Fan fiction:Winds of the Kae Huron/Chapter 9: The Mountain Clan

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Winds of the Kae Huron is a fan fiction piece by Nephilim, originally posted in the Fan Fiction Forum. The fiction series was reposted on January 29th 2004. You can find more information on Winds of the Kae Huron article.


Chapter 9: The Mountain Clan[edit source]

Sleeping in the mountains was hard. No one had ever pretended that it wasn't the case. Even the Barbarians, who were used to it. It took a good deal of mental energy for M'avina to ignore the howling wind and invasive cold. And even then, she found herself waking up repeatedly in the night. Tonight, they had been lucky enough to find a snow-covered hillock. Sleeping in its shadow blocked out some of the wind. But on some nights, they had simply dug alcoves in the snow and hoped for the best.

Mornings had been horrible, but they had kept warm enough to avoid any illness that persisted for over a half hour after they woke up. And it was hard to tell whether or not she was tired, for the temperature kept her from being anything but wide awake whenever they got on the move. But little blessings, like this Athulua-sent hillock, she did not take for granted.

She rarely slept. The climate didn't allow it. So instead, she entered a half-sleep, relaxing her body and allowing it to rest, while remaining on the verge of conscious. They had had similar issues with the weather in Aranoch, but then, a gulp of the violet rejuvenation potions had been enough to replenish her energy as if she had been through a full night's sleep. But that wasn't a luxury they had here. What potions they had they were not sing frequently. The wounded still in Harrogath had been a priority. Malah had offered practically her whole stock, but Kaelim had insisted they take only what she could spare.

At least on Skovos, the rains kept it from getting unbearably hot. But Aranoch had been an all-day furnace. Even after sundown, the sand was burning.

She remembered getting up one morning. They had made camp in the desert, despite Vidala's protests. "Fine," Rehga had said acidly, "you can go back to Lut Gholein, if you so wish, but Fangskin's trail is cold enough as it is. If you want to set out from Lut Gholein tomorrow morning, you might as well give up. I intend not to."

Rehga was a nice enough woman, but she and Vidala had never gotten along. Rehga was the leader of the three Sorceresses they had met in Lut Gholein, and while being affable, there was a presence about her that brooked no disagreement. Kaelim and Isenhart had never raised a voice against hers, and M'avina got the impression that Ume just always agreed with her. Vidala was another matter.

But, after that statement from Rehga, Vidala had merely shaken her head and returned to M'avina and their packhorse. And so had begun the one and only night they had ever spent in the deserts of Aranoch.

Jabari was on watch. She could see him standing some thirty feet away from the camp, casting a small fireball in his hands to keep them from going numb. Alaric was probably there, too, somewhere. Once they had gotten deeper into the mountains, Kaelim had paired everyone up. They were not to go anywhere without their partner. Even if they needed to relieve themselves, they were to collect their partner and take them with them, just to be safe.

He had said that the Kae Huron were deadly long before Baal had arrived. M'avina's partner was Arcanna, which she didn't mind. But she could imagine the disappointment when Bohdan had been paired with Kinemil. Kaelim tried to suit everyone, but those two had never gotten along. But, they were stuck with one another. Kaelim partnered himself with Ume, and M'avina suspected it was only because he didn't want to force anyone else to deal with the aura of discomfort which Ume seemed to inadvertently convey.

She felt Arcanna nudge her, and ignored it, thinking it was merely the Sorceress shifting in her sleep. When she did it again, though, M'avina sat up and turned to her. Arcanna had an apologetic half-grin on her face. "I'm sorry," she said quietly.

M'avina sighed, but got to her feet and helped Arcanna to hers. Wordlessly, Arcanna led M'avina away from the camp, and they waved as they passed Jabari.

