Asa watched as Alphonse disappeared into the trees with a line of the shrieking monsters in tow. He'd done a fine job of timing his attacks and playing off the enemies' lack of concentration. This made them all the more fractious and disorganized.
Kirie's haughty attitude and flair for the dramatic also served its purpose. Asa watched as her sister brandished the double-edged axe and prodded its head forward in a taunting gesture. An audacious deirgu mimicked the motion with its crude spear and let out a high-pitched cackle. The remainder of the group skittered to the sides with melee weapons held in trembling hands, raised up in an attempt to encourage their comrade. Those to the rear revealed slings from their tattered armor and twirled them at their sides. A single enemy awkwardly nocked an arrow to a simple short bow.
The deirgu with the spear leaned forward slightly and shifted into an open stance. The chattering from its fellow monsters fueled its false bravado.
Kirie didn't miss the opportunity. The eye of her axe's handle struck the monster square in its nose as she took a sliding step forward with arm extended. The creature's weapon flew from its hands and landed with a dull thud in the grass a few feet away. A pair of deirgu standing to either side stared dumbly as their comrade rolled back and forth on the ground with both hands cradling its bloodied face.
Kirie brought down her axe and cleaved the deirgu's chest before the other monsters had a chance to reorient themselves. She wrenched the axe free one-handed and brought her other arm up to deflect a flung rock with her wrist guard. She ignored another projectile that went wide by a few feet.
She let out a derisive snort as the remaining deirgu attempted to formulate some sort of plan to surround her.
"Two for me," she muttered. She casually sidestepped another rock to further demonstrate the futility of such attacks.
Stupid, nasty things, Asa thought as she watched the exchange. She tore her attention away from her sister and moved in a fast crouch to the center of the clearing where the family sat bound. She held a finger to her lips as the young girl noticed her and struggled against the bindings. Asa cut the vines and removed the gags only when the mother managed to calm her down.
Another yelp from a deirgu indicated that Kirie was about to engage in a true fight. The battle of taunts was over and ready to escalate.
Asa rested a hand on the older man's shoulder and pointed to where she'd emerged from the forest. “Wait over there.”
The two adults nodded and started to lead the way. Their eyes lingered briefly but were enough to express their gratitude. They'd only taken a few steps when it was apparent that the young girl hadn't moved to follow.
The girl sat transfixed for a moment as she stared at the two slight protrusions pushing against the hood of Asa's healers robe. Asa noticed the girl's eyes radiate with nervous delight, temporarily quelling the current situation. Asa removed the hood to reveal the long crimson hair that flowed around her cat ears. She gave the girl a slight smile and a twitch of the ears before urging her to the forest.
The monsters had managed to coordinate a decent offensive and moved to attack Kirie during that short time.
Asa noticed a deirgu move to one of Kirie's blind spots and pointed her staff. The monster's spear bounced off a small set of translucent, melded hexagons that sparked to life as the weapon made impact. The vibrations ran up the deirgu's arm as if it had smacked its weapon against a stone pillar. Kirie drove the head of her axe into the monster's throat and it keeled over. She brought up her wrist guard again and deflected an arrow that the deirgu archer timed too late.
Asa followed up behind the archer and stabbed it through the back with the sharp end of her staff. Its lanky fingers clawed behind it instinctively and went limp after a few seconds. She dumped the body and casted another protection spell with her hand extended behind Kirie to shield her from another attacker.
Her sister whirled about and lopped the enemy's head off after it stumbled into the protection spell. The head rolled through the tainted grass and rested in front of another deirgu. The monster shrieked and threw its spear in a pitiful attempt to ward her off, but the weapon dug into the ground a few feet off its mark.
Kirie stood over the cowering monster and raised the axe above her head. Flashes of dying light that broke through the forest painted the catgirl's face in splotches of shadows. Her menacing blue eyes glowed like those of some demon as her already thin pupils narrowed further.
The axe sprayed a fine mess of blood and gore as it pulverized the monster's skull. A sickening splat was followed by a broken sound like shattering timber and seemed to echo through the clearing.
The enemy was plenty demoralized in no time at all. The monsters let out short heaves and sprays of saliva as pure fear took over. The few that remained tossed their weapons down, scurried into the forest and vanished from sight. The shrieks continued in the distance even after they were long gone.
