Amates 20, 1277, later that same evening. Middle of nowhere in the prairie.
I wasn’t ready.
We rode east out of Banye, following Justicar Copeland to the shallow stream bed. The stream was barely there. It was just enough water to keep the plants fed and possibly give the local wildlife something to drink. During the rainy seasons, it was probably impressive.
The others continued on south while Evi stayed with me. Once they were out of sight, we put my idea in motion.
Evi held onto one end of the rope while she took off at a gallop. I held the other end while riding on her back. The centaur raced across the prairie into the evening wind. After a few seconds, I let out the wings.
It took me a few tries and false starts. Once, I nearly fell face first into the dirt, but it worked.
Also, I nearly screamed. But I kept that to myself.
Sheer terror gripped me like a vice when the wind yanked me into the air, but only at first. Then came the wonder.
The night sky was clear, rich with stars and moonlight. Cold Planus winds carried me along faster than I imagined. I shivered. My clothing was all linen and cotton. That was almost, but not quite enough, protection against the chill.
I decided if I ever had to do this again, I’d wear something a bit warmer than a maecri long coat. The coat seemed to slow me down a bit and wasn’t quite warm enough. But I had to work with what I brought with me.
In the distance, I saw a gray haze settled over the ground. A cloud, or light fog, was all piled up near what almost looked like a large vernal pool. It was one of many that are scattered across the Planus prairie landscape. I was a good three stores in the air. From that height, I could almost make out the glow of a campfire and a few tents along the shore.
Ki had been right. The Crimson Company was using magic to hide themselves. Either it wasn’t very strong at night, or it worked better against anyone on the ground. I sighted a wonderful piece of flat dirt to the southeast of the camp to make landfall.
When I was a little girl, I liked to watch the flying marsh squirrels and fisher bats that lived in and around Ishnanor. I remembered how they glided through the air or landed on a perch. It gave me a vague idea of how to come down safely without breaking my fool neck, or anything else.
I glided through the prairie night like the world’s most demented looking bat-squirrel-woman that ever lived, complete with a feral grin. After a brief struggle with the wing pack, I figured out how to tilt and turn myself toward the ground. It wasn’t a sharp fall, but more like a slow descent. In the meantime, I took a long look at the Crimson Company’s camp through the magical fog.
It wasn’t a large camp, so Vargas hadn’t brought the entire company, thank the Tides. A cooking fire dominated the center of the camp, with tents arrayed around it in a rough circle. They had pitched four large tan canvas tents near the pool. Several smaller, ashen-colored ones sat scattered out in a semi-circle to the west. A rough ring of poles surrounded the camp. Each supported small oil lanterns that glowed a sickly yellow.
This looked like a small fighting force of ten or even twenty strong, which wasn’t good news. Either way, that was a lot of people more interested in bloodshed than history to dig up an Ancient Order relic. But that was something to think about later. I needed to focus on avoiding guards and not getting any broken bones.
I sailed silently over two, maybe three sentries with no one the wiser. The fickle Planus wind was dying off, so the ground was rushing up at me fast. I arched my back like a marsh squirrel and used the wing pack handles to tilt the wings, slowing my fall.
Even without a marsh squirrel's bushy tail, my gamble paid off. I hit the ground at a fast run and only tripped twice when the wind grabbed at me. The second trip dropped me sideways into the dirt in a small cloud of dust. There was an ugly crunch as the wing pack took the brunt of the fall. The right wing was a mess of shattered wood and torn cloth.
I wiped dirt from my face before I pulled myself out of the battered wing pack. Mikasi’s wonderful invention had done what it needed to do. Even if it wasn’t broken, it would slow me down. I took a last look at the fantastic device.
“Mikasi, you’re a genius,” I whispered.
After a glance up at the night sky, then ahead to the fog-shrouded mercenary camp, I added, “I owe you a wing pack.”
I raced for the camp. Tall clumps of prairie grass and the occasional rock pile gave me a little cover along the way. The Crimson Company had posted most of the guards to the west of camp. Only a handful were on duty elsewhere.
They weren’t hard to avoid. The sickly yellow light thrown out from the lanterns was a different story.
A light breeze toyed with the lanterns, which made them sway. This caused the light and shadows around them to shift and move. That was rougher to avoid, but I managed. I lost myself in the tallest Redbrush reeds along the water’s edge, before I eased past the line of lanterns without drawing any attention. Once inside camp, I started my hunt.
I found where they had stashed Mikasi five minutes later.
He was inside one of the four larger tents. I could hear him inside muttering to himself. It sounded like he was chewing over some idea or design. He also wasn’t alone.
One of the Crimson Company stood guard outside the main entrance of the tent. He was a broad-shouldered, hawk-nosed man with cold eyes and an old knife scar that decorated his right cheek. A well-cared for short sword and pair of daggers suggested he was long accustomed to fighting. This was someone I wanted to avoid.
Another mercenary strolled around the tent itself. He was thinner than his companion, but no less armed. The man was dressed in the same leather-trimmed, brick-red armored coat typical to the Crimson Company.
I kept still, crouched in a patch of tall reeds in the tent’s shadow. The guard walked his rounds, eyes darting toward any little movement. Thankfully, he didn’t notice me. It gave me the feeling that these two weren’t trying to keep people out, but Mikasi in. Once the guard went on his way, I hurried over to the tent wall. I took a quick glance around, then scurried inside under the tan canvas.
