“They seem to have bought your tale, Raulin,” Anladet said. She was in the woods by a few yards, leading Al and Telbarisk on the easiest path possible. Raulin needed to keep his prints in the middle, but walked as softly as he could when she spoke. “They are incredibly spooked now. Most believe that you turned us to stone. The rest don’t have a plausible explanation. The officers are having a difficult time keeping order and some men are speaking of deserting.”
“Great news,” he said. “I don’t even need them all to believe it, just enough to create discord. How are we looking on our final task, Tel?”
“There is an outcropping, maybe the height of two men…” he started, then corrected himself, “…three men about the length of Nourabrikot. It’s next to the trail.”
“Excellent. Try to ring out your clothes as much as possible and start grabbing leaves, the wider the better.”
“For what purpose?” Al asked.
Raulin sighed and hung his head for a moment. “Wizard, why are you still questioning me? Thus far every thing has gone well and you still think to challenge my methods?”
“I just like to know what’s going to happen next.”
“And I did promise that if you wanted to know I would tell you. Should we break for dinner and go over the details? I believe the hunters aren’t that far away, but it is important for you to know exactly what’s going to happen next.”
“Fine,” he spat. “Let’s keep moving.”
As promised, just a little over a mile ahead, was the outcropping Telbarisk had spoken about. The stone jutted out and leaned crookedly towards them, as if it was a gale or two away from toppling. The trail widened to include the area between that stone and another across the way, perhaps forty feet away. That boulder was smaller and wouldn’t work for what they needed.
Raulin was about to ask Telbarisk if he was ready, but a quick glance could tell him that the question was unnecessary. Kil did a peculiar thing to a grivven. When a kiluid had gathered as much kil as he could manage, he attained a strange aura. Tel’s appearance blurred around him like he was moving quickly, though he himself were moving at his normal speed. The air around him filled with after and fore images, visions predicting incorrectly where he was going to be. It had been unsettling the first few times he had seen it and he noticed Anla looking curiously at him.
“What do you need?” he asked Raulin.
“Create a pocket inside that can fit the four of us. It’s probably better if you allow us sitting room, since we may be here for some time.” He turned to Anladet. “I need you to estimate how close they are. I have no issue with cramped spaces, but I’d rather stay outside for as long as possible.”
While Tel went to work, Raulin stood in the middle of the trail and opened a tightly bound cloth. It contained ash from the fireplace in the common room of the inn where they had stayed in Ammet Bronsto. He placed the powder in a pile on the ground between his legs, pinching his fingers in the middle and flicking them out quickly.
“Wizard, you’re on leaf detail. Make a wide trail to me, stepping only on the leaves.”
Al sighed and did as he was told. “You know, I can hear them, too. Why can’t I be the one on listening detail?”
“You can hear how far away something is and tell the distance?”
“Yes!” he said, bending over. “But instead I have to be your chauffeur.”
“Next time this happens, you can most certainly have the important job. Right now, don’t think of it as chauffeuring. What you’re doing is creating the penultimate piece of our game here.”
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Trirecs can disappear, yes?” He pointed to the ground. “Here’s where I disappear. With no trail beyond here for me, they will have nowhere to go but home.”
“The dogs will smell you on these leaves.”
“That doesn’t matter,” he said, taking a giant stride to step on the closest leaf. “The dogs can say whatever they want. No one will believe that we’re inside a solid appearing rock. They’ll think the dogs went mad.”
Raulin picked up the leaves behind him as he walked to the outcropping. He threw them into the woods and turned to watch Tel’s progress.
He had seen his friend work quite a few times when he had spent his time on Ervaskin. He had never grown tired of watching him. Raulin knew many artists of different mediums. The worked with their paints and clay and music to achieve things of beauty. Some even attained a mastery that made it seem like they were one with their works, that they could pluck a thought out of the air and shape that into something beyond wonderful. None of them would ever know the intimacy a kiluid had with nature.
