Chapter XV

It happened with a click and a snick and an eep from me, and the next thing I knew, I was standing in a very cramped compartment, surrounded by brick walls on every side.

At first I was too shocked to move, and then I was too afraid to move. I didn't know why I was here and the watchman wasn't—not that I was complaining—but I didn't want to accidentally hit the button that made the wall open back up and hand myself over to him.

Unless, of course, I'd gone through a portal again.

But that guy had said there were no portals left.


All thoughts promptly flew out of my head when the ground beneath me opened up and I dropped like a bag of rocks.

Instead of falling to my death as expected, I ended up sliding down a tube. I barely had time to register this fact before the tube leveled out and sent me skidding into a little room dug out of the dirt.

I lay there for a second, staring up at the ceiling, trying to fathom how these things kept happening to me.

And then something brushed my hand, and I shrieked and jumped to my feet, whirling in a circle in an attempt to find whatever creepy creature lived down here.

Rat, cockroach, spider, bat. I expected the worst.

But all I found was dirt and…a butterfly?

I blew out a relieved breath. Butterflies didn't sting you. Well, Earth ones, anyway. Here's hoping Fayr butterflies were just as nice.

It certainly looked nice. It was fluttering against the wall opposite the hole, flapping bright pink wings and testing the air with antennae of silver.

It was stunning, and I felt sad that it had gotten itself trapped in this room.

"Don't worry, little butterfly," I told it. "I'll get you out of here."

I went back to the hole and peered up it, trying to see how far I'd traveled. It hadn't felt like a long ride, but I couldn't see the end of the tunnel, so it must have been far longer than I realized.

And impossible to climb. The rock was worn smooth as glass, and the slope almost vertical. Maybe if I had grippy gloves and shoes I'd have a chance, but those hadn't been included in my knapsack.

Well, there had to be another way out. I wasn't pessimistic enough to even consider this being a one-way trip.

I turned and scanned the room, this time looking for a door or a handle or…dust blowing around.


Where the far wall met the ground the dirt was swirling just a little, as if a gentle breeze was moving it around.

I crouched down and put a hand there, and sure enough I felt a draft flowing through a narrow gap in the wall.

The butterfly seemed to have already noticed this, because it was still flitting against the wall, as if its delicate weight would somehow break through.

I pressed a hand against the wall, and after an instant of resistance…my hand disappeared. I gasped and jerked my hand back, wiggling my fingers to make sure everything was still there. I gulped, simultaneously freaked out and fascinated by the phenomenon. So this was what had happened up there. A wall that wasn't actually there. A wall I could step—or fall—through.

But more importantly, a way out.

Taking a deep breath, I put my hands through first, pushing past the initial resistance, and then stepped forward. I reflexively shut my eyes as my head went through, and only after I'd taken three steps did I dare open them again.

I had no idea what I'd been expecting, but this was not it. The room before me was small and cozy, with whitewashed walls and a fireplace at the far end. A cot lay to my left, sheets tucked in and blankets folded neatly. There was a basket of clothing at the bed's foot, and the right wall was blocked by stacks of crates and boxes that came up to my shoulders.

Each container was marked with a few dashed symbols, but they made no sense to me.

I scratched my head as I looked around. I couldn't fathom why someone would live in an underground house. Surprisingly, it wasn't damp, and the air was clean and fresh, but still, I couldn't imagine waking up without daylight shining through the window.

Speaking of which, there was no light in here. I was so glad I had this night vision because being stuck deep underground without seeing would have been terrifying. I hadn't given much thought about why it had suddenly appeared in that canyon. I'd certainly not had it on Earth, or in the desert. Was it that pill Irish had given me?

The timing fit, and I could think of nothing else. I huffed. As usual, no one was around to give me answers to these things.

I gave up wondering and instead started searching for the exit. The last thing I wanted was to still be here when the inhabitant showed up. Probably some local who'd pummel me to death.

