Chapter 1: Shahin
Into the Adder's Hole

Shahin lugged the last of her suitcases off of the luggage carousel, and looked around the nearly-empty airport with some trepidation. When her mother had told her, putting on a good show of reluctance, that the year in this out-of-the-way boarding school was part of the custody agreement with Shahin's never-met and rarely-mentioned father, Shahin had been doubtful. She knew she wasn't the kid her mom wanted, moody and difficult and always in trouble at school; maybe her mom had decided to put the problem out of sight and out of mind for a year.

This seemed a little extreme, however. The small airport was on the edge of what looked like a thousand miles of wheat field; what purpose they had in putting a landing strip here at all escaped her (unless it was to provide the denizens of the small farms she'd seen a means of escape from all the wheat). If it was exile her mom had had in mind, some sort of year-long grounding, she couldn't have come up with a better locale for it.

"Bitter exile, isn't it?" a voice said behind her, echoing her thoughts. She turned, slowly - she hadn't heard him coming up behind her - to see a blond boy in his teens, his hair flopping into his face in a way that had to be contrived, smiling wryly at her. "And I'm from Nebraska. Hi, I'm Yngvi." He shifted his bags to offer her a hand.

"Shahin." She smiled ruefully and held out her hand. He was probably 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 overdone 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 someone her age pooh-pooh someone, but Yngvi did a passable imitation. "They probably got here on an earlier flight." He pointed off at someone coming out of the women's room. "Look, there's someone else now."

Shahin tried not to cringe visibly. 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 asked with a self-depreciating smile, hugging 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 your mother's not..."

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 towards the doors where, indeed, someone was coming towards them.

As this new person came into focus, a dreadful feeling welled up in the pit of Shahin's stomach. This was really, really, happening. Not just this horrid exile; something nasty was going to happen. She clamped her jaw shut, not trusting herself to speak, and looked down at the toes of her high-heeled patent-leather Mary Janes, trying to concentrate on her breathing.

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, 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 thought of as a boarding-school teacher. He was maybe in his mid-twenties, handsome in a rough-hewn sort of way, hardly taller than her. 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 managed to exude 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.

She remained silent while Luke packed their luggage, and the three of them, 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 wasn't that long before Luke turned the SUV from the paved road onto a long, gravel driveway that seemed to pierce its way between two hills before running alongside a wide stream to an old farmstead.

"Um..." Aelgifu said, as Luke drove the SUV into the wide front doors of the barn.

"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. This place was quickly becoming weird enough that a little more freakishness probably wouldn’t stand out at all.

"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, where several other cars and SUV's were parked. A man in his early twenties, easily as muscular as Luke and dressed much the same, leaned against a luggage cart indolently; 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."

A door at one end of the bay lead down a short, narrow corridor into a wide hallway, surprisingly elegant, carpeted in something 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 the wall 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, concentrating on 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 seemed entirely unfazed, and continued to lead them down the endless line of doors and paintings.

Eventually, the hallway came to 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. 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, as if 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.

"I suppose I must," she said, laying on an overly-thick layer of self-deprecating drama, and followed him through the doors.

Copyright © 2009-2010 Lyn Thorne-Alder & Elasmo. All rights reserved.
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