Wings boomed in the sky.
General Rhaskin Ankrilus looked up from the red ceramic circle pinning down one corner of the map on his desk. The map showed the mountains forming the southeastern border of Salshira in great detail, but nothing further in than the highest peaks, rendering it effectively useless for his purposes. Hopefully whoever was returning would have more information for him, though after two months of sniffing around the foothills for a way to sneak in, he had little hope.
Salshira was one country that seemed determined to guard its mysteries.
Through the spreading evergreen canopy he spotted Captain Selkran’s graceful form coming in for a landing. General Ankrilus uncurled, stood up from his cushioned reading mat, and strode to the meadow his soldiers had cleared for use as a landing field. When he reached the edge of the trees he sat down on his haunches, curled his long tail over his knuckles, and waited in perfect stillness.
Captain Selkran, currently appearing gray-white to anyone on the ground, spiraled down on great pale wings, at first coming in fast and then, at the last moment, backwinging and settling to the ground as lightly as a leaf. General Ankrilus felt the exact moment she flared her flight power, pushing against the world itself, and smiled slightly at her precise and efficient use of energy. Selkran was never one to slack on self-discipline.
Settled on the ground, Captain Selkran pulled in her wings, revealing their black tops, and waited while the Bortin sketch artist on her back climbed down with his bag of scrolls and drawing supplies. Then a team of trained slaves ran up and removed the passenger saddle from her back and a ripple of rainbow flickered across her scales. General Ankrilus understood the feeling. He himself hated wearing harness of any kind, especially to carry a lesser creature.
The Captain shifted her color to full black and trotted to her commander. She stopped before him, standing on all fours, and saluted with a bow of her head and a flip of her closed wings.
“Tell me you found a way in, Captain,” General Ankrilus said. “I tire of imagining what the Emperor will do to me if I don’t have something to report in my next message besides the number of scouts I’ve lost to blindness, fire, and arrows.”
Not to mention Lieutenant Daskevrren. He had flown over the mountains at night a week ago and never come back. Had they somehow killed him? General Ankrilus hoped not. It would be a great loss of a promising officer.
Captain Selkran bowed her head again.
“I have what I hope is good news, General. With the help of the elder gods I found a cave entrance blocked from view of any of the towers by a large ridge. I went a short ways in and discovered a vast network of caverns. When I sought further guidance I received the impression that there is at least one pathway that will lead clear through the mountains.”
Unlike many Garagrans who left the arts of the spirit to those who had not already ascended to the ranks of the Scales, Captain Selkran was a skilled priestess in her own right, with powers and abilities that well exceeded those possessed by any of General Ankrilus’ other officers. If she believed there was a way through the cave, then it was worth his full attention.
“Are you sure we can approach it without alerting the Salshirans?”
“The nearest towers were well beyond the range they normally start fires at, and as I said, the cave entrance itself is hidden from view. It should be easy to approach without being seen at all, especially at night.”
“If they are aware of it, they may patrol periodically. Could they have seen you landing?”
Captain Selkran pulled herself up a little straighter and arched her long neck in a way that showed disdain for such a thought, but the steady look in her eyes indicated she was too wise to dismiss it completely.
“I flew over it first, then came in on the ground from a hidden direction. I was very careful with my colors, and I kept myself light and stayed on hard ground where possible to avoid tracks. It is possible that one of the towers saw me, but I doubt it. And the caves did not have the smell of humans. They may not even know it is there, as the entrance was very hard to find. I would not have seen it without guidance.”
She had taken all the proper precautions, something that didn’t surprise the General in the least, and the cave had no signs that it was patrolled. This could be the chance he had been waiting for.
Finally a genuine opening. But what to do about it?
“Follow me,” he said, then rose to all fours and lead the way to his desk and the planning table next to it. Captain Selkran followed close behind.
When he reached his open-air office he waved to a scribe to approach and moved around so that Captain Selkran could look down at the map with him.
“Where is your cave?” he asked.
