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Two Trails - Title

Chapter 36

Storm snapped the mirror shut. “It’s good to know Gerald and Thomas got there yesterday, but this Thrgin fellow sounds like a barracks lawyer to me.”

Lorelei lifted a questioning eyebrow at him over their tiny campfire.

“A lawyer is someone who is an expert on the law and a barracks lawyer was a slang term we used for someone who tried to twist the law and rules to their own advantage,” he explained.

She cocked her head, thinking it over. “But they weren’t really one of those lawyers?” Lorelei prompted him.

He shook his empathically. “Not a chance. They were just trying to find some way to weasel out of doing their job.”

“A layabout,” Lorelei decided.

“Pretty much.” He stood up and stretched, using it as an excuse to scan the prairie with his Sight.

“See anything?”

“Yep.” He squatted back down by the fire. “About a mile, uh . . . a league, directly behind you. Same as yesterday.”

She glanced past his shoulder at Serpenthead Peak, looming a few leagues away. “Yesterday I noticed what looks like a plateau about a third of the way up with a bunch of ravines and gorges crisscrossing it.”

Storm grinned. That was more like it. That was the Lorelei he’d fallen in love with. “I saw that too. It’s a perfect place to lose him.”

“Then we turn the tables and catch him and kill him,” she added.

They smiled at each other.

He stood up. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

They broke camp and were in the air in less than twenty minutes, the waterlogged remains of their fire smoldering fitfully.

They soared as high as possible in the air to examine the mountain plateau before they reached it. It wasn’t entirely level of course, but it was close enough to warrant being called a plateau. It looked as if a Brobdingnagian giant had put the front half of his foot on the mountainside, pressing it down into a flat U-shaped valley. It was nearly two miles wide, with ridges running down steeply on either side. The toe of the plateau faced west, toward a steep curved cliff. Two major waterfalls poured over cliff, both on the southern side. Numerous smaller waterfalls misted the rest of the broad valley along the rest of the cliff.

The floor was crisscrossed with dozens of streams and rivers meandering back and forth, cutting shallow valleys in every direction. The plentiful water and mist conspired to create a rain forest environment in the wide valley. Some of the trees were nearly 300 feet high. Plants and underbrush grew everywhere in wild profusion.

Storm grinned at the sight. Almost anywhere down there would be a perfect place for an ambush. He spotted two giant trees that looked like redwoods, their limbs facing each other broken off to create an almost arch-like entrance to the woods. “There!”

Lorelei followed his finger. “Looks good.”

Storm crouched low over his pegasus. “Come on, boy. Give it everything you’ve got.” He urged him into a steep dive, picking up speed until he thought the wind might blow him off the animal’s back. Seconds later they whizzed between the two mighty trees, their sudden passage scaring a flock of birds into the sky.

He risked a quick glance over his shoulder. The distance haze of magic around the spy was noticeably further behind them than before. Good. A little extra distance meant extra time to hide themselves and set up their ambush.

He led Lorelei through the trees, weaving in and out, looking for a suitable place to set their trap. A few minutes later he found what he was looking for by nearly getting caught it in himself.

Falling mist had prompted the explosive growth of hanging vines and creepers, creating an aerial net that hung nearly to the ground from the branches of the towering trees.

“Whoa!” he shouted, sawing back on the reins.

Specter banked sharply to the left, nearly spilling him out of the saddle. He grabbed desperately for the saddle horn, heaving himself back upright. Lorelei, following behind him, had a bit more time to slow and turn.

He tugged on the reins, turning Specter around in a tight circle so he could examine the aerial roadblock.

The closer they’d gotten to the cliff wall with its numerous waterfalls, the heavier the mist had become. It reminded him of the cloud of mist around the base of Niagara Falls. Vines and creepers hung down everywhere except where two trees had fallen, one after another in a line leading to a small ravine. The ravine was the only place where it was possible to push through the vines without bending over to avoid them.

“This is the place,” he called to Lorelei.

She nodded agreement and they landed.

Storm pointed at the lip of the ravine. “If we put some obvious tripwires around the top of the ravine, the spy will have to land to get past them.”

