Losing the Trail
Daniel peered east for a few minutes, then he turned and faced his friends. He smiled. “We’re getting close. The gem is on the ground again, I think.”
“Good,” said Evan. “Where are we?”
James surveyed the countryside. “Judging by the terrain, near Sapilo.”
The town of S, Evan thought.
Daniel snapped his head around, he glanced west, and then back to the east. He let go of the wind maker and slowly slid into the bottom of the basket. He looked pale and stared straight ahead in disbelief. “In Kaimin’s name, it’s not possible.”
The basket drifted to a halt. “What’s wrong, Daniel?” asked Evan.
The lad looked up at the Michaeline priest. “The gem is not in front of us any more; it’s behind us. We’ve come all this way for nothing.”
Iriel’s eyes widened. “What?”
“That’s impossible,” said James.
Brashani rubbed his chin. “Hmmm, sounds like it was teleported.”
Evan agreed with that assessment. “Where is the Elf-gem now?”
“Back the way we’ve come and deep in the earth now,” said Daniel.
Evan sighed and ran his fingers through his hair repeatedly. His jaw tensed briefly and his hands, sore as they were from the wind maker, clenched into fists. He wanted to hit something hard to ease his frustration. Instead, Evan sighed again and let his anger go. “If what you say is true, then we have two options: go on without a firm guide or go back.”
“Going back means facing God-knows-what in the sky,” said James.
“Agreed,” said Evan. “And there is no guarantee we could even reach the gem in time to prevent whatever plans are unfolding. On the other hand, if the thief teleported himself somehow, we should still find his boat somewhere up ahead. When we do, we’ll know where to set down.”
“He couldn’t know how to teleport himself,” said Brashani, “or he would have teleported way back in Clearbrook.”
“True,” said Evan.
“So there’s probably a device of some kind near his boat,” the wizard concluded.
“But not out in the open,” noted James. “Or lots of people would know about it and would be using it.”
“Good point,” replied Evan. “Let’s keep a lookout for the boat.”
“Look for a rundown shack and a swamp too,” said Brashani.
“Why?” asked Evan.
“Humor me. Call it a vision.”
Daniel stood, squeezed the wind maker again, and propelled them forward. Minutes passed and Evan grew tense. Had he made the right decision? There was no way of knowing until they searched the lands around Sapilo.
And what if we find no boat? he wondered. Perhaps the thief concealed his ship or hid it extremely well.
Turning to Brashani, Evan said, “Bring us down a little.”
“Ease up on the wind maker, Daniel,” Evan continued. “I want to search for the boat.”
The basket sank in the sky and slowed. More minutes flew by, although they seemed like hours to Evan. He scanned the land to the east, and saw the town of Sapilo and a small swamp just to the west of it. He ground his teeth in frustration until he spotted something.
Evan stared intently at the swamp below them.
“What do you see?” James asked.
“I don’t know,” said Evan. “I thought I glimpsed something man-made. Hard to tell what it is at this distance. Brashani, take us down so we are just above the tops of these trees.” He pointed to the trees in the swamp.
The wizard complied and the flying machine descended further.
“There!” said Evan, pointing. “Isn’t that a white sail?” A wave of relief swept through him. He had guessed correctly. He permitted himself a moment of elation.
James and Brashani looked. Listing to one side in a small clearing of the swamp, a sailboat was resting in the mud.
“It appears to be,” Brashani said and nodded his head in satisfaction.
“We found it!” James said and grinned.
Daniel and Iriel smiled too.
“Then that’s where we are going,” said Evan.
“What’s that next to it?” asked James.
Evan looked. He hadn’t seen it before, but a few yards away from the boat was an old shack. The wood of the shack was gray and weathered. Odd bits of wood were stuck onto the building or pegged in place. From what Evan could see, it appeared as if someone had tried to cover holes that had been created from natural deterioration or made by swamp creatures that had tried to make the shack a home.
Evan looked at Brashani. “How’d you know there’d be a shack here?”
“As I said, it was a vision.”
“Have any other visions?”
“Yes, but I’m not sure they make sense at the moment.”
“Well, let me know if you figure them out. This one was spot on.” Evan addressed Daniel next. “Can you position us over the clearing?”
“I will try,” replied the lad. The flying basket crept forward a few feet in one direction and then a few feet in another.
Once they were in position, Evan turned to Brashani. “Remove heat from the canvas bag slowly. We don’t want to hit anything on the way down.”
Brashani inclined his head and they descended into the clearing. Daniel made small adjustments to their position as they drifted down from the sky. Evan scanned the scene below as they approached.
“The sailboat still has its sail up and does not appear to be moored to anything,” observed Evan. “Apparently, the thief wasted no time going wherever it was he went.”
“Any idea where that might be?” asked Brashani.
“No, but we’re going to find out.”
“Are we searching the boat first?” inquired Iriel.
“No,” Evan replied. “We already know from Daniel’s connection with the gem that it isn’t in the boat or the swamp. It is wherever the thief went; we’re going to follow him.”
In the soft mud, Evan saw a line of footprints leading from the sailboat to the shack. So either the thief is in the shack waiting or he has teleported away. Given Daniel’s information, I’m guessing it’s the latter.
Finally, they came to rest on the marshy ground.
“At last,” said James. “Solid ground.” The bard looked again. “Well, sort of.”
