The Cool Darkness Underground
“All those who live shall be tested. Some will be iron, tested by fire. Some will be flesh, tested by metal. Some will be earth, or stone, or ice, or wind. All will be tried, and all will be changed.”
-from “Tenth Song: Final Days”
The next morning, thankfully the only morning they would be spending on the planet, was spent giving a speech to the assembled Fleet troops in the giant cavern that Lang called the cathedral. Aymon barely had time to marvel at the massive glowing figures or the strange acoustics of the room as he talked. As soon as he was finished, he was whisked away for a formal lunch with the overseeing board. For all the time that they had spent journeying to the planet, their actual stay was quite short, so they needed to get as much work done as possible.
Halen spent the day with him, quietly lurking in the background, but Kino had managed to vanish. Between the speech and the luncheon, Aymon pulled Halen to the side.
"Where's Kino?" Aymon asked.
"One of the Fleet staff reported that she had asked for a tour of some of the caves," Halen said.
"Lucky her, getting to escape this," Aymon said, quietly enough that only Halen could hear. Halen smiled.
Aymon did get to experience one of the "dining halls" that the facility boasted. Aall of the dining facilities were served by one kitchen. Because of the nature of the caves, the kitchen was in the center, and branching out from it like the spokes on a wheel were smaller dining halls for the soldiers. One of the smallest but best appointed of these was the Officers' Hall, where the formal lunch took place.
It dragged on. Even after everyone had finished eating, every time Aymon thought he might be able to escape, there was some other person there, wanting to shake his hand and show him a map, or discuss Fleet operations off of Tyx III, or put in a polite request for this and that. This was the price of only rarely making trips out to the front. Every communication that reached him normally was passed through aides and assistants who would deal with issues before they reached his desk, or decide they weren't important enough to need Aymon's stamp of approval. Here, with a minimal team of assistants, and right in the thick of people who needed things, it was difficult to avoid getting caught up in long conversations about the timeline, or the Fleet budget, or whatever every person's pet issue was.
He was free from the larger group only when Vice Admiral Kolruss informed him that the starship God's Engine was on orbit and waiting for him. The God’s Engine was the ship they were taking to Jenjin. In truth, while going to the Front would have been a necessary journey at some point, he had only undertaken it now specifically to meet up with the fully staffed warship, just in case there was trouble on Jenjin.
Did the thought of bringing a massive threat of force onto Jenjin make him happy? No. But was having the backup of the God's Engine necessary for a smooth transition of power on the planet? Unfortunately, yes.
Aymon and Halen followed Vice Admiral Kolruss back up to the surface, where they would board the ground-to-space shuttle heading for the God's Engine. It was a pain that the planet simply did not have the ground structure required to anchor an elevator. That's what an entire crust honeycombed miles deep with caves and tunnels would do to a planet, Aymon supposed. It would be several years before any colonization planners would have to wrestle with that issue; Aymon did not envy them that nightmare.
As soon as he was out under the baking sun and whipping wind of the surface, Aymon wished he was back in the caves. The shuttle was sitting on the packed dirt of the airfield, not far away from the cluster of buildings they had emerged from
"Where's Kino?" Aymon asked Halen. "Does she know we're waiting on her?"
"I asked General Lang's aide to bring her up here about an hour ago," Halen said.
"And?" Aymon asked.
"He said he'd get in contact with the group that was giving her the tour. I haven't heard anything since," Halen said.
"Was Deboan with her on the tour?" Aymon asked. Deboan was Kino's assigned minder.
"Yes, but we have no way of getting in contact with her directly, due to the limitations of radio in the caves."
"Ask the aide again. If he could give us a status update I'd be... grateful. I don't want to wait on Kino."
Aymon was frustrated. She should know better than this, and her escorts into the caves shouldn't have brought her so deep or far that she couldn’t be recalled at a moment’s notice. Kino had been told repeatedly that they would be leaving as soon as the God’s Engine was ready for them, so she should have directed the tour not to stray.
Vice Admiral Kolruss approached the group. Kolruss was a short, dark skinned man with a voice that cut over the wind with authority.
"Is there something delaying you, First Sandreas?" He asked.
"My apprentice, Kino Mejia, hasn't made her way to the surface yet," Aymon said.
"The quiet one I met yesterday? Where's she hiding?" Kolruss asked.
"She was taking a tour of some of the local caverns this morning, but her group hasn't returned," Aymon said.
Kolruss looked skeptical. "You don't think there's any danger, do you?"
