V S M Civil Unrest

Android XVII

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In the span of six hours, they had gone from conquering heroes to smelly low-lives being thrown out of town as if they had the plague. All that had been missing from the occasion was a mob of peasants with torches and pitchforks.

Unclean and smelling of vomit, blood, and piss, the trio shambled away from the outskirts of Zamara. A few minutes earlier, Jaina and Seventeen had stood silently at the cemetery gate as Beatrix had gone inside to bid farewell to her late husband. While the cyborg was sure there was a big story connected to the sad scene of the drunken killer sobbing gently over the headstone, he didn’t think he was qualified to ask for any of the details.

“Can I ask how he died?” Seventeen whispered as he glanced over at Jaina.

The white-haired woman—her features still marred by grime, soot, and scratches—frowned softly as she turned her eyes to her grieving companion. “There was a plague in these parts years ago.” She whispered so softly that the words could barely be heard over the still wind of the night. “It was a year or so before I moved out here from Arcadia. It was a nasty one… killed the strong and the weak. Killed people in their prime of their lives just as often as it did those in their twilight years. Vladimir hung on for months. They had been together before marriage for a long time, and she stood by him and cared for him as he wasted away. She has days where she is happy and cobbled together, but I imagine the real Beatrix died alongside the man in that coffin.”

Seventeen nodded his head as he watched Beatrix gently pick herself up from against the gravestone. The woman, her eyes red for myriad reasons, brushed away the tears and straightened out her ruffled clothes as she traversed the pathway back to her companions. “Let us leave this place,” she spoke as she started toward the unpaved road that led further into the lands that bordered Zamara. “We paid for the mounts, so we’ll steal them if need be. The situation can’t become any worse than it already has.”

The cyborg once again pictured the angry mob of pitchfork-donning peasants, but he spoke nothing on the subject. Instead, he found himself pondering another detail. “What about you fancy underground hideout?”

Jaina grinned—the first sign of joy to momentarily flash across her face in the hours since the tribunal. “Rue to the fool who tries to break their way into that place.” She muttered as a pale-faced Beatrix pantomimed an explosion with her grimy fingers.

“I suppose that’d be a nice going away present for the town,” Seventeen replied with a half-hearted chuckle as the trio made a long circuit around the wooded outskirts of town. The stable hands were nowhere to be seen, so they faced no opposition as they collected their trio of animals and made for the trees. Just to be certain no one would stalk them from Zamara, they had decided to cut a path through the forest itself for at least a day’s worth of travel. Once they were nearer to the edge of Laconia, they could transition back to the traveler and merchant routes that were usually maintained and serviced for the passage of animals and wagons.

***​

Despite soreness in their muscles and throbbing in their headaches, no member of the three brought up the idea of sleeping on this night.

Instead, they ploughed onward through the forest until the new sun broke up above the tree line. While the ground was often uneven and dotted with detritus, the pair of horses and the chocobo were more than equipped to navigate the terrain. Beatrix had remarked at one point that these animals had been trained for war, hence their hardiness and ability to march through the forest. Aside from that unprompted explanation, they shared little conversation that day. Between migraines and mixed emotions about their exodus from Zamara, none of them felt in the mood to converse. Hell, Seventeen was still uncertain whether or not he was going to blink and discover he had been in Kansas all along.

When the sun set later that day, they managed to steal some food for themselves and the animals from a small farm. There wasn’t much honor in the act, but none of them were feeling in the mood to bargain with some peasant for wheat and corn. With the animals tethered safely to trees, they slept back-to-back in the shadows of a large oak grove. That same procedure followed the next four days as well, although they managed to find a natural space for the animals to graze once they were

At the start of their fifth or sixth day of travel (with no watch, the cyborg eventually started to lose track of time entirely), the trio started due south, still traversing the heavy terrain of the woods. Jaina, breaking what felt like a day and a half period of silence, mentioned that there should be a river half a day’s travel in that direction. Since Seventeen had no idea where they were and Beatrix had long since forgotten much of the landscape this far from Zamara, they offered no resistance to the plan.

When they found the river at midday, the trio let the animals stretch and drink as they turned to washing off what felt like weeks’ worth of dirt. Abandoning some of their heavier and more soiled accessories, the trio departed from the river after a few hours of something almost close to relaxation. In that time, Seventeen had managed to craft a makeshift fishing pole, although he succeeded in doing absolutely nothing with it. Food had come in the form of some small animals that Beatrix had tracked and slain.

“Any idea where we are, Jaina?” Seventeen had asked once they were mounted and traveling west along the river.

“No,” she muttered after pursing her lips together for a few minutes. “I can’t even remember the name of this river, but it should take us to some sort of local road.”

Near the end of the that day, the trio found a simple bridge over the river. The cobblestone construction was linked to the closest thing to a county road you can find in the wilderness—bare dirt marked with grooves from wheels and dotted with the hooves of pack animals.

“We travel west,” Jaina whispered as she pointed to the far side of the bridge. “Further into the Hinterlands. This route should take us to some sort of settlement, far removed from Laconia and Zamara.”

“We should make a formal camp,” Beatrix replied. “We’ve been pushing ourselves for a few days, and it might be best to rest and recharge. I might speak for only myself, but I thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the riverside.” About two days after Zamara, Beatrix had discarded her flask. If that hadn't been an indicator that her reservoir of booze had dried up, the personal hell she endured later that day told the truth. That night, she had descended in an extreme state of duress, and Seventeen had been afraid her screams of withdrawal would bring some primal predatory straight to the tree they had slept beneath. While nothing had murdered them, the woman’s frail shrieks and frothing seizures were still burned in his mind. Since then, Beatrix had spoke without mixing her words and rode without needing occasional correction in her saddle. Even so, there seemed to be something missing from the woman once she had sobered up. Her eyes were clearer, but there was no fire in them. They had a yawning emptiness in them. She spoke clear words but they sounded hollow and devoid of passion.

“Makes sense,” the cyborg replied as the three directed the animals back toward the riverbed. They had passed what seemed to be a clearing a mile or so back, and that would be as good a spot as any to make ‘camp’.
 

Beatrix III

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They were going to let her see him one more time out of pity. The love of her life lay six feet below the grave marker she had spent eight months’ salary having commissioned. Dropping to her knees, Beatrix clenched her eyes shut as fresh tears welled up behind her eyelids, making their way down her cheeks.

Why did you have to leave me here? Come back! Let me come with you!

The redhead rested her forehead on the cold granite headstone that had been carved with her late husbands’ name. He would know what to do about the blood magic that affected her life now. He would know how to cure the seizures she suffered from on occasion. “There’s always another way” was his go-to phrase. She had had it carved on the headstone beneath his name.

There was always another way.

***​

Beatrix spurred her warhorse forward as she noticed her companions off the distance. The ground was moist from a recent rain storm, so the rhythmic beating of her mounts’ hooves against the moist grass was calming. She pulled back on the reins as she closed in and came to a stop.

“There’s a waterfall about three miles downriver with a path that takes you to a small reflecting pool beneath it. I say we make camp there. I also saw the making of a path that led further down the river. Could follow that and see where it takes us.”

Jaina nodded. She had long since shed her grime-covered robes and adorned only an undershirt and a pair of trousers. Her staff was slung across her back, held to her torso by a thin leather strap. The entire group had shed various things they didn’t need along their pitiful journey away from Zamara.

“Sounds good to me,” Seventeen said.

Jaina was surprisingly silent but nodded in agreement. The three of them set off just as the sun hit its highest point during the day. The ride there was awkwardly silent. As they approached the cliff where the river turned into a waterfall amidst the trees the redhead jumped down from her horse and waded into the water.

“You’re not serious,” Jaina said, taking hold of the reins her lover had let fall to the ground so carelessly.

“Consider it a bucket list item.” The Mistress said with a grin as she turned and let her hair down.

With a powerful step she leapt forward, and swan dived off the cliff. Jaina reared her horse forward in a panic, pulling Beatrix’s alongside her. Seventeen followed with a slight chuckle. At the bottom of the waterfall, the sorceress had just finished hitching the horses when Beatrix popped up from beneath the cool blue water. Diving under she swam to the edge and waded onto the shore.

“Water cold, babe?” Jaina said with a grin.

Beatrix looked down at her shirt and saw that it had adhered to her bosom; because of cold water, her nipples were poking through the relatively poor-quality shirt she had on.

“Coming from the woman who stripped at that tavern?” Beatrix said in rebuttal, which made Jaina turn beet red.

The redhead wrung out her hair and tied it into a ponytail before moving to one of her saddlebags. Detaching a woodcutting axe from the leather bag, she slung it over her shoulder.

“Blondie, show Mister Seventeen here your amazing magic skills and get us a couple of tents set up. I’m going to collect some firewood.” The Mistress half-ass ordered.

Jaina pursed her lips not knowing how to react and took hold of her staff. Seventeen thought she might cry, but the look faded, and she went about her way crafting a couple of tents for them to sleep in.

***​

Hours went by, and Beatrix had returned with a good amount of fire wood to get a fire going. She had also been of the mind to bring back a couple of rabbits they could skewer and eat. It wasn’t until after dinner, just after the sun had dropped below the horizon did Jaina decide to approach the redhead.

“Are you mad at me?” The white-haired blonde asked.

“What?” The Mistress said as she waded into the cold water once again.

The water was freeing. The cold temperature made it feel as though all Zulenka’s troubles were being melted away. Turning around to face the sorceress the redhead kicked off the bottom and began to float on her back.

“Why would I be mad at you? For burning the bar down? For getting us banished from Zamara? For making it so I could never go back to visit the grave of my dead husband?” The Mistress’ tone began to sound a little annoyed.

“That’s not fair,” Jaina said, wading in after her lover.

