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Chapter 100

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 4 years, 12 months ago

Baldwin and a cadre of Count Aaron's mercenaries delved through the maze of corridors toward the front lines. A melody of clanking steel presided over their mad dash which nearly got itself lost several times. The initial bedlam that threw the Brightkeep into turmoil had at last settled down. They passed by runners who carried vital information and sent them on the right path. Yet the battle had not swung in their favor, the bleeding was stopped.

 

The adventurer kept his eyes forward, but everyone else kept looking behind them from time to time. A looming fear, that mysterious girl in the cloak would once more materialize from out of the ether.

 

     “Are you sure we should have left her behind?” The mercenary officer huffed as he struggled to keep the same pace as Baldwin.

 

     “I get it. I get it,” Baldwin bemoaned.. “She'll be alright, so shut up about it. Worry about yourself. We're better off staying out of their way.”

 

     “A giant? She's not any taller than a little girl!”

 

     “Doesn't matter. She's my superior officer and I'm not going to ignore her orders. She's short, but she's a giant when it comes to chi.”

 

The mercenary couldn't wrap his head around it. He heard the story of the one drunken man getting his jaw snapped in two, but couldn't tie it together with the image of the little martial artist he saw with his own eyes. His mercenaries hardly saw any of the Bannermen at all over the past few days. Every one of them were elusive, solitary and impossible to approach. Their behavior and their status made it as if they were occupying and completely different world than themselves. A wall existed between them as a moat does the peasant and his lords. Were it not for the battle at hand, the arrogance would have driven his anger to another level.

 

     “Let her worry about the monster. You got bigger problems on your hands,” Baldwin said with disdain.

 

The Bannerman's eyes carried with them the air of one talking down to the child. His men could do nothing but bite their tongues. If there were monsters about, the best way to survive would be to listen to the expert. Common sense would always falter in the face of the super natural and monsters were that given form.

 

Now that information stood a chance to disseminate, the garrison quickly reorganized itself. How up the creek without a paddle the situation had become quickly became clear. All those soldiers and knights captured without a fight on the first day seized the main gatehouse. Reinforcements pouring in from the outside would be impossible. The necessary equipment were kilometers away at the siege camps surrounding the Duke's citadel. It would take days to move them back, if Count Aaron had any to spare.

 

First and foremost, the thought he'd dock their pay weighed heavily on their minds.

 

Without assistance their options were severely limited. Tearing the portcullis off would be an exercise in futility. Iron forged with ancient wisdom fortified everything in the Brightkeep. No steel in their possession had the strength to break it. Whatever sorcery went into, the masonry has befuddled their sappers.

 

Baldwin reached the front lines first. Two opposing barricades had been set up at opposite ends of a wide hallway. Fifty meters down that hallway lay the main entrance to the Brightkeep's main gatehouse: a complex which housed the all important winch and lock mechanisms. Two separate chambers were bridged together by an arched walkway that formed the keystone to the solid mountain of ancient stone. Baldwin and his mercenary hanger-ons comprehended immediately that numerical advantage became moot in these closed quarters. Aaron's mercenaries held the advantage that they would win the eventual battle of attrition, but it was time which would betray them.

 

     “Who is in charge here?” Baldwin demanded as he approached the nearest group manning the barricade.

 

They had taken refuge behind a mound of upturned tables and wooden boxes. They appeared beleaguered, but still in working health. He soon discovered the injured laid out nearby out of harm's way. Their bodies were covered in burn marks. Most were wrapped up like bodies ready for a funeral procession.

 

     “That would be me,” a shaken younger man said and raised his hand. “The sergeant got burnt up on the last attack. He ain't looking good enough to stay on his feet, so I've had us stay put and keep em in check till reinforcements arrive.”

 

The young man's eyes spied the mercenary officer accompanying Baldwin the moment he finally caught up.

 

     “Patrick? Thank the Almighty,” the man sighed in relief.

 

     “Jeremy, wasn't it?” Patrick answered. “I've brought another dozen with me. Got one of the Bannerman boys with me here too.”

 

     “Baldwin of Nerick's Redeemers,” the adventurer said, his tone already showing boredom with the common men.

 

The other mercenaries started talking amongst themselves. They wondered if a Bannerman would be able to solve their dilemma.

 

Baldwin impatience overflowed and with clicked his tongue, “Well? Out with it!”

 

Jeremy appeared shaken by the adventurer's pressure which weighed heavily on the young man. His voice cracked as the words vomited out of him.

 

     “A monster slayer is what we need. I heard they spotted a fire lizard, but this is a whole other thing entirely. I-I've not seen anything like it, let alone been trained for it!”

 

     “Lizardmen work jobs like yours all the time. You'd have to have your head stuck in the bucket, not just wet behind the ears if you've never—“

 

Baldwin's brows knit together as he thought aloud. He remembered the details of that briefing he heard shortly after the ball that happened a few days prior.

 

     “Fu fu fu fu!” A boisterous laughter rolled in from down the hall.

 

Jeremy and the surrounding men shook with fear as they cowered further into cover.

 

     “What in the hells?” Patrick swore and stuck his head out from behind the barricade.

 

A towering figure stood proud and tall at the end of the hall. Its inhuman properties were readily apparent. It being female was unmistakable, what with the massive mounds of flesh suspended from her chest. He could tell from so far away that it's a giant too. She stood a head, or perhaps almost two, taller than himself.

 

     “Oh ho ho ho ho! Is this the best you rotten conniving cowards can muster? Is a dagger to the back the limit of your martial prowess?” She bellowed while animating her word with the movement of her arms and a flurry of various poses.

 

     “What the hell is wrong with you?” Patrick screamed at his men. “She's right out there in the open. Shoot her!”

 

     “We tried!” one of the mercenaries voices cracked. “Everything bounced right off!”

 

     “You wont have the right bolt or arrow heads,” Baldwin said as he took a look at the pink haired girl at the end of the hall. “It's a wyvern. And a big one at that.”

 

Baldwin inspected a nearby arrow and tossed it aside with a click of his tongue.

 

     “It's not quite dragons scales, but close enough. You'd need to be a point blank to have a hope of piercing wyvern hide with what you got here.”

 

Baldwin inspected one of the iron tipped arrow heads sitting in a bundle nearby. He prodded the tip, found it wanting, and then tossed it aside like refuse.

 

     “And there's something else which makes doing that... unlikely.”

 

They looked over all the men who had participated in the last attempts to assault the gatehouse. There were shy of two dozen men with second and third degree burns. Some were still conscious and rolling about in pain. Others were barely clinging to life and would not survive long if proper first-aid, curatives or healing magics were not applied.

 

     “That's the weird thing too...” one of the mercenaries spoke up with a shaky voice. “She let us drag them back here.”

 

     “None of that matters if we can't take that gate back, you moron!” Patrick roared. “They took more than the gate. They've barred a door open at the wall too. If we can't close this one, we'll be cut off from the main force at the base camp. Hundreds of other soldiers stationed along the walls will pour in here. They'll execute us all for sure!”

