Living here for several months, Paris did not pay much attention to the simplicity and the absence of any frills in his environment. But now, when he brought his sister inside, the room seemed to him, not at all suitable.
After a pause on the threshold, he wanted to turn around and head to the other chambers, but Cali's faint moan threw all doubts from the boy's head, and he hurried to his bed.
Carefully laying the girl over the plaid, Paris noticed that she was conscious and was watching him closely from under her half-opened eyelashes. The young man squatted by the bed and took her hand in his. It shook shallowly and seemed to Paris so very cold.
"Cali, where are you hurt? Tell me how to help you. "- he said almost in a whisper. Calisto did not answer. She kept staring at him as if trying to absorb, save up every dash, every curve on her brother's face.
Meanwhile, Konrad skirted the bed on the other side and leaned over the girl, carefully inspecting her from all sides. Paris wanted to snap back at an old acquaintance. He opened his mouth, but at this moment Konrad snatched the dagger from his belt and in one swift movement slid it over the leather sleeveless jacket that was covering chest and belly of a girl, cutting open the material.
The young captain rushed over the bed to stop the damn Stone Beast, but paused in the middle of the movement, as his eyes fell on the brown spot on his sister's chest.
Through the cut, a gray shirt could be seen, and it was soaked through with something. Konrad, not paying attention to Paris, leaned a little closer and quickly cut the top shirt next. Only now Paris got that this dark liquid was blood. But it looked weird, it was thick and dark brown, almost copper-colored with strange black clots. It seeped out of the cracks in the stone in the middle of the girl's chest, that looked as it was growing from there.
"What kind of an abomination is this?" - Paris burst out, terrified. He clamped his hand over his mouth, not knowing what to do.
Stone Beast didn't pay any attention to panic in the voice of a former friend, started to clean the blood with some cloth silently. Cali at that moment finally looked away from her brother and glanced at Konrad.
A sad, tired smile curved her lips slightly. The muscles on Konrad's face started to tremble for the first time in a very long time. His expression became distorted by a subtle grimace of anger and pain.
"Don't even think about it, do you hear me?! I will not forgive you for this. "- he growled barely audible, bending close to the face of the girl.
"What's going on?" - Demanded Paris, grabbing Konrad by the shoulder, but the guy only showed his hand away and called one of his companions.
A young, short, black-haired girl almost noiselessly approached the bed from Konrad's side. She bent down and gently ran her fingers over Cali's cheek, then slowly lowered her hand, lingering a little on the neck, where a pink vein nervously throbbed, counting heartbeats, and then gently felt the place around the strange stone, which looked like a wax seal with force pressed into the girl's body.
Thick blood still oozed from small cracks on the surface of the rock, and the skin around it began to acquire a blue tint.
When the black-haired girl finally raised her head, ending her examination, a heavy silence hung in the room. Her quiet, rough voice sounded like a rattle in silence.
"Gorgon cracked. The body rejects the source. To close the gap is no longer possible. Liquid began to exfoliate from the blood. We will not be able to help. "- having finished, she also silently retreated to the window and turned her gaze outside the window. The second grey-cloaked man said nothing, turned and disappeared behind the door.
"What does this mean?" - Looking from one to the other Stone Beasts demanded Paris. Konrad turned to him to give an answer, but Cali has stopped him.
She grabbed his sleeve and pulled the Stone guy toward her, forcing him to bend over. When Konrad succumbed, the girl whispered something in his ear.
In the beginning, the man wanted to withdraw, but Calisto held him back and continued to convince him of something. Finally, having received an affirmative nod, she relaxed and leaned back on the pillow, covering her eyes.
Konrad straightened up and carefully looked around.
"Earl Wolcroft, Captain Berg, Captain Marsters. The Arians and mercenaries who are now at the walls of the fortress, plan to attack this night about an hour after sunset. The preliminary plan is that those dressed as a Stone Beasts costumes will go for an attack, distracting your attention. Under their cover, red-faced Carpians will get to the wall in two or three places and lay explosive. The attack will be carried out until one of the walls is broken by a blast. Then the shifters will go to the breakthrough, and the private units of the commander Walner will follow them. Our task initially was to train the Arian soldiers, to lead them during the attack, to capture the commanders of the fortress and hold them until further commands arrived. Wallner changed the plan of action. But we did not agree with him since he is not our customer and cannot change the order even in details. "
Berg and Earl looked at each other. The bewilderment and distrust were clearly readable on their faces.
"Why are you telling us this?" - The earl finally broke the silence.
"Such is the desire of our leader," - said the stone guy flatly.
"Leader?" - Continued to pry the earl.
Konrad, in response, only silently nodded in the direction of the girl lying in bed.
