Death, My Old Nemesis
Tara sat staring at Lock from the couch while a spring stabbed her in the leg for what seemed like hours. He’s kind of cute…in a damaged sort of way. She hated to wake people up; it seemed rude to her.
Finally, she shifted her weight on a loose piece of wood within the couch causing it to squeak from deep within its failing structure. The noise echoed loudly throughout the aluminum encased housing. Before his eyes shuddered open, Lock inadvertently did a front shoulder roll, unsheathing his sword while doing so. The blade was positioned for a death blow a few feet from Tara, startling her a little.
Tara didn’t flinch from such an intimidating pose. She was here for her safety, and this man was not the hasty type. Although he looked pretty tough and just a bit scary, she felt safe with him.
He looked up at her as he kneeled in front of her, but Tara was looking at the sword he held. She scanned it almost analytically. The sword was a double-edged Damascus spackled with black and white grain along the flat surface of the three-foot blade. She strained her eye to read the foreign writing along the bottom portion of the blade, but she couldn’t make it out. Time will tell all, she thought as she looked into Lock’s eyes and smiled.
“Are you okay? Seem a bit jumpy over there,” said Tara as she shifted on the couch to get a bit more comfortable causing it to squeak again.
“Fine, just fine,” muttered Lock as he sheathed his blade looking at her deeply.
Tara flashed a smile as she thanked him for his hospitality.
“Lock, I really appreciate the bread, the medicine, and...” She giggled, “Well… you know… saving my life.”
Tara blushed with the last word and broke eye contact.
Lock, relaxed a little and slid from one knee to resting on both while he continued to look at her with his piercing stare.
“Sleep well?” he asked as she giggled at him.
She had caught him looking her up and down, notably appreciating the curves, even though she hated them.
“Yes. Thanks to you,” Tara retorted, as she flung the blanket over him.
It quickly covered his body and cut off his stare. He was annoyed now, as he whipped it away from his body and rose to his feet, which prompted her to sit upright. In doing so, her skirt rode up her leg, allowing Lock to see her upper left thigh. It was silky soft and had no flaws despite her chubbiness. For a moment his mind generated impure thoughts. He mentally shook himself and got back to the real world.
“What are you?” asked Lock bluntly as he looked down at her sitting on the couch, handing her a glass of tepid water from the table in the center of the room.
“I…” she mumbled, not knowing what he was referring to.
“You charred a deathly killer plant with your mind. And…I wanna know how!!!”
Tara stared unsurely at him.
“What the hell are you talking about? You’re obviously confused. I was attacked; luckily that ivy combusted internally. Must have been watered by the Fringock River or something.”
As Lock stared down at the girl, he slowly realized what no one had ever bothered to think about. My god! She doesn’t know! he thought. She truly does need my protection. He relaxed a bit more, as he now understood that he had nothing to fear from her gift. He backed away towards the window to look out it.
“Dawn already, we should probably-“Lock started but trailed off as the sound of crashing glass filled the room as the front window shattered.
A large arm reached in, breaking the remaining glass and grabbing a tight hold on Lock’s throat. As he was violently pulled towards the broken glass, Lock felt the glass shards scrape against his arms lightly cutting them.
In seconds another man burst through the side door, his gun focused on Tara. With adrenaline pumping into Tara’s body, her aura lifted her from the couch momentarily before she found herself frozen with fear. How can I help, she frantically thought as she gazed down the barrel of the imperial’s silver .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun. All she could do was watch as Lock struggled with the man holding him to the window, trying to keep the man off of his throat.
She was further startled, when a third man fell through the ceiling. The man ran to Lock, grabbing him by the throat and flinging him to the floor. He looked at Tara and smiled evilly before lifting his knee up in an obvious attempt to stomp Lock’s skull into mush.
Luckily, Lock saw this and did a roll to his left to avoid the critical blow to his skull. Lock proceeded to twist his hips and scissors kick his way through the back of his attackers knees, dropping the man to the floor where they were now equals. Lock leaped atop him, straddling the man with his thighs, before proceeding to punch both sides of the imperial’s head as hard as he could. Lock could feel the Imperial’s temple battling with the bones in Lock’s knuckles. The man was knocked cold from the fury of the fists hammering against him.
