The disheveled bandit dashed swiftly through the forest, pushing through bush after bush to make his escape. Hot on his tail was Auriel, keeping pace from a few meters behind. Crafty as he was, he dove through a small bush and crawled slowly to the nearest tree, wrapping himself in fallen leaves and lying completely still until he was certain he had shaken his pursuer.
As Auriel’s footfalls retreated in the opposite direction, the sly outlaw doubled back and made his way to a small clearing. Upon arrival he walked slowly to the rock formation at the center, hands on his head as he wheezed, struggling to catch his breath. He quickly removed his satchel from his back, and upon verifying the contents, breathed a sigh of relief.
Undoing the rock formation, he found two small cylindrical objects, one he hid on his waist behind him and the other in his pocket, when a creeping shadow appeared and caught him by surprise.
“Whatcha got there?”
“Soooooo, are you gonna make this easy for us both?”
Whipping out his knife once more, he swung wildly, attacking his foe recklessly in desperation. Dodging his jabs and swipes, the athletic Auriel backflipped cautiously to create distance, and when she noticed his exhaustion, ran in a zigzag pattern to confuse him.
To stop her from closing the gap, the bandit tossed another smoke bomb, blocking her line of sight. He turned to escape once more but was stopped in his tracks when a flash of silver struck the earth in front of him.
When the dust and smoke settled, he was able to make out exactly what had appeared on his path: a familiar sword, reflecting the sunlight on its magnificent blade. Wide-eyed and filled with fear, he madly scanned his surroundings until he saw his interceptor: Aram, standing on one of the low branches of a nearby tree. After looking over the bandit, he turned to Auriel.
“He doesn’t look like anything special. Mind wrapping it up? I’ve got important things to do, and I can’t do them until you’re done.”
“And what do you think I’m doing here?”
Without a beat, Aram retorted, “Wasting time.”
“I was trying to- Just… go read your book or something.”
“Hmph. How rude.”
Aram made himself comfortable, sitting on the branch with his back against the trunk and proceeding with his book. With Auriel’s head turned to Aram, the bandit sought to slowly retreat, but he was far too conspicuous, his torn leather boots loudly crushing the dry leaves beneath his feet and bringing attention to him.
Seeing no other option, he made a feeble attempt to lunge at her again, but she simultaneously disarmed and knocked him off balance, now wise to his uncoordinated movements from keenly observing him before. He fell and rolled, then slowly rose to his feet, seething with anger and covered in dirt that clung to patches of skin wet from perspiration. He was trapped and needed a way out.
“Are we done here?”
Reaching in his pocket, the bandit pulled out one of the earlier objects he had recovered. A curious Auriel raised an eyebrow in interest.
“Backup!” he snarled, raising his arm to fire off what appeared to be a flare.
Before he could activate it, Auriel closed the gap almost instantaneously with a powerful leap and firmly grasped his hand, causing him to howl in pain.
“I don’t think so.”
She didn’t notice the bandit reaching behind his back for his second item as it was obscured from her view, though Aram had taken note of it. A sudden column of light arose, with a loud boom that followed as the flare exploded several times.
“Oh hey, he has a second one, look out,” muttered Aram unenthusiastically while flipping a page.
“You’re very helpful,” she scoffed.
The bandit wrestled his hand free from Auriel’s grasp and jumped back. He rubbed the area she held tightly and turned his head as rustling was heard through the trees surrounding them.
One by one, more bandits stepped out into the clearing, armed with swords and daggers. Removing her shield from her back to lock onto her left forearm, she switched to a balanced combat stance, ready for immediate response to any offensive movements. She turned her gaze to Aram, still sitting comfortably.
“Uh, a little help here?”
“Not with that attitude from earlier," he asserted as he scanned the clearing. "To me, that looks like a personal problem.”
“Seriously? Come on, I’m outnumbered here.”
“I distinctly remember saying we aren’t here to protect you.”
She glanced around her surroundings to keep track of the growing number of bandits.
“I’m not asking for that. At least back me up or something, so we can be done here and you can go do whatever it is you wanted earlier when you were rushing me.”
“At this point, I don’t care,” he said as his annoyance grew. “I’m gonna need you to put a pause on all the chit chat.”
Aram held out his right hand to form a C, closing and opening it repeatedly to emphasize his point.
“This is what you’re doing." He proceeded to close the tips of his fingers together, stating "THIS is what I want you to do.”
“Did you just-”
One particularly towering and muscular bandit, reddish-brown in complexion, stepped out from the group. His outfit was composed of a black and silver striped vest, black gi pants, rough leather boots, and leather gloves with short spiked knuckles on each hand.
