"Clouds of Tyranny"

By J. R. Pond All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi

The Retriever

Tara sat with Ruthie in the dining area making small talk in the late afternoon waiting for Lock to come explain the mission to them, while Alex sat on the opposite side of the large room. Alex felt like an outcast ever since the embarrassing incident in the training room where Tara made her look like a damn fool. Pearl and Ray entered from the door leading to the Returner’s private room; Pearl sat down with Tara and Ruthie as Ray made his way over to Alex. Alex watched as Ray sat down in front of her.

“Hey,” said Ray sadly giving her a look of condolences.

“I’m guessing by that look, that you heard about the incident.”

“Yeah. I came to tell you that you and I have a mission tomorrow with Pearl acting as our leader.

“What’s the job?” asked Alex sliding the bottle of whiskey in his direction.

“Thanks,” nodded Ray taking a swig, “Mmm, good stuff. Well, me, you, and Pearl are going to Harmon to survey the town and arrange the townspeople with safe passage out of the town a few days prior to the Empire’s scheduled attack and to plan spots for constructing traps to ease the threat to our benefit.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“So, what’s the deal with that girl with the green hair?”

“Tara? Don’t ask me, I don’t know anything about women. Ask anybody,” laughed Ray at his own ignorance of the opposite sex.

“You’re not coming with us?” asked Tara at Pearl.

“No, I’m going with Ray and that new girl to Harmon for reconnaissance and Smith would like me to keep a close eye on Alex. I’m a pretty good judge of character.”

“Okay,” said Ruthie, “So, our mission will involve me, Tara, and Lock going into the ‘Forest of Sorrow’ and past the swamp to enlist the retriever? That’s awesome; I haven’t seen my buddy in forever.”

“I knew you’d like it,” laughed Pearl, “Oh, and Tara? Don’t ask the Retriever any questions.”

“Why? Is he a private person? Or like a bounty hunter with deadly secrets or something?”

Ruthie frowned at Tara.

“No, he just can’t talk. Had his tongue cut out a few years back.”

“Ouch,” said Tara holding her hands against her own mouth, “By who?”

“His old partner,” explained Pearl, “Quadra, a girl with only four fingers on each hand.”

“Ouch again, how’d that happen?” inquired Tara.

“She was a thief as a child and someone decided to teach her a lesson one day.”

“Anyway,” said Pearl standing up, “You leave bright and earlier so get a good meal tonight and a good night’s sleep. Don’t forget to bring spare food for the trip tomorrow. Good luck.”

Pearl walked over to Ray and Alex and sat down.

“Woohoo,” chanted Ruthie, “Get to try my new gloves and you get to test yourself tomorrow. It’s gonna be fun.”

Tara swallowed hard.

“Is it gonna be dangerous?”

“Of course, that’s why it’s fun. Don’t worry though; a few saber wolves, Worsps, and maybe a few swamp plants. Nothing we can’t handle.”

“Ruthie, I’m just worried I’ll be too frightened to do anything. What if I just freeze?”

“If you ever feel yourself getting scared just get angry instead and tell yourself ‘I will not die!’ or just call to me, I can help you.”

“Thanks Ruthie,” smiled Tara giving Ruthie a one-handed hug.

Lock was in his room making preparations for the next day; packing nonperishable foods, sharpening additional blades for battle, and testing his fighting boots that had a retractable blade in their toes. Lock picked his head up when he heard a knock at the door.

“Yeah?”

The door crept open and in the doorway stood Ray, Pearl, and Alex.

“All is set for tomorrow, Lock,” said Pearl assuredly.

“Good, be careful you guys and good luck.”

“Thanks, you too.”

Pearl and Ray began walking away.

“Can I talk to you?” asked Alex.

“Sure, close the door.”

She entered his private room and closed the door.

“Listen Alex, about last night.”

“I could have killed that bitch with a snap of my fingers if I wished.”

“Who?”

“You know damn well who, that little whore that can’t stop fawning over you.”

Lock laughed at the irony of the situation.

“Jealous?”

“Me,” scoffed Alex, “That’s funny. Too funny. Can’t even muster a chuckle. Do you want her?”

“No, I don’t want anyone. I want the Empire to fall and my countrymen to be safe,” he said as Alex turned toward the door.

“Be safe Lock.”

She left and closed the door behind her.

“You too,” whispered Lock to himself.

Alex walked into the dining room and looked around until she saw someone that looked as if it were their duty to serve the soldiers food.

“When do you serve supper?” she asked a young lady with a sweaty brow.

“In about an hour, ma’am.”

“Thanks.”

Alex had a little while so she decided to go to the women’s dorm and prepare for tomorrow. She walked past the infirmary and heard a whisper.

