Jo-Laina had been right about the Tso Tsa Min shadow. She hadn’t been able to see it for herself, but she was seeing it now, and it was closing in. Jo-Laina had seen two Tso Tsa Min shadows, but she was only seeing one. Their troubles didn’t stop there. The two Prim that had quelled Fang’s shadow weren’t far behind it.
And Jo-Laina had also been right about their chances of fighting off two Prim. Even with the combined forces of all ten of them, they had no chance against two Prim. One maybe, but not two. With the added threat of at least one Prim harvester the possibility of them surviving that was about as good as the chances of a newborn surviving without being fed.
Jo-Vanna connected with her bolainin and awoke the others. She started with Jerifai. He was the only one, other than she and Jo-Laina, that wasn’t human. He was herakim (tree walker) and the arrows he used were tipped with correllium. He was the only member of the group that had any correllium weaponry, a distinction which gave him an advantage against some of their foe, but even correllium-tipped arrows only worked if they hit your target. The Prim were extremely difficult to hit and the Tso Tsa Min could create force fields around them if they knew an attack was coming. .
“Wake up,” Jo-Vanna ordered as she shook Jerifai’s shoulder. His eyes snapped open, as he obeyed his training, sleeping light like a feather, and he snatched his bah as he sprang to his feet. “Stand guard at the entrance while I wake the others.”
Jerifai slung his quiver over his shoulders and headed for the only entrance and exit to their camp. Jo-Vanna made her rounds and woke the others, starting with Jo-Laina, and continued until everyone was on their feet.
“They’re definitely closer,” Jo-Laina commented. “Last night they were upon the ridge looking down on us. Today they have circled around. They could be here in less time than it took us to cook the bengoi.”
“You see both shadows then?” Jo-Vanna asked her sister. Jo-Laina was threading her bolainin, which meant that she wasn’t completely in its head, but allowing the information from its sights and sounds to penetrate her consciousness. It was a skill that she herself had yet to learn. Most Prim could do it, but some could not and so far she fell into the latter category. “I only saw one shadow.”
Jo-Laina didn’t answer right away. She stood in her place like a statue. Jo-Vanna waited.
“No. I see only one Min shadow, but if there is one then the other must be masked. The Prim know we are awake and hasten their approach. We should go now!”
Panpar and Greegus both began to don their correlium chest plates. Greegus finished putting his on first. He moved to Jo-Laina, kneeled in front of her, and allowed her to climb onto his back and Jerifai did the same for Jo-Vanna. Most of the time every member carried themselves on their own feet, because travelling that way was better if they were ambushed, allowing each of them the use of their own weapon, but fleeing a pursuit was different. In that case they needed speed and both Jo-Vanna and Jo-Laina’s legs could only carry them so fast. The meerkins that belonged to both Jo-Laina and Jo-Vanna climbed onto each of their shoulders forming a three tier piggyback.
The biggest downside to traveling on Jerifai’s back was the roughness of his skin. The skin of a tree walker was like the bark of a tree, enabling them to blend into their forest environment, providing them with a natural shield against attack, but making riding on one of their backs an uncomfortable venture.
Greegus and Jo-Vanna were the first out of the camp. The others followed close behind as Greegus turned left, leaving the path that they had come on, and began making one in the direction they wanted to go.
“How far away are they?” Panpar asked as he trailed closely behind Greegus.
“I know what you’re thinking, Pan,” Jo-Laina said. “The Min are at the fork in the path. If they want to they can easily cut us off. The prim are headed right for them though so the Min will have to make a decision. They will have to choose between us and them. Let’s hope they choose them.”
Jo-Laina’s comment to Pan gave Jo-Vanna a curiosity. She joined with her sister so she could get her thoughts on it. Why do you think the Min moved? She thought to Jo-Laina.
They must have decided it was time to move in, Jo-Laina replied.
Jo-Vanna considered this, but disagreed with her sister’s conclusion. Are they bound to the trails then? If they are at the fork then they took the long way to get to us, right.
I’m not seeing your point, ¬Jo-Laina thought to her.
You said it yourself. Last night they were on the ridge of the mountain above us. They were on the path that we would be taking. Isn’t that why we waited an extra night? Because our path was blocked. They moved out of our way!
And that is our good fortune. Maybe they are hungry for older Prim! Maybe they desire a true fight, instead of an easy kill.
And maybe one of the Min is still up on the path. Maybe we are being boxed in!
