Chapter XIII: Disarm, Part 2
They ran. Up into the ruins, up the stair, a sound like a running river behind them.
Rocks skittered away, clattering down the stone steps behind them. Thighs burned and air seared the lungs as the two struggled up the stair.
Link stopped, spun to face the airy void, a moment later a long hairy leg emerged suddenly over the lip of the walkway. Link hacked at the many-jointed appendage. In a surge of speed the spider heaved itself up over the stairway, fangs snapping on air a few inches from Link’s throat, slammed up against his shield. Link stabbed blindly in the general direction of the glaring eye and was rewarded with an ear-shattering screech and a quick retreat of the weight.
He turned and bisected a spider the size of a wagon wheel as it leaped at him. Then spun, cutting a second in half with the backswipe. Black blood steamed and smoked on his blade.
Things scuttled between his legs as he climbed the steps, taking three at a stride. Heraji was standing a few flights above him, spear held idly at the ready, several large spiders merrily dissolving in smoke on the stones around him.
“Drop!” Heraji commanded.
Link fell flat on the ground, and something cold and dark rushed back down the stair. The scuttling immediately stilled.
Heraji stared down the stair as he got back to his feet, Link noted how the mage seemed to glow with fresh energy and vigor. Fresh blood coated his hands and splattered against his red robes. Link was in much the same shape. Thin, whiplash trails of black stained his tunic, thick and sluggish. He idly swiped at a slow dribble in his bangs, wiping it away from his eyes.
The sound of skittering legs grew more distant, echoing from every direction. Link wondered at his own calm.
“They’re encircling us.” Heraji noted.
Link nodded silently, “How many times can you do that trick?”
Heraji made a noncommittal sound, “Depends, doesn’t work on something strong of mind or body. Or surprised, surprised works too…” he chuckled darkly, “Too many times and it… erodes me.”
Link decided he didn’t want to know. “That big one?”
Heraji shook his head, “Too big…”
They stopped talking then, because the sound of many wings filled the air.
- Disarm -
Ashei sat, cross-legged, on the ground as the strange flaxen-haired man digested what she had revealed to him.
“How did you know we would be here with Link?”
The pale-blond man blinked lazily, eyes glinting through long bangs.
“Word travels fast these days, to one who is listening…”
“You didn’t answer me.” Ashei said, raising her chin.
Sheik gave a grunt of annoyance, “Meh… A mutual acquaintance of ours,” he said, “Word was sent that the one unnamed was loosed, and I was asked to intervene. You might say I’m an envoy.”
“Who’s envoy, yeah?” Ashei demanded, “Have the Gerudo come out of hiding?”
A low, throaty chuckle, dry as the desert. “A strange day indeed when one concedes to taint her blade with my black blood, let alone select me as her envoy.”
Ashei swallowed slightly.
“You are afraid.” He observed, eyes glinting under flaxen bangs.
Ashei snorted, “I’ve read the histories, yeah, heard some of the tales.”
“Good.” Sheik said, “That means you won’t be completely useless if it comes to that, Meh?”
Sheik impatiently brushed a hand through pale bangs, “But that doesn’t matter much now, what matters is that things are moving… And your precious hero is missing in the thick of it.”
“You mean that shadow-thing?” Ashei blurted.
Sheik nodded, but he wasn’t really listening, ruby eyes hooded in thought, “The one unnamed, a true shadow, meh.” Sheik waved a hand absently, “Things are moving now, too fast to track, too many paths at once. And all of it coming to a point so quickly.”
Ashei looked up, the sky was growing light overhead, birds where beginning to sing. Morning had come and caught them unawares. She stood, stretching, working blood back into her legs. They had fallen asleep sometime during the dissertation and she hadn’t noticed, now circulation returned painfully.
“All right,” she kicked the sleeping Bulbin, “Let’s get finding him then.”
“Ah…” Sheik raised a hand and inclined his head to one side as if listening, “Sounds as if they’ve done the finding for us.”
- Disarm -
The canopy was thinning, glimmers of green could be seen above as they climbed. Clouds of insects droned in the trees, like great deadly clouds. Fortunately, they seemed reluctant to come nearer, staying to the deepest shadows only. Link leaned against the wall, grateful for the respite. Nearby Heraji leaned on his spear.
