Gray and Storm learn more about magic, and Valla learns more about them, when the Chimeras find the cell that Shadowforth and her children were kept in.
It took us all a few hours to bring all of the books and records outside, and figure out how we could carry them all back. Once we had decided on that, however, it was time to go even deeper into the dungeon… into the areas where we had been held.
Until we escaped, none of us had known for certain whether we were deep below ground or high above it. There were cells in both directions, as it turned out. Some chimeras spent the entire time in cells above, others below; yet others were drugged every other month and moved to a new cell. Mostly it was the men who were subjected to that. If they moved the mothers and their children, it was only ever out of necessity… or as a punishment.
As we descended into the areas we had lived in, the smells became more… familiar. Yet there was an energy that I had never noticed before, even though it wasn’t new. It felt like a whirlwind, somewhere in the dungeon, that couldn’t be seen… almost like the invisible creatures and life forces, but… this one wasn’t alive. Its presence in the dungeon wasn’t new, and I hadn’t thought twice about its absence outside the dungeon. But suddenly I found myself wondering how long the barrier around this area had been in place… how long the area around the dungeon had been devoid of any people… because there had been few existing buildings no matter where we went, and those were always in heaps of rubble. How long had they been that way?
I glanced at Storm, and at Valla. Storm seemed to be noticing the whirlwind of energy as well, and Valla was trying to pay attention to it, but also looking around at the cells we had been kept in. The cells were separated by thick stone walls, but the wall that looked into the hallway was made of thick metal bars that had once coursed with electric energy strong enough to temporarily stop the heart of anyone who touched them unless turned off by a guard first. Inside the cells, the floors were made of brick that was, somewhat mercifully, smooth; however, there were still rough edges. And… if you knew where to look… there were loose bricks that hid various small items behind them. Things that we had managed to pick up whenever the guards turned their backs, and were letting us socialize… things like pieces of cloth and bandage, metal arrowheads and broken arrow shafts, and pieces of stone were common.
“Gray? Storm?” Rune’s voice suddenly caught our attention, and Storm and I went to his side. He was standing in front of one of the cells. It only took a second to realize why. Our scents… the smell of our blood… It was still inside that cell. I felt a sickness come over me, but didn’t show it in my face or body.
“...I wonder if some of Mom’s old tools are in there,” Storm said, somewhat absent-mindedly. I nodded once, noticing that Valla had followed me, and was looking inside. The others had also slowed down, though they seemed to want to give us space. Even Scout hesitated to get closer.
“Is there any way we could get inside?” Valla asked. “It looks like it’s locked…”
I looked at the gate and frowned. She was right. Who in their right minds would have taken the time to lock the damn cell door when the dungeon was burning and half collapsed already?
Rune gingerly touched one of the metal bars. “They aren’t charged right now, so maybe I could use my magic to heat them enough to bend them…”
“Could you just melt the lock?” I asked. Rune seemed to consider it, looking at the lock.
“That could work, too,” he muttered.
Suddenly, Snitch shook his head with a scowl. “Wrong. The scientists weren’t idiots. They used stone in their locks so that even if someone managed to melt the metal, it would just permanently lock the door.”
Rune pinned his ears at Snitch, but sighed. “Never mind that, then. I’ll try to make an opening.”
Harold took a few steps forward, glancing at the lock, then at the bars. “Would you like my help, Rune?”
“It would be appreciated. These damn things are dense.”
Harold nodded. I watched as they both gathered energy into their hands, as if gathering low, calm flames; Rune first, then Harold. Then, they started to grab the bars and pull them to the side. At first the metal barely budged. But then, as the glow from their hands began to travel through the bars, the metal started to move, and it seemed to take less physical effort for Rune and Harold to shift the bars apart. Eventually, there was a warped gap in the bars, big enough for anyone in the group to slip through. I tried to pay a little more attention to their auras, especially Harold’s. He had very little magic in his aura normally, unlike Valla, Storm, and even Rune. I had assumed he couldn’t use magic, at least not well. Yet there he was, managing to do as well as my younger brother, his aura flaming as much as his, if not more…
After they were done, Rune stepped back. Then, Harold’s hands began to glow in a different way, and his aura suddenly turned cold… frozen like snow. His hands stopped glowing like a campfire, and began to show a thin layer of what seemed like frost. He moved his hands over the bars, cooling them and removing the warm orange glow from them. When they were again a dark gray, he also stepped back, and the coldness in his aura seemed to evaporate, leaving just the basic trace of magic that the average person had in his aura.
“How did he just do that?” Storm whispered, looking at Valla. His eyes were wide, his wings flared a little, and he was even more tense than I was.
“Hm?” Valla blinked, as if she didn’t understand the question.
“We’ve never seen anyone switch elements like that before,” I said.
