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"The Surface" teaser

Chapter One: Waterfalls


The term "Descent," used in reference to the overall event, misleads, as the massive chamber Ascarna and her followers eventually settled in sits well above the Midland Forest, high up in the eastern Thorim'aran. It is thought that the initial plunge into darkness Ascarna and her followers experienced when the abandoned mine they sheltered in collapsed is what gives rise to the name.

—Histories, volume two



That she yet lived was a matter of other peoples' plans and dumb luck.

For a time she had thought she no longer cared to, just drifting down the Oronfer'dhur curled into a ball in the bottom of her boat. How long she lay, how far she traveled, how fast the river carried her along lost to darkness and despair and grief she did not know. Dreamless, fitful sleep took her when it wished and released her with the same lack of care.

She had tried to be strong, tried to be like her second mother. Finerelace never smiled, never cried, would not shed a tear even for her own murdered daughter. But with no companion but the dark and no sound but the current, Silvantana could not withstand the assault of the images of those last few minutes in her room with Jysillin, memories of the last few days, and years before, and ultimately she gave into her grief much as she had surrendered to the delving.

"Jysillin! I love you so much!" she had cried out over and over. "Can you hear me?! Did you know? Did I say it enough?!" Her only answers had been the echoes of her own voice cast back at her from the unseen walls of the passages she floated through.

It felt like a portion of her soul had been torn away; not only the part that was her sister-niece but along with it what she knew to be childish trust and love. It had all been a plot, a move and counter on a chess board. Though she was not yet even an adult, those she had trusted—no, "trust" was not right, it was too active. There must be a passive word for trust, the kind of whole serenity only a child can know; unblinking, unfailing security in the arms of a parent—that was gone now. Gone with the realization that her mentor, her second mother, her long-dead birth mother, even Jysillin herself, had allowed—no, not "allowed," that was passive—they had conspired to give Fate its cruel victory.

Her journey down the Oronfer'dhur became a metaphor for her life; a tiny fragile creature cocooned in a boat of naivety, carried along by unseen forces through unseen places to an unknown destiny. And, having realized that, the hole in her heart began to fill with resolve. I may have been denied my adulthood ceremony, but there are none responsible for me now but myself. My destiny is mine to decide; I will not be maneuvered like a pawn in some political struggle. I will not be batted around in Fate's paws like some poor rat caught by a darkstalker kitten. I will seek

Her boat had thumped on something and stopped then, jerking her out of her thoughts. The sound around her had been slowly changing, the water taking on an urgent rushing quality like it did when it raced out of the narrow openings beneath Ascarnen Keep. The current beat against the stern of the stuck boat and began rocking it, turning it sideways to the flow. Waterfalls, she had realized, reaching for the lip of the shallow boat. It had been a struggle to pull herself up and get knees untangled from her skirts and under her against the rocking of the shallow boat. The stern—now the leading portion of the boat—sank alarmingly and the boat dipped. A spray of frigid water poured over her as the boat fell, then bounced up, pitching her onto her chin. She lay immobilized by the shock of cold and pain.

"A series of waterfalls," Relonar had said, but not how many or how large. The boat was now racing stern-first along the underground river. Silvantana had only just caught her breath when the boat jerked with a loud crack and pitched over, sending her falling into shocking, freezing liquid blackness. The current, surprisingly powerful, tumbled her along, bouncing her off submerged rocks and tangling her in her clothes and hair. Something struck her head and her thoughts left her. Instincts set her arms and legs to flailing, but the icy dark sucked at her, hungry hands pulling at her heavy skirts, strangling her with her own hair.

Her doom came for her. She'd felt her existence shrinking to less than the extent of her limbs, and then less than that. If she had still been flailing when it came, or the noise and thrashing had been something else she could not tell. Where the shadowwalk out of her smoldering dressing chamber had been a mental cold slowly closing on her awareness, this was far worse. This was her body just refusing—or no longer able—to do what her mind demanded. Her lungs ached, then burned, then exploded with exhaled air.

And death took her. How else to describe having no awareness, if not death or sleep?