"Vice Admiral, you know the dangers of this planet better than I do," Aymon said.
"Around here I wouldn't say it's very dangerous. How far did they go?" Kolruss asked.
Aymon looked at Halen for that information.
"They took a car to the Redriver Complex," Halen said.
"Not very far from here then. Perhaps she's been relaxing in the hot springs there," Kolruss said.
"Doesn't most of this planet have hot springs?" Aymon asked.
"Yes, well, the ones directly beneath us have all been redirected into pipes to provide drinking water for the infrastructure here," Kolruss asked. "It's not technically an approved recreational activity, but I have heard rumors that soldiers will take jaunts into the nearby cave complexes for recreation. Bit dangerous, if they don't know where they're going, or if they're drinking at the same time."
Aymon looked at Kolruss sidelong. "And have you ever taken a trip to one of these recreational hot springs?"
"God, no. I hate these caves. That's the one thing I prefer about having no action up on my ships: no caves." Kolruss said this with a genuine shudder, despite the fact that a cave and a ship were similar, in Aymon's eyes. They were both closed spaces with little or no access to the outside world, though Aymon supposed in a ship there was rarely any corridor that required a person to contort or crawl to pass through.
"Thank you for letting me borrow the God's Engine," Aymon said.
"Not an issue at all. We're glad to be of service," Kolruss said. "Even if nothing happens I'm sure everyone on the God's Engine will be glad for the chance to have ground time on a better planet than this one."
"Was the captain planning on letting them have leave, rather than just on-planet duty?"
"I would assume so," Kolruss said. "Why, do you object to it?"
"What's the makeup of the crew?" Aymon asked.
"There's the permanent staff, of course. The ship recently returned for maintenance from the exploratory side, so that's their history. As for the rest, half of them have been with the God's Engine on their latest exploratory push, and the other half they just traded with General Lang, to give her some rotation."
"The ones who have been out exploring, they ever hit combat?" Aymon asked.
"No, and nothing useful, either," Kolruss said. "Bit of a shame, really. The God's Engine is a top notch ship."
"Maybe next time," Aymon said. "This should go without asking, but the whole crew is set for a trip to one of our own planets, right?"
"Oh, of course. They've had the correct messaging."
"That's good. I can't help but be slightly paranoid about that sort of thing."
"Completely understandable. But I guarantee that there won't be any trouble from my people," Kolruss said.
"Glad to hear it."
They fell silent for a moment as they waited for Kino to make her appearance. The silence between them grew more awkward by the second, especially as the hot wind blew around them.
"Would you be offended if I waited in the shuttle?" Kolruss asked finally, the sweat on his forehead being pushed sideways by the wind instead of dripping down.
"Oh, please, don't make me keep you out here," Aymon said. "If Kino doesn't come back soon I'll have to go in after her."
Kolruss laughed, but Aymon was only half kidding.
"You could go in and try to raise them on the radio, give them a good talking to," Kolruss said.
"I'll give it another few minutes before I do that. Enjoying the weather and all."
Kolruss looked like he wasn't sure if he should laugh at that or not, so he just nodded and half smiled and made his way towards the waiting shuttle.
"Any word?" Aymon asked Halen.
"Nothing," Halen said.
"You know what makes this more annoying?" Aymon asked.
"Her damn invisibility?" Halen asked.
"How did you know I was going to say that?"
"You've only heard me mutter it about five thousand times," Halen said.
Despite how good at feeling emotions Halen was, Aymon knew he still found it difficult to see Kino in the power at all, let alone read what she was feeling. Aymon could feel her if he knew exactly where she was, and Halen could do better and find her in a crowd, but he doubted that any of the sensitives the Fleet had on hand would be able to even know if she entered a room. She was frustratingly invisible.
Aymon had asked her about it, at one point, and she had told the story of her original recruitment to the Academy, where she had to actually demonstrate the power to the recruiter. She showed him how she could drop the invisibility somewhat, but it took her actual effort. She had to actively project herself in the power. Aymon found that projected feeling possibly more disconcerting than the original invisibility.
It was as if Kino didn't have any piece of God inside of her, giving her life. But that was nonsense. Of course she did. She was as human as anyone else, just weirdly quiet about it.
They waited a few more minutes. Though the group waiting with Aymon was made up of consummate professionals who would never complain, it was clear that everyone out in the heat and the wind was suffering.
"Let's see what's going on inside," Aymon finally admitted. It felt somewhat beneath him to have to chase after his apprentice, but since General Lang's aide had no response for them, it was what he had to do.
