Noxia 20

Thanks to all of his years of sneaking and stalking, Nathan had mastered the art of silent movement to a point where he could out ghost a phantom. He crept through the halls of Otha’s manor like a panther ready to pounce, darting from shadow to shadow. No drunken bluebloods, aloof guards, or busy servants had an inkling of his presence as they stumbled by him.

Watching some maid and merchant’s son grab at each other on a way to an empty room, Nathan hopped from behind a tall bust of one of Otha’s forefathers and continued down the hall. His honey-colored eyes ran across each and every door in a desperate attempt to find Wes’s laboratory.

Eventually, he decided that he couldn’t afford to waste anymore time. He hid in the shadow in a bend in the hallway, waiting for someone to pass. His patience was rewarded a short while later. As a portly young butler wobbled by, the desert thief sprung and pulled the poor bastard close. He produced a small blade from his sleeve, pressing it right against the servant’s jugular.

“Lindstrum’s lab. Now.” Nathan spat, being as blunt as possible.

“P-p-p-p-past the next hallway, third door on the left!” the butler gasped out in an instant.

“Thanks, fatty. Remember, this was all a bad dream.” Nathan grunted, pulling away the blade and replacing it with a terrible pressure from his other hand. After a few long seconds of thrashing and grunting, the butler fell unconscious. Storing his dead weight behind a shelf in the next room, Nathan continued on his way with a silent speed.

Like Nathan had expected, the butler wasn’t lying. The door led to a set of old stone steps, leading down to a dimly lit pit. The rogue crept down them, careful to remain as quiet as death.

As he reached the bottom, he noticed two things: a short hallway led to the rest of the cellar. The second was that he picked up the sound of light breathing from just around the corner. The rogue dropped to his hands and knees, peeking around the corner to see who it was.

It was a mountain of man clad in an even bulkier suit of armor, it’s beaten frame smudged with pitch black. A telltale sign of a mercenary, just like all the other guards Otha had in her employ. He was armored with an obscenely large fluted mace that looked like it could turn a regular fellow into a fine paste with a few light swings.

Nathan’s sharp eyes darted around the room, immediately deciding he didn’t want to fight him head on. The cellar was totally empty, save for a few of Wes’ magical torches keeping it alight, and stack of mead barrels tucked in the corner. Looking back towards the black knight, Nathan noticed two more important details.

The knight’s helm was just as bulky as the rest of his mail. His visibility and hearing would both doubtlessly be dulled. Secondly, a bronze keyring hung temptingly from his belt. Nathan smiled wickedly, a plan already boiling around in his head.

From his butler’s attire, he pulled a metal pin from the cuff of his coat. He tossed it behind the stack of barrels, making sure it was just loud enough to attract the sentinel’s attention. Surely enough, he took the bait.

As the knight pushed around the barrels looking for whatever made the sound, Nathan tip-toed behind the armor-clad behemoth and snatched away the key. Before the knight had even finished his investigation, Nathan had unlocked the door, pulled out the key, and quietly shut the door behind him.

Nathan smiled, proud that he had slipped into the lab with the greatest of ease. He still didn’t have a solid escape plan. He figured he’d mount that obstacle when it came rearing its head. Improvisation was a skill he wasn’t afraid to flaunt.

Before he advanced, Nathan took a moment to study the laboratory. It was much larger than he anticipated, a long hallway splitting into a cross-shape taking up the bulk of the space. Those blue-flamed lanterns lined the walls, fitting neatly between rows and rows of metal pipes set into the stone. Nathan approached one, gently laying his fingertips against it and feeling a soft warmth rush by from within.

He supposed that it didn’t concern him, whatever it was. He only had to worry about the power distributor. If his provided intel was to be trusted, it looked more or less like a heavy canister with several tubes and nodes protruding from it. It shouldn’t have been difficult to find, even among the collections of a relic technician.

The rogue took a small breath. The air was thicker; heavier and laden with a stale mugginess. It almost felt like he was exploring some sort of lost ruins. Quite a stark contrast to the perfect warmth of the manor above.

Figuring it was as good a place to start as any, Nathan made his way directly forward. As soundless as he tried to make his every footstep, there was still the slightest echo with every inch of progression. The hallway was cavernous – It carried each minute sound forward with a startling boom. Nathan smiled unevenly, thanking his lucky stars that Wes hadn’t bothered to assign any guards in the area.

Still, he trod forward with all the due caution expected of a malefactor worth his salt. He stopped at the center of the cross, glancing quickly down each hallway. He spotted the silver flash nearly too late.

The rogue flipped away, landing on his hands before rolling over one shoulder and bouncing on his feet. His potential attacker slowly paced in a circle, and Nathan recognized him as a fellow Mirsirian. Unfortunately for the swordsman, Nathan didn’t have a nationalistic bone in his body.

