“Well I guess the waiting is over.” Angus said.
“What do you see?” Prolier asked.
“They tortured Gregor. I guess they didn’t believe his story. And it seems that the disturbace we heard earlier was a coup. Silva is no longer in charge.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because his head is on display in the courtyard. It’s no longer attached to his body.”
The team looked at each other, not sure what to say.
“You know that yielding is about the most humiliating thing a daemon weapon used can do,” Angus explained. “Well, he not only yielded, but it was to a kid who was on the first day of their training. Think of how much esteem he would’ve lost by losing to someone who had gotten their weapon less than twenty four hours previously.”
“So what do we do now?” Renala asked. “If we just go in now, they will be ready for us. You have to know it’s a trap.”
“Of course it is, but we don’t have much of a choice. If we don’t go in now, he’ll probably kill Gregor. He’s in rough shape, but he’s still moving a little. He’s alive, but he won’t be if we just leave him there. He put his neck out for us and we won’t abandon him. We were too late to save Yuri, but we might be able to save Gregor. We’ll just walk around to the front gate and walk in I guess. I’m not sure if Marnie could’ve climbed the wall anyway with that hole in her leg.”
Marnie looked down at her bundled calf. She had been doing her best not to show how much it hurt or slow down the rest of the team, but she was glad about not having to try to scale a wall. Walking on it was bad enough. Hopping down from an eight foot wall would be agony.
As they headed toward the front of the compound Lethen was feeling uneasy, but it wasn’t hard to understand why. They were walking into a trap set by people who hated them with a passion. “We’re going to be horribly outnumbered, aren’t we?”
Angus nodded. “Probably. If we stick together, we should have a chance. More than any other time we’ve faced, we need to watch each other’s backs. Form a circle around Angel. Lethen, you and Renala will hold the back. The rest of us will fan out in the front. Angel, you keep your head on a swivel. Your primary focus is anyone with a ranged weapon. I don’t know if you have enough power to take them out yet, but if you can keep them from shooting at us while we’re fighting, I’d appreciate it.”
The team voiced their acceptance of the plan as they reached the large main gate. It was a pair of enormous, dark wood doors with thick iron bands across them. They could probably stop a mack truck going at seventy. Angus looked at the team once more, making sure they were all ready. He lifted his staff and slammed it against the right door three times.
The gate swung slowly out to greet them.
The first thing Angus noticed was how mistaken he was about the gate itself. Since the compound was built by Silva, he really should’ve expected it to be more for show than functionality, but when he saw that the imposing looking gate was only half an inch thick, he almost laughed.
The second thing he noticed certainly didn’t make him want to laugh. There were about thirty men standing in the courtyard, and all of them were armed. He recognized a few of them from the team’s first day, but many of the faces were unknown to him. He had faith in his team’s abilities, but this might be too much for even them. He had gone into this hoping to save Gregor. Now he wasn’t even sure if he’d get out alive.
One of the ones he knew came forward. The one Lethen had faced who carried a sickle. “Welcome to my home ladies and gentlemen. I want to thank you so much for coming.” He looked at the team and then at his men. “Oh, do put your weapons away. These are our guests.”
Everyone in the area shared an almost identical look of confusion, friend and enemy alike.
Sickle laughed. “Do you really think I would attack the people who freed me from the tyranny of that idiot?” He pointed at Silva’s head. “You did me a great favor by forcing him to show his weakness. I am Nestor and I was his second in command, but I had been looking for a reason to take the top place for years. The only thing that kept him in his position was his distant relation to the boss, but once word had spread that he’d been forced to yield by a half-breed pup, well, that protection ended.”
Angus wasn’t convinced. “Why did you do that to Gregor then?”
“Gregor? Oh, that was for lying to me. That was the only was for me to get the truth out of him. The shame is that if he’d just been honest with me in the beginning, I probably would’ve offered him a position within my organization.” Nestor smiled. “I just love the sound of that: My organization. It sounds better in Russian of course, but everything does. Anyway, we have plenty of room if you need a rest, but there is one thing I need from you.”
“Whatever it is,” Angus said, “we want Gregor in return. Alive.”
“That’s no problem. I am very good at what I do. He has been cut to cause enough pain to bring forth the facts, but not deep enough to bleed too much. He will survive just fine. He’ll have some scars, but nothing that will stop him from being a productive member of society. Tell you what. If you willingly give me what I need, I won’t even pursue the people of Selenduma, despite them abandoning their jobs.”
