There was a biting quality to the wind that had not been there before as Ga'briyel and the others made their way slowly through the forest. The temperature had dropped rapidly in the three days since they had left Grama, and five of the six of them were wrapped tightly in their heavy cloaks. Those five were hunched into themselves in an attempt to stay warm. Mathi and Zahin clung to the captains tightly in an attempt to eke out that little extra bit of body heat. Ga'briyel was the only one who sat straight and tall on his mount, his cloak gathered with a thong at his back.
"Ga'briyel," Sophyra said for what seemed like the hundredth time, "you are going to freeze. Use your cloak, please."
"I have already frozen, Sophyra. I have told you this. Besides, the cold does not bother me that much, and I want my sword arm free." He spoke more harshly than he intended, and he felt her hurt surround him. He blew out his breath in irritation, the vapor instantly forming into a white cloud that the wind blew away as quickly as it appeared. "We should have been there by now."
"I sure hope we get there before last light," Dinton grumbled. "I could use a night beside a real fire."
"And a hot meal that doesn't cool as soon as the wind hits it," Tero added, and Ga'briyel glared at both of them.
"Due east, she said," he muttered to himself. "Snakes and trolls! We have been headed due east!"
"We will get there, Ga'briyel," Dinton said calmly.
"But will it be in time? A sennight to reach our destination, Nikale said. It has already been almost three days! That leaves four days to find wherever it is we're going next. Through the mountains, Dinton! How in Yisu's name are we supposed to do that?"
"I do not know, but if Yisu only gave us a sennight's warning, then that must be enough time."
"Assuming we have not missed Mirstone completely in this cursed forest! How do we know we did not already pass it?"
Dinton shrugged. "Because we have not reached the mountains yet."
Ga'briyel had to admit, to himself if to no one else, that Dinton's logic was sound. He grumbled beneath his breath, but then he pulled Kumar to a stop. The others reined in beside him.
"What is it?" Tero asked.
"People. A fair number of them not far in front of us," Ga'briyel said with a small smile. "It seems we did not miss Mirstone after all." He kicked Kumar into motion, and the others followed quickly.
Within ten minutes, they broke from the cover of the trees into a large cleared area at least half a league across with several dozen buildings scattered around it. Ga'briyel could see cliffs and rocks on the other side and few trees. Mirstone was literally at the base of the mountains.
"Finally!" he muttered as he guided Kumar into the gap between the first two houses.
The village consisted of at least sixty buildings, all of them built from the gray stone of the Parbatas, and none of them more than a single story tall. They were roofed with black shale, and smoke rose from every chimney they could see. The smell of roasting meat drifted toward the travelers, and Mathi groaned softly. Between the last houses and the mountains, there looked to be fields, but Ga'briyel could not imagine what crops could possibly grow here. He led the others into the village, and as they passed each house, the door opened and at least one person stared at them wide-eyed. Ga'briyel could feel their surprise, and had he been able to see their thoughts, he would have known that the six riders were the first outsiders to enter Mirstone in more than ten years.
They continued toward the center of the town, unease flowing off the captains and Sophyra and excitement radiating from the boys. Once they reached what could only be the town square, although it was only identifiable as such by the slightly larger buildings flanking the sorry excuse for a road, Ga'briyel pulled Kumar to a halt and looked around. Several men had appeared around them, and they all had some sort of weapon in their hands, whether it was a long-handled knife or a bow with a nocked arrow, and they all looked like they knew how to use them. The Anmah signaled for the others to stay mounted, but he slid from his saddle and stepped up to the closest man, forcing himself not to finger the hilt of his sword.
"I am looking for Manali," he said as patiently as he could. "I was told to come here by Nikale of Grama."
At his words, or perhaps when they saw his eyes, the men of Mirstone all took a step back and lowered their weapons. Then the one Ga'briyel had addressed spoke as he bowed low. "My name is Kavi. Please forgive our distrust, Anmah. We have not had visitors in Mirstone for many years, and the last were...unpleasant. Manali is not here at the moment, but she left something for you. Please, come inside out of the cold. Come and eat and rest by the fire. Manali should be back before last light. She is helping to birth a child at the moment." His speech was as crisp and clear as the wind that was stronger now that they were out of the trees.
