With the fox daemon advancing slowly, Angus decided his attention belonged on the owl. He hoped Renala could handle the fox if it came to it. She had faced off against the white tiger during the trials, no reason she shouldn’t be able to keep this one back at least long enough for him to do something about the owl.
He spared a glance for his group and saw that the others had already readied themselves. Angel had his rifle up and was presumably charging a shot at the winged death that was closing on them quickly. “Hold your shot,” he told Angel. “We will dodge the first sweep, get him in the back after he passes us.
Angus watched the bird’s trajectory and decided that it was coming straight for him. It wasn’t coming down far enough to get any of the students or Gregor who were all between them. It would swoop down right around his face level if his estimation was correct. It wanted to peck his eyes out, but he wasn’t going to let that happen.
When the owl was barely clearing the heads of the others, Angus dove to the side, into a roll. He came up into a crouch with his whip at the ready. As his eyes found his target, he noticed that the owl hadn’t pulled out of its swoop as he’d expected it to once its target was gone. Instead it had kept its talons out and was heading right for the fox.
Apparently the fox was just as surprised as Angus. It didn’t move out of the way fast enough and was snatched up. It tried to bite at the owl’s legs as it was lifted from the ground, but the owl was obviously an expert and had gripped its back in such a way to make that impossible.
Angus stared after the unlikely duo as the bird gained altitude with its prize. It was a damned big owl, but the sensei never would’ve expected it to be able to lift the giant fox as easily as it had. Just scooped it up like it was a small rabbit. A tasty little snack to hold him over until dinner. Angus didn’t know much about owls, but he did know that while they usually ate prey small enough to swallow whole, they could, and occasionally did, eat things that were too big and they’d have to tear apart piece by piece. He didn’t envy that fox one little bit.
Not one to starting counting teeth on a gift horse, he turned to the squad. “Well that was weird, but let’s get moving again. There is still some distance between us and Selenduma and I don’t want to be caught out here by another daemon looking for a meal. I want to be there by the time the sun rises. We need to find out the fates of those who were planning to abandon the town. If some of Silva’s men went down there, they might be in trouble.”
* * * * *
The team made it to Temnik and opted for a short break. The daemon knights, both teacher and students, had trained for things like this and could’ve continued. Even Marnie with the hole in her calf was holding up just fine. Gregor was another story. He’d been tortured at length and wouldn’t be at a hundred percent for a week at least. Even if he had been at a hundred percent, he was not used to this much hiking. They’d traveled a few miles and it was wearing on him. Without even bringing the cuts he’d received as Nestor’s guest into it, he was gonna be hurting in the morning.
While they waited for him to work his leg muscles some, they shared a quick snack. It was nothing compared to the spread the Russians had put before them, but it was nutritious and relatively tasty.
Angus mused about how far trail rations had come since he’d been a student at Hikari. When he’d went out on his first mission, they’d had dried meat and cans of almost tasteless veggies. The dried jerky had stayed about the same, though now it was more flavorful, but now they had pouches of fruity paste. All of it was now enriched with all the vitamins and minerals that could possibly be stuffed into it. Even a small snack could provide a day’s nutrition. You’d still feel hungry, but you’d have all the riboflavin you needed to get through the day. None of them knew what riboflavin was or why they needed it, but it was there none-the-less. The package told them so.
They were about to set off again when Prolier noticed a speck of gray-white in the sky to the north. They group hid, not knowing what it could be. It was too small to be another chopper or even a one-man glider, but it was the age of technology. There were drones and other small aircraft that could spot them and cause trouble aplenty should they allow it.
They watched the shape grow larger as it approached and it soon became obvious that it wasn’t any type of man-made aircraft after all. It was the owl. It had come back.
“Well there’s no use hiding anymore,” Angus said. “That thing’s eyesight is a lot better than ours. It saw us long before we saw it and there’s no doubting it knows where we are. I guess we’d better make our stand here. I’m not sure it wants to hurt us, since it missed a perfect opportunity to when we were facing the fox, but it wants something. That much is sure. We’ll move much faster if we find out what and don’t have to keep looking over our shoulders every step of the way.”
