Chapter 8: ...Who Needs Enemies?
"Easy there," Randi cautioned. "I told you before. There's no need to hurt her if she shows a little common sense and gives up the sword. And no matter what, don't hurt her unless I give the word, okay?"
Keith looked at him steadily. "Well... okay. But I'm damn good at knife-throwing. I think things would go much quicker if-"
The sprite nodded, looking so obedient that Randi wondered if he wasn't seeing things. He decided that maybe he'd better not look a gift horse in the mouth. Obedience obviously wasn't Keith's style towards anybody, so he wouldn't expect this cooperation a second time.
"Hey... look who's here," Keith observed calmly, casually pointing on the pathway.
Randi forced himself to turn casually, silently cursing his partner for not telling him sooner. He decided that it made no difference. Better to get this confrontation done with.
"What took ya?" Keith asked the lone figure.
Lady Purim's eyes opened wide at seeing them in front of her, both comfortably seated ten meters in front of her, obviously expecting her. "H-how did..."
Randi spoke up before his partner could slip in another wisecrack. "My friend here has a talent for finding people, you know."
Keith made a show of sniffing the air daintily. "Somebody needs a bath..."
"Give back the sword," Randi ordered quietly.
"N-never!" she retorted, obviously beginning to get worn down. The constant traveling had probably been harder on her than on Randi. He wondered if she even had the stamina to get to the Haunted Forest.
"You don't know the half of what you're getting into," he said. "That sword is more curse than weapon!"
"Just try and take it from me!" she challenged, raising the sword towards them.
"What she said," Keith agreed out, spinning a knife between his fingertips meaningfully.
A glare from Randi silenced him and any thoughts of getting back the sword with one well-thrown knife blade. "You're trying to go up against someone who's using mind control on your entire village! You don't have a chance! Even with that sword!"
"She won't expect much out of me. Until it's too late for her!"
"She'll know you have the Mana Sword and she'll use every trick she's got to stop you."
"Let her try!"
Randi frowned. "Last chance, Lady Purim. Give back that sword or we'll take it from you by force."
The refusal was spoken with more defiance now.
"Watch out for her!" he hissed to Keith. "Can you scare her a little?"
"Don't hurt her!"
"I won't hurt her. Just scare the spit out of her!" Like a bolt of lightning, Keith charged towards her.
His opponent didn't even have time to lift her sword before Keith was up close to her. Moments later, he sprang away from her, his feet grabbing onto an overhanging tree branch. He hung there upside down, waiting expectantly.
Lady Purim gave a start as she realized that her shirt sleeves were almost cut right off. "Why you little..." she started towards the sprite.
For his part, Randi waited. Keith could obviously take care of himself. Lady Purim was clearly no fighter, even with the Mana Sword.
Keith hung upside down from the branch as his opponent approached. "Want another tailor job?" he inquired politely. "Maybe a haircut too? Just name it."
"I'm going to slice you in two!" she swore.
"Hmm... what's that? You want to be sliced in two?" A flip landed the sprite atop the branch. A jump placed him on a higher branch, out of reach of the sword.
"You think that will protect you? Try... THIS!" Lady Purim swung the sword, cleanly slicing through the tree's trunk.
"Hey!" Keith yelled as the tree began to fall. "What'd the tree ever do to you, huh?" In a flash, he had landed behind her and another slashing spree began. He sprung away as soon as Lady Purim spun around to face him, the huge tree crashing to ground off to the side.
Keith proudly displayed her shirt sleeves, holding them up like some bizarre trophy. "Hey, look what I caught. Say, are you sure you don't want to just give up that sword? I might have to draw a little blood next time." He glanced at Randi for permission and received a stern shake.
"You can't run forever!" she growled, approaching the sprite again.
"You can't chase me forever," Keith taunted in return, still displaying the shirt sleeves. His face grew more serious. "Attack once more and you'll regret it!"
"Just try something!"
"Um... if you insist. But this is really getting old."
Another lunge by Keith sent him hurtling towards Lady Purim. This time, she was ready for him, already swinging the sword at him. With a sudden halt, Keith stopped, the sword whistling harmlessly through the air a few inches in front of his face. Lady Purim squeaked in surprise, unable to stop the sword's motion.
"Idiot," Keith muttered, even as he darted forwards again. Both of his hands were blurs as he cut at her rapidly. By the time the sword had been swung at him again, he was dancing out of range again. He didn't stop moving until he was next to Randi. "Randi, I think we'd better finish this soon," he hissed in a low tone. "She's getting better."
Randi looked down "I hadn't noticed," he whispered.
