Dan was taken to a grid of barracks and given a less-than-comfortable cot to sleep on for the night. All of Montfre was buzzing with the news of Vydar’s departure. No one had told them where he was going, but half the population had seen him and two guards streaking northwards through the air. In the short distance to the barracks, Dan had heard all manner of rumors, nearly all as far from the truth as Dan was from Heleer.
Vydar’s departure didn’t interest Dan as much as he knew it should. His recent conversation with the Valkyrie had left him longing for Heleer, and she was foremost in his thoughts as he lay down on his cot. Only one thought concerning Vydar entered his mind before sleep found him: his actions had matched up with what Aviir had said. Felda had painted Vydar as one who didn’t care about the lives of others, and Vydar’s decision had proven her wrong. He did care about his people. He did protect them above all else.
Dan was woken far too early by someone gently shaking him. It was pitch black in the bunker. For a moment, Dan thought he was back on Isadora, being shaken awake in the darkness by Heleer. The illusion didn’t last long.
“Time to get up, soldier,” a male voice said nearby. “The expedition is moving out.”
Groggy with sleep, Dan staggered to his feet and pulled on his uniform, boots, and new gear. Then he stumbled through the dark bunker until he reached the doorway, illuminated only by starlight.
“How early is it?” he asked blearily.
The kyrie who had been leading him, silhouetted in the moonlight, turned around. “Four in the morning by human measurement,” he said.
This meant nothing to Dan. All he knew was that the sun hadn’t even begun to come up yet.
“This way,” the kyrie said, “your commander is waiting for you.”
That woke Dan up. Who would be commanding them? Surely it would be one of Vydar’s most capable and tested generals. Perhaps Carr himself. But then Dan remembered Carr was leaving. Curious, he followed the dark shape of the kyrie through the grid of barracks, through a small gate, down several side streets, through another gate, and into a large open field, scattered with several low buildings.
Dan had been expecting a large group of grisly warriors, but there were only two people in the field. Both were dark, their shapes only illuminated by faint starlight.
“Gideon,” the kyrie called, his voice soft in the darkness, “this is the soldier?”
One of the two glanced up. “Yes,” he replied, his voice deeper than Dan had been expecting. “Thank you, Hasar.”
The kyrie motioned Dan towards the two people, and then turned and went back the way they had come.
“Dan is it?” the one called Gideon said, approaching, a cloak distorting his shape.
Dan nodded. He could see a few features of Gideon’s face up close, including dark skin, strands of long hair framing the face, and a straight nose, but most were still hidden by darkness.
“Vydar seemed to think you could help us on our expedition,” Gideon said. “I hope he’s right.”
“Me too,” Dan said, not really meaning the words. He was feeling further and further from Heleer by the minute.
“This is Otonashi,” Gideon said, gesturing towards the other figure, who approached as well. “Another last minute addition. I’m glad Vydar added her to our party. She’s been in and out of more sticky situations than the rest of Vydar’s army combined”
“Hardly,” said Otonashi, stopping before them. Her face was completely hidden in shadow; Dan couldn’t see a thing. “A ‘sticky’ situation would imply things were difficult.”
Gideon chuckled. “Please,” he said, “your humility is too much.”
Dan couldn’t tell what Otonashi’s reaction was. He heard nothing. After a moment however, she said, “Let’s not waste time, Gideon.”
“Right,” said Gideon. “Follow me, Dan. We’re meeting the rest of the party in Hyleran.”
From the map he had seen yesterday, Dan knew that Hyleran was a fortified city of Einar’s, on the border and directly north of Valkrill’s wellspring. It was as close as they could get without crossing into enemy territory. One of the generals had mentioned that he would be ‘transported’ there, but Dan wasn’t sure what that meant. Transported how? Were they going to walk all the way there? It would take at least a month.
Gideon led them across the open field, his cloak flapping about his legs as he walked. Dan could hear some sort of armor moving and shifting, and caught the soft thumps of a sword strapped to Gideon’s waist beneath the cloak. He couldn’t tell what weapons Otonashi might have.
