Episode 2: In the Wake of Silence

part of: The Shadowed Ones

by Jeff Beardwood

It was my habit to take a long walk after a mission. It was a habit Maere was not very fond of, even in the best of circumstances. He considered it dangerous to be out when the community was on such high alert. So after our botched mission and the mad scramble that ended it, I didn’t dare spend that quiet time alone walking, no matter how much I felt I needed it.
I did take a circuitous route getting back. That much I could easily justify. That much was in fact prudent, given the events of the evening. As I wandered the streets, quietly, staying out of sight, leading a merry chase for imagined pursuers, I tried to stay sharp, aware of my surroundings. I reminded myself my very survival, or at least my freedom, might rely on that focus. But as the blocks passed without any further wonders happening, I found my thoughts drifting back to the mission and the surprising encounter with Katia. Mostly, I was swimming in questions.
How had she known? How did she find us? How could she disarm an explosive that a bomb squad could not? What was that dramatic exit all about and how did she pull that off?
I remembered her words from the chat channel, “If feeding a superstitious fiction about some kind of Wanderer magic was the price of peace, then I would tell that white lie with a clear conscience. It would be the cheapest end to a war in history; the only casualty being a simple truth.”
Was that what she was doing? It was a dangerous game, if true. On the one hand she tells me outright there is nothing magical about her or the Wanderers, but when we meet, she does everything in her power to dazzle me with wonders. What was that all about?
Confident that I had thwarted all chance of pursuers, I took a direct path the last few blocks to Maere’s place. That is where everyone was trained to gather in a case like this. When I slipped in the door, the tension was high. Everyone who had made it back was waiting there near the door in the kitchen. Maere gave me a nod and went back to pacing.
I was not the last to return. Panther and Peanut were still due. That made sense. They were the stealth duo of our team. They would each show their skills as silent watchers and make their way back with great care. I was grateful I was not the last to return. There would be enough attention on me as it was.
Panther was the next to arrive. Not a floor board creaked, announcing his approach. Not a click of the door latch as it slowly swung open. I admired his great skill as he floated silently into the room, returning Maere’s nod.
“Did you see Peanut?” Clive asked.
Panther smiled wryly, one corner of his mouth slightly higher than the other. “No, but I’ll bet he watched me come in. He’ll be along shortly, I’ll wager.”
The words were no sooner spoken than Peanut appeared with the same silent skill and grace. “Trail is clear,” is all he said once the door was closed before he moved to a corner and squatted on his haunches.
Silence is usually a state of comfort for a Shadowed One. It was clearly not in this case. Everyone seemed to be waiting for Maere to say something. Finally Marty spoke up, trying to ease the tension and give us some direction. “We still have to go back to retrieve the explosive, right?”
“We wouldn’t find it anyway,” I replied. I was very reluctant to share this information, but they needed to know.
“What do you mean we wouldn’t find it?” Clive wanted to know. “You set it, right?”
“Yes, he set it,” Maere spoke for the first time since we’d returned, coming to my defense. “I was there with him, placed it myself and heard the sounds of him arming it. The job was done right.”
“Then how come?” Peanut started to ask, his voice trailing off. He was always a nervous sort of a man. Tonight he was jumpy to an extreme.
“If it was done right, there would have been an explosion,” Clive said what we all were thinking.
“It was a dud,” Maere’s voice, intense and cold revealed the weight of his words.
The wonders of the night overwhelmed us so that none could even question these shocking words. I probed Maere’s eyes. Either he was doing a remarkable job of acting now, to keep the team from panic in the face of the extraordinary, or he had been giving a similarly impressive performance while we were setting the charge.
“Then we do have to go retrieve it,” Marty said at last, avoiding the whole question of why for the moment and dealing with the practical side of things.
“The woman who spotted us has it,” I stated flatly.
I took the pouch from my jacket and showed it to them. “She gave me this,” I offered as explanation, dropping it on the table. Now they all knew I had not run when Maere yelled for us to scramble…the first of many admissions I was not going to enjoy making.
“The Wanderer?” Maere wanted to know.
I could tell these were words he did not want to speak. They had the effect he feared most, stirring all the fears and wonders in the others.
“Yes,” I told him. “But how did you know that?”
“It’s my job to know when you’re being an idiot!” The words had a touch of humor that his demeanor did not share.
“Daegle?” Peanut prodded me for some explanation, since Maere seemed to be in no mood to field questions.
“I…” My throat was dry. I was sweating and shuffled my feet. But part of me felt relief…as if the worst was about to be over. “I went on a chat channel, to learn about Wanderers. I signed on using ‘Shadowed One’ as my handle,” I spat it out at last. Everyone was shocked. Maere let the words sink in a moment. “It was a foolish risk,” he said, his voice turning almost kindly.
“I know. I didn’t do it from here. I thought it…” I trailed off.
“You know how quickly they can trace connections. How could you expect anything but trouble? Tonight’s mission was designed to see if we’d been compromised,” Maere explained, at last causing some of the fog to lift.
“It would seem we have been,” Clive laughed. In the culture of our team, where screw ups could cost lives, this was my forgiveness. The others joined in and eventually even I had to smile.
“So, the explosive being a dud was part of this mission design?” I asked, still scrutinizing Maere’s reaction…still feeling doubt.
“It was,” he said as the laughter was dying down. Still it didn’t ring quite true. It would be a huge risk to the team to stage a mission, but I decided there was nothing to be gained by asking more now. Frankly I was glad to be slipping from the spotlight.
He must have mistook the serious look in my eye, because Maere seemed to feel the need to reassure me. “Oh, go on and relax Daegle,” he said. “We all know the drill now. We move, we change our patterns and in a few weeks we go back to business as usual. Simple stuff.”
“Well, I won’t be signing onto that chat channel again, that’s for certain,” I said trying to go for another round of laughter.
Panther roared at the joke, but Maere cut him off, “Actually, yes, you will. But this time will be different.”