Lisette stumbled through a nightmarish world of shifting shadows and jagged splinters. Frost hardened over skin, cold sank into muscle and bone, turning them to stone and ice. If it hadn’t been for Tamsin’s urgent voice in her ear, Tamsin’s ropes around her body, she would’ve fallen, cracked, broken into a thousand pieces.
Her joints crackled with every movement. Shafts of cold pierced through her arms, her legs, her torso. Twin points of agony burned in her neck.
One last stagger, almost pitching onto her face, caught, held up. Darkness giving way to light… a thin distant light. Her eyes blurred with tears, she saw nothing at all. Felt nothing but the deep burning cold. Shivers ran over her body.
The world tilted around her—she could no longer tell if she moved through it or it moved around her. A babble rose above her head. She made out nothing at all, save the sound of Tamsin’s voice, glad, relieved.
Words slurred out through het stiff lips: “Amber. Naia.”
Hands grabbed Lisette by the shoulders. She would’ve winced away, struggled out of reach, but she was mostly ice. Even her lashes were frozen, her eyelids immobile, unblinking. A face, aged, weather-beaten, with deep-set eyes of a pale icy blue, swam into focus in all that white nothingness.
A name came to her: Wulf.
Fingers dug into her cheek and chin, pried her mouth open. Lisette nearly choked on the pastille they shoved into her mouth. It leaked bitter honey, tracing a thin line of fire down her throat.
She could move again, a little. Lisette brought up her hands—oh, how her icicle arms creaked and chimed—but it was too much. Her bones melted to water, and down she went, into darkness.
Lisette screamed as the ground fell away beneath her. Her stomach was an open pit, her entire body a clench. Wind whipped through her hair and howled in her ears.
Please, she thought, please.
And then something stirred inside her, a brightness. She felt light, as if she’d been turned to feathers. She drifted slowly downward.
Lisette unscrewed her eyes. A pale light bathed the trees, turning them into silver-gilt.
It took her a moment to realize the light came from her.
Lisette held her hands in front of her face, turning them in awe. They shone.
A terrible thought came to her: Am I dead? Am I a ghost?
The light vanished. Lisette plummeted. Her eyes caught sight of something moving within the trees—a figure.
She gasped out, “Help!” Then she hit the ground with a thud and blacked out.
“Wake up! Wake up!” Someone patted Lisette’s cheek, soft but insistent. The voice was unfamiliar.
It took some moments for Lisette to blink away the fuzziness from her eyes and mind. Then she shot up with a yelp, her heart thudding.
She had escaped the cellar, run out into the forest again, gotten lost. Oh, what would Mother say?
“Hey, take it easy.” Someone put a hand on Lisette’s shoulder and pressed her back down, against something soft.
Lisette stared up at a freckled face, greenish eyes, a ruddy braid, and a big, warm smile.
She said, blankly, “Did I fall?
The older girl chuckled. “No, it looked like you flew. Or, more like, drifted down. Good thing we came to find you. It’s dangerous this deep in the mountains.”
Lisette’s wondering gaze traveled beyond the girl’s shoulders to two teenaged boys at the campfire behind her. One, a pale thin youth with messy black hair and spectacles, stared back in interest. The other boy was facing away, hood drawn over his head, shoulders hunched, hands plunged into his coat pockets.
She had never seen them before, but all three radiated unfathomable energy. The girl made a small gesture with her hand, and a braided cord wrapped around a nearby mug, snaked over to Lisette, and offered it to her.
Magic. They were doing magic. Freely, openly. Unafraid of Chaos.
Dazedly, Lisette took the mug. It was hot in her hands. “Who are you?” she whispered. Her gaze clung to the girl’s face.
She gave a merry laugh. “I’m Tamsin. The tall dark one behind me is Keon, and the unfriendly one is Ashe. We”—pride rang out in her voice—“are Heartwood mages.”
Lisette woke with a violent twitch, stared wildly up into a leafy canopy covered in sunlit gleams.
Overhead, a bird twittered.
