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“Mensi, we’ve captured strange trespassers.”
A low, gritty voice reached Madelyn’s ears. She was sat, bound at the hands and feet and her head was throbbing. Thankful that her captors hadn’t removed her helmet, which housed the built-in translator, she opened her eyes and tried to locate the speaker without making any unnecessary movements. But a full sweep of her visual range without turning her head revealed nothing but the blank expanses of a canvas wall across the dirt floor she was sitting on, leading her to assume she was in some sort of tent-like enclosure. The voice spoke again.
“They seem to have some kind of magic, just like Calitari predicted.”
“How many were there?” The replying voice, which Madelyn guessed belonged to Mensi, carried an unmistakable note of arrogance.
“We didn’t get an exact count, but we killed the aggressive ones—at a somewhat significant loss of our own—and captured four… Three escaped.”
Madelyn’s heart skipped a beat. Three of the others had gotten away.
“Escaped? Neza, I task you with keeping threats out of our great lands and you allow three unknown magic wielders to escape? This is not your first or even second blunder in recent times. Your persistent failure is intolerable.”
“I will personally see to it they are—”
The sound of something swiping through air cut Neza’s words short, and hopeless gurgling noises replaced them, followed by the sound of dead weight crumpling to the ground.
Horrified, Madelyn realized she had just heard Neza die for allowing three of her companions to escape. Such brutality toward one of his own did not bode well for how this Mensi figure might treat her and the others.
“Lintu,” Mensi yelled.
“Come here. Your services are required.”
Chancing a small movement, Madelyn peered to her left and saw a Xantarian running toward the enclosure through a break in its flap-covered doorway. One of the flaps swooshed open and light poured in, stabbing at her pupils. Her head pounded in revolt and she closed her eyes.
“Three others like these four are out on our lands somewhere,” Mensi said.
These four? For the first time, Madelyn had reason to believe she was not alone in the tent. Whoever else had been captured were here as well.
“They are magic wielders, so you will need to be cautious in your hunt. Use the Manori if you need to. I want them returned here alive if at all possible. I believe they might have answers about the moving stars.”
“Your will is mine,” Lintu said.
The sound of multiple footsteps faded away, and she risked a more revealing look through the open flap. No one was standing there. Now feeling it was safe to do so, she wriggled around and found Lexi, Cameron, and Mitzu all huddled nearby, which meant Chiara, Charlene and Peter had escaped.
“Have they gone?” Lexi whispered.
“I think so,” Madelyn said, looking around again.
Her vision fell to Neza’s body a few yards away. Lifeless eyes and a deep wound across the throat spoke of the cruel fate this creature had suffered. She couldn’t be sure if it was a male or female, but its body looked similar to that of the one Hodgson had called a male during the briefing in Liverpool. That day could have been a lifetime ago now. She could still remember her growing excitement and Jonathan’s encouraging expressions as the mission started to sound more and more accessible.
His smiling face materialized in her mind and tears surfaced. Her fate was now less certain than ever before in the field. If she died, all her worries and fears would come to an abrupt end, but Jonathan would be left to mourn, surely questioning if her death was his fault. Feeling like he had encouraged her to do something that ultimately resulted in her passing would destroy him.
The tears were flowing freely now.
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