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What in the Ancients was he thinking? Throwing away all he believed in and the world he knew to save a woman he'd only met for a few moments?
But he'd come to realize he didn't truly know anything, about the past, the Guardians, perhaps even the gates.
Obsidian stepped out of the bathroom, scooted past him, and closed her door in his face.
He sighed. After crying, hidden in Turmoil's hill, he'd come to the conclusion that if the council had stooped to kidnapping and experimenting on the people of Nect, that they'd crossed a line. They were supposed to protect the people of Nect from the portals. That core mission had clearly been forgotten and neglected.
And if the Guardians weren't doing as they claimed, someone needed to rectify the situation. Since he couldn't trust another Guardian to confide in, it was up to him.
The idea left a hollow pit in his stomach. He was resolved nonetheless.
First, he'd start with saving Ama. Then he'd take the time to plan, return to Nect, and tear down and rebuild the House of Portals if need be.
Guardians are the guides of Nect. He saw spots for a moment and almost fell over.
"Are you all right?" Obsidian had opened the door again without him even noticing.
Damian swallowed hard and nodded. Though if he kept feeling faint over his decisions, he'd be no good for saving Ama, let alone Nect. "Should have eaten dinner is all."
Her brow crinkled, and she crossed her arms. He had to get better at acting convincing.
Better at lying? The truth in all things. All the precepts that he continued to break, throwing the shards to the wind, sped through his mind. He had to remind himself the whole point of his decision was to expose the truth.
And he had to lead Obsidian and Bishop right now -- they'd start questioning his ability if he let them know just how scared he was. "Why aren't you in your dedicant robes?"
"Like those things are any good for skulking."
They returned to his room to collect Bishop, then carefully picked their way to the courtyard, avoiding the few people who happened to be wandering the halls. Dedicants had to find some time to do their chores, and most preferred to study during the day.
Once they stepped out into the courtyard, the chill of the night made Damian's skin feel clammy. He'd been sweating too much. Worrying, still wondering if he'd chosen the correct path.
"What is that undercurrent I'm feeling? It's like the ground is vibrating." Bishop knelt down and pressed his palm to the earth.
The other-worlder seemed more sensitive to the magic than Damian had expected. Perhaps it was due to him reawakening his own with the whole secret detecting skill of his. "We're about one hour away from the gates shifting."
"Yes, and few Guardians risk entering the courtyard an hour or so before and after the shift."
"Well, let's hope the same can be said for the council building." Obsidian plowed ahead, forcing the men to follow.
They made it unnoticed to the entrance of the building, and Damian grabbed her arm before she barged through the door. "Not so hasty. We have to be careful about this. I know they're guarding the lab, but I can't be sure if they're guarding the outside of it as well. And tonight is simply an information gathering mission. We find the entrance to the lab, then we retreat for further planning. Understood?"
"Sensible." The edge to Bishop's voice sounded as though he wanted Damian to mess things up. Too bad.
"Don't be impulsive." This one was for Obsidian alone -- with opening the gate and kissing Bishop, she'd been a bit all over the place the last couple days.
She rolled her eyes and waved him toward the door. "Quiet as a mouse and stoic as a Guardian."
Oh, this time the jab was intentional, he was sure of it. He ignored it and entered the council building, the other two following close behind.
They paused before the first turn to enter the large circular hall. The burning lamps on the wall gave off dim flickers, and silence reigned.
Damian peeked around the corner, fearing he'd find Bear staring back at him, but the hall appeared empty. Bear couldn't have managed to be so quiet as to not draw attention to himself anyhow.
He slowly exhaled, forcing himself to steady his nerves. "There are offices and small meeting rooms on the outer wall. Bishop, start on the left, Obsidian the right."
"What about you?" Bishop whispered, but his voice was tense. The man hated taking orders.
"I'll start in the main council chamber in the center. Search for anything odd or out of the ordinary, that could indicate an entrance of some sort. If you hear anyone coming, hide. And meet back here when you're done."
The other-worlder headed left, muttering under his breath. "Everything's out of the ordinary to me."
Obsidian silently slipped into the first room to the right, as if to prove to him she could control herself.
For a moment, Damian remained rooted, as he had when he overheard Liss and Bear. Not only was he breaking several precepts, but risking his own life as well. The masses of Nect seek guidance from the Guardians, and all Guardians heed the words of the council. It disturbed him that he was more afraid of disobeying those precepts than of being caught snooping around the council chamber.
He eventually convinced himself to move, passing the small room Bishop explored and reaching the chamber door. Resting his hand on the doorknob, he imagined Liss's stony gaze waiting for him on the other side. No, he wouldn't let fear stop him.
Damian opened the door, and he simply found the same dimmed lighting as earlier, no other Guardians about. His muscles relaxed slightly.
