Cleo sat still, armor stripped off, wincing as Durrus gently wiped alcohol on her wound. Horrus sat on the opposite side of the room, arms wrapped around his legs, still clutching tightly to his axes. Durrus put down the rag, next reaching for bandages.
“This ain’t your dominant arm, right?”
“Thankfully, no.” She ran her hand across her injured shoulder. “Although it’s going to make using that rifle a bit more of a pain.”
“I’d recommend against that, and have Caelos take care of anything that we need to take out at a distance, all right? Give that wound a few days of rest at most so you can at least start healing.”
“Speaking of Caelos, actually…” She used her good arm to pull herself up to her feet. Walking out the door, she caught sight of the root staff sticking out of the sands, lit up by the waning moonlight. She hurried over and plucked it out of the ground, returning to the house.
“I had a hunch that Curi wouldn’t have been kidnapped for long if she still had Caelos, but I’m afraid not.” She sat down against one of the walls.
“Well, are you going to break the news to her?”
She raised an eyebrow. “What now?”
“Caelos. She needs to know what happened to Curi as soon as possible so we can get Curi out of there as soon as possible. You got it?”
“All right.” She held the staff out in front of her. “Caelos? Caelos can you hear me? We need to speak with you.”
Silence from the staff.
“Caelos please, it’s important. We really need your help.”
Still no response.
“Do you think she’ll only listen to Curi?”
Annoyance built up over Durrus’s face. “I’m sorry, we don’t have time for this!”
He swiped the staff from her hand.
“Listen up Caelos, are you going to keep moping around like this, or are you going to sit around wherever you are and let us all die? We need your help NOW!”
A white flash encompassed the room, Caelos appeared with a similar amount of annoyance painted on her face.
“After working selflessly for you for days on end, you dare imply I would let you all die?”
“Considering your moping nearly got us all killed, of course I’m implying that!”
“And what exactly do you mean?”
Cleo suddenly walked between the two.
“Please, calm down you two, we need to focus. You didn’t call out Caelos to scold her, right?”
Durrus paused before taking a deep breath.
“Yeah, you’re right. Well Caelos, Curi’s been kidnapped.”
“Likely still alive. We were attacked by bandits, they kidnapped her and tried to kill the rest of us-”
Horrus suddenly shot up, tears streaming down his face.
“They didn’t fight hard enough, they let them get away with her!”
The two stared daggers at him, while a sullen look grew on Caelos’s face. Cleo lurched over to him, shoving her face right in his.
“Oh WE let her get away now, is that right? Sorry, I didn’t know that cowering in the corner slowed down those bandits!”
Durrus shook his head. “Honestly kid, I respect your combat abilities, but now is not the time to be slinging crap like that. The hell is up with you?”
“Boo hoo, look at me! I’m so brave and strong and skilled that I’ll let murderers kill me with no fight!”
More and more tears poured from his eyes.
“I don’t wanna kill them! I don’t wanna be a monster!”
Cleo got closer into his face.
“As I said before, boo hoo! You’re the monster here for not doing anything for Curi!”
“Cleo, please, that is not necessary…” She turned to face Caelos.
“I was there with Horrus as he and Curi grew up together, please calm down with him. You’re dragging out memories that are best left in the past.”
She looked back to Horrus, who was now sobbing. Turning back to Caelos, she continued.
“You’re not the first to call him a monster you know. Everyone else his age treated him like he was one, all except for Curi.”
She scoffed. “Well considering his attitude, no wonder why nobody liked him.”
Durrus put a hand on Cleo’s shoulder.
“I’m willing to bet there’s much more to it than it seems.”
He sat himself down next to Horrus, placing a hand on his back.
“How about this: Why do you think killing another person, even scum like those bandits, would make you a monster?”
“O-only monsters k-kill other p-people. I-I only hunt… I only hunt a-animals.”
He continued silently sobbing into his hands. Cleo sighed.
“This is a waste of time, we need to get to Curi as soon as possible!”
“Cleo, this might end up better for all of us. We can’t just leave Horrus alone either. Now then.” He turned back to Horrus. “You still haven’t answered me: Why do you believe that to be true?”
