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Chapter 3

"Oh… not again…"

It sounded like Himeki’s voice, but it was weak and hoarse.

Aikel felt his eyelids slide up, but nothing could be seen. He shoved the oncoming wave of panic away and tried to analyze what senses he had. An all-to-familiar heave beneath him. Sounds too muffled to make out. A musty smell that brought severed flesh to mind. Something—ropes, surely—that bound his wrists. Perhaps they bound his ankles too, but he was to stiff from fear to move them even a little.

He blinked his eyes, willing them to see something.

A lantern! The ugly visage of the orc that lit the lantern appeared below it as he hung it on the ceiling. Aikel almost wished he were still blind. He saw a pair of thin legs pass in front of him and stop before Himeki. Himeki turned her eyes up at the woman and slowly pressed her face into a scowl.

"Hmph…" the woman muttered, smirking. She was tall and thin and shaped in a manner that most would find attractive at first glance. Her black hair was chin-length and somewhat fluffy. There was only a few inches of black cloth around her chest, tied at the center. She had what seemed to have been a black robe with gold trim before its length was cut off at the middle of her torso; its sleeves were still long with a large white circle filled with an odd symbol on her forearm. The lower part of her body had only gold-trimmed triangles of black cloth hanging down to her knees in the front and back. Her feet were bare and there was a snake tattoo twisting around her left calf.

Her yellow-green eyes emitted a faint green glow that emphasized her slit pupils.

The haughty kick she gave Himeki’s leg was more for insult than injury. "You may have gotten away before, but you conveniently wandered into the last place we’d ever have expected to find you." She laughed. "This time we’re in the middle of the western ocean. There’s nowhere to go but down. We’ll see how your father cooperates now…." She turned away, smiling gleefully.

"Why did we bother with the others?" the orc grunted wearily. "Are they just in the way?"

"Of course not," said the woman, observing her other prisoners. "Nearly anything can be used for something." She gestured toward Gelrini then Yousei. "That one might be a good slave… and, um… target practice? Monster food? We’ll think of something. Waste not!"

Aikel tried to shrink out of existence when she turned her glowing gaze down to him and then to the jewels on his chest. She smiled almost sweetly and bent over so that her face was only a few inches away from his. "I’ve heard of you," she whispered, "but I hadn’t imagined you to tremble so…." She flicked her forked tongue at him. She reached for the Soil Orb, but the jewel crackled and glowed as her black fingernails approached it.

The was a satisfied "Hmph!" from the orc, but he immediately looked as if he hadn’t meant to display such feelings.

The woman tossed a nasty look over her shoulder as she stood up. "It’s not surprising that such magical items would have barriers for themselves. It’s no doubt powered by his life force; obtaining it is as easy as killing him." She shrugged.

Everyone except Gelrini had been stripped of weapons. Aikel’s sword, Kyri staff, Yousei’s spear, and Himeki’s whip and dagger were all piled in the small room’s far corner. Aikel remembered that Kyri had a knife in her belt pouch, as more of a utensil than a weapon, but he couldn’t tell whether or not she still had it. There was no way to ask without the orc and the woman hearing.

"It’s so boring…" the woman mumbled after a few minutes of pacing.

"Lhecerbi…" the orc grumbled. That seemed likely to be the woman’s name. She turned her boredom-adorned face toward him, then rolled her horrible eyes as she turned away. She glanced over her prisoners again in the processed. She closed her eyes and stood there in her bored slouch, arms crossed, for several seconds. Without the wicked glow of her irises or cold gaze, she seemed like any serene shadow amongst the dim lantern light.

She flung her hand out and opened her eyes, making the room cold again. Aikel wasn’t sure about the source of her vision until he heard a sound like that which is made when a person tries hard but fails to hold their in voice.

It was Yousei’s voice that escaped in a squeak. She was sitting forward, looking tense and hateful. Her muscles were strained until she curled up and her ropes dissolved to nothingness. She came to a stand more as if she had been picked up by her shoulders than standing of her own will.

Lhecerbi flung her hand away from them, and Yousei stumbled into the center of the room. She was lifted a few inches off the ground, and she tensed up in pain, twitching as Lhecerbi flexed her fingers in odd ways. Wetness welled up in the corners of her narrowed eyes, but she glared hatefully without blinking.

"Such a strong will buried inside this weak creature…" Lhecerbi mumbled thoughtfully.

Another squeak escaped Yousei’s clenched throat, as she curled up and squinted her eyes shut.

"Stop…" Aikel heard. "Stop it…."

It was Kyri, but she spoke so quietly that he could hardly hear her, and it was very unlikely that Lhecerbi would.

After hesitating, Kyri repeated, "Stop it…!" It was louder than before, but her fear still stifled her voice. Just as Yousei’s waning strength gave way to her shrill scream of pain, Kyri shrieked, "STOP IT!" Yousei began to fall to the floor.

Something shining! Aikel looked beyond Kyri to see roughly cut ropes fall aside as Gelrini raised her arms. She let go of her slingshot’s rubberband.

"Arrrrrrrggghhh!" Lhecerbi shrieked, and drew away. She turned back slowly as she pulled what looked like a rough uneven arrowhead out of the bloody mess that had been her left eye. She centered on Gelrini and threw the item down with enough force to leave a large dent in the wood. She growled, "You horrible vermin!"