“And put some not-so-obvious ones on the ground,” Lorelei finished for him.

Storm gave her a thumbs up and they got to work. Every so often he would pause to scan with his Sight to see if the spy was approaching but there was no sign of him. His sense of danger wasn’t warning him of anything either. He suspected they’ve given him the slip for the time being.

The obvious tripwires they strung in the air across the ravine weren’t tripwires at all, merely thin twine tied off to look like tripwires. The real booby traps on the ground were as lethal as their combined years in the wilds could make them. Since the spy was working for Adrammelech, there was no telling what kind of magic the so-called god might have gifted him with and they didn’t feel like taking any chances.

They constructed a latticework of tree limbs and fastened wooden spikes to them. It took both of them straining to bend the main arm back to cock the mighty weapon. After that, it was just a matter of scattering leaves and twigs to cover it.

Once everything was set, they turned their pegasi loose in a shadowed grove and retreated to a blind where they had a view of the booby trap as well as the approaching funnel to the ravine. Storm was keeping his Sight constantly activated in case the spy approached invisibly.

Finally, they settled in to wait.

Storm unsheathed his swords and propped them up beside him where he could grab them at a moments notice. Lorelei sat with her bow across her knees, an arrow loosely knocked and a dozen more standing before her, point down in the soft dirt.

Next came the waiting.

It was here their wilderness backgrounds came in handy. In his youth Storm had been forced by his adoptive father to crouch for hours beside a game trail waiting for a deer to wander by. Lorelei’s tribe had long traditions of similar patience as well.

The sun, barely visible through the thick foliage, moved slowly across the sky and began to sink behind the mountain. The shadows lengthened and darkness began to set in.

Still they waited.

Eventually, Storm took Lorelei’s hand in his. He tapped on it in drum talk. “Go to sleep. I’ll wake you when it’s your turn.” She tapped an affirmative in his hand and rolled up in a blanket to sleep.

Long hours passed until the instinctive clock in his head told the night was half gone. He woke her up then went to sleep himself. When morning came, her soft touch woke him instantly. He sat up and looked at her but she shook her head.

He shrugged and went about digging trail rations out of their packs. They ate silently then took turns relieving themselves in the brush suitably far from their blind. Another long day slowly went by with no sign of their quarry.

As it was getting dark again, Lorelei took his hand. “Do you think maybe he thinks we slipped past him and got away?

I hope not. We could be here for ages trying to figure out which it is.”

Maybe he’s country-raised like us and just being patient,” she responded silently.

He met her eyes. “We could be here for ages that way too.”

She nodded in resignation and they settled in to wait some more.

The second night seemed even longer than the first. Every noise brought him to a hair trigger alert, only to relax when it turned out to be some nocturnal animal. Once though, it was a 10-foot owl bear.

A vaguely humanoid monster, it looked like a bear with the head of a great horned owl. It walked upright or on all fours and was immensely powerful. He and Durin had once barely survived a fight with a cave bear in the mountains of Ingold. Storm had no desire for a repeat of that fight with a larger, stronger, and faster owl bear.

Fortunately, the beast wandered on past, never suspecting their presence. He heaved a quiet sigh of relief once it finally passed out of earshot. He was fairly sure he and Lorelei could kill it, but a noisy fight would give away their position to the spy, costing them the element of surprise in their ambush.

Still, it was a grim reminder the spy wasn’t the only danger lurking in the forest. When he woke Lorelei, he used drum talk in the palm of her hand to tell her about the beast. Like him, she’d never had to fight one but had heard enough stories about them to be glad they didn’t have to.

Lorelei’s hand on his shoulder woke him just as his sense of danger began sending chills down his spine. He woke up fast, scanning the area for any sign of their quarry. Finding nothing, he turned to Lorelei with a questioning look.

She shook her head silently then pointed down the funnel and cupped her hands around her ears. She’d heard something down that way. Storm nodded understanding then turned listen intently.

After a long moment he heard it, vines and creepers being pushed against each other.

He grabbed Lorelei’s hand. “Someone flying slow, pushing vines out of the way.”

She nodded in agreement and sat up straight, an arrow nocked and half-pulled on her bow. She peered down the length of the funnel, her muscles tense with readiness.

