It had been a long time since I had been so violently active but the groans escaping from yet another dying bandit in front of me proved I had not lost my deadly touch. With a pitiful whimper, the bandit buckled and fell to his knees. I pushed on his shoulder with my red leather boot to help him find the ground. The fight had been going better than I had expected. We had taken down many bandits while only taking on a few minor wounds ourselves. The pain from my shoulder had started to cut through despite the large amount of adrenalin in my body, making it difficult to move it. Still, I was able to manage by using mostly my axe hand. Against these untrained men and women, it was all I needed anyway.
The noise of battle began to dwindle but I could still hear the occasional songs of arrows and the clashing of metal as we sought out the now scattering bandits. One by one, they fell until only a handful were left. It would not take much more work.
“I’m going to give the order, you bastard!” a red faced Jannaj warned, pointing his blade at Artis who had readied his bow at Jannaj. The bandit leader stared him down with a fury that matched Balthazar’s rage. “You’ll never see her again!”
“See who?” I demanded loudly, felling another bandit as I worked my way over to the two men.
“Don’t you dare!” Artis roared.
“See WHO?” I demanded, pointing my axe at the men locked in a standoff.
Artis’ white knuckled grip pulled even further back on his bow string. A slender string of light formed into a slender arrow. “My mother,” he growled. Yunkle, his warthog let out a furious snort and pawed at the ground, threatening to charge at Jannaj.
“Your–“, I was not sure if I had heard him correctly. “Mother?”
“Oh you didn’t know?” Jannaj scoffed. “And here I thought you were all buddy-buddy, what with Artis breaking you all out while knowing what the consequences would be.”
I opened my mouth to demand more answers, but a series of loud clicks pulled my attention away from the two men. Three of Jannaj’s bandits had managed to get out of range from my companion’s attacks and were scrambling to uncover something large. They pulled an old patched up cloth off of a bulky tarnished iron turret. One of the bandits disappeared inside the machine’s shell to man the weapon and as it emitted a loud metallic grinding, the gun’s barrels started rotating in our direction.
“Turret!” I yelled, pointing at the large weapon. I felt a rush of air next to my head as one of Quint’s arrows sailed past me and found its mark in one of the bandits guarding the turret and buried itself deep in his chest.
A fierce battle cry erupted from De Koninck as she and Molson raced side by side towards the turret with Seren in tow. Snowflakes trailed from the brilliant blue stone in Seren’s mace as she raised it above her head, ready to strike. There was a loud metallic thud from the turret and a second later, the gun fired. I dove out of the way as quickly as I could but luckily, I was already on the outskirts of the mortar’s target. As I brought myself to my knees, I heard the mortar’s collision mixed with Seren’s cry. I looked up to find De Koninck ahead of Seren and pushing herself up to resume her advance on the turret. The Norn had taken some damage from the blast, as was evident from her cracked bracers and the blood on her now ripped skirt but she did not let that slow her down. However, Seren remained on the ground, stunned and in the middle of a scattering of shimmering shards while clutching what was left of her Shiverstone mace.
There was another series of clicks as a second mortar was loaded into the turret.
“Seren!” I yelled, panicking. “Get up!”
A metallic grinding filled the air as the bandit inside fine tuned the barrels’ aim in Seren’s direction. I called out to De Koninck to help her but the sounds of her greatsword colliding with the turret drowned out my voice. Quint was still further away than I so I dug my fingers into the cold earth and pushed myself up.
“Do not kill him!” I barked, pointing at Jannaj as I sped away towards the downed guardian.
“Oh he’s not goin’ anywhere!” I heard Artis insist as I ran towards Seren with all the strength I could muster. I collided with her and using the force from our collision, I managed to pull us out of the blast zone just barely. The detonation rumbled throughout my entire body and I immediately felt a ringing in my ears from the deafening sound. Shaking my head, I tried to will the ringing to go away but as Quint’s red drake hastened towards the bandits at the turret, I was thankful to not be able to hear the full effect of her sonic shriek.
“Come on,” I said to Seren as I helped her to her feet. I wrapped my arm around the young guardian and guided her to a nearby tree, leaving behind the icy shards from her Shiverstone mace scattered on the ground. The young guardian had clearly been shaken with the destruction of her favorite weapon. She still clenched the handle tightly in her hand.
