The Fallen Goddess: Book One

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Chapter 9

Chapter the Ninth

The world had turned black; the darkness was denser than pitch.

Adara coughed weakly. It was so dark that there was no difference in her vision whether her eyes were opened or closed. Strain as she might, she could not make out the sheen of sweat that she knew covered her skin, or the tatters of her once beautiful dress, or even the dust and grime and dirt that no doubt floated in the air and caused her to cough on occasion.

Although she could not be sure, Adara did not think that she had been knocked out that long. She was not thirsty or hungry, nor was she excessively tired. Other than a headache, she felt fine. Her hand roamed to the back of her head and she felt the sticky wetness of clotting blood and the tenderness of torn and bruised skin. It was only luck that had saved her from death. Had the falling rock been a bit bigger, or had it struck closer to the base of her head, it might have broken her neck.

“Hello,” she called out faintly. Her voice was weak, even in the stillness of the dark, and it was clogged with dust and grit. She coughed, trying to clear her throat, and ended up in a coughing fit. Her head reverberated with pain where she had been struck, and her lower leg twitched under whatever it was that had pinned it to the ground.

Adara sat up and felt around with her hands, trying not to panic. Her left leg was trapped under some sort of boulder. The only reason her leg itself was not broken was that the weight of the boulder had cracked the bedrock underneath where her leg was pinned, creating a shallow space that saved her from broken bones, but also prevented her from pulling free. The small outcrop of rock that the boulder rested against jutted forth from the bedrock like a fist, holding the boulder in place.

She needed light. Without light, she did not know which way to push, or even if she should push at all. There was nothing stopping her from using Sihr to pick the boulder up and smashing it against the wall, if she wanted to. She just needed to make sure that she didn’t break her leg in the process. Or bring down the ceiling. Or a wall. Or kill an unconscious companion.

Adara concentrated, trying to pool Sihr, but she fumbled through even the preliminary first-year exercises designed to calm her mind, and all she could pool was her own fear. She took a deep breath, trying to calm her racing heart and her shallow breathing. Without fail, panic will lead you astray. She took another deep breath and gulped down the hot, bitter air, struggling to contain the panic that welled within her. Tears spilled down her cheeks and she stifled a sob.

The sound of her breath was the only sound that she could hear. It was unnerving, having to listen to the short, raspy breaths that she was taking. But she was no first year novice; more was expected of her than this. She forced herself to take slower, deeper breaths that sounded less like she had just run twenty leagues. The tempo and tenor of her breathing changed, and in a few minutes the racing of her heart followed suit. She kept her eyes closed, trying not to think about the darkness or the rubble around her or the thousands of feet of stone above her. Just breathe.

“Hello!” she called out again, her voice stronger and more confident this time, but there was no response, not even the fading sound of an echo. Had her friends escaped without her? Impossible; Arron would never leave her side. Even if he thought her dead, he would be honor bound to return her body to the palace. So he was either dead or unconscious. She felt around again with her hands but only found stones and dirt near her.

“Nine hells!” she hissed, ashamed of her previous cowardice and her predicament. She blanked her mind and reached for Sihr once again, concentrating on pooling equal concentrations of all four elements. The Sihr felt strange and diffuse, as though the pool she was creating had a hole at the bottom and was draining out. Alarmed, she quickly tried to weave a glow bulb, but the threads did not want to come together and resisted her attempts to tie them to each other. She poured more and more Air and Fire into the weave until she was able to generate a small spark that glowed dully in the palm of her hand, illuminating a few fingers and a small part of the boulder that rested against her. The smell of spoiled eggs filled the air.

Earth Magic, she thought to herself. It is suffocating my Sihr. I cannot use any magic. Panic flowered once again, insistent and hungry. “Help!” she cried out. “Help me! Is anyone there?” She strained, listening for even the slightest sound; anything that would tell her that she was not alone, buried thousands of feet beneath the earth. A minute tracked by, then possibly two, and Adara realized that she was holding her breath. She released it explosively, and tried not to sob as she gasped.

How had this happened? They had been using Sihr in the small landing they had arrived in after the stairs; why was she unable to wield Sihr now? She thought back to the little that she knew about the Earth Tower and what Ayn Shantrelle had mentioned. They had been standing in the room next to the locks when the room shook and part of the ceiling had dislodged. Adara recalled standing near one of the locks when she had been struck; perhaps she had fallen or stumbled out of the room and into one of the spaces where Sihr was dampened? Or could it be that the collapse of the ceiling had somehow shifted or extended the reach of the Sihr suppressing characteristics of the Tower?

She reached underneath the boulder to see if there was any way she could dig her way free, but the ground underneath her was solid rock. She tried to pull her leg free but a few moments of yanking and twisting convinced her that she was not going to get anything done that other than some additional bruises. The boulder was big enough that moving it with her hands or even with the pitiful amount of Sihr available to her was an impossibility. She stretched herself to one side and then another, reaching out with her hands and trying to find a wall, but even there she met with failure. Adara ground her teeth in frustration. She was trapped.

“Arron!” she called out once more gloomily, her voice trailing off as she realized the hopelessness of her situation. Damn this Tower.

She heard another thud, and dust trickled down from the roof once again. Panic tried to spark within her again, but Adara was feeling too disconsolate to get properly worked up. Whatever was going on up there on the surface had not subsided. Arron had thought that the Tower was under attack, but such an idea was almost ludicrous; what sort of madman or crazed group of people would try to attack the University? It was probably the single greatest concentration of magical knowledge in the known world. Even beyond the fearsome skills of the mages in the University, the Towers themselves had all sorts of unsavory wards and defenses against those that were fool enough to test its mettle. The last material attack against the University had been so long ago that it was lost even to history; only fragments of records and tell-tale signs of siege engine shells and scorch marks from fires were left for scholars to piece together into a story.

And who was there to attack the University? The princely dukes of the South always plotted against each other, but none were mad or rich or powerful enough to attack the University. Even if two or three thought to collaborate against the Crown, the threat of her own Imperial Family of Raelgyain and Orben’s High Family Harraken would be more than enough to test the resolve of any army brought against them. The two High Families had been wedded to each other for the better part of a generation, and a break between them seemed unlikely. Certainly Adara had heard nothing to suggest that there was tension between the two allies. In any case, most disputes were solved with poison or Sihr; most military action was reserved for armed ruffians that prowled the countryside, incursions by the North, and for the occasional border dispute.

Could it be the North? No, impossible. Even if the King of the Wastes had the ability to rein in the fiercely independent clans that owed him fealty, they would never commit to an invasion. They wanted to be left alone with their seals and fish and odd notions of honor. They were warlike, yes, but only with invaders and each other. They had no interest in conquest. And even if they did, it would certainly not be this late in the summer. The few crops that grew in the ice deserts needed to be harvested now, and the Great Seal Migration was only a month or two away. An invasion now would ensure starvation and death this winter.

