Fennrick held onto my hand like it would keep him from drowning. In spite of our current heinous circumstances, it sent a curious warmth shooting to my middle. I liked the way his hand felt wrapped around mine. It gave me a fleeting feeling of security along with a wild rush of emotion. And then there was his smell. It was mouth-watering. I knew it was his Alpha pheromones hard at work, but it was nearly enough to make me forget our dire situation.
“Where do we find a unicorn?” Owen asked, the tips of his pointed elf ears going as pale as the rest of his ashen skin. His question jerked me back to the present.
“What was it the professor said before he disappeared? ‘Look below?’ What does that mean?” Fenn asked the group.
Cariss had a crease between her eyebrows. “Look below,” she repeated. “Below where?”
“Below, like below a bridge with the trolls?” Owen snorted.
“Below the ground?” Tatianna offered. She leaned into Owen, her inner fire going down to a simmer as he looped an arm around her shoulder.
“Below ground? Below ground where?” Cariss tapped her lip.
“What if he meant below the school?” I offered. The suggestion sounded ridiculous the moment it left my lips and I felt my cheeks heat in response. Fenn looked at me.
“No. What if he did mean below the school. He tapped his cane right before he disappeared. Could there be a place below the school?”
Cariss cocked her head to the side. “Well, the school is, what, a thousand years old?”
“No one has seen a unicorn in a thousand years,” I murmured.
“Could that be a coincidence?” Fenn’s fingers squeezed mine. A faraway look flashed through his eyes.
“Would the library still have original blueprints of the school building?” he asked.
“Let’s go look. We’re not getting anywhere just standing in Professor’s office,” Tatianna said as she stalked towards the door.
The halls were eerily silent as we made our way down the old Gothically arched paths towards the library. The students racing around earlier were either gone or had moved somewhere they felt was safer. Even the wraith-like creatures were gone. Erratically flickering bits of magic were the only noises as they hissed and creaked in the top-most cracks and crevices of the arches.
The library doors were open, just like they would have been on a normal school day. The floor to ceiling bookshelves were crammed with everything from ancient scrolls to modern day paperbacks.
“In the resource room?” Cariss shrugged.
“Good a place as any to start,” Fenn replied. My skin tingled as he touched my back to move me in that direction. I needed to get a grip.
The smell of dust and age-old magic ticked my nose and I clapped a hand over my mouth to catch my sneeze.
“Bless you,” Fenn whispered, still close to my side.
“Thanks,” I sniffled.
“Guys, where do we start?” Tatianna asked as we broached the resource room. There were tall scrolls and heavy ancient tomes scattered all over the large room.
“Time for the wolves to come out to play.” Fenn nodded to Cariss and me then wasted no time and jerked his arms backwards and took his shirt off in that way only guys do. I’d seen him shirtless countless times over the years growing up in the same werewolf pack. But his abs were a lot nicer now than they were a few years ago.
Cariss elbowed me and I blushed to the roots of my hair.
“Right. The older the document, the mustier it will smell,” I stammered, fervently hoping Fenn didn’t notice. Cariss and I quickly ducked behind a heavy-laden bookshelf and shifted to our fur.
I sneezed again as spangles of magic tickled my wolf’s nose. Following Fenn’s instructions, we quickly put our noses to work and it wasn’t long before we’d unearthed a stack of ancient scrolls tucked neatly away in a box in the corner.
“Hurry up and shift back, guys,” Tatianna said as she poured over the scroll.
“I think this might be it. Look!” Owen nearly shouted.
We were all back in skin and taking in the prints within a minute.
“It’s like a labyrinth.” I shuddered.
“Roll the prints up. We’ll take them with us.” Fenn took charge and Owen carefully rolled the blueprints.
Minutes later the five of us stood facing a heavy brass bound door at the end of a seemingly abandoned corridor deep in the belly of the Academy.
“I don’t like this,” Cariss whispered. I knew how she felt. Night had fallen. It was pitch black but for the occasional spatter of unhealthy magic and the glow of the one torch we’d been able to successfully light with fragmented strings of partially exhausted magic.
Fennrick reached for my hand. I didn’t object.
“Tatianna, keep your flames close in case that thing goes out,” Owen said.
“No problem with that,” she replied, her throat visibly moving as she swallowed hard.
“I’m going in with fur,” Fenn said. “Carry my clothes?” he asked me. I swear a light blush crept into his cheeks. I hoped the shadows covered my own reddening skin.
“Sure.” He didn’t need to explain that his wolf had better night vision and a better chance of defending us should it come to that.
Cariss opened the door and a long dark cavern opened before us like a giant black mouth.
A smell like wet death filtered up from the black hole before us. I shivered and Fenn’s tail brushed against me.
“Let’s go.” Cariss’ voice wavered.
Tatianna held the torch high and Fenn went in. We followed.
The stones were damp and there was the occasional squelching noise that I refused to think too hard about. Deeper and deeper we went into the ground. First through bricked arches, then into rough stones. They’d been cut by a mason, but not finished.
“How old do you think this is down here?” Cariss whispered. I’d been wondering the same thing.
Fenn growled low in his throat, his ruff standing on end.
Wind whooshed up the rough corridor and sent my hair flying as a scream built in my throat.
A deep roar boomed up from the depths. Fenn planted himself in front of the group, his own deep warning echoing back and mixing with the echoes of the thing until it made my ears ache.
The torch flickered and Tatianna screamed. Her eyes flashed once in the dark before a white-hot stream of lightening-like fire streaked down and illuminated the entire hallway.
A black apparition wavered in the dark shadows. My body froze, terror crawling over my skin like a hundred spiders.
“Light the torch, Tachi,” Owen commanded. “Don’t char me in the process.”
Breathlessly, we waited for the thing, listening, straining our senses. My hands gripped Fenn’s clothes hard enough my knuckles cracked.
Flames engulfed the torch, igniting frayed bits of magic and sending the fire bursting onto the stone ceiling.
The apparition hadn’t moved. It wavered there on the outskirts of the torchlight.
Fenn growled low in his throat and scented the air. All I smelled was toasted magic and fear. Possibly my own.
“I don’t think it’s real.” Owen whispered.
“You sure?” Tatianna said.
“If it were alive, I’m pretty sure your flame fest would have fried it. Look. I think it’s just a magic illusion,” Owen explained.
Fenn nudged me closer to Cariss with his tail, looked at Owen, then stalked down the dark hallway.
“Be careful,” I whispered. So softly I wasn’t sure anyone but me was aware I’d spoken.
I held my breath as Fennrick tracked down the hallway. His growls echoed off the stone walls.
About halfway down the hall towards the floating black mass, his posture relaxed, and he turned and trotted back to us.
He yipped once and I felt my shoulders relax.
“Not real then?” Owen confirmed. Fenn bobbed his head and met my eyes before jerking his head for us to move forward again.
He brushed against my side as we went down the corridor, sending flutters into my middle while reassuring my jagged nerves.
The apparition disappeared the moment we stepped within a few feet of it. It was nothing but wisps of ancient magic, long forgotten by its users.
We trudged on. What felt like hours of wandering and multiple stops to consult the blueprints, we finally came to the deepest point marked on the prints. A solid door fitted with an iron latch stood between us and whatever waited on the other side.
Fenn nudged me and Cariss behind him again and nodded to Owen.
Grasping the doors as Tatianna’s eyes flashed with contained flames, Owen pulled the latch. A loud CLINK echoed down the stone corridors and sent ripples of goosebumps down my skin.
The ancient door swung open.