Glaw started. It was as if a sheet of wool had been pulled from his head. One second the world was wrapped in a fluffy shimmer of gray mist and the next it was clear as glass and just as sharp.
He was lying on cold metal and everywhere he looked were military-issued boots, surrounding him, trapping him inside a tiny circle of armed men and women. Through the gaps in this forest of legs, he spotted Lykos, also on the ground and unmoving. He was not three meters away and equally surrounded by soldiers.
One of them bent forward as if something about Lykos had caught her eye. "What-?"
Whatever the soldier had meant to say was lost as Lykos' arm shot up and smashed into her face, sending her flying backward. She crashed into a market stand that collapsed on top of her in a rain of splinters and clay trinkets.
Glaw took the chance to get to his feet while his own guards were distracted by the crash and bolted for the nearest alleyway, feet skidding and slipping on the icy metal of the walkway. A shout from behind him made him run faster, as fast as he could, holding onto the railing as firmly as he dared, swinging himself around corners.
He couldn't think. The walkway split in two, split in three, turned left, turned right and he just followed it, fighting to not end up running in a circle. He could hear fast steps behind him, heavy boots with spiked outsoles making the metal of the walkway screech like nails on a chalkboard. He felt like his heart would burst any second.
At the next crossing, he had to bite back a shriek of dismay. They had him cornered, rushing towards him on the two walkways ahead, as well as the one behind him. He'd have to jump into the road-channel.
And then he was in the air. The arm around his waist was anything but gentle, but he hardly noticed, clinging to it for dear life. He watched the soldiers' shocked faces over his rescuer's shoulder.
They landed on a rooftop without as much as a thud. Glaw saw the soldiers fade into the distance as Lykos set off across the roofs. He jumped between them as easily as he had before; the fight with the guards had apparently not even winded him.
The question caught Glaw off guard and the look on Lykos' face even more so. He'd never before seen him frown like that; actually angry instead of thoughtful. His tone of voice had never been that curt or cold either.
"I'll help you get to the city gate," Lykos hissed, his teeth clenched tight into a bitter grimace. He looked no more rested now than earlier, but there was a glint of steel in his eyes that hadn't been there before. "After that, you're on your own."
All Glaw could do was nod dumbly, clinging to Lykos' shoulders. This time around the flight through the air was less gentle, interrupted by abrupt takeoffs from roofs every other second. It felt like what Glaw had imagined flying and crashing to be like, over and over again.
Something smashed into them from the right. Glaw lost his grip on Lykos and gave a yelp as he fell to the roof below. He got his breath knocked out of him and his vision went dark. His hearing was unaffected, however, and it supplied him with the sound of something hitting the roof next to him, followed by feet scrambling across the tiles and more thuds and crashes.
When his vision cleared he struggled upright, still gasping for breath. There were no lamps that reached high enough to light up the roof and the stars overhead were partially covered by clouds. In the dimness, all Glaw could make out where two humanoid silhouettes, grappling not ten meters away from him.
"Lykos?" Glaw wheezed, heaving himself up onto his knees. His back ached and his left arm wouldn't quite move the way it should, but with adrenaline pumping through his veins, the pain was more an afterthought than a fact.
The silhouettes jumped away from each other. Squinting his eyes, Glaw managed to make out glasses and a mane of long wavy hair on the silhouette closest to him. The other seemed to be dressed in a tent of clothes and their profile was a flat arch; almost as if they were wearing a mask.
"Oh gods!" Glaw said, his stomach turning. "Oh no."
The masked figure paid him no attention and instead rushed forward and backhanded Lykos across the face, sending his glasses flying. "Down, cur!" it hissed with a deep, but feminine voice. The words held no emotions, inflection eerie and unnatural.
Glaw's eyes darted around in search of a weapon – any weapon – and finally grabbed at a loose brick. It came free with a scraping noise, just as the strange demon dove for Lykos' throat. Glaw threw it at her with all his might. It hit her on the side of the head with a loud smack.
Their attacker collapsed, falling on Lykos like a dropped sack of potatoes. Lykos grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her off the edge of the roof. He and Glaw both kept perfectly still, barely daring to breathe, expecting her to jump back up any second. But she didn't.
"She's down!" Glaw yelled, laughing with relief.
That was the moment someone grabbed him from behind and covered his mouth with a foul smelling piece of cloth. He was unconscious in a matter of seconds.
'-and that should be everyone. For now, at least,' Lion - Thais now - finished, having done her best to mouth the names of the gathered demons slowly enough for Dylis to match word with the animals she had assigned them. Parroting sounds she could only guess at had done nothing to improve Dylis' mood. She sat with her arms crossed over her chest, glaring at anyone who dared to look at her.
They were all gathered inside a demon inn of some sort. Thais had introduced the proprietor as her mother and Dylis had done her best not to stare the colorful woman in question. The woman accepted the sign of "magpie" as her own with a laugh and had then left them alone in a small room in the back of the building.
Dylis kept throwing glances at the curtains hanging over the doorway. There had to be spell-weaving at work, keeping the sounds in their room from the outside, for the demons kept speaking as they signed. Well, their lips moved and she doubted they did that just to amuse or mock her. An image of Rhian floated across her mind at that thought. For a second Dylis wished she was back home or at least able to go to the library and ask questions. But the longing lasted only for a second.
Her bad mood was fickle and difficult to get a firm grasp on. Their raid at Outer Camps had been successful, they’d had not one but two hearty meals, they'd slept and against all odds she was starting to feel right at home in the company of demons; at least the ones that didn't wear masks. Yet she was still a long way away from finding Glaw and that crushed every optimistic thought into gravel.
'How is the tracking going?' she signed at Thais, who was staring down into a bowl full of herbs and oils that smelled quite pleasant. The mixture had a brownish tone to it, most likely caused by all the dry blood it contained.
Thais didn't answer for a long moment, then stood up, nearly spilling the mixture out of the bowl. With sure steps she made her way over to the makeshift table in the middle of the room; a big, flat slab of rock that Peacock - Aculeo, which was the only one of his apparently many names that Dylis had cared to memorize - had called out of the floor. His eyes hadn't glowed while he did it, which Dylis, who was educated enough to know what two plus two equaled, understood would mean that it would stay that way until someone cast another spell on it.
The bowl was placed in the middle of a huge, blank piece of parchment. Thais dipped her fingers in its contents and began drawing swift precise strokes. Soon the outline of a forest had formed, the sea had taken its place along the side of the paper and small huddles of houses had appeared along the waterline.
'They are there,' Thais signed, pointing at a circle of houses not far from the sea. 'Can you tell where that is?'
Dylis frowned. The map was far from complete, having left out all four of the Empire's inland cities and the proportions weren't the best, but there was no doubt in her mind when she said: 'Our home city, Trade. From Outer Camps, that's a week's travel by horse and carriage. Two and a half on foot, if you're lucky and the elements are kind to you.' She paused, studying the map closer. 'Are you sure your spell worked?'
'You've seen us run,' Horse - Bernike - signed from where she sat, halfway across the room. 'Don't doubt that my brother could get yours to your home in two days or less if he made the effort.'
'You have a point,' Dylis conceded, the creases on her brow smoothing out. 'They are in Trade. Can't tell exactly where by this map, but that shouldn't be a problem once we get there. It's my home, I know it as well as the back of my own hand.'
'Right,' Thais signed, 'let us go through the plan.'
'There's a plan now?' Dylis signed, wishing there was a better way to convey the sarcasm of her statement besides raising an eyebrow.
'Do you want your brother back or not?' Thais responded, her gentle movements belying the steel in her eyes. 'Because I want mine returned safe and sound, and we'll need your help for that.'
Feeling not unlike a chastised child, Dylis squared her shoulder. She did her best to ignore the discomfort of the demon staring at her with such trusting yet commanding eyes. Lifelong prejudice wasn't exactly something you shrugged off in a couple of days, even though most of Dylis' previous friendships had been forged in battles like the one they'd recently had. 'Just tell me the plan.'
'We need these.' Thais held up a small scroll of paper in front of Dylis' face. On it, a small bracelet was drawn, decorated with intricate carvings and with several arrows pointing at its various parts. They connected to words in a language she couldn't read that had been scribbled in the margin of the picture. It looked fairly hastily drawn and the ink was still wet in places.
'We need jewelry?' Dylis signed after a moment, hoping a joke would raise the spirits of the drawn faces around her. 'For what? Are we dressing up as nobles and sneaking into the palace?'
'Interesting idea,' the knife-smile demon piped in and Dylis did her best to not show that his sudden appearance in the room had startled her. It hadn't taken her long to understand why Thais had chosen the sign of 'snake' for him. 'Will we be getting lessons in how to walk and talk? I must warn you, I'm a very slow student.'
'You are not supposed to be here,' Vita - that was the name Thais had managed to match to the sign Coyote - signed, getting out of her seat. She crowded the knife-smile demon - who Dylis was pretty sure was called Nikon, or possibly Nikom - against the curtains by the entrance.
Nikon, looking far more amused than intimidated, merely shrugged and held his ground, making Vita pull back by leaning forward into her personal space. 'It's this or you have your little strategy meeting out by the border and I don't think any of you are up to that at the moment,' he signed, a wicked grin on his face.
Dog - Aelius - had followed Vita to the doorway and was doing his best to step between the two, hand on one of Nikon's arms. His lips moved, his body turned towards Vita as if he was shielding Nikon from her.
Dylis looked away. Whatever their history was, it wasn't hers to meddle in.
'If you are all quite done,' Thais signed, her shoulders rising and falling as if she'd quickly drawn in a deep breath and let it out just as fast, 'I was saying that I and Aelius have worked out the magic surrounding the Capture One's bracelet.' She tapped her fingers on her drawing. 'The spell is complicated, but I believe I could manage it if I had an unbroken one to mimic. With enough of these, we would not have to fear the Captured Ones anymore than we would when fighting them in our own city.' She turned her attention fully on Dylis. 'Have you any idea where they make them?'
Dylis shook her head. 'Palace, most likely, and that's even further away.' She gestured at a spot on the map left of the houses that were meant to represent Trade. 'Takes two days to travel there from my home. It'll be well guarded too. The Emperor has two bodyguards of your kind, along with the one serving Adviser Seren Kinsey. I'm betting all of them have trinkets like that one wrapped around their wrists.'
Thais' face fell, as did most of the others'.
'Seems like we will have to wait with hunting for those,' Buffalo signed, resting her elbows on her knees and leaning forward as if making ready to give them all a pep talk. 'If Lykos got there in two days, so can we. We need to hurry before they disappear again.'
Buffalo's real name was Myrrine, which Dylis had trouble wrapping her head around. Myrrine sounded like something you named someone who grew up to mind a tea shop or stayed home with children and wrote poetry, not someone who turned out two meters tall and wielded a man-sized ax like it was a toy. Then again, for all Dylis knew, Myrrine had a tea shop somewhere in the demon city. Stranger things had happened.
'I agree,' she signed, nodding at Myrrine. 'Can we track them again, if we lose them?'
'There should be enough for one more spell,' Thais answered, having opened a small pouch that hung from her scarf-like belt. 'After that, we will have to find them by scent and sight.'
'Good thing we have Bernike with us then,' Myrrine signed, giving the demon in question a broad smile. Bernike – Horse - merely lifted an eyebrow, but there was something in the way she straightened up a little and fussed with her pony-tail that told Dylis the praise might have affected her, no matter how much she seemed inclined not to show it.
'Then we all agree?' Aculeo signed. 'Another night of sleep is inadvicable if we don't want to lose their trail. I say we move now!' Beside him, Panther - Cato - was studying the map on the table as if he were a cat guarding a bird's nest.
'Agreed,' Myrrine signed, swiftly mimicked by all in the room.
'It is decided,' Thais signed, rolling up the map. 'Pack plenty of food and meet up at the end of the road!'
