The team was silent as they headed in the direction Angus had shown them. They were in hostile territory, without their sensei, on a mission that had been assigned for third years, and although the reasons Angus had given them for this were true, only Lethen knew the reasons behind the reasons. They weren’t just here for a challenge or because they had previously faced and beaten Silva, but because they needed to find out the truth behind Lethen’s daemon weapon.
The little they knew so far was preying upon Lethen’s mind as they carefully wended their way through the trees toward a river none of them had ever seen before. Nothing made sense about the situation. It was obvious that Turiel was behind it, but he had no solid evidence against the headmaster and his motive was unclear. He hated Lethen because he was a half-breed, but was that all their was to it? Was racism, even in the extreme, enough of a reason to risk his job and the lives of the other students? If Lethen’s improperly bound daemon got loose within school grounds it would be a disaster, especially considering they now knew that it was capable of earth-swimming. Even the masters would have trouble dealing with a beast that could appear from any portion of exposed ground.
“Lethen!” Marnie said with as much volume as she dared. Everyone else had stopped while Lethen was working things through in his head. They had looked back to see what was going on behind. The beams of flashlights could be seen and shouts between the Russian soldiers heard. It didn’t take long for them to see that Angus’s ploy had worked. The border guards were no longer following the students. They breathed a collective sigh of relief and continued on their way.
Marnie slid into position next to her friend as the others got a few steps ahead. “We’re all worried about Angus,” she said, misunderstanding the reason behind his lack of focus, “but we can’t let that distract us from our surroundings. You almost stepped on Prolier back there.”
Lethen said nothing as he watched the others get a few steps farther ahead. Once he was convinced they wouldn’t hear, he spoke. “That’s not the problem. I mean I am concerned for his safety, but that’s not what I was thinking about.”
“So what’s on your mind? You’ve been pretty quiet since we left the school. Are you afraid of what’s ahead of us? I know I am, but we have to keep going.”
Lethen looked at her and considered things. He recalled their sensei’s warnings about control of information, but knew that he had to get it off his chest or he wouldn’t be able to concentrate. He took a deep breath and told Marnie everything.
To her credit, she showed little surprise and didn’t punch him for endangering the team. She just walked alongside him listening to every word he said. When he was finished, she didn’t speak for several steps. At length she said, “You should tell the rest of the team. They have the right to know why they’re here.”
“I want to, but Angus warned me specifically against it. In fact I doubt he’d approve of me even telling you. I just couldn’t keep hiding it, especially from you. It’s not like it really affects the mission anyway. We are still here to stop the daemon breeding, but if we get a chance to question Silva or one of his men, we have a few extra things to ask. Does it matter if they know about my daemon and it’s origins?”
“I don’t know, but if it does become important, it might be too late to let them know. One of the things my parents always taught me about information is that too much is a lot less likely to kill you than too little. If you have the chance to learn something you should take it. Who knows when something that seems trivial might suddenly become important.”
Lethen hung his head. “You’re right. I need to let them know everything I can about the situation before something goes wrong. We have half a day’s wait once we hit the river. That will be plenty of time for us to discuss everything. I expect they’ll be a little upset, but there’s not much we can do about that now. We’re here and we have a mission to do.”
Marnie nodded. “You’ll be glad once you’ve gotten everything out in the open.”
They had walked only a few dozen more steps before Prolier stopped suddenly and raised his hand to signal a halt. The team stopped in their tracks and watched him. It was obvious that he was listening to something they couldn’t hear. After a time he lowered his hand and started moving forward again.
After some sidelong looks to his teammates, Lethen fell into step beside him. “What was that about?”
“Someone is following us.” Prolier whispered barely loud enough for Lethen to catch. “Someone who knows how to stay quiet. Definitely not one of the border guards. Someone much more skilled.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure enough that I’m not going to get complacent and believe that we’re safe here.”
Lethen nodded in understanding and dropped back to inform the others. There was a stutter to their steps, but they handled the news well. The only thing that changed was the number of backward glances trying to catch sight of their pursuer.
“You’re not going to see anything,” Prolier said. “Whoever they are, they aren’t getting too close. So far I’ve only heard them three times during the three miles since we left Angus. Unless our mission was compromised before we left the school, I doubt that it’s someone with the Russian authorities. More likely, Silva or the man he works for has people watching the border. Very few people can be that stealthy without daemonic help.”
