Dene paused. No one ever came this far out of town, which is why she chose to live here. She moved the window curtain, just enough for her to take a peek, and saw a group of four men and one woman, all headed by a lanky man. But his cultivation left no room to argue about his strength. A Paladin.
“Grab your weapons,” she told John and quickly tiptoed to her room to grab her sword harness. With the weapons strapped to her back, she returned to the kitchen where John already waited for her. She caught a glimpse of the rippled steel dagger as he hid it under his gray tunic. Both the handle and sheath were wrapped in black cloth.
She positioned herself in front of the door and John stood behind her. Finally, she opened the door.
The Paladin stood four paces from the door, while the other five were further back. There was only one Crusader among them, with all the others being Fighters.
Dene only gave a cursory glance to those behind him before directing all of her attention to the Paladin. The dark blue tunic seemed too large, given how thin he was. His black hair signaled that he wasn’t that old, but his appearance —just skin and bones— was ancient. His slight smile didn’t make him any less intimidating.
“Are you Ellie?” he asked with a raspy voice. “Huntswoman for Greenflower town?”
“That's right,” Dene answered, her hand still on the door handle. “And you are?”
“My name is Vasilis, and I’d like to ask you a couple of questions.”
“You’ve brought a lot of armed people just to ask a couple of questions.”
He ignored her remark. “Have you encountered anything out of the usual in the forest these past few days?”
“I did, actually. Last week I stumbled upon a Nandi Bear.”
He seemed confused. “A what?”
“A Nandi Bear. Think of a bear, but stronger at the front and with a bigger, uglier head. It is a beast from south of the deserts. Must have escaped from whoever brought it here. Is this what you’re here for?"
“No, but that’s an interesting story. What I meant to ask is if you had come across anyone.”
Dene lightly shook her head. “Can’t say that I did. Not many people wander off the beaten path, to be honest. Too many wild beasts. Most of the time, I’m staring down at the ground for animal tracks.”
“Is that so? Maybe it slipped from your mind. How about coming with us to see if something doesn't jog your memory?”
Dene's grip on the door handle tightened. “My memory is fine, and I don't need to go anywhere. If that's all—”
“My apologies, but that wasn't a request.” He took a step forward. “I need you to come with me.” Vasilis lunged forward, trying to grab hold of her. He closed the distance in a single jump.
Dene jumped back. Fortunately, John had already moved out of the way. Coupled with pulling herself back with a shadow tendril wrapped around her waist, she was barely able to avoid his grasp.
She drew her weapons and did an overhead slash. Vasilis countered with a bluish slash of his own. Their weapons clashed and Dene was further pushed back, but she did manage to pause his advance.
Something wasn’t right. The man was certainly a Paladin, but the force of his attack didn’t quite match. It didn’t seem like he had been holding himself back. Was he injured, perhaps?
There was no time to ask. Vasilis raised a leg and kicked at her chest, sending her crashing through the back door. Dene landed with a backward roll and was back on her feet the next moment, just in time to avoid his descending fist. She took this chance to strike, drawing blood from his extended arm.
She was about to follow up on her attack when a series of metallic clanks rang from inside the house. With a glance, she found John sprawled over the stove, the pots knocked over the floor. Also on the floor was one of the men, a Fighter, bleeding from his chest. The other three Fighters made a half-circle around John while the Crusader closed in on him.
Dene didn’t think. She formed a dark cloud around the Crusader’s head while a shadow tendril pulled on his sword arm. That was all the attention she could spare before Vasilis was back on her. He hacked at her with the side of the sword. Whatever his reasons, he really wanted her alive. Regardless, she still couldn’t take it on and had to duck under it.
He kicked, pierced at her limbs, hacked and kicked again, always moving forward.
Dene’s only course of action was to jump back and deflect when the former wasn’t possible. But she couldn’t continue like that for long. It had barely been a couple of minutes since they started fighting and she was already getting fatigued.
Her decreased vitality affected more than just her lifespan. She felt weak and tired most of the time, and her cultivation had barely improved ever since. She had to try and beat him as soon as possible, and that meant going on the offensive.
With the setting sun casting a long shadow to her left, Dene made her move. She barely dodged a knee aimed at her gut and jumped to his left so that the sun now shone on his face.
The Paladin squinted, blindly raising his sword to block.
Dene slashed with both blades aimed at his sword arm, one at the shoulder and the other at the wrist. A Paladin’s body was tougher, but not enough to remain unscathed after a full-blown attack from her.
Bleeding from both wounds, the Paladin dropped his weapon. He tried to jump back. She acted first. With all the mental strength she could muster, Dene summoned half a dozen dark tendrils from the ground. The shadows quickly slithered and wrapped themselves around his ankle.
As he attempted to move, the tendrils snapped almost immediately, only managing to stagger him. That was enough of a pause for her to plunge both swords on his thigh. With a pained yell, the Paladin fell to the ground. She didn’t let up.
His rippled steel sword laid on the ground between them. Dene slid one foot under it and kicked up, catching it mid-air. With weapon in hands, she unleashed an onslaught of attacks as he, unable to stand up, curled up and tried to protect his neck and head.
