I woke up before Seyari, who was still asleep in my arms. My feet and lower legs were cold; I must have stretched out during the night. I thought back to the previous evening’s activities. I’d learned a lot from the more experienced woman and, honestly, I felt great today.
The pain of the last few days had dulled, but I knew it would stick around. I wanted some amount of it to stick around.
I pulled my cold legs back up into the bed and looked toward the window. Still dark from the lines between the shutters. My sight was better in human form than it had been. Still not nearly as sharp as my normal sight, I could make out the room around me well enough.
Calm and quiet. The patrons must have all left or gone to sleep, and no one was stirring in the predawn hours. I held my breath a moment, expecting and almost daring some catastrophe to break the stillness. Nothing happened. The calm quiet of the end of night carried on.
I held Seyari close and closed my eyes, enjoying this slow moment of peace. I drifted off again.
Seyari woke me up the second time. She stretched and smiled at me. “You were pretty good last night. For a total beginner.”
I blushed, but rolled my eyes. “Well, it wasn’t like I was going to get experience before, and even if I did, it wouldn’t have been quite the same.”
“Point taken.” Seyari’s expression turned serious. “Are you doing alright, Renna?”
I nodded slowly. “I… think so, Sey. I might be more alright than I should be. But maybe that’s because I’m, well, y’know…”
“Next time, I want to try it with ‘well y’know’.” Seyari grinned lasciviously, avoiding the subject.
I blushed harder and felt my ears heating up.
“But I really am glad you’re doing okay.” Seyari paused. “Let me know if you need to talk.”
We reunited with Salvador downstairs and had a cold breakfast. The place was blissfully empty so early, and aside from a knowing look from Salvador, I didn’t have any attention on me. We topped off our supplies, finished picking up a few things for the road, left when the sun was high in the sky.
We walked the entire first day through rolling farmland. At least the small farms and narrow stands of trees were different from the endless forest. The second day, however, we took a turn off the main road and headed into a marshy, forested area. More trees. Different trees, at least.
The road skirted the edge of the marsh proper, too timid to try to cut through its dark depths. Moss hung from the trees above the brackish water. The road wound around, sticking to high terrain and weaving between small knolls.
Soon it was impossible to see more than a few dozen meters down the road. I hadn’t really put any thought toward the risks of the terrain until I realized the sounds of the forest were much quieter.
Actually, Salvador realized a moment before I did and motioned for us to stop. I scanned the surroundings. My vision and hearing both in and out of human form were sharper than before I had fought the burned demon by Harriston. The one who had challenged my title and lost.
I didn’t particularly want that one’s soul. Not that having it would change me, anyway. Probably.
I couldn’t see through dirt, but my ears picked up a faint sound from up ahead. Voices?
“Voices ahead, I think,” I whispered. “Even if they’re unfriendly, I doubt we’d have trouble.”
“You can’t choose whether they’d make trouble, Renna.” Seyari checked for her weapons.
I checked my spear. “True, but that’s not what I meant.”
“We could try to go around uphill where it’s dry,” Salvador suggested.
I looked at my last set of fragile clothing. “We can go around.” We hadn’t taken the time to get me anything else in the last town, so this plan traveler’s outfit and the dress were all I had. Not that the last town would have had much to offer anyway.
“Fine by me,” Seyari shrugged. “We’ll go around.”
Salvador nodded, and the three of us turned and began to trek through the damp woods uphill from the marsh.
“Can we at least see what the commotion is?” I asked, peering through the trees. I could definitely hear voices now. “What if someone’s in trouble?”
“Then that’s their trouble.” Seyari replied.
Salvador stayed silent, not turning from his position in the lead.
I didn’t argue. Instead, I waited, staying silent as we crept through the trees and gaps in the underbrush.
Seyari broke the silence not a minute later. “Fine, we’ll go look.”
Seyari turned to me and frowned. “You knew I’d cave, didn’t you?”
I feigned ignorance. “I didn’t say anything. You decided all on your own.”
“Bullshit,” Seyari smiled. “Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me, thank yourself.”
Salvador interjected with a hand motion. “Stay silent. We’ll approach from downwind just in case.”
Seyari and I nodded. Together, we crept around closer. The voices were heated now. I couldn’t make out words, but there were two main speakers, both sounding feminine.
