Yeah, you gotta be careful with em, though most people have moved onto stuffed armadillo. They're less sharp, you see.
Really? I thought the new fad was the more sharp stuffed hedgehog! Those toddlers like to live dangerously, after all.
Hedgehogs were in for about a month, but then the armadillos came out and completely outdid them.
Watch out for those echidnas, though. They're sneaking in on their territory, I hear. All the smart investors are buying stock in stuffed echidna companies.
Sitting cramped in the back of a wagon with three other people and piles of medical supplies was not Silas’s idea of a great way to spend a couple of days. Especially when Ruby seemed to be trying to melt his face with her glares from across the wagon. And, to top it all off, Sonia didn’t allow any drinking on the mission. He had been stealing drinks from a flask hidden inside his tunic during breaks to keep from going through withdrawal. He had never actually gone through withdrawal before, but he didn’t want this trip to be his first time.
They had come all the way down to south central Avon. They were nearing the giant swampland that formed the border with Jamasca. The dragon’s lair was a cave at the southern end of the swampland where the land finally became dry enough for a cave to actually form.
“Ya might wanna stop a good ways away from the swamp,” Ruby called to the driver. “It’s pretty sneaky ‘bout where it actually starts, and ya don’t wanna get this thing stuck in that muck, that’s for sure.”
“Will do!” shouted the driver over the thumping of horse hooves.
“How do you know about this swamp?” said Sonia, sitting to Silas’s left. “I thought Silas was supposed to be the guide here.”
“I grew up ‘round here,” said Ruby with a shrug. “Was born in a little village called Nohm and spent some time in a few orphanages here, too.”
Sonia’s eyes widened in recognition. “Are you from Jamasca?”
Ruby chuckled and nudged Antoine, sitting to her right. “I jus’ love that look people give me when I tell people where I’m from.”
“And it’s doubly entertaining when it’s coming from our favorite knight, isn’t it?” said Antoine.
Ruby nodded, and Sonia sighed in exasperation. Sonia had inherited her father’s earnestness. In all his time traveling with Soren and Lorenzo, Silas had come to believe there must be a secret clause in the Knight’s Code that required knights to abandon their sense of humor. It took a lot of work to get either of them to crack a smile.
“Sorry, it’s just that there’s still bad blood from the war,” said Sonia. Most people say that Jamascans hate Avon and are looking for any opportunity to take over our kingdom.”
“And I’m not the horrible monster ya expected?” said Ruby with a grin.
“Something like that.” Sonia nodded. “But why aren’t you angry with me? I thought your village was burned down in the war. Don’t you blame knights like me for what happened?”
Ruby shot a glance toward Silas before returning her gaze to Sonia. “No, I don’t blame knights like you. You’re way too uptight to ever do somethin’ like that. I bet ya wouldn’t even let your knights take crumbs off somebody’s floor.”
“Thanks… I think.”
The wagon lurched to a halt, throwing Silas tumbling out the back of the wagon. He landed face-first in the dirt. He struggled to his feet and squinted through the sudden flash of sunlight to see that Ruby was also thrown out the back.
“Ya better be careful if ya don’t wanna break your hip, ol’ man,” said Ruby.
“I’ve fallen into piles of much worse,” said Silas, attempting to get the dirt off of his face. “Besides, you did the same thing.”
Ruby shrugged. “But I landed on my feet because I’m just so graceful.”
“If you’re graceful, then I’m sober.”
Antoine dropped down from the wagon. “Are you two alright?”
“I’m fine, and I guess the ol’ geezer didn’t break anything,” said Ruby. “What’s holdin’ up Sonia?”
“Oh, she needed to grab something out of the wagon,” said Antoine. “She said she had a gift of some sort for your new best friend.”
The sun was high in the sky and beating down on them as they waited. Silas didn’t see even one cloud in the sky to protect them from it while they stood in the wide open field. It almost made Silas excited to get into the actual swamp, where the trees would provide some cover from the sun. Of course, the oppressive humidity would only get worse, so maybe staying out in the sun was the best option. There also wouldn’t be any man-eating dragons out in the sun.
Sonia came out of the wagon carrying a silver recurve bow, a quiver full of arrows, and a heavy-looking pack of supplies. The silver instantly told Silas that it was made from an Alzare tree, which have the strongest wood of any tree known. Yet, it was also very flexible for use in bow construction. It allowed a very short bow to fire an arrow more powerfully than a much longer bow made of a weaker material, which made it especially useful for an archer who had to stay on the move.