“W-when I was younger… I-I was still a great hunter then as well…” He rubbed tears out of his eyes. “Only my dad recognized that fact though… Everyone else said I was a monster… that someday I would kill them all… I don’t kill humans, I’m not a monster! I don’t…”
“That’s odd to hear. At your age I’d probably be jealous of your combat prowess.”
“Nobody loved me, nobody respected me!”
“That ain’t all wrong you know. Remember when I said I was discharged from the military and forced to live on the streets? How nobody respected me? I exaggerated a bit there. ALMOST nobody respected me. My salvation mostly was thanks to the fact that the Tortoise Mercenaries were hiring for a local job, and I managed to prove myself to em, and dear god did I make some memorable allies there. The meaning of this? Don’t let a few pieces of crap hold you down and define your life. Find those who respect you for the good you can do and stick close to em. Honestly, if I let all the insults that were slung at me get to me, I’d be hanging from the rafters by my own hand, no doubt.”
“People who respect me… That would be Curi… and… My father…”
Suddenly he broke into tears again.
“Hey hey, what’s wrong now?”
“I left him… I ran away from him…”
“Well I knew that obviously, but why?”
“My father wanted me to join the military a week before I left… He said I’d do great and easily climb the ranks… I called him stupid for it!” He dropped his head into his hands, crying profusely. “He taught me everything I knew and I just called him stupid and left! I’m the one who’s stupid… Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”
Cleo walked over and crouched near him.
“You know, I may not act like it, but me growing up wasn’t all perfect either. My father taught me everything I knew as well, but I kinda had to fight for it. He didn’t think I was capable enough to be a soldier for Naha’Ja, I constantly yelled at him, he yelled back… But no matter what, we were still able to make amends. If throughout all that insult slinging you went through he still loved you, I’m betting he’s still waiting for you to come back and say you’re sorry.”
He looked up at her, his face stained with tears and with a hint of annoyance.
“I don’t want to admit you’re probably right but… I hope you are…”
“And reminder, that other person who still cares for you? She’s kinda kidnapped by a bunch of bandits.”
He stared at the floor.
“I don’t know… It still feels… wrong if I were to kill somebody…”
Durrus patted him on the back.
“Remember, don’t let scum drag you down. This is about saving somebody who cares about you.”
He sniffled. “R-right. Just give me some time…”
With an electric buzz and a clang, a mechanical door rose up, revealing a small storage-closet sized room, which consisted of nothing more than a few shelves loaded with empty containers and scrap. Curi was literally thrown into it, crashing onto the floor as the door slammed back into the ground. She rubbed her head, then got up to her feet. Thankfully, the room was lit up by a brighter version of the original green lamps she saw in previous compound, but it did little to stifle the oncoming terror: She was wearing nothing but her sleeping garments, her cloak and rapier were gone, but most terrifyingly, her root staff was missing. She rushed to the door, banging it.
“Caelos? Caelos please are you there? Caelos!”
She wailed more on the door.
“Cleo? Durrus? Horrus? Help me! Caelos please help!”
Suddenly another stronger bang came from the other side of the door.
“Shut it! Your friends are dead anyways, so do us a favor and stop making so much needless noise!”
She suddenly jolted back from the door. Tears slowly built up in her eyes as she fell to her knees.
“N-no…” she muttered.
She had no idea where Caelos could be, she obviously couldn’t be dead, but the others? What if they were overwhelmed? There were a lot of them that she remembered, and perhaps many more inside the compound. They also had those strange weapons. Could they seriously be dead? Her eyes overflowing, tears finally broke free from her and streamed endlessly down as she sobbed and sobbed. Her sobbing turned into full out bawling as every gruesome possibility that could have happened to her friends slammed into her mind. This was where this grand fun adventure would finally end, she thought. Locked away in a dungeon with all of her heroes dead. She collapsed onto the floor, crying harder and harder. Suddenly another loud bang on the door: “Shut the hell up kid!”
