Fire crackles, hisses, he can smell sulphurous fumes.
Not the bloody maze all over again, is all that he can think of. Why will his nightmares repeat the same way every bloody time?
But as he opens his eyes, the scene is different. No dark, twisty passages all alike, shimmering with the heat of the stalra. The forest glade is brightly lit. Fiery shapes are dancing around, whirling and flying all around him, glowing with a fiery brilliance. Thick, oily clouds of black smoke are roiling from them; the grass under their feet blackens at their touch. Olidra keeps well away from the shapes. If he touches them, he dies.
And he needs to stay alive, or Sonahn is doomed.
At Olidra's feet, a blackened, scorched shape is lying. It is the corpse of the inquisitor – the only witness to Rabon-Ka's treason, and a vivid reminder of what happens to witnesses. He needs to get away from the traitors, or he will get the same.
A lizard is waiting at the edge of the clearing. He is on edge; the fiery figures frighten him a lot. All it would take for him to bolt and take Olidra to freedom is a whistled command and a thrown rock. He bends down, but there is no rock. Suddenly, he sees a figure at the other end of the clearing. The figure bends down, lifts up a rock, straightens up. She smiles. It is Sonahn! He has never seen her before, but he knows it is her without thinking.
She continues to grin, lifts the rock above her head, seems to lightly toss it across the clearing at the lizard. But her aim is off, and the rock hits his forehead. He feels a sharp crack, and the dream dissolves into a red mist of pain as he is sent down tumbling to the ground...
Olidra awoke with a jolt. His head was hurting with a splitting pain, and he had trouble remembering where he was. Yet again. This must be the third time in a row I woke up somewhere strange. I must get used to adventuring again soon, or it will be like this for the entire journey. He scowled, gripping his forehead in his left hand as the pain continued.
He felt a nasty lump, but fortunately not the dried blood he had been fearing. The injury was less severe than he had expected. Where did I get that bruise anyway? He wondered to himself even as the dream picture of fiery ghosts and thrown rocks dissolved before his mind's eye. [i]And how did I get here?
The teacher managed to open his eyes at last, and cast a look at his surroundings. He appeared to be lying right next to a magnificent tree trunk, sort of wrapped around it as if he was propped up against a pillow. A hard, wooden pillow. Lying near him were a few lengthy pieces of rope, worn and frayed in parts. One of them was still partially wrapped around his legs.
Ye mighty shapers of rock and life, he realized, the lizard. I was tied on, and it ran. I fell off it.
Then he remembered what had happened previously. The treason! He was being pursued, and had narrowly evaded the Keepers for now. They cannot risk me getting back to Avtris as a witness. Right now, they could still claim an accident killed us both. Fire damage like the one that had killed Eedrah was not terribly common in the middle of the wilderness, but there were some rare monsters that could breathe fire and cast primitive magic. But it is implausible enough to arouse suspicions – especially if they don't have my body. Let alone the risk of having me turn up and denounce them as traitors; they won't leave a stone unturned until they've found me.
I need to get away from here, he desperately thought. Quite a hopeless task – he was still disoriented, he was injured, without provisions, and his pursuers were the most powerful force of the academy. How will I go about surviving this?
The first step was to find out what time it was. How long had he been unconscious? Minutes, hours even? Why had they not yet found and killed him?
A quick glance at the lengthening shadows and the sun that was low but still far from setting told him the answer: He had lost no more than half an hour.
They haven't gotten here yet, then. They're on foot, and the panicking lizard must have carried me for several miles at least before I fell off. A reassuring thought. If I only had been able to stay on the lizard a while longer... he mused, or, even better, gained control of the animal...
But he hadn't, and so he was lying here, on foot, like those who were pursuing him. But he had his ow advantages – unlike the Keepers, for all their magical power, he was no stranger to the wilderness and in his element when it came to adventuring. They will need rest before I do, injured though I am, he realized, and I can hide my tracks in ways they cannot follow without using their greatest scrying power. And scrying power was ever limited by sapphires – time and fatigue and nature itself was on his side.
For the first time in quite a while, Olidra managed to grin. “Let us see who gives up first.” He muttered a simple formula that would temporarily block the pain from his forehead – the wound would take some time to heal yet, and unfortunately he possessed no healing magic – and his headache deceptively seemed to clear up at last.
Olidra had walked for about an hour – if one could call it walking and not running, for in spite of his effort to conserve energy by avoiding strain, he was going at a brisk pace. The sun really was close to setting now, though it was hardly even evening yet – it was getting close to winter, and the days had grown short.
He found that he felt remarkably little unease at not having the foggiest idea where he was going. Such thoughts could be postponed until later, once he had the Keepers off his heels. For now, he was walking away, not towards anywhre in particular, and as long as the distance to the Keepers was increasing, he did not mind where he ended up. He was heading west, that was all he knew – which meant that he must be going away from Avtris by now.
The forachid lay northeast of the Sapphire City, and the road to Mehdav would have led him further to the northeast. Instead, the Keepers had apparently begun to take him back home to Avtris, southwest, until the treason and the murder of Eedrah, when his lizard had escaped, speeding northwest judging from the tracks.
