Glory Part 4
Still the unedited NaNo Project. I hope you guys had enjoyed these!
The metallic scent of blood rushed Ephraim as the group climbed up the last two flights of stairs. They had heard another scream in between the third and fourth floors, causing Finn to almost yank Ephraim back into the stairwell.
“Are we seriously going to just rush in there?” Finn asked. Although his voice had been steady, his grip on Ephraim’s shoulder was trembling.
“No, we’re not,” Ephraim conceded. Glancing at the others crowded in the stairwell, he tried to think of some sort of plan, but what blurted out was, “Where’s Lia?”
Finn immediately turned to look for the knight, as did Wylie, and all they saw was the thief looking with mild interest over his own shoulder. To the thief, Finn demanded, “Where is she? She was right behind you!”
“She was,” was the irritatingly calm response. Ephraim, acutely aware of how fast his heart was pounding at the mere thought that one of his friends was actually in danger, pushed his way back down the stairwell to the thief’s side. Ephraim opened his mouth to demand answers, but the thief whipped out a dagger.
“Your shouting has attracted company,” was all the thief said before shoving Ephraim behind him as he bounded up the steps ahead of Finn and Wylie. A sickening slkkt was heard before the thud of a body hitting the floor, and Jaxon whirled around to meet another opponent, the thief’s long coat not hindering his moves in the slightest. Ephraim noticed Wylie ready and release an arrow into the room, joining the thief against whatever bandits happened to be in there, and Finn backed up to be by Ephraim.
“So much for a plan,” Finn muttered, directing his attention back over Ephraim’s shoulder.
“We’ll let them deal with the bandits up there,” Ephraim said, moving backwards on the stairwell. “We need to find Lia.”
“I’m sure your knight is fine.” The thief was abruptly by their side once more, cleaning his daggers with a rag brown and black from stains, and Ephraim pretended that he hadn’t been startled enough at the other man’s appearance to jump. “She had heard bandits following behind and went to… deter them.”
“You let her go on her own?” Finn asked.
The thief raised a thin eyebrow. “Of course I had offered to help the lady. What kind of gentleman would I be otherwise? She declined, however, most likely figuring that she would rather the rest of you keep an eye on my dubious intentions instead of wondering if she could trust me enough to back her up in a fight.” With a glance at Wylie as the archer caught back up to them, he asked, “There is no chance that your friend had joined arms with these bandits, is there? I’d hate to think that he’s being gutted right now by a sword.”
Wylie glared at the thief. “He wouldn’t. You’d know he was different than these bastards right away.”
“There’s something special about him that has you worried he’s been taken captive,” the thief mused.
Wylie’s nostrils flared as his eyes narrowed further at the thief, but he said nothing.
“Is something wrong?” Lia climbed the stairs to meet them, her steps slow and methodical. Her gaze swept over the group, ending with Ephraim. “Is everyone alright?”
“We didn’t know where you had gone,” Ephraim said. “Are you okay?”
She waved off his concern, her breaths measured as she paused next to Finn on one of the steps. “I’m alright. Thought I told the thief to let you know where I had gone.”
The thief gave them a lazy, crooked smile. “Oops.”
Finn adjusted his grip on his staff, and Ephraim made his friend pause. All he needed was for Finn to try walloping the thief on the head. With their luck, the thief would end up slicing Finn’s face.
Ephraim turned back to Lia, who was rolling her eyes. “Well, I’ve caught my breath back,” the knight said. “Did you find anything on the top floor?”
“We didn’t go up there yet,” Ephraim said. “We were more concerned with you being gone.”
“That, and you have more strength than Ephraim and I combined,” Finn said.
“Not a hard feat,” Wylie said, “when all you’ve got is a stick.”
“Come a little closer, Feathers, and I’ll show you how much this so-called stick hurts—”
“Bet it doesn’t hurt as much as being stabbed with an arrow—”
“Nice to be missed, I suppose,” Lia said with a grin, tuning out Finn’s and Wylie’s bickering.
“Wanted to make sure you were alright as well,” Ephraim said, and he shouldered his way in between Finn and Wylie.
“No more pursuers, then?” the thief asked Lia.
“No more,” she said.
