Author's Notes: Hello all. I'm posting some changes to the story, and I also wanted to correct some of the spelling errors I had made before. The only really big difference here is now this takes place between the time of April's "death" and the incident with the dreamers/tower being used. I would have left it the way it was, but I was not sure of the tower's significance yet, and wanted to make sure I made the story as believable as possible. This one is also more in-keeping with the story chapter I have posted on SA, though I have not edited the part about the tower. -NoodleNeko
I. THE RESCUE
Night had descended. Though the rest of the world was sleeping, the forests of Marcuria were awake and alive with activity. The evening travelers, mostly small rodents and night-birds, had come out of hiding to search for their meals. Combined with the mist and the smell of old earth; the mysterious, yet normal noises of the forest. Bushes rustled, branches snapped. The voices of human travelers could also be heard, and if one looked, one might see the flickering glow of camp lanterns. But no one did look. No one expected these campers to be here. And the voices of the humans, raised in anger instead of joy, would have discouraged any passersby from investigating.
Of course the men were angry; they had suffered an alarming defeat. The Apostle had, whether unknowingly or no, brought his people right to them, and many had been killed. So it was no surprise that those who survived were furious and wanted immediately to go into battle with the Azadi.
"How will you keep them at bay, in the meantime? They want nothing more than to seek revenge against them. You will need more than words to keep them from storming off to another defeat." Ever the voice of reason, Tatya was. Though her anger could rival that of many of the men who walked the rebel's path, she made the attempt to control herself when all the others wanted to confront certain death. She felt it was dangerous to use anger on the battlefield. But then, she also felt that mercy was only something to show to the weak. Well contained, she was; but merciless. How fortunate to her leader that she also believed in what the rebels were doing, and that she always followed orders.
"Let me concern myself with that. Your only concern now is to bring him to me alive."
Tatya regarded her leader coolly, and nodded. She had no reason to question her mission, nor did she. It was not up to her what her leader did with the Apostle whence he was brought here. It didn't even matter to her who the man was. And why should it? Tatya had no desire to lead the rebels, so why would any of it concern her?
Only Elias objected. "Alive? You want us to bring that Azadi to you alive!" He clenched his hands into fists and punched the tree he had been leaning against while he had been listening to their orders. "That Azadi scum is the reason we are so low in ranks, and you want us to risk our necks going into enemy territory to bring him back! Their capital will be crawling with soldiers who would like nothing more than to see the rest of us laid down beside our brothers!"
Tatya's eyes narrowed as she looked at Elias with disgust, her feline tail snapping once for punctuation. "The more your jaw moves the more you sound like a traitor."
Their leader did not bother to turn, but merely raised a hand and gave it a dismissive wave. "Let it alone, Tatya." A sigh emerged from the figure covered in the shadows of the forest canopy. "You have your orders, Elias." The words had a cold, hard edge to them. "Tatya is in charge. Disobey her orders, and she has my permission to leave you behind."
Elias gritted his teeth and huffed, then turned his attentions on Tatya, glaring at her. There had been a rivalry there since just after the incident, when Tatya had been 'promoted' to Second, bypassing Elias. Though Elias was Tatya's senior, the leader had chosen her for her grace under pressure, and for her over-all skill in espionage and battle. Of the two, it was obvious who their leader trusted more. Many of the men also believed that Tatya had been promoted to re-pay the debt of saving the leader's life; but Tatya had done the best she could to squash those rumors.
"You can choose one other person for this mission, who ever you like. A shipment of extra supplies will be sent to Sadir soon after you arrive. Try to keep the Azadi body-count to a minimum, to attract less attention, but don't risk getting yourself killed in the process. Bringing the Apostle to me is important, but your lives take top priority. You are dismissed."
Tatya sunk into a graceful bow, though her leader could not see her, and then straightened to glare at Elias. "Understood."
Putting the palm of her hand in the small of Elias' back, she gave him a rough shove in the direction of camp, the expression of disgust still on her face. Though Tatya was good at controlling herself, there were some people that roused her anger better than others. Elias was only one of them, but they had more contact with one another because their leader often felt that Elias couldn't be trusted, and assigned Tatya to shadow him on many missions. And their leader was not the only one who had not trusted Elias; it had come into question, just after the attack on the swamp, if Elias had been the one to bring the Azadi down upon them and not the Apostle. Tatya had come to think of him as a pathetic worm, and while she did not think him capable of that level of treachery, she did not trust him with information she thought too important to lose.
"You are such a little stooge." Elias muttered, jerking free of Tatya's hand when they were out of eyesight and earshot, and gesturing angrily with his hands. "Always doing exactly what you're told. You never question. Can you not think for yourself? You're not so different from that Apostle -a mindless zombie!"
"Fool. It would give me the greatest pleasure to see you left in Azadi territory to fend for yourself. You were the one who was in-sighting the others to storm into enemy territory unprepared. You search out; you desire conflict too much. If you intend to search out your own destruction, do it by yourself, and don't take what's left of this rebellion with you."
"And you speak of peace, yet you willingly trod off to Sadir, into the lion's den, to rescue someone who is the cause for the deaths of many innocent women and children." He stopped in front of her and whirled, pointing an index finger at her face. "You and I are no different!"
Tatya's eyes narrowed and she grabbed Elias' index finger and bent it upward. It gave a snap, and he let out a cry of surprise and pain. Clutching his finger, he bawled obscenities at her.
Tatya grabbed him by the neck and slammed him against a nearby tree, moving her face close in so that they were nose to nose. Her eyes glowed unnaturally in the dark, as if the anger inside her was fire; her voice came out as a low rumbling growl. "That was just a warning. Don't make this any more difficult than you have to, Elias. You wouldn't like the results." Pulling him forward slightly, she slammed him against the tree again, and then turned and stormed into the clearing that encased the rebel camp.
