'Are you sure this is a wise decision?' Thais had made her way to the edge of the roof and was looking down at the barracks. She looked less than convinced and the rest of the squad were matching her expression.
Dylis stood alongside her and was doing her best to not let her doubts show. 'No, I don't, but he's the only chance we've got.' And I need to know if he's a traitor too. Her mind shied away from the word. If Huw had betrayed them, he would have been upholding his promises to the Empire, like she very much wasn't.
The conflict was giving her a headache and she didn't have time for that.
She took stock of her squad. Nikon and Aelius were keeping to the back of the group, under the watchful eye of Vita, which Dylis was glad for. She'd had enough of betrayals to last her a lifetime and if another one was coming up, being ready for it was better than letting the unpredictable element out of their line of sight. The problem was just that Vita might overreact. Hopefully, Nikon would be smart enough to keep a low profile. They needed all the fighters they had for this.
Bernike and Myrrine were staring at each other in a way that Dylis had come to realize meant they were talking to each other with their thoughts, which made her feel twitchy and on unsteady ground. She hurried to turn her attention to Cato and Aculeo, but they were being equally still and staring, so that was little to no improvement.
'I should go with you,' Glaw signed. He was standing next to Lykos and Dylis let the sight of the two of them distract her for a bit. They were standing shoulder to shoulder. She couldn't tell if their hands brushing against each other were a deliberate or unconscious gesture.
She shook her head, both to clear it and to reject Glaw's offer. 'It'll be easier if I sneak in alone. Myrrine, you can drop me off outside that building.' She pointed at the barrack farthest from where they were standing. 'There's hardly anyone awake at this hour. As long as I stay low, I'll be fine.'
Glaw raised his hands to sign something in answer to that, but thankfully Myrrine was efficient and had her arms wrapped around Dylis' waist already. All Dylis saw before they jumped was a 'good' and 'luck'.
She hit the ground running, Myrrine having let her go and then darted off back to the roof. It was dark out, but there was light coming from some of the barracks' windows and there would be guards on patrol. She pressed her back to the wall of the nearest barrack and held her breath, watching for movements in the shadows.
Typical that Huw never had managed to get promoted. Sneaking into a private room would have been so much easier than not waking his fifty roommates.
The window was easy to wedge open. She'd made her way into enough barracks in the dead of night to know a trick or two about the military's standard locks. It was dark inside, with only a small group of people awake and gathered around the fireplace on the other side of the room. One of them caught sight of her and she gave him the most sheepish grin she could muster. He winked at her and very pointedly turned his back, returning his attention to the card game.
Huw was in his bunk. Dylis sent silent thanks to the first god she could remember the name of and hurried over to the bed, careful not to step on any planks that looked like they would make noise. She ducked at his bedside, making sure not touch anything. Few spell-weavers were kept at the rank of private for long, but there could be wards none the less. She glanced at the scar on her palm. It had stopped aching days ago, but it hadn't faded.
Taking a deep breath, she reached out and gave Huw's shoulder a slap. He sat bolt upright, eyes wide open. If she hadn't been prepared for that she might have tumbled backward.
He grabbed her and for a second she was sure he'd call for the guards. Then he pulled her on top of him and crushed her ribs in the most painful hug she'd ever received. She had to pound her fists against his chest for him to remember to let go enough for her to breathe.
'You're alive!' he signed, while Dylis tried to find a comfortable way to straddle him without rubbing up against any body parts that would leave them unable to look each other in the eye later.
'Obviously,' Dylis signed, but couldn't help returning his grin. 'Sorry to disappoint, but no lovestruck window -climbers for you tonight.'
'I'll muddle through.' His grin died and was resurrected as a look of concern. 'S-I-A-N-I told me the Field Marshal took you away.'
Dylis' back stiffened. 'You're on first name basis with that old bag of dust?'
'Last time I saw you, you had a squad of demons backing you up,' Huw signed. 'I don't think my choice in friends is the one we should be worrying about.'
'So she's a friend?' Had Dylis had hackles they would have been raised. She threw a glance over at the group by the fireplace, who not so subtly were whispering among themselves. They were leaning over to put their faces close to each others' ears at irregular intervals, which was clue enough. If she left now she'd be raising a few eyebrows she'd prefer to keep level.
'Sort of.' Huw followed her gaze, then wrapped his arms around her waist and did a halfhearted attempt at mimicking groping without touching her. Thankfully the fireplace was far enough away that what they did would be little more than moving shadows to their observers. 'What went wrong?'
Dylis fingers ached as she made the sign for 'cat'. 'Rhian betrayed us. Turns out the Field Marshal of all people was her mentor.' She tried for a self-deprecating smile. 'Guess I can't blame her. I did fill her apartment with demons. You must both have thought I was crazy.'
The way the beard around Huw's mouth shifted hinted that he might not be too trusting of her mental faculties yet. She tried to not let that get to her. 'So what happened? Did you strike a deal?'
