The shaking, flickering light from the lantern illuminated the ground ahead, and it was clear that the rails did, indeed, turn to the right, following a curve in the tunnel. Turn through the metal path did, it still felt as if my body wanted to carry in a straight line, and the invisible hand Gilliam mentioned pressed relentlessly the more the metal-wheeled carriage tried to follow the turn.
Sera’s breathing had quickened, and I could feel a sharp tingling of her fear. Her fingers tightened around my hand.
“Ready your spells of heat warding,” Aurora called, over the rush of wind and the singing of the metal on metal.
She slid across the rear of the carriage, so that she sat on the side facing the turn.
“Quickly!” the shrike prodded.
Ana sat forward, to keep Gilliam from jostling her, and she clutched at the silver flame amulet at her throat.
I lost track of her incantation as I centered my awareness, pushing away the slivers of Sera’s fear, of my own. I brought my will to bear on the air surging around us, on the wood beneath, on the remembrance of the creature that was the leather upon which we sat.
I had time to shape the idea of the coldest of winter nights, to settle that idea over the surroundings like a thick blanket of snow, and then the crackling sputter snapped my attention back to tunnel.
Aurora held her hands out over the side of the carriage, at times dangerously close to the rough-hewn walls of the tunnel.
Sickly purplish light pulsed from within the dark gems in each of her bracers, and brilliant arcs of lightning curled and twined around her outstretched fingers. The cascade of tiny bolts leapt from between her fingers to the blurred spokes of the carriage’s wheels, throwing up a shower of white-hot sparks as the rims carried the lightning round and round.
The wash of heat was nearly as intense as the shock that blossomed from the exploding manor house many miles behind us. I’d seen trees burst apart at the slightest touch of lightning, knew it to do similar and terrible things to flesh — charring and searing with the briefest of contact.
My spell and that of the acolyte of the Flame were enough to keep that heat at bay, but only barely so.
The press of the giant’s fists against us lessened as the tunnel straightened, and Aurora’s lightning show flickered twice before ending with a sizzling of the air. Luckily, our speed carried us away from the reek of her lightning’s burning of the air.
She shook her hands, turning away from us when trying to tuck them beneath her arms only brought a hiss of pain.
It was enough to see the golden glow from the clear stones, and the shriveling of innumerable blisters along the backs of her hands and fingertips.
“I thought for sure we would fly right off this track,” Gilliam said. “Just sail like a slingstone right into the wall.”
“Thankfully, we didn’t,” Ana breathed. She glanced over my shoulder. “Aurora? Are you well?”
“It will pass,” the shrike said. Reddish light joined the golden, and the tank behind us again ticked and rattled, as the water within began to boil, again. The tones, though, were higher. The water level sounded significantly lower than when we’d started out.
“Thorn,” Silva said. She motioned to her seat. “We make a trade of seats, yes? I must have words with my anuja.” Her tone of voice should have chased the lingering heat from the right side of the carriage away. Couched as it was as a request, it still carried the cold weight of demand best followed.
I shook my head at Sera’s puzzled glance my way as we traded seats with the siren.
* * * * *
They argued. Fingers pointed, glares were exchanged. The few words I could hear — when their voices climbed above the clattering and squeaking of the carriage — were Ancient Thonian. Silva did not appear to come out the winner, as she turned away from the shrike, arms crossed, her expression like a thundercloud. She glanced up over her shoulder several times, but Aurora pointedly ignored her.
The tunnel walls at times grew close, or widened well past the arc of the lanterns at the front of the carriage. Other paths of iron curled away from the one we were on, but the side-tunnels were closed off, some with stone-shaping, looking to be the result of collapse.
It was difficult to judge how much time had passed. Well into our journey, the great metal tank at the rear of the carriage began to tick, and the clouds of steam streaming away from the vent pipe grew thinner. Barely a wisp escaped by the time the tunnel widened into a broad cavern.
The wind of our passage, too, tugged less and less at our hair and cloaks, and the cones of light shed by the lanterns shrank, the glow fading from a steady yellow to a dull orange.
Aurora smirked at Silva as she leapt from her place at the rear of the carriage to the driver’s bench. She had to scoot to the very edge of the bench to rest her feet on the footrest. She gripped a levered handle to one side, and pressed with her toes, the footboard canting slightly forward. Our speed noticeably lessened as something within the metal wheels ground and scraped. Gilliam glanced over the side of the carriage, then snapped his head back, batting at a shower of sparks that erupted from the front wheel on his side.
Aurora looked over her shoulder at the man’s startled cry, her golden brows coming together in a frown.
“I know, sister,” the shrike said, through gritted teeth. She scooted a bit further up on the bench, pressed harder at the footboard.
“I will not speak that I told you it was to be so,” Silva said, lifting her chin ever so slightly.
The grating of the wheel to Varis’ right rose in pitch, gave a wail, and the wheel began its own shower of acrid-smelling sparks.