But she had awakened; stiff, frozen, battered and bone-weary, images of a dream involving dwarves and moon elves fighting over her body among stone ruins swiftly fading from memory, but somehow alive. She'd found herself on a gritty shore, mouth full of hair and sand. She'd rolled over and spat it out, then violently coughed out more sand and water, drawing in great raw gasps of air between the fits. After that she'd rolled herself into a ball against the chills wracking her and forced herself to block it away long enough to focus, creating in herself a core of warm life to chase the cold out, much as she had after the shadowwalk. Is that how healers restored themselves after taking on someone's wounds? She'd never shown any talent for healing, but whatever they did must be related to what she had done. Either way, the process warmed her, soothed her aches, and left her ravenous.

The beach was illuminated by a gentle glow coming from a chamber nearby, and by its light she'd scanned the shoreline for her shoulder-bag, hoping it had washed up like she had and that its contents might still be edible. A large portion of her shattered boat's bow lay next to her, and the steering rudder and several broken boards were scattered all along the narrow landing and among the rocks protruding from where the river rushed past and plunged over the next fall, but she'd seen no sign of the bag or her cloak.

When she'd tried to get herself to her feet, she found that a good part of her skirts had gotten caught between the broken boards of the boat's bow. It must have dragged me to shore with it. Dumb luck. She'd had to suppress her first urge to try simply yanking the cloth free, after a quick look-over revealed that the rest of her Coming of Age gown was relatively undamaged. Instead, she'd focused and disrupted the wooden boards just enough that she could then break them the same way she might punch through waxed-paper windows. That her dress was so undamaged by her ordeal surprised her. Granted, woven spider silk cloth was naturally strong, and aligned silk even more so, but it was never designed to endure such punishment. That it did was testament to its quality, she supposed. Or more dumb luck.

She lay now in a small warm pool she'd found in that illuminated chamber. She sighed languidly and laid her head back against the lip, letting her tired body float. The glow came from lichen that grew in clumps along the walls and in the shallows of the pool, soft greens and blues and purples giving the small chamber a comfortable radiance, even without her long-lost spectacles. Eddies of warmer water bubbling up from below swirled her hair around her, making it look like a school of silver eels performing some kind of slow, elaborate dance. Strange roots dangled from the ceiling here and there among the stalactites as if giant fingers were reaching down through the earth in search of treasures below. A small drop of milky water slowly formed on the tip of one of the numerous stalactites in the chamber, growing ever so slightly larger, pulling away, and finally falling onto a stalagmite directly below it with a plip.

For the first time in—how long? Days? Maybe a week?—she felt like she could relax. Just a little. She closed her eyes, listening to the underground river rushing along on the other side of the wall separating this chamber. It takes death to give life meaning, she thought. Not that she had really died, she supposed, but she should have. She rubbed absently at her only real injury, and that minor, just a lump on her forehead. Dumb luck.

She twined a length of heavy wet hair around a hand and drew it up out of the water, absently rubbing its slickness between her thumb and forefinger. Unfortunately, the sparing of her body and dress had used up whatever store of luck she'd had. A thorough search of the shore had not turned up her cloak or shoulder bag. Without light during her drifting down the Oronfer'dhur she'd been unable to examine the bag's contents, but by touch and smell she'd figured Relonar had packed the bag with dried meats, dense paper-wrapped flatbreads, an empty waterskin and for some reason what felt like a carved wooden jewelry box that took up more than half the space in the bag. But no change of clothes, or even a comb. Men never think of such things. Then again, given the choice between food or a change of clothes in the bag's limited space, she'd probably choose the food, too. But it'd be close. And there'd be a brush, or at least a comb. Either way, her hunger was beginning to dominate her thoughts, and she dropped her hair before giving into the irrational urge to nibble on it.

A fluttering sound erupted from the entrance to the chamber, and Silvantana jerked her head up off the lip of the pool. She floundered momentarily before getting her knees under her. A bat? Sounded larger than a bat. A lurker? The thought of the deadly flying stingray set her looking wildly about even as she cleared her mind and prepared to focus, sorting through options on how to defend herself. Shadowbolts had to be thrown, and were more effective against large or stationary targets. She could disrupt parts of the stalactites, causing them to shatter and spray shrapnel, or maybe throw up a wall of water, or…

A winged arrow about the length of her arm splashed into the pool not a span from her. She screeched and leaped to her feet, or tried to. The pool's bottom was slick, and her long wet hair dragged at her. One foot went out, and she tottered sideways before falling underwater. Panic gripped her, memories of drowning consuming her, and she flailed arms and legs on the bottom of the pool, crabbing backwards towards where she thought the far edge of the pool was. Her shoulder bumped against something that moved away, and she nearly inhaled water.