 

     “Save your breath,” Baldwin sighed. “We're not breaking through here. It's not the wyvern alone that's the problem: the men waiting behind it with sword and spears at the ready.”

 

He glanced once again and gazed beyond the wyvern with her wings on her hips and counted the gleaming iron tips waiting at the barricade set up in the doorway to the gatehouse itself.

 

     “If you really want to you can keep sending your men to be incinerated till she runs out of fuel for that fiery breath of hers. But then you'd have to take on those claws and the fresh men waiting behind.”

 

     “And you were telling me earlier that this doesn't concern you,” Patrick growled.

 

     “Monster extermination is always a Bannerman's concern—“

 

Baldwin turned his head away in spite and pondered where the rest of his companions were.

 

     “—If Mistress Breena were here we might have some more options.”

 

     “The wizard lady, right?”

 

     “Bluntly put, but not incorrect... If she hasn't arrived yet I doubt she will anytime soon. We have yet to encounter the third monster. There's a beastman type prowling around here. Part of some group that were spotted further north over a month ago... An incubus. A suspected incubus lord at that. We've got confirmed sighting of the Thorn Knight. I can confirm the wyvern here. That leaves only the canine unaccounted for... Some sort of spell-caster. Odd for a beastman—”

 

Yet that doesn't explain the shadowy figure from before.

 

Baldwin thought to himself. He wondered if the intel they had gathered was incomplete. He noticed his attention had strayed for too long and snapped back to reality.

 

     “No matter,” he grumbled to himself and then belted out his orders: “Gather up your fleetest and follow me!”

 

     “Hold on. This time you are gonna tell me what we're doing,” Patrick said in protest.

 

     “Butting our heads against this defensive line is fruitless. We'll search for an alternative route. If we have to we'll find a maintenance shaft for the chains of the Brightkeep doors. We'll blow smoke in, or something, and flush the room. You. Inform your men to keep their eyes and ears open. Meanwhile, we'll provide a diversion to divide their defenses. We'll keep prodding till we find a break in their line.”

 

     “Beats sitting around,” Patrick nodded and then jabbed his finger at a selection of his men. “Alright, boys, let's go!”

 

Baldwin, Patrick and a fresh group of another twelves mercenaries moved on from the camp besieging the gatehouse. Their destination was unclear. None of them had a working and intrinsic knowledge of the Keep's layout, but they knew not a single one of them would manage a breakthrough via the main entrance.

 

     “Our boys started marking the top of the door frames around these parts,” Patrick said as he pointed to the runes scrawled on the stone. “Too many kept getting lost on the way to the shitter, the canteen, you name it.”

 

     “I don't need such details, you idiot,” Baldwin hissed. “Keep us around the bulkhead where the gate mechanisms. We'll find something. Somewhere.”

 

The away party spent the next few minutes climbing and descending stairs. They crossed one way across the Brightkeep and then doubled back. Their eyes searched fervently for some clue as their fingers traced over every suspiciously loose stone.

 

     “You ever get the feeling something's wrong with this place,” Patrick said out of the blue.

 

     “I don't care,” Baldwin said dismissively.

 

     “No. Hear me out for once, you arrogant prick. I'm talking about how we always have to walk around the long way when getting from one side of the keep to the other. There's nowhere you can cut through the middle.”

 

     “Shut up and keep looking,” Baldwin spat and quickened his pace to put distance between himself and the mercenary.

 

Baldwin did not get far before he came across a T junction in the hallway. He paused to look between heading left and right. Much to his disdain, this gave the mercenaries a chance to catch up before he managed to swallow his anger.

 

     “Don't worry,” Patrick said as he pointed toward some writing on the wall. “Seems my boys already marked this place out too.

 

The Bannerman let out a long sigh, leaned up against the wall and crossed his arms. Patrick strode forward and fumbled with his elementary literacy to read the white chalk marks.

 

     “Yu... No that's not it. Yeah, here we go... You... Messed....Up... What?”

 

The mercenary face was dumbstruck as he read it a second time and found he had made no mistake.

 

     “You messed up?” Patrick read aloud again and then unleashed his fury on the men. “Which one of you did this? You thought this would funny a few days ago, right? Now that I'll beat your ass for this!”

 

     “Wasn't me,” one of the men spoke up.

 

     “Yeah. I got stationed on the far west wing. I never walked this way before,” said another.

 

Patrick growled, but spotted another line of writing. He had to lean in to read the fine print.

 

     “What kind of runes are these supposed to be?”

 

A few of his men gathered around him and looked over his shoulders.

 

     “Oh, I know these,” one of them spoke up excitedly. “These are them phonetic runes. They don't spell anything. You sound em out.”

 

     “You reading children fables again?” Another spoke up to insult the other. “What sound does a cow make?” he said with a mocking voice.

 

     “S-shut up! Look! It ain't hard. Even an unreading buffoon like you can do it. See? It says...”

 

     “I can read that much, you moron! Get out of my way,” Patrick shouted and pushed the men off his back. “It says... Ka? Yeah, that's it. Ka.... boo? No, not that. Bloo. Kabloo... Eee?.. Kablooey? What the hell does that mean?”

 

Baldwin snapped to attention. He had ignored the bumbling men till now, but his gut instinct churned up a storm in his chest. He leaped away from the wall and hollered toward the men.

 

     “Stop! Get away from—”

 

He was far too late. After the last syllable rolled off Patrick's tongue, the runes turned a crimson red. The mercenaries gathered around it watched with stupefied expressions as the white chalk changed color. Tendrils spread from the runes and raced along the walls. Their bodies were still limp and unready when following explosion ripped through the hall. A blast wave of fire made of raw magic power engulfed the region. Baldwin remained the sole man present to throw his arms up in a futile effort to protect himself. Yet he could not be prepared for the force of the blast. He watched the backs of the men at ground zero disintegrate before he felt his back slam into the wall and the fire wash over his body.

 

Destruction ravaged the hall way in a 3 meter radius. The ground end up pulverized and turned to gravel. Debris fell periodically from the ceiling and rained dust all around. Baldwin woke up a few seconds after being bashed against the wall. He had been laid out on his side and it took everything he had to push himself to sit up. He counted all four of his limbs and all ten toes. A small amount of blood, from nothing more than cuts and scrapes, were flecked across the ground.

 

A trickle of red liquid poured over one eye and irritated it into being forced shut. With his other eye he peered through the grungy clouds saw another seven bodies. They were motionless. No coughing, wheezing or moans of pain. There wasn't a trace of the other bodies. It's likely they were one with the dust, but there appeared another figure beyond the clouds. A new shorter silhouette walked into the scene with a playful gait.

 

And along with it came the sing song voice of a little girl. She hummed a tra la la to herself while stepping over the bodies strewn across the floor.

