Dylis had always been a good swimmer. She'd more or less been living in the sea from the day she'd learned to stay afloat on her own and she'd made sure to keep her skills sharp. Living in cities where everyone traveled by boats and barges, it was a valued aid when you had to chase suspects wherever they went.
This notwithstanding, swimming with your hands and legs bond, after a five meter long drop, was no walk in the park. That the fall had knocked the breath out of her was no help.
Unable to kick or push her way up, Dylis implemented a wave like motion, as if she were a child playing at being a dolphin. Her boots were filling up with water and her jacket grew heavier by the second, so it took her two attempts to get some air. She was sinking again before she knew it.
Focus. You have a goal. Focus. She'd caught sight of the rope, scratching against the side of the hull. The deeper she sank, the harder it was to spot, with the water and the ship both blocking out the sunlight, but it was moving, unlike the rest of the darkness.
She pushed her hips downwards, then up, and managed to wiggle her way to the hull. The sting as she cut her hand open on a barnacle was made worse by the saltwater, but she gritted her teeth and began rubbing her arms and legs against damned things. Her jacket and pants protected her from the worst of it, but her hands got a nick or five as she worked.
The ropes fell away just as the need for air made itself known with a vengeance. Kicking and clawing at the water, her pulse hammering in her ears - and wasn't that and eerie sensation! - she got her nose and mouth up in the air long enough to gulp down another breath.
The arms of her jacket tangled as she began to take it off, the saltwater making the fabric stiff and uncooperative. It wasn't the first time she'd had to undress while swimming though, and she got it off herself before she could sink too deep. The boots were more of a challenge, but before long she was clad in just her pants, her socks and her shirt.
Cursing her own slowness, she went up for air a third time and then dived. Swimming down alongside the keelhauling rope, she soon noticed a shape, a pitch black silhouette against the dimness of the water and the hull. Fighting to keep her head from hitting the ship, which swayed on the waves above, she squinted and tried to keep her gaze locked on the vague shape. She reached out, ready to catch it.
It was a rock. The rope was tied to a big rock. How? Why?
Her air was running out. Her lungs had started to burn. The urge to swim for the surface was getting stronger and stronger, canceling out any need to solve mysteries. Clumsily she began to worm her way out from under the ship. She briefly considered using the rope for leverage, but the outline of hundreds of barnacles on the hull changed her mind quickly.
With the hull to follow she knew which was up, so that was a small blessing. However, with the hull as guide she could also estimate how far she had left to swim, and the distance was disheartening. She was far below the surface. She was too far, too deep.
Something bumped against her back. She let out a gasp, effectively losing what little air she had left. Panic loomed, threatening to take over, as whatever it was bumped against her again, this time harder.
Dylis closed her eyes. If she was to be eaten by some sea monster, she'd prefer not having to watch her death come.
The third bump became a steady push at the small of her back. She was becoming lightheaded, so she wasn't sure she could trust what her body was telling her, but it felt like she was being pushed forward, and fast. The weight of the water on her face and chest made her skin quiver.
And then her head broke the surface. She took a deep breath, inhaling some water, which set of a coughing fit. The pressure at her back gave her one last push and then disappeared, leaving her to fend for herself. Don't panic. Panic means splashing and screaming and cramped legs. Panic and you sink. Panic and you're dead.
This mental mantra wasn't exactly helping.
The pressure returned, this time from below. She yelped as her whole body was pushed above the water. Whatever it was that had rescued her, she was sitting on it. Her eyes still tightly shut she lowered her hands and tried to map out what it was.
It was wide, that was for sure. She could barely straddle it and its strange skin continued on beyond her reach. It was slippery to the touch, like unnaturally soft and tough leather, with odd bumps here and there. Cracking one eye open, she confirmed its color to be gray.
It's a whale. The sensation of surrealism left her numb. I'm sitting on a humpbacked whale. Waves were lapping at her legs and waist. She got sprayed with a fine mist of water as the creature exhaled through the hole in its head.
This brought her back into action. Twisting to her left as carefully as she knew how, she tried to catch sight of the ship or the island. The island was there, towering above them, but the ship was nowhere in sight. It must be on the other side. Or it's sunk.
Tearing her eyes away from the horizon that peaked out from behind one of the cliffs, she noted that the water was full of whales. On the back of one, not five meters from her, sat Thais. She gave Dyils a cheerful, but tired wave. "Are you un-"
The sound cut out. It was just gone. Relief washed over Dylis. The sudden absence of noise felt like a healer's touch on a broken leg. Thais' lips were still moving, however, and her forehead was wrinkling into a worried frown.
Dylis shook herself. 'I'm fine!' she signed. 'I just can't hear you. The Field Marshal must have run out of magic.'
'I am glad!' Thais signed back.
The look on her face was a little too cheerful for Dylis' taste. 'You're looking awfully chipper for someone trapped in the middle of nowhere, slowly being drained of all life, with your friends trapped in the hands of a madman.'
Thais tilted her head in a questioning manner. 'Chipper?'
'Too happy.' Dylis rubbed a hand against her right temple. Everything ached, but her head was the worst.
She hadn't been expecting Thais to laugh. Or maybe her eyes were fooling her and Thais was actually crying. At this point she almost didn't care. 'I am happy! We are safe. Why should I not be happy?'
Dylis bared her teeth in a dog like snarl. 'Safe? You call this safe?'
Thais' eyes widened, as if in realization. 'You didn’t see him, did you?'
'Who?' Dylis signed, her gestures exaggerated with frustration.
'Nikon!' The grin that split Thais' face looked to be part relief and part victory waiting to happen. 'He untied me and sent these lovely creatures to help us. Or did you think I had magic enough left to guide a family of whales?'
'Nikon?' Dylis curled in on herself, bracing for the humiliating memory of their capture. 'You do recall what he did to us the last time we saw him?'
'I am sure he had his reasons,' Thais signed. 'I am not about to reject his help when it can get us the bracelets. He still had enough strength left to send the whales to us and if you can not hear anymore it must mean your Field Marshal has been dealt with.'
As if this was a signal of some sort, the whales began to turn and swim back the way they'd come, Thais and Dylis kept securely on their backs. It took them less than a minute to swim around the edge of the island.
The ship was still afloat. The sails of the smallest mast had come undone, fluttering in the wind, and there looked to be little to no activity on deck.
They approached without being greeted by gunshots, which Dylis thought of as a step up in hospitality. The lack of movement along the railing was worrying, but Dylis pushed that aside for the moment. They were at a low angle. If the crew were keeping to the middle of the deck, she and Thais wouldn't be able to see them until they'd boarded. She wasn't looking forward to that.
'Someone is talking!' Thais signed, when they were close enough to see the individual boards that made up the hull. 'I do not recognize the voice but- Nikon! She is talking to Nikon!'
Dylis wished there was some way to signal the whale to go faster. 'She?'
'Yes, it sounds like a she.' Thais leaned forward and angled her head so that her left ear was pointed up towards the ship. 'I keep missing words they say, but their voices are the only sound I hear. No fighting.'
'Just means there could be a lull. Keep quiet and follow my lead.' Dylis scanned the hull. There had to be some rope, some makeshift handholds they could grab on to.
The riderless whales were gaining speed. They passed hers and Thais', who up until then had been in the lead, and as one they rammed straight into the side of the ship.
Dylis cursed to herself. 'They've lost their minds. Jump!'
The water was almost a welcoming blanket of warmth after time spent sitting up in the air with wet clothes on. Dylis glanced over her shoulder to see if Thais had followed her, which she had, and then began to swim towards the ship's stern. The whales seemed to have lost interest in the ship, but she wasn't taking any chance. She kept a respectful distance from them as she swam.
The stern proved to be the perfect target for someone who wished to climb aboard. Dylis couldn't help but smile at the sight of ropes, carved decorations and windows, just waiting to be used as stepping stones. They'd have to climb past the captain's cabin, which would lengthen their ascent with a good four meters above the railing, but that was merely a fact at this point, not a problem.
Thais looked worse for wear. She made it to Dylis' side and clung to a carving of a snarling wolf, but she was panting and coughing.
'Will you make it?' Dylis asked, frowning. Thais looked like a pleasant stroll down the shoreline would have ended her, much less a climb up the side of a ship.
Thais shook her head. 'Not sure,' she signed, the gesture almost unintelligible with her fingers clutching the wolf head.
Dylis bit at the inside of her bottom lip. She could tie Thais to the ship and hope she could stay awake long enough not to drown before she could be pulled aboard, but that was risky. 'I'll just carry you then.'
'Carry me?' It was Thais' turn to frown. 'I do not not think...' She lost her grip and would have gone under the ship if Dylis hadn't grabbed her arm.
'That settles it, I'm carrying you.' Dylis pulled Thais closer, careful that neither of them ended up with their heads under water. 'Get on my back and wrap your arms under my armpits and onto my shoulders.' She guided one of Thais' arms to mimic her instructions and the other soon followed on its own. 'Here we go!'
It took three tries to get out of the water, gravity reclaiming her body with a vengeance. Her arms felt heavy, but she refused to let that bother her. If we fall, we'll land softly.
Thais clung to her back tightly. Dylis had to smile as she felt a nose bump against her neck, as Thais buried closer. It felt nice and familiar, giving a piggyback ride to someone smaller, someone trusting.
