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Someone Among Us

by Rebecca McLeod 5 months ago in Fantasy

by R.C. McLeod

Someone Among Us
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

Leaves shuddered in the after-storm wind, brisk yet more somber than the raging winds before. Dusky orange seeped into the landscape so that the hues of the leaves and grass appeared a deep bronzy gold. Nasira sighed as toes dipped into the water beneath the dock, ripples dancing over the wavering surface. It had been so long since she’d been able to just…breathe. To take in the musky scent of the nearby forest, drenched in pine and cedar and sage.

By the riverbank, a bullfrog gave an impatient croak as it plopped into the water, and for a moment, the splash dulled the song of summer nights. But still, the shrill of crickets and cicada filled the air once more, speckled with awakening fireflies. She hadn’t been able to relax this way since before she joined the military, in the fight against Kadeem. It seemed like so long ago…

“I thought I might find you here.” Nasira startled from her thoughts as hollow footprints echoed against the dock, and she smiled as he approached. Sunkissed fingers tousled a tuft of ebon hair, and amber eyes gleamed like gems beneath the last of the fiery sunlight.

“Yeah, sorry…I was just thinking,” she answered quietly. Khalon sat beside her, letting the tips of steel-toed boots touch the water’s surface.

“I figured…” he replied distantly, and his eyes met her crystal gaze. “You want to talk about it?” She considered the warrior for a moment, aloof and secretive, somehow more distant than the others.

“Do you ever miss your home?”

“Kadeem? Why would I?” he snorted. “…Do you?”

“…All the time…” she answered. Silence fell over them, broken only by the chatter of insects and finally, he sighed.

“I envy you.” Bright eyes of cerulean struck him, and he let his eyes find the lingering sunglow that reflected overtop the mountains. “…It must be nice to have somewhere to belong.”

“Will you go back, after the war?”

“Nah, I’m a traitor, remember?” he replied, leaning back until amber eyes faced the sky. “And an outcast here, so… I-I’m just…it must be nice to have somewhere to belong. You’re lucky.”

“Nasira – quick!” they whirled as footsteps approached. Sergeant Xianna raced toward them from the camp. “You have to come – it’s the Captain!” The pair’s eyes met, and both roused to their feet; Nasira stuffed her feet inside her nearby boots, quickly following the ginger-haired officer down the bank and back into the woods.

“What happened?!” Nasira plead as she finally got closer. Fragile eyes answered, glassy green and tear-streaked cheeks, and Nasira’s breath caught in her throat as she followed her passed the campsite and down the embankment to the creek bed.

She saw him in the dim twilight, though hues of muted gray did little to dampen the dark vermillion that stained his uniform. Ears pricked as they descended, desperate for some shaky breath, a raspy wheeze, or thready heartbeat – anything to show the sparky captain still lived! But his chest was still, propped against a nearby sapling, bowed slightly against his weight. Tawny locks draped his face as his head lolled limply and a bloody hand rested against the dead leaves. Cautiously, the raven-haired soldier stepped closer, a shaky hand brushing the side of the captain’s neck.

“He’s…he’s dead…” Khalon said softly, and Xianna gave a soft sob.

“I-I called out to him, and he didn’t move,” she choked. “I was afraid to come down here by myself – I-I didn’t know if…”

“Who would do this?” Nasira asked. “Why…?”

“He might have been ambushed by the enemy,” Khalon answered. He stepped down into the water, bright eyes searching for anything hidden beneath the trickling surface. Twilight had faded, almost completely velvet-blue in the pale light of the full moon. A breeze brushed over them, still fragrant with pine and cedar, but scorched with salt and steel. Limbs rustled above them so that moonlight flickered between the leaves, and a glimmer by the bank caught Nasira’s eye.

“What is it?” Xianna asked as careful fingers brushed away the dead leaves from the forest floor. Pearly metal gleamed against the moonlight, painted crimson to its hilt.

“Khalon…isn’t…isn’t this your dagger?” Nasira asked, trembling eyes meeting his. Brows furrowed as he stepped closer, and he shook his head.

“That…it can’t…I left that back at my tent when we set up camp,” he stammered.

“You killed him?!” the sergeant demanded; her voice was nearly as shrill as the crickets that surrounded them.