They walked down the hill, shielding their eyes from the wind, and M'avina stood guard as Arcanna dug herself a hole in the snow some yards away. The winds, laden with snow, caused a makeshift fog around them. They could barely see the top of the hill. This snow had been of a powdery kind with little traction. Their footsteps were swept away in minutes of their passing. In the distance, on a dune of snow, she saw shadows shift behind the wind. They looked like tall men carrying a bundle. She knew it was just tricks of the wind, though. No men lived in the Kae Huron.

She had managed to get to sleep in Aranoch despite the heat. And even if it wasn't the heat, it was the dryness. At night, sometimes the cold would return. Every now and then they got a chill wind that gave them shivers. But it lacked any sort of moisture. Nevertheless, if she smeared water over her lips before sleeping, she found she could get to sleep. But she had only spent one night in Aranoch.

She had awakened with a start in the middle of the night with a start when Vidala inadvertently poked her in the side with the end of her bow.

"Athulua," M'avina swore quietly. "I thought it was a sand maggot."

Vidala smiled, bemused. She was sitting cross-legged, waxing her bowstring. "Sorry," she muttered. And, turning back to her bow: "By Kethryes, these deserts dry out my string in an instant. How have you been faring?"

M'avina laid down again. "I haven't noticed."

Vidala shoved her playfully. "That's because you never wax your damn string. I'm telling you, M'avina, one of these days it'll snap and it'll be the end of you."

"I barely retain your words of wisdom when I'm fully awake, Vidala. Why would I remember them when I'm half asleep?"

Vidala chuckled as M'avina turned away from her. "Try not to poke me anymore?"

"What was that?" Vidala whispered harshly.

"I said try not to . . ."

"Shh!" Vidala had no humour in her voice. M'avina sat up. Vidala's hand had frozen on her string, and her eyes were wide and alert. "There's something out there."

"M'avina!" the trance-breaking shout had her reflexively putting an arrow to her bow, though she knew it was Jabari's voice.

"Jabari," M'avina chided, stepping towards him, "Arcanna needs her privacy!"

"Have you seen Alaric?" Jabari asked breathlessly.

"Jabari, get out of here," M'avina shook her head. But Arcanna had already finished, and was looking at the ground some distance away. "M'avina, take a look at this."

There were tracks in the snow. M'avina looked at Jabari a moment before trudging through the snow to Arcanna. "What's wrong."

"Hoofprints," Arcanna noted.

M'avina shook her head, moving her fur cloak up to block the wind. "No, look at how they're arranged," she pointed. "Those were made by only two legs. It's probably just Alaric making a wide patrol." Even as she said it, she came close enough to see the tracks. Arcanna was right. They were made by hooves. A biped with hooves. That meant only one thing . . . demons.

"Demons?" Arcanna's eyes went wide, "are you sure?"

M'avina hadn't realized she'd said it aloud. She squinted into the distance, and followed the line of tracks into the enveloping snowstorm. They led right to where she had seen the shadows. The shadows with the bundle.

"I saw something before," she said quietly.

"What?" Jabari shouted above the quickening winds.

"Demons! I saw them, they have Alaric!"

Jabari blanched. "No!"

"Can you be sure of what you saw?" Arcanna demanded.

Jabari turned. "We must go; arouse the others," he said.

"No!" M'avina stopped him. She felt her heartbeat quicken. After all these months, she should know better than to assume that shadows were only shadows. But the snowstorm was doing its work, and the tracks were vanishing before her eyes. "If we go back, we'll lose the trail."

"Then I'll get Kaelim, and you follow the tracks," Jabari suggested fervently.

"We don't know how many there are, Jabari," M'avina shouted. She looked at the ground again. "We don't have time for this! We all need to go - now!"

With that she turned and ran as fast as the deep snow would allow. He's going to turn around, she thought. Jabari will go back. But when she turned to look, Arcanna and Jabari were both a few yards behind her. She would have sighed, had she possessed a spare breath. Jabari had fought alongside the multitude of adventurers beneath Tristram. He had been a novice then, he had explained to her, and by the sound of it, a battle-eager youngblood. But the dreadful experience had nullified that sense of adventure and replaced it with a sense of duty. Only now, he was cautious, not only of himself, but of his comrades. Sometimes M'avina praised Hefaetrus for a companion with such qualities, but other times, she cursed him for being such a bother. Luckily enough, this time was the prior.

