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As she approached her destination, though, she felt a growing sense of unease, the source of which she could not identify. She stopped several times among the fields, looking around her, listening – but there was nothing. The rain was slowly getting more dense, and even though it wasn't to the point of turning everything too mud just yet, the clouds were dark and heavy.
This was not a good climate to have a festering wound in, that was for sure. She walked on, a small point of worry and disquiet gathering at the back of her head.
Once, she saw lightning fell, but did not hear thunder. Looking in the direction of the light, she saw in the distance one of the many hills that were hallmarks of this rocky country – and again, lightning. Or was it lightning? At the very least, a sudden, cold light... She felt as if the uncomfortable feeling originated from there somehow. Shivering, she ran the last hundred meters that separated her from her house and slammed the door behind her, panting. Why was she so afraid?
Far away, a horse neighed in what seemed to be fear or pain.

Five Peacocks immediately went to the girl's side. As she examined her wound, Xeyata opened her eyes slightly, moaning.
The wound wasn't getting any better. In fact, the purple had darkened and spread. Clinching her teeth in frustration, Five Peacocks went to work on her seaweed-paste. All her lighting tools seemed to have taken water, and she had to try several times to get the fire working. Even then, the flames were too weak, no matter how much wood and straw she put in the chimney.

"It'll be too late... muttered the girl." half-sleeping.


Grabbing one of a basket of apples, the healer bit into it, hoping to alleviate her stress through sweet food. Instead, she spit it out immediately, and looked at the apple. There was a worm in it. Several, in fact.
They were already dead and rotting.
She threw the fruit into the fire with a cry of disgust and anger; the flames sputtered, weakened, then slowly resumed eating the fruit.

Cursing the weather, she went back to work, although the seaweeds were of spectacularly low quality and made her job harder.
Another horse neighed in the distance, this time in unmistakeable agony. She stopped her work a moment, and out of unreasonned fear, she peeked through her windows.
The rain was heavy and steady, but even then, she could see the cloaked man walking steadily towards her house.
In fact, there were several such cloaked men.
A racking cough seized Xeyata, sending into fits of throat-tearing sounds.This broke Five Peacocks out of her trance, and she dropped the seaweeds, instead grabbing a woolen bag on a shelf. Inside, she took a handful of ground coffee beans and put them inside a cup, before pouring hot water over them. She dropped a few other spices and herbs inside the mix, then a small bit of cold water.

"Xeyata. You need to wake up" she told. The girl groaned, but did not open her eyes. Five Peacocks then raised her head and made her drink... It took a few instants for the bitter, hot, spiced drink to make the girl wince and finally awake her.


"What's going on? I'm tired..."


"Yeah, I gave you something for that. Listen, those men who you said were after you? Coming. I think."


The girl's eyes widened, and she immediately sat up, looking around wildly – but immediately got dizzy and hold her temples in her hands, a painful look on her face. Five Peacocks took a wooden stick off the wall, and handed it to Xeyata.

"You'll need that to walk."


Did she even know what she was doing? The constant tension in the air was growing on her mind, and she was acting on impulse – she knew it, but couldn't do anything, too stressed to actually sit and think about it. Besides, she didn't have the time.
Someone knocked at the door. She did not answer, instead putting things she could need in her bag. There was another knock.

"What is it?" She let out.

"Please, ma'am, said a male voice on the other side. We are looking for an escaped thief."


"I do not think I can help you." she answered without going to the door.

"She is a small girl, but dangerous. Wicked good with a knife. Are you sure you haven't seen her?"


" 'fraid not. Just came back from picking up plants. Haven't seen anyone in a day."
There was a silent pause. Then the voice came back, this time nervous.


"Ma'am, may I ask that you open your door? You have nothing to fear from us."


And here we went. She'd hoped she could stall him longer – but even then, to what use? It was not like she could go out while he was at the door. She looked at Xeyata, whose fatigue was slowly fading from her face under the effects of the drink, and who listened to the exchange with a scared look on her face.
A girl. She really couldn't give her away.

"I am afraid you have no authority to do so. I am making delicate preparations and I won't let the wind and rain make me lose a day of work. You will have to come back later."


"Are you sure, ma'am?"
The voice was more than nervous. He was afraid.