“Are you okay?” I asked Seren. Her whole body shook as I placed my hands on her shoulders. She did not respond and instead let her gaze fall down to the broken mace in her hand. I heard a faint dying cry as Quint and De Koninck took out another of the bandits and disabled the barrels on the turret. As the ringing in my ears went away, a sickly grinding noise filled the area as the bandit manning the weapon tried to rotate the barrels towards De Koninck and Quint but the mechanism had been destroyed and was now stuck and unable to fire.
“Seren,” I began, shaking her shoulders gently. “Look at me.”
Seren looked up at me, her hazel eyes glossy. The destruction of her favorite weapon had clearly done a number on her. She looked at me with such pain in her eyes and then in an instant, something within her changed. An anger fought its way through the sadness and made its home there in her eyes as they narrowed. Her knuckles turned white as she gripped her mace handle tighter and her body stopped shaking. Startled in the dramatic change, I removed my hands from her shoulders and took a step back.
“They broke it,” Seren whispered harshly.
“It will be okay,” I tried to assure her while still trying to keep an eye on the battle with the turret. They all seemed to have everything handled and Artis still had Jannaj where I left them so I let my focus remain on Seren.
“They broke it,” Seren repeated through clenched teeth. Her heartbeat raged thunderously and it echoed in my ears. The anger I had seen in her eyes had begun to spread throughout her body and took hold. Her body grew rigid and without a word she left the cover of the tree and stormed towards the turret. De Koninck had dragged out the last bandit from the shelter of the turret as he fought to free himself from the Norn’s strong hold on him. With a shove, De Koninck thrust the bandit upon the ground and raised her greatsword high above her head but before she could bring the large blade down upon the bandit’s head, Seren sped toward the bandit and struck him hard across his cheek with her broken mace, leaving a deep gash along the side of his head. The man let out a painful cry as blood flowed down his cheek and dripped onto his shoulder. He begged us to let him go.
De Koninck took an uneasy step back, startled by Seren’s unexpected rage-driven outburst towards the remaining bandit. I had even stopped short, shocked by her unusual behavior. Without a word, Seren struck the bandit again, leaving a gaping wound on his other cheek. With a terrifying cry, the young guardian plunged the stoneless mace into the bandit’s right eye. He fell over in a fit of convulsions before eventually growing still. Holding down his body with her boot, Seren pulled the broken mace from the bandit and flung drops of blood and matter onto the ground with a fling of her wrist and then she glowered at Jannaj, the remaining bandit.
“Wait Seren,” I began. I wanted to keep Jannaj alive a little longer to see if we could get any other information out of the bandit leader.
Without a reply, Seren marched towards Jannaj with a white-knuckled grip on her broken weapon. Red blood dripped down the handle, leaving a light trail along the ground. She approached Jannaj with an intensity I had not seen before. Ignoring Artis and his warthog who now kept his tusks between him and the young guardian, Seren raised her weapon, ready to strike the bandit leader. I raced to her side as fast as I could but Quint had outrun me with Michi close on his heels and reached Seren before I could. He holstered his longbow on his back and quickly grabbed her arm to hold her back from hurting Jannaj.
“Don’t!” Seren cried as she struggled. “He deserves to die just like the rest of them!”
“And he will,” our Adviser firmly assured Seren. “When it’s time. Right now we need him.”
“You don’t understand,” Seren began, her words turning from anger to sorrow. “They were all I had left of him.”
“I know,” The Adviser replied, his own tone softening. “But you still have his book, don’t you?”
Seren and Quint remained locked together in a struggle for a moment until a realization of what she still had left swept over Seren. She conceded and lowered her broken weapon with an audible sigh as she turned from us. As Seren placed a hand on the old pale book at her hip, De Koninck strode to her side and put a strong arm around her shoulders to comfort her. Her great bear uttered a sorrowful grunt as he nudged Seren’s arm with his muzzle. I used that moment to position myself between the young guardian and Jannaj just in case.
“Cliped that little bird’s wings, didn’t ya,” the bandit leader quipped.
