Underground Ring: Book 1, page 11
I was stopped by a firm grasp around my arm. Ben and Lee had run ahead to join our new comrades, but Trosian clearly wanted a word with me. His hand did not budge as I glanced from it to him.
“Stop embarrassing us.” His words were sharp but quiet, like an invisible dagger. His eyes full of fury. “These are the only allies we have against the might of the Shadows. Has your arrogance blinded you to that?”
“Don’t speak to me as if I were a child,” I responded.
“Then stop acting like one,” Trosian chided. “Master or not, if you put us in danger like that again, I will stop you.”
In a flash, I ripped his grip from my shirt with one clean stroke of my arm. The situation was now reversed, my palm holding his wrist in a vice grip. All the emotions, the unfinished business, poured back into this moment as we stood in a dangerous silence.
“Are we done holding hands, gentlemen?” Selene called out to us, followed by Ben and Lee’s laughter.
“Don’t speak to me like that again,” I hissed at Trosian, ignoring Selene’s comment.
Trosian tore his arm from my grasp and stormed off towards the others. I knew then that whatever Trosian and I had begun all those years ago had not been dealt with. Not by a long shot.
The Pagan stronghold was only a few kilometres away.
“Wow,” Lee said in awe of a great tree standing before us. “How old is this thing?”
The tree was like something you would hear about from the distant past. It was wider than Lokus’s house and much taller, stretching high above us like a giant castle reaching into the heavens. Its base was hollowed open, with many small foxholes five or six metres high scattered about the decaying trunk, through which snipers were watching our slow approach.
“Isn’t this something that Druids normally do?” Ben asked. He’d always had a fascination for other secret societies like us Mystics.
“It is,” Trosian said as we approached a chasm in the wood. “Look at the runes adorning the doorway.” He ran a finger against the mottled tree as we hung back in the threshold.
“We came here from the cities in hope of Druid protection,” Selene said.
“Where are they now?” Ben asked.
“Gone.” The response was quick and cold as the Mother Pagan crossed into the stronghold.
We exchanged nervous glances as we followed into the great open space within the tree. Though large, the inside was littered with makeshift tents. In an insult to the tree’s beauty, garbage was strewn about like it was an inner city park. The people inside looked no better. Most of them peered at us with gaunt, tired faces. There was a fear here. Something had broken the Pagans’ spirit. It was the Shadows, the Darkness, that ate at them now, poisoning them so that they cowered within instead of rising up and defending their way of life. They approached us now, smiles spreading over the thin skin of their faces.
“Mother!” they called to her.
Selene smiled brightly at them. I could see her charisma. As the few dozen or so individuals gathered around her, she took each of their hands into her own. She was their leader.
“Isn’t the Mother Pagan supposed to be some old hag?” Ben asked as we stood waiting for some sort of direction from Selene.
“All of the elder Pagans are dead,” Trosian said.
“Snuffed out by Shadows?”
“Where are the others?” a woman called from the crowd, interrupting our conversation.
“Where is my wife, Isabella?” another asked.
It was the first time I saw true sadness in Selene. She shook her head, and sank down, revealing the invisible weight of the burden she carried and her bleeding heart within. With each beat of my heart I felt the desire—no, the need—to be the beacon that this broken race needed. I would protect them—protect her—against the might of these Shadows. I would do whatever it took, whatever was necessary to see them through. There was a war raging inside of me like a great storm. In the centre was this woman, Selene, causing my mind to careen into an intense squall. Was this my humanity making a stand? Was this…
“Oy, Selene!” called another from the parting crowd, breaking into my thoughts. Two men walking unusually close to one another strode forward, their purple robes caked in dried blood and mud. The first one was tall with dirty blonde hair and a strong nose that made him look like a bird. The other was shrunken, with his hair messy and a baby face that made him look much younger than he probably was. The crowd parted and moved away from the Mother Pagan, heading back to their business as the two approached. The four of us followed the two men closely behind.
“What happened?” the taller man questioned, with a tone that was polite but contained an underlying bitterness.
“Ambushed, Gerald,” Selene responded. “We repelled them with the help of these Mystics.” She nodded towards us.
Gerald casually glanced back to us. “Where are the supplies?”
“Right here.” Lee raised his large bag filled with our rations and survival provisions with enthusiasm.
Gerald blinked in disbelief. “You must be joking.”
“We are your relief!” I stated boldly, getting tired of being looked down upon.
“What we asked for was medicine and food to help our people. Not four boys to be fodder for the Shadows.”
“Perhaps there is somewhere more private where we can discuss this,” Trosian suggested, realizing that this was not something to be discussed in front of the few dozen or so Pagans listening to the conversation of their leaders.
“Yes,” Selene agreed. “Follow me.”
Trosian whipped around to face Ben and Lee. “Get the weapons from the van and scout out any Shadow platoons nearby. Be swift and don’t linger.”
“But…” Ben interjected.
