Once more at the start of the cave and Crystal had to inhale as she attached her lantern. This time she kept it on her hip. Even if she tripped again, she wouldn’t lose the lantern unless it broke.
This time she hoped she would be able to avoid falling on anything, though she wasn’t entirely certain of the path after a point.
Silence permeated the cave as she entered. Crystal turned her head slightly back and forth, uncertain of what to expect. There appeared no one—not even someone to guide her.
At last she reached the area where her light only illuminated the slow forming stone columns around her and she had to inhale, looking around. She was half certain that they would have continued straight from here, but she couldn’t be certain.
Asking for aid here would have too high a price. That much she was confident in.
A soft sound made her turn. “I hear you,” she called out.
It wasn’t Lucinda this time, but Blake. His expression seemed almost half-asleep as he tilted his head at her.
“You return,” he said.
“One item, one brother. That is the agreement,” Crystal said and he spread his hands before he moved ahead slightly.
“That is the agreement you have with my mother. You and I have arrived at no agreements.”
He continued ahead, though he paused and glanced back at her, almost as if curious what she would do. She hesitated a moment before she followed him. He could easily lead her astray down here, leaving both her and her brothers to suffer.
And yet, he didn’t, going instead through rooms she half recognized. The phosphorescent rocks showed her a little more of the path, and she remembered Lucinda’s words not to step on the light. Through the cave with metallic walls and then at last into the cavern containing Lucinda’s throne.
The blood fae herself smiled a little as Crystal approached. “Thank you, Blake.”
“It was my pleasure, Mother.”
Lucinda smiled. “Crystal,” she greeted.
“I trust the task wasn’t too difficult?”
“It posed little difficulty,” she replied. “I have the apple.”
“Then I will release your brother,” Lucinda said.
“I will not allow you to hold the apple until my brother is released,” Crystal said.
Lucinda was silent a moment before she sighed and made a faint motion.
Mica simply dropped to the floor. The force of his body falling onto the flooring made a distinct thump that bounced off the stone walls. Crystal gasped and darted to him. She slid to her knees.
“One brother, one item,” Lucinda said before Crystal could touch him. She looked up into the face of the blood fae. Lucinda’s movements hadn’t made a sound, but she stood there, one brow quirked up and a hand out.
Reluctant, Crystal rose again to slide the apple from the protective pouch she’d carried it in. She set it carefully in Lucinda’s palm, watching as a smile replaced the expectant countenance.
The feel of Lucinda’s nails brushing over her skin made her shiver and Lucinda cooed. Crystal pulled back and dropped to her knees again, examining Mica.
He was breathing and his pulse beat steady under her fingers. He was usually a light sleeper and she shook him. “Mica. Mica. Wake up.”
“He’ll wake once the sunlight touches his face,” Lucinda said calmly.
Crystal turned to glower at Lucinda, one hand clenched around Mica’s tunic. She wanted to swear but didn’t dare risk Lucinda’s temper. Lucinda however, only smirked. Whether it was amusement or malevolence, her dark eyes glowed in the amber light of the lantern.
“You’ve succeeded in the first task. One of your brothers has been released. Are you ready for the second?”
A slow breath in helped steady her irritation even as it hissed between her teeth. “I am,” she said.
“You are to retrieve a vial of hangman’s dew. Once you bring it to me, I will release your next brother.”
“Hangman’s dew,” Crystal murmured.
“Yes,” Lucinda said. “One vial, one brother.”
One apple, one vial. Crystal nodded.
“One vial of hangman’s dew for the release of one brother.”
Lucinda beamed while Crystal struggled to get Mica’s weight off the floor.
Blake was there in an instant. “It would be easier for me to carry him. If you have some offering to make, I am willing to exchange my aid,” he said and Crystal couldn’t quite keep her expression calm and even as she looked at him.
It was but the price concerned her. “All I offer are trinkets.”
He smiled and reached out, touching the ribbon she’d wound through her hair. “Acceptable. This perhaps?”
“The ribbon isn’t mine to give,” she said. “I have three buttons and a penny if you wish.”
He smiled again. “Three buttons and a penny,” he said. “And I will carry your brother to the entrance of the cave.”
She didn’t like it in the slightest, but she nodded and slid all three buttons out of the coin pouch on her belt, along with the penny. As soon as Blake took them, he smiled again and bent, lifting Mica easily.
She let Blake lead the way, back out to the entrance. As they approached however, Blake flinched a little. “The sun is up,” he said.
“I can manage him from here,” Crystal said, and looped one arm around Mica’s waist as Blake set his feet down.
As soon as Crystal had gotten a few steps away from Blake, he stepped back into the shadows and Crystal had to inhale a little as she hauled her brother forward. Mica was almost ten years older than her, and he’d spent his life building frames and plowing fields. His bulk weighed on her as she hauled him forward.
Slowly, as she pulled him farther into the light and out of the shadows, he stirred. Even while she panted, he shifted, the little movements of his feet forcing her to put him down in the swath of sun illuminating the cave.
She knelt over him, one hand on his shoulder. “Mica?”
“Crystal?” he murmured. “Crystal!”
“Relax,” she said and stood up, holding a hand towards him. “You’re safe now.”
Mica looked around. “This…was I dreaming?”
She shook her head. “No,” she said. “Lucinda wanted something in exchange for your freedom.”
Mica’s face paled. “She came to the farm, asked after your blessing.”
“I already know,” Crystal said. “She needs some items collected. One item, one brother freed. That’s the deal.”
“That’s it? She couldn’t ask us?”
“An apple from the restless tree and a vial of hangman’s dew,” Crystal said quietly. “I don’t know if it’s the items themselves she needs, or the latent magic in them. You can’t carry the magic. I can.”
Mica studied her before he got to his feet. “I feel like I’ve been asleep,” he said.
“You have been. I’ll take you to Juniper and then I need to go.”
“Who else do you have to rescue?” Mica asked and Crystal bowed her head. “I’m either the first or the last.”
“The first. You’re the oldest, “she said.
“Then the next one will be Coal. What does she want in exchange for him?”
“A vial of hangman’s dew.”
“Where are you going to get that?”
“If I get there by morning, I’ll have a selection of four trees,” Crystal said.
“Then I’m coming with you.”
“You should be going home, or at least talking to Juniper,” Crystal said.
“That’s not an option,” Mica replied and put a hand to her shoulder. “They’re my siblings too.”
Crystal was silent a moment. “Fine,” she said. “But follow my instructions.”