But if not an attack, then what? Could these tremors be a series of earthquakes? It was possible but doubtful, given that this region was not known for that sort of thing. Or perhaps it was some sort of magical experiment gone terribly wrong. Or perhaps it was some other threat that she could not imagine.

Two more thumps sounded, one after the other, and dust fell again. Adara heard metal groan, and the earth trembled under the stress. “Help!” she cried out again fearfully. She pushed up against the boulder futilely, hoping that the minute shift in the earth might have dislodged it enough for her to escape, but no such luck. It remained obdurate, an unthinking and unfeeling companion that mocked her with its callous apathy.

“Arron! Nadine! Is there anyone there?” She was not treated to so much as an echo. The only sounds that she was able to make out were the occasional thumps of whatever was happening above her.

Over the hour, she became more and more convinced that this would be her tomb. Every few moments she would call out, to no avail. The names of her companions first crossed her lips, and then soon became calls for friends. Adara wondered how long it would take her to go mad in this darkness, entombed under thousands of feet of rock. Already she felt thirsty, and she quickly began to obsess over if it was a true thirst or the conjuring of her overactive imagination. Or maybe one of the thumps she kept hearing would dislodge another rock, and her world would end at the collapse of a ceiling. This room would become her barrow, and her bones might lie here forever. No one would ever know what became of her.

A little while later and Adara found herself bored. She pooled as much Sihr as she could and entertained herself by trying to juggle three specks of light all strung together. It was a complex weave that required a high level of technical skill and concentration, and even more so under the Sihr-suffocating blanket of the Earth power. Her tiny globes kept blinking out or disappearing altogether, and she was forced to reconstruct them carefully so as not to disturb the ones that were already in place. It was an exercise that one of her professors had turned her on to, promising that it would help build both her concentration and her ability with Sihr. She had not paid much attention to the exercise at that time other than memorizing the interlacing of Fire and Air and Earth, but every once in a while she would give it a try. Usually in periods of extreme boredom.

A loud thump shook the room, louder than the one that had originally caused the ceiling to partially collapse. Adara started with fear and her globes of light blinked out. Her pool of Sihr drained away almost painfully, and Adara gasped as she felt Sihr flee. Letting go of Sihr was supposed to be a controlled exercise; do it too quickly and you could damage your ability to manage it. She felt the room tremble, and rocks and grit rained down on her, striking her head and shoulders and coating her with a dry mist of grime. She could feel the earth heave and buckle under the stresses inflicted upon it, and the grinding noise of metal creaking under its own weight filled the air. In the distance were the sounds of rockslides and cave-ins; moments later, wind rushed at her from two or three different directions. She trembled in terror, wondering what was happening and if this signaled her doom. Too afraid to even cry out, she wrapped her arms around herself and wept quietly.

The trembling could not have lasted for more than a minute, if even that, but it had felt like forever to Adara. Still alive, she thought to herself, but for how long? She half-heartedly tried to escape the boulder that held her in place, hoping that the shaking might have jarred it loose, but the providence that had been kind enough to let her live had not been so kind as to free her.

“Arron!” she called out again. “Hello! Anyone!” It was a feeble attempt, but as long as there was life, there was hope. She was an Imperial princess, after all; it was not in her blood or in her character to give up. Her father had spanked her once for giving up on trying to climb over a wall in one of the gardens as a child. She had watched her father live through an assassination attempt. She had eluded a dozen marriage proposals from High Families that could have started wars if they had felt insulted. She was no wilting tulip to be frightened by the dark. “Nadine! Where are you!”

A scraping noise behind her caught her attention. What was that noise? She strained her ear, hoping to hear it again. Yes, there was something definitely moving behind her. She hoped it was not merely rocks settling, or the movement of some subterranean snake or rodent.

“Hello! I’m trapped!” she called out as loudly as she could. She did not want to scream, but desperation and hope gave her voice a slightly crazed lilt. “Is that you, Arron?”

There were more sounds of scratching and digging, and then she heard the tell-tale slide of rocks and debris. A muffled sound came from the darkness, and she was so elated that she thought she might scream with joy.

Light! I need light! She pooled her Sihr again, more than she ever had before, and wove a braid of fire that could have melted the very stone that caged her, but for all her trouble she was rewarded with a thin ribbon of flame. Small as it was, it nearly blinded her with its brightness. She launched it towards the grinding noises she had heard, and watched as it flew through the dusty air and plastered itself against a pile of stones. The tunnel, Adara remembered. I felt wind come from there. Maybe it was caved in and the last tremble jarred some of it loose. Maybe someone is trying to make their way in here!

“I’m here!” she called out. “I’m trapped and I can’t help you dig! Can you hear me?” She held her breath and listened intently for any sort of response. Yes, there was something there. Definitely. She could hear muffled sounds that could only be speech. There were more sounds of digging. Elated, she called out encouragement to her would-be rescuer. “You’re almost here! I can almost hear your words! Oh, if only I could help!”

It did not take too long. In only a few more minutes, she heard more rocks slide, and then a voice. “Oye!”

It was a male voice, deep and unfamiliar, with an accent that she could not place. Who else could be down here? “I’m here!” she cried out. “I’m towards the back, and I’m trapped by some fallen rocks. Can you make it over here?”

“Aye, I will,” the disembodied voice responded. “I need still to dig a hole wide enough to climb through. Damn Khatam and the dirt that buries him. This is hot work. Are you injured?”

Khatam? It was the prisoner! “I am not injured,” she said tentatively, a little unsure of herself now. What if he meant her harm? Well, there was no help for it. “But there is a boulder that has trapped my leg, and I cannot free myself from it. I will need your help.”

“If you look even half as beautiful as you sound, you will have it,” he said to her. Adara’s eyebrows rose. A strange time to flirt, she thought to herself.

She heard him grunting as he undoubtedly moved stones around and dug a way through the collapse. She waited a few minutes patiently, but could no longer contain her curiosity. “Who are you?” she called out to him. “I don’t recognize your voice, so you cannot be from my company. Were there others in these tunnels that I am unaware of?”

A few more grunts, then silence. She could make out his labored breathing. “Doubtless you can tell by my voice that I am not of this land,” he said finally. “I was held here against my will by these fools that call themselves Aeyn. Do you know of them?”

“Yes,” she replied guardedly. “You must be the man that took the treasure from the Earth Tower. Is that right? It is all that we have spoken of this last week in classes.”

“So you are a student,” he mused. “Yes, I am that man. Does this mean you will try to cage me once I free you?”

