They touched down on Trade's city wall at midnight of the second day. Glaw grabbed Lykos' hand the moment his feet were on the ground and led the demon to a small storage room. The lock on the door was easily picked with a pair of pins squirreled away under a loose stone; common guard tactic for getting at off-limits snacks without getting caught. They darted inside before any of the guards could round the nearby towers and spot them.
"We'll wait here, let you catch your breath," Glaw said, helping Lykos to take a seat on an upside down bucket. He felt light as a feather, even if his mid was foggy; some rest would do them both good.
Lykos brought his hands up to his face and covered his mouth, his breathing slowing bit by bit.
"You sure you're all right?" Glaw asked, crouching down by his side. Lykos gave a nod, smiling through his fingers, his glasses dangling on the edge of his nose.
Taking a step back, mindful not to knock anything down off the packed shelves that lined the walls, Glaw looked around for another seat. "The coast should be clear in a handful of minutes. I don't think the guard routine has changed since I've been gone and they're certainly not expecting an attack from the top of the wall itself."
Lykos lifted an eyebrow and mumbled, "Coast?" in-between uneven breaths.
"Hmm?" Glaw picked a piece of stale bread from one of the shelves and gave it a sniff, before turning back to Lykos, his expression apologetic. "Oh, sorry, I meant that the guards will have moved on in a few minutes." He gave a hushed laugh and made himself comfortable on the floor, breaking off a piece of the bread with some effort. "You're so good at the Imperial Tongue I keep forgetting you're not a native speaker."
"The likenesses get quite troublesome," Lykos said, taking his hands from his face. "Your other soldiers are generally not as eloquent as you, or I might have learned more of them sooner."
Glaw shrugged, gnawing at a corner of his bread piece. "Eh, it's mostly my sister's fault. She has this librarian she fancies - likes in a romantic way - and she's been dragging me to her lectures - lessons - about everything between heaven and earth for close to two years now. And I was stationed in Search for a while. Guess some of their fancy ways with words have rubbed off on me."
Lykos straightened up, pushed his glasses back into place and lowered his hands to rest on his knees. Or rather, where Glaw assumed his knees were, going by the way his skirt had folded. "A librarian?"
"They guard books, sort of. Some of them take the guarding part more seriously than others," Glaw said, making a face as his teeth protested the harsh challenge of chewing week old bread. "You know what books are?"
"Yes." The smile on Lykos' face was a little wan, but it was steadily regaining its usual calm, polite shape. "Is she the woman you thought could help you?"
Glaw gave gnawing at the bread another try, which resulted in a temporary tooth ache. He left the bread to rot on the floor. "Right! She's not famous or anything, but from what Dylis has told me she got a really well-known teacher. Don't know who they are exactly, but I'm sure she'll be able to contact them and ask for help if she can't figure out what's been done to me." He crossed his legs, just avoiding knocking a broken saw off the wall. "The librarian's name is Rhian, by the way. Rhian Argall."
"Which means I should greet her as Miss Argall, correct?"
Nodding, Glaw gave Lykos an encouraging smile. "You've got it! You can keep calling me Glaw though. No reason to get formal now, really." He stifled a yawn. "I wish I could do what you do."
Glaw made a vague gesture that seemed to encompass all of Lykos. "You know, run through the air, leap over stone walls. It can't be as easy as you make it look."
"I wouldn't say that it's easy," Lykos said, leaning back to rest his head against the wall, "but air is the first thing we learn to shape, as children."
"You don't just know?" Glaw asked, raising both eyebrows. "I thought you said it was different than spell-weaving."
"It is different, though not by much." Lykos' eyes fell closed, his body visibly relaxing limb by limb, his shoulders lowering and his fingers uncurling. "Learning to temporarily reshape the world is similar to learning how to walk, while spell-weaving is more akin to painting; not all have the talent for it and it takes far longer to master even the basics."
He made a soft humming noise at the back of his throat and lifted his hands, moving them back and forth, as if conducting an invisible orchestra. "Air is more than one thing and separating those things takes much practice and great skill. However, pushing air aside or bending it to cushion your fall, creating stepping stones, those are tricks most of us learn before we learn to climb trees. Air is harder to avoid touching than it is to come in contact with. Not too useful as a weapon since you need much power to create storm winds strong enough to push anyone away, but thankfully children have little use for weapons."
"That's-" Glaw held up a hand, ushering silence. Outside faint steps could be heard, drawing closer. The two of them sat still as death, eyes on the unlocked door. The steps passed them by, paused, then turned around and walked back. The thin line of light leaking in under the door dimmed, half blocked out by what Glaw guessed to be a pair of boots. They cast two columns of shadow into the storeroom.
"Quit lollygagging, private!" The voice was muffled, at least ten meters away from the door. "You can have a smoke later."
"Coming, sarge." The shadows disappeared.
"I think they've gone back to their posts," Glaw said a moment later, pushing himself to his feet. "Are you strong enough to continue?"
Lykos nodded. "The rest we got last night will suffice. Our next destination isn't far, is it?"
"Not compared with the last leap you did." Glaw edged the door open, peeking outside. "I'll point the way; you'll be able to see the roofs from here."
Cautiously the two of them made their way out of the storeroom, Glaw taking the lead. Outside the stars had hidden behind clouds, leaving the city below to be lit only by its many street lanterns and candles in a handful of windows. If one squinted into the darkness, it was possible to make out a few small, dark silhouettes moving about the dim streets.
"We're going there," Glaw said, indicating a gathering of wooden roofs near the center of the city. There were no lights burning there, no shadows moving.
"Will anyone be awake at this hour?" Lykos asked, stepping closer to the edge of the wall. There was no railing of any kind to prevent one from falling, yet Lykos' legs remained steady, standing with half his right foot over the side of the wall. He leaned forward, eyes narrowed and fixed on the distant roofs.
"There's always someone awake at the main office and the night guard will have left some soldiers to keep watch around the barracks." Glaw watched Lykos balance on the wall's edge and couldn't help but smile. "You'd make a good guard."
Lykos turned around and took a step back, returning Glaw's smile with a wide one of his own. He still had the air of politeness about him, like an office worker making his utmost to impress a new boss. "You are too kind," he said, giving Glaw a quick bow.
Glaw cleared his throat, the smile stuck on his lips. Stifling a chuckle he looked out over the familiar roofs and streets of Trade. "Aim for that roof," he said after a few seconds, pointing at a tall building two streets from the barracks. "It'll be easy to get down to the walkways from there without anyone seeing us."
He yelped as arms wrapped around him and Lykos whispered into his ear: "As you wish."
The roof of the high building met his feet with a soft thud. Glaw took in a deep breath and uncurled his fingers from where they'd dug into Lykos' arms. After giving the demon a mock glare he took a turn about the roof, searching. "There used to be a ladder right about- Ah, there it is!"
They made their way down swiftly, their shoeless feet barely making a sound on the steel surface of the walkways. Glaw shivered slightly as the cool metal sent chills up his legs. I need to get myself some real clothes, soon.
He hesitated at the first fork in the walkway, halting briefly to adjust the scarf around his neck, making sure his scars weren't visible. Absentmindedly, he combed his fingers through his hair; it had grown a centimeter since he'd last been in Trade and now tickled his ears and cheeks with every gust of the night breeze. Not enough to make me unrecognizable though.
"Do you need more of the scarf?" Lykos asked, tugging at the one he had around his neck. They'd torn it apart the day before, which had left the now two scarfs with one ragged end and one finely made one.
Glaw shook his head. "I'll be fine. Just remembered to keep your marks hidden and follow my lead. I'm going to pass you off as an overseas trader who I've been sailing with for the past year and who'd like to acquire citizenship."
Lykos gave him a blank look.
"Right, probably not a word you've heard before," Glaw muttered, shaking his head. "Right, so, I'm going to say you're from a city across the sea and that you wish to live here in Trade now. That will get us to Dylis."
"How so?" Lykos asked, one eyebrow rising towards his hairline.
"Eh, this might take some explaining." Glaw rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, ruffling the scarf somewhat. "You see, not just anyone gets to live in the Empire; the gathering of my kind's cities. You have to have special permission or you have to marry someone who already lives here."
Lykos' mouth twitched into what might have been a smile, but his blank expression was back in place before Glaw could be sure. "I am to marry your sister?"
"No! No, yes, but not for real, I mean." The mere thought of presenting Dylis with a spouse not of her own choosing was both hilarious and terrifying. "We'll just pretend she promised to marry you - it's a dirty trick a lot of soldiers pull on sailors looking to stay here - and they'll have to let you see her. It's the new law."
The eyebrow climbed down from Lykos' hairline and settled at level with its twin. "Is there a particular reason I am to marry and not you?"
"You look foreign, I don't," came Glaw's curt answer.
Lykos tilted his head, chin in one hand, and looked Glaw up and down as if making ready to sew him a new uniform. "We're wearing the same sort of clothes," he said, but in a tone of voice that told Glaw he was getting his legs pulled.
"Very funny." Glaw shook his head. "We can't stay here all night or the night guards will come around to question us. No one will be expecting me back, so we'd better not draw attention to ourselves. Wish we had the money to buy a glamor spell or something." He shook his head, like a dog shaking water from its fur. "I guess odd clothes will have to do. Soldiers get sent back and forth all the time, there's no chance anyone will recognize me unless they're among my personal friends."
His voice sounded shaky, even to his own ears. "Just stay quiet and follow me."
Lykos smiled serenely. "I'll do my best."
The walk to the barracks was a short one, but long enough for Glaw's stomach to knit itself into a sweater of nerves. He adjusted and readjusted his scarf and did his best to walk like a man unused to traveling on land. He ended up looking like a drunk, but he figured that was better than nothing.
The main office had never quite lived up to its name. It was little more than a shed on a miniature island, connected to the barracks by a walkway that was more a footbridge than anything else. Despite the lateness of the hour, there was a light burning inside.
Glaw knocked on the rickety door and made sure to stand right in front of Lykos when it opened. A surly old woman poked her head out and glared at them. She was chewing on a wad of tobacco, brown spit dribbling out of the corner of her mouth.
"Good lady of the Imperial Army, this is my shipmate Eligio Flores," Glaw said before she could slam the door in their faces. "A Corporal Dylis Nevett promised her hand in marriage to him, but-"
"You're too late," the old woman interrupted, spitting out her tobacco on the ground. "Nevett got transferred two weeks ago. Just got finished with the cursed paperwork. Better luck in the next harbor."
She closed the door with an emphatic bang.
"All right, new plan!" Glaw said after a moment of gaping at the space where the woman's face had been. "Dylis can wait, we'll find help elsewhere."
Lykos watched him silently as they made their way away from the main office and onto a new walkway, leading to the northern part of the city.
"How are you feeling?" he asked after they'd passed a night guard outpost, manned by a night guard that looked about as interested in their affairs as she'd be interested in eating molded bread. "You seemed less shaken as soon as we entered this city, but I must confess I'm unskilled when it comes to the art of healing."
Glaw stretched and yawned before giving his companion a bright smile. "Much better! I guess a bit of city air was all I needed."
He fought to keep the smile in place as they walked, feeling his cheeks twitch under the strain. There was still a gnawing worry at the back of his mind, a sense of wrongness that he couldn't place, but he pushed that aside. He was home! The evidence was all around him yet he dared hardly think it, afraid that accepting it as truth would make it fade away and that he'd wake up back in Aculeo's wine cellar – or worse, in the carriage rolling towards Outer Camps.
"We'll go to Rhian first," he said, forcing away all feelings except elation. "She'll know where my sister has been reassigned or I'm a sewer rat."
It took him a second to notice that Lykos no longer was by his side. Glaw whirled around to see the demon frozen like a statue, simply staring at the spot where steady ground left way to water and boats. They'd reached the harbor with its many electric street lights lining the road-channels.
"Do you like it?" Glaw said, unable to resist.
In answer Lykos chuckled, letting his gaze sweep across the network of walkways, channels, and jetties. "It's different," he said, echoing Glaw. "But I think I can grow to like it. I really should take notes for later. Thais will be ecstatic; and Aelius too, though he'll hide it better."
