Author Topic: Chapter 37  (Read 139 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 37
« on: April 07, 2022, 11:51:39 PM »
Chapter 37

Despite his disbelief, Arico kept a steady aim on their attacker, waiting for him to get closer. He was almost in range when the assassin did some kind of strange roll and disappeared behind one of the stone walls. In another instant he was back, closed the distance, and kicked Arico’s gun out of his hand, quick as a thought! Arico partially dodged a vicious stab as he fumbled to draw his own sword. The blade nicked his arm above the elbow.

Move, Arico! He berated himself.

Behind them, Jaas was bleeding against the wooden door and cursing under her breath. She was reaching down to her dropped pack, probably trying to get her own gun. It didn’t look like she could reach it, though. He was on his own for now. If what he’d heard about this ‘Heartbane’ was true, Aquun herself have mercy on him.

He had to throw the assassin off, somehow. On an impulse he charged Heartbane in return, and was rewarded with a momentary widening of the eyes behind the mask before he hit, knocking them both off their feet.

In this close he couldn’t use his sword, but it seemed clear Heartbane was less experienced in close-quarters. He could hear ragged breaths as his assailant tried to wriggle free, and long black hair was loosed from behind the mask. A woman!

Arico tried to squeeze, to crush the breath right out of her, but it was like wrestling with a fish. With barely a whisper of noise, she slipped free and rolled away from him, giving him another kick for good measure.

He charged again, but this time only partially succeeded in grabbing her. They both clipped a nearby pillar, though she hit harder than he did. With more crumbling of stone, the pillar collapsed, part of it knocking her down. She was up in an instant, but immobile, her foot partly pinned by the rubble. As he backed away, she pulled at it, groaning with effort. Briefly, Arico considered attacking again.

No. This… was Heartbane! Woman or not, Arico knew he was no match for her, not without his gun. She might have reinforcements nearby as well. He had to get Jaas out of there, right now. He briefly considered getting her gun from the pack, but he knew she never kept it loaded.

Jaas was still pinned to the wall, at least fifty spans from the edge of the threads. There was no way he could reach that far, not while holding onto her at the same time. He’d have to risk pulling the dagger out, despite the damage it might do. He ran back to her and gripped the dagger, trying to pull it free as evenly as possible. It didn’t budge.

“Leave me,” Jaas said tightly. “She’s working for the Council, right? That means she wants me alive, but she’ll kill you. Just go!”

“Yeah, that’s gonna happen,” Arico grunted sarcastically, trying again. Still no luck.

With a cry, Heartbane yanked herself free. They were out of time. Arico grabbed Jaas’ wrist, ready to pull her hand free of the dagger. Damaged was better than dead, and Endu could do miracles with needle and thread, he told himself.

But Jaas could tell what he was about to do. “No!” She grabbed his arm with her own. “Wait! That’s my writing hand!”

With a sigh, Arico let go. Even if he had been willing to tear her hand free, likely damaging it beyond repair, it was too late now. Heartbane was free, and approaching them again. If they ran, she’d probably just put her other dagger through the back of his neck, and Jaas would be stuck here if he died.

This time, Heartbane had a much softer tread as she neared them. A cat stalking wounded prey. Her foot didn’t seem to be troubling her, and she’d retrieved his gun from wherever it had fallen. With a mocking laugh, she aimed it at his chest and pulled the trigger. The sound of sparkpowder igniting was suddenly muted, as roiling white streams of light surrounded him.

He was inside the threads!

Jaas was there too, looking just as confused. Her body looked as it did before, uninjured. “Arico?” She asked tentatively, looking around. “How, uh, did we get in here?” She rubbed her palm slowly, still looking pained.

“I have no idea.” He patted his chest, wondering the same thing, and how in Aquun’s name Heartbane had missed him. Granted, she’d been at least thirty paces away, but her aim had been dead sure. “At least we’re alive.”

He quickly opened a window in the threads, to find out where they were. Sure enough, it seemed they had just gone to the nearest edge. From here he could still see Heartbane standing by the stone wall. Her head was tilted to the side, as if in sheer disbelief.

