Lethia trembled, her spectacles having slid down her nose to reveal the frosty fear that had gripped her pretty green eyes. Little drops of anxiety clung to her eyelashes, clumping them together in a pitiable image. She gripped the straps of her pack and sidled closer to Argos–not Elmiryn or Nyx. The warrior did not take this as an insult. The young enchantress truly felt safe around her familiar–and given his size, the woman would too.
But as it stood, Elmiryn didn’t feel threatened yet. She had started to warm up to the idea of excitement, and while the situation wasn’t necessarily ideal, beggars couldn’t be choosers. With one hand shielding her eyes from the approaching sunlight, Elmiryn squinted up at the newcomer. “What is that thing you’re holding?” she asked.
“I’d say it’s my way of reasoning,” the man answered. He put his free hand on his hip. “Others, however, call it a pistol.”
The woman’s brows went up high. “A pistol? I’ve heard about those things! Like mini-cannons, right? What enchantment have you got to make it fire straight?”
“Elmiryn,” Nyx’s voice, small as a mouse. “Is this really appropriate?”
The woman glanced at her, disappointed. She really was curious. “I guess not.”
“Oh no, I don’t mind answering,” the man said, his smile pulling a little wider. Elmiryn picked up on the way he spoke from the back of the tongue, with strong emphasis on his r’s. She recognized the accent from some slippery recollection, but an origin still eluded her. The man hopped down and slid several yards on the dirt and rock before he stopped himself on clumped bit of earth and weed. He held the gun up so that they could all see its side, and Elmiryn leaned in a little, squinting.
The pistol had a beautiful ivory stock, engraved in an undulating design that made Elmiryn think of oil in water. The three-barrels were brass, also adorned with a design–this one more robust and with a greater focus in motion–like flowering clubs. Elmiryn blinked as she saw the metal shift, a smear of warm paint against a dark cool background. A mini-cannon, a cannon, of oil–a pistol. A pistol? Elmiryn squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them again, the paint–the metal–was still.
Yes, yes, a real pistol.
She heard the young man speaking and tuned in. His words didn’t have the same grip as Nyx’s, she noted with a smirk. “–allow for three shots without reloading. Quite nice, eh? It has no enchantments–but I had an elven blacksmith do the work. Its precision is unparalleled. An ordinary pistol of this size couldn’t fire as far. It even beats some rifles!”
He beamed at her, rocking a little on his heels. From his behavior alone, she knew he was still young–a man, by the standards of age, but still without a wife and without a steady home to call his own. She let her eyes flicker briefly down to his knees–not that she were actually interested in them, but because she wanted to see just how far the man was using her peripheral sight.
Some three yards.
With his pistol gripped incorrectly and the barrels aiming at the sky, she could try and lunge forward, even though he was on slightly higher ground.
But she didn’t, because she knew, the man was only taking this risk because…
“Graz, you moron–what’re you doing?”
He had partners.
The new voice came from behind them. Elmiryn turned to look, along with Lethia and Nyx, to see a newcomer sliding down from some hiding place higher up the rock wall. He seemed older and shabbier, with faint wrinkles about the eyes and mouth. His hair was the same dark wavy length, but in the back was a ponytail tied with a black tie, like a sailor’s. The man had a stronger chin, shadowed with stubble, but the same hazelnut eyes. His expression was beyond annoyed, turning his dry lips into a nasty slash.
“Elmiryn…th-these men. They were the ones who chased me before!” Lethia hissed quickly.
“This was supposed to be an ambush, and here you are, chatting them up!” The older man snapped gruffly to his partner. He too had a rapier, drawn, but no pistol. He wasted no time closing the distance between himself and Nyx, who backpedaled into Elmiryn. The woman put her arm around the girl’s shoulders.
“They were going to leave, I couldn’t let them.” The younger man shrugged, putting away his gun. “Anyway, the woman asked an excellent question. It’d be rude to ignore it!”
The man grit his teeth. His accent was stronger than his companion’s. Elmiryn had to focus more to catch all that he said. “Be wise!” He pointed the tip of his sword at Nyx, scowling. “I don’t want any more mistakes!”
‘Graz’ sighed and drew his rapier as well. He gave Elmiryn an apologetic smile as he stepped forward to point his weapon at her. “Sorry, my love. But my brother speaks the truth. Our meeting was not chance. It was to an end!”
