Fragments of mathematical equations appeared in the air. From below, it looked as if calculations had been scrawled across the dark evening sky. The numbers and letters scintillated, momentarily blotting out the stars. After the flash, the writing disintegrated into ribbons of iridescent dust, which eddied upwards and joined together into an indistinct whirling mass. As the dust glittered and swirled, it formed the silhouette of a young woman.
Cali felt her body stretch, and then coagulate as she was pulled out of the inky void between universes. Having deposited Cali at her destination, the magic surrounding her dissolved. In its place, she felt a cool breeze against her skin. It was strong and came from below.
Cali’s brain pieced together the frantic signals from her inner ears. She glanced down. She was falling, plummeting towards a sea of green leaves. Without pausing to think, Cali’s left hand traced a formulae in the air. But when Cali tried to speak the paired incantation, her tongue stumbled on familiar words.
The incomplete magic slipped away from her. “Focus Cali,” she muttered to herself, wasting precious time to steady her nerves. She could already distinguish individual leaves on the trees below; she was running out of time.
Cali repeated the incantation, her haste almost causing her to trip over her words again. Nevertheless, the magic took hold. Beneath her, air formed into a cushion and began to slow her descent. Relieved by the success of her magic, Cali took the moment to look around and... “Shit!”
A branch was mere centimetres from her head. Unavoidable. In the seconds remaining before the impact, Cali grasped at the pouch containing her prize, ensuring the vial wouldn’t be jarred loose.
Then there was a loud CRACK as the back of Cali’s head collided with the branch.
Her head swam with pain. She struggled to remain awake, but pain overwhelmed her consciousness and the world went dark.
When Cali awoke she felt something soft and spongy beneath her. Due to the throbbing pain in her head, her recent memories were foggy; she recalled... falling?
Opening her eyes, Cali discovered that she was laying on a thick mat of rubbery fallen leaves, and loose twigs. As Cali shifted to a sitting position, she felt the litter deform under her weight and spring back into place. Curious... it appeared the leaves had high elasticity. That explained her survival.
As she sat amidst the leaves Cali wondered: how long had she been unconscious? She supposed it didn’t matter; either way moving was a necessity. She’d done everything in her power to ensure a clean get away, but with a score this big everyone would be falling over themselves to catch her.
In a flurry of motion, Cali leapt to her feet, and immediately regretted it. Her head started to spin. She cursed, stumbled, and, despite the vertigo, remained upright.
Cali’s hand went to the back of her head, probing the injury. It was tender, but nothing felt broken. When she pulled her fingers away, they glistened with fresh blood. If her blood hadn’t dried yet, she couldn’t have been unconscious that long. Her injury seemed superficial. If she gave herself fifteen minutes to recover, Cali figured she could travel.
But she added ‘find medical treatment’ to her mental list of essential tasks regardless. While the injury felt superficial, an infection would be a serious problem. Satisfied she was hale, Cali surveyed her surroundings; she was in a forest clearing. In the centre of the clearing, moonlight illuminated a circular cluster of polished granite boulders. Though the boulders were well weathered, their shapes appeared unnatural. Cali filled that fact under, ‘information to investigate later;’ right now she had more pressing concerns.
Foremost of which was the need to get some distance from this place. Despite her attempt at a clean get away, pursuit could be imminent. From one of the pouches on her belt she produced a small black compass and set the heading for South West. Cali willed the throbbing pain in her head to ease as she slipped away from the clearing and followed her bearing deeper into the forest. With every step, Cali tapped a button on the side of her compass logging her progress. If she needed to find that clearing again, she intended to have a less aerial means of reaching it.
As the clearing receded, her surroundings grew darker and darker. The moonlight that had illuminated the clearing struggled to penetrate the thick canopy of the forest. Cali halted before the light faded entirely.
She groaned. Cali had hoped to avoid casting magic until the pain in her head had diminished. This spell in particular was the worst, since it gave her a headache on the best of days. However, necessity dictated she be able to see, which meant putting up with a little extra pain.
