Chapter 27 – The Search
Solonn, Zdir, and Oth appeared in a chamber a short distance from the Zir-Arda residence. It was as close as Oth could get them, now that there were a few others in tow. The only other option was to make more than one trip, and Oth had been advised against teleporting too much for fear that they’d tire out.
The additions to the search party were Ronal, Zereth, and Narzen, though Solonn had too much on his mind to recall their names very easily. He also couldn’t remember exactly how they were related to Zdir; one of them had called her an aunt, but he’d already forgotten which.
Solonn broke away from the small crowd, and the others began following him toward his destination. Once he spotted the familiar ice wall that blocked off his friend’s home, he paused, signaling that the others were close enough. He’d be going in alone, just as Zdir had done on their previous stops; she’d reckoned it would be easier and less startling to break the news to each of them without strangers watching, and he’d agreed.
He moved over to the barrier, glancing back at the others waiting just out of sight from the threshold… out in the open, in conspicuous numbers, with an alien creature hovering among them. Zdir had assured him that the psychic link she now shared with Oth would keep them out of trouble if someone spotted them. In that event, Oth would collect the party with a couple of teleports in quick succession, and they’d all be elsewhere before their discoverers could react.
Hopefully Zdir was right. Hopefully things would go smoothly if it came to that.
Somewhat cautiously, wanting to make as little noise as he could, Solonn tapped on the ice wall a few times with his horn. He heard hushed voices from the other side—glalie voices, thankfully. He hadn’t wanted to wake Katir and Ryneika, Zilag and Hiledas’s children. A blurred pair of blue lights drifted into view, approaching the wall, and then the clouded ice before them vanished.
“Oh hey.” Zilag’s tone fell notably short of its usual energy. “Come on in…” He turned and moved back into the main chamber, and Solonn followed. Solonn saw Hiledas Zir-Arda lingering over by the entrance to the couple’s bedroom, watching him enter.
“What’s going on?” she asked, keeping her voice low, though her tone suggested that she already knew the answer.
“I think it’s fairly obvious,” Zilag said quietly as he resealed the chamber, then turned a somber gaze on Solonn. “Go ahead and have a seat,” he said, then generated some ice for Solonn. Solonn muttered a wordless thanks as he sat down, then took a couple of small bites. He didn’t want to snub the hospitality, and he figured he’d do well to have a little more on his stomach.
Zilag settled down himself, facing Solonn from a few feet away, and Hiledas sat next to her mate. “I tried to get a hold of you after the service,” he said, “but the crowd was…” He shook his head. “I just couldn’t get to you. And when I went to your place, no one was there.”
Zilag sighed again, and for a moment he looked like he was struggling to speak. Finally, in a rather brittle voice, “There was no one at… at Azvida and Jeneth’s home, either. Jen… he was one of the ones who was taken, wasn’t he?” he asked. Solonn nodded regretfully in response. Zilag swore under his breath. “Gods… they’d better find him,” he said.
“I… don’t have much faith in them.” The admission had just slipped out. Solonn had intended to warn Zilag and Hiledas about the lingering threat to the warren prior to letting them know what he was about to try and do, but the way their faces saddened further at his words compelled him to go ahead and let them know something else was being done about the situation. “So a few others and I are going to go search for the children, as well.”
Zilag’s brows drew together in distinct worry, while Hiledas’s rose in what looked like disbelief. “Solonn…” Zilag said tentatively, “that’s certainly brave of you, but… I don’t know. I’m not sure this is something you ought to be doing—I mean, you know what the ones responsible for this are capable of. I can’t say I like the sound of you going right into their lair like that.”
“Oth is with us,” Solonn told him, “as are a few other glalie. Oth can teleport; they can get us out of trouble very fast if need be. And if any of us—or, gods forbid, any of the children—are hurt, they can take us to a place where we can get help—really good help.”
Hiledas cast a meaningful, rather troubled glance at Zilag, who mirrored it somewhat. She looked toward Solonn. “I’ve heard of this… ‘teleporting’,” she began slowly. “And I’ve also heard that it’s a psychic ability…”
Solonn’s expression hardened, his eyes narrowing; he didn’t like the direction the conversation was taking. “That’s irrelevant,” he said sternly. “That ability could be the very thing that saves those children. And I’ll have you know Oth is one of the last people you should be mistrusting right now.” He turned to face Zilag. “You should understand, at least. You remember what I’ve told you about them, don’t you?”
