"It is time," Bradeth said suddenly, rising from the boulder she'd used as a seat. She looked at Kira expectantly. "Parril has arrived at Port Salmus. Are you ready?"
Kirra stood as well, though he still eyed Bradeth skeptically. For all her reassurances, he remained doubtful of her claims of teleportation. Nevertheless, he was willing to give her an opportunity to prove him wrong. "Absolutely, what do you need me to do?"
Bradeth moved over the recently disturbed earth where they'd buried her runic leather. She stooped and removed a stone which marked a specific spot for her to stand, then took its place. She waved Kirra toward her, then pointed down directly in front of her. "Stand here," she ordered.
Hesitating for only half a second, Kirra complied. As soon as he reached the spot, Bradeth embraced him, pulling him tight against her body. He fought her for a moment until she said, "We must be this close, to both be inside the rune circle. Stop struggling, or you will interrupt my concentration."
Kirra did as instructed, though he didn't like it. There was nothing at all he liked about being restrained by another person, no matter how necessary it was. He did the best he could to relax, and let Bradeth continue.
"This next part may be difficult for you," Bradeth said, "but I'm going to kiss you, bite your lip, and taste some of your blood. This is the only way I can temporarily fool myself into thinking you and I are one person. I need a piece of you inside of me, integrating with me. I'm telling you this instead of surprising you, because if you struggle from the pain, you could disrupt everything."
Each word widened Kirra's eyes farther. He didn't have the least bit of interest in kissing an Elrok, especially not one who promised him pain. He started shaking his head and said, "I don't think—"
She cut him off with a glare. "That's right, you don't. This has nothing to do with anything other than getting you to the other side. This is the only way for me to take you with me, and now that you know where my circle is buried, I will not leave you here alone. You chose this path when you agreed to come with me, so we are either doing this, or I leave you here as a corpse."
The words left little room for doubt, but the tone alone would've convinced Kirra of the truth behind those words. He considered his options for the briefest of moments, but then nodded in resignation. "Do it, but don't take any longer than you have to."
Bradeth nodded and closed the distance between their mouths. Kirra felt a little tug and then pinch on his lower lip as Bradeth's teeth cut into him. He closed his eyes against the pain. His ears twitched furiously as ancient magic enveloped him. In an instant he felt as if he were falling, then rising again, a feeling he knew well from riding his eagle through the skies; like a little dip before an updraft.
When he opened his eyes again, his surroundings had changed. He stood on a flat rooftop in a small port town. The sound of seabirds filled his still-twitching ears, along with the ringing of bells. To his left was the open sea, a scattering of islands dotting the horizon. To his right, the town of Port Salmus spread along the shore of the bay and up into the low hills beyond. Only a few thousand people lived here, but yet the streets bustled with people. It was a regular stop for many merchants along the sea trading route, though not a major one. Many of the people in the streets, however, were likely foreigners.
They stood atop a high warehouse at the docks, the building wide enough that no one nearby would've been able to see them appear out of nowhere. They might've noticed the grey owl perched on the edge of the roof that seemed to regard the world with contempt. For a brief moment, the owl's head turned almost backward to regard Kirra curiously.
Clicking her tongue, Bradeth separated from Kirra and then whistled. The owl flew toward them, landing on Bradeth's outstretched arm. "Kirra, this is Parril. Parril, this is the Knight I've been grumbling about through our link. He didn't believe we would make it here."
"I stand corrected," Kirra said, stepping away and raising his hands. Speaking reminded him of the pain in his lip, and he reached up and wiped away a small bead of blood. A small price for anyone to pay to teleport here, and he stared at Bradeth with newfound respect. As he took another step backward, he became conscious of the difference in textures beneath his feet. He had crossed over the edge of the leather, identical—to his eye—to the one they'd buried near Pentalus. It had worked exactly as she'd said it would. "So, what we do now?"
"He doesn't even have the decency to apologize," Bradeth said, grunting. "And I did the hard part already. You are the one who said your commander will be here, so it's up to you to get us there."
"And I'm supposed to do that in secret?" Kirra asked, looking Bradeth up and down. "You won't exactly blend in."
Bradeth laughed. "You've never left the Everbright City's influence, have you?" When Kirra stiffened, Bradeth took it for confirmation and continued. "The world is a lot larger than you think it is. Trust me, I've been through most of it. While we Elroks may avoid your city and Pentalus, we go freely most everywhere else. We trade regularly with the merchants of this town, though I have not been here myself."
