For the second time, this happened with Cali, and she still didn't manage to understand the reason for this reaction of her organism.
The first time, everything happened suddenly: she had snuck into the fortress as a faint shadow and had almost finished scouting the territory, and the garrison's personnel, as this young man had caught her eye. It was as if a flame launching system of Redfaced exploded in her head.
Unknown images started to appear before her eyes. Memories that was long forgotten emerged from the void of her mind, and the agitations made the body tremble and disobey.
At that moment, Cali was only able to hide in a small alcove and having calmed down a bit, got out of the fortress without finishing the scouting.
Today, she specifically ventured into the enemy's territory even though it was Konrad's turn, to better understand what was happening to her. And once again as soon as this young man had gotten into her sight, her whole being seemed to rebel. Somewhere in the solar plexus, it felt like an entire nest of serpents were turning over the girl's insides and squeezing the moans through her teeth.
Paris el Marster - the eldest son of the Count Marster and one of the youngest Captains in Riolian army. Cali was able to find out only a bit about this young warrior, but even these crumbs caused her sharp pain in the chest and uncontrollable desire to bush her head on the stone wall.
Why did this guy's face cause so much effect on her? Did she know him Before? And what she should do with it now?
It took her quite some time to get herself under control and quietly sneak out of the fortress. All the way back, Cali was diligently pushing away the random thoughts that could interfere and unbalance her mind again.
Making a small hook, the girl approached the camp of the troops besieging the fortress from the side opposite to the fort. The part of the hill occupied by the Stone Beasts was very quiet compared to the other mercenary troops.
The warriors sat at a distance of one or two steps from each other, and it seemed that they did not even move. This could make a rather frightening impression if all of these hundred fighters were indeed Stone Beasts.
However, the damned Arians were stingy and stupid, so they hired only a dozen Beasts, while the rest were just ordinary soldiers from the private units that belonged to the merchants, ruling the Arians Ligarkhat.
The Arians were exceptional liars and scammers. No wonder they thought not to spend money and just ride on the glory of the terrible Stone Beasts this time.
However, they did not take into account the fact that no matter how many people in the costumes of Beasts they had gathered up here. During the attack, this masquerade would not hold up to anyone's glory.
Even now, passing by sitting soldiers, Cali, without peering too closely, saw the difference. Ordinary warriors were clad into miserable light armor that only looked like real one from a distance. Most of them were twisting their shoulders, trying to stretch their limbs, and every now and then blinked, driving off sleepiness. Some even managed to fall asleep, stooping and dropping their chins on their chests.
They tried to pretend as much as possible, but it was useless when they couldn't control their body entirely.
No matter how great fighters they were, they would be worthless after five days in the same pose during an attack.
The plan was not so bad in general if they went to the attack immediately upon arrival. The traders did not waste their money to keep good-for-nothing fighters - all of those mummers were excellently trained and physically developed.
Only now the Arians decided to wait, giving the defenders of the fortress time to fully immerse in the panic after witnessing a hundred Beasts at their gates. And this decision could become the main reason for the failure of this battle.
The girl quickly found her squid. Anyway, it stood out too sharply from the general crowd, as her people looked even faker than the surrounding soldiers.
All nine people froze in same postures, squatting, leaning only on their knees and toes of their boots, with their backs straight, and hands fixed on the handle of their weapons, looking straight ahead. It seemed like they paused in the motion getting up from their knees and remained like this, suddenly turning in a stone statue.
The unreal picture was complemented by their faces, completely devoid of emotions and empty eyes like that of a puppet. But the strangest thing about it all was that their appearance was anything like that of great warriors.
Except for Cali, there were two other human women in the detachment. Anita was a tall, young and muscular northerner with a mop of snow-white braided hair contrasting vividly with her dark skin.
And Karo - a short, subtle brunette with green eyes and dark brown, curly hair.
Both girls sat in the center of their group a little apart from each other.
Nearby set Borgis - a broad-shouldered, bearded middle-aged man with a shaved head, that looked more like a blacksmith or a butcher than a warrior.