Mikasi was sitting at a chestnut wooden camp desk in the middle of the tent. The desk was his size and just large enough for him to work.
Papers filled with half-finished equations and drawings were piled around him. He jumped up when he saw me, scattering the desk’s contents everywhere. The surrounding tent housed haphazard stacks of backpacks and other bags. It appeared to be a storage tent put to use as a cell for the inventor.
That was when I saw they had him hobbled with rope strapped to his ankles. I sighed.
Shock and excitement flooded Mikasi’s face. He glanced between me and the front of the tent.
“Windtracer!” he said in a sharp whisper. Terror replaced excitement. He turned pale, then quickly stared at the tent entrance.
I ran over to him before he got any louder. The straps on his ankles were leather, with locked buckles. That was a problem for later. The rope connecting them? That I could deal with. I started work on the knots.
“How did you find me?” he asked in a low voice.
I shook my head. The knots refused to budge. Fortunately, I came armed. The rope was tough, but wasn’t a match for my dagger.
Mikasi glanced back at the tent entrance, then ran a hand through his unkempt, thinning hair. From what I could tell, Vargas and company hadn’t mistreated him aside from hobbling him. Mikasi looked haggard and disheveled in his rumpled clothes stained with prairie dust. He tried to say something else, but I interrupted him.
“Quiet,” I replied in a hushed tone while I sawed at the rope. My dagger sliced through the last of it. “Now. Time to go. Grab anything you’ve written. The others are waiting for us outside camp to help get us back to Banye.”
Mikasi shook his head emphatically.
“No. We can’t!”
I cut a sharp glance at the tent entrance. The shadow of the guard outside hadn’t moved. I pinned Mikasi to the spot with a frown.
“What do you mean, ‘no’? You want to stay?”
His eyes went wide.
“No!” he hissed through clenched teeth. “No, I don’t. But you don’t understand. That man, their leader…”
“Yes! Him,” he replied. Mikasi gestured at the chaotic mass of papers. “This is only part of what I’ve written. That Vargas fellow has more complete notes I’ve already finished with his own documents and relics.”
I rubbed my eyes. For some reason, I thought rescuing Mikasi might be easy. Then I realized what he had just said. I grabbed the inventor by his shoulders and almost shook him.
“Wait. Relics? What do you mean by ‘relics’?”
Mikasi managed a half-shrug despite my grip.
“I mean relics. He’s got journals like you do, some of the same ones, but he has more than that. Vargas has part of an Automatic Crystal!” Mikasi held up a fist. “A chunk about that large. I want to say it had broken off some time ago, but I don’t think that’s true.”
My frown tightened into a scowl.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s more like a ‘puzzle’ piece than a ‘broken’ piece. I think all those seams in the old drawings are edges of pieces. That would mean the crystal could be assembled in different ways for different uses, not just ‘adjusted’.”
I sat back on my heels and blinked. The implications of what he said swam through my mind, making it difficult to concentrate. I let go of him to sheathe my dagger, then rub my face. This wasn’t even the last thing I expected.
“Here? That is here?”
Mikasi nodded with his typical manic excitement.
“Yes, here!” He grabbed a bundle of papers he had been writing on a few seconds ago, then waved them at me. “The calculations were right if that lone piece is anything to go by. Movable facets? All we considered? I think it’s all true!”
I pursed my lips in thought. Should I even dare? The answer was painfully obvious.
“All right. He doesn’t need to keep that. Where’s Vargas’ tent?”
Mikasi stabbed a finger to his left.
“That way. The large one with the fancy banner embroidered on the tent flap.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Of course it is.” I glanced at the front of the tent with its looming shadow of the guard outside. He still hadn’t moved or noticed us. “Listen. We can slip out the way I got in and go over there to grab it. Then we head out of camp.”
Mikasi was already shaking his head before I finished.
“No, we can’t.”
“Vargas comes to see how I’m doing every about every hour.” Mikasi waved an arm at the tent entrance. “He’ll be by any time now. I’ll keep him occupied while you get the relic and as many of the notes as you can. You’ll have to come back for me.”
I squinted at him.
“You sure?” My frown returned with a vengeance. “Are you sure you can convince Vargas that nothing else is happening? Vargas isn’t stupid.”
Mikasi nodded once with the most determination I’d ever seen since I had met him.
“I can. Please, get those notes and that relic. Then we can run out of here!”
I gently squeezed his arm and tried to give him a reassuring smile. Mikasi didn’t look any more reassured than I felt, but it was worth a try. Without another word, I slipped back to the tent wall where first entered.
Grass crunched and the shadow of the guard on patrol loomed large against the cloth. Then, he moved on his way. I took two breaths to steady my nerves, then scurried back outside to my previous hiding place.
At the tall reeds, I squatted down to collect my thoughts.
All I had to do was slip inside Vargas’ tent. Once inside, I had to find Mikasi’s notes and this piece of an Automatic Crystal then get out. After that, I needed to collect Mikasi, then run like all hells for the others outside of camp.
It was a straightforward plan, and with Vargas distracted, it seemed reasonable. I couldn’t think of anything that could go wrong, other than, well, everything.
I raced off through shadows and water reeds toward Vargas’ tent.