Should I tell them about the girl?
Aenir looked at the faces of the six men inside the tent. They were the slavers who, unlike the mercenaries paid only as escorts, were on the payroll of the organization backing the Lord’s business. Without the Lord acting as a proxy, however, they would have no connections to the syndicate – mere underlings, so to speak. Of course, that included Aenir himself.
“To surmise,” the Lord knocked his cane on the ground to gain everyone’s attention, “it’s couple of days early, but just as we’ve planned, we divide our group into six parties, use the eastern route and rendezvous at Monarch’s Strait for the crossing in forty days, give or take a week. Same warehouse, got it? Keep things nice and scheduled, and don’t mess around lest your pay won’t be the only thing you’ll be missing.”
Murmurs of agreement could be heard between them.
They’ll find out sooner or later. Aenir understood how much the Lord liked things rare and unique. A red-haired Narsi, for example, or a young albino. What could he do to her once he found out? He glanced at his boss – there were currently more worrying things than one girl, such as, how suspicious was the Lord of him? How much did he let on his intents? Rats and traitors were dealt with extreme prejudice around these parts, and Aenir weighed the chances of him becoming the next example of it.
“Oh, and one more thing. I’ll be having the human girls in my party,” the Lord added. This drew curious looks, but no one dared to ask–
—no one but Aenir, that is. The others gave him stares as if it was a cardinal sin, but he didn’t give a crap. The fact that he’ll be in the Lord’s party should be reason enough.
The Lord looked amused as he answered, “If you must know, Aenir, two of them was wrongfully captured. I intend to personally assure them of their safety.”
“And the other one?” There were three human girls, Aenir remembered.
“The Narsi was sold to us,” the Lord said, smiling. “I owe her some disciplining. I can let you in on it if you want.”
Aenir felt like vomiting. “Thank you for the offer, my lord. I will put it into consideration.”
He couldn’t tell them about the girl. He should’ve, he knew that once they found out in the morning, it would further drop his credibility in the Lord’s eyes, which was the last thing he needed when he could already be under scrutiny. But when he thought about the Lord visiting this unique-looking girl who had zero means to defend herself, he couldn’t bring himself to reveal it.
Needing space to think, Aenir found himself a place a fair distance from the nearest campfire, away from the festivities of mercenaries celebrating the arrival of their fellow criminals. He was just starting to clean out gunk from his pistol, residue from the previous fight, when someone approached him.
“Uh, evenin’,” the young mercenary greeted awkwardly. He was no older than a teenager.
Aenir gave him a stare. This boy was in the same group, chosen by the Lord himself for reasons unknown. He held in his hand a flask, presumably filled with alcohol.
“Do you need something, Piery?”
“Nothin’ much,” Piery answered. “Heard you got attacked by beasts earlier?”
“Yes, I was. Were you not informed?”
“Nay, uh… just curious if you got injured or somethin’?”
“No,” said Aenir curtly. In his head, he was trying to figure out the point of this conversation.
Piery held out the flask. “Drinks?”
“No thanks. I’m coaching tomorrow.”
“Oh, okay. I, uh… I’ll be joining the others. You comin’?”
Aenir glanced at the drunken lads dancing by the fires. They seemed to be having a contest to get the biggest flares from spraying booze into the fire. One guy nearly got his face burned when he sprayed a second too long, got off with only fraying the fringes of his moustache.
“Maybe later, thanks." Piery left after that dismissal, leaving Aenir to distract himself with maintaining his gun.
What the hell was that? Was the boy just checking up on his colleague? Or was there another reason to that seemingly pointless exchange?
It wasn’t even a minute after Piery left that another set of footsteps approached. “You know, you don’t make a very good spy like that,” Luise said.
“Eavesdropping, are we?” Aenir replied without bothering to look up.
“There wasn’t anything to eavesdrop on.” Luise sat joining Aenir and whistled a distinct melody composed of three short note; an echo of the evening birds. While repeating that tune, he joined the maintenance routine, "Hey, can I borrow your brushing pipe?”
“Oh, and here,” he passed over a fist-sized sack to Aenir, “try these the next time you’re hunting nirhounds.”
Aenir took the bag and peeked inside. He raised a brow, “Buckshot?”
