On the Trail
Amber looked into the hazy sky, scanning the region, but in truth she barely saw anything before her. For her true vision, her seeker sight, saw beyond anything corporeal and into the archon realm. The cool air caressed her skin, causing her to shudder briefly, but she barely noticed that as well. Something had happened in the distance not too long ago which captured her attention far more than anything immediately around her, but it would take time to get there. Time that they likely didn’t have.
The region was desolate, harsh and forbidding. It was not a place meant for human life. Yet, their goal lay within the rocky expanse of the stark mountainside. It loomed on the horizon. Serra do Imeri.
“Do you see it?” she asked the man beside her.
“How could I not?” Bryce replied.
In the distance, through the airy fog and clouds, they could see the lights still roiling from an archonic cataclysm that must have happened days ago. But the energies’ intensity lingered, clear for them, and them alone, to see. Vibrant wisps of mana drifted among the clouds – yellows and oranges and reds and deep black. Amber focused her vision, straining to cut through the air and view the source. She could see a boiling pot of archonic mana deep in the mountain, but no clear details.
“It has to be the amber archon. It engaged at odds against the black archon. There can be no other consequence, and the mountain paid the price,” Amber said.
“And everyone around, likely, if your memory of this Duarte’s fortress is accurate,” Bryce said.
“It has to be. There couldn’t be anything else up here. No one would come here unless they wanted to climb the mountain – or hide. Nothing else that would draw two powerful archons to the region, anyway.”
“Well, it seems your instincts were correct. Your amber archon was certainly here, as was the black archon. But they are both gone. It would be valuable to investigate, but to do so would set us farther back on their trail.”
Two others came up to them then, intent on their conversation.
“What now?” Liam asked.
"We need to get a little closer to investigate and pick up the trail, but we need to move fast before it gets too old to follow," Amber answered.
Courtney walked up behind her and wrapped her arms around her. "You should leave me behind. I'll only slow you down. I'll wait here for you."
"No, Courtney. That is not an option," Amber replied. "We stick together, and we won't leave you alone like that."
"You're cold, Amber. You should have brought a heavier coat," Courtney told her.
"I like the cold, and Teijurzi protects me from that too."
But Liam cut in, "I have a better idea. You and Bryce go ahead and see what you need to see. Courtney and I can hang back and use the drones to scout about and keep an eye on you."
"Okay, but you two be careful," Courtney said, supporting the plan. "Promise me."
Amber nodded her head, "It's a good plan. Okay, but I don’t want you two back here without a seeker. Bryce will stay here, too."
“Amber, no!” Courtney said and squeezed her tight, “You’re not going alone! I won’t lose you, too.”
Amber brought Courtney’s hand up to her lips and kissed it, and then pulled away so she could turn and look at her wife. “I’ll be fine. You know I work well alone in the wild, and I can move quieter and faster than any of you.”
Courtney looked at her for a long moment. “You run if you see anything. Don’t get stupid,” she ordered sternly.
“I will,” Amber promised, “and I’ll only get as close as I need to. You can follow me with the drone if you want. Look out for me.”
“I can put a gun on the drone if you want,” Liam offered.
Courtney just nodded.
Amber made her preparations and was ready to go in just a few minutes. She gave them some final instructions before giving Courtney and Liam final hugs and set out. Courtney and Liam would use the drones to scout the area and look for any signs of activity, pointing out potential hot spots for Bryce to investigate with his seeker sight.
Amber moved quickly, silently, and nearly invisibly over the landscape, her skin and clothing covered from head to toe in an archonic illusion of dull mixed greys and browns, resembling the mountain scenery around her. Even her long hair, pinned back in a ponytail, darkened a bit and took on a shade of muted brown, completing the camouflage. She dashed and leaped from rock to rock at inhuman speed, her reflexes enhanced to manage the scramble with practiced ease. It was a technique she had perfected over years of training, and she was unmatched in the skill. Only an archon moving hastily, caring not for its own safety, would be able to keep up with her. Then again, archons rarely needed to worry about injury from such banal activities.