Upon entering, she passed a man who had been watching the entire scene from the edge of the camp, leaning against a tree with an amused smirk on his face. Tatya's expression remained un-amused, and she glared at him a little as she passed him.
"Kirin, you are with us." Tatya spoke to the man in an official tone as she made her way to the main tent.
Kirin shook his head noticeably as he watched Elias coddling his broken index finger. Normally, it was important for him to inform the leader when moral broke within the ranks, but in such cases, Kirin felt it was better to let things go. It had nothing to do with Tatya being his superior, though she was. A more likely reason was because those few that had survived the battle in the swamp with the Azadi, those who had gotten to know Tatya, knew that when things went bad, Tatya would do her best for her people. And those who knew this also realized that, to double-cross Tatya...meant death.
What have I done?
The images recycled themselves in Kian's head, preoccupying his mind with the mistakes that he had made. No. Not mistakes...decisions; and how easy it was to confuse the two. It had happened so quickly. In so little time, he began to question his own beliefs, question his mission. He began to toss aside his trust in the Azadi, putting his faith in the Goddess alone. These were only traitorous actions in the eyes of the people, not in the eyes of the Goddess. If they had been traitorous in her eyes...she would not have brought them together. April. Even now, he could still see her face. The shock -the defiance that had been in her eyes when she had learned that he was sent to kill her- the 'Scorpion'. No. Meeting April had not been a mistake. It had been fate. The memories of their first meeting, of April's passionate words in opposition to all that he believed had changed him so much in so little time. Those words had opened his eyes. The only mistake he had made in this madness was to become blind to the treachery that lurked just at his back.
Vamon. The tyrant had murdered defenseless, innocent women and children, and called them terrorists simply because they lived in a rebel camp. Even as it happened he told himself that this could not be the will of the Six. It could not be the will of the Goddess, that these people be slaughtered like cattle. He continued to tell himself that Vamon had come on his own; had done such atrocities of his own free will; and that the Six would see to his punishment in time.
But this had not occurred. The Six had denied Kian counsel, so he could not explain his actions nor tell what he believed to be the truth. Again, he blamed Vamon. There was very little room for doubt in Kian's mind that Vamon had poisoned the Six towards him, and because of this, he knew that no matter what he said, it would fall on deaf ears. There would be no fair trial.
And yet, in part Kian felt it was what he deserved. After all, he had spouted off his change of heart to 'the enemy' like a love-sick school-boy, vocally questioned everything he believed in, told her he would take a stand and undo the injustices that his people had made, and then he stood aside and let Vamon's men kill her in cold blood, and leave her to die in the swamp.
He wanted to weep; to scream; to yell her name out loud. He had given up his beliefs, and then he had forsaken what had freed his mind of its prison. He wanted to give up everything and turn back the time, to try again.
But he had no tears to weep with, no voice to scream or call her name, and no magic in the world could ever undo what he had done. She was lost, and soon his trial would come, and he would join her in the ground.
Goddess forgive me, what have I done...
Infiltrating Sadir, the capital of the Azadi, had not been as difficult as one might have believed. However, moving around in Sadir was not quite so easy. Though rumors traveled fast that the 'traitorous rebels' had been defeated, and their leader killed, guards were still posted around almost every corner, waiting to catch someone acting against the Azadi's best interests. At a moments notice they were prepared to arrest non-believers, magic users, and what Tatya had come to call the 'abnormals'. These abnormals were people who had no control of what they were, but could not be classified as Humans, at least from the Azadi's point of view. And like all the others, they were lumped into the category of an undesirable; to be humiliated, berated, and punished. They witnessed all the pain in the world, just because they existed. This thought only served to make Tatya bitter, and she pushed it aside to focus on the task at hand.
Of all of them, Kirin and Elias had had a much easier time moving about in Azadi territory without being suspect. They could more easily take the appearance of soldiers, and so they were put in charge of guarding the prison where the Apostle was being held. This was an important task, and Tatya stressed to Kirin that he needed to make sure Elias stayed by his side and did not stray somewhere where he might be distracted from his mission.
Breaking into the prison would have been too difficult, so the three would be forced to wait until the official day of the trial, when the Apostle would be executed, to break him free. They used the extra time they had to plan for contingencies, find alternate manners of escape, and to gain reconnaissance of the Azadi's other plans. There was plenty of rumors and gossip to be had. Talk of the rebels being destroyed, and rumors about what the tower in Marcuria was for were to be found in every market and on every street corner. Tatya disregarded most of these stories as mere speculation, and would grant them very little weight. Elias had insisted that these rumors were relevant, and that they should try to find more information, but Tatya had squashed that idea as soon as it had been broached; reminding them that they had a mission to fulfill, and they were not going to pay attention to idle gossip and get side-tracked. She said that if it was important, it would be researched later, under less dangerous situations. The one rumor that piqued Tatya's interest was those of Benrime Saliman. From what Tatya had been told- Benrime had been the keeper of the Journeyman Inn, and a compatriot to the rebels until the Azadi had caught her and imprisoned her. Word was getting around that Benrime was still at Friar's Keep, a place in Marcuria that had been converted into a prison for those who were waiting to be sent to Sadir. There was no doubt in Tatya's mind that the traveling plans had changed at the capture of the Apostle, and Benrime's trip to Sadir had been postponed in order to ship a more important prisoner. Tatya filed away this information in order to inform her leader later.
