Bright sunlight blinded them the moment they stepped out of the tunnel. The secret passage ended at a small clearing, surrounded on all sides by shrubs and old trees whose leaves were just starting to bud. Silence reigned over the forest, save for the occasional rustle of a startled mouse in the last year’s foliage.
Still on high alert, Noah and his companions surveyed their surroundings. There was no living soul in sight. Giving the twins a sign, Gregor stood straight and closed his eyes. The girls flanked him on both sides, daggers in hand, and prepared to intercept any incoming threats. After a minute of concentration, the binshi’s eyelids fluttered open.
“I don’t sense any hostile presence in a two-hundred-meter radius, be it man or ghost. There are some large animals scattered around, but they seem to be runaway mules or horses.”
“Send the signal to our men,” said Noah and carried Lorelei to a nearby tree. “After that, take Rasha and do a perimeter check. Don’t stray too far, do not engage in combat. Rish, you stay on guard here.”
Following his lord’s order, the shaman removed a small cylinder that was hanging on his belt. From inside, he procured a walnut-sized ball and put it on his flattened left palm. Gregor’s lips moved as he whispered the incantation for the hex. Immediately, a greenish-blue glow enveloped the sphere. It shot straight up into the sky where it exploded with a loud bang in a big cloud of purple flames.
Noah nodded in satisfaction. The guards in Yalda’s watch-towers were vigilant. It was only a matter of time before a patrol arrived, especially since it was the purple signal of the duke himself.
He gently put Lorelei down under the tree and squatted before her. For the first time he had a clear look at his wife and what he saw made him curse quietly. She sat there, hunched forward with knees drawn to her chest, and her whole body shivered. Her clothes were messy, torn in several places, and covered with brown splatters that were unmistakably blood.
Removing his gloves, Noah carefully brushed aside the disheveled strands of hair hanging over Lorelei’s face but froze at the site of her heavily bruised cheek and split lip. The man gritted his teeth, dangerous sparks lighting up in his eyes. His other hand grabbed the sheath of his sword until his knuckles turned white. They were dead! He wanted to butcher every single one of those cursed fanatics who had dared to lay a hand on his people, on his wife! As he was about to lose himself in anger, two frightened brown eyes stared at him full of tears. No, he couldn’t let his bloodlust out or he would scare her even more. Right now, he needed to comfort her, to make sure she is safe. He wanted to see these eyes smile again, burn brightly with confidence and defiance.
As if put under a spell, Noah involuntarily let his fingers slide down, gently caressing his wife’s face.
In an instant, Lorelei screamed and drove his hand away, her whole body tensing up even more.
“My lady, what’s wrong?!” Rish dashed to them alerted by the yell but was stopped with a little headshake from her master.
“S-sorry. Did I hurt you?” Taken aback by Lorelei’s reaction, Noah frantically looked around, when his eyes fell on her still bound hands. “Merciful Gods! What have these bastards done to you?!”
He pulled out his dagger and quickly cut the ropes tying her swollen wrists together. After freeing her, the man rubbed Lorelei’s hands softly to relieve the pain from the bind. At the same time, his gaze was fixated on her torn and blistered fingers and the dirty rags that were used to bandage them. During his life, he had received enough wounds to know that these will leave permanent scars, or even worse. His heart turned cold.
“Lorelei, you can still move them, right? Can you move your fingers for me? Yes, that’s it! Thank the Gods! Don’t worry, I’ll find a healer to treat you immediately.”
“It does not matter.”
Her reply was so dry and devoid of emotion that it made the man shudder. He preferred her fiery outburst from a second ago a thousand times compared to the resignation that was now written all over her pale face. In the blink of an eye, a completely different person now stood before him. She had reverted to the same apathetic frightened girl that sat beside him during the victory banquet.
Lorelei continued to speak, her eyes turning glassy and staring right in front of her, unable to see a thing:
“It is all my fault. My fault. These hands, I don’t need them. They couldn’t save Jess. They couldn’t save the elder. They couldn’t save Anuk. I couldn’t do a thing. I couldn’t stop the Red Hands. All of this, it’s my fault. They all burned. They all died. Jess, Anuk, the elder. All my fault. The Red Hands were going to trick you, to stab you! They were going to kill you too! I couldn’t stop them! I tried but I couldn’t. I almost killed you too!”
“Snap out of it, Lorelei!” Noah pulled his wife’s rigid body into his embrace and started stroking her head in an attempt to calm her down. “It’s alright. Everything is fine. I am here. Jess is alive and awaits you in Ildemar. Anuk is with Duncan. He’ll bring her to the castle together with Kai and their father. You’ll see them soon. Everything is fine. You are safe now. Everything is over. You are safe. I promise you.”
Little by little, the stiff body in his arms relaxed. The oppressing silence was replaced by quiet sobs which soon died out too. After a couple of minutes, Noah felt a weak push against his chest and, with reluctance that baffled him for a second, he let Lorelei go.
The young woman rubbed the tears off of her cheeks. She lifted her reddened eyes and looked at him, guilt and shame plastered all over her face.
“I am so sorry, my lord.” Albeit still a bit shaky, she sounded better. “I showed you something unsightly.”
“Foolish girl.” With a sigh, Noah flicked her forehead lightly. “Don’t apologize. Being afraid is not shameful. Soon we all will be back home.”