 

Baldwin watched helplessly through as outline of the tiny girl improbably, and inappropriately, pulled one of the bodies off the floor. She pulled the dead weight along and spun the limp dance partner in her arms. He watched in horror as a round object rolled from its shoulders and the body fell to the ground with a thud. The loose object It rolled across the girl's arm, behind her head and down the other arm like play thing. A flick of her arm sent it rolling behind her back and she back kicked it aside without a care.

 

A pair of green eyes pieced through the dust clouds like dancing will-o-wisps. But their danced ended when they noticed and locked right onto Baldwin. He grimaced and tried to pull himself off the floor, his body suffered from shock and failed.

 

The hazy image got clearer until the creatures true form revealed itself. An adorable little girl's face peeked through the dust, but something horrifying came through with it. A pair of large horns jutted out from the top of its head. Inhuman goat-like ears protruded from the sides of her head. It had shaggy furred forearms and legs and its footsteps were announced with a clopping of hooves where petite little feet should be.

 

A demon burst through with the flair of an actress taking to the main stage. She fluttered grabbed hold of her cloak and flourished it. That was enough to create a gust of wind strong enough to blow the haze away.

 

It had the visage of a cute little girl, a little angel of the choir, but twisted in form with the markings of a demon. Baldwin looked for, but could not find, the leathery spade tail. His eyes could only see a brown and white shaggy goat's tail. A great sense of unease fell over him too, the girl was far too scantily dressed and flagrantly disavowed all common decency.

 

     “I didn't think that spell would actually work, but you can never overestimate stupidity, can you?”

 

     “Exploding Runes...” Baldwin pushed out between grit teeth.

 

     “Ha ha ha,” the demon chuckled. “You know em? One of my favorites. A lot of bang for little buck.”

 

The demon gave him a wink and seemed impervious to the otherwise mood destroying murderous gaze he threw back at her.

 

     “You filthy little wench. You putrid rotten demonic whore!”

 

     “Hey, slow down there. Save pet names for the bedroom,” she said as her smug expression grew more intense.

 

She dropped her strumpet act and transitioned seamlessly into a embarrassed little school girl act.

 

     “But I'm afraid I'll have to turn you down. You see, I'm already seeing someone,” she said with blushing cheeks which she cradled in her bestial paws. “It's kinda serious and a bit complicated. I'm sure you understand.”

 

Baldwin tried to capitalize on her momentary distraction, but his attempt to throw himself forward and reach out for his sword fell short. He had spotted it on the ground in front of him, but it was just out of reach. Now he's laid helplessly on his stomach. Spread eagle across the floor and more vulnerable than before.

 

His cheek dragged his across the fresh gravel floor and stared desperately toward his sword, but managed to do nothing more than witness the demon's hoof as it stomped down on the blade and smashed it in half. She squat down in front of the man, out of arm's reach. Her elbows rested on her knees which she used to cradle her jaw. He looked up and got his first real glance at her eerily inhuman green iris goat eyes.

 

     “Stop with the tiresome bad boy act. I'm not here to play with you.”

 

     “This is not a game, demon! You'll pay for your cowardice!”

 

     “Coward am I? That's rich coming from a man who is part of a Redeemers club. Alright. Let's play a game. Let's play: what did the man have to redeem himself of?”

 

Baldwin's eyes flared with anger and he flashed his teeth with a snarl. She ignored his fury and looked off the side, cupping her chin in thought.

 

     “Did ya knock up some nobleman's daughter? Ha ha ha, nah. I kid. You ain't that clever or near handsome enough. Oh, did you steal something? Hmm, no, probably nothing so valuable as to throw your life away with the Bannerman... Ah, yes of course— ”

 

She looked right at the man and saw through him.

 

     “—you killed someone.”

 

The demon noticed the slight twitch in Baldwin's face.

 

     “Oh ho, so that's how it is?”

 

     “You know nothing,” he said between grinding teeth.

 

     “Please, spare me,” she shot back with a laugh. “You humans have at least twenty or so things you do when you lie. Don't lie to a demon. It's a waste of time.”

 

A strong hand—a paw—violently grab hold of his hair and yanked his head. She forced him to look right at him and her rectangular pupils which caused a rumble sensation deep in his bones. The pitch blackness of her pupils stared back at him..

 

     “That's a big no no, you know?”

 

He tried to look away, but her pupils, black as the abyss, pulled them back. A black hole tugged at his very soul. He stared into them, and something beyond her eyes looked back into him.

 

     “But it wasn't just anyone. No. It's someone you knew. Family? No... A friend. Yes, that's it. Isn't it? I can see you wear it like a seabird over your shoulder. And so you know— People like you all end up in the same place. Believe me. I've seen them. This is some genuine eye witness testimony here. If you think gallivanting around the world killing monsters minding their own business or being happy with their mates will make everything peachy keen— They always end up in the same place. And like them, you got another thing coming.”

 

The adventurer's head slammed into the ground when she released her grip. He remained motionless for a moment. His reaction was muted. A loose tooth didn't reach high in the priority list. A deluge of memories were fought to be at the top of a pile of repressed memories. Baldwin's heartbeat increased, sweat began to ooze from his pores and his breathing became ragged. Meanwhile, the demon grinned and admired her handiwork before pressing on with business.

 

     “Now. Unless you want us to pry into that... Tell me where the big fish is. Where's that wizard bitch hiding?”

 

     “I'd... I'd never tell you that,” Baldwin seethed.

 

A sense of camaraderie overrode his fear and he bravely stared back at the demon from below. She let out a long sigh and her playful eyes became impatient.

 

     “I told you, didn't I. You don't lie to a demon. Seriously now, you pantomime your tells more flamboyantly than the queerest cross-dressing actor at the theater.”

 

A pressure that Baldwin had never weathered before weighed down on him. While his battered body felt the weight of the world holding him down, the demon's aura crushed his soul further down.

 

     “Do you really think there's nothing I could do that wouldn't make you talk?”

 

A glint of red swept across her green eyes for a moment. He didn't take long to change his tune.

 

     “I—I don't know,” he replied weakly.

 

     “See? That wasn't so hard was it?” she said with a gentle smile. “Still disappointing, yes, but don't you feel better? Anyways, I got business with her. I gotta see that my man's plan works out and all that. It's my job to keep her check and all that. Hard work. Laborious, I know. But it'll be worth it.”

 

The girl stared at him for a few moments longer. She sighed a second time and stood back up. She brushed the dust from herself and rolled her shoulders as if they were sore.

 

     “If I'm right, and I'm rarely wrong, it'll be quite a show. There's a lot out there that will be to die for.”

 

She about-faced and folded her arms behind her head. As she slowly strolled away, she left one last request to the man splayed across the floor.

 

     “So how about you take five and then pick your sorry ass off the ground and go get her for me? I'll be sticking around here for a while.”

