After one more day’s rest, Juliette felt too restless, too anxious, to sit still. Going against the doctor’s suggestions, she started preparing to leave, resolving to replace her bandages and clean the wound during her travels. She put on a padded leather coat and a pair of pants, with a chainmail hauberk overtop. She decided to leave her plate armor behind, seeing that it had gotten damaged when she had been shot in the back. She anxiously poked at the hole. During training, they had been told that their plate armor was capable of deflecting Krygon crossbows, yet here she was. Just how heavy was that crossbow? Is it a new model?
She picked a longsword, neatly tucked in its scabbard, as well as a back sling for her longbow and its quiver. Finally, though it wasn’t much, she put on a satchel containing her medical supplies and a little bit of foraged food.
Once she was ready, she bid the doctor a brief farewell, then left in search of the Krygons that took her gryphon away. She barely had any leads to go off of, but she guessed that a party that had been large enough to raid a village, now carrying all sorts of loot and animals, had to stick to the road. So she followed along the road from the village, asking anyone she passed about any travelling akor’mari.
None of them mentioned the Krygons, but they mentioned other hamlets and villages that had been recently attacked and razed. That gave Juliette a lead. If they had left a trail of destruction, all she’d have to do was follow it.
Over the next few days, she stopped by whatever inn, tavern or village she passed through, taking the time to do some odd jobs in exchange for food, money and other supplies. Whenever she stopped, she also cleaned her wounds and replaced the bandages. It was difficult doing it alone; the wounds were on her back after all, and it took her a few days to get used to the motions.
For a week, she followed rumors and then a trail of destruction. She saw the same sights that she had seen at the first village: people trying to pick up pieces of a life violently taken from them. She was growing used to such harrowing scenes: mass graveyards, bloodied ruins, piles of burned corpses, and worse. What really got to her was the smell of all those things, a dreadful odor that made her sick. She found herself stuck between wanting to get used to it and the fear of what it might mean for her to grow indifferent to such things.
It reminded her, too, of the first akor’mari she had killed, feeling their weight on her blade as it ran through their flesh… and her hands started to tremble again.
She noticed the trails the Krygons left were becoming much more recent: prints from foot and hoof, wagon trails, campfires, and, most importantly, claw marks on tree bark and the like. Juliette could tell the marks were made by a gryphon’s talons.
Her chase wasn’t in vain. Charlie was still alive!
Stay safe. I’m coming to get you soon. I promise.
A wave of resolve went over her. She quickened her pace, resting less often. She was on their tail, and after a few more days of tracking them, she finally caught up to the party of Krygons. She found their camp in the middle of the night, following the lights of their cookfires and candles.
She hid behind the tree line, using the foliage and night as cover. The Krygons were split in groups, huddling around several campfires. The camp was abuzz with conversation, and from where she was hiding, she could overhear one group’s talk about rice: about how all they got was hard tack and how they’d like to have rice again someday.
She noted that the noise they were making would help cover the sound of her footsteps. Akor’mari were noted for their long ears and their sharp hearing. It made opportunities for ambushes like this rare.
She spotted their parked wagons, containing all sorts of food, tools and other supplies from the villages they raided, but Charlie was nowhere to be found. She felt her chest tighten. She eyed the Krygons, still relaxing and making conversation, oblivious to her presence.
There was only one way to find out where Charlie was. She’d have to get it out of them.
It looked like there was no way to grab one of the akor’mari without drawing the attention of the rest, but if she caught them off-guard, it would give her a window where she could kill as many of them as possible — at least before the rest could get their weapons ready and —
Juliette held her forehead. All these thoughts about killing… Her hands started to tremble again, but she stopped herself. She reminded herself of the trail of destruction they had left behind, the people they had killed, the lives they had displaced. And for what? What was the reason behind such cruelty?
These were the same people who held my Charlie in captivity.
Don’t hesitate. Get your hands dirty.
As long as it’s just their blood, you can always clean it off, can’t you?
An ugly, righteous anger started to burn her fears away. She watched a few of the akor’mari carry hot pots around, bringing them over to each group in turn and serving meals in cups and bowls.
“Just soup?” one of the akor’mari said with a heavy accent. It looked like they were trying to learn the Tarithian language. “I was craving for rice…”
“Well, when I manage to grow some, I’ll tell you.”
None of them would imagine a possible attack like this. There was no better time to strike.
She took an arrow out of her quiver. As she nocked her longbow, she stood out from the tree line, aiming at one of the Krygons carrying soup around. At this point, only a few of the ‘mari spotted her, and most of them only had the time to gawk.
She steadied herself, then she set the arrow loose.
