Jessie took another few deep breaths smelling the potent scent of vanilla as she did so then opened the door. She had hoped the view beyond might grow a little clearer with the door all the way open, but in that she was disappointed. Solid white seemed to fill the frame. In the relative dimness of the basement it was bright enough to be somewhat hard to look at; something like looking right at a snow bank on a bright day.
Without giving herself time to really think about it she stepped into that whiteness. She expected it to feel like something, a ripple along her skin, a sense of distortion, unpleasantly like being drunk- something. But it didn’t. As her foot broke the plane of the door it vanished, but it continued to feel perfectly normal. White loomed up in front of her, and then her face was through and she was in some sort of cave with a door behind her, its frame filled with white. She sniffed the air hesitantly. It seemed fine, a little damp, and dirt scented, but normal.
That wasn’t so bad, she thought, then the door closed behind her.
She turned and tried the handle. It was locked. She considered giving it a kick, if only to punish it for its dramatic timing but decided against that because it might have pissed the door off. You couldn’t be sure with magic.
Jessie looked around trying to get her bearings. She was definitely in a tunnel of some sort, and now that she was looking with her own eyes rather than a cellphone video image she was pretty sure it was natural. The floor and walls were rough stone and it was more round than rectangular. Up ahead, she thought she saw a set of stalactites, and then the tunnel bent off to the left. Behind her, the door was set into a wall of solid rock. She thought she might be seeing it’s other side, but she couldn’t be certain; the front of a door is more or less the same as the back.
“Hello,” she called causing her own voice to echo back at her, “llo llo lo…”
Then, shockingly, there was an answer, “Hello! Who’s that? Is that you, Jessie?”
“Allison? Yes, it’s me! Where are you?”
“If you’re by the door, then we’re just up the corridor and around the bend.”
“I’m coming! I’ve got water,” Jessie called back and the hurried down the tunnel. It didn’t take her long to reach the magi. They really were just beyond the bend in the tunnel. They were all standing against the walls there and they looked like they’d been having some sort of conversation. They were lighting the tunnel with their phones, and they also looked none the worse for wear. Jessie wasn’t sure what she expected them to look like, but the relatively calm expressions and fresh faces didn’t match with ‘trapped in a magical bubble and dying.’
“Why do you have water,” Kyle asked, then gave her a reassuring smile.
“You’ve been in here for days! We were worried sick. I assumed…” She trailed off.
“Days! We started the spell 20 or 30 minutes ago. At most!”
Jessie scowled, not liking that at all. As she saw it, there were several possibilities and she liked each one less than the last. There was a chance the spell had messed with the magi’s minds and though they’d been in the tunnel or the bubble for three days but they only felt like they’d been there for a few minutes. If that was the case, the spell had also messed with their bodies because no matter what they thought they should have looked somewhat worse if they’d been trapped for so long.
It was also possible the spell had messed with time. Kyle had said Rooms like this could mess with time. Did that mean Jen and Alexander would think she had been gone for hours already? She hoped not, though she supposed it made some sort of rescue more likely. If they just waited an hour or two people on the outside would have weeks to inspect the spell.
Finally, it could be she wasn’t dealing with her friends at all which wasn’t a nice thought. “It’s Friday, no Saturday, now. About 3AM. Or at least it was 3AM when the door appeared and I followed you in,” she told them.
The magi mostly greeted that with silence. Bob surprised her by speaking up first, “Fuck!”
Alison turned toward him, “It’s just three days. Don’t worry. We’re going to get out of here, and we’ll be alright.”
He shut his eyes, pinched the skin on the bridge of his nose, and glared at nothing in particular. “How the hell was I this stupid? How did I cast another spell I didn’t really understand? Am I the world’s biggest idiot?” At the end of his speech his voice cracked just a bit and Jessie thought he might actually cry.
Alison must have thought so as well because she stepped across the tunnel to him and grabbed him by both shoulders then spoke directly to him but loud enough the others could hear. “We will be OK. We had a hell of a time finding the spell, that’s true, but we do understand it. We have several very credible accounts of slaves and their allies who went through the tunnel to safety elsewhere. They’re pretty consistent. The door locks behind them…”
“Oh good,” Jessie interrupted, “I was going to mention it had done that, but I take it you knew?”
“The door locks. They travel through the passage to the map, and pick the location where they intend to come out. The door unlocks, and then they come out. Those accounts are why we picked this place! Opening the room was simple, but once it was opened the mage didn’t even always go in with the escaping slaves. OK?” She stepped back and looked at all of them, “We’re past the hard part! We must be, I’ll admit fueling the spell was rough, but from here on anyone can use it.”
“You know,” Kyle said, “given the time distortion, I’ve got a bit of a theory about why the spell was so hard to use. I think we might have powered its ‘standby’ component for the entire time it was inactive. It’s very interesting, actually, if you look at a Feynman graph for a…”
Alison held up a hand. “I want to talk about this, but I’m sure everyone is worried about us and we may be losing time more rapidly than we had realized. Let’s just find the map. This tunnel isn’t large, there’s the door, the guardian, and the…”
“The guardian!” That was Lynn and he practically yelled the words. Fern, who had been standing at his side, jumped and stumbled slightly. Lynn didn’t seem to notice. He rounded on Alison, took one big step toward her, and for a moment it looked like he was going to either grab or hit her. Jessie was pretty amped up with her spell and probably could have stopped him, but she didn’t really want to. Actually, she kind of wanted to help give Alison a beat down. It didn’t come to that; he stopped himself and settled for leaning in too close and yelling, “What! The! Hell!? Is there something else you forgot to tell us?”