Dylis pushed off the wall, feeling uncharacteristically lost. She'd never had trouble fitting into a new squad, at least not after their first mission together. It was a new and unpleasant feeling to be left standing on the sideline as the others paired off and left the room.
Don't be silly, she thought to herself, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, like a small child waiting on its parents outside a store. You've just stopped being enemies, were you expecting them to invite you over to their house for milk and cookies?
'Would you like a cup of tea?'
Dumbstruck, Dylis could only blink down at Thais, who'd finished rolling up the maps and drawings and now stood with them all cradled to her chest, one hand just managing to form signs.
'Here?' Dylis asked, looking about the empty room. Aculeo had lowered the slab of rock back into the floor as he left, so now there was just a couple of oddly shaped benches and a few small tables left. Not bad for a restaurant, to be honest, but the room had a sense of anticipation in the air. She doubted she'd be able to sit down and have a cup of tea there without fidgeting every other second.
Thais shook her head. 'I know a nice place, not far. Come with me?'
'Sure,' Dylis signed, her dark mood slowly but steadily dissipating. She fell in behind Thais as she made her way out of the room and gave Magpie a courteous nod as they passed her by.
The street outside was as busy as it had been before they'd entered the inn. Demons were scurrying from one building to the next, some pulling children along with them, some carrying bags of foodstuff, candles or other everyday objects. Dylis stifled a chuckle. It was just so damn ordinary, this city, even if the architecture and the clothes on the people were very much foreign.
She got quite a few looks this time too, but there was much less hostility to them now. Small children tugged at their parents' skirts and pointed at her and she even got a few bows. It had her smiling back at them, unsure if she should try and return the bows or just walk on.
Thais stopped and spoke with a few of them, translating each conversation into sign language. Dylis did her best to join in, but the conversations were either about mundane things like the weather or what they would do next, so there wasn't much to add on her part. Thais ended each conversation quickly, but gently and cheerfully. The smile on her face looked like it ached.
Five curious citizens later, they reached their destination. The tea shop was cramped, yet cozy in the way only small cafes and bookstores could be. It was nothing like the tea shops in the Empire, having fluffy pillows instead of chairs and cups that looked more like bowls than mugs, but the sensation of a tea shop was there; a calm, soothing atmosphere that allowed Dylis to lean back into the pillows on the low marble windowsill. There was no glass in said window. The only reason Dylis had come to the conclusion that it, in fact, was a window, was because people didn't use it to exit or enter the building.
'Aren't you worried?'
Thais looked away from the people passing by outside. 'Worried about what?'
'That your sister will go mad again?' Dylis stopped herself from winching. Avoiding asking rude questions would get her nowhere. 'I mean, she did attack your own kind, not just mine.'
'She is protected now,' Thais signed, her smile soft and a little sad. 'We will all make sure it does not happen, to any of us. The enemy will not touch our minds.'
'...Right. And that means?'
'My sister is sharing with Myrrine. The rest of us are also sharing. It’s complicated to explain to someone without, eh...' Thais gestured at her demon marks.
The tea arrived, interrupting the conversation.
'Well this is...odd,' Dylis signed, frowning.
'Do you not like the tea?'
'No, I mean this.' Dylis waved her hand between the two of them, including the teacups and the pillows in the gesture. 'You had me bound hand and foot yesterday. Takes a while to get used to the change.'
'Yesterday, you had not risked your life rushing Vita and Myrrine out of harm's way, or attacked a man ready to tear my arm off,' Thais signed, before taking a sip of her tea, holding the bowl with both hands.
Dylis nodded in agreement. 'Is that it then? We fight together once and I'm part of your trusted allies?'
'Do you trust us?'
Dylis paused, taking a long sip of her own tea. It smelled faintly of chamomile and she couldn't place the taste, though it was pleasant. Sweet, almost. 'I'm not sure, to be honest. We have a common goal and thus far you haven't tried to cut me up and see what's on the inside, which is more than I can say of my own people.' Her and Glaw's kidnapping and surgery had to have been performed on command from the military, that much was clear from the classified documents. She just needed to figure out why.
Thais lowered her bowl and rested it on her crossed legs, both hands cupped around it. Her expression was guarded, unsmiling and calm, but her eyes had taken on an unidentifiable shine. She looked like she was waiting for something.
'Makes you more trustworthy than my old leaders, that's for sure,' Dylis continued. All her suspicions from the previous night seemed to be going away, like leaf boats on a river. "So yes, I suppose I trust you." They might have drugged my tea, she thought, but the thought seemed a silly one.
'You are quite like your brother,' Thais signed, at last, balancing her bowl of tea in one hand.
'What makes you say that?' Dylis asked, putting her bowl of tea on the edge of the windowsill. It had stopped steaming but was hot enough that keeping it in her hands on such a warm spring day was becoming unpleasant.
'It is hard to explain.' Thais looked down into her tea, her eyes distant. 'The way he acted and the way you feel are alike.'
'The way I "feel"?' Dylis mimicked, frowning.
This seemed to bring Thais up short. She kept her gaze locked with the liquid in her tea bowl for a moment, her thumbs tracing the rim of the bowl in a stalling fashion. 'With my magic, I can...sense you,' she signed at last. 'What you are feeling. Not as well as I should, but I think that is because you are not one of us.'
The hairs at the back of Dylis' neck stood on end and her stomach dropped. 'You're tampering with my mind?' she signed with shaking hands, gritting her teeth.
Thais' eyes widened enough that they looked like they could pop out of their sockets any moment and her mouth gaped open in horrified silence. 'No! No, not at all, please believe me!' she signed, spilling tea on the pillows next to her. 'That would be a crime worthy of banishment among my kind. I am merely...' She faltered. 'I do not have the words. If you want, I can make you sense my feelings, let you understand that way.'
Dylis locked eyes with Thais and held her gaze with a steely one of her own. 'What am I thinking, right now.'
'You are angry,' Thais answered without hesitation, 'which is your right. You are frightened. You have doubts. You are lost.'
'Cut the philosophy,' Dylis signed, 'and tell me what I'm thinking. In words.'
Thais shook her head, without averting her eyes from their stare-down. 'I can’t. We would have to share for me to do that and you are not of my kind.'
Dylis took a deep breath. I am going to betray you, she thought, as loud as she knew how. I am going to dismember you and put your brother's head on a spike. 'What. Am. I. Thinking?!'
'You are thinking about lies. But I do not know what lies,' came the answer.
The momentum behind Dylis' rage and fear slowed. It was as if a great stone had gone tumbling down a hill and now found itself in at the bottom of a valley, rocking back and forth. She clenched her jaw shut and broke the stare-down. 'Fine.'
'Fine?' Thais asked, hesitation radiating from her.
'It's fine,' Dylis signed again and shrugged. 'It's a good strategy, to be honest. I could be a spy for all you knew.' She paused, grudgingly admitting to herself that had it been her choice, she would have done the same thing. 'I suppose you did the same to my brother.'
'Actually not,' Thais signed, lacing her fingers together briefly, only to untangle them and continue: 'That is why I chose to do it to you. Your brother acted kind and frightened, but...'
'But now he's gone and your brother along with him,' Dylis finished for her, nodding stiffly. 'How long?'
'Since we got back from the border,' Thais signed. 'Before that, I was saving my magic for the fight. After, with the prisoner, I had to be sure.' She took a long sip of her tea, swallowing it in big gulps. For a moment she could picture it as whiskey, welcoming her into the warmth of a guardroom after a long night of patrolling. 'You have been honest with us since then and therefore it felt unjust to keep my trick from you.'
'That's why you brought me here for tea,' Dylis signed, both of her eyebrows rising.
'Yes. Also, you felt like you needed some.'
Dylis gave a weak chuckle. 'I did need some,' she admitted and lifted the tea bowl from the windowsill. It was now a pleasant warm presence in her hands, reminding her of all the winter nights she'd spent in small cabins along road-channels.
'If it is any comfort, I trust you,' Thais signed, trying for a smile.
'Your spell might be lying to you,' Dylis signed. She noticed that she'd spilled tea on her uniform jacket and her nose twitched with irritation.
'It is not,' Thais signed, a picture of conviction. 'Aelius taught it to me and his spells are never wrong. You are a good person, Dylis.' The sign of Badger was clumsy but recognizable.
'How do you know that?' At the moment, she wasn't so sure of that herself.
'You wished to kill that man, in the woods. But you did not.'
Dylis frowned, emptying her bowl of tea. 'That's your proof? Hardly trustworthy, that.'
'I disagree.' Thais sipped the last of her tea with a thoughtful look on her face. The unruly black curls of her hair obscured her face as she bent forward and placed the bowl on the floor. 'To want to kill someone can be justified. If that person has tried to kill you, it is not only justified but wise to try and cut their throat before they cut yours. Only good people do not.'
Dylis smirked. 'You calling me unwise?'
'I am calling you merciful,' Thais answered, straightening up.
'Some people would say they're one and the same.'
'But not you.'
'And not you either.'
The shopkeeper, a middle-aged man with very dark skin and copper red demon marks, took care of their tea bowl and then returned with a sack of some kind. He gave it to Thais with a smile that must have meant to be encouraging and gave Dylis a quick, shaky nod of farewell before he returned to mind the desk with the jar that served as the store's till.
'It is best that we get going,' Thais signed. 'The others will be waiting at the end of the road.'
The room Glaw woke up in was easily the most ostentatious he'd ever seen in his life. It even beat the chambers he'd glimpsed while walking through Aculeo's mansion; the ceiling was painted in gold and silver, the walls made of a kind of wood that looked expensive enough to be extinct and there were carvings everywhere, depicting noble soldiers leading a charge against what looked like caricatures of demons.
The bed he was lying on was the centerpiece of the room, a huge monster of a thing all clad in dark red silk and satin. Glaw pushed himself up on his elbows and found that he could move without difficulty. Wherever he was - he had quite strong suspicious, based on the looks of the place - his captors had chosen to heal him.
He took a turn about the room. All drawers and closets were locked, as were the two doors he found. There were no windows. There was also no Lykos. This worried Glaw most of all.
There was a knock on the door, a rhythmical one that sounded like it wasn't quite expecting an answer. Glaw glanced around the room one last time, desperately searching for something sharp or at least heavy, but still light enough to lift. There wasn't as much as a candlestick to be found.
"I'm awake," he told whoever had knocked, just as he heard the doorknob turning.
The door opened a fraction. Glaw took a step back and held up his hands, both to signal peace and to show that he - regrettably - had no weapons. The man who entered the room was dressed like the servant of a nobleman, except even more pompous. His jacket was a deep red with golden buttons and his breeches looked to have cost more than Glaw earned in a year. The man also looked like he knew that and couldn't wait to lord it over Glaw's head.
"The Emperor awaits," he said, in as snooty a tone as humanly possible. His nose looked like it was reaching for the ceiling.
"Oh," Glaw said and looked down at his battered clothes. They hadn't been improved by him sleeping in them for gods knew how long.
"There will be no time to get changed," the servant said, possibly with a hint of schadenfreude in his voice. "Come with me."
Glaw contemplated the possibility of refusing and demanding at least a clean uniform to pull on, but quickly realized what suicide it would be to demand that the Emperor be kept waiting. He followed the servant out into the corridor. It was just as splendid as the room he'd left. He was a bit disappointed to see that there were no guards waiting for him.
I could take him, he thought to himself, eying the servant as they walked through a maze of stairs and corridors. He's got his back to me and he thinks I'm pathetic. I could knock him out and tie him up with his own godsawful jacket, easy. But he couldn't help also thinking: then what?
The corridors seemed to never end. The ceilings and walls were covered with woodcarvings and tapestries, but the floor under the thick blue carpets that ran like road-channels through the entire place was made of stone. They met few other people; servants who did their best to keep out of their way.