Elmiryn covered her hand with her mouth. Her throat tensed and she tried to bit her lower lip to keep from giggling. Nyx jabbed her in the side and looked at her, her bold eyebrows knitted together. She gave a stern shake of the head. This only made Elmiryn snort so bad it hurt her nose. She doubled over a little to try and calm down, forcing Nyx to do the same.
“Hey now, sweet lia! Don’t cry!” Graz lifted the tip of his rapier. He looked at his brother with conflicted eyes. “Arduino, this is all a bit strong, don’t you think?”
“Shut up!” The man snapped. His eyes darted to the right. “Where’s Paulo?”
“Look…there he is. Oye! Choi!”
A bit further up the road, a dust trail fluttered down the slope. A slim young man, closer to Lethia’s age, approached. He held up a large crossbow carved from dark wood with a unique shoulder stock that seemed custom made just for him. The weapon was loaded, fixed with a gleaming bolt. At his left side was a rapier.
The newcomer’s chubby face was sweaty, and it looked as though his left eyebrow had been singed off, but other than these things, he was as handsome as the other two men. He seemed winded and his grip on the crossbow was shaky. He too, had dark wavy hair–but his was loose, and outgrown. He sniffed, to clear his nose, then let his eyes, the same hazelnut as the other two men, flicker to the one named Arduino.
“Ard, what about the extras?” The youth asked, his voice a rasp that Elmiryn hardly caught.
“That’s what we were going to see to, Choi.” The eldest forced Nyx to look his way again, the tip of his rapier beneath her chin. Elmiryn let the girl slip from under her arm, and straightened completely, her eyes on Arduino.
The man dropped his voice low, the steadiness of his tone suggesting experience, but as Elmiryn searched his eyes, she was certain the rest of him was just a facade. Something was wrong. This man was filled with fear.
“Doc’est, lia? What’re you and your lady-friend going to do?” He looked at Elmiryn. “This girl has nothing to do with you, and we can all go on with our lives…so long as you don’t get in our way.”
Argos snarled, his hackles raising. He seemed conflicted on who to focus on, with Graz to Lethia’s back, Arduino before them, and Paulo on their left. He seemed to settle on looking between Paulo and Arduino, his lips curled back to show his fearsome canines.
Elmiryn glanced at him, then back at the man. “The Mangy Beast doesn’t much like that offer.”
Arduino chuckled. “Well what can you expect? A smart animal is still just that–an animal. What does he know? Does he have any idea that you’re all surrounded by the Moretti brothers, the best bounty hunters Erminia has ever produced? The odds are not in your favor, lia.”
“The best bounty hunters let a girl barely turned fifteen slip away from them?” Elmiryn smirked. “Somehow, I’m not impressed.”
Nyx let out a short hiss as the man pressed the tip of his rapier against her neck. “Let’s watch our tongues, eh?”
The woman shrugged. “I was starting to warm up to the idea of a bit of excitement. Maybe we should fight you, just because? My friend could use with the opportunity to practice what she’s learned. I bet you’ll love meeting her Twin.”
Nyx clenched her fists and her eyes shifted to look at her with the utmost incredulity. “Elmiryn–!” Arduino pressed in again, and her words cut off with a wince.
Elmiryn pursed her lips and looked at Lethia who seemed to be pleading as well as she could without speaking. She looked back at Nyx, whose brow now glistened with sweat. The humor in her became subdued. There was a difference between fighting and protecting…but when one was forced to choose who to protect…?
The woman held up her hands. Her nose itched with anger, and her jaw became tight, but the situation seemed beyond her. “Sorry, kid. We agreed to let you travel with us–that didn’t mean I had to put my neck on the line for you. Or rather, Nyx’s.”
This came from Nyx and Lethia both. Elmiryn looked at Nyx, frowning. “Look it’s either one or the other. You want to start a fight after having your throat slit like a pig?”
“Lia, you made an excellent choice. Now take your friend and back away, back the way you came like you were going to.”
Elmiryn reached for Nyx slow and pulled her back, hands tight on her shoulders as the orchestra of movement began. Arduino and Graz shifted to take their places, Graz facing Lethia as his brother watched Elmiryn and Nyx move backwards. Paulo moved in, his crossbow now fixed on Argos.
“We can’t just let them take her.” Nyx whispered.
“I thought you didn’t want to fight.” Elmiryn replied.
“Not the way you were going to! I mean…of course I didn’t want to fight, but I didn’t want Lethia taken, either! We could’ve done something.”
