For a creature his size, Byures could move at bewildering speeds. One second, Caleb stood on his feet, menacing the hulking aligatorman at blade’s length, the next Byures grasped the sword by the blade giving the boy a gentle push using his free hand. It did not take much, even holding back his immense strength to a mere percentage of its full potential Byures sent Caleb tumbling back, landing hard on his rump upon the polished marble floor. For the second time in less than forty-eight hours Caleb found himself bested by a reptile. Although the first one he faced undoubtably outmatched him in size and strength and speed he could at least stayed on his feet for more than two seconds during their duel. The sheer difference between himself and Byures however could not be described by anything less than astronomical. The boy felt more embarrassed than hurt, and even the momentary flare of fear that rose in his gut faded when he saw the calm and unaggressive mien upon the Hunter’s face. Byures did not seem interested in harming Caleb further at all, instead he examined the captured sword, spinning the antique to inspect the smith work, and testing its edge on his thumb. The Hunter began to hum, a deep rumbling sound that stopped and started again rhythmically. Like a house cat chirping, except this hypothetical cat weighed over two thousand pounds and spent most of its life submerged beneath murky river waters. He is laughing at me! Caleb realized, his cheeks burning at the thought. He knocked me over easy as you please and is laughing about it.
“Did you think to kill me using this butter knife little one?”
Caleb started in surprise at the blunt yet humor laced question. “…Yes, I mean… I could… No.” He stared down at the marble tiling, tracing small circles on the smooth surface. “I don’t think I could have.”
“I would be very impressed if you did manage it.” Byures held the cutlass up to the light, the hilt dwarfed inside his hand. Even the blade seemed more a curved dagger than a proper sword when he wielded it. “This weapon has not been sharpened… Maybe ever. It is a decorative piece, fashioned of cheap steel.” Taking hilt and blade tip in either hand he squeezed them together. The metal might as well have been made of paper for all the resistance it gave. Caleb winced as the sword snapped under the unbearable pressure as one might break a dry twig. Byures tossed the two ruined halves away, snorting and laughing in his strange, almost alien way.
“Hey that wasn’t mine!” Caleb protested, struggling back to his feet. “I needed to return it, I was only borrowing them.”
“Consider yourself fortunate boy.” Byures said, suddenly serious a dangerous light shining in his eyes. “That blade would surely have failed you, and if you intend to fight and survive here today, you’ll need proper steel. Not some toy you pulled off a wall.”
Resting his hands on his hips Caled sized the ginormous aligatorman up and down, considering his options. When they separated last Caleb considered Byures a friend, and a trusted one at that. After all he guided them faithfully to the human portion of Thorn City, and helped Edward, and attempted to teach him magic. Now however, the Hunter’s expressed wish to slay the City Council meant they were enemies, or at the very least advisories. The swift reversal of their relationship paired by the understanding that Jake, Rainbow, Edward, and himself would be trivial annoyances for the hostile giant should he intend to finish his mission left a bitter taste in Caleb’s mouth. Still, it was the knightly thing to stand up for right and good, and he could not back down now. “That’s the problem isn’t it?” He expressed, releasing a heavy sigh. “You’re working for the evil gnome guy and trying to forward a hostile takeover of the city, meaning I have to fight you, or at least I’ve got to try.” Bravely Caleb squared his shoulders, standing like mouse before a lion his small chin stuck out, and his slight stomach sucked in. Though worry knitted his brow he declared in the manliest voice he possessed. “I cannot let you murder councilmembers or attempt to take over the city. So please… Don’t…?”
For his part Byures did not laugh, no matter how much he might have liked too. Instead he maintained his serious composure, drawing forth his weapon, a massive poleaxe that stood half his height, and yet still towered over Caleb. Resting the weapon spike down upon the ground Byures leaned against the polearm, considering the small warrior barring his path. “You do not know of what you speak.” He began gently. “I do not serve any gnome, nor do I wish to take over anything, especially not Thorn. I do not know who or what you mean by these things. I have but one purpose here, which you already know. I swear upon all that is holy, from this day forth I do not serve anyone or anything. Not anymore. Once I followed the commands of the Smuggler Chief. A good Crocarkil, a fair leader, and a great friend. But now he sleeps forever more beneath the swamps, and his head adorns the third district’s fort walls, stuck atop a pike. The army was ordered by the council to strike every criminal organization, hideout and member, and slaughter them all, even the non-violent ones… All my friends, and colleagues rest in shallow graves dead, I am the last one left of the Smugglers. But I am the Hunter, and the blood of my companions cries out for revenge. No one, not even you brave little knight will stop me from achieving that goal, so that I might reap vengeance upon those who gave the order.”
Confusion marred the pixie face as Caleb’s bold and righteous stance faltered. “I don’t understand… I just do not want you killing the council. They are the good guys…. Right?”
“Not in my eyes young one.”
