While the rest of the students were upstairs for dinner, Tristan and Amber made for the Subroom, silent and jittery. Drakewell expected them back in the Map Room in thirty minutes. They had that much time to pack their belongings and prepare for the arduous journey through the mountains.
They were not allowed to say goodbye. They had to vanish without a trace.
“Something is going to go wrong,” Tristan muttered as he pulled his fraying backpack open. “I don’t think we’re ever going to see the Lair again.”
“You don’t know that,” Amber said quietly, eyes downcast.
Trying to set aside his misgivings, Tristan began throwing as many warm layers as he could fit into his backpack. It was still early spring, so they would be walking through snow as they crossed the high pass to Millersville. The last they had seen, Millersville had been a smoldering ruin. Tristan hoped some fragment of the village had survived.
Once he had crammed all of his clothes into the threadbare pack, along with his compass and water bottle, Tristan bent to lace up his hiking boots. Before long, he and Amber would be trying to persuade Drakewell’s nemesis that they wanted to join her. He couldn’t see how it would work—Ilana was far too cunning to be taken in by whatever lie they came up with. But this was their only hope.
Shaking away these grim thoughts, Tristan fetched a handful of marbles from the vase in the back of the room. “How many do you think we’ll need?” he asked Amber.
“As few as possible,” she said. “We shouldn’t give the magicians any advantage.”
Grabbing another fistful just out of habit, Tristan turned to give the Subroom a final look. He had a feeling he would never see it like this again. There were the mattresses crammed haphazardly along the far wall, piled with pillows and quilts; there was the bookshelf, with its carefully scavenged collection; there was the table Tristan had fixed in his first year; and there, in the corner, lay his schoolbag with its unfinished homework and battered textbooks. He would give anything to return to the innocence of last year, when his main troubles had been working through homework and avoiding punishment.
“The others will return from dinner soon,” Amber whispered.
Reluctantly, Tristan slung his backpack over one shoulder and followed Amber through the Prasidimum barrier, leaving their brightly-lit home behind. He half-hoped Leila might return from dinner early, wondering where he had gone, and he would get a chance to give her one last hug goodbye.
When they reached the main corridor and turned down the stairs towards Delair’s mine and the Map Room, Tristan heard the clamor of his friends coming back from dinner. He quickened his pace, glancing over his shoulder to be sure they had not been seen. At last they escaped into the depths of Delair’s mine, shrouded by the chill darkness.
Drakewell was waiting for them in the Map Room, a bundle of food at his feet.
“This should last you a week,” he said, spilling the contents onto the floor. “If you have not reached your destination by that time, you would be wise to hurry. These mountains are not forgiving in spring. Despite our best efforts, you could run across avalanches and flooding streams as the snow begins to melt.”
Tristan and Amber dropped to their knees and began shoving energy bars and peanut butter and tortillas into their already-bulging packs.
“Ashton, are you capable of boiling water without a stove?” Drakewell asked.
Amber blinked at him. “I suppose. I’ve never tried.”
“Very well.” He added a pack of dried pasta to the stack, along with a bag of lentils and another of rice.
“Guard that phone number with your life,” Drakewell told Tristan. “It is our only hope.”
Tristan reached a hand into his pocket to ensure the crumpled slip of paper Ilana had given him was still there.
Crossing to the nearest stone table, which had taken the shape of a craggy ring of mountains, Drakewell indicated the town of Millersville near the far left-hand corner. “You can set an Intralocation spell to track the town, but do not take the quickest route. At this time of year, the high mountains are safer than the lower hills, since the snow will still be solidly frozen. If you try to head downhill instead of up, you will have to cross two wide rivers that may have already shed their ice.” He handed them each a pair of crampons, which Tristan tied to the outside of his pack. “That pass is the most straightforward. You could walk over it with no difficulty in summer, and you should not encounter any problems now. Try to make it to the top of the pass before sunrise tomorrow. If you remain too close to the school, we would be accused of letting you go too easily.”
Natasha slipped into the Map Room just then, bolting the door behind her. “Leila has been asking after you, Tristan,” she said. “I informed her that you’re working off a few hours of punishment with Gracewright, but that you should be back by midnight. Best start moving now, before anyone gets suspicious.”
To Tristan’s surprise, she drew him and Amber into a brief embrace. “Good luck. You’ll need it.”
Leaving the two professors behind, Tristan and Amber started up the stairs towards the ballroom. Tristan expected at every turn to be accosted by a teacher who demanded explanations, but the halls were empty. Even the ballroom was dim and silent, the tables wiped clean for the night.
