Chapter Eight: Rush
As he nears the base of the mountain, the glistening ice pathways give way to shrubberies and more earthy terrain. Not wanting to be slowed by the frequent rise and fall of the ground with its tree roots, mud patches and grasses, he takes a careful, silent, leap into the trees. His dark grey ensemble, which hugs his strong figure, not only ensures he is difficult to spot at night, it’s built in gravity-repel technology allows him to easily clear the treetops.
A soft rustle of leaves and he comes to a halt atop the treeline. Bathed in dwindling moonlight, he checks his orientation. Viridian’s party are due along his marked path, the screen within his helmet illuminates a sigil pathway with their projected route. In faded markers it also illustrates alternative routes based on the highest probabilities. He considers the options. To stay with the intended route or to try one of the alternatives? With no evidence, other than their lateness, to suggest why they might have amended their path, he decides to stick to their original route. Perhaps by tracing this he’ll be able to find the point at which they were forced to diverge, or were held up.
With a deep knee bend, he launches into long leaps, sliding and hopping along the tops of the trees. His glide boots create a buffer between his boot soles and the tree tops, condensing the air and causing only very minor disruption to the branches. Anyone below could easily mistake these impacts for a light breeze passing overhead.
He continues for several minutes, letting the beautiful music wash over him, giving him a calm readiness. The music fades as he nears Viridian’s party’s last known position at Bale Village. The forest clears around the edge of the compound, creating a walkway like a moat around the stronghold before giving way to the high walls which reach almost three times as high as the tallest trees.
Dropping down, he begins to circle the walls, hugging the tree line tightly in case anyone is wandering the borders. He listens intently, moving more cautiously. He briefly considers using one of the secret entrances to check if, for some reason, the party have remained inside. Injuries sustained during the escape might have caused them to double back from this safe space or forced them to set up camp.
The sound snaps the silence. His enhanced hearing magnified the sound to almost painful decibels. His mind instinctively suspends the amplification and his listens with his normal hearing range. Scuffling, followed by a few more soft cracks of branches to his left draws his attention. He pulls back into the forest a little further, shadows enveloping his opaque frame. He searches for glints of armour or signs of a slowly advancing enemy. Thankfully the overconfident Dragon Lords insist their troops wear metallic suits that reflect light easily. It conveys their fearlessness to bystanders, especially when in great numbers, all gleaming with boldness as an approaching army. It also makes them easier to spot. Like Ekta’s insistence that the rose gold citadel be a beacon of resistance, so each soldier in the Dragon Lords army is a symbol of their unabated confidence in their right to rule.
Scout pauses as the unabashed steps move nearer. A small beaked head juts out, momentarily followed by a length of neck, oval body and tucked peach coloured wings. A gerstich. Its followed by its flock of about six other birds making their way through the night. He watches them go, oblivious of his presence.
A rare sight, he thinks. With the barrage of regular assaults about the citadel, and the lockdown interior of their base, sightings of wild creatures is rare. Seeing their causal number wandering the forest is a reminder that nature will always go on, without care for humanity.
With the gerstich flock out of sight, he continues his check of the perimeter. Though he arrived near to the north side where Virdian’s party was due to exit, he first travels the length checking for signs of disturbance. If they were ambushed here, or being spied up, better he finds out now than walk in unaware and be blindsided also. He checks each of the entrances, marked with gold sigils in his helmet, and the trap doors, emblazoned in bronze. None have been triggered within the last day.
Rounding the west wall, he reaches the north east corner and spies the groups track marks on the ground. A number of footprints lead from a section of the wall to the tree line. He sees some familiar markings, large pointed pressings in the dirt from Guardian boots. Layered over them are slightly smaller, and much small, prints from more rounded boot shapes. They lack the conical point of the Guardian’s boots or the elongated sweep left by mystic shoes. Some of these markings are patterned with what must be ridges in the soles, some of the prints have two hard flat shapes with short gaps in-between the marks. These are unmistakably the outworlders.
Using his internal monitoring screen he adds a new set of prediction markers between the exit that Viridian’s squad used and the citadel. They have certainly veered off the path, the footprints lead into the forest on the correct route, so far. Before pursuing also the tracked path, he raises his hands, fingers spread and pointing at the ground. He releases several short, intense bursts which reverberate out and beat into the dirt and leaves below. The surface jumps slightly, as if a minute earthquake was being felt in only this distinct spot. Gradually the marks disappear, replaced by undisturbed ground. He then skates along the forest edge, whipping back on himself as fast as the short distance allows, pulling loose leaves and small stones into the air and depositing them across the ground.
