Displeasure was an understatement of how the Elders reacted to his blatant disregard of their orders. The looks they gave him at Dur na Valed were marked with disappointment, exasperation, and anger. Sola and Sara, Merleina’s representatives in the Council, did not come to his defense.
The high priestess did not confront him. Her son did. Sola had stalked to his office the afternoon of that same day. Reno’s apprentice had been apprehensive when the latter announced the visitor, whose anger rolled off him in waves. Arturion had never caused his foster family grief. The Gate Keepers were also relatively easier to manage than the Black Guards. The glow globes flickered unnaturally. Sola was on the brink of unleashing something unpleasant. Reno mentally checked that his barriers would be able to withstand any form of attack. They were both commanding officers in their respective Orders, but Sola was far more experienced and sorely outranked him. The older man had come as an Elder.
“I did what I had to do,” Reno said quietly.
“Of course. Have you ever considered the implications of your repeated offenses against the Council?” Sola said blandly. He lifted a hand when Reno was about to reply. “Your frustration with the Council is understandable and unsurprising. They tolerate your methods because you acted out of necessity but this–” One of the glow globes cracked as Sola tried to rein in his temper. “We had taken pains to hide the disappearances from Liyanna because of the prophecy, but you,” he paused, “you had to tell her.”
“The future can be changed.” Reno had no way of knowing what Liyanna was thinking in Dur na Valed. She had retreated within herself. He hoped she would be smart enough to stay with the Forest Folk.
“I pray you are right. However, the damage has already been done. Soon, they would demand us to make an example of your Order or you.” The anger dissipated. Sola’s eyes were bleak. “I promised your mother I would protect you. Your foolishness would make me break that promise.” He turned to leave.
“Commander Sola. Aren’t you going to ask why I did it?”
“Do you think my foster son would have approved?” Sola said, revealing that he knew the reason, and stepped out of the room. Reno knew he would pay for the consequences of his actions once the mission was over – if he hadn’t yet been captured by the enemy, as well. Still, it was more frightening that the warning had come from an official member of the Council.
Commander Reno and his Guards visited each site where a Keeper had last been sighted. A few of his men possessed strong Sight to see what had occurred before the taking. Yet, the visions were unclear: the Keeper would be doing a trivial activity then the person would fall unconscious and disappear.
The Zertans’ awareness of Merleina’s existence has made Them more slippery than ever. Travelers and Keepers alike were completely unprepared of the harmless methods their enemies have adopted that no one had the foresight to leave an imprint in an unassuming object. It would have led the Guards to the owner’s location.
The whole situation was laughable. All their lives, Merleinans were taught to detach themselves from worldly possessions. Now, it seemed that the opposite would have been the key finding the victims. It intrigued him how one race doomed to be left behind in the third dimension could cover its tracks from the more evolved Guards.
In front of Reno, the wooden chair lay on the floor at the exact position when he and Arturion had rushed back to Merleina. Dust coated the once impeccably clean furnishings, proof that the wards had been breached weeks ago. The owner of the house was nowhere to be found, another addition to the rising number of missing individuals. Futilely, he hoped that his friend had gone into hiding. He righted the chair and surveyed the room one last time. At the center table, a bowl of potpourri caught his eye. It had graced the corner table between the sofa and chairs before. Using his Sight, he saw a vision: his friend stood by the sofa with his back turned to him. Arturion lifted a twine from his neck. His head moved sideways, expecting someone to sneak up on him. He clasped the necklace with both hands as if in prayer. Then, he lifted the glass bowl of potpourri and hid the necklace within. Turning to the center table, his lips moved as he held the bowl while his eyes darted around the room. The furniture trembled slightly at the incantation and ceased after the last word was spoken. Arturion placed the object in its current position and hurried out of the house.
Reno reached for the bowl then stopped, his hand hovering over it. He remembered he had to check on his niece and the Guards he had assigned around the perimeter. They were to stick together as a group to prevent an ambush from their enemies. He straightened and scanned the room, wondering why he continued to linger in this part of the house. His gaze dropped to the center table again. The potpourri was not in its usual place… Arturion had probably repositioned it for some reason. He moved to the door and thought of how his friend had made efforts to make living in the third dimension bearable. He had left nature to run riot in the garden – a poor imitation of Merleina’s forest in Reno’s perspective.
Commander, a human approaches, one of the Guards warned. Her behavior is suspicious. She is attempting to scale the wall. Should we apprehend her?
