Chapter 49: Hostage
The street was busy. This was an odd road - it looked strange, smooth and black with broken white lines at its centre. Horseless, metal carriages roared past her, their black wheels turning as if by magic. Glassy eyes cast forth cones of yellow light as they sped along the highway. Even the people and surrounding buildings looked peculiar, and yet strangely familiar.
A loud rumbling caused her to turn, and Rose came face to face with a monster, roaring and screeching as it thundered towards her. Two burning white eyes blinded her as she gasped, tasting the thick scorched air, it’s scent so acrid it made her gag. A thought, incomplete and fleeting, was plunged like a knife into her very core - I’m going to die…
“Rose, wake up, Rose!” Auriel shook her by the shoulders, ”Ash is missing.”
“What?” Rose blinked as Auriel’s face swam into focus, her bizarre and unsettling dream dissolving into oblivion. Auriel looks so worried… Rose glanced around the clearing, letting out an unconscious sigh. Why is Ash so reckless? Maybe one day he’ll learn… “I expect he woke up early and decided to leave for Aurora without disturbing us,” she muttered unconvincingly.
“Why would he do that?” Said Auriel, “He was going to take Ro-eh-na with him. I’ve got a bad feeling about this Rose.”
“We’ve all been through a lot recently,” Rose sat up and brushed the sandy earth from her cloak. Her eyes fell on the sleeping bodies of El-on-ah, Ro-eh-na and Lee. “It’s tempting to let them sleep. I can see why he decided to go alone. He’ll be back before the sun is up, you’ll see.”
Rose felt a flutter in her chest. Ash, I wish you’d not done this… She looked out over the misty dawn skyline of Aurum. Her eyes searching hungrily for the familiar graceful shape of a fyre hawk, heading home. The Dome of the Ascension Basilica glistened, tipped with gold, as a single ray of morning sunlight caught its spire.
“Who’ll be back, what’s going on?” Lee said, propping himself up on his elbows as he absorbed their puzzled expressions before noticing the empty space where his friend had been resting. “Where’s Ash?”
“Rose thinks he’s gone to Aurora alone,” said Auriel, “but I’m worried, it’s not like him…”
“On the contrary,” said Lee, “it’s exactly like him - hot-headed, impulsive and irresponsible. It’s precisely the kind of thing he would do.”
Their raised voices caused El-on-ah and Ro-eh-na to stir, but there was another sound too - a distant hum growing increasingly louder.
Rose turned towards the sound, the soft light of dawn outlined the eastern horizon, where a small smudge grew rapidly into a buzzing black cloud.
“Apis?” Said Lee, “Who would be sending us Apis?”
“No one we would wish to converse with, I suspect,” Rose felt a sudden chill as the bees formed a monitus above her.
“This is bad news,” said Auriel, “I knew something was wrong. Why can’t Ash be…”
“Indica mihi,” commanded Rose.
The bees descended, instantly commencing their dance.
“Who is it from?” Said El-on-ah.
“Lord Ka,” Rose swallowed hard, attempting to keep her voice steady. “Ka has Ash. If I surrender, he’ll release Ash and will refrain from casting the Confractio charm. If I do not deliver myself to him at Aureus by noon today, then he will make Ash the charm’s first victim. I must approach the city on foot along the Aureus Road with no more than one companion.”
“Lord Ka’s word cannot be trusted Rose,” said El-on-ah, “I have learned this myself, only too well. I am convinced that Ka intends to kill you and, I regret to say this, but I suspect that Ash is already gone. He’ll either have been assimilated by the Djinn or turned to vapour and descended to Terra Coram.”
“This is not the main issue,” said Lee, ignoring Rose’s vilifying glare, “the biggest problem is that he knows we are here. Any element of surprise we may have had is now evaporated.”
“I do not agree,” Rose’s tone cut through the air like ice, “with either of you. He will not lie about Ash being alive, it would be too easy for us to verify. He must suspect we have Metamorphs, and as for the element of surprise,” Rose turned her gaze to Ro-eh-na, “we may still be in a position to utilise that… if Ro-eh-na can take me to Aurora?”
