A Rock And A Hard Place Chapter 17
Akata-Zan allowed Lolani and myself to climb onto his back easily, but when it was Taliya’s turn, he snorted at her. She shrieked in terror, almost fell, and tried to run away, but Aaron grabbed her arm and propelled her up the Dragon’s arm and onto his back. She sat down hard and gripped the spine in front of her, shaking in fear. I turned forward as an evil little grin tugged at the corners of my mouth.
Focus. I had to focus. There were so many things I could do right now to make her life almost as miserable as she had once made mine, but I knew I had to restrain myself.
I looked back to see Aaron settling himself down behind me and he gave me a nod.
Turning forward once more, I took a deep breath and let it out.
‘Are you prepared, little Nixie?’
Akata-Zan’s powerful muscles clenched and he sprang low into the air, his mighty wings catching the currents and taking us in the opposite direction of the Wizards’ camp. He took a gentle incline upward and away as I heard Aaron’s sharp intake of breath. As we gently climbed toward the clouds, Aaron leaned in over my shoulder.
“It’s beautiful,” he said quietly over the wind.
I glanced sideways at him and caught his eye, then grinned cheekily.
“Just wait till he dives.”
“Where are you taking me?!” shrieked Taliya behind us.
Clearly she had realized what direction we were headed and finally found her voice again. I sighed.
The MAGI glanced darkly over his shoulder at the Queen and she shut her mouth with an audible snap.
“Taliya,” I said calmly as I leaned back against one of Akata-Zan’s spines. “The next obnoxious, useless, or whining word that comes out of your mouth will be my signal to have Aaron push you off the Dragon.
I looked over my shoulder and around Aaron to meet her gaze with an unpleasant grin.
“And that’s nearly everything you say, so if I were you, I would eer on the side of caution and not speak at all.”
Her eyes widened and her jaw clenched, but she said nothing more, so clearly my message had left it’s mark.
Akata-Zan quickly put distance between us and the camps until we were well out of sight of them and above the clouds. Then, with a mighty and graceful twist in the air, the great Dragon turned back and headed for the Wizards’ camp.
If Taliya had paused it think about it, his actions would have made perfect sense to her. The Wizards would have heard the Dragon’s roar and be armed to the teeth, on high alert for the beast. Had we flown in directly, it was quiet likely we would have been shot down or at least injured long before we got close enough. Though the Wizards wouldn’t go rushing to the aid of their tentative allies, there was no way they would simply be sitting back doing nothing.
‘Little Nixie,’ I heard Akata-Zan’s voice rumble in my mind. ‘Are you prepared? I do not wish to be injured. That was not part of our bargain. Though my hide is thick and can withstand much, the Wizards will have mixed magic with their weapons and against such things I am not so well protected.’
“I understand, Mighty One.”
I looked over my shoulder at Aaron.
“Would you mind helping me? I don’t particularly want to take any chances.”
“Of course. I won’t be able to do anything until we’re a bit closer to the ground though. The air is the one place I’m not very useful.”
“No problem. I’ll take the first salvo and you take the second?”
He nodded and gave me a brief smile. I turned forward once more, closing my eyes and taking a slow breath.
“Alright. Let’s do this.”
I opened my eyes as I heard Akata-Zan rumbling chuckle in my mind and then he roared. The sound shook the air around us and I would have covered my ears, but the next moment he was diving and I was holding onto the spine in front of me for dear life.
However, I knew I had to let go and start the protective magics against whatever was about to be coming at us. I opened my eyes to see the camp coming up fast and the Wizards making archer lines, preparing to fire. Quickly, I began chanting and as the first volley came at us, their arrows froze mid-flight, hanging in the air as we passed them. The power of the shot gone, I let them fall into the forest below to be lost among the trees.
Then, we were close enough to the ground that I heard Aaron chanting behind me in Dwarfish as the second volley flew at us. From the corner of my eye I could see the MAGI’s hands moving with precise aim, flinging small stones with terrifying accuracy to intercept the arrows and knock them aside. Then, arrows gone, he made a different gesture and the ground below the archers shook violently, knocking them down and disorienting them. We could hear cries of alarm now, whether from the earthquake or the Dragon descending on them, and then we landed with a great whoosh of air that knocked down those nearby who had managed to regain their feet.
Quickly, I chanted the spell to freeze them in place. Movement in the camp ceased abruptly and the deafening silence that followed would have been eerie and terrifying, if you were a Wizard. I waited for the dust from our landing to settle as I got my stomach back where it was supposed to be and convinced it to stop doing the gymnastics routine it had started up when we dove. Akata-Zan settled himself down and got comfortable, idly scratching his claws on the ground and making large grooves.
Glancing behind me, I saw that Taliya was clinging to the spine in front of her, shaking and weeping as quietly as she could. For a moment, the pitiful sight of the Queen of Elves reduced to such a state softened me, but the second she looked up and our eyes met, her demeanor changed. The haughty and indignant look in her eyes returned as she sat up straight and opened her mouth to speak.
My eyes narrowed and the pity was instantly gone, replaced with a dark, reminding message of my threat. She paused, considering my earlier words and the fact that we were no longer flying, before she slowly closed her mouth and looked away sullenly.
With a satisfied nod that she understood death by-being-flung-off-a-Dragon’s-back-in-mid-air was hardly the only way to go, I turned my attention to the Wizards. Surveying them in silence for a moment, I raised my voice only slightly to be heard through the whole camp.
“Irvan! Show yourself!”
The silence stretched on for a moment and then I heard movement a few tents away. My gaze followed the sound as the flap was pushed aside to reveal Irvan in flowing navy robes covered by golden moons and stars. The tent flap fell closed behind him, but he made no move to get closer to us. He met my gaze warily and then lifted his voice to be heard over the distance.
“What do you want, liaison? What have you done to my men?”
“Your men will come to no harm, they are merely being restrained so that they do not interfere. I want to finish my job, Duke. This has dragged on far too long.”
“Why should I trust a murderer to bring peace between our peoples?”
I sighed loudly in exasperation and rolled my eyes.
“Oh for Phyre’s sake! You must be joking. Don’t tell me you truly believe I poisoned King Malyon. That one,” I said, jerking a thumb in Taliya’s direction. “I don’t believe to have much more intelligence than a cockroach, but you I had given more credit. Please don’t tell me I judged you so poorly.”
I heard Taliya hiss in resentment, but softly so that I just barely heard it. I ignored her as I kept my gaze locked on Irvan. He was searching my face for something, I could tell, I just wasn’t sure what. After a long moment, I figured he needed a bit of a push.
“Perhaps you should ask yourself something.”
“And what is that?” he asked, still studying me carefully.
“It’s a rather obvious thing really. Would a murderer be riding a Dragon?”
The answer, of course, was no. Dragons did not tolerate dark hearted people.
“No,” said Irvan after a moment of silence. “A murderer would not be riding a Dragon.”
He seemed to be admitting a fact that he was struggling with, since apparently he had fully believed that I had killed Malyon. I could tell the wheels were turning top speed in his brain as he paused again, starring at me intently, as though trying to puzzle something out. Then, unable to work it out, he spoke again, slowly and deliberately.
“But I think, Liaison Korina, that also begs the question, who are you to be riding a Dragon at all? No mere Wolf-Child, surely.”
Ah, so that was it. My ruse was thin as paper now, but he still couldn’t see through it to the truth. Perhaps was as good a time as any to admit it though. After all, as a Guardian, I held far more sway and what was the use of keeping up a pretense when it was clearly not holding?
With a sigh, I stood up and Akata-Zan extended his arm for me to walk down on. Once I reached the ground, I looked at the Duke again.
“You are right, of course, Duke Irvan. I am nothing even Wolf related.”
Slowly, I reached up and undid the bands on my neck, letting the stones fall into my hand and then looking up to meet Irvan’s gaze once more. My auburn hair fell around my shoulders and I knew my true face was showing now. I drew myself up straight and spoke in a carrying voice.
“I am Etti Antti, Guardian of the House and Keeper of the Seals.”
The Duke’s eyes went wide as he heard my title and I saw him swallow hard. I looked over my shoulder at Taliya, to see her starring at me in shock and a bit of horror. The moment she saw my face, I could see the wheels turning as she tried to piece together why she knew me. Then I saw it click and the horror redoubled, quickly followed by anger. I smiled sweetly when I saw that she had recognized me.
“Hello, Taliya,” I said. “So good to see you with my own eyes again. Now please, do keep quiet. The adults are talking.”
She pointed at me with a shaking finger, so enraged that she couldn’t even speak. Or perhaps that was the Seal that had been put on my given name when I became an Apprentice Guardian kicking in. No one save myself could speak that name unless I granted it to them by removing the Seal from them. I was certainly not about to do that with Taliya.
“Yes, me,Taliya. Now, please,” I made a shushing motion and she lowered her still shaking finger, eyes wide with fear as she realized she couldn’t speak my name.
Turning back to the Duke, I saw that he had gathered himself together a bit, and when he saw that I was looking at him again, he gave me a respectful bow.
“Guardian, my apologies,” he said, and I could tell there was a bit of fear in his voice that he was attempting to hide. “Had I known, it never would have entered my mind that you had anything to do with King Malyon’s death. But...”
He hesitated, glancing up at me and I gave him an expectant look.
The Duke licked his lips and finished his thought in a rush.
“But why did you hide your true identity in the first place?”
I rolled my eyes and chuckled ruefully.
“Because King Malyon absolutely despised my existence. If I had shown my real face anywhere near the Elven palace, they would have sent the whole army out after me. And you can tell from Her Highness’s reaction,” I continued, gesturing behind me to the Queen. “That there is no love lost between the two of us either.”
“Then why show your face now?”
“Because you deserve the truth of who you are dealing with.”
He looked a bit surprised by my answer and then gave me a small smile.
“Thank you for that honesty, Guardian Antti, and it will be my honor to sit at the peace talks with you there to mediate.”
I returned the smile and opened my mouth to reply, when another voice interrupted me.
My eyes widened. That was a male voice. That was a voice I knew well. That was the voice of my childhood. That was a voice I hadn’t heard since the day I had left the Elven Kingdoms so long ago.
Slowly, I turned around and came face-to-face with an elf I had never thought to see again.
A/N: My apologies for being away so long. My inspiration decided to float away for a while, which I thought was rather rude. Then I wrote this chapter, reread everything and realized I had to rewrite this chapter because it caused all sorts of story inaccuracies. But, I am back and I am writing! :) Please forgive my absence.