"I think there's a small shop down by the butcher that sells photographs of the Imperial Cities. We should buy you some before you head back!" Glaw said and took a few steps out on one of the jetties. Below the main road-channel flowed, black as tar where it wasn't reflecting the lamplight.
Lykos joined him and they admired the water in silence for a moment. Across the road-channel, a night guard looked up from his fishing rod and gave them a wave that Glaw hurried to return. Lykos did so as well, after a gentle nudge from Glaw's elbow.
"Let's move on," Glaw said, stepping off the jetty and back onto the walkway. As he did the airship hangar caught his eye and he felt his heart sore. He pointed to a five-meter high wall opposite it that connected two identical buildings to one another. "That used to be my favorite place...Well, except for the watchtower by the gates."
"Really?" Lykos asked, his eyes turned towards the brick wall.
"Yes, really. It's..." Glaw stopped, his mouth working as if trying to dislodge a stubborn word from the tip of his tongue. The memories of anticipation and glimpses of metallic wings danced across the surface of his mind, but for the life of him he couldn't find the words to go along with the memories. "It has a very nice view in the mornings. Very peaceful. We guards never get much of that."
The rest of the walk to Rhian's house Glaw kept his mouth shut. I must be tired, that's it. You lose words all the time when you're tired. Just a few hours of sleep and I'll be right as rain.
He double-checked the name on the door twice before he dared knock. Lykos stood behind him like a looming, cross-dressing stalker. When Rhian opened the door the look on her face was priceless.
"Glaw?!" she asked after a long moment of staring and gaping like a fish.
"Surprise!" Glaw whispered, fighting back hysterical giggles. "Can we come inside?"
Rhian looked over his shoulder, her eyebrows tugged between rising with shock and lowering into a thoughtful frown. It took her less than a second to decide. "Quickly!"
Her apartment looked the same as ever; tidy, small and brimming with books. Glaw's knees shook as he took the last stumbling steps towards her couch and sank down with what he refused to admit was a sob of relief. Lykos followed close behind, having given Rhian a courteous bow as he passed her, and took a seat next to him.
"What happened?" Rhian asked, locking the door. "Who's he? Have you had any word from Dylis?"
"He's..." Glaw fought to keep his head up, but it was so heavy it kept falling back to rest on the couch. "A friend. It's a long story and so on. I know this is terribly rude to ask, but if I give you a quick version of the story, would it be possible for us to rest here for a while?" He gave Rhian the most winning smile he could muster.
Rhian had stayed by the door, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She'd stuck her hands up the opposite sleeve of her cardigan, which Glaw took as a good sign; she did that all the time when she held her lectures and she was never upset or angry when she talked about magic.
"You look like you could sleep for a week, the both of you," she said, scowling at them in the half-serious way a worried parent would at an unruly child. "I should have some clean blankets."
Glaw nodded his eyelids as heavy as his head now. "Thank you. I..." He trailed off, frowning. "What did you mean with 'have I had any word from Dylis'?"
The sound of squeaking hinges, followed by something soft landing in his knee, was enough stimuli to get Glaw to crack at least one eye open. Rhian was standing right in front of him, leaning forward to get her face at level with his; there was a tiny, tired smile on her lips. "Nothing. I just thought she might have sent you a letter. You did leave her without saying goodbye. She was quite upset, I'll have you know."
A faint blush rose to color Glaw's cheeks. "That was pretty stupid of me, wasn't it?"
All he got in answer was a nod.
"Right..." He looked down at the blanket in his lap. It was gray, made of wool and brought back memories of more than one time spent on Rhian's couch or floor, after a night out drinking or a lecture that had run late. He fought the urge to bury his face in it. "So, story time?"
"Make it brief, I think. Your friend has already fallen asleep."
Glancing to his right Glaw noted that Lykos indeed was fast asleep. He’d curled up on the far side of the couch, knees pulled up to his chest and arms wrapped around them. A blanket lay on him too, thrown haphazardly over his skirt and feet.
"Oh," Glaw said, lowering his voice. "All right, brief, yes. Uhm." He busied himself with spreading the blanket over his own knees. "Turns out the people in charge just needed me for a week; some testing or other. Didn't even get to see one lousy demon before they sent me back. Must have messed up the paperwork because there were no free bunks at the barracks. Funny old world, ain't it?" He hesitated, then reached out and pulled Lykos' blanket a little higher up to cover the demon's shoulders. "Eligio here I met at the harbor on my way over and he lent me some money in exchange for finding him a place to sleep tonight. Sorry for the inconvenience. And please don’t ask about the clothes, that’s an even longer, weirder story."
Rhian's lips quirked upward at the corners. "Don't worry about it. What sort of a friend would I be if I turned you out on the street?" She straightened up and untangled her arms from her sleeves to brush a lock of hair out of her face, trapping it back in the bun she'd arranged on her head. "You stay here as long as you like. I have to work late tomorrow, but you don't have to keep to my hours. You know where the spare key is."
Glaw gave her a sleepy nod, his eyelids struggling back down despite his valiant attempts at combating them. "Thanks, I owe you."
The last he heard before falling asleep was: "No problem."
Dylis sat upright and grabbed for her sword as soon as the world around her came into focus. The room was small and pale with a rounded ceiling and she was lying on a bench of some kind. The hand grabbing at her belt met only air and her Emperor's Sign also appeared to be missing.
Also, she was surrounded by demons.
She recognized three of them; the large demon, leaning against the far wall, the demon with the knife-smile, and the demon Maddox and the boy had caught in the cloak. The two last ones were huddled on a bench opposite hers, the cloak-demon with its legs drawn up and the knife-smile one seated in a relaxed fashion, staring at her with mischievous, brown eyes. No glowing.
Other than them there were two she hadn't seen before. The first was short and curly-haired, standing in front of a curtain of beads near the foot of Dylis' bench. Its outfit was a strong purple in color, made of what looked to be silk, and the lower half looked more like pants than the number of skirts that had cropped up in the room. The other looked quite a lot like the cloak-demon, only with more feminine features and a stern glare on its face. It had a quiver over one shoulder and stood less than a meter from Dylis' bench, arms crossed over its chest.
The bloodstained demon was thankfully nowhere to be seen.
The room didn't seem to be made to hold so many of them. In fact, it didn't look very military or cave-like, which were two things Dylis had been expecting to encounter once conscious. This felt an uncomfortable lot like waking up in someone's living room after a party where the booze had flowed freely, with everyone you'd offended whilst drunk standing around you, waiting to give you a piece of their mind.
'Where am I?' Dylis signed, automatically, and faltered when she actually got a reply.
'My home,' the short demon signed. 'The home of my sister. The home of my brother.' The demon's hand movements were not as easy as those of a native speaker of the Imperial Sign Language, but the symbols it created were clear and in a logical order. 'You are our prisoner. It is not wise to resist.'
The eyes of the demon with the quiver shone blue for a heartbeat, then quickly faded back to golden brown. A memory of pain and guts on the wrong side of her skin chose that moment to flash before Dylis' eyes. Breath speeding up, her right hand searched its way to her back, her fingers trembling. There was a crude incision in her jacket and shirt, but when her fingers reached skin there was...a scar. Fairly new by the feel of it, but definitely closed. No stitches, no gauze, just skin and the rough surface of a freshly healed wound. It itched a little, but that was it.
The confusion on her face must have translated at least somewhat, for the short demon took to signing again. 'Your guards never leave your own among the trees, unless they're dead or soon to be.' It took a step forward, its hands curling into fists. 'You were a trap for us and I stopped it from closing. I just happened to save your life at the same time.'
Next time I see that traitor Blevins, I'm stabbing him! Dylis squared her shoulders and put her feet down on the floor. 'So what happens now?' Would this be when they took her mind? She was too numb to care.
'Now,' the largest of the demons signed, pushing off the wall. 'Now we take a walk.'
The walk was a long one, not eased by the fact that they'd bound her hand and foot. The rope that tied her feet together had enough slack to allow her to walk at a steady pace, but there was no way she'd outrun anyone, especially not a demon, and she still felt weak from blood loss.
The trees went on forever. Taller than any house Dylis had ever seen they towered above their little group, blocking out what sparse sunlight the gray clouds were letting through.
To pass the time Dylis took the chance to study her five captors. The short demon had taken the lead, staying at the head of the group and not talking to anyone by the looks of it. Dylis contemplated the possibility that that one might be the leader of the pack despite its less than warrior-like physic; it wouldn't be the first time she'd been fooled by the looks her opponent. The larger demon, walking just behind the short one, seemed to be keeping a respectful distance, almost like a bodyguard, so it wasn't an impossible assumption.
Besides those two, only one other demon was keeping to the ground; the one with the quiver. It stayed two steps behind Dylis, visible out of the corner of her eye. The one with the knife-smile and the cloak-demon were keeping to the trees and if demons' expressions were anything like that of humans, the demon with the quiver was sending the two of them dark glares every chance it got.
Dylis meditated on this sign of inner conflict, running through possible strategies to apply it to. It felt like seconds passed between that moment and the one where they reached the treeline.
The city was a bit of a shock. The very idea that demons could build things, that they were civilized enough to live in houses...
Not sheds either, but proper houses made of wood and stone, decorated with carvings and sculptures. There were statues as well, of animals and demons alike, taking up what little space there was along the narrow street she was being led on; a street made of beige and blue stones, put together in a dizzying pattern. It looked, she had to admit, like a real city, if a foreign one.
There were people everywhere. Or, well, demons everywhere. They lined the narrow street, peeking out of doorways and alleyways, young children hiding behind the adults. Without the glow, their eyes looked eerily human.
Dylis squeezed her eyes shut and relied on her feet to find the way for a bit. For all I know, they've poisoned me. They might be leading me down a tunnel. There might not be any children. The ground felt very solid and smooth under her boots though. Softly, a weaker part of her mind whispered: If they were clever enough to drug you, they're clever enough to build a city.
Some days she wished she could stomp on her own thoughts until they shut up.
To take her mind off that she gave the rope around her wrists another experimental tug. It didn't budge, no more than it had the other twenty times she'd tried to free her hands. New shadows drew her attention to the roofs; more armed demons had appeared, watching and waiting. The knife-smile demon and the cloak-demon were among them, keeping two steps ahead of the procession on the ground.
Dylis' hands brushed against her newest scar. The skin around the wound still itched, but she had no trouble finding a way to distract herself from scratching at it; being marched through narrow streets like a common criminal, to be gawked at by demon guards of all shapes and sizes, was plenty enough to take her mind off anything but her lack of weapons.
The parade ended at a huge, wide staircase, leading down to what looked like a stage. The demon with the quiver grabbed the rope around Dylis' arms and tugged, pushing her towards the steps, as if she were a prize bull headed for slaughter. She did her best to hold her head high.
She nearly stumbled down the stairs twice and then once more when the steps ran out and flat earth rose up to meet her boots. The ropes around her wrists were cut, but the ones around her ankles remained and the demon with the quiver very pointedly took a step closer, bow in one hand. Dylis had no doubt that it could twist the wood into a knife if need be.
The short demon was still leading the way and had placed itself in the center of the platform, flanked by the larger demon. They all stood stock still for a long while as the stairs filled up with demons of all ages.
When they all were seated, fidgeting and by the looks of it whispering among themselves, the short demon turned to Dylis and gestured at a group of elderly demons, seated on the upper row. 'This is the...' The short demon trailed off, seemingly unsure of what sign to use. 'They lead us,' it finally settled for, 'though not really. It's hard to explain. No words.'
They did look like leaders, Dylis admitted to herself. Leaders of some religious cult that was. They were all dressed in white robes – well, not quite robes even, more like sheets they'd wrapped around themselves to shield their naked bodies from the elements – and most were old enough to have gray hair and a fair share of wrinkles.
They all had the demon marks, rusty red or inky black spots that decorated their necks like splashes of paint.
Dylis pushed herself against the nearest solid object - a marble pillar - feeling her pulse slow somewhat once her back was plastered against something. It didn't last long though, as she recalled the way the demons had made the grass and trees dance to their whims, skewering her fellow soldiers.
'Tell them I'm a deserter.' This got her a look of confusion from her reluctant translator, so she reformulated the sentence to: 'Tell them I have no leader.'
