The early morning sun breached the wall of clouds that constantly obscured the sky just enough to appear as a waxy blotch in the far distance. Twisted birds that may once have been owls glided over the landscape, returning to their nests with the coming of the light. Silent shadows moved through the roaming mists that surrounded Lanstiro. Slowly they began to meet up around a black barked tree that stood in solitude at the centre of an open patch of ground.
“Are we all clear on what we have to do?” asked Trey as he adjusted the black cloak that he was wearing over his armour.
The whole group, other than Htaed and Lily, were wearing the shadowy cloaks that Htaed had tailored with a grace and speed that stood at odds with his powerful build. Shrouded in darkness, the group could move with the stealth that shining armour could not provide.
Each person nodded in unison, nervousness and determination playing across Trey, Billy and Dawn’s faces while Zak and Lily looked like they could barely contain their excitement. Liam just looked emotionless as always. Htaed looked off to the distance, his eyes unfocused.
“We will travel together for another five minutes then Lily and I will move to the main gate while you find your own way in,” said Htaed.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright just marching up and knocking on their front door?” asked Dawn. Concern edged into her voice.
“We’ve faced worse,” Htaed said with a shrug.
“Yep. They don’t stand a chance!” chirped Lily.
The group moved on through the marsh lands that surrounded the last mile around the tainted fortress that was Lanstiro. The closer to their destination they came, the more barren and harsh their surroundings became. Then as suddenly as it had engulfed them, the fog ended. A mere fifty foot in front of them stood Lanstiro, towering over the group like a monstrous nightmare. Its walls were shielded with black iron sheets that were firmly fitted to the thick stone of the original structure and an uncountable amount of sharpened metal spikes rose from its surface like static hair. Its upper peaks jabbed out toward the heavens like daggers. Forukks patrolled the walls, crude crossbows swaying lazily as the creatures marched back and forth like guard dogs.
“Wait here while we get their attention,” announced Htaed as he and Lily strode off toward the huge, skull encrusted doors of the outer wall. The teens obeyed and watched from the edge of the mist.
The two warriors reached the doors without hindrance. Forukk guards gathered above the gate but made no move to attack. Htaed knocked on the steel-plated wood with such force that dents appeared in the metal and the sound reverberated throughout the ghostly structure. Without warning an arrow shot from the battlement aimed right at Htaed’s chest. Without even looking up he deflected it with a flick of his wrist.
“Come on out and try to end my life, you lowly dogs!” Htaed boomed.
With exaggerated slowness the doors began to open. All was silent as the door eased open then stopped half way. From inside ten Forukks swaggered out growling fiercely at their guests.
“They’re underestimating us. I hate it when people do that!” snapped Lily as she leapt forwards to meet the Forukks. She threw the chakram in her right hand and it struck the lead Forukk in the throat. She slashed at the next Forukk as they met then spun around, grabbing her other chakram from the Forukk’s corpse as she tripped another creature then severed its head.
Htaed had followed up behind Lily. Three Forukks bounded at him with weapons at the ready. With one horizontal cut all three fell to the ground dead. The last four Forukks were killed just as quickly.
The fortress door fully opened and a stream of monsters came out to face the two warriors. Well over a hundred surrounded them.
“They’re still underestimating us,” shrieked Lily.
“Not for long,” sighed Htaed as he motioned to Trey and the others to go.
With a vicious roar from every Forukk present, hell broke loose.
* * *
“He’s given the signal,” informed Trey to the others. “Let’s go.”
After checking that the enemy’s attention was elsewhere, the group scurried from the mist to the imposing wall. They could not brush up against the stone for extra cover as sharp spikes protruded from it at every angle. They skirted the wall until they found what they were looking for.
About three quarters the way around the fortress was what Htaed had told them to look out for. Out of every spike that covered the black walls, only one had a crimson skull shoved onto its end. This was the sign of a secret entrance according to the giant man. How he knew no one could guess but it was the only chance they had.
Unluckily for the teens, the skull was near the top of the outer wall, with no purchase to grab other than the sharpened metal. Zak volunteered to climb up first and pull the spike that was actually a cleverly hidden lever. He very soon regretted this choice. Every spike had an edge like a razor and while they were effective for climbing the wall, Zak’s hands soon became a bloody mess despite his plate-backed gloves and his sandals quickly disintegrated.
The others watched in horror as Zak neared the lever. Blood dripped down from his cuts, splashing the ground below him. He reached out with a shaking hand, grabbing the lever and slowly pushed it up. A small section of the wall opened up and snapped to the side like a mousetrap. Zak only just avoided being crushed by flipping off of the wall and landing roughly on the floor next to Dawn. From that height it was a miracle that he had survived the fall, let alone avoided breaking any bones. Trey was sure that if it had been anyone else then they would have been too slow to escape the trap.