The front sliding door was being slowly opened as Lock looked at it, realizing he didn’t bolt it when he had returned that morning. It slid wide open, showing another Imperial soldier standing in the doorway looking at Lock. The look in the soldiers eyes left no doubt that he was relishing the thought of ending the life of this Returner. The Imperial kicked Lock’s sheathed blade, sending it sliding toward Lock. The Imperial drew his own blade, indicating to Lock he wanted a blade-to-blade challenge. Lock sat there on the floor with legs flat, blood dripping from his nose and lips, as he gripped the blade and quietly rose to his feet. Unsheathing his sword, the black and white spackled, double-edged blade that belonged to his father gleamed in the low light of the rising sun. It was his favorite weapon, the Damascus, and one he was rarely without. Lock dropped the sheath to the floor and readied himself for the challenge.
Lock wasn’t exactly a bodybuilder or a military type, or even in decent shape for that matter. However, he was an incredible swordsman who didn’t fear death or the afterlife. The imperial made the first move, skipping forward with sword in hand held a bare three inches in front of his face. Lock stood stoic with sword drawn at his side waiting for his opportunity.
The man yelled as he swiped the sword at Lock’s head. The blow was ricocheted away when Lock raised his sword, and the imperial continued his attack. The soldier was violently swinging at random parts of Lock’s body as if he were chopping wood in the dark. Lock parried and blocked each attack with ease until the swordsman made the dire mistake of attempting an unskilled thrust towards Lock’s chest. Lock merrily sidestepped it and spun around with his Damascus barreling through the back of the man’s neck as his head fell to the floor, leaving the imperial’s body standing for a few seconds.
Lock watched as the man’s headless body dropped to its knees and began flailing on the floor before becoming still.
After a brief moment of shock, the soldier standing by Tara turned the gun on Lock. Tara watched as the man’s forefinger began to pull the trigger.
“No!” screamed Tara instinctly running towards the soldier.
She pushed the man in his chest with both palms against his rib cage. The man was thrown through the steel bars, which appeared to spread like a welcoming gate made of straw.
The man flew out the window and several feet past the walkway, causing him to fall down the thirty-foot drop as though someone had hit him with multiple sledgehammers. He hit the concrete walkway below leaving a star-shaped splatter of blood that had erupted from the back of his skull. His eyes started to glaze over in the short time Tara was able to gaze down at him through the window in awe. How did that happen? She thought. An adrenaline soaked increase in strength?
Lock was staring at her in amazement and gave her a grateful look as he turned to pick up his sheath. As he reached for the sheath, the Imperial he had bludgeoned sprung on him. The soldier knocked the sword from Lock’s grasp, causing it to fly across the room. Both men were on the floor, hands locked on each other’s arms.
Tara looked around, she located the gun on the floor. She picked it up and aimed it shakily at the two men wrestling on the floor. Lock was on the bottom with the man’s hands on his throat, frantically trying to fight him off.
“Don’t shoot,” gasped Lock choppily, as the soldiers hand tightened on his throat.
Tara slowly lowered the weapon to her side as she realized that there was a good probability she might kill both men and that would prevent her from ever escaping this town. Lock was running short of air and he knew that he needed to do something quickly.
He hooked his right foot behind the man’s knee and rolled him over, allowing Lock to come up on top of the soldier’s chest. Lock started pounding away on the man’s face with his elbows and forearms before the imperial managed to get a knee up.
The man used his knee to push Lock off his chest and several feet back. Lock landed heavily on his back, with the breath knocked out of him. The soldier reached into his right boot, pulling out a very compact, snub-nosed revolver. He turned, pulling back the hammer as he aimed it at Tara. His bloody face was filled with anger as he took aim, which caused Tara to freeze in fear. Lock lay stunned, trying to regain his bearings.
The imperial’s actions penetrated the fog that surrounded him. Hidden in his belt buckle was a very small throwing spade shaped throwing dagger. He pulled the dagger and flung it at the man with a precision that was belied by his appearance. The blade struck the soldiers jugular just as he fired, causing the bullet to go wide and fly into the next room. The sound of braking glass emanated from the kitchen.
The imperial dropped the pistol to his side and was holding his throat in a failed attempt to staunch the flow of blood. Lock rose to his feet and slowly walked to his victim.
Lock kneeled and as he looked into the man’s dying eyes, he quickly pulled the dagger from his throat. Lock could feel the resistance attached to the blade, veins and bones probably, the dagger didn’t want to leave its new home. The man’s head slammed against the raggedy rug flooring as the blade was ripped free. Lock could see the man’s soul vanish from his eyes as his last breath sputtered out. Lock turned to Tara after wiping the blade clean with the blanket that had kept her warm less than ten minutes ago.
