Category Archives: The Noise

No Swords Required (Story 2)

“Yeah, pretty dead.” Tath kicked the body lying on the patchy grass. A knife and arrow protruded out of his head. “It’s not like I’m good at missing.”

Agra balanced a couple of shurikens on the tips of index fingers. He slowly started to move his arms around in a circular motion. As he increased the speed of the activity, his glasses slid down to the tip of his nose.

“You hear me?” Tath called out. “He’s dead, and he’s mine. The arrow goes in deeper.” To prove her point, she yanked it out of the corpse’s head and indicated at the blood on the shaft. “Definitely one for my column.”

Two shurikens whistled past her ears and thudded into a tree.

“That’s ridiculous,” Agra said as he walked towards her. He kept his gaze steady and—despite the setting sun—managed not to squint because of his cap. It was black with a blue whip embroidered on the front of it. “Mine definitely hit first.”

Tath flexed her muscular, dark-skinned arms and let out a low whistle. “Is that what all you boys say? ‘At least I got there first?’”

She didn’t say anything until Agra’s tall, wiry frame was next to hers. Then she added—while looking into his blue eyes, “Not a kill shot.”

“Thirty-five metres, that’s how far he was,” he said. “I didn’t chance it. That’s a poisoned knife.” He gestured towards the body. “Go on, pick it up or the kill goes in my column.”

She sighed. “Thirty-five? Really? More like twenty, and a bit. Look the shadows. The angle of the sun. I’ll give you it was around a tree, but mine went through them.” Tath pointed to the straight line of holes her arrow had made in the trees behind them. “Right into the cranium. I don’t need to pick up your cheap-ass knife. If he was dead, my arrow would’ve missed.”

A woman with mousy blonde hair stepped into the clearing. Her slight arms pulled two corpses behind her while the setting sun made her green eyes sparkle.

“Hey Mea,” Agra called out. “You saw it. I hit first. He staggered from the poison and, ‘bam’, went down.”

Tath rubbed her neck. “Staggered? Drunken kung-fu style into my arrow?” She shook her head. “I admit it was a good throw, but he’s for my fucking column. Put it down Mea, Tath, one. Ag, zero.”

She mouthed, “Yeah, mother fucker,” to Agra.

He replied by giving her the finger.

“How about one for both?” Mea asked. Her voice was deep, but soft.

“No,” Tath said. “He shoots blanks. Come on, we know this. Height don’t mean nothing.“ She tried to shove Agra out of the way but he stepped neatly away and she stumbled. “Fuck.”

“Just give them both a kill.” A man appeared from thin air. No one would’ve called him tall, but he was a centimeter taller than Tath, and five more than Mea. It was his full beard and torn jeans that gave him presence. Made him appear more in command of himself than his wavy brown hair suggested. “They won’t help set up camp otherwise.”

Tath had already stormed across the clearing. She poked the newcomer in the chest. “Look, Steh, you give one to him,” she jerked her thumb at Agra, “I ain’t helping. I’m going to sit on my ass and play with my fingers. Twiddle, twiddle, up a tree.”

Steh shrugged. He took a deep breath and conjured five metal cards. They started spinning in the air until a black portal opened and two bags dropped out. Both were large, green and made from canvas. He stroked his beard, grabbed the portal and shook it. A third one appeared, this time it was burlap and tied tight with a glowing cord.

The sound of the bag hinting the ground complimented Agra’s grunts as he pulled his shurikens out of the trees they were lodged in.

“Don’t help, don’t eat,” Steh said. “It’s not like we’re running a charity,”

“I got the target,” Tath said.

Steh blew on his hands and the cards disappeared. “I’m sure none of us could have managed that without you Tath. You’re our hero.”

“Yeah, well…fuck.” She kicked the ground. Her black leather boot gained another scuffmark. “I’ll cook. No one here can tell the difference between—”

“—Rosemary and apples,” Mea finished.

Tath glared.

“We’re all sorted then.” Steh tried to smile at both of them, but his beard made it look like a living organism was invading his mouth. Both women shuddered.

“Ag can get the meat,” he added quickly. “It’s what he does.”

