The three men slipped out of the hotel through the window and onto the roof ledge below. From there, they slipped overhead until they could drop down unseen onto a quiet street. They took furtive looks to the left and right before quickly racing off. They almost made it out of the settlement before their plans were unceremoniously halted.
The loud twang of a bowstrings caught their ears. Arrows started screaming passed.
“Careful! It’s an ambush!”
The sudden attack took Gibbon and the scarred thug by surprise. They were too slow, and both were almost immediately sprouting with arrow shafts. One screamed in pain and fell to the floor. The other was pinned to a nearby wall. It happened in the blink of an eye.
Their leader was also caught off guard and one of the arrows caught him, too. It wasn’t fatal, but there was no getting away now.
It was only a few moments before he was surrounded by crossbow- wielding attackers.
A muscular gentlemen approached, with his thick arms crossed. “Give us the eboncrys and the girl, and we’ll let you live.”
The insidious man had not expected to be blinded by greed, but here he was. Gritting his teeth, he dragged the tightly wrapped body of Autumn over. He wasn’t going to let his riches go without a fight. “This bitch is mine, who the fuck are you to keep all the profit for yourselves? Take one more step and I’ll kill her. I asked already, and she told me where there’s more eboncrys hidden. If she dies you don’t get shit!”
“Look at this one, acting like he can make demands.” The burly man unfurled his arms and pulled open his shirt, revealing an intricate weave of tattoos across his chest. “Try it. If you’ve got the balls.”
The thief’s eyes went wide. “Highwaymen!”
The men answered his shock with hideous grins. The Highwaymen were the largest criminal enterprise in the borderlands. They had eyes and ears in every outpost, that’s how they were able to pick off merchant caravans. This group was a cell who operated in the Sandbar, and one of them had been in the variety shop when Autumn came in. He saw the parcel she flashed and had immediately told the others.
Their leader growled dangerously. “You know us, what we can do, and my patience is running out. Kill her, if you think you can.”
“Fine! I give up. Ruthless fucks!”
The man knew this wasn’t going to go his way. The Highwaymen were known for their tyranny and aggressiveness. If he really killed the woman they weren’t just going to end his life. They were going to make him suffer. After thinking about it for a minute he decided his life wasn’t worth it. So he stepped back until he was a few meters away from the others and, when he thought he was safe, put the girl down.
“You – Ah!”
With his leg injured, the man couldn’t avoid all of the arrows that came at him. They punched a dozen holes through him as he screamed, then met his violent end.
His demise was punctuated by a chuckle from the large man. “That’s what you get for trying to bargain with the Highwaymen.”
All of the noise had stirred Autumn from her drug-induced haze, but the anesthetic still made her weak. She could hardly move her arms, much less escape, but she struggle onto her back to see what was happening.
“Bring her!” The big man waved a hand. “Let’s move.”
“Who are you? I don’t know you!” Autumn saw the corpses and fear crept into her face. “What are you going to do with me!”
Two of the thugs walked over to her, but not to chat. One brought his hand back to knock her out.
Just then there was a flash of yellow that swept across both men’s throats. Their heads lurched back as pillars of blood spat from newly-made holes in their necks. Autumn was quickly soaked in hot, red fluid. The men were dead before they knew it.
“What the fuck?!” The big man yelled.
The flash of yellow returned, landing on the ground. Finally the men got a good look, and what they saw baffled them.
It was a bird, about the size of a fist. Its neck was almost comically short, with the head and body of an owl. Its whole body was covered in golden feathers and a pair of big round eyes stared unblinking at the crew. They were bright and intelligent, and as the bird flapped its wings blood splattered off its right side.
A bird? What the fuck kind of animal was this?!
The creature slowly blinked its big eyes. At rest, the goofy-looking thing seemed completely harmless. Nothing about it hinted that the bird could move faster than a bullet, with wings sharp as a blade’s edge.
The look on the big man’s face said he sensed something wasn’t right. This thing didn’t seem like a mutant animal. But he didn’t waste much time thinking about it. “Shoot it,” he ordered.
It was just a bird, right?
Members of the Highwaymen were formidable thugs. There was no lack of decent fighters in their ranks. The little golden bird would make good target practice, they thought, as they reset their crossbows.
Oddball watched with its big eyes as the arrows came. It squatted down, kicked off the grouwnd with its scrawny legs, and took off like a bolt of lightning.
Its wings beat with unrivaled speed. But to Oddball, everything seemed to be moving slow as a snail.
