Authors: Barbara Kloss
Her exhale shook with annoyance. "I didn't expect to be recognized so easily."
"What gave you away, then?" I asked.
"Probably our cloaks," Alex said. "The material is of much better quality than what they're used to seeing."
Vera looked away and her anger filtered through me. It seemed Miss Omniscient was furious with herself for overlooking this little fact.
"I guess I didn't realize the quality of our wool was so different," I said. I hadn't spent much time in the company of Gaia's people; I'd always been surrounded by nobility. "What do the civilians wear?"
Alex exchanged a glance with Vera. "The civilians can't afford new clothing," he said carefully.
"And why not?" I asked, thinking about all the wealth in the castle at Valdon.
He hesitated. "Because most of their profits are given to King Darius."
"Has it always been this way?" I asked.
"As far as I know," he replied, "which is one of the main reasons his reputation with the people is so…unfavorable."
"That seems to me an easy fix," I said. "When we return, we're going to have to change that. The castle has its weight in excess. No wonder Valdon is having a hard time gaining support. Who would fight for a man that steals all their earnings?"
My somewhat rhetorical question was met with an uncomfortable silence. Alex and Vera were being careful. They would not dishonor the very man they served by speaking out against his actions—even if they disagreed with them.
"Well, is there something we can do about these, then?" I asked, gesturing to our cloaks. "Like tear them up a little, or should we just leave them behind altogether?"
"No…" Alex looked over me, deep in thought. "I think I may be able to do something."
"Oh?" Vera sounded intrigued.
Alex approached me, his gaze sweeping over my cloak, calculating. He reached out and touched my sleeve. Energy flowed from his body and slipped over me like a light breeze. I felt a slight tingling and then it was gone. My cloak had suddenly gone from black to dirty brown with stains and patches all over it. Alex scrutinized me for a moment, then, satisfied, motioned for Vera to come nearer.
"How did you do that?" I asked.
Vera's cloak soon looked like mine, and then he performed the same spell on his own cloak. "It's an illusion spell," Alex said. "It won't last forever, but it should last long enough to get us to Myez Rader. I learned it from…someone," he added quietly. He didn't meet my gaze when he said this.
I knew who that someone was. It was the same someone who had given me the decorative rook now embedded on my scabbard. "We should probably get moving," I said. "Vera…?"
The three of us adjusted our now dirtied cloaks for maximum concealment and continued on our way. Vera led us to another door on the opposite wall of the anti-chamber and opened it with a soft creak. There was a tunnel beyond lined with more torchlight and carefully laid bricks, but this time a blend of muffled sounds and wood smoke laced through the air. The tunnel descended, switchbacking deeper inside the mountain. The noise grew louder and louder the farther we walked, and the smell of burning wood became so thick and so strong it was a little difficult to breathe.
Alex lightly touched my shoulder. "Was that Cian up above?" he whispered.
Cian: the wind elemental.
My father had suspected Cian had taken a liking to me ever since I'd stepped foot in this world, but I'd never been sure what that had meant. My father had had a tie to the earth—a tie that allowed him to elicit its help and power. With it, he could summon rock and dirt and mold it to his need. I'd seen him use it before, when I'd been trapped in the dungeons with Lord Tiernan, and I'd seen him use it again that night with Eris.
But up until recently, all the wind had done for me was follow or whirl around me like it was my own personal cyclone, and sometimes it would speak to me in my head. I didn't find this so much a gift as a nuisance. And it made me constantly question my sanity.
Until moments like today when it would decide to step in and help.
"Daria?" Alex squeezed my shoulder, and I remembered he'd asked me a question.
"I think so," I answered. "I've felt him following me all along, but this time he said that he'd help."
Alex pulled his hand back. "He certainly chose a critical moment."
"I know," I said. "Every time Cian has stepped in to help has been a very critical moment. Maybe he responds to desperation. Or maybe he just wants to make an entrance."
Alex was quiet a thoughtful second. "Do you think he's here to stay?"
"I have no idea," I admitted. "I wish he'd make up his mind, though."
