Planes of Marrow: Welcome to the Vagabond Arms!
Rowan stared about the gathered group of mercenaries. His Mercenaries. His Vagabond Arms. And he smiled a smile that felt genuine for the first time in a long time.
They were a rag tag group, even for a mercenary company. The exiled Cambion of Song, named Minoka sat on a log, surrounded by a tight circle of men. All appeared to be human, all bearing the same bronze plate armor. Each chest piece the same scratch and dented surface, where an insignia had been pried free. Mercenaries from one of the bigger companies, maybe. More likely deserters from one of the royal armies, fleeing their lands and seeking a living as sell swords.
Rowan wasn’t one to judge, however. More than once had he turned against a commander who saw his life as nothing more than simple collateral in the name of some greater good. Work long enough as a sell sword and you were bound to face the same choice. Die for another man’s noble cause or become traitor and survive. He knew what choice he had made. He knew what choice he would make again.
The Artificer Caelus had form quite a following it as well seemed, though he seemed quite uncomfortable with the attention. The young man seemed to busy himself with the map before him, occasionally taking small bites of food and sips of ale. He appeared to be doing his very best to ignore the men and women who had flocked to him as a symbol of hope for the battle ahead.
“So, how are we going to get through the surrounding goblin camps, past dozens of armed goblins and blow up the entrance to the cave?” Asked young man, said ale foam lining the fuzz of what he knows doubt believed to be a mustache.
“Well, we will need a distraction.” Caelus said, “A big one.”
“You know what, I always found distracting, Bran?” Mosh said, the Lupine Naguai’s teeth gleaming in the fire light. “Pretty Song girls with magic voices. What you say princess, how about you sing the goblins a tune. Make them fall in love with you like your little posse of runaway guards.”
“Watch your tongue, dog.” One of the men snapped, hand gripping on his sword.
“Oh, awk! How will I ever recover from your verbal wit, Sir vagrant sell sword! You looked at me and pierced through my tough façade and called me a, dare I say the word.” Mosh clutched at his throat as he spat out the word, “Dog. If only I could think of a retort to match your wit. Something, anything. Maybe the fact that the closest I came to being a dog was when I bought your mother for the night with a piece bread crust and chicken bone.”
Rowan got to his feet as the man lunged, sword halfway out of his sheath as Mosh rolled out of the way landing in a crouch, fangs bared and claws sprouting from his fingertips.
Warriors caught in a hateful stare.
Foolish minds and heart laid bare.
A dreamer kiss upon their lips
Their grip on consciousness begins to slip.
Rowan fought the dropping of his eyelids as Minoka’s song washed over him. The residual Magick was weakened as it radiated away from her targets. Mosh collapsed to his knees, claws retracting into his fingers as he caught himself from falling to the ground. With great effort he raised his head, staring at the larger man in his bronze armor. The human seemed to be bearing the song with much less grace, eyes rolling back into his head as he swayed on his feet.
“I got you, you bastard.” Mosh slurred before balling his fist and slamming it hard into his own jaw. The blow seemed to pull him free from Minoka’s Magick if only a little. The sell sword swayed heavy to his left, over corrected and landed hard with his face in the dirt. A dumb smile plastered his face as he made strange kissing faces in his sleep.
Mosh words were marked by the sudden thud of his head on the log he was sitting on. A stupid grin plastered on his face as Sinette ran to check on the young Naguai.
“He will be fine,” Minoka said, her words short and clipped with annoyance. “As for your plan, Trust I will be working independently from the man who carries a weapon designed to melt my flesh.”
With that Minoka, turned and walked to the far end of camp trailed by her noble group of followers. The group around Caelus looked at the two unconscious men laid out in the dirt and then at each other.
“So, as I was saying, if you ask me the best way is to set the boss on it.” Bran continued, “Old Rowan Whitehorn, facing off against a few dozen goblins, legendary hammer in hand.”
“Rowan Whitehorn, killed by a couple hundred dozen goblin arrows, spears and swords.” Mosh muttered, unconsciously, “Born an Elk, died a porcupine.”
“Does he just talk shit as a natural reflex?” Sinette asked, golden eyes blinking as she stared at the unconscious Naguai at the now snoring form of Mosh.
“Whitehorn wouldn’t be killed by goblins” the boy said, looking defeated.
“You ever face Goblins, Bran” An older with short cropped gray hair woman said, the flames dancing in golden light off of her bastard sword, “They use poison that putrefies the flesh. Poison is a vicious thing. Doesn’t matter how strong you are, how quick you are. Poison doesn’t care. Poison eats you from within. Poison is the hero killer.”
“I was thinking of something more…scientific” Caelus said. “Brute strength has its place. In fact, for my plan to work, I foresee see brute strength being an integral part. However, we do it, we will need to draw enough of them off for us to blast the cave to begin with.”
Rowan turned his attention to the largest group, forming a line as they picketed for the young woman’s attention. A camp stove now sat above flame; a stew being made from the meager supplies Sinette had scavenged from the back of his wagon. The smell of cooking meat, freshly dug wild carrots and herbs filled the camp, drawing the eyes of every mercenary as they lined up to get eyes on the most attractive thing to saunter into his camp.
Someone who knew how to cook. Sinette had gone from lost stranger to the biggest celebrity in his camp.
Sinette filled the cracked and worn bowls from his cupboard with hot stew to grateful hands. Few things were more alluring to the traveling mercenary than a hot meal and a cool drink. She looked at him from across the flames, her golden eyes gleaming with a delight that masked the deep sadness he had seen in them only moments before. She raised a ladle full of the hastily filled stew toward him and smiled.
Rowan smiled back and shook his head raising his bowl dried crickets. Sinette wrinkled her nose and shook her head. Rowan didn’t understand. Crickets were a great source of protein, easy to come by on the road and he even had gone as far to season them. What more could they ask for.
“Quite the party you got going, Boss,” A voice slurred in his ear, the scent of alcohol scorching his nostrils as the young woman pressed her body against his back, her chin resting on his shoulder.
“You’re late, Brandy.” Rowan muttered, pushing the drunken woman from his shoulder with a shrug. “And drunk, though why I am surprised I do not know.”
Brandy pouted, her dark brown curls bouncing as she sat next to him with her arms crossed. Years had gone by since he had run into the former Head of Zentra’s college of Alchemy. When they had first met, she had held him captive, a test subject for her study of Naguai anatomy. It was strange to think of her that way, the stern woman with a scientific mind, turned his drunken second in command.
The alchemist was dressed in her usual traveling attire if you could call it that. The ruffled skirts hung just past her knees; a blouse left more undone than not secured by a corset that seemed painfully tight. Worn black boots still covered in dirt from her trip back to the small village of thimble. The belt containing a dozen bottles of various concoctions that jingled with every sway of her hips. Some appeared glowed with a dangerous iridescent light. Others were simple alcohol, the vice of choice for the once famed Alchemist.
Rowan sighed and passed her the bowl of crickets.
“What did you learn from you travels, Miss grace.”
Brandy pout turned into a beaming smile as she spun toward him, grabbing the bowl in both hands as she straddled the log. Rowan braced himself for his second in commands drunken verbal deluge. She held a cricket between her for finger and thumb, eyeing it with mild curiosity before tossing into her mouth with a satisfying crunch.
“Ok, So a couple months back a tax collector comes in from Song, demands the village elders to pay their due. Elders pay up and are like ‘hey, how about some guards to patrol the hills because we got something out, they’re killing our livestock’. Tax guy is like yeah sure I’ll pass that right on to the noble prancing poofs at the Citadel. They never see him again.”
“Yes, Brandy, I know that what-” Rowan started, but Brandy continued as if he hadn’t spoken.
“Not a week goes by and guess who shows up but the Prince of fucking Spindle himself and his posse Royal guard. Towns like holy fuck we got help for sure with this gold shitting Cambion coming by. Fucking guy drinks their ale, eats their food, bangs a bar maid or four and leaves. Elders stop him out of town, and he is like I’m just here to collect what is owed to us in sheep and barley. They say wait we just got taxed by those Song poofs and he is like cool story give my shit or I’ll lay a Cambion royal beat down you into the next era.”
“I’ve heard of that guy. Heard he attacked a Mana courtesan and-”
“Yeah, yeah not important, Rowan. Can you let me get a word in? Stop being rude.” Brandy, gave him a scornful look which made Rowan regret he didn’t have a barrel of ale to drown himself in, “Anyway town finds itself caught between two nations that don’t give a fuck and some monsters I. The woods. They send some of the young men out to find what’s killing their livestock.”
“And none come back. Brandy, I know this.” Rowan said through clenched teeth “They found them a week later left out to rot. Try to bury the bodies and they get attacked by goblins. They told me that when we got the contract. You were there. Remember I told them Goblins leave their dead out in the open because-”
“Gobs are rot eaters. Maggots, flies, and dead flesh. I tried telling the bartender the same thing and he goes on this rant about how they don’t because-”
“Brandy! Rowan snapped, “You’re no telling me anything I don’t already know.”
“They kennel master was found killed today.”
“I was getting to that if you would stop interrupting. See all you had to do was let me get a word in your big oaf.” Brandy said, jabbing a finger into his chest before tossing another cricket into her mouth. “Yup butchered along with all of his dogs. Guy lived out on the edge of town, you know because of all the barking and howling. Looks like the gobs began their attack already. Testing the boundaries.”
“Fuck me.” Rowan groaned. He had already signed the papers saying he would protect the village and he was already failing.
“It gets worse.” Brandy said, her words soft so other couldn’t hear.”
“How?” Rowan said.
“The kennel master had gotten six mastiffs. Big old beast he kept in cages. You could see the blood pooling through the bars of the cages. Broken spear shafts from where they fought.” Brandy said, placing the bowl in her lap. “But there weren’t no mastiffs when the villagers arrived. No bodies left to rot. Only bloody paw prints from where they walked out of the cages after being killed.”
Brandy plucked a cricket from the bowl and crunched it. Rowan stared at the remnants of a leg, still twitching on her lips. She didn’t say the word. She didn’t have to.
“Nyx.” Rowan said the word as if it were a curse.
“Yeah, you know what they say, where there is Goblins, it is only a matter of time before there is Nyx.”
Rowan took a long swig from his drinking horn. There had been a time when you go years without hearing about a Nyx sighting. Occasion one would be seen shambling from the site of a battle, only to be destroyed as the sun rose over the hill the following morning.
Lately however, it seemed every village he passed through had a tale of shambling corpses, teeming with twitching black tendril. Some even spoke of living beings, possessed by the Nyx, maddened beasts running at the head of a shambling horde screeching commands in a guttural tongue.
Ghost stories. They had to be.
“We go to the village at first light.” Rowan said, “Talking with the elders and attack at noon when the sun is at its highest. Might be able to get some people to join our cause.
“Sounds right. mean we got a plan now, at least. Might help motivate the villagers to fight if they believe it might work.” Brandy said, crunching another cricket, “Speaking of which, if Caelus is planning on bringing down that cave I might have-”
“Rowan.” Brandy said, laying a hand on the Naguai’s chest, “If you’re worried about another hiccup like in Snow, I assure you-”
“Hiccup? You caused an avalanche. I spent a week digging the wagon out. I nearly lost a toe to frostbite and-”
“We completed the contract.” Brandy snapped, crossing her arms.
“The contract was to get s troll out of a mine.” Rowan hissed throwing his arms out to his side. “When you were done, there was no mine left.”
“Or troll mind you.”
“You are in charge of the medical tent. You are always in charge of the medical tent. Look, I even got you a new apprentice” Rowan said lifting his chin to Sinette. “Girls a Shaman. Plus, she won’t be shot faced. Should work miracles for your survival rate. Now how about we call it a night before you hatch any more ideas to get us all killed.”
