Chapter 42: Fugitives
The door was thumped so hard it shook on its hinges. Instinctively, Rose reached for the phial of clear liquid that lay beneath her pillow, grasping it tightly as she sprang out of bed and hurried to the door.
“What is it?” She asked.
“Captain of the Guard, My Lady. On Lord Dux’s order, we are to escort you to the Council Chambers immediately.”
Rose’s heart pounded in her chest. Surely not yet? Ka can’t attack yet… I’m not ready. Her hand shook as she drew back the heavy bolt, opening the door to four Centurion Guards. Their expressions, as usual, giving little away.
“One moment,” Rose closed the door and returned to the room.
Pulling on her robes, Rose slipped the phial of potion into the pocket of her cloak before rejoining the guards.
As they moved through the imposing, corridors of power, Rose became aware of a new tension in the air. Guards were everywhere, and there was a tangible buzz of activity, unusual at this hour of the morning.
As the guards ushered Rose into the council chamber, her unease grew as she saw that the room was filled, not only by the War Council but by almost all of the Ascendants.
Rose glanced around at the mass of worried expressions and noticed only one absentee… Lady Hazel.
“Ah, Rose, thank goodness you’re safe,” Dux strode towards her.
Rose thought for a second that he was going to hug her, though he stopped short of that and placed his arm protectively, around her shoulders.
“when I heard the news,” he said, “I’m afraid I feared the worst.”
“What is it?” Rose turned to Ash, who seemed to appear from nowhere to stand by her side. “What’s happened?”
“El-on-ah has escaped.” Ash said, “Che is missing as well, and it looks like they may have taken Lady Hazel hostage.”
“Lady Hazel?” Rose frowned, Why would they take Hazel? She shot a questioning look towards Lord Dux.
“We are still in the process of investigating Lady Hazel’s disappearance,” Dux gestured for the guards to leave. “However, the castle and grounds have been thoroughly searched, and she is nowhere to be found.”
“We believe Hazel may have disturbed El-on-ah and her accomplices as they attempted their escape,” said Lord Alder, “Though it is a mystery why Lady Hazel was not in her chambers at such an early hour.”
“Why take her with them?” Rose felt a surge of foreboding, “why not just bind her, or even… It makes no sense. Hazel will only slow their escape, making it much more likely they’ll be recaptured.”
“I see no other explanation that makes any sense,” said Lord Alder. “What are you implying Rose?”
“I am implying nothing,” said Rose, “I’m stating quite openly that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Hazel went with them of her own accord.”
“Rose!” Lord Alder’s look of astonishment was underlined by a sharp intake of breath. “What could Lady Hazel possibly hope to gain by putting herself and the rest of us in such jeopardy?”
“Oh, I don’t know…” Rose shrugged. She had never warmed to the woman. Hazel is so full of her own self-importance. “Maybe she wishes to take centre stage, labouring under the false belief that she can do the impossible and garner Lord Ka’s respect. Perhaps she seeks a position of power in Ka’s New Order. Then there is the age-old instinct for self-preservation, of course. If Hazel is in Aurum, she avoids being here when Ka’s army wipes us all off the face of the Afterlands.”
“I think you do Hazel a disservice, Rose,” Lord Elm’s expression was one of disbelief, “I grant that Hazel may have acquired something of a selfish streak, but she is far from stupid. How could anyone who has seen what Ka did to Ro-eh-na be naive enough to believe they would be treated any differently?”
“I would not dismiss Rose’s concerns, quite so rapidly,” Lord Alder became pensive, “I too know Lady Hazel, probably better than most. Rose may be right. Hazel has a long-held belief in her own superiority. I know that she has found adjusting to Rose’s arrival more than a little challenging. It’s hard maintaining a belief in your own supremacy, when faced with the popularity and magical prowess of Lady Rose - Lord Eldwyn’s ‘chosen one’.”
