Tanith and Saunem lower their heads to the earth and soon pick up Jaxon’s scent. The two khorgois sprint ahead of the group to lead. The mountains of the southeast are a lot closer than the group initially believed, appearing in the distance within an hour of travelling.
Kordeaux’s magic users move incredibly fast, keeping up easily with the rest, and never seems to become winded. Tayli and his men of Shadow Watchers move in formation, but stay behind Ime and the brothers.
Tanith and Saunem run from side to side in front, their noses occasionally lowering to the ground to make sure they’re still on Jaxon’s trail. They roar excitedly and leap ahead several feet before slowing to allow the group to catch up.
“Are you really going to kill him, Ime?” Daniil asks as the mountains tower above them.
“He betrayed us. Meah trusted him and he betrayed us. I can’t forgive him for making her cry,” Ime says. His fists are clenched and fire dances over his knuckles. “But I’ll listen to his reason first. I want Meah to know why he did it.”
“And do you really think Bruer and Fleance had no idea about this?” Kylii asks.
“That I can say for certain. Yes.”
The mountains southeast of Kellahn are cold and barren of plant life. Only stone and towering ragged rocks cover their facades. Old paths carved into the stone from times long past weave through the harsh land. The group’s speed slows as they navigate the sharp turns and sudden drops, climbing higher up the mountainside.
Foreboding clouds form over the mountaintops and a few journey low on the mountain as though following the group. They worry about a sudden snow, but the pleasant air banishes those thoughts and they focus on catching up to Jaxon.
Surrounded on all sides by grey mountains, the group reaches a narrow entrance into a great pass. Two high walls provide natural gates and the group cautiously enters. The walls of the mountains stretch high above them, creating an effect similar to the Arena. The only other way through is a tunnel leading to another pass at the opposite end.
Tanith and Saunem inch towards the tunnel, sniffing the air nervously, but stop at the center of the pass. They both spread their legs apart and dig their claws into the ground. They bare their fangs, hissing and growling deep in their chests. Their tails slam onto the ground angrily and their backs arch up, making themselves appear larger.
Sitting on a large flat rock is Jaxon. His hands rest on his thighs and his eyes glow blue with his magic, but any emotion is hidden. Blue fire dances around him like a living thing and his hair falls over his brow into his face. His weapons are at his side and he makes no move to draw them.
The group spreads out, filling one side of the pass. The magic users gather their magic and Tayli’s men draw knives.
Stepping forward, Ime watches Jaxon with his own magic filling the air around him with sparks of energy. “Waiting for us?”
“I knew you would come after me.”
The blue flames glow brighter and Jaxon stands, his calm gaze locked on Ime. “Five hundred thousand.”
The number hangs in the air, filling the group with confusion. Many look at one another wondering what it means.
Ime’s eyes widen slightly, but he keeps his face controlled. “Klaeon’s army.”
“What?” Daniil gasps.
“That can’t be right. Our spies and the Seers from Eraunel couldn’t have been off by that much,” Kylii says, exasperated. “That’s double what we have.”
“How long have you known?” Ime takes a step closer to Jaxon, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
“It wasn’t too difficult to influence the Seers’ visions. All magic is fallible in some way.” Jaxon raises his blue eyes to Ime’s grey ones. “What I thought would be difficult was gaining your trust. I doubted it would happen so easily, but Meah surprised me. She trusted me so quickly I thought for sure it wasn’t real. How could she trust the man who enslaved her? Innocence is truly a useless thing.”
“What are you talking about?” Daniil demands.
“The Blood King has been gathering forces for several years now, preparing for a full take over of Myldea. Wars, however, tend to last for many years when one has to fight multiple kingdoms and realms. But if all his opposition could gather in one location, as one army, the war could be dwindled down to at most possibly a few weeks.” Jaxon points at Ime. “That’s when he heard rumors of your intent to escape. It planted a seed in his mind, but he wasn’t sure how to use it.”
“What’s he talking about, Ime?” Kylii asks. Ime remains silent, staring at Jaxon with a blank stare.
“Then Meah arrived at the Arena, which by itself wouldn’t have amounted to anything, but I showed him her bracelet. Did you know the silk of her bracelet is found in only one place? Kellahn. I wasn’t lying when I called it a legendary city. Blood King Klaeon heard the stories of its magnificence and the seed in his mind began to grow. Armies would flock to a legendary city if it revealed it opposed him. He could gather all of his enemies in one place and quickly and easily end them.
“He ordered me to help with your escape and sent Teron after us as an added incentive to ensure we reached Kellahn. Periodically, I sent him reports on your location, your progress, and of course everything about your army.” Jaxon glances at Tayli and whistles a high-pitched tone. The night bird flies down from where it had been perched and lands on the flat rock next to Jaxon. Jaxon takes the black ribbon from its leg and holds it up.
“What’s that?” Kylii asks, the only one willing to speak over his shock.
Tayli and his men appear in front of the group and knock Ime, Daniil, Kylii, and Kordeaux’s men back. They fall to the ground, but Ime and the brothers quickly climb to their feet. Tanith and Saunem try attacking the Shadow Watchers, but they turn into shadows and disappear. They reappear above the group, standing at the top of the towering rocks, surrounding them.
More men, ones not originally part of Tayli’s group appear, adding to the numbers and Tayli takes a place next to Jaxon. He takes the black ribbon from Jaxon, smiling. “This is a signal from our King. A signal to let us know the charade is to come to an end.”
Saunem runs at Tayli, leaping towards the man and aiming to tear out his throat. Tayli dodges to the side, stabbing Saunem in the side with his knife. The khorgoi cries out and uses his back legs to push against Tayli before the blade can do any serious damage. He limps back to Tanith’s side and she nudges him with her snout. He snaps at her and she hisses.
“Shadow Watchers are a proud, legendary group of assassins that have existed for thousands of years. We’ve been allies to the Blood King since his journey to this land. When he realized he would soon need to go to war, he sent us across the lands to spy on his enemies,” Jaxon says. He removes his arm cuff and shows a tattoo on his wrist. Tayli does the same, showing a matching tattoo. “We blend into the world and send important or interesting information back to our King. Now, with this war you’ve created moving ever closer, he’s calling us back to fight at his side and in his shadow.”
The Shadow Watchers draw their weapons above the group. Kordeaux’s men prepare to fight, their magic filling the air even more. Saunem and Tanith roar and stamp their large paws on the hard ground.
“Take care of them. I have to return to our King with news,” Jaxon says to Tayli, replacing his arm cuff. Tayli places his hand on his chest and bows his head. Jaxon turns to enter the tunnel.
“It’s all been a lie, Jaxon?” Ime calls. Jaxon stops, but doesn’t look back at Ime. The gathering clouds cast a shadow over the pass, making the already grey landscape a darker shade. “Everything you told us, every time you fought for us, all of it was a lie? Everything you ever said to Meah?”
Jaxon’s silence is answer enough.
Yelling angrily, Ime sends a large rock at the back of Jaxon’s head. Tayli throws a shadow at the rock and it explodes into dust.
“You helped us! You told us what to do. You gave us a purpose after we escaped. It couldn’t have all been a lie!” Ime stomps his foot and the earth cracks as fire grows around his fists.
“Kill them before I have to listen to their annoying voices anymore,” Jaxon says. He disappears into the tunnel and Tayli gives his men the order.