Brandy glared at Rowan as he made his way to the campfire, relaying the latest news of the Nyx and their plan to make their way to the village at dawn. She watched the looks of worry, doubt and resolve cross the faces of the new formed band of sell swords. Brandy let out a sigh as she pulled a flask from her belt, checked the label to ensure it was simple whiskey and not one of many deadly concoctions before raising it to her lips.
“You seem to forget, Rowan my love, who I truly am.” Brandy muttered under her breath, before raising the glass in a toast to herself. “I am the great spirit Alchemist. I once ruled over the college of Alchemy. I was respected. I was feared.”
She watched as Rowan dropped to one knee, placing a hand on the small Naguai woman who had wandered helplessly upon his camp. Those hard calloused Hand and that gentle smile. Brandy sighed and craned her head back staring at the starry night sky.
“You forget who I was.” She whispered, “before I fell in love with a brutish man with a gentle soul. A man who I had imprisoned and tortured only to have him save me when my ambitions nearly tore me apart. You’re lucky I love you, even if you never look at me the way I look at you. I love you.”
She emptied the flask with one last deep swig before looking at the fire. Nearly everyone had left. The young wolf Naguai snored loudly by the flames; his lean body draped over the log next to the young man Caelus. She watched as the young man sat, map in hands and brows furrowed in concentration.
A smile worked past her lips as she stared at the artificer, as she unconsciously fingered two orb like flasks at her hips.
She was not the woman she once was. But that didn’t mean she still didn’t have some tricks up her sleeve.
She hummed a tune as she made her way to the back of Rowan’s wagon. Popping open the small cabinet that held her alchemist tools she smiled, pulling free the rattling orb of unseen power and the glowing embers of pulverized salamander tongue. Grabbing the tinted goggles, she whistled a tune as she went to work.
The next morning The whole of the vagabond arms found themselves with in the shoddily built walls of Thimble. The village was a simple place, a ring of thatch roofed hovels surrounding a town square containing a simple tavern and various merchants peddling their wares.
“Caelus. Sinette. Minoka. Mosh. A moment, please”
Rowan watched as the four made their way through the small crowd of mercenaries under his command. Sinette looked nervous being called out of the crowd. He gave her a reassuring wink as the other gathered. Caelus looked focus as always, Minoka annoyed to be near the man she seemed to believe was her enemy. Mosh appeared to be working a kink out of his neck from his rough night’s sleep.
“I need to meet with the village elders who hired us.” Rowan said, “it might be a while. I need to smooth over our low numbers and get more information about the man who was killed last night. While I am at work, I need you to take care of somethings. Can you take care of that for me?”
Caelus opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by the soft form of a woman he had never seen before pressing against his arm.
“Of course, we can,” She breathed against his cheek, “I have been dying to speak to another man of science, Caelus. Maybe you can- Ahhhh!”
Brandy yelped as Rowan’s massive hand caught her by the waist and dragged her away from the Artificer. He moved her as if she weighed nothing, all but throwing her into Sinette.
“Sinette, meet Brandy. Our resident doctor. She will help you with buying medical supplies. Won’t she?” Rowan all but growled.
Brandy rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Of course, she will. Still meet me in the tavern when we are don’t with our errands. I would love to buy you a drink, sweetheart.”
Brandy gave Caelus a wink before all but dragging Sinette with her. The man seemed more confused than anything else.
“And what do you need of me, Master Whitehorn” Minoka said with slight bow.
“For you to never call me that again.” Rowan said, “And recruitment. You were here for a couple hours, and you already had men willing to kill for your honor.”
“To be fair,” Mosh interrupted, “I do have that effect on people.”
“I have learned,” Rowan snapped, “Do me a favor and post up in the tavern and see who you can recruit to our cause. No using your Gift though. If people are going to risk their lives, I don’t want it to be because they believe in the cause, not because they are in love with you.”
“I don’t use my gifts to manipulate humans.” Minoka said, “Not all Cambion are monsters. Some of us care about the mortals we were sworn to protect.”
Rowan blinked, caught back by the sincerity in the woman’s words. He opened his mouth to speak but she had already grabbed her fiddle and walked away. He made a mental note to know more about the girl, regretting judging her so quickly.
“And what is it you need of me.” Caelus said.
“I am assuming you will need more to blow up that cave then what you got in that shield of yours” Rowan reached into his pants pocket and retrieved a pouch of silver. “Buy what you can I am not sure if they will have what you need, but if you can find something we will make it work.”
“And lastly, what can I do for you, boss man.” Mosh said beaming.
Rowan stared at the young Naguai and then back at Caelus.
“Also, I need you to keep Mosh alive.”
And with that Rowan turned and walked away.
**Players, the battle is about to begin. I want to give you this opportunity to role play your characters and truly explore who they are before the battle begins. It is important to let you know this fight is going to be tough and depending on what comes next, it is likely that some may not survive the coming conflict.
If at any points you have any questions about the NPC’s, please feel free to reach out to me on discord. I will help however I can. Thank you again for writing this story with me. See you next week, in the tavern with Rowan Whitehorn**
Caelus upon being entrusted with funds of the company, quietly opened up the pouch and saw a fairly decent sum of silver piled within the cloth sack, combined with his own funds, primarily the research stipend provided to graduates of the College of Science, he assumed he had more than enough to fulfill his plans. Especially given that he could ask to employ the many hands of vagabond arms in the joint prospect of mutual survival. As such he took immediate charge of the situation barking out orders to those who remained. Given that it was just Mosh, Caelus brough the bottom of his fist and gently hit Mosh's chest.
"Well if Rowan's not giving you anything to do, let's make use of you boss. I'm going to need hands on deck for this coming raid. Tell the rest of the group to meet me in the town square and make sure they come, the faster the better. We're going to make mobile siege weapons for the raid. Also relay the info to the others who gone off to do those jobs for Rowan. Once you're done meet me back at the town square like everyone else."
Unlike previously, Caelus had an air of authority about him, perhaps it was due to his early life as a militia man back in his hometown, or perhaps he learned how to command his presence as a inventor of the college of science. Ultimately however he was standing upright and tall akin to a soldier. He was speaking louder, and more pronounced. A stark contrast to the previous night. Who seemed far more relaxed and introspective. He had decisiveness in his eyes, and a spark of life gleaming in his eyes. However it was just his work ethic shining through, as he was the epitome of "Work hard, Rest easy"
"Also Get my shield, I keep some tools in a compartment, so just get someone to drag it there. It won't blow up in your guys face if you don't have my sword anyhow!"
As Mosh would soon arrive with 4 other workers two beaten bloody and the other two scared stiff. Caelus would then let out an exasperated sigh before barking shouting towards the two scared individuals before pointing to one.
"You there tend to their wounds... And Mosh You did what I asked, but you did it in a way that invalidates your hard work. What use are those who can barely lift their limbs from the beating you gave them. Give me a second I'll treat their wounds... I'll give you another assignment for at least fulfilling this much."
As Caelus said this he would take his blade and slide the haft into a wedge on the side before a small compartment popped out towards him. As it did so he rummage around a bit while approaching mosh. He made it seem like he was going to give him something however a bright flash of light was broached in their general direction blinding mosh, followed by a loud defeaning bang. In that moment he was quick to dart down and jab his leg with what was effectively one of his stockpiles of poisons some of which he made himself. Held over in preparation for his journey from Zentra. This tranquilizer was made from various toxic animals, one most noteably the Veldoran moth, a feline like moth with a large bulbous tail capable of storing strong sedative fluids which it used to defend itself. After quickly Injecting Mosh, he kicked the Naguai away and to the ground as the poison was taking effect it was tailor made to paralyze the individual's peripheral limbs, due to the body's predispostion to distrubte muscle and fat accordingly. As such the arms and legs were best built to retain this toxin and negate responses from the brain and even cause a vasoconstrictive response that helped further numb the limbs to hamper the individual. All the while Caelus stood a little ways away from Mosh looking down at him, with a look of indifference.
"Was it fun beating up your comrade in arms? I believe Rowan thinks of everyone here to be his family correct? I doubt he would like it if I used you as a test dummy for the weapon we're going to develop... Ain't that right Mosh? Although he's not here now is he, and I'm ultimately left in charge of you, don't worry you're not going to die from this. I got no use for corpses... Well not now, later maybe I will."
Caelus had dealt with Naguai in the past, and the few that had began to delve into the pits of madness that were in his fishing village would fall in line when he, fellow naguai, or his comrades began to evoke fear into them. And in turn he was going to see if Mosh would respond well enough to a rougher touch than merely being knocked out by Rowan in a quick blow. Nonetheless Caelus was quick to turn around to face the others once again.
"So then, we gotta get to work those who got injured, should see to their wounds. I'll bring a task later for you that'll be simple even for your injuries alright. You others, oh you're looking rather pale from the scare this lad gave you, I'll ask that you scrounge up unwanted crates, barrels, and wheelbarrows, and let's start stock piling them here. Now you other 2 go grab some onions, I only need about 10 or so, You go grab some scrap metal or ask for unwanted metal, and last but not least... I'm asking you to go shovel up either shit, or go into those fields and pick up the scraps of their harvest buying peat is also good. I need materials for the explosives we're going to make, and the mobile siege weapons we're going to use."
As he said this, he would divy up 2 silver to onion grabbers, The shit shoveler was going to get 10 silver for if they found a good deal on peat, and in the meantime, Kuroda would throw down his hulking shield down onto Mosh's body before sitting down on him
"Behave now otherwise I'll make you into a bloody smear in the ground.... This shield has a directional explosive in it, one that I can trigger at any point.. and look at who I'm sitting on..."
Caelus's voice was fairly cold in comparison to the warm human that was there the night before.
Sinette stumbled behind Brandy, the brunette stomped through the crowded square, rudely sidestepping villagers in her way. Her hurried pace did nothing to prevent the perfume of spirits from wafting behind her. Sinette felt dizzy. How was this woman still standing?
Suddenly she stopped before a stall, Sinette pulled up short and slid past her straight into a man selling fresh eels.
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry," Sinette squeaked. She hopped away, turning back to Brandy, who had stopped to inspect the wares. The stall was full of colorful vials and stone pestles. Bundles of dried herbs hung from the beams under the cloth ceiling. Blossoms of lavender, chamomile, and other small pots of fragrant flowers stood before the table.
"Well baby bird, Rowan tells me you're an apprentice of medicine," Brandy began. She shot Sinette a glance from across the lid of a tiny jar of white powder. She sniffed its contents before tasting a bit from the pad of her thumb. Turning back to the stallkeeper, Brandy continued. "So tell me what you know about Hinter flowers?"
"I'm sorry. I don't..."
Brandy cut her off, arm sweeping the air between them.
"What about Nesta's Nap weed?"
"I don't know what..."
Sinette paused considering the woman's impatience. Brandy's hand tapped rapidly at her leg, eyes darting across the table without seeing anything.
"Is this a test?" The words came out slow, temperate, so Brandy would see them as the question they were.
Even so, Sinette's companion's eyes flashed. She swept into Sinette's side, bringing a hand up to gently tuck her shaggy bangs behind her ear.
"What we're about to do, isn't some flippant questionnaire. If you get it wrong, there's no slap on the wrist. Instead, someone dies. So I need to know baby bird can you fly?" Brandy searched her face. Sinette knew the look of someone with something to lose. She had seen it in her own reflection often enough.
"I'm young I get it. You may use Nesters Nap, to what? Sedate? Well, my process is a little more painful than what you're used to. But it doesn't matter if I'm mending skin or bone, it's quick." Sinette ran her finger along the edge of a particularly wilted plant baking in the sun just beyond the canvas roof's protection. Green lines webbed across its leaves in the wake of her hand. They fluffed and stretched, vitality gently lifting them back up toward the sun.