Finally, when Glaw had started to think he was being led to the basement, the servant stopped in front of a pair of huge double doors. With little ceremony the servant pushed them open and stepped inside, clearly expecting Glaw to follow him.
The Field Marshal was the first person Glaw recognized among the gathered people. He looked up from the dagger he was balancing on the palm of his hand and simply said: "Ah good, you're awake."
Glaw was really getting tired of hearing people say that.
Though he'd never before been in this huge circle-shaped room, he recognized it right away. The golden ceiling, the diamonds lining the floor where it met the walls and the throne, jade green and imposing; it couldn't be anyplace else than the Emperor's Hall.
Shock had almost become an old friend of Glaw's at this point.
The Hall was full of people, all dressed in clothes far too fine to belong to any servant or guard. The Empire didn't have many nobles, but the twenty or thirty men and women who'd marked themselves as exceptional in the eye of the Emperor seemed to all have come there to watch...him.
Glaw was led down the blue carpet that formed a path from the doors to the three thrones at the center of the Hall. The Field Marshal was seated, or rather draped over, the smallest seat on the right-hand side of the Emperor's throne. On the left-hand side, a woman was seated. She wore a sea of jewelry and a deep red dress that looked to have been designed by someone with a flair for the dramatics and access to far too much fabric. The famed Adviser Seren Kinsey, without a doubt.
And of course, in the middle, Emperor Ithel Gravenor himself. At first glance, he looked to be a man of about forty years, with angular, square features, a well-kept beard and short brown hair that had specks of gray in it. His eyes told another story for those willing to look, though the irises were a very human brown that approached black. They were the eyes of someone who'd seen nations rise and fall, who'd made nations rise and fall.
But it wasn't the Emperor that Glaw's attention was drawn to.
Lykos was kneeling on the floor between the Emperor and the woman, head bowed and arms behind his back, like a thief awaiting trial. His glasses were nowhere to be seen and his clothing had tears here and there, baring a fair collection of bruises and still bleeding cuts. The nobles circled him at a distance like vultures waiting for their prey to perish.
He looked up as Glaw was left on the carpet leading up to the throne, his eyes distant and his expression blank. <Terra, I've been waiting for you.>
Glaw shuddered. There was something dead about Lykos' tone of voice. It was far too flat and monotone, even for him, lacking any spark of sarcasm, teasing or concern. Maybe that was what he really sounded like? Or – Glaw threw a glance at the smiling Emperor and the smug look on the Field Marshal's face – maybe that other demon had done something to him, broken him somehow.
The thought made his guts want to turn themselves inside out worse than ever before, even worse than the homesickness that had been plaguing him.
"I must commend you, Cadfael," the Emperor said to the Field Marshal. "I've never seen the curse so potent before. A true masterpiece."
"My humblest thanks, Your Excellency," the Field Marshal responded, sounding anything but humble. He'd remained in his seat alongside the throne as he was spoken to and there was a glint in his eyes, the spark of a fire that had an origin Glaw couldn't name.
"This young man," the Emperor spoke, his voice resounding through the Hall like a watchtower bell, "is a pride to our great Empire! He alone braved the demons' forest, to act as my ears and eyes among the enemy. He even took one of them with him back as he made his escape."
A muted cheer went through the hall as if the nobles were too refined to give a standing ovation but still had the urge to do so.
"Without him," the Emperor continued when the murmuring around him had died down, "we would never have learned that their leader, the dreaded Euripidies, truly is dead. After two hundred years, we can finally live free of fear of another attack from the beasts in the woods."
Glaw's mouth fell open in pure shock. How? How had the Emperor known? He hadn't reported anything!
"As reward for his bravery, I will grant Private Nevett the title of Grand Spymaster, a salary of ten thousand gold a year and a room in this very palace!"
More muted cheering. Glaw couldn't focus his eyes enough to make out faces, but he could feel their eyes on him, burning with jealousy and admiration. He couldn't say which made him more nauseous.
"Cadfael!" the Emperor called, turning to look at the Field Marshal, who still lounged in his seat by the throne. "Would you do me the pleasure of securing Spymaster Nevett's grip on the foul beast? It would be a shame to risk it slipping away while one of us sleeps, now that it's been added to our flock."
A hush went through the room, the nobles falling silent in the way of guests in a tavern where a fight was brewing between two drunks.
"Surely, Your Excellency," the Field Marshal spoke in an almost teasing tone of voice, "you do not need me for such a simple task. I did teach you the incantation but a month ago and all we need to perform it is right here before us."
A beat of silence.
"Leave us!" The Emperor's voice echoed through the Hall, deafening in the silence. The nobles scurried away, not unlike rats that had caught the scent of a hungry cat.
Glaw didn't move. None of the nobles did more than steal a glance at him as they left. The servant followed them out without as much as a nod to him, so he assumed he was meant to stay where he was. The doors opened and closed, leaving only Glaw, Lykos and the three people on the thrones.
"I've had quite enough of your tongue this evening, Field Marshal," the Emperor said when the thud of the doors closing had faded. "Your clever new spell nearly got my favorite demon killed. Less loyalty to the master and more loyalty to me the next time, I should think."
"Didn't know you played favorites, Ithel," the Field Marshal said, sheathing the dagger he'd been juggling with.
The Emperor raised an eyebrow. He didn't yell and he didn't frown, but his eyes had darkened. There was an air of violence about him as if he at any moment would strike the Field Marshal dead. "I've never been fond of playing games, as you well know," he said, his voice taking on the calm and even tone of someone stifling white-hot rage.
"We all have our weaknesses," the Field Marshal said, his tone and smile taunting. Glaw held his breath.
"Indeed," the Emperor said, leaning back on his throne. The layers of black satin and silver brocade he was wearing rustled. The numerous seashells hanging around his neck knocked against each other, like overgrown wind chimes without bells. "Yours seems to be your lack of precision. Your spell-weaving is erratic and unpredictable, as always."
"Again, my most humble apologies."
"You wouldn't know what humble was if it so presented itself to you as a whore in a low-cut dress," the Emperor said in a curt bark of words, his voice caught somewhere between anger and amusement.
Out of the corner of his eye, Glaw caught the Adviser chuckling, hiding her smile behind a decorative handkerchief. He couldn't help but note all the beautiful jewelry she was wearing. Not because it looked expensive, but because it looked strange. Each stone looked like it was resting under water. He blinked, but the odd effect didn't go away.
The Emperor got out of his seat, one hand brushing against the top of Lykos' head as if absentmindedly giving a sleeping dog a pat on the head. "I tire of your games. Do as I've said."
"Are you sure you don't want to give it a try yourself?" the Field Marshal asked, looking so perfectly at easy you'd think he was bantering with an old friend instead of risking his neck talking back to the Emperor.
The glare this earned him was cold enough to freeze a lesser man in his tracks. The Field Marshal merely smiled.
"You know why it has to be you," the Emperor said, his voice low and threatening. "And speaking of that, I want them back."
"Already?" the Field Marshal asked. One of his hands found its way up to the golden chain draped around his neck, from which hung three large seashells. The middle one was bone white, while the other two were smaller and a light shade of blue. He caressed the two blue ones as if he was trying to sooth them.
"Now, before you do more harm," the Emperor said, holding out a hand expectantly. "You'll have strength enough to finish the spell regardless."
The Field Marshal curled up on his chair, one elbow steadied on an armrest and his chin supported on the hand belonging to that arm. "I don't know..."
"I'll tend to the boy and his demon," the Adviser said in the same tone of voice as a teacher trying to soothe a child throwing a tantrum.
The Emperor looked over his shoulder, his eyes narrowed. "You will, will you?" he asked, turning to face her.
"It will be my honor," the Adviser said. She got up from her chair - an impressive construction of silver and satin, only overshadowed by the gold of the Emperor's throne - and curtsied; or maybe not, it was hard to tell under all those layers of dresses and jewels. "My dear Evaristus is right outside. I have all the energy I need."
The Emperor's brow wrinkled into a thoughtful frown. He stole a glance at the Field Marshal, who was busy unhooking the blue shells from his necklace. He waited, as if for a sign. Nothing happened.
"Very well," he said, seating himself on the throne. "You have our permission to tend to the spell. Spymaster Nevett," Glaw started as he was addressed and guiltily tore his gaze away from the unmoving Lykos, "you are to accompany Adviser Kinsey and do as she tells you. That is an order."
Glaw nodded. There were no guards in the room, just him, Lykos and the three rulers of the Empire. He was smart enough to know that didn't mean he was safe.
"Come along, young Nevett! Bring your demon," the Adviser chirped, lifting her skirts and strolling down the blue carpet as if it were a walkway leading to the theater. Her smile was brilliant and her steps light; at least Glaw couldn't hear them. It gave her quite an eerie look, moving silently, feet hidden by her dress and jewelry glinting unnaturally.
Unsure, Glaw threw Lykos a glance and was more than a little surprised to see the demon get up from his kneeling position. Stuffing his hands into his pockets so no one could see him curl them into fists, Glaw fell in behind the billowing skirts of Adviser Kinsey. Soft steps behind him told him Lykos was following.
The doors opened as if by magic. Glaw wouldn't have been surprised if they had been spelled open. Adviser Kinsey had given him the impression of a person who loved to show off the powers she had. It was something in her smile, something in the glint in her eyes and the way she tilted her head. She just seemed amused by everything around her, as if the world was there to applaud her and entertain her.
Glaw's heart nearly stopped as he spotted the person waiting for them outside the Hall. Though the robes were fancier than those of the demon-servant he'd seen in Outer Camps, with more brocade and fine stitching, the layers of them and the blank wooden mask were signs as clear as the sun was bright.
"Evaristus," Adviser Kinsey said, her voice light and singing, "we have work to do! Follow us to the Room of Healing." The capital letters were almost audible.
They didn't go through quite as many corridors and stairs this time around. Glaw kept stealing glances at Lykos, who followed them like a sleepwalker, staring straight ahead and shoulders slumped. Every time Glaw looked at him, he had to suppress a shiver.
"Here we are!"
The room was surprisingly small, to have such an impressive name. There were just one bed and one workbench in ways of furniture, and no windows. Finely made and decorated, all of it, but somewhat spares when compared to the other parts of the palace that Glaw had seen.
Adviser Kinsey gestured for Glaw to have a seat on the bed and then walked up to the workbench. From somewhere within the recesses of her dresses and underskirts she pulled out a bag. It was the size of a big apple, a dark purple in color and looked smooth to the touch, with a silver clasp to keep it tightly shut.
Glaw watched closely as she opened it and poured the contents out on the workbench. Herbs and jewels tumbled out in a jumbled mess. Adviser Kinsey started humming as she grabbed a bowl and mortar from the end of the workbench, threw some herbs into the bowl and began to crush a handful of leaves and flowers Glaw couldn't identify. The petals were blue in color, but when crushed they bled an eerily human-looking red.
Too focused on the preparations of whatever Adviser Kinsey was mixing, Glaw didn't notice Evaristus had grabbed his arm until it was too late.
"Ouch!" The unexpected pain shot up his arm like a bee sting. The fingers of the gloves that covered Evaristus' hands had turned sharp and cut through his skin. The blood was spilling into a small vial that the demon held in its other hand.
"What is wrong with you?!" Glaw shouted, but didn't try to pull his arm free. Evaristus' fingers were still impossibly sharp, the tips buried in Glaw's skin like a threat.
Neither Adviser Kinsey nor Evaristus answered his question. With panic slowly mounting inside his chest Glaw watched the vial fill up, a lot of the blood missing it and staining the sheet he was sitting on. The blank wooden mask remained turned towards the vial the entire time as if Evaristus could see through it and was measuring the amount of blood, waiting for it to be enough.
The second Evaristus let go of his arm Glaw threw himself backward. His back hit the wall with a thud. Evaristus paid him no mind, only got to his feet and turned, taking the vial and leaving the room without a word. The lock on the door gave off a green spark as the door slid shut.
