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Counselor Anklin whispered some final instructions as they reached the edge of the ruins. “Stay close and be ready to seek cover if I signal.”

Scanning the area ahead, he gestured for the group to follow. The path down was steep and covered with rubble, making walking difficult. With her ankle still bothering her, Claridee struggled keeping her balance. Mason stayed right in front of her, ready to grab her if she slipped.

To keep out if sight, they worked their way through the sections of concrete and metal which jutted from the ruins. At each turn, Counselor Anklin checked to make sure the way ahead was safe. At one turn he quickly waved to the group.

“Get back!” he whispered urgently, leading them into the safety of the ruins.

“What’d you see?” asked Claridee looking around anxiously.

“There’s a building about twenty yards further down, but I can’t tell if anyone’s inside.”

“Can we get by without being seen?” asked Counselor Janice.

“I doubt it. It’s on a small hill and has a good view of the area.”

“What if just one of us walked up to the building?” suggested Claridee. “It might allow the rest of us to slip by unnoticed.”

“That might work,” offered Counselor Janice. “Even if we can’t get by, maybe we could get close enough to safely incapacitate them.”

“But wouldn’t they immediately run to the settlement if they saw one of us?” asked Mason.

“Not necessarily,” answered Counselor Janice. “I’m sure they’d recognize Counselor Anklin or myself, but probably not you or Claridee.”

“However, I wonder if having someone go alone would seem suspicious. After all, we did see two guards last night,” she added.

“A good point,” Counselor Anklin replied. “I think it would be best if Claridee and Mason went. By the way Claridee, how’s your ankle holding up?”

“It’s getting better, but …”

She paused, seeming to realize what Counselor Anklin had in mind. “Oh, I see! If Mason and I show up with me hobbling, it would be a much better distraction.”

Counselor Anklin nodded. “The two of you walk up to the building and ask for their help. Do your best to get their attention away from outside. You’ll have to signal us when the coast is clear.”

“I’ll give out a good loud scream when we’re ready,” Claridee suggested with a smile.

 “Good,” continued Counselor Anklin. “Janice and I will try to get by without being seen. However, if they do see us, be ready to prevent them from getting away.”

The two trainees moved out from the ruins. Once in the open, Claridee leaned on Mason’s shoulder while lifting one foot off the ground.

He whispered. “If we weren’t in immediate danger for our lives, I’d really be enjoying this.”

She gave him a light punch on the arm and smiled. Turning her expression into a grimace, she whispered back. “Ready.”

The two of them slowly hobbled forward and as they neared the building Mason called out. “Hello? Is anybody there?”

A heavily muscled man stepped out of the small building and bellowed. “Stop! Who are you?”

Mason hadn’t thought to come up with a fake name and nearly blurted out his own name before he stopped himself. Fortunately, Claridee seemed to have thought ahead and called out in a weak voice. “We’re Holdern and Pollrine. I was injured while we were out on patrol.”

Mason immediately recognized her parents’ names.

“I’m bringing Pollrine back to the settlement so she can be treated,” Mason called out.

The man looked them over carefully. At last he responded. “I don’t remember seeing you two before.”

“We’ve only recently arrived and have been assigned to watch the ruins outside the valley,” explained Mason, internally preparing to defend Claridee and himself if needed.

“And who gave you that assignment?”

Mason’s mind raced trying to think who would have given them that assignment. Proust was the first name to pop into his head, but it seemed too obvious. Then he remembered the conversation of the two guards from the previous night.

“Counselor Darnia,” he replied, with what he hoped was a confident tone.

Claridee started to whimper, and leaned more heavily on him.

“Can’t you see that she’s hurt?” Mason insisted angrily. “She needs to rest and I need to check the bandage on her foot.”

He wasn’t sure if the man believed their story, but at last he shrugged and motioned for them to come forward. “Very well, come with me.”

He led them to the building. It consisted of a single room in which a man and a woman sat at a small table finishing their breakfast. There was a single door and two windows which overlooked the ruins.

There were two cots in the room, and Mason led Claridee to the one furthest from the door. She sat down and Mason pretended to look at her ankle while watching their hosts.

The man who’d met them outside introduced himself along with the people at the table. “I am Norsturn, and this is Mesturn and Eilorin.” He turned to his two companions and continued. “This is Holdern and Pollrine, and they are on their way back to the settlement.”

Mason gave Claridee a small nod.

She erupted in a loud scream.

He was pleased to see that everyone in the room was now staring at her. When he felt enough time had passed, he nodded again and the screaming stopped. He continued adjusting her bandage a while longer before helping her up.

She gingerly set her foot on the ground and with a slight grimace declared. “It seems better now.”

Mason looked up and said in a grateful tone. “Thank you for your help. I should be able to get her to the settlement now.”

Norsturn looked over at his two companions. “It’s still a long way to the settlement. Maybe Mesturn should go with you.”