'Not quite.' She took a deep breath. This was the make-it-or-break-it moment. 'I found Glaw. He is safe. The Field Marshal...is dead.'
Huw paled and went completely still. Dylis' heart jumped into her mouth. 'The surgery I and Glaw went through as children was on orders from the Emperor. It was all some elaborate plan to send a spy into the demon forest. The Emperor wanted to know if the demons' leader was alive and on top of that Glaw was made to kidnap one of the demons, the Field Marshal controlling both of them like puppets. He was dragging helpless people from their homes and in the end got what he deserved'
The signs she made were so small and brief she wondered if Huw even registered their meaning, but he made no attempt to throw her off. She had to force herself to hold his blank gaze as she continued: 'I'll be needing your help again, I'm afraid. There's going to be a massacre. A wall of mist has gone up around the demons' woods and the planes will be there to bomb them unless I find some maps. I've seen the demons' city. They're just people, Huw. There are children there!'
'You know about that?
Dylis blinked. 'You know about that?!'
Huw shifted under her, turning his head to look at the people by the fireplace. 'I...I think we need to get out of here.'
The people by the fireplace hadn't stirred. Dylis had a fair idea what had brought on the need for a change of venue. 'I think you're right. Not good sharing secrets where the walls have ears.'
'And eyes.' His lips moved and she could feel his barrel of a chest vibrate under her hands. He shuddered in the way she'd come to recognize as a faked hiccup. The people by the fireplace waved at them and the way their mouths moved told her they'd shouted something. Huw's "we'll go to your place" must have been pretty loud.
They stumbled out of the barracks in their best imitation of drunkenness. They'd been drunk together enough times to know how to fall into each other's steps without knocking the other off stride. Outside Huw wrapped an arm around Dylis' shoulder and waved at a passing guard, shielding her body from view with his own.
'Over to that alley,' Dylis signed one-handed, keeping an eye out for onlookers. 'And be prepared for another demon encounter.'
The alley walkway was darker than the barracks' yard, which gave Dylis a moment to breathe. She straightened up from her drunken swagger and gave Huw some space. It was unsettling to see him too drop the act and stand at attention. Huw never stood at attention, not even during inspections.
'All right,' he signed before she had the chance to start the conversation, 'I know you. At least, I think I know you. You've always been a good friend, Dylis. You've helped me out of more scrapes than you even know. That's why I'm going to trust you. Plus, I don't like the thought of dead children of any species.'
Dylis made a point of showing her relief, letting her shoulders sag and her breath rush out of her lungs in one fell swoop. 'I'm glad. Glaw will be too.'
'He better be, because I'm about to risk a lot.' Huw shrugged. 'Though it's not like you could report me.'
'Report you?' Those imaginary hackles were rising again.
Huw leaned back against the wall on the side of the alley opposite where Dylis stood and began a staring competition with the walkway. 'S-I-A-N-I is my superior officer. Sort of.'
'Nope.' The grin he forced was caught somewhere between sheepish and pained. 'You see the Emperor isn't loved by every citizen. Have you any idea of how many people have lost relatives to Outer Camps? Who've been forced to watch friends and loved ones board a ship and never come back because they were foolish enough to criticize the leaders of the Empire?'
Dylis curled her hands around the railing to steady herself. 'What are you saying?'
'I can't say I've been hit too hard personally by all this,' Huw went on as if she hadn't asked anything. Then again he wasn't looking at her, so he probably hadn't seen. 'Which probably is the reason they recruited me.'
He glanced up long enough to catch her: 'Who?'
'The organization doesn't have a name, for safety reasons. We're sort of...' He trailed off, an air of insecurity settling around him like a winter cloak.
'Revolutionaries?' The word sounded no better than 'traitor' in her opinion, but at this point, who was she to question?
'I guess you could call us that. We're not violent!' The signs were hurried and large as if he wanted to write them down in capital letters and underline them. 'We just want more say in our lives. There was a time, before the Empire, when people ruled themselves, and though that hardly was perfect, I - we - think we should give that another go.'
He crossed his arms over his chest, head still bowed. He kept one hand free enough to sign: 'The Emperor has eyes everywhere though, so I've not been able to do much. Got reckless way back so I've been a suspect of trouble making ever since. Doesn't leave much room for action when you're watched day and night.'
At Dylis shocked grunt, he looked up and signed: 'I'm eight years older than you and a private. You never thought there was a reason for that?'
During her time as a soldier, Dylis had seen many men and women explain their irrational actions with perfect logic. It had become a second nature to her to always be on the lookout for the glint of unhealthy conviction in others' eyes. There was none of that in Huw's expression, just honest belief and worry.
So he might be part of a cult's lower tire. Keep on your toes! The thoughts rushed through her mind as if they were mice chased by a cat. And they were chased, by another thought: Who am I to judge him?