She laughed; she could not help it. He must have been joking. “Free me first, and then we can talk of who will cage whom,” she said, a smile playing on her lips. “I am sure I can find it in my heart to forgive your crime if you manage to save me from a slow death from deprivation and madness.”

“Khatam’s teeth!” he swore with enthusiasm. “For that laugh, what man would not readily trade his freedom for a cage? Given me a moment and let us see what I can do to free you.”

She smiled to herself as he grunted and cursed his way into the room. “I’m in,” he said after some time, “though I think I left most of my skin back there. Where are you?”

She thought to light a glow bulb, but then decided it would be prudent to preserve her ability with Sihr until she felt safe with him. “Over here,” she called out. “I think I’m almost directly in front of you.” She heard him walk over to her, stumbling once over some unseen rubble on the floor. “Balls,” she heard him mutter, and suppressed a giggle. No one talked like that around her. His leg hit her in the nose as he approached. “Ouch!”

“Alas! It is the curse of men to always hurt what they think to cherish,” he uttered. The man was a shameless flirt. Were all men from the West so free with their words? She was willing to lay odds on his age being three times hers and his weight maybe four.

“I’d thank you to cherish me a bit less,” she replied dryly, eliciting a chuckle from him. “Put your hands out in front of you and you will feel the boulder that holds me in place. I cannot stand, so I am not sure how big it is, or how heavy.”

“It reaches my waist,” he informed her. “And it is mostly round, thank the gods. It will be easier to move.” She heard a rustle of clothes, and all of a sudden felt his hot breath upon her cheek. “Is this you?” he asked.

She nodded, knowing that he could not see her, but uncertain of herself, given his proximity. He did not have the typical smell of scented soaps and oils of most men she had met; his odor was sharper, saltier, and almost overpowering, but in a good way. She felt his hand touch her head, and for a moment felt like a panicked deer. Who is this man to touch me this way, she thought, but her jaw was frozen.

She felt his fingers trace the curve of her cheek and run down her jaw. “Aye, you are as beautiful as I imagined you to be,” he remarked. “Soft, like most women here in the East, but beautiful.”

Adara finally came to her senses. She smacked him as close to where she thought his head might be, and ended up slapping him on the lips. “Perhaps you could work on freeing me before trying to seduce me,” she said acidly.

The Westerner laughed raucously. “Certainly! But you cannot blame a man who comes across a woman as entrancing as you for guiding the horse. Blame yourself for your comforting voice and your crackling wit.” He shifted his direction, turning towards the rock, and she soon felt his hands upon her trapped leg. He needs to know how the stone rests against my leg, she told herself. But he does not need to make his touch feel so…. good. “Your leg is trapped here in his hollow, between this boulder and a wedge of stone beneath it.”

“Yes, I found out as much,” she replied, still flustered by his hands on her calf. No man had ever touched her so intimately. “Do you think you can push it off?”

“Let me check the other side of the rock,” he replied. He got up, his hands finally leaving her skin. Adara felt a fleeting sense of disappointment at the lack of his touch. Since when had she become such a vixen? She heard him reaching under the other side of the boulder. “There’s dust and rocks down here,” he said. “Let me clear out as much as I can before I try to roll this beast.” He scraped away at the grit underneath the boulder while she waited impatiently. “There’s a bit of a slope here, too,” he mentioned. “I can feel the tilt of the floor. That should help.” He stood up and Adara heard him dust off his hands.

She realized suddenly that she didn’t know his name. “I’m Adara,” she said by way of an introduction. “Thank you so much for your help.”

“I’m Fariss al’Ketabi ul-Hamra,” he said. “I am Schnegul.” He paused, as though waiting for a response from her. When she stayed quiet, he continued. “Well, I guess that means nothing to you. So be it. Let us free you of this stone.” He sat down next to her. “I am going to lie down and push with my legs. Don’t try to pull your leg out; it might get stuck under the rock. Instead, try to move it to the right so that your leg comes free completely. Once your leg moves, make sure it passes all the way under the stone, or it will surely crush your leg if this stone falls back. Understand?”

She gulped. “Yes,” she said faintly.

He shimmied up to the boulder and positioned himself as close as he could to it. His feet lay flat on its surface, and his back was pushed against the floor. She felt his calloused hand on her leg once again, but this time the grip was firm and authoritative. “I will pull your leg as well. Do not stop unless I give the word. On the count of three. One. Two. Three!” He heard his grunt, and then his hand pulled against her leg with tremendous force, trying to drag it underneath the boulder. She felt her skin tear and cried out in pain.

“Move your leg!” he shouted, pushing with his legs against the boulder. Incredibly, she felt it tilt forward, and more of her leg squeezed underneath it. She could feel the wedge of stone that had held up the boulder push hard into the back of her calf. If it fell now, she would certainly lose her leg. “Aaaagggh!” he yelled, his voice breaking with the strain. “Move it! Move it! Get it out!” His hand pulled against her leg, and she thought he might break it himself.

Weeping with both pain and fear, she wiggled her leg back and forth as much as she could in the tight space he had made. Blood wetted the stone. “It’s not enough,” she cried. “Push harder!” She put a hand on his chest and felt the cords of muscles knotted and twisted in tension. “Please!”

He took a deep breath and Adara felt the boulder slip fractionally. Wild with fear, she pushed her leg as hard as she could, certain he was about to let it go. Instead, he let out a savage roar and redoubled his efforts. She felt the boulder lift and tip backwards, and her leg slid underneath. Just like that, she was free. She scrambled away from the boulder and Fariss, afraid that he might drop the boulder suddenly and it would roll over them.

He did no such thing. The boulder fell down heavily, and she heard him slide back out of the way. “Fariss!” she cried out, weeping. “You freed me!” She crawled over to him and put her arms around him. “Thank you! The gods preserve you! Thank you!” Her legs still trembled with fear.

She felt his arms envelope her, and before she knew it, he had pulled her into an embrace. Astonished, she did not know how to react, even as his lips crushed against hers in a kiss. It was a heady kiss, and his musk threatened to overwhelm her. His body was all planes and edges; there was not a soft corner on him anywhere. Her astonishment revolved into anger and she pushed against him. Thankfully, he let her go; those were strong arms, and she doubted she could have gotten away if he had not let her. She slapped him again in any case. “What was that for?” she demanded. “How dare you?”

“Alas, freedom has a price, Adara. Yours was a kiss. Be thankful I did not ask for more.” He groaned. “We will need to talk about that hand of yours. I can’t have you slapping me every few minutes.” He tried to turn over and get up, but could not. “Gods, that was terrible.”

“What!”

