Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
“He’s scared,” Wesley whispered to Wen, as they let the others get ahead of them a little so they could speak. “Like, genuinely scared. I think because we said we’re taking him to the wraith.”
“Who or what is this damned wraith?” Wen muttered.
“I can’t stop thinking it’s Moh’dredion.”
“Maybe. But if so, why?” Wen kept his voice low as well, so they wouldn’t be overheard. “I mean, Moh’dredion’s got his own power, immense power, especially if he’s…” He huffed out a breath and shook his head, not wanting to finish the thought. But Wesley knew what he was getting at.
“He hasn’t gotten any draegan lord magick,” Wesley said in a soothing tone. “Like you told your mum a couple of nights ago, if he had, surely we’d know it. He’d be opening portals, appearing wherever he wants, ravaging towns. We’d know it.”
“Unless this project or whatever it is…is what he’s doing with the lords’ magick. If he and the sorcerer are cooking up something extra special and horrible, then…”
“We’ve got to get this kid to talk about the wraith,” Wesley said, frowning.
Wen nodded. He picked up his pace, and Wesley did the same, until they caught up to Brom and walked one on either side of him.
“So, I noticed,” Wen said to the kid, “that before the fighting began you didn’t seem all too thrilled with the way Garvey was ordering you around.”
“I… He…” Brom once again seemed uncertain how to respond, but this time probably because he wasn’t sure what answer would keep him out of trouble.
“No one likes to be told to shut up,” Wesley said companionably. “You’re clearly a smart young man.”
“I…I am,” he said earnestly. “That’s why I’m no spy.”
“I don’t care much for bullies,” Wen said. “Seems like Garvey was one.”
The kid huffed out a bitter half laugh. “Yeah, he was always bossing everyone around, like he was the most important prick in existence. But he wasn’t always right, in spite of what he thought,” he grumbled.
“Did he ever say anything to you that, in retrospect, might have hinted at his betrayal to the Circle?” Wen asked.
Wen and Wesley shared a quick, humorous glance
“It means,” Wesley said, “looking back on it, now that you know Garvey was a spy, did he ever say anything that might have hinted at his bad behavior? Maybe he criticized the Circle? Or said something he shouldn’t have about…I don’t know…the wraith, for example?”
The young man’s face scrunched in thought. “I don’t think so. Well, he did talk about the wraith in a not-very-nice way sometimes.”
“Oh really. What did he say?”
“That he’s an ugly, overbearing, soul-sucking bastard. And he also called him a filthy ang… ang-grew-ha. I think that’s what he said. I don’t really know what that last part means, but it doesn’t sound good.”
The kid might not know the word, but Wen did. An angrouha, in the ancient Thanatoleon religion some of the humans practiced millennia ago, was a spirit of death, or, actually, probably better described as a demon of death.
He and Wesley glanced at each other. He could see Wesley knew the word as well, and knew they were both thinking….Death? As in Moh’dredion?
“So, Garvey did speak out against the wraith, then?” Wen said, turning his attention back to Brom.
“Well…to be honest…lots of people do.” Then Brom’s face went slack as if he’d suddenly realized he might have implicated himself. “I…I mean, I don’t,” he said quickly. “Never. It’s just…you know, people grumbling because they don’t like to work. And the wraith, he makes us work hard and holds us responsible if any of the rots get out of line ’cause it’s part of our job to keep ’em working.”
Wen and Wesley exchanged another look, and once again Wen knew they were sharing the same thought… What in hel was a rot?
“But even the people who complain,” Brom continued, “still do what the wraith says because…well…because we’re loyal.”
“You mean because everyone’s too scared of him not to do what he says,” Wesley murmured.
“No! I mean…no…he’s…he’s our commander, our liberator, and we have to respect him!”
“Do you even know what a liberator is?” Wesley asked.
Brom’s face scrunched again in that half-thoughtful, half-confused expression. “It means he’s…he’s our leader, right? Some of the Circle members also say he’s our savior.”
What in fuck? So was the Circle some kind of cult with Moh’dredion at its center?
Wen glanced at Wesley, wondering what his take on it was.
Wesley gave him a barely perceptible shrug and looked as stymied as he was.
“So,” Wesley said to Brom, “you’re claiming that in spite of other people talking about the wraith behind his back, including the very soldiers you were working with today, you’ve never done that? Why should we trust you? You’ve got to give us something more substantial than just words and promises you can’t back up.”
