Amates 20, 1277. Just past midnight. Town of Banye, aboard the Sheldrake, trying not to wake anyone up.
Sleep was a lost cause. I tossed and turned until I finally gave up and slipped out of the bunk. My mind just would not let go of the yesterday’s conversation.
I knew I shouldn’t worry. Everything we talked about, every idea, was just a guess. A ‘maybe’ of how we thought the Automatic Crystal could work, not how it did work. All the talk of it being used as some sort of weapon could be wrong. That could just be a product of the twisted little part of my mind that kept me from sleep.
So, if that was the way of it, why didn’t I feel any better?
I slipped on some clothes and stepped out of my bunk room. Worry drove me to pacing, and the tiny sleeping quarters aboard the Sheldrake weren’t big enough for that. They were the right size to hold a single, roll-up futon mattress, a small wooden footlocker for your gear, and not much else.
The windwagon was quiet while I walked silently across the dark common room to the gangplank to let myself outside. It was better to pace out there. If I had tried it in the Sheldrake’s common space, I might step on one of the windwagon’s Nightingale boards it used for security. Those would wake anyone up.
I grabbed my maecri along the way and was glad I did when I stepped off the gangplank onto the grass. The nights on Planus are always cold, no matter what time of the year. Fortunately, the tailor who made my maecri made sure they sewed my long coat from a sturdy cotton weave. That extra layer chased off the chill.
I turned to see Evi walking around the Sheldrake in my direction.
“No,” I said with a faint smile as I stuffed my hands into the maecri’s pockets. “Wish I could. Too many thoughts rolling around in my head.”
Evi put her hands in the pockets of her own centaur-sized maecri. After stamping a hoof against the ground in thought, she sighed.
“Makes sense. Lots to think about.” She replied wistfully. “Mikasi made some good points, but you have to know he was guessing like anyone else.”
I glanced at her, then looked down the main street of Banye. It was quiet. There was plenty of moonlight out, casting a healthy pale twilight over the town. It gave everything a peaceful look. Almost like a painting from one of those street artists in Ishnanor.
“I know.” The words hung in the air while I let out a slow sigh. “All that talk of a ‘weapon’ could just me overreacting.”
“You? Oh, no. I can’t see that. You’re so calm and even-keeled.”
That made me laugh, which got Evi started.
“Thanks, Evi. I needed that.”
“Don’t mention it. Anyone can get lost in their own head.” The centaur shrugged, then swatted the air with her tail. “Anyway, we now know a sight more about the Automatic Crystal than we did before we got here. Probably the best we’re going to know. Now? Well, now we go get the hells-damned thing.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
A shriek broke the night. It was a familiar, high-pitched voice coming from down the street. This was accompanied a moment later when a certain halfling we knew burst out from between two buildings. He raced in our direction, tool-encrusted surcoat flapping along behind him.
“Help! They’re gonna take me!”
Four more figures, men cast in shadow, raced out after him. They may have been stalking him, but now it was more like a wolf pack running down its prey. One of the hunters stood out, despite being smeared in lampblack and dark clothes. He was a large human man, thick at the shoulder, with an unruly crop of red hair.
It was Red. The brute from the Crimson Company we fought behind the Salty Nightingale in Ishnanor. This time, it looked like he brought more friends.
“Mikasi!” I ran toward him.
“Tela! Hop on!” Evi called to me before she called out over her shoulder. “Tyre! Ki! Trouble!”
I didn’t waste a second. Once I was on her back, Evi galloped toward the halfling inventor. Red and his pack of thugs picked up the pace.
The silvery-gray moonlight gave me a pretty good view of the four Crimson Company mercenaries. They were all armed with at least a dagger, but two brandished wooden batons.
Me? All I had was a lot of anger. My weapons were back aboard the Sheldrake. Evi, from what I could see, only had a pair of daggers on her belt. But the centaur also had hooves and a long history as a street fighter.
I started to miss that fireplace shovel and wooden plate from the Salty Nightingale at that moment.
“Down the middle!” I said, and pointed at the mercenaries.
“Gladly,” Evi replied. With a feral grin, she galloped around Mikasi and right at the Crimson mercenaries.
They were determined, though. The mercenaries held their course and tried to dodge around Evi to get at Mikasi. But a centaur galloping right at you? That isn’t something to take lightly. At the last moment, the lot of them lost their nerve and dove to either side, cursing and yelling. Evi barked out a deep laugh.
We circled to a stop a few paces away from the bunch. I slid off Evi’s back and hit the ground, running toward the nearest would-be kidnapper. He was a thin, wiry man about my build with dusky skin like mine and no hair. Like the others, he was scrambling to his feet. Sad for him, he only made it partway.
