Through the valley of shadow and death, I fear no evil.
Or something like that. It had been quite some time since Ben had been to a regular church sermon. The old expression may have been deluded by memory over the last couple of years, but it seemed appropriate considering their circumstances.
They were closer to the fortress. The black walls near the base of the volcano loomed over them, less than an hour's walk now. Behind the veil of white and ashy smoke, the sky had turned an ugly blood red; no doubt a combination of all the chemicals in the atmosphere, plus the faded light of the old sun. The valley stretching around them was bathed in shadow, scattered with giant heaps of rock, craters, and ever more smoldering ruins from past battles.
I fear no evil.
That wasn't entirely true. Ben felt confident in the magical strengths of his companions. He especially felt dependent on Jillayr, who held the Warrior's Inge. The only kind of fighting magic that could turn the tide if fighting broke out. Jesk certainly could hold his own, and would definitely be instrumental in negotiating their way inside the Dark Lordess' fortress.
But while he felt comfort knowing that his companions had strength, he wasn't sure what that meant for their ultimate fates. Siessem seemed insistent that they would succeed. That could easily be attributed to blind hope. Ben knew better. He knew they had every chance to fail. Kyyra might already be somewhere in that hellhole, dead or worse, and they were right behind her in fated paths.
This could all end very soon.
Ben tried reaching back for the soldier's mindset. How many warriors throughout history had gone to battle, knowing their ends were certain? Yet they did it, because it was worth fighting for.
You are worth it, Kyyra. You were always worth the sacrifice.
Ben felt his hand unconsciously pass over his heart. He still remembered; he still felt that burden Kyyra had carried long ago in a cable car where Ben had nearly died. She had feared—not just then, but during their whole flight from Philip Housten—that Ben was needlessly throwing away his life for her. That had prompted her to perform dangerous magic that had saved his life and left parts of her soul forever seared with his.
The thing was…it was worth it. Kyyra was always worth it.
As they drew closer, Ben spied several scraggily individuals wandering about the ruins and debris field. They kept their distance, either out of fear or simple observation. But Ben could tell they were armed. He saw flickers of light in other firearms much like the one he held. Some had bladed weapons that still glimmered in the dull, faded light of evening. Any of them could easily attack; altogether they might have been a formidable force.
But they were alone. They kept as much distance from each other as they did from Ben and their little group. Ben was glad they kept their hooded cloaks up. He could only imagine what these scavengers might try if they realized that half their group were teenage girls.
That made Ben wonder about other latent systems at work in Shadow. This Dark Lordess, Maelor, controlled the portal and any of the traffic that came through, but how much of the surrounding populace did she control? How much of Shadow did she control? What other forces were at work out there? Did these scavengers wander in, slipping through the cracks of Maelor's business empire?
So many questions. But they were almost to the gate.
Taren exhaled, pulling down her hood. "I guess this is the part where I play prisoner."
"I'm going to use a feint binding enchantment," Jesk said, stepping around behind her. "It'll lead the guards to believe we have you contained, but if you need to fight, you can break it with ease."
Ben watched as Jesk enchanted her hands into some sort of rigor mortis behind her body. Then for demonstration he had Taren break the enchantment, which she did with ease.
"If anything goes wrong," said Jesk, "we won't have time to try and bluff our way out. Break the enchantment and help us fight."
"Will something go wrong?" Cyasa stammered.
"Keep your hood up and your voice down, and they shouldn't have cause to worry. There's plenty of slave trafficking through here as it is. They shouldn't be too suspicious."
You would know, Ben didn't say aloud. While he still trusted Jesk, he was beginning to feel very uneasy about their guide's former business dealings.
How many lost souls did you bring to meet their end in this fortress?
Their little group shuffled forward, closer to the gate with Jesk leading Taren at the front. Jillayr kept close to Jesk's side, only looking marginally shorter. Ben hadn't realized how much height she had picked up in the last year. She was going to be taller than all of them before her growing was over.