The short demon hesitated, but it turned to the crowd and it spoke, seemingly addressing all onlookers. Dylis had all eyes on her now. All conversation had ceased, or at least all lips had stopped moving. In for a silver, in for a gold.
'I'm here for my brother.' She clenched her hands into fists before they could form the sign of a bird – there would be no point to it. 'He was sent into the forest. Scars like mine.' She pulled aside her collar and was rewarded with the widening of every pair of eyes in the stadium. 'Is he dead?'
A ripple went through the crowd. The demons all stayed seated, but their eyes had widened and some had lit up with blue light. A shiver ran down Dylis' spine and it worsened when she spotted the bloodstained demon; in new clothes, but its face had etched itself onto Dylis' corneas for the rest of her life. It had gotten to its feet suddenly, flanked by two other armed demons; male looking, with dark hair and different shades of skin - one of them could almost have passed for a citizen of the Empire, had it only covered its marks.
'Your brother take mine!' the mad demon signed. Its eyes were no longer glowing, but the pinpricks of icy blue irises were even less human looking than the blue glow had been. They looked to belong to someone who should have been locked up in an asylum years ago. 'Take my mind!'
Still, the message was far more important than the eyes of the one who'd signed it. 'Took?' Dylis signed back.
'Yes, took, away from here,' the short demon signed. 'He also poisoned my sister, made her kill your soldiers. Why would he do that?'
Dylis could do little more than blink in response. The mere thought of Glaw kidnapping a demon and poisoning another of them was unfathomable. He was a good soldier, yes, but she could easily best him in battle and he'd never been a master strategist. How by the word of the Emperor did he manage to get any of these creatures to go anywhere?
One of the elders on the upper row of the stairs had stood up as the mad demon was ushered back into her seat. 'We offered your brother trust and he betrayed us,' the elderly demon signed. 'We hoped for peace with your people. Give me one good reason as to why we should not have your head. Your kind clearly cares nothing for your guards and thus you are worthless to us as a prisoner.'
Dylis' mind raised. No one would come for her, that much was painfully clear. She had nothing to barter, nothing but her life, and that was worth about as much as a dirty rag in this situation.
'My brother might have been betrayed himself,' she chose to sign, sweat beading on her forehead. 'Others of my people forced him to come here. He did not want to. My brother is a good man and if he gave you his word, he would not break it willingly.' A wild idea struck her and made its way out through her hands before she could stop it:
'Whatever poisoned you,' she gestured at the mad one, 'might have been given to my brother by the leaders of my people. I came here to rescue him, from you and my own kind both. I swear on my life's blood that he would not have tricked you otherwise!' Sweat ran down her back, tickling the already itchy skin around the wound there. She gritted her teeth.
More demons had stood up, shouting at each other judging by the looks of their mouths and stances. The mad one was yelling something at the two armed ones flanking her; one of them looked lost in thought, while the other was giving the mad one an icy glare and holding her in place.
Dylis cast her gaze about the crowd - there had to be at least two thousand demons present - searching for other familiar faces and found the knife-smile demon and the cloak-demon sitting at the edge of the crowd. The knife-smile demon had seated itself on one of the three meters high pillars that lined the staircase, grinning as if the scene before it was part of some amusing play. The cloak-demon had taken up standing guard at the base of the same pillar, its eyes straight ahead and blank, as if dreaming itself someplace else for a moment.
The knife-smile demon caught her gaze, its eyes flashing blue for a second, before fading back to far too human black in brown in white. 'Very rude of them not to translate, don't you think?' it signed at her, the movements of its hands graceful and fluid. 'I'll have you know you've caused quite a stir. The little one beside you,' it gestured at the short demon, 'got quite fond of your brother and the entire city wants the captured one back. If you had a sample of your brother's lifeblood with you, you could drive quite the hard bargain.'
Dylis frowned, her teeth aching under the pressure she was putting on them. 'Why are you telling me this?' she signed with one hand
'To be helpful?' was the only answer she got.
Movement from her right drew her attention to the short demon. It was looking at her with wide, dark brown eyes. For a heartbeat Dylis almost saw a human in its place; a young girl, scared and desperate.
'Do you?' she - it - signed, its hands trembling. 'Do you have some of your brother's blood.'
Why would I-? Dylis dug her hands into her legs before they could shape her thoughts into a question. 'What would you do with it, if I gave it to you?'
Her world tilted somewhat when the short demon's eyes filled with tears. 'You have some?' it signed, taking a step closer. The larger demon and the demon with the quiver started and hurried to step between them, turned towards Dylis.
'I might,' Dylis answered, fighting the urge to strike a fighting stance. Instead, she forced her shoulders and head down, making herself smaller; as much as that was possible. 'But I won't give you anything of his until you tell me what you will do with it.'
'I can find him!' the short demon signed, her eyes still wide and now overflowing with tears. 'I use magic, I can find him! I can find both our brothers!'
Something not unlike hope started to nudge Dylis in the chest. She did her best to ignore it. 'Will the search hurt him? Because if you can find him unharmed I will swear my services to you and your kind.'
The commotion on the stairs was getting worse. Several of the demons had gotten out of their seats, gesturing wildly and glaring at each other, all of their mouths moving, as if they were trying to talk over each other.
Dylis did her best to ignore them, focusing all her attention on the short demon. It had stopped a few steps from her, still flanked by the larger demon and the demon with the quiver, and it was still crying. It pressed its lips together as if to hold back sobs, and its eyes darted from one demon to the other, searching for something. Finally, its gaze landed on one of the elderly demons at the top of the stairs and stayed there.
Following the short demon's gaze, Dylis took note of the demon that had caught its eye; the elderly demon looked to be female, with gray hair drawn into a high pony-tail and dressed in one of those sheet-like robes. It gave the short demon a slow nod, the rest of its body stiff as a board the entire time.
'It won't harm him,' the short demon signed. 'I’ll just find him. We use that magic on our own, to find hurt ones. As you've now sworn to be loyal to us, I swear my magic will not hurt your brother.'
Dylis could sense the entire arena freezing, almost as instantly as if they were birds that had gotten their cage covered by a blanket. It felt like every single demon was holding its breath.
'Then I am yours to command,' Dylis signed, fighting the urge to gag. There was a plan forming at the back of her mind. She wished it would hurry up and complete itself before she ended up torn to shreds by one of the onlookers. 'I do not have my brother's blood with me here, but I know where you can find some.' I'm no longer of the military and I'm no longer of Outer Camps. I'm betraying no one. The urge to vomit remained, however, no matter how much she tried to swallow it down.
The short demon dried its eyes by rubbing the back of its hand against them. The gesture was so familiar and vulnerable that Dylis once more found herself thinking of the demon as a "her" and not an "it". Why not? was the thought that followed, sounding just as loopy inside her head as it would have outside of it. They look like men and women as much as humans do; might as well address them all proper like, if I'm supposed to work with them.
The debate seemed to have started up again on the stairs and had turned quite heated. Some were throwing fits, their chests heaving and their fingers pointing at each other; yelling at each other most likely. A few sat dead still, huddled in on themselves like they were trying to blend into the marble steps. The majority of the gathered demons, however, were simply staring, their eyes going from their fighting kin to the people on the stage, and back again.
It would have made Dylis laughed if she hadn't been feeling sick to her stomach.
'I will hold you to your word,' the short demon signed, having straightened up. Her eyes were dry, but the white around the irises had taken on red tint. 'Many here believe you will lead us into a trap. If so, you will be the first to die when we're attacked.' The demon's hands trembled when it shaped the sign for "die".
The demon with the quiver gave Dylis a dark glare, which she returned in kind. 'I object,' it - she - signed, baring its - her - teeth. 'All know the People by the Sea cannot be trusted. She lies.'
A gust of strong wind heralded the appearance of the knife-smile demon and the cloak-demon onto the stage. They landed right in-between where Dylis stood and where the two other armed demons were flanking the short one. The cloak-demon took a stance that made it appear as if he was shielding Dylis from the demon with the quiver, while his companion turned to face Dylis and gave her a curt bow.
'You'll have to excuse her,' the demon with the knife-smile signed and gestured vaguely with the shrug of one shoulder at the demon carrying a quiver. 'She's not too fond of rescue missions.'
The demon with the quiver yelled something at the knife-smile one. Judging by the way the larger and shorter demon flinched it must have been a quite loud shout. Dylis could almost feel the vibrations in the air.
'If you wish to stay here, I won't mind,' the knife-smile demon signed, his lips moving in beat with his hands; seemed he had the forethought to keep all of his fellows aware of the conversation's contents at all times. Or maybe he was playing some kind of game. 'I have no voice in this gathering, but as I will be thrown back into the woods the moment it is over I thought I'd be practical and volunteer to go along with our dear healer, to find the missing ones.'
The demon with the quiver yelled again, color rising to her cheeks to underline her rage.
'What your brother does or doesn't do isn't for you to say,' the knife-smile demon signed in answer. 'Should he choose to come with me, I'll be glad to have his company.'
A full-blown fight seemed to be brewing, with the one demon reaching for her quiver and the other slamming his staff into the ground, like a judge calling the court to order. At their sides, the cloak-demon and the larger demon were bracing themselves, hands on their weapons.
A gesture from the top of the stairs halted it all. The elderly female demon who'd given the short one permission to speak earlier had stood up. She had both arms raised toward the sky with her palms turned towards the crowd, ushering silence and stillness.
'We will vote,' she signed, her lips moving at the same time. 'Any who wish to volunteer for the rescue, please gather by the daughter of my wife and husband.'
Dylis held her breath as most of the demons settled down and simply stared. A few appeared on stage, moving too fast to be seen by the naked eye. To her dismay, the mad one had taken up position by the short demon - her sister if Dylis hadn't misunderstood the situation. Other than her only two more demons joined them; a finely dressed one who was unusually pale for a demon, and another with very dark skin and innumerable braids, who looked to be muttering to himself.
If they were to storm Outer Camps their chance of success could have been better.
The audience members’ eyes lit up. Dylis found herself dragged backward by the knife-smile demon, away from the edge of the stage. A heartbeat later large pillars in black and white rose around the stage, as if summoned out of the very earth; probably not as unreasonable a guess as it should have been.
They disappeared almost as suddenly as they had come, melting back into the ground. On the stage next to her, the knife-smile demon looked very pleased with himself, the short demon had a shine of hope in her eyes, the cloak-demon's shoulders sagged as if in resignation and the demon with the quiver looked to be cursing herself blue in the face. The remaining four of their group looked fairly unaffected by the whole thing, merely staring at the gathering of elders at the top of the stairs.
'It has been decided,' the elderly female signed and spoke. 'All volunteers will go to rescue our lost kinsman and our former ally, should he need rescuing. You will leave tonight.'
A heavy stone fell from Dylis' chest and she straightened up further, standing at attention. She gave her new "squad" a doubtful look, weighing their worth in battle versus the possibility that they would go mad and tear everyone apart, humans and demons alike.
Her calculations did not end hopefully.
The pale demon and the demon with the braids broke away from the little group on stage and approached her. The one with the braids knelt down beside her and put a hand on the rope tying her legs together. It writhed between his fingers, uncurling itself and untangling from its knots, to finally roll up in his palm. He didn't look at her once.
'You are to come with us,' the pale one signed, his face a blank mask. 'Whatever it is you have planned, we have much to talk about before tonight.'
Swallowing forcefully Dylis gave him a nod and followed him. Wherever this road would lead, she'd need all her determination to follow it the whole way.
Night had fallen on their second day in Trade and all Glaw could think of was getting out. He pulled at his hair until it felt like the roots were going to give. It didn't help.
"There's something I'm missing," he muttered to his knees. "Why won't it pass?"
"I'm sure it will, in time." Lykos' voice sounded unusually shaky. Glaw tore his eyes away from the floor, which he'd been searching for answers for the better part of an hour, to look at his companion.
What met his eyes was not a comforting sight. Lykos looked pale and drawn like he hadn't had enough to eat for days. There were circles under his eyes and keeping them open seemed to be difficult as he was blinking and squinting at the world around him.
