From the outpost, buses and wagons could be arranged to take travelers to the nearest city, Ponerinae, where they could find accommodations or other options for further travel into the country. Lucas’ first priority was to ensure they were adequately equipped for this part of their journey. He exchanged some coins to the appropriate currency and arranged for three seats in a wagon to Ponerinae.
Any more activity was impossible for Ya Nu, who had been awake for more than twenty-four hours. She instantly fell asleep when her back hit her seat in the covered wagon. Lucas took the seat beside her, while Za preferred the unpopular bench outside that jutted out of the wagon's side, where passengers had to hold on in case they got bucked off when the wagon hit bumps in the road.
One of those particular hard bumps dislodged several from their seats. Ya Nu limply swayed towards the stranger on her left. Lucas noticed early and expertly fixed her posture, leaning her towards him. Another bump and he realized she would keep falling sideways or even forward. He held her around the shoulder to make sure she stayed firmly seated during the rest of the ride.
The lady who sat across from them smiled at him with a twinkle in her eyes and turned to whisper to her companion. It made him self-conscious. Still, he did not retract his arm as he did not want Ya Nu to wake, and he merely averted his gaze.
When they reached Ponerinae, Ya Nu remained deep in her slumber. Lucas decided to let her to rest while he replenished food and supplies for their team. The rest of the passengers went on their way and the wagon had to be emptied. They reserved a room at a nearby inn for a short while and the boys laid their teammate inside and continued with their errands. Lucas stopped by the market and shops while Za boy went for a look around the city.
The sky was still light when Lucas returned to the inn with his purchases. Ya Nu had not stirred from her sleep and Za was nowhere in sight. He ate and stretched then stepped outside to look for Za. The wait was short. Behind the building, Za appeared softly on his feet.
“Someone’s tailing us," Za said.
This news was not surprising. Reaching Formicidan without any incident was a miracle for them, but their luck could not continue forever.
The boys went inside and roused Ya Nu. She lifted her eyelids with difficulty, but was able to focus enough to listen. Once she was aware of their situation, she became fully awake.
"I wasn't sure until we crossed over," Za explained. "He's here."
Ya Nu asked, "How are you sure?"
"I retraced our steps," Za said. "Lucas' movements."
Distracted, Lucas said, “That's it. We split up."
"If it's just one person, we might be able to take him out," Ya Nu countered.
"If he's from the Prime Military, I doubt it," Lucas reminded her. "Anyway, we're not criminals. We don't want to be criminals. Attacking suspicious truck drivers may be low standards, but going against a ForeGuard can be deadly. Even if we come out of it alive, we might be accused of revolting against the order."
"So there's nothing else we can do? That's it?" Ya Nu looked from Lucas to Za, hoping they had a different answer.
"Splitting up is temporary," Lucas assured her. "We'll meet in Lasius tomorrow. Noon. Outside the Prime Military Center.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out some coins to divide among them, but Za shook his head and Ya Nu frantically waved her hand to reject him.
“I don’t need it,” Ya Nu said.
Lucas stowed his coins away but divided the food and supplies. “Then I’ll see you in Lasius,” he said. While he may not know his members thoroughly, he didn’t doubt them. Thus far, they had performed beyond his expectations.
Ya Nu closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, her eyes burned with determination. They had traveled thousands of miles together just to hopefully meet up with another classmate. She knew she could trust these members. She said, "Be safe."
Za and Ya Nu departed within several minutes of each other. Lucas waited for a while longer then headed towards the train station. He was sure neither of them were utilizing this mode of transportation. Both were resourceful enough to circumvent the norm. It had not been a part of his earlier calculations, but their oddities made their quint stronger in unexpected ways.
He bought a ticket for the last train that was still several hours away, then sat and waited. Za's assessment had given him a clue on what he must do once their team separated.
At sunset, a man turned up.
Standing in front of Lucas’ seat and looking down on him, Assistant-Instructor Giles Heliconia said, “You didn’t run.”
Lucas nodded. If his tracks were leading Giles to them, then only he could stay behind and stall the inevitable. “I wanted to meet you. I trust Amaryllis and Za to get where they need to be.”
Giles looked thoughtful. “You three crossed into Formicidan much faster than I predicted. You led your quint very well. But a captain shouldn’t let himself be taken out so easily. What will your members do without you?”
“I can’t do anything,” Lucas said. “Right now, I’m most useful here.”
Giles nodded. “I understand your way of thinking. Maybe I would do the same, with your knowledge and skills. But- you’re just a kid. You think like a kid."
He took the seat next to Lucas uninvited. “Here’s a lesson for you, Lobelia. You overthink. Your solutions are overcomplicated. Your quint is chasing Erina Marigold, correct? Here's where you messed up. Do you want to know your first mistake?”
