“You’re here? You’re alive?” Daniel yelped.
“Of course I’m alive. Why wouldn’t I be alive?” Delias looked at Daniel and slowly straightened himself. “And it appears that after only being busy for a couple of days, everything falls apart. How did Cotter get captured? And where is Skylar?”
Daniel looked at Delias in a daze. This was the guy who I thought was a master? But… He’s not as weak as he appeared to be from before. He’s just too fast. And at that moment, Daniel felt fear. For most of that exchange he had gone by instinct. Using his hand to block was apart of that instinct, a side effect of the training he went under from military school. If not, he would already have lost his head. Was he holding back this entire time? In fact, the moves Delias used were a bit predictable outside that first swing of his knife. That was the only reason why Daniel was able to rely on instinct. But…
“But what happened to you? You disappeared for more than just a couple of days! And what happened to your hair? It’s black, and look how long it is. Is that even possible?.”
Taking a good look at Delias, Daniel delved in thought, staring blankly for a pace of a few breaths. It was one thing for his hair color to be different. Either he dyed it, it was dyed from before and got washed out, he was mixed breed, or Delias was simply from a lesser clan and pretended to be the blood of a major one. Pretenders were common, changing their physical characteristics to get benefits in society. That would explain why Delias had been so weak. There were cases of lesser averati clans having impurities in their bloodline as they tried to grow their natural strength through various dark arts. But the problem was Delias’s speed. Daniel clearly saw him run weeks ago when they were at the lava pools, right before they entered the Stalagmite Realm. He had also witnessed first hand of Delias’s movements when the wraiths first appeared. And he wasn’t nearly that fast. In fact, he was clumsy. So either Delias was hiding his ability, or something more and darker was going on.
But while thoughts were flashing through Daniel’s mind, thoughts of Delias’s own were doing the same in his. The thing he worried most about had been his hair. In fact, he had tried to find if there was anything to color it as he travelled; but there was nothing, and so, at the moment Delias never planned to run into anyone. He just wanted to skirt around and find some clues objectively and from a distance. But then he ran into Daniel. And thinking a bit, decided to just not mention it. It was possible that he dyed his hair to change his appearance and skirt detection from those who kept their eye on him. But… He forgot one thing.
Delias forgot to cut his hair.
It was one thing for his hair to be black, it was another for it to grow to such lengths in only a week or two. Delias was not privy to the cultures and habits of the averati. He didn’t even know who the six major clan races of the averati were, and whether or not their hair could grow so fast. That being the case, he had never the intention to risk it. But this happened. Sighing, Delias chose to change the topic. “We can deal with your questions another day. We need to save your brother. And where’s Skylar? He wasn’t captured too, was he?” Though I probably know what you’re going to say.
“You’re right. My brother first.” Daniel paused.
“Skylar left… He… He abandoned us. This is what we get for trusting a damn halfer anyway. Best just move on.”
More like you pushed him away with all that griping. But it was to be expected. Delias felt there was something off about Skylar when he appeared aloof and uncaring, even as Daniel spouted a bunch of racist and cruel remarks. But it seems it probably got to him. He only stuck around because of me. It was because of this that Delias wanted Sklar to remain close. Better if he’s on my side. And if he’s not? The closer he is, the better I can watch him.
“Anyway, my brother is over there.” Daniel pointed to the open area beyond the bushes. Students walked about, some chatted, some laughed, some grumbled… But if you looked closely, they all looked haggard. There was not a single one in which you couldn’t see fear deep within their eyes.
They don’t know where the keys are, huh? And freaking out already. It was something easy to guess. Otherwise, why would they group up in such large numbers? If any of the keys were found, they would obviously try to keep their numbers low, allowing for the amount of keys they need to find to also remain low. And besides, limiting the number in the group limited the possible amount of those that could be a cause of betrayal when things got desperate. But, as Delias could see, this group only grew larger by the day. And that got Delias thinking. If they can’t find a key at this point, or a hint to where the keys are, then what are we to do? Do I have to go at it alone? No. It’s too risky. The arrays most likely will harm me or keep me from crossing… Delias sighed. “Well, let’s not waste anymore time. Let’s save your brother”
A tapping sound resounded softly in the large tent. A single flame burned at the center, and sitting there, one of his crossed legs shaking with a nervous twitch was Nargul.