"She's getting faster with that sword. I was thinking about what you said about you only having the sword for a short time..."
"You mean...she's learning?"
The sprite nodded briefly. "Maybe she'll think things over this time."
"You'll pay for that!" Lady Purim shouted, brandishing the sword. Keith was right, she was holding it more confidently now. More like a warrior than a noblewoman. He had to finish this fast...
"This time-" Lady Purim's voice abruptly choked off as her movement cast light on another issue.
"Awfully cold this time of year, eh?" Keith commented innocently.
Randi gaped at what Keith's most recent cutting job had done to his opponent. Her blouse had been reduced almost to the status of transparent confetti, the dangling shreds fluttering lightly in the breeze. Even her undergarments could be seen to be in tatters, having also been sliced apart. For a brief instant, he marveled that he had actually beaten someone as capable as Keith.
"You..." Lady Purim realized that she was now half-naked in front of them.
"Definitely a woman," the sprite judged un-professionally. "And a very fine specimen too, hmm?"
"How dare you! I'll kill you both!"
Keith sighed. "What do you say, Randi? Should I get started on the bottom half?" He began to approach her again.
Randi stopped the sprite. This had gone far enough. "Lady Purim, this is your last chance. You've no chance of winning this fight, so give it up. I'm trying to avoid hurting you, but I'll do whatever I have to do to get the sword back. I'm out of patience now. Give me back that sword!"
"I'll die first!" she hissed.
Randi pushed Keith out of the way. "My turn," he muttered. "Time to end this now."
No sooner had he said those words than Lady Purim rushed him. Randi lowered himself into a crouch and readied himself. She was no match for him, even with the sword. He'd known how to fight with his bare hands for most of his life. And he could already tell how she was going to attack.
"Take this!" she yelled, bringing the sword down on him.
Randi twisted aside, dodging the blow. Lady Purim was already recovering. Keith had been right. She was getting better. But not good enough to beat him. With one fluid motion, he rushed her, raining a hard volley of punches into her gut, making her gag. Before she could even scream, he brought his fist up under her chin, knocking her right off her feet. She flew back, landing in a heap in the soft mud.
Randi was on her before she could even blink, grabbing her sword arm and twisting the Mana Sword from her limp hands. Then he backed up ten paces and faced her. In the state of mind she was in, she might just attack him again. He didn't want that. He already felt sick to his stomach from what he'd just done. Was this was he had to do to survive? Once again, he desperately wished he could be rid of the Mana Sword...
"Cool!" Keith cheered, off to the side. "You're not half bad even without the sword!"
Lady Purim groaned, staggering to her knees as she clutched her stomach. She gagged, coughing up blood on the ground. Randi felt like doing the same thing as he watched her. He wasn't sure how he'd done what he just did, but he wasn't sure he could ever bring himself to do it again. Was she still going to attack him?
As he studied her face carefully, he realized that in spite of her best efforts, she was beginning to cry. He wondered what was going on inside her head now. Sheathing his sword, he advanced towards her, realizing that she was no longer a threat. As irrational and ill-tempered as she'd proven herself to be, Randi was becoming more and more certain of something. Something was clearly driving her along.
He knelt down beside her, putting a hand on her almost bare shoulder. "Please, take a minute to think things over. I don't know why you're doing what you're doing, but what you're trying to do doesn't have a chance of working."
"I... don't care," she sobbed.
"So what do you want me to tell him?" Randi asked.
"Dyluck. When he comes back alive, should I tell him that you wasted your own life for no reason at all?"
"He's not coming back... unless someone rescues him."
"And you think you can do anything by yourself?"
She looked up at him, making a vain attempt to wipe some of tears and blood from her face. "I have to... try." She turned to face him squarely. "You might as well kill me now, because I'll follow you as long as I have to."
For an answer Randi untied the cloak around his waist and handed it to her. "Put this on."
Not quite sure what to think, she obeyed, slipping into it.
Randi handed her the bow he had gotten from Dwarf Village. "Now put this on."
She looked at it disbelievingly. "What..."
"I don't know much about this sword, but I can assure that you'd be getting more trouble than help from it. Keith and I are on our way to see Elinee the witch for reasons of our own. You feel like coming along?"
Not long after, Lady Purim was fast asleep on some solid ground, Randi's cloak doubling as both a shirt and a blanket. Randi and Keith were a short distance away, the former using a tree stump as a chair, the later dangling from a tree branch.
"Well, that was fun," the sprite decided. "Now let's get going before she wakes up."
"We're not going anywhere. At least, I'm not."
"Aw come on, Randi! You weren't really serious about that, were you? She's going to be nothing but trouble."