#

The light brick was the size of a large hardcover book, but weighed fifteen kilograms. It made enough heat to sizzle meat, keep them warm, and boil water. It also provided the group with sufficient light to work in the grass clearing as if the sun hadn’t gone down.

If Steh hadn’t had tinkered with it though, they’d all have been dead by now. Blown up by one of the many faulty products Ai Corp produced. The director of the company would’ve quit, again, and then been rehired for her outstanding service. A large press conference would’ve been held and they would’ve talked about those ‘small town people’ as if they had a mental disorder.

Except he had tinkered, like he did with everything they picked up along the way. Including their most recent acquisition: the dead man’s pocket watch.

“Can’t believe they still have these,” Steh mumbled to himself. “Thought they were extinct.”

“…there I was with this ass, man,” Tath said to the other two. “Just staring at me. It was a really good ass. Hard, like you punch it and it doesn’t go red.”

Agra glanced over at her, and wiped the meat stains from the corner of his mouth. “That good?”

“You don’t get to have one of those every day. Just lying there. And he turns over, and…it’s like…that tiny screwdriver Steh carries. Fully up.”

Mea was sitting on a log they’d moved over. A tattered book was in her hands, mostly read. “Was it worth it?” she asked.

“I tried everything,” Tath continued. “We did it up, down, hanging from the ceiling. I did my rope trick—”

“—The one where you both hang from ropes and make love in the air?” Agra interjected.

“Yeah, that one. Every time. Every time I’ve fucked a guy with that…mind blown.” She raised her eyebrows.

“Nothing?”

“He comes away all smiles and I’m left with popsicles.” Tath paused and picked up her plate. After stuffing a fried potato in her mouth, she continued. “How can you have such an amazing ass and not…be good? Right? Right?

Mea caught Tath’s gaze and turned a page. “Quick sex isn’t for me. Men are too easily breakable.”

Agra stood up, walked over to the light brick and pushed the rest of his plate’s contents towards it. All the scraps blackened and turned to ash. “At least you weren’t trapped in that wheel for ten days. She kept preaching on and on about how the aliens were only coming for the unprobed.”

“How many times do we have to save you from your dates?” Tath asked as she slid up behind him. Reaching around his body, she emptied her plate onto the brick. “Sometimes everything you need’s right here.”

He turned, his deep blue eyes staring into her browns. Their skin colours interweaved: black, white, black, white, black.

“But you snore like a fat man with a breathing problem,” he said. “I’d turn into an insomniac who killed people for fun.”

“Don’t you do that now?” Mea commented, her eyes fixed on the page in front of her.

“Yeah, but for real.” His gaze drifted down Tath’s body. Past her large breasts, over her tight abs and down towards her thick baggy pants she always wore. “You know my condition,” he concluded.

“Fuck,” Tath fluffed her hair and walked away. “I’m not looking for a boyfriend, y’know? I just want sex. And I’m out in these woods with you forever.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky this time,” he commented as he sat down. “Never know what’s in Ristie’s crazy bag.”

“Hey Steh,” Tath called out. “Distract us. Ag’s talking about the bag.”

As if on cue, he held up his latest invention. “It was a pocket watch, now it’s a pocket watch and a kinetic exploder.”

“Oh?” Mea asked, her eyes finally drifting up from the novel. “You figured that out?”

Steh’s face went red. “It’s not all there. It’s…it absorbs energy until the hands spin off. I’m still working on the explosion part.”

“Well, you’ll figure it out. She always sends us to far away towns, we’ll have plenty of travel hours to kill.”

“So it is bag time?” Steh asked as he put the pocket watch on the ground. “Well…shit.”

“Mea,” Tath said in a sing-song voice. “Meeeaaaa. Guess whose turn it is?”

“I know.” She snapped her book shut, stood up and walked over to the burlap sack. When she touched the cord, it turned green then red and finally yellow. It floated to the ground without aid.

The bag spoke, like it always did, in a deep and pompous voice. “Good, good. You took even longer to complete this task than your normal glacial pace. Impressive. Still, as I often say to my little sacks, a dead man is a good man.” It laughed at its own joke. “Well, Meagh, what will you seek today? Fortune, fame? Bronze statues with helmets?”

“Death,” she whispered. “I only seek death.”

“As one must! Now thrust you hand in, don’t tickle me too much, and I guarantee you will find some such!”

