The sterile white walls of the cell were getting irritating. The only access point to the cell was the door directly across from where Celeste now sat, and she knew that there were two guards posted out there 24/7. She didn’t know how long she had been stuck in this tiny room; with no windows in the room, time passed differently without the normal rotations of the sun. Her guards made it no easier to even discern the time of day with the staggered mealtimes; she had counted the minutes herself and there was no apparent connection between time and meals. The only thing she did know was that since her arrival, she had received twenty-nine meals. In the beginning, she had tried to count the hours that flew past but after numerous interrogations, mind probings, and distractions, she was forced to drop the attempt to ensure her mental barriers held steady and pester her captors with intelligent questions like “Who are you?” and “Why should I answer that?”
The door to her cell slid open with a faint hiss and Celeste jumped to her feet, reaching for a nonexistent weapon. In the doorway stood an athletic young woman with pale skin and gold-flecked green eyes. Soft, black curls framed her face that bore a bold streak of emerald-green that glittered with gold, just like the woman’s eyes. “Miss Shinobu, please follow me.”
The woman raked her gaze over Celeste, taking in her bright hair and her sharp gaze then said simply, “There is someone who would like to speak with you.”
“And if I don’t want to go?”
“It is not a request,” was the cool reply.
Celeste followed her, submitting with little resistance to the cuffs forced onto her wrists. The cuffs were each an opaque white color and looked more like bracelets than restraining objects. They didn’t look like much but she knew that they restricted her from using her powers. And should she attempt to escape, it would deliver an electric shock that would render her completely incapacitated. A faint click issued from the devices and their color turned to a deep purple. The woman nodded satisfactorily and strode from the cell, “Come.”
The hallways were identical in color, each one almost indistinguishable from the next. Celeste could find no sign of the symbol she had seen on her first day here. The two women walked in silence for a few minutes before she spoke up, “Who are you?”
Silence. Celeste glanced at the woman, noting the tightness in her face and the stiffness in her shoulders. She opened her mouth to add something when the woman said, “That’s not something you need to know.”
There was something about this woman that was a bit softer than the other men and women whom she had previously seen. Not weakness, just a kind of sweetness about her. And despite her bold features, she seemed maybe a year or two younger than her. Celeste decided to press the woman further. “I just want to know.”
Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw the woman’s eyes flick to her and then back. “You can call me Emerald.”
Celeste let the silence stretch between them before speaking again. “Who am I meeting?”
“You’ll see,” Emerald replied. “This way.”
They stopped outside a large silver door that stood the length of the hall and was perfectly flat. Emerald knocked twice, and the sound echoed through the hallway before the door was opened by a guard bearing a simple, straight sword that gleamed in the bright lights. Emerald saluted smartly and Celeste flashed her trademarked guilty grin. The new woman had long, dark brown hair that looked like it had been wrestled into a tail, and almond-shaped, dark-chocolate eyes. Her skin was riding that border between a warm tan and pale ivory. She acknowledged Emerald with a sharp nod before stepping aside and the two women ushered Celeste into a round, high ceilinged room with white walls and still no windows.
An elegantly carved mahogany desk stood proudly on the side opposite where the three women were standing. Above it, imprinted into the wall was a seal of the rising moon. Finally, it clicked. The seal was the symbol of the Kingdom of the Falling Moon; Atalune. Seated at the desk was a regal, blond woman with tanned skin and deep blue eyes. The way she held herself led Celeste to believe that the woman was two or three years older than her. She shook her thoughts off as the woman stood and crossed the room swiftly, holding out a hand. “Miss Shinobu, my name is Tala Wolf, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Celeste blinked and stifled an incredulous laugh, ignoring the outstretched hand. “Did you know your name is Stalking Wolf Wolf?”
“Yes, I’m aware,” Tala replied smoothly. “Around here, some call me the Lone Wolf or just Lone. You may call me whatever you please; a person defines her name, not the other way around.”
“Actually, I don’t really care.” Celeste’s voice hardened slightly and she shifted her stance. That subtle change in her body language displayed her hostility. “Why am I here?”
“You’re here because there are a lot of problems with this empire and it has not escaped the notice of your neighbors,” Tala said. “That’s what we’re here to—”
“And how does that involve me exactly?” Celeste asked flatly.
