He saw the others all seemed about as disoriented as he was. The Tower didn’t have the cardinal directions the same way Earth did. In fact, the direction Ariel started in was what he’d have guessed was northeast, without magic.
A mile didn’t sound too bad. The walk between the Tower and its Preserve was maybe twice that distance. Tobias made that walk occasionally.
About a quarter hour later, he decided he’d been wrong. Walking the flat, manicured grounds of the Tower was nothing like the uneven forest they were hiking through. Looking around, Tobias saw that even Gavin, who was probably in better shape than any of the others, was having some trouble. In a small way, that made him feel better.
Ariel was far ahead of them, and seemed like she was walking along a clear path. The rest were weaving around trees and some underbrush, trying to avoid mud pits and other obstacles.
By the time they’d covered the mile, he felt his heart pounding and heard his raspy breathing. Tobias’s primary comfort was that Shannon seemed to be having trouble as well, though she was better at concealing it. Oifa appeared flushed and Gavin a little winded, only Ariel seemed unaffected.
Once he caught his breath, Tobias looked around their destination.
He could see no difference between the section of woods they stopped at and the part they’d come through. Except for the wizened man the color of mahogany who stood with hands clasped at his waist waiting for them, of course.
The man flipped his grey dreadlocks off his shoulder with a toss of his head as they approached.
“Welcome to the Coven’s protectorate,” he said, his voice rich and deep. “I am Samson, assigned to be your guide, for a brief time.”
Ariel bowed, Tobias and the others following her lead.
“We are honored, Samson,” she intoned, almost chanted, “and thank the elders for passage.”
Even though they asked for us, Tobias caught himself thinking. He noticed Gavin scanning the trees while Oifa’s attention was focused on the Coven man. Shannon was behind him, breathing harder than usual.
Samson nodded, “If you care to follow me, our transportation is this way.”
Tobias heard Shannon breathe, “No portals, gods no portals.”
Within a hundred yards, Tobias guessed, they found a tiny cleared space. At the center was a square marked out by four sticks thrust into the ground as corners. Inside the sticks were six . . .beasts. They looked horse-like, horse shaped, but seemed to flicker in and out of solidity. Shannon’s sigh was barely audible, masked by Oifa’s restrained excitement.
“I haven’t seen shade steeds in years,” she said, then to Tobias and the others, “They’re solid enough beasts and fast. Brightholme says he has some in the Preserve, but I haven’t seen them yet.”
After some looks of askance and uncertainty, the Tower team eventually mounted the ethereal beasts. Samson started the herd moving with a sharp yell.