Lethen frowned as he thought about what that might mean. While it was possible that Silva would have men watching and that one of them had spotted the team as they crossed, it was hard to watch a border, even a small stretch of it, without a lot of men. The problem lie in the fact that they were on an official mission for the school. A school that was run by the man who had started all of it. The more Lethen thought about it, the more he became sure that a man waiting for them at the border wasn’t just possible, but virtually guaranteed.
It seemed that his admission wouldn’t be able to wait until they met the river. The team needed to know what they might be getting into and they needed to know now. “Guys, I’ve got something I need to tell you.”
* * * * *
“So the headmaster is willing to get us all killed just because he doesn’t like you?” Angel asked once Lethen had spilled the beans about his weapon and Turiel’s involvement in it’s creation. “Isn’t that a bit farfetched?”
“I’m just telling you what Angus and I have discovered so far.” Lethen said. “I don’t know exactly how he’s involved, but Cheyenne said he was present at the bonding, and that even if he didn’t know my daemon was being badly bound then, he should’ve been able to feel it when he handed it to me at our induction ceremony.”
“He did seem awfully venomous toward you when you were accepted.” Renala said.
“What Turiel did or why he did it doesn’t really matter right now.” Marnie said. “All that matters is that we have someone on our trail and Angus isn’t here to help us.” She looked at Prolier. “Do you think we can shake him?”
“No chance. Every time I’ve heard the noise it’s been the same distance away, although from different directions. Whoever it is, they’re watching us very carefully. Unless you know a way that we can vanish entirely, we’re not shaking him.”
Marnie considered it. “Can’t you make us disappear?”
Prolier shook his head. “I can barely control my gift enough to cloak myself for short periods while sitting perfectly still. Perhaps with more training I’ll be able to cover more people and do it while moving, but I’m sorry, I can’t right now.”
Lethen put his hand on Prolier’s shoulder. “It’s fine. Even without that, we are far from powerless. If we can’t run and hide from him, perhaps we can force a confrontation at a location of our choosing. Somewhere that will give us an advantage.”
“Somewhere that our particular skills can be used most efficiently.” Angel said.
Lethen nodded and looked at Renala. “Can you come up with a rough plan and maybe a list of things we will need for this?”
Renala looked mortified. “Me? Why would you want me to make the plan?”
“You have the quickest and most analytical mind of all of us.” Lethen said. “If any of us can think of a way to make the best use of our gifts in concert, it’s you.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I can do this. What if I get something wrong? What if I screw it up?”
Lethen smiled. “A plan of yours with mistakes is still probably ten times better than one of ours without. Just think about everything you’ve seen that we can do and I’m sure you’ll come up with something that will even the odds a little. It’s possible that this guy is beyond all of us put together and our first mission will be our last, but if there is any possible way to survive this, it lies inside that beautiful brain of yours.”
Renala blushed a little at the compliment but kept her composure and nodded. “Okay, I will do what I can.”
She looked around the forest as they made their steady progress toward the river. The others carried on a conversation to give the impression that they were oblivious to their shadow’s presence. It was likely that he already knew they were onto him, but just in case, they didn’t want to give him any warning of what was to come.
“The good news is that these trees should provide decent cover if he’s using projectiles and might even help confuse a melee enough for us to have an edge.” Renala said as she absently picked up a stick and started breaking it into small pieces. She was obviously nervous, but Lethen still had faith in her. “How much power can you charge while you’re walking?” She asked Angel. “Is it anything near as much as you used to blast that dune apart?”
“Not quite, but I’ll give you everything I can.”
“Good, I want you ready with your biggest shot the next time Prolier hears the noise, and I want it as wide as you can make it. When it comes, you’re only going to have a second to aim and I want you to cover as much of that area as possible.”
They didn’t have to wait long.
Prolier’s arm shot up and pointed to the left. “There.”
Angel’s rifle raised. Just before he fired, Renala tossed the large handful of broken sticks in front of him. When the shot was released, it caught the wooden shrapnel and launched it as it had the sand of the dunes. Foliage was shredded and many of the pieces embedded themselves in a large tree.
When their tail came out from behind the tree, none of the team said anything for several heartbeats.
Lethen spoke first. “Is that what I think it is?”
“I don’t know what you think it is,” Prolier said, “but from here it looks like a freaking dragon.”