The three of us crept closer as fast as we dared. The voices were ahead of us—we’d gone around behind them. I could just make out several people on the road below: a lone figure faced by a half dozen others. Late Autumn made the underbrush thin, and it was only the sharp-needled gorse and thorny brambles that we were able to use as cover.
My clothes were going to come out of this with some damage. Salvador’s thick outerwear kept him protected, but Seyari suffered in silence behind us, slipping in the wake of my larger form. I carried my spear, keeping the shining tip down and out of sight.
Salvador put up his hand to halt so suddenly, that I almost knocked into him. I righted myself, but my boots made a soft crunching noise landing back onto the dried needles. I’d been so eager to hear what was being said that I’d gotten too close behind him.
“Who’s there?” A voice from somewhere in the brush ahead of us demanded.
We remained silent, and I lowered myself into the gorse as best I could.
The voice called out to us again, unsure. Bushes a dozen meters in front of us shifted. I couldn’t make out the speaker.
We stayed silent and still. I kept my eyes on the people on the road, then risked shifting them so I could see better. I made myself ready to move in case I needed to, but I’d need to keep my human transformation even if we came to blows. I felt the spear in my hand. Heavier than I remember.
“Friends of yours?” One of the voices I’d heard earlier drifted up to us. I could just make out the speaker to be the one standing in the center of half circle facing the lone individual. The speaker in the center of the half-circle was armored, but not in plate.
The figure before her, dressed in bright clothing, replied with a shrug. “Maybe? Look, you could always just let me go. I’m real broke y’know?” Something on her head twitched and I realized it was her ears, cat-like and listening for what had happened.
“Where’s the fun in that?” The armored figure laughed darkly.
“If I give ya all my stuff, will ya let me go?” The kazzel woman asked apprehensively.
The armored woman shifted slightly. I couldn’t see what she did because she was facing almost entirely away. “No. I think you’ll be more fun to keep around.” Her voice dripped venom.
“Shame about that.” The kazzel shrugged again. “So, uh, how d’we do this then?”
Another dark laugh, barked out sharply. “Well, first—"
The armored woman didn’t get to finish. I saw the kazzel move. The arms she’d held casually, demurely, behind her rear brought forth knives, one in a reverse grip. My breath caught. She was too slow.
The other woman reacted even more slowly. I blinked and realized I’d been thinking outside from the perspective of a demon. The kazzel woman was actually very fast.
The blades flashed up and a spray of blood erupted from the armored woman’s neck. The kazzel kicked off her opponent into a backflip, sending the armored figure tumbling back into her goons.
The bushes in front of us shifted. Bows were drawn, and I could make out figures facing mostly away from us. The others on the road pulled out swords.
I didn’t hesitate.
I burst out of the undergrowth. The bandit who’d looked our way was already facing me. My form, improved as it was, still restricted my speed. My spear caught him in the shoulder, but the arrow he’d nocked loosed into my chest.
I felt a sharp pressure, like someone had flicked me, but no pain. My human form had definitely gotten stronger.
I hoped the human bandit hadn’t seen. I didn’t intend to kill him, at least not yet. I pulled the spear out, twirled it, and caught him in the kneecap. Something shattered and he went down with a scream, clutching his leg with his good arm.
An arrow flew from behind me, and caught another bandit in the neck. A blade of wind sliced another across the torso, cutting through leathers and bone alike. My companions hadn’t the same compassion I did, but I didn’t mind. They were trying to kill us.
Four others with bows fired toward the road. I glanced over. Where the kazzel had stood, a cloud of smoke drifted up. The other bandits up with us fired into the smoke. I heard the arrows striking dirt.
The group on the ground had also lost sight of the kazzel woman. Their leader was on the ground in a growing pool of blood, and the group seemed unsure what to do.
I reached the archers before Seyari or Salvador fired on them. I slammed my shoulder into one from behind. The force was more than I expected, and the bandit caught air off the top of the bluff and began to tumble down the hill.
I looked toward a flash of movement at my side. Twin throwing knives planted themselves in another two of the four archers. The last was felled by a blade of wind.
I turned to the bandits down by the road. One of them shouted and pointed to the hillside. Another shouted back, turning the scene into an argument. A pair broke off, looking torn about whether to flee.
I jumped back from the blur that ran up to me. The kazzel woman help up empty hands as if surrendering. She glanced at the arguing bandits on the road below, and back to me. She looked panicked, but I didn’t get any anger from her. Her face seemed vaguely familiar.
The bard from last night!
