Aria, Zoraan, and Scathe continued through the forest until finally they reached the edge of the labor camp that stood between them and the Urocubus Caverns. The sight shook Aria to her very core.
Men, women and children... children being forced to work under the unforgiving eyes of the royal guard. The bodies of the dead workers were piled up in a corner, and each and every one of them had long scars on their backs, indicating severe whippings to impose obedience. Aria nearly threw up, and Zoraan placed a hand on her shoulder.
"This... is worse than I thought it would be. I knew it was bad, but now I see just how far my brother has fallen." Zoraan looked down, thinking of what must be done. "We need to stop this."
"And we will," Scathe answered. "But not now. We are grossly outnumbered, so a fight here is suicide. We need to go around and hope no one spots us."
"But... the children-"
"It is gruesome, but there is nothing we can do now." Scathe answered.
Just then, a guard came into view, dragging a little girl no more than five years old by the arm, who struggled in vain against his grip. "Tell the baron we have another disobedient whelp that needs to be taught her place." He said, and the other guards nodded and walked off. Aria tensed up.
"No," she said, angry at what she was seeing. "This has to end now. We may not be able to do much, but we can at least help a few of them to escape."
"Aria, listen to me-" Scathe tried to calm her down, but to no avail.
"I know how that girl feels. I was in the same position before we met, and only my brother's sacrifice stopped them. The least we can do is help her."
Scathe was about to argue with her, but then stopped, seeing the man who was the guard leader walk into view. While the others wore armor on their chests, arms, legs, and head, the baron wore a vest with no shirt underneath, and a long open skirt that hung down to his ankles. On each hand was a strange glove and his nails were long and sharp. His hair was a blonde and of medium length, one bang covering his right eye completely. A scar on the bridge of his nose was clearly visible, even from where Aria and the others were standing.
"Sir," the guard addressed. "this child just stopped working and threw a rock at one of the other guards. I did not know how to deal with her, so I just grabbed her by the arm and brought her here, to you. What do you want to do with her?"
He stared down at the girl with cold, grey eyes, and answered in a disgusted tone. "I think we need to make an example of her for those who disobey."
Aria's eyes opened wide. "I know that voice." She said to herself, remembering the night her brother was killed.
The guard's eyes opened wide as well. "Mister Nullcero, sir, with all do respect, wouldn't a few slaps with the paddle suffice? I mean-"
Suddenly the guard stopped talking, and Aria saw the baron's long fingernails suddenly grow and pierce the guard in the chest. "So you think you can tell me how to discipline my workers? Only Prince Shadis Koles can tell Baron Cypher Nullcero how he runs this operation." The baron responded, before withdrawing the talons from the guard's chest. The little girl ran for it, and Cypher looked at one of the other guards, who was armed with a heavy crossbow. "Deal with her."
The guard nodded reluctantly, and readied his weapon.
Aria gritted her teeth and spat. "I won't let this happen!" She shouted angrily, and charged headlong into the camp.
"Aria, wait!" Zoraan called after her. She didn't hear him, and jumped in between the guards and the girl just as the guard released the bolt from his crossbow.
Aria drew her blade and cut the bolt in half. Cypher raised an eyebrow and shook his head. "Another disobedient brat? This is just one of those days, isn't it?"
More guards walked into view, carrying crossbows, blunderbusses, maces, and longswords. Aria pulled off her cloak and readied her blade. "I'm not just some disobedient brat... I'm a disobedient brat with a grudge against you, Cypher Nullcero."