The Alchemist Trail
“I have a friend inside of the Fiery,” Jules began as they ascended through the forest up to the villa. “He’s been slipping me information under Equinox’s nose for months now. I didn’t think it was possible, but Daem has turned to Hell since the royals were killed. Everybody is either afraid out of their minds or dead. Anyone who doesn’t hide gets captured. Houses are being burned down. You remember the loon who ran that flower shop and always gave us candies when we were kids? Even she was taken a while back. Crime rate’s stopped though, but that’s because everyone’s too afraid. Streets are emptier than anything I’ve ever seen.
“That guy, the Red Priest, he’s been travelling around and collecting people. Once they get into the big black cage, they are never seen or heard from again. He takes them to this place called the Pit. My friend went down to it once—he had to deliver an order or something, and he heard screams. People were locked up and it was dark, but it sounded like nothing he had ever heard before. They were begging to die. He now avoids going down there as much as possible, he was so scared. You tell me, what is worse than dying? He said, there were thousands of cells of people screaming and crying.”
She wanted to hear no more but he continued.
“And what’s really scared me is that they’re coming after our lot in particular. They’re rounding up every alchemist in Hordes County. I saw the list of the people they caught and the people they’re looking for. Thankfully, you know, most of them travel, so we’re harder to catch than most people. They’ve already taken Helka Orkeshi, Managrette and Carsen Harper, Gary Gwyn, and the Belabors group. Both of our families are on the list, but they haven’t been caught yet. Soon enough, they’ll start finding ways to get them. Of course Athan and Micha Rahisan are on the list. They’re putting up one hell of a fight, but I don’t know how long that’s going to last. Equinox has got major influence, you know? I had a run-in with them, and I barely escaped.
“But what’s really confusing is that when I stood face-to-face with Equinox, he asked me about you. I mean, I know your name was on the list, but of all the people to threaten him and the lunatic in the red robes, why you?”
He waited, expecting Soraya to have an answer, but she remained silent.
“I mean, of course I’ve been tracking you ever since I got away. He’s got a nice deep scar on his face, thanks to me. Torinelle took out the eye of one of the men on horseback. She’s turned it into a necklace. She’s hiding down in Vendes right about now with your family. I hear, soon, they’re going to put a ban on all things magic. No foretelling, no summoning, nothing. You’d think they were really afraid of something the way they’re getting off.”
“I suppose I should’ve talked about something happier. Was that kid I hit in the nose your boyfriend or something?”
She shook her head, realized he couldn’t see her, and sighed. “No, it’s really just that…how did you find me?”
He blinked in surprise. “What?”
“You found me. I’ve been hiding for months without anyone knowing. How?”
“Oh,” he said, glancing up at the villa as they approached. “Your pa never told you about the alchemist trail? We all have it—well those with alchemist blood, anyway. Every alchemist has their own individual trail kind of. It’s complicated, really. You leave this air wherever you go. It has a specific scent, color, and feel to it. I mean, you can never know exactly whose trail you’re following unless you know beforehand, or, in my case, unless I really know you. My ma told me about it a while ago.” Under the moonlight, he could see how worried she looked at this. “But don’t worry! Only our kind can find it, so the Fiery won’t be knocking on your decrepit door any time soon. Our lot would never be seen with the likes of those disgusting murderers.” He shivered to himself, entirely unaware that he was not getting a response. “Anyway, you’re staying here? Not exactly a five-star hotel…”
She flung open the door and shrugged. “Hotels attract attention. It’s comfortable enough for now.”
Once she entered, the wolf Night rushed in to block the doorway, preventing Jules from entering. Man and beast locked eyes, the latter snarling and bearing teeth. Tension soared as Jules fidgeted, fingers groping for an arrow from the sling on his back.
Soraya slid past Night and shoved Jules back, flat palms against his chest. He stumbled back, bewildered, and watched as she squatted in front of the wolf and began stroking the space between his ears. The moment faded as she whispered to the wolf and eventually he turned and walked away, unfazed, making sure to give Jules a menacing look.
Jules smirked at her side. “Smart wolf,” he said, putting his knife away. “I only wish he didn’t treat me like a threat.”
