A/N: I know I've not updated in a long time, and I'm unsure what my schedule will be like. I WILL finish my stories, but I'm having some RL problems right now and writing is not a huge priority. I hope you all understand and enjoy this next chapter. As always, big thanks to LyricalKris and theladyingrey42 with helping me edit.
Chapter 7 - The Road to Izsak
The road between Thale and Izsak is narrower and wilder than the road from Winterswijk, traversing foothills and the deadly and treacherous peaks of the Verrader, as the mountains are called in the local tongue. The range is formed of tall needles of rock jutting into the sky with narrow twisting valleys between. By necessity, the entire party slows their pace. An injury to one of the horses would mean the animal's certain death. Luckily, the beasts had been well-bred and are still much faster than conventional horses.
As the sun races across the sky, they hurry as fast as possible, needing to find safe ground to pass the night. The trail is difficult enough without the added problem of too little light. Edward is scanning the hillsides for a suitable stopping point when the sun drops behind the peaks of rock and everlasting snow and a chill descends on him, but not from any drop in temperature.
"Did you feel that?" he asks I'sabel as they jog side-by-side.
She smiles at him briefly. "I should have known you would be sensitive to their magic as well." Edward tilts his head at her and she explains. "We just passed the border into the true south, a boundary created by the magics of creatures as ancient as the Ainmhithe."
"Yes. They once possessed most of the territory beyond these mountains, but as you can see, they no longer guard their borders. We all passed through easily and without warning or damage. It is encouraging that their powers are too weak to maintain their old safeguards."
A sudden shout from Jasper at the front of their procession brings their conversation to an abrupt halt, and everyone is instantly on high alert.
"Surround the wagon and horses," Felix orders, and a circle is formed quickly, everyone facing outwards at whatever danger may be coming their way.
Soon Jasper appears at the top of a small rise to the left of the trail. "I've found a place to rest for the night."
Felix immediately launches into a tirade on proper signals and how they need to be more careful when alone. Jasper and Er'k join in the discussion, making plans for proper scouting, and Edward wanders slightly away from the group. His shoulders gradually relax as he tries to shake off the tension. He can still feel a slight creeping cold along his skin, and he knows that the similarity to the Others' touch has him on edge.
The warm hand on the center of his back is soothing as it has always been. "Come, my love. Er'k and I will put up wards tonight and they will keep the cold at bay."
She slips her hand in his, and they follow the horses as the company makes its way around the hill to Jasper's choice for their stop. They find themselves in a small cleaning bordered on two sides by solid rock walls and the other two sides by forest. By placing their camp next to the stone, they would have a enough warning should anything come creeping from the forest.
Felix unharnesses the horses and leads them to a grassy area, hobbling them before returning to the group. As the vampires unpack a few supplies, I'sabel and Er'k walk the perimeter, carving runes into the rocks and trees. Edward watches for a few moments, the vision so reminiscent of his last adventure with I'sabel and the wards she used to protect them from the Others.
Jasper's voice startles him from his memories. "What are they doing?"
"Protecting us with Ainmhithe magic. Their wards will keep out those that wish to do us harm."
"Do they think we're in danger here? We are a large group and it would be foolish for almost anything to attack us here."
Edward nods to his friend and companion, wondering how much to reveal. On this type of quest, it seems prudent to share as much information as possible. "While we were coming up the valley, we passed through a set of wards, the boundary of the Virago territory."
"What? There are no Harpies here! These are Jaime's lands."
"An old ward, one that was so weak we passed through without any harm. I felt the residual magic, though, and so did I'sabel. They are just being more cautious tonight."
Jasper stands at Edward's side as they watch the Ainmhithe complete the circle, closing the wards. Edward feels the customary warmth sweep over him and almost sighs in relief. He smiles when I'sabel gives him a knowing wink, and he can feel her answering heat through the bond.
"So, these Virago have magic, too."
Edward squeezes Jasper's shoulder, knowing exactly the types of thoughts that must be going through his head. Alis alone with these creatures of unknown power. "So it seems, but I'sabel thinks it is much weakened. Unfortunately, I know as much as you do, my friend. Perhaps we can finally have a use for those books Carlisle sent with us."
"Perhaps," Jasper says, distracted.
"Can you still feel her? Is she unharmed?"
"She is still unharmed, but I feel a tension in the bond, a kind of stress. It is difficult to put into words exactly."
"But it has you worried."
Jasper only nods and then takes a deep breath. "We haven't had a moment alone, Edward. How fared your own testing of the bond? I assume it went well."
Edward smiles in spite of himself and the seriousness of the conversation. "Yes, very well."
Jasper grips Edward's shoulder. "I am happy for you. It is a good thing to have."
"Even at moments like this? When you are separated?"