“Psst, in here,” She heard as she stopped dead in her tracks and backed up to see the same burly wheel chaired man she saw in the meeting room lying in a bed with a bowl of fruit on the table next to him.

“Hey,” he said, “I’m Clyde. We weren’t properly introduced.”

“Hello, I’m Alex. Just got in last night.”

“What’s wrong Alex, you look down.”

“I’m sure you heard.”

“Heard what?”

“Well, I had a bit of a spat with that Tara girl.”

“Oh, the girl with the supposed powers?”

“Yeah, she decided to use her ‘powers’ on me; someone that relies on her sword to fight. A little one-sided if you ask me.”

“Well, can’t get along with everyone, right?”

“You ain’t lyin’ Clyde. So, what happened to you?”

“Shot by an imperial bastard, but I’ll live. Doc says I can get out of the infirmary in four days and eat real food.”

Alex laughed as she looked at the dried fruit and oats next to his bed and reflected on the fact that she was finally beginning to feel remorse for all of the horrible things she had done in the past to people that wanted nothing more than to live in a free world.

“Where you from Alex?”

“Me, Pan’dier,” Alex’s mouth curved; she was getting tired of the lie.

“Hmm, do you know Lisanella?”

“Can’t say that I do, I’m afraid.”

“Oh. That’s okay. So what are you up to tonight?”

“Have to get ready for tomorrow’s mission and was thinking about finding Tara and rectifying today’s little ‘incident’.”

“Missions. Can’t wait to go on another one of those. Just don’t do anything rash to Tara, okay? She’s just a kid and she seems a little confused and out of place here. Lock told me she’s been sheltered and never had to face death or violence until he found her.”

“Thanks for the tip, hope you heal quickly.”

“Thanks for talking with me, good luck tomorrow,” said Clyde giving her a military salute from his bed.

Alex continued to the dorm after talking with Clyde and saw Tara by her bed, which was just below hers. She walked over casually and nodded at Ruthie.

“I hear your going on a little mission in the morning.”

“Yeah,” lighted up Ruthie in excitement, “Get to see an old friend of mine in the swamp lands.”

Tara stood there feeling a little awkward.

“That’s a nice blade you got there,” said Tara towards Alex in an attempt to break the ice in a positive way.

Alex looked over at her and smiled maliciously as she wrapped her fingers around the handle of her dragon blade.

“Yeah, it has served me well,” she said just before pulling it from the scabbard and holding it up in front of her face.

The entire room got quiet; all the girls in the room were looking in Tara and Alex’s direction anticipating some action.

“Where’d you get it?” asked Ruthie breaking the silence.

“I made it last year after my broadsword got destroyed. Once I began using this one I realized that one-handed swords were more my style; quicker and more versatile.”

“How does a broadsword get destroyed? Aren’t they near unbendable?” asked Ruthie cross eyed.

“I was fighting a Tagmyte and holding my sword out was the only way to stop his jaws from crushing me into dust. Luckily, I got away with my life. Learned my lesson, I’ll tell ya,” chuckled Alex as if near death experiences were natural.

“A Tagmyte? Wow, I’ve never actually seen a Tagmyte,” said a preteen girl from across the room eavesdropping.

“How many of you were fighting it?” asked Ruthie.

“Just me, I was challenging myself. Guess, I was in over my head,” answered Alex.

“What’s a Tagmyte?” asked Tara, who couldn’t resist.

Ruthie looked at her in fear.

“A Tagmyte is a large four legged beast the size of this room, maybe larger, with razor sharp claws, two rows of teeth along its jaws, and four large fangs on each corner of its long snout.”

“Wow,” gasped Tara, “We won’t see anything like that tomorrow will we?”

“Nothing that big; mostly beasts no larger than you. Alex, you’re going to Harmon, right?” asked Ruthie.

“Yeah, a few banshee tigers along the way, but a rather simple journey I’d say.”

“Pretty much, “said Ruthie, “But watch out for the plains east of Harmon; that’s where a family of Lizarros live.”

“Really?” said Alex, “The color changers? Good, I’ve never seen one.”

“Good?” said an objectionable voice from the adjacent bunk where a young oriental girl was laying, “Lizarros killed my entire family on our way here to escape the Empire.”

Alex sunk her head in embarrassment of being so impertinent.

Alex spent the next hour or so laying in her bed on her back staring at the ceiling thinking about various things; her mission tomorrow and how she would stop herself from spell casting (by now it was second nature) and more importantly, last night with Lock. Two nights ago she tried to seduce Lock to give her mind some relaxation and that was all it would have meant to her, but now she actually felt something; was it because he turned her down? She was eternally grateful for what he had done; bringing her to safety and changing her appearance so no one would know who she is, because that could cause her to come to harm from a different angle. A man had never treated her with so much compassion and security.