“I still hear them.”
Link glanced at the wizard and, comically, rolled his eyes.
Heraji chuckled, surprising them both.
The skittering on every side had ceased to worry them, had become a part of the weather, part of the forest in between flurries of activity and violence. It wasn’t lost on them that they had allowed themselves to be lured into a cycle by the waves of insects; attack, defend, retreat. It was killing them slowly, they both knew it.
Link could feel the tremors of exhaustion in his arms, shoulders, legs. “They are coming.”
That was all the warning they got before the giant arachnid’s hairy legs burst over the cliff’s edge, great eye glaring lidlessly.
Link leaped it, stabbing for the pupil, under the stabbing legs and snapping fangs. His blade met the creature’s hide as it bucked, attempting to catch him in it’s drooling maw. The stench of fetid decay and black magery was overwhelming.
Then with a shudder it collapsed, shrieking. Atop it’s back, hanging grimly to the shaft of his spear buried in the beast’s thick hide, Heraji fought to keep his balance. The huge beast landed with a thud that vibrated through the walkway, it’s eye staring at Link from the distance of a few feet.
He could have reached out and touched it.
With a single swift motion Link brought up his sword and stabbed it into the yellow orb, the blade sinking in up to the hilt.
- Disarm -
A shuddering roar echoed in the forest, Ashei increased her pace, moving towards the sound, Bulbin puffing in her wake.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know!” She tossed over her shoulder.
Hurried explanations were all she had afforded the goblin upon waking, and he followed as quickly as he could with quiet mystification.
A stone walkway emerged from the leaves and she was running up, over the stone, her quiver and bow beating in tandem with her step. Bulbin’s heavier step fell behind as she flew ahead.
Pillars intermingled with the trees here, stone walls and statues fled past. She was aware she was running through a stunning ruin, one part of her mind noting the works as she passed, the other tracking the sound.
She emerged from the ruin to find a truly stunning view of the forest, a cliff overlooking the great trees, made to look tiny with the distance.
‘We’re in the foothills of the west mountains,’ she realized. She doubled over, breathing heavily for a few seconds before taking in her surroundings.
Sheik got there first, somehow she wasn’t surprised. He was leaning against a tree, nonchalantly, as if he had not just outdistanced the fastest runner in the royal guard in a mile-long uphill sprint (and just for the record, Ashei was fast).
He seemed to not notice Ashei’s heaving sides, instead he seemed to be inspecting his fingernails. This irritated Ashei on a very basic level, not because it was difficult to find respect in the royal guard, and thus she made it her business to be faster, stronger, and harder than any of the men. Nor because he had apparently taken one step from the clearing where they had made camp and stopped here, waiting patiently for them to catch up (Link was, after all, faster than she, and likely anyone living, could ever hope to be… At least he didn’t rub it in her face.)
No, what irritated her was that he, a man, appeared more feminine standing there than she had ever managed to. Not that Ashei had ever felt particularly feminine in her admittedly short life.
It was the principal of the thing.
“Where?” she managed.
Sheik nodded towards the sharp drop, “Down there, and getting nearer.” Ashei stepped over to the brink.
She yelped and leaped back from the edge as Link, atop the enraged spider flew over the edge, Heraji a small red bundle on it’s back, clinging to his spear for dear life. It continued onward, bowling Bulbin over, passing Sheik, who was still leaning against a tree and enjoying himself immensely, and slammed headfirst into a crumbling wall.
There was a rumbling, groaning rumble and a cloud of dust. When it cleared Link was on his feet, shakily steeping down from the crumbled pile that covered the monstrous spider.
And to the shock of Ashei and Bulbin, offered a hand to Heraji, who was struggling to his feet. Their shock could not have been greater.
That is, until he gave Heraji a small, brotherly punch in the shoulder, and the wizard responded with a quiet chuckle.
- Disarm -
“You know, I was very worried.”
“I mean, honestly, what was I supposed to tell Ilia?”
“Hey, you listening?” Ashei smacked Link over the head, “I was worried sick, yeah? If you try something like that again-
She launched into an excruciating dissertation on the various tortures and punishments she would inflict upon the Ordonian in question and only paused when she noticed his eyes were growing heavy.
