Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Twenty: And Then There Were Four
“So, what do you think?” Nate asks Duc and I when the woman departs, acquiescing to our request to have a moment of private discussion. She’s off in search of food—whatever that means—even though we have plenty of dried leftovers, including some of Nate’s favorite poison cattails.
“She’s amazing,” I say honestly and without hesitation.
And it’s the truth. Xenia—as her name turns out to be—is smoothly graceful, gracefully mysterious, and mysteriously lethal. Her movements are quick and decisive, her voice commands authority—only in my wildest dreams do I exhibit that level of self-control and precision, and my “wildest dreams” usually have more to do with a streamlined ability to eat donuts than striding around woodland clearings like a perfect machine.
She is, in a word, everything I am not.
Nate gives me a slight smile. “She certainly managed to overpower us quickly enough. But what I meant was: what do you think about her story—about Tristan and Bradley being kidnapped?”
I frown. “Oh. That.”
I’d been trying very hard not to dwell on this, but if I’m being honest with myself, it doesn’t sound promising for our friends that people around here are routinely whisked away and never heard from again. Not promising at all.
Maybe they’re killed. Or maybe they’re let go, only they go somewhere else, or Xenia just doesn’t know about it. She can’t be keeping up to date on local news and tracking her sister’s captors and schooling us with her superiority all at once, after all.
“And we’re certain it’s the same people who took Xenia’s sister?” Nate says.
I recall Xenia, her voice tight with anger. “Many are taken,” she’d explained. “Young, old, man, woman—I have observed no common thread among them, except that they are taken without their consent, some right from their beds, and so swiftly that no one remaining has ever seen the people responsible.”
I wrap my arms around myself, shivering. I’d assumed Bradley was taken after leaving my lean-to to relieve himself or return to his own shelter, but is it possible that someone came into our camp and snatched them right out of their beds? In one case, right out of my bed?
I sigh. “It’s not like we have a whole lot of options. She was tracking them this direction. We were right in their path. It’s literally our only lead.”
Then, I’m struck by a sudden thought.
“Do you think it’s a way home?” I wonder out loud in hushed tones. I hardly dare voice the rest of it: “Another portal?” I try to think if I’ve noticed a recent influx of out-of-place-looking people in or around Myrick lately, or any other evidence that there’s an open portal back to our world. But honestly, for such a small town, there’s a pretty strong jam band scene, and odd characters wearing strange clothes and looking a little out of touch with their surroundings isn’t exactly noteworthy. And if there was anything to notice—if a goddamn portal had opened up in the middle of downtown Myrick—I’ve been so wrapped up in my own problems I doubt I would have noticed anything.
But no one offers anything more than a shrug, and Nate looks uncomfortable with the fact that he has nothing insightful to add. Without the equipment Tristan had assembled, we know the only way we can get back on our own is to build another one—but Tristan had lost all knowledge of how to do so, and we had lost Tristan. As it stands now, we are absolutely, entirely lost at sea, with no point of orientation and no idea what sea we’re even in or what strange lands surround us.
Nate finally speaks. “No way to know. But let’s keep those details to ourselves for now. Xenia may find where we came from and how we got here a little . . . hard to believe.”
The understatement makes me snort. It’s hard enough for me to believe it, and I’m one of the ones it happened to. But something about the idea of keeping secrets from Xenia makes me a little nervous.
I look at Duc, who nods. After a moment, I join him. The gleaming tip of Xenia’s arrowhead flicks across my mind. I shove the image away, sending a secret prayer to the god of liars that this will be the one lie in the history of lies that doesn’t come back and bite the asses of everyone involved in it.
“It’s settled, then,” Nate says. “Xenia will lead us there. Our number-one goal is to rescue Tristan and Bradley and her sister. The two of them can do what they like from there, but our next goal is getting Tristan whatever he needs to build another portal.”
I think doubtfully of Xenia’s hand-fastened leather garb, the rustic (if well-made) bow she carries. Whether Nate really believes what he’s saying or whether he’s simply bluffing to try to make things easier for us to deal with, nothing I’ve seen has convinced me that we’ll find electricity in this world, much less a toaster oven or a Fender amplifier.
But Duc nods at Nate, so I nod too. We can worry about that one later—once we have Tristan and Bradley back.
Just then, we hear a noise in the forest. We turn as one as Xenia crashes through the foliage and into the clearing, showing little of her previous stealth—because, slung across her shoulders by each set of legs is a giant four-legged mammal about the size of a medium-size deer, which is to say it’s completely dwarfing her.
Despite her burden, she nods at us as she enters the clearing. Gripping the animal tightly, two legs in each hand, Xenia approaches the cold fire pit, crouches, then springs, hoisting it overhead and onto the ground in front of her in one smooth motion.
Again, I feel a rush of admiration: this is a woman who expends no more effort than necessary, whose every motion is precisely the one required to carry out a task, no more and no less, who conserves the most fuel possible and who seems to have a nearly infinite supply of it. Standing still, she is infinite kinetic energy. In motion, she is a dancer.
Duc lets out a low whistle, which is the exact thing I would do right now if I could.
She looks up at us, a hint of bewilderment on her otherwise neutral expression, and lifts an eyebrow. “Is something amiss?”