Her olive-skinned hand slid down into the bag and rummaged around. She picked up and discarded four different scrolls before settling on one that seemed almost friendly to her. Almost.

“Ho ho,” the bag said as she withdrew it. “That’s a good one. Keep you plenty busy.”

The bag’s cord flew up and tied itself around the sack’s neck.

Plenty busy,” Tath remarked. “Where? Hokkaido? New Zealand? Goddamn Australia?”

“You should have a ‘neo’ in front of those,” Agra advised. “Remember?”

“Sendai,” Mea said before anyone else could comment. “It’s one of mine. We’re going to Neo-Sendai.”

#

Sendai used to be a good town. It was the right kind for growing families: large enough to have everyone’s favourite stores and all the brand shops, yet small enough to have a community. It had a baseball team once, a bullet train that could take you north or south through Japan and friendly people who spoke reasonable English. Then came the Chinese-American war, then came the earthquake Piroarago.

Now it was crumbling high-rises, broken tracks and miles and miles of one-to-two floor apartments. Concrete rubble lay on the ground and even though there was still a government, shops had been assigned locations to stop militant raids. The idea had come from a simple theory: thieves are lazy. If they had to travel a reasonable distance from one location to another, they simply wouldn’t. Local economy saved.

Correct or not, it had worked—most of the time.

“Would you like a kimono?” an over-weight store clerk asked Tath. His glasses and blue eyes made him appear quick-witted, aware; his crinkled face took all that away. Rather, the only interesting thing about was his white-skin. A sign the times were changing.

No,” she snapped. “Wandering adventurer here. What would I do with a kimono in the woods? Use it to jack off rake man over there?” She jerked a thumb at Agra.

“It is very smooth.” The store clerk pressed some of the material into her hands. “The finest silk from the Chinese mainland. Maybe this will finally let you satisfy him?”

What did you say to me?” She grabbed the clerk by his collar and shoved him against the wall. Several bowls and chopsticks crashed to the floor. “You saying I ain’t good with men? I’m Tath. I’m a legend down south. Men queue up to get me.”

She felt a hand on her shoulder.

“Come on,” Agra said. “He’s got a lot of good stuff. And the kimono would look good on you.”

The comment seemed to catch her off guard and made her blush, just a little. She relaxed her grip.

“If we weren’t heroes,” Agra continued, “maybe you’d have time for it.”

“Fucking patriarchy,” she said as she yanked the store clerk’s shirt back into position. “You read up on that for me. You get self-aware, alright?”

“Yes,” the clerk commented as he bustled back to the counter. “Patriarchy. Definitely.”

When they got to the meeting point, at the edge of the city, Steh was already there. Like always. He tossed both of them an apple.

“Guess who I met?” he asked.

“Hunnam, the writer with abs?” Tath asked.

“I remember him more for his treatise on the income inequality of abnormal species. But close, someone interested in the forbidden arts.”

“Someone interested in reading?” Agra said before taking off his glasses and cleaning them on his black t-shirt. “No one’s that—” He paused. “Linda.

“Yes, Linda,” Steh confirmed. “She looked good. Still has different coloured eyes though.”

“Linda is here, and you’re worried about her eyes?” Tath asked, her voice rising an octave. “We’re on a mission looking for a book. That’s all she does.

“Absolutely,” Steh took a bite of his apple. “Pretty convenient, isn’t it? She could be anywhere in the world, and she’s here. In the same city. Asking about the same book.” He swallowed. “And there’s a band of roving thugs the city would pay a million yen for each.”

“There’s always a roving band of thugs,” she replied. “There’s always a reward. You keep going on about them, like we fucking care.”

Steh sighed. “Well, I care. We kill enough people. I think we should get rich doing it. My hobby’s expensive.”

“So Mea’s. Hey,” Tath paused and looked around. “Where is she?”

#

Mea was only interested in one thing: books. Or more specifically, a series of books: Arry Motter and The Legendary Tales of His Wang. She’d already purchased, cajoled, murdered and lied to get five out of the seven, and—according to the mission orders—they were about to find another in a cave outside of Sendai. Which made it especially important for her to finish re-reading the last one she had of the series.