“The less you need to aim, the better it is against beasts. Your gun is just large enough for those, I think,” Luise said. He took a quick look around before speaking in a lower voice, “How is our white princess?”
“I tucked her in nicely, but she still needs to be fed.” Aenir dropped the lead shots one by one into a chamber, testing to see how many would fit. “I couldn’t tell them.”
Luise pulled out the brushing pipe out of a barrel with a -plop- sound, then turned his head to his friend with a ludicrous look. “What?”
“I couldn’t tell them about her.
Luise assembled his gun back, fixing the pin with a clear ring. “You can’t hide her forever.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure something out. In the meantime, we have more urgent matters to attend to.”
“That we do,” Aenir nodded in agreement, “The Lord moved up his timetable and they’ll– we will be departing at dawn in six separate parties for passage through the borders. Other than the Lord himself, no one knows which route the others are using. Our best bet? Strike when they’ve regrouped, just before the crossing into the peninsula. They’ll be using one of the warehouses inside the harbor. I can mark the place and give your guys a signal when it’s time to attack.”
“That would take too long. We have to take him down now.”
Aenir put his gun aside. “How? The drifters are still two days away.”
“New plan. I’ll find a way to get into the Lord’s group. We can rope him down and get him to talk, then let the drifters take the other parties.”
“That’s too risky.”
“It’s the only way.”
“The only way?” Aenir crossed his arms. “Is there a reason why we can’t extend the timeline?”
Luise sighed, his breath visible in the cold. His gaze drifted to the wagons were the new girls were kept. “Among the newcomers, there was a raven-haired girl, yes?”
“Yes.” The boldness of the girl who demanded food from him – there was no way he’d forget it. “What about her?”
“There’s a bubble forming,” Luise told him, “and for every day she’s not where she’s supposed to be, the bubble swells. When it pops, and it will, it’s in everyone’s interest for it to be as small as possible.”
He narrowed his eyes. He could make a few guesses as to who this girl was. “Everyone’s interest, you say? Who’s everyone?”
“Everyone,” Luise asserted.
Aenir clicked the cylinder back into the gun. His eyes were admiring the pistol’s metallic surface, but his mind was elsewhere. “How come you know she’s in my party?”
“Because I know she couldn’t resist,” Luise made a mischievous smile, “or maybe because I was eavesdropping on the meeting. At any rate, I may have another plan.”
“There’s no time to explain.” Luise stood up and stretched his back. “If this plan is to work, there can be no delay. I, uh… I need to sneak out of camp. Can you make a distraction?”
“You’re pulling this crap on me? Really?”
“Have faith, Aenir. It’s now or never, and I mean now.”
Aenir packed his tools away and briefly watched the joviality around the campfire where it had gotten to Piery’s turn to spray the fire. The boy produced an impressively pitiful flare. “As long as you keep your end of the deal,” he said as he walked towards them.
“I was wrong you know. You do make a good spy,” Luise said. He started walking the other direction, to a corner of the camp where the mercenaries’ eyes didn’t linger.
Cracking his neck, Aenir concocted a dialogue in his mind. He knew how to fight, but this? Socializing, fitting in? No, Luise. I am not a good spy.
He stopped just outside the group of men circling the bonfire and waited for them to notice him.
“Well, well, look who’s here to join us!” one of the older men announced.
“Aenir, laddie, wherever you been?”
“Oh, good timing, it’s yer turn now!”
“I betcha my ass his flame be pettier than Petty Piery here.”
“I was just cleaning my gun,” Aenir said while accepting the booze offered to him. He drank one big gulp and held it in his mouth. You better make this worth it, Luise.
Drunken cheers were exchanged hours past midnight as slavers and hirelings alike celebrated their last night together before the long journey south. After the flame died out, they turned in to their own tents one by one, leaving only an unfortunate few to watch the night.
Aenir’s gaze bored into a dwindling fire, his hood pulled up to help stave the cold. He kept tapping his foot following an invisible rhythm, stopping when he became conscious of it, but continued as soon his focus was somewhere else. To be precise, his focus was on a set of approaching footsteps.
“Piery,” him again, “you’re supposed to be on watch.”
“I need a minute to warm up. Can I sit here?”
