Chapter 15: The Herald of What Now?
Two more Matari entered the room and carried Zia out. Ambassador Miton stood and stared at the ceiling for several minutes, her brow furrowed in apparent thought.
“If you’re going to stop the Natas—” Ambassador Miton turned and faced them. “—you must go south to the country of Caradan.”
“Wait, us?” Onin glanced at Kasai. “I don’t think just the five of us will be enough.”
Kasai stared back at him with wide eyes. Onin took her hand and squeezed it.
“We have an ally in Caradan who can assist you. Go there, and ask to speak to the Wizard,” Ambassador Miton said.
“What? Wizard?” Cerina snorted. “You’ve got to be kidding!”
“Ooo! Like the William the Wizard books?” Tannin said.
“What?” Cerina turned to stare at him. “Are you four? There’s no such things as wizards.”
“Why not!” Tannin leaned in closer to her. “Apparently, there’s dragons, and we thought they were myth until recently.”
“Um, ‘wiz’ means ‘follower of’ in the language of the monks,” Kasai looked at the floor and played with her hair. “I think that’s what the Ambassador means.”
Onin looked down at Kasai. Were those tears in the corner of her eyes? No wonder, what with discovering that she was half-dragon, then finding out that the Natas were apparently in league with the dragons. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder, and she leaned into him.
“Yes, that is what he calls himself. He is a friend. Go to Caradan, and he will meet you there.” Ambassador Miton bowed. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to check on Zia. Please hurry, time is of the essence. The Natas cannot be allowed to complete the gate!”
Onin grunted when something nudged him.
“Wake up, we’re almost there.”
Onin blinked. Kasai’s beautiful green eyes stared into his. That’s right, last night they’d departed for Caradan from the monorail station that was close to the Matari compound.
Onin smiled. “Oh, hi Kasai. Are we there?”
“Yup, we’re just pulling into the station.”
Onin stood and yawned as he stretched. He grabbed his bag from the overhead bin and looked over at Tannin, who was still draped over the bench and snoring away. Onin sighed and grabbed Tannin’s bag as well. He pulled Tannin to his feet and shuffled out of the monorail car behind Kasai, Cerina, and Saija. Onin blinked in the bright sunlight. There were only a handful of people here at this time of the morning, most likely business people from their crisp, ironed suites and other attire.
Onin led the way through customs and down the stairs from the monorail platform. Fortunately, relations between Rogim and Caradan were good enough that their student ID cards were all they needed. The stairs exited to a broad road, lined with shops. Every shop seemed to sell miniature monorail cars, clothing, and every useless trinket you could think of. All of them plastered with either the city or monorail logo. The place screamed tourist trap. And apparently the monorail station was the only thing of interest here. Either that, or a lot of people who lived near the station had no imagination whatsoever.
“Well, where to, fearless leader?” Cerina asked.
“I don’t know.” Onin looked down the street. The buildings were all in the polished, imitation-marble style that Caradan seemed to prefer. “I don’t see anything that really says ‘wizard’. Perhaps we should check with the local police?”
“Oh, there’s a good idea.” Cerina snorted. “Waltz right in and say ‘Oh, hi, I’m from a foreign country, here to arrest your citizens, but don’t worry, it’s for your own good.’ Yeah, that’ll work.”
“Uh, guys…” Tannin tugged on Onin’s sleeve.
“Um, you might want to turn around,” Tannin said.
Onin turned around. A girl about his age stood a few dozen yards away. Her hair was the color of honey, and her ears were atop her head, pointed, and fur-covered. She wore a sleeveless white dress that flowed down to ankle-length. A pendant shaped in the form of an odd symbol hung from a silver chain around her neck and nestled between her breasts. She held a shakujo that was just a bit taller than she was in her right hand. The staff was made from a dark metal and was topped by the same symbol as her pendant. The outer ring and the six smaller rings were made of some whitish-silver metal.
The girl looked like she’d just stepped out of some ancient painting—or would have, were it not for the modern pocketed utility belt cinched around her waist.
She walked toward them. Oddly, the rings on the staff didn’t jingle.
“Hello.” She stopped a few feet in front of them and nodded to each of them in turn. “Onin, Kasai, Tannin, Cerina, Saija. I am the herald of the Wizard. My master has sent me to assist you.”
“Um, how do you know our names?” Cerina asked.
“The Wizard knows all.” The herald bowed to them. The rings on her staff jingled. She glanced at it, flicked an ear, and bowed again. “My apologies. Only Ard knows all. The Wizard, as his servant, is also quite knowledgeable.”
She glanced up at her staff, which remained silent. She smiled and turned back to them. Onin raised an eyebrow. This was one strange girl. And what was the deal with the staff?
“So, do you have a name?” Onin asked.
“My name is insignifi—” The rings on top of the staff clinked. She glanced up at the staff, frowned, then sighed. “Very well. My name is Amaryllis. Please follow me. We have much to discuss and prepare.”
“Um, a moment please?” Onin turned and beckoned to the others. They huddled in close. “Can we trust her?”
“I don’t know about all this ‘master’ talk.” Saija shivered. “Brings back some bad memories.”
“Her staff has the symbol of Ard,” Kasai said.
“Ard has his own symbol now?” Cerina asked.
“Well, the symbol in the staff is the first letter for ‘Ard’ in the language of the monks.” Kasai shuffled closer to Onin. “If she carries that around, she can’t be all bad, can she?”
Onin turned to face Amaryllis. “Excuse me. Does your master have a name, or just a title?”
“My Master—” The staff clinked again. She cocked her head to the side and stared at it, then her ears and shoulders drooped. “I don’t think it’s proper, but… His name is Ryogin—” She narrowed her eyes and glared at the staff. “—sama.”