“I do…” Zilag said, but with a hesitance that suggested something left unsaid.
“But what?” Solonn pressed, filling in the blank, sounding more than a little hurt. There he was, having to convince Zilag that Oth and Grosh were innocent when he’d been sure his best friend would just take his word for it. “Please… don’t tell me you think I only trust them because they’re making me trust them.”
“Maybe you should at least consider that possibility,” Hiledas suggested. Solonn glared at her in response.
“Look…” Zilag said carefully, “I want to believe this Oth person’s all right. I really do. But the same time… there are some very, very strange things going on around here lately—very strange and very dangerous. And it’s not the first time something strange has happened to one of us—I’m not assuming Oth had anything to do with your abduction,” he added hurriedly when he saw the pained frustration on Solonn’s face. “I’m trying not to assume much of anything at this point.” He drew a deep breath as if bracing himself for something. “And that’s why I’m going with you.”
Hiledas shot Zilag a rather distressed look, while Solonn could only stare blankly at him, at a loss for how to feel about his friend’s choice—especially given the reasons behind it.
“Are you insane?” Hiledas hissed at Zilag. “You can’t go out there facing gods only know what with people we don’t even know if we can trust!”
“If we can trust them, if they really are the best chance those kids have at being rescued, then they should get all the help they can. I don’t want to have to wonder someday if things could have gone better if I’d helped out. Hiledas… that could have been Katir out there.”
Much of the severity left Hiledas’s features, her mouth falling partway open. “…I still don’t like this,” she said quietly, lowering her gaze.
“I know,” Zilag said. “But I have to do this. I have to do my part, and I have to look out for my friend.”
“I don’t need you to protect me from Oth,” Solonn insisted, but his tone told that his anger was beginning to dissolve. Even if Zilag still fell short of understanding the situation, his earnest desire to help make things right made up for it somewhat.
“Hopefully you don’t,” Zilag said. “And hopefully you won’t need protecting from anything else, either. At any rate, I’m still going.”
Solonn held his gaze in silence for another moment, then sighed and nodded in acceptance.
“Fine,” Hiledas conceded as well, but she still sounded none too happy about Zilag’s decision. “I’ll stay with the kids—you’d better come home,” she told Zilag, but there was earnest concern there alongside the warning. “Don’t you dare make me have to explain to our daughters that they’ll never see their father again.”
“I’ll try,” he told her, though he sounded a little less than confident. “I’ll try as hard as I possibly can. Just… well, just in case… tell them I love them, okay?”
Hiledas’s frown deepened, the light in her eyes wavering. She nodded, apparently unable to find her voice in the moment.
Zilag moved closer to Hiledas, closing his eyes and lowering his head, allowing his forehead to touch hers. “Goodbye,” he said, adding, “for now.” He lifted his gaze once more and looked toward Solonn. “Guess we’d better head out, then,” he said, moving toward the exit.
“Wait,” Solonn said, halting him. He turned to face both Zilag and Hiledas once more. “There’s something you both need to know—that’s the main reason I came here in the first place.” Zilag and Hiledas both looked at him attentively. He opened his mouth to speak… but then paused. Telling them to spread the word about the mistaken leadership and lingering threat could get them knocked out and thrown into prison chambers. Their children might never see them again.
He inhaled and tried another approach. “Just… look after yourselves, all right?” he said finally, opting for a more general warning. “Look after yourselves and everyone you know. Zilag has a point about keeping an open mind,” he acknowledged aloud, though he aimed the notion in a different direction. “Don’t assume you’re safe just because the authorities say you are, and tell everyone you can to stay vigilant, too,” he advised.
Zilag nodded at this, as did Hiledas, though the light in the latter’s eyes still fluttered with uncertainty. Hoping that they’d heed his warning, “Goodbye,” Solonn said to Hiledas. “You and your daughters stay safe. Please.” Then he turned back toward the exit. Zilag removed the ice barrier, replacing it once he and Solonn were in the corridor outside, and the two went down the hall to join the rest of the party.