That was why she was sitting on one of the benches surrounding the only working fountain in the city. It was not because of the heat, although her top was sleeveless and low-cut, or that she wanted to be with people. It was the only place with benches, and she believed—firmly—that books should be read while sitting on something. Not on the ground.

Unfortunately, for her, it was also a place with people. Lots of people. And where there were lots of people, there was always that man. The guy who thought he should just say hello and sit next to her for a conversation. This time his name was Dey. He had black hair, a chiselled jaw and smelled of flowers. His shirt was also unbuttoned and showed a hairless and rock-hard chest.

“…favourite from that series is Nor. He reminds me of everyone I know. Tries hard, but never gets anywhere.”

Mea attempted to be polite. “You’ve read it?”

“Of course. First girleo I showed ‘the magic to made me.” He adjusted his position on the bench by edging closer to Mea. “I know they say reading’s forbidden, but they didn’t talk about writing.” He let out a puff of air. “Y’know, I’m quite famous in these parts. I’ve penned a few tomes. Mostly works of art. Pretty much defined a genre.”

Mea cleared her throat, gently closed her book and placed it on her lap. She scratched her forehead and sighed.

Dey didn’t seem to notice and continued, “Arry Motter isn’t that good. It probably shouldn’t have even been printed. Lapses in character. Set in London. What’s all that? Why localize? It’s not like it’s important. True fans know what I’m saying. It’s the fangirls that keep it popular. Not the real readers.”

She turned. “Are you criticizing my favourite series?”

“Constructively.” He held up his hands as if defending against invisible punches. “Hoooliiiie, you’re sensitive. Fake nerd girl alert! Gawd, didn’t take you for the type.” He paused and then pointed at her. “You know what you need? A little bit of love. Love from a mind that is truly…enlightened.”

“So you just thought you’d come over and let me know I was enjoying a terrible novel?”

“To enlighten you. All the mothers of Cthulhu combined. You wouldn’t read that shit if you knew what good stories were.”

Her eyes flashed yellow. “I am getting angry, Dey. I would appreciate it if you walked away and annoyed some other woman.”

He slid his arm around her. “Ain’t going nowhere. I’ve got some fiction you need to read.”

Mea punched him right in the jaw. It shattered. He flew sixty metres and crashed into a wall. His skull cracked open and he died twenty seconds later. She didn’t wait that long to start running. She just ran and hoped nobody had noticed. Everyone had.

#

When the three of them saw Mea sprinting towards them they guessed what had happened and did likewise. They ran until they were out of breath then jogged towards the cave’s location until the only sounds they could hear were from the forest. They didn’t stop even when they knew they were safe, they just slowed to a walk and kept trudging on in silence. It was well past midday by the time they reached their destination. And, if they were lucky, the next book in the series.

Unfortunately, they could make out a pillar of smoke coming from the direction of the cave. A tall, wide pillar of Old Testament proportions.

“Just a group of bandits,” Tath remarked. “Nothing we haven’t handled before.”

Steh didn’t appear so convinced. “That’s a huge amount of smoke for seven bandits. Plus, they have the caves.”

“OK, worry-balls, send your little things out.” She waved dismissively in the air and then mumbled, “Takes us longer. Stupid books.”

He pulled out two of his metal cards: They were green and had tiny lenses in them. Whatever the lenses looked at showed up on the card’s surface.

“Turn invisible,” Steh commanded. They did. “Scout the caves ahead,” he told them. They flew off.

“I guess it’s good to get a layout,” Tath huffed. “Still think we can take them. Stupid Sendai. Can’t go back there now.”

“He insulted Arry,” Mea offered as an excuse. “And men—”

“—Break too easily,” Agra finished. “We know. We just wish you wouldn’t break so many.”

“Maybe I wouldn’t if there weren’t so many bad ones,” she mumbled.

The scouts came back thirty minutes later, and the video they’d recorded contained nothing the group wanted to see. Not a single frame.

“Twenty-five?” Agra asked. “Count them again.”

“We have,” Tath snapped. “There’s twenty-five.” She punched the tree nearest her. “Fuck!” Her knuckles bled. Yanking the bow off her back, she slashed the air frantically. “FUCK!”

“If Linda touches the book before we do, we’re done for,” Mea added. “And she’s coming. She’ll just get more resources than us and flush them out.”