“Agreed,” Wen said. “You’ve got to do a better job of proving yourself. Why don’t you tell us something that no one else but someone deep in the Circle’s trust would know.”
“But I’m not… I mean, I’m not a senior soldier or—” His mouth suddenly formed a rather comical O and he stopped walking, nearly tripping over his own feet again as he did.
Wesley grabbed him by the arm to yank him back upright.
“I know what I can tell you,” Brom said. “I mean, um, show you, to prove myself.”
“I have the brand.” He started to yank up his sleeve.
Wen held up a hand to stop him and gave him a scolding look. “So do we all. So did Garvey and his cronies. That proves absolutely nothing.”
“But…but mine’s new. I can show you it. It’s still scabbed up. It proves I joined the Circle only recently, too recently to be a spy. And I joined because I wanted to. Not because I owed the wraith a debt or a favor like some of the other Circle members. I did it because I hate the sorcerer. He murdered my ma—well, his soldiers did. They came to our village to hunt draegans, and his men didn’t care who got in the way. My ma was washing clothes by the stream and some of his men…they took her and… Well, they killed her. And she was as human as they come! How is that fair?” His eyes glinted with grief-stoked anger as he spoke. “After that, I swore I’d do whatever it took to wipe the high sorcerer and his men from Velensperia.”
Sadly, it was a common theme of tragedy, and half the people at Kellesborne right now were there for similar reasons.
“So you joined the Circle?”
“Yes. Yes! I hate having to wear the sorcerer’s colors and uniform, but I know it’s what keeps us safe from the sorcerer, so he doesn’t suspect us. And knowing I have the Circle brand under the uniform makes me feel better because I know the truth.”
“Why didn’t you just join the resistance when your mum was killed?” Jarrad asked. He and Malcolm had stopped and were now listening as well.
Brom’s eyes practically goggled out of his head. “Join the draegans?” He once again said it like it was something nasty. “Is that a joke? The draegans are the reason the sorcerer’s fecking soldiers were in my village in the first place. If if weren’t for those winged bastards, the soldiers would never have come and my ma’d still be alive. I joined with the wraith because he’s promised to rid Velensperia of the sorcerer and the draegans, and then take over himself. You already know that’s his mission.”
He cocked his head and glared at Jarrad. “Why would you ask me that, about the resistance, anyway?”
Jarrad didn’t miss a beat. “Testing you. If you’d hesitated, it would have been a sign of your disloyalty.”
That made the young man frown. He looked at each of them. “You’re all very strange. And, Darvish, you’re acting weird, too.”
Malcolm, who hadn’t said a word recently, looked momentarily ruffled at being called out, but he covered it well by saying, “I just found out a few hours ago that Circle members were spies. I’m not happy about that. And I’m still wondering if you are, too.”
That seemed to deflate Brom. “I’m not. Please don’t take me to the wraith,” he said, looking earnest.
“I thought you venerated the wraith?”
“Ven…? I don’t ven anything, whatever that means.”
“I’m just saying, if you’re not a spy, and you have nothing to hide, then you won’t have anything to worry about,” Wen told him.
“Except you know that’s not true. Even a hint of disloyalty and the wraith won’t take the time to find out for sure. He’ll have me flayed and then throw me in the pit with the rots and force me to dig until I’m dead, just like them.”
Wen and Wesley exchanged another look.
“I’m not a spy. I swear it. I…I don’t want to go into the pit.” His voice shook. “Please.”
“You’re okay making other people go in it and work, but you won’t do it yourself?” Jarrad asked, giving him a scathing look.
“That’s not our job! You know that! We’re…we’re above that kind of work. And…” He let out a troubled sigh. “And…”
“And people die in the pit,” Wesley said, finishing the thought for him.
Wen almost…almost felt a little sorry for the kid, until the next words came out of his mouth.
“Yes they die. The ones who don’t matter. That’s all they’re good for, it’s why they’re there. I don’t want the wraith to ever look down on me like that.”
Whoever this wraith was, he was instilling a sense of entitlement and superiority in his followers that rivaled Byram’s hatred of the draegans. And it grated under Wen’s skin with a vengeance.
“Is that why you’re so scared of the wraith?” Jarrad asked. “You’re afraid you’re not worthy?”
“Why do you keep asking me such odd questions? I am so worthy. But no one ever wants to get on his bad side. You know that. No one likes to have to face him. He’s…” He visibly shuddered.
