Exploring the Cave

Isabella’s cave theory had panned out. Though she had lost track of how long she’d been moving, the cold, stone ground had met up with ragged walls some time back. She had continued along the left wall, following various side passages both small and large. Not one had given her a hint of light. There was no way she was close to the surface.

Though she had no sense of time, her hunger and thirst were catching up to her. If her captors had any intention of keeping her alive, they’d have to be back soon. Presumably they’d bring some light with them. Of course, that was assuming they needed light to see at all. This whole ‘other world’ thing was messing with her intuition.

Isabella paused for a few minutes, leaning up against the wall. She’d lost the blanket a while ago and didn’t want to flail around looking for it. The moving had helped her keep her mind of her situation, but she was wearing out. It was getting to the point she almost hoped they’d just find her and take her back just so she knew where she stood.

And with that though, a light flickered at some indecipherable distance. Isabella’s eyes were so sensitive at that point it might have just been a reflection of a reflection. But at least it gave her something to focus on, something to move toward. There also seemed to be a sound, perhaps footsteps. The first thing she’d heard beside herself since she showed up here.

Sliding slowly forward. Trying to be quiet. There were definitely sounds of movement now, just up around a bend in a tunnel she hadn’t yet tried. Also something new, something familiar, almost like rippling water. As she got closer, whispered voices resolved themselves. Unfortunately, no language she could understand. How did Aurora keep all these languages straight, anyway?

As she turned around the last corner, Isabella pulled herself tight against the wall. She could make out three figures in total, now, with a dim lantern creating their silhouettes. With the dark stone and her pale skin, it would only take a glance her way to spot her. Fortunately the figures seemed intent on their discussion, crowded around some device between them.

Isabella winced as another figure came from a side-tunnel, carrying a brighter lantern. Its like scattered across the cave, more than she would have expected. It was reflecting from the rippling, mirror-like surface suspended in a familiar archway, covered in runes. She saw one like it every time Aurora left, and again when they had traveled to Galavaria.

They had a waygate.

Anger

As fine ash drifted into her hair, Aurora felt very, very glad that this area was largely untraveled this late in the evening. Even so, the Council was going to have an awful lot of explaining to do. She cringed at the thought. At leas there wasn’t a crater this time. Hell, the radius was even down to… well, maybe a thousand feet on the outside? Maybe she was learning.

That being said, the forest would never be the same. She could only hope the scraps of cloth and fragments of wire proved her initial assumption that the ‘figure’ in the woods was merely a remote decoy. Well, sort of hope anyway. There would have been satisfaction in blasting away whoever the hell was behind this.

And so her thoughts came back into focus. Isabella. They had Isabella. No clues where. No real clues as to what they even wanted. Crap, she was bad at this job. It wouldn’t be long before the echo signature hit Dawning and Tass would… no, she could not pay attention to the side effects of this. She had to find Isabella. Everything else could wait.

But where to start? From the apartment, maybe? That’s what the cops would do, right? Look for evidence. Okay, at least it’s somewhere to start. Maybe Isabella managed to leave a clue or message or something. Or maybe the kidnappers had.

A buzzing sound emerged from behind her, getting closer. Jauleth? Already? It would take hours to get her from Dawning, though. How would Raeth have sent him? Aurora squinted in the fading light. No, it was some sort of quadcopter drone.

“Damn,” a familiar voice said from its speaker. “Now I see why everyone keeps their distance from you, Councilor.” It laughed. “Changes nothing, though. We still have your girl. You know mean business. And you also know we’re smart enough not to come anywhere near striking distance. So what do you say? Shall we talk?”

Aurora knelt down, squeezing her hand tight around a ball of ash that had, moments ago, been grass. The heat was already building again. She breathed deeply and squeezed hard.

“I’m listening.”

Girl Scout Training

Isabella’s eyes opened to darkness. Complete darkness. The air had a chill, muggy quality to it. If she was still anywhere near where the apartment had been, she couldn’t be anywhere connected to the outdoors. Even the buildings weren’t kept this cold. That’s assuming she was still on Galavaria. Of course, if she wasn’t, she expected to be reeling from nausea like the last two world-transfers she’d suffered through. Besides, only Council-folk could transfer, and they were all on the same side.