Ga'briyel frowned and tried to feel any lies or deceit coming from the man, but there was nothing except his own surprise that the man knew what he was, and he reluctantly gestured for the others to dismount. They dropped to the ground, and Ga'briyel did not miss the fact that all of the males had shifted their cloaks out of the way of their weapons, even the boys. Sophyra stepped close to him, and he used his left hand to pull her close. She had kept her hood up and her cloak clasped tightly around herself, and Ga'briyel was sure Kavi could not tell she was also Anmah. He wondered what the men would do when that little fact was revealed.
"Thank you, Kavi. Some hot food and a fire would be most welcome. Is there someone who can care for our horses?"
"Of course, Anmah." Kavi turned to the men. "Nural, Ritha, can you please take the animals? There is room in the stables for them. Take good care of them." Then he looked at Ga'briyel and gestured to the building behind him. "This way, please, Anmah. We only have three rooms available, but you are welcome to them." The man turned and walked toward the building.
"Again, thank you. Mathi, Zahin, get the saddlebags, please."
"Ga'briyel, if you do not mind, Dinton and I will stay with the horses until they are settled," Tero said softly.
"Good idea, my friend. Something is wrong with this village, but I cannot say what it is."
After a moment's hesitation, Ga'briyel followed Kavi as the other two went with the horses to a stable next to what Ga'briyel assumed was the village's inn. He kept his grip on Sophyra, and he kept his right hand ready to draw his sword. He could not explain why, but things did not feel quite right here. It was as if all the men were just waiting for a chance to attack, but Ga'briyel could detect no emotions from anyone to indicate such a threat. As a matter of fact, he could not feel anything coming from these people except a cold, clammy sensation he could not put a name to. An involuntary shudder ran through him, and Sophyra tipped her head up to look at him. If Kavi had been looking at her, he would have seen her violet eyes, but he had already passed through the door.
When Ga'briyel and Sophyra entered the building, they both relaxed a bit. It was from this place that the smell of roasted meat had come, and the large fireplace at the back of the main room had a blazing fire going. The heat hit the two Anmah like a wave, but it was a very welcome one. The wooden floor of the room was gleaming brightly as did the tables and benches neatly placed in rows in the center of the room. Everything about the room indicated prosperity and comfort.
Kavi took off his cloak and hung it on a peg by the door. "May I take your cloaks for you, Anmah?" he asked, holding out his hand.
Again, the clammy sensation surrounded Ga'briyel, but he reached to his throat and released the clasp before swinging the fabric free of his sword. He handed it to Kavi who hung it up next to his own, and then Ga'briyel helped Sophyra remove hers. When he lowered her hood, Kavi hissed in a breath, and Ga'briyel's hand went to his sword without conscious thought.
"Another Anmah?" Kavi said quietly. "The prophecy did not speak of two. Manali must know of this immediately."
Without another word to either of them, Kavi ran out the door into the cold, not even bothering to grab his cloak, and he almost ran over Mathi and Zahin in his haste. The boys staggered into the room under the weight of the four saddlebags, their eyes wide as they watched the man rush past them.
"What happened, Captain Mistri?" Zahin asked, staring after the rapidly disappearing man.
Ga'briyel slowly pulled his hand from his sword and took a deep breath. "Apparently, they were not expecting two Anmah. Kavi mentioned something about a prophecy." He hung Sophyra's cloak up next to his and took two of the saddlebags from the boys. "Go by the fire and get warm," he said just as a door at the back of the room opened and a girl who looked to be about fifteen or sixteen years old walked through. She had on a spotless white apron over a coarse, brown dress that hung to her feet. Her dark hair was pulled back on top of her head in a bun, her equally dark eyes were hooded, and she looked tired. She stopped with a jolt and stared at the strangers in front of her. She saw the violet gazes of the two adults, and she gave a small curtsy. From her, Ga'briyel felt the faintest hint of hope, and he smiled.