“Lady Rose, you must realise by now that generally, I would do anything you ask without question,” said Ro-eh-na, “however, I am a Metamorph and will be of limited use to you where fractionation venom and Confractio charms are concerned. Would it not be prudent to take an alchemist along with us?”
Rose knew she was right, but that meant choosing between El-on-ah and Lee, and still, she did not entirely trust El-on-ah.
“El-on-ah, would you accompany us?” Rose’s request drew a sharp intake of breath from Lee, whose face struggled to hide his wounded expression. Rose felt the corner of her mouth lift. There goes that unemotional, emotional, response again… “I have another task for you Lee,” her voice hinted at its importance, which was underlined by her brief pause before asking, “Are you familiar with the term slight of hand?”
“It is what Natives use to feign magic,” said Lee frowning, “are you referring to trickery and misdirection?”
“Indeed I am,” said Rose, “You and Auriel are to be my left hand - the hand that Ka will be watching when we approach from the opposite direction. Lee, I need you to be there to protect Auriel. You are almost as good a Wizard as you are an Alchemist.”
Lee’s dispassionate expression, portraying an air of selfless submission to duty, was quickly betrayed as his face flushed with pride.
“And… you want me to pretend to be you?” Auriel opened her arms wide, looking down at her small, delicate, waif-like frame, “I don’t think I can pull it off. I wouldn’t fool anyone Rose, look at me.”
“I am certain you could, from a distance, if you were wearing my robes,” Rose removed her cloak and pulled it around Auriel’s shoulders, lifting the hood to cover her hair, “he’ll not be able to tell the difference.”
“If he sends the Afreet to bring us to him,” Said Lee, “they will see immediately that Auriel is not a Whyte. What then?”
“After Ogin’s Deep, I doubt he has many Afreet to send anywhere,” said Rose, “I suspect that he will wish to keep those that do remain, close to his side. El-on-ah?”
“I concur,” she said, “Ka would have a clear view of the road into Aureus from the main balconies of both the Oratory and Pyrus. He will, without a doubt, take great pleasure in watching you walk meekly towards your fate.”
“That’s it then,” Rose’s throat tightened, “Walk as slowly as you can, without raising suspicion. You should look out for our beacon and if you do not see it by the time you reach the Ferndell Road, take that road and circle back here.”
“We can’t just desert you,” said Auriel, “if we turn off the road, we would be abandoning you and Ash?”
“If you do not see our beacon, we are already lost.” Rose rested her arm on Auriel’s shoulder, placing her other hand flat against Lee’s chest, she felt his heart thumping beneath her fingers. Her eyes began to smart. “Take great care, my friends, though you mean more to me than any friend could. You are my family, and I have more love for you than…”
“Fyrepot?” Lee placed his hand over hers and squeezed.
“More than even that,” Did Lee just make a joke? Rose’s smile was wistful, as she took their hands in hers, “look out for each other.”
“We should go,” Pointedly, El-on-ah lifted her eyes to the eastern horizon, “we still have to locate the tunnels, and the sun is climbing.”
In a typically restrained farewell, Ro-eh-na nodded towards Lee and Auriel before turning her attention to Rose.
“Red Dragon?” She asked, though Ro-eh-na did not linger for an answer, transforming immediately into the snarling, red beast.
“One moment Rose,” Auriel grabbed Rose’s hand as she turned to leave, “You may want to start your search at the caves to the North of Aurora. There are tales of them being home to dragons. The Aureus tunnels are dangerously derelict, and they wind on for miles underground. Any sane parent would worry about their children getting injured or lost inside. If you needed to keep children away from a dangerous place, then tales of dragons would be an excellent way to accomplish that, don’t you think?”
“Auriel, as usual,” said Rose, “the quality of your reasoning is undeniable. We’ll search there first.”
“Be on your guard,” Lee’s face paled, “If I’ve learned anything since we started this, it’s not to mess with dragons…”