Aymon and his trailing group made their way back into the upper offices off the side of the airfield. They were buzzing with activity, but stopped when everyone realized who had come in. Aymon waved them back down, but in the back, he saw General Lang's aide, and he went over to talk to him.
"First Sandreas, what can I do for you?" The aide, a nervous looking man with his long brown hair pulled back into a low ponytail, met Aymon halfway across the room. Though everyone in the office pretended to be working, it was clear that eyes were on them.
"Do you have any updates on the whereabouts of my apprentice? The God's Engine is waiting on us," Aymon said, keeping his tone even.
Halen sent him a warning thought. Something was very, very wrong here.
"There's been a bit of a problem," the aide said.
"What kind of problem?" Aymon asked, trying to remain calm.
"One section of the Redriver complex has had a cave-in, and we've been unable to contact the party that-"
Aymon stepped forward, directly in the man's face. Though he desperately wanted to grab him by the throat, or punch him in the face, it had been years since Aymon had physically attacked anyone, and he wasn't ready to start now.
"And why is this the first time that I'm hearing of this?" Aymon asked.
The aide wasn't a sensitive, and wasn't even particularly high ranking, he just happened to be in Aymon's line of fire.
"I'm sorry, sir, I-"
"Get General Lang in here or on the phone this instant," Aymon said.
It seemed as though someone had already done that, because General Lang emerged from the back door and took stock of the situation. Aymon was threatening her aide, Halen was looking menacingly around, and the entire room was gawking at the proceedings.
"Ah, First Sandreas, how about we have this conversation in my office," Lang suggested, wedging herself in between Aymon and her aide.
"No, I don't think so," Aymon said. He knew she was trying to deflate the situation, for everyone's sake, but Aymon was more concerned with getting information. If being angry got him results faster, then so be it. "Where is my apprentice?"
"Still in the Redriver complex, which is about six kilometers from here," Lang said calmly.
"Is my apprentice trapped in a cave, General Lang? Because this man said that there was a cave-in that I am only just hearing about," Aymon said, pointing a finger over Lang's shoulder at her aide.
"First Sandreas, we have only just now confirmed that there was a cave-in, within the past few minutes. When we were unable to raise the group accompanying Apprentice Mejia on the lines we sent a group down into the Redriver complex and they sent back the new of the cave-in."
"Why was I not informed immediately that you had lost contact with the group?" Aymon asked.
"Due to the nature of the communication setup within the caves, it was possible that they had simply gone out of range of the radio relays. This happens fairly often and isn't usually cause for concern. Because of your schedule, we sent down one of our response teams to contact them, and they were the ones to discover the cave-in after retracing the group's steps," Lang said.
"Where is my apprentice? Right now, that is the only thing I want you to tell me," Aymon said.
"We don't know. We have been trying to raise them on the radio, but they may have continued further out of range seeking an alternate exit to the cave," Lang said.
Halen sent Aymon another feeling of warning. There was something that Lang was not telling him. Despite her straight face, there was something that was making her afraid.
"What aren't you telling me, Loan?" Aymon asked. "I need you to be honest with me."
"One of the members of the response team that we sent down was a sensitive. He was unable to locate any of the people from Apprentice Mejia's group. That could simply mean they are in a different position than expected-"
"Or they could be dead," Aymon said.
"We don't want to jump to that conclusion," Lang said. "If Apprentice Mejia has a good head on her shoulders she should be fine."
Halen hadn't let up his warning that something was still wrong with what Lang was saying. Aymon took a wild guess.
"How common are cave ins?" He asked.
And there it was. Lang's face fell.
"They're... rare," Lang said.
That figured. If they weren't rare, the whole planet's surface would be riddled with collapsed cave sections. The planet had no moon to speak of, at least now, so tectonic activity was almost nonexistent, allowing the caves that were formed from combinations of ancient rock flows and erosion to stay untouched for millions of years.
"So why now?" Aymon asked.
"To know the cause, we will have to do an investigation of the area," Lang said.
"I don't care about an investigation, I want to know what the possibilities are," Aymon asked.
"It could have been caused by an accident by one of the people in the group. They could have disrupted loose or already unstable rock. Or," Lang sighed. "Or it could have been an attack."
"Okay. Okay." Aymon ran a hand through his hair. "You said you had cleared this area?"
"Yes, but you have to understand- this whole planet is a warzone. And this base is a well guarded target."
"They weren't on the base, though."
"We've had problems in nearby complexes before," Lang said.
