Aurora’s warning hiss quieted the already low murmur of our conversation around the sputtering fire. A gleam of red-gold light from her wrists banked the fire down to a dull red glimmer among the meager branches and brambles.
Her golden eyes narrowed, and the dark stones above the red gave off deep glimmers of purple light. Silva’s pale hand closed over her sister’s wrist.
“Nieah. Itahmi zreya.” A touch of purple swirled through Silva’s eyes. It was difficult to tell if they reflected the light from the black stone on her right gauntlet.
The somewhat brighter darkness visible through the cave’s entrance swam, and then deepened.
From beyond the Veiled opening, we finally heard what had prompted Aurora’s reaction: steady, cadenced steps; the tromp of many boots on the gravel-strewn path. The steps slowed, then stopped.
Varis and Gilliam’s hands went to their sword hilts, but Aurora gave them a stern shake of her head.
“I thought for a moment…” came one voice, the words sounding like chiseled granite — all sharp corners and hard inflections of a nearly archaic dialect of Rockhome dwarven.
“We pay you to track, not to think. Did he go this way or not?” This other voice was deeper, a rumbling bur underlying the consonants. It, too, spoke the Old Dwarvish.
“Of course they did, Dulgardar.”
“‘They.’ You are certain he brings others with him?”
“One slave, even if he is a shadow-keeper, could not have bested so many of the Torenwhyr.”
“Torenwhyr missing their kurdenklist. The Karrnath will not tolerate this. You will find this thief, and his allies, or you will be joining the ranks of the Torenwhyr ”
“If they were able to best Torenwhyr, Dulgardar, are you sure you wish to find these intruders?”
We heard the sound of a mailed fist against flesh.
“You question my bravery?”
“No, Dulgardar, of course not. Its just—”
When the second voice did not interrupt, the first continued:
“What if one of those with the shadow-keeper is as the Oracle stone said?”
“I certainly hope she is with him, then,” the other voice said, and I could hear the smile in it. “I should very much like to present the Karrnath with another alabaster trophy for his garden.”
The tromp of many boots and voices faded.
“What now?” Varis asked.
“That sounded like quite a few pairs of boots,” Gilliam said. “Twenty pair, at least.”
“Twenty-seven,” Demarra said.
“Four of them for every one of us,” Gilliam said. He chewed at his nail.
“It takes two of us just to take one of those… things down,” Ana said. “You want to take on dozens of them?”
“I didn’t say I wanted to,” the warrior said. “But they’re going to be ahead of us now. If they turn around, or if we don’t keep enough distance between us, it’s a matter of need, not want.”
“What about restraining some of them?” Varis asked.
Ana shook her head. “As powerful as they are, the spell could probably hold one of them in place. But not for very long.”
Sera nodded her head. “It would take all of my Power to pin just one of them with bonds of air.”
“So we have to rely on muscle and steel,” Varis said, wincing as he rotated his injured shoulder.
The twins had not been silent, but argued back and forth in harsh whispers. Aurora stood up, stalked away from her sister, snatching her arm away as Silva made a grab for it.
“There is a way. Two ways,” the shrike said. She glanced down at her hand, in which she turned the gold-veined green stone over and over.
“Nieah!” Silva cried. “I do not allow it.”
Aurora turned back to her sister. “You would prefer that I throw you into that pack of soulless and simply allow the seals to release again?”
“I do not allow that, either,” Silva said.
“What, then, will you allow?”
Silva stared at her sister, hands clenched. Her lower lip quivered.
Aurora stepped closer. “We need the General right now. Do not think with your soft half-human heart. Remember Trolltop?”
A smile slowly bloomed between the sisters. Then Silva again fell into a pout.
“You know I do not like to run.”
“Now you are just being lazy,” Aurora chided.
Silva gave a sigh, her shoulders slumping. “Let it be as you say, then. It is safest, for them.” She gestured towards the rest of us, but her gaze did not leave her sister.
“It is a price I must pay,” Aurora said. “As you said, I must remember what it is that I am.”