As if sensing this, she opened her eyes and fixed her gaze directly on the earl. Her eyes were unusually blue, like the clear water of a mountain lake, but at the bottom of which, dangerous blackness swirled.
"Calisto Terminus, commander of the second ten of the seventh row of Gunulbin's outer circle" - the girl presented herself in a confident tone, showing the habit of giving orders.
Her appearance was not at all combined with what she said. She looked about 18 years old, short and so fragile, covered with blood and torn clothes. But a firm look, a confident tone, and an impassive face made the earl not to make any assumptions based on the look and think twice before expressing his thoughts.
Very few people knew the whole nature of Stone Beasts, knowing that there were so many legends about them.
"Lady Calisto," he began as respectfully as possible. "I apologize in advance for my distrust, but you must understand me. First, you attack us, and now you tell us secret information about the enemy, your ally. This whole situation seems to me somewhat ... "
" Earl," - she cut off his last words, - " I didn't ask to trust me. I gave you this information, only because under your authority serves my brother. He will participate in defense of the fortress. My only desire is to protect him."
"As far as I heard, Stone Warriors always carry out an assignment, regardless of the circumstances. "- continued to ask the old commander carefully.
"The fact is that not many circumstances can stop the Stone Beast. You had to witness one of them today. " - She answered, pointing at the unsightly mess on her chest.
"In addition to this, I know only one more similar reason, which can interfere with the task. And it is death. "
" And yet I did not quite understand what had happened. Perhaps if you explained to me, it would be easier for us to understand each other. "
A fleeting smile touched the corners of the girl's lips and disappeared immediately. The earl barely managed to catch a subtle change in the expression of the girl's face. She was well aware of what he was trying to do, and she had made it clear that she recognized the mind of her opponent and was not going to play games.
"Gorgon is not some kind of magic stone. This is a special form of life. In a sense, it is a parasite living in the human body. He gives his wearer strength, endurance and protects his body from damage, heals wounds. In turn, he feeds on our energy. The only thing that badly affects this symbiosis is emotions. Usually, the gorgon suppresses all emotions and feelings, both positive and negative, at the request of its carrier. We feel no pain, no joy, no sadness. We are not thirsty or hungry. "
" We were once people. And each of us once chose this path because we experienced such heartache and suffering that we consciously abandoned all emotions in favor of such an insensitive existence."
"Is it not for the sake of power that a person goes for it?" - Berg suddenly became interested.
"Anger, envy, greed, vanity are all emotions. To desire, something is to have enough life in yourself. The only thing that those who become stone want is to feel nothing at all, but keep on living. "
Paris looked at his sister in horror. Every word flown from her lips pierced his heart like a red-hot needle. How could this happen? Sweet, charming, foolish and terribly spoiled girl, who sometimes annoyed him and whom he still madly loved.
She deserved a spanking or a good lecture, maybe even a house arrest for what she had done. But this? He was afraid even to assume that she had to go through to decide on this to become this way.
"And yet I don't understand what happened to you?" continued the earl, digesting what he heard.
"Everything is simple. Emotions that I experienced at the sight of my brother after so many years seriously damaged the gorgon. It couldn't cope with my desire to feel. And since I am the leader of the squad and my gorgon is the primary source, respectively it will affect all members of the unit. I have decided that we will not carry out the order to the end and take full responsibility for it. Our squad carries no threat to you. I give my word that neither I nor any of my squad will harm those who are on the side of my brother."
"Can you so boldly answer for all members of your group?" - asked Berg, still not believing the words of this strange lady.
"It's hard to understand, but the connection between us is much stronger than ordinary interpersonal relationships. Our lives are connected, and yes, I can say on behalf of each of them. "
" Well, let's say I understood your motives for abandoning your order. But what are you planning to do now? "
" We will leave the castle walls at sunset. "
Paris wanted to protest but decided to leave it for later. Noticing that the sister is starting to look tired.
"My Lord, if you allow me, I am ready to take full responsibility for watching my sister and her unit in the fortress. I will single out people who will follow all their actions. "
" Squad ... You said a dozen is under your leadership. Where are all the others? "- Berg finally decided to ask the last question that was initially bothering him.
"Nine, I'm tenth. That is a tradition. If you let me call the others. "- After receiving permission from the earl, Cali closed her eyes for a moment.
After a few minutes, cloaked figures began to appear in the room. They emerged so quietly and silently that it seemed as though they materialize from the air. Meanwhile, Cali began to introduce her companions who were already in the room.
"For those who do not know, this is Konrad. My right-hand man. If you can say so" - by the unemotional voice and blank face, it was difficult to say whether it was a joke. - "He's also a great armorer and swordsman."