'As long as you don't start laughing maniacally or murder someone in cold blood, I'm really not in a place to question you.' She reached out, offering him a hand to shake. 'Guess we're both in deep right now.'
He grabbed her hand with his own larger one and squeeze it just firmly enough to show gratitude without crushing her fingers. She grinned at him and he grinned back, freely this time.
'You think your superiors will be willing to help find maps of the airplane hangars?' she signed once they let go of each other. 'You didn't seem to be too keen on demons last time I saw you.' Siani Yates, on the other hand, had barely batted an eyelash.
'Well,' Huw signed, then held up his hand, palms facing the sky, 'the organization is pretty big on not resorting to violence unless forced to. It's why we've been keeping an eye on the airplanes. We weren't so sure who the Emperor was planning on bombing - for all we knew he'd finally snapped completely and decided to start a war across the sea - but we had our suspicions.'
'You were going to sabotage them?' Dylis signed. She began leading the way down the alley, keeping one eye on Huw so they could keep up the conversation.
'Maybe,' Huw signed. 'Let's just say our people prefer to think a lot and discuss a lot before they take action. I think the higher-ups have been tied up in knots over this since last summer.'
'With my squad on your side you shouldn't be hesitating,' Dylis signed, trying to not look too smug. 'We took down the Field Marshal after all.'
Dylis was saved from explaining by two softly glowing spots of blue at the end of the alley. Huw froze in his tracks but didn't turn around. He instead moved closer to Dylis, who waved at Myrrine.
'Glaw sent me,' Myrrine signed, her eyes losing their glow. She wasn't carrying her ax. 'Said something about me being the best choice.'
Dylis had to stifle a chuckle. 'You didn't really get properly introduce last time. Huw, this is M-Y-R-R-I-N-E. You may remember her as the sleepiest of the demons.'
'Very funny,' Myrrine signed, grinning in a way that told Dylis she hadn't stepped over any lines.
'Myrrine, this is Huw. He'll do his best to help us get the maps we need.' Out of the corner of her eye, Dylis could see Huw easing from straight-backed soldier to his usual, half-slumped posture and jovial smile. She hoped he wouldn't mind being thought of as 'Bear' by the demons.
'It's good to meet you again,' he managed, holding out a hand for Myrrine to shake. He let it hang in the air for an awkward few seconds, while Myrrine simply watched him. 'Don't shake hands, I take it?'
'Shake hands?' Myrrine mimicked, head cocked to one side.
'Right.' Huw brushed his hands on his pants in an exaggerated fashion. 'Where to?'
Dylis couldn't help but grin in a none-too soothing manner. 'Hold on to your sword Huw and be prepared for the ride of a lifetime!'
She, of course, had no idea if he screamed or not. Hopefully, he hadn't. She held her breath and pressed herself against a wall, gaze fixed on the way they'd come from. The alley wasn't overly big and certainly not long. Anyone who took a peek around the corner would be able to spot her, even in the dark.
Arms wrapped around her waist. Out of pure instinct, she tried to elbow whoever had grabbed her. She only hit the solid brick wall, which had her biting her tongue hard enough to draw blood. Vertigo pulled at her stomach as the world flew away and she landed back on the roof.
Dylis cradled her elbow the moment she was let go. Vita gave her a dark look as she went to stand by her brother's side, which Dylis returned. 'A little warning next time?'
'Guards were coming your way,' Vita signed as if that explained everything. It sort of did, but Dylis kept on glaring. It felt like her elbow was broken.
'Let me have a look at that,' Thais signed and gently placed her palm on Dylis' upper arm.
Letting herself be mended - and gods did it feel good to have the damn thing numbed - Dylis surveyed her squad. Huw looked a little paler than usual, but he was doing his best to put on a cheerful face. Aculeo and Cato having taken up posts on each side of him probably didn't help that. Bernike and Myrrine were over by the far end of the roof, Myrrine pointing at something in the distance, while Aelius and Nikon hadn't moved from the spot they'd been in when she'd left.
It was rather amusing to see how Lykos and Glaw were hovering around one another, without actually touching or looking at each other. The situation was just bizarre and adorable enough to make her smile. The way Huw kept staring at them, mostly at Lykos' glasses, also contributed to her amusement.
'Thanks,' she signed to Thais, as feeling returned to her arm. 'Good as new!'
Thais smiled. 'Good! Where to next?'
'That's up to Huw.' Dylis looked to her friend, her smile doing its best to not waver. 'What would be the best way to get to the maps?'
'You're not going to like it.'
Her smile was getting more rigid by the second. 'Why?'
'We have to go to S-I-A-N-I. She's the only one I know who knows where they are.'
Dylis pushed herself up from the squatting position she'd landed in and took a deep breath through her nose. 'Fine. We don't have time to argue. Are you sure she will help us?'
Huw gestured helplessly with his hands. 'She agreed to do so before. She's quite the "enemies of my enemies are my friends"-type of person.'