Nyx growled and clenched her fists. Lethia had started crying and Argos was a mass of hostility before her. Paulo hefted up his crossbow as though preparing for a shot. He glared at the dog. “Stupid mutt…” He wheezed. “Don’t you know your owner will leave you covered in death? I should shoot you, to save you the horror.”
Elmiryn froze, scowling.
Graz turned his head a little to look at him. “Paulo, shut up.”
“No really! Dogs are supposed to have better perception. If this one’s so smart, why can’t he see that this girl and her mistress bring nothing but death and nightmares?”
Arduino glanced at him. “Enough, Choi. Say no more.” He looked back at Elmiryn. “Keep moving!”
Paulo’s grip on the crossbow turned shaky. His voice cracked and his finger twitched on the trigger. His gaze turned to glass. “I haven’t…haven’t slept well since we visited their gods damned tower… What a stupid animal! Does he think being buried underneath a tree will justify his life!? I won’t let that happen to me!!” The crossbow fired. The boy blinked, looking at his crossbow as though it had betrayed him. Argos let out a low growl and limped back against Lethia, who stumbled under his weight. A bolt stuck out of his left shoulder blade, and his white fur became stained in crimson.
“Argos!?” Lethia screamed, hugging him as he fell back onto the ground.
Graz ripped the crossbow from his brother’s hands, his face tight with shock and indignation. “Idi’ute! What do you think you’re doing!?”
Elmiryn drew her sword as she took a step forward. Her mind pulsed, her eyes burned. She considered the possibility of resuming her backwards walk, but her knees locked into place just at the mere suggestion. Was she just imagining it? Was she just chasing shadows?
Arduino stared at her as she took another step forward. “Lia?” His tone wavered. “You should be leaving.”
The woman looked briefly to Nyx. There was no lie or trickery that danced in her eyes. She had a companion, one to back her, one to fight with her…for her, and Elmiryn felt stronger. Nyx looked at her with eyes shining. “You heard right, didn’t you?” Elmiryn whispered.
Nyx looked at the men, then back. She gave a nod. “I heard.”
If there were ever moments of uncertainty where she could scrape by on slim observances…then she wagered this was one of them.
Elmiryn pointed her sword at Arduino and began to walk forward slowly. Her boots were a steady crunch on the earth, and she delighted in the sound of advancement. “I’m sorry, but there’s been a change in plans.” Elmiryn’s lip twitched. “Just to be clear…Your brother’s a bit weak-minded isn’t he?”
Arduino frowned at her. “What?”
“Sorry. Maybe that’s a rude way of saying it. I mean, is he a sensitive? Prone to chills in old houses? Maybe because he’s young. You don’t know what it is. You don’t know what’s wrong with him.” The woman chuckled. “That’s why you’re so tense. You want this job done, but your brother isn’t feeling right. Maybe you aren’t feeling right.”
Elmiryn tilted her head to the side and let her eyes flicker to Graz and Paulo. The older brother had his sibling around the shoulders, his teeth grit as he stared at her. “You just call it black magic, like they do, but the realm of influence isn’t here, it’s at Syria’s tower… But after leaving that place, Paulo still is sick. It’s like he’s carrying something. It isn’t a curse–not an ordinary one–not one that can be magicked away by typical means. I bet he’s dying, and he doesn’t even know it.”
Arduino spat on the ground and took a step forward, his rapier held up. “You have ten seconds to vanish, or we’ll shoot you!” But his eyes were wide, and his rapier shaking.
Elmiryn stopped and shook her head in mock pity. “Did you know? There’s a sickness spreading through the world right now. It drifts, suckling at people and places like a baby–taking away their hope and their energy and any sense of decency. We saw it at Gamath. I didn’t know it had gone so far North–but if what I’ve heard from your brother is true…then I can’t let you take Lethia away.”
Arduino’s gaze darkened. A muscle in his jaw pulsed and he brought his rapier up before him as he slid back into a fighting stance. Lethia looked at her, her face still bunched with worry as her hands tangled in Argos’ fur, but a shaky smile appeared on her lips.
Elmiryn resumed her walk, but moved slower than before. She was now within striking range. Arduino’s face was smearing, and between the spaces of moments, she had to scrape just to remember that the man from two moments ago was still indeed standing before her. Not some copy. Not some joke. Not some shadow that intended to drag her away to the place of Unbeing. “You think your brother will survive, if you let Syria die?” The woman giggled. “If you take her apprentice to get imprisoned? Shit…” The woman’s smile turned wolf-like, and she began to laugh outright. “You think any of you can survive singing a demon’s song?”