“Of course not, I –”

“What’s going on down there?!” a voice boomed above them, and the women whirled as eyes found the shadowed form of the general at the top of the embankment.

“General, sir…i-it’s Garin,” Xianna obediently answered, and quickly he made his way down to the creek bed. Stormy eyes drank in the scene spilled before him, painted in moonlight and shadow. “This was nearby,” she added, gesturing to the bloodstained blade. Alleck moved to take it, and Nasira obliged; his gaze examined it cautiously, rolling it over in his hands.

“Were there any signs of an ambush – an indication of how many?” the general asked, and Xianna shook her head.

“It was almost dark when we got here, sir,” she answered. “I feared whoever attacked could be near, so I went to the base to find help. It was too dark to tell when we got back.”

“I see…”

“I-if I may, General Alleck, sir,” Khalon piped up nervously. “The knife belongs to me, but I don’t know how –”

“The knife is yours, Private?” the general repeated, sharp eyes finding the soldier, and Khalon shrank away. “How did it get here?!” he demanded.

“Sir…I-I don’t know,” Khalon answered. “I left my satchel when we gathered for dinner and scouted the western borders with Lieutenant Virion. When I got back, I went to the lake where I found Specialist Nasira out on the dock.”

“You never went back to retrieve the weapon?” Alleck queried, and Khalon swallowed the knot in his throat.

“No, sir – I swear.” Skeptical eyes studied him, slate gray and unreadable in the night, and brows furrowed as he considered the young Kadeemian warrior.

“Sergeant, go back to the camp and get a few of the men to recover the captain, and tell the doctor to have a look at him.” The general’s gaze never left the private as Xianna nodded and quick footsteps took her to the top of the embankment. Crisp leaves crunched beneath her footsteps and faded into the forest. “Specialist, I’m putting you in charge of guarding this crime scene. I’ll send for the lieutenant to assist you. I will investigate the scene myself in the morning. As for you,” he spat toward the private, “you’re under house arrest until the investigation is complete. So much as step a foot out of your tent and you’ll die where you stand. Understood?”

“…Y-yes, sir…” Khalon muttered; his gaze fixed on the general’s boots as Alleck turned. Khalon’s own heavy boots squelched in the mud as he followed the general up back up the embankment. As he reached the top, he threw a last glance over his shoulder; her eyes met his, silvery gold beneath the lucid light of the moon and glazed with an unreadable emotion as they shared unspoken words. Soft brows furrowed over eyes of deep cerulean and she gave a soft nod. A smile flickered over chapped lips as he turned away, and a flutter lifted into Nasira’s chest.

She didn’t know why…but she believed him.

The dawn rose quicker than she had anticipated, and nearby, birds chittered and chirped as they began their morning forage. Though the nighttime song of insects had faded, the cicada still chattered noisily against the tree trunks and leaves. The brisk breeze danced over the embankment and brought the warm scent of sap and dew-grass…and a metallic bitterness that swelled around her like tides against a shoreline. It was the blood, she reminded herself, glancing over to the sapling where the slumped form of the captain had rested hours before.

Dead leaves painted the bank of the creek, and splattered among them, rusty splotches of dried blood. She inched closer, and the lieutenant gave a soft grunt, almost warningly, but she took another step.

“Whaddya see?” Virion asked as she crouched by the bank.

“Footprints,” she answered. “This one is from last night – Khalon was standing here,” she added, gesturing to the sunken imprints nearest the bank. The lieutenant took a step closer and nodded.

“Looks like there wasn’t much of a struggle,” he said. “Whoever did this definitely surprised him.”

“That’s what’s odd though – something like this – this close to a campsite – you’d expect several people. But look: there’s only two sets of prints in the struggle.” Their gazes followed the small scuffle of tracks, and she tried to imagine the attack in her mind. Captain Garin would have been staring across the bank, maybe over the other embankment.

“…Whoever it was…he trusted them…” Nasira realized.

“How do you figure?”

“Well, these are his prints here,” she explained, pointing to the set by the creek. “He would have had his back to the embankment, meaning that – if he were ambushed, they would have had to come downhill. These trees by the bank are too small for anyone to use as a vantage point or a hiding place.” Crouching she pointed to a track a few paces away. “The captain was facing the creek, and whoever attacked, walked towards him from this way.”