He was dressed like an intimidating warrior monk, walking with an air of superiority around him. Upon his head, his wild blond hair flew about with each step, and a fierce expression came upon his face, complemented by his piercing light grey eyes and mischievous grin.
Auriel and Aram noticed his prominent turquoise inked tribal tattoo, wrapped around his right bicep like the tail of a gecko. He slowly approached the bandit who shot the flare, then addressed him. His voice was like deep rumbling thunder, and all his subordinates gave their full attention as he spoke. He put both his hands firmly on the bandit’s shoulders as he addressed him.
“You shot the emergency flare. Sano, I expect you got a legitimate reason for calling me out here?”
“We packed up all the stuff we were supposed to find, and when we were leaving, we got ambushed! I’m the only one that got away but I can’t shake these guys!”
His eyes shifted between Aram and Auriel, as he gave the satchel to his boss, who verified the contents.
“She stopped me from shooting the first flare, so I had to!”
“Afraid of a few peacekeepers? That’s embarrassing.”
“You did get what you were supposed to so I’ll cut you some slack this time, but in the future, you will do better,” grunted the bandit leader, putting the satchel over his shoulder.
“Yes, boss! You got it, boss!”
Though outnumbered by the bandits, Auriel maintained her confident posture. While not visible to her opponents, her smile widened discretely behind her visor as she formulated a plan.
“Hey, beanstalk, hand it over.”
Surprised at being addressed in such a manner, he turned and looked in her direction, scanning from head to toe gauging her ability based on her appearance.
“And who do we have here? You look a little young to be playing peacekeeper.”
“You should worry about that bag instead,” cautioned Auriel. “Keeping it is not in your best interest.”
“Oh? And what exactly is in my best interest?”
“Surrendering yourselves and returning the items you stole.”
The bandit boss walked up grinning until directly in Auriel’s face. As the others laughed, he looked down at her, in an apparent attempt to intimidate her with the vast height difference.
“And if we don’t?”
The proud warrior raised her head with a smile. “Then I’ll have to be a bit more persuasive.”
The mighty boss erupted in uproarious laughter along with his fellow bandits. “You hear that boys! We gotta give ourselves up to this itsy-bitsy peacekeeper, or she’s gonna change our minds!”
“Itsy bitsy? Take off your heels and we’re the same height,” she retorted. “At least you’re keeping up.”
“Ha! You’ve got a smart mouth. Do you know who you’re talking to?” snapped Sano.
“Thanks to that glaringly obvious tattoo, one of the *Wetland Kings, right?”
“He’s not just one of the Wetland Kings, he’s Cannibal Tiger himself!”
“Oh, so you’re the one that likes beheading? This must be my lucky day.”
“Are you a fan? I might let you keep yours.”
She pointed at his head with her tonfa confidently.
“You weren’t part of the plan, but I’ll take you in too.”
Her response caused him to laugh again and shake his head.
“Kid, you got guts talking to me like that, but this isn’t a fight you want!”
After he raised one hand, 3 bandits stepped up with swords drawn. He looked over Auriel’s shoulder at Aram.
“That includes you too, book worm!”
Hearing this, he held up and wagged his pointer finger from behind his book.
“I’m gonna have to stop you right there, big guy. I’m not a part of this.”
With a turn of the pages, he waved his hand shooing them.
“You kids have fun.”
Mouth agape, Auriel looked at Aram in disbelief, with Cannibal Tiger appearing equally confused before they turned to face down each other.
“A-anyway… Boys! Take care of ‘em!”
“Yes, boss!” yelled the three bandits together as they raised their weapons.
With his back turned Cannibal Tiger proceeded to walk away, Sano in tow. Immediately afterward, heavy impact sounds and loud collective gasps were heard, forcing him to pause, as one after another, the 3 bandits whizzed past him, apparently thrown by Auriel. The first sound that escaped him was a laugh as he turned and saw her standing confidently.
“You should know that if you play with adults, you’ll get hurt.”
“Waiting on you, buddy,” she readily quipped.
A flash of memory reflected in Sano’s eyes as he recalled their earlier encounter. Though he had not confirmed with certainty, he was sure of it: skilled as she was in standard combat, she held no arcane powers and therefore was an easy opponent for his boss.
“Boss! She talks tough like that but she can’t back it up! She can’t use any magic!”
“Oh? So, she’s *lightless then? This is almost too easy.”
He cracked his knuckles as a faint aura emanated from him, disturbing the surrounding air.
“You might want to keep your distance with this one, seems he’s a wielder,” suggested Aram, sneaking a peek from the side of his book.
“You don’t say, Mr. Spectator?” she responded, with overt sarcasm. “What was your first clue?”
“You know what? I don’t like your attitude.”
“Sorry,” she said with a sigh. “Are you going to finally help me?”