Her arms were losing their stiffness. The stay in the brig had been unpleasant but restful. Other than the short swim she'd gone for, she hadn't exerted herself for days. While that made the first pulls a little trickier than usual, her muscles were ready for the rest to come. She kept her eyes on the next handhold, the next stepping stone - be they lions or ropes or window decorations - and did her best to not grin too widely. They'd be up top in no time.
Thais let go of her with one hand and Dylis froze mid motion, reaching for a carving of a rabbit. Before she could move to grab a hold of Thais, Thais' free hand appeared before her eyes. 'I can hear Glaw. He is asking about us.'
Dylis' face split into a grin. Relief washed over her like a tidal wave and she almost lost her grip on the rope she was clinging to. She nodded and Thais returned her hand to its previous location, holding on tight. Dylis took a hold of the rabbit and heaved herself up to the window of the captain's cabin.
It was empty. The window decorations were made out of iron and quite elaborate, which allowed for good climbing the rest of the way. Adrenaline pumping through her veins Dylis grabbed a hold of the railing and pulled herself over it, dumping herself an Thais in a graceless heap on the roof of the cabin.
There was no one there either. The rudder had been left unmanned and there were spots of blood flecking the boards. Dylis got up as quickly as she could and rushed across the roof, to survey what was happening on the deck.
She caught sight of Glaw right away and was seconds away from doing something as childish as jumping with joy. Wolf lay by the main mast in a pile of ropes, Vita was dragging herself along the deck not far from him and Aelius was standing by the railing opposite where Glaw was, staring down at a kneeling Nikon.
All of them. Her whole squad. Safe.
Her pulse began to slow down. A brief worry about where the crew had gone poked at her, but she ignored it in favor of help Thais to her feet and down the stairs to the deck.
Glaw's eyes grew wide as saucers when he spotted them. 'You're alive!' he signed and mouthed at the same time, dropping the flowers he’d been holding.
'Mostly,' Dylis answered, her steps light as she made her way to his side. Glaw's hug was tight enough to make her ribs protest. She returned it with as much force she could muster. 'What have you got there?'
Glaw glanced down, his face the picture of confusion, and started, as if he'd never seen the flowers before in his life. 'We need these!' he signed and bent to pick them up. 'The Field Marshal crushed them and smeared them on the bracelet. I thought we could...' He trailed off and waved the flowers at Thais in a helpless gesture.
Lip reading as unreliable as it was Dylis was still pretty sure that Thais told Glaw he'd done a good job. Thais reached for the flowers and then motioned towards a puddle of clothes and blood not far from where they were standing. This time Dylis didn't catch what she said, but Glaw clearly did, as he hurried over to it and began to rifle through it.
Frowning, Dylis helped Thais sit down on a barrel, before she went to assist Glaw with his search. 'What are we looking for?'
'Bracelets,' Glaw signed, his hands smeared with blood and other fluids Dylis was happy to remain ignorant of. 'The Field Marshal gave one to Aelius before Nikon killed him.'
Dylis' wrinkled her nose. 'I'm not going to ask how.'
'Good.' Glaw stuck his hand under what Dylis thought had been the Field Marshal's cloak and pulled out a couple of thick leather bands. 'Looks like he had plans for the rest of them too.'
'Greedy,' Dylis signed and was surprised to see Glaw shudder.
At her raised eyebrow, he shrugged. 'Nikon said the same thing, when he...' He threw his hands up, as if in surrender. 'Right. I'll just go give these to Thais.'
Dylis' heart swelled with pride. Her brother looked like death warmed over and yet he was staggering to his feet and walking to Thais as if he hadn't noticed the bloodstains on his clothes (she hoped none of it was his.) Thais, who was sitting there on a barrel only because Dylis had dragged her ass up the side of the ship, examining flowers Glaw had protected for them. If it was my call I'd promote us on the spot.
With Thais and Glaw busy making bracelets - she wasn't even going to try understanding how that worked, she was mighty tired of learning magic - Dylis gathered up the Field Marshal's sticky clothes and threw them overboard. Burial at sea was still a burial. More than he deserved, really, but it was better than watching his remains and wondering how they'd gotten that way. She leaned over the railing and watched them float away with a feeling of deep satisfaction. The grin on her face would probably have made children cry.
Something shifted about the air. At first, she thought she'd made a horrible mistake disposing of the clothes, but the way the wind shifted told her the strange sensation was coming from Thais and Glaw.
Heart skipping a beat she whirled around, only to see a smiling Thais securing a bracelet to her arm. Glaw was right next to her, holding a familiar looking roll of parchment. Though all rolls of parchment did look quite alike.
'It is working!' Thais signed, giving Dylis a smile of such pure joy that it nearly blinded her. Quickly she busied her hands with the next bracelet and Glaw left her side to tend to the unconscious Wolf.
Feeling the last knot in her stomach untangle itself, Dylis leaned back against the railing and took a look around the deck. There were bodies strewn about, broken and lifeless, as well as small red and beige shards of what she assumed had been Emperor's Signs. Taking a headcount - of the people with and without heads alike - she came up with forty-three in total. Not the whole crew then.
'Where are the rest?' she signed, eyes locked on Vita. She seemed to be the only one not busy doing anything more important than trying to get herself upright.
Vita scowled, but answered: 'That viper made them go down, under us. Not sure what he is planning. Keep an eye on my brother.'
Dylis shifted her gaze away from Vita and to the topic of their conversation. Neither Nikon nor Aelius had moved since she'd stepped on deck and that seemed to be a continuing trend. 'Will do.'
Vita exhaled and let herself fall to the deck, eyes turning to lock onto Thais. Dylis ignored her in favor of Aelius. He looked better than when she'd last seen him, but not by much. His shoulders and chest were rising and falling at the speed of someone who'd just run a lap around a city wall. His eyes, though more alive for sure, were staring at something far away, yet at the same time right at Nikon.
Nothing was happening. Aelius stood, Nikon knelt. Dylis stared at them for a good twenty minutes and there was no change. It would have been annoying, if it didn't feel so familiar. Guarding had never demanded much thinking, not until an actual crime was committed. The well known feeling of waiting and watching made her feel right at home.
Nikon remained unmoving, not even looking up when Thais approached and knelt by his side. A glance to the left showed that Glaw had helped Wolf sit up and was putting a bracelet on him, as Thais put a hand on Nikon's shoulder. It started to glow with a faint green light.
Aelius too stayed where he was, almost frozen in place. His breathing had calmed and his eyes were clear of the distant look they'd had mere moments ago. His lips moved, but whatever he'd said, Dylis had no way of interpreting it and she couldn't make herself care. Her brother was safe, she was safe and all her allies were safe. She'd done a good job. The others could take care of the rest and she'd stick to guarding until they had.
<Why did you do this?> Aelius' voice was faint, but with the deck so empty of life it carried all the way to Glaw's ears without trouble. He was not the one being addressed though, that was for sure.
Nikon flinched, bending his head lower. <It wasn't an easy choice, I assure you.>
<I don't wish to hear apologies, I want an explanation!> This time everyone flinched. Glaw had never heard Aelius raise his voice other than to call out warnings and it seemed the others hadn't either.
<I fear I can't offer you one.> Nikon sounded beaten and broken, lacking all the smugness he'd shown during his victory over the Field Marshal. <Not yet.> On his thighs, Nikon's hands curled into fists. <If I could have spared you, I would have.>
For a heartbeat, Glaw was sure Aelius would hit or kick Nikon, do something other than stand there with shaking hands and a scowl worthy of the sternest General. The moment passed and Aelius crossed his arms over his chest, curling in on himself. <You really won't tell me anything? Not even now?>
<No.> The word was little more than a whisper. <Secrecy is the safest way.>
Over by Glaw’s side a shiver ran through Lykos as Thais tied a bracelet to his arm. The air shifted again, pulling at the draining aura Glaw felt around Lykos. He spared a glance for his friend, who hadn't opened his eyes yet. Hopefully that would only be a matter of time. He had a pulse and he was breathing. Thais then moved on to give Nikon a seeing to.
<Safest?> Aelius shook his head. <We all almost died! And think of the others! For all we know they died fighting the Captured One.>
Those words made Glaw's stomach churn and curl in on itself. He thought of Myrrine and Bernike, and of Aculeo and Cato. Strangers, in part, but kind strangers in their own way. He refused to think of how Lykos would react if his older sister turned up dead.
Nikon nodded. <Yes. What I did was necessary, but not right. As I said, I await your judgment.>
<Mine?> There was a note of hysteria in Aelius' voice.
<Any punishment you see fit.> Nikon finally tilted his head up, meeting Aelius' eyes with a look of such hesitation that it was jarring. Any trace of his usual secretive confidence was gone, leaving behind an expression full of worry and regret, out in the open for anyone to see. <Anything.>
Aelius' hands had begun to tremble again, but it was impossible to say if it was because of anger or fear. <You will not speak to me,> he whispered, voice unsteady and hoarse from screaming, <or touch me, in any way, until I say so. I-I need to...need to think.>
Nikon shivered at the command, his cheeks losing what little blood they had left, but he remained in place and held Aelius' gaze. He answered with a curt nod and then seemed to become smaller without moving, as if his very presence was curling in on itself and shrinking.
