Chapter 16



ow, when you think "Missy" you probably think of a little old lady or a friend or something ordinary of that sort.

            You do not think tiger.

            Landon couldn't help but glance at the huge striped cat every once and a while. He'd only heard about tigers—they were indigenous to tropical places, not cities. Apparently, Missy had been Raina's pet since she was little, and she'd taken her along when she'd run away. The massive feline had been living in the alleys and lived off of garbage and scraps a few brave people threw her. She was also the reason they'd survived thugs living in the city.

            Even with an army behind him and a wolf to his left, the tiger seemed to attract his attention every time his eyes ventured too far to the right. It was rather unnerving to be surrounded by lethal creatures, including Mark and the soldiers. Especially Mark.

            He rode a camel near the front of the group, by Stefan and the others. The soldiers came next, then the wagons. It was a far cry from the beginning of his journey, when it was just Mark, Chelsea, and him. Those were the good times.

             Before they'd left, Jeaine had healed him in case of developing bruises from the fight. He didn't really need it, but he let her do it to make herself feel useful. It always made her happy to help.

            His mouth felt as dry as the air around him. He took a quick swig of water out of his canteen and hung it on the saddle, resisting the urge to dump it all on his head. The soldiers' feet sank into the loose sand as they marched through the desert. There was a short stretch of desert from the city to the mountains, in which they marched miserably, stopping every few minutes to empty their boots of sand. Landon and his friends had been given camels to ride so they didn't have to walk like the soldiers. He felt bad, but he figured there was nothing her could do for them. Besides, swaying back and forth on the world's ugliest creature wasn't something he wanted to force on anyone, even if it did mean sandy shoes.

            He severely missed Wildfire.

            He glanced behind him and saw that several of the soldiers were pointing at him and whispering to each other. They were only about a few hours distance from the city and he was already getting used to the awed glances. They couldn't seem to get enough of him, some even approaching him. He was polite to them, but he didn't feel comfortable being the center of attention all the time. He felt like he had to be poised at all times so as not to make a fool of himself.  

            Just to entertain himself (and the soldiers) he whipped the wind at the sand a little ways off and watched as it sprayed it into the air. He tested his control by making a small whirlwind or two and observing as he let the wind take a life of its own and slowly dissipate. When he stopped controlling it, he found that the stronger the current, the longer it stayed going by itself, but eventually they all died out. Some of the soldiers realized what he was doing and the whispers grew as their attention turned to the mini tornados that danced about. It felt good to feel the wind again.

            Sometime a while later—he'd lost track of time—he started to feel some kind of disturbance in his subconscious. At first he dismissed it as nothing, but gradually the feeling became stronger and he realized it wasn't him; it was the wind. Glancing to the left, he knew whatever it was that had attracted his attention was coming from that direction. Abandoning all attempts of entertainment, he kept his eyes on the horizon, waiting for whatever it was that had drawn his attention. Finally, he saw it. A giant cloud stretched across the sandy plains. At first it appeared small, but as it advanced rapidly he could see that it was much larger than he'd expected. It was rather terrifying.

            Reining his camel closer to Stefan, he pointed out the cloud that was approaching. Stefan gasped, turning his animal to face the army. "Sandstorm!" he shouted. "Run!" The message was passed down through the troops and soon everyone was stampeding in the opposite direction, not at all in an orderly fashion. Well, when you're running for your life, organization is the last thing on your mind.

            Before long, the giant dust cloud was close on their heels. He could feel the wind picking up as it continued to draw closer. Sand flung up in his eyes and several soldiers had to go back and help up those who had fallen. This is hopeless, he thought desperately. You can't outrun a sandstorm. Maybe he could help. It was either live or die trying.

            He pulled his camel up short, turning it around against its will. He felt bad for yanking on the reigns, but now was not the time for trivial things. Lives were at stake.

            Jumping out of the saddle, he closed his eyes and raised his hands, concentrating with all his might. His wind blew against the sandstorm, mixing in with the torrent and unraveling the cloud from inside out. Slowly, he took control of the raging wind. The air was moving so fast it was like trying to grab a snake. His hold kept on slipping, but he was persistent. The wind roared in his ears as the sandstorm continued stubbornly until it was right on top of him. He had to use the wind both to stop the storm and to create a bubble of air where there was no sand flying around. All around him was a brown cloud that, without his powers, would surely have killed him. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he gradually slowed the sandstorm until it stopped in its tracks, dissolving into nothing. Sand rained down all around him like rain. He opened his eyes and his knees buckled. Mark and Stefan were there at his side to catch him, slapping him on the back and helping him back to the group where they'd stopped to watch a little ways off. Stefan ruffled his hair and laughed as sand fell out. The soldiers were cheering and clapping each other on the back in ecstatic celebration. He'd become the hero. Great. As if he needed more attention.