"Quite sure, mister."
There was another pause, longer this time. Though she looked away, Five Peacocks found nothing to add to her bag – and that made her even more nervous. Now she had to actually do something. And she had no idea what.


"Then, ma'am, the man said, I'm afraid I will have to set your house on fire and wait for you to come out."

Oh damn.

Gods gods gods gods gods. What is he talking about? Fear washed over Five Peacocks as she realized what she had been getting into over the course of this dialogue. This was no trivial matter. He was threatening... Her house... Her livinghood... Scratch that. Her life. She was in danger. In personal, real danger.
Now would be a good freaking time to think on her feet. She glanced at the door, she glanced at Xeyata, she swallowed, blinked.

"You can't do that."

"Beg your pardon, ma'am?"


"Can't do that. The girl is wounded. You know that. And I know you want her alive, she bluffed. She can't walk. Her wound is deeply infected. If you set fire to the house, you'll just kill her. She won't let me take her out. Mad dog nearly cut throat last time I did."
There was slient pondering on the other side. Then:

"Fuck that. Guys, we're breaking the door. Stand back for bad surprises!"

Cursing loudly, Peacocks looked around her madly even though she knew there wasn't any escape. She might have been able to walk out the window, but these men were probably fast enough to catch up to her, even assuming they didn't have horses. And Xeyata wouldn't be able to follow. She looked at the girl with a sad smile.

"I'm sorry, darling. Guess I wasn't of much use there."
The girl looked at her, then smiled herself.
A loud thump it the hinges of the door, then another, then another. Within moments, the door was half-broken, and a last push opened her wide.
Three men walked in cautiously. One of them had what seemed to be a hammer, while the others had bladed weapons of some sort – too short to be real swords at any rate. They were clad in leather, with small helms of the same. One of them gave a mad, angry look to Five Peacocks, who stayed silent and petrified.
They had something in their eyes. Something was lacking. Was it color? Or sanity? They were just not normal.
The first of the men, who looked to be the one who had spoken with her earlier, approached the girl cautiously.
There was nothing she could do. Five Peacocks wouldn't have been able to take on even one of these men; three would be sheer suicide, nothing else. And yet... Yet, this was not right. She felt every hair on her body rising in silent tension, a pervading fear gnawing at her insides. This was not right.
She couldn't let it be.
With a swift move, she took a little clay pot out of her bag and smashed it up the head of the man before anyone could react; immediately, he screamed in searing pain as the acid burnt at his hair and skin. Without thinking twice, she drew her sickle and slashed the face of the man closer to her – but by then he had realized they were attacked, and he managed to duck, leaving only a single line of blood across his cheek; he shouted in rage and rushed in her, crushing her against the wall. Stepping back, he raised his short blade...
That was when Five Peacocks took sight of the girl.
Immediately after the first strike, Xeyata had hit the wrist of the acid-burnt man with her cane with enough strength to make him drop his blade, which she grabbed with uncanny swiftness. In the next moment, the men ankles were both slashed even as the girl rolled between them. Getting up, she struck the second man's thigh, and he screamed before dropping to a knee in pain, forgetting Five Peacocks in the process. She took this opportunity to smack him on the head with the heaviest pot at hand, and he fell to the ground. Xeyata was already on the other man, deflecting a blow of his hammer with her sword, before slashing his wrist, ankle and knee. He, too, cried and got back. Xeyata tried to press her advantage, but one step ahead made her wince and slip. She found support on the wall, but she dropped the sword.

Understanding that there would be no other chance, Five Peacocks grabbed the girl, lifted her up and ran for the exit.

The Forever Broken did not run. That was beneath his station. He barely even walked; the world itself rushed toward him in its terrified haste, desperate to beg for mercy.
He granted none.
Of course, even if his horsemen had trouble keeping up with him without lauching into a gallop, he was still slower than he would be while running or riding a horse. That was what henchmen were for; he sent them ahead, so that they would do the tiring chase and hunt themselves until he arrived and dealt with things in his own special way.
Of course, it did not always work.