"My name is Eprila. Welcome to Mirstone. How may I help the Anmah?" she asked with little expression.
"Kavi mentioned food and rooms," Sophyra said with her own smile, which the girl did not return.
"Of course," Eprila said as she gestured down a hallway. "You can put your things in the rooms while I get you some food." She disappeared through the door from which she had entered, and Ga'briyel shrugged when Sophyra looked at him questioningly.
"I have no idea what is going on, my heart. Just that something is not right here. Stay here while we put our bags in the rooms. I will be back shortly."
Ga'briyel and the boys walked down the hallway and the Anmah opened the first of the three doors on the right side of the hall. The room beyond was large and comfortable-looking with its own fireplace that had logs already laid, a large four poster bed, and a chest of drawers with a basin and pitcher on the top.
"Sophyra and I will take this room," Ga'briyel told the boys. "You two can take the next one, and the captains can have the third. Put their things in that room, and then join Sophyra in the main room. I am going to go check on the horses."
"Yes, sir," both boys said and practically ran down the hallway to the last room. They placed the saddlebags inside quickly and were already headed back to the main room by the time Ga'briyel finished putting his and Sophyra's bags by the chest of drawers. He stood tall and straightened his sword on his hip before following them.
Sophyra was seated at the table closest to the fireplace, and the boys had joined her. Mathi had his staff leaning against the fireplace, but Zahin had gotten rid of his bow. It was not a weapon to be used inside, usually. Ga'briyel walked over to them, ruffled the boys' hair, and gave Sophyra a brief kiss.
"I am going outside," he said. "Will you three be all right in here?"
"We will be fine, Ga'briyel," Sophyra said with a smile.
The Anmah nodded and then turned to walk out the door, but just at that moment, Dinton and Tero came inside with Kavi and an elderly woman who had to be Manali behind them. She was extremely short; her head was only as high as Dinton's waist. Her gray cloak hung to her feet and was wrapped tightly around her as she followed the men, but as soon as she crossed the threshold, her head snapped up, and her gaze was directed toward the group by the fireplace. Ga'briyel knew that those eyes saw nothing, however, for they were clouded over with a white film. She was blind, but she unerringly walked straight to him.
"I am Manali, priestess of Yisu. What is your name, Sainika?" Ga'briyel's eyes went wide at the title and the fact she knew who he was, but he answered her, and she nodded. "General Jarda Mistri's son. Ma'ikel told me about your father, boy. He is worried about you."
"Why? He knows what I am. He knows I cannot die."
She shrugged and smiled. "He is your father, boy. Of course he worries about you. As does your mother. Ma'ikel will be pleased to hear that you and the others are safe in Mirstone. I will send a payara bird in the morning. Today, however, we must talk. I have information that is essential to your fight, Ga'briyel Mistri. Shall we sit and share a meal together?"
At that moment, the door through which Eprila had disappeared opened, and she came through it burdened by a large tray full of platters and mugs. Steam came from all of it, and Eprila's face could scarcely be seen through the mist. She came to the table and set down the tray.
"Thank you, Eprila," Sophyra said softly, and the girl gave her a tiny smile. The hope coming from her grew stronger, though, and Ga'briyel would have commented on it, but at that moment, Manali's sightless eyes swung toward Sophyra.
"And you are the other one," she said bluntly. "What is your name, girl?"
"Sophyra Mistri si'Adama."
Manali turned toward Ga'briyel. "Your wife?"
"Yes," he replied, and a wave of love flowed toward him from his heart.
The old woman's face scrunched up, but Ga'briyel could feel no emotion from her. Then she turned back to Sophyra. "And how long have you been Anmah?"
"Not long. Just a few moons."
Manali walked to her and gestured for her to bend down. Sophyra glanced once at her husband and then did as the old woman had bid. Two gnarled hands reached out and grasped Sophyra's head at the temples. Manali's eyes closed, and she bowed her head in concentration.