"I can help, Rowan sees that," Sinette continued. She had always been good at reading people, their sighs and tells. She had spent her life watching her siblings, too many bodies, and her mother without enough eyes to keep track of them all. Nothing could hone a person's senses like 4 younger brothers with a penchant for mischief. She didn't miss the widening of Brandy's eyes or the soft intake of breath she made when Sinette mentioned Rowan's name. But it was lost in the gathering darkness that dwelled deep within her. Then her brother's laughter rang in her ears and then their screaming. Desperate pleading for her to help them, save them from the darkness. That malicious agony raged for an outlet.
"Don't pretend to know anything about Rowan," Brandy snapped beside her.
"You know I'm so sick of the suspicion. Of every good intention being met with questions and anger." Sinette pulled her touch from the vibrant plant. It shriveled into its pot, leaves turning an ashy brown. The plant crumbled and into the next pot the blight spread, each plant leeched until all that was left was a desiccated husk.
"You care about him," There was no need to say his name, realization swept across Brandy's face, her mouth dropping in an audible pop.
Sinette nodded in reply, the words tumbling from her now. "I use to care about people too. Gods, how ungrateful I was. You don't even realize it until they're… gone." A bitterness lanced her words, she hurled them at Brandy, allowing her bleakness to wash over the older woman. "Then when everything you cared about is gone, you’re a silent spectator as hollowness carves you open." Resignation twisted her face. Deep lines furrowing her nose and lips, all clenched to hold back the tears beading at her eyes.
"In the end you embrace the devouring anger that fills you in. Because without it, well how would you even go on?"
Sinette opened herself to the madness, the only feeling that could replace the hopelessness. A well of fury that fed her life now. Brandy watched as the young girl's features soften, rivets of tears cutting through her cheeks. The feathers along her skin, a delicate imprint before, curled and ruffled. Sinette's soft features were betrayed by the feral appearance of her other form.
She fed the fury and felt it swell within her until it burst, a torrent of air sweeping the jars from the table. Brambles of thorny vines sprung amongst her feet, curling along the ground and clasping whatever lay close. Brandy stumbled back, clutching at the next stall to raise herself above the frenzied creepers.
Sinette raised her chin, eyes leveled at the alchemist. "I understand your fear, your… love." Her eyebrows raised in understanding. "What better person to have on your side than someone who has fought death and lost?"
She hoped death came, swift and fierce, to claim what it had left behind. She was ready to settle that score.
"Behave now otherwise I'll make you into a bloody smear in the ground.... This shield has a directional explosive in it, one that I can trigger at any point... and look at who I'm sitting on..."
Caelus words were cold and emotionless. He took a breath in as he stared at the trembling form of the Naguai beneath his shield. The bestial nature of the Naguai would burn the poison in his veins off quicker than any human. The threat of the explosive charge in the shield was necessary if the Mosh’s madness had not yet burned away. It was a threat he hoped he would not have to make a reality, but Caelus had faced tougher decisions in his-
Caelus’s focus was turned away as the small hand caught him by the nape of the neck with an inhumanly powerful grip. A moment before his mouth could form any sound, he was launched backward twenty feet, sent crashing into a cart of fresh meat pies set at the other side of square. His vision blurred and whirled as he desperately tried to gain his bearings.
“I knew what you were the moment I laid eyes on you.” Hateful venom seeped from every word of the melodic voice. “Another mortal, gifted with an intelligently cruel mind believing they know best of all. Another human believing the only way they can climb their way up is by dominating others.”
Caelus raised his head, jaw clenched as he stared at Minoka, silken robe flung off to reveal a plain white tunic and leather pants and worn leather boots. A leather strap held her fiddle across her back, the bow held in hand as if it were a short thin sword. For the first time since he had met the hateful woman, he saw her scars laid bare. Vine shaped scars, trailing her wrist and up her arms all the way to the throat.
“I am not dominating him,” Caelus snarled, “I sent him to get people to help me prepare for the battle to come. In response he attacks and all but kidnaps them. What am I supposed to do with broken and beaten-”
“You sent a half mad Naguai, who you were tasked with keeping safe mind you, to go off on his own and recruit people to your cause.” Minoka snapped, perfectly straight white teeth bared as she advanced toward him, “You think that is great leadership? You think Rowan gave you Mosh to be what, your lackey? He chose him because he believed you responsible. He chose you because the Naguai had shown he obviously cared for you, for some insane reason. An effect of his madness no doubt.”
Caelus was no stranger to the Cambion ways. His time in Zentra had shown him how little they truly cared about honor or fairness in combat. Minoka wouldn’t wait for him to get to his feet. She wouldn’t wait for him to get his bearings. So, he simply chose not to get to his feet.
Minoka all but blurred toward him closing the twenty feet in the span of a heartbeat. Caelus launched forward, ducking into a roll, and pivoting in a crouch to face the Cambion Hunter. She whirled toward him, poised to strike but not daring to move, her almond shaped eyes affixed on the iron blade in his hand with fear and fury. Caelus winced as he felt the fiery line, both hot a wet just below his left eye. Only then did Caelus see the thread of the silvery bow string stained crimson with blood.
“Use your Bane iron, boy.” Minoka taunted, her teeth bared in a blood thirsty snarl “It will be all the justification I need when I end your life.
Caelus lunged to his feet, blade raised as Minoka dashed toward him again, a promise of death in her eyes. A simple thrust, low and with his arms fully extended out. The attack would leave him exposed but even if the tip of his blade pierced her skin it would be enough. Cambion might be stronger and faster than humans, but a cut from an iron blade was more than enough to balance the odds.
Yet his thrust never came close to its mark.
He made it two steps before ramming into an immovable object, catching his arm, and knocking the wind out of his lungs. A similar whoosh of air followed by the crashing of wood, and he looked up to see Minoka, slumped against the same cart Caelus had extricated himself from moments before.
“I owe you an ass kicking later, Caelus.” A voice, familiar and yet somehow more composed spoke in his ear., “But not now. We need you now.”
Mosh released his sword arm, his russet brown eyes more focused then had seen before as he looked down at Caelus. The Naguai turned to face Minoka, who had already leapt to her feet, fury mixing with confusion as she stared at Mosh. The young man stared back at her, his lupine ears and clawed fingers still trembling as the last remnants of the poison burned through his system.
“Mosh?” Minoka said, “Are-are you ok? I heard the bang and saw him standing over-.”
“My curse.” He said, turning to look back at where Caelus had pulled himself into a ready crouch, “It got the better of me. Normally, before, I had my own kind to keep me in check. I never really had to manage my madness, not when I had other Naguai to brawl with as an outlet. Caelus, he managed it the best way he knew how.”
“By poisoning you?” Minoka said, leaping to her feet. “By threatening to detonate one of his human traps to kill you while you couldn’t move. Why, so he could show others how great a leader he was.”
Mosh ran a hand through his long mane of dark red hair and sighed. “I didn’t say it was the best way to get things done. Next time, let’s try something a little less potent than a tranquilizer dart. Maybe a beer. Or we could step back somewhere and brawl it out. Unless you’re scared to face off against a Naguai without your little gadgetry.”
Mosh looked at the gathered crowd forming around them in the town square. All eyes were on the three of them in the square. In the distance he thought he could see Brandy and the little owl girl Rowan had found spying from the shadows at the edge of camp. The scent of wild Magick caught him unsuspectingly. It wasn’t the flowery scent he had become familiar with while traveling with the shamans of his old tribe. No, this Magick was darker, the sickly-sweet smell of poisoned thorns and withered earth.
How the fuck did I become the grown up today.
Without warning, Mosh spun grabbing Caelus by the lapels and hauling him to his feet. Caelus’s grip tightened on his sword as he was pulled so close the young Naguai he could feel warm breath on his cheek.
“Listen to me the both of you. Yes, I know you can hear me, you self-righteous Cambion vagabond princess” He snarled, casting an eye toward Minoka as he spoke. “I don’t care if you want to kill each other. You can do that later. We have a battle to win.”
“I have been trying to say that this whole-” Caelus started.
“I won’t fight with a man who treats-” Minoka snapped.
“Oh, my gods I do not care.” Mosh snapped, “These people need to believe we can keep them safe. They need to believe there is a reason to fight and die for this little shit hole of a village in the middle of nowhere. I don’t care what you do. Beat the shit out of each other. Walk away. Get a room and fuck your brains out. I. Do. Not. Care.
“But when the time comes, I expect to see you beside me in the tavern before the battle begins. Neither of you are allowed to die until after the battle is done. Now figure it out. I got other more important things to take care of.”
Mosh let go of Caelus and took three steps toward where he sensed Sinette’s Magick going wild before stopping. He looked at the town square. At the gathered crowd of villagers, mercenaries. All staring at the spectacle his new tribe had made. More than part of which was due to his own loss of control. He watched as all who he made eye contact looked away.
He cursed himself. The damage was done. There he was all the truth the humans would need. Another Naguai lost to his curse. Another poor victim to the madness running in all his kind’s veins. For most in this village he and Rowan were probably the first Naguai they ever had seen.
He thought back to his time with the tribe. Roaming the lands, attacking traveling merchants. Everything they had came from the land. Everything they didn’t have; they took from those killed.
Mosh never wanted to be a monster.
But if a monster was needed, then a monster he would be.
“Get back to work!” He roared, baring his teeth and claws as he whirled on the crowd. “Goblins are coming! And if that isn’t enough to scare you will have me to deal with. Any man moving to slow loses and arm. Any man who runs gets beaten to death with said arm I steal. MOVE!”
The crowd hurried to complete whatever tasks Caelus had given them. Only the old woman Towa remained, her bronze great sword glinting in the sunlight. She smiled and gave him a wink before heading back to work. Mosh did his best to hide his smile.
At least someone didn’t see him as a wild beast.
He turned on heel and made his way down the narrow street toward the scent of Naguai Magicks. The smell of madness tinged the air as he hurried toward the source. He couldn’t change what people saw him as. He couldn’t stop them from seeing him as a monster.
But maybe he could save the little owl girl.
Maybe he could save Sinette.
In the square Caelus looked about the square watching as those under his command hurried with a frenzied pace, purposely not looking at the two mercenaries remaining in the square. He looked back at Minoka, her eyes still filled with hate and distrust. Slowly she rose the bow of her fiddle and placed it in the sheath behind her back. Her stance didn’t change however, the muscles of her legs flexed and ready to pounce.
“Your move, boy.” She hissed.
Brandy gripped the cart pulling herself away from the frenzied crawling of black thorned vines. She of course had heard the stories of Naguai Shamans. They were renown healers and protectors of the Wild woods the Naguai called home. She had even met one or two in her travels with Rowan, back when they were still saving up for the oversized wagon, he would claim to be the heart of his Vagabond Arms.
But this girl, this little bird, was different. The Magicks those Shaman she had met used had been a gentle thing. The healing touch for a wolf caught in a trap. The snatching of vines to hold an intruder at bay. Their power had made them the hearts of their tribes. A sense of order and strong familial bonds.
Sinette’s power was something different altogether. Not only was her Magick stronger than any girl her age should be capable of, but it seemed, damaged. Broken. As if her Magick had been corrupted. As if she herself had been corrupted by the very lands which gave her power.
“Little bird,” Brandy whispered staring at the young Naguai girl, pushed deeper into her curse and further into her madness. Sinette didn’t seem to see her, her golden eyes focused on a memory hundreds of miles away. It was a look Brandy had seen before. One Rowan wore when he started a story of his time at war. Stories he would begin and never finish. Stories of brothers in arms whose stories had ended too soon.