Because it was pretty obvious at this point she’d been kidnapped. Not typically something allies do to each others’ friends. Right?

Okay, theorize later. Deep breath. Her body was still… unclad. But someone had thrown a rough blanket over her. Maybe a cloak or something. So some respect for her well-being. Or her modesty? Well, that would mean non-Galivarian for sure. Still not important.

Another deep breath. Reality was starting to set in. This wasn’t a dream. Some asshole had taken her from her apartment, somehow without waking her up, and stuck her in a cave somewhere. Nothing felt injured. There was no sound anywhere. Which was really creepy, with her heart pounding in her ears.

Standing up, she pulled the blanket around her. It wasn’t so cold she needed it, but it added a feeling of protection. The ground was solid, chill stone beneath her bare feet. That could be a problem in the long run, if camping with the Girl Scouts had taught her anything. Ground like that could pull the heat out of you.

A sudden laugh burst from her lips, sending echoes chiming back and forth for several seconds. Here she was, a violinist, a teacher, on another planet, naked, in a dark cave, presumably kidnapped. And she was thinking about her time in the Girl Scouts. God, she wondered if Aurora did the same thing. Never know when it’ll come in handy, right? She laughed again.

Another thing the scouts would have advised in this scenario, with complete darkness and an unknown surroundings, was to sit down and wait for someone to find her. There were all sorts of possibilities for injury. Given the situation, though, she wasn’t sure she would like whoever it was that came back to find her.

Slowly, deliberately, she knelt down to her hands and knees, blanket thrown over her back. She picked a random direction and started shuffling forward. If she focused on a straight line, she’d find a wall at some point.

Or a sheer drop-off. But pessimism aside for now.

Emergency Contact

“Um, Councilor?” a voice asked from outside Raeth’s chamber. It was a young voice. One of the children, perhaps, making themselves useful. Sourceformers rarely emerged that young.

“Yes, child,” Raeth replied, looking up from their newest pile of documents. “Speak.”

“We’ve received a message from… from Gala- Galavaria,” the child replied, stumbling over the exotic name. They walked into the dim light of the chamber. A girl-child. Menissa’s? There was a resemblance.

“From Councilor Aurora?” Raeth asked. “I had expected to hear from her sooner. What is-”

“I’m sorry, Councilor,” the girl interrupted. “It isn’t from… from Councilor Aurora. We don’t know where it’s from. Messenger Gaeji says we don’t know how it got here.” The girl stared at her shoes, shuffling them nervously.

Raeth smiled, hoping to put her at ease. They had never cared for the deference Councilors were given in the Dawning. “Well, then, that is a bit of a mystery. What can you tell me?”

“It’s… um… the Messenger wouldn’t let me read it, Councilor,” the girl said. “He said it was only for your eyes right now. He didn’t look happy, though.” With that, she shoved a small, folded parchment in Raeth’s direction. She shuffled awkwardly forward until it was in Raeth’s reach.

“Thank you, child,” Raeth said. “Tell Gaeji you did well.” They hid the concern from their face carefully until the girl had run off again. This was unusual protocol. It was rare that anything was hidden within these walls. Raeth unfolded the message and scanned it in an instant. Their face paled.

“Jauleth!” they shouted. Raeth’s brother of stone and metal buzzed in from the other room. “Prepare rights for a trip to Galavaria for myself and… no, just myself. And make sure Tass is aware this is of some urgency.”

Aurora was not a neophyte. That someone had trapped her in any way was worrisome, at best. Raeth only hoped that they were overestimating their position. It would be best if none of the rest of the Council was aware. It should be handled alone. Otherwise Tass would have one more piece of leverage against the girl.

Knowing Better

“You know, Councilor,” a voice said from the woods. “You really should know better.”

Aurora spun around, her nerves lashing tight around her power. It was always worst when she was startled or afraid. There was a figure standing in the dark of the trees, hidden by the deepening shadows of twilight. She could make out that it was cloaked, which already marked it as not native. At least not to this part of Galavaria.