It reached the first arrow and kicked it with just enough force to change its trajectory. The arrow had been headed right for the girl’s back. Oddball slipped passed the second arrow, then used its duck-like bill to strike the third. That one threatened the girl as well.
An explosion of golden light erupted from Oddball, surging from each shimmering feather. The bird dashed passed the remaining arrows to the thugs behind, sweeping by and then sinking into their leader’s body. Half a blink later the tiny bird burst out of his back.
Three lives were unceremoniously ended by the little critter. It’d slowed from the effort, but as it spun around Oddball beat its wings frantically. Four plumes shot out like a handful of throwing daggers. Each one caught a distant thug right between the eyebrows as they struggled to reload their crossbows.
Autumn had managed by then to wriggle herself out of the bedsheet.
She looked around in speechless confusion. Half a dozen arrows were scattered around her in a circle. Then, from the corner of her eye she caught a flash of yellow and another hoodlum hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. It all happened far too fast for her to see clearly.
The bird moved even faster than a bullet! What kind of creature was this? Certainly no typical bird, that was for sure!
The several thugs left decided this wasn’t worth dying for. They threw down their weapons and high-tailed it toward the safety of back alleys.
Autumn had never seen a creature like this. She was just as terrified as the thugs, and was preparing to flee herself when the bird appeared right in front of her. It gave her a gentle peck, which earned a terrified yelp from the girl. She covered her face and scrambled back.
The strange bird kept knocking its beak against the back of her head until Autumn finally understood it was trying to get her to follow. She saw what the bird could do to soft human flesh, and with no alternative she picked up the parcel of eboncrys and followed it.
Huh? The variety shop? Autumn found herself standing before the familiar doorway. It was closed, but just as she was considering whether to make a run for it the hinges creaked. It swung open, apparently under its own power, and a lazy voice called out to her from inside. “Come on in!”
The little yellow bird entered without hesitation.
Autumn followed, though with far more caution. The store’s interior was dimly lit with electric bulbs and the gramophone from before was still playing soft music. A young man around twenty years old sat in a large rattan chair, rocking back and forth. He looked perfectly at ease. The little bird went right to him and alighted on his left hand, where it pecked at a pellet of food.
Did this strange creature belong to the store’s owner? Autumn wasn’t the brightest, but she was starting to catch on.
“You saved me,” she said, half in a trance.
“You’re not as stupid as you look.” Cloudhawk stopped rocking and looked over the girl’s face, absent the veil. He’d seen any number of pretty women, but she was still striking. “You’ve got enough in that parcel to buy half of this town. You’re obviously an easy target, but you made no attempt to hide your wealth. I honestly don’t know how you even made it here alive.”
Autumn’s face burned with embarrassment. “I’m sorry for the trouble. I can compensate you.”
“And how exactly do you plan to ‘compensate’ me?”
He interrupted her awkward silence with a laugh. “You’ve already delivered the stones right to me, so think carefully.”
Autumn was nervous and took a couple frightened steps backward. But a glance at the yellow bird and she knew there was nowhere to run, it just made her look guilty. The store owner looked like a young man, but if he raised a bird like that there was definitely more to him than what was on the surface.
Her mind raced. She had an idea.
Screwing up her courage, Autumn pled her case. “If you…. If you could help me, there are many more crystals where these came from.”
Cloudhawk was ever more curious in this girl’s backstory. She was about as bright as pile of rocks and weak as a child, but she definitely had money to back her up. She claimed to be capable of getting him much more eboncrys. Maybe her family came from a place where it was made.
Luckily for her, money was exactly what Cloudhawk needed. So her offer intrigued him. “What do you need done?”
“I want to hire you to bring me somewhere. A-a place called Fishmonger’s Borough. My tribe’s ancestral treasure is there somewhere. Help me recover it, escort me back, give me the equipment I ordered, and take me back to my people. If you do that you’ll have as much eboncrys as you want. You have my word!”
“Tribe?” Cloudhawk was curious. “Is your tribe out in the wastelands?”
No one from the elysian lands called their group a ‘tribe.’ None of them looked like her, anyway. The girl had to be from some isolated wasteland settlement somewhere, a place she’d probably never left before now. That would explain why she was waltzing around like an idiot. Most importantly, it seemed like wherever she came from was also where eboncrys was made.
But that was hardly information that was wise to share!
If his suspicions were true and word got out, things would turn from bad to worse for the naïve girl. It wasn’t just wastelanders, elysians would be scrambling over one another for information about where she came from. She was the key to an incredibly valuable prize!Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Not a knight in shining armor, but a shiny metal bird. I'll take it. So she's from a tribe, eh?