naia was close behind.
Splintered wood flew through the air. The girls plunged through the gap. Lisette’s hair crackled and lifted into a fine cloud.
“Further in!” Tamsin yelled. They stumbled down the tunnel. Amber tripped on the old rail tracks, nearly bringing Lisette down with her. She grabbed the pattern mage by the arm and hauled her a few steps, forcing her aching muscles onward.
An electric bolt slammed against the mountain. With a roar and a rumble, rock rushed down behind them. Rubble burst towards the girls; Naia flung out an arm, and wind sent the debris and dust whirling. Pebbles pinged against the walls, grit rained onto Lisette’s face.
She turned her head, blinking and coughing. “Watch out, Naia,” Amber choked out. In the darkness, the wind mage’s voice said sheepishly, “Sorry.”
Tamsin turned on her cryst-ring. A reddish glow illuminated the way they had come.
The entrance to the abandoned mine had completely collapsed. Rock filled the tunnel for several feet.
They were well and truly sealed inside.
Lisette hated the dark.
Hated the way it pressed upon her head, her shoulders. Hated its breath at the back of her neck, its musty scent in her nose, its cobwebby touch on her arms and hands.
She felt as if her suns were slowly dying inside her, extinguished by the overpowering dark.
The glower of Tamsin’s cryst barely made a dent in the tarry shadows. It was just enough to show them where to put their feet.
Lisette itched to release her magic inside in one bright burst. But absorbing the electric shock had taken a lot out of her. She had to hold her magic in reserve for whatever came next.
They walked in silence, single file. Tamsin led, her face painted with red light, a map of the mines hovering in front of her. The missing Stetson and Ray had done their work well, charting the old tunnels. Tamsin led them towards another exit, on the other side of the mountain.
They hoped no one was waiting for them there.
Naia followed Tamsin, her head up, as if sniffing for fresh air. Every now and then, her magic shifted and a cooler draft blew around the girls.
Lisette wished it would blow away the shadows. No luck though.
Wrapped in her cloak, Amber was a pale grey wraith. She twisted her fingers—she must be sending out another one of her ghosts. Trying to find a faster way, another exit. She turned her head, and Lisette saw her grimace.
No luck there either.
All around Lisette, her companions cast spells, used their magic. They all fought.
Only Lisette did not, oppressed by darkness. Helplessness lay stickily over her body and spirit.
This was just the same as before.
The same as being sent into the cellar or shut up in a closet when her magic manifested. The same as being hidden away by her own kin, lest she attract predators or worse, Chaos.
The same as being lost in the forest on a moonless night, hunted by beasts that showed only their creepy, glowing eyes.
Lisette’s skin crawled. Something rustled at the edge of her senses. In the lack of light, her hearing had sharpened unbearably—every step rang, every breath rasped, every shifting of rock scraped against her nerves.
“Blast,” said Tamsin disgustedly. She’d stopped and they looked past her to see why.
A pit yawned at her feet.
They stared down into the blacker-than-black mine shaft.
“This isn’t on the map,” said Tamsin.
Amber frowned. “All my ghosts have been sucked into it. The pattern’s really dense below.”
“Did we take a wrong turn somewhere?” Naia wondered.
Tamsin shook her head. “I’m positive we’ve been staying true to the map. They must’ve missed the shaft somehow.”
“Kinda hard to miss a gaping great hole,” muttered Amber.
“Most surveying is done with spells these days,” said Tamsin. Her mouth was wry. “That branch of magic is still in its infancy.” She jerked her chin towards the shaft. “I think we just found an error.”
“I’m sorry. I should’ve been paying more attention to what was ahead of us,” said Amber. “I was too busy looking for fresh air and light—a way out. Though”—she tilted her head as if listening to something no one else could hear—“several of my ghosts are tugging downward rather insistently. They think they’ve found an exit.”
Unease itched at Lisette’s skin. All her senses strained for that phantom tickling, that sensation of being watched and stalked in the dark. Didn’t the others see? Couldn’t they tell? It was too dangerous to stay up here any longer.
From their faces, none of them wanted to take the plunge into the shaft.
