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  I spent most of the day left enjoying the nicer things in life. I left most of my gear with the local smith, paying handsomely for the trouble. Though he said nothing, I could tell he used to be an adventurer. He grumbled at the extra workload but accepted the coin all the same. Lighter of weight, I decided to ask around a bit more about the place where I’ll be going; this abandoned shrine. 

  Most people though, brushed me off when I tried to approach them, not bothering to even explain why. This went on until evening when I ended up right back at the local inn, pondering whether I could order supper. But no innkeeper greeted me as I stepped in. Instead, three burly men took various positions in the inn, including one right next to the door. I stepped away from the scowling trio and found myself sitting down face-to-face with a man. 

  “Hello, Knight. Fancy meeting you here, at such a fine establishment. Where’s your little tyke? Did he die already?” The man laughed while never keep his eyes off me.

  “I work alone now. More money that way.” I said , reaching for the pile of fresh bread on the table. A swish of air later, I dodged the knife now implanted onto the wooden table.

  “It’s my bread. Go ahead and spend your precious money if you’re that hungry.” He made his point by breaking off a large piece and chomped down. “Pretty good for a small village. I like it.”

  “What do you want, Zai?” I rested an arm on the table, while the other hung free. “I thought I made my resignation very clear with the letter I left behind.”

  “Yes. Your “letter”.” Zai spat at the ground. “It was too harsh for me and your other friends. Sinta fainted.”

  “So are you here to kill me? With these trolls?” I gave a glance at the trio of the day. “Are they even any good?”  

  “They’re enough for you,” Zai said. The nearest troll started moving towards me, arms flexed and ready to throw down. I gifted him with my knife. As the blade sunk in, I closed the distance between us, grabbing the knife as I did and kept running. 

  My destination was the nearby window. I leaped through it, rolling onto my feet and not looking back. As I ran, several villagers stepped out onto the open to see what was going on. Good, they can slow him down for a bit. I thought as I made my way to the smithy. But as soon as the smith saw me, he walked inside his house and locked it, leaving me at a bit of a loss on how to proceed.

  “Knight! Come with me if you want to live!” I turned my head at the source of that proposal and saw Sabine. She dressed like how I imagined a witch would be, with an over-sized pointy hat, a black robe, and a thin wand. I blinked and I saw her as I did at the inn; a completely normal girl. With not much option at hand, I walked over to her.

  “This isn’t a good time for games, Sabine,” I said. “Some bad people are after me.”

  “I know. Everyone knows. My father is telling everyone to lock themselves in and wait for things to calm down.” Sabine stamped her foot. ”I don’t like it one bit.”

  “So you’re helping me because…?”

  “Because you’ll help me get that idol if I do.” Sabine smiled as we walked down the road. “That’s a fair trade. Your life for a mere idol.”

  “An idol that’s in a forest with monsters. Think again.” I frowned. “Your bargaining skills need work.”

  “I can bargain fine!” Sabine huffed. “Your friends won’t kill me. They wouldn’t dare. But you?” She stopped and looked me up and down before smirking. “They might even reward me if I bring you to them. I could even feel grateful enough to do the little request I offered to you. Who knows, right?”

  My hands twitched as I thought of choking the little bitch. But, I found myself unable to muster the will to act against her, only feeling the hate grow without an outlet. With great reluctance, I spoke out, “Okay, I’ll do your stupid little request. But I can’t do it without my gear and items.”

  “Oh, I already got them. They’re in a safe place.” Sabine said, going off the road and heading off through some field. “Your friends are coming this way. Quick, smear some mud on, and pretend you’re a farmer.”

  “What?” I managed to say before Sabine threw a fistful of mud to my face. After that delightful delivery, I got the message and bent down low. I took off my tunic and smeared mud on my skin. At this point, I also began seeing my pursuers approaching from where I was and ahead of me. I glanced at Sabine and saw her looking back.

  “This is a terrible idea.” I mouthed to her, a mud ball at the ready.

