It seemed to Kevin that a small army was assembling at the point where the causeway met the coast on the Lyndesfarne side of the crossing. Men and women in Guardian uniforms - from both sides - were scurrying to and fro, and the air was thick with urgent instructions.
The party had disembarked from the cars on the other side, Kevin reluctantly handing over the few items of electronic equipment which might be damaged by the barrier between the Two Worlds. To his chagrin, he noticed that Bret appeared to have no such qualms, tossing his mobile phone to the driver without a moment's hesitation.
When they arrived, having jogged most of the way over the causeway, Kevin found himself very slightly out of breath and feeling rather embarrassed by his lack of fitness, as both Bret and Tanji seemed to be suffering no effects from their hasty crossing.
Warden Williamson was very much in evidence, deep in urgent conversation with a serious-looking man that Kevin did not recognise. The other man was wearing the dark green robes which Kevin strongly suspected indicated some senior rank in one of the Boards or Guilds responsible for the governance of the crossing, although he could not quite work out exactly the significance.
As Kevin caught his breath, the Warden completed his discussions and, nodding seriously to his companion, turned and made his way towards the new arrivals. Seeing his opportunity, Bret strode over to intercept to the robed figure, politely acknowledging Williamson as they passed.
The Warden greeted Kevin and Tanji grimly, and recognized Sergeant Graves with a wave of the hand that was not quite a military salute.
"Well," he said, "This is a pretty pickle we find ourselves in."
"What's going on?" Kevin asked, glancing around at the barely contained turmoil around them. Tanji had moved to stand close to him and he instinctively took her hand in his own.
"We're a bit busy here," the Warden replied, his plummy accent adding an extra degree of earnestness to his studied understatement, "Thanks to your intelligence, we've tracked down some of Demaz's associates and persuaded them to talk."
Kevin looked askance at this remark, and Tanji barely stifled a gasp.
"Oh, it didn't take much," the Warden went on, "It appears that the full extent of Demaz's plans was not made clear to his men, and they're being very cooperative now that they realise just what was being planned."
"What do you mean?" Tanji demanded.
"His men didn't know that his objective was to spread a potentially deadly disease across both worlds," Williamson replied, "What we don't know is how much Demaz himself knows, and who he's working for. So we need to track him down pronto."
"We've got an idea where to go," Kevin asserted, squeezing Tanji's hand.
Williamson cocked his head, clearly encouraging him to continue. Kevin quickly told him about what they had learned from Patricia Rossiter.
"Well, it's an interesting theory," the Warden mused when Kevin had finished.
"You don't believe it?" Kevin said, immediately downcast.
"No, no, it's entirely plausible," Williamson said, attempting to reassure him, "It's just that Demaz is a man who gets about a fair bit, and we have all sorts of leads and ideas as to where he might be."
Kevin found this less than convincing.
"Look, let me talk to my colleagues and determine what the actions are," the Warden concluded, then quickly turned and strode off. Kevin turned to watch him go.
Further along the road inland, Bret was evidently engaged in a heated exchange the robed figure he had accosted earlier, along with several other people who Kevin did not recognise but who clearly had positions of responsibility. The Warden joined this group, the circle immediately widening to admit him. The discussions got more energetic and intense, with much waving of hands; there did not appear to be any kind of consensus emerging. Suddenly, a young blonde woman hurried up, evidently a native of the Other World and dressed in the uniform of the Lyndesfarne Guardians. She stood rather nervously just outside the circle, waiting to be noticed. After a few seconds, there was a pause, allowing her to hand Bret a small package and beat a hasty retreat.
Her appearance struck Kevin as remarkably similar to Yiselle, the young Guardian who had been struck down by the pestilence that Andrew Wollack had discovered and who was even now only just out of danger in hospital. After a few more moments, Bret appeared to be dismissed. He spoke in a low voice to Sergeant Graves, who saluted quickly and set off at a brisk pace towards the knot of people Bret had just left.
"Right then," Bret said with a sudden exhalation, "Let's go."
Kevin felt distinctly nervous and exposed when Bret made it clear that it would be just the three of them - including Tanji - who would be making their way to the dragon country portal.