He tipped his hat to her again, then gestured to the top of the stairs. “Then may I suggest we continue moving forward? I’m certain my partner is up there somewhere, most likely causing havoc.”
Ephraim felt Finn freeze from beside him. “Wait,” Finn said slowly, “your partner wouldn’t be the, uh, reason for the screams we hear… Would she?”
“Well, she certainly isn’t the one doing the screaming,” the thief said. “If she is the cause, I assure you, it would be in self-defense.” He paused a moment before climbing the stairs once more. “Unless she’s just bored, of course.”
“Oh, of course!” Finn’s sarcasm overcame his worry, and one of his hands was clinging to Ephraim’s sleeve as he added to the prince, “This is obviously a nuthouse, we should leave before we’re effected too. C’mon, we’ll just have Lia bust down a wall and make a door to go outside right here—”
“We’ll be alright,” Lia said, coming up on the other side of Finn. “We have to figure out what’s going on, anyway. You wouldn’t in good conscious want to leave before seeing if everyone was well, right?”
“I’d rather make sure we stay well and, you know, alive,” Finn said. Nevertheless, he followed Ephraim and Lia up the stairs after the thief and Wylie.
Ephraim took the steps two at a time, knowing that he at least wouldn’t be able to leave if he wasn’t sure that everything was settled. They were too invested now in what was going on in this base for him to turn his back now.
Yet, reaching the top of the stairs in time to see a fox rip through a bandit’s throat made Ephraim have second thoughts.
The bandit gurgled as he choked on his blood while falling, the red fox snarling all the while. Ephraim faltered at the threshold of the room, seeing the half a dozen other dead bandits, and he focused on the weight of Finn’s hand on his shoulder to keep himself from being sick.
It was one thing to see the thief cleanly slice another’s throat for a quick kill. It was quite another to see a wild animal tear apart parchment-thin skin with razor fangs.
“Having fun, dear?” the thief drawled from leaning against the threshold. The fox whirled around, beady eyes wild until they blinked slowly, once, twice, three times. With twitching, twin tails, the fox suddenly shot toward the group.
With a flash of light, the fox shifted into a redheaded young woman, her white teeth bright against the blood stained around her mouth.
“Jaxon!” Her shout was gleeful as she barreled into the thief, who caught her easily. “I’m sorry, I didn’t leave any for you to have fun…”
“No worries,” Jaxon said, threading a hand through her long hair. “We caught a few stragglers on the lower floors.”
“Oh, good! Are these your friends?” She broke away from the thief and went right into Wylie’s face, making the archer stumble backwards into Lia. “Hi, I’m Nannie! Who are you? Oh, these are pretty…”
She reached over Wylie’s shoulder and took an arrow from his quiver, marveling at the feathers decorating the end. Ephraim, Finn, and Wylie all jumped when Nannie turned and stabbed the stomach of a dead bandit with the arrow.
Clapping in delight, she turned to Wylie. “Can I have another?”
“Uh, no, sorry,” Wylie said. To her sudden frown, he hastily added, “They’re a bit time-consuming to make, I’m sorry. Um, I’m Wylie, since you asked.”
The introduction and Wylie stretching his hand out for a shake distracted Nannie from the arrows enough for her to brighten up again. She chirped a hello to each of the others, pausing to marvel at Ephraim’s green eyes, Finn’s goatee, and Lia’s hair when they introduced themselves.
“Oh, you’re lovely,” Nannie cooed, reaching out to pet Lia’s braid.
“Thank you,” Lia said, doing much better in hiding any confusion at Nannie’s appearance than either of the men. “So are you, with that marvelous red hair.”
“You think so?” Nannie beamed. “Jaxon, did you hear that?”
“I did,” was the mild response from the thief across the room. “Pretty sure I’ve been complimenting your hair for years.” He was inspecting some of the cabinets of the room, occasionally pocketing items and supplies. Wylie was doing the same, glancing through some of the holding cells that were in the room. Ephraim suspected that Wylie was doing it to put some distance between himself and Nannie, if the archer’s furtive glances towards Nannie was any indication.
Nannie giggled at Jaxon’s response, but brought her attention back to Lia when the knight asked, “Forgive me, I hope I’m not being rude, but… Are you a kitsune?”