“Not the kiss, love. The boulder. I doubt there is anything left of this shirt. Or my back, for that matter. Help me up.”

“Touch me again like that again and this boulder will seem like a fond memory! Do you understand these words, Westerner?” Outrage made her nearly apathetic to his pain.

“Bah. I doubt that you would not forgive a man for stealing a kiss you did not ask for. But a woman like you could never forgive a man the kiss he failed to take.” He grasped her arm with his own. “Help me up.”

She helped him to his feet. The fool man had an answer to everything. “I’m here with some friends. I must find them. Two more women and two men. They could be hurt.”

“Do you know these caves and tunnels?” he asked her. “If you do not, then we have yet to escape the glare of the Keeper. He watches us still.”

“I know enough to get us out of here,” she replied, “but I will not without my companions. If you are afraid, you can wait here or take your chances with one of these tunnels. I will not leave anyone behind.”

“I see that your tongue is nearly as sharp as your wit, Adara.” The way he said her name made her uncomfortable. It rolled off of his tongue almost languorously. “I fear nothing. Lead the way, and I will follow.”

After some discussion, Adara decided that the most reasonable path for her friends to have taken would have been the route they took to get here. Fariss came from one of the tunnels that the lock had once guarded; that lock was gone now, obliterated or shifted into the rock where it could do nothing. They could not be down there. There was another tunnel next to it, but that lock was still in place. The only other option was back up the stairs they had once descended.

The room with the stairs was completely dark as well. Adara pooled her Sihr to see if her magic would work here, and had no problem doing so. She kicked up a little breeze with Air and felt the wind blow by her face. Sihr! To live without it, even for a few hours, was terrible and frightening. It was a comfort to know that it was near.

She reached out with Pathos to find Nadine or Ayn Shantrelle, but could locate neither of them. The right combination of Fire and Pathos would allow you to communicate with other mages, but few did so. It opened up your thoughts and emotions to whomever was communicating with you. Defending yourself against prying eyes or a Sihr assault on your mind was no easy task, and most Aeyn warded their minds against it. However, many mages allowed such wards to drop when lost or when information exchanges were imperative. It was used extensively by Aeyn that were attached to militaries for communications between units.

“These stairs are wide, but have a care that you do not fall off one of the sides,” she told Fariss. “Earth Magic is raw here, very elemental, and strange things can happen. If you fall, you may end up somewhere else altogether, and beyond my ability to recover. At the top of this stairs, we will find torches that we can use for light.”

“Give me your hand to hold and I will be well,” he said to her. “Im more ways than one.”

She grinned, glad that it was dark. He was incorrigible. “You have my arm already, or did you forget that you are so weak that you can barely walk?”

“Hah! It is a ruse on my part to keep you near me,” he inveigled, but she knew it to be a lie. She had felt his wounds earlier; his back was badly lacerated in a hundred different places, and covered in both blood and dirt. He would need a healer. He also walked with a slight limp; he must have hurt his hip or his leg as he moved that rock off of her leg, although he claimed to be fine. Fariss did not seem to be the kind of man who would allow weakness to be evident, and Adara guessed that his wounds were quite severe to hurt him this much.

The trek up the stairs was brutal. It did not take long to wear her down; soon, her thighs were burning and lifting her legs to gain the next step was agony. She had started with Fariss at her side, supporting him as they climbed, but she had begged off after a few short minutes. As they ascended, she found the once smooth steps to be cracked and uneven, with pebbles and rocks threatening her balance. A few attempts at conversation had also given way to the interminable torture of the stairs. As they climbed, she was humbled to find that it was her pace, not his, that slowed them, despite his injures.

“I need a break,” she finally said. Thank the younger he could not see her; she was sweating profusely. “My legs are on fire.”

She heard him stop in front of her. The darkness seemed eternal; she was desperate to create a glow bulb, if only to see how far the landing below them was. If only to see what he looks like. They had climbed for ten minutes, maybe more.

“Do you know how much more we can expect to ascend?” he asked her as they both sat down on the stairs. “This is worse than the interrogations. A couple of hours of this, and I would have given up my mother for a spy.” She felt him settle in close to her, and his hand brushed hers lightly as he positioned himself, sending a small thrill through her. I’m acting like Nadine, only worse! What is it about this man that has scattered my wits?

“On our way down, it took us half an hour. I can only guess it will be longer on the way up, since we walk more slowly. Or not; Earth magic is odd, and does strange things this deep in its realm. And I feel that the stairs are not as smooth and even as they once were, perhaps due to the shaking we have experienced in the last hour.” She paused a moment to take off her shoes and rub her feet. “What did the interrogators do to you?” she asked, intrigued. She could not imagine Aeyn resorting to torture, though Orben was a different story.

“Your interrogators are like the yorka lizards of the dried mudflats. They bare their teeth and flash their red and black frills when they are excited, but run away at the first sign of true danger. I have felt more threatened facing a jilted lover than I did at their hands. At first they tried to reason with me, but I was silent. Then there were threats, which I laughed at. Finally they thought to use their magics to break into my mind, but I would not relent. Tell me, are these human mages cowards or merely fools?”

Yorka lizard? “Neither, I would imagine,” she said, annoyed. “They are educated men that eschew such violence merely for information.” How many jilted lovers has he faced?

“Merely? I thought this to be a place of learning. There is no price that can be placed on knowledge. It is as valuable as the person who needs it deems it to be.”

“Even then, there are some things that have no price,” she said to him. “Honor, integrity, morality. These are tenets that are beyond value.” She leaned in closer to him and rested a hand on his knee. “Love. Community. Family. Everything does not have a price.”

He chortled. “Maybe not a price, but value nonetheless. Else no murderer would ever be hung, or a rapist ever gelded. It might be that value is arbitrary, but it is there nonetheless.”

“Is this what you believe in the West?” she asked him, dismayed. “That there is a price for everything? That anything can be traded?”

“You make is sound like a crime,” he replied to her. “Or some sort of act unnatural to humanity. Had your mages wanted to know where al’Tasbeya’Khatmi was, they should have thought to find out what was more valuable to me than that knowledge. It was not gold, nor was it the absence of pain.”

al’Tasbeya’Khatmi.That must be the Chains of Khatam. “What was it, then?”

She felt him shrug. “I know not. Certainly nothing comes to mind.”

She scowled. “I see that men are just as difficult to understand in the West as they are here in the East,” she said wryly. “It is good to see that some things remain constant across boundaries, across oceans.”

He laughed a deep and redolent laugh that echoed in the chamber. “Only too true, love.” He stood, pulling her up along with him. “Come. Enough time has passed. Let us find your friends and leave this place.”

Sighing, she allowed herself to be pulled up.

