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Chapter 4: Test (Aya) 2,295 words

The ambush went off perfectly.

Well… almost perfect. Aya’s first shot missed which alerted their pursuers to their surprise. However, Jessay managed to sap the woodsman Templar while Aya notched a new arrow and this time hit the bigger one in the leg.

In no time, Kriofft and Jessay had the three of them bound and gagged tight.

They let Aya sleep, she wanted to stay up for the interrogation but the days without sufficient rest were too much for her. Still, she expected the three to still be there when she woke up. Instead, there was just Kriofft.

“Where did they go?” Aya asked while stretching, sleeping on the hard ground night after night wasn’t getting any easier on her muscles.

“Jessay is taking care of them.” Kriofft replied casually, flicking some dirt off of his pants.

Taken care of? Aya’s mind raced with all of the different horrific ways that Jessay could ‘take care of’ someone. Kriofft must have been able to read her features though, because he grinned and shook his head.

“We aren’t killing ’em. Though some might say the rotten bastards deserve it. And, more importantly, they’ll still be able to track us if we leave them alive, like we are. But we’re not about to fall to the level of the bad guys just yet.”

“So what is she going to do to them?”

“It’s going to take her a day, day and a half and we need to get a move on. Jessay will just need to catch up with us. She’ll secure them somewhere near the road in such a way that they will… eventually be able to work themselves loose.

“We’re then going to meet up with her at the Padfoot River in three days time. It’s actually going to be a longer walk for us than her, which is how she’ll catch up. But the hope is that our trail will be so cold by then that they won’t know where to go.”

However, there was another element to all of it. There would be more than two paths. Kriofft was planning on making two separate paths to the river. He said Jessay planned to make two more, possibly three. And Aya… was in charge of one path. One path all on her own.

“You’ll be fine.” Kriofft said, patting her on the back. “Just keep heading in a south, southwest direction, opposite the sun.”

In her head, Aya knew she would be fine. They had told her how to track her position, how to forage, and how to hunt. And if she did run into something dangerous, well… her bow could help with that too.

Still, when she set off, Aya kept looking over her shoulder at Kriofft. He stood there watching her, rather than heading off on his own and she knew he was doing that for her benefit. Eventually the trees closed in behind her and she was no longer able to glimpse him through it.

The forest was quiet, but Aya knew she wasn’t alone. There were animals all around her, their eyes watching from their places hidden among the brush and the leaves of the trees. Occasionally she’d catch a glimpse of a hare or squirrel in the trees. The quiet was sometimes broken up by bits of bird song and soon Aya found herself at peace.

It was rather insane to think that a city girl like her could be so at home in the woods, but the fact was that she’d spent enough time outdoors to become comfortable with it. She was no woodswoman like Jessay, but if her time on her own was a test to be graded, Aya was pretty sure she’d be able to receive top marks.

They were planning on making numerous paths, so she was encouraged to travel normally. Still, Aya wanted to do her best to leave as little a trail as she could, but by the time evening was coming on, she settled down and built herself a small fire to cook her dinner.

There was a small leap of joy when she saw the smoke that told her she’d succeeded in starting her fire. The bit of roasted squirrel with berries tasted as fine as anything Aya had ever eaten. She hadn’t made her own bow or arrows, but she’d felt everything else was of her own effort.

When it came time for her to rest, she managed to disappear in the hollow of a tree she had found and she was certain even Kriofft and Jessay would have had trouble finding her. Somewhere out there, the two of them were busy making their own trails to their destination. There was still one more secret to their plan which would be revealed by the destination.

Aya spent her evening watching the stars that managed to peek out through the canopy of the trees, and, eventually, sleep took her.

She found herself walking through a city, but it wasn’t Rathuma. It was a tiered city that she had seen before in her dreams. As such, Aya was quickly aware that she was in a dream. However, like other dreams she’d had in the strange city, there was something very vivid and real about it. It was a heightened sort of dream, she could feel it, see it, smell it, and even taste it. The sharp tang of the sea was in the air and the warm, meaty tastes of a pie she’d just eaten.

Aya ran her fingers through her considerably shorter hair and turned, stopping a moment, to look over her reflection in a window.

What she saw didn’t shock her, because she’d seen herself in these dreams before, but it was still a bit strange to see such a boyish-looking version of her looking back. Short hair was almost shaved on one side, the longer half of her head folded over in a flip. Her clothes were very loose fitting, baggy, as if they were sized for someone much larger.

The most fetching part of the outfit was a long blue vest with coat tails which was worn over a simple white shirt with a collar that seemed to float around her arms. A wide belt rested on her waist above her hips with several pouches on it for storing whatever knick knacks she chose to carry.

It was completed by a pair of brown suede pants which billowed down until tucking into her darker brown leather boots. The boots folded over at the top, revealing that the leather inside was just as dark as it was on the outside.

The whole thing was… well, it definitely had a bit of the flamboyant flair Aya was known for, but she would have died to be caught in such boyish clothes–even if they did make her boy form look quite dashing.

