Chapter the Fifth
Her entrance had not been as grand as she had hoped for. In fact, it had been somewhat unremarkable. Once they had passed through the doors, they found the interior of the tower to be no more than a very large open space. After the implacable and towering exterior, the relatively unadorned large hall was something of a disappointment. The main portion of the room was slightly recessed; it took a few steps down to walk from the elevation of the foyer to what she perceived to be the auditorium. The foyer encircled the auditorium and was some twenty paces wide. A glass and steel banister kept the less sober guests from falling over into the recessed auditorium.
The room was vast. It was difficult to tell how big it really was, given the smoky translucence of the walls and the dim night that made its way through those walls. Light globes spun of Fire and Air and Water were sprinkled throughout the room, and a massive chandelier of what seemed to be real glass hung suspended without chains in the center of the room, effusing the area with a soft white light that blended with the darkness at its outer reaches. She saw many guests with small light globes following them around of varying intensities, and Adara supposed it had to do something with expressing privacy or annoyance or some other not-so-subtle expression of emotion. “Understated” was not a word normally associated with Aeyn.
It was only moments before a courtier wearing Orben’s colors found them. “Your Highness and my lady Nadine, I welcome you to the Tower of Earth,” he crooned obsequiously as he bowed low, his eyes never leaving theirs. Long black hair was slicked down with oil and pulled back, exposing the noble’s peak; it was no doubt an emphasis on some conceived additional nobility imparted by his hairline. “Please feel free to partake of the food and drink that you will find along the sides of the room, along the walkways. The Duke sends his apologies; he is in chambers at the moment, but will avail himself to you once he is free.” His thin lips pressed together in a compressed smile, giving him a vulpine appearance. “Please take a care to exercise some restraint among the cadre attending tonight, my ladies. Not all are as gentlemanly as I am. And there are more than a few with constitutions that would fail at your beauty.”
“No need to worry,” Arron responded for them. He was a few paces back, and Adara did not need to look to know that his eyes were looking for threats at every step they took. “The ladies are more than capable of taking care of themselves. Your guests will have me to protect them from the wrath of her Highness and the lady Nadine. Do not worry yourself overmuch.” Adara bit down a smile, but saw that Nadine could not. Adara smiled at the man apologetically, but Nadine took her arm and pulled her away.
“Let’s see what they have at the tables,” Nadine advocated, even as Adara pulled her in the direction of the main floor. “Sihr-aged wine is sweeter and drier than all the rest. And I think I smell pickled lentils.”
“Nadine!” Adara said severely. “Coming here was your idea. Don’t get sidetracked now. Or are you planning on popping out of that dress tonight? A much easier way of undressing, I would guess.”
Nadine flushed. “Right. Sorry.” At least the girl had the grace to be embarrassed. But not so embarrassed that she would fail to snatch a glass of wine and a meat pastry from a table as they walked down the shallow stairs. “Let’s start with one of the Earth Aeyn,” Nadine suggested. “We need to know where the dungeons are.” She took a bite. “By the Dead God, I swear! This is delicious, Adara! Take a bite.” She shoved the half-eaten pastry in Adara’s face.
“Stop it, you ninny.” Adara took a bite anyways. It was good. “What Earth Aeyn do you know?” she asked around a bite of pastry. Nadine offered a bite to Arron, who demurred, patting a stomach apologetically, as though it were not so flat that Adara wanted to slap him for it. The nerve of that man. “Do you see any of our professors or anyone else?” she asked as she swallowed that bite. Salty, with deep flavors of spices that she could not identify. Maybe she should have taken one as well.
“No, but let’s go down and take a look. What are you worried about? Even if we don’t, you will attract attention like a flame does bite-me flies. Don’t you remember what you said last week? Even if you weren’t the Princess of the South, all you would have to do is smile at some man, and the fool would tell us every sailor his mother ever kissed.”
From any other woman, that would have been an accusation, but from Nadine, it was only a statement of fact. It was one of the many reasons Adara loved having her around. “There is that,” she admitted. “Well, let’s at least light the way with a glow lamp.” She opened up twin feeds of Fire and Air, just enough for her to illuminate their immediate area. Adara tied off the weave in order to keep it going. This tie would last an hour, or perhaps more. There were ways to keep a weave active, but it made no sense to do so for a temporary glow lamp.
To Nadine’s credit, it did not take very long for someone to identify them. An older, bespeckled Aeyn bumped into Nadine and nearly knocked her over. “My most abject apologies, dear lady,” he began, before he looked at Adara and his wizened eyes opened a notch. “Well, it looks like I have caused some no mean distress to Her Highness Adara. And that would make this young lady that I almost threw to the ground the Lady Nadine.” He grinned toothily, apparently pleased to have identified them so quickly.
“You have us at a loss, sir,” Adara replied. “Clearly you know who we are. Might we inquire as to who was so rude to cause us such distress?” Adara flashed her most charming smile to take the sting from her words. She hoped he was able to see it through those thick glasses.
“What? Oh, certainly, ladies. I am ArchAeyn Xerus, son of Ptomest, son of Drakha, of the House of Fire. But don’t blame them for my rude behavior. That is a skill I have refined over many a year. Any one of my wives can attest to that!”
Even without his lineage, Adara knew him to be a Northerner. Such a name was unfamiliar in the South. She had heard of him before; the House of Fire was notoriously reluctant to hand out the title of ArchAeyn, but Xerus was an exception to that rule and every other rule that there was. He was famed for a number of discoveries; some old knowledge brought back from the past, and some new innovations that had never been heard of before. More famously, Xerus had refined the ability to weave specific threads of Fire with Earth that resulted in burning lights of different colors and different intensities. The result of this was glow lamps that burned colder and lasted longer, as well as munitions that burned hotter and more explosively. He had also created a “hot wand” that could instantly heat a cup of tea if immersed in water, even by a person who had no ability with Sihr. That innovation had made him fantastically wealthy. It was a stroke of luck that he had run into them.