"You are not supposed to be here," she said slowly, and then her head came up, and her eyes opened. "You should be dead." She turned to Ga'briyel, a frown on her face, and now he could feel her disappointment and just a bit of anger. "What did you do, Sainika?"
He sighed. "I made a stupid decision and forced Yisu to make her Anmah to save my life."
"You were going to kill yourself over the loss of her?"
The old woman let go of Sophyra and stomped over to Ga'briyel. She stuck one finger in his chest and said, "Now you listen to me, boy! You are too important to be so foolish! If you die, the world dies! Do you not know this?"
"Of course I know it, Manali, but at the time, I did not care." He looked at Sophyra and forced himself to stay calm. "I cannot live without her, now or then. If she dies, so will I. Perhaps not my physical body, but the things that make me who I am will disappear if she dies."
Manali frowned deeply. "That could be even more tragic for the world, Sainika. You must stay true to yourself if you are to have any chance against Sayatan. You should never have fallen in love with her, boy."
At that, Ga'briyel laughed. "Like I had a choice! I did not ask to fall in love with her, and it would definitely be easier if I had not, but I did, and there is nothing that can change that. She is my heart, and without her, I will not survive."
The old woman threw up her hands in frustration and turned from him toward the fire. "Enough, boy! Come and eat, and we will talk. I have important information for you from Ma'ikel."
The party, along with Kavi, sat down at the long table by the fire, and silence reigned for a long while as everyone satisfied their hunger. When Ga'briyel finally pushed his plate from him and folded his hands under his chin, though, Manali's head snapped toward him.
"Yes, Manali. Now, tell me what Ma'ikel has to say."
She reached into a pocket on her dress and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "I was to give you this. You will need it where you are going."
Ga'briyel took it with a slight frown, and when he unfolded it, he saw that it was a map. On the left side was the village of Mirstone, and the rest was obviously the Parbatas. Far to the northeast, another city was marked as the Hela Era Larai ruins. The ruins were right in the middle of the mountains, and Ga'briyel sighed.
"I assume we are headed toward the ruins?"
"You assume correctly, Sainika," Manali said with a small smile.
"What is there?"
"I have no idea. According to Ma'ikel, no one has lived there in over a thousand years. I just know that Yisu told me that is where you are to go. It is from there that Sayatan will release his latest evil into the world unless you manage to stop him."
Ga'briyel rubbed his hand across his eyes. "Did Yisu happen to tell you what form this evil will take?"
"No, He did not."
"How far is it from here?"
"Only about thirty leagues, but once in the mountains, there are no paths to take, no roads, and no help from anyone. You will be on your own, and there are things living there that frighten even the men of Mirstone."
"I know," Ga'briyel said with a sigh that came from his toes. "I made my way over these mountains alone when I was six years old."
Manali's white eyes went wide. "Holy Yisu! Six years old! Why?"
With a shrug, the Anmah answered, "My people were dead, I was Anmah, and I knew Torkeln lay on the other side of the mountains. I died nine times during that voyage, but I made it through the Parbatas by myself. Then my father found me and took me to Ma'ikel."
"Nine times? How long did it take you to cross the mountains?"
"About four moons." When Manali opened her mouth, Ga'briyel quickly said, "Please, Manali, don't say it."
"Say what, Sainika?"
"How amazed you are that I made it or how impressed or whatever other word you were going to use to describe how incredible it was that I survived with my mind intact. I have heard it all before."
"That is not what I was going to say, boy."
"No? Then what?"
"I was going to ask how old you are now."
Ga'briyel frowned. "Twenty-one."
The old woman's eyebrows rose. "Truly twenty-one, or have you been twenty-one for a while?"
"No, I am truly only twenty-one. My twenty-second naming-day is not for nearly four moons."
"And you, Sophyra Mistri si'Adama? How old are you?"
"Twenty, Manali. My next naming-day is in two moons."
"So young," the old woman whispered as if to herself. Then she looked at the two Anmah. "Never before has a Sainika been less than two hundred years old when he was called to his duty." She frowned and was silent for a long while, and then she asked, "When did you know you were Sainika, boy?"
"A few moons after my father found me."