“Graziano, shoot her!” Arduino shouted, taking a step back as Elmiryn set into a hysterical fit.
Graz looked at her, then back at his older brother. “But Ard, what if she’s right? Paulo has been looking ill. That healer didn’t do anything for him!”
“Shut up! Shut up and shoot her!”
She charged forward. When her body was half-bent, when the ball of her right foot was planted solidly into the dirt, when her left leg was turned just in the way needed to pull the most power possible from the push–her head snapped up, and she roared as the distance closed between them, like a lion’s mouth.
“Too late!” she screamed.
Both hands gripped the hilt of her stolen iron sword–a weapon she was unaccustomed to, as it were heavier than her other blade, but she made do with what she had. She brought the sword back. She barked out a laugh as she slid to stop before Arduino and swung forward.
I had no idea what else to do, but to follow. I was a little behind Elmiryn–I figured she would need space to swing that blade of hers, and I also wanted to see what she would do. I needed a lead, because I had never initiated a fight before. Survived some maybe, but never started them.
With Arduino engaged, I decided to go for Graz, who still had his brother’s crossbow in one hand. I moved as fast as I could, pushing with all my might against the earth. The distance was closed before I finished inhaling, and I rammed as hard as I could into the man’s body. We both sailed through the air, and I could hear the breath flee from his lips in a ghostly rasp. When we crashed to the ground, I scrambled upright before he could gain sense enough to grab at me. To my dismay, he still gripped onto his rapier, but the crossbow was lost to him. I didn’t see where it fell, as my next concern was to incapacitate the man beneath me.
Amid the adrenaline and electrifying fear was a sense of shame. Graz did not seem the sort of person who deserved my fist–he was something of a buffoon, but his eyes lacked the bite his eldest brother had. But I could not focus on such things. Behind me, the clash of battle was like a fire that screamed for action.
I placed my left hand around the man’s throat and leaned forward to shift my knee over his sword arm, effectively pinning it down with my weight. Then with a grimace I pulled my hand back and punched him. It hurt, even though I refrained from using all my strength, the way I had with Elmiryn. This mercy proved to be my error. Graz was stronger than I gave him credit for, and he recovered quickly from my punch to give one right back. My head snapped the other way, and he bucked beneath me, sending my petite form toppling off him. He jumped up to his feet, his body proving his incredible resilience.
There was a swish, and when I looked up into his face, it was along the blade of his rapier. He panted and scowled down at me, his lip bleeding from where I struck him.
My eyes flickered to the side as a commotion caught my attention. I saw Lethia grappling with Paulo, her pack abandoned on the ground. She had one hand on his chin, the other pulling at the back of his neck. He looked ready to draw his rapier, the weapon halfway out, but he seized up, with eyes turned to bloodshot circles that would later haunt me in sleep. He fell to the ground next to Argos, mouth slack, eyes staring into nothing. If Paulo’s chest weren’t rising and falling, I would have thought him dead.
Lethia pulled his rapier from its holster, and brought it up in a menacing swish as she turned with eyes on Graz. Her pupils were dilated, and her face blank.
Then I noticed that she wasn’t wearing her glasses.
Elmiryn felt, more than saw, her blade miss. It tore through the air, not affording her any satisfying crash of metal or vicious thud of flesh. In truth, she was at a disadvantage. Arduino was a skilled fencer–the woman could tell by his quick reflexes, the ability to shift and parry without losing his footing. His weapon afforded him the speed and agility her stolen iron sword took away.
As he side-stepped her initial attack, he struck out with a slash of his rapier, cutting it across the skin of her throat. She reared back just in time to avoid anything more than a flesh wound. Blood trickled down, tickling her skin. Arduino’s motives were clear. He would incapacitate her as quickly as possible–even if it meant killing her.
That suited Elmiryn just fine.
“I have to overpower him,” she thought, as she pressed forward again, this time only knocking aside his rapier so as not to leave herself completely open. He shifted again to the right, and brought his rapier up, so that her attack did not press through his defense. “His rapier can’t cross with my sword, and whereas he needs to hit me in precise targets to kill me, I just need to cut him bad enough and we’re done.”