“Rude behavior, professor Xerus?” Adara replied with a smile. He was hard not to like, although she had heard some stories about his temper. This kindly old man? Impossible. She couldn’t imagine finding his temper, much less having one. “I saw no such thing. You teach fourth year classes, and some advanced topics in Fire as well, do you not?”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Yes, yes, very true,” he commented. “Much of my time is spent with fools and malingerers. Students. Pah! An intolerable lot, I’m sure you know. Good for serving drinks and as an occasional distraction. Nothing more.” He spoke very quickly, almost absently, as though the entirety of a thought had not yet completed even as the first part of it left his lips. “What are you two doing here? Serving drinks? I’ll have a dark wine, if you have one.” He took Nadine’s cup from her without giving her a chance to protest. “It occurs to me that, given your nobility, serving drinks would probably not be something you would do.” His stream of words did not stop for all their attempts to interrupt him. He paid them no mind as he spoke. “So you must have been invited. Obviously. Old age is turning my mind into cheese if I could think that someone would have Princess Adara serving drinks at a party. Nine hells, I must be crazy. So who invited you? The Seat of a House?” He took a sip from Nadine’s cup. “Excellent vintage. Orben certainly knows his grapes. Aha! I can see from your expressions that you know that young… man. Orben is it then. He invited you. Unsurprising, I suppose. That gentleman has ties to everyone these days, it seems. Even me. Ha. But who is this fierce looking boy with the sword at his side behind you? The one who is trying to look at everything at once? You’d best stop moving your eyes so quickly, son. You’ll give yourself a headache. I’m getting a headache just looking at you. A suitor for the Princess, perhaps? No? Love interest for the Lady Nadine? Bah! I’m turning into a gossipy old woman. He’s protection for the Princess, no doubt. What are they called? Corpses? Corpseheads?”
“CorpseMen” Nadine corrected gently as Arron chuckled. “His name is Arron. He doesn’t talk much, however. He just likes to stand around and look dangerous.”
“What man doesn’t? I’m trying to do the same thing myself. But these thirty extra pounds and these wrinkles are getting in the way. Think of me as a stealthy and concealed danger. Hidden behind these liver spots and frail fingers are the raging fires of Fire!” He chuckled, pleased with his own wit. Adara smiled at him, not sure what to make of the Aeyn.
“Have you seen Orben tonight?” Nadine asked. “We met one of his retinue, but were informed he was in council.”
“Council? I just left him moments ago. He is still there with the Seats of Earth and Air. Much luck to him; those two can never agree on anything, much less what to make of this current crisis. Although one might think this has nothing to do with the Crown; it is a matter for the House of Earth.”
“You refer to the Westerner being held? The Chains of Khatam?” Nadine inquired casually. Adara kept her face smooth, but she heart dropped. The girl could not keep her mouth from running away with her brain for two minutes! She simply did not know realize how silly her conspiracy theories sounded.
They were both bestowed another raised eyebrow. “Well. Either Archduke Orben has loose lips in bed, which I doubt,” he said dryly, eliciting a blush from Nadine, “or he trusts you more than I could imagine. Whatever the case may be, you are certainly more informed than I would have thought you to be. Or has this news already traveled to the Obverse King?” He looked at Adara expectantly.
Flustered, Adara was unsure how to respond. So there was a Westerner in captivity. And it was the Chains of Khatam that had been stolen. Her mind was spinning. She never would have imagined that Nadine’s wildest court and magical intrigues would have turned out to be as accurate as they were. Astonishing. “Well….”
“As it happens, Professor, we were only told of this situation today,” Nadine interjected smoothly. Who knew the girl could lie as well as she did! “We have not had a chance to take this to court. Indeed, the reason we were asked to attend today was to talk to the Seat of the House of Earth and Orben on what the future may hold.”
“Hrmmm. Orben, fool that he is, will fill your ears with stories of treacheries and the scheming of court players. Something is happening, ladies, much bigger than him or me or even you. Whether we move from one moment to the next, or from one Age to the other, I cannot say. But the world changes. It shifts, dear ladies. I can feel it in these old bones. What we knew will be no more, and what was will be again. And who knows what tomorrow will bring?”
“What is happening, Professor?” Adara asked. Ayen loved speaking in riddles, and this one more than most.
He looked at her. “Is it Adara the student at the University that asks, or is it Her Highness Princess Adara, daughter of the Obverse King?”
Adara kept her chin up. “They are one and the same, Professor. I am what I am.”
He snorted. “You have been spending too much time in Professor Reight’s Classical Inferences class, Adara. A nice, clean, and vague answer if I ever heard one. ‘I am what I am!’ Indeed. Says the scholar of seventy years. Bah. Well, if we are to discuss this, let us at least retire to a more secluded place, where I might sit down and drink my wine in peace. And share words with you and no one else.” He took Nadine’s hand and put it on his own arm in a fatherly gesture that Adara found endearing. “Come, dear. Lead this old man to a soft chair and a warm glass of wine. No need for your glow lamp, Princess. We can use mine.” Adara winked it off.
They made their way towards the far end of the room. Along the way, Professor Xerus felt compelled to give them a history lesson. “It looks as though this tower is a standing edifice of brick and mortar that rises into the sky for no good purpose. When one comes inside, only this one massive room is visible. If you look up, you see nothing.” The two of them looked up; sure enough, there were not floors or other structures visible. Adara did see four spiraling staircases, one located on each point of a compass, that wound their way up the tower. “Yes, yes, there are the staircases,” Professor Xerus said even as Adara opened her mouth, “but where do they go? The roof? Nowhere? And why so many of them?” He chuckled. “It will surprise you to learn that there are thousands of rooms here in this building. More, perhaps. New ones are discovered all the time, though not as often now. But a building as old and as powerful as this one has many secrets.
“When you look at the walls here, you see shadows of nightfall outside. This thick, smoky glass obscures what is outside. Or so it seems. In truth, you are a thousand paces or more away from the other side of this wall. Amazing, is it not? Between the inside wall and the outside of this tower is a thousand paces of space. All the way up. All of the offices, chambers, meeting halls, and bedrooms are within these walls.”
“How is it that we see outside?” Adara asked, frowning.
He beamed, pleased with the question that Adara presented. “It is a weave of Sihr that we cannot fully understand or replicate, Princess, although we have studied it for generations. The inside glass is somehow tied to the exterior with Air and Fire and Pathos, woven and threaded together in a way we cannot understand. Or even see properly, for that matter. The bulk of the weave is buried between the walls in a space that we cannot find. But it allows a person to see through the rooms between the glass as though they were not there. It looks as though you are looking out of a frosted mirror, nothing more. Even when you walk into the building, the space is somehow folded and constricted. You do not walk a thousand paces from the front door to the walkway; it is no more than a hundred paces at most.”
Adara thought back to when she walked into the Tower with Nadine; all she should recall was being annoyed that everyone did not stop to look when she had been announced. “Very strange,” she agreed.
“Yes, but even this is the least of the secrets of the Tower of Earth! This edifice is as astonishing, I tell you. If an object could be said to be alive, this would be the one I would point to. It has its own mannerisms, its own quirks and behaviors. Rooms sometimes disappear; other come into being. Directions can change and time can be diluted. And no one knows why the Tower does what it does. I could study it for years. I have, come to think of it. Here we are! The perfect spot.” Adara looked, and they were almost at the slowly curving glass wall of the Tower, almost opposite of the entrance. They walked up the few steps that recessed the auditorium and crossed the walkway. Nadine looked more closely at the glass wall. Odd to think that there was someone probably behind it in a council chamber or a bedroom. All she could see was the dark shadows of couples walking in the darkness.
