The woods were gray and lifeless. The trees were dead. The grass was dead. The other eight members of Perry's squadron were also dead. The two Reans that had started just days before Perry was assigned to them. The two Xamalians that had been reassigned after a particularly deadly battle left just them from their initial squadron. Jones, the Messenger and Ashia, the newly obtained archer from Mor. Not even the Deluvia girls had been able to escape Perry's curse. Everything and every other person around him was dead. But not him. He had managed to, yet again, avoid getting killed. Just like last time and every time before that. He had tried so hard to prevent what seemed like the inevitable from happening - he wanted to keep at least one person alive. But this time, too, was a failure in that.
Perry wasn't stupid; he knew he was cursed. He had to be, to lose as many Warriors as he had. But this last group - it had been impossible to ignore the growing hope that he might have been assigned to a troop that could break the curse. This troop was Deluvia's daughter's troop. The Flair. The girl that had been kept hidden away from even Ella's watchful eye. If anyone was capable of withstanding the deadly forces of Perry's curse, surely it would have been her. But she was lying just as dead as every other member of her troop. Eyes open, staring up at him in a look of shock and horror, her mouth frozen in a silent scream as she was struck down with a sword.
Bolting upright, Perry looked around, bewilderment plain on his face, as he tried to figure out where he was and how he got there. Blinking frantically, it took him a couple of seconds to register the blonde girl that was standing over him. She was a Deluvia. The older one. Regan's daughter. Leandra, he remembered. With a deep breath, Perry tried to calm his nerves and allow his heart to return to a restful heartbeat. After a couple of moments, he put on a half-smile and greeted Deluvia, saying, "Good morning."
"Morning," she returned, looking strangely at him. She was probably wondering why he seemed so interested in her. Truthfully, it wasn't so much his interest in her that was peaked at the moment, rather, it was the realization that his troop was in fact still alive. Despite the fact that the dream he had was so vivid, he had not failed yet. There was still hope. Granted, it was only their third or fourth day together, and even Perry had never lost someone quite so quickly, but still, it was something to be thankful for. Without offering any more comments, Leandra continued on her way to wake up the rest of the troop.
Perry stood up slowly and stretched, leaning back to crack his vertebrae in the process. Although he had initially liked the popping sound that followed the act, as time went on and more people kept dying under his watch, the sound grew to be more symbolic of his growing defeats. Still, he had to crack his back, so he just did his best to ignore the sound each time he did it. But on days like today, after waking from an intense nightmare, that was a little more difficult than usual. With one final pop, Perry looked around and saw that the troop was already lining up.
He didn't know why, but their willingness to fall into line behind him surprised him. Even after he had been publicly defended by the lieutenant, Perry wasn't expecting such obedience from her troop. When he looked at the line of their troop, he was shocked to see that even Jones was in line, waiting for him to guide them. Taking his place at the front of the line, Perry started hiking. It took a lot of self-restraint to prevent himself from glancing back behind him as he walked. It was unreal; the troop was following him. Remembering the trouble he had getting his last troop to fall into line and follow him, Perry had not been expecting such obedience from this group.
Once the newness of the troop following him began to sink in, Perry tried to convince himself that he could, in fact lead Lieutenant Deluvia's troop safely.
I can do this, he told himself sternly. I am a trained Guide. I know how to lead.
But no matter how many times he repeated that message in his head, he ultimately failed at convincing himself of the scenario of him actually completing a mission with any of the eight people behind him still being alive. Seven missions. Sixty-four bodies. It was the worst start of any Guide for either side, crushing the previous record holder of three missions, thirty-eight bodies. By the time his fifth assignment had all died, Ella and King Samra decided that Perry was very good at ensuring the deaths of all the people he was leading.
"Just keep doing what you've been doing," King Samra told him. "Maybe the threat of assigning a troop to you will provide good motivation to stay on my good side to the more rebellious squadrons."
"But I'm not trying to get the troops killed, King Samra," Perry argued, shock plain on his face.
"Exactly," the king replied casually. "All the more reason that the troops should fear you. You get them killed without meaning to. Imagine what could happen if you learned how to get them killed on purpose!"
That exclamation hardened inside the pit of Perry's stomach. After hearing those words from the southern king, Perry made it his own personal mission to keep all of his troop alive. Fate was not on his side, though. Because try as he might to keep all the members of his last two troops alive to spite the king, ultimately he failed. When Mason fell and became number sixty-four on Perry's body count, he truly gave up hope that he could successfully lead a troop. So when the king assigned him to Lieutenant Deluvia, Perry was shocked.
There was no doubt that the king believed him to be cursed. Even Ella believed that. Hell, everyone in Viger believed that. So, if he was the cursed Guide, why would King Samra assign him to serve any Deluvia? It just didn't feel like something that King Samra would do. King Samra wanted to win the war, didn't he?
Shaking his head, Perry tried to clear his mind of all thoughts and just hike. Of course, his mind could not shut off completely. As he led the troop through the woods, Perry remembered the first time that he met Nolan Deluvia. King Samra wanted to introduce "the Executioner" (what the troops called Nolan) to his "Grim Reaper" (what King Samra called Perry). Despite the fact that Perry stood 6'2", the southern Warrior dwarfed him. It wasn't just that Nolan stood four inches taller than the Guide. No; it was also that he had 150 pounds of solid muscle on top of that. Perry was a scrappy kid, not intimidating to look at, whereas Nolan was a well-muscled machine.
When King Samra brought them to meet one another, Perry was justifiably frightened by the southern giant. As King Samra praised the Guide's ability to get people killed, Perry's stomach turned when Nolan's lips curled into a malicious grin. He enjoys the tales that the king is telling him? Perry wondered, wanting to vomit. How is that possible?
By the time King Samra wrapped up Perry's latest assignment (which was Perry's sixth assignment at the time), Nolan was beaming at him. Clasping his hand on the Guide's back, Nolan gave a stout, "Welcome aboard, Son!"
It took every ounce of self control that Perry had not to try and run out of the castle right then and there. But, as luck would have it, a week later, news rocketed through Xamalie - the Deluvia brothers had been taken prisoner by Adriana. The Deluvia brothers - the stars of Xamalie's army, had been taken prisoner by the Head of the Unseelie Court. The South never attempted to rescue prisoners from Temoragu. Not once, in all of their history, had they ever attempted to get Warriors back from the west. But that didn't matter to the Xamalian public; not in this case. Of course, back when the brothers were taken, the Xamalians didn't know about Leandra and Kelly. No, that secret wasn't revealed until the girls were used to get their dads back.
And get them back, they did. All four of them were still under Xamalie's control. They were still serving King Samra and Ella. In the end, the Deluvias had only lost one person - Nolan's wife, the gifted Healer. She had died when Adriana took the men prisoner, though. She was not executed. So, really, the Deluvias had gotten off exceptionally light, in Perry's opinion. Until he had been assigned to the Lieutenant's squadron, that is. While he would have never thought he would be serving a troop that was aiding the Executioner, that was exactly what the Grim Reaper was doing now.
Sixty-four bodies. Despite the fact that he was serving Xamalie's Executioner and a Flair that was supposedly on the same playing field as Kendrick Kavich, in all likelihood, at the end of this mission the body count would jump to seventy-two. As he pulled the troop to a halt for lunch, Perry tried to convince himself that this time, things would be different. But just like every time with the past two troops he served, he just couldn't get himself to actually believe it.