The massive, black steel gate groaned to life as they neared. Ben felt his stomach turn over. Splitting down the middle, the two sides slid apart, disappearing into hidden crevices in the wall. Waiting on the other side, a single man in a open-cabin patrol jeep sat waiting for them. A single tablet in his hand cast dim light up on his face.
Jesk walked straight to him.
"Name," the guard said dully, barely looking up.
"Jesk Sase, unscheduled visit."
The guard scanned through something, frowning. "Yes, I can see that." Then his eyes widened. "Ah, her majesty has made a special exception for you."
Jesk didn't respond, his face passive. Ben felt his heart grow dark at the statement, though. Jesk was well known around here.
The guard finally looked up, taking stock of Jesk's hooded companions. "Who are the rest of this lot?"
"Assistants. This one," he said with a nod towards Taren, "has been quite the trouble. And I understand that her majesty would like her at once."
The guard leapt down from his jeep, coming close to study Taren. He held a greasy gloved hand, gabbing Taren roughly by the chin. A swirl of light flickered like auroras on his irises as he studied her face thoughtfully. Apparently something clicked.
"Well, well, well…her majesty has many questions about this one." The guard threw his head back, nodding towards the fortress. "Bring her up. I'll send word ahead of you."
Jesk thanked the guard and the group proceeded forward. Ben let out a slow, silent exhale. They were in. So far so good, no deaths or hostility. He wasn't sure he could ever forgive Jesk for whatever dubious activity had brought him here in years past, but he was willing to be grateful for the time being that it was getting them forward.
Ben kept his gaze mostly forward, following the concrete roadway that began a series of switchbacks up the mountain slope towards the fortress. It looked like a good mile more of climbing, and up a fair amount of height. He kept his face forward, but let his eyes wander where they could without moving his head. There was a series of barracks not far off to their left, guarded by several men with firearms similar to the one Ben carried under his cloak. A couple more jeeps and a row of Armored Personal Carriers sat parked on the crackled earth silently. He guessed that they were on the main staging grounds for the Dark Lordess' army.
Before they reached the first switchback up the volcano, a group of men and women in chains and rags marched across their path. They were soot stained and miserable looking individuals. But Ben saw that they at least had footwear. Some part of him had expected them to be marched barefoot, with cracked, bloody feet. This time he did spare a brief glance, noticing a row of factories and forges off to their right near the wall.
Apparently the Dark Lordess had multiple uses for her slaves.
The group of men and women marched onward, kept under tight leashes by several other armed guards. Ben watched them silently, getting a feel for their body armor for the first time. It wasn't all black; that coloring seemed to be more a result of working at the foot of an old volcano. There seemed to be a silvery gray tinge in the original color, made from various synthetic materials that looked light weight yet durable. The helmets were overly dramatized, though; something that had spikes coming out and an angry looking visor.
Still, dramatized or not, there were a fair amount of them. A whole army's worth. Ben didn't want to test how good their aim was.
The roadway up to the fortress was quiet. No one else used it, not even vehicles passing back and forth between the barracks below. Ben didn't know what kind of reception they would have waiting at the top. Perhaps more guards and a few administration individuals ready to take custody of Taren. Would there be much talk? Or would they give Jesk a bounty and send him on his way? There had to be some kind of process that brought them inside the fortress, giving time to search out Kyyra and spring her.
Ben realized they hadn't planned this out very in depth. Unless Jesk had given Jillayr and Siessem some very specific tasks, they might have to make it up on the go.
It wasn't like they hadn't pretty much done that up to this point.
Then a new jeep started down the road from up above. Ben felt his insides turn over again. They were almost there; just three switchbacks from the top. He tried to distract his attention from the approaching vehicle by scanning off the side of the road. The ancient volcanic slopes were bubbly and warped from old lava flows. There were also several large fissures, some that looked big enough for him to climb through. If the volcano was little more than a smoky cone, perhaps there were empty lava tubes and caverns.
