• H.C. Mills

Chapter 44: All around me are familiar faces

<Hello, Emma. To what do I owe this honour?> a gravelly, slightly sarcastic voice intones in my head.

Yes, it’s him! Man, this kid sounds like he’s been smoking for ages. Which is weird, ‘cause he looked about the same age as Alec, last time I saw him.

“Hello Jacob,” I say out loud, giving Alec and Dave a thumbs-up. “Yeah, before I get to that, I’d like to ask you some questions.”

<Asking is free.>

Yeesh. Lighten up, kid.

“Right. Now, did I understand correctly that you fell out with the Brucey Bunch?”

Heh. Kaitlynn would have loved that one...

<Are you calling to gloat or something?> he hisses back harshly. <Because if so, f—>

“Woah! Ease up there, Jacobus. I’m just asking, promise. Anyway, I’ll take that as a yes, which brings me to my next question. Are you still looking to join a new group?”

Come on come on pleeaase!

<Maybe. Why, you offering?> he asks half-sarcastically.

Jackpot. “Yes, actually. Just so happens we have a spot,” I say sweetly.

It’s quiet for a bit. Was it something I said?

“Are you still there?”

<Yeah. I am. What’s the catch?>

Pff. Trust issues much? Though he’s not wrong.

“Here’s the thing. Bruce kidnapped our friend. We need your help to get her back safely. Do that, and we will help you reach level 2—like we already have, bee-tee-dubs—and bring you along to Trial 4.”

That ought to do the trick. Yet, another short silence follows.

<And how do I know you’ll keep that promise?>

“You don’t,” I say bluntly. “But I’m guessing it’s your only viable ticket out of here, so I suggest you take my word for it.”

<Hmph. Twist my nuts, why don’t you? Fine. I’m in. I’m not saying I trust you, but... if you’re really planning to move against Bruce, I’m there.>

Oh man, he sounds pissed... I wonder what happened between them?

“Sweet. Come to my location on the map; we’ll hash out a plan together.”

<All right, I’m on my way.>

“Suri, end call.”

[Call ended.]

I turn to them with a sigh.

“Do you think we can trust him?” Dave asks worriedly.

I shrug. “He sounded pretty genuine. Either we can, or he’s an excellent actor. Anyway, we’ve rolled the dice, now we’ll just have to see how they land.”

Please don’t turn out to be a rattle-snake, Jake.

“So, are you guys covered in like, warpaint?” is the first thing Jacob says after introductions are over.

“Nope,” I answer. “Our looks are extremely natural. You might even call them... supernatural.”

“... If this is the level of jokes in your party, I might have to reconsider.”

Ugh. Everyone’s a critic.

“All right wise guy, take a look at this for me, will you? Suri, show him my map with Kaitlynn’s location please.”

Jacob raises an eyebrow, and studies it impassively. “So?”

“Well, are you familiar with that area?”

“Oh, right. Yeah, that’s Bruce’s hideout; I know everything about it.”

I grin. Jacob actually seems a little intimidated. “Perfect. Dave, time?”

“About three and a half hours left.”

“Then let’s start planning. First, tell us all about the location, and the abilities of Bruce and the Bunch.”

Jacob nods, “All right, I’ll start with the location...”

Hidden between a couple of large leaves one tree over, I let out a low whistle. Damnit. Their hideout is every bit as cool as Jacob described.

It’s one of the enormous trees of Hub Two, but this one’s dead, and seems to have snapped off halfway a long time ago. The upper half of the trunk toppled and fell, and is now half-sunk into the forest floor.

The lower half remained standing. About halfway up, there is a hollow in the trunk, right above one of the few remaining branches. And on that branch, guarding the entrance of Bruce’s hidey-hole, stands Sherlock, wielding a club.

But he’s only second on our hit list, because at the top stands that little Weasel that threw his shoes. Whose actual name is apparently ‘Wesley’. Heh.

Anyway, he’s on the top of my list not just because I don’t like him, but because he’s on top of the tree. Apparently, he takes most of the lookout duties, because he’s a huge suck-up and likes to chuck rocks at people from high places. Looks like he upgraded from throwing his shoes, at least. He even made a slingshot to shoot jicca nuts and small rocks with.

As expected, he’s currently on duty. Which suits our purposes just fine.

Less suitable is the fact that they’re covered in rudimentary armour; thin pieces of bark, strapped to their clothing with vines. No helmets at least, though.

So far, I’ve managed to stave off most of my worry by keeping busy, focusing on what to do next. Now that we’re this close, however, it’s hard to ignore how my stomach is completely tied up in knots. If those bastards harmed even one hair on her body... Well, it wouldn’t change much, actually.

Because we didn’t come here to play nice.

I carefully sneak back around the trunk, and look at my rag-tag team.

“All right, this is it,” I whisper. “Death or Kaitlynn. Everybody move to your positions.”

“Hey Bruce,” Jacob yells angrily, as he comes bursting through the underbrush on the ground. “Guess what? I’ve been talking to the council, and I’ve decided I want my pearl back!”

Seems like he has to put in quite a bit of effort, to project his voice far enough that it reaches half-way up the trunk. Like I’d suspected for a while now, it really does seem like sound doesn’t carry as far in this dimension as we’re used to.

