Ephemeral: Chapter 33
Riding on horseback in Elpis light with a guide significantly improved Aaric and Clara's traveling experience through the forest. After hours of trotting downhill, the path leveled off and turned northward toward the photopetrium quarry which divided Silva from Silex. Clara noticed that the light dappled the ground much more freely through the thinning trees. Now a competent rider, she pumped her legs in the stirrups atop her chestnut mare as green bushes whisked by on either side of the path. In her new olive tunic top and dark brown leggings, she passed through the foliage as subtly as a tree nymph.
Clara felt her senses had sharpened of late. She could now detect the smell of water and earth in the air, aromas much more subdued than floral perfume. She perceived vibrations of insect wings long before she saw them. And while all birdsong had once seemed a cacophony, she could now pick out individual melodies amid the avian symphony.
Aaric had also noticed a pleasing change in Clara. She was no longer the frightened critic he'd first met. Her pale cheeks had grown rosy from fresh air and deep sleep. The corners of her mouth curved with contentment when she wasn’t in crisis mode. And even the silvering strands of her hair lent a distinguished confidence to her appearance. Her emerald green eyes, once furtive and cynical, now seemed to sparkle from all the hiking and riding. In short, Elpis 7 had improved at least one Earthling’s life, though he regretted the fates of Clara's companions.
At the moment, Clara's primary concern was how to destroy the Fire Stone without destroying her friend. Raven was the one person on this planet who'd known Clara since childhood, and – Aliyah excepted – her only link back to her life on Earth. Clara loved Raven like a second sister and could no more conceive of harming her than harming Sydney. Oh Sydney … you'd hardly believe the things I could tell you about this place. Clara held the leather reins in one hand and wiped her welling eyes with the back of the other.
When the path widened, she pulled her horse back so she could ride astride Aaric. His palomino gelding trotted beside her mare. “Everything okay?” he asked.
Clara didn't want to argue, so she spoke gently. “Aaric, I know we disagree about Raven ...”
Aaric stared down at his horse's blond mane; he didn't want to argue either.
Clara continued, “But if you were close enough and had a clear shot, couldn’t you hit the Fire Stone with the hatchet without hurting her too badly? The stone can’t be that much smaller than a bullseye. And last Elpis-setting you hit a bullseye practically in the dark – with your left arm, no less!”
“I don't know, Clara,” Aaric said. “It seems impossible.”
“But you’ve done the impossible,” Clara countered. “You’ve been doing the impossible since the moment I met you!”
Aaric fidgeted with his leather reins. “I can't make promises I can't keep. I doubt I can shatter stone without scathing bone.”
Clara's eyes stung. Her hope for Raven's survival seemed all but lost. “Couldn't you at least try your best not to kill her if at all possible?” Clara fixed her green eyes on Aaric’s gray ones. “For me?”
Aaric looked pained. He took a deep breath. “I'll try my best, Clara. For you, I will try.”
Clara reached across the short distance between their horses and squeezed Aaric’s rock-solid shoulder. “Thank you.”
Aaric smiled faintly, but now felt conflicted: if he failed to neutralize Raven, he might lose his clan. But if he succeeded, he might lose Clara. Either way, he couldn't win.
When Elpis had well passed its zenith and started heading for the western horizon, Chaska slowed their mounts to a walk. “Let’s give them a breather,” he called over his shoulder.
Clara’s thighs felt like limp linguine, but at least she could sit without jostling. She let her reins dangle and pulled her hair back into a bun; it had fallen loose from all the trotting. “How far is it to the quarry?” she asked Chaska ahead of her on a black stallion.
“We have a ways yet, but we should reach the new canyon bridge before Elpis-setting – before the dangerous animals come out.”
“Not all the dangerous animals ...” Clara said, frowning.
Chaska recalled her encounter with the brazen glimmer-snatches and quickly changed the subject. “So, do you guys have a plan of action yet?”
Clara turned to face Aaric behind her. She also was curious.
“It would be nice if I could get the lay of the land,” Aaric called ahead. “I hate the idea of marching into this thing blind.”
“I may be able to help you there.” Chaska brought his horse to a stand, reached into his tunic, and unfolded a multi-propellered instrument about the span of his hand.
“Is that a drone?” Aaric asked from his palomino behind Clara.
“Of course!” Chaska said. “You don’t think we scouts waste our time looking under every leaf and twig, do you?”
“How clever!” Clara said from her halted horse. “It’s smaller than a bird!”
“Let’s hope it flies like one,” Chaska said as he tapped a screen on his armband. The tiny propellers whirred to life and hovered a few inches over Chaska's palm. Then with a scrolling motion on the screen, he raised the drone higher and higher until it was little more than a white speck against the golden sky. “Now, let’s see what we can see.”
Chaska studied the screen for several minutes, then raised his eyebrows. “What?”
“What's the matter?” Clara asked.
“I'm not sure,” Chaska said as he hopped down from his horse. “But you both should see this.”
