“I’m not bloody well going to send that message. She’s not happy with me.” Eli crossed his arms over his chest and scowled forbiddingly.
Wynter nudged Shadowmist around a particularly choppy part of the road with barely more than a touch of her knees. Her voice was a lilting drawl. “She’s not so happy wit’ any of us.”
“Well, I can’t read or write.” Bryn tugged the bracer that had never fit quite right after the ghoulish inhabitants of the house had mangled it.
Wynter glanced at Freyja, who just shrugged and quirked a brow. Wynter sighed. “Fine. I will do it.”
“The streets are clear, Sir. We seem to have got rid of them all.” Lieutenant North saluted and winced. He leaned against a chair and he wasn’t rebuked. He was not the only wounded.
“Good.” The statement was delivered matter-of-factly by the Captain of Sandpoint. The wearied Quinn Ameiko glanced up as the door to the barracks opened with a protesting squeak. Relief she didn’t know she had poured into her soul.
“You are all alive.” She pressed a hand to her temple. “What happened out there?”
“Ye are goin’ to want to close off the roads to the area. That place is bad.” Wynter’s voice travelled over the hum of noise in the room. And conversations quieted as the witch filled in the Captain on the events of the day.
“I will want to report to the General. Have ye a messenger we can use?”
The Captain nodded. “I will send a messenger to the Rusty Dragon.”
“My thanks.” Wynter nodded, and joined the rest of the group as they trouped wearily to the tavern.
The noise in the room dulled a little as the Shadowguard entered the tavern room of the Rusty Dragon. The barkeep gestured that their ale would be incoming, and directed them to the table that had become their own. A wench was send back for Calyth Suto.
Calyth approached with her hands deftly carrying the tankards. She lowered them down to the scarred, sticky tabletop.
“Enjoy.” She straightened. “There is a woman waiting for you all in the private dining room. She says there is no rush, but…” She glanced back. “I wouldn’t want to keep her waiting.”
“What does she look like?” Eli asked warily.
Wynter glanced quickly at Freyja. The half orc shifted uneasily.
“Elf. Got her hair in braids.”
They relaxed. Not a half angel with a demon arm. That kind of thing stands out. If the braids are the first thing a person thinks on…
“We will be right there.” Eli rose and picked up his tankard.
Bryn grumbled. “Interruptin’ good drinking time.”
The elven woman sat at the far end of the feast table, her feet propped on the chair opposite. She glanced up as the Shadowguard entered. An unpleasant smile curved her lips.
“So you finally decided to join me.” It wasn’t a question.
“Who are you?” Wynter asked flatly.
“Amirah Khaliyah. I have been sent here by the General. I can help you find Nualia.”
Wynter glanced at the grim faced Eli.
“What? What’s going on?” Bryn took a deep swig of her ale.
“Got some proof of what you are saying?” Wynter asked the newcomer.
Amirah tossed the parchment sealed with the General’s insignia onto the table. A pale brow was risen in query.
“That’s not…proof,” Eli muttered, scanning the document. But the penmanship was familiar.
“Where is Nualia?” Wynter said.
“In the Thornwastes. Accompanying a group of Scyrax tribespeople south.”
“What interest is it of yours?”
Amirah’s fingertips drummed in annoyance over the table. “You can ask the General next time you see her.”
“That isn’t what I asked.” Wynter propped her hands on her hips, her tone quiet and smooth.
Amirah pierced Eli with bright blue eyes. “Will you question the General’s order, Eli?”
He flinched. “No. That’s fine.”
Wynter frowned. “That was NOT what I asked. What interest is it of yours?”
Amirah stood slowly, drawing to her full height. She was thin, but all of it muscle. Bands of bronze bound her arms and layers of clothing spoke of desert climes. “I will protect my people. If your Nualia joins the Scyrax, my people will die. Erin sent me because she believed that you could help me.”
Eli slammed down his empty tankard. “We will see you in the morning.”
“I’m ready to go now.” Amirah folded her arms across her chest.
Wynter blinked at Eli’s sudden motion, but kept her composure. “We are tired and wounded. We had to kill a ghast this evening and it was difficult. We need to rest.”
Amirah stared down at the scarred surface of the table and shifted in annoyance. “Fine. In the morning then.”
Eli stalked out first, brushing past Bryn.
“Hey. What’s going…” Bryn scowled as Eli kept walking. “Fine.”
Wynter scribbled her signature on the bottom of the letter to the General.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
The witch glanced up into the bruised face of Captain Quinn Ameiko and smiled. “Sure.”
Quinn murmured an order to a passing barmaid and took up a seat. “I came to pick up the message for the General.”
“You…did?” Wynter was surprised.
“My people are exhausted and I confess, I wanted to get out of there and have some normal conversation that doesn’t revolve around Sandpoint for a while.”
The barmaid returned with two tankards of ale and a plate of meat, cheese and bread. Quinn pushed the platter between them.
