I don't think I ever said I couldn't impart words of wisdom, it's just that I sometimes have trouble doing so (and usually it's not nearly as eloquent as Hawk's wisdom )
The Mists of Avon: Chapter 6
The mission was off to a successful start, even if it had gotten a bit rocky for a while. Sonia now understood why Princess Beatrice had hired Antoine. For all his attitude problems, he was very good at his job. She had no illusions that they would have made it past the trouble in the waterway without Antoine. Of course, Sonia still was not about to tell Antoine any of this. No reason to inflate his ego any more than it already was, if that was even possible.
“They only got one guard posted at the vault door,” said Ruby as she peered around the corner. “Ya know what that means, don’t ya, ‘Toine?”
Antoine nodded, “The guard does not have a key. Otherwise, it would be too easy for someone to overcome the lone guard and take his key.”
“Are you sure there’s not more than one guard?” asked Sonia.
“Take a look for yourself, Miss Honorable Knight,” said Ruby with a shrug.
Sonia peered around the corner. The narrow hallway in front of her was enclosed by yellow brick walls on each side. Torches hung from the walls were the hall’s only source of light, so the brightness of the room ebbed and flowed with the flickering flames. At the opposite end of the room was a large metal door. Just as Ruby had said, there was only a lone armored guard to watch it, armed with a lance.
“Why don’t we just eliminate the guard, and then you can pick the lock?” asked Sonia. “I thought you were Avon’s best thief?”
“I am Avon’s best thief,” said Ruby. “But these locks are made by Avon’s best locksmith, John Hawke. I could pick it, but it’d take way too long. More guards are bound to come pokin’ their noses ‘round here before I’d finish.”
“How can you tell who made the lock just by looking at it?” asked Sonia.
“Ya mean you can’t tell me who made the guard’s lance just by looking at it?”
“Oh, that lance is obviously made here in Ralingrad by Wayne All---Alright, I get your point, Ruby.”
“It appears that we will need that key, then,” said Antoine. “And there’s only one person who would have a key to this vault.”
Ruby smiled, “Yep. And he’s the ruler of Neo Avon, Dmitri.”
“Great,” said Sonia as she crossed her arms over her chest. “And just how do you plan to get the key from him?”
“I thought that was obvious,” said Ruby. “I’m gonna steal it from him. See ya later, guys!”
And with that, she was gone. There was no way she would be able to get the key without being detected. Neo Avon Palace was the most well-guarded place in the entire country. All she would do was alert the rest of the palace to their presence there. Antoine, however, was unconcerned. He leaned back against the wall, seemingly prepared to wait for Ruby’s return.
“You can’t seriously believe she can pull this off, Antoine. It’s impossible!”
“Ruby is the best thief you will ever meet,” said Antoine. “This is simply what she does.”
Ruby figured that Dmitri probably would not take the key with him everywhere he went. He did not exactly need to open up the vault every day or anything. So, she decided that the best place to search for it would be his personal chambers. Which would probably be the most well-guarded room in the entire palace. This was going to be fun.
As she came up to the ground floor, Ruby saw a definite shift in the look of the palace. It almost looked like Dmitri had just kept the museum open, inside his palace. Famous pieces of art lined the walls, and there were many valuable artifacts on display, from ancient swords to glittering jewels. Just one of these artifacts could be worth enough money to keep someone fed for the rest of their life, Ruby thought.
Security was lighter in this area of the palace. Ruby was actually right behind the throne room, at the north end of the palace. Since the palace entrance was at the south end, not many people came through this area. The only people who did would be guards going to the basement, to protect the vault or the dungeon. Ruby did not exactly fit that profile, so she had to avoid being seen as she made her way to Dmitri’s chambers, which were at the north end of the top floor.
For now, there was only one guard to worry about, standing at the far end of the hallway. Even though this was a quiet area of the palace, he stood at full attention, unlike the guard outside. It seemed that he followed all the rules and protocols they had in place. Which meant that he would do a sweep through the side halls that branched off from this main hallway soon enough. One went to the east, and the other to the west. It did not matter to Ruby which one he took first, since either one would eventually lead Ruby to a stairway.
Right on cue, the guard started down the hallway, turning off to go down the west hallway. Ruby took off down the east hallway, running silently on the soft carpeted floor. She turned right at the corner and was about to scamper up the stairs when she heard voices from above, which stopped her dead in her tracks. She quickly hid behind a pillar.