Glaw cradled his bleeding arm to his chest, staining his clothes red. Adviser Kinsey was still humming, swaying slightly as she smashed the contents of the mortar to a fine mush. There was water in the bowl now, though there was no tap on the wall it could have come from. Without ceremony, Adviser Kinsey grabbed a handful of the mush she'd made and threw it in the bowl. The water took on a sickly, red-brown color, with pieces of leaves and petals floating around on the surface.
Lykos, who was kneeling beside the bed, raised his head to unseeingly stare at the bowl as Adviser Kinsey lifted it off the workbench. Cupping both of her hands around the bowl, she turned and took two steps that put her right by the bed.
"Don't you touch him!" Glaw was halfway off the bed before Adviser Kinsey's laughter stopped him short. In her mirth, she spilled a few drops of the red-brown liquid on the floor.
"Already making demands above your station, I see," she said, her painted lips drawing into a smirk. "Don't you worry your pretty little head about him, I won't touch a hair on his. This is for you."
"I'm not drinking anything you give me," Glaw said. The room had started to spin slowly and his eyes couldn't quite focus enough for him to glare at her, but he did his best.
"Then I'll leave you here to bleed to death and give that demon of yours directly to the Emperor," Adviser Kinsey said, her tone of voice friendly and conversational. She gave Lykos the sort of look you’d give an expensive vase in a market stall. "I wonder what he'll name it."
"He already has a name!" Glaw said. His entire arm was throbbing in time with the beat of his racing heart and he could barely keep his head up, but he continued to give the Adviser the best glare he could manage.
Adviser Kinsey tsked as if he was a dog that had chased the neighbors' cat up a tree. "You won't be awake for much longer, boy. Better decide quick."
Glaw eyed the red-brown liquid. His shirt was soaked through with blood. He caught sight of the back of Lykos' head. The demon was still kneeling on the floor, unmoving.
"Fine." The word came out slurred. He choked as Adviser Kinsey forced the bowl to his lips and tipped it, pouring the liquid down his throat. It tasted bitter but strangely pleasant. Glaw forced himself to swallow until the bowl was empty.
"Good boy!" Adviser Kinsey's tone of voice made him shudder. "Very good! Your arm will be as good as new in less than a minute."
She didn't lie. Glaw could feel his skin mending, a warm presence having wrapped itself around his arm like a bandage. Looking down, he saw that she'd put her hand on his, raking her nails over his knuckles in an almost calming gesture. He fought the urge to spit her in the face.
"I don't like it when they look at me. Make it face the wall."
Glaw blinked up at her in confusion, the sudden venom in her voice bringing him up short. "What?"
"Your demon," she said, her expression a mockery of kindness. "Make it face the wall."
Glaw frowned and tried to mask his surprise when Lykos did as Adviser Kinsey had requested, shuffling around on his knees, turning his back to both Glaw and the Adviser.
"A good connection between the two of you," Adviser Kinsey said, sounding like a parent that had been at her child's first theater performance. "It looks like you barely have to think to make it listen to you. Recovers quick too. It's barely had the bracelet on for two days and it's not even shivering anymore. That's a keeper."
"I..." Glaw trailed off, unsure of what he could say that wouldn't get him and Lykos into more trouble.
The skin on his arm mended. Adviser Kinsey straightened up and returned to the workbench, turning her back on him as if he were less of a threat than a sleeping child. Glaw felt his cheeks heat, but he wasn't quite sure if it was from anger or embarrassment.
"All in a day's work," Adviser Kinsey said to herself. She nudged her skirts against a bag on the floor, which opened, making it possible for her to dump the remaining herbs into it. Glaw saw rolls of bandages and bottles of pills before the Adviser closed it with another gentle kick.
"Now I must go and make a new bracelet for Theodulus. At this rate we'll have to go sailing before the month is out," she babbled on, like a shopkeeper making meaningless conversation while wrapping up a customer's purchase."Your friends in the woods are cleverer than we'd expected, but I wouldn't get my hopes up if I were you. They've shown their hand already and we haven't even started the game yet. And don’t fight the spell. It can have such nasty side-effects; like suicide."
Glaw blinked and silently watched as Adviser Kinsey gathered up her things. He wished to yell at her, to demand she stop speaking in riddles, but managed to keep his mouth shut until she'd left the room.
The door closed. Lykos got to his feet and whirled around, his eyes glowing.
Glaw started. <You're all right!> The happy shout was out of his mouth before he could stop it. Relief had crashed over him like a wave, or maybe that simply was the blood loss talking. <Well, eh, not all right all right, but you're still you!>
The glow faded from Lykos' eyes as quickly as it had been lit, revealing a look of pure confusion.
<Sit down before you fall down!> Glaw said. Lykos' swaying form brought back memories of Dylis staggering back to the barracks after a bar fight or friendly wrestling match gone awry; of bandages and mock shame and home. Glaw took Lykos by the shoulders, ignoring the flinch this caused, and pushed him down to sit on the bed. <I'll see if I can find some medical supplies. Something that monster hasn't touched.> It should have felt horrible to call one of the Empires rulers a monster but he could find no more fitting word now that he'd met the Adviser.
Glaw paused, halfway to the bag that had been left on the floor. <...yes, what about me?>
<You're actually like this.> Lykos was frowning, but it was a frown of confusion, not anger.
<Like what?> Glaw asked, picking up a bottle of pills to read the label.
<This,> Lykos repeated, giving a soft chuckle, shoulders sagging. <Kind.>
The bottle shook in Glaw's hand as he looked up, turning to catch Lykos' eyes. <What are you talking about? You've known me for more than half a month!> He couldn't quite focus on speaking, though. It felt like something small, like a spider, was creeping up his spine. His neck burned as if there was an unseen watcher glaring at him.
Lykos shook his head. <And for half a month I->
Glaw didn't hear the rest. The bottle of pills had fallen to the floor and shattered, but he'd barely noticed that. The world had titled and his limbs wouldn't obey him. His body was burning. His skin itched and ached as if it were two sizes too small. He wanted to throw up, but there was nothing left in his stomach to throw up. He soon found himself on his hands and knees, dry-heaving into a wastepaper basket and keening at the top of his lungs between attacks.
<Easy.> It was Lykos' voice and it sounded like it was trying to be soothing, gentle in tone and volume. <Easy now. I need you to open to me. Can you do that?>
"W-what?" Glaw managed to stutter, nearly choking on his own tongue. "Open? What does that even mean?!" He could feel hysteria approaching like a herd of stampeding horses, trampling all other thoughts and emotions.
Something brushed against him. Well, not quite him. Something brushed against his mind.
He screamed and felt his eyes fly wide open, though he couldn't actually see anything. A pair of warm hands landed on his shoulders and back, rubbing soothing circles. <It'll feel better, I promise. I'll help you fight this. Just please, open!>
Through the craze of blind panic, Glaw felt the touch again, gentle, as if it were asking permission. The burning grew worse and that, combined with the promise of help fighting it, seemed to do the trick.
It was hard to describe the sensation that came after that. There were thoughts and feelings that Glaw was sure didn't belong to him, rushing through his consciousness. He was at the same time thinking back on the taste of the red-brown liquid and thinking of Bernike. It was as if he was seeing Bernike as he would have seen Dylis; drawing strength from the knowledge that she would find him, would come get him.
The image of Bernike vanished in the chaos of whirling thoughts. There was something more to this, a sound almost like a voice lurking just outside the storm, beckoning.
<Don't listen to him, look at me,> Lykos said, or at least Glaw thought he'd said it. It was getting harder to pay attention to anything but his ever-loosening grip on reality. He felt the stone floor against his knees, except he seemed to have two pairs of knees to feel with; two pairs of hands, of which one was braced against one of his knees, one was covering his mouth and two were on his shoulders, steadying him. He was looking at Lykos and he was looking at his own face.
'I have you.'
The moment she was back on solid ground Dylis bent forward, rested her hands on her knees and breathed in deeply through her nose.
'Are you going to stand there all night?' Myrrine signed with a grin. The damn woman wasn't even out of breath.
Dylis allowed herself another few seconds of idleness, before straightening up and glaring at Myrrine. 'Don't waste all your energy on being smug,' she signed. 'We're not safe just because we're on the roofs. There are soldiers stationed along the entire wall. One wrong move and they'll spot us and sound the alarm.'
Myrrine rolled her eyes. 'We know,' she signed, 'and isn’t that a good reason to get away from the roofs quickly?'
Dylis looked around at the rest of their squad (the word had insisted on popping up in her mind when she thought of her new allies, so she'd finally given up and accepted it). Only Vita looked to be the least tired and she was putting on a brave face, refusing to even imply she wanted to sit down.
A drop of water fell on Dylis neck, soon followed by another that hit the top of her head. Then it started raining in earnest.
'The clouds agree with me!' Myrrine signed, leaning her head back to let the rain wash over her face.
Thais, the only person in their squad other than Dylis who had been carried the whole way there, got down from her sister's back and approached the edge of the roof. 'Where do we go?' she signed.
'See that light over there?' Dylis pointed and the rest of the squad followed her arm with their eyes.Three floors up in a building on the other side of the road-channel light shone out of a window. 'A good friend of mine lives there. If Glaw was here of his own free will, he'll have spoken to her when he couldn't find me.'
As the others nodded and began walking around the roof, measuring all possible escape routes and placements of possible ambushes - well, all except Thais and Aelius, who looked enthralled by the road-channels and the houses around them - Dylis took the opportunity to take in the sight of Trade. She had been too busy clinging to Myrrine's back these past two days to truly take in their surroundings.
The city looked like it always had during nighttime. The bronze of the roofs shone faintly in what little moonlight there was, the raindrops playing a rhythmic march against the metal. The walkways and road-channels were as good as empty this time of night, with the occasional guardhouse door opening to let in a friend or lover.
It was home and yet she kept expecting to any moment get an arrow in the back. It was an unsettling combination of emotions.
She shook her head to clear it. 'We'll cut across those roofs there,' she signed, 'and then get in through the top of the building. It's not a military building so there won't be any guards.'
The others nodded.
'Climb up!' Myrrine signed and with a grimace Dylis did.
The jump-flight was as unpleasant this time around as it had been before. The world around her blurred and gravity seemed to be playing tricks on her, one moment suggesting she was falling and in the next that she was traveling across solid ground. There was no wind, either, which was the most disturbing part.
The roof they landed on this time was much smaller than the that of the museum they'd previously occupied, but there was still plenty of room for them to stand. Nikon, Aelius, and Thais immediately walked up to the edge of the roof and looked down, their eyes on the ships in the far-off harbor.
Well, Thais and Aelius were looking at the ships. Nikon's gaze rested mostly on Aelius and there was a smile on his face Dylis couldn't quite interpret. The rest of the squad stood at the ready, weapons in hand.
Dylis knelt down. More light from the lamps that lined the walkways and road-channels could reach them on this lower roof, so she had no trouble finding what she was looking for.
'What now?' Myrrine asked.
'Wait here,' Dylis signed before opening the hatch. 'If you storm in right away someone will lose their head. And that wasn't a metaphor.'
The attic was full of old furniture no one wanted and wooden trunks that had been locked as long as Dylis could remember. There was also plenty of spiderweb and dust. She choked back a sneeze and motioned for the rest of the squad to follow her. 'Quietly!' she added.
With all of them settled on the half-broken furniture, some of them poking at the locks of various trunks, Dylis made her way down another hatch and a couple of stairs. It was well past midnight and each floor she passed was empty of life. Rhian's building had never been one for late night parties; unless they'd been arranged by Dylis.
She hesitated in front of Rhian's door. It's hardly the first time you've woken her up in the middle of the night, she thought, forcing herself to knock. At least you're sober this time around.
