The young Vayna warrior who had been choking the life out of old Zeke now dropped his victim and jumped to his feet. He stared down at Devick, who lay unconscious. He gave a fierce battle cry and ran at the man who had put her there. The mystery man in the hat didn't hesitate. He turned, a second taser in his left hand, and shot the oncoming warrior in the chest. The Vayna fell, convulsing momentarily and then went still, face down in the dirt.
The man in the hat crouched to withdraw the probes from his victim's chest. He wound the wires around his hand.
Jeb remained on the ground, stunned by the sudden turn of events. "Who are you?" he asked.
The man glanced at him, his eyes hidden behind black shades. He pulled a coil of rope from a clip on his belt, one of several, and tossed it at Jeb. "Tie her up," he said. His voice was raspy, yet it also held a youthful quality.
Jeb studied the disguised man. "Why should I do what you say?"
"Because we haven't much time." He held up his right hand. His pinky and ring finger were missing. "And I can only do so much."
Zeke struggled to his feet, rubbing his throat. "That kid was gonna kill me," he muttered.
"No," the man in the hat said, tossing another coil to Zeke. "They're no more killers than you are. They're just angry."
"You think tying them up will piss them off less?" Zeke asked.
"Yes," the young man said. "Because I'm going to tie you up as well."
"If I don't, they'll think I'm on your side. Trust me. It's better this way."
"I don't trust you," Jeb said, now standing. "Why is your face covered?"
The young man detached the projectile cartridge from one of the tasers. "It's complicated. I want to avoid complications."
"You know who I am," Jeb said. "What's your name."
Zeke snorted. "What kind of name is Winnie?"
"A tactical one."
The old man frowned, clearly confused.
"Listen, there's lots to tell you, but you've got to be tied up when these two wake up. Otherwise, they'll never trust you."
"We don't trust them," Zeke complained. "They kidnapped his granddaughter twice, and two others from our camp."
"The Vayna didn't kidnap anyone. In fact, they've had some of their own people abducted two nights back. That's why they're so edgy."
Jeb and Zeke shared a confused glance. "They don't have Mai?"
"No. And Ruby Tanner was taken from them."
"I'll tell you everything, but tie them up first. We don't have time for this."
Zeke looked to Jeb, who nodded. Both men stooped beside the warriors and lashed the wrists of their victims behind their backs. The young man "Winnie" reloaded the tasers with fresh cartridges as they worked.
"Now you expect us to let you tie us up?" Jeb asked when they finished.
"Yeah, but first I've got to tase you."
Jeb stiffened. "No you don't."
"Sorry," Winnie said. "I've got to sell this."
Zeke didn't wait. He rushed Winnie. The disguised man stumbled backwards and fired his weapon. Zeke froze like a statue, flopping forward.
Jeb stood watching. He didn't attack. Winnie turned to him, his other taser held ready.
"I could have reached you when you were busy with Zeke," Jeb said.
"I should have."
Winnie shrugged. "This taser is going to hurt."
"You've got a bigger enemy than the Vayna."
"I'll tell you in a few minutes."
Winnie aimed his weapon. Jeb didn't see it coming. Momentary agony spread through his chest and seized all his limbs. Then everything went dark.
* * *
Jeb awoke to an argument, his forehead pressed against dry leaves, the world spinning like a carousel.
" Ta'hai na. Vai gannaoi."
" Tre gohn vihooah. Gahn shikvaht."
"What.... what's going on?" Jeb slurred.
"This woman is stubborn," Winnie complained. "You tase someone and they're convinced you're the devil."
" Reah han." Devick cursed. "Ta'hai na."
Jeb lay facing her. She writhed within her bonds, fighting to get free, her teeth bared with malice.
"I'll tell you what I told her," Winnie said, his tone now angry, as if they hadn't spoken calmly only minutes before. "Your enemy lay to the southeast amidst the Titan Spires."
"Titan Spires? Those big mountain peaks?"
"Cavaheim is at the south end of the caldera. Their dragon riders abducted your people."
"Dragon riders?" Jeb repeated. "You're joking."
"She's seen them," Winnie said, aiming a toe at Devick. "She could tell you."
"I don't speak her language. Where's Professor Gordon?"
"Injured, in the attack two nights ago. You won't have him to translate."
"But you understand the Vayna?"
"Yes, and so will you if you take the time to learn rather than sneaking around attacking them."
Jeb forced himself to be calm. Was this guy trying to provoke him? He took a deep breath. "Tell me about the dragon riders and Cavaheim."
Winnie sighed. "Finally, an intelligent inquiry. All I get from her are threats." He hunkered down near Jeb. "Well, Colonel, the dragon riders are all members of the Ord, a once savage race that lived underground. Most of them have magic potential, a trait commonly referred to as 'spark'. The Ord became civilized when they came into contact with missionaries from the empire of Starrik. But that was centuries ago, and you won't find anyone who—"
Devick growled. She strained against her ropes and bared her teeth at Winnie.
