“They’re there. I’m certain,” Jonsul said.
Lyora had to clench her jaw to stop from looking around. Even with her trying not to, she could still feel her eyes darting left and right to the sides of the road. Relief filled her once she could finally see the edge of the tree line.
The relief fled, and a tight knot took its place as she watched two men walk onto the path, one from each side.
“Well, what do we have here?” one of the men said to the other loud enough so both Lyora and Jonsul could hear.
“Just a couple of blood-drained tainted, if my eyes don’t deceive me,” the other man said in response.
Jonsul came to a stop. Lyora did the same. She carried herself well, but the only fights she’d ever been in were against the girls—and sometimes the boys—from Greenhallow, not two grown men with swords on their hips. Now that the sound of her own footsteps had halted, she could hear the rustling of leaves and branches coming from either side.
“Half right,” Jonsul replied. “One… tainted, and one regular, old-fashioned girl.”
He gave her a pat on the shoulder.
Regular… Old-fashioned… Lyora would have a discussion with him about describing her in such a dreary way… but now wasn’t the time. Not so much because of their circumstances but more because those circumstances were making it hard for her to breath. She was fairly certain that she couldn’t speak even if she wanted to.
“Ah. Well, that’s unfortunate. Isn’t it, Kaldo?” the first man said.
“Unfortunate indeed, Yartus,” Kaldo replied.
“Unfortunate?” Jonsul questioned.
The two nodded.
“You see, it’s against the law to kill and or maim one of the tainted.” Yartus laughed softly. “It’s against all the laws.”
“Strange, that is,” Kaldo said. “I mean it’s against the law to kill anyone. That’s not strange, but the punishment… well, that’s a bit over the top. What was it again, Yartus?”
“Well, you see, they start at the toes and fingers, knocking them off one by one. They take a little mercy on you at that point, jumping to your knees and elbows. If you’re lucky, the blades are sharp, and the limbs are taken away in one slash. If you’re not lucky… it takes several. Then, after they’ve severed your ability to interact with the world, they take off the head.”
“Sounds right gruesome,” Kaldo responded.
“And what does that have to do with the girl?” Jonsul asked.
“Right. The girl. You see, she’s what we would classify as a witness. Now, we have no intention of participating in the punishment I just described to you. This, unfortunately, means that we have to make sure witnesses don’t talk, and I’m sure you’re aware there’s only one way to do that.” Yartus sighed. “It’s a shame. It wasn’t my intention to kill an untainted.”
Jonsul stared at them for a few moments before speaking. When he did, his voice was calm yet laced with a note of warning.
“I am Jonsul Madrigos, a member of the Quandrium and a representative of the Council of Nine. Step aside.”
Kaldo and Yartus looked at each other, amused.
“Did he listen to anything we just said?” Kaldo asked.
“Not sure. Maybe we weren’t talking loud enough,” Yartus replied.
Despite their jovial tones, Lyora watched as their hands slid to the hilts of their swords. They drew, and Lyora felt a swelling of fear. The glimmering of the blades made their situation hit home—her situation. Jonsul could just fly his way out of this little mess. She was stuck here, and their intentions to kill were genuine. She could tell by the ball of ice that formed in her stomach whenever she met their eyes. They would kill her, and they would sleep well that night.
Kaldo took a step forward.
“Wait, Kaldo,” Yartus said. “Manners first. We’ve not yet introduced ourselves. You see, we are—”
“You are the Brothers of the Dragon Metal, remnants of the twenty-year-old war,” Jonsul said. “You spend most of your time conducting petty robberies along this road and the one connecting Marshawind to Eldog in the West. You’ve been smart not to kill anyone up until now. It’s why we’ve left you alone.”
“You hear that?” Kaldo said to Yartus, amused. “They’ve been keeping tabs on us. We famous now, like one of those pompous Princes I hate so much?”
“Guess so. That really took the decision out of it, didn’t it?” Yartus said. “Now we have to kill them to make sure the blasted Quandrium doesn’t fall on our heads.”
Lyora heard Jonsul sigh from beside her.
“Stay to the side,” Jonsul said. “Look unthreatening, like a damsel in distress. Shouldn’t be too difficult.”
Lyora’s eyes widened. She turned to berate him for his tongue, then stopped. Something about his expression deterred her away from the comment; the intensity of it nearly made her take a step away.
