Sound returned a split second later. Dan, blinking, saw that nothing had changed, but slowly the light in the middle of the floor was dimming, and the speed of whatever was circling them was slowing. He glanced at Gideon and Otonashi in the half-light; both were perfectly calm.
Soon the light dimmed to its former muted glow, and the rumbling overhead stopped. Gideon went to the door, turned the wheel and opened it, and rapped lightly on the second door. There was a moment of scraping, and it opened.
Daylight flooded into the room. A kyrie with brown wings appeared, and motioned them out. Dan followed Gideon out of the building, Otonashi close behind, and then stopped, stunned.
When they had left, it had still been dark, and the shadow of Montfre Citadel had dominated everything. Here, the rays of a brilliant sunrise were striking them, and Montfre had been replaced by what looked like a town too big for the stone walls confining it. If Dan remembered the map he had seen correctly, and this was Hyleran, they had traveled two hundred fifty miles in a matter of seconds.
“Time slippage,” Gideon said, noting Dan’s reaction. “That’s why the sun is rising, even though we’re west of Montfre. To us, the journey takes a few seconds, but we were actually gone for more around two hours.
Dan didn’t hear him. He was too busy trying to see everything at once. Hyleran was full of people, mostly soldiers, but some clearly civilians. It wasn’t like Llynar, where the people were mostly returning families. Here nearly everyone wore armor or carried a weapon. There were no children in the streets, though many of the soldiers passing by – all wearing the emblem of Einar – seemed quite young.
Dan looked up, and saw walls ringing the city, topped with what he instantly recognized as soulborg guns. He had seen identical ones when Darren showed him the soulborg prison block he had been in. These were pointed outwards and were motionless, although Dan was sure they would spring to life the instant an enemy was spotted.
Beyond the wall stretched a full blue sky, scattered with wisps of clouds, hanging motionless impossibly high up, far above anywhere Dan could imagine being. A few birds flew across the sky, twittering for no apparent reason other than the ability to do so.
Dan looked back down at Gideon and Otonashi. Now that the sun was bathing everything in light, he could see them properly. Otonashi was wreathed in black, the dark gray armor of Vydar hidden beneath a black cloth robe. A short sword hung at her hip, partially concealed by the robe, but Dan could see no other weapons. Gideon wore the same tactical pants which Dan had been issued, complete with the metal knee pads. In fact, the only difference between Dan’s gear and that of Gideon was that Dan was wearing an armored vest over a simple shirt, and Gideon had on a thick-looking gambeson in the dark gray of Vydar, over which he wore a vest of chainmail, the links stained dark.
Gideon had long hair, most of which was pulled back and tied behind his head, though a few strands had escaped and outlined his face. He had deep-set green eyes and thick eyebrows, which combined to give him a fierce appearance, even though his voice was quite calm. His skin was quite a bit lighter than his father’s, though it was still a rich brown.
Otonashi’s skin was pale in comparison to Gideon’s, and she looked small, with her black hair drawn back tightly into a long ponytail. Based on her clothing and choice of weapon, Dan guessed she must be a ninja. Aviir had told him of them.
“Gideon!” a voice called nearby.
All three of them looked at the source of the voice.
“Laelia!” Gideon replied, striding forwards quickly.
A young woman, Dan’s age or younger, approached. She smiled as Gideon strode towards her. Her skin was tan, either from birth or sun, Dan couldn’t tell. Her face was small, a bit sunken in places, but nonetheless striking. Her eyebrows were dark and sharply defined against her face, making her light brown eyes all the more alive. Black untamed hair whipped about her face in the light breeze which, until then, Dan had not noticed.
“Gideon,” Laelia said as they met. “Einar’s force is mostly here, the others—”
Gideon interrupted her by wrapping her in a hug. Laelia resisted for a moment, but then gave in with a smile, and hugged him back.
As they embraced, Dan noted that Laelia didn’t seem to fit with the other soldiers passing by. She was too clean. Her armor, the same brown and gold of the kyrie, was spotless and shone in the sunlight. There was no speck of dirt on her face. Her hands looked soft, the skin smooth and clean. Next to the soldiers passing them by, many spattered with mud and sporting calloused hands and greasy hair, she looked like a creature from a different land.