I planted a sharp kick in the man’s midsection that robbed him of his air. He collapsed to the ground, gasping, curled into a ball. There wasn’t time for anything else, and I’m not one to kick anyone while their down, so I moved on to the next brute.
It was Red.
“Hells and High Water,” I swore.
“I remember you,” he snarled and flexed his fists. “I owe you a beating.”
In a fight, I’m not much of a talker. This wasn’t any exception. I raced in low as Red charged at me like a mad buffalo. He swung one of those massive fists at my head, but I ducked under it and sidestepped to his right. On the way past, I slapped his elbow hard for good measure.
Red hissed when he felt the sudden, sharp strain of his elbow bent the wrong way for a second. But he recovered quick. He shook his hand once, then sliced that same fist down to backhand me. I danced away before I replied with a sharp kick against his right leg. It was the same leg I slapped a few days ago with the iron fireplace shovel.
I’m not sure how much of that really hurt, but he reacted. That kick pulled a yell and two curses out of Red while he stumbled back. There was pure murder in his eyes. I glared daggers back.
Red was taller than me, square build, with a better reach, and a good bit stronger. Me? I had no weapons, was quicker, wasn’t as out of breath, and had a belly full of hot anger. It might have been the anger, but the way I saw it, I liked my odds.
Behind Red, I saw Tyre and Ki sprinting in our direction. Ki raced toward Evi, holding out a short staff. Meanwhile, Tyre collected Mikasi to get him out of the street. That took a lot of worry off my mind.
I didn’t know, and hadn’t ever asked, if Banye had a justicar or anyone that kept the peace. But by now, what with the all the shouting, one ought to be running our way soon. At least, I hoped they would come running soon.
Just then, Red moved in at me faster than I thought he could. I sidestepped, batted one fist away, then another, but missed the third. I should have kept moving. That was a costly mistake.
His uppercut knocked the wind out of me. I doubled over and hit the ground hard. Red lunged for me with both hands, but I rolled away, gulping in air.
I didn’t have any time to recover, as Red immediately lunged at me again. With a hoarse wheeze, I rolled aside once more but hammered the heel of one boot against that same spot on Red’s right leg. This time, I knew he felt that.
Red howled like a prairie banshee. But I was too close, so he managed to backhand me for my trouble when I got partway to my feet. That tossed me aside into the dirt. My cheekbone stung. I grimaced and shook my head before I hauled myself up to one knee.
Then a miracle called Ki appeared as my whip landed on the ground between myself and Red.
“Happy Lifeday!” he quipped, before he charged another of the Crimson Company with that new walking stick of his.
Red and I glanced at the whip, then at each other. For a second we froze, gasping in air. We dove for it. Red was a second too slow.
I grabbed the whip, and sidestepped to my right. Red landed hard where the whip had been and got a face full of dirt. Quick as a blink, I lashed out and cracked the whip over the big man’s head. Red flinched, swearing a string of curses I didn’t quite catch, then crab-crawled backwards.
He climbed to his feet in time to face a drawn crossbow aimed at his nose.
I didn’t know the person on the other side of that crossbow. He was a thin, older human man, dressed in the Banye clothing style. Neatly trimmed, steel-gray hair, stern look, and ice-blue eyes that glittered in the evening light screamed he didn’t tolerate foolishness.
The most important part? The man was wearing a round Justicar’s Amulet with its typical image of a griffin holding a hammer.
“I think you’re done with the fighting for tonight,” the justicar said to Red in a drawn out, gravelly, low voice. “People were trying to sleep and I normally like it real quiet around here.”
Red froze, eyes on the crossbow. Slowly, he put up his hands in a sign of surrender.
The shout was from Tyre, and it wasn’t happy.
I bolted away from the justicar and Red, looking for Tyre. He was over near the Buckhorn Boardinghouse, running around the side of the building. Behind me, I heard the justicar shout something that sounded like ‘miss’ or ‘wait’. There wasn’t time for pleasantries, so I would have to apologize later.
Tyre and I reached the back of the Buckhorn about the same time, and I saw what had him so upset. Another quartet of men, Crimson Company mercenaries, by the cut and style of their jerkins, were riding off at full gallop into the night. One had Mikasi, the halfling hastily bound and gagged, thrown over the saddle of his horse.
“Evi! Ki! They got Mikasi!” I shouted and raced for the nearest horse or buffalo, or anything I could ride to give chase.
They had a head start. I just hoped I could catch them before the night swallowed them whole.