“I think it’s time we dispense with the chitchat, wouldn’t you say, Yartus?” Kaldo said, raising his blade.
“Indeed,” Yartus said, grabbing his sword with both hands.
The two began their charge—or tried to. Lyora was faintly aware of Jonsul leaning forward next to her. Just as she was sure he was about to fall, he lunged forward. Lungedwas insufficient for what she had witnessed, but it was the only word that came to her mind in the moment. He was beside her, and then he wasn’t. She blinked and realized he had hurtled towards the two men. They seemed just as shocked as she was as both of his fists connected with their chests. The impact knocked them both to their backs. Kaldo immediately started gasping for breath and rolling on the ground in pain. Yartus was able to rise back to his knees.
“He’s got a Relic!” His voice was still strained from the blow to the chest, cause his words to fade into a weeze. “Take it from him! Without it, he is but a man.”
Lyora heard swords unsheathing—many swords unsheathing. Roughly two dozen men stepped out of the tree line on each side. Lyora felt her hope drift away. She became overly aware of her distance from Jonsul, who, as much as she hated to admit it, was the only thing keeping her alive. She looked towards him and found him… smiling. The expression sent a shiver down her spine.
The men didn’t hesitate to put their long hours of training to use. They charged, and so did Jonsul. Lyora could tell their level of expertise simply by watching them handle their weapons. Their steps were graceful and their swings even more so, each man delivering perfectly arched swings aimed at Jonsul’s neck or exposed limbs. They advanced and fell in unison, one man picking up where the other left off, always rotating to avoid being attacked or accidently attacking each other. Lyora was surprised by their level of skill, and even more surprised at the fact it made no difference. The first man to attack Jonsul received a kick to the knee. Lyora could hear the cracking of bone as the man’s leg twisted out of position. The next swing was blocked with Jonsul’s hand. The jarring sound of metal hitting metal reverberated through the air, dampened by the forest on either side.
“It’s in his gloves! The Relic is in one of his gloves!” one of the men yelled.
Lyora barely heard him. She was far too preoccupied watching Jonsul break the ribs of the man whose sword he’d blocked. The man fell to the ground, wheezing and coughing up blood. Another took his place, swinging down with his sword. Jonsul leapt away, using the momentum to deliver a weighted kick to a man that had circled behind him.
Lyora fell into a daze, watching him dart about with effortless precision dealing life-threatening blows to the men that charged him. She didn’t know whether to be awed or horrified. The actions themselves enticed her long-hidden interest in battles and fighting, but his face—she could hardly stomach it. A wicked grin spread from cheek to cheek, growing wider with each enemy he sent to the ground writhing in pain.
She was so focused on his grin, sadistic and haunting as it was, that she didn’t notice when the men started to retreat. It wasn’t until Yartus yelled, “Fall back. We can’t take him with a blasted Relic. Fall back,” that she finally realized the men were beginning to disperse.
She breathed out a shaky breath, only just now realizing that she’d been holding it. The nerves that had been prickling her skin were slowly beginning to fade—until she noticed Jonsul’s expression; it was that of a wolf looking at running rabbits. He acted before she could reason with him, chasing down any stragglers and breaking bones. Some fell in writhing pain, others with a stillness that brought nausea to Lyora’s stomach.
“Enough!” she yelled. “Stop!”
Jonsul paused and turned towards her.
Good. At least she had gotten his attention. Though, she had attracted more attention than just his. Lyora felt the sensation of steel being pressed to her neck for the first time in her life. It was not a feeling that she liked.
“Another step and she dies.”
The man’s voice crawled into her ear, sending chills down her body. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the man’s mangled leg. Running didn’t seem to be an option for him.
Jonsul looked at her—at them—and tilted his head. Lyora could see the calculation behind his eyes, weighing out what was important and who should live or die. Lyora was suddenly very glad that she hadn’t given him the information that he requested. Based on the look in his eyes, the need for that information may be the only thing keeping her alive.
She felt a jostle at her belt that sent a shiver down her spine. She gave a slight shake of her head, pleading in her expression not to use it. Jonsul ignored her. There was another jostle and the Relic on Lyora’s waist ripped free.
Lyora closed her eyes. She knew what was coming, and she knew she could do nothing to stop it. An impact was followed by a spray of liquid that Lyora tried to imagine was water… then, almost peacefully, the man dropped to the ground.