A few paces to the left was a staircase. Small sofas and chairs were scattered about. Professor Xeres was still talking. The man could go on forever. “Thank you so much for helping an old man, my Lady Nadine. Your smile warms my heart, it does. It would have been pain and suffering for me if I had to walk this way alone. Thank goodness I had you to lean on. Come, sit here on this couch. Boy with the sword, be so kind as to pull some of those chairs over here. No, that other one. Much more plush. Yes, yes, that’s it. Good lad.” He pulled the chair a little closer to Nadine’s. Adara sat herself next to Nadine. “Lad, be kind and perhaps fetch an old man another glass? This one seems to have run dry.” Adara nearly choked with mirth, but she fixed Arron with a steely gaze that implored him to do as the professor asked. Growling, he stalked off, promises of retribution sparkling in his dark eyes.
“Finally!” the professor said with relief. “I thought that fool boy would not get the hint. Let us arrange for some privacy.” Adara felt the tell-tale vibration of Sihr being used, and a glow lamp of cold red appeared, bathing them in a dark and gloomy light. “Red will let others know we do not wish to be disturbed,” Professor Xerus said as he settled himself in his chair. “Bloody nobles running around everywhere today. Can’t get a moment’s peace. Where were we? Ah yes, the Tower of Earth. Secrets. Yes.”
“Where are the personal chambers of the residents?” Nadine asked.
“Ha! Good question. A few hundred years ago they were all located on the upper levels. The higher you were, the more important you were, or so the thought was. Finally, someone got it into his head that walking up and down fifty floors was a bit more than a pain in the rear, if you follow what I mean. The older mages started demanding suites on the second and third floors, the view be damned. Now most of the personal chambers are on the lower floors. The middle levels are temporary residences for visitors and nobles. Much of the upper levels are used for testing and the study of advanced magics; I can tell you no more than that as I am not privy to it. But this I can tell you: most of the Tower of Earth lies fallow, as do the Towers of Fire and Air and Water. We are not as numerous as we once were.”
“And below?” Nadine pressed. “How deep into the Earth does the Tower delve?” Too soon, Adara thought. She lacks patience.
His eyes narrowed as he looked at her. “Yes, interesting question, my lady Nadine. Please do not pretend with a pretender. No, no, I am not offended,” he continued over her protestations. “After all, you know me only a little, and I would be as cautious as you are being were I in your shoes. You are asking about the cells, correct? I thought as much. A moment, please.” Adara felt Sihr again, and a slow ripple passed through the air.
“What was that?” Adara asked. Even as she spoke, her voice sounded flat, somehow muted, like pressing your ear up against a door and listening to someone speak in an adjoining room.
“Not fool proof, but this should suit our purposes well enough,” Xerus said, his voice muffled. Both girls leaned in to hear him better. “An interlacing of Air and Pathos, designed to mute our conversation, that no passerby might overhear us. It is an easy weave and subtle as well; only when you are in the sphere of Air do you realize that your voice has been muted. But it is not without its weaknesses; guard your words, ladies.” He smiled, pleased to show off a weave of his own creation. “You can sense the echoes of Air and Pathos, yes? Find me another day and I will show you how it is done.
“He is there, in the cells below. A Westerner, as you have been told. Fascinating. Who would have thought?” Adara could hear the excitement rising in his voice. A professor through and through, she thought to herself. More concern for learning than for dying. “Yellow hair, amber eyes, taller than most men in the East. But by his manners and his words, he is a savage, there is no doubt. And we know he was the one that took the Chains, although we know not how. What has Orben told you thus far?”
“Only the basics, Professor” Nadine replied. Adara had no choice but to let her lead this deception. She knew next to nothing about the West or the Chains of Khatam. She was a little worried that the professor would catch on that they were not privy to what was going on, but that was a worry for another moment. “We know that the Chains were stolen, but not how; we know that the thief was from the West, but not why they stolen. We know they were taken from the Tower of Earth, but now how or why.” Adara put her hand on Nadine’s arm and squeezed gently, warning her not to say too much and give them away.
“Not so much, then,” Xerus replied reflectively. “I’m surprised that he did not mention more.”
“The fault lies with me,” Nadine replied easily. “I was pressed for time when Orben approached Adara, and our conversation was cut short. In fact, he invited us here in order to discuss it in greater detail. The Crown is of course interested in the happenings at the University, and more so when it involves the theft of relics of such power as the Chains of Khatam.”
“Of course, I understand,” he replied tactfully, glancing at Adara as he continued to speak to Nadine. Adara grabbed a pastry and took a bite as the conversation continued. This was not the time for her to interject. “Mmmhmm, she added, nodding as she chewed, hoping that specific questions would not be directed at her.
“Has the prisoner been questioned?” Nadine asked, trying to pull the conversation back to her. Bless that girl, Adara prayed to A’ag, the Younger God of Fire. She took another bite.
“Hrmmm. Yes, he has been questioned. Over and over again, in fact. By many people. Using cajoling. Using the rack. Using women. He was even offered a man, though that did not go well. Just yesterday we probed him with Pathos, but there is something blocking us from… encouraging him to talk to us.”
“But why the Chains, Professor?”
“A good question, and asked more often than I would care to recall. I know not, nor does anyone else.” Almost unconsciously, his voice took on the tone of a lecturer. “The Chains of Khatam have been housed in the Tower of Earth for ten centuries. Despite this, we know next to nothing about them. There are three chains made up of some silvery substance, woven together into what seems to be a necklace. They are said to be very light and very cold to the touch, but they have not been touched in hundreds of years. We know nothing of who they were crafted by and what they can or cannot do. What we do know is that they are a thing of Elder Magic, from an era long past. The resonance they exude is unlike anything we have ever seen or felt. Even being in their presence is unnverving. It is like the tingle you feel when someone is uses Sihr in your presence, but infinitely more disturbing. More repulsive. Like thousands of ants crawling all over your skin all at once. The longer you are in their presence, the more intense the feeling gets. They have been studied by every First Seat for the last thousand years. The wards around it are so powerful that they have been the subject of as much study as the Chains themselves.” Xerus shook his head. “At least a dozen people had died studying the Chains, my dear girl. That means that twelve of the most powerful mages of the University have died from trying to understand what the Chains do. The last person to actually touch it was Hailfaron, the First Seat of Fire from three hundred years ago. Whatever he did ended up cooking him from the inside out. Our thief must have been incredibly skillful, to get around these wards. And incredibly brave, to dare to hold something that has killed so many powerful mages. This is not your run of the mill thief.”
“So really we know nothing, then. Other than a Westerner in our cells, we are at the same place we were at five days ago,” Adara interposed. She could not help herself. They had the man who stole the Chains in their hands and they had nothing more to show for it. She could not believe her ears.