"So, we'll just hop down from here and look for her then," Kirra said stiffly. He didn't want to give her any more satisfaction than he had already. "I assume she will be in one of three places. She'll be at the mayor's office for coordination, the local guards' barracks for planning, or out hunting the demon right now."
"Well, our day is mostly over," Bradeth said, glancing at the sun heading fast toward the horizon. The color of the sky hadn't begun to turn yet, at least not dramatically, but the sunset would begin soon. "I assume she wouldn't hunt the demon in the dark. Your eagles are not nocturnal."
"One of the first two, then," Kirra agreed. "Since the eagles aren't currently in the sky, we can assume they're currently roosting. Which means they're likely at the barracks. That's the only place in town where they would keep proper housing for the Knights of the Firmament."
Bradeth nodded. "Do you think you can find the barracks? Or should I do the asking?"
Kirra sighed and said, "We can take turns. Or we can just watch the troop movements. Once you know how one army moves, some of the simple things are easy to determine about other armies. The patrols would all start at the barracks, so if we trace them all back . . ." He trailed off as the owl suddenly took off from Bradeth's arm and flew high above the city.
Immediately after, Bradeth bent to pick up the piece of runic leather, rolling it before sliding it into her pack. She looked at Kirra after a moment and said, "That was a good idea, and since I have the same knowledge of how an army moves, I'll use Parril's eyes to cut down our search time."
"That's . . . really useful," Kirra said with surprise. He decided he was being too hard on Bradeth, and said, "A lot of what you've done and said has been really useful. You're very professional, and I can see why you're so determined. You really like to get things done, don't you?"
"I do," Bradeth replied, "I have the blood of chiefs in me. I do not abandon a task until it is finished. I believe for this reason the Shaman Council sent me after Grim, because they know I will do what must be done."
What must be done? Kirra repeated in his head. It sounded as if Bradeth had a second meaning for her words, but he did not feel like questioning her. Instead, he vowed to watch the hardness in her eyes and hoped he had not made a big mistake.
Alsha Tremlaine stood on the roof of the barracks in Port Salmus, watching the setting sun. Her emotions were mixed, her mind troubled. The mayor had told her of the demon sightings, at the farms just east of town. So far, no one had been killed, but many had felt threatened.
But if the demon had not killed anyone, the threat did not feel as immediate to her, though if it were up to her, she would've charged after it already. This was the demon which had killed Kirra and many others she had fought alongside over the years. This demon could not be allowed to go free, and she was eager to end it.
She cursed herself for her vengeance and tried to lose it in the setting sun. Vengeance led to folly, for one lost themselves to anger and hatred if guided by nothing but revenge. Mistakes were easy to make when all one cared about was destroying the enemy.
She reminded herself that it was also her duty to kill the demon, to allow her orders to motivate her instead of her anger. It did little good, and she merely gripped tighter on the railing at the edge of the roof.
"Lady Alsha," a voice spoke from behind her. She turned to see Fenri, a young but accomplish soldier under her command. He saluted her and approached.
"Speak, Fenri," Alsha commanded. "You are supposed to be sleeping along with the others so we can get a head start tomorrow."
"I was still in the mess when a runner approached me, Commander," he replied. "They were looking for you, but I told them I would deliver the message in their stead. It seems you have visitors, a Knight and an Elrok."
Alsha raised an eyebrow but remained otherwise composed. "Do you know the identity of either?"
"I do not," Fenri said. "If the runner knew them, he failed to relay them to me. Unfortunately, I also forgot to ask."
"Understood," Alsha replied. She sighed and glanced once more toward the colors gathering on the horizon. Change was in the air. Nearby, a light-colored owl swooped down to catch a mouse on a rooftop across the street, reminding her that some changes were good, and others bad, depending on who was hunter and who was the prey. "I suppose I'll go find out what this is all about then. I do hope the Knight didn't come to recall us, but the presence of the Elrok is even more curious."
She smiled at Fenri and then left the rooftop, heading straight for the office at the front of the barracks. Wasting time wouldn't serve her, even if the Knight had come to recall her. There was nothing she could do about orders, other than choose whether to obey them. A few minutes would do nothing but stall a decision.
When she walked into the office, however, all thoughts of orders fled from her. Kirra stood before her, talking with an Elrok sporting a large bow and heavy pack. Alsha stared at Kirra as if he were a ghost, and didn't act until he turned toward her and smiled. "Commander!" he said excitedly, "I'm glad I found you."