They continued on their way up. The burn in Adara’s thighs and buttocks was now incessant. She thought back to her daqys as the pricess of the Obverse King. I would have thought that those thousands of hours of running and training and riding horseback would have made me stronger than this, she thought dismally. “You said something earlier,” she said to Fariss. “You said you were a Senegul or something What does that mean?”

“Schnegul,” he corrected. “A warrior class in the West. It is of no import. Especially since you know knothing of it.”

“Is that why you were chosen to steal the Chains of Khatam? Because you are a great warrior?”

“Steal?” His voice dropped, and she imagined that shen could hear danger in the silence.

Adara hastily backpedaled. “Freed? Liberated?”

He was quiet for a moment, and Adara wondered how much she had offended him. Finally, he spoke, albeit with some hesitance. “You Easterners are with words as a Sejehin dancer is with her patrons. Moving in one direction and then another, that a man never knows where to tread or what is being spoken. Why do you not just say what you think? If you think I am a thief, say it. I will either disabuse you of it, or we will disagree. Mayhap you will convince me that I am one. But cease this wrangling with words and meanings. Speak plainly with me, or not at all.”

“I think you confuse courtesy for dissembling,” she responded. “We are not in the habit of disparaging our guests. I’m sure your face is quite aware of the fact that I’m not shy about making my feelings known when I feel like I must.”

She heard him chuckle ruefully. “Indeed,” he agreed, “though I might question how you use that term ‘guest,’ given that I have seen neither sun nor moonlight in the last five days. It is true that it was my skill as Second that inspired the Heiorarch to send me here, but we owe them fealty and were bound by both history and venerance to accede to their requests. They could have sent the First or even the Tenth, and we would have had no choice but to obey. Their demand was al’Tasbeya’Khatmi, and we were honor bound to comply. Oaths made a thousand generations past have tied us to the Hieroarch to the exclusion of all else. We belong to them, but they pay us in magery and training.”

Adara nearly stumbled as her toes hit a step that was a little higher than the one that preceded it. She muffled a curse with the back of a grimy hand as one of her toes began to throb. “Damn this darkness,” she muttered painfully. “Watch that step. It’s a bit higher than the others.” She rubbed her lower back with her hands as she trekked ever upwards. Everything hurt. “I understood only half of what you said. Who is the Hieroarch? Why did they want the Chains? What oaths are you talking about?” She thought for a moment. “I don’t doubt that how you were able to find and take the Chains must be a story in itself. I must hear it as well.”

“You ask questions as though I can explain a hundred thousand years of history and war and oaths in a few breaths,” he said incredulously. “It cannot happen. I am running out of breath as it is. When the hell will these stairs end?”

She shrugged, even though she knew he could not see it. “I don’t know, but even if I did, I would not - .” She stopped as a flicker caught her eye. “Wait,” she said, grabbing him by the arm. “Wait, I think I see something.” She looked up towards where she thought she saw the flicker of light, opening her eyes as wide as she could.

“I don’t see anything,” he said.

She punched him in the shoulder. “Quiet!” The darkness was unnerving. Perhaps it had just been a deception of her mind, desperate to find something to look upon other than the imagined shapes that floated like black wraiths into and out of her vision. “I saw something, I’m sure of it.”

There was another flicker, and Adara’s heart leapt at the telltale echoes of Fire and Air that glowed dully in the darkness, illuminating nothing but themselves. It might be Nadine, she thought, or someone from the party upstairs come looking for us. “Did you see that?” she exclaimed, tugging at Fariss’s arm.

“Aye. Looked like a spark or something. What was it?”

“That was no spark. There is an Aeyn up there, weaving Sihr,” she replied confidently. She felt him stiffen, and realized that he was probably concerned that any Aeyn that they came across would want to restore him to his previous state of incarceration. She squeezed his hand reassuringly. “I am not without some influence,” she told him. “And you did save my life. That will count for something.”

He made some small, noncommital noise that Adara accepted as acquiescence. What else were they going to do? “Just give me a few moments to speak before you think to do anything rash,” she said, suspecting his thoughts of escape or revenge. “It might be that the Aeyn up there is the friend I mentioned to you earlier. You have my word that I will protect you as best I can.”

“It is not me that will need protection.”

She felt her neck go warm with anger. “After all of this, you would threaten me?”

“What do you mean?” Fariss seemed genuinely puzzled.

“Nothing.” She let go of his hand and picked up her pace a bit. “Nadine!” she called out as loudly as she could. “Is that you up there?”

The spark expanded and turned into a glow bulb which then rolled down the stairs. “Adara!” she heard Nadine call out. Her voice was very faint but she could hear relief in it despite the distance that seperated them. “Thank goodness you’re alive! We were so worried! Where are you? Are you hurt?”

Adara! Nadine’s Sihr-inspired voice echoed in her head, and she could feel a tangle of relief and fear in the emotions that accompanied her thoughts. Are you hurt? Light a glow bulb so we can see how far away you are. Comprehension dawned as Nadine was exposed to a torrent of conflicting emotions, even before Adara had a chance to form the words. Who is with you?

Stop it! Adara responded, embarrassed, even though Nadine had nothing to do with it; she had no choice but to receive all of the emotions that Adara was projecting. There were ways to clamp down on that sort of thing, but Adara was no expert. “I’m coming up!” she called, thinking that her silence might seem a bit odd to Fariss. “I have someone with me!” I have the prisoner with me; he helped me escape from a boulder that had me pinned to the floor. I’m fine, and so is he, other than some cuts and bruises, she relayed to Nadine. He does not know me to be an Ayn or a princess, and I would keep it that way until I am with you. Her thoughts were hurried and disjointed; she wanted Nadine out of her head. Is Arron with you? Orben? The rest?

Arron is with me, but he is injured. I have not seen Orben. Iyn Shantrelle - . Nadine did not go on, but Adara could feel the sadness and horror that Nadine was experiencing. Oh Adara, what will we tell ArchAeyn Harmoun? Nadine’s voice was a wail in her head.

Calm yourself, Adara told here severely. This was no time for weakness, although her own legs trembled as she thought of the professor. I am another ten minutes from you, I think. Roll some more glow bulbs down here, and tell Arron not to give me away until we know what this Westerner plans.

Is he dangerous? she asked.

Adara thought for a moment. Have you ever met a man that is not? she replied.

There is that, Nadine agreed. Nevertheless, Sihr is working on the landing as long as we stay near the trap door to these stairs. I think that some of the Earth Magic of this place has been… displaced by the tremors. But we can keep him here until we decide what we must do with him.

“Balls of light approach us,” Farris pointed out. “Ever have I been observant,” he joked tiredly.

