Authors' Note: Sorry for the delay in updates - things have gotten pretty crazy as we draw towards the end of the school year. Things should pick up again once Summer Vacation starts! Thanks for your patience!
When she awoke the next morning, the morning sun was warming her body. She pushed herself up into a sitting position and as she lifted her weight from the stallion, it nudged her affectionately. She stroked its nose appreciatively then shook the sand from her hair. She was alive – that was a good sign. Did she risk reentering the cave? The thought of escape crossed her mind as she looked at the horse, but again her unfamiliarity with her surroundings brought her to her senses. If she was ever going to get anywhere, it would have to be with the stranger's help.
Summoning her courage, she got to her feet, brushing the dust off of her clothes. Then she descended the stairs back down into the cave. The air inside was still and silent but for the thief's slow, heavy breathing. He was sprawled on his back, atop his pile of treasures, one hand behind his head, the other resting on his stomach. He looked almost harmless, like a child protecting his toys. She took a step towards him, but her sandaled foot landed on something soft that let out a shrill squeak. She jumped back as a rat scampered out from under her foot, dazed but not really hurt.
"Don't let it get away," Barak reprimanded her, both eyes still closed. Years of dangerous living had made the man a light sleeper, though the habit wasn't the most efficient at reenergizing him. That was where the power of the Millennium Ring came in handy. He leapt up, fueled by his Item's magic. Before the rat took more than a dozen steps, the small, filthy creature was captured firmly in the thief's hand. He straightened up, cracking his neck once and looking the young woman in the eyes. With his free left hand, he grasped the rat's head and gave a forceful twist. A small, sickening popping sound and the animal fell limp.
"Why did you do that?" she asked him, shocked and slightly disgusted.
He grinned demonically at her, "Breakfast."
Rat had literally no taste, but it was something to keep from going hungry to say the least. And it wasn't nearly as bloody as jackal. Tola finished her portion quickly and sat with her hands folded in her lap, watching him continue his meal silently.
Barak spat out a piece of bone he had accidentally snapped off of his meal's rib cage, then wiped his mouth, "There's never enough blood in rats," he remarked mildly, surveying the meager serving of food with distaste, "It's the blood of the creature that seasons it most." He explained, chucking what was left of his sloppily devoured vermin into the dying fire.
"I always wondered where the flavor came from…" she said dryly.
He scowled, noting what he was almost certain was sarcasm in her voice. The man stood and walked out of his cavern. That's what he got for trying to make conversation. The thief got to the surface of the desert, looking about in the blazing sun. Where was that damn animal?
He felt a bump against his back and whipped around. The stallion had come up behind him, apparently expecting to be fed. He heard more movement and saw the girl appearing out of the mouth of the cave. "I think he's hungry," she commented, coming up and stroking the creature's mane.
Barak cracked his neck, "Really? You figured that out all by yourself? I couldn't tell…" he told her, his voice dripping with derision, "And what would the master horse have today, mistress?"
She glowered at him, "If we're both such a burden to you, perhaps I should just take him and save you the trouble of having to do away with us."
His temper rose once more to the surface, threatening to bubble over. The Millennium Ring glowed golden for an instant, causing Barak to take in a deep breath in an attempt to keep his cool, "The horse is always hungry," he told her through clenched teeth, "I was merely suggesting that you had a wonderful grasp of the obvious."
"Indeed," she shot back, "I merely commented because I wondered if perhaps you didn't."
"Whether I decide to feed my property or not is none of your business!" he told her hotly, fists clenched tightly together.
"He's not your property!" she replied, temper rising just as quickly as the color in her face, "Forgive me if I fail to recognize thievery as a mark of ownership." She was pushing her luck, she knew it, but she had almost gone beyond caring, her fear boiling over into misplaced anger.
"SHUT UP!" he shouted, pulling back his arm and backhanding the young woman across the face. His Item flared with golden energy again, fueled by his rage.
She fell back, sprawled against the sand, and then raised herself up to a sitting position, a stinging welt rising on her cheek. Eyes burning, she stared up at him, knowing that if he were to attack, there would be nothing she could do to stop him. And…in the farthest back corner of her mind, this excited her. She'd never encountered someone as dangerous as this stranger, and in a terrifying way, she was fascinated.
Barak's breathing was heavy as he stood over her. The man had killed in cold blood before and could do so on a whim, but for some reason…he couldn't bring himself to be rid of this girl. He turned and stormed into his cave home, wind blowing his cloak behind him. She was young and had much to learn about the ways of the world. While he wasn't exactly and appropriate figure for such lessons, her stupidity couldn't be cured by death.