Clara dismounted and thought she might collapse; her legs felt so sore. Aaric limped his way toward them with more staggering than normal.
Chaska held his armband's screen low enough for Aaric and Clara to view. “I sent the drone back toward Agilis,” he explained. “See? Look at the buildings. Look at the roads.”
Aaric frowned. “Where is everyone? Why are all the streets empty?”
Chaska tapped a button and zoomed in. Sure enough, the city looked like a ghost town.
“Two tribes gone?!” Clara exclaimed. “What does it mean?”
Chaska knit his brows together as he sent the drone criss-crossing its sights along the city streets. A couple taps later, the drone started scanning the horizon.
“Stop!” Aaric said, pointing to a distant hill lit by a series of small torch lights at its base. “Zoom in there.”
Chaska listened. “Oh, my …”
“What?” Clara asked, failing to understand the picture in front of her. “Where is that?”
Chaska swallowed hard. “That’s Mars Hill. It's about thirty-two furlongs from Agilis. It makes a natural amphitheater — perfect for addressing a large company of people.”
“Two large companies,” Aaric said. “Can you zoom in more?”
“Let me get closer.”
The drone flew toward the distant hill for a degree, then focused downward on a divided crowd. Clara could clearly see the tops of several thousand brown, blonde, black, and red haired heads gathered about a raised metal platform near the hill's base. Twenty-foot screens flanked the main stage, and barrel-sized spotlights illuminated the structure. Had she not know any better, she would have thought a rock concert was in progress. But guards stood about the crowd's perimeter, their black helmet visors reflecting fiery torchlight and the blue-electric pulses from their battle staffs. This was not a festive occasion.
Closer to the canyon edge – and separated by a line of armed soldiers – stood/sat a smaller crowd of elderly gray-streaked, balding, and snow-white heads. Some of the less-mobile lay huddled together on the grass while others reached out their hands to the younger ones on the other side of the guards. More than once, they saw a soldier threaten them with a lowered blue-pulsing staff.
Aaric's countenance darkened; he grit his teeth.
Clara felt sick as she remembered the horrors depicted in the photos Mother Alden had shown her. Would history repeat itself so soon? “Where's Raven?” she asked.
Chaska switched the cameras around to face the city. He squinted at the screen. “Found her,” he said. “Looks like she’s coming with an entourage.”
The camera focused in, showing Raven sitting on an elevated hovercraft sedan of sorts flanked by a squadron of soldiers.
Chaska cursed under his breath. “If Dekohta knew about this, he never would have let you leave with the Omnia stone.”
“I wouldn’t blame him,” Aaric said, still staring at the screen.
All three stood in uncomfortable silence.
For a fleeting moment, Clara wondered if Chaska might try to reclaim the heirloom hatchet by force, but instead he focused on his screen. “They seem to be taking their time, but it won’t take Raven long to reach the people. We have five or six degrees, tops. You’ve got your intel. How do we proceed?”
“Okay,” Aaric said, considering. “We can’t break the Fire Stone while she's in the hovercraft. I'd prefer not to use my one shot on a moving target. Presumably, she plans to make some sort of address onstage. That’s when she’ll be most exposed.”
Clara's stomach tensed as Aaric described Raven as a target.
Chaska looked skeptical. “You’re going to whack her in the middle of a speech? How far can you throw, again?”
“Let me see the surroundings again,” Aaric said.
Chaska maximized the image.
Aaric pointed. “There’s our best bet for cover.”
Clara peered at the screen. Near the canyon side about fifty yards from the ring of guards sat an outcrop of large boulders.
“I don’t know,” Chaska said. “That’s still a long shot. It’s at least two hundred yards to the stage. Will you even be able to see the Fire Stone from that distance?”
“I never miss,” Aaric said quietly. Then he remembered Darian and pressed his lips together. “Almost never ...”
“That doesn't inspire a lot of confidence ...” Chaska said.
“Wait a second.” Clara held up her hand. She didn’t exactly have a plan. But the idea of Aaric hitting the stone from that far away without mortally wounding Raven in the process sounded improbable even to her. Plus the wind was picking up, and the sky was darkening in the north. A storm was brewing. “Can we shorten the distance? Look,” Clara said, pointing to the small screen. “All the young people are crowded around the stage. If we could sneak into that crowd, you’d have a much closer shot and more control of the hatchet.” She looked at Aaric significantly.
Chaska shook his head. “We're out of time. Raven’s on the move. And the new canyon bridge is still a ways off ...”
Aaric turned to Chaska. “Is there a shortcut to Mars Hill?”
Chaska grimaced and avoided his gaze.
“Is there a shortcut?” Aaric repeated.
“Technically ... There's an old rope bridge that spans the canyon from this side of the quarry … if it hasn’t rotted through, that is. That's why we built a new one, but it's much further down the canyon past Mars Hill.”
“Then lead the way to the old one,” Aaric said. “Like you said, we haven't much time.”
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