Before anyone else could react, I delivered a furious blow to Jannaj’s cheek with the flat side of my dual edge blade. It left a large red spot that was already starting to swell. “Hold him,” I ordered. De Koninck gripped him by the shoulder and pushed Jannaj to his knees as he let out a breathless chuckle. “And him,” I said, pointing at Artis.
The hunter’s earthen eyes grew wide. “Why?!” He demanded as he turned his head sharply to me. “I helped you guys escape!”
While Artis’ attention had been on me, Quint silently stepped around Artis until he was behind him and with a swift kick to the back of his knees, Quint sent the hunter to the ground. He grabbed Artis’ feathered bow with both hands, pulled it back against Artis’ neck and forced him to his knees. With both hands, Artis pulled back on his bow, struggling against Quint’s hold on it but was unable to free himself from the Adviser’s strong grip. “Who needs to watch their back now?” Quint quipped as he looked down at Artis.
“What is going on between you and Jannaj?” I demanded, pointing my axe between the two kneeling men.
A wicked chuckle spilled from Jannaj’s lips and I flashed him a threatening glance which ceased the chuckle but not the grin pulling at the bandit’s lips.
“My mother was in trouble. She was trying to get to Fort Selma but got caught by centaurs along the way. Breakin’ her out wasn’t exactly a one man job. I needed help and no one else would help me.” Artis confessed and then nodded towards Jannaj. “I struck a deal with this bastard . We took out the whole herd and got her to safety.”
“And the thievery?” I asked.
“Payment,” Jannaj explained as he glowered at Artis. “We don’t work for free.”
“But it was never enough, was it Jannaj,” Artis bit out, each word fueling his anger. “Each score wasn’t as much as you expected or didn’t count ’cause it was part of a larger score. There was always an excuse!”
“Why not just kill him then,” Seren growled as she turned back around and secured the book back on her person. The young guardian stepped up next to me, still clutching the bloodied broken mace tightly. I placed a hand on her arm and held firmly to prevent her from raising it.
The bandit leader looked up at Seren, the corners of his lips curling upwards. “I have men tailing her and if he attacks me or any one of us, they are instructed to send her to the mists.”
I contemplated the new information for a moment before speaking again. “Why us?” I asked. “Why ask for membership?”
Artis craned his neck to look over at me. “Tuborg said you guys could keep her safe from Jannaj’s men and in return I’d join you and remain loyal to the guild.”
“That’s very tough to do while still owing Jannaj and his men a debt,” I replied matter-of-factly.
“I was hoping to then take ’em all out once she was safe with your people,” Artis confessed.
Jannaj let out another chuckle. There was a hint of abandon in the sound though, as if he was conceding to his current situation. “And it seems you’ve succeeded.”
“Except you,” Artis growled. He narrowed his eyes at the bandit leader and tightened his grip on his bow.
Silence settled in as Artis and Jannaj remained caught in a wordless exchange of glares. I let out a heavy, frustrated sigh as I mentally placed myself in Artis’ steps. If I had even the slightest chance at justice for the disappearance of my parents and the death of my aunt and uncle, I would have taken it without a second thought. He wanted to save his mother, someone he loved dearly and desperation to save loved ones often lead to choices you would not otherwise entertain.
I would know.
He had also had helped in earnest to help us escape and that also could not be ignored.
I stepped over to Quint and placed my hand on Artis’ feathered bow. “Let him up,” I said and was met with a puzzled glance. “I am not one to stand in the way of a person’s chance at justice.” Reluctantly, Quint released his hold on Artis’ bow and let the hunter scramble to his feet.
“You can have your justice today and we will keep your mother safe,” I said to Artis as I let go of his bow. I leaned in closer, closing the distance between us until our faces were merely a couple inches apart. “But if your arrow turns toward me or any of my people, I will personally remove your head from your shoulders and leave you for the scavengers.” The hunter swallowed hard and nodded. “Then he is all yours.”
I holstered my axe and dagger and watched as pitiful cries erupted from Jannaj, begging us to spare his life. Promises of gold and gems spilled from his lips if we let him live. The sound of Artis’ pulled bowstring came next, followed by the airy song of an arrow flying. Silence fell as I felt the familiar mingling of cold and emptiness rise.