Trying to race to safety. Hindered by the wind, which is returning to its source, blowing fiercely against us, a gale in the tunnel. And not just the wind-it contains all the demons and undead which it's captured. They swirl and tumble through the air, smash into us, knock us over, send us sprawling, threaten to drag us back to their world with them.
Abandoning our efforts to stand, we lie on our stomachs and crawl, side by side. But even this would be impossible if we were normal, since the wind-and its captive demons-fills the tunnel.
But we're not normal. We're beings of magic and I use that power to protect us. I draw from deep down and around me, using the magic in my body and the walls of the tunnel, creating a barrier around us. It doesn't keep out the wind, but most of the demons bounce off it without harming us. Most, not all. Sometimes a limb, claw or fang breaks through and bundles us over, bruising or cutting us.
Bran was laughing when we started up the tunnel-he thought it was great fun. He's not laughing now. Blood coats his face-I can see him in the glow of the light I created to guide us-and his right arm hangs uselessly by his side, snapped in two or three places.
I'm in no better shape. I have to pause frequently to wipe blood from my eyes. A few of the toes on my left foot have been ripped off-I don't stop for a close examination. The tunic on my back has been torn to tattered shreds and much of the flesh underneath too.
I ignore the terrible pain. Battle against the savage wind. Shrug off the blows of the beastly demons. And drag myself ever further up the tunnel, towards the promise of escape and life.
Crawling. Panting. The demons hitting us more often as my power dwindles. The closing spells took a lot out of me. I was all-powerful clutching the lodestone, but now I'm the weakest I've been in a long time. It's a struggle to move, never mind cast spells. I want to abandon the shield and divert all of my strength to my flesh and bones, but I'd be swept away within seconds if I did that, and Bran beside me.
Part of me thinks about letting Bran go. It's hard enough protecting myself. If I halved the problem, I'd stand a better chance of getting out alive.
I turn a deaf ear to the treacherous thoughts, gasp as nails dig along the length of my spine, then strengthen the shield around us. At the same time I let the light die-it didn't require much power, but every last bit of magic might count in the end. I don't want to fall just short of the exit because of some unnecessary ball of light.
Impossible to tell in the darkness how much further there is to go. Forcing our way on, the wind deafening, demons striking freely. I can't maintain the shield. I now use magic to root us to the floor when we're struck and on the point of being blown away. Quick bursts instead of extended spells. Dangerous-if I'm knocked unconscious, we're doomed-but I don't have the strength for anything else.
How long is this damn tunnel! We came down so quickly-or was that a trick of my mind? What if it has somehow extended, if Brude caused it to double or triple in length to spite us? Is that possible? I don't know. I choose to believe it isn't. Otherwise despair will consume me and I'll certainly fail.
Onwards by slow, painful, bloody, hard-fought-for patches. So sore and weak. Struggling to breathe. Every spell dug up from the deepest depths of my spirit. Thinking each time I cast one,
"This is it. The last spell. I can't do any more." But constantly surprising myself, finding a smattering of power here, a glimmer there.
Barely aware of Bran, sticking by me doggedly, patting my arm every few seconds to reassure himself that I'm here. Poor Bran. He didn't ask for this. The rest of us understood the risks. Did he? No way of knowing. He can comprehend some things, but how much did he really know of what he was letting himself in for? I listen to him panting, heavy and fast, and...
The thought dies unfinished.
I can hear him panting. But I haven't been able to hear anything since we started crawling, because of the roar of the wind and screams of the demons. I raise my head and realise the wind has died away. It's over. Which means...
Panicking, I find another burst of magic and create light again. It flares around us, blinding after the darkness. I shut my eyes against it, then force them open and stare ahead desperately, expecting to find nothing but rock, the pair of us buried alive, to die beneath the earth in a ready-made tomb.
For a moment I think we're lost, that we've won the battle but surrendered our lives in the process. My heart sinks. I ready myself to sob with terror.
