“What the…?” was all TJ was able to say before he realized that the archer was nocking another arrow to his bow. “Run! NOW!” He shouted, herding his friends toward the opening in the fence and away from the open ground.
“What about Simon?” Allison asked, hesitating.
“Leave him for now. We’ve got to move or we’re all dead. That madman will skewer the lot of us!” TJ pulled on her sleeve.
Jerking her arm from his grasp, Allison grabbed at Simon’s collar and gave a tug, but there was no way she could move him. A sudden force spun her around. The second arrow had struck her in the shoulder, but had by some miracle been deflected into the palisade wall, where it now stuck, quivering. Choking back a cry of despair, she turned and fled after the others.
As she darted through the entrance to the fort, Allison found her four friends backed against one of the inside walls, the previously bored-looking guard brandishing his sword at them. They had their hands raised in front of them in submission, but the man didn’t seem likely to grant them mercy. At a loss for what to do, she reached for the mace hanging by a thong from her belt. It had more heft to it than one would expect foam wrapped PVC pipe to have. Instinctively, she crossed the distance and swung it with all her strength at the back of the guard’s head. It made a sickening smack that reminded her of the time some kids got together after Halloween to crush jack-o-lanterns with baseball bats. The guard heaved forward and landed at the feet of his captives.
The four froze for a moment, looking back and forth between Allison and the crumpled body lying still in front of them. The back of the guard’s head was crushed in, and fluid leaked out. He was clearly not breathing. He was clearly dead.
“Oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god,” was all that Allison could bring herself to say. She felt her knees buckle beneath her, and TJ stepped forward to hold her up. Their eyes connected and she saw in his something she had never seen before: a sense of knowledge, or perhaps understanding, that hadn’t been in his eyes at school the day before. With her leaning against his shoulder, the two moved out of the open and against the inside of the palisade wall. With his free hand, TJ reached for the air-horn they had been given in case of emergencies. Feeling it securely in his grasp, he raised it to his mouth and blew with all his might. The horn rang out for several seconds as they ran before he pulled it from his mouth in confusion.
Although TJ was the first one to move to help Allison, he wasn’t the only one set into action. Stu reached to grab his bow off his back, and was curiously unsurprised to discover that it was no longer a piece of plastic, but rather a long curved piece of yew wood with a well waxed string. Without thinking, he stepped between bow and string and leaned into the wood, slipping the free loop onto the bow’s upper notch. He raised it with one hand and drew an arrow from his quiver with a smooth motion. Stepping back out through the palisade gate, he drew the nocked arrow back to his cheek and scanned for more enemies. The archer who had shot Simon was waiting for just such an opportunity, and let fly. The missile flew toward Stu, but an errant breeze blew it off course and it embedded in the wall to his right. He tracked the arrow’s trajectory back to the archer in the woods and released his own string. His arrow sped across the clearing, hitting the archer in his neck, just above his studded leather chest piece. The brigand reached up to staunch the flow of his life’s blood as he fell slowly to his knees, then slumped dead to the ground. Stu calmly turned toward the center of the compound, drew a second arrow, and set it to flight just as quickly. It, too, found its mark, catching one of their enemies in the chest as he turned a corner, sword raised to charge. Drawing a third arrow, Stu set off around the corner, a look of determination on his face.
Jimmy had unslung his sword from its harness. Six feet of wickedly sharpened serpentine steel glinted in front of him and he swung it experimentally several times. It felt as if he had been born with it in his hand, as if designed for him personally. He let out a whoop and shouted, “Come and git some!” Three brigands who had come to investigate the shouting saw him charging at them and turned to look for somewhere to run. One ran left, one ran right and the third just stood there as Jimmy bore down on him. He drew his sword and held it in front of him, but the look on his face made it clear he was more used to harassing peasants than facing off against other trained fighters.
Jimmy swung his sword high, putting the entire weight of his body behind the strike. The blow was deflected to the side but the impact drove his opponent backwards a step. As his follow-through spun him, he brought the sword down low, slicing just under the brigand’s guard. The magically sharp sword parted his foe’s armor like a hot knife through butter, and a bright red line appeared across the villain’s midsection. He dropped his sword with a grunt and doubled over, his hands trying desperately to hold his wound closed. Jimmy followed the slice with a boot to the head and the man crumpled to the ground. With a laugh he turned left and sprinted after one of the runners.
Allison was still shaken. Her legs had given out completely and she was huddling against the wall with her arms around her knees, TJ’s arm around her shoulders. Looking up, she saw two figures approaching them quickly and gave a little gasp of surprise. TJ looked up and a glint appeared in his eye. He casually reached into the pouch where he kept his spellcasting bean bags, and withdrew a small pouch. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t in fact a bean bag. He gave it a quick smell, and nodded. The wizard uttered a short incantation and tossed the pouch lightly into the air. It burst into flames, and when he flicked his hand it flew across the distance to the approaching figures. The ball of fire struck the man on the left and exploded brightly, momentarily blinding both Allison and TJ. When their vision cleared, there didn’t seem to be anything left of either of the brigands, other than some burned clothing and the smell of cooked meat. TJ smiled, “That felt AWESOME!”
