Water. There was water everywhere.
It dripped from the forest of creamy stalactites hanging from the ceiling. It spilled down the walls and ran into swift streams that flowed towards the far side, screened off by rock formations. Here and there, half-seen between columns and curtains, lay pools as still as a mirror’s surface.
A symphony of water sounds—chuckles and chimes, gurgles and splashes—played on in the cavern, seeking no audience but singing for the sheer joy of it.
Bands of glowing material threaded the rock, lay alongside tiny silver falls, beneath pools, and within stone formations. Blue light spangled across the water and filled the whole place with a cool, calming, and magical aura.
Lisette sensed no threat. Eagerly she moved forward. This wasn’t the golden warmth she craved, but it was a lot better than darkness. She climbed on top of an upthrust slab of glowing rock and sprawled belly down upon it. Its hardness bit into her skin, but the trickle of silvery light seeping into her diminished suns more than made up for it. Magic cocooned around her.
She felt safe for the first time since they’d entered the mine.
Naia crouched beside a stream, her hands already in the water. Amber hesitated, her eyes flickering as she switched between her pattern and real sights, then joined the Kaidan girl. The two of them took greedy gulps of water in cupped hands, then splashed their faces.
Tamsin edged around the cavern, stopping to examine the glowing veins. There was a bright, inquisitive expression on her face.
Micah would’ve loved this place, Lisette thought. She drew in a sharp breath.
She had forced herself to not think about her little brother in years. And yet, her memory painted him everywhere—in the forest, now this unknown cavern.
A sour tasted filled her mouth. Lisette rolled off the rock. The jolt of her feet hitting the ground felt good.
This is real; that other thing is just a dream.
She went over to where Tamsin examined the tip of a stalagmite. “See.” Tamsin pointed. “Stetson and Rey must’ve been here.” Part of the glowing top had been sliced off by a cutting tool.
“Is this where your sample came from then?”
Tamsin patted her pouch. “Most likely. But they must’ve found another way in.” She squinted into the shadows of the far side.
“No surprise there. These mountains are riddled with caves and tunnels.” Lisette turned to the others and called, “Come on, you two! Amber, where’s that ghost of yours?”
Amber’s pattern sense led them to the far side of the cavern, following the path of the streams. Water gushed down the sloping floor. Several times they splashed through puddles. At least the gleaming substance remained, still lighting their way.
Amber reached out to it, fingers hovering, not touching. “It’s magic, I think,” she whispered. “But different. I can brush it, but not hold it. It feels like liquid light.”
“You get this sort of stuff in the Greyridge Mountains,” Tamsin responded. “I need to get back to report this. This changes, well, it could change everything.”
Lisette’s shoulders twitched. A familiar feeling draped over her. The world seemed greyer, dimmer.
Naia gasped. “What happened? The air got heavier, all of a sudden.”
Lisette glanced upwards, though the ceiling was lost in darkness. “Suppression,” she said briefly. “It resists magic. Also the sort of stuff found in these mountains.” She could barely unclench her jaws to shape the words. Her brief respite from the heaviness was over.
First the darkness, now this.
“Don’t fight it,” said Tamsin placidly. “You’d only waste your magic needlessly. Suppression isn’t evenly distributed. We must’ve hit a dense patch. We’ll get out of it soon enough.”
From the front, Naia said, “Shhh! Listen!”
A dull roar boomed above the aquatic cacophony. A chilly wind, flecked with spray, blew into Lisette’s face as she followed the others. Water sloshed around her boots.
Tell me all this water has found a way out! She peered into the gloom, hoping for a telltale spot of light. The mountains were covered in cascades big and small. As long as there was an opening, she was ready to dig her way out, even with bleeding fingers.
Amber stopped. Lisette almost ran into her, then stepped to the side.
A massive underground river rushed in front of them. They stood upon a triangular spit of land jutting out into the dark, crashing waters. The collected streams from the cavern ran past and cascaded into the river. The sound of falling water was lost in its echoing roar.
Blue bands in the surrounding rock glimmered faintly. There was no other light, no sign of an exit.
There was no way forward.
Finally, Amber said, “I lost the ghost. I think it got sucked into the river.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Tamsin lifted up her hand, the glowing red map once again in front of her. “This river is on my map. Once we get to the other side of it, we can pick up a tunnel that’ll take us to an exit on the other side of the mountain.
