They were joined an hour later by the final member of their group, a representative from Ullar. She looked human to Dan (aside from a slight taper to her ears), but he was informed she was in fact an ‘eladrin’. She had fair skin and light blonde hair, and wore a strange robe-like coat with orange and brown. Her name was Sharwin Wildborn.
Once they were all present, including Kaori and Francois, Gideon led them to a small building at the edge of Hyleran, right up against the wall. It had no windows, only one door, and its walls blocked all sound, the noise from the street beyond instantly going silent the moment the door was closed.
There was only one room, but it was plenty big enough for them all to sit down on the chairs ringing the wall. There was nothing else in the room aside from a bare table. The room was well lit from a strangely-shimmering panel suspended from the ceiling and centered above the table. Dan assumed it must be enchanted.
“Now that we’re all here,” Gideon said, “I want to go over the plan in more detail. All of you know the general idea of what we’re doing, but no one has had the full picture except for me and Vydar. This mission is too important.
“First off, Aquilla was supposed to send a detachment of dwarves with us, but all communication with her has been lost. We’re assuming it’s the marro again.”
Dan remembered what Aviir had told him about marro: strange creatures which looked humanoid but acted like insects. She had shuddered as she talked about them, and looking about the room, Dan saw similar expressions: Ana and Sharwin in particular showed concern. Jaseff, on the other hand, looked almost fearful.
“Nothing Aquilla can’t handle, I’m sure,” Gideon said. “However, it means the dwarves won’t be joining us.”
“They might meet up with us later,” Trela said. “I’ve met their commander before. Gormal wouldn’t let a little thing like a marro invasion keep him from his duty.”
Gideon smiled. “Maybe not, but nonetheless we’re going ahead assuming they won’t join us. Pity too. We could have used their crossbows.
“You all know what we’re after on this mission: Valkrill’s amulet. If we can get it, we’ll cause Utgar a lot of problems. Without his wellspring, Valkrill will want to use Utgar’s, and nothing good can come of that for either of them. Plus we’ll be one step closer to winning this war.
“Vydar’s scouts have pinpointed the exact location of Valkrill’s wellspring. It’s a small cave complex directly south of Hyleran. We’ll approach on foot, get the amulet, and then meet up with some of Jandar’s kyrie who will be waiting for us, and get flown out. With any luck, we’ll be out of there before Valkrill knows what’s happened. In case Valkrill gets alerted to our presence, some of Jandar’s mages have set up a fallback point near the cave entrance. Once we have the amulet, we’ll go there and wait for any search party to give up. There’s plenty of enchantments over the area; we won’t be found.”
“And you’re sure about the location of the wellspring?” Jaseff asked. “You’re sure your intelligence is right? I don’t want to walk into a trap.”
“It won’t matter if we do,” Laelia said before Gideon could answer. “With the knights and ninjas we have more than enough to fight our way out of anything.” Glancing at her, Dan had the sudden distinct impression that Laelia very much wanted there to be a fight. Why? He saw Sharwin out of the corner of his eye, and noted that she looked to be wondering the same thing.
“The intelligence is very good,” Gideon assured Jaseff. “Kumiko herself made the initial findings, and Vydar confirmed them with some sort of magical scans. The wellspring is definitely there, and the cave is small and not linked to anything else.
“As Laelia said, we’ll be able to fight our way in and get the amulet. In addition, we shouldn’t have much fighting to do, because a few days after we leave, Jandar is going to launch an invasion into Valkrill’s eastern holdings in Braunglayde. By the time we arrive, most of Valkrill’s soldiers should be gone, pulled to deal with that. The distraction will also clear our way to the wellspring, and we’ll be traveling at night, just in case any kyrie scouts happen to fly over our position.”
Dan saw Laelia glance at Ana. It was a strange look, full of contempt and something else. Triumph, perhaps? Dan glanced at Ana, but she was watching Gideon steadily. Her face showed nothing.
“The only thing we’ll have to watch out for will be the occasional Drow scout, and the packs of wolves Utgar sends out, for the precise reason of making sure we aren’t doing exactly what we’re discussing. We should be able to handle them easily, as long as none escape.”
“And how likely is that?” Jaseff asked. “Running into them, I mean.”
“Not very,” Trela said. “With Jandar’s invasion, Utgar’s forces will be spread thin, and Valkrill’s will be virtually nonexistent.”
Jaseff didn’t look very reassured.
“That will be Dan’s job,” Gideon said. “He’s here as a scout. You’ll need to watch for wolves, drow, and kyrie,” he said, glancing at Dan. “Always keep one eye on the horizon.”
‘No problem there,’ Dan thought.
“How long have you been with Vydar?” Laelia asked Dan.
“I was just summoned three months ago,” Dan said, guessing the reason for the question.
“Three months?” Laelia repeated, her brown eyes widening in disbelief. “This is no place for new recruits.”
“We have precious few scouts,” Ana said, making everyone look at her. “Precious few good scouts, anyway.”