“Oh? What have we here? A fellow son of the shifting sands?” the mustached man taunted. Clearly, he wouldn’t extend any mercy to a countryman as a courtesy either.

“I left that miserable pit a long time ago, I’m afraid.” Nathan huffed. He removed his tailcoat and tossed it to the side, his butler disguise no longer taking priority over freedom of movement.

A wide grin broke out across the older man’s face, his mustache curling upwards as a result, “Even still, you’ve must’ve heard of me… Zulifqar, the Crescent Flash?”

“Sorry. Most interaction I had was begging for food and getting kicked back into some ditch.”

Zulifqar laughed evenly. His stance shifted, the blade of his scimitar glimmering with azure torchlight as he aimed it forward.

Two flashes of silver raced from Nathan over to Zulifqar. The older warrior barely had time to react, batting one of the projectiles out of the air with a quick swing of his sword. The other sank neatly into his unarmored calf.

Hissing in pain, Zulifqar looked down to see it was a throwing knife. Keeping his focus on Nathan to ensure he didn’t attempt any more cheeky tricks, he grabbed hold of the knife with his free hand and yanked it free. A rush of blood followed, staining his silken pants like spilled summer wine. However, the cut was far too shallow to be an immediate concern.

“Gah! You cowardly little rat! Have you no pride!?”

Nathan lowered his outstretched hands, snickering evilly all the while.

“What? Did ya want me to count to three or somethin’? Sorry, pal, but I’ve always put my survival before gentlemanly duels and all that other nonsense. That’s how I’ve lived so far. And that’s why I’m the only one who’s going to be leaving here sans the coffin.”

Zulifqar wasted no more of his breath on boasts or challenges. He simply rushed forward, scimitar dancing through the stagnant air before making its way towards Nathan’s neck. The rogue was gone long before it made contact.

Pushed to the defensive, Nathan flicked both wrists out, two more hidden blades sliding out from his sleeves and landing in his waiting palms. They weren’t throwing knives this time around, but thin, concealable stilettos. They wouldn’t take a hit from a sword, but they’d slit a man’s throat just as easily as if it were made of butter.

Nathan made no moves to push the older man back. He didn’t even try to keep what ground he had. He just kept inching back towards the entrance, throwing out a half-hearted stab or slice at Zulifqar every now and again.

Zulifqar, on the other hand, kept up the pressure without a single moment to rest. He swung his sword like a pouncing wolf, with the fury of a typhoon but the grace and practice of a midnight dancer. His sword was like an unrelenting silver crescent, and as Nathan barely dodged being split down the middle, he realized that the man’s moniker might not entirely have been misplaced.

The rogue felt his heel tap against a wall after he dodged another horizontal slash. He glanced back for just a moment, seeing a pipe jutting out from just behind his shoulder. He looked back, seeing the blade come right at his head.

Acting fast, he ducked under it. As the blade twirled and returned to finish it’s job, Nathan hopped into the air, putting one foot against the pipe and springing right over Zulifqar’s head. The desert warrior’s eyes followed his junior as he soared overhead, landing into a roll and quickly springing back to his feet. Zulfiqar felt the tip of his scimitar grind harshly against the pipe before he turned to face his enemy once more.

Zulifqar wasn’t too proud admit that the little stunt was impressive. He was prideful enough to admit that the punk’s wry little smirk was enough to piss him off. He held his scimitar forward once again, slowly shuffling forward.

Then, his head swam. He felt his stomach turn and the sore muscles of his fingers go limp, his blade clattering against the smooth stone below. Breaking into a dense sweat, Zulifqar fell to his knees. With spinning vision, he saw doubles, triples, of Nathan’s smug and knowing grin.

“What… what did you…?”

“The blade I hit you with earlier was soaked in venom. Duh.” Nathan explained with a dark chuckle, “What’s the point of wearing myself out when I could just sit back and let a little toxin do all the work for me? The way you were exerting yourself by spinnin’ around, it’s a miracle this didn’t happen sooner.”

Zulifqar wanted to curse. He wanted to spit at the boy, damn him to the deepest pits of hell for his utter and shameless lack of honor. But his tongue was dry. The venom raced through his body, making even his jaw go slack.

He could do nothing but gawk and grumble dumbly as the rogue slid forward, the uncaring steel of his stilettos flashing with a deadly blue-white glint. He saw Nathan slash both of them at his jugular at once, but he couldn’t feel the bite of steel.

The light of life went out in the Crescent Flash’s eyes. Weak fingers finally managing enough strength to weakly clutch at the x-shaped wound in his throat, he tipped over and died, laying like a limp animal on the floor of the underground laboratory.