* * *
A train sped down the tracks that ran alongside a long stretch of road. Only a few cars and trucks were driving on this strip of obscure roadway that cut through the western countryside of Astradom. On the train, a woman with short hair that curled around her ears stood up from her seat and climbed onto the ledge of the open window. A man suddenly stood and stretched out an arm.
“Don’t!” he shouted. “Your life’s worth more than you think.”
The woman threw her head back and laughed loudly and cheerfully. She looked around at him. “You’re right!” she bellowed. Then she jumped.
Her veins glowed blue through her skin and a jet of water burst beneath her feet, carrying her to land safely several meters away. The train passed smoothly behind her and was gone. The woman tapped her dry shoes on the ground and thought back to the man who had tried to stop her from presumably committing a grave act. She said, “I hope he doesn’t get nightmares from this.”
In this area of the plains, the long road alongside the tracks met with another windy road in a perpendicular crossroad. The woman leisurely walked over to where the two roads met and stood at the heart of it.
She checked her wristwatch. “Predicted convergence in five minutes. Perfect.”
She faced eastward and waited. Five minutes stretched into several
more until half an hour had gone by. One car drove passed and honked its horn
at her, and she hurled a stream of water under it. The car flipped twice before landing back on its wheels. The driver sped away and she laughed after it. But no dual
trucks came down the roadway.
“This sucks. Cleaning up after Heliconia’s stupid kids,” she muttered as she checked her watch again.
Finally, in the distance a recognizable dual truck drove into view. She pulled out a monocular scope and zoomed in on the approaching vehicle, scrutinizing every part of it. The exterior appearance checked out. And in the driver seat, the ugly mug of a criminal matching the photo that had come with the notes.
“Check,” she said with a satisfied smile. “This will be fun.”
As the dual truck neared, the woman took a step to stand in his lane blocking the road. The driver must have seen her but he made no indication to slow down or even swerve into the opposite lane to avoid her. The dual truck continued to charge towards her.
“This makes it even easier,” she said and crossed her arms. “Wara, stream.”
The Water Spirit stirred while her veins glowed blue through her skin. Water burst from air in front of the woman and crashed against the oncoming dual truck. The driver immediately threw up his arms as the jet stream persisted, stopping the heavy vehicle. The woman directed the stream to the side and pushed the dual truck off the road. It tumbled as the wheels left the gravel. The driver screamed as the heavy truck was pushed further out. Finally, the stream cut off when the woman was assured it was a good distance away from the road.
While the windshield and windows were cracked, the trailer remained perfectly intact and undamaged. As expected of a dual truck. She approached and saw that the driver had recovered from his fright. He reached for a gun.
“Don't mess with me!” he shouted, aiming the gun at her through the closed window.
The woman knew the front of a dual truck was not as secure as its precious cargo. It wasn’t built with the safety of its drivers in mind. She raised her voice and said, “I'll show you how a human can drown on land.”
Even as she spoke, the blue glow under her skin flared up again and water began filling the interior front seat of the dual truck. She saw in the driver’s expression the refusal to surrender. He was determined to suffer. His finger held the trigger, but a rush of water knocked into his arm and the fired shot missed. The woman concentrated on building the water inside, forming a bubble around the driver until his struggles ceased. His body floated inside the water.
Then she allowed the bubble to burst. As the man fell back in the wet seat, she pried the driver’s door open and dragged him out. She dropped him to the ground and pressed down on his chest with her foot. He threw up water and gasped for breath.
“Who has the key to your cargo?” she asked.
“I’ll kill you,” the driver sputtered with venom in his eyes.
“Shit head.” The woman delivered a quick kick to his face and knocked him out. She moved on to the trailer. “Wara, sword,” she said.
The Water Spirit stirred. Her veins glowed blue. A thin line of jet water formed in her palm extending a meter out. She wielded the stream and cut into the front of the dual truck, slicing through the glass and steel easily. But the stream dispersed as it reached the trailer. A VI-rus produced panel was resistant to damage, as expected.
“Increase pressure,” she said and the strength of her water sword intensified. Still, the exterior of the trailer held. “Increase,” the woman repeated. Again, “Increase.” She concentrated the sword at a corner. Finally, the blade cut through.
Slowly, she pressed her sword up the side making sure to not cut too deep that it would touch the cargo. The end of the dual truck’s trailer fell away, exposing the interior. The woman released her sword and crouched to peer in. Up to at least twenty unconscious bodies, battered and bound, laid scattered inside.
She moved in and checked the pulse of the nearest person. A heartbeat, even if faint.