“Oh? I guess that makes sense… Harold wasn’t born with any innate magic, like I was, or like I assume you and the other Chimeran mages were.” She was completely calm, looking Storm and I in the eyes and smiling a little bit. “On one hand, that means he has to raise energy from outside himself to use magic, or take and amplify magic from others, which makes it a lot harder for him to cast magic… but it also means that he doesn’t have the same weaknesses that someone born with an innate element does. So he can go directly from using fire magic, to using ice magic, without risking harm to himself.” Valla hesitated while Storm and I thought about what she had said. “That being said… he also wouldn’t have been able to use any magic had Rune not started the spell. Because he wouldn’t have been able to gather enough magic himself from this place. Once Rune started using his magic, Harold was able to take a part of that magic, and start to amplify it using what little he did have, which is… not something that’s easy to learn. It’s something that any child who wants to be a mage has to spend years learning if they don’t have an innate element. So in a way, Harold’s the best mage here, even if he can’t start spells on his own.” It was hard to ignore the respect that showed through her voice as she spoke of Harold, but I couldn’t help but be a little annoyed.
“And why wasn’t that brought up when I was trying to hold that fucking barrier so that we didn’t get hurt by those creatures?” I growled, trying to keep my voice low enough for Harold to not overhear, but struggling to contain my irritation.
“Dark and light magic is… complicated. He wouldn’t have been able to use my magic or your magic without risking harming himself. And with dark magic, even if he did manage it…” Valla narrowed her eyes and looked around. Her eyes rested for a moment on Safiena, who was busy looking into the cell, before she looked back at me. “...Using dark magic is considered heresy by the Temple, and even though he hasn’t been as obnoxious about it as a certain someone else, Harold does try to live by the Temple’s standards. Most people in Akalai do. Storm was the only person who could have possibly helped you there, and unfortunately, learning how to interact with another person’s magic is something that is very complicated.”
“I honestly don’t even want to have this magic,” Storm muttered, shaking his head. Valla blinked in surprise.
“You have no idea how easy it is to lose control of it…”
Valla frowned. “...I wish I could offer some advice, but honestly… there’s not much information on dark magic in Akalai since it’s banned. It’s considered difficult to control, but…” Valla glanced around again, and lowered her voice again. “...It’s possible to control it. There are people who have learned how to control it in the past. And… Gray, you didn’t seem to have too much trouble with it earlier.”
“You have no idea…” I couldn’t help but let the words come out as a snarl, though I immediately felt bad for it, especially when I saw Valla look a little hurt by it. I winced. “Valla, Storm and I have gone through a lot. Both of us have…” I glanced at him, and he gave me a single nod. “...We’ve both lost control of our magic before. It’s… not a good feeling.”
“I… can definitely imagine it,” Valla said.
“No,” I said, narrowing my eyes at her. “Valla, we have killed people before realizing what we were doing. It was always in moments of rage or fear, and always directed at the scientists and the guards. So some people try to tell us that they had it coming anyway, but… we’ve always been afraid of… losing control and hurting someone who didn’t deserve it.”
Valla and I were looking directly into each others’ eyes as I spoke. I felt her courage falter a little bit when I reminded her that I had killed before, and after I was silent, I felt a pang of anxiety in my stomach. Would she regret getting so close to me…? Would she fear me…?
She glanced over my shoulder. “...This might be a conversation we should end later,” she whispered. “But… I think I understand. As much as I can, anyway. But neither of you are bad people. Your magic doesn’t make you bad people. You try to help people with it. I’m not going to fault you for not having full control over it. That would be cruel…”
I took a deep breath, and looked down. Storm put his wing around my shoulders and drew me a little closer, crossing his arms.
“It’s stressful for us to be here,” Storm said. “Tough conversations like this should really wait.”
“I agree,” Valla said with a smile. She glanced over my shoulder and Storm’s wing again, and then suddenly stepped forward, wrapping her arms around me in a hug. I blinked, my heart starting to race. Before I could respond, she had drawn back again, and was looking into the cell, moving towards the gap to go in. I heard Storm chuckle softly, and I glared at him.
“It’s not often that anyone gets to see you blush like this,” he said.
“Agh, I…” I was lost for words. It hadn’t been the first time Valla and I had touched… Damn it, was I really losing my composure more and more because of my feelings for her?
“That wasn’t an insult, Gray. It’s good to see you happy. I mean it. But there will be plenty of time for you two to spend time together later, when we’re not in the middle of this place.”
I nodded. “Tell me when I stop blushing so that I can turn around without pissing off Safiena.”
Storm raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
I took a deep breath, remembering that I hadn’t told him what Safiena had done.. “...That… is another thing that really needs to wait until after this, Storm.”
He narrowed his eyes at me, but nodded. I looked into the cell. Scout had pulled out the brick that our mom had kept her bandages and her makeshift tools in. Valla was inside, and picked up a “knife” that our mother had made by breaking an arrow into pieces, and then fastening the pieces of the shaft around the part that was still attached to the arrowhead. It was a crude tool, but had been very effective whenever someone had something in a wound that needed to be cut out, or in similar operations.
Storm and I stayed outside the cell. I could still remember crushing a man’s neck in my claws, breaking his neck guard with no effort, as the last thing I had ever done in that cell... Yet…
Where was his corpse?