Even with the giant snake in the grass, for some reason the travelers and soldiers kept their Sunday afternoon picnic attitude. Alexis figured it out when she felt a nudge, and she convinced Lincoln as they rode toward Napoca.
“It is the wraith,” she said. “It gives people a false sense of security, almost lulling them to sleep. Then, when she moves in for the kill, the terror is that much more absolute.”
“Absolute terror.” Lincoln shook his head, not to disagree, but to clear his head of the wraith’s influence.
“That is how she feeds,” Alexis explained, dredging up the information from her childhood nightmares. “She feeds on fear, fright, and feelings of hopelessness and despair, and she sucks on the soul until the body is utterly drained and collapses, an empty, shriveled husk.”
“Something to look forward to,” Lincoln responded.
Alexis and Lincoln spent the morning trying to convince the others that they were in grave danger, but they only got blank stares in return. People shared stories and laughs around the lunch campfire when Lincoln and Alexis looked up. They heard howls in the distance.
“Wolv?” Lincoln wondered.
Alexis shook her head. “Just ordinary wolves.”
“Giant ordinary wolves,” Lincoln corrected her, and he got the people packing up to travel.
The wolves followed them through the afternoon. Some of the howls sounded loud enough and close enough to get at least the temporary attention of the soldiers and travelers. They got to about a half-hour from Napoca when the wolves circled in for the kill. That woke people up. Boston and Sukki raced back from the point. Decker rode hard to reach the group from where he wandered off to the side. Even the soldiers following hustled to catch up.
Elder Stow watched carefully, and when everyone came inside the circle, he turned on his screen device. He stared at the device and wondered why he had not reset it and turned it off in the morning. Running all day in ready mode used up ten percent of his charge. It did not matter much, now that he had the charging unit supplied by the god Hephaestus, but still… He could be a bit obsessive-compulsive about his equipment and leaving it in ready mode all day did not feel right.
Elder Stow got out his weapon. Five giant wolves came roaring in from all four compass points. They ran into the screen, and the travelers got out their guns like it was routine. They put down three of the giant beasts before the other two ran off.
“Rather anticlimactic,” Lincoln said, as he spied a very frustrated looking wraith in the late afternoon sun. He fired at her, but she shrieked and vanished.
“Good thing Elder Stow had his screen device set to deploy,” Boston said, and Nanette and Sukki agreed with her.
“But that is just it,” Elder Stow said. “My Mother and Father, I should have turned it off and put it away this morning, but I never thought of it. It was only by chance accident that I was able to place a screen around us with such speed.”
“Thank you, all the same,” Lockhart said.
“But you don’t understand,” Elder Stow tried again. “I left it running all day, but I would never do that. I believe something has gotten into our thoughts.”
“The wraith,” Alexis said.
“Maybe someone is watching over us,” Katie suggested.
“That may be also,” Elder Stow said.
“Like a competing power that will not show themselves,” Alexis wondered.
“Maybe the Kairos,” Boston imagined.
“No,” Hans and Berry came up while Lavinia had the boys. “My sister has no such natural power.”
“Maybe one of her god or goddess lifetimes,” Berry wondered.
Hans shook his head. “She would show herself. She would not stay hidden.”
Lockhart nodded. “Okay. We have the wraith trying to get at us with giant predators, and someone might be helping us that doesn’t want to be known. We need to get to Napoca as quick as we can.”
“Before the wolves come back with more friends,” Decker agreed.
“An inn in town might, make a good defensive place, depending on what the wraith throws at us,” Katie said, quietly.
“The inn and stables,” Lockhart nodded. “If Elder Stow wouldn’t mind, maybe we could get a screen around both tonight.”
Elder Stow glanced at the sun. “That might work. I should have enough time to charge the equipment before sunset. We will have to see how big an area my little hand-held toy will have to cover.”
That night, the inn got attacked by bats the size of cars. Thanks to Elder Stow, the people, and the horses in the stables, slept safe. Elder Stow’s screens apparently stymied, and no doubt frustrated the wraith.
In the morning, around the breakfast table, they warned each other that when Elder Stow turned off his screens, they would be once again subject to the mental manipulations of the wraith. They promised each other to stay vigilant, and not fall back into the same careless attitude of the day before. Alexis suggested a more realistic approach.
“Potaissa, where we planned to meet the Kairos, is a short day from here. Why don’t we pledge to get there as quickly as possible?”
When Greta, Darius, Mavis, and their troop of soldiers finally got out of Apulum, Greta pushed them to ride as hard as they could. They got about half-way to the salt mines at Salinae, which meant they would have a full day yet to travel. Greta made them camp in the wilderness and decided it was just as well they did not make it to the fort at Salinae. The soldiers there would have only slowed them down.
Greta said they would leave at first light and not stop until they got to Potaissa. She ate little. She tried to sleep. She remembered how glad she was that Marcus Italicus dallied in Romula-Malva, nowhere near their area. She wondered where Rhiannon had gone. She felt reluctant to ask Danna to trade places with her and call her child. She was not sure Danna would do that based only on some uncomfortable feelings Greta had.
Greta pecked at Darius’ lips and turned on her side to face the fire. Darius turned to spoon with her. Good. She needed to be held.
The travelers stopped for lunch two hours shy of Potaissa. Despite warning each other over and over, they got sloppy again. Elder Stow noticed. No one watched the perimeter. Elder Stow at least kept his eye on the scanner. Decker also noticed, and tried to keep his eyes and ears open, but Nanette kept saying they were almost there. “In the home stretch, “Lincoln kept repeating, as if arrival in Potaissa would magically fix everything.
Boston sat with Katie and Lockhart and watched Sukki and Alexis cook. She glanced at Nanette, but the girl appeared focused on Decker and Boston did not feel like interrupting. She glanced at Lincoln and Elder Stow, but Lincoln looked absorbed in reading in the database, and Elder Stow fiddled with his equipment. He did that lots lately. Boston wondered if he started feeling uncomfortable now that Sukki chose to become human. He said he felt happy for her, but everyone knows, what a person says and actually feels might be two different things.
Everyone looked up.
Boston ran faster than the rest.
“No, it’s all right. It’s all right,” Tony repeated. “I came to check on Ghost, and it was just a squirrel, or bird, or something—normal size. It just startled me.”
“Too much stress,” Boston said, and looked at the others to see if anyone disagreed.
“I have been worried and anxious of late,” Tony said, softly, and he lowered and shook his head.
People went back to lunch looking a bit more sober, but Elder Stow and Decker noticed they did not hurry lunch, or hurry to get into town after lunch. Boston resumed her seat and wondered if her uneasiness might be because she finally started feeling like a true elf and got stuck, now, around so many clunky, mortal, humans.