Chapter 31 - In Search of Happiness
Jeronem bolted forward the moment the lift doors opened to reveal the forest floor. Fortunately, Mikaen had expected this and kept a firm grasp on the hood of the young vuestan's robe.
"C'mon! Lemme go!"
Leaning down to speak in his friend's ear, Mikaen whispered, "Or we could not alert her to our presence by barging through the woods at night. Which do you think sounds better?"
Pouting, Jeronem crossed his arms. "Fine. We'll be quiet. Can we go now?"
They walked through the woods as quietly as they could, listening intently for sounds of Rydiana, if indeed that was who they were chasing. Mikaen had to keep an eye on Jeronem, who was always just about a few seconds away from just dashing into the woods. Mikaen couldn't blame him; his own heart was racing with the thrill of the chase.
After about an hour, Jeronem nodded toward a dense cluster of trees just ahead of them. "We're close to Yuna Lake."
After motioning for Jeronem to stay put, Mikaen slowly crept forward into the brush.
The Yunalesca River flowed peacefully just a short distance from the tree line. Just a short ways downstream, Mikaen could see Yuna Lake shimmering in the moonlight.
He peered at the moonlit landscape for several minutes before he realized that Jeronem was beside him.
Mikaen shook his head.
Jeronem scrutinized the area. "Definitely two people nearby."
"Can you sense a direction?" Mikaen breathed.
Closing his eyes in concentration, Jeronem slowly pointed to a small plot of grass near the far side of the river.
Mikaen looked at the spot, murmuring, "I don't see-"
He stopped abruptly. There was something there; it was hazy and hard to make out, but he could definitely see enough of it to make out a rough shape. The longer Mikaen stared at it, the more the seemed to solidify in his vision.
Jeronem glanced at him. "What is it?"
"There's a tent with an illusion enchantment set up on the riverbank."
Jeronem peered at the river. "I don't see it."
Neither Jeronem or Mikaen knew that sentients, being creatures closely linked to the flow of lifestream, have the ability to detect irregular stream flows such as those produced by the use of magic. These images most often come from illusions, enchantments, or even cloaking technology, all of which trap the flow of lifestream in a set area. This was in fact why Mikaen could 'see' Jyle and Rydiana, and why he had always been able to spot a fellow magic-user.
Of course, Mikaen didn't know anything of this as he stared at the tent. He was about to move forward when a sudden rustle of bushes nearby made him crouch down for cover.
A few moments later, a winged figure emerged from the forest on the far side of the river. His white-feathered wings were large, much larger than Mikaen had expected, though it occurred to him that they would have to be fairly large to lift a humanoid body into the air.
The sentient leapt over the river in a single bound, one beat of his wings more than strong enough to propel him safely to the other side. He landed silently on the opposite bank, his wings instantly folding against his back with surprising compactness. Apparently unconcerned about anyone who might be watching, the sentient quickly entered the tent.
Jeronem's eyes bugged out. "Dude, did you see that?"
"I'm gonna go check it out." Mikaen whispered, "You stay here, okay? And quit saying 'dude'; it's just weird coming from you."
Without waiting for a response, Mikaen cautiously emerged from the forest and crept forward.
As he drew near, he could hear whispering from within the tent. It was too soft to make out, but every now and then, he heard a feminine giggle. Slowly, he peeled back the very edge of the tent flap.
The inside of the tent was very nice, even nicer than Mikaen's room back at the palace. Everything positively screamed luxury, right down to the enormous four-poster bed, where Rydiana and the sentient were laying in a passionate embrace and not much else. Mikaen let the tent flap fall, his face burning.
Quickly slipping across the river and rejoining Jeronem in the brush, Mikaen whispered, "Yeah, it's Rydiana and Tyrn."
"Well, what were they doing?"
Mikaen tried to close the thought out, but he wasn't quite fast enough. Jeronem turned pink to the tips of his furry ears and began to giggle uncontrollably.
"Come on." Mikaen said trying to ignore the rising heat in his cheeks. "Let's check around the local area before we head back."
"Are you sure you don't want to watch some more? Might get some tips for when you're with Tirinia."
"Very funny." Mikaen grabbed Jeronem by the ear and pulled him away from the riverside.
They slipped away from the river and the two young lovers. The forest was fairly pleasant at night, especially now that they were able to proceed at a more leisurely pace. While beautiful, however, the forest was also quite empty; aside from themselves, there seemed to be nobody around: no missing students or rogue monks.
After about an hour, Jeronem yawned. "This is boring."
"What's wrong?" Mikaen asked, a little annoyed. "You sure seemed gung-ho for this back in the palace."
Jeronem snorted. "That was when it looked like something might happen. One said there'd be-"
"One?" Mikaen glared at Jeronem, who was suddenly trying to look as innocent as possible. "What did he tell you?"
Jeronem met Mikaen's stare for a few moments before the young vuestan's resolve crumbled. "He didn't say anything, but I did a quick reading on him; he's definitely expecting something to go down tonight."
A shriek suddenly shot through the air.