            As soon as he made it back to the group he immediately sought out a wagon with some room to spare and—ignoring the cheers—climbed on and fell asleep between the piles of goods. Before he'd even had a chance to drift off, several people had come to peek at him. He simply disregarded them, keeping his eyes shut and pretending not to notice. They never bothered him, so he didn't bother them.

            Kodan wandered onto the cart and laid down practically on top of him. Landon wasn't sure if it would be smart to freak out, so he let him stay there, even petting him as if he were a dog. Eventually they both fell asleep.



He woke what felt like three days too soon and lay there decidedly without opening his eyes. He didn't want to talk to anyone just yet. Kodan had left sometime while he was asleep, he noticed with a strange sense of disappointment. He was still savoring his not-so-private privacy, though. Instead of getting up, he listened to the soldiers talk about their battle scars. His name mentioned drew his eyes open for a second, but he quickly closed them before anyone noticed.

            "Landon Evers. That has a ring to it. He even has the looks to go with it," said a voice near the cart brightly.

            "He's so young," replied another gruffer voice. He sounded much older than the other. "Too young to be hunted. He shouldn't have to deal with this kind of responsibility yet."

            "Hunted?" repeated the first voice.

            "They say he evaded the Blackmasks all the way to Aroth. It takes tough stuff to deal with that. He should still be making trouble with his friends, not saving armies from sandstorms." Landon agreed wholeheartedly.

            "Did you see that? He was amazing!"

            "Indeed. It must've taken a great deal of courage to turn back and face the storm. I heard he'd never done something that big before. Could've killed the poor chap. But he decided to try, anyway. A brave soul he is. I must say I respect him."

            "Same here. If it didn't kill him, though, it sure drained him. He's been asleep for hours. Look at him. Poor guy looks exhausted even when he's sleeping." He felt the creeping itch of staring eyes. Another new presence saved him, though.   

            "Have you seen Landon?" asked Mark's voice. "They said he was back here."

            "He's asleep," answered the younger voice. "In the wagon." He heard Mark's loud footsteps jump onto the wagon and the boards squeak as he stood over him.

            "Landon, I know you're awake," he announced. He could practically feel the soldiers wince as they realized he'd probably heard them. He sincerely wished he had covers to pull over his head.

            "Wadayouwan?" he mumbled, throwing an arm in front of his eyes to block out the sun. It came out more of a moan.

            "I don't know what that means, but you need to come over here. We found something."

            Landon opened his eyes all the way. "What?"

            Mark sighed as if he were explaining this to a child. "I don't know. Some kind of building, I think. Why don't you just come and see it?" Landon reluctantly got up, stiff from the hard wagon floor, and followed Mark to the front. Before he left, he nodded to the two soldiers that had been talking about him. They nodded back respectfully, their gratitude and admiration showing in their eyes. Maybe being a celebrity wasn't so bad. As long as he got to save lives.

            He attracted more eyes as he walked along the edge of the group, making him feel self-conscious. He instinctively straightened up a little and tried to appear composed rather than exhausted. It must have worked because the men seemed to think he was some kind of amazing piece of art. He didn't fool himself, though.

            "Mark tells me you've found something," he told Stefan as they approached. "It'd better be extraordinary because I'm tired beyond all reason." The prince laughed and dropped down from his camel.

            "I'm sorry we interrupted your beauty sleep, but there's something out there that we thought you might want to be informed about. Do you see that?" He pointed to a small sand-colored brick pile that he recognized as a camouflaged building. He nodded with growing interest.

            "You know me too well," he said grudgingly. He would've been annoyed had they not told him about it.

            If Stefan heard him, he didn't show it. "We want to send some scouts to check it out. We figured you might want to come."

            Chelsea slid to the ground next to her animal. "Wait a minute. Tell me again why we are sending out our greatest weapon into danger?" She didn't say that she was worried about his safety, but she didn't need to. He knew.

            "If we don't put him to use then what's the point of having a weapon?" Mark pointed out. "Besides, he's perfectly capable of taking care of himself." That was a big compliment coming from Mark. Nevertheless, he didn't feel comfortable with them talking about him as if he wasn't there.