“So, he would have seen his attacker…” the lieutenant deduced, running a hand through espresso locks as he crouched beside her.

“Exactly,” she said. “But he doesn’t move until after he’s wounded – see how there’s blood in the footprints here?”

“But if he knew his attacker – and trusted them…that means…”

“Yeah…it’s someone in our unit.” They both stood and Virion made several paces away from her.

“Well, no wonder you got promoted so quickly…” he muttered.

“What?”

“Clever thinking, quick to figure things out…you’ll be a real asset, y’know?” Nasira gave a half-hearted smile, and her heart sank suddenly. Nervously, she shifted her weight and took a step toward the creek. “The general said that that Kadeem soldier’s knife was found here,” he remarked as he leaned back against his post. “What do you make of that?”

“What do you make of it?” Nasira retorted, tucking a silvery blonde lock behind her ear, and the lieutenant’s lips pursed.

“He and I patrolled the opposite border while the captain patrolled this side. We left right before him and I don’t remember seeing Garin when we got back,” the brunet recounted. “Khalon headed to the lake when we came back around – didn’t come back to camp or anything.”

“And he seemed genuinely shocked when Sergeant Xianna brought us here,” she agreed.

“So, if it isn’t the one from enemy territory, who would it be?” She felt his gaze on her, watching her, studying each movement, and every breath that left her lips. Crystal eyes wandered, studied the mud and leaves and blood absently, ears pricked as her mind began to race.

Virion would have had ample opportunity to take the knife if he knew that Khalon wasn’t returning to the base last night and could have easily found the captain if he knew where he was patrolling. But what possible motive would the aloof lieutenant have to betray them – to murder?

Sunlight peered over the embankment as the morning rose and minutes slipped away. Trembling fingers brushed the hilt of her short sword; she willed her heartbeat to settle so she could listen for the slightest movement behind her. Her eyes focused on the golden light as it shimmered across the steady trickling water. The reflection danced across the mossy muddy rocks, the dead limbs and minnows that darted by the bank, and – a sharp glimmer caught her eye, and instinctively, she reached for it. Crisp water broke around delicate fingertips as her hand plunged into the water and she plucked the trinket from the creek bed.

“What’d you find?” the lieutenant demanded, lurching forward from his post, and she lifted the item before him.

Waterdrops speckled the surface in sunlit glitter as they slid across the embossed gold. It turned slightly in the breeze, the face of the stilled watch stark white against the cracked glass and gilded frame. The back was emblazoned with a brilliant-winged eagle in flight holding a sword in its talons. The dark eyes of the lieutenant met the fixed on the bauble, and he swallowed.

“I-isn’t that…?”

“…Yeah…” she answered quietly. Bitter heat nipped at her eyes as something settled over her; her gaze met his, equally as fraught as her own. Leaves shifted nearby, and quickly she tucked the trinket into her pocket as the sandy-haired general came into view over the top of the embankment.

“Anything to report?” the general queried as he descended towards the creek.

“N-no, sir,” Nasira answered quickly.

“Everything was quiet overnight, sir,” Virion added.

“That is good to hear. You two are relieved,” General Alleck responded as he reached the creek side. “I will investigate from here.”

“Yes, sir,” Virion nodded, and the pair quickly climbed the ridge. Nasira drew in a shaky breath, but Virion gave her a stern look. “Not here,” he hissed, and she gave a soft nod. Fingers delved into her pocket, clutching the frigid trinket to ensure it was real, that she hadn’t imagined it. She followed him back through the brush and toward the camp. Wordlessly, they maneuvered through the trees until they thinned into the clearing of their base, finally slinking into Virion’s tent. Nasira pulled the adornment from her pocket and examined it in the sunlight that spilled from the entryway of the tent.

“That is what I think it is, right?” Virion demanded urgently.

“It’s a golden arlet…” she confirmed, watching it glimmer in the warm morning glow. “Aren’t these only given to officers of high rank?”