“What isn’t fair is that I’ll never see him again!” Beatrix shouted, standing up from her float.

Tears were streaming down Jaina’s cheeks. “What about me!? Don’t you love me? I’m here for you! For better or for worse! I love you with all my heart, Beatrix! Just like him!”

Jaina had started shouting as well. She was storming her way through the water to the woman she loved. She took the woman by the arms and shook her.

“Don’t I mean anything to you? I support you through everything you do! I know I’ll never replace Vladimir in your heart, but I was hoping there could be room for both of us!”

The blonde was sobbing at this point, her words garbled by the sudden gasps for air, her face covered with a myriad of tears flowing from her eyes. Beatrix was completely taken aback by how upset Jaina had become. She pulled the sorceress in close and rested the woman's head on her bosom. She began brushing Jaina’s hair with her fingers in a comforting manner, letting out a sigh.

“It’s going to be okay. I love you more than anything, Proudmoore. You know that.”

Beatrix began to float backwards with the woman in tow, kissing her and rubbing her back.

“I’m sorry. I spoke out of line. I don’t blame you for anything.” Zulenka said, continuing to massage the sorceress between the shoulders.

There’s always another way.
 

Android XVII

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He kept to himself when the women had their lover’s quarrel. Seventeen, despite having a pair of kids, knew he didn’t know the first thing about women and their hearts. He and Paige had enjoyed an up-and-down relationship filled with great highs and awful lows. They had loved each other—there was no doubt of that. Yet, there always seemed to be something yanking at the seams of their bond. At the time, the cyborg figured it was part of their ‘calling’ (the fact that there was always some cosmic nonsense that tested their livelihood).

Yet, even after they had both slipped off the radar following the death of a long-running rival, the calm had never come. That ‘realest’ phase of their relationship had been marred by the stress and panic that all new parents experience, and neither of them had been truly equipped to best serve as a partner to the other. In the end, some explosions had separated them with a degree of finality not often seen in the machine-hybrid’s old world, where people seemed to die and revive as if they were respawning in a video game.

In his dreams that night, the cyborg relieved those last few occasions of his mortal life. He saw in all too vivid details that final battle aboard the Construct, where he had sacrificed his own life to spare his friend, their allies, and the whole of the Earth from a rampaging space god. Beyond that, he saw that last fleeting battle he’d fought months later, when an errant rocket from the bandana-clad monkey man had ushered him once and for all from the mortal coil. When he snapped awake, gasping and sweating, it took him a few lingering moments to recall that he was camped in a forest near a river. A glimpse to the other side of what had once been the fire revealed Beatrix and Jaina still soundly asleep.

With a sigh, Seventeen ran a hand through his hair and slowly lowered himself back onto his bedroll. His eyes turned to the stars overhead, and as he mulled through his thoughts, he found himself once more trying to see anything recognizable in that big dark expanse.

He had died a few times before those occasions, but like so many others, he had been back in short order. Those two deaths—in short order—had wound up being permanent engagements… at least until now. Seventeen wasn’t sure if this was life or death, but whatever it was supposed to be, he knew he’d likely have to start treating it like what it felt like: A new chapter in a convoluted book.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

Had he used that line before? Heard it on a radio?

Either way, it was the last thought in his head as he drifted back into an uncomfortable sleep.

***​

It was nearing high noon of the third day since camp that the trio saw its second signs of life. The first had the day earlier, when their path had been obstructed by a crude palisade construction. Along with the physical barrier, the ground had been torn up, and there were felled trees marring safe travel for thousands of feet around the path. While there were no soldiers or even highwaymen lurking around, the group opted to return to traversing the more unkempt terrain.

After abandoning the wheel-rutted trading routes a day prior, they had cut through sloping plains before noticing a gradual shift in the clime. When they entered the forest once again, the ecosystem gradually changed, with pine trees increasingly more common as they traveled further northwest. By the time they first spotted the pillars of smoke, they were miles deep into a boreal forest. It was only the increase in spacing between the massive pine trees that let the trio spot the telltale signs of a hearth or fire of some kind.

“Campfire?” Seventeen inquired as they drew their animals to a stop and craned their necks to see through the loose coverage of the pine trees. While his first guess had been optimistic, there was something too erratic about the smoke.

“Too spread out,” Jaina whispered as she gestured at something the cybernetic warrior couldn’t quite see. “It’s a big one, whatever it is.”

“Investigate?” Beatrix asked as they edged their animals forward. A moment later, the three continued toward the smoke on the horizon.

When they emerged from the trees a few miles later, they found themselves staring at a besieged fort town roughly half a mile from their position. From this vantage point, it was clear to see that there was more than one source for the smoke plumes, which now rose high into the afternoon sky. While the walls that surrounded the town were tall enough to conceal most of the buildings that lie beyond, it was obvious that fires were burning within the stone bulwark.

The wall itself, or at least the segment visible to the trio, was still mostly solid, but it was obvious that the construction had seen better days in the past. Various fissures and splashes of heated oil and tar dotted the sides—telltale indicators of failed attempts to penetrate or scale it. At least three or four shattered ladders could be spotted, and there was even what seemed to be the smoldering remains of a wheeled siege tower.

“There,” Beatrix whispered as she placed a hand on Seventeen’s shoulder and pointed left to their field of view. “The besiegers.”

At least two dozen armed soldiers were attempting to scale ladders up to the top of the ramparts. Up above, a group of indistinguishable shapes was fighting back with slings, jars of oil, and the occasional arrow. From the besieging camp, a few volleys of arrows would sally forth, and a scream precipitated the collapse of a defender from the top of the walls. Despite the contrast between armored soldier and the unarmored people (their brown and gray shapes were a sharp contrast to the glittering steel of their foes) playing defense, the attackers seemed to be relenting.

“It’s just a discretionary force,” Beatrix muttered. When she felt Seventeen’s eyes on the back of her head, she automatically continued. “Small group of soldiers attacking to try and distract or divide the defenders. It’s likely that the entire host of this attacking army is elsewhere along the walls, probably with the heavy siege equipment. This is a simple diversion, designed to mentally agonize the defense, and hey, if they get into the city from here, that’s all the better.”

“How long do you think this has been going on for?” Jaina inquired.

“Those marks,” Beatrix instructed as she pointed to a few chunks where the wall had been compromised. In one instance, Seventeen could spot what seemed to be a quick patch job. “That’s heavy equipment. It’s possible they’ve been here for a while… moving around the town and trying to test for the weakest spot.”

“How long you think this has been going on for?”

“Weeks?” Beatrix muttered with a trace of uncertainty in her tone as she trotted forth. She made it to within a thousand feet of the city walls when she craned back toward them. “It’s hard to tell how long this has been going on when we can’t see the main encampment. What that looks like would go a long way in answering your question.” The woman leaned back in her saddle and squinted at each edge of the city she could spot. “Our best bet is to loop the town in the opposite direction of that skirmish.”

Beatrix had made it a few strides in her intended direction when Seventeen spotted movement on the top of the walls. A few hundred feet removed from the skirmish, there appeared to be a group of people from inside the wall who were tossing down ropes. As quickly as they could, the figures started to descend down, and while he couldn’t see the exact details, it was clear that they were children and either women or undernourished men.

“Trying to escape.” Jaina commented. “Some of them look awful. This must have been going on for a while.”

“We should move out, before they draw soldiers here,” Beatrix remarked. “I don’t feel like explaining ourselves to a bunch of frustrated besiegers, especially when we don’t know who they are.” Outside of Arcadia and Zamara, neither Beatrix or Jaina had much knowledge of power centers on Erde. The Hinterlands were a massive, sprawling area that likely contained hundreds of petty kingdoms and tribal units. There was no telling what drama lay behind the siege unfolding before them.

“Smart,” Seventeen remarked as he turned his chocobo. They had made it a few more paces when they all heard the distinct shrieks of women and small children.

Wheeling (for all intents and purposes) his bird around, the cyborg saw to his horror that the individuals trying to scale down the wall were being fired upon by the nearby group of soldiers. Although a distance of a few hundred feet, the volleys fell with almost lethal precision. Unable to move or try to defend themselves given their position, almost all the people on the side of the wall were struck in one place or another. Some managed to cling onto the various ropes and clothes, but those that were too small, sick, or physically weak found themselves falling nearly twenty feet to the ground.

“Oh, fuck that entirely,” Seventeen growled as he reached behind his shoulder and drew the Power Sword.

“What are you doing?” Beatrix asked as the man’s head swiveled back toward her. His eyes were stern and unyielding. She had been drunk still at the time, but she hadn’t recalled him this incensed even as he was shooting a hole through the necromancer’s chest. “We don’t need to be involved in this. We shouldn’t.”

Seventeen’s eyes widened. “There are some kids lying there with arrows in their backs, and you want me to walk away? Fuck you. I’m not gonna stand for this crap, regardless of how much intel I have on these people or those people. If you’re comfortable watching this, then maybe it was the right call that they kicked you out of that city.”

With that, the machine-hybrid was charging toward the detachment of soldiers still firing on the panicked citizens. Most dangling on the ropes had either fallen to their likely deaths or been pulled back up onto the battlements. Little paid much heed to the man on the chocobo as they tried to hide from the arrows.

Beatrix watched the man head off and shook her head. It wasn’t until she saw Jaina unbuckling her staff that her expression twisted. “What are you doing?”

The white-haired sorceress glimpsed at her lover and frowned. “Women and children, Beatrix. You have to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” With that, Ms. Proudmoore was rushing to assist the raven-haired cyborg.

In Beatrix Zulenka’s brain, none of this made a lick of sense. Risking their livelihood for strangers? On a whim?

The (former?) sellsword took a moment to check the condition of her crossbow before unbuckling her longsword. Up ahead, Seventeen had already leapt from his chocobo and crashed into a group of about four armored soldiers.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

Beatrix joined the battle.
 