'Where can we find her?'
Huw pointed in the direction of the library, one eyebrow raised in a "did you really have to ask?"-way.
One hand rubbing at the back of her neck like some new recruit who'd asked if a sergeant was higher in rank than a private, Dylis made her way over to Bernike and Myrrine without comment.
She pointed at the library. 'You recognize that building?' she signed, addressing anyone who would look.
'All too well,' came Vita's answer, along with a show of sharpened teeth and a flash of blue from her eyes. 'You cannot mean we’re going back there!'
'Only shot we have or your city is dust come morning.' Not that Dylis knew that for sure, but she'd learned the hard way that it was risky to think you had time to spare. She wouldn't make that mistake again. If only there was a way to know she wasn't trading biding her time too long for being too rash.
Vita's teeth sharpened into hundreds of thin needles, before returning to their original, quite human form. Dylis didn't flinch. At least not visibly. No one else signed, their postures signaling that they were on high alert as if waiting for the other shoe to drop.
'Myrrine, you'll carry Huw. You two go first, to avoid scaring off the-, the librarian. Don't bother asking what that is, you'll find out soon enough. Bernike, I'd like you to carry me and Lykos can carry Glaw. Everyone in agreement?'
Nods from all involved. Cato's was absentminded and he was staring at the back of Huw's neck, but Dylis took it for agreement. Not for the first time she found herself wondering what the world looked and sounded like to Cato, and how much of it overlapped with what the rest of them saw. The thought stayed briefly and was then brushed aside. She had to concentrate.
'We'll land on the roof and Huw can then show us the best place to land on the ground. Go!'
The thrill of rushing over rooftops never got old. Dylis wished she'd have the opportunity to just enjoy it at least once and not have to think about strategies or injured people at the same time. The houses and clouds swished past her faster than any boat or horse ever had taken her.
They ended up in the back alley they'd entered the library through last time. Dylis grew cold at the thought of their previous visit. She couldn't help but shift her eyes continuously from window to window, checking for movement inside.
'I'll go in first,' Huw signed. 'Make sure we're not interrupting anything.'
'Go ahead.' Dylis found that she was chewing on her lower lip and made herself stop. She hadn't done that since she was a child for gods' sake!
'For your information, I will cut your head off if you betray us,' Vita signed. Her quiver and bow had been left behind on the ship somewhere, but the way her nails took on a metallic glint as her eyes lit up backed her threat nicely.
Huw backed away, hands raised at the level of his ears. 'No betrayal, got it!'
They waited as if they all were balancing on the edge of a knife, careful to not make any sudden movements or, well, any movements at all. Dylis' internal clock, somewhat busted and bruised from her far too frequent encounters with spells of late, told her about half an hour passed before Huw opened the door again, alone.
'I explained the situation to her,' he signed, his smile caught somewhere between hopeful and hesitant. 'She wants all of you to come inside. No exceptions.'
All eyes went to Nikon, who was studying the nearby road-channel, radiating boredom. Dylis elbowed Aelius, who gave her a startled look, before nodding and taking Nikon's hand. Not exactly what Dylis had had in mind, but the way Nikon stood at attention as if he'd been electrocuted sort of made up for it.
The library had been put back together since their last visit. The tumbled shelves and furniture had been straightened out and repaired, but here and there you could see cuts in the wood from swords and daggers. Dylis found an arrowhead sticking out of the top of a door frame as they neared the center of the building.
Siani Yates had set up camp by the largest of the ground floor reading tables. There were books and scrolls everywhere, efficiently covering the table and making it hard to guess where furniture ended and literature began. Dylis recognized the glare she greeted them all with as her "you'd better not break anything"-greeting. Wonderful.
'What do you want?' Yates signed, as soon as they'd all gathered in a half-circle in front of her.
'Help you sabotage the airplanes and the blimp the Emperor has been working on,' Dylis signed, refusing to be taken aback at her abruptness.
Yates lifted an eyebrow in a sardonic manner, steepling her fingers together, her elbows resting on the paper covered table. 'And here I thought you wanted to be a pilot.'
Dylis put her hands on the table and leaned forward, meeting Yates judgmental glare without as much as a twitch. This was nothing new to her, not really. 'Not if it means dropping bombs on small children and people who mean me no harm.'
Yates let her gaze sweep over the gathered demons, like a stern school teacher unimpressed with the term's first-year students. 'You seem sure these creatures won't harm you,' she signed. 'What about me? What about the other cities.'
'I have shared minds with one of them,' Glaw cut in. Dylis sent him an annoyed look, but he kept going. 'They're only a threat if we attack first. Most of them want peace with us and the others want to be left alone.'