This should at least help to hide their path, he thinks, if they haven’t already been discovered.
Scout checks his guidance map, which is still updating with the latest estimates for the party’s alternative route. He considered that he should be nearing their position, and the air is tinged with recent magical energy around the location where the mages were. He’d also spotted the same boot marks that were in the dirt outside of Bale Village, confirming he was on the right path.
Abruptly, a new set of sigils flares to life in his helmet. A huge warning mark encapsulates his view, causing him to pause his long strides. Something was attempting to interfere with his tracking. He crouches low to the ground. He had avoided a treetop pursuit in case he passed them but now he’s wondering if that might be the safest place to be.
Deciding against retreat, he begins moving again using his mental commands to increase the gravitational repel of his boots from the ground. With eerie silence, he moves through the forest, observing everything he can. Blurring waves appear across his helmet, sigils and notifications warping his view. Abruptly, his helmet goes dark.
“Curses” he mutters, removing it. He makes the rehearsed sliding motions across the helmets surface and it shrinks to the size of a flower bud. He places the helmet into a small pouch on his armour, for safe keeping.
Then he waits, allow his organic vision to adjust to the darkness. Thankfully there is some light being cast into the sky from the rising trio of suns, enough that even the dense branches and leaves overhead do not complete block them out. An uneasy feeling washes over him.
Weapons, he thinks. I need weapons. If I’m nearing Viridian, then they’ll soon be caught in this blackout. But, if the mages are causing it for some reason, their sensors won’t mark me as an ally, at least not until its too late. Either way, best to be prepared for attack from friend or foe.
From another small concealed pouch, he removes two small black objects, about the size of matchsticks.
“Vistaar karana” he says in a low voice. A rush of swirling shades of grey broadcast from the two objects, enlarging them. They grow into two long whips, each twice the length of his height. With a swift wrist motion he latches on with one to a high branch. Propelling himself off the ground he swings through the trees using the whips as grappling hooks.
Chapter Nine: Coterminous
“We’re too close to their border” Serenity warns, hesitant to keep moving along a this more dangerous route.
“Its fine.” Viridian responds firmly. “If theres a patrol, we’ll spot it. Is everyone following?”
At her question, Serenity turns and makes a quick loop of the squad.
Viridian’s calm tone belies her own trepidation. She’d not wanted to come this close to the border but if they had to face their enemies she would prefer it wasn’t deep in their own territory. Better to hold the line than lose ground. If nothing else, by waiting this close to the border, any defeat in their own sector wouldn’t lower the morale of the resistance in the Citadel. As the years had worn on, hope had increasingly become a rarer quality. With each new defeat, it seemed like the tide was tiring against the resistance in the Citadel.
“All present. Though some of the outworlders are fairing better than the others,” reports Serenity, a trail of distain in her words.
Waves appear within Viridian’s helmet.
“Static” Serenity says.
Immediately the two move back to back, Serenity facing out and Viridian towards the party.
“Hold” she says. “Prepare for blackout!”
Bright warning sigils flare across the Guardians’ helmets. Viridian has already removed her’s as Serval and Linnea gather the outworlders in the centre of the mages. The confused faces of the outworlder’s meet the haunted expressions of the tired mages.
“Quickly, form the sphere. Link to any another, become anchors” says Rex Mara. The weary mages lift shaking arms. They are still tired from the night’s battle but are hardened enough by the war to enact the necessary responses with admirable speed.
“What is going on?” Peggy asks Rex Mara. A whirl of air sucks up and the air fizzes with the energy of the mages’ barrier.
“Good, hold” commends Rex to the mages before turning to Peggy. “It’s a blackout. They must have found your assailants and begun broadcasting a nullifier field. Our systems won’t be able to detect them.”
“Prepare for attack,” instructs Peggy, looking to the other outworlders. Jack already has his pistol in hand and Belle is grasping her knife.
“We have to keep moving. The Citadel is not much farther” says Chekov.
“And what makes you the expert exactly?” Holtzmann queries. “I’m considerably more inclined to follow the wizards-s lead. Wizardi? Whats the plural possessive for wizard?”
Ignoring Holtzmann’s rambling thought, Chekov pushes past her to Peggy, Jack and Rex Mara.
