As the dust settled, so did the heavy sensation in my stomach. Like chunks of biscuit dropping to the bottom of a glass of milk. I held a hand over my eyes, as if shielding them from the sun.
"That did not happen last time," I said. I wasn't sure if I was trying to be facetious and failing horribly, or if I was just so bewildered that I didn't know what I was saying.
In the end, it didn't matter. Chrysander reached over to lift an armful of debris from my knees, sweeping at it like a slobby student clearing his desk. I decided not to chide him for being overly familiar. "Dunderwyrms are... Blast it. Demetrius, was that normal? Or should we get up and bloody start running? I spent my time studying animals and people, not monsters."
"Time to turn to the poor little ranger, is it?" But there was no vitriol in Demetrius's voice. He just sounded tired, and a bit odd. I turned to look at him, but he wasn't looking at anyone. His eyes were downcast. "I work on the grounds. Above the ground, to be more precise. Dunderwyrms don't even go up there to die, like elephants to their graveyard."
Soterios fussed over Noni, picking strands of sweat-dampened hair out of her face. "We saw one before. Like Athena mentioned, this was different than last time."
Oh. Someone had been paying attention. I almost had the presence of mind to be embarrassed.
"I think," he went on, and indeed he did look deep in thought, if a bit like a lady hero holding... well, another lady hero, "that it might have turned out something like this last time if Asclepia hadn't been with us."
"What a cheery, comforting thought." Getting cautiously to his feet, Chrysander took me with him, by dint of not letting go of me in the least. It was as if he wanted to just pick me up and carry me bodily. That was going to need to be addressed when I felt capable of walking without anyone's aid.
My torso was not a bloody mess, at least. But even in the insufficient light of our single remaining torch, I could see that we had all changed colour. We were covered in grey dust. Just like Asclepia had been when we'd first arrived in the laboratory. "Hang on, Chrysander," I said, digging my heels into the ground to stop him trying to carry me off. I could almost see the intention in his eyes. "Soterios might have something there."
While I might not have had to take measures to avoid being picked up, Noni was unable to protest. Soterios had stood up, either on his own or with some help from Demetrius, and held her up off the ground, her head lolling on his chest. She looked like she could have just been sleeping. "Maybe," he said, not looking at any of us. He had that look on his face that told me he was using some kind of inner eye to focus on something intangible. The past counted, I supposed. "When we walked through here the first time, and the dunderwyrm showed up, Asclepia said a word to it, and it tried to attack her, but then it moved back."
"Like a snake warning off an intruder or attacker?" Demetrius asked, dusting himself off. He was moving slowly, as if his muscles demanded a different pace to his usual one. It could have been my imagination, but I thought I saw some blood on his shoulder.
"Yes, just like that. Then she said the word again, and it went on its way. It didn't look happy about it either."
I thought of the attche case and its puppy-like behaviour. "That sounds like a word of power."
"Those would be our Dr Cordet's specialty," Chrysander said. He let go his arm around me to take my hand. Not asking, nor even telling. Merely taking. Behind me, Soterios moved aside and pushed Demetrius ahead to take my other hand. We were going to need to travel in a line again, connected y a network of arms. "Work with a woman enough times, and you learn some things about her."
"You worked for her more than once?"
"It's an occupational hazard. Once someoen gets your name, they never seem to forget it."
We picked our way through the upended floor, careful of the places that were obviously holes, and the dark spots that merely appeared to be holes. My shoes were not up to the task. More than once, I slipped. The first time, I skinned the side of my arm against the cave wall, while the second, Demetrius pulled me almost entirely to him to keep me from dropping down after the dunderwyrm. It served as an awkward reminder of what had happened in the cave where we had sought the Hollow Man.
Thinking on that almost made me grateful for the growing heaviness in my stomach. That was not any more pleasant than it had been when I had first noticed it, but at least it wasn't complicated. I risked a glance back at Noni. She had not stirred, but Soterios seemed to be getting along all right. He made his way more slowly than the rest of us, and we had to make sure that Demetrius stayed always roughly at the middle, to keep the torch somewhere we could all see and rally around it.
Silence fell over us. Even Chrysander seemed too preoccupied with his footing and his thoughts to make snippy remarks at Demetrius or to tease me. When I tugged on his arm to gain a moment to rest, all he did was stop and let me have it, and then move along.
