Isla’s first thought was to simply mount her flamingo once they reached it and fly off, leaving her unwanted traveling companion behind. The paranoid wolf girl clearly valued stealth, and a giant pink war bird was quite the opposite of that. She’d be angry, but she’d soon give up and hopefully leave the area.
Those plans were quickly derailed.
Flamingos, like most creatures, didn’t do so well with deathstalker poison. And Scarlemagne had trained his birds to be as violent as he was. Which meant once the war bird caught sight of the wolf girl’s weapon, it got the bright idea to open its beak and try to chomp down on the thing. The tip of the stinger touched its tongue before it could so much as land a scratch.
Thus, Isla was stuck with walking, holding the dazed bird by the reins while it dopily kept trying to go after the same weapon over and over. Eventually, it settled into a mild, less aggressive stupor, and Isla only had to give the reins a gentle tug once in a while to keep it following.
Thank goodness Scarlemagne had intended her mission to be a full-day affair. Otherwise, she’d be way off-schedule and have some serious explaining to do. No, scratch that. Otherwise, Scarlemange would have just sent another noble to hunt her down by now.
“Just to remind you…” Isla said as they got closer and closer to the palace. Paranoid Wolf Girl was still mere steps behind, alert and prepared to fight. “…in case you’ve forgotten, I mean. I think what you’re doing right now is incredibly reckless and stupid.”
Wolf Girl nodded. “Yep. Gathered that.”
They continued several more steps in a frustrated silence. Wren lapped it up. The stupid little mute was going to stuff itself silly and leave Isla exhausted if she couldn’t calm down.
“Furthermore,” Isla continued. “I’d say you not only stand a decent chance of being killed, but the odds are even greater that you will be captured, robbed of your free will, and involuntarily contribute to making a psychopath’s army even more powerful than it already is.”
“Yep. Your mind-control thing. Heard about it.” Wolf Girl crossed her arms. “Eight. Times. Already.”
“I simply wondered if perhaps I miscommunicated during the first seven.”
Wolf Girl sighed and slowed her pace. “Look, I get you’re scared of this Scarlemagne guy. I believe you there, alright? But I make it a point to know all the mutes around me. I can’t hide from something I’ve got no info on.”
Isla, to her own annoyance, found herself slowing as well. But she’d tried several times already to outrun the girl and lose her. It was hopeless. Isla probably would have failed even without the stupid flamingo slowing her down. Despite Wolf Girl’s small size, she never fell back and always kept Isla in her sights. Someone (or something) had taught her how to track. Very well. Which meant Scarlemange would adore her and Isla wasn’t getting away from her. “And what’s your plan if you can’t stay hidden after you get your precious info?” Isla finally asked.
Wolf Girl huffed at the suggestion. “If I can’t stay hidden, I deserve to get caught.”
No one deserves that, Isla thought, resuming a normal pace again. The palace would be in view any moment now. Which meant…
Better pull your mask down, Wren teased.
Isla did so, the scent of the wood familiar as each warm exhalation into her own face.
“Can you breath under there?” Wolf Girl asked.
“It’s not comfortable,” Isla allowed. “But I’ve gathered the discomfort is intentional.” She straightened and gave the flamingo a tug as they put the last towering rock behind them, and the palace finally came into view. The grand building was overgrown with trees and shrubs, but then, what place in Las Vistas wasn’t? A haphazard archway had been carved out of its massive walls, making the inside visible even from a good distance away. Stained glass windows of various shapes and sizes stood at attention in every corner. Glimmering tiled floors remained impressively intact and clean. And once they got within a dozen yards or so, the musty scent of Scarlemagne’s signature perfume permeated the place. Still too distant to affect anyone but present nonetheless.
Wolf Girl fell back and pulled her cape over her nose and mouth. “That smell…it’s really faint, but it’s making me nauseous.”
“Watch what it makes people do, and then you’ll really be nauseous,” Isla muttered.
Wolf Girl made no comment and backed towards a large shrub, away from the entrance. Before Isla could comment, there was a sharp tapping of heels on the tiles, and Scarlemange’s giddy voice rang out.
“Isla! Darling, is that you?”
Isla whipped towards the shrub. “He’s coming! Quick! Hi–“
But Wolf Girl had already vanished.
“Oh. Well, then. Good job.” She hurried towards her obnoxious captor before he got angry. “Yes, it’s me, sire! I’m back from my mission. Though…” She looked at the bird behind her, which was staring at its own reflection in the floor tiles with complete bewilderment. “…I fear your flamingo may have fallen a bit ill.”
Wolf scrambled up the jagged side of the palace wall. Already she was questioning her own sanity for coming out here. Was it really about getting more information at this point? Or did she just have to see for herself that the creature Isla described was real? Wolf knew how to outrun all sorts of predators. It was all about being faster, hiding better, and–when cornered–hitting harder. And since most mutes she’d run across didn’t have an ounce of common sense, she usually did well against them. But this ability Isla had described…if it was legit, none of Wolf’s normal tactics stood a chance against it. None of humanity’s defenses stood a chance against it. How did someone fight without their will? Wolf shivered and watched as the mandrill mute Isla had described approached her and went off on a crazy tirade about…something. Wolf couldn’t make out the exact words, and she didn’t care get closer, but the mandrill gestured a lot to the flamingo. Isla bowed low several times in response, for which she got slapped across the face. Wolf gritted her teeth, her grip becoming iron-tight around Stalky’s staff. If anyone tried that with her, she didn’t care what the consequences would be. She’d hit them so hard, they’d never get back up.
Of course, that was easy to say viewing the whole scene from a place of safety. Wolf took several slow deep breaths through her cape, not daring to pull it down, and calmed herself. Watch. Observe. Use the information she gathered to survive. It was the only business she had here. She shifted her stance to avoid getting a cramp in her leg and watched as Scarlemange pulled a glass bottle from his ugly red jacket and sprayed the contents directly into Isla’s eyes. The young woman staggered backward. Wolf forced back a gasp. No! Had Isla avoided Scarlemagne’s control all this time, only to be overpowered by it now? It certainly seemed that way. Isla caught her balance, then got down on one knee and lowered her head once again. Scarlemange laughed and made a motion like he was beckoning someone far off to come closer. At this signal, dozens of men and women dressed as ridiculously as Isla, poured into the main room and paired off with each other. One of them took Isla’s hand, and pulled her to her feet. The two stood eye-to-eye, waiting for their next command like they were toys.
Scarlemange pranced over to some kind of huge instrument in the back and made a dramatic show of beginning to play. The pairs of humans immediately started dancing. Eerie music echoed off every wall, chilling Wolf to her core. This was worse…so much worse than she’d planned for. She watched until she was sure some of the humans would have to stop or pass out, but they kept going–always in time to the ever-increasing tempo. Most of all, she watched Isla.
After several minutes, Wolf narrowed her eyes, her keen observation skills sensing a strange pattern.
Something was off with Isla. Scarlemange was too busy laughing and beating his instrument into submission to notice it, but the young woman’s steps were always a fraction of a second behind everyone else’s. Not only that, they were more purposeful than everyone else’s as well. Like she was putting in an extra effort to show how well she could follow every order.
She’s still not under his control? How? Wolf had assumed until now that Isla had somehow avoided smelling the perfume up close. Yet she was able to take a dose of it right to her eyeball and still be fine. Her obedience was an act. Scarlemange was only too full of himself to see it.
Whatever she’s using to protect herself, Wolf thought. I’m going to uncover it and use it.