"Why are we going on our own?" he demanded.
"Well," Bret replied, "We're not the only people who have been making enquiries about Demaz and his colleagues."
"So I've heard," Kevin responded grimly.
"It seems that no-one seems to want to take the speculations of a lonely old woman too seriously. In fact, they think we're wasting our time, and they don't want to waste anyone else's. I was only just able to follow this trail myself after quite an argument - I was almost instructed to go somewhere else."
Bret paused, suddenly looking more resolute.
"So, for now, we are, indeed, on our own," he concluded, "But I think we may be able to pick up allies on the way."
Still firmly holding Tanji's hand, Kevin followed Bret into the nearby portal terminus building.
When they emerged from the portal network, the reduced party were greeted by two men who, to Kevin's relief, he recognised immediately. One was Simas, the grizzled veteran who had guided himself and Tanji on a dragon safari not so long ago, who was accompanied by Omiz, his junior sidekick.
Bret greeted the two guides in the Lyndesfarne language, raising his hand in the familiar way. The two guides looked altogether more determined than when Kevin had encountered them last. They clearly already understood that there was something more at stake than just a guided tour for the tourists.
Looking around, Kevin belatedly recognised where they were - the speed of portal travel still left him dazed and disoriented. Bret opened the package he had been presented with earlier, and took three curious objects from inside. They looked like wide bracelets made from some kind of ceramic material, a pale off-white like old bones. He gestured fluidly over each one, the artefacts in turn becoming alive with the sparkles of green light which indicated active magic. Bret handed one to Tanji and passed a second to Kevin.
"Put it on your wrist," he instructed.
"What is it?" Kevin demanded.
"It's a, well, glamour," Bret replied, "Magical. It will disguise our features in case we are being observed from a distance."
Kevin had wondered how they were going to be able to sneak up on Demaz - assuming he was indeed in the vicinity - since it was obvious that their appearance was well-known to him. He slipped the device over his left wrist, where it seemed to contract slightly to prevent it from falling off. Like the amulet he still wore on his upper arm, it felt warm to the touch, although Kevin could not quite decide whether that was just his imagination.
Meanwhile, both Omiz and Simas were speaking to Bret in the Lyndesfarne language, with Tanji almost automatically interpreting for Kevin's benefit.
"I think I know where should look first," Simas suggested in a laconic tone evident even through Tanji's voice.
Bret's interest was apparent without the need for translation.
"There's a disturbance, it seems," Omiz said, "In the flight of the dragons."
Through Tanji's translation, Kevin understood that Omiz believed that someone had hidden themselves in a cave in the rocky hillside underneath a crag habitually occupied by a large flight of the creatures. Omiz - and presumably Simas too - considered that the intruders had expected to use the dragons to warn them of any approaching visitor, not realising that their own presence would change the dragon's behaviour - especially the way they would fly around their usual roost - in a way which would be obvious to seasoned dragon-watchers.
Bret nodded thoughtfully for a moment.
"It might just be Demaz," he finally said to Kevin, "So let's go and have a look."
Directed by the guides, they piled into one of the articulated vehicles that Kevin and Tanji had used on their previous visit to the area, which was waiting nearby. They set off with a jerk before Tanji had gained her seat, and Kevin found her sitting half in his lap for a few confused seconds.
"We need to get as close as we can without attracting notice," Simas stated flatly, Tanji again interpreting his words with only a moment's delay.
"How are we going to do that?" Kevin wondered aloud.
"Oh, that's easy," Tanji said in English, suddenly grinning, and waving at Bret to attract his attention, "We just have to act like tourists."
"Good thinking," Bret smiled in response, "So let's see of we can take a slightly roundabout route."
He turned to the grizzled veteran, presumably repeating Tanji's words for Simas' benefit.
"So, what would you normally do at this point?" Tanji again translating his words, "Which way would you go with a load of foreigners?"
Simas grinned toothily.
"That particular crag would be the third on one of our usual routes," came the reply.
"Have you been that way recently?"
Simas rubbed his chin, looking thoughtful.