"Do you have any idea where you're going?" I asked him at last. We probably hadn't been walking long, but the mention of Asclepia had made me think of everything she had said about the tunnels. It didn't help that the uneven rhythm of my steps seemed to carry the words 'no one knows where you are' within them, repeating incessantly.
Demetrius answered, cutting of a possible reply from Chrysander. "Of course he doesn't. There are no maps of the tunnels, not even for someone like him to get access to."
The inflection got under my skin. I turned my head back to look ahead, but I didn't ask. "Maybe we don't need a map. Soterios, could you remember the way to the laboratory?"
There was a chance, after all, wasn't there? He was a responder, there was the factor of his luck. Except that his luck had not stopped Demetrius from running headfirst into a dunderwyrm, or Noni from passing out after using too much of her own magic. Someone really ought to have outlined the limits of our most powerful benefit.
"Not likely," he said at last. He had actually thought about it. It hadn't helped, but he had thought about it. "I remember a lot of things that Asclepia told me, but directions were only ever things like 'oh and now we shall turn just here, tell the others'."
Chrysander turned and took me by the waist, awkwardly, due to my place in the network, but all the same. He lifted me over a jagged upturned island of rock, and then set me down again, dragging Demetrius through the very limited space available to go around it. Why he did this, I couldn't say. Possibly just to reassert his need to be a nuisance whenever he could. "Do you remember anything else about the dunderwyrm? I won't try asking you what word of power she used, that would not have helped us even when it was right there in front of us. But anything else."
For some reason, I wondered if he was only asking for the sake of confirmation. He sounded like he had an idea of something else that Dr Cordet might have told Soterios.
Soterios stammered through a request that we stop a moment, and then leaned against the tunnel wall. He slumped down nearly to rest on the ground, still holding Noni. She moved her head a bit, and groaned, but did not wake. "She said..." he took a breath, then went on. "When I asked what that thing was, she told me what it was called. That it wasn't really dangerous."
"There was a lie and a half," Demetrius muttered. His hand was warm around mine, sweaty but somehow dry, from all of the tunnel dust. He rested his head on my shoulder as we waited for Soterios to gain a second wind. "That thing nearly took my head off."
"No, it nearly took our heads off," Chrysander corrected him. "It tried to flatten you."
"Thank you for that clarification. It was entirely necessary and nothing but helpful."
"No worries, old mate of mine. Heaven knows you need a bit of course correction now and then. Now especially."
Whatever they were on about, I decided I didn't care. I gave each of them a meaningful glare and said, "Could the two of you stop fighting over nothing and let Soterios talk? For goodness's sake. We're trapped in the broken dusty dark and you two still can't stop bickering like old fishing buddies."
Soterios chuckled at this, but he otherwise went on as if there had been no interruptions. "I didn't believe her at first, but she did explain. The dunderwyrm is a skittish animal, for all its strength. It has sharp teeth because it breaks up the rock with its claws, and eats those broken up bits whole. Like snakes and chicken eggs."
He paused to push himself back up to his feet, swayed a little in his unevenly balanced, combined weight with Noni in his arms, and then motioned with his head that we should resume walking. The torch flickered dangerously.
"The people who train dunderwyrms can't do anything about their overcautious nature, she said. So they regulate who's allowed to go in the caves, and give them a schedule so they won't run into the dunderwyrm and scare it."
My face collided with Chrysander's back as he came to an unexpected stop. At first I moved to look round him, my eyes scanning the ground in front of his feet for another hole, but we were all but past that danger by now. His shoulders had gone suddenly tense. Without turning round, he said, "You knew this before we came in here?"
"I-I suppose I did. I didn't really think about it."
"You didn't--" Chrysander cut himself off with a string of profanity that he likewise bit short. He spun round, so quickly that he nearly wrapped our brief network of three people around himself. I had to pull my hand free of his to stop him doing just that. "Did you think that any of us might like to have been prepared for an encounter like that?"
"I assumed you knew more about it than I did." Soterios's voice wavered, dropping in volume so that it couldn't hardly compete with the lingering echoes of Chrysander's outburst.
A deep, ragged breath cut off further argument. Noni had lifted her head up, and was looking around.