Beatrix III

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As if a castle siege was just another day at the office, Beatrix swiftly outrode her companions, longsword in hand. As her horse pierced into the enemy line, her blade met flesh with a calculated strike that removed the somebodies’ arm. Turning her horse, the redhead immediately turned and headed to the rear of the column. As soon as she was a decent distance away, a giant inferno erupted from where she had previously been. Jaina had arrived on the scene, her eyes glowing blue with arcane energies. As a dozen of the besiegers broke off to attack Beatrix, she skillfully dismounted and kicked her horse in the butt, startling the beast into running away. Sheathing the longsword on her back the woman drew two her short swords and walked casually towards the oncoming warriors. With a wicked grin, Beatrix feinted past the first man and slit his throat on the way by; plunging the blade of her left blade into another man’s throat she ripped it out and showered the next with his blood. Picking up another warrior by the throat she threw him into the oncoming crowd of soldiers.

Despite their questions as to who she was the redhead remained silent. They had encircled the Phoenix, and she could hear nothing but her heartbeat. She broke out laughing as the first man led with the tip of his sword. Knocking the blade to the side, the mistress twirled around and closed the gap, plunging her blade through his throat and out the back of his head. As he fell, she wrenched the blade free, giggling as she raised both blades to stop a chop from an incoming Sergeant at Arms. Another two took this opportunity to move in but found their skulls impaled by the coagulated blood pool forming on the ground. Two spears had sprung up from the crimson liquid and defended the redhead.

Her companions were faring equally as well. Jaina had knocked a hole through a newly built siege tower with a beam of arcane energy. Seventeen had taken on several waves of guards. Jaina arrived at a circle of dead and impaled soldiers just as Beatrix was cleaning the blood off of her blades and sheathing them.

“Tell me. How many sieges have you been in?” The blond asked.

“More than twenty. Arcadia isn’t the jewel everyone thinks it is.”

Beatrix whistled for their mounts as Seventeen finished up. Three combatants standing in the middle of a detachment of dead besiegers was going to look awkward.

“Time to find that army.” The redhead said, mounting up.

“What made you change your tune?” Seventeen asked, puzzled.

She made eye contact, her blood red eyes sizzling with magic energy, pondering a reply based on his previous remark. Deciding against anything she rode past him towards the castle wall. Jaina sighed and followed suit not knowing what she was getting into.

“You can’t expect to take on an entire army.” Proudmoore tried to reason with her.

“Watch me.” The redhead said, now becoming annoyed.

“Beatrix...”

“No. Fuck you. You guys want to be self-righteous? We can do that. I’m fighting this fucking army!” She was screaming at this point, her eyes lighting up with red energy.

Beatrix’s horse was suddenly much more agile than Seventeen’s Chocobo or Jaina’s and began to outrun them. As they rounded the wall, the group came upon the actual siege. It was encamped behind the keep wall, guarding what looked like a freshly dug mine leading into the ground beneath the castle. The Mistress knew this to be a sapper’s fire tactic. They were going to dig to the wooden supports of the keep and then herd in pigs to set on fire. As the woman charged forward, her red hair began to glow. The eyes on her mount turned red, the mud beneath its’ hooves turning to crimson blood. A horn from the enemy encampment signaled the incoming blood mage as a renewed volley from the castle walls rained down upon the enemy army.

What are you doing?

Joining him.

What about her?

She’s coming too.


By the time Beatrix collided with the enemy army she was a red blur. Leaping from the horse, which exploded into acidic blood that began to melt the flesh of those who had the misfortune of touching it, the redhead drew both of her elven daggers and sliced her way into the enemy camp.

“To arms! To arms!” A nearby commander shouted.

Skillfully drawing upon the knives from her belt the woman silenced him. As his gurgling form shrank to the ground, she spun around like a blender slicing those who had gotten too close. Tossing both blades in opposite directions and into two different targets the blood mage slapped her hands together and formed a spear of liquid crimson. Slicing through multiple targets at a time the tip would only solidify as it met contact with armor or flesh. Any other time the entire weapon was a suspended fluid that the woman wielded with precise and deadly precision. A nearby explosion of fire signaled the arrival of Jaina, followed by a beam of arcane energy that sliced through bodies like a hot knife through butter.

The blond had never seen Beatrix unleash this much blood magic before. The blood that had begun to pool on the ground began spiking upwards whenever a perceived enemy stepped into it, impaling him or her through the core, leaving them to writhe in agony. Zulenka was covered in blood, her visage locked into a stern and focused demeanor. Tossing the spear, it landed in the middle of a Sergeant’s chest and impaled him to another one of his buddies who had the unfortunate luck to live. Walking over to the man who had lost the feeling in his legs and was now crawling away begging for his life she grinned wickedly. Shoving the spear deeper into the soldier before wrenching it free in the most painful way she knew the Mistress turned to face the rest of the encampment around them.

“Beatrix!” Jaina shouted as she cantered over atop her horse.

At hearing the blondes voice, a giant explosion of blood magic burst forth from the redhead’s chest. A massive sanguine phoenix began to flap its’ way above the encamped army, growing as it absorbed the blood from the battlefield. An ear-splitting bird cry signaled the release of the power as Beatrix collapsed into a prepared Jaina’s arms.

“Beatrix!? Wake up!” Jaina shouted.

The woman was limp in her arms, blood running down her face from her eyes, nose, and mouth. With a low growl, the sorceress clenched one hand shut, her eyes turning bright blue, and with a splash of water conjured a frost elemental into existence.

“Sentry mode!” The blonde commanded as she laid the redhead flat onto her back amidst the muck and grime of the battlefield.

Almost immediately the elemental began firing off razor-sharp icicles into the crowds of soldiers who were mustering to defend their attempts on the castle. Jaina held her ear close to Beatrix’s face, and her expression changed to one of horror as Seventeen rode up.

“She’s not breathing!” The sorceress said, her voice wavering with emotion.

Compressed the redhead’s chest just beside her left breast the blond pinched her lovers’ nose and, making mouth to mouth contact, exhaled deeply into her lungs only to repeat the chest compressions. Beatrix awoke with a start, retching fresh blood onto the ground beside her from within her lungs.

“Well, that didn’t quite work…the way I wanted.” She coughed.

“No…it did.” Jaina pointed upward at the giant phoenix flying above the encamped army.

Gripping the blonde by her braid, Beatrix pulled Jaina close and pressed her blood moistened lips to hers. She delved her tongue into the sorceress’ mouth. Using her other hand, she took a firm grasp of one of Proudmoore’s ample breasts. Once she was satisfied the redhead pulled away and wiped her mouth, getting to her feet in the process.

“Thanks, Blondie. I needed that.” She held out of a hand which Jaina took, rising to her feet, her face beet red.

“Now I believe we have a siege to stop,” Zulenka said as she wrenched out both of her elven daggers from two nearby corpses.

“About damn time,” Seventeen remarked.
 

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There was a brief lull in the battle as the dripping, shrieking blood-bird crested up above the mob of soldiers. Its wings snapped out to their full span, blotting out the sun for just a fleeting moment before the creature twisted its body and started a rapid, dive-bombing descent to the surface.

Seventeen grimaced as the phoenix let out a final schree and slammed into the center of the fracas. In an instant, a massive wave of thick, ichorous blood erupted across the fields of battle, and for a fleeting moment, the cyborg literally saw red. Stumbling backwards, he instinctively started to claw at his face, peeling away fistfuls of sticky, crimson matter until only a thinly translucent sheen remained over his field of vision.

Many of the soldiers had broken whatever ranks they had managed to sustain during the fight with the three. Confused screams and the angry shouts of NCOs filled the air as a vainglorious attempt was made to rally the confused, psychologically damaged soldiers back into their proper stances and positions.

Seemingly unfazed by the display, Trixie slipped forward into the carnage once more. Her blades slipped across throats and thighs as she continued her precision massacre of the now thoroughly routed platoon. Seventeen paused to watch as the woman ducked an errant sword swing, slashed a man’s Achilles, and then let him impale himself on her short swords when he toppled backwards. Before he could see how she managed to unearth her weapons from an armored ribcage, the cyborg had a sword sailing at his own face.

Ducking beneath the errant swing, Seventeen slammed the pommel of the Power Sword into his attacker’s gut. When the man cried out, the machine-hybrid sent a burst of ki through his mouth and out the back of his neck. After discarding the corpse, he craned his neck again to see that the besieging army’s encampment was on fire.

“You need to watch!” Seventeen yelled at Jaina—trying to be heard over the screams and the clash of steel. He saw the woman turn to face him, and her head tilted to the side. “You’re going to set the entire forest on fire,” he shouted as he gestured to the tall pine trees that were within a few dozen feet of the city walls.

A thumbs up was the only response the cyborg received before a group of metal-coated figures jumped at him. He was gone in a swirl of lights, leaving the soldiers to crash into one another and collapsed into a crumpled heap on the ground. The cyborg smirked as he reappeared a few feet behind the trio and shifted his focus to where Beatrix was taking on a crowd of comers. Before he could join the woman in combat, he heard the squeal of metal and the rattle of heavy chains.

Seventeen twisted his torso and immediately tracked the loud noises to the sight of the city’s wrought iron portcullis winching upward into its gatehouse.

From the inside of the besieged city, a well-ordered formation of soldiers sallied forth—their shields locked and spears jutting forth. With a smile, the cyborg plucked a shield up from a dead besieger and rushed to join the final push of the battle.
 

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The castle defenders took this opportunity to unite and charge the ranks of the broken besieging forces.

“You!”