They stepped from behind their concealment behind the small station and waited. It wasn’t long before the owl swooped down and landed a mere ten feet in front of them. At this close range they could see how truly magnificent the beast was. It’s feathers were a pure white over almost its entire body, with just a few speckles of black along the wings and breasts. Angus had seen quite a few daemons in his time, but none quite so beautiful as this one. Most of the well kept ones were large and majestic specimens of whatever base animal they were, but this thing looked like he ruled all of bird-kind. He was the king, emperor and god of all of avian society.
They tensed as it walked around them, peering at each in turn. After its initial circuit, it made another, this time inspecting their weapons. The second lap was much slower as the massive bird of prey would stop before each one as if communicating with them. Then again, perhaps it was. After all, they knew that daemons could send and receive telepathy from other daemons, and possibly from their owners to some small extent. Perhaps it was sounding the group out by talking to their weapons. Finding out what kind of people these were.
In four of the cases, the silent rapport went on only for a handful of seconds. The two exceptions were Lethen and Renala. In Renala’s case, it went on for a few minutes. In Lethen’s case, it only took the bird a second to realize that it had no interest in that particular weapon. Angus smiled as he imagined the brief conversation. Owl: How are you? Shovel: Scream of inarticulate rage from the shovel with obscene words thrown in. Owl: How rude!
After the second and final revolution it stood for a moment before launching itself back into the air. It circled them a few times and landed atop the building they had so recently been hiding behind. Once there, it simply stared at them. Although Angus couldn’t hear mind messages from it, he got the distinct impression the daemon was asking them what the hold up was. Maybe it was the tilt of the head or the intelligent look in the eyes, but he caught a faint whiff of ‘ready when you are.’
“Well,” he said with more calm than he truly felt, “now that that weirdness is out of the way, shall we get going?”
Prolier stared in awe at the bird glaring down at them. “Aren’t you worried about him?”
Angus shook his head. “If he was going to attack us, he probably would have when the fox was there and we were distracted, or just now. I’m not sure, but I think he’s just keeping an eye on us. Maybe he’ll wander off after a bit. We’ll keep an eye on him just in case.”
Prolier shrugged, having nothing to refute the sensei’s logic, knowing that Angus knew daemons better than he did.
The team headed south again and as soon as they started moving, their new friend lifted off and took his position behind them, watching as they walked. Nothing more, just hovered along after them without so much as a squawk. Angus had never heard of such a thing before, but was glad the daemon was peaceful. So far at least.
* * * * *
They made good time and reached the edge of Selenduma just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, letting it’s golden rays creep across the landscape like lava rolling down a gentle hill. The town appeared to be deserted, which could be good or bad. Neither Silva nor Nestor were forgiving men. The apparent emptiness could mean that the people got out safely, or it could mean that Silva’s men had slaughtered them all. Every man woman and child. Then again, it could just mean that it was really early in the morning and no one was up yet. They’d find out soon enough.
As they slowed to carefully pick their way between the buildings, the owl settled atop a roof near the edge of the small town. It watched them move forward, but didn’t pursue.
They didn’t see anyone as they moved deeper into the village, but kept their eyes open. There had already been far too many surprises on this trip, and now that it appeared to be winding to a close, Angus would be damned if he would let them get sloppy now. Somehow they had all survived the crap they’d been through and he’d make sure it stayed that way.
They made it to the building housing the raging wolf daemon when they saw the first an only person left in the town. It was a man they didn’t recognize, but Gregor did. He ran up to the man and caught him in a big hug. The man looked Gregor over and they spoke for a few minutes before rejoining the group.
“I have been left here to welcome you back,” the man said, “if you made it. I am glad to see that Gregor is intact, though it looks like he has been to hell and back. I am his wife’s brother. I believe you would call it a brother-in-law in English. I thank you for returning him to us. From what he’s told me, you all risked your lives several times over for him. He owes you his life.”
“He owes us nothing.” Angus said. “He risked his life for our mission and a man named Nestor did this to him.”
“Nestor,” the man said, spitting on the ground. “Gregor told me about his ‘interrogation.’ Please tell me you did something unpleasant to him. Gregor said he hadn’t seen him since he had his men lead you all into a room.”
Angus motioned to Prolier. “Do you see that claw? The last time I saw Nestor he had that shoved into his guts up to the knuckle. He is dead.”
The man said something in Russian to Gregor who smiled.
He was just turning around when a loud caw came from behind them. The owl had moved forward to perch on the building housing the wolf. The daemon did not look happy.
* * * * *