“If you spot any of our Royal Season participants, shoot them on sight,” Clinio Lind reminded half of his security team. The other half was circling the compound through the forest, and got the same warning earlier. “We can’t afford to lose them again.”
“Where would they take them? They’re surrounded.” Cleeve Freer crept forward and poked his head up around the car-sized boulder that marked the beginning of the final leg of approach to the compound. Behind them, the dirt road snaked back and forth down the mountain in a series of switchbacks.
Ellison knew what was coming and ducked back further away from the road. As soon as Cleeve’s head appeared, a curtain of fire erupted from further up the road. A few hit the rock, some hit the branches over Ellison’s head, but most went even wider.
“No fire discipline,” said Clinio.
Freer had ducked back behind the rock when the firing started. “They seemed pretty disciplined down at the beach,” he said. “There were four of them, and three dozen of us, and we barely got them.”
“You’re right,” said Clinio. “Something’s changed.”
“And you know, the four guys we did get? I think they let themselves get taken,” Freer continued. “I just can’t figure out why. They could have run.”
“That’s because there were six of them,” said Clinio. “They were holding us off so that the other two could escape. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen if we capture them? I suspect they were trained to withstand interrogation. The question is, why was it so important that the other two got away?”
“From their tracks, it looked like they were carrying something heavy,” said Freer. “But we couldn’t see what, exactly, in the dark. By the time it was light enough for us to see where we were going, they’d already had too much of a head start.”
Another round of gunfire erupted and Ellison shrank back again. Clinio and the rest of the security team didn’t even flinch.
“No fire discipline,” said Clinio.
Another member of the security team appeared from the treeline behind Ellison. Ellison had worked with Barret the Beast before, when he’d helped rescue Wynefrede after the first time she’d been kidnapped. He had also been one of the guards Wynefrede had been involved with. One of the many guards, but that didn’t seem to have bothered him.
“There’s just a few people with robes who don’t seem to know one end of a gun from another,” he told Clinio. “They’re shooting blindly at anything that moves.”
“Could you see the prisoners?” asked Clinio.
“No. There’s a path that goes around the whole compound and the brush has been cleared back a little bit. They’ve got people hiding behind the buildings, shooting if they see anyone coming out of the woods. The prisoners could be in one of the buildings or behind them where I couldn’t see them, somewhere in the center of the compound.” Barret pointed up hill. “See that roofline? That’s their temple. It’s the tallest building there, and could be where the prisoners are kept.”
“Did you see a hypergate?”
“No,” said Barret. “It could be in the temple, too.”
“I doubt that they’d be holding the prisoners close to the gate,” said Clinio. “I mean, one they go out through the gate, they’re free. They minute they step outside of Krim, they can teleport anywhere they want. They wouldn’t take them to the gate.”
“They could be taking them off the island,” said Freer. “They could have taken all the prisoners down to the coast by now. They could have a ship waiting in some cove some where.”
Clinio rubbed his face. “If they take them to some other random island, we might never find them,” he said. “At that point, we’d just have to wait until they died of old age. They do have aging on Krim, don’t they?” He looked at Ellison. “You’ve been here for a while. Do people age?”
“I’ve been here less than a year,” said Ellison. “I don’t know if they do or not. They simulate other biological functions. Well, except for menstruation…”
“Never mind,” said Clinio, looking back at Freer and Barret. “Are any of the commandos still up there?”
“I didn’t see any,” said Barret.
Clinio sighed. “They’re probably taking the prisoners to a ship,” he said. “And left guns with the cult to hold us off until they’re gone.”
“They’ll run out of bullets eventually,” said Freer.
They all paused for several rounds of gunfire. None of it was aimed at them. Freer briefly poked his head out around the bounder and got shot at again.
“We can’t wait that long,” said Clinio. “We don’t know how much they’ve got. And if they run out, they’ve got the gate right there, and can bring in more. Ellison, say here and draw their attention.”
“What?” Ellison shrank back.
“The rest of us will circle around and take down the shooters,” said Clinio. “You’re useless in a fight. Wave your arms at them, keep their attention focused on you.”
“What if they kill me?”
“Then go to the Krim administration offices. Tell them about the terms of service violation. See if they’ll let you use the cult’s gate. If they do, round up all the mercenaries you can and bring them back in through the cult’s gate. We might need them to search the island.”
“Matilda would be good at that,” said Ellison. “Where is she?”
“She’s up there somewhere,” said Barret, nodding up towards the compound. “Last I saw, she was planning on slicing a few cultist throats.”
Clinio nodded. “Let’s take out the shooters, secure the gate, then search the island for the prisoners.” He patted Ellison on the shoulder. “Try not to get killed right away. We want them shooting at you as long as possible.”