"Yeah, I should keep this short. Cavaheim was once a city of learning and magic development. But it has since become the seat of power of a king named Basha who claims to be the Rat Messiah."
"What's a Rat Messiah?"
"You'll hear all kinds of names for him. Godsbane, The Usurper, the Unrighteous Judge. The Ord call him Gahn shikvaht. The Vayna call him Uru Kaiha."
At the sound of the name, Devick drew a sharp breath. She glared up at Winnie with all the venom she could muster.
"But we don't say that name out loud, do we?" Winnie said.
"You still haven't told me who this Rat Messiah is," Jeb said.
"The one prophesied to destroy the world."
"Never heard of him."
"And there's a reason for that. But you've heard of him now."
"So you want us to go stop him from destroying the world?"
"No, there's nothing you can do about that. What I want you to do is go save your people from Cavaheim."
"But what about the world destruction?"
"Hopefully, the world won't get destroyed again. Preventing the final disaster is my job."
Jeb's brow furrowed. "What do you mean when you say, 'destroyed again?'"
Devick shouted something in her own language. Winnie stood and moved to her, answering, speaking in the Vayna language.
As they argued, Jeb considered what he'd learned. Dragon riders? Godsbane?
"Do you believe any of that shit?"
Jeb had to crane his neck. He found Zeke tied up a few feet from himself.
"I don't know," Jeb replied.
"Dragon riders?" Zeke scoffed. "Be serious."
"Didn't you see those huge winged creatures flying over our camp at dusk the last two nights?"
"You know my eyesight is shot. I didn't see shit."
"Well, I saw them. A lot of others did too. I assumed the Vayna took our people, but..."
"What about this world destruction baloney?"
"Would you say the world is normal now?"
"It's still here."
"This isn't the same world it was a month ago."
Zeke didn't reply. They listened as Winnie and Devick argue.
"And he expects us to team up with these gray bastards?" Zeke said.
"I suspect that's what this whole charade is about."
"Charade nothing. I feel like I've been kicked in the chest."
Winnie turned back to them. "It will take more time than I have to convince this woman I'm telling the truth. I hope you have more luck with her."
"I'm not sure how much I believe."
Winnie threw his hands up in frustration. "You don't have to believe much. All you need to know is that your people—Mai, Ruby, and that other guy—are in Cavaheim. Well, Ruby's not there yet, but she will be. They'll need your help. Cavaheim is full of prisoners who are about to be dead."
"I'm not sure, but don't waste time."
"Why will they be dead?"
"A mass sacrifice. They'll burn in the fires of Kaj'jic."
"Fires of what?"
"It's like Old Faithful, only with lava."
"And that's where my Mai is?"
"Yes. You have days to stop them. I don't know how many."
Jeb's chest went cold. His granddaughter Mai, kidnapped and prepared for sacrifice? Burned alive?
"Okay," he said. "What can you tell me about the enemy?"
"They have dragons."
"You've mentioned that."
"The Ord only come out at night. They're most likely to spot you from the air just after sundown and just before sunrise. Don't use campfires."
"The city is guarded by soldiers who take orders from the Ord. The soldiers use crossbows, spears and swords. No firearms. The Ord have a psychic weapon. They can hit you from as far as thirty paces, but they can only hit one target at a time, and it drains them."
"What does the psychic weapon do?"
"Knocks you unconscious, for minutes or hours depending on how they hit you."
"Good to know."
"There's a wall around the city, manned by sentries."
"How do we get past it?"
"I don't know."
"That's a problem."
"You're the soldier. I'm sure you'll think of something."
"And what are you going to do?"
Winnie sighed. "Me? I will stay away from Cavaheim. I'd only cause problems there."
"You've said that before."
"I say it a lot."
Jeb paused. "Anything else?"
"There's a lot more, but I haven't much time. I'll tell you one more thing. The Ord won't attack the people in your camp again, but there's other dangers in this world, and they're coming. Tell your people to head due-south towards the mountains. They'll find a tower topped with an array of lightning rods. It won't be easy to get inside, but if they do, they'll find tunnels underneath. They should be safe there."
"From something much worse than dragons. There's a whole—"
Someone shouted in the distance. Other voices joined in. The Vayna warriors called for their missing comrades.
"Time's up," Winnie said. He pulled the strap of a bag over his shoulder and nodded to Jeb. "Good luck, Colonel." He dashed away, into the woods.
Jeb watched as he disappeared beyond the trees, then turned to face Devick. She scowled at him from where she lay.
"Looks like you and me are friends now."
" Ge-hain ta."
"Friends," he repeated, slower. "Get used to it."