Glaw let out the breath he'd been holding and allowed his shoulders to sag. He watched as Aelius turn his back to Nikon and began a staggering walk towards the captain's cabin, every gesture slow and screaming exhaustion.
Thais backed away from Nikon, her examination finished. She hurried to get to her feet, offering a supportive shoulder for Aelius to lean on. <Do you->
<Don't,> Aelius cut her off, his voice sounding as broken as the back of the sailor he'd just stepped over.
<I understand.> She let go of his arm and crouched down next to Vita, to place the final bracelet on her arm. <Take your time.>
Vita gave Aelius a look of helpless pity. She reached out for him as he passed her. <Brother->
<Don't!> He wasn't looking at her – wasn't looking at much of anything it seemed, just keeping his head held high and eyes fixed on a point somewhere on the other side of the ship – but his tone of voice was sharp enough to make his feelings clear.
He stumbled and almost fell, only avoiding smashing his face into the deck because Thais managed to grab him first. <I won't talk,> she said, slinging one of his arms over her shoulder. <You need to rest.>
Without another word Aelius opened the cabin door and, with the assistance of Thais, went inside.
As soon as the door had shut Vita whirled around and grabbed the leftovers of the keelhauling rope. Her eyes glowed as it swiftly reshaped itself into a sword.
Nikon was on his feet in a flash, his staff shifting as well, so that he had a weapon matching hers. He took a step back, the expression of regret and sorrow replaced by the usual smugness.
<You can cry pretty tears when my brother is watching and he might fall for it,> Vita said. She made a sortie, her sword aimed at Nikon's head. <But I won't!>
Nikon ducked and threw a handful of seashell shards at her. <It's not you I'm trying to convince.>
<Take your own advice and die without making such a fuss, you cursed sky-chaser!> Vita shouted and sidestepped, crouching down to smash her palms against the deck. A forest of needles the size of a man rose up out of the wood and took aim at Nikon. He blocked the attack with ease and jumped back, landing on the ship's railing.
<I will, if your brother commands it,> he said, his mouth twisted into a shadow of his usual mocking smile. <But I won't take that revenge away from him by letting you cut me to pieces. I'm sure you understand.>
He took a step to the right, steadying himself against a part of the rigging, while Vita got back up and stalked forward. The needles that hadn't gone over the side of the ship soundlessly melted back into the deck.
<Such a convenient excuse.> Vita took position by the main mast. Glaw flinched as her rage-filled eyes swept past him, slowly taking in the entire deck before returning to fixate on Nikon. <How ironic,> she spat out, <you mocking me for a coward all these years and here you are now, not daring to show your face until we're all safely by the goal!>
<I'm nothing like you.> A chill had entered Nikon words and the smile that had been working its way back onto his face fell away completely. <You abandoned him to save your own skin.>
Vita gave a bark that might have been meant to be a laugh. <And you didn't? Just like you abandoned all of us when you ran from the invaders. I’d call us pot and kettle, but at least I’m not a filthy traitor!>
<You didn't notice how miraculously free from deaths this trip was, even when they chose to throw one of you overboard?> He cocked his head to the side.
Vita paused. <...you were on the ship the whole time?> Her eyes darted left and right, as if she was trying to locate where he'd hidden himself the whole way. <You knew about the boy Thais healed. You had the scroll that the monster had to have kept in his nest. How?>
Nikon gave a humorless chuckle. <Don't know your brother too well I see.> In the blink of an eye he flickered out of existence and back again, briefly disappearing against the red sky and endless water. <Such a clever spell-weaver he is and always willing to share his ideas.>
Vita's raised eyebrows lowered themselves back into a scowl. <You used his own spell against him?>
<Only to help.> There was a hitch in Nikon's voice, but he quickly covered it with a smirk.
Vita lifted her sword and pointed it at him. The gesture was less a threat than it was a way of singling him out from the nonexistent crowd. <How does those two sentences even begin to make sense together? Please tell me! I'd love to get a glimpse of how your sick mind works.>
<I fear you'll have to get in line behind your brother. He has the right to know before any of you.>
A hand landed on Glaw's shoulder. The weight of it was too well known to make him start, but he turned his head a little quicker than usual. The stare-down that had ensued in front of him was making him jumpy.
'Should I break them up?' Dylis signed.
Glaw made a vague gesture that seemed to say 'no idea' more than 'yes' or 'no'. The two demons in question were frozen in place, weapons not raised but not lowered either. Neither of them looked like they would be backing down any time soon.
Dylis seemed to take this as a signal that the looming fight wasn't her problem. 'How's your friend?'
Lykos hadn't stirred yet. The bracelet hummed and made the air around it shimmer, which Glaw hoped was a good sign. 'I'm not sure. Thais didn't seem worried though, so I guess it's not bad.
Nodding, Dylis sat down on the deck next to him. 'He got a name? Other than wolf I mean.'
For some reason Glaw felt his cheeks flush. 'His name is L-Y-K-O-S. You'll like him. He's a little calmer than Bernike and more serious than Thais.'
This set off one of Dylis' rare, dying raven laughs. 'I like Thais plenty enough. His other sister...' She shrugged. 'I can respect her as a fighter and a strategist. Bit too quick to bite your head off for me to want to go drinking with her.'
'But you like Myrrine, right?'
Dylis smirked in the way that Glaw knew meant she thought he was being clever and nosy, and didn't want him to know that amused her. 'Wouldn't mind taking her bar hopping, no.' She ruffled his hair. 'And you too. We've downed the Field Marshal himself! That deserves some celebrating in my book.'
'We didn't do much, really,' Glaw pointed out, a wry smile on his lips. 'We sort of just kept out of the way while Nikon tore him apart from the inside out.' He made a face. 'Which I was glad to leave up to him, honestly.'
Dylis threw up her hands, smirk still in place. 'Can't do all the work, can we? But you tore yourself free from whatever mind magic he was working on you. And I made sure to get myself captured just in time for us to end up on a ship bound for where the demons needed to go to end him. I think. I haven't quite grasped their plan yet.'
The return of his sister's sarcastic - and, as always, self-deprecating - sense of humor was another brick for the foundation of the house of normalcy Glaw was trying to rebuild. Without being able to stop himself, and without really wanting to, a goofy grin took over his lips. For a moment they just sat there, basking in the knowledge that whatever else was wrong with the world, for now that wrongness couldn't touch them.
Time passed, as it was wont to do. The sat there for three hours, give or take a quarter, talking about everything between the sun and the moon while they waited for Lykos to wake up. Vita and Nikon didn't hang around on deck all that time, thankfully. After twenty minutes of posing and glaring they went their separate ways. Vita took to the crow's nest, while Nikon seemed content to sit on top of the captain's cabin, legs crossed and his expression serene, as if he was meditating.
Thais came out of the cabin after an hour and a half and joined them in their waiting. The conversation temporarily slowed down as Glaw had to shift from being a brother to being a brother and a person talking to a not-quite-stranger. It was odd how one's choice of words and topics changed depending on the audience, only not really. Actually, it would have been even stranger if one didn't adapt a conversation to whom one was talking to.
A playful shove from Dylis snapped Glaw out of that train of thoughts and with that the conversation flowed freely again. It was quite a puzzle to bring together what details they'd missed telling each other over the past two days that they'd been reunited. With Thais' help they got together a list of events, big and small, that Glaw thought covered all the important things.
At the mark of two hours spent waiting, Lykos blinked awake. The first thing he did, after Glaw had managed to pour some water into him, was gasp and grab Thais into a hug that looked quite powerful coming from a man that skinny. Thais endured it with a smile and held her brother close. Glaw was sure he saw tears, but chose not to comment on them. It wasn't like he hadn't cried in front of Lykos.
The amazing tale of the spell-weaved whales was told as they ate some rations Dylis had managed to sniff out from within one of the barrels on the deck. Emergency food to be sure, but after a day like the one they'd had it tasted better than fresh bread. As the story continued Glaw was surprised to noticed that he'd forgotten that Dylis had been able to hear before she fell off the ship.
They'd finished their meager dinner and begun to doze off when the door to the captain's cabin opened. Glaw's eyes were heavy-lidded, his stomach pleasantly full and the wind warm and soothing. His chin knocked against his chest both once and twice before he caught sight of Aelius and Nikon.
The display was quite odd. Not that anything he'd seen that day, or in the past three weeks, could be called ordinary. But even in strangeness there were patterns and Glaw had thought he'd come to see at least a few of them. He knew how the demons acted around each other, at least when other people were watching. Judging by the sight before his memorized patterns were little more than garden trails made by drunk snails.
Nikon was circling Aelius. Not in a predatory manner, but rather the unsure back and forth of a low ranked dog sneaking around the leader of the pack. Aelius, meanwhile, was ignoring him as if he were little more than wind, posture straight and all traces of tears gone.
The upside-down sensation of the scene made Glaw shake his head to clear it. Shouldn't be a surprise, really, what with the kneeling and everything, he thought to himself, but he couldn't shake off the feeling off 'wrong'. They'll sort themselves out and it's none of my business. Nikon hasn't even got a bracelet, so if he decides to switch sides again the others can take him. He hoped.
'That's strange,' Dylis signed, her back to Aelius and Nikon.
'If you can spot that, there's something really wrong going on between the two of them,' Glaw answered, making sure that his hands were shielded from unwanted view by the means of his sister's taller and broader figure.