“We should leave.” Salvador surprised me by speaking up.
I gave one last look toward the bandits on the road. Two were fleeing back the way we came, and it looked like a fight was brewing between the others. Several glanced up our way.
“Yeah, let’s get out of here,” I agreed.
The three of us and the kazzel woman retreated back into the forest and into the underbrush. I finally got a good look at the bard. She was small, coming up only to Seyari’s chin, with light brown hair—fur on her ears and tail. Her eyes cat-like were pale green, and she looked between us appraisingly.
Once we’d made it well away, Seyari broke the silence. “Are you going to keep following us?” She turned to the kazzel bard.
The bard looked to me, and then the others. “But ya saved me! If you three didn’t come along, the bandits woulda robbed me blind. And worse! What’s a bard without her lute? Or her booze money?”
“Did we?” The half-angel narrowed her eyes, black dye barely holding back their glow.
The kazzel woman scratched an ear and laughed nervously. I noticed her tail was calm. “Yeah, uh, ‘course you did! They almost had me, then you all swooped in and BAM!” She slammed her fist against her open palm.
Salvador raised an eyebrow.
“You dropped their leader before we even attacked,” I said plainly.
The small, cat-like woman looked up at me, craning her neck. “Wow, you’re tall.”
The kazzel shook her head and looked at my girlfriend. “Wait, that wasn’t one of your spells? Oh, d’ya think there’s someone else who tried ta save me, too?” The woman looked genuinely shocked.
I sighed. “You can just admit that you killed—"
“Oh!” The bard interrupted me. “My name’s Taava by the way!” She took a step toward me, then turned to the others. “Thanks again for savin’ me. Are you folks going to Linthel? If you are, I’d really like a little protection while I—”
Seyari took a step toward Taava. “Why are you—”
“—Followin’ you? Oh, that’s because ya saved me. Oh, wait!” Taava clapped her hands and leaned forward, angled slightly toward me. “Is this about money? I don’t have a lot of that, but I’m sure we could work somethin’ out. After all, since you’re gonna be protectin’ me, that’s definitely somethin’ I should pay ya for. Do you guys—"
I felt my half-angel partner’s anger spike blindingly hot. Seyari moved quickly; faster than a pure human could have. She launched a blade of wind to the side of my head. Taava hissed in pain and her arms moved fast to her sides.
However, I was faster.
I grabbed her wrists, one in each hand. I almost dropped my transformation, but I decided to hold it for now. I made sure not to grab her too hard.
Taava struggled for a moment, but when she realized my grip wouldn’t slip, she stopped and whimpered instead. Her ears lay flat on her head.
I noticed Salvador had drawn his bow.
“Okay, what’s going on?” I asked, letting anger creep into my voice.
“Ask Taava,” Seyari replied icily.
Salvador lowered his bow, but kept it out and his eyes trained on the kazzel’s backside.
I realized I smelled blood. I looked behind and saw the that half of Taava’s tail had been sliced clean off.
“Seyari,” I asked. “What did you do?”
“She had a knife in her tail, Renna,” Seyari answered with a hard face.
“Salvador?” I asked.
Salvador spoke earnestly. “I didn’t see, but something flashed when Seyari attacked.”
“Taava?” I asked the kazzel woman.
She kept silent, seemingly unbothered by the pain she must have been feeling.
“Seyari, can you take her?” I pushed Taava forward. “I’m going to find the knife. And her tail.”
Seyari nodded. “If she tries anything, I will stop her.”
“Try not to kill her,” I pleaded.
Satisfied, I handed my charge to the half-angel and turned to carefully search the area. I shifted my eyes when I looked away. After only a few moments, I found half of a light brown furred kazzel tail, the end clean cut and dripping blood. A meter or so away from the severed limb, was a small knife. There was a dull film on the edge of the blade. Poison?
What was Taava trying to do?
I took the knife and tail back to the others. Taava’s face was surprisingly impassive. Her eyes looked to me, then Salvador. I sensed only the smallest hint of anger, escaping like steam from the lid of a boiling pot.
“Hey Sey, can you reattach this?” I gestured to the severed limb I was holding.
I watched Taava while I spoke. Her gaze regarded me, and it did not waver. Creepy.
“I can,” Seyari replied.
“Will you?” I asked, frustration creeping into my tone.
“Not with my hands full.”
“Fine, I’ll take her back.” I turned to Salvador and held out the knife and tail. “Could you hold these?”
