Side Story Three
Two Years Ago
It really ought to be dark, Hannah realised as she started down the tunnel. Especially since she’d sealed the entrance. But such was the strength of the fire essence flowing through the rocks that they were glowing red-hot. She could hold most of the heat at bay, but as she made her way deeper in to the tunnels she began to sweat profusely, her jeans and blouse sticking to her skin. Her fire affinity wasn’t enough against such intensity. She wouldn’t be able to stay in here for long. She needed to find the thing and come up with a plan to get out again without being caught as quickly as possible.
She came to a fork in the tunnel and paused to consult the images from the unicorn colt before taking the right one. It led her into a large, even hotter cave and she barely stopped in time to avoid tipping off of the rock ledge at the entrance. Below her, a lake of lava filled the floor.
She swallowed convulsively before following the edge to a spiral staircase,Â suspended impossibly above the lava. The key was up there, according to the colt, but she could barely believe what looked more like floating stepping stones than stairs would support her weight.
Still, she couldn’t turn back now. Swallowing her rising panic, she took a moment to summon the emotional control her father had ingrained in her as a child. There wasn’t really anything here to damage if she freaked out, but she needed to think clearly. This key must be important to merit such an hiding place.
Cautiously, she placed one foot on the first step. It held firm, so she brought her other foot up to join it and began slowly making her way up the steps. She tried not to think about the lava below her or the lack of anything to hold on to.
By the time she reached the top, she was completely drenched with sweat and her head was spinning from the heat. She collapsed onto the hovering platform with a relieved sob and crawled away from the edge. As she did, the air cooled abruptly – even though she was still directly above the lava. Looking up, she realised that the cool breeze was coming from a object sitting at the centre of the platform. With her head still muzzy from the heat, it took her a moment to recognise it as the thing the unicorn had shown her.
Both the unicorn and that boy had called it a key, but the strange patterned lump of clay didn’t look much like any key she’d ever seen. It did remind her of something, though, but she couldn’t quite place what.
She stared at it for a moment, then crawled over to it. Cautiously reaching out to touch it, she grabbed back her hand in shock at the energy buzzing through it.
“What the hell?” she whispered before touching it again. Her first impression had been right. This had been made by a human, a very long time ago. She couldn’t tell how long from the impressions she was getting but no one had made things this powerful in a long time. It was a forgotten art.
Once she was sure it wouldn’t kill her or make the platform drop into the lava, she lifted it the key and stared at it. It looked innocuous enough: a flattened ball of red clay incised with strange symbols. If it was a key, what did it open? Ah well, she’d worry about that once she got to safety.
Wrapping the ball carefully, she hid it in her pack before looking back towards the steps.Â She really didn’t want climb back down them, but the only other exit was a small patch of blue directly above. There was no way she could climb up there…
A moment later, she realized it seemed to be getting larger. She stared at it in bemusement before realising the whole platform was rising gently towards it.
It soon became apparent that the platform would fit the hole perfectly, like the missing piece of a jigsaw. Her taking the key must have triggered it. Providing it wasn’t some sort of lethal trap, it should help. She sat down and waited to emerge into daylight.
As the platform came to a stop, she scrambled off , not quite trusting it not to collapse back into the cave.
“Ah! Here you are!”
“Wha–” Hannah spun around to see the boy from earlier standing confidently on the back of a sinuous red dragon. She pulled out her knife again and he snorted.
“That’s not going to be much use, girl,” he said. “Now give me the key. I can sense you have it on you.”