It wasn't Rhian who opened the door.
'Dylis!' Huw's face split into a wide grin. 'Mother of all that is good am I glad to see you!' He gestured for her to come inside and shut the door quickly, but gently behind her.
'What are you doing here?' Dylis signed, frowning. Other than Huw's presence the apartment appeared empty. 'Where's Rhian?'
'Asleep,' Huw answered. 'I'm here because she asked me to. You won't believe me if I tell you why.'
'Glaw was here,' Dylis signed, putting two and two together. 'Just a few days ago.'
Huw didn't even bother with looking surprised. He scratched his chin through the thicket of his beard and slumped down on the couch. 'That's right. Should have known that's why you showed up. Where have you been hiding ? Can't have made it to Outer Camps if you're here now.'
Dylis' lips twitched into a smile. 'I made it, all right. There and back. Back was much faster.'
'Must have been some horse you stole.' Huw glance to the right and Dylis followed his gaze. The door to Rhian's bedroom had opened and there, in her nightdress, stood Rhian.
Dylis found herself unsure of what to do with her hands. Or the rest of herself, as a matter of fact. 'Hello,' she finally signed and then wanted to kick herself.
Rhian smiled and her shoulders sagged in relief. She gave both of them a nod and made her way into the kitchen.
'It’s been two days since Glaw was here,' Huw signed as Rhian busied herself opening and shutting cupboards. 'Had a friend with him he said he met in the harbor. They slept while Rhian was at the library and were gone when she got back. No sign of a struggle.'
'That friend of his,' Dylis signed, one eye on Rhian in the kitchen, 'was he a foreigner?'
Huw sat bolt upright. 'How did you know?'
'I have some friends with me as well.' Dylis did her best to stand at attention and look as commanding as a body that had been through two days of flight-jumping allowed. 'I'd explain more, but I think it might be better to show you. First I have some news from Outer Camps.'
Rhian returned from the kitchen, paper and pen in hand. I'm happy to see you! she wrote and handed a note and the pen to Dylis, who replied: I'm very happy to be back. I have important things to tell you. Let Huw translate for a bit.
This got her a confused and not all that pleased frown from Rhian, who Dylis knew rarely allowed her words to be interpreted by anyone other than their recipients. When questioned about that, she usually went off on a long rant about how easy it was to misunderstand a relayed message, with examples, speaking either with words or on the back of the nearest available paper. Dylis had lost a few arrest reports that way.
We have little time. Dylis gave Rhian a look she hoped commanded urgency, but that she suspected just came off as pleading. No matter, pride had no place when lives were at stake. Still frowning Rhian gave her a curt nod and took a seat next to Huw on the couch, with Dylis in front of them like a professor ready to give a lecture.
'Right,' Dylis signed. The realization that she'd soon have to tell them what was lurking up in the attic - half of them most likely amusing themselves by going through the neighbors' old underwear and lover letters - brought her up short. Especially after having spent the two-day jump-flight getting long-winded explanations about demon poison and mind-sharing from Thais. Being reminded of the actions Huw and Rhian knew the demons best for hadn’t calmed her nerves. But she had other news to tell as well, which got her hands moving:
'The soldiers and criminals that go to Outer Camps are sacrifices.' The eyes of her small audience grew wide and Rhian brought a hand up to cover what looked to be a gasp of shock. Dylis didn't comment. 'The Emperor has some form of magical border set up all around the forest and the higher-ups feed the curse human blood, to keep the demons locked inside. Any of the demons that pass the border weaken and eventually die, unless they get a protection spell weaved around them. The commandant’s daughter is long dead, as are uncountable other soldiers.' She paused, steeling herself. 'That friend of Glaw's, did he look sick?'
Rhian nodded. Her cheeks had lost all color. Her lips moved and she glanced between Dylis and Huw, who translated: 'What was he doing with a demon?'
'I'm not sure,' Dylis signed and began to pace back and forth in front of the couch, 'but I know one thing for sure: the demons are much less of a threat to us than Outer Camps itself is.'
Huw clamped his mouth shut, stubbornly refusing to translate, despite Rhian giving him an expectant look. Instead, he signed: 'That's traitor talk, corporal.'
'Tell that to the colonel who stabbed me in the back and left me to die in the woods.'
The usually quite red face that hid under Huw's beard paled. 'How-'
'The demons saved me,' Dylis interrupted and before more questions could be asked she added: 'Start translating for Rhian or she'll find something to hit you with.'
Judging by the speed of Huw's lip movements he babbled a quick summary. Before Rhian had the chance to add anything to the conversation, he signed: 'Where are your friends?'
'The attic. I'll go get them right away. If you attack any of them, I'll not be held responsible for the consequences.' Dylis stormed out of the apartment before either of them could get off the couch.
The stairs outside were just as empty as they had been when she'd descended them. The hatch to the attic took some fiddling with and she nearly lost her balance and tumbled down the stairs when the head of an arrow greeted her.
'Can't be too careful,' Vita signed as she got a glare from both Dylis and Thais.
'We are going down two floors,' Dylis signed as the rest of the squad gathered around the open hatch. 'My friend has company. Both are allies, but they have been brought up thinking ill of your kind, just as the rest of the Empire has. No sudden movements.'
Bernike's stern face appeared over the edge of the hatch. 'Is there risk of attack?'
'One of them has a sword and is a bit jumpy. I wouldn't startle him if I were you.'
'I am sure everything will be fine,' Thais signed, giving her sister an encouraging smile. 'As long as we are ready to protect ourselves and make sure no one is hurt.' She paused and looked around at her fellow demons, before turning to look at Dylis. 'Are they wearing...?' She gestured at her neck.
Dylis fought the urge to bang her head against a wall. 'Yes, but I'll make sure they take them off before you go inside. Follow me.'
The demons moved like giant cats, their eyes shining faintly in the dark, even without the blue glow of demon magic. Dylis glanced over her shoulder a couple of times as they made their descent and took note of how serious they all looked. Well, all except Nikon, who was smirking to himself, keeping to the back of the group along with Aelius.
'How are you holding up?' Dylis signed to Thais as they passed the second corridor of apartment doors.
Thais gave her a weak smile. 'Well enough. It is difficult to explain, but it feels as if I am losing blood, one drop at the time, every moment. It is quite unsettling.'
Dylis squared her shoulders and tried not to picture what Thais had described. 'My brother and yours were here, but only for a day. They vanished on the evening we set off to get here.' She slowed her steps so Thais could walk next to her. 'I fear you will have to do another search spell.'
Thais' shoulders had sagged a little and her head was bent forward as if in defeat, but there was a glint of steel in her eyes. 'I will. It will be no trouble.'
Dylis didn't believe her for a second. It’s bad enough that our spell-weavers faint if they push themselves too hard, but you...
The door to Rhian's apartment got closer and closer. Dylis took a deep breath through her nose and squared her shoulders as she gestured for the others to get behind her. There wasn't really enough room in the corridor for them to line up behind her, but most of them did their best.
Dylis knocked. For a long moment, nothing happened and she had time to think What if they don't open? a second before the doorknob turned. Huw's round face appeared in the crack between the door and the doorframe. He recoiled when he spotted the gathering of demons proudly baring their marks to the world. A steady look from Dylis stopped him from slamming the door in their faces. Over his shoulder, Dylis could see Rhian get up from the couch and bolt into the kitchen.
'Take off you Emperor's Sign. They can't come in if you don't.' Dylis kept her eyes locked with Huw’s, daring him to look away or question her.
In reply Huw gave what looked to be an overly loud laugh, his shoulders and chest shaking. 'Is that supposed to convince me?' he signed with the hand not gripping the doorknob.
Dylis' lips didn't even twitch. 'It's that or they stay here in the corridor. As do I.'
'Fine.' Huw took a step back, leaving room for her to enter, and unclasped the necklace. 'What should I do with it?'
Accepting the sidestepping for the invitation it was Dylis walked into the apartment and let her gaze sweep over it. Unnecessarily as she already knew every nook and cranny of it, but it was something to do other than fidgeting and trying to appear convincing and leader like. 'Put it in Rhian's bedroom. I hardly think we'll be spending any time in there.'
There was a trace of Huw's previously so lighthearted mirth in the smile he gave her. 'I bet you wish you would be, though.'
Dylis rolled her eyes, but she felt muscles relax that she hadn't known were tense. 'Shut up.' There was no force behind the gesture.
Huw's smile widened into a grin and he gave her a playful salute, before making his way into the kitchen after Rhian; pointedly not looking at the demons, who had begun to make their way inside. He came back out again within seconds, carrying his own Emperor’s Sign as well as the seashell part of Rhian’s. He went into Rhian’s bedroom, then came back out empty handed and returned to the kitchen.
Thais came first, closely followed by Bernike and Myrrine. Bernike had her wrist-daggers on and was scrutinizing the apartment as if there could be a mountain lion hiding behind one of the bookcases. Myrrine had her ax slung over one shoulder and a curious look in her eye, that almost burned as brightly as the one in Thais'.
After them came Aculeo and Cato. Aculeo positioned himself by the door, standing at attention without effort, while Cato took a turn about the room, trailing his fingers along the back of Rhian's innumerable books. Nikon and Aelius followed him in his examining, Nikon opening the three available doors and taking a peek inside, with Aelius hesitantly in tow.
Last came Vita. Her gait was unsteady and she collapsed on the couch without as much as a look in Dylis' direction for permission. Dylis gritted her teeth and opened the door to the kitchen, not wanting to risk arguing with one of her new squad in front of Rhian and Huw.
The mood in the kitchen froze her in her tracks. Huw and Rhian sat huddled around the table by the room's only window. What playful attitude she'd seen return to Huw was gone, replaced with even paler cheeks and a sweaty brow. Rhian looked like a woman waiting for her own funeral or possibly hiding from a murderer. She'd curled up on her chair sideways with her back to the wall, her wide eyes fixed on the door Dylis just had closed.
'Demons!' The sign looked ugly and clumsy as Huw's shaking hand's shaped it, like a swear word or a gob of spit. He toppled his chair when he got up and made his way over to her, leaning into her personal space.
Had it been any other situation the look on his face would have made her laugh out loud. As it was, she bit back a frustrated sigh. 'I told you,' she signed, doing her best to block his way by widening her stands and pinning him with a glare, 'that I'd do anything to get Glaw back.'
'Demons!' Huw signed again with an even bigger gesture as if yelling at her would somehow make her see reason. 'Your companions are actually demons! How can you fail to see the horrible mistake in that? Have you lost your mind?'
'The military has lost theirs, so why shouldn't I follow suit? I've always been a loyal soldier.' She could feel pressure building up behind her eyelids. Should she tell them what she knew of her surgery? Would that convince them?
Huw and Rhian started. If Dylis hadn't been able to feel the soft vibrations of knocking against her back, she would have unsheathed her dagger. As it was, she held up a hand to make Huw back down and slowly turned so she'd have the leverage to open the door.
Thais stood on the other side, flanked by Nikon and Aelius. 'I need a table,' she signed and gave a helpless shrug. 'I could do it on the floor, but it would be easier if I...' She fumbled. 'It would just be easier.'
Dylis looked at Aelius and Nikon. Nikon was giving her what he probably thought was an innocent smile and Aelius looked as uncomfortable as Thais.
'Of course, you can have a table,' Dylis answered, sighing. 'Come inside.'
Huw widened his stance and placed himself in the middle of the kitchen, between the door and the table. Being the size he was he had no trouble blocking their way. 'Corporal, if you-'
'I'm pretty sure I've been demoted by now, if not listed as a deserter,' Dylis signed, looming over him. They were of a height, but she'd long ago learned how to loom over people half a meter taller than her. It was an ability you needed to get a promotion. 'If you are so worried, stand guard in the living room. Who knows what that lot will get up to unwatched.'