The small window to search pushing him forward, he started in with the bookcases and pictures along the wall. He hadn't taken the time to study the paintings more closely all the other times he'd been in this room. They'd all seemed to be various landscapes from around Nect. But as he looked for an entrance or a switch, he saw the truth in the scenes -- each one had a gate hidden in the foliage or coming out of a hillside.
He tentatively touched the portal in one of the paintings. Though not the real thing, he could have sworn he felt a slight vibration, as if some of the magic had translated to the picture. Fascinating.
Though he wanted to explore the sensation further, he needed to move along.
When he finally finished the outer wall, a lengthy trial, he still hadn't found any sign of an entrance.
Damian took a couple steps toward the large desk the council sat so haughtily behind, day in and day out, concealing their secrets and declaring lies. And then he heard a soft whooshing coming from behind it.
Unsure of what he was hearing, he quickly ducked behind a row of chairs. They didn't completely conceal him, but he hoped the shadows that the dimness of the room cast would aid him. And he could actually still see the desk.
The sound stopped only to be followed by a grumbling voice. "Check on the new test subject, Bear. Make sure the lab remains safe, Bear. Sacrifice your sleep to bow down to the whims of the council members, Bear." The man seemed to rise from behind the desk. After he stepped to the side, the whooshing started up again.
That had to be the entrance. In the floor, then. It made sense that the lab would be underground -- not many places to hide such a place in the House of Portals.
However, Damian was now stuck, without any way to warn the others.
Bear stomped. "Aw, for the love of the Ancients, I forgot the report." He groped under the desk, which triggered the sound again, then disappeared below.
Damian skittered out of his hiding spot and bolted for the door. He guessed he didn't have much time before Bear popped up again, so he dashed to the entrance of the building. Bishop already waited, leaning against the wall and looking bored. "What took you so long?"
"Where's Obsidian? We have to get out of here. Now."
The man straightened, more alert. "She wanted to go back and double-check a couple rooms. I'll grab her." He slipped off.
"Hurry." Damian strained to listen, wishing he could hear the soft whooshing from here. He couldn't. But he did hear Bear pound the door to the council chamber open.
Bishop and Obsidian hustled toward him.
"What was that?" Obsidian stared down the hallway.
"No time. We have to go now."
She snagged his sleeve as he spun. "Isn't it time for the shift?"
Even in here, Damian could feel the buildup, leading to the scrambling around of the gates. She was right.
He considered ducking into a room, but then he heard Bear's footsteps grow nearer. "Hey, is someone there?"
No other choice -- they had to take the risk or get caught. "Out. Now." He opened the door and stepped out, the others right behind him. Assuring the door was shut tight behind them, he snatched up Bishop's and Obsidian's hands.
The other-worlder tried to struggle out of his grasp.
"If you don't want to die, you have to stay close and trust me." The power climbed, a boulder being rolled up a hill, getting ready to roll down and destroy everything in its path.
Bishop pressed his free hand to his temple and nodded.
"This way." They had to find a safe spot, and here wasn't it. So he wove around a few gates, the others holding onto him as they had when they'd crossed into Nect through the portal. He was sure he knew which permutation was next, and unfortunately it was one that shrunk the courtyard, the gates crowding closer together.
Finally, he spotted an area that should be safe, almost touching another portal. "Huddle close."
"Seriously?" Bishop yanked his hand out of Damian's.
"If you don't want to be impaled, yes. Not like I want to get up close and personal with you, either."
The man obliged, and the three of them pressed close together.
Though Damian hated the nearness of the other-worlder, Obsidian's touch, her fingers still twined in his, made him think of what Liss had said. His heart sped up, from his thoughts and the swirling power around him. Sparks crackled along his palm.
And then the magic hit.
Bishop groaned and Obsidian gasped. Damian had experienced it so many times that he managed to keep his silence. He just hoped he hadn't miscalculated.
Once the wave ended, unable to handle the rampant thoughts about being paired with Obsidian, he released her and stumbled back, right into the gate.
"Look at that, Guardian, you've broken your most important precept." Bishop raised his chin and laughed.
Damian scrambled away from the portal. He'd broken many more than that. The script at the top of the one he'd just touched read Destiny.
He waited for the call, like after he'd touched Turmoil, but nothing came. Just a soft silence. It chilled him.
"Back to my room. Now." He quickly glanced at the council building to be sure Bear hadn't exited, though no sane Guardian would be out in the courtyard during the shift. Then he wove his way through the gates, not waiting for the others to follow.
Touching Destiny unsettled Damian more than he cared to admit, not due to the precept, but the response. The last thing he needed was another worry on his mind.
Focus. It was time to plan Ama's rescue.
Chapter 32 - Expected July 2022.