Esha hated the feeling of having her soul sucked from her body. She had barely enough power to complete the task, and once the excruciating process of tearing each bit of her soul from her mind and limbs was over, she just felt weightless, which was vastly superior to the tearing part of the operation. The Chairman stayed close by her side as they passed through the gate that led to the howf. Without him, she’d be stuck without a body. If she ran out of power, she’d be stuck like this forever. It’d be the worst way to go. Unable to feel or talk, she’d be worse than a ghost.
“Thanks, dude,” she said, not surprised that the words had no sound. She no longer had actual vocal cords, after all.
With a deep breath and a wave to Warren, she nodded to the Chairman and they passed through the gate. It felt no different to pass through rock than it did air, which was strange in itself. But when they entered the howf, the feeling of abandonment struck her hard. She’d have gasped if she’d had a body, but instead she just felt lost. Dead, almost.
She squinted in the darkness, but was unable to see anything, so she focused on forming a ball of fire in her hand. Its unnatural brightness illuminated the space with a dim orange glow that reached all corners of the medium-sized space.
It was a meeting space, but one that had been constructed and decorated hundreds of years ago. A fireplace with no flue that would have been lit with magical smokeless fire, plush chairs, and small tables. Bookshelves and paintings covered all of the walls. And a fine layer of dust covered everything in sight.
With the Chairman following at her heels, Esha explored the room for clues. This was the only place she could think of that would tie her to another soulceress. There had to be something, but she needed to look quickly. She hadn’t mentioned to Warren that she couldn’t stay separated from her body for long without making it permanent. Only as long as her power lasted, and she barely had enough to say so.
She skimmed the titles of the books, but nothing stood out. They were primarily histories of her kind, along with histories of other types of Mytheans. Knowledge was power. The soulceresses agreed with the university on that one.
Noticeably absent were spell books, which Esha hadn’t expected to find. Those were used by the hacks who worked in covens. Soulceresses manifested their desires with a thought and power.
“Well, Chairman, I’ve got nothing,” she said soundlessly as she continued to look around. A few books were left open on the tables, along with scattered papers and a few wine glasses, as if the place had been in use and then suddenly deserted.
The air of abandonment and death that permeated the howf was probably left over from the Burnings. The few who had survived had lain low until the hysteria was over. Now, there were so few left and the threat so distant that they could move about without too much fear, as Esha did.
If they’d visited, they hadn’t moved anything. Wise, considering the fact that Esha could feel an imprisonment charm on the place. Anything removed would result in consequences. Was that one of the reasons it was supposed to be difficult to leave here?
With the bookshelves and paintings all inspected, Esha wound her way around the tables and chairs, inspecting the things laid out upon the tables. She reached out to touch a piece of paper, but when she did so, she swore she saw her hand disappear. So quickly she couldn’t be sure, but her time was drawing to a close.
Nothing on this table, so she moved on. A square of white on another table caught her eye. She gasped soundlessly. On the largest table in the middle of the room sat an envelope.
With her name on it.
With a trembling hand, she picked it up. Though she had no body, the items in the room had obviously been enchanted to be manipulated by souls.
Who could have written to her? Stupid question.
Before her eyes, the hand that held the letter flickered in and out of existence. Damn it.
She was running out of time. Esha glanced nervously at the Chairman. He flickered too, and she swore she saw annoyance in his eyes. Biting her lip, she began to tear the letter open. She just had to glance at it long enough to get an idea of the message. But her flickering hand wouldn’t work properly. One second, she felt the letter’s seal beneath her fingertips—the next, nothing.
Swallowing hard, she debated the pros and cons of trying to remove the letter from the room. Determining that it was worth chancing the unknown penalty and unwilling to risk losing her body, Esha dashed for the entrance with the Chairman at her heels. Her arms flickered as she skirted a chair. So close—the entrance was just ahead.
She would make it in time. She had to.
With a deep breath, she plunged through. As soon as she landed on the other side, a harsh wail echoed through the cavern. It tore at her eardrums and howled through her mind. To preserve her sanity, she focused on finding Warren.
Near where she’d left him, he surged to his feet, her limp body cradled in his arms. Esha hurtled toward her body. She gasped as she opened her eyes and met Warren’s. Strong arms held her tight to a broad chest, heat radiating through every inch of her.
“We need to go,” she said, struggling to escape his arms.
The shrieking turned to howling, a sound so harsh it threatened to make her black out. She gestured to the boat that was their only hope of safety.
As soon as Warren put her down, she grabbed his arm and turned toward the boat. A glance behind her showed that the stone entrance to the howf was bulging outward, some areas more than others. Stone should not be able to move like that.
“Come on.” With the letter gripped tightly in her hand, she sprinted for the boat.
After only a few steps, an agonizing pain tore across her back. She stumbled, a scream caught in her throat, and lost her grip on Warren’s hand. The pain began to paralyze her and she fell to her knees.
Before she could fall any farther, Warren swept her up and charged forward. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a great stone claw reaching out from the entrance, growing longer as they ran. She could no longer feel her legs.
“Hurry.” Her fist clenched around the letter that had caused so much trouble.
Warren leapt into the boat, the Chairman behind him, and she cried out at the pain that streaked across her back as he jostled her. Darkness crept into the corners of her vision, but she fought it, desperate to not lose consciousness with certain death chasing them.
“Hold on for me, damn it. I’m going to get you to safety, I promise.” He wiped wetness from her cheeks, and only then did she realize that she was crying. “But first, can you get us out of this damn cave?”
“Can summon a wave... but can’t... aetherwalk.”
She had to get them out of here. She was the only one who could.
He nodded at her, then wrapped his jacket around her before returning to the wheel. Cold crept along her skin as he started up the engine. It was going to be close. Closing her eyes, she focused her remaining energy on calling forth a wave big enough to carry them out of the cave.
“We’re nearing the wall,” Warren shouted over the otherworldly shrieking that still bounced off the stone walls.
She reached for the Chairman, pathetically grateful to feel his fur against her palm. The effort to dredge up enough power to create the wave had her head spinning, but soon she felt the surge of water beneath the boat. It roared in her ears. Or was that the pain?
She managed to crack her eyes open long enough to see them rise closer to the ceiling of the cave and fall on the other side.
The boat crashed down and blackness took her.
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