In the dining room everyone sat together; even Tara and Alex though neither one had closure yet. The Returner’s table was actually crowded with two gentlemen Tara hadn’t seen since her arrival. Chuck and Lars whom Alex had never met. Tara was the last to sit at the table as usual.

“Hi guys. Long time no see,” said Tara settling herself on the bench of the table.

“Hi Tara,” smiled Lars, “How do you like it here so far?”

“It’s getting easier,” she shrugged, “Where have you been?”

“Me? I was inside one of the imperial camps along the coast waiting for the right moment for Chuck and I to plant some bombs.”

“Did it work?” inquired Tara.

“Like a charm, forty less imperials,” interrupted Chuck, “Give or take.”

Alex was in the vicinity of Tara and the two returning warriors.

“Hi, I’m Alex!” yelled Alex extending her hand to Lars obviously wanting his attention.

Lars shook her hand and nodded without saying a word then quickly looked back to Tara to finish his interrupted conversation.

“Well, you definitely look more at home. Less nervous and more confident.”

“Thank you,” smiled Tara appreciatively, “Are you going on one of the missions tomorrow? It will be my first and it’d be nice to have someone to protect me,” Tara said flirtatiously.

“No actually,” blushed Lars, “but Lock can protect you. I really need rest. Besides, Smith wants to plan some kind of counterstrike on the Empire in a couple weeks and wants me to have a look at the blueprints of the town so we can determine the right places to plant explosives.”

“Oh,” said Tara, “Me and Ruthie are going with Lock to get some retriever guy.”

“The Retriever?” asked Lars.

“Yeah, you know him?” asked Tara.

“Know who?” said Ruthie just tuning in to their conversation.

“The Retriever,” said Lars angrily.

“Ooh! Shouldn’t have brought that up, Ter,” said Ruthie grinning.

“I’m sorry,” consoled Tara.

“It’s okay. I just don’t care for him because of what he did to my sister. I can work with the guy because that’s business, but I’m not having dinner around him,” explained Lars.

“What did he do to your sister, if you don’t mind me asking,” asked Tara.

“More like, what his sister did to the Retriever,” laughed Chuck.

Tara looked to Lars for an explanation.

“Okay, the short version is: He slept with my sister by saying he cared for her, she fell in love with him, he told her to get lost, she cut out his tongue so he could never lie to anyone ever again.”

“Wow, she’s sounds tough,” gasped Tara.

“She is a very strong woman,” confirmed Lars.

“Where is she?” asked Tara.

“Don’t know, last I heard she was going to the west continent to get away from the Empire and away from the hate to start a new life.”

“Where’s Lock?” asked Alex towards Ray.

“Oh, before a mission he likes to be alone the night prior,” he answered.

She thought carefully whether to bother him, No he needs his strength if he’s gonna play bodyguard for Tara all day. Pearl saw her thinking; obviously about Lock, which she didn’t like one bit but then again she didn’t like anyone thinking about Lock in that way. Pearl looked over to Tara watching her talk with Lars and she seemed to be having a great time and it seemed more fitting. She smiled at Tara. Tara smiled back at Pearl saying ‘Hello’. Pearl winked at Tara and Tara raised an eyebrow in confusion.

For dinner everyone had partaken in chicken legs, fried potatoes, and beans. However, the Returners had a different menu, the soldiers were forced to eat fish, bananas, peaches, and a few eggs so they would have sufficient vitamins and protein for the following day. One-by-one the soldiers retired; the last two being Tara, Ruthie, and Lars but Ruthie left after a few minutes; she felt more like a third wheel rather than a contributor to the conversation.

“How long have you been here?” asked Tara.

“Four years; Lock was still in his first year and I had just turned eighteen. I wanted to stop the empire’s tyranny, so did my sister, but we had different plans to stop them. I found it best to join a resistance group for safety and she thought going solo was stealthier and lest chance of casualties.”

“How long has it been since you saw her?”

“A year next month, but she promised when she returned she would see me so I’d know she’s safe.”

“You could always go to the western continent,” smiled Tara.

“Yeah, we thought of that too. She told me that if I was ever on the western continent to go to ‘where the lake’s meet’. Whatever that may mean.”

“Hmm, not sure. But she’s probably expecting that you’ll know by the time you reach the shore.”

“Yeah,” Lars laughed hysterically, “She always likes talking in riddles, because she knows it annoys the hell out of me.”

Tara sat there listening to every word that came out of his mouth till his mouth stopped moving and they just looked at each other quietly enjoying the company in the dark dining room.

