Rai perched on a boulder just beyond Caerdu’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. He’d picked a point with a view of the most direct route to Valeria’s domain. Of course if the Mountain King had warned them. it was possible they’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 he’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 didn’t think that Dariad’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 they’d be thinking of making camp for the night.
“Why wait until night?” Perun, one of his backups, asked. “We could take them out easily in one of the narrow points on the pass.”
“We could, but the Light Warrior has her bracelet now. Do you really want to face that girl in daylight? Besides, it’d be far too easy to accidentally kill her if we attacked there. Valeria wants her alive, and even if she’d been flexible on the order, do you really want to be responsible for Alban’s death?” Rai squelched down a wave of nausea at how close he’d come to being just that when the portal opened.
“Of course not! Alban’s a good kid,” Perun said. “You’re right, this is the best point.”
“Good! Now we’ll hide beyond sensing range in our resting forms, then drop in from above once they’re settled. By the time their heart friends sense us it’ll be too late.
“I don’t think we should sleep tonight,” Karen said as they set up camp. It was already dark and the stars were twinking above them. “If Valeria has sent someone after us they are likely to attack us here. We need to be ready.”
“That’s true.” 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. “Burn, damn you!” There was a whoosh and the kindling and wood burst into flame as Lydia jumped back in surprise. “Oh!”
Karen made a snorting noise. “You get used to that sort of thing.”
Lydia looked at her sharply. “That reminds me. We’ll have that conversation while I’m cooking dinner.”
Karen folded her arms, leaned against the cliff and gave a half smile. “No, we won’t. I can be just as stubborn as you when I need to be. It’s far too dangerous for us to talk about this yet.”
“Dangerous to whom?” Kimi asked from where she was sitting with Andrew.
“Mostly to me and to Alban, but also to you guys. It can’t attack me directly, but while we’re apart it can strike at him – and you saw what that did to me.”
“It?” Kimi asked.
Karen rolled her eyes to the sky but didn’t reply.
Kimi‘s eyes widened in sudden realisation. “No!” she whispered. “You can’t mean the Core?”
“Yes, I can,” Karen said.
“Because they found out something they shouldn’t have,” Eyvindr said. “I just wish I knew what.”
“I’ll explain once we’ve got Alban,” Karen promised. “It can’t attack us that way when we’re together. And it still needs us, so it won’t try anything more permanent. Yet.”
“I don’t understand.” Kimi’s ears drooped. “The Core was created to protect Speakers. Why…” she trailed off unhappily.
Andrew knelt down by his heart friend and scratched at her ears. “Can’t you explain anything about this, Kaz?”
Karen scowled up at the star strewn sky and green moon. “Look at the sky…”
“Eh?” he said.
“What?” Lydia asked simultaneously.
“Look at the sky, what do you see?” she asked.
Lydia looked up thoughtfully. “Well the moon is still full, which it shouldn’t be if it was like our moon and the stars still look and feel wrong to me. There’s something off about them-” she broke off and narrowed her eyes. “There’s far too many of them. Even in the middle of nowhere you wouldn’t see this many at home!”
“There used to be a lot less in the past,” Bennu said. “My grandmother told me that about a century ago there were only about a quarter the number there are now.”
“And they change,” Kimi added. “Very few stars are visible for more than a century.”
“The 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 wouldn’t listen.” She prodded the fire with a stick. “I know, I’m speaking in riddles. I wish I could-” She broke off as the Speakers all tensed. “They’re coming!”