Her neck throbbed. Lisette put her hand up to it and felt bandages. Her nose was full of an astringent smell. For a moment she was back in the small nook off the kitchen, with the dried herbs hanging from the beams and clay pots of salve lined up on the shelf.
No. Lisette shook away the memory, winced.
Then she remembered again. The underground river. Her friends. The shadow descending, the water overwhelming. Her stomach clenched.
“Oh, good, you’re awake.” Tamsin dropped to her knees next to Lisette. “Can you sit up?”
“Yes.” The word came out a croak. Lisette grimaced as Tamsin helped her sit. She said, “Amber and Naia?”
She saw the regret in Tamsin’s eyes before the other girl spoke. “We were lucky to be found by a hunting party from one of the villages. They’ve sent out some of their men to scout out the nearby area, but they won’t go into the mines.” Tamsin took a deep breath, looked away, then back. “I’m sorry, Lisette.”
Lisette’s insides were still heavy and cold. The light slanting through the canopy couldn’t seem to penetrate her skin. Everything about her felt off, from the greyish cast to her vision to the strange leadenness inside her. She could still feel darkness threading through her muscles.
The part of her that did magic felt numb, asleep.
So what? “I’m going back inside,” Lisette said. “I have to find them.”
“Don’t be silly, Lisette! You’re in no condition to. You were bitten by just one of those bat creatures and look what that did to you!”
“It doesn’t matter. They’re my friends. I still need to go.”
“So you can die a stupidly heroic death?” Tamsin glared at her. “Is that going to help them?”
Lisette levered herself to her feet. “It might be stupid, but I can’t do nothing!”
“Nothing is all you can do!” Tamsin exclaimed. “Or have you recovered your magic already?”
Lisette bit her lip. She felt light-headed, short of breath. She wouldn’t get far.
“You nearly died in there,” Tamsin pressed. “If the villagers hadn’t found us, hadn’t had an antidote, three of us would’ve been lost.”
“They’re not dead!” Lisette’s voice lashed, whip-like, through the clearing. She glared at Tamsin. “Naia and Amber are not dead.” Her look challenged Tamsin to naysay her.
Tamsin didn’t take the challenge. She made a placating gesture. “All right, all right, Lisette. But please be reasonable. You’re in no fit state to return to the mines.”
But you could. Lisette said nothing out loud. Heavy silence hung between them.
Tamsin was the first to look away. “They’re both strong mages. Naia manipulates water, for goodness’ sake!” Her tone became more confident. “I bet they’re just fine. They’ll come find us, even.”
She went on in this vein for a while. Lisette didn’t know whom she was trying to reassure—herself or Lisette. Through the heavy greyness upon her soul, Lisette felt the prick of something sharp.
Disillusionment. She had always looked up to Tamsin, always considered her strong and smart and brave.
She could’ve done something more to save Amber and Naia. Lisette quashed the thought. She herself had been of little help. Wasn’t she just being unfair to Tamsin?
Still that feeling persisted, pinned to her chest.
A discreet rustle in the bushes ahead. A man came walking around them, an old man with grey hair tied in a braid and pale stubble on his chin. Yet his back was straight and the icy eyes he trained upon the pair hadn’t changed an iota.
Lisette stiffened. So it had been him, after all. All this running around, steering clear from her former home, only to fall into the hands of the Cloud Villagers
Wulf’s gaze passed over her with no recognition. He addressed Tamsin, “We’re returning to the village now. Are you coming?” His voice had roughened with age, but his tone was supremely indifferent. Lisette felt a familiar frustrated anger in her stomach.
Say no! she wanted to shout, but one look at Tamsin’s scratched, dirt-stained face silenced her. Dusk would be falling soon, and predators prowled this part of the mountains.
“In a minute.” Tamsin looked at Lisette, pleading.
“Decide now,” said Wulf, folding his sinewy arms. “Snoutbecks, yowgrims, and cloud cats hunt after dark. Chaos breaks through, invisible. We leave, with or without you.”