"I still can't believe you came up with the story about the Mistress of the Vale," he said, and I heard the wonder in his voice. "Those are the kind of stories the people of Gaia tell their children about to scare them."
spend a lot of time reading with Fleck in the castle library," I said.
"Of course you did," he said.
I felt his pride then, and it was like basking in the light of the summer sun.
Vera's sudden irritation was like a cumulonimbus clouding my sunlight, and her next words fell like cold rain. "Maybe next time we encounter danger, the princess can frighten them away with a haiku."
"Wow, I am surprised that you know about haikus. Smarter than I thought."
Alex chuckled behind me. It took Vera a second to understand what I had done, but once she did, she glared at me over her shoulder with an expression that was bordering murderous. I beamed innocently at her.
After that, we stopped talking—not because of Vera but because the sounds were much louder now, and right as we rounded a corner, we almost bumped into a couple of men headed in the direction we'd come.
No one said "excuse me" or anything polite like that. Only sharp nods of acknowledgement were exchanged, but I felt the men look back at us after we passed, thick with curiosity.
I hoped our cloaks would be enough.
Our tunnel widened, turned sharply right, then ended in a sort of veranda, and I caught my breath. An entire town—roads and buildings and carriages and people—and it was all completely underground. The sky was an enormous rock dome, and instead of stars, hundreds of tiny lanterns floated above. Down here it was always night, and down here there were always stars.
Horses clip-clopped along stone streets, pulling carriages of goods and whatnot behind them—none of which would've fit through our tunnel. There had to be another entrance somewhere.
There were lanterns and shops with cantilevered second stories, just like the old buildings I'd seen in photographs of small English towns. Thatched rooftops were angled and oblique with oddly bent chimneys. There were even small bridges over tiny streams, and plots of grass and trees, but how anything grew down here, I had no idea. From our vantage point, the city didn't seem so frightening. In fact, it was almost charming and cozy in a Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean sort of way.
A stale gust of wind blew as a sound like distant thunder rumbled, and something like clouds rolled in, masking the star-like lanterns above. Then it started raining. Underground. It was just a light sprinkle, but it was rain, no less. How in the world was it raining underground?
"Follow me," Vera whispered before I could ask, "and make sure you keep your hoods drawn tightly." This comment was intended for me. "A little trick of the wind will do nothing against all of them."
And there were a lot of
down here. Hundreds.
We kept to the sides of the cobblestone street. Small puddles were already forming in holes and divots. Up close, I could see the soot stains upon the buildings and caked along crawling cracks. Warm light glowed from behind leaded glass windows, making them look like glittering golden jewels. I couldn't see inside very well, because they were covered in a thin layer of smoke and grime.
We passed a very loud inn and a bakery, and my mouth watered as I inhaled the smell of freshly baked bread. It was so strong that I could almost taste it. How long had it been since we'd had a fresh meal? We passed a bay window filled with an eclectic display of cuckoo clocks—all of which abruptly chimed noon. Dozens of tiny doors flew open, the birds appeared, and I stood horrified.
The birds were
, screeching and wailing with clipped wings and talons fastened to a small platform.
What in the world…?
Alex tugged my cloak and I met his cautionary gaze before following him.
I tried not to look into any more windows but it was like trying to look away from a train wreck. And then there was
It boasted an array of stringed instruments, but it was the violin that stopped me in my tracks. Its neck had been crowned with the miniature head of woman. Her blonde hair had been curled on top of her head and her eyes were shut, but her mouth was open and singing as the voice of the violin.
Pain—so much pain pierced my heart with every note of her dirge. She was alive somehow, mourning her fate, and then she opened her eyes. Bright blue eyes stared at me and she stopped singing at once. And then all the miniature heads of other stringed instruments opened their eyes, too, and in the next moment, the entire window erupted in a chorus of heart-wrenching laments.