“That’s not necessary,” replied Mason doing his best to keep his voice calm. “We should be able to get there now and wouldn’t want to interfere with your work watching for Anklin and his Earth allies.”

Norsturn gave a grim laugh. “After the stories I’ve heard, I hope we never see them.”

Claridee coughed, but Mason could tell she was holding back a giggle. “We couldn’t agree with you more.”

They slowly made their way out of the building and headed towards the settlement. As before, Claridee leaned on Mason and favored one leg.

“You were amazing,” whispered Mason as they walked.

“Thanks,” answered a blushing Claridee.

Once out of sight of the building, they quickened their pace. Rounding a corner, they heard a low voice calling out from the ruins.

“Mason. Claridee. Over here.”

Following the voice they soon found Counselors Anklin and Janice.

“Well done,” beamed Counselor Janice. “We’d better get moving before we run into anyone else.”

They continued on as before, sticking close to the ruins and checking to make sure they didn’t run into anyone. While Counselor Janice looked around an outcropping of rock, Claridee suddenly whispered excitedly. “Someone’s coming from behind us!”

“Quick, into the ruins,” ordered Counselor Anklin.

They had just settled behind a large chunk of metal as the sound of excited voices and hurrying footsteps became audible.

“We should have caught up them by now,” muttered a male voice which Mason recognized as Norsturn’s.

“You shouldn’t have let them go until you checked out their story,” a woman’s voice shot back. “That’s Counselor Darnia’s orders.”

“That’s not Eilorin,” whispered Claridee peeking out.

“I know, but the girl was hurt.”

There was a harsh laugh. “She must have had a miraculous recovery for them to stay ahead of us.”

“Enough!” growled Norsturn. “You show up and immediately think you’re in charge. You’ll see I’m right when we reach the settlement.”

“For your sake I hope they’re there,” answered the woman as their footsteps faded away down the path.

Counselor Anklin grabbed his pack and stood up. “We’ve better move. Once they get to the settlement, Proust will know for sure we’re here.”

They continued on, moving as fast as the terrain and Claridee’s ankle would allow. Mason could see the pain etched in Claridee’s face as she did her best to keep pace. His offer of help was refused with an irritated, “I’m fine.”

They only stopped moving to make sure the way ahead was clear.

“How much further Anklin?” asked Counselor Janice with her hands on her knees as he peered around a corner.

“Not far,” he answered in a low voice. “A few hundred feet or so. Once there we can rest.”

At last, Counselor Anklin pointed at a massive metal beam which jutted into the path. “Through there.”

Once back in the ruins, they quickly ducked under a portion of collapsed building. Sitting there, they fought to catch their breath and gulped down water pulled from their packs.

“Can’t stay too long,” declared Counselor Anklin.

While they waited, Mason took a look at Claridee’s ankle. “How’re you doing?”

“Could be better,” she answered, “but, I’ll be okay.”

After a far shorter rest than anyone wanted, they headed into the ruins towards the western end of the valley, keeping low. The way across the ruins was like a maze with dead ends, double backs, and diverging paths. Progress was maddeningly slow and it was already late morning by the time they reached the middle of the ruins.

Ducking into an opening formed by a chunk of concrete and a twisted girder, the group rested and had something to eat.

“What do you think Proust will do when he finds out we’re here?” asked Claridee.

“Probably send out everyone he has to look for us,” answered Counselor Janice in a frank tone.

“That might just work to our advantage,” commented Counselor Anklin. “It’d be much easier getting into the settlement if everyone’s gone.”

“Assuming we can get there without being seen,” added Mason.

Counselor Anklin gave a tired chuckle. “A big if, but one I think we can achieve.” He took a pair of binoculars from his pack and handed them to Mason. “Go take a look and see where our friend Norsturn is.”

He moved to a spot which gave him a clear view of the lower valley. He scanned the settlement which seemed deserted except for a small group loading crates onto a cart near the cave entrance. He then turned his attention to the valley floor. It took time, but at last he saw two people about halfway across hurrying towards the settlement. Although too far away to see clearly, there was no mistaking Norsturn’s muscular build.

Mason hurried back to the others. “They’re halfway across.”

“That doesn’t give us much time,” declared Counselor Janice.

They raced through the ruins now, hoping to get through before Proust discovered their presence. However, speed wasn’t enough as obstacles slowed their progress and often forced them to backtrack. They’d just run into another dead end when Proust’s voice boomed from the sky.

“Anklin! I know you’re out there!”

Claridee cried out in surprise while Mason spun around, furiously looking for the source of the voice, but to no avail. Counselor Anklin grabbed his arm.

“It’s okay Mason, he’s not here. He must’ve had Darnia open a doorway above the ruins to project his voice. Keep moving and stay low.”