“We knew it had to happen one day,” Steh said as he pulled at his beard. “Let’s just make a plan so we can go out in style.”

#

Tath sat away from the light brick polishing her bow. She liked its curves, the way the runes had been inserted and how Steh’s magic made it glow or not glow on her command. Books had taught her how to make the weapon. How to make the fire arrows in her quiver, the rope ones using portal magic and how to accurately do a triple shot. She’d learned everything from them. Everything except how to break the curse.

She felt Agra slide down beside her. His eyes were staring into the darkness and had gone deep like an ocean. The same way they always did when he was worried.

“We’re not going to make it tomorrow,” he started.

“I know,” she replied.

“They’ve got juggers. I never thought…I know magic’s powerful, but to inject it into someone like that? I thought they were a myth.”

“I’ve killed one before. Had to cut his dick off.” She tried to smile at him, but they ended up chuckling instead. “Really,” Tath persisted. “That’s the best way. Cut it off. Then finish him.”

“It’s a good plan we made,” Agra said before going quiet and staring into the distance once more. Animals rustled in the darkness.

“You get this, don’t you?” he asked her.

Tath tilted her head questioningly.

“Combat,” he explained. “We would never have made it this far without you. And, I know I give you shit, but you’re my friend.”

“We can be sex friends.”

“I don’t know how that works. I get so…serious.”

They paused, and listened to the sounds of Steh tinkering and Mea turning pages.

“Do you regret that day?” she asked. “The one we snuck in there?”

“Into Ristie’s castle?” He laughed and ruffled her hair. “Never. She’s got to get bored with us soon. We can’t be that interesting.”

“Or we’ll die tomorrow and some other sap will get cursed.”

“Yeah.” He stood up. “That’s more likely.”

Tath started polishing her bow again, but then Agra’s footsteps stopped.

“That was your kill,” he said. “There wasn’t any poison. I guess I’m the lowest in the group rankings now.”

She smiled and whispered, “Bastard,” as he soon as he was out of earshot.

#

Mea looked around the clearing. The bandits had done a good job of securing the place: they’d cut all the trees down within a fifty-metre radius of the cave entrance, had a large fire burning so people couldn’t sneak up during the night and kept archers posted behind metal barricades just inside of the entrance. It was hard dirt too, difficult for tunnel machines to get through and the men kept their distance from each other. Most seemed alert, well-trained.

They were ready for everything.

Except me, she thought to herself as her concentration flowed down towards her legs. Then she jumped, flew sixty metres into the air and hit the ground to the right of the fire. The dirt cracked and the three soldiers she’d landed in the middle of inhaled sharply. Mea could smell the leather of their scabbards and hear them fumbling with their swords.

Too slow, she thought. You’re all too slow. 

#

Steh teleported directly above the two guards to the left of the fire. They had their weapons ready to battle a monster, but not a magician. He threw a card at each of them. They screamed as the metal rectangles sunk into their throats and the devices exploded. A shower of blood rained down on him along with some brain and possibly nervous system.

He dashed behind the fire as he heard the enemy archer located behind him hit the ground, he assumed dead.

If you’ve missed Tath, I’ll kill you, he thought.

A non-friendly arrow flew over his head. He waited and hoped. There were no more sounds to the rear of him, but there were some screams to the right. He heard bones shatter as a soldier smacked into the mountain’s side.

“How are we?” Tath asked as she slid next to him. Another arrow whistled through the flames above.

“Waiting,” Steh replied.

“For Mea?”

“Aren’t we always?”

#

Mea picked up the last swordsman by his hair, and then slammed his face into the dirt. It transformed into a pool of blood beneath her hand.

Taking a deep breath, she checked the area. Agra was in position to the left of the cave’s entrance; Tath and Steh were hiding behind the fire. She was clearly late, again.

Breathing in, she focused her energy into her legs and jumped once more.

#

Agra waited until Mea landed in the centre of the cave’s entrance and he heard her roar. Then he sneaked a quick look around the corner—an enemy archer was standing up behind a metal barricade and ready to fire. He flicked a knife down from one of his holders, peeked again and threw. The guard screamed in a good way: the I’m-going-die-soon way.

