Their group was a quiet one, which was alright for Fedaro, as his mind had not stopped racing since he saw what the girl could do. Even though he was mindfully guiding them out of the Gardens, in the back of his head he was testing every scenario they would likely face on his way to Doma Arak.Beluka and the girl walked behind him, and he had told the Hippo to only follow in his tracks. As it were the big man could not see the placement of his own feet, and though Fedaro was wary of the white-looped red snakes that slithered here and there, he was more nervous about the Hippo falling over an unseen rock or branch. Fedaro was willing to put up a large wager, that even if a snake did manage to bite through Beluka’s leggings, that the venom would barely give the Hippo anything more than a headache, given the man’s mass. He was not exactly what you would call fat, but he was built as wide as a house and standing at least at 6 foot 6, maybe 6 foot 7.His lumpy head was shaven clean, making him an ugly man - The best of all to Fedaro’s amusement, was the smallish ears, which had made the moniker of Hippo so much more fitting.
Fedaro kept hoping for a clearing where he could see the sun better, the overhead forest canopies causing a bit of disorientation. Still, he was certain that they were generally going in the right direction. Where they would end up would be a whole new host of problems on its own - heading back, through the Imperials and to the ferry with which Fedora had arrived on was not an option. He had even left his bike behind, which was an out of character move on his part. He didn’t like to think about it, but he would probably have to make a couple of such sacrifices along the way.
Their silence was suddenly interrupted by a buzzing noise, and then a ringtone coming through. Fedaro turned around, realizing that the Hippo’s helmet, hanging from his backpack, was ringing.
The mercenary shook his head, walking to the Hippo and ripping the helmet from his back, him standing there motionless with the girl in his arms still.
’While I know these come with factory settings, I am at a loss why you wouldn’t change the options to something a little less bubblegum?’
‘No one ever calls me directly,’ grumbled Beluka, ‘all our communication comes through broadcast.’
Fedaro ignored him and raised the helmet to his mouth, answering the call.
’Where is Beluka?’ asked Mestarés immediately over the phone.
‘He is with me. At the moment I find him best suited as a baggage carrier. I might even give him a promotion, depending on how he behaves himself.’
’Can I ask that whatever reasonable part of you remains to send Beluka back to us? He doesn’t need to share your fate.’
‘He certainly doesn’t need to share yours,’ said Fedaro.
‘Beluka is carrying the girl?’ asked Mestarés.
’Indeed. Not bad Mestarés, if only you had shown this type of insight before coming to Scithea.
’I never wanted anyone to come on this mission!’ said Mestarés sternly over the phone, and Fedaro detected some serious anxiety in his voice.
‘And it’s not me that that concluded Beluka is carrying the girl. Sternroe is a bloodhound when it comes to tracking. He took one look at your tracks and he knew exactly the composition of your group and where you are headed. He will find you Fedaro!’
‘If he is so good why did you get to the girl before he did?’
‘Happenstance. He came from the other side of the Gardens and my company was lucky to be nearby the girl. Trust me when I say he will track you down.’
‘Good, then I can put a few bullets in him and get it over with.’
‘Will you really turn hostile toward Imperials?’
‘At the moment, anyone who threatens my cause. Let me give you some advice Mestarés. Turn back and call it a day.’
‘I’ve tried, Sternroe isn’t going to give this up.’
Fedaro held up his hand and indicated to Beluka that he should stay put. He walked away from the Hippo and the girl, until he was out of sight and out of earshot.
‘Are you still there?’ asked Mestarés.
‘How important is this girl really?’ asked Fedaro not for the first time.
’I meant what I said. She has the spirits of the dead Kingdom of Arterra following her. The rumours I heard; this includes any of the royal family members. Can you imagine what would happen if the second son of Osprey walks into the Imperial throne room? Emperi Josalain cannot stand uncontested if the likes of King Serego is seen walking the halls!’
Fedaro almost laughed. He did chuckle a bit, much to the annoyance of Mestarés.
‘Do you understand now why everyone wants this girl dead?’
’Oh yes I understand that part now, fully. What I don’t understand is how the Imperials allowed her to live to begin with. But you were not ordered to kill her. And she was thrown into The Hold to begin with the first time she was captured. Was she scheduled to be executed?’
‘No,’ saidMestarés, ‘not as far as I know.’
‘Whoever commanded you to come after her wants the girl for themselves.’
‘Now listen to me Fedaro. The reason I’m sharing any of this with you is because what that girl can do can tear Doma Arak apart. Anything your father helped built will be lost to the wind.’
’I don’t really care what my father helped build. It is the Imperials that wiped out the closest thing to civilization in the south. They destroyed Arterra, not I. They are right to fear the ghosts following her.’