“He’s what?” Jarrad pushed.
“What is wrong with you?” Brom whined. “Are you trying to make me say something bad about him? Because I won’t. I’m loyal. I keep telling you that!”
But then his expression suddenly turned questioning. “You…you’re…not acting right. And I’ve never seen you before.” He turned to Wen and Wesley. “Or you two either.
“I told you, they’ve been spying for us, undercover in the resistance,” Malcolm said. “They’ve been away.”
Brom’s squarish face scrunched in thought again.
“Let’s just get on with it,” Wen said. “Move, Brom. You’re stalling and it’s time to face your fate.”
Jarrad grabbed him by the arm to push him ahead again, but Brom pulled away. “No. I…” He looked at them accusingly. “I don’t think I believe you.” His brows rose as if he’d had an epiphany. “Bloody feck! You…you’re the spies, aren’t you?” His voice instantly rose to a shout. “Help! Spies! I found spies!”
“Malcolm,” Wen said. “Could you?”
Malcolm was standing next to Brom, and before Brom realized what was happening, Malcolm pressed his hand against the back of Brom’s head and said, “Sleep.”
“I’ve caught sp—!” Brom’s voice died off mid-word, his eyes practically rolled back in his head, and his body slumped.
Jarrad and Wen grabbed him, each under an arm, and dragged him over behind a large rock, out of sight in case his shouting might have drawn attention.
“I’m sorry,” Malcolm said, looking apologetic.
“For what? You were brilliant,” Wen told him.
“I…I thought maybe we could convince him we were on his side and get him to open up to us, and then he’d take us to wherever the sorcerer’s project is. But it didn’t work.”
“No, I’m the one who’s sorry,” Jarrad said. “I shouldn’t have pushed so hard. That’s what gave it away.”
Wesley shook his head. “I don’t think so. He was suspicious from the beginning. There were just too many odd things, and I could sense him trying all along to put the pieces together. He was going to figure it out eventually.”
“So now what?” Jarrad asked.
“Well, for starters, Malcolm, thanks to your quick thinking, your idea did work and we got quite a bit of information out of him,” Wen said. “We know the wraith is running the Circle. Don’t know the Circle’s purpose exactly, but whoever or whatever he is, the wraith’s working against the sorcerer. Though, I think it’s safe to say that he’s supposed to be working for the sorcerer and has, presumably, gone rogue.”
“In a big way, since he’s apparently claiming he’s going to rid the world of both Byram and the draegans, and then take over himself,” Wesley agreed.
“Great,” Jarrad muttered under his breath. “Just what we need…yet another power-hungry despot to keep track of.”
“The sorcerer said the project was behind and I was supposed to find out why,” Malcolm said.
“If Byram believes the wraith is working for him but the wraith has his own agenda, that could be exactly the kind of information Byram wanted you to report to him,” Wesley told him.
“It almost seems like the sorcerer already suspects something’s amiss, doesn’t it?”
“Almost certainly. Or else he wouldn’t have sent you to check into it covertly.”
“We also know,” Wen said, “that whatever the wraith’s in charge of, he’s making people dig in some kind of pit.”
“Dig until they die,” Wesley said, his expression troubled.
“Rots,” Malcolm said suddenly, his eyes wide, which looked odd on Darvish’s face. “Brom called the diggers rots. I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about, but maybe he meant rots as in murmirots?”
“Ahhh,” Wesley said, nodding. “That would make sense.”
Yeah, it would, Wen thought, since murmirots were digging rodents. They burrowed deep into the ground and made tunnels for leagues, some said.
“Just to clarify, we’re not talking about the actual animals, murmirots, though, right?” Jarrad asked. “We’re talking about people.”
“Sounds like that’s how they refer to the people working for—or more likely—slaving for them,” Wen said.
“That’s probably what happened to Lochlann,” Wesley mused. “And anyone else they’ve been picking up along the road. They’re sending them to dig in the wraith’s pit.”
“The question is…what in hel are they digging for?” Jarrad said.
Wen shook his head. “We could speculate all day long and never come up with the correct answer. But I’d make a bet our friend Brom here knows and can tell us. Any idea how long he’ll be out this time, Malcolm?” Wen asked, looking down at their once-again-sleeping captive.
“I tried to only use a little magick, though I don’t always have a lot of control. Hopefully not too long?”
“Good. And when he wakes up, no more pretending. He’s afraid of the wraith, so we’re going to use that to our advantage.”