ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬?What have you done with the girl?ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬? Captain Calwydden furiously asked his employer, a slender man with a shaved scalp and deep, sunken brown eyes. So cold, those eyes of his, they made the captain shiver, a remarkable thing considering he had dealt with some pretty unsavoury men during his career. Uncomfortable with meeting his eyes, Craeth looked away from the brown robed noble and to the young blonde on the ground. She was screaming with hysteria, her upper lip covered in nasal mucus, tears running down her face. She had recently been beaten; her lips were cracked, and fresh blood was pooling in between the swollen lips. She was laying on the ground, crying and screaming, the blood, tears and mucus making her looks far less appealing than earlier. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œNot me master. I love you. I was not meant for this!ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬? she screamed, while the last remaining pleasure slave, a dark haired southern beauty, stood idly by looking another way. The third girl had run away, and even though the client demanded it, Craeth could not afford to send men into the forest in search of her. Swearing inside and not really expecting an answer, Craeth left his employer and joined Morrigan, the standard bearer, who had arrived bearing news from his men. He was a mercenary, yes, but he did not approve of rape and abuse. If his men wanted women, they had to charm them the old, regular way, or at the very least they had to purchase their services legally.
Morrigan saluted his captain in the enthusiastic manner which is so characteristic of recruits, before he gave his report in a brash and confident voice that much conflicted with the doubt filled whispers earlier that day. Only when he noticed the hysterical slave did he go silent, gaping in horror at her miserable condition. Kicking his recruit in the left shin, the captain stopped his gawking before it attracted the employerÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s attention.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œGive me my report, kid!ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬?
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œEricÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s squad has arrived sir, but there is still no word of Sternflucht, Foros and ThendorÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬?
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œNot a word from Sternflucht nor Foros nor Thendor?ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬? the captain asked, his voice full of doubt
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œNo, sir!ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬? the frail youth replied
The captain stared into the forest, before he looked at the employer. He was unsure what plans the royal envoy had, but he was certainly not going to stay his mercenaries here so the barbarians could butcher them.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œHave you noticed that the forest is ablaze, sir?ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬?
Stretching his neck, looking upon the steeply sloped forest, the captain nodded.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œI can see that. Thank you Morrigan, you can return to the othersÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬?
Then, with a firm, loud voice he shouted to his men ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œReady to march! We leave in fifteen minutes!ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬?
A quarter of an hour later the mercenaries were making their way up the mountain path, the beginning of the last two days of the ascent to the ruins of ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Âºr-Keldon. Behind lay more than ninety men, their broken bodies littering the slopes of mount Keadle and the Broken Hills.
In a distant place a young woman crouched, inhaling the cold, mountain air mixed with wafts of burning incense. The girl was clearly blind, her eyes white and milky. Her long auburn hair was uncombed and her robe in tatters. She was sitting on her knees, clutching polished bones in her right hand, furiously scratching her scalp with the left.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œHe is awakened, yes, and he answers the call. The warding rune has been carved, and the blood of the honest one has been spilled upon it. The guardian has been summoned and there is naught he can doÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦ But you do have one solution, donÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t you my friend, my lover, my blessed childÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬? her voice was strangely harsh, full of clicking sounds, shrill yet full of bass, booming across her cold, mountain prison.
The young adult was talking to herself, wagging rhythmically back and forth, her sightless eyes darting about. With a sudden, jerking motion she threw the bones, scattering them across the tiled floor of her cold prison.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œYes, it is the pattern of The Serpent. The Serpent will be the sign of the changing one, the wicked woman sucking on my breasts, bleeding them dry. You hurt me wench, but I smile as you do so, for I can feel your pleasure, your burning passion. Yours will be a terrible gift, to be feared and envied, how you will suffer, and how you will smileÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬?
Her hands were trembling as she traced the outline of the bones, a smile showing on her face. She could feel them all now, the dual faced warrior with the ghastly smile, the lost one born of the river and the rock, and at last the scorpion spirit, the one hidden within. There were others too: The runner, forever fleeing, and the leader of a lost cause. They were all converging, the one defining moment approaching mercilessly.
Scooping up the bones, she held them close to her heart, her left hand now resting against the cold floor, supporting her frail, bent body.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œYou deny me much, my child, but this you cannot take from meÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬? she said to herself and then put her left index finger against a floor tile and with her thick black nail she scratched a rune onto the surface of the stone.
I have done your bidding father. It is happening like you said it would. They are stronger than I thought, as strong as you said they would be, but I would not listen. One thing I will not, shall not, and that is to let this happen. I want to fly father, like you do, but I have not the gift of wings, so my flight will be but a short one. What ironyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦ Meeting them now, here, at this crucial moment. I weep for us father. Their coming marks our decline.