Nathan whistled wistfully, kicking the corpse’s head more as a final insult than as a check for any scraps of life. Stepping over Zulifqar body as sticky red pooled below, Nathan proceeded deeper into the dark maw of the manor’s cellar.

While he wasn’t complaining, Nathan found the complete lack of any guards more unnerving than comforting. He thought his tussle with Zulifqar would’ve brought more mercs swarming on him like flies on cowshit, but it remained as silent as a midnight graveyard. The muted taps of his footsteps were beginning to drive him mad.

He listened, noticed the gentle humming of the automated torches and the faint hissing in the pipes all around. That also didn’t bring him much comfort. But he was used to silence and solitude, out of obligation to his black profession.

Finally, at the end of the long, lonely hallway, he found it. The pipes along the hallway ran out from just above it. An iron door locked firmly with padlock. Nathan smirked as decided that Wes hadn’t made a relic for locking doors quite yet.

Nathan removed a lockpick and another one of his knives, making short work of padlock and letting it clatter against the floor. Pushing it open, the rogue crept inside to see just what lay in store for him.

Like the gods had at last decided to give him a break, the Power Distributor was sitting at the very end and center of the long room. It was atop a pedestal of a similarly dark metal. Just above it were a jungle of pipes and tubes of a substance he couldn’t place. They ran into the ceiling, branching out even further before spreading into the hallway he had just came from.

“Hmm… so this is where all the magic for those fancy gizmos comes from.” Nathan mused, watching the cylindrical device pulse once or twice with that same blue-white flare as the torches. Staring at it with careful eyes, it suddenly dawned on him it might not have been safe to touch with his bare hands.

To test his theory, he looked around for something disposable. On the left was a long table covered in half-assembled and dissected relics, their guts of gears and wires spilled out and about. On the right was another similarly long table. It carried strange chemicals and beakers one one end and a mountain of notes and dusty tomes on the other end.

Nathan picked up one book at the corner. It boasted to be a complete encyclopedia of some scientific theory he couldn’t pronounce authored by some bloke with a last name containing at least nine syllables. Not thinking twice, he chucked it at the distributor.

The instant the corner made contact with it, the book flashed with a violent azure burst and crumbled into a pile of black dust.

“Yeesh. Glad I didn’t try to paw it.”

There must’ve been some way to remove it. Nathan carefully studied both the device and pedestal, and it didn’t take him long before he spotted the lone tube sticking out from the pedestal’s side.

It was made of some sort of translucent material at the very tip, letting him see a rush of blue thunder pouring through. It then continued along the wall, degrading into some kind of thick black metal, before bending around the corner. It ran under the relic-covered desk and out of the room, the tube placed through the wall and into the hallway.

“That’s where all this magic power is coming from, eh?” Nathan hummed, “If I can follow that tube and find the bud, I can nip it and pluck the flower. Hehehe…”

Nathan set out for the door, but something stopped him in his tracks. He felt rumbling. It was loud, heavy, like an elephant on the charge… and it was growing louder and louder. He could feel the handle shaking.

The rogue jumped back from the door just in time. It swung violently open, and would’ve planted him right in the wall. He landed on his feet, looking up to catch only a glimpse of his attacker.

He saw the flash of soulless eyes, blue like the fiercest of flames, cut through the darkness. The gargantuan fist, clad entirely in eggshell-white armor, came a but a moment later, and a split second too late for him to avoid.

“…and this is the coffee machine. Just add a spot of water, and it’ll automatically select the right amount of grounds for you.”

Will nodded gently, poorly hiding his growing frustration and restlessness. He glanced briefly at another, albeit less high-ticket, clock in the room’s corner. It told there was only five minutes left till the stroke of midnight.

“Are you… bored, Galot?”

Startled, Will returned his attentions back to Wes and shook his both hands to either side, “Of… of course not! I couldn’t be more invested!”

Wes kept his expression distinctly removed, whatever thoughts marching along in his head indiscernible.

“Oh. That being the case, can you tell me what the relic before this one was called?”

Will opened his mouth to answer, only to realize his brain couldn’t supply one. Stuttering stupidly, he instead dashed for whatever excuse he could.

“Err… well.. it’s just… I… I’m a bit… constipated…?”

Wes looked decidedly unimpressed. His thin chest heaving with a sigh, he averted his eyes and pointed out towards the hallway.

“Fine. Go ask a servant where the privies are. I should be going to check on Otha anyway. She didn’t look well before she left dinner… I kept telling her she’s going to eat and booze herself to death, but of course she doesn’t pay a bit of mind to my warnings-”

As Wes rambled on, facing the opposite direction, Will snuck out the door and started back towards the dining room. After a short and tense trip, he made it back without incident.

