Chapter Forty-Three – Decision

“Dan.”

Someone was shaking him. Dan woke up quickly.

“Dan.” It was Gideon.

“What is it?” Dan asked. He sensed urgency in Gideon’s voice.

“There’s a fire to the east,” Gideon said as Dan got to his feet, dusting pine needles off of himself. The hills they had set up camp in were covered in tall pine trees. “One of the ninjas reported it. Someone is down in one of the valleys, and they’ve lit a fire. This far into Valkrill’s territory, it can’t be anyone good.”

“Do we know who it is?” Dan asked.

Gideon shook his head. “We don’t know for sure, but it’s either wolves or kyrie. Drow have no use for fire. I can’t risk sending the ninjas to find out. It’s dark, so they would have to get close to see what’s going on. Too close. If it’s wolves, they would smell them easily. I need someone who can see in the dark from far away, and that means you.”

Dan felt his stomach tighten. “What do I do?” he asked.

“Keep to the trees,” Gideon said. “Remember that if it is wolves, they can see in the dark just as well as you can. If the wind starts blowing your scent towards them, drop to the ground. Only get close enough to see who they are and what they’re doing. Then report back.

“I’m going to take the others into the next valley, just in case a strong wind picks up and the wolves smell us. I’ll leave Ana behind here. Report to her. She’ll know what to do next.”

Dan nodded. “And what if it’s a whole army or something?”

“Then get back here as soon as possible. We’ll wait for them to pass. We can’t be caught out in the open this close to Valkrill’s wellspring.”

Dan nodded.

“Good luck,” Gideon said. He moved off to where the knights were sleeping.

It was still dark. There was no hint of gray in the sky, so Dan guessed they still had at least a few hours before daylight. Who would have lit a fire this late? Certainly not kyrie.

Dan moved off in the direction Gideon had pointed. The party was situated in a depression between the low rolling hills which covered the area. There were several of the depressions, forming a chain of shallow hills and valleys stretching completely across their path. Once they crossed the hills, they would enter a small forest, in which was the cave housing Valkrill’s wellspring. Assuming of course that they weren’t about to be discovered.

A ninja materialized in front of Dan as he wove his way through the trees.

“Gideon sent you?” she confirmed.

Dan nodded.

“Keep going straight,” she said. “There’s a glow coming from the valley below; I’d guess the size to be pretty small, probably just a campfire or two.”

“Thanks,” Dan said. “Gideon’s moving everyone to the next valley over. You should probably go with them.”

The ninja nodded and disappeared into the darkness.

Dan continued up the gradual slope, trying to avoid patches of dead leaves as he moved between the trees. He didn’t want to make any more noise than he had to. He reached the top of the small hill, crouched down, and crawled the rest of the way forwards, until he could look down into the next valley.

Below, the trees thinned out some, allowing Dan to easily see the brilliant flicker of a fire. He couldn’t make it out, since the trees blocked his view, but he could see it illuminating their undersides. He’d have to get closer. There was a whisper of a breeze, but it was blowing towards him, so keeping low, Dan hurried down the slope. Once the ground started to level out, he stopped behind a tree, and glanced around it.

The pine trees were tall and devoid of branches below their tops, meaning Dan could see straight through the forest now that he was on level ground. He could see the glow of the fire, but it was blocked by the shadows of figures moving in front of it.

Finding the dial on top of his goggles, Dan turned it, zooming his vision in. He adjusted the focus to the shadowy figures, and then paused, trying to discern what they were. They definitely weren’t drow; they were too bulky. They were silhouetted against the light, but he couldn’t see any wings, so that only left one option: wolves. They were standing on two legs, but Dan remembered that Aviir had told him the wolves summoned by Utgar did so.

He still couldn’t see what they were doing, so he quickly ran to a different tree. He had a much better view from this angle. The wolves – he could clearly see fur now – seemed to be gathered in a circle around the fire, surrounding five figures on the ground. Dan focused on the figures, and soon a gap opened up in the circle of wolves, and he was able to see them clearly.

They were humans, five samurai of Einar, by the look of their tattered armor. They were tied up together, back to back, and it was clear from the cuts and bruises that the wolves had been beating them. They all bore claw marks, and one looked like he had even been bitten.

Dan focused on the wolves, and soon discerned what they were doing. Several wolves had burning torches of grass stalks bound together, and they were methodically lighting patches of grass on fire. Other wolves were using their claws to scrape away the grass outside the circle. It didn’t take Dan long to figure out what was happening: the wolves were creating a circle of fire around the samurai. With the ground bare outside the circle, the fire could only go inwards, towards the samurai. They would be burned alive.

The wolves completed setting the grass on fire, then quickly stepped back as the dry stalks blazed to life. Several wolves, clearly leaders, began barking out commands. They were moving out. As one, the pack of wolves began to move off, running at an easy loping pace, heading south.

Dan watched them go. They rounded a hill, and disappeared from sight. Dan had counted at least forty. He looked back at the five samurai. The fire still had a ways to go before it reached them, but by now the pillars of flame were tall, licking at the black sky and showering the samurai with sparks.