Yet, as swiftly as she traversed the mountainside, it was only a few minutes before she caught sight of a small speck in the sky above her. Though it was tiny and remained at a high elevation, she knew it to be a helicopter-like aircraft shadowing her movements. Almost an hour later, she was severely tiring, but she wouldn’t slow. She needed to get in and out as quickly as possible. Then Courtney’s voice sounded in her earpiece.
“Amber, there are some people out on a ledge off to your right, about two o’clock and a mile away if I’m reading this thing right,” Courtney said.
“That’s right,” she heard Liam confirm.
“It looks like they have guns. Go around them, there’s a small peak thingy just ahead of you. Use it for cover,” Courtney ordered.
Amber had suspected that Hal Jacobs would leave men behind to track down the fugitives, so it came as no surprise. She followed Courtney’s instructions and was able to slip past without drawing their attention, but as she neared the point of interest, activity picked up, and she had to skirt more soldiers. That slowed her progress. If it wasn’t for Courtney’s watchful eye, high in the sky, she would have likely had an encounter by then, but nothing she couldn’t handle, she was sure.
Soon enough, she had the fortress in sight and could clearly see the patterns of mana from the recent archonic conflict. It was a powerful struggle between the two archons, but it was evident to her that the amber archon was the victor, and what powerful resonance she saw in the aftermath of its triumph.
The fortress lay in ruins. It had been a large complex, most likely a paradise carved out in the harsh mountainous landscape, but no longer. The walls had fallen, the house lay in shambles, and the ground was cracked for several hundred yards around the compound. Whatever had caused such devastation was immeasurable and well beyond her comprehension. Had she been present during the event, it would have likely blinded her for hours.
On the heels of such an expenditure of energy, the trail was easy to follow. It seemed the amber archon had descended from the house and plunged to the base of the mountain peak below her. She began following it, and soon enough found the hollowed out cave that looked like it had been partially collapsed in the past. The mana presence was several days old by then, but she was an expert at reading those signatures and could make out the signs.
“It looks like they held up at the base of this peak for a bit. Hiding or maybe stopping to heal. There’s a lot of yellow mana here. Then they took off to the east. I’m following,” she said into her com device.
“Negative, Amber,” Liam said back. “There’s too much activity out that way. It looks like the soldiers found the trail, too. Besides, we found something. Come home.”
“I don’t want to lose the trail,” Amber complained.
“I do not think that will be a problem. I can see a mana signature to the east.” Bryce put in. "It's more recent than the eruption event."
“Come back, now,” Courtney insisted.
As much as she wanted the hunt and was confident she could manage it, Amber knew she should abide them. They had eyes over the landscape and could better assess the situation. Plus, she was outvoted. Yet, she knew there was only one vote that mattered; Courtney would never let Amber out of her sight again if she didn’t obey the decision. “Alright, on my way.”
Fortunately, the trek back was uneventful, and Amber reached their camp in a few short hours, traversing the distance rapidly thanks to the lack of stealth needed. As soon as she came into view and dropped her illusion of camouflage she was tackled by a familiar, charging dark-haired woman. Courtney hit her so hard, they toppled over in a tight embrace, but neither cared.
“Glad to have to you back,” Courtney said, smiling at her.
It brought a smile to Amber’s face as well. It was the first time she saw anything resembling a cheerful mood from Courtney since their invasion of the Calvin Estate. For the last few days, the love of her life had worn a constant face of sorrow, and it had pained Amber deeply to see it.
Liam chuckled lightly at the exchange, but Bryce was all business.
“We determined where the trail picks up to the east, but there are soldiers there patrolling the land,” he said. “It will be difficult to investigate and remain unseen, even with the drones.”
“They have drones, too,” Liam added, “but we are still pretty far away. It’s unlikely we have been spotted yet. We should move soon, though. Just in case.”