Gelrini’s wrists had been tied to the wall, but with those ropes cut away by her sharp stone, she was free. She ran when Lhecerbi lunged for her. She jumped over Yousei and just barely dodged when the orc grabbed at her.

Lhecerbi was sputtering out curses. "Vile little brute… I’ll rip you apart!"

Gelrini had already had teary eyes, but she now erupted into childish wails and jump aside to avoid Lhecerbi again. She landed on her knees, just barely avoiding the pile of weapons in the corner. Before she climbed desperately back to her hooves, she grabbed Himeki’s dagger out of the pile and gave it a toss. It skidded across the wood and stopped a few feet in front of Aikel and Kyri.

Aikel thanked every deity he’d ever heard of that his hands were bound in front as he crawled forward, grabbed the dagger, and tried to cut himself free. The orc stopped chasing Gelrini and Lhecerbi and ran at Aikel with his scimitar raised. As he brought it down, he yelped in pain. The blade sunk into the wooden floor. Lhecerbi had snatched up her own weapons—a pair of vaguely semicircular blades with a handle on the blunt side—and didn’t seem to care what else she sawed down in her feverish half-blind pursuit of the insolent little girl that had wounded her.

The orc turned around, and Aikel saw the oozing red line that was slashed horizontally across his back. Aikel finished freeing himself as the orc cursed at Lhecerbi. He tossed the dagger down and ran for his sword. The orc spotted him as he ran past, but when he turned back to where all five prisoners should have been, all he saw was Kyri’s gloved hand pushing the dagger into his neck.

Aikel worried that the other inhabitants of the ship would enter at any moment. Surely they heard all this noise. Only then did he consciously realize that a lot of racket had come from beyond the door in the last few minutes.

Aikel slashed at Lhecerbi as she passed, and it left a stripe of red on her thigh. She growled like an angered beast and turned all of her previous fury onto him.

"Yousei…! Are you… alright?" Kyri ran and knelt by her. She shook her and tried to make her sit up. Yousei’s eyelids would flutter, and her fingers would move, but she was completely limp. Kyri pulled her over to the wall to lessen her chances of being trampled, and went to help Himeki remove her ropes with the bloody dagger.

"I… can’t move…" Himeki mumbled.

"What?" Kyri asked. "Your ropes are gone…."

"I can’t move at all…." Himeki’s arm quivered violently for a moment.

"Paralyzed?" Kyri asked uncertainly. She looked back and forth between Himeki and Yousei and tried not to panic. Even if Unicorn was around, helping both of them would be hard on her. And where was Unicorn?

Gelrini ran up and clasped her arms around Kyri’s waist. She sobbed, "Make her go away…! Make her go away like my mommy makes nightmares go away!"

The Soil and Flame Orbs had given Aikel armor, and he would have already been sliced apart without it. Most of Lhecerbi’s slashes glance off the chain mail that covered his torso. Her swift attacks were nearly impossible to block, and he couldn’t swing his sword at her without giving her a clear chance to remove his arm. He only stumbled backwards, careful not to get cornered against the wall, and tried to get out of her attack range.

The noise from outside was louder. Something collided with the door—two things, perhaps, and not quite at the same time—hard enough to crack the horizontal beam that kept it locked. The door itself was all but split vertically. After a pause, the door burst from the force of another collision. Lhecerbi was about two yards in front of it when two white shapes came bursting through among the flying splinters. The cat dodged around, but the wolf hit Lhecerbi in the chest and aimed his teeth at her neck. He sensed her blades arching down on him and jumped. It threw her off balance, and she hit the floor as he hovered near the ceiling.

"Pegasus!" Aikel called to him. Pegasus landed at his side and snarled at Lhecerbi. He had blood on his muzzle and down the fur of his chest, but it wasn’t his blood. He seemed banged about and roughed up at worse.

Unicorn had a long shallow cut across her back thigh, but she ignored it and headed to Kyri’s side. Kyri’s expression of panic turned to gratitude.

"Knock her back!" Pegasus cried to Aikel. He snapped at Lhecerbi’s ankles as Aikel swung his sword. She moved back with more wounds than she’d had a few seconds before, but she only came forward again. More quietly, Pegasus said, "We need a clear path to the door." Aikel swung again, stepping forward this time.

Kyri had given up as much of her energy as she could and split it between Yousei and Himeki. The three of them now hobbled with equal weakness. Gelrini, still paralyzed with terror, was clinging to the back of Kyri’s shirt.

Unicorn stayed along their flank to make sure the battle with Lhecerbi didn’t impede their path to the door. Once they were over the rubble and going up the stairs, she stayed behind to help Aikel and Pegasus.

Kyri, Yousei, and Himeki had to lean on each other for support until they reached the deck. The stairway and the deck were both littered with orcs, ogres, and black-robed humans—all dead, cut down by Pegasus and Unicorn.

Yousei whistled, but the sound died on her dry lips. She tried again, and after a few moments, Puddles was at her side.

A gurgling shriek came from the stairs. Pegasus ran up snapping at Aikel’s ankles to keep him running, and Unicorn was right behind.

"I’ll k-kill you…!"

I bright flash shoved them the rest of the way up the stairs.

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