"You look about as healthy as I feel," Glaw said, bringing a hand up to feel Lykos' forehead. "Uhm, I'm not sure if you lot get fevers, but I'm pretty sure you have one."
Lykos gave a slow nod and unsteadily got to his feet, only to sit down next to Glaw, taking up the rest of the free space the couch had to offer. "We do get fevers," he said, words drawn out, spilling from his lips with some reluctance. "I'm sure it's nothing but a cold."
Realization dawned like a kick to the head. Glaw cursed under his breath and fought the urge to just sag into a pile of resignation. "It's that magic, isn't it? The border."
Lykos nodded, shoulders trembling under his cloak. He looked pitiful where he sat, shaking, his arms wrapped around his chest as if to stave off a chill. Glaw wanted to tell him that they were going back, right that moment. There was no way the demon could make it on his own. Better to be locked back in Acuelo's cellar than to have a death on his conscience.
He found he couldn't. No matter how much he wanted to form the words and say them, shout them, his jaw kept locking up, preventing all but a weak groan from escaping.
"I can't believe we slept all through the day," Glaw mumbled to himself, giving up on thoughts of running. Maybe his mind hadn't woken up yet after such a long nap. "I think I heard you get up and try out the bathroom around lunch, though." He followed that with his best teasing smile.
Lykos gave a weak laugh. "I acted like a drunk goose in there. You'll have to apologize for me to your friend. I fear I broke at least one of the glass bottles that stood balanced on the side of the porcelain tub."
"As long as you didn't vomit all over the floor I'm sure she'll forgive you." Glaw's head wasn't as full of mist now. Despite nausea he was beginning to glimpse his own thoughts and they were images of the Imperial Palace. I must be going mad.
"You lied to Miss Argall, yesterday," Lykos said out of the blue, pulling the blanket tighter around himself.
"Technically it was after midnight, so I lied to her today" Glaw answered, his smile twitching into an expression not unlike guilt. "I thought you were asleep."
"Almost. Just because my eyes are closed it doesn't mean my ears are too."
"Like a true soldier," Glaw said, pulling at a bare thread on his blanket.
Lykos shook his head, then grimaced, as if the soft movement had set his brain spinning inside his skull. "I'm not a soldier. Never been."
"But your sister is," Glaw said, tying the small thread into a knot. "Bernike, I mean."
"Yes," Lykos said, looking to have stopped himself from nodding at the last moment. "Bernike is a very skilled warrior. Myrrine has been nagging her to join the city guard ever since they were children. Won't take another partner until my poor sister gives in." He brought his hands up to cover his face, rubbing his forehead as if to massage away a headache. There was a weak smile on his lips though. "She might have better luck from now on."
A pang of guilt hit Glaw in the chest like a bullet. The small thread broke. "How come you all lived so close to the border if you weren't guarding it?" he asked, searching the blanket for a new thread.
"Ever since the time before our city, our parents' dream has been to live side by side with your people," Lykos mumbled to the ceiling, his face still hidden behind his hands. "As they grew older, we as their children took it upon ourselves to continue that dream. We figured that learning the language of your people would be the first way to peace."
"So you've been what? Stalking our patrol squads? Capturing soldiers to question?"
Lykos gave another weak chuckle. This sent him into a coughing fit that almost convinced Glaw he did have a cold. "Mostly not," he said once the coughing had subsided. "Our border guards did most of the stalking, as you put it. They'd tell us what they'd heard and in what situation. My sisters and I would then puzzle out what it meant, based on the research my and Bernike's mother had done in her youth. Once we knew enough about your spoken language we taught ourselves the one you spoke with your hands."
"How exactly did you figure that one out?" Glaw wondered aloud. "I mean, it doesn't exactly look like a language, does it?"
"We taught your people's language to all who wished to learn. Among them, the guards were the most eager students," Lykos said, then held his breath; to stave off another coughing fits by the looks of how his shoulders heaved.
After a minute or two, he let out a gasp and a single cough, then said: "One of them - I can't remember who now - ventured close to the border and managed to eavesdrop on one of your smaller patrols taking a break. They were giving the youngest of the group a lesson in using the signs, which made it quite easy for our guard to learn alongside the young one."
"And after that, it must have been easy to puzzle out the rest," Glaw said, allowing himself a chuckle at the expense of his fellow soldiers. "Must have been a civilian who'd been sent to the Outer Camps; should have kept the lessons at the barracks."
Lykos echoed Glaw's chuckle with a wheezy one of his own. There were deep shadows under his eyes, giving them a hollow look. "We were very grateful for your people's mistake, though I wouldn't say it was easy to figure out the rest. We had the basic key, but since the signs so rarely are used out in the open it was hard to build up a vocabulary. It took time and patience."
Glaw lifted an eyebrow, abandoning the loose threads in the blanket. "'Vocabulary', huh? That's quite a big word. I must be rubbing off on you."
"I'm always grateful to learn," Lykos murmured, his eyelids falling shut.
An idea, weak and confused as a newborn bird, saw the light of day at the back of Glaw's mind. "Want me to teach you more words?"
He got a slow nod in answer.
"All right," Glaw said, doing his best not to sound too excited or nervous. "We'll start with 'glorious'."
"Glorious," Lykos said, giving the word an odd accent. "Glorious. Hmm, and what does that mean?"
"It means..." Glaw put a hand under his chin, as actors who wished to look deep in contemplation always did. "It describes something that is so wonderful that you almost can't breathe when you're close to it."
"Ah, I see." There was a look in Lykos eyes as he said that, that sent a pleasant shiver down Glaw's spine.
"Uhm," he said, ducking his head to stare at the floor and the cups of long cold tea that had been left by the foot of the couch. "I'll give you a trickier one this time; wouldn't want to bore you."
"I'm far from bored," Lykos said. He was leaning back into the couch cushions now, looking far more relaxed than earlier. Though the dark bags under his eyes remained he looked more alert, more interested in the world around him and he no longer flinched every time he moved.
"Glad to hear it." Glaw distracted himself by recalling how nauseous he'd felt only a handful of minutes before. He nudged one of the half-empty teacups with one foot and watched the brown liquid inside it slosh around. "The next word is 'brew' and you have to guess what it means before I tell you."
"Brew..." The world rolled off Lykos' tongue, drawing out the 'r' so that it sounded more like a growl or a purr than a letter. "Was the tea a clue or are you merely trying to confuse me?"
"Clue," Glaw answered before he could stop himself. "But you're not getting anything more out of me!" His heart was racing and he wasn't quite sure why.
"Brew. Brew," Lykos said, repeating the word until it sounded more like a mantra than an action. "To make tea, perhaps?"
Glaw clapped his hands, stopping himself after he'd slapped them together twice. His lips tugged up into a goofy, somewhat embarrassed grin. "Correct!" he said, hiding his hands under his blanket. "How did you guess?"
"It sounded like a..." Lykos frowned and leaned his head back, melting into the couch. "I don't know your way of saying it, but we call words that mean actions <verbs>. There's a pattern to each language and something about 'brew' told me it was something you do. Please don't ask me to explain how; my head is aching enough already."
"Don't worry, I won't bother you for grammar lessons in demon tongue. I hardly understood the basics when I was taught them about my own language." Glaw paused and pinched his legs hard. He'd been so caught up in this little game that he'd nearly forgotten its original purpose. It had all come rushing back to him as if his brain wished to remind him and keep him on track, but it wouldn't work if he actually thought about it.
Don't think about homemade food, he joked to himself and the rising panic faded into barely suppressed, giddy laughter.
"Airplane." The word came rushing out of his mouth before his brain could catch up with it and he could feel something tugging at the back of his mind, clawing, like a dog trying to jump up a wall a cat had climbed.
Something heavy filled the air in Rhian's living room. Glaw couldn't quite pinpoint what it was or where it had come from. It felt like his head would cave in under the sudden pressure as if he'd dived too deep down in the harbor. His ears were aching and breathing was getting harder, the heaviness having settled on his back and chest, pressing inward.
"It means," Glaw said, stubbornly ignoring the urge to gasp for breath, "a machine, almost like a bird, except it was built by my people, like a carriage. It can fly through the air, big enough for one or two of my kind to fly with it." He had to grit the last sentence out between his teeth. His jaw didn't seem to want to cooperate more than that.
"Like a carriage that goes through the air," Lykos said, his eyes on the ceiling. "But how does it move? It can't flap its wings if it isn't alive."
"I-" Glaw's jaw clamped shut, refusing to budge no matter how he tried to gape. His entire head ached. He thought of all the schematics he'd studied, of all the information he'd weaseled out of the workers in the hangar by the harbor, but once his lips and tongue were free to move again all he found himself saying was: "I don't know."
Something clicked into place in Glaw's mind. He didn't let it form a whole thought, but he had a vague understanding that whatever it was that kept him from speaking could be outsmarted. I'm quite sure that Rhian said all spells have loopholes. You just need to find them.
"We should go to the docks again," he said out loud. "The fresh air should do you some good."
"If you say so," Lykos said, his lips barely parting.
Getting out of the apartment took time. Glaw had to help Lykos get to his feet and steady him while he was getting the door unlocked. The march down the stairs outside was even more of a challenge. They were unlucky enough to run into one of Rhian's neighbors, a middle-aged man who gave them a scrutinizing look as they passed him. Glaw prayed Rhian's reputation wouldn't have to suffer too much in the aftermath of all this.
The walkways outside were thin on people. The sun had just set, leaving the sky a pale greyish blue, which during spring meant it couldn't be more than five in the evening. Glaw shifted his grip on Lykos' waist and moved the arm he had slung over his shoulders into a more comfortable position, ignoring the glances and whispers cropping up among the few citizens they stumbled passed. Most seemed to be people who'd gotten off early from work, but here and there Glaw spotted guards. Not guards on patrol though. He knew the routes through the city quite well - they'd been the same since before his time - and seeing military officers in full uniform in a back alley like the walkway they currently were on was disconcerting.
He sped up his pace as much as he dared and could, doing his best to not make eye contact with anyone. Pulling his scarf up to cover his nose and mouth, he faked a cough. He sneaked his hand away from Lykos' waist and up to his neck, making sure Lykos' scarf was in place as well. Lykos swayed alarmingly. Glaw returned his hand just in time to prevent them both from tumbling over and slamming into the steel of the walkway.
"How are you feeling?" he asked as they found their balance again. "Can you make it to the harbor?"
All he got in reply was a weak nod.
They staggered on. It took a good hour or two to get to the docks. Glaw quickly lost track of time, between the meandering pace and constantly having to dodge curious guards. Unlike the walkways, the jetties and boats were teeming with life; sailors entering and exiting taverns, cargo being unloaded and road-channels having their floodgates opened, letting smaller ships and boats into the city itself. A heavy scent of salt and tar hung in the air.
"Right," Glaw said between gasps, chest heaving and muscles burning. He helped Lykos lean against the brick wall of a warehouse before leaning forward, hands on his knees, to catch his breath. "We'll just stop to take a breather here, let you get a bit of fresh sea wind into your lungs and then we'll..."
He trailed off and found his gaze drawn to the entrance of a small alley on his right-hand side. A woman stepped out of the shadows, wearing a mask that looked like it had been puzzled together from the wing bones of an untold number of small birds. The sight of it made Glaw’s stomach turn and his heart pound with pure terror. And that was before he saw the sword in her hand.
He could hardly hear himself breathe over the sound of blood rushing in his ears. All he wanted to do was run, but his arms and legs were getting heavier by the second, dragging him down towards the ground. To his left, he could see Lykos stagger and fall, limbs sprawling on the ground as haphazardly as an abandoned rag doll.
The metal walkway was chilly against his back, the cold seeping through his tunic-dress and into his bones. Why can't I move? His breathing seemed to be working against him, slowing down to even and calm while all he wanted to do was gasp for air and scream. He couldn't turn his head, but he was sure the woman was getting closer. It was almost as if she was at the edge of his mind, a presence he hadn't been aware of until this very moment.
He wanted to be sick.
"Good boy." She cast a dark shadow over him, as she came close enough to be seen. The voice from behind the mask was hollow, dead, like an untalented actor trying to read lines from a bad script. He could barely make her out like this, the darkened sky in combination with a nearby street lamp backlighting her, but the mere thought of her mask and her sword sent his mind reeling.