“Not just any rank – only generals, at their commencement.” Bright eyes met deep obsidian, uneasy beneath furrowed brows and she felt her knees begin to buckle. “This is bad,” Virion muttered, pacing the small area of the tent. “This is really bad. A-are you sure there’s no way that got there after the captain was killed?”

“No…the general never went down to the creek,” Nasira answered. “He’s the only person in this entire camp who would have a golden arlet, and there are no other generals in the area.

“But it doesn’t make any sense – why would the general kill Garin?” Virion sank to the floor, cross-legged as he buried his head beneath his hands.

“I’m not sure…” Nasira answered, “…but…we can’t just sit on this,” Dark eyes met hers, and he shook his head. “Virion, we have to reach another unit. If he killed the captain, then what’s keeping him from killing someone else? You know as well as I do that he’s the strongest warrior in our unit. Garin told me that he was promoted to general after independently taking out an entire enemy battalion. He could take out our entire unit single-handedly –”

“But he hasn’t!” Virion argued. “Garin could have attacked him for all we know!”

“Then why would he pretend he didn’t know what happen?” she countered and he half-stammered as he attempted to rebut her. “And even more so, why would he be trying to accuse Khalon?”

“He hasn’t accused Khalon of anything!”

“You weren’t there, Virion,” Nasira snapped tersely. “He told Khalon if he set foot outside his tent during the investigation, he would be killed.”

“What?!”

“He has to be trying to frame him because he’s from Kadeem,” she replied. Her brows furrowed as her mind began to race. The question was why? Why betray Malruna – why the captain…and why frame Khalon?

“…I think you should drop this, Nasira,” Virion said finally, hoisting himself to his feet. Shifty eyes peered out the opening of the tent before meeting her crystal gaze. “That’s an order from your lieutenant.”

“Virion, if we don’t get help, everyone will be in danger,” Nasira pleaded. “He’s killed once, and nothing is keeping him from taking another life. If you order me to drop this, I will. But if someone else is killed…their blood is on your hands. Can you live with that?” Sharp eyes tested the lieutenant, unwavering and brilliantly blue as they bore into him. Dark eyes studied her, petite yet resilient, silvery blonde tresses swaying with a breeze as it brushed by them.

“Damn,” he conceded finally. He turned from the entryway of the tent, pacing to the small cot in the corner. “But there’s still one problem,” Virion added as he plopped onto his cot. “Even if we decide to go for help, neither of us have access to the deployment map. We have no idea how far away the nearest unit is.”

“We can find them.”

“What do you want to do, just walk around and hope we come across one of our units before we get captured by Kadeem soldiers?”

“Well…we don’t have access, but the general does,” Nasira answered. “We can sneak into his tent and get their location while he’s investigating the creek bed.”

“And then what?” he demanded. “They could be leagues from here, Nasira - days. The general would realize we’re gone, and if he gets suspicious…he could eliminate the entire unit.”

“He could do that anyway – we have to try.” Nasira thrust the wings of the tent aside and stormed out into the daylight. The lieutenant scrambled noisily to his feet and stumbled after her. “Cover me,” the blonde specialist said. “I’m going to check his tent.” Without hesitation, Nasira slinked inside the elegantly embroidered tent, footsteps muted as she crossed the red rug towards the large oak desk. Scrolls of parchment were meticulously organized upon the desk, quills and ink tucked away at its head, and she began to shuffle through them gently.

Her hand lingered over a small leather-bound journal whose edges were creased and tattered, and brows furrowed as she reached for it; no, there wasn’t time. Instead, she moved it aside, and opened the large journal beneath it. Inside was a large map of both kingdoms, Malruna and Kadeem. She flipped a few pages, noting the dates becoming closer and closer to the current. Finally, she found the last entry, logged two days prior and eyes skimmed through the listings. She knew they were about ten leagues south of the Everscar Canyon and, according to the map, the nearby lake, Lilypad Lagoon, was only a couple of leagues east of Dawnhold. That meant that the unit closest to them was just over a days’ journey west, stationed by the Honeyhill Grasslands.

Quickly, she dipped the nearby quill into the cup of ink and scribbled the location on a scrap of parchment and stuffed it inside her tunic pocket. Nasira tucked the logbook back under the weathered journal; her hand hesitated as she placed the journal back on the desk. She recalled seeing the general with the small book a few days prior. Garin had approached, and Alleck had quickly tucked it away in the breast of his jerkin.

