"Meet Walter at the Mistpeak monorail station," Sabrina murmured to herself. Despite the fact that her words didn't shake leaving her lips, she had to swallow down the fear rising in her stomach as she and Hammer made their way through the winding, heavily wooded trail leading to their destination. "Not so bad, is it, girl? Of course not. Nothing to be afraid of. It's just..."
The sharp sound of a twig breaking underfoot startled her out of her thoughts, and she thrust her hand forward, a tiny fireball flinging from her palm. Hammer ran out in front of her, kicking dirt onto the patch of grass she'd so gracefully set aflame.
"It's just... dark. And creepy." Shaking her head, Sabrina ran her hands over her arms in an attempt to warm them. Ever since sundown, she'd been regretting that extra hour spent in the Sanctuary, torn between her pistol and rifle. Jasper had offered the hammer if she wanted change, but it didn't take long for them to come to the conclusion that she wasn't exactly fit enough to lift it.
The Hero and her pet walked in quiet for another long moment. Why had she waited so long? There was just something unsettling about these woods. Even with the moon high in the sky, reflecting light over the nearby lake, she still felt almost closed in by the trees that lined the path. Not only that, but she could feel the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end. "And I feel like I'm being watched."
"That's 'cause you are, princess."
Twirling around, she found herself standing not a foot away from a man clad head to toe in black. He pulled down the fabric held up over his nose and mouth, revealing a sinister grin. "Been following you for miles, we have. A little one like you ought not travel alone."
Sabrina took a step back, her eyes wide. "... We?" When the mercenary flicked a hand behind her, she turned around to see four similarly dressed men make their way out into the path. Her heart shuddered in her chest. Could she do this? The last time she'd fought so many, Walter had been with her. He'd killed half of them. "Look, you've... you've got the wrong person! I'm no princess. I'm just on my way to the monorail station."
"Oh, yeah, you're right," the man behind her said, pulling at his scarf until it hung loosely around his neck. "You're not a princess. A princess wouldn't kill a man who'd surrendered."
A whimper died in her throat. "This is about that, isn't it?"
"This is about," the man stepped forward, drawing himself to full height, "you giving us a ripe opportunity to get rid of a damned nuisance." He was head and shoulders taller than her, staring down into her face with an icy blue-gray glare that was only broken by a few, stringy black strands of hair over one of his eyes. Even when she'd been so close to Saker, she hadn't been faced by such a potent, dangerous figure. Maybe it was her heightened sense of fear from her surroundings, the absence of Walter, or the fact that she hadn't even so much as drawn her sword in days.
"Oi, Gus, better watch out," one shouted from behind her, "She's a witch, she is. She'll fry us all if you're not careful."
The mercenary – Gus – leaned down a little, gripping her by her collar and hauling her up to the tips of her toes. "I don't think we've anything to worry about, gents. Looks like the princess is bloody useless without that old dolt following her around, doin' all the killing for her."
Sabrina struggled in his grasp, clawing at his gloved hand with her own. "Let me go," she gurgled. The tautness of her collar was making it difficult for her to breathe when paired with her steadily rising panic.
"You're not exactly in a very good position to be giving orders, your Highness."
His sneered condescension was too much. The hands that had been previously trying to free herself settled on his gloves. "I'm sorry," she told him, and he realized quickly that she was genuine. "I... I didn't want to k-kill him. I had to." The sharp bite of confusion bled into pain and panic the moment he felt the heat.
Gus let out a shriek when he felt the leather of his gloves being burned through. It was his turn to struggle; he let go of Sabrina's collar only to find that she was holding his hands together with a surprising strength. The pain was unbelievable, sending his sight blurry and white as he jerked away from her, only to pull her a few steps forward.
"Let me go!" he screamed into her face, his heels digging into the dirt as he tried and failed to get away from her again. "Kill her, you idiots!"
When she let go of him, Gus stumbled backwards, falling with a puff of dust to the ground. Before he even hit the dirt, Sabrina was turning around, a preemptive ball of flame thrust into the path of one of the men. He stopped in his tracks, blade held high, and stared at her. He'd known she would rely on her Will in a fight, but he hadn't been expecting fire. The stories they'd all heard of old Will users were mixed at best. This mercenary in particular had been raised by stories of a Hero called Ash, who manipulated time in order to put his blade into his nearest foe before the man could hardly blink. He'd heard about Will users using fire, but she'd taken him by surprise.
Behind him, she saw a man heft up his rifle and aim. She paused for just long enough; the man's eye was aimed on her so completely that when she rolled to the left, he followed her, pulling the trigger before he had time enough to realize who he was really aiming at. The startled mercenary fell to his knees with a howl, his sword falling as his hands flew to his knee. Even in the dark, she could see blood gushing from the wound, black against his pale hands.