"No. For some reason, that area's not been on our itinerary for weeks."
Kevin found the next hour or so incredibly frustrating. To allay any suspicion, the party moved slowly following an indirect route and stopping at observation points along the way, much as they had done on Kevin and Tanji's first visit. The guides deployed the magical viewing plate, ostensibly to watch the flight of the dragons, although actually scanning the hillside for any sign of movement, or even an entrance. Kevin thought he could identify a dark opening in the rocks, but could not be sure even when using the full magnifying power of the viewer.
Omiz pointed out the flight of the dragons, indicating - through Tanji's translation - the way their movements indicated something amiss in the vicinity. It may have been just Tanji's struggle with specialist technical words, but Kevin could not really make out exactly what was so different. As far as he was concerned, they looked just the same as they did when they had toured before.
The party waited for as short a time as they dared at each intermediate spot, but it still seemed to Kevin like an age before they pulled up on the nearest reasonably flat piece of ground close to the crag. It was quiet, with no sign of people anywhere; just the soft sign of the ever-present wind and the occasional rustle of unseen creatures moving about the business.
They got out of the vehicle, Omiz moving at an authentically slow pace to remove and erect the stand for the viewing plate, while Kevin and Tanji pointed theatrically at the roosting dragons near the top of the rock formation. As planned, Bret and Kevin clambered from the vehicle and strolled about apparently aimlessly, as if stretching their legs or perhaps seeking an unobtrusive spot to take a pee.
Kevin could just make out a dark opening, and Bret nodded slowly to him. Feigning an interest in a non-existent feature ten yards or so to the left of the cave entrance, the two men scrambled up the hillside, making their way between the boulders and taking care to avoid the occasional prickly cactus.
At the same time, Omiz moved quietly, picking his way carefully towards the other side of the entrance, while Simas and Tanji waited by the vehicle, still striving to move and act as casually disinterested tourists. They reached the level of the opening, and Bret and Kevin edged their way along towards the cave entrance and peered cautiously inside.
The cavern was larger than it looked from the outside and quite dark, especially by comparison with the bright sunshine of the desert. Some kind of field camp was set up inside, with bags and equipment of indiscernible purpose dotted about. A fire burned in one corner; Kevin assumed it must be magical, since it seemed to be emitting light and heat, but no smoke or fumes. A couple of the magical lamps cast an uneven light over the rough walls and sandy floor.
Set right at the back were a couple of flimsy-looking camp beds, closely resembled the seaside furniture that Kevin had encountered on vacation with Tanji, although here finished in some drab colour rather than the bright patterns found on the beach.
Demaz was in earnest conversation with Wendy, sitting face-to-face on the camp beds. There was some kind of a debate going on, although Kevin could not made out any words. Both father and daughter looked very tired, worn-out, as if they had not been sleeping very well. Both looked dusty, even grimy, and had clearly not had much opportunity to wash recently.
Demaz jumped up when he noticed Bret and Kevin in the cave entrance. His eyes widened as the glamour cast by the bracelets the two men still wore became ineffective at their close range.
"You!" Demaz shouted.
Wendy too looked shocked, although there might have been a faint expression of relief on her face, too.
"Come out, now," Bret instructed calmly, pleadingly, "It's all over. There's nowhere to go from here."
Demaz swept up some object from the top of the rucksack which appeared to Kevin to be some kind of necklace or amulet, the surface roiling with the green and orange sprites which indicated the presence of active magic. The density of the moving lights gave Kevin the distinct impression that this was the most powerful - or at least the most complex - magical object he had ever encountered.
"Stay where you are," Bret shouted.
Demaz ignored them. He frantically executed a complex series of gestures with his right hand in the direction of the amulet held in his left.
"No!" screamed Bret.
He made a desperate dash towards the gesticulating man. But, before he had made more than two steps, Demaz had pressed the amulet to his temple. He jerked spastically, taking a soundless gasp of air, and then collapsed motionless to the dirt floor.
|© 2007-2008 Trevor Hopkins. All rights reserved.||Webmaster||Last updated 2 November 2008|