Piery sat, made himself comfortable, if he wasn’t looking so distracted. He kept glancing at Aenir as if terribly aware of the man’s presence. For someone who asked, he didn’t look like he wanted to be there.
“Is there something bothering you?” Aenir asked.
“That’s what I wanted to ask you.”
You’re the one who keeps bothering me. He cleared his throat, “Well, then, no. Why do you ask?”
“Um, are you sure there’s nothing?”
Aenir narrowed his eyes with suspicion. The boy’s insistence made it feel less like small talk and more like an interrogation. There was something else in his look—expectant? Knowing? Piery knew something, and now he was beating around the bush to get some sort of reaction.
Aenir smiled. Then he reached for his sword.
“W– wait, I won’t tell no one,” Piery told him.
“Tell anyone about what?” He loosened the strap fastening the blade to the scabbard.
“The girl? The one you brought here? I saw you takin’ your own rations and–”
There was a clank as Aenir pulled his sword partially out of the scabbard, revealing the blade’s dark shine as it reflected the light from the fire. “Even if there is a girl,” he spoke, lowly, “what would you want in return?” Play along for now, see what he wants.
“N– nothin’. I want nothin’, really. Consider it me payin’ back a favor,” Piery said, hand slightly raised as if to protect himself from the sword’s gleam.
“On our last run, you seen me free that slave and kept quiet about it. I, uh, I just– I thought maybe this make us even?”
Aenir paused and searched his memories. Indeed, when the luphaen slave escaped some moons ago, someone on the inside had helped her. The story reported to the Lord was that the luphaen chewed the rope enough to tear it off, but in truth, the marks suggested it was cut by a blade. Prior that, He had seen the boy talking to the luphaen multiple times, including just an hour before she’d escaped. He never took the case further simply because he didn’t care whether she had help. The point was, she tried to escape, failed and paid with her life.
“Sure. We’re even,” he said, “but only if you answer my question.”
“Err, yeah, shoot.”
“Why did you help her?”
The boy hesitated. “Cuz she asked me to?”
“Because she asked you? The luphaen?”
Aenir returned the blade into its nest and saw Piery relieving some of the tension in his shoulders, just slightly.
“She begged me, more like,” the boy added. “As a human being, couldn’t possibly say no when a woman begs in tears.”
“’As a human,’ you said, even though she’s a ‘sub’?”
Piery shrugged. “Humans, sub-humans, terms didn’t even exist fifteen years ago.”
“That’s before the war with Hrakia.”
“Yeah, sure. Except I was only a wee kid when Hrakia fell, no relatives fightin’ the Winter Schism either. I have no reason to degrade them aside from everyone else tellin’ me so.”
“Creating your own values. I can appreciate that. You seem to have a working moral compass, Piery.”
“Well,” Piery chuckled. “Sure? I mean, I like to think that–”
“So why are you here with all the muck?”
Piery shut his lip, thinking. He broke into a childish, somewhat sly grin before answering, “I’ll tell my reason if you tell me yours.”
Aenir hid a snigger by shaking his head. His reason to be here… If he told the boy, he’d have to kill him.
“I take that silence as a no?” Piery said.
“Let me know if you change your mind, cuz I think you too have a workin’ compass,” Piery said, standing up. “Back to the cold, lonely night watch for me.”
“Is that you asking for company? Because you lost that game fair and square.”
“I know, I know.” He raised his hand in a wave. “I’ll see you come mornin’.”
The chill of the night felt that much worse upon the absence of the extra body warmth, biting him wherever the skin is exposed. Still, he was much better off than the captives. He weighed on the thought of taking some blankets to them, maybe even snatch some rations from the supplies just to make sure they had what they needed to go through the night. Especially for that white-haired girl, who he worried would find dead the next morning. It only needed to be enough for one night if Luise were to keep his word, except it had been hours since the drifter left, and still there was no sign of him…
…was what Aenir thought when he heard something from the forest. A bird’s call, the familiar tune of three short notes, singing alone with no other bird replying as it was too late into the night for that particular species. He grabbed his sword and made his way to where the whistling came from, in a dark corner of the camp where all lights but one lantern were out. Crates were stacked under a waterproof tarp where the lantern was hung, mostly filled with provisions and the like. He went around those crates, glancing behind him to make sure he wasn’t followed to a spot where the watch couldn’t see.