The spine gave a soft crinkle as it opened, revealing slightly yellowed pages scrawled with delicate handwriting. Crisp pages rustled as she thumbed through them carefully, skimming the page for anything that might explain why the general had betrayed them. A folded piece of parchment fell from between the pages, and Nasira snatched it from the floor. Trembling fingers unfurled the paper, and eyes hungrily tore over the letter:

Our advance towards the Malrunan capitol has come to a standstill. While your movement of your unit allowed us to advance, we have met with a formidable troop near the eastern border of the Sunspire. They’re resistance has proven difficult to defeat – no doubt to ensure Queen Esani’s safety. I have plans for one of my best lieutenants to gather an elite team that may be able to cripple the troop and enable our advance.

Last we spoke, you were devising a way to use the prince to get us to the palace. We will wait for your reply before advancing. We have secured a stronghold just north of the Everscar Canyon. Send word soon, along with the coordinates of any nearby units that may approach the stronghold.

“General, sir.” Nasira fumbled the small journal as she startled, finally catching it and tucking the letter back inside the cover. Her heart raced: what had she just read? “Were you able to decipher what happened to Captain Garin?”

“Yes, I was, lieutenant,” the general responded gruffly. “And I believe I know without a doubt who is responsible.”

“Who, sir?” The blonde knew Virion was buying her time, and she ducked into the back corner of the tent, groping at the thick canvas as she tried to slide underneath it. The conversation became muted beneath the rustling of the tent as she climbed out, and back to her feet. Noiselessly, she slinked to the backside of the next nearest tent, towards the captain’s vacant tent and back around the side of the lieutenant’s. As she came around the front, Virion approached.

“That was close,” she muttered as she brushed aside the opening of his tent and filed inside.

“Did you get it?” the brunet asked, entering behind her, and she nodded. “Good.”

“What did you find out from the general?” The lieutenant sighed and paced from the entryway back to the small cot.

“He wouldn’t tell me much,” Virion answered. “But…I think you were right – he’s planning to frame the whole thing on Khalon.”

“That’s not surprising,” Nasira retorted. “Why else would he have used Khalon’s knife? But…there’s something else. When I was in his tent, I found a journal and…I-I think…I think I know why he killed Garin.” Virion whirled.

“Whaddya mean? Why?”

“The General…he’s betrayed us all,” her voice trailed, and Nasira shook her head. “He’s giving information to a Kadeemian officer.”

“What?!” he exclaimed. “But – wh – how?”

“I found a journal in his tent, and inside was a letter,” Nasira began quietly. “The letter was from an enemy soldier, I think – i-it mentioned that his unit was trying to get passed the troops at the border of Sunspire.”

“But if they make it into Sunspire, they’ll be able to overrun the palace city,” Virion deduced. “If they breach the palace…then Kadeem will win the war.”

“There’s something else,” she retorted quickly, and dark eyes scrutinized her. “I think he intends to manipulate Khalon into helping them assassinate the queen.”

“Wha – how?!”

“I’m not sure, it just mentioned that Alleck was devising a plan.”

“This is bad…really bad…” Virion said; he turned from her, hand resting against his face as anxious feet paced about the tent.

“I found the logbooks.” Fingers delved into her tunic pocket and she pulled out the crumpled parchment. “The nearest unit is a day’s journey west to the Honeyhill Grasslands. If we can reach them, maybe we stop this before they can get to the capitol.”

“What happens if the General realizes we’re missing?”

“It doesn’t matter!” she snapped. “He’s killed once, and nothing is stopping him from hurting someone else.”

“Exactly my point,” Virion retorted tersely. “If he gets wind that we’re up to something, he could eliminate the entire unit and be gone before we return. You really want to risk the lives of everyone here?”

“Then what would you have us do, Virion – wait until it’s too late?” The heated conversation paused, and they both dove into thought; while she hated admitting it, the lieutenant had a point. Yet, even just sitting and waiting could prove costly.

“Lieutenant.” The stern voice startled them both back to reality as the sandy-haired general peered into the tent. “Ah, Specialist, you’re here as well.”