“The dragon?” asked a woman. “You’ve got to be kidding! No one has ever been able to defeat it. There’s no way anyone could have tamed it!”
“It was that new general who did it, I guess,” said a man. “General Lamont.”
“I still don’t really trust General Lamont,” said the woman. “He just came out of nowhere to join our side in this war. No one had even heard of him before.”
“It’s not our place to question it. I trust that King Dmitri knows what he’s doing, and that’s enough for me,” said the man.
“You’re probably right,” said the woman, but her voice was faint now. They must be walking away from Ruby’s position. She had no idea how Dmitri planned on controlling something as powerful as the dragon of Avon. Luckily, she and Antoine would already be out of the war by the time anything could come of this anyways.
She poked her head out from behind the pillar and saw that the stairs were clear. She bolted to the stairs and climbed them. She did not run into any more guards on her way to the seventh floor, where Dmitri’s chambers would be.
As soon as Ruby got to the seventh floor, she peeked out around the corner. There was one guard to her left, but he had his back turned to her, and she needed to go the other way, anyways. She made her way down the hallway, to the right, until she saw a shadow approaching at the next corner. She looked around quickly and spotted a balcony to her right, behind a clear glass door. She got out onto the balcony quickly. She would be a sitting duck out here if she did not find a place to hide, though.
Ruby spotted a flag hanging a couple feet above her, sporting Neo Avon’s seal, a golden Griffin. She leapt as high as she could and just barely managed to grab onto the flagpole, and she hoisted herself up onto the flagpole. It rocked slightly, but supported her weight much better than she had expected. From her position, she could see a guard’s feet go past, but he was in no position to see her, unless he had eyes on his shoes.
Once the guard moved past the door, Ruby decided that she was going to have to find another way to Dmitri’s chambers. She was not exactly thrilled with the idea of walking down those narrow hallways full of guards. There weren’t enough places to hide. She could take them in a fight, but that would alert the castle to their presence, and that was something Ruby definitely did not want. However, there was a series of balconies like this one on the outside of the palace. And she knew that Dmitri’s chambers would have a balcony of its own that she could use to break in, so all she had to do was follow the balconies around the palace.
As Ruby dropped back to the balcony’s floor, she looked to her left and spotted another flag pole between her and the next balcony. She was so glad Dmitri felt a need to put his seal all over the palace. She pulled out her grappling hook, gave it a twirl, and flung it at the pole. It latched on, and she swung across to the next balcony. No problem. She made it to the next balcony just as easily, as well. And she knew that the next balcony would be at the north end of the palace, which meant Dmitri’s chambers would be there.
There was one problem, though. There was no flagpole between this balcony and the next. There was actually an indent in the wall of the palace where a flagpole would be, so Dmitri must have had it removed at some point. It was as if Dmitri thought someone would try to get inside his chambers this way. He was either brilliant or paranoid. Or both.
Ruby figured it was worth a shot to see if her grappling hook could make it all the way across to the other balcony. She gave it a twirl and flung it across, but it fell just a few feet short of the railing. Close, but not close enough.
But there was still one way to make it across the gap. Only someone who was reckless, crazy, or arrogant would even try it. Ruby figured she probably had two out of three, so it was worth a shot. She took a few steps back from the edge to give her room for a running start, and then took off. As she reached the peak of her jump, she flung her grappling hook across towards the railing. And then she started to fall.
She squeezed her end of the grappling hook tight like a lifeline. Which it actually was. If her throw was off by even just a little bit, it was a one-way trip to the hard ground below. Just as she began to think her throw might have been off-line, she heard the click of the hook latching on to the railing, and she let out a sigh of relief even as she hurtled towards the balcony. Her shoulder slammed hard into the balcony, but she did not really care. She climbed back up the rope and over the railing. She had made it.
There was a lock on Dmitri’s balcony door, but picking it was child’s play. Actually, Ruby really could have picked the lock when she was a child, she thought.
Ruby scanned the room quickly as she entered. It was as lavish as the rest of the palace. The bed was about ten times bigger than was necessary and had fancy silk sheets with the seal of Neo Avon embroidered on them, of course. Tapestries hung from the ceiling with the seal of Neo Avon, as well. Clearly, Dmitri was proud of his new country.