“Lars?”

“Yes?”

“Do you…have anyone?”

“Family?”

“No.”

“Friends?”

“No,” sung Tara waiting for him to get the idea.

Lars’ eyes widened when he realized what she meant.

“Oh,” hesitated the gentleman, “Um, no actually.”

“Me neither.”

They stared at each other for several minutes before Lars broke the silence,

“May I walk you to your room?”

“I’d love that.” Tara smiled and held her hand out. Lars hesitated for a moment then wrapped his hand around hers and walked her to the outside of the women’s dorm.

“It was nice talking to. It’s nice to have a friend,” said Tara smiling at Lars.

“It is. Be very safe tomorrow so I can see you again.”

“I promise,” said Tara opening her arms and hugging Lars tight.

As he held her in his arms loosely, she felt that she was comfortable here pressing against him. The hug lasted longer that it should with friends and became slightly more than that and Tara realized that she hadn’t thought of Lock since she started talking with Lars over an hour ago.

She opened the door to the dorm and looked back at Lars just to give him an extra smile to get him through the night and closed the door.

Lock was just lying in bed when he heard a knock at the door. He got up violently and walked to the door.

“Damn women,” he grumbled to himself assuming it was either Tara or Alex coming to gauge his feelings towards them.

He jerked the door open and was shocked to see Lars standing there; looking at him.

“Lars? What’s the matter?? Asked Lock.

“I want you to make sure Tara come home unscathed. Consider your debt paid in full if she come back unharmed.”

“Sounds fair,” said Lock extending a hand. Lars shook his hand in agreement of their verbal contract.

“Smells like love,” joked Lock in a bad French accent.

Lars smiled sarcastically and walked down the hall to his room, which was the closest to the door leading to the dining room.

“Tara, Tara?” Tara was awakened to someone shaking her awake gently and whispering her name.

Tara opened her eyes to see Lock standing over here and looked around to see that everyone else was sleeping except Ruthie who was sitting on her bed rubbing her eyes.

“What time-“

“The sun will be up in about two hours, we leave in thirty minutes. Meet me by the kitchen,” said Lock as he turned away and left the room.

Tara rolled out of bed and looked to the top bunk. Lucky bitch gets to sleep, thought Tara angrily.

“Morning Ter,” said Ruthie giddily.

“Mornin’” Ruthie sprung out of bed and picked up a bag she had prepared the night before and went to the bathroom to change out of respect for Tara.

Tara figured if she’d hurry, no one would see her change at her bed. Tara was scrambling under the covers to change as quickly as possible. After pulling on her green cargo pants she attempted to put on her shirt, but was stopped by the image of her own torso; she felt fat as she envisioned the bodies of her peers, Alex, Ruthie, Pearl, etc. How could anyone love some like her? She frowned and depressingly pulled on her tank top and emerged from under the blanket. She fastened the gun holster to her side and slid in the gun.

Ruthie emerged from the bathroom wearing athletic style tennis shoes, red daisy duke shorts over black leggings, a black skin tight shirt with a crimson ribbon corkscrewing around her upper body, and the blue bandana concealed her hair as it was tied in a helmet shape around her scalp. Ruthie’s outfit showed off her body and made Tara just a little bit more self-conscious.

“Ready?” asked Ruthie.

“Yeah, I guess,” shrugged Tara. Ruthie slipped on her gloves and motioned for Tara to follow.

Once in the kitchen, Tara felt different, she no longer had the butterflies when she saw Lock. Lock was waiting with a light meal for them; bread and some dried granola. After they had their snack it was time to go. Lock led them through a door just past the kitchen. As they walked down a dark corridor Tara couldn’t help but ask the obvious question that tapped her on the back of the head.

“Why aren’t we using the entrance?”

“There is a series of tunnels that can take us anywhere we care to go,” answered Lock without looking at her, “We will be in the swamp by noon.”

They continued through the narrow corridor for almost an hour before coming to a tunnel much larger than the one they had been venturing through thus far; it had a small mine car with a lever sticking up from its side and a coiled spring behind it.

“Get in,” ordered Lock, pointing into the mine car.

Tara got into the wood and steel vessel and looked around confused as Lock checked the wheels for damages.

“We get in and pull the level and that spring over there,” said Ruthie pointing to the coiled spring, “and it shoots us at a very alarming speed to our destination. And, once we arrive we apply the brakes and we stop. We’ll know where we are by the markers along the walls.”

Tara nodded in understanding as Lock jumped in and pulled the lever. The three of them shot forward at an intense speed as Tara screamed; some was fear and some was enjoyment of adventure. They cut through the air; the sonic booms shooting past them were so loud they had to yell to communicate.