He took three quick breaths and whistled. It didn’t take long before he heard it. No one couldn’t have: Tath’s boommaker. It travelled at the speed of sound and the noise it made punched into your eardrums like fireworks.

He thanked Steh for their ear protector’s that cut out certain frequencies, and he thanked—whatever deity there was in the sky—that they’d given Steh his inventive mind. A second later, he popped his head around the corner and threw a knife at an archer who was rocking back and forwards holding her ears.

And then he saw the jugger. He was big. Probably three metres wide and three tall. He was also running straight towards the entrance. Agra let out an owl call.

#

Steh summoned four of his cards, teleported in front of the cave’s entrance and shot them straight at the monster. They didn’t work. They hit an invisible wall and deflected in a million directions.

Fucking shield tech, he thought as the thing came crashing towards him.

He dodged, dodged a second time and rolled to safety. Mea rushed passed him, Tath too.

“Cut its penis off,” Steh heard Agra yell before his companion slid into the cave.

A giant fist flew above him. Then he felt something connect, and six ribs break. The six he hadn’t been able to afford a metal bonding for.

He said nothing as he went down. He couldn’t. Instead, Steh tried to think of a summoning spell, anything, but his mind was scrambled.

Instead, he did what he could and rolled. He kept on rolling as fast as he could even though the monster was laughing. Then he hit a wall and felt something crush his leg. Blackness swam before his eyes and his body convulsed in pain.

His right hand had found something in his pockets, but he didn’t know what it was. It was metal, and round. He hoped it was grenade because he could just make out the jugger standing over him preparing for its final blow. He threw the device upwards and towards the monster’s crotch.

The looming shadow stopped moving completely. Steh didn’t need any more encouragement and started crawling away. The sound of something being cut, a gigantic roar of pain and then an explosion followed. Steh felt the earth shake as the jugger thudded to earth. He hoped it was dead.

He hoped, but didn’t care because the stars were beautiful and they were coming for him.

#

Tath heard Mea wrecking havoc on the barracks, she also heard Agra’s scream as he fought bandits in the mess hall but she couldn’t help. No matter how much her heart burned, because the enemy commander was just ahead.

She kicked open the rotten wooden doors to the kitchen and stared at the marble walls. The room couldn’t have been built recently, it was too posh—too impractical. It had to have been an executive bunker from when the war broke out.

The sink fittings sparkled chrome and the bench was old wood: dark brown and had been placed squarely in the middle. Fridges hummed away on a magical power source designed by one of the more competent Ai Corp departments.

Two arrows flew towards her, she dropped to the ground and scrambled over to the preparation bench.

“There’s two more juggers,” a deep voice called out. She risked a peek. His skin was half-olive, half-yellow. He had a shaved head and bushy eyebrows. And his hands were glowing green.

Fucking magic, Tath thought.

“My name’s Rish,” the man said. “I’m a relatively flexible guy. Run a decent operation.”

She heard the sound of a bow’s string being pulled back.

“You’re ruining that operation,” he continued. “Which is bad. But good, if you’d like to join me.”

“Where’s the book?” she yelled.

A boomerang arrow flew over the bench and curled back towards her. She dodged, but only just. It was glowing with the same green as Rish’s hands.

“There’s no book,” he replied, the confidence in his voice growing. “There’s only a locked door at the end of the next hall.”

Locked door, end of the hall. Right. Tath looked at her hands, they weren’t steady. Another glowing arrow circled around behind her and lunged for her heart. She threw herself to the side, but it clipped her arm all the same.

“Fuck,” she mumbled and slid three arrows into her bow. “I just need a second. One second.”

The problem was, Tath was pretty certain Rish’s archer was better positioned. But she was out of options, one more magic arrow and it was over.

“Dying is just like going home,” she told herself. “That’s what Aura said. Dying is just like going home.” She chuckled. “I wonder if there’s kimono’s there.”

Taking one last breath, she pushed out from the table and leapt…but it was too late, the archer’s arrow was already in the air. And then she saw the flying corpse.

#

Mea was angry. More angry than she’d ever been and no matter what she tried, she couldn’t make her rage dissipate. She was even hauling a man’s corpse with her for no reason except that he had nicked part of her leg during combat. It hurt and that made her mad—that and the fact she couldn’t find Tath. She needed Tath. More than anything right now she needed her friend and the rooms were confusing.