Naia said, slowly. “I think I can smell fresh air down there… or fresh something.”
“You could lift us down there, right?” asked Amber. “Like Troi with his air currents?”
Naia winced. “Uh, I don’t know about that–”
Warning screamed in Lisette’s ears. “We have to go now!” She lunged at Amber and Tamsin, grabbing them around the waists. Behind her darkness gathered into something with teeth and claws. “Follow us, Naia!” And she threw herself and them into the shaft.
Something swiped at Lisette’s hair as she fell—and missed. Amber and Tamsin yelped, but Lisette held them fast. Her wings and magic flared out in a blaze of light as they plummeted, slowing their fall. Shadows fled. The shaft became a great golden tunnel.
And then they were lighting down. “Landing,” Lisette warned and let the others go. She didn’t see them land, already draining her magic to go back up to Naia.
A swirl of air currents, and Naia came tumbling down, too fast, out of control. Lisette flew up, plunged through a stray wind, grabbed the Kaidan girl. Naia clung to her, the air went still, and Lisette struggled to keep them from falling.
She sent a last surge of magic into her wings to slow their descent. Rays of light painted the rock walls, then died. Rope snaked up to them, coiled around their waists, helped them down.
They landed, Naia with a soft oof. The impact reverberated up Lisette’s knees. Tamsin’s rope whipped away and coiled into her hand as she hurried over, enveloped in a ruddy glow.
“Are you two all right?” The vast space above their heads thinned her voice.
“Yes,” said Lisette.
“I…I think so,” said Naia shakily. A sheen of sweat covered her face. “I’m sorry. I lost control.” Her eyes were wild, troubled.
“It happens in times of stress,” said Tamsin. “You’ll get over it.”
Lisette didn’t share Tamsin’s confidence. Naia had fought in the tournament between schools. She was a competent wind mage. She should’ve had no trouble coming down the shaft.
Had Naia’s trouble with water manipulation spilled over into her air magic?
This isn’t good.
“That thing up there,” Amber looked up, then at Lisette. “I didn’t even feel it coming. It was moving in the spaces of the pattern. What was it?”
Lisette shook her head. “I don’t know. Growing up, there were always stories about mysterious creatures lurking in the mines.”
“It felt similar to something I saw in Heartwood once. Night crawlers. Kael knows about them.” Amber hugged herself.
“Can it come after us?” Naia asked.
Lisette’s shoulders tightened. She’d not experienced night crawlers herself. If you could fly, you could leave trouble like that behind.
Except she couldn’t take to the skies here, not underground. Could not escape the darkness. Could not even banish it anymore, not with her suns depleted.
“We shouldn’t wait to find out if it can,” said Tamsin briskly. “Amber, you said you’d found a way out. Let’s get going.”
“Don’t be surprised if the way out is a foot-wide hole,” Amber warned as she led the way through a tunnel branching off the main shaft. She’d found it with unerring precision, backed up by Naia’s ability to sense air currents. She went on, “I’m getting better at setting parameters, but the ghosts are still flimsy and unreliable.”
“An exit is an exit,” said Tamsin. “As long as there’s an opening, we can make it bigger. Unless–”
She broke off as they rounded a bend. Ahead of them was…
“Magic,” said Amber.
Light! thought Lisette.
Naia surged forward towards the bluish glow. “And…”
A musical tinkle came to their ears. Lisette realized how parched she was.
“Water!” exclaimed Naia, and the girls broke into a jog as the tunnel opened into a vast cavern.
Author’s Note: Ah, a mysterious cavern deep in the mountains. Whatever could it be? (Actually, to be honest, I got a little tired of the whole wandering around in the dark thing. Hence, the cavern.) Also, Naia’s shakiness with both her old and her new magic is concerning. She’s hit the point where she’s past the beginner’s luck stage, started thinking too much about what she’s doing and how she’s doing it, and getting herself muddled up. The timing of this is not good, but in a story, when is it ever?? And…Happy Thanksgiving to US folks! I’m scheduling this in early November, but you’ll get to read it on Thanksgiving Day!