Salvador nodded and took the knife easily. He hesitated at the tail, then took it too, careful not to hold too close to the cut.
Seyari handed Taava to me. “We’re searching her first.”
Seyari took her time searching the kazzel woman, finding knives, vials of something, a small hidden crossbow, and a few other odd things, setting them in a pile on the ground. Satisfied, the half-angel took the tail from Salvador and held it to Taava’s wound.
She gripped the kazzel’s tail with a bit more force than necessary if the soft, stifled hiss was any indication. Our formerly talkative captive still hadn’t said a word. Taava looked up at me when the healing glow of Seyari’s magic reattached the limb. She studied my face wordlessly.
My skin prickled at the holy magic so close to me. I kept my face impassive and looked back down to Taava.
When the tail was reattached, I let Taava go. She took a moment to realize I’d actually let her go. Then, she turned quickly and jumped back from us, eyeing the pile of all her weapons and tools.
“Why don’t we start over?” I asked with the kindest tone I could muster. “I’m Zarenna, this is Seyari, and this is Salvador.” I gestured to each of my companions in turn.
Taava eyed us. Seyari twisted her hands, showing that she was ready to cast again. Salvador still held his bow, but didn’t bring it up.
“You’re really not with ‘em, huh,” Taava shook her head and muttered something I couldn’t understand under her breath.
I relaxed my tense shoulders. “Why would we be? And who’s ‘them’?”
Taava tensed again, then felt her newly-whole tail with one hand. She kept her eyes on us the whole time. “I’ll just be goin’ then.” She took a tentative step forward.
I didn’t move to stop her, but Seyari did.
“Answers first,” my partner demanded.
Taava hissed. “I owe money to some people, and I thought you were here to collect.”
“Bullshit.” Seyari glared at her. “Try again.”
Taava’s expression twisted, turning vulnerable and dejected. “I owe more than money, okay? And I really did think ya were here for me.”
“Lie by deflection and omission.” Seyari took another step forward. “Last chance, bitch.”
For the first time, I felt anger from the kazzel woman. She didn’t squash it, but kept the emotion tight, like a blade’s edge.
“Look.” I put my hands forward placatingly. “We’ve people after us, too, okay. We’re not with whoever’s after you and we’re not going to hold a grudge. You want to go? Take your stuff and go.”
Seyari turned to glare at me.
I glared right back. “We don’t need to know anything about Taava, Sey. She can leave and if she comes back after us, I’ll kill her.” I turned back to Taava.
To my surprise, Taava bowed slightly, with her ears lowered. “Thank you.” Her tone was completely different than everything she’d said up until that point. Then, she switched right back to her easy and informal speech. “You’re not gonna ask to help me after savin’ me, miss goody-two-shoes?”
I shook my head. “You tried to kill me.”
Taava eyed me for a moment, her gaze piercing. “See, thing is I think know where I stand with you lot now. And you’re strong enough not ta be useless, ‘cept maybe bow guy.”
If Salvador was hurt by the comment, he didn’t show it. Impassive as always.
“So, you do want our help.” I crossed my arms.
The odd woman purred. “Well, if ya asked, I don’t think I’d say no…”
“Damnit, do you want help or not?” Seyari exploded next to me. “Because it’s only by Renna’s good graces that you’re not in tiny pieces right now.”
Taava smiled. “Well, when ya put it like that, yeah, I do want help. I got into some debt, but that’s not the issue. The problem’s that I think some much worse people who’re after me got in touch with my creditors and I’m eight kinds a fucked soon as I pop back up somewhere they’ve got eyes.”
“Omitting some shit, but truthful,” Seyari grumbled.
Taava’s eyebrow twitched, but she didn’t reply.
“Do you want us to rough them up?” I tried to keep on the subject.
The odd kazzel laughed a hissing laugh. “Fuck no. They gotta die! Trust me, they’re real bad people. After all, who else’d go after an innocent bard like me?”
“Innocent?” I asked incredulously. “What about when you took down the bandit leader? Or when you threw knives into the archers’ eyes?”
“That’s easy.” Taava waved a hand casually. “Those were just bardic knife tricks!”
I looked down at the literal pile of killing implements and back up to the “bard.” “Bardic knife tricks?”
“Yep!” Taava smiled, showing sharp canines. “Bardic knife tricks! Now, just gimme a minute to get all my gear back and I’ll be good to go!”
What is with her?