* * *
The search began in the border-cavern. Through Oth, Zdir explained that the Security Guild most likely had the warren covered, and that the children were likely being held by exiles somewhere outside of Virc territory anyhow.
She instructed the others to exercise caution around any glalie they encountered and to avoid conflict—with the exiles, with guild members on a search of their own, or with anyone else—unless it was absolutely necessary to engage them. Meanwhile, wherever circumstances allowed it, they’d seek information from members of other species. Perhaps they’d noticed something that could point the way to the missing snorunt.
There were nods of acceptance from the others, but there was poorly concealed uncertainty on some of their faces, including Solonn’s. He had a hard time imagining any of Shoal Cave’s inhabitants wanting to cooperate with a bunch of predators, to say nothing of how they might react to Oth. But the alternative was a virtually blind search through caverns that extended gods knew how far and in gods knew how many directions. If they wasted too much time…
He caught Zilag’s eye. His friend returned the most reassuring look he could manage. Solonn suspected the sentiment was directed inward as much as outward.
The seven moved through the border cavern in a tight cluster with Oth at the center, staying close together to ensure that no one was left behind if they had to make a sudden escape. But when they reached the narrow passageway leading out into Shoal Cave proper, they were forced into single file.
Oth was fourth in line, hovering high enough to let them see over the heads of the glalie. Worry gnawed at Solonn as he followed at the very back, hoping that he and everyone else at the ends of the line were close enough for Oth to spirit away.
No danger had showed itself thus far. The border-cavern had been devoid of life, and the tunnel that led out of it was proving likewise. As the seven emerged into an open space once more and proceeded to explore it, that trend continued. Minute after minute passed, and one stone chamber after another turned up empty.
This did nothing to ease the tension that hung over the air. Sooner or later, the party knew, they’d run into someone. They could only hope it wasn’t the wrong someone.
Sure enough, the glalie in the party soon detected someone warm-bodied, and everyone heard the sound of flapping wings. The party halted, and several pairs of blue eyes turned toward a tunnel that curved rather sharply out of sight. The creature was just around the bend.
They lay in wait for a short time to see if there was anyone else down that passageway—more specifically, anyone who wasn’t warm-bodied. Apparently there wasn’t; no crack sounded to indicate a hunter picking the unseen creature off. The heat signature remained steady rather than suddenly vanishing, and its source was staying put rather than fleeing.
Zdir turned to face the others and nodded. The party entered the narrow passageway in the same formation as they’d entered all the rest: three glalie ahead of Oth, three behind, and Zdir in the lead. Just as she was about to disappear around the bend, a shrill chittering arose.
In almost the same instant, a thick ice barrier formed behind the party, sealing off that end of the tunnel. Solonn could hear another one solidifying up ahead—the flying creature could no longer escape.
<It is only a lone male zubat,> Oth informed the others. To the zubat, <Do not be afraid. We mean you no harm,> they said, using the most calm and soothing mindvoice they could manage. The zubat had stopped chittering but could still be heard fluttering about out of sight. <We are merely seeking information. Please try to respond as quietly as possible. We need to know if you have smelled or heard anything out of the ordinary recently, and if so, where.>
“Other than you just now, no!” the zubat said. To his credit, he managed to keep his voice down to a hiss. “Now please, go away! Leave me alone!”
<Very well. Thank you for your time.> The ice barriers vanished, and the wingbeats dwindled away as their maker finally fled. <We shall proceed, then,> the claydol said to the rest of the group, and the line began moving once more.
The search wore on. A detached sense of fatigue and hunger was starting to set in, but there was far too much on Solonn’s mind for him to care—a mind that was beginning to play tricks on him. Anything even remotely shaped like a snorunt warranted extra glances back to confirm that it wasn’t one. Phantom movements in the corner of his eye kept seizing his attention only to have nothing to show, with no indication that any of the others had seen anything, either.
The seven encountered and questioned more zubat along the way. Just like the first, the second knew nothing of any value to the party, and the same was true of the third. The fourth’s initial response was to fire a confuse ray at the party; the attack was foiled by Ronal’s protect aura, and an ice beam fired as a warning shot by Zdir dissuaded the zubat from attacking again. But even once he agreed to cooperate, he had nothing useful to say.
At length, the seven found themselves in walrein territory… or what should have been walrein territory. They’d been prepared for trouble from the natives, but the natives were nowhere to be found, alive or otherwise.
