The room Orenda walked into was huge. There were small, circular pools dotted about, but the main draw was obviously the largest body of water. On one side, a set of steps led into it, and on the other, two boards stretched far above it, with ladders for access. The water on that side looked particularly deep. Orenda thought it was strange that the far wall had seating, as if bathing were something that should ever have spectators, but she was more concerned with how much heavier the thing that was affecting magic was here. The flow had nearly stopped altogether, and instead of streaming over her, empowering her, it weighed her down, made it difficult to move, and the sickness she had felt before was no longer just nausea; it also made her lightheaded and a little unsteady on her feet.
Still, there were large windows above the seating area, and she was sure that she could see the guards. It would also put her high above the water; perhaps that would stop the strange feeling she was getting as her intestines joined her stomach. Part of her did not want to admit that her brilliant plan was the very thing causing her illness, but she was sure it would dissipate, as soon as she rose above the water. It was the water, the water that had always been rationed, the water that had always been an unfulfilled desire, the water that she had to drink to survive that was the problem. It was difficult to believe that it could harm her, but that had to be the answer, and as soon as she was past it and safely at the top of the bleachers, the illness would subside back to the dullness she had felt in the ladies room.
She had made it past all the smaller pools by the time her vision had become so clouded she could no longer see where she was going. What had begun as a small sharpness behind her ears had spread to just behind her eyes, and then to her entire head, as if someone was pressing against it or had trapped it in a vice. Her intestines pushed up against her stomach, and she clutched her sheet tightly to her torso, hoping the pressure would do something, and felt the sharp outline of her book, her precious book about fire elves. If only she had read the entire thing through! If only she had had more time! Perhaps it would have told her something, warned her of the water! Because Orenda was beginning to think that force pushing against her was not a lack of magic; it was magic. Ali said that water made magic more difficult to pull from, but Orenda was beginning to suspect water had a magic all its own, like the flames. She could feel magic in a flame, from the smallest candle to a roaring blaze that could consume a library.
She could feel it in the air around her, going into her lungs with each breath she took. She was certain she had made it around the small pools and was walking past the big one now. She concentrated on fighting against the weight of the air that held her down, but every step was more difficult than the last. She could feel the water in the humid air, settling into her lungs, closing her off not just from the magic, but from the air itself. There was too much of it, and she couldn’t breath. Her stomach flipped, and she knew she was going to vomit.
She leaned forward and tried to grab for the ladder she had remembered seeing as she emptied her stomach onto the tile floor. The spasms of her muscles made her organs contort, and a wave of pain wracked her body; what little vision she had left clouded with tears and her eyes unfocused, no matter how many times she tried to blink it away. She was completely blind. She didn’t completely understand why this was happening, but knew that she had to fight past it, had to survive. She had come too far to die of a strange magical illness so close to her goal! So she clung to the rung of the ladder and shoved herself forward. She couldn’t see, and everything swam around her, but she thought remembered the general direction of the bleachers-
But she was wrong. She had overestimated her abilities, and she was no longer on solid ground. She instantly recognized what had happened. She threw her sheet and its contents with all her might, hoping she had picked the right direction, because all she had to go on was that she needed to get them away from her.
She knew she could not get the book wet.
It was interesting how hard it was, how much it was like falling onto a hard floor, and not the soft caress that she had always imagined water would have. It knocked what little air she had taken in from her lungs, and they began to burn as she flailed, trying to find the wall she knew had to exist. She was afraid to breath, but the heaviness of the water in the pool was a thousand times worse than the humid air had been; it was crushing her-
And Orenda became aware of the fact that she was going to die.
She had never been underwater before- it had always been a scarce resource, and she had never dreamed that it would be a liability. Orenda, like all people who were not used to unlimited water, had dreamed of seeing enough to fill a pool. Orenda had thought that a perfect place would be full of water. She knew now, as it tried to fill her body, tried to soak through her clothes and drag her down, tried to rob her of air, that she had been terribly wrong.
Her vision was useless, and the screaming in her lungs had moved through her entire body to her head, where it pounded so badly she thought her brain may be trying to escape, to save itself. She was amazed at how much time she had to think. She thought of the workhouse, and how she had never managed to make friends there. She thought of the library, and the many friends she had made. She thought of Ellie teaching her to read, of Susan teaching her how to cook, of Charles demanding that she remember their names and faces. She thought of Johnny and his family, alive and well in the human city beyond the mountains. She thought of Rychelle and Ali, who had risked so much to get her where she needed to go. She thought of the unnamed woman, the composite of all the fire elves who had come before her, and how Orenda herself may be the last of them.
It wasn’t until she had thought of all these things that the panic set in. The change was instant, and may have been because Orenda felt herself begin to die, felt her body begin to shut off. Her brain had been without air for so long that it could pull up no more images to show her, her muscles had given up on thrashing and trying to find the wall, and a primal, animal fear was all that she was left with.
Orenda had promised so many people that she would not die, but now the world around her was so heavy that she knew it would crush her. She thought of the god, Thesis, whom her ancestors had worshiped in the great temple at the Sacred Mountain, but not as a person, not as a being, as the all-encompassing everything that was present in the very concept of life, and she begged to it, to this faceless, nameless thing that her dying brain conjured, not to let her die.
The magic was so far away, behind the air, above the water, that Orenda knew it would not help her. She closed her eyes, left her body for dead, and gave into the panic, the animal fear- and it dissipated as soon as she made the decision to accept it. A great calm came over her as she proved herself ready to accept this god she did not understand, ready to enter an afterlife where, if she was lucky, she would meet her real parents- not the ones she had imagined, but the ones she knew, in her heart of hearts and her logical mind, had to have existed at some point, and were probably dead now.
