Iphigenia held her fingers to her temples. She had a terrible headache. The group of Yearlings who’d been playing in the field had stopped at the commotion; she could see them standing nearby, watching the Mystics. In her heart, a sudden concern erupted.
“I saw,” she said, “I saw what must be done.”
The collected Mystics all looked at one another, confused.
Iphigenia sighed heavily. “Though in my heart I fear it is a near-impossible task. One for which we are not well equipped.” She wiped the dirt and snow from her sackcloth robe and looked at the Council Tree. Her eyes then moved to the line of trees at the edge of the clearing. A darkness was filling the spaces between. “And one I may not survive to witness.”
“What can we do?” asked a slender gray-white coyote.
Iphigenia turned to the other Mystics with a renewed purpose. “The children; we must get them to safety. Mabyn, Dawn, Anatolia, Damianos: Collect the Yearlings. Make sure they’re kept from sight. Nikanor, Hydrangea, and Erastus: Keep the civilians from the clearing. No matter what occurs, they must not enter here.” The Mystics did as they were instructed; Iphigenia turned to the three who had remained.
“Bion,” she said to the gray fox.
“Eutropia,” she said to the caramel-skinned woman.
“Timon,” she said to the lithe antelope. “Together we must stand against the assassins.”
It had been an optical illusion. While the fifth flag did flutter within Prue’s keen vision, it was not in easy grasp. The split in the rock that separated her from the banner was easily twenty feet wide; certainly too wide to leap.
The flag stood on a small outcrop on the far side of the gap; Prue studied it breathlessly. Clearly, it must be possible to reach the outcrop, she reasoned—otherwise, how had it got there? She looked all around her; there was no sign of a bridge or zip line. It was as if someone had flown in and dropped it there—but that didn’t seem to make sense. Eliciting the help of an Avian didn’t seem remotely likely, considering that the bandits-in-training wouldn’t be able to rely on flight themselves. While she puzzled this out, the rest of the pack caught up with her. There were only five remaining: the two mischievous boys who’d cut the rope bridge, Curtis, Aisling, and another girl. They were completely out of breath when they joined Prue at the edge of the cliff.
“There it is!” shouted one of the boys.
Curtis stared at Prue. “I thought you’d dropped out!” he said. “How did you—”
“The talents of a natural-born bandit, actually,” said Prue.
Aisling crossed her arms at her chest and pouted at the banner. “There’s no way we can get that. How did they even get it there? That’s, like, against the rules. Or something.”
“There are no rules,” Curtis reminded her.
“Later, suckers!” shouted one of the boys as he followed the ledge downward and away from the place where the others stood, his partner close behind.
“Where are they going?” asked the younger girl.
“I don’t know,” said Aisling. “But I’m guessing they know what they’re doing. See you on the other side!” And she ran off after the two boys. The younger girl gave Prue and Curtis a look before darting after her.
“Well?” said Prue.
“Well,” said Curtis.
“Got any ideas?”
Curtis rubbed his chin. “Not really. I’m pretty sure that’s not the way. I’ve been through this part of the Gap before, and I think that just leads down toward the mess hall.” He put his hands on his hips and eyed the cliff wall. “No, they must’ve gone back and crossed at another spot. Shoot.” He went to spit on the ground but did it fairly clumsily. The spit dripped in a lazy string from his lips.
“Nice,” said Prue sarcastically.
Curtis blushed and wiped the wetness from his chin. “It’s something I’m working on,” he said.
“Do you hear that?” asked Prue suddenly.
Curtis froze. “What?”
“That … moaning,” said Prue. She looked at Curtis; he shrugged.
“I don’t hear anything,” he said.