Two steps behind him settled Chris. A young reddish-haired man around 25, except that his face looked like a chunk of a melted candle. Creepy old burned scar covered the whole right side of his face and went on through the neck down under the light armor. The skin deformed so much that it appeared like his right eye never existed, and the left one, once of a soft chocolate color, was now staring lifelessly out from under a half-opened eyelid without eyelashes.
Near him, attracting even more mocking or surprised glances from the mercenaries, set a child, a boy of about 13 in appearance. Niels, like any teenager, was angular and thin. His surprisingly black, shortly cropped hair, contrasted sharply with silver temples and almost glassy gray eyes.
But the most stares were aimed at Farukh. If any of those present ever wondered what the shifters look like during a turn, then they only needed to see this guy, to get an answer. Farukh's face was a terrible mix between human features and a tiger's muzzle. Bright silver eyes with narrow pupils, a wide animal-like nose and upper lip, dissected in the middle, from under which protruded long fangs. His hair was a mix of white and black strips. His feet and hands also partially were animal-like, but everything else was that of a human. Even the werewolves frowned with contempt and disgust as they walked past.
On the right side near girls froze another interesting figure. A tall and slim Lance. Pointed ears, absolutely black eyes without whites or iris, and grayish marble-like skin, by which anyone could guess that this person was a drow.
Slightly lower set Mark, almost wholly covering up Lance, with his board back. If the rest of the Stone Beasts were mostly once bought as slaves or found on the street like trash, then Mark came to the Amford fortress himself. This green-skinned orc was significantly smaller than its fellow tribesmen and yet was at least a head taller than most men.
The last one was Konrad, Cali's right-hand man and the second in command of their party. Surprisingly, he stood out the most from their bunch of freaks which did not look like a fighting squad at all. His main difference was that he seemed perfectly normal. The man looked a little over 30, tall, with ash hairs to his chin and gray eyes. Neither ugly nor handsome. The figure of a skilled warrior, but at the same time did not attract much attention. In everything, he was somewhere in the middle and was so unremarkable that, even when people were communicating with him for a long time, many didn't immediately notice his only unique feature — the partial absence of his right hand. It must be because Konrad, mostly either tucked a half-empty from the wrist sleeve into a pocket on the side or hid his hand under a cloak.
As soon as Cali approached their squad, Konrad instantly moved as if flowing in one motion into a standing position and headed towards her.
"How did it go?" - He asked in a colorless voice.
Despite the absence of any emotion on the face of a friend, Cali immediately caught with what attentiveness Konrad was looking at her.
They met long before they came to Gunulbin, the central city of Stone Cult, high in the mountains behind Amford fortress. And even if that time was almost erased from her memory, the fact that they passed along this road together formed an invisible connection between them.
That's why Cali instantly felt that her friend already caught something in her eyes. It made her sober up and answer with the same straight gaze.
"No changes in the fortress, the garrison is preparing for battle. Earl ordered to arm peasants. Women and children will hide in a dungeon where there is a secret passage. The general himself and his entourage are not going to flee. It is possible that during the attack he will personally lead the defense on the wall. It would be problematic to take him alive during an attack. "
Ending her report, Cali walked around Konrad, starting to feel some discomfort under his attentive gaze. It felt like there was something itchy on her skin, but she didn't know where exactly. To chase this feeling, she looked at the rest of her squad.
"The plan will have to be adjusted." - she spoke, catching their attention. - "The first attack will surely fail, but the scaffolding across the ditch must be installed. We'll use the Redfaced's fire launching systems pointingly before the second wave to push the main forces with general and cut them off from the passage to the keep during the second wave, preferably to the left watchtower. After the explosions, the Redfaced Carpians will attack the right wall and the werewolves along with the masked Arians on the center. We'll approach from the other side of the left tower. "- Cali marked out the direction with her hand and continued -" I will go first with Konrad, Niels, and Karo. Anita and Lance will penetrate the fort from the mountains; I need you to search the keep and find the entrance to the dungeon. All you have to do is collect information, and if you find women hiding there, block them, do not kill anyone. "- The Stone Beast focused on the words "not to kill" and continued.