“Ruthie,” yelled Tara, “I could get used to this.”

“Yeah, I love it!” screamed Ruthie with a jack-o-lantern smile.

Alex awoke to Pearl rubbing her back trying to ease her awake.

“Alex,” whispered Pearl, “We gotta go.”

Alex sat up and threw the sheets from her body and revealed her nightclothes to Pearl; half shirt barely covering her perky breasts and tiny underwear hugging her pelvis. Pearl looked at what she was wearing and gulped hard.

“Meet me outside,” said Pearl looking half away with her face as red as a roma tomato.

Pearl quickly walked through the room past the other women who were starting to gradually get up and left the room. Alex was a little confused. Does she think I’m dressed too revealing and dislikes it or does she love it? Alex shrugged and grabbed some clothes from the corner near Tara’s bed and changed into black fatigues, military boots, and an army green tank top with her pendant of course. After rolling several cigarettes for the day she grabbed her dragon blade and exited the room.

“What if his worst fears are right?” said Ray as Alex walked out.

“What are you guys talking about?” asked Alex having no regard for boundaries.

“Umm,” stuttered Ray.

“Whether or not the town will be too difficult to evacuate,” said Pearl glaring at Ray for speaking so loud.

“Yeah,” confirmed Ray.

“I don’t think so,” started Alex, “I’ve been there. Even if you can’t get them out in time, almost every single house has an attic or basement for hiding.”

“Hmm,” thought Pearl. “So, we ready?” asked Ray. “I am, “said Alex.

After grabbing a satchel with crackers, bread, and water they headed out through the front entrance from whence Alex had come a few nights earlier. As they closed the trap door behind them and looked against the rising sun, Alex looked into the distance at the bush where she had hidden her vehicle then looked at her partners.

“So, what are we waiting for?”

“We are waiting for our rides,” said Ray.

“He’s late,” growled Pearl.

“Who? Asked Alex looking around.

“Over there,” pointed Ray as Alex followed his finger to see a man on horseback holding the reins of two additional horses on either side of him.

Alex would rather use her own ride, the S250, but revealing the machine would cause more problems than it would solve. The man arrived, about Tara’s age wearing blue slacks and a blue shirt; the color of the merchant. The man hoped off his horse and handed the reins to Pearl. Pearl snatched them away and handed him a tiny drawstring bag that jingled with the sound of coins when it dropped into his hand. The man nodded a thank you and began jogging back into the direction he came from.

“Here!” said Pearl handing the reins to Ray and Alex.

“Did you buy them or rent?” asked Alex, pulling herself up on a dark brown mare.

“Smith rented them for us,” said Ray gleefully as he leapfrogged onto the beige horse from behind its rear.

“How did he reach somebody to request them?” inquired Alex.

“You writin’ a book?” asked Pearl annoyingly as she positioned herself upright on the black and white horse’s back, “Come on and try to keep up. YA!”

Pearl’s horse took off quickly followed by Ray. Alex heeled the horse in the side forcing him to catch up. While she rode across the countryside she thought about this so-called mission. Why do they need three people to go ‘look’ at a town with no imperials in sight? Did they somehow know of her last job? Was this a trap? She would just have to wait and see, but hopefully she wouldn’t have to kill these two. Even though Pearl was cold to her, she didn’t want to have to kill her. The only thing she wanted to kill now is imperials and beasts.

It was mid-morning when Tara, Lock, and Ruthie reached the forest southwest of HQ. Tara paid close attention to her surrounding, Lock paid close attention to her, and Ruthie didn’t have a single care; she was just happy to be out in the world again away from the stone walls of headquarters. Tara looked around at her wooded surroundings and noticed this forest was darker and scarier than the one near her cottage home. She could swear that the sharp, leafless branches were trying to slit her throat and they seemed to get closer with every step she took, How could a tree be alive and have dead leaves and branches?

“It feels so good to breathe real air again,” said Ruthie taking in a deep breath, “Not musty or smelly or day old cooking. Lock, can’t you talk to Smith and get me doing missions ‘before’ I’m sixteen? “

“If it was my choice you’d never be allowed to do a mission, little girl,” sneered Lock.

“Good thing you’re not in charge then,” laughed Ruthie.

“Hey Lock?” asked Tara.

“Yes? What is it?”

“What do spies do?”

“They SPY, what are you talking about?”

“I mean, is it dangerous or do the imperials never really know there is a spy in their home?”

“Usually, our spies get in, get info, and get out. Unless we are planning an attack, then they give the signal for the strike. All in all, no more dangerous than any other mission Returners get put on. Why? You wanna be a spy?”

“Just curious,” said Tara casually.