"This is Karo, she is an expert on poisons and drugs. Great healer and assassin. "
" This is Borgis. An excellent warrior and a blacksmith. "
When Calisto finished presenting the members of her team that were already familiar to people, she then switched to the new arrivals who had crowded on the other side of the bed.
One by one, the Stone Beasts threw back the hoods from the face and slightly lowered the head as a sign of respect.
The first was a tall woman of about 30 with long wheat-colored hair in a multitude of braids in the center of the head and with strange blue tattoos on her face, giving her a representative of the northern tribes.
"This is Anita. She is a master of the ax and has an excellent self-propelled gun. "
Then a hood was thrown away by a young guy, forcing those present to suppress a sigh of surprise at the sight of his scars.
"This is Chris, he is a master of fire. Sabers expert. "
The next were three nonhumans. The drow, shifter, and orc made an even stronger impression on those present. So when the small figure wrapped in a cloak came forward, the earl and the captain seemed to be ready for everything, but not for what appeared before them.
From the long, wide sleeves, thin hands emerged. Graham Berg could not hold back a sigh of horror. The empty pale grey eyes of a skinny boy of 11 or 12 years old were staring at him. His scarred face had the same grayish tint as everyone else.
"It's a child! What the hell?!" - roared Berg, barely restraining the anger in his voice.
"This is Niels," - Cali replied calmly. - "He is the last member of our team. We found him in the quarries in the east of the Arian Empire. You know, sometimes slaves are chained together in pairs to make it harder for them to escape. Niels was shackled with his twin brother. When the brother died, no one bothered to separate them. They were both thrown into a hole along with other slave corpses. The boy spent two weeks there before we accidentally stumbled upon him. Then he was only seven springs old."
"Gods!" - the earl could only squeeze out. After hearing the words of Calisto, Stone Beast started to look a little different. The general glanced at each of them. It was a bunch of broken people. He had no more questions left. The secrets of the Stone Warriors were too dark, the earl suddenly had nothing to breathe.
"You can stay as long as you want," - the commander-in-chief abruptly threw and turning around, left the room. Berg followed him silently.
Paris first wanted to stay, but deciding that first of all he needed to discuss everything with the Earl, he rushed after the commander. Besides, he needed time to digest everything that had fallen upon him.
Calisto watched as her brother's back disappeared over the corner and turned to her comrades.
They already knew everything. Gorgon connected them in such a way that if the source suffers, it will immediately be felt by everyone else.
Borgis, who had disappeared from the Earl's office earlier, had witnessed the breakdown of Cali. At that time he decided to leave the office only when he saw how the fat captain made a run for it through a secret passage behind a massive oak cupboard.
The man had to follow him to catch the hysterical officer and lock him in one of the blind ends passes. Then, when another passage brought him outside to the foot of the keep, Borgis hurried to warn the others about what had happened and only later came back.
Cali looked around at her companions. Each of them she knew for many years. The girl found each of them at the moment when the last spark of desire to live and fight was about to disappear in their eyes.
For many years she did not feel anything for them, just took their existence as a given, an indispensable part of being.
Looking into their eyes today, she felt pain again. As soon as the gorgon dies, its shreds will become poison in the blood of Calisto. She had seen it happen once before.
Death would be long and painful. As soon as the original source dies, the rest will follow. Their dozen was doomed.
At that moment, Cali felt like she woke up from a long sleep. All the pain and horror that pushed her to take in the stone heart seemed to be long gone illusion. Now she was surrounded by a family that she had not been able to recognize for so many years.
She saw the eyes of her friends gradually change. They didn't even know that they were friends all this time. Gorgon's strengths weakened. Feelings returned to the faces of humans and non-humans surrounding her.
Suddenly, Konrad bent down and gently, barely touching her cheeks, wiped away tears that Cali had not even noticed.
"I'm sorry" - Calisto managed to squeeze out.
"Leader, all these six years your heart has been beating in unison with ours. We are all lost souls here. But now I woke up. After all, this is not life. And I'm not sorry. Because it is no longer scary. I know that I am not alone. "- Niels spoke up, abruptly and coarsely trying to express the general mood.
"You know what, Leader, each of us here was just garbage. I thought that it was ok just to leave my past behind. Go through it, understand and throw away as it was taught in Gunulbin. But now I understand, or to be precious, I Feel that all this was meaningless. Everything happened as it should have happened. And I am even glad that I will take the last steps with you. Maybe in the next life, we will have a chance to get to know each other better," - Farukh said, twisting his mouth into a kind of smile. That made Cali automatically smile back at him.
"Maybe we should have some fun for the last time?" - Chris offered suddenly.
His disfigured face twisted in a half-grin half-sneer. Others answered him with the same inept smiles - grimaces.
Apparently, the facial muscles for so many years have lost the habit of such movements.
This sight was horrifying and sweet at the same time.