Dan scanned the whole circle of flame with his goggles, looking for an opening. There was none. What would happen if he tried to save the samurai? Would his armor keep him safe from the flames? Or would he be cooked in it? And what about the samurai? Their armor wasn’t exactly made out of flame-resistant material.

Dan quickly added up his chances. He might be able to get one of the samurai out, maybe two, but he might also misjudge the fire, and end up being burned along with the samurai. Dan remembered Heleer. He couldn’t die. Not now. Besides, Gideon needed to know about the wolves. They were far too close for comfort. Dan glanced once more at the samurai, now struggling against the ropes. He had no choice. He couldn’t risk his life.

Dan turned and ran. He had to tell Gideon as quickly as possible. All it would take was a strong wind blowing in the wrong direction, and the wolves would sense the whole party.

Dan ran up the gradual rise until he reached the top of the small hill. There he paused for breath, and then half-ran half-stumbled down the opposite slope. Ana was waiting for him at the bottom.

“What happened?” she asked, worry in her voice as she saw that he was out of breath.

“Wolves,” Dan gasped. “About forty. They moved off to the south.”

“What were they doing?” Ana asked.

“They had some prisoners,” Dan said. “Samurai. They set a fire around them.”

“You mean they are going to burn them alive?” Ana asked, her face more pallid than usual. “Where are they? How many did you get out?”

“None,” Dan said. “I couldn’t go in, Ana. I wouldn’t have gotten past the flames.”

Ana looked at him, her expression quickly turning into one of shock. “You don’t know that,” she said.

“No,” Dan agreed. “But I don’t know that I would have made it, either. I didn’t have a choice, Ana. I had to get back. We have to warn Gideon.”

“You just left them there?” Ana asked. “You just left them to die?”

“I had to,” Dan said. “If I hadn’t made it out, then eventually Gideon would have to send someone else, and by that time the wolves could have slaughtered us all.”

“But they were going to die,” Ana said. “You can’t just leave them!”

Dan was getting annoyed at Ana now. They had to warn Gideon before it was too late. “Look,” he said, “I didn’t want to leave, but I had to. I could have been killed trying to get through that fire.”

You could have been killed?” Ana exclaimed. She gave Dan a look which clearly said she thought he was out of his mind. Then she took off running up the slope.

“Ana!” Dan called. “Wait!” He ran after her. If the wolves had doubled back, she would be seen. Even if they hadn’t, they were wasting precious time. They had to warn Gideon.

Dan caught up to Ana half way up the hill and grabbed her arm. She tried to pull free. “Let me go!” she cried, struggling against his grip. “There’s still time to save them!”

“No, there isn’t,” Dan said. “We’ve got to warn Gideon. Besides, you would stand even less of a chance of getting through those flames than I would. You have no armor; your clothing would go up instantly.”

Ana rounded on him. “So what?” she said, her voice much louder than Dan would have liked. “So what? Maybe I would get through the fire, maybe I wouldn’t. But I’m not about to give up without trying. Those are people down there, Dan. Lives about to be snuffed out. I’m not going to give up on them because the fire is a little bit hot. Now let me go.” She succeeded in pulling her arm from Dan’s metal grip.

Dan grabbed her again before she could move, spinning her around by the shoulders to face him. “You can’t go down there,” he said. “There’s no time. Don’t you get it? If the wolves smell us or Gideon, it’s all over. For all we know, they might already be attacking the others. We’ve got to get back.”

“Then you go,” Ana said, trying to pull free of Dan. “I’ll save the samurai. You go back to Gideon and tell him how you saved your own skin.”

“Ana!” Dan said indignantly.

Ana seemed to know she had spoken in haste, but Dan saw no regret on her face. “Yes, I mean it,” she said. “Go. I’ll save them.”

“You can’t do that!” Dan said. “What if the wolves come back? What if they’re keeping an eye on the prisoners, just in case they escape?”

“Then I’ll fight them!” Ana said. “I’m a caster, Dan. I can take care of myself. Now go. And don’t try to stop me again.”

She pulled herself away from him a second time and took off up the hill. Dan stood for a moment, irresolute, and then took off after her. It was too risky. If the wolves saw her, they would know there was a force nearby. All it would take was one messenger and Valkrill would know they were coming.

Dan caught up with Ana at the top of the hill, but he need not have worried: she had stopped a short ways down. As Dan approached, she dropped to her knees, watching the fire in the valley below. Dan looked, and saw why:

The fire had enclosed the samurai. They were all on fire, their armor catching easily. Screams and cries of agony echoed up from the valley as the samurai burned. Two, their bonds evidentially burned away, broke from the wall of flame, but they didn’t get far. They stumbled and rolled as the fire continued to lick across their skin. One tried desperately to put it out by rolling, but it was too late: his whole body was consumed in flames. For a full minute the samurai screamed their torture to the skies as the embers ascended to the heavens. Then, one by one, they fell silent. Out of grass to burn, the circle of fire died out, leaving only a blackened piece of ground, and five smoldering corpses. An ill wind picked up the smoke from the remains and blew it towards Dan and Ana, causing their eyes to water, and their mouths to become full of the taste of burned flesh.

