Chapter 16

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Amates 21, 1277. Early morning on the prairie after having been tossed out like a sack of potatoes with no coffee in sight.

 
 
     The mercenary tossed me into the dirt, which caused nearby insects and a prairie ferret to run for safety. The fall knocked some of the wind out of me and I gasped in the dusty, dry air. I glared up at my captor through the first rays of the morning sun.
 
     She wasn’t impressed.
 
     The woman smirked back with a toothy grin, complete with orcish fangs. Lean and hard muscled in a sleeveless jerkin, she planted her hands on her hips. She was built like some used to heavy labor, like a miller.
 
     “Tied up and left out on the prairie,” she said with a small shake of her head. “Bad way to go. Glad it’s you and not me.”
 
     I scowled but didn’t give her the satisfaction of an answer. Instead, I fought off a sneeze brought on by the stench of prairie dust, dead grass and bitter dirt that hovered in the air.
 
     It went without saying; I wasn’t in the best mood. The morning sun and lack of coffee didn’t mingle well with what Lord Marius had done to me with that piece of the Automatic Crystal.
 
     My head throbbed. It wasn’t the worst headache I’d ever had, but it was close. The nosebleeds that came with it were an unpleasant bonus.
 
     What with all the theories, fighting, traveling, and running around, I had completely forgotten what Ihodis had warned me about back in Ishnanor. But the rumor of the Automatic Crystal’s mind magic storm effect was nothing compared to reality.
 
     The Automatic Crystal could unleash a magic storm inside a person’s mind. I’m pretty sure that is exactly what Lord Marius hit me with. Like any magic storm, it’s a nightmare come to life. But this type of magic storm does more than just try to batter your mind to mush. It takes a toll on your body, too.
 
     I squinted down at the spot just above where they had tied my wrists together. There on my forearms, between the ropes and my sleeves, was a healthy patch of small bony scales. They were a lot like the raised bone scales on an alligator’s back.
 
     These were a dusky color that matched the rest of my skin, but looked like they belonged on a reptile instead of me. A stab of panic shot through me anytime I glanced at them.
 
     The rest of me felt cracked. Exhausted. Maybe even a little stretched out of shape. Along with that came a strong feeling of being thirsty or hungry, but I couldn’t tell which. It was like that gnawing, almost lightheaded, sensation that comes after a long climb or run through the swamps.
 
     When I didn’t reply to my captor’s comment, the woman shot a sour look at me, then walked away. Vincent Vargas appeared in her place. I shifted my glare to him, but he wasn’t any more impressed.
 
     “Where’s Lord Marius?” I asked in a dry, hoarse voice. “Too busy burning other people’s minds with the relic to see me off?”
 
     Vargas was fashionably dressed as usual, from his tailored tan shirt and ‘explorer’ outfit to his brown waistcoat. Blond hair was combed, pulled back, and braided down his back in one of the current Ishnanori styles. It clashed with the customary sneer on his face. He looked down his thin nose at me, then waved that stupid silk handkerchief he always carried in my direction.
 
     “Dealing with your mess, I expect,” he remarked. The reply sounded casual enough, but I could hear the irritation laced through the reply. “Clever plan really, I’ll give you that. Distract Lord Marius and the rest of us to buy time for Master Mikasi to make good his escape? Typical, irritating, ‘you’.”
 
     I did a double take at Vargas. Mikasi had escaped? Also, Vargas hadn’t gloated over catching Tyre, Evi, or any of the others. I hoped that meant they also avoided the Crimson Company.
 
     Of course, Vargas could be lying, and it wouldn’t be the first time. But that seething anger over losing Mikasi seemed genuine enough.
 
     I shook my head a little, then tried to focus on what Vargas was saying. Fortunately, he had been too busy talking to notice I had gotten distracted. He let out a long, frustrated sigh.
 
     “So, while the little inventor isn’t the fastest runner, he apparently can hide rather well.” Vargas waved his handkerchief at the prairie. “Even in this desolate place, he vanished.”
 
     It took a second before his usual sneer returned in full force.
 
     “At least I’ll have the joy of leaving you behind. Not quite how you left me behind, but good enough! What do you think, Tela? Which will get you first? The heat? The sand jackals?” His sneer bloomed into a full, malicious smile. “Or the crab ants?”
 
     “You arrogant ass! I didn’t leave you behind!” I snapped. “You knew we had to leave. The traps were going off everywhere. But no, you had to run back into Long Deep! For what? A silver amulet?”
 