'So you claim.' Dylis had never seen anyone able to muttered in sign language, but somehow Yates had succeeded. The way she sat there, frowning and smirking at once, reminded Dylis of stories the sailors down at the docks had told her as a child. Spell-weavers on the other side of the ocean were called 'witches' and not very well liked. The fairy tale descriptions she'd been told of them matched quite nicely with Yates at this very moment.
'Do you want help or not?' Dylis signed, then crossed her arms over her chest.
'If I may,' Thais signed before Yates could answer. She stepped out of the line the demons had formed and bowed. 'I will speak for my people. Librarian, please listen to me.'
Yates gave a curt nod as if she was the Emperor granting an audience. Dylis wanted to grab her by her gray hair-bun and slam her face first into the table.
Thais' chest heaved as she took a deep breath. All traces of nerves disappeared from her face. 'We win nothing if we attack your people. You outnumber us and you have nothing we want. All we wish to do is live, like you. There is much in the past that we regret, but those atrocities were committed by the long dead. At least in most cases. Believe me when I say we do not want our children to live in fear any more than you want yours to.'
Yates' smirk turned into a genuine smile. 'I like this one. I'm not stupid enough to take words at face value, but,' she added when it looked like Thais was going to start signing again, 'I'll give you a chance. I have my reasons to doubt you. I have even more reasons to want an end to this far too long conflict between our peoples.' She paused and raised one eyebrow. 'What are your guarantees.'
Thais glanced over her shoulder to look at Bernike, who stepped forward. 'We can’t speak for all of our people, but we know the hearts of most of our fellows. If you help us save them, they will be grateful. And if the border, which I am sure you know of, is removed, our gratitude will be endless. However, if you betray us, we will have vengeance.'
'Honest enough.' Yates looked like she was measuring them all again, balancing them against some unknown weight of worthiness. 'I can't promise the removal of any borders - I'm no spell-weaver - but if you do my people a favor we will assist you in sabotaging the aircrafts.'
Dylis held her hands still as Thais signed: 'What are your demands?'
'You have no more love for the Emperor than I do,' Yates signed. 'His bodyguards are too much for anyone under my command, but you seem to have survived this long outside your treeline and I'm quite sure you've met them at least once. If you promise to end the Emperor's reign, in whatever fashion you see fit, I will give you the maps.'
'With pleasure.' The grin on Vita's face couldn't have been called sane even by the most generous of observers.
Huw had gone about five shades paler than Dylis had ever seen him, and she'd seen him the morning after they'd tested the batch of moonshine Owain had made last winter. 'You can't! A direct attack on the Emperor would be no better than murder!'
'So you rather he bomb children and send soldiers to have their will poisoned out of them?' Yates signed. 'I'm not sure you've understood this yet, Private, but we're at war. It's a silent war, true, but it has causalities just like any other. I'm tired of counting bodies. Will you take my offer?'
Huw gaped like a fish caught on dry land. He raised his hands, but let them fall a second later, looking completely lost.
'Huw, you're a soldier,' Dylis signed. 'If you were chasing a serial killer, would you hesitate to ambush him and shoot him before he could kill again?'
'Not if I knew he was guilty,' Huw signed, 'which you can't know until there's been a trial!'
'You have doubts about the Emperor's crimes?' Yates asked. 'Nevermind. I'd like to point out I never ordered an assassination. Remove the Emperor and the bodyguards in any way you see fit, as long as they stop being a threat.'
The room's tense atmosphere could have been cut with a knife. The demons kept glancing at each other, as if they were having a conversation with their eye movements alone; which, admittedly, wouldn't have surprised Dylis in the least.
Finally, it was Bernike who signed: 'We agree to your terms. The ones you call bodyguards are kin of ours. We do not wish to see them harmed. As for the Emperor...' Her eyes were dark as midnight. 'We will offer him the chance to surrender. If he does not take it, that is his foolish decision.'
Huw stole a glance at Bernike. Dylis noticed that some color was returning to his cheeks. The entire room seemed to breathe a sigh of relief without moving.
Yates got out of her chair. 'Corporal Nevett, you're coming with me. The rest of you wait here. If I sense as much as one of you following, the deal is off. Understood?'
Dylis shrugged off Glaw's hand, which had found its way onto her left arm somewhere during the second part of the negotiations. She gave him a quick 'I'll be fine' with her back turned to him. She didn't want him to see her face; she wasn't sure she'd managed to keep up appearance.
'This way.' Yates took off in the direction of the librarians' desk and Dylis followed, walking next to her.
They were on the other side of the library, deep among the bookshelves only the librarians got to touch when they came to a halt. Yates began to busy herself with rearranging some books. Dylis was knowledgeable enough about wards to recognize it for something other than a sudden need to clean.
'You don't like me, Y-A-T-E-S. In fact, I'm pretty sure you hate me. Why are you doing this?' Dylis eyed Yates, circling the woman to try and spot any hint of trickery. 'What's your angle?'