He really, really wanted to scream.
And then, suddenly, he didn't. It was as if his skull had been wrapped in soft wool. He no longer felt the cold metal of the walkway or his aching arms and legs. He was floating and the woman leaning over him changed. The threat was gone, replaced by the affection one might feel for an old friend or a close relative.
More people were joining her, moving at the edge of Glaw's vision. It warmed his heart to see they were wearing the Imperial Uniform. His own would care for him. Dylis might even be among them, ready to take him to Search, to the best healers and doctors the Empire had to offer.
Everything would be all right.
It felt all kinds of wrong to be standing outside the walls of Outer Camps, backed by a handful of demons. Dylis did her best to squash her conscience, stroking her fingers along the tear in her shirt where there had been a gaping wound just a day ago.
The demons had all run to the treeline on the branches far above Dylis' head, which almost had made it possible for her to pretend she was returning alone. Among the odd shadows, the trees cast it was hard to make out the shifts that would have alerted her to the presence of strangers back home. The only thing that had broken her out of her almost sleepwalking was one of her "companions" occasionally darting low to check on her; or more likely to make it clear they were following her, so she wouldn't get any bright ideas about running.
'Where is the house where they keep the blood?' the short one signed. Dylis had taken to thinking of her as 'Doe', because of her huge, brown eyes and her lack of weapons.
'I can't very well show you through the wall, can I?' Dylis signed. She let out a gasp as arms wrapped around her waist. The world around her became a blur and she found herself standing on a branch far too high above the ground for her comfort. Walls were one thing, branches something else entirely.
Throwing a glare over her shoulder she was met by the sight of a grin and glowing eyes on the face of the large, ax-wielding demon. 'Better look now?' it - she - signed, shoulders shaking in what had to be suppressed laughter.
If she hadn't been the only thing keeping Dylis from tumbling twenty meters right down to certain death - or at least a lot of broken bones - she would have elbowed her in the stomach. 'Better,' she signed instead and did her best not to look down at the ground, while at the same time searching the silhouettes of barracks for a familiar shape.
On a branch to her left stood Doe, seemingly unassisted. Against her will, Dylis felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment. Though that wasn't enough for her to shrug off the steadying arms around her waist. I think I'm going to name this big one 'Buffalo', she distracted herself. Suits her personality.
'That one,' she signed. The other demons came into sight, parting from the shadows like sparks from a fire and gathering on the nearby branches. Dylis pointed at a small cabin near the center of the camp. 'That's where they took my blood. They're most likely storing older samples in a bigger building.' At least she hoped so. She scanned the nearby houses, taking in the angles of the roofs and the number of guards stationed outside each of them. 'I'd guess that one, but we might have to do some searching.'
This was met with thoughtful nods from most of her "squad". Only the mad demon, who had placed itself - herself - on a branch ahead of the one Dylis teetered on, seemed more interested in Buffalo than the forming plan.
'Get her down on the ground before you drop her,' the mad one signed, free hand on her hip and one eyebrow raised in an expression that screamed: "we are not amused".
Dylis stomach dropped as the world went out of focus again. For a heart-stopping second, she thought the demon actually had dropped her, but the ground met her feet with a soft thud instead of a bone smashing one. The other demons joined them as Dylis got her pulse under control. They formed a small circle as if huddling together for warmth. The mad one had taken up position next to Buffalo and they seemed to be bickering about something, though neither their hands nor lips moved.
She gets to be 'Horse', Dylis decided, recalling the skittish, violent beasts the sergeants used to place bets on during the weekend races and rodeos in Growth. They looked calm enough in the stables or in their paddocks, but once someone they didn't care for got close...
Let's hope she's done kicking her own kind more than she already has. Though Buffalo seemed complete at ease with her, despite having been stabbed by her not that long ago. Dylis looked away from the silent discussion going on beside her and sought out Doe. She was at the back of their circle, which slowly was reshaping itself to a triangle pointed at Outer Camps. Dylis, Horse and Buffalo made up the base, with Doe in front of them to the right, along with the demon armed with a bow and quiver, and the two demons Dylis hardly had spoken to - she'd chosen to call them Peacock and Panther - making up most of the triangle's left side.
The demon with the knife-smile had taken up point, twirling a crooked staff, like a bored juggler waiting for his moment on stage. Next to him stood the cloak-demon, its shoulders hunched and its jaw tense. They made an odd couple; one seemingly thrilled to be close to the heat of battle and the other subdued, like a man nervously awaiting an appointment with a healer.
'Do we have a plan of attack?' Dylis signed, facing Doe. She seemed the more talk-active of the bunch, or at least the one most likely to give sane answers. The meeting they'd held back in the demons' city had been brief, cut short to give them an early start towards Outer Camps.
They're lucky they're able to shape giant snakes out of grass if all their strategy meetings are that quick and messy. Time is of the essence, huh? It's a wonder the Emperor hasn’t managed to capture all of them.
'We talked about it on the way here. I’ll lead, you give directions and all but them will follow and protect us,' Doe signed, and then gestured at the knife-smile demon and the cloak-demon, 'They'll distract the soldiers while we search for the blood.'
'By themselves?' Dylis asked, eying the knife-smile demon and his companion doubtfully. She'd seen the knife-smile one fight, yes, and been impressed, but if not for the forest colored clothes the other one looked as much a soldier as Doe; long hair pinned neatly and decoratively into an intricate net of locks and he stood with hunched shoulders, like a beaten dog ready to slink away from its angered master. Also, he'd had to be rescued the last time she'd seen him enter a fight.
Doe's lips tugged up into something that might have been a smile if it hadn't been so sad. She made the sign for snake and added 'has proved to be good against overwhelming odds and he volunteered.' The sign for dog followed as if Doe had read her mind, and: 'goes were Snake goes. He can hold his own, don't worry.'
'I wasn't,' Dylis hurried to answer, tearing her eyes from their unimpressive vanguard. 'And for your information, I'm not killing anyone. Not unless I have to.' Her hands had moved before her brain had told them to. She gritted her teeth. The quick meeting they'd had hadn't quite covered the topic of deadly force; it had barely covered the topic of attack, which would have made all of Dylis' old instructors cry themselves to sleep.
'You think we'd be stupid enough to kill one of your kind here right on the border unless it was a life or death situation?' Buffalo signed and rolled her eyes. 'As if it's not enough that we'll be walking into a den full of those cursed necklaces. If we do this right we won't even draw blood.'
'Enemy guards,' Horse signed the second Buffalo had finished correcting Dylis. 'They'll see us soon.'
'On my signal,' Doe signed and stepped into the center of the triangle. Buffalo quickly stepped up to fill the space left by her. Snake and Dog had turned to look at Doe, their stances more alert, their eyes aglow with blue light. They all stood frozen as if listening to far off footsteps.
Snake and Dog were gone, leaving gusts of wind in their wake. Dylis thought to ask if "not spilling blood" meant leaving soldiers as will-less husks, but thought better of it. Instead, she fell into step behind Doe, who'd replaced Snake and Dog at the head of the triangle. Dylis had one hand on the hilt of her sword and she let her eyes dart from shadow to shadow like she would while patrolling the walkways back home. If she wasn't mistaken, the demon with the bow and quiver was glaring at the back of her head, which did nothing to calm her nerves.
What are those scrawny dog-foxes on the Plains called? She let her mind drift in an effort to distract herself from the skin crawling at the back of her neck. Coyotes? Sounds right enough. Coyote it is then.
Dylis looked up at the wall, now no more than two meters away. It was nothing like the other cities’ walls, no more than three meters in height and with holes for the wall guards to look out through, leaving their view of the enemy limited. It felt ridiculous to even call it a city wall, but Outer Camps counted as such on all maps she'd ever seen and twelve years of schooling didn't go away just because you'd seen the real thing. The lack of stone made it look weak; one carelessly thrown match and they'd soon be defenseless.
The demons formed a half-circle around Doe, leaving her closest to the wall. Dylis kept to the back of the group, one eye on them and the other on the forest behind them; even though there were no guards on the wall a patrol squad could appear behind them any minute.
'Here,' Doe signed and then splayed her fingers like in imitation of an exploding firework; a sign that Dylis didn't recognize. There was no confusion on the others' faces though and they swiftly took up positions along the wall. Their eyes lit up. The wall melted away.
Dylis had sort of been prepared for it, or something like it, but watching magic be used so casually was disconcerting. The squads of very surprised soldiers on the other side of the partially melted wall was even less comforting.
Dylis cursed and unsheathed her sword. Of course, Sayer had to be on the other side of the wall at the moment they'd picked to invade. The look of disbelief and betrayal in her eyes stabbed Dylis in the gut like a knife. She knew quite well what that felt like by now, so the sensation was easy to recognize.
'Dog and Snake will take care of them,' Doe signed, following Buffalo and Peacock through the hole in the wall. 'Just push forward!'
Clenching her jaw until her teeth ached, Dylis raised her sword and followed her demon squad into Outer Camps. The human soldiers blinked, taking in the small invading force, before reaching for their own swords and pistols.
Snake appeared in front of them before Buffalo or Peacock had gotten more than two meters into the camp. He'd jumped down from somewhere above - the air itself for all Dylis knew - and slammed his hands into the ground, bringing the earth up into a wave. The soldiers panicked, scrambling backward. Dylis tore her eyes away from the torrent of rocks and dirt, following the rest of her "squad" as they seized the opportunity and rushed to the right. They darted in between the wall and the nearest barracks.
Doe waved an arm in Dylis' general direction. 'She and I will head for the house with the blood. The rest of you make sure we get there.'
Dylis frowned. It was odd, having the only unarmed member of the group ordering about the rest, but who was she to question demon logic?
'I know the quickest way,' Buffalo signed and nodded at the wall of the barrack they currently were hiding by. Dylis took a step back and let her gaze skip from one demon to the next; she had a fairly clear idea of what would happen next.
The demons' eyes shone again and they all pressed their hands to the side of the house, clawing at the wood like mischievous cats, though their expressions were anything but playful.
Dylis jumped as the wall fell apart, crumbling into dust and leaving a door-sized hole in its wake. I'm never getting used to that.
The barrack was empty, all the soldiers usually found taking naps or eating in such a place most likely called out to counter the ongoing attack. Without waiting for permission Dylis took the lead, running down the path between the numerous bunk beds. She stopped by the door on the other side of the barrack, one shoulder to the wall, and waited for the other seven to catch up with her before she nudged it open.
On the training field outside there was chaos and little else. Soldiers were rushing about, shouting at each other by the looks of it, and brandishing weapons they seemed unsure of what to do with. The higher ranking officers were aiming their pistols at the top of the city wall as if invisible invaders were crawling in over it. They whirled left and right at seemingly random intervals to take new aim at the empty air. The lower ranking officers had their swords at the ready and kept stabbing at nothing, their faces white with terror.
'That is Dog at work,' Doe signed with something approaching a proud smile on her lips. 'They will not care about us for a while. Go!'
Dylis hesitated. She hardly recognized any of the soldiers stumbling about outside, and yet...
'Hurry!' Doe's brow knit into a frown and with one hand she gave Dylis a shove, straight out the door. Dylis threw a glare over her shoulder, but set off running, dodging the hallucinating soldiers.
There was no one outside the cabin, but the door refused to budge when she turned the handle. She took a step back to give the demons room to do their thing and was surprised to see them all flinch away from the building as if it was a poisonous lizard or a stinking pile of mud.
All except Doe, that was. 'Go help Dog and Snake,' she signed, placing her hands on the door's lock. 'I'll work on this.'
The other six demons dispersed into the crowd of soldiers. Dylis remained where she was, unable to tear her eyes from the sight before her. Doe's fingers had begun to glow, yet her eyes stayed human-looking and brown. Small tendrils of golden light extended from her fingertips and found their way into the lock, twisting and turning like seaweed under water.
Spell-weaving! The mere idea of a demon working permanent magic sent Dylis' mind reeling.