Leave her be. I’ll handle it. Reno sighed as he saw the intruder pull one leg over the wall and the next. He had glimpsed her face. Even half-concealed with the large sunglasses and her hair hidden underneath the hood of her baggy jacket, he recognized her.
“You could get in trouble for trespassing on private property, you know,” he called out to her as she persisted in moving stealthily among the vegetation. Reno waited, allowing his words to sink in.
“And you could go to prison for operating your business illegally.” She shot up behind a bush, her sunglasses askew, glaring at him. He would have been more concerned about this piece of knowledge she about his affairs if it had not been spoiled by the state of her appearance. The weather had not been kind, recently. It had rained all day and it showed in Mindy’s clothes. Mud, twigs, and leaves stuck to her.
“Come out of there. Then, we’ll talk.”
Mindy stood in place, her expression wavering with indecision. She had meant to investigate on Arturion and possibly spy on him against Reno’s advice.
“If you’re worried about Arturion finding you out, he’s gone.” He leaned on the doorframe and crossed his arms. A few moments later, she noisily struggled against plant life that blocked her path. She marched inside and swiveled to face him. Hands on hips, she demanded: “Where is he?”
“There’s a path from the gate leading to this door. You might want to use it next time.”
“I don’t know where he is.” He shrugged. “And I specifically told you to stay out of this.”
“I did until I discovered that everything about you is a lie,” she accused. “For all I know, you had us all fooled into thinking that you’re related to us.”
“Unfortunately, we are.” Reno regretted sharing information with Mindy with the purpose of keeping her safe. He should have just kept her in the dark and trusted his people to keep an eye on her. His niece was far too clever for her own good and he had encouraged it. He taught her sleight of hand tricks in their meetings and passed on what he knew about hacking computers. Now, it seemed he had dragged her into deeper trouble. He could just imagine his mother raving at him when she learns what he had done, especially for involving Mindy in his investigation.
“What?” Hurt reflected in her eyes.
“Mother would kill me when she finds out,” he motioned a hand towards her, unable to continue.
Mindy’s face cleared, then replaced by a scowl. “What do you actually do for a living?”
“I’m the head of an intelligence agency.”
“So, the firm is actually a cover story. Where does Arty come in?”
“He works for another organization. They find people.” His niece looked skeptical. “You don’t believe me.”
“How could I when you give me vague answers?”
“I can’t give you what you want. I took an oath of secrecy.”
“Aren’t there supposed to be exceptions for the head of an agency?” Reno gave her a stern look. “Fine. Who do you spy on?”
“Argh! This is so frustrating.” Mindy gestured widely with her arm. “When will I ever get a straight answer?”
Reno wasn’t in his best form to answer his niece’s barrage of questions. He was tired from going to and from Merleina and if he wasn’t careful, he might accidentally give her more details about his work than allowed.
“No. Sorry.” What he couldn’t say was the oath he took had been uttered in the Old Tongue, preventing him from breaking his promise. The few who managed to work around it usually ended up paying the price for the deed; mainly, it was because they overlooked a minute detail that enforced the pledge. It followed the universal law that every action has an equal reaction. The consequences varied depending on the gravity of the offense. It was easier to bend or break the Council’s orders. At least, one could predict the judgment they would pass rather than go against one’s word spoken in the Old Tongue. Reno had found a flaw in the oath he had taken but it required him to speak carefully. Still, the easiest course of action was to have someone willingly release the individual from one’s oath.
“What do you mean he’s gone, anyway? Has Arty gone AWOL or something?” He didn’t know if he should be glad the topic wasn’t about him anymore now that she was making inquiries about Arturion.
“He’s missing. Many of my people have been disappearing. If my observations are correct, Arturion was the last person they took.”
Confused, she said: “But I just saw him yesterday.” Reno pushed himself away from the doorframe.
“Here. He was with Fred.” She arched an eyebrow. “He’ll be here in—” Mindy looked at her wristwatch. “Shoot! He’s coming. We’ve got to hide. Quickly!” She dashed to the nearest room and stopped abruptly. “Oh, right. You’re Arty’s BFF.”
“B-F-F?” He stared at her, quizzically.
“You know…” At that exact moment, one of his men mentally informed him of Arturion’s arrival. His instruction to them to stay hidden and alert for signs of trouble baffled the Guards, but training and loyalty would keep them from disobeying his orders.
The sound of a gate closing was heard before Arturion’s head became invisible among the thick foliage.
“Hide behind the bar.”
“Just do what you’re told,” Reno snapped. His niece glared at him, defiantly. “I’ll explain later.”