“So you know who I am, I guess,” Aurora said. “Care to return the favor?” The cooling night air crackled around her. She smelled ozone. Time to clamp down more.

“I don’t see any reason to,” the voice said. “I do, as they say on Earth, hold the cards here.” The figure was preternaturally still. Aurora was beginning to wonder if it was alive or just a decoy.

“Out with it then,” Aurora said. “You can probably see my patience is wearing out.” This time she purposely let a small slip. A tiny void peeled open in front of her, collapsing with a roar as air rushed to fill it.

“Now, now,” the voice said with aggravating patronization. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. You haven’t heard what I’m here for.”

“Let’s see,” Aurora said. “Creepy cloaked figure in the shadows. Vaguely threatening comments. Overconfidence in the face of utter destruction. I’d say you’re about to divulge some threat or another. So, as I said, out with it.”

There was a laugh contained in the voice now. “I swear. Do they teach all Councilors to be arrogant bastards? Fine. To the point. You should have known better than to bring someone out here. Someone that couldn’t pull on entysiana to help them. Even in a paradise like this, you should know that there’s never a safe place for people like you. Or the people you care about.”

Aurora paled. The chill air of the night hit her as blood drained from her skin. She had only left the apartment for an hour. Had they gotten to Isabella? How…? Then the air around her flared into heat again. Right. It wasn’t worst when she was afraid.

It was when she was angry.

Isabella in Galavaria

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” Isabella asked. She was having a hard time keeping her hands down at her sides, not covering up the taboo bits that would have gotten her arrested on Earth.

Aurora didn’t put much effort into suppressing an impish smile. The two of them were sitting on a park bench in Galavaria, a world that Aurora had come to think of as a vacation spot. Conflict – at least, conflict relevant to the Council – was pretty rare here. So she didn’t have to keep her guard up. So it seems like a perfect introduction to the Web of Worlds. It was also a nudist paradise.

So yeah, maybe she was getting a kick out of seeing Isabella flush.

“When in Rome,” Aurora said. She wriggled her toes in the sand, a fine white crystal that covered most of the park. On Earth, a beach like this would have burnt them both to crispy in a few minutes.

“So do you have to do this a lot?” Isabella asked. Her hands were just fiddling with her braid, now, though she was also steadfastly avoiding watching the pedestrian traffic.

“Do what? Sit around naked in parks?” Aurora asked. “Yeah, it’s pretty much my whole job description these days. Ow!” Isabella had poked her ribs, though not nearly enough to actually hurt.

“I mean having to adjust to different cultures, just take them in stride,” Isabella said. “I’m guessing this isn’t the strangest place you’ve ever been. In fact, knowing you, you’re actually just easing me into it.”

“There’s truth in that. Galavaria is a pretty easy-going place. The only missions here have been diplomatic or trade-related. There’s a lot of places that are stranger. And quite a few that are more dangerous than I’d ever want to take you.”

“What?” Isabella asked playfully. “You think I can’t take care of myself?”

“Heaven forbid,” Aurora said. “It’s more that only sourceformers can adapt enough. Get too far away from your native world and the rules get… different. Enough so that you’d need constant support just to survive, or even exist.”

“Oh,” Isabella said. To Aurora’s surprise, she sounded genuinely disappointed. Maybe she really had expected to go everywhere Aurora could go?

Dang, she hadn’t thought of that. There were so many things Aurora took for granted now. She wasn’t the best teacher, either. And her teachers at the Dawning… well, they probably wouldn’t look too kindly on spilling all their secrets to a random Earth-born. What should she say? She didn’t want Isabella to feel like –

“Is that ice cream?” Isabella exclaimed, jumping from the bench as a cart started rolling up. “This place is too damn hot to skip out!”

Aurora laughed and ran after her. Okay, maybe there wasn’t really a problem.

Show Me

“This time I’m coming with you,” Isabella said. She stomped her foot for good measure, as if daring defiance. There was a twinkle in her eye, though, and it was obvious she held back a giggle.