“No buts,” I interrupted, seeing where Trosian was going with this. Four voices would not help this debate and Lee and Ben would not help matters with their lack of diplomacy. I just hoped there was some way we could work together and get out of this disaster—alive.
There was an actual tent tucked away in the far back of the large tree. As we crossed the threshold of the 12-man tent, we began to realize exactly where Gerald’s sense of urgency came from. This was their supply tent and it was filled with only a few crates of rations and two first aid kits. Even if controlled properly, this could only feed the small population outside for a few more days. The reality of the situation was sinking in, very quickly. It would be a week at most before we would start to see the first deaths from starvation. I had wondered why the Shadows were not storming this place. I guess I had found my answer. Why waste numbers on those who will simply just kill themselves?
The three Pagans stood on the opposite side of the tent, leaning against their dwindling supplies. Trosian and I hesitated at the entrance.
“I am Gerald. This is my friend, Vincent. Vincent, say hi,” Gerald nodded to urge on his companion.
“Hi,” Vincent responded, his voice sounding thick and slow.
My eyes shifted to my companion standing next to me. Trosian’s gaze never left the three Pagans. I admit I didn’t feel especially comfortable standing next to him. Not that I feared him, no, it was more that we clearly did not agree and I was afraid that our lack of synergy might make us look weak in front of our would-be allies.
“Now that the introductions are out of the way, why do you now grace us with your presence, Mystics?” Gerald spoke callously, his glare unforgiving.
“To assist you in the defeat of Shadows, clearly,” I said, determined not be made a fool of again.
“Clearly,” Gerald repeated, seemingly unconvinced. The older Pagan then shifted forward. “Or perhaps you are Shadow spies sent to sabotage our defences?”
“Gerald!” Selene’s voice was full of warning.
“Don’t be preposterous,” Trosian interjected simultaneously.
The Mother Pagan was leaning uncomfortably against one of the crates of supplies. It was apparent that Gerald often pushed his authority further than perhaps he should.
“So you aren’t Shadows?” Gerald’s accusing tone snapped my attention back to him. “Then why are you here?”
“Are we not on the same side?” Trosian said.
“I thought so. Where were you when we cried for help in the city? Where were you when we were hunted for the past four years? And why now, with us here on the precipice of defeat, do they send only four Mystics—and teenagers no less? Forgive me if I don’t see this as reassuring.”
“Whether you like it or not, we’re all you have,” I spoke over Gerald before he could continue his rant. “Whining over a bleak past won’t change your future. But we can.”
Trosian gave me a surprised look.
“Augrais is right,” Selene agreed. “Arguing will not help our future.”
“I’m open to suggestions,” Gerald said. A small vein in his forehead was beginning to throb. “Don’t you think if there was an easy solution we would already have saved ourselves? We are surrounded by hundreds of Shadows. Hundreds.” Gerald paused and sighed dramatically. “There is no survival here.”
“Then why not retreat? We could return to Lokus and at least be supplied,” Trosian said. “If four Mystic boys can go undetected, surely the almighty Pagans can.” My companion smirked.
“Don’t be so smug, boy,” Gerald growled in retort. “We have sent many scouts. The few that return come back injured or dying.”
“How many did you send?”
Gerald was taken aback by Trosian’s quick questions. The young Mystic almost didn’t wait for the Pagan to finish his sentences. “What difference does it make?”
“How many did you send?” Trosian repeated, resolute and calm.
“Ten or so,” Selene answered, eyes narrowing, attempting to see what Trosian wanted with that apparently random fact.
Trosian’s smirk widened. “Augrais, can you hand me your knife please?” His hand extended outward.
I hesitated for a moment, then rummaged into my pocket and felt the cold steel of my switchblade.
The blade was promptly snatched from my hand and the sounds of wood being scratched and whittled filled the tent.
“What on earth is he doing?” Selene asked me.
“What he does best.” I motioned for them to step closer and study.
On the ground below us, Trosian was hard at work creating a strange map, cutting and carving into the wood. Slowly, a muddle of the major landmarks around us emerged on the map, including a makeshift tree that represented us. From that tree he carved three arrows. One was small and directed to a large X almost out of Trosian’s reach. Another larger arrow travelled in a large crescent around the ravine where we had found the Pagans, and ended at the same destination as the shorter arrow: behind the X. The final arrow pointed off to the side.
“You said ten Pagans right, Gerald?” Trosian queried while finishing his masterpiece.
“What difference does it make?” Gerald cried out in frustration.
Trosian stood and stepped very close to Gerald, so swiftly that the man stiffened. “It could mean the difference between life and death.” His voice was grim and low, like a growl from a wolf.
Trosian, like Gerald, had a thing for theatrics. He often brought that skill into his combat, where he would use intimidation and fear to bring down his opponent. I was by far the stronger out of the two of us, but in terms of strategy, there was no one better than Trosian. Even Lokus himself was hard pressed to beat Trosian at simple war games, like chess or checkers.
