22 April 2009

Part the Fifteenth: Skin of My Teeth

Spend enough time in the business of killing people and sooner or later you’re going to end up on the receiving end rather than the giving. This, of course, gives you the opportunity to either prove your skills or vanish into the annals of dead assassins. The first few times this happens it can be a little disconcerting, especially if it happens when you’re still rather new to the game. After a while, you get used to people wanting and trying to kill you. What you never get used to is the times when they almost succeed. These are usually the times that end up keeping you up nights with a bottle of dwarven whisky to keep you company. This episode with the warlock was definitely shaping up to be one of those times.

I’m not a big fan of pain. I try to avoid it whenever possible, though that doesn’t mean I can’t take a few licks when I need to. There were times during the war I hurt so badly I would have preferred the sweet release of death. Whatever curse it was that the warlock had used on me, it was an order of magnitude worse than all of those times combined. Just the act of drawing breath was almost too much to bear and the hammering of my heart in my chest felt like it was trying to punch its way out of my ribcage one beat at a time.

The night elves have this trick they use during times of extreme duress to block out all but the most necessary sensation. The druid who tried to teach it to me said she used it in place of sleep much of the time, as it was more efficient and restful. I never believed that, but I did recognize the value of being able to block out extraneous sensory input. For instance, now would have been a good time to start blocking.

I really wish I’d learned that trick better.

I was trying to draw down and find my inner focus when the warlock pushed me onto my back. My eyes were squeezed tightly shut, so I couldn’t see what he was doing, but the chanting didn’t bode well for me. The problem I’d always had finding that very specific mental state was in the trying. Moiralyn had always told me that I needed to stop trying and just let it happen, which never made any sense to me. The more I tried not to try, the more I ended up trying and, well, you get the idea. I was, at that moment, trying very hard not to try to find that non-state of mind I needed to block the truly exquisite agony I was in. Short version: I wasn’t doing very well.

The warlock’s chanting was becoming more strident, which could only mean my time was getting shorter. My old drill sergeant’s unforgettable catch phrase came floating unbidden from the depths of my memory. Sometimes, your best just isn’t good enough. Apparently, the mind tends to wander when it knows it’s about to die. Remembering my old drill sergeant brought Saya’s face front and center to my mind. Thinking about my time in the military always made me think of her, since that’s where we met. In the face of her easy smile and kind eyes, floating large in my memory, I knew I couldn’t let things end like this. She still hadn’t gotten her justice and I’d be damned if I was going to let some two-bit hack demon-fucker stop me from laying hands on the person responsible for her murder.

Suddenly, there was no more pain. Just like a snuffed candle, the fire that made me feel like I was being torn apart from the inside out was just…gone. I knew it wasn’t the night elf trick that had brought about this miracle, since I could very clearly feel the floor at my back and, more importantly, the pure cold fury that raced through my veins.

My eyes snapped open just in time to see the warlock’s dagger plunging toward my chest. Without even thinking, I caught his wrist in one hand and shattered his forearm with the other. His scream was immensely satisfying.

I was back on my feet in a moment and already bringing my booted heel around in a bone-crushing kick. At least one of the warlock’s ribs had to have snapped, probably more, judging by the yowling scream he let loose. He crumbled to the floor, trying to cradle and shield his broken arm and ribs at the same time. I kicked him to his back with a snarl and put my foot over his throat.

“You brought this on yourself,” I sneered, “You could have just given me the key and walked away, but no, you had to try and be the big bad warlock.”

He probably tried to reply, but all that came out was a kind of wet gurgle. That’s usually all the does come out when someone has a boot on your throat.

“You have this one chance to save your miserable hide. Give me the key to the dwarf’s shackles.”

I got an enthusiastic nod, though with my foot under his chin, it was hard to tell he was nodding. The warlock’s trembling good hand reached into the pocket of his waistcoat and drew forth the key. It clattered the floor, slipping from his hand. I could see clearly where it was, but I let him grope around for it for a few moments and offer it up to me once he was able to get it back into his fingers.

“Good. See how much easier that was?” I said, taking the key and slipping it into a hidden pocket in one of my bracers.

The pounding from downstairs came to an end with the sound of a door being splintered apart by something large and heavy. I had only a few seconds before I would be up to my eyeballs in Defias. I glanced down at the warlock and flashed the sort of savage grin I imagine most trolls reserve for their dinner. He knew what was coming and that there was nothing he could do about it. Even knowing that, he still grabbed at my ankle, ignoring the broken bones in his wrist.

The warlock’s choking and gagging on the crushed remains of his throat didn’t last long, maybe as long as it took me to toss the small table he’d been breakfasting at down the stairs. That would at least slow the Defias coming up down for a few precious seconds. I spent those seconds smashing out a window with a chair, which I tossed down the stairs as well. Even half-blocked, I was able to worm my way out and grab on to the eaves. I was just pulling my legs through when I pair of hands latched onto one of my boots. The owner of the hands earned the heel of my other boot in the ribs for his trouble and let go. From there it was simply a matter of hauling myself up to the roof. I stood up for about two seconds before whizzing crossbow bolts convinced me it was a much better idea to not make such a good target of myself and I hit the deck.

When you’re being chased and have a decision between going up or down, in most cases, it’s best to go down. Going down usually leads to a ground floor, which leads to more escape options. Obviously, that depends on being above ground to begin with, but you get my point. The problem with going up is that, eventually, you always run out of up. Case in point, I was on the roof of the farmhouse now and out of places to run. Worse, the Defias on the ground already knew I was up here and weren’t being shy about trying to find me with their crossbows. It wouldn’t be too long before someone inside got suicidal enough to try to follow me out the window and onto the roof.

