Chapter 1: Shahin
Into the Adder's Hole
“Bitter exile, isn’t it?” In the middle of a nearly-empty airport, Shahin was startled to hear a voice from behind her echo her own thoughts. She turned around slowly, giving herself time to form an opinion.
“Cold, empty, and dreary – and I’m from Nebraska.” The blonde boy, probably in his late teens, had a welcoming smile and a flop of hair across one eye that had to be contrived. “Hi, I’m Yngvi.” He shifted his bags to offer her a hand.
“Shahin.” She smiled ruefully and held out her hand. He was likely just being friendly because she was the only one around, but she was trying hard to be optimistic about this place. If it was really an exile, than perhaps everyone else would be a freak, too, and she wouldn’t feel so out of place.
He took her hand with an elaborate gesture, studying her royal-purple-painted fingernails. “Beautiful nails. Did you do those yourself?” Try as she might, she couldn’t detect any sarcasm in his voice, so she murmured a sort of noncommittal yes to him. “Lovely. I suppose you’re here for the Addergoole School as well?”
He was certainly a little over-the-top, she thought, but it was kind of nice. She nodded, and looked around them at the empty airport. “But you’d think there’d be someone here for us. Custody of minors and all that.” She’d practiced her apathetic affectation long enough that she could sound bored in the middle of a five-alarm fire, but there was a note of concern in her voice right now that she couldn’t stifle.
“I’m sure they’ll be here soon,” he reassured her optimistically. “They probably weren’t anticipating the plane being on time.” He, too, looked around. “Where do you figure the other students are?”
“Maybe there aren’t any,” she shrugged. “Maybe there isn’t any school.”
“Nonsense.” She’d never seen anyone her age pooh-pooh someone, but Yngvi did a passable imitation. “They probably got here on an earlier flight. Look, there’s someone else now.”
Shahin tried not to show a cringe. Guys were all right, at least one at a time, but girls, teenage girls, were nasty, critical, and backbiting. Probably another misfit freak, she tried to encourage herself, but the girl coming towards them didn’t look like a freak. Blonde, tall, skinny, dressed casually in a tight t-shirt and denim shorts, she looked like a billboard model. She also looked really, really chilly.
Seeing Yngvi pointing her way, she veered in their direction. “Addergoole, right?” She hugged herself with both arms. “Brrrrr. Who knew it could be this cold in September? Hi, I’m Aelgifu.” She poked half a hand out from her self-cuddling, and Yngvi and Shahin introduced themselves in turn. “Oh, good,” she added with an embarrassed look. “I was afraid everyone else was going to be Joe and Mary and Jane.”
“I know,” Yngvi agreed, as he stripped off his jacket and put it around the girl’s shoulders. “You get so tired of spelling your name out for everyone, and then explaining that, no, you’re not immigrants, or at least you and your mother aren’t...”
The two girls stared at him. “Though you’re not sure about your father,” Aelgifu murmured,
“‘Cause you’ve never met him, and your mom won’t talk about him,” Shahin continued,
“And all he left was this unwieldy name even your mother doesn’t like,” he agreed, with a little half-bow. “The plot thickens.”
“It’s not going to get much thicker if they don’t send someone to come get us from here soon,” Shahin replied dryly. “Unless the school is in the airport somewhere and, seeing how small it is, I find that unlikely.”
“Wouldn’t that be fun,” Yngvi agreed dryly. “We could take classes in Being Bored, and in Stomaching Airport Food...”
“And Finding Lost Luggage,” Aelgifu offered with a thin smile. “But here comes someone now.” She pointed off over Shahin’s shoulder, where, indeed, someone was coming towards them.
As he approached, this new person began to blur in and out of focus. Shahin’s stomach twisted, and the world seemed to shake. This was really, really happening; she was really stuck here. Something nasty was going to happen. The airport vanished from her sight as the visions began to overtake her. She clamped her jaw shut, not trusting herself to speak, and looked down at the toes of her patent-leather Mary Janes, trying to concentrate on her breathing, waiting for floor to look like a floor again.
The school shrink had told her it was nothing more than a low-level anxiety disorder, and that her morbid interpretations of her panic were nothing more than childish fantasies. When she saw people dying, it was simply a figment of her overstressed imagination. Unspoken, of course, had been the very strong suggestion that she stop telling people she could see their deaths. It looked suspicious, after all.
At the moment she saw, not death, exactly, but an endless twisting hole in the ground, falling deeper and deeper into darkness, fog and smoke rising up from the hole and obscuring everything.
She swayed lightly on her feet, but caught herself, taking deep breaths as unobtrusively as she could. Just an anxiety attack. Focus on your breathing.
She managed to pull herself upright as the figure reached them, and blinked in momentary surprise. The man coming towards them wasn’t what she’d thought of in picturing boarding-school teachers. He was maybe in his mid-twenties, handsome in a rough-hewn sort of way, hardly taller than her – which was notable in anyone, and certainly in a grown-up man. Dressed in a black t-shirt and black jeans, muscles clearly defined under his shirt, with a bit of stubble in place of a beard, he exuded a sense of professionalism that seemed almost military.
