Angus stared at the team, deciding what he should do. Clearly the team wasn’t harmed. Plus there were more players involved in this than he’d originally imagined. If Vincent Riccio had wanted them dead, they would’ve been. Both of these points led to the same conclusion. He’d be better off to hold back for a while. Not only would it allow him to hear their views on meeting Vincent, maybe even give him an idea of what was said, but Angus would be able to watch them and make sure nothing nothing was approaching.
* * * * *
The team walked in silence for a time. All of them confused and scared; none of them willing to show it. They knew that they probably wouldn’t get too far before someone found them, and it wasn’t likely to be a friendly someone. Add to that the suspicion that Angus could be pushing them too fast for his own glory and none of them felt very chatty.
Lethen felt he knew Angus better than to believe it, so he broke the silence. “I know what you’re all thinking. I’m thinking it too, but I don’t believe it.”
“Which thing do you mean?” Prolier asked. “Us being setup to die, or Angus having only his own back?”
“Both. We handled Silva once, we can do it again. But even more importantly, Angus would never do something that would jeopardize us. We can handle this and he knows it.”
“What makes you so sure?” Renala asked.
It hurt Lethen a little to see the doubt in Renala’s eyes. He had expected Prolier to fall for it, but not her. “We defeated these guys on our first day at Hikari. Look at how much more we can do now. Plus we’re all together. That first time Angel had covered us from outside and Prolier was tied up. With all of us together, he won’t know what hit him.”
“Angus was with us last time,” she said.
“And will be again. He won’t leave us to die. Even if he does want glory from results, it doesn’t mean a damn thing if we die.”
“What if he can’t get to us?” Prolier asked.
Lethen laughed. “Are you serious? Those border guards have no chance against Angus.”
“I think he was referring to the high probability that there are other people and things waiting for us around here,” Marnie said. “If Angus had run into a group of men or wild daemons, do you think he would be able to beat those odds?”
“I think that he knows what he’s doing. If the group is too big for him to handle, he wouldn’t engage. I expect that we’ll meet him at the river or the town. We may be on our own for a while, but he wouldn’t do us like that.”
Angel had been quiet thus far, but had been watching the discussion. “Am I the only one concerned about the guy riding the dragon? The one that claims to not be our enemy, but followed us from the border. He knew Angus, if fact he knew Hikari. He said everyone knows what goes on inside the academy, and even if it’s an overstatement, the very fact that he knew what he did means information is leaking out. If outside forces know not only what our missions are, but who’s on them, every mission for every team is compromised. It may be us this time, but what about the other squads. Are all of them in the same situation?”
“I don’t know,” Lethen said, “but I hope not. I’m more inclined to believe that it’s not that easy. There are some people in the world that know what’s going on everywhere, but to everyone else, our missions are safe.”
“Do you think that guy is one of those people?” Angel asked. “He knew plenty about us.”
“He might be,” Marnie said, “but we know this mission was likely created as a setup. For that to work, outside parties need to be informed. This mission being leaked doesn’t mean that they all are. If they were, I doubt Hikari would still have paying customers. With as many enemies as we have, we wouldn’t have a ninety-nine percent mission success rate if it were that easy.”
“Well I think that’s about to drop a little,” Prolier said. “Like you said, this mission was likely a setup, and we know it was leaked. The others might be safe, but this one is not. If it is a setup, it’s targets were 3A. Now we’re here in their place. Is there any way that this ends well for us?”
Angel’s eyes opened. “Meredith,” he whispered under his breath.
“What?” Prolier asked.
“Meredith,” Angel said more clearly. “The redhead that gave us our packs.”
“What about her?”
“She’s in 3A. If this is a setup, she’s one of the ones who were meant to die.”
“Wait,” Marnie said. “If this is a trap, it wasn’t set up by Turiel.”
Prolier looked skeptical. “What makes you think that?”
“Because his son, Alliander, is also in 3A.”
* * * * *
“Well done,” Angus said, closing in behind them. He had scanned the area and was convinced that they were safe until at least the river, which wasn’t far now. “I was wondering when one of you would figure that out. I believe that it was indeed set up by Turiel, but not as a suicide mission, a courier one. Alliander was meant to deliver something to the headmaster’s friends up here, but we got in the way.” He had decided to wait until they’d camped to tell them about the bags. They’d travel faster if they weren’t rifling through their gear trying to figure out what the mystery object was. He met them and kept moving.