“Gideon.” The call came from the right, from one of the low buildings. It was a hoarse call, half whispered in the darkness. Gideon turned and walked to the building.
“You’re off then?” said the voice. It sounded familiar to Dan.
“Yes,” Gideon said. “This’ll be an easy mission; I’ll be back soon.”
“This will not be an easy mission,” the voice corrected. Dan recognized it now: it was Carr. “Don’t think this will be simple, because it won’t.”
“With the numbers we have? We’ll be in and out of there in three days tops.”
Carr chuckled. “You’re joking. I should have known. I can’t see in this darkness.”
“Don’t tell me not to joke,” Gideon said. “I’d probably die of boredom.”
Carr chuckled again and pulled Gideon into a hug. “Come back safe,” he said, letting go. “Your mother and I will be waiting for you in Lindesfarme.”
That’s where Dan had heard Gideon’s name before: he was Carr’s son. Vydar had mentioned him.
“Vydar’s given his word,” Carr continued. “You’ll be sent back to us once you return.”
“I don’t want to go,” Gideon said, his voice suddenly serious. “I told you that.”
“Your mother wants you there.”
“There’s still more I can do in this war.”
“You can do it under Einar,” Carr said.
“I’m loyal to Vydar,” Gideon said. “Like you taught me, father. I’ll serve no other.”
“Then do what he says,” Carr said sternly. “I’ll be waiting for you in Lindesfarme when you return.”
“Take it up with Vydar when you get back, if you must, but he’ll tell you the same thing. Your place is with your family.”
“My place is in the war,” Gideon said. “You’ve told me that before, and I believe it.”
“Gideon,” said Otonashi softly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “We need to go.”
“She’s right,” Carr sighed. “Once this is over, we’ll talk about this. At least come to see us, even if you are determined to stay here.”
“You know I’ll come,” Gideon said. He began to walk away. “And tell mother not to worry. I’ll see her when the mission is over.”
“I’ll tell her,” Carr called after them.
Gideon waved, and then they set off again, crossing the rest of the dark field.
By this time a faint gray streak had appeared in the eastern sky, and the darkness was beginning to lift slightly. Dan saw that they were headed for a massive structure, which looked for all the world like a gigantic SR Unit, on its side and half buried in the ground, big enough to hold fifty men.
Before Dan had a chance to ask what the structure was, however, another voice called out to them.
“Gideon!” the voice called.
Gideon stopped, and Dan heard him sigh. “Here we go,” he muttered.
“James,” he said through closed teeth, turning around.
A strange individual approached them, about Dan’s size. In the semi-darkness, Dan could see his outline, distorted by a wide-brimmed hat and a long coat which reached to his knees. Several lumps in the coat betrayed the presence of weapons.
“Gideon,” the man said, stopping in front of them. He spoke with an odd accent. “You sure yer up for this mission?” His voice didn’t carry the slightest hint of concern.
“Vydar’s healers have done their work, if that’s what you mean,” Gideon said. His voice had the tone of one trying their hardest to stay in control.
“I wasn’t referrin’ to that,” the man said. “I was talkin’ more about how ya got it.”
Gideon was silent.
“You know that prisoner?” the man said. “The one you failed to kill? We got ‘im, after he nicked ya. Know who he was?”
Gideon didn’t reply.
“He was a carrier, a kamikaze sent by Utgar. He was tryin’ to get captured, so that he could infect all of Montfre. Yer stupidity almost cost us a lot.”
“What’s your point, James?”
“My point,” said James, stepping closer to Gideon, “is that ya take too many prisoners. You can’t take any on this mission. None.”
“I know that,” Gideon spat.
“Do you?” James shot back. “Do you really? You said that at Durgeth. And again at The Table. Why is this any different? How do we know ya aren’t goin’ to mess this mission up by refusin’ to kill the enemy when they deserve it? If you ask me, ya shouldn’t be leadin’ this. You shouldn’t even be on it. We need leaders who’ll do what needs to be done. Leaders who kill when their Valkyrie commands it.”
