Zhanna could not remember being more scared in her entire life. Walking deliberately into a situation that could get her hurt or killed was not something she thought she would ever have to do. She simply could not think of a different way of carrying out the rescue. Making herself a mental promise to freak out later, Zhanna straightened her back and walked forward. Right into a blow that knocked her against the wall.
As the black spots rapidly covered her conscious mind with shades of forgetfulness, she dimly heard a voice through the ringing in her ears. “Now, you will pay, suka.”
Everything hurt. That was the first feeling, the first impression, that pierced the deadened veil around her mind. Where she was, what had happened? She couldn’t remember, couldn’t think.
Her jaw hurt worst of all, so she tried to raise her hand toward her face. There was a clink of metal, and her fingers were stopped short of her cheek. A small moan escaped her mouth, reflecting the pain and confusion that she was frantically trying to get past.
“Shush, it will be ok. Just finish waking up before you move.”
It was a voice that she knew, that she trusted. Believing the voice, she waited for a few minutes as her vision cleared and her memory returned. She had been walking into the school. It was supposed to be part of the plan to rescue the children. She had agreed to come in and negotiate, leaving all weapons and her familiar behind her.
<<The door! Then a blow!!>> Zhanna remembered now. Someone had struck her as soon as she had gone out of the sight of the rest of her allies. And there had been a voice… Someone she knew.
“Do you feel well enough to drink a little water, Zhanna?”
The young woman opened her eyes and blearily focused on the older woman addressing her. It was Yana, the main teacher of mathematics in the school. As Zhanna’s vision cleared, she could see that the woman was bedraggled and tired-looking. She was also only partially dressed. Ignoring that for a moment, the mage asked, “Where am I and what is happened? And, please, where are the children?”
The teacher looked Zhanna in the face and responded, as tears ran down her cheeks, “I could not save all of them, please forgive me.”
Dropping her head onto her hands, Yana began to sob broken-heartedly. Without thinking, Zhanna stretched her hand out in comfort only to be brought up short and to the sound of clinking metal. A short chain attached manacles on each of her wrists together, and a longer chain ran from the center of that down to each ankle. She would have difficulty moving, and it would be almost impossible to move quickly.
Staring wide-eyed at the massive metal chains, Zhanna swore in a low fervent voice, “Dishonorable pigs! Ask for negotiation and hide behind that to violate their honor! Ublyudki i duraki!”
At the last phrase, the mage was startled to hear a small giggle in the corner of the room. Looking up, Zhanna saw the gleam of three pairs of small eyes. Glancing at the still sobbing teacher, the mage said in her gentlest voice, “Could you please come and hug the teacher? It seems I cannot do that right now and she really needs a hug.”
For a moment, Zhanna did not think the children would come out of the corner. Finally, one of the bravest, a fine-boned little girl with black hair and violet eyes crept out. The girl’s eyes darted fearfully between the mage and the area behind her. Being careful not to make any sudden movements or loud noises, the young woman smiled approvingly at the little girl.
The child was dressed in a motley of different clothes. Zhanna now knew where the teacher’s extra garments had gone. The room was cold and damp feeling, with a disquieting sense of danger. Even with one of the teacher’s blouses covering her own clothing, the little girl looked chilled.
As the little one touched the shoulder of the sobbing older woman, a sound in the hallway could be heard. Instantly, Yana transformed from grief to protective fury. Snatching up the child, she flung her body back into the shadows, cradling the little one against her chest. It was as if she had disappeared. There was no sound, no indication that anyone was in the cell other than Zhanna.
Burying her fear deep below the surface of her mind, Zhanna reined her rebellious thoughts under control. Concentrating on her hard-earned skills, she drew energy into her core, dissipating the lingering sense of pain and shoring up the weakness of her bruised body. A part of her was thankful for the pain-filled lessons of the last few months. The skills that she had learned in the battles with first the Vrxa and then the soul-sucking plants had taught her how to power her magic even without her familiar by her side. She had even learned how to work around the metal contact that would have kept other mages from being able to cast spells.
If the faceless ones, these dishonorable wizards, thought that they were going to win through their treachery, they had a new lesson coming. The light of battle in her eyes, Zhanna turned to face what came next.