“You here, Luise?”
“You sure took your time.” Luise came out with that sardonic, smug tone of his.
“Cut the jokes. Where the hell were you?”
“Calling for reinforcements,” he said, winking.
“Is this your guy?” A low voice, gruff and throaty beyond what humans were capable of, spoke from the darkness. There was a figure behind Luise blending among the birches, towering at over seven feet tall. Armor hung from its broad shoulders, mostly hide and leather studded with metal plates, covering only the important organs. The rest, such as the arms and the below the thigh, were covered with a thick coat of fur. Fur, not hair, more animal than human if not for the fact that it was biped and capable of speech.
“Is this your mole?” it asked again. It? He? Aenir wasn’t sure. He never saw a female before.
Aenir looked up at its face. It had a snout, a pair of forward-facing eyes, as well as a pair of wolf-like ears, one of which had a part missing as if something chewed it off. It was hard to discern in the dark, but there was what seemed like a slash wound streaking over its left eye. Fangs peeked through its lips as it spoke, “Wha’s ma’er’, boy? Nevhar seen bigger men than you?”
“This is Aenir, and yes, he’s my partner,” Luise said. “Aenir, let me introduce you to Aldwan, the leader of a larkish mercenary group operating here in the north.”
Aenir made a nod. He knew that name as well as the infamous ‘mercenary group’ which, depending on who you asked, may or may not be defined as a terrorist group. “I take it you’re our reinforcements?”
“Yes. Aldwan and his soldiers will–“
“Please, do not speak for me,” Aldwan said. Despite using the word ‘please’, it didn’t in any way sound like a request.
“How many men do you represent?” Aenir asked.
“I have fivha warriors wai’ing and i’ching for blood.”
Aenir furrowed his brows. “Five? That’s not enough. Far from it.”
“Yes, but we have the jump on them,” Luise chimed in. "You and I can handle the guards before Aldwan and his men comes in.”
“Then what? They still outnumber us five to one.”
“I was thinking you could make an excuse to get into the Lord’s tent.”
“And what? What do you expect me to do?”
“Take this Lord hos'age,” Aldwan was the one who answered. “It could work. My men are deadliest in nigh’ime warfare. We sow panic and confusion, make ‘em ‘hink there’s ‘hrice our numbers. If you can cap’er their leader on ‘op of that, the pressure will break ‘em.”
“Make them surrender,” Luise nodded.
“Exactly. Wha’ say you, Aenir-pada?”
“No,” Aenir answered straightaway. He addressed Luise, “This wasn’t the deal.”
“Could you pardon us for a second, Aldwan-pada?” Luise said to the avlark before taking Aenir a short distance away, out of the avlark’s acute earshot.
Aenir spoke first, “I help you save the girls and you help me take the Lord’s place. That was the deal, Luise.”
“I have a new proposition.”
Aenir made a cynical snort. “And what could you possibly have to offer?”
“Theodras,” Luise answered. “The Zasthanian Warlord, a Rattler lieutenant, and a malefactor among the top of Imperial Vigilance’s hit list. And also your brother. You’ve used this past year to try and infiltrate the Rattlers in the hopes you could find information about him in the criminal underworld.”
“Fucking bastard,” he sniggered, “I’m not even shocked that you knew.”
Luise gave him a smile. “You know who I am, you know my resources, and you sure as hell know I can deliver.”
He scoffed at that. “You want to help me find him? One of your biggest enemies?”
“Let’s just say I believe you’d be a good influence for him.”
“Why are you doing this? It can’t be for the drifters. Is it because of that noble girl?”
Luise kept his smile. “I’m sorry, friend, but you don’t have much time to decide.”
”…Fine,” Aenir said. “I’ll do it.”
“Don’t thank me yet.”
When they returned to the meeting spot, the avlark was leaning against a tree with arms crossed over his chest. His brown fur blended into the tree’s bark perfectly in the dark, turning practically invisible as long as he remained still, which reminded Aenir of the creature’s remark earlier on how they were ‘deadlier in the night’.
“So?” Aldwan greeted with a grunt-like voice. “Havha you come thu an agreement?”