“We would be . . . willing to collaborate with the Soaring Dragons on this project.” All her words were well thought out and careful like she was attempting to find the best way to phrase her explanation. “Your group has built up quite the reputation, even outside of Dunaire. We would like to recruit you, shall we say?”
Celeste snorted, recalling her time in the tiny cell with disgust. “You have a sick way of showing it.”
A conflicted look crossed Tala’s face like a cloud blotting out the sun. “I apologize for your suffering. My partner on this project, Antonio Eld, has . . . a very different idea of how to go about this mission. I would prefer to root out the source of the problem, in this case, the emperor, and place a new ruler in his stead. Antonio would rather raze Dunaire and take over the empire altogether. He says it’s more efficient but men and women would die in the battle that would ensue. Lives are lives no matter what side they fight for.”
Celeste shifted from foot to foot, uncomfortably. The more this woman talked, the more respect she felt for her, however grudgingly. Finally, she said, “And what do you want me to do? I highly doubt you called me here just to explain your position.”
“No,” the Lone Wolf agreed. An expectant pause stretched between them and her two guards shifted beside her.
“So,” Celeste prompted.
Another pause. Then, “Well, you’re going to escape.”
Celeste didn’t miss a beat. “And then?”
Tala blinked then collected herself and said, “I want you to inform the rest of the Soaring Dragons of our support and we will be watching your progress from the background. We have many spies situated on these lands. Should you need us, we will be there.”
“That’s good to know, Lone,” Celeste replied. “How would I identify one of your agents?”
“You wouldn’t, they would identify you,” was the swift reply. “Skybelle and Emeryn will explain on the way. You must go now.”
Celeste could guess which name belonged to which woman, so she only raised an eyebrow and said, “Then let’s get out of here.”
A pounding on the door broke her calm exterior and she started slightly. A male voice outside bellowed, “Lone Wolf, I need you, open up.”
The woman grabbed Celeste’s wrists and a moment later her cuffs dropped into the waiting hands of Skybelle. She didn’t wait for the brunette to finish stowing the items in a pocket before grabbing her hand and dragging her across the room. Emeryn hurried ahead and as she arrived at the wall, a faint blue keypad appeared on the wall. She quickly punched in a password as Skybelle caught up to them and a small portion of the wall slid open to reveal a winding staircase that led up into the darkness, reinforcing her earlier idea of them being underground.
Tala handed Skybelle a bulging backpack and the woman gave her a casual salute before hurrying up the spiraling staircase, sword in hand. Pausing at the entrance to the stairway, Celeste turned, held out a hand, and said, “It was nice meeting you, Lone.”
Tala took the proffered hand and shook it firmly, “I’m sure we’ll meet again, Miss Shinobu."
Celeste flashed the other woman a quick grin before hurrying after Skybelle. She caught sight of her leaning against a wall, her dark clothes blending in well with the low lighting. Skybelle waved slightly and Celeste turned to wait for Emeryn. She and Tala clasped hands and exchanged a quick hug. “Good luck, Thornheart.”
“You too, Pinemoon.” And then Emeryn was hurrying up the stairs behind her. When she caught up, the two women raced upwards to Skybelle, struggling to keep their footing in the darkness. When Skybelle tripped on a stair, Celeste waved a hand and a ball of compressed energy flared into being in the palm of her hand. “Thanks.”
“You couldn’t have done that before?” Skybelle asked dryly.
“I wanted to see you trip.” Celeste shrugged.
Skybelle rolled her eyes dramatically and the three women continued up the staircase. After a couple more minutes of jogging, Celeste managed to puff out, “How far underground are we?”
“Emeryn?” Skybelle glanced at her counterpart.
“We were on the lowest floor so I’d say about fifteen stories?” Emeryn estimated.
“What?” Celeste exclaimed. Skybelle smirked though she seemed slightly out of breath too.
“It took a year or two and a dozen of Nature Elementals,” Emeryn explained between breaths. “This base was years in the making, it’s still pretty new.”
Finally, the stairway leveled out, and above their heads sat a closed trap door, painted as black as the rest of the passageway. Only when the two Atalunians pointed it out did Celeste see it. Emeryn muttered to herself as she scoured the left wall, “It should be right around here . . . somewhere . . . can never find it . . .”