Everyone in the mess hall was dead, except for a pale Agra who had a penis in his right hand, a massive gash in his chest and was laughing. Mea didn’t care if he bled out.

There was a locked door she couldn’t get past no matter how many times she slammed the corpse she was carrying against it. The armoury was clear, so was the barracks. She started to hyperventilate. Where was Tath?

Then Mea saw her through the open kitchen door. Tath had her bow drawn back, but she was trembling, and Mea could tell just how scared she was. There was a man in the room too, a man with bushy eyebrows and his eyes said he wanted Tath dead.

Mea threw the corpse and something green and glowing thwaked into it.

Tath released the bowstring. Three people screamed. Four bodies thudded to the floor. Tath was still standing though. Her slow smile still alive on her face; her brown eyes still sparkling because of the furnace in the kitchen.

Mea ran to her.

#

“Fuck,” Tath said as she felt her breath being crushed out of her. “Put me down. Dammit, Mea! Put me down.” When she was on the ground, Tath took a deep breath and looked at her friend. Neither of them were really hurt.

“How’s the boys?” Tath asked.

“Almost dead.”

“Men. Just. Fuck.” Tath grabbed Mea’s shoulder and laughed. “We’ll be fucking legends after this. Bigger than Kvothe.”

“No one’s bigger than Kvothe,” Mea said, her tone becoming serious.

“Fuck, he’s fictional. We’re real as shit.” Tath leaned on her friend for support. “Haul my ass to that door. I’ve got the mother fucking key right here.”

#

To both Tath and Mea’s surprise, their scroll not only unlocked the door but also the chest. They’d never known Ristie to be so kind.

“What the fuck?” Tath said. “Is that a book? I’m not delusional, right? That’s the book right there.”

Mea grabbed the novel out of the chest and unwrapped it. Her face went from excited, to depressed and then to angry in seconds. After a deep breath, she slowly wrapped the tome back up.

It wasn’t book six. It was book five. She’d copied the wrong instructions.

#

Agra dropped the penis he was holding to the floor and commented, with a slur, “I guess magic does make you smaller.”

“We have your friend,” a voice boomed into the caves. It was a woman’s—strong and commanding. He knew who it was. There was only one person in the world insane enough to hunt for books for fun—Linda.

“Tath,” he called out. “Mea. I don’t think I can fight another army.”

He could feel the blood congealing on his chest in thick, ropy clots and he wondered how long he had. Wondered if he’d die alone.

“You stupid fucker,” Tath said, suddenly at the mess hall’s doorway. “We’ve got a fucking mutant on our team. You could’ve called for help.”

“Wasn’t in the plan,” Agra replied as he felt their hands under his arms, hauling him to his feet. He opened his eyes, they both looked more beautiful then Jennifer ever had.

“Come out with the book,” Linda’s disembodied voice commanded.

“Well? Solutions?” he asked.

“She gives us Steh, she can have it,” Mea grumbled. “Stupid scrolls.”

He chuckled, and attempted walking with his own feet. “How many did you get Tath?”

“Four.”

“Bagged myself five and a jugger. Guess you can have the bottom of the ladder all to your lonesome.”

#

Linda, as they expected, had brought an army. Sixty soldiers—all in glittering armour and all looking like they belonged in a different world. At the front was the book huntress herself with her blue and violet eyes, long black hair and pointy nose. When the moonlight glanced off her pale skin, it made Linda appear graceful, at peace with the woods surrounding her.

“The book,” she said. “Give me the book for your friend.”

Tath chuckled. “He’s not our friend. He’s a fucking legend.”

“Well, the book for your…fucking legend,” she corrected.

“Promise Linda?” Mea asked. “On the book collectors code of honour?”

“Yes, fine,” she replied. “I, on the book collectors code of honour, promise to give you your…legend…back. And let you leave in peace.”

“Here,” Tath tossed it. “Come on Steh, let’s go.”

Steh didn’t move, so Mea picked him and slung him over her shoulder. He made a small grunting sound and mumbled, “Pocket watches. They’re the next thing.”

About sixty metres from the opening, they heard Linda scream. Tath and Mea looked at one another and grinned.