Or at least she planned to. As her first attack cut on his side, spraying the grass with blood, a voice boomed out: “Stop, or the boy dies!” She looked at the source and found the Crusader at what was left of the doorway. His face had a big gash from his cheek and through his ear. He had one arm firmly wrapped around John’s neck, while the other arm dangled and dripped with blood.
John himself was in a better state, though still a bit worse for wear. His nose had been bent out of shape, blood flowing over his lips and dripping down his chin. His gray tunic was dirty and spotted red from random scrapes.
Scurrying behind the Crusader was one of the Fighters, a short woman with messy, blonde hair. No one else moved from inside the house, all seemingly dead.
The Crusader put more force on his arm, and John struggled to breathe. “Surrender,” he ordered, “now!” Even with just one arm, it wouldn’t be difficult for him to break John’s neck. They both knew that. But they also knew that if he did, then Vasilis would follow in death.
Vasilis remained curled up on the ground, his own sword pressed against his ribs. If he even tried to move, then Dene would put all of her weight on the weapon and pierce his lung. The wound would kill him eventually. Without a healer, even his current wounds may already be enough for him to die.
Without the Paladin, Dene could make short work of everyone left, even as fatigued as she was. But that would mean sacrificing John.
Dene stared at the Crusader, who in turn stared back at her. No one tried to make the first move, both sides wary of what could happen. Her mind worked nonstop as she, to no avail, tried to figure a way out of their situation.
She wasn’t fast enough to rush them. She could obscure the Crusader’s vision with a spell, but John would remain in his grasp. Same for trying to pull on him with a shadow tendril. Her short swords, currently buried on Vasilis’ thigh, were too unbalanced to make a decent throw. Even more so for the Paladin’s longsword.
Dene finally resigned herself to the fact that there was no way out for them. She looked at her son, tears pooling in her eyes. “John. I love you.”
John’s eyes widened seemingly in realization. He tried, in vain, to struggle away from the Crusader’s grasp, his face turning red as the arm holding his neck remained firm.
With one hand still holding the sword against Vasilis, Dene grasped and slid her hand down the blade. The pain was neglectable, especially in comparison to the effects of blood magic, both physical and emotional. Dene trembled nonstop as her body seemingly broke itself apart.
How much longer would she be able to survive after this? A week? A day?
John drew the dagger from inside his tunic and pierced the Crusader’s gut. The man groaned in pain but didn’t let go of him. Instead, he put even more strength in his arm.
Dene couldn’t maintain her state for long. First, she needed to save her son.
From the Crusader’s shadow, a pitch-black hand emerged. It stretched upwards and grabbed the man by the head. He didn’t have time to panic before being violently yanked towards the floor. His head was crushed by the impact. The blonde Fighter screamed in panic.
Dene prepared to deal with her too when there was a dull pain on her ribs, and she found herself thrown backward before skidding to a stop.
Vasilis struggled to stand on one foot, unable to move his other leg. He used one hand to hold up his bleeding side while the other pulled one of the swords out of his thigh. With just one leg, the Paladin gave a single hop towards Dene, sword aimed at her head. He seemed to have given up on taking her alive, but it was far too late.
Dene didn’t try to stand or even sit up. In fact, she didn’t know if she was able to. Instead, she simply willed it and a pitch-black hand caught Vasilis mid-air by the arm.
The Paladin didn’t give up. He let go of the sword, grabbed it again with his other arm, and threw it at her chest. The short sword wasn’t intended to be a throwing weapon and, coupled with his lack of solid footing, only managed to bang the hilt against her arm.
Still, against her severely weakened body, that was enough to break the bone.
The pain barely registered. Dene looked at him straight in the eye. “You bastard.” Her words sounded more like a groan than someone speaking.
If not for this Paladin, then she wouldn’t have been forced to use blood magic. If not for him, then she would have been able to spend more time with her son, watch him grow even more. Now her magic was ripping her apart. She would to the same to him.
A second hand stretched from the shadow at the trunk of a tree and grabbed Vasilis by the other arm. One hand holding each arm, they then came taut as they pulled.
Vasilis screamed in pain as his arms were forcefully stretched. With an audible pop, his shoulders were dislocated. The wounds on his arm opened even more. Muscles and tendons snapped and turned into a bloody mess. Finally, the arm was ripped apart from the body and he lost consciousness.
Unceremoniously, the hand flicked him into the trees. He crashed through two of them before bouncing lifelessly from the trunk of the third. The hand holding the arm did the same in the opposite direction.
As soon as it was done, the spells began to dissipate, going from pitch-black, to gray, then translucent and finally disappeared. Dene intended to do that, but she hadn’t willed it yet. They disappeared because their fuel, her, had finally run out.
Dene lay on the grass barely moving. Even the soft rising and lowering of her chest as she breathed turned into a struggle. Her vision started to turn dim at the edges and the heartbeats thumping at her ears started to sound like footsteps. No. They were footsteps.
Something as simple as raising her head off the ground had already turned impossible. “John?” she asked in between wheezes.
As the footsteps approached, the person finally came into view. The first thing Dene saw was the messy, blonde hair. Next came the round, brown eyes that looked back at her in fear. Fear that was reflected in the trembling hands holding the sword.
The woman looked at Dene, towards where Vasilis had landed and then back at her. She bit her lip, unsure if she should leave her to die or directly kill her. Finally, she seemed to have made a decision. Her trembling hands raised the sword above her head.