Artis’ involvement with the bandits was without any doubts, troublesome. If Jannaj and his men learned from him the location of our hall and our security protocols, they could ransack our entire grounds with ease. Missing this detail was a grave mistake and one I would vividly bring to Tuborg’s attention as soon as we returned.
As the crickets chirped in the middle of the night, I made my way over to each cage and unlocked them as quietly as I could while Artis remained on watch, his feathered bow in hand and warthog at his side. The sturdy animal sniffed at the air and the ground as he began walking a perimeter around Artis. Gently, I turned the key on De Koninck’s cage lock and she slid herself out of her cage. The tall Norn stretched her sore legs from being cramped in such a tight space and whispered a complaint about their size of cages.
“Would you like us to find you a more comfortable cage or are you okay with us getting the hell out of here?” Seren snapped in a whisper as she fumbled with her shoulder plates. I could see her fingers shaking as she adjusted them.
Rolling her eyes, De Koninck reached up high and stretched her back. “Let’s get out of here.”
I nodded in agreement. We had come by the information we sought and now it was time to leave. Luckily for us, Jannaj had loose lips and had unexpectedly offered some helpful details about the ones we were tracking. It almost seemed too easy but I did not want to question it. Bandits were not always known for their intelligence after all.
Silently, I pointed at the large locked chest containing our weapons resting underneath a tall tree on the other side of the camp and motioned for them to follow me. With near soundless steps, we crossed the center of the camp. There was a lock on the front of the chest and I let out a frustrated breath through my teeth. I looked at the cage key still clutched in my hand and wondered if it would fit the lock.
“Did you really think it would be that easy?”
I turned to find ourselves surrounded by Jannaj and his men with every sharp object they could hold pointed in our direction. More appeared from behind trees and stepped out on the rope bridges overhead in the trees themselves. They outnumbered us at least four times over from what I could see at least. I should have known. The information had spilled from his lips as easily as wine spilled from a drunk man’s cup and I was so eager to lap it up that I did not realize how easy it all had been.
“I actually did,” I confessed while letting out a sharp, frustrated breath through my clenched teeth.
“I expected better from you, Artis,” Jannaj sneered. His crooked fingers wrapped around his blade’s grip in anticipation.
“It’s not what it looks like, Jannaj,” Artis claimed, putting his hands up. He held his winged bow tightly by the grip.
“How I see it,” the bandit leader began as he drew his sword. “You’re helping our new captives escape.”
Artis paused for a moment but then shrugged, not able to find a decent explanation. “Yup, it’s exactly what it looks like.”
Without a second thought, Artis swung the end of his bow directly at Jannaj and connected with his nose. Jannaj let out a surprised cry as he reeled back and clutched his face. Blood began to flow from his nose and as the other bandits stood stunned at Artis’ audacity, the hunter ordered his warthog to attack. The sturdy beast dug his hooves into the soft ground and charged at the bandit leader, knocking him onto his back.
“What are ya waiting for Red?” Artis yelled, pulling back on his bow string. “Get your stuff and let’s go!”
I sped to the chest and fell to my knees as the sound of fighting broke out. Jamming the key in the lock, I tried turning it but it would not budge. The lock looked old enough to possibly crumble under a great enough force. I looked around for something I could use to break the lock and grabbed a nearby rock. I started pounding on it as hard as I could. After a few unsuccessful tries, De Koninck appeared at my side, grabbed the rock from my hands and brought it down on the lock as hard as she could, splitting it nearly in two.
“Thank you,” I uttered breathlessly up at her.
De Koninck tore open the lid, nearly removing it from the chest’s hinges, and started pulling out our weapons. As soon as she found her greatsword, she took it and joined in the fight, trading blows with two bandits who had nearly reached us at the chest. My grip found Quint’s bow next. I called his name and tossed it to him as he blocked an incoming strike with his arm brace. He turned and caught the ornate bow in a firm grip. Pulling back the string, a thin beam of energy formed into an arrow and he loosed it square into his opponent’s chest, knocking him back a number of yards towards the inner circle of trees. He pulled back the string again, letting loose another arrow into the bandit’s heart.
I felt a presence rush in behind me. Instinctively, I moved to the side just as a bandit’s knife wielding hand flew past me and collided with the chest. I turned and thrust out my foot, connecting with the bandit’s knee. There was a horrible popping sound as his knee bent sideways. The large man started to scream as Seren slammed her shoulder into the man and knocked him over. I reached into the chest, found the Shiverstone’s grip, and tossed Seren her mace. With a fluid motion, her arm arched above her head and she brought the mace down hard onto the downed bandit as he tried to push himself up. There was a wet crunching sound as the weapon connected with his head. The bandit fell lifeless back to the ground.