The new jeep slowed to a stop just ahead of their group. It was another lead guard, wearing similar uniform and markings to the one that greeted them at the gate. He strode quickly to meet them, his eyes focused on Taren greedily.
"So this is the child that got away?" He laughed, putting a rough hand on her shoulder. His fingers clamped down, provoking a squeak of pain from Taren. "You have caused us quite some trouble over the years, young lady."
Ben frowned. Over the years? How long had Taren been en route to Shadow? Was her slaver much slower than the one transporting Kyyra?
There was something about the story that Ben knew he was missing.
"Well here I am," Taren growled through gritted teeth. "What do you want with me?"
"Never you mind the Dark Lordess' plans. As for you, Mr. Sase, when did you receive the bounty about our lost cargo?"
The group resumed moving forward, walking towards the jeep.
"In the last week," Jesk replied. "Out of Baravo. Your people still come through there regularly."
"Yes," the guard replied, his attention growing distant. "Yes they do."
They stopped suddenly by the jeep. Ben took stock of the four other soldiers seated inside. They all had their weapons out, watching the group with rapt attention. Ben cocked his head, watching the way the soldiers sat poised and ready.
Something was up.
"You know," the guard began, "it is odd that I only just got word in the last hour that one of our Dusk agents went missing. I thought perhaps I was a little slow, since the Dark Lordess' Servants don't report to the rest of my squadrons. But no, it was the first that word had come in from another Servant. So I suppose none of us were in the know about the girl's escape until just now."
Jesk frowned, but Ben already knew they had been made. Their story didn't check out; they needed to get out of there.
"It's funny that you knew about it a week before any of us did. What kind of bounty did you say it was again?"
Jesk finally caught on. Sweeping back both his arms, Ben took one of them in the gut, knocking him flat on his back. As he lost his footing, he watched as Jesk summoned forth a powerful burst of contact magic with his outstretched hands. The enchantment coalesced into a bright burst of light that flung the guard backwards and the jeep over on its side.
Ben immediately reached for his firearm. Scrabbling to his feet, he took aim as the first of the dazed soldiers stumbled out of the overturned jeep. Ben pulled the trigger.
A bright pulse of violently orange light screamed forth from his barrel. The discharge took the soldier square in the chest, blasting him backwards and over the side of the road. The recoil was negligible, but the rush set all of Ben's nerves on edge.
It had happened so fast; so easily. Part of him was still catching up with everything. He was only faintly aware as Jillayr and Jesk quickly dispatched the other three guards.
Did I just kill a man?
A siren had sounded somewhere. Three more vehicles were already starting down from the fortress, loaded with soldiers. All of it seemed distant; like noise from a television in another room.
"Ben! Please hurry!"
A hand tugged at his shoulder, ushering him away from the scene. He finally snapped to his senses, following with them. It was Cyasa.
She was following as the others crossed back the right hand side of the road. Each of them jumped over the small cement barrier and down into the stony, crackled mountain side. That's when Ben remembered the fissures in the ground.
"Jesk!" he called out. "Jesk! The fissures!"
Either Jesk had heard him or was already thinking the same thing. He crouched near the first opening, surveying the insides for a potential escape. He was shaking his head no when the first shots were fired.
They went wild, coming from soldiers still riding in the transports on the switchback above them. But they still sent Ben stumbling back, trying to avoid being hit.
Cyasa screamed, breaking her grip with Ben. She darted away, leaving Ben turned around as he tried to keep an eye on her and Jesk. Several more shots hit wildly across the dried lava formations, kicking up dust and small rocks.
The group was falling into disorganization. Ben had managed to keep an eye on Jesk, but the others were all over his field of vision now. Most of them were just trying to keep from getting hit by weapons fire. None of them had ever known combat or war; none of them had any hope of keeping together in a situation like this.
Ben felt brief despair grip hold of him. He had always planned on being a soldier one day, but that day was not today. Today he was still just a fifteen year old kid, lost and disoriented as real soldiers swarmed towards them.