 

She appeared to have lost all interest in Baldwin, turned her back to him, and resumed walking away.

 

     “What a waste of good bait. I was sure she'd be the one to sniff out this breadcrumb trail.”

 

Baldwin felt a great weight lift off of him. His eyes felt like tearing up, but he kept himself together. The man slowly pushed himself up till he was on his hands and knees. That's the extent of what he could do right away. His raspy breaths were pained as he struggled to combat the pain aching over his entire body.

 

     “Just kidding!” the little demon girl's voice chanted merrily from above.

 

Baldwin turned his head to see the demon was looming over him.

 

     “You didn't think I'd be that naive, right? I mean, who lets that one survivor crawl away like that? If you're gonna kill a bunch of people you need to do your basic due diligence," she recanted as if this were common knowledge her victim should be aware of. "Take this message to your master, worm!” She hammed it up, like an amateur actress. “How blasé. How tripe. How... How cliché.”

 

The demon laughed at her own performance. Then she turned her eyes downward and gifted the man with a gentle expression.

 

     “Nah. You see—when you catch a little fry on your line. Don't throw it back—”

 

The demon held out her arm and Baldwin watched in horror as a purple portal opened above it. A large metal object fell through empty space from out of the portal and it crashed into the floor. She grabbed hold of before it cracked the ground wide open. It's made of an unearthly metal and had an otherworldly gleam. A weapon in the shape of a large scythe. A quivering green orb of pure energy existed where a part of the blade should be. It pulsed with magical energy that caused the pebbles beneath her to jumble around her hooves.

 

Her gentle smile turned into an ear to ear smile, bearing her fangs.

 

     “—Recast it!”

 

She raised the blade up high and brought it down. An executioner's axe, quivering and vibrating with barely contained magic energies. Baldwin felt a brief sting of pain, but it ended quickly. And so did his everything he had.

 

***

 

Nerick's bulk crashed down onto the ground with an earth splitting thud. He had leaped down from the makeshift hole left by Laven's hasty departure from level above. A three meter drop separated the floors, but his knees somehow managed to absorb the shock. A pair of predatory eyes, inflamed with rage, scanned the room for Laven's body. He slung his axe over his shoulder and readied himself to bring it down, but his prey was nowhere to be seen.

 

Laven left a crater behind, but not his corpse. The Bannerman strode over and inspected a shattered wooden floor. This lower level of the tower had stone underneath for half its width and then transitioned to hardwood. His quarry had used up the last bit of luck in the horseshoe up his ass and missed the stonework.

 

Nerick growled and mumbled swears. His patience renewed itself when he picked up on a trial of blood which Laven left behind. A bloody nose and chest would leave something like that. The fox had dashed into the brush, but the bloodhound had the scent. Another winding maze of knickknacks was all that separated the two. A museum of treasures from a Kingdom's glory days.

 

With axe firmly in hand, the hulking man let loose another long drag on his pipe and followed the trail. It led him around the corner, but the spots of blood got smaller until they vanished altogether. He clicked his tongue and swept his eyes across the surroundings.

 

Shelves of ancient books, pedestals with vases and other statues and artifacts, suits of armor stowed away behind protective bars and glass. Others were welded or tied securely to mannequins. Locked chests and paintings lined the way in addition to polished mirrors both small and tall.

 

     “Are we really going to go through this?” Nerick shouted as he spun on the spot. “Stop wasting both our time, Come out and fight me like a man!”

 

No response. His eyes darted from corner to corner. He searched high and low through all the spots a man could hide himself away in. Laven had said his plan was to buy time and that began to grate on his patience. It would take hours for anyone to get through those everiron doors. And so far as Nerick knew, no one had started.

 

     “I'll level this whole room if I have to!” Nerick bellowed.

 

He brought his axe down on a nearby bookshelf. He threw a furious punch through the wreckage and smashed through to the other side and into another tight alleyway winding itself through the cluttered mess. It was clear to his left and right. In a fit of rage, the man backhanded a precious vase from its pedestal and let it smash into pieces. It's at that point he realized his loud rampages would make it difficult to actually hear Laven. Nerick let his jaw slacken, so that his teeth would stop grinding together, and steadied his breathing.

 

A quiet tapping of steeled toes passed through one ear and he homed in on it. He did his best to walk softly as though he were deer hunting. The sound got increasingly louder till it sounded so close at a blind corner that he could not contain himself and sprung like a coiled spring that could not be held back any longer.

 

Nerick's axe sprung around the corner and bit into something hard, but malleable. When he caught up to his axe, the only thing it had decapitated was the helmet off a wooden mannequin.

 

     “We don't have to go through this,” Nerick repeated himself as he grew more and more impatient. “Come out now and I'll make it quick. One blow to the neck. It will be over in an instant.”

 

     “I hear you actually stay alive for a few seconds,” came a voice echoing from every direction.

 

The man faced one direction and then another, but no matter where he turned his ears, the origin of the voice never solidified. It rushed toward him, slipped between his feet and then vanished around another corner. He heard it echo softly once more before being replaced by silence. Nerick's frustration continued to grow as Laven managed to keep just out of his reach. His new tactic would be to keep him talking.

 

     “Are you that afraid to die?” Nerick asked the disembodied voice. “I'd say that's why you've lost. No guts, no glory.”

 

     “And are you afraid of feeling pain?” the voice shot back.

 

Nerick snarled and swung his axe into an adjacent chest. Various valuables poured out from it. Nearly all of them were bent, ruined and all-round smashed to pieces. But once again, there was no one hiding inside nor behind it.

 

     “If you weren't afraid of dying you would take on the Thorn Knight instead, wouldn't you?”

 

     “Shut up!” Nerick howled back.

 

He clamped his jaw shut as soon as he realized he was the one being a loud mouth and giving his position away. Laven would play his game better than him if he continued this way.

 

     “It's more like you need her to fight your fights for you. You craven little shit. Don't you have an ounce of pride? Are you a man or not?”

 

There was silence, but it remained an empty silence. Nerick continued to wander the winding and random paths while calling out to the void.

 

     “Don't you think it's pathetic a man has to rely on a woman like that? Or is it that she's had a soft spot for weaklings all along? Wouldn't that be a surprise? The merciless Thorn, slayer of hundreds, has a need to play babysitter to a useless and spineless excuse for a man.”

 

Nerick nodded at his own words and smiled. He felt something in the silence shift and he pressed on with the attack.

 

     “You wouldn't be the first. I thought this whole time you might be different. But you are like all the rest.”

 

He could not hold back the ear to ear smile on his face. The man had to catch his pipe before it slipped out from his lips. A choice few words were building up in his chest and he let them loose.

 

     “Couldn't get yourself a nice human girl?”

 

The silence carried with it a certain tremble in the air. Nerick pressed onward.

 

     “Or did you get dumped by someone? She start taking it from a better man? You wallow about in self pity and anger? Did ya find yourself so empty that you'd give up your soul and feed it to the demons?”

