I’ll have some exciting news shortly but, for today, here is part 2.
For a moment, as she stopped to pant desperately, she thought she might be outside. The sky was lit up with swirling, colourful swathes of light, as if a storm of pigments was roiling above her. Small pinpricks of white sparkled amongst it and Leila watched it as she let her gasping breath slow. As her eyes roved around the cavern she realised the floor was exactly the same, as if the wild sky had been impressed upon it.
It looked like she was standing before a field of night sky, lights shimmering above and below. Waves of colour permeated the darkness. No, she thought, I cannot be outside. Where are the moons? Neither moon was present and she still felt the dampness of cave air around her.
“Starmoss,” said a masculine voice from behind her and Leila jerked away from the sound with a yelp of fright. She stumbled towards the field of stars in front of her, when something snatched up her wrist and pulled her back.
“Please,” the voice said, and Leila felt the softness of fur against her wrist, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The girl crumpled. She slid to her knees on the ground and choked back desperate sobs as she tried to regain control of herself.
“I’m sorry,” added the voice, stooping to pick something off the ground beside her, “but that would have killed you.” She watched as a furred, humanoid hand lifted a rock from the ground and tossed it towards the shimmering lights. As the rock skipped and plopped, Leila realised the imitation of the strangely-lit night was water. It must have been reflecting the colours from the roof.
At once, what she had thought were distant stars began to drop from the roof and descend upon the rock. They gathered around it as it hit the water and something emerged from the lake to snatch the stone from the surface, along with the tiny lights. Waves rippled as, silently, the rock and the stars disappeared together.
Leila whimpered. “It is sentient…”
“Yes,” sighed the voice, “here.” It took her a moment to realise that the creature was reaching towards her. Swallowing hard, Leila took the proffered hand and stood. The starmoss shed enough light for her to see clearly by and she realised she did not recognise the kind creature in front of her.
At first, he looked simply like a man with dark grey skin and a pair of broad antlers emerging from his long, pale hair. His eyes were the colour of molten gold and his ears were long and tapered, ending in tufts of dark fur. The more she gazed at him, however, the more like an animal he seemed. The skin from his elbows to his hands was covered in fur and his fingertips ended in hardened claws. At his stomach skin faded into a thick pelt and, when Leila dropped her eyes lower, she blinked hard. Instead of a human legs, the creature’s midsection seemed to disappear entirely into a wolf. It was as if someone had knocked the head off of one of the large, shaggy beasts and placed a man’s torso atop it. This gave the beast six limbs: all four canine legs, though they were strangely long, as well as the human arms that it had used to help Leila to her feet.
“You’re probably confused,” the creature explained. As it spoke, she could see its wolfish fangs. His wolfish fangs, she thought distantly. She wished that Sera was with her, the other girl knew far more about extramundane beasts than she did.
“I…” Leila began. But she struggled to find her voice as the creature let her go and stepped back. He scratched himself with a hind leg as he observed her.
“You were drawn here by the estrika, this is her… place, I’m afraid. I think she wanted to devour the magic within you. Even I can sense it, you’re a sorcerer, correct?”
It was a rather archaic term for a mage, still used in some foreign lands, but Leila nodded her head regardless. “I cannot create a way out of here,” she whispered, finally. “I…” it began to dawn on her as she felt around with her teleic magic, “I am no longer in my kingdom, am I?”
The creature wrinkled his long nose at her and she was unsure what to make of the expression. “The estrika are weavers of the same magic you possess so strongly. She has drawn you into the underground realm. If you come with me, I can lead you to a place where your magic can flow more freely, you might escape from there.”
Leila simply stared at him. She knew of other planes from her study with Master Raniel and she had even heard of travel between them. However, the knowledge that she was no longer in her own world, no longer on the same plane of existence as everything she had ever known… It hit her hard. For a long moment, she simply stared at the creature in front of her, tears of fear welling in her eyes. She watched his expression shift but his emotions were unclear. Finally, she took a deep breath; she needed to get home and she could not do that in tears.
