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Mareen was nearing the empty tower and almost out of the forest when someone tackled her to the ground. It took her a second to understand what was happening. The sounds of the battle were so loud and constant that she hadn’t heard anyone behind her until it was too late.
Mareen’s first thought was to go for her dagger or her boot knife. She had to escape to help her friends. Her determination to stop being useless was still burning in her chest and the gravity of the situation didn’t sink in right away. She tried to grab a weapon but her body was completely restrained.
Then she heard the voice, the awful, familiar voice and everything went to hell. “Hello, Mareen. It’s nice to see you again,” whispered Jeth. Jeth was on top of her. Jeth was on top of her. She was helpless and JETH WAS ON TOP OF HER!
No no no! Mareen screamed in her mind. She knew she was panicking but she couldn’t help it. Her mind went blank. Her determination from moments before shrunk down in her mind to be replaced by fear. Old, dirty, shameful fear settled in, crawling over her reason, covering and staining her other emotions like a layer of grease.
Mareen tried to calm herself but her breathing kept speeding up so fast it was hard to get any air. Jeth held one of her wrists from behind and tangled his other hand in her hair. “I’m so glad you came back to me, Mareen! My mareen…” Jeth removed his hand from her hair and stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. Mareen shivered uncontrollably and Jeth suddenly slapped her face and the back of her head several times.
“Still a tease! Still mocking me! But that’s okay, we have lots of time now, don’t we, Mareen? Lots of time with nobody around. Nobody at all.” Jeth giggled and roughly forced his hand down the neck of Mareen’s dress to pinch her back.
“Oh! I have something to show you!” Jeth’s voice turned singsong as he reach back for something. Then he shoved a small, plain wooden box in her face. “Do you know what this is?”
Jeth slowly opened the box, and despite her terror, Mareen gasped. Nestled on a bed of straw was a round, bright, metal sphere. She’d never seen a Dolos orb in person before, but she immediately recognized one when she saw it.
Jeth closed the box up and held it under her nose. “Yes, yes, I know you know what this is! Aren’t you happy for me? I finally have everything I ever wanted! You and I will get reacquainted, then I will swallow this orb before I go to sleep. The direction in the box were specific.
When I wake up tomorrow, I’ll be able to take anything I want.” Jeth giggled for a moment before hissing and smashing the box into Mareen’s nose once, twice, three times.
Mareen’s eyes watered and despite herself she grunted in pain. Jeth squirmed on top of her, grabbing her hair again and slamming her head into the ground. “You know you need to be punished, Mareen. My Mareen! Why else would you come back to me?”
Mareen’s heart was beating so fast it felt like her ribcage was rattling. She was trapped. Trapped trapped trapped! Completely helpless. What should she do? She couldn’t even scream, her voice felt like it was captive inside her throat the same way her body was being pressed into the loamy soil and rotting leaves.
Even if she managed to scream, nobody would hear her over the noise of the battle. If a miracle happened and someone did hear her, it’d most likely just be another bandit. Mareen was on her own.
All on her own.
Suddenly, Mareen gasped. She felt a deep, terrible pain in her lower back. A pinch and then a numb, cold sensation that let her know she’d been seriously injured. The only other time she felt anything like it before was when she was young and a stick went through her lip after she fell off a wagon.
This sensation was several times worse.
The pain hurt so bad, the only noise she could make was a low whine. Jeth tsked at her, “Don’t be such a baby. I didn’t even stab you that hard. I just wanted to test my new knife.” Jeth waved a blade in front of her face. Mareen absently noted that the dagger was steel, but what was much more pressing to her at the moment was the fact it was covered in blood, her blood.
She was definitely stabbed in the lower back, and now that Jeth was lying on that area of her body again, the pain was beginning to spread. Deep, throbbing pain echoed throughout her entire body.
Jeth stabbed her again, this time in the arm above the wrist he was holding. He conversationally drawled, “You know, I’ve gotten good at this sort of thing. I know exactly how to treat you, Mareen. My Mareen. Imagine how good things could have been if you hadn’t been such a stupid, little BITCH!”
Jeth hit her in the temple with the pommel of the dagger and Mareen’s vision went black for a second. The blow seemed to rattle her brain, but instead of making her more confused, Mareen felt like she woke up from a daze. Her thoughts focused and she knew with certainty that nobody was going to help her. If she didn’t do something she was going to wind up dead, probably horribly dead after being tortured and raped.
The single word echoed through her mind with force, with conviction.
She was not going to be a victim.
She rejected her situation. Her soul thrummed with the power of her resolve. She was done being weak. She knew she was smart, it was time to use her brain for something other than second guessing herself.
She made a decision to support Henry and Jason. She was going to help save the world and she would not betray herself or her beliefs by letting a man like Jeth have his way.
