Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
It began to snow an hour before dawn.
They were finally forced to stop due to the blowing white-out conditions. Though, in truth, they were all exhausted at that point anyway.
They took refuge in yet another cave—this one not nearly as roomy as the last, leaving them to huddle together sitting up in order to fit. But considering how cold it had grown, at least that helped them stay warmer.
Wen chafed at the delay, and could see that Malcom was concerned as well. But there simply hadn’t been any point in continuing due to the horrible visibility. They wouldn’t have seen a gap, a canyon, or even an open pit to Ballian itself if they had come across it, and with the time limitation Byram had given Malcolm, and the fact they had no idea where in the gods bedamned world they were actually going, they couldn’t risk missing something crucial.
As the others dozed, Wen kept watch—not that he could see a bloody thing through the never-ending white. He was sleepy, yet he couldn’t shut off his overactive mind, which kept envisioning all kinds of horrors in the depths of the helys. What in fucking hel was the sorcerer doing in these mountains? Given his history of lies, torture, murder, and his insatiable lust for power, it was fairly terrifying to think what he might be up to in secret.
So caught up in his thoughts was he, a couple of hours passed in a blink. Morning had come—which Wen knew because the white blur was lighter now, plus it was light enough he could clearly make out Wesley’s sleeping face. He hated to do it because Wesley had finally fallen into what looked like a restful sleep, but they’d agreed to take turns at watch, so Wen gently nudged him awake.
Wes opened his eyes.
“Still a blizzard, I see,” he murmured, his voice raspy from sleep. But his eyes were clear, and his smile welcoming.
“Sadly, yeah. Is it just me, or does winter seem forever long this year?”
“It really, really does. But, keeping it positive…that just means all the more time we have to snuggle for warmth.”
That made Wen huff out a quiet laugh. “I’m never going to live that down, am I?”
“Well, good thing I never get tired of snuggling with you,” he said.
“I’ve kind of noticed that, yeah.” Wesley smiled, then leaned in and nuzzled a kiss against Wen’s neck. “Get some sleep.”
Wen hadn’t expected to fall asleep easily, as active as his mind had been, but the next thing he knew, Jarrad was shaking him awake, which meant he’d slept through Wesley’s and Jarrad’s watches. Wes had gone back to sleep, his head nestled against Wen’s shoulder.
“It’s late morning, and the snow’s finally easing up,” Jarrad said quietly. “Even if it passes, though, are we going to risk moving in daylight and chance being seen?”
“I don’t know. I think we just have to play it moment by moment and see how it looks once the storm’s over. Especially since we have no idea what we’re even looking for.”
“Fucking Byram,” Jarrad muttered, pressing a kiss against the top of Malcolm’s short dark curls. Malcolm had slumped against Jarrad and his head rested on Jarrad’s chest.
“Agreed.” Wen sighed. “Okay, I’m awake. Go back to sleep for a while. I’ll wake you if the storm stops.”
Unfortunately, it was another couple of hours before that happened.
When Wen woke the others, he said, “All right, guys, we have to make a decision. Do we continue on in daylight, taking a chance on being seen? Or do we wait until nightfall and use the darkness as cover?
In the end, they all agreed to move out right away.
The storm had put down just enough heavy, wet snow to slow their pace. Malcolm, being shorter than the rest of them, really struggled, and finally he morphed back into the tall redhead.
With an apologetic look at Jarrad, he shrugged and murmured, “Longer legs.”
Jarrad seemed okay with the shift, but Wen had to admit, it was a little unsettling to look over at Malcom and not see the small, slender, dark-haired man he was used to. But at this point, he was glad for whatever made it easier for Malcolm, and he’d figured Malcolm would take some other form anyway when they reached Byram’s mystery project.
They’d been traveling an hour, maybe two, when Wesley urged them to stop. “Someone’s coming.”