“We need to go,” Asa said. “The big monster might show up.” She suppressed a wince as her sister pulled the axe free from the deirgu's skull.
Kirie stared emotionless at the body twitching at her feet. “Ugly things. Messed up my kill count.”
Asa rolled her eyes. Of course she would be worried about such trifling details.
They rendezvoused with the family at the treeline and proceeded in the direction where Alphonse disappeared. Kirie took point with her bloodied axe raised high in a terribly open, but effectively intimidating stance.
This was the first opportunity to get a good look at the three humans.
The father was a large man with what looked like a burly blacksmith's build. The calluses on his leathery hands were prominent with old, nasty burn marks on the knuckles. A side of his face was caked in dried blood with one eyelid sealed shut and bloated enough to conceal his eyebrow. A thin line of skin was revealed through short black hair on the back of his head from a shallow laceration.
The mother looked almost as worn down with a length of blonde hair covered in red, as if it had been purposefully dyed. A dark purple bruise marred one cheek and a thin cut traveled along her collarbone, probably caused by a short weapon like a dagger. She would have stood slightly taller than her husband, but she spent most of their escape hunched over as a horrible, racking pain spread over her abdomen when she tried to straighten herself.
The daughter was the only one who appeared mostly unharmed. A few scratches on her arm appeared to be caused by foliage rather than weapons. Her eyelids were half-closed as blood trickled from her forehead when she accidentally scraped against a branch in her haste.
“Thank you,” the mother whispered.
Asa twitched involuntarily, slightly caught off guard as the woman's voice broke the silence. It was pleasant, despite the sharp intakes of breath from her exertion.
Asa rested a reassuring hand on her shoulder but averted eye contact when she noticed that the husband was staring at her. More specifically - at her ears. Her hand brushed the tips on reflex as he continued to observe her.
A weary smile formed on his face. “Thanks. I owe you.” His voice was rough and haggard, but the sincerity of his words broke any potential uneasiness.
The unexpected response caught her words for a moment. Asa gave him a sideways glance as she attempted to read his face. “You were ambushed and outnumbered. It wasn't your fault.”
She considered saying more until Kirie halted the group and took a startled step back. An obvious rustling from the bushes a short ways ahead encouraged her to take a more appropriate fighting stance.
A deirgu appeared from behind a line of tall foliage. The monster wobbled on unsteady feet with its hands hovering over a dagger stuck in its stomach. Its body arched as a short sword appeared from behind the bramble and stabbed through its back. The blade pulled free in one smooth motion and let the deirgu fall forward on its face, twitching with the last bit of life that slowly seeped away to saturate the dirt.
A humanoid form gradually appeared and kicked the body over in order to remove the dagger from its chest. The darkening shadows seemed to merge with the various shades of dark armor and fabric.
Alphonse wiped the dagger off in the grass as he addressed them, “I see your side went well.”
Kirie smirked and lowered her axe. “Don't get cocky. Your kill count is higher cuz you cheat.”
“It's called being tactical.”
Asa was quick to interrupt their light banter, “We should get moving and find a place to shelter for the night. I don't think our new acquaintances have much energy for a lengthy pursuit.”
The big man set his mouth in a firm line and bowed to them. “I don't know how we can thank you, but I'll do anything in my power. We'll follow your lead.”
The mother nodded and pulled her daughter close. She tore off a length of her wool gown and wrapped it around her daughter's head to stifle the bleeding.
"There's a shallow creek up ahead," Alphonse said. "We can use the rocks to hug the bank for a bit and then cross to hide our tracks."
Asa moved next to him and made a cursory check for any injuries. "Good idea. Hopefully the big monster doesn't have more deirgu wandering about."
"It's definitely going to need more," Kirie said. "Well, lead the way." She trailed back to the rear of the group so that the family stayed in the middle of the procession.
Alphonse complied and led them in the direction where he recently appeared. He advised them to take advantage of the roots that surfaced from the dirt, which allowed them to avoid direct contact with the ground and leave behind less evidence of their passing. They continued like this for a short while, and the family followed Alphonse's instructions to the best their weary bodies could handle.
