I drew on the strength of the thick nighttime shadows, and they embraced my body, shrouding me from sight as I regarded my target. He knelt on the edge of the riverbank and pressed a cylinder into the mire just above the water. A lantern cast a halo of light at his feet, though it did not reach into the woods. The man eased up to his feet with a grunt.
"I ‘spose I should tell ya what it is that boy wanted me to tell ya." He said.
I furrowed my brow and gripped my bow, the darkness condensed around me, responding to my emotion.
"Course, if ya ain’t there, I sure look foolish doin’ this." The man chuckled. After a moment he turned, squinting into the sky. "But no, yer there, it’s much too dark a night for this time a year. Them shades like to hang about you Echoes."
Nocking an arrow, I lifted my bow and the shadows spread out around me, spilling like ink over paper. The lantern hissed out, and clouds swung over the moon, leaving the forest in utter blackness. As I drew my bow, the leaves rustled overhead, seeming to shiver with anticipation.
"I’m ready to die now - don’ got no one left in this life to live for anyway. Jus’ hear me out, your brother is sorry fer leavin’ ya, he left you a message in that tube, didn't want no one else to hear it."
I released the arrow and waited for the satisfaction of the kill as he collapsed. Instead, the thought that Calanon was actually sorry for leaving wedged into my mind like a thorn. My throat constricted, and I forced the thought away. Cal should have thought about being sorry before he ran away.
I strode to my target and knelt at his shoulders. "Poor old man," I whispered, brushing my fingertips over his forehead, "too bad I’m smarter than you. Your death yielded no gain." Using my dagger, I sliced the familiar words into the moist earth: Beware the Echo of your treachery. I stood and moved around his body, feeling along the riverbank for the capsule. Mud caked my hand and arm, while roots stabbed me. I found an opening in the dirt and dug into it with my fingers. I pried the tube out and dipped it into the water to rinse it and myself of the grime. After drying it on the inside of my cloak, I opened it and slid a roll of paper out. Reading it as I walked, I started towards where I left my horse.
If you are reading this that means you are beginning to see what caused me leave the city those seven years ago(I’m certain the rule about bringing messages passed between Exiles to your Mentor without reading them has stayed the same). The government is flawed, the people are dying because of the Council… but that is not what I wrote to say. I truly am sorry. I wish with every fiber of my being that I could go back and change that night, change the fact that I left you there. Please, come to the camp, and then you can see why I had to leave, why I couldn’t stay and watch Kieran,I could never call him Father now, destroy the people he taught me to lead… and perhaps you could forgive me? I love you, my dear Adi. Think about it.
Before long, I had relaxed enough that the sounds of the night creatures returned, and the shadows had become less murky. Moon light sifted down through trees, dappling the ground. A breath of wind stirred the foliage and lifted a layer of leaves from earth, then let them flutter back down. Smoke rose in ivory tendrils from the crackling embers of my teammates’ fire. "Look who’s here at long last," Neil said, "Our very own Adira. We were starting to think you slipped up and let that old fox put you out. Weren’t we Nolan?"
Ignoring Neil, Nolan lifted a log onto the fire and blew on the ashes until flames flickered up.
I hissed through my teeth, dismounted and tied back Tempest’s reigns. Nolan nodded a greeting and handed me a plate of food. The scent of fresh game wafted up and I breathed it in.
Neil narrowed his eyes, "weren’t we Nolan?"
Nolan shrugged, "Maybe you were,"
I smirked and began to eat. Neil’s eyes burned with fury and the shadows around him contracted guarding his form from the untrained eye. "You!" he growled, "the both of you are just wimps!"
I rolled my eyes, "Would we be anything else to you?"
"Adira, you, you," his nose flared as he seemed to grope for the best insult possible, "with your betraying, lying, filthy, fox of brother, you’re just a wretched—"
Nolan stood, quivering with contained anger, "That’s enough Neil."
"-Selfish, fox-hearted, weak, little daddy’s girl."
I sprang up, darkness roiling around me. "You had better take that back!"
"Now, why would I do that?" he mocked.
I let out a growl and jumped on him, pinning him to the ground. He kneed me in the stomach, rolling me onto the ground. I swung my legs around and swept his feet out from under him. Jumping on his back, I twisted his wrists behind him and gathered all blackness of the night I could muster, pulling on the hate of all the past things he had said against me. As the shadows lent me their strength, their own bitterness, I felt the power well up within me. The fire hissed out, and moonlight disappeared. It overpowered everything around me, taking the energy of the light and feeding it to me.
