CHAPTER 12: Flight, Concealment, Fight and Sorrow.
Lusi and Dengana flew off at a tangent to the direction Felin then led them in. For some time they were still visible to one side of them, but then became more and more distant until they couldn’t make them out any more.
They were still staring into the blue, when out of the blue a missile came plummeting straight towards them. Hugh instinctively dropped to the ground and covered his head with his arms, only looking up when he heard Tyrentia erupt in peals of laughter. With a loud ‘squawk’ and a flutter of wings, Katha had landed and was staring adoringly at Avinia.
‘You are too funny,’ snorted Tyrentia. ‘Doing a belly-flop like that!’
‘Yes, well,’ Hugh huffed. ‘This could be bad news!’
‘Bad news? It’s only Katha, you dweeb!’
‘Exactly! How did he find us? If he could see us, who else can?’
Avinia turned from her bird-type communication and stared thoughtfully at Hugh.
‘You may be right, be right,’ she said.
‘Was he looking for us?’ pressed Hugh. ‘Could you ask him?’
Avinia shook her head. ‘Our communication isn’t quite that advanced, not quite,’
‘Anyway it’s great to have our friend around again,’ said Tyrentia resolutely. ‘Are we carrying on now, or what?’
‘There is a Conjunction directly between Honour Ring and Glit Ring which has conveniently become available’ Felin responded. ‘Just in case, we’ll approach it from a good distance to one side of it.’
It turned out that this had been wise. Katha came back agitatedly to let them know that somethings - they couldn’t quite make out what - were lying in wait on the route they should have been following. Fortunately these were not actually at the Conjunction, but some distance before it on the fringe of a heavily wooded area in which it lay. By taking to ground level they were able to get to, and through, the ‘bubble wall’ without being seen; or, indeed, having any idea who or what was lurking.
‘Whatever they are, whatever are,’ Avinia said when all were safely in Glit Ring, ‘I don’t think they had in mind giving us a party. Katha didn’t like the look of them one bit, not one bit.’
They flew steadily throughout the day with only short rests in carefully-scouted deserted parts, and when it became close to evening Tye remarked, ’I am so looking forward to a good meal and a comfy bed.’
‘Not going to happen, I’m afraid,’ said Hugh. ‘We can’t risk an inn. We’ll just have to find a nice clear stream for water and washing, fruit or whatever for supper, and a soft place to sleep. I hope it doesn’t rain. Looks like it might.’
‘Are you so far out of your so-called mind you’ll never ever find your way back …?’ was how Tye’s inevitable tantrum began, but it was only a half-hearted one because she could actually see the sense of what he had said.
Even she cheered up when they found a lovely spot near a stream of crystal clarity, Felin had caught and cooked a fish over a fire lit, apparently, by magic, and Avinia and Pip between them had gathered or pointed out a selection of fruits and nuts. ‘Not so bad, after all,’ she declared between mouthfuls.
Everyone cheered down again when the threatened rain arrived, and Tye changed her tune to snarling, ’Not so bad, as I said; just horribly dreadfully hideously awful!’
Some quick construction using large leaves fitted to form an overlapping sloped roof in the lee of a tree provided shelter, while other leaves and grass, gathered hastily before they became wet, shut her up again by providing comfortable mattresses and bedding.
‘Much easier than when one is human-sized,’ Hugh murmured as he snuggled down.
The next morning, after they had refreshed themselves, Felin said, ‘Avinia and I had some magic sensors and screens put up last night, but as Highest Princes and Princesses you should be able to do stronger ones. It might be an idea to keep them going for the rest of the journey.’
‘How?’ came in chorus from Hugh and Tye.
‘Um ….’ said Felin.
‘Er …’ said Avinia.
They both went silent, and frowned and fidgeted a lot. Then Avinia said hesitantly, ‘Maybe … if you tell yourselves to look out for magic; for magic … and then I do a really strong burst like this …’
‘Something tickles, somewhere,’ Hugh said, and Tye nodded.
‘Focus on that!’ Felin exclaimed. ‘Good idea, Avinia!’
‘Yes, I can pick it up, now,’ Tye nodded, ‘and, sort-of, tell what it’s made of.’
‘Now think of doing an answer, like responding to something someone has said, has said,’ chirped Avinia. ‘From knowing it is a voice speaking, you would use your own voice to reply.’
Hugh searched for a matching ‘voice’ for some minutes. Then a glimmer came through and he pounced on it.