The minstrels had stopped playing as a memorial to the long-gone revelry. The pleasant smell in the air was still there, but heavier with booze and perfume than last time. He saw many more garishly-dressed drunkards shuffle aimlessly around or away, but neither hide-nor-hair of Nathan.

Grumbling worriedly, Will returned to his seat, finding very few people were still at the table. Staring around at the miserable scraps that remained, Will found a honeyed leg of turkey and a dark beer. He nervously chewed and sipped at them as he stared at the clock in the corner. It ticked away every so tauntingly.

Eleven fifty-seven. Eleven fifty-eight. Eleven fifty-nine. Then, midnight. He waited five more minutes… but Nathan still never showed his face.

Will wore a sour grimace, even when he slugged down the tasty beer in his hand.

“I… should just leave…”

Nathan himself had been quite assertive in what Will should’ve done in the case of his failure. No one would’ve stopped or blamed him for leaving. Aaron certainly would’ve been angry for a week or two, but he must’ve knew his friend well enough to understand where he was coming from.

Then, all the times the rogue had bullied and belittled him solely for his own twisted amusement rushed to the forefront of Will’s mind. All the insults, the accusations, the jeers and cruel pranks…

William nearly laughed. He couldn’t find a single reason why, but his feet were still moving for the door. They carried him like he was riding the wind down the hallway. But when the time came to turn to the foyer, he instead hooked a left and continued deeper into the manor.

He couldn’t just keep his eyes shut or look the other way. Never again.

It only took a raised fist to threaten where the laboratory was out of a lone, bored-looking servant. Will felt a pang of guilt, but tossed the fellow to the side and went on his way nonetheless.

He rushed down the stairs carelessly, suddenly face-to-face with an imposing hulk in black mail. He heard the knight’s metal armor grind together as his neck craned around to meet him. Swallowing his fear, William started forward with a friendly smile.

“Ho, friend. If you’d be so kind-”

“No entry. I don’t care who your daddy is, rich boy.”

Will stopped himself. His smile faded just a bit as he extended an open palm of friendship.

“B-but you see, Wes directed me down here to-”

“If he did, he’d be with you. He gave me strict instructions to not let anyone in alone. Now take a hike before I brain you.”

“Right… well, I’ll be on my way…”

Even as he said it and was turning his back, Will’s fingers wrapped around one of the three satchels of flash powder Nathan had gifted him. Spinning on his heel, the archer squeezed his eyes shut and slammed the satchel right into the knight’s visor.

Will saw a bright burst of white, even through his clenched eyelids. He heard the knight’s howls of agony well enough, however, even over the sound of his mace clattering against the stone.

Acting fast, William scrambled for the blunt weapon and looked towards the knight’s hulking form. He stumbled forwards, gauntlets against his eyes, his back turned. Wasting not another moment, Will raised the mace overhead and slammed it against the merc’s cranium.

With a resounding clatter of mail, the knight was floored. Will could still hear the tinny ring emitting from the dented helmet as he stared down at the twitching body. Dropping the mace, Will pushed past the unlocked door and rushed into the laboratory.

The bloody cadaver was a decent enough bread-crumb. Recognizing it as Basile’s speedy lackey, a small part of Will was impressed that Nathan managed to best him. But his conscious mind was far to busy carrying him down the long hallway to worry about that.

He saw a door ajar at the end, where the maze of tubes and pipes all around came to a head. Clenching his teeth, he pushed through the door.

There, he found Nathan. The side of his head gushed with blood, and he weakly bobbed it up and down, clinging onto consciousness by a thin string. He was locked in a wooden chair, both hands and feet bound by metal cuffs. Slowly, he looked over to William. The rogue blinked thrice in a row, as if to check he wasn’t seeing things.

“Sorry. This might just be me… a little fucked up from the head injury, you know…? But I’m pretty sure I told your sorry ass to bail if the clock hit twelve and I still wasn’t back yet…”

“I’m not just going to leave you here to be tortured to death.”

Nathan rolled his eyes, a pained chuckle leaving him, “Why the hell are you even saving me? I’ve done nothing but treat you like shit ever since we met. You’ve got no reason to save my sorry ass at all, do you?”

Will stood tall, a newfound resolution in his voice.

“Aaron didn’t have a reason to save me either, did he? And you didn’t need a need a reason to help me end Otha’s slave ring.”

The very corner of Nathan’s lips twitched into a small curl. Will couldn’t tell if that was his usual bitter sarcasm or a genuine gesture.

“My gallant hero.”

Ignoring his hallmark cynicism, Will dove right for the shackles around Nathan’s wrists. He produced a small pocket knife from his coat and tried to jimmy the lock to no avail.

“For the luvva- look, purple. I can get outta this mess my myself, alright? If you really wanna help, you can follow that black tube stickin’ out from the podium and follow to wherever it leads. Take out whatevers at the end, dig? That should kill all the magic this place is running on.”