 

His ear twitched and the sound his head to the right. His eyes peered through the debris, but it was someone breathing that he heard clearer than before. Nerick then heard the patter of footsteps as it ran away. It was like a startled rabbit which made eye contact with a predator. Their eyes met through all that blocking their way.

 

     “That's what I'll never understand about guys like you. It's not as if it's hard to get yourself a good lay. Hell, it ain't that much harder to find some bumpkin to knock up if you want a family. So why, oh why, do your kind go running into the bosom of demons? Don't you get your the problem? It's gonna kill humanity off one day. Do you only care about yourself? You ignore all the weird parts and a pretty face is good enough for ya?”

 

Instinct led the man now. He wound his way through the maze and he could feel a building pressure in his forehead. Nerick could physically feel the proximity. He could smell the man's scent, the sound of his breathing and the footsteps as he scurried away.

 

     The disembodied voice finally spoke up, “Don't act like you know anything, Nerick.”

 

The Bannerman zeroed in on where Laven was. He barely managed to contain himself from barging through the walls separating the two.

 

     “Same to you, Laven. You think you're so clever, don't you? Well, you're a young enough looking guy, so believe me when I say you haven't seen anything. Not yet... I've seen your story played before. Right before I kill em, I notice the emptiness in their eyes. Souls sucked out. Missing a bit of their humanity. Just—existing—with nothing else going on upstairs. Living day to day, feeding off all the sex they could want... I'd say I do those men a favor when I killed em.”

 

Nerick turned another corner and say row upon row of mirrors. He could see his battle weary, battered, bleeding and scarred body from every angle. The man ignored the ugly visage which would look back at him with bloodshot eyes and homed in on the scent and sound of his prey.

 

     “Or do you get off on that? Being the bitch to demons? You give up your Almighty given soul, and your freedom, for some tail? A weakling like you would give it all up to feel safe? Safe in the arms of some big strong monsters?”

 

He could feel Laven's presence stronger than before. A thumping in his skull told him the man was around the corner. His gnarled knuckles wrapped tightly around the haft of his axe and he prepared to raise it high and lunge forward for the killing blow.

 

     “No one is making me their bitch, Nerick—” Laven's voice came from around the corner.

 

     “I'll see about that!” the Bannerman said as he rounded the corner.

 

He planned to rush in at a sprint, but he stopped dead in his tracks. It wasn't the confusing mirror images surrounding him. Neither did a multitude of Laven's reflected in the mirror. Nerick witnessed him standing tall at the end of a dead-end alleyway. The broken man stood his ground no more than ten meters away. His leather armor had been split in two at the chest. Coagulated blood formed ugly scabs across his chest and the bridge of his nose. His right arm dangled lifelessly at his side, but there's something in his left hand.

 

Laven held up the end of the long object between his teeth. A string of sorts. The corners of his lips curled up with a smile. His eyes were set dead ahead and he talked through clenched teeth.

 

     “—Because I'm already a real son of bitch.”

 

He yanked the object away with his one arm and the string came free and dropped low. Laven thrust the pipe-like object forward. A loud pop and whiz exploded from the pipe. Had it been further away, Nerick may have been able to react in time. But a light flew toward him and made contact faster than his reaction time could process it. Something struck the hulking man in the chest at the same time he threw up his arms too late to block it from hitting his face.

 

A fizzle and crackling sound dominated what would otherwise be the continuation of the silence. Slowly lowering his arms, Nerick looked down at his chest. A little rocket of sorts was in the middle of a futile effort to continue flying. The head of the rocket had collapsed against his breast plate, but the fuel burning up behind it kept it flying horizontally, but ultimately nowhere.

 

Two men stood by and watched the little firework that could. Nerick looked up first with a wry smile and a cocked eyebrow. His face asked: Is that it? Laven assessed the situation, but Nerick quickly discovered he was not distressed at any lack of impact. Rather, Laven, seemingly satisfied that it hit, quickly turned his back and threw his arm across his face.

 

Nerick could not help but looked down a second time. Curiosity got the better of him and he was greeted by a second even louder pop and great flash of white. Three successive pulses of light erupted from the tiny firecracker. It reflected off the mirrors and back onto one another which amplified the flare many times over.

 

***

 

I tried my best to cover my eyes, but that couldn't block out all the light which lit the treasure room up like the sun. It didn't matter that my eye were shut tight and sealed off by the flesh and bone of my arm, the flash of white briefly whited out my vision. If that wasn't enough, the thing going off was loud enough to cause my ears to ring. My vision blurred and my balance wavered for a moment. I suppose it would be better to say the small little alleyway had been rocked by a literal flash-bang.

 

But I wasn't at the center of it. That's where I heard the howling which put the bang to shame.

 

Nerick's axe dropped to the ground as he reflexively reached up to cup his eyes with his hands. A blood curdling roar caused the mirrors surrounding him to shudder. They began to shatter when he stumbled backwards and crashed into one. And it took just one to shatter before the others began falling all over the place as well. Shards of mirror rained down upon him. Dozens of fresh little cuts appeared over his bare arms and head. That served to throw him into an even greater fury as he thrashed about and brought the entire house of mirrors raining down on his head.

 

That served as the cue for me to skedaddle. I pushed through the first few wobbly steps and trouble seeing and blitzed past Nerick at a full on sprint. I wasn't sure if he heard me or no, and I'm guessing he didn't, but that did not stop the man from swinging his fists in my general direction as I brushed past him.

 

     “Get back here you little shit!” I heard him scream as I managed to lurch away.

 

Looking back showed a Nerick complete with eyes blinking relentlessly. Every time he tried to pry his eyes open they shut again immediately. A smokestack would be envious of the amount coming out of his pipe, but it didn't seem to matter how much of that pain killing narcotic his sucked into his lungs. His eyes refused to stay open. He stumbled around discombobulated too. That deafening blast must have scrambled his inner ear for the time being.

 

I would have loved to have something to strike with, but I really had to use the chance to run instead. None of this glass would do it, the man's thick hide and thicker skull managed to shrug it off. There had to be something in this collection I could use.

 

I cradled my right arm against my chest and could do nothing but grit my teeth and bear the pain. It had dislocated from the fall. There's also a chance it may have fractured around the joint too, so I was hesitant in setting it back into place. That left me to worm my way through this god forsaken place and avoid the raging minotaur in the maze.

 

That flare saved my life and may have helped give me an edge from here on out, but using it has resulted in catastrophic mission failure. As I ran, the brief moment of safety gave me a moment to reflect on how bad I had fucked up. How was I going to signal the other stations along the wall. Everyone at the gatehouses were on borrowed time. If help didn't arrive in hours, they'd be overrun. If it didn't come in a day or so, they'd likely weaken with starvation and dehydration.