The rock moved aside with an eagerness found only in zealotry. It waited while Telbarisk thought of his next move, seeming almost to lean forward in anticipation. When he touched the stone, Raulin could almost feel a sigh as his friend moved his large hand gently over the surface. Even this wasn’t where Tel’s mastery was; given time, he could turn a piece of granite into a statue that would stun even the most unappreciative of men. He had stared at one piece Tel had made of his sweetheart. The details, the smooth curves, the weave of the fabric, the gossamer eyelashes, the veins of garnet that snaked around her body… Raulin had almost cried.
He turned to see Anladet and the wizard staring transfixed. “How are we doing?” he asked.
She started. “They’ve just gotten their men to move on past the meadow.”
“Not long, then. We’re down to less a half-hour.”
They waited patiently. The process wasn’t something to be rushed. It took some twenty minutes of hard labor before Telbarisk asked them to move in and test the space.
“Stay out here and get some air,” Raulin said. “You look exhausted.”
“I’m not used to this much work,” he said, wiping the sweat off his pale face with his bakinar.
Raulin inspected the work quickly. “We need air holes, Tel, several, and then the entrance closed. Gather what kil you can and wait when you’re finished with the first.”
He heard the dogs baying just before Anladet got his attention. “Everyone in. Now!” he said.
Tel was the last in after he sealed the group inside. It was pitch black save the hint of light where the air holes were. “Breath slowly,” he said. “Is it possible to amplify the sounds outside?”
“Yes,” Anla said, “but it will encompass us as well as them. We have to be quiet.”
The sounds outside amplified and they heard the men trampling over the ground and the dogs barking. The dogs went immediately for the stone, scratching at the side closest to Telbarisk.
“What’s gotten into them?” one man asked. “They say he went that way, but that’s solid rock.”
“Did you see the pile of dust? I think he’s gone.”
“He can’t be gone!” another man said, with enough authority to his voice to mark him as a leader. “Men do not just disappear!”
“But, sir, the stones…”
“And the bloodied altar…”
“Are fakes! I told you, he is in league with some group that is assisting him escape Now, none of us will be moving from this spot until we have the scent again.”
Al laughed maniacally before Anladet could dampen the sound.
“What was that?” one of the men asked.
Raulin pressed his hand slightly over Anla’s ear. He heard the sound warp when she had dropped the amplification. “What was that? Wizard, I swear if you cost us everything because you had a little giggle fit…”
“Al’s coming down,” Anladet explained. “He must have been using his magic for too long today. He has a series of symptoms that include hysterical laughter.”
Al clamped his hand over his mouth, but still blurted out a few more chortles.
“Well, either that’s going to hinder us badly or help us. Take the shield of sound down and let’s hope they don’t have chisels.”
This made Al laugh even harder. He was mid-laugh when the amplification warped the sound again.
“Sir, I’m good and spooked,” they heard. “If that trirec wanted us afraid, he’s won. Is he still here? What if there is a ghost…”
“I want every inch of this area explored,” said the leader. “Every inch.”
For the next hour, Raulin had Telbarisk open smaller holes in different areas. Al’s laughter, forced by the end, seemed to come from different areas. Still, none of the men found any of the holes, nor did they find the nonexistent door. The leader begrudgingly called the search off when an advanced group came back with no signs anyone had moved beyond that area.
They still waited until the party was beyond the other side of the clearing with the statues of the three of them before cracking open the cave. Each was soaked with sweat. Tel fell to his knees, taking in full, deep breaths.
“Are you okay?” Raulin asked.
“I feel a little weak from being inside. I’ll be good in a little while.”
Each stretched and combed out their stringy hair before gathering their packs. When Raulin said nothing, Al took over. “We’ll need to camp out tonight, far off the trail. Let’s put as many miles between them and us before nightfall.”
“I’ll join you until the trail forks, then we can part our merry ways,” Raulin said, taking point.
“No farther, Wizard. A deal is a deal.”