“We will have to keep our distance for now, or we might be spotted by their scouts,” Bryce advised. “But we can shadow their movements eastward to get closer along the trail. We should be able to follow it even from this distance.”
The rest of them nodded their agreement.
The four companions gathered themselves and their gear and were prepared to move out only a short while later. They packed light and moved at a modest pace, but the journey still felt like it was going too slowly. Amber and Liam were well-versed in the outdoors thanks to a comprehensive wilderness education from their father while growing up and were best suited to navigating the unforgiving landscape. Still, even they had trouble in some areas. Bryce grumbled and cursed as he walked, and occasionally stumbled, beside them, yet Amber knew he was an experienced world traveler and would be fine.
It was Courtney she worried for, and she looked back at the woman struggling to keep up. Her wife grew up a privileged city girl, who was more at home in the big city nights or in a fancy club. Her only experiences with the outdoors were the few camping trips she had taken with Amber, and Amber had taken it easy on her. Still, Courtney set her jaw and walked on with determination, offering far less complaints than Bryce.
“I do not understand,” Bryce scratched his chin, looking north.
Beside him, Amber shook her head, similarly confused. “It’s just gone.”
“What?” Courtney rasped after draining a long drink from her canteen.
“The trail just ends there,” Amber replied, pointing off to the north, “and I want to know why.”
“Perhaps they went underground,” Bryce offered, the only explanation he could fathom.
“Looks like the soldiers lost it there, too,” Liam said. “I’m bringing the drone in. Batteries are getting low. Maybe you two seekers can keep looking while I change them out, and then we’ll know what to do.”
But search as they did for a few hours more, they still could not pick up the trail again. It was apparent to both Amber and Bryce that an event involving quite a bit of mana took place there and only a day ago at the most, but it left a dead end in its wake.
“Perhaps they enacted some sort of veil to hide themselves,” Liam said, looking at the screen displaying the drone’s activities, which he had set back into the air.
“That should not be possible,” Bryce said. “No archon can hide from a seeker.”
“That’s true, but if anyone can find a way around that, it’s Donald Calvin,” Amber said. “They are here somewhere, and somewhere close. We keep looking.”
“It’s getting dark,” Courtney said, questioning the order.
“We keep looking,” Amber repeated.
But just a few minutes later. Amber began to feel disoriented. She heard a faint call behind her, but when she turned, there was nothing there. It happened a few more times before she collapse to the ground, holding the sides of her head and screaming in agony. Instantly, Courtney and Liam were there, bothering over her, though she was barely even aware of their presence. Then she felt the soothing embrace of Liam’s blue mana, as his love for her poured into her and drove away the intrusion from her mind. She lay panting heavily on the ground as they tended to her, Liam with his mana, and Courtney with affectionate touches and soothing words. But the ethereal presence that attacked her had departed, and she was beginning to make sense of the world again.
“What was it?” Bryce demanded as soon as it was apparent she had recovered.
“I… I’m not sure,” she said. “It was like a voice calling to me. At first, I thought I might be hearing things, but then I realized it was coming from somewhere else – someplace dark and empty as the void itself – the Astral Plane, I think. It must be. And then it wasn’t just calling to me anymore, it was in my head and ripping at my mind.”
“Amber…” Courtney breathed, but had no more words to offer. She simply put her hand on her wife’s back as she knelt beside her.
“It was unreal,” Liam said. “I felt it when I helped her. It was like some otherworldly voice tapping into her head. I don’t know what it wanted with her, but it wanted it bad.” He shuffled uneasily.
“I did not see any mana from a nearby source, Amber,” Bryce said. “If it was an attack, I cannot tell from where it came. I am sorry.”
Amber nodded and struggled to her feet with Courtney’s help. “It’s okay. I know where it came from,” and she looked south toward the far off port city of Manaus, though it was far, far out of sight.