Owen’s eyes opened, red sunlight shining on his face. He groaned and touched a bump on his temple. A splotch of blood appeared on his palm as he withdrew his hand. He stretched his legs out in front of himself, finding manacles attached to his ankles, binding him to the wall. He looked around at the room he was trapped in: The walls were made of dirt, the ground was made of dirt, the ceiling was made of dirt. A metal grate with the width of a person was embedded in the ceiling, letting sunlight in through its slits.
Owen sighed as he stretched his neck while staring out of the grate. His lips contorted into a bitter smile as he dragged himself to his feet. He glanced at a corner of his prison; an image of five frightened children huddling next to each other appeared in his vision. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. He exhaled and opened his eyes, the children disappearing. He clenched his hands and muttered, “Just like old times, huh?”
Owen’s face hardened as he placed his palm against the dirt wall. The ground trembled and cracks formed along the walls, radiating outwards from his palm. He jerked his legs forward, causing the ends of the manacles to fall off the wall. The metal grate fell to the ground as the ceiling deformed and collapsed. Owen used the rubble as a ramp to walk out of his prison. Surprisingly, there were no guards stationed nearby, and he was unimpeded as he climbed back onto ground level.
Hundreds of grates lined the floor nearby, their surfaces red from the single sun in the sky. Behind Owen stood the spiked wooden walls of the city. Ahead of him, wooden buildings—some dilapidated—stood erect with thatched roofs. Owen rubbed his chin as he surveyed his surroundings before walking towards the city wall. His face turned pale as he stomped his foot against the ground, causing the ground to shudder and crack, splitting underneath the wooden spikes.
A section of the wall collapsed inwards, having lost its stability and Owen climbed out, the metal chains of his manacles dragging behind him as he walked. No guards appeared even after the thundering collapse of the wall. Owen glanced at the city behind him through the gap left behind; he could see lizardmen scurrying about, but they were heading towards the center of the city, away from him. He shrugged and broke out into a jog towards the forest where he last saw Raea and Palan. A trail of smoke was visible in the distance.
Palan yawned as he leaned back against a tree, tossing a dagger back and forth between his hands. Raea sat next to him with her knees in front of her chest. She held onto the contract between Palan and Owen, her hands white from gripping the paper. A frown was plastered on her face as she lowered her chin to her knees and sighed.
Carmella poked a stick into a dying fire pit and blew on the embers, adding more wood on top. She turned her head towards Palan and asked, “You really want to keep this fire going?”
Palan nodded as he pulled a dead rabbit out of Emergency Victuals mouth. He tossed it towards Carmella. “You can cook that while you’re at it,” he said as he sheathed his dagger, ignoring the dire wolf’s whines. Palan flicked the wolf’s nose. “Alpha’s eat first.” Emergency Victuals exhaled audibly through its nose and turned its head away, staring at Gerome who stood in the area behind the tree Palan rested on.
Gerome was scratching his head as he stared at a group of seven lizardmen, hanging upside down by their ankles from a tree. Their arms were tied behind their backs and straps of leather held their mouths shut. Their bodies wriggled half-heartedly, but Gerome whacked them with a stick when they got too rowdy. He tilted his head and turned towards Palan. “I think we need another tree if more of them come,” Gerome said with his voice trailing off.
“We can just eat the next one that comes,” Palan said and licked his lips, staring at the mangled rabbit above the fire pit. “It’s about time for dinner anyway.” He glanced at Rae. “The old man hasn’t died yet?”
Raea glared at Palan as the paper crinkled in her grip. She didn’t say a word. Palan snorted. “So much for forgiveness,” he said. “Killing your subordinates is fine, but you draw the line at being sat on? This scrawny mutt isn’t even that heavy.” Emergency Victuals barked at Raea before yawning and resting its head on Palan’s lap. Raea sighed as she relaxed her grip on the contract and shook her head before she resumed staring at the ground.
Palan’s nose twitched and he raised his head. “Another one’s coming,” he said towards Carmella. “Go stand behind that tree”—Palan pointed at a tree in the distance—”and ambush it with a stick. I don’t feel like moving.” Carmella nodded as she picked up a thick branch on the ground and positioned herself behind the tree, ready to swing.
Moments later, the brush rustled and the branches of the willow tree were swept aside by a hand. Carmella’s right foot shifted forward as she swung the branch with all her strength at the oncoming figure. The branch smacked against the figure, breaking at the base near Carmella’s hands. She dropped the broken bit and retrieved the lance that was strapped to her back. She drew her arm back and stepped over the figure. Her head tilted as she frowned. “Owen?”
Owen groaned as he clutched his nose and blinked away tears. The shattered branch lay on top of his chest. “That hurt,” he said and pinched the bridge of his nose before standing up.
“Owen!” Raea shouted and tossed the contract towards Palan as she climbed to her feet. She marched up to her head guard. “Never do that again! I don’t know what I would do if I lost you. I don’t care if you lost yourself to wrath; I will still accept you.” Raea glanced at her feet.
“Lady Raea,” Owen said as he furrowed his brow. His lips quivered, and he took in a deep breath. “I have returned with good news. Anidun is dead.”
Raea’s eyes widened. “Wh—”
“Where are my axes, old man?” Palan asked from behind Raea.
“Hello,” Owen said to Palan. The contract on the ground behind Palan dissolved into golden dust. “I was forced to leave them behind.” He turned back to Raea. “Anidun was already dead when I arrived at his residence. It seems like he killed himself. The lizardmen imprisoned me in a cell made of earth, which was easy enough to escape from.” Raea blinked and opened her mouth to speak.
“Sorry about the whole ambush thing,” Carmella said as she scratched her head and strapped her lance to her back. “I thought you were a lizardman.” Owen rubbed his bloody nose and grunted. Raea frowned before opening her mouth again.
“Anidun is dead?” Raea asked. “Then subjugating the lizardmen should be easily accomplished.”
Owen nodded. “If we have Palan deliver the greater demon’s head to the chieftain, then I suspect they would submit to us. Without a backer and the majority of their army dead, they cannot maintain their territory.”
“Not possible,” Palan said.
“I ate it,” Palan said and pointed at Emergency Victuals, “and the mutt ate the skull.” Palan spat out a tooth and grinned. “I have a better idea.”