“Sorry Ashei,” he mumbled around a monstrous yawn.
Ashei smacked him again, “Get your shuteye then, I’ll fill you in when you get up.”
Heraji chuckled and stood, “I will leave you to that, I want some sunlight…”
“No.” he turned, despite bangs under his eyes and very real lines of exhaustion. “I consumed to much life to sleep.”
He disappeared under the trees, leaving Ashei unsettled in his wake. Bulbin watched him go, then catching Ashei’s demanding gaze, shrugged and took a seat on the ground.
“I don’t like that guy.” Ashei muttered, rubbing her arms to clear away the sudden chill that prickled her skin, “Gives me the creeps.”
“Good in a fight…” Link said, eyes closed.
Ashei sighed irritably. Then looked around, eyes searching, looking for the flax haired sprite, the newest addition to their merry band.
The man had disappeared.
- Disarm -
Heraji stopped, looking up at the sun, he closed his eyes and raised his arms, letting the gentle heat warm his skin for the first time in days.
“Was that stunt your idea for an introduction?” He asked the meadow.
A chuckle, “Was that your idea of a joke?”
Heraji turned, a shadow under the trees detached itself and strode into the light, a huge, glistening tower of muscle. But what arrested the eye was not this, nor was it the huge blade slung over one shoulder. What held the attention of the casual observer was the mask that concealed his face. Dark wood, painted in green and red, with three gaudy plumes that waved with the wearer’s every movement. A grimace of pain, or perhaps perverse merriment, was cut into it’s surface. The wearer’s eyes were concealed in the shadows of large, sculpted brows.
Heraji was silent for a moment, “That mask isn’t for looks, is it?”
“Nah.” He tapped a finger idly on it’s rim. “…Takes some getting used to, but after that…” one could imagine him grinning behind the wood.
“… What is it you want?” Heraji said, eyes narrow,
“I am here to make you an offer, on behalf of my order.” The man gave a small bow, his words sounded as if he was smiling, and immediately something about him irritated Heraji- the evident condescendence was backed by pure, unadulterated power, “I am called Ballum, wielder of Odolwa.”
“We,” he used the term in a manner that suggested he was speaking not only about his organization but about himself, “are a selective group of mages.” Amusement seeped into the man’s voice, “Our only goals are to amass as much power and secrets for our own purposes as we can, and to survive.” If the mask had not concealed his features, Heraji was certain he would have seen a malicious grin.
Heraji frowned slightly, then gave a small shake of his head, To what end? “I don’t think I’m interested.”
“You haven’t even heard the benefits.”
One finger tapped the side of Ballum’s mask.
Ballum laughed, soft and predatory, “Power, like you couldn’t imagine. We will find the height and depth of your capacity.”
Heraji crossed his arms, tapping his lower lip in quiet contemplation. There was very real power behind this Ballum, vast power the likes of which he hadn’t tested himself against…
The offer was tempting…
“I don’t think so.”
There was a momentary pause. Heraji could imagine a frown clouding the man’s features, “Is that your final answer? Think carefully.” He inclined his head in the direction of the group where they rested, “What claim do these have on you?”
Heraji’s eyes slid away evasively, “Not much…”
“Then how about it?” Ballum asked, crossing his arms once more, impatient.
Heraji shook his head, “No.”
Behind his mask the big man blinked, “What?”
“You have my answer.” Heraji said, “I don’t need you or your ‘order’.”
Ballum’s silent stare rested on him for a moment, the big man shrugged, “Your funeral.”
He took a step forward and Vaati appeared in Heraji’s hands, blade glittering in the sun.
Ballum laughed, “Heh, as much as I’d love to, you aren’t to be touched.” He tapped the side of his mask. “All members join of their own accord, membership isn’t forced.” The grin seeped back into his voice, “Our leader wants you intact, see.”
He leaned forward, “ But I was instructed to relay a message if you refused… Ready for it?”
Heraji’s measured gaze revealed nothing.
“One of them carries that which you hate.”
Heraji blinked. “What?”
Ballum laughed, “If you change your mind, look for us in the swamps of the vanquished.”
With a surge air the man dissolved into mist, a delicate violet that quickly burned away in the daylight.
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