She bashed into the edge of the small pool and thrust her head above water, sucking in air and bracing her arms against the sides to pull herself out of the pool once she managed to find firm footing. She could hardly see through the hair plastered all over her face. A dark snake-like head bobbed in the water not two feet away, wings flared behind it, strands of her hair clutched in its tiny claws.

It snork't.

"Ren? Ren! It is you!" Silvantana reached out for the tiny dragon, wanting to hug him, were that possible, but Ren bobbed away and eyed her critically.

"Wingsss are delicate," Ren warned. "Sssilly princesss."

"Oh, Ren! I'm so…! I'm going to kill you! You scared a decade off my life!"

The tiny dragon scooped up a few more tendrils of floating hair and held them up. "Not sssilverfish. Tasty thossse." He dropped the hair back into the water regretfully and paddled to the lip of the pool a few feet from her, then pulled himself out, reared, flapped his wings and shook himself, spraying water.

"Hungry too, hmm?" she said. "Unfortunately, I lost a shoulder bag full of food when my boat sank."

"That ssshoulder bag?" Ren said, tilting his head toward the entrance of the chamber. "Hardly consssider that food."

Silvantana rolled onto her knees and looked, then popped out of the pool and ran to the sodden satchel heedless that she had been bathing in only her shift and smallclothes. Although the leather was clearly soaked, the bag's interior and contents were bone dry. She'd never tasted more delicious flatbread in her life. "How did you find it?" she managed between mouthfuls.

Ren shrugged. "Sssaw it."

"Like you 'See' me? But it's just bread and meat. Want some?" she said, offering a slab of jerky his direction.

"Only feralen ssshine." Ren got himself airborne just long enough to land close to the proffered food. He craned his neck towards it almost gingerly, sniffed at it, and then snorted and backed away. "Too sssalty."

Silvantana giggled and bit off a chunk. "Salty meat, sour glows; I think you're a rather picky little dragon."

The miniature dragon seemed to shrug. "Know what I like."

She decided to fill the waterskin Relonar had placed in the bag, and after gathering up and somewhat ringing out her hair, fished the skin out of the bag. While filling it, she pondered what to do with her Coming of Age gown, and glanced over to where she had laid it out to dry near the boots Finerelace had given her. It was not a traveling garment; those bulky skirts were ponderously heavy, especially, she'd already discovered, when wet.

A sudden surge of anger washed over her. It was to have been her Coming of Age Day, the best and most important day of her life. What am I now? Far from the noblewoman and professor she had always thought she'd become—dead for all intents and purposes to her own family and people, exiled by the only two allies she might have left to a world filled with enemies who would likely try to kill her on sight, if the sun didn't bake her to death first.

Skin filled, she plugged it and went to her clothes. There were knives hidden in her boots, and she drew one out and inspected it. Sharp enough. It wouldn't take much sawing to shorten the skirts. It might feel good to let out some pent-up feelings on the hapless silk. Setting the waterskin aside, she knelt on the dress, gathered up a handful of skirt near the hem and pulled it taught, ready to stab the knife through. The material was nearly pristine; not only had it survived the shipwreck unscathed but the drowning had scrubbed out the soot and blood. A quick examination of the entire hem and then the rest found no tears and few remaining stains, nothing that would be impossible to get out. She'd almost been hoping to find some irreparable damage, something to make that first knife cut less painful.

Ren had been quietly watching her the while. She glanced at him, watching her like he did from her dressing-room balcony as she examined herself in the mirror, wearing this gown, so long ago. "Silly princesses and their clothesss," he'd said at the time. I was a silly princess then. Just a little girl focused on her pretty dress, unaware of the descending darkness. All that is over now. She took in and held a breath, gripped her knife tighter, decided to stab on three. One.. two…

It occurred to her then that this gown was the one thing in this whole mess that she had controlled and worked for from the start. Destroying it would be like giving up, finishing off what little had survived that day. After all that had happened, all that could have happened even worse, the gown was relatively unscathed, like herself. Other people's plans and dumb luck. Then again, isn't that all Fate was?

Resolve had been building in her, somewhere in the back of her mind, or heart, and it forced its way to the front now. "No," she said with her held breath.

"No?" Ren echoed.