Renala had shame on her face when she spoke. “How long have you been listening?
“Long enough,” was the only answer he chose to give. He knew they had doubts, but he also knew that the root of those worries was currently soaring away on a winged blue daemon. If he was honest, could he blame them? None of this smelled right.
“Did you see our visitor?” Lethen asked.
“Yes,” Angus said. “What did you think of the beast?”
“I never thought I would ever see a dragon in person.” Lethen said. “Didn’t know if they were even still around. It was awesome. I’m glad it didn’t eat us.”
“Me too,” said Angus. “I had a similar reaction my first time. It’s magnificent.”
Prolier stopped. “You’ve seen a dragon before?”
Angus didn’t stop. He waved to Prolier to keep up. Once they were back even he replied. “Not only have I seen a dragon before, I’ve seen that dragon before.”
This time everyone besides Angus stopped.
“Come on you guys, we still have some ground to cover before the sun rises. We may have dangerous foes ahead, but don’t forget about the ones from behind. What I did only stalled them. We alerted them and they don’t want to look stupid. People will go to incredible lengths to keep from looking stupid. We need to be hidden by daybreak. I’m sorta surprised we don’t hear a chopper already. We need to hurry.”
They took off after Angus at a sprint. As much as they liked to act tough and believe they could do it alone, he noticed them relax when he arrived. They were a strong group, but they still had a lot to learn. They still needed their sensei.
“Before you ask,” he said once they’d caught up, “I have seen that dragon before. I know the man who rides it. The funny thing is, some of you have probably met him before too. Renala, you especially should’ve recognized him. His family and yours are very close.”
Renala looked confused.
“Does the name Vincent Riccio ring any bells?”
Before Renala had a chance to respond Marnie spoke. “That’s who that was? Didn’t he vanish under mysterious circumstances a few years back?”
“He disappeared, but the circumstances weren’t mysterious at all.”
* * * * *
They reached the river as Angus finished retelling the story of David and his father. He left out some of the details, but gave them an idea of what happened. He neglected to mention that he was the sensei in charge of the squad. Their faith in him as a teacher was already wearing thin without it. The last thing he needed on this mission was paranoia. If they were watching him, they wouldn’t be watching their surroundings.
Lethen told Angus the team’s story as they dropped their packs. They had set quite a pace for a number of miles and they were all tired. They still had a long trek, but they were going to stay by the river for the day. They had made better time than Angus had expected, but mainly because they were running or jogging almost the entire way. Once morning hit they would hide, but for right now they were enjoying a moment of peace.
“So you’re telling me they hid that?” Prolier asked between sips of water. “Even from the local population?”
“They had to,” Angus said. “If that had gotten out, Hikari would’ve looked bad. If all the parents had heard that an entire squad of first years were killed on mission, do you think they’d enroll their children? The school is supposed to protect them. The parents were told some lie about a freak rock slide and told never to tell a soul. Since each child had a daemon knight parent, it was easy for Turiel to keep them quiet. To speak of it was akin to treason and would be punished accordingly. They would be labeled rogues.”
They all knew that to be labeled a rogue daemon knight meant that if you were caught, you would be killed and your daemon would be destroyed.
“If it was kept so secret, how do you know?” Renala asked.
“I was already a sensei here when it happened. I was sworn to secrecy as well. I shouldn’t be telling you now, but I think it may be vital to the mission. If he shows up again, he might not be so friendly.”
Angel stood up. “Time to take a leak,” he said before wandering away from the circle they’d naturally formed when they sat down. He went well downriver of where they were before he stopped by the edge.
“I don’t know about you -” Lethen started before Prolier held his hand up to stop him. Given Prolier’s better hearing, Lethen didn’t argue. “What is it?”
Prolier concentrated for a second, straining to make out the noise’s origin. “You were right sensei. They have sent a helicopter and it’s coming quick.”
They made a break for the treeline. They were halfway there when Lethen remembered that Angel had gone off down the river. The chopper was close enough for him to hear now too and it was getting louder by the second. When he spotted the sniper, he was still peeing, but he was looking up, having just noticed the noise over the sound of his own urination.
“Hurry up man, they’re gonna be over us any second.” Lethen looked back to see a searchlight scanning the river. Moving faster than he was comfortable with. He looked at Angel; then at the tree line.
There was no way they’d make it in time. He did the only thing he could think of. He grabbed Angel and jumped into the river.
* * * * *