The trek from Southpass to the border was uneventful, as Zane had told them it would be. The Crown wouldn’t make a move on the Viducian side of the border, he had assured them. It was unfamiliar territory, beyond their sovereignty, and sending anything other than a few bodies would risk a major political incident.
This meant they would have to cross the most highly guarded border outside of the Mardoken capital before they could even engage in any sort of conflict with the Crown’s forces, who intel suggested were camped just outside the Wildwood, in the foothills of the mountains.
It also meant they would be in the country where the Carmine Ledger had a much wider influence, though. And Zane believed the border crossing would be easier than usual because the Crown would want them to pass unperturbed into their clutches.
In theory, it was a difficult situation, but doable. In practice, Zane would remind them at every opportunity, things always went wrong. They would need to think on their toes. One last pep talk was all there was time for before they reached the border and put their plan into motion.
× × ×
“Are ya alright back dere? Not much longer til ya can come out,” Wrench whispered. She was riding in the front of a wagon with Frederick, while their passengers hid in the back under thick canvas sheets with preserved meats piled on top.
Frederick’s day job as a merchant had been the perfect cover for their crossing, and the border guards hadn’t looked twice once the relevant contracts had been produced. In fact, they hadn’t encountered any resistance at all even as they approached the forest. The closer they got to freedom, however, the more nervous Wrench seemed, the head of her wrench clinking on the floor in rhythm with her tapping foot.
As the hills gave way completely to flat ground and the forest dominated the skyline, Wrench noticed their horses nickering and fighting against their blinds, straining their necks toward some unseen threat. Her wrench clinked one last time as she grabbed it from her feet, the tapping having now ceased.
“Shades,” she informed Frederick, her typical bright smile gone grim, memories of their last encounter resurfacing.
Frederick nodded, and brought his wagon to a stop. He dropped from his perch with a grunt and unhitched his horses, sending them running toward the forest with a slap on their flanks. He then pulled a pair of thick leather gloves with inlaid brass fittings over fists the size of hams and sat beside Wrench again.
“Ya hit dem hard enough and dey’ll feel it,” Wrench explained. “But not for long. We just gotta keep dem away from Ori, d'ough.”
Frederick nodded again.
“Are ya ready back dere? I can see dem comin’,” Wrench said, her eye on two wisps of black powder skimming along the grass toward them.
When the Shades reached the vicinity of the wagon, Wrench stood atop the wagon and leapt at them, swinging her wrench overhead into one just as her boots crashed into the other.
The Shades flowed around her blows like smoke past a waving hand, and the first solidified into human form crouching just underneath the wagon. With a cacophony of creaks and groans, the wagon was lifted onto its side, upsetting its contents.
As meats tumbled from their places, the canvas sheets beneath them came to life. Throwing their cover from on top of them, James and Kelly jumped from the wagon.
“Are ya alright?” Wrench grunted, already locked in battle with the other Shade.
“I will be when I take that thing’s head off,” Kelly shouted, pulling a pair of climbing axes from clips on her leg.
Beside her, James brandished an ornate animantis lute, inlaid with gold.
“Really?” Kelly deadpanned, her righteous fury interrupted. “You’re going to fight a terror of the night with a musical instrument?”
“I’m an entertainer, not a fighter,” James said. “But I know how to improvise.”
“That thing probably cost more than a month’s wages,” Kelly sighed. “Just stay back will you?”
Kelly dashed around the wagon to face the Shade on the other side. James ignored her request and followed behind her, lute raised above his head like a club.
“Dis one’s not as strong as da last ones,” Wrench explained to Frederick through gritted teeth. She was attempting to push the Shade (who was holding her wrench from the opposite side) into the ground, but was not making any headway. “But dey’re all pretty tough.”
Frederick shuffled over and slipped his hand around the Shade’s neck, lifting it from the ground. Its grip didn’t falter, though, and Wrench found her arms lifted above her head as the Shade took her wrench with it.
“Hey! Make him leggo, would ya?” Wrench complained, standing on tiptoe.
Frederick drove his other fist into the Shade’s face. When doing so failed to have any effect, he tried again. And again.
The Shade, while still unmarked, screwed up its face in annoyance. After one last blow, it finally let go of the wrench and brought its hands up to its neck. Its lithe fingers crept beneath Frederick’s and began to pry them loose from its neck.
“Cut that out,” Wrench demanded, flogging the Shade in the gut with her wrench.
The Shade declined to follow her instructions. Instead, it freed itself from Frederick’s grasp and dropped to the ground, where it planted a solid punch directly into the merchant’s solar plexus.