"What . . ." Alsha shook her head, unable to process this strange fortune. "You're alive? Where have you been? What are you . . ." she trailed off, conscious of the Elrok's eyes watching her. "Who is this?"
"Bradeth, Fletcher of the Clan of Lions," Kirra said formally. "And the reason I was able to reach you so quickly. We should speak in private, however." He glanced at the bored soldier sitting behind a nearby desk, playing with a blacksmiths' puzzle. Although he didn't look up, Alsha agreed with Kirra's desire to avoid any eavesdroppers.
"I will make use of the council room," Alsha announced to the soldier. He jumped to attention, dropping the metal puzzle to the desk with a clatter as he saluted.
"Yes, right away, Lady Alsha," the man said, reaching for a ring of keys on his belt. He moved around the desk and started down a hallway. Alsha stepped in behind him, knowing the other two would follow. The soldier led them to a room, unlocked the door and held it for them, and then excused himself. A heavy wooden council table took up most of the room, and a large slate board occupied one wall, a tray of chalk pieces sitting next to it.
"Before I get into anything else," Alsha began when the door closed, "I would like to know why you are here, Fletcher Bradeth. In my life I have only met two Elroks. Your people do not visit Pentalus or the Everbright City, not even for trade. I don't mean any offense, but I must question this." Her eyes narrowed dangerously on Bradeth, but she gave no other sign of being uncomfortable.
"She is—" Kirra began, but Bradeth cut him off with a glare.
"I can answer for myself, Kirra," she growled, then turned to Alsha and spoke more formally, "I understand your caution, Lady Alsha Tremlaine of the Everbright City. I share it, as I would not be here if I thought the answer lay elsewhere. I have no love for the Knights of the Firmament, but Kirra believes you may be able to tell me where someone is."
"Oh?" Alsha replied. She took a seat at the head of the council table, spreading her arms wide as she added, "Ask away then. I can't guarantee I can, or will, be willing to help you."
Bradeth nodded as if that was the expected answer. "I'm seeking a Fedain named Grim, or Grimfaeth. It is imperative that I find him as soon as possible. My trail has led me to you, and I hope you'll be able to tell me where he has gone."
Alsha sighed heavily. "Unfortunately, Grim was sealed inside the Pillar of Ibrix along with the demon. They were engaged in combat when Neredos arrived. Neredos chose to seal them both, in order to protect the city from the demon."
Bradeth's body stiffened with each word. She spoke through gritted teeth, her eyes dark. "You mean to tell me that he is dead?"
"Not dead," Alsha replied. She shook her head, smiling reassuringly. She wanted to set the Elrok at ease, if that were possible. "Recently, a man was freed from one of those pillars by Salidar thulu'Khant. He had been in there for eight centuries and hadn't aged a second. I assume Grim is very much alive as well."
If Bradeth was reassured, she didn't show it. In fact, her next words showed the level of her displeasure. "Neither alive nor dead but unreachable," Bradeth growled, slamming a fist down on the table hard enough to make the wood splinter and crack. "That is the worst possible fate. It will mean war for the clans, an end to nearly half a century of peace. If I cannot free him—"
Alsha blanched at the thought and scoffed, "Free him? And unleash Ibrix on the world again? Are you insane!?"
"When I tell you this is the worst thing you could have told me, you had better believe it," Bradeth spat. "I must leave at once. The sooner I get back to Pentalus, the sooner I'll be able to figure out some way of freeing the demon. Perhaps King Maxthane can help me. Maybe then I'll be able to—"
Alsha jumped to her feet, drawing her sword and leveling it at the Elrok. "I do not know you, but you have just declared intent to free a demon to a Knight of the Firmament. By my sacred charge, I cannot let that slide."
Bradeth eyed Alsha's sword with contempt. She chuckled softly after a moment and said, her features softening slightly, "I should've known a human would be this shortsighted. Even one whom Kirra speaks of so highly. If I free the demon, I would kill it myself just to have a chance of a conversation with Grimfaeth. I have no intention of unleashing a demon upon the city of Pentalus, only of freeing the Fedain."
"That matters little to me," Alsha replied, her sword remaining as steady as ever. "I am charged with keeping the demons contained, and that means I must place you under arrest. Kirra, go rouse some of the locals so we can find a cell for this one."