‘Eek!’ said Avinia. ‘Not so strong; so strong!’
‘Got it, too!’ Tye said, looking excited. ‘Now, how do you project these sensor and screen things?’
‘The sensor part you’ve already just done,’ Felin said. ‘Now you have to fine-tune it so that the instant it gets a trace, it switches off and sends a blank, instead. Sense again, Hugh, and as soon as you pick up my probe, try doing that.’
It took any number of attempts before first Tye and then Hugh started getting the hang of it. The fine-tuning turned out to be very fine indeed, but before they set out they had reached the stage of being able to ‘program’ the magic to do a continuous search, and to react with an instant barrier if the search came up with anything directed their way. Avinia suggested they take turns, because magical effort was the same as physical effort in that it could all get used up and would then need time to replenish.
As final precautions in their approach, they decided not only to fly as high as they could, but also to split up into two groups, with Tye, Pip (of course) and Felin several minutes ahead. The other group of Avinia and Hugh were taking a course parallel to theirs, but which would intersect the line of the planned right-angle turn slightly closer to the Interface.
Before they split up, Hugh did a quick experiment on his clothes, and called to the others, ‘It might be a good idea to wear camouflage, like mine. I know stealth aircraft use things like pinky grey, but to me a blue to match this sky will be the most effective for our front parts, and for our backs a tabby like Felin’s. We really can’t be too careful; it’s going to be hard enough to get through Rhino Valley, but if whoever we’re up against knows we’re on our way there won’t be a hope.’
‘Good idea,’ said Felin. ‘We could use magic for invisibility, but it takes too much and because it has to be ongoing it can act as a beacon to anyone doing a trace. Unlike things like changing clothing colours, where the magic only happens while you do it.’
They experimented with flying below one another to find the shades which made them closest to invisible against the sky from underneath, and then above one another to find the best colours against the land from higher up. Then the parties divided and they started off in earnest.
Katha had to use all his skill and speed to keep both groups covered. He even managed to pay another visit among them with the nearest an eagle could come to wearing a self-satisfied expression.
‘He is amazing, quite amazing,’ Avinia reported. ‘I gather that in spite of our camouflage he has had to discourage a few ambitious eagles – fortunately all smaller than he is, than he is.’
It took almost the whole day to reach the turning point which, as they had hoped, was in a wooded area stretching all the way to where the Interface would be found. The timing had been almost perfect; hardly had Hugh and Avinia landed than a scouting Pip flew a circle round them before going back to fetch Tye and Felin.
Pip continued to take short flights ahead, as done in the woods near Aiennea Palace, and Avinia managed to get Katha to do a particularly careful reconnaissance nearer the Interface. From what they could understand from the eagle, the trees at the edge of the wood in that area were swarming with what must be rhaxen.
With Pip scouting as usual, they went to within a few hundred metres of the Interface without any trace of rhaxen other than on the outskirts. All could detect that the rhaxen were, in any case, putting out strong searching signals, but there was no sign of any magical activity near the Interface itself.
Still, they all approached fearfully, and breathed a sign of relief when they reached the ‘bubble’ with no signs of interference.
‘We won’t go through with you,’ Felin said, ‘so we must say farewell for now. We must get back to the Queen of Queens as quickly as possible to show ourselves and strengthen the impression we are sure she will have given that you are still there as her guests. I hope we’ll see you again very soon bringing some news for us.’
‘What about Pip?’ Tye asked.
‘Don’t worry, with being your sprite now he’ll be able to Adapt, to Adapt,’ Avinia said.
Hugh and Tye hugged both of them in turn, and then started to walk towards the shimmering wall.
Suddenly, horrifyingly, something burst out of it straight at them. It appeared to be a huge winged lizard, the size, to them, of a crocodile, with a long snout filled with jagged teeth, and vicious claws on each foot.
‘Darxtyl!’ Felin gasped, and pointed a finger at it.
Avinia pulled his arm down. ‘No magic!’ she reminded him urgently. ‘Doesn’t work on them anyway, remember!’
With wings a-blur she flew straight at it. The creature paused to slash at her with both front legs, but by flying bewildering zigzags she dodged the claws and flitted upwards to behind the head, from where she suddenly did a swoop with arms and fingers extended as if diving into water, straight towards one of the eyes. Her timing was perfect, and the creature recoiled as the eye was jabbed. A leg came up, though, and claws hooked Avinia with a glancing blow which knocked her out of the air. The lizard plunged down at her and an instant later the jaws closed on her body.