“We should really go,” said Lock. Tara looked at him as he re-holstered the belt dagger.
“Yeah, probably.” She looked at the gun she was holding and handed it to Lock, “Here.”
“Hold on to it,” said Lock as he pushed it back towards her, “I trust you…for now.”
Lock walked towards the front door after retrieving two magazines filled with bullets from the dead soldier, cueing Tara to follow him.
They made for the narrow alley behind Lock’s shack. Tara was in the lead a good thirty paces ahead before stopping to wait for Lock to catch up. Lock took a deep breath and squeezed himself into the small crawl space. The rough metal edge of his safe house grazed against his puffed stomach as he squeezed by. As he looked ahead, he spotted an overhang about shoulder level that he and Tara would have to do a kneel-crawl in order to make it through.
As he followed Tara, he dropped to his knees and pulled himself with his hands as his legs pushed along the rock-covered ground for several yards. At last he sensed no restriction above his head and could finally rise without bumping his head. He planted his right palm against the ground and arose from his knees only to see a glistening gun pointing at his head.
He stared down its barrel for a few seconds before looking past it to its owner, Tara. He stared into her face as she shivered; she was frightened but not afraid to kill. All Lock could do was remain on his knees and wait.
“What do you want from me?” whispered Tara, “I didn’t do anything wrong. Why are people trying to kill me?”
Lock sat there with his weight rested on his knees and threw up his hands like a villain caught in the act.
“I’m not trying to kill you. I’m trying to save you. Please…trust me.”
Tara stood there for many moments thinking deeply. She envisioned the previous day; the last time she saw her pond and cottage, when the Imperial soldiers has taken shots at her, then attempted to apprehend her without cause. She stared down at Lock. His face showed no fear and he projected strong sincerity.
“Tara,” he said, “I can protect you from the Empire…please let me.”
He reached his hand up towards her, knowing that all she had to do was press. Tara looked into Locks eyes and saw what she herself was feeling. If she pulled the trigger, she would be all alone and that worried him as much as it was worrying her. She lowered the gun but didn’t fully let her guard down.
“Tell me,” she whispered, as to not arouse suspicion because she could hear movement in the center of town and faint discussion of a malicious nature.
“What do you want to know?” said Lock as he looked into her eyes.
“What do they want from me?”
“Your powers to use for their own corrupt plans of holding the entire continent prisoner. Then, when they’ve finished with you…,” Lock grimaced as he trailed off.
Tara looked into Lock’s dark brown eyes and saw only truth inside them,
“They’ll dispose of you like a piece of wood that won’t burn.”
Lock began to rise to his feet, feeling the risk of being shot by Tara diminishing with each passing moment. He could see that she now realized that she needed him and that he posed no threat to her. He stood there looking into her eyes, eyes that were filled with dread and fear. He had the sudden urge to hold her in an attempt to give her ease, but didn’t and simply walked past her.
“Can we go now? Smith will tell you more when we get to HQ,” said Lock turning his head to look at her.
Tara was staring down at her shoes, then raised her head and nodded an affirming yes.
“Who’s Smith?” Asked Tara, but her question was met with silence.
Lock and Tara stealthily traversed through the tight corridors and beneath the crawl spaces behind the shack row until they could see the western tunnel of Sangrohl. The tunnel was short enough that they could see the light peeking through from the other side. However, two imperials were blocking their access. Lock leaned back behind the wall that was concealing their presence and began to work out a plan. Tara crouched next to him gripping her gun.
“Lock,” she whispered, “Here, just shoot em.”
“That would be very stupid, the sound of the discharge would echo through the town. Hell, the old couple living on the top of that mountain would hear it. Think before you act, Tara,” he said sternly.
So Rude Tara thought and leaned her back against the wall, waiting for him to come up with something. He turned toward her with an apologetic air, but pulled up short when he noticed a change in her appearance.
“What happened to your scratch?” said Lock as he noticed that the large cut that had been below her left eye last night was now gone and only a smidge of dried blood remained in its absence.
“Oh,” she said rubbing her cheek, “I heal incredibly fast. Heh.”
He gave her a look that said I’m not stupid!
