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Henry was starting to feel a little more comfortable with being on the road. The weird shadow thing hadn’t been seen for a night or two, and overall, the morale of the group had improved. He’d rigged up a system of tubes from Keeja’s mp3 player that enhanced the sound all over the Battlewagon. Even those riding magicycles in front and behind of the Battlewagon could hear it.
The caravan had spontaneously established a new rule that every member of the group could pick two songs to go on the playlist at a time. Henry was just glad Keeja had stopped playing like ten disco songs back to back anymore. He actually didn’t mind if she played Indian pop or any of the other genres she liked from Earth, but her disco songs needed to die in a fire.
Currently, Girls Just Want to Have Fun was playing; probably requested by Mareen. It was one of her new favorite songs.
Henry narrowed his eyes and scanned the forest to either side of the road. Traveling slower made him feel vulnerable, even though they hadn’t seen a monster for a couple days. He couldn’t complain that freaky, dangerous creatures with stupid names hadn’t tried to kill him for a while, but Henry’s gut was telling him something was wrong.
The Battlewagon was entering a thin bank of mist, and Henry’s gut was damn near shouting at him. He couldn’t see anything, though. Fog itself wasn’t that big of a deal, Ludus seemed to have random fog banks from time to time. It was really weird.
Up ahead, a pond was spilling out over the road, actually more of a small lake. Henry was getting a really bad feeling. About that time, Keeja buzzed right over him, taking off into the air until she could no longer be seen through the mist.
“What the fuck does she think she’s doing?” Henry muttered. He irritably adjusted his rifle’s sling before his brain started working correctly and facts clicked. Keeja had never buzzed over him like that before. On top of that, he could still hear Cyndi Lauper singing about what girls really want. Keeja didn’t take her music player.
Henry thought about the last few days and realized Keeja hadn’t left the group once. They’d had the music player the whole time, and now she randomly took off without taking it with her… almost like she was trying to tell them something.
“Oh fuck me…” Henry whispered. “Jason! Jason! Go the other direction. Turn around!”
“What?” Jason craned his head from the driver’s seat to look back at Henry.
“Turn around now!” Henry pointed in front of them and shouted, “It’s a trap!” Jason’s eyes widened in sudden comprehension and he snapped his head forward, his hands on the controls.
While yelling at Jason, Henry had been hurriedly armoring his torso with steel skin. He had much better control over his abilities now, and he could deploy his steel skin with a thought. The reflexive action saved his life.
As the Battlewagon approached the pond, an enormous, shambling creature rose out of the water directly in its path. Jason desperately tried stopping the Battlewagon, but their inertia caused them to slam into the monste,r albeit slower than they otherwise would have. Most of the creature seemed to be made of mud and Henry realized they’d seen one before.
The fact the monster’s type was familiar was the last thought he had before personal disaster struck. An arrow buzzed out of the tree line unnaturally fast, hitting him square in the chest. To his side, the water exploded and an ugly, mantis-looking monster the size of a person leaped onto the Battlewagon. One powerful, bladed forearm slammed into Henry from behind so hard he flipped out of the Battlewagon’s turret.
While in midair, time seemed to slow down like it did before car crashes. Honestly, regardless of what anyone said, none of his crashes had ever been his fault. His thoughts were dreamy, everything had happened so fast. He absently wondered if he was going to die. He noticed the huge monster reach for Jason, who teleported away. Then the huge, shambling thing began to stomp out of the pond.
Bezzi-ibbi and Yanno-ibbi were both under attack, Yanno-ibbi was desperately trying to avoid a big woman with an even bigger sword. Bezzi-ibbi looked like he was running away from a giant lizard. A horde of monsters spilled out of the forest by the road. Mareen was screaming something. Something was attacking Gonzo and Vitaliya.
The mist was growing thicker; Henry couldn’t see the sky anymore. Before he crashed into the ground with bone-jarring force, Henry thought, Well isn’t this lovely?
Mourad paused to clean her giant flamberge’s blade. The blessed steel shimmered again after she wiped it clean of fresh blood. She gazed down at the fallen Mo’hali dispassionately. It wasn’t personal. At least he would bleed out in relative peace. She’d taken a limb or two and the middle aged jaguar race man was breathing shallowly, his body in a heap.
Mourad spared a glance for Anz’wei chasing the Mo’hali boy into the forest. She sighed, poor kid. Nobody could run from Anz’wei. The big Adom was too fast and too good of a hunter. The kid was done.
One of the weird vehicles the Mo’hali had been riding was broken in half by Anz’wei. Mourad sighed again and started pulling the second one towards the pond. The sooner she was done and the sooner all these poor bastards were dead, the sooner she could get paid and hopefully get the hell away from the death witch, Yiangyu.