"What are we going to do? I-" Aymon stopped, felt slightly choked. "I need my apprentice back."
He was angry at Lang for keeping secrets, and he was angry at everyone (including himself) for letting Kino out of his sight, but he put that aside for the moment. A deep fear was eating at his stomach. He remembered how he felt when his friend... The more than thirty years that separated the death of his friend and fellow apprentice melted away. He knew now how Carron, his predecessor and their mentor, must have felt when she first heard the news.
He was surprised at the depth of the fear that he was feeling. He had barely worked with Kino for more than a month! But he felt responsible for her, in a way that he felt for almost no one else.
"The response team I sent out is already clearing the path that was blocked by the cave in to check the extent of the damage," Lang said.
Aymon noted that she didn't say that they were also looking for bodies.
"I've also sent out other teams to check alternate routes into the Redriver complex; it has several other entrances, but it's a big space. We're also having our sensitives conduct a search for any other humans in the caves. If it was an attack, the perpetrators may still be in the area."
"Could it have been a booby trap?" Aymon asked.
"That's fairly likely, but it doesn't hurt to search for any living presences in the caverns."
If they did catch the person responsible...
"Is there anything..." He wanted to ask if there was anything he could do, but the answer to that question was clearly no. He wasn't any more skilled than the sensitives that General Lang had under her command, and he had no caving experience to speak of.
Like everything else on this planet, he was coming up against the fact that they were not fighting a traditional ground war, they were fighting a war in a forsaken labyrinth underground. The normal rules of combat did not apply, and the normal usefulness of sensitives to absolutely dominate a battlefield was limited, because there were no battlefields.
"We will do the best that we can to find your apprentice, First Sandreas," Lang said. "You have my word on that."
From behind him, Halen spoke up, a truly uncharacteristic intrusion.
"General Lang, we are both capable sensitives. We could cover more distance if we could join in the search, above ground."
Aymon's gratitude for Halen was immense, in that moment. Halen didn't have any responsibility toward Kino, not really, but he was able to think more clearly than Aymon was.
Lang looked at Aymon, a questioning look on her face.
"That is an excellent idea, thank you, Halen. Would it be possible for us to join search teams?" Aymon asked.
"Of course, I'll have that arranged right away," Lang said. She beckoned over two Fleet soldiers who were sitting at desks watching this exchange and instructed them to make teams to take Aymon and Halen out to search.
It was a long, hot, grueling, miserable day. Aside from General Lang, who remained in the base, there were two other Fleet sensitives who were able to help with the search operation. Being familiar with working on the planet and inside the caves, those two were sent beneath to help search in common areas and clear out collapsed tunnels. Aymon and Halen were given teams to search the caves from above.
Aymon's team was made up with some of the people who had accompanied him on the journey: his personal staff and guards who were not Halen. The rest of the small group was filled out by Fleet soldiers. Halen had his own group, on the opposite side of the search area.
The way the search was carried out was tedious and frustrating, but there wasn't an easier way to go about it. The area to be covered was gridded off into tiny sections. His team would go to the center of each section, then Aymon would send his power down through the ground to check if there were any living people.
Since identifying the light of God within a person was one of the easiest types of sensing that a person could do, Aymon had a good amount of range with this, despite sending his power straight down through rock. There was a limit, though. Eventually, the "noise" of the sensation of the rock would make Aymon be unable to pick out one feeling from another in the power, and he would be forced to stop.
The searching wasn't the time consuming part. Aymon could send the power down to his maximum depth in less than a minute. The difficult part was the journey to the next grid space on the map. At first, they had been able to ride over flat, flat land on one of the open-top trucks that were used in a variety of ways around the base. The truck could go no further as they came to a long, dense stretch of the tree-like things that Aymon had glimpsed at the edge of the airfield earlier.
The 'trunks' of the trees were more like arches. They had a solid base reaching out from the ground at one end, impossibly wide and thick, that travelled up, then back down towards the ground in wiry, branching strands. All these arches were bent and aligned in the direction of the prevailing wind, so that the thick trunk protected the skinnier, more strand-like side from being blown around in gusts. What had appeared from a distance to be a canopy of leaves was actually a long, thick web of hairlike strands that reached between the different trees in the area. It undulated in the wind in a horrible facsimile of a rolling sea.
It was impossible to drive the truck through that area, so the only option was to proceed on foot, occasionally cutting through roots and tree hair to allow the group to pass. Though the trees provided some of both shade and protection from the wind, the relative stillness of the air made the weather just as oppressive. Progress was slow going, and for the most part, it seemed as though they weren't making any.