Jeth cut the top of her ear with his dagger. Mareen whimpered again, but this time she intentionally made the noise as dramatic as possible. Jeth had always been creepy and weird, but he was obviously completely unhinged now. She was going to use it against him.
“Do you see what you make me do?” Jeth sobbed. “Why are you making me do this to you, Mareen? We could have been happy together. But no, you had to follow that Terran trash Jason around and destroy everything!”
Jeth slashed her leg below his thighs where he was straddling her. The cut burned like fire. Mareen used it. She channeled the pain and moaned, writhing her body. Trying to move provocatively hurt like hell, but she had to satisfy Jeth’s delusion.
“Do you see? Do you see now?”
Mareen had no idea what Jeth was talking about, but she played along, “Yes. Yes, I’ll be good.” The words tasted rancid in her mouth.
“You will?” Jeth sounded pleased and only a bit surprised.
Mareen moaned, “Yes, you were the man for me.”
“I protected you, you know. Always protected you.”
“Yes, I see that now. Always watching me.”
Jeth slowly bounced his knife tip against the back of her neck, “It’s too late now, though. You know that, right? I need to hurt you. You need it. You need to pay.”
“Yes, I know.” Mareen tried not to cringe and said the most difficult words of her life, “Please kiss me while you hurt me. I want to know what we’d have if I wasn’t stupid.” She tried to make her voice small and pleading. Mareen felt Jeth grow excited behind her and suppressed a shudder.
He grabbed her hair and jerked her head around. “No tricks! Where are your weapons?”
“I have the bow on the ground, a dagger on my belt, and a boot knife in my right boot.”
Jeth verified that her weapons were where she said they were and tossed them away. He restrained her less firmly while he searched, taking the opportunity to grope her body. Instead of trying to get away, Mareen held still. She was bleeding, weak, and he could still easily kill her if she tried to free herself. Patience.
She could feel him smiling behind her, “Yes, yes, you were telling the truth. That’s a good little bitch. An obedient bitch.” Jeth trailed the tip of his dagger over the back of her neck again. “A kiss, huh?”
Before Mareen knew what was happening, Jeth rolled her over and roughly shoved his lips against hers. He forced his tongue into her mouth and grabbed her hair in one hand while he stabbed her in the thigh with his dagger.
Mareen blinked away tears and tried to focus her mind in spite of the kiss, her first kiss. She desperately wished Henry was there to save her, but she was on her own. It was time to save herself. As she pursed her lips and forced Jeth’s tongue out of her mouth, she felt him start to jerk back. She hoped at the last moment he remembered the crucial fact his delusions were ignoring.
She was a mage.
Mareen spit, putting all the power she could into the attack. Her magic, acidic spittle normally didn’t have enough force to punch through hard objects, but she put as much power as she could into the strike. Plus, she hit Jeth at point blank range… In his open mouth.
The caustic missile erupted out the back of Jeth’s head and while he jerked back in shock, Mareen ripped the dagger from his hand and stabbed. And stabbed. And stabbed.
She didn’t know how many times she stabbed him, screaming, but her throat was raw by the time she fell back and threw up.
Mareen lay on the ground in the forest, curled in a ball, sobbing and cradling the steel dagger to her stomach. She was covered in dirt, blood, and piss. She didn’t know if the filth was hers or Jeth’s and she didn’t really care. She was too busy desperately channeling what little magic she had left to stop her bleeding. If she couldn’t stop her blood loss, she might still end up dying. If she was going to die, she would be damned if she did so next to Jeth’s cooling body.
She prayed, Why, God, why? Why did I ever have to meet Jeth?
Jason woke up in a daze. He couldn’t remember how he ended up on the ground, just a hazy memory of something big coming at him. He saw the cracked barrel nearby on the ground and was able to figure out what happened.
“Ouch!” Jason hissed in pain. He was sure at least one rib, his nose, and his left arm were broken. He still felt a little confused and had a hard time focusing too. He blinked and moved his jaw around, I might have a concussion.
He had deep bruises all over his body and since he fell from about 10 feet up, he was amazed he didn’t break a hip or a leg. In fact, he probably still should be unconscious on the ground. His healing ability was probably responsible for the fact he was even awake.
Jason shook his head and oriented on the sounds of fighting. He ambled around a small shed blocking his view and got his first look at his friends fighting for their lives. First he heard a chime in his head and saw Thod’s information scroll over his left eye. Second rank Holder? Jason shook his head and tried to focus his eyes better. He got them working again right before Thod cut off Rark-han’s arm at the elbow with his massive sword.
What the hell? Jason had barely seen the attack it was so fast.
