The shadows on the walls have thoughts and faces. They're so close she can almost touch them. She whispers warnings to keep them away. Perhaps for their own safety.
All those people...
No thought, no sight, no darkness, no fire can take that away. It runs circles through her mind.
Her prison is dark and cold. Water drips from a long way up. Pain flares in her body when it drips against fresh cuts and bruises. She’s shivering cold, and alone. A haze of pain makes a background for fear and grief. I deserve it, she reminds herself, overturned by the memories. Heavy iron chains bite against her, shackles hold her wrists to the ground, a cold iron collar bites her neck until it bleeds.
What else can they do? What choice do they have?
The great distance and thickness of earth above her is comforting. She wants to be far from people, wants not to be able to touch them and hurt them. I'm not a monster. But deeper thoughts warn her
that she is.
She sees in the darkness the wards interlaced in the air, layered so thickly that they touch and spark against each other. The air is alive, over-loaded, bristling with magic. A sea of blue fire - silent and lightless - fills the room and struggles with her for the air. She’s afraid of being left down here, suffocating; afraid of being back up there, where violence and hatred will find an answering call from inside her.
Sleep. She needs to make herself sleep. She can’t tell any more if she ever sleeps. Time only drifts. It brings her near madness, with madness feeding her whispers. She whispers back in warnings - “Stay back, stay away” - and in rhymes she doesn’t know now, except that her lips still know them.
She has learned that she can listen to the world beyond her prison.
The greatness of earth and stone shifts slowly; old within its bones. The young strength of roots presses hungrily through all its richness. Deep-matted earth prickles with life – with sparks of tiny living –with the brushing, scraping sounds of movement, with the quiet sentience of the ancient dead.
The air is held together by whispers, embroidered with the echoes of a faraway, living world. She can reach her senses into the world, feel beyond the heavy, life-thick earth, and hear their wheels turning, their laughing and shouting, their feet when they strike the earth. A part of her feels the sun on their faces – where memory and sense intertwine.
A giant sound: boots on rugged stone steps. Footsteps heading her way. No! No! No! The sound is appalling. It raises fire all over her skin. She can't bear to see a human face.
A key clicks. A heavy door scrapes open.
Please no, please no.
He steps inside.
The light that there is is white and winter pale, but it blinds her dark-sheltered eyes. In that mist he seems like a heavy, deep-blooded shadow.
Light fades with the closing door. Blue-fire gives flickers of a tall, broad man, well-dressed in the colours of the empire. His piercing, bronze-amber eyes press needles into her head.
Her name is startling in this grim, deep chamber. It brings too much of herself back to her. Tears sting in her eyes.
“Can you speak, girl?”
Her clumsy mouth struggles, she’s frightened.
“Answer me.” His voice has threads of sorcery, he can’t be refused.
“Y…yes…Yes.” It comes out stumbling, her mouth not able to properly make words. Her throat burns. “Water.” That comes out on its own.
“Not yet.” His eyes are bright, but not with fear. Avarice. He looks at her the way men look at gold.
“Tell me what you remember. All of it”
“I…” It falls down on her like an avalanche. I didn’t mean to do it, I didn’t. “I…didn’t mean… to… do it.”
“To do what?”
“To kill them all.”
“What did you mean to do?”
“I…don’t…I didn’t mean…”
“What did you feel?”
Too dark, and the world too bright, and noises rushing in and exploding, sights and sounds not making any sense, the whole world tipped and skewed and twisted into nightmares. Dark, deep crystal cold, bright...
“I don’t….Sir…” She draws courage out of the air: “My little sister…”
Do his eyes harden into rock-bright jewels? “She doesn't matter. Tell me how you could do what you did.”
“I don’t know…” It comes from nowhere, it burns in me, it's burning now… The wards press against her, answer fire with fire.
“Sir.” She has to meet his eyes.
She swallows. “Yes.”
The answers in his eyes are terrifying, he doesn’t pity her, he isn’t afraid. She can see he’s come heavily warded, shimmering with it; and she’s so afraid of the silver-burning brightness within her that wants to break them open.
He asks her: “Can you bring it at will? Could you now?”
“They will hurt you. Can you do it?”
She turns away.
His eyes seem to glitter. Or is it just the light? “Has it happened before?”
She closes her mind against his will to have her answer.
“Has it almost happened?”
She doesn't have to look, or speak. I don't. Just leave me alone.
“Tell me:” Full of sorcery.
“No.” The tiny word spins waves of force glowing into the air. Her cell brightens, the wards deliver pain and fire. It should make ashes of her, but it doesn’t. I can kill him. It sickens her, cold and deep and grey inside. I can kill him. I want to do it. Her head swarms with images of white, brutal fire, of shadows crowding in on her vision. Being lost. Being wildfire. Her bruised and blackened body, patch-worked with blood, all misshapen as they lower it into its grave. But the thing that comes out of there, rippling with anger and evil and casting its awful, rotting eyes over living-bright souls that die at a glance….
Her scream is only in her head.
She burns all over. Has she just tried to kill him? The wards are alive around her, swollen still-bright with the discharge of energy.
As he leaves her, he seems pleased. His tremendous footsteps echo on the stone.
She quests beyond her body, beyond her ordinary senses, seeing, feeling everything, reaching further than she'd known she could go. This crowded, living earth stretches deep into cold, dense rock: the death of all living things hardens inside. Seams of strength, or brightness, spreading out like great, unmapped oceans. Rivers run low and cold in the buried veins of the world. She hears their blood flowing. Cold, slow water. Hot, melting fire. Crystal bright ice. She feels how the earth rolls, so slowly it almost doesn't move, its seas and lands shifting; great, crumpled mountains hammered up into the air. She knows that dragons sleep. That darker things sleep.
His echoing footsteps give way to the sound of his voice. One short, curt, cold word: “Soldier.”
A second voice answers him. “How soon before they take her?”
“But hasn't she-?”
“Oh yes. And she is dangerous. But we're not finished with her.”
Fear resonates in his voice, his horror of her: “She has to be killed. She has to be-”
“She killed her family.”
“Her mother. The sister is blind and crippled but she still might live.”
“The mother burnt up into ashes. There were over twenty more. The clouds overhead.... You can't let her live.”
“Enough.” He spoke from imperious height, “She'll live as it serves us. She'll kill more if it serves us. Then she can die. Am I clear?”
“See no harm comes to her.”
His voice smiles: “This could prove interesting.” His footsteps ring on the muddy stone, the iron door leaves rippling echoes as its manybolts and wards slide across.