Brandy looked at the vines below, twisting and climbing as the made their way up the legs of the cart. The herbalist, an old, wrinkled woman who was selling her wares backed away from the cart eyes wide with fright. Brandy saw the telltale look in the woman eyes at the small Naguai woman. She stared at the curling feathers, the fingertips ending in talon and the dark vines forming a circle about her. She saw the young woman, suffering from a curse with which was no fault of her own and she did what humans always do.
She sought to destroy and not understand. Brandy watched as the woman gripped the large paving stone from the side of the road and raised it over head. Brandy had remembered her hateful words. Her stupid fear of the fact Rowan didn’t love her the same way she did. The stupid belief that he would prefer the company of one of his own kind to her own.
A fear she would never have to worry about if she simply let the woman do as she believed to be right. No law in the land would fault the old woman for killing a feral Naguai. Hell, they might even call her a hero for it.
The sharp whistle drew the attention of the panicked Herbalist, eyes wide with terror as she met Brandy’s eyes. Brandy smiled drunkenly at the woman, sitting cross legged on the cart covered in vines. She drew the feather from flask and twirled it between her fingers.
“I am a bitch.” Brandy mused, “But not that much of a bitch.”
The old woman blinked in confusion, barely recognizing the sharpened quill of the feather flicked from Brandy’s fingers and bit into her neck. The woman swayed, rock falling from her hand as she crumbled to the ground. Brandy sighed and shrugged her shoulders, bracing herself as she stared into the whipping vines.
“You made your bed, Brandy. Time to get fucked in it” she muttered to herself before leaping off the cart.
The black vines immediately lashed at her ankles, black thorns tearing at her flesh as she pushed herself forward. With every step more thorns whipped at her, tearing her clothing and biting into her skin.
“Sinette.” She said, through gritted teeth., “I am sorry I pushed you. I judged you unfairly. I placed my own baggage upon your shoulders and did my best to assume the worse about you. I wanted to hate you because-”
Against her will a whimper escaped her throat as a thick vine snatched around her wrist, thorns biting deep as it pulled her to her knees. She was three paces away from the girl. Those Golden eyes stared at her unseeing. Nothing coming through.
“Fucking shit.” She hissed, before dragging herself froward fighting against the vines. “Listen to me, little bird. I need you to let me in. I won’t say I know what you have been through, but I can tell you I have also seen horrible things. Hells, to a lot of people I was the horrible thing. But I want to be better. I want to believe that with every step forward I make, I have a chance of the world becoming better. I-”
The words died in her throat as the vines whipped around her throat, thorns slicing deep into her neck. Brandy pulled at the vines weakly with her snared hand, reaching a cut and bloody palm to Sinette’s face.
“I. Am. Sorry, Little bird.”
And Sinette blinked, tears staining her cheek as the feather drew back beneath her skin. Brandy gasped as the vines loosened, the thorns fading away to nothing.
“Brandy, I am so-”
Brandy could only blink as the dirty barefoot of Mosh whipped around her, colliding with the side of Sinette’s head with a dull thud and sending the small woman somersaulting into the unconscious form of the old herbalist woman.
“It’s ok.” Mosh gasped, out of breath, “I am here to save you, M’lady.”
Brandy blinked; jaw agape as she looked at the Wolfish grin of Mosh.
“I know you are crazy, Mosh” She said, “But are you actually just stupid?”
Rowan sat in the small room set on the second floor of the tavern, politely holding the teacup offered to him in his oversized hand, ready to renegotiate the contract for a higher price. He had his reasons clearly listed and organized in his head. They had been paid to fight goblins. Now there were Nyx and goblins.
It was simple.
Yet in the past thirty minutes of his Mercenary band coming to town, the sound of small explosions, screaming orders breaking carts and the sound of obvious fighting filled the streets.
The village elders looked at him with a mixture of concern and annoyance. The old woman who owned the bar tapped annoyingly at the table and the Mayor of the village kept twisting the ends of his enormous mustache turning a deeper shade of red with every cacophony of sound.
“I am assuming there is a reason you called us here, Mr. Whitehorn.” The mayor said annoyingly.
Rowan smiled setting his teacup down and placing his hands on the table.
“No, Sir I simply wanted to tell you I have my best and brightest preparing for the battle ahead.”
A resounding “Hyah!” came from the street below, drawing the eyes of both elders to an open window.
“And we will reimburse you for any damages my people cause in preparation of the defenses.” Rowan said, getting himself to his feet and excusing himself for the room.
He quickly made his way to the bartender on the floor below and tossed him a silver coin.
“Just keep them coming.” He said grabbing a horn of ale and slumping against the bar, pinching his brow as he began to nurse the headache of a mercenary band called his Vagabond Arms
"Mr. Whitehorn, what is the meaning of this? Bringing feral Naguia upon our peaceful town! Unleashing them upon our citizenry!"
The mayor waved his arm over the villagers that had crowded into the common room of the tavern, jeers of agreement rising from among them. He had hauled his considerably large self onto a considerably small podium the tavern owner Wendy had scrounged from a storage closet. It made an audible quack every time he shift his bulk, plumes of dust rising when he settled his pot belly with a pat. He offered the crowd a pitying grimace, fueling the growing unrest.
Unrest he was sure to capitalize on thought Rowan. Not for the first time today, Rowan cursed his body's inability to get drunk. Faster healing, but no buzz. It hardly seemed fair at this particular moment. He settled for grinding his teeth as the mayor continued to enumerate his team's disgruntled antics.
"My dear townsfolk, at this rate there won't be much of a town left to save!"
"Mayor Laxduff, I would kindly remind you that I have paid the herbalist and the baker for all their destroyed property," Rowan cut in and to himself mumbled "twice".
He had paid them handsomely for the handful of meat pies and flower pots destroyed in his brigade's growing pains. But Rowan had wanted to smooth out any hostilities between the villagers and the band, and nothing tramped down anger like coin.
The cart and stall had been an easy fix, nothing compared to the damage caused to the villager's collective psyche. The whispers had traveled fast. An assault by men, beasts they said. The very men hired to save them. They had already been afraid, helpless against the assault before them, goblins and Nyx. Easier to confront the known enemy. Fury was a useful tool in the face of fear, fury turned toward him. Toward the feral Naguia he had brought to save them. Feral. He spat. The word disregarded the suffering his people had endured for years. The word feral turned them into animals.
"Tell the beasts to leave," a faceless hackler called.
"AYE, we don't need them!," Came an answering reply.
"Now friends," the mayor soothed. "We should expect them to protect us! Protect us, and return the hard-earned coin we have paid them."
The mayor turned an expectant gaze on Rowan, glee twinkling in his eyes.
"Surely, Mr. Whitehorn, you wouldn't want the reputation of the Vagabond Arms tarnished by the activities of your mercenaries. A respectable gentleman…" The Mayor drew out the word until all that rang in anyone's ears was "man". He meant a respectable man, not a beast like him. "Would ensure his customers are satisfied," the weasel finished.
No, thought Rowan, I'm not a man.
Sinette woke to the throbbing in her temples and a muffled ringing penetrating her ears. The high-pitched note spiraled in and out as she turned her head, like a fog horn off the coast. She felt sick, but couldn't manage to push herself off the small cot, arms buckling beneath her. It had happened again. She had gotten lost in the darkness. A third time submerged in a mire of fury, only to awaken with no memory of it. The panic began to set in, the pressure building in her chest and holding her down. Her lungs cleaved from trying to catch her breath. What horrible things had she committed this time?
Large hands cradled her shoulders, Rowan appeared from a chair behind her. He looked ruffled and less kept than when she had left him this morning.
"Slow, now. Your body is trying to protect you. But you're okay now. Everything's okay." He spoke slowly, each word deliberate, like he wasn't sure she could hear him.
Sinette tried to focus on his face, but the pain pushed him in and out of focus. Closing her eyes, she willed the suffering away. The soft energy of the earth lay just beneath her fingertips, its gentle rhythms calling to her. With a sigh, she opened herself to it. A gentle quickening and the warmth of power suffused her, dulling her pain. But it didn't stop the tears from cascading down her cheeks.
"I'm so sorry for whatever I've done," she choked. Sinette couldn't bare to look at him. There would be judgment, loathing, and worst of all fear. She knew that other people's fear could take things from you. There was so much to lose. A warm meal. A safe place. A friend. "I can leave. I won't stay."
"I don't want you to leave," he confessed. "I want you to tell me what happened".
She stifled a sob. "I don't know. I got angry and now I don't remember."
"You and I both know there is more to that story," Rowan replied. He pulled the chair forward and sat, folding his hands patiently in his lap. "Why don't you tell me what you do remember."
Sinette took a steadying breath, opening her eyes to focus on the ceiling. Rough-hewed beams braced the room, her gaze drawn to the cracking plaster along their length. The last person she told about the darkness was Ward. Now her brother was dead and she had killed him. Fresh tears dribbled down her cheeks.
"I was arguing with Brandy. She was testing me. Testing me to protect you, I think." Sinette raised her eyebrows at Rowan, but she was met with a brisk nod to continue.
"It doesn't matter why, I guess. But I was angry and then I heard them," She barely breathed, the last word hung heavy between them.
"My brothers," she whispered. "They were calling for me again. But I couldn't save them." Resignation stained her voice and her puffy gaze met Rowans. "I killed them, and now I hear their screams." She bit her lip to drive back the agony, glassy eyes pleading with Rowan to understand. She missed them so much, her sadness driven deeper by the guilt of knowing she killed them. She had done everything to save them, called every spirit she could muster. But the energies of the earth had forsaken her.
Rowan sat back, the chair groaning under him. He crossed his arms, considering her words before asking "This kind of episode has happened before?"
Sinette nodded in reply. "Three times now. Once when I was little, then again about 3 months ago. Now today." In a sudden burst of strength, she clasped his hand and drew it back to her.
"It’s the maddness, the feral maddness that comes for every Naguai. I'm what every human fears, and I can't be allowed to hurt anyone else. Please, Rowan." Her nails clenched onto his fist, as she pleaded with him.
"Please end this".
In the town square, Minoka stared at the young human, iron blade held tight in his grip, eyes narrowed in rage. Blood stained his cheek, his clothes stained with the gravy of the meat pies he had been thrown in. Yet, She knew none of that mattered, not compared to the damage she had done to the man pride. Minoka let her eyes move from Caelus, too the sideward glances cast her way by the villagers and mercenaries as they busied then themselves with their task.
A smile pulled at the corner of her lips as she thought of the Young Naguai’s threats. Mosh might have been insane, but at least he knew how to use his madness for good. The thought brought her back to the man before her. Caelus, the artificer armed with his iron blade and shield, his mere presence an afront to her people. And yet he was a genius. If not for him, they wouldn’t have had a plan to begin with. The war would be over before it began.
And yet she couldn’t believe the man to be good. He was too cold, too calculating. He saw those around him as things to be controlled and used. He saw Mosh as little more than a dog needing to be broke in. A belief she had seen shared another.
When one is faced with protecting one’s family, it is nothing to sic one’s dog on the threat. The dog might die, My love, but at the end of the day that is what a dog is for. Something to be sacrificed so its betters may live.
Malc’s words sent a shiver down her spine, as her hate doubled for the man before her. Yet, she knew instantly the hate was not for Caelus. No, her hate belonged to another. To the one she had left her scarred and broken. To the one she had betrayed all those she had loved.
To the man whose life she had sworn to take.
“We don’t have time for this.” She said, finally, “Build your little war machines. Maybe it will keep you alive long enough for me to break your neck later.”
Minoka didn’t wait for Caelus to respond. As she made her way back to the tavern, she heard a man scream “Hyah,” followed by the boneless thud of a body against the dirt road.
“I don’t even want to know.”
“Surely, Mr. Whitehorn, you wouldn’t want the reputation of the Vagabond Arm’s tarnished by the activities of your mercenaries. A respectable gentleman…” The mayor drew the word out until all that rang in anyone’s ear was “Man”. “Would ensure his customers are satisfied.”
