Thorn's Chronicle continues...
I sucked in a deep breath, and plunged into one of the pools. The crippling shock from the intense cold was about the only thing that kept the air from rushing out of my lungs. It was colder even than the waters of Windrush Lake.
The fluid silence was broken by a roar that was felt more than heard, and fell like the hard slap of a dragon’s tail upon the water. It pressed against me from all sides, causing my ears to scream with a sudden painful roar as the water seemed to want to rush into my head. The darkness of my closed eyes was suddenly bright with streaks of yellow and gold, white and silver, as if the starshower above had decided to join me in the freezing depths.
A sharp jolt, heard as a harsh bubbling in the waters, snapped my awareness back from the brink upon which it teetered.
My lungs burned for air, and I made slow, clumsy kicks. It seemed to take an age to reach the surface. But the surface met me like a cold slap in the face, and I thought for a moment I had been transported back to the rain-tossed waters of the lake.
The surface of the pool heaved and tossed. I realized it was the entire chamber that heaved and tossed.
It was pure instinct that had me reach out to the bones of the hill, to call up its strength around the chamber, shoring up the faults in the stonework around us.
The white light spilling from the doorway was swallowed as that opening collapsed. I felt the stones buckling around me, as if my own bones were straining, about to break. My own shout was lost as I took in a mouthful of water. Through my coughing and retching, I could hear the cries of the girls and my companions. I bent my will to the cold around me, pushing it into the stones, reinforcing them with bonds of ice.
The quaking settled, and we were left in darkness, the sounds of coughing, sobbing, and the lapping of the icy pools the only sounds in the sudden silence.
I made to reach for fire, but a small hand on my wrist stopped me.
“No, let me.”
A bright golden light sprang from the stones on Aurora’s wrists. I looked around to see my companions helping each other from the pools. Several of the guards lay in gasping heaps on the floor, coughing heavily.
At the far end of the chamber, I saw Silva, bent low over the girls, looking over each of them for injuries, her face lit from below by the gleaming pendant about her neck.
“Is everyone all right?” Varis’ voice managed to make it from between chattering teeth.
“If you call being half-drowned and deafened all right, then yes,” Gilliam said, his voice ringing through the chamber. Or perhaps it was just in my ears.
“I think Hamdal does not look so good,” one of the guards said.
“Back away from him,” Aurora said.
The soldier reacted to the tone of the order with an almost instinctive jolt.
The light from Aurora’s gauntlets shone on heavily tarnished armor. The man wheezed and gasped within it, but the rattling of his lungs had nothing to do with his having swallowed any water. His skin shone with a yellowish waxy pallor, and his eyes glittered feverishly from sunken, darkened sockets. The man turned his head to cough, and dark blood flecked the stones.
The shrike shook her head. She knelt, adjusting the guard’s cloak, folding his arms over his chest.
“But you said not to—“ the other guard began.
Aurora turned to him, held her hands out. They were badly reddened, blistering where the folds of the cloak had gathered between her fingers. But beneath the candle-like gleam of the two white dragonstones, the blisters withered, the flesh peeling away to reveal healthy skin beneath.
“My kind can recover from this. Yours cannot.” She glanced over at the guard, who’s rattling breath was coming in shorter and shorter gasps.
Ana, shivering, still wringing out her hair, huddled nearby. “Is there nothing to be done?” she asked.
Aurora shook her head. “I have made him as comfortable as I can. He is too far gone for the help of your Flame. Perhaps prayers, to aid him on his way to become one with Ferros.”
“We need to get out of these wet clothes, some warmth,” Varis said.
“What would we burn, down here?” Aurora asked. “Between the smoke and the fire gobbling up the breathable air, how much longer do you think we would live?”
“Allow us,” the darker-haired weaver said. She closed her eyes, and the icy tingle of her handling one of the Powers of the Spheres added to my shivering. She made a delicate, dismissive gesture with her left hand, and was suddenly standing in a puddle of water, her hair, gown, and skin completely dry.
“Sign me up for some of that,” Gilliam said, nearly biting his tongue. Another gesture from the girl, and the warrior stood in a similar state, staring down at his hands and arms in amazement, grinning. “Bit of a tickle, but even better than standing under Ixion’s glare in the Alaysian summertime.”
The weaver, Macha’s, bobbed a slight curtsey, the slimmest of smiles on her lips. Within moments, all of us were at least dry, and pulling cloaks tighter around ourselves.
While the others dried, Varis and Gilliam and I looked over the collapsed stonework blocking the steps up to the citadel. The stones and blocks were wedged in tight, and a probing of the surrounding stonework indicated to me that any attempt to move them would bring even more of the chamber down around us.
“So we survive their Throne of Stars only to die of cold or starvation or a lack of air?” Gilliam asked. “Not exactly the way I wish to go.”
“You’d rather go like that?” Varis asked, pointing to the dark bundle laid out by one of the pools.
“Why don’t we just go through here?” one of the girls asked. Petra crouched by the far corner of the chamber, and was staring upwards at a crack that ran halfway up towards the ceiling. The gap at the base was perhaps half as wide as the girl’s shoulders.
“I felt a cold draft when we climbed out of the pool,” she said. “You can still feel air moving about.” She wiggled her fingers before the dark cleft in the rocks.
I laid a hand on the stone. This fold in the rocks was older, more stable. It had flexed rather than breaking, had sent the brunt of the power from above further down into the bones of the hillside, where the anchoring stone could consume the energies.
“It is sound, and I feel wider spaces beyond. Dead stone, the work of Men.”
“Idam kim?” Silva asked, her hands on her hips, leaning slightly towards her sister. Aurora was staring at the break in the stonework with a slightly sickened expression, but coupled with a questioning confusion.
“There is… something there. A memory, but… I cannot reach it. It keeps slipping away. Something interferes with the thoughtshare matrix.”
“Will it lead back to the surface?” Varis asked.
Aurora thought a moment. “Now, perhaps, with the shifting of the land. But an age ago, the places beyond were sealed, and what was below consigned to the darkness.”
“What was left?”
Aurora squeezed her eyes shut, her hands going to her temples. A trickle of blood seeped slowly from her nose. The shrike’s eyes fluttered open and she dabbed at her upper lip.
“Alam,” Silva said.
“No matter how I align my thoughts, the memories just will not come into focus.”
“Well, whatever lurks in there couldn’t be worse than the fate that awaits us if we simply sit here staring at the walls,” Gilliam said.