Amber shuddered. “I’m not getting into that water.”
Lisette nodded. “Even if it’s shallow, it’s moving too swiftly. If I had more magic, I could fly you across, but—” Her fists clenched.
She hated being helpless. Hated being grounded like this.
“Don’t worry,” said Tamsin. “We can hold on to my ropes as we go across. And Naia can do something about this water.”
“Yes, but…” Naia bit her bottom lip.
“You told me you made water bridges in the Shattered Valley,” Tamsin argued. “You can do this.”
“But that was still water. Anything fast-moving—rain, this river—I just can’t get out a hold of it!” Naia burst out. Her face was pale, her eyes enormous and unhappy. “It’s just not been working out recently, and even my air magic—” She closed her lips into a tight line.
“I told you,” began Amber, “it’s your suns–”
“Since I can’t see them, that’s not really helpful, Amber!”
Lisette broke in, “Crossing the river isn’t our only option. If we backtrack to the cavern, we can find another way out. Amber, you can send more ghosts.”
“I don’t have a map of that place,” Tamsin objected. “We could end up going around in circles for hours, days, but beyond the river is all charted out.”
“How can we trust the map?” Amber snapped. “It completely missed a freaking pit in the middle of the floor!”
“Calm down, Amber.” Lisette put a hand on the pattern mage’s shoulder. It was tight with tension.
“We can trust the map,” said Tamsin, “because many smart, skilled mages have worked on it. And I know for a fact the tunnels on the other side of this river have been explored and well-mapped and vetted by the villagers who have a claim on these mines! We don’t have much time; we need to get out of here.”
Amber’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, we know that your chief reason for hurrying out of here is so you can get your precious samples to Hampton!”
“Stop it, Amber,” Lisette broke in. She had never seen Amber be rude like this before.
Tamsin took a deep breath. “I’m looking out for everyone here. Or haven’t you noticed how oppressed Lisette’s been all this time? She hates the dark.”
Amber and Naia both looked at Lisette. Lisette saw Amber waver, regret in her eyes.
She set her jaw. “I’m fine,” she said, her words clipped. “We need to do what’s best for everyone.”
“And that’s to get out of here quickly and safely,” Tamsin pressed. “Remember that creature that was prowling around? Do you really want to go back in there?”
Amber’s teeth clicked together, but she said nothing.
After an awkward pause, Naia said, softly, “I’m willing to try. Crossing the river, I mean. It’s only a short distance. I should be able to do this.”
Tamsin beamed and seized Naia’s hand. “I know you can! Give it a practice go. I have experience controlling stuff that waves.” She touched the rope coiled at her waist. “I’ll help you.” She led Naia to the river bank and called up more light. The ruddy light of her cryst cast oily patches on the choppy water.
It didn’t look any less sinister in the light.
Lisette dropped her hand. “Sorry, Amber. But I think she’s right. This is our best chance. Your ghosts aren’t that reliable.”
“I know,” said Amber tiredly. “But I don’t think it’s right to push Naia when her magic is in so much flux.”
“She thinks she can do it.”
“Reality doesn’t care what she thinks.” Amber rubbed her eyes. “And right now, the reality is that Naia has lost control of both her wind and water magic.”
It was time to go.
Tamsin had chosen the crossing, and the longest of her ropes spanned the river waist-high from its surface. It was secured by a grappling hook on the far side, and tied to an outcropping on the near one. Tamsin had handed each girl a shorter length of rope. Infused with Tamsin’s magic, it coiled around Lisette’s waist like a living thing, ends tied together in a loop.
“I’ll go first,” said Tamsin briskly. “If something goes wrong, my ropes will respond to me the quickest.”
“I should be last on the water bridge,” Naia added.
Amber fussed with her rope and mist cloak. “I’ll stay near you, for reinforcement.”
That left Lisette in second place. Her wings shifted slightly, weakly in protest. She wasn’t used to hiding in the middle of the group. She grimaced.
The sooner I can get into the light, the better.
“All right, then.” Tamsin held the ends of her rope out to the main one spanning the bridge. The loop opened briefly, then tied shut again around the larger rope.