Asa's ears flicked as a new sound began to drown the low whispers of the forest. A steady burble interrupted by soft splashes of water increased in volume. A few minutes later the group arrived at the source.
They crouched down on one side of a squat bluff littered with large boulders and tangles of thick vines. Alphonse peered through the breaks in a pyramid of roots and observed the rocky banks of the creek. After a minute that felt like an hour he finally turned to the group and waved them forward to indicate the coast was clear.
The loose rocks made the trip down the hill a tad bit difficult as the family needed assistance with traversing the rough terrain. Still, despite slowing down a bit they made it to the bottom without much issue.
Asa froze when they'd made it about a half-mile along the stream. A low rumble coursed through the ground and small pebbles bounced in a frenzy along the larger stones. It seemed their suspicions were correct - the unknown monster leading the deirgu had stumbled upon the carnage left behind.
They forced their pace while staying low the rest of the way up the bank. They crossed at a shallow area and climbed up a path littered with more large stones that hugged a muddy path that was ultimately avoided.
Asa noticed that Alphonse disappeared from the group at some point to skulk amongst the trees, watching for anything that might be lying in wait. She knew that his position was somewhere relatively ahead to maintain eyesight of their group, but he'd still managed to conceal his presence. A few soft footfalls were the only sounds to indicate his return. He had already left a positive impression when he managed to survive in the dungeon on his own all those weeks ago, but being able to disappear from a group without notice was something else. She found herself relaxing as the darkness of the forest deepened.
A voice from the trees almost made her jump, “I found a spot.”
She looked up and saw Alphonse balanced on a wide branch in his black attire blending with the darkness.
“Shit. Warn us next time,” Kirie hissed. She held a hand to her chest as she caught her breath.
“Oh, sorry. Bad habit.” He dropped down and motioned for them to follow.
The spot he found seemed secure. An overhang of low branches brushed the ground from the front and above. Tall hedges formed a semi-circle and broke off at a deep gully. One side held higher ground, while the other provided concealment. A short cliff a few feet beyond cover overlooked a generous portion of the forest towards a narrow side hugged by canted stone.
“Impressive,” Asa commented.
“How do you think I survived in that damn dungeon?” Alphonse went prone and kept watch over the narrow opening below. The forest continued beyond. No wind disturbed the leaves.
A collective sigh of relief came from the family as they entered the encampment. The young girl collapsed on her rear end and heaved a few dry breaths of air. Asa gave her mother one of the canteens that they'd recently filled at the creek to sate everyone's thirst.
The husband was about to speak when Kirie crouched next to him and put a finger to her lips. “Get some rest. We'll talk in the morning.” She rested a hand on the side of his head and he winced. She reached into one of their packs for some bandages to tend the cut under his hair.
Asa smiled as the young girl continued to stare at her over the canteen. “Don't worry. You're safe here.”
The girl's eyes sparkled. She bobbed her head up and down as a wide, innocent grin splayed on her face. The pleasant look faltered when she saw the red in her mother's hair. Asa assured her that it wasn't anything serious. To prove this, she cast some healing magic. The mother parted her hair to reveal the unblemished skin and the smile returned.
When everyone was settled in, Asa crouched next to Alphonse and eyed him as he kept watch. He remained silent and vigilant even when she impatiently cleared her throat.
No response. Not even the slightest shift of his body.
“Are you ignoring me, or are you just really focused?” she asked.
She tapped him on the head with her staff. “Mean.”
He chuckled softly. “Sorry, couldn't resist." His countenance took a turn when he noticed a disturbance in the forest canopy. The tension was brief when he noticed what was probably the last flock of birds that remained awake for the evening. They soon veered off towards the remaining sliver of light from the setting sun.
"Damn, things got serious real quick," he continued. "Been on the road one day and already we have an unofficial quest.”
Kirie settled down on Alphonse's other side and rested her back against his. She faced away to keep an eye on the family. “What did we get ourselves into?”
“Dunno. But something isn't right,” Alphonse said. “I also recalled something else wrong with their wagon.”
“It was empty,” Asa said.
“Bingo. I didn't see any supplies at the deirgu camp either.”
Kirie groaned. “Shit. Smells fishy. We're gonna have to kill some more baddies?”
Alphonse mimicked her demeanor and twirled a dagger through his fingers. “Probably.”