She felt strangely confident following the fading tracks with those two sorcerers behind her, and couldn't help but feel proud of herself for taking charge. It was really the first time she had ever needed to. Vidala had always been there before.

Though it had been at Rehga's insistence that they had stayed out that night, Vidala had taken charge the moment the attack had let up. One of Greiz's spearmen, who had agreed to accompany them, had been killed. M'avina couldn't remember his name. Their packhorse had been mauled, and was dying. M'avina had felt horrible for leaving him there with life still in his veins. He had served them well. But the sabre cats had taken Paige, one of the Rogues who had come with them from the mountains, and they had all seen enough blood shed. Paige was so young, affable, and eager to help them. No one wanted to see her come to harm. They had picked up their weapons and left the camp immediately.

Fangskin and his thieving vipers were forgotten. Now it was the catwoman, Bloodwitch, who was their target.

Vidala had never blamed Rehga, but they never spoke through that night. One good thing about the desert was that the lack of rain meant lack of clouds, and the illumination from the half-moon was glorious. Nevertheless, M'avina had stayed close to the group, with Vidala and Kaelim in the lead following the tracks. Looking at the rest, she had seen them doing the same, save Isenhart, who had been bringing up the rearguard several yards behind the main group. Even with the brilliant light, M'avina had known that sand maggots could burst from their hiding beneath the sands, and did not doubt that the claw vipers had similar tactics.

The wind had died completely, which was unusual, being so close to the sea, but it kept the impressions in the sand intact.

Vidala had quickened her pace, readying her longbow, "We're gaining on them. Paige may be putting up a fight and slowing them down."

Kaelim had hefted the Blacktongue sword in both hands and nodded in agreement. "They're likely over this next dune."

The whole party had sped up to gain on them and they were over the dune in seconds. And before them, sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of an empty plain, was the entrance to an underground tomb.

Haseen had gasped, and swore in a language M'avina didn't know, but then he said. "The Halls of the Dead."

With a name like that, she doubted it would grant them any solace.

But there had been nearly a dozen of them, then. And now, before the mouth of the great cave they had come upon, only three stood.

M'avina had taken a substantial lead over the spell-casters, and she waited for them to catch up, and catch their breath. The mouth of the cave was massive, and it disappeared into blackness rather quickly. Paige and Shikha had been essential every time they had come into a dark place. M'avina sighed, and lowered her gaze to the ground. The snow was a mess of hoofprints. She knelt down to get a closer look. The mountain protected the mouth of the cave from the wind, so the ground here had not been blown over.

"There's at least a dozen of them, I think," she muttered to the others. "Maybe more. They've been coming and going frequently."

Arcanna tapped her lightly on the shoulder, and when M'avina looked, the Sorceress pointed to the interior wall of the cave. There was an ax leaning against it. Jabari took some tentative steps towards the cave. Then, he held his shield forward, and uttered an incantation. The gem at the centre glowed white, and the face of the buckler illuminated like a lantern. The shadows retreated, and they could see the chamber rather clearly.

What was most interesting wasn't the unlit firepit, or the animal furs strewn about, or the multiple corridors which branched off from this main chamber, but it was the crude hieroglyphs carved into the walls. There was no one in this chamber.

M'avina and Arcanna followed the Sorcerer slowly into the cave entrance.

"Stop!" Shikha had said sharply, though quietly, holding her arm out to halt the rest of the party from continuing into the tomb. She had turned to Regha. "Your staff," she whispered quickly. Regha had handed it over, and Shikha had pressed the end down lightly on the sand-covered tile in front of her. She had to apply more force, and suddenly, a line of spikes had jolted upwards out of the floor. A collective start had gone through the party. Shikha had stood, and had handed Regha her staff.