There was one breakthrough moment, when Aymon did feel a group of people underground. As soon as he did, the whole tenor of the operation changed. They frantically contacted the rescue teams below with the location of the people so they could approach, but it was difficult without knowing the exact depth. The caverns held many layers, stacked on top of each other, and it was necessary to know the depth of the people in order to route the rescuers correctly.
In order to figure out the depth, Aymon had to triangulate it by moving into different, further places, and checking where he could feel them. His ultimate range was the same, regardless if he was approaching diagonally or directly down, so they could use that information to get a more precise idea of where the people were. Aymon knew from previous experience what his range was in a situation like this: it was a bit less than a kilometer if he sent his power out in a straight line, but he was significantly reduced in depth if he used it to cover a wider area.
It was annoying that Aymon had no real ability to measure the exact distance of something that was part way through his range, but using the power in this was was like attempting to locate someone in a pitch black room using only the echoes from his voice. It was more than possible, and with the years of practice using the power that Aymon had, the locating was almost trivial. He just couldn't then turn around and say "They're exactly four hundred and twelve meters down." The power was constrained by feeling, and a feeling, no matter how useful, was not a measurement.
Aymon's group returned to the closest entrance to the Redriver complex to await the group being brought out. They had been quite far from their original destination, but according to the maps of the caverns, it looked as though the people that Aymon had felt were Kino's group. Their position indicated that after the cave in, the group had been forced to take a circuitous route towards an alternate exit, but they were moving very, very slowly, possibly because they were wounded.
Aymon waited with a horrible feeling in his stomach for the rescue team to radio back that they found the group.
"We're approaching the area now-" There was static and muffled shouting over the radio. "It's them!"
"Who's there? What's the status?" Aymon asked over the radio.
"McKinnon, Bale, Howarth, and Deboan," the voice over the radio said. "There are some injuries, nothing life threatening."
Deboan was Kino's assigned minder.
"Kino Mejia? Is she there?" Aymon asked.
There was more static and confusion over the radio.
"Mejia was trapped in a different part of the cave when the roof collapsed, they don't know what her status is."
More odd sounds over the radio.
"McKinnon says that Kino pushed them out of the way of the collapse, that's how she ended up in a different area of the cave."
"Did they try to get through? Do they know where she is?" Aymon asked.
"This group decided it would be impossible to clear a path through the collapsed cave section, and they weren't able to contact Mejia at all. She might be on the other end of the collapse, or she may have tried to find an alternate route to the surface. She had a map of the whole cave system on her, so she could be trying to navigate out on her own."
One of the other people in Aymon's group spoke up.
"They've uncovered one of the tunnels that led out of the collapsed section. Apprentice Mejia may have traveled through there."
"Is everyone else accounted for?" Aymon asked, sounding resigned. There would be no point in him or Halen looking anymore if everyone else was accounted for. Trying to find Kino with her peculiar invisibility would be next to impossible.
"Yes. McKinnon and Bale are both injured. Bale has a broken leg and McKinnon has a fractured collarbone. We'll be bringing them to the surface as quickly as possible."
None of the tension that Aymon was feeling was abated at all by this news. It may have even made it worse, because now there was nothing that he could do.
He texted Halen. There were plenty of satellites that had been put into orbit to facilitate planetary communications
> They found the rest of Kino's party. She's not with them.
< I'm going to keep looking.
Aymon didn't know how to respond to that. It seemed pointless, and he couldn't justify himself continuing. Would it look better or worse for the Voice of the Empire to continue searching himself, when there was no way he would be able to contribute anything useful?
The days in this part of the year on this part of the planet were brutally long. Night fell eventually, bringing some blessed coolness to the air. The winds did not stop.
Aymon waited by the entrance where they were bringing out the other members of Kino's group. He spent his time praying, desperately hoping that Kino was out there, and that she would be found quickly.
The one thing that gave him solace was that the group that was clearing out the collapsed cave sections had not (yet) found a body. If there was no body, then Kino was fine. If there was no body, then she was alive, and out there, and it would only be a matter of time before she was found.
She had pushed the rest of her group out of the way of the collapse when it happened. Was she able to rescue herself? Aymon knew that there were pictures of the cave that he could look at, but he didn't want to see them.
He prayed, and waited.
In the end, it was Halen who found Kino.
Aymon's phone buzzed, a text from Halen coming in. A simple message, along with his coordinates.