As the first merc flew into bouts of curses and screams, Sabrina clambered to her feet and drew her pistol. The man with the blown out knee attracted the attention of the others, if only for a moment, but it was enough time for her to unload two rounds in the direction of the nearest mercenary. The first missed, but then she heard the tell-tale sound of the second bullet impacting flesh.
He staggered forward a step, groaning as he fought the urge to tend to the wound in his shoulder. His now-clumsy hands worked his rifle, cocking it back and pulling it up to take aim of his own.
Her eyes shot upwards, assessing the situation as quickly as her panicked, racing mind could manage. Before he could press the trigger, a flame engulfed her gauntlet and she thrust her palm forward. An overhanging branch crackled and popped as the dry wood and leaves caught on fire. The merc looked upwards just in time to see the thick branch collapsing on top of him.
Whatever small victory this might have been dissolved into the opposite when she heard yet another gunshot ring out. The man who'd shot one of his own had been given enough time to reload, and she hadn't seen the shot coming.
Sabrina's legs buckled beneath her. A white heat spread upwards from her thigh, sending sparks into her eyesight, illuminating the darkened path in the very worst way. She hit the ground on her knees, hands desperately moving to her sword to unsheathe the blade before she fell on top of it. Three of the men had been incapacitated, leaving two more. One was ranged – the bastard who'd shot her – while the other...
Even through the pained tears that clouded her vision, Sabrina could see him approach, a curved blade poised to do her in. His strides were cut short, however, when she lifted her left hand to shield the blow. The newer gauntlet began glowing pale blue, and a sharp crack filled the air when she let go of the sudden spell, tendrils of lightning flashing out from her palm, grasping with their slender fingers for the nearest metallic object.
The mercenary shrieked and dropped his sword. Behind her, she could hear Gus foraging around in the heaps of fallen leaves for his weapon. The burns on his hands kept him from holding onto the hilt of it, but if he could swallow back the pain for long enough, he could kill her himself. "Somebody shoot her! Gods! She's just bloody lying there!"
Her hands went to her belt, quickly flipping open the little pack Jasper had sewn onto it. Wiping at her eyes with her sleeve in a desperate attempt to see better, she grabbed for a red bottle that clinked against the others. She pulled out the cork and tilted it back, pouring the thick liquid into her mouth. Her stomach clenched, denying the potion at first, but she bit back the reflex and kept it down.
Tossing the bottle aside, Sabrina shut her eyes. She could hear the man with the rifle loading it for another shot. Even over the sound of that, she heard Gus shouting orders. She heard the other men groaning and yelling and screaming for help. And she could hear her heart pounding in her ears, could hear it speeding up with the aid of the potion. From what Jasper had told her, Heroes were already given the gift of quick healing, but even they needed help sometimes, like here. She could feel her blood pumping through her veins, pushed with a speed unlike anything she'd felt before. While this meant she lost more blood, she also felt the bullet being thrust outwards, pushed from where it was buried into the muscle. She sensed the wound begin to heal itself. She clotted faster, felt the muscles begin to band together. The pain remained, though she knew this was more internal than anything, but the wound itself looked as if it had never existed.
He was close to finished with his bullet – a bullet that would no doubt be aimed directly for her head, as she hadn't so much as touched this one. It was all a matter of who could do the most damage the quickest. She looked up at him to see him focused as could be on his gun, so focused that he only looked up when the path grew somewhat brighter.
If he didn't know any better, he'd have assumed the young woman he set sights on wasn't Albion's darling princess, but one of them. She looked sinister, almost feral, in the way the bright orange and blue lights that burned over her gauntlets cast shadows over her features. Her hair, the ragged ends of which were stuck through with broken, crumpled leaves, hung down to her shoulders, not concealing in the slightest the look of utter terror and determination that mixed on her face.
The mercenary hefted his rifle upwards, but he didn't have enough time. While she'd given him enough time to plug her good once, he wouldn't get the chance again. That thought rang so clearly in his mind that he didn't even bother pulling the trigger. He merely stood there, staring, as she lurched forward, both hands thrust outward in his direction.
She could hear Gus gasp just behind her as he watched the princess' ball of fire and lightning throw his man off of his feet, every inch of cloth and leather and skin engulfed in the electrifying flames. With a rush of adrenaline, he forgot about his hands, about the burns that were now filled with dirt and bits of leaves, and he grabbed his sword.
Before he could thrust it forward, Sabrina lifted her good leg up and slammed it downward onto the ground. The hilt was torn from his hand, reminding him instantly of the wounds she'd given him, and he drew both palms inwards.
"You idiot," Sabrina coughed, kicking the sword away from him. He glared up at her, the heat in his eyes not dissipating in the slightest when he saw that she was crying. "Why do you want to kill me?"
"You had Saker's word, you little twit," he growled, "He could have helped you." The air of defiance in this man was almost palpable. Even though he was wounded enough to be useless in a fight, his ego refused to let him back down. Instead, he stared up at her, as brazen as he had been when the upper hand was his.