“You’re going to need a bow, aren’t you?” said Sonia, offering it to Silas.
Silas hesitated, biting his lip. “I don’t know. It’s been such a long time since I’ve used one. Janice took all of mine and sold them when she left me.”
“You’re going to want something to defend yourself with, Silas,” said Sonia. “We’ll protect you, but you never know what we’ll come across in there.”
“Fine,” said Silas, taking the bow and staring down at it. “I doubt I can hit anything with it, though.”
Antoine clapped him on the shoulder. “If you truly were as good as people say, I’m sure you should be just fine.”
After an hour of slogging through the muck, it was starting to get on Ruby’s nerves. It wasn’t just the foul-smelling water, either. There was also the stifling heat, combined with air so humid she couldn’t believe it wasn’t raining. And then there were the bugs buzzing around and biting at her. Why couldn’t Antoine learn a bug-zapping spell?
“Why do they keep sendin’ us to wet, smelly places, ‘Toine?” said Ruby. “Just once, can’t we go to a beach or somethin’? Beaches have monsters, too, right?”
“The Princess must have it out for us. I think she’s planning to sweat us to death.”
“Now I remember why I didn’t want to come back here,” said Silas, wiping the sweat from his forehead. It would be just as wet a couple seconds later, though. “I wasn’t afraid of the dragon. I just didn’t want to stand out here in the heat.”
Sonia probably had it the worst, trapped in her heavy armor. Her hair was drenched with sweat, but it was probably against some type of knight’s code to complain about the heat. “How close are we to the dragon’s lair, Silas?” she said.
“See for yourself,” said Silas, pointing forward. “It’s just ahead.”
The cave’s mouth was enormous, and a light veil of Mist floated out of it. It wasn’t enough to hide the cave, but its blue glow sent a shiver down Ruby’s spine. The mouth was almost as tall as a castle gate, though that probably shouldn’t be surprising, Ruby thought. A dragon had to fit into it, after all.
They were coming out of the swamp, too. Ruby took her first step onto dry land and let out a sigh of relief. Sure, it was still humid and hot, but at least she wasn’t trying to walk through that muck. Antoine stepped ahead of the group and held his arm out to stop them. He just stood there with his eyes closed, concentrating.
“What’s up, ‘Toine?”
“Someone’s here,” said Antoine, opening his eyes. “Someone with some powerful magic.”
“I don’t see anyone here,” said Sonia, looking around.
Just then, something came crashing down to the ground in front of them, sending dust flying in all directions. It made everyone cough as they tried to clear their vision and see what happened. When it all cleared, Ruby saw a woman in a red tunic standing in front of them in her own crater. That wasn’t a good sign.
She shook her head to get her long, wild black hair out of her eyes. Her hands lingered over her swords on her hips, ready to draw them at a moment’s notice. “It’s been a while, Antoine. General Lamont said I should expect you here, but I didn’t think you’d waste your time with these… inferior people.”
“Who’re ya callin’ ‘inferior’?” said Ruby. “Sounds to me like you’re askin’ for a fight.”
“I wouldn’t call it a fight,” said the woman with a chuckle. “That would imply that you have a chance of winning.”
“A little full of yourself, ain’t ya? Who is this joker, ‘Toine?” said Ruby.
“Her name is Naomi,” said Antoine. “She’s an old acquaintance of mine and is trained to use magic as well. It makes her inhumanly fast and strong.”
“More people with magic?” said Ruby with a sigh. “People really gotta get their own deal. I thought you had the magic one taken.”
“I can’t help it if everyone wants to be like me,” said Antoine with a shrug. “So, what are you doing here?”
“I’m supposed to capture you. The General wants you alive, probably because of your history. But I know you could never devote yourself to our cause. We could never count on you before, so why would that change now?”
Ruby looked over to Sonia to see if she had any idea what they were talking about and saw that Sonia was doing the same. Ruby threw up her hands to let her know she had no clue what was going on. She may have known Antoine for a long time, but even she didn’t know much about his past.
“Oh, so it’s just the old ‘attempting to kill me’ thing,” said Antoine. “But what does Lamont care about this war?”
“This petty little war is nothing to us,” said Naomi, drawing her swords. “It’s simply a way to get what we need to realize our dream.”