“Has he even been in combat though?” Laelia asked. Dan opened his mouth to reply, but she pressed on, still looking at Ana. “We need the best on this mission, not whoever is available.”
“We should give him a chance,” Trela said firmly. Laelia glanced at her, an edge in her look.
“With the gear I have,” Dan said, “I’ll be able to spot anything long before it reaches us. We’ll be fine.” He was a bit annoyed at Laelia’s words: she sounded like she assumed he would be useless.
Laelia cast a doubtful look towards Gideon.
“Vydar appointed him himself,” Gideon said. “I assume he knew what he was doing.”
Dan saw Sharwin watching him, and glanced at her. She turned away, but not before he had seen the look of doubt on her face. He shrugged it off. Vydar did have a point: he had lived his life surrounded by the same metal walls. If anyone would spot something others might overlook, it would be him.
“Moving on,” Gideon said pointedly. Everyone looked back at him. “There’s a perimeter of small caves forming a ring fifty miles out from Valkrill’s wellspring. They aren’t connected to the Underdark; they’re essentially just bunkers. Each is manned by a small force of drow, nothing to worry about. We will have to get past one to get at the wellspring however.
“Einar’s scouts have identified the weak link: it’s a small cave just a shade east of our path. It’s commander is a defector from Lindesfarme, the son of a Roman Legionnaire. We’re guessing the drow won’t follow his commands as readily as one of their own, which gives us the advantage. It shouldn’t be hard to take the cave; we just have to make sure none of the drow escape.”
“How?” Trela asked. “Is there a plan to catch any who run?”
“Some of the knights and ninjas will hang back,” Gideon said. “Don’t worry; the cave entrance is small. There’s only one way out.”
Trela nodded, apparently satisfied.
“The commander’s name is Caius Marius,” Gideon continued. “Laelia has had dealings with him, and she’ll know what to expect. That’s why she’s on this mission.”
“What kind of dealings?” Francois asked. Dan was curious as well. What would Laelia have to do with a traitor?
Gideon glanced at Laelia, but she said nothing, staring directly in front of her. Her face was impossible to read. There was a moment of silence.
“We should know,” Kaori said. “We need to do this with everything out in the open. We don’t want to wait until it’s too late to learn something important.
Laelia glanced at her. “He grew up in the same city I did,” she said, her voice guarded. “He betrayed us, destroyed my life, and killed my father.”
There was more to it. Dan knew that much. Laelia was trying to mask her face, but he could tell there was something she wasn’t telling them. He had seen deception too many times in the SR Unit to miss it.
“There’s more,” he said. Laelia shot him a glance. “If there’s some sort of history between you two, I agree with Kaori. Everything should be out in the open.”
Laelia gave Dan a withering glare and turned away. She didn’t speak.
“There isn’t much else to it,” Gideon said, after a quick glance at Laelia. She didn’t face him. “Laelia’s father was Crixus. Over the course of the war he had been in armies attacking a lot of Utgar’s outlying cities, and he had grown rich off of the spoils. Caius was a common thief in the city where Crixus lived, and decided he wanted a portion of the spoils for himself. He tried to recruit Laelia when she was young. That didn’t work, and a few years later Caius returned, this time with new friends in the form of drow. They raided the city, and left Laelia’s family with virtually nothing. Crixus died a year later from wounds sustained during the battle.”
Dan was silent for a moment. “Then why did Einar send her?” he asked.
Gideon looked at him questioningly.
“She hardly knew him,” Dan said. “You said Einar sent her here because she’ll know what to expect from Caius, but how could she know that if all he did was try to recruit her?”
“Because he was my friend.” All eyes switched to Laelia. She turned to face Dan and continued, a fire in her eyes. “He got close to me on purpose, deceived me, and then betrayed me when he thought the time was right.” Dan detected a tremor in her voice. Her already-tan face flushed darker with anger. “I trusted him,” she said, “and he used me. When he killed my father, I swore I would kill him, and I will fulfill that promise. I will be the one to drive my sword through his heart. No one else can.”
There was a moment of silence. “Any other questions?” Gideon asked, his tone plainly suggesting there shouldn’t be. No one spoke. “Okay then. I will be leading the expedition. Kaori will be commanding her ninjas, Francois will be in charge of his knights. Laelia takes point on Caius and his drow. Ana takes point in Valkrill’s tunnels, since she has the most experience fighting drow. Sharwin is Ullar’s representative; she’ll stay in the back and lend her magic when we need it. Ana, Trela, and Jaseff are our healers, they’ll stay in the middle of the group. Keep them protected.”
On Ana’s name, Laelia’s eyes had again flicked to her. It was the same expression Dan had seen before: triumph and contempt. What could it mean? Ana saw it this time, but after a moment all she did was look away, shaking her head.
“If there are no more questions,” Gideon said, “I suggest we all get something to eat, since most of us haven’t had anything yet. After that, we should get some sleep. We’ll be walking during the nights and sleeping during the days, so we might as well start getting used to it now.”