He glanced back towards the road, watching in muted horror as the first wave dropped down over the edge of the road. Taren had somehow ended up behind them, trying to cast some kind of defensive magic against her captors. It didn't work, and soon she was being scooped up and hauled away with restraints around her arms and legs.
Ben fired a couple of shots, these coming nowhere near their mark. About the only thing they accomplished was attracting his enemy's attention, making their shots more focused.
Dropping low, Ben turned and crouch ran along the slope. Luckily there were plenty of dips and ridges in the ancient lava flow, leaving him with plenty of shelter to duck from the weapons fire. It pulsed all around him, kicking up more shattered stone and ash. It glowed brilliant orange in the haze, almost reminding him of strobe and laser lights at a music concert.
Suddenly Jillayr's hand flashed out of the chaos, taking hold of Ben and yanking him down. Now he was inside the earth, through a fissure he hadn't seen a split second before. Ben followed obediently, running as Jillayr led him through a twisted, windy tunnel deeper into the mountain. He spied Jesk just up ahead.
Ben kept running, his mind losing track of everything else.
"They're alive, which is something."
Ben sat with his back pressed firmly against the rough stone wall. In both arms he cradled his firearm, feeling the slight purr as it hummed with life. The light pulsing of energy and machinery eased his nerves, lulling him into a sort of twilight between relaxed and insanity. But it was about the only thing he could feel right now.
"Siessem," Jillayr breathed, her tone trembling.
"Alive," Jesk emphasized sharply. "Him, Cyasa, Taren…they're all still alive. Try to understand this."
Jillayr sniffled, sounding on the verge of tears.
Ben kept his breathing low, willing himself to be invisible in the dark cave. Their only source of light currently was an orb Jesk had cast up early on into their flight. Occasionally a few shafts of evening light shown through holes in the shallow surface, but it was hardly anything to see by. Everything else down here was a mix of washed out fuzz and pure black shadow.
He could still hear the sounds of the soldiers. A fair number had pursued them into the lava tubes. But the area was a maze of twisting, multi-corridor caverns. They ran and searched about, but Ben knew they would have a hard time finding them while they were one with the shadows.
As he listened to their distant footfalls and occasional barked orders, he replayed in his mind the recent events. He took several calming breaths, feeling the hum of his firearm sooth at his anxieties. Only he, Jesk, and Jillayr had made it inside. The soldiers had quickly scooped up the others, taking them somewhere as their prisoners.
Why all of the weapons fire? It was clear now they wanted them all alive. Even after they had acquired Taren—the one person this Dark Lordess had apparently wanted for some time now—the soldiers had pursued them relentlessly. Not to kill; apparently just to stun.
Jillayr had a nasty bruise on her shoulder where a shot had hit her. It had burned a hole through her cloak, exposing a fair amount of her shoulder blade. It had turned a sickly green, like someone had punched her hard there. Even now, her right arm hung limply by her side. Jesk had tended to it; he said she would be able to use it fine in the next few minutes. Just stun rounds.
Why do they want us?
"What do we do?" Jillayr whimpered, wiping away a single tear that left a streak through her dusty cheeks. "We can't fight against a whole army."
No, they couldn't. The whole plan had gone to pieces…whatever that plan had been originally.
Jesk massaged his leg with a grunt, possibly where he had taken a hit, too. Somehow Ben had remained completely unscathed. Completely lucky.
Pull yourself together. You always wanted to be a soldier, so here's your chance.
Ben nodded to himself, slowly pushing away all of his doubts, fears, and emotions. He let his mind grow silent, aware of little more than the gentle pulse of the rifle in his hands. Standing, keeping his firearm at the ready, he marched over to Jesk.
"You have a backup plan," he said flatly.
Jesk glanced up at him curiously. Ben stood unmoving, waiting. He had nothing else at this point.
"I never thought we would make it this far."
Ben didn't betray any hint of emotion. He didn't have the strength to do so. It was time to just focus on surviving. Once they were out of this hellhole and off this godforsaken world…then he could feel like smashing in Jesk's face.