Their total absence troubled Solonn further, especially since were no signs of any struggle here. Maybe they’d simply relocated, but the lack of evidence as to why they weren’t around reminded him uncomfortably of what had happened to the missing snorunt—they’d also been described as simply gone. If the same thing was behind the abduction of those snorunt and the emptiness of this place…
He didn’t want to believe it. The possibility reminded him too much of Hagen’s theories. But it was getting harder and harder to imagine that exiled glalie in any numbers could make people vanish so thoroughly. Believing that the enemies might have a teleporter in their midst after all, meanwhile…
Solonn shuddered hard and tried to chase those notions away, tried to remind himself that the walrein and their charges still could have left of their own accord. But the other possibilities just wouldn’t leave him be. He could no longer be certain of what he was facing, leaving him all the more worried for the snorunt, for the party seeking them, and for the Virc.
The caverns beyond the deserted territory mirrored those just beyond the border-cavern; there was no one about, not even any zubat. The imagined presences and movements kept popping up, however, and now that Solonn was helplessly entertaining the notion of enemies who could teleport, his mind’s tricks had him more on edge than ever.
Then a faint blue light appeared in the chamber they’d just entered, followed by a glalie who was carrying a pair of dead zubat in his jaws, and neither Solonn nor anyone with him could dismiss the stranger as an illusion. Solonn automatically raised a protect shield around himself; out of the corner of his eye, he saw some of the other glalie in his party do likewise.
The stranger noticed them right away. “Hey!” he shouted, the zubat falling from his mouth, and as the stranger surged forward, Solonn caught a glimpse of more unfamiliar glalie rushing into the room—only to immediately lose them in a briefly-lingering burst of golden light.
The party reappeared somewhere else altogether: suddenly they were outdoors in a forest of conifers, under the weak sunlight of the early morning. There was one more glalie in their midst than there should have been, and as he tore away from the others in a hurry, Solonn recognized him as the first stranger they’d seen in their previous location. They were alone with him now.
Why, Solonn wondered at once, did Oth bring that glalie with them?
The stranger lit up with a dark blue aura as he backpedaled, and Solonn realized in nearly the same instant that his own protect shield had fallen. His heart hammering, he tried to bring it back up as fast as he could, feeling the slightest relief when he succeeded.
The stranger’s eyes, already wide and blazing with obvious bewilderment and fear, gave a brilliant white flash—just as everything went gold and featureless again. The picture that followed was nearly identical to the one that had come before; the white light in the stranger’s eyes was gone, and Oth had moved a few yards forward.
The stranger looked about frantically until he found the claydol. Without really giving it any thought, Solonn tapped into the highest power of his element and kept a hold on it, ready to strike the moment the stranger’s shield fell—
—And then there was a third burst of golden light, another lingering one. The first thing Solonn saw in its wake was the now shieldless stranger dropping to the floor as an echoing crack sounded.
Solonn looked over the rest of the party to try and figure out who’d beaten him to the strike. He saw Zdir breathing heavily and staring at the unconscious glalie, and he immediately suspected the nhaza had been her doing.
Though not ungrateful, Solonn couldn’t deny that there was an easier way to have solved the trouble they’d gotten into: she’d said that they’d avoid any conflict wherever possible, and they could’ve gotten out of that situation altogether the moment it had reared its head.
He was inclined to ask why they hadn’t done just that—as it stood, it seemed like Zdir had put them in needless danger. He saw looks on the faces of the other glalie that suggested they might be thinking likewise.
Meanwhile, the scenery had changed yet again. It was nighttime here, and the trees were gone entirely; there was only a vast expanse of snow, featureless white terrain extending to the horizon in every direction.
<For any among you who are wondering where we are, we are in Aderi. We are far from Shoal Cave—we are safe here from anyone who would pose a threat to us,> Oth spoke up from beside the fallen glalie, fielding the question of their current whereabouts before anyone could voice it. <We are also far from Mordial,> they added for Solonn’s sake.