"Be careful," the Rogue had warned, and then, stepping over the spikes and readying her bow, she had continued.

But this cave was not booby-trapped, thank Athulua. Without the eerily accurate intuition of the Rogues, they would have been at its mercy.

Jabari shone his light on the wall, and M'avina squinted to distinguish the strange markings. A sharp, fragmented script was written beneath some of the images. It barely looked like a language. There were pictures of human-like creatures, with horns, battling each other. Then, what looked like three broken stones, and then, the creatures who had been battling were standing side by side, and the final image was of a mass of these horned creatures running through a circle. M'avina couldn't completely understand.

From behind, they heard a rattling of stones. Jabari turned his light on the corridors, just as a tall, lean goatman emerged. The demon looked up at them, surprised, and before he could blink, M'avina had loosed an arrow into his throat. He fell immediately, trying to scream but unable to. The three humans watched him writhe for a moment before going limp.

"Goatmen," Arcanna murmured. She turned. "What are they doing here? I thought the clans were populating the Western Kingdoms."

Jabari looked back at the marks on the wall, and ran his hands over them. He came to the image of the goatmen fleeing into a circle. "The portal!" he exclaimed quietly. "Outside Snowgarde. They must have opened it and escaped into the Kae Huron."

"Goatmen are not well equipped, magically." Arcanna shook her head. "To say the least, they haven't been when I've ever encountered them, and the Vizjerei libraries concur."

Jabari nodded, but then raised an eyebrow. "You were allowed into the Vizjerei libraries?"

Arcanna glanced furtively at him. "Not exactly."

"But that means," M'avina continued Arcanna's train of thought, "that someone must have opened the portal for them."

They paused. M'avina shook her head, as if to clear a haze. "None of this matters," she said, "we need to find Alaric." She turned to the three corridors.

"Let's split up," said Arcanna.

"No," M'avina and Jabari said in unison. After exchanging a glance, M'avina continued. "This is their home. We don't know how many there might be. We'll have the best chance of getting Alaric out of here alive if we stick together. None of us would fare terribly well in single combat."

M'avina looked at the doorways before them. She didn't want to stress the importance of finding the right one. If they accidentally stumbled into a convocation of the demons, and no Alaric, then they would never be able to make it out in time with him.

The ground was stone, and told her nothing except that the ground was frequently trod upon. Each hallway was the same. Arcanna and Jabari had their spells at the ready in case another goatman inadvertently walked into the main chamber.

The middle hallway had snow still on the floor, which had yet to melt away. M'avina didn't like to rely on something so potentially circumstantial, but it was the best she had to go on.

"This way," she said, confidently enough, and, putting an arrow to string, she crept slowly into the hallway. Jabari dimmed the glow on his shield so as not to alert any of their approach.

As they continued, M'avina noticed a cold breeze coming through the hall. She told her companions. "This corridor must lead outdoors again."

They soon came to the end of the hall, and M'avina was right, it did open up. A fog-enshrouded courtyard, it seemed, was in the middle of this cavernous network. They heard the guttural laughter of the demons, and saw the glow of a fire through the thick, shifting fog.

"Bloodgutter!" they said, suddenly, in unison, and laughter ensued. M'avina halted and crouched at the cave door, and signaled for them to do the same.

"A toast to Bloodgutter!" said one individually. His words were hard to distinguish under his bestial accent. "Our leader to freedom!" More laughter.

And then another, lower voice hushed them, and he spoke with a much clearer voice than his brethren, despite a trace of goatish dialect. "My friends! We have slaved, we have fought, and for what? For the amusement of our masters? Fodder for man of Sanctuary? Bhaagh! Our masters are dead. And these mountains are free of those clever apes."

"Save one," a more feminine demon chuckled.

"The first," Bloodgutter replied, "And with hope, the last."

"Baaa!" another cursed. "Let them come! This one was easy enough to subdue, weren't you, primate!" There was laughter. M'avina's eyes widened. Alaric was there.

