I hesitated on the steps leading down into the temple. The sun burned into my hair and back, but the entrance looked as forbidding as if it were midnight. Black stone walls rose above me, carved faces glowering down.
It wasn’t like it was entirely unknown. From the day I’d arrived at the Forge, the temple had dominated my life. All the other buildings were arranged around it, and the bells hanging at its peak measured our days.
But I’d never gone inside. And even with the fizzing knowledge that today – today! – we would learn to summon our own firewylfs, it was hard to go down into that darkness.
The door opened noiselessly inward. A Ladysmith lamp shone softly in a sconce just inside. It was irresistible. I stood on tiptoes to touch the glowing metal. It purred, the same as the one at home. The purr changed to a questioning hum and reached out to lick my fingers.
I basked in the warm humming. It was like finally being full, replete, satisfied after days of winter-hunger. But at last I pulled myself away.
The room was lit only by the single lamp. Shadows gathered in the corners and skulked along the curve of the walls. Two dark squares indicated corridors, but I couldn’t remember which one the Forge Emari had said to take. After a dozen or so heartbeats, I gave up and went down the closest one.
Lamplight shone a ways down the hall and it didn’t seem so dark at first. But I hadn’t gone far before I was plunged into blackness. She must have said the other one.
I turned around, sliding my feet along the perfectly smooth, perfectly invisible floor. In the silence, I heard things following me, watching me, breathing soft behind my back.
“Why didn’t you bring one of those lamps?” I asked myself aloud, hoping the sound of my voice would make me stop imagining things. “Besides, your amulet’s not cold, so there’s nothing here.”
My voice sounded wrong. Thin, as if the darkness was sucking the sound away. I didn’t know if it was worse to talk or to be quiet.
I trailed my fingers along the wall as it curved into the depths. I should be back to the entrance by now.
“Because you didn’t think you needed one,” I whispered. “Because you are an idiot who can’t even find a termite mound by herself.”
The wall ended. My breathing echoed back, and the hairs on my arms rose. Something was looking at me, something cold and terrible. Firewylfs or no firewylfs, I bolted back down the hall.
But still there was no pool of warm light waiting. I stopped, gasping for breath and fighting back panic. I couldn’t have lost the entrance. I’d been touching the wall the entire way. There had been no turns, no other doors. But in the dark, I wasn’t sure any more which way to go.
I would count a hundred breaths, I decided. Then I would surely see the door. A hundred breaths, a step for each breath.
The door wasn’t there.
I stopped again, trying to think. There must have been a turning I’d missed. I would have to go back. But my feet felt stuck to the floor.
“You can’t stay here,” I scolded myself, refusing to listen to the quaver in my voice. “Turn around. Touch the wall. Walk.”
It took all the courage I had to turn and take the first step. I had counted two hands of hundreds when empty space opened under my hand. As quiet as a hunted mouse, I turned and crept along the wall, still counting, concentrating on the numbers to keep myself from giving into the panic that gibbered in the back of my head.
At last, I saw a light. Almost sobbing with relief, I ran forward.
“We only need one more. We’ll be ready.” It was the Fire Emari.
“I don’t think so.” The other woman’s voice was sharp, as if she’d eaten limes and her mouth was all pursed up. I didn’t recognize it. “We’ve hardly enough time for ourselves.”
“They won’t be here …”
At that moment, I stumbled through the doorway and they both stopped talking.
“Shennafi d’Abhoi.” The Fire Emari sounded astonished. “What are you doing here?”
“I g-got lost,” I stuttered, unable to keep my voice from shaking. “I w-was l-looking for you, and th-that room l-looked at me and I couldn’t find the d-door.”
The Fire Emari glanced back at the other woman. Her skin was much lighter than mine and her hair was straight, not curly.
“We can discuss this another time,” the Fire Emari said. “Shennafi, come with me.” Picking up a lamp, she strode down the hallway. I hurried to catch up.
“Emyete, what’s in that inside room, back there? Why couldn’t I find my way out?”
“Nothing is in it. If you had brought a lamp, you wouldn’t have gotten lost.”
“But I felt …”
“You felt nothing but your own fears.” The sharpness of her voice forbade any protest. “The inner room is where priestesses worshipped when the forge was founded. It has been empty for years. Now, why were you looking for me?”
“Emari Ogalech said to tell you that we are all here, and ready for the firewylf summoning.” A frisson of sheer joy ran through me at the words. The Emari was right. I’d been imagining things. If I’d had a lamp, I wouldn’t have been afraid.