As darkness took them once more, Ana turned burning eyes on Dan. “You did this,” she said, her voice trembling. “You killed them.”

“I had no choice,” Dan said.

Ana stood. “Oh, you had every choice,” she said. Dan was surprised by the amount of venom in her voice. “You could have easily saved them all, or at least one, and still had plenty of time to warn Gideon.”

“I don’t know that,” Dan said. “I might have caught fire. Or I might have made it through the first time, but then be unable to go through again, and be stuck inside the ring.”

“Or you could have tried to save them,” Ana said, taking a step towards him, “or at least have seen how hot the fire was. You could have tried to get through it. You could have tried… but you didn’t. Why? Because you could have died. That’s what you told me.”

“It’s true!” Dan said, partially irritated at Ana, but also a bit worried by the quiet anger in her voice.  “What do you want me to say, Ana? That I saved myself? I did! I’m sorry you don’t like it, but there’s too much at stake.”

“Don’t like it?” Ana echoed. “Don’t like it? Can’t you hear yourself Dan? You left five people to die. To die! What if it had been you down there? Would you have been so understanding if I had left you to die?”

That was just illogical. What did it matter what the samurai had thought? That changed nothing. Dan hadn’t wanted to leave them, but he had to, just as anyone else would have had to in his situation. Ana’s reaction was understandable, but it was illogical. They didn’t have time for it.

“Look,” Dan said, trying to assume a calming voice, “you’re not thinking straight. I know you’re upset, but we don’t have time for this right now. We’ve got to warn Gideon.”

“I am thinking perfectly straight!” Ana shouted. “You’re the one who seems to think leaving people to die is fine!”

“Of course it’s not fine,” Dan said, worried that the wolves would hear Ana. “but it was either us or them.”

“You or them, you mean,” Ana said, glaring at Dan.

“Fine,” Dan said, desperate to stop her shouting. “Me or them. I could either have tried to save them, probably died in the process, and then fail to warn Gideon about the wolves, or I could save us all like I’ve been trying to do.”

Ana laughed. It was a cold laugh, an empty laugh, a laugh which, for a moment, made Dan wonder if Laelia was right and Ana really was Mordril after all. “You don’t care about saving us,” she said, her voice cold, “no more than you cared about saving those samurai. I’ve heard enough deathbed confessions to know what kind of person I’m looking at, Dan. And you’re the kind who cares about only one thing: you.”

She spat out the word like it was a curse. It was the way she said it, more than the word itself, which made Dan angry. Who was Ana, to say she knew who he was? She didn’t know a thing about him. She had no idea how he had lived before he came to Valhalla. She knew nothing of his one true goal. And she had the presumption to stand there and tell him that she knew who he was?

“Am I wrong?” Ana spat. “Say you care about others. Say it, and look me in the eye when you do.”

Dan didn’t have to take this. “No,” he said, his own anger rising.

Ana let out another cold laugh. “You don’t even deny it?” she said.

“I don’t have to,” Dan said, his voice rising despite his best efforts to keep it down. “Who are you to judge me? If we listened to your decisions, we’d probably all be dead within a day because we walked into the enemy’s open arms!”

A gust of wind blew more smoke in their faces. Ana mouthed wordlessly at Dan for a moment, and then seemed to lose whatever control she had left. “All you care about is yourself!” she screamed at him, mere inches from his face. Her voice held more shock than anger now, as if she couldn’t believe what she was saying.

‘So?’ Dan thought. His own anger boiling within him, he replied, “You have to! You have to live for yourself just to survive!”

Ana looked murderous. “If you don’t live for others, you’ll never live at all!”

“I’ll never live at all if I do live for others!” Dan shouted back. “You’d have me walk right into that fire and die, wouldn’t you? Am I the only one here with enough common sense to stay alive?”

“Am I the only one here who can recognize the value of a life?” Ana yelled back.

Dan was done with this. “Well maybe my life was more valuable!” he yelled.

Ana slapped him. There was no warning. She simply pulled back and hit him across the face as hard as she could. But then something else happened, something Dan doubted very much Ana had meant to do.

Something else slammed into him, a wave of magic following close behind Ana’s hand. It blasted his whole side with a burning heat, and flung him to the ground, where he lay, his side burning as if on fire.

“Dan!” Ana cried. She dropped to her knees beside him. “I’m sorry!” she said. “It just happened! I didn’t mean to—”

Dan had no doubt that it had been an accident, but he was still angry. He got to his feet as the pain subsided. “If you’re finished yelling for all the wolves to hear,” he said, “we need to warn Gideon and the others. If they aren’t already dead by now, thanks to your stupidity.”

Without waiting for her, Dan turned and went back down the hill, away from the smoking remains of the samurai. He didn’t look back, but heard Ana turn and follow him after a moment. She was completely silent.

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