Katha let out a cry and dived at the head of the beast, but one slash from the claws sent him to the ground as a lifeless bundle of feathers.
‘Go through!’ Felin said to Hugh and Tye as loudly as he dared, and he also launched himself at the darxtyl.
Desperately, Hugh searched for anything to act as a weapon. There were no clubroots; in fact not even a suitable stick or stone was to be found.
‘Go!’ Felin whisper-screamed again.
‘We must!’ Tye called at Hugh, and vanished through the wall to one side of the darxtyl. Pausing just long enough to see that Felin was now distracting it on that side, he also went through, but on the opposite one.
He was, abruptly, back to being a normal-sized boy, but in an instant could discern that Tye and Pip had only gone to Between – she was visible as a Glow and he could also just make out the little sprite. He cast his eye around again, and spotted an agave plant with long spiky leaves tipped with thin, vicious thorns. With furious haste he managed to rip two of the rigid leaves from it, and tried to pass one to the little figure of Tye. She didn’t seem able to grasp at it, so he gestured her to go back through.
Clutching both leaves firmly, he dived back himself, arriving in the same instant as Tye did. As he had desperately hoped would happen, the leaves came through in their original sizes
‘It worked! Here!’ he said as he handed one to her, and she grabbed it eagerly. He had judged correctly; it was a perfect length for her to hold as a spear...
Felin had still, miraculously, kept out of harm’s way and was making little darting attacks at the head of the beast. It was occupied, though, in shaking the body of Avinia like a dog with a rag doll.
Fury and grief filled Hugh. Holding the spike in front of him he flew high into the air, and then dived towards the good eye. Tye was already coming in at the one blinded by Avinia, and her spike went home in time to distract the lizard from evading the threat from Hugh.
‘Get him!’ she called, almost forgetting to do it quietly. He drove his spike in deeply. The reptile thrashed and flailed, and Hugh and Tye only just managed to dodge the claws before being flung clear. Felin waited for an opportunity, and flew in to give a mighty push to the end of Tye’s spike still impaling the eye, and then Hugh did the same with the other.
‘Again, but watch out for those claws, ’ Felin panted urgently. ‘We’d better do it at the same instant.’
‘Kick!’ Hugh responded. Timing it perfectly, the two plunged at the ends of the spikes feet-first, using them at the moment of impact as spring-boards to launch themselves clear again.
‘Now, you stinking …’ said Tye, diving down with a rock she had at last found, and using it as a hammer. She nearly took a hammering herself; by now the creature was thrashing around in a total frenzy and the whipping tail only just missed her as she flew clear.
In furious attempts to dislodge the thorns with its claws, the darxtyl only managed to drive them in yet further, and suddenly, as they were all preparing for another onslaught, it gave a shudder, fell over, flapped its wings feebly, and lay still.
They rushed to where Avinia was lying. Her eyes were closed, but when Felin said, ‘Vinnie!’ in anguished tones, she opened them and looked at each one of the group in turn.
‘I’ll be fine, just fine,’ she said, and her dress suddenly assumed its most vivid colours. ‘Joy and harmony … to all of you …all of you … always,’ she whispered, smiling. Then she gave a little sigh, closed her eyes again, and began to Fade almost immediately.
Tye and Felin were both sobbing heartbrokenly, with Pip squeaking in sympathy, but Hugh found himself going further into a cold rage instead. ‘Somebody or something is going to pay for this!’ he promised savagely. With a forlorn hope he went to check the place where Katha had fallen, but there was no trace of him. The darxtyl had also vanished.
Then Felin pulled himself together with a great effort.
‘We mustn’t waste what she sacrificed herself for,’ he choked out. ‘Go, now, and start planning to get to this valley place. I must remain unseen at all costs until I get back.’
‘Yes,’ Hugh reasoned grimly. ‘having a non-magical creature wait Between was a clever move, but by the same token that we couldn’t sense it by magic it won’t have given any warning to the rhaxen. The chances are the rhaxen didn’t even know the darxtyl was here in reserve. And even if only you, alone, are spotted at the tower, any spy will be convinced we are all still there.’
Then sorrow overcame his rage, and he cried out in anguished tones, ‘Oh, Avinia, you were so lovely, and so brave,’
All three clung together for a while before they said farewells again, and then Hugh and Tye returned to their normal world.