The voice held more authority than most of the men she had killed today. Beatrix removed her blades from the man she was killing and turned to face who had spoken to her. Before her stood the enemy commander, clad in full plate, bastard sword drawn and readied. She could see the man’s eyes behind the visor on his helmet. They bore a look of confusion and shock.

“How were you able to do this!?” He barked.

“Your men don’t know how to siege a castle properly. You left your flanks wide open to attack. I saw an opportunity, and I took it.” The redhead replied as she dropped into a fighting stance.

The commander led first with his blade. Crossing her swords, Beatrix caught the thrust and pushed the blade to the side before rotating counterclockwise. As she did, the woman drove her blade toward the man’s center mass, but he was no slouch. Feinting backward he narrowly missed having his torso pierced between the sections of the plate he wore. Zulenka wasn’t going to be able to just casually kill this guy. Unlike most of her other opponents, he was completely armored and knew what he was doing.

“I am Commander Faust for the Kingdom of Merania! You shall die by my hand!” The man shouted as he lunged forward.

With a clockwise spin, Trixie brought both of her blades to bear upon the bastard sword. As they entered the clinch, the woman felt cold steel pierce her side which made her blood magic explode outward. A lowly soldier had stabbed her in the stomach to save his commander, but following this action, the blood on the ground had coagulated into a spear and taken his life. Beatrix felt the warm flow of blood from the wound run down her right leg. Eyeing the slits for vision in the man's helmet she formulated an idea.

The two were still locked in the clinch as she dropped one of her swords to the ground and rotated her left hand clockwise, bringing his blade to the ground. Using her free hand, she skillfully planted a throwing knife through the visor of the commander. The man immediately dropped his weapon and clawed at his helmet trying to remove the blade. With a swift palm strike, the Mistress hit the butt of her knife and forced the blade into Faust’s brain killing him. The enemy commander dropped, and the rest of his army began to crumble as the cavalry from the castle began their sweep of the battlefield. A fleshy thud threw the woman from her feet onto her back into the muddy field. An arrow had landed in her left shoulder just near her heart.

Beatrix laughed and sat up, taking hold of the arrow she snapped off the tail of it and tossed it aside.

“Two commanders, eh?” She said, staring at the woman before her who had knocked and drawn another arrow.

The second enemy commander was standing in front of Beatrix, her bow drawn, pointed directly at her face. As the woman loosed the arrow, the area around her began to glow with arcane energy. The arrow was caught just as it pressed against Beatrix’s forehead, allowing the redhead to crawl backward and cover her face as the commander before her exploded into a hellish storm of purple energy, her organs and entrails showering the Assassin.

“Jeez, Jaina. As if I’m not dirty enough.”

“You’re welcome.” The blond said as she reached out a hand and pulled her lover up to her feet.

The woman placed a hand over her side where her knife wound was and pressed her palm against it. She could feel the warm crimson liquid flow between her fingers as it seeped through her leather armor.

“You hit twice?” Jaina asked as she opened the messenger bag around her torso and pulled out some bandages.

“Yeah, punk stabbed me while I was fighting his commander,” Beatrix said as she pressed firmly on her stab wound.

“Here. Move your hand.” Jaina ordered, unraveling a cotton bandage.

Pressing the thick pad of cotton to the puncture site on Beatrix’s waist she wrapped the linen straps around her like a belt and tied them in a knot, applying direct pressure to the wound and stemming the blood flow.

“The arrow will have to come out later when you’re lying down. If I pull it out now, I risk causing further damage. It’s too close to your heart.”

“Just like you.” Beatrix formed a toothy smile, blood running down the corner of her mouth.

“Okay. You’re light-headed, Missy. C’mon.” Jaina said with a chuckle as she wrapped one Zulenka’s arms around her neck and hobbled her over to a horse.

The redhead put her fingers to her lips and whistled sharply, calling her horse from the coagulated blood on the battlefield. The blood reformed and hardened, magically becoming the horse she had rode initially into battle. Gripping the saddle, the woman pulled herself up and with a wince of incredible pain wrapped her legs around, seating them firmly in the stirrups. The besieging army was fleeing the battlefield, leaving behind everything they had used to set up camp. Trumpets blared as the cavalry from the castle turned and started making its way over to their saviors. Seventeen arrived on his Chocobo to see Beatrix slumped in her saddle, her hair covering her face. He eyed the blood saturated bandage on her waist.

“Is she going to be okay?”

Jaina looked up from her journal and immediately got down from her horse upon seeing what Seventeen had mentioned.

“Goddammit. Babe, you gotta stay with me, okay?” The blond said as she took hold of the assassin’s chin, shaking her head.

“Stay awake! Once we’re in the city, I’ll be able to treat you.”

The trumpets blared once more as another section of cavalry exited the city. This time it looked to be royal. Jaina hand her hand pressed against Beatrix’s stab wound, her other hand against the woman’s carotid artery.

“Her pulse is slowing, Seventeen.” The blond said, taking a small glass phial from her pouch.

Uncapping the little needle, she inserted the syrette into Beatrix’s thigh at a shallow angle and emptied its contents just as the first members of the Royal Guard arrived.
 

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It had taken a few minutes, but Beatrix Zulenka had managed to regain her senses enough to make the trek into Lodis. The woman, who had suffered a menagerie of crippling injuries, had been pieced back together with a variety of bandages, splints, and a cocktail of drugs and some wine rations from soldiers happy to be free of the Meranian soldiers.

“Does this happen often?” The cyborg asked Jaina as the three were guided through a clapping crowd of soldiers and citizens. “Do her blood powers make it so she can bleed galloons and keep moseying?”

The sorceress snickered despite the scowl from her sweat-stained companion. “That may have something to do with it. A lot of it is also luck.”

Seventeen nodded slowly. “Man, for someone who is supposed to be an elite soldier, you sure do get mangled a lot.”

“Shuddup,” Beatrix slurred, more so from her fat lip than any of the liquor rations or opium salves.

After a ten minute trek through crowds of happy people, the trio was diverted down a side street that led up to the elaborate castle. Their escort guided them through a wrought iron door in the shadows of the castle and up through a variety of twisting passageways.

“So,” Seventeen started as the trio walked through another slim corridor. His comment pulled the women’s eyes to him for a fleeting moment. “You ever do this before?”

“What?” Beatrix replied. “Walk through a poorly illuminated hallway?”

The cyborg blinked heavily before a response found its way up his throat. “Meet a king, you nit,” he shot back as the pair of footmen in front of them jogged up ahead to unlock the pair of heavy doors near the end of the hall.

“No,” Jaina whispered. “Zamara was ruled by a council and a bunch of plutocrats.”

“Speak for yourself, Blondie.” Beatrix’s tone twisted her companion’s focus over to the smirking assassin. “A long time ago, I got a commendation from the old guy who used to run Arcadia. I was part of this covert operation that beat up a bunch of would-be terrorists. They gave us all medals, coin purses, and pats on the back.” She paused for a few beats as something swirled about in her head before taking concrete form. “Come to think of it, that was some of the best booze I’ve ever drank. The top-shelf shit, you know?”

Jaina, ignoring her companion’s long-standing crutch, asked what seemed to be, from Seventeen’s perspective, something that would have been best saved for another time. “I’ve seen no such medals from the Kingdom of Arcadia in your things.”

“When they burned Vladimir’s possessions after he passed, they accidentally lumped some of the effects from our bedroom into the pyre. The medal perished with my late husband’s plague-addled bed sheets and clothes.”

The white-haired woman’s cheeks flushed red with the realization that her innocent questioning had unearthed pained memories. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Beatrix replied. The woman’s voice was softer than a whisper, and it was clear to the cyborg that she had just barely managed to hold down a few tears.

“Hey!” Seventeen declared as the door’s split open in front of them. “It’s showtime.”

The trio filed into a vast room near the rear of the castle. High over their heads, a massive chandelier hung from crisscrossing wooden beams. With no electricity, the light that shined down upon them was provided by several dozen candles. As he tried to count the flickering flames, Seventeen secretly hoped that there was something magical about the illumination. Otherwise, he wouldn’t want to meet the guy who had to climb up there to replace the candles when they eventually burnt out.

The walls of the chamber were adorned with stained-glass windows that depicted proud warriors, devout saints, chaste women, and wizened monks. Between the depictions of the kingdom’s historical figures, there were long banners depicting the Lodian coat of arms. A quick scan showed that they were entering through a side passage—the front of the room had an even larger pair of double doors that opened onto a wide purple carpet. Both sides of said runner were filled with pews…

“Is this a fucking church?” Seventeen asked a little too loudly as they approached the slightly elevated platform at the back of the large room.

“It used to be,” a voice spoke from the pair of thrones that dominated the rear of the chamber. The speaker was a man in his late fifties who lifted himself from the larger of the two thrones and descended the small staircase that lay before him. “Generations ago, this city was founded around a church, which had provided protection for travelers and sanctuary for farmers or nomads who were down on their luck.

“When people began to settle permanently in this region, the church remained a focal point of the community. It grew with the settlement, and eventually, it became a part of the sprawling castle complex that marked the consolidation of the Kingdom of Lodis. What you see around you is what remains of that church.”

Seventeen saw that most of the people around him were kneeling, and he suddenly found himself feeling extremely uncomfortable.

“Don’t look like that,” the king spoke, reading the look on the young man’s face. “Rise,” he boomed after turning his focus to the courtiers who dotted the elevated throne dais. Once everyone was back on their feet, he started to wave a few of them from the chamber. “Skeleton crew only, for this one.”

A young man with stern, unwavering eyes stepped forward and glared at the trio before opening his mouth. “But what if they—”

“Nonsense,” the king interrupted. “If they were spies or saboteurs, I’ve already given them plenty of opportunities to murder me, let alone the nice young men who guided them here.”

“I still object, Milord.”