< I found her.
When Aymon got Halen's understated text message, he partially panicked. Halen hadn't said if she was alive, but of course she was alive. If she had been dead, her body would have been found by someone else, underground.
Halen had contacted him first, but a second later, the general radio crackled to life as Halen's team checked in with the base, reporting their find so that the search teams still in the caves could stop and coordinate. As it turned out, however, Kino was on the surface, and no search team would need to go after her any longer.
As quickly as possible, Aymon got his own team into their open truck, and they drove almost recklessly fast across the packed dirt ground towards the given coordinates. It was a strange scene when they arrived.
First, the coordinates were outside the expected search grid by about half a kilometer. Then there was a fire that someone had lit, casting ghoulish shadows of Halen's team far down the dirt plain.
The truck approached, stopped a safe distance away from the circle of people gathered around the fire, and Aymon jumped out.
Halen was sitting on the ground, cross legged, sideways to the fire. His eyes were closed, and his hands were on Kino's shoulders.
Kino was laying partially across his lap. She was almost unrecognizably filthy, her clothes were torn, and the side of her face that was visible in the firelight was a swollen, purple mess. But she was alive. Her hand, flopped on the ground at her side, curled and uncurled in twitchy spasms.
The other people in Halen's search party were either sitting silently around the fire, watching Halen, or performing their own tasks: talking softly over the radio a little distance away, examining something on the ground just outside the circle of firelight, or opening up an emergency ration that was in the truck.
Aymon knelt down next to Halen, and put his arm on Halen's shoulder.
"I'm here," Aymon said.
Halen shook himself, opened his eyes, and looked at Aymon. Halen looked exhausted.
"How is she?" Aymon asked.
"Better now," Halen said. "I know she doesn't look it, but..."
"When will she wake up?" Aymon asked.
"She was awake earlier. I put her to sleep so that I could fix some of the damage," Halen said. "She probably has a concussion, but she told me not to touch her brain, so I didn't."
"Will she wake up on her own, or will you have to wake her?" Aymon asked. "Is she safe to be moved?"
"I could wake her up, but I think it's better to let her sleep. When we found her, it was better to work on her here, but now..." Halen yawned, an uncharacteristic break in his stoicism. "We could go back."
"How did you find her?" Aymon asked after a second, looking down at Kino's still face in Halen's lap.
"Go look over there," Halen said, jerking his head behind him. "Careful."
Aymon stood up from his crouch and walked toward where Halen had indicated. Just a few meters away from the fire, a neat hole was drilled directly into the ground. It was a circle of blackness that completely swallowed any light from the stars or fire that fell into it. It was a little less than an arm span in diameter. If there had been loose rocks on the packed dirt ground, Aymon would have dropped one in to see how deep it was. He stared down into the empty mouth of the hole for a long time, then returned back to Halen's side.
"Kino did that?" Aymon asked.
"She made it, and she climbed up out of it, even with a concussion and broken ribs," Halen said.
"Why? How?" Aymon asked, sitting on the ground and taking Kino's twitching hand in his.
"How? You know how. Using the power to break the rock and move it to the side. Forming rock into stairs when she needed to climb from one cave level to another. Why? I can't really explain it. I can make guesses, but we'd have to ask her."
"What are your guesses?" Aymon asked.
"I think that she couldn't think clearly, because of pain and concussion. I think she didn't want to disrupt the rock slide, just in case it would cause another one, so she couldn't go back the way she came. I think she tried to go through the caves to find an exit, but she either got lost or decided she couldn't continue. Then I think that she decided to risk causing a collapse on herself just to get out."
"She's stronger than I gave her credit for," Aymon said after a long moment. He stroked Kino's hand with his thumb. It was covered with dirt, and the palm was ragged with scratches and cuts. It twitched a little under his touch.
"There was some part of you that knew she would be strong. You were the one who picked her," Halen said.
"I didn't know," Aymon said. "I was so afraid, Halen." He whispered that second part, still aware of the eyes and ears of the other team members around the fire.
"Everyone will be put to the test," Halen said. "The dross will be pulled from metal, the meat will be cut from bone..."
"The clay will be baked from mud, I know," Aymon said.
"She survived. That's what matters," Halen said. "If she wasn't strong, she wouldn't have."
In a way, Aymon's relief felt worse than his fear. It all still sat heavily inside him, like a physical weight. She had survived, but this... This was only the first test of the rest of her life. How would he be able to survive the terror of sending her out again? How could he bear the guilt if the worst was to happen?