Minoka watched as Rowan’s cheeks grew a darker shade of crimson, the tips of his antlers growing an inch or two from his skull as he sat, listening to as the bloated eel of a mayor stoked the flames of hate and dissent toward the Mercenary band who they themselves had called upon for aid.
Only an hour had passed since the fight in the square followed only shortly by Mosh kicking in the door as he carried in the Unconscious Naguai girl who had joined them the night before. Rowan’s second in command had trailed behind, looking unabashed by the torn and bloody garments she wore as she sat at the bar and ordered a pitcher of ale.
Around her the crowd cheered, pumping their fists in agreement.
“So,” The mayor, continued, a toothy grin spreading like a plague over a wobbly chin, “How do you intend to satisfy us, my good man.”
All eyes turned to the large man sitting on a barstool which seemed eternally too small for its occupant. A fact that only changed, as the man stood, the floorboards creaking as Rowan’s for shifted and grew. The dark brown of his hair went gray, then silver and finally white, sprouting on his cheeks and brow. The loose tunic writhed and stretched as muscles elongated and bunched under his skin. Most noticeably of all, however, was the twisting crown of bone, scraping the wood of the low ceiling as the antlers sprouted, twisting toward the sky.
Minoka gripped the wooden handle of her violin’s bow as the room filled with gasps and startled murmurs as the crowd backed away from the massive Naguai Berserker towering over their mayor. Her hands trembled as a wave of tension washed over her, pouring out of the berserker as he showed the raw power and level of control he held over his curse. Her eyes shot to Mosh, the young Naguai trembling as red fur sprouted from his arms and claws burst from his fingertips. Brandy placed a hand, still covered in cuts and slashes from what ever happened in the village before. Mosh seemed grateful for the woman’s touch, as he emptied the contents of his ale down his throat.
So, this is the power of a Naguai berserker. Minoka thought, struggling to control the trembling in her fingers.
“Right now, Mayor,” Rowan said, his voice a deep baritone. “I don’t really give a fuck about your satisfaction. Pay us what we are owed or don’t. Just keep in mind, however, after the battle is done, after the goblins are killed, the men and women who did so will be in your gates.”
“Are you daring to threaten me, Mr.-”
“I don’t make threats, Mayor.” Rowan said, gripping a too large hand on the rotund man shoulder. “Do you feel threatened? I would not want you to think me not a gentle…man.”
Minoka released a breath she didn’t know she was holding as Rowan returned to his normal size, all to comforting smile back in place. At the bar mosh, let out a trembling laugh tinged with a little too much madness. A sound, which echoed over a crowd of villagers to terrified to make a sound.
“Now, Mayor,” Rowan said, giving the man’s cheek a gently jiggling slap. “If you don’t mind, I have some war machines to check on. A long with a scared girl who lost control of her curse. I am sure I will see you on the front lines when the battle begins.”
And without another word the Head of the Vagabond Arms walked out the door. Leaving Minoka alone in a room of scared villagers. It wasn’t long before the whispers started. What would happen when the battle was done? How could they know those Naguai beasts wouldn’t go feral, killing them just as they did the goblins? They had to be ready. There was a store of weapons in the mayor’s villa. All they had to do was get to the villa while the battle was being waged and they would be ready. All they had to do was-
“You know what I hate about men.”
Minoka, nearly jumped as the woman spoke in her ear. Brandy, sat by her side, a vial of a strange iridescent blue liquid slowly twirling between her fingers.
“What?” Minoka stammered.
“Oh, sweetheart, you’re going to want to do better than that.” She said, popping the cork off the bottle and spitting it on the floor. “If we are going to save this thing, we call a mercenary company I need you to be much more eloquent with your words.”
With a toss of her head Brandy tossed the mystery concoction down her throat, wincing as it went down. A heartbeat later and the wounds covering her body began to his, the smell of burnt ozone filling the air as they stitched themselves closed. A small burp came from the woman, as silver stream of smoke escaping her lips.
“As I was saying, what I hate about men is their strange need to solve conflicts by swinging their dicks around like Billy clubs.”
Minoka, opened her mouth to speak, stopped and simply picked up her mug to down more ale. Despite her best wishes, Brandy continued.
“It never solves anything. Look at the mayor, the weaselly prick behind the podium. Now he doesn’t have much to work with, but goddamn if he won’t talk a big game about it. Hell, talking about how much of dick he has got him that big villa overlooking the town. Hell, words were wieners he would be-”
“Please stop.” Minoka said, waving down Mosh and taking his pitcher of ale.
“What’s up.” The young man said, plopping down next to her.
“We’re talking about wieners.” Brandy said, uncaring of who was around her.
“Oh, cool.” Mosh said, resting his chin on his palm as he looked from Minoka to Brandy, “well, go on.”
“Of course.” Minoka muttered under her breath.
“Now, Don’t you think I am saying I prefer Rowans way of manhood measuring either. You think just dropping it on your opponent’s head is going to do anything to calm the masses. No, of course not. One look at that one eyed monster and the villagers are looking to grab their pitch forks and torches.”
“Is there any point to this, conversation or am I not drunk enough to understand.”
“yes, to both” Brandy said, “The point is, men are stupid. And after all that dick swinging nothing has been solved. Which is where us women have to come in and set things right.”
“And me too.” Mosh said, beaming “I want to help!”
“Of course, you do, Mosh. Because you’re a good egg.” Brandy said, pinching the young man’s cheek, “A crazy egg but a good one. You want to help too, don’t you princess.”
“I am not a princess.” Minoka muttered.
“But you sing like one.”
Minoka looked at Brandy, seeing the mischievous look in the human woman’s eyes. Humans always said her kind couldn’t be trusted. As if the gift of Magicks made them somehow any less conniving than their own kind. Yet, in all her years of life, she had never met a more conniving mind than that of a human.
“What do you want me to do.” Minoka said, “Speak plainly. No twisted words and for the life of me no talks about penises.”
“I think the plural is peni” Mosh said, taking back his pitcher and draining its contents.
Minoka got up from her seat to leave but Brandy cut her off.
“Okay, Okay.” Brandy said, “I want you to sing a song. I’ll take care of the mayor. I will make sure we get paid. I just need you to calm the villagers. Can you do that? Can you sing me a song and save the day princess?”
The crowd of the tavern sat in tight murmuring groups as Minoka took the stage. Some talked about fleeing the town before the impending battle. Others talked about plans to turn to the mercenary band once the battle was done. Some, mercenaries of the newly formed band and the village militia spoke of deserting all together.
The small-town bar had turned into a powder keg, ready to ignite at any moment’s notice. From the stage she could see the four men she had met the night before. Deserters from the Kingdom of Spindle. Men who had abandoned their prince after he had done horrible things to a girl in a brothel without a name. Brave men who had been labeled cowards and traitors simply for following the wrong ruler.
This is what it means to lead. It means to bend those below you. You have your gifts. I have my sword. My iron blade. And the woman whose voice always guides my blade home.
Minoka gritted her teeth as she looked down at the crowd below. They were Human, mortals like the ones she had dominated. Bending them to her will with her song. Turning them into mindless drones to Malc’s cause.
Together they would overthrow the Citadel of Song. Her song would give them an army and his iron blade would tear out the Cambion rulers who claimed themselves rule of the land of man. She had loved him and because of that love thousands would die.
And so it was, until a Swan’s blade had found its way into her breast. A seed of mistletoe place into each rest, feasting off her power until she had been sapped to nothing but the dregs of her former power. But Malc would come for her. He had to come for her.
Yet he never did. He had forgotten her.
She was Cambion. A noble woman of Song who had fell in love with a man who only sought to rule. Malc had stolen everything from her. Had broken her to his will. Left her dying on a battlefield amongst the corpse she had sung to die on his blade.
He had taken everything from her. Except for this. Taken everything but her gift.
The cords of her fiddle wailed melancholy tune into the night of the dimly lit bar. She poured her heart break into each stroke of her bow. Calloused fingers pressed on cords lowering the pitch lower and lower as she parted her lips and let loose her power.
**Will you, will you raise your blade with me.
They called upon the kings and queens.
But none are to be seen.
So Here I stand blade in hand.
Will you raise your blade with me?
Those fiends did come and kill those loved.
And no kings and queens were seen.
They killed your men and skinned your sons.
And no kings and queens were seen.
So, I ask again, will you raise your blade with me.
The people cried because the royals lied.
And no kings and queens were seen.
Taxes paid and livestock claimed.
And no kings and queens were seen.
So, tell me now will you raise your blade with me.
A contract paid and a war pact made.
And no kings or queens were seen.
But Vagabond Arms did show.
But no kings and queens were seen.
Will you raise your blade with me?
Men with horns and girls with claws.
But no kings and queens were seen!
Brutes with swords and A cambion girl asks you all.
Will you raise your swords with me!**
“Will you raise your swords with me!”
The chant broke Minoka from her trance, vision doubled and spinning as she released the flow of Magick in her words. From the deserters to the villagers on the edge of betrayal, they all chanted the words. For the first time in a long time, Minoka felt a swell of pride in her chest as she looked at the change she had made.
She had used her gift and for once it felt good.
In the Villa on the hill, Mayor Laxduff woke, not sure of how he got there or with whom he shared his bed. Many a drunken afternoon had been spent in his extended term as Mayor of the village of Thimble. In truth there were more days than not he found himself passed out in his feather down bed, sleeping away the day as the people of his village toiled the day away. But what else was he expected to do, overlooking a shithole town set along every changing border of two nations.
But at the moment, that was not his greatest concern. As he blinked the sleep out of his eyes, he looked toward the woman curled next to him in bed, adorned in a too short skirt and shredded corset leaving nothing to the imagination. His alarm only increased as he felt the tight bite of ropes binding his wrists and feet to the corners of his bed.
“What is the meaning of this!” The mayor snapped, “Unbind me this instan-hmph!”
Brandy let out a sigh as she placed the apple she had been chewing on into the blabbering mouth of her victim. She arched her back as she sat up stretching her arms, she let out a yawn.
“Oh, look your finally awake. You know you should really not trust any woman who so easily agrees to come home with you.” Brandy purred, “You never know their intentions.”
The Mayor’s muffled cries continued as Brandy pulled herself out of the bed and made her way to the small desk in the corner of the room. Plucking a few papers from the basket, she began to peruse through the Mayor’s letters. Only as she picked up two letters, one bearing the insignia of Spindle, the other of harvest did his protests stop.
“How interesting.” Brandy Purred, “A oath of fealty to the Kingdom of Spindle, and another to the Nation of Harvest. My good Mayor, you should be more careful of who you let into your bed chambers. Some might see this and accuse you of treason. How is it a mayor gets paid? Through Taxes am I right. Must be quite payout when the mayor of a village being in two nations. Would be a shame though if either nation found out though. Some might call that treason.”
Brandy let the letters fall from her hand to the floor. Her dark eyes set on the pale moon like face of the mayor. It had been nothing to slip the narcotic into his drink. A bit more to get haul the bulbous man up the trail to his villa on the hill. The Narcotic was only short acting, knocking the man out for less than an hour. Still, laying in bed beside the man, listening to his guttural snores had been torture enough.
“Mayor, have you ever heard the story of how the Naguai came to be? I ask because there is a message in the tale which parallels your current predicament exactly. I hope it is a lesson you can absorb” Brandy said, walking the space between them and placing a gentle hand on the mans many cheeks. “In the time before the rise of the Summer courts, the world was ruled by the High Fae Queen of the Seelie court, Titania. Her rule expanded from every edge of the continent, her kingdom set at its Heart, the ruins of which the Kingdom of Spindle are built upon to this day.