Zak shouted out in pain as he held his left leg. Dawn inspected it and announced “It’s sprained.”
“Looks like we’re all going to have to climb up to get inside,” Liam pointed out.
“You saw what happened to Zak. Even without the fall he got all cut up. If we try then we’ll be half dead before we even get inside,” argued Dawn. “I have slight healing abilities but we won’t have time to fully reform the skin. Even that is pointless though as I couldn’t use my healing powers when my own hands are damaged. It’s not like I can effectively heal myself.”
“I can.” Everyone turned to Liam. He shrugged under the attention. “I learned to heal my own wounds so that I would never have to rely on others.”
“Could you heal us too?” Trey asked.
Liam shook his head. “I’ve never tried to heal others. I suppose that I could probably heal Dawn’s hands to the point where she can help the rest of you.”
“It’s the only way,” sighed Trey. “Zak, you ready for another climb?”
“No,” he replied to everyone’s surprise. He had never shown fear, weakness or even common sense. He was up for anything. “We won’t be able to hold our weapons once we’re up. Yes, Liam and Dawn can heal us but then they will be too drained to fight. We lose either way.”
“We don’t have any choice!” snapped Billy. “Stop moaning and just get on with it.” Without waiting for a response Billy began to climb.
After the shock on Zak’s face passed a new respect for Billy entered his eyes then he too began to climb. Liam followed them both without a word, leaving Trey and Dawn at the bottom. Trey began to climb but stopped when he realised Dawn was not moving. She looked terrified as she watched blood come down around her like rain.
“Are you coming?” asked Trey. She shakily looked up at Trey, then at the other boys and finally at the entrance. “Don’t worry. Sure it hurts but it’s the only way. Its either carry on forwards or give up and go back.”
Dawn made a sound that was a mixture of a laugh and a sigh. “Trey, I’m not scared of pain. I’m kind of afraid of heights,” she stuttered with an embarrassed look.
Trey thought for several moments before holding out his hand. “You have nothing to fear. We’re all here for you.”
Still looking unconvinced but not wanting to look weak she accepted his hand. She would have held on longer if they both did not need two hands to climb.
“Just don’t look down,” said Trey with a hiss of pain that he tried to turn into a nervous laugh. It did not seem to help.
It took less time than they had expected for them all to crawl into the tunnel. Once inside it was a tight fit, especially for Zak with his huge battle axe and dual katana. Luckily it was a very short tunnel that led to some kind of storage room. There was just enough space among the various boxes for all five teens to fit inside the room. There was no sign that the room had been used recently.
Liam sat crossed-legged and began to trace his index finger along the cuts of his left hand. After a few minutes he swapped hands. Once he was finished he wiped away the blood. There was not the slightest of marks upon either hand.
“What did you do?” Dawn all but gaped. She grabbed his hands to examine them thoroughly. “The skin should at least look raw. It looks like you never even had any wounds.”
Gently taking hold of Dawn’s shredded hands, Liam began to repeat the process. At the girl’s prompting he started to explain. “Most healers speed up the body’s natural regeneration, forcing what would take weeks to heal to take only minutes instead. The damage is still there for the most part. I…sort of…reverse the wound.”
“That shouldn’t be possible,” Dawn muttered. She studied her first hand in amazement. “It just doesn’t work like that.”
“If you say so,” Liam commented blandly. His hands continued to move smoothly but sweat beaded on his pale forehead. As soon as Dawn’s hands were unbroken skin once more, she set to work on patching up the others while Liam slumped against a crate to recover.
It took longer than Trey had hoped but eventually everyone was ready to continue. Trey, Billy and Zak’s hands were still sore though while Dawn and Liam were weary from their work. They would have to suffice. No more time could be wasted.
They cautiously climbed down a ladder that led from the room they had entered to a much larger storage room. This one had been used recently.
“So, how are we going about all this?” asked Liam to no one in particular.
“I haven’t worked out the details yet but I think we should split up and search. We can cover a bigger area that way plus we have less chance of being discovered. We are all competent in a fight so we should be fine,” said Trey with forced optimism. “Stay safe and we’ll see each other when every slave is free.”
“You realise that there are so many flaws in this plan that it can’t possibly work,” sighed Liam.
“Like what?” asked Zak.
“Like where do we meet up, how long we have until we meet up, how to find our way around, where to get food and water, where to sleep-”
“Okay. We get the point. The plan is a little sketchy but it’s all we have. We’ll meet back in here at sundown with anyone we’ve freed. Sound good?”
“Not really,” complained Liam
“Dibs on the castle!” said Zak.
They exited the storage building then separated, heading out to search their individual areas.