Yara slapped her palm on his thigh, stilling him, the tent finally growing quiet. “You’re nervousness makes me nervous. Can’t you just sit calmly and wait?” She asked, her voice soft but firm.
“How can I sit calmly? We’re almost to the gateway. Scouts say it’s just over the hill.”
Yara clicked her tongue. “I know, I saw.” She said, but even if the words weren’t direct, the meaning was. You used scouts. Too afraid of leaving the perimeter of the camp. But I went.
Nargul frowned. “If this doesn’t work… If his brother and friends don’t come and try to save him, we won’t find anything about the keys. And what if they do come, but they don’t know either? We would have done all this for nothing.”
Yara sighed. “We’ve been over this twice already. You have a method to get us out with the key, yes? If all fails, then just use that.”
“But my friends can’t come along if I do. I can only bring two other people at most. And with you taking a spot, that means I can only bring one other. Some of them in my group are dear lifelong friends. People I’ve made strong bonds with, and have great opportunities for future advancement. How can I show my face if I just leave? If I get out with only two people, the elders will surely know what happened. They won’t say anything because it’s not against the rules, but it will hurt my reputation and any future relations for a long while.
“Which is why we have the pup from the Dranger Clan. When Daniel Dranger tries to save his brother, he will definitely kick up a storm. He’s been to military school. When he attacks, it won’t be simple. And in the confusion, we can act. The elders don’t follow what goes on inside the realm except for when we first enter the gateway and when we leave. Now we’re so close to the gateway, once they come, we can escape with them watching everything. Even if they think something amiss, they will not blame you. We just have to make sure we put on a good sho-”
“-This is all based on your faith in that Daniel kid. You’re plots seem thick, but they can be cut like a single thread. One thing goes wrong, and it all goes down badly.” And then Nargul turned got up and turned his back, and began mumbling. “As expected of stupid easterners. Don’t know nothing. Why did I put my faith in this.”
“You put your faith in me! And you did so because I’ve not steered you wrong yet.” Yara said with a chill to her tone. She of course heard what Nargul said. Nargul was a young lord in the northern branch of the Omniac Clan. Although his standing was not the highest, his family was wealthy. And with that wealth, they managed to use it quite efficiently to gain some power, although it wasn’t a kind of power that gained him advancement in the main affairs of the clan itself, but that did not mean he would not have a major influence in the future. So, even though many people probably heard him grumble things about them, not many were willing to say something in reply. But Yara was different. She disdained this guy’s character and his unsteadiness. And in fact, he had the audacity to insult her!
“When I met you-” yara continued. “Only your so called ‘friends’ were willing to group with you. No one else. Everyone here has a power behind them of some kind. Few who don’t are rare here. And even if they didn’t, succeeding in the Academy can make you a power on your own. No one wanted to be under anyone’s wing, and yet, with me, you were able to accumulate a following this large. Who did the talking? Who did the persuading? I did.” And Yara stood up. The only reason I kept you around was because no one wanted to just work with an easterner. But…I’ll make that change quite soon enough.
Narugl through his hands in the air. “Fine. You’re right. I can’t have done it without you. But this waiting is killing me. What if they don’t come? We haven’t found the keys, and if they don’t come, we can’t do anything. It’s quite possible for Daniel to have been killed out there on his own. His brother did let it slip that that other kid they grouped up with went missing. He, and that half-demon, are our best shot. They both walked in the realm as if they knew what they were doing. Using Cotter was just to get Daniel to bring them along. Daniel is blood. If not, the other two would probably have abandoned him. And even if that other guy is not ‘missing’ anymore, there is no guarantee that he or that half-demon would follow Daniel in saving him.”
Yara sat back down. She closed her eyes, and settled her breathing. “He will come. I know him. And he will get here help. Nothing can stop that man from saving his brother. Not even death. And he’s not stupid either.” And after that, she went silent.
No matter what Nargul said, she never said another word.