Bloodgutter said something M'avina could not distinguish. She figured it must be a curse, or perhaps the demon's name. "Braghkga! Fool!" there was a short scuffle. "You were not there, in Tristram. I managed to escape those tombs and return to Hell, but many of our brethren were not so lucky. These men, they are weak alone, but mighty in numbers. Our master was always right. They should be destroyed. If not for our other Lords, we may have been victorious, but their voices were greater than Baal's. If the campaign in Tristram had not been so subtle, we would have wiped them out. Instead, we lost three full clans beneath that blasted town, and if not for that other survivor, we would still be trapped in Hell, locked in battle with each other for the amusement of our lords. Forget whatever clan you came from! The hatreds must be put aside. Many clans are one clan. We are the Mountain Clan."

M'avina silently drew an arrow from her quiver and set it on her bow.

"A toast, then," said the female, "A toast to the Snowmaiden!"

"And," Bloodgutter reminded her, "to our mighty generals, who united us under one banner!"

There was an uproar of caprine cheering, and M'avina took the opportunity to turn to her fellows. "We need to use the fog to our advantage," she whispered quickly, "they won't know how many of us there are. I know how to make it seem like there are more warriors in the area, if you have any spells or talents with similar purpose, use them."

The clamour around the fire died, and M'avina motioned for silence from her comrades as they prepared their weapons.

"Yes," said the obscure voice, "This human shall be a good sacrifice to her memory."

M'avina drew the arrow back on her bow, aimed at the sound, and released. Even as she did, the two casters burst from their hiding place, and M'avina stood and rushed into the fog. The arrow struck true, and she heard the sound of confusion and surprise from the other goatmen.

"This is a human weapon!" the female demon cried out, and then bayed in their strange, caprine way, likely calling for help.

The fog lit up with lightning flashing to and fro, and various other magical missiles. And the familiar sound of Arcanna teleporting from one place to another told M'avina that they were heeding her advice. Had she not known better, she would assume that a slew of sorcerers were invading this camp.

M'avina followed the wall and climbed onto a small plateau, and tossed rocks in such a way as to mimic rushed footsteps in other areas. Vidala had been a professional at the art of decoys, and though she had taught M'avina well, the teacher far surpassed the pupil. Nevertheless, these demons sounded far too panicked to pay close attention. She followed the sound of a pair of hooves and fired another arrow, pleased at the caprine scream of dismay that replied.

A vortex within the fog cleared up some of the area as Arcanna threw a fireball at an offending goatman. It exploded before him and sent him flying back into the re-enveloping mist. M'avina's eyes darted to and fro. She couldn't find Alaric.

M'avina saw a goatman move in and out of the mist, and launched an arrow at him. He cried out in pain, and turned to find the source of his agony. M'avina used his moment of confusion to finish him off with a shaft between the eyes. She heard the light hoof-fall a moment too late. She turned her head to see a tall goatman standing behind her, a mace raised above her head. She quickly turned as the mace fell, and it struck her in the shoulder, sending her onto her back. M'avina bit the inside of her cheek to bear the pain, and kicked him away, then swiftly put arrow to bow and fired at his hand. At this range, the arrow didn't pierce very far, but it caused him to start and drop the mace.

M'avina quickly curled up her leg and kicked at his. When that did nothing, thanks to the backwards joint of his heel, she instead jammed her foot behind his hoof and pulled it forward.

Her shoulder forgotten, M'avina lunged forward, readying another arrow, but the demon grabbed her arrow and tore it away, then punched her in the face. M'avina coughed in surprise, dazed by the blow, but fought to regain herself.

"Foolish human!" the goatman cried, and grabbed her bow, wresting it from her grasp, and threw it away. He spoke with little caprine accent. This was the demon who had led the assembly. This was Bloodgutter. M'avina convinced herself not to panic, and put some distance between herself and the goatman, readying herself for a fistfight.

