Marine’s eyes flickered open. She lay with her back on the hard earth, looking up at blackness and flickering light. She wondered where she was. Had she gone home to her parents? She would have looked around but there was a serenity to just lying there and realising she was thinking again after a long pause from it. Where had she been? She didn’t feel like she’d been asleep - this felt… different. She felt like she had very physically been somewhere else. But how would she ever know where? Even as she lay here thinking these thoughts the sensations were becoming less distinct. She felt very cosy and normal. Marine smiled and closed her eyes again.
“Kurann! Her eyes were open for a second then!”
Marine knew that voice. That was Mortglade. What was Mortglade doing in her parents’ house? Did she know about the stone?
Marine’s eyes shot open as all of the memories of Topside, the stone, Ezria and Vanweer came flooding back in in an instant. It stung her forehead as the weight of all the thoughts rushed in at once.
“Marine!” Mortglade sounded overjoyed and Marine felt a hand on hers. She looked over and saw Kurann looking at her with joy.
“You’re awake. Thank goodness for that.” Kurann breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Marine smiled, uncertainly.
“How long have I not been awake?”
“I don’t know in Beats…” Said Kurann cautiously, “But a number of lights and darks up here. How are you feeling?”
“Alright. Peaceful. Where is everyone?” Mortglade and Kurann exchanged glances.
“They’ve gone back to the city to try and stop Vanweer.”
Marine scrambled to her feet, “Then we need to follow them!” She fumbled in her pocket for the stone and suddenly felt its crashing absence like a stab through her heart.
“What’s the matter?” Asked Kurann, recognising the panicked look on Marine’s face.
“I had the stone. Here, in my pocket.” Marine pulled the pocket inside out to illustrate its emptiness. “It’s gone.”
Kurann and Mortglade stared at the empty pocket.
“You had the stone?” Mortglade marvelled, “How did you fit it in your pocket? It took all of us to get it below.”
“It… I don’t know. It shrank when I needed it to. I… I think I have the magic in me. There have been some odd things, and the stone… the stone seemed to listen to me and help me do the magic better. It’s gone. I feel, I feel small.”
“Marine… we, we saw someone very briefly in the hedge while you were out cold. It was blurry and dark - they snuck in and out so quickly. Do you think, do you think they took the stone?”
Marine nodded, “I bet it was Vanweer.”
“But Vanweer is back in the city?”
“It could be someone still loyal to her?”
“We have to get down there.” Marine said, a steely glint in her eye. “That stone is powerful, and I don’t know what she’ll do if she masters it. I’ve felt it - I’ve used it. I can’t imagine what she might be able to do if she also has other stones.”
Kurann, Mortglade and Marine all looked up at once towards the gap in the hedge. A small band of Topsiders stood there, armed and with grim expressions on their faces.
“We have come. Where do you need us?” The Topsiders stepped apart to allow Marine a clear view of the huge crowd of them stood outside the hedge. Each of the 12 families had assembled and arrived as quickly as they could. Marine waited, hoping that Mortglade or Kurann would assume command so that she wouldn’t have to. Neither did.
“We think she has gone below.” Marine whispered.
“Then we’ll go below.” Said the leader.
Vanweer moved quietly, cautiously back along the steps she had memorised so deeply in her mind. She could hear the ringing in her ears that going below ground again caused and she rubbed her fingers over and over the stone in excitement. All she needed to do now was remain hidden.
The citizens of the city stared at the Topsiders. Who were these tall interlopers in their city? Was this the invasion they had long feared? There weren’t very many of them if there were. But maybe it only took a few Topsiders? Goodness look at the size of them. Families huddled in their houses, while some poked their heads out of windows to see what was going on. Ezria smiled at their fearful curiosity as she led Sinfire and the others through the streets towards Vanweer’s office.
They’d moved as quickly as they could, down through the tunnel and then had been amazed as the forces massed on the edge of the city. Led by Aysmar, almost every single Battallion the city had to defend it was on the march looking for one woman: Vanweer. There was no sign of her as yet. She was slippery and devious. Her daughter’s face was set firm in her determination to find her and crush her.
Between Sinfire, Aysmar and Ezria it had been decided that they would fortify all routes in and out of the city with Tingions.
“There is no point chasing Vanweer above ground. We will never find her. We must wait below and catch her when she tries to slink back in like the rat she is.”
They left soldiers at every junction, lining every exit and turn out of the city. There wasn’t a single hole in the net they wove. Aysmar led Ezria and her team back to the office under the watchful eye of the citizens of the city.
Vanweer pushed apart the loose pebbles and crumbled the thin mud wall with her strong hands. When there was a hole big enough for her to squeeze through she did so, and then paused to listen to the silence she anticipated.
“Where would she have gone?” Sinfire asked Aysmar.
“I assume to get the stone.” Aysmar replied, a frisson of tension between the two Tingions.
Ezria looked pale, “It is with Marine. We should never have left her.”
“We couldn’t have moved her either.” Eleff reminded. The conversation paused again.
“There’s just no sense to us chasing her around Topside. We’ll never find her. If she wants power she has to come back here. I say we wait her out here.” Ezria said, looking round at each of the Tingions in turn.
Sinfire looked around at the walls, wishing they were further away, but eventually she nodded, “I think you’re right. The 12 families will be amassed above ground. If Vanweer tries anything they’re a good backstop for now. I think Ezria’s right. If ultimate power of the city is what she wants - she needs to come here to get it, and we’ll be ready for her when she does.”