Lorelei rubbed her brow in disbelief and could only nod in response. Seeing her so bewildered, Noah chuckled and felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. From the corner of his eye, he saw Rish secretly brushing away some moisture from her eyelashes. As he was about to wave to her to come closer, the binshi tensed up, holding her dagger ready. Her sensitive ears had caught on the slight disturbance even before Noah could. There was some rustling in the nearby bushes. The knight jumped, ready to draw his own weapon when a familiar head poked through the thicket.
“We’ve finished scouting around.” With a graceful step, Gregor emerged in the clearing. “The traces these bastards left were too confusing to follow, so I don’t know where they are headed. But at least they left us some presents.”
Behind him came Rasha, pulling on the bridles of three agitated horses. The animals neighed and dug in the dirt with their hoofs, trying to pull away from the girl leading them. As the two binshi came closer, Noah could see their stiff faces.
“Is something wrong?”
“No.” Gregor shook his head, his blue eyes squinting a bit. “And that’s what worries me. The tracks were hidden well. Unnaturally well. And I have all reasons to suspect that their shaman was not amongst the bodies we left in the tunnel. Even with the four of us, in our current condition, we are vulnerable to an attack. We should get out of here as soon as possible.”
Without much delay, Noah scooped up Lorelei’s body in his arms.
“Have you been on a horse before?”
“N-no.” The young woman’s eyes became huge when she saw the unruly steeds dancing around and biting their mouth-pieces.
“You don’t have to worry. You will be riding with me. Just stay calm, don’t make sudden moves, and it will all be fine.”
“Don’t worry, my lady,” Gregor gave her an encouraging smile, “his highness is an excellent rider. With him, you will be as safe as a baby in a cradle.”
After saying that, he and Rish chose the calmest of the horses and held it in place while Noah put his wife in the saddle. With some effort and encouragement, she managed to stay put and sighed with relief.
“Alright,” Noah quickly mounted behind her taking the reins, “let’s get out of here as fast…”
Before he could even finish, the horse neighed, shuddered, and suddenly jumped, pushing Gregor and Rish tumbling backward. Noah saw white foam coming out of the animal’s mouth as it gave another frightened shriek and stood on its hind legs. With only a split second to react, he grabbed Lorelei and both of them fell hard on the ground, rolling in the cold muddy grass.
Chaos ensued. The other two horses tore free from Rasha’s grip and started jumping and thrashing around just like their brethren, white foam coming out of their snouts. Then all of a sudden, all three animals froze in place and dropped to the ground like dead.
“Noah!” Gregor shouted in fright, scurrying to reach them as quickly as possible with the twins following suit. “Are you two alright?!”
“Nothing broken here but I have sprained my shoulder,” huffed his friend. Still, he ignored the pain and concentrated on the woman lying on his chest. “Are you hurt somewhere?”
“N-no. W-what happened?”
With some help from the binshi both of them managed to sit on the grass and saw the macabre scene of the horses lying all over the clearing.
“A-are they dead?”
“I see them still breathing,” answered Rish, her eyes darting around. She motioned to her belt but instead of her dagger, her hands pulled out a thin silver knife. “Something isn’t right.”
The rest of the binshi also pulled their throwing knives and surrounded Noah and Lorelei. Beads of perspiration appeared on their foreheads, their gazes fixated on the nearby bushes.
The tension was palpable. Slowly, the whole scenery started to change. As if something sucked out all light and color, leaving the woods in gray dusk. The temperature dropped, turning the breath coming out of their mouths into white smoke that slowly rose towards a pitch-black sky.
A low hiss escaped between Gregor’s teeth.
“Rish, Rasha, krovithse kupulak! Breshe!”
As one, the three binshi drove a thumb over their silver blades, dyeing them red with fresh blood. With a sudden move, they all turned around and stabbed their blades into the ground. At the same time, their lips started moving in perfect unison, weaving the verses of a hex.
“What are you doing?”
Noah jumped up and tried taking a step but was met by a solid silver light. He banged his fists on the barrier’s surface but it didn’t even budge.
“Let me out, Gerash!”
“I am sorry but this is not an option.” The shaman turned back facing the bushes. “The blood barrier will remain until the last one of us falls. We will buy as much time as we can. Lady Shana and the elders should have sensed the disturbance on the Spirit Plane, so help is on the way.”
“No! Let me out! Red Dawn can help you with the purification.”
“You still don’t understand?” Gregor lowered his stance ready to jump any minute. “No one can purify that thing. Not even lady Shana since she hasn’t awakened her full powers yet. We can weaken it and maybe seal it away with a life-sacrifice but we need more people."
"Then all the more reason to let me out"
"No. We are binshi. Its touch won’t kill us immediately. But if it touches a limerian, it will suck the life out of you in seconds. Coming out of the barrier would be a hindrance rather than help.”
Noah felt a cold shower run down his spine.
“Tell me, what the hell is that thing?”
As if summoned by the word, the bushes at the far end of the clearing shriveled and turned to dust. A wave of black smoke started to seep in, crawling slowly towards the three binshi. The air was filled with the rustling of dried leaves and the stench of rotting flesh.
Fresh blades in hand, Gregor threw a look over his shoulder. His lips curved in a sad smile.
“Goodbye, master. Serving under you was a privilege.”