There were two places Ruby thought a key could be hidden. The bookcase was filled with tons of books on military strategy, from floor to ceiling, and Dmitri could have easily hid it in the pages of one of them. It would take hours to search through all of them. Someone with Dmitri’s ego would probably pick the second place, though.
Ruby walked over to the giant portrait of Dmitri that hung across from the bookcase, and pulled it off the wall. It was heavier than she thought, causing her to nearly fall backwards, but she recovered and set the painting on the ground, face down. She pulled out her dagger and cut through the cloth covering the back of the painting. Sure enough, the key was hidden inside. It even had the signature wings on the handle that told her it was one of Hawke’s keys. Now, she just had to get the key back to Antoine, and they were home free…
Antoine was confident that Ruby would succeed in acquiring the key they needed. Sonia, however, did not look so confident. She stood with her arms folded over her chest, tapping her foot on the ground repetitively. And she had already inspected her weapon eight times, by Antoine’s count.
“I was under the impression that knights were disciplined. ” said Antoine. “I expected you to be much more patient than this.”
“I am disciplined.” Sonia stopped tapping her foot and sighed, “I’m just not used to all this sneaking around. I would prefer a good battle to this dishonorable thievery.”
“And do you think storming this palace is a battle you can win?” asked Antoine. “If not, then perhaps you need to try a more subtle approach. Princess Beatrice seems to understand that.”
“You’re very good at explaining why someone else should pay you, you know that?”
“Or, perhaps I am really necessary,” said Antoine.
“Oh, of course. You don’t care at all about making money. Not a selfless hero like you.”
“Is that sarcasm I detect?” asked Antoine. “It seems that I’m rubbing off on you, after all.”
“Ruby better get here soon with that key, then,” said Sonia. “If I spend any longer with you, my knighthood might be revoked.”
“Someone asked for a key to a vault chock full of lovely treasure?” asked Ruby as she sauntered down the steps towards them. She dangled a golden key in front of them.
“You actually managed to get the key?” asked Sonia. “I’m impressed.”
“Did I hear that right?” Ruby asked Antoine. “It sounded like she said she was impressed, but I thought she was too honorable to be impressed by a dirty thief like me.”
“I heard it as well,” answered Antoine. “Clearly, we must just both be imagining it, though. The idea of such a valorous knight commending a thief is just preposterous.”
Sonia rose to her feet, her face red with embarrassment. “Let’s just proceed with the mission, so I can finally be rid of you two.”
“There’s the good ol’ Sonia we know and love,” said Ruby.
“So what do we do about the guard?” asked Sonia.
“What’re ya worried about?” asked Ruby. “It’s just one guard. I’ll race ya, ‘Toine! First one to take him down gets dinner, on the loser.”
Antoine nodded his approval, and Ruby took off down the hallway instantly, providing her quite a large lead on Antoine from the start. However, Antoine did not even need to take one step down the hallway. He simply unleashed a lightning bolt from his fingertips. The guard was not even aware of it, as all his attention was focused on Ruby charging towards him. He only noticed it at the last second, too late to attempt to defend himself, and he collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
“C’mon, you’re takin’ all the fun outta it!” complained Ruby. “We really gotta make a no-magic rule for these bets…”
“Last time you won, you had two whole vosling,” said Antoine as they approached the vault door. “I am not in any hurry to observe that again.”
“What? I was hungry!” said Ruby as she pulled out the key. “You try thieving on an empty stomach…”
Ruby inserted the key into the lock and pulled the heavy door open to reveal a nearly empty vault. It was a trap!
Antoine knew it as soon as he saw the vault. The Lion’s Seal was there, a glowing white rock on a pedestal in the center of the room, but it was the only item in the entire vault. To confirm his suspicions, he could hear the loud thumping of footsteps behind him now, on the stairs behind them.
“They’re on to us!” said Ruby. “We gotta get outta here!”
“How did they know we were here?” asked Sonia.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Antoine. “We will need to improvise now, if we hope to escape alive, though.”
“So the deadly Mist monsters were part of your plan, then?” asked Ruby as she grabbed the artifact and tossed it to Antoine.
