“I don’t believe it.” Vilhylm muttered for the tenth time as he stared through a spyglass at the city far below them. The rest of them were too speechless to utter a single word.
The city of Dagger’s Falls was burning. All of the farms outside the walls were nothing but charred stubble and beyond the Third Circle wall there wasn’t a single house standing. Fighting raged between the wall of the Second Circle and the First Circle walls. The entire First Circle was covered in a huge translucent dome crafted of pure arcane energy that glittered in the early morning sunlight like it was wrought of precious stones. None of that compared to what was above.
An immense winged shape, black as midnight glided above the dome of the First Circle. As they watched, it breathed a jet of liquid obsidian streaked with flickering emerald fire that splattered thickly against the dome, evaporating into a sickly fog that burned as it touched down in the Second Circle. The were too far away, but Callindra imagined she could hear the screams of the dying.
They moved back from the edge of the hill, crawling on hands and knees so as to avoid notice. None of them wanted to attract the attention of that monster, no matter how unlikely it might be.
“There’s no way we can cross here.” Tryst said grimly, “We shouldn’t even be this close, an army that size probably has outriders for miles.”
“I didn’t see any outriders. I didn’t see any supply wagons or the usual trappings an army has.” Vilhylm said, stowing his spyglass. “Something’s definitely not right there.”
“Let’s get out of here first and chew gristle about what’s not right about the city being destroyed by an army following a god rotting dragon later!” Callindra hissed, finally finding her voice.
Cronos nodded his agreement, his face as pale as hers. “I don’t like this. Not this place, not that fight.” He looked at Tryst apologetically, “Not this mission either.”
“But we don’t have a choice.” Tryst protested, “We must cross, we must complete our mission!”
“Nobody is saying we won’t go.” Callindra said quickly, “Just that it’s suddenly more difficult than it was in the beginning. Especially now that we can’t cross the river here.”
They made their way back to where their horses were tethered in a small meadow. Callindra looked mistrustfully at the foul tempered dun mare she’d been given. She didn’t blame the creature for being cranky, that small keep had been full of mistrustful angry people and little fodder. To her surprise, the animal bumped her playfully with its head and whickered a welcome.
“Good to see you too.” She said scratching it behind the ears before mounting up.
They cantered upstream, following the steep riverbank and looking about for any way that they might be able to cross. It was a fruitless effort though. The river had cut through soft stone to form deep ravines, the only places that were not cliffs were where the stone was harder but waterfalls had formed there and those were certainly not passable either.
After riding for the rest of day, they made camp in a copse of trees, taking what shelter they could from the horrors they’d witnessed that day.
The night was blessedly uneventful and the next morning while Vilhylm busied himself preparing breakfast, the rest of them sat around the fire.
“How in the hells are we gonna get across the river?” Callindra said, “We can’t possibly travel all the way up the next bridge, it’d take at least a month.”
“Our mission is far too important to wait that long.” Tryst said, “We absolutely must communicate with the Druids in the High Forest before the situation becomes more desperate than it already is.”
“Perhaps I could be of some small assistance?” The voice was coming from Cronos’s mouth but it wasn’t his. This was the dry, emotionless voice Callindra had heard before when the boy had been killed by Dergeras in Tyreen’s tree.
“No!” Cronos struggled, trying to get up from where he sat. “Master, I don’t want-”
“What you want is immaterial apprentice.” The voice interrupted, cutting him off. “This mission is nearly as critical to the world as the young priest believes it to be.”
“Really?” Tryst’s face shone with religious fervor, “I mean, I knew it was important but-”
“I said nearly as critical.” The voice said, “You have a vastly inflated opinion of yourself youngling. Something that seems to run in your family.”
“But how can you help us?” Callindra asked, “What are you going to do, fly us over to the other side? I thought Cronos said you were dead.”
“Ha! You have a mouth on you girl.” He laughed, “I like that in a whelp. Shows your grit, and Gods know you’re going to need every single shred of strength you can muster to survive what’s coming. I’ll let you all eat your breakfast, then we’ll take care of your little river problem.”
Cronos looked at them with a haunted expression on his face and Callindra folded her arms.