<Zdir has identified this person as one of the exiles,> they went on. There was a distinct unease in their mindvoice… a hesitance, Solonn thought. <As such, she believes that he is likely to have been involved with the abduction of the snorunt. He may therefore know their current location.>
A chill ran through Solonn as he looked upon the stranger, his throat going dry, the light in his eyes unsteady. It had just truly hit him: this might have been the one who took Jen. This might also have been the one who took Azvida’s life or Jeneth’s, or even both… Solonn felt his stomach turn at the thought, and he gritted his teeth.
<If it turns out this person had nothing to do with the kidnappings and murders, we will return him to Shoal Cave and resume our search.> They lowered their head very slightly. <I will now determine if that is the case, as well as if this person knows anything else that would be of use to us.>
Solonn’s eyes went wide. He’d realized at once just how Oth was going to determine those things, and he couldn’t pretend it didn’t disturb him in a deep and very personal way. He shot a rather shocked and disappointed look at Zdir—it had to have been her idea. He couldn’t imagine Oth volunteering that course of action. Not when they’d always asked for consent before looking into someone else’s mind.
“Is this really necessary?” Solonn asked her.
Zdir looked at him with an expression he couldn’t decipher. “You can’t mean what you’re asking. Surely you of all people would recognize this as something that needs to be done,” she said somberly. “You heard Oth: this person is very likely to know where the children are—probably moreso than anyone else we’re likely to encounter anytime soon. If he does know something about it, we need to know it, too.”
Offense moved swiftly into Solonn’s features; he didn’t like even the slightest suggestion that he wasn’t giving the kidnapped snorunt due concern, especially considering who was among them. “Well, yes, of course we do, but—”
“But what?” Zdir interrupted him. “Should we really take the time to wake him, deal with any further attempts to fight us or flee from us, and then try and get him to answer our questions once we’ve got him cooperating that far? That could be time that the children don’t have. We don’t know what their captors ultimately intended to do with them when they took them.”
Solonn tried to respond to her. Instead he ended up breaking eye contact with her and shutting his mouth almost as soon as he’d opened it, not knowing what to say. He wasn’t even sure what to think. He agreed with Zdir in a way; he couldn’t stand the thought of further harm befalling the snorunt, and he especially didn’t want it to happen just because they’d failed to stop it in time. But he still had a hard time agreeing with what she’d decided to do with that glalie’s mind.
Gods… why do you even care so much about him? part of him asked, reminding him who that person lying there might be and what that person might have done. Images of broken bodies in the mist-filled temple raced through his mind, images of ruined eyes on a painfully familiar face looking up at him as their owner’s life ebbed away, and he couldn’t bite back the choked, near-voiceless sob they brought from him.
Then another mental image intruded: a dragon made of blazing light with pitch-black holes for eyes. The sob sharpened into a hiss.
Solonn turned to face Oth and ask if they, at least, were fine with what they were about to do… only to find the claydol hovering before and slightly above the exile with their head lowered and all but the foremost of their eyes closed. They’d already begun their scan.
He looked away at once. It was hard enough to see someone hanging there and probing the mind of another person, enemy or not, like some kind of psychic parasite. It was even worse since that someone was his friend. He only hoped at this point that Oth’s search would bear fruit, that it would indeed lead to the children’s salvation.
Minutes passed, a wait made no easier by his awareness that searching the exile’s mind might not yield anything useful, thus resulting in precious time wasted and a mind invaded in vain. Come on, he urged Oth, at least get it over with…
Finally, <This person is indeed involved with the guilty parties, and he knows exactly where the children are being held.> Even now, with the deed done, Oth still sounded hesitant, and something of a somber tone had crept into their mindvoice, as well. This immediately struck Solonn as ominous—had Oth discovered even more bad news regarding the children? <I will be transporting us there shortly, picking up the snorunt, and then transporting them along with the rest of us and this glalie to the Haven. I am sorry to say that someone has… tampered with the children’s minds, making them believe that they belong among the exiles—hopefully the people at the Haven can undo this tampering.>
Solonn could have sworn his heart stopped for a moment at those words. The news that there was someone among their enemies who could control minds and that such a thing had been done to those children—to his own half-brother—hit him so hard and on such a personal level that he had to sit down before he could simply fall from the air. He saw the others moving toward Oth for their imminent teleportation and tried with little success to calm himself, leafing through his memories of the Haven and its various psychic therapists as he managed to rise and join the rest of the party.
Please… let one of them fix him.