 

But I didn't have long to think, because Nerick had emerged and thundered down the hall after me like a great bloody bolder. He savagely smashed everything in his path. His eyes were bloodshot red, like an actual demon's. Not from the rage, I'd wager, but rather from the damage done to his eyes. Not that it would stop him. He swung his axe around carelessly with one arm while the other hand cupped over his face to block out what little light he could.

 

I came around the next corner and yelped in surprise. For a moment I thought I'd run headlong into someone, but quickly saw it was a statue instead. A life-sized one. A soldier that appeared as if it had come out of the Terracotta Army itself. And he wasn't alone. There were others like him, but also a multitude of other stone and marble statues. Mind you, the marble ones were more Roman-like in appearance. Elegant works of art no doubt depicting characters of old from this place.

 

I didn't have the time to admire any of them due to Nerick being on my heels. As he came around the same corner my fleet footsteps had me a precious few meters ahead and out of the way. I looked over my shoulder to see him barrel right into that statue. He tackled it with wild abandon and smash his axe into its chest. Sparks flew as the iron met stone and the ancient and priceless statue was reduced to dust.

 

It took him a few moments to realize he had not caught up to me, but instead destroyed a man-sized statue. He pulverized the decapitated head rolling by him with nothing but his fist. Another loud bestial roar spurred me onward and to dive around another corner and out of sight.

 

     “He's got his balance back, but not his sight,” I mumbled to myself. “But maybe...”

 

Nerick couldn't tell for the first few seconds that he had smashed into stone and was pulverizing it with his hands. That got me to thinking:

 

     “If he's killed his sense of pain—then his sense of touch is probably screwed up too.”

 

His entire nervous system, heat and cold included, was fouled up beyond all repair. A thousand little cuts wouldn't amount to much. Nothing short of complete destruction would do him in. I didn't have the strength to get past that armor and hit any vital organ which would stop him dead in his tracks either.

 

My eyes searched desperately around the room for a weapon, any weapon. I'd take something improvised. Anything. Yet no matter where I looked, the only things in this quadrant of the treasure room were statues. Their weapons were part of the display. Chiseled out of stone and marble. Their points looked sinister enough, but were no doubt heavy and brittle. Let alone attached to the whole statue itself.

 

And that's when it came to me. I didn't have the strength. But maybe something else did.

 

I looked left and right and opened my ears. Nerick's destructive rampage took a wrong turn and he busied himself crushing everything somewhere else. Nearby, but still elsewhere. I turned in the opposite direction and ran until I stumbled across a large opening on the floor. A display for one fine piece of craftsmanship. An equestrian statue. Life-sized, but still bigger than the rest. It rested upon a large pedestal, as high as my chest.

 

A depiction of great knight on horseback. The horse reared upwards on its hind legs. His armor, and the barding of the horse, both had a sort of dreadful appearance to them. Rather than inspire hope in fellow soldiers, its design had been purposed to instill dread. There were spikes and other evil looking ornaments, yet the statue's pose was stereotypically heroic. The horse had a forehead spike like a unicorn.

 

Its appearance wasn't what concerned me though. What concerned me were three other factors. First, it's weight. Second its height above the floor. Third: the way it rattled with each rumble Nerick's smashing caused nearby. It wasn't all that stable on its rear hooves. The thing's age had long since begun to show.

 

But it meant nothing without bait. And that's when the image of him attacking the lone statue returned. With one good arm I couldn't do much, but with a little adrenaline I could muster some emergency strength and resolve. There were plenty of statues, but too large for me to move in my condition. I compromised by dragging a smaller pedestal into the center of the room in the shadow of the larger statue. Next would be a simple bust I could wrap my one good arm around and lug over. Last would be involve making it believable.

 

I bit down hard and pulled my bloody and ripped leather jerkin and shirt off. Trying to pull it off my dislocated and no doubt fractured right arm was excruciating. Yet I managed to pull it off without broadcasting my position with a groan of pain. With those clothes in hand I draped them over the bust and scrambled out of the way.

 

Now I'd need to position myself behind the statue. I underestimated how hard it would be to scale a chest high obstacle with only one arm. But I jumped as high as able, grabbed hold with my left and threw my legs over the top. I rolled a couple times over my right arm and that time I could not keep quiet.

 

A brief silence hovered over the room and I doubted covering my mouth a couple seconds too late would help. Nerick's swearing and destruction turned in the right direction. I scrambled onto my feet and positioned myself behind the statue. By wedging myself between it's backside and the nearby wall I could gain some leverage. But I'd have to use my body as the lever.

 

     “When I find you—I'm no longer gonna make it quick!” Nerick screamed as he smashed his way into the scene. “I'm gonna hack your arms and legs off. I'm gonna drag your bleeding torso in front of your whores and then I'm gonna stomp your guts out and cut off your head right in front of them!

 

I couldn't see him from where I lay in wait. My feet had left the ground, my left shoulder ground against the wall and my feet were planted fimly against the statue. I'd have to extend my knees with all my might when the time came.

 

My sole cue that it time had come was the volume of Nerick's furious roars.

 

     “Stop running—And face me like a man!” he screamed.

 

I could feel the rumble of his footsteps as he bounded into the room. But that had nothing on the crunching sounds my shoulders and knees gave out as I started to push with all my might.

 

A crushing sound reverberated throughout the room and an axe-fall with the floor caused a minor quake. It jostled the statue and I could hear the snapping sound of fractures alone the statue's base begin to spread. Nerick's face, full of triumph having cut down the bust, I could picture it quickly turning to anger. A lack of blood and a blood curdling death scream caused him rage to spike yet again.

 

     “Stop playing your games! Come out and face me!” he bellowed once more.

 

     “One last game!” I screamed as my bones began to pop and my muscles tear.

 

One more loud crack. I couldn't be sure if it was me, or the statue.

 

     “A game of catch!”

 

The statue gave way. It's top heavy bulk, separated from the weakened and broken base, carried it onward. As it tumbled forward my body was no longer pinched between the statue and the wall and so it dropped to the floor. I could hear the crunch as I hit the ground. My muscles felt like they were on fire. As if someone had poured vodka onto some open wounds; that's how the lactic acid coursing through my veins felt.

 

I got one good glance at ground zero. Nerick wasted the first second looking about for the source of the commotion. He spent the next looking up. His eyes were still unable to focus, but they could still catch the oncoming wall of stone. He didn't have the time to react after that. He let out one last noise; a mix between a roar of defiance and a terrified scream. He tried to throw up his axe to defend himself, but it cracked in half immediately. The large unicorn horn of the statue bashed into his chest and the weight of the statue knocked him off his feet.

 

Now was the time I wish I would have thought out the consequences. As the statue hit the ground, the ground too gave way. A crater formed, a sinkhole in the middle. It dragged the pedestal I lay upon on with it. I didn't have the strength or the traction to stop myself from rolling down the incline. It dropped flung me off from my vantage point and deposited me on the ground with another thud. This landing wasn't as gentle as the last. I think a fracture might have turned into a break because of that one.