Uluula’s mouth was dry and her ears tingled. When the Battlewagon crashed, she’d been thrown into boxes of supplies and came up bruised, but any complaints she might have had died on her tongue. The thick mist was already obscuring her vision, but she could see a large group of monsters emerging from the forest.
Aodh, Thirsty, and Mareen were all with her in the back of the Battlewagon. Aodh was bleeding, not moving. Thirsty was crying and panicking, and Mareen was still dazed. Without thinking, Uluula grabbed Mareen and summoned desperate strength to pull her friend out of the Battlewagon.
They needed to protect their vehicle and the people in it. Their group was obviously caught in an ambush. Uluula’s military training asserted itself and she began focusing on the problem. She needed Mareen awake to protect the Battlewagon. The huge shambling creature that was heading for Gonzo and Vitaliya needed to be stopped.
The approaching monsters were almost on them; there was no time to be gentle. She cocked her arm back, made a fist, and socked Mareen in the nose.
Mareen was in a daze until she got punched in the fact. She clawed her way out of her stupor in a fury, preparing to lash out with her massive hammer that she’d somehow held onto. Uluula’s eyes didn’t even flicker as Mareen got ahold of herself, slowly lowering the hammer instead of trying to kill her friend.
Uluula pointed at the strangely quiet monsters trotting towards them and said, “You need to protect the Battlewagon. I am going to help the spies.”
In the next couple seconds, Mareen saw a new side of her friend and began to understand better why some races felt as uneasy around Areva as they did Fideli.
Uluula activated almost all of her enchanted equipment at once. Her cloak shimmered and she became harder to see, almost blending in with the fog surrounding them.
Uluula’s faux jaalba, her plasma halberd burst into life, the blade hissing with angry orange light. A shield of pale blue energy sprung up on her arm. The monsters were only a couple steps away when Uluula casually held up an arm, her enchanted bracer shooting a line out toward the massive mud monster. The line made a solid thunk when it embedded into the creature’s back.
Uluula nodded once before shooting off into the fog, the flame of her halberd following her like a comet trail. Most of the approaching monsters began chasing after Uluula’s light, but several were literally almost on top of Mareen.
Mareen was eternally grateful that she was wearing her heavy, wooden armor. She dodged away from the closest monster, some sort of giant cat with insect parts. Her hammer flicked out and crushed its front leg.
The sheer desperation of the group’s situation hadn’t sunk in yet, and it wouldn’t for a while. There was no time to think. The strangely quiet, slow moving monsters crowded around her, and Mareen snarled as she whirled into them.
She would not be useless. She refused to ever be useless again. The old Mareen, the cowering Mareen was dead. She was orb-Bonded now and wearing armor that weighed more than she did. She thought again of Aodh, dazed on the floor of the Battlewagon and realized the stakes were too high to fail.
She hated fighting, but she’d hate letting everyone down so much more.
Thirsty had never been so scared in his life. He wasn’t screaming anymore, he didn’t want to attract anyone or anything’s attention. The music was still playing from Keeja’s device, but he was too terrified to turn it off.
The fog was so thick he could barely see Aodh in front of him. The boy wasn’t completely lucid yet; he’d take a hard fall. Thirsty knew what was happening. They were under attack, it was actually happening. Before the fog became too thick, he’d seen dozens of monsters moving directly towards them. Mareen had been battling them. He could still hear her fighting for her life; for their lives.
Thirsty didn’t like Mareen very much, mainly because it was obvious she didn’t like him. But still, she was standing between him and danger, putting her life on the line to do so.
Suddenly, a monstrous head appeared over the side of the Battlewagon, its eyes milky white. It looked like a cross between a pig and a bird, beady eyes below a feathered crest. Its snout had tusks. Thirsty screamed, the sound ripping from of his throat with desperate intensity. He fumbled at his wrist and activated one of the shield bracelets he’d made.
A bubble of solid air formed over the back of the battlewagon, pushing away the pig monster and the cloying fog. Thirsty collapsed near Aodh, holding his knees and sobbing. He couldn’t think straight through his terror. He didn’t know what to do, and his helplessness was only making him more hysterical.
Thirsty’s tall frame rocked back and forth in the fetal position. “Please God, please God,” he whispered to himself. Outside the shield, the porcine monster began to probe the shield with its crude spear.
Bezzi-ibbi ran for his life. So far, the only thing keeping him alive was a lifetime of experience running through alleys from the Mirana Guard and the strength training his Clan forced him to practice.