Apparently, satisfied at the lack of reaction from the staff, she smiled and turned back to them.
“Is it just me—” Tannin covered his mouth with his hand and leaned closer to Onin. “—or is this girl a few grapes shy of a fruit basket?”
“Hah!” Cerina snorted and turned up her nose. “That’s rich, coming from you, of all people.”
Amaryllis took a step forward. “We can discuss this further in more comfortable surroundings, if you’d like. Ryogin-sama has rented a room for our use, and I’ve prepared some snacks.”
“Snacks?” Tannin stood up straight. “Why didn’t you say so earlier?”
Cerina and Saija shared a look, and simultaneously smacked Tannin upside the back of his head.
“Ow! What was that for? It’s breakfast time, right?” Tannin rubbed his neck. “And I don’t think the Natas would trick us with snacks. Doesn’t seem like their style.”
“Hmm. He does have a point.” Saija tapped her finger to her lips. “It doesn’t seem a very Natas thing to do.”
“Okay, we’ll come with you to hear you out, for now,” Onin said.
“Excellent! This way, please.” Amaryllis turned around the led the way down the street.
They turned down a cobblestone side street lined with two-story brick houses. Each house had a small shop in front. There were food stalls, trinket shops, tool vendors, clothing stalls, and just about anything else one could possibly want. The house at the end of the street was a two-story structure with the same imitation marble walls and roof that most of the houses in the city had. This one also had several small umbrella-covered tables out front. People enjoying their morning tea and rolls were clustered around each table.
Amaryllis led them to a side door of this house and up a narrow flight of stairs. She stopped at the top of the stairs and gestured that they should enter the first door on the left. Onin stepped into the room and looked around. The walls were painted a pastel green, white drapes hung from the window on the far wall. Six pastel green chairs with a pink floral print were arranged in semi-circle in the center of the room.
“Ooo! Food!” Tannin said.
Onin turned around. A small white table loaded with pastries, meat, and something that looked like eggs in a muffin wrapper, as well as two pitchers and some glasses was against the wall next to the door.
“Please, enjoy.” Amaryllis made a sweeping motion toward the table. “The pastries and the fruit juice are from the hostel, but I made the egg bites and the tea myself.”
Tannin shoved an entire egg bite in his mouth and made a noise that sounded like it was supposed to mean ‘delicious.’ Onin waited for the girls to get some food, then he grabbed a few pastries and some egg bites and sat in the chair next to Kasai. Amaryllis took the seat on the other side of Kasai. She let go of her staff, which remained standing, apparently of its own power.
Tannin nudged Onin with his elbow and pointed to the staff. Onin glared at him and shook his head. The floating staff wasn’t the most important thing at the moment.
“I do wish we had more time to get to know each other first. However, we don’t have much time, so I’ll get right to the mission.” Amaryllis leaned forward. “There’s a Natas slave camp just south of the city. I need your help to free the slaves.”
“Wait a minute.” Cerina paused with a pastry halfway to her mouth. “We need to destroy some gate thing.”
“That too, is a priority.” Amaryllis folded her hands in her lap. “However, the gate isn’t finished being built yet, and we need to free those poor people before the Natas can—”
“—turn them into reinforcements,” Saija finished.
The room fell deathly silent for a moment.
“No one wants that.” Kasai said.
“Agreed.” Onin stood up.
“Now, hold on.” Tannin grabbed Onin’s arm and yanked him back down. “Yeah, the last thing we want is more Natas running around, but does anyone have anything even resembling a plan?”
“I hate to agree with the moron.” Cerina gave Tannin a sidelong glance. “But he’s right. The last time we ran into a Natas making party, we not only didn’t save the girl, we barely escaped.”
“Good point.” Saija bit her lip and poked at her pastry. “When we rescued the Matari, we had a plan, and that worked rather well.”
Everyone turned to look at Amaryllis.
“The slave camp is located about forty miles south of the city, about forty-eight miles total, from here.” Amaryllis pointed out the window. “With the gate construction being the priority, the camp should be lightly guarded. Ryogin-sama’s plan is for us to fly out of the city, land outside the camp, and sneak in. If we leave soon, we can observe the camp and further develop a strategy. Ideally, we can find a way to sneak everyone out.”
“One question.” Cerina leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. “Why doesn’t this Ro-jin guy come and help?”
“Ryogin.” Amaryllis’ eyes narrowed. “And he doesn’t have to answer to the likes of you.”
One of the rings on her staff clinked. Amaryllis’ left ear twitched. “Sorry. Ryogin-sama is busy making other preparations. He also wishes to let you know that he’d like to physically assist, but his gifts aren’t suited to combat.”
The two girls glared at each other.
“Well, uh, let’s go rescue those people from the real enemy.” Onin looked back and forth between Cerina and Amaryllis. “You know, the Natas?”
“Agreed.” Amaryllis stood, grabbed her staff, and led them out the door and down to the street. “Do you have transportation?”
“Yup.” Onin generated servitors for himself, Tannin, Cerina, and Saija. “Kasai can manage on her own. Do you need a lift?”
“No, thank you.” Amaryllis rotated her staff to hold it parallel to the ground at about waist height and hopped up to sit on it, side-saddle style. “Follow me, please.”
Onin’s jaw dropped open as Amaryllis rose up into the sky on her staff. He turned to Tannin. “Did you see that?”
“Shrooms?” Tannin asked.
Cerina smacked her forehead with her palm and muttered something that Onin didn’t quite catch. He rolled his eyes and flew after Amaryllis.