As Orenda entered into the pleasant nothing, the medallion around her neck and the stone in her pocket began to glow.
Orenda did not even know she was on fire and could not begin to imagine how hot it was. Orenda did not see or feel it simmer, then boil, before the entire pool began to roll as if it was a cauldron hung over a stove. Orenda did not know that steam, when created quickly and compressed in a small room with closed doors and windows, would explode outward with intense pressure, would need somewhere to go.
So Orenda did not see the windows of the bathhouse shatter, did not see the steam billowing out, did not hear the high-pitched shrill of a million tea kettles. Orenda only lay at the bottom of an empty pool, coughing and sputtering, weak and still deathly ill, as her broken body spasmed to get the water from her lungs. She tried to pull herself onto her hands and knees, to make it to the stairs on the other side of the strange underground thing she found herself in but could not identify, but it wasn’t going to happen. She was too weak.
But she was not dead.
She had not understood life before, had not appreciated life before. But she returned from the pleasantries of the nothingness and slammed back into her body with full force, all at once, and she knew what it meant to be alive. She appreciated the sickness; she appreciated the spasms that hurt more than she had ever imagined, pressing the water from her lungs so hard it also sent acid and bile from her stomach and burned her throat. It was horrible, and it was wonderful, and she was alive. She knew she was burning, and felt her clothing more than she had ever felt it before, was aware of it as the heaviness of it dissipated, felt the pressure lighten as the water evaporated from her clothes and her hair.
She was alive!
She heard someone say something, but she could not identify them, could not have turned her head to see them, even if her eyes had been willing to focus. But she was not dying and she knew it, she had a right to be happy about it, even if the guards had found her. She fought until she could fight no more against the pain, and she cursed the fatigue that eventually took her.
“She’s bone dry,” a voice said as Orenda’s senses began to work again and it sent a shot of adrenaline through her that she was thankful for, but did not understand. She used it to her advantage to shove herself up on shaky legs and take in her surroundings.
There were more than just the two guards.
They had been leaning over her, but so had a different earth elven woman, and a slew of adults lined the edges of the empty pool, looking down at her. Orenda narrowed her eyes, and the combination of exhaustion, adrenaline, and fear did nothing to help her think. She was firmly in fight or flight mode, less a person and more a prey animal surrounded by predators, and with nowhere to run, she knew she would have to fight.
“Do not touch me!” She demanded, “Or my things! If you do- you will boil when you die!”
This was an objectively terrible thing to say, and probably an empty threat, as tired as she was, and that emptiness was likely obvious from the way she could barely stay on her feet.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” The woman in the pool promised, and kept one arm outstretched.
“Stay away from me!” Orenda demanded.
“I’m a healer,” the woman said gently, “Do you know where you are?”
Orenda held one hand up as if to cast a spell and backed away until she hit a wall. The adults in the pool were between her and the stairs, and she saw no conceivable way to get past them without going through them.
When she made no response, the woman said, “This is the Glenlen Academy. Do you mean to be here? Is this where you were trying to go?”
Orenda could not think. She was too tired, and too full of fear and rage, but the lady stared at her, and her mouth began to work without the input from her brain.
“I am the long-lost princess of the fire elves!” She snapped with all the confidence and entitlement of one who believed it to be true, “I am the most powerful mage I have ever met, but I have been separated from my parents and my people for the duration of my life. I had heard that this was a place that trains those who feel the magic of Xren flow through them, and traveled here. But then it almost killed me! I demand to speak to whomever is in charge here!”
“That would be me, princess,” A tall earth elven man began marching down the stairs, and had Orenda been in her right mind, she would have been intimidated by him. He looked as if he had just been woken up, but as if it hadn’t phased him, with his perfect blond hair neatly arranged in a set of braids winding around his head, and his cold green eyes bored into her as if he was not inconvenienced in the slightest by the destruction of the building or her threats. He looked like a stern headmaster about to punish a little girl, and held in front of him the book that Orenda had spent so long studying and protecting.
It was wet.
“I am Headmaster Quiroris, and I am intensely curious about a number of things.” He pushed his way past the guards and the woman who claimed to be a healer.
“I don’t care about your curiosity,” Orenda told him, “and I would like my things back. That book is mine.”
“Where did you get it?” He asked, running a hand down the cover.
“It’s mine,” Orenda told him.
He held the book and studied the cover for some time, before he turned his gaze back to Orenda.
“Are you alright?” He asked.
“No,” Orenda snapped, “I would like my things back.”
“What is your name, young lady?” He asked her. “I would very much like to be properly introduced to a princess. The last time I spoke to royalty it went quite differently.”
“The last time I spoke to someone like you, it ended poorly,” Orenda told him as she glared up into his eyes. She saw something flickering below the smooth green surface there, and something in her wanted to crush it out. He held her gaze, and together they felt their fields of vision narrow until the crowd became background noise. Orenda felt the air heating around her, and the headmaster finally looked back down to the book.
“My name is Orenda,” Orenda told him when he looked away, “I hear that I am named for my mother. Perhaps you’ve heard of her.”
Part of her knew this was a lie, but it was all she had, and now that she had begun on a bluff, she felt that she had to double down on it. She was still not thinking clearly, and could not see the numerous other options available to her.
“Really?” He asked, as if this information was not intimidating, but interesting, “I have heard that name before. Would you like a cup of tea, Ms Orenda? Perhaps something to eat?”