“Fair enough,” answered Antoine as he put the stone into the hidden inside pocket of his vest. “We will need to improvise even more.”
As Antoine turned back towards the hallway, and the tunnel they had come in through, he saw dozens of knights pouring through the stairway above. And Dmitri himself was at their head, clad in red battle armor, and carrying a sword and shield.
“Congratulations on making it this far,” said Dmitri. “But none of you are leaving this place alive.”
Personally, I think it has more of a savory taste, rather than sweet. But I guess everyone's got a right to their own opinion...
It took me way too long, but I finally got this (chapter five) review done! First off, I wanna say what a great job you did in the first half of the chapter describing the city of Ralingrad. You gave a lot of detail on not only what it looked like with the Urdo buildings, the giant palace on the cliff, and the busy marketplace, but also the history and culture and did so very naturally. You gave us plenty of information about what the city used to be like and how it’s changed since the war, which in turn gives us a bit of idea of the sorta of person Dmitri is without seeing him yet and why a lot of people support him over the Princess. The one thing I would watch for is those little empty words definitely, practically, and actually. Most of the time you don’t need em.
The second half of the chapter taking place in the sewage tunnel was pretty fun. I liked the continued history we learned with the Urdo and how the old mining tunnel was repurposed as a sewage tunnel. The mist being put there as a deterrent for would-be thieves was a fun twist. The action itself was pretty straight forward and easy to follow for the reader. The one thing I would say though is that for the big scene where they get surrounded by wolves and Antoine comes up with the idea to electrify the water, it would’ve read better not get told right away what his plan was. Given that he pulls it off without a hitch, it deflates the tension knowing how the confrontation is going to end before we read it. It’s like knowing who survives before you watch a horror movie.
But aside from that, it was a great chapter! The descriptions of the city and culture was very good and I liked Ruby's temptation to steal things at the market but reluctant to do so because of Sonia watching her as well as their interactions in the seedy side of the town and the blow up in the tunnel. Hopefully I should have the next review up soon for ya.
Thanks for the review, Hawk!
Glad you liked all the history and culture stuff with the city. It feels like a pretty big improvement from where I was in chapter 1, when I had barely any historical info about the world. I definitely agree that I could've handled the electricity part better, looking back on it. I was trying to think about how Antoine would think through his plan, but it took way too much of the tension out of it, like you said.
That argument between Ruby and Sonia was one of my favorite little parts, personally (I just love to write Ruby yelling at people! haha), though i actually didn't have it in my original outline. I just added it in as I was writing because I thought it fit in naturally.
The Mists of Avon: Chapter 7
The first rule a knight must learn is that their duty must always come first. A knight must be willing to sacrifice anything, even his or her life, in order to protect their kingdom and serve the crown. Sonia understood that and had willingly chosen this path in life. That didn’t make her current situation feel much better, though. Not only was she standing before Dmitri and a fiery sea of Neo Avon knights, clad in their red armor, but her only support came in the form of a mercenary and a thief.
Antoine was his usual infuriatingly calm self. “You never planned on using the Lion’s Seal for any true purpose yourself, did you? So you simply used it as bait?”
“It’s the only thing an old relic like that is good for!” answered Dmitri.
“Didn’t he steal it a couple years ago?” asked Ruby with raised eyebrows. “How paranoid do ya gotta be to plan stuff out that long?”
“But the Lion’s Seal signifies that its holder is the rightful ruler of Avon!” Sonia asked, “Don’t you need it to take control of the country?”
“Bah!” said Dmitri with a wave of his hand. “I have no need for traditions. I will rule Avon because I am a better ruler than Princess Beatrice, and that is all that matters.”
Sonia couldn’t believe Dmitri could be so dismissive of Avon’s traditions. Those traditions had built the kingdom into the prosperous land that it was. And now he was insulting the Princess? Sonia was not about to stand for that. Antoine felt the need to continue this pointless conversation, however.
“So, it’s pure coincidence that abolishing these traditions just happens to help your bid for power, then?”
Dmitri sneered, “Mercenary scum. I don’t need to answer your questions. I spent all this time setting a trap, and the young Princess sends a mercenary.” He made sure to put extra weight on that last word. “Maybe she isn’t as naïve as I thought. But she made a foolish mistake sending the daughter of Soren van Lambert with you. Losing her will be a great blow to her army.”