“Lock,” whispered a choppy voice from several feet away.
Lock and Tara looked around them. Tara elbowed Lock and pointed to a house adjacent to where they were standing. An elderly woman in a wheelchair slightly waved.
“Old Mag,” said Lock explaining to Tara as he waved Old Mag over.
“Who?” said Tara into Lock’s ear.
“Just be quiet and follow my lead.”
Old Mag’s physical appearance reminded Tara of the wicked witch that tried to each Hansel and Gretel. She had a pointy nose, bony fingers, and wrinkles that seemed to be inside of wrinkles. The elderly disgusted Tara. She was glad that she didn’t have to see her mother like this: ugly and helpless. Old Mag rolled herself in front of Lock with her rusted, squeaky chair. Upon her approach Lock leaned down to whisper with her, too low for Tara to hear, but they obviously were good acquaintances.
“Good luck,” said Old Mag as they hugged each other tightly.
She did a quarter turn, nodding at Tara as she made her way toward the Imperial guards.
“Get ready to run…quietly,” whispered Lock clenching his fists tight.
She nodded he affirmation and got into a sprinter’s crouch. They watched as Old Mag talked with the guards waving her arms in the air and crying.
“Fine!” yelled one of the guards as he took his rifle and hung it around his back so he could have the use of both hands.
“Saaaaaatch! Come on cat!” said one of the soldiers as his cohort pushed old Mags in the opposite direction as the tunnel.
“No no no,” said Old Mag annoyed, “Like this: here Satchy Satchy!”
“Are you kidding?” said the guard.
“Just do it!” ordered the guard that was now acting as her aide.
“For the love of…Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeere Satchy Satchy!!!”
Old Mag couldn’t help but giggle under her breathe as Lock stood there smiling. Tara kneeled against the wall waiting for Lock to give the go ahead. He watched for the perfect opportunity.
“Way to go Mag,” Lock whispered to himself.
Finally, the three feline pursuers were out of sight.
“Go!” whispered Lock to Tara.
Tara ran as Lock followed closely behind her, making sure that above all else, she made it safely. Tara ran into the shadows of the tunnel and Lock quickly followed after he took a last look around for spies. He entered the tunnel to find Tara standing inside waiting for Lock to explain their destination.
“Well?” she said with arms crossed against her chest waiting for some sort of explanation.
“Well…what?” said Lock puzzled as he looked her up and down.
“No, why are we going to HQ, or whatever? Am I just gonna hide from the empire forever?”
He walked past her as he explained, “Okay, I’m just a commander of the Returners. You’re my mission and when I get you back to headquarters I will have another mission. So just save your questions for the boss. Never order me around, your just a job got it?”
“You put a blanket on me!”
“Yeah. So you’d be rested and strong enough to travel! Can’t have you getting sick; it would only slow us down. That was the extent of it!”
Lock stopped and realized that he was yelling at a frightened young girl. He stopped to talk to her and realized she had stopped walking already. Lock turned around to look at her.
“Look, you’re a very gifted per-“he stopped mid-sentence to see her looking at him through a blurry window of tears that had filled her eyes.
He felt awful, but just stood there staring at her before looking away. He wasn’t good at apologies and even worse at sensitivity. Tara could no longer contain her emotions and sinking to her knees she began weeping into her hands blabbering about random things.
“I’m supposed to cook potato soup and pull the cabbage today. I’m dirty and cold and and…” her crying was so intense she couldn’t muster any more words.
Lock rolled his eyes; he knew he needed to make some kind gesture with this girl to show her she was not alone. He walked over and kneeled in front of her, putting his right arm around her and lightly rubbing her back to console her. She responded by wrapping both of her arms around his neck and burying her wet face into his left shoulder, crying even harder now in an attempt to get it all out.
If it were up to Tara, she would cry all day, but she realized that Lock wanted to get going. Also, it would be smart for them to get as far from the empire as possible. She pulled her face from his body and dropped her arms to her side. She allowed Lock to help her up.
“I’m okay now.” said Tara, as she wiped her tears from her face with her long skirt.
Lock felt as if he should say something, but nothing immediately came to mind.
”Uhhh, I can make you some potato soup tonight.” Stupid, he thought, but she smiled at the kind gesture.
“Thank you.” Oh crap, thought Tara, We’re having a moment, “Let’s go.”
“Yeah!” said Lock unusually loud making her flinch.