“Talk.” She said, her voice flat, “Before I was willing to just let it go and watch you to see if you went crazy on us again, but now I want answers and by the Absent Gods I’m going to get them.
He took a deep breath and blew it out. Callindra reached into her belt pouch and took out her pipe, stuffing the bowl with tac and lighting it with a splinter from the fire. She puffed it alight and leaned back against her saddle with the air of someone who had all the time in the world. When Vilhylm brought over toasted bread and cheese Cronos finally started talking.
“My Master was working on some kind of experiment. I don’t know what it was and he won’t tell me… but it was important. It had something to do with a power of old and some war long since passed, but he had done things like it many times before so I just assumed it was more of the same.
“Something went wrong. I don’t know what it was, but I believe something … felt him probing. It saw him from the other side of… time? Whatever it was saw him and with a flicker of power more vast than worlds destroyed him. Being the God rotting bastard that he is, he had LINKED our minds and bodies.
“So when he died, a part of him and part of his power attached to me. At times he is able to use it, or to force me to use it or…” He ran his fingers through his hair, bowing his head for a moment. “I don’t know how it works. Even though he has apparently used it to save my life I’d almost rather he’d let me die. Nobody should be forced to live with another person in their head.”
The food in Callindra’s mouth lost its flavor. She cleaned the dottle out of her pipe and carefully stowed it in its watertight case. “I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to trust a dead man living in your head.”
Cronos laughed, “I DON’T trust him!” He said, “Would YOU trust someone who did this to you?”
“I must cross the river.” Tryst said grimly, “I will take whatever chances I must but I will not ask the rest of you to do the same.”
“Oh don’t be so cursed melodramatic of course we’re coming with.” Callindra said, punching him on the arm. The look of relief on his face as the others chimed in made her forget her fear about what was to come, and even deadened the pain she felt about failing Glarian. She would get through this. They would get through this. The only other option was to give up and that just wasn’t something any of them would accept.
“So you want us all to just… ride toward the cliff at speed?” Vilhylm asked, staring incredulously at Cronos.
“You expect our horses to jump?” Said Tryst, “These nags?”
“My girl can do it.” Callindra said with a feral grin. She patted her horse’s neck and the animal whickered eagerly. “See? Let’s do this!”
“The only way the magic works is if you believe it works.” The voice that wasn’t Crono’s voice said.
Callindra couldn’t help it, she burst out laughing. “Oh come on now, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! Magic is a God rotting curse, if it was that easy to get rid of it I’d be free. How about you stop playing the fool so we can get this over with?”
“Oh you’re no bedamned fun.” He said, giving her a disgruntled look. “The beasts will be happier if you blindfold them. You all can close your eyes too if it makes you feel better.”
They all bound cloths over the eyes of their mounts who snorted and tossed their heads in annoyance but otherwise took the treatment with good grace. Walking their mounts to the edge of the cliff, they paused to look down at the water churning far below. The horses snorted and stamped nervously.
“Time to go.” Callindra muttered, swinging into the saddle. Looking back along the road that followed the river she caught a glimpse of something moving. “Hey, someone’s out there.” She whispered to her companions.
“What?” Vilhylm had been looking dubiously at Cronos but now he swung his gaze to follow hers. “Trouble, we need to move!”
Cronos grimaced and his master’s voice cursed, “Sorry, no time for the kid gloves.”
A group of humanoid creatures, running fast and using their arms as much as their legs broke from the bushes near the road. Before they had covered half the distance, an impact like falling into water from on high slammed into Callindra and her friends, tossing them through the air like thrown stones. The horses screamed in fear, thrashing about.
Timing the landing, Callindra managed to tuck and roll, absorbing most of the shock of the landing but still bruising herself on rocks and sticks. The others didn’t fare so well, Tryst getting the worst when he tumbled into a thorn bush. Cronos crumpled as though he was a puppet with broken strings.
The best part was the creatures on the other side of the ravine screaming their rage to the sky. Their anger made it all worthwhile. Callindra laughed and made a rude gesture toward them and fell onto her back.
“We made it!” She said, her voice rough from the terror that had gripped her until she realized she was going to survive.