Slowly nodding, Will backed away. He looked over to the object in question, then back to Nathan with a curious brow cocked.

“You sure you don’t need any help?”

Nathan shifted about uncomfortably in his wooden seat, wiggling his butt to remove something from his back pocket. When that failed, he looked back up to William, but his eyes were filled more with demand than pleading.

“Just get my lockpicking set out, alright? The big dumb fuck who slapped me in here forgot to pat me down.”

Will quickly reached under the other man’s arm, grabbing the pick set and pulling it out with a swiftness appropriate for their dire circumstances. He was just about to drop it onto Nathan’s lap when something else caught his attention.

He felt the ground shake ever so gently. He noticed Nathan’s horrified expression just before he spun around to gawk at the door to the laboratory. The shaking increased steadily, and Will began to notice the impressive collection of metal and glass tools inside the lab start to clatter around in turn.

“Quick! Fuckin’ hide!” Nathan hissed at William. Will dove under one of the table at the side of the room without the need for further prompting. It wasn’t the most inconspicuous spot, but there was at least a stack of junk at either end of the table, so whoever it was coming into the lab would only see him by squatting down and searching underneath. Gulping down his fear, Will tucked his knees to his chest, holding Nathan’s picks close to his chest. He tried cloaking himself in shadow as much as possible.

It wasn’t more than a half minute before the earth-shaking force arrived, but for William, it felt like an eternity of held breath. The door swung open as the shaking reached its precipice. From his limited perspective, Will could only see a pair of sheepskin moccasins and skinny legs as they marched forward. Shortly following them was a set of gargantuan greaves, far too giant for any mortal man. The metal was a faded ivory, immaculately smooth and seamless in it’s design. It was with each of it’s lumbering steps that it sent the earth quivering.

“I thought as much.” he heard the first man say. He instantly recognized the uninterested, nasally voice and the terse style of speech. It was Wes Lindstrum, without a doubt.

The armored hulk stayed silent. On the other hand, Nathan couldn’t help but mouth off at his captors.

“Oh, thank goodness you’re here. This cuffs are starting to chafe me. Mind if I-”

“Shut up.” Wes spat down at him. He heard a heavy sigh, and the slap of his shoes against stone as he approached Nathan closer, “You think I didn’t know what you and your so called master were doing here the moment you showed up? That I didn’t catch on as you poisoned Otha and slunk away like the conniving little desert rat you are? What kind of a fool do you take me for?”

The room hung with a stony silence for a long moment. Right until Nathan chimed in.

“…an ugly one?”

William flinched as he heard the hair-raising crackle of electricity followed by Nathan’s cries of pain.

“I don’t find pleasure in tormenting others. But some fools only learn through pain. It’s a teacher few can ignore.” Wes grumbled, clearly peeved by the turn of events and sounding like he’d rather not have been forced to deal with them at all.

“Oh. That makes me feel so much better. At least you’re not getting off while you’re frying me.”

Wes didn’t bother to respond to the rogue’s provocations. He did go on regardless, and Will could only watch his feet as they marched slowly back and forth.

“Do you know why I didn’t stop you and your friend? Because it wouldn’t matter whether that hog lived or died. She had no children or direct relatives to speak of. Whoever among her cousins or uncles takes her place and seizes control of her fortunes and properties doesn’t matter to me… as long as he’s not fool enough to try and cut off my funding.”

“Why not just take it for yourself, huh?” Nathan spat more then he asked. William could only imagine the vicious sneer on the fly-by-night’s face.

“Lazing around and eating myself into an early grave doesn’t interest me. The forward march of technology does… which is why it concerned me to no end when you slunk off. When you didn’t show back up to the party, I figured you were snooping around somewhere. Which leads us to my next question… just what were you trying to pilfer from me, and what shit-stain tipped you off?”

Another short eternity of silence, and another suffering scream from Nathan. As William sat there dumbly, he could only stare with murderous intent towards Wes’s shoes, listening to his allies’ pained gasps for breath.

“Alright then… then at least spill where your partner is. I might let you off the hook depending on your honesty.”

Will felt like shriveling into an empty husk. Wide-eyed, he stared at the dirty ground. He was half-concerned his thumping heart would give him away before Nathan could.

But the moment never came. Nathan kept his lips fastened tight. William was almost too confused to be appreciative.

“Fine. Have it your way, fool. I have other ways I can squeeze what I need out of you. Atlas? Bring him along.”

With a resounding screech, William heard the legs on Nathan’s chair scrape against the ground. He watched as they slid past, but was helpless to stop it.

“H-hey! Lemme go! You bastards!”