She traced the formulae in the air and whispered the incantation. Moments later her silver pupils began to glow. The magically induced headache seemed to reverberate against her head wound. Goddamn, it felt like someone was playing bongos inside her brain. Cali ground her teeth as she managed to stifle a cry of pain. Taking a few moments, she adjusted the magical energies flowing through her, until the pain subsided to a tolerable level.
After the magic stabilized, Cali felt a strong sense of weariness accompanied by a sudden bout of paresthesia that coursed down her right forearm. It felt exactly like she had just hit her funny bone. “Well that’s new,” she muttered to nobody in particular. Cali added, ‘pins and needles after casting magic’ to the growing list of problems she would need to address. At least the spell seemed to be functioning correctly, so the darkness was no longer a concern.
Cali stifled a gasp. The forest surrounding her was unlike any she had encountered. The trees were at least kilometre tall and their bark was a rich tapestry of colours, like a vibrant rainbow eucalyptus.
The air within the forest was cool and damp. Massive clouds of mist floated between the trees. Even with her magically enhanced sight, vision was going to be troublesome.
Beneath her feet, the forest floor was covered in a thick mat of wet, rubbery leaves. The leaves absorbed and dampened the sound of her footsteps. They would be a blessing for remaining undetected, but she’d have to remain extra vigilant for anything trying to creep up on her.
The forest was teeming with life. The air hummed with the sounds of insects. Every few minutes she paused to brush off some new crawling insect or to swat at a new variety of biting bug. Her bites itched. She hoped they were harmless.
Every few minutes, the steady thrum would be interrupted by the call of some unseen animal, or the cry of a bird overhead. With each sound, Cali crouched, and observed her surroundings before proceeding. Twice she hadn’t even been sure there was a sound, but had hid and observed regardless.
Surrounded by the nightly noises of the forest, she continued southwest for another agonizing hour, until she spied a break in the trees ahead. A clearing. Therein, illuminated by moonlight, stood a ring of polished, unnatural-looking stones. The boulders were near identical to those she had seen when she first awoke, albeit shorter and more weathered. Like the earlier clearing, this one was occupied by only fallen leaves and boulders. It was as if the vegetation itself refused to encroach upon the cairn.
Her eyes scanned the glade. No immediate dangers stood out. She grabbed a large branch from the forest floor, tossed it into the ring of stones, and waited. Five minutes passed. Nothing had happened. She let out a short, sharp breath of relief. It was safe enough for a break. During the last hour, her weariness had continued to build; it now threatened to overwhelm her. Having left the teleportation terminus behind, she could take a few minutes to stop, collect her thoughts and rest. A vantage point atop one of the rocks promised clear sightlines, so nothing could sneak up on her.
Steps slow and weary, Cali made her way towards one of the large flat topped boulders. She collapsed onto the rock. At last, she had a moment to think. Her hands shook. She could have died from that fall. That had been close. Too close.
But she’d pulled it off. She’d escaped. Overcome by emotions, tears started to roll down her face. Without thinking, her hand moved to dash away the evidence of her weakness, and then stopped. Her arm fell back to her side as she silently granted herself permission to cry. A few minutes passed this way, until her turbulent emotions settled. Crying was cathartic. She could already felt the intense emotional pressure bleeding away.
Moments later, Cali’s hand flew to her hip and rummaged through a pouch. Seconds passed. Agonizing seconds, before her hand returned triumphant, grasping a small vial. Her prize was intact. It hadn’t broken during the fall.
A wry smile crept onto her face, and her silver eyes glittered as she stared at the vial. It was made of a strange black metal covered in dim glowing blue formulae, and stoppered with a large flawless diamond. Her greatest heist. No. The greatest heist.
Emotions soaring, Cali leaned back onto her elbows, tilted her head upwards and stared at a night sky. It was filled with unfamiliar stars. “Llyr, my new home,” she whispered to herself, trying unsuccessfully to hold back fresh tears. At last she continued, in small choked voice, “I’m finally free.”