“Our ten swiftest individuals will follow the path you normally use for scouts.” Trosian knelt to the wooden floor and pointed to the direct route. “We will travel light and dress much like your kin, to draw their attention. The second arrow will have the greater force and the group will take a longer, more indirect route in order to flank the Shadows, who would be attacking the first group, from behind. If we go out in our time of day, attired, and our ten scouts taking an approach similar to yours before, they won’t see the flank coming. This third arrow should be your weak and your sick, but also a messenger to ask the Mystics for aid.”
“That begs the obvious question—who will be the bait?” Selene asked darkly, kneeling down beside Trosian the mastermind.
My rival and I had an exchange of understanding.
“Even with the diversion, there is no way that that group of ten cannot withstand heavy losses,” I said bluntly, my senses attempting to absorb every inkling of fear on their faces. “And let us assume that this plan does work. The Shadows still have a superior force with advanced firepower, so we cannot be sure of victory. There is only a small chance of survival.”
“And let me guess. You’re thinking of putting ten Pagans on that firing line?” Gerald sneered like a child forced to eat his vegetables.
“On the contrary, I would be the one leading it.” My voice rang out before I even knew what happened. In that moment, when the room hovered in stunned silence, I truly realized the existence of a Master. I held no fear. It was as if I had volunteered to go for an afternoon stroll. I could very easily be killed during this battle, but my heart kept beating to its own rhythm, slow and controlled. A strange feeling had washed over me and I knew exactly what to do. Was this destiny? Was this my own death calling me? Heaven only knew.
“Then I will go too.” Trosian stood next to me, clearly taking what I had said as his own personal challenge.
“No, we need you to time our counterattack perfectly.”
“That’s assuming we agree to this plan.” Selene’s objection left her lips almost like a whisper. She was glaring at me, her face rigid and sad, like a beautiful sculpture in the grip of time. “Gerald, Vincent, Trosian—leave Augrais and I.”
“But my lady…” Gerald protested.
“I will not ask you again.” Selene never took her eyes off mine, but her voice was full of such command that the older Pagan took a step back, bowed his head, and left with Vincent at his heels.
Trosian paused at the threshold and glanced back at me. Don’t be stupid was his only advice via the Earth gift.
Selene did not relax her gaze until a few minutes after Trosian had finally made his exit. “I didn’t know there was any of your kind left. Save Lokus, I thought you had all been hunted into extinction.”
I hadn’t the slightest idea what she was talking about. Normally, I would have attempted to use my Earth gift, but with her energy she was impossible to read.
I was about to ask what the hell she was getting at, when she spoke. “How old are you, Augrais?”
Selene’s eyes narrowed, as if I had insulted her, then softened. “Did you even realize you have a bullet wound in your left shoulder?”
I glanced casually down at my shoulder. My shirt was frayed and torn and there was a cut in my skin where the bullet had entered. She was right…I hadn’t even realized. With a quick reaction, my hand shot out and caught her delicate wrist in my grip. Her ice-blue eyes met mine as we stood there for a moment; something shifting in the air around us. Slowly and deliberately she opened her closed fist, revealing not a concealed weapon, but a bandage. This Pagan was trying to help me. I released her immediately and she set to work dressing my wound as I stared at the wall just beyond us.
“Even those who have drunk the infamous mutagen are susceptible to infection.” Selene spoke nonchalantly as she pulled off my shirt to reveal the wound.
By this point I had gotten used to her ability to read my thoughts, so what she said neither surprised nor troubled me. I pretended to know what she spoke of when she said mutagen.
Selene pulled my skin together a
“How do you know that?”
“A minor injury like this should have healed by now.” Selene tied and clipped the bandage. “Done,” she said. The Mother Pagan smiled and gently patted my arm. “All better.”
“Thank you,” I murmured, pulling my shirt back on over the bandage.
“My my. Some gratitude!” Selene walked back to her first aid kit to replace the bandages. “I suppose this may be the last time I shall ever hear it from you.”
“So, why do you not like Trosian’s strategy?” I asked, ignoring her comment.
“It was Lokus who led you to being a Master, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t see how this is at all relevant to our task.”
“It is relevant.” Selene strode across the room and back towards me with anger marring her face. “Do you not even comprehend what has been done to you? You’re not human anymore!”
“Don’t presume to judge when you cannot understand.”
The Mother Pagan shook her head. “No, Augrais, I think it is you who does not understand. You are now cursed, a being who has begun to walk down the path to destroy every last shred of your humanity in the pursuit of power. Lokus was supposed to be last of your kind. I should have guessed he would become desperate.”
“You know Lokus?” I asked, genuinely surprised by her emotions.
“I did, many years ago.” Selene turned away, distracted by some distant memories. Then with a sigh she changed the subject. “Do you know how I became Mother Pagan?”
I shook my head, questioning silently why Selene was about to tell this story to someone just she had just met.
“Because you remind me of myself when I first came into this war,” she answered my thoughts effortlessly. “Trying to be brave and strong in front of your friends, but secretly you have no idea what you’re doing.”
“We have been trained well,” I bristled at her off-handed comment.