Kirra looked between Alsha and Bradeth and sighed before leaving the room. Bradeth didn't move at all, her eyes never leaving Alsha's face. "You do not know what you are doing, and by detaining me for this reason you will risk war with the Elrok clans whether they are united or not."
This declaration gave Alsha pause, but not enough for her to reconsider her position. When Kirra arrived a short time later with four of Port Salmus' garrison, Alsha didn't hesitate to tell them to take Bradeth away.
To her surprise, the Elrok did not resist. Instead, Bradeth calmly handed over her bow and pack, and left with her escort to some other corner of the garrison where she would be held for further questioning. Once she was gone, Kirra said softly, "I really don't think that was necessary, Alsha."
"Oh?" Alsha said, "Does that mean you question my orders? I'm not sure yet if I shouldn't throw you in a cell with her. I didn't want to believe that you were dead, but finding you here and alive raises some uncomfortable questions, especially considering the company you've kept. Tell me everything, Kirra. Leave nothing out."
Kirra sighed, but he opened his mouth anyway. He told her of how Maxthane had brought him back from the brink of death, then led immediately into Prism's battle with Fasha, and how he and Styx had arrived too late to save the old monk. He spoke of The Shade, and even found himself confessing to the budding relationship between him and Styx, though he left the complication of Maxthane out of that part.
Alsha listened to it all with a neutral expression, feeling little need to ask any questions. Kirra was being thorough, at least enough to satisfy her curiosity. Only when he had finally recounted his journey with Bradeth—she raised an eyebrow at the concept of teleportation but accepted it with a single nod—did she speak.
"Sounds like you've had quite the adventure, living in The Shade, traveling with Elroks . . ." She shook her head, trying to wrap it around the scope of the story. "I think you know that I'm disappointed you didn't report to me. I have been worried about you, even flying all the way here with white knuckles on the reins because I couldn't get the thought of you from my mind. You know I fought to have you added to my unit, because I saw potential in you. I thought I had failed you, and led you to death . . . You should've reported back."
Kirra slumped in one of the chairs, looking defeated. "I know, I just . . . I was with Styx, still in a bit of a haze . . . I guess I just thought a few days wouldn't matter. I should've known better, but maybe . . ."
He didn't continue. When the silence stretched on too long for her comfort, Alsha said, "Maybe what?"
"I didn't want to go back to the Everbright City," Kirra said at last, meeting her eyes with defiance as if he expected her to deny the claim. "The Shade welcomed me faster than my peers ever did."
Alsha sucked in her breath, wanting to snap at him for making such an absurd statement, but she saw the sincerity in his eyes and stopped. She considered his face, letting his words sink in. She had fought for him to be in her unit, because she saw his potential, but also because she'd seen his issues. She liked misfit soldiers best, and Kirra had been one of the most misfit she'd ever had. He had a point.
"I think you've done well in our unit, so far," Alsha said honestly. "The other soldiers seem to like you, and I think, in time, you would come to like them too. But . . ." She sighed, leaning back in her chair and tapping her fingers in time to her thoughts. "Unfortunately, I still have to discipline you. I have to think of something that will be fair punishment for your failure to report in."
"How about you give me my discharge papers?" Kirra suggested.
Alsha recoiled as if he'd slapped her. "Discharge? You want to leave the Knights? Kirra, you're not going to get anywhere by running away from this . . . You have to face—"
"Discharge me, Alsha," Kirra demanded. His eyes left little room for debate. "I can no longer serve the King in good conscience, though neither do I intend to rebel against him. I simply want to leave. The nobility, the Order of the Firmament . . . They are both corrupt and caused me a great deal more harm than they've ever done any good for me. I'm done."
"I know there's a few questionable members in the Order," Alsha said slowly, "but to call it corrupt . . . what do you base that on?"
Kirra didn't answer immediately, and Alsha almost spoke again before he jumped in. "How much do you know about what happened in my first unit?"
Something in his voice caught her and drew her in. "Not much," she said at last. "I know you had some issues with your commander and your peers. It was Commander Elsfrath, wasn't it?"
Kirra nodded. "Let me tell you a story, it began when I was ten, and involve some people you likely wouldn't suspect . . ."
Alsha's eyes widened with every word as Kirra recounted the abuse he suffered at the hands of his guardian and then his fellow soldiers. Before the end, she felt the call to revenge bubbling up inside her once again, far hotter than it had ever raged before.