            "I'm in," he announced. They stopped arguing.

            "I guess there's no point in arguing about Mark. He's going whether we want him to or not," Jeaine sighed. Mark smirked and gave her a kiss. "But what about Stefan? He's irreplaceable. We can't afford losing him. Not now." Chelsea nodded in agreement.

            Stefan sighed, defeated. "Okay, fine. I'll stay behind. But I don't see how it could be so dangerous. It could just be an abandoned house."

            "In the middle of the desert," Mindi pointed out. Landon jumped. He hadn't seen her there. She and her sister were already preparing for takeoff. There was no question as to whether they were going or not. They did as they pleased.

            Chelsea shrugged. "Better safe than sorry, though. Stay here and protect the defenseless women." She batted her eyelashes and pretended to be helpless. He laughed and told her would stay.

            "So who's all going?" Landon asked.

            "You, Mark, Mindi, and Kira," Stefan answered. "Small but efficient. Everyone ready?"

            Kira nodded. "I'm always ready." Without another word she started off towards their destination. She even paused to scratch Missy behind the ear for good measure. That woman was either extremely brave or extremely insane. Probably both.  

            They started after her, Kodan following close behind. Nobody objected. He'd been strangely intimate and somewhat protective toward him ever since Missy had joined them. Maybe he was marking his territory. He would never know.

            "Landon," Chelsea called after him. He turned to face her. "You're still a squirrel." He laughed and started to turn away, but then she added, "But you're my squirrel."

            "Yeah, yeah," Mark called back. "He loves you, too. Let's go."

            Stepping closer to her, he whispered, "Listen to Mark. He knows what he's talking about." He paused. "Most of the time." He gave her a kiss and turned back to the task at hand.

            Squinting against the sun, he marched through the hot sand until they were standing in front of the structure. Trying to lay low, they scanned the walls for any sign of a door. Mindi found it on the far side.

            He stood there if front of the wooden doors, waiting for Mark. After a short minute of impatient waiting, he loped around the corner and didn't wait for instructions before swinging them open. A man fell backwards on their feet—he'd been leaning on the door. How Mark had known, he had no idea. He might not have known at all.

            Kira knocked him out with the pommel of her sword before Landon could even register that he'd been wearing a mask. Mindi ripped the mask off in a fashion that might have been painful had he been awake.

            "Why take off the mask?" he asked.

            Kira shrugged. "Just to see if we knew him. Do you recognize him, Mindi?"

            Mindi studied his face for a moment. "Nope. Stranger." She moved aside to let Kodan sniff him out.

            "So, if this place is home to Blackmasks, what is it?" Mark inquired, staring down the dark hallway. Landon could tell he was itching to get a move on.

            It was Mindi who answered. "We—they—have secret bases set up just in case. Nobody except the people with authority knows where they are, though."

            "What if that guy died?" Mark asked absently. Kira shrugged. Then they were left to fend for themselves.

            "Less chat, more action," Mindi snapped in her usual tone, starting toward the door and into the base, but Landon stopped her before she got too far.  

            "Wait. We don't know what's down there. Let me try something," he suggested. She frowned doubtfully at him, but stopped.

            Gathering up the air around him, he shot it down the hallway. Sand flew up in the air as the breeze passed by, falling back down as quickly as the breeze came and went. He could feel it take a turn and split into different paths. Tunnels, he thought. The farther the wind blew the more he began to feel nervous. This place is a maze of tunnels.

            "Great," huffed Mark. Landon hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud.

            Occasionally he would feel a block in the wind's path and came to recognize it as a person. There were several people wandering the halls. Judging by the outside appearance, one would never guess that the base was so vast on the inside. They'd built most of the base underground.

            He related what he'd concluded from the sweep and also told them to be on the alert—they might already be looking for something unusual because of the sudden breeze. That would have meant the door had been opened. Plus, there are rarely any breezes in the desert. Only sun and sand to compensate for the constant lack of everything else.

            He was a few steps in when he stopped dead. Everyone else stopped, too, to see what was keeping him.

            "Wait a minute," he said slowly. "Why are we barging into an enemy base? What do we have to gain from this?"

            Mark looked as though it were obvious. "Stefan told us check it out, so we are."

            "And we did. We know what it is," he countered. "However, he did not tell us to go and get ourselves killed for no reason."