“You are correct, Princess, but it is not from lack of trying. The man has no fear of threats against his person. The rack has been used sparingly in the last day, but we may increase the type and intensity of its affections increased in the coming days, especially in lieu of what happened in Rahimeyyen yesterday -.” He cut himself short, chagrined. “Er….”
The two girls looked at him for a moment. “What happened?” Adara finally asked.
“Hmmm. Well, that is not for me to say,” Xerus hedged, looking somewhat uneasy. “Clearly Orben has not told you enough. Perhaps I was mistaken in my rush to -.”
“Professor!” Adara exclaimed. “You are talking about a liege city to my father, the Obverse King. As Princess of the South, I ask you to tell me what has happened to the city that my father was born in. Please do not make me demand it.”
Xerus frowned. “Yes. Demand. Nine hells take my foolish tongue. Too much wine, I suppose. Or old age. That will get you every time. Don’t do it, Nadine, my dear. Getting old is a bad idea. So is demanding something from an ArchAeyn from the House of Fire, I might add. The only thing worse would be an old demand from an ArchAeyn, I suppose. Or demanding something old.” He paused to adjust the spectacles that had slid down the bridge of his nose.
Adara’s hackles rose. She did not want to alienate such a powerful Aeyn, but her responsibilities as a Princess were clear to her. She had been a student for little more than a year; she had been a Princess her whole life. “Professor Xerus, I hope you know I hold you in the highest regard, both as a Aeyn and as a scholar. But if there is threat to the realm, a threat to a city, then I must know of it. My duties -.”
“Please, Princess. Enough, I beg of you. You will have no more from me. Any more of Rahimeyyen you must find out for yourself.” He looked her in the eye as he stressed that last word. “Your father is aware of it, I can assure you. But tonight is not about the fate of Rahimeyyen or even the Council of Nine, but of our friend downstairs. Damn my tongue! Don’t even ask. I must leave you ladies before I tell you where I hide my wealth and the names of my mistresses.” He stood up even as Arron approached with a glass of wine. The weave around them evaporated and Xerus snatched the glass from Arron. “Took you forever, boy. What happened to you? Lose your way? Bah, help these days is impossible to find, and when you do, it is half-wit with a sword.” The professor continued to grump good-naturedly as he waddled off, not bothering to look back at them as he made his way back into the crowd. The red glow lamp that bounced along behind him turned white as he folded back into the gathering.
“Should I ask what that was all about?” Arron asked Adara.
She shrugged. “I cannot tell if he is the doddering fool he makes himself out to be, or if he is arming us for the conversation we must have with Orben. Gods, I hate intrigues.”
“You love intrigues,” Nadine reminded her. “And no simpleton makes it to ArchAeyn, Adara. Those were not so subtle hints to us. He must think us fools.”
“He must think you a fool. Gods, what were you thinking, just bringing up the Chains like that? Not exactly casual, are you?”
Nadine blushed furiously. “Well, at least I wasn’t shoving food into my face so no one would ask me any questions! Did you think he didn’t notice that?”
Adara opened her mouth to reply but restrained herself. Instead she took a deep breath. I’m a princess, not a fishwife, she reminded herself. “What about those other things he was talking about? Have you heard anything about Rahimeyyen? Or this Council of Nine?” There. That should be enough to gently turn the conversation to what was important. Although she was tempted to remind Nadine who was the one constantly reaching for the pastries.
Nadine harrumphed. “I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything about Rahimeyyen. The Council of Nine I have come across before in some old scrolls. They are some sort of powerful mage council that has been around for centuries. I don’t know much more than that.” She paused for a moment to think, biting her lower lip as she did so. Adara was tempted to remind her to stop, but decided against it. She didn’t want Nadine to think she was nit-picking. “We’re not going to find out anything here,” Nadine continued. “Let’s go mingle some more. Look for an Earth Aeyn. I want to talk to one before we sit with Orben.”
They made their way back to the auditorium. The floor had filled since their arrival; Adara thought they were arriving late enough to ensure that most of the guests would already have arrived, but it seemed as though tardiness was as much a hallmark of mages as was ostentation. A muted hum filled the hall, punctuated every few moments with an outsized laugh or the tinkle of glasses or the clatter of silverware. Variegated hues of glow lamps filled the room, bouncing or rolling behind or beside the Aeyn that formed them. Red and blues and whites abounded, with an occasional green interspersed in the crowd. One Aeyn had three glowing balls of cold Fire spinning in a tight circle; a nice modification of a glow lamp, and sure to be copied once another Aeyn pieced the flows together.
“Nine Hells! I see Orben!” Nadine hissed. “Could our luck be any worse?” She seized Adara’s arm and tried to casually steer her in another direction, but it was too late. Only just ahead, a man gesticulated towards them. Orben was taller than most, and by his height she could make him out. “Your Highness!” he called over the cacophony of the room, heedless of the people around him that turned and looked. “Lady Nadine! If you please!”
“That’s quite unusual of him,” Nadine whispered to Adara as they walked to the Archduke. “I’m surprised he did not ask a runner to come get us. I wonder what’s bothering him.”
Adara leaned into Nadine, their heads nearly bumping. “Or maybe he just wants to be the one to introduce us to someone important,” she suggested. “More likely that is the case. Who is that he is standing with?”
“Gods! The First Seat of Air, Professor Harmoun. And his wife, it seems, by the way she’s holding his arm. The other man there is from a duchy that owes fealty to Harraken. Amirose Blackswood, I think his name is. Not a High Family, but powerful nonetheless. Wealthy in gold and in resources. Be cautious with your words!”
“I know who the Blackswoods are. And don’t bite your lip, you’ll dry it out.”
Nadine’s rejoiner was cut short by Orben’s arrival. “Ladies,” he said smoothly, “apologies for my delay. I was in chambers with a few colleagues. But we may speak of that later. I would like to introduce you to some friends.” He ushered them forward to the small group of people he was standing with. A red glow bulb hung lazily in the air, bobbing back and forth between the people in the group.
“Your Highness Princess Adara of High Family Raelgyain and my lady Nadine Scarsdale, I would like to introduce you to ArchAeyn Harmoun, first Seat of the House of Air. The lovely woman at his side is Ayn Shantrelle, his wife. The young gentlemen to your side, your Highness, is Amirose Blackswood, son of Daernus Blackswood of the Blackswood duchy, to whom my father is liege.” High Family names were always a part of a title during introductions, as was the honorific “Aeyn.” Aeyn did not use family names; once an aspiring mage successfully passed though the Rite of Quickening, old ties and old promises were severed. Sometimes Aeyn were associated with a House, but even that was not necessary. Many Aeyn refused to join a House, despite any Affinity they might have. Adara knew that Ayn Shantrelle was well known for her Affinity to Earth; Nadine had mentioned her more than a few times when discussing her professors.