“Don’t you ever speak my father’s name!” shouted Sonia.
She could not abide any more of these insults to the kingdom and her father. Just as she began to raise her lance, however, Antoine put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. She couldn’t believe she was thinking this… but he had done well so far, so she decided that she had to play along with his plan for now.
“So, how did the ‘great and powerful ruler’ know we were here?” asked Antoine.
“I had guards posted here in the lower levels, just outside the waterway. You raised quite a commotion defeating those monsters in the tunnels, you know.”
“Ah, I see,” said Antoine. “Sometimes, the simplest methods are the best, after all.”
“Hey, stop hoggin’ all of his time, ‘Toine!” said Ruby as she pushed Antoine out of her way. “I gotta get some jokes in ‘bout his goatee before we make our big escape!”
“You will not be performing any… ‘big escape’ this time, I’m afraid,” said Dmitri with a shake of his head.
“We’ll see ‘bout that, fuzz-face,” said Ruby with a grin. “Any thief worth her salt knows how to get outta bad spots, and I’m definitely worth my salt… and yours, too.”
“All of your empty words are as nothing before the might of my army,” said Dmitri. He turned to his knights, “Kill them!”
Just as he spoke those words, Sonia heard a hiss and the room became shrouded in smoke. She couldn’t see more than two feet in front of her, as she hacked and coughed, but someone took her hand and tugged her to get her moving. She sure hoped it was Antoine or Ruby, but she didn’t have much choice. So she followed along, stumbling around blindly behind, still holding onto the hand, until they finally broke through the smoke. She almost breathed a sigh of relief, but stopped herself when she realized she was holding Antoine’s hand. That was something she never wanted to do.
She finally let go of his hand and stopped, “I know how to run on my own, Antoine.”
“Then I suggest you do so. Ruby’s smoke pellet will only keep them occupied so long,” said Antoine. “I’ll guard our rear, while you assist Ruby with the front.”
“Don’t be stupid! I’m not leaving you alone with that many knights!”
“Worried about me?” asked Antoine, a slight smile playing at the edges of his mouth.
“N-No!” stammered Sonia. “I just can’t leave the toughest job to a mercenary like you, of course.”
“Oh?” asked Antoine. “In that case, you’re in luck. My job is undoubtedly the easiest one. I only must slow their advance with some of my magic spells. You two will be the ones running ahead blindly into the arms of the enemy.”
“Fine, if you insist, Antoine,” said Sonia with a sigh.
Ruby was ahead of them, waving her arms at them from the foot of a staircase. Sonia ran down the hallway towards her as Antoine began covering the floor behind them in ice to cover their escape.
“Took ya long enough!” said Ruby. “Just follow me, O Wise and Gallant Knight.”
Ruby dashed up the stairs before Sonia had the chance to hit her for that mocking comment. Sonia knew she should follow her up while Antoine bought them time, though. As they reached the first floor, an armored guard saw them and drew his sword. Ruby drew her dagger and met his blade with her own. Sonia saw the opportunity and plunged her lance into his hip, where there was a small gap between his leg armor and body armor. The guard collapsed to the ground with a grunt of pain.
Sonia saw Ruby was still standing there, staring at the guard who had passed out from the pain. He was still breathing, though, and Ruby let out a sigh of relief. Ruby’s bark was much worse than her bite, if she was worried about a fight this simple.
“I can take the lead, if you can’t handle it, Ruby,” said Sonia.
“What’re ya talkin’ about?” asked Ruby. “You’re the one slowin’ me down. I’d be outta here already, if I weren’t dragging your sorry butt around.”
“What?” shouted Sonia. “You are really starting to get on my… No, we don’t have time for this. We need to keep moving.”
“Fine,” said Ruby as she threw up her arms in the air. “Just follow me, Your Highness.”
As Ruby ran around the corner, Sonia heard frantic footsteps on the stone stairs behind her. She turned around and saw Antoine race past her in a blur of brown and white. She decided to start running before Antoine tried to hold her hand again.
As she came around the corner, Sonia saw Ruby engaged in battle with another armored guard, trying to show off after Sonia’s comment about taking the lead, no doubt. The guard swung his sword at Ruby, but she blocked it with her dagger. The guard swung again, but Ruby ducked under it this time, leaving him off-balance and open to an attack. She sprung up into the air and kicked him in the side of the head, knocking him out.