Alison backpedaled as far as the narrow tunnel would let her, but her calm didn’t crack. She could have taken the step backwards because Lynn had bad breath. “There is mention, in the accounts, of a guardian. However, Jen,” she shot a look toward Fern and stressed the next word a bit, “Fern, and I believe it’s probably an inanimate artifact of some sort. It’s very common to include a spooky statue, or invocation of some sort in older spell work. It’s just a bit of pre-compact trickery to keep the spell safe from theft.”
Fern stepped forward and put her hand on Lynn’s shoulder in a calming gesture then spoke up for the first time since Jessie arrived. Well if the near whisper of her words could be called speaking up she spoke up. Jessie could barely hear her even though the stone of the tunnel was making almost everything echo at least a bit. “It’s true. You remember Professor Anderson and ‘Magical Notation of Ancient Egypt?’ Half the class was about fake curses and statues that didn’t come to life.”
“And if it is magical it’s part of a second spell we didn’t trigger,” Alison added. “Listen, I admit there was some risk, but if you will remember I wanted to do this on my own. We’re at war; we have to take a few risks.”
“Guys,” Kyle started to say looking worried, but Lynn cut him off.
Lynn did not seem placated. “Well that’s the problem, isn’t it? Are ‘we’ in anything at all? I was pretty blinded by you for a long time, but I think the blinders are coming off. What I’m seeing is there isn’t a whole lot of ‘we’ in this fight. There’s you and there’s us. You tell us we should learn more about the sap from Pando because some tribes I’ve never heard of say it has medicinal properties. Then ‘we’ spend days getting it, and ‘we’ have some help from friends that you just happen to have in the area. Then where does the sap go and where are those friends of yours? ‘We’ don’t know. Just like ‘we’ didn’t know about the guardian and ‘we’ don’t know where exactly you want to go once we’ve got the room open.”
“Yes, ‘the plan’ which ‘we’ will know all about when ‘we’ need to because of ‘security’. But, hey. It’s cool because magic is used inequitably and you can really work a room when you’re talking about that. You’ve got a great smile but I think I’m over it!” His eyes met Fern’s for just a moment.
“Guy’s, we didn’t,” Kyle spoke louder but he got cut off a second time when Alison’s calm finally broke and she stepped forward and poked her finger into Lynn’s chest.
“I am very happy you’re finally done sniffing after me. I think we should all throw a party because you’ve finally figured out I’m not even remotely interested and moved on. We can have a big blue cake shaped like a set of balls. However, none of that changes the fact that at least some of us care about what we’re actually doing here and we should get on with it!”
“Guys!” Kyle yelled loud enough that even the echoes were loud. That, finally was enough to get everyone to actually look at him. “We didn’t trigger any spell. We channeled magic into something that already existed. Now I hope this ‘guardian’ is just some sort of Egyptian alchemy gargoyle statue, but maybe there are more appropriate times to have this discussion?”
Jessie thought Kyle might have yelled just a little too loud, because that was when the Salamander rounded the next corner. It was big. That was the first thing Jessie noticed. It was at least as long as a full grown man, and maybe a little longer, though its tail tapered out to less than a few inches in width at the end. It had black spots, but most of its flesh was such a deep red that it couldn’t have been entirely natural and it glistened slightly in the light from the phones and the lantern giving it an almost translucent appearance.
Beyond its coloring and size it didn’t seem tremendously threatening. It’s legs were stubby things that stuck out the side of it’s body, bent ninety degrees, and ended in a five fingered- well Jessie wasn’t exactly sure what a lizard foot was called. The toes didn’t even have any claws. They were blunt and looked oddly like human fingers. Its face looked almost friendly. It was broad and flat in a way that sort of put Jessie in mind of a children’s show frog. It had big bug eyes, two little holes that probably counted as its nose, and a broad mouth that bisected its head and curved in a way that suggested a giant smile.
It stopped when it saw the group. Looked at them for a while, and then blinked its giant eyes a couple of times. Kyle might have woken it from a nap.
“Maybe that’s not the guardian,” Fern said in a voice just barely above a whisper.
Jessie hissed back, “Not the guardian? Oh, yeah, sure! Maybe it’s just an entirely normal lizard that’s been living in a set of super-dimensional tunnels for hundreds of years with no apparent food or company. Well, a normal giant lizard. That seems likely.”
Lynn moved a bit closer to Fern. “He really doesn’t seem like a very threatening guardian.”
Alison looked at the creature, “You know Paracelsus was an alchemist, and I think he wrote about salamanders as a sort of fire elemental. At least I think I’m remembering that correctly.”
She probably was, because the salamander chose that moment to burst into flame.