“The living body is a wondrous thing, don’t you think?” Her voice rattled around the entrance to the cave, its esses and tees lisping at the rock’s edge. “Don’t you think so, Temi?”
What had she done this time?
Artemi knew the answer before her mind had finished asking the question, but it asked loudly anyway, as if it wished to bury certainties beneath the noise of uncertainties. Mirel was here – a certain thing; her father had been missing for seven days – unquestionably, and a note had been left at his house – no doubt about that, and no doubt about the conclusion to be drawn from these facts. YOU NEVER LEARN, the note had read in Mirel’s lop-sided script.
And Artemi was learning. She had not shed a single tear since finding that note two days before, and she certainly would not shed another. That was all Mirel ever wanted from her – to see her tears and demonstrate to the world that Tem Fireblade was weak. Far better to be the icicle, the Ice-Kill that pierced a man’s heart and eyes, and froze them in pain for hour upon day, upon week. Better to be cruel frost than merciful steel, and Mirel would never have questioned the evidence as Artemi found herself doing in feeble hope.
Artemi had been too merciful. “I’m here, sister,” she called softly into the darkness. “We have been in discussion in your absence. Did you know that The Family have decided you are no longer worthy of the title Kusuru? As The Daisain’s last representatives of this land, we have chosen to disregard you, to omit you and forget you.” She took a step into the cavern maw, the fingers of her mind ready to take hold of The Blazes in an instant. To her right, a clump of brilliant green moss dripped gems of water onto the floor below.
She caught a few of those smooth diamonds on her tongue, as if she had five more millennia to spare, even clasping her hands at her back. The water tasted acidic, wrong, but Artemi swallowed it without so much as a grimace and continued, “Your name will be scrubbed from any history we find that deigns to mention you, and your fires permanently quenched each time we discover you. We will be relentless.”
“NOTHINGS!” A wild spiral of howling snow and biting winds tore out of the cave with the exclamation before so much as a second mossy drip had time to complete its descent to the floor. “You try to give your lives meaning because each of you failed The Daisain’s tests. How can you possibly believe yourselves worthy of his message?” Cackling laughter followed her words. “Come and see the message I have prepared for you.”
A stubborn sickness took hold of Artemi’s stomach, churning her guts and numbing her limbs. Whatever this message was, she was quite sure it would make her feel far worse to see it. But Artemi fought to keep her shoulders down and her fists unclenched. She dusted a little of the snow from her clothing, and permitted herself some relief that the wall of Blaze she had constructed as a defence had been completed in time to save her from embarrassment. To speak now would have revealed the strength was gone from her voice, and though her subsequent strides forward were an attempt at a lazy amble, each step of that amble became less than convincing. Burn her inability to perform and deceive!
A trap built from the fires presented itself before her, giving Artemi’s mind a chance to clear while she destroyed the most dangerous parts of the form.
Blazes, but her father would be in the worst pain he had ever known and her greatest concern was about impressing a mad woman with court performances of calmness!
The trap puffed out of existence, and Artemi quickened her step to reach her father sooner.
The cave narrowed almost as soon as the light exhausted itself, and Artemi was forced to squeeze sideways between the rock walls. There was no manner by which a man her father’s size could be brought or forced through such a gap, or at least, not if he were whole.
Another grip of sickness caught and twisted her guts.
She had come here to end his pain, she told herself. Whatever that meant she had to do, she would do it. It was only terrible fortune that Mirel had discovered him, and nothing more. Leaving him and their tiny village of Highwood behind had been the right thing to do, hadn’t it? If she had remained there, it would simply have made her attachment to Ne’alin more obvious, whereas abandoning him as if he meant nothing was the best way to keep him safe from Mirel’s suspicion. Abandoning him.
Fires, she had abandoned him!
Artemi ducked to avoid a low-hanging rock, and almost planted her face directly into a row of rotating ice spikes. Their tips glistened with the cold fires that only Mirel could produce with such effortlessness, likely containing further forms that would sink into her skin upon contact and cause her untold agonies. It was characteristic of Mirel to leave such a large and extravagant form only just out of sight. Characteristic of her to find ways of shaming Artemi whenever possible.
Thoughts of gloom lead only to one’s doom, The Daisain had said to her. Doomed expectations were her little problems, as he described them, which needed to be purged with efficiency. His methods of purging, however, had usually involved tying her up and leaving her at the bottom of the well, or imprisoning her in some other manner that was cruel, but just about escapable. He always left her a path to succeed in some way. That was his genius.
