A cold wind bit into Yury's face as he stared across the killing field. It made his eyes water and then freeze, covering his eyelashes in tiny ice crystals. Perhaps if he closed his eyes the ice would melt and he wouldn't have to stare at the bodies. The Falmundians lay piled up in the narrow pass where the Isoferian guard had ambushed them. A few had managed to survive the initial arrow barrage and attempted to flee, but they only provided slightly harder target practice for Yury's fellow guardsmen. Even with his eyes closed, the images were etched on Yury's eyelids - the surprise on the soldier's faces, followed quickly by fear and panic. They hadn't stood a chance.
Already, The wind and snow were working to sweep the carnage under a fresh white blanket. Yury and a couple of the younger guards picked through the dead like carrion crows searching for anything of value. He brushed the snow from a fallen captain revealing a face that was far too young. Reaching into the dead man's pockets Yury was rewarded with a folded piece of parchment bearing the broken wax seal of Falmund. Inside was a hastily scribbled letter in a script Yury couldn't read. It was most likely marching orders for the deceased squad. It felt odd to be holding the letter that sent its bearer to his doom. If the soldiers had been able to carry out their orders, it would be Yury lying in the snow alongside his brothers and sisters.
He suddenly felt very tired. What was it all for? The senseless fighting, the waste of life, there was no meaning in it! With a sigh, Yury rose from the corpse and began making his way towards Captain Grigory with the letter. On the way, he passed Pavel and Yana who were busy rifling through another corpse. They glanced up and noticed the letter, nodding in approval, before returning to their grim task.
Captain Grigory was deep in conversation with Vera, Catherine, and Kharzin when Yury approached with the letter. The Captain noticed Yury and broke away from the group.
"What have you found, Yury?"
"A letter on their captain, sir. Probably orders, but I can't make it out."
Captain Grigory scanned the letter and frowned. "This is odd. It appears this group was not part of the regular army. They were a special detachment calling themselves 'Stone Hunters'. What could their purpose have been?"
"I have heard of these 'stone hunters'," said Catherine, stepping forward. "They have bought into their mad king's delusions about the Stonebound."
"Stonebound? You mean the rumors of people with magic powers?" asked Captain Grigory.
"Yes," she replied. "These Stonebound supposedly use special stones to give them magic powers. This group of Stone Hunters must have been tracking some poor soul when they made the mistake of crossing into our lands."
"It's all nonsense," interjected Vera. "The Stonebound don't even exist. What kind of fool believes in magic and fairy tales?"
"What say you, Kharzin?" asked Captain Grigory. "Have you any insight into the matter?"
Kharzin looked down at his boots and inhaled slowly before letting it out. He seemed to be weighing his thoughts. A few moments passed before he seemed to reach some decision. He looked up slowly and met the Captain's eyes. "It's not nonsense. I have seen a Stonebound with my own eyes." Kharzin waited to be interrupted, but everyone was silent waiting for him to go on. "This was a few months ago. I was on a galley patrolling just off the east coast near neutral waters. We had been out for about a week and we were just making one last run of the coastline before returning home when Five Falmund ships came out of nowhere. They had been hiding in a cove waiting for us. Before we could react they had lobbed a ball of burning pitch right at us. Captain, I knew in that moment I was going to die. I could only stare as that ball of fiery death got closer, it was a perfect shot. And then it was gone. I couldn't believe my eyes! We all looked around to see what had happened. Someone pointed up at the cliffs above us. There was a lone girl standing there. I didn't get a clear look at her before she...."
"What?" coaxed Captain Grigory. "What did you see?"
"Well sir, she jumped."
"Yes, sir. My heart leapt into my throat. I thought she was going to die. But she didn't. She flew towards the Falmund ships like a falling meteor. Halfway down, a brilliant spear appeared in her hand and she drove it right through the deck of the lead ship."
Kharzin paused, gauging everyone's reaction. The faces looking back at him ranged from thoughtful to incredulous. Then, Vera began to laugh. it started as a snicker and built up to a full on belly laugh.
"Why have we never heard of this meteor girl of yours, Kharzin?" she questioned mockingly. "Let me guess, she destroyed all the ships and then flew back into space, but not before stopping to give you a peck on the cheek!"
"Enough, Vera," commanded Captain Grigory.
"It's true!" proclaimed Kharzin. "She destroyed every ship there, then disappeared."
Vera doubled over in laughter until nothing but wheezing came out of her.
Kharzin turned away in disgust. "I know what I saw."
"I don't doubt your sincerity, my friend," said Captain Grigory, placing his arm around Kharzin's shoulders. "But perhaps you were so scared in the moment that you weren't thinking straight?"
"Captain...." began Kharzin.
"It's okay Kharzin, we'll speak more of this later. We need to check on Pavel and Yana, then head back to the tower."
Captain Grigory headed back down into the narrow pass followed by Yury, Catherine, and Vera, who was still chuckling and wiping tears from her eyes. Kharzin slowly turned and followed behind.
When he reached the others, his breath caught. There before them stood Pavel and Yana, each holding a strange stone. Stranger still, they were glowing. Kharzin smiled and looked at Vera. She wasn't laughing anymore.