Chapter 20.1: I Bet You're Wondering Why I've Gathered You All Here
Clandestine couldn't believe it. She'd found James. They got the egg back to the griffin. They had a bunch of angry people looking for them and trying to find them, but they'd done it. Their plan had been successful. Messy, chaotic, and stressful, but successful. Clandestine started to laugh as she looked across at James.
Just that morning they'd been saying their goodbyes, but now they were riding alongside one another in the forest outside the walls of Ruddlan, working together again. The sun had finally set, and the sky was fading from its vibrant oranges to a deep blue. The moon hung in the sky like half a pie, peeking through to replace the sun and shine through the trees with a faint blue hue.
She could hear the bellows of the hound dogs growing closer, and James was looking a little worse for wear, but they made it this far. They could escape, right? She looked down at Billy to see how he was doing. He seemed alright. Not too phased by seeing a griffin, really. He'd seen a lot of monsters far more fierce. Being a monster hunter's partner would do that to you.
"What are you smiling about?"
Her gaze shot back up to James. His hat shadowed his eyes from view, but she could tell he didn't share her amusement. Her smile began to fade, and she tucked her head to the side, half-shrugging.
"Just that it worked, is all!" she said, still feeling the giddy rush of relief and adrenaline spinning in her stomach.
"You found the kid?"
Clandestine's eyes widened. "Oh! Yes! He's okay! The soldiers returned him to his family!"
She watched as James slouched forward and his shoulders relaxed for just a moment before he straightened back up again.
James cut himself off when a dog leaped out of the bushes from beside them with a loud bark, nipping at Elliot's heels. Elliot skipped and darted to the side away from Clandestine and Billy. Were it daytime, she might not have been as worried, but the moment James disappeared into the dark forest Clandestine's heart dropped into her stomach, and she urged Billy to follow.
She glanced behind her. One dog had turned to three. She could hear the sound of horse hooves pounding behind them. She didn't know who it was behind them. It could be anyone, at this point. She knew James was wanted and had just stolen from thieves, but she was pretty sure she'd just made her own fair share of enemies in Ruddlan in the last 24 hours. That, and Alexander was still out there somewhere. Maybe it was him. She didn't really want a rematch, but she did want to hit him in the head again. That would be nice.
Billy started to clamber up a small incline, but it was steep. She knew if it was slowing her down, it had slowed James down, but she didn't know where he was anymore.
"James!" she shouted.
Nothing. Then a startled neigh from behind her.
Well, at least Elliot replied.
She turned Billy around and growled at one of the dogs as it jumped up near her leg with snapping teeth.
"Hey!" she shouted as she kicked it in the snout, sending it wriggling to the ground. She knew it was just doing its job, but it was not a nice dog!
Billy ran quickly, and Clandestine could finally make out Elliot’s white tail and mane in the dark, but he wasn’t moving. She watched as James whipped around to face her, hands slowly rising in what looked like surrender. It wasn't until Billy tip-toed to a stop that she realized why James stopped running.
He was surrounded. They were surrounded, and she'd walked right into it.
In front of them were a bunch of masked figures dressed in black, most holding guns aimed at James, and now at her. When she glanced behind her, the dogs came bursting through the trees and rallied around the horses. She saw what had to be Mindy riding up on horseback with a handful of other Ruddland soldiers riding up behind her. She watched as Mindy's face was lit up by a patch of moonlight and her furrowed brows raised up in confusion.
"Give us the egg!" one of the figures in black shouted.
"The egg?" Mindy questioned before James or Clandestine could get a word in. She looked at Clandestine, incredulous. "You have the egg?"
"Hand it over right now or we'll shoot!" the same figure yelled back, ignoring Mindy.
Clandestine's head was spinning.
"Does it look like we have the egg?" James asked. He sounded offended that they even asked. "It's gone!"
"Where did you put it?" the masked figure in black demanded.
Mindy drew closer on her steed. "Hold on a just a moment-" At least two or three people directed their guns towards her. All of the soldiers behind Mindy lifted guns of their own. Mindy raised up a cautionary hand.
"Don't shoot. I don't know what your issue is with these two, but they are criminals, and I am here for their capture. We're not here for you.” There was a pause as she narrowed her eyes. If Clandestine didn't know better, she'd think Mindy knew who the guys in masks were.
Clandestine had already been sweating, but she was pretty sure the following seconds of tense quiet might completely dehydrate her. She knew there were a lot of people around them with their fingers on the triggers of their guns with their guns aimed at her, James, and everyone else. Her chest and her head were pounding. Moments ago, she'd thought there would've been a simple way out of this, but now she was standing in the middle of a standoff.
Her fingers tightened around the reins. She wondered who would get hurt if she bolted. The masked people weren't on horseback, so they were probably the best way out, but she didn't want them to get a shot or a slash in at Billy. Billy was her friend, not a meat shield or a plow.
"We're not leaving without the egg," a masked man finally said.
"The. Egg. Isn't. Here," James said again.
"Then where is it?" masked man demanded.
James was quiet for a moment.
"The griffin took it," Clandestine spouted, ducking her head a tad.
Two voices came together in unison: "The what?" Clandestine looked back at Mindy.
Mindy was staring at her with wide eyes before she shook her head.
"Look," Mindy started. "I don't care about the egg anymore -"
"You really expect me to believe that the griffin came back for its f-" The masked man started to talk over her. Then Mindy's voice roared over his with a shout.
"You need to leave!"
A gunshot echoed through the forest. Before Clandestine could figure out who had been shot, or where the shot had come from, she and Billy darted to the side. She heard a lot more gunshots ring out. She couldn't count. Maybe five. Maybe a dozen. There was lots of shouting and yelling and she was pretty sure not all of them were cries of anger.
She'd lost James again.
She looked down at Billy. She couldn't spot anything on his black coat in the dark and his breathing didn't sound labored or panicked. He was scared, but so was she.
She heard hooves following after her and she couldn't make out how many, but she turned around, trying to retrace her steps back at an angle - if that was even possible.
She shouted again.
A bullet whizzed past her and she ducked down.
Another gunshot was her only reply, but it was further up ahead. She decided to follow that. She was still being followed, but she couldn't see much behind her apart from distant person-on-a-horse-shaped shadows.
As she turned forward, she could see the trees clear away and the silhouette of James's hat atop his head, and she knew it was him riding Elliot. Another man on horseback was riding up to him quickly, faster that Elliot was able to run, and the man propped himself atop the saddle, leaping off and grabbing James, dragging him to the ground as they fell behind their horses who were still running away.
Clandestine's heart stopped at the same time a low hanging branch caught on her jacket and yanked her backward.