Adara affixed what she called her political smile on her face and greeted the strangers warmly. This smile had been practiced extensively over the years, honed for expressing warmth touched with a mild arrogance. A singular cast to the eyes, lips parted just so, and perhaps a slight tug of an eyebrow when meeting a man. She had done it so many times that it was hard to tell if the smile was real or not anymore. Aeyn Harmoun was a big man, wider than most mages, who tended to be somewhat ascetic in their diets. Not that he was fat; he was just a very wide man. Powerful hands gripped her own as he lifted her hand in order to kiss it. He bowed slightly as well, aware that she was a princess, but just enough to remind her that he was the First Seat of the House of Air. His wife was perfunctory with her quick kisses to the cheek; one on each side, since they were nearly equals. Blackswood was a different story. He bowed deeply, bringing his lips to her outstretched hand and murmuring thanks for the honor. She had met him in court in the past, many years ago; she remembered a dark-haired boy who constantly tried to engage her guards in swordfights. The dark hair was bleached some by the sun now, and the sword he had dragged about as a young boy now hung easily at his side. “How is your father?” she asked him kindly. Daernus Blackswood was not the kindest man, but of his son she had fond memories. Racing in the halls of the palace while their fathers talked. Splashing in the fountains. Stealing hot bread from the kitchens and getting their knuckles rapped by the cooks for their thievery. She had not seen him in years.
“Well as can be, your Highness,” he responded formally, his eyes never leaving hers. She sighed mentally. Another would-be suitor. “He is a hard man, and old age has made him harder still. The swing of his arm is none the less for the paunch he has grown, I assure you.” She chuckled at his words. “You have yet to visit out estates, Princess Adara. I beg you to come and partake of our hospitality. Blackswood may not be so grand as the Tower of Earth, but we hold our guests fiercely to our hearts.”
“You are too kind, Amirose. And so formal, so polite? What of the boy that I chased in the stables of the Palace?” She smiled at him.
He laughed. “Alas, Princess, I am no longer six, and I fear that tugging your hair might land me at the headsman’s block were I to do so now. And besides, you are now polite company. Needs I must keep my fingernails clean and my beard trimmed in your presence.”
“I had no idea you two knew each other,” Orben remarked. “Had I known about your… relationship, I could have arranged a more private encounter.”
Not quite offensive, but borderline. Adara felt heat rising from her neck. The man was annoying to no end. “The holding of hands and harmless kisses of childhood, Orben. Nothing you might be familiar with.” Amirose cracked a smile as she smirked sweetly at Orben. She could see him grinding his teeth.
“Quite right, Princess,” he replied, giving up. “Nevertheless, there is aught amiss in your kingdom that we needs discuss. My father speaks to the Obverse King of it even as we speak.”
“Do you refer to the happenings at Rahimeyyen and the Circle of Nine, or to the prisoner held below?” she asked him pointedly. “Both are a cause for concern.” Her comments drew a gasp from Ayn Shantrelle, and her husband choked on the sip of wine he was taking. Adara prayed that she had tied the right pieces together and did not sound the fool; she could not let Orben or Harmoun think that she did not know what they thought only themselves privy to.
Orben was silent for a moment. “Unsurprising that you are as well-informed as you are, Princess, given your father,” he said finally. Adara sent a silent benediction to Professor Xerus. He would be getting a royal kiss from her the next time they met. “Indeed, it is possible that the two are related.” He looked around the room. “Damn this revelry. Why is it that a man cannot find a moment to talk when eight of the nine Hells are about to break loose? Amirose, would you be so kind as to find that man in your retinue. I forget his name. The one with the noble’s peak. Ask him to find the First Seat of Earth and round up another chamber for us. With wine, this time. Let’s us meet at the largest chambers on the north side of the tenth floor. We can all meet there within the next bell. If that is acceptable to you, of course, you Highness. And Aeyn Harmoun and Ayn Shantrelle.” He looked at them askance. When they nodded, he waved off Amirose. “The next bell! We will be there.” Amirose bowed and took his leave of them.
Harmoun spoke, his voice gruff. “Orben, I will find Verity and Kalamuth. They are in chambers, pretending to work but sharing a glass of wine. We should have the First Seats of Fire and Water in attendance. The Crown must be informed of what is going on, and if we cannot reach the Obverse King, we still have Adara here. She cannot speak for him as she belongs to us, but she can advise us on what her father may wish to do.” He put his hand on top of his wife’s, who still gripped his arm. “Too much has happened too quickly for us to sit on the sidelines and wait for the nobles to respond. We must be ready for whatever may come. The Towers are cold, Orben. Not just the Tower of Earth. All of them. They recede into themselves. I know not what this means, but it does not bode well.”
“I could not agree with you more, First Seat. My father-.”
“Take my lady Shantrelle to our prisoner, Orben. You know where he is being held, yes? Very good. Bring him up to the room as well. I can let you into the cells below; you can bring him out with Shantrelle. Take Adara with you; some of the locks below require two mages to open. Let us give him one more chance before we release him to the ministrations of the interrogators in earnest.”
“Very well, ArchAeyn. You are well aware that Fist Seat Enta’are will be wroth that we chose to descend into the lower levels of the Tower of Earth without him.” He gestured towards the retreating Amirose. “I can send Amirose to collect him as well.”
“Leave Enta’are to me, Orben. These are matters for Aeyn and the University. You need not worry what the First Seat of the Tower of Earth chooses to do. If you are afraid to descend below, let it be and I will find one less fearful of the cat o’nine lives.”
Orben scowled and turned around, not saying another word. Orben smoothed his face, but Adara could see the anger in his eyes at being cut short. She felt Nadine’s trembling hand on her arm again; the girl could start to shake at a loud noise, and the dark words and baited breath of the last few moments had shaken her. “Orben…” she started, but was quieted by quick look by the son of the Archduke.
The small party made its way across the hall once again, this time headed to the northern staircase. She felt a hot breath on her neck and recognized Arron’s smell. “Princess,” he said to her under his breath. “When we are in the cells below, allow me to walk before you.” She nodded silently, and he slowed his steps to take his place behind her once again.
They stopped at the base of the stairs. Harmoun looked at his wife and nodded. A weave of Earth and Air went up, creating an opaque wall around them. Privacy, Adara supposed. She felt both of them open up channels to Sihr; evidently, this was a door that required two separate Aeyn to weave a key. She felt echoes of Pathos and Air and Earth stemming from both of them in unfamiliar combinations, and in a moment a door at the base of the stairs materialized out of nowhere. In a few more moments, the door swung open on its hinges, and Adara saw the staircase turn into a stairwell and descend into the darkness beneath.