After a few seconds, Doe pulled her hands back and the light faded, leaving the door to turn its own handle and slide open of its own power. Doe stood up, brushing off the knees of her pants, and stepped inside. It was hard to see from the angle Dylis stood at, but she was quite sure the demon had a satisfied smile on her face.
A gust of air and a small hole in the doorframe had Dylis diving for the ground. It would seem at least one of the higher ranking officers had gotten back into their right mind.
Scrambling up onto her elbows, sword in hand, Dylis crawled inside the cabin as quickly as she could, her head pounding. As soon as enough of her was inside she rolled to the left and kicked the door shut. Taking a deep breath she pushed herself up and got to her feet, sheathing her sword.
Doe was at the far side of the small room already, but she'd turned around when Dylis had thrown herself to the ground. Once Dylis was back on her feet, Doe signed: 'Are you hurt?'
'No,' Dylis curled her fingers to stop them from shaking. 'Idiot missed me by a hand's breadth: didn't want to give them a second shot.' She shook her head to clear it and rolled her shoulders. The left one ached after the impact with the floorboards. Hopefully, that wouldn't become an issue later. 'Is there a spell on the cupboard?'
Doe turned to look at where she'd pointed, chin in one hand. 'No, I do not think so. I cannot feel anything from here.' Carefully, she put a hand on the doorknob and turned it. 'It's locked.'
'Let me handle that.' The lock was a fairly ordinary thing she'd seen in plenty of stores and kitchens before. While it hardly had been her job to pick them, an understanding of a thief's mind had always been a big help in her own work.
She found a letter opener on the desk and knelt down by the cupboard. Getting her makeshift lockpick in place took a moment, but before long she had the door sliding open as easily as Doe had gotten the front door to give in.
On the shelves inside were rows upon rows of vials, all plugged with cork. They all had labels on them, with ranks and surnames scribbled in almost unreadable handwriting. The blood inside them looked fresh. Hers was nowhere to be seen and neither was Glaw's.
Dylis cursed silently.
The lower two shelves were overflowing with documents, stacked haphazardly into unsteady piles with little to no regard for order. Against all odds, she located her brother's documents in a matter of seconds. There was a small glass figurine with a dark red spiral pattern resting on them like a paperweight, making them stand out from the others like a cat among hens. There was something eerie about the ornament; the spiral on it seemed to have no end or beginning, yet her eyes told her it was a spiral and not just a gathering of circles. The color too was unsettling, looking more like dried blood than paint.
Behind her she could sense Doe shuffling around, pulling out drawers and emptying their contents onto the floor. Dylis chose to ignore her and instead began flipping through the papers, surprised at the steadiness of her own hands.
She recognized most of it as Glaw's own documents from home; age, medical records, assignments, photographs and so forth. The last paper was something new. It was an order sent to Outer Camps a week before Glaw got reassigned there if the date on it was to be trusted. In general, it was a normal transfer order with information about the new member the camp was to get, but there was one thing quite eye-catching about it; the acceptance of Glaw into Outer Camps had been signed by Field Marshal Warlow himself. Seems he’d been more involved than simply giving orders.
The Field Marshal was a powerful spell-weaver. The dark red spiral in the glass ornament suddenly made much more sense. For a moment, she was tempted to continue looking for her own papers or those of Ffion Heir. But they didn't have that kind of time to waste.
'I've got his blood,' she signed to Doe, cradling the glass ornament in one hand. 'You might have to work some magic on this lump of glass before you can get to it, though.'
Doe's eyes grew impossibly wide as saw what Dylis was holding. She took a step back, taking a deep breath through her nose. 'Is that the only blood?' she signed, her fingers shaking.
'Yes,' Dylis answered curtly, feeling a rush of adrenaline pump through her muscles. 'Why?'
'Magic. Bad, bad magic.' Doe shifted her weight from one leg to the other. 'It is locked to this house. You disturbed it when you moved it, woke up something. I could not sense it before, but now...'
'You look a little green around the gills,' Dylis signed, taking in Doe's nervous fidgeting and trembling hands. 'Can you still use it?'
Doe bit her lower lip and raked her fingers through her hair. 'I think so,' she signed with her free hand. 'I have to. It's all we have of your brother and we have none of mine. But we will need to run and I need to...' She trailed off, her hands fumbling as if she could grab the missing word right out of the air. 'Assemble? No, that is not right. Join?'
Doe shook her head. 'It is of no importance, just wait a moment.'
She closed her eyes, blue light shining faintly through her eyelids, and leaned her head back. Dylis put the glass ornament in the breast pocket of her uniform. Nothing seemed to happen. She had to admit it was fairly anticlimactic when Doe just opened her eyes again and gave her a curt nod as if she'd just stopped to have a quick drink of water.
'What did you do?' she asked, scanning the nearby walls and floor for changes.
'I joined with my sister,' was all the answer she got. 'Are you prepared to run?'
'As I'll ever be.' Dylis eyed the closed door, thinking back on the small hole in the doorframe. 'Got any more exact instructions? What's going to happen?'
Doe stepped up to the door, crushing documents and letters under her feet as she did, and put one hand on it. 'This house is tied to your brother's blood. I do not know all about what that thing you have is, but it is tied to him as well, maybe even hurting him.'
Dylis fought the instinct to grab the glass ornament out of her pocket and smash it against the edge of the desk. 'Hurting him?'
'I am unsure.' Again Doe's hands were trembling, making the signs against the wood of the door. 'But I know some trap will spring the moment we remove it from this house. I will do my best to protect us. I hope it will be enough.'
Dylis brushed the fingers of her right hand over her breast pocket, then rubbed her palms together. The thief-scar was still there, uneven and obvious. She swallowed forcefully. 'Right. On your signal.'
The wood around the lock began to melt away under Doe's hands until it came loose and fell to the floor. Doe gave the door a push and it swung open. With a glance over her shoulder, she gave Dylis a nod and then threw herself outside.
Dylis followed suit. She landed on the ground outside on all fours, making a grab for the hilt of her sword before she noticed there wasn't a single soldier to be seen out there. Confused, she whirled around to look at where she'd come from, convinced that there was an ambush at hand.
The cabin went up in a wall of flames, a spontaneous bonfire that nearly took Dylis' eyebrows off. She jumped back, arm brought up to shield her face from the heat and watched as the papers and pictures inside burned away. The smell of evaporating blood stung her nostrils and she flinched back as thin glass projectiles shot out of the cave of fire, burying themselves in her skin.
A hand wrapped around the wrist of her lowered right arm and tugged, turning her away from the fire and towards the empty training field. There was still no sign of guards of any kind and Dylis followed Doe very reluctantly, all her senses on edge.
Impatiently, Doe gave her arm another tug, mouthing something that looked urgent but incomprehensible. Smoke was filling the air, making it hard to both breathe and see, which did nothing to facilitate lip reading. Dylis told Doe this with a few curt waves of her free hand before she had to duck low to take a deep gasp of the cooler air near the ground.
'We need to leave!' Doe finally signed, again tugging at Dylis' arm. 'It's very weak, very shaky, we have to go!'
An electric hum started up behind them. Dylis could feel it brushing against her clothes, her back, vibrating into her skin. She'd only felt it a few times before, a knot of magical energy locked in place, spilling out of the trap that was a spell. She also had no trouble remembering the aftermath such spills usually led to.
The explosion came when they were halfway across the field and knocked them both off their feet. They scrambled to get upright but got knocked back down by the second shock wave. Dylis caught Doe moving her hands in a way that wasn't a sign or any emergency gesture she'd ever learned. The air around them seemed to stop, all wind stilling and the heat fading to a comfortable warmth.
Slack-jawed, Dylis twisted around to look up at the sky and found herself staring at a thin layer of green mist.
Next to her, Doe shifted closer. 'The smaller it is, the longer it will hold,' she signed and buried closer to Dylis' side, just short of wrapping her in a hug. Above them, the mist shook and flickered. Dylis held her breath.
She was nearly blue in the face when the shield cracked, fading away to once again welcome back the wind and the heat. Thankfully no new shock wave came.
They were back on their feet in seconds. This time it was Dylis leading the way, dragging a stumbling Doe along behind her.
The sight that met them by the entrance they'd made in the wall was nothing short of disturbing.
The knife-smile demon – Snake, as Doe had called him – was rushing about the camp quick as his namesake, bringing destruction with him that he eagerly shared with anyone in his path. His hands brushed a tent and its fabric reached out to capture the soldiers guarding it; his feet touched the ground and it cracked, engulfing a sergeant and a private whole before rising up, forming a solid bubble of rock around them. All the while Snake laughed, his shoulders shaking and his grin wide and thin.
In his shadow Dog followed, knocking unconscious anyone left alive with a touch of his knife; likely covered in some strong poison. His blank-faced efficiency was eerie compared to the storm his companion was creating and it sent a shiver down Dylis' spine. She had no time to reflect on their agreement to not draw blood.
'We have what we came for,' Dylis signed, stifling a coughing attack. They'd taken up position by the city wall, not bothering to hide as the guards were far too busy to notice them. Dylis still had her sword at the ready. 'Time to call retreat.'
'Call who?' Doe signed, her eyes distant as if she was listening to something far off.
Dylis raised one eyebrow before she recalled who she was talking to. 'Time to go back to your city.'
'I agree, we-'
A movement from the right had Dylis ducking behind the corner of the nearest barrack, dragging Doe with her. She counted to five in her head, then leaned back out, keeping as much of her body behind the barrack as possible.
The rest of their "squad" had returned, and they weren't alone.
More soldiers, Dylis had expected. All gods be damned, she'd expected a lot of more soldiers and possibly some spell-weavers. But this?
There was a person in a wooden mask and layers upon layers of robes, standing in the middle of the square. He was backed by what appeared to be at least five barracks worth of soldiers. Between the city wall and him, the demons stood, keeping their distance. The masked person raised his head and seemingly looked right at Dylis.
'One of your magic users?' Doe signed, having stuck her head out of cover.
'No,' Dylis answered, her blood running cold. 'That's the uniform of one of the Emperor's bodyguards.'
Doe's mouth formed a small 'o'. 'He's one-'
'One of you, yes,' Dylis cut in, pushing Doe back behind the protection of the barracks. 'And he doesn't look happy to see any of you.'
'I'll tell the others to run,' Doe signed, then froze, her eyes darting skywards.
Dylis followed her gaze and choked as she noted the green tint the night sky had taken on. It was as if the entirety of Outer Camps had been engulfed in a dome of green light. 'That's not you, is it?' she asked Doe, her fingers curling tighter around the hilt of her sword.
'No,' came the answer, Doe's eyes once more taking on a distant look. 'It is coming from the...what did you call him?'
'The Emperor's bodyguard.' Dylis slammed the fist she didn't have wrapped around her sword into the wall in front of them and let the dull pain of impact echo up her arm, distracting her from her mounting panic. 'Can you break through it? Can we run?'
Doe turned around, putting her back to the barrack wall, and stared up at the trees beyond the dome, then at the wall opposite her. The logs that made up the city wall had taken on a green shimmer; the dome was shrinking. 'No.' Doe's fingers barely uncurled long enough to form the sign.
'Great.' Dylis watched the rest of their "squad", trapped as they were out in the square. The soldiers seemed to have left everything up to the demon in the mask, sticking to the background. They had their weapons drawn but made no move to use them. They'd merely formed a circle, blocking the enemy demons from all available cover.
Dog and Snake made a sortie at the masked demon, Snake taking the lead. They rushed towards him, the staff in Snake's hands changing into a sword, and Dog going low, swiping at their opponent’s legs with a dagger. The masked demon jumped, dodging the attack.
He landed in midair, a good five meters above ground. Dylis did her best not to question her eyes and instead looked to Doe, signing: 'Now what?'
Doe was staring at the masked demon as if he held the answers to every question ever asked. 'Now we help the others defeat that man.'
Dylis blinked. 'Are you-?'
'I may not be of any good with a knife or a sword, but I can still be of use,' Doe signed, pushing herself up straight.
She took a step closer to the corner of the barracks to take a look at the square and Dylis followed suit. The other demons had the masked demon surrounded - all of them standing on air, which Dylis chose to react to later - and were taking turns to attack, with the masked demon easily dodging them.