With unhappiness written all over her face, she finally obeyed; all the while, muttering under her breath. Reno’s gaze followed her to the bar. Now he knew where he got his rebellious streak. It apparently ran in his mother’s family. Returning his attention to Arturion, who was nearing the front door, he scanned his friend’s expression.
“What are you doing here?” Arturion passed by him without a glance.
“Warm welcome you have for a friend.” Reno folded his arms. Arturion’s auric color was off. It was too human. No, it was worse. “I noticed your wards are down.”
“I didn’t have the time to put it up again.” A lie. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re losing people.”
“No need to be snappish. Why don’t we sit down for a moment and swap information?” He sat on the couch. A flicker of annoyance crossed Arturion’s face.
Seated on the chair, the Commander had a better look at the new Arturion. The physical appearance was flawless. He would have mistaken him for his friend, but the bad attitude was a dead giveaway. Reno would have to get a closer look to check for telltale signs of plastic surgery. Still, they were up against a technologically advanced enemy. It was highly possible that he was facing Arturion’s clone…
“Are you redecorating?” he asked, his gaze landing at the potpourri, which kept snagging his attention.
“No. Why?” Arturion said, then his eyes widened in realization. He reached into his pocket a second too late. Reno’s eyes flashed. The man flew to the other side of the room, hitting the wall with a loud crack, and fell senseless on the floor.
A squeak erupted from the bar; breaking Reno’s focus from the person he had attacked. He rarely used telekinesis to such an extent. The Guards didn’t know half of what their Commander could do. Their knowledge was limited to his competence in Indariki inside the training grounds and bargaining skills with the Captain of the Sentries.
“You can come out now.” Mindy emerged from her hiding place and looked at the prone figure, then to her uncle.
“Is he…?” Fear colored his niece’s voice. He had never demonstrated violence in front of a relative.
“He’s alive.” Reno internally winced at the indifference in his tone. She must think the worst of him.
“What – happened?” The Guards were also asking him the same question.
“He’s not Arturion,” he said to Mindy and his men.
“What made you think that?”
He pointed at the potpourri. Mindy warily came to his side, alert for any abrupt movement. He was not sure if she was scared of him or the impostor. She picked up the bowl and scooped a handful of dried flowers, revealing two pendants; one of which was the crystal issued to all Gate Keepers.
Reno snatched the bowl from her. He felt an invisible barrier snap in the ether as he grabbed the twine holding the crystals.
“Alfredo knows,” an ethereal voice broke free from the binding in one of the pendants.
“What was that?” Mindy asked.
He stared at her, pocketing the necklace. When had she become clairaudient?
“Who was that?”
Should I tell her the truth? he thought.
“Uncle, that wasn’t a ghost because I don’t hear them, I’m not crazy, and that wasn’t you. Do you have invisible man in your team of X-men?” Her hands had returned to her hips looking like his mother in her youth.
“X-men?” He frowned.
Mutants, indeed. “We’re not. And – who was that again?”
“He’s not part of my team. The voice came from this.” He retrieved the object from his pocket.
“That?” she said, incredulously.
“Highly advanced technology.” He shrugged, hoping she wouldn’t ask more.
“And what’s that got to do with Fred?”
Fred. Alfredo. Were they talking about the same person? More importantly, what did he know that made Arturion cast wards to prevent anyone from finding and taking an interest in a necklace? The working was more complex than usual. Reno had been compelled to forget to inspect the bowl’s contents. Mindy’s casual act, however, did not trigger the first ward.
The secondary barrier held. If he had not been part-Merleinan, he would not have seen the object right under his nose. Likewise, the spell would remain intact until it entered Merleina’s territory. The tinge of darkness in the last ward astonished him. If the necklace fell into the wrong hands, an unfortunate fate would befall the keeper. It was a dangerous spell that could backfire on the individual who had cast it. No Merleinan in his right mind would resort to such desperate measures, especially Keepers. Arturion was the last person he had anticipated to use the Dark Arts.
Suddenly, a loud crash erupted directly above them. Reno sprinted up the stairs, Mindy following at his heels. The Guards would take action soon. The events of the day have been unexpected. His niece snooping on his friend’s house; Arturion’s spell-casting; the impostors; now, this.
From the staircase’s landing, he saw a very blonde woman sitting in the middle of the chaos.
Mother’s going to kill me.
Wattpad code: 58366003
©MC Babasa 2014
A/N: Feel free to post your feedback as this is the first book. Your comments and suggestions may influence the story as it progresses up to the second book.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.