Chapter 16: But I'm So Eepy
There was a split-second pause.
"Oh," the man said, his lips parting into a broad, bearded smile. "Sorry. Right. I was camping nearby and noticed something that looked like a large fire in the distance last night. I was a bit too far to get here fast on foot, but I wanted to make sure everything was alright."
Clandestine didn't want to be too quick to trust, but at that moment all she wanted to do was look back at James and say"I told you so." Even though she hadn't, really, told him anything. She still felt vindicated.
Except now, Clandestine had no idea what to say.
She hadn't thought this far ahead.
"Oh! We're alright," she said, flashing a smile in return. She didn't know if it looked forced since it was solely sourced from anxiety. "It was a bit crazy. I'm a huge clutz, and I accidentally lost control of our little bonfire trying to cook beans. Not very responsible of me, but we managed to get control with the stream being so close."
As she kept talking, she realized just how far-fetched that sounded when the fire had, genuinely, been large enough to reach over their heads.
Sure, it was the stream that helped them. That made sense.
Trying not to swallow too obviously, she smiled a little tighter.
"Where'd you come from?" she blurted. "Are you from Bone?"
"I was traveling through there," the man answered. "So, yes, I came from that way."
He gestured over his shoulder for good measure, and the movement made Clandestine stiffen, just a little.
"Oh," she said again, this time a little more deflated. "Well, thanks for checking in, I guess. No one's hurt, though. Unless you count the grass."
The man nodded with a small pursing of his lips.
"I can see that," he said, looking at the ground, poking at it with his boot.
She hoped he wouldn't wander over towards Alexander's shallow grave. The truth was that someone had been hurt. But they didn't die because of the fire. At least, not exclusively.
Her stomach knotting, she swallowed again, trying to think of how to turn this man away and to quell his curiosity.
"So, um--" she started.
"It's late," James cut in wearily.
The corners of Clandestine's lips pulled back into a restrained frown, but she already had a feeling this might not go well.
"We're tired, and trying to get some sleep," he said. "We appreciate your concern, but your help isn't needed here. Thank you for checking, but we're going to move downstream and get some rest before daylight. It was good meeting you, but we must be going."
Circling Elliot behind her, he began to change course, riding northward. It would take them back past Gregor's ranch.
She wondered if he knew he was going in that direction, or if he was choosing blindly. No pun intended.
"Can I at least give you my name?" the man asked.
And that did give Clandestine pause because it did seem a bit odd to milk an awkward, tense situation. And giving his name seemed like it was more than just being polite. He was trying to keep them there. Wasn't he?
Feeling a little antsy, Clandestine turned Billy to follow James, who hadn't stopped moving.
"I'm sorry, sir, but we're really not, um..." she tried to say, but wasn't sure how to put in words that she didn't want to--
"My name's Bo," the man said. And with a flick of his wrist, he tossed the torch down into the stream. It fizzled with a plop.
"I'm not trying to be dramatic," he said. "But I am pressed for time."
Clandestine felt herself freezing up again. Maybe she should have listened to James right away.
Just as she was about to look away and hurry after him, there was a flash of light.
Looking over her shoulder, her eyes went wide as she saw Bo with his hand raised, and instead of the fire lighting his face, it was crackling strands and sparks of blue energy, streaking around his bare forearm almost like a sleeve of light.
"I'm a mage too," the man said in a tone Clandestine didn't know how to read.
She heard Elliot's hoofbeats stop ahead of her. Suddenly, Clandestine was sweating bullets, and her bleary haze cleared in an instant. Adrenaline kicked in with a wheeze, and she could feel her body simultaneously buzz and ache with the rush.
This man was a mage and he must've done the math: the only reason they'd been able to start and end a fire that large was because they were mages too. Or... she was one.
Gulping, Clandestine found herself at a loss for words.
She's never knowingly met another mage before. For years, she'd been staying hidden, never letting anyone know. It didn't make sense to seek out others like her because it was too dangerous. Frankly, she didn't know if there were many others like her out there in the world to find. As far as she knew, mages were being killed every day. She thought they were a dying race.
She felt James's presence beside her again. Returned in silence, but this time, the tension in the air was thicker.
The man's crackling electricity fizzled around his arm, and they were plunged into darkness.
"What do you want?" James asked cooly.
"To help," the taller man answered as a looming shadow.
"And why should we trust you?" James answered.
"Well, I was kind of making a gamble by showing you my magic, which I think we all know puts all of us at risk," the man said. "I know you have no reason to assume I'm a morally upright person just because I have magic, but I did hurry to get here before others did."
"Others?" Clandestine blurted. "What others?"
"A report was put in at Bone to the guild," the man answered. "About the fire. It's being reported upwards to Ruddlan, I believe."
Clandestine looked over at James, her mouth turning to a deep frown as her brows pinched together in worry. James's expression was severe, and she could tell without him saying that he was still skeptical. But with things as they were, they really didn't have any other recourse. Clandestine had only just learned that she was - with certainty - a dragon, and she didn't even know fully what that meant. She hadn't even begun to process the implications of everything she and James had talked about. She'd only just started to feel the weight of it.
They needed help. And if there was another mage out there, this could be just what they needed. If Bo wasn't able to do more than get them somewhere safe, that alone would at least give them time to think about what to do with everything they knew.
"How are you intending to help?" James finally asked after a long silence.
"In short," the man answered. "I'm a part of an underground network of mages that work to rescue and relocate other mages or mage-sympathizers that are at risk or already in danger. I can help get you to a more secure location for now. We have a bunker north of here we can hide out in for a while."
Clandestine looked to James, searching his face.
She already knew her answer. She wanted to say yes, and she was going to. But James wasn't a mage. He was...
"Do you know who I am?" James asked lowly.
There was a beat of dreadful silence.
"Yes," the man said. "I know who you are, Mr. Hemming."
Clandestine swallowed again.
These were two men who clearly had been on two sides of the war. Did Bo know what he was offering? Did the offer even extend to James?
"I'm asking both of you to come with us," he said. "And I give you my word that no harm will come to you. But we really should make haste. Mage hunters don't waste any time."
"Nor do the kingdom's hunters," Bo said.
James turned to look at Clandestine, and though he wasn't exactly making eye contact, she could tell he was searching for her face - for her eyes, to meet them. To come to some kind of quiet conclusion together, even though they didn't have to. He didn't have to. She wondered if this was the first time he'd really been offered any kind of safety or if he'd taken chances before, only to be stabbed in the back.
This was a risk for both of them, but Clandestine wasn't willing to take the chance that Bo was bluffing about mage hunters.
She never wanted to take a chance when it came to mage hunters.
"Do you trust him?" James asked in a whisper.
Clandestine was surprised that he asked her, but she glanced back at the shadow of the towering man and his wolf beside him.
"About as much as I trust you," she said, without realizing until she said it that maybe that sounded like a back-handed comment.
Wincing, she shrugged slightly. James simply looked away with a wearied look in the direction of where the man stood.
"I'll go with you," James answered quietly.
She hoped they weren't making a mistake, here. But something about this man - the one with the lightning in his hands - felt... familiar.
She didn't know how to explain it. It just felt like she should know him from somewhere. But that was silly because she never did.
Clandestine took in a deep breath, sitting taller again.
"Lead the way, Bo," she said. "I'm in, too."
With the tall man's shadow approaching, Bo answered: "Alright then," and blue sparks crackled out of his hand once more, lighting up his face for a moment. As he approached, the wolf followed behind him.
Bo glanced up at Clandestine, his eyes glowing an inhuman blue - much like his magic.
"Let's go," he said.