It was hard to tell if there was more fog in her brain or in the air around her.
Sydney pushed herself up on one arm, shaking her head to try and clear her vision. She spied her colleagueís silhouette lying a few inches away, his face gilded by a distant light. The dim illumination, its origin uncertain, highlighted a fairly heavy five oíclock shadow. How long had they been there? The stubble on Nigelís face was more than a single nightís growth.
Just beyond Nigel, the light was more direct on a neat pyramid of scrolls. She reached out and shook her partnerís shoulder. While her memory was a bit fuzzy on the details, she recalled descending through the lower theater, and making her way through a maze of unsupported dirt tunnels. The scrolls must be Merlinís journals! Beyond them, she saw the dim hint of rows of charred shelves and ruined bottles and vials.
All around her, a thin haze of smoke still marked where there had been a fire. Panic stabbed through her. If there had been a fire, they must have been overcome by the smoke! Nigel still didnít move, and she shook him again, frightened. She wasnít at all sure of the path theyíd taken. She wasnít sure she could maneuver her way back to the surface, between the remaining smoke and the maze and trying to carry her colleague the entire distance.
Finally her friend moaned, stiff fingers rising to swipe at his eyes. She heard his voice catch in his throat. "SydneyÖ God, Iím so sorryÖ" His shoulders shook as he turned away from her. It took a moment for the truth to register. He was grieving, actually weeping, though she had absolutely no idea what heíd done to owe her an apology. She reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder, meaning to comfort him. She didnít expect his reaction.
"Shit!" He actually jumped up, crouching a short distance from her. "Syd??? Dear GodÖ Youíre alive."
"I didnít know I was supposed to be dead," she replied, bewildered. "Sorry to disappoint you."
He lunged for her and impulse told her to flee. Why? Why would I run from Nigel?
His arms circled her, drawing her into a fierce hug. "I thought Iíd killed you," he sobbed. Then, "OhÖ Youíre bleeding. I need to get help!" He backed away quickly. His hands fumbled for his pocket and he withdrew his cell phone.
"Iím not bleeding," she replied, uneasy without fully understanding why. "And you didnít kill me, Nigel. I donít think youíre capable of killing me. Iím not sure youíre capable of killing anyone."
"You should lie down. Even if the bleeding has stopped, youíll re-open the wound from moving around."
Sydney was becoming a little irritated. "Are you listening to what Iím saying? Iím not bleeding. I have a problem with the smoke, but otherwise Iím not hurt."
His unsteady fingers stabbed ineffectually at the cell phone, actually missing the plastic. "You are hurt," he replied. "The knife hit your side. I saw it strike, heard it. Your blood is all over the floor."
She pulled out her flashlight and clicked it on. The dim halo first caught the haunted look in Nigelís eyes. She then turned it to the quarried stone tiles. Sure enough, a dark, sticky substance coated the place she just vacated. It certainly smelled like blood. But she didnít feel any pain. "Where, Nigel? Where did it hit me?"
The question apparently took him by surprise. He gestured to her left side.
"Iím not hurt there, Nigel." Whatever happened, Nigel clearly believed heíd harmed her. "Come see for yourself."
She turned her flashlight to her ribcage and gasped. The material in her vest gaped open with an obvious cut, the material darkened and growing stiff with drying blood. "I donít understand. Iím not hurt."
His gaze dropped to where the light showed the damaged fabric and the undamaged flesh beneath. "NoÖ" he conceded. His fingers reached out and brushed over her skin, and she shivered again. The reaction had nothing to do with cold, nor with fear. She wasnít prepared to admit the emotion that drove it, not when its initiator was her teaching assistant. "I think Ė " He craned his neck and flicked on his own flashlight, turning its narrow beam to the stacked scrolls. "I think it was magic."
Freed of their sealed container, the pale amber paper was wrapped closely around oak staves. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but it occurred to her that the ancient parchment was the source of the soft illumination that first met her waking eyes.
"Thereís no such thing as magic," she replied, her response programmed by years of scientific training.
"I suppose youíre right," returned Nigel in a mournful sigh.
Go to Part Twenty Seven.