“More or less,” Aenir told him. “I’ll take care of the Lord. I don’t know you, avlark, but I will trust you to do your part.”
“Likewise, human,” Aldwan made a toothy, grisly smile. “I’ll ins’ruk my men thu await your signal.”
“It’ll be something loud,” Luise was the one who answered. “Something you won’t miss.”
“What are you 'hinking?” Aenir asked.
“I’m thinking I can rig the gunpowder kegs.”
Aldwan snorted with laughter. “I like the way you ‘hink, Wolf.”
“You do realize we’re in the middle of a forest?” Aenir grumbled.
“Don’t worry, Aenir dear. I know what I’m doing,” Luise winked.
“Bes' we hase,” Aldwan said. “There’re only few hours ‘ill sunrise. Goddess speed you, Luise-pada, Aenir-pada.” Just like that, the hulking avlark vanished into the trees. For something as big as him, there was an awful lack of footsteps.
“Where the hell did you find this guy?” Aenir remarked.
“Sorry, trade secret.”
Even without Luise telling him, he had a rather concrete guess. They were out in the middle of nowhere, days away from the nearest civilization, and now Aldwan showed up with his band of larks, seemingly out of thin air. Only a fool would believe such a coincidence. Presumably, the larks were planning to save the luphaens, their fellow Hrakians – fellow sub-humans.
“He called you ‘Wolf’. You two knew each other?” Aenir guessed.
“Through the war.”
“Why would he work with you, an enemy of Hrakia?”
Luise shrugged. “The same reason you are; because there are more important things than past grudges.
Aenir couldn’t say anything to that.
“Good luck, Aenir.”
The both of them made their own ways, Luise to the gunpowder stash, and Aenir towards the Lord’s tent. He metaphorically tiptoed across the camp, avoiding fires and lights whenever possible as to not cast shadows that would otherwise draw attention. Most of the people were fast asleep, sure, but he couldn’t exactly see inside the tents, and he knew some of them didn’t drink because they had coach duty in the morning. Not to mention the night watch, drunk as they were, were still watching.
The Lord’s tent was the biggest one at the center. Aside from the night watch, Aenir would still have to deal with the two giants, Gale and Retch. He was sure he could deal with one of them at a time, but there’s no guarantee that the thugs wouldn’t gang up on him. He would have to observe carefully before going in.
Along the way, his path intersected with someone standing on watch. He deliberated about sneaking past but decided to act normal instead.
The guard was a mercenary named Harret. There wasn’t much that Aenir knew about him, only that he’d once had a rifle that misfired and broke it trying to disassemble it. The others called him Fizzling Harry since. Clumsy, inexperienced in fights, and a bit on the dull side. Conclusion? Not a threat. The man looked tipsy, barely keeping his eyes open, but not drunk enough to not notice Aenir’s approach.
“Who the– schmucks!” Harret jumped in alarm. “You scared me blisters out of my… uh, who’re ye, again?”
“It’s me, Aenir,” he answered calmly. “The Lord’s aide?”
“Oh, ye… hic, yeah, that quiet bloke. What’re ye doing this late? And I ain’t dunk, by the way. Hic, bein’ a proper night watch s’all.”
“Uh-huh, Well then, I’ll be going,” Aenir gave him a wave and walked past.
He turned back with a raised brow. “Yes?”
“Haven’t answered my question,” Harret said.
“Harry, I just took a leak, that’s all. No need to get all tense.”
“Is’zhat so?” Harret looked at Aenir up and down. “With all that gear?”
“There are beasts roaming about, remember?”
“Oh, that makes sense.
“Well, good luck with your watch–“
“You know,” Harret stopped him, “the Lord said something interesting to us watches earlier. Said to keep an eye on this particular bloke he was suspicious about.”
Aenir answered the man’s gaze, hiding the curling of his fingers behind his back. “Is that really?”