“Your objection is noted, Baron Zemski, but I am firm in my stance. These three, if they wanted it, could likely kill us all. The young man wields the power of the sun, the white-haired lady manipulates the elements, and the lass with the crimson tresses has years of combat experience and yields her own humors as deadly weapons.”

Seventeen raised a hand. “I just want to point out that I totally have years of combat experience.”

“Heh,” Beatrix grunted.

“No, seriously,” the cyborg shot back. “I was, like, this villainous super-assassin when I was a teenager. A teenager!”

“Cute.” Beatrix said with a wink. “I’m sure you killed all those good guys, and that you did it with the perfect blend of angst and sexual frustration.”

The cyborg swung and cracked the woman on the shoulder, and the spellsword seemed primed to retaliate when the harsh sound of Jaina clearing her throat pulled them back to the situation at hand.

“Thank you so much for this audience, King Reynard,” Jaina spoke in her best ambassador tone.

“Please,” the monarch replied before giving a dismissive wave of his hand at the comment. “The three of you broke a months’ long siege and shattered a platoon of Merania’s finest soldiers. If anyone should be expressing gratitude, it should be me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Seventeen spoke. “We were just passing through the neighborhood.”

King Reynard smiled and gave a short nod. “What brought you out to our ‘neighborhood’?”

“Traveling.” Jaina replied.

“Yea, we were kicked out of the last place,” Seventeen finished for his new friend, prompting Jaina to visibly grit her teeth.

A short laugh escaped the king as he gestured for them to follow him up onto the dais. They trailed the older man as the remaining members of the royal retinue crept closer—still untrusting of the trio of outlanders. “I’m sure that their loss will be the gain of Lodis.” He spoke as he turned around and sat back onto his throne. “I apologize for this, but I’m not as young and spry as I once was, you see. I’ve lived the equivalent of a long life filled with great hardships and great rewards. I need to rest my bones.”

“Understandable.” Beatrix replied as the redhead glanced over her shoulder at the site of a visibly uneasy porter staring at her from behind a podium. The man, upon seeing her gaze, wilted almost immediately. His eyes fell to the book that lay before him, and he went back to whatever secretarial or financial business he was handling inside the tome.

“I’ll be short, because I don’t want to bore you all to sleep,” King Reynard began. “My Kingdom has been under siege for nearly all of my adult life. My father died when he was ten years younger than me, and his father passed away after just as many years on this mortal coil.”

Seventeen raised a hand and spoke. “Life is that hard out here?”

Reynard smiled and shook his head. “Yes and no. For nearly five generations, the Kingdom of Lodis has been engaged in a blood feud with her neighbor to the north and neighbor to the southeast. That would be the Kingdom of Merania and the Kingdom of the Idrisids, respectively. All three of the kingdoms go back hundreds of years, with each claiming some distant connection to the old Arcadian dynasty. All three have been feuding over these realms long before anyone was calling themselves kings or dukes.”

“That’s like where I’m from,” Seventeen spoke, pulling the attention of not just the king but also his two female companions. “The planet is sort of… divided into zones of influence centered on major cities. Every now and again, the cities will go to war, but for the most part, it’s a lot of posturing and peacocking than all-out warfare.”

“I wish I could say our situation was akin to yours,” King Reynard spoke softly. “It has been nearly six years since the last armed conflict between our peoples. That siege was predated by an ambush that decimated by armies, and if you couldn’t tell, I believe it was only your arrival that broke the siege.”

“Don’t downplay your people,” Beatrix whispered.

The king heard her, but if he was offended, he didn’t show it. “I never would, Milady, but everyone has their limits. The Meranians were targeting not just our solders, but also our women, children, and infirm. They wanted nothing but the total decimation of Lodis. If not for the threat of the Idrisids to keep their main army on standby, I fear that the Meranian flag would hang in these halls.”

“Glad to be of service, King Reynard,” Jaina replied.

The old king shifted on his throne for a few moments before he gestured to someone the trio couldn’t spot. “I will cut to the chase. My kingdom is desperate. For nearly my entire reign, my people and I have been losing ground in the arm’s race against our rivals. I am not an overly spiritual man, but I believe it was fate… or the will of the Arbiters, perhaps, that brought you to my kingdom today.

“I do not know your life stories, but I know that you are vagabonds. I am willing to offer you a home, if you will stay and offer your services, both physical and mental, to my kingdom.” One of the ladies must have made a face, because Seventeen saw the monarch’s expression waver briefly. “Beyond a home, I offer you status. While I cannot offer you land while the threat of an army marching upon our peripheries is so high, I offer you the title that would go with it—that of baron and baroness.”

“What do you need from us?” Jaina asked before Beatrix could open her mouth to say anything suspect.

“Your expertise,” King Reynard decreed once more. “I know you are skilled warriors and mages. You control the elements, blood, and even the very light around us. Three of you bested a platoon of Merania’s vanguard, and I doubt that it was simply luck and the element of surprise. I offer you funds and materials that you may use to help train our soldiers and even acquire some of your own.”

“What happens to us if this war ends?” Beatrix inquired. “Do we get brushed aside back into the wilds from whence we came?” Her words dripped venom, but they didn’t seem to cause the king any visible grief.

“You will forever be welcome in these halls,” the king answered without pause. “I will not live forever, and the succession is…” Reynard glimpsed to see that none of his retinue was within earshot before whispering the next section. “The succession is not yet secured. I have daughters but not yet a son, and when my heir is born, I hope he will have a few powerful god parents.”

Beatrix scowled. “Are you daughters not fit to rule?”

“Politics,” Reynard replied. “In the three kingdoms, it is better for a usurper to take the throne than a woman. It’s not progressive, but it is our ways, as it has always been.”

“It’s garbage,” Trixie spoke beneath her breath before Jaina elbowed her.

“Will you join us?” King Reynard inquired as he drew a ceremonial sword from the side of the throne. “If you want no part of this, I will be more than welcome to have my staff outfit you with fresh clothes and provisions before your departure to further parts unknown.

Seventeen stepped forward. “I’m down.” He spoke before either of the ladies had their chance. “I’ve never been a fancy pants nobleman before.”

“I don’t believe I yet know your name, Light Bender.”

“I’m Seventeen.”

“Seventeenth what?” The monarch replied.

The cyborg opened his mouth, but it was Beatrix who spoke first.

“His name is Steve.”

“Ah,” the monarch replied as he lifted the ceremonial sword and tapped it on both of the young man’s shoulders. “Welcome to the Kingdom of Lodis, Baron Stephen the Seventeenth.”

The raven-haired man’s cheeks reddened as he turned back and glared at a snickering Beatrix. When he mouthed some choice words at her, she descended into a fit of cackles that came to a stop only with another elbow jab from Jaina.
 
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Beatrix III

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The sun was setting below the horizon as Jaina knelt in front of King Reynard, his sword gracefully touching each of her shoulders. The blond pushed Beatrix forward and forced her to one knee. The redhead winced in pain as her stab wound made itself known to her once more. The redhead bowed her head as the King placed his blade upon each of her shoulders and named them both Baroness’. A flash of light filled the darkened throne room followed shortly by a rumble of thunder and the patter of rain on the church roof.

“Now that you are titled you may use the castle facilities at your leisure. I am sure you must be weary from your travels. My guards will show you to your rooms. The keep has two full sized bedrooms available for you on the second floor. I have a few things to attend to before I retire for the evening.”

With a nod to his guards the King stood and took his leave. One of the royal guards beckoned to Seventeen to follow.

“We’ll meet up with you tomorrow, Seventeen. I need to get her situated,” Jaina said wrapping Beatrix’s arm around her neck, lifting the visibly shaken woman to her feet.

Seventeen could see the sweat on Zulenka’s face and the bright red liquid that was piercing through the previous clotted bandages. They had gone straight from the battlefield to meet the King and this entire time Beatrix had had an arrow lodged in her shoulder and an untreated stab wound on her waist. The only thing keeping her going was a morphine syrette Jaina had used, but it was wearing off, and every soldier has limits.

“Alright. Are you going to need help treating her?” The raven-haired cyborg asked.

Jaina shook her head. “I’ll manage. This isn’t the first time nor the worst it’s ever been.”

As a pair of guards led their companion away, a second set arrived to bring the two women to their room. One of the armor-clad men picked up Beatrix and followed behind his counterpart. The rain outside was coming down in sheets, the storm grew worse as the night progressed. Jaina was led through winding corridors and narrow passageways until they finally reached the stairs for the keep. Upon reaching the second floor, they passed Seventeen’s room and headed to the end of the hall. Upon coming to a room with a brass tub that was mildly humid, one the guards set Beatrix down by a bench.

“This is the washroom for this floor. Your room is across the hall. Should you need anything ring the bell, and one of the chambermaids will assist you.”

Jaina nodded and ushered the two armor-clad men from the room as Beatrix collapsed to the floor.

“Hang on, babe.” The blond reassured as she reached into her bag and removed a leather bit.

Placing it in the redhead's mouth just as a seizure took hold, Jaina began to undo the buckles on her lovers’ armor. Removing her knife belt and various weapons she tossed them into a corner of the washroom. The sorceress ran her hand through Zulenka’s hair and cooed softly. Undoing the leather jerkin that held her torso armor together she peeled away the blood-soaked material. The bleeding had been much worse than Jaina previously thought. She had to be quick. Ripping the woman’s blood-soaked shirt open, she exposed her flesh. Pressing her hand firmly against the entry point where the arrow was protruding, Jaina applied pressure before quickly yanking the projectile from its place. Tossing it aside she ignited her finger with molten elemental energy and inserted it swiftly into the hole. Beatrix’s flesh sizzled as the bleeding wound was cauterized. Jaina removed her finger and began undoing the woman’s trousers. Once she had them loosened the sorceress moved to Beatrix’s boots. Removing each one allowed the woman to remove her pants to get access to her stab wound. It had narrowly missed anything important but still needed to be sewn up. As the blond reached into her bag, she found a small sewing kit just as Beatrix’s seizure ended. Spitting the leather bit onto the floor, she groaned in pain.