Olidra was no fool – he knew that the lizard's heavy footprints in the soft ground were pathetically easy to follow. Instead of trailing after the footprints, he had immediately turned westwards, taking care to walk over hard ground to avoid leaving tracks. His only worry was that his choice of direction might be obvious – but he could just as well have gone north as west, so that was not a significant concern. Why did I not turn around completely and head to Avtris? The answer came immediately: Because right now, he could trust absolutely nobody at the academy. Even if the Keepers didn't catch him, he might be running into a trap. This way was safe.
And yet, as he wandered, he was beginning to sense a strange entity. Probing.
A pity Aidra is not here, he thought. He was always the master at detecting scrying spells like these, identifying their casters and even tracing them back to their source. Olidra's own skill barely extended to realizing it when he was being magically scried.
In this case, of course, that knowledge was quite sufficient. There was no other mage around who could have been casting the spell, it was emanating from the Keepers.
Olidra felt apprehensive and extremely exposed and vulnerable at that knowledge. There was no way to escape the spell, and he did not have the skill or the equipment required to block their sight. While their crystals lasted, he was in their plain sight, and his only hope was to evade them long enough to waste all the resources they had brought. I will change my path as soon as their scrying spell ends to gain some distance and lead them astray. It may not help very long, but they can't have brought enough sapphires with them to last for a whole expedition.
But the scrying spell did not end, and Olidra felt more worried. His apprehension increased when he realized that the feeling was intensifying and becoming clearer. An indicator that the caster was getting closer – and getting closer far too fast for someone on foot. I'm in trouble.
All too soon, he heard the sound of distant footsteps approaching – clawed hooves, a lizard. The scrying spell intensified and then was abruptly cut off. Far from believing himself home and dry – a deceptive feeling – he knew that this only meant that he had finally been spotted by the rider, and no further scrying was required. Too late to hide. Any second now he will get me with a spell, and I can't even see him yet. And then: Where in the name of Dahrnai did he get the lizard? They had only one when they had caught me, their pack animal, and the escaped lizard surely could not have--
His thoughts were interrupted. The lizard appeared in view behind him, and when he turned around, he could hardly believe his eyes.
“Kuhvi!” His lizard let out a friendly hiss in recognition, and approached more closely. Only a few moments later did Olidra think to look up at the Vahnatai who was riding her. Now that the lizard was gaining on him and he was standing in place, he could see it was a young woman, who he did not recognize.
“Olidra-Ka, ska'kal!” She called out to him, and realization hit him all at once. It must be the student who got trapped in the testing halls earlier – Sonahn. It figures I would not recognize her when I saw her first; I'd imagined her looking a lot differently.
“Sonahn?” He addressed her.
“That would be me. So we meet in person at last,” she laughed. “It was a wise decision of you to leave your supplies lying in the cavern, and a less wise, but fortunate decision of these so-called Keepers to leave your lizard running free in the vicinity. That made it easy to follow.”
“So Tarai's Mystical Shovel did its work?” He grinned in relief. At least one of his worries was finally gone.
“That it did, although I'll never begin to understand what its inventor was smoking when he came up with it,” she shook her head in exasperation. “Wind and Earth, can you imagine? When you strike your thumb with a hammer, is the lesson you learn from it to drive nails in with your tongue in the future? But yes, it reached me eventually.
“The rations and potions that you so kindly left for me were enough to make me feel mostly alive again, and after that I found the lizard wandering around a bit aimlessly. He's missed you pretty badly, I think,” she added.
“She. Her name's Kuhvi,” he retorted with a smile. “But what I don't get is this: How did you follow the Keepers?”
“It was easy at first; you were heading back to Avtris after all, and they kept on the road for the most part. Their headstart wasn't that big; I think they dawdled for at least a day if not more before they left the Forachid again. What they did there I can't say – surely they didn't investigate the ruins any more closely.
“Plus, they were on foot, and Kuhvi can apparently ride very fast in return for a few treats. Anyway, I followed you all for a while and came just in time to see it all.” Her expression turned serious suddenly. “Things looked very tight, but I couldn't use any magic, or they would have caught me as well. Under the circumstances, the only thing I could use was a rather primitive way to set the lizard to running.”
“So you did throw that rock!” Olidra exclaimed. “I---” I dreamed of that,he nearly added, but noticed in time how silly that would sound.
“Yes. Fortunately, in the resulting havoc, they were so eager to go after your lizard that nobody stopped to see where the rock had come from, and I could follow easily.”
“Why I followed you instead of returning to Avtris myself? Well, firstly, you pretty much saved my life and I'd rather like to return the favor given an opportunity. Secondly, I saw what you saw, and I survived whatever they did to the Forachid, so I'm sure they don't want to have me around as a witness.
“If we're going to escape, we may as well do it together. What do you say?” She looked at him questioningly.
How quickly the fortunes can turn, Oldra marveled.
“What is there to say? We're in this together now, I guess. For good or for ill. This way, we might actually stand a chance against these traitors. And, of course, it helps that we have Kuhvi and some supplies.
“We need to move.” He grinned again. “And we should do so quickly before Rabon catches us chatting. So yes. Let's run away together.”