“Th… thank you,” she told him eventually, as the beast began to lead her along a path, away from the water and the starmoss.
It was another few minutes before she added, “What are you?”
He glanced back at her and she thought she caught amusement on his face. “I am what your kind call a dusky craghound. But my name is Sherak.”
“A craghound…” Leila murmured, searching her memory as she pushed her dark hair from her eyes. It fell instantly back across them, obscuring her vision once more. “It is an old nickname for mages of the alchemic domain.” Focussing on the creature in front of her seemed to keep the terror of the situation at bay somehow.
Sherak cocked his head to the side, scratching at the fur around his midsection thoughtfully. “I can’t sense a strong presence of alchemic magic within you, how do you know so much about the domain?”
“I… am trying,” she told him, tensing and moving a little closer as something clattered off in the darkness from where they had come. “But my acuity lies with the teleic domain.”
“I see.” The craghound looked at her and Leila took the time to examine his eyes. Those with a great deal of power in their chosen domain tended to take on aspects of it. Often, it was in personality but, more noticeably, there was a change to the colour of the user’s eyes. Reaching out with her senses, she began to touch her magic lightly to the beast, studying him. In her vision, he was alight with green but, as she adjusted her sight, she noticed the intense golden fibres that shifted through his aura.
“Does the old name for the alchemic mages stem from your abilities with the magic?” she asked.
Sherak seemed impressed by that. With a smile, he nodded. “Yes. Though I can’t remember the last time one of us stepped into your world.”
“I’ve never been out of the kingdom, let alone out of my own world,” Leila murmured to herself with a shudder.
Sherak placed a large, warm hand on her shoulder. “If it wasn’t for the estrika, this would certainly be a place to see.” He grimaced, dropping his hand and leading her further along the dark tunnels.
Leila could not tell how much time passed in the deep underground where they walked. She quickly saw that Sherak was right: the sights below were like nothing she had ever seen. They passed a much smaller pool, nearly a pond, of the starmoss and Leila could not figure out whether its origin was the ceiling and reflected by the pool or the other way around. Further on, there was a deep, seemingly endless ravine. A dim, orange glow emanated from somewhere at its distant bottom.
Later still, the pair came across a dazzling cavern of luminescent crystals from which Sherak had to shield his eyes. “I can adjust to a little light,” he told her, indicating the softly glowing rock that he carried to light their way, “but I prefer to see in the darkness.”
“My apologies,” Leila responded, as they left the cavern and stepped out into the darkness once more, “if you like you can dim the light. I can find my way without it. I often prefer the dark.”
The craghound turned his glittering eyes in her direction, ears twitching as he watched her. Then, he reached out to take her hand and the light of the rock he held dimmed slowly. Finally, they were submerged in darkness. His hand was warm and soft in her grip and she let him lead her, examining her surroundings with the monochromatic shimmer of her magic instead of by sight. She could not see so much as she could sense the distance between herself and the things around her. From the closeness of the craghound to the walls and stones of the deep, winding caverns, she felt it all.
As they moved, she could also feel Sherak use his magic. He opened gaps in the stones, led them to new pathways, closed others behind them. He shaped the very rock and earth itself as he led them on their path.
“How do you do it so easily?” she asked, when studying the flow of his magic gave her no answers.
Sherak’s grin was visible as they passed through a cavern where strange, curving mounds in the wall gave off a gentle blue glow. “We’re born to it, it’s much easier to use magic when you’re made of the substance.”
“Oh…” Leila sighed. She had been hoping he could reveal to her some deep secret of alchemic magic that would make her use of it easier. “Are there others of your kind down here?”
Sherak’s ears flattened at that and he looked off down the tunnel through which they walked. “No,” he said simply. “They no longer… exist here.”
“I…” Leila had no idea what to say, she was hopeless at interacting with humans, let alone extramundane beasts who spoke.
“It’s fine,” the craghound told her, leading her into a darker cavern. “If you had the time to spare, I might be able to teach you some of the things I know but…” he paused and Leila thought he sounded as though he were frowning, “no. We don’t have the time.” Abruptly, he added, “No doubt you want to go home, the estrika might be tracking us.”
