The Firebird Prince

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Araysh’s luck had gone from bad to downright ridiculous.

He retreated deeper into the shadows, wishing for a weapon as the scouts neared him. He very stupidly had let himself rest by the creek for a while, and they had spotted him. Now they were playing a dangerous game of hide and seek--and he was stuck on the wrong side.

They were cornering him, driving him closer to the edge of the forest and the city’s border--where he would not possibly be able to escape with all the patrolling soldiers.

He had no choice but to engage.

He made the decision just in time, because the next second, he heard the familiar twang of a bow from his left. An arrow flew an inch past his face and Araysh flinched away, breathing hard. He knew more were coming; he scanned the bushes for any sign of movement. His eyes picked out hidden figures in all three directions, and behind him was the last patch of forest before the border. He was trapped--he had nowhere to run.

He fisted his hands and shouted, “Come out, cowards!”

His only answer was another shot. Araysh narrowly avoided it, snatching his arm away before the arrow could hit it. God, his reflexes were severely slowed. What was more, due to his injuries and lack of nourishment, his magic was weakened to the point where Araysh could barely feel it. He couldn’t even fly.

“Cowards,” he said, loudly. “Come out and face me!”

He saw one of the scouts jerk his head to the others; the bushes rustled and they stepped out, their swords drawn. It was three armed men against him, weaponless and defenceless.

But he had his mind and his fists, and he would use them.

“In the name of the King,” one of them said, “surrender.”

Araysh almost rolled his eyes. This was incredibly cliche. “Make me,” he said, and then lunged.

His fae speed hadn’t all abandoned him; he was still faster than the soldier as he tackled him with a hard, swift punch to the face. While the man reeled from the hit, Araysh grabbed his neck and pinched hard right at the pulse points. The man dropped hard, unconscious.

From behind him, hands grabbed him and pulled, but Araysh kicked behind him, right where it hurt. The man went down, groaning; Araysh grabbed his sword and wrenched it away. While the soldier recovered, Araysh turned to the final scout.

“You can die here,” he said, just slightly out of breath, “or you can flee and save your skin.”

To his credit, the young man looked terrified, but he didn’t turn tail and run.

“Now who’s the coward?” he asked, voice slightly shaky. Araysh smirked.

“We’ll see.”

The soldier attacked first, and Araysh used that to his advantage; he feinted left and he fell for it. Araysh grabbed his arm and spun him around, pressing the sword against his neck.

The second soldier had recovered; he staggered to his feet, but Araysh tightened his grip on his hostage and said, “Weapons on the ground.”

The soldier hesitated.

“If you want him to live,” Araysh said, “then place your weapons on the ground.”

Slowly, the scout obeyed, and Araysh made as if to release his hostage, but instead jammed the hilt into his temple, and let the body fall.

“Don’t worry,” he said, stepping away, “he’s just unconscious. Your fate, however, might not be so lucky.”

“You kill me,” said the scout, “and my king will have your head.”

Anger flared, but Araysh kept an indifferent expression. “He has tried,” he said flatly. “So tell your dear King that if he sends any more pathetic dogs like you after me, I’ll be responsible for more than just his father’s death. And if you attempt to chase me, I will hunt you instead and skin you alive.”

“Empty threats,” the soldier retorted, and Araysh raised a single, chilling eyebrow.

“There’s a line between bravery and stupidity,” he said, deadly quiet, “and you are toeing it.”

Still, he kept his insolent expression, and Araysh’s hand twitched. “Don’t make me kill you,” he warned.

The soldier glanced at his fallen comrades and then back at Araysh, and his expression harder. Araysh could have groaned. But he raised his eyebrows and then, without warning, thrust with his sword. The soldier stepped out the range, but Araysh knew he would--he took a long stride forward and hooked his below around the soldier’s arm and twisted.

It gave way surprisingly easily and the soldier yelled and sank to his knees. Araysh grit his teeth and shoved him away. “I warned you,” he said. “Now do I need to do anything else?”

The scout didn’t reply, clutching arm and curling over it. Araysh hadn’t meant to break it, but he couldn’t let the enemy know that. He dropped the sword; it was iron, and his hand was itching uncomfortably.

“There we go,” he muttered, as he pulled a dagger from an unconscious soldier’s belt. “Good old steel.”

“You will pay,” the soldier said through grit teeth. “You will pay for this!”

“Undoubtedly,” Araysh agreed, “but that time has not yet reached me.”

He left the soldier cursing and yelling and moved through the trees towards the south; he could get to the border there and double back—it would be a long way, but in that time, the search for him would die down and Araysh would have time to clear his head and think.

He set off walking, hand tight and tense around his weapon. He had to be prepared if the scouts had back up behind him, which was more likely than not. They had caught him by surprise once—it would be simply embarrassing he was ambushed now.

Suddenly, Araysh frowned. The world had suddenly gone very still; an eerie silence descended.

Araysh tightened his grip and scanned around, on edge. Something was not right.

You need not be scared.

Araysh almost jumped out of his skin. That—that voice had been in his head. How was that possible?

Possibility is not linear—you have seen little of the world’s true potential yet.

Araysh’s hands shook as he pressed them to his temples, squeezing his eyes shut. “Get out of my head!” he forced out through grit teeth.

Do not be scared, the voice said—and then Araysh realised: it was the same voice that had spoken to him in the dark, just before he had woken up. He shook his head, breathing coming in bursts.

Yield to us, it said; it was impossible to tell whether is was male or female, young or old. Yield to us, and we will give you the world.

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