“Are you questioning my loyalty to Vydar?” Gideon’s voice suddenly took on a dangerous edge. Dan took an instinctive step back from him, surprised by the threat inherent in the tone.
“Oh, not at all,” said James, throwing up his hands in mock-defense. “Just that ya seem to care an awful lot about not killin’ Utgar’s soldiers. Some might even say you care more about them than ya do about yer own men.”
Gideon flinched, and Dan saw his shoulder move back, but Otonashi put a quick hand on his arm. Gideon took a breath and glared at James in the half-light.
“Vydar chose me for a reason, James. You were needed elsewhere, and I wasn’t. I volunteered.”
James spat on the ground. “You and I both know full well that ya just want to prove yerself. You don’t care ‘bout this war or ‘bout us. Just how far up the ranks you can get. You knew I was more qualified. You knew I—”
“Attend to your post, James,” Otonashi said quietly.
James turned his head to look at Otonashi. “’Course, miss,” he said, giving her a mock-bow. He started to back away, walking slowly.
“If anythin’ goes wrong with this mission,” he called out as he left, “I’m blamin’ you, Gideon. Vydar could do better than someone who fills his prisons with enemies who eat his food and sicken his citizens. Think about what you’re costing yer beloved Valkyrie.”
Gideon took a step after James, but Otonashi, who had kept her hand on his shoulder, tightened her grip.
“Leave it,” she said quietly. “He’s just bitter that he didn’t get the assignment.”
Gideon shrugged off her hand, breathing heavily. “If he wants to come along, let him,” he said angrily. “He wouldn’t last two seconds in the Underdark, and he knows it.”
“And so does everyone else,” Otonashi said. “Now leave it. We’re late.” She gave Gideon a gentle push towards the SR-like building before them. Shrugging his cloak back over his shoulder, Gideon stomped towards it.
“Gideon,” said a kyrie sitting beside the building, nodding as they approached. He seemed to be sitting next to a thick metal door, set in the side of the curved wall.
“Meras,” Gideon said, nodding to the kyrie. “Three for Hyleran.”
“Vydar told me before he left,” Meras said, getting up. “There’s nothing inbound for an hour; go on in. I’ll get you cleared in a minute.”
Gideon nodded his thanks and led them through the small doorway. There were two doors, one inside and one outside, each embedded in a separate wall. Dan glanced up and realized that there was a second building, nested perfectly inside the first. Between the two there seemed to be nothing but air. Both doors were open, and Gideon led them into the building, which was dark.
The only light came from the very middle of the building. It was a dim orange glow, but it was enough for Dan to see that the building was one giant room, its walls slanting steadily into the ceiling. It was egg-shaped, the ends tapering into rounded caps. The light in the middle seemed to come from a small egg-shaped piece of metal, about as big as Dan’s torso.
“What is this?” Dan asked, turning on the spot.
“Transporter,” Gideon answered, walking to the small light in the middle and crouching down. “We used to have to ride everywhere, or have the kyrie fly us. Took way too long. The soulborgs came up with this machine. It’s connected to the wellsprings somehow… all I know is that there are a lot of them, and you can teleport between them. There’s an identical transporter in Hyleran, so that’s where we’re going. Close the door, would you?”
Dan turned and saw that instead of a handle, a metal wheel was attached to the inside of the second door. He pulled it, swinging the heavy door shut.
“Turn it to the left,” Gideon directed, standing up.
Dan did, and heard an echoing clang as something heavy slid into place.
“We’ll be there in a second,” Gideon said, going to join them. The three of them stood there silently, waiting for Dan knew not what. Then the transporter turned on.
There was a deep clank as some part above their heads slid into place. Then the sound of a generator starting up. There was a low rumbling, and Dan had the immediate impression that something massive was moving over the ceiling of the room. He could hear it shuddering down a metal track. First it was above them. Then it was travelling down. Now on their left. Now deep below them. Now coming back up on their right. It made one full circle and then another. And another, gaining speed. It rotated faster and faster, and Dan noticed that the small light in the middle of the room was shining brighter too. There was a momentary flash of light, blinding Dan, and then all sound ceased.