‘And here’s what you don’t get Mestarés. They send you, the sensible obedient one, and a bloodhound as you call him to chase down a girl - not to kill her, although they had not relayed that information to you because they expected Sternroe to catch up to her first. Tell me, what did Sternroe say? Did he insist on pursuing the girl?’
‘He did,’ admitted Mestarés.
’Your orders, or at least Sternroe’s, does not come from those in favour of Emperi Josalain. If the girl was caught by you, the enemies of Emperi Josalain would at the very least blackmail him with the mere existence of this girl with her dead spirits. It would actually have been better if the girl was dead, which you very nearly accomplished.If you value your Imperial Empire Mestarés, then leave the girl with me.’
Mestarés’ silence on the other end told Fedaro that what he had just said made perfect sense.
‘What are you going to do with her?’ asked Mestarés.
‘You will read about in the newspapers.’ Fedaro pressed the signal end at the base of helmet. He was well aware that the Imperials would be able to trace the device.
He fiddled with the bracelet on his arm. It was called a pallet, very much in the same sense as the tray in a painter’s dumber hand, from which he chose colours for his brush, and mixed new ones as he went along. Explained in detail the pallet would turn out to be a very complicated device and Fedaro was still mastering it after years of use. He used the almost embedded dial on the bracelet to choose the aspect he wanted his Musket to assume.
What came out of the Musket had been a project of years of travelling, researching and calibrating the weapon to the device. Fedaro held the Musket over his shoulder with one arm and tossed the helmet high up and into the sky. He instantly snapped straight the Musket and took steady aim, and fired when the helmet had just begun to fall from the highest point of its trajectory. A silvery streak escaped from the muzzle, almost invisible in daylight, piercing the helmet and smashing it into a thousand tiny pieces that rained on the surrounding area. So much for the masterpiece of the Imperial uniform. Somewhere in Gardens Mestarés was swearing right now, realizing he had lost their signal.
When Fedaro returned to the others, he found Beluka backed to a tree, and Gloria, in pure terror, had managed worm her way from his arms onto his shoulders. She didn’t leave it at that, reaching up and grabbing hold of the branches overhead, pulling herself up and scrambling high up into the tree without stopping.
The biggest, and so by extension the ugliest, spiders Fedaro had ever seen had cornered his companions in just the brief period he had decided to talk to Mestarés privately. They were at least as big as a dog, eight of them that Fedaro could see, black as night with bold white markings on them as though painted for war. The hairy legs twitched forward, moving in on Beluka patiently.
Fedaro had to give him credit, if he’d turned and run, they would have hunted him down and pounced on him immediately. That he faced them, meant they approached the big man wearily and it gave Fedaro the chance to do something about their situation.
The Musket flew off his back and he opened fire, rapidly changing targets once he was satisfied at the damage done. The bullets bit into the grotesque creatures with surprising amounts of slime exploding from the wounds, recoiling with their legs tucked in death as was the spiders’ nature. They turned immediately on Fedaro instead, which was not a problem until one of the bastards came gliding down on a line of web, upside down and bearing down on Fedaro stealthily.
‘...above you!’ cried Beluka clumsily. The warning came a little late. The thing landed on Fedaro’s shoulders. He immediately reversed the Musket and stabbed the bayonet toward himself as though he was going to impale himself through the head. The blade caught the spider squarely among its many eyes, and it recoiled. He turned out of its embrace to drive it to the ground, thrusting the blade deeper. While he had done this, the Hippo at least had not given himself over to petrified terror, jumping on one of them, stomping it into the ground, the goo drenching his right boot.
‘Today really isn’t my day!’ Beluka lamented, and he grabbed another by the leg, and his resolve of touching the creature lasted just long enough for him to fling it high up into air... and Fedaro’s bullets turned it to slush as it came falling down. It seemed the mercenary could barely miss. The rest of the creatures fled into cover, scurrying away with such speed it was as though they’d never been there.
Beluka was breathing heavily and Fedaro could imagine he experienced some intense terror right now himself. There was no way he could be that unfit and be part of the Imperial forces, although these days you never know.
Fedaro walked past Beluka and over to the tree that Gloria had hid in.
‘Gloria! Do you mind coming down? We need to move again!’ said Fedaro.
‘I can’t,’ came the answer. She was so high Fedaro couldn’t even see her. Fedaro sighed, having expected this was going to be difficult the moment he had seen her climb like a monkey.
‘She’s afraid of heights,’ explained Beluka.
‘Evidently not as much as she is of spiders,’ said Fedaro. ‘How the hell did she get up so high so fast?’
’Well, go get her,’ said Fedaro to Beluka. ‘She’s your responsibility.’
The Hippo marched forward dutifully, and started his trek by a low hanging branch, only managing to pull himself up by furling his legs around it as well, which wasn’t a bad tactic.