"I recognize the wizard you travel with," Bloodgutter noted. He didn't make any advance, but his muscles were tense, and his knees were coiled in anticipation. "He was there. He was below that accursed town. What a vengeful mistress providence is to deliver him from there to here. Do you know how many of my brothers died to the hands of him and those like him?"

"I don't care," M'avina spat reflexively. She wasn't really listening, she was thinking about what she could do. She had a small dagger in her boot. She used it primarily for skinning animals or preparing food. She felt either a drop of blood or sweat drip down her arm. It was probably sweat. There were also the loose rocks on the ground. Bashing in his skull seemed rather crude, but she wasn't very picky.

Bloodgutter's yellow eyes narrowed. "No, of course you don't. And yet, here you are, up here in the mountains with your warrior friend and two wizards. You and your band have the scent of Hell on you, and there would be no reason to come here from there unless you were servants of some new power in our mother realm; sent to punish us for finally escaping." He seemed rather pleased at coming to his conclusion. "Well, I pledged my life to one being only, the father of my people - Baal; killed by ones like you, I've heard."

The sounds of clamour in the courtyard below suddenly grew. M'avina heard Arcanna grunt, and heard steel strike steel, and heard lightning crackle through the air, and heard goatmen bleating in agony. But her mind remained focused on the form of Bloodgutter.

His muscular, bare chest was adorned only with a necklace made of human fingers, at different rates of decomposition. His torso was almost human, but his shoulders seemed too broad for his waist, and his hands a little too big for his forearms. Crimson liquid dripped from his shoulders down his chest, but she thought it was just dye made to look like blood and not the real thing. His face held more sentience than a goat, and his legs were thick and furry, down to his ebony hooves. The only piece of clothing he wore was a belt, obviously of human make, though there was a single, human palm - with no fingers - on the clasp, still fleshy and fed upon by still maggots. There was a sling on one side, likely for the mace he had dropped, and a small, patchy pouch on the other. She didn't know what was in it.

Of course, she absorbed all this in a moment.

He took a step forward. She took a step backward. "I am no servant of Hell," she said darkly, through clenched teeth. She had been fighting the Prime Evils for months. How dare he imply that she served their usurpers.

"You are a human of Sanctuary, an ambassador from a race that hates us, who has been through Hell, a realm which used and betrayed us. The only humans who leave Hell are those who barter their way out. Though I admit, they rarely remain in such a human form as your own." Bloodgutter explained all this to her rather slowly. "But whichever realm you do represent, it is no matter. I have come to this place to seek refuge from the tyranny of Hell and the vengeance of Sanctuary. You would have been wise to leave us to our peace."

"Peace?" M'avina laughed out loud at the idea. "You yourself say you're a child of Baal. You were made to desire nothing but destruction."

"And what is there to destroy in the desolate expanse of the Kae Huron?" Bloodgutter bellowed. He waved his arms to indicate his surroundings. M'avina drew back, fearing a strike. He didn't notice. "You humans may be quick to embrace your heritage, but we came to this place to escape ours." He averted his eyes to the courtyard for a moment. "Our time grows too long, and I have your friends to deal with as well," he noted rather casually.

He raised his hands, and charged. M'avina quickly lifted her foot and drew the hunting knife, then sidestepped and sloppily swept the knife as he passed. She felt it struck, and was pleased to see blood seep from a wound along his forearm. He stopped and turned. M'avina lunged, her knife overhead, and her caught her arm but she knocked him onto his back, with his head over the edge of the plateau. Bloodgutter held her arm up with one hand, struggling against her, and then clasped her neck in his other. M'avina felt his large hand tighten, and choked. She felt the blood from the arrow-wound on his hand against her neck.