Dylis rolled her eyes. 'I was mostly referring to you not running your mouth at the sight of, well, anything. There's been two kinds of fights right before your eyes since I got back aboard and yet I haven't seen your lips flab for more than a few seconds at the time.'
Against his better judgment Glaw stuck his tongue out at her. He pulled it back in quickly, narrowly avoiding Dylis grabbing a hold of it. 'I'll have you know I've been on my best behavior since we got separated.'
'Which means your behavior will deteriorate now that I'm back,' Dylis signed, giving him a light slap over the back of his head.
Glaw chuckled. 'Big word for a lowly soldier, that.'
'Thank you, I'm always trying to expand my education.' And just like that the cheerful mood deflated like a punctured balloon. Glaw could see the exact moment the words triggered the memory of late night lectures and books he'd known she'd only been reading for the sake of one person. The smile left Dylis' face and she straightened her posture, as if making ready for battle.
Glaw raised his hands to say something, but Dylis shook her head and stepped away from him. He knew better than to push her and instead turned to the rest of the group. Lykos gave him a sympathetic look, which sent a warm tingle down his spine. He covered his reaction as best as he could with a helpless shrug and the best apologetic smile he could pull off at the moment.
'What do we do now?' Vita had jumped down from the crow's nest. Glaw had managed to bite back the yelp her sudden appearance had wanted to wring from him, but he couldn't help staring at her as if she were a ghost. She ignored him in favor of glaring silent death threats in Nikon's direction.
'We can’t stay here the for rest of our lives,' Thais signed. She was smiling, but her smile had an edge to it that reflected in the glass of Lykos' newly mended lenses. 'It took us a little less than two days to get here, but the ship was moved to the sea with magic. Does anyone have a plan how to find our way back?'
'Easy.' Dylis' smile was far more confident, a mixture of reassurance and bragging waiting to happen. It wasn't as secure as it should have been though, but Glaw did his best to not notice that. 'You happen to be in the presence of two future pilots of the Empire.'
'Pilots?' Thais signed.
Glaw took the chance to answer her, to help Dylis not get sidetracked. He loved planes and flying himself, but Dylis could talk about engines and rotor blades for hours. 'We steer flying machines.'
'I hate to tell you, but this is a ship,' Lykos signed. 'I doubt it will fly.'
'That's not what I was going to suggest either,' Dylis signed, letting out a huff of breath that Glaw knew as her "please stop asking stupid questions"-sigh. 'The thing about pilot training is that we learn a lot about navigating by the stars, with and without compasses. I know these constellations well enough and now that the stars are coming out we'll just follow that one.' She pointed at the pinprick of light that Glaw recognized as the Rabbit's Tail. It was the only star visible in the fading sunlight, near the center of the sky. As much as the sky had a center.
'Follow it for how long?' Thais fidgeted and made a gesture at the sea that surrounded them. 'These bracelets do not make us invincible. They just take away the effect of the border.'
'It's a little tricky to be exact without any equipment.' Dylis walked over towards the captain's cabin and studied the door to it, as if were a puzzle. 'They should have at least one sextant on the ship. We find one, Glaw and I can tell you how far from land we are.'
Vita raised an eyebrow, her expression radiating skepticism. 'And a sextant looks like...?'
'It's about this big,' Glaw signed and held up his hands approximately a sextant's width apart, 'and it's mostly made of metal with a lot of numbers and lines carved into the curved parts. There's also a small telescope built into it and a thing you can slide back and forth.' He illustrated his words with gestures he hoped were helpful.
'We'll need to find one before the sun goes down completely,' Dylis signed, drawing all attention back to her, to Glaw's relief. Having so many looks of utter confusion directed his way when he was trying to explain something was never encouraging. 'I'll take the captain's cabin since that's where they're most likely keeping it. It's a valuable instrument, so they won't have thrown it just anywhere.'
All nodded in understanding, though there was a lingering confusion in the air that made Glaw's heart sink. The sextant better be in the cabin. Though where else would it be? The only crew member who'd need one would be the navigator or the captain, and it was most likely kept with the maps. If there was something that belonged in a captain's cabin, it was maps.
Everyone went their separate ways; Dylis and Lykos went into the cabin, Aelius wandered off towards the back of the ship, Nikon disappeared in the direction of the crow's nest and Vita tried and failed to subtly follow Aelius. Only Glaw and Thais remained in the middle of the deck.
'Thais,' Glaw signed. He'd begun to use the sign of 'lion' for her. He'd have to ask Dylis later for the reason she'd picked that animal. 'Where are you going to search?'
Thais straightened up and put her hands behind her back, as if he'd caught her sneaking too shrewd looks at a diamond necklace in a store window. 'Down, maybe?' she answered, her smile hesitant.
'Down sounds good. I'll go with you.' His hand was already on the hatch.
Thais gave him a nod and they both hurried down the hole in the deck. Glaw stumbled on the first step of the stairs. He managed to grab a hold of a torch holder nailed to the wall and avoided planting his face into the floor in an effective, though not graceful manner. Behind him Thais gave a nervous giggle.
<I'm guessing you want to have another look at that boy you healed?> Glaw asked, ignoring the way his cheeks were burning with embarrassment.
<It's my duty as a healer,> Thais answered and joined him at the bottom of the stairs. She was keeping her voice lowered, but in the manner a stage actor would have whispered rather than an actual attempt to not be overheard. <If the healer on this ship couldn't mend the crack that was left, it will be just as much my fault as theirs.>
"I'll have you know, brat, that I'm not deaf and not uneducated." Captain Haf stepped out of a doorway, pistol raised. "I don't employ lousy healers, either. The boy is fine. Would have been without your help, too."
"I am glad to hear," Thais said, the picture of calm in the face of an impending bullet to the head. Glaw suspected he too could have pulled that off, had he been a spell-weaver. Or a demon with a bracelet. Or both. Not that he was jealous or anything.
Glimmers of metal drew Glaw's attention to the rest of the corridor. He swallowed forcefully. "We'll be leaving now," he said to the thirty or so pistol barrels pointed his way. If Thais hadn't been right behind him, he would most likely have panicked. As it was his breathing sped up, along with his pulse, but he managed to keep talking without stumbling over his words. "You don't happen to have a sextant we can borrow? I promise we'll leave it on the ship."
The laughter that burst from the captain's mouth made him jump. "Polite little fox, aren't you?"
"Eh, I try?" Glaw said, holding up his hands to make it very, very cleared he was unarmed. "Is that a yes or a no?" He was picking up noises from the hidden sailors; the scraping of their boots against the wood of the floor, coughs, muttered curses. It did nothing to calm his nerves.
Captain Haf had lowered her gun. It looked like a peaceful enough gesture, but for all Glaw knew she was thinking about shooting him in the knee. She'd stuck her free hand inside her shirt.
<Is that it?> Thais asked, in a real whisper this time, as Captain Haf pulled out a metal object attached to the necklace of her Emperor's Sign.
Glaw could only nod to confirm, every muscle in his body tense. His eyes kept locking on the sextant the Captain was holding, even though he knew that was the worst behavior possible when making ready for a bargain. Never show how much you need something unless you want to pay twice the price for it, Dylis' voice echoed at the back of his head, which made him feel even more stupid.
"This what you want?" Captain Haf asked, holding the sextant a little higher.
"If it's not too much trouble," Glaw said, the blush from earlier returning with a vengeance. What am I doing?!
With a snap Captain Haf pulled the sextant from the string, sending her Emperor's Sign crashing to the floor. A hairline crack appeared in the beige seashell, while the sextant remained intact and in the captain's hands. Glaw didn't know if he should cheer or be terrified.
"You listen to me, boy," Captain Haf said. "I don't like you and I don't like them demons you've brought with you." She pointed at Thais. "But I'm no backstabber. You lot have kept your word and I'll keep mine. Now, get off my ship!" She threw the sextant right at his head.
Thais was the one who caught it. "Thank you," she said, cradling it like a fragile vase. "We will remember this."
"I'd rather you remembered our gunpowder," Captain Haf muttered, returning her pistol to its place on her belt. "Not today though. I know when I'm outmatched. Go!"
When they opened the hatch, Glaw found himself pulled out onto the deck by the neck of his shirt. 'What were you thinking?!' Dylis signed, shaking him as if he were a piece of wet laundry.
'That I didn't want us to be shot in the back while we made our daring escape?' Glaw answered, clenching his jaw shut to keep himself from biting his own tongue. 'Also, we found a sextant.'
Dylis' glare was softened by the clear relief in her eyes. She put him down. 'I thought you'd be shot, you idiot! From now on you don't go out of my sight. Not unless we've both agreed on a plan. I know where you are and where you're going, and I'll tell you the same about me. Deal?'
Thais, who'd freed herself from her sibling's much gentler embrace, held up the sextant for Dylis to see. 'You know how to use it?'
Dylis put on a cocky grin. 'Do you know how to make your eyes glow?' She put the telescope part of the device to her eye and aimed it at the horizon.
After a minute or two of fiddling with the pendulum that went along the circular ruler at the bottom of the sextant - Glaw had never bothered learning what it was called, only what it did - her shoulders slumped and her grin faded. 'We appear to be about three days fast sailing from the coast outside Wise.'
'We can't sail the ship home,' Glaw signed, the first to react to the news. 'We'll have to fight the entire crew and there won't be enough of us left to operate all the parts.'