“My book,” Seren said as she readied herself for another approaching bandit. “They took it too.”
As I rummaged through the chest looking for Seren’s book, I pulled out my axe and dagger and dropped them at my feet. There were a few other items and weapons I had to dig through from previous ‘guests’ in the chest besides our weapons. I did not see Seren’s book at first but then my fingers touched something made of rough leather under a large hammer and immediately I tightened my grip on the object and pulled it out of the chest. The old book looked familiar to me but as soon as she saw the pale cover, Seren snatched it from my hand. There was a gentle hum in the air and with a strong wave of the book, a brilliant white light sailed its way from the book to another bandit who had almost reached her. The bandit stopped suddenly and reached up to his eyes, crying out as his vision failed. Seren took the opportunity to strike the man in his head with her mace and with a dull thud, he hit the ground as his life left him.
A loud crack erupted from the edge of the skirmish and I turned to find Molson and Michi free of their pens. Having helped the pets escape, De Koninck tossed aside a large piece of the wooden fencing, taking out a couple more of Jannaj’s men. With quick, short strides, Michi rushed to Quint’s side, letting out a terrifying shriek at a nearby bandit rushing at Quint’s back. The woman stumbled, holding her head in confusion for a moment until an arrow erupted from her chest and she fell over.
“Better watch your back old man!” Artis called with a smirk. He pulled back his bow string again and let another arrow fly at a bandit up on one of the rope bridges who was aiming her rifle at De Koninck.
The familiar chill of death began to settle into the bandits’ camp as I took up my axe and dagger and joined in the fight. I sought out the closest bandit and swung my axe upwards, slinging claws of energy tearing into his side and drawing blood. As he clutched his side, I rushed in, planting my dagger deep into his heart. He died within seconds and I left his lifeless corpse on the ground to seek out another. Movement from the corner of my eye caught my attention and I turned to find Jannaj’s right hand man staring me down.
“You took something from me,” Vic said, pointing a long dagger at me.
A wicked smile grew on my lips. “You should be more careful where you hide your keys.”
He narrowed his eyes and lunged with his dagger pointed at my throat. I waited until he was within reach before moving slightly to the side. I caught his arm with the curved edge of my blade, leaving an elongated and clean slice. Before he could turn around, I waved my winged dagger in Vic’s direction, emitting a thick swarm of insects that assaulted his sight and gave me a chance for another attack. With great force, I swung out my axe and let it go, only holding on by threads of unseen energy. The amber weapon spun in the air, tearing into Vic with deadly green claws of energy. He cried out, trying to block the attack but was not completely successful. He fell to the ground but not before throwing out a small blade. I was too close to dodge the weapon and it bit into my shoulder.
“Argh!” I cried out. My concentration broke and my axe returned to my hand. I started to double over, pain searing throughout my shoulder. The blade was still embedded but not too deep. I clenched my teeth and prepared myself for the surge of pain as I yanked the blade out with a couple free fingers from my axe hand. Luckily, the large amount of adrenalin already coursing through my body at the time helped dull the sensation.
No sooner had I tossed aside the bloodied blade then I felt the ground rushing up to meet me. It took me a full second to orientate myself and when I did, I found Vic on top of me, his long dagger heading straight for my throat. I managed to block his arm with my own, my axe blade but he kept pushing down, determined to seal my fate. He stared down at me, his pale eyes filled with confidence and a grin pulling at the corner of his lips.
Unbeknownst to him, I had been working to rotate my dagger’s blade during our struggle. My dagger’s arm had been pinned but I could still move my hand and most of my lower arm. A dull ache set in my right arm as the muscles tired while holding Vic at bay. I had to hurry. Taking in a deep breath, I brought my dagger to an upright position, moved my head and neck to the side, and rotated my axe to lay the flat side against Vic, allowing him to fall close enough for me to pierce his side. I felt my dagger sink into him. Pushing it in as far as I could, I turned the blade to let his blood run freely. His pale eyes widened in surprise and then grew heavy as his grip on his dagger loosened and his body grew slack. I mustered my strength and pushed him off me and onto the ground.
I rose and immersed myself in the symphony of cries, weapons, and blood that was so familiar to me. The sweet scent of death filled the air and I breathed it in. There was a quiet stillness in it that I had almost forgotten. It was calming, almost serene. There was no anger and pain present as it does when death came to one of your own. I could feel myself relaxing, my shoulders starting to lower but in an instant, I broke out in a cold sweat as I realized what was happening. I was allowing the illusion to slip. Taking in another deep breath, I squared my shoulders and contained my sense of tranquility in the fight as I sought out another bandit to help meet their end.