They pulled apart, and Laelia brushed some stray dirt from her uniform.
“How are you?” Gideon asked.
“I’m fine,” Laelia said. “Honestly, I’m ready to get started. I think Einar’s been holding me back on purpose, trying to keep me out of harm’s way for my mother’s sake. He couldn’t keep me from this though. Knowing that I’m going on this mission … It’s all I’ve been able to think about for weeks.”
“What about your mother though?” Gideon asked. “Einar was right to keep you from the war; she needs you.”
Laelia fixed Gideon with a look. “She’s not infirmed, Gideon,” she said. “She can take care of herself. She has plenty of friends to look after her. Besides, it’s time that I did my part in this war.”
Gideon looked like he was about to reply, but they were interrupted by another voice:
“You’re late,” it said.
Dan turned, and saw what he guessed was another ninja approaching them. She wore black armor not unlike their own, but the gold symbol of Einar was clearly visible on her shoulder.
“Sorry,” Gideon said, “a few people wanted a word back at Montfre. Are the others here yet?”
“No,” the ninja said. “Just my group. Einar’s supposed to be sending Jandar’s division from Liesic – they arrived there last month. They’re expected to show up any moment, but you know how Liesic is – it’s always busy.”
“The capitals always are,” Gideon said. “Where are we staying?” he asked.
“I’ll show you,” the ninja said, beckoning for them to follow.
As they followed the ninja into the depths of Hyleran, Otonashi brushed past Dan.
“I don’t believe I know you,” she said, coming up beside the ninja leading them.
“Kaori,” the ninja said, pausing in her step and bowing slightly to Otonashi. Otonashi returned the motion. “A hundred years before you, I’m afraid.”
“No matter,” Otonashi said. “Pleased to meet you.”
Kaori led them through the narrow and packed streets of Hyleran, past blacksmith shops and small homes, until they came to a row of long familiar-looking barracks. “This one has been set aside for your group tonight,” Kaori said, placing a hand on the nearest bunker. “We can’t be late in moving out, either. A big detachment of minutemen are supposed to come through here early tomorrow.”
“Are all your troops here?” Gideon asked.
Kaori nodded. “They arrived with me earlier this morning. We’re still waiting for Jandar’s knights though, plus the healers from Einar.”
As Gideon asked Kaori further questions, Dan turned on the spot, taking in Hyleran again, and the sky and sun. Was Valhalla always like this? Always sunny, just the right temperature, with a brilliant blue sky overhead? How could he have ever wanted to return to Isadora, to the gray walls and lifeless cameras? Heleer would probably want to go back too, at first, when Vydar summoned her, but after a few days in Valhalla she would change her mind. How could she not?
Dan quickly stepped to the side of the road as a column of men passed by, filling the center of the street. They wore strange plated armor, and seemed to be adorned in an unnecessary amount of red. Dan didn’t remember Aviir mentioning them.
He quickly forgot about what they were, however. As he watched, their faces paraded past him, and for a moment, he was oblivious to all else. Only in the hall at Vydar’s Citadel had he seen such difference in quick succession. He barely had time to take in one face, before it moved on and a completely new one took its place. And no face was identical to another. They were all different. As he watched them, Dan found himself smiling.
Dan was temporarily distracted as several kyrie flew low over the city in a tight formation, the wind from their wings slamming down onto Dan and blowing his hair back. Gideon looked up too.
“Scouts,” Kaori said. “Making sure your way is clear to the south.”
There was a sudden rumbling sound from where they had come. It grew in volume, shaking the very ground on which they stood, and then quickly lessened.
“That’ll be Jandar’s knights,” Kaori said. “They’re here sooner than I expected.”
Otonashi glanced at Gideon. “I’m sure you and Laelia have a lot you want to catch up on,” she said. “We’ll meet the knights.”
Gideon nodded his thanks.
“Come on,” Otonashi said, beckoning to Kaori and Dan. Leaving Gideon behind with Laelia, the three of them moved back into the busy street.