At her sides, Aya wore a pair of holsters with what she assumed were pistols. Such arms were rare indeed, being a recent invention and already having been banned by the Empire because of their lethality. On her right hip was also the scabbard for a long, thin sword which was currently sheathed.

Overall, the dashing look was edged by a rougeishness. Looking as she did, Aya could see this version of her as a criminal on the run from the Church. She winked at herself and continued on.

Like other times she’d had this similar dream, Aya didn’t quite feel herself. It was difficult to say if the things she did were really her own idea, or if she were merely riding passenger and watching this strange version of herself.

As she worked her way through the city streets, it was as if she knew where she was going. That was also difficult to rationalize: did she know where she was going because of her dreams in the past, or because she was supposed to know where she was going for the purposes of the dream?

After a few minutes, Aya found herself stopping and looking up at a sign. An eye with a decorative cross below it. It invoked images that were mystical and forbidden, at least by the Church. A certain shiver went through her, though she couldn’t be certain if it was thrill or fear.

Inside, the shop only seemed to confirm her suspicions. It was heavy with smoke and the spicy scents of incense. A bit of sandalwood, frankincense, orange, and cinnamon gave the air an earthy yet zesty smell that tingled the senses, but was also relaxing. Aya made her way over to a table, on which there was a large ball of crystal.

“Just a moment, dearie!” A high, pitched voice called out.

Aya sat down at the table as though she’d been there before, though she couldn’t recall. The voice sounded like a woman, probably an older woman, but she couldn’t bring anyone to mind. The room itself was small, cramped, with rough shelves lining the walls. On the shelves were various plants, vials of both dried and liquid goods, as well as small bound books and scrolls.

A part of Aya wanted to get up and look at the various items. Each and every one of them was fascinating, but she remained firmly in the chair, as though she knew that touching such things would be rather unwelcome.

Moments later there was a rustling as someone passed through a beaded curtain across a doorway.

In tottered a woman so wrinkled and bent with age that Aya had to suppress a startled giggle. She had been right about that, at least. Yet, though the woman was clearly elderly, she walked with dignity and aplomb, as though she were royalty. Then again, if she was a mystic as she pretended to be, she might very well be regarded as royalty by many of her customers.

“Come again, I see. I knew you’d be back.” She wagged a finger but smiled as she crossed the distance to the table and sat down. “Nuwaia, come here, darling.”

A small urchin of a child scampered in from a different doorway, the door quickly opening and shutting behind them. As Aya looked, she could tell the child was a girl. She wore a dirty linen dress, soiled by years of use with little washing in between. Other than the dress, she was barefoot with no other visible clothing. Her hair was cut short, falling only to her ears, and she seemed as dirty as her clothes.

“Yes, Nana.” The girl said, rocking back and forth on her feet.

“Get me the bowl and… red powder. the canfer oil, flash powder, and fire stick.” The older woman said gently.

The little girl set to gathering the ingredients. Aya had seen fire sticks before, they lit easily when struck across and abrasive surface. Flash powder felt rather obvious, though she hadn’t ever seen it before. The red powder could have been anything, really. Canfer oil…

Aya remembered learning about the Canfer, it was a small whale which could survive in fresh water and sea water. They were highly intelligent creatures and beloved pets for those wealthy enough to afford them. But they were much hunted as well, for their fat which could be processed into an oil. Aya wasn’t sure what its purpose was specifically, just that it was not a cheap ingredient.

The oil went in first, then she lit it with the fire stick followed by the red powder. A thick, greasy red smoke flowed out of the bowl and filled the air.

“Let us see what the fates will let us see…” The older woman said, then she tossed in a pinch of the flash powder.

As expected, there was a brilliant flash of white light which took on a pinkish hue from the red smoke that filled the air. It added a pungent odor to the air that almost made Aya gag, but her form remained still.

“I told you last time about your sister… she’s coming. Your lives will collide.” The woman continued, “the fates have not changed there. But now I see more. I see… else. A threat arrives too. It dogs your trail nipping at your heels…

“…whatever is coming, it’s coming soon. It will be here before your sister.”

Aya wasn’t sure what the woman was referring to, but it sounded ominous, and she suddenly felt afraid. Then she noticed, through the smoke, that the old woman appeared terrified too. That wasn’t right.

“No… no… no…” the older woman moaned, “this isn’t possible. They’re not just coming… they’re here!”

The door banged open, then Aya woke.

She was back in the tree hollow. Already the dream was fading at the fringes, pieces of it disappearing like dust in the wind. However, she remembered enough to know that someone was in danger. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that the person in her dream was an actual someone, not a mere figment of her imagination.

Possibly, though it seemed ludicrous to admit, the person in her dreams was her… brother.

However, if that was true, what was also important to know was that he was in danger and she had to get to him as soon as possible. Aya needed to get to the meeting point where she was supposed to meet back up with her companions.

That determination took her through the woods for the remainder of the day. She stopped only twice for brief breaks. Aya hoped that her trail hiding was still coming along too, but the truth was that it was a secondary concern at this point. Her primary objective was getting there. To wherever her brother had been, and finding him.

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