Day after day they waited. Because neither Kirin nor Tatya completely trusted Elias, it was left up to Kirin to gather intelligence about their enemy, and he did fairly well. Over the next couple of days, they had gained more insight into the way the prison worked, Kirin had managed to obtain the proper identification for himself and Elias for their part in the mission, and they had received more information on the Azadi. These were all good developments, Tatya believed. The day of the Apostle's trial and execution were closing in fast.
During their preparations, Elias had voiced his concerns on numerous occasions, and also expressed a desire to go home. This attitude only made Tatya more determined to carry out the mission, and instilled in Kirin a feeling of disgust towards his comrade. Though Kirin knew it was likely that these little lapses of judgment would not go unreported by Tatya, it still irritated him that they had brought such a coward into the lion's den.
When the day arrived, Tatya had already begun to get the sinking feeling things were not going to go exactly as planned. The Six had decided the execution would be public, adding an entirely new list of problems to an already dangerous situation. Crowds of innocents would not only increase the chances of them being recalled later, but it also made the use of their weapons more risky. The only advantage presented by the presence of a crowd would be that, in the panic, the three and their captive could -in theory- escape without drawing as much attention. They were forced to resort to cloaks, and carrying smaller, less noticeable weapons. Something had also made the Azadi decide to add to their security the day before, forcing the three to remain indoors and out of sight most of the day to avoid being noticed. Because of this, they did not quite have all the supplies that they had needed, because they were unable to get to ship that carried had their cargo. Tatya was not so worried about this, but it seemed to be bothering her comrades unnecessarily.
"We shouldn't be doing this...we're not prepared enough." Elias murmured as the three walked slowly along the stone pathway in the direction of the square, where the execution was to be held. He pulled his cloak about him tighter and looked about self-consciously.
Tatya had to grit her teeth to keep from yelling at him. The fool was practically trembling in his shoes, and in his nervousness he was more likely to make a mistake that would get them killed.
"Would you like to explain to our superior why he was killed under our very nose?" Kirin hissed at him quietly. "And stop fidgeting. You will get us noticed."
Tatya frowned and kept her eyes forward, not bothering to look at the other two. "We stick with the plan." Her pace did not falter, and the others had to try to catch up. She had decided that it was important for her to be single-minded in her purpose, and that purpose was the mission.
"And if the plan backfires?" Elias hissed quietly in retort, gesturing with his hands in an attempt to explain what he meant, bringing his splinted index finger across his neck from one ear to the other.
Tatya and Kirin both knew that he wasn't concerned about the Apostle at all; he wasn't worried about the mission failing. He was worried about the possibility of his own death.
Coward, Kirin thought with disgust. He knew that Tatya would have agreed, but still kept it to himself.
"Then we leave you and take him instead." Tatya remarked coolly.
Kirin grinned and suppressed a chuckle. He knew that no matter what happened- Tatya would do her best to succeed at this mission, even if it meant forsaking one of her own comrades to do it. This should have disheartened Kirin, because it meant that -he two- was expendable. And yet, if he had been in her position, he would have done the same thing.
Elias clenched his teeth, and said no more.
Kirin and Elias split off from Tatya just before the courtyard and headed in the direction of the prison to take their positions as accompanying guards. They would take the place of the soldiers leading the prisoner out, giving them close access to the prisoner when the time came. Tatya, meanwhile, went to the courtyard and got into her own position towards the front. It took her a moment to push her way through the already growing crowd. What is people's fascinations with death, Tatya wondered. She shook her head, pointed her eyes straight forward, and tried to look like so many of the other eager faces that had come to watch a man die.
A man persecuted for his beliefs. How ironic that he had once been one of the persecutors himself. Tatya thought as she looked upon the wooden platform where the Apostle was to be executed. She supposed that, one day, fate had something in store for everyone. It was only luck that their leader had an interest to talk to the man, and wanted him brought back alive. To think how many un-deserving people had died on this same platform, with no such luck to protect them. Tatya was torn between the belief that the Apostle was responsible for the demise of so many innocents, and the other part of her that believed that he was not to be blamed. His faith in his people had faltered, and he had come to the realization that the path of the Azadi was one of darkness. It was not for him to decide when he came to this belief. The man cannot be blamed for the timing in which his awakening occurred, an awakening that allowed his enemy's plots to go unnoticed. That, at least, is not his fault.
A tugging at her cloak caused her to glance over her shoulder, to see a girl who was trying to look under her cloak for something. The girl looked up at her and giggled, smiling up at Tatya. She could not be more than five years old. What had she been doing looking under her cloak? The sudden realization made Tatya grit her teeth slightly. She had been concentrating so hard on looking like she was meant to be there that she had forgotten about her tail. Quickly, she curled the furry, cat-like tail out of sight. This caused the girl to shriek and giggle, and the girl reached for Tatya's tail, up under the cloak. Tatya glanced to the nearest adult, who she believed was the mother, with an awkward smile.
"Is this your daughter?"
The woman blinked at Tatya, and then immediately took notice. "Oh, by the Six and the Goddess! Lara... what are you doing to that poor woman? Let go of her cloak and come here at once. I'm terribly sorry." She gently tugged on the girl's wrist until little Lara relented, and let go of Tatya's cloak. "Once again, I'm terribly sorry. She's not usually like this."
Tatya smiled softly and chuckled, shaking her head. "Quite alright. She's just curious." Turning to face forward again, she couldn't help but wonder what kind of monster would bring a child to an event like this. What kind of mother would subject their child to death at such a young age?
She had been distracted, and when she looked up she saw that the prisoner was being led to the platform. Chewing on her lip, she observed the guards on either side of him carefully, and held back a sigh of relief. So far, everything had gone according to plan. The two guards were her comrades, Kirin and Elias.