SHIT! Jo-Laina exclaimed. She reared back on Greegus’ shoulders, signaling to him that she wanted to stop and he did.
“Keep going,” Panpar commanded.
“We can’t,” Jo-Laina answered. “My sister made a good point to me. I think we are being herded like manx into a pen. We are being gathered for a slaughter.”
“Make your point, but make it quick.”
“I only sense one Min. I didn’t think that out. One of them could still be on the path that we want to take.”
“And if he is then we must face him. There is no other option. Would you rather we faced a min and two Prim?”
“We could join forces with the other two Prim. We now have a common enemy,” Jo-Vanna said.
“And how long would that alliance last?” Jo-Laina answered. “Until we were all dead or until we defeated the Min. Either way we end up dead. Pan is right. We take the path and we take our chances,” she signaled to Greegus to continue on.
“Are our minds made up then?” Greegus said. “If I’m going to die today then I want my death to be decisive!” He almost sounded as if he were excited about the prospect.
“This is stupid,” Jerifai said. “The Min were born to kill Prim. We will all end up in the lion’s mouth.”
“Dragon’s mouth,” Makus corrected. He was the youngest of the group but, for a human, was good with a sword. At sixteen he had the fourth highest kill rate. His body was sleek instead of muscled—a trait uncommon for an effective human warrior. Most humans that were not built like Greegus, ever lived to see their second year of fighting, let alone their third.
“It’s not a dragon’s mouth,” Makus’ cousin, Serrin retorted. “Everyone knows that the face and mouth of the Min is that of a dog!”
“Incredible,” Jo-Vanna noted. “We are now arguing about how, or what will be eating us?”
“Actually, yeah! Who wants to be eaten by a dog’s head when you can be eaten by a dragon’s!”
“How in the name of the God’s did the ancients ever do this?” Greegus asked no-one in particular.
They were all standing at the foot of the path that headed into the Dead Mountains. If it hadn’t been for a path being cut into the mountains, climbing to the top would have been impossible. The ridges of the correllium formations were sharp. Grabbing onto one in order to lift yourself up and climb would be the same as grabbing onto the blade and trying to use it to lift yourself up. But there had been a path cut, a level path, with no ridges, a flat path that climbed its way gently up, twisting its way toward the peak, high above them. The path itself was cut deep enough into the mountain that it formed a flat wall to the side of the path.
“Let’s not bother asking questions that cannot be answered,” Panpar answered.
“I wouldn’t mind knowing myself,” Greegus said as he moved toward the side of the path. He bent, signaled for Jo-Laina to get off, and picked up a boulder the size of his head. There was a piece of correllium sticking out of the side of the mountain like a sharp lone tooth with fine edges to it. Greegus carried the rock over to it, lifted it high above his head and brought it down with as much force as he had. The rock deflected, leaving the correllium tooth unharmed.
“How would you like to have a blade made out of that, sis?” he asked Jo-Laina.
“That’s what we’re hoping for Greegus. That’s why we’re here,” Panpar said. “Now let’s get moving.”
The group started to make their way up the mountain pass, but Jo-Laina turned and faced back. “Curious,” she said. “The Min is still not coming this way. The Prim are almost to it and yet it still has not masked itself, and the Prim still move forward. This makes no sense to me at all.”
Panpar came to Jo-Laina’s side and stood next to her. “And this troubles you? It seems a blessing to me. The Min will lessen our troubles for us.”
“Is it wrong that I don’t want those Prim to die?”
The brows on Panpar’s eyes crinkled inward and he shook his head. “I have difficulty understanding why you don’t hate them. After all they have done to us, and to you. They have killed so many of us for our ‘defiance’ to them. They want us to serve them like dogs, and they resent the fact that they no longer have the numbers to control us. They don’t deserve our pity.”
“They are misguided,” Jo-Laina said as she turned back toward the mountain pass. “And the only reason that I’ve agreed to be on this mission of yours is to change that. If your stories are true and there are pockets hidden at the top of this mountain, than I want them. Finding the Prim Pockets could change everything.”
“Damn right it could!” Panpar added. “If those Pockets contain the amulets then the Prim won’t stand a chance against you!”
“And you are misguided too, old man. If those Pockets contain amulets then the humans and the Prim will become one faction. We will unite and spread peace throughout Messolina,” Jo-Laina said and she cut herself off from her bolainin entirely.