“Sir,” Virion responded dutifully.

“I know you’ve had little rest, but I need you two to deliver this to the nearest unit,” he said, passing a sealed scroll to Virion. “Please let the unit’s ranking officer know that we have detained the assailant responsible for Captain Garin’s murder, and that I need assistance with transport back to the capitol for sentencing.”

“Y-yes, sir,” the lieutenant answered. “Do you have the location of the nearest unit?”

“This map marks the location,” the general stated, handing over another scroll. “It is a three-day venture, north of Everscar. Are you two up to the task?”

“Of course, sir,” Nasira replied.

“We won’t let you down,” Virion added with a salute. Lips curled into a soft smirk as the general turned and departed; Nasira turned, mouth ajar, but he shook his head. “Get your things and meet me near the dock in twenty minutes. Then we’ll head out to deliver the general’s message.” Her brows furrowed as she tested the lieutenant, but when his gaze cautiously flickered to the entryway she understood.

“Yes, sir,” she answered obediently before filing out of the tent. Bright cerulean eyes winced as they drank in the warm sunlight of the morn, lingering over the figure of the general as he approached Khalon’s tent. Her jaw clenched, fists tightened, eyes narrowed. She drew in a breath, deep and fragrant with fresh water and lily blooms from the nearby lake; instead, she willed herself to continue to her tent and pack her satchel for travel. Absently, she shoved a traveling cloak and extra garments into her bag. Impatiently, she snatched her small money purse from the small table by her cot. When she thrust it into her pocket, she felt the icy surface of the arlet brush her fingertips.

Even in the muted light of the tent, it gleamed as brightly as it had in the morning sun. The brilliant golden wings of the Malrunan Golden Eagle, a rare and powerful bird that had become the symbol of Malruna’s pride. Their flags, their crests all bore it, though not always in perilous flight. The sword in its talons represented the military, as she well knew. A General’s Arlet, only given once the highest rank had been obtained.

“Are you ready yet?” Virion asked, and she jolted as the lieutenant poked his head into her tent. “I don’t want to waste anymore daylight.”

“He’s trying to force us into a trap,” Nasira whispered, setting the arlet on the nearby table as she drew up her satchel. “The letter I saw mentioned that the area north of Everscar is a Kadeemian stronghold."

“We’re not going to go north,” Virion murmured back. “Once we’re out of range, we’ll circle back and go south.”

“Why would he be sending us to enemy grounds though?” she asked.

“Because he’s a traitor, Nasira,” the lieutenant spat. “That’s what traitors do.”

“That’s not what I mean,” she answered curtly. “We’re missing something…”

“What are you getting at?”

“If he thought the only incentive Khalon would need to agree to murder would be his own life spared, he would want us to actually get an escort party back to Sunspire, right?” she explained. “So, why would he send us to a location swarming with Kadeem soldiers?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he hissed tersely.

“Unless he thinks he needs leverage against him.” Crystal eyes met his and he shook his head slowly. “You know I’m right, Virion, it’s the only explanation that makes sense!”

“Even if you are right, if Khalon won’t agree to murder to spare himself, he sure as hell won’t to save us.”

“And if he does?” Virion sighed sharply.

“It doesn’t matter – it won’t unless we fall for his trap. Which we won’t,” he retorted. “Stop panicking, Nasira. We –”

“But Khalon won’t know any different!” The lieutenant turned sharply, dark eyes lingering over pale skin and irises of bright cerulean, and his brows furrowed. “I know you don’t trust him. But he is my friend, Virion, and I don’t want to see anything happen to him.”

“So, how do you want to handle this, then?” Her lips pursed, and eyes sank to her feet as she considered the inquiry. A part of her hadn’t considered that the lieutenant would actually consider her request…the rest had not yet devised a plan to carry it out.

“I think I have an idea…” Nasira answered finally, thrusting her satchel to the brunet. “Meet me by the lake,” she added as she passed him her weapon. Virion opened his mouth to protest, but the blonde had already stepped back into the campsite.