There were no doors to be seen, but that didn't bother me this time. Starting from my entry point, which looked like a normal wall, I pressed carefully against the wall as high up as I could reach, checking all around the room. I tried to move the crates aside, but good grief those things might as well have been made of concrete for how much I could budge them. I left them for the moment and checked the stones of the cold fireplace and peered up the chimney. I couldn't see any light up there, which gave me the willies. How far down was I?

I finished my search with zero results. Not even a trapdoor or a ceiling hatch. With my luck the exit was going to be behind those dead-weight boxes.

Maybe if I took out the contents I'd be able to move them. I grabbed the lid of one of the top boxes and tried to lift it. It appeared to be made of a black, light metal, and it wasn't clasped or anything, but I couldn't get it to shift at all. There had to be some trick I was missing.

I backed off with a grunt of annoyance, attempting the same with all the other boxes. Still no success. It looked like I was going to have to climb out after all.

Maybe the person had some climbing equipment I could borrow. I knelt beside the basket of clothes, reaching in to look for something of that sort, when I remembered the butterfly.

So much for my promise to get it out. Well, I'd just leave it in there until I was ready to leave. I was afraid it would get lost in this place.

I rummaged through the clothes, looking for anything that might be useful. I felt a little awkward being so invasive, but hopefully the inhabitant would never know I'd been here, and it wouldn't matter.

I had just pulled a cap out when something sharp stung into my neck. I yelled at the pain and fell back, scraping at whatever bug it was. My fingers found something hard and I pulled it out quickly, flinging it away from me. It hit the wall with a click and disappeared. I shuddered and scrambled to my feet, rubbing at the pain throbbing through my neck. I really hoped it wasn't some deadly wasp or spider. I needed to find and kill it before it killed me.

I scanned the whole room and nearly died of fright when I found a boy standing right behind me.

He was staring at me with wide caramel eyes, his hand tightly wrapped around the handle of a dagger, which he was holding up in defense.

Though he looked about thirteen, his crouched, steady demeanor made me certain he knew how to use the weapon, so I wasn't taking any chances.

Slowly I raised a hand, the other still pressed to my neck. "I fell in here by accident," I said quietly. "I just want to get out."

He straightened. "Give it a moment."

I stared blankly. "What?"

He didn't reply, and we stood like that for several more seconds before he finally, slowly, lowered the knife, black eyebrows drawn in a frown. "That's odd." He stepped quickly around me, reaching into the pile of clothes, and pulled out a small black object, holding it up for me to see. It was a dart, with a needle one whole inch long. No wonder it hurt like the dickens.

I scowled at him, my caution melting into annoyance. "Didn't anyone ever teach you not to shoot strangers? What was in that thing?"

"A knockout poison."

I felt completely un-knocked out, and by this time I was a pro. "I think you forgot to load it."

He shoved the dart in his pocket. "I didn't. It should have rendered you unconscious in an instant. You must have an immunity."

I blinked, caught off guard by his fine way of speaking. I'd never met a boy his age who talked like that. I'd never met a boy who looked like him, either. He was definitely not a local, but had black hair that went past his shoulders, high cheekbones and deeply tanned skin; I was betting he'd be a real heartbreaker when he was older.

But at the moment he looked like a ragamuffin, thanks to his dusty, raggedy clothes, and I felt a sort of kinship to him, even if he had tried to poison me a minute ago.

"Is that how you greet all your guests?" I asked, crossing my arms like I always did when confronted with difficult children.

He had the decency to look sheepish. "I apologize for that. I thought you were someone else." He glanced at the entry wall. "How did you find this place?"

I blew out a breath. "By accident. The watch was chasing me and I fell into the wall up there."

His gaze met mine. "The watch saw you go through the wall?"

I nodded. "I don't know why he didn't follow me. Maybe he knew he wouldn't fit in that tunnel?"

The boy shook his head. "Though the watchman may have tried, he'd never be able to get through. It's designed to allow only certain people to pass."

I frowned. "So why did I get through?"