“I never get tired of that,” said Ruby with a smile. “And I found our escape, too!”
“Good work, Ruby,” said Antoine.
Sonia had already known both Antoine and Ruby were crazy, but now they were seeing things, too. There was no escape route here, only a stone wall in the southwest corner of the palace.
“This is a wall, Antoine…”
“Ah, to the unimaginative,” said Antoine with a shake of his head. “But to me, it is the perfect escape route!”
Sonia could hear the pounding of footsteps on the stairs behind them. Lots of footsteps. So she hoped Antoine would stop trying to prove how much smarter he was and just get on with it sometime today. If he didn’t, there was no way Dmitri would allow them to escape again.
Antoine closed his eyes for a moment and then thrust his hands forward, as if he was trying to knock the wall down with the slight breeze this would provide. To Sonia’s surprise, a large chunk of the wall collapsed, reminding her that she had to stop underestimating magic. The wide open expanse of the palace courtyard beckoned them just as the last bit of sunlight was being swallowed up by dark storm clouds.
“What about their pursuit? Can’t they just follow us out this hole?” asked Sonia as she followed Antoine and Ruby through the hole.
In response, Antoine began to concentrate again. Sonia saw knights swarming to the hole, with their weapons at the ready, but a large chunk of earth suddenly jutted up from the ground to cover the hole just as they approached it, cutting them off.
“Any more questions?” asked a smirking Antoine.
“I got one!” shouted Ruby. “Why aren’t you two still running? We ain’t outta the woods yet!”
Sonia and Antoine followed along behind Ruby as she led them across the empty courtyard. Dmitri must have never expected them to make it out of the palace, based on the nearly non-existent security outside.
As they reached the section of the wall in the southwestern corner of the courtyard, Antoine did his magic act again to clear a hole in the wall for them to escape through.
“We should be safe for the moment,” said Antoine as he sealed up the hole.
“And I’m guessin’ ya got a plan on how to keep it that way, don’t ya?” asked Ruby.
“Of course,” answered Antoine. “I have an old friend in this area of the city. He’ll be willing to take us in for the night.”
“Who is this friend?” asked Sonia.
“Oh, you’ll like him,” said Antoine with a smile as he patted Sonia on the shoulder. “We used to work together as mercenaries.”
The rain had come quickly, pounding into the dirt roads of the western area of the city and quickly making them into mud roads. Regardless, Antoine and his motley crew continued to slog through the mud towards Liam’s shop in this part of town. They had to tread carefully, as each step had the potential to send you falling face-first into the mud. Antoine couldn’t say that it hadn’t crossed his mind to trip Sonia to see that happen…
The rain did make for effective cover. It was easy to get lost in the mass of people rushing to get indoors, draping towels over their heads, pushing, shoving, and stumbling over each other to get out of the rain, as if it would melt them. Of course, it was also easy to get separated in the crowd. Antoine and Ruby had needed to stop and wait for Sonia to pick her way through the crowd multiple times already. The knightly value of politeness was starting to aggravate Antoine.
At long last, they had reached Liam’s shop. It was a small and fairly inconspicuous shop, wedged between a bar and an inn like a small child wedged between his parents in a carriage. The small wooden sign above the door was now dripping with water, and the sign’s paint was being washed away with it. All Antoine could make out on the sign was “am’s Weapon.” He guessed that was not the official name of the shop. However, Liam had always been skilled at forging weapons, so Antoine expected that he would eventually have a booming business.
“Isn’t this shop a bit small for us all to stay at?” asked Sonia as she pushed a strand of wet hair out of her face.
“Can’t believe I’m sayin’ it, but I agree with Miss Honorable Knight here,” said Ruby. “Why don’t we hide out at the bar over there?”
“You know as well as I that the bar is the first place knights would look for us,” answered Antoine. “And our… honorable companion would never be willing to stay in such a place.”
“So, now I’m the crazy one because I don’t want to stay with a bunch of drunkards?” asked Sonia.
“Yeah, you kinda are,” answered Ruby.
Antoine stepped up to the shop and tapped on the front door, prompting a quick response from inside.
“You better move along!” boomed a voice from the other side of the door. “We’re closed, and I’m not here to help you stay out of the rain!”