"Why do you think I brought the bow along?" Randi inquired rhetorically. "I've never shot a bow in my life, you know."
"So why'd you go do something stupid like that?"
"She's got her faults," he agreed. "But in case you hadn't noticed yet, nothing short of killing her is going to keep her from following us."
"Well, if you ain't got the stomach for it..."
"I can't believe you're even saying that!"
"Just kidding, okay? How ‘bout we tie her up for now? We'll untie her on our way out. After we've dealt with Elinee."
"No. She's coming with us. She's obviously determined, and she's not a bad shot with a bow. She may not have the nicest personality, but I'll live with it. At the very least, she'll be an extra set of eyes for us."
"Like heck, she will. She's going to be the biggest pain in the butt you've ever seen."
"Look at it this way, Keith. We're going up against someone who's powerful enough to hypnotize the entire village of Pandora. We need all the help we can get. We could do worse than her, you know."
Keith looked less than convinced. "Oh yeah?"
"I'm not joking. We might be stuck with someone who's afraid of Elinee. Or someone who wasn't dedicated to the fight."
"Maybe she's got that, but I sure can't see what else. She sure doesn't have much sense."
"Don't worry about it. You can ignore her the whole time if it makes you feel better. As a matter of fact..."
"You're going to behave yourself around her. As far as I am concerned, the fight we just had never happened, got it?"
"I just don't want you pestering her the whole time. Unless you want to get into the fight you and I had?"
"That's history!" Keith protested.
"So is this one."
"Yeah, yeah, fine, fine. So how come you're so concerned about her?"
"No reason," Randi said, being half honest. Why was he so concerned about her? Maybe he was just trying to keep some peace around himself, he finally decided. Certainly there was little of it to be found.
The two of them sat in silence for a time, saying nothing. Keith finally broke the silence between them. "She sure is placing a lot of trust in you, isn't she?"
"What do you mean?"
"There's nothing keeping you from walking out on her, is there? She was gonna kill us before! Now she's sleeping like a baby."
"I'm not about tell her otherwise. She'll need to be well-rested."
"What about you?"
"I'm fine. It's only been a day since I slept. Another thing this stupid sword seems to be doing. Let's me put off sleeping until it's safe."
"Don't call it a stupid sword. At least it looks nice."
Randi laughed. "Nice? You think this piece of rust looks nice?!" He held it up mockingly. "Does this look..." His voice trailed off as he looked at his sword more carefully.
"Well, it ain't no work of art," Keith admitted, not noticing the expression on Randi's face. "But I wouldn't call it a piece of rust or nothing-"
"It's... clean!" Randi breathed in awe. And it was. The long blade was gleaming a dull metallic grey, no longer rough along the edges. The handle looked to be made of bronze or copper, glinting a faint red in the sun's light. Most impressively, the entire sword was devoid of even the slightest speck of rust.
"Well, yeah, I guess it is," Keith agreed. "Got a problem with that?"
Randi smiled hugely. He felt a brief surge of pride. The appearance of the Mana Sword reflects the user. He didn't know what's he'd done lately, but... "Nope. No problem at all."
"Something's stalking us."
It took a moment for Keith's comment to register. Randi's eyes narrowed as he peered out into the darkness. "Where?"
"A little off to your left," the sprite answered, his knife held in one hand, a throwing ring in the other. "Kinda noisy. It don't smell too good either."
"What is it?"
"I dunno. I never smelt anything like it before..."
Randi edged closer to where Lady Purim was sleeping. It was beginning again. Another endless onslaught of enemies. And this time he had someone to watch out for. At least he had a partner.
"Come on out and play, you little crossbreeding piles of shit," Keith sang out cheerfully.
Randi rolled his eyes. He had to have a talk to Keith about where he picked on some of his vocabulary. Some of it just wasn't fit for conversation. And the sprite sounded a little too cheerful, all things considered.
A shuffling noise to his right made him spin on his heels to face the source. Before he even completed the turn, a low growling noise sounded off to his left.
"Die, you freak of nature!" Keith yelled. A flurry of activity sounded in the sprite's direction. Randi barely noticed. He was too busy dealing with his problem. His opponent had finally come out into the moonlight where Randi was able to see what it looked like. For a brief instant, he froze.
It was unlike anything he'd ever seen before. Half man, half wolf, and all of seven feet tall. At first, it looked like a giant man. Massive muscles bulged all over its body, looking as solid as rock. Coarse grey fur substituted for clothing and the head was that of a wolf. The mouth opened wide as the creature growled again. Randi gulped when he saw the long yellow teeth, dripping with saliva. What sort of monster was this?