Right now they just needed to survive. And somehow that calmed his nerves perfectly.
That and the ever present pulse of the rifle in his hands.
"I just needed us to get through the gate," Jesk continued. "My next plan was that if they figured us out too early, then we could hijack a jeep."
"You knew this would happen?" Jillayr stammered.
"Maelor doesn't mess around with her Servants of the Dusk. Bringing Taren here was a huge tipoff that we were working against her. But it got us inside."
Jesk grunted, stretching his hit leg. It seemed fine. Good; they would need to move soon.
Jillayr looked like she was about to burst into hysteria. "Was it part of the plan for my friends to be hauled off like that?!"
"Quiet," Ben commanded. "Jesk, what are your orders?"
Jesk stared at him for a long moment, puzzled. Ben waited patiently. Finally,
"We're going to infiltrate from the caves through the lower foundation."
He immediately went quiet. A group of soldiers rushed by two tunnels over; errant beams from their flashlights washed back and forth over the tubes briefly. Then they were gone.
"I have a better understanding of Lordess Maelor's fortress than most," Jesk continued. "These old lava tubes will take us straight to her foundational struts. There are service corridors that run right into the lowest levels of the fortress from there."
"Wouldn't they be guarded?" said Ben. It seemed pretty obvious to him; therefore it would be very obvious to the Dark Lordess.
"Minimally," Jesk replied. "Just a handful of guards. If we take them out before they can sound an alarm, then we have a straight shot inside."
It sounded overly simplistic. What about when those guards had to check in? What about redundant security and detection systems? What about internal guards?
And, most importantly, what about the guards chasing them around in these tunnels?
"We'll be hard pressed to get past the soldiers in the tubes with us," Ben added coolly.
Jesk waved it off. "Most of them don't know that these tunnels connect with the fortress' foundation. They'll be watching the lava fields along the road. They think they have us trapped down here."
Ben shrugged, again focusing on the calm rhythm of pulsing electronics in his firearm. It was almost hypnotizing, hyper focusing his mind on the task. It pushed away all of his fear, doubt and anxiety, tuning him to their singular task. It would be simple.
"What about Taren and the others?" said Ben. "Do you know where they're being held?"
Jesk nodded, grinning. "As a matter of fact, I do. As I said, I know Maelor's fortress layout better than most. Better than she would like."
Ben was very interested to know how Jesk had come to all of this supposed knowledge. But it didn't matter. Not right now, if his facts were correct. It was clear to Ben at this point that Jesk had no intention of betraying them. He may be a criminal and a terrible creature for the kind of trade he had done with Maelor, but he wasn't going to turn on them.
Ben was somehow certain of it.
"When do we move?" he finally asked.
Jesk stood up to his full height, flexing his leg. Satisfied, he focused off in the darkness, no doubt sensing outward with his magic. At length he nodded.
"We can leave at once. There's an opening between patrols. Our next tunnel isn't too far from here, either."
Then Jesk cast a weary glance at Ben. His eyes landed pointedly on his rifle.
"Are you sure you feel okay with that thing?"
Ben felt more than okay. He thought he was beginning to understand now. It was obviously a piece of very advanced battlefield tech. More than just a direct-energy weapon. Part of him was a little unnerved by it, but he knew it was directly tapping into his mind and honing his senses. Ever since he had felt the calming pulse of electronics, it had started turning him into the soldier he needed to be.
No childish fear or hesitation. Simply focused and deadly precision.
Jillayr shuddered, staring at Ben as if he were someone else; not the same boy she had known for the last year and a half. Maybe he wasn't.
He didn't care. They had a mission to accomplish.
"Very well," Jesk replied hesitantly. "Just remember, Earthling; we don't need to fight an army. Just sneak in, get your friends, and get out again."
Ben nodded. He had no intention of fighting an army. The firearm may have calmed his nerves, but it hadn't made him suicidal.