Bradeth glanced through the bars of her window, noting Parril perched on a nearby rooftop. With the magic she knew, getting out of the cell would be easy, but she had to think of a way to get all her supplies back first. Since both the pack and her bow contained some of her blood, she knew from a quick divination through her tattoos that they were both down the hall from her cell.
But they were likely guarded, and she couldn't guarantee she could get them back without killing any of the guards. She wanted to avoid that, if at all possible, since killing any of King Neredos' soldiers would mean a manhunt. Since she intended to spend a great deal of time in Pentalus in the future, she couldn't afford to have people looking for her.
She took stock of her resources again. The cell was made to contain human-sized prisoners. Besides the chamber pot, the only other object in the room was a small cot that wouldn't fit her even if she clutched her knees to her chest. Simply sitting on it made it creak, and she doubted it would survive if she put all her body weight on it.
With a grin, she did just that, swinging her legs off the floor and laying across the cot as heavily as possible. It groaned in protest, the heavy bolts straining to keep the cot anchored to the wall, but they held. Frowning, Bradeth decided to focus on a different tactic for now. She rose from the cot again and looked out the window.
Parril remained free, and that meant tools could be brought to her, but that brought her back to her first problem. Even if she salvaged scraps from the broken cot and found some way to escape her cell with them, she would still have to deal with the guards.
The guards . . . how many were there? With a determined grimace, she bit into the flesh of her hand hard enough to draw blood. Growling to mask the pain, she dipped her other hand into the blood and inscribed the Elrok symbol for 'human' on the stone floor. It would be a weak focus, hardly anything at all, but she hoped it would be enough. She pressed her hand against the symbol and drew in deep, meditative breaths, searching through the stone toward the nearby chamber where her gear waited.
Nothing. She sensed no one there, but she could not be sure if that was because her divination had failed or if there truly were no occupants in the room. Kosh!" she cursed, using the Elrok word for 'murder'. With a dissatisfied grunt, she threw herself back onto the cot. It groaned more than last time but remained anchored.
Then she sensed something, movement nearby. No, not near her, near Parril. With a start, she glanced out the window, expecting to see some great danger. Realizing her mistake, she calmed her nerves and focused on the link with her familiar. Parril saw something moving on the horizon, out in the hills. Something big.
Bradeth could almost see it herself, but the link wasn't quite that strong. She knew the something had wings and moved like both a lizard and a cat while on the ground. It currently slinked along the distant hills, stalking prey. Stalking . . .
A woman's scream split through the night, rising above all other sounds. It seemed the world quieted in response, as the scream echoed through the blood of all who heard it. Lightning flashed in the hills and the scream ended in an instant.
The night erupted in sound, shouts coming from down the hall and all around her, the garrison rousing as cries of 'Demon!' rose in the lookouts' throats. With a growl of frustration, Bradeth once again searched for the means to escape. She had prey to hunt, and she was stuck in a cell!
But a wide grin then spread across her face. This was an answer of sorts to her dilemma. The soldiers could hardly hold it against her if she broke out to help them fight the demon. Still lying on the cot, she dipped into the blood on her hand again and scratched out another rune, this time on the stone wall. Her name.
As more screams sounded, more lightning flashing in response, Bradeth shut them all out. Focusing the wall, she drew on the stone, connecting herself with it as strongly as possible through her blood. Her body grew heavier with each passing second, the anchored cot straining to hold her.
All at once it pulled free from the wall, some bolts snapping and others sliding out. She collapsed on top of the broken canvas, groaning at the pain of hitting the floor. Momentarily dazed, she released her connection to the stone and staggered to her feet. Searching through the rubble, she picked three of the whole bolts and moved to the bars at the front of the cell.
With a careful hand, she drew identical runes with her blood on both the bars and the bolts, then focused again. She wedged a bolt against an unmarked bar and pulled with all her strength. Even the strongest human she'd ever met wouldn't have been able to bend the bolt, but she was no human, and adrenaline soared through her veins. Her Elrok strength proved enough, and the bolt bent around the bar. One of the marked bars bent inward in tandem.
Her success reinforced her determination, and she repeated the process with the other marked bolts, and the marked bars bent in turn, this time both bending outward. Discarding the bent bolts, Bradeth moved to the bars and slid sideways through the gap she made. It was tight but sucking in her breath allowed her to fit.
By the time she was free, the whole city seemed roused by the cry of "demon". As silent as a mountain lion, Bradeth sneaked down the hall to retrieve her bow. It was time to prove her worth.
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