A yelp sounded off to the side. "With my regards, you freak of nature!" Keith shouted triumphantly.
Just another monster, Randi decided. No match for him and his sword. The monster lunged towards him, no doubt aiming to rip his head off with one stroke. Randi slashed quickly, the Mana Sword cleaving through the outstretched arm and through the upper body of the monster.
Sighing in relief, Randi looked at the dead monster for a few seconds before he was interrupted. "You need to take more pride in your work, buddy!"
Keith pointed at the monster, he himself none the worse for the wear. "This is just a big mess. Now if you look at my dead monster..."
Randi wasn't sure that he wanted to, but he humored the sprite. "What about it?"
"Nothing messed up at all! Just a quick cut to the throat."
"Good for you. You must be very proud of yourself."
The sarcasm was completely lost on Keith. "Of course I am. Now make a fire! I'm starving!"
Randi shook his head to clear out a strange idea that had formed. "I don't have any food to cook, but you're welcome to some dried food."
"I'm not eating that fruit crap you've got on you! Sprites don't eat fruits and vegetables! Just meat."
"And where are you going to get meat..." Randi's voice trailed off as he saw the sprite already hard at work cutting into the monster. "Keith..." he protested in a weak voice, "you're not going to eat that are you?"
"Why not? These monsters are nutritious. Usually a little tough chewing, but the flavor is rich if you cook it right. Lots of dark meat. Care for some?"
"Uh... no thanks. Help yourself."
"You're such a picky eater."
By the time morning arrived, both Randi and Keith were fed up with their present situation, although for slightly different reasons.
"We'd better get moving. I'm not going to do this forever," Randi decided firmly.
"Those damn monsters!" Keith swore furiously. "How's a guy supposed to make a decent meal when they keep interrupting?"
"Shut up, Keith. You shouldn't be eating that kind of crap to begin with!"
"It's perfectly healthy," Keith insisted, approaching the form underneath Randi's traveling cloak. "Hey, Princess! Wake up or you're the next person I try to make a meal out of!"
The form stirred slightly.
"I said..." Keith took a deep breath, "...WAKE UP!!!" With a grunt, he ripped the traveler's cloak off the form and dragged it away.
"Ahhh!!!" Lady Purim literally jumped to her feet in shock.
"Time to wake up, your highness," Keith growled. "And aren't you looking lovely this morning?"
Her face turned bright red as she glanced downwards at her shredded blouse. She gulped and tried to cover herself with her arms.
"Quit that right now!" Randi ordered sharply.
"Admit it!" Keith accused, not the least bit ruffled. "You think she's a goddess! Even I think she looks pretty good and she's not even my species! Just try and tell me that she's doesn't have a nice set of-" Keith gagged as Randi's hand clamped around his throat while the other hand snatched the cloak from the sprite's hand.
"You pull that stunt ever again and you're going to be the next thing that gets cooked over the fire, got it?!" Without further ago, Randi tossed the sprite into a pool of mud.
"Um, sorry about this," he stammered, managing to avert his eyes as he handed the cloak back to Lady Purim. "It's... it's been a long night for the two of us. You see..."
Lady Purim's jaw dropped as she took in the campgrounds for the first time. There were dead monsters scattered across the entire clearing. Various portions of giant insects, butchered portions of giant vines, crushed rabbits and disemboweled man/wolf creatures greeted her eyes. It was almost impossible to find a clean patch of ground. In the middle of the carnage, a fire was burning, with several chunks of unidentifiable meat cooking overtop.
"Care for some wolf-man steak?" Keith inquired politely, wiping the mud off of himself.
"I... slept through this?" she asked incredulously, wrapping the cloak around herself.
"We tried to keep things quiet for you," Keith agreed innocently.
She shuddered. "I never ran into monsters the last time I went into the forest."
Randi scowled. "They're attracted to the Mana Sword. We'd better get moving. The sooner we get this job done with, the less fighting we have to do."
"We got smoked rabbit too," Keith persisted.
"Shut up," Randi ordered. "You and your disgusting meals!"
"I'm a growing sprite! I have to eat, you know!"
"You'd start growing if you actually ate real food!"
"You're just a wimp. You'd like it if you only tried it-"
"Shut up! We're leaving for the Haunted Forest. Now." The tone of his voice left no room for argument in either of the others.
Keith quickly hacked off a chunk from the cooking piece of meat and stuffed it in his mouth, then followed after Randi. Lady Purim quickly buttoned up the front of the cloak, then shouldered her quiver of arrows. The bow, she kept at the ready.
Weapons in hand, they advanced into the Haunted Forest.