“Surrounding her Kingdom, Were the Titania’s wood. You have heard of it, I am sure. In the woods live enormous beasts. Bear. Elk. Crows. Wolves. All manner of creature calls this place home. And all grow from to massive size. A truly magnificent sight these beasts. And a real problem to the mortals who called the woods their home.
“So, one day the humans have enough. Their villages destroyed; their livestock killed. They called upon the Royal Fae Fen for aid, hoping the Massive Fae wolf would hunt down the beast that plagued their home. But Fen said no, the woods belonged to the beasts as much as it belonged to them. Fen believed in only helping those who were strong enough to help themselves. Next the humans went to the Royal Fae, Gospel, hoping the Fae of loving Harvest would be more amicable to their cause. But not even Gospel’s mercy extended far enough, for it was her own Magicks which allowed the beast to grow to such size. Finally, the men of the woods approached Titania herself, and asked her to kill the beasts of the wood. Their plea was only met with her wrath, the very thought of the killing of her beast an afront to the Queen of Summer. All who came to her palace were left blinded and broken.
“Only when the Humans of the wood had lost hope where they greeted by a mysterious stranger. A young woman dressed in strange brightly colored clothes, who agreed to give them the strength of the beasts who hunted them. She claimed to be a great Fae magician and with his power the Dire beasts of Titania’s Wood would be made their equals. When the people asked what he wanted in return, the Magician said all her asked was the people to always remember the kindness of the Fae.
“It was that very night, when the moon set full in the sky that the curse took hold, as the spirits of the beast were forever bound to the spirits of the men and women show called Titania’s wood home. As two souls occupied one form, their minds were shattered, their bodies twisted into an amalgamation of man and beast.
“The curse broke the first generation of Naguai completely, turning them into mindless beasts. It was until a few generations later the Naguai were able to take control of their curse. To take the trickery of the Fae and turn it into a strength. Some to this day let their curse run them. Others have reclaimed their place in Titania’s woods, finally finding a way to live amongst the Dire beast they once warred against. And others, became mercenaries, who are placing their lives on the line for fat fucks like you.”
Brandy looked at the mayor still bound to shit bed by expensive sheets bought from the stolen funds of poor villagers. The Mayor stared up at her trembling cheeks with bulging eyes. This man. This man was the believed himself superior to her Rowan just because of a curse. She shook her head as she reached down and ripped the apple out of the pig man’s mouth. The mayor worked his stiff jaw open and closed for a moment before speaking, poison filling every syllable.
“What does you’re the story behind your beast man’s curse have to with me.”
“It is simple.” Brandy said taking a bite out of the apple, “You have a choice. Pay us for the work we have done or-”
“or what? You will blackmail me.” The Mayor scoffed, “Try it and I will be gone before you finish dragging your dead men off the battlefield. I have political connections from Song all the way to The tower of Oberon. You think anyone is going to believe the word of a drunken whore and feral beast like Rowan.”
Brandy paused halfway through her bite, her dark eyes, boring into the fat man tied to his bed. She chewed slowly watching as the bead of sweat began to form on the man’s balding head.
“You should learn to let others speak.” She said, “What I was going to say was pay us for the work we have done or slowly shit out your insides as the poison I slipped you takes hold.”
The bead of sweat trailed its way down to the tip of his nose where it hung shakily as the man gulped.
Brandy took the final bite of the apple and tossed the core on the floor.
“Feel free to find out.” Brandy said, getting to her feet and walking out the door.
Rowan looked at Sinette’s small form trembling as she held his hand, the calloused mitt dwarfing her own. He looked into eyes too young to hold such pain. Eyes of a woman who had spent her life hearing that she was a monster from others only to lose control and prove it to be so.
“You’re not asking me to stop you from hurting people.” Rowan said. “Speak plainly. Tell me what you expect of me.”
“I am a monster.” Sinette spoke, “You kill monsters. You save people from monsters. I am asking you to do your job.”
Rowan sighed pulling his hand free from the young woman’s grip. The chair groaned as he leaned back. He had shifted to a nearly pure human form. The effort was draining, but necessary with the panic Mosh had caused in the town square and with Sinette’s episode.
“You’re right, I do kill monsters and if you say you’re a monster I guess I’ll kill you. How you want me to do it?”
Sinette blinked as Rowan stood from his chair and began stretching his back. Then his shoulders and neck. Soon the man was all but doing jumping jacks in preparation for her mercenary assisted suicide.
“Rowan, I am serious.” She snapped, “I am losing control. People have been hurt. People have been k- “
Her words were stifled as the Man’s giant hand palmed her face, his fingers teasing into her hair. She gripped his hand with both of hers, trying in vain to pry it free from her face.
“I am serious too.” He said his words, suddenly cold, “Do you want me to crush your skull with my bare hands? Should I use my hammer? Or simply break your neck.”
Sinette felt her heart falter as Rowan’s grip tightened. Was he serious? Would he truly take her life? She had all but asked him to do so, but now that it was real so etching in her hesitated.
Then she saw their faces. Her brothers, her family, her tribe. All destroyed because of what she was.
“Do whatever you think is best “she whispered; her words muffled by Rowan’s hand.
Through his grip she felt his shoulders slump as a slow exhale of breath left his body. He removed his hand, and his dark brown eyes met her. He gently brushed a lock of hair from her face and smiled.
“Hammer it is.”
In the time it took Sinette fully to process Rowans words, the giant Naguai man had took a single step back drawn the Bronze war hammer from the metal ring on his belt and drew it back for a swing set right between her eyes. Sinette felt her mouth fall open as the massive head of hardened bronze rushed toward her.
A loud ringing filled her ears, A deep gong that revibrated down her spine and rumbled in her chest. The ringing came again, and again and again. Five bells.
Sinette sat cross eyed, feeling the cool metal pressed against her forehead pull away and bounce gently against Rowans shoulder as he squinted out the window. Only then did she see the slowly darkening sky. In the town square some twenty men and women stood, nervously waiting for the battle to come.
“Sorry, Sinette, but I think I may have to take a rain check on your murder.” Rowan said, shaking his head in apology. “Tell you what though. Let me fight this war really quick and first thing in the morning, you’re dead. Promise. Unless I am killed in battle. Or get my arms and legs chopped off and have no Shaman magicks to put me whole. Unless of course you think you can help with that? What you say, help me and our people survive this battle, and I will kill you dead first thing. Sound good?”
Sinette stared at the man who had once been her savior in the woods, then her employer, then executioner and yet somehow again her boss again in the matter of hours. He beamed at her with a confidence of a man not about to fight a battle against an enemy that outnumbered his men five to one. All for a village of humans who believe him more beast than man. With a newly formed ban of mercenaries who seemed greatly more interested in killing each other than goblins.
And she laughed. A sound so far gone from her ears it startled her as much as it amused her. Rowan smiled and ruffled her hair before getting on one knee as he looked at her eye to eye.
“Is that a yes.”
Sinette only nodded, her throat occupied with the rising bubble of laughter as she stared into the man’s eyes.
“Good. Now go find Brandy at the triage tent she set up just inside the gate. She will no doubt be looking forward to meeting with you.”
The thought made Sinette’s laughter die, but before she could say anything, Rowan was walking out the door.
By the time Sinette had made it to the door, Rowan's form was already disappearing into the nervous mass agitating between the now-empty merchant stalls. The crowd of men and women closed around him, desperate for a course now that the battle had begun. He rose from within them. First, the craggy shadows of his antlers then his resolute shoulders, until he loomed over the crowd a monstrous titan set for battle.
She felt her own tufts bristle, a glossy down rising from her skin. The familiar wild energy ran down her spine, nails digging into the side of the door until the wood flaked beneath her talons. She recognized the call. It had been months since she had felt the hum of the clan within her.
She steadied her breath. The whispered words of Shaman Naheer churned through her mind.
"Feel the call, child." she tittered. "Answer it. It is a tide that swells within you, savage and beautiful. But yours to use."
The old woman had been barely able to stand, hunched over her cane and almost blind. But when the other shamans had fallen to the darkness, frail Naheer had stood. Sinette knew that strength course within her now.
She turned away from the square and toward a large tent set up across from the Tavern. Bright light spilled from the edges of the closed flap. Hurrying through the darkness, she reached for the fabric and stepped inside. The tent was warm and spacious, with numerous cots set up in methodical rows. A large heavy table sat at one end. Sinette stared at the dazzling array of flasks and instruments neatly arranged across its surface. Jars filled with powders of every color stood meticulously labeled beside a spotless distillation apparatus. She had never seen something so orderly.
Leaning on the table, Brandy pulled a silver flask from the inside pocket of her vest, its buttons misaligned by one. She brushed a tangled nest of hair from her mouth before taking a deep swig and turning her attention to the little owlet.
"Ah, little bird. Right on schedule." She mewed. Snagging a mirrored wand from the table, Brandy crossed the tent, stopping before Sinette, and gently tilted her chin to the side. "Well, that’s quite a number that beautiful idiot did on your face. Keep your eyes open for me now."
She raised the wand, igniting a tiny coal at it's center with the twirl of a wheel at her thumb. A small circular beam of light settled on Sinette's cheek, and Brandy gentle flashed it across one eye and then the other.
"No concussion, I'm happy to inform you. Do those peepers do anything besides giving you a dazed look?" Brandy asked nodding toward Sinette's enlarged amber eyes as she raised the flask for another draw.
"I can see in the dark," Sinette replied, plucking the flask from Brandy's fingers and bringing it to her own mouth. The liquor was fruity, but bitter and warmed her insides on its way down. Brandy gave a shrug turning back to the large table and returning the optical wand to its designated place. She fidgeted with several spoons, aligning them slightly, before turning back to Sinette.
"That sounds like it could be useful." Brandy reached for the flask.
"The eyesight is helpful, don’t get me wrong. But it's the hearing that has saved me the most." Sinette snuck another sip before passing back to Brandy and settling onto a cot.
She could hear the muffled voices of the band beyond the still fabric of the tent. They clamored and pushed Caelus's war machines, voices clipped in frustration and anxiety. Mosh urged them on to the low tempo of Minoka's bow. She could hear the villagers crowded against their doors and whispering fervent prayers to absent gods. Then like the rumble of thunder in the distance, she heard the steady drum of feet and shields. The feral horde upon their doorstep.
Caelus pushed Rowan's grunt aside, the man collapsing in a heap of churned earth-turned mud.
"Move, fool! You have to rotate the ballista precisely." He spat.
The ancient war machine clicked into place, its powerful bow flexed and ready. Caelus fiddled with the trigger mechanism, dread coiling in his stomach. Something was off. He dried his hands again, sweat seeping from his palms. His mental checklist whirled, what had he missed? He had doubled check every machine's calibration, rewired the explosives, and oiled each shield spring. Frustration choked his lungs, and he knew if he didn't solve this puzzle, it would be deadly.
At the gates to the town, two armies faced. One formed of men and women, fighting for their lives. The other, a horde of rot eating monsters. From her perch on the town gates, Minoka could see the green monstrosities forming loose ranks at the base of the hill the village of Thimble had been built upon.
“Ugly fuckers aint they.”
Minoka leapt as she looked at the Towa, the old woman with short cropped gray hair she had first seen at the fire the night before. She was adorned in thick black leather armor, adorned with studs of tarnished bronze. A hand and a half sword, worn from use but well maintained hung over her shoulder as she stared down at the gather army.
“A very astute observation.” Minoka whispered under her breath.
Towa laughed, a deep lovely sound. In truth, this was the first time Minoka had ever laid eyes on Goblins. They were larger than she had believed, standing at about four feet tall, looking almost childlike in appearance, save for their green skin and bat like ears. What drew her gaze most of all however, was the Goblins mouths. Each bore a gaping grin, extending from one ear to the other. The things appeared to have no lips, only a jagged row of green interlocking teeth reminding her of the carnivorous plants which grew by the many ponds around the Citadel.