Huw's defiance went down like a led balloon. 'Yes, corporal,' he signed and shouldered past her, like a sulking child. Dylis watched him go, hiding her relief behind a scowl. Now it was just her, three demons...and Rhian.
Nikon had slipped past her and was in the process of pulling out a chair next to the ghostly pale Rhian. He took a seat on it, crossing his legs and resting his elbows on the table in a clear violation of the good manners usually mandatory in Rhian's kitchen. Seconds later Aelius took the seat opposite him, glancing at Rhian before turning his gaze to his hands, folded in his lap.
Dylis hurried to take the seat by the window opposite Rhian and reached out to take one of her hands that lay on the table. She winced as she got a dark glare from Rhian for her efforts.
Thais seated herself on the stool at the short side of the table and unrolled the improvised map she'd created the last time she'd weaved the spell. The paint had smeared, but it was recognizable enough. Nikon and Aelius grabbed a hold of the paper's rounded edges and held it in place, as Thais placed the small bowl she'd brought with her in her lap. There was already brown liquid in it.
Her lips began to move. Whatever was being said it seemed to grab Rhian's interest because she stopped glaring at Dylis and turned to look at Thais. Dylis knew that look. She'd seen Rhian wear it enough times when Glaw had asked her a particularly tricky question about magic.
Thais' lips kept moving for a good five minutes. The rest of the kitchen's occupants sat stock still, merely watching. Dylis could feel the spell in the air, crackling like electricity. She found herself wondering what it would feel like if she brushed her fingers against Thais arm at that moment and then questioned her own sanity for the remainder of the weaving.
Without word or sign Thais put the bowl down on the makeshift map, dipped her fingers in the liquid and drew a line from the houses that were Trade to...
'Where is that?' Thais asked once she'd dried her fingers on her pants leg.
Dylis shook her head and fought the urge to scream or to punch something. 'Palace. That's Palace.'
Three uncomprehending pairs of eyes met hers. Rhian had huddled up further into her corner and wasn't looking at anything but her own knees.
'It's where the Emperor, our leader, lives. Where your Captured Ones are.'
The dramatic pause that should have followed after such a statement did not occur. Instead, Nikon got to his feet with a big smile and clapped his hands once, before signing: 'Best hurry then! Never know when they'll move them next.'
'We can't just-' but he had left the kitchen and gone into the living room, quickly followed by Aelius. Dylis curled her right hand into a fist and slammed it down on the table, for once uncaring of the glare this earned her from Rhian.
'We will have to,' Thais signed, rolling up the map, her face wan. 'We can not leave our brothers in their hands, no matter the risk.' She got up and emptied the remains of the brown liquid in the sink. 'You will help us, will you not?'
Dylis didn't hesitate. No matter how hopeless a mission it was, there was no telling what would happen to Glaw if she left him at the mercy of the Emperor. 'Of course, I will. Go to the others, I'll follow you in a moment.'
And then there was just her and Rhian left in the kitchen. Dylis opened the nearest cupboard and pulled out one of the many notebooks that hid among the plates and glasses. She tore out one of the pages. Finding a pen took a little longer, as they tended to be lost in the cracks between the wall and the shelves, but she managed to find a working one and went back to her seat. Rhian was still glaring at her.
I'm sorry I got you involved in this.
Rhian shook her head slowly as she read the note, but the glare softened and there was even the hint of smile tugging at her lips. She held her hand out and Dylis gave her the pen. You've brought worse guests to my apartment. I just hope you don't get us killed.
The pen exchanged hands again.
Don't worry. We'll get Glaw back and they'll get their kinsman back. Then they go back to the woods and we
Dylis looked down at what she was writing. What were they going to do, after? She'd burnt all her bridges with the military and they couldn't exactly go with the demons, could they? Maybe one of the ships...
Easing the note out from under Dylis' fingers, Rhian spun it around. After reading through it, she grabbed the pen from Dylis' slacks fingers and wrote:
We'll think of something.
Dylis' breath caught in her throat. For a long moment, she didn't dare look up from the note. When she did, she was met by a true smile and two warm hands reaching out to take her ink-stained ones. Rhian didn't take the pen or the note this time. Instead, she gave a shaky nod as if giving her approval. She got out of her chair, still holding Dylis' hands. Dylis did the same and they just stood there for a long moment, looking at each other.
Finally, Rhian gave what looked to be a soft laugh and let go. Waiting for Dylis to figure out where to put her hands, Rhian turned her head to stare out the window. Dylis, arms now crossed over her chest and cheeks taking on a hint of red, followed her gaze. Outside the city was dark, only one electric lamp illuminating the walkway below them and no living creature in sight.
With a shake of her head, Dylis brought herself out of the pensive mood she was drifting into. She gave Rhian a bow, as it seemed fitting, and then she left the kitchen to join the others in the living room.
What met her when she crossed the threshold to the other room was much less chaos than she had expected. Most of the squad had made themselves at home on the couch; Nikon, Aelius, Thais and Myrrine forming what looked to be a warm and comfortable puppy pile. Bernike had also been dragged into the pile, perched on the edge of a couch cushion with one of Myrrine's arms hooked around her waist. Judging by the look of resigned disapproval on her face, she hadn't ended up there by choice.
Cato and Vita had seated themselves on the floor, Cato staring up at the ceiling as if it held the answer to a riddle and Vita glaring at the sleeping forms of Aelius and Nikon. Dylis chose to ignore them in favor of the two people guarding the front door.
Aculeo had remained in the same spot he'd been occupying when she'd gone into the kitchen, still standing at attention, eyes straight ahead. Alongside him, Huw had taken up position, sneaking not so subtle glances at his fellow guard every other moment.
'See you learned to get along quick,' Dylis signed, unable to fight back a grin.
Huw scowled at her, but took a step away from the door and gestured at the couch. 'Damn hard to stay scared of demons that look like that. I mean, I've seen kittens more aggressive than them! And this fellow here,' he pointed his thumb at Aculeo, 'hasn't moved a muscle since he got here. I keep expecting him to at least blink, but if he has it's when I'm not looking. Almost impressive.'
'Just because you can't stand guard without falling asleep or keeling over,' Dylis signed.
Huw rolled his eyes. 'Hardly the time to bring that up.' His gaze flickered over to the sleeping and sitting demons before returning to look Dylis square in the eyes. 'I thought about what you said, about the military. I never thought I'd tell you this, but I've had my suspicions about the higher-ups for quite a while now.' He paused and stole a worried glance at the closed kitchen door. 'Sad to say it, but you getting a knife in the back in Outer Camps didn't come as too much of a surprise. Just didn't want to have Rhian thinking there were two mad people in her house.'
'Thanks,' Dylis signed, 'I think.'
'You should be grateful,' Huw signed, standing up straighter in an exaggerated gesture of self-importance. 'Who do you think has been looking after Rhian these past days? She's been a mess, the poor thing. No better with you dragging this lot here, that's for sure!'
Dylis brought a hand up to rub at the back of her neck. She moved away from the front door and made her way among the piles of books, narrowly avoiding stepping on one of Cato's feet. 'Huw, I really don't know what to say.' She steadied her hands on one of the windowsills and leaned forward to stare out into the night, her forehead against the cool glass.
A hand on her arm coaxed her to turn around. 'You have a plan, right?' Color had begun to return to Huw's cheeks. 'Other than leading demons to wreak havoc on Palace, I hope.'
Dylis sagged, her back hitting the window. All of a sudden she felt very tired. 'They need food.'
'Food?' Huw blinked.
'To eat,' The cold of the glass was bleeding through her uniform jacket. 'Don't worry, they won't be chewing up any babies.'
This got her another eye roll. 'And that is a plan how?'
'That is a plan in the way that they'll be strong enough to make it to Palace, where Glaw is being kept.'
'What, Glaw?' Doubt crept its way into Huw's eyes. 'Why would he go there? Whatever business he's had with that demon, he'd be a fool to-'
Dylis held up a hand to silence him, then signed: 'He's in Palace and he's there for a reason. Someone used him as demon bait and snagged themselves a new bodyguard.'
The doubt remained. '...are you quite all right, Dylis? You haven't been yourselves ever since Glaw got reassigned. Do you think-'
Dylis closed her eyes and didn't bother to open them as she answered. 'Huw, if you as much as imply that I'm crazy or brainwashed, I'll lock you in the basement and not let you out until Glaw is safe and sound.' She opened her eyes and glared at him, praying to any gods that would listen that he'd trust her. 'We're going to rescue my brother and nothing will stop us.'
'And my brother.' Thais had poked her head up to peek over the back of the couch, staring at the two of them with wide, deer like eyes.
A sting of guilt killed Dylis' mounting frustration and anger. 'Yes, yes, your brother too, of course.'
Huw's mouth formed a little 'o' of understanding. He gave Thais a hesitant nod and got a beaming smile in return. He looked quite taken aback.
'I'll go find you lot some food,' Dylis signed, breaking the moment. 'Is there anything else you need?'
'Just rest,' came Thais' reply. With a friendly nod to the both of them, she stretched her arms above her head, yawned and disappeared behind the back of the couch.
Huw and Dylis watched the couch for a moment, in case anyone else had a comment to make, but they all stayed asleep. Cato and Vita had begun to nod off as well and Dylis wasn't sure, but she thought she'd caught a glimpse of Aculeo stifling a yawn.
An elbow knocking against her arm brought her attention back to Huw. 'Attacking Palace is an insane strategy,' he signed. 'Even with the eight of them, you have the Emperor's demons to face, not to mention all the guards and the Emperor himself! If what you said about the border curse is true...'
'Of course it's true!' Dylis signed. 'Wouldn't that be a pointless lie? We know it's a mad plan, but it's all we've got.'
Huw looked ready to sign something else, but his gaze suddenly moved from looking at Dylis to looking over her shoulder. Frowning, Dylis turned around.
The kitchen door was open. Rhian stood by the far wall, a note in one hand and the other clutching the string where her Emperor's Sign usually hung. She was eying the pile of demons warily.
Taking pity on her Dylis hurried across the room. Rhian handed over the piece of paper, its ragged edges telling of its recent attachment to a notebook. Dylis gave her what she hoped was a soothing, encouraging smile.
The library, the note said. I got sent an old scripture on demon magic the other day, from my mentor. It might be nothing, but it's all I can think of that could be of help. Maybe it has to do with the border.
"Brilliant!" Dylis said and signed at the same time. That scripture could be anything, of course, but it was better than the nothing they'd had before. A quick stop by the library wouldn't delay them long. And a chance to reassure Rhian, to help her feel useful, was too good to say no to. Dylis raised her arms to embrace Rhian, but stopped herself at the last second, leaving her with her arms up in the air and skin burning with embarrassment. She brought one hand up to tangle in her own short hair, while the other lowered to hang limply at her side. "Later," she managed to say, hoping it came out intelligible.
Rhian gave her a nod and a small smile then retreated back into the kitchen, a last wary glance thrown in the direction of the statue-like Aculeo.
Her entire body sagging with relief, Dylis turned. 'I am going out to buy some food. I doubt Rhian has enough for all of us.'
Huw nodded and took a seat on the same rickety stool he'd been sitting on earlier. 'You do that. Be careful.'
Dylis was about to leave when a wave from the couch caught her attention. Nikon had opened one eye and was giving her a lazy smile. 'Your friend doesn't speak with her hands?'
Dylis shook her head. 'It's mainly a military practice. Most other people don't have need for it.'
The lazy smile stayed and Nikon closed his open eye. 'Except the ones with deaf friends.'
Dylis turned her back, ignoring whatever comment followed that one. She had food that needed buying and a squad that needed feeding.
Glaw couldn't help but shudder. 'I'm getting used to it. Give me a little time! I haven't been doing this all my life, unlike some people.'
Amusement that wasn't his own floated across the surface of his mind, together with: 'I'll do my best not to overwhelm you.'