The unblinking eyes of the Broken beheld his three men, wounded in both their bodies and their pride, scramble out of the ridiculous little cabin. At first, they seemed angry, but one of them glanced upward and saw him looking. Immediately, he fell to his knees in horrified awe, forehead on the ground, desperately begging for his life. Within seconds, all three had done the same.
The Broken looked at them. Hurt. Bleeding. They were competent soldiers, but these wounds would slow them down, and with them the rest of the group. To leave them behind would be an unacceptable liability. Besides, he heard the horsemen approaching behind him – more henchmen.
He closed his eyes, and took a step closer to the men. The very move broke his kneecap again, making a cracking sound even as the bone mended itself. One of the men shiverred.
And then, misery and cold and death and agony and despair and fear and acceptance spread out, and the grass died, and the air went silent, and the rain froze to hail, and he heard the bodies of the men falling to the ground.
Then he opened his eyes, inhaled deeply, and turned his eyes to the north. There, he could see death and pain. A trail of languishing agony – an infected wound, draggin its victim closer to the Underworld with every step.
He moved, every bone in his body breaking with each step.

The rain and clouds were obscuring everything so much that she could have sweared it was night, even though noon was approaching. Even so, there was no wind – the rain was coming straight down, like a thousand pebbles rushing down her shoulders to get her on her knees. The pressure had grown so strong that she could barely breathe. Nonetheless, she carried the girl up the hill, towards the mill that towered above.
The girl's breathing was harsh, full of hiccups and coughs. Five Peacocks could feel the blood dripping from the re-opened wound, carring the infected pus with it, tainting the girl's clothes as well as her own arms.
She heard the horses behind her, and dared a look.
Half a mile behind, she saw a pale figure; and even though he was so far, she could perceive all his features, his skin the colour of cleane bones, his clothes of fine white fabric – in which where sewed graphic descriptions of wars and murders and suicides, a gigantic tapestry of death in every fold of his great cloak, all arranged in geometric patterns like a great maze, the center of which was the face of the man himself. Beneath the cloak, she could see the dark grey of what seemed to be steel – and then she heard the mournful song of sorrow and torment that came from it – as if the horrid cries of tortured victims had been arranged into a song by some insane conductor. The man was walking slowly, and still seemed to move with as much speed as the riders around him.
And then he raised his head, and their eyes met.
She felt her heart stop. And he whispered, and despite the distance and rain and her own panting breath she could hear him clearly.

"Stop!" he said simply, and she felt the weight of his order pushing on her shoulder, and every inch of her body begged her to stop. She could not move, she could not talk, she could do nothing but want to stop.
Wrinkles gathered around her brow as she focused her mind. The order was like a wall of steel barring her will from affecting her body.
And she tore down that wall.
With a scream of pain, she took another step, and she felt her own body tear itself apart. She felt blood escaping her veins and rushing beneath her skin, she felt a rib breaking.
And yet she walked.

The door to the mill was not locked; it never was. The mill was in fact not so much a mill as it was a sanctuary. The cellar held more than a dozen farming tools reworked into passable weapons, as well as wooden plank crafted into mediocre shields, and some food. This served several purpose: it provided a shelter to those villagers who had to escape the justice of the noblemen from the greater cities, and it was the starting point of any rebellion among the local farmers.
This explained why the keys were hidden in a clay pot right next to the door. Five Peacocks put Xeyata down on, grabbed the keys, and immediately close the door, bolted it, locked it, and set the heavy wooden plank tha would help it resist any attempt at breaking through. She ran to the cellar, took a wooden shield and something that seemed like it could hurt – probably a scythe plade set on a more practical handle – and immediately came back to Xeyata. She put her back against the stone wall of the mill, and gave her a little slap on the cheek.
The girl batted her eyes, then looked at her with a dreamy smile.

"You are kind."

"Shhh. Don't talk." Peacocks answered more out of habit than seriously. The girl's leg was dripping blood, and her face was more pale than ever.


"I am sorry it had to be this way. I don't... think those weapons... Will help much."


"I know. But... Well, I don't know who this people are, but I don't think they're gonna let me go. Might as well make it a fight."
Xeyata looked deep in her eyes, and there was surprising strength in this look.

"You... Helped me. For no reason. Don't know... Who I am. What I did. Just... Helped. And now..."
Now I die, Peacocks added in her mind.


The girl closed her eyes, and smiled.

"She's coming, you know? Tell her... Tell her I am sorry... And..."

"Hey, stay with me! I'm not doing that for nothing! Stay here!"