Storm’s Sight finally saw a flicker of magic. It disappeared in the dense foliage, then reappeared, closer and clearer.

The spy.

He nudged Lorelei and gave her a tight smile of victory. She knew instantly what he meant and lifted her bow, pulling the arrow back another handsbreadth.

Finally, after days of being pursued, the enemy came into full view. He was still invisible to normal sight, but the egg-shaped weave magic around him pinpointed his location to Storm’s magical Sight. He slowly raised a hand to signal Lorelei to prepare to loose an arrow, then held it, waiting for a clear shot.

The magic distortion paused in the air just before their faux tripwires. Storm thought he heard a triumphant, “Ha!” then saw the egg-shape descend to the bottom of the ravine. He saw the leaves on the ground deform under the spy’s feet. Lorelei saw it too and pulled her arrow all the way back.

Storm held his hand out to wait, willing the person down there to take two more, unwary steps.

He did.

The framework covered in wooden spikes they’d painstakingly made was unleashed. Before the person could do more than grunt in surprise, it impaled him on nearly a dozen of the spikes, sweeping him off his feet to pin him against a massive tree trunk.

His magical invisibility disappeared and they saw a man in the robes of a priest of Tartak gasping his life out. His eyes bulged as they rose from their concealment.

“Ho . . . how?” he gurgled, as blood ran down his chest.

“We have magic of our own,” Storm replied grimly, making no move to help the man. He realized he recognized the man from their short stay in Far Point. “You’re Pünon.”

“Ye . . es.”

Lorelei lowered her bow since the man was obviously dying. “Why would a priest of Tartak work for Adrammelech?”

Pünon’s eyes flickered toward his waist. A bag dangling from his belt had been torn open by one of the spikes, spilling gold coins all over the ground.

His eyes rolled sightlessly. He slumped with a hiss of escaping breath that signaled his demise.

Storm sheathed his swords. “The love of money,” he snorted with disgust.

Lorelei was pleased if somewhat puzzled by his attitude. “You almost sound like a Biqah,” she noted.

He shrugged. “There’s nothing wrong with money but when you let your love of money override your good sense, you pay for it.” He waved at Pünon’s body impaled on the spikes.

“But why would a priest of Tartak work for Adrammelech?” she wondered yet again.

Storm set about gathering up their gear. “The Six aren’t really gods,” he noted acidly, “and people can be fickle at the best of times.” He nodded at Pünon. “He was like a thief playing two different thieving guilds against each other, pretending to be loyal to both but really only out for himself. Or maybe he switched sides to gain an advantage.” He thought about Klah and her father but kept it to himself. He threw a saddle on Specter and began tightening the straps. “It wouldn’t be the first time someone did that.”

She had joined him, saddling her own pegasus. Now she paused and looked at him. “You’re talking about Klah, aren’t you?” He didn’t say anything but she saw the answer in his eyes.

Silence fell between them as they finished gathering their gear and preparing to leave. Neither of them made any move to gather Pünon’s spilled money or investigate his body for whatever magic let him fly invisibly. As far as Storm was concerned, it was blood money. He didn’t want any part of it. They left Pünon where he was and flew off.

Lorelei remained silent, deep in thought as she followed Storm out of the forest and into the air. He located the road far beneath them, heading for Mount Jesmun off in the distance.

Now Pünon wasn’t dogging their tracks anymore, they should be able to escape Adrammelech’s troops without the constant fighting. Storm counted the two days waiting in the ambush time well spent.

Lorelei finally nudged her pegasus close to his so she wouldn’t have to shout across the sky. “I still don’t think Klah had anything to do with father’s death but –” she drew a deep breath “– I won’t throw a fit about it anymore until after we talk to him.”

Storm felt a surge of relief that surprised him with its intensity. He let out an explosive sigh. “Whew! Good!” He smiled at her, wishing he could take her in his arms. “I know how hard that was for you. Thank you!”

She smiled back. “You’re welcome, but,” her eyes sparkled with mischief, “once we find out who the real killer is, I’m going to hold this over your head for the rest of your life!”

He laughed. “Agreed!”

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