Elmiryn danced back and pointed her longsword to the ground, her eyes on Arduino’s eyes as they circled each other. All else fell away. It was just her and her opponent, engaged in a ritual that Elmiryn knew well. First was the testing–the dance forward, the dance back–but the warrior was beginning to sense a pattern in the flurry of metal.
He would thrust low, then slash high, toward her head. Other times, he would swipe at her sword, than lunge forward toward her leading shoulder. Strike once, then follow up. Strike once, then follow up. He was good on variation, and sometimes the exact beat of his movement would quicken or slow down–but Elmiryn could feel it. In the shock of her limbs after a strike, from the cry of her iron sword nestling in her ear. One, two. One, two. One, two.
The woman smiled fully.
She let her sword point toward the ground, leaving her face and chest open to strike. Arduino’s eyes narrowed at this. The tip of his rapier bobbed in the air as he bent his knees and readied his arm, his brow furrowed over his hazelnut eyes. Sweat rolled into his gaze, just as sweat rolled into Elmiryn’s. The man did not blink, nor did she.
Then he thrust, a guttural shout lending more power to his attack toward her heart.
The moment he began to move, Elmiryn pushed down on the butt of her hilt with the heel of her right hand, sending the blade arcing up to strike away Arduino’s course. The man recovered, and with the momentum, slashed towards Elmiryn’s eyes.
Elmiryn pulled the sword in close to her body, to absorb the shock of her block. The rapier rang against her iron sword. But before Arduino could pull away, Elmiryn took a large step forward, her blade singing against the rapier as it slid down, then pushed outward against the rapier with all her might. Closer to the hilt, this was harder to do, but the weight of her weapon, and the comprised stance Arduino was left in, caused the man to stumble to the side.
Elmiryn, now less than two feet away from her opponent, brought her knee up for a ruthless blow to the ribs, which sent the man to the ground. The warrior, slid her right foot back, tracing a crescent moon in the earth, and with her left foot now pointing at Arduino, Elmiryn hefted the hilt up and back, so that the flat of the sword was parallel to the side of her face, tip pointed slightly downward.
Arduino moved to lift up his rapier to block, but his eyes knew, as she knew, that he was done for.
Smiling, the warrior thrust her sword downward with all her might…
Lethia brandished the rapier, her face pink, her eyes swollen. “Argos didn’t do anything…but you hurt him. He just wanted me safe.” Her voice was a chilling monotone.
Graz held up his weapon, but his eyes were on Paulo. He forgot me entirely. “What did you do to my brother!?” he shouted, voice cracking with panic. “What’s wrong with him!?”
The enchantress’s only answer was to strike at him. Her body moved with a grace that belied her petite form, and even I was made to forget where I was for a moment. Their fight moved away from me, making me squint in the dust that stirred from their complex changes in position and stance. The youth lunged and parried as though she had fought for years, her eyes ablaze with a righteous anger I had only seen once in her company.
“You hurt Argos!” She shouted as she caught Graz on the arm. The man hissed and stumbled back to a safe distance where he checked the severity of his wound.
As he did so, Lethia held back and waited, letting the tip of her rapier point to the sky. Even in anger, she was held by some sense of honor.
I looked away to see Elmiryn pointing her sword down toward the ground, leaving herself open, and Arduino glaring at her as though he didn’t trust this opportunity. Somehow, this fight had moved on without my aid. But there were two others unaccounted for.
Argos was still down on the ground, but was attempting to gnaw off the bolt. I crawled to him. “Argos!” I murmured. “No! Don’t do that, you might make it worse!” The dog grumbled and looked at me, his body shaking as he craned his neck. I reached for him, scratching him through the mess of his white fur. His hot breath fluttered over my face–not a delightful scent, but I was glad to see he was alright. “Leave it in and try to stay still. No one will harm you…I promise! When this is over, Elmiryn and I will try and take care of your wound…”
The dog whined and licked at my hand. I gave an awkward smile and scratched the back of his ear. I looked over my shoulder, suddenly aware that it was perhaps unwise to have my back to the battle, so I started to crawl so as to sit on the other side of Argos. That was when my eyes fell on Paulo.
He was beginning to move again, fingers scraping useless in the dirt, and his left foot twitched occasionally. I scooted over and rolled him so that he lay on his back completely. His mouth moved just a little, and I thought he wished to speak, so I leaned down, frowning. “…What is it?” I breathed.
He whispered something, and I leaned in closer, so that my ear nearly touched his lips.
“…An axe…for the tree…” he exhaled.
Then there was a blinding flash of light.