“What do you mean?” said Antoine, taking out his staff and splitting it into two batons.
“My words would be wasted on you because you will not survive this battle.” Naomi rushed towards Antoine in the blink of an eye.
Antoine just managed to block her initial advance, and Ruby had no idea how he managed it with her speed. Ruby drew her dagger and went to Antoine’s aid, and Sonia joined in as well. Naomi moved with enough speed to handle all three of them. She sidestepped Sonia’s lunge and swatted away Ruby’s slash without breaking a sweat. Antoine wasn’t faring much better, as Naomi’s aggressive assault drove him backward.
Sonia recovered and was back in the fight. She occupied Naomi for a moment, allowing Antoine to unleash a bolt of lightning towards Naomi. She leapt about ten feet in the air to avoid it and came crashing down with a kick that sent Antoine flying.
Ruby tried to leap back into the fray when it looked like Naomi’s attention was occupied with Sonia. It turned out that she had plenty of attention left to kick Ruby and send her crashing into a tree, slamming her head into the trunk.
Ruby’s head throbbed and her vision was blurry. She saw two of Silas standing in front of her and offering their hands. She shook her head, and the two merged back into one figure.
“How ‘bout you shoot an arrow or somethin’ instead of worryin’ ‘bout me here?” said Ruby, stumbling back to her feet.
“You seriously think I can hit someone that fast with one eye?” said Silas. “There’s a much better chance of me hitting one of you instead.”
“Just do it.”
Silas nocked an arrow and took aim. He stared at Naomi for what felt like an hour to Ruby, sizing up the shot. When he finally fired, the arrow fluttered and fell a good ten feet short of his target.
“Sometimes, I really hate ya, ya know that?” said Ruby.
Ruby rolled her eyes and raced to get back to help Antoine and Sonia until she heard splashing coming from the swamp. She turned around to see Julian and Enzo racing through the muck towards her. As they made it to dry land, they stopped to catch their breath and drew their weapons.
“You know, that girl we’re supposed to work with is crazy!” said a wheezing Enzo. “How does she run so fast in this heat?
Julian wiped the sweat from his face with his forearm. He was probably too out of breath to say anything, though it was always tough to tell with him.
This might be the perfect chance for Ruby to attack, but she knew that Julian and Enzo were professionals. They weren’t stupid enough to waste all their energy running to a battle. Taking down both of them on her own wasn’t going to be easy.
“You can’t run away this time,” said Enzo.
“Well ain’t that too bad for ya,” said Ruby. “I guess I’ll just have to beat ya both up this time.”
“Fat chance of you taking us both out alone like that.”
“It’s a good thing she’s not alone, then.” It was Sonia’s voice coming from behind Ruby.
“Shouldn’t ya be helpin’ out ‘Toine?” said Ruby. “That lady’s crazy fast!”
“That mercenary is stubborn and pig-headed and…” Sonia stopped and bit her lip. “Let’s just take these two out quickly. I don’t know how long Antoine will be able to hold her at bay, even with Silas helping out.”
“Alright, I’ll take the big one,” said Ruby with a grin.
“What?” said Sonia. “Shouldn’t we do that the other way around?”
“Don’t tell me you’re scared of the small one?” Ruby tilted her head.
“Fine, go ahead.”
Ruby rushed toward Julian, but she was right about how prepared he would be. He was quicker than he looked, but Ruby met his blade with her own. He was just as strong as he looked, forcing Ruby to put all her weight behind her blade to hold him back.
Ruby sidestepped his next attack and dove in for one of her own, but he blocked it. She saw him bring his massive sword around for another blow. When she blocked it with her dagger, the force of the blow sent it flying out of her hand. It dug into the dirt a few yards to her right.
“Well that ain’t good,” said Ruby.
Julian smiled. “Give up yet, little girl?”
Ruby charged at him. He swung low for her legs, so she leapt over the blade and kicked him in the face. He recoiled, giving her a chance to get her grappling hook out of her belt. Just as Julian turned to face her, she flung it toward him. It wrapped right around his sword’s hilt, right above his hands. She yanked on the rope, wrenching the sword out of his hands so it landed at her feet.
Ruby smiled. “Not so fun when ya get on the receivin’ end of it, huh?”