" The gates defense should be removed. Chris, Farukh, Mark, and Borgis will lead the Arians. Do not stick in the thick and do not climb on the wall. In the event of a breakthrough take one squad each and enter the fort. Try to control the mercenaries so they won't start the fire inside the walls. Those who start to rob and **** - do not touch. All peasants that won't resist - force to the square in front of the keep. If the mercenaries will fool around too much or disobey, kill them. "- Cali went silent for a second but continued almost immediately.
" If the attack fails the second time, withdraw your troops and regroup. Let several groups of werewolves climb first on the walls. Then send the group of Redfaced igniters. But keep it from the shifters. The furry ones will spread the fire along the walls on themselves. Then will go mummers. Two or three bombers in the meantime should crawl to the gates. Mark and Farukh, stay nearby with at least half a hundred men. If the gates are broken, watch it so that everyone won't rush in at the same time, the forces should be distributed. The sequence - Carpians, shifters, Arians - seems the better choice."
During the time that Cali set out her plan, none of their squad moved. Only at the end, everyone took turns nodding, confirming their agreement.
"In an hour I will announce a general meeting for the heads of mercenaries groups and Arians. Decide for yourself which group will you lead and the details. We'll meet beyond the hill in the tent of the Red Rintaru. "
Again, those present silently nodded in turns and, with one fluid movement, were on their feet, like a shadow dissolved in the camp. Even the huge Mark was moving so silently and smoothly that the mercenaries by whom he passed noticed the hulking guy only by catching the sight of the already receding massive back in a gray cloak.
Cali got to her feet ready to go and gather the leaders on the war council, but Konrad blocked the way.
"Cali, speak." - He demanded in a tone that could not bear objections. The girl looked her friend in the eyes trying to figure out how to explain her condition.
For many years now, since her heart was completely covered with a stone crust, she had not felt any fear or guilt, joy or anger. Nothing. She was just there, followed orders, gave orders herself. Only the logic and the exchange of information, only facts and no emotion. But now her body seemed to revolt against reason, and strange feelings were swarming in the chest. Not report this condition to her squid meant putting them in danger.
"Konrad, I don't know what is happening to me. I suspect that this may be some kind of disease or something else." - the girl finally said, continuing to look at the comrade intently.
Konrad frowned, and carefully examined Cali again, noticing the unnatural light blush on her cheeks and slightly dilated pupils. Raising his left hand, he put the back of his palm to her forehead, assessing body temperature. Then, lightly touching the neck, he held his fingers to one side of the larynx and listened to the sensations.
"Your pulse has increased." - Finally summarized the guy. The news was not the best. The first thing that Stone Beasts studied was full control over their body and mind. Breathing, fluids motions, even a heartbeat in their bodies was much slower during the absence of physical exertion. And they could easily control it all to the point of stopping every function of their bodies for a few hours or even a day.
The loss of control over it, even so insignificant, meant that Cali was no longer able to perform the duties of the leader of the group until she regains full control.
"We will attack at dawn, you have half a day and night. I will take over the meeting with the heads of the mercenaries. " - stated Konrad.
In response, Cali only nodded and headed toward the woods over the hill. Silently plunging into the thicket away from the noise of the siege camp, the girl descended to a small stream and nestled between the roots of the old willow.
The body quickly came to rest. But as soon as it relaxed, strange images began to flicker in front of the inner eye - they seemed to change each other so quickly that it was almost impossible to grasp and recognize the picture. The heartbeat jumped again.
Slightly slowing her breath and concentrating, Cali finally managed to put her mind into a calm state. Slowly, like a jeweler, she checked, traced the strings of her consciousness trying to understand what caused this reaction of her body. All logical chains led to the same person. But as soon as his face appeared in Cali's head, the visions began to flash again before the eyes.