Too easy; it had almost been too easy. They had slipped up on the two guards outside the Apostle's door without any trouble at all; overpowered them, hid the unconscious bodies, and took their places without a moment's lapse. The thought of how easy this had been made Kirin slightly worried, but it helped to clear up Elias' concerns; to the point that it made him almost over-confident. They had been instructed by Tatya before putting the plan into effect, that neither one of them should speak to the prisoner; so they remained in uncomfortable silence. As practiced, they blind-folded the prisoner, and began leading him out to the square and the platform.
Kirin could not help being surprised at how docile the subject was being. Had he given up so completely that he was prepared to die for his cause? This sent a surge of admiration through Kirin. To be able to face death without fear was something not everyone was capable of. Even now, after all Kirin had seen, deep inside him he still feared death.
As they reached the stairs to the platform, Kirin had to prevent himself from looking at the audience and searching for Tatya's form in the crowd. Somehow, he knew she'd be there, even without looking at her. Kirin had always been one of her staunch supporters, standing by her side even when the rest of the rebels were ready to disregard her orders. It wasn't because Tatya was Second; it wasn't because he feared her wrath. Something in her presence demanded trust and unyielding devotion. Some where frightened by her demeanor, and it forced them to fight. Kirin had given into these feelings of kin-ship with Tatya easily, accepting her as his superior, but also looking upon her as a colleague, comrade, and friend. Because of this, he felt that she could be trusted. He knew that she would always keep her word. And her word, like that of the leader, was the only thing that mattered to him.
When they reached the center of the platform, they forced the prisoner to his knees behind the executioner's block. Kirin roughly pushed the prisoner's head against the top of the wooden block. It had to be as real as possible. Kirin's heart began to pound in his chest as a priest began to spout what might have been a prayer for the dead.
Facing forward, now Kirin took his opportunity to scan the crowd quickly for her face. There! One row behind the front row, and off to the left, just as they had planned. She was looking back at him intensely, and it took him a moment to realize she had mouthed something at him. At first, he could not make it out, but after she mouthed it a second time he had got it.
When the trial is over. No sooner.
Giving a slight nod, he paid attention to the sermon that spouted from the priests lips. It almost made him sick to hear such tripe. They preached peace, but they were killing one of their own in a public execution, and killing him only for questioning their beliefs. Though this man was the enemy, Kirin couldn't help but feel a kin-ship towards him, and a responsibility to see him come out of this unscathed. It was more than a mission. This man was no different from them, anymore.
After the prayer, the priest read the prisoner's list of crimes, which was not long. People in the audience yelled curses at him and flung what might have been animal dung. Kirin had to bite his tongue to keep from shouting back at them. Peaceful people, indeed.
"These are your charges, Kian Alvane of Sadir. How do you plead?"
The prisoner did not speak quickly, and Kirin was forced to jab him with the toe of his boot. He felt disgusted with himself in this costume of a Azadi soldier, harassing the prisoner in his last moments before death, but Tatya had insisted it be real.
Guilty? Kirin could barely contain himself. The lack of emotion in the man's voice spoke of his true feelings. He was not afraid of death because he felt it was not only inevitable, but because it was deserved.
As the executioner lifted his axe to bring it down upon the prisoner's neck, Kirin called out in a foreign tongue, above the din of the crowd; in words only his comrades would understand. Kirin grabbed the collar of the prisoner and physically pulled him out of the way just in time to miss the executioner's swinging axe as it connected into the wood of the block. The executioner halted in shock, and looked at Kirin, and attempted to pull up on his axe to dislodge it. Elias went into action out of instinct alone; pulled his own sword from its sheath quickly and used the flat side against the executioner's face. The panicked priest shielded himself from a possible attack, and when he moved to escape the fight that was ensuing on the platform, fell off the edge into the crowd beneath, which had become a roaring sea of frantic people.
Kirin drew his own weapon and fended off guards as they came at him, standing beside the prisoner in order to protect him from attack. The Apostle could not remove his blind-fold because his hands were bound behind him, yet he looked around in an attempt to discern -from the racket- what exactly was going on around him. Quickly glancing out into the frenzy of motion below, Kirin could no longer see Tatya in the crowd, but he knew she was near, waiting for her chance to put the rest of the plan into action.
Come on, Tatya, he thought, we don't have much time.
Kirin's shout had sent Tatya into action. Diving and weaving in between running civilians, she pulled her own dual short swords and fended off a guard as he tried to restrain her, and then another. The panic of the crowd gave her some cover to move in, and she tried to make her way closer to the platform in order to aid her comrades.
Suddenly, something wrapped around her ankle and nearly sent her face first into the flagstones; she was barely able to catch herself just in time. Looking back over her shoulder, she could see the tip of a whip wrapped around her ankle, and at the other end of the whip, one very arrogant and over-confident Azadi soldier. Tatya grinned menacingly, rolled over, and as she did so, cut the whip with one of her swords. Rolling onto her back, she flipped back up to her feet as the soldier came after her with his hands, having decided the whip was ineffective while she still had her weapons. Spinning her blades around in her hands with the ease of someone who had done this many times, she blocked the man's fists. While she was fending him off, he called for one of his friends, who came running to even the score. Gritting her teeth, she swung on her heel and caught the soldier she had been fighting in the head with her other heel as she arched her leg through the air. Just as the other soldier was within swinging distance with his sword, she thrust one of her blades into one soldier, and the other into the other coming at her from behind. Both fell away like slices of fruit cut by a sharp knife.
"Tatya!" Kirin called aloud again.