“That does not look inviting,” Nadine said in her ear. Adara nodded. The hole in the ground was dark. No, not just dark. It was black. Oppressive. There was no telling how large the room it descended into was. Or how small. She gripped Nadine’s hand tightly, glad for presence. And Arron’s, for that matter.
“It is dark,” said Ayn Shantrelle in a gravelly voice. “Always dark, but darker than yesterday, darker than ever before. The Tower recedes. It retreats into itself.” Her voice was a hollow echo below. “This does not bode well, my love.”
“Be wary,” he told her. “I will see you shortly.”
Adara opened up her path to Sihr even as she felt Nadine doing the same. She wondered if the guests outside could feel the power that was pooling in this small space. She filled herself with Fire and Water. More Fire than Water, as she had an affinity for Fire. She pooled as much as she could manage without a problem, below her threshold but not by much.
A glow bulb led the way, and its owner followed behind it. Shantrelle did not bother with any fancy weaves; it was a cold ball of white light that floated directly before her. Orben followed, and the two girls brought up the tail of the party, with Arron taking a place before them. As they walked, she heard them unsheathe his sword. The ringing of steel sliding against steel was loud in the quiet stairwell. “Much help that will do,” Orben said quietly. Even in undertones, voices echoed in the blackness.
“I’d rather have my sword in my hand than in its sleeve,” Arron replied. “This air is fraught with danger. It is unnatural. I am no mage, but I can taste the wrongness in this gloom.” Orben grunted in assent, and they heard another sword unsheathe. The blackness whisked way the sounds, and moments later there was only the sound of heels touching the earthen stairs and the rasp of breathing. There was no guardrail to guide them, and the steps were uneven. Adara was acutely aware of tripping and falling into the yawning darkness. She shivered.
“How far down do you think it goes?” Nadine asked, even as the glow bulb that Shantrelle carried winked out. Nadine let out a squeak and tightened her fingers around Adara. The darkness was impenetrable. Nadine’s breath quickened in Adara’s ear, and even Adara felt the slow swell of panic in her breast. It was so dark. Adara had already reached forward and held on to Arron’s cape for both balance and direction; the comforting tug of the material let her know that Arron was there for her. Her eyes were open as wide as possible, and the only thing she could make out were the shadows that her mind created to terrorize her. How large was the room they were in? Where was the ceiling and the walls? What was in there with them? Was she close to the edge of the stairs? Adara felt the fear gripping hear heart and she fought a moment of panic.
“Do not fear,” Shantrelle’s voice echoed through the chamber. “We are at the landing of the first level of the cells. The Earth Magic here suffocates Sihr. Walk down carefully, and further along the hall we will find oil torches.”
“Shouldn’t there be torches lit at the end of these steps? Or guards?” Nadine asked.
“The cells have been abandoned for centuries.” The gravelly voice of Shantrelle seemed to appear out of nothingness. “What need had we for cages at the University? Civil law is more than sufficient for the petty crimes that are committed on the grounds. The last mage that needed to be held here was so long ago it is forgotten from memory. Only in the last few days have these doors been opened for these cells occupied once again. It was rare for an Aeyn to come below, and even then, the Aeyn came into these caves to study elemental Earth magic, not to lock fellow Aeyn away. We have yet to put guards in place, or a way to ensure a torch does not fill the rooms with smoke.”
Despite Shantrelle’s words, Adara could not feel any difference to her access to Sihr. She reached for it and had not problems touching the Fire and Water that she had pooled. She reached for some Air and put together a simple glow bulb. The threads came together, but were dimmer, more diffuse than she was used to. She poured more Sihr into her glow bulb, thickening the weave and tightening the knots, but still her Sihr resisted. It felt like threads that kept slipping out of her fingers, or trying to grasp a stream of water. Alarmed and more than a little annoyed, she drew more Fire and saw a spark light up in her palm. It burned fitfully. A strange scent of spoiled eggs filled the air, burning her nose.
“Adara!” she heard Shantrelle exclaim. “Have you taken leave of your senses? The amount of Fire you are holding right now would reduce you to a smear of ashes if you were to lose balance. Release these weaves at once!”
Chastened, Adara let go of her weaves. The spark disappeared, and the smell assaulting her senses dissipated as well. “Sorry,” she called up to her, but received no response. Well, what did she expect? That she could walk into exotic magic and not test its limits? Adara shrugged mentally. At least she had been distracted enough to forget that she was afraid.
“I couldn’t even get a spark,” Nadine confided in her as they tried to follow the footfalls of the others. “But maybe I was too scared. How are you so brave, Adara?”
Brave? The fool girl had lost the little sense she had left. “I have you here with me,” she told her, trying to encourage her friend. “I have Arron. People I trust. People I love.” She felt Nadine’s hand squeeze her arm yet again, but this time it was in thanks. “Did you smell the spoiling eggs?”
“The smell of rotten eggs must be sulfur,” Nadine surmised. “It burns yellow and a cool if somewhat smelly fire. Yes, I smelled it. Amazing. Do you think the Earth magic is using sulfur or other elements to suppress Sihr? Could that be it?”
“I don’t know,” Adara replied nervously. “I just want some light.” She heard movement up ahead and instantly looked in that direction. A few paces up she could see the telltale blue and yellow light of an oil torch. Adara was so relieved that she could have wept. She had no idea how oppressive darkness could be. “Ayn Shantrelle, is that you with the torch?” she called ahead.
“I have it, and two others besides,” she heard her respond. She picked up her pace a bit, pulling Nadine along as they made their way to the light. It looked so far away, and so dim. “Even this natural fire is less bright than it was earlier today. Orben, are you here? Do you know where we need to go?”
Adara’s feet finally touched the landing, and both she and Nadine walked as quickly as they could towards the light, bumping into Arron. “Careful, Princess. There may be things on the floor that you do not see,” he said. “Now is not the time to twist an ankle with a bad fall.” Adara snorted. Well, even a broken clock was right twice a day. Adara took more measured steps, trying to feel if she was going to step on something as she moved forward.
In the minute it took to reach the Ayn, another torch had been lit and handed to Arron, and the darkness was pushed back some. They had descended a hundred steps or more, and the room they were in seemed to be cavernous. The writhing ribbons of flame that danced at the top of the torch lost themselves in the darkness as they leapt overhead. The floor was made up of large slabs of stone deeply veined with some dark mineral that Adara could only guess at; dirt filled the seams where two slabs met. As far as she could tell, the room they were in was unfurnished. The oily stench of burning pitch began to pervade the dry and stuffy chamber. She heard Nadine cough.