Cotter sat in a pit on the outside. The pit was shallow, the brim reaching him waist high, and all around him was a wooden cage. He sat there, his arms tied to a thick piece of wood staked to the ground. He felt weak. Too weak to even attempt to break apart the rope, let alone escape.
Cotter closed his eyes. He breathed in and out before opening them again. When will you get here? He knew what the others wanted. Cotter was never slow to these things. They want Delias. They think he has the keys or know how to get them. It was an incomprehensible thought. Just because he entered the realm ahead of everyone else, he should know where the keys were? Or was it how he entered, with such fervent belief that he could. Not even those with some of the inside details of the tests knew about the large mirror like gateway. After all, the test changed depending on the realm the elders chose to use. And the gateway was specific to the Realm of Stalagmites, a realm in which was hardly ever used.
But the little time Cotter spent with Delias, he was beginning to believe himself that Delias did not even notice the Gateway. It was as if he were a child before his high perception abilities could kick in. Not only his combat ability seems low, but his perception as well. How can for a guy like that make them use me as a lure? I heard he went missing by someone who captured me literally two days after I left. And I told Nargul, though he doesn’t believe me. Cotter sighed. Delias is probably dead. And at this rate, I’ll die too. Cotter did not put his faith in Delias being alive. He put his faith in his brother. He’ll come. I know he will. And so, he waited patiently.
Suddenly, he heard heavy footsteps. They were light against his ears as the soft mud of the grassland dulled the sound. But for it to be audible, Cotter knew it had to be of a large man.
Cotter looked up. Walking over, with a towering body, an averati with dark grey hair stood. He looked grim, and in his hand was a large knife, the wooden handle broken off, leaving just a thick and round piece of metal for a grip.
“Wha-what do you want?” Cotter yelped. The averati was Jargul. And he had repeatedly expressed his averse affection for Cotter over the past week. But usually when they were ever in the same space as each other, it was in public. But this guy is coming to find me. He’s crazy! Damn it. Why did I have to get targeted by a crazy person?
Cotter never did anything to get on the guy’s nerve. In fact, noting Jargul’s behavior towards him every time they were close by each other, lead Cotter to trying his best to blend away from his notice. But most of the time, it did not work, and Jargul seemed to get some kind of pleasure from beating on him. But now that they were away from prying eyes, away from Nargul’s eyes, Cotter did not doubt when everyone woke up in the morning, they would find the camp missing a captee.
“I’m going to skin you.” Jargul said with hate filled eyes. “Damn easterners. Better if you were all dead.”
And at that Cotter’s heart jumped.
Jargul, step by step, headed in his direction, and when the averati opened the wooden cage door, a sudden fire burned within Cotter’s chest. Adrenaline pumped widely in his system as his heart raced. The effects of whatever they had given him which made him feel weak seemed to wane a bit.
“tSay back! I said stay back!!” Cotter yelled. His voice was not loud because he still felt weak, but it was loud still.
“Shut up, I’ll kill you.” And Jargul lunged.
Cotter had been tied up near the end of the perimeter of the camp. He was situated between the campgrounds and the gateway. It was to entice Daniel into trying to save his brother more quickly by making it seem easier. But, in actuality, there were people posted all around to keep watch. Unfortunately, when they saw what was going on, some reacte, but were too far away to do anything as the main goal had not been to protect Cotter, but to esnure whoever came to save him was encircled. As for those who did not react, they thought it was under Nargul’s orders and guessed maybe he did not inform them about what was going on.
After all, Nargul never truly stressed the importance of Cotter’s capture. And why would he? Those that followed him would ask the same questions that he did Yara, and without the knowledge of the method Nargul had of escaping with just two other people, it made no sense to carry out such a plan as they would not receive any benefits. In the end, if they kenw, they would probably have left him long ago.
And so, Cotter watched as the steel blade swiped quickly towards his face, with a practiced aim that was obviously with intent to mutilate and not just kill.
But just as Jargul took a step in his lunge,
A loud sound broke the air, and the entire ground shook. Jargul stumbled, and missed, the knife plunging into the wooden post behind Cotter as if it were hot cake.
And then there was a sound that resounded through the entire camp. A sound that everyone knew all too well.
A wretched, bloody wail.