Lisette’s teeth clenched. It took all she had to stay upright, to keep her head up. Tamsin was right. She had to hope that Naia and Amber had saved themselves. If she thought she could find them herself, she would search, dark or no dark, magic or no magic.
But she knew her chances of being of help were almost nonexistent.
“Fine,” she gritted out. “We’ll come.”
“If you seek shelter with us, then you must follow our customs.” Wulf’s gaze clashed with Lisette’s. “No exceptions.” He held out whitish rings in his fist.
Bracelets of suppression. Lisette drew in a breath.
Tamsin put a hand on Lisette’s arm. “Please,” she said softly. “Just put up with it this once.” Outside from the camp, something—probably a yowgrim—raised an eerie howl. Green flashed in the mist surrounding the peaks in the distance.
Lisette let out a harsh sigh. “All right.”
Her head broke the surface. She took in a half-gulp of air, then water crashed over her again. She flailed, fingertips skimming across rock. The current swept her on before she could grab a hold of anything.
Once, her shoulder and head smashed against a protrusion. Pain sparked white in front of her eyes. Momentarily immobilized, she couldn’t grab the rock before the river dragged her on.
Do something! she yelled at herself. But even her magic was in chaos. She tried to grab hold of something—anything—but the water whipped through her grasp. She gasped, spluttered, was swept away.
In her ears, the river roared. In her eyes, nothing but darkness.
And then the bottom dropped out from under the river.
Water plummeted, and so did Naia. Tangled in a thick sheet of it she fell… fell…
Once more, Naia hit water. The force of her fall plunged her down… down… down…
Blue glimmers in the darkness.
Naia unscrewed her eyes.
Beneath her, under more and more water, the rock glowed. Blue light covered the bottom of the water, as far as Naia could see.
She floated above a sheet of shimmering blue, speckled with silver.
The current that had pushed and pulled, crashed and dragged her along was gone. She was no longer in the river, but some kind of lake.
And just out of her reach was magic, emanating from its bed.
Please. Naia opened herself to it. She felt it move through the water, brush against her skin. It wrapped around her like a silky scarf. The pressure in her lungs from holding her breath eased.
Naia stretched out her arms and the magic pooled into her hands. The water sparkled blue; the entire lake seemed to be aglow. Dark fish shapes whispered through every now and again. Naia looked up and saw a shadow falling in through the water. Tattered wings seemed to outline it.
The blue light touched a pale face, eyes closed; a cloud of fair hair.
Amber! Gathering the magic to her, Naia darted through the water. It made way for her at the front, pushed her along from behind.
Right here, right now, manipulating water felt so easy. Easier than it ever had. The whole lake lay under her control; in fact, it seemed eager to help.
She grabbed the unconscious girl around the waist, shot up towards the surface. Their heads broke water and Naia inhaled cool, musty air. Amber’s head lolled against her shoulder; she spluttered, coughed up water. Her eyes opened to slits, she took in a shuddering breath.
Naia drew up thick ropes of water around the two of them. A watery tower lifted the girls up out of the lake, then rolled across the surface to the edge of the lake. Naia made a one-handed gesture, and the ropes eased the girls onto the shore.
Magic and water slipped away from Naia. The feeling of power vanished as the blue-flecked ropes lost shape, fell back into the lake with a small splash.
“Thank you,” Naia said.
They sprawled at the edge of a glowing lake that lay like an opal in the center of yet another cavern. On the far side, a white cascade crashed into the lake, churning up water into a white froth.
Amber moved, weakly, drew away from Naia. Her eyes were enormous in her scratched face. Her clothes, like Naia’s, were torn, the mist cloak in ribbons.
“Well,” she whispered, her voice hoarse as if it, too, had been scratched by rock. “We survived. Now what?”
“I smell fresh air,” said Naia, tilting her head in that direction. “Let’s finally get out of here.”
Author’s Note: Merry Christmas! By the time you see this, it’ll be Christmas Eve. Right now, as I write, it’s early December and we have our tree up, lit, and decorated. I’m enjoying sitting on the couch and looking at it. See you in the New Year!