“Hang in their babe. We’ll get you into that tub, and you’ll feel one hundred percent better.” The sorceress reassured as she carefully stitched shut the stab wound her lover had received.

Tying off the thread and discarding the bloody needle, Proudmoore finished removing Zulenka’s clothes before stripping herself. Lifting her naked girlfriend off the floor, Jaina stepped into the warm bath water and sat down, floating Beatrix into her lap. The bath water almost immediately began to turn red as the sorceress scrubbed the nearly unconscious Beatrix clean.

“Almost done, sweetheart. Stay with me.” Jaina said as she pulled Zulenka’s head back into the water to rinse her hair.

Beatrix was floating in and out of consciousness by the time Jaina got her out of the tub. Using the supplied medical bin, she was able to fashion bandages for the woman’s wounds and carry her off into the next room where their bed was. Pulling back the covers she slipped the freshly washed Beatrix into the king-sized bed and pulled them back. Taking another morphine syrette from her affects the sorceress inserted it into Beatrix’s thigh and injected the pain-relieving liquid. With a sigh, Jaina placed a hand to her lovers’ forehead and watched her drift off into medication-assisted sleep. Still naked herself, the blond returned to the washroom to finish her ablutions.

Upon returning to the bedroom, the sorceress pulled down her side of the covers and crawled into the king-sized bed. Beatrix was fast asleep; the pain medication having taken effect. Taking a cursory glance, Jaina noted that neither of her lovers’ bandages were red. The bleeding had stopped. Inching her way close to the redhead she wrapped her arm around Beatrix and pulled her head onto her exposed bosom. Letting herself get lost in the comfort of the pillows behind her, Jaina fell into the realm of sleep with Beatrix’s head on her chest.

It was a little slice of heaven.
 

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The cyborg glanced at himself in the mirror.

They’d been at the castle for a few days now, and in that time, he liked to believe he had adapted to this strange new place with all the knack of a hyperactive chameleon. Having shed the tattered garments bequeathed to him by Beatrix and Jaina however many weeks ago, he’d acquired fresh new clothes shortly after his arrival in Lodis. While similar to the garb from Zamara, this gear was clearly made with finer materials and by nimbler hands. The seams were perfect, and the inner layers were made of thin material that didn’t immediately cause him to sweat or chafe.

“Looking good, Steve,” he muttered to his reflection as he adjusted his collar and smoothed out his tunic.

In the aftermath of the siege, there had been, according to a few of the handmaidens, a ‘lull’ in political activity. The shock of Merania’s failed attack had been felt throughout the region, with that setback causing the kingdom a fair degree of instability among its ruling circle. Unaware of how to process the situation, the third kingdom, the Idrisids, had opted to wait and watch before making their next move. That meant that Lodis had time to breath, regroup, and repair its fractured capital city.

Seventeen made his way out into the little corridor at the front of his ‘suite’ and took a deep breath of the aromatic air that usually filtered through this section of the castle complex. They were adjacent to where the food was prepared for the denizens of the structure, so it wasn’t uncommon for the halls to smell like a (usually) lovely hodgepodge of herbs and spices.

“Cinnamon and bergamot,” the machine-hybrid spoke to no one in particular as he strode down the short hall. The steel-reinforced door at the end of the five foot jaunt was locked every night and separated Seventeen’s quarters from a larger hall that connected to various identical suites just like the one given to him by the king. From what he had heard, these were almost always temporary places given to foreign dignitaries, diplomats, or people with high-profiles who were staying in the castle. The last resident of the cyborg’s particular suite had been another count who was in town to handle some bureaucratic business related to farmlands to the east of the castle.

Seventeen locked the door and stuffed the key into his pocket. Whoever the count had been, he had left the whole place smelling like freshly dug potatoes for two days. Count Potatoes, whoever he was, had also left a variety of weird notes around the room. Apparently, the man was a bit of an introvert, and he had passed the day by scribbling his thoughts down onto paper. Unlike any sane person, he had opted to leave them scattered in the suite, and since Seventeen doubted there was turndown service provided at Castle Lodis, the notes had been left for him to discover at random points in his first few days.

“Met with Queen – Doesn’t understand basic math. Sad!”

“They accuse me of fabrications regarding land demarcations… False! My enemies are everywhere.”


The cyborg shook away the man’s thoughts and made his way toward the source of the food aroma. It was a little passed noon, which meant the chefs would have served lunch over an hour ago. Seventeen had learned that it was better to show up close to an hour late, because he wouldn’t have to wait in line or exchange angry glares with someone over the fate of the last remaining scone or biscuit. That was something that wasn’t worth stressing about when the food got replenished.

Within a matter of minutes, Seventeen was seated at a wooden booth table in the corner of the ‘visitor lounge.’ The room was designed like some sort of ‘great northern mead hall’, complete with animal trophies and bare wooden logs serving as the material for ninety percent of the room and its furniture. Fortunately, the motif didn’t mean the room only contained long tables, because Seventeen enjoyed his small little table in the corner. More than anything, he liked to slowly eat his food and watch the comers and goers from the rustic dining hall.

On this day, the cyborg would have a gear thrown into his routine.

As he settled into the booth with his plate of roasted ribs and mashed potatoes, Seveteen felt a shadow fall over him. Setting his fork down, he glanced up in time to see the sorceress as she slid into the booth across from him. The white-haired woman pushed her braided hair over her shoulder as she stabbed a fork into the slab of meat on her plate.

“So why did you dye your hair?” Seventeen asked before plopping a chunk of meat into his maw. The food was likely undercooked, but that was the way he preferred it. There was nothing more pleasant than raw steak, booze, and buttery potatoes.

“Not a dye job,” Jaina remarked casually between scoops of potato. Once she had momentarily satisfied herself, she stabbed the fork back into its pork chop scabbard. “Mana bomb.”

“A what?” Seventeen asked as he mouthed another chunk of cooked animal tissue.

“Mana bomb,” Jaina reiterated, as if the knowledge should have been commonplace. When she didn’t see the man’s expression change, she momentarily furrowed her brow. “Explosive. Magic explosive. Fueled by arcane energy and designed to kill spell casters.”

“Why, pray tell, did someone try to blow you up with a magic bomb?”

Jaina sneered even as she finished chewing her mouthful. “Politics.”

The cyborg lifted a brow. “You some killer assassin back where you came from?”

“Worse.” Jaina whispered as she took a sip of watered down wine. “I was a politician.”

Seventeen gasped and covered his mouth with the tips of his fingers. “A dubious and dastardly dishonor.”

The sorceress snickered as she swished around the wooden mug. From the expression on her face, she had likely added too much water. “I try not to think too much on it. Truth be told, I can’t even recall how I wound up in this place. The memories are blurred together.”

“I was fighting a dragon.” Seventeen interjected nonchalantly, eliciting a furrow of Jaina’s brow.

“From which flight?”

The cyborg shook his head. “Not a fantasy dragon,” he muttered before realizing that the creatures were likely not fantastical creatures in either Jaina’s old world or the very strange one he currently inhabited. “Like a dragon but also like a person… kind of. Two feet but with scales and wings and lightning breath.”

“Not Azerothian,” Jaina mumbled before another sip and mouthful of potatoes.

Seventeen smirked. “I guess not,” he remarked as he pantomimed a toast to the woman. “Just a dead person who fell through a blackhole.”

“Blackhole?”

“Empty void in space. Sucks everything into it… something else about swallowing light or some sciencey shit.”

Jaina’s brow creased once again. “You think that brought you here?”

“Fuck, if I didn’t know any better,” Seventeen paused to literally chew his thought over before speaking. “I’d say that shit probably did more than that. I’m probably nonexistent, and this is all some fever dream as I swirl the cosmic toilet to my infinite demise. Or I got split up across all of fucking space time. Like, imagine there’s just some me out there working as an inner-city teacher. Or maybe I’m working for some evil empire suppressing liberty. Or maybe I’m hanging out with a fucking turtle who speaks and likes guns. Maybe I’m alive again.” Seventeen shrugged. “Honestly? I’m not going to worry about it. This is what I have… whatever the fuck it might actually be. There ain’t nothing else but the here and now.”

“Now I will gladly drink to that,” Jaina said as she hoisted her mug.
 

Beatrix III

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Jaina had enjoyed her meal with Seventeen. It had let the white-haired sorceress forget their troubles for a while. Everything came crashing back once she had arrived back at her room. Beatrix had attempted to make her way out, but with her injuries had stumbled into their gear and torn her stitches. Proudmoore dropped the tray of food in surprise as she met Beatrix’s grinning face.

“Why?” Jaina asked as she pressed her hand to Zulenka’s abdomen to ebb the flow of blood.

“You ever think about finding someone else?” Beatrix countered, her voice straining.

“What? No!” The white-haired woman replied without hesitation.

“C’mon Jaina. I’m not worth it. Just let me bleed out.”

The woman’s words were sincere, and they cut Jaina to the core, but she knew Zulenka was in a bad place. The redhead gripped her lover by the robes and pulled her in close joining their lips together. Proudmoore felt the redhead’s tongue pierce through to her mouth as they both kissed.

“You are a very strange individual Mrs. Zulenka.” Jaina said as soon as she pulled away from the lavish kiss.

Placing Beatrix’s hand over the bleeding wound on her abdomen the whitehaired sorceress stood up and removed her outer robes, exposing the form fitting tunic and trousers she wore beneath. Lifting the redhead into her arms she carried Beatrix across the hall into the washroom, sealing the door behind them. Laying the assassin down on the floor, Jaina began to strip the blood-soaked bandages from their place. Her shoulder wound had managed to remain stitched and relatively dry throughout the night, but in her vain attempt at walking across the room Beatrix had ripped open the stab wound at her waist.