He waited for a second or two to make sure they were gone. And when they were, he wasted not another precious moment. Hustling out from under the table, tucking away the pick set in his pocket, he ran his mauve eyes up and around the lab, looking for a weapon.

He saw gizmos and chemicals of all sorts. And yet nothing that seemed liable to kill a man as easily as lance or sword. He didn’t feel that lugging around a massive lump of metal or throwing concoctions he didn’t know the makeup of would be tactically sound options, but if all else failed…

Grimacing, he pushed away a heavy rectangular device of an unknown purpose and gasped in pleasant surprise. There was some sort of metal bow, quiver and all, tucked away right in the corner. The only problem he saw was that both it’s limbs were folded in, the drawstring loose and floppy.

He picked it up, frowning. It was certainly lightweight for it’s sturdy build. The string seemed durable as well, but it certainly wasn’t twine or any other material he was familiar with. Giving it a few weak plucks, he returned his attention back to the body.

There was a small metal box just below the sight window, right by the arrow rest. He gave it a few experimental taps. It didn’t seem hollow, but he couldn’t begin to guess what was inside and for what purpose it was there. Counterbalancing? He decided to figure it out later as he tried to force the bow to come unbent.

He struggled and huffed and puffed as he yanked on both ends, but it stayed in its original position. The thing was just as useful as a giant horseshoe in its current state. Growling in frustration, he slammed it against the table, letting out a chorus of tinny ringing as the relics scattered haphazardly about rattled in turn.

“Worthless piece of…!”

Suddenly and quietly, the bow snapped into it’s proper place. The string went perfectly taut as well. The previously-frustrated archer took a brief moment to recompose himself. He gave it a few hardy yanks, finding it even easier to pull into place than his old wooden bow.

Across the room, he spotted an old, half-eaten apple sitting atop a thick textbook. Strapping on the quiver, William prepared an arrow and fired. The arrow hit it’s mark gloriously, spearing the apple straight through before sinking into a stack of books behind it. Pages burst into the air like fallen leaves in a summer breeze.

“Yeah…” Will found himself grinning like a kid with a new toy, “This’ll work fine, I think.”

Twenty-five arrows and a new bow. With both in hand, William briskly yet carefully went down the hallway, following the black tubing just as he was instructed. He had no clue where Wes had dragged Nathan off to, but he figured wreaking havoc upon his creations would inevitably draw the mage’s attention.

Nathan. Against all his previous actions, against everything William would’ve guessed, the rogue hadn’t snitched on him. He still wasn’t sure what to think of that, but he supposed Nathan wasn’t as cold and hard as he tried to make himself appear.

He tucked away his concerning thoughts. He needed his full attention on the battle shortly ahead. Creeping back down the hallway, he came across the cross once again. Zulifqar’s body was still there, the puddle of still warm blood around finally settled.

Will saw the tube fork around to the left. So he followed it’s lead. The hallway seemed to gape and become more tunnel-shaped as he went, and he started to see large support ridges line either side of the hallway. He couldn’t see the tube any longer, but figuring it had nowhere else to go, he kept on his current route. Those automated magic torches still kept his course alight.

As he dashed relentlessly forward, something stopped him in his tracks. Clapping. Will ground his fine boots into the stone of the cellar, spinning around and notching an arrow in a single smooth movement.

“I sent Zulifqar to guard this dump and catch you with your hand in the cookie jar, and what do I find? His dead body. Fuckin’ fantastic. You know how hard it is to get good help these days?”

Will didn’t let his surprise show. Basile slowly stalked towards him, bitterly and sarcastically slapping his gloved palms together. The low sound echoed down the hallway. He had his jeweled cane under one arm, and it’s foot made a low grinding sound as it rubbed against the stone at the slaver’s approach.

“Ah well. I can hire a new lackey with my reward… the one I’ll earn by bringing Otha your head!”

“Stay where you are!” William spat, cocking back the arrow as far as the string allowed, “I’ll end you!”

Basile said nothing. Roaring like a beast, Will let the arrow fly – Basile already a step ahead. He ducked behind one of the ridges along the hallway, and the arrowhead hit nothing but dingy floor a few yards away.

“Oh. So you’re not completely nutless after all, huh cupcake?”

Just like before, Basile’s words echoed deeper into the cellar, amplified by some unseen and unknown force. Will kept his feet glued in place, startled by the booming voice. It seemed even louder than the last few times he pulled the stunt.

And then, from out behind the ridge Basile was using to hide, the cane’s jeweled head peaked out. It glimmered with some sort of sapphire energy for a brief moment. Snapping back into focus, Will threw himself behind a ridge in turn.