     “It was my find!” he raged back, fists clenched.
 
     “You were treasure hunting! We were there for records and you were there to line your pockets!”
 
     I watched him reach for the spider pendent he had under his shirt out of reflex. Anyone acquainted with Vargas knew he wore that thing all the time. He never let it out of his sight. Not that he has any choice about it. I struggled to sit up but wound up leaning on one elbow.
 
     My temper was at full sail. If I could have slapped him down with a glare, Vargas would be on the ground by now.
 
     “We went back in looking for you,” I replied with a growl. “Ten people died because you got greedy! Ten! Almost every last one of us! I hope that, and living with the curse on that pendant, was worth it.”
 
     I looked away, which meant staring an angry hole in the dirt where I lay. It was that or glare at the horizon.
 
     Neither of us spoke for a few seconds, and even his two Crimson Company bodyguards kept quiet. The sound of the wind running through the prairie grass shook the accusing silence.
 
     “No. It isn’t,” he said in a quiet tone. “All those voices whispering to me, especially at night? No. It isn’t worth it at all.”
 
     I glanced back over at him as he turned to walk away. There was a curve to the man’s shoulders I missed before. It was the appearance of someone who carried a heavy burden they couldn’t, or didn’t know how to, put down.
 
     “Hey. Vargas?”
 
     I kept my voice low, in an even tone.
 
     Vargas stopped, but didn’t turn around. I watched him take a deep breath, then sigh.
 
     “What?”
 
     I bit my lower lip while I scrounged words together. It was a lot simpler just to hate the man. He was still responsible for those people that died in Long Deep, and the bloody path he’s followed since then.
 
     But all of this was bigger than the bad blood between Vargas and myself. What Lord Marius did with the Automatic Crystal made that all too clear. Then there was the matter of the baron himself.
 
     “Be careful,” I replied. “There’s something wrong with all of this and Lord Marius. I don’t mean his grand plans or whatever he’s told you. Not that. I mean the man… or whatever he is.”
 
     Vargas glanced at me over his shoulder with a curious expression.
 
     “How do you mean?”
 
     I locked eyes with him.
 
     “I stabbed him and he didn’t bleed.”
 
     Vargas frowned.
 
     “You did what?”
 
     The morning sun had climbed partway into the near-cloudless sky. I could feel the heat starting to beat down on me. It can get hot quickly out on the wide, flat lands of Planus. Sweat trickled down my cheeks while I blew out a heavy breath.
 
     “I stabbed Lord Marius, and he didn’t bleed,” I repeated, forcing myself to stay calm. The memory was fresh in my mind, along with the shock. “At least, it didn’t look like blood. It was more like dust.”
 
     There was another long silence while we stared at each other. I could see it in his eyes that this was new information. His expression was as dark as a thundercloud.
 
     “A contract is contract.” His voice was low, almost gravelly in its intensity. “Even if the arrangement is getting worse all the time.”
 
     At that, he walked away, flanked by his two Crimson Company mercenaries. I could’ve yelled at him to break the contract. To not be an idiot and die for a business arrangement. But I knew better.
 
     A part of Vargas was still the man I remembered from his days as a Windtracer. Contracts were sacrosanct to him. They were tied up with his personal honor, even if it landed him in trouble. What happened with him and his silver pendant was a shining example of that. So, instead, I waited impatiently for the three of them to ride away.
 
     The prairie heat continued to bake me while I struggled with my bonds. The rope was secure, but I was still able to move my hands a little. I curled up and fumbled near the top of my right boot.
 
     They had taken my whip and daggers from me, and any other obvious personal items. I hoped they hadn’t had the time, or the inclination, to search for my not so obvious tools.
 
     It took a few minutes, but I opened the flap on the inside of my right boot. My fingers touched the blunt end of the thin, palm-length knife I kept hidden there. I grinned.
 
     My grin faded when I heard howls echo on the light wind.
 
     I froze, then slowly looked to the horizon. In the distance, thought the tall prairie grass, I saw a pack of tan-furred jackals rise into view. There were five of them. It was mid-morning, which was late for Planus sand jackals to be out for a morning meal. But it happened sometimes.
 
     Slowly, I drew the palm-knife out of my boot, then sawed at the rope.
 
     Then the wind shifted direction, and I saw the lead jackal look right at me.

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