Dylis nodded in agreement, but didn't look happy about it. 'Can you lot make us a 'disappear here, appear somewhere else'-spell?'
'No, but we can run,' Vita signed.
Dylis scowled. 'If you hadn't noticed, we're surrounded by water. There will be a lot of it all the way there, no dry land. It's pretty deep too. Doubt you'll be able to jump your way home.'
'We can walk on air.' If there was a way to deadpan sign language, Thais had mastered it. 'You do not truly think a little water would present a problem to us, do you?'
A look of hesitation washed over Dylis' face. 'I know, but you said...'
'Distance is the only problem,' Lykos signed, hovering next to Thais like a concerned shadow. 'It is a vital part of us being able to adjust our shaping, to save our magic so we will have enough for the whole way. We are rested, we have eaten and there is no obstacles in our way to land. I think we shall make it without too much trouble.'
<That's all well and good, but aren't you lot forgetting something?> Vita said, and Glaw hurried to translate for Dylis. <What do we do with him?> Vita sent a fierce glare Nikon's way.
<He needs to go before the Senate, > Thais signed, Lykos nodding behind her. <He should be given a trial like any other person suspected of a crime.>
<Suspected?> Vita spat on the deck.
Thais put her hands on her hips and tilted her chin up. The effect wasn't that of mockery of superiority, but of a person wishing to do the right thing. Or maybe, Glaw had to admit to himself, he was reading too much into her body language. <We can't go dealing out punishment before the person in question has had the chance to defend himself.>
<My brother gave him that chance and he wasted it.> Vita threw her hands up and turned around, in a manner Glaw knew well enough as 'I'm surrounded by idiots!'. <Fine! If you wish to risk our lives on a fair trial for a traitor I'll make sure he gets back home still breathing. I'm not promising more than that.>
Nikon, who'd been watching the exchange with a blank expression, turned to Aelius the moment Vita had finished speaking. <Your judgment?>
<You will go with them peacefully,> was all Aelius said, positively glaring at Nikon, who simply nodded and averted his eyes.
That seemed to be that. Glaw watched in a numb half-dream how Thais and Aelius spelled strips of sail cloth into bags where they could keep some of the leftover ration cakes. Two bottles of wine that Dylis had found in the captain's cabin went in too; closest thing they had to water.
Bags packed they all lined up by the railing. Glaw caught sight of the bloodstains after the Field Marshal. Although the fact that the man had been the highest ranking officer there was to find and that Glaw had been an aid in his death stung, it also made him sigh in relief. It had all worked out. They were going home.
Where is home? a voice whispered inside his head. For a second he was worried that someone had found their way inside his mind again, but that quickly passed. 'Home' was the big question. Where would they live? The demons had their city, but Dylis and him? Where could they go?
<Time to go,> Thais said and gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder. <Wake up!>
<I'd again like to point out that I'm agreeing to this under protest,> Vita said to anyone who would listen, which was no one.
Glaw looped his legs around Lykos' waist and wrapped his arms around his neck, feeling like a little boy being helped home after a long day of training. Getting piggyback rides wasn't something he'd expected to experience in so many days in a row, but here he was, again ready to let himself be carried like a small child.
He couldn't help but laugh at the sight of Dylis, forehead wrinkled into an annoyed scowl, clinging to Vita's back like a spider-monkey. The relief was too great to contain. Being alive, being free despite impossible odds, was a rush unlike no other he'd ever felt before.
The way his stomach dropped as they took off had become a familiar, welcome sensation. The water surface rushed towards them and Lykos let them fall. The last rays of sunshine were glimmering on the surface, beckoning them closer like a lantern fish luring prey. That's when the journey really began.
They were doing that thing with their faces again. Dylis didn't want to put words on it, because that would make it easier to remember the sight before her. All the demons' faces were twisted and elongated, their necks thick and uneven, bared to the world as they'd all thrown their head backs to howl.
At least she couldn't hear them.
Glaw looked to be just as disturbed by the whole ordeal as she was, but with some fascination thrown in as well. He hadn't taken his eyes off Lykos' since the howling had begun.
Battlefield crushes on demons. The thought was both amusing and worrying. She knew her brother - how could she not after having put up with him for so long - and she knew what he looked like when he was interested in someone. A demon with two sisters who could kill you in a heartbeat. You sure know how to pick trouble, brother.
The speed with which the demons all straightened up and cocked their heads made her twitch. She'd be damned before her squad, such as it was, saw her jumping at shadows.
'There's an answer!' Glaw signed. He was shifting his weight from one foot to the other in a jittery manner. He reminded her of a skittish colt about to be let out in the pen on the first day of spring. 'It's weak.'
'Then we'll go towards it. No reason in making injured people run around, is there?' Dylis had just enough time to sign that before Vita grabbed her and manhandled her into another piggyback ride.
They were back in the air in a handful of seconds. Despite the worry for what they might find Dylis couldn't help but admire the view. I wonder if flying in an airplane would feel anything like this? The thought was quite pointless, but she couldn't let it go right away. Not when there were so many more unpleasant things she risked thinking about if she did.
She caught Glaw signing 'I'm sure they're fine,' to Lykos, which had her wanting to both smack her brother upside the head and hug him. With the others not seen since the hidden tunnel, that marked them as missing for over three days. Then again, from the others' point of view, they were the missing ones; if the others were alive to be able to think that.
They skirted the borders of the land that belonged to Wise, keeping in an odd V-formation that Vita had claimed saved energy. Dylis wasn't about to question it. The landscape around them wasn't as familiar as she'd wished it to be. She'd spent very little time in Wise, only having been there once or twice on quick training missions, and the distant gray walls of the city were more a looming shadow than a welcoming silhouette.
At least they were leaving it behind, moving west in the direction of Trade.
'There was another one!' Glaw had half-turned on Lykos' back, signing one-handed. 'I think it's Myrrine.'
The pace they were keeping sped up, as if the sound had rejuvenated them. Thais was in the lead, flanked by Lykos and Aelius, with Vita and Nikon bringing up the rear. They'd kept that formation since they'd left the Field Marshal's ship and Vita's constant glares sent towards Nikon had Dylis on edge. They'd kept away from each other during the day it had taken to cross the sea and Nikon only had eyes for Aelius, but that could just mean they were biding their time. Dylis had no desire to be caught clinging to the back of one half of a battle that could end up taking place in midair.
There was a grove up ahead, too neatly spaced and trimmed to not have been man-made. Thais pointed their V towards it as if they were an arrow. Something left the shadows of the foliage below and rose up to meet them. It stopped no more than four meters above the treetops, but Dylis recognized it as Myrrine. The outline of an ax strapped to her back was a helpful clue.
Thais lowered their trajectory, letting herself free fall, and the others followed. Myrrine lost altitude and for a moment Dylis was sure she would crash. She caught herself on one of the upper branches in a soft halt and Dylis exhaled a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding.
In the dim evening light it was hard to make out anything once they entered the trees' crowns of leaves. Movements from all sides caught her eye, but there was little more than shadows on shadows to be seen. Instinctively one of her hands found its way to where the sword on her belt should have been, as she tried to keep track of Glaw. She should have asked for a new one, along with the boots and coat Thais had spell-weaved for her.
They hit the ground so gently it took her a good three seconds to realize it. There were tree trunks all around them. They were thin and small compared to the giants of the demon woods, but they would shield them from enemy eyes well enough. They could hide enemies as well. Her hands again grasped at the empty air where her the hilt of her sword should have been. Should have taken the time to search the cargo hold, curse it!
As her eyes adjusted to the spares light from the stars and the moon that made its way through the leaves and branches, she could make out four silhouettes other than those of their V-formation. Three of them were resting against a nearby tree, while the fourth - Myrrine - was making its way down through the branches at a snail's pace.
The lack of light made it hard to tell, but Dylis was pretty sure that they all were breathing. She slid off Vita's back and landed with a spring in her steps. This night just got better and better.
The shape closest to them, which she recognized as Bernike, said something. At least that's what it looked like based on her shoulder movements; it was too dark to see her lips. Cato and Aculeo appeared ready to melt into the tree at any second, their bodies lacks but upright.
Thais more or less tackled Bernike, wrapping arms around her waist in a hug that looked more like clinging. Lykos wasn't far behind.
Dylis turned to Glaw. 'Are they talking about something?'
'Remember our conversation after I just woke up?' Glaw signed.
'Of course I do, you idiot.'
Glaw's frame shook with a chuckle. 'Change the names and you'll pretty much know what's going on here.'
'What is he doing here?' Myrrine had made it to the ground, her gaze losing its blue glow. She was brandishing her ax in one hand and had her eyes narrowed into thin slits, glaring at Nikon. Her lips moved along with her freehand and Dylis had the presence of mind to be grateful for the translation.
'We're bringing him to stand trial for your people's leaders,' Dylis answered, as no one else seemed ready to. Nikon held his ground with that insufferably smug look on his face. He was standing alone. Aelius had gone over to Cato and Acuelo - healing them, judging by the green glow that emanated from his hands - and Glaw had gone over to join the group of siblings.
Myrrine's forehead scrunched up into doubtful wrinkles, but she sheathed her ax back into the harness on her back. 'That I would like to see.' She followed that with something else, but as she didn't bother signing a translation. Dylis elbowed Glaw.