Angus now knew that Gregor had told Nestor everything. He didn’t blame him for it. He wasn’t trained to take that kind of punishment, but it did complicate matters a bit. If Nestor knew about the townsfolk’s escape, he held all the cards. “What do you need?”
“Oh, it’s something tiny and you probably aren’t even aware that you have it. It was something that was being sent from a contact we have at Hikari to Silva. A payment for services rendered if you will. Nothing that would damage you or your precious school, but something that is very useful to us. Information on a mutual enemy.”
“We aren’t carrying anything like that.” Angus said it, but didn’t believe it. He had correctly guessed that it was a courier mission, and had meant to check the packs. With everything that had happened since his revelation, he hadn’t had a chance to.
“As I said, you wouldn’t even know about it. It was sewn into the half-breed’s backpack when the plan changed. Originally it was to be delivered to us by another, but your insistence on taking this particular mission forced an alternate system to be devised. It should be inside the left carrying strap.”
Angus looked to Lethen, who handed him the pack. He felt along the straps and sure enough, there was a small, solid object hidden within the left one. His staff morphed into a Bowie knife and the sensei cut the object out. It was a tiny memory card in a solid protective case. He looked at it for a moment before throwing it to Nestor. He didn’t want to give it up without knowing what was on it, but for the moment, the Russian was in charge of the situation.
Nestor caught it with one hand before swinging his sickle at the tree holding Gregor. Angus was about to lash out with his whip when he saw the blade cut the ropes rather than the man. Gregor fell to the ground with a grunt.
Nestor looked at the memory card and beamed. “Now that the business is out of the way, we feast. Today had been a truly fortuitous day and with all the unpleasantness earlier, my men and I have yet to eat dinner. You will join us.”
Angus shook his head. “I think now that our business is concluded we will take Gregor and leave. You have what you want, we have what we want. Let’s keep this pleasant.”
Nestor’s smile didn’t move. “Nyet. Gregor needs rest and you are our guests of honor tonight for what you’ve done for me.” He nodded toward his men, who moved a little closer to the team. “I’m afraid I have to insist.”
* * * * *
Angus had managed to negotiate a suite of connected rooms for the team to prepare for the feast, but the rooms were near the center of the complex, with no windows and guards positioned outside the door. He had been allowed to bring Gregor with them, but the man had yet to regain consciousness. “I don’t like this,” he said once the door was closed and Gregor had been placed in one of the beds to recover. “He wants us to think we’re guests, but we’re prisoners. Well treated prisoners, but prisoners none-the-less and now we’re in the belly of the beast.”
“How will we escape?” Renala asked. “This place is like a maze and it’s filled with enemies.”
“I don’t know yet. So far the only good news is that Gregor is alive, but we won’t be able to move very quickly until he’s back on his feet. Luckily, Nestor did know what he was doing and none of the injuries should slow him down to much. He’ll be in a great deal of pain, but he should be able to run if the need arises. For now we-”
A knock on the door interrupted Angus. A gruff, heavily accented voice came through. “Dinner’s ready.”
“We’ll talk more later,” Angus whispered before opening the door and following the guard to the dining hall.
* * * * *
The team was seated at the head table with Nestor and a few of his men. The feast was actually quite delicious with some local dishes they hadn’t tried before. Nestor told them the names of the things they tried. The pelmeni, a kind of stuffed pasta was Lethen’s favorite, whereas Marnie preferred the shashlik, skewered cubed of seasoned meat. Everyone enjoyed the dessert of syrniki, a type of pancake topped with fruit.
The team had planned to only eat lightly to avoid offending their host, but once they started, they discovered just how hungry they’d gotten being on the road and subsiding on trail rations for days. Each of them ate more than they should have and by the end of the meal, all they could think about was going to sleep. Angus wasn’t too happy about the situation, but he didn’t make an issue of it. The food was good and they’d been pushing themselves harder than first years should’ve had to.
Once dinner was done and Nestor’s men had cleared the plates, their host spoke. “That was suitable meal for such a prosperous day. Now we drink.”
Everyone was given a drink, even the students. Nestor waited until they had all drank before addressing Angus again. “I have not been entirely honest with you. There is one other thing that I must take from you before I allow you to leave. I wish I didn’t have to ask this, but I must prove my worth after taking over from Silva. It is nothing personal.”
“What do you need?” Angus asked.
“I need the shovel.”
Angus looked at Lethen and could tell by how his eyes narrowed that this was about to get ugly.
* * * * *