Yates rolled her eyes and put down the last book under the third she'd moved. 'You, Nevett, are a brute who thinks more with what's between your legs than what's in your head and who wouldn't know how to act in the presence of books if you so had a drill sergeant yelling instructions at you. Thus, I don't like you. But not liking you and letting you die for nothing are two very different things.'
'You think I'm going to die?'
They walked over to another shelf. 'Think and know are two very different things. I try not to get too hung up on what I think about the future when I have no clear facts. I'm good with odds though, and I'm pretty sure I can improve yours.'
'So, why this?'
'This?' More books switched shelves.
Dylis flapped her arms about as if to call attention to an invisible army. 'The resistance, or whatever you wish to call yourselves.'
A shelf slid aside, baring a hole in the floor big enough for a person to go through. 'Before you ask, no I didn't lose someone to Outer Camps or to the whims of the Emperor,' Yates signed as she began to descend the stairs the hole had to offer. 'But I've spent my life watching other people lose their loved ones or their limbs to our dear leader's unfathomable ways. In the end, my only options were to either join in with some sensible people or leave this place altogether. As there's nowhere better to leave to, I went with option one.'
She cast a glance over her shoulder. 'I watched you and your brother grow, just as I watched General Hier's daughter,' she signed, her eyes tracing the scars on Dylis' neck. 'I know more about our Emperor's affairs than any of you, so I have plenty of motivation.'
Dylis flinched. 'What do you know about the surgery?'
'Enough to know your brother's was a success and that the rest of you were made into little more than ticking time bombs. I'm amazed you're not just a wet smear on the grass of the demon forest.'
Yates kept walking. 'I know how the border works, girl. Whatever curse we've all got on us that allows our blood to strengthen it your 'modifications' makes yours much strong. One cut to your neck and you would have been all over those trees. Must have had some luck.'
'You could say that.' Dylis' thoughts drifted to Ffion Hier and her mother. Maybe it would be for the best the general never knew of her daughter's fate. Then again, if Glaw had died in such a horrible fashion Dylis knew she would have wanted to know if only so she could take revenge on the ones responsible.
They'd reached the end of the stairs. Dylis studied the small room they'd entered with more attention than the bare floor and damp rock walls warranted. 'And what you know of the Emperor, it makes this worth it?'
'Feeling guilty?' Yates' mocking smile made Dylis bristle. 'If my spy is to be believed you lot is the reason we're one Field Marshal short. Don't tell me you're having seconds thoughts now?'
'Spy?' Dylis signed, pushing the rest aside for the moment. 'You have a spy on the Cave Ship?'
Yates bent low and began knocking her way across the wall, pressing her ear to it at odd intervals. 'A fairly talented spell-weaver, if a little young. Apparently had some bad luck and broke an arm, but fortunately, the ship had a skilled healer aboard.'
The face of the young man Thais had healed flashed before Dylis' inner eye. All she could do for a long moment was blink, trying to take in this new side of old-bag-of-dust-Yates.
'Know this, Corporal Nevett,' Yates signed as she got back on her feet. 'The Emperor has lived far longer than any creature should. He was a good leader once if the history books are to be believed. Though history, as I'm sure you're well aware, is written by the victors. Old people are a resource because we know how things were before, but if we're not careful we get stuck in the past.' She shook her head, slowly, as if rejecting a suggestion. 'Our country can't take any more of the past if there's to be any chance for peace with the demons. War is never good for anyone, no matter what glory one thinks there is to be found on a battlefield.'
She slammed her fist against a seemingly random part of the wall and a small hatch opened at eye level. There were five scrolls inside, of which Yates took three. 'These are the maps you'll need. We've had people keeping an eye on them for the past months so they should be accurate. We'll see about getting you some weapons too. I'll go with whoever you assign to Wise, to make sure none of our guards attack. Huw will go with those you pick for making trouble here. The rest of you can head off to Palace, to take care of the blimp and the Emperor. According to my people, you have until dawn.' She grinned, but in a quite strained way. 'The gods' luck be upon you!'
Dylis took the offered scrolls. They felt oddly heavy in her hands, though they couldn't have weighed more than any other roll of parchment. 'May the gods have mercy on us.'
<I never thought I'd see the palace more than once in my lifetime,> Glaw said to Lykos as they stood on the rooftop of a bank, staring up at the turrets and towers of the Emperor's home. <Only the higher officers are ever stationed here and we don't get much free time for traveling.>
<You're not free to move between your own cities?> Lykos asked. He'd turned to watch Vita and Dylis land. Aelius and Thais had already huddled together in the middle of the roof, while Nikon was pacing the edge like a caged tiger.
<Yes and no,> Glaw said, breathing a sigh of relief as no alarm was sounded. They'd made it past the city wall at least. <The restrictions are mostly for guards and healers. You're always supposed to be on hand in case there's an emergency. Doesn't work that well if you're on the other side of the Empire.>
<I see.> Lykos smiled in a way that could have been called encouraging if there hadn't been a hint of nervousness making the corners of it twitch. <Then you can look forward to a lot of traveling once this is over.>
<After this, I'll just be glad to get to sleep in my own bed,> Glaw said. As soon as I find a bed to call mine.