  “Oh if you think this a bad idea, then-” Sabine had the misfortune of catching my mud ball right in the mouth. “HEY! WHAT GIVES YOU UNGRATEFUL PRICK! I AM TRYING TO HELP YOU!”

  “OH I’M SORRY, AM I THE ONE WHO GOES OFF TO A FIELD AND STARTS PLAYING AROUND WITH MUD?!” I shouted back.

  “IT WAS PART OF A PLAN AND NOW YOU’RE RUINING IT!” She got closer to me and seemed mad as hell.

  “How did the mud taste? Crusty?” I whispered, a stressful smile on my face.

  Her reply was a punch to my face.

  “Fuck! What was that for?!”

  “That’s for throwing mud at my mouth!” 

  By this point, I had ceased to care about my pursuers and decided to commit fully to the fool’s play that was unfolding.

  “It was a lucky shot,” I mumbled. “It’s not like I meant it to hit.”

I have good aim. I thought. I should get a bow.

  “But did you have to THROW IT AT MY MOUTH?!” Sabine pointed at her muddied lips. “I’m tasting shit here!”

  “Okay, fine! I was being stupid. Go ahead and hit me again to prove the point.” I said out loud with what I thought was obvious sarcasm.

  But no, she had to punch me again, though this time around I managed to retaliate by slapping back. After that, it was a sort of brawl mixed with shouting and curses, ended only when Zai’s men separated me from Sabine. 

  The one that got me had a nice cut on one of his arms. A new one at that. I couldn't breathe as the brute restrained me. I then heard raucous laughter came from nearby. my captor turned around and made me see Zai doubling over and clutching his stomach. One of his trolls was beside him, looking as mindless as ever.

  “Oh, gods,” Zai exclaimed as he wiped a tear from his eye. “Did you have a brawl with a child in a field while trying to run away??”

  “I’M NOT A CHILD!” Sabine growled. “I’m-” Whatever words she had for everyone remained idle as her captor placed a hand over her mouth. She struggled, but it was futile against the strength of a troll.

  “I’m pretty sure she’s the village chief’s daughter, so I’d lay off her if I were you,” I remarked to Zai.

  “Yes, I know. But she did try to help you escape, which lets me rough her up a bit. A warning.” Zai drew a knife from his person and held up Sabine’s chin with the edge. “It must be hard, living with such an average face, dear. How about a little decoration to frame it better?”

  In a pleasant twist, Sabine’s face looked unimpressed with Zai’s threat, rolling her eyes at it. Judging from how Zai faltered for a moment, I guess my ex-partner didn’t expect that reaction either. Unfortunately for Sabine, Zai was less patient than I am in dealing with disrespect.

  “This little bitch thinks she’s royalty, huh?” Zai said, “Thinks she’s above a little scarring? Well then, I can give you lots of scars.” Sabine winced as the knife nicked her in its retreat back to Zai’s person. The bastard then brought out a small, unassuming vial, toying with it on his hand.

  “This beauty can eat rocks and metal bars in minutes. I paid a hefty price for it, which is why you’re only going to have one drop for free.” Zai nodded to the free troll beside him. That troll took hold of Sabine's left side, while the previous took her right side. With her mouth freed, Sabine wasted no time in cursing up a storm. I would’ve done the same if I didn’t already know what the liquid inside Zai’s vial could do to naked flesh.

  “Wait,” I spoke out, halting Zai’s advance. “I’m sorry I left the way that I did, Zai. I am.”

  “Oh?” Zai said, putting a cork back into his vial of liquid death. “What’s this? Is this genuine regret I hear? From a traitorous coward that ruined everything?!”

  “Everything was fine when I left. I daresay I made it easier for you all since I got blamed for everything that went wrong in the city.” I said, making sure Zai’s eyes were solely on me.  We could’ve parted on better terms. On better times even, but I still believed everyone would’ve done fine without me.”

  “So you’re saying it’s not your fault things went to hell after you left?” Zai said hands clenched tight. “It’s not your fault that we fell so low and so hard that there have been rumors that we were disbanded?!!”