Lykos' eyes were two blue glowing lights in the compact darkness around them, illuminating the outline of his hand trailing along the stone walls and the entrances to narrow side passages. There were no sounds other than the padding of their own footsteps and the soft brush of skin against stone from Lykos' hand. Glaw found himself grateful for their silent communication.
'It is rather nice to not be overheard,' Lykos agreed before Glaw had time to comment. 'And before you ask, you're spilling over. I think it's time to switch.'
Reluctantly Glaw sent agreement, feeling the gnawing teeth of fatigue starting to tear away at his control. He let go and, for a brief second, there was only him in his head, alone with his thoughts. In the next, he could feel the now almost familiar pressure of Lykos wrapping around him like a blanket.
'I take it back, I'm never getting used to this' Glaw resisted the urge to fight until the bond was in place again, leaving Lykos a steady presence in the back of his mind, like a silent puppet master just waiting to pull at his strings. 'You can't seriously mean this is a natural thing for your people!'
'As breathing,' Lykos answered, amusement traveling over the bond. 'Just be grateful it's me and not your Emperor. I highly doubt he'd respect your privacy like I do.'
Glaw shuddered at the thought. Communicating this way was less like speaking words, more like sharing images and feelings. He could sense what could have happened, could feel a cold presence wrapping around his mind, going much deeper into what was him than Lykos had.
'How much do you remember?' Lykos felt curious and worried all at once.
Glaw frowned, stopping to let Lykos shape a hole in a wall. 'Not much. We were in the room the Adviser had left us in, I started feeling sick and then...' Broken images of glowing eyes, a hole in the wall and a lot of running, his legs and lungs aching. Brief stops for rest, food stolen from somewhere. A fading presence at the back of his mind slowly being replaced by Lykos' thoughts, kind and encouraging. 'It's a bit of a blur, until this morning.' They were somewhere deep below the city (which one he wasn't sure), having darted through holes and tunnels temporarily opened by Lykos' shaping.
'I'm sorry I had to be so violent,' Lykos thought at him, regret and more worry accompanying them.
Glaw sighed, following Lykos through the hole. He gasped. There was no floor on the other side, just a walkway and darkness. 'I'm just glad you won.'
'It was lucky your Emperor was both weakened and far away or I might not have.' There was no false modesty in those words, only terror. 'I would not like to face him when he has two of my kind to draw power from.'
Glaw followed close behind Lykos, both hands on the railing that lined the walkway. He shuddered.
The narrow walkway was placed over a gigantic hangar. It took Glaw a moment to separate the shapes in the dim space below them from the cave-like walls, but soon he could make out wings of a number of smaller aircraft and the dome of something much larger. It shimmered silver in the weak light from the electric lamps that hung from the ceiling and was roughly seventy meters long. He didn't even want to guess how tall it was because that meant looking down for more than a second.
'What are those?' The question echoed in Glaw's mind, making his stomach twist and turn like he was experiencing a dizzy spell.
'Airplanes,' he answered as well as he could while still paying the outside world enough attention to not misplace a hand or foot. He concentrated on all the drawings and plans he'd seen of the machines, on the dream of flying and on the secrecy surrounding the project. Hopefully at least some of it would reach Lykos unscrambled.
'Machines that fly through the air?' came the reaction after a few seconds, along with a lot of confusion and shock. 'I thought you were joking or trying to trick me the last time you told me about them.'
The walkway came to an end with a door that Lykos raised a hand to shape open, the glow of his eyes reflecting against the wood. Glaw's eyes were drawn to the bracelet locked around his wrist.
'Does it hurt?'
Lykos shook his head, carefully stepping through the hole where the door had been. There were corridors on the other side, long corridors without doors, lit only by the odd light bulb. 'Rather the opposite. It's like a warm blanket and a fire during a storm, keeping the fatigue and cold at bay. Here, feel.'
Warmth and energy washed over Glaw, leaving him feeling like he was ready to run from Trade to Growth or climb the highest tower he could find. He was about to make a comment when a shadow flickered against the wall of the corridor ahead of them.
On instinct, he grabbed Lykos arm and pulled them both into the darkness between the electric lights. 'We'd better hide here until they pass.'
Lykos sent his agreement. The shadows multiplied and huddled up at the end of the other corridor. They were too far away for voices to be heard, but Glaw was pretty sure they were talking about something. 'This could take time,' he thought and, without him really wanting to, added: 'How did it feel?'
'How did what feel?' Lykos asked, but Glaw could sense he was stalling.
'When the curse took you. I need to know, so I'll be prepared if it happens to me again. I had no idea anyone was controlling me until they stopped, it was so subtle! Bet that was because the Field Mashal took my blood, did something to it. I honestly didn’t know it was happening until we were at Rhian’s apartment and then I still thought I’d only been cursed to keep certain things secret; like the airplanes. '
Lykos' silence seemed never-ending. He wasn't looking at Glaw and the channel that was their link shrunk, fading so that his thoughts were little more than whispers at the back of Glaw's mind. The shadows up ahead shifted, making way for one of their own to take center stage. It started pointing in various directions as if giving orders to its fellows.
Glaw almost yelped in surprise when Lykos finally answered.
'It was like being trapped inside my own skin.' Glaw could feel the claustrophobia, the way he was himself and yet not himself, not in charge of his own words or movements. It left him cold and shaking. 'I...I didn't know the bond could go that deep. No, that's a lie. I knew, I just didn't think I'd be weak enough to succumb to it.'
Lykos' eyes shimmered for a second and he curled his hands into fists. 'Have you any idea of how horrifying it is to convince your own people that peace awaits them if they just do as you say while knowing full well that your words are not your own? To be a puppet to an unknown enemy, spitting your family's dreams back into their faces with a smile.'
Glaw fixed his eyes on the far-off shadows, telling himself he was keeping guard and not refusing to look at Lykos. 'Why didn't you fight it? If you felt the curse happening, I mean. You had Aelius and Nikon to help you when we met.'
'And Bernike,' Lykos thought and there was a sadness to there that almost was amused. 'Had the curse worked like the normal one your kind puts on mine, I guess I might have stood a chance. But whatever changes that despicable spell-weaver did to the curse, maybe when you had your ears maimed, it made it much less brutal and it didn't require my blood. I must have been 'caught' when I poisoned you.' Something that felt like wet earthworms slithered up Glaw's neck. He brought a hand up to brush them off but found only air. He didn't even think to ask Lykos to elaborate on the ear comment. 'It was subtle, oh so subtle. I didn't even realize something was wrong until we'd entered my home city. By that point, there was no turning back. When I tried to speak to the others, all I found myself saying were more arguments for keeping you around, under less and less guard.'
There was an edge of hysteria to his thoughts, held back by stubborn pride and the relief of freedom. 'I broke Hesperos' leg and made it look like an accident, to distract Thais and I...I burned all our food stores.' The realization seemed sudden as if it had floated to the surface of his mind from deep within his memory. 'Oh...Oh no.'
He didn't share the thoughts that came after that one, but Glaw could guess at them. 'We'll fix it. We'll make it out of here somehow and we'll...we'll fix it.'
'Thank you.' There were no tears, but Glaw could feel the regret and sorrow lurking behind Lykos' calm expression.
'We just need to get out of here and-' The panic reached him before the words. 'They've seen us!'
Glaw started and looked away from Lykos, over his shoulder. The shadows had moved, one of them peeking around the corner and was looking straight at them. He could see the shine of a pistol barrel.
The word "run" wasn't exchanged, only the sense of urgency. They darted down a corridor, then another, until they more or less slammed against a wall and Lykos began to shape it. Running steps followed them, coming closer from all directions.
'It's like they're herding us,' Glaw thought, sharing with Lykos. 'But to where?'
'No, it’s like they’re trying to keep us away from something,' Lykos thought.
Glaw got his answer as they stumbled into the next, huge room. In the brief moment he had to look around, he noted large circles drawn on the floor with red paint. It also occurred to him that they’d stumbled into one of said circles.
The world spun. There was no floor, no ceiling and no walls, only light and darkness mixed together, enclosing him and Lykos. It felt like falling and it felt like flying at the same time. And then it was over.
Glaw felt himself grow lightheaded as he stared out at the landscape before them. The hills seemed to go on forever. Above them the sky was so big that the point where it began and steady ground ended blurred; an endless, cloudless blue it looked like he could fall right into.
Next to him, Lykos lay on the ground, panting and laughing.
"You folks all right?"
The voice was distant but perfectly audible. Looking away from the sky, Glaw caught sight of a woman dressed in the wool and fur common for a citizen of Growth. She was mounted on a gray horse that was taking its time walking towards them, stopping every other second to graze, earning it a kick in the sides from its rider.
Sitting up, Glaw waved at her and shouted: "We're fine! Just resting for a bit. But thank you for your concern!" Movement in the far distance caught his attention and he lowered his arm, a cold shiver running down his spine. It was like a large, brown mass of bodies, rushing down a hill at the speed of syrup. "What's that?" he asked the woman - no more than a girl, actually - when she made halt next to them.
"What? Do you mean the herd?" The girl turned to point up a distant hill and it slowly dawned on Glaw that what he'd thought was a rockslide actually were a gathering of at least two hundred horses, making their way across the grasslands.
"Oh, right, of course," Glaw said, rubbing the back of his neck. "Sorry, I must be more tired than I thought."
"How long have you two been out here?" the girl asked and dismounted. "You're a good ten kilometers from the city. Are you going to visit someone?" She glanced down at Lykos and her eyebrows lifted to vanish under the fur-lined hat she wore. "Huh."
"Yes, yes we are," Glaw hurried to say, not daring to look at Lykos. He had no idea if the demon had had the presence of mind to cover his marks or not. "My friend here works for a very rich trader. I'm giving him the tour of the Empire, so to speak, to show him what we have to offer. You don't happen to have any horses for sale, do you?"
The girl blinked. "Uh, I guess we do. I'll have to check with my dad first. He's over by the herd." As she spoke, she sneaked a curious glance at Lykos. Glaw hoped the sagging of his shoulders wasn't too obvious. "Old Beth here can't carry all of us though, so we'll have to walk there. Is that all right?"
"Perfectly all right," Lykos said, having gotten to his feet. He was exaggerating his accent and he had the tattered scarf wrapped tightly around his neck, which made Glaw sigh with relief. "If you wish I can tell you tales of my travels at sea, in exchange for you telling us of the animals you raise here." He bowed, took her hand and kissed it. Glaw had to choke back a snort.
The girl's cheeks reddened and she giggled, pulling her hand away in a good-natured kind of way. "Don't think you'll be getting cheaper prices just because you're a charmer, sir!" she said, winking at Lykos.
"I would not dream of trading my looks for horses." This got another giggle out of the girl.
The conversation went on in that fashion as they walked. Lykos lied his way through at least two sea battles and five exotic countries with the secret aid of Glaw's vague memories of tales he'd heard down in the harbor. The girl alternated between laughing and blushing. Glaw kept to the side of things, walking on one side of Lykos, while the girl and the horse took the other.
The sky was still endless, but while it at first had felt almost threatening in its infinity, it grew on Glaw as they walked. The blue above felt like a symbol, a sign of their successful escape. He turned to catch Lykos' eye and pass this thought on without surprising him, when he was brought up short.
The girl had said something about food and shelter, but that wasn't what had caught Glaw's attention. It was Lykos' smile. It looked exhausted and relieved, and it made Glaw's breath catch in his throat. Idiot! First Thais and now this? You're worse than Dylis! he yelled at himself, inside the privacy of his own mind. Well, the relative privacy of his own mind.
To someone who didn't have their mind linked to him, Lykos' start was impossible to detect, but Glaw felt it. 'What was that? Were you trying to tell me something?'
'No!' Glaw answered, doing his best to avoid throwing up his hands in the universal gesture for the word, fighting to keep the panic off his face.'No, nothing! I'm just being stupid. I didn't quite get your comment about my ears.'