"Especially at moments like this. She is my everything, and just the small reminder that she is still alive in the world, still unharmed, makes my every movement and thought possible. If she should-"
Jasper chokes on the words, and Edward wraps an arm around his shoulders, supporting him, helping him stay strong. Edward steals a glance at I'sabel, and it is almost as if he can see the bond shimmering between them, connecting them in every possible way. His mind cannot even imagine what would happen if that connection ceased to exist. "I know, but we won't let that happen."
As the darkness deepens, I'sabel and Er'k make a small fire on the edge of the ward and prepare small make-shift beds from branches. As the two Ainmhithe rest near the warmth of the flames, the vampires talk quietly about what might await them in Izsak. Edward glances over at his sleeping mate, understanding the need for her to be near the fire, especially in these mountains, but wishing she could be closer, touchable.
Edward shakes his head, bringing himself back to the bigger, more imminent problems. "I am beginning to regret not sending envoys further south." He hurls a small rock into the woods, sighing when there is no satisfying thunk to ease his frustrations. Turning to Jasper, who knows the most about Jaime from his previous life in the South, Edward hopes to gain some insight. "Jasper, is there anything we should know about Jaime and the Masselars?"
"I actually don't know much about Jaime. He was a hunter for hire when I was in the Southern Lands. How he rose to power, I can only guess." He bends forward, picking up a small stick before snapping it in two. "The Masselars however are a different story. They are a tricky band of vampires, not to be trusted."
"Then why are we risking our necks and everything else to visit them?" Felix asks, his frustration clear.
"Because if these Virago threatened Jaime," Garrett answers, breaking his typical silence. "Then they are in for a big surprise."
"Do you know him?"
Garrett smiles sadly and nods, but speaks no further.
Kate grips his hand in hers, and he turns to her, his shoulders visibly relaxing as she touches him. "He can't hurt you any longer. Our loyalty is to Aeland, and we should help them any way we can."
He nods again and returns his focus to Edward. "Long ago I was part of the wars here. Most of the time I wasn't even entirely clear which side I was on, but I was definitely fighting. My clan was attempting to obtain territory west of Izsak when this band of rogue vampires led by Jaime attacked our side and then the city we had under siege, defeating both armies in the confusion. He took no prisoners - either join his coven or face execution."
"Seems like an easy decision," Felix says gruffly.
"I agree to a point," Garrett says. "In the South, one vampire army is much the same as the next. But he is different. Crueler and...not someone that you can walk away from if you've had enough."
"So what did you do?" Jasper asks.
"Ran. As fast as I could and as far north as I could."
"That's when you came to Aeland," Edward says with a smile.
Garrett shakes his head and gives Kate a wink. "Actually, I didn't stop in Aeland. I kept running until I was much further north, where the sun sets for half a year, where humans have not yet settled. Places where no vampire army would want to go. Lucky for me, I wasn't alone for long."
"You two were in the Wilds?"
Garrett only nods. "It was the Others that drove us to you - tales of your army being raised to fight them. We knew what side of that equation we wanted to be on." He looks up at Edward. "Honestly, I have no desire to be back here, to face these vampires again, but I believe in your mission here. So when Emmett made the request for a bonded pair, we volunteered immediately."
Jasper reaches across Kate and grasps Garrett's shoulder. "We are certainly glad you did. Your added knowledge about these vampires may be our only advantage out here."
"I don't know much but-"
Garrett's response is cut short by a high-pitched screech seeming to come from everywhere as it echoes off the granite around them. Instantly the vampires are on their feet, searching the darkness for the source of the noise.
"Spread out but stay within the wards," Edward orders. "They will keep anything out that wishes to do us harm."
Edward rushes to the edge of the clearing, straining to see anything in the dense, black forest. A warm presence at his side and a soft hand on his arm alerts him to I'sabel's proximity. "What do you think it could be?" he whispers.
"There's only one thing that worries me. The rest we can handle easily."
"You think that-" Edward's thoughts are interrupted by the sight in front of him. Or the lack of it. As he stares at the forest, the trees fade from view, a shroud of deeper black blocking even his vampire vision.
I'sabel's hand suddenly grips his arm to the edge of pain. "They are here. Everyone needs to gather in the center of the wards. Now!"
Edward turns to his companions, I'sabel's panic worrying him more than the vanishing trees. "Everyone to the center!" As he yells he can see the edges of their clearing dissolving into shadow, the other vampires and Er'k hurrying to the middle of wards. "Stay close!"
He and I'sabel join the group. "How close can they get?"
"I'm not entirely certain. It greatly depends upon how much magic the Virago yet possess."
Almost in answer to her words, a cold punches through Edward, and both Er'k and I'sabel gasp. The wards have collapsed.
"I suppose that answers that question," Er'k mumbles. "Now let's see what other tricks they have."
The vampires and Ainmhithe stand back to back in the center of the clearing, listening to the faintly rustling approach of their attackers. A group of vampires emerges from the trees, a shroud of darkness swirling around them, masking their movements. They are followed by a strange howling, a constant noise emanating from the forest.