  “Boss, the villagers are coming.” One of the trolls interrupted the heartwarming reunion between me and Zai. “What do we do with the girl?”

  “Ugh,” Zai grunted. ”Let her go, but keep her from running off. She’s our way out of this village unharmed.” The trolls complied. To her credit, Sabine didn’t try to run off, though she still glared at me whenever our eyes cross paths. 

  “As for you, traitor, the village chief will be more than happy to let me take you.” Zai put his vial of acid back into its hiding place. “That’s the beauty of isolated villages; they don’t trust outsiders coming in.”

  “Now, you.” Zai pointed to the only injured troll. “Hide that wound. Wouldn’t want the village chief to think we’re of a mind to use violence first.”

  I sigh as the trolls took positions behind Zai. Everyone then walked off the field and onto the main road. From where the road led to the inn came a dozen people with various things on hand. Sickles, shovels, machetes, hammers; they had the lot. The man leading them carried a proper sword, if a bit rusted.

  “Daddy!” Sabine cried out.

  “Sabine! Are you alright?!” The village chief stopped when he saw his daughter, which Zai took as the cue for him to step into the limelight. 

  “Greetings, chief of this lovely little village. My name is Hosea Zai and I have good news for you.”

  “My name is Mathis and if you don’t get your hands off my daughter, you’re going to find out why monsters don't come near here.” The village chief growled at Zai’s theatrics.

  “Rest assured Mathis, I didn’t lay a hand on your daughter,” Zai said, waving his hand around. “If she didn’t try and interfere with my business, I’d have been more than happy to ignore her entirely. But here we are now.”

  "And what is your business here, exactly? Where is your “friend” that you’ve been searching for?“

  “Right here, as promised.” Zai presented me like a trophy. “And as promised, I will leave with my friend and never bother you again.”

  “He’s lying!” Sabine said, trying to wriggle free from her captors. “I heard him talking about coming back and killing us in our sleep, just to cover his tracks!”

  “That is an outrageous lie!” Zai seethed. “I am a man of my words! I would never sully my honor for such cowardly acts.” 

Oh great, here comes his theatrics. I groaned as I prepared myself for what was to come.

  “Honor aside, I think the coward part is quite obvious with your three “helpers” here. They have more muscle in one arm than you have in your entire body.” Sabine remarked. “Are you that afraid of getting your butt kicked by Knight?”

  “Hey, don’t drag me into this,” I said out loud. “And Zai, stop kicking dirt around and finish things already.”

  I AM KICKING YOU IN THE NUTS IF YOU DON’T SHUT UP, Zai seemed to imply with his glare towards me.

  “Boss, I think we should let the girl go.” The troll holding me spoke up with surprising lucidity of the situation. “We already got what we came here for.”

  “Quiet, you little-”

  “I have to agree with Quentin, for once. I think we should cut our losses and get out while we still have all the cards.” The troll that I injured joined the growing movement of reason.

  “Why you little traitorous-”

  “Our loyalty is with the Order, not you Zai. Our service to you is a matter of courtesy and a favor done in good faith.” The last troll chimed in with a strong finish, rendering Zai speechless.

  “…Fine!” Zai threw his hands up. “Fine. Let the girl go, Dorn, Wesson.” The trolls in question complied, which left me still in Quentin’s hold. Sabine took a few tentative steps, and after seeing the troll staying put, rushed over to her dad’s side. The crowd welcomed her. Not least of which was Mathis, who seemed like he wanted to hug Sabine, but was still wary of Zai and the trolls.

  “I see reason has not left you yet, Zai. You may leave our village in peace.” Mathis sheathed this sword. “But never return here.” Mathis thanked Zai, to which he turned around and started walking. The trolls followed suit, which left me precious little time to say goodbye. 

  I took one glance back at the retreating crowd and saw Sabine looking back. She said nothing, but then pointed to the back of her left hand. Before I could respond, Quentin pulled me away as he took out a length of rope and tied my hands behind my back.

  “Alright, get a move on, Mr. Knight. We have a long road ahead of us.”

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ShellBlu

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