Rark-han hollered and sprung away, droplets of blood trailing behind him. The shocking scene caused Jason’s body to immediately dump adrenaline into his system. He felt alert and awake again, but he knew there’d be a price to pay later. His whole body was beat up and he was running low on magic, but at least he could think again. He’d deal with all the consequences in the future. If he had a future.
Henry was barely holding his own. Thod was obviously stronger. As Jason watched, he realized his friend was probably only still alive due to skill. Thod was incredibly strong, his sword probably weighed 40 or 50 lbs and he swung it around like it was a letter opener. Still, Henry definitely had an edge with technique and mechanics. He was beat up, though. His gear was all dented, his sword bent, and he was favoring his shield arm.
Uluula was small and light on her feet. So far she’d avoided taking any damage.
Thod grinned and reared back with a big, overhead swing. Henry tried to hop back but he tripped on a rock and fell on his butt. Jason sped up his perception of time on reflex and watched Thod’s huge sword descend in slow motion.
Jason teleported in front of Henry, extended a hand and created a null-time shield. Thod’s sword stopped cold and the man grunted, stepping back. He spoke in a friendly tone of voice, “Another first rank Holder, eh? I thought so. I’m kind of amazed you are all still alive. You’re very skilled. I may have to try something else, here.”
Without warning, Thod cut himself and swung his arm. Each drop of blood was accelerated to super-sonic speed, fanning out in an arc of destruction. Jason maintained his null-time shield, but each impact hit so hard, his shield trembled and he had to grit his teeth to keep it up.
Thod widened his eyes, “Wow, you really are skilled. Granted, my magic is kind of weak, but I put a lot of my reserves into that attack.”
Jason gritted his teeth, “Henry, why haven’t you shot him?”
“I did. Every ball I had left. It didn’t even phase him. I don’t think any of them even got through his armor.”
“What about your big ones?”
“Those take a lot of power. I can try one, but I need a little room and he’s not giving me any.”
“Okay, get one ready.”
“I’ll help,” Uluula leveled her spear.
Jason kept his eyes on Thod but said out the side of his mouth, “Okay, but concentrate more on tripping him or messing up his balance. I don’t think you can get through his armor with your spear, right?”
“No, but I can aim for the eyes.”
Jason nodded, “Okay, you do that.”
Thod just stood there at the ready, watching them with a mocking smile. “You know, this is all pointless. Maybe I should prove to you just how meaningless all of this truly is.”
“Yeah, whatever man.” Jason burst into motion, ignoring his aches and pains. He teleported behind Thod and released his last throwing knife right at the back of the man’s head. His emotions surged when Thod didn’t move, didn’t even glance back. Maybe he caught the bandit by surprise? The blade hit the back of Thod’s head. Jason’s jaw dropped as the tip bent and the knife bounced away. What the…
Thod turned and swung his sword so fast, Jason barely had time to react even with his perception of time slowed down. He barely teleported away fast enough to avoid getting cut in half. He reappeared a short distance away, making made a small “eep” when he realized Thod was already almost on top of him again, swinging his giant sword. The man was unbelievably fast! Jason teleported straight up into the air and thought he would be safe until a softball sized stone glanced off his shoulder, breaking his other arm.
This is ridiculous! Jason teleported behind Henry near where Rark-hand still stood holding the stump of his arm, growling. The big wolf man rumbled, “He moves so fast, I don’t think we could even run away. He’s been toying with us the entire time.”
Jason silently agreed with him. Still, there was hope. Henry attached his largest projectile tube with one of his heavy, finned weapons loaded. He lined up a shot at Thod and the other man just cocked his head in curiosity. Henry fired.
Jason was expecting some noise but the sonic boom the big missile made was deafening. Thod was completely blown off his feet, pieces of his armor scattering everywhere, whizzing around high speed. The bandit’s leader slid about 20 feet away and came to a stop. Did we get him? Jason dared to hope.
His stomach dropped when Thod got up, dusting himself off like nothing important happened. A large hole was open in his armor, dozens of lamellar plates blown off. His clothing underneath was torn too, but there was not a mark on the man’s skin.
While he cleaned himself off, Thod said, “You know, a Dolos priestess told me a couple years ago that the first generation of ‘modular orbs’ like I have were strong with physical traits and weak with magic. The second generation was the opposite, heavy on magic, weak on physical skills. Third generation mods, like you have, are somewhere in between.”
He continued, “Knowing that, in hindsight, I’m glad I chose to specialize in strength, speed, and durability. After I got a spirit stone and I was able to choose more skills, I specialized further. I’ll admit, that attack just now probably would have killed me if I wasn’t wearing this armor. But I was.
Now I will never let you attack like that again. It’s not personal.”
Thod sprung forward, swinging his giant sword that he’d somehow hung onto. Henry blocked with his shield, angling it to absorb the blow but he still got hit so hard that he screamed as his arm broke. The shield dented and split.