She squeezed the form into a cone of bright light, allowed it to be absorbed by the rock face, and took a step forward into the darkness. There were gaps in the floor here – recently made – but very, very deep. Mirel could easily have cut herself a neat path to her hideaway, but that would have removed all opportunity for her twisted sense of entertainment. In the pitch blackness, and with a little of the fires within her grasp, Artemi could still see more than the keenest-eyed eagle in the daytime. The only things that were hidden were Mirel’s forms, wrapped within partitions and secreted in crevices, just waiting to p–
A pebble slipped sideways beneath Artemi’s leading foot, and another immediately followed it. The noise of a thousand more stones ricocheting down the slope of a gulley told her more would come if she did not move quickly. She leapt forward to next section of the path, but it shattered and crumbled the moment her feet touched it.
Her hands reached for the rock surface, now made smooth by the fracture, but they only dragged down the plane of the rock as useless, blunted claws.
In the next moment, she felt nothing but the air shear past her face and hair. And silence. There was still silence, lasting longer and longer –
Why had time become so stretched? Fires. This was going to hurt!
Really, she ought to have foreseen the weakness in the path ahead given that she had been holding a little Blaze, but she had been so concerned with forms—
Freezing water cracked her back and folded her legs into her, extinguishing all thoughts simultaneously. Artemi’s lungs collapsed in on themselves, which forced her to exhale what little breath she had been holding, and instinctively she pulled her arms and head inward to protect them from making contact with any rocks may have lain beneath the surface. She did not reach the bottom, however, though she was sure her descent was close to halting. All she could hear were the last few bubbles of her involuntary gasp as they made their ascent to the air above.
It was cold there. Cold and black as her hundred deaths before, and she needed to move before the energy she would need for this next fight was sapped by the freezing water. Artemi reached out for a little more of the fires so that she could gain a better sense of which way was up, and began to swim. To wield her way free of the underground lake would have given her location away to Mirel in a heartbeat, and that would have meant a rapid death for her, and death for her father only seconds later.
The ice bit at her fingers and clamped down upon the toes that were so tightly curled inside her boots. Damned fires, those boots would have to come off.
She thrashed out of her swimming stroke to free them, though they sucked onto her calves the harder she pulled at them. Embroidered goatskin, they were. The highest quality, perfectly fitted, the softest innards, and quietist suede an assassin could hope for. Ruined and less-than-useful now. The second one slipped off more easily than the first, and Artemi cursed Mirel’s name for the seventieth time that day.
The ascent to the surface had to be as fast as possible if she was to reach her father in time. A slower swim would conserve her breath and her energy, but could take minutes. Minutes were not toys she had the leisure of playing with today.
As she scrabbled toward the surface, she recalled a lesson taught to her by Sister Oshia at The Founders’ Manor. In several childhoods, she had ended up in the care of the Founder Sisters to receive training in wielding, and many of their lessons had covered the study of the natural sciences. “Caves always remain the same temperature throughout the year,” the Sister had instructed. “It is a habitable temperature, and it is why our kind took to sheltering in them before we were civilised enough to build houses.”
If the temperature of caves was habitable, then why, in the name of The Daisain and all hot flame, was this so blazedly cold as to burn her skin?! She sighed through another stroke of her arms. Of course it was. It was as cold as liquid water could be, and that meant Mirel was behind this. She had probably been listening for the splash with the same kind of nervous anticipation a Rhofin boy would feel on his twentieth nameday.
Nearly there. Only a yard or two lay between her and a lungful of perfect air now, she was sure of it.
A sharp pain dug through the numbing of the cold and into the joint of her ankle. It remained there, unmoving and rigid. At first, she thought it a result of the strain she had placed her body under during the ascent, but the sudden tightening sensation she felt around it told her it was something else. Artemi kicked and squirmed to wrench herself free, but instead felt a solid, slippery smooth body whip past her.
Few things lurked in underground lakes, fewer that could grip a woman by the leg, and this thing was not Mirel. It could only be a murk-leviathan, and the cool temperatures had more than likely killed off its usual prey. The growing pressure on her eardrums told her it was dragging her deeper again, farther from the surface and the air she needed so badly. It would have been so much easier to wield the thing into oblivion!...
To be continued...
To be continued...