“Charming as ever, Liam,” responded Antoine. “But is that any way to treat a friend?”
The door swung wide open and Liam’s familiar figure was standing in the doorway, towering over Antoine He now bore the markings of a blacksmith, including the traditional large apron and the soot accumulating on his face, but his distinctive square jaw and his massive arms were still the same as before. He had shaved his head since they last met, which added one more difference between him and Antoine, as if his appearance was not already distinct enough from Antoine’s.
“Antoine!” exclaimed Liam, throwing his hands in the air. “Come in, come in.”
As they all entered the shop, Antoine took notice of just how small the shop really was. There was a small counter to the left for Liam to conduct his business over, and it might have also doubled as a table for them to eat off of, based on the small crumbs of bread Antoine noticed lying on it. His forge was in a tiny room just behind it. The heat from the forge nearly made Antoine sweat and the smell of smoke was thick in the air, and he was sure the feeling was not much better in the small bedroom he spied at the other end of the room. There was also a metal hatch in the corner of the room, which stuck out like a sore thumb. It must be some type of emergency shelter, Antoine thought. Anyone in the mercenary business made enemies, so it was wise to be prepared.
“Has it really been two years since we last saw each other?” asked Liam. “It looks like Ruby still puts up with you, though.”
“What can I say?” asked Ruby with a shrug. “I like a good magic trick, I guess.”
“And who is this?” asked Liam. “You didn’t tell me you had a girlfriend, Antoine.”
“What?” asked Sonia. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! I would never get involved with such a dishonorable, aggravating, egotistical… mercenary! Even just the thought of it is revolting!”
“Sounds like not much has changed, then,” said Liam.
“But it seems that much has indeed changed on your end,” said Antoine, attempting to ignore Sonia’s searing glare. “I never thought I would see the day the mighty Liam would hang his battle ax on the wall and set down stakes in one place.”
“Neither did I,” said Liam with a grin. “But everything changes when you meet the right woman. You’ll see someday, Antoine.”
As if on cue, Liam’s wife came out of the bedroom. Antoine had met her before, just before Liam told Antoine that he was leaving the mercenary life behind. She looked nearly the same as she had before. She still had shoulder-length black hair, and those deep blue eyes that had enchanted Liam were definitely still there. One large difference stood out, though. She was pregnant.
She smiled, “Ah, Antoine! It’s good to see you. And who are these friends of yours?”
“You didn’t tell her ‘bout me?” asked Ruby, as she glared at Liam. “I am so gonna steal your most valuable weapon…”
“You must be Ruby,” said Liam’s wife with a chuckle. “My husband has definitely told me about you! My name is Lily, by the way.”
“Oh… well, of course he did! No one could forget to mention that they know the Great Ruby,” said Ruby, still eyeing Liam a bit, as if to make sure it was true.
Sonia started to bring a hand up to her chest, presumably to perform the standard salute of a Knight of Avon, but stopped. Either she was finally starting to pick up on all the things Antoine had told her about keeping a low profile, or she didn’t trust Liam. It was abundantly clear to him which was true, of course. Instead, she extended her hand out to Liam, who shook it.
“My name is Sonia. I’ve been working with Antoine for a while now.”
“So, you’re a mercenary, too?” asked Lily.
Sonia hesitated for a moment, clearly unsure of whether it was worth pretending to be a mercenary yet again. Ruby saved her from the decision by cutting in, however.
“We needed some dumb muscle, ya know?”
“I’m standing right here, Ruby…” said Sonia.
“Indeed,” said Antoine. “Every group needs someone who can fight without straining their brain too much. It was a perfect fit.”
“Are you even listening to me?” asked Sonia as she raised her voice.
“So, how has your business been going, Liam?” asked Antoine, turning away from the fuming Sonia.
“I actually have just gotten my first chance to forge weapons for the military!” answered Liam with a wide grin. “This could be my big break, and our chance to finally move into a decent-sized home.”
“Speaking of that order, don’t you still need to finish it?” asked Lily.
“You’re right. I’m sorry, Antoine, but I really do need to finish this work,” said Liam. “You three can all head down to our basement. It’s not exactly spacious, but you’ll at least have some privacy to plan out your next move there.”
“Thanks, Liam,” answered Antoine. “We will allow you to return to your most exciting work.”
