“Ari!” Crofton yells behind her.
She can’t tell if he’s getting closer and she doesn’t want to risk a glance behind. She dodges trees, scanning the forest for any sign of the camp.
The earth beneath her feet crumbles and she tries to step back, but the ground behind her falls. She screams and disappears down into a dark hole. She doesn’t know how far she falls, but she waves her hand beneath her, using her wind magic to slow her descent. She hits the ground, but it’s at an angle and she rolls further downwards.
Landing at the bottom, she groans in frustration and pain. She sits up and stares up at the hole above her. She sees Crofton’s head appear at the edge.
“Ari! Are you all right?” His voice is filled with fear and concern. “Please, answer me!”
“I’m fine,” she answers. “I don’t think I can get back up.”
“I’ll climb down.”
Panic shoots through her. She can’t be trapped with him. “No! Go back and get help.”
“I shouldn’t leave you. What if something happens?”
“I’m in a hole. The worst has happened. Just go.”
She sees him hesitate, but then disappear. She releases a sigh of relief, happy to be alone. She pulls her knees to her chest, her mind racing, replaying the confrontation over and over.
Why did she run? She asked for the truth, but when he gave it to her…it frightened her. Why? The look in his eyes when he spoke about Vico, when he demanded an answer…no, it wasn’t that. She knew he’d never hurt her.
She ran from her answer, her answer to both questions. Did she love Vico? Did she love Crofton?
Why did everything change when that one word was used?
A lot of things are different from home.
He saw them kiss. He watched Vico kiss her and she reciprocated. How could she not realize it? She used to be able to know every thought that crossed his mind. She used to be able to talk to him freely without worrying what he thought of her. Now, he was an enigma, able to keep secrets. He was ashamed to tell her things; furious she couldn’t tell what bothered him.
Did she no longer trust him because of what he said? When he said he hated her magic? It pissed her off, sure, but who wouldn’t be angry when their best friend told them they hated the very thing that made them special?
Listen for the words he won’t say.
Her eyes widen and she leans her head back against the damp wall.
“Vico isn’t a magic user.” She says the words out loud, as though saying them would make them appear in front of her.
Was he ashamed Vico could accept her magic when he couldn’t?
Dirt falls on her head and she jumps in surprise. She glances up as a hand reaches for her. It takes a second for her to process what she’s seeing. The hand is reaching through the wall of the hole, dirt hitting her in the head.
Flashes of her nightmare fill her mind, freezing her. The hand’s fingers brush her forehead then move wildly, opening and closing quickly, trying to grab her. The feel of skin against skin sends a shock through her. She realizes she’s very much awake and the hand grasping for her is very real.
Another hand forces its way through the wall, reaching. It grabs her shoulder tightly and she finds her voice. Screaming, she slaps the hand away. Her magic fills her and she sends a rush of wind at the wall. The force surprises her and she’s thrown back against the opposite wall. The hands retreat into the wall, dirt filling the holes, as she gasps for breath.
Her legs shake with adrenaline and she leans her head back. She stares at the hole above her, wondering if she could use her magic to escape.
Arms punch through the wall behind her, wrapping around her waist and neck. Hands grab her ankles, wrists, and her head. She screams as they pull her against the wall.
She prays Crofton and the others are close enough to hear her, but as the hands and arms tighten around her, she feels hopeless. Tears roll down her cheeks and her struggles weaken.
The voice sounds so far away. Fighting the arm around her neck and hands holding her head, she looks up. A rope falls down to her and Crofton rappels down. Another rope falls down and Vico follows. Others appear at the top of the hole, weapons drawn. They appear to be fighting someone above, but she doesn’t care about that.
Crofton came back. He came back for her.
The two men reach the bottom of the hole and lunge for her. Crofton draws one of his blades and carefully attacks the arms holding her. Sensing the danger, the arms withdraw into the wall before he can strike them. When enough have retreated, Ari frees herself, slapping the last few away with her wind magic.
She runs into Crofton, his free arm holding her tightly. “Are you all right?”
“They’re in the walls.”
“Earth mages. They ambushed the camp while we were gone,” Vico says. “Most of the caravan has been taken. The few left are above.”
“We need to get out of here before they regroup.” Crofton hesitates before gently pushing Ari towards Vico. “Get her out. I’ll make sure none of them grab you.”
“What if they grab you?”
“Just go. They need more help above.”
“Grab on,” Vico says, pulling Ari close.
She meets Crofton’s eyes before moving behind Vico and wrapping her arms around his neck. “You better come back.”
Crofton draws his second blade and laughs. “I’ll always come back for you.”
Vico grabs the rope in his hands and starts climbing. Hands try to reach for him as his feet touch the wall, but Crofton swings his weapons at them, forcing them back. The hands change targets and try to grab for Crofton, carefully avoiding the swinging blades.
Halfway up the hole, Ari risks a glance back and sees more and more hands reaching for Crofton. He’s able to keep them at bay, barely. Suddenly, hands emerge from the floor, grabbing his legs. He swings his weapons down at them, but a man explodes from the wall and slams into Crofton, knocking him to the ground. The hands in the floor grab his arms and stop him from being able to move.
“He needs help, go back!” Ari yells at Vico.
Wincing at her loud voice in his ear, Vico shakes his head. “We need to regroup with the others. The ambush wasn’t one to kill. They’re gathering us like animals.”
“I don’t care. I’m not leaving him behind.” He doesn’t slow his climb and she groans. “If you don’t go back, I’ll let go and fall back down there.”
The rope jerks, slamming Vico into the wall. He glances up before attempting to climb higher. Another jerk causes him to slip down the rope a short distance.
“You may get your wish. Someone’s cutting our escape rope.” Vico notices the second rope Crofton used. He motions towards it with his head. “Any chance you could grab it? Or use your magic to get it closer?”
She throws a small breeze towards the second rope. It swings away before moving close, but still out of her reach. She tries a larger breeze and the rope swings into her hand. She holds it out to Vico, but as he reaches for it, the rope in his hands snaps and they both fall.
The rope burns Ari’s hands as she falls and she throws it away from her, the pain bringing fresh tears to her eyes. They both slam into the ground next to Crofton. Hands grab them, immobilizing them.
The man who slammed into Crofton walks over to Ari and leans down. The mud covers his entire body, his hair matted against his head. Others emerge from the walls, men and women. They lift the three up to their feet.
“Take the two men with the others. This one is to be brought before the Elders.” He smiles, revealing rotting teeth. “It is their will.”
Those holding Crofton and Vico drag them away, disappearing through the walls of the hole. Ari fights against her captors, but they only drag her in the opposite direction. She feels the earth surround her and she panics.
The last thing she sees is the man lower into the floor, laughing.