However, that too, suits our purposes nicely.

I can’t see everything that’s going on from my position behind their hideout—opposite the side where the entrance is, but at about the same height. From here, Alec and I have a clear path via connecting branches to reach said hideout.

But first up is Dave. Back when they were hunting, Dave mainly made spears, but he once also fashioned a kind of club by cutting a semicircle out of the side of a short stick and gluing in a rock. Now he’s going to put it to good use.

<Looks like they’re taking the bait,> Dave’s hushed voice comments in my head, causing me to involuntarily glance at his position, higher up in a tree to our left. <Bruce and one other just came around the bend, circling their way down. Wesley—I mean, ‘the Weasel’, is full on gawking at Jacob, and seems to—yup, he’s readying his slingshot.>

I sneak another peak at the trunk, and indeed see Bruce and a lanky guy called Boris, who I hadn’t previously given a nickname, make their way down.

That’s bad news for Jacob, but good news for us; though he doesn’t look it, Boris is actually the second most dangerous individual in their group according to Jacob. His strength should be around 11, but he learnt Boost Physical after the Third Trial.

Bruce’s strength is 14, by the way. And he has a medium grade Yang-Qi skill. So yeah, that’s gonna be tough.

“Roger that,” I whisper. “Make your approach the second Meathead and Boris reach the bottom. As long as the Weasel is still sufficiently distracted, of course.”

<What if he’s not?>

“He’d better be. Otherwise you await orders.”

A tense minute passes as the two tough guys make their way down.

<He hasn’t glanced this way even once; too busy taking pot shots at Jacob. I’m going in.>

And Dave takes off, sneaking over one of the few connecting branches at Wesley’s rear.

The first bit is crucial, because he’s in full view from the top of the dead tree. About halfway, Dave swiftly moves to the edge of his branch, and grabs onto an offshoot.

I hold my breath as he hangs from it for a split second, before releasing and dropping 15 feet down onto a limb coming from the dead tree.

He sticks the landing and I breathe a sigh of relief.

This should put him out of Wesley’s potential field of vision. Unless the little creep walks back over to the rear to peek over the edge.

Thankfully, Dave makes it to the trunk without anything happening. Good boy. That means it’s almost my and Alec’s turn. Man, I’m getting nervous.

Meanwhile, Bruce has walked up to Jacob. I can’t hear them from here, but Jacob seems to be really giving it his all. He makes big, angry gestures, and even pokes Bruce in the chest. The beefstick takes it impassively, for now.

Jeesh kid, don’t go getting yourself killed...

From Dave’s end of the line, I suddenly hear a sickening crunch, followed by a dull thud.

<I... He’s down.>

“Good job,” I force myself to say steadily. “Are we clear to head out?”

<Let me see. Yes; Sherlock is still guarding the entrance, Boris and Bruce seem to be, ehm, manhandling Jacob. That means the last guy is probably still inside with Kaitlynn.>

Frig. That’s the guy who talked his way in, replacing Jacob. Some asshole named Luke, apparently. Well, it changes nothing; we just have to get Kaitlynn and get out. I want to avoid a full-blown fight, if at all possible. Though Jacob really hopes to retrieve his Yang Pearl and Lavi Crystal as well, of course...

“All right, then we’re moving. Let me know if anything changes, and get ready to chuck stuff down to slow their ascent.”

<Roger that. Thankfully, Weasel stored plenty of ammunition up here. There’s rocks, sticks, unexploded jicca cones... that guy had problems.>

‘Had?’ My throat’s suddenly rather dry.

“All right then; I’m hanging up for now so I can focus. Call me only if it’s urgent. Suri, end call.”

[Call ended.]

I swallow thickly and gesture at Alec to follow my lead, before I burst from cover and lightly jog down a thick branch. Our branches connect a lot better than Dave’s did, and all it takes to cross over is a 5 feet leap to the right, which I take effortlessly.

As the second most Agile person in our little troupe, Alec follows without any trouble.

We’re both wielding spears, which actually only help us keep balance, though Alec is keeping the pointy end far away from him. Can’t say I blame him, since we coated the blades in Moonshade sap.

Like I said, we didn’t come here to play nice.

We reach the trunk, climb up a few twines, and sneak around the trunk. As planned, I end up next to the entrance, and Alec above it.

Unfortunately, this is where our lucky streak ends. Sherlock must’ve heard my armour scrape against the bark or something, because he turns around.

He spots me. His eyes go wide. “BRUCE, SHE’S HERE!” he suddenly thunders.

Shit. This is a low-grade Yang-Qi Vibration Energy skill Jacob warned us he had: ‘Amplify’.

The sound cuts through me like a knife, the pain in my ears and the rattling of my bones making me cringe involuntarily

Unfortunately, Alec also cringes—in mid-jump—causing him to slightly deviate the position of his spear as he sails down towards the guard.

The spear misses, embedding itself into the branch just in front of the shocked guard, who jumps back.

I waste no more time, leaving the guard to Alec as I dash inside.

But it’s too little too late. Inside, I find Kaitlynn, propped up on a makeshift chair and unconscious. Behind her stands a familiar figure, holding a blade of knivegrass to her throat.

It’s friggin’ Lego-ass.

Author's note:

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©2018 by H.C. Mills