Up in the meadow, the first stars were beginning to emerge, dulled by a near-full moon. Though the snow had melted from the meadow, the mountains were still cloaked with an icy sheen that glowed in the moonlight.
“It’s that pass, right?” Tristan asked, pointing to a low ridge that lay west of the school.
“Let’s worry about the Intralocation spell later. For now we can just head that way.”
Pulling on his wool hat, which had been knitted by Gracewright the previous winter, Tristan led the way forward along the damp forest floor. The ground was strewn with rotting pine needles, the trees still hiding the odd patch of snow. Though the trees stifled some of the wind, it was still bitingly cold, and before long Tristan had dug out his gloves and scarf. Amber did not seem to mind the cold; the wind riffled through her white hair and turned her cheeks red, but she did not fetch her own hat.
“They’ll never believe us,” Tristan said as they trudged past endless rows of pines. “We got away too easily. And why would we leave, after all this time?”
“Maybe we were tortured,” Amber said. “If we were punished for using the Map Room without permission, and tied up in the tunnels, it would make sense that we escaped.”
“They won’t believe that,” Tristan said. “Unless we have marks.” He gave Amber a sideways look. “Is that what you’re suggesting?”
She chewed on her lip. “Well, if we had raw lines around our wrists where we had been tied up, that would be enough.”
Tristan made a face. “I suppose it won’t matter if we do anything now. I can’t feel my legs to begin with.”
“Tomorrow,” Amber said quietly. “Once we have left the valley.”
Up they climbed, across the gradually sloping valley, while around them the trees began to shrink and thin out and beneath them the snow rose to overtake the bare ground. At last they reached the base of the ridge, where the last of the trees ended and a blank expanse of snow beckoned. Tristan sat on a snow-covered rock and strapped on his crampons, Amber copying him after a moment’s pause. They would have to be careful—if they slipped and slashed their legs open with the cruel claws of the crampons, there would be no one to help them. Even Amber’s magic might be unequal to replacing lost blood.
Slowly, eyeing the top of the ridge, Tristan started to climb. He felt as though they had already walked all night, yet the sky showed no sign of lightening. Before long he was sweating from exertion, and he peeled off first his hat and then his gloves and scarf. He wished for ski poles, branches, anything to help keep his balance, but it was too late to search for walking sticks. The forest was far behind.
As they climbed, a dark wave of clouds billowed from the western sky and slowly ate away at the stars.
“I bet that’s Drakewell,” Tristan panted, stopping to catch his breath. He kneaded the knot in his side with his fist. “If he’s smart, he’ll send a snowstorm to cover our tracks.”
Amber nodded, breathing hard.
“I hope he gives us a bit longer before it starts snowing. It’ll be miserable if we’re stuck up here in a blizzard.”
Before long, the clouds bubbled to the eastern horizon, cloaking the moon in shadow and extinguishing every glimpse of light. Amber did not seem to mind, but when Tristan tried to fumble his way blindly forward, he tripped and fell face-forward into the snow.
“Sorry,” Amber said, the crunch of her footsteps pausing. A second later, the air around her was glowing with a soft radiance, as though she had magnified her aura a hundred times over. Still half-blind, Tristan stumbled to his feet and followed the strange light.
At last they reached the ridge, which had a steeper drop down the opposite side. As they began to pick their way down, the sky lightened. Now that they had made their way safely out of the valley, a wave of exhaustion hit Tristan; he would happily have lain down on the exposed slope to sleep.
Just as he thought this, the first gentle snowflake landed and melted on his icy cheek. Tristan pulled on his hat and gloves once more, the sweat from their climb quickly cooling.
Finally, with the sky growing almost imperceptibly lighter behind the clouds, Tristan and Amber reached the base of the ridge. Here the trees were taller and more densely packed, and they were immediately protected from the wind.
Drakewell hadn’t given them a tent—Tristan supposed that would have looked too suspicious—so they crawled into the sheltered space beneath a pine’s wide boughs.
Without eating anything, Amber lay down on the bed of dried pine needles, hugging her knees. Tristan settled down behind her, his knees pressed into the backs of hers for warmth, and as the night grew later he moved closer until his chest was resting against her spine. He could feel her breathing beneath the layers of her coat, and every inch of his skin tingled with the warmth of her body beside his. A braver version of him would have slipped an arm around her waist and nestled his chin against her cheek, but he was paralyzed. Amber was just barely shorter than he was, and their bodies fit together like puzzle pieces. Every moment he imagined she might shy away, but when she shifted in her sleep, she simply nestled in closer.
Beyond the shelter of the pine boughs, the wind began to howl.