Anxious to avoid further encounters, the squad made their way across the stone shelves that covered the kulkari village. As kulkari prisoners were often sacrificed and feasted upon, the exarch was understandably desperate to get his daughter back. Shirin's team was swift and nimble, but lacked the raw power for a frontal assault. The rescue would take cunning rather than brute force. Unfortunately, the kulkari were hardly stupid. Regular patrols swept the paths and every entrance was heavily guarded.
"It's a simple plan." Viator grinned. "We move along the cliffs, then jump down behind the patrols and their bulwarks. We eliminate any sentries before they raise the alarm, grab our prisoner, and make our way around to that side of the canyon." The archer pointed to the west. The craggy rocks looked climbable, unlike the sheer faces that made up most of the canyon walls.
"We jump?" Nerys looked dubious.
"It's not that far," Viator assured her.
Makar glanced over the ledge. “It certainly looks that far.”
"Not bad," Shirin admitted.
“It has the virtue of simplicity,” Makar observed.
"A stupid tuwangi could pull it off!" Viator insisted.
"That would explain why you can do it," Nerys observed. Halwyn and Makar chuckled.
"Makar and I will go first," Shirin said.
"Why does the priest get to go first?" Viator demanded. “I’m the vanguard here.”
Makar bowed, inwardly pleased with Shirin’s choice. "Among the blessings of the gods is a small spell that puts a foe to sleep instantly. The effect is short-lived but most effective for silencing startled sentries."
Nerys smirked. "I wonder if it works on smart-mouthed archers." Viator stuck out his tongue.
"Moreover, we don't need to clamber up the slopes to affect our escape. The power of the gods can safely transport us across the desert. We simply need to find the hostage." Makar bowed.
Shirin grabbed her lance. "Let's move."
Makar crept forward as silently as someone of his bulk could. His massive head inched past a makeshift wall and saw a tiny human bound to a stone column with coarse rope. Her wrists were rubbed raw. Dust and sand stuck to her sweaty skin, but she seemed unhurt. Makar glanced back at the others and nodded once.
Shirin slung her lance on her back and moved in first. When Makar made to follow her, Viator held him back and moved ahead of the priest. Makar was slow to anger but his patience was wearing thin. He was a soldier, a servant of the light, and a veteran in his own right. He deserved better than to be treated like a keener just because he was new to the squad. He reached out a massive hand and pulled Viator back to him.
“Stick to the plan,” the baraka rumbled into Viator’s ear. He pushed past the astonished castanic and followed Shirin. The girl appeared to be asleep. Makar stooped in front of her as Viator joined him. Shirin knelt behind the girl and used her gauntleted hand to keep her from crying out.
The girl awoke instantly and jerked against her bonds as she tried to back away. Shirin murmured, "Don't scream. You'll alert the kulkari."
Sabia's wide eyes glanced from face to face. She tried to look back but Shirin nudged her face forward.
"Relax," Viator said with a smirk. "We're here to rescue you."
"Oriyn watch over you, child," Makar rumbled. "Your father, the exarch, sent us. Pay my comrade no mind."
Shirin said, "I'm going to take my hand off of your mouth. Don't scream, don't speak. Just listen. Understand?"
The aman stepped into view and saluted her. "Decurion Shirin, at your service. We're going to get you out of here."
"Thank you," Sabia whispered as tears welled in her eyes.
"Don't whisper," Makar said. "Whispers carry quite a distance. Simply speak in low-modulated tones."
Viator glanced at Makar in surprise.
Shirin smirked. "Well, well…someone finally managed to shut the castanic up." The lancer slit the ropes with a knife.
"I'm Viator," the archer said. "This is Makar. If there's fighting, stay close to him."
Makar’s expression didn’t change but the priest felt an immense sense of gratification at Viator’s newfound sense of confidence in him.
Shirin touched Makar's arm. "It's time for the blessings."
Viator backed up. "Don't you bless me! Gods are bad news. Everyone knows that."
"I’ve heard such words from many castanics," Makar murmured. "Send in Nerys and Halwyn. You stand watch in their stead."
An explosion shook the ground followed by a terrible silence.
Shirin grabbed her lance. "Move it—that was Nerys!"
Hooting calls and thundering drums echoed throughout the canyon. Kulkaris howled and roared as they raced toward the intruders.
"Oh, damn." Viator gave Makar a smirk. "You kill the half on the right, I'll kill the half on the left."
"No." Makar's deep voice was firm. "I’ve got to back Shirin up. We stick together!" Makar grabbed Sabia and pulled her behind him. "You’ll be safest behind us."
"Joke!" Viator rolled his eyes at Makar. "It was a joke!" The castanic hurried to catch up to Shirin—no mean feat, given her long stride.
Makar and Viator came around the corner to see Halwyn whirling his blade in an unending series of arcs. Kulkari blood spurted in thick gouts but the slayer was being forced back. Nerys hurled fiery death in every way she could shape. Shirin leaped into the fray, stabbing several kulkari with her lance, then knocking a handful on their backsides. Viator shot a trio of kulkaris attempting to flank the slayer, then drilled one with a blurred volley.
The odds worsened with each moment. A veritable sea of kulkaris rushed toward the soldiers and their young charge. Makar grabbed Sabia's hand and dragged her backward. He held up his staff and channeled a swirling column of energy for several moments. There was a brief flash and the other soldiers appeared next to him, startled, but out of danger for a handful of heartbeats. He raised his staff again, and appeared to hold it against a swirling vortex of energy. Halwyn, lost in his bloodlust, charged back into the fray, only to be jerked back by Shirin's powerful arm. Makar's spell went off, and the world went dark.
Makar heard waves crashing in the distance. The world brightened and he saw Valkyon Federation flags at an encampment. He smiled with satisfaction. They were safe. Viator burst into a cheerful dance. Shirin looked Makar over for a long moment, then gave him a very precise salute.
"You did it," she said proudly. "You got us out of there!"
Makar shook his head. Arrogance was not a strength. "I am but an instrument of the gods. It was not by my hands we were saved, but by my faith."
Viator patted the giant on the shoulder. "Your quick thinking didn't hurt either." He laughed and began dancing with the very confused Sabia.
"We still have a mission to complete," Shirin said. "Makar, see if the quartermaster has scrolls that can get us back to Velika. I don't feel like walking all the way back to Tulufan."
The baraka nodded and smiled. "As ordered, Decurion."
Viator disengaged from Sabia with a terrific flourish. "Then it's firewine for all my friends,” he looked directly at Makar, “even the priest!" The rest of the squad laughed. Makar was inordinately pleased until Viator added, “New guy pays the tab!” Shirin and the others cheered while Makar smiled. Makar didn’t mind; he’d finally earned his place.