She slunk around the corner of a nearby tent, eyes scanning the campsite for General Alleck. A flicker of gold caught her eye as the sun glimmered over the hilt of a sword, and she spotted him leaving the tent where she knew Khalon was being held. Heavy feet trapsed across the pathway, hands clenched with agitation as he swept the curtain away from his own tent’s entrance. Cautiously, she came to the main pathway of the campsite, approaching the sergeant as she stood guard at the tent.

“Nasira,” Xianna greeted, fingers brushing a coppery strand of hair behind her ear. “I thought the General said that you and Virion were heading to another campsite to get assistance.”

“We are,” Nasira replied, swallowing hard against the lump in her throat. Her tongue clung dryly to the roof of her mouth, and she cleared her throat before she spoke again. “The, er, General wanted me to…see if I could speak with Khalon,” she managed.

“He just left and said that no one was to enter besides him.” A brow cocked curiously as Xianna studied her, and Nasira shook her head.

“I know, but Khalon…he’s my friend…was my friend…” her voice trailed, and Nasira sighed. “The General wondered if he might confess to me - tell me why he killed Garin, what his plans are. He said that he’s afraid Khalon wasn’t working alone.”

“I see,” the sergeant replied. “I should go in with you, though. “He could be dangerous, and –”

“I appreciate the offer, Sergeant,” Nasira interrupted. “But…I think…I think he might open up if it’s just me. I will call for you if I need help.”

“…Alright,” she agreed hesitantly, pulling aside the wing of the tent to allow her inside. Khalon’s tent seemed darker somehow, as though the twilight in which they had found the captain still draped the room. Her eyes lingered over him, bound and kneeling at the center post of the tent. Heavy chains twisted his wrists and elbows around the wooden pole, and shackles secured his ankles to it as well. Khalon didn’t react upon her entry, instead leaving his face buried behind raven locks as he slouched over towards the dirt floor of the tent. Hesitantly, she crouched beside him.

“Khalon, it’s me,” she whispered, and the Kadeemian came alive at her voice. He gazed upward, and only then could she make out what he had been through. Sunkissed skin was painted shades of deep purple and red, and one eye was bloody and swollen. Sticky crimson still oozed from a busted lip and smeared across his chin. It was only now that he sat up that she realized that one of his shoulders appeared dislocated, and the elbow was bent slightly in the wrong direction.

“Nas-sira,” he managed, half choked; citrine eyes came alive as they drank her in, and he smiled weakly.

“…I came to warn you…about Alleck,” she whispered. “He’s…he’s trying to use you –”

“To k-kill Queen Esani,” he finished. “…I know…”

“H-he told you?”

“He gave me…a ch-choice,” he said, pausing as he choked on blood in his mouth. “Either face execution f-for the crime of high treason…or assassinate the queen, and he’ll l-let me live.” Khalon sighed, his head hanging limply once more. “He’s the t-traitor…he’s the one that…that killed Garin.”

“…I know,” she answered softly. “The general is sending us to a location north of Everscar. He claims the nearest unit is there, but…I think he’s leading us into a trap. I think he wants to use us as leverage against you.”

“You have to warn someone, Nasira,” Khalon said sternly; he coughed against the blood in his throat. He shook his head. “Even if I don’t help h-him…he’ll find a way. Kadeem can’t w-win this war,” he added, shifting uncomfortably against his bonds. “If my father succeeds…” His voice trailed, and his eyes fell to the dirt floor of the tent. It was spattered with flecks of rubies where he’d been beaten, and she placed a hand on his shoulder.

“I know, don’t worry – Virion and I are leaving now,” she answered. “We’re going to Honeyhill Meadows for help.” She stood, her back to the Kadeemian, lingering on the silhouette of the sergeant as she shifted outside. Nasira hesitated a moment, and eyes of crystal blue met his.

“If you free me, he’ll know something is w-wrong,” Khalon whispered intuitively. “He can’t know. If he were t-to…you know as well as I do, no one in this unit would survive.”

“…I know,” she answered quietly. “I won’t let anything else happen to you… I promise. We’ll be back for you…just…please…”

“Try not to die?” he jested and smiled half-heartedly. “You, too.” She nodded, a soft smile touching her lips as she let her gaze linger over him a moment longer before stepping into the warmth of the mid-morning sun.

“Nasira…” Xianna began as the blonde exited the tent. She was pale and wide-eyed, but Nasira shook her head.