            "We can't just walk away, now, can we? Here we've found a hostile base just asking for us to destroy it, and you ask why?" He sighed exasperatedly. "I should have known you wouldn't want to take the perfect opportunity to blow something up. You have no sense of adventure." With that, he turned and started down the hallway, the others following. All but Kodan, who waited for him to make his decision, his eyes asking questions that Landon didn't know the answers to.

            He sighed and patted the wolf's head—something he would never had done the day before. "At least I'm not the only one with an inkling of sense," he muttered to him, then followed the others, Kodan at his heal. "Too bad none of us have the sense to use it."

            The musty tunnel air gradually became cooler as they descended deeper into the base. He sent a constant small breeze—barely noticeable—a little ways ahead of them to scout the path. That way he would know if someone was coming. Occasionally a few men would stroll by, chatting about their battle scars—they weren't much different from the soldiers in that sense. When they came, he would quietly warn the others and they would veer off into a different path. Most of them weren't wearing their masks, probably because they received little to no excitement out here in the middle of the desert. Landon had a queasy feeling that they were going to have plenty of excitement very soon. He couldn't see how this could possibly end well, being that there was absolutely no point in being there in the first place.

            Finally, after a journey through the tunnels that seemed much longer than it probably had been, they came to a large stone door. Ignoring Kodan's growls, he stepped forward out of pure impatience and swung the door open—abandoning all sense of rationality. The first thing he saw was the faces of a bunch of surprised Blackmasks before Mark jumped in front of him, blocking his view. Without warning, he fell back against him, and Landon caught him so he wouldn't fall. An arrow protruded from his shoulder—the arrow that had been meant for Landon. Mark had jumped in front of him to save his life and the arrow hit his shoulder, where Landon's heart had been a moment before. Mark had just saved his life.

            Thankfully, Mark was still conscious, if a little in shock. He started trying to get up on his own, reaching for his sword, but his shoulder pained him too much for the sudden movement. He fell back against him.

            Blackmasks started coming at them from behind, forcing them into the room. Mindi and Kira were able to knock the bow out of the hands of the Blackmask that had tried to kill him. Luckily, the rest had only swords. Half dragging the delirious Mark into the room, he laid him upright against the wall and told him to stop trying to get up or he was going to personally hurt his other shoulder so he couldn't even if he tried. He scowled, but stopped struggling.

            They formed a half circle around him with their backs to the wall and waited, swords at ready, for them to attack. There was no hope that they would be able to fight them off—there were at least twenty of them—but he wasn't going down without a fight.

            He couldn't help but internally chastise himself for letting this happen. He was so stupid! He'd known that this wasn't a good idea, but did he act on it? No! In retrospect, this was the most needless situation to be in. If you can avoid trouble, do so without question. The decisions that lead to death always seemed good at the time.

            A man that had been sitting on a large chair before the others stood, a sly expression on his face to hide his surprise. His hair was white blonde, combed precisely to the side. He looked slightly too skinny and his eyes were so light blue that Landon wondered if he was albino. He hadn't seen one before, so he couldn't be sure. Beside him a dog, he guessed it was a dingo, growled viciously, and Kodan returned the favor. The feeling was mutual.

            "Why hello there," said the albino man pleasantly. "How nice of you to drop by." He inspected the scene with a thoughtful expression on his face. "Now, I must admit that I did not expect anyone to make it to the bottom of the base. This is the very lowest room, did you know that? There is only one way in and one way out. I expect that you have figured out that I do not intend to let you see the light of day again, so I suggest you put down your weapons and we can kill you peaceably." Kodan lunged at the albino, but the dingo got in the way. The two canines went down in a nasty fight, ripping and clawing. The albino paid no attention.

            "I think you'll find that we won't be so easy to kill as you may have planned," Mark retorted, but Landon wasn't paying much attention. He was staring at the room they were trapped in. It was large and circular. The stones were the same pale bricks that he'd seen on the outside, but they seemed more sinister from the vague light that a large metal chandelier cast on them. There was a ring of pillars that seemed to hold the ceiling up around the chandelier. The very bottom of the base....That was it! The chandelier was held up by two ropes that were tied down on either side of the room. One of those he was standing right next to. But if he were to cut it, the other would still hold, and the chandelier would only swing to the opposite side of the room.


            "I see," the albino man said, smiling slightly. "Well then, we'll have to do this the hard way." By the look on his face, he greatly preferred the hard way. "Kill them."   


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