Nannie nodded. “I am. I usually don’t show myself to strangers, but if Jaxon hadn’t killed you yet, I’m sure you’re not too bad.”
Ephraim glanced at Jaxon, who was looking back at all of them as if in warning. The prince swallowed hard, taking the warning to heart.
“I’m not that old yet,” Nannie continued, gesturing to her two tails.
“Yes,” Lia said. “You gain more tails as you age, right?”
“That’s right!” was the cheery reply. “Do you know much about kitsunes?”
“Only from our history books.” Finn was the one to answer. “According to our books, kitsunes are nearly extinct…”
“Yes, we’ve been regularly hunted for our fur and magic.” The answer was too casual. “We’ve founded our own home, but the location is a secret so hunters don’t go finding us. So don’t go asking!” She smiled, her upper canine fangs poking out from beneath her lip.
“Excuse me, Nannie,” Wylie said, returning to the group’s side while keeping a strong grip on his quiver. “Did you, uh, happen to see anyone here that was not part of this bandit ring?”
She tilted her head to the side. “Do you mean if anyone smelled differently?”
“Sure,” Wylie said after a moment. “I guess he would smell out of place, too…”
“No, not that I recall,” Nannie said, shaking her head slowly. “Everyone I killed here all smelled rather rank. Who are you talking about?”
“A friend,” Wylie said, his face downcast at hearing her response. “I’m not sure where he’s gotten to, and I was worried he got caught up with this lot…”
“What does he smell like?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Wylie said. “I don’t really… My nose isn’t that good.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Nannie said. “You know, I can give you a recipe for clearing up stuffy noses—”
“Nannie.” Jaxon returned to them, his hands in his pockets. “Your cold remedies are brilliant, but he’s human. I don’t think his nose will ever be strong enough to pick up on his friend’s specific scent like you can.”
“Oh, right.” She cast Wylie a sympathetic smile before brightening up, her tails perking up and nearly hitting Ephraim. “Maybe you have something of his that I can track?”
Wylie balked, his gaze turning from Nannie to Jaxon to back to Nannie. “Y-you’d do that? Can you do that?”
“Sure, silly. It shouldn’t be too hard,” she said. “Of course, it depends on how old the scent is, it’s much easier with fresher scents, of course, or maybe you have a vial of his sweat or blood—”
“Uh, no, no,” Wylie said, already digging through the compartments on his belt. “Nothing like that, but I got this. Will it work?”
Wylie produced a wrinkled, scrunched up brown hat, old and ragged. It was stretched out and up, as if something had been poking the top part of the fabric.
“Perfect!” Nannie plucked the hat from Wylie’s hands and took a deep breath. After a couple of inhales, and even a nibble of the brim of the hat, she handed it back to the archer. “Well, he was never in here, I’ll tell you that much.”
Wylie heaved a sigh of relief, but it was quickly replaced by a furrowed brow. “Then I’m probably more behind than I thought…”
“Where did you last see him?” Nannie asked.
“We were at the edge of the field by the woodlands—”
“Show me.” She tugged Wylie back down the stairs, their clambering steps soon mere echoes from the stairwell.
Ephraim stayed clear of the stairwell, assuming Jaxon would follow Nannie momentarily. However, when Ephraim turned to the thief, Jaxon was staring at him.
“And what will you three do?” Jaxon asked.
Ephraim glanced at both Finn and Lia. Finn looked ready to either fall asleep or be sick, Ephraim wasn’t sure which, while Lia seemed relatively impassive about the events that had just transpired.
“You’ve discovered the source of the shrieks,” Jaxon continued. “Just bandits dying. Are you going to continue to follow the archer and find his friend? Or are you moving on with your journey?”
“Well,” Ephraim said, “may as well see how this all turns out—”
“Are you kidding me?” Finn blurted.
“No,” Ephraim said. “Unless Wylie wants us to back off, of course—”
“Do kitsunes eat horses?” Lia suddenly asked Jaxon, effectively silencing any argument that Ephraim may have had with Finn.
Jaxon paused, pursed his lips in thought, and answered, “Assuming you’re asking because you’ve brought horses, I suggest we hurry and meet Nannie and Wylie outside.”