Adara rolled her eyes at his words as Nadine fled her mind. She watched as the ethereal glow of the unnatural light from the bulbs illuminated the darkness. They bounced and floated down the stairs slowly, and the dull whiteness that they exuded tried to beat back the darkness that surrounded them. Adara, despite herself, was estactic. She would finally get to see him! Well, a little bit. The glow bulbs were not that big, and provided enough light to illuminate only a small area. A good thing too, given her current state of dishabille. She did not relish the idea of anyone looking at her in torn and dirty clothes. A quick run of her fingers through her hair confirmed that it was filled with dirt and tangled to boot. She tugged at her long hair, trying to straighten it as much as she could. All this for a man I’ve never seen, who will be three times my age and with a face that looks like an old boot. She remembered the feel of his lips as they pressed insistently against hers; the salty taste, the smell of his breath, the feel of his hand on the back of her head. She blushed, going warm all over, and was thankful once again for the darkness. She had never been kissed like that before.

“Let’s hurry. I tire of this gloomy room and these cursed steps,” she said, picking up her pace slightly. His response was no more than a grunt. She could hear his labored breath, and realized that hers was labored as well. Twice-damn these stairs.

She stole glances at him as they walked past the glowing balls, tantalizing herself with glimpses of the man who had kissed her. It was hard to make him out in the dark even with the glow bulbs, but she was able to conclude that his was a lean body, and there was a shadow of stubble on his face. Strong hands, she mused as she stole yet another glance, hard enough to hold a woman but not so hard as to forget when to let go. He had a presence to him that was inviting; it inspired confidence. She tugged at her recalcitrant hair again. I hate tangles. And I hate men even more.

Both of them were exhausted by the time they reached the landing at the top. “Adara!” Nadine cried as she rushed to embrace the friend that stumbled tiredly through the passageway. She pulled her to one side, covering her face in kisses and embracing her like she would never let go. From the corner of her eye, Adara saw Arron on the floor, eyes closed, a bandage tied around his head. At Nadine’s words he opened them and nodded at Adara, acknowledging her presence. She smiled back at him, glad to see that he was there. “Thank the gods, every one of them, that you’re still with me,” Nadine gushed. “Arron was going mad with dread at your disappearance; I had to hold him down with Sihr. He wanted to rush back in there and search for you, even though the ground was still shaking. Thank goodness he fell unconscious soon after I found him, or I never would have gotten him here. As it was, I carried him up with Sihr. I had no idea that a man could be so heavy.” Adara was touched by her solicitousness. She was a good friend, and Adara was glad to see her too. She saw Nadine straighten up slightly as her eyes slid back behind her, and knew that Fariss had walked in. “Who is your friend, Adara?” she asked almost shyly. Adara suddenly felt like smacking her.

“Nadine, this is Fariss, a prisoner from the cells below. Fariss, may I introduce to you Nadine of Family Scarsdale.” She turned to face him, and got her first real look at the man that she had spent the last hour with.

A week of privation had not diminished his carriage. He was tall; taller than most men in the East. Even exhausted, he carried himself the grace of a deadly hunter. He did not have the nonchalance of Arron’s indifferent posture, but it was no less dangerous for it. He held himself like a coiled spring; tense, loaded, with the ability to explode without warning. There was no pretention about his stance; he knew there might be violence afoot, and he wanted everyone to know that he was prepared for it. A drab and shabby shirt could not hide the long muscles that rippled underneath as he moved.

It was, however, his eyes that drew Adara’s attention. They were a pale amber that matched the tangled bunch of hair that he had pulled back and bound behind his head. It was the color of a field of sun-kissed grain swaying in an afternoon breeze. She had never seen their like, not in a world of greens and blues.

“Golden eyes,” Nadine whispered.

“Aye. The color of ale, my amma always said,” Farris replied easily enough, an annoying smile playing with those full lips. Even with a week’s worth of hair on his face, Adara could see soft cheekbones that made their way to a strong, narrow jaw. “They mark me, I know, but the girls like it well enough, so who am I to complain?”

“You are the one who took the Chains?” Nadine asked him.

He nodded. “I did.”

“And do you still have them?”

“Not with me, but yes.” He grinned at her, showing off perfectly white teeth.

Adara saw Nadine take a deep breath and knew a barrage of questions was in the offing. “Nadine, wait,” she interjected, cutting off her line of questions. “There will be time for that later. First we must find Orben and make our way out of here. We are not too far from the surface; once we get there we can ask ArchAeyn Harmoun to convene the First Seats of the Towers to find out what to do next. The Crown has a stake as well; Farris saved my life below, and I have promised him whatever protection I can provide.” Too late she realized her mistake; even before she stopped speaking, Farris looked at her sharply.

“And what interest could your king have in me, other than that I saved the life of one of his vassals?” he asked. “How do you know the king of this land? Are you a noble?”

She looked down, discomfited by being caught in such a glaring omission. “Well, sort of.”

“She’s a princess,” Nadine added helpfully. The room was quiet as Nadine and Farris both looked at Adara.

“This changes nothing.” Arron’s voice was raspy climbed slowly to his feet. “This man is still a prisoner of the Earth Tower and is a threat to the kingdom. He pulled his sword free. “Until such time that we can turn him over to the Tower of Earth or the Crown, he must remain with us. Nadine, please bind his arms behind his back and plug his ears.”

Even as Farris leapt at Arron, she felt Nadine weave Sihr. Farris froze in his tracks as thick ropes of Air trussed him. Two wedges of Air plugged his ears and a bar of Air was shoved into his mouth, rendering him deaf and mute. His eyes bulged in defiance and anger as he looked at alternately at her and Nadine.

“Stop it!” Adara gathered herself and pulled away from her friend. “Arron, put away that sword. He is not going to hurt me, I know that much. And even if he wanted to, I am more than capable of protecting myself. Nadine, unplug his ears, please.” She waited as the wedges dissipated.

“You have no idea what he is capable of,” Arron said to her. “He did not know you were a princess, and may find greater utility in your possession than any supposed friendship. And if rumors are to be believed, he was able to circumvent a thousand years of magical traps and wards to get at the Chains of Khatam, something even ArchAeyn are loath to do. You cannot be so mad as to think he can be anything but a threat to you.”

“He saved my life, Arron. When you were not there, it was he who freed me from that cave, at the risk of his own life. He could have left me there.” She said the words pointedly and knew it would sting, but she was fast running out of arguments.

Arron frowned pensively. “Do not throw that absence in my face. When the ceiling collapsed, I awoke to find myself with Nadine and Ayn Shantrelle in the corridor. They were on the way up the stairs, and I was being carried with Sihr between the two.”