They continued to speak as they walked, Leila telling him about the kingdom of Thilara and the masters and the king’s latest decree. Further, she told him about her own despair.
“I am very proficient with the teleic domain and I have decent skill with the others. My ability with the alchemic domain, however, is…”
“Lacking?” he supplied for her, voice carrying in the darkness. “You should be proud, I can use the alchemic domain however I please but the others are almost impossible for me to access.”
“Are you sure? You could, perhaps, be taught,” mused Leila, sensing around with her magic in the darkness.
Sherak laughed; it was a soft, light sound that brought a smile to Leila’s lips and seemed to wash away her fear. “Again, I’m afraid we don’t have the time.”
She was unsure how long they had been traveling for when she finally felt it. The pooling of white in her vision as several trails of water fed into a larger spring in the centre of a great cavern. The water was bubbling with teleic magic and, as Leila let her magical vision fade, she saw that the water itself gave off a faint glow. It was just enough to see by.
She looked at the craghound gently. “Thank you,” she murmured, smiling at him.
“Yesss…” hissed another voice from an adjoining tunnel. It set every hair on Leila’s body to stand on edge. “Thank you, Sherak, indeed.”
Leila looked swiftly at her bestial friend but the creature would no longer meet her gaze.
“Now, open the portal and let me escape,” the estrika said as it advanced, baring its many, needlelike fangs at her.
“Sherak…” she whispered, “I do not understand…” But the craghound was padding several paces away as the estrika approached.
“You do not need to,” the slender, fanged creature sneered, gesturing at Sherak. As the estrika pointed, a braided chain appeared from the ether around Sherak’s neck. It was crafted from bone and a strange humming seemed to emanate from it. “Now hurry. I wish to see your world once more.”
Leila froze in place, feeling tears prickle at the corners of her eyes. If she let this creature back, who knew what would happen. But her fear of death was stronger and she began to shake her head at the creature in a silent plea. It leaned in until she could smell the fetid blood on its breath. It smiled and she knew she had no choice.
If she opened the portal there were people who might be able to handle the estrika. Master Adimai and Mistress Lexan were away from the university but the other masters would be able to do something, surely.
With a small whimper, Leila reached out to the magic in the pool. She felt the mingling of the white and black power as she took hold of it and sent her senses out in search of the familiar. When she finally felt the distance between where she was and where she wanted to be, she poured the magic of the streams into the gap. In her mind’s eye, the distance lit up with white fire and began to glow. She took the glow and shaped it into a doorway until a portal lay flat against the surface of the pond, shimmering with intermingling pale and dark lights.
“Goooood,” whispered the estrika, it was close enough to fondle her jaw with one spindly hand. With a sniggering hiss, it slid the hand to her throat and Leila felt the bite of its wicked nails on her skin.
She let out a small cry beneath its grip, trying to struggle away from it, but too busy focussing on keeping the portal open to draw up a defence.
“I will maintain it from here,” snarled the creature. “Your blood will suffice until my children and I are through to your realm.”
Behind the estrika, Leila could just make out the glimmer of hundreds of eyes in the darkened tunnels beyond. There were dozens of them, she realised, and soon they would be inside the Royal University.
“No!” Her cry was not the only one that lit the air. Sherak thrust himself towards the estrika and it shrieked in anger as his clawed hands made contact with its flesh. Leila felt the bite of the estrika’s nails as they slid across her skin. They left a small gash across her shoulder, tearing through her tunic. In the dim light, things were a blur of fur and flesh and blood.
Leila felt her vision begin to waver as she lifted a hand to her shoulder and felt the sticky dampness of blood there. She whimpered, stumbling weakly back away from the fight when one of the figures dashed towards her.
The breath was thrust abruptly from her lungs. Suddenly, Leila was turning and tumbling, her vision obscured by the dark mass that had hit her. She felt their collision with the surface of the water, felt them sink below and within it. Then, there was nothing but the familiar, empty sensation of travel.
tl;dr – Don’t trust anyone you meet in mysterious underground caverns.