Out of the corner of her eye, Dylis saw Doe narrow her eyes into thin slits and lean out from behind the wall as far as she could go without breaking cover. Up in the air Horse and Buffalo started; with the madness of the fight Dylis barely caught it, but their shoulders jumped simultaneously and they both turned to glance over at the barrack where Doe and Dylis were hidden.
Dylis frowned. 'What did you do?'
'I told my sister to ask Dog something. Her partner must have overheard.' Doe looked quite concerned as she signed, but didn't comment further; she only shook her head as if to clear it.
'You told her?' Dylis signed, her frown deepening. 'Your hands didn't move. Not your lips either.'
'Explanation later,' came the abrupt answer.
Think about it later, Dylis told herself, searching the crowd of soldiers - thankfully all standing on the ground - for familiar faces. Or better yet, ignore it and let clever people like Rhian ask the questions. For a second she almost thought she saw Rhian in the crowd and brought a hand up to rub at her eyes.
A tug on her arm brought her attention back to Doe. 'I have a plan.' The look on Doe's face was an ever-shifting mixture of determination and panic. 'We need to get closer.'
'Don't think that's a good idea,' Dylis signed. She'd spotted both Colonel Blevins and Private Sayer and was doing her best to stay out of their line of sight.
'We're out of good ideas.' Doe crouched down as if a lower angle would allow her a better view of the fight. 'The others are getting tired. Soon they'll be too weak to keep in the air. We have to hurry.'
'Hurry and do what?' Dylis signed, but Doe was already off, there one moment and in the next over by the soldiers. Dylis held her breath as one of the officers took aim with his gun.
Doe clapped her hands together above her head and a crescent-shaped wall of stone shot out of the ground, separating the soldiers from the demons. Her eyes weren't glowing.
Unsure, Dylis waited ten heartbeats - racing much faster than they should, dammit! - before she got out from behind the barracks. The wall held. Dylis used her sword to poke at the bit closes to her, the end that had cut her off from going any further away from the fight; it didn't budge.
Their allies in the air were still throwing all they had at the masked demon, taking turns to attack. They were, however, slowing down, much like she'd seen Horse do the night before. Peacock and Buffalo had lost height as well, their heads at level with their opponents waists. It would have looked comical if Dylis wasn't waiting for the masked demon to kick them to death; which in and of itself was a both hilarious and terrifying prospect.
Dylis had never had an out-of-body experience, but if she ever did she pictured it'd be something like this; her on the sidelines, watching a battle she couldn't reach or help with.
It was driving her mad.
And then the fight changed. With the stone wall keeping the soldiers out of the way, Doe had edged closer to the middle of the square, standing almost right under the fighters. The masked demon, having returned to the exact same spot each time he'd dodged an attack, now looked down and froze. It was as if he and Doe had locked eyes and both were refusing to back down. Doe was equally frozen, simply standing and glaring.
The air got hot. Scalding hot. It felt a lot like being trapped in a sauna with someone blowing air on patches of your skin at random intervals. Dylis had to drop her sword, it was burning her hand so bad, and the same seemed to apply to the demons' weapons. Snake's sword turned back into a wooden staff with a blue flash of his eyes; Buffalo lost her grip on her ax, sending it tumbling to the ground, soon followed by Dog's knives and Horse's wrist-daggers; Peacock's grip on his spear tightened and he tugged at the cloak he was wearing, while the arrow Coyote had knocked on her bow trembled.
Only Panther seemed unaffected, hands full of arrow-like daggers that had to be burning marks into his palms. Dylis couldn't see his face, but she would have bet a fair amount of gold he was muttering to himself again.
The gale that came next felt like it would cook and strip her flesh from her bones. Dylis got down on her knees, taking as much shelter from the barrack wall as she could find and prayed to whatever gods that would listen. Something hit the ground next to her, but she had to snap her eyes shut against the heat and the wind before she could see what.
The gale let up, leaving the air hot as if on a warm summer's day. Under different circumstances, it could have been called pleasant, but with her skin cracking and bleeding the humid air stung and itched. The most frightening part was the way most of her skin didn't hurt at all.
Forcing her eyes open, almost scared they'd been burned shut (her upper eyelashes felt glued to her lower ones) she spotted Buffalo and Coyote on the ground next to her. They were just getting back on their feet, swaying as they did, blood running from uncountable small wounds all over their bodies. Patches of their skin were pitch black, darker in color than their natural tones.
Dylis took as deep a breath as her stiff chest would allow and then looked around the corner of the barracks. The masked demon was alone in the air now, standing just as impassively as he had before. Below him on the ground the other demons had huddled close to Doe, green light fading away from around them. They all looked perfectly unharmed.
That was when the masked demon began to shoot something from his hands. It wasn't visible to the naked eye, but whatever it was it struck the ground hard enough to form small craters, smashing through walls of nearby cabins and barracks, sending them toppling to the ground.
Dylis scrambled out from her hiding place, grabbed Buffalo by one arm and Coyote by the other, and then just ran. She caught sight of the others doing the same, darting about the square like hunted rabbits, doubling back in their own tracks in one moment and rushing forward the next. Dylis mimicked them the best she could.
There was no logic to the pattern of the masked demon's attack. The invisible projectiles rained down on the square like unseen rocks during a landslide, smashing all in their path but seemingly not aiming for anything in particular. Everything shook.
The green dome had shrunken further, cutting them off from the city wall completely.
'You're losing ground,' Dylis signed, huddling behind a fallen cabin.
'Thank you for telling us, I had not noticed!' Coyote replied, her hands shaking; from rage and exhaustion both if her expression was anything to judge her actions by. Her fingers were badly burned, the skin on them black and fraying, bone showing through some of the cracks.
Dylis started when Doe appeared on her left-hand side. 'Breathe,' the short demon signed and put her hands on Dylis' shoulders. It felt wrong. Dylis knew the hands were there and she could feel some kind of pressure, but not enough. She really didn't want to look down and see what the skin of her shoulders looked like.
A faint light shone from Doe's hands, sending pleasant warmth washing from the top of Dylis' head to the tips of her toes. Doe's hands became a normal touch on Dylis' shoulders and in a matter of seconds, she could move her arms without trouble. The cracks and spots of burnt skin were gone.
Doe let go of her and moved to take care of Buffalo, who gestured at Coyote. Doe looked between the two of them, then put one hand on Buffalo's shoulder, the other on Coyote's. Their broken and frayed skin mended itself, their entire bodies glowing with weak green light.
Looking around their temporary hiding place, Dylis noted that all the demons seemed to have gathered there; well, all except the masked one.
'So how come you lot are down in the dirt with us, when that guy hasn't even touched you yet?' she signed, taking in the unharmed arms and faces of the gathered; not even their clothes were zinged.
In reply, she got a glare from Peacock and Horse, while Snake merely shrugged. Dog and Panther paid her no attention, their eyes locked on the masked demon, still levitating high above the middle of the square.
'It's the magic of your people, making us weak' Doe signed, once she was done healing Buffalo and Coyote. She was sweating and her legs were shaking, but no sign of exhaustion showed on her face. 'It should affect him too, but there is something shielding him from the curse of the border. Dog and I are trying to find where that magic is coming from. The enemy is wearing it, whatever it is, but I can't get close enough to tell exactly what it is.'
An amulet. After years of private lessons in spell-weaving courtesy of Rhian, Dylis was more than familiar with protection magic. 'It'll be either around his neck or his wrists. Don't ask me why, never quite got that part, but it's the only parts of the body that make protection magic work. Might have something to do with blood flow.'
Doe's lips moved slowly as if she was speaking the translation of the words Dylis to the others. Doe glanced over at Dog, who gave her a curt nod before returning his attention to the masked demon. The rain of invisible rocks - that was what Dylis was going to call them, because she'd be damned before she spent energy on figuring out exactly how demon magic worked - had stopped, leaving the square alarmingly still. Even the soldiers peeking in on them through the holes that had been made in Doe's stone wall looked to be in no hurry to attack.
Simultaneously Dog and Doe's eyes lit up with blue light. Behind them, Snake, Horse, and Buffalo looked up, as if they'd heard a sudden noise.
'We've found it,' Doe signed, teeth worrying her lower lip. 'It's around his right wrist. I might be able to break it, but I'll need to get close.'
'We'll get him closer to you,' Snake signed, a wicked grin splitting his face. His staff melted back into a sword. 'Are you with me, little tree?'
Dog gave Snake a quick bow. 'Always, my earth.'
'What are you-' Coyote signed, but the two had taken off, vanishing into thin air. Only two harsh gusts of air gave a clue to which direction they'd disappeared in.
Dylis whirled around. The two of them had appeared in the air, flanking the masked demon, running circles around him. Snake took stabs at the enemy with his sword, random and playful attacks that the masked demon easily dodged. Dog, on the other hand, was keeping out of their way, his hands weaving through the air in a rhythmic pattern. Dylis was reminded of a foreign dancer she'd seen perform once down at the docks; the dancer's skirt had been longer though.
On the ground Coyote had gotten to her feet and looked to be shouting something at the top of her lungs, directed at the fighters.
'Aren't you going to join in?' Dylis signed, not looking at anyone in particular.
Buffalo gave a helpless shrug. 'Would if we could,' she answered, her chest heaving as if she'd spent the entire day running. 'I haven’t got the strength to move the winds, much less walk them.' At closer inspection, Dylis noted that Buffalo was covered in sweat and leaning ever so slightly against the crumbled cabin.
'Snake has much magic, he won't tire yet,' Doe cut in, eyes darting between their conversation and the odd performance above them. 'He'll share with Dog, keep them both in the air. This is our chance.' She turned to say something to Horse; with her voice - her hands didn't move.
Dylis struggled to her feet. Nothing hurt, thank all the gods, but she felt shaky as a newborn lamb. 'Our chance to do what?'
Automatically obeying Doe's command Dylis looked up at the fight above. Snake and Dog had come to a halt with their backs to where their allies were huddling. Snake had placed himself between Dog and the masked demon, his sword raised and ready.
Red strings appeared in the air around them in a tangled mess along the path Dog had dance-run, their ends flowing towards him. In the next moment, all three demons were on the ground, the masked one tangled in a red net.
'Go!' Doe signed, taking off at a dead run.
Dylis did her best to follow. She had no weapons other than her fists and she was barely keeping upright, but she'd not be caught crouching behind a fallen building now that the fight finally had ended up at ground level. She spotted her sword a few feet away and dove for it.
The masked demon was struggling like a seal tangled up on the deck of a fishing boat. Snake had grabbed the ends of the net, helping Dog keep it closed. Horse and Coyote were first by their side and grabbed a hold as well, Coyote giving Snake what looked to be a rather painful elbow to the ribs as she did. Snake didn't falter though and instead merely smiled at her, which made the glare she was directing his way darken further.
The rest of the demons swiftly followed, grabbing hold of the end of the net, as if making ready to pull it out of the sea. Doe was the only one who didn't. Instead, she crouched down next to their prisoner and reached for his right arm.
Quick as a sailfish, the masked demon got his arm free and grabbed a hold of Doe's wrist. Horse let go of the net and lunged at him, but Dylis got there first. Sword raised above her head she ran the last few steps to Doe's side and brought it down with all her might, aiming for the masked demon's head.
The force of impact echoed up her arms and shoulders. The demon's wooden mask had cracked, baring yet another mask. The outer mask now covered only half of his head, as if someone had placed half of a cracked eggshell on him. The mask under was beige and intricate as if puzzled together by a lot of smaller parts. It turned Dylis' stomach and she had no idea why. For a second a single green eye met hers and then the world exploded in bright light.
Blinded, Dylis threw up her sword arm to shield her eyes and took a step back. She rubbed at her eyelids with her free hand until their insides were more black than red, then carefully cracked one eye open.
The net was empty and half her "squad" was on the ground, unmoving. The ones still standing - Horse, Buffalo, Panther, and Doe - were talking to each other, their lips moving rapidly and their faces turned heavenwards. Dylis followed their example and was not at all surprised to find the masked demon standing in the air, at least five meters above them. He was raising his hands and his one visible eye was glowing blue.
Dylis braced herself.