Shit. There was no easy place to take cover. They were in one of the never-ending canyons that threaded through these mountains, with sheer rock walls on either side of them. They pressed their backs up against the canyon wall and Wen put a shield around them, but that wasn’t going to hide their tracks in the snow. They should have been trying to sweep them as they went, though as deep and wet as the snow was, he doubted it would have worked well anyway. Too bad he didn’t have the ability to sweep them with magick. Tracks were one of the reasons Wen probably would have preferred to wait until nightfall to travel, but he’d been willing to take the chance since the others had convinced him it meant a few hours head start before dark.
“How many?” he mouthed to Wes.
Wesley held up five fingers.
Okay, they could take that many soldiers—assuming they were soldiers—if they had to. Not exactly the best way to keep their presence quiet and sneak up on the the sorcerer’s project, whatever it was, but if it came to a fight, then they’d deal with it.
When the figures appeared, they were, indeed, soldiers, and they were coming from deeper in the canyon, from the direction Wen, Wes, Jarrad, and Malcolm had been headed
Whether these were Byram’s usual soldiers or the branded individuals, however, there was no way to tell. Either way, the fact they’d been heading out of the canyon meant there was likely something down there from where they’d come.
And that meant he and the others were on the right track. If they could somehow avoid a confrontation here.
Wen winced in anticipation because their four sets of tracks were so obvious across the snow, even in the cloud-covered daylight. But, for a minute, he almost dared to believe the five soldiers, hunkered into their cloaks, their pace brisk, looking like they wanted nothing more than to get into some kind of shelter with a warm fire and a bottle of ruhm, hadn’t noticed them.
The soldiers had just passed their hiding spot when one of them stopped. He said something to the others, and all five of them turned to look back.
Damn, damn, damn.
Next to him, Wen felt Wesley’s tension as an extension of his own, but he also sensed Jarrad’s and Malcolm’s. Not by picking up their emotions, but by hearing Malcolm’s stuttered breathing and rapid heartbeat and the soft popping of Jarrad’s jaw as he clenched and released it.
“Four of ’em,” one of the soldiers said, the biggest one, his voice gravelly, after squatting down to look more closely at the footprints in the snow. “And they’re heading toward…”
“What in the name of bloody feck is this?” a second man said. “The tracks head straight toward the rock wall and then stop.”
The soldiers moved closer. Wen forced himself to slow his breathing and keep it even. Jarrad and Wesley, he could hear, were trying to do the same. But poor Malcolm wasn’t having such an easy time of it. Still, he didn’t move, even when the bigger man, whom Wen could now see was a burly, bearded hulk with a ruined eye, who looked like he’d seen more than his fair share of battles, stepped closer still.
“How do footprints just stop at a wall, but there’s no one there?” a third soldier asked. He sounded younger, with a naive undertone to his voice.
“They stop if whatever was making them no longer needed to stand on two feet,” the first, big, gravelly voiced soldier said.
“What does that mean?” the young one asked. Based on his voice and excitability, Wen guessed he was little more than a teenager.
“It means they could have sprouted wings and flown here,” Number Two said.
“Draegans?” The young one’s surprise notched his voice higher. “You think it was draegans? But aren’t they huge in their winged form? Wouldn’t they need more room to shift?”
“Shut it, grunt!” the gravelly voiced one said. “What do ye know of the winged demons?”
“That’s right. Nothing. So keep yer trap shut.”
Wen saw the young one hunch deeper into his cloak as if chastened, but something about his body language indicated he was less than thrilled at being talked down to.
“He does have a point, though,” Number Two said. “Four draegans shifting up against a steep canyon wall. It seems…”
“Unlikely,” the young one mumbled under his breath.
“I said, shut it!” the gravelly voiced, senior soldier said, cuffing the young one upside the head.
Wen felt Wesley’s anger simmering next to him, probably at how the older asshole was treating the young man. But that wasn’t their problem right now. Their problem was—
“Don’t draegans have some kind of magick that can hide them?” a fourth, up-until-now-silent one said. This one sounded female from the depths of her cloak hood.
“They can?” Once again the young man’s voice rose in surprise.
“I’ve heard stories they can make themselves invisible.”
“All the better to sneak up on you,” Number Two said, stealthily stepping up behind the kid as he spoke, “and get you!” He grabbed the kid’s shoulders as he said it, making the young man holler and jump.