“Oh not at all, you picked this fight. I just figured you could use a tip, with the clearly overwhelming disadvantage already. Carry on.”
Auriel let out an exasperated groan while ahead of her Cannibal Tiger unbuttoned his vest, underneath which she spotted a glimpse of shimmering light. He clenched his fists, widened his stance, and tensed his muscles tightly, intensifying his aura and violently whipping the air around him.
His vest swayed in the wind, revealing a jewel in his solar plexus. From it, energy expanded outward and covered his body. When the energy reached his gauntlets, it extended past his fingers, forming sharp claws.
“If you’re done waiting, then let’s play!
Auriel stood defensively as he charged towards her. She alternated between defending and attacking with tonfa strikes, searching for a golden opportunity. He unleashed a flurry of focused strikes, some of which scratched her shield and made cuts in the armor covering her arms and torso.
The bandits howled and cheered their support for their boss as he continued his onslaught, keeping up with her maneuvering. Momentarily distracted by a nearby bandit throwing a bottle at her, she reflexively broke it, revealing a slight opening for Cannibal Tiger. She caught his swiping attack on her shield and tonfa together, but such maneuvering threw her off balance, the weight of the attack knocking her to the ground.
She rolled away and quickly rose to her feet, ensuring her eyes remained on her opponent. The bandits yelled for their boss to finish her, and he reveled in their cheers, throwing his arms up and laughing maniacally. Regathering her focus with a few deep breaths, she prepared for the berserker’s offense once more.
A bead of sweat ran down her face, and the ground shook with the ruffian’s bounding footsteps. Driven by the spectacle and fueled by his entourage’s cheers, he raised his arms for a flashy attack, giving her the chance to break his attack momentum by bashing his exposed chest with her shield, stunning him and creating a short opening for her to strike.
With her stun too light, he recovered quickly and aimed for her head but when she closely dodged the energy claws, he ended up forming a fist and punching her in the cheek instead. He lunged rabidly at her again, and while she dodged the deadly claws, she was struck with a swift knee to the abdomen, causing her to fall to the ground momentarily, down but not out.
As he threw a mighty kick, she raised her shield to deflect with all her might, the impact forcing them both some distance back. Taking a knee to momentarily rest and calm her body pumping with adrenaline, she spat a bit of blood to the side and took deep breaths, mentally shrugging off the attacks. Her foe appeared exhausted as well, having expended a great deal of energy in what he believed prior to being an unchallenging bout. She grinned as she noticed him taking shallow breaths. He couldn’t see her expression but glared nonetheless, perhaps from the realization that she was not easy prey.
“You’re an annoying little punk.”
“And you’re stubborn, but I think I got you figured out.”
She tossed her tonfa between them, close to his feet. He was taken aback at first, tilting his head in confusion, but soon smirked.
“Have you gotten too scared to hold your weapon? Not that it was very effective anyway.”
“I won’t need it to beat you.”
Auriel began removing her helmet, as Aram watched with curiosity from behind his book. Her curly silver hair fell out of its bun to just below her shoulders, and a light wind whipped a few strands in her face, prompting her to brush them away, revealing turquoise eyes with a subtle shine. Her fawn skin shone with a vibrant light brown glow in the sunlight. Her appearance caused a devilish grin to appear on Cannibal Tiger’s face.
“Oh, you’re not too bad looking under that thing. I can’t promise my hands won’t slip, but I’ll try my best to not mess up that pretty face.”
“Aww, how thoughtful. Naturally, I’ll return the courtesy.”
Placing down her helmet, she put her hair back in a bun.
“Ha! You’re a regular comedian. I think I’ll have your head after all.”
Ignoring him, she made a line in the dirt in front of her.
“Pass this spot and we’ll get this over with.”
“Don’t blame me for what happens next, because you got a serious death wish!”
“My only wish is for you to quit yapping,” she responded provokingly, as she raised her shield, adopting a defensive stance. “Come at me, Cannibal Kitten.”
Incensed at her goading, he charged head-on, eyes burning with malicious fury. Running past her tonfa, he ducked down low as it suddenly flew above him, pulled on a return path by an inconspicuously thin wire. Aware of the trick, he swiped quickly to cut it to Auriel’s apparent dismay as she watched it fall to the ground.
“No more games kid, end of the road!”
He charged in aggressively, confident in his victory. With eyes laser-focused on her head, he was oblivious to a large wave of dirt under him until it flew into his eyes, kicked up from the spot where Auriel drew the line.
She jumped back beyond the reach of his wild swings, then sprinted quickly to build momentum, bashing him in the chest once again. With the wind knocked out of him, she pushed him back, and he fell flat. He struggled to stand, repeatedly falling to his knees in confusion.