"No," she repeated, and put the knife back in its hidden sheath. "I will have my Coming of Age Day, on the Dais in the middle of Queen's Park with all of Erevy'nelaen watching, and I will have it in this dress." She felt the certainty of it inside her, as if the verbalization had made it true. The how of it, the absurdity of it, she dismissed; for now it felt good just having some resolution other than staying alive.

"Silly princessesss—"

"—and their clothes, I know. But this is the one thing that is just mine, and no one is going to take it from me." But what to do with it? She thought briefly of folding it up and stuffing it in her shoulder bag, and just wearing the corset over her shift for travel, but dismissed that thought almost as quickly as it came. If Mother ever found out I was wandering the Surface in my underwear, sun elves would be the least of my troubles. She was going to have to keep wearing it until she found a change of clothes.

Self-consciously, she went to stand around the backside of a joined stalactite-stalagmite column, away from Ren, as she started dressing. Not that he'd be having any odd thoughts about her as a girl, she hoped, but Finerelace had always been adamant about modesty. She rolled her stockings up her legs and then started on her boots. They made her think of Jysillin, but she put the memory aside and wound the boots' long leather laces up and around her legs. Like the shoulder bag, the boots had remained dry inside despite the soaking the rest of her had endured. Immeasurably useful for the journey I'm on. If only Finerelace had given me an entire Coming of Age waterproof outfit.

The corset was next, and she pulled her hair forward over her shoulder while she reached around to tighten and tie the laces in back. She wouldn't be able to get it half as snug as Master Khali had, and she had no idea how she was going to get the double lacings on the back of her dress done up at all, much less to any degree of acceptability should Master Khali see—

What am I thinking? Master Khali will never see me again, no one will. Coming of Age on the Dais is a useless fantasy. I can't go back. Even if I could find a way back up the falls I can't swim upstream for who knows how far to a city that thinks I'm dead ruled by… She paused, the realization really sinking in, then finished the thought deliberately, …people who want me dead.

Queen Sharinida—my sister!—had had the tiara made and put it on her head. The tiara that Jysillin knew to steal and keep on her own head until it killed her. Chancellor Calimar—my half-brother!—framed sun elves for the assassination. Once the sun elves find out their ambassador was murdered, they'll want war. That's it, isn't it? Calimar and Sharinida want a war, and my death was meant to start it.

"What chance do I really have?" she whispered aloud. Her own kin need her dead as an excuse for war, a war that will ensure the sun elves she fled towards would grant her the death that Finerelace, Jysillin and Relonar had worked so hard to save her from. "Why did they even bother?"

She heard a scraping sound behind her. Ren had extracted the carved wooden jewelry box from the shoulder bag and was pushing it across the cavern floor to her. "Open it," he said in answer to her questioning look.

The box was of a light wood color she'd never seen before, carved with a pattern of five-pointed leaves the like of which didn't grow naturally in Erevy'nelaen. She had seen them before, however, both in books and in the university's arboretum as a child, before it was shuttered and converted into a simple herb garden. "Acer aerferalum," she said, "The maple tree of Aer'ferala. I'd read that was my mother's favorite tree before the Descent."

"Ascarna'sss treasure box," he said, nodding. "Open it." His gaze seemed especially intent on her.

The box had no visible lock or catch. It did nothing when she touched it, picked it up, poked it, pried at it, shook it, or, several moments later after repeating the routine, dropped it in disgust. "I hate puzzle boxes," she declared.

Ren waggled his four-clawed hands. "Princess has five fingersss."

Silvantana glanced between the dragon and the box, then opened her mouth to complain that he seemed to change subjects faster than her sister Ardulace went through moods, but then paused. The carvings were branches decked with maple leaves, carved so finely over the long faces that it looked like a layer of branches and leaves existed below the top layer, and another below those. But the two side faces were each dominated by one large, hand-sized leaf. She placed her hands over them and spread her fingers. Her fingertips hovered precisely over the point of each leaf. As she pressed in the leaf tips sank a fraction, and the lid separated with a click.

She cast an accusing glare at the miniature dragon. "You knew how to open it, didn't you?" Ren's innocent blink did not mollify her one bit. "You could have told me right off."

"More fun watching the princesss be clever."

She considered flinging the lid at him, but was distracted by what was revealed inside the box. A dark velvety bag sat to one side, something round inside it, and next to it… "A hair comb!" It was copper, she decided, shaped like a small fan of maple leaves with their stems for the comb's teeth. Her hair was still a jumbled damp mess, well, maybe not as bad as that, as she was pretty diligent about aligning it regularly, but it was still much in need of a thorough combing. As she snaked it into her lap and started picking carefully through the snarls at the end, it occurred to her that Relonar was quite the thoughtful man after all, and next time she saw him she'd have to…

"Sssilly princess," Ren said, and snork't.

