(CONTINUED FROM LAST PAGE)
They put a fair amount of distance between themselves and where they had parted ways from the snorunt, stopping at Oth’s signal at the point where the path first branched. There, they positioned themselves just within one of the tunnels leading out from the fork, simultaneously watching over the chamber that was the furthest point from Virc-Dho through which all people going there must pass and the tunnel behind them. They waited there for a time, giving the guild members within the border cavern a chance to deal with what had just run into their midst.
Solonn gazed out over the heads of those who were in front of him in the general direction from whence the party had come. He hoped as he stared into the presently empty chamber that the children had indeed gotten safely into the figurative hands of the Security Guild and were now being reunited with their families, or at least that they would be reunited with them soon.
Then it finally, truly hit him that some of them might not have families to return to any longer, and he turned away involuntarily as another wave of heartsickness rolled over him.
Eventually, <It should be all right to proceed now. Zilag, are you ready?> Oth asked, at which Zilag nodded from just inside the entrance to the cavern just in front of them. There was a flash of light in the claydol’s eyes that signified its connection with Zdir being broken, followed almost immediately by another that signified a new link being forged with Zilag. <It is done,> Oth told Zilag. <We are now connected.>
Telling him this seemed somewhat unnecessary to Zilag; he was sure that he had sensed, in some way, something entering his perception but staying just out of reach. It struck him as being rather like a memory that he couldn’t quite recall, with one difference: he could tell that it was most definitely not of his own mind.
Trying not to let that alienness distract him too much, he instead opted to test the connection. <Can you hear this?> he asked.
<Technically no, but I am receiving your message.>
Zilag couldn’t help but nearly laugh, wondering if Oth had actually intended any joke there. <Guess it’s time for me to head out, then, huh?> he asked.
<Yes,> Oth responded.
<Okay.> Zilag acknowledged, but didn’t depart right away. He held the rest of the party in his gaze for a few moments more, seeing varying degrees of concern and unspoken well-wishes in the faces there, with the eyelight particularly unsteady and the brows drawn tightly together on the largest face that he beheld. <Tell them goodbye for me,> Zilag said. <And tell them not to worry too much about me; I’ll take care of myself. You all just concentrate on taking care of yourselves, okay?>
Oth relayed the message, drawing acknowledging nods from the other party members. Satisfied as he could be that he was ready to part ways with them, Zilag then turned away and began making his way back toward the warren alone.
<There may well still be Security Guild members in the border cavern when you arrive there,> Oth told him as he traveled, <even if the ones whom we saw going in earlier have gone further on inside since the children joined them. Zdir believes that there may now be guards posted at the entrance and that it is to them whom the guild members we saw were speaking.>
Zilag absorbed this with very little surprise; he had been steeling himself as best as he could to have to deal with Security Guild members ever since Zdir had spoken to him of the interest that they might have in him. <So I should probably just expect that there will be, then. But I shouldn’t act
like I expected to find them there if there are.>
<Correct,> Oth responded.
<Okay, then… They’re probably gonna want to know what I’ve been up to out here, right?>
<Most assuredly. You are advised to tell them that you had gone out hunting.>
<Yeah, that’s what I’d planned to do,> Zilag said. He’d been rehearsing the lie in his head from time to time since the evening prior. He just hoped to all gods that if anyone had been questioning Hledas in his absence, she hadn’t told them anything that would clash with his story. <I’m gonna tell them I couldn’t find anything, though. I just don’t trust my stomach to keep quiet enough for them to believe me otherwise. Gods, I can’t wait to get some real food again…>
It wasn’t long before Zilag found himself approaching the barrier at the entrance; <All right, I’m here,> he sent back to Oth. It appeared that there were indeed guards posted there; three glalie hung in midair before the barrier, and while none of them made a move to intercept him, their eyes followed him keenly as he drew nearer.
Hoping that he looked sufficiently surprised to see them there, “Uh… what’s going on?” he asked of them as he came to a stop a couple of feet in front of them, wearing a perplexed frown.
None of the guards answered the question, at least not right away. “How long have you been out?” one of them asked, though not harshly. “And what have you been doing?”
Zilag had expected to be hit with questions upon his arrival, though the fact that he’d managed to get a question in first did surprise him somewhat. “Too long,” he answered, half-sighing. “I was out hunting… or rather trying to. Went out late the night before last and found not a damned thing since. Had to sleep out there and everything.”