The cheering of the bandits died down, and the temporary silence that fell was replaced with gasps of surprise as his body shrank slightly. The jewel in his chest had been damaged, and thus had an immediately noticeable effect. Only Sano spoke out.
“Th-that was a cheap move! A dirty move!”
“Ha? And sending three of you bozos to gang up on me wasn’t?”
The bandit boss rubbed his eyes trying as best he could to get the dirt out. He yelled angrily the longer he kept at it, until he could somewhat make out Auriel.
“Grrr!! You!!! Raaaahhhh!!!”
“Come and get it!”
He charged at her once more with a lunging attack, but before he could make an impact, she swung around 180 degrees, pivoting on her right foot and using the momentum to smack him on the left side of his face with her shield, leaving his ear ringing.
Disoriented, he covered his ear while swiping with his free hand, but this disorganized effort was wasted as she bashed his chest again, further damaging the jewel. With him now unable to stop her attacks, she leaped up to him, grasping the back of his head and pulling him down as she kneed him in the face, rendering him unconscious. The other bandits turned tail and ran, with the except for Sano, caught by Aram. As he subdued the rogue, he looked over and noticed Auriel's torn gloves. Between the spaces were complex markings of dark ink that seemed to make up an intricate pattern.
“So, what do you have to say about that?” she said while catching her breath.
“I guess you’re not entirely helpless. At least, for a *recusant.”
Recusant. The term was as cutting as a freshly sharpened knife. She clenched her teeth to hold back the boiling turmoil it stirred within her, and let out a sigh to calm herself. It had been years since she was last called by the term, yet it had somehow reached that isolated village. The wretched word truly stuck like a scarlet letter.
It served as an ever-present reminder of her lowest point, one which she sought to rise above and hopefully never revisit. As a result, she worked tirelessly to embrace her new life, though it appeared that the past was not so easily buried. It could not be denied, for the evidence of it lied in her very existence.
Cannibal Tiger awoke moments later as alternating rays of light broke through the trees, forcing open his bleary eyes. In his haze, he saw the sky directly above him and felt himself being pulled slowly. He attempted to move but realized quickly that he was bound in rope and being dragged by Auriel. He tilted his head down and saw Sano with his wrists bound, walking in front of Aram. They arrived at the ancient temple and met up with Rami.
“Uh… big catch huh? What exactly happened?”
“It’s a long story,” replied Auriel.
“Would’ve been much shorter if you didn’t take so long.”
“I don’t want to hear that from a spectator.”
“Guys, guys, take it easy,” Rami remarked. “Now, if that wraps things up, we should head out now. We’ll be done processing these two just in time for a late breakfast.”
Realizing the time, Auriel’s eyes widened as a thought crossed her mind.
“Uh, I gotta before I’m late!”
“Late for what?” asked Rami.
“Back to the village, made a promise with some kids to have breakfast with them. Mind if I go ahead? I’ll go to HQ first let them know how the mission went.”
“I see. So, we’re doing your share of the after-action paperwork then?”
“I mean, it was a group effort, and I did my share, so it should be fine right? Go, team?”
She smiled innocently with two thumbs up.
“Funny,” he responded while sighing and shaking his head. “Go ahead then.”
“I owe you one. Thanks!”
Shen ran swiftly, soon disappearing in the foliage. Rami spotted Aram’s lingering gaze and smirked. Realizing he was caught, Aram turned to the bandits.
“So, how was she in the fight?”
“Decent I suppose.”
“Decent? Just decent?” he asked with a raised brow. “Come on, man. I already figured out that she did most of the work back there. You gotta give me something more than that!”
Aram turned and began walking.
“Nothing else to give.”
“Whatever you say,” Rami chuckled. “If you’d like, I can pull some string so we get her on our team for more of these missions. In my book, she’s worth her salt for taking down this one.”
Cannibal Tiger began a low chuckle that erupted into laughter. The two turned to him started, and Rami addressed him.
“What’s so funny, prisoner?”
“That you think she took me down, and that mere ropes can hold me!” he declared loudly while visibly struggling in the ropes. “You know who you’re messing with?! I’m Cannibal Tige-”
Aram gagged him with a cloth out of annoyance.
“Yeah, I’m not gonna listen to this the whole way back.”
“You’re something else, man.”
The two gathered the other captured bandits as they set out on their way back to Genesis village.
~End of Chapter~
Wetland Kings: bandit leaders guiding the separate factions of the Earth Divers, a gang organization active throughout the Avernus archipelago, based on a small island in the chain.
Lightless: Humanoids/Humans unable to sense or harness arcane energies, and thus have no magical prowess.
Recusant: An individual who has received a magical brand/mark for a crime, and are therefore considered as outcasts.