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Prologue to EXMORTUS 2: TEMPLES OF MEN

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"Star's come out again. Out there. To the southeast, out there over the Towers of Dawn."

Skane didn't need to look where the moron was pointing. He had seen the demon-star a half-hour ago. He ignored the man and drew the oiled whetstone over the edge of his blade. The sound it made was the most comforting noise he had ever known.

"I'll be damned if I'm going anywhere near that accursed thing. We came too goddamn close to it over at Groendyke. No way, no how, no way."

Skane continued sharpening his sword, ignoring him. The other man, ridiculously overdressed in far too many layers of fur, mail and leather, stamped his feet in the snow and rubbed his gloves hands together for warmth. Skane knew when the idiot danced what was coming next.

"Hey, the assassins... they've been down there now for hours. That demon-star is coming back here. I just know it. We've got to strike now, if we mean to claim what's ours. Before the demon comes and takes it from us."

Skane put his whetstone away in his pack, laid back in the snow and closed his eyes, hoping that the man would shut up. No such luck.

"Listen to me! We're dead men just sitting up here. I didn't come all this way just to freeze to death. Night is coming. Another night like last night and I'll die. Die here on this godforsaken mountain."

Skane crossed one leg over the other, put his gloved hands behind his head, and waited.

The other man looked down on Skane and sighed loudly, trying hard to make his exasperation obvious. "Die here in the snow if you like. I'm heading out."

The other man trudged off into the forest. Normally Skane would've opened up the middle of his shoulder blades with a handaxe right there, but three of the four assassins were down in Exmortus Abbey, while a fourth was bringing the horses around the south gate. There was little chance the moron would give their position away now.

Skane closed his eyes and dozed for a few minutes, then rolled over through the snow to the crest of the ridge. The three in the Abbey were down there, somewhere, rooting around for something they had left behind. It must be pretty important, for them to come stumbling back here like drooling idiots. More important than their own miserable lives. Let them find it, whatever it is, and then, and only then, let them find me.

He had studied them for days, watching which ones took which watch, what weapons they wielded, how they tracked in the snow. The big one would be a problem. The little one was hard to read, which made him especially dangerous. The tall, lanky one appeared to be the leader, but like every leader Skane had ever known, he was also the least equipped for an ambush in the snow. These leader types—these planners—never seem to plan for something like me. For death.

The bookish, plump one leading the horses around was the least of his worries. He would keep that one alive. Probably the leader too, if he didn't mouth off too much. Maybe remove some fingers or a hand if it came down to it. The big one and the small one would have to be killed outright. It wouldn't be easy —these two were very fast. But he had killed and captured far faster prey under worse conditions than this.

A noise down in the Abbey caught his attention. The big one and the small one were having a snowball fight. Skane licked his lips. They can't be serious. The world is a good—

The other man noisily dropped a pile of dry sticks in the snow, sat down and started rifling through his pack. He glanced at Skane through the corner of his eye. Skane quickly got to his feet, thumbing the handaxes on his belt.

"Close the pack."

"You can't tell me what to do."

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