Ruby wasn’t going to bother even trying to lift his huge sword to use it against him. She closed the gap between them quickly and elbowed him in the ribs. She sidestepped his punch and spun around behind him, delivering a kick to knock him away.
Julian turned and charged at her. Ruby evaded his first couple punches easily, until he sent a knee to her stomach. She recoiled, and Julian followed up with a punch to the face. Ruby fell to her knees, her head pounding and gasping for air. She had one move left to make, so she figured she had to make it now.
Ruby pulled a smoke pellet out of her belt, dropping it to the ground and shielding her face. Julian groaned in surprise.
“What’s wrong?” asked Ruby. “Don’t know how to deal with a little smoke?”
Julian swung blindly at her, but Ruby sidestepped it. He had been staring right at the pellet when it exploded, so he probably wouldn’t be able to see for a good thirty seconds at least. Ruby, on the other hand, could easily make out his shadow in the smoke, having spent time in smokescreens like this on heists all the time.
She punched him in the gut to knock him off-balance and followed up with an elbow to his jaw. She swept her leg underneath to knock him down and followed with a series of punches to the face until Julian was able to push her away. He rolled to get away.
Just as the smoke was clearing, Ruby spotted Antoine behind Julian. He was stumbling backward and breathing heavily from his ongoing battle with Naomi. He blocked an attack from her swords, but she spun and kicked him away. He slammed into the cave wall and dropped his weapons from the impact. He was now dazed and defenseless, and Silas wouldn’t be any help. That useless idiot was still too afraid to take a shot. Ruby spotted her dagger right behind the panting Julian and knew she only had one option. She just hoped she had enough time to do it.
Ruby charged toward Julian, but he wasn’t her target. She rolled underneath his legs and took her dagger out of the ground. She flung it end-over-end, hoping it would hit its mark. She had never really thrown her dagger before. It was supposed to be used for defending herself instead of attacking, after all.
Naomi stood above Antoine with her swords raised until the dagger dug into the center of her back. She froze for a moment and then collapsed to the ground in a heap.
Ruby heard Enzo say, “Let’s get out of here! There’s no money to be made with these odds.”
Julian scrambled away with his partner, though Ruby barely noticed. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from Naomi, with her dagger sticking in her back. Someone tapped Ruby on the shoulder, and she shook her head to try to clear the image from her mind. She saw that it was Silas behind her and her eyes narrowed.
Silas extended a hand to Ruby. “Good shot.”
Ruby knocked his hand aside. “I wouldn’t have even needed to do that if ya could just stop mopin’ ‘round and pull your weight in a fight! ‘Toine was ‘bout to get killed and you just stood there like an idiot!”
“What did you expect me to do? I couldn’t hit the wall of a castle like this. I only got one eye!”
Ruby stood up right in Silas’s face. “Stop with the stupid excuses! I don’t care if you’re some kinda war hero! I don’t care if ya got some sad story about your past! And I don’t care if ya got one eye, two eyes, or no eyes! You’re here now. Move on and help out or go home.” She shoved Silas, who stumbled and fell to the ground in surprise.
Ruby was sick and tired of dealing with Silas. He just sat around drinking and expected them to do all the work while he moped. He was worse than all the rich nobles she stole from, and she wasn’t going to put up with it anymore.
Sonia stepped between them. “I think we need to stop and make camp for the night out here. It’ll give us all a chance to cool off.”
Antoine dragged himself over to them. “I’ll agree to that. I could use a bit of rest. Getting beat up really takes it out of you.”
“Fine, whatever,” said Ruby as she walked away from Silas.
Ruby didn’t want to be anywhere near him. His moping was going to get someone killed, at this rate. Actually, it already had gotten someone killed. It just wasn’t one of them. That didn’t mean it hadn’t affected them, though.
I thought it was hiding here with ninja skills! How did you find it?! But, yeah, I've been doing some revising and stuff the last few days. I just put the finishing touches on it a couple hours ago and figured I might as well post it while I was waiting for some Marvel Heroes server downtime to end.
Well, the forum always bumps up threads that have been recently posted on so that was the first hint...Haha, but I'll get to reading! Hopefully it'll take me less than 7 months to get the review done, haha.
That forum's always ruining my evil schemes! Cool, thanks for reading! There's no rush or anything, of course.
Look on the bright side, better the forum ruin them than a couple of kids and their dog too. Do you think you'll get another chapter out before you school starts up again?