"Light," Jander said softly. The wytchlight appeared in front of him at once, making him squint against the suddenness of it.
Boaen's and Tanith's eyes stared back at him, looking wide and shocked in the harsh glare of the wytchlight's glow. They were all breathing hard. The sound of it echoed strangely in the confines of the tunnel around them.
"Andrei?" Boaen asked, looking haunted.
Jander lowered his gaze, fighting to hold his ground against the wave of fear and guilt that crashed through him. He felt along the training bond he shared with his master and closed his eyes briefly. "He's alive," he said, hearing the poignant relief he felt echoed in the words. Even so, their import filled him with a biting chill. "The Drakkarim have taken him prisoner."
The look in Tanith's eyes was dismayed. "They were waiting for us," she said, her voice shaking with what sounded like equal parts panic and anger. "They knew we were coming."
That thought had occurred to Jander as well. "Nierin." He cursed himself for ever trusting the man. "It had to be him. No one else knew that we were coming here."
"So what do we do now?" Boaen sounded lost. It was enough to remind Jander that his friend truly wasn't cut out for this kind of adventuring lifestyle. It was his loyalty to Jander that had led him here. Jander wrestled for a moment with an immobilizing surge of regret over that realization, coupled with a renewed swell of guilt over the awareness that he had left Andrei behind.
This was ridiculous. Panicking wasn't going to get them anywhere. Taking a deep breath to get himself under control, Jander shakily reached out into the magic to try to make some sense of the path that lay ahead of them.
"We're going to find the dragon eggs," he said in reply, reminding them all of the reason that they had come to this mountain to begin with. "And we're going to stop Kirin from using them to give himself the powers of a dragon mage." Master or no master, Jander was still a mage. He had sworn an oath to serve both his king and the magic, and to do what he could to protect his kingdom from harm. That thought calmed him, gave him focus, even as his heart ached with the desire to try to rescue Andrei-despite the fact that it would be an impossible task given the number of soldiers currently searching for them.
"Us?" Tanith sounded incredulous. Jander wasn't sure he liked the skepticism he heard in her tone, although he supposed he couldn't really blame her for doubting him. He was only an apprentice, after all.
"Yes, us." He gave her what he hoped was an encouraging smile. "It's what we came here to do. After we've found the eggs, then we can go after Andrei and rescue him."
She nodded in response, yielding to his leadership. "You're right," she said. She sounded frightened, but resolute. She seemed to feel better with a tangible plan of action in front of them.
The look in Boaen's eyes said he understood perfectly well how difficult it had been for Jander to focus on their mission, instead of chasing after Andrei. "Do we have any idea where we're going?" he asked. "Are we even sure that the eggs are here?"
It was a good question. Closing his eyes, Jander reached out into the magic. This entire mountain was a maelstrom of magic, the primal forces of earth and fire clashing violently somewhere far beneath their feet at the volcano's heart. The feel of it made his stomach tighten, but through the violence of it he could sense an elusive thread of magic, a sharp, almost metallic presence that twined through the air around them. The more he concentrated, the stronger the feeling grew, until he was almost certain he could feel the distant murmur of unformed dragon minds forging their connection with the source of the magic that sustained them.
"They're here," he said finally. "I can feel them." It couldn't be anything else other than the stolen dragon eggs. Their presence would be undetectable anywhere else in the world, but this close to the center of the mountain, he was able to pick out their aura from within the furor of the volcano's fury, like a single high-pitched note singing out among an overwhelming symphony. "They're close. I'm pretty sure I can lead us to them."
"What about the dragon?" Tanith asked.
Jander frowned at the question. The dragon's presence in the magic was still strong around them, pulsing with a menacing heat against his skin. Because of the turbulence in the magic that was a result of being so close to the center of the volcano, it was difficult for him to pinpoint its location precisely. The awareness of that chaotic maelstrom made the hairs stand up along the back of his neck.
"The dragon's here, too," he said. "I'm not sure exactly where. It's an old one." He wrapped his arms around his chest and let his breath out in a shuddering sigh. "I'm hoping we'll be able to avoid it while we look for the eggs."
The expression on Boaen's face clearly said what he thought the chances were of that happening.