"You knew at six years of age?"
"Yes. I had not yet had my seventh naming-day when Ma'ikel stated so definitively."
"This has never happened before in the history of the Anmah," she said quietly, and then her sightless gaze bored into Ga'briyel. "What can you do, boy?"
He knew exactly what she was asking, and he sighed heavily before answering. "I can feel emotions from everyone around me, I can sense evil, I can see people's thoughts after I have known them a while, and I can fight better than anyone."
"Anyone? Are you sure about that?"
"Oh, he is sure, Manali," Dinton spoke up quickly. "When we first got to Grama, he killed all but eight of the men in the town by himself. Tero and I barely made it out of there alive, and we would not have if Ga'briyel had not been there."
"Is this true, Sainika? Are all the men of Grama dead?"
"Yes, all of them." As soon as Ga'briyel said that, Kavi jumped up from the table and ran out the door. The Anmah just shook his head as he watched the man go. "I killed most of them the night we took the town, and the others as they came back from their raiding parties. All told, I killed one hundred five Asabya males. By myself."
"Without being injured?"
"No, although I wish that were the case." He told the old woman of his injuries, and she hissed in her breath when he spoke of being skewered by the sword. "It hurt," he finished, "but I healed quickly just like I always do." Then he waited for the question he knew was coming.
"How have you died, Captain Mistri el'Adama?"
For what felt like the hundredth time in the past few moons, Ga'briyel told his story to a total stranger, and Manali listened carefully as he spoke. When he finished, she sat silently for a long while, and then she said, "So, there are not many ways you have not died yet, Sainika. This is a good thing, I think."
"I would say there are quite a few ways, Manali," he answered.
"Not really if you think about it. Burning and beaten and not much else."
He thought about that and realized she was right. Although he was sure that Sayatan could and would come up with some creative ways to kill him, he could not think of any of them. At least he should not have to worry about burning in the mountains. It was freezing cold, after all. He was not even sure that wood would catch with the strength of the wind that was still blowing outside.
"I suppose you are right," he admitted, and then he studied her closely. "Why did you ask if I was sure I was a good fighter?"
"I did not ask you that, boy; I asked if you were sure you were better than anyone. Are you?"
"Yes, Manali, I am sure. It does not hurt that I cannot die, but I rarely even get wounded. It only happens when there are too many blades to deflect them all."
"Would you like to put your claim to the test?"
Ga'briyel stared at her. "In what way?"
"Kavi is out there now telling all the men of Mirstone that the Asabya are dead. There will be much rejoicing at this news, but I fear they will not believe you killed them all without proof."
"Why should I care if they believe me or not?"
"Because several of them want to go with you into the Parbatas to fight against Sayatan. You must understand something, Captain. The men of Mirstone have fought against the evil of the mountains all their lives. They know of things you could only dream of."
"You would be surprised what I can dream about, Manali," he responded with a smirk. "I have killed Daitya and banished Azazil. I know what it feels like to have evil surround me, and I know what it feels like to have evil kill those I love."
"There is more in the mountains than spirits, Sainika. There are physical creatures that Sayatan has created, and there are more types of spirits than the two you have encountered." The old woman tilted her head and said, "It is good to know that you have defeated some of them, though. Yisu seems to have given you the abilities you need."
"Doesn't He always?"
She smiled at that. "Yes, boy, He does."
Just then, the door opened, and Kavi stuck his head inside. "All is ready, Manali," he said and then disappeared again.
"What did he mean by that?" Ga'briyel asked.
The old woman shrugged. "I told you they would want proof, boy. It seems you will be demonstrating your fighting ability a little sooner than I had expected."
"Wonderful," the Anmah said dryly, but then he grinned. "I will try not to hurt anyone too badly."
Manali smiled. "Let us go then, my young Anmah. Show them what you can do."