“You prick!” the young one shouted, turning to shove Number Two in the chest, which started a scuffle between them that had the woman and the other soldier snickering.
“Whassa matter, little Brommy? Scared of a some big, mean, invisible draegans?” the woman taunted in a sing-song voice.
“Shut up! The lot of ye!” Big and Burly growled over the top of their din. “Or I’m gonna personally lash stripes on each and every one of ye when we make camp tonight!”
That shut them all up in a hurry.
As they quieted, the big burly one took another step toward the canyon wall and drew his own sword.
Shit. Wen knew in that instant they weren’t going to have any choice but to fight.
Wesley and Jarrad had already come to the same conclusion, as they silently drew their swords, and Jarrad eased Malcolm behind him, between him and the rocks.
“Well, if they’re invisible, goody for them, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still take a sword to the gullet. Come out, come out, draegan filth. We’ve got ye literally backed against a wall and ye aren’t going anywhere.”
“Now,” Wen muttered, deciding it was better to get the drop on the soldiers before they began randomly stabbing.
He swiped the magick barrier down and lunged toward the bulky man. But the man, as Wen had noticed, wasn’t some young, inexperienced dolt. He was ready for Wen’s move and met it, stopping Wen’s sword with a clang.
Number Two hadn’t been so lucky or prepared. Wesley’s blade had run him through before he could even finish drawing his sword. Then Wes and Jarrad had each taken another of the other soldiers, who’d been standing farther back.
The young, naive soldier had been so surprised at their appearance, he’d leapt backward, then tripped himself in the snow and tumbled down like a sack of jumfruit. If they hadn’t been in the middle of a fight, it would have been comical.
“Keep one alive this time,” Wen told his brother and Wesley as he sidestepped a lunge by the leader.
“And what makes you think yer still gonna be alive, my little boyo?” Big and Burly said with a twisted grin.
“Well, for starters, I’m not your little boyo. Second, I don’t need to be invisible to slay your big, cocky ass. And third—” He slashed open a gash in the man’s arm. “—I’m a draegan. I can do this all day without getting tired. Can you?”
Big and burly growled like an angry sabeen and came at Wen hard and fast.
* * *
In the end, the one they kept alive was the young one.
When he’d finally extricated himself from the snow and stood, he’d tried to move toward Malcolm, who was still in the guise of the redhead and huddled against the wall. But Jarrad had stuck his boot out and tripped the young man again. He’d fallen directly in front of Malcolm, and Wen saw Malcolm lean over him, before he could rise again, his hand glowing, and heard him say, “Sleep.”
The young man dropped like a lump, face first in the snow.
Malcolm looked up at them, his expression a mix of fear and shocked exhilaration.
“Good work,” Wen had told him.
They dragged the bodies of the four dead soldiers up against the wall.
“I have a suggestion,” Wesley said. “We don’t want to get trapped like this again, and our footprints in this deep, wet snow are impossible to cover as we go. So why don’t we take advantage of the fact we have these soldiers, and simply travel in the open?”
“Put on their uniforms and travel as them, you mean,” Wen said, nodding.
“Yeah. They were coming from deeper in the mountains, which means there must be something in that direction, and I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking there seems to be one focus point in these mountains that everyone is interested in.”
“The wraith in the demon’s maw.”
“Exactly. So why not walk into whatever it is we’re walking into as if we belong? And Malcolm can take the form of any one of these dead soldiers, so that if anyone looks closely, we’ll have the young one with us, and Malcolm will be mimicking another of them, and hopefully no one will question us.”
“Except…” Malcolm’s expression had turned apologetic. “I can’t actually do that. I’m so sorry. But I never touched any of these people while they were alive, so I can’t take any of their forms.”
“Ah.” Wesley frowned. “Well, nonetheless, we can still use their clothes. Four of them, four of us.”
“I…I could look like the soldier from last night, the one who captured me,” Malcolm said. “If that would help?”
