The soldiers stopped to water the horses in the springs near the old ruins. Commander Philip found a quiet spot and took a black onyx amulet out of his haversack. Looking into it he pictured the hills over his left side and an image appeared before him. An image of a vast army. Soldiers clad in black armor and unfamiliar battle standards. Then an image of a man with a black mask ended the magic.
The commander felt shivers on his neck.
He was still thinking on the vision an hour later when he heard a dull whump and half of his men caught fire. For a moment he could only stare, as if watching a theatric. He saw Ivan and Leon staggering, beating their hands at the flames that engulfed them, their mounts working to produce sounds unrecognizable as human. There was Kostas, not burning but trying to beat the flames off of Leon, but then he suddenly had strange quills growing from his back.
It finally settled through to his brain that they were ambushed, and Philip drew his sword, looking widely for the enemy as arrows came whirring from every direction. Pesta, his second in command was still next to him, her own weapon drawn and an odd look of joy on her face. The last thing he saw was her blade swinging towards his head.
Philip regained consciousness. He was a prisoner. His captors were four and at least two were women. They still wore the uniforms of Zlatitsa. His body was tied up in an uncomfortable position on a horse back. Still dizzy and exhausted he succumbed to the gentle embrace of his sleep.
Now nearly asleep in the saddle, tried to appear actually asleep, in hopes they might let something useful drop if they thought he couldn’t hear them.
It had taken him two days to figure out there were eight of them, because no more than four were riding guard on him at any given time. The others, he guessed were scouts – one in front, one in back, one on each flank, and probably pretty far out. Pesta was a constant, but he was just too out of it at first to realize the other faces were rotating. Now after a week he still didn’t know any other name. They were four male elves, a flaxen-haired human woman, an orc and a dwarf, still missing from the morning. All of them have changed their soldier vestments with the strange black armor of the invaders a few days back.
By the time they were camping for the night, it was clear to everyone that the dwarf was probably more than delayed.
“Trolls, probably.“ Pesta opined. “The hills stink with them.”
“I can’t imagine Grobnur having trouble with a troll – or much else for that matter”, one of the elves said. “More likely he just decided this deal was too much of a trouble and too dangerous.”
“Finally a name”, Philip thought to himself.
“We were supposed to kill him”, said the orc nodding towards Philip. “That’s what we were paid to do. Now we have two potential enemies – the empire and our employer.”
“He will be thought dead,”Pesta replied. “There is nothing to worry about.”
“I’m not.” replied the Orc, “But if we are now going to Plovdiv it’s a hot path. The city is warming with imperial agents. They can recognize our disguise.”
“There is a small trading post nearby.” another one of the elves entered the conversation. “We can do our business there and be on our way rich.”
“Patience.” Said Pesta, “We will have our reward soon enough.”
The whole group agreed not to wait on the probably dead dwarf and decided to travel a bit further into the night to cover some distance. No other name was spoken for Philip to note.
Philip came to his senses out of shock. He was submerged, naked and unbound. He stood on the river bed and rose up above the surface trying to figure out what was going on. The water was cool, and felt unbelievably good. Closing his eyes, he concentrated only on that particular sensation. Then he opened them. Pesta was the only one beside him. She seemed deep in thought.
Between him and her lay a pile of gear, and protruding from it was the hilt of a sword, Flashing.
He didn’t hesitate, but launched himself out of the water toward the weapon. Pesta saw him, but even then didn’t seem to understand the situation until he actually had the weapon in his hand. Then she came slowly to her feet. She drew her sword without words.
Philip came at her with a four-edge attack, but halfway through it her point was at his throat.
“Want to try again?”
Enraged, he flew at her with everything, but almost without seeming to work at it she had him disarmed and on the ground.
“If it’s any consolation,” she said, placing her foot on his throat, “even if by some fluke you managed to kill me, my companions have been watching the whole time.”
As she said it, he saw the orc and the other woman appear from behind the nearby bushes. The boot came off of his neck. He turned his head and saw someone else – a lean, black-masked man with charcoal clothing striding purposefully into the clearing. Had he missed someone?
“You there!” the orc shouted. “What do you-“
The man kept coming, but he thrust out his arm, and his hand flashed with cold steel. The orc hideous yowl was like nothing Philip had heard before.
Pesta kicked him in the head, and he rolled, groaning, sparks flashing behind his eyes. Sobbing in pain, he came to his feet and rubbed the tears from his eyes.
He was just in time to see the other woman lose her hand. The newcomer’s long, silver-colored blade pulled right through her wrists, then angled up to deflect a murderous head blow from Pesta. The other woman stumbled back and tripped over the orc, who seemed to be trying to stand, despite the blade stuck in his chest.
Pesta jumped back and continued to retreat. Philip didn’t blame her. This wasn’t a man. No man could move so swiftly – this was some creature summoned from the darkness beyond the world, a fiend.
“What do you want?” Pesta screamed. “You’ve no business with us.”
The black-masked man didn’t say anything. He just picked up the pace, half running towards Pesta, and then suddenly bounding forward. She planted herself and then danced nimbly aside as his blade soughed by her, and then her own weapon came down two-handed towards the juncture of his neck and shoulders.
He caught her blade with his off-weapon hand. Philip saw Pesta close her eyes, and then the point came out through her ribs on the other side.
He withdrew the weapon and stalked towards the other woman who was holding the bleeding stump of her wrist. Whatever she was, she wasn’t a coward, and she hurled herself at the attacker, clubbing at him with a small iron mace. The orc was crawling away on his belly.
The other woman fell and the black-masked man turned to the orc.
“You, can’t,” Philip managed. “He’s injured-“
But the orc head was off by then.
And now the fiend turned on him.
Philip snapped out of his paralysis and ran towards a sword, but when he had it, he saw the killer was merely watching him and counting.
Philip brought his weapon to guard.
“I killed total of eight,” the man said. His voice was hard and scratchy.
Philip nodded not knowing what to do with this information.
“I have reliable information that you are worth more to the empire alive than dead. These mercenaries have exhausted their usefulness to us.”
He stood up and kicked some clothes towards Philip.
“Dress up. We have long way ahead of us. And please do think of yourself as a resource, an asset. The moment you stop being useful you will meet their fate.”
Philip dropped his sword and bowed his head in defeat, then started putting on some clothes. He was a prisoner of the empire now.