Antoine went over to the hatch he had spotted earlier and pulled it open, revealing a wooden ladder descending down into the darkness. Antoine took a tentative first step onto the ladder, wincing at the creaking noise it made. He continued down slowly, as Sonia and Ruby followed him.
Antoine was not particularly afraid of the dark, of course, but even he felt a bit uneasy as he climbed down in the pitch-black of Liam’s underground shelter. He tried to just concentrate on moving one foot down the ladder at a time. However, a distinct smell came to his attention immediately. It practically overpowered his sense of smell. The only thing Antoine could think of was how much it reminded him of the smell of a wild dog that had just been rolling in mud. In that case, Antoine knew what the smell was, at least.
Sonia had noticed it as well. She asked, “What is that awful smell?”
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ ‘bout,” said Ruby. “Ya must just be imaginin’ things…”
“As much as I wish to criticize Sonia’s inability to stand a simple bad smell,” coughed Antoine. “You’re really going to have to do something about that, Ruby.”
“Fine,” sighed Ruby. “I’ll head back up and dry off… But it’s the stupid rain’s fault!”
“And how is it the rain’s fault?” asked Sonia.
“Ruby always smells like this when she becomes wet,” answered Antoine. “I have actually seen knights give up on pursuing Ruby, for fear of her smell.”
“Hey, I heard that!” yelled Ruby as she opened the hatch, at the top of the ladder.
Antoine’s foot finally hit the smooth ground. As he stepped off of the ladder, he summoned a fireball in the palm of his hand to light up the area. The shelter was roughly square-shaped and tiny, with barely enough room for him to lie down in either direction. It would serve well enough for Liam to hide his family down there, if any enemies somehow found him here, though. It was carved right into the ground, with the walls and ground made of urdo, making the ladder the only real entrance or exit.
“So now your old friend has us caught in his nice deathtrap,” said Sonia, as the flame threw just enough light on her face for Antoine to make out the scowl written on it.
“You don’t trust him?” asked Antoine, as he covered his mouth with his hand to demonstrate his feigned shock. “But you’ve always been so trusting of mercenaries.”
“He is working on a job for the Neo Avon military. Why would he want to risk them discovering that he is harboring people working for Avon?”
“Liam is my old friend. He wouldn’t do anything to endanger us.”
“Just remember that I told you so…” said Sonia, as she crossed her arms over her chest.
Antoine knew that Liam would do anything to protect the people he cared about. Lily and their impending child would take priority over Antoine and Ruby, no doubt. But he was still confident that Liam would not sell them out. They had worked together a long time, after all.
Sonia sat down and started to go through her usual ritual of inspecting her equipment. She always did this when she was nervous, so that was as good a sign as any that she really did think Liam would betray them. There was something else that had been bothering Antoine, however, so he decided to break the silence.
“Ruby wasn’t afraid of fighting that knight, you know.”
“What?” asked Sonia, as she looked up from her lance.
“You took Ruby’s hesitation in that fight before as a sign of weakness, did you not?” asked Antoine.
“What was it, then?”
“…Ruby has never killed before.”
“Oh,” said Sonia. She paused, putting her lance aside. “I… just thought a thief must have…”
“Her parents weren’t just killed in the war. She saw them die with her own eyes, when her hometown was attacked. I’m sure you can see how this would… affect her.”
“That’s horrible,” said Sonia, staring down toward the ground. “I had no idea. But… why are you telling me this? I don’t think Ruby wants me to pity her or anything.”
“No, she doesn’t,” said Antoine with a nod of his head. “But you’ve seen the way she refuses to back down from a challenge. So, I want you to be mindful of just what you’re challenging her to.”
Antoine heard the metal hatch slam open again, and he heard the creaking of the old ladder as Ruby began to climb down it again. Even someone as skilled as Ruby couldn’t climb it silently.
“I think it’s high time I retire for the night,” said Antoine, as he lay down on the smooth, hard urdo floor. “And I would suggest you do the same.”
“You’re probably right,” said Sonia. “We’re definitely not out of this yet.”
Lookin good, Rogue! I finished reading it and I'll start work on your review soon!
Of course, who wouldn't be to hear my words of wisdom. Haha, look for it around Saturday though since I'll have more time then that isn't devoted to AC.