There was a moment of silence and a very brief look exchanged amongst the guards. “You’re lucky to have woken up,” another of the guards said seriously. “The steel creature and the psychic escaped while you were gone.”
Zilag’s eyes widened dramatically. “What?! Oh gods, my family…” he said at once. “Are they all right? I need to get in there—”
He’d made a move toward the barrier as he’d spoken, trying to vaporize it as he did so, but the barrier remained fully intact, and the guards moved in unison to block him. “Your family is fine, I assure you,” the second guard said. “There have been no further attacks since the prisoners escaped.”
Zilag didn’t have to fabricate the relief that showed through his features at this. “Oh, thank the gods…” he murmured.
“Now, I’m sorry you weren’t successful in your hunt,” the first guard spoke up then, “but we’re going to have to ask that you not go out and try again on your own, at least not anytime soon, all right? It’s not safe for just anyone to travel alone right now. You’ll need to go with the next hunting party.”
“Okay,” Zilag said, nodding, “okay.” He looked questioningly at the barrier, hoping that he would be let in soon. He wasn’t altogether certain that the guards were buying his story, and every moment he spent with them made him ever so slightly less comfortable around them. He was somewhat grateful for his unease, though, and didn’t make any real effort to hide it at this point, hoping that any nervousness that was showing could be interpreted as a reaction to having just learned about the escape.
The barrier vanished, but before he could enter the warren, “I’m going to be going home with you, all right?” the first guard said. “Like I said, it’s not safe for just anyone to travel alone right now.”
Zilag nodded in acceptance, unsurprised and figuring that he had no real choice in the matter anyway, especially given that the guard seemed to have decided on his destination for him. He only hoped that by “going home with you”, the guard simply meant that he would be escorting Zilag back to his family’s place of residence and not staying with them for any length of time.
Zilag entered Virc-Dho, his escort following, the barrier immediately reforming behind them once they were past it. <I’m being escorted home,> he told Oth. <Looks like Zdir was right about them not wanting to leave me entirely alone. They haven’t acted blatantly suspicious of me yet, though—not that I imagine they would, of course. They’re just claiming concern for me, what with the escape and everything.>
<There does remain a chance that they genuinely do not suspect you,> Oth responded. <Still, remain cautious. Continue to do as you have been advised and you may yet avoid trouble.>
Zilag heard the guard behind him draw a rather deep breath and felt something inside him tense as if anticipating a strike, but the guard only spoke. “I’m afraid I have something to tell you that you’re not gonna want to hear,” he said.
Zilag stopped, careful not to turn to face his escort too quickly, and fixed him with a troubled look. “Oh?”
The guard sighed. “You’re friends with a Mr. Solonn Zgil-Al, right?”
There was no use in denying it; as Zilag had been told, the authorities certainly knew who associated with those whom they didn’t trust, and the fact that the guard had asked such a question seemed to confirm it in Zilag’s mind. He nodded.
“Have you seen him recently?” the guard asked.
“Well, I saw him at the service,” Zilag said quietly, “but I haven’t seen him since then, no. Why do you ask? What’s going on?”
“Well, we think that he might have been the one who freed the steel creature and the psychic. Now, I know you might not want to believe that, but there’s something you need to consider: if it was him, odds are he wasn’t doing it of his own accord. We think he’s under some kind of psychic control.”
Zilag cast his gaze to the icy floor, his brow furrowed, trying to look deep in thought. “This… this wouldn’t be the first time he’s run into trouble with something psychic,” he said quietly, slipping a hint of dawning epiphany into his tone.
“No, it wouldn’t,” the guard said. “We do have reason to believe that the same thing that took him way back when is responsible for what’s going on now. It’s even returned the children it stole, just like it brought him back.”
Zilag’s gaze shot back up to meet the guard’s, the light in his eyes brightening. “Really?”
“Just earlier today,” the guard confirmed.
“Oh, that’s good to hear…” Zilag said with a sigh of relief. He then turned back around and resumed his drifting. “At least something’s gone right lately…”
“Well, we don’t intend to let anything else go wrong if we can help it.” The guard’s tone suggested that he was trying to be lighthearted in his response, but there was also something vaguely affronted-sounding in his voice, which sent a little wisp of worry through Zilag; had he said something that he shouldn’t have? “Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that Solonn’s whereabouts are currently unknown and that if you see him—be careful, all right? He’s probably not himself, and he might attack you. If you see him, you should probably strike at him and call out for help right away. If it turns out he’s not being controlled after all, I’m sure he’ll forgive you if he really is any kind of friend.”