“He…he wouldn’t say anything,” she lied. “Virion is waiting for me. We’ll be back soon.” Before the ginger-haired Sergeant could breathe another word, Nasira tread passed her, following the winding pathway back to the thicket of trees and down to the lake. As she came atop the hill, her breath caught in her chest.

“Virion!” A short distance away, Virion stood, trembling hands held in surrender as pearly steel rested by his chest. Dark eyes averted as his quivering gaze found hers, and the General’s head swiveled.

“Nasira, get out of here!” he yelled brazenly.

“Run, and I’ll split him where he stands!” General Alleck threatened boisterously. “I appreciate that little clue you left behind for me,” he added, and her eyes glimpsed the cracked arlet clasped upon the hook in the breast of his uniform. “I suspected you might have gone into my tent when I found my letter misplaced. So, you know the truth then.”

“We do,” Nasira answered, and Virion balked at her quick answer.

“W-we just don’t understand why,” the lieutenant managed. “Why would you betray Malruna?”

“I didn’t betray Malruna,” Alleck chortled. “I wasn’t loyal to your wretched queen to begin with!”

“You’re a coward!” Nasira exclaimed, and wild eyes met hers. The lieutenant didn’t hesitate; quickly he withdrew his own sword, still holstered at his side. Before the general could react, steel rebuffed his own, and his footing faltered as he parried the lieutenant’s offense. Nasira spotted her own weapon, tossed several feet away by the bank of the lake, and dashed for it.

From the corner of her eye, she saw golden sunlight flicker over the blade, and she stumbled backwards to avoid it. The general turned and parried the lieutenant’s blade just in time, the blow forcing him backwards, and metal hissed as his blade was knocked from his hands. Without missing a step, he whirled, his blade inches from Nasira’s chin as she halted in her reach for her own. Quickly, the tip of his boot lifted the weapon and threw it into the crystal waters.

Behind them, Virion scrambled for his own. Suddenly, light flashed, and Nasira barely had time to register what had happened before the brunet cried out in pain. He fell to his knees, hand clutching the small dagger in his abdomen. Like a blooming rose, the bloodstain upon his tunic blossomed, spilling like fallen petals over his fingers, and the general turned back to her.

Their gazes locked; trembling crystal, glassy and watery like the shuddering surface of the nearby lake against cold eyes that ate away the light like rainclouds on a summer’s day. They gleamed fiendishly and breath hitched painfully inside her throat. Her whole body felt distant, as though her soul might have already left it as the general drank in her final moments.

It happened in slow motion. She inhaled; metal pierced the supple fabric of his golden jerkin, and the general gave a raspy, guttural cry. Alleck’s blade clattered to the dirt at her feet and his footing faltered. She exhaled; bloody steel withdrew from his chest, and as it did, the arlet, too, fell soundlessly to the grass. Like rubies, deep vermilion splattered golden eagle’s wings. Everything was muted against that sound, the hiss of metal as it ripped through skin, and she hardly registered when the general hit his knees. As he collapsed, the light faded from stormy eyes, that stark glimmer that had brightened with her fear, that had greedily drunk it in. The metallic scent of blood permeated the fragrance of lily blossoms and freshwater as she inhaled again, the breath shaky and instinctual rather than deliberate.

She blinked herself free, the world suddenly coming into focus as she forced her eyes away from the lifeless stare of the general. The raven-haired soldier stood, poised, just as he had when steel had pierced the general. His eyes lingered over the crumpled body before her; behind him, Sergeant Xianna helped Virion stand, supporting the weight of the wounded lieutenant against her. He still clutched the dagger in his abdomen and winced as he shifted his weight to take a step nearer. Finally, Khalon dropped the bloody sword, and their eyes met; golden stones entranced her, glistening like the sun itself, and he gave a half-hearted smile.

“You said you wouldn’t let anything happen to me…” Khalon managed. “I couldn’t let anything happen to you, either.”

Fantasy

Rebecca McLeod

I am a YA-speculative fiction writer with a focus in sci-fi/fantasy. Writing has always been a passionate passtime for me, and has grown into my adult aspirations. For more about me, visit my personal site at www.rcmcleod.home.blog.

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