He surveyed me for a moment. "You obviously have the right blood. Otherwise you would have been sent to jail. The aristocracy isn't fond of peasants wandering their tidy lanes."

And here I'd thought it was the whole population.

As he pulled a satchel off his shoulders, I asked, "What did you mean about me having the right blood? Is it a genetic thing?" Whoops, he probably didn't know that word. "Certain races only?"

"I know little of the exact workings," he said, slinging his bag on a wall hook. "But I know that the barrier is impenetrable to everyone but me…and now you." He searched my face. "But you've never been here before?"

I hesitated. For all I knew I'd been down here a thousand times; it would certainly explain how my mind had led me right to it. But I decided to act on my ignorance, rather than try to explain my amnesia. "Nope, never been here. Just got lucky, I guess."

He looked amused. "Your speech is most unusual."

I snorted. "So is yours, kid."

He cracked a smile. "That's not my name." He touched two fingers to his forehead and then to his mouth. "My name is Esca."

"I'm Emma." I returned the gesture automatically, my hand somehow knowing what to do. I didn't know why I was still surprised by these things.

Esca sat down on the bed, pulling a pouch from his vest. Watching him, it suddenly hit me that he had night vision too. My heart stuttered a bit. Was it a coincidence that I'd already met two people who could do that?

Heck, I decided to just ask him. "How common is it for people here to see in the dark?"

"You're one of the first I've met." He raised his head, giving me a curious look. "Where are you from?"

"Earth," I said promptly. "What about you?"

"I come from Sevar," he said. "Have you heard of it?"

I shook my head.

He smiled a little. "It's probably as far from here as your Earth. I've never heard of that land."

"Well, it's quite a few portal jumps away." I stepped closer. "I don't suppose you know where any portals are. The other guy I talked to said there aren't any around here."

Esca nodded. "All the entry portals have expired. But there are still plenty of exits. Many people come through from far off places. Perhaps even this Earth."

Hope leapt into my heart. "Where can I meet them? I didn't see anyone but the red-haired giants up there."

He chuckled. "They keep their distance. The people of Palian are rarely welcoming of foreigners, but they cannot stop them from arriving. There is a special quarter of the city kept apart for them to stay until they move on."

Now why did that not surprise me?

"I need to get there A.S.A.P," I said. "I'm really sick of this town."

"I can take you," he said. "But…what is asap?"

I paused. Even in this language, English acronyms still worked. I wasn't sure how to feel about that. "As soon as possible," I told him. "We're lazy where I come from. Try to shorten speech as much as we can."

"We do the same in my tongue," he said, getting up and moving to the wall of boxes. I frowned as he easily lifted a lid off a box and rummaged around in it. Didn't look that difficult. Why had I completely failed?

He fished out a metal flask and paused when he saw me watching. "What is it?"

I gestured. "I tried lifting those lids when I was looking for a way out. I couldn't budge them at all."

He smiled slightly, and I almost thought he looked smug. "Your blood evidently can't open everything."

Another blood barrier? Seemed a little redundant. I tried to peer into the box, but he shut it right then. "What are you hiding in them?"

Esca paused in pouring a gray powder into the flask. "Things. For when I leave this cave." His brow creased slightly, and it seemed to me that the subject bothered him.

I didn't want to offend my only chance of getting out of here, so I gave up, and just watched as he shook the flask, then took a draft of its contents. I winced, wondering what that gray powder had been; it didn't exactly look appetizing. But I decided I didn't care. I really just wanted to get into the daylight again. "So, how do we get out of here? Is the doorway behind your boxes?"

"It's in the other room," he said, hanging the flask on his belt. "Shall we go?"

Man, it was so nice to meet someone who didn't waste time. I gestured eagerly. "Lead the way."

He grabbed his bag off the hook, and without another word stepped into the wall I'd come through.

I followed, wincing as I passed through the stone. I didn't think I'd ever get used to that.

I never made it into the little dirt room.

The last thing I saw was a blinding flash of red light, and everything went dark.