She took a step forward, her stride hitching when she put pressure on the previously wounded leg. "What? Like I could've helped you?"
"Don't play me for a fool, princess." Drawing himself up until he was only on one knee, he looked at her. "There were men who saw what you did to Saker. Said you didn't give him a chance 'cause he was a mercenary. If you wouldn't let him help ya, why would we be any different?"
"Because I'm not bloody heartless, that's why!" Sabrina hiccuped, taking a deep breath in an attempt to soothe whatever building frustration burned at her throat. "Saker was your leader. You didn't have a choice."
Gus shook his head, pressing his elbow into his thigh to boost himself up onto his feet. "A lot of us were mercenaries by trade," he said. His stare still held remnants of his previous animosity towards her, though he did consider her much less of a threat now, all pale and tear-streaked as she was. "A lot of us did have a choice, so I don't know what you're going for, your Highness, but you better try a lot harder."
Sabrina's chin tilted upwards, staring up at him as best she could. "You keep saying a lot. Like you know someone who didn't have a choice. I'm going to assume you're talking about yourself." Gus opened his mouth to say something, but she continued speaking. He found himself unable to interrupt her, which was almost infuriating in itself. "And, assuming that and the fact that you haven't even looked at your pistols yet, you're going to hear me out."
"Fine," he huffed. He cradled his hands close to his body, shoulders hunched inwards to look into her eyes as best he could. He knew how to read people better than anybody he knew. If she was going to play him, he'd know, and he'd end her as quickly as he could manage.
"I need help," she said plainly. He was impressed; she hadn't batted an eyelash, whereas most folks would've sooner shot themselves in the foot than admit that they didn't have the means to do what they wanted. "This is bigger than me. Bigger than my prejudices." She passed her tongue over her bottom lip in thought, her eyes falling away from his for a moment, though they returned just as quickly. "I couldn't trust Saker, and I can't trust you. Not implicitly. But I can offer the chance for good jobs once I am Queen, for good, legal jobs, for you and all your men."
Gus rolled his eyes skyward. The catch – there was always a catch. "We're not gonna work in your factories, sweetheart. Manual labor isn't our thing."
"I don't want to kill you all," she pleaded with him. The hitch in her words and the wide-eyed, almost innocent look she took on proved that she actually believed what she said. When she next spoke, her voice was slightly deeper, more solid. "But if you're not on my side, I will."
"So what are you asking? Do you want me to turn all of these rotten bastards into civilized citizens? I'm good at a lot of things, but schooling them on how to be proper ain't one of them."
Sabrina shook her head. "That's not what I want. I only want you to call them off. I don't care what you do, as long as you keep your swords sheathed and your guns holstered in the meantime. I'll need you all when the revolution starts." She sighed, looking up at him again, her brows pinched inwards. "And even more so, I want you to save their lives." Her words came out in a rush as she stepped forward. "I think I made it fairly obvious that I can kill you. I'm not some easy mark."
"Well, yeah, that much was pretty damned obvious, I'd say." Rolling his shoulders back, he tilted his head from side to side. "I wasn't born into this line of work, so a lot of 'em listen to what I have to say, even if they don't like it much."
"Help them," she said, her voice gone soft. "If you do, there will... be a reward."
Even though he hated himself for it, Gus' eyes lit up at that. "You should've said that sooner, your Highness." His hands were still pulled up close to his body when he bowed. It was a clumsy gesture, and it was obvious he'd never actually had to bow to anyone in his entire life. "When you need me, there's a... pretty good chance I'll be there."
"I know you're not doing this because you want to," she told him as he bent down to grab for his sword. He winced at the sensation of the scored leather that wrapped around the hilt brushed over the heel of his palm. Taking a step forward, she grabbed at the sliver of hilt he wasn't holding onto, helping him return it to its sheath. "I know you're doing it to save your neck and for whatever reward I might give you, but... you're doing the right thing."
She watched as the merc's forehead wrinkled, brows furrowing. "Oi, don't say that," he muttered, a hint of a forced smile curving at the corner of his mouth. "You might make me change my mind."
Before Gus turned away, leaving the bodies of his men littering the path, Sabrina reached out and grabbed his arm, pulling him around to look at her. "If you so much as step out of line, I'll consider this... agreement of ours broken." She paused, and Gus felt his breath catch in his throat. "You'll regret it." She let go of him then, allowing him to turn and make his way up the path.
Part of her believed that this would work, that keeping an eye on whatever small clusters of mercenaries cropped up in Albion after Saker's death would keep them in check. And yet another, quieter part of her believed otherwise. She knew that he was nothing but a criminal; they all were. Even the promise of a reward wouldn't change them for the better. Her mother had tried to change mercenaries, and she'd almost been killed because of it. Still, this was a desperate time. Desperate measures were called for.