“While we were walking I have been tinkering with some of the devices I was transported here with,” he tells them. “I’ve been able to use geo-location features, with the help of the Guardian’s internal mapping systems, to create a topographical map of our route. We’re only a few miles from the base of the, admittedly, very large mountain where the Citadel is located. I believe there must be an entrance nearby that will take us into the base of said mountain.”
“Well, okay then. Good work Pavel” says Peggy. Rex Mara stops checking on his mages to address Chekov.
“Wait, your systems are working?” asks Rex Mara.
“Yes, they seem to still be functioning.”
“How? The Guardian’s systems should be offline. You shouldn’t be able to connect with the network.”
“Oh, it is no longer connected. I have downloaded the information to my own localised network. My tracking is more… manual.Uh, I am reading the map and making… estimations.”
“You’re using orienteering?!” scoffs Jack. “You can take the boy scout out of space.”
“Is the wall holding?” Viridian asks, now addressing Rex Mara from the front of the group.
“Yes, for now. They’re tired, we won’t be able to hold it long. I think we should move soon.”
“I agree” interjects the voice from overhead. With a clipped whip sound, Scout delicately lands in front of the group. “You’re too close to their border. They must have gotten word of the outworlders arrival because they are searching in force. Its sheer luck that you’ve not been attacked yet.”
“Lucks run out!” shouts Belle.
Sunlight bursts through the treetops and the shining armour of at least thirty Dragon Lord soldiers are illumiated.
“Serenity, take them to the citadel, we’ll hold them off” commands Viridian, swinging her swords into action.
“NO! You have to come with us.” Chekov shouts in protest.
“Get them out of here” Viridian tells Serenity, racing towards the other Guardians.
“This way,” Scout instructs as bolts begun to fly. With ease, he hovers into the air, cracking his whips at the incoming bolts. At the point at which the whips crack, a concussive blast pops the blasts, dissipating them in an instant. Jack looses several shots which refract harmlessly off the enemies, before following Chekov, Holtzmann, Belle, Peggy and Serenity away from fight.
“We shouldn’t leave!” yells Chekov who is being dragged away by Belle and Holtzmann.
“We’re not doing this again!” scolds Belle.
“It’s their job to keep you safe, you idiot” adds Serenity. “If we don’t get you back to the Citadel the this is all a waste of time. I don’t particularly believe your going to be the ones who give us the upper hand. But I assure you, I will not be responsible failing to give you the chance to prove me wrong.”
“Either you lead us to the Citadel now or we risk all our lives trying to help them, probably getting in the way and dying” says Holtzmann.
“You’re the only one that knows the way” adds Peggy.
Reluctantly, Chekov nods and leads them away at a run.
“They’re a little self important” says Serenity to Scout.
“Dramatic too. Guess they don’t need my mapping to find their way. Shall we cut ahead?” says Scout, pointing into the trees.
Another whip crack and Scout shoots onto a high branch, disappearing after the others. Serenity races after him, taking a superhuman leap.
While the team make their way to the base of the mountain, the Guardians fight against the Dragon Lord soldiers begins. Outnumbered ten to one, the practiced warriors move swiftly to cut down their foes.
Linnea’s curved shields, the shape of crescent moons, first block a volley of sword beams from the Dragon Lord infantry. Meeting the first wave of attackers, in close quarters the blocked blasts blind the shooters. Then with an acrobatic spin, she uses the ultra-hardened surfaces to beat them back. Within moments three are on the ground.
Close behind her is Serval, taking darting strides to avoid the shots and fists flying at him, he moves with great agility covering more ground than the approaching squad. Somersaulting over two of the soldiers, he finds himself surrounded. Two of the more foolish attackers fire on him, shooting their allies instead as Serval easily dodges. A simultaneous punch forward and kick backward throws two of the soldiers back, slamming them into tree trunks.
The other four Guardians in the party continue the assault, co-ordinating efforts with a methodical synchronicity. As the most experienced, after Viridian and Serenity, Linnea and Serval work to scatter their assailants, breaking them into small pods to be picked off by the other Guardians.
Circling around, Linnea holds the rear line, blocking any soldiers from following the outworlders. Meanwhile, Serval backs the enemy party into the waiting blades of Viridian. Her sharp strikes slice through armour, not quite causing fatal injuries. Within moments of their combined effort, only a handful of the grunt soldiers are left standing.