Silvantana paused. "What?"

"Misss the moon for a firefly." He'd tugged open the drawstring on the velvet pouch, and as she watched pulled it open and down to reveal a clear crystal orb. He looked up at her, that expectant look on his tiny scaled face again.

"That's.. that's the fersilis. But why would Relonar give that to me? How did he even get that? It's a symbol of the queen's power as surely as her crown or the length of her hair."

"Touch it," Ren said eagerly.

Silvantana resumed her grooming. "I have. My sisters and I were tested in front of the whole Council several times as we were growing up. It didn't work for me, if that's what you're hoping for. I'm not the true queen."

"Then why kill you?"

She paused again. "They wanted to provoke our people to war with the sun elves, I think. An assassination would do that. I was the least established of Ascarna's children, the least valuable."

"Or the mossst valuable," Ren said. "The mossst likely to disrupt their plans, the mossst important to eliminate." That threw her thoughts off. What does he mean? His eyes seemed to glow with the intensity of his stare. "Touch it."

She did, and as her fingers came in contact with the orb, time stopped. The orb grew suddenly, searingly hot, and white light burst from it, chasing every shadow from the chamber. Despite the pain in her fingers, she was transfixed, unable to pull her fingers free or cast her gaze elsewhere.

An image formed, a thick black thread that started from her fingertip and stretched into the infinite depth of the sphere. This thread was her, she knew instinctively. Thin threads of every color and hue and combination criss-crossed the sky around her, but none were as strong as hers. She was aware of motion, following the thread back into time. Soon a horizon appeared, white on one side and silver on the other. As she neared, she found that it was not a boundary, but rather two more strands, thick like her own. The three strands rapidly converged on a single point, then she was past it, following a powerful braided platinum cord to the beginning of time. The vision slowed, then stopped, then reversed. Now she watched the horizon rapidly approach again, its colors reversed—silver on one side and white on the other. The divergence shot past below her and again she was the lone black strand.

Another horizon appeared, as if another convergence was to take place. She sensed that this was to be so—it must become so— the platinum cord must be formed again. But there were so many threads all around her now of every color imaginable, and several that were unimaginable. Among those were some that were nearly white, or nearly black, but none of the threads were as thick as her own. Some threads stopped suddenly and fell away, black and white and every color between. Worse, there were two silver strands, and as she watched the older absorbed a glowing blue thread and grew stronger than the younger. That shouldn't happen.

A gray-black strand swept beneath her and snapped into the thickest white strand, twining around it like a snake. Her own thread was overtaken by a different white thread and the joining made her flood with emotion, happy and sad, delighted and resigned, hopeful and fearful, comforted and anxious, all at once. It was overwhelming. When she regained control of her emotions, she found her twined strand engaged in a racing, spinning ritual with the other black and white twine around the younger silver thread. But a shockingly strong coppery-red thread and the older, stronger silver thread were never far away. Suddenly they all merged, and the pain of their contact was explosive.

Silvantana floundered back to awareness and jerked away from the orb, clutching her seared fingers in her other hand. Except they weren't seared at all, she discovered on examining them, and the pain quickly faded to memory.

Ren was flying in gleeful circles and figure eights, stopping to croon in delight before looping away again.

"Wha…?" was all she could manage.

"Assscarna-child, Assscarna-heir," Ren cackled, looping one more time before alighting next to the box again.

"How?"

"The orb knows its massster."

"It didn't before." The orb had fallen inert, mostly clear but for a.. pulse, maybe?­—a flickering glow in its center, timed to her own racing heart. She reached for it, slowly, feeling its warmth as she neared. She closed her eyes and could still feel it. This time, when she touched it, nothing happened. It felt warm, certainly, but no white light, no visions, no explosive pain when she let go. She picked it up. It was much heavier than she remembered it being from her childhood testings, not unbearably so but like it was two or three times denser than it should be. That warm pulse inside the orb felt like it wanted more of her, somehow, wanted to feed on her energy. She dropped it back into its bag and pulled the drawstring tight, then lidded the box and shoved it away. "Put that back," she commanded. Her hand, as she wordlessly resumed picking at her hair, trembled.