She shut the door behind him and rolled her eyes. “You are a threat. We have a system that your presence has interrupted. Added to that, we don’t know what’s hiding in that bag of yours.” She locked her eyes on the backpack he picked up on their way to the villa. He followed her to the room, watched as she turned on the lamp and huddled near the floorboard, digging through her duffle bag for a jar. He tried to see what it was, but it was hidden again quickly in the bag and she turned around. “Okay, empty your bag.”
He cocked his brow and unzipped the largest part of his backpack. Night seemed to materialize, sniffing out the contents. Efficient. A few extra changes of clothes, a bar of soap, a container of water, a dream catcher, and a collection of knives in worn leather sheathes tumbled out. Some of the knives were spring loaded or had special edges. She knew them well. The second section contained food—wrapped up chunks of cooked meat that he no doubt hunted himself, berries, and a few apples. In the last section was money. And lots of it. “Ta-da.”
Night nestled next to Soraya, head resting on her lap, and eyes settled on Jules as he returned the assortment of knives to the bag. She absently stroked his coarse fur. “So, how are you really?”
He leaned against the bed and took a bite into one of his apples. “Well, as I told you, Equinox and I had an unpleasant run with each other. Turns out we’re both looking for the same girl and he followed me up the Muygar mountain range, hoping I’d lead you right to him. I would have found you sooner if I didn’t have to shake him. It took him two weeks of trailing before he closed in and held a knife to my throat. He told me that he could waste me where we stood and no one would know and no one alive would care. He mentioned Gira and I snapped.” She found it unsurprising since Jules had a close attachment to his younger sister and she would do the same if anyone threatened her brothers. “I think he took it easy on me. Incapacitating him was easier than it should have been. I think he only let me go as a warning to you.”
She bit her lip and gazed off into the distance. “I think we should get some sleep and then keep moving. Calgary already figured out some things and he knows where this place is.”
He cocked a brow. “Calgary…” He said the name by exaggerating the sounds. Like a foreign word that sat awkward on his tongue. “That’s the human?” She nodded, turned out the lamp and curled up into a ball on the floor. He retrieved the blanket and pillow from the bed and laid it beside her. Soraya was always overly aware of personal boundaries. She would take no one’s food, use no one’s pillows, even if the objects belonged to someone long dead. She barely trusted him, and even that, he assumed, was limited. “You still never gave me an answer.”
“Shut up,” she snapped and moved. He flicked on the light and she lifted her head. “Hey! What are you—?”
He noticed the wolf eye him in annoyance. Truly the perfect pair. “Get on. It’s more comfortable and you’ll sleep better.” She shook her head, and so he lifted her effortlessly, limbs flailing, and plotted her on the soft blanket. “So stubborn,” he muttered. He wrapped his arms around her, leaned his head on her shoulder, and closed his eyes. She was as stiff as a board of wood.
Jules woke to the creaking of Night’s paws sprinting up the stairs. He lay on his back with one arm draped around Soraya, who rested her head on his chest. She was a ball of heat who looked more comfortable than he had seen her in a while. He stroked her wild, curly hair, poking out from her crooked bandana, and brushed it from her face. Night howled. Probably jealous, he thought. He wondered if her hair smelled like honey the way it used to, but all he could smell was the distance odor of smoke. Smoke, like fire. He heard someone call out from a distance and he shook her shoulder.
Soraya bolted up and away from Jules, tossing back the blanket to work at the loose floorboard. She retrieved her bag, flung it over her shoulder, and stood. Jules was ready. Night poked his head through the doorway, alert.
Was that Calgary screaming her name outside?
The trio sprinted down the stairs and halted at the bottom. Soraya reached for the door and Jules reached for her. “We should check the back door.”
She jerked his grip away and flung the door open as Calgary sprinted up the porch steps. He hunched over and she noticed thick, black smoke rising in the air from a distance. Tilling. Of course it was.
She glanced back to Jules. “You brought him with you.”
“The entire town is in flames and… a guy is walking around with a photo of you, calling you S-s…” He broke off to cough.
Jules grabbed her arm again. “We need to go now.” She ran with him, skidding to a halt as the back door flung open and Equinox’s soldiers rushed in. Two went down rapidly, one by Jules’s arrow and the other by Soraya’s knife toss that nailed him in the throat. Her favorite spot. She elbowed another in the face, tearing the blade free before slicing the combatant’s throat with a neat strike. She did not have enough time to prepare herself for the next who kicked her hard in the ribs and she collapsed. All of this in a matter of seconds.
