Chapter 9

Michael McKenzie carefully made his way across the scorching wilderness that separated the mountain that bore the castle up into the sky from the stony foothills far in the distance. As he worked to put leagues behind him, he became very aware of just how dangerous the desert was, foreboding an intensely difficult passage.

Ileana had quietly led him through the secret passages that had once allowed her father to escape from the castle. He had wanted to offer some words of encouragement to reassure her that her father was still alive, but instead he had accepted the medallion from her and embraced her, showing his gratitude and hopefully engendering in her some degree of hope.

The passageway had led him to the edge of a canyon, far below the castle but with the danger of discovery replaced with a long and deadly fall. After she had pulled the stone slab door closed behind him, he took several minutes to decide which of the steep paths would be impossible to descend and which would merely kill him on the way down. In the end, he chose one of the impossible crags and tried to envision which one Ileana’s father had chosen those many years before.

When he reached the floor of the valley, he was acutely aware of how fortunate he was that the secret passage let him out only a hundred meters from its base, for he had slipped down the last ten and now had several cuts and scrapes to go with his torn uniform. He muttered a silent curse as he picked up the water flask that had been full when he began his descent, before his foot had slipped and sent him sliding the rest of the way. Now, having been punctured by a chunk of jagged rock, it contained only the few gulps of water that had not already been absorbed by the arid ground.

The barren scrub brush that littered the landscape mocked him as his jog slowed to a walk. His shirt was already soaked with sweat, reminding him that he needed to conserve his strength. But he also needed to put a tremendous distance between himself and the castle, and quickly. He decided that he would continue to march on into the night, as far as his tiring frame could go.

Once they discovered that he and Agron had escaped, he knew that they would begin with a search of the castle. As soon as it became evident that he did not escape on his own, Ileana would be questioned, and the answers would be forced from her. He felt it was unwise to dwell on that.

At last, he could not bring his legs to continue without rest, so he fell to the ground in a heap with a coughing gasp, his muscles a series of quivering knots. He knew only a few hours of darkness remained to him, but the foothills were still almost another day away, and he couldn’t remain in the open, lest he be discovered by aerial search.

Michael woke, startled that he had allowed himself to fall asleep. He scanned the sky, terrified that they were already searching. He knew that he was obviously exposed.

Forcing protesting muscles to stand, he focused on a spot on the horizon that had stood out. As he half-ran, half-marched, his mind began to fill with thoughts and feelings that he had for his captain. If he had not been so tired, he would never have entertained such thoughts at all, but they came unbidden to his mind, as such thoughts are wont to do in that space between exhaustion and sleep.

He knew that she struggled with the decision she had made to abandon the crew of the Corsair to the Valdi, and what that had cost her. He knew that she had been forced to help the Terran Empire hunt down and destroy Orion warships--her own countrymen and race--over and over in order to win their trust and make her inception into Terran confidence complete.

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