He didn’t see the full thing, but Will did manage to catch the dying moments of the attack. Whatever force the cane emitted rushed past the ridge. It sent a low, ear-splitting screech that rattled his jawbone through the air and left a dull ringing in its wake. As it passed, Will could even see the muggy air distort like ripples on the surface pond before it smashed into a nearby ridge, leaving a small hole punched into the stone.

“Sound… he uses sound…” it dawned on William as he grasped at his sore ears.

“What’s the matter, puddin’? Come out and play~!”

Will’s usual fair complexion flushed red with fury. He had had quite enough of the flashy, arrogant showman. Grinding his teeth together, he shouted down at the slaver with a few choice words.

“Eat shit, you evil son of a bitch!”

“Watch that dirty mouth, kid! Or I’ll have to jam some soap in it~!”

Will felt his skull rattle as Basile’s voice permeated the very air. The cane of his was dangerous, that alone was evident. Still busy notching another arrow, Will felt the ridge at his back violently buckle, and the force sent him stumbling forward. As it collapsed, the archer was forced to dive behind another as another soundwave came barreling at him.

“Just stay still, ya little shit!”

Another ridge collapsed, and William was forced to dive for another round of cover. He fired off a few more arrows, but Basile stayed rooted safely in place, safely hidden behind roughly two-feet of solid stone. Many called him a hawkeye, but he couldn’t pierce rock with his shots on sheer force of will alone. He needed a clear shot.

Another three ridges collapsed before Will felt a loose stone tumble from the above and clobber him over the head. With a sinking feeling in his gut, the archer realized that the ceiling would cave in and crush him if things kept on their current course.

He’d have to end things soon, or he’d suffer the same fate he would’ve trapped in that hellhole of a dam.

Jamming a fist into his pocket, he pulled out his second bag of flash powder – his second-to-last. Poking his head out from behind cover as far as he dared, he watched carefully for Basile to make his next move.

First, he saw the shining jewel. Next, the top of the bastard’s hat… shortly after, his scowling face, his shaded spectacles shining blue with the power of his magic cane.

Will chucked the flash powder right at him. To the archer’s horror, his plan was less than effective. Not only did the quick, weak throw he just barely managed to pull off fail to reach its target, but Basile was too on edge to not see the little satchel coming. He ducked back behind his cover, avoiding the blinding flash.

“Gah! For the love of the Mother…” Will hissed, ducking back behind his ridge.

He felt another soundwave hit from behind. He retreated to another spot right before the ridge collapsed.

Will felt his heart screaming, pounding, right against his chest. It hurt. The panic felt like it was strangling. His eardrums burned. The ceiling above was crumbling, and he was helpless to stop it.

“I… I can’t…”

He chomped down on his lower lip. He wasn’t good to anyone being a panicky little weakling. He wasn’t worthless. He was the best shot in his entire platoon. Steeling himself, he removed two arrows from his quiver and his final satchel of flash powder.

With no regard for his own safety, he dashed out of cover. He was only around twenty yards away from Basile. He notched his first arrow and let his feet carry him forward. Basile saw him coming, looking stunned by the reckless charge. Nonetheless, he brought out his cane.

Will fired his arrow. Basile managed to pop off a hasty shot, but the threatening arrow still sent him scrambling back to cover regardless. Will watched the cane’s tip and tracked the trajectory of the blast. Preemptively ducking, the rippling wave shot past his head. It cleanly knocked away his feathered cap and left a sharp ringing in his ears, but scraped by him with no serious damage dealt.

The archer rolled forward. He had his second arrow ready before Basile gathered enough courage to reveal himself and check if his initial shot had done the job. He aimed just a few inches past the ridge where Basile was hiding and fired.

The slaver never saw the arrow coming. Nor did he see the small satchel of flash powder tied to it’s tip.

The flash burst with all the brilliance of the sun, William squeezing his eyes shut just in time to avoid being blinded by it’s burning radiance. As the ringing in his ears gradually calmed, he started hearing Basile’s cries of bloody murder.

“Fuck! I’ll kill you… I’ll kill you, you shitty brat!”

Basile stumbled out and away with one gloved palm over his spectacles. Darkened as they were, they had failed to protect him from the flash. With cane clutched in his free hand, he blindly fired in Will’s general direction. Staying low, Will advanced and readied his bow.

The first shot sank into Basile’s calf, sending him to his knees. The second hit the slaver’s shoulder, the sudden rush of pain forcing his cane to slip from his fingers.

Will didn’t let the chance slip. He notched a final arrow and dashed for Basile, ready to let it loose at any moment. But the slaver wasn’t entirely helpless. His glasses hadn’t entirely protected his eyes, but they had blocked out just enough light to let his quickly let his vision fade back in.

Huffing and puffing with anger and fear, Basile scooped his cane back up, re-aiming it with every bit of speed his adrenaline allowed his injured body. The cane’s jeweled tip burned with the most intense light yet.