“First,” Wen said, “let’s be sure who, exactly, these soldiers are. Byram’s regular men or the ones with the brand. Because if these are regular soldiers, we might not want to mix them with a branded one, if Malcolm looks like the one from last night.”
“Good point.” Wesley knelt and stripped off the leader’s leather arm bracer and pulled up his uniform sleeve, while Wen and Jarrad looked at the others.
“He’s got the brand,” Wesley said.
“This one, too.”
“And these two as well,” Jarrad added.
“So does the sleeping one.” Malcolm was kneeling in the snow next to the young man.
“Who in hel are these people?” Jarrad muttered.
“That’s exactly why we kept one alive,” Wen said. Turning to Malcolm, he asked, “How long do you suppose he’ll be out?”
He was hoping real hard that Malcom wasn’t going to say hours.
“I don’t ever really know for sure. Maybe soon?”
“Okay. Well, while we wait for him to wake, we might as well change. I’m not in love with the idea of taking off our magically infused armor and trading it for theirs, but nothing to be done about it. Right now it seems more important to go undetected. Just…everyone, please don’t take any risks, okay? Without the armor we’ll all be more vulnerable. Which reminds me…Malcolm, when we get back to Kellesborne, we need to get you a set of armor as well.”
Malcolm expression radiated his surprise. “B-but I’m not a member of the vellanjhere.”
Jarrad drew his sword and tapped Malcolm on each shoulder, like a human might have done to make someone a knight. “Congratulations. You are now. Welcome to the vellanjhere.”
“I…I can’t even fight!”
“You just did,” Wen said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Not all warriors have to carry weapons to be effective.”
“Not only that, but you’ve been fighting against the sorcerer for months,” Wesley added. “There aren’t many people who could do what you’ve been doing…facing Byram on a regular basis, feeding him bits of information to stall him, without having him realize you’ve turned sides.” Wesley smiled at him. “That takes a special and immense kind of bravery.”
“I…” Malcolm took a hard swallow. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Just say that you’ll be extra careful until you get some armor,” Wen said, bringing the topic back the moment at hand.
“We could wear their clothes over the top of ours,” Wesley said. “It’d be bulky, but…”
“Not gonna work,” Jarrad responded. “All three of us are taller than them, and I can barely squeeze into this black uniform as it is. The only bigger one is the big guy’s and I’m not putting that thing on. He smells like something that’s been wallowing in the bottom of a sewer ditch. Not to mention, Wen shredded his clothes pretty thoroughly in the fight because he just had to show off his prowess with a sword.”
“That’s not what happened,” Wen grumbled. But Jarrad did have a point about the man’s body odor. He had a particularly pungent stench. Wen wouldn’t want to wear his clothes either, even if they were intact.
“So does this mean you want me to look like the man from last night?” Malcolm asked.
“Yes, I think that’s a good plan, and we’ll just have to hope he was on decent terms with these assholes so we don’t trip anyone’s suspicions.”
After they’d dressed in the black uniforms, and Malcolm had shifted into last night’s soldier, they buried under the snow the bodies of the soldiers they’d slain and threw more snow atop the blood from the fight, to hide it from further prying eyes. One sunny day would likely reveal everything, but Wen didn’t plan to be anywhere near here by then.
After that, they stacked their vellanjhere armor in a large rock crevice farther down the canyon and Wen hid it with a magick barrier.
By the time the young soldier awoke, they’d covered all evidence there’d ever been a fight.
They’d tied his hands and feet while he slept, and the moment he realized he was bound and surrounded his eyes grew wide. “What…what do you want?” he croaked. But then, almost comically, his eyes widened even more as he looked at Malcolm. “Darvish? What are you doing here with these…these people?”
Before Wen could respond, Malcolm stepped forward and, much to Wen’s surprise, he said, in Darvish’s voice, “I’m working with them.”
“What? How…how is that possible? They’re resistance. They’re draegans!” He spat the last word as if it were something foul.
“Who told you that?” Malcolm asked.
The kid likely wouldn’t hear it, but Wen could make out the underlying hint of uncertainty and fear in Malcolm’s faintly shaking words, evidence it was actually Malcolm speaking and not Darvish. Still, Wen was impressed at Malcolm’s quick thinking.