Before they could take a step, a roar echoed across the valley as the upper end of the valley exploded. The ground shook while plumes of smoke and debris shot into the air. Pieces of concrete and metal rained down on them.

“What was that!” exclaimed Claridee.

“Proust,” replied Counselor Anklin angrily. “It appears that he’s decided to attack.”

Looking through his binoculars, Mason saw a small group of people standing in front of the settlement.

“But how?” he asked, pointing at the destroyed area. “I didn’t see any kind of weapon.”

“He doesn’t need weapons,” replied Counselor Anklin darkly. “You just saw what happens when you open a doorway into solid matter and send something through.”

Counselor Janice interrupted. “Lessons can wait. Right now we’d better concentrate on getting out of here before he starts targeting this area.”

Proust’s voice once again filled the air. “That was a warning. Surrender, and I’ll be lenient with you and your group. Surely you must see by now that the people of Myscreth have rejected the Council and its timid ways. You have no hope. Stay and die, or surrender so all of Myscreth will know of your failure to defeat me.”

“Keep moving!” urged Counselor Anklin as another detonation occurred, this time further down the valley.

As the sound of the explosion faded, Proust’s voice once again carried across the sky. “You may wish to die for your outdated beliefs Anklin, but what of those with you? Should Claridee, who has her whole life ahead of her, share in your fate? I would gladly welcome her as a member of the new Council.”

The look of disgust on Claridee’s face told Mason her answer to Proust’s invitation.

Counselor Anklin suddenly stopped short and Mason nearly collided with him. Before them lay a steel girder which stretched almost thirty feet in each direction. There was no way around it. Counselor Anklin stared at it and Mason could see his shoulders slump.

“There’s no way out of here,” he declared. “I’ll have to open a doorway to escape. There still might be a way to beat Proust, but that will have to wait for another day.”

“Wait!” cried Mason. “There must be some other way. We’ve come too far and lost too much to leave now.”

Counselor Anklin placed a hand on his shoulder. “I appreciate the sentiment Mason, but sometimes you have to make a tactical retreat in order to fight another day.”

Mason was surprised to see Claridee furiously staring at the girder and muttering to herself. He wasn’t quite sure what she was saying, but it sounded like. “Proust won’t win.” As Counselor Anklin started to concentrate, she struggled to pick up a heavy chunk of concrete.

“Help me with this Mason,” she grunted furiously.

He was about to ask why, but the glare she gave him made him stop.

He rushed over to help her lift it. “Over there,” she gasped gesturing at the girder. Together, they heaved the concrete at the girder which shattered like glass.

The sound startled Counselor Anklin and he looked over at Claridee.

“Let’s go!” she ordered.

Mason was shocked by the authority in her tone as they rushed through the opening.

“It brings me no pleasure to kill you Anklin,” continued Proust. “For your sake I hope you’re smart enough to escape while you can. However, whatever happens, you’ve chosen your own fate and the fate of those with you.”

Another explosion, this one just behind them, ripped through the ruins with a deafening roar and chunks of concrete rained down on them.

“We’ve got to take cover,” cried an exhausted Counselor Janice.

Counselor Anklin pointed at a small opening. “Under there,” he panted. One by one they squirmed through the small opening.

Inside they found a cavity that was about four feet high and ten feet deep. It was just wide enough for them to huddle together near the back wall. Claridee buried her face in Mason’s chest at the sound of another explosion. The ground shook violently and Mason could hear large rocks falling all around them. Dust and smoke filled their shelter making it difficult to breath. Mason lost track of how many more explosions followed, but after what seemed like forever there was silence.

Counselor Anklin called out between coughs. “Is everyone alright?”

“Yes,” replied Mason.

“I’m okay,” rasped Claridee.

Counselor Janice fought to catch her breath, but finally wheezed out. “I’m alright, Anklin.”

What little light there had been was now gone. Mason got out his light and shined it at the entrance revealing rubble and chunks of concrete. “Looks like we’ll have to dig our way out.”

“Then let get started,” gasped Counselor Anklin, breaking into another fit of coughing.

Without any shovels, they were forced to dig by hand. It took a while, but finally they’d cleared away enough rubble to let some fresh air in. Exhausted, they simply lay there, breathing it in.

After a while Mason sat up and started pushing away some of the rubble. “Isn’t it about time we got out of here?”

“Not quite yet,” answered Counselor Anklin. “If I know Proust, he’ll send out search parties to be sure we’re gone. We should be safe here. And if we’re lucky,” Counselor Anklin observed with a wry smile. “We may have just regained the element of surprise.”

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About the author

parkertallan

Bio: An engineer who enjoys writing something other than technical reports. Writing let's me share all the ideas floating around my mind. I hope my writing jump starts your imagination as so many books have done for me.

If you enjoy physics, check out https://physicswithcats.com/ for some fun stories which explain various physics topics.

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