“We are wasting time,” Commander Linden slapped his fist down on the table, “The importance of the woman’s motivation is a moot point. We can discuss the whys and wherefores later. It is imperative that we organise a search party and stop them reaching Lord Ka. We may be dealing with the acquisition of fractionation venom here. If El-on-ah was to be involved in its production…”
“I agree. They can’t have got far on foot,” said Ro-eh-na, “especially with Lady Hazel in tow. That said, El-on-ah may have transport close by, or at least a means of contacting Lord Ka. We have to find them before our position is compromised.”
“Very Well,” said Lord Dux, “Linden, are you recovered enough to take charge of this operation?”
“I am,” Unconsciously Linden’s left hand grasped the stump of his right arm. He hesitated, giving a wistful smile, “thank you, Lord Dux.”
Escape to Aurum
El-on-ah was regretting her decision to remove Hazel’s gag. The woman had done nothing but moan since they had left the city and her diatribe only increased once they headed out over the frozen tundra. “The snow is too deep…” “The weather is too cold…” “My clothes are completely unsuitable for this,” and now she’s off again.
“I find it incredulous that you have no transport arranged,” Hazel glared at Baroque as she stomped the powdery snow from her boots, “who would even consider attempting a rescue mission without arranging transportation?”
“Transport was arranged,” snapped Baroque, “but I had only expected to be carrying one passenger - not three.”
“You’re a Metamorph?” Hazel’s eyes flicked to Baroque’s apis pin. “I suppose you planned to transport Lady El-on-ah by transfiguring into some beast of burden. So why not carry us all?”
“My Lady,” Baroque’s jaw tightened, “if you can suggest a creature that can fly hundreds of miles, at great altitude, over ice-covered mountains, while carrying three people, then I will attempt to oblige. Otherwise, I beg you please - SHUT UP.”
Hazel sulked as she watched Puk fluttering above them, the tiny dragon evidently determined to avoid landing on the freezing snow as much as he was able.
“A Red Dragon,” Hazel’s sharp mind worked at the speed of a fyre hawk, quickly locating the information she required, which was buried deep within the library of knowledge stored in her head. “During the Great Dragon War hundreds of mortals were evacuated from Tregmaneor and Leadentar by Metamorphs who had transfigured into Red Dragons.”
“Really?” Said El-on-ah, “They are so massive. Is that possible?”
“Theoretically,” Baroque frowned, “but today very few Metamorphs possess the skill to transfigure into such a massive beast. I have never had the occasion to attempt such a metamorphosis,” Baroque stroked his beard,” though I daresay I could give it a try…”
“Do it!” El-on-ah looked back at the clear trail of evidence of their struggle through mounds of drifting snow. She could feel her anxiety growing, “They will have discovered our escape by now, it’ll not take them long to find us. We haven’t exactly covered our tracks.”
“Then, if you’ll give me some room,” Baroque spread his arms and feet wide as he prepared to speak the incantation.
Backing away, the others looked on as the Custodian’s body rapidly dissolved into the first stage of transfiguration, fading into a soft golden glow. His vaporous form grew indistinct, before taking on the vivid, scarlet hue of Hydrargyrum’s great red dragon. The billowing shape morphed and writhed, bending and twisting as the beast’s tail formed and then degenerated, a head appeared, then a second later it was swallowed up, vanishing into the fiery glow.
“This isn’t working,” El-on-ah folded her arms. “Is he really the best Lord Ka could do?”
“Give him time,” Che rested a hand lightly on her shoulder, “I’m no Metamorph, but I would guess that what he is attempting is no easy task.”
“Baroque’s a Senior Custos,” said Hazel, “so he’s at least a tenth generation Metamorph, which means in a previous ascent he would have almost certainly been involved in the evacuation of Tregmaneor. His potens will remember, even though he may not.”
“It appears you’re correct,” said El-on-ah, watching Baroque complete his transformation into a gigantic, red-scaled, winged, dragon.
The beast snorted, the resulting stream of flaming snot melting a large mound of snow only feet away from where the three of them were standing.
