Cato and the others spent the night beneath a particularly large outcropping of rock, as they could find nothing else to serve as shelter. What little sleep there was to be had was done on the dirt or leaning against the rocks; they had no equipment beyond what little they carried. Kieran, Maeira, and Kyros all managed to get some amount of sleep during the night, but Cato had done no better than to close his eyes for an hour. As far as he could tell, Anica didn’t sleep either, and simply spent the night staring out around them or glaring in Cato’s direction.

The night was, thankfully, short.

Now, hours after sunrise, they marched through a landscape that was not at all like the rolling hills of Orincia that Cato was used to. The land was harsh, with sharp pillars of rocks extending up in random places. The ground itself was completely uneven, patched with rough grass and more likely clay instead of dirt. The only thing familiar about anything around them was the smell, which Cato knew all too well. They were near the ocean. An ocean, at least.

Cato once again helplessly wondered where they had ended up, as well as where they were going. Kieran was in the lead, one of his swords in hand as he hawkishly watched every corner they passed. In the place of the sarcastic elf that Cato had met in a tavern brawl there was now a deeply focused and very serious individual. It was almost an uncomfortable shift to see.

Everyone else followed Kieran in a somewhat haphazard fashion. Maeira kept close to Anica, as she had all night, but neither of the women said anything at all. Kyros was the most relaxed of them all, looking up at the sky more than in front of him and taking in this strange place. Cato brought up the rear, sword still at his side but constantly looking over his shoulder. He didn’t exactly feel that they were being followed, but it was hard to feel safe after the past few weeks.

Slowly, as they walked, the patches of grass began to grow, though it was still a rougher, shorter kind than anything Cato had seen before. As this happened, Cato noticed the gentle incline of the ground below, and the rock formations became shorter. This only added to Cato’s curiosity as to where they were going, but that soon turned to worry.

Kieran stopped abruptly, pushing back against a rock formation only a head taller than he was. The rest of them quickly followed, having soon noticed the same thing: distant, ominous sounds. There were no clouds in the sky, but Cato was sure it was thunder. It was constant, overlapping, and accompanied by a slight rumbling of the ground that he only noticed now that they had stopped moving.

The five of them looked between one another silently. The sounds continued at irregular intervals, until something nearby caught Cato’s attention. A short ways away, near another rock outcropping, he heard what had to have been metal. Instinctively, Cato went for his sword.

“Lay your weapons down, all of you!” the voice, deep and muffled, came from an armored, helmeted figure that stood not far behind him, longsword drawn and pointing at them. The armored man was flanked by four others, all without helmets but wearing identical armor and beige cloth.

Before Cato could react, he heard movement by the other outcropping again, and turned to see another four armored soldiers appear, caring spears and bows. What had they walked into?

“This is your last chance,” the helmeted figure took a single, commanding step closer, “Lay down your weapons.”

For a moment, Cato considered it. He had no idea where they were and for all he knew, these were the local authorities. He’d dealt with more heavy handed types in his life. At least they were given a warning.

But the moment of thought was shattered by a new sound. A simple, distinct, swish of the air nearby immediately followed by a crunch and a cry of pain.

Maeira was already nocking a second arrow by the time her first target hit the ground. She even had time to loose the next arrow and bring down the second bowman before the entire situation erupted into pure chaos.

Cato saw movement and ducked, barely avoiding a sword swipe from the helmeted man. The sword came back, and Cato rolled out of the way, scrambling to get his own sword drawn as he saw boots moving all around him. Still on the ground, he rolled over to finally get his own sword only to see one swinging down towards his face.

There was a loud crash of two blades hitting that was drowned out by the sharp pain in Cato’s forehead as the blade he deflected managed to find some of it’s mark. Cato had no time to think about it, instead awkwardly swinging around and taking the legs of his attacker out from under him.

Cato heard a loud thud of armor impacting the ground as he rolled away and got to his feet. Cato spun around to finish off his attacker, but instead was greeted with the sight of his brother driving his sword through the helmet’s opening. The sound of Kyros’s sword being removed was so loud that Cato realized everything else had gone silent, save for that distant, low thunder.

Looking around, he saw the others spread out everywhere, and all of the armored men dead. There was a silence as the five of them all breathed heavily, and in it Cato found that he had only one thought.

“Why did we just kill these people?”

Maeira motioned with her foot to one of the armored bodies near her and spoke in an even tone, “These men wear the colors of the Mad Lord.”

“That’s ominous,” Kyros spoke under his breath, turning to look to his brother’s forehead but not reacting beyond a somewhat concerned expression that was gone in a flash.

Cato reached up a hand to touch the spot of the pain, feeling blood there but unable to determine the extent of the wound. Somehow, since he was still alive and conscious, it didn’t seem as important to him as what Maeira had said, “I have no idea who that is.”

“He is a man who cannot have this book,” Maeira pointed to the pack over Anica’s shoulder, the new home of the source of all of their trouble, “But the Mad Lord’s soldiers means that we are in Cyronell.”