Rai perched on a boulder just beyond Caerduâ€™s borders and waited. He was in his small resting form – his full form was so large and brightly coloured, it would be easily spotted. Heâ€™d picked a point with a view of the most direct route to Valeriaâ€™s domain. Of course if the Mountain King had warned them. it was possible theyâ€™d take another route. But there were only so many ways to get from Caerdu to the Storm palace without travelling through dragon territory, and he doubted they were ready to risk that. So heâ€™d called in reinforcements from his eyrie and had set them to watching the other two likely routes as well. He wished he dared send another spy imp to Caerdu to watch for them, but he didnâ€™t think that Dariadâ€™s threat had been idle.
His reinforcements arrived just in time. The morning after they arrived, he saw a small group emerge from the darkness that surrounded Caerdu and head towards the pass he was watching. Once he was sure it was the humans and their heart friends, he sent an imp to summon his two reinforcements and began to scout for a good ambush point.
In the end the place suggested itself, a small valley with a spring and plenty of shelter from the mountain winds that the group would reach just around the time theyâ€™d be thinking of making camp for the night.
â€œWhy wait until night?â€ Perun, one of his backups, asked. â€œWe could take them out easily in one of the narrow points on the pass.â€
â€œWe could, but the Light Warrior has her bracelet now. Do you really want to face that girl in daylight? Besides, itâ€™d be far too easy to accidentally kill her if we attacked there. Valeria wants her alive, and even if sheâ€™d been flexible on the order, do you really want to be responsible for Albanâ€™s death?â€ Rai squelched down a wave of nausea at how close heâ€™d come to being just that when the portal opened.
â€œOf course not! Albanâ€™s a good kid,â€ Perun said. â€œYouâ€™re right, this is the best point.â€
â€œGood! Now weâ€™ll hide beyond sensing range in our resting forms, then drop in from above once theyâ€™re settled. By the time their heart friends sense us itâ€™ll be too late.
â€œI donâ€™t think we should sleep tonight,â€ Karen said as they set up camp. It was already dark and the stars were twinking above them. â€œIf Valeria has sent someone after us they are likely to attack us here. We need to be ready.â€
â€œThatâ€™s true.â€ Lydia sat back on her heels and scowled at the pile of sticks in front of her. She was trying to kindle a campfire but the wood was too damp. â€œBurn, damn you!â€ There was a whoosh and the kindling and wood burst into flame as Lydia jumped back in surprise. â€œOh!â€
Karen made a snorting noise. â€œYou get used to that sort of thing.â€
Lydia looked at her sharply. â€œThat reminds me. Weâ€™ll have that conversation while Iâ€™m cooking dinner.â€
Karen folded her arms, leaned against the cliff and gave a half smile. â€œNo, we wonâ€™t. I can be just as stubborn as you when I need to be. Itâ€™s far too dangerous for us to talk about this yet.â€
â€œDangerous to whom?â€ Kimi asked from where she was sitting with Andrew.
â€œMostly to me and to Alban, but also to you guys. It canâ€™t attack me directly, but while weâ€™re apart it can strike at him – and you saw what that did to me.â€
â€œIt?â€ Kimi asked.
Karen rolled her eyes to the sky but didnâ€™t reply.
Kimiâ€˜s eyes widened in sudden realisation. â€œNo!â€ she whispered. â€œYou canâ€™t mean the Core?â€
â€œYes, I can,â€ Karen said.
â€œBecause they found out something they shouldnâ€™t have,â€ Eyvindr said. â€œI just wish I knew what.â€
â€œIâ€™ll explain once weâ€™ve got Alban,â€ Karen promised. â€œIt canâ€™t attack us that way when weâ€™re together. And it still needs us, so it wonâ€™t try anything more permanent. Yet.â€
â€œI donâ€™t understand.â€ Kimiâ€™s ears drooped. â€œThe Core was created to protect Speakers. Why…â€ she trailed off unhappily.
Andrew knelt down by his heart friend and scratched at her ears. â€œCanâ€™t you explain anything about this, Kaz?â€
Karen scowled up at the star strewn sky and green moon. â€œLook at the sky…â€
â€œEh?â€ he said.
â€œWhat?â€ Lydia asked simultaneously.
â€œLook at the sky, what do you see?â€ she asked.
Lydia looked up thoughtfully. â€œWell the moon is still full, which it shouldnâ€™t be if it was like our moon and the stars still look and feel wrong to me. Thereâ€™s something off about them-â€ she broke off and narrowed her eyes. â€œThereâ€™s far too many of them. Even in the middle of nowhere you wouldnâ€™t see this many at home!â€
â€œThere used to be a lot less in the past,â€ Bennu said. â€œMy grandmother told me that about a century ago there were only about a quarter the number there are now.â€
â€œAnd they change,â€ Kimi added. â€œVery few stars are visible for more than a century.â€
â€œThe Core is planning something that it believes will protect speakers, but will in fact put out the stars. We tried to warn it, but it wouldnâ€™t listen.â€ She prodded the fire with a stick. â€œI know, Iâ€™m speaking in riddles. I wish I could-â€ She broke off as the Speakers all tensed. â€œTheyâ€™re coming!â€