Stuck fast, Breanna felt sick.
In her short life, she had been afraid many times before.
She had been scared by the prospect of being killed; of having her soul ripped from her body in an instant by a dragon, the cold fall into the poison of the webspinner or Sycorax, or from the threat of teeth and talons of Razorbeaks and howlers.
Instant. Unforgiving. A swift rush of pain and then… the weightlessness of the eternal.
But what she feared now, from the pit of her stomach down to her upturned head, was a slow, agonising, and lonely death and there was nothing she could do to prevent it.
It was a death she had never in her wildest nightmares envisaged and now it gripped her in its claws, pulling her down into its depths as she drowned within it. Struggling for breath. Struggling to scream for help. Struggling to cry out into a void that she knew had no mercy.
But there… in the far distance, she heard someone calling to her. A voice so small it was barely more than a whisper.
“Leasha?” she cried, her call was choking and bloated but she had hope, a desperate, absurd hope. It surged within her. “Leasha!” she cried out again, her voice weakening as the dizziness of her upended state pulled her under its spell.
But even the promise of hope gave her strength. Breanna squeezed herself forward. Vowing to fight on, swearing she would wriggle free, she would clamber on, even if it took her days. Even if it took her months.
With all her strength and hope combined, Breanna inched downward but screamed in agony as the rock-face squeezed against her ribs.
She couldn’t breathe, she choked on her own gasping breaths and she knew that at any moment now, she would pass out. She would be swallowed into the dark unconsciousness, and she would never wake.
“Help me,” she gasped the words with her last breath and as she did so, the earth trembled.
A low rumbling deep within the rock. She was only half alive, but as the ground surrounding her thundered, it suddenly shook her loose.
Breanna slid into the dark. Too breathless and too dazed to fight or scramble for a hold, she plummeted deeper and deeper into the earth tumbling, shin over elbow, until she finally came to a sprawling halt. She lay, a tangled heap of limbs in the dirt breathing hard and too terrified to move.
Her body ached.
She didn’t know how far she had fallen. She didn’t know if there was any way out, and as she lay, frozen in shock in the pitch black, she didn’t know if she was alone.
She waited. Unmoving. Listening.
She had been sure that she had heard something whispering to her in the dark, but whatever it was, it had gone…
Disorientated and dizzy, Breanna tried to sit up. Her left knee burned with fresh pain, but she could feel no blood. Delicately she inspected a sharp pain in the back of her head and winced as she touched a fresh bruise that she knew would turn into a fierce lump.
But incredibly, nothing was broken or bleeding, not a finger, not even a toe. She could have broken her neck. She ought to have died. How had she suddenly come loose? What freak chance had saved her life?
Shakily, her nerves heightened, Breanna got to her feet, wiping what felt like an inch of dust and dirt from her face and clothes. She could stay and dwell on the fate she had almost suffered, or she could just keep going, find Leasha, and put everything else behind her.
It took her a few moments to feel along the rock hoping that there was a way out that didn’t rely on her trying to climb back up the way she had come.
Mercilessly, the tunnel continued.
It was still narrow but she could stand and walk at least. Her legs were tired the muscles were sore from crawling, and it felt good to stretch. She had hope again. She allowed herself to imagine that getting stuck was a mere momentary lapse. The tunnel would open out any second now, she would soon see light ahead, she would walk out into the daylight and breathe again.
There was a noise.
Something up ahead was scratching at the ground.
She stopped dead. Trying to control her breathing. Listening. Waiting to hear it again.
Had she imagined it?
Was it just the sound of her own clothes catching against the stone. Her hand drifted to her belt and she was relieved to find the hilt of her brother’s axe
There was definitely something. Scratching, shuffling, snuffling in the dark just ahead…
It was life.
An odd combination of fear and relief swelled within her.
If there was something down here, something alive down here in the dark, then surely, surely that meant a way out was close at hand.
But what was it? What was the creature hidden so deep in this tunnel? Was it the same thing she’d heard earlier? Was it the creature that had whispered to her?
Her heart pounding louder than her ragged breath, Breanna edged along with her hands running either side of the tunnel guiding her through the blackness. Hopeful and anxious about what she might find.
Suddenly there was a screech as her foot hit something soft. She cried out in surprise as teeth dug into her leg almost piercing the leather of her boot. She threw the creature off, swinging her brother’s axe wildly at the air.
The bronze of the blade rang out as it clanged against the rock and she heard the creatures, whatever they were, tearing off into the dark.
But in her panic and blindness, Breanna had lost her bearings. Which way had she come?
Desperately, she felt about for the tunnel wall to guide her but instead was greeted with rough-hewn wood blocking her path. She was taken aback for a moment but quickly realised they were wooden boards. Boards sealing up the tunnel entrance.
A flash of panic surged in her belly as she thought how far she had come only to find her path blocked. But her quickly subsided when she remembered what weapon she held in her hand.
Gripping her brother’s axe, and hoping desperately that shafts of bright sunlight would soon blind her, Breanna began to smash through the wall.