Artumes came back to the camp bearing ill news and a traumatized cadet. Thesanthei, their Capain, met them with a grave look in his eyes.
“We have found the Harvest,” Artumes began, jumping down from her horse. “It is quite close, as I feared. They have already completed it, and all I can do now is to burn it to the ground.”
Thesanthei passed a hand over his face, trying to find some comfort.
“Any survivors? I know it is useless to ask.”
“They do not let survivors.”
He glanced at her.
“It was one time, Captain.”
“Allow an old man a dash of hope, Stalker. Now, what about you?” He turned to look at Urthir who was also getting down his horse. He stopped to pass his gloved hands over the animal, even though Artumes couldn’t have said if out of care or also to feel some warmth from him. Likely a mix of both, and considering it was his first time, he was holding up remarkably well.
“I have seen things we share as nightmare stories, Captain. I did not want to believe them, but I have seen them with my own eyes and I have smelled the foul air. Oh, Twelve above, I… have smelled…” he pulled away from the horse and heaved on the grass, painting it with the remains of their breakfast.
“Easy, scout.” Thesantheir reassured him by setting a hand over his shoulder. “It was necessary. You are now able to serve the King in a better fashioned. Wiser and stronger. Your stomach will get stronger as well. Gods know mine did.” he kept his hand over his shoulder to comfort him, while the cadet did try to hold in the rest, taking long breaths.
“How much?” He asked Artumes in the meantime.
“I would say he was quite good. Even in the face of danger.”
“No… I know he did well enough. I am talking about the time before the Gloom Lords can walk out there.”
“Ah. Yes.” Artumes was tempted to pull up her face cover to hide the faint sheen of embarrassment spreading over her cheeks. The situation was getting to her head – or maybe the chance to finally set her hands on Heleth Skinflayer. “I would say half a day for the first layer, two days for the second, and maybe three or four for the whole growth to appear. One week, and the Gloom Lords can have their working gate.”
“We have time, then.”
She shook her head.
“I would advise against wasting any, sir. With how far we are from Carthaza, even the quickest transport will take too long. By then more Marrowers may already be back. I will take care of the growth by myself.”
Thesanthei helped urthir clean his mouth. The newcomer stood up, still a little sick in the face but recovering fast.
“I’m fine, sir. Just a weak spell, that’s all. I will do better next time.”
Thesanthei and Artumes shared a smile. Even in the middle of all the bad news, an aristocrat who showed some guts was something to celebrate.
“You will have plenty of chancer here in the outback,” Artumes grinned. “I’m requesting permission to stay behind and officiate the cleaning ritual on my own. I will join the company soon enough.”
“I do not feel confident enough to leave you out there on your own, so close to winter.”
“With all due respect, sir, do you feel not confident enough in my abilities?”
“I know your skills, Stalker. But bad luck has tendency to ignore those, and the arm of the Iron Crown has stretched long for the past couple of decades.”
“It’s true, then?” Urthir looked at their Captain. “That she has killed eleven on them?”
Thesanthei tossed him a glare.
“I wouldn’t keep in my company a liar and a boaster.”
“O-of course not, sir. My apologies.”
“But yes, it is true. Stalker Artumes knows how to deal with Marrowers, but I…” he pulled his lips in a tight line and his blue eyes looked up at the sky. “I do not know. May the Twelve protect me, but I feel like I would be making a mistake letting you go alone. There’s a bad omen lingering in the air.”
She did not reply to that. She had already spoken out of turn, and she would not set a bad example before a green scout like Urthir, but her hands prickled with impatience.
“You said one week.”
“One week, at best.”
He nodded, closed his eyes and began to take a few deep breaths.
“We will meet at the Hill of Four Winds. The south-west face, we will set up camp at the springs of the Rumblebrook.”
Artumes agreed at once, smiling.
“But by all means do not consider this an invitation to stay behind! I want you back in my company as soon as possible, Stalker, is that clear?”
“As always, sir.” She nodded.
“Why… why can’t we stay with her?”
“It’s the ritual,” Artumes replied to Urthir. It was a bit amusing to see a member of the aristocracy so ignorant about the reality of the Outback. And maybe a bit worrying. “I will have to take upon myself the twisted roots the Marrowers cast deep into the place, and burn them all. It is something I am used to, but every living thing in a very wide radius is going to feel the backlash, if they are not linked to the ritual.”
“And can’t we… you know?” He said pointing at himself and the others. “Share in it? Take in a bit of that burden?”
“Not without training,” Thesanthei assured him. “Or sharing in what Artumes went through. It is a sad state of things.”
“Rest easy,” she replied with a confident smile.
The Captain wasn’t the only one with a gut feeling.
She knew that if she came back, at least one Marrower would come back. Maybe they would just check on the state of Heleth’s work. Maybe they would just add their own touches and try to claim part of the reward as the Gloom Lords came to collect.
But she was sure she would meet one of them.
And her arm itched at the thought of adding that one twelfth star.
Twelve lives for twelve lives. That was how it had been since she was a kid and that was how this story would end as well.
She would meet them again at the camp in a few days, showing them their trophy, and they would go back to Carthaza just in time for winter.
Nothing to worry about.
Author’s Notes: Nothing to worry about, for sure.
Thanks for reading.