“You must have a bleeder in there somewhere, because this is bleeding more than it should. I’m going to have to cauterize it. Hold still.”

Jaina held two fingers over the bleeding wound and muttered something under her breath. Almost immediately her appendages began to glow white hot. Holding open the broken stitches Proudmoore dripped the liquid magical fire into the wound which immediately sizzled on contact with Beatrix’s flesh. The redhead squirmed and let out a low groan of pain.

“Fuck, Jaina. You sure do know how to show a girl a good time.”

Rolling her eyes, the sorceress squeezed the wound shut and began to sew it up once again.

“I’m not the twit who tore her stitches.”

“You moan in your sleep. Having some good sex in those dreams?”

Jaina turned beet red as she finished tying off the end of the suture.

A wide toothy grin spread across Beatrix’s face.

“It didn’t help that I had been playing with your nipples at one point.” The mistress said with a giggle.

“Let’s get you washed up and back in bed.” Proudmoore was blushing furiously trying to avoid the subject.

“That’s not the only thing I played with.” Zulenka said laughingly.

Jaina bit her lip as she took a clean rag and dipped it into a bucket of water she had fetched from the bath. Gently wiping away the blood from Beatrix’s body she got the assassin good and clean before picking her up again and carrying her into their assigned bedroom.

“Do you ever have doubts about being my girlfriend?” The Mistress asked as Jaina pressed another syrette into her thigh, emptying the contents and withdrawing the needle.

“No. Now be quiet while I go get you some food.” The sorceress said as she pulled the blankets over her lover.

Picking up the previous meal she had brought which had been spilled all over the floor the best she could, Jaina proceeded down to the mess hall to retrieve another helping of food.
***​
Another day went by before a knock came upon Beatrix and Jaina’s door. Leaving the passed-out redhead to her dreams the sorceress found a robe in the pile of clothing littered among the floor and cracked the wooden door.

“The King’s aide requests the presence of Mrs. Zulenka and of you Mrs. Proudmoore. Your other associate will meet you in the war room. I am to escort you as soon as you are able.” The aide spoke his piece, eyeing the tired woman before him.

“Alright. Give me a second to wake up sleeping beauty.”
 

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A few weeks after his lunch with Jaina, the cyborg found himself visited in the early hours of the morning by one of King Reynard’s retainers. With a sheepishness befitting a squirrely pageboy, the youth asked Seventeen to ‘dress the rest of the way’ and present himself in the antechamber of the ‘palazzo rendorum’ as soon as he was able.

Once he had thrown on a puffy black shirt and switched into pants that were more for show and less for sleeping, the raven-haired fighter wove his way through the network of corridors that would take him to his destination. He knew from his time gathering bits and pieces of gossip and information about the castle that his destination was a sort of spare meeting room for members of the royal retinue. That likely meant he could expect some stand-in for the king, rather than the old man himself. Not that it mattered, since Seventeen had since King Reynard all of once since they had been knighted and given a makeshift home in Lodis.

Along the route, Seventeen nodded and smirked at a variety of maids, butlers, and a bunch of other individuals with fancy-sounding titles that amounted to little more than glorified roles in the royal household. All his life, the cyborg had always gotten on well with the rabble of society, and the fact that he was somewhere else entirely didn’t seem to negatively impact his own unique version of animal magnetism.

At the end of his quick trek through the back hallways of the church-turned-sprawling castle complex, Seventeen arrived through a side door into the palazzo rendorum. His entrance brought the collected group quickly shifting on their heels and reaching for their waists.

“Keep your metal bits away,” Seventeen shouted with a faint smile as he lifted his hands. “I come in peace.”

The man who stood between the cyborg’s two female associates and a bunch of unknown faces scowled as he relaxed his posture and let his hand slip away from his sword handle. “The front entrance to his chamber is over there,” he spoke as he gestured toward the double doors behind his back.

“What can I say?” Seventeen began as he made his way toward the table where the group was amassed. “I like to make an entrance, I suppose.”

“Using the servant’s entrance isn’t making an entrance,” the king’s retainer muttered, but it must have been clear to him that he would have very little luck in shaming the grinning, pale-skinned man who slipped into a wooden chair and leaned both elbows onto the table.

“What are we here to discuss?” Seventeen asked as he turned to glance not at the king’s representative but at the blonde-haired Jaina Proudmoore. “Surely I’m late enough that I missed the boring stuff?”

Beatrix snickered as she sloppily dropped into one of the man chairs that surrounded the table. “Not all of it, I’m sure,” the red-haired assassin spoke loudly enough to be heard by everyone around her.

Realizing that he needed to move things along or lose any semblance of a meeting entirely, the king’s representative stepped forward, cleared his throat, and gestured to the necklace he wore. “My name is Jean-Pierre.”

“Nice to meet you, JP,” Seventeen interjected before shifting his eyes to the parchment pinned down to the heavy wooden table. “Are we going into this forest to blow stuff up, murder people dead, or some combination of both?”

“Neither,” Jaina replied, catching mirrored scowls from both Beatrix and Seventeen.

Jean-Pierre stepped forward and jabbed two of his fingers at a piece of the painted parchment that looked like a cave in the middle of a forest. If the gray blobs near the edge of the map were supposed to be the castle, Seventeen could see that there would be a bit of travel involved, unless the scale of the medieval campaign map was laughably large. “We have intelligence that reports that one of our dearest lords, Baron Tremblade, is being held in this grotto.”

“Grotto?” Seventeen muttered, turning his eyes to Beatrix.

“It’s a cave, but it’s fancy.”

“Fancy cave, got it,” the cyborg turned back to Jean-Pierre. “Go on, JP.”

The man’s left eye twitched just a little, but he didn’t let slip his composure as he gestured to some mountains a few inches away from the grotto. “The hills here are rife with riffraff.”

Seventeen leaned forward Beatrix and ‘whispered’ to his companion: “I wish I could alliterate like that.”

“This is serious business, you know.” Jean-Pierre declared. “Unless you’d like to permanently find yourself living among the housing staff, I recommend you take this very seriously.”

The cyborg, who had turned to face the young representative of the king, glimpsed back at the redhead. “That’s the fire, am I right? I’m sold.” Seventeen cleared his throat and pointed toward the grotto. “Rescue the Baron and kill the riffraff? Is that all we’re being tasked to do, Jean-Pierre?”

At the sound of his actual name, the king’s aide softened his posture and proceeded to shake his head. “We just want the rescue portion. The individuals that inhabit these hills provide a natural buffer against incurious from third parties, so the king would appreciate if they were left with all of their limbs attached.”

“Subtly, then?” Seventeen asked, eliciting a nod from Jean-Pierre. “You think that’d be easy with an assassin, a wizard, and someone who can teleport…”

“I’m subtle!” Beatrix shot back.

“Will you be sober for this one?” Seventeen fired back, leading to a tense few moments of silence before the pair both started to laugh out loud, resulting in Jaina clapping both on the back of the head before glimpsing across at a nonplussed Jean-Pierre.

“I assure you, Jean-Pierre, we will take care of the situation in a manner that is clean and concise, but one last question.”

“Of course, Ms. Proudmoore.

“How certain are you that this baron still lives? He has been missing for weeks now, has he not?”

“The king seeks closure, nothing more. If the baron is dead or cannot be found, that will suffice. Law dictates that the king exhausts all avenues, and this is the final one.”

“We’ll leave at sunset,” Jaina replied. “And we’ll be clear of mind and ever so focused on this task,” she added as she squeezed a little too harshly on the shoulders of her two companions.
 

Beatrix III

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In the weeks that had followed their arrival at the castle, Beatrix’s wounds had almost completely healed. Scar tissue had taken the place of sewn together skin and bleeding had been replaced by sore muscle where the knife and arrow had entered her body. The sun was descending below the horizon as Beatrix and Jaina entered the castle armory. The Mistress was completely decked out from head to toe in her blackened leather armor. The banded sheets of plate attached to various sections of her armor had been painted with a black oil to keep them from glimmering in the moon light. Beatrix had all her weapons secured and ready to go as she walked over to the wall and removed a crossbow. Jaina was dressed in similar leather armor, her hair braided into a single French braid. She had her staff which was the only weapon she’d ever need and her trusty canvas bag that always seemed to have whatever she needed in it. Seventeen arrived shortly after them already dressed in his chosen attire for their journey.

“Expecting to use that much?” He asked.

“Not this particular one, no. Proudmoore, if you please.” Beatrix replied, laying the crossbow on the table.

With a snap of her fingers and a blinding flash of light the light crossbow was remade into a Chinese repeating crossbow. Taking a bundle of bolts from a crate on the floor the redhead loaded the weapon’s hopper and cranked the mechanism once priming the bow and loading the first bolt into place. Taking a quiver from the supply the woman fastened it to her waist and filled it with as many bolts as it could hold.

“I fully expect that we’ll need to snipe guards or silently take someone out. We’re not going to kill everyone we see, obviously, but if we make a lot of noise approaching where they’re supposedly holding our mark, they might kill him.” The redhead explained as she slung the weapon around her shoulder with a makeshift strap made from a length of rope.

“Why do you think that?” Seventeen asked.

“It’s exactly what I would do.”

Jaina sighed as she heard her reply. “You’re not that person anymore.”

“That person is who keeps you alive, sweet cheeks.” Beatrix replied, lightly tapping one of Jaina’s cheeks with one of her gloved hands, her fingertips gently grazing the sorceress’ soft skin.

Proudmoore leaned into the touch and placed her hand over Zulenka’s.