“Ayn Shantrelle, the prisoner is kept in the cells after the second set of locks,” Orben replied confidently. “I have been there many times, and can take us there with ease. However, only a mage can get us past the locks. We must proceed to the end of the western hallway. There we will find a stairwell that will lead us down to the first locks. Once we pass, we must proceed down another tunnel that runs west. It will lead us to the second locks and the holding cells where the prisoner is kept.”
“Nadine and I will get us through the locks,” Shantrelle responded, looking at Nadine.
“As long as you show me what to do,” Nadine agreed, nodding. “Is it complex? How many times have you created the weave?”
“I have had no cause to visit him below,” she said, “but I know the lore of the locks. You need not worry. It will be simple enough for you. But we need to stay together, and close. Underground is not as it is on the surface. Earth magic is raw and elemental down here. The caves have been slow to reveal their secrets to us, but little by little we have found new rooms, new passages, new objects with new lore. No one truly understands these caves, and discovering their mysteries has cost the life of more than a few Aeyn. Even then, the Tower is not as it should be today. There is something odd, something not right with him today. I would not have one of us separated. Orben, lead us if you will.”
Orben walked ahead, torch held high in one hand and his sword held low in the other. He did cut a dashing figure, Adara decided. Even if he had the manners of a sailor. “So brave,” she heard Nadine murmur languorously under her breath. Gods!
The entrance to the western hallway was a hole cut into the wall. Light pooled in the opening and tried to make its way into the halls within, but to little avail. Shadows licked the expanse of earth and stone that made up the wall before them.
“In there?” Nadine asked incredulously. “But it is so small!”
Adara gulped and squeezed Nadine’s hand yet again. “It’s not so small,” she said, but her voice faltered, weak with uneasiness. It did not look like a place that she would venture of her own accord. “We’ll be fine.”
“The Tower knows you,” Shantrelle told Nadine. “It has tasted your Sihr and knows your intent. Listen closely, and you will feel his will. But there is disquiet in his heart tonight. Not for us. But there is something; I know not what.” She shook her head and her long, black tresses fell over an eye. She pushed her hair back behind her ear with a practiced hand. “Reach out with Pathos. He will sense it, even if you cannot.”
Adara concentrated, letting Pathos flow from her and into the walls and stones below. There was… something… there. She could not tell what it was exactly. The Earth magic around her was too restrictive. Nothing was working the way that it should.
“I will try, Ayn Shantrelle,” Nadine said hesitantly. “But tonight I fear more than the caprice of fate and circumstance. I fear more than these walls that close in around us, and this darkness that threatens to consume everything.” She looked down, ashamed. “Forgive me. I don’t know why I am as fearful as I am.”
Orben grunted. “Perhaps it is the Westerner. His manner is fell and so are his words, at least the little he speaks. They poison the air we breathe, I doubt it not.” He turned about and walked into the cave. “There are men here that would take a knife that you might not slip and bruise your knee, Lady,” he said to her as he walked by the two girls. “As my sword is here, you will have no cause to fear.” Adara saw Arron nodding, as if Orben’s words made some sort of sense. Nine Hells! They were in a cave hundreds of feet beneath the Tower. What threat could possibly require a sword down here? In any case, didn’t the two dislike each other? Men! They were incomprehensible.
They made their way down the earthen hallway. By the light of the torches, Adara could have made out some of the details of their passageway, had there been any details to make out. Instead, the uniform brown of the walls and the slate gray of the stone floor continued as far as she could tell. The air was as still and dry as it had been in the previous chamber, but here in this confined space, the muskiness was more concentrated, more evident. She thought that perhaps there was a slight decline in the gradient of the tunnel, but if it was there, it was too subtle for her to be sure. At least Nadine had let her arm go; she was walking on her own next to Adara, but keeping to herself and thinking her own thoughts. And looking at Arron as he walked in front of them. The girl had no shame.
The torches had made the difference in the morale of the group; with light, anything felt possible. Even though the tunnel was not overly large, the hollowness of their voices was much less than in the cavern that they had just vacated. Light allowed them to see some distance in front of and behind each other. They could see where the walls ended and the ceiling began. They could look at the floor and navigate around the uneven sutures of the slabs that they walked upon. Light did not try to escape into some nothingness above them; the firelight danced and played with the shadows and the darkness on the walls and at their feet. Adara was more relieved than anything else at the fact that she could look up if she heard a noise and try to identify it; if the noise refused to be identified, she could at least look at a friendly face and trade a nervous glance.
They walked in relative silence for some time. After a few minutes, Orben finally spoke. “The stairwell is farther than I remember,” he said restlessly. “We have come a fair distance.”
“Are we in the right tunnel?” Nadine asked, alarmed. The Younger Gods forbid they were in the wrong tunnel, walking aimlessly to an unknown destination.
“Of that there can be no question,” he replied, annoyed. “There are only two hallways from the main chamber, and we took the one headed west. Perhaps I misremember the distance, though I came through here only yesterday.” He paused, considering.
Shantrelle frowned, the shadows turning the cast of her face from the stately elder woman that she was into something more sinister. “All of this feels wrong. I tell you once again; the Tower tonight is more unnatural than on most nights. I do not like this. I fear for us. The Earth does not embrace us; she is impatient and obscure. We should turn back.”
“Well, here is the stairwell,” Orben replied, stopping in front of them. Adara could hear the relief in his voice, although he tried to mask it. They had come upon another trapdoor, one that was left carelessly open. “Why is it open?”
“Magic does not work on this side of the locks,” Shantrelle responded. “In these caves, there are some places where Sihr can be used, and in other places it cannot. We have yet to map all of the dead spots. This door must be moved by hand from our side, and it requires many men to do so. We have not devised a scheme that will ease the effort. Until we have one, it is left open.”
“Ludicrous,” he responded. “But a problem for another time.”
“Do we descend?” Adara asked. Everything felt oppressive. The hall, the door in the floor, even the air around them. “I do not like this feeling of calamity that hangs in the air.”
“We descend,” Orben answered. “All of this is tied to this Westerner. It is no accident of fate that so much has occurred in the last few days. His arrival heralded it all. Everything revolves around this man, I am sure of it. It is unfortunate that our entreaties have failed to move him, and arcane weaves of Sihr upon his mind have not been able to loosen his tongue. Let us put him on the rack now and demand from him the answers we seek. He knows what happened at Rahimeyyen, I am sure of it.” His plea was no less impassioned than it was certain, but Adara felt uncomfortable with the idea of forcing information from a man. “We are not children to be frightened by the dark or stories of elder magic,” he said, responding to the concerned look on Adara’s face.
“If you are not afraid to tread in that place that Ayn Shantrelle would think twice before walking into, then you are not a child, but a fool,” Adara said, provoking a furious scowl from Orben. “She is an Ayn of some skill. I trust her caution over your valor on any day.”
