The sun was still low in the sky, the early morning frost only just having burned away, when Curian and Sophia prepared to leave the forest. The Orcs and Treants wished them a kind, long goodbye, repeatedly insisting they visit again, and so the duo departed with their next destination in mind. The Rhimeghast Mountains were still a long walk away, but they already dominated much of the horizon. Grasping vines covered in dagger-sized thorns flanked the dirt road, reaching deeper in some spots.
“The Rhimeghast Mountains used to be home to a bustling castle-town,” Sophia explained as they walked along. “That was ages ago, however. Long before the Liches claimed the mountains for themselves.”
Curian stopped without warning. Sophia bumped into her and stumbled back.
“Liches?” Curian replied. “Murderous mages who should be long-dead, but aren’t thanks to incredibly sinister magics?”
Sophia blinked. “Yes, I suppose that is one way of putting it.”
Curian held up a hand. “And we’re going to their domain, right? Where they’ll undoubtedly want to kill us.”
“If a Piece is there, what choice do we have?” Sophia asked.
Even at a distance, the jagged heights of the Rhimehast Mountains looked threatening–snow-capped claws tearing into the sky above.
“What else do you know about our destination?” Curian asked. “Shed some light on where we’re going.” She started walking along the road again.
Sophia walked a little faster to stay next to Curian, hoping to avoid any sudden stops. “Rhimeghast Castle-Town was a trade hub, and a favored place for weary travelers to rest,” Sophia explained. “It also happened to have a reputation as a place where criminals could bide their time while knights opted to look elsewhere.”
Curian nodded. “So it was interesting before Liches took over,” she said.
“Quite right,” Sophia said. “There are a number of accounts on when the Liches and their Undead troops arrived, but all agree on one point.”
“Oh? And what’s that?” Curian asked, glancing over at Sophia as they walked.
Sophia frowned. “Ah, well…The Liches aren’t particularly keen on visits from the living.”
Curian shook her head. “Of course they aren’t.”
The slopes began gradually, the last of the dense woods along the road thinning out before they gave way to boulder-strewn, unforgiving hills. The road wound along the steep incline of the hills, tracing what may have once been the safest path. Impossibly dark, gaping cave-maws were visible in the upper reaches of the hills.
“Makes me miss the cursed forest already,” Curian muttered as she braced against a bitter, frigid wind.
There was a sound like thunder, audible over the now-relentless winds. It was distant at first, growing louder with every passing second.
Curian turned around slowly, cursing under her breath. Countless birds shifted their flight path. The Crow did not care, knocking aside of the hapless avian creatures that failed to move from her path.
“Gods damn our luck,” Curian muttered. She grabbed Sophia by the hand and pulled her along. The sound of wings pounding against the air grew louder.
“We need to make it to one of the caves,” Sophia shouted. “But we have to be careful. I recall hearing tales of caves warded with protective spells. Surely some of those will have lingered.”
“And if we pick the wrong cave?” Curian replied, not breaking her stride as she continued to sprint along the winding path, cursing the inconvenient rocks her toes became acquainted with along the way.
Sophia shrugged. “We die, perhaps?”
“Delightful,” Curian replied. They reached a fork in the path, a cavemouth to their right. The trail continued to the left.
“No, keep going,” Curian shouted. “I don’t like the looks of that one.”
“Why?” Sophia asked, though she followed.
“The glowing, red eyes didn’t exactly give me big ‘come on in, we love visitors’ vibes,” Curian replied. They charged ahead, rounding the bend as the soil gave way beneath where they had just been.
The Crow flew closer, its pace measured and deliberate. Its caws sounded more like laughter as its wingbeats buffeted the hills with harsh gales.
“Not much of a choice left,” Curian said. She leaped into the nearest cave, Sophia following after. The darkness inside was oppressive, but something dull and silver was visible along the cave’s floor.
“Runes! Get behind them!” Sophia blurted out.
The wingbeats stopped, and a thunderous caw sent a blast of hot air into the cave.
“Come out, little insects,” the Crow taunted. “I won’t eat both of you. Yet.”
“Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence,” Curian replied. “We bested your sister, Badb. What makes you think we can’t get past you? Maybe you should be more afraid.”
Badb, the Crow, cackled raucously. “Your only path to the Piece you seek is through me, fools. You sacrifice but a moment of your time to me and I will allow you to continue on your pointless endeavor. Easily the most reasonable deal you’ll get.”
Curian sighed. “And the only deal,” she said. “All right, you pestilent parakeet. Talk.”