“Tara,” whispered Ruthie as she pointed past the trees, “Over there.”

Tara looked into the distance beyond the trees and saw a saber wolf; a wolf the size of a male lion.

“This should be some good moving target practice for you, Ter. Try to get him in the head or the heart.”

Tara drew her pistol and carefully aimed in his direction as she kneeled down. She slowly squeezed the trigger. The three of them saw the result of her shot; the bullet went clean through the wolf’s neck and made a smoke mark on the tree behind it. The wolf looked to their direction and began to charge. Tara stood up straight and fired wildly hitting the ground, trees, and the occasional rock. Lock frantically pulled out a dagger and just when he was about to toss it the wolf fell to the floor mere inches in front of Tara’s feet. He looked over at Tara who was holding the smoking gun still pointed downward at the saber wolf who was dripping blood from the center of its forehead.

“Woohoo! Good job, Ter!” screamed Ruthie as she jumped up and down.

Tara’s heart was pounding from the adrenaline that took over her body; she was terrified but also felt like she could do anything right now.

“Next time,” said Lock putting away his dagger, “Try to get it done in one or two bullets.”

“Sure,” smiled Tara taking no offense.

They continued through the forest jumping over fallen logs hoping the swamp would come soon. Tara stopped every so often when she saw a little lizard and a toad; they reminded her of her lonely little cottage. Will I ever be home again?

Pearl, who was leading the other two stopped to consult the position of the sun to see which way to head, she didn’t want to admit it but she was lost.

“Why’d we stop?” asked Ray as he moseyed over to Pearl as Alex idled behind them lighting a rolled cigarette.

“She’s lost,” said Alex as she exhaled her first puff.

“No,” said Pearl sternly.

“Then which way?” asked Ray as if she was bluffing.

“It doesn’t matter! I’m not lost!” yelled Pearl in Ray’s ear for doubting her as a traveler.

“Come on!” yelled Pearl sternly as she headed south.

They rode for another hour until they saw a huge grassy hill in the horizon.

“See!” yelled Pearl as they traveled fast and hard towards it.

“Kudos, my dear frien-“Ray’s voice was cut off by an abrupt fall into a pit disguised as tall grass.

Ray’s horse fell head first into the trap as Ray himself leaped over the horse’s head and landed on his feet but got stumbled by his trench coat and fell sloppily on his back. He leaned on his side to see his horse’s head and front legs struggling to get out of the large pit as he heard hissing growls and saw splatters of blood fly out of the pit and claws coming up and swiping down against the horse’s throat. The head of his beautiful beige horse rolled out of the hole and in front of him. He quickly did a reverse crab walk to get himself away from the removed horse head. Alex and Pearl stopped and looked at the hole intently. Pearl dismounted in order to help her partner in case he needed it, though they might not emerge if the horse was enough of a meal. She was wrong.

From the hole erupted five Lizarros; green scaly flesh, a long mouth with sharp teeth, a long slithering tongue, and claws that could cut through anything. They crept slowly toward Ray and Pearl, they walked like men, only more bent over like an ape. Alex turned her horse around ready to charge when the time was right. Two of the man-lizards ran toward Pearl; she drew the katana from her back and prepared for a fight. The other three creeping up to Ray were slow, like they thought just because he was floor bound he was injured and helpless. One of the beasts bent his knees and jumped high into the air and came down on Ray. Ray shot his arrows up at the dropping reptile and by the time it fell on his body it was no longer among the living. The weight of this muscular lizard trapped Ray; this prison of slimy flesh would become his tomb if he didn’t act. He managed to get his arm from under the fiend and fired at the two that stalked him, but he could not aim correctly. They moved swiftly, dodging all projectiles with ease. He watched as they got closer and closer; he was sure he is going to die.

Then, one of the beast’s head was removed from its shoulders and the rest of its body fell to the floor as Alex turned around yet again for a pass at the other one. The beast’s lifeless body blocked Ray’s view, but to his side he could see Pearl and he thought he could help her at least. He aimed and fired an arrow into one of Pearl’s adversaries forcing his body to inadvertently jolt forward as Pearl thrust her sword into its stomach going all the way through his body. She jerked her blade to the left and his waist was halfway cut through spilling crimson blood on the bright green grass floor as she kicked him back so the thing was lying on its back slowly dying. She stabbed her sword into the ground and went into hand-to-hand combat stance now that she was comfortable given the one-on-one situation. Alex was rushing the beast that formally was preying on Ray, but the intelligent lizard ran towards her and dove into the front legs of her horse with claws out removing the animal’s legs from its knees. Alex flew off the front of her animal as the horse writhed in pain and flailed about as it bled. She had landed on her elbow and was in pain, but rose to her feet nonetheless and unsheathed her dragon blade and threw the scabbard to the floor.

