The stillness of the mountain night was broken by the sounds of war. Somewhere, not far away, steel clashed with steel and men cried out, in rage and pain and fear. The four men assembled, arguing what to do next. Alcemides, bored of the discussion, slipped away to scout ahead and keep an eye on the enemies. The sounds of battle continued to ring in the air. Sliding in the forest like a true Pict, he suddenly heard a different kind of clamour ahead – sounds of an armoured man forcing his way through the rough terrain. Hiding in the bushes, he soon saw a pale man, wearing anancient scale hauberk, leading ahead a loaded horse, in a great hurry. Not taking any chances, Alcemides assaulted him, battering the man unconscious and then dragging both the horse and the stranger to the camp.
Tying up both of their prisoners, the Nemedians decided to move their camp to a better location and to try getting some rest. The sounds of battle were already fading – they had tarried too long. It would be better to rest to recover their strength, interrogate the prisoners and avoid detection. That said, they laid down to ease their aching bodies with sleep, dreaming of wine and women. There were no further distractions and the tired warriors rested late in the next day.
In the morning Noam and Alcemides went hunting, while Barathus and Tyrus set to interrogate their prisoners. The pale youth, alost a boy, turned out to be a Nemedian like them, Dionysos by name, sent to Aquilonia just a short time ago. Although arrogant and aggressive, he was capable of convincing the two men to let him free. He had been with the larger group of Nemedians, when they had been attacked by jinettes. As the battle seemed to be lost – they had been taken by surprise – he had fled with as much equipment as he could carry. The Zingaran mercenary, Valenso by name, promised that there would be ransom for him in the nearest town across the border. He did not know anything useful, other than local geography and did not seem like a bad sort of fellow – just a man down on his luck trying to earn a living. The hunters brought back plenty of meat and the party decided to rest a full day, continuing their journey come next morning. As the woodsmen sneaked to the battlefield, they found only stripped corpses.
The next two days were uneventful. The Nemedians marched ahead, dragging along their prisoner, in the trail of the Zingarans and their prisoners. Valenso willingly told that the mercenaries planned to sell the prisoners as slaves, to gain some extra silver to spend. The passage widened into a valley, dominated by tall conifer trees. There were remains of a road running through the valley, a memory of the time when Zingara was not embroiled in civil war and merchants used the pass to transport their wares. As they made camp, Alcemides found a cobbled road, almost completely devoured by the forest, as he hunted for food. Curious and a bit bored, the men investigated, finding a once magnificent marble building. Searching the ruins it became obvious the place had once been a temple or a tomb dedicated to some fallen hero of Mitra. Somewhat alarming however was, that the almost intact statues and carvings of the place had been desecrated only a short while ago. Someone or something had been poking around in the ruins, obviously looking for something – and vandalizing the mausoleum while at it.
In the morning, the men continued their journey, keeping a slow pace to avoid running into any rear guard of the mercenaries. The suggestion of Alcemides to stay in the forest for a few days was rejected by the others. Although hunting might yield food, they had little in the form of other supplies. Besides, there was still a faint chance they could rescue their countrymen. After a few hours of travelling, the trail split in two. The mercenaries had went right and on the left seemed to be a village – a silent village, with the air of something being terribly wrong.
Alcemides and Noam went scouting. The village, surrounded by a circular palisade, might have been inhabitated by fifty people but now seemed almost devoid of life. Near the great hall in the center there were three horses – two starving wretches and a black stallion, great and powerful, with saddle and bridle enbroidered with gold. Guarding the horses were three strange men. Two were clad in ancient scale hauberks made of bronze, their leather parts rotting away, faces hidden beneath equally ancient helmets. The third was a black man, dressed in rags and holding a big club, drooling mindlessly, a bronze slave collar around his neck. Tattoos of snakes covered his body. Alcemides thought of stealing the beautiful horse, but it seemed that the black man spotted him through some unearthly means, letting out a terrible wail. The strange armoured men searched the village, but the scouts eluded them. From insade the main hall a female voice barked orders for them in an unknown language. Shortly after, another female voice begged for mercy, pleas ending in a gasp of pain and gurgling sounds. The scouts had seen and heard enough.