Night maimed limbs and clawed faces, clearing a path for Jules to yank Soraya to her feet. She inhaled sharply at the pain in her chest, but she ran, deep into the woods. They only managed to get a few meters into the throng of the wild when she realized that she had left her pendant. And the jar.
“My stuff—” She spun out of Jules’s grip and headed back to the house infested with Equinox’s team. One of the soldiers lifted her bag only to get his arm sliced open by the knife she threw. She leaped over the bodies and grabbed it, cognizant of Night’s snarls as he fought another soldier and the whiz of Jules’s arrows. There were far too many of them.
Her bag was still zipped shut but she had to check. She was as good as dead without both the pendant and jar. She let out a sigh of relief at the sight of them both, and she zipped it shut, hopping to her feet when a powerful hand pinned her by her throat to the wall. She hit her head on impact.
Equinox gave her a sinister grin. Past him, she saw Calgary, wide-eyed, on the ground with his neck twisting awkwardly towards the sky. Very cruel, very typical. She knew Equinox by his red cloak, but the black buzz cut hair, the large nose and small black eyes, one of which was white and glazed over thanks to a scar that ran from his brow through his right eye and down the cheek. Jules’s doing, no doubt. He was cutting off her oxygen now. “Hello, Soraya. Or should I say, Oracle.”
The last statement made her eyes go wide. He knew.
He tilted his head. “How it managed to be you or your connection, I will never know. But I do know about your crime, your escape, your strengths, and your weakness.”
“Soraya!” Jules yelled from outside.
“Does your little boyfriend know? Does he know what he will eventually die for?” He sneered before backing away at the arrow that hit him in the shoulder. “Let’s play cat-and-mouse a little longer.”
She fell to her feet, yanked her blade from the cabinet in which it was wedged, and turned to run when Equinox hit her hard against the wall. Stars danced around her vision and her ribs screamed in pain. But she needed to keep moving. Another arrow whizzed by and almost hit Equinox but he deflected it. That distraction was all she needed to get out of the house, dizzily knocking into the door pane before she wobbled down the stairs and towards the furry grey blur that she assumed was Night. He gave a small howl. Confirmation.
And she followed him, running as Jules eyed her. “Are you sure you can make it?”
With the pain in her chest and the throbbing in her skull, she wasn’t sure at all. So she didn’t answer.
Eventually Night slowed down, realizing that Soraya, tripping over vines and smashing into trees, could not make it much farther. They moved further up the mountain, hidden behind trees and doubling around to cover their tracks, until they found a cave hidden behind a waterfall. Inside, she painstakingly sat against the wall, cursing in Garficain as she did so. The cave was dark but dry with a small pool of water on the inside. It was cool. It was hidden. They were safe.
Jules had already located the first aid kit in her bag and was coming towards her. He grimaced at the gash at her temple. “Well… this is gross.” He had always been squeamish. Nothing changed. He dabbed it with an alcohol pad and she flinched at the sting. Within a minute, her head was bandaged and there was a cloth soaked in the cool water on her ribs.
She began stroking Night’s fur. “Good job today. We wouldn’t have gotten out of there without you.”
Jules rolled his eyes. “I could’ve easily gotten us both of there just fine. And besides, what the hell? Why’d you go back for a bag full of junk?” She didn’t respond. Did he really expect her to answer? Trust, of course. She could not trust him with that information. “What’s with the jar? What’s in there?”
She tried to roll on her side to ignore him but she flinched at the pain and stayed put. “Nothing important.”
“If it’s nothing important, then you can tell me. If it is important, then I have every right to know what my future fiancée is keeping from me, especially when I’m risking my life to protect her.”
Does he know what he will eventually die for?
He was right, but she did not want to share with him or anyone. Her problem is her problem and no one else’s. “I’m not your future fiancée. And I may have a concussion but you’re grilling about the purpose of a jar? Shouldn’t I be taking it easy?”
He scoffed. “No, you’re supposed to keep the brain active during a concussion, dummy. Now spill. What’s in the jar?”
Well, here it goes. “My soul.”