Skybelle coughed pointedly from where she was leaning against the right wall. She tapped something on the wall and a set of rungs emerged straight out of the wall. Emeryn’s cheeks flamed and she ducked her head. Skybelle chuckled, “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get it . . . in a couple decades.”
Emeryn smiled sheepishly at the older woman. Celeste studied the two of them. Using what she already knew and what she’d observed, she would have to guess that the women worked together often and got along well. From what she’d seen of Emeryn, she had a slight temper and teasing might trigger a small flame of anger. Yet Skybelle had only gotten a rueful grin. Or she had just read Emeryn wrong but she doubted it. So lost in her musings, only Skybelle’s sarcastic voice broke through her thoughts, “So . . . I guess you’re not coming then?”
Light streamed through the now open trapdoor and Celeste scrambled up the rungs of the ladder after them, uttering a quick, “Sorry.”
Emeryn and Skybelle closed the trapdoor behind them as Celeste stood and scanned their surroundings. They were in a tiny little clearing beside a small stream that burbled cheerfully as it ran swiftly over the rocky riverbed. Emeryn joined her and took in the clearing in a glance, “So where to?”
“Well, first we should probably get away from here.” Celeste gestured at the trapdoor which was no more than a faint outline in the grass. Had she not known exactly where it was, she wouldn’t have seen it at all.
“Okay, follow me.” Emeryn led the way to one of the huge oak trees growing around the stream and placed both her hands against the wood. Celeste watched in fascination as hand and foot holes grew out of the bark. Emeryn wasted no time and began to climb. She swarmed up the tree trunk like a giant squirrel, her hands and feet sure.
Skybelle dropped into an exaggerated bow, grinning cockily, “You first.”
Celeste began to climb, moving slowly at first before gaining speed. Before long she had reached the wide branch that Emeryn sat on. She inched herself onto the branch beside the younger woman. “Now what?”
Emeryn grinned mischievously, “You’ll see.”
Skybelle hauled herself up beside them and Emeryn stood. Celeste resisted the temptation to reach out and grab the girl. “Come on, you won’t fall. Look at my feet.”
Looking closely, Celeste saw that Emeryn’s shoes seemed to stick to the branch, not allowing her to fall. She rose unsteadily but the branch held her even when she almost lost her balance. Skybelle’s dry voice came from behind her. “You can go faster than a snail, you know.”
Celeste quickened her pace to a slow jog. The tree branch never seemed to end but when Celeste looked up from her feet, she saw that Emeryn had willed the trees to bend their limbs to continue a never-ending bridge of branches. She glanced over her shoulder and saw that as soon as they passed, the branches returned to their original place. She marveled at the control Emeryn was displaying to be able to do this.
Examining the young woman, Celeste found that she had begun to drip sweat and that her pace had slowed. The power she was exerting was taking its toll. Not long after, Emeryn stopped and began to climb down the tree, “There’s a small clearing done there where we can rest for a while. We’ve already covered a great distance. Tomorrow we should reach a town where someone will be willing to teleport us somewhere else.”
Celeste followed her and the moment Emeryn’s feet hit the ground, she collapsed to the ground. Skybelle jumped down behind her, “Don’t worry, she’ll be fine. She just needs some rest.”
The Mentalist nodded as Skybelle laid Emeryn out and tucked a blanket over her. “I’m going to try to reach some of my friends right now if you don’t mind.”
“Go ahead, and eat something while you’re at it.” Skybelle tossed a packet of nuts and dried fruit at her before settling down and eating her own. Celeste nodded and stretched out her mind.
Hello? Can anyone hear me? Her mental voice was faint even to her and she tried again, reinforcing her thoughts with more power. Hello? Is anyone there?
Silence greeted her words and she strained her mind farther, searching. Finally, she sensed a familiar presence on the edge of her consciousness and she grinned. Target spotted. Celeste let her mind slip into her friend’s, doing so with practiced ease. Can you hear me? Hello?
The mind she was visiting burst into a whirlwind of motion and thoughts scrambled around the person’s head. When her head quieted down, a single surprised thought stood out, Celeste?
“Hey, Megan, miss me?”