This time, finally putting herself in balance, the girl began to study her own consciousness more carefully. But no matter how much she checked, all the strings led to one big wall in her mind. And that meant only one thing.
This guy was someone significant from Cali's past life. And to find out who he was she would have to open the door, which she sealed many years ago.
Among the Stone Beasts, there were a lot of different individuals, and their squad was no exception: women, children, and nonhumans of all kinds. All of them were united only by one thing - the past life brought them so much pain and suffering that they agreed to exchange it for such a soulless existence just for the fulfillment of one desire.
Having lost the opportunity to experience emotions, many were able to live peacefully with memories of their past. They said that this was like observing those events from the outside: everything can be soberly assessed and understood.
Only Cali wasn't able to do this properly. A stony pattern cracked and tore the skin, every time a vision of the past days appeared in her head. Then she had no other choice but to lock these memories just to survive.
"But I have changed, now I am much stronger." - She tried to persuade herself.
"Even without remembering, just seeing that guy's face, you're already shaking like a child. What will happen when you remember who he is? " replied Cali's inner voice.
" Maybe that's why I'm shaking because I don't understand. I never figured out my past, just shut up those emotions. " - argue Cali.
From the internal conflict, Cali was distracted by the sensation of someone coming. Although it was impossible to hear other person's steps, the years of training allowed the girl to feel much more than the average person could.
The uninvited guest walked confidently by the path she came here. Cali immediately guessed who it was and went to meet him.
As soon as she entered the small clearing, the broad-shouldered figure of Konrad emerged from the trees. The man approached and immediately got down to business.
"At the council, everything went not as we planned. Walner, the head of the Arians troops didn't even want to listen to our plan. They have already decided everything on their own. Redfaced would do as he said or they won't get paid ."
"What was his plan?" - asked Cali with a nod, which indicated that it is an entirely expected situation.
"They want us to be the first to attack, to get into the fortress tonight and open the gates for them. After we will need to find the commander and his entourage, and kill them. They won't give us any men."
"Clear. They decided to use us as cannon fodder. If we are not slaughtered while we open the gates, we will be killed afterward for sure. "
"It looks that way," - Konrad said impassively.
"And why are some people so stupid? Even if they murder us now and kill everyone in the fort, rumors that a hundred Stone Beasts were attacking the fortress will still appear. Even if Our Elders won't be interested in our disappearance. They sure won't miss such a breach of the contract. "
"You think they won't like the fact that the Arians decided to take advantage of the Beasts glory?" - the notes of doubt appeared in Konrad's even voice and immediately disappeared.
The Elders didn't really care much about the fate of the ordinary ranks, and even the disappearance of the commander was hardly likely to arouse any interest. Their lives and their deaths were in their own hands from the moment they finished the circle of training and formed a squid.
If someone went on a mission and did not return, they never sent anyone for a search. Only if the client was not satisfied with the result, then a new squad was sent as a replacement. Everyone understood that they were an utterly replaceable but they simply didn't have anywhere else to go.
Once having passed the circle of training, a person could no longer lead a normal life.
Although it was said that sometimes some went to live deep in the mountains or in the woods. There at least you can find peace.
However, Elders will not appreciate the fact of using the name of the Stone Beasts for sure. Or that way, every second mercenary group would declare themselves Stone Beasts and slander their reputation.
Add to this that the Arian's flags were nowhere in sight over their army. One could easily guess that this attack was merely a provocation or a diversion. The Arians did not want to take responsibility for the attacks on the outpost of the Riolian Empire, and only the Stonemen themselves knew the name of the employer and would not hide it if asked.
It was always the main issue if they were hired for spying or as killers. It was hard to catch the Stone Beast alive, but if such a miracle happens, he would only lie to survive himself or for his party members. Not for anyone else. Loyalty was also alien for them after all. Only those who were connected mattered.
"I think we should send a messenger with a detailed report to the Elders before the attack. Come, I will speak with Walner myself. "- Cali stated, walking forward.
Konrad was apparently going to ask another question, but she had already passed by, heading back to the camp, and he followed her without speaking up.