The Captain extended a claw and touched the map very lightly near the base of a mountain thirty-four ten-felds northwest of the camp. Several of his other scouts had already been over the specified terrain several times. Whatever ill that might say about his scouts, it boded well for the secrecy of the caves themselves.
The General nodded to the scribe and the little Manalein marked the spot with a charcoal pencil.
“Do you have any idea where the tunnel will exit?”
“No, General. There is still some force preventing the elder gods from going inside the country. It is very disturbing. Even here, close to the border, it is harder to rely on the strength of the gods than usual.”
“Hmmmmm.” General Ankrilus eyed the map for another moment, then went over to the planning table and looked over the documents he had collected there. Among them were some sketches of Ember Rehksskari, both in true form and human form, recovered from the art collection of Tenkreille. He mused over the drawing of the small female. So much trouble over one princess. And the runt of the family, at that.
Curse General Kreskluss for letting her escape. Ankrilus prayed to Nk’Drak’sil that Kreskluss would hate every day of his tenure in the icy southern mountains. The fool deserved it.
“Anger directed at distant foes is useless.”
General Ankrilus remembered the proverb and put his anger aside. Kreskluss’ suffering would do nothing to help him fix the incompetent’s mistake. Right now all that mattered was that the Emperor wanted the Rehksskari girl dead, and what the Emperor wanted, the Emperor would have. And further, General Ankrilus couldn’t fault the Emperor’s wisdom. As long as one member of Tenkreille’s royal family was alive, the possibility of revolt would remain, and a revolt there would cost another year’s worth of production and countless soldiers and supplies to put down.
They had spent too much taking Tenkreille to lose just as much all over again. And he himself had lost too many soldiers and officers. He would put an end to that princess.
He turned his attention to the limited reports his agents had gathered on Salshira.
Exceptional trade goods, unparalleled medicines, close mouthed people, and frighteningly well guarded borders. Most of that came from traders, though, who never went deeper than the border towns in the passes. There were rumors that they also had wondrous inventions deeper within, but none of the citizens had been very willing to talk about that.
Strange. Most had avoided his agents. The few abducted and interrogated had said very little besides pleading to be let go and telling the agents about their god Yahsaw.
Yahsaw followers. The same religion common in the regions around the Stony Heart and in many of the Lilta kingdoms across the continent. Also among Tixeries, Oewenfi, and Tufor. Was that the source of the power guarding the borders of Salshira? It couldn’t be. The Emperor had mostly managed to stamp such beliefs out in all the regions belonging to the Empire. One would think that a force this strong would have resisted losing ground to followers of the elder gods before this.
No matter. He would proceed with or without information if he had to. And if he wanted to find a way through the caves before the Emperor lost all patience, he would need the help of the priests. If the present amount of power at their disposal was insufficient for the divining he needed, well… there were ways of inducing the elder gods to provide more. Focus enough power on one point, and any wall would be breached.
General Ankrilus picked up a large map of the roads and villages in the region, large to a human but still small in his great hands, and rolled it out on top of the map on his desk, pinning it open with his brass seal of office, a carved stone paperweight, a large cluster of quartz crystals one of his daughters had bought for him, and the red circle of the Emperor’s message. He waved the scribe over again and touched three towns that were all near the camp. The scribe circled each of the towns.
“Captain Selkran,” the General said, “You will take our forces and gather all the people from these towns who do not have a writ of protection. You and the other priests will then sacrifice them to the elder gods and Nk’drak’sil as an offering and call on the elder gods to lend the full weight of their power to our efforts to find a way through these caves. I want the first sacrifices underway before the night comes.”
“Immediately, General.” She turned to go.
“Wait!” he held up one clawed hand and she turned back.
“We may only have one opportunity to send a team through before the Salshirans find the cave exit on their side and block it. That means the team should be more than just scouts. It should consist of those who can use the power we are calling for to the fullest.”
Captain Selkran focused on him, waiting.
“Send for the Prikenskrins.”