The caves Ilona led them into were pitch dark – so dark they swallowed the irisad’s glow.Â Bereft of sight, the sound of dripping water ringing off rock and the stale scent of the air seemed sharper. There was a quality to the darkness Lydia couldn’t define; it seemed to press gently against her skin and eyes, the way the darkness had at Caerdu when the lights were out. It was only when Karen whimpered that she realised that it was because the same kind of place. What had Karen called it? A dark affinity zone?
“I’m sorry,” Ilona said. “I hate it down here as well. But that’s exactly why Gerian won’t expect us to come through here. It’s just not the sort of place he expects to find me, or you.”
“He might expect me though,” Daniel said quietly. He sounded quite relaxed about it – but then that followed, didn’t it?
“Hmm, true. But not alone and he won’t expect you to come through here with company. You wouldn’t catch him anywhere near a water affinity zone so he can’t imagine other people might willing go through a zone of contrary essence.”
“Is it safe to make some light?” Karen asked shakily. “Or will it attract his attention.”
“A little one should be okay,” Ilona said. Then, when Karen made a nervous squeak, added. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m just through maturity,” Karen replied. “I’m having a bit of trouble keeping things small.”
“Ah! That’s perfectly normal. You’ll get used to it,” Ilona said. “I’ll do it.”
“How do you know what’s normal for humans?” Lydia asked.
“You’d be surprised what I know.”Â She began giving off a faint glow again, illuminatingÂ the glistening rough rock around them and sparkling off spurs of varicoloured crystal. Where Caerdu’s tunnels were obviously carved by hand, this was natural but just as lovely. “Humans, especially those like you, aren’t so different from dragons.”
“Like us?” Lydia asked even as Daniel burst out.
“We’re nothing like dragons!”
Ilona cast him an amused glance as she replied to Lydia, “I think Al said you call yourselves resonants now? I suppose it fits but I think I prefer the draconic word.” She set off further into the tunnels. “But entertaining as this is, we need to get going. Ystelyan’s diversion won’t last forever.”
It was dark when Salia was woken by Lyrrekka shaking her gently.
“Wha-” she began but Lyrrekka shook her head and placed a finger against her lips.
“Ssh,” she whispered. “Someone will hear you. Get up and get dressed. We’re leaving.”
Salia stared at her then looked over to see Mia waking Coromel. Karilya was standing behind her mother, already dressed in warm looking clothing and a fur hat. She was bouncing up and down excitedly. Salia looked back at Lyrrekka with a frown.
“I can’t stomach it here any longer,” Lyrrekka said softly. “And I’ve been offered a place to go. Once we’re there we’ll see about getting you home.”
“Really?” Salia struggled to keep her voice down.
“Really.” Lyrrekka gave her a little hug. “I’ll miss you terribly but you should be with your mother. I’ve called an old friend to meet us once we’re clear of the palace. Hurry up and get dressed; we have to get out of here first and even with Gerian-mirian elsewhere, that’s going to be dangerous.”
Salia didn’t need any more encouragement. She leapt out of bed and pulled on the tunic and trousers Lyrrekka held out to her. These were followed by a cloak and hat similar to those Karilya was wearing. She looked around and saw Coromel similarly attired.
“Is it cold outside?” Coromel asked.
“It will be for part of the route, dear,” Lyrrekka said. “Even if he suspects, he won’t expect me to go that way.” She didn’t add ‘I hope’ but it hung in the air anyway. “Let’s get moving.” She led them towards the door just as it creaked open and Makina came in, carrying a basket of laundry. She stopped short when she saw them. Her eyes went round and she opened her mouth to yell, but Lyrrekka was faster and clapped a hand over her mouth. The goblin woman struggled for a moment and her eyes went even wider before she collapsed unconscious in Lyrrekka’s arms.
Lyrrekka sighed heavily and laid her on Salia’s bed. “Help me tie her up, Mia. It’ll be a few hours until she wakes up but I want as big a headstart as possible.
They left her trussed up and gagged on the bed and snuck out the door.
“Are you sure she’ll be okay?” Coromel asked.
Lyrrekka gave her a stressed smile and nodded. “I was careful.”
“What about Yarara and Foehn?” Salia asked.
Lyrrekka gave another heavy sigh and shook her head. “There’s no way I can get all four of you out of here and I doubt they would agree to leave anyway. Yarara is from an old renegade family and Foehn would cause trouble just to spite me even though he wants to leave.” She led them not to the main door of the wing butÂ to the garden. “We’ll take the back exit. I’m not supposed to know about it but it wasn’t hard to find.” She touched a section of wall and it slid back to reveal a set of stairs leading downwards. Lyrrekka summoned a bright yellow flame and led them down until they reached another wall which also slid aside at her touch. Moonlight and fresh air flooded in.
Lyrrekka gave a relieved sigh. “So far, so good,” she said and ushered them outside. “But now it gets really dangerous.”