The low rumble made the hair on Lee’s neck stand up, and, by the time the sound had faded, the man had already regretted each and every choice he had made over the last two days that had lead him to this point – including own curiosity having taken the upper hand yesterday morning.
The area around the abandoned monastery and the shore was mostly unexplored, much due to the packs of snappers on the hillside and the fire lizards that had taken over the beach; however, Lares had reckoned that a group of two, maximum three people would be able to slip by where a large party could not and kill two birds with one stone, both in terms of exploring and a potential valuable loot – a plan which, surprisingly, had found listening ears in a bored and sulking leader of the New Camp.
Of course, the bored and sulking leader of the New Camp had not deemed it important – or necessary – to declare to the restless pest of a rogue that the loonies having settled in the swamp in the near of the aforementioned unexplored land had also played a big part in why he offered to accompany the thief. Again, in the occasion that the search and explore team wandered far enough to find themselves in the near of the dwellings of these curious critters, a large group of people would only mean more chances to get noticed. Experience told Lee it was better not to bother them before their intentions – or the level of insanity – were clear.
Otherwise, who knew what these lunatics could do. Swampweed alone had proven to be of a destructive behaviour to some individuals; there was no way to know what said drug could do in a combination with other plants or – gods forbid! – potions, and the former General would rather not have his men be on the receiving end of that knowledge.
Alas, a large group of people was the exact thing the wanderers could have used right now.
The Valley of Mines was a treacherous, unforgiving place that did not permit mistakes or cater to the careless – it did not matter where the latter were on the peculiar food chain the human inhabitants had established.
Or, rather, even if the Valley had cared, it mattered little to the shadowbeast having claimed this area as its rightful place of living and who was, incidentally, the one emitting the rumble right now.
They had lost too much time looking for a shoal, after learning that the water levels had risen after the rainfall last night and the already shaky, unsafe construction its author had had the audacity to call a bridge and which they had used to cross the river the previous day had been finally torn to shreds. The evening was approaching already, the sun had disappeared behind the mountain massive surrounding the Valley in the West, leaving but a few clouds in the sky in the marvellous tint of gold that comes before the sundown and its rose red tones, and twilight sought to blend everything in the Valley together, drawing the colours from man and nature alike until everything and everyone became equal under its rule.
In the Colony, the convicts preferred not to stay outside the settlement, or anything that resembled a shelter, during night, and anybody to claim it was solely due to silly countryside superstitions would prove themselves to be stupid – and dead, long before they had proven the foolish people wrong.
Shadowbeasts, the foolish people said, were magical beings – although nobody had ever observed the creatures to perform anything that even remotely hinted anything supernatural about them. Or, rather, nobody had lived to tell the tale. However, growing up listening to the tales of the hunters in the clan, Lee was ready to believe it – for the men and women swore time and again the beasts came out of nowhere, as though woven into reality from campfire smoke by the hand of an invisible, vengeful deity.
Even if he had not believed in it, right about now was the time for that to change.
The creature snorted, tilting its head in a curious manner, as the human turned around slowly. Waiting. As though willing to give the brazen intruders time to realize the mistake they had made.
Lee cast a look, quickly so, to the side where he remembered seeing Lares just moments before the creature had emerged from shadows, only to curse under his breath as the rogue was no longer there, gone together with both weapons and the bag of rubbish he had insisted on dragging along from the deserted watchtower.
He would not have been as bitter – or furious – to learn the fact, had the General not thought he had the rogue figured out. Taking great pride in being able to see people for who they actually were, Lee had thought that, even with the persistent problem with acknowledging authorities of the camp, Lares could be trusted.
Just like the lot of them. Why did I expect anything else from a thief?
The shadowbeast stuck its ears up and made a step closer when the mercenary reached for the axe on his back, and Lee froze in the middle of the motion. Step by step, the animal closed in while the human retreated until his back hit a tree.