"Confounded woman! What are you waiting for!" Elias also yelled over the din.
Turning in the direction of her comrades, she nodded. Sheathing her weapons, she pulled a round vial from her pocket, and held it tight in her hands, brandishing above her head to get as many Azadi soldier's attentions as possible. She shouted once in the language that Kirin had used earlier.
The shout was to warn her comrades of what was coming; Tatya tossed the vial onto the stones of the square, closing her eyes tight as she did so. She could almost see the lights intensity even with her eyes closed. She waited until the bright light had completely faded before opening them; she saw that Kirin and Elias where already moving in the direction of the less obvious escape route that they had chosen. Rushing to catch up with them, she tossed another one of the same vials behind her, and a smoke vial as well, to ward off pursuit. There was another bright flash of light, not as dangerous to her and her comrades because they were running away from it, and the smoke vial began to release heavy clouds of gray dust and smoke that would hide their escape.
They moved faster than they ever had, taking corridor after corridor, hiding behind pillars when a soldier was noticed nearby, and down and up small passage ways and staircases. During this time, the ex-Apostle to the Azadi put up minor struggles, pulling out of their grips, trying to undo his bonds, and shouting questions at them so loudly that they were becoming concerned might get them caught. As they turned one corner, and were getting closer to safety, Tatya's nerves had had enough.
"What is this?" Kian hollered. "Who are you people?"
Tatya gritted her teeth, practically skidded from a run to a stop, grabbed the man by the neck as he was being dragged around the corner by Kirin, and flung him against the stone wall much the same way that she had done to Elias some days earlier. Kirin could tell just by the expression on his face as he hit the wall that it had hurt, but then, Tatya had uncommon strength.
"If you don't shut up I'm going to slit you from ear to ear, you got that?" She hissed quietly.
Kirin and Elias watched on quietly as Tatya held the man pinned against the wall, blind-fold still over the man's face. There was no doubt in either of the comrade's minds that she would do exactly what she said if she was pushed much further, and they doubted that the Apostle would think she was lying either. The Apostle's jaw tightened visibly, and it was not hard to see that he had more to say, but he remained silent and kept it to himself. Pulling him away from the wall by his neck again, not attempting to be gentle, Tatya spun him in the direction of their escape route and shoved him forward, almost shoving him into Elias.
"You two, make sure he keeps up."
During their escape they were only forced to pacify two guards, which was some relief to Kirin, though he would not have admitted this to the others. From the sounds of chaos in the distance, the guards were still trying to figure out what had occurred, and had not seen the direction that the four had gone in.
Only when they reached the outside of the city did Tatya breathe a sigh of relief, and stopped to rest temporarily while they gathered their things. Everything had gone as planned, so far. They had the prisoner, and they had escaped the city without being followed. She knew that the rebels would be proud. For the first time since the defeat in the swamps, the rebellion had struck a victory.
Tatya watched as the other two packed their small camp and prepared for the return to Marcuria. They all knew it would be several days over ground, then over sea, and then over ground again to make it to Marcuria's forests; that they could still easily be caught by the Azadi during that time. They would have to avoid large cities for fear that a stray soldier or two would see the Apostle and know of the escape. Two soldiers were nothing to worry about, but a message could send for an army that would crush what was left of the rebellion like a bug. The journey home would be even more treacherous than their mission in Sadir, and one slip could mean complete failure.
"Where are you taking me?" the Apostle demanded. His blindfold and binds had been removed by Kirin when they had reached the place where their mounts had been left to rest. Even though he was unbound, Kirin knew that the prisoner would not try his luck against three armed fighters who had had the courage to walk into Sadir and steal him from his own execution. "Who are you?"
"You ask a lot of questions for someone who was about to die, Apostle." Tatya murmured, tugging at the strings on her own pack. She didn't even bother to look at the man. They had risked their lives to come here and rescue him in the name of their leader, and rather than being grateful to them, he was shouting questions at them. Tatya's patience was wearing thin.
"I have a right to an answer." He reached out and grasped her upper arm roughly.
Tatya whirled to glare at him. "Unhand me."
"I will have an answer." The Apostle's voice was determined, and there was an edge to it.
Seeing this, Kirin and Elias both reached for their weapons. Kirin had suddenly begun to second guess himself. Could this man really be foolish enough to attack one of us unarmed?
"I don't think you have the right, and you won't." The words had a ring of finality, and the expression on her face was unmistakable. She would not be challenged. "You will find out all that you need to know when the time comes, and no sooner. Do not try my patience, Apostle. I have little left, and it is wearing thin where you are concerned." She shook her arm free of his grip, and stormed over to her mount, a somewhat sad-looking creature called an elgwan. "Kirin, he rides with you. And if he gives you any trouble at all...feel free to help him sleep a little."
Kirin nodded in response, and did as he was told. This is going to be a long journey. Was his only thought as they set off for home.
Two days and no sign of the Azadi...I wonder what's keeping them?
Tatya kept her thoughts to herself, though she hardly needed to. Like so many times before, it was not difficult for her to predict that her comrades were all wondering the same thing. And as if knowing them wasn't enough, Elias had been vocal enough about it for all of them. Tatya could see that the fact that they had seen a lack in the Azadi's actions made Kirin edgy, but Elias seemed to be the most nervous of the three of them. Coward that he was; he was constantly checking his back. He looked behind himself so frequently that Tatya had decided only two hours out to put him at the tail end of their group, where he could not slow them down further. She made it clear to him that if he fell too far behind, no one would wait for him to catch up.
"He's up to something. I can smell it." Kirin muttered quietly to Tatya, glancing at Elias from the corner of his eye.