“He was livid,” Nadine interrupted. “He threatened us both if we did not let him go to retrieve you. Even after Ayn Shantrelle was thrown from the stairs during the last tremble, Arron sought to descend again into the deep to retrieve you.” Arron had the grace to flush as Nadine continued. “I had to tie him up and carry him with Air, though he was well enough to walk.”

Adara felt a pang for the Ayn. If Ayn Shantrelle fell from the stairs, she might be falling still. The raw magic of Earth behaved oddly in its own dominion. There was a small hope that the professor might survive, but it was unlikely. If the fall did not kill her, hours of falling would break any sane person’s mind. In any case, there was nothing any of them could do to help her. “I refuse to treat him as a captor,” Adara announced to them. “There is no more to be said on the matter. If he takes an oath not to harm me, then he is to remain in my custody until we can decide what needs to be done.”

“Done!” Fariss exclaimed. “Now cut me loose, vixen, lest I be forced to take another oath that will have me cooking your meals and brushing your hair.” He struggles against his magical and the rest of them were rewarded with a scowl.

“Princess, I object to this.” Arron’s eyes were hard, as was the rest of his demeanor. He was not pleased.

Adra ignored his comment. “Release him,” Adara instructed, and Nadine did so with a nod. Farris stumbled as the ropes of Air dissipated, but did not fall. He grinned broadly at Arron. “Do all men here in the East take their orders from little girls, or do they just act like them? She unmanned you quick enough, I think.”

Arron ignored the jibe. He addressed Adara with no uncertainty. “Do as you will, but do not think that I trust this man. I will wait for the moment he seeks to betray you, Princess, and then I will sheathe my blade in his body.” In one fluid motion he returned the sword to the scabbard at his side. He looked at Farris blankly, who grinned at him.

“It might be that I disagree with that last bit, dog,” he said lazily to the solider. The threat in his voice was implicit, deadlier that it was unspoken.

Arron shrugged, his eyes holding Fariss’s. “You are welcome to try and stop me.”

“I look forward to it.” His voice, flat with malice, echoed in the cave.

“That’s enough out of you two,” Adara said severely. “Maybe the two of you can find something useful to do rather than arguing about who has more hair on his chest? Arron, please find us some torches. There may be some here by the door. Adara, let’s find out how far Sihr extends in this corridor.” She took Nadine’s arm and stalked off, leaving the two men glaring at each other while pretending not to.

“There’s no torches,” she heard him call after her. “I already checked.”

Better to ask an egg to cook itself than a man to do it for you. The only thing with less sense than a man was a man with a sword.

“What is he like?” Nadine asked her expectantly as they walked away. Not even a few paces away from the Westerner and she had already shifted to gossip mode! A small chain of glow bulbs arched out in front of them, illuminating the way. “Amber eyes! Gods, they were arresting. Did he tell you how he took the Chains? How did you find him?”

“Keep your voice down, you nit!” Adara whispered to her fiercely. “Unless you want him to know how pretty you find his eyes.” She squeezed Nadine’s hand to soften the words. “I didn’t find him; he found me. A rock hit me on my head and knocked me out; when I woke up, my leg was wedged underneath a huge boulder. I couldn’t pull myself free and Sihr was not working in that antechamber anymore.”

“I wonder if that means that the Earth magic does has[1] something to do with the structure of these caves and tunnels,” Nadine mused. “Or it could be a part of the very earth itself, saturating the rocks and dirt around us.”

“Well, whatever it is, I was stuck and couldn’t get free,” Adara continued, slightly annoyed at the interruption. I called out for help, and he heard me. He helped me move the rock off of my leg and we came up the stairs looking for you.” No point in mentioning that kiss. “I talked to him a little bit. He’s very odd, Nadine. I don’t understand him at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not sure, exactly. He’s very blunt. Arrogantly so, in fact. And he said some strange things to me about what happened to him with the interrogators that left me wondering what kind of man he is.”

“Like what? You can’t expect him to have nice things to say about being tortured, Adara. And, after all, he is a thief. What more do you expect?”

“No, that’s not what I mean,” Adara said, frustrated. “He’s not a thief, or at least not like I’ve ever met before. He has his own sense of integrity; of that I have no doubt. But it’s how he sees the world… the way he decides what to do seems oddly pragmatic.”

The leading glow bulb winked out, and in another few paces, the rest of them did too. Nadine backed up and reformed them. The two girls looked back to the door where they had started from; a glow bulb they had left behind burned dimly. “This can’t be more than fifty paces,” Adara muttered. “We are a long ways off from the stairs that will lead us out of here.”

There was a thump, and the tunnel shook slightly. Dust fell from the ceiling and from cracks in the walls. Adara looked around nervously. “Let’s hope Arron found some torches,” she said. “I want to get out of here in a hurry. I’ve been through one cave in. That’s more than enough for me.” Nadine nodded emphatically.

They returned to find Arron with a couple of oil torches. “I found these cast carelessly not far from this door,” Arron said. “I cannot imagine an Aeyn doing something so reckless. I believe that Orben must have already passed by here.”

“Perhaps,” Adara said, “but I wonder why he would not have sought to find us instead of fleeing.”

“Maybe he went to get help,” Nadine suggested.

“Ha! More like he went mad with fear.” Farris laughed. “Some men fear closed spaces, and even more so when they lie under the earth.”

“Nonsense,” Nadine said sharply. “He’s been down here a half dozen times.” Adara watched as she lit the torch that Arron held. It flared brightly, and both Arron and Farris jerked back from it in surprise. “It’s not difficult to get startled,” Nadine continued, “when something untoward happens.”

Adara watched the light gleam off of Farris’s amber eyes, his grin lighting them up. “I had heard that women in the East drank sweetmilk instead of wine and stayed at the hearth to cook when their men went out,” he reflected. “Only a fool could think a woman could be anything other than a woman, no matter where she lives.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about, but I suggest you save your chatter for the Aeyn that will want to question you,” Nadine replied. “Arron, can you lead us out of here?”

He lit his own torch and handed one to Nadine. “I will bring up the rear,” Arron responded. “I suggest that you lead, with the prisoner between us.”

Fariss shrugged at the words, indicating that he did not object, and the four of them made their way down the hall. Adara picked up the pace a bit, in order to put some space between them and Fariss.

“I don’t like him,” Nadine whispered to her.

“You don’t like anyone who has an unkind word for Orben,” Adara told her. “Be reasonable.”

“How did he get the Chains out of the Tower? Did he tell you?”

“No. Should we ask him?”

“If he didn’t tell the interrogators, why would he tell us?” Nadine asked.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. He mentioned before that the interrogators had failed to find something that he valued more than the knowledge of how he took the Chains. Maybe we need to find out what that is.”