The other stones glinted against the light of her glow lamp and Vanweer smiled. She pulled the last stone out of her pocket and held it up against the others.
“Excuse me ma’am, there’s… there’s Topsiders. Loads of them. At the gates of the city.” The messenger was breathless and sweaty. Aysmar looked at Sinfire.
“The 12 families.”
“I can’t believe they’ve come below.”
“They’ve got Skylorn with them, ma’am. And two others I don’t know. They were led here by them.”
“Marine!” Cried Eleff, overjoyed at the information that Marine was alive. Tears sprang up into her eyes. Ezria smiled fondly, glad that her own eyes were more disciplined.
“Show them in.” Aysmar said.
“All of them?” The messenger was wide eyed with shock, “I don’t think, with the greatest respect, they’ll all fit ma’am.”
“Show in Marine, Mortglade, Kurann and the leaders of each of the 12 Families.” Aysmar smiled gently, and Ezria was pleased to see how well she took being in command. She was a natural.
Marine, Mortglade, Kurann and the leaders of the 12 families crammed into the office that was feeling ever smaller. The Topsiders shifted uncomfortably at the close quarters and Aysmar apologised.
“We needn’t stay in here long. I’m very grateful to you for hearing our cry for help and coming.”
“It’s more than just your cry,” said Deminity, the patriarch of one of the bigger families from the field, “We need the stones back to preserve our way of life. Without them, we may not be able to stay above ground.” They shuddered at the thought of living with mud walls and no view of the sky.
“It’s not so bad once you get used to it,” Ezria said dryly, “But we will do all within our power to help you stay with your beloved sky. You have my word.”
There was more solemn nodding. The Topsiders from the12 Families joined the forces of the city battalions and the largest force of Tingions the city had ever seen sat and waited for Vanweer, their would-be tyrant.
“And what now?”
The little voice made Vanweer jump. It spiked out of the darkness and shredded her illusion that she’d been alone.
“Who’s there?” Vanweer barked, hearing her voice bouncing back at her from the flat, smooth walls.
“Surely… surely you recognise my voice?” Mavis lifted a glow lamp up and revealed her position in the corner between two of the larger stones. “You cant have paid that little attention to me, can you? Not even you are that self-centred.”
“Mavis!” Vanweer half yelped, half snorted such was her confusion, “How did you know about this place?”
“I ran every inch of your life. Did you really think you had any secrets from me? You thought I was so powerless it didn’t matter that you left things within reach of my, what do you call them? Sluggy little eyes. Yes, that was it. Well, my sluggy little eyes noticed everything you were up to. Including this place.”
Vanweer was recovering from her surprise and shook the adrenaline out of her shoulders.
“Well, so what if you do know? You are powerless. I have the stones now and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do stop me doing anything I want to do.”
“You don’t know what to do with them. They are worth nothing to you.”
“So?” Vanweer did sneer now, looking down at tiny Mavis with such contempt that Mavis felt her muscles weaken and her legs bend involuntarily.
“So, you have thrown everything you, we, worked so hard for away, for a bunch of stones that might as well be pebbles to you.”
“I will learn how to master them and then…”
“You’re going to sit down here in the dark staring at some stones until you work out what they do? You’re not worried about starving to death or about the fact that your daughter has the entire military looking for you? You’re a fool.”
“I grow tired of you talking.” Vanweer advanced on Mavis with a hand raised and her lip curlled in ugly aggression. She was barely a step away when the stones around her started to glow, first gently then brighter and brighter. Vanweer looked at them with astonishment. “You see! Already they are starting to share their magic! All they needed was to be reuinited.”
“Or is it me?” Said Mavis quietly, and all light from the stones extinguished plunging them into complete darkness.
“You?” Vanweer whispered bitterly, “That isn’t you. There’s no way you could do anything so -“
Her voice was cut off by the stones raging into brightness again, a light so blinding and bright that she had to shield her eyes from it.
“You have always underestimated me.” Mavis said flatly, “It was always going to be your downfall.”
The intensely white stones flew up into the air and then launched themselves at Vanweer, crushing her beneath a volley of solid weight. Mavis stood watching implacably. If Vanweer wanted the stones above all else, she could have them above all else. They could be the last thing she would have. The stones crushed Vanweer, smothering her sobs and cries of pain. She crumpled into the floor and soon disappeared under the small avalanche of rocks. Mavis stood, letting the light dim to a more bearable level.
She smiled to herself shyly; perhaps every single soldier in the city was ready and prepared. But not a single one of them would raise a hand - she had solved the problem with minimum fuss. As was the Tingion way. Mavis reduced the size of the stones to a level she could manage, filled her pockets, and made her way out of the secret room. She paused to block back up the passageway and then headed back to the office and her cubby.
Marine Skylorn looked from the river to the sky. The two things she was named for, and finally lived with every day. She felt alive.
Since the downfall of Vanweer, many Tingions had made their way above ground to try out living in the fresh air. Marine Skylorn had been one of them. She joined Sinfire’s hedge and family quite happily - hunting, and tracking, farming and living out under that great expanse of lights, colours and noises. With the stones back in their positions around the field, protection was reestablished for the Tingions that shared their world with humans. Marine felt at peace. Well, she did for as long as she wasn’t looking at the river.