The kid looked confused. “Garvey said so. Well, he and the others thought they were. Wait, you”—he looked at Wen—“you even said it while you were fighting Garvey!”
“To throw him off balance,” Wen said with a shrug. “He was accusing, so I just played along.”
“But you were also invisible. I saw…or didn’t see, but then…well, I saw you appear out of nowhere.
“Just a trick of the light,” Wen said with another shrug.
“So you’re…you’re human?”
“Every one of them,” Malcolm told him.
“But you had on resistance uniforms. Everyone knows that the draegans gave all their people that blue and silver armor a while back.”
“Are you really that dumb?” Malcolm said, his tone deep and scornful, very much like Darvish had been last night, which was very un-Malcolm-like. It even made Wen take pause and look at him.
“They infiltrated the resistance, of course,” Malcolm continued. “That’s where they got the armor and the tricks. They’ve been finding out what the resistance knows about us. And you know what else they discovered?”
“Wh…at?” the young man asked.
“That Garvey and the others were spies for the sorcerer.”
Holy crap. Malcom was really selling the performance. Who knew he had it in him? Maybe their praise for him earlier had been just what he needed to help empower him.
“They were?” the young guy squeaked, his eyes goggling wide again. “Where…where are they now? The others?”
“Dead. Where else would they be? They were spies after all,” Malcolm said.
“What’s your name, boy?” Wen asked, his own voice curt, which wasn’t actually an act.
“D-Darvish knows me. I’m Brom.”
“Well, instead of questioning us, here’s the question that you need to think about, Brom… Are you a spy, too? Because you were with the others, so…”
“What?” he squeaked. No! I’m not a spy. I would never!”
“I… Um…how do I prove it?” He looked genuinely perplexed.
“If he can’t,” Jarrad said, speaking up for the first time, “maybe we should just take him to the wraith.”
“No! No, please! You…you don’t need to do that. I’ll…um… I… It’s just…I don’t know exactly how to prove it. But I’m loyal to the Circle. I swear! Darvish, you know me! Well, you’ve seen me around. Have I ever done anything to make you think I was disloyal?”
“A good spy would look and act like they were loyal, so that proves nothing,” Jarrad said, looking at him askance.
But Wen was more focused on what the kid had said…that he was loyal to the Circle. What in hel was the Circle? And how could they get the kid to talk about it some more without giving away their true identities?
Wesley seemed to be thinking the same thing because now he spoke for the first time. “You say you’re loyal to the Circle, but let’s say, hypothetically, you’re not. What do you think will happen to you?”
“I am! I swear I am.”
“So you say, but I want to play pretend for a moment. If we discover you’re not, tell us what you think the Circle will do to you.”
Somehow, Wen knew intuitively what Wesley was getting at. This Circle almost certainly had something to do with the brands the men all wore, which, come to think of it, the brand was in the shape of a circle. No group would require, or force, their members to take a permanent brand unless it was a group that demanded explicit loyalty. And for those who betrayed that loyalty, there would be harsh consequences, no doubt. If they could get the kid to be specific about what would happen, that could give them some more insight as to the group and who was running it.
The young man had gone pale. “I…I would never betray the Circle.”
“But if you did?”
“You know what they do. D-Darvish, you know. The wraith doesn’t tolerate disloyalty and…please, you have to believe me.”
So, the wraith was in charge of the Circle. They’d suspected the branded soldiers might work for the wraith, so it was good to have it confirmed.
“You were traveling with traitors,” Malcolm said.
“I think, since he can’t prove himself to us, we’ll just have to take him to the wraith and let his fate be decided that way,” Wesley said.
“Excellent plan,” Wen agreed.
“Let’s go.” Wen grabbed the kid’s arm and pulled him to his feet. “And you’re going to lead the way so we can watch you and be sure you don’t try to make a run for it.”
“D-Darvish, please!” The young man gave Malcolm a pleading look.
“You heard him. Move,” Jarrad said.