I yanked both of my hands free and rushed up to her. It was harder than ever to see, but she was obviously still pale. At least Soterios had wiped the blood off her upper lip, along with most of the sweat. Some of her hair still clung to her forehead, but I brushed it aside. My eyes watered a little as I smiled weakly at her. "That was the craziest thing I've ever seen you do," I said, or tried to say. It came out too hoarse, finally breaking my curse of rising pitch.
"I didn't know you could do anything like that."
"I'm pretty sure I can't." She returned my smile, weakness for weakness, and then tapped Soterios on the shoulder. "Thanks for the lift, but I think I should like to see if my legs still work." He let her down, and she stumbled about like a newborn colt for a few moments.
Demetrius did not step forward to help her, but she didn't seem to notice it, so I didn't hold it against him. She wouldn't let me help her either. After she had steadied, more or less, Chrysander nudged Demetrius over with a none too gentle shove. "Go on and thank her for saving your life so I can thump our other friend. This enterprise was doomed from the start."
I gasped. "From the start... Oh heaven's light, what if it was? What if--" But that was impossible.
"What if what?" Noni glanced up at me, one arm still held out for balance, not quite touching the wall.
Through all of this, one name had come up continually. Even when no one had been actively trying to tie her to the signs we found, Dr Cordet had been ever on our minds. Not just because of the tunnels, either, and those certainly played a part in our search for Demetrius's father. I turned to him, and put a tentative hand on his arm. "Your father trusted Asclepia, right? I mean, he talked to her like she was a good friend."
"Of course. I don't know why, she's always been an overly ambitious snob. But he thinks she's brilliant, I suppose." He gave me an odd look, raising an eyebrow. "Why?"
However, I had already turned to Chrysander. "You said there were no signs in the house because people think to cover their tracks in places like that. But it took you a while to find a sign in the tunnels as well, and you thought the trail went cold after the second one."
"You're suggesting that Dr Cordet took the grandmaster?" Chrysander folded his arms over his chest and shook his head. "You said it yourself, she was with us. The signs were not that old. I'll concede, there is no way he was taken by someone he didn't know. I'd even say that it was someone he may have trusted. But Cordet was with us."
"She's got..." Soterios coughed, and it almost sounded forced. As if he didn't want to say what he had been about to say. I grabbed his arm and looked him dead in the eye. He didn't get that kind of choice at this moment in time. "There are all those people in the laboratory. They all work for her, don't they?"
Apparently forgetting the lowness of the ceiling, Chrysander threw his hands in the air, then swore when they scraped against rock. He rubbed at the abused skin. "So now we're accusing her of conspiring with an accomplice. This day just keeps getting better."
Noni held up a hand, as if she were in class. "Can we get out of here first? I... Maybe it's from reaching out too much to that tree, but I feel like we're close to the grass. If we just go a bit further, we might find a way out."
After the display with the writhing vines of tree roots, I would have believed Noni capable of spontaneously spawning a fully grown miniature forest in the palm of her hand. I put a clamp on my thoughts and pushed Chrysander along.
He kept muttering, but as long as he did his thinking quietly, no one minded him, least of all me. Every now and then, we turned back to Noni, until she took point. She still did not seem steady enough to walk on her own, but Demetrius stepped to the fore, first handing me the torch.
It felt odd to watch their backs, somewhat connected by her arm over his shoulder. She wasn't nearly tall enough for it to be comfortable, it probably wasn't even helpful, but I was certain that the contact made her happy.
"There's a door," she said at long last. More cheering even than that was the nearly full return of her normal cheerfulness.
We all crowded around it, tripping over ourselves and one another. Luckily, it was a trapdoor, of sorts, and wide enough that we could go out in twos, at least.
I lingered in the tunnels, letting Soterios go first. The thing in my stomach wanted to stay in the dark, and after spending so much time in it, I found it difficult to just exert my own will over it. Especially since I still didn't know what it was.
Chrysander stayed behind a while longer as well, watching me with curious concern. I could hear the others celebrating the sunlight up top, but it sounded quite, quite far away. Almost in another country.
He put his hands in his pockets and toed the ground, looking for all the world as if we were not standing just outside a sunbeam inside a semi-ruined tunnel. "I told you I would tell you a secret when this was over, didn't I?" His tone was far too sombre for my liking.
"You can keep your secret. It's probably the only one around us that isn't likely to hurt someone, and I should hate to disturb it." Balanced against the discomfort of this situation, I preferred to battle the heaviness. I pushed past him, headed for the open trapdoor.