The lizard charged and leaped for her upper body. Alex’s instinct forced her to fall on her back and thrusts the sword in the air as the lizard man fell on it ultimately committing suicide. Pearl was basically challenging the Lizarro as it swiped at her with its dangerous claws; she dodged every time, there was no doubt in her mind that she was faster and smarter. Pearl knew that one connection and she wouldn’t live to see tomorrow. The beast hissed loudly as its tongue came out to smell the air around Pearl, then took a big swipe at her face. Pearl lowered her head under the reptile’s large muscular arm and snuck around him jumping on his back and yanked his big slimy head hard to the left; she heard the neck snap in half as its body dropped lightly to the floor like a dropped feather. Alex and Pearl looked at each other panting and nodded in congratulatory respect.

“Hello? Said Ray sarcastically, “Little help. This thing fuckin’ stinks!”

“Let’s get him out of there,” laughed Pearl shaking her head from side to side.

They dragged the beast off of Ray and Alex extended a hand to help him to his feet, which he gladly accepted.

“Alright, “said Pearl, “Harmon is just a little ways past that hill. Be there in less than an hour if we walk.”

“What?” chuckled Ray, “I think we can all sandwich on that horse.”

“You’d love that wouldn’t you?” said Pearl.

“Of course he would, two beautiful women? Every man’s dream scenario,” winked Alex.

Pearl blushed and looked down then quickly snapped out of it

“Let’s get going. We’ve got a job to do.”

“My horse,” said Alex looking to the maimed animal, “I can’t let him suffer.”

Ray and Pearl nodded as Alex walked to the horse and pierced his heart with her dragon blade and sighed as she walked away. On the way back to the other two soldiers she picked up her scabbard and sheathed her sword. They began walking to the hill and eventually over it to the town.

“If they have horses in town we can make it back home by dinner,” said Pearl.

“Man,” said Ray looking at the two unreturnable horses, “Smith is gonna be pissed.”

By early afternoon, Lock’s party had made it to the swamp.

“Stay at least a dozen feet from the swamp’s edge,” ordered Lock looking at Tara.

She nodded and the three of them went around the swamp. Tara looked at the top of the water; the swamp was green and blue with steam rising from its surface with bubbles ballooning up before popping. This is nothing like my pond, thought Tara as they reached the other side of the swamp. BZZZZZZ! Tara heard a loud buzz that hurt her ears. She turned to see the source of the noise; a gigantic wasp flying towards them.

Ruthie slammed her knuckles against one another and her thorns erupted from the gloves as she ran toward the wasp half her size. She jumped and planted her foot into its multi-eyed face pushing it into the trunk of a large tree. She punched the bug in its body with her right fist and a white puss oozed from it as it squirmed in desperation. Ruthie pressed her left foot against its body and pulled out her ‘claws’ and the bug fell to the ground squirming slower and slower till its movements ceased all together.

“That’s one big bug, Ruthie,” gasped Tara.

“Get ready!” yelled Lock at the both of them.

“What?” said Tara confused.

Ruthie looked up in the treetops where Lock’s eyes were fixed.

“Trouble,” muttered Ruthie, “Ziders!”

Tara looked up and saw a few dozen four legged spiders descending from their webbings. Lock pulled his sword from the sheath and held it with both hands like a baseball bat as Tara gripped her .45 with both hands for a steadier aim. Ruthie put her fists up waiting for the dog-sized insects to get within range. Tara saw that they were several feet above their heads and began firing at them into the sky. As she shot they dropped one at a time; Ruthie ran to the squirming bugs and stomped each one that fell; killing six before hearing CLICK! The gun was empty and the half-arachnids were just above them now.

Tara scrambled for one of the spare clips, forgetting which pocket she had placed them.

“Tara,” yelled Lock looking to the closest bug, “Flame ’em!”

Tara nodded and threw her gun to the floor and concentrated on the ones furthest from them. Lock sliced through the one nearest to him cutting it clean in half, the upper part of the bug’s body still suspended by its wire. Three surrounded Ruthie as she kicked one so hard it flew over Lock’s head and into the swamp; the swamp bubbled with movement beneath the water and she punched another insect with her leather and steel claws. She pulled back her arm and thrust her fist forward to get the third threat, but as her fist flew the bug released its thread and dropped to the floor; her fist hit nothing but air.

She looked down as the bug leaped onto her left leg wrapping its four thin legs around her, then a dagger in its side caused it to release and drop dead.

“Got ’em,” said Lock as he once again put his knife throwing hand back on the Damascus to guard Tara as she worked her abilities on the distant bugs.