The others followed them outside after grabbing their cloaks, and they all gaped when they saw a line of people lining the rough path that led through the village. Kavi stood a pace or so down the road and gestured for them to follow him. They did so, and he stopped at the edge of a cleared area just past the last house. The people followed and spread out around the clearing as Ga'briyel stepped forward. Twelve men were lined up on the other side of the clearing, bared to the waist despite the cold. They each had a weapon in their hands, but none were edged. Six had staffs, four had wooden longswords, and the other two had whips. Kavi stepped in front of him.
"The rules are as follows, Anmah. You are allowed no weapon except that which you manage to acquire during the fight. We all know you have died from a blade already, but if you receive the equivalent of a fatal wound, no one will accompany you into the mountains. If you manage to defeat all twelve men, however, they will help you in your quest. Do you understand?"
"I understand," Ga'briyel said as he undid his sword belt and cloak and handed them to Dinton. Then he looked at Kavi. "One at a time or all at once?"
The man stared at him, his confusion evident. "One at a time, Anmah. Why? Do you think you could take them all at once and not receive a fatal blow?"
Ga'briyel studied the men across from him. "Possibly. May I make a change to the rules?"
"What is it?"
"Fighting the twelve of them one at a time will take too long. Tell them they may attack three at a time. I will still beat them."
Kavi's eyebrows went up. "Are you sure, Anmah? These men have fought against the evil of the mountains all their lives. They are warriors and will not be easily beaten."
Tero cleared his throat behind Ga'briyel, and Dinton chuckled.
"Just ask them if that will be acceptable, please," Ga'briyel said, and Kavi nodded once, ran across the clearing, and spoke to the men. They all stared at the Anmah incredulously, but then one of them nodded his head. As Kavi came back, Sophyra stepped forward and laid her hand on Ga'briyel's arm.
"Be careful, my love," she said. "We could use their help. Do not let your arrogance get in the way of that help."
"I told you once before, my heart. It is not arrogance; it is confidence. I would not have suggested it if I did not know I could do it." He gave her a quick kiss, and she stepped back by the others.
"They accept your change, Anmah," Kavi said when he returned.
Ga'briyel just nodded and stepped into the clearing. The three largest men also stepped forward. Two had staffs, and one had a sword. Ga'briyel just stood straight and tall, his hands relaxed by his sides as he waited for them to attack. The men separated from each other, and then, with no warning, rushed forward. Ga'briyel stayed where he was until the first one reached him. The man swung his staff toward the Anmah's legs, but Ga'briyel leaped into the air, jumped the staff, and came down with his hands on it, covering the man's hands. With one twist, he had the staff in his hands, and he laid it softly against the man's head. The man bowed his head and immediately backed away to the edge of the clearing. Ga'briyel had no time to think about him, however, for at that moment both the sword and the other staff were swinging toward him, one for his midsection and one for his head. He angled the staff so that one end blocked the sword and the other end blocked the staff. Then he ducked, spun, and swept both men's feet out from under them. Again, he tapped them on the head with his staff, and they moved off the field.
Ga'briyel dropped the staff and picked up the sword. He felt more confident with it, and he proved it with the next three that came at him. He danced and spun and thrust and slashed, and within minutes, they had all been disarmed and had joined their companions. Twice more, Ga'briyel defeated the men that came at him, all without hurting them. Once, one of the whips had wrapped around his sword arm, but he had easily yanked it from the man's grasp and dropped it to the ground before laying his sword's edge against the man's neck. That was the closest any of the men got to even touching him with their weapons. When the last man had joined the others, Ga'briyel dropped the sword, moved to his friends, and reclaimed his sword belt and cloak. After he put them on, feeling better once he had steel at his hip again, he turned toward the twelve men who were now lined up in front of him.
"My name is Rewis, Anmah," the one who had nodded at the beginning said as he dropped to one knee before Ga'briyel. The others did the same. "We acknowledge your skill and ask for the honor of accompanying you to Hela Era Larai."
"I would be pleased to have you join us, Rewis. Do you know the way?"
The men stood, and Rewis smiled. "Not exactly, Anmah, but we will find it."
"Good, then we leave at first light."
Rewis nodded, and everyone left the clearing to go back to their homes. Ga'briyel and the others made their way to the inn to await the morning.