But then-a gap! The exit still exists and we're close to it. The walls are just walls now, no traces of Brude's veins or guts. But they're grinding together, the mouth of the tunnel tightening and closing. There's enough space for us to get out but there won't be for much longer. We have to move! - fast! - now!"Bran!" I gasp, struggling to my feet. So weak, near the end of my resources. But one last surge. One final effort. Then we'll be safe. We can sleep. Recover. No demons. We'll have all the time we need."Bran!" I shout, dragging his head up. He looks around, dazed, defeated. Then he spots the opening and cries out with fresh hope. He leaps up beside me, stumbles, then finds his feet and lurches forward, taking my hand, gurgling happily.We reel towards the exit, a pair of barely living, impossibly weary spirits. The hole in the rock continues to close, but at the same regular pace. If we keep moving as we are... if we don't collapse... if we don't give up...We'll make it! I don't want to let myself hope too strongly-that might tempt the gods to act against us-but if we can maintain our slow, steady stagger, I'm sure we'll-Something clatters into my back. I fall, crying out with pain and surprise. Teeth lock around my right leg and bite through to the bone. I scream and try to shake my attacker loose, but can't.The light fades. But in the dimness I catch sight of my assailant-Lord Loss's pet demon, Vein! The one with a dog's body, strange long head and a woman's hands. She's gnawing at my leg. The pain is dreadful. I scream again, kicking at her with my free foot, to no effect.Then Bran's by her side. He tries to tug the demon loose. When that fails, he kneels beside her and murmurs desperately, stroking her head, smiling shakily. After a few seconds Vein stops biting, lets go and yaps at Bran with delight, falling under his spell as she did before.As soon as I'm free, I freeze out the pain, leave Bran to deal with the demon, and turn and focus on the gap. My insides harden. The delay's ruined us. The hole has been narrowing steadily. We're not going to make it, even if we pick up our pace. I search within myself, digging deep for magic, going to the very core of my spirit, trying to find enough power to propel us forward and shoot us to safety like a pair of arrows fired from a bow.But it isn't there. I'm magicked out. Enough for one last minor spell perhaps-definitely no more.Sorrow overwhelms me. I feel madness coming on. But I force it back and turn my gaze on Bran. He's still playing with the dog but his eyes are flicking from me to the hole. He knows it's closing. He knows I can't make it in my condition. He also knows that at the speed he can run, he could abandon me and escape.But he won't. He's going to stay with me, protect me from the demon, keep me company as the gap shuts and seals our fate."Bran," I sob. "You have to go." He just smiles. "Bran! You must!" Again the smile. He won't leave. He'll be my faithful friend forever. He'd rather die by my side than skip free without me.I return the smile. "Very well," I sigh and reach out a hand. Bran takes it, expecting only my touch. But what he gets on top of that is the last of my magic. A swift, improvised spell. I reach into his mind and send an image into his thoughts, of the hole, him dashing out of it, racing through the cave and not coming back. And then, with all the magical force I can muster, I yell at him-"Run fast!"He shoots off. Running without meaning to, roaring with surprise and fright. He flies up the tunnel, leaps through the hole and keeps on going, a temporary slave of my magic. I wave after him sadly, letting out a long, shuddering breath. Alone at last-and damned.I expect Vein to attack again, now that Bran's gone, but she doesn't. I hear her growls, close to where I'm stranded, but for some reason she leaves me be.Watching the hole in the ever-fading light. It's the size of a baby now, closing all the time. Narrower and narrower, until there's barely room to fit an arm through. I'm thinking about quenching the light before the hole shuts-this is just torture-when a face suddenly appears.It's Bran. The spell has passed and he's come back. He wants to get through, to be with me. But the hole's too small. He punches it, pulls at it, slips his fingers into the gap and strains with all his might-but it's no good. The rock continues to grind together. The hole gets smaller, the width of a finger now.At the last moment, Bran presses his mouth up to the hole and roars with raw pain and loss, at the top of his voice, "Bec!" It's the only time he's ever uttered my name. Anyone's name. His anguished cry stabs at my heart and tears spring to my eyes. I open my mouth to shout his own name back, to offer whatever small shred of comfort I can... but then the rock closes all the way and a fierce rumbling drowns out the echoes of Bran's cry.I stare at the solid rock. My mouth closes. The light fades. Darkness.