“You would think that, not that it matters.” A third voice joined their conversation. Striding across the open space came John Nieve Junior, flanked by an equally well-equipped gnome. John appeared different in Caleb’s opinion, his pupils dilated, his flesh drawn tight over bone and muscle, and his veins bulging an unsightly green. Clutched lightly in one hand rested his longsword, the razor point hovering a hairsbreadth above the ground, a large center grip shield adorning his left. He even donned armor in preparation, a coat of glimmering maille and boiled leather strapped across his vitals, and a skullcap secured atop his head. Finally, he wore a leather belt strapped around his waist, covered in bottles, vials, and other such items including a large leather pouch. Caleb even recognized a few of the items amongst the lot, spotting a few small purple flasks in the collection, containing the pain reducer and energizer, and a couple makeshift flashbangs John deployed against his previous reptilian foes.
“What do you mean?” Byrues asked, unsettled by the armored duo’s approach. The human foe would be different than all the others he could tell at once. He smelled heavily of a dozen different potions, each one more potent then the last, and likely driving the man’s heart rate up to dangerous levels. Only a very desperate person would induce themselves to so many magical enhancers at once, but this man seemed able to handle the strain, for now at least. Despite the numerous side effects altering his mental and physical wellbeing before their very eyes. His partner less so, but still he looked dangerous all the same armed and armored to the teeth.
“The council is dead in full, for their betrayal of the city. Even as we speak, steps are being taken to ensure no such traitorous actions can ever be taken again.” John declared, as if he spoke before a large assemblage and not an empty hall. Of course, Darmae still lived, but if he could get the alligatorman to turn around and go back the way he came without a fight he would seize the opportunity. John knew beyond the large doors behind him leading into the council chambers proper, the woman sat upon her throne of bodies, listening to every word. The air pulsed at that moment, and John felt more than saw Scer beginning to creep through the walls, his black magic polluting the wood all around them. Slowly the horrific scar spread even further, each passing second securing the gnome’s victory ever tighter. Soon Darmae would enact the final spell, and gift him control of Thorn forever. John tried to keep his eyes locked on Byures, resisting his urge to skim his eyes upwards towards the rafters, where half a dozen gnomes crouched, hidden in the lofty shadows, their loaded crossbows aiming poison bolts at the imposing Hunter.
“You have no purpose here.” John continued raising his sword towards the mighty Byures. “I urge you depart back to your forests and remain there. I am told you spilt enough blood to satisfy your need for vengeance. Now nearly a hundred families are fatherless at your hand, and yet you desire more? Well trust me when I say, the council are slain. Your fallen are avenged three times over.”
Mulling this new revelation over Byures hefted his poleaxe, resting the weapon across his broad shoulders. Of the five people present in plain sight, everyone except John and Joran looked exceedingly confused, and the Hunter even appeared annoyed. “Is this,” he inquired, turning his long head to stare at Caleb. “Perhaps a part of the gnome takeover you spoke of?”
“I… I do not know. John, what’s going on, I thought we’d come here to save the city. Is that what you’re doing, or did you help defeat the council?” Caleb walked closer to the armored man, fighting to hold back the hurt and uncertainty he felt. Would everyone he knew in this place turn out to be a bloodthirsty criminal or part of some grand conspiracy? It made him long for the rustic simplicity of Eagletown, where a fellow could be trusted to be nothing more than what he claimed. A part of Caleb began to despise the city, for all its beauty and wonder it remained mired in wickedness, down to its very core.
John frowned at this, worrying at his lower lip until it bled. “We’re saving this city from itself, for the good of everyone.” He claimed, though he only half believed it. Joran was much more confident in answering however, puffing out his chest and smiling wickedly.
“The city shall be cured of its weakness, and the rot shall be cut out, root and stem.”
“Wait!” Rainbow exclaimed. He had been silent up to this point, watching the unfolding events from the sidelines, but now he drew attention to the far wall where dark veins were spiderwebbing their away across the living wall. “The counter spell must be cast! See how the cancer spreads, and once it reaches the heart who knows what destructive power he might possess.”
“Counter spell!” Joran the gnome spluttered, his vicious mien collapsing in shock. “No such thing exists, what’s done is done unless Darmae is slain. Even then, another spellcaster of equal power could be found, even if it would take far longer.”
A hush fell over the assembled, and John ground his teeth at the stupidity of his companion, even as Byures’ brow rose.
“So, the murderous witch still lives…” The Hunter mused, his fingers tightening around the wooden shaft of his poleaxe. “I have a reckoning with her, and any of her other ‘leadership’ that still breath. No doubt you would be willing to lie about them as well, for whatever reason.”
“Ah hell, BOLTS LOOSE!” Joran shouted, whipping free his sword. The six assassins took aim, the majority angling their shots to hit the largest target, though two among them chose smaller victims, deciding to end the potential threat this so-called ‘counter spell’ presented to their master’s plans.
Later John would never be able to explain how he reacted so fast. Perhaps it was just the potions enhancing his speed and instincts, maybe it was something else. Abandoning sword and caution and vows John closed the gap and wrenched Calob closer covering the child under his shield as the first bolt thudded home, quivering where the child’s back might have been unprotected a mere moment before. Even as five more shots buzzed down amongst the beset and unsuspecting heroes…