Arico knew how she felt. Shaking his head, he decided not to question his luck. Because Jaas didn’t consider the dagger to be one of her possessions, it had been left behind, even though it had been touching her. She was all right for now, but only so long as she stayed in the threads. But that didn’t mean Heartbane hadn’t cut some deep vein. For all he knew, the moment they left the threads, Jaas would just bleed out.

“Come on,” he said as steadily as he could. “We can figure this out later. For now, I’ll take you to Ste’hetha patch. Endu’s there, taking care of the wounded from some of the Beast attacks. She’ll sew you up while I report… whatever just happened to the Hauld.” Jaas was still just staring through the window, and Arico moved them gently away.

The trip took longer than usual for Arico. He wasn’t that used to going to Ste’hetha, and so couldn’t just zip over there. He had to do a little exploring, so it was a few minutes before he could see it through the threads. There were secret dwarven tunnels underneath Ste’hetha, just like there were in every Enclave patch, but the whole purpose of using this patch was to convince people they were in human territory so they wouldn’t be afraid. Instead, he aimed for the abandoned Vasiri buildings on the south end of the patch. That would at least give them some cover if anyone was watching.

Jaas became ‘real’ again upon leaving the threads, and took a shuddering breath. She slumped to her knees, gripping her bloody hand with her left. Suddenly Arico noticed her pack had been left behind as well. He felt a moment of dismay at that, before he remembered she’d copied everything down. Still, the Sustained had at least some of her records again. And Jaas was right: the fact that Heartbane had targeted him specifically meant that the Council itself was behind this attack.

Even so, this was hardly the time to speculate about such things. Off in the distance, he could see people moving between some of the houses in the makeshift hospital Endu had set up. Jaas looked back at the threads fearfully as he helped her up.

“Don’t worry,” he assured her. “No one can track anyone else through the threads. We’re safe here.”

They’d only made it a half dozen paces when Arico heard a low growl coming from behind them. Jaas gave a choking gasp, and Arico turned quickly as well. A familiar, skull-faced figure had just emerged from the threads.

“You were saying?” Jaas asked him in a shaking voice.

-.-

Arico sighed, letting go of Jaas and putting himself between them again. It seemed miracles were working for both sides today.

At least Heartbane still seemed to be acting alone. Somehow he’d expected to see a dozen Ascendants jump out behind him—her, Arico reminded himself. Also, she’d brought Jaas’ pack along with her. She either wasn’t thinking, or she was supremely confident. Given how she fought, he was betting on the latter.

Heartbane dropped the pack and sprang in again, this time wielding both daggers. He blocked one and dodged the other, pivoting on his feet to try and unbalance her; hoping she’d overcommit and give him an opening to grab her by the neck. Suddenly she ducked away from him, barely sliding underneath a massive sword-swing that rang against the nearby stone wall. Sabra had arrived.

Growling, he swung his huge sword again, forcing Heartbane to back away from them and almost out of the ruins themselves. “Get pretty lady to safety,” he ordered, grinning for a change. “Sabra will take care of… skull-face.”

Jaas didn’t wait around to argue. She scooped up her pack with her good hand, now that Heartbane wasn’t close enough to stab her again, and scurried up the hill towards the houses. Arico stayed behind, spacing out into a triangle with his friend and his foe.

“Death takes us all,” Heartbane spoke again, looking from one to another. “Heretic and abomination alike.”

Sabra gave Arico a wry look as he took ahold of his massive braid with a free hand. “Little man always attracts the crazies, eh?”

Arico grimaced. He never should have told Sabra about Terres Huun’s little crush. “Don’t I know it.”

At least that seemed to get to her. With an angry yell she went straight for Sabra. At the last moment, just as he swung towards her she jumped, pushing a leg against the wall, and propelled herself up high enough to slash at his head. He jerked away from it, taking only a graze across the nose as she backed away from him.

Arico started to move at her again, but Sabra gave him a warning look. “Stay back,” he ordered menacingly. “Sabra has this.” Strangely, he was keeping a grip on his braid with his left hand. The assassin moved in again, but this time Sabra was ready. He flicked his wrist and the braid lashed out like a whip, catching her in the hand. One dagger dropped to the ground and she shook her hand in pain, cursing under her breath.

Sabra wiped at the bridge of his nose and lifted his sword purposefully towards her. “Sabra hoped to fight skull-face someday,” he said conversationally. His voice was almost friendly! “But not as a soldier. As a true killer.” He dropped the sword with a clang on the stones.