Fireballs flew through the air causing the insects to catch fire and drop on the ground as they let out a screech as they scrambled around. One of the flaming bugs had a last moment of vengeance and ran towards the cause of his pain, Tara. Ruthie noticed and ran in front of Tara and kicked the damn bug like a soccer ball, it disappeared before they could see where it landed. The three of them looked around for more fight and more fun.

“I think that’s it,” said Lock re-sheathing his sword.

Tara let out a sigh of relief as she kneeled to pick up her pistol, then she stood to her feet emptied the blank magazine and placed it in her pocket. She searched her pockets for a spare and placed it within the gun and cocked it before placing it back in its holster as her heart raced from the excitement and her adrenaline was at its peak.

They heard movement in the water; the three of them turned to see a thirty-foot crocodile come from the water and slowly crawled toward them. Lock grabbed Tara’s left arm and threw her in the other direction to get her away from danger. Ruthie held from behind frozen in fear. The crocodile’s mouth flew open exposing a tunnel of death that Lock looked into. Lock heard a loud object fly past his head as he saw the top half of the croc’s head, including its upper jaw fly backwards into the center of the swamp. The crocodile’s body flailed around for a moment before its legs fell out from under its weight and laid lifeless. Lock turned around grinning as he saw a man in a black bodysuit and black mask catching a round buzz saw like weapon in his right hand. The man hooked it onto his belt and nodded at Lock.

“Thanks,” said Lock.

Alex and Ray were at the livery in Harmon trying to obtain two additional horses for the trip home when Pearl joined them.

“I think I got everything I need,” said Pearl to Ray, “Got blueprints of each house including the attics and basements. Got a headcount of all civilians and the points on the roof for surprise attacks.”

“We were able to acquire two more horses,” smiled Alex.

“Good, Ray?” said Pearl widening her eyes.

“What? Oh, right. I got some supplies. Weeks’ worth of pasta, scotch, ammunition, and some canned fruits.”

“Good,” said Pearl, “Alright, lets head back. How much for the animals?”

“On the house,” grinned the man at the stables.

Pearl smiled and bowed in appreciation. They all hopped on their horses and trotted out of the town.

Tara examined the cabin she was in with Ruthie, Lock, and this stranger; it reminded her of her cottage only smaller and with less furniture and poorly maintained. There was a bed, a cupboard, and a coal oven.

“So, that’s Smith’s proposal,” said Lock after explaining that they would need him for a single battle.

The man raised his hand slightly up and rubbed his index finger and thumb together asking ‘money?’

“Don’t worry,” said Lock pulling the sack from his pocket, “Sadly, this is his only offer.”

The Retriever took the sack and emptied the gold coins into his hand; when the gold touched his gloved hand the hand turned the exact same color as the money.

Tara was awestruck.

“He’s a chameleon basically,” whispered Ruthie into Tara’s ears.

She nodded in amazement. The Retriever made a ‘drinking’ motion with his hand.

“Sure, I’ll get it,” said Lock going into the cupboard.

“How are you Triever?” asked Ruthie.

He put his palm up flat in the air and shook it saying ‘so-so’.

“This is Tara.”

He put his right palm on his stomach and bowed saying ‘Pleasure to meet you’. She curtsied trying to speak his language. She could tell by his visible eyes that he was smiling. He curved his right wrist and pointed at it with his left index finger saying ‘How long?’

“She’s been with us for almost a week now,” answered Ruthie.

He nodded in understanding.

“Here ya go,” said Lock handing Ruthie and Tara a small glass half full with a green liquid, then turned around to get the other two for him and The Retriever. He handed The Retriever his drink and clanged his glass against his.

“To a successful mission,” said Lock before drinking.

The Retriever pulled down his mask that covered his mouth to reveal scars around his lips then took a sip of the liquid before pulling it back up. He poked himself in the heart twice at Tara saying ‘Sorry’.

“Everyone’s got scars somewhere,” she replied.

He nodded his head thankfully at her and pressed his fist against his chest saying ‘Thank you’.

“This is really good,” said Tara after taking a sip, “Where do you get this?”

The Retriever mimed stirring a cauldron in the air like a witch.

“You make it? Can I get the recipe,” giggled Tara.

The Retriever grinned beneath his concealment and waved his index finger from side to side saying ‘Uh uh, my secret’. After the four of them finished their drinks Lock picked up his Damascus and headed for the front door.

“Okay, we gotta get back. Don’t forget, nine days, Harmon,” said the Returner’s current leader.

The Retriever saluted in agreement and pointed to a painting on the wall and made a walking motion with his left hand as he pointed to the door with his left saying ‘I’ll walk you through the forest’.

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