Mikaen and Jeronem looked at each other for a moment before they started to run.
They dashed through the woods until they reached the lovers' campsite. The tent was in shreds. What furniture was left was nothing but splinters and torn cloth. No sign remained of Rydiana or Tyrn other than a feather or two from the sentient's wings.
Jeronem picked up a torn strip of canvas. "This is bad! This is really really bad!"
"Calm down." Mikaen told Jeronem, kneeling beside a corner of the shredded tent.
"Calm down!? Someone kidnapped the Cygros's Daughter and one of the Jai Vye delegates!"
"Yes, and they didn't seem bothered with stealth."
"Dude, the Cygros's gonna go ballistic!" Jeronem seemed nearly beside himself in panic.
Mikaen grabbed Jeronem by the shoulders and forced the young vuestan to look at him. "Don't think about the Cygros. Don't think about what might happen. All that matters right now is finding out where Rydiana and Tyrn were taken."
His eyes wide, Jeronem slowly nodded. "Right ... right. I'll check for signs of magic."
"Good." Mikaen gave Jeronem a reassuring pat on the arm before turning his attention back to the tent.
It happened quickly; the tent had been slashed open from the outside. The residual energy from a fire spell lingered on the burned holes in the canvas, indicating someone inside had been a quick caster. A few more precise holes in the dresser and armoire indicated gunfire from a small caliber projectile weapon, probably a pistol.
"They didn't return fire." Mikaen muttered as he noted damage from the gunfire on a nearby tree, straight across from where the rip in the tent had occurred. "So they were definitely trying to capture them. For ransom, maybe?"
"I'm not sensing any large magical disturbances." Jeronem said, one hand clenched tightly around his staff.
"So no teleportation or movement. That means they probably left on foot." He knelt on the ground and pointed to one of the many indentations in the ground outside the tent. "Most of these footprints were made by people wearing heavy boots. We should be able to track them fairly easily."
"Of course! I should be able to sense them!" Jeronem closed his eyes and appeared to concentrate.
Mikaen frowned. "I meant we could follow the-"
"Shh! I need to concentrate on the psychic vibrations!"
Rolling his eyes, Mikaen knelt down on one knee and examined the footprints. They seemed to come from the north, take up positions around the tent, then return to the north, mingled with two sets of bare feet. There was something about the prints that struck him as odd, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was. The indentations of the boots was oddly familiar.
"They went-" he began.
"North!" Jeronem brushed by Mikaen, his robes hitched up around his knees as he ran. "Follow me!"
"Jeronem!" Mikaen called out, but the young vuestan was already long gone. Sighing, Mikaen muttered, "At least he's excited."
The two of them ran through the woods, stopping occasionally so Jeronem could presumably hone in on their target. Mikaen checked the ground for tracks every time they stopped, and was surprised to notice that that they were indeed heading in the right direction. Apparently, Jeronem's mental strength was more powerful than he had let on in the past.
A sudden pang in Mikaen's back brought him to an immediate halt. It wasn't anywhere near as painful as his last attack, but he stopped and waited it out just to be safe.
Jeronem glanced around, still moving. "Come on! We're not that far!"
Without waiting for a response, Jeronem pushed through a dense cluster bushes and promptly disappeared. Forgetting about the pain in his back, Mikaen pushed the underbrush aside.
A huge ravine cut through the ground just beyond the undergrowth. Were it not for the fact Mikaen could see the ravine floor, he might have mistook it for a Rip. There were trees at the bottom, but nowhere near as large as those on either side, leading Mikaen to surmise that the ravine might not be natural. There was a camp set on the ravine floor as well; from the light of the campfires, Mikaen could make out people in unfamiliar uniforms walking about the camp.
"What have we here?" Mikaen muttered to himself.
Mikaen looked around, but could find no sign of Jeronem. "Where are you?"
A glance down found Jeronem hanging by his tail from an outcropping tree root, desperately scrambling to gain purchase against the rock face. Mikaen quickly grabbed Jeronem's furry tail and hoisted the young vuestan back onto the cliff.
Jeronem promptly plopped down on the ground, a hand over his no doubt rapidly beating heart. "By the Creator, I saw what little life I've had flashing before my eyes!"
Mikaen clamped a hand over Jeronem's mouth, forgetting again that Jeronem was vuestan.
Jeronem's eyes narrowed. "You about done?"
Pulling his hand back, Mikaen whispered, "Sorry. Old habits. Look down at the ravine floor."
As Jeronem looked down, his eyes widened. "By the Creator! Look at all those soldiers!"
"Any idea who they might be?" Mikaen asked curiously.
Jeronem gave him a sarcastic look. "Well, that one there is Bob, and the one next to him is Tyson, and the McGuiller twins are over there-"
"I mean do you know what government or organization they're with?"
"Not a clue."
Rolling his eyes, Mikaen turned back to the camp. "We need to get closer. Any ideas?"
Jeronem looked over the camp for a few moments before pointing to the far side of the camp, where two soldiers were keeping watch.
Mikaen grinned. "Ah, the classic approach. Let's go."