Thod wound up for another blow but Jason teleported himself forward and put up a null-time shield again. He was so tired he accidentally placed it in the wrong spot. Thod’s sword hit the side of the shield and the blade’s tip neatly sheared off. Jason blinked in surprised. He didn’t know his shield could do that.
UIuula took advantage of the confusion to lunge forward, jabbing her spear at Thod’s eyes. He caught her spear in one hand, dropped his sword, and casually smashed her to the ground with a fist.
Jason felt his eyes grow wild when he saw Uluula go down. He dropped his null-time shield, teleported behind Thod and drew his sword. His broken arm was numb. He knew he’d pay for abusing his body so much, but his arm currently just felt awkward. He could suffer through it and he didn’t have any other options.
Thod turned and easily caught his wrist. Jason cried out as the man crushed his bones, dragging him forward as he took two quick steps to close with Henry. Henry was about to spring away, but Thod was unbelievably fast. He grabbled Henry’s broken shield, attached to Henry’s broken arm and pulled him forward. Henry hissed in pain and his eyes widened in surprise as Thod swung an armored fist. The blow connected with Henry’s head, knocking him back like a rag doll. He didn’t get up.
Then Thod turned to Jason again. The whole time, Jason had a dagger in his free hand, using all the strength he had n his broken arm to stab the bandit, but he couldn’t even scratch him. Even the portions of Thod’s body that weren’t covered in armor felt like trying to stab through rock.
The last thing Jason saw was Thod smiling widely before punching Jason in the face. It felt like a tree was dropped on his head. He passed out, the darkness welcoming him for the second time that day.
Bezzi-ibbi crouched behind a rock and watched Jason and Henry fight Thod. He desperately wanted to help, but he didn’t want his brothers to know what his power really was. He was afraid they’d hate him.
He was still able to assist his brothers during the larger fight. The short sword he drew from his glittering arm was incredibly sharp and fast. Bezzi-ibbi killed two bandits earlier. The first time he killed a person, he was amazed how easy it was. He didn’t feel any remorse or any of the sorrow he heard other adventurers or soldiers talk about. They said they were haunted by their first kill. Bezzi-ibbi didn’t understand.
These were bad men. They hurt women, they hurt children, they hurt his Clan. They deserved death. To Bezzi-ibbi, it was simple.
What wasn’t simple was what he should do now. His indecision almost cost him his brothers’ lives. Thod knocked Henry, Jason, and Uluula unconscious. Rark-han stood quivering in fear, the stump of his arm leaking blood past his fingers.
Bezzi-ibbi felt deep shame. He’d hesitated and now his brothers were on the ground. Thod went back and bent down to pick up his ruined sword. He was going to kill Henry-ibbi and Jason-ibbi, Bezzi-ibbi could tell.
The Mo’hali boy snarled and jogged forward. Thod raised his eyebrows and smiled. It was obvious he was getting Bezzi-ibbi’s Hero information over his left eye. “Now a Mo’hali Hero child? This day keeps getting better and better!”
The man chuckled, but Bezzi-ibbi didn’t waste any words. This wasn’t personal. The man hurt his family and needed to die.
Bezzi-ibbi unleashed his power. It made the air hum and his skin crawl, his whiskers hurt too.
Without warning, Thod collapsed on the ground under the weight of his armor. He tried to roll over and lift his sword but all he could do was awkwardly wave the heavy, oversized weapon in the air. His arm wobbled.
“What did you do?” he gasped.
Bezzi-ibbi shook his head. “I am Hero. Heroes exist make Mo’hali strong. Bring balance. You are arrogant with orb, with power.”
Bezzi-ibbi took a deep breath and prepared to say the ritual words. Honor dictated he had to use correct Luda for the official pronouncement. He didn’t enjoy speaking correct Luda, but for something his important, he could not buck tradition. “I, Bezzi-ibbi of the Jaguar Clan, Clan Heir and current Mo’hali Hero, sentence you to death for crimes numbering too great to list.”
Thod opened his mouth to speak and grabbed Bezzi-ibbi’s ankle, but the Mo’hali boy ignored him. He thrust his short sword through the man’s eye. Bezzi-ibbi rather liked Uluula and he thought the small, fierce woman would have approved. He turned away from the dead man, the corpse’s body spasmed as it clung to life, the scene unpleasant.
Bezzi-ibbi flicked the blood off his sword and reabsorbed it into his arm. He had to remain vigilant. There were still bandits around he had to watch for, but with Thod dead, the next item on his to-do list was to find Mareen. He also needed to send a magic messenger bird back to his Clan on behalf of Henry-ibbi and Jason-ibbi.
He sighed and got busy. He had a lot of work to do.