“…Okay,” Zilag said quietly.
Soon after, the two arrived at the Zir-Arda residence. “So this is it, huh?” the guard asked.
“Yeah,” Zilag answered.
“Okay, then. Stay safe, all right?” With those words, the guard backed away a short distance, but he kept his eyes on Zilag.
Figuring that the guard wouldn’t leave until he went on in—if indeed he did intend to leave—Zilag opened the entryway and passed through it, sealing it shut at once. Inside, he found Hledas holding a gaze that was both troubled and questioning upon him, while Ryneika chased a somewhat irritated-looking Kavir around the main room. The young child broke off her pursuit almost immediately, however, having noticed her father’s arrival, and she ran up to him with a squeal of joy. Kavir sent Zilag a smile, grateful to have been rescued from her sister’s pestering.
“We need to talk,” Hledas said almost inaudibly.
Zilag shot a look back at the entrance. He saw no light beyond it to indicate a glalie lingering immediately outside, but figured that the guard would know better than to be so obvious anyway. Not knowing for certain if his escort was still within hearing range of anything said in the main chamber, as well as not exactly wanting his children to be privy to the conversation, either, he merely gave a quick nod of assent and made for the couple’s sleeping chamber. Ryneika tried to follow him in; “No, no. Play with your sister,” Zilag told her, earning a groan from Kavir.
Once both Zilag and Hledas were in the sleeping chamber, the latter moved to hover directly at the former’s side. “Did you succeed?” she asked right into his ear, still using the faintest whisper she could manage while remaining audible.
“Yes,” Zilag said, keeping his voice equally low. While it was true that Jen was still brainwashed in Convergence, Zilag was still confident enough that the snorunt’s mind would be restored to normalcy and that the rest of the party would ultimately be able to go back and retrieve him to consider the rescue mission a success.
“Thank the gods,” Hledas said as she moved to face Zilag once more, “both for that and for your return, as well.” She sat down. “The authorities came in while you were away,” Hledas then said. “They asked questions, Zilag. They asked where you were and if I’d seen Solonn lately.”
Zilag swallowed, turning to look her in the eye. “Well… what did you tell them?”
“That you were just out hunting and that the last we saw of Solonn was at the service.”
The light in Zilag’s eyes brightened, and he had to bite back a miniature peal of laughter that threatened to break forth at the relief he felt. Grinning, he moved forward to press his forehead against Hledas’s. “Oh, thank the gods you said that…” he breathed happily.
“Well, what did you think I would have said?” Hledas responded as Zilag drifted back once more. “I already could have lost you as it was. Do you really think I’d have done anything that could have even remotely run the risk of getting you thrown in a cell if you did make it back?” she asked, looking somewhat hurt.
Zilag’s smile faded a bit. “No… no, of course I don’t.” He drew close to her again, his eyes closing, letting his forehead rest against hers once more. “Thanks for taking care of things. I appreciate it,” he said sincerely.
To Oth, he then said, <I’m back home. That guard who was following me may or may not be hanging around outside, but at least he’s not in here with us. I think he might actually trust me—don’t worry, though; I don’t intend to get careless. And Hledas did get questioned, but her story matches up with mine—and… well, I’m not gonna get careless with her, either. I’ve decided not to tell her about our little connection here.> It had occurred to him prior to being linked with Oth that Hledas might become mistrustful of him or inclined to go to the authorities with his well-being in mind if he was known by her to have come home with a psychic link that he hadn’t had before.
<That seems like a prudent course of action,> Oth said. <From what I heard of the conversation that you two held with Solonn, she seemed… somewhat more inclined toward believing that I was at all responsible for the recent tragedies.>
<Yeah…> Zilag said, with a touch of vicarious guilt in his mindvoice and a further shrinking of his smile, though he also found himself possessed of something of an urge to defend Hledas in that moment. <But again, it seems she’s already saved my hide once, so…>
<She most assuredly has,> Oth concurred. <It seems as though you really can take care of yourselves, all of you.>
A sense of pride washed over Zilag, and his smile widened once more. <It does, doesn’t it?> he said. Now that there seemed to be at least a bit more hope than before that he and his family would be able to carry on without any harassment to speak of from the authorities, he felt a fair bit more confident in such claims.
* * *