“Dear girl, if you pour those two together, you’ll send us flying for miles.” Aunt Dria called from her workstation. I halted my movements a split second before I combined my two concoctions, holding one in the air trying to assess what she saw. My eyes cast over the first beaker containing a serum of deep forest green, its pungent herbal scent permeating our small work shack. I flicked my attention to the heated potion swirling on the flame below me, taking in its swirling colours as it boiled. Bright gold, streaks of soft white and-oh. Small bursts of bright orange bubbled to the surface before sinking. Too much sodium. The medicinal drink in my hand would start a fire for miles the second they touched. I flashed Aunty a wry smile from where she sorted her stones, trying to fight through a pile of peridot.
Living with my aunt since childhood, she let me explore her cozy and magical workspace whilst she assembled her many potions, poisons, and experiments. Our small shack disguised as an outhouse, with a hidden stairway down to our lab. Aunt Dria adores recounting the story of my first, albeit accidental potion when I mixed an anti-aging spell and a potion meant to assist in crop growth behind her back. It’s result was a seemingly immortal bush of black Dahlia’s growing ever faster. A year ago, I had to move the bush deep into the surrounding forest as it grew too big for secrecy no matter how much I trimmed it.
“You’d think after nine years, I’d learn not to get distracted when measuring possible explosives.” I sighed, reaching for a small pitcher of water to extinguish the fire.
“You would watch your hand, or I may begin to think you’re trying to sabotage me and take my riches for yourself.” Aunty Dria joked, gesturing to the piles in front of her. I giggled at the look of exasperation on her face. She had hours of sorting ahead. Gems and stones thrown together with bioluminescent thistles towered over her shoulder.
Bouncing over to her, I pulled a jar off the shelf and set to work on a collection of sunstones. I pretended not to notice her curious glances from the corner of my eye, appraising me with hazel eyes-so like my father's-my chest squeezed.
“What bothers you, Aislin?” She questioned, setting her stones down and leaning her head on her hand.
“Nothing bothers me.” I answered, focusing hard on my sorting. Suddenly sunstones were the most interesting thing on the planet. Aunty snorted, pushing herself up and stealing my jar away. “Hey! Aunt Dria I’m trying to help-”
“Is it the seamstresses girl?” She inquired, turning my head to meet her eyes.
I swallowed, folding my hands into my lap. The little girl, barely past her eighth summer fell ill three days ago. Some sort of virus was sweeping through our village, assaulting the children and leaving them little more than immobile shells of the carefree souls they were. Aunt Dria and I worked for hours a day, desperate to create a cure, but we had limited resources to test on. Most families would sell us out for a loaf of bread. If soldiers knew of our alchemy, we would be forced to watch our livelihood burn before facing execution. “Perhaps we could ask her mother to try my new medicine? She is kind, she would want to save her daughter.”
Aunt Dria shook her head. “It’s too risky, love. We must lay low until we are certain our cure will work.”
I groaned. “But we’ll never be certain until we try it!”
“We have to wait, Aislin.” She declared. “Our customers are desperate, not loyal. If we are not cautious-”
A bang from above cut her short. We sat silently for a breath, our hearts pounding too loud for comfort. The bang came again.
A third time until a muffled shout floated down to us.
“Open up in the name of Emperor Asmath!” A gravelly voice demanded. “All who surrender themselves will be shown mercy. All who attempt to hide will be punished accordingly.”
Terror and confusion crackled in the air between our locked eyes. No. It was designed as an outhouse; they would have no reason to suspect anything was down here. Another bang sounded, too loud and far too aggressive for comfort. It snapped Aunty into action. She leapt up, grabbing my arm and hauling me to my feet before scurrying around the lab. Splintering wood echoed above us as the guardsmen broke the door in. Rough footsteps pounded above, too many men attempting to fit into the small space at once, scouring for the hidden door.
“Aunt Dria, what do we do?” I whispered, fear shaking my bones so hard I nearly dropped the bag she shoved into my hands.
“You’re going to go through your uncles' tunnel.” She said, piling herbs, metals, stones, and chemicals into the bag. Uncle Mavers tunnel. He carved it for us as a means to escape should we ever need it. It was his last contribution to this family before being drafted into the emperor's sick war.
“You’re coming with me?” I asked, still frozen in place, jolting with every sound above. Aunt Dria met my stare. Resignation, determination, fear, love, and rage flashed behind her eyes. She hurried towards me, taking me into her arms.
“You will survive this day, Aislin Lauman. You will survive and you will make a place where you can live peacefully.” She whispered into my hair.
“Down here!” A not-so-distant shout bellowed. Heavy footsteps thundered down the stairs. We were out of time. Aunt Dria ushered me to the wall. Pulling its false stone door aside, she shoved me in with a look holding too much love. I choked out a desperate sob hoping my eyes conveyed the same when the door slid shut. I took a hesitant step forward. A breath went by, and before I even told them to, my feet were carrying me back and my fingers were sliding the door open a small crack.
Soldiers burst into the room; weapons drawn. Far too many weapons for one woman. The man at their head opened his mouth to speak but aunty gave him no time to spout his orders. She dove for my abandoned bottle of medicine and threw it into the still hot pot of sodium filled serum.
Our beloved lab went up in a brilliant blaze of emerald and gold flames and Aunt Dria with it, her eyes burning with satisfied rebellion. I slammed the door shut before the fire could reach me but a blast of heat still raged through the stone. I threw my hands over my mouth to stifle my horrified sob, stumbling down the pitch-black tunnel unsure of where it would lead me. “Aunt Dria.” I sobbed out as I ran. Her soothing voice seemed to follow me down passageway, calming and frightening me together. The shadowy depths of the tunnel beckoned, and unwillingly, I followed.