Doe looked to have shouted something and before Dylis could react, Buffalo had grabbed the shorter demon around the waist and thrown her, straight up at the masked demon. Seemingly unprepared for this unorthodox manner of attack he didn't dodge, his visible eye wide and locked on Doe, who latched onto his right wrist with both hands and hung on for dear life.
That woke him up. Trashing like someone who'd stuck his fingers in a full crayfish trap, he threw himself backward and struck out with his free hand, aiming for Doe's head. His fist got tangled in more red strings before it could reach her.
Dog and Snake had gotten off the ground and were less than two meters up in the air, Dog limping slightly. They were throwing the remains of the net, each rope with a big loop on its end, not unlike what Dylis had seen the cow salesmen down at the spring market do when capturing sold cattle. The masked demon's captured fingers turned thin and gray, cutting through the first string.
Panther got to his feet, his hands full of throwing-arrows. He joined the fight, sending projectile after projectile sailing towards the masked demon. Gritting her teeth, eyes never leaving Doe who was hanging on by the tips of her fingers, Dylis grabbed some stones off the ground and began to throw them. Buffalo did the same and soon they had the masked demon dancing, dodging rocks, ropes, and arrow-daggers.
None of them hit him. He was too quick, darting back and forth in a small circle high above them, but neither was he hitting them with anything. It looked like the stalemate could continue forever - or at least to the moment Dylis' allies had been drained of their magic - when a soft glow started up in the vicinity of Doe's hands. The masked demon stiffened and threw his head back as if he'd been struck by lightning.
Doe lost her grip as the masked demon threw itself backward.
Buffalo and Horse both jumped at the same time, neatly avoiding colliding in the air as they caught Doe, their eyes aglow. They sunk to the ground like three gigantic leaves, landing safely and softly. Above them, the masked demon had vanished, along with the dome of green light.
Dylis took a few stumbling steps to Doe's side and was a little surprised to feel relief as the demon struggled to sit upright. Doe gave her a weak smile, which Dylis returned almost without thinking about it. In one of her hands, Doe was clutching the remains of a leather bracelet.
'It would seem we got more than what we came for,' Horse signed in-between reattaching her wrist-daggers to her arms. 'I am very proud of you, sister.'
Buffalo looked ready to add something to the conversation when all the demons still standing - or at least sitting - started and whirled around. Dylis was all too familiar with that reaction from a group of fellow soldiers and immediately looked in the same direction as they did.
The wall Doe had made was still standing, if with about a dozen more holes in it than it had had at the beginning of its short existence. This fact seemed to be something a few members of the Imperial Army finally had chosen to take advantage of. Some of the higher ranking officers had climbed through them or used them as stepping stones to get over the edge of the wall and were now reloading their pistols. Strangely enough, there wasn't a private or corporal to be seen. Dylis' heart skipped a beat in a most unpleasant fashion. A familiar face called her attention away from that.
'Time to go!' Buffalo signed, swinging her ax up on one shoulder and an unconscious Peacock over the other.
'I've still got some questions that need answering,' Dylis signed. 'Anyone of you up to giving me some cover while I have a little chat with that fellow over there?'
Blevins' posture stiffened as he noticed her pointing at him. Before he could run off, Horse had appeared behind him, one of her wrist-daggers resting against his throat. His Emperor's Sign fell to the ground, its leather string cut.
The officers around the two swiftly turned to point their pistols at Horse, who simply gave them all a cold look and disappeared, reappearing with Blevin next to Doe and Buffalo. She looked about as pale as the inside of a clam with the glint of a mule's stubbornness in her eyes.
'She says we should hurry and run,' Buffalo signed and then nudged at the passed out Coyote with one bare foot. 'Help her up, would you? With this one out,' she shrugged the shoulder she'd draped Peacock over and then pointed a thumb at Panther, 'that one is pretty much unreachable.'
Dylis did as told, hefting one arm around Coyote's waist and forcing the limp demon into an upright position. Dog and Snake were already over by the wall, shaping it open. For a second Dylis observed their postures and faces and compared them to those of the other demons in their little group. The two of them didn't seem to be the least out of breath or sweating. Dog was favoring one of his legs, but that probably had something to do with the small piece of wood that had buried itself in his shin.
Something made Coyote's body twitch, though she didn't open her eyes. Dylis felt something warm drip down to wet the arm she'd wrapped around the demon's waist. Cursing she set off as fast as her legs would carry her - not an impressive speed - and was more than grateful when Snake slammed his hands to the ground, setting the earth shaking behind her.
The second they were out in the forest on the other side of the wall, Snake and Dog let the wood reform itself into logs, efficiently blocking all bullets or other weapons that might follow them through.
They made it less than a kilometer in before they had to rest. Dylis stumbled and steadied herself against one of the giant trees, which now looked almost welcoming, and carefully eased Coyote to the grass. Her gray dress had taken on a large, deep red spot on her right side at chest level, and her breathing was shallow and jerky.
'Healer!' Dylis signed, her back to the tree. She gave Doe, who'd collapsed on the grass two trees away from her, a worried look. The short demon looked about as ready to waste energy on others as Dylis was.
Doe did not get up. She didn't even look up. Instead, Dog came over and knelt by Coyote's side. Dylis noticed that his shin was free of both wood and wound. He put trembling hands on the dark spot on Coyote's dress and closed his eyes.
Dylis sank down on the grass, her back to the tree. The bark scraping against her uniform made her recall restful days in the parks of Art, after some military exercise or other. It helped calm her breathing and pulse.
Horse still had a firm grip on Blevins, a wrist-dagger at all times to his throat. Blevins himself looked unusually terrified, pale as a sheet and eyes wide, with tiny pinpricks for pupils. It warmed Dylis' heart.
'Want to talk to him or should we just leave him tied up here?' Buffalo asked, having placed Peacock gently on the grass right alongside Coyote. Snake and Panther were nowhere to be seen.
Dylis took a deep breath through her nose and let her eyes drift shut for a second. Exhaustion was beckoning, talking about how grass and moss were quite soft and of how there couldn't be too many ants and beetles hiding in it. But there would be time for that later.
Bracing herself with both hands against the trunk, she managed to heave herself to her feet in only two tries. 'Yes, I wish to talk,' she signed, her face a mask of determination and seething rage.
Blevins didn't struggle as she got closer to him, but then again few people were stupid enough to struggle when they had a sharp blade cozying up to their carotid arteries.
Dylis spit, the gob landing on Blevins' shoes. 'You left me to die in the woods,' she signed with steady hands. 'You sent my little brother to die in the woods. Would seem I have every motivation in the world to want your head put on a spike.'
Faced with her very much human figure and accusations, Blevins almost seemed to relax. The terror stole away from his face and could be spotted only in the way he kept perfectly still in Horse's grip. 'Orders directly from the Field Marshal,' he signed, his frame shaking with what might have been a deep chuckle. 'Sorry soldier, but I couldn't disobey a direct order from that high up. Would you really execute one of your own for doing his job?'
'Why stab me? Why send Glaw into the woods?' Dylis asked, stepping close enough that Blevins could see the hate in her eyes while keeping her hands within his line of sight. 'What does the Field Marshal want with us?'
'You think they told me?' Blevins signed and this time he definitely laughed. It shone clearly from his entire face, a sort of mad amusement that was the very picture of gallows humor. 'All I got was a "get the private into the woods and make sure no one sees the Emperor's pet hide in the old barracks". Wasn't even warned you were coming until two days before you showed up and that was an even shorter message.'
'I can guess what it said,' Dylis signed and dug the glass object out of her breast pocket, along with the photograph the Commandant had given her. 'I only have two questions for you: do you know this girl and what is this?'
Blevins blinked. 'I know her. Or, well, knew. She was sent here before I made rank. Got signed in by the Field Marshal himself, then sent out in the woods. A patrol found her body three days later. Cut her own throat, the coward.'
Poor girl. 'And this?'
'The Field Marshal made it,' Blevins signed, nodding at the glass object. 'With your brother's blood. Guess it's a fancier version of the curse than the one we usually put on you lot.'
'Curse?' Dylis was sure her teeth would break if she ground them against each other any harder.
'Surely you must have suspected,' Blevins signed, lifting one eyebrow. 'Why else would we be taking blood from you lot? Giving you new Emperor’s Signs?'
I should have known. 'You're clean, though.'
The grin on Blevins' face was quite at odds with his current predicament. 'In a way. There's a slight variation to mine, you see. I don't go down until my squad is gone.'
Dylis fought the urge to stamp her foot in pure frustration. 'I'm guessing that would be me, right now.'
'Didn't know if the damn thing would count you until you stepped close enough to be counted.' Blevins leaned more of his weight on Horse, whose muscles trembled at the added pressure. The knife at Blevins' throat came uncomfortably close to nicking his skin and Dylis felt an alarming pressure against her own throat. 'Should have killed me sooner.'
Horse eased up on the knife, lowering and twisting it to keep the point aimed under Blevins' chin. The trembling in her arm faded a little, but the way the blade glittered in the spares light of the nighttime forest had Dylis swallowing forcefully.
Dylis glanced around the group and found that they were all looking at her as if waiting for a decision. Oh.
'He knows nothing,' she signed after a long moment of glaring. 'Leave him. We'll go back.'
Horse and Buffalo made quick work of tying Blevins up with some leftover red string, while Dog woke Peacock with a gentle pat on the head, hand glowing green. Coyote had already pushed herself off the ground and stood a few steps ahead of them, pointedly not looking at Dog or Dylis.
Like a pack of mangy wolves they made their way deeper into the woods, their gait unsteady and their very presence full of hunger. Dylis was sure that if someone had placed a raw liver in front of her, she would have fought tooth and nail to devour it. Each step she took had her feeling less tired and more hungry, which wasn't a helpful exchange.
To distract herself from the urge to dive through the bushes in search of berries or animals, Dylis turned to look at Doe, who exuded the aura of a hungry predator just as much as the rest of the group. The sensation took Dylis a bit aback. It didn't quite match her deer eyes.
'Good work,' Dylis signed before the situation could get any more surreal.
'It's a start,' Doe signed, sending a dark glare in the direction of the bound Blevins. 'We will find our brothers. I will make sure of it.' Her entire frame was shaking, but she kept on walking,
'Just so you know, I gave you the wrong name,' Dylis signed, giving Doe a lopsided smile. 'I think I'll call you Lion from now on. Suits you better.'
'Really?' Lion signed, lifting an eyebrow in a more curious than questioning manner. 'What was I before? And what is a lion?'
'Doe,' Dylis answered. Lion looked less than surprised at this. 'Lions are gigantic cats - you know about cats, don't you? - gigantic cats that live somewhere across the sea. I've only ever seen them in drawings or during theater performances, but they tend to symbolize...' She trailed off, her hands whisking slowly through the air as if hoping to grab helpful signs out of nothing.
'Bad ideas?' Lion asked. The expression she wore could almost have been called teasing and amused if it hadn't been so tired.
Dylis laughed. 'Something like that.'
The stillness that fell over the group as they staggered on was almost companionable. Strangely enough, the next time the word squad appeared in Dylis' mind in relation to her new allies, there were no quotation marks around the word.
Panther reappeared as the woods were taking on the darkness of true nightfall. He had bags with him, which he first gave to Peacock, who accepted them with a severe expression. Not that Dylis had seen him look anything but severe.
The smell that emanated from them had Dylis salivating like a hound before a hunt. There was freshly baked bread and dried meat on offer, along with some fruit. They all dug into the meal with gusto, letting whatever table manners applied to demons fly out the nonexistent windows.
Eventually even Dylis' hardened belly - which over the years had gotten used to eating whatever was at hand during her short breaks, stocking up in case the next pause would be one without food - protested. She had to wrap the last piece of bread in an almost clean handkerchief, to save for later.
Around her the demons seemed to be feeling the same, dozing against the trees while making sure their stomachs were in contact with nothing, not even their hands; as if they were so inflated with food that they would burst if poked. With this peaceful tableau, Dylis could have fallen asleep. But there was one thing left to be done.
'What do we do with this?' she signed and held up the lump of glass with the whirl of blood inside.
'Easy,' Lion signed. 'We break it.'