'How's the plan coming along?' Glaw caught Dylis signing out of the corner of his eye. She'd walked up to Thais and Aelius, who stepped apart to give her room to stand between them.
'I should be able to keep us - what was the word?' Aelius signed.
'Ah, yes. I should be able to keep us invisible for an hour, at the most.'
'That will have to do.' Dylis squared her shoulders and caught Glaw's gaze with her own. She gave him a nod of encouragement, which would have felt out of place if his sister hadn't known him so well. His knees stopped trembling. 'We'll form a line, one runner with the hand on the shoulder of the one in front of them. No talking until we're safely there.' She pointed to a place on the scroll of paper she was holding. The blueprint of the palace. 'Is everyone ready?'
Nods from all involved. Glaw hurried to cling to Lykos as Aelius walked up to each and every one of them, pressing his hand against their foreheads. They faded out of sight, like a chameleon changing its color, and then vanished completely. There wasn't even a silhouette to be seen in the moonlight.
Nikon had already disappeared without Aelius touching him and Thais seemed to be following suit, fading somewhat slower.
When it came to be his turn Glaw held his breath, grateful for the sympathetic smile Aelius gave him before performing the spell. It felt cold and all his skin tingled for a few seconds, then settled back to normal. Well, normal except for the fact that he couldn't see himself. The feeling that gave birth to was worse than vertigo, but he suppressed it with the sheer force of will.
Next to him, Lykos also vanished. Glaw waited for the sensation of the arm he was holding onto to disappear as well, but that didn't happen. Though invisible, Lykos' arm remained as solid as ever.
Of course we're still solid! We'd fall through the earth itself if we weren't, or rush up into the sky, Glaw scolded himself as he and Lykos did their best to maneuver so that they could occupy their regular position for flight-jumping. Hands brushed against body parts that set Glaw's pulse racing, but thankfully nothing too inappropriate happened.
Something gently nudged against the surface of his mind. It felt a little like an idea or a sudden moment of clarity, but it was alien enough for Glaw to recognize it as Lykos. 'I open to you,' Glaw thought, hoping that would be enough.
'You're getting better and better at this,' came Lykos' thoughts, just as they took off from the roof. 'Think you can switch fast?'
'Fast-ish,' Glaw answered. 'Nowhere near your speed.' Lykos seemed to have the ability to slip in and out of the bond quick as a fish, turning leading to following as easily as someone flipping a cloak over to wear inside out.
'Well, I have had more practice than you,' Lykos thought. There was amusement along with the words, though it was overshadowed by nerves and adrenaline. 'You'll catch up in no time.'
'Hopefully in time too.'
The palace approached. It was bizarre to fly over the heads of countless guards who didn't look up or to the side as they breezed past. Glaw and Lykos were at the back of the line they'd formed, and thus were the last to pass each guard post. Some of the soldiers were on patrol, which meant they had to time their jumps no to knock members of their invisible cue into the people walking up and down the walls.
Glaw sucked in a sharp breath as his arm brushed a guard's ear. Clinging to Lykos for dear life, he turned to look at the guard, who'd brought a hand up to brush the side of her head, muttering under her breath. It sounded like she'd said "Damn bugs!". Glaw fought the urge to laugh.
The tower they entered was empty. Not just empty of people, but empty of things. The bare stone walls stood in stark contrast to the extravagance the rest of the palace had to offer, which almost set Glaw at ease. His stomach settled further as the rest of their little squad came back into view, like approaching travelers becoming visible through a thick mist.
'We have sounded an alarm!' Thais signed as soon as they all were visible enough for hand movements to be interpreted. 'Did you feel it too?'
'I did,' Aelius said. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Nikon; almost a step in front of Nikon in fact. Glaw fought to not find the sight of that odd. He didn't succeed. 'We must move! The Captured Ones are surely coming for us.'
'No panicking! We aim for the blimp and the aircraft first,' Dylis signed. 'I and Glaw both know the machines' weak points. If there is need to hold our ground and clear the way, make sure one of us make it to the underground chamber.'
Dylis gestured at the floor. 'Next step if you please.'
Nikon glanced at Aelius, who nodded. Eyes aglow, Nikon crouched down so both the skin of his hands and feet were touching the floor. He took a deep breath and the floor began to melt away, tunneling down several levels.
Glaw watched in fascination as the hole got deeper and deeper, the stone moving like syrup being poured out of a bottle.
'Syrup?' Lykos thought. Glaw could sense how he was using the brief moment of curiosity to push aside mounting fear of what the end of the tunnel would bring.
'It's sweet. It tastes something like this and-'
Nikon twitched as if he'd been kicked in the ribs. Aelius flinched as well and took a step back, steadying himself against a windowsill. He narrowly avoided hitting his head on the low ceiling.