“Wait, really?” Aurora asked. Her tea was suddenly forgotten in hand. It was a lucky thing she didn’t drop it. “But-”

“I know it’s dangerous. I know it’s scary,” Isabella said, her voice dropping to a near-whisper. “But I want to see what it’s like. It’s so important to you. It’s so much of your life. And… well.” She shrugged, an embarrassed flush showing keenly on her pale skin. “I miss you when you’re gone.”

Aurora hastily set aside her tea and grabbed Isabella in a bear hug until they both gasped for breath. “Oh, Icy! I thought you’d never ask!”

“Wait, what?” Isabella said, taken aback. “I thought-”

“Thought what? That I wasn’t allowed? That I’d try to talk you out of it?” Aurora loosened her grip and let her hands slide down to rest on Isabella’s waist.

“Yeah, I guess,” Isabella replied, her flush deepening.

“You’d always talked about how scary it all seemed, how surreal. I didn’t want to pressure you. And I didn’t think you really wanted to leave. I mean, it’s kind of a big deal. Leaving Earth. You wouldn’t believe the scope of it all. It’s -”

Isabella smiled and touched a finger to Aurora’s lips. “No need to expound. Show me.”

Good Run, Part 2

Aurora was the first to break the silence. “There is another option, you know.” She felt Isabella’s hand twitch in hers. “If we’ve really given up on all hope.”

“Aura,” Isabella said. “You said you wouldn’t. That it’s too dangerous. It could harm Earth, maybe the whole Web.”

“Maybe it could. Or maybe it was just a fluke before. The Council never gave me a chance to find out.”

“Are you sure you can control it?” Isabella coughed. “I mean, not that I look forward to dying slowly of starvation…”

Aurora choked back a laugh that was dangerously close to a sob. “Sure? I’m not sure of anything anymore! The Council betrayed me, Raeth is missing, my power is more of a torment now than when it first came out!”

Echoes filled the cavern, then abated into nothing.

“I trust you,” Isabella whispered into the silence.

“And I love you,” Aurora replied. Then she let the walls down.

Good Run

“We had a good run, I guess,” Isabella said, trying to sound jovial despite her shaking voice. Her hand clasped Aurora’s under a layer of fine stone. They were each trapped apart, but at least they had this small contact.

“It was great,” Aurora replied. “Every moment. Wouldn’t change any of it.” She tried to laugh, but just coughed. “Except, you know, this part.”

“I got to live some dreams. And you. Well, you got to see more than any human ever has.”

Aurora sniffed, but tried to match Isabella’s bold spirit. “I just wish I’d seen more of it with you. Even once, to take you to Dawning. You would have loved it. It’s like a dream.”

“You know, some part of me still thinks and hopes,” Isabella whispered. “Even with everything we know about reality and Earth’s place… that there’s still room for God and a heaven in all of it, y’know? Seems weird, I guess, but -”

“No. I get it. Even with Dawning, the Web, the Builders, all of that crap… there’s still so much we don’t know. Maybe we’ll get to find out.”

“Maybe so.”

Then they fell silent. Both of them stared at the crack of light hundreds of feet above. The light was turning red and would soon fade to night.

On the Park Bench Again

Isabella laid her head on Aurora’s shoulder. “I’m really glad we met.”

“Even with everything?” Aurora replied, leaning her own head against Isabella’s.

“Even with everything. Even with the craziness, and the explosions, and the being gone for random splotches of time, and the having to be really careful when you -”

Aurora laughed and threw an arm around her girlfriend, pulling her close. “I did replace that mattress for you.”

“Actually, I think it was Raeth. After ensuring the remains weren’t radioactive anymore.”

“Right, that.” Aurora smiled and stared off at the water It really was like nothing had changed in the past ten years. Here they were, laughing on a bench by the lake as the sun set.

They were silent for a few minutes. The comfortable sort, that neither felt the need to break.

“I’m glad, too, you know,” Aurora said. “Maybe this time I won’t leave.”

Isabella looked up sharply. “Is that really an option?”

“Probably not. But for the moment, you’re stuck with me.”