She instantly silenced herself, still sniffling. Every awful thought still bounced around in her head. Suddenly, a new memory breached the cloud of negativity in her mind: It was of her and Durrus, back at Louiseville. She remembered he had warned him about this possibility, but more importantly, how he said she had to be prepared for any problem. Another thought breached her mind: Would Cleo just sit around and cry and do nothing? She rubbed the tears from her eyes and crept up to her feet, still sniffling. She remembered how talented of a fighter Cleo and Horrus were. A bunch of bandits couldn’t best them, right? They had to still be alive, right? What if they thought she was dead? Then she had to get out on her own right? That’s what Durrus would do, be prepared for anything? That last hint of resolve in her muddled mind told her she had to find a way out. She sniffled and rubbed her eyes again. There was nothing she could do if those bandits were still watching, they’d just throw her back in. She put her ear up against the door and could make out the voices of some of them.
“…why exactly did we have to kidnap this kid?” spoke a deep scratchy voice.
“How about this: Why would anyone take a child this deep into a hellhole like Chidetah?” Spoke a raspy voice. “She’s worth something obviously. You still haven’t heard, have you, Who this child is?”
“What’s so special about her?”
“We went through her cloak and belongings, and one of the men from Rexius recognized a sigil on some of her papers. She’s a noble, a noble from House Avitum. This is probably a privately funded expedition.”
“What’s to say she didn’t steal those documents?”
“Again, why did they bring a child out here? Perhaps she wanted to tag along and her crap parents let her. It’s the only real explanation.”
“I guess you do have a point. So, how much we ransoming her for?”
“Now you’re thinking properly. It’s a simple plan: We ransom her for enough gold to buy us all a castle somewhere in Rexius. I doubt they’d turn us over to Naha’Jan authorities anyways. We set up in that castle, recruit some more manpower, have Fulgous provide us with more weaponry, and soon we’ll be strong enough to rival the rest of the noble powers. Maybe even get a few of those rotten nobles to surrender to us.”
“I don’t know, who cares? We’ll be filthy rich and near uncontestable in terms of power. What more could a man want?”
“You’ve told the other men this plan, right?”
“Tonight, actually.We’re having a feast tonight, and I’ll announce it then. After that, we’ll make our move towards Rexius in the morning.”
Suddenly more footsteps arrived.
“Uh, sir, the other half of the scouting party haven’t returned at all. Should we assume the worst?”
“Hmm… I guess I should have sent a few more men. Well, we all know where they’re coming, right? I say we prepare a good surprise for them. Rally everyone to hide near the entrance. We’ll kill them all before they even have a chance!”
A collection of footsteps began to move away.
“Hold on, you stay here and keep the kid in her place, got it?”
The footsteps began marching again until they left earshot. Just one bad guy, Curi thought to herself. Just do what Cleo does and she can take care of him easily. The only issue was getting the door open.
Horrus still sat in the corner, his tear-stained face staring off at the wall, with Durrus sitting next to him with a hand on his shoulder. Caelos watched sullenly over the two as Cleo prodded the bodies of their assailants. Her eyes focused on the hand of one of the corpses, gripping tightly onto the still-glowing sword. She turned his hand around, breaking the sword free from his grip, picking it up and swinging it about in the air. She thrust it into the wall, surprised as it burned clean through the stone. She pulled it out and turned to another one of the corpses gripping onto another strange sword. She quickly swung hers down onto his, both swords suddenly shattering each other upon contact. As shards of metal flew about, the swords lost their strange glow, revealing them to now be broken kilijs. She cocked her eyes at them, taking a closer look at the hilt of the blades, finding the all too familiar tree insignia carved into the handles. She turned to the other two.
“They’re using stolen Naha’Jan Equipment! These no-good pieces of scum… They probably stole these from traders!”
“Or they could just be bandits from Naha’Ja. These wastes are right at your borders, right? Easy way for them to escape.”
She walked over and grabbed a blade and scabbard from the last of the bandits, sheathing it.
“Either way, they’re parasitic scum to Naha’Ja. One thing is still on my mind though. How the hell did they survive out here this long? Sure, there’s water worms and some wildlife to eat but, how many of these Chidetan bandits do you know about? I don’t think this landscape can support so many, especially with the wildlife being so hostile.”
“Maybe we’ll figure it out when we deal with them.”
Caelos hovered down between the two.
“I do not think I understand yet. Why exactly did they take Curi away? Why are they scum?”
Durrus turned towards her.
“Firstly, no real idea. Ransom? Pleasure? Slavery?”
“S-Slavery? Why would they have a child do work?”