Sensing victory, Viridian becomes unnerved. Too easy, she thinks.
“It’s a distraction!” She yells, realising her naive error. The soldiers were numerous enough to present a real threat but too low ranking to be the real threat.
She races into pursuit of their escaping team, sure that they are now in graver danger. This was a test meant to divide their forces and she fell for it.
Up ahead, Scout pushes the team to run as fast as they can. Though his hovering capabilities allow him to move much faster, he doesn’t, keeping to a safe but reasonable pace. Flitting above them to watch for attacks. He’s looking over the shoulders of the outworlders when a torrent of flame engulfs him, causing him to fall to the ground.
A screaming roar stops them in their path. A menacing dragon, with its dark scales and mighty fang-like teeth, crosses into their path. One large clawed foot slowly wraps itself around the dazed Scout.
“Get off of him!” yells Jack. Aiming his pistol squarely at the dragon’s rider. The cloaked and armoured figure tilts their helmet to look at the curious figure below. She laughs.
A second and third dragon, about half the size of the first, appear behind the group and together the three encircle the party.
“Whadda we do?” asks Holtzmann.
“Stay still.” replies Peggy in a hushed voice. “Back to back, watch them.”
She steadies herself, feeling her shoulder make contact with Jack’s on one side and Belle’s on the other. The mages move to raise their defences but nothing happens.
“You’ve crossed into our territory now” says the dragon rider, her voice gruff.
The mages turn, panicked, to Rex Mara, who’s face is red with rage. His eyes begun to turn milky white, his throat closing. Choking sounds escape him, his throat convulsing, desperate for air.
“Rex?” Peggy tries to find his pupils beneath he white film that grows thicker. “REX!” He collapses into her arms, beginning to convulse.
“They can’t do this,” murmers one of the other mages. “They’re not supposed to be able to do this.”
“We’ve learned new tricks” says the rider in a loud voice. Suddenly, one of the small dragons darts forward. Before they have time to react, it leaps at Jack. One of the mages jumps into its path, the creatures head has turned sideways, jaws wider than they’d have thought possible. It snatches the mage, scuttling back as it crunches the bones of the young man. Jack’s eyes are wide. He’s unable to speak, his breath leaking out. No, he thinks, unable to speak the word.
One of the mages screams, the young man collapsing onto the ground on his knees.
“You’re coming with me outworlders” says the rider. “These mages however, I don’t need”
The mages flinch, unsure what to do. Holtzmann, Chekov, Jack and Belle instinctively put themselves between the remaining mages and the dragons.
“You’ll have to go through us” Belle tells the rider, blade pointed at the largest dragon’s head.
“You know we don’t actually need you alive” she responds. “I’m to bring you in… if possible. You might prove useful. But my main goal is stoping you from joining these amateur fools.”
The two smaller dragons pounce, eyes focused on Belle and Chekov. Within metres of reaching them, Belle throws out her hand, sending blue powder flying onto the beasts. With pinpoint pupils and forked tongues flapping in their open mouths, they stop. Paralysed.
The rider and her dragon shift uneasily.
“What’d you do?” asks Chekov, staring down the throat of one of the dragons.
“Fairy dust” she replies, staring back at the rider. “And there is plenty for you too.”
Reaching into a pouch on the rear of her belt, she pulls a clenched fist out and holds it near to her chest, ready to throw.
“Now. Let him go”, she indicates Scout who is motionless under the dragons front claw. Neither moves. “NOW! Or I use this and we cut him out.”
Without a word from its rider, the dragon bows its head and retracts its leg. An intake of breath shows that Scout is still alive.
“Now go, if you want to keep your life” she tells the rider. A seconds consideration, no doubt she is trying to find a scenario where she can win. Finding none, the rider signals the dragon and it sidesteps around the group. She continues round, with Belle matching its steps, till it reaches the small dragons. Taking one in its claw and the other carefully in its mouth, it spins and races back into the forest.
Moments later, Viridian catches up to the group. Blades at the ready in front of her, she comes to a skidding stop. Some of the mages are gathered around Peggy and Rex Mara, while Jack, Chekov, Holtzmann and another mage gather around Scout.
On one side, nearest the enemy borderline is a lifeless corpse, shredded and in an uncomfortable pose, left where it fell. One mage kneels at his head, bending to allow their foreheads to touch. A tear falls from Viridian’s cheek.