“That machine will never work again,” I said loudly. “Even if you drag us back to the city, your hold on the city will fade. The people will wake up and realize how corrupt the nobles have become. They won’t stand for it. Not anymore.”
“We keep them safe. It is this outside world they fear, and it will continue to keep them in the city,” Varket scoffed. “They will do as they are told or face eviction from the security keeping them alive.”
If the people had cause to fear leaving the city, why didn’t Varket? Was he that stupid, to believe he was somehow immune from the dangers from a world evolved away from human control? He was going to learn different, very soon. There was a stillness to the air that throbbed with danger, but he was oblivious.
The guard in the front halted and held up a hand.
“What is it? Why are we stopping?” Varket asked. “The king is expecting us back soon.”
The guards’ grip loosened as they peered into the gathering darkness. Even with my hands bound, I was able to lunge away from them. I knocked into one of the guards holding Teddy, and the other one was unable to keep his grip. Teddy crumpled to the ground, and I followed him, covering as much of his body with mine as I could.
I expected to hear that call, the sound and feeling of wings buffeting us from above, men screaming.
There was shouting, but when I turned my head, there wasn’t a giant bird attacking the guards; it was men in dark clothing.
And more were coming from the trees. They overwhelmed the guards. Blood turned the ground into a mess around us. Varket, seeing his men falling around him, tried to turn tail and run. A familiar figure tackled him to the ground. Growling, Wildman flipped Varket over and started pounding his face.
“Charlie, stop! Don’t kill him; he needs to answer for his crimes.”
I struggled to my knees, staring at the woman still up in a tree at the edge of the clearing. It was Anna. What the hell was going on?
“Are you all right?” A man leaned down to touch Teddy, and I jolted back into action.
“Don’t touch him!”
“I was going to check him. I’m a medic.”
“You can’t help him, so leave him alone. Untie me.” I shuffled sideways, tilting my head and holding up my arms. I wanted the ropes off, immediately. I stretched my arms up as far as I could. As soon as I was released, I began to work on the rope around Teddy.
“Here,” the man offered me his knife.
I hesitated, but the knots were too tight to untie, so I took it from him. “Thank you.” I sawed through the rope, pulling the loop away from Teddy’s neck. The skin was chafed but not bleeding. “Teddy. Hey, you with me?” I patted his cheek. Varket made it sound like he knew Teddy would wake up, and while I didn’t trust him to tell me the truth at any other time, he’d been far too… gleeful as he gloated.
Teddy blinked, but he didn’t answer me.
“Okay, you just rest. I’ll keep you safe.” I stood up.
The men with Anna were laying the guards out in a row. She’d come down from the tree and was gripping Wildman by the arm, even as he snarled at Varket.
The formerly dandified noble was filthy with blood dripping from his nose and mouth. His hair was in disarray and his jacket was torn at the shoulder, exposing his shirt. He was still looking down his nose at everyone, though one of his eyes appeared to be rapidly swelling shut.
“By what right do you interfere with an order of the king?” he demanded. “I insist you let me go with these malfeasants I was escorting back to the city.” He glared at Wildman. “I’ll take him too. Assault on a noble is a serious crime.”
Anna snorted when Wildman made a face. “Keep your tongue in your mouth where it belongs.” Varket was treated to a contemptuous look. This is not your city, and the only crimes that will be punished are yours. We heard what you said to William.”
“You have no authority to do anything to me,” he blustered, but he’d begun to fidget, looking around the men who were now ringed around him and Anna. She let Wildman go, and he scampered backward.
“We have the absolute right.” Anna’s voice was calmer than I could’ve managed. Then again, I would’ve already used the knife I’d been given to slice Varket’s throat, if I didn’t think they’d stop me before I could kill the bastard. “I have the people you abused and then expected to disappear when they were no use to you anymore. How many more died before we could save them? Did you really think you could rip apart people’s minds and bodies and never face the consequences?”
Everyone’s attention was locked onto the confrontation between Anna and Wildman, and no one noticed when he sidled up next to me. “Did you bring them?” I whispered.
He shrugged one shoulder. “Two days,” he said. “Roof window.” Then he melted into the shadows and disappeared.
Anna hadn’t told us the truth—not fully. Of course, she probably didn’t expect us to return to the city and try to dismantle the king’s criminal abuse of the people. She’d no idea she’d put us in danger, but it just reinforced that those in power never really told the truth.
We wouldn’t get caught in her web either. Once Teddy was okay, we were going to figure out what to do now we’d shut down the machine and were no longer in Varket’s hands.
Hopefully Wildman's cryptic message meant he'd be back to help us, since Anna had just turned her attention to me.TBC
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