She turned away from his retreating figure angrily. In his eyes, she was so far beneath him he couldn't even see her. She was just a nuisance, just another rat whose neck he had decided wasn't worth snapping. Her own half-hearted words floated through her head and she got to her feet. Quickly, she mounted the stallion and dug her heels into his sides.
The creature reared excitedly and took off at a gallop across the sands.
Barak heard the noise and ran towards the open surface again, eyes wide. He watched as the girl rode off with his transportation. He was tempted to follow her, but his feet would not move. The thief knew he had driven her away, just like he did everything. Everything but the rats…
The wind whipped her hair back away from her face as Tola rode on, the sand scratching her face. She leaned down closer to the stallion's neck, trying to shield herself but to no avail. She tugged the reins and the steed slowed to a stop. She sat up straight, squinting against the blinding sun, scanning her surroundings for anything that might indicate her whereabouts.
There was nothing but dunes as far as she could see. She sighed and hung her head. Leaving was probably the worst thing she could have done. She had never been on her own before, and taking off into the dessert without a clue as to where she was heading had been rash and stupid. She would probably die of starvation before she made contact with another human being. Not only would she die, but so would the stallion, whom she had wanted to restore to its former glory.
She stroked its mane gently, whispering, "I'm sorry I dragged you into this. You were probably better off with the thief…"
"Not lost, are you?" a strong voice called from the top of a high dune. The breeze blew sand about the figure's black coated horse, but the animal seemed unaffected in the least. The man's face was shrouded by a dark veil, only his nearly-pure black eyes visible to the desert. Many different small pouches and sack hung from the horse's saddle, stuffed with objects unknown. Upon the man's hip was a thin, plain, brown sheath.
She felt hair on the back of her neck rise, "No…" she lied, "Just letting my horse rest…but thank you for your concern."
"No trouble at all. Anything for a lady, right boys?" All around the man, other masked riders on dark horses began to appear, their animals walking slowly down the large sandbank and forming a loose circle around the lone rider.
She glanced around nervously at the band of men and then recognition shot through her like a jolt of pain. The dark riders…they were the same ones who had attacked her convoy…the ones who had destroyed her life…
Panicked, she yanked the reins hard and the stallion reared up, and then she pushed forward, hoping to cause a break in their circle. If she could just catch them off guard…maybe she could outrun them. But to where?
Two of the men closed in, making a narrow pass that Tola's horse was just barely able to squeeze through. As she past so close to them, the two riders each reached out an arm and yanked her from her steed, knocking her to the ground. The leader of the group rode into the center of the circle, his veil now undone. He smiled toothily, several golden teeth embedded in his gums where real ones had rotted away, "What were you running away for?" he asked calmly, "Surely a tough, independent girl like you isn't afraid of a bunch of bandits like us!"
She scrambled to her feet, "What do you want with me? I've got nothing for you to take – I'm useless to you."
The men around her chuckled collectively, "Fetch the animal," the leader told said, and one of the two that had stopped Tola galloped off to collect the now thrice-stolen horse. The man hopped off of his animal, walking towards the frightened young woman at a leisurely tempo, "The Pharaoh's men scour these dunes, searching for us. It is difficult to keep the spirits of these bloodthirsty men high." He nodded at her, licking his lips. Only an idiot could not understand his meaning…
"You…I…" she stammered, her eyes wide. She turned to run but was caught by two pairs of strong arms. More of them had dismounted, and the pair that had caught her, spun her violently, turning her back towards their leader as she struggled in vain. "You…can't!" she whimpered as the circulation in both her arms was slowly being cut off.
"Let her go."
The bandits turned, and the leader smirked, "Look who's come to play hero, boys," he said jovially, as if privy to some secret joke, "The Tomb Robber." The laughter of his men drifted through the hot, dry air and Tola felt her knees go weak with relief. Had he really come looking for her?
"Don't press your luck with me, Cain," Barak warned, taking several strides forward. His Millennium Ring remained a constant glowing gold, like a warning to those that opposed its power, "Leave the girl be and be gone! This desert has enough filth without you polluting it further with your presence."
"What is she to you, rat?" Cain said, taking Tola's chin in his hand, "What so special about her that you would be willing to fight us for her? She's not even that attractive…"
"I said let her go!" Barak shouted over the laughter of the bandits, "That should be sufficient reason for you! I don't give second chances," he warned the man, entering into the circle of riders, "Ride away from this place now or I will slaughter you all!"