Tan-Tanorden lay on the ground, his spear impaling the body of his slain friend. This very friend was now strangling him with his cold, dead fingers. The young manÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s eyes were weeping, and he looked upon the cold, expressionless face of his friend, one whom he had laughed with so many times. There was no panic, it had been foretold. He just wished he had more time. There were so many he wished to talk to one last time, but time would not permit for that now.
And thus I die, as you died before my eyes Graathor, we suffer the same fate, you and I
With his last, remaining strength, the young leader pushed his body over the rim of the edge, and then they were falling in silence, the zombie still strangling the life out of him, unwilling to let him go. Not even when the Urshenk found their bodies at the bottom of the cliff, had the zombie released his grip, still burying its fingers into the throat of Tan-Tanorden.
Sharee lay on the ground, her face caked with wet soil, a leaf stuck behind her collar as well as in her hair. A pair of boots stamped down in the wet moss beside her, and as she looked up she saw Flare in his leather coat. The scarred alchemist was holding an object in his hand, one of his many vials, and with a fluid motion he hurled it towards a group of barbarians seeking to attack through the hole in their defences, the hole that Dietrich had left as he stumbled after her zombie. Then she returned her attention to the zombie, coaxing it forward. She was tired now, her body shaking slightly from her mental efforts and physical exertion. She still had a lot of strength though, and she clenched her teeth together. It was payback time.
Flare watched as the vial broke and an explosion rocked the forest ground. The savages were thrown in every direction, along with leaves, sticks, moss, stones and pieces of bark and human parts. The mud caked face of the vain witch was splattered in blood, as was the boots and lower legs of the alchemist. Flare had to duck one of the warriors as he was thrown away by the blast, his body colliding violently with a nearby fir. Then the scarred alchemist charged through the rain of leaves, his spear in front. The lone surviving barbarian was struck with full force in the chest as he tried to get back on his feet. The speed and weight of the alchemist slammed the warrior backwards and his now twisted body was thoroughly skewered on the spear. With a dumb expression and blood trickling from between his lips, the once powerful warrior looked one last time at Flare, before his life fled his broken body.
Domunsoka stood ready, a hatched held above its head, when suddenly an explosion shook the very forest ground. It was the alchemist, Domunsoka realized, and soon the air was filled with the hurled debris from the impact. Through a rain of leaves, some burning, others not, Domunsoka charged the men of the mountain, his vision hindered by the falling leaves. He reached the barbarians, but they were gone, now fleeing, broken by the horrors that were SternfluchÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s mercenary squad. It was slaughter and as Domunsoka scanned the battlefield he saw one confused, young warrior, crying for someone or something, wandering around in bewilderment. The savage was disabled his eyes filled with blood, a sharp stick protruding from the right eye. With a quick, fluid motion the construct slit the throat of the confused young warrior before it began hunting the fleeing men.
Dietrich reached the young leader of the barbarians, dazed by the explosion, but still aware of his surroundings. The young barbarian was crying, tears running down his cheek, down to the ground. As Dietrich lifted his sword to spare the man of his final moments of agony, the barbarian used his legs to propel himself and the zombie over the edge they were laying at. Looking over the rim, Dietrich saw them plummet through the air, hitting the face of the cliff once, bouncing off it and then, seconds later; they hit the ground nearly eight hundred feet below.
Dietrich looked down and realized they had travelled upon that winding path several hours ago, before the ambush. As he started to look back upon the battle scene, he noticed tiny shapes climbing the steep face of the cliff. Barbarians. They were ascending the cliff face and there were hundreds of them making their way up, all following the same path. It was probably a ladder of some kind, carved into the side of the mountain. If they reached the top they would be able to kill them all. The mercenaries would be trapped between those in pursuit and those ascending the mountain. Furthermore storm clouds were unexpectedly gathering over the mountains, an ill omen considering their scheduled ascent to ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Âºr-Keldon. Dietrich sighed and looked at the squad, all survivors of the ambush were still among the living.
Silence had fallen over the battlefield. The fire in the canopy was spreading, though a freak storm approached and the coming rainfall would probably quench the flames before they were in any danger. Sternflucht was on his knees, praying to Mherak, the god of war. He could not believe they were alive, nearly unscathed. His only wound was a bruised chest, where the dead barbarian leader had struck him with a spear. He would have to repair the breastplate, pound it back into shape, but they were all alive.
They were all still alive.