Not slowing down in the slightest, William let his arrow fly.

Basile felt the impact against his cane. His eyes darted down to find the arrow sunk tip-deep into his jewel. His scream wasn’t heard over the deafening boom.

Knocked suddenly onto his back, Will moaned in silent pain as his hands reflexively came up to cradle his ears. He swore aggressively for an extended period on instinct. Even he wasn’t sure what profanities left his mouth. Something that would make his mother ashamed, no doubt. After a good minute of rolling around in pain, William slowly levered himself back to his feet, grabbing his bow back up from the ground.

Looking back towards Basile, William couldn’t help but wince. His cane was busted, his jewel lying broken into tiny shards. The wooden body, unable to survive the explosion, lay fractured around the blast zone.

And the slave auctioneer himself looked no better. He was on his back, clothes and oversized bowtie disheveled. His hat was gone, and the lenses of his glasses were shattered. With them gone, Will could see the man’s horrified eyes.

His hand had gotten the worst of it. Both glove and skin underneath had been blown away, leaving it a bloody mess. Not only that, the sheer force of it left his fingers bent and mashed in several sickening directions. Deciding the slaver had no further means of defending himself, Will advanced.

“W-wait…! No… I’m begging you!”

Will’s ears still throbbed with pain, but the cries of mercy weren’t lost on him. Basile dragged himself backward, sobbing and hiccuping uncontrollably. It was a rather pathetic sight from a grown man, even considering his ghastly injuries.

“I was wrong… I let my greed control me… please… spare me… I swear, I’ll change my ways!”

Will found himself at a loss on just what to do with the bastard. His fingers went sore bearing down on his bow’s grip… but he just couldn’t force himself to loose another arrow. The pathetic fellow was already down with one foot in the grave, to go any further would just feel like kicking a starving mutt.

“Get out of my sight, you slime. And remember, if I ever catch wind that you’re selling girls like they’re cattle again… I will find you. Got it?”

Basile quickly bobbed his head in understanding, his sobbing dying down. Struggling back to his feet, he cradled his injured hand and limped as fast as he could back to the entrance of the cellar.

Scoffing, Will slung his bow back over his shoulder and continued on his way, a fresh surge of confidence in his every step.

Another twenty or so yards down, the tunnel began to descend. The ridges stopped appearing, and the tunnel began to narrow out. Thanks to the automated torches, however, light was still abundant. Even with his clear visibility, in his haste, Will barely avoided a nasty spill when he ran right into a steep set of stairs. Pulling in a long breath, Will slowed down just a bit to make sure he wouldn’t trip.

In his brief respite, Will found his mind buzzing like a hornet’s nest. What other dangers awaited him? What kind of hell was Nathan going through? Would they both make it out alive? They were questions he decided were better left solved on the way rather than stewing over.

He reached the bottom, finding yet another heavy iron door. Locked, of course. He was just about to kick it out of frustration when he remembered that he still had Nathan’s pick set from earlier. He was no thief, but after a few minutes of fiddling with the lock and several broken picks later, he heard a promising click.

Not knowing what waited beyond, Will decided to err on the side of caution. With drawn bow in hand, he gently placed his foot against the door. Bracing himself, he kicked open the door and burst into the room.

He wasn’t sure exactly what he had been expecting. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t what he found. The room wasn’t a bleak collection of wires and tubing. It wasn’t some secret storeroom for powerful relics. It wasn’t even, as his more pessimistic side predicted, a long hallway full of snarling, bloodthirsty mercenaries.

On one side, it looked like a regular sitting room. A shelf of spirits and wines on one end, a bookcase on the other, several cushy couches and seats at the carpeted center. But on the other, the carpet and fine furnishings ended, returning the cellar back to it’s dreary stone makeup. Most puzzling was the thick sheet of glass dividing the two sections.

William stalked cautiously forward, his attention inevitably drawn behind the glass. He could hardly believe his own eyes – it was a girl.

She was sprawled lazily across a beaten couch. Her odd dress, like her long and frazzled hair, were a deep shade of azure mixed with splashes of pitch black. Her face bore the features of a far easterner.

She turned her uninterested, almond-shaped eyes towards him. Her yellow-green pools, sparking with a predator’s curiosity, struck him like a peal of lightning. It was only then did he notice the pointed animal ears atop her head wiggle, and the tail between her legs beat lazily against the couch.

“Hey there, handsome~”

Staring rather dumbly at her, it was just then William noticed she had her underwear around her ankles and fingers stuck deep inside her cunt. Blushing madly, he could only try to avert his gaze and pretend he didn’t just see her shameless stunt.

“Oh, what’s the matter? Shy? Don’t worry; looking is free~”

A few seconds into knowing her, and Will could already tell she’d be a handful.

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