Cain grinned, gold teeth flashing, "Boys…show the Temple Raider what happens to those who interrupt our fun." The bandits moved in closer, swords and knives drawn. The two holding Tola moved back, to give the fighters more space.
One of the thieving killers leapt forward, his blade glaring from the sun. Barak dodged, his speed enhanced by his own magic. The man landed, surprised and off-balance. Barak was standing next to him, scowling. He relieved the man of his weapon by grasping his arm with one hand and twisting the bandit's hand with the other. He picked up the forcibly discarded sword and stabbed the man through the chest. A small, golden aura began to surround the Temple Robber, his Millennium Ring and adrenaline increasing his abilities.
Enraged, the others all charged at once until Tola could see nothing but a tangle of moving bodies and blood. Then she felt the grip on her right arm loosen. The two men holding her were preparing to join the brawl. Before she could even think of escape, one of them struck her hard on the back of the neck and everything went black.
When she awoke again, the sun was just past dead center, and she was in the shade. She sat up, massaging her sore neck, trying to get a grasp on her surroundings. The shade was from trees, which were all around, and the deadly heat was lessened by a slight breeze coming off the surface of a pool of blue water in the center of the trees. 'An oasis…' she thought.
A small snorting noise made her turn, and come face to face with the white stallion, which was lying beside her contentedly. She stroked its muzzle absentmindedly and then looked down at herself. Her cloak was stained in dried blood, but she felt no real pain. The blood did not belong to her. Suddenly, as the memories of the bandits returned to her, she scanned the area quickly. The Temple Raider was nowhere to be seen.
Barak was sprawled out on his back under a small waterfall. The fight with Cain and his men that he had been avoiding for some time had taken a toll on the thief, but there had never been any doubt in his mind about the outcome of the battle. His head was pounding though. The large number of enemies had made injury unavoidable. A large, bleeding slice on his chest from a rival blade was the most significant (and painful, he hated to admit) wound he had received. His cloak, discarded on dry land (along with his other garments), was covered with the red blood of Cain and his minions and cut to pieces. Other smaller knife and sword wounds made his arms a crimson mess. The rock on which he lied mixed his bodily fluids with the pure fresh water, causing a watery, reddish mix. It was terrible pain, but the water helped to sooth him somewhat. What had possessed him to do such a thing…?
Concerned, Tola had taken to exploring the small amount of jungle surrounding the water, following the small stream that branched off from the main pool. Had he left her here alone on purpose? Perhaps he had crawled off to die someplace? Could he really have taken enough wounds for that? She didn't want to believe it. She needed him to be strong – impenetrable. She needed him to get out of this mess she'd stumbled too willingly into.
The stream water began to be tinted with red and she quickened her pace, frightened. Something really had happened to him. He could be dying and here she was worrying about herself. She broke through into a new clearing and stopped dead in her tracks, her breath caught in her throat.
She had found him.
Sprawled stark naked under a waterfall, the water around him filled with blood. "Oh my gods…" she murmured, one hand flying up to her mouth. A part of her wanted to just turn around and pretend that she hadn't seen anything. Another part wanted to stand there and stare at him forever. The third, far more reasonable part of her mind (which was quite numb at this particular juncture in time) urged her into motion, heading towards him rather than away. Drawn by a desire to help him, she threw off her own cloak, revealing the thin tunic and pants beneath it, and waded towards him.
'Is he even conscious?' she wondered as she the water and blood soaked her pant legs, 'If he is, he'll probably kill me for being here…' She stopped right beside him, the waterfall cascading over her head and shoulders, gazing down at him, wondering what she should do.
Having let his mouth hang open slightly, water now threatened to choke him. Barak began coughing, spitting up flakes of blood along with the excess water. There was movement around him. Weakly, he opened his eyes, trying to bring the world into focus again. What he really needed was a good night's rest, not more distractions.
Shakily, he began to try to sit up. Having expended enough magical and physical energy to allow him to kill twenty men, the thief knew very well that he was spent. His eyes spotted something that looked distinctly like human feet, and he tried to crane his head upwards to see who it was. The girl…he didn't have enough energy to care that he was in the nude before her. She was going to take her revenge for his earlier rude comments. What a pitiful way to die. His cheek muscles twitched ever so slightly, then his eyes rolled back into his head and he fainted, unable to support his consciousness anymore.
Moving without thinking, she caught him, ignoring the blood that ran from his body onto hers. She slowly lifted him up and dragged him onto the shore, laying him on top of her cloak. Wishing she had more cloth to work with, she began tearing strips from the bottom of her tunic with which to bind his wounds.