Alex pulled me forward while those near us paused to see what had caused the commotion. The soft rain had stopped, and Alex continued holding on to my cloak as we passed a shop of cruel and barbaric looking weapons, another that looked like Frankenstein's pet shop, and another filled with books that might have come from the Addam's Family library. One book opened and screamed at me as I hurried passed. I couldn't be sure, but it seemed like my presence roused every single window display. I wondered how much farther this Myez Rader was and what kind of shop he kept, if he kept one at all.
We passed a garden filled with an overgrowth of strange and carnivorous-looking plants, another shop window filled with cauldrons and beakers and vials of pieces of anatomical interest. I was in the middle of gaping at a caged tarantula the size of a pumpkin when a little boy pushed past me.
He couldn't have been much older than Fleck, all knees and elbows. He ran fast, clutching something to his side as he dashed through the flow of people. Not long after, a deep voice bellowed through the street, "Come back here, thief!"
The voice belonged to a behemoth of a man. He had to be at least ten feet tall! His face was brutish and square and twisted in ugly rage as he charged barefoot after the boy. People dashed out of the way as the giant man ran, a sort of stiff and jerky motion like he wasn't used to moving his legs quite so quickly. Vera and Alex jumped back to let the man pass, and Alex jerked me out of the way since I was too stunned to move myself.
The little boy had run into a dead end, and his dirt-covered face whipped back and forth between the approaching giant and the wall. There was fear in the boy's eyes. He wanted to climb the wall—he could've, too—but the precious puppy in his hands made that impossible. He was trapped.
People pretended not to see, averting their eyes and walking quickly away. The giant had slowed his awkward jog and was steadily approaching the boy. The boy wouldn't stand a chance and no one was moving in to help him.
I couldn't take it. "Alex—"
"No." His expression fierce.
"Alex, we have to help him."
"We can't, Daria," he said. "I'm sorry."
The giant stood with teeth bared like an enraged animal, huge fists the size of my head clenched at his sides. "Give it back, boy."
The boy trembled with huge eyes. "Get away from me!" he cried, holding the object behind him.
"This way," Vera whispered. She started leading us across the street.
I kept trying to see the boy, but Alex had conveniently positioned himself so that he blocked my view, and the giant's bulk wasn't helping matters any, either. What was happening? Why wasn't anyone doing anything? Even if the boy had stolen something, surely it wasn't worth a giant's wrath? Wasn't this a city of thieves, anyway?
And then the boy wailed.
The giant held a limp puppy in his grip, which he discarded on the street near my feet as if it were nothing more than a rag doll. My stomach turned and I felt sick.
"That'll teach you to steal, boy," grumbled the giant.
The boy's eyes were wide with grief and fear, and when he tried to run, the giant swung out and grabbed the boy's arm. The giant's huge hand swallowed the boy's tiny arm, and though the boy cried and jerked, he was going nowhere.
A few people stood by now, watching the inevitable punishment.
The giant pulled a jagged blade from his belt, jerking the writhing and wailing child after him and over to a crate. He set the boy's arm on top of the crate so that the boy's squirming hand was exposed and wriggling.
"NO!" wailed the boy. "Please, don't!"
My heart pounded in my chest. The giant was going to cut off the boy's hand. It was like seeing Fleck standing there, helpless and afraid. How could the people just stand here like this? How could they let this small child be punished with such cruelty? This was not justice! This was barbaric!
WHY ISN'T ANYONE DOING ANYTHING?
The giant held the blade high, a cruel, rotting smile on his ugly face.
"Please!" the boy pleaded, struggling to twist free. "I didn't mean to—I just wanted—don't,
!" Tears streamed freely down his face.
Time slowed to a halt. The world around me faded away and all I could see was the boy and that blade, and in one quick motion, I unsheathed my dagger and threw it at the giant. It spun end over end in a flashing wheel of silver, sinking right into the giant's weapon-wielding wrist, pinning it to the wooden support beam beside him.
Time returned to normal and the giant howled, a frightening, animalistic sound, as he struggled to pull his wrist free.
"Go!" I yelled at the boy. "Get out of here!"
The boy's eyes flashed with something—curiosity? Wonder? And then with a mischievous grin, he vanished into thin air.