"Adira, stop, you’re going to kill him!" Nolan shouted.
"Not until he takes it back."
"All right, all right, you’re not fox-hearted, you’re not weak!" he choked.
"And don’t you ever forget it again." I pressed my knee into his back for good measure, then released him and sat by the now dead fire, still seething.
He lay on his back gasping, "You’re crazy girl."
I stared into the trees, blinking back my frustration. I forced myself to take a deep breath and let it our slowly. Moon light sifted down through the treetops. Nolan grimaced and settled next to me again. He offered me a smile and my now cold food. I looked into his concerned face, and then turned away. He was so readable.
"Nolan, you have first watch, Neil, second, I will take last. We move at dawn," They both nodded and Nolan packed away the food. Sleep found me quickly. It seeped into my mind and carried with it a dream, a memory that I had forgotten and did not wish to remember.
Shadows streaked the walls, they shifted as I approached, seeming to reach for me. Hesitant, I paused before the door.
"They are responding to you. They are bound to you; use them to your advantage. Also, remember what you have come for. Find out if she is a traitor, you have been trained in what to do if she is." My mentor whispered from behind me.
I nodded, forcing my fingers to turn the knob, and stepped in. Mykal knelt in the window seat, her back to me. In one hand she held a ragged stuffed bear, the last piece of her childhood she could hold onto. Her other hand pressed against the glass, her breath fogging it so that the forest outside the academy walls seemed even more haunted than usual.
The floorboards whined as I walked towards her. My friend dropped the bear and turned to face me, her shoulders relaxed when she saw that it was me. Weakling! She didn’t even hear me coming.
"Adi, I’m glad you’re here. I wanted to talk to you; I think I’ve figured out why Calanon and Rylan left. I found this paper that seems to be a map. It was inside of Dusty." She lifted the bear and gently probed into a rip on the toy’s side, coming out with a folded piece of paper. "Maybe it’ll show us how to get to where they –"
"It’s true then," my voice seemed distant, "You would betray the Council for a couple foxes" I interrupted.
"What?" Mykal whispered, her blue eyes widening in pained disbelief. "I thought-don’t you want to see Calanon again?"
"Of course I do,"
She let out her breath and smiled again.
"So that I can avenge the Council for his blasphemy," I hissed, reaching under my cloak to loosen my dagger.
"Adira, I don’t understand, we were always going to find them…" her voice trailed off and tears rimmed her eyes. "Remember how we promised not to let them go without a goodbye?"
"Yes, I plan to say goodbye, after I hand them over to the Council. If you have any other intentions then you’re-" I faltered, my voice suddenly weak, and swallowed my own tears, "you’re a traitor too,"
"I could never turn Rylan or Cal in." She began to cry, "I thought you were the same. I trusted you!"
"I trusted you too," I grit my teeth, "I thought you would hold true to the Council, serve them, I guess we were both wrong about each other." I drew my dagger.
"No, no," she shook her head while backing away from me.
"I’m sorry dear friend, you brought this upon yourself. The Country can not afford to have a soldier who would dessert just to see her fox of a brother again." I strode up to her, forcing her backwards until she fell onto the window seat. I stabbed my blade into her neck. She gave a sharp cry, gasped and slumped to ground. The lifeblood of my closest friend stained my hands. My fingers released the knife and it fell, thudding hollowly in the still air. I dropped to my knees beside her, pressing my palms into the hard wood. My hair slid over my face, veiling the tears that streamed down my cheeks. I let out my breath and gasped in lungful of burning air. A hand clasped my shoulder. I bit my lips together, trying to stop the entourage of pain. My chest heaved and a choked sob broke through my defenses.
"Come now, child. You did the right thing; this is for the good of the Council."
I coughed on the lump that crawled up my throat. I sucked in air through my teeth and whimpered.
"You must never allow someone to get so close to you again. It won’t ever be this hard to do what you are called to do. Most of all you must never, never underestimate yourself. If you could take care of this deceiver, you can take on any of them. Keiran will be proud."
I breathed through my mouth, stifling the tears. Vassander squeezed my shoulder. I lifted my chin and retrieved my dagger.
I wiped it on the hem of the girl’s tunic.
Gripping the hilt, I moved around to her head and carved the well rehearsed line into the floor. Beware the Echo of your treachery.