Dodging through the underbrush and the deadfall wasn’t exactly like his adventures in Mirana, but he was using a lot of the same muscles, and he was Jaguar Clan, after all.
Unfortunately, the huge, reptilian Adom was right on his heels. He could tell she was female, but didn’t know what tribe she came from, not that it mattered. He could practically feel her hot breath as she barreled through the forest after him.
As he sprinted, he occasionally saw one of the attacking monsters, their movements strangely sluggish, their focus entirely on the distant Battlewagon. Bezzi-ibbi tested a theory and manifested his Hero field while running near one of the creatures. His awareness moved outward and he could feel the ugly thing like a dark, prickly void.
Bezzi-ibbi reached out to the void and squeezed. It hurt, the feeling was like the pain from eating ice too fast. He could sense the void disappear and the lethargic monster fell to a heap like a puppet with cut strings.
Thralls. Bezzi-ibbi had heard of them. Mages or Bonded with extremely rare magic could create and control them. No wonder he and Yanno-ibbi had been specifically targeted. A proper Hero could destroy a lot of them before the pain became too great.
Suddenly, Bezz-ibbi tripped. He almost panicked; falling would mean certain death. The Adom was only ten paced behind him. Luckily, he barely kept his head. He whipped his left arm out, willing the metal to change shape. He elongated the portion of his arm that could form a weapon into a tool instead.
He barely managed to snag a tree limb with his arm hook, pulling himself up and preventing himself from tripping. That was close.
Bezzi-ibbi’s chest pumped, his breathing harsh. He needed to get back to his team. They needed his help and he needed their muscle. He didn’t have any ideas yet. The Jaguar Clan prince thought furiously, willing himself to think through the problem. He tried to ignore the thundering steps of his pursuer slam closer and closer.
Bezzi-ibbi loved the way he dressed, but for once he was willing to concede that wearing dress shoes all the time as an adventurer might not be very practical. As Hannah-ibbi always said, “The wise hunter dresses for the hunt.”
Bezzi-ibbi continued to run and wondered if he would ever see his family again.
Liangyu stood with her arms crossed, her eyes closed. Controlling this many thralls was difficult. She could choose to inhabit one at a time, but other than that she could only get a general idea of what they were doing. She could give orders singly or in groups, but the thralls tended to be stupid.
The fog was helping less than she thought it would. True to her word, Ghinsja had covered a large area in fog and allowed the mercenaries to see better in it than their targets, but it was inhibiting the sight of Liangyu’s thralls.
Matilda had only gotten one shot off with her bow. Now she was on standby, waiting for further orders with Raquel.
“Report,” snapped Liangyu.
Ghinsja’s eyes lost focus for a moment before she replied, “As you know, a few thralls are down. One of the Mo’hali is down. The Areva woman with the flaming spear is attacking the bog shambler demon; they are both heading towards the two at the rear. They are completely surrounded.
“Anz’wei is chasing the Mo’hali boy who is confirmed to be a Hero. Most uncertainty is at the main vehicle where a shield of some is pushing the fog back, and the girl with the big hammer is still alive and beating off your thralls. She doesn’t seem to be putting many down for good, though.”
Lianyu pursed her lips in thought. On one hand, the fact the target group wasn’t dead yet was worrying. On the other hand, they’d confirmed that there were at least two, probably three bounties to claim.
It was a high risk, high reward situation.
Liangyu tried to observe the operation from multiple angles as dispassionately as possible before making a decision. She nodded and said, “Relay a message. Tell Raquel to move towards the rear fight with the bog shamble. Tell Matilda to head towards the larger vehicle to support the thralls. I will be directing most of the remaining thralls still in the forest towards the large vehicle as well, I want that area cleared.”
She thought further and nodded, saying, “Let Matilda know to prepare the artifact weapon.”
“But it only has one shot,” stuttered Ghinsja.
“I know. It’s worth throwing we have all we have into this fight. Let’s fully commit. That means you and I are going to head there as well. You need to be closer to use your fog as a weapon, correct?”
Ghinsja mutely nodded.
“Okay let’s go. Also, I haven’t heard about Mourad doing anything useful in the last minute. Tell her to head to the large vehicle too. Let’s finish this.”
Liangyu smiled, it would all be over soon. She was a bit worried about the Mo’hali Hero, but he was just a little boy. The greatest wild cards now were the leaders. One had disappeared as soon as the attack started; literally disappeared. The other got shot by an arrow and clawed in the back by one of her thralls.
He should be dead, but Liangyu didn’t believe in assumptions. It was time to personally ensure the job was done right.
She walked with Ghinsja into the thick fog, towards the screaming and other sounds of combat.