"I loved her." Xeyata whispered.


And with these words, her body relaxed, and her half-closed eyes went glassy.
And, like a sand castle washed away by the waxing sea, her body faded away – dissolved into wind, a breath of fresh air dissipating into nothingness – leaving nothing of the girl.
Five Peacocks' eyes widened at this supernatural sight, but she did not have time to try and understand what was happening; behind the door, she heard the clatter of hooves and neighing horses – and she felt the aura of fear and despair coming from the man.

She swallowed and got up slowly, her legs shaking under her, her makeshift shield pathetic in her left hand, a weapon she didn't even know how to use in the right. She looked at the door – one last hope of stalling her enemies. One last minute of life.
No. Not even a minute.
Before her very eyes, the old, strong wood of the door blackened and cracked as it decayed in seconds. The iron hinges and locks that held the massive frame together corroded into rust, and soon the door was but a rotten plank.
She saw the white man come through it like it was the watery veil of a cascade, and on his path the wood broke down into a handful of decayed splinters, leaving nothing. The disgusting sounds of breaking bones were soon covered by the thumps of his men's boots as they gathered around him, weapons in hand, mad eyes intent on Five Peacocks.
The Forsaken. He was one of the Forsaken. There was no possible doubt about that; she was about to die horribly and alone.

The man stopped a few yards in front of her, unblinking eyes devoid of any expression.

"Where is she?"
His voice was soft and sweet as honey, but she could hear his jaws making those popping sounds with every syllable. Gods, she wanted to throw up. She wanted to cry. She wanted to beg. In fact, the only thing that prevented her from doing so was the utter terror that paralyzed her completely. She could do nothing – but answer him.

"She's... Dead..." She managed to utter in a coarse voice.
The man somehow managed to look surprised without moving a single muscle of his face.

"Already?" He paused, then added: "Mortal. So weak."
He pondered for a moment, then asked:


"Did she tell you the location of the Manse?"


"I have... No idea... What you're talking about" Peacocks added in complete sincerity.


The man looked at her, then turned away, and raised his hand as if to wave it in a gesture of dismissal.
She knew – for a second there, she knew with absolute certainty – that this gesture would whisk away her life, that she would die without any last word, without even being looked at by the man who would kill her – killed as an afterthought, never to be remembered.
She had no idea when she had dropped shield and weapon and fallen to the ground, but it did not matter. She could not fight. She could do nothing, not even throw a last quip. She could just cry.

The man's hand stopped its course in mid-air.
Behind him, in the empty doorframe, was Xeyata.

Except she looked nothing like Xeyata. She was the same ten-years old girl, with the same features, true. But where the dying girl had worn plain traveller's clothes, this one wore a thin green mantle that half covered a chainmail shirt with emerald tints. Her stance was the wary yet calm stance of a trained warrior. In both hand, she held what seemed to be a sword – but the healer couldn't be sure, as the blades were shrouded in some kind of mist, which constantly evaporated to join the rain outside. Her forearms were encased in plates of armors – or were those bracers? In any case, they held two glowing stones.
But more importantly, there was something in the girl's face, in her eyes, that betrayed an other-ness, as if she weren't actually there but instead listening to some strange, silent music.
The white man held his hand in a gesture of peace, drawing a strange look from the girl – that of a serpent watching its prey move.

"I failed to capture and interrogate your surrogate, and have no interest in fighting you today. Let us part in peace without undue battle." he said with a polite, refined voice. For a brief second, the weight of fear became a tiny bit lighter on Peacocks' stomach.
Then the girl spoke.

"You. Killed. My sister."
Her voice was strange – like that of Xeyata in surface, but with a second voice just behind, a singing one speaking at the same time, like a very close echo.

"Please. She was not your sister. She was a duplicate born through magic. You can make as many as you want. Let us not fight over such silliness."


"You. Killed. Her."


The unblinking man narrowed his eyes... And a sword shimmered into existence in his hand, as if he had always wielded it; in a light-speed moment, he took two step, left then right, and his arm became blurry as the point of the blade drew three curves through the air.
The armed henchmen all fell to the ground, blood gushing out of razor-thin wound – all arteries; necks, thighs, loins cut with surgical precision. The men crumbled to the ground, tainting the soil with a steady flow of blood.

 

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