She eyed Elias, and then the Apostle who sat behind Kirin on his elgwan. "Which one are you referring to?" She remarked with a humorous tone to her voice. "One is a coward, the other a traitor to his people. Neither one of them is trustworthy."
Kirin could hear the cynical tone that lay just beneath the humor in her voice, and it irritated him. How could she be so nonchalant about this? "You know which one I'm talking about." Kirin hissed under his breath.
Tatya gritted her teeth as she caught sight of the prisoner with a small, amused smile out of the corner of her eye. At that moment, she wondered if he knew how lucky he was she had orders not to do him harm. Doing him harm had come to her mind more than once in these last few days, starting with the difficulties he had given them in Sadir and on until the present. Controlling her anger, she glanced back to Elias. "We will cross that bridge when we come to it." She murmured, and urged her mount ahead to escape Kirin's concerns and the prisoner's obvious amusement.
"Is she always like that?"
Kirin shook his head in disapproval at Tatya's words, and glanced over his shoulder at the prisoner to get a look at his face, trying to understand exactly what the prisoner hoped to glean from that question. He had been doing his level best to insight Tatya's anger over the last few days, and it worried Kirin. They had orders not to harm the Apostle, but how much longer would Tatya put up with him before she did something about it? "Do yourself a favor. She's not someone to be tangled with. When you get a chance... ask Elias about his finger."
The Apostle arched an eyebrow, and seemed to be turning what Kirin had said over and over in his mind, as if trying to make sense of it all. Although he should not have been amused by it, the image of Tatya breaking Elias' finger popped into his head and a chuckle escaped him. He had had it coming.
Elias had managed to catch up to Kirin's mount, and eyed Kian with disfavor. "I don't know, Kirin. Was he really an Apostle?"
"She must not have much of a leader if you doubt her every word." The prisoner remarked, looking back over his shoulder. "You don't seem to have the heart of a warrior; by the way you look over your shoulder so often. Yet I don't question your leader when she says you are."
Kirin could not smother a grin, and a chuckle. "Elias, a warrior? That's a new one. I seem to remember someone once calling him a 'rebel without a clue'?" Another hearty chuckle escaped him. "And Tatya is not our leader."
"When Tatya becomes leader, I'll fall on my sword." Elias muttered bitterly, grinding his teeth together in such a way that it made his lower jaw jut out in an unattractive manner. The idea of Tatya taking over the position as head of the rebellion brought the worst out of him, and he muttered a curse just at the thought of it.
Kirin arched a brow in interest. "Promise?"
This time, it was the Apostle that suppressed a grin. He could already tell that this would continue on for days, and knew that he had better get used to it. Being unarmed, and with his wrists bound behind his back to prevent his escape, there was little he could do. And even if he did escape these strangers; to what end? The Azadi would hunt him down and kill him. April Ryan was dead. The rebels were gone. These strangers who held him captive were all that was left. Would they kill him? Would they let him go? Only time would tell.
Many more days had gone by, and still no sign of the Azadi. They had only a few more hours to the shores that would take them to Marcuria, but night had fallen before they could reach their destination, so they had stopped for the night outside of the smaller harbor town, to rest. Elias had argued many times that this route was the longer way to Marcuria, and that the shorter distance from closer to Sadir would have been quicker, but Tatya and Kirin both preferred the safer route, and chose to ignore him, Now that they were closing in on their destination, Elias had recognized that he had lost the battle, and spoke no more about it.
Tatya sat tending the small fire that Kirin had started at dusk. Kirin had chosen a space on the ground, set up his sleeping blanket, and had turned his back to the fire so that he could rest; while Elias had wandered off under the premise of finding something to eat. Normally, Tatya would have been displeased to see her comrades so lax about their safety, but she let it pass. They had all been through so much before and after the Azadi attack in the swamp, that relaxation had become a luxury they normally could not afford. And so, she let it go. Also, she had too much on her mind already to worry about looking after two full adults. These were soldiers, not children. If they could not care for themselves, they should not have joined the rebellion. It was difficult to be alone with her thoughts, and even now she was not completely alone, their 'prisoner' sat across from her, and was no doubt watching, as if trying to analyze and figure out her next move.
A small part of her felt badly for Kirin and Elias. So much of this mission, they had had to take on faith. Tatya had been the only one that had seen the entire deck of cards, the only one who knew the whole story. Why the Apostle was so important to the leader. Though the leader had not admitted it up front, it was obvious to her that one reason behind the retrieval of this prisoner of the Azadi was for the purpose of re-building the rebellion. This man had a great deal of information that could help the rebels. Their leader though that, with the threat of death hanging over his head, he would be much more willing to help the opposition. Though Tatya disagreed with the idea of this, she had never bothered to voice her opinions to her superior. There was more to this mission than simple politics, and Tatya knew it. But it was not her right to say.
The crack of a twig coming from nearby jolted her from her thoughts, and she listened intently. Normally, she might have dismissed the sound as an animal, or maybe just a branch falling from a tree, but when the sound came again, she knew it was not so. The tread was far too heavy-too loud- to be made by an animal; and far too methodical. Whatever it was, it was definitely human. There was only one conclusion to be had.
"Kirin..." Tatya whispered.
She looked at him to see his back had stiffened. He had not been deeply enough in sleep to miss the sound, and he too was reacting to it with the instincts of the battle-driven fighter that war had molded him into.
"Elias?" He whispered back.
Tatya did not answer. She did not have to; she could tell by the way that he had asked the question that he himself did not believe it to be Elias. As Kirin slowly reached for his sword, Tatya had already pulled twin daggers from her boots, silently cursing herself for not keeping her swords close by.