Her thoughts raced, truths and rejections of it fighting across the battlefield of her mind. I am the true queen, one repeated. You're just a silly..! another argued, and a third overrode it, —princess. "Your hair declares you a daughter of royalty, and your bearing even more so," Ambassador Waelan had said, reverently holding a strand of her hair. "But even aside from that, you are the very image of your mother in feature, your hair her very reincarnation, and by that I know you to be a child of Queen Ascarna." She looked at the silver hair she held, rubbed a smooth, combed length of it between forefinger and thumb, looked at her mother's maple-leaf pick. "I am the true queen," she said out loud. It sounded absurd. If only Jysillin were around to hear her, she would laugh so hard—or did she know that too? Did they all know?

"Yesss," Ren said from where he was arranging space in her shoulder bag for her mother's lock box, "shiny Assscarna-child."

Silvantana worked her hair in silence, not daring to ask the dragon to what he had answered. When she finished combing it out and worked it into a long single braid like Finerelace typically wore, she walked over to the cave entrance and carefully tucked the comb into the bag next to the box, along with her necklace and earrings; things she didn't anticipate wearing in the wilds.

She decided on three truths, a three-part mantra by which she would continue. I will live, I will see Jysillin avenged, and I will Come of Age and be crowned on the Dais in Erevy'nelaen. Ren met her eyes, held them briefly, then bowed his head low. The little creature was delightfully sincere, and she wanted to giggle and burst into tears at the same time. My first subject.

It was then that the hackles rose on the back of her neck. Perhaps it was the slight breeze that had swirled briefly, or some other sense, but her body flooded with tension and she turned her head slowly to look behind her. Ren flared his wings and pushed them down with a leap skywards. "Flee!" he hissed.

A sword spider, larger than any she'd seen even in the arena, was creeping down from a hidden den around the backside of a cluster of stalactites. It was easily three hands taller than she, maybe four, with namesake sword-sharp front mandibles nearly as long as she was tall. Sword spiders were cunning duelists, and were prized as highlight competitions in the monthly arena games. Teams of fighters would be demolished by small ones as often as not, and only Finerelace had ever defeated one in single combat. But none of those were near this size.

It had not yet seen her or Ren for the stalactites, but it had seen her bright dress where it lay drying and was closing on it fast.

"Mother ssspider protecting her den. Viciousss! Can't fight it weaponlesss," Ren warned. "Over the waterfall! Flee!"

"It can not have my Coming of Age gown!"

Ren looked at her incredulously as she grabbed up the shoulder bag and started moving towards the gown, and snorted fire. "Sssilly princessesss and their clothesss." The little dragon darted past her and the spider to her petticoats and snatched them into the air. He began dancing them about. "Look this way dear ssspider mum," he trilled, "ignore the child who'sss acting dumb."

Silvantana paused. "I am not a child!" she snapped. "Nor dumb!" Why did I protest 'child' first?

The giant spider turned towards Ren, splashing into the shallow pool where she'd rested, and slashed the dancing petticoats out of Ren's claws, barely missing Ren as well. Without anywhere else to go, he was forced to flee towards the small chamber's entrance. "Jump, ssstupid!" Ren hissed, darting past her, the spider following his motions unbelievably fast.

She was almost to her dress, but she realized instinctually that the giant spider was too close and too fast. Even if she could snatch the bulky garment up, the spider was in range and would slash her, and it, to ribbons. She had one chance, and it was something that if Finerelace ever found out she'd done without her oversight—and for something as trivial as clothing—she'd wish the spider had caught her. Silvantana flash-focused, as Finerelace had called it while demonstrating the technique for her and Jysillin, enhancing her muscles and nervous system to respond to brain signals at multiples of their resting rate. Time seemed to slow as she dove to her dress, balling it around her shoulder bag even as she rolled back to her feet, danced between the spider's sluggish slashes and away.

Time snapped back to normal as her burst of speed faltered. Where Finerelace with centuries of physical and mental training could maintain the necessary focus for minutes, she had managed only a brief surge, and felt exhausted for it. The spider came at her, following what it likely saw as a blaze of white shooting under it.

She made it out of the alcove at a dead run, wad of dress and shoulder bag tight to her chest, spider slashing at her so close behind it nicked her braid, and leaped off over the waterfall into the dark, curling herself into a ball around her treasures.


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