 

Rumbling and cracking stone drowned out my cries of pain. Luckily, the old floor did not give way and break through to the lower levels of the Keep. Regardless, the destruction had been near total. Dozens of pieces of precious art, statues hundreds of years old were destroyed and deposited in heaps. I rode out the last few moments of the destruction and watched the dust begin to settle..

 

My face pressed hard against the floor and I had enough strength to crawl on all fours and fall over backwards against the wall. The entire floor had been leveled. I could trace a direct path back up to the second level from here. But my strength had left me. My legs could not lift me and I couldn't carry myself there to escape. My right shoulder all the way to the tip of the middle finger went numb with pain. I could feel my knees creak and crack with every bit of movement. A trickle of blood oozed from my chest wound which had reopened in a few spots. A fresh would from my forehead poured a new tributary of blood over my left eye.

 

Yet the scene trough my right eye made it worthwhile. I spied Nerick laying flat on his back in the center of the shallow crater. The equestrian statue had broken into many pieces, but the horse's head and a good part of its body along with rider's torso had landed directly on top of him. A spine of stone sunk deep into the center of his breastplate and the man's limbs were sprawled lifelessly to the four cardinal directions.

 

I could feel my breathing steady and the last IV drops of adrenaline pouring into my blood vessels dry up. My body went limp and I prepared to nod off right then and there.

 

Thump. Came one noise from the last place I wanted to anything from. It echoed throughout the room as if to mock me. Followed it were sounds which could be likened to gusts of wind. A desperate gasp and heave caused the statue, turned tombstone, to shudder. It rose a few centimeters high and stayed there for a few seconds.

 

Nerick's legs and arms began to spasm. A horrifying thing to witness. A black ichor oozed its way through the veins in his bare arms and I watched it through the parts of his legs I could see through his shredded clothes. It's a hideous display, but it wasn't his death throes I watched. His arms came back to life and violently seized the spike driven into the middle of his chest. He tried to pull it out, but failed to muster the leverage do so.

 

So he opted to batter and brutalize the stone itself. The statue crumbled into pieces on top of him from the flurry of desperate blows. Meanwhile, I sat there helpless to stop him. I couldn't move either.

 

A fresh cloud of dust washed over the room and a couple lungs full of it caused my chest to painfully spasm into a coughing fit. As it settled I saw the so called adventurer rise to his feet. He looked more like a puppet being pulled up by a couple strings still attached. His feet were not steady on the ground, but her managed it.

 

Nerick turned toward me and I saw the spike of stone still jutting out. It had broken off in the destruction, yet the thing had buried itself so deep that it has held on tenaciously. He clawed at his chest, but could not remove it. It caused him a great deal of pain, so much that he frantically tore apart the leather straps and strings holding his breast plate together. Not only is there a spike sticking into it, the whole thing had dented inward... But not as much as it should have.

 

He tore the metal from his chest and threw it to the side. My eyes glanced over and saw the most miniscule amount of stone had punctured through to the other side. Now free from the crushing pressure of his mutilated breastplate, the man could once again breathe freely. Or he would have, but a crinkling of bones and fractured ribs caused him pain and he could do nothing else but take in many short gasps for breath. It appeared as if he were hyperventilating.

 

And so then he turned his attention to me at last. His eyes were as bloodshot as ever, but clear and focused anew. His scarred skin had turned black in places. Arteries bulged across his face, neck and the rest of his body. They were neither red nor blue. It's a pitch black. A smokey pitch black. That pipe was firmly secured between his teeth and he sucked in its narcotic effects as if he needed it more than oxygen.

 

His first step toward me were accompanied by sick squelches of muscles which had been reduced to mush. A walking pile of hamburger meat. A leg bent in the wrong direction which lagged behind him, but somehow manged to carry him closer with short and careful steps. A psychotic glint in his eyes struck me with a primal fear. They were completely black. His eyes had had taken on the pitch black color of smoke.

 

     “A record,” his voice croaked, raspy and unrecognizable. “But I've put myself back together from stuff almost as bad.”

 

His boast put all those scars across body into a new light. They were not injuries from a life of fighting. They were the result of being put back together.

 

Suspended by an invisible string, the man's mutilated arm patted his bare chest. His arm dangled lifelessly; split in many places. The overstressed muscles had ruptured after being pushed beyond their intended limits. Everything about him looked broken. There were two things which didn't currently appear beyond repair. Those were his skull and spine. Both managed to somehow maintain their integrity.

 

But it's the old scar on his chest which concerned him most of all. The condition the rest of his body was in didn't faze him at all. His attention turned to fostering a renewed appreciation for the thick mound of scar tissue on his chest

 

     “Hehehe,” he snorted and then broke out into a roaring laughter without care for his brutalized smoker's lungs. “HA HA HA HA! Ain't that something. I can feel the bone in pieces, but it quite go deep enough to hit my heart. How about that?”

 

His black eyes flared with sinister glee.

 

     “I guess I should thank the whore for once, eh? HA HA HA!

 

Nerick held the steel head of his axe in the other hand. He didn't seem to mind that nearly the entirety of the haft had snapped off and vanished somewhere. All he cared about was taking one slow and careful step at a time toward me.

 

     “But the Master said that tin can would save my life someday. He's got this kind of prophetic knack to him about things like this.”

 

I couldn't drag myself off the floor. My body sat there with my back against the cold stone. Frozen blood through terror and exhaustion overtook me.

 

     “That takes me back... Yeah that's right... I'll have to thank him again. But first, I'll deal with you. That can be my gift to him. I almost forgot all about it. He didn't talk about it much. Only when you got him good and drunk enough... Yeah... This'll make the girl disappear. She'll not matter any longer after that. That'll settle some of his unfinished business, once and for all. He'll promote me again for sure. We'll travel together again. He acted like a father I never had, you see? All this pain. That ain't nothing for a reward like that.”

 

He lumbered ever closer until he stood over me. The limp hand with the bloody axe head swung like a pendulum with each graceless step he took. Nerick loomed over me and I could do nothing to stop him. I had no one to pray to. I could do nothing but offer apologies to those not present. The axe head slowly rose up by that unseen string. It'd be a painful, but weak blow. It would no doubt take many to hack me until I died. There's no guarantee the first one, even if it hit me square on the head, would kill me immediately.

 

That likely did not bother Nerick at all. His twisted smile conveyed that he'd enjoy taking payment for his suffering with a single pound of flesh at a time. I closed my eyes and waited for the guillotine to fall.

 

Clap. Clap. Clap.

 

A strange noise from a strange place.

 

     “Very good. An excellent show,” came the dry monotonous voice.

 

I fresh wave of terror struck me. But with the present terror at hand, their mingling left a profound state of confusion thumping inside my chest and skull. A slow and steady golf clap presided over the ghostly quiet approach of the newcomer.