In an instant, five Azadi soldiers ambushed the encampment at the same time, each one shouting for the three to drop their weapons and surrender the prisoner. Tatya leapt into action, diving in front of the Apostle in order to protect the one that they had come so far and worked so hard to obtain. Kirin rolled onto his back and kicked up off the ground, slashing at the midsection of one of the soldiers with his sword. They had been instructed to keep the body count to a minimum, but they had also been told to survive. In this case, one rule overpowered the other, and survival became more important than the death of a few soldiers. As one came at Tatya, she reacted to defend herself, slicing at the man with her daggers. Meanwhile, Kirin tangled with three others.
Where was the other soldier? Alarm seized at Tatya's heart. She was so focused on her fight that she had lost track of one. Turning slightly to see if she could locate him before he was able to get the jump on her, she saw something that she had never thought she'd see. The Apostle standing over an unconscious Azadi soldier, a rock clutched in his hands; hands that had once been tied behind his back.
Could he have released himself from his bonds at any time? Tatya wondered.
The soldier she had been fighting swung his sword, and clipped her in the shoulder. The pain of the wound stung her, and she dropped a dagger so she could clutch the wound with her hand. The sight of her own blood -oozing slowly between her fingers- fueled the anger that she normally kept so well controlled, and she let out a sound that could only be described as a roar. Before the eyes of the soldier, Tatya's skin contorted slightly, and soft fur seemed to spring up from below the skin. Her eyes sharpened, the pupils went from round to ovular, her hands became claws, her teeth became fangs; ears that could only belong to a feline seemed almost to sprout from her head, and a feline tail lashed in anger. As this transformation took place before the soldier, the only name that could be given to the expression on the man's face would be terror. She leapt at him, and he never even got the chance to scream before one of her heavy hands, now almost paw-like, sent him hurtling into the depths of unconsciousness.
When Tatya looked around to see the location of the other three soldiers, Kirin had already had them dispatched.
"Tatya...I can't find Elias. He's either captured, or dead." Kirin said, coming back to the camp, having gone off in search of their comrade while Tatya was scaring and dispatching the soldier.
Tatya sighed and shook her head. No doubt he was in league with them the entire time. Tatya suddenly wished that they had kept one of the soldier's conscious for questioning. To see what all the Azadi knew about them. They would have to send a message on to the camp instead, and have it moved. Only this time, only Tatya would know the location of the camp. Until they reached home, no one could be trusted with where they were going.
They had almost forgotten about the Apostle. He had dropped the rock he had used as a weapon, and was staring at Tatya with a combination of fear and awe. Neither Kirin nor Tatya found this at all surprising, it had happened many times before when people had seen the true nature of Tatya's powers. Having calmed down, the cat-like features had already begun to fade. The fur sloughed off and fell away, the eyes, teeth, hands returned to normal. The feline ears seemed to recede. Only the tail remained.
Kirin dropped his sword and plunked down on the ground, rubbing his forehead with the back of his hand. "It's not an easy thing to explain. You see, no one really knows what she is."
Tatya sat down on a small boulder near the fire and picked up a stick, poking at it. Her expression was now calm, almost solemn. She breathed deeply, then spoke in a voice that still rumbled slightly. "I am the balance's example of why those of power should not practice in ignorance."
"Look..." Kirin glanced at Tatya to get her approval, and only continued after she nodded. "We'll answer some of your questions, but you have to promise us something first."
"What is it that I must promise?"
"That you will not try to run, nor try to draw attention to us, and you will speak with our leader. After you speak to our leader, you will go free, as long as you do not speak of us again."
Kian found this request to be ridiculous, because he knew that if they wanted to, they could kill him whether he obeyed them or not. However, there was no reason to argue this point. Rather than argue at all, he solemnly agreed.
"You have my word."
Again, Kirin looked to Tatya for guidance, and she nodded.
"Well...here is what we can tell you..."
Their conversation was cut short by the need to sleep, and so was not continued until the following day, after they had boarded a vessel bound for Marcuria. Now that they were on the sea, they did not have to be so greatly on their guard. Azadi air-ships could be easily spotted, and their chances of running into a soldier on a sea-fairing vessel were less likely. Even though Kian was being held as a captive and being led to the rebellion's new mystery leader, somehow he did not feel worried. The uncertainty of what lay in wait for him was no worse than standing trial for the crimes of being a terrorist. Though he knew that these two might kill him at any moment, he had been around them for long enough to see that killing him was not their main priority. If anything, it seemed to be protecting him. This both confused him and set him at ease. He forced himself not to worry about the future.
"So you're telling me someone is re-building the rebellion against the Azadi, and this new leader sent you into Sadir to retrieve me, even though I am to be blamed for leading the Azadi to the rebels and the death of 'the Scorpion'?"
"It doesn't sound sane, I know. You can take it or leave it, but it's the truth." Kirin said. "We were sent to Sadir to stop the execution and bring you back with us. Crazy as it sounds, it's the truth."
It was so much to absorb. Even without knowing the identity of Kirin and Tatya's mysterious leader, it was too much to take in. What would the rebels want with the Apostle that was responsible for the death of so many innocent people? What would they want with a man who was charged with treason against his own?
"How do I know I'm not walking into a death-trap?"
"You can't." said Tatya in a matter-of-fact tone. "Not for certain. So the real question is this: would you really rather go back and stand trial as a terrorist? Or die for something you actually had a hand in."
Kirin looked at Tatya with an expression of exasperation. "Is that your idea of getting him to trust us? Because you are failing... miserably."