“Caelos… Is this your first time outside of Curi’s home? Let alone around any other humans for god knows how long?”
“I’ve traveled out to the town with Curi and her parents, without them knowing of course… so no.”
“Well to answer the scum question as well, some people like bandits like to kidnap the young or those who can’t defend themselves and put them to work because they’re easy to contro-”
The walls shook with her fury. She swooped over to the door, pointing outside. “We must go, now! There is no way I will let them harm her like that!”
“Well um… Yeah all right, just please be careful with your powers all right? Just let me grab a new scutum from the wagon.”
He picked up the staff and marched out of the house, Caelos following along. Cleo tied the scabbard to her belt, looking over at Horrus.
“You still doing okay?”
“I’m fine, please.” He turned his head away.
“Despite all that you’re still gonna keep that attitude, huh?”
“I said I’m fine, I’ll be up soon.”
“But will you be willing to fight?”
He went silent.
“If you’re lucky, Caelos might just deal with all of the bandits before we have a chance to even act.”
She walked over and sat next to him.
“Since you care about him so much… What do you think your father would think of you? Dealing with child-slaving bandits?”
Still silence. He looked up.
“I dunno. Maybe happy I’d be open to joining the military?”
“Maybe happy is a bit of an understatement! It’s not every day somebody gets a chance to show themselves off as a hero, you know?”
“There have been multitudes of rumors about bandits from Chidetah attacking traders close to the borders, ruining several lives and businesses, and here you are at their doorsteps.”
“So? People call you an evil murderer right?”
He punched her on the arm, a tear rolling down his cheek.
“This is your chance to prove to them that you can do something good, right?”
“I… I guess?”
“You can go home and yell to all those kids ‘Hey, I stopped an infamous group of bandits plaguing us for decades, and what did you do?’”
He turned his head to the floor, smiling.
“I see that smile of yours! This is your chance to prove yourself, that you’re a good person… In actions at least.”
“What does that mean…”
“It means, you gotta prove all those others wrong. You up to go hunt some bandit scum?”
He gulped and slowly stood up.
“I’ll at least try! Than-… I’ll try.”
He hurried out the door with axes in hand. Cleo smiled to herself and stood up as well.
“Guess there is a bit of hope for him…”
With a sharpened flat-headed metal pole in her hand, Curi slowly and carefully fitted it in the crack under the door. She silently pressed down on the bar, finding the door rising up surprisingly easily. With the small amount it rose up, she reached under, pushing up the door altogether. She looked around finding herself in a room full of lockers, lit with the same lighting as her room. Near the exit sat one of the bandits, who had dozed off and fell asleep upright. She silently moved the pole across the floor and lowered the door to the ground. She snuck close to the bandit, looking him over.
Maybe I should just sneak past him? He’d figure I was gone though, should I knock him out? I don’t think I’m strong enough. Maybe I should take his sword, just to be safe.
She reached out her free hand for it, grabbing the hilt of the blade. She tugged at it, finding it snugly tucked away in the scabbard. She tugged harder, harder, and then harder. The man jolted awake, causing Curi to lurch back, yanking a blade crackling with power out. She quickly returned to her feet and scurried back as the man approached, holding out his hand.
“Look here girl, just give the blade back, get back into your room, and everything will be fine, all right?”
She backed against the wall, holding the blade in front of her as he approached.
“No, you need to give my blade back! Give it back nicely and I promise we’ll forget all about this!”
She closed her eyes and lurched forward, hearing a wet slicing noise. She opened her eyes, looking into the now-dead stare of the bandit, mouth gaping wide open. She looked down, noticing the blade had cleanly entered his stomach, blood staining his clothes around the wound. She screamed and yanked back the blood-stained blade. She dropped the blade, clanging of metal reverberating through the room as the man slumped over onto the ground. Unable to tear her eyes from the sight, she fell to her knees as more tears began to pour from her eyes. She retched and gagged, trying to keep her dinner in her stomach. She fell down to her arms, sobbing even more and even more. Several minutes passed before she came back to her senses, tears clearing from her eyes and the body coming back into focus.
He was just a bad guy, a villain, it’s all right.”
She shakily stood up, gripping tightly onto the crackling blade. She took slow, shaky steps out of the room and into a well-lit corridor.