“Oh yeah? Well that was my brother,” came a deep voice from their left. One of the bandits had been hiding in the building and stepped toward them brandishing a wicked looking dagger. TJ fumbled desperately with his pouch as he tried to withdraw the reagents needed for another spell. The man grinned wolfishly as he closed the distance between them in two steps. “Tell me how awesome this feels,” he growled, and thrust his dagger into TJ’s chest. The robe provided no protection whatsoever and the blade slid in between two ribs, puncturing a lung. TJ gave a cry of pain and slumped over, the dagger still protruding from his chest. His breath grew raspy and he coughed twice, blood and saliva dribbling from between his lips.
Allison stared in horror at her best friend collapsed by her side. She looked up at the man who had stabbed him, fury in her eyes. He met her gaze casually and reached to his belt to draw another dagger. “Well aren’t you a pretty one? I might find a use or two for you,” he leered. “But first, let’s put an end to this one, ok?” He bent over with the other dagger in his hand, ready to slit TJ’s throat.
“NO!” She shouted and thrust her arms forward, palms outstretched. A surge of power welled up within her and the next thing she realized the man was writhing on the ground, clutching his chest in pain. She scrambled up and reached for her mace, which fit snugly in her hand. “NO!” She shouted again, swinging the weapon with all her strength and bringing it down upon his torso. The sound of ribs cracking filled the air and the man’s arms flailed once. She brought the mace down a second time into his face, crushing his nose and putting an end to him once and for all.
Allison paused for a moment to look at the body of the fallen bandit, and then turned to TJ. His breathing was shallow and color had drained from his face. His robes were soaked with his own blood and seemed to be getting wetter even as she watched. She crouched down and cradled his limp body against her chest, sliding the blade out and casting it aside. Tears fell from her eyes and mingled with the blood leaking from his body. She closed her eyes and sobbed, wishing that things were back to normal; wishing that her best friend were happy and healthy again.
And then she felt a tingling in her body that spread down through her arms and into the palms of her hands. TJ’s body heated up. His arms and legs began to twitch, and as the tingling increased, so did his twitches. With a loud gasp he sat bolt upright, chest heaving.
“Wha? Huh? Wha?” His eyes darted around anxiously. When they met Allison’s a great smile stretched across his face. “You. You saved my life. Everything was dark. And it hurt. So much. And then I felt you come into me. I felt your strength, and I felt the pain in my side lessen, and then disappear.” He reached down to his blood soaked robe and gently spread apart the hole where the dagger had gone through. Beneath the cloth was the barest hint of a scar. “You saved me, Allie.” He wrapped his arms around her and sobbed into her shoulder. He then looked at her face and saw the lines of concern and exhaustion. The freckles and her eyes. He had never noticed how blue they were. How clear they were.
Stu approached slowly, then cleared his throat. He pointed back outside the encampment. It took them a few moments to realize what he was getting at. “Simon!” They both shouted at once and scrambled up from the ground, trying to keep from entangling themselves in each other’s legs. TJ’s body was still reeling from the damage and the subsequent healing, so Allison sped away from him and around the curve of the wall. When he pulled up next to where she was standing over Simon, he found her just staring at their friend. “Aren’t you going to fix him?” He asked frantically, shaking her by the shoulder. “Why don’t you do the same thing you did me? You should still have plenty of spells left. Your ring alone gave you an extra five! Why aren’t you doing anything?”
“It’s too late, TJ. He’s gone,” was all she said.
Panic crept into his voice. “What do you mean he’s gone? Have you checked his pulse? What is that thing we learned in that CPR class? Air passage something?” He bent down to feel for a pulse, and put his cheek in front of Simon’s slightly open mouth. He almost shouted, “Do something, Allie!”
“No TJ, there’s nothing I can do. It’s too late.”
He looked back at her. “There must be something we can try! How can you be sure?”
At this Allison tensed up and she shouted, “Because I know, TJ. I KNOW. All I had to do was look at him, and I KNEW. I guess that’s part of me now. He’s dead. And those others by the gate are dead. And I don’t hear Jimmy shouting any more so I imagine the other bandits are dead, too.” Her voice softened a bit. “It’s part of me, just like that ball of fire you threw is a part of you.” She gave a small smile. “Guess it’s a good thing you let me pick that smite out after all, isn’t it?” TJ stood, giving her arm a slight squeeze.
The three turned and reentered the compound. Stu looked around warily, an arrow nocked and his bow drawn. TJ and Allison, on the other hand, just trudged in, not particularly interested in what there was to see. A figure stepped out from around a corner and Stu readied to release. “Woah, there tiger,” called Jimmy. “It’s just me. I don’t think there’s anyone left in here to shoot. After I chased down those other two I got cornered by a couple, but well, here I am so I guess you know what happened.” He ran an arm across his forehead and let out a whoosh of air. “You know what? I’m hungry. I wonder what sort of grub they’ve got here. I hope they knocked over somewhere better than that little village back there.”
“Are we sure we got them all?” asked Stu.
Jimmy shrugged. “I got five. What about you?”
Stu replied, “Three for me, including the one in the forest.”
Allison chimed in, “Two for me and two for TJ.”
“Huh. That makes twelve. So much for that great intelligence we got. At least the directions were good. Assuming these were the right people, of course.” Jimmy paused and looked around nervously. “Woah. Wouldn’t it stink if we just did this to a bunch of random people? Maybe we should get out of here.”
TJ sighed. “Well I’m not sure if this is really the sort of place where we have to worry about the police coming and arresting us, particularly given what those town folk had to say about things. Not that I’m saying we ought to make this our new home or anything, but let’s not get panicky.”
That last statement just hung there as people chewed over it.
Allison asked quietly, “Is this our new home or anything?”
No one spoke.