<Something's stopping me,> Nikon said, his breathing shallow. <I won't be able to hold this open for long. I think I'm halfway to the place we want to go. Do we proceed?>
Glaw hurried to interpret for Dylis, who hesitated.
<Quick decision or this tunnel goes back to being floor,> Nikon said, before clenching his jaw shut. His hands and feet were pressed down, but the way he kept shifting little by little suggested the floor in question was less than comfortable to touch.
'We go down.' Dylis' expression was grim. 'It's a trap, so be prepared for a fight.'
'Why are we jumping into a trap?' Vita signed, both eyebrows lowered into a scowl. 'That's suicide!'
'We're jumping into this trap because we know it's a trap,' Dylis signed, stepping closer to the edge. 'There are probably more of these waiting for us on all sides of this room. Better pick the way out where at least one of us knows what's waiting for us.'
'I am against relying on that for information.' Vita sent Nikon a glare.
'Duly noted. Now we jump!'
Dylis and Vita went in first, followed by Thais. Glaw jumped up on Lykos' back again and refused to squeeze his eyes shut, no matter how much his body was yelling at him to do so. The round stone walls rushed past him in a gray blur and he could feel his heart in his mouth.
They landed in a great big hall that Glaw recognized all too well. 'We need to get out of here!'
Aelius landed next to them. Glaw looked up and spotted Nikon running along the tunnel wall as if it were a road, the hole closing behind him for each step he took. 'I agree with Glaw,' Aelius signed. The hall was completely empty; no soldiers, no Emperor, no Adviser. There were only the three thrones, the blue carpet and the gigantic windows to keep them company.
Nikon touched down in the middle of their little crowd, landing on all fours. He gasped for breath for a few seconds and Glaw could sense the air humming again, as the bracelet around Nikon's wrist activated.
Dylis began to walk a tight circle around the squad, eying each of the room's entrances in turn. 'I wonder if any of the doors are safe to use?'
"I do believe we have some uninvited guests."
Glaw froze. For a split second, it felt like he had ice water running through his veins instead of blood.
The Emperor, dressed in full battle armor, entered the room with the easy grace of a man who knew he had the upper hand. His bodyguards were flanking him. The way their blank masks turned towards Glaw and the others made them look like blind hounds sniffing for prey.
As one the squad drew their weapons. The dagger was too light in Glaw's hand, nowhere near the comforting weight of a sword, but it was better than nothing. I should just be grateful there were any weapons to be found at the library. He looked down at the ivory hilt. I hope Yates doesn't kill me if I lose this. Probably belonged to someone important.
'Emperor I-T-H-E-L G-R-A-V-E-N-O-R,' Dylis signed, her fingers quick as mice, 'we are here to arrest you in the name of the people. Surrender or die.'
'The people?' the Emperor signed, smirking. 'And which people would that be?'
'All who you've spent your life playing games with!' Dylis signed with one hand. The other was behind her back, signing 'Take Glaw and run!' to whoever was looking. Glaw hoped none of the others would see it. There was no way he'd abandon his sister to facing two bodyguards and the Emperor by herself!
The bodyguards in question were circling closer, walking half-moons around their master. Their likeness to hunting dogs was getting disturbingly accurate, to the point where Glaw almost had himself convinced he'd died and been reborn as a rabbit who was hallucinating its past life over the end of its own.
The Emperor raised one hand. 'It is a shame to lose the both of you like this, but I have to think of the good of the Empire. Please understand.'
He let the hand fall. The squad huddled together as the bodyguards tensed.
A loud bang echoed through the hall, making every muscle in Glaw's body jump. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Nikon shoving Aelius to the side. A heartbeat later Nikon sank to the ground, his hands clutching at something lodged in his abdomen.
The Emperor and the bodyguards had stopped approaching, standing calmly on the blue carpet, not three meters from the doors they'd entered through.
<You'll pay for that!> Vita rushed forward, talon fingers aimed for the Emperor's throat.
Dylis' warning came too late. Vita crashed against some form of invisible wall and then vanished.
The room started shaking. Glaw grabbed hold of Lykos and threw himself to the right, narrowly avoiding a falling pillar. The rest of the squad split, jumping left and right to not get crushed by the falling masonry. The world disappeared behind a thick mist of gray dust clouds.
Glaw rolled to the left and brushed dust out of his eyes, one hand on Lykos' arm to keep track of him. Frantically he let his free hand crawl across the floor, looking for anyone, anything familiar. He was straining his hearing, listening for another telltale crack. There was no way to see the pillars around them, no way to see if they were about to fall.
A large boom echoed through the room, ending the shaking. The dust clouds died down, the air clearing to reveal the Emperor and the bodyguards standing in the same place they'd been before. It also revealed another thing that made Glaw feel faint:
The floor had shattered.