Naia, face set, swept her arms up in front of her, palms upraised up to the unseen ceiling.
Something broke out of the water, long and slightly rounded, like the grey back of a sea serpent. It snaked across the river from bank to bank. Its right side was jagged, constantly breaking and reforming against the ferocious onslaught of the current. Its left side streaked into bubbling foam.
Naia made a gentle spreading motion with her hands. Slowly, she lowered her arms.
The bridge wobbled a little, bobbed up and down—and stayed.
Naia let out her breath, broke into a smile. “How was that?” she asked Amber.
The pattern mage focused on the bridge, her eyes narrowed, intent on what only she could see. Finally, she nodded. “It’s good.”
“Let’s go, ladies,” said Tamsin and stepped onto the bridge.
Lisette clapped Naia on the shoulder. “Good job,” she said and followed Tamsin.
The bridge was thin and spongy underfoot. Every step, Lisette expected her boot to puncture its surface. Underneath it, the current flowed just as swiftly, its sound a sinister chuckling. Lisette held onto her tether. If the bridge collapsed, Tamsin’s ropes would keep them from being swept away.
Lisette fixed her eyes on Tamsin now halfway across the river. Let’s cross this quickly.
“See, I told you I could do it,” said Naia from behind, her spirits obviously recovered.
“Your suns still look like squashed peanuts,” Amber returned. There was a squishy sound, and Naia said, “Oops.” A moment later, Amber remarked dryly, “Good save.”
Lisette crossed the halfway mark and quickened her pace. She was almost to the bank when she realized the others weren’t following. She swung around. “Don’t dawdle, you two!”
Amber had stopped, squinting at the bridge. “Just let me reinforce this part.” Naia, too, was motioning more water into the rapidly thinning span. It was deflating fast.
The back of Lisette’s neck prickled a warning. “Hurry—!”
Something black and blunt dropped between her and Amber. It hit the bridge like a giant hammer.
Solidity vanished from under Lisette’s feet. With a cry, she plunged into the river. Darkness sucked her under. Water rushed over her head, filled her mouth.
A jerk around her waist. Lisette flailed, gulped air again. A hand grabbed her wrist, dragged her onto dry land.
“Amber, Naia!” Lisette shook off the restraining hand. She caught sight of Naia’s pale face, of Amber’s braid and mist cloak, bobbing in the river. Waves crashed over them.
A dark cloud erupted from the river’s surface. High-pitched shrieks and frantic wing beats filled the air. Lisette called up all the magic she could drag out of herself.
It came in drips and drabbles, thick light slipping off her fingers.
Ropes lashed through the shadowy flock, sent it scattering across the river.
Lisette flung herself down at the edge of the water, leaning out as far as she could, arm outstretched. Amber and Naia still clung to Tamsin’s rope, now snaking loosely through the water. “Grab my hand,” Lisette yelled.
The rope went taut, and Amber began pulling herself along it.
Above their heads, the bat-like creatures melted together. The thick mass reshaped itself into a long, thin blade.
“No!” Lisette screamed.
Naia and Amber disappeared behind the rush of darkness. The cut end of the rope flew through the air. Lisette barely felt it hit her shoulder. The black mass exploded into fragments in front of her face. Ignoring them, she lunged into the water. “Amber! Naia!”
Rope tightened around her waist. Cords wrapped around her wrists. “Don’t be an idiot!” called Tamsin. “You’ll only be washed away!”
Lisette hardly heard her. She struggled madly, futilely. The bats flew at her. Swearing low-voiced, Tamsin fought them off.
Sharp teeth sank into Lisette’s neck. She yelped, brushed off something cobwebby that tumbled into the darkness. A chill spread across her body, a fog shrouded her mind. Everything became a jumble of roaring water and shifting shadows.
Dimly, she realized Tamsin had taken her by the hand. Hauled her up, forced her back from the river, into the tunnels.
Lisette’s insides were frozen. Shivers ran across her body.
Over and over again, her mind replayed Naia and Amber vanishing behind the blade, into the river.
She had lost Amber and Naia to the darkness.
Author’s Note: Annd, things go from bad to worse. The party separated, two of them washed away. Lisette bitten by some creepy bat-thing. I shouldn’t be happy, but reaching this point is a big milestone for this arc. And now I need to go write the rest of it!
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