I'sabel's strong, calm voice rises above the din. "Whatever you do, do not get separated from the rest of us. If you lose sight of us, you must listen for each other or find us by touch. Do not become lost in the darkness, or I fear you will not find your way back."
Edward grasps I'sabel's hand tightly, putting them both at a disadvantage for fighting but not willing to risk losing her to these creatures.
The darkness surrounds them, but he can hear his companions shouting in the blackness and knows they are still close. I'sabel's hand is warm in his, and he uses her presence to ground himself in the disorientating blindness.
Suddenly, a winged shape flies at him, and he sees a moment of a pale, white face with black eyes and sharp, pointed teeth. His free arm is held in strong talons as the beast lunges for his neck. On instinct, he loosens his grip on I'sabel to fend off the attack, and immediately the creature throws him to the ground and releases his arm. A strange hissing laugh echoing through the near complete darkness as the creature flies off into the night.
"I'sabel!" Edward scrambles to his feet, stumbling and searching for his mate. He can hear the others fighting nearby, but can't hear her voice amongst the others. "I'sabel!"
A male vampire with cropped black hair lunges at him, suddenly appearing from the suffocating black. Edward elbows his attacker in the head and turns to deliver a low sweeping kick. He jumps over Edward's legs and kicks him in the shoulder sending him sprawling again. Edward leaps to his feet and faces off with the vampire, both circling, trying to find an advantage.
Edward feints to his right and then delivers a crushing blow to the other's chin with his left fist, spinning the vampire around. Edward kicks him in the back, sending him face first into the ground. Panting, Edward turns, peering into the darkness, trying to find I'sabel. Just as Edward is about to race into the blackness and find her, a blinding light burns through the darkness. At the center of the light, Edward can see I'sabel and Er'k kneeling together and holding hands and chanting. Surrounding them are his companions, each locked in battle with a vampire or a the creature with the wings and talons. A Virago, he realizes now.
The light increases, seemingly pulsing from the Ainmhithe as their chants grow louder. The Virago screeches, pulling away from her fight with Felix. Hands over her face, she spreads her wings and pushes off the ground to take flight. As she turns from the battle, the light from the Ainmhithe expands, dissipating the remaining darkness. The vampires, finding themselves abandoned, run for the cover of the forest.
The light from I'sabel and Er'k fades as they stop chanting. Edward helps Kate to her feet as Er'k and Felix head toward the horses, concern etched on their faces.
"What was that thing?" Garrett asks, putting a protective arm around Kate's waist.
I'sabel stands and brushes off her trousers. "That was one of the Virago, a harpy. A skilled fighter and a limited shape-shifter, though apparently not as weak in magic as we suspected."
"Should we reset the wards?" Er'k asks, his eyes searching the night sky.
I'sabel sighs and rubs her face with her hands. Edward reaches for her, but then she squares her shoulders and addresses Er'k. "We should and quickly. They may not have stopped the attack, but they definitely slowed that Virago down just enough. And, although I don't think they will return tonight, we had best be prepared for anything."
As Er'k and I'sabel carve and trace the runes, singing softly as they perform the incantations, Edward watches warily. As the warmth of the Ainmhithe magic reaches him, he lets his breath out in a rush, finally able to relax.
He turns back to his companions, knowing no one will sleep more tonight. "I think setting sentries will be overkill right now, but let's stay vigilant while we are in these mountains."
"I think sentries aren't a bad idea at all," Felix says, taking a position on a larger rock at the edge of the wards.
"How did they find us?" Jasper asks. "There are no vantage points to scout from in these passes."
"The magic field," Edward says, finally putting the pieces together. "The Virago magic wasn't a ward of protection but one of warning. It alerted them as soon as we passed through it."
I'sabel nods thoughtfully. "That makes sense. We used similar types of boundaries around our permanent camps."
"Are you saying that they can track our movements out here without being near us?" Jasper asks. "That's not even remotely fair play. We've completely lost any element of surprise."
Edward scoffs. "They may know where we are, but they don't know our intentions."
"I think our intentions are fairly clear if they have any idea who we are. Any travelers from Aeland wouldn't be here by chance alone, especially a group such as this. If they had any doubts, this attack has proven that we are not ones to be ignored."
"Jasper has a point," Garrett says. "We have to assume that they are watching our every step now."
"We still have to keep to the original plan," Edward insists. "It's the only way we can discover what these Virago want and what they are doing with Stefan's vampires."
Jasper nods. "Knowledge is power in this game. I just hope Jaime-" He stops and drops to his knees with a whimper. His arms wrap around his torso as he cries out in pain.
Edward is instantly at his friend's side, panicking at what unseen force is attacking his companions now. "What is it? Jasper! What's happening?"
Through clenched teeth, Jasper whispers only one word. "Alis."