To Beluka’s credit, he did make it to the second branch - and then it broke and he fell flat on his back on the grass, the branch still in his hands. ‘Ummmph!’ he cried, the impact worth a notable thrum beneath the soles of Fedaro’s feet.
Fedaro reached down and grabbed Beluka by the plates of his body armour, at the collar, and wrenched him upright with a strength that surprised the Hippo.
‘Nice try. Stay put and when I come back down please don’t be caught up in some drama again,’ Fedaro scaled the tree with much more alacrity than the Hippo, making it up and up without too much effort, until he realized how closely set the upper most branches were, where Gloria nested.
He came up as high as he possibly could, until he could stand on a branch that allowed him to look her in the face where she sat.
‘It hurts,’ she said, talking of her ankle, which must be on fire by now.
‘I can’t look down,’ she said.
They looked at each other whilst Fedaro tried to determine how this was going to work.
‘Listen, I can’t turn around where I am standing. You’re going to have to lean forward, I’ll catch you, and we’ll make our way down together. You’re going to have to hold on to me.’
‘I am going to count...’
She fell forward and grabbed him around his neck, taking him by surprise, and holding on as tightly as she could without suffocating Fedaro. His airway did feel a bit constricted. But it was not her hold on him that struck him breathless; not the force of it anyway. The warmth coming from her skin was like perfume, and she undoubtedly had the sweetest scent to her, and although very faint was overpowering in its own way. She had seemed hard and athletic all this time, but her touch now in their virtual embrace was as soft as the brush of feathers, and though her intent was far from it, it was certainly tantalizing.
Fedaro had no time for it. Maybe his head did swim there for a moment, but steadfastly he made his way down with the girl.
He carefully manoeuvred down, much slower than he anticipated, having trouble finding the lower branches with his feet whilst Gloria hung on for dear life.
That someone can be this afraid of heights, thought Fedaro.
‘You can let go now,’ he told the girl when they reached the forest floor. He put her down gently and indicated to Beluka that he could take over again.
It was only then that Fedaro managed to see the mark on one of the spiders, and register its true meaning. His bullets had mutilated their bodies badly, but he could still see enough of a marking to know what they were dealing with. This is going to turn out being much worse than one of Hansin’s fishing stories, thought Fedaro glumly.
He looked at the girl a little angrier than he intended to. She was an open invitation to trouble and he had no doubt in his mind that the greatest horror the Gardens of Scithea had to offer would come chasing after them because of her. He guessed the only reason he didn’t call her out on this fact was because of her kingdom’s tragic fate, but which was just another case in point as to what seemed to be a pall of bad luck surrounding the girl.
Fedaro picked up the branch that had broken courtesy of the Hippo. He inspected it. It was not quite straight enough.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Beluka
‘Keep up. We have to keep moving,’ said Fedaro, and they marched on.
Fedaro got another branch along the way, swinging it forcefully to break it away from its tree with a great crack. It was at least ten feet long, reasonably straight, with a good combination of strength and flexibility. He took out a knife strapped to his waist, the blade alarmingly big and sharp, and carved the head of the branch into a spear in stride.
‘Things are going to get real ugly before we exit the Gardens. These spiders were sent by a Sigotor of the forest. I don’t know how but that thing came loose and now it’s coming after us,’ Fedaro explained.
‘What thing?’ asked Beluka.
‘I’m gonna strap this to your backpack, in case you need to defend yourself. Put the girl down safely if you have to... make sure she is safe or I will have your skin. Use some discretion. Run when you have to, fight when you can’t.’
‘Who is after us?’ asked Beluka again.
‘A being called Ultair. An undead of the humans that had lived here a thousand years ago. Someone had done well enough to trap it in one of the tombs here many years ago.’
‘It’s free now? How do you know?’
‘Because it manipulates creatures of the Garden. Those spiders have his marking on them and they would not have come after us if not for his purpose.’
‘Who would have set loose such a creature?’ asked Beluka in alarm, Gloria’s eyes going wide as well.
‘Well, given the number of geniuses that’s been visiting the area lately I would say your guess is as good as mine, as it could be any one of the fools I’ve been running into lately.... I hope you have some courage in that big heart of yours.’
‘Can’t we just run? Maybe it will turn its attentions on something else if we’re avoiding his territory?’
‘Na-uh. Ultair is a soul-eater. You know what that means? The girl’s dead spirits will attract it.’
‘What about Captain Mestarés and the others? Can we warn them?’
‘Wish that I could. I destroyed your helmet and I’m not going to reconnect my communication so that they can track me down,’ said Fedaro.
‘What happens if they run into Ultair?’ asked Beluka.
‘They will all die,’ said Fedaro.