“Uh-huh,” Harret chuckled as he fumbled with his pistol. “Even said we’ve got permission to–“
The man’s reaction was slow—it was too easy for Aenir to slide the sling off his arm and pummel the man on the head with the scabbard. The sheath was designed to cover only the tip and one flat of the blade, with a single strap locking it in place that he unlatched the same time he swung it, unsheathing the greatsword. With Harret disoriented from the skull hit, Aenir gripped the blade with his off-hand and made a quick, deep thrust to sever the windpipe. Red liquid spattered from where the steel made contact with the skin. Harret’s eyes were wide, his mouth agape into a scream without sound. Aenir pulled the body closer, keeping one hand on the blade thus pushing it deeper, breaking the spine.
He watched the exact moment as life dimmed out from the man’s eyes. Shock, pain, anger, regret… so many things happening in those orbs, all overshadowed by fear. Fear of an imminent death. He pulled the blade out and Fizzling Harry tumbled onto the ground soundlessly, blood spurting out. A pool of black formed beneath his feet, staining the earth indelibly.
Fuck. Aenir took a deep breath. He dragged the body out of sight, hands shaking, breathing ragged, vision clouded with red. Fuck!
Everything was falling apart. How long had the Lord been suspicious? How many people had been informed? In the worst case, he would have to think of everyone else in this camp as his enemies, so that's one down, three dozens to go. He could’ve gone for the others on night duty, eliminate what would’ve been the first people to response and maybe buy a minute or two for the larks to do their work. He opted not to, instead going straight for the Lord and the chance to win with minimal bloodshed.
The path was clear. The few people awake weren’t looking his way or the Lord’s tent, standing obnoxiously at the center. Luise should already be in position, while Aldwan’s men were probably circling the place right about now, setting traps and whatnot. All Aenir had to do was to sneak in and take the Lord hostage, and if that wasn't enough incentive to make them all surrender, he could make it seem like he'd killed him. Thinking their employer was dead, combined with the pressure from Aldwan's assault, would make them reassess the risk for a pay that would probably never come. Or at least that was the plan before all hell broke loose.
He was only a couple of tents away from the Lord’s when it happened; starting with a bright flash, sending tremors through the ground and thunder through the air. By instinct, Aenir ducked behind the cover that was a measly flammable sheet of leather. Something burned, banishing the darkness that was Aenir’s cover. People shouted and sleepers roused. Within a moment’s fraction, armed mercenaries came scurrying out of the tents bearing torches, confused and half-asleep but raring for a fight. Like moths to a fire, they were drawn to the explosion.
Damn it, Luise. Aenir rested his sword’s crossguard on his shoulder and broke off into a sprint for the Lord’s tent. With the enemies were busy looking at the fiery aftermath, he still had room to act, but not for long. He couldn’t know what reason Luise had to set the signal off early, but it happened, and it was now or never–
He planted his foot, used it as a pivot to turn towards the man who shouted his name. His sword, still high on his shoulder, was ever ready to be swung. Piery stood there, stopping within Aenir’s range. Even betwixt the chaos, the boy took a second to marvel at the greatsword’s glory. It wasn’t even that long ago when he was threatened by it.
“Piery, what’s going on?” Aenir asked, sounding calmer than he intended.
“I don’t know, I– I was runnin’ over to check it out when I saw you, thought you had an idea.”
“I was doing the same thing you’re doing.”
Aenir took a step towards Piery, who took a step back in turn. The boy’s expression suddenly turned into that of caution. “Aenir,” he said, “whose blood is that?”
Aenir followed the Piery’s gaze, down at his own body. There were stains splattered on his coat, blending into the dark fabric but still visible under the light.
“Oh,” he said. He couldn’t take any chances – he swung down, aiming for the base of Piery’s neck.
Any normal mercenary would’ve taken a blade then and there, but Piery, young as he was, was handpicked by the Lord for his talents in swordfights. The blade still dug into his flesh, but by moving in the same direction as the swing, he evaded a fatal strike, injuring his shoulder instead of his throat.
Aenir pulled his sword back up, high above his head while the boy fumbled for a weapon. A loud bang interrupted him, like an explosion but smaller, and closer. He felt an impact on his right thigh and from that he knew he’d been shot.
Gale was behind him with a pistol in hand. The burly man cocked and pulled the trigger for a second time, only to have it misfire. Cold weather combined with poor powder management—Aenir saw that coming a long time ago, didn’t know whether to be glad for the life-saving fluke or to curse because it didn’t happen one shot earlier. There was no pain, only numbness where the lead was planted and a somewhat sluggish feeling on his right leg, which didn’t help when a third person, Retch, came running at him with a falchion.