“That’s the craziest think I’ve ever heard of, Adara. Really.” Nadine sniffed. “What are you going to offer him? A royal pardon? Gold? A kiss?”

Adara tripped and would have hit the ground had she not been holding Nadine’s arm. “Gods, Nadine! You are so crass. As though I would ever kiss such a ruffian! Why would you even think such a thing?”

“Calm down. I was only kidding.” Nadine looked closely at her. “Oh Gods, you did kiss him, didn’t you?” she said incredulously.

“Shhhh!” Adara whispered urgently to her, blushing for all that she was worth. “For the love of the Dead God, please keep yor voice down! It was barely a kiss; it lasted hardly a second. I swear it. I didn’t even want to kiss him; he just took it!”

“You’re mad.” Nadine shook her head, amazed. “And here I thought I was the crazy one.”

“It’s not like you think,” Adara stammered, embarrassed.

“Well, you can kiss whomever you please. It’s certainly none of my business.” Nadine sniffed disdainfully. “But you should try keeping your mind on the important matters at hand.”

“I am!” Adara said loudly, and winced as her voice reverberated in the tunnel. She heard one of the two men chortle behind her and ground her teeth in frustration. Fariss, no doubt. “I am, if you would just listen to me!” she said more quietly. “He told me that the absence of pain is not as valuable to him as the knowledge of the Chains is. What could be more valuable?”

“Is that why you gave him the kiss?”

“Nadine!”

“I was only kidding,” Nadine teased. “Don’t be cross with me. Did you ask him?”

“Of course I did,” Adara replied, only slightly mollified. The nerve of this girl! “He said that nothing comes to mind.” She looked at the torch that Nadine held in her hand. Firelight shone brightly in the dark, and burning oil dripped on to the stone floor. “I don’t understand him. There’s something to him that makes me think that it won’t be torture or gold or even a kiss that will convince him to tell us where the Chains are hidden or what they do. I think the First Seats of the Towers are going down the wrong path with this man, and they will only be encouraged by Orben. I would spare him needless suffering. I do not like the idea of torture. It offends me.”

“You think we can treat with him for the information?”

“Could it hurt to try?”

“Outside the influence or the proscriptions of the First Seats? Are you kidding? They could throw us out of the University for doing something so stupid. You are a princess, Adara. What you do matters.”

“I know that. My concerns extend far beyond just the First Seats, Nadine. I must think of the kingdom.”

“Tell that to me when they decide to blind you to Sihr.”

“They wouldn’t dare!” Adara shuddered. Blinding was forbidden; no crime, no matter how great, resulting in that series of wards that would prevent a mage from using Sihr. You were, quite literally, blinded to it. It was like a shield, only tighter, and impossible to break. It took five mages working together to completely blind someone to Sihr, and one of those five would have to wield Pathos, for which there was no balance. Of course, a partial Blinding was possible; cutting someone off from a specific element had been accomplished in the past, but that was even rarer than a full Blinding, although only three mages were required. The spells were more complx, and the price of failure just as high

“A bad idea, and a thousand times so that you are a princess.” Nadine shook her head. “This is not something you want to get involved with. Let the First Seats do as they will with this man. He will either tell them or he will not.”

“I’m surprised to find you with such words,” Adara commented. “Only yesterday you wanted to hunt this man down and find the Chains for yourself. The gods have dropped him into our laps, and now you want to turn tail and run.”

“We were not a thousand feet inside the earth yesterday, nor did we have tunnels collapse on us. Ayn Shantrelle was still alive, and our dresses did not look like they had been buried these last ten years on a corpse.” Nadine rubbed tears from her eyes, and the wetness only smeared the dust on her face. “I have had enough excitement for a day, I think. Ask me again tomorrow and maybe I’ll have a different answer for you.”

Adara was silent, and remained so as they walked. She squeezed her friend’s hand, letting her know that she understood. Behind them, the footfalls of the two men tracked their progress. Before long, they arrived at the stairs that led to the surface.

Nadine stood on the stairs and lit a glow bulb even as Arron brought up the rear and extinguished the flames. Fariss looked up at the stairwell and sighed. “Damn it all,” he said without enthusiasm.

“This one’s not so bad,” Adara told him. “We are minutes away from the surface.”

The four made their way methodically up the stairs. “Nine hells,” Fariss panted. “Why so bleeding deep? For the view? What is wrong with you Easterners?”

“You should tell us how you got the Chains of Khatam out of the Tower,” Nadine said. “For that tale, I’ll carry you up myself.”

“If I thought you could, I would have asked it myself,” Fariss huffed as he climbed. “What I wouldn’t give for a tankard of ale right about now. This is a thirsty bit of work.”

“You can tell me, or you can tell the interrogators,” she replied to him matter-of-factly. “We had been sent to offer you one final chance to confess your crimes and tell us where you hid the Chains. If you refuse, you will be turned over to men with less compunction than the ones who have questioned you thus far.” Adara was impressed with her demeanor; just listening to that made her run out of breath, and Nadine got it out as though they were on a stroll in the gardens.

“Why do you care? You have had them for a hundred generations and have done nothing with them. At least they will have a purpose with me.”

“What purpose?” Nadine asked the question coolly enough, but Adara knew her friend well enough to hear that undercurrent of excitement.

“I will turn them over to the Hieroarch, as I am bound to do.”

“What sort of purpose is that?” she derided. “To move from one place to another?”

“It is my purpose. I am bound to it by oath and magic.”

“What magic? I see no wards upon you.” Adara watched as Nadine wrapped weaves of Pathos around Fariss, looking for some sort of magical signature. “There’s no Sihr marking upon you.”

“I did not say it was Sihr,” he said, grinning.

“Don’t be a fool,” she said harshly. “No man or woman can wield Elder Magic.”

“So I have been told,” he replied. “And yet, it was not a man or woman that cast these spells upon me.”

They reached the top of the stairs, but above them was only a ceiling. Adara saw Nadine weave a familiar braid of Pathos and Air and Earth directed at where the door was, and she twinned the weave. In moments, the door materialized.

“So if it was not a man or woman who cast these spells, then who was it?” Adara asked.

The door above them shook heavily, rattling on its iron hinges. Dust blanketed the party. Arron cursed and rubbed grit from his eyes.

Nadine took a few steps back from the door, which was shaking violently. A dark red glow emanated from the seams along the sides. She stopped as she bumped into Adara. “What is going on?” Nadine cried.

Adara backed up as well, pulling Nadine with her. “I think you are about to find out,” she heard Fariss say from behind her. She was right in front of him.

The door exploded, showering them with splinters of burning wood and ash. Light flooded into the chamber, blinding her. And then she heard the screaming.


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