Arico stared at him. What in the Many was he doing? “Sabra! Pick up your sword!”

“Stay back,” he warned again. “Sabra won’t be denied this chance.”

For a long moment Heartbane just stared back at Sabra. It was clear that she didn’t consider Arico to be any threat at all. He would have been insulted, if it wasn’t so obviously true. After apparently thinking it through, she slowly nodded and dropped her remaining dagger. Sabra grinned and wrapped his hair around his neck again. He beckoned to her. “Come on then.”

Just like before, she charged in and used the old walls to jump up high enough to reach him. He swung at her but missed, and she grabbed him around the neck. Her arms pressed against his braid as she tried to apply pressure. Thankfully, Arico wouldn’t have bet on anyone in a wrestling match against Sabra.

Sure enough, she seemed to be struggling. She’d grabbed Sabra by the throat, but his braid was in the way, and his neck was too thick to get her whole arm around. With a dark grin he leaned backwards, trying to crush her against one of the stone walls.

She barely slid out of the way as Sabra made contact and the wall shuddered. Sabra started chuckling, and reached for her with both hands. Even as he reached though, Heartbane pulled a thin metal spike from within her mask itself and plunged it into Sabra’s chest!

Sabra gave a grunt of pain, looking down at his chest in shock. As a follow-up, Heartbane grabbed ahold of the nearby wall, right at the top, and jerked them both into it, smashing the side of his head into the stones. He collapsed to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

Arico could only stand there as she calmly extricated herself and pulled the metal spike free. It was a thin weapon, but obviously very sharp and long enough to have stabbed into his heart. Sabra wasn’t moving. If she could kill Sabra, then what chance did Arico have?

On an impulse he stepped back away from her, and she followed him out of the ruins. She didn’t attack immediately, though. She tilted her head as though examining him. “How did you disappear into the threads like that?”

He wished he knew the answer. “How did you track us through them?” He countered, grateful for the chance to buy some time. Jaas and Endu would be evacuating by now, with help from some of the dwarven navigators hiding in the threads. He only hoped Heartbane couldn’t track them if they’d been gone a while. Maybe if he could get to the threads, Heartbane would follow him again and let them go.

Heartbane only shrugged as she bent down to retrieve one of her daggers. “Maybe in another life we would have been friends, heretic. But this is my life, and your life is over. You’re not the best fighter, but you are determined and steadfast. I’ll give you a quick death.”

Arico wearily raised his sword again, intent on dragging this out as long as possible. “Even if you kill everyone here,” he said, a strange calmness spreading through him, “you can’t stop what we’ve set in motion. The wheels are turning, and I promise you that sooner or later every patch will be free.” There. He’d said it. The sense of calm had settled deep within him, granting a comfort that washed away any fear.

Below the mask, her lips twisted into a grin. Even as she started to charge at him though, a chunk of stone the size of a bread-basket clipped her on the side, taking her clean off her feet. She spun in the air, hit the ground with a sickening crunch, and rolled a few paces before coming to a stop.

Arico looked back at the ruins in shock.

Sabra was leaning against one of the pillars, crumbling it a little. Despite the blood oozing from his chest, he gave a ragged smile. His face was pale even through his leathery tan, but his arm was steady as he pointed at where the stone had landed: precisely on top of a rabbit hole. “Sabra knew he should have been an Ona player.”

-.-

The moment she’d gone running uphill, Jaas had known she wasn’t going to leave Arico for good. As soon as she’d made contact with Endu and gotten the evacuation started, she would go back to help him. Not that she knew precisely how she could help. She was making it up as she went, really.

Endu rubbed some kind of adhesive into her wound before hurriedly bandaging it, as the others evacuated. By the time both of them got back to the fight, they were just in time to see its end.

Sabra hurled a chunk of building at the black-clad attacker, knocking her down and possibly killing her. And then he collapsed against the stone wall, black blood still leaking from his chest. Endu ran down towards him, with Jaas following a little more cautiously.

Arico caught sight of them, and his expression darkened from fatigue to anger, but only for a moment. “Before you say it,” Jaas explained quickly, “the rest of the patch is evacuated. We just had to make sure you were all right.”

