Twenty-Two

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Kish had been forced to nearly carry Cariolta through the jungle. The battered and traumatized princess wasn't even coherent, let alone capable of navigating the tangled roots and vines of the jungle floor. Kish's worry for her companion was clouding her judgment and she left Kazé to scout a path for the pair while she tried to softly comfort her broken porcelain doll.

Cariolta slowly reassembled the shattered pieces of herself as they weaved through the dark and tangled maze. She began to see their surroundings again and as she choked back the last of her tears, she stopped dead. "Where's the boy?" she asked.

The other two halted in sudden shame as they realized that they'd forgotten about him completely. In the back of their minds, they had thought him to be right with them—following along as he always did— but he was nowhere to be seen and both the old wolf and the barbarian princess were cowed with guilt as they realized that he had been left behind. Before they had a chance to think of what to do or how to find him, he revealed his location.

The forest thundered and shook from the direction that they had come. It sounded as though the whole jungle was coming crashing down. Their first instinct was to rescue him, but they stuttered in their return. None were exactly sure what they could do to rescue him from whatever he might be fighting. The battle was on the order of magnitude of a natural disaster. Even if Cariolta had been fighting at full strength, the best they could have hoped for was survival.

They hovered indecisively for a few moments before they unanimously moved to start their return to their adopted charge. But just as they began to move, Kazé's fur went up and his ears back. His nose had found a medley of scents. There were men, machines and hunting dogs. They had managed to sneak up on them through the din of the boy's battle.

"On your knees!" came a military shout from the shadows. This signalled four of the mechanical creatures to emerge, followed shortly by a dozen men armed with crossbows—some with very angry-looking dogs on leads. The three fugitives were completely surrounded.

Instinctively, the women moved for their weapons and Kazé squared himself to break through the archers, but before they had even found their footing, the machines were upon them. Three leapt forward synchronously and embraced their targets in their four-bladed appendages. They held just tightly enough to slice into the outer layers of fabric and fur, but not so hard as to cut the skin. The mechanical creatures made it frighteningly clear how easily they could have sliced their prisoners to ribbons as the fourth used its long scythe-like hands to first disarm the princesses and then destroy their swords and spear as easily as if they were chopping vegetables.

Disarmed and incapacitated, the trio stood until the distant battle grew silent. Only then did their captors' leader emerge. An aged wizard shuffled into sight followed by a vacant-looking young man in similar robes. The wizard grinned a wrinkled and sadistic smile. "It's good to see you again. I've expended quite a lot of unnecessary effort tracking you three down. If I'd known that you were just coming to me of your own volition, I could have saved the effort."

Slow recognition washed over the prisoners as they remembered the troublesome wizard that they'd encountered at the Ashun border. "What do you want with us?" demanded Kish as she scowled at the old man.

"More than I care to say, my dear." He shot her a lustful and strangely familiar stare. "But for the time being, we just need to bring you safely to the capital."

"Who in the hells are you, old man?" The wizard's smug demeanour filled Kish with rage.

"Terribly sorry, Your Highness, how rude of me." He pulled himself up and bowed formally. "Mercutian, Grand Magus of Canifor." He shot another sadistic stare at Kish. "But you may call me 'Master'," he chuckled. "You are all to be guests of the king."

Kish was furious to the point of being speechless but Kazé found some unlikely words to dampen the good mood of their captor. "You reek of jackals," he snarled at the mage.

"Shackle them!" he shouted as though Kazé had a struck nerve and they quickly found themselves bound in chains, gagged and muzzled. Then they began a slow, forced march through the inky blackness of the jungle. It wasn't long before Prag joined them. More precisely, Prag was dragged to them behind a horse, his five guards obviously having little regard for his safety.

"What happened to the other four soldiers and all of the horses?" demanded Mercutian.

The guard who was limping the least kicked Prag and spat some bloody spit at him. "This son of a swamp troll did them all!"

"Your orders were to kill him if he resisted." The old man inspected the battered prisoner who was nearly cocooned in rope.

"We tried, sir. But by the time we had him down we'd lost all our swords and arrows into the jungle and this diseased freak killed Higgs with his teeth. He's a monster!"

"You mean he bit Higgs?" Mercutian was somewhat confused. "No!" The traumatized soldier tried to explain without reliving the sight. "He killed Higgs with Higgs' teeth."

Prag interrupted the complaints of his captor. "To be fair, you still had a couple of arrows." He grinned and looked at the shaft wedged through the collar bone of one of the soldiers that was being helped to walk. The first one kicked him again, rolling him over and giving him a better view of the situation. Prag did not hide his disappointment well.

"You're looking for my little science experiment, aren't you?" The wizard grinned and sent a little magical punch into Prag's nethers. "His body should be joining us shortly."

"I knew you liked young boys," Prag retorted, eyeing the mage's silent assistant, "but dead ones? That's just dirty. You are a foul old geezer, aren't you?"

The old wizard choked him fiercely with his conjured hand and angrily ordered him gagged. "You were right to bind and drag him, Sergeant. This wretch doesn't deserve to die quickly."

Prag had never understood the phenomenon, but it had never failed him. By making someone adequately annoyed at him, they decided that death was too good for him and kept him alive to make sure he knew it. Prag giggled madly under his gag as they continued the march on through the night.

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