By the end of the third month in my dungeon, I was spending all my waking time within that meditative state, doing as Griffin had suggested.
I began to play with the earth, finding ways to use the strength innate to me, manipulating it in ways I’d never considered before. Lark had been the one to open my eyes, to show me that the limits placed on us by those who were our trainers were just that—limits. I learned how to beckon the earth to me faster, connecting without moving my hands or eyes. I no longer let my beliefs of possible and impossible hold me back . . . but there was only so much I could do when it was just myself.
Griffin never came back to check on me, but I didn’t care. I could feel my body growing stronger in that place, could feel the natural ease with all weapons sliding over me even more than before. The earth all but sang around me, and that gave me some solace.
Month four ticked by, and the food coming to me slowed to every other day, though the water still came daily. I was going to be starved to death if I did not find a way out of here soon.
At night I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling of the cell while I waited for sleep to take me. Between my dreams and the waking meditation, I could feel my hold on reality slipping. I would not go mad perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely sure where my body truly lived any longer.
My dreams showed Lark as she suffered in the desert, kept company by two of her father’s familiars. They were watching her, keeping her in line. Making sure she didn’t step out of her boundaries. Making sure she didn’t leave the desert where her heart hardened against the world.
I saw her look to the Rim and knew what she thought. That I’d abandoned her. That I’d not been willing to break the rules to be at her side.
I tried to turn away from that, but she was everywhere I looked, and her eyes condemned me.
Somewhere in the sixth month by the scratches I’d marked on the wall, I jerked awake in the middle of the night. I turned my head; the sound that woke me was so soft, I was sure I never would have heard it if I wasn’t so used to the complete silence.
A soft breath that was not my own, and the sound of padded feet on the stone. I rolled in my bed and looked down beside it.
Peta stared up at me, her green eyes unblinking. “I thought I told you to stay out of trouble. You’re as bad as Lark, you know.”
I reached out, not sure if I was seeing things or not. “Peta, are you real?”
Her eyes softened and she leapt up onto me, landing in the curve of my belly.
My stomach was concave, my muscles dwindling from not only lack of use, but lack of food. She sat in the hollow and stared at me. “Ash. This one time, I’ll let you hold me.”
I laughed and curled my arms around her, pulling her tightly against my chest. I buried my face in her soft fur and knew now why Lark loved her so. When you needed her most, Peta found you and gave you hope.
I lay back, still holding her. I fell asleep and she stayed with me, her warmth a steady presence that I didn’t know how desperately I’d craved.
The morning light came soon after that and I woke to find myself alone.
“Shit.” I ran a hand over my face. I had been dreaming, then; Peta hadn’t found me after all.
There was the sound of claws scratching on stone and I turned my head. Peta stretched and yawned, in her housecat form—gray and white—her tail twitching at the tip. “I’m going to find us some food. Wait here.”
She was gone in a flash, slipping between the bars of the cell. “You think I’m actually going somewhere?” I called after her, and I was sure I heard her laugh echo back to me. Saucy cat.
I couldn’t help the grin, though. I wasn’t alone, and now with Peta, we would find a way out of here, we would go after Cassava, and make the world right again for Lark.
Ten minutes later, Peta was back in her snow leopard form . . . a whole cooked chicken dangling from her mouth. My mouth filled with saliva at the sight of that much meat. I wobbled to the cell door and she waited for me to take the bird before she shifted down to her gray and white housecat shape once more.
“Don’t stuff your guts or you’ll be puking it all back up,” she said.
I ripped off a leg and put it on the floor for her. “I know that, Peta. I’m not a pup. I’ve been starved before.”
Her ears perked up. “You have? When? How could you not have told me about that on our travels together?” I noted she made no mention of Lark. That was the reason we’d traveled together before, looking for her.
I tore into the chicken, making myself go slowly when all I wanted to do was swallow it down in delicious, heavenly chunks of roasted goodness. Speaking around the mouthfuls helped me to keep my pace steady.
“When I was first brought on as an Ender, my trainer thought we should understand what would happen if we were captured and tortured by another of the families.”
Peta nodded slowly, which shouldn’t have surprised me. She was a hell of a lot older than she looked. “I remember those days. I didn’t realize you were around then.”
Around then was about two hundred years prior. Elementals aged rather well, and I was no exception. “I was young and determined, and I believed I could face anything and come out on top.”
“You mean you were cocky,” she snorted.
I smiled slowly. “That, too.”
I took another bite of the chicken and chewed it slowly. “I was placed into an oubliette with a flask of water and a loaf of bread and told I wouldn’t know when I was going to be brought out. My trainer, Sedge, said he would ask me one question when the oubliette was opened. ‘What is the name of your trainer?’ I wasn’t to give the answer at all costs.”