He couldn’t muster a decent enough footwork to evade. There was only one thing to do; he loosened his grip on the handle, tightened the one on the pommel, and brought the greatsword down from above his head. The two swords clash, steel singing loudly as the falchion snapped in half. The greatsword, perfectly intact, vibrated, sending all the energy from the clash through its unique structure towards the hilt. The handle shook with enough force to break Aenir’s bones had he not prepared for it.
Retch jumped back and pulled a dagger from his boot. On the side, Piery and Gale were now ready with their swords. There was a second of bewilderment as they absorbed the exchange, at the impossible feat of blade breaking blade without so much as a scratch. Aenir made use of that second to plan his next move. He was surrounded by three mercenaries considered the best in their field. Obvious disadvantage, but enough about that – what about his advantage? Piery and Retch weren’t using their firearms, maybe because they didn’t bother loading them, while Gale’s was out of service. They didn’t have guns. He did, except that would require at least one free hand when he needed both to wield his sword.
What would his brother do? What would he, in the same situation, do?
He wouldn’t let himself be in this situation, first of all. He wouldn’t have missed that first strike at Piery, wouldn’t have gotten shot, and definitely wouldn’t have let himself be surrounded. But that wasn’t important. What’s important was, how would have he done it?
Aenir smiled. He let go of one hand from his sword and reached for the pistol. He cocked, aimed, and pulled the trigger in one swift movement while aiming at Piery. He didn’t miss.
He cocked again just as Gale came running. He pulled the sword in front of him to defend, one hand, to meet Gale’s downswing. There wasn’t enough force to break the saber this time around, but it was still enough to shatter his palm had he not let go of it at the last second. The greatsword fell to the ground with a mighty thud.
His aim on Gale was foiled when someone grabbed him from behind. Suddenly there was a black arm was on his throat, the elbow pushing against and constricting his airway, while another was behind his head, locking him.
Immediately Aenir felt faint. He knew he was seconds away from falling unconscious. He grabbed the arm on his throat and arched his back forward with all his strength, swung one arm back to hit Retch’s groin, then spun his body around to break out of the lock. Had he not gotten his leg shot, he might’ve pulled it off. Instead, not only was he not able to break out, Retch managed to make use of the turn to pull him into the ground, his back to Retch, his front facing the sky. There was no longer any leverage to make use of, nothing but his arm strength alone to vainly try and pry the arm off his trachea. He was out of options. He had no choice but to use that – something he vowed to never use.
When he heard the buzzing in his head, it took him a second to realize it wasn’t him doing it. It was someone else, and he knew instantly what it meant. He wanted to shout and warn them of what’s coming, but with his airway blocked, nothing came out. There was nothing he could do but to shift his weight to the left, furthest as he could go, then to kick the ground with his left leg, spinning to the right. Retch made use of that to yet again change positions. Now Aenir was below and facing the ground, still in the same lock.
A second flash came, just like the first. Then a third, and a fourth, all within the span of less than a second. Aenir initially thought Luise was the one who set it off, but the ringing told him he was wrong. This was no gunpowder. This was magic.
A fifth flash. He braced himself as the world around him exploded. For a moment he felt like he was floating with no ground below him. The ringing in his head transformed from that of magic to one caused by his proximity to detonation. The next thing he noticed was the overwhelming stench of burning flesh dulling his nose.
There was no smoke. The ground was charred, as was the back of the southerner lying beside him. Retch, the unknowing meat-shield, was unconscious from the shock and bleeding profusely, but still alive. Gale was not so lucky: his legs were intact, so were his head and one of his arms. The rest? The rest was a mangled mess of flesh, organs and skin meshed together, with threads of muscles pulling away from the mass like strings.
The tents were burning as smoke started canvassing the camp. There were coughing and screaming, and through Aenir’s perforated eardrums, he could hear several repeated words; “fire!” “slaves escaping!” and “magus!”
Magus. A maturgist, specifically. A powerful one. He glimpsed her through the pillars of flame and smoke. The white girl, the very girl he brought here, stood at the center of a whirling inferno.