“The sun is just about down. We ready?”

Gripping Jaina’s cloak Beatrix pulled the sorceress in close for a kiss before making her way out the side door of the armory to the stable. The trio’s three mounts had been shacked up in a stable on the south end of the city where there was room. It took them a few minutes to make their way to the southern end of the castle city. Seventeen’s Chocobo and the two horses were ready and waiting. Beatrix’s horse was without saddle, barding, or stirrups. The redhead’s mount was something of an abomination that she had summoned by accident shortly after becoming a blood mage.

To the naked eye, Slepinir looked like a normal warhorse, but the three of them knew the truth that he was really a conjured steed formed from the blood of Beatrix’s enemies. Capable of sprinting for incredible bursts, disassembling into liquid vitae, and resisting most damage he was the perfect mount for a blood mage assassin. Jaina’s horse was a black purebred Andalusian stallion given to her by Palaxia as payment for completion of a job. The Mistress slung her crossbow across her back and opened the door to the stable. Jaina and Seventeen’s mount had been saddled and prepared, but Beatrix’s horse had not. She walked over to one of the half walls seeing a saddle and barding lying ready for her. A note was attached to the horn of the saddle.

Saddle your own horse. Not worth the trouble.

It didn’t surprise the Mistress that the stable hands couldn’t equip Slepinir. Only she could ride or remotely do anything to him. Even Jaina had the unfortunate circumstance of being bucked off the one or two times she tried to ride him. Taking the blankets from under the saddle Beatrix threw them over Slepinir and began to outfit her horse.

“I had a feeling no one would be able to saddle him,” Jaina said as she stepped up onto her horse.

Beatrix grinned as she tightened the belts holding the saddle in place. Taking a gold piece from a pouch on her belt she left it on top of the note on the railing. Mounting Slepinir she kicked his hindquarters and trotted out of the stable and into the street with Jaina and Seventeen in tow. Before long the trio had exited the city through the southern gate and were galloping their way to the grotto.

***​

Two hours had gone by before they hit the tree line and decided to proceed on foot further into the forest. Beatrix had spotted a collection of guardsmen and had pulled her two associates into hiding. As she pulled Seventeen and Jaina into the bushes she held one finger to her mouth to signal complete silence. Before they could object, she was climbing a nearby tree and effortlessly leaping from branch to branch. Jaina lifted her head, keeping tabs on the redhead’s location. It wasn’t long before she was getting thieves’ cant thrown at her. The intelligence she was being given was indeed bad news.

“Care to share?” Seventeen whispered as he saw Jaina’s expression change.

“Ambush ahead. Same colors as those we routed from the siege. Someone told them we were coming.” The sorceress replied.

Before Jaina could reply Beatrix was sliding down the nearest tree, two of her throwing knives drawn. Placing two fingers to her mouth Proudmoore whistled loudly and stood up from the bush her and Seventeen were in. The commotion caused the soldiers to attempt springing their trap, but it came at no avail. Before swords could be drawn or words could be muttered Beatrix was moving between them and effortlessly inserting three-inch blades into their windpipes. It happened so fast that Seventeen had to blink a few times to make sure it was okay for him to follow Jaina. Wiping the blood from her throwing knives Beatrix sheathed them back on her belt. The forest had gone quiet as death reached out for each of the gurgling soldiers.

“Anything on them?” Proudmoore asked, noticing Beatrix rummaging through their pockets.

Removing a piece of a parchment from a leather bag Beatrix unfolded the document and scowled, her red eyes illuminating the paper in anger.

Package headed your way tonight.

Make sure the redhead suffers.

Make white haired woman watch.

Kill Stephen.

~JP


“What’s the matter?” Jaina asked, kneeling next to Beatrix.

A headache began to form in the back of the Mistress’ skull. She pinched her nose and handed the piece of paper to her lover who read it aloud.

“You don’t think it’s the same JP, do you?” Seventeen asked, folding his arms together.

Beatrix clenched her jaw as the pain in her head radiated forward and through to her face. She let out a gasp for air before composing herself and standing up.

“Yes. He dispatched a runner shortly after our meeting was concluded.”

“How the hell do you know that? You were with me most of the evening.” Jaina said as she stood up from her crouch.

“There was a horse missing from the stable we were in and as we rode along the main highway, I noticed fresh tracks taking the same route we were headed. Remember when I suggested we go around the forest for a bit and find a better location to enter? This. These dead men are why we did that.”

Beatrix made her way further into the makeshift trap the enemy had made and smiled upon finding a cage holding a carrier pigeon.

“Why would soldiers from an enemy siege have a Lodis carrier pigeon?” The redhead proposed.

“So, you’re saying this whole thing was a trap to get rid of us and that there isn’t a Tremblade waiting to be rescued?” Seventeen asked, following his assassin associate.

“No…I still think there is a Tremblade that needs to be rescued. I just think we need to change the term rescued to interrogated.” Beatrix said, rifling through Jaina’s bag.

“Can I help you?” The sorceress said.

Zulenka pecked Jaina on the cheek with a kiss before taking a piece of scroll paper from her bag. Removing a fountain pen the Mistress wrote that “the targets had been eliminated” on the paper before rolling it up and attaching it securely to the pigeon’s ankle. Releasing the bird, she tossed the pen back to Jaina, who caught it and shoved it back inside her bag.

“If they think we’re dead we can get to the bottom of this unhindered.” Zulenka explained.
 

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“Man, I feel so depressed,” Seventeen whispered as the trio crept their way through the overgrowth toward the supposed location of the displaced nobleman.

“Because we’ve been here a few weeks and someone has already betrayed us and tried to have us murdered in the woods?” Jaina inquired softly as they wove around the massive remains of a toppled birch tree.

“All that note said was ‘Kill Stephen’.” The cyborg mumbled as he paused mid-step to avoid a dried branch. “Bea over there gets to suffer and watch you murdered, but all I get is one syllable? Couldn’t even ask them to string me up or something? It’s disrespectful.”

Beatrix snorted, prompting Jaina to pivot and put a pair of fingers over her partners lips. The sorcerous spoke with her eyes well enough that her companion stifled herself and shifted focus back to the task at hand.

“We should be nearing the grotto that our dearest JP told us about,” Jaina remarked as she pointed through a cluster of trees. “Should be a clear shot for us once we pass. We can’t get to the bottom of this situation in short order.”

“Lovely,” Seventeen replied at nearly a whisper as he squinted to try and see whatever it was that Jaina could. He gave up after a few strain-inducing moments and resigned himself to just accept that the magic lady either had fancy eyeballs or a diet richer in vitamin A. “Game plan? Sneak? Storm the gates?”

“We’re unexpected,” Beatrix answered.

“Especially if they took that bait we left them… it’s possible that we can just waltz in undetected and get the drop on whoever might be held up in that cave.”

“Grotto,” Seventeen corrected before snickering at the withering glare that came from Jaina.

“Let’s do this, Blondie,” Beatrix spoke softly as she drew another throwing knife from somewhere on her person.

With a motion to follow her, Jaina took point as the trio crept their way through a sparsely-filled portion of the undergrowth. Despite being a lady wizard, Ms. Proudmoore stalked forward with all the murderous intent of someone who preferred to stab and garrote their would-be assailants.

Standing in at the rear of the formation, it took Seventeen another minute or so before he saw the features of their destination start to take shape in the thin mist that had formed in the hour or so since dusk. When they were within an eyeshot, the machine-hybrid sized up the grotto and saw that it was mostly as advertised. Less a cave and more akin to a large earthen mound with a mouth, the endpoint of their journey could have easily been missed by someone passing through the forest. Shadows from the nearby trees would have cast long, obscuring shadows over the maw of the grotto, and even if the sun wasn’t a factor, the place was surrounded with a thick network of shrubs.

“Clear.” Jaina stated beneath her breath as she pointed to an area where there was clearly a little path that would lead them around the bushes and to the entrance of the cave.

“No way,” Seventeen whispered as he reached around Beatrix to snatch at the tail-end of Jaina’s top. The woman paused immediately and tilted her head just enough to catch the man’s face as he motioned her to stop. “You know this is a trap. I will bet you a mountain of shiny gold coins that this the trappiest trap you’ve ever seen.”

I know. Jaina mouthed soundlessly.

“Allow me,” Seventeen muttered as he grabbed the handle of the Power Sword. Before he could experience any objections, the cyborg dropped into a crouch and exploded into a swirling miasma of white and blue light particles.

Beatrix groped at the cloud, which lasted barely a fleeting moment, and in the process, she nearly lost her balance and went face-first to the forest floor.

Fifteen yards to the northwest, Seventeen rematerialized a few feet inside the mouth of the grotto. The instant he felt the ground back beneath his feet, the man slipped backward and into the deep shadows that surrounded the cave entrance. As he had anticipated, there was the sudden thud of boots on the ground as a pair of figures came rushing up from the cavern, either drawn by the split-second glitter of lights or the sound Seventeen made by throwing the Power Sword to the bushes.

The lead man made it a step beyond the exit of the grotto when a sparkling lance of ki tore through his throat.

Seeing his associate’s head chopped off in a flash of light, the other hired sword jammed a boot into the ground to stop his own momentum. As a cloud of dirt erupted in one direction, the man craned his neck just in time to see the shimmer of blue before everything fell abruptly to black.

“Sword,” Seventeen muttered with a hand outstretched as he used his other to wave over his companions. As they wove through the pathway, the Power Sword reappeared in its owner’s palm in a swirl of white and blue particles.

“You made a great deal of noise.” Jaina spoke as she hopped over one of the corpses. “We’ll have to move quickly, in case there’s some sort of rear entrance to this place.”

“Then let’s go,” Seventeen said with a smile as he adjusted his grip and broke into a sprint ahead of the two ladies.
 
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