M'avina groped around with her free hand under it fell upon a fair sized stone, and, picking it up, she swung it and struck him in the eye. Bloodgutter bleated pitifully, and reflexed, pushing her away, while releasing the hand. But as he drew away, the knife sliced through the tendon on his thumb. She had lessened her grip when she picked up the stone, and the knife was pulled from her hand. She put a second hand on the stone, and rushed towards Bloodgutter. He saw her with his remaining eye, and grabbed the edge of her armour, just as she brought the stone down with a resounding grunt of exertion upon his head. She heard something crack, and he screamed. He fell back, off the plateau, but his hand remained fixed around her armour, and she felt herself being pulled off with him. She fell for a moment, and then landed on her shoulder in a thin layer of snow. The pain of the wound in her shoulder exploded, and she cried out a moment, before rolling onto her back, ready for another round.

But Bloodgutter had landed nearer to the wall, face down, with his limbs settling in unnatural positions. The blood seeping from his face was not encouraging. Bloodgutter was dead, and the battle had died as they fought. M'avina righted herself onto her knees, and then peered forward as the mists before her parted. Parted like the darkness in that desert tomb.

She remembered that the lash across her face from Bloodwitch's whip had stung as she tread slowly down the hallway, the torch in her hand. M'avina had been leading, with Alaric beside her, and Shikha behind them. The rest had stayed back to marvel at the Horadric cube that Bloodwitch had been protecting. M'avina had, even then, had no idea what to expect down this hallway. She had been rather occupied with the wound on her face, and had secretly hoped that it wouldn't scar. Perhaps, she had thought, Fara could heal it, though even her magics did not remove scars. Atma knew some remedies. Lysander could always be a final option, but he always demanded money, and she had always had little to spare. Drognan was an alternative, but he . . .

Her thoughts had turned from the wound to the room before her, as the torchlight had frightened the darkness away only to a point, and she had no idea what horrors lurked beyond there. She had heard Alaric, beside her, ready his polearm. There had been no sound in the room. No sound but quick, furtive breaths.

The light had fallen upon the inverted face of Paige. Two pillars had been torn down and laid upright, crossing each other, to make a slanted X. Paige had been laid upside down, nailed into the pillars. She had been crucified, and a final nail had been jammed into her sternum. Blood had poured down to drip off the end of her neck. She had been trying very hard to lift up her head.

M'avina had been horrified, and had expected Shikha to break down into tears, but instead, she had moved swiftly towards her Sister and knelt down beside her. M'avina had noted, upon further, grisly inspection, that the nail in her left hand had been off-centre, and had taken off two of her fingers. Shikha had set her bow gently on the ground.

She had hushed Paige soothingly, wiping blood off her face with her glove. Paige had relaxed her neck, letting it drop down, and had managed a few more gasps of air before she had died.

Shikha had bowed her head, and M'avina and Alaric had stood together in silent reverence. Then Shikha had untied a rag Paige had around her arm. Every Rogue had one. Shikha had taken that strip of cloth, unfolded it, and wrapped it around Paige's head, as a blindfold.

"I take your sight," Shikha had whispered ceremoniously, as she tied the knit, "for sight is a lie. May the Sightless Eye guide you to peace." And with that, she had knelt down, and kissed Paige on the forehead. Then she had stood, and walked past M'avina and Alaric without saying a word. M'avina had wanted to ask Shikha if they should just leave her there, but had not wanted to be the first to speak. She took one look at Paige before following Shikha out of the room. The tombs of Aranoch had been the only solace from the heat in the desert.

And in the mountains of the Kae Huron, she felt hot again, sweat dripping from her brow. Her personal exertion was more fundamental than the creeping cold. As the fog cleared, M'avina let herself fall back to sit on her shins, as a wave of futility swept over her. She saw two feet, wrapped in leathers and fur, sway back and forth in the air, and there was a faint sound of a rope stretching. The fog retreated more, and she saw Alaric's full body, hanged upon a crude gallows, swaying from side to side in the gentle breeze. Then the fog swept in again, and covered him up, so that all that remained was the sound of the rope swaying back and forth.

The sun had been rising on the sea when they trudged back to their camp, which had since been disturbed by vultures and other desert creatures. M'avina had knelt at the body of their packhorse, and had felt the side of his neck. He was dead. More importantly, he had died alone. She had never forgiven herself for letting that happen.

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