“I’ll need you to untie me if you want me to climb up there.” Hazel jerked her head towards the back of the beast.
Che shot El-on-ah a questioning look.
“Yeah, untie her,” she said, “we’ll need our hands to be free.”
Che cut the ties around Hazel’s wrists and helped her to climb up onto the back of the dragon. Turning around he offered his hand to El-on-ah.
“I’ll help you leave El-on-ah, but I am staying,” Che’s voice was so soft that El-on-ah could hardly make out his words. “I’ll not abandon the people who have put their trust in me despite my allegiance. I think of them as my friends, they are my people now.”
Che sighed, looking back towards Isingwilde. He grasped her hand, squeezing it tightly.
“I wish I could convince you that Rose is the leader we were destined to have.” Cupping her face in his right hand, he traced the sharp angle of her cheekbone with his thumb. “Rose is the one who will free us from prejudice and tyranny, not Lord Ka. It was never meant to be Lord Ka.”
His face moved closer, his eyes pleading with her in a way that El-on-ah found almost impossible to resist.
Suddenly her mind was awash with images; Ro-eh-na’s melted face, the charred, incinerated bodies of her people scattered like driftwood across the Mapledale plane. Of children, their bodies twisted, and their faces, frozen in pain - all of them murdered by Ka’s army of Afreet. She saw the distorted faces of people she once knew, Ophite ascendants like herself, trapped within the scaled bodies of the Djinn like rats swallowed by pythons. Each of these images had caused her to question her faith before, now, once more, the bell of doubt sounded in her mind. Maybe I no longer have faith that Lord Ka will protect my people, but can I really afford to trust Rose the Whyte?
El-on-ah looked deeply into Che’s eyes. She had long denied her feelings, but could deny them no longer - she cared for Che much more than any Ascendant should ever care for a Native, let alone a servant. He should be dead, he would be, if Rose had not insisted he not be harmed. If the circumstances were reversed would Lord Ka have been so merciful? Maybe Che is right, and it is Rose who embodies the values we Ophites hold so dear?
Her mind churning, El-on-ah pulled Hazel’s ring from her pocket and, turning away from Che, she stepped up onto the foreleg of the unbridled beast.
“Lady Hazel,” El-on-ah held the ring out towards her, “I have a strong suspicion that you will need this. When you see him… if you survive the encounter, tell Lord Ka that I have found a more worthy cause to fight for - a unity of equals, each coming together freely as one. Tell him I can no longer fight for a cause that insists on the assimilation and forced fusion of its people. That’s not unification, it’s slavery.”
In her quandary, El-on-ah had forgotten about Baroque. The red dragon roared angrily, rearing up and taking to the air.
El-on-ah was thrown to the ground.
The dragon circled, turning in the air it swooped down, drawing back it’s neck in preparation to strike.
Che rushed forward in an attempt to shield El-on-ah from attack. Frantically, she pushed him away, reaching out a hand to cast a blocking spell.
“Obsepio,” El-on-ah yelled the incantation, as the beast roared above her, its jaws spewing fyre as it dived from the sky.
A flaming wall of scarlet energy streamed from El-on-ah’s ring, meeting the dragon’s spew in an explosion of fyre and light.
Knocked back by the blast, the Dragon swung around, hovering above them. El-on-ah watched warily as Hazel leant forward, on her face, a fearful expression. Muttering hastily to the dragon, Hazel nodded towards El-on-ah as the red beast turned and took off towards the Frozen Falls.
“El-on-ah,” Che was behind her.
Wrapping his arm around her, they watched the dragon fly off into the distance.
“You have made the right decision.” Said Che, “I always knew you would… eventually”
Though El-on-ah was convinced of her choice, a wave of melancholy washed over her.
“This may well be the most worthy and righteous decision I have ever made, thanks to you, my virtuous friend.” Unconsciously, El-on-ah’s hands caressed Che’s arms as they tightened around her, “but, if they find what is hidden at the Frozen Falls, it may well be the last decision I ever make.”