They went back the way they had come, squeezing past rows of soldiers as they went. When they turned a corner and Dan saw the transporter, the door was open again, and men were filing out of it, all wearing highly polished metal suits of armor. They each had a sword at their hip and a blue shield on their back, with the crest of Jandar emblazoned on it.
They filed out of the transporter and lined up in front of it, the sunlight glinting off of their armor and flashing off of their helmets. ‘They had better wear something else if we’re supposed to go unnoticed,’ Dan thought to himself.
Following the twenty or so knights came three unarmored figures, a man and two women. Once they had exited the transporter, a kyrie closed the door.
Kaori hurried over to them, but Dan stayed behind, taking in the whole scene. His attention was caught by two of the unarmored figures, who were talking to each other.
“You wanted to come here,” one of the women was saying to the man. Her voice was gentle. “Stop fretting about the mission. In and out. Easy as that. Nothing to worry about.”
“I didn’t want to come here,” the man said. “I had to.”
“You could have stayed put,” the woman suggested gently.
“And be sent to the front with the other healers? No. I had about two seconds to decide; I could see the captains headed my way, and Drake was standing right there: the only way out.”
“But it’s no less dangerous here than on the front.”
The man shrugged. “At least here I’m with you.”
The woman smiled, but Dan saw her sigh as she turned away.
“Dan,” Kaori called, beckoning him over. Dan made his way to the end of the line of knights, where Kaori stood.
“This is Francois, Dan,” Kaori said, gesturing towards a knight who could only be the captain. “These are his men. Jandar has lent them to our cause.”
Dan shook Francois’ metal gauntlet.
“And these are the healers Einar sent,” Kaori continued, motioning towards the three unarmored individuals. “Jaseff and Trela Imber,” – the two who had been speaking to each other nodded to Dan – “and the one hiding behind them is Ana Karithon.”
“I’m not hiding,” said the woman, coming forward. She looked younger than Dan, small and thin with pale skin, though her light green eyes were those of a much older woman. She had long red hair which she had braided away from her face, and she smiled as she held out a hand to Dan. Dan shook it, noting how small it felt in his own.
Jaseff and Trela were dressed similarly, both with tactical pants almost identical to Dan’s, though they wore dark robes rather than armor. Both looked to be older than Dan by a few years. However, despite the similarities in clothing, the two could not have been more different from each other.
Trela had brown hair which she wore tied back, but Jaseff’s hair shrouded his face, partially obscuring it on the sides. Where Trela stood tall and looked straight ahead of her, Jaseff seemed to walk with a slight crouch, and his eyes were constantly darting from side to side. Dan also noticed that, plainly visible on the right side of Trela’s neck, there was a mark, some sort of brand, where the flesh had been burned in the shape of a foreign symbol. He wondered what it could mean, and why Trela was making no attempt to hide it with her hair (which she could easily have done, for it was quite long). He wisely decided not to mention it. He wasn’t in SR any more.
“Are you all from Toril?” Kaori asked the three of them. Toril? What was Toril? A place? A person?
“Yes,” Trela said. “Rife with drow, Toril. I suspect that’s why Einar sent so many of us on this mission – we’ll be fighting a lot of them.”
Drow? What were drow? Dan suddenly had many questions.
“This is Dan,” Kaori said to them. “Vydar sent him with us as a scout.”
“We’re glad to have you, Dan,” Trela said. “We can’t have enough scouts on this mission.”
“You’re all healers?” Dan asked, remembering Kaori’s words.
Ana nodded. “Don’t worry,” she said, noting Dan’s look. “Just because there are three of us doesn’t mean you’ll need three of us. Einar was just being overly cautious. It’s an important mission, after all.”
“Speaking of which,” Kaori said, drawing their attention, “Gideon is waiting for us all at the bunker. I’m sure he’ll want to speak with you.”
“Lead the way,” Trela said.
Kaori turned and began weaving her way across the street.
Francois turned to his knights. “Rang!” he shouted. The knights immediately snapped to attention. “Envoyer!” As one the knights marched forwards, the crowded street parting for them like a river before a stone. Dan and the three healers followed in their wake, and together, they returned to the bunker.