The five Nemedians halted to argue what to do next. They could just bypass the village – but on the other hand, they were short on supplies and curious about what was happening in there. Finally a decision was made. Alcemides and Noam would sneak inside the village and prepare themselves for sniping, if things would turn violent. A little while later, the three other men would ride inside with full gear, drawing all attention on themselves. They would try to negotiate first – but if that would fail, they were ready for battle. After all, they were in a desolate mountain valley and people of the border areas were often both violent and treacherous.
The two woodsmen sneaked inside without any problems, soon followed by the three mounted men. The number of strangely armoured men had doubled to four. When the three men rode to the centre of the village, one of the armoured men shouted inside. A woman emerged, dragging with her a terrified peasant girl, her face frozen in an expression of horror. If the woman had had some more flesh on her bones, she would have been a beauty. But now her skin was tightened on her bones like parchment, making her look like a living skeleton. Her skin was pale and hair black – she was obviously of Acheronian descent. In her hand she had a dagger made of bone, wet with blood, which she carelessly wiped at the tunic of the girl. A Fifth armoured man came out with him, brandishing an ancient bronze greatsword decorated with alien patterns.
Words were exchanged, the woman talking with Barathus but her eyes locked on Dionysos. Then suddenly, another voice intervened – a voice of a child, screaming and begging for help from inside the great hall. For a moment, the world seemed to freeze. Then Alcemides and Noam let their arrows loose from their hiding place. The woman screamed for his men to kill the others, but take Dionysos alive.
The fight was a prolonged clash of fury and skill. The armoured men all wielded ancient greatswords and attacked with insane abandon. When their scale hauberks were punctured and their flesh cut, they did not cry of pain, but moaned in perverse joy and pleasure. Tyrus was the first to draw blood, beheading a foe with one mighty blow, but when he closed on the woman, she made him fall into a helpless trance with her inhuman eyes. Barathus was struck down, with Tyrus and Dionysos wounded. A strange thing happened as well, another feat of vile sorcery, when an arrow from Noam’s bow hit true at the skeletal woman. As the woman fell to the ground, her form shifted to that of the poor peasant girl and the men heard a pounding of hooves, realising the sorceress was already on her horse, galloping away. Finally, all the armoured men had been struck down. Pulling off their helmets revealed Acheronian features.
The black man had not taken part in the fight, just standing still and holding his club. Once the wounded had been tended to, the Nemedians cautiously approached him. As he didn’t seem aggressive, they seized the man and following a flash of intuition, removed his bronze collar. The strangers eyes rolled over and he fell, unconscious. Inside the great hall the warriors found terrible carnage. The air was thick with the smell of blood and decayed flesh, the great hall full of corpses of men, women and children, brutally slain and worse, there was evidence of cannibalism. Two children whimpered in one dark corner, a boy no older than eight and a girl perhaps ten or twelve years old. The warriors laid down to rest and loot, Alcemides and the revived Barathus trying to take care of the children, who seemed withdrawn and fearful. Nothing of value or use was found in the village, other than some dried meat and the two nags.
Later in the evening, the stranger came back to consciousness. It seemed he had no idea where he was, but as the Nemedians pressed on, finally started to tell his story. He introduced himself as Thothmekri, servant and spy of a Stygian wizard, sent to investigate the doings of Xaltotun and other Acheronians in occupied Aquilonia. Somehow predator had become prey and the Acheronians had captured him, putting him in a magical bondage of some sort. Quick-witted, Thothmekri offered the men a reward. He would arrange them a free passage on a ship to any port of their choice and a hefty sum of silver as well, if they would escort him safely to Kordova. Better yet, if they would help Thothmekri to track down and capture the escaped sorceress, then help to take her alive to Kordova, much more silver would be paid. Weighting their options, the Nemedians decided to accept, though still wary of the strange man. Still weak from the battle, they decided to rest in the village and in the morning start hunting for the sorceress. Alcemides and Noam were adamant on taking the children with them – to bring them to Zingara, perhaps giving them to some temple to raise, rather than selling them to slavery as Dionysos suggested.
Thus darkness fell upon the village, stained with blood – and with it rolled a wall of fog, descending from the mountains like a thick, wet blanket.