Wind rushed past Estella’s face, whipping her hair around her. At least, that’s what it felt like. She couldn’t see anything in this darkness, and only the warmth of Nox’s body engulfing her in a protective embrace and his ragged and hot breaths were the only indication that they were still alive.
But not for long. The pit couldn’t be this long; eventually, it had to end somewhere, where they would splatter on the ground in a grizzly manner of death.
Estella couldn’t let that happen.
“We have to slow down our descent,” she shouted over the wind. She summoned Astra again, and its silvery glow lent her enough illumination to see Nox. Her squire’s face was only inches away from hers, and the terror in his eyes were evident. She didn’t even have to feel it through their connection.
It will be okay, Estella tried to convey with her mind, sending Nox all the reassurance and calmness that she could muster. It seemed to work, for he relaxed and shouted back, “How?”
Her mind racing, Estella glanced at the rushing ground. Or tried to. It was so dark that she couldn’t see what was below them. But that gave her an idea.
She twisted around in the air carefully, stretching out her left hand toward the shaft below. “Burst!” With a crackle of mana, a fireball sped away from her palm, dazzlingly bright. It was a small one and barely radiated heat, but it should served its purpose.
Sure enough, the fireball descended. She watched it carefully, counting as it traveled further and further down. Until at last, it struck something and sputtered to oblivion.
Thirty seconds. Which meant that they had a minute at best before they crash onto their deaths.
“Nox, I need you to create a Wind Barrier around us.”
There was no protest from him, no questions asked. Through their connection, their Resonance, Estella could feel her squire’s trust in her. It almost made her smile, but now wasn’t the time for that.
She thrust her arm, sending her magic ahead like invisible threads, sensing the topography. Aldros could do this without effort, and with much more accuracy. At least, she found out the general outline of the ground—flat and a little spongy. Mud, perhaps?
She and Nox would soon find out. A blast of air encased them, slowing their descent. Taking a deep breath, Estella said, “Form.”
Channeling her magic into the earth, she willed it to soften and form a bowl-shaped depression. Soon she heard a soft rumble, and she felt, rather than saw, the ground shifting on her command.
Earth was never her affinity, so she was relieved that the strain wasn’t too much. Shouting again, she told Nox, “Start counting. After fifteen seconds, release the Wind Barrier.”
Nox nodded. The only thing left to do was wait. Estella wasn’t certain if her plan would work, but she had to try.
And then the Wind Barrier vanished. She squeezed her eyes shut, and gasped softly when Nox pulled her closer and twisted around until they faced the way up.
Three seconds later, they crashed onto the muddy ground.
Estella’s chest heaved, and she could feel Nox’s ragged breathe from his broad chest. “You okay?” she whispered, both with her lips and mind.
Yes. “Yes.” Her squire’s voice was equally quiet.
For several seconds they remained motionless. Estella strained her ears for any sounds, but all she heard was the rhythmic pounding of her heart and Nox’s. Darkness engulfed them; she had dismissed Astra before they fell out of caution. But now they had to see just where they had landed.
“I’m going to move,” Estella said. Nox bobbed his head, his chin bumping into her hair. Slowly, Estella extracted herself from his embrace. Her magic was still active, and she willed part of the ground to hardened, giving her a solid footing.
She extended her hand. Astra came with a flash of silver light, illuminating the shallow pit she had made. Mud dripped from her uniform as she crept toward the edge. At four feet deep, the walls were just high enough to give her a view while shielding them from unwanted eyes.
They were in a massive cavern, of that she was sure. She couldn’t see the ceiling above her nor the shaft they had fallen from. Thick stalagmites rose at rough intervals, joining with their counterparts from the ceiling to form natural pillars.
The cavern didn’t seem to be part of the ruins, though it was difficult to determine in this darkness. Everywhere Estella looked, only shadows and rock formations greeted her.
Nox soon joined her, caked in mud from head to toe. “See anything?” he asked, his eyes scanning the surrounding area.
Estella shook her head. “None. You?” Her squire’s element was shadow. It should be easy for him to see in the darkness.
He nodded. “Wait here.” He went to the other side. After a moment, he said, “Two exits. One on the right, another directly ahead of me. Both looks safe enough.”
“Two hundred feet, maybe three hundred. The cavern is large, Ella. I think this is part of a cave system.”
Which meant that there could be an exit leading to the upper levels. She didn’t want to think that they were trapped here and there was no way out.
Taking a deep breathe, she mustered all the courage she could and faced Nox. He was looking at her with concern, no doubt sensing her fears through the Resonance. But she kept her emotions in check. She didn’t want him to see her looking miserable and terrified.
She was a princess of Favenia. Fear had no place in the royal family.
“Which way looks safest?”
Nox hesitated, then pointed to the right.
Estella nodded. By some strange stroke of luck, they still had both of their packs. Food and water would be limited for both of them, so they would need to ration those. They got first aid kits, and some blankets. But the important item they had was the map.
They clambered up the depression in the ground and headed toward the tunnel on the right. Nox held the lamp in one hand, its white glow the only light in the oppressing darkness. Estella traced their route on the map, making sure to keep track of any junctions and forks.
There was none. The tunnel buried straight into the earth, rising to a shallow incline occasionally before dropping to a linear route that went on and on until the next rise. Moisture clung along the rough walls. Nox told her there should be an underground river, but they had yet to find it.
At last they reached a branching path. After a brief discussion, they went left. The air seemed less stale there, and Nox said he could hear the faint rush of water.
Their footsteps echoed in the tunnel. Estella studied the map and the area they had already explored. She didn’t believe they were still within the Coltar Ruins. They didn’t find any signs of dwarf mines or infrastructures. Had they fallen so deep?
She banished the accompanying thought. There had to be a way out.
She didn’t know how long they had been walking, but when her legs started to shake, she turned to Nox and said, “We should rest for now.”
They were still in the tunnel, so they had no choice but to settle in where they were. Nox placed the lamp on the uneven ground and shrugged off his pack. It had been crumpled from their fall, but the contents were still mostly intact.
Food was meager, even if they rationed them. It wouldn’t last more than ten meals at most. Either they had to go without eating for longer than a few hours, or they find the exit soon. Estella didn’t want to think what would happen if they ran out of food.
They rested for only several minutes, then they were on their way again. Despite their exhaustion, Estella knew that staying in the same place longer wasn’t advisable, especially with their limited supplies.
She didn’t know how much time had passed. But after dozens of junctions and turns, she finally heard the rushing water. Filled with renewed hope, she exchanged a glance with Nox before hurrying toward the source of the sound.
They passed through yet another tunnel, emerging into a vast chamber whose ceiling was unfathomable. Bisecting its center was a shallow but wide underground river, flowing freely from the right and extending to the left, vanishing into the darkness beyond. The water was clear, and Estella could have sworn that she saw small fishes swimming below the surface.
“If we follow it, the river might lead us to an exit,” Nox suggested. She nodded. That was her plan, but one step at a time. At least they had a water source now.
They decided to make camp twenty feet away from the riverbed. Estella brought a timepiece; it was almost seven in the evening. They had been traveling for over six hours. By now, Aldros and Erian should have already alerted the teachers of what had happened.
“I’ll take the first watch,” Nox said. There was no firewood, so they had to settle with cold food.
Estella didn’t argue. Her body felt like lead, and she could barely keep her eyes open. Setting her bedroll next to Nox, she collapsed with a sigh.
The last thing she saw before closing her eyes was her squire sitting next to her with his back turned, watching the area like a silent guardian.
Thank you for reading!