Whatever reprimands he was about to give, he apparently thought better of them. Even now, Jaas could see him almost staggering from fatigue. “Keep an eye on her from a distance,” he ordered, pointing at Heartbane’s still form. “She might still be alive.” He winced and gripped at his own right leg, which was bleeding too. “Let me know if she so much as twitches, you hear?” He made his way back to the ruins, to where Sabra was now sitting with Endu tending to him.

Jaas did as instructed, hurriedly loading her matchlock and pointing it carefully at the woman’s midsection. Somehow, despite the speed and the sheer torque of her final spin through the air, her mask was still securely in place.

“Skull-faced bitch cheated!” Sabra bit out, wincing as Endu carefully explored the edges of his wound and reached into her medicinal bag. “Stupid hidden dagger. Get off!” He grumbled at Endu and rubbed at the side of his head. “Sabra just got his bell rung is all.”

Endu just gave him a patient look, and he sighed and let her continue. “Is skull-face… dead?” He asked, apparently a little calmer.

“I don’t know. She’s down; that’s what matters.” Arico’s relief came through in his voice, and he laid a hand on Sabra’s other shoulder. “How are you still alive? She’s killed dozens of people. She always aims for the heart, and never misses!”

Sabra shrugged. “Sabra always knew there was an upside to being heartless.” He roared in pain as Endu cleansed his wound with alcohol. “Shemra’s touch, woman! That hurts!”

“You’re not heartless, you big baby,” Endu said calmly. As if challenging him, she pulled a needle and thread from her bag. “Your heart’s just in a different place, that’s all. Jaas told me a bit about giant anatomy after you joined us. You’re not a full giant, but you’re close enough that she missed. You might just be the luckiest man in the whole city.”

“Funny. Luck still feels like searing pain to Sabra,” he said sarcastically, and grimaced as she got to work stitching his wound closed.

Apparently satisfied that Sabra would be all right, Arico turned back to the assassin. Despite her incredible violence she looked almost peaceful to Jaas, lying there on the grass like that. Hesitantly, Arico approached her. “Careful!” Jaas said without thinking. “She might wake up.”

Arico only nodded. “I don’t think so. I’m no healer, but I’m pretty sure I heard ribs break when she got hit.” All the same, he did show great caution as he lifted her wrist and measured her pulse. “She’s still alive, whoever she is.” He gently turned her over and untied the mask, slowly lifting it off.

With a gasp, Arico backed away from her as he stared down at her face. From his position in the nearby ruins, Sabra made a similar noise of disbelief. Curiously, Jaas took a look as well. It was certainly no one she knew. “Who is she?”

“It’s… Hazra Fisher!” Arico answered breathlessly.

“Fisher?” Jaas echoed. “As in Lord Ascendant Fisher?”

Everyone looked over at her unconscious form. Even Sabra still seemed taken aback with the notion. As stra’tchi, or people who lived with stra’tchi, they were all aware of dangerous women—Endu was a dangerous woman after all. The idea of such a dangerous combatant being a Sustained noblewoman though, much less the de facto princess of this city, was stunning.

Of course Sabra was also the first to break out of it. “Oh, now little man has to kill her. Lord Ass-End took from us, and now we take his daughter from him. Gah!” He grunted again as Endu returned to her work.

Ordinarily Jaas would have objected. To kill a defenseless woman seemed unconscionable. But she’d seen what this assassin had done, and if she got back to her father and reported what she’d seen, it might mean the end of the Pact between the Sustained and the dwarves. The fight had taken place in dwarven territory, though it was possible that this princess hadn’t known exactly where she was before being knocked unconscious.

Arico shook his head. “No. I won’t kill her. Endu, when you’re done with Sabra, do what you can for her as well. Once she’s stable, I’ll take her somewhere she’ll be safe until she wakes up.”

Sabra made another noise of disbelief, as did Endu. Despite whatever unknown problems it might end up causing though, Jaas was relieved. Deadly assassin or no, this seemed like the right thing to do. “But why do you care?” Jaas asked, genuinely curious. “Do you know her?”

“Only from a distance.” Arico let out a small sigh, and he looked back down at her with sorrow on his face.

“She’s my sister.”
« Last Edit: April 08, 2022, 03:43:14 AM by Daen »