 

A gaunt and gangly man casually strutted down the stairs nearby with a slouched gait. His curved spine hide away behind a long white cloak which looked remarkably similar to a traditional lab coat. His bald head is eerily sterile. It capped a face which looked so generic that you'd achieve it by hitting default on all options for a video game character creator. But all that combined somehow into a unique man known as Vee.

 

     “Vee,” Nerick growled. He lowered the axe and lost interest in me for the time being. “How did you get in here?”

 

     “Oh, I was always here,” he spoke, irritatingly uninterested. “I studied this place a few days ago and found nothing of any immediate interest... But I knew I merely lacked the key to its secrets and had to wait for the absent party to make their move.”

 

     “Yeah, and you keep waiting. Forever. Stay out of my way!” Nerick hissed and turned back to me and readied the axe head once more.

 

     “I'm afraid I cannot let you, good sir.”

 

Nerick pulled back again and this time turned his back to me. Vee had reached the middle step of the stairs leading to this level. He stopped there and studied the broken warrior. As improbable as Nerick's condition was, the mad scientist character seemed disinterested.

 

     “Come again?” Nerick said with a hint of a chuckle.

 

     “I believe this little spat of yours is over. Now. That means your business is concluded. I still have some things I must discuss with Mr. Laven.”

 

His eyes turned to me. That little twist in his otherwise emotionless face filled me with unease. It filled Nerick with anger.

 

     “Piss off, you stringy worm! This ain't over till the finishing blow!”

 

     “When our business is concluded, and when I see no reason for any subsequent meeting at a future date, I will extend that honor upon you. But for now I'll have to ask you to wait your turn.”

 

Nerick became so overcome with anger that he couldn't speak another word. The sheer audacity of Vee's sudden appearance and his choice of words overwhelmed his already stressed mental state.

 

     “I believe the rules of fair combat are quite clear. They declare, by virtue of all rules I am aware of, that it is Mr. Laven's victory. You, with all your magical enhancements, equipment and performance enhancing narcotics, has left you in such a state. I would motion, as a third party observer, that at the disadvantages that Laven entered the fight with, he has triumphed. Now. I shall repeat myself once more: Stand aside and wait your turn.”

 

Nerick nearly forgot I sat helplessly on the floor in front of him. He could have so easily ignored Vee, but took the bait hook line an sinker. He hobbled a few steps toward Vee while brandishing the head of his axe.

 

     “Even like this, you rotten stringy worm, I could snap you in two. I could tear out your entrails and make you count the segments in your intestine till the last second of your wretched life.”

 

     “I am sure you could,” Vee agreed and sighed.

 

     “I don't see that freak of a pet with you,” Nerick menaced as he hobbled another couple steps forward.

 

     “I have Patches preoccupied with other work. More important than her serving in any bodyguard capacity at this moment in time.”

 

     “A big mistake. You're a smart guy, so you should know all about everiron.”

 

     “I've dabbled in trying to replicate it some years ago, yes.”

 

     “Then you know there's nowhere far enough away that you can carry that scrawny ass of yours,” Nerick said as he approached the bottom of the stairs.

 

Vee slowly raised his limp right arm up and pointed it toward Nerick. The brute stopped to get a couple pained laughs out.

 

     “What? You gonna tickle me to death? Breena already told me that you aren't a threat. You ain't got a lick of magic to wiggle your fingers for.”

 

     “It is a sensation which may resemble tickling, yes—” Vee said as his left arm reached over to his right forearm.

 

Nerick stood idly by and watched with amusement at the lanky man's antics. He obviously did not feel threatened. There wasn't a single reaction from him until Vee grabbed hold of something hidden underneath his sleeve which gave out a sound reminiscent of a cocking shotgun. A distinctively and unmistakable buzzing sound grew louder.

 

     “—But that is reserved for limited exposure at low levels.”

 

Vee clenched his limp fingers into a tight fist and a small pop cracked through the air. A pair of small metal darts streaked through the air and made contact with Nerick's neck. Following shortly after were a pair of copper wires which made metallic whip-cracks as vibrated. It didn't appear to cause much damage. Neither did it look like it hurt much at all. The two darts were no bigger than sewing pins. What grabbed my attention was the pair of wires danging between the darts and Vee's wrist.

 

     “Remember: I asked you nicely,” Vee said with an empty smile.

 

A flash split the air. A bolt of lightning jumped down the wire and surged into Nerick through the embded needles. The Bannerman hadn't been quick enough and his whole body convulsed as the lightning raced all over his body. He screamed bloody murder. The wooden pipe grit between his teeth split in two and then erupted into flames. It reduced to ash and blew away. Nerick's knees buckled and he fell to the floor in a heap. Without the source of his painkiller, the full force of the lightning caused every remaining nerve in his body to scream in agony.

 

The scent of burning flesh filled the room. It accompanied all the screaming. I didn't have a good view of it, thank god, but I could see Vee's expression. He wore a frown on his face, the first I ever recall seeing. There is something disdainful about it. It wasn't a remorseful expression. It felt more like one you saved for crushing a bug.

 

Nerick's screams lasted for quite some time. Yet the lightening strike refused to relent. Eventually it would be the man on the floor who would cease moving before the lightning expired. He lay in a heap on the floor. No longer a heap of hamburger held together by willpower and string, but a blackened mummified corpse of charred human flesh.

 

Vee twisted his forearm and that summoned the darts back. A winch whined inside the contraption hidden behind his sleeve and pulled it back without fanfare. The wires pulled the darts back underneath that sleeve and he cocked the mechanism a second time. Flying out from underneath was a tiny glass container the size of a small light-bulb. It pinged off the ground and bounced its way down before reaching the floor and slowly rolling its way toward me.

 

It came to rest nearby. I watched as a stray flicker of lightning escaped and a weak ball of pure electricity still within it fade away into nothing. Just as quickly as the final moments o the lightning end, the glass disintegrated back into sand and the metal screw and foot contact corroded into grains of rust.

 

Then Vee turned his eyes toward me. That same creepy smile spread across his face, the same one from the ball. I glared back at him with the bravest face I could muster, but I couldn't pull myself off the floor. He descended the final steps, lunged over the body of Nerick and then casually strolled his way over to me.

 

     “Not so fast, Mr. Laven. You shouldn't overexert yourself,” he said monotonously, but with what almost sounded like a hint of concern.

 

     “What do you want?” I spat.

 

Of all the things he could be interested in... My hand reached for the bag at my waist. The green crystalline key. I felt it through the bag and felt a momentary sensation of relief that it seemed intact after all that.

 

     “Calm yourself, Mr. Laven. I don't want anything from you.”

 

I threw back at him the finest skeptical eyes I could muster. He saw the defiance on my face, but continued unfazed.

 

     “Rather... It is something I want you to do.”

 

I didn't need to ask the obvious question. He continued as if I had already asked.

 

     “I'm here for not other reason than observe. And to make sure you do exactly what you intended from the start.”

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