“It seems to me that valor is in short supply here at the University in these last few days,” Orben snapped coldly. Firelight glinted off of both his sword and his irate eyes. “Leave the battles to us, your Highness. Feel free to hide in your skirts.”
“Enough!” a vexed Shantrelle interjected, cutting off an incensed reply from Adara. She could hear the displeasure in Ayn Shantrelle’s voice. “There is no time for such childish prattle. We have come this far. Let us press on and see what this Westerner has to say before we turn him over to Orben’s interrogators.” Without waiting for a response, she stepped onto the stairs that led deeper into the earth. Adara sighed and took Nadine’s hand once again.
These steps were steeper and narrower than the first set they had come down. The stairs that led from the floor of the Tower to the first landing had been a true staircase, with wide slabs of stone polished flat and arranged upon some sort of steel frame. These stairs were hewn directly from the earth and stone that they descended into, with an uneven surface and sometimes rocky outcroppings threatening to twist an ankle. “Careful, my ladies,” she heard Arron say as they carefully made their way down the stairs. “These next few steps are treacherous. I would not see you fall.” Slowly, carefully, they made their way down. Even the air smelled different. Dense. Damp. Turgid.
A glow bulb ignited dimly, spreading its cold light across the stairwell; it looked like Sihr worked in this part of the tunnels. Adara spun one up too, just to see if she could feel anything different with her use of Sihr. A glow bulb appeared with minimal effort. Perhaps it burned a little paler than she had expected, but maybe she was just looking for something to be out of the ordinary. Adara flipped it over the edge of the stairwell and let it descend. It fell and continued to do so. At first it was a hundred feet, and then a thousand, and then more. Soon it was no more than a speck of light, lost deep in the vastness of the darkness below them. Finally Adara lost her link to the glow bulb; the distance was too great. She felt it snuff out.
“Not a place you want to go,” she heard Ayn Shantrelle say to her. She looked up and saw that everyone had stopped to watch the glow bulb descend. “Over the side is a different path than the one we take, and leads to a different place. Not all paths lead to the same place in the Tower of Earth. Here, deep under the ground, Earth power is ascendant, and strange things can happen.” Adara traded a glance with Nadine, and saw the fear that she felt mirrored on her friend’s face. Arron’s face was perfectly blank, but she thought Orben looked a little green. She swallowed tightly and moved closer to the center of the stairwell.
The landing at the base of the stairs this time was a relief, and in more ways than one. Adara’s thighs burned with the effort expended at climbing down a thousand steps or more over the last ten minutes. The constant strain of checking every footfall had also taken a toll on her nerves, and she felt frayed and tense. Nadine, standing next to her, was breathing deeply. “Can we rest?” she asked, but no one answered.
They were in a small room; more a cave than a room, or so Adara thought. Staleness sat heavy in the air, and the dirt was a darker, fuller color than the gray she had seen above. There were no slabs of stone now to walk upon; it was hard, smoothed stone cut from the bedrock itself. The ceiling was low, and Adara tried not to think of the distance between where they were and where they had started. Against the far wall were two holes cut into the stone; the entrances to hallways that ran in two different directions.
“Which way?” Adara asked, looking at Orben.
“West. But not before we get past the locks.” Orben pointed at the entrances, and Adara looked more carefully. Sure enough, she saw a shimmer of dark blue covering the entrance. She looked quizzically at Ayn Shanrelle.
“Fire,” she responded to her look. “And Pathos. It is not fatal; if you were to try to pass through it, you would merely find yourself unable to do so. It is a barrier, nothing more. But an impenetrable one, save that you know the proper key.” Adara felt the Ayn pool her Sihr, and felt the echo of Air and Water. “You must establish two strands of Air and Fire, interlaced together like this.” Ayn Shantrelle did not use the cloaking that mages typically did, and Adara was able to see exactly how the weave was constructed. It was a simple enough plaiting, with knots of Earth appearing that seemed like they were holding the Air and Fire together. “Place these two strands on the locks like this – “ Shantrelle made the ends of the weave touch the lock towards the center, slightly offset from each other. “ – and the lock will seize the weave. Continue to feed out the weave until the lock is satisfied.” Sure enough, Adara saw the weave feed into the lock, and the blue nimbus sparkled with white and black flecks as the Sihr filled it. “When the lock stops, release your weaves like this, and tap the ends with Pathos.” The Ayn did what she spoke, and the lock turned white completely, as though it were a wall of clear ice. “Go through. We have a few minutes before it resets, but no need to dawdle.”
At that moment, there was a dull thump, and the walls trembled slightly. A trickle of dust fell from the stone ceiling, jarred loose from the vibration. Nadine reached her hand out and caught some of the misty soil as it floated lazily downwards. Everyone stared at her and her hand, confused.
“What was that?” Adara asked. She could hear a hint of hysteria in her voice. She did not want to think about what might be happening. They were hundreds of feet beneath the earth, and tremors were shaking the walls. It did not bode well. Even Arron looked alarmed.
“I don’t know,” Shantrelle responded, more than a little concerned. “Maybe an earth tremor? Though I have never heard of one in this region before.”
There was another dull thud, and the little room they were in shook again. More dirt fell from the ceiling, but this time in a number of places. Much more.
“We need to get out of here,” Orben said, smacking his lips in what Adara could only surmise was fear. “We need to go. We need to go now. Can these tunnels collapse, Ayn Shantrelle?”
“We must turn around,” Nadine agreed hurriedly. “Let’s go back. Let’s go now.”
“Quite, all of you,” she snapped, even as they heard a third thud. The room shook again, this time blanketing them all in dirt. “Let me think. Let me hear.”
“This is no time for thinking!” Orben roared, his voice losing control. “There are a thousand feet of stone above us!”
“I think he is right,” Arron said as the people in the room began to panic. “We must leave. Can I retrieve the prisoner or will I need a mage to open the next set of locks?”
“No, you must have an Aeyn,” Shantrelle responded distractedly, running a hand through her black hair. In the Sihr-induced light, Adara saw that her roots were white. “It is too dangerous.” Another thud arrived, but this one was louder. In a moment, the room shook. Hard. This time, rocks and small chucks of stone fell from the ceiling. Nadine was struck by a stone fragment and cried out blood streamed from her shoulder. A deep and mechanical groan followed, unnatural as it was frightening.
“These are not earth tremors,” Arron said. “Nine hells. We are being shelled. Something is striking the earth with tremendous force.” He wiped sweat that had beaded on his forehead, leaving a dark smear of dirt on his face. “We are under attack.”
There was another thud, and it was the loudest yet. Orben dove for one of the tunnels, and she saw Nadine run after him. Too far away to join them, Adara braced for the tremor that would follow, but there was no need to. A piece of the ceiling fell directly on her, hitting her on the back of the head. She collapsed and knew no more.