Throbbing pain, relentless, like drums behind my temple pounding in ceaseless rhythm, was my first sensation. It took a while to push through the feeling, all my other senses still swimming. Over time, however, I regained my awareness, thoughts formulating, but in a jumbled mess.
Can’t… sleep now. Got to… get… to Percy. Left flank’s… crumbling, they’ll… break... the shield wall…
I forced my eyes open. Dawn’s light lanced into my vision, and I shut my lids against it, allowing myself more time to collect my scattered memories and thoughts.
No… we lost…. Can’t… stay for long, have to keep traveling, find… the others…
I groaned and rolled over onto my stomach. Pushing up against the ground with my hands, I managed to lift myself off the ground. Fighting a wave of light-headedness, I staggered to my feet, swaying. I immediately missed the weight of my sword. Glancing down, I saw the weapon lying on the ground next to where I had been prone a few moments before. The steel glittering with reflected sunlight. I stared at the sword for a moment, confused.
I always have it sheathed and near at hand. Why…
Clear memory flooded into my mind, and I shut my eyes once more, sinking to my knees.
I had failed.
Once again, I had failed the order. Opening my eyes, I looked around at the silent ruined camp. The evidence of my realization was all too plain, written in the accusing faces of fallen warriors scattered about the charred and scuffed earth.
Be proud; this loss compounds even your previous failure to them.
The hated voice echoed in my head, and I clenched my teeth, willing it to be gone from my thoughts, but as always, it stayed, mocking and arrogant.
They do not trust you. You saw her face; she does not believe. None of them do. And now, they never will.
I reached out and grasped my sword, staring at the simple blade, yet deadly and elegant to me for its use. The red pommel stone glittered as I sheathed the weapon, standing. I turned my back to the camp and began walking toward the tree line, following the trail Set and his followers had left. It was not a hard course to follow; Set had made no efforts to disguise their course, which led into the forest toward Campbell’s fortress.
I began to run, following the path of beaten vegetation and boot-marked earth. No heed did I give any more to secrecy, speed was what I needed now, so that I would have time to…
To do what?
I tried to ignore the thought, but it would not be silenced. I skirted tree trunks and burst through shrubbery, growing ever closer to Campbell’s castle. Purposely, I gave no heed to my inner compass. I knew that it could find no path now.
Pushing through a confused mass of branches and thick leaves, I came out quite suddenly into the morning sun. I was standing on the hilltop that I and Penny had traveled only the previous night. Campbell’s fortress reared up from the still moat waters, back dropped against the mountains behind it that formed the Scar range of mountain peaks. I took the time to recover my breath and surveyed the view. Peering across the moat to the castle’s ramparts, I could just barely make out the movement of guards, and the early light caught every so often on the blades of swords or spears. Direct approach was no longer an option here. I sighed; there was nothing else I could do, save one thing only, and that had little hope. I let my eyes drift half-way shut, and let my mind focus, willing something, anything, to deny what I felt innately.
Find her. Come on…
It took a moment for the thought to sink in; only once before had this happened, and that had been when Set had…
I shook my head. There had to be another way, there always was! I tried to focus once more, but I could hear Set’s mocking laughter from some time ago still echoing in my head.
Go on, try. I dare you. I’ll be waiting.
“No. won’t win this, not again. You may have taken me, but I was not broken. I am still your greatest weakness, and you mine,” I murmured under my breath, but I could not sustain such false bravado.
“There must be a way,” I said to myself, and again surveyed the castle and its surrounding grounds.
There is… the final path.
The thought came unexpectedly, and I would have brushed it aside, had I not been certain it was my own. And I was certain; no influence of Set would ever draw forth such a notion.
I lowered my head. Yes, it was an option, but would even that path be enough to get in? I turned to the castle once more, and let my focus, my desire, settle itself on that one thought, the final path.
Almost at once, I felt it. The way was laid out in my mind’s eye, and I felt the security in it, even in so dread a path. I turned back into the trees and began walking the tree line just inside of the forest, so as to avoid being sighted by a guard from the castle’s walls. Based on the direction I was currently traveling, I suspected my entrance would be through the old dungeons, the same path I and Lady Kearney had originally planned to take. It seemed ironic at the moment, but I felt no humor in it, only bitter sorrow. Still, one thought kept me consoled, and I gripped the hilt of my sword as I traveled.
I am coming, Set. And this time, this final time, you cannot stop me.