The shadowbeast continued on. There was no reason for it to hurry – and nowhere the human could run, either. After the storm, the evening air had gotten considerably cooler, and with each breath a plume of white steam was flowing from the animal’s mouth that stunk of blood and rancid meat, the remains of an unlucky victim from before still stuck between the sharp teeth. It was close now – close enough for the General to see the separate hair in its hide, the pores on its nose, and the rough, porous surface of the horn. Deep rumble rose from its throat as the creature’s yellow eyes narrowed and the fur stood up as every muscle in the shadowbeast’s body became tense.
Keeping eye contact with the animal, Lee slowly, careful not to make sudden movements that would provoke the creature and have it attack sooner, felt about his side until fingers locked around the knife. Not much help, at least not against an opponent of this size, but the axe might as well be on the other side of the forest right now; there was no chance for him to reach it without the shadowbeast striking sooner than the human managed to get a hold of the weapon.
The shadowbeast snarled, prepared to strike, when something hit its side with a dull thud.
The next pebble hit the animal’s cheek, and the shadowbeast shook its head before turning to look into the direction it had come from.
Once the sack had been torn off its head, the squeals of a terrified molerat filled the chill evening air. Trying to tear free from the hand holding it by the scruff, the animal twisted its ugly, fat body into poses that would have appeared impossible until now. Something red splashed from its foot with each movement, and the shadowbeast’s nose twitched as it took in the tempting, delicious smell of fresh blood.
The creature turned to look at the human in front of it, then at the human holding the molerat.
Granted, a molerat was smaller than a human, yet again shadowbeasts had proven time and again to be more intelligent than wolves and other carnivores wandering about in the Valley of Mines. Right now, that intelligence meant to know that an injured molerat was the better target, because an injured molerat did not wield a weapon (which, granted, was just the right size to serve the shadowbeast as a toothpick after the feast), and because an injured molerat did not wear any armour on it, composed of leather and steel that would, on its turn, take time to peel off the prey, but not before leaving the animal with nasty cuts and bruises that hurt all over.
The molerat hit the ground with a squeak and a thud, turned over a couple of times, however suffered no injuries to keep it from galloping into the woods as fast as its short legs could carry as soon as it noticed the shadowbeast incoming. The prey animal disappeared behind a large fallen tree, while the hunter leapt, with a feline’s grace, onto its trunk, and a second later sky crumbled onto the ugly creature’s head, the chilly evening air filled with screeches as the rat was being torn to pieces while still alive and kicking.
- So grim, - Lares winked at the General when he caught the look of his companion. – Just so you know, that could’ve been you.
- Shut up!
- I beg your pardon? – The rogue stared while the mercenary was walking towards him after a short backtrack to avoid the shadowbeast’s lair. – The hell was that for?
- You know bloody well what that is for! Beliar’s cock! You run! That’s what I get for trusting a thief!
- Now that is insulting, - Lares’ face dropped as he took in the accusations thrown at him. – A “thank you” would suffice. Or a “sorry for leading us into this place”. I told you we ought to take the route to the Old Mine, but no, the General knows best. Do me a favour and act like you are at least a bit grateful, the next time somebody saves your sorry arse. Now come, before he decides the molerat was not enough!
- Grateful? – Lee had a lot to say, but he had also had enough sense not to continue the argument around the shadowbeast and instead save it for when they were already walking towards the mountain wall that separated them from the New Camp, intending to cut the route short and entering the rice fields by the narrow banks of the lake rather than through the gate. – For what?
- I did not run, - the answer came in a silent, calm voice. – I noticed there were molerats in the near before we walked into the clearing. Fast thinking, that’s all. A predator will go for the easiest target. There are hunters among us, and you could learn a lot from them if you stopped for long enough to listen.
- Follow your own advices, thief.
Of course, Lee had long ago figured out he had been wrong – around the time they exited the forest and began ascending the hill, to be more precise – but something within did not wish to admit it: an annoying, persistent voice at the back of his head, boring deep into the being.
Accusing him of having relied on the help of a thief rather than taking the matters into own hands.
“You’ve taken down orcs before,” it whispered, mockingly so, “and you couldn’t deal with a shadowbeast? Shame and disgrace on you, General, shame and disgrace!”