“Aelgifu, Yngvi, and Shahin, is that right?” he asked, and continued before receiving more than a startled nod from each of them. “I’m Luke. I’m the porter for Addergoole.” His mouth twisted in a bit of self-mockery. “Let’s get you three out to the school.”
“What about the rest of the students?” Shahin asked, hurrying to pick up her luggage, although Luke seemed determined to get both hers and Aelgifu’s.
“The others had earlier flights in. You three are the last.” He grabbed another suitcase very politely from her.
Settling on carrying her carry-on, Shahin nodded, her stomach sinking again. So everyone else would already have settled in, met each other. It wasn’t that she’d expected not to stand out, but…
She remained silent while Luke packed the three of them and their luggage into the back of a large, late-model SUV, and stayed quiet, staring out the window at the endless wheat fields, while Yngvi and Aelgifu chatted up Luke. Most of the conversation simply slid past her, while she focused on her breathing and the hypnotic sameness of the wheat.
It didn’t seem like that long before Luke turned the SUV from the paved road onto a long, gravel driveway that pierced its way between two hills, then jogged alongside a wide stream until it reached an old farmstead.
“Um...” Aelgifu said, as Luke drove the SUV into the wide front doors of the barn. Um seemed about right.
“Relax,” he said, and put the car in park. The inside of the barn was dark, but lights slowly came on, to reveal that they, the SUV, and a truck-sized portion of the barn floor, were all sinking very slowly downward.
Shahin bit her lip, and stared out the window at the slick hydraulics and fluorescent lights. The sinking feeling in her gut was going away. Things would be okay. She would always be the freak, but perhaps, this place was weird enough that her little freakishness wouldn’t stand out as much.
“Quite a front door,” Yngvi managed, as the lift ground to a halt a couple stories below the barn floor.
“We like it,” Luke smirked back. “It’s safe to get out now.”
They scrambled out of the car into a wide, high-ceilinged truck bay, lined on one side with cars and the other with shelves. A man in his early twenties, easily as muscular as Luke and dressed much the same, leaned indolently against a luggage cart; he was the only other person in the bay.
Luke gathered the luggage - ineffectually helped by the three students - and piled it quickly on the dolly. “Doug will take this to your rooms. You three have to get to the opening announcements. This way.”
They followed him, feeling a little dazed. “Is this whole place underground?” Aelgifu asked, looking around the bay.
“Most of it. There’s obviously a couple playing fields and such outside, but most of the building is this far under, or further. Don’t worry. After a week or two, you hardly notice.”
“Seriously?” Yngvi beat Shahin to the incredulous question.
“Seriously. Come on.” He lead them down a short, narrow corridor into a wide hallway, surprisingly elegant, its carpet thick, burgundy, and squooshy, with wide archways spaced out along the corridor, giving an impression of ancient academia. Occasional wood-paneled doors opened on both sides of the hallway, and paintings were hung in niches interspersed between the doors.
The walls were smooth and painted, not the poured concrete of the truck bay. Shahin ran her hand along one absently, wondering if it would be cold. Instead, a nerve-numbing sensation of cold-hot-shock made her entire body spasm, and her ears rang as if she were standing inside a giant drum.
She stopped dead, succeeding, with great effort, in staying on her feet; the others had moved a few steps away before they noticed and turned to her. Yngvi and Aelgifu had looks of curious concern that made her want to crawl into herself and die, but Luke’s expression was more of understanding sympathy. “It hits some people that way. Try to stay on the center of the carpet for now; that should insulate you from it.”
The other two turned their curiosity on him now, which gave Shahin time to steady herself and move to the center of the hallway. Luke ignored all of them, and just continued to lead them down the endless line of doors and paintings.
Eventually, the hallway came to an end at a wide set of double doors, ornate and heavy-looking in dark, carved wood. Narrower hallways led off to the left and right, but it was the big doors that Luke was pulling open. “The opening announcements are going to be in here. Go ahead in and find a seat.”
Shahin shook her head slowly. She couldn’t do it. Her poise had been totally ruined - two panic attacks in less than an hour, and Yngvi and Aelgifu had seen it all. The thought of walking into this roomful of strangers was terrifying right now; she felt transparent. They would be able to see her every flaw and fear.
Yvgni turned to her, and flashed a sympathetic-and-yet-friendly smile at her with amazingly perfect white teeth. “Coming?” he asked, and she felt a little knot of panic unwrap itself, at least enough to pull her defenses back around herself.
She laid on as armor an overly-thick layer of self-deprecating drama. “I suppose I must.”
This is an updated, edited, revised chapter. For the original, click here
Copyright © 2009-2010 Lyn Thorne-Alder & Elasmo. All rights reserved.
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