It didn’t feel solid to Evan. He felt the basket settle into the mud and his jaw tightened again. Looking at Brashani, he said, “I hope you can get us off the ground and out of the mud later.”
“So do I,” said Brashani.
Evan examined the land around them. It looked wet and slimy but there didn’t appear to be any sinkholes or quicksand.
Daniel gave the wind maker to Evan. The priest pocketed it and drew his sword. James readied his whip. Iriel loaded an arrow into her bow and examined the quiver slung over her shoulder. It was full of arrows fletched with blue feathers.
“Everyone ready?” asked Evan.
“I am,” said Daniel.
“Yes,” said Brashani.
“Ready when you are,” said James.
“So am I,” said Iriel.
“Good,” said Evan. “Let’s go, but be careful. We don’t know what we’re walking into.”
Daniel vaulted out of the basket and landed lightly in the mud.
“Don’t get too far ahead of us,” Iriel called out.
Daniel made no motion to acknowledge Iriel, but he waited for the others nonetheless.
Evan climbed out next. The heels of his boots sank into the mud, but, aside from this, the ground around the basket seemed solid enough. He motioned for the others to follow.
Feeling the ground under him for the first time in hours, James smiled. It was a wet squishy ground and he sank a little with each step. “Never thought I’d live to walk on the ground again,” the bard said idly.
“You almost didn’t,” observed Brashani and clambered out of the basket.
“Say, that’s right. And come to think of it, this entire ordeal would make an excellent ballad. I bet I could write something about the whole experience.”
“Probably,” said Evan. “But let’s stay keep our attention on the current task, please. Now is not the time for such things.”
“No, of course not,” replied James, as he helped Iriel out of the flying vehicle.
They approached the shack with caution, and Evan tested each step to determine if the mud would hold him. The smell of wet, dank soil and decaying, rotting leaves was heavy in the morning air; strange birdcalls, which Evan had not heard before, echoed in the distance.
As he came up to the shack, Evan signaled James to one side and Brashani to the other. Iriel stood back with a clear shot of the door. Daniel stood next to her. Evan examined the ground in front of the door for tripwires. When he did not find any, he asked, “Brashani, sense any magic in the area?”
The wizard concentrated for a moment. “Yes, but it is faint. I don’t think it is out here.”
“So, no wards or protection spells on the shack?”
“No. The magic is inside, I think.”
“What about traps? Can you detect them?”
Evan stepped up to the door, pushed it open, and jumped back in case an arrow or crossbow quarrel came flying out when the door moved. The door swung open and Evan landed in the mud with a definite squish. He looked down and saw the mud was up to his ankles.
“Brashani, look inside,” Evan said, as he struggled to free his feet from the goopy ground.
Brashani stepped in and to one side of the shack’s doorway with a fireball and a magic shield ready, just in case. Looking about, he saw nothing of interest, only some dead leaves scattered across the muddy floor. The sense of magic was definitely stronger now but not well defined.
Where is it coming from? the mage wondered. He was about to leave when something caught his eye. A small yellow stone was stuck in the dark brown mud. It looked like the corner of a ceramic tile. He bent over to pick it up but it wouldn’t move.
Odd, thought Brashani. Clearing away the dead leaves around the stone and some of the surrounding mud, Brashani understood why the stone would not budge. The yellow stone was the corner of a large ceramic tile set into the ground. On the face of the tile was a seven-pointed star painted in brown.
His eyes widened. Well, I’ll be a sorcerer’s apprentice.
Brashani straightened and stepped out of the shack to talk with his companions.
“What did you find?” asked Evan; he shook the mud off his boots.
“The magic. You’ll never guess what it is.” Evan shot him a pained look. Brashani got the point. The priest was in no mood to play games.
“It’s a portal stone,” the wizard said after a moment. “I’m surprised to find one here. They’re very rare, but it explains how the elf teleported.”
“Yes,” said Evan. “And it confirms what you told me yesterday. The thief is working with necromancers.”
“Necromancers?” repeated James. Iriel and Daniel looked at Evan, as their eyes grew wide. Iriel’s mouth opened as she gasped.
“Yes, I’ve been fighting them for months. They seem to have an endless supply of resources. If not for the efforts of His Grace and the men at his command, this duchy would have fallen to them some time ago.”
“This portal stone probably goes to the necromancers’ lair,” observed Brashani.
“One of them, yes,” said Evan.
“One of them?” asked Iriel.
“Yes. Necromancers organize themselves into groups of five; if some are captured, the others are not at risk. Each group has a lair of its own.”
“Does anyone coordinate the mages?” asked the elf.
“It is hard to know,” said Evan. “Because we capture so few and they generally do not answer our questions even under intense interrogation. They usually die first.”
Brashani cleared his throat. Everyone looked at him. “Evan, I’m sure you are a fine demon hunter and do the best you can against the necromancers; however, I was fighting them back in Marngol when you were just a boy. I can tell you that they do not have endless resources, just magic to make whatever they need. Most serve one demon or another and these fiends resurrect their most faithful subjects. So you end up fighting the same people over and over again. They look different, but they are the same people.”
“That explains a lot,” said Evan. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure,” said Brashani. “Now let’s kick some dark mage ass.”
Evan smiled but Daniel looked distressed and went pale. “In Kaimin’s name, it cannot be.”
“What cannot be, Daniel?” asked Iriel.
He looked up at her. Tears welled up in his eyes. “I’ve lost Aure’s signal. I think he’s dead.”