“You know, when you kill a goblin, they don’t bleed.” Towa said, casually, “Not like you and I do at least. No, when your blade bites into their flesh, it’s like cutting into a tree. Pulpy and thick. Blood is green too, because why wouldn’t it be. And if you don’t burn the bodies, new Gobs wills sprout from their withered corpse come spring.”
Minoka blinked, turning from the grotesque horde to where the old woman stood at her side. Towa never looked back. Her smoke gray remained on the growing horde. At first there were little more than ten. Then twenty. And then still more. Beating on makeshift shields of wood and bone. Armed with whatever weapons they could steal or make.
“My grandson will be fighting today. He has never killed a goblin either.” Towa said, “That is why I am here. Because I failed him. Told to may stories, of my time as a wandering sword. Filled his head with too many lies of the glory of battle. I wanted him to be a farmer. A barkeep. A fucking shit shoveler. Anything but this. But I failed and now he is here with a bow and arrow aimed at a fucking army of goblins.”
Minoka stared at the woman. If she had to guess, she was nearly sixty-year-old, only a few years older than Minoka herself. Humans lived so short of a time. They fought. They loved. They made families. All in the span of time it had taken for her to feel like little more than a child. Towa was nearing the end of her years on this mortal plane.
And she was spending them fighting by her grandson’s side.
“What is your boys name.” Minoka said.
“Bran,” Towa said, before leaving the wall and joining the ranks of men and women below, “Sing him a song won’t you. A pretty tune for him to die too.”
“I don’t sing those kinds of songs, Ser Towa,” Minoka said, “I sing the songs of heroes.”
Towa stopped at the final step to the wall.
“In my experience, Minoka of the Song, it is the same tune.”
“Don’t you have a battle to be preparing for?”
Mosh opened an eye and flashed the annoyed Sinette a smile from where he lay on the cot. Her Golden eyes were narrowed in annoyance, the nails of her hands sharpening to talons as her fingers tapped nervously against her arm. The Naguai girl was doing her best to hold in her rising anxiety. A good trait to have in the person who would be stitching him up later he supposed.
“Anyone tell you you’re kind of pretty when they are facing possible death and dismemberment?
Sinette turned her back to him, going about the never-ending tasks she had to do before preparing for the battle to come. Brandy on other hand, seemed to be busying herself with getting drunk, taking sips from the various bottles that jangled around her waist. Mosh pushed himself off of the cot, leaping to his feet and placing his hands into his pockets as he followed Sinette about the medical tent. For the girl’s part she did her best to ignore him. It was only as he began juggling various medical equipment Sinette whirled on him, snatching the items from him an annoyed look in her eyes.
“What do you want, Mosh?” Sinette snapped.
“You know who you remind me of?” Mosh asked, ignoring Sinette’s question with the ease of the insane. “My little sister, Bajee. She was like you. Small.”
“Neat.” Sinette said, placing down the glass vials and forceps he had been juggling moments before. In one breath, you think I am pretty. The next you think I am like your sister. How incestuous.”
“I don’t know what that means, but I meant it as a compliment.” Mosh said, leaning against a table. “My sister was the smartest person I knew. You know what her Anima was? A rabbit. A fucking rabbit, born amongst a tribe of wild dogs and wolves.”
Sinette stopped despite herself. It was rare, the thing Mosh was describing. Every Naguai was different, but it was almost unheard of to hear of a sibling Anima being of a completely different species. And for the Anima to be the prey of another was unthinkable.
“Bajee was smart, in all things except me.” Mosh continued, his reddish-brown eyes staring off into a past unseen to any but him. “She wanted to believe I was like her. She wanted to believe I wasn’t like the rest of our tribe. That I wasn’t a monster.”
“I told her to run before the full moon rose. Bajee was smart, but not when it came to me. The fool moon came, and the change took hold of all.” Mosh said, “She didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to listen. So, I fought, I fought them all. Wolf. Hyena. Coyote. Dog. I held them back and I begged her to run.
Mosh pushed himself off the table, his eyes never meeting her. For the first time, Sinette looked at the numerous scars that crisscrossed man’s bear arms and chest. Scars formed from claw and tooth. Mosh didn’t look back as he made his way out of the tent, only stopping at the billowing flap of the way out.
“Bajee was the smartest person I knew.” Mosh said, “And when she saw the fight could not be won, Bajee ran. Know when to run. Know when the fight can no longer be won.”
The ground shook as a heavy shadow fell over Caelus. He didn’t bother to look up as he hurriedly worked trigger to the large ballista, he had hastily made with less than a few hours’ time. Too hastily it seemed.
“How is it looking, Caelus?” A gravelly voice boomed behind him. Caelus cast an annoy look over his shoulder, his temper rising at the asinine question only to die in his throat as he saw the monster looming over him.
Caelus had known Naguai in his day. He had fought beside them during his time in the town Militia in his hometown of Knot. He had always believed them to be wild men, little more than beasts. A useful too when one need to beat an enemy back. But Rowan, Rowan was something different all together. A berserker, fully in control of his curse and able to change at will. His very aura radiated madness, a madness which seemed to affect all who laid eyes on him. Even Caelus, with his advanced mind and self-control could feel the touch of Rowan’s power.
The Leader of the Vagabond arms now stood some thirteen feet in height, not counting the massive antlers adorning the Naguai head like a dark crown. Rowan had discarded his tunic and trousers, choosing to wear instead a large kilt formed of stripped leather. The large bronze war hammer was now held in a hand twice the size of Caelus’s head. Caelus clenched his teeth as he looked into the dark brown eyes of the Naguai’s gaze, white fur covering every inch of the man face.
“The trigger is broken.” Caelus said, fighting to keep his voice steady. “I need more time.”
Rowan turned his gaze away from the man, peering over the walls and looking at the gathering army at its gate.
“Time is something we don’t have.”
“I-I can fix it.” Caelus sputtered. “And I have fire carts set up. The villagers are ordered to fire once the other goblin camps come into range.”
“Do that.” Rowan said, turning toward the village gates. “I will buy you what time I can, As will the others. We need you Caelus. I know you won’t let us down.”
There were no other words. The time for words had passed. A roar escaped the giants throat, echoing loud throughout the village walls and reverberating in the hills beyond. A rally cry rose in response as the twenty-four members of the Vagabond arms charged out the gate to face an enemy outnumbering them ten to one.
Gobnob had lived a good life, in Goblin terms at least. He had been alive long enough to see four springs. He had killed a dozen fluffy wool gobs. Kill one of the ugly tall gobs and left him out to rot for a dozen moons before eating his intestine. He had eaten a lot of maggots and flies. And today was the best day of all.
Because today he was going to war.
Gobs loved wars. They loved stabbing and bludgeoning and tearing flesh. They loved the sound of dying men and women. The smell of blood and shit coming from dying pale gobs. The cries of tiny ugly gobs when they were pulled from there cribs. Today Gobnob was going to find his way in the village and eat one of those screaming things fresh. Gobnob loved his meat cold and dead, but he would make an exception. You only live once after-
A guttural cry escaped from his left. He turned to see one of his clan brothers with a stick protruding from his left eye. The Gob stumbled back and forth, swinging an axe mad of a moss-covered stick and the jawbone of a fluffy wool gob. The air whistled by his side and two more stick poked out of the other Gobs chest. The Gob fell then and Gobnob took his axe. He liked the dead Gobs axe. It went well with his spear. Looked good for killing Ugly tall Gobs.
Gobnob looked up the hill to see a group of Ugly tall gobs charging toward him. Most looked like the one he had killed, with their long limbs and ugly not green skin. Some wore hard beetle like shells and carried cutting sharp shiny blades. Others wore weird soft loose skins shooting sticks and carry small point blades. But others, seemed to Gob of which he had never seen.
One charged froward, big spear crown tearing through two other gobs. Another pounced biting snarling slashing. Another, fucking was screaming rhyming words, cutting with a stick of bow and hair. Gobs was so confused for a moment he forgot about the killing he was so looking forward too.
For a moment.
An ugly tall Gob swung at him with a shining metal sword, ripping through his right ear. Gob nob screamed. He rolled under another slash, nearly taking off his beautiful green head and thrust out with his spear. The tall Gob let out a grunt of pain as the bone tip of his spear glanced off of her thigh. Gobnob let out a cry of delight. It was a small wound, but enough for the poison to take its grip. He leapt on to the tall Gob then grabbing a handful of silvery gray hair as he snapped at the tall Gobs throat.
The Gob appeared old for her kind, though it was hard to tell with Gobs so ugly. Still, the Gob was strong. A large hand gripped Gobnob by his leg and swung him off. He landed hard in the dirt, the tall old Gob standing over him, blade raised over head. Gobnob roared lashing out with his new axe and catching the Gob just below the ribs. It cried out in agony as it brought the shiny metal blade down, driving the tip through his rib cage.
Gobnob gasped as the blade pierced his spine pinning him to the earth. He wheezed out a guttural snarl of hate as the old gob drew out her sword and took off another Gobs head. He was dying. He wasn’t supposed to die. Gobwrot hadn’t told he was going to die. No, Gobwrot had promised they would kill the ugly tall Gobs. Why else would they let the slithery black rot into their dens. Why would they build an army if Gobnob was going to die.
Gobnob did not get contemplate his death for long. He did not get to lament the lost chance of eating babies and the feast of rotting corpses he was promised. His mind became occupied by other things. Largely, the giant hoof of a Naguai berserker.
Rowan let out a grunt of disgust as his foot crunched a goblin skull as his hammer exploded another. Beside him Towa staggered, falling to her knee as her blade cut a goblin from head to crotch. She looked pale, white spittle forming on her lips as she pushed herself forward. A moment later she stumbled. Only to be caught by a young man with brown floppy hair.
“Grandmother,” He cried, “You hurt. You need to go to the medical-”
The boys head whipped back as the back of Towa’s gauntleted hand caught him under the jaw. He fell to the ground eyes wide with shock as the old woman whirled on him grabbing him by the collar and dragging him to his feet.
“What do you think this is, boy?” she snapped, “This is war. We fight. We get hurt. We move on. You want to be a killer? You want to find glory in battle. This is it. This is all there is. So, either run on home or fall behind me a shoot your fucking bow.”
Towa shoved her grandson back, knocking him back two steps before marching forward, kicking a charging goblin in the head, and stomping its head in with her boot. Rowan moved forward as well bringing his hammer down on a Goblin archer and killing another with his fist. Three arrows buried themselves in his chest. He tore them out with snarl of pain. The poison meant little to him. His body would burn off most of it. Brandy would take care of the rest.
“Tough old bitch aint she?”
Rowan turned to see Mosh dash past, spinning wildly as he threw a pair of bone knives into a couple of goblins eyes. A large goblin, standing some five feet tall bellowed as it charged the crouched Naguai male. The young Naguai male howled in delighted as he sidestepped the blow and raked the Gobs eyes out with his clawed fingers. With his free hand he ripped the club out of the Goblins hand and beat him with it until his skull was little more than green pulp. Mosh stared at the club admiringly before extending it to Rowan.
“Did you get one? You know they are just handing it out. Like for free!”
The air whistled as a barrage of poison tipped spears shot toward the pair. Rowan swore as he threw his hammer at the ambushing goblins hiding behind a boulder set at the base of the hill, catching one of the spear throwers dead in the chest. He leapt back, barely avoiding the spears as Mosh let out a bellowing laugh, catching a spear with his free hands and spinning out of the way of the others. He landed on the boulder, shouting with glee before pouncing on the ambushing goblins.