"Sadly," Kian murmured. "She has a point. I am responsible for the deaths of a number of innocent women and children, people who had little to do with the rebellion other than that they were the wives, husbands, sons and daughters of those that the Azadi have labeled terrorists. If I died at the hands of the rebels, I would be dying for my crimes against those people. If I die at the hands of the Azadi, I die because Vamon has poisoned the Six against me, and they have named me a traitor."
"You honestly believe that this Vamon had to poison the Six against you?" Kirin asked. "Did it ever occur to you that the Six might be involved?"
Tatya shook her head at Kirin. "We are not here to attack his beliefs."
"Do you know what your leader even wants of me?"
Kirin shook his head solemnly. "We aren't allowed to talk about it. As I told you, Apostle, there are some things we cannot tell you."
"Please...I am an Apostle of the Azadi no more. Kian is fine." He sighed and looked out over the sea.
Kirin frowned and leaned against the side of the ship, looking down into the water. "We may not have everything in common, Kian; but there is one thing that none of us can ignore. We all know what it is like to be persecuted for being who we are."
"I never thought I would have to look at this from the other side. I was so enamored by my loyalty to the Azadi that I did not realize injustices were being committed. The way of the Goddess should not be forged with violence. I realized only too late that the path I was walking was the wrong one, and by the time I made my attempt to change...it cost lives."
"Faith is a good thing...but too much can weaken your own self, weaken your minds eye to what goes on around you. I think that's what happened to you. You became so involved with what you were being instructed to do, what you'd been taught, and what you were beginning to believe that you became blind. You were just too consumed to notice what was going on behind your back." Kirin said.
"The important thing is not to punish yourself continuously for something you cannot change. Yes, people died. But this is a war. People always die. It is sad to think about, but it is a normal condition of battle. You were tricked, and the cost was life. But that is not entirely your fault. Place the blame where it belongs, recognize your own faults. But move on. Dwelling on the past will not help your future." Tatya said. "I'm sure that, wherever April Ryan is, in spirit or otherwise, she does not place the blame entirely on you alone."
Though Kian wanted to believe that with all his being, he couldn't bring himself to cast aside his guilt. After all, his faith and his guilt were all he had left to cling to.
The port of Marcuria was bustling with people; merchants collecting wares, people meeting family members returning from travels, and others seeing family off. Because of the large amounts of people moving back and forth on the docks, it was easy for the three of them to slip off of the vessel without bringing much attention to themselves. They wasted no time to get to the south gate, where they would exit to go to the forest outside of Marcuria, but getting past the south gate, as they found, would take some effort. Because the Journeyman Inn was closed down, due to Benrime's arrest, they had no other choice but to create some sort of diversion in order to gain passage outside of Marcuria. After many attempts at bribery, they finally managed to talk one of the merchants in the market place into creating the diversion required. This diversion gave them just enough time to exit Marcuria without being seen.
In order to protect against the possibility that they had been followed, they backtracked through the forests twice before heading into the deepest part, where the camp was located. Because Tatya had sent a message forward, Kirin was mildly confused at the change of location, and only Tatya knew where the camp was. This caused some irritation between Kirin and Tatya, because Kirin felt he had been left out of vital information and was upset that Tatya had felt it was important not to trust him. Only after Tatya explained the situation, did Kirin consent to the necessity. As they entered the camp, there were hoots, cheers, and questions about Elias. Tatya and Kirin were far too tired to really answer, but Tatya offered nods and hand shakes, and Kirin gave everyone who greeted them a wane smile. Kian followed behind them quietly, trying to quell the feelings of apprehension that clutched at him.
Some of the rebels were not as happy to see him, and there were hisses and some obscenities called at him. This caused Kirin some consternation, and aggravated Tatya enough to openly glare at them. Kirin pleaded with them to remain calm, but Tatya's glares in the direction of those responsible were far more effective at squashing the attitudes of the angry rebels.
After washing up and depositing their packs in their tents, they found a suitable sleeping arrangement for their 'prisoner', and left him to himself for some time, presumably to let him rest. However, he could not sleep. The questions that had gone unanswered and the unwelcoming sounds of hate from some of the rebels left him with too much on his mind to get a proper rest, and so Kian's time alone was sleepless.
It was nightfall when Tatya came to retrieve him.
He nodded, and followed Tatya around the encampment to a small tent off to one corner, under a large tree that shaded the tent from the moon's light. She held open the tent flap for him to step in, and followed him. It was black as pitch inside the tent, and Kian tried hard to force his eyes to adjust. Sounds could be heard inside the tent, the sounds of someone moving, and quiet whispers between two people. Then, the sound like wood being drug across wood, and a slight flicker of flame lit the room, but threw what the light did not reach into long shadows. Tatya held the burning stick up to the wick of a lamp, lighting it, and then replacing the glass cover. As she did this, the light increased enough that it was well enough to see inside the small tent. Kian's eyes had to re-adjust to the change in light before he could look about. It was a small but adequate sleeping tent, with a cot, a chair, and a small wooden table that held the lamp, but was also covered with maps and papers; presumably battle plans.
An expression of shock and surprise crossed Kian's face when he saw the one who was sitting in the small chair near the table, regarding him calmly.
"I thought I instructed you not to be rough with him, Tatya. He appears bruised." There was humor in that voice.
"It was unavoidable, I'm afraid. He put up quite a fight." Tatya explained, the same humorous tone in her voice. She had not left the tent, but stood at the entrance as if to prevent people from entering or exiting.
"You...you're alive." It came out as a choked whisper, as if his voice had caught in his throat.
Sitting before him, still bandaged from the wound that the Azadi soldier had given her, looking at him with an expression of weary but of one who had not quite given up just yet, was none other than April Ryan.
(To Be Continued...)