One of the akor’mari fell backwards, hitting the ground. As he fell, he dropped the boiling pot of soup onto someone else. The heat was enough to make him scream and flail about, sowing more confusion.
Juliette dropped her longbow, drew her longsword, and threw herself at the Krygons, who were all in the middle of scrambling. Unlike the raid, all of the akor’mari had taken their armor off: each swing of her blade could prove fatal. So, she swung and thrusted in a flurry of attacks, killing or leaving the ‘mari screaming in pain. As she kept cutting swathes through the unprepared Krygons, the blood stained her blade, the ground, and her clothes.
“Tell me where the gryphon is. Now!” she shouted out. Her breath started to grow heavy. Each swing, each thrust dug into heavy flesh… it took a toll on her that wasn’t exclusively physical.
After a short bloodbath, the remaining Krygons started to hastily gather their weapons to face her. One akor’mar swung at her with a mace. She deflected the blow, letting the mace slide past her blade. She swung back, and her sword dug into the ‘mar, gashing across his stomach, then she swung it across his chest.
The akor’mar looked at himself, a horrified expression on his face as he stepped backwards and slumped to the ground.
She had no time to feel sorry for him. She turned around, seeing another Krygon lunging at her from behind. She didn’t have enough time to raise her blade. She caught the akor’mar’s saber with her elbow, breaking apart her chainmail. As rings of chain fell to the ground, Juliette swiped the other blade aside. Her arm felt weak from the blow, but with a scream, she managed to run the ‘mar through with her longsword, putting it deep in his chest.
She couldn’t get it out, so her sword fell with the dead Krygon.
Before she could do anything else, she felt something round push against the back of her head.
Acting quickly, she ducked under whatever it was, and a large bang ruptured in her ears.
What… What was that…?
The next few seconds felt hazy as the world took a backseat to the ringing in her ears. Despite her condition, Juliette knew there was no time to idle around as she realized what must have caused the blast.
She had seen guns only sparsely before, when caravans of Little Folk traveled through Tarith, demonstrating how such devices worked, right down to their trigger mechanisms, but she didn’t know what they had been capable of. Not until now.
I can’t let him fire off another shot.
Juliette grabbed the akor’mar’s rifle, pushing and pointing it towards the sky. She grabbed a flintlock pistol from the akor’mar’s waist, pushed it up against his chin, and pulled the trigger.
As the akor’mar slumped to the ground, she fell along with him. Her head was throbbing with pain, her vision blurring, and she wasn’t sure if the loud ringing in her ears was would ever go away.
She took a saber off of the dead Krygon and struggled to get on her feet, confronting the rest of the raid force. Her hands were still trembling from the force of that pistol, but she did her best to steady her grip on it.
Her window had passed. The remaining Krygons facing her were grouped together, all of them armed to the teeth with all sorts of blades and more of the firearms. If she wasn’t shot down as she charged, she’d be cut to pieces.
Yet, they didn’t attack. Their leader advanced to the front of the battle ready crowd.
“You… What’s your name?” he said, raising his hand at his subordinates, a signal to stand down.
“J… Juliette…” she weakly answered, deciding she had nothing to lose. “Where’s… Where’s Charlie… You… You took her away from me…”
“Did you capture a gryphon…? Tell me…” She slowly raised her blade at him.
“Let’s take her out, boss,” one of the akor’mari pleaded. “Look at how many of us she killed. She’ll take out the rest of us if we give her the chance.”
“I agree. She’s a threat,” another said. “Let’s shoot her down and go on with burying our dead.”
The demand picked up steam among the remaining akor’mari. Many of them clamored for her death. Juliette realized that this was a dead end.
Juliette dropped her saber on the ground. Tired, dazed, and outnumbered, she resigned herself to her fate. With a last look of defiance, she stared the akor’mar leader in the eyes. She didn’t know what sort of look she had then, but whatever it was, the commander responded with an expression of guilt and sorrow.
“Everyone, be quiet.” The leader’s stern voice stifled everyone’s protests. “So… Juliette, wasn’t it? Listen to me. We didn’t kill the gryphon. We sold it off to a fence we’re in regular contact with. As we speak, it’s likely being smuggled across the front lines to Krygon.”
“You… sold her…?”
“If I tell you how to get there, will you leave us alone?”
The akor’mari seemed as shocked as she was. “Why? We could just shoot her. Why don’t we just do it?”
Before any of them could say anything more, the leader gave them all a sharp look, enough to quell their complaints.
“You…? Why would you…” Juliette said, her voice still weak but filled with scorn. “You…”
“ ‘You…’ don’t have any options,” the leader said. “We both know that. Would you rather go with the alternative my men so eagerly advocate for?”
Juliette was silent. Then, she slumped to the ground.