'She said,' Glaw signed, not meeting anyone's eyes, 'Be glad I am too tired to bother with cutting your head off. I will leave that for the executioner.'
A chill ran through Dylis' entire body. Demons punished treason with death? Banishment she could understanding, but killing someone in cold blood? Even for treason the idea of such a punishment seemed farfetched and mad.
And yet I rejoiced at the sight of the Field Marshal's bloody remains. Her disgust turned inwards, clawing at her guts like poison. Still, killing an opponent in combat was different. When it was someone else's life against yours and there was no other way out, killing them made sense. A cold, calculated execution on the other hand, didn't. The word 'demonic' came to mind and she did her best to push it aside. They weren't her people, not really, and as such their laws should mean nothing to her. Then again, I might find myself living by those laws soon.
A shift in the air drew everyone's attention to Thais and Bernike. There was a makeshift bracelet around Bernike's hand, made from braided leather strings. Thais had just sat back to admire her handy work, a pouch in her lap.
'Thais and your brother have explained what happened,' Bernike signed as Thais moved on to Cato and Aculeo. 'I guess you would like to know where the Captured One went.'
'Correct,' Dylis answered. Myrrine had cocked her head to the side, as if she was listening to something, and Dylis had a feeling there was no sudden noise to draw her attention. She opted to ignore it. The day she made sense of the demons and their magic would be the day the moon fell out of the sky.
'Well, I am happy to tell you that she fled.' The grin that spread across Bernike's face was the widest Dylis had ever seen her wear. 'Tucked her tail between her legs and ran back to her master.'
'How did you manage that?' Glaw asked, his jaw slack.
Myrrine stepped in to the conversation as if she'd been a part of it from the start. 'We played a trick on her that she was not prepared for,' she signed, straightening up further and grinning like a loon. 'We had Cato be our first.'
At Dylis blank look Glaw gave her arm a tug before signing: 'When the demons link their minds together to share thoughts they have to do it like a chain, one link being superior to the other. If Cato was their first it means he was the only one open to a hostile takeover.'
'If I followed you correctly, your explanation about covers it,' Myrrine signed before Dylis could as much as blink or nod. 'The thing about Cato's mind is that no one is welcome in there but he himself and Aculeo, on a good day. He was sick as a dog afterwards, poor man, but it worked like a charm. You should have seen her face!'
That caught Dylis' attention even more than the tale of victory in itself. 'You saw her face?'
The mood turned from exhilarated to somber in the blink of an eye. Even Nikon's interest seemed to have been woken, because his smile was dampened and his eyes intent. 'We did.'
Aculeo braced himself against the tree he'd been leaning on and got up. The bracelet on his wrist, also made of braided leather, made the air around him quiver. 'I got close enough to tear off her masks when she connected with Cato.'
'I do not like that look on your face,' Vita signed.
The stillness lasted for a very long heartbeat. Bernike was the one to break it, her lips and hands moving at the same time. 'The Captured One was Boar.'
Dylis frowned to hide her confusion, as all faces around her, even Glaw's, were painted with various colors and shades of horror. 'Who?'
Glaw started at the question. He looked to have muttered something to himself before he signed: 'It is a quite complicated story. She is an important person to the demons. An old leader of theirs that was thought to be dead. Her name was D-E-M-O-N-S-T-R-A-T-E.'
'Too long of a story to tell sitting here,' Myrrine butted in before Dylis could ask further questions. 'She'll have gotten back to your kind's leader by now. We should hurry back to our city, make sure nothing is amiss there. Your guards were attacking in full force when we left, so they could probably use all the help we can give. Especially Thais' help.'
There was a note of pride and glee in her expression as she said and signed the last part. Thais had finished wrapping a bracelet around Myrrine's wrist and stood back to watch as it sprung to life, drawing in air.
'Are you rested enough for a run back home?' Thais signed and said, her expression an odd mix between professional scrutiny and concern. 'You have been outside the border for days, not wearing bracelets.'
'So have you for the most part and you are standing,' Myrrine signed. 'Nikon is standing, without a bracelet I would like to point out. I will sell my family to the People By the Sea before I let that sky-chaser beat me!'
If Nikon was offended by the insult he didn't show it. He had seated himself on a rock, looking for all the world like a child that was forced to wait on its guardians while they talked to an acquaintance.
'Then there is no time to lose,' Thais signed. 'We go home.'
'And who are 'we'?' Dylis signed, stopping everyone in their tracks. 'Not to be digging my own grave here, but after our little adventure on the ship my brother and I won't be any more welcome on this side of the border than you are.'
Myrrine held up a hand to call attention. 'You saved my hide once and from what I heard you were prepared to drown risking your life for Thais. As for your brother, Lykos has seen the inside of his head and still trusts him. I say you are coming with us, to seek shelter in our city. Any who wish to argue can talk to my ax.'
'As if we would protest.' Bernike had ushered her siblings into a vague V-formation, with her as the leader. 'Are you coming? Myrrine, you can carry Dylis. I will carry Glaw.'
Poleaxed, Dylis could just stare as the demons arranged themselves into the starting position they'd formed on the ship, the V larger this time around. She started as Myrrine grabbed a hold of her arm and pulled, grinning. 'Hold on tight!'
The speed was incredible. It had been hard to tell when they were over the sea without landmarks to judge distance by. Over land, with trees and houses and far away city walls rushing past in a blur of colors, her eyes were starting to ache. They hadn't been going this fast the first time they went to Trade.
There was no wind. All the times she'd been carried by one of them, there had been no wind, and at least that stayed the same. Clinging to Myrrine's shoulders Dylis forced herself to look ahead and only ahead. She'd never hear the end of it if she ended up vomiting all over Myrrine's back.
The view stayed the same for an hour or two, dark sky and a shadowy horizon with outlines she couldn't match words to. But soon something else grabbed her attention and held it in an iron grip: What's that smoke?
The woods had disappeared. It was as if a mist had wrapped itself around the trees, obscuring them from view. Not even the tallest of them were visible as the mist reached all the way up to the clouds above, mixing together into a wall of white and gray.
Glaw carefully raised his hand to brush his fingers against the mist. He pulled it back with a sharp gasp, a bolt of cold pain echoing all the way up to his shoulder. Around him the others drew nearer, forming a circle. Only Nikon stayed to the side, facing the shoreline and absentmindedly juggling his staff.
Myrrine gritted her teeth and dodged Bernike's attempt at grabbing her shoulders, thrusting her arm into the wall of mist. She screamed. Her entire body seized as if she'd been electrocuted. Glaw watched in mute horror as she collapsed into a boneless pile on the ground.
<Myrrine!> Bernike was kneeling at her side in the blink of an eye, rolling up her sleeve to inspect the injured arm. <Myrrine, you idiot! What by the Seven Guardians made you think that was a good idea?> Her voice had a harsh edge to it, in stark contrast to her eyes, which were wide and lost.
<We're shut out!> Vita shouted, baring her teeth in an enraged snarl. <And everyone inside...> She clenched her jaw. Her shoulders shook and her hands were curled into fists.
Aelius and Thais had both joined Glaw in his silence, jaws slack and eyes blank, as if they weren't even seeing the mist or the rest of the group any more.
<Did you know this would happen?> Aelius suddenly spoke, turning towards Nikon.
<Not exactly,> came the breezy reply. The staff spun another three times around Nikon's wrist and then landed in his left hand, as if by a will of its own. <Suspected yes, but I couldn't know for sure until we arrived here.>
<I've had it with your vague answers and excuses!> Vita cut in. She whirled on Aelius, eyes narrowed into glowing slits. <Brother, if you don't allow me to cut that filthy traitor's throat right here, I swear I will->
<-miss out on valuable information,> Nikon said, back turned to the rest of them.
<Don't even try,> Vita said, her voice no more than a hiss of breath.
<Sister.> Aelius had laid a hand on Vita's shoulder, stopping her from diving for Nikon's throat. <I will handle this. Assist Thais with Myrrine.>
Vita stood frozen at first, hesitant, but finally gave Aelius a curt nod and made her way over to Thais. She more or less dragged Thais over to Myrrine and Bernike.
Dylis gave Glaw a nudge. 'Translation?'
He began singing without thinking. It wasn't the first time he'd accompanied Dylis into a place where the use of sign language was infrequent. He felt quite bad that he'd forgotten to keep her up to speed. The others had been so good about signing what they spoke that he'd nearly forgotten that wasn't the way they usually talked.
<Her arm...> Thais' voice carried over to them on the breeze, almost inaudible, as if she was speaking to herself. <If this mist goes all the way to the city we may be the only ones left.> Her voice broke on the last word and Glaw had to look away. It wouldn't do if they all were crying.
<Before you give them all up for dead, I suggest you try calling to them,> Nikon said, his staff spinning another turn around his arm.
Aelius was the first one to throw his head back and let loose the screeching howl Glaw had come to recognize as the demons' emergency cry. The others reluctantly followed suit, Vita still glaring daggers at Nikon out of the corner of her eye.
It took less than a minute for the answer to reach them. It sounded faint and far away, like it was coming from the depths of a cave, but it continued for a good while and was soon joined by two more voices - equally faint, but there.
The relief that spread through the group was almost palpable. Even Dylis seemed to have caught on to the fact that they'd been answered, as she gave Glaw a tilted smile and a curt nod as soon as his eyes met hers.