By the time Rowan made his way to the young Naguai the Goblins were dead and Mosh was carrying a bundle of poison tipped spears, a wolfish grin on his face.
“You’re enjoying this too much.” Rowan murdered grabbing his hammer.
Green blood splattered Minoka’s face as she dashed through the battlefield, slicing wildly with her violin bow. Somewhere in the chaos of it all she had lost the group of mercenaries she had befriended the night before. But as moved blindly about the battlefield she found herself swarmed, with little time to think of anything but what was right in front of her.
Minoka had once believed herself a soldier. She had stood beside Malc as he raged his rebellion against the crown. She had watched as men fought and died, believing herself to be amongst them by their leader’s side.
She was wrong.
War was not some glorious thing. It was terrifying, loud, and horrible. She watched as a man was disemboweled, crying out in agony as Goblin ripped the flesh from his face with those savage green fangs. She slipped in and fell to her knees in mud formed from red and green blood. She tried to push herself up, only to barreled over by a mass of stout green muscle, jagged green fangs snapping at her throat.
Even with her inhuman strength she couldn’t get the leverage to push the thing off of her. She tried desperately to hold the thing back, but with every snappy bite the Goblin drew closer to her throat, black beady eyes rolling mad with blood lust. She cried out as a jagged tooth drew a burning line of bubbling blood as it bit down into her flesh.
“No, no, Gods please no!” She cried.
The goblin suddenly jerked, convulsing for a moment before going forever still. The weight was suddenly ripped off of her as a strong hand pulled the goblin off of her by the ear. She was yanked to her feet by a young man with mud speckled hair and dark grey eyes.
“Are you hurt?” he shouted over the roar of battle, “Can you fight?”
“Y-yes.” She shook her head for a moment before answering. “I just got overwhelmed for a moment.”
“Yeah, me too.” He said, “I-I am Bran. I never fought like this before. Never fought at all really. The Goblins, they got past the front line. Me and some of the other archers are holding them back as best we can, but they are going to make it to the gates.”
Minoka stared at the battle around them, at the dozen or so men and women still standing swarmed by goblins. A few had managed to stagger past the lines of mercenaries and were making their way to the medical tent. Most did not.
“We are going to lose.” Minoka said. It was strange to say it out loud. To admit she was going to die today. To bring a voice to the realization they were all going fail was painful, but also brought her peace. After all this time, it was over. At last, she would pay for all the evil she did. It was something she could-
Her thoughts were cut off by a fist colliding with her face. It didn’t hurt so much as catch her off guard. She blinked as Bran caught her by the collar and yanked her within an inch of his face.
“What do you think this is? This is war. We fight. We get hurt. And we move forward.” He yelled. Minoka blinked. Bran seemed as shocked by his own words as she was as he let her go and drew another arrow from his quiver. “So, either run on home, or help me kill some fucking goblins.
Towa staggered forward, blood tinging the white foam on her lips as she raised her sword again over head.
A goblin screamed as her blade shredded bone and muscle, biting through the goblins right collar bone, and embedding itself in its pelvis. She grunted as an arrow whistled through the air, its tip cutting a line of fire across her cheek and ear. Her hand shot the side of her face, the torn Cartlidge blazing as poison at away at the severed ear. Her eyes shot down the path of the arrow toward where the goblin archer stood, small, clawed fingers reaching for another shaft from its quiver. She pressed a boot against the dead Goblins torso and ripped her blade free.
She was a foot away from the Goblin archer when an old woman rushed past her, driving the tips of a pitchfork into its chest, and pinning it to the earth. The woman, older than even her turned toward Towa, and smiled. It was the last thing she ever did before the bone club of a Goblin shattered her skull.
“No!” Towa roared, as a trio of Goblin brutes leapt upon the dead woman’s corpse. She lashed out with her all her rage, Cutting the first across the middle. The second thrust her with a spear, missing her by an inch as she whirled out of the way. She fell to her knees, slipping in the blood-soaked mud as she buried her blade to the hilt in the Goblins guts.
The last Goblin slammed into her, its protruding fangs tearing into her shoulders. She screamed out in agony as the ugly green thing slammed her into the dirt. Its claws tore at her armor as its head shook wildly rending her flesh. The world narrowed and darkened, her limbs turning to lead as the goblins mauled her dying body.
*Tell me another story, Nana.
Tell me of how you saved the villagers from a dragon.
When I grow up, nana.
The world came back in a rush as her head slammed into the face of the Goblin tearing at her flesh. Her hand caught the gnashing fiend by what little excuse for a neck it had, tearing the things teeth from her shoulder. She kicked off the muddy earth and rolled on top of the Goblins squat body, teeth still snapping at her as it struggled under her grip.
“Twenty. Twenty. Twenty.” She snarled, punctuating each word with a pound of her gauntleted fists. “Twenty. Dead. Fucking. Goblins.”
The odds had always been that. Ten to one. Ten for her. Ten for Bran.
Twenty and she could say she covered his shared of death. Twenty and Bran would live. He would have to live.
Towa whipped her head to the left as a Goblin screamed in its guttural tongue, axe raised over head. She didn’t have time to block. Didn’t have time to move. Only wait for the bite of the axe to-
The goblin whipped back as if pulled by invisible strings, a spear slamming into its chest and suddenly arms were wrapped around her waist. She looked down to see the pulped skull of the dead goblin. Fragments of bone and viscous green blood coated her arms. Only then did she see the twin blades of bone sticking from her gut. Goblin made daggers. Her vision spun as she fell against the blood matted hair on Mosh’s chest.
“Get her to the medical tent, now!” Rowan roared.
“Twenty.” Towa gasped. “I owe you twenty.”
“What the fuck does-”
Rowan’s words were cut off by a bellowing roar across the field of battle. Out of the haze of her swirling vision she saw it. She saw him. A Goblin, standing as tall as any man, with an arm made of swirling black tendrils and carrying a sword of black obsidian. A low snarling growl reverberated throughout the hills as the sun fell below the horizon. Six Enormous dogs, three on each of the Goblin chieftain’s side emerged from the mine shaft. Black tendrils twitched from a dozen stab wounds in the dead dog’s sides and behind him the cry of the goblin reinforcement roared.
“Get her back to the village Mosh.” Rowan said, fear tinging his words for the first time, “And tell Caelus to fire the damn Ballista and everything he has left. Send the others back to protect the village.”
“Rowan,” Mosh said, his voice soft, “What about you.”
And with that Rowan broke into a run. Straight toward the Goblin Chieftain and his gathering horde. In that moment, as the poison raged her body, Towa had a singular moment of clarity. A single moment when she realized who Rowan was.
Rowan Whitehorn was not a born leader. He wasn’t the man who brought people together. At his heart, when everything was boiled away Rowan was one thing. He was a man who time and time again had found himself being an immovable wall. A thing one placed before an unstoppable force, to see which one would break first.
And that was why he had formed this Vagabond arms. To gather those who fought, for those who would answer the call and place their lives in danger for those who could not. Rowan had sought to build a home for the wandering warriors in the land who would answer the call of the weak.
And For Rowan, those men, and women he called his own, was worth breaking himself over.
Back, at the village Brandy and Sinette treated the wounded as the call for retreat rang throughout the town. Sinette, hand shook as the axe wound to the young man face stitched itself close. The air filled with the verdant scent of her Magick as the man, let out a groan of discomfort.
“You will be fine.” Sinette, said stumbling slightly as she her head spun with exhaustion. “The poison will burn away soon, and you will fell a little-”
“I need a medic, now! I am losing her.
She turned as Mosh burst into the tent, carrying the unconscious form of Towa in his blood-soaked arms. Brandy gestured to a cot and Mosh set her on it. The old woman’s eyes were rolled back in her head and her body shook with convulsions. Blood poured from multiple lacerations, an arrow and two daggers protruded from Towa’s Torso. Sinette ran to a table and grabbed a bundle of boiled gauze, a sewing needle and a handful of medicinal salves. When she came back Brandy staggered back, eyes filled with a look of shock and terror.
“Where is he.”
“I don’t know.” Mosh said, “he ordered the retreat and then-”
“Rushed head long into the fray without a thought.” Brandy snapped, looking around the medical tent filled with wounded and dying soldiers. “Of course, he did.”
Mosh snarled and pounded his fist against the leg of the cot.
“I shouldn’t have left him. I should have stayed and-”
“Died.” Brandy snapped, yanking a thin metal vial from her corset. “All you would have done is die, boy.”
Sinette looked up to see Bran, stumble inside half carried by a bloodied and battered Minoka. The boy all but fell by his grandmother’s side, hands shaking as they reach toward the hilt of a dagger buried in her gut.
“Stop that!” Sinette snapped, “We have to leave it in until I am ready to close the wounds. She will bleed out if I don’t.
Bran reached down and grabbed the old woman’s hand. Tears running freely down the boy’s face. To her surprise the woman squeezed back. Opening eyes seeming impossibly tired she opened her mouth croaked in a voice that seemed far too strong for a woman in her state.
“Sixteen.” Towa said. “I only killed sixteen. I am sorry.”
“What?” Bran said.
“Twenty, my heart.” Towa said. “Ten for me. Ten for you. It was a deal made with the dead gods. Twenty and you live. I didn’t keep my promise. I. Am. Sorry.”
Her eyes fluttered and she was lost again in unconsciousness.
Bran wiped the tears from his eyes and got to his feet. He winced as he placed weight on his ankle. Behind him Sinette watched as Brandy untwisted the cap to the vial and pulled out a small eye dropper. Three drops of a blood red fluid in each eye and the woman stumbled to a the side of the tent grabbing a pole for support.
“Two.” Bran said, suddenly seeming older as he pulled his shoulder. “I killed two goblins. I have to kill at least two more and she lives. You hear that doc. I kill two more and you save my grandmother.”
Sinette looked at the old woman. Her body ravaged by poison and goblin blade. It was a miracle she had last this long. In any other situation she would have slipped her the sleeping poppy and let her pass painlessly from this world.
“That is the deal.” She said, in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Cool. Cool, cool, cool.” Brandy said., her voice rising to a shout. “Save the woman and everyone else. You kill some Goblins. “Caelus, I know you can hear me, get those fucking ballista’s working. If there are any questions, ask the little bird while I am out.”
“Where are you going?” Mosh asked, leaping back as the tent pole shattered in Brandy grip. Sinette felt her throat tighten as Brandy turned to face her, rivulets of blood pouring down her cheeks from eyes transformed. The whites had been swallowed up by smoldering red cracks of burning ash, a black slit replacing the pupils. She had seen eyes like that only once before, when one of the princes of Oberon had flown into the woods near her tribe. Brandy plucked a vibrating vial of bubbling liquid from her belt and downed it in a single gulp.
“I am going to save that fucking idiot with whom I stupidly fell in love.”
And in a gust of wind the woman was gone, the flap of the tent billowing behind her.
“What the fuck was that.” Minoka asked.
“I have an idea,” Sinette said, “but it’s an impossible one.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Bran snapped. “We have to defend the village and kill these fucking goblins. Minoka, come with me to the walls.
The young man stormed out. Minoka blinked in confusion staring at the pair of Naguai before slowly backing out of the room and following the young man, a slight blush on her cheeks.
“Is it me or is the princess beginning to crush on the farm boy.”
“I don’t have time for your madness, Mosh.” Sinette snapped as she laid out her medical tools, “In case you haven’t noticed the woman I was apprenticing under just went running off into a warzone, leaving me with a tentful of wounded.”
Mosh took in a breath crouching by her side.
“What do you need?”
Sinette let out a slow breath and steadied herself before going about the business of saving Towa’s life. Despite herself, she couldn’t help but stare at the metal vial laying on the floor by the broken tent pole. She had seen eyes like that before, but not by the prince of Oberon.
But by the dragon he had flown upon.