Frederick, to his credit, did not budge, but his face contorted and he wheezed as his breath was forced from him. He swatted at the Shade’s head in retaliation, but it spun out of the way and grabbed his arm. Still trying to catch his breath, Frederick groaned in pain as his elbow was pushed the wrong way.
Wrench intervened before the Shade could do any real damage, swiping the creature in the ribs hard enough that it was sent spinning through the air.
“Are ya alright?” Wrench asked. She crouched beside Frederick, who had taken to one knee. He grimaced in reply, trying to catch his breath.
“Jus’ relax den, I’ll keep him busy.”
She rounded on the Shade, who had clambered back to its feet, but their showdown was interrupted by the arrival of her companions and the second Shade. Both Wrench and her opponent turned and stared at the spectacle before them.
The Shade was fleeing with its arms held protectively overhead, and it was trailing wisps of powdery black smoke. James followed behind it, smashing his lute repeatedly over its head. And Kelly brought up the rear, blood streaming from a cut near her eye and curses flowing from her lips.
“Why is that working!?” she thundered. “She just shrugged off the axes!”
“The… power… of… music?” James hazarded between swings, holding the lute at arms length as though the Shade might turn and snatch it from him at any moment.
Wrench flinched as Kelly’s outraged cursing resumed. Then she flinched again as something touched her forearm.
She jerked her arm back in alarm and a hand slid down to her wrist before losing its grip entirely. Puzzled, she watched the Shade she had been facing off against backing away from her, hiding something in its hands.
For a brief moment she entertained the notion the Shade had stolen one of the bangles she wore, but a glimpse at her wrist confirmed its presence. Furthermore, the Shade didn’t actually seem to be hiding anything in its grip. It was clutching its own hand, which seemed to be reverting back to its smoky form.
It also looked like it was in pain, which shocked Wrench so thoroughly it took her a moment to put two and two together. James’ lute, her wrist. The Shade was attempting to hide it, but it was too little, too late.
“Gold!” she exclaimed, her face lighting up as she made the connection. Her smile grew even broader as she noticed the Shade’s eyes had widened in alarm. “Gold burns dem! Use gold!”
Frederick—surprised, but eager—patted his hip and pulled three coins from his purse. He stuck them between the fingers of his fist and rose to his full height again.
“I don’t have a gold… ‘weapon’!” Kelly complained, eyeing James’ lute with derision as it fell to pieces against their Shade.
“Den improvise!” Wrench said, sliding one of her bangles over the head of her wrench and clamping it down.
James and Kelly’s Shade had begun to round on them again now that the lute lay in pieces, revenge burning in its eyes. James sidled behind Kelly, but she didn’t look much more like she wanted to fight it than he did.
“What am I supposed to do, put my ring on an axe?” she objected.
Wrench looked to Frederick, who nodded and faced off with their Shade, pounding his gold-laced fist into his other hand. The Shade looked apprehensive, but it didn’t back off.
Wrench, meanwhile, dashed toward the other Shade, who was now going berserk on Kelly. Had the Shade’s arms not still been half-intangible due to its earlier beating, she likely would have been overwhelmed by its fury, but even as it stood she was losing ground.
Determined to change this, Wrench wound up and swiped the Shade’s ribs. She expected to knock it soaring and cause some actual damage for a change, but instead the swing went right through, sending her careening off balance. She caught herself just in time to see the Shade’s upper and lower halves suspended separately for a moment before they both collapsed into a cloud of black powder.
“Whoa,” James said.
“Dat’s wicked!” Wrench said, glee shining in her eyes.
She turned back to Frederick to witness him swing a right hook toward the other Shade’s face. It’s head dissipated as Wrench’s Shade had—along with the hand trying to block the blow—and the rest of its body followed seconds later.
There was silence as both Shades remained inert for a moment, nothing more than piles of dust in a field. Then they began to float away as though on a gentle breeze, and the silence was broken.
Kelly cheered and tried to bump chests with James, who promptly fell over. Wrench whooped and ran to Frederick’s side. “Tossed him right under da wheels, didn’t ya?”
Frederick smiled, but it was a fleeting gesture that he replaced quickly with a frown as though with sleight of hand.
Wrench followed his line of sight to the forest as Kelly and James drew up beside them. The four of them stood and watched together as easily a hundred Crown soldiers marched out from their hiding places in the treeline and toward them.
“Great,” said Kelly. “So what’s their magical weakness?”