The Sleepers of the Marsh
Part Seven – Death in the Mists
The band of mercenaries forded forward through the waters of the marsh, following in the wake of the burning footsteps that walked across the surface of it. All around them the mists rolled away, forced back by the dark magics of Renkheqen.
The deeper into the marshes that they travelled, the more of the ruins that had been hidden began to appear. Akhnetsos gazed upon them, a look of avarice smouldering in his dark eyes. After their long efforts and all the set back that they had encountered, the riches of the place would be theirs. The price of a dozen children that Renkheqen demanded was a small one to pay, easily snatched up from any village if the rats that dwelt in the marsh did not have enough of their own to satisfy it.
Then ahead of them an island began to appear, one with further ruins upon it. He saw figures scurry away as the mists rolled back, running down the other side. They left behind a small fire smouldering and a meal cooking upon it.
“After them!” Akhnetsos barked.
The mercenaries increased their stride as they closed on the island, though they appeared reluctant to get too far ahead, to press closer to the fiery footsteps.
The footsteps did not last long though, for as they reached the island they faded out of existence. Such was the unexpected nature of it that Akhnetsos paused in his steps, uncertain as to what it meant, or whether to continue on.
The mists still lingered in parts, denser further in. It was there, through them, that he spotted a tall, dark tower rising up into the sky, where, he doubted not, that the wealth of the city was to be found. At its sighting, his mind was made up.
“Onwards!” he shouted.
The first of the mercenaries began to clamber up the slopes of the island. As he did so, a whistling sound came to Akhnetsos and the mercenary stumbled and fell, transfixed through the chest by a javelin. He tumbled back down the slope to land face down in the waters of the marsh, the shaft of the javelin snapping as he did. A red stain spread outwards from him through the dark waters.
A figure appeared at the top of the island, stepping forth from out of one of the ruined buildings there, a flame haired woman with sword in hand. A laugh echoed from her as she disappeared from view again, darting away into one of the patches of mist that still clung about, one that seemed to swirl about and envelope her, shrouding her from view.
From the mercenaries came an answering shout and they rushed forward to where she had been, eager to find her. Vengeance was upon their minds and here was a foe that they could battle, a relief after the mists and the mysteries of the marsh, and of the unnerving fiery footsteps that had led them into it.
As they met the patches of mist that drifted, they melded into it. Akhnetsos heard a scream come from it, one that cut off abruptly. He hurried forward and up onto the island, seeing the body of one of his mercenaries sprawled on the ground, his throat slashed open.
There were a number of old half ruined buildings atop the island, and the remnants of a camp, one abandoned in haste. Curls of mists twisted about them, snaking this way and that, almost to Akhnetsos’ overworked mind seeming to be seeking for something.
As he stood there on the island, looking around, his brother moved passed him and towards one of the buildings. Even as he did so, one of the swirls of mists changed direction and moved towards Khetemene. Closing in on him, a man emerged out from it, stepping from mists to flesh and blood in a moment. The man was tall and after a moment Akhnetsos recognised him, as one of the two foreign mercenaries they had earlier hunted. A slender sword whistled forward almost before he had finished emerging and only by a hasty block did Khetemene manage to turn it aside.
Between the pair the swords began to flicker back and forwards, the tall mist bound man striking with startling speed. Khetemene was a fine a swordsman as to be found and yet Akhnetsos could see that he was outmatch by the foreign mercenary. Despite his best efforts, all he could do was stave off the blows, unable to launch any attacks of his own.
Akhnetsos began to move up to assist his brother, as did one of the other mercenaries, but before they could arrive a knife came whistling out of the mists elsewhere. It struck the mercenary in the neck, sending him falling. Akhnetsos turned about, to see another patch of mist approach him, almost stalking in its movements.
“Arrows, arrows!” he screamed.
One of the mercenaries, quicker on the uptake than the rest, readied his bow. In one swift action he notched an arrow to the strong, drew it back and released it, sending the shaft darting straight and true towards the mists.
The arrow never struck, for as it neared a wind seemed to snatch it out of the air and toss it aside, to strike a stone wall and fall to the ground.
Then from the mists stepped the auburn haired female mercenary. With a double handed grip on her sword, she hewed down at the startled bowman. In a whirling display of ferocity, she cut the man down, stepped back into the mists and then emerged again to charge at another mercenary.
A scream dragged Akhnetsos’ view from her, back to his brother. He had sunk to his knees, his duel having come to an end. A slithering strike of the tall man’s blade had run him through. Slowly Khetemene toppled forward, to land face down on the ground, his sword falling from his hand.
It all proved to much for the remaining mercenaries and they began to waver, inching backwards from the approaching mists and those it held. Akhnetsos did not wait for them. The horror of it all, of the enemy who ducked in and out of the mists, mists that moved as if with a life of its own, and on top of that the death of his brother, it all became too much for him.
He turned and ran. The last lingering remnants of the fiery footsteps that had led them into the marsh remained ahead of him, and these he followed. Down from the island he ran, back into the waters of the marsh.
With their employer on the run, the remaining mercenaries took to their heels as well, following after Akhnetsos. The mists that had been held at bay began to close in around them, pressing at their heels.
One by one it wrapped around the mercenaries, and as each one was swallowed a scream echoed out, a scream that was cut short.
Rasping breath came from Akhnetsos as he reached the shore just ahead of the mists, scrambling up onto land, there to collapse upon the ground, cold sweat prickling across his skin. Before he could rise back to his feet, he heard the tread of soft footsteps approach.
Clambering back up to his feet, he saw not the two foreign mercenaries as he had feared, but the gaunt features of Renkheqen, which was not much of an improvement.
“Your men appear to all be dead,” he intoned in his dry, emotionless voice.
A panicked mind overcame reason as Akhnetsos grabbed a hold of Renkheqen’s robes, pulling him closer. “You must do something!”
Renkheqen’s features barely moved but a faint gleam lit up in his eyes. He looked down at Akhnetsos’ hands then back up the Metsheputi. Akhnetsos hastily released the grasp and stepped back away, swallowing hard.
“I did all that you asked,” Renkheqen intoned, speaking quietly though each word struck Akhnetsos like a heavy weight.
“And yet your magics failed us and my brother is dead. The mists, they came back and they aided those thrice cursed foreigners.”
Renkheqen tilted his head to one side as if considering something. “Yes, they did. There was another power there, one I did not expect, one both ancient and strong.”
“We hired you because you were reputably the best. How, then, could you have failed?”
“Failed you say?” Renkheqen replied, his eyes narrowing. “Perhaps it is so, but for you that is unfortunate.” He raised up his staff and shook it so that the metal bars upon it rattled and clanged against each other. The noise of it tore through the air and the ears, a dreadful cacophony of sound. The pounding stabbed through Akhnetsos’ skull, driving into his mind with lancing pains. He grasped at his head with clawed fingers and clenched his eyes shut tight. The pain intensified and he sunk down to his his knees. He felt Renkheqen’s staff touch him on the forehead. “I can not allow word of what has happened here to become known, lest my reputation be lessened. Your soul may not be as valuable to me as that of a child’s, but it will do for the purposes that I require.”
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