“You can have some if you like.”
Wynter smiled her thanks. “We have to head for the Thornwastes in the morning.”
Quinn schooled her features into impassivity. “I wish you well in your journey, Sergeant.”
Wynter selected a cube of cheese and tossed it into her mouth. “Oh, I’m sure we will be just fine.”
“I did not realise you…all of you, would be gone so soon.”
“Part of the job.” Wynter shrugged.
“Safe travels then.”
The desert yawned before them. The heat beating like waves against the skin. Freyja tugged the hood of her robes over her head and wrinkled her nose. “Well hell, was hoping to never see this place again.”
The scent of cooked spiced meats and laughter echoed over the empty desert sands. Lanterns cast their golden light over the oasis, making the deep, cold waters of the small lake a tempting invitation.
Exhausted, six riders stumbled into the welcoming halo. Red faced from the heat, scars still fresh from recent encounters, they sought relief from the unrelenting sands. Silk tents were set up on the muddy banks as they sought respite in the taverns nearby and the cool, deep waters of the oasis.
The icy cold moon had risen over the undulating dunes, and it was in this silvered light that Amirah slipped from her bedroll and strolled into the quiet streets of Khuraysan.
Amirah strode toward the shadow in the palms of the oasis.
“Gabriel. What news?”
“The deva is almost to the mountain refuge.”
“Will your companions prove useful?”
“Erin seems to think so.” Amirah uneasily rubbed the back of her neck. “But they are ultimately expendable.
“Will they take direction?”
She smiled. “I will make them. I have certain…leverage.”
“We will see you at the meet place.”
“Go with speed.”
Eli crouched as a vague shadow amongst the prickly, dust coated scrub. As Amirah and her unknown companion slipped away, he straightened, the spines of the plant he had crouched behind plucking at the fabric of his tunic. His expression was carefully schooled.
“Here.” Eli handed Bryn a coffee. She looked like she needed it.
“Hey. Were you creeping around last night?”
“Yeah. Just waiting for the others. We need to have a little chat with our new companion.”
“Right.” Bryn sipped.
The campfire swirled its smoke skyward as they ate breakfast.
“Who are you?” Eli asked of Amirah as conversation drifted to silence.
Amirah glanced up from her plate with a frown. “I told you.”
“That story ain’t the whole truth, and you know it.”
“You want more information, you can ask the General.”
“Ye need ta do better’n that if ye want us to watch ye back.” Wynter leaned back against the fallen tree that made up her seat.
“No. I don’t think I do,” Amirah said flatly.
“Who is Nualia to you?” Eli asked.
“Someone that I want to see dead.”
“Ask the General.”
“No,” Wynter snapped.
“You want to know more about who I am, you can ask the General.”
Wynter kicked a smoking log in annoyance. “We are asking you here and now. If we are to trust one another, we should know more about each other.”
Amirah stirred the leftover contents of her plate with thoughtfulness. She regarded each member of the party.
“If that bitch reaches their mountain lair, we won’t get her out.” Amirah tossed her plate into the dust at her feet. “General Naveth has an interest in seeing the Scyrax weakened and my people in charge.”
“Why?” Wynter frowned.
“Erin and I…have an understanding.” Amirah shifted her gaze thoughtfully over all, before resting finally on Eli. “She supports me and wishes you to help. Will you refuse?”
“No.” Eli snapped. “Let’s get going.”
Wynter glanced at Eli.
Eli yawned. He figured dawn was a few hours away yet. But out there somewhere were riders that had flanked them for days, kicking up dust that was barely visible in the baking heat of the dunes.
The desert was eerily noisy. It should have been silent. Surely nothing could survive out here – but there it was – the slither of scale upon sand. The chitinous skitter of many feet over…wait. Over what? Sand didn’t have solid…. Oh shit.
Eli leapt to his feet and scarpered down from his vantage point. A dark, squat shape was nosing its way under the fluttering silk sides of Amirah’s tent. The only light was the moon reflecting off the pale fabric.
Eli took out the wicked dagger that had an unerring ability to return to his hand once thrown. He hefted its weight and heaved. Striking true, the beast hissed and chittered its pain and protest, flailing on the sand, it’s tail curving in a arch over its armoured spine.
From the tent came a shriek as the elven woman awoke. Silence, then the sound of a meaty thwack was heard. Amirah scrambled backwards out of her tent. The scorpion flailed, tangling its spindly limbs with the guy ropes, and the black ichor of its blood was smeared into the sands as Eli stomped its fragile skeleton to fragments.
Wynter folded her arms across her chest, a thoughtful expression on her face.
“My true name is Vaia Silverwinter. Baroness Vaia Silverwinter.”
They stood in the debris of combat as a man in chainmail leapt off his horse and greeted Amirah with a salute and, “Baroness.”
The party stared at each other in shock. Could it be true?