Anger, shame, disappointment; mixed together, forming a dark and stuffy cloud in the chest, begging to be released. Scream, yell, cry – do whatever it takes, just release the emotions. And Lee preferred to swallow them and boil in silence. Better to keep up the appearances than admit he had been wrong.
And so they walked, each of them busy with own thoughts. That was, they did, until the mercenary muttered something under his nose just a bit too loud that did not sound too flattering or friendly towards the man walking next to him – or the rogues in general.
- Want to know why you feel out of place? – Lares blocked his path all of a sudden, and the thief’s voice that even the rumble of the waterfall ahead was incapable of muting had a poisonous note in it. – Because you are. Here, you are out of place, General Lee. You are among people whom, in your past life, you would have sent off to the gallows without batting an eye.
- What are you saying? – It was hard to tell if it was the night wind, or the proximity of the waterfall chilling them to the bone, or the General’s voice that had grown cold and threatening.
- Here, in the Colony, we are the regular folk, and it’s you who doesn’t belong in this charming society, just like we didn’t belong in yours. You want to assimilate? Then stop dividing into “me” and “them”! You are here, you are one of us; both to us and the outside world. A criminal: just like the guy next to you and the guy next to them. There is no other option.
- Do not even me to them! – The expression on Lee’s face as he approached the thief, forcing Lares to retreat until his back hit the rock wall, gave away that the General was ready to wash the insult off. By blood, if necessary, and even the fact that the man throwing said insult had saved his life earlier would mean very little when both the Nordmarian and the privileged warlord in him took the upper hand.
And yet, the rogue had hit the exact string of his soul.
Him, a General, a war hero, forced to even himself to the lowest of scum in the kingdom of Myrtana!
An insult to the very being of this man.
- See? There is it. Well, go ahead! – Lares did not lose his collected appearance even when his safety was solely at the mercy of Lee’s, who had a considerable advantage in both strength as well as combat skills. Apparently, he had been too precious of a trophy arrest to simply kill – and he knew and was used to it; so much that a mercenary ready to tear him apart with bare hands was no more terrifying to the rogue than a juvenile scavenger. – Go on! Strike, then! You think I haven’t seen it all, twice? There is nothing you can do that hasn’t already been done to me!
- Do not, - Lee repeated, having managed to gain control over his emotions before something irreparable happened, even though the finger he pointed at the rogue was trembling in anger, - even me to them, or yourself! I was given no choice or power over my own fate. You were. And you chose to be a criminal.
- Are you quite done? – Lares pushed his hand aside, catching the man off-guard. – Good. Then listen to me now! Yes. Yes, you are right, General. I chose to be a thief! You know why? Because the only other choice I had was to die slowly of hunger, or illness, somewhere in the slums of one of the rich cities of Myrtana, - he spat the last four words like spoiled meatbug stew, while closing in to the mercenary who, unbeknownst to himself, retreated towards the river. The rogue’s eyes were lit with badly concealed anger. – People like you get everything handed to them on a plate. And it’s still not enough, so you wage idiotic wars, and somewhere in the middle between you and the orcs, or the Hashishin, or some other petty reason why the paladins march through the country with the king’s soldiers leaving nothing in their wake, there are people like me who have to struggle to get by day to day. You think thieves choose to be thieves for the blood rush? Then you know nothing about life, outside of Vengard and your glorious battlefields. Think of what I said, General, and I hope that you will come to a different conclusion than what you have now. Hey, man, - he reached out and patted Lee on the shoulder before continuing in a cheerful tone as though the conversation had never taken place, - rejoice! You’re the only person in the Colony who’s seen a shadowbeast up this close and lived to tell the tale!
Nobody had ever dared to speak to him in such tone, nor such manner, and Lee was left standing, dumbstruck, ankle-deep in the river, as the rogue turned on the heel and began walking towards the lake.
The annoying, persistent voice of injured pride had now been replaced by another, just as annoying and persistent, that whispered to him that the thief was not as wrong as Lee would have wanted him to be.
Suddenly, taking the shortcut did not feel like a good idea.