'It's something I felt through the old link.'
'Link with who?'
'The one who controlled you when we were in my city.' There was relief in Lykos' mind-words. 'Back then, I thought they were your thoughts, but it's clear to me now they weren't. They felt nothing like you feel now.'
Glaw found himself blushing and had no idea why. He had to have imagined the brush of warmth from Lykos' thoughts.
The image of the horse girl's Emperor's Sign flashed before his mind's eye, pushed there by Lykos. 'Each of your people can take one of our minds with the help of those necklaces.' Lykos brushed his fingers against the bracelet around his wrist. 'I've understood that much. But back when we caught you, we destroyed your sign. So how do you think we are able to link minds?
'Uhm...' Glaw let his eyes wander skywards, face flushing a deeper red. 'I hadn't thought of that.'
'I'm not saying I have a clear answer,' Lykos thought, while at the same time saying something cheerful and clever to the girl. 'But I learned one fact from the voices that controlled you. Whatever is different about you, it has to do with your scars.'
'Does that answer your question?'
'Yes, perfectly!' Glaw did his best to not think of anything but the new mystery. It was a good distraction, all in all. But then again, so was Lykos' eyes, and shoulders and... Dammit!
Lykos lifted an eyebrow, but sent back acknowledgment and returned his attention to the conversation with the girl. Glaw took a deep breath through his nose and turned his face skywards again, searching the blue for traces of clouds.
Soon they would be in a herder tent and Glaw knew just the way to pay for their stay and the horse. The bars of chocolate were battered from more than half a month's stay in different pockets, but with the wrapping-spell he was sure Dylis had made Rhian place on the small package that wouldn't matter. They would have their horses and they were far away from both the Emperor, the Field Marshal, Adviser Kinsey and their demons. They were safe.
Now if he just could stop thinking of the way Lykos had moaned the first time he’d showed off his demon marks, everything would be great.
The sun was setting on their second day in Trade. The light around them had taken on a gray tone and there was mist rising over the road-channels.
Dylis gestured for her squad to stay near and took a step closer to Rhian. Huw had been assigned to stay and guard the apartment, along with Bernike and Myrrine, in case whoever had lured Glaw and Lykos out decided to pay another visit. After some protesting Huw had grudgingly agreed to stay since he was the only logical choice. Of the ten of them, he was the only one equipped with an emergency flare that would call the military to his aid (on the off chance the enemy wasn’t the military.) He was also the only one other than Rhian that they wouldn't arrest or killed on the spot.
Cato and Aculeo had left the night before, sent back to the demon city with news and to gather strength. If something went wrong they'd all be dead for sure if no one knew where they were.
The library towered before them like a great hen. Or rather it looked more like a sparrow in a hen house, sandwiched as it was between two white temples twice its size.
Rhian stuck her key in the back door's lock, her hands trembling, even though she'd said she was sure there would be no one working late tonight. To give her some privacy Dylis turned around to face her squad, who'd lined up along the railing of the back alley walkway they were occupying. 'Does everybody understand the plan?'
In reply she got three nods and one teasing smile. 'I'll stand guard on the roof,' Nikon signed and was gone before anyone could contradict the decision.
'Never mind that coward,' Vita signed. 'Not the first time he’s run off to hide. We'll make do.'
Aelius looked like he wanted to protest that, but a glare from his sister made him keep his silence. Thais' shoulders heaved with a sigh and she too kept her opinions to herself. Dylis rolled her eyes and turned just as the door was unlocked.
On the other side stood Siani Yates.
'You can put that down,' Yates signed as they all drew their weapons. 'Huw called me. You could have chosen better company to do this in, but I guess we take our friends where we can get them. Especially people like you.'
Dylis clenched her hands into fists before she could sign something rude. They were balancing on the edge of a knife with her entire squad was at risk. She couldn't lose control now or the mission would descend into chaos. 'What do you want, Yates?'
Yates stepped out of the library and put a key in the palm of Rhian's limp hand. 'I've locked all doors and made sure everyone has gone home. The cleaning staff tend to work overtime the poor dears. And as for what I want, corporal, is for you to be quick about your business. Good night to you.'
She strode off down the walkway as if she elbowed her way past armed demons every day.
A shaken Rhian led them inside through a barren corridor Dylis hadn't seen before and out from behind ancient bookshelves and the librarians' desks, into the main room. The library looked the same as it had when Dylis had fled the city; dimly lit with shelves overcrowded by scriptures and books alike, standing shoulder to shoulder along each wall and in lines across most of the floor.
They stopped by one of the larger tables near the majestic windows. Thais immediately rolled out her map and unpacked a thick leather bracelet, placing it as a weight in the map's middle. Dylis recognized it immediately.
I'll go find the scripture, Rhian wrote in the blank upper corner of the map, flinching as this earned her an angry glare from Vita. She scurried off, leaving Thais and Dylis to give Vita a disapproving look. Well, Thais' was disapproving, Dylis' was murderous.
'I don't like this,' Vita said for the hundredth time, ignoring all looks being sent her way.
'It's better than storming the Palace head on,' Dylis signed. Her remaining squad members were jumpy, unable to stay in one spot for long. Even Thais was pacing around the table. Dylis felt the worry in the air gnaw at her own self-confidence and that was setting her teeth on edge. 'We can trust Rhian.'
'It is too suspicious,' Vita signed, taking up post on the stairs leading to the upper floor. 'Your friend, she just happens to be given this history of demon spells? She just happens to recognize the Captured One's bracelet as something drawn on that spell paper? Suspicious!'
Dylis bared her teeth like a cornered dog, hand on the hilt of her sword. 'Then you should have stayed and guarded the apartment!'
'And leave the leading to you?' Vita's frame shook, as if with stifled laughter. 'Leave my brother and Thais in your hands? I would not accept that.'
Dylis made no comment and instead made her way over to the table they'd claimed as theirs. Thais had the bracelet in hand, her fingers tracing over every inch of it as if searching for something. She kept making notes on the map with the demon language's strange, swirly letters. Dylis allowed herself to watch out of the corner of one eye, while most of her attention was on the movements of the other two demons. Vita remained on the stairs, an arrow already knocked on her bow, while Aelius was drifting among the bookshelves and tables, a dagger in hand and an insecure expression on his face.
It didn't take long for Rhian to return.
'I fear I agree with Vita. This is too easy,' Thais signed to Dylis, as Vita and Aelius whirled to keep an eye on the approaching figure. Thais' eyes kept darting from one bookshelf to the other and her fingers trembled as they held the bracelet.
Rhian, her arms full of papers, mouthed "found it!" at them, spreading her findings out on the table in a messy heap. She grabbed a pen before it could roll off the table, ripped a strip of paper from a document covered in blurred letters and wrote on its clean side:
I'm not sure if all the information is accurate, but it should be of help. My mentor is never wrong when it comes to spells.
Dylis nodded in acknowledgment and did her best to translate for Aelius and Thais, who frowned down at the pictures and words as if they were a secret code they didn't have the key to. One thing was without a doubt, though. The image on the first page matched the bracelet in Thais' hands perfectly.
Borrowing the pen from Thais, Dylis tore free a strip of paper and began writing Rhian a note. Thank you. I'll do my best to translate for them. I doubt anyone will come looking for us, but it'd be for the best if you
She dropped the pen as the floor started shaking, the faint trembling always felt through wooden floors when a multitude of boots were trampling them. Looking up from her unfinished writing, Dylis steeled herself for what she would see. Her heart froze in her chest.
The guards seemed to come from everywhere. They swarmed in through both the front door and the staff door, a few even coming down from the upper floor, crowding the stairs. They all wore their Emperor's Sign.
Dylis saw her demon companions stumble and falter, huddling together by the table. Vita came rushing down the stairs, firing arrows at the soldiers descending from the second floor. She jumped up on the table, her bare feet crumbling the map, Thais and Aelius huddling behind her. Dylis drew her sword and took point, doing her best to place herself between the oncoming soldiers and her squad.
There was little point to it. They were surrounded in less than a minute.
Huw, you idiot! Dylis' thoughts were racing around her skull like frightened seagulls, screeching and flapping their wings in a great big mess of panic and helplessness. You should have known that old bat couldn't be trusted! She must have gone straight to the guards.
A hand on her shoulder brought her out of the staring match she was having with the soldiers' apparent leader; an elderly woman dressed in the red and blue uniform of the Palace guard. The hand proved to belong to a far too calm Rhian. She had a note.
With a hand she refused to admit was trembling Dylis accepted the piece of paper she was being offered. Surrender and they won't harm you. My mentor promised that.
Dylis' stomach churned, but there was too much ice cold panic in her mind for realization to completely sink in. All she could do was blink uncomprehendingly at Rhian, who took the note from her slacks fingers, put it on the table and wrote:
My mentor gave me warning. He'd been to Outer Camps and said he knew of your brother's glorious mission. He also said the demons had played tricks with your mind. He said he would help me fix you, as well as reward me for my good services, give me a position at the university in Search. Do you realize what this means for me? For us? Rhian underlined the last word with so much force that her pen twisted. Not quite breaking, but close to.
"Us?" Dylis mouthed in disbelief, staring at the note like it were a ghost. Rhian snatched it back and turned it over, a look of utter concentration in her eyes as she began writing, Dylis watching over her shoulder.
Don't play dumb now! I've seen you looking, I'm not stupid. We'd make a good match, I've always thought that, and as soon as you come to your senses we can
Dylis tore the paper out of her hand before the sentence was finished. She grabbed the quill from Rhian's loose grip and wrote, in large, harsh letters: RUN! NOW!
Rhian blinked, mouth slack and slightly open in confusion. Her eyes drifted over the two words, rereading them over and over until Dylis added:
or I'll tear your guts out with my bare hands
She couldn't pretend the look of betrayal Rhian gave her didn't hurt like a hammer to the chest, but with three squad members at risk, a missing brother now beyond her reach and enemy weapons pointed her way, instinct and anger took over. She glared at Rhian until she backed away, disappearing into the crowd of soldiers. Dylis did her best to pretend she hadn't noticed the tears in Rhian's eyes.
The soldiers seemed uncaring of this development. They stood at attention all around them, a thin line of them forming along the great windows, blocking all escape routes. 'Can you tunnel through the floor?' Dylis signed, concentrating on her rage to keep her racing heart and the blood she could feel rushing in her ears from weakening her resolve.
The shake of the head Thais gave her in answer nearly broke it. Dylis forced herself to take even breaths and went back to glaring at the soldiers' leader. Sooner or later someone would say something and it wasn't going to be her. Pride went before fall every time, but she couldn't make herself beg for her life. Not even with three other lives hanging in the balance.
'Nikon?' she asked, but there was no time for an answer. The crowd had begun to part, letting a well-dressed man make his way down the stairs from the upper floor.
She recognized his face. She would have had to be blind not to. The Field Marshal strolled into the library like he owned the place and the rocks it had been built on – which was as close to the truth as someone other than the Emperor could be in that situation – and swept his eyes across the room with a pleased grin on his face.
Next to her, Dylis could feel Aelius tremble. Thais was steadier on her feet, her shaking limited to her hands, still cradling the documents that Rhian had brought. Vita had long since let loose her final arrow and had fallen to her knees, panting, her eyes lowered and her shoulders sagging. The soldier tended to their wounded, but they were few and far between.
Out of the corner of her eye, Dylis could see that Aelius was saying something over and over, but the movements of his lips were too small and swift to make any sense to her. He swayed and steadied himself against the table, his eyes shining with unshed tears.
She tore her eyes away from him and turned to face the Field Marshal, who was walking towards them. 'We meet again,' the Field Marshal signed, striding into her personal space. 'Did you find your lover in Outer Camps? Or was she here all along?'
That's when Vita dived for his throat.