But he stopped me with a gentle hand on my shoulder. "Perhaps you have a point," even without looking at him, I could practically sense the wry smile on his dirt-streaked face, "but I'm selfish by nature. I want to tell you. I've wanted to tell you since... I don't know. A while now."
"If you've held on that long, then you can hold on a little longer." I patted his hand and slipped out of his grasp to climb up onto the grass.
It was like falling out of a window sideways.
Everywhere was colour, the obligatory blue of the expansive sky, the green of almost everything else, and then a violent splash of every other colour under the sun. There was no wonder that Noni had been able to sense her way to it. We had entered a garden to rival the one inside the Trevino mansion. Instead of lines of potted things, there was no great plan here, beyond celebrating the miracle of growing things.
Noni was lying among a cluster of wild flowers, with Demetrius anchored at her side by her head in his lap. He looked a little helpless, but also relieved. Soterios looked much the same, though he held back, standing at an awkward distance.
I was so overwhelmed with relief, not just to be outside, but to see all of my friends gathered safely in one place, that I didn't protest when Chrysander took my hand. I dragged him over to sit with the others.
"Now you can go on with your conspiracy theory," Noni said, closing her eyes. "I for one, would believe anything about that crazy old bat doctor. She has always given me the creeps."
"That's not a reason to suspect her of orchestrating a kidnapping," Demetrius said, frowning. His face was entirely grey, as if he had not bothered to brush any of the rock dust from himself, but spots of his hair gleamed ginger in the sunlight.
I sighed. Perhaps deep down I had hoped that coming out of the tunnel would have acted like a sort of start over spell. But not even magic worked that way. "Maybe there isn't a reason." I knew I didn't sound convinced, but I still held out hope for someone to corroborate it.
"Or there is one and you aren't saying what you really think." Chrysander released my hand and pawed at his cheeks, like a cat cleaning itself. "After all, you're the one who brought it up."
"I still don't understand why. There's no reason to suspect Asclepia." Not surprisingly, this came from Soterios. He stretched out on the grass, propping his head up on his arms. "I know she isn't a popular person, and none of you like her, and--and maybe I'm just naive. But I don't see a reason for her to kidnap Demetrius's father."
Reaching a hand into the grass, I used the soft, if prickly, blades to wipe at the grime of sweat and dirt from my fingers. "Perhaps you have a point. But clues point to her all the same. Even if it doesn't make sense, we can't ignore it."
"Kidnapping usually has to do with one of two things," Chrysander said, a thoughtful look on his face. "Ransom or a cousin of blackmail and bribe. I don't know how well you know Dr Cordet, Athena, but I've seen her take part in the latter two categories. She's been in front of the council more than once for it. A bit of a power unto herself, I used to think." He smiled a little wistfully, but the expression faded quickly into one of better humour. "Things seemed different in the laboratory, but there's still happenings outside of it to consider."
"What on earth are you on about?" Demetrius fidgeted, moving Noni about.
Chrysander shrugged. "I'm only saying. If she had your dad kidnapped, she had a reason. Maybe she wanted something more out of Athena, and the only leverage she could see involved getting to you somehow. You've gotten awfully close to our mutual friend here."
A fight might have broken out, but I stopped it in its dreadful infancy. I swore, gripping my hand in the grass so that I nearly tore it up from the ground. "She already got what she wanted from me! All that before... I thought this mess was over. She wanted me to work for her, and I was doing just that."
With a sigh, Noni sat up. I winced, expecting her to focus on the most relevant point to her, the fight I had just tried to avert. But she just bit her lip and looked me in the eye, not angry or even jealous, but the way she had when she had first told me that she wanted to help. "Back then, Dr Cordet did act the way Chrys said. Underhanded stuff. Sending a bounty hunter after you when Grandmaster Trevino already had legitimate troops searching the right way. And she must have thought you and Demetrius were connected, or she wouldn't have told Chrysander to get you both."
"What are you getting at?"
"I don't know. Maybe nothing. But if she's still making plans like that one, then maybe what you--what we--have been doing isn't all she wants." Noni swallowed, glanced up at Demetrius, then back at me. "Maybe she wants you to do something that she isn't allowed to ask you to do, and she thinks she has to use Demetrius's father to force you to do it."