I spotted the stables off to my left, as well as a dozen Defias ranged around loading and firing their crossbows at me. Aside from the Defias, it was only thirty or so yards between where I was and the dwarf I was trying to rescue. At least I didn’t have to worry about them killing him. If they hadn’t done it by now, they certainly weren’t going to do it in the immediate future.

Crossbow bolts continued to ricochet across the shingles around me as the Defias kept firing blindly, hoping to score a hit. Random chance would see me get hit before too much longer, something I didn’t really care to have happen. I belly crawled across the roof toward the edge that didn’t have crossbow bolts flying up from it. A quick peek showed me it was mostly clear below, despite being higher that I usually like jumping down from. With few other choices in the matter, I swung over the edge and dropped to the ground.

Even knowing how to fall and land from a height, it doesn’t hurt any less when you twist your ankle on landing. So much for running full tilt back to the stable. A curious Defias popped around the corner of the house, probably investigating the loud thump and grunt of my landing, and earned himself a throwing knife in the chest for his trouble. It was enough to convince him that pursuing his investigation was a poor idea. I moved the opposite direction from the wounded Defias, keeping low and in the shadows as best I could, which really is much more easily said than done when one has just twisted one’s ankle.

I made it to the tree line and the underbrush that came with it with no further incident. While I wasn’t safe, I at least could take a breather while the Defias searched the farm high and low for me. It would probably be a few minutes before they thought to start searching the surrounding forest. Most likely, whoever was now in charge was probably making assumptions as to who I was and why I had been there. These assumptions probably centered around the assassination of their former boss, the now swiftly-cooling warlock. Never mind the fact that had the warlock actually been the target of an actual assassination by an actual assassin, they probably still wouldn’t know the warlock was dead.

There were a lot of puzzled Defias wandering around the farmhouse with a bad case of the wheredidhegoes. Still, it wouldn’t be to long before someone saw my footprints leading away and into the woods. I stuck to the undergrowth and circled around to the stable again. Not unexpectedly, it was all but deserted. Just to be on the safe side, I put the stable between myself and the farmhouse, though. Getting in unnoticed was a simple matter, getting out with the dwarf was going to be another matter altogether.

“Ye sure raised a rum-bugger o’a ruckus oot theer,” Brass whispered once I’d climbed into the hay loft, “Ah hope thais is awl part o’yer plan.”

I sighed heavily, “Well, whether it is or not doesn’t matter much now, does it?”

The dwarf bowled me over with the most unexpected hug I’d ever received when I unlocked the shackle from his ankle. If I didn’t know dwarves so well, I’d swear there were actual tears in his eyes.

“Oh, Light praise ye an’ all yer kin, lad!” he said as he released me. I was grateful to be able to breathe again. I learned two very important lessons in that moment. One, a dwarf gives a hug with the same sort of enthusiasm they put into drinking, fighting and mining, which makes them a hazard to the average human. Two, never get within breathing distance of a dwarf that hasn’t seen a bath in more than a fortnight.

“So, what’s our plan fer getting’ oot o’ here?” the dwarf asked, testing the weight of a baling hook in his meaty fist. I didn’t envy the first man to be on the receiving end of that hook.

The men running around the farmhouse were starting to spread out in a very organized-looking search pattern. They would find us before long. Whether he had any fighting skill or not, I figured the dwarf had a few years of rage to work out, which would probably serve just as well at this point. Any running fight wasn’t going to be pretty.

I watched a pair of Defias moving toward the stables, “To be honest, I hadn’t quite gotten that far. This is all pretty on the fly at this point.”

Brass pointed to the two men coming this way, “Wull, Ah hope ye kin fly fast, we’re aboot t’ave coompany.”

Briefly, before I’d killed the warlock, I’d entertained the possibility that I might be able to sneak in and sneak back out with Brass and no one would be the wiser. So far, the body count was at four with another probable and the way things were shaping up, it was about to get a lot higher. As a rule, I prefer not have to kill people if I can at all avoid it. However, I do recognize that it is sometimes unavoidable that a few people may have to die if I’m going to live. Sometimes, like now, in order to survive, you just have to make bodies start hitting the ground.

My swords came free of their scabbards with the usual hiss of steel. Resolved, and resigned, to what was about to come, I glanced to Brass and shook my head, “This may be a real short rescue. Keep up and watch my back.”

“Ye dun need t’ worry aboot me, lad,” he said with wicked grin and a twinkle in his eye, “But they do!”

That was about all we had time for because the men who had been coming this way had entered the stable. They paused at the door to let their eyes adjust to the gloom inside. The last they saw was a flash of steel and then the floor rushing up at them.


Gauntlet said...


Billy Wallace said...

The only bad thing here was the wait! Nicely done my friend.

LifeDeathSoul said...

Huzzzah! Been waiting for this chapter for a long time :) But I was not disappointed XD Great Job Mr. Drake :)

Misneach said...

Ah, at long last.

Nicely done. Excellent read.

Khol Drake said...

Thanks, guys, I'm glad you liked it and thought it was worth the wait.

Normally, I'd promise to try to get the next chapter up sooner, but since that's been fail every other time I've done it, I'll just say that I am working on the next chapter and it will be posted eventually. Maybe even in less than three months.

Gauntlet said...

...maybe less than 2 months now? Or thereabouts?

Khol Drake said...

That is a distinct maybe. No promises.