<Before we all jump around and make fools of ourselves,> Myrrine said through clenched teeth, <I'd like to point out that we're trapped on this side of the wall and they're on that side. So what do we do?>
Aelius stepped away from where they'd all clustered together to howl and turned towards Nikon, his face a blank mask. <Will you be able to share with us now?>
<Why?> Vita asked and got a slap over the back of her head from Myrrine.
Nikon didn’t acknowledge her, his eyes on Aelius. <Because this barrier is a sure sign that Field Marshal Cadfael Warlow is dead.>
<The pile of bloody clothes weren't enough of a clue?> Glaw ducked in time to avoid the slap aimed at him and covered his mouth with one hand, making sure Myrrine could see him do so. He continued translating for Dylis with his free hand.
The way Nikon laughed at his question made Glaw flush, feeling like a schoolboy who'd gotten a math problem wrong in front of the whole class. <Warlow, or the "Field Marshal" if you prefer, had a blood curse on my- on Aelius.> Glaw only heard the catch in his voice because he was listening for it.
Nikon tore his gaze away from Aelius and let it flicker about like a dizzy butterfly. <The last time we met I left his mind in pieces and his body little more than strips of flesh on bones. That lasted for about an hour, before his master had him patched up again. Based on that experience I wasn't ready to trust in his death until I saw this.>
<I never saw the body.>
Nikon whirled around as Aelius spoke, facing away from everyone. His staff darted from hand to hand. <I wished to spare you the gruesome details.>
<I've had enough of you turning your back on me.> Glaw had only heard Aelius' voice filled with such steel once. Ironic that this moment in any way would mirror the one where he'd defended Nikon from his sister's accusations.
Nikon turned back around. He took his time, inching his way from staring at the waves of the sea to fixing his eyes on something two centimeters to the left of Aelius' head. The movements weren't reluctant though, only slow, as if he wanted to obey but not show just how eager he was to do so.
<You told my sister your secrets where mine to know first.> Aelius moved forward, crowding Nikon against a rock. <You will keep that promise.>
<As you say,> Nikon let his staff melt into a snake, only to shift it back into wood seconds later. <I knew that man's mind as well as my own. When I rescued you, before, I learned his secrets and ways to counter said secrets.>
Wordlessly Aelius raised his hand and showed his bracelet to Nikon, who nodded. <The bracelets, yes, and something else. There are worse dangers than the border.> He took a deep breath. <They had a plan, the leaders of our sister people. I sensed it the first time I fought Warlow and I tried to learn more about it this time. Most of it still escapes me. All I know is that it's worse than the barrier and that it's located in their First City. The bracelets may be our only chance at survival.>
Glaw, like the rest of their group, was doing his best to keep out of Aelius' way, working on melting into the background. He twitched as Nikon's gaze locked on him.
<The first part of their plan was to send in a spy among us.> His gaze left Glaw and returned to staring over Aelius' shoulder. <They needed to know what state our defenses were in. I haven't figured out what their plan of attack is, other than closing us in with this barrier, but I know they were very anxious to know if Euripides was among the living or not.>
<The barrier?> Aelius' eyes flickered to the wall of mist. <How did you know about the barrier? Warlow didn't seem like a person who'd sacrifice himself for the greater good. I, if anyone, would know.>
Nikon visibly flinched at the last comment, but kept his almost relaxed stance. <Warlow wasn't the only one I fought that day.>
Glaw had to clamp both hands over his mouth to not beat Aelius to the question: <Who?>
<Demostrate.> The reply hung in the air like the afterimage of a firework.
<Right, I've had enough!> Vita pushed Myrrine's hand off her shoulder with some effort and made her way to Aelius' side. <Maybe you could have ripped apart the "Field Marshal" without resorting to your dirty little trick, but a Captured One? Demostrate? No. Just, no.>
Nikon shrugged. <Believe what you want. We were inside the border, in a cave to be exact, where I was making sure your brother got strong enough to be moved safely. Whoever was controlling her at that time did the foolish mistake of having her try to finish what Warlow had failed at. I was not in the mood to lose. I’m stubborn and she’d already been fighting while I was well rested.>
<So you've been waiting for this all along, have you?> Aelius said, stepping in front of his sister. It was hard to tell who he was trying to shield from whom, or if he just wanted to punch them both. <Biding your time, looking for the spy, preparing all on your own and not a word to anyone else.> His voice was like ice.
Nikon shook his head, the staff briefly shifting into a snake. <It's not that simple.>
<You could have told me this. You should have told me, told all of us!> Aelius said. A trickle of blood ran from where he'd bitten through his lip.
<I could have. But any of you could have fallen victim to the blood curse before we had a chance to act. Had that monster known about my plan, all would have been for nothing.> Nikon seemed to have found something very interesting to look at by Aelius' feet. <Telling you would have been the riskiest strategy of all. You knew Warlow. He did not like to lose any more than I do. The moment he saw you, he would try to grab your mind.>
The sharp edges were leaving Aelius' expression, draining away like the last drops of water in a dry dock. <And even if you won the second fight, he would have the chance to dig deep enough to see what you knew.>
Before he could take that line of thought any further, Vita interrupted. <Enough chatter!> she shouted, shoving Aelius aside to stand toe-to-toe with a wary Nikon. <If you're going to fall for his honey tongued lies one more time, I swear I'll->
<There is one sure way to know he's speaking the truth,> Aelius said.
Nikon's shoulder had gone stiff. Not in the way of a man terrified, but in the manner of someone lost at sea who'd just spotted land through a thick fog.
<Brother, don't you dare!> Vita began to say, but was cut short by Myrrine putting a hand on her shoulder again, preventing her from moving.
Aelius paid no attention to his sister.
<I open to you,> Nikon said, raising his head to look into Aelius' eyes.
Everyone held their breath. Well, except for Vita, who was cursing and clawing at Myrrine. Time crawled past at a snail's pace.
<Let go!> It was Nikon who'd spoken, his voice oddly thin and on edge. <You have to let go!>
<Thais, give him a bracelet.> In contrast to Nikon's voice, Aelius' was calm and detached, like a barmaid taking orders during lunch hours.
<We are not giving that snake a bracelet!> Vita said, twisting in Myrrine's grip. <Over my dead body!>
<For once listen to your sister!> Nikon said. A fine layer of sweat had broken out over his forehead and his breathing was speeding up. He sucked in air through clenched teeth and glared at Aelius as if he could make him break contact by staring at him alone.
They'd all formed a circle around Aelius and Nikon, as if by instinct. It was like being back home in Trade, watching a high stakes game of cards in the barracks. Lykos and Thais were giving the silent spectacle a wide-eyed stare, as if they too had bet a lot of money on the game and were far too poor players to hide their worries about the outcome. Bernike and Aculeo had better control over themselves, but their eyes were intent. Even Cato seemed to be paying attention to the here and now, staring intently at a point in the air somewhere in-between Nikon and Aelius' heads.
Vita was still doing her best to get free from Myrrine, whose expression was unreadable. Vita’s efforts grew more desperate by the second, her fingers reshaping themselves into talons that scratched Myrrine's skin deeply enough to draw blood. Myrrine kept still, glaring holes in the back of Aelius' head.
Glaw couldn't hear it, but there was a sensation of static electricity around him that he recognized.
'What's going on?' Dylis looked torn between tackling Nikon to the ground and pulling Glaw behind one of the big rocks scattered around the area where the grass started giving way to sand.
Glaw hesitated. Aelius and Nikon weren't moving and Nikon had stopped speaking. The look on his face couldn't be described as anything but pleading. 'Nothing good.' The static electricity around them had the hairs on his arms standing on end.
<Aelius, what are you seeing?> Bernike had edged closer to the pair, her wrist-daggers at the ready. Behind her Thais was twining strips of her shirt into a braid.
<Give him a bracelet!> Aelius had begun to shake.
Thais moved to wrap the makeshift bracelet around Nikon's wrist, stumbling in her hurry.
<No!> Vita kicked Myrrine, who doubled over in pain, and grabbed Thais before she could reach her goal. <You idiot, Nikon's making him say that, can't you->
<If he was,> Thais said, keeping perfectly still in Vita's grip, <Nikon would have been the first link and able to draw energy from him. Would you have your brother end like the "Field Marshal"?>
<He won't let go!> Nikon said through clenched teeth. He looked like he wanted to run. Aelius had closed his eyes and was swaying where he stood. <It's not too late, someone can push me aside,> Nikon continued, locking eyes with Vita. <I know you're angry enough to do it.>
<Too risky.> Thais stepped out of Vita's lacks hold and wrapped the makeshift bracelet around Nikon's wrist. The air shuddered as it activated.
Aelius slumped to his knees, like a puppet that had gotten its strings cut. Vita was by his side immediately, shaking him by the shoulders. <Brother! Brother, are you all right?> Thais left Nikon's side to go to Aelius as well, her hands lighting up with the green glow of healing.
<I'm fine. We both are.> Aelius might have been smiling, but from where Glaw was standing his face was mostly hidden by Vita's shoulder so it was hard to tell. <Before you ask, he has told us nothing but the truth since we left the ship. I'm sorry for worrying you, but I'm a little out of practice being the first link.>
Nikon had followed Aelius down onto the ground. He was on his hands and knees, his previously statue like posture having given way to trembling and panting. No one approached him. <I don't deserve this,> he whispered to the grass.
<You bet you don't!> Vita was helping Aelius to his feet - Thais having backed off and returned to stand with Bernike and Lykos - but her eyes were fixed on Nikon in a glare that could have set fire to a bucket of water. <You should just be grateful my brother decided to show you mercy, again. When we get back in the city I'll personally escort you to the Senate.>
The moment he was back on his feet Aelius pushed away from Vita and walked over to Nikon, pulling him upright. <There won't be a trial,> he said, his fingers digging into Nikon's shoulders. <Don’t think I didn’t see how you were trying to drain yourself. If you ever try to do that ever again...> He left the threat hanging and grabbed Nikon's chin, forcing the other to meet his eyes.
<I-> Nikon relaxed into Aelius' hands, retaining enough tension in his muscles to keep himself upright. <Understood.>
Glaw found the scene before him to be eerily familiar. As a guard he'd been at the site of far too many deaths where there was no one to write down as murderer but the victim. He'd seen plenty of stopped ones too and knew the kaleidoscope of actions and emotions that could come from all involved both before and after the attempt.
Dylis seemed to have caught on to the situation as well. Then again, she had been a soldier longer than him. She'd placed herself so that she easily would be able to block any attempt from Vita to separate Aelius and Nikon, without being too obvious about it.
<If we're all quite done fighting each other,> Myrrine said, <I think it's time we dealt with the mist.> She had a hand on the shin Vita had bruised and she wasn't grinning, not even smiling. <We need a plan and we need one now. Any ideas?>
<All information Nikon told us is true,> Aelius said. He let go of Nikon, who lowered his head in a bow. He'd stopped shaking and his breathing was evening out.
<Where does that leave us?> Bernike said, her fingers laced together and her elbows on her knees. <As Myrrine said, we're trapped out here. We have the bracelets, so we won't be sucked dry, but we're useless to our people.>
<I beg to differ,> Thais said. She'd begun signing again as she spoke and Glaw gave her a smile to show he was grateful for her assistance. She returned it with a brief one of her own and he was surprise to find that it didn't send butterflies fluttering all around his insides.
<We're not trapped in there, which means we have a chance at stopping whatever it is that's coming. The People By the Sea's leaders seemed to think this the ultimate means of our destruction. If any of our people had died they would have told us when we spoke to them. There's still something missing. We need to find that something and keep it from getting here.>
As Thais spoke they all began to shift back into the circle they'd formed earlier. This time Nikon joined them, standing right behind Aelius' left shoulder. Glaw thought he saw him smile, a small and relieved expression very unlike the smug and sharp ones he'd displayed before.
'So what are our clues?' Dylis signed.
<You've held on to this puzzle the longest,> Aelius said to Nikon, his hands moving to translate for Dylis. <What was Warlow and the Emperor's main concern?>
<Euripides,> Nikon answered immediately, as if the name had been on the tip of his tongue even before Aelius had thought of the question.
<What made Euripides so special?> Glaw asked. <Other than the whole "caelum"-thing. Why would our leaders focus so much effort on him, when he'd gone off the map years and years ago?>
Lykos was the one to answer, a stricken look on his face, as if he'd picked a lock and was appalled by what he'd found on the other side of the door. <Euripides was a master at fighting with and on the winds. No one could ever climb as high as he did and his stamina was impressive when he was above the ground. It was rumored that he could go high enough to touch the clouds.>
Realization didn't so much dawn on Glaw as it hit him in the chest with a sledgehammer. He gasped, which earned him curious looks from almost everyone around him. "The airplanes! The blimp!"
Bernike frowned. <What are you rambling about?>
<The smoke!> Glaw gestured at the barrier. <There must be an opening up top, where the citizens could get out if they could jump high enough.>
'Or for our side to throw things down,' Dylis chimed in. 'Dropping bombs on the enemy is what the airplanes are for, after all. No demon who left would last long outside the border, but your people are healthy inside of it.'
'One man, no matter how skilled and rested, would stand no chance when faced with an army,' Aculeo signed, shaking his head. 'That could not be their only reason.'
'The airplanes are a new invention,' Dylis signed and Glaw nodded to back her up. 'All pilots would be inexperienced and none would have faced a demon in aerial combat before. If that caelum,' she signed it as 'sky', since the conversation was heading somewhere far too important for Glaw to bother with spelling out foreign words to her, 'was as powerful as you said, with your entire city linked to him he would most likely have decimated our side's attack.'
'True.' Vita had finally turned her attention from Aelius and Nikon, her brow wrinkled into a thoughtful expression. She kept shoulder to shoulder with Aelius though, and Glaw didn't doubt that she was ready to spring into action any second. 'Even if Euripides didn't take down all your weapons and soldiers, there would be many survivors on our side. Could that be it?'
'Maybe.' Dylis shrugged. Glaw noticed that she then curled her hands into fists and hid them behind her back. She always stood like that during strategy meetings back at the barracks, when she wasn't signing. The touch of home was both soothing and painful. 'But how would they even know he was the best? I highly doubt your kind had competitions outside of the border or bragged about your skills to your enemies. If you did, our people would have had the upper hand long ago.'
Myrrine snorted. 'They have Demostrate as their personal pet. I don't think there's much she can keep secret from them and she knew Euripides better than anyone.'
'But the Emperor has had the same bodyguards since the birth of the Empire,' Dylis cut in, 'or is that a lie?'
All the demons shook their heads. Aculeo was the one to elaborate. 'We've lost other people to the blood curse, yes, but if you don't count Aelius here, they all disappeared around the time Demostrate was lost. We've been very careful.'
'So Demostrate can't have known if someone had surpassed Euripides in skill,' Dylis signed. 'They had to make sure through other means.'
Nausea had begun to claw its way up Glaw's back, using his tailbone as entryway to his stomach. 'That's why they needed me,' he signed, his fingers numb. 'With me in your city, sending all I heard back to our First City...' Glaw had to sit down. 'The week I don't remember, what did I say? Did I ask about Euripides?'
<You asked me who could ride the winds the highest, once while it was my turn to guard you,> Lykos said, his tone of voice lifeless and beaten. He wasn't signing. <I told you that there had been a man who could go as high as the clouds and when you asked me if he still lived, I told you no.>
<I didn't even know who he was!> Desperation and panic had the words form on his tongue as well as through his hands. His shout echoed twice before fading abruptly, as if the wall of mist ahead of him had swallowed it. 'How could I ask about him before you told me about him?'
'The Field Marshal knew about him,' Nikon signed, his movements subdued and lacking their usual playfulness. 'If you don't remember that week it's probably because he didn't want you to.'
An arm wrapping around his shoulders had Glaw sighing in relief and choking back a sob. He buried closer to Dylis, not caring if that made him look like a child.
Lykos pulled off his glasses and folded them, then brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. <I fought tooth and nail not to give away the fact that he was dead.>
<I believe you, brother.> Bernike had stepped forward, placing herself in the center of their circle. She sent Lykos a look that was an odd mixture of stern and kind, before she turned to face Dylis. 'When will those flying machines of yours be ready?'
Dylis' fingers barely uncurled long enough to answer. 'Too soon.'
'I and Dylis were scheduled for test flying a week after you met me,' Glaw said, when Dylis didn't continue. 'Well, obviously I wasn't any longer, but you get my meaning. There's a handful being built in Trade and another base somewhere in Wise. And...' His mouth opened wide and he gasped, as if he'd been pulled under water without warning. "Lykos, the hangar!"
'What? What's that you said?' Myrrien signed, which earned her a grateful look from Dylis.
'When we were escaping,' Lykos signed, his back straight to the point of looking like it ached, 'we crossed a great room with many of those flying machines. One of them looked strange and was easily the largest.'
'There is a blimp?' Dylis made the last sign slowly, as if to emphasize the absurdity of it. 'They were just in the planning stage last I heard!'
'And your leaders who are so very truthful and willing to share, too.'
Glaw blinked, as did all the others. Cato went back to studying a spot somewhere far out on the ocean, acting for all the world as if he hadn't signed or even were aware there were other people around him.
'Do you think you could find your way back to the hangar?' Dylis asked once the moment had passed.
Glaw and Lykos both shook their heads. 'We were sort of fleeing blindly. I don't even remember most of the way.'
'Neither do I,' Lykos added. 'I was too focused on keeping away from guards and getting out as fast as I could. All I remember is a lot of rock and trying shape a path at the same time as I was trying to teach Glaw to bond properly. I had little energy left over for memorizing the way.'
A cloud of a sort settled over them, as if an invisible part of the mist wall had broken free and decided to hover over them.
'So our plan is...?' Myrrine signed, looking from Dylis to Bernike, as if they had all the answers.
'Destroying the planes will grant us time,' Dylis signed. 'They can build new ones, but it won’t be done quickly. And while some of us do that the rest go confront the Emperor himself.' The last sentence made Glaw feel lightheaded. The mere idea of what his sister was suggesting was beyond dangerous and stupid.
Vita's eyes lit up as her fingers briefly shifted into talons and then back again. 'But we don't even know where all those machines are!'
'Then our first objective,' Dylis signed, for the moment every inch the Corporal she'd been only weeks ago, 'is to get some maps.'