I Will Stand Alone: Part Seven
Jazan gnawed on a piece of dried fruit in his place in the circle around Seji's lantern. It had been hours – dawn would be approaching soon, if any dawn would be visible through the howling sandstorm that had engulfed the city. He'd dozed a little, but not really slept. He'd packed energy potions, but they'd decided it would be best to save them until they were ready to travel.
Kiri stared into the fire – she'd wept, earlier, and her blue eyes were reddened and swollen. The other five all slept or dozed. He asked, "Are you okay?"
She sniffed. "How can it be that we did everything right, and it still went wrong?"
Jazan offered his best explanation. "Because Fate is a vindictive twit?"
Kiri snorted. "Do your friends ever tell you that you aren't particularly comforting?"
Before Jazan could think it through, he answered honestly. "I don't really have any friends. Besides Nightsteed, at least."
She gaped at him. "But everyone's got friends. The children in the palace..."
He corrected her, "There aren't any children in the palace. What sane parent would want to raise their child around Razul?" He explained, "If I made a friend, we'd want to spend time together. That's normal. And if I were spending time with someone, it would draw my father's attention to him or her, drag him or her into his plots. And if I were truly someone's friend, would I want to do that? No. I'd want to keep my friend safe – and being safe means keeping as far away from me as possible."
Seji lifted his head from his position curled up against the tunnel wall. "Sweet Fyora, Jazan. That's... one of the more depressing outlooks on life that I've ever heard."
Jazan realized with considerable embarrassment that the others were stirring – Pashki looked bemused, but Asyir, Masazi, and Nightsteed just looked a little sad. Asyir said, "Well, no king lasts forever. One of these days the old buzzard will go to his grave, and you'll be able to have whatever friends you'd like."
They didn't know Razul's plans. But perhaps they deserved to. They weren't going to be under his thumb anymore – they didn't need to rely on ignorance to protect them. He said, "Not if he gets his way. All that money you missed? All that time he spends in his workroom? He's trying to find immortality. He wants to rule Qasala forever." And he let the deepest dread – and only hope – out of his heart. "The only way he's going to let go of the throne is if I can make him. No one else knows enough to do it. It's going to have to be me. We're going to fight, and only one of us is going to walk away from it." The only thing that Jazan kept to himself was just how far Razul was willing to go – the fact that he would gladly sacrifice every single life in Qasala. There were some nightmares that he wasn't willing to wish on anyone else.
Masazi said in horror, "Immortality? That man, immortal? Fyora save us if he can do it."
Pashki said, "I can't believe that no one's done anything. Aren't the Faeries supposed to stop sorcerers who try getting above themselves?"
Nightsteed said, "How could they stop him? The only living people besides Razul who know about his schemes are all right here. Jazan and I have never told anyone before – and Jazan knows more than I do that he's kept to himself. Better that way."
Masazi just kept shaking her head. "Immortal. That man, immortal."
Kiri said, "In all the legends, the kings who seek immortality are the same ones whose reigns everyone else would be glad to see the end of. Why?"
Jazan informed her, "All of the ways to gain immortality are... less than savory. No good man would want to touch them."
Asyir added, "Just as no good man would try to cling to life when he could tell that his days were running their course."
But Seji smiled at Jazan. "Well, I don't know if my opinion counts for much, but Jazan, I think that when you face down that old maniac, you're going to wipe the floor with him."
Jazan looked down – he didn't have half that much confidence in himself. But, as silly as it was, it still gave him a warm feeling of pride to have someone tell him that – to have someone who had that sort of faith in him.
Someone who was a friend.
Then, as he had every so often, Seji opened the door to check on the storm. Jazan scurried back down the tunnel a few steps, preparing for the scouring blast of sand.
But instead, in the grey pre-dawn light, there was only a trickle. The storm's fury was just about spent. Asyir was on his feet at once. "Now! We need to go now!"
Jazan dug the energy potions out of his pack – they were passed around the circle. Pashki winced at the taste, which Jazan thought was perhaps a trifle overly dramatic, but the rest swallowed their portions without comment. Jazan looked to Masazi and Pashki. "Ready to raise the veils?"
They did – Jazan felt the strain of yet another spell, when he hadn't fully recovered from the massive amounts of magic he'd thrown around last night.
The guards on the walls still looked drowsy, but there was no telling when one sharp-eyed soldier with an inconvenient sense of loyalty might be watching. Masazi crafted a delicate spell that sent a little eddy of wind around their feet, erasing their tracks before any could be seen outside the veil.
There was still sand blowing on the wind, and it stung – Jazan wrapped his scarf more snugly around his mouth and nose, and then pulled his cloak more closely around himself. Oh, this was miserable!
Though it was still preferable to helping his father.
The morning wore on – the going was slow, since while Kiri and Pashki were both brave girls, they weren't used to travelling by foot in the desert. By midmorning, they still hadn't even reached the River Sakh. They stopped for a minute at the top of a dune for a drink of water. Jazan resisted the urge to drain his canteen – he knew that he'd want it later.
And then they heard the sound of a horn echoing over the dunes.
The tone of the horn was strange – it was low and wavering and sounded almost like the howl of a Werelupe. Jazan knew that there was only one person who ever came to Qasala who used a horn like that. He looked at Nightsteed in horror. "I thought he was still in the Haunted Woods!"
Kiri asked, "Who?"
Nightsteed informed her, "The Werhond."
Masazi buried her head in her hands. Asyir gasped. Seji cried, "Sweet Fyora, could this get worse?"
Pashki said, "So, he's got a scary name. What else is there?"
Asyir told her, "He's a mercenary who often works for King Razul – tracking down people the king wants to find. They say he's got a little bit of magic..."
Jazan interrupted, "A tiny bit – I've checked, and he does."
Asyir continued, "And he can use it to help him find the trails and traces that people leave in the sand. If you've left anything, any sign at all, he can find it, and he can find you."
Nightsteed looked back at the dunes. "The sweeping-spell. It's not that conspicuous, but it does look a little odd if you're watching closely, and he is."
Jazan said, "We've got to make for the river. No one leaves traces over water – he'll have to waste time picking up our tracks on the other side."
Asyir asked, "Can we make it in time?"
Masazi turned and headed down the dune. "We certainly won't if we don't keep moving. Come on, girls, I know you're tired, but we need to go faster! Kiri, take to the air – the storm winds have died down."
Kiri did, and the three women didn't notice the look that Asyir exchanged with Nightsteed, Jazan, and Seji.
They were all too aware that they were in serious trouble.
Kiri scouted for them as they went ahead, and despite the drain on her energy, Masazi kept up the sweeping spell. "As long as they don't know who's here, some of us might get away," she insisted, even as the sweat dripped down her face and the strain caused her jaw to clench.
But the horn sounded again, and then a third time – and each time it was closer. And Jazan realized that they weren't going to make it. It was too far away, and the Werhond and his men could move too fast in comparison to Jazan's band of fleeing nobles. He shouted up, "Kiri! Do you see any good hilltops ahead – any oases?"
She shouted back, "There's an oasis up ahead, actually – slightly to the east!"
Seji asked in alarm, "What are you planning?"
But Asyir had already guessed. "Come down then, Kiri – no use in making yourself a target!" The Lutari informed his friend, "Jazan's looking for a defendable position. High ground's going to work well, and a hilltop oasis will be a source of water if we're pulled into a standoff."
They put on a last burst of speed – Jazan took the lead this time, half-running over one sand dune and down another, a second, a third, and finally up the hill that Kiri had found for them.
The oasis was a small one, only little pool surrounded by bushes and trees, but the water was cool and clear and Jazan gratefully took several long, deep drinks. Then he stood tall – he'd been thinking as they ran, and he'd assembled an idea.
